Rabbi’s Message

Elul

Elul – the month preceding Rosh Hashanah – begins a period of intensive introspection, of clarifying life’s goals, and of coming closer to God. It is a time for realizing purpose in life – rather than perfunctorily going through the motions of living by amassing money and seeking gratification. It is a time when we step back and look at ourselves critically and honestly, as Jews have from time immemorial, with the intention of improving.

The four Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) are the first letters of the four words Ani l’dodi v’dodi lee – “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me” (Song of Songs 6:3). These words sum up the relationship between God and His people. In other words, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah is a time when God reaches out to us, in an effort to create a more spiritually – inspiring atmosphere, one that stimulates teshuva.

The most important aspect of Elul is to make a plan for your life. Because when the Big Day comes, and each individual stands before the Almighty to ask for another year, we’ll want to know what we’re asking for!

Rewind 3,000 years to the Sinai Desert. God has spoken the Ten Commandments, and the Jews have built the Golden Calf. Moses desperately pleads with God to spare the nation.
On the first day of Elul, Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and 40 days later – on the seminal Yom Kippur – he returned to the people, with a new, second set of stone tablets in hand.

For us as well, the month of Elul begins a 40-day period that culminates in the year’s holiest day, Yom Kippur.

Why 40? Forty is a number of cleansing and purification. Noah’s Flood rains lasted 40 days, and the mikveh – the ritual purification bath – contains 40 measures of water.

Elul is an enormous opportunity. During this time, many people increase their study of Torah and performance of good deeds. And many also do a daily cheshbon – an accounting of spiritual profit and loss.

Over 3,300 years ago, on the morning G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah,
the entire Creation was silent. All life forms were mute. The sea was completely still. Nothing moved. Not a sound. Pure silence.


And it was from this silence the Torah was given.


Imagine. Each Jew was forced to look into his heart and come to terms with himself without the aid of anything external. No palm pilots, no mobile phones, not even a beeper. Just an old-fashioned heart. Because it is from the heart that a person defines what kind of relationship he wants with his Creator. The Midrash teaches that on Shavuot, the day that G-d gave us the Torah, His voice reverberated with an intensity and a strength that had never before been revealed. That voice was so powerful that it penetrated into the heart of every single person standing at Sinai – and yet not a sound was heard. G-d spoke to each heart in the most personal way. Each person was chosen by G-d to become the recipient of the Torah, the greatest treasure in the world.


During the British Mandate, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was forced to appear at a Royal Commission. The commission was convened to discuss why the Jews insisted on praying at the site of the destroyed Temple. Rabbi Kook was asked why the Jewish People make such a fuss over the Western Wall. “After all,” said an English officer. “It is just a bunch of rocks one on top of the other.” Rabbi Kook replied that “Just as there are hearts which are made of stone, so too there are stones which are made of heart.”

Shavuot, the day the Torah was given, is the day when we can choose the nature of our hearts. Whether they will remain impervious and unresponsive to the silence. Dormant and rocklike. Or if our hearts will serve as the spiritual center of our being. Shavuot is the day that we decide if our hearts are going to listen to the silence and unite together with G-d in genuine celebration. The dictionary defines silence as being the absence of noise. Not so the Torah. The Torah defines silence as being the key to a positive and healthy relationship with G-d and oneself. Shavuot is the gateway to an existence above and beyond sound.

On the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year falls out on the 21st of January, a new year will begin. There will be little or no television coverage of this event. No one will be jumping into fountains. No one will be waiting for midnight so they can drunkenly wend their way through some ancient Scottish ballad with obscure lyrics. No one will be setting off firecrackers. The 21st of January will be the quietest New Year’s Day in the world, and yet, Tu B’Shevat – the New Year for Trees – is one of the most significant days in the calendar.

I can hear you saying: “What do the trees need a New Year for?”

Apart from its halachic ramifications, why should trees need a New Year? Are they going to make resolutions? What does it mean that the trees have a new year? And why is it specifically on the 15th of Shevat?

Tu B’Shevat takes place in the middle of winter. Everything outside seems frozen and lifeless. However, hidden from sight, something is happening deep inside the trees. Under the frozen bark, at the very core, the sap is beginning to rise. Everything looks the same as yesterday, everything seems unchanged – but inexorably, new life is starting to burgeon. It may not be the end of Winter, but it is the beginning of the end.

You can look at Winter two ways: You can look at it as the end and at its deathly chill. Or you can look at it as the silent birthday of life and see it as the beginning.

The same is true of life itself. You can look at the winter years of life as the end. Or you see those same years looking forward to a life just about to be born on another plane.

The Torah likens Man to the tree of the field. “For Man is the tree of the field.” (Devarim 20:19) Just like the tree contains an unseen vigor which rises in the depths of winter and death, so too man has an unseen vigor planted inside him – an eternal existence which springs to life when we leave this winter- world of suffering and pain.

When we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, we are not just celebrating the New Year for Trees. In a way, we are celebrating our own renaissance. We are reminding ourselves that this is just a winter-world.

Winter brings us the shortest days of the year. Night seems to dominate the day. Winter is a paradigm of this world. In this world, darkness seems to rule. It’s easy to think that this is a brief walk in darkness between two greater darknesses. But to the Jew, this world of darkness is no more than a prelude to a great light. The Jew sees this Winter-world as the harbinger of Spring, not the executioner of Summer.

At the very beginning of Creation, the Torah repeats the following phrase many times: “And it was evening and it was morning…” Evening precedes morning. Night precedes day. Why does the day start with the evening? If you were creating the world, wouldn’t it be more logical to start with the morning, with the light? For if the first thing that G-d called into creation was light, shouldn’t we view the day as morning first and only then evening?

Right at the beginning of the Creation, there is a hint. A hint that this is an evening world. A world of winter and darkness. And it is only after this evening- world that we will finally enter the Morning-world to live on an eternal plane.
That’s the secret message of Tu B’Shevat, the day when we celebrate new life rising in the tree. Tu B’Shvat is a New Year which proclaims that “It was evening,” but soon it will be morning.

R’ Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pekuda z”l (Spain; 11th century) lists 30 types of cheshbon ha’nefesh / accounting with one’s soul that a person must perform, the twenty-fourth of which is the following: “Reconsider everything you have known since your youth and the beginning of your education about G-d and His Torah, about the words of the earlier generations, about the riddles of the Sages, and about the prayers, for these subtle matters are not the same to one whose understanding is immature [i.e., a youth] as they are to one whose un- derstanding is mature.

“Therefore, do not be content with the images you have in your mind from the beginning of your studies. Rather, when your mind has matured you should begin again to study the Torah of Elokim and the books of the Prophets. [Learn them with a fresh perspective] like someone who is first learning to read, and accustom yourself to explain them, to elaborate upon their allusions, and to look carefully at their wording and phraseology. Also, recognize which state- ments are meant to be understood straightforwardly (peshat), and which are not meant to be understood that way… If you do this, you will see the secrets of the Torah and the secrets of the Prophets and Sages in way that is impossi- ble if you continue to learn the way you learned as a child.” (Chovot Ha’le- vavot: Sha’ar Cheshbon Ha’nefesh ch.3)

R’ Isaac Sher z”l (1875-1952; Rosh Yeshiva of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania and Bnei Brak) applies these words studying the Book of Bereishit. He writes: A person learns Sefer Bereishit as a child and grasps what he learned on a child- ish level. This forms his understanding of the Patriarchs and their deeds. The typical person does not thereafter reexamine his understanding of these “stories” as the years pass.

He continues: As a result, we are unable with our limited perspective to under- stand the Torah’s stories and to learn about the deeds of the Patriarchs. We do not appreciate their depth. Worse yet, some of the deeds of the Patriarchs appear to us to have been sins, and we have the nerve to say, “After all, there is no tzaddik who is perfect.” This is wrong! Rather, we are obligated to say, “When will my deeds reach the level of the Patriarchs’ deeds?!”

When the Shofar is blown…

When the Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah, three different types of noises are sounded. The first is a “teki’ah.” This sound is one long continuous burst. The second sound is called a “shevarim.” It consists of three shorter blasts. The third sound is the “teruah.” The teruah is a set of nine short bursts of sound, a staccato blast. The Gemarah in Rosh HaShanah tells us that these later two sounds are meant to sound like crying: “. . . drawing a long sigh. . . uttering short piercing cries.” The Ben Ish Chai writes that these sounds are meant to contrast with the tekiah. The tekiah, he explains, is a sound of triumph and joy, while the shevarim and teruah are sounds of pain and suffering. Because of the opposing feelings they represent, when one blows the shofar, he is not to connect the tekiah with the others, by blowing the sounds with the same breath.

Why do we have both sounds of joy and sounds of sorrow emitted from the Shofar? The Ben Ish Chai explains by means of a story. A man had a ring specially made for him. Upon this ring, he had engraved the words “This, too, will pass.” If he were troubled and in pain, he would look at his ring and remember that the suffering would eventually end. This thought comforted him. During times of happiness and comfort, he would gaze at the ring as well. He would realize that his wealth and good fortune could change for the worst in an instant. Good times are not forever. He would recognize that there was no reason to become conceited and haughty over circumstances which were beyond his control and could turn adverse without any warning. This ring reminded the man that all in his life had to be put in perspective, and that one should live his life neither complacent nor despondent.

The tekiah, the first sound, is a sound of joy and happiness. Immediately after we hear the long exultant blast, we hear the shevarim and teruah. These are both sounds of sadness, pain and suffering. The stark contrast between these sounds is intentional. We are supposed to remember while listening to the shofar that we cannot forget G-d during times of contentment, and we cannot let our egos swell from our achievements. Success can quickly turn into failure. Only with G-d’s help did we prosper, and only with G-d’s help will we continue to do so. However, upon hearing the sorrowful sound of the Shofar, we should not think that in times of suffering G-d has forsaken us. We should not become depressed and despondent. Right after these blasts, we sound a tekiah again, to signify that G-d is there, and in His mercy will help us return to a state of jubilation again.

Miriam and I wish you a happy & healthy sweet new year,

Rabbi Avi Mammon

Elul

Elul – the month preceding Rosh Hashanah – begins a period of intensive introspection, of clarifying life’s goals, and of coming closer to God. It is a time for realizing purpose in life – rather than perfunctorily going through the motions of living by amassing money and seeking gratification. It is a time when we step back and look at ourselves critically and honestly, as Jews have from time immemorial, with the in- tention of improving.

The four Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) are the first letters of the four
words Ani l’dodi v’dodi lee – “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me” (Song of Songs 6:3). These words sum up the relationship between God and His people.

In other words, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah is a time when God reaches out to us, in an effort to create a more spiritually-inspiring atmosphere, one that stimulates teshuva.

Slichot

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses asked God to explain His system for relating with the world. God’s answer, known as the “13 Attributes of Mercy,” forms the essence of the “Slichot” prayers. The “13 Attributes” speak of “God’s patience.” The same God Who created us with a clean slate and a world of opportunity gives us another opportunity if we’ve misused the first one.

“Slichot” should be said with a minyan. If this is not possible, then “Slichot” should still be said alone, omitting the parts in Aramaic and the “13 Attributes of Mercy.”

Finally, the most important aspect of Elul is to make a plan for your life. Because when the Big Day comes, and each individual stands before the Almighty to ask for another year, we’ll want to know what we’re asking for!

40-Day Period

Rewind 3,000 years to the Sinai Desert. God has spoken the Ten Commandments, and the Jews have built the Golden Calf. Moshe desperately pleads with God to spare the nation.

On the first day of Elul, Moshe ascends Mount Sinai, and 40 days later – on the seminal Yom Kippur – he returned to the people, with a new, second set of stone tablets in hand.

For us as well, the month of Elul begins a 40-day period that culminates in the year’s holiest day, Yom Kippur.
Why 40? Forty is a number of cleansing and purification. Noach’s Flood rains lasted 40 days, and the mik- veh – the ritual purification bath – contains 40 measures of water.

Elul is an enormous opportunity. During this time, many people increase their study of Torah and per- formance of good deeds. And many also do a daily cheshbon – an accounting of spiritual profit and loss.

Events of the Year 2448

Many of the Jewish holidays are based on the events of one crucial year in Jewish history – 2448, or 1312 BCE.

About 3,300 years ago, in the Jewish year 2448, the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt – following the plague of the First Born. The date was the 15th of Nissan, the first Passover celebration. One week later, with the Egyptian troops in full chase, the Red Sea split – and the Jewish people walked through on dry land. This occurred on the seventh and final day of the Passover holiday.

Ten Commandments and Mount Sinai

Fifty days later, on the holiday of Shavuot, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. At Sinai, the Jews regained the immortal level of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Moshes’ First Ascent

Following the revelation, Moses went up Mount Sinai to learn more details of the Torah directly from God. At the end of 40 days, God handed Moses two tablets of identical shape and size – upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved.

The Golden Calf

On the 16th of Tammuz, when Moses had not yet returned from the mountain, the Jewish people began to panic. They sought a new “leader” and built the Golden Calf. Immediately, the Clouds of Glory – the divine protection of God – departed. The Jews had relinquished their spiritual greatness and become mortal again. On the 17th of Tammuz, Moses came down from the moun- tain, smashed the Tablets, destroyed the Calf, and punished the transgressors.

Moshes’ Second Ascent

On the 19th of Tammuz, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai again to plead for the lives of the Jewish people. He prayed with great intensity, and after 40 days, God agreed to spare the Jew- ish people in the merit of their forefathers. On the last day of Av, Moses returned to the people. Their lives were spared, but the sin was not yet forgiven.

Moshes’ Third and Final Ascent

Moses ascended Mount Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul and stayed in the heavenly camp for 40 days (bringing the total number of days spent there to 120). Henceforth, the month of Elul became a special time for drawing close to God.
At the end of the 40 days – on the 10th of Tishrei – God agreed to mete out the punishment for the Golden Calf over many generations. He then gave Moses a new, second set of Tablets.

Moses came down from the mountain with good news for the people: The reunification was complete, and the relationship restored. Thereafter, the 10th of Tishrei was designated as a day of forgiveness for all future generations: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Three Weeks

The “Three Weeks” between the 17th of Tammuz and the Tisha B’Av, this year July 11th– Aug. 1st, have historically been days of misfortune and calamity for the Jewish people. During this time, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, amongst other tragedies.

These days are referred to as the period “within the straits” (bein hametzarim), in ac- cordance with the verse: “All her oppressors have overtaken her within the straits” (Lamentations 1:3).

During this time, various aspects of mourning are observed by the entire nation. We minimize joy and celebration. The expressions of mourning take on greater intensity as we approach the day of Tisha B’Av.

On Shabbat during the Three Weeks, the Haftorahs are taken from chapters in Isaiah and Jeremiah dealing with the Temple’s destruction and the exile of the Jewish people. Agonizing over these events is meant to help us conquer those spiritual deficiencies which brought about these tragic events. Through the process of “teshuva” – self-introspection and a commitment to improve – we have the power to transform tragedy into joy. In fact, the Talmud says that after the future redemption of Israel and the re- building of the Temple, these days will be rededicated as days of rejoicing and festivity.

The story is told of Napoleon walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B’Av. As he passed a synagogue he heard the sounds of mourning and crying. “What’s this all about?” Napoleon asked. An aide explained that the Jews were mourning the loss of their Temple. “When did this happen?” Napoleon asked. The aide replied, “About 1700 years ago.” Napoleon said, “Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long will merit seeing it rebuilt!”

The beginning of the 3-week period of mourning is the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day commemorating the fall of Jerusalem, prior to the destruction of the Holy Temple. On the 17th of Tammuz, no eating or drinking is permitted from the break of dawn until night fall.

Five great catastrophes occurred in Jewish history on the 17th of Tammuz:

1. Moshe broke the tablets at Mount Sinai – in response to the sin of the Golden Calf.
2. The daily offerings in the First Temple were suspended during the siege of Jerusa- lem.
3. Jerusalem’s walls were breached, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
4. Prior to the Great Revolt, the Roman general Apostamos burned a Torah scroll – setting a precedent for the horrifying burning of Jewish books throughout the centuries.
5. An idolatrous image was placed in the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple – a brazen act of blasphemy and desecration.

“And G-d said ‘Let Us make man in Our image.’ ” (Bereshet 1:26)

What does the Torah mean when it says that G-d created man “in His image”? When G-d created man, He gave him two powers: the power of giving and the power of taking. The power to give is the elevated quality that imitates G-d, for G-d is the ultimate Giver. There is nothing you can give Him in return since He already owns everything. Man is created specifically to imitate G-d by being a giver.

The desire to take is the antithesis of G-d’s purpose in creating man. Further- more, taking is not about amassing a vast fortune, or a fleet of Porsches; it’s not a matter of “He who dies with the most toys wins.” In truth, the desire to take has nothing to do with toys, trophies or physical objects at all.

The desire to take is the dark side of the power to give. It is the anti-world of giving, its negative doppelganger. The desire to take is never satisfied by the object of its desire. It’s amazing how quickly the sheen wears off a pristine new computer, or a new car. For once the object becomes our possession it ceases to interest us, the desire is gone, and we focus on something else.

Why?

The desire to take is never satisfied by the object of our desire because the desire to take is really the desire to enlarge ourselves, to make ourselves more, to take up more real estate in reality – to exist more. And that desire is insatiable.

All physical desires have their limits – there’s just so much you can consume, but the desire to be more, the dark side of giving, is insatiable.

Parshat Korach begins with the following sentence, “And Korach (the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi) together with Datan and Aviram (the sons of Eliav) and On ben Pelet (sons of Reuven), took.” There is no object in this sentence. It just says that “Korach …took…” without revealing what or whom he took. What, then, is the object of the sentence?

What did Korach take?

Korach “took” the entire sad episode that followed: his rebellion and demise are the object of the first sentence of the weekly portion. Korach was the quin- tessential taker. What he wanted was more, more and more. Korach wanted to devour the world.
Our objective needs to be giving. We have to make our focus in life to be a giver rather then a taker and by doing so we express our Godly image.

Shavuot

This Month we celebrate Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. The Torah, as the blueprint of the world, is the ultimate expression of what reality is. Therefore, the way in which the Torah was given must also express a truth about the nature of reality.

The Torah was not given to the Jewish People as a group of individuals. Its giving re- quired them to be a klal, a united entity, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

When the Jewish People stood at Sinai they were “like one man with one heart” (Rashi). Interestingly, Rashi uses almost exactly the same phrase to describe Pharaoh and the Egyptian army at the crossing of the Sea: “With one heart like one man.” A subtle reversal of the order. The Jewish People are “like one man with one heart.” The Egyptians “with one heart like one man.” What is the significance of this reversing of the word order?

The heart represents the raw matter of existence. The raw material which waits for an imprint, a form to define it. The heart is the medium. The nature of emotion is to be molded, to be channeled. Not to lead.

The form of something is its spiritual component. Its purpose. The form is the message.

A spoon, for example. A spoon consists of two parts. Its matter is the metal. Its form is its purpose: To scoop and stir. That’s why it has a scoop at one end and a long han- dle. Its form expresses its purpose. The function of a thing is its spiritual dimension, its spiritual identity in the world.

The nature of physical things is to be passive. The nature of spiritual things is to be active. The shape of the spoon dominates the metal and defines it, not the reverse. That is the correct order of the world. Form shaping matter. The message shaping the medium.

The word for “man” in Hebrew is ish. Ish comes from the word aish meaning “fire.” Fire symbolizes spirituality. It is the nature of fire to rise upwards; it is the nature of spirituality to aspire upwards. The nature of fire is to dominate; the nature of spiritu- ality is to rule: A small nation imbued with a spiritual ideal can overcome a large na- tion which is apathetic and decadent. This has been the lesson of history. Someone with a spiritual motivation will ultimately rule over someone with a physical motiva- tion because the physical desires inertia, to be passive, to take it easy.

When intellect dominates the emotions, when the message dominates the medium, then we have the very picture of how the Torah was given. “Like one man with one heart.” The man – the intellect, the spiritual component leading the heart – the raw material, the medium.

However, when the heart dominates the mind, the medium becomes the message. This is the literal antithesis of the way the Torah was given.

As we accept the Torah this Shavuot, let us commit to becoming more spiritual and intellectual. Let us commit to having our message define who we our and our hearts will become the medium.

Passover Rabbi's MessageWhat is the point of Eliyahu’s Cup, what exactly is its function?

Pesach is the time of Redemption and the Rabbis describe Elijah as being the Angel of Redemption. We believe that in the same way that we were redeemed from Egypt, so too will we be redeemed from our present lengthy exile. Tradition teaches that it is Elijah who will announce the coming of the Mashiach, and the cup is prepared as a sign of our desire that he should come as speedily as he can to do so. Our Sages tell of a certain Rabbi in Talmudic times who met Elijah and asked him when the Mashiach would come. Elijah told him that he would come immediately. When he didn’t materialize the Rabbi was very upset and the next time he met Elijah he berated him for not having been accurate in his assessment. Elijah, after hearing him out, explained to him that he had meant every word. But, ultimately, it was entirely up to us whether the Mashiach comes or not. If we truly want him to come he will come without delay. And if we are not too enthusiastic about the idea, well, Elijah will have to wait until we change our minds.

So what can we do to change the state of affairs? There is an anecdote that might help us attain a better perspective. Once the famed Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, sent one of his followers to open the door after filling Elijahs Cup on Seder night. However the man was frozen to the spot and couldn’t do it. When he was asked why, he said that he was scared stiff as he was absolutely certain that Elijah the Prophet must be waiting outside the door of such a pious and august person as the Rebbe, just waiting to be invited in.

Answered Rabbi Menachem Mendel, You’re wrong! Elijah the Prophet enters through the heart, not the door!

And it is in exactly the same way that we can allow Elijah to appear and proclaim to everyone that the Mashiach is on his way. This Seder night, as we all fill up our cups for Elijah the Prophet lets fill them right up to the very top. Lets turn Elijahs Cup into the symbol of all our hopes and aspirations for the future brimming over with optimism that this year we can make all the difference. Like the Rebbe from Kotzk let us open our hearts to allow Elijah to enter into our lives.

And, who knows? Perhaps if we do so there wont be any need to pour the wine back into the bottle this Pesach after the Seder.

And Next Year in Jerusalem will become a reality rather than just a song.

Miriam and I wish you a happy, healthy and kosher Pesach.

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