Exalting Our Power to Change

Below is the description of the seminar I shall offer for Rabbinical and Cantorial students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin on May 17, 2019. I hope they find it helpful.

 

Exalting Our Power to Change

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs D.Min, DD

 

“Where repentant sinners stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 34B)

 

תשובה – (Teshuvah) Repentance is one of the cardinal principals of Jewish thought. While our tradition calls upon Jews to be aware of our actions and regretful of our wrongdoings at all times, the Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur, is a season when the primary focus of our lives shifts from day to day needs to an intense period of self-examination in which to confess our sins to the Eternal One and resolve to do better in the future.

My Ulpan (intensive Hebrew learning program) teacher in Jerusalem, Sarah Rotbard, of blessed memory once said: “It is not just a gift for Jews that we conceived of the concept of Yom Kippur, it is a gift for all humanity.”

Indeed, our power to grow through our mistakes and change for the better is one of the most hopeful and positive traits of men and women.

Together we shall explore the concept of Teshuvah through biblical narratives and rabbinic teachings. We shall then discuss how they can affect our own lives and the lives of those whom we teach and influence.

The Best Possible Choice — Quick Comment: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9- 30:19

One of the great innovations of Reform Judaism was changing the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning when arguably more people will hear the Torah than any other.

The traditional portion is about the scapegoat from Leviticus, chapter 16. In that portion the priest symbolically transfers the sins of the people onto the head of an innocent goat that carries them away from the people out into the wilderness.

The portion our early Reformers substituted was a brilliant choice, a passage from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 that places responsibility for atonement and self-improvement squarely on our own shoulders. We cannot transfer our transgressions onto a goat.

The rabbis long struggled with the contradiction between the ideas of free will and of a God who knows everything that will happen.

The great medieval Sage Rambam (Moses Maimonides 1135-1204) wrote extensively on this question (Hilkhot Teshuvah, chapter IV). To summarize his view as succinctly as possible:

Everyone has free will to be righteous or wicked. But how can one always do as he or she wishes? Can we ever do anything with God’s permission?

Just as God wishes that fire and air ascend and water and earth descend, so God wishes humans to have freedom of will. Therefore, know that what you do is in your power, and you must give a reckoning

(If this seems confusing, the Rambam concludes):

Know that the human mind cannot apprehend or discover the real essence of the Creator.

 In the end the Rambam could only elaborate on the enigmatic Talmudic statement: ”All is foreseen yet free will is given.” (Pirke Avot 3:19)

For me that conclusion sums up why the Deuteronomy passage (culminating in 30:19) is perfect for Yom Kippur:

“See I have set before you this day life and death the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live.”

Our choices matter, and the Day of Atonement admonishes us to consider them as carefully as if our lives depend on them.

First Things First Quick Comment: Parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10 -25:19)

“You shall not watch your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray and hide yourself from them. You must certainly bring them back to him.” (Deuteronomy 22:1)

An earlier passage (Exodus 23: 4-5) reminds us that this obligation applies even if the owner of the lost animal is our enemy.

The Torah is adamant in telling us how we must treat our fellow humans, even those we do not like.

An anecdote told about the famed 19th century scholar and founder of the Musar* movement, Yisroel Salanter, illustrates this idea:

It was the Eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. They synagogue was packed full of worshippers waiting for Rabbi Salanter to chant the Kol Nidre*. But the rabbi was nowhere to be found.

The rabbi’s absence shocked the community elders because he always arrived at the synagogue well in advance of the time to begin worship.

A hastily organized search party looked everywhere and finally found the rabbi, leading the stubborn calf of a gentile neighbor back into its stall.

“Rabbi,” the leaders demanded, “Where have you been? Don’t you know everyone is waiting for you in the synagogue to chant the Kol Nidre?

“Yes,” Rabbi Yisroel answered. “I am sorry, but I simply could not attend even to the sacred duties of the Day of Atonement while this poor, helpless animal wandered about lost.”

Though a strict observer of Jewish law Rabbi Salanter allowed no religious principles to come before the obligation to help other human beings.

What a wonderful example for all of us today!

*Notes:

Musar: The term musar is found in Proverbs 1:2. It means “discipline,” and its study is gaining new popularity today.

Kol Nidre: “All Vows.” Prayer recited only once during the year to begin worship on Yom Kippur.

The Days of Awe

One of the questions readers of What’s in It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives have asked concerns references to the Jewish High Holy Days in the chapter “What If I Don’t Believe in God.” In response to that question, this essay explains the meaning of that sacred season to Jews.

 

Behold, it is the Day of Judgment. As a shepherd musters his sheep, causing them to pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You . . .
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall complete his years . . .
And who shall not complete his years
Who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich . . .
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion avert the severity of the decree!

The prayer excerpt above, written by Kalonymous ben Meshullam in the eleventh century, starkly expresses the High Holy Day mood of impending judgment. During the Days of Awe (the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), serious Jews strip away the veneer of our righteousness and prepare for God’s scrutiny. It is the culmination of an intense period of introspection and self-reflection in which we examine who we have been with an eye toward who we want to be. During the Days of Awe, we humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to improve in the year ahead.

Although the language of the prayers clearly addresses our relationship with God, the significance of this period does not diminish for those Jews who find themselves unable to relate to God in a personal sense. The process of self-examination, contrition, and resolve can be as therapeutically valid for the atheist as for the Orthodox Jew and everyone whose religious beliefs fall somewhere in between.

When Jews seek forgiveness for the shortcomings and wrongful acts, we do not ask for supernatural absolution for shortcoming inherent in our nature. The Hebrew word for “sin,” חטא, (chet) connotes an action that we regret, but which is within our power to correct. The Days of Awe provide us with a special opportunity—although certainly we should try to be aware of the impact of our actions all the time—to ponder, reconsider, and adjust our behavior in a positive direction.

The most distinctive part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual is the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn. According to the thirteenth-century philosopher/physician/commentator Moses Maimonides, the piercing sounds of the shofar cry out to us like a spiritual alarm clock with the following message: “Awake from your slumber, you who are asleep. Wake up . . . search your deeds and repent . . . amend your ways and deeds!”

The sound of the shofar, noted Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, reminds us of the way just and merciful monarchs operate: First, they warn the people of their decrees; but if they do not heed the warning, violators are held accountable. The shofar is a spiritual warning to remind us of the way God wishes us to live our lives.

Yom Kippur arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. On it, we observe a complete fast and spend the entire day in prayer and meditation.

More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Philo endorsed the Yom Kippur fast “because of the self-restraint which it entails.” The fast reminds Jews that true repentance (which leads to improved conduct) requires much self-control. Abstaining from all food and drink from sunset on the eve of the holy day until after dark the next day gives all of us an inkling of what it means to be really hungry. The experience reminds us of our obligation to alleviate hunger in whatever way we can wherever it exists. It also reminds us to cause no one to suffer privation through our actions. One of the wonderful innovations of modern Jewish life is that many synagogues conduct massive food drives. We bring the food from which we abstain—and them some—to the synagogue to distribute to local food banks. It was a great source of pride to me in my congregation in West Hartford to have two moving vans parked outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur and see them filled up with food.
I hasten to note that no one should fast if doing so would cause a medical hardship. Such people are not only permitted to eat; they are commanded to do so.

The most striking portion of the Day of Atonement liturgy is the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of the service on Yom Kippur Eve. The haunting melody, to which the cantor sings an ancient Aramaic legal formula, symbolizes for many both the anguish and the hope of the Jewish experience. Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “The Kol Nidre is of all melodies the saddest, and yet the most uplifting.” The text of the prayer, which some consider nearly 1,500 years old, ask God to absolve us of rash vows we might have made or might make but be unable to fulfill. Many times in history, tyrants forced us to disavow our religion to save our lives. The Kol Nidre brought comfort and a feeling of absolution from those vows we made under duress.

Anti-Semites jump on the prayer as an escape clause for Jews to get out of obligations we do not wish to meet. In a disputation before King Louis IX of France in 1240, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris successfully defended the Kol Nidre prayer against that charge by pointing out that Jewish law explicitly states that Yom Kippur rituals and prayers only cover transgressions against God. “For sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until the offender appeases the one that he or she wronged” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

The same Mishnah dispels the notion that Yom Kippur absolves the individual who sins capriciously. The text states, “If one says, ‘I will sin and repent continuously,’ he will not be given an opportunity to repent. If one says, ‘I will sin and the Day of Atonement will affect Atonement,’ then the Day of Atonement does not affect atonement.”

Jewish tradition acknowledges that attaining the humility, contrition, and resolve necessary for sincere repentance is no easy task. The Talmud accords the highest praise to one who successfully turns from his or her misdeeds, stating, “Where repentant sinners stand, even the thoroughly righteous cannot stand.” Maimonides commented that the reward for penitents is so great because they must exert even greater effort than the thoroughly righteous to avoid going astray.

Though the theme of the Days of Awe is judgment, the rabbis of old viewed God more as a compassionate parent than as a stern, impartial magistrate. In the eyes of the sages, God is well aware of the difficulties of repentance and is eager to do everything possible to help us return to the right path. In one parable, the rabbis liken God to a parent whose son was a distance of one hundred days from home. His friends advise him to return to his parents. He answered, “I cannot; I do not have the strength.”

His father sent him a message, saying, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” (Midrash Pesikta Rabati, Shuvah Yisrael) The story suggests that atonement during the Days of Awe is neither an act of God’s unearned grace nor the result of humanity’s unilateral struggle. It is rather the wonderful product of a covenantal partnership that allows those who take the process seriously to enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed.

Elijah’s Role on Yom Kippur

It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar— with the triumphant cry from the  passage (First Kings, Chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel:  “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim!  The Eternal One  alone  is God!”  We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the only time  we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.

Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial.   King Ahab and even more so, Queen Jezebel (whose name is synonymous with wickedness) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice.  They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true God.  

So, Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al on Mt Carmel.  He says we will each prepare our offering, and the god who consumes the offering without having kindled a fire is the true deity.  The prophets of Ba’al go first, and though they cry out and gash themselves, nothing happens. Elijah then pours water over his offering, so much water that it fills the trench around the makeshift altar and cries, “Answer me O Eternal One, Answer me!”

POOF!  The offering, the altar beneath it and even the trench filled with water go up in smoke.

Who is God? Elijah essentially asks?  Is it your idol that you worship by gashing yourselves and with other abominations that make a mockery of human dignity? Is it Ba’al who you hope will greedily eat your offering?  Or is it the one true God who wants us to create a world of justice, kindness, caring and compassion?

And then, in a most dramatic fashion, God vanquishes Ba’al on Mt Carmel and all must acknowledge God’s sovereignty.  It is a replay in miniature of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt where God defeats Pharaoh, the pagan god in human form.

So what should Jews take away from what is arguably the holiest moment of the year?  What should we all learn from this passage that can help us to live more meaningfully?

Even though many in power debase the ideals and values that the Almighty wants us to uphold — and even though God does not assert the reality of the Divine presence as dramatically to us as we see on Mt. Carmel (or in the parting of the sea) — it is our job to hold fast to God’s desires for us.  True worship is not found in mouthing empty words, but in making our faith the driving force in our lives.  We glorify God and demonstrate our faith when we use our talents — whatever they may be — to help repair this broken world.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

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