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Rabbis' Blog

Listen out for the voice

As a child I was taught a beautiful Chassidic melody composed by one of the legendary Chassidic masters known as the “Shpoler Zeideh.” For many years he journeyed from town to town incognito seeking ways to aid his fellow Jews, whether it was guiding them in living more Jewishly or assisting them in their financial straits.

The song he composed is titled “The voice in the Forest” describing the heart wrenching story of a father searching desperately for his children. 

“Children, where have you been that you have already forgotten about me? Come back home, I’m sad and lonely!”

The song is a description of G-d’s yearning for us to come home. To see through the distractions of life and perceive the truth of existence, that we are here to make our world a more divine space, where goodness and kindness prevails over selfishness and ego.

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” and this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Teshuva.” 

Teshuvah is colloquially translated as “repentance” and the elementary significance of these days of awe is that we all ought to engage in introspection and identify areas of life where we need to improve. But apologizing to G-d for our naughtiness and doing better is important all year round, and these ten days represent something more significant and profound in addition to the basics of cleaning house.

The true meaning of Teshuvah is “to return.” To return to our essence - to return to our truth. From the moment we are brought into existence reality throws every distraction possible in our way and we spend a lifetime sifting through the layers of distractions to discover the path to living in a way that brings ourselves and the world closer to perfection. As we stumble through the dense forest of life we need to listen out for the “call of our Father” imploring us to find the proper path.

During these “Ten days of Teshuvah” this clarion call is stronger, more perceivable and discernable to our souls’ ears. It creates the perfect setting for us to make good resolutions to enter the new year with a commitment to more mitzvah observance, Torah learning and charitable giving.

In this week’s parsha we read how Moshe enjoined Heaven and Earth to bear witness to the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The opening words indicate that Moshe was closer to heaven than to earth - more in tune to a spiritual and more elevated reality than the coarse earthly reality most of us are more familiar with.

This Shabbat, as we read these timeless words we have the ability to perceive a higher reality. To hear the “voice in the forest” more clearly and tangibly. To be closer to heaven than to earth. Let’s pay attention to the voice and focus our energy on living more Jewishly than ever before.

 

 

What does unity really mean?

 

We are about to experience the final Shabbat of the year. In Judaism every ending is a stepping stone for a greater beginning and the theme of this Shabbat is preparation for a better and happier year.

On the final Shabbat of every month we bless the coming month during Shabbat morning in the presence of the Torah scroll. This week, however, we will not observe this ritual, and the Baal Shem Tov explained that on the final Shabbat of this month G-d Himself blesses the new month, thereby giving us the ability to sanctify the rest of the eleven months to come.

G-d’s blessing reaches us through the Torah and the Torah reading for this week contains a tremendous lesson for us as we enter the new year and prepare to introduce more divinity into the coming months.

Parshat Nitzavim opens with our covenant with G-d; our commitment to cherish the Torah, observe the commandments, ensure that Jewish tradition continues to the next generation and G-d’s commitment to cherish us as a nation. To secure the covenant, G-d enjoins us to be responsible for each other, to ensure we all live up to our obligations. The attitude of “mind your own business” and “take care of your own obligations” is completely un-Jewish. Every individual is bound to look out for everyone else as well.

Securing a loan through a guarantor only works if the guarantor is on stronger financial footing than the borrower. Would you ever accept a pauper as a guarantor for a loan of any size?

In the case of our eternal covenant with G-d, however, every Jew is a guarantor for every Jew, regardless of their respective level in knowledge or piety, because every Jew has a unique spiritual advantage over everyone else.  Similar to the limbs of a body. While the brain is the epicenter of life, with all of its superiority, it cannot reach its destination without the services of the feet - giving the feet an element of superiority over the brain.

The Jewish nation is a large body. Diverse in nature but inherently united in the combined mission to bring the world to perfection. Some play superior roles to others, but everyone has a unique ability and purpose which makes them uniquely superior over everyone else. This respective superiority makes every one of us a guarantor for each other and obligates us to look for each other.

Be sure your friends and family have what they need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and that they will hear the Shofar in-person on Sunday, September 20. Doing so creates a conduit for blessing and success and convinces G-d to bless us all with a good and sweet new year.

 

Where Credit is Due

 

Everyone appreciates getting credit for their hard work. An inventor has the right to patent an invention which becomes his or her intellectual property, but if they are employed by a large corporation which provides education, training, salary, benefits, a laboratory and supplies, the invention belongs to the corporation and not to the individual.

It’s hard to challenge such an arrangement since without the support of the corporation the inventor would never be able to develop the invention, and the more the employee produces the more resources he or she will receive going forward.

In this week’s parsha we read about the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The first of a long list of ritual taxes associated with the agricultural economy in Israel is the obligation to bring first and best of the five fruits the Torah defines as the beauty and praise of the Promised Land (figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates) to the Holy Temple to be given to the Kohanim.

Bikkurim was observed with joyous fanfare. Entire villages would make the pilgrimage together to Jerusalem where they were greeted by the locals with a veritable parade as they carried the fruits in adorned baskets. Arriving at the Holy Temple the orchard owners recited a powerful prayer of thanksgiving to G-d, receiving much blessing in return.

Bikkurim is different from all other ritual taxes. All the rest had a defined obligatory percentage of produce that needed to be given to a specific cause. Bikkurim had no defined obligatory amount but needed to be given from the first fruits harvested that year. Clearly, the purpose of Bikkurim was mainly an important exercise for the giver rather than a tax to benefit the receiver.

After toiling in the orchard for a full season one could naturally feel entitled to pull off the first fig from the tree and enjoy the “fruits of his labor.” Of course many more figs will be donated to many important causes, but surely the first fruits should be enjoyed by the one who worked so hard to grow them.

Bikkurim reminds us that specifically the first fruits belong to G-d, because everything we have is only due to G-d’s blessing. The orchard, the tools, the agricultural knowledge and the energy to roll up our sleeves and get to work is all from G-d A-lmighty. Sanctifying the first fruits is the most powerful way we can remain mindful of where all our blessings come from and become the conduit for many more blessings in the future.

Today, in the absence of a physical Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Mitzvah of Bikkurim remains relevant in our personal lives. Set aside the first and best hour of the day to pray and learn Torah, give a percentage of your paycheck to charity before using the money for yourself and express your heartfelt thanks to G-d for the gift of life and all that comes along with it. These are joyful exercises that will keep you anchored in the right attitude and make you a vessel to receive overflowing blessings.

 

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