Saturday and Shabbat

There are two warring ways of looking at Saturdays. The secular way uses the power of "diversion". The religious way uses the power of "amplification". That does not mean that religious Jews crank up the loudspeakers. And it does not mean that secular people make wrong turns. Both of these approaches are an attempt to achieve the most elusive goal, human happiness. Let's look at them one by one.

Diversion, simply put, keeps someone in a state of relative calm by diverting their attention from more distressing things. Most of the week, we are diverted from our existential questions by the practical necessities of daily life. We go to work, we go to school, we run errands and so forth. We don't have time to think about things of a deeper nature. We don't walk around asking ourselves, "what is the meaning of our lives?". We simply don't have time, since we get diverted from those questions.

Comes Saturday, and there is less to divert us. So we find other pleasant things, usually more pleasant than work and errands, to do the job. It could be those Saturday morning cartoons, or a hiking trip, or a concert or trip to the beach. All of these things are pleasant, and they divert our attention from the quiet gnawing questions about our lives.

Sometimes, diversion is extremely healthy and necessary. Too much stress, too little enjoyment, are extremely unhealthy. Everybody requires a vacation, everybody requires time to refuel, to laugh and enjoy. Sometimes, though, it is an avoidance technique to keep us from doing things that are very important for us. At an extreme, substance addictions are a form of unhealthy diversion. A person can't ask themselves hard questions if they are completely blasted. And by not asking those questions, their lives are not improved.

The religious approach of the Sabbath, amplification, starts inside the person. Instead of running away from meaning of life issues, we amplify them. Diversions are, by and large, forbidden on the Sabbath. No television, no trips to the beach. Instead, it is a synagogue service where the focus is a reading from the Bible. It is a Friday night meal where the whole family eats together and talks together. It is taking a walk with your spouse on a Saturday afternoon. It is meditating, it is singing, it is feeling at one with the world.

I tend to work a lot. I work until very late at night. I hate going to sleep without having finished what I had planned for the day. As a result, I do feel more stress at times. I can tell you that without Shabbat, I am sure my health would suffer. Shabbat forbids me to do all that work, it forces me to rejoice in my own existence. It forces me to rejoice in God's world. It forces me to amplify the important things in life, such as tradition, family, spirituality.

A couple of years ago I was preparing my first musical theater production. I had never imagined how much work and stress would go into it. I literally worked until a few minutes before Shabbat, and started again as soon as it was over. If not for those 25 hours of sanity, I really feel my health could have been compromised. Not only that, it was during those 25 hours that I was able to stop and enjoy life.

I guess that's the difference in approach. The approach of diversion is the approach of enjoying the Saturday morning cartoon. The approach of amplification is the approach of enjoying life.

Judaism wants us to make the Sabbath day holy, protected from all diversions, and discover the deep joy and peace of the Shabbat.

Bar Mitzvahs to Be Ashamed of, Bar Mitzvahs to Be Proud of

What makes for great bar mitzvah? Definitely not the food, nor the catering hall, nor the "theme", nor the knock-your-socks-off entertainment. It may or may not be the band. That depends on what the real essence of the bar mitzvah is. So how do you properly, and I mean properly, celebrate a bar mitzvah?

What does Judaism think?

The answer depends on what question you ask yourself. If you ask yourself "what will really make an impression on all the friends and family we are going to invite", you will have wasted your money on a meaningless bar mitzvah. I have been to too many such affairs. A bar mitzvah is not about showing off your wealth and taste.

But if you ask yourself, "what will make this day the most meaningful day for my child that he will carry with him for the rest of his life," then you are on the path to an incredible bar mitzvah. Let me say this as clearly and loudly as I can:


It is not a celebration of the end of childhood. It is not a celebration of the bar mitzvah child. It is a celebration of a new adult, a celebration that looks forward, not backward. It is a celebration of responsibility, and of membership in the Jewish people. The more those aspects are present in the bar mitzvah, the better.

The other day I attended a bar mitzvah in a synagogue that I happened to attend. I did not know the bar mitzvah child. But even I, a nonrelative and non-friend, walked away strangely impressed with this young man and his family. They didn't feed me, at least not beyond the obligatory cake and grape juice at kiddush. What impressed me?

The young man himself. He read the entire Torah reading, and read it perfectly. He had clearly worked hard to prepare for the day, and was clearly a talented child. His performance excelled that of many adults that I know.

Today's bar mitzvah is most often a mockery of what it is supposed to be. The kid is completely focused on the party, as are the parents. They feel that they need to be the classiest act in town, each family trying to outdo the other. As a result, the actual bar mitzvah ceremony is little more than an afterthought.

How often have I been in synagogue and heard a child, for a bar mitzvah, completely embarrass themselves. They can barely read even the three or four verses of the maftir, the short final aliya at the end of the Torah reading. Never mind reading the entire section, they can even get through something that should take a few hours to prepare. I won't even begin to describe the anguish I feel when such a child is clearly so unprepared and UNDISTURBED about not being able to demonstrate the most fundamental Jewish literacy.

I studied for my bar mitzvah for at least nine months, and only read the first two aliyas and the maftir and the haftara. It wasn't everything, and to this day I regret that I didn't do more. Because, you see, I have almost no recollection of the menu at the party. I don't know what songs the band played, or even their names. I remember the catering hall, and that the party was on Super Bowl Sunday. I remember trying to dance the "hustle" with my sister, and that there were standard party games. It's all sketchy, but it hasn't disappeared altogether.

But every year, when the chapter of Shemot comes around, I not only read the entire chapter, but I vividly remember EXACTLY how I learned it. This is my Torah reading, it is part of my essence, my identity. It symbolizes the moment I became a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. That inspires me every single year.

So how do you make a great bar mitzvah? Forget about the "bar", and put all your energy into the "Mitzvah". Resist the temptation to hire the incredible musician, magician, sports hero, multimedia mind-blowing spectacle, dancing girls, whatever. Forget about the over-the-top catering hall, don't have it on a cruise ship. It's really not important. Don't try to make the neighbors jealous, don't make your own other kids jealous. Keep it simple.

Put the emphasis on the aspect of responsibility and membership in the Jewish people. Make sure your kid not only reads the Torah beautifully, but gives a bar mitzvah speech that will be talked about for years. Literally, bar mitzvah means "he has reached the age when the Commandments are incumbent upon him." That should be the only theme of a bar mitzvah. I'm not saying it shouldn't be fun, I'm not saying that there isn't any aspect of birthday party in it. Such an occasion requires a festive meal and song and dance.

But what song and dance? Ever consider going klezmer? Having something really really Jewish? I have trouble with the bands at some religious weddings. They're playing all this Hebrew stuff to this disco and trance rhythm. It's Jewish in that it's Hebrew, but it sure doesn't feel like it. At my wedding, we decided to hire a klezmer band, and that decision made for a wedding that was a home run.

Do the same for your bar mitzvah. Make it as Jewish an event as you possibly can. That's what it's all about, the Mitzvah. It's about being part of the Jewish people, so put that on proud display!

Just How Religious?

A "character" in this week's Torah reading is none other than the earth itself. According to the Midrash, when God gave the Torah to Israel, Earth was concerned. "If they observe the laws, all is good. But if not, I will be the one to pay the price, just as happened when I was cursed for Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge."

In other words, the Earth was concerned that she would pay the price for any sin that Israel would commit. So God reassured Earth. "Already in the time of Noah, I promised that day and night, hot and cold, winter and summer will not be suspended anymore." In other words, the Earth shall continue to follow its regular cycles without interference.

Thus, Earth was placated. It seems to me that this evolved to the point where God defends the Earth's right to a sabbatical rest by punishing the people. We have come full circle.

What changed? King Solomon said, "One sinner can cause great good to be lost." The Medrash applies this to the sabbatical year. They if the people fail to preserve the sanctity of this year, the consequence is the loss of the land as the people go into exile.

Why is this mitzvah different from all other mitzvot?

The secret is Order. Our sages tell us of the phases of world history. The first 2000 years are chaos. The next 2000 are Torah. The final 2000 are the days of the Messiah. We see from this that there is, indeed, a form of evolution from chaos to order to redemption.

Now I can understand why the Earth could be punished in the early generations, but be promised Order after the flood. Initially, the world was impulsive. Just as the physical creation proceeded from chaos to order, so too mankind. Man was impulsive. He was capable of great spiritual and intellectual accomplishments, and repulsive behavior at the same time. There was no order, there was no stability.

As the world approached the Epoch of Torah, order and stability began to be present. God's world was created to be one of order and stability. Thus, the more orderly the world, the more in line with God's intention it is, and the more enduring it will be. Noah represented the end of chaos, and the beginning of stability. Hence, God's promise to Earth that order and sequence will now reign.

Another Medrash tells us about Abraham's journey to the holy land. Outside of Israel, he saw people "eating and drinking and behaving impulsively." He did not wish to live in such places.

But when he passed The Ladder of Tyre, and entered the Land of Israel, he saw people clearing their fields at the right time, plowing the fields at the right time, harvesting at the right time, etc. He said, "May my portion be with the people who live in this Land."

Abraham saw a land of order and stability. The Land of Israel, for the Jewish people, is where our order and stability are based. Violating the sanctity of the land, in a fashion that does violence to order, is a grave sin. The sabbatical year symbolizes that order, as it shows structure to the years. King Solomon said, "for everything there is an appropriate time." Violating the sabbatical year is an attack on order and stability, and causes "great good," the continued presence of Israel and her land, to be lost.

For this reason, the sabbatical year is not obligatory outside the land of Israel. For, as Abraham saw, those are lands ruled by impulse.

The prophet Isaiah (Chapter 26) is critical of those people whose approach to the word of God is, "a commandment here, a commandment there, a line here, a line there, a little here, a little there." These are people who keep Judaism impulsively. They are not consistent. It is not ordered or structured, it is whatever they feel at the moment.

The defining text of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, which means "The Set Table." This name screams out the importance of structure and order! Our Judaism must be structured and organized. Our days, our weeks, our years, our lives require structure. When they have it, they are in harmony with Creation and, especially, the most ordered and structured land in the world – The Land of Israel!

Let us reevaluate the way we keep Judaism. Let us not pick and choose, jump from inspiration and neglect from boredom. Let us make it part of our daily order and routine, our weekly rhythms, and our life plan.

The Powerful Message of the 10 Commandments

Many commentaries wonder why these 10 verses are treated specially. The questioner is correct! All of the commandments and all of the verses of the Torah have equal sanctity! Why the differentiation?

One explanation sees the 10 Commandments as being more than just commandments. They are the encapsulation of the entire Torah. The great Rabbi Saadya Gaon teaches that each of the 10 Commandments is, in truth, a category of Commandments. Thus, we are not standing for 10 commandments alone, we are standing for the entire Torah. This reading is like a reading of the entire Torah.

This makes sense in that each of the commandments seems to contain a number of sub- commandments. The second commanded, for example, seems to have four different elements: 1. You shall not have other gods, 2. You shall not make idols, 3. You shall not bow down to them, 4. You shall not serve them.

In fact, the phrase "10 Commandments," is mistranslated. It should be translated as, "10 utterances." Rabbi Saadya's explanation removes this problem.

Another explanation comes from Rabbi Moshe Nachmanidies. He compares the entire Sinai episode to the process of a convert to Judaism. The convert must accept the Torah and the commandments. The Talmud tells us that we don't need to teach the convert all 613 commandments in one shot. This would be very difficult. So what do we do?

Instead, we teach them a sampling of the commandments. We teach them easy ones, and harder ones. The same thing happened at Mount Sinai. God will reveal the full depth of the Torah over the years to come. At that moment when Israel "converted," and accepted the yoke of Judaism, they were taught a sampling of the commandments. Specifically, the 10 Commandments. Thus, perhaps we stand because we are accepting the Torah once more.

I would like to suggest another explanation. Rabbi Herschel Schechter of Yeshiva University explained the significance of the fifth commandment, "Honor thy father and my mother." According to a midrash, this commandment was actually given previously, at a place called "Marah."

Rabbi Schechter quotes from the work of Rabbi Joseph Engle, who wrote extensively on this commandment. After the Israelites encountered the bitter waters at Marah, the Torah tells us that, "There He gave [Israel] a decree and a law." What were the decree and the law?

Rashi explains that the decree was the commandments of the Red Heifer, which is called a decree in the book of numbers. The law refers to the body of civil laws. That all make sense. Where does the midrash see the commandment of honoring one's parents in this phrase?

Rabbi Engle brings an argument between the sages Hillel and Shammai as to whether it would've been better had man never been created. Their disciples debated this for years, and finally concluded that it would've been better had man indeed never been created. The commentary Tosaphot claims that this only applies to an average or sinful person. A righteous person, on the other hand, is certainly the beneficiary of being created.

So if a person is righteous, they should be grateful to their parents who brought them into this world. For them, honoring by father and mother is a logical law. The father and mother did them a favor.

If the person is not righteous, however, by rights they should be upset with their parents. Why did they bring them into this world and get them into this difficult situation? Nonetheless, honoring them remains a decree of God, even though it seems illogical. Thus, the commandment of honoring parents comes from both of those phrases: Decree, if the person is not righteous, and Law (a logical, understandable law), if the person is righteous.

I would like to suggest an additional explanation. The last commandment is the prohibition on coveting your neighbor's property. The Hasidic master, the Bnei Yissachar, expands this prohibition to include not buying a Alfa Romeo because your neighbor has an Alfa Romeo. Certainly it is prohibited to attempt to acquire your neighbor's. The desire to live your neighbor's life, that is what is wrong.

Therefore, a person who desires to live their neighbor's life will not properly fulfill honoring their parents. They will resent that they were not born to their neighbors parents, not given his skin, his talents, his successes. For this person, honoring the parents is a decree.

But a person who understands that they are unique, and that they have gifts that no one else has, is prepared to live their own life of excellence. For them, their parents are the best in the world. Honoring them is a logical law.

God gives a preamble to the 10 Commandments, explaining how the Jewish people shall be "chosen." Chosen means unique, not better or worse. It means different and special. Every human being should be different and special. Every nation should be different and special. The 10 Commandments teach us that. Be different, be special, be excellent, and you will change the world.

Jewish Time Management

There are many commandments in the Torah that show the power of time. For instance, the Biblical penalty for lighting a fire on the Day of Rest, the Sabbath, is quite severe. Yet, if you light a fire ONE SECOND after Shabbat is over, you are not only not committing a sin, you are probably doing a mitzva, a commandment, called Havdala, or seperating the Sabbath from the weekday.

Wow, one second! The one who brought a Thanksgiving offering to God in the Temple had to eat the meat from that sacrifice within that day. If he left it over, it was considered a sin. Think of it: same action, wrong time, equals sin! The only difference is the time.

That is because time is a PHYSICAL property. In fact, it is the most important ingredient in any action. Without time, nothing moves or happens. The world becomes a still-photo, or sculpture. In other words, everything is dead without time moving it.

But that is only half the story. The real power comes when we realize that time, like all other physical properties, has unique characteristics. Not all minutes are created equal. Some have more potential for certain actions, while other times are more propitious for other actions. King Solomon was being quite literal when he said, "There is a time for everything and an hour for every pursuit under heaven."

The Biblical commentator, Seforno, stresses that God seeks us to achieve perfection in all we do. Excess is not perfection, neither is insufficiency. Time is the most important ingredient in perfection, to know how to use time to its utmost. When one brings a Thanksgiving offering, he colors the time with the potential for closeness to God. Failing to complete that process, waiting to finish consuming the sacrifice, destroys perfection and is a sin.

The Sabbath is a time that is unique in its power for spiritual renewal. Performing weekday labors on it and profaning the day constitute the destruction of potential for perfection, and are a great sin.

And the opposite is true. Using time spiritually, seizing the moment and integrating our lives with it lets us taste perfection again and again. The Jewish day, the Jewish week and the Jewish year are filled with minor and major occasions, showing us the color of time. By aligning our lives to that, we can harness the true secrets of effectiveness, spirituality and perfection.

The missing story of the Sukkot

A further indication of the mystery of when these sukkot actually were provided by God, as indicated by the above-quoted verse, is the fact that two great scholars debate what these sukkot actually were. One, Rabbi Akiva, claims they were actual sukkot, like the ones we use today. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, claims they were the "Clouds of Glory" that tradition holds surrounded the Israelites in the wilderness. How can there even be such a debate if this were a clear historical event?

For these reasons, I wish to propose a different reading of the verse from Vayikra. "You shall dwell in sukkot (the booths) .. for I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot (the place) when I brought them out of Egypt." The clear historical event being referenced is the arrival of Israel in Sukkot, their first stop as a free people. This moment was as important, if not more so than the Exodus itself. How so? Why have a major festival about it?

Because the Torah is telling us that Sukkot is, in a manner of speaking, Yom HaAtzmaut. It is the day we became a nation and the day we began our journey throughout history to "fix the world in the Kingdom of the All-Powerful." The verse starts off telling us, "YOU must dwell in booths," and continues in the third person, "because I caused the ISRAELITES to dwell (be established) at Sukkot."It could have said "because I caused YOU to dwell etc..." My reading of the verse is, then, that we live in booths on this holiday because God established the Nation of Israel as an independent nation with a Divine mission at Sukkot. Why there? Because this was our first encampment as a free people. This was the very beginning of our national journey.

But it was a false start. We stumbled just a few months later with the Golden Calf, which caused Rabbi Eliezer's Clouds of Glory to be taken away, not to return until the 15th of Tishrei, i.e., our Sukkot date. It was then that the journey truly began and has not been interrupted since. For this we celebrate. We commemorate Israel's founding, which is certainly up there with the Exodus and the Revelation.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, who argue whether the actual sukkot in which we dwelled during those first decades of our national journey, are in reality debating HOW we are to go about this national mission. The goal is bringing God's Kingship to all of humanity. Are we to achieve this passively, observing the commandments and waiting for God to transform the world? Or are we to be proactive partners in this all-important mission? Are we witnesses or participants?

Rabbi Eliezer says that Sukkot are actually Clouds of Glory. That kind of sukkah is made by God, and we are simply the witnesses to God who dwell in that heavenly sukkah. In this, he is true to form. Rabbi Eliezer consistently sees man's role as to be the recipient of Divine wisdom and direction, and not as a co-creator of that wisdom. Thus, in a famous Talmudic story, Rabbi Eliezer seeks to prove his point in a Jewish legal debate by invoking signs from Heaven. He calls forth a heavenly voice, which proclaims, "What have you (other rabbis) against Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is always followed in Jewish law?" Rabbi Joshua, another scholar participating in this spirited debate, rebukes the Divine voice. "The Torah is no longer in Heaven!" he declares. But Rabbi Eliezer feels that it is.

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, believes in man as full partner with God in fixing the world as God's Kingdom. His approach to Jewish law is one of interpreting and extracting laws by analysis. He, therefore, suggests that the sukkot we had after we left Egypt were, indeed, sukkot made by man, with materials from the Earth, not from Heaven. His approach is most appropriate for Jewish relevance, as it enables the scholars of each generation to adapt to changing times and societies with an authentic Judaism.

We need both approaches. We need the traditions of Rabbi Eliezer to ensure that Judaism remains authentic. We need the exegesis of Rabbi Akiva to ensure that Judaism remains relevant. At the end of the argument cited above, the Talmud tells us that another rabbi, Rabbi Nathan, encountered Elijah the Prophet and asked him how God felt about being "overruled (as all of Rabbi Eliezer's divine signs did not carry the day)." God smiled, replied Elijah, and said: "My children have conquered Me." Rabbi Norman Lamm translates the reply differently, changing the word "conquered" to mean "made Me eternal." (Lenazeach is to defeat, whereas laasot nizchi means to make eternal. They both can be seen in the word used, "nitzchuni.")

Thus, Sukkot celebrates our arrival in freedom, our national founding at Sukkot. We then embarked on our world-fixing journey, dwelling in either Clouds of Glory from above, or earthly sukkot from below, depending on whom you ask. Either way, Sukkot now has tremendous importance, for it is no longer a commemoration of the past (as are Pesach and Shavuot), but a celebration of the Jewish future!

how to cancel Tisha B'av

When God saw the people cry at the report of the spies, he decreed that the entire generation would perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years. In reaction, the people came to Moses contritely, admitted that they had sinned, and declared that they were ready to go up to the land of Israel right away. Moses refused them permission, saying that God would not be with them and they would be destroyed.

That is what happened. They attempted to go up to the land the next day, and were chased back by the Canaanites and Amalekites to a place, or situation, called "Destruction." Why was there repentance not accepted? After all, they didn't wait! They immediately wanted to correct the sin and go into The Land. What did they do wrong?

The Seforno puts it in stark terms. Initially, the people have refused to go to the land from fear. They failed to obey God and Moses, and cried in their tents that night. Now, they again refuse to obey God and Moses by insisting on going up. This time, however, their disobedience is not because of fear, but because of rebelliousness. They are rejecting God's decision and Moses's instruction. They are repeating the sin of the spies, although this time as an open rebellion.

But I think there is something more involved. Caleb, alone among the spies, chose to stand with Joshua and Moses. He gave the other spies the impression he was in with them, but at the fateful moment, stood up and told the people "let us go up to the land, for we certainly can conquer it." Where did he get the courage and determination to do so?

A fascinating and novel understanding of this entire story is waiting to be discovered. And that is, that the sin of the spies is a repeat of the sale of Joseph. At the end of the previous Torah reading, we read about two men, Eldad and Medad, who were reciting prophecies in the midst of the camp. What were they saying? "Moses is going to die, and Joshua will need the people into the land of Israel."

Now, the spies that Moses sent were all princes of their tribes. Each of them was a potential successor to Moses. Moses knew this, and feared for the welfare of his disciple, Joshua. Just as the brothers had attempted to remove Joseph as a potential leader, Moses fear the spies would do the same to Joshua. Therefore, he prayed for him, "May God protect you from the plotting of the spies."

What Moses had not imagined was that the spies would be willing to sacrifice the land of Israel in order to prevent that prophecy from coming true! He did not expect an answer in the spirit of the mother who, when King Solomon said to cut the child in half in order to be fair to the two claimants, said, "I will not have him, and you will not have him."

But that is what happened. The sin of the spies was not simply fear of entering the land of Israel. It was using the land of Israel as a bludgeon against a fellow Jew. It was the extreme of selfishness, and it was the same sin that caused the destruction of the Holy Temple on that same calendar date.

The hero of the story of Joseph was Judah. He stood before Jacob and proclaimed, about Benjamin, "I am his guarantor. Demand his safety from my hand. If I do not bring him back to my father, I will be sinning to my father all of my days." Judah taught us the principle of mutual responsibility. We are inextricably interwoven with each other and must be together as a people. The definition of togetherness is not necessarily agreeing or thinking the same, but rather it is standing together as one people at all times. The four species we shake on Sukkot represent the spectrum of Jews, from the most observant and knowledgeable to the least so. Nonetheless, we are moved, we are shaken, but we remain bound together. The people of Israel, the Land of Israel, the God of Israel, all together.

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, of blessed memory, explained that this is the origin of our national name, the Jews. Jew comes from Judah, and expresses this idea of mutual responsibility and destiny. Yes, it is also because we are descended, for the most part, from the tribe of Judah. But that, also, it is because of this attribute. The 10 lost Tribes disappeared because they refused to stand together with the rest of the people. They rebelled, they seceded. They disappeared. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the King, and to the Temple in Jerusalem.

If the spies were all rivals to Joshua for the leadership of the people, there was no stronger rival than Caleb. From the tribe of Judah, the mantle of leadership could authentically be given to him. And, yet, he alone refused to be part of that game. This was because he understood that what was at play was not who was more eligible to be the leader. The question was, do we stand together or not? His deep sense of areivut, of mutual responsibility, required him to stand with Joshua and Moses, and with God.

Now we can understand why, on that very next day, the people's attempt to go to Israel was an additional sin, rather than repentance. When Moses told them that God would not go with them, they needed to choose togetherness. They needed to say, "if the whole nation comes, we will come. If not, we will stand with the people, wherever they are."

And an additional point. The spies were right, Canaanites and Amalekites were stronger than the Israelites. But they were not stronger than the Israelites plus God! The spies had used the word "Efes, or nothing." If we go forth with nothing, they will clobber us. We go forth with One, the one God, in Unity and oneness, we are invincible. The Israelites who attempted to go into Israel the day after, went forth with efes-nothing, and not with One.

So, how can we cancel the fast of Tisha b'Av? By understanding the true dynamics of the sin of the spies. We need to choose to love The Land of Israel, so much so that no politics or arguments can get in the way of that love. We need to choose to love our fellow people of Israel, so much so that no disagreements can cause us to stand apart. And, finally, we need to choose to love God, so much so that if God does not wish us to leave the camp, we stay with God.

Alcoholism and the month of Elul

As you would imagine, quite the opposite. The Jewish New Year opens the season known as the "Days of Awe". This is a time of judgment and introspection, of repentance from sin. That's hardly a goal to be accomplished through all night partying. Judaism is a religion of life in the here and now, with the goal of the future. It never preaches escapism, with the sole exception being Purim, a subject for another post later in the year.

In fact, religious Jews consume more alcohol than the average citizen, yet have the lowest incidence of alcoholism. This is because of the circumstances of that drinking. It is almost entirely ritual based, from the Friday night kiddush, to the Saturday morning Kiddush, to the Havdala on Saturday night, to the various occasions of life that call for a "lechaim". In other words, almost all of the drinking is a celebration of life and faith, rather than an escape from it.

And so it is that we enter the month of preparation for Rosh Hashana with the words of love from King Solomon. Solomon, as we know, was the author of Ecclesiastes, a book probing the meaning of life. In it, he tells how he "tried everything out" to see where true human happiness and fulfillment lie. He tried partying, laughter therapy, materialism, you name it. His conclusion? All these are escapism, and while they may make for a pleasant diversion, they fail the ultimate test of true happiness.

That, says King Solomon, lies in "fear (of) the Lord and fulfill(ment of) His commandments". Beats partying by a country mile. That is the spirit we must cultivate as we enter this most potential-filled time of the year. It is a time of love from God to man and man to God.

What's love got to do (got to do) with it?

Easy. Love is identity. Live requires two beings to exist and know who they are. A love relationship requires an "I" and a "Thou". A conflicted person is limited in their ability to love. Repentance and re-dedication to our spiritual identity make love possible and strengthen it. Thus, love of God, repentance and introspection all grow together in this month of "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me."

May we all be blessed with a month of love leading to a year of life, peace and fulfillment.

The Four Secrets of Fulfilling Your Mission

There are two outstanding mitzvot (commandments) that Jews fulfill on Sukkot: 1. Sukkah (a booth that becomes a temporaya home recalling the booths of the Israeliotes in the wilderness) 2. The Four Species (a palm branch, willow branches, myrtle branches and a citron that are waved during a synagogue ceremony).

The Torah, regarding the Four Species, commands "And you shall take for you on the first day the fruit of ..". Why, asks the rabbinical commentary, does it say "the first day" when, in fact, it is the fifteenth day of the month? From here, they say, we learn that the first day of Sukkot is the first day of the "accountings of sins."

In other words, the five days from Yom Kippur until Sukkot do not count towards our "sin account". Does this mean that we have a free pass? And why, many ask, does this idea relate to mitzva number 2, the Four Species, and not mitzva number 1, the sukkah? What is it about the Four Species that re-activates our sin accounting, our repsonsibility for our actions?

The answer contains a beautiful insight to help us fulfill our missions. The name of the citron (etrog in hebrew) is given as "The fruit of a pleasant tree". Our tradition teaches us that the etrog and the tree that bears it basically taste the same. This is significant.

According to the midrash commentary on Genesis, God commanded all of the trees as he created them to be this way, with their fruits and their trunks, branches and leaves all sharing the same taste. All except one, the etrog, failed to accomplish this. They may have wonderfully tasty fruits, but would one eat the wood, it would be different.

How, we may ask, do the trees created by God not fulfill this Divine directive, and dare to have varying tastes? Perhaps this midrash is teaching us a valuable lesson in disguise. For what is the tree and what is the fruit in this equation? The mission and the fulfillment. All of the beautiful trees in the world save one do not fully complete their mission. The fruit, while it may be great, is not as great as it could have been, is not what it dreamed it would be.

Well, then, what is the etrog's secret? We all want to know!

I think there are four keys. Four elements of this mitzva may help us follow the etrog's example:

  1. The etrog is taken together with the branches of the palm, willow and myrtle trees. In other words, it realizes that any mission in life must be connected to, and with the support of, a community. We need famiy, friends, society. After all, hard-wired into our very existence is the need to fix the world, to contribute. No worthwhile mission does not improve the world, so how could one ever fulfill it without involving and inspiring others?

  2. The etrog is held in the oposite hand as the other three. In other words, one must be a leader, one must have the ability to take one's one direction. If my mission is to write a Torah commentary, for example, I can't allow important distractions to keep me from fulfilling my mission though neglect. I need to know when to separate and say "no" if my mission is at risk. All the more, I should never allow the bad influence of others to weaken my resolve IF the mission is a worthwhile one.

  3. The Four Species must be shaken in six directions: East-South-West-North-Up-Down. In other words, we learn two things here. We must be in motion, we must always be a mover and a shaker. No mission gets fulfilled through laziness and sloth. Secondly, we must be thorough, hitting every possible angle. Once we start to compromise on the mission, we are finished.

  4. Each movement starts at our heart (chest), moves out, and returns back to our heart. Perhaps the most influential aspect, we must be emotionally invested in this mission, and we must renew that investment contstantly, with each movement of the Four Species. I believe the flow of success is hinted at here as well: When I am excited to start my mission, and I accomplish a small step, it returns to my heart and builds even more excitement and motivation. The sages say, "A mitzva brings along another mitzva..".

So there are the four lessons of the Four Species to show us how to fulfill our resolutions and our mission. Connection to others, leadership, constant and thorough motion, and emotional investment.

So it is not that we get a free pass from Yom Kippur till Sukkot at all. This midrash is referring to our mission fulfillment. We can't be held accountable until we have learned the message of the etrog and the Four Species. Once that has happened, the race has started. Thus, Yom Kippur is the time for registration. The days in between are when we are to arrive at the starting line. The moment we shake the Four Species on that First Day is when the call is heard:


The Sabbath Is a Life Changer

In the section of Vayakhel, the commandment of observing the Sabbath precedes the recounting of the construction of the Tabernacle. The Talmud deduces from this order that the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. One may not say that building a Tabernacle is such an important task that it should supersede the Sabbath, and be performed even on that holy day. No, quite the opposite. All 39 labors that were required to construct the Tabernacle become the 39 labors that are specifically forbidden on the Sabbath.

In the book of Leviticus, however, there is the following verse: "A man shall fear his mother and father, and you (in the plural tense) shall observe my Sabbath, I am the Lord." The sages of the Talmud use this verse to teach us another lesson of priorities. If your parent tells you to violate the Sabbath, you may not listen to them.

The commentaries ask that this seems to contradict the lesson of Vayakhel, that the sequence indicates precedence. There, the Sabbath preceded the Tabernacle, so the Sabbath takes precedence over the Tabernacle. Why, then, in Leviticus, where the order is reversed, don't we say the same thing? We should say that fearing one's parents takes precedence over the Sabbath, because it precedes it in the verse!

What they don't mention is that in the 10 Commandments, Sabbath comes before "Honor thy father and my mother." Let's take a closer look at the way a person must relate to their parents, because this will lead us to the Sabbath and to the Tabernacle beyond.

Children must relate to parents in a special way, for two main reasons. First of all, gratitude for all of the kindness that our parents have done for us is the character trait behind the commandment to honor them. Honoring one's parents is performed by doing things for them. In the words of the Talmud, "take them out, take them in, feed them and clothe them..." This is the element of gratitude, of doing for them what they have done for us. For that reason, incidentally, the father is mentioned first, because it is less intuitive. A person naturally will love and wish to serve their mother, because she took more care of them during their infancy. So the Torah stresses that the father must also be respected and honored, equally to the mother.

The second reason children must relate to their parents in a special way relates to the child. It is because the parents are the link to tradition, and they pass on the mission of God to their children. This, I believe, is at the core of the commandment to fear one's parents. Fear does not mean trepidation that they will cause physical harm. The Talmud tells us what fear means: Do not sit in their place, do not contradict your parents, do not shame them. In other words, recognize that they are your teachers, and they are giving you your mission as part of the people of Israel.

The difference between the two reasons is huge. Gratitude is simply saying thank you, and doing kindness for them in return for the kindness they did for you. Fear -- respecting them as bearers of the mission -- tells the children how they must live their lives. It informs their purpose in life, and goes to the core of their identity. Our parents must become part of us, guiding us to continue the mission, to grow it and fulfill it.

Enter the Sabbath. At its core, the Sabbath is a day of acknowledgment of our divine mission. The Torah uses an interesting phraseology in introducing the Sabbath: "For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day it shall be a day of rest... whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die." It does not say we need to work for six days, it says "six days work shall be done". The emphasis is on the work, not on the doer. The doer is mentioned in the next verse, "Whoever will do work on the Sabbath day shall die."

When soldiers go out on a mission, they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the mission. That is the emphasis, not the actions they must take as part of that mission. The mission of the Jewish people is to build the Tabernacle, to bring God's presence into the world. Lest we begin to think that we are bigger than the mission, and that the mission is simply a means for our own aggrandizement, we are told to cease and desist on the day when God ceased creation.

I remember the year I produced my musical, and was fortunate to have an extremely devoted director working on it. He is a Sabbath observer, and the week before the show opened, he was put to the test. He had a lot of things that needed to be done, and needed to be ready for the Saturday night rehearsal. But Friday was ending, the sun was setting, and the Sabbath would start in a couple of minutes. He knew he would not finish in time, and would come to the rehearsal without full preparation, resulting in possible embarrassment and big problems for the production. He kept on working, and at one minute before sunset, he had to make a choice.

He chose the Sabbath. As he told me afterwards, when he put down all those papers and his pen, the most beautiful peace descended upon him and his home. He had never experienced such a wonderful Sabbath before. In that one choice, he affirmed that the mission is more important than the doer, and the mission is not the play. It's the Tabernacle, it's bringing God into the world. Nothing is more fulfilling than being a part of that.

And so, the order of these verses is perfect. A person should fear their parents, recognizing their sense of mission. That will lead them to observing the Sabbath, the day when we acknowledge that the mission is more important than the doer. And what is that mission? To build the Tabernacle, bringing God's presence into the world.

In other words, "You do not need to complete the work, but you are not at liberty to stop working at it." A person who works with the belief that they must complete the mission has put themselves above the mission. They will not learn from the Sabbath. A person who works because the mission needs to be done, recognizes that it is not their personal mission, but, rather, it is God's, will properly rest on the Sabbath, and lead a fulfilled life.