The holidays are over. We have heard the blasts of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, we fasted on Yom Kippur and experienced the joy of Sukkot and finally danced with the Torah on Simchat Torah. Now, it is back to the beginning returning once again to Bereshit as we read about the origins of humanity in general and our people specifically.
The creation story may indeed be one of the more well known stories in the Torah. Towards the end, the Torah says, “And G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him . . .” This idea of being created in the Divine image is, again, one of the more familiar concepts in Judaism. But to what kind of “image” is the Torah referring? Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, (1134 – 1204) known as the Rambam, wrote in his work on Jewish law, The Mishneh Torah, that G-d has no physical form whatsoever, therefore the question remains.
The Rambam raises the same question in the first chapter of his philosophical work, the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed). Here, the Rambam writes that “image” is not physical form, but rather essence. Consider these two sentences: “She is the image of her mother” and “he was the image of bravery.” In the first sentence, image is a physical trait, she physically resembles her mother. However, in the second, the use of the word “image” is descriptive. The sentence is describing the essence of the person as brave. Rambam, therefore is teaching us that when the Torah says that we are created in the Divine image, we are created with an essence that is divine. Again, what is that essence?
In this first chapter of the Torah, G-d is creating the world. Prior to each day’s creation G-d says, “Let there be . . . “ There is thought and then the creative act. The Divine essence, or at least one aspect of it, (if I may be so bold to suggest) is thought and creativity (along with other Divine qualities such as mercy and compassion). Through using our minds, our thinking, our creativity as well as our mercy and compassion, we are indeed in the Divine image.
Thinking, creating, having compassion – qualities that make us human. Isn’t that just divine?
The Torah commands that we “take the fruit of a good tree, a branch of a date palm, twigs of plaited tree, and willows and rejoice” for seven days. Today we know this as the mitzvah of the Arba’ah Minim, the lulav, the etrog, the hadasim and the aravot, the four species that are waved during six of the seven days of Sukkot, as they are not waved on Shabbat. One important aspect of this mitzvah is that these four minim are waved, they must be bound together. The lulav, hadasim and the aravot are held together in a small basket, woven from strips of the palm branch, but the etrog must be held directly adjacent to the other three. Another crucial element of this mitzvah is that all four minim must be held together in order to recite the accompanying blessing and wave them. If one of the minim is absent, the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled.
There is well known midrash which teaches that if each of the arba’ah minim represents a different type of Jew. The etrog, for example, has a combination of fragrance and taste, representing that some Jews are more scholarly and involved, as opposed to the aravot which has neither, symbolizing those Jews that are neither scholarly nor involved. The lulav and the hadasim represent gradations of the two extremes. However, the main thrust of the midrash is that every Jew, no irrespective of how much they know or how involved they are, is part of the Jewish people and cannot be discounted. The mitzvah is only fulfilled if all four minim are present; each min is important, each Jew is important.
The Arba’ah Minim embody our GBDS. We are a diverse community, with differing backgrounds, and practices and opinions. Yet, like the Araba’ah Minim, each of us is important, each of has a place in the community. Just as the Arba’ah Minim are bound together by the small woven basket, we are bound together by Jewish tradition, with the same history and ultimately the same destiny. Let the Arba'ah Minim be our banner.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Samayach.
The Talmud relates the story of a man named Elazar ben Durdia who was known to lead a rather immoral lifestyle. When he visited one such consort, she told him that heaven would never accept his teshuva, his repentance. This so shook Elazar ben Durdia that he went to the field, sat between two hills and asked the hills to pray on his behalf. The hills told him they could not. Panicked he asked the sun and the moon to pray on his behalf, but they too answered that they could not. Finally he begged the stars and the constellations to pray on his behalf, but alas, they also responded that they could not. Elazar ben Durdia screamed “The matter depends solely on me!” With that realization, Elazar ben Durdia put his head between his knees and wept and continued to weep until his body gave out and he died.
In many ways this period immediately following Yom Kippur is more difficult, and possibly even more important, than Yom Kippur itself. The fasting, the prayers and the beating our chest are vehicles to bring us to reflect on how we need to do better. The entire nature of the day is focused on this. However, it is much harder to put those thoughts and hopes of self-improvement into practice the next day when we return to the normalcy of our lives interacting with our spouses and our co-workers and friends.
The good part is that is indeed possible to make those changes. Elazar ben Durdia’s realization “The matter depends solely on me!” is our realization. We have that ability to change, to be better, to become the person we want to be.
Say it to yourself, “The matter depends solely on me!”
Shabbat Shalom one and all
Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, known as the Rambam (Spain, Egypt 1138-1204), wrote in his work Hilchot Teshuva (The Laws of Repentance) that there are four steps to repentance. First one must acknowledge that the act was wrong, second there must a confession of having done the act. Next, there is sincere regret over having done the act and finally there is a promise and determination not to repeat the act. Coupled with these four steps is the necessity to go to the person we have wronged and ask forgiveness. This is the difficult part because it means the offender must humble himself to the one he hurt and admit the offense.
There is a very moving prayer called Tefila Zaka which is recited prior to Kol Nidrei. The word “zaka” means “pure” and comes from the Book of Job (16:17), “and my prayer is pure.” It is unclear who wrote this prayer, but the first time it was mentioned was in the work on Jewish law called The Chayei Adam, compiled by Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820). At first it was published as a pamphlet and by the 1880’s it was incorporated into the traditional machzor. In Tefila Zaka, the author writes, “I fully and finally forgive everyone, may no one be punished because of me . . .”
While it is indeed difficult to ask for forgiveness, as people generally find it hard to humble themselves in front of others, especially those they have hurt, sometimes it is even more difficult to forgive. It is not easy for one who has been hurt to have to relive that hurt and let go of the pain and the embarrassment of the particular incident. Obviously we are not talking about heinous crimes for which there is no forgiveness. It is also acknowledged that depending on the offense sometimes we are just not ready to forgive, but it can be something to work towards.
As we stand on the threshold of the holiest day of the year, let us strive to not only ask forgiveness from those we have hurt, but also to forgive those who have hurt us.
Wishing you all an easy and meaningful fast. May we return on Thursday with clean slates
The first verse in Psalm 126 says, “A Song of Ascents, When HaShem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers.” The Talmud, in Tractate Ta’anit, comments on the phrase “we will be like dreamers,” and relates the story of Choni the Circle Maker who one day came upon an elderly man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man how long it would take for the carob tree to grow and bear fruit. The man answered 70 years. “You realize,” said Choni, “that you will no longer be alive to enjoy the carob.” The man answered Choni, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so too, I am planting for my descendants.”
The elderly man was a dreamer. He looked towards the future and dreamed about what he could provide for his progeny. The realization that he would not be with his descendants did not make a difference, for he understood the impact he could still make on those who would come after him.
This week’s Torah portion, VaYelech, takes place on the last day of Moshe’s life. In the parsha he commands the Jewish people that the Torah should be read to the entire Jewish community at the end of the Sabbatical year (every seventh year). This is the mitzvah of HaKail. Every man, woman and child was to hear the reading of the Torah. Moshe is the elderly man in the carob tree story. The elderly man provided for his descendant’s physical sustenance. Like the elderly man, Moshe, is a dreamer, looking toward the future, and through the Torah he is providing for the Jewish people’s spiritual sustenance, realizing the impact he can still have even when he is no longer with them.
What is our big dream? We are at the beginning of a new year. 5776 is only five days old. We are now in the 10th day of the school year. Let us be that elderly man, let us be Moshe. Let us dream of the future, a future that is bright and full of potential, a future that is the promise of all of our children.
Yes, dream, and dream big.
Shabbat Shalom to everyone.