Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Power of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a day that seems to be the antithesis of human existence. I am not sure what the Jews in the times of the Beis Hamikdash really did, other than watch the Kohen Gadol perform the sacrifices and prayers, but I do know how we observe the day today. It is a day where almost every human action is prohibited. One must minimize their socializing, minimize their taking care of their body, refrain from all pleasures, and the day must be spent doing one thing, praying to G-D. If one thinks of Jewish holidays they think of the gathering of the family. Rosh Hashana, Succos (Sukkot), Chanuka, Pesach, Purim, Shavuous (Shavuot), and anything else that was decreed in the past and is no longer observed are all days where the Jewish family and community is brought together through meals and social customs. However, Yom Kippur is a day where there is no enhancement of the family or community. It is a day of personal introspection. What is the point of this holiday and why is it so different from all the other holidays?

First, let us explain the purpose of the holidays in general and then Yom Kippur specifically. Rosh Hashana is the holiday where we celebrate the new year and ask G-D to give us a good year. It is the "Day of Judgement," but only to the extent that it is when G-D decides if He will give us what we asked for or if He will punish us. However, we still eat and treat this day like any other holiday with social customs and everything. Succos, Pesach and Shevuous commemorate historical occasions that occurred in our benefit. We were protected in the desert for 40 years by G-D, we were taken out of Egypt by G-D and we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai from G-D. The other holidays were instituted by the Rabbis to commemorate great victories and happy days that effected all of Bnei Yisroel. That is why we celebrate on all these days and unite the community through eating and social customs.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a unique day. All of these other holidays don't have anything inherently spiritually special. Rosh Hashana, as a day, does not do anything for us. True, it is the day that G-D judges us, but the day itself is not special (you will understand what I mean once I explain Yom Kippur). This is also true of Pesach, Shavuous and Succos, these days are commemorations of events, but they themselves do nothing. However, Yom Kippur,as a DAY atones for our sins. One needs only to live through Yom Kippur and follow the laws of the day and it atones all of a persons sins, or does it?

The Rambam quotes the halacha (Hilchos Teshuva 1:3), "The essence of Yom Kippur atones for those that repent for it says (Vayikra 16:30) 'This day will atone for them.'" The Kesef Mishna points out that there is an argument between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Chachamim (Wise men). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi maintains that Yom Kippur does atone for a man's sins EVEN IF he does NOT repent. However, the Chachamim argue and say that it only atones for a person that DOES repent. Either way, there is an unequivocal atonement happening on Yom Kippur. Even according to the Chachamim one need not go through all of the steps of repentance (listed in the Rambam) in order for Yom Kippur to atone for a man's sins.

From here we learn that Yom Kippur is a powerful day in and of itself. There is no commemoration, there is no celebration, there is only ONE thing we are trying to accomplish on Yom Kippur, repentance. A person needs to bring himself or herself to repentance in order for Yom Kippur to have real meaning, according to the Chachamim. This is why we try so very hard to repent on Yom Kippur. It is our ONE chance to gain atonement/forgiveness in an "easy" way. This is why we fast and pray all day. This day MUST be all about introspection, because we NEED to gain atonement. Repentance is extremely hard to achieve in our normal every day lives, Yom Kippur is a gift. However, as the Kesef Mishna points out, Yom Kippur will only atone for those that are brought to repentance ON the day of Yom Kippur. You could be evil or sin EVERY OTHER day of the year, but Yom Kippur will atone for you if you can achieve a true remorse on Yom Kippur.

There is no other day of the year that has such a special situation. Rosh Hashana has the shofar, Pesach has Matzos, Shavuous has learning, Succos has booths and the lulav with the Esrog, but Yom Kippur just has itself. We need to contemplate how amazing this idea is and the power behind it. G-D realizes a human being is simply that, human. We have desires and we make mistakes. All He asks of us is that we give Him ONE DAY. One day where we can show G-D that we truly love Him and wish to connect to Him. This is why our final judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur, because G-D knows that we make mistakes, many mistakes. However, if we can pull it together for just ONE DAY, G-D will view us favorably.

This is the uniqueness of Yom Kippur and why it is THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY OF THE YEAR. Elul and the ten days of repentance are leading up only to Yom Kippur. We are preparing ourselves to have the best possible Yom Kippur, similar to how someone would train to do well in a marathon, sporting event or anything else important to them. If we just entered Yom Kippur cold, could we possibly hope to give our all? We spend FORTY Days preparing for a reason, in order that G-D judge us favorably BECAUSE we show Him who we really are. The other 364 (353 in lunar days) is not who we truly are, but just a shadow of ourselves. The true us appears on Yom Kippur.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Follow Up Talk With The Argument Rabbi

After reading all of the comments on the previous post I decided to approach the Rabbi and actually ask him why he said it was assur to do hataras nedarim on the night before Rosh Hashana. I know, this is a very novel idea and most people just like to assume what people think, me being one of those people.

Unfortunately for this Rabbi, his logic was EXACTLY what I thought it was. He told me that you can not make a Bais Din at night. This got me all excited because I had printed out copies of the Shulchan Orech, Tur, Rambam and the Gemora in Nida (Thank You Josh Waxman). I then responded to him that he should take a look at these Maarei Makomos and left. Obviously, all of this was done with the utmost respect and I did not really get outwardly excited.

The next time I saw this Rabbi he returned the Maarei Makomos, but he was not done, he still needed to defend his position. I mean, if you had told a room full of people that it was assur to do something and your psak was contradicted by the Gemara, Rambam, Tur and the Shulchan Orech with no support in sight what would you do? Just correct your opinion?

He responded to me that the Maarei Makomos do seem to say like me. However, it could be that erev Rosh Hashana is different and the Bais din is like a real bais din. He did not say what Rabbi Josh Waxman thought he would say, which was: "Here is the however, however: my guess is that it is not motivated *entirely* by thinking that the night is invalid for hataras nedarim. This source is that night *in general* is valid for hatarat nedarim. Rather, some part of the motivation might be thinking that the night is not *really* considered erev rosh hashanah. Just as a bechor fasts on erev Pesach, but not during the night preceding. This is then no different than saying it, day or night, one week before. That would work, but would not be in accordance with the minhag to do it particularly on erev rosh hashanah." This would have been a valid argument (even though I argue against it in the comments on the previous post). However, he said something that seems, to me, to be ridiculous. Why on earth would someone think that ANY hataras nedarim would be a real bais din? Maybe you could argue that the minhag is not like that, but to say that hataras nedarim for erev Rosh Hashana is supposed to be a real bais din is far out there.

I responded to him that his idea is nice and good (because I was being respectful, in truth the idea made no sense to me), but I have never seen it in any minhag book or halachic sefer. He told me he would look it up and get back to me. If that ever happens I will let you know, but I don't think this Rabbi is going to admit this, or any mistake any time soon.

I hope everyone had a meaningful Rosh Hashana and has a great year because of their meaningful davening.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Another Great Argument Some Rabbi Had With Me In Shul

The case has been, for the past couple years, that I have school Erev Rosh Hashana. Unfortunately, this usually means I can not make a minyan in the morning, thus Hataras Nedarim (Nullifying vows) has always been a scramble. Fortunately, last year one of my friends was kind enough to show me in the Shulchan Orech where it says that one is ALLOWED to say Hataras Nedarim at night. Thus, after I say selichos, I am allowed to say Hataras Nedarim and I get rid of this annoying headache of worrying about finding three people for hataras nedarim.

In walks the GENIUSES. Every year there is always someone who says you are not allowed to say hataras nedarim at night. Every single year without fail. Even though, every single year these people are SHOWN the Shulchan Orech where it says one is allowed to do hataras nedarim AT NIGHT. Here is the Shulchan Orech (Yoreh Deiah 228:3)

Translation: How is the nullification said? He says to him three times, "It is allowed to you, or permitted to you or forgiven to you." Even if [the bais din] is standing, relatives, IT IS AT NIGHT, if it is shabbos and even if he could have asked yesterday, but it has to be necessary for shabbos. For example, he made a promise that he would not eat or he would not do [the commandment] of rejoicing on shabbos. However, issues (excommunications) of the congregation we are accustomed to permit even though they are not for the needs of shabbos.

So it seems like our friends don't know Shulchan Orech very well, but are willing to voice their opinions. Is it not amazing that this happens every single year, since before I came to this shul. Incredible how stubborn some people can be.

I am going to do something different this year though. I think I am going to post the Shulchan Orech page on the shul bulletin board. What do you think, too much?

The reason I want to is because this Rabbi was able to convince a few of my friends not to say it tonight. However, they are in the same boat I was last year and this year. They are going to school and do not have time to go to minyan because they are in dental school. They are going to have to worry about how they are going to do hataras nedarim. This is why i am so upset. This Rabbi basically messed them over. Oh well, I hope they are able to find three people at some point and don't have to worry about it too much.

I hope everyone has a great Rosh Hashana and a Kesiva Vichasima Tova (even the Rabbi that keeps doing this, because deep down I really love all Jews).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Following G-D and Rationality

After having a discussion with my friend Baruch I thought that it would be a good idea to discuss a person's ability to follow G-D based solely on rational thinking vs emotional involvement (Something I discussed here). Anyway, the most appropriate way to discuss this, I think, is bringing in my dear old friend Rabbi Dr Leo Adler. For those of you who don't remember Rabbi Dr. Adler, he wrote an exceptional essay called "The Biblical View of Man." The very first thing he discusses is this issue of rational thought vs emotional reality. Here are the relevant excerpts from the beginning of the essay:

The idea being being brought here is something, I think, is obvious. Human beings have rationality at their disposal. However, there is also something else they have, emotions and the ability to go against their rational thought. If a man believes in G-D how can he sin? This is a question that only a philosopher, who does not take into account human emotions and characteristics, can ask.

The Bible, on the other hand, takes into account the human condition and realizes that even though man may be aware of certain realities, he or she can disregard these realities in favor of their hearts' desires. For example, people go sky diving even though they know it is very dangerous and could lead to death. Why do they do it? Because it is fun and they do not focus on the possibility of death.

The same idea applies to G-D. A Jew, or non-Jew, may believe in G-D. Why then do they sin? Because they follow their hearts desire and do not think about G-D while they are sinning. This is what it is like to be human. The idea of a human being strictly following rationality is theoretical at best. People are not robots and they follow their emotions which may sometimes go against their rationality.

This brings me to my point which I made in Parsha Ki Tavo, Man can come to a belief in G-D through rationale. For instance, the Jewish people came to a belief in G-D because they saw the miracles and wonders that G-D performed, they even spoke with Him at Mt. Sinai. However, until they were able to emotionally involve themselves with the cause of the Torah, they were not connected to G-D. The Jewish people were not fully invested in the life of the Torah. They might have known that G-D was real, but they still desired to do things that were against the Torah. It was only once they were emotionally involved, connected to G-D and wanted their lives to be filled with G-D's holiness were they finally able to have this full connection.

People can be Jewish without G-D. People can claim to come to rational conclusions that G-D exists. However, this will not cause them to keep G-D's laws or even try to connect with Him. They might just say these things and even believe them, but that does not mean these ideas will be taken to heart. A person needs to find their own motivation for keeping the commandments. Some might say that rationally coming to a conclusion does give one motivation for keeping the Torah and trying to connect to G-D. This may be true, but in the end of the day the main reason a person uses rationality instead of mysticism or pure emotions is because rationality is what  fuels their desire, emotional desire. As I said before, human beings are not robots and they desire many things for different reasons. However, it is this desire that motivates him or her to act and really believe in something.This can either lead to a strong connection to G-D or none at all, even in the realm of people who DO believe in G-D.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Importance of Hakhail

This week's Parsha, Netzavim-Vayeilech, contains the commandment of HaKhail (Gathering to hear the Torah read). The description of this commandment is very interesting. The verse says (Devarim 31:12-13):

יב. הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:
12. Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah.

יג. וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם 
 עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ
13. And their children, who did not know, will hear and learn to fear the Lord, your God, all the days that you live on the land, to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess.

Rashi quotes here the Gemora in Chagiga 3a that says the men came to learn, the women came to hear and the children came in order to give reward to those who brought them. This understanding does not make much sense to me. Firstly, the men, women, children and the stranger among them (the convert) are all equally considered in the idea of learning, listening and fearing G-D. In fact, the Ramban even says this regarding the women and men being equal in this commandment (ibid):

יב - יג): למען ישמעו ולמען ילמדו -
האנשים והנשים, כי גם הן שומעות ולומדות ליראה את ה'. 
In order that they will hear and in order that they will learn:
The men and the women, because they also hear and learn to fear G-D.

This makes a lot of sense because fearing G-D is not a time bound commandment and it is not limited to men. Women need to fear G-D just as much as men do. It is strange that the Gemara separates men and women in this regard. However, I think the Gemara (and Rashi) is telling us something about how one needs to learn about this commandment. The men need to learn, as the Gemara says, about this commandment, but the women only need to listen, as the Gemara says, to this commandment. Why the difference? Men have an obligation to not just know the law, but also to constantly be learning it in depth and analyzing it over and over. Women, on the other hand, are just supposed to know all the laws, but they have no obligation to constantly review it and learn it in depth. I think that this is probably what the Gemara (and Rashi) is trying to take away from this verse, the different roles that men and women have when it comes to learning the commandments.

However, the question arises, why does the second verse quoted, verse 13, restate that the children need to hear the reading of the Torah, weren't they already included in the first verse?

The difference is clear. The first verse is referring to everyone who was alive at the time of Moshe's death. All of these people already knew G-D, but they needed a yearly reminder because the open miracles were stopping and they were moving into the land. This is why verse 13 says, "וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ" (their children that do not know). What do they not know? They did not know G-D! They were not present at the time of G-D revealing Himself to the Jewish people. However, they must come to fear Him from learning and listening to the Torah as well. 

There is another indication that verse 12 speaks of the time of Moshe and verse 13 speaks of future generations. In verse 12 it says, "לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם" (In order that they hear and in order that they learn and they will fear G-D), but in verse 13 it says, "יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם" (They will hear and they will learn TO fear G-D). The first verse is telling us that the commandment of Hakhail serves to cause the people to want to listen to the words of the Torah and to learn the words of the Torah and then that will help them fear G-D. However, for future generations Hakhail ITSELF is when the Jewish people hear the words of the Torah and are moved to learn to fear G-D. 

The Jewish people, when entering the land for the very first time, already learned to fear G-D. They saw Him at Mt. Sinai! However, they needed a once yearly commandment to remind them of the importance of G-D and His greatness. Living in the land can take a toll on a person and their minds would not be able to focus on G-D as well as they were able to in the dessert. The Jews of the future will need to learn to fear G-D in a completely different way. Future generations will only be able to read about G-D and will not be able to "see" Him like the Jews who lived in the dessert. This is why, in verse 13, it says that the children do not know, because they were not at Mt. Sinai. However, they must still come to fear G-D. Hakhail serves as the reminder that every single Jew must search for G-D and truly come to "Know" Him.