Divre Harav – September/2019

Akaviah ben Mehallalel says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not fall into the clutches of transgression: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a full account [of yourself].

“From where do you come? From a putrid drop.

“To where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots.

“And before whom are you destined to give a full account? Before the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessed One.”

Pirke Avot 3:1

Repentance begins with breaking down the ego. We might like to think we we have power and influence, that we are important because of our intellect or our wealth. Not so, says Akaviah ben Mehallalel. We are, in the words of this mishnah from Pirke Avot, no better than the fertilized zygote with which we began our existence. Similar to this sentiment is a passage early in the morning service, recommended by the Talmud as the essence of confession. In it, we acknowledge that compared to the power of God and the scope of human history, our existence as individual human beings is insignificant.

Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent. The wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. In your sight, all that we do is meaningless, the days of our lives empty. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion, for all is futile. 

Not even our human origin makes us special. We grew from embryos, but so did everything else in the animal world. They are mortal and we, too, are born with the same ultimate fate of death.

Not until Akaviah’s third statement do we get a hint of our special nature: Human beings are uniquely destined to appear before God. My dog is not going to be judged upon his passing for each time he pooped in the house (something I’m going to take up with God someday). But our souls transcend our physical bodies. Our souls are a sacred gift from God. And the fact that we have a soul, that very thing that makes us special and privileged and gives us a covenantal relationship with God, it that which holds us accountable for all of our actions.

As we welcome September, we have approximately one month before Rosh Hashanah. So let me commend to you the exercise of doing a Heshbon Hanefesh, a spiritual self-assessment. At the end of each day (except on Shabbat), describe one good interaction with another person in which you were fully present, and one interaction that you could have handled better. It could be an interaction with a stranger, server, barista, or grocery story clerk; an email to a supervisor or coworker, friend or acquaintance; a phone conversation with customer service, a family member, or friend; or a face-to-face conversation with any of the above. Identify what you did well or what you could have done better. If you need to make amends for something you did wrong, identify the error and apologize. If you have other unresolved issues, error, or transgressions, take the month of September to take care of those as well.

And when I see you on Rosh Hashanah, we can wish each other l’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu with a full heart, knowing that we are starting the new year with a clean slate.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • din – judgement
  • Heshbon – account
  • din v’heshbon – a complete judgement, a full accounting. [grammaticaly, this is called a hendadys, in which two nouns combine, one modifying the other]
  • Heshbon HaNefesh – self-assessment; literally, accounting of the soul.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2011

I don’t need to expend a huge amount of effort to convince most of you that the synagogue experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not “fun.” Yet, you also understand that it is an important experience – otherwise, you would not come. As a narrow snapshot of Jewish life, the High Holiday experience is psychologically valuable, when done right. However, it is incomplete. Life is not just about the serious moments … it is also about the playful moments. A view of Jewish life that includes only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is distorted towards the serious and heavy. I invite and encourage you to capture the other side of the emotional scale, the side of Sukkot and Simhat Torah. The singing, dancing, and eating of Simhat Torah are the antidote for the chanting and sitting (or standing and prostrating) of the earlier holidays.

Jews are an intellectual bunch. We tend to be excessively proud of educational accomplishments and the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners. Judaism values study. However, Judaism also values action. Judaism done right is more than an intellectual activity – it is a celebration of life. Simhat Torah provides balance. It is about Torah, but it is not intellectual. It is experiential. It is about using our bodies and our breath as in the Shabbat poem Nishmat kol chai, “The breath of all that lives praises you, Adonai our God” (page 334, Siddur Sim Shalom). From our limbs to our tongues, from our knees to our back, our songs, our lips, our eyes and heart – all join together to “laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing [God’s] holiness and sovereignty.”

Sukkot breaks us out of our normal pattern of service and worship of God through primarily intellectual channels, to a more physical expression of our commitment to a Jewish life. We cannot fulfill the obligation to eat in the Sukkah by conceptualizing the role of the Sukkah in Jewish tradition, or discussing the historical context of its development. We can only do the mitzvah by putting our body into it, say a berakha, and eating something.

The physical labor I bring to building and decorating a Sukkah each year is as important to me as the money I give to Tzedakah or the time I spend in shul praying or studying. It is very easy in this world of offices, parking lots, highways, and cars, to forget the glory and power of the world around us. Our buildings are solid, our cars have powerful engines, and it is very easy to forget just how fragile we and our lives really are. All it takes is an earthquake a flood, a tsunami, a famine, or a hurricane to remind us of the power of nature. As I sit in a fragile Sukkah, open to the elements, I am very conscious of the physicality of my being. When I say shehehe’yanu on that first night, I am better able to appreciate the miracle of my existence because of the physical effort I put into constructing the Sukkah.

I wish you all a meaningful and joyous Yom Tov.