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!

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.