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Rabbis' Blog

We're Back to the Beginning

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There is that cute story of a mother explaining to her inquisitive child the origins of the family. As she makes her way up through the family tree concluding with the first human Adam, the child has a confused expression on his face. "But, Mom. Dad said we come from apes!" "Right", she replied. "He's talking about his side of the family".

We're back to the very beginning. Several days ago, on Simchat Torah, we concluded the yearly cycle of the Torah reading and immediately returned to the beginning. In doing so we demonstrated that Torah is not simply a book of profound ideas, fascinating stories and a work of literary art. Rather it is our divine guide for eternity. Each year we gain new depth, insight and a greater appreciation for the messages contained in every line.

So, since the Torah is a guide book to life, why does it open with the story of creation? Must one know of the origins of the world in order to observe the mitzvoth and to lead a moral and ethical life?

While many are motivated and inspired to do the right thing, often the realities of life seem to interfere. Bills must to be paid, social expectations need to be met and keeping to all the rules may be inconvenient to achieving certain goals.

Therefore, the road-map of life begins with defining reality itself.

"Bereishit Bara Elokim" - G-d created heaven and earth and everything in between for a purpose. None of it can be a true contradiction to its divine destiny. Torah study and mitzvah observance is not simply a recommended way to live - it is life itself!

However, this truth seems elusive very often. The details of creation shed light on this issue as well. At first light and darkness co-existed and then G-d separated them making a clear distinction between the two. On the second day, two elements of water were separated to create a clear distinction between the heavenly and earthly domains. Likewise, truth and falsehood are freely mixed to provide us the freedom of choice that makes our every action valuable and precious.

This is the empowering message of Bereishit. Know that it was all created for a divine purpose and all the confusion and the distractions are there for us to make sense of it all through following the instructions of the divine manual - the Torah.

As we embark on the journey of the year 5777 we are granted the tools and the energy necessary for us to succeed.

Hold On!

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These past ten days saw the highest synagogue attendance for the entire year in the American Jewish community. It is predictable to the point that virtually every place of worship in the country adds seats and makes contingency plans for overflowing crowds. We all know that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur enjoy the greatest public participation of all the festivals. And now we can all go back to normal.

But, wait! There are another two weeks for celebration that are just about to begin! Sukkot and Simchat Torah are so rich in mitzvoth, lessons and Jewish culture that it is hard to come to terms with how they can be overlooked. I will confess, if one were to ask me to recommend which festivals to attend synagogue services I would definitely vote for the ones coming up around the corner.

I am not diminishing, Heaven forbid, the importance of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. They are the High Holy Days and should be observed as such. However, on the most basic level, Rosh Hashanah is a time to pray for a good a sweet year and Yom Kippur we seek atonement. The focus is on the self.

Sukkot on the other hand, is a celebration of Jewish unity. Ground Zero of the festival is the Sukkah in which we are instructed to invite friends, family and even complete strangers to partake in the festivities together. And so we do not lose focus on the unique qualities of the individual we observe the mitzvah of holding the “Four Kinds”.

There are two fundamental components of Jewish life: Torah Study and Mitzvah Observance. The knowledge acquired through Torah study is absorbed in the mind and has a transformative effect. This can be compared to “taste” as food is digested and becomes part of the body. When one observes a Mitzvah, the effect is apparent only during the action. This can be compared to a “scent” which has a temporary impact.

The Etrog has a taste and a scent – representing the Jew that is intellectually and emotionally involved in Jewish life. The Lulav is the branch of a date palm – the date has only a taste – representing the Jew that is intellectually invested in Judaism. The Hadas – myrtle branch – has a scent, representing the emotional Jew. Finally, the Arava – the willow – represents the simple Jew lacking any intellectual or emotional religious stamina. We are commanded to bring them all together ad to recite a blessing. If one element is missing, we are not deserving of divine blessing.

Simchat Torah is the climax of this display of unity, when scholar and layman alike rejoice with the Torah.

This is the message of the festivals we are about to experience. I encourage you all to join us as we make the ultimate statement of Jewish unity.

The Homecoming

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Yom Kippur is typically associated with solemnity, introspection bordering on sadness. The 25 hour fast and long hours in the synagogue only add to those feelings. However, in truth, Yom Kippur is a day of divine joy and serenity.

The Baal Shem Tov explains this novel perspective of the Day of Atonement with the following analogy.

A powerful king once sent his son, the Crown Prince, on a mission to educate the inhabitants of the furthest reaches of the kingdom the greatness of their monarch. At first the enthusiastic young prince fulfilled his mission with zest. But as time wore on, he started to identify much more with the peasants of these primitive towns than with the elegance and dignity of the royal court and eventually assimilated to their ways, abandoning his mission.

Years later, word reached the remote town that there will be a grand parade in the capital city in celebration of the king’s birthday. Upon hearing the mention of the king, the prince-turned-peasant was jolted into the reality that he was a crown prince that had been sent on a brief mission and that his true place was beside his dear father in the royal palace. He frantically traveled back home, but alas, he had adopted the dress, demeanor and language of the primitive outback and had no way of proving his royal pedigree. He had no way of gaining entry to his own home.

I utter shock and despair he stood on the parade route in hope of seeing the king. As the royal carriage paraded through the streets with much pomp and ceremony the prince-in-disguise caught a glimpse of his beloved father and remembered one word of his youth. “Father!” he cried desperately. The king immediately recognized the voice of his beloved son, dismounted, lovingly embraced his wayward and long lost son and, despite his dismal state, joyously welcomed him home.

It is an open secret that Yom Kippur is a day that Jews normally not seen in a synagogue make a point to attend. This is not a guilt trip. Quite the contrary, it is the time that the core Jewish soul is awakened and motivates us all to return home – G-d’s dwelling, the synagogue. And despite the dismal state of our Jewish involvement, G-d is overjoyed upon seeing all of His children united in prayer. Every additional mitzvah, every extra minute of Torah study and every word of prayer is precious to G-d like the homecoming of an only child.

As we prepare for the holiest day of the year I encourage you invite another Jew to participate in a service, to observe another mitzvah and to join you for a holiday meal. Let us all be catalysts for the joyous reunion between G-d and every one of His children.

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