Category Archives: Chagim/Holidays

Spiritual Surgery


It has always struck me as odd that the opening Tfila of Yom Kippur is Hatarat Nedarim (Annulling vows). Though not fulfilling a vow constitutes a transgression are they such a grave one that they specifically, and not our many other failings, deserve to be dealt with at so dramatically at the onset of Yom Kippur?    
When thinking of what we look like on Yom Kippur, I can’t help but think of a surgery: we dress in white, refrain from eating and drinking, isolate ourselves from the world and experience a mixture of worry and hope in anticipation of positive results.
That is exactly what Yom Kippur is – a spiritual surgery. We remove all material matters and concerns, sterilizing ourselves, allowing exclusive focus on the non-material aspects of our lives. We spend hours inspecting the layers that lay hidden beneath the surface of our identities, identifying the broken and ruptured organs of our personalities, removing negative elements, mending and tending.   
But, unlike a physical surgery, spiritual introspection requires something fundamental in order to succeed – the realization of how we came to need it to begin with. Our sins do not stem primarily from a lack information about our shortcomings, rather because we’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which we are unable to escape.
How often do we (or our children) say: “This is who I am”, “This is what I’ve always done”, “I can’t change” and similar statements?
Vows are just that – patterns that bind us to what we’ve thought, said, done and grown accustomed to, in the past year. Unless we first release ourselves from our destructive patterns, no fasting, praying, crying or singing will help. The surgery will fail, as after Yom Kippur we will find ourselves bound by the same patterns of thought and behavior we had a day earlier.
Hatarat Nedarim is dramatic for a reason. It is a legal and spiritual process after which one must realize they are not enslaved to their past and can say to themselves with full conviction “I must change” and therefore “I can change”, and, using the processes Yom Kippur – fasting, Tfila, Viduy, Slichot, etc… have a successful spiritual surgery resulting in a year of renewal, growth and holiness.

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None of You Actually Celebrated Shavu’ot!

Ten years ago, a reform rabbi friend of mine, bemoaned to me that “Shavu’ot is the forgotten holiday of the Reform Movement”. He explained that: 1. It was only one day.  2. Usually came out in the middle of the week.  3. Had nothing tangible to “capture” people with as other holidays.

I remember thinking how symbolic that the holiday celebrating Torah is missing from a movement that does not believe in its divinity. I’ve felt quite smug about this anecdote over the years and shared it in many settings.
But, since then, I’ve come to realize that Orthodox Judaism may not be much better when it comes to Shavu’ot.
The Orthodox movement doesn’t celebrate Shvu’ot. We celebrate what may very well be a fake holiday, called Chag Matan Torah:
1. The two are not even the same day. Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan. Shavu’ot takes place on the 6th. (In ancient times it sometimes even occurred on the 5th!).
2. We do not count 50 days from The Exodus to Matan Torah. This is a misnomer. Nowhere in the Torah are these two events connected by 50 days. (And in truth, we didn’t even get Torah on the 50th day, rather, on the 51st!)
We count from the first harvest of grain (קציר העומר) seven weeks and then celebrate The Holiday of Harvest.
3. In the 5(!) different places the Torah discusses Shvu’ot we find an exclusively agricultural-religious holiday. It marks the new season of harvest when we:
– Give thanks for the new harvest and new fruits
– Recognize that Divine Providence throughout Jewish History is the reason we are able to live and work The Land of Israel and enjoy its fruits
– Share our plenty with the less fortunate
So how was The Holiday of Harvest “hijacked” and turned into The Holiday of The giving Torah?
1. Once The Temple was destroyed and we – cast into exile, what would a Torah based Shavu’ot look like? it has no observances that are not dependent on living an agricultural life in Israel. The holiday would become irrelevant, possibly even forgotten. It had to be given a new meaning. Considering its proximity to the date of Matan Torah and the exilic emphasis on detached, “spiritual” Torah – the original holiday was replaced with new meaning.
2. But, there is possibly a deeper connection as well. The beauty of Shavu’ot (and Megilat Rut; the reading of the day) is that it represents – more than any other holiday – what a full Torah life looks like. Megilat Rut is what Hashem had in mind when he gave Torah in the first place: The Jewish People living in The Land of Israel, keeping the Mitzvot of the land while also taking care of the less fortunate. All this while remembering where we came from and where we’re heading. In my humble opinion, it is both the most mundane and beautiful story in all of Tanach.
So why the connection?
The Torah does not require we celebrate the day the Torah was given. Remember what our mother’s told us about why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day? “every day is mother’s day…”. The giving of Torah isn’t a singular event, rather, a continuous, never-ending one. But when the day Torah life is supposed to appear in its entirety is in danger of being erased from Jewish observance, then BECAUSE it was no longer relevant it became the most important day to remember – Hashem gave us Torah.
If we’re not able to “live the life”, let’s at least remember to look at the manual to remember what is missing.
May we merit to observe Shavu’ot according to it’s original, full meaning!

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Days of Awe and Religious Clichés

It is no coincidence that so many days of significance fall between
Pesach and Shavu’ot. The Omer, with its anticipation for Matan Torah, the customs of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s Talmidim, Yom Hasho’a, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. All these charged days fall between our birth as a people (Pesach) and the day our communal destiny was revealed to us (Shavu’ot). It is a time period when our national identity was – and continues to – formulate, and take shape. 
It is easy to get swept up in the lofty ideas and emotional rollercoaster of these days but within them hide a small but profound truth we cannot forget.
The students of Rabbi Akiva, we are told, died in a מגפה as they were not נוהג כבוד זה בזה (did not treat each other with respect). Most people understand the word מגפה to mean disease, when in fact it is used many times in Tanach to describe loosing in battle (e.g. see Shmuel II, 18, 6).
The students of Rabbi Akiva did not die in a pandemic, rather, were killed during the Bar Kochva Revolt. They too, recognized the significance of this time period and, under the guidance of Rabbi Akiva, joined the battle for Jewish Independence, both physical and spiritual. But, they were so caught up in the lofty ideas and endeavours they forgot the most basic of Jewish principles – ואהבת לרעך כמוך and that one must treat their fellow Jew with respect and dignity. That is also (one of) the reasons they failed. No matter the strength of our motivation, the fortitude of our conviction or depth of our ideology, it is worth little without the cliché truth that we must treat those around us with respect and dignity. There is no hope for national success without the existence first of respect for one and other. It is a message as poignant today as it was back then.
Much will be said and experienced during the upcoming weeks. We look forward to it all expectedly, but may the simplest of Jewish truths serve as their foundation, ensuring the continued realization of our national hopes and dreams. 

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Exilic Chanukah Vs. Israeli Chanukah

Between the two miracles of Chanukah (the oil and the victory), the more important one is unquestionably the victory. This is evidenced by the fact that it is the one we give thanks for. That is the one we couldn’t live without. The miracle of the oil isn’t that miraculous. There are many, far more miraculous events in our history without a holiday. The oil miracle is more an idea (hence, we study it). But, what is that idea?
The common answer is that it represents the battle between physicality and spirituality The Greeks were all about materialism and the physical while the Jews were all about the spiritual. The Greeks tried to rob us of our spirituality and convert us to materialism and physicality. The miracle of the oil demonstrates the laws of nature and the material world being broken to show the dominance of spirituality. A perfect message for life in exile. Torah=spirituality, the world=physicality. Torah > world.
That is why the miracle of oil became so central in the exile.
But, the truth is that the miracle of the oil was secondary. We don’t even mention it in על הניסים. The battle was about our obligation and right to live a physical life infused by spirituality and holiness. That’s why the decrees were ones involving action: don’t circumcise, don’t rest on Shabbat, don’t purify in a Mikve etc… all of which represent the holiness of the physical.
The Greeks saw the physical and spiritual as separate and contradictory. Chanukah comes to show that they are not inherently separate, rather are both vessels for a deeper meaning and purpose – holiness.
That is what the miracle of the oil demonstrates and the victory miracle embodies – the ability of the physical to be “stretched” and hold more than just physicality; that the physical is a vessel for more.

That is the difference between an exilic and redemptive understanding of Chanukah as well as the key to understanding the past century of Zionism… 

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