18 September 2013



14 Tishrei 6774
Erev Chag Sukkot
Zeman Simchateinu

By Rav David Silverberg

The haftara for Shabbat Chol Ha-mo'ed Sukkot is the prophecy of Gog U-Magog, found in Sefer Yechezkel (38). Yechezkel foresees the time when a certain empire named Magog, led by a ruler named Gog, will descend upon the Land of Israel to wage war against the Jewish people that had been assembled from across the globe to its ancient homeland. God warns that He will respond with vengeance and defeat Gog and his allies through a host of supernatural disasters (see 38:22). Some commentators associate the war foreseen here with the final prophecy of Zekharya (chapter 14) that is read as the haftara for the first day of Sukkot, and which similarly tells of an alliance of nations that will descend upon Jerusalem and ultimately suffer a crushing defeat.

The connection between this war and the festival of Sukkot, as noted by Rav Menachem Bentzion Zaks (in Menachem Tziyon – Yerach Ha-eitanim), emerges from a passage in the Yalkut Shimoni (653). Commenting on the verse, "You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days" (Vayikra 23:42), the Yalkut states that the mitzva of sukka alludes to the sukka spoken of by the prophet Yeshayahu (4:6): "And there shall be a sukka for shade by day and for refuge and shelter from downpours and rain." The Yalkut explains that at some point in the future, nations will wage war against Am Yisrael in the Land of Israel, and the Almighty will fight on Am Yisrael's behalf while providing a protective "sukka" over them all throughout. Our observance of this mitzva thus relates to the supernatural protection God will provide during the battles and bloodshed that will precede the Messianic era, and for this reason, perhaps, we read the prophecies describing these wars as the haftarot on Sukkot.

Rav Zaks suggests an additional basis for this connection, as well. He cites the Radak (without providing a source) as suggesting that the names "Gog" and "Magog" are etymologically related to the Hebrew word gag, or "roof." A roof is a firm, sturdy, man-made structure that offers a person protection and a sense of security and comfort. The thematic symbolism of gag directly contrasts to that of a sukka, a makeshift, temporary structure that offers no protection from the elements. ... The empire of Magog, as depicted by Yechezkel, is characterized by an arrogant sense of self-sufficiency, and overconfidence in man's independent capabilities, achievements and prowess. It is a nation that believes it can achieve its goals through its own resources of talents and willpower, that it can survive and endure under the sturdy, robust "roof" it has built for itself.

The mitzva of sukka, of course, conveys the precise opposite message, as it brings to mind the period of wandering in the wilderness, when Benei Yisrael lived entirely under God's supernatural protection. The fragility and instability of the sukka remind us that our efforts and initiative, while certainly indispensable, are worthless without God's ongoing support and protection. Thus, the apocalyptic confrontation between Magog and Am Yisrael is, essentially, a reflection of the ever-present conflict between the notion of gag – human self-reliance – and that of the sukka – our sense of dependence on the Almighty – and this perhaps accounts for the connection between Sukkot and the battle of Gog U-magog.

May we see the ultimate fulfillment of all the prophecies for good! Have a wonderful, joyful holiday!!

11 September 2013

On Yom Kippur We Are Like the Angels


8 Tishrei 5774

Who doesn't already know that we fast on Yom Kippur - a very strict no water, no food fast of 25 hours duration. And we abstain from other bodily pleasures like bathing, applying lotions, engaging in marital relations. And we wear all white - no leather, no gold, no reminders of the golden calf.  Because on this very special day we are not men and women, but angels, with no physical concerns whatever.  The entire focus is on reclaiming our innate spiritual purity.

(Excerpted from Yom Kippur: Of Angels & Men by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene )

...what do the abstentions from our physical daily activities have to do with the pursuit of atonement for our sins? Indeed, how can the Jew hope to achieve forgiveness from G-d for his many sins on this awesome day? There is an important principle in Jewish thought that the contamination of sin comes from without. The essence of a Jew, his inner soul, remains pure and can never be tarnished. The soul is "a spark of the divine" placed within each Jew. In the morning prayer we say "O G-d, the neshamah, soul that you placed within me, is pure?" Sin is therefore an unwelcome intrusion. It is where the physical temptations of the body pull in the opposite direction to the spiritual urgings of the soul.
The literal translation of the word teshuvah, repentance is "returning to oneself". Where a person has deviated from the pathway of life by not observing the Torah laws, to achieve forgiveness, it is imperative that he "returns back on track". This means identifying himself with his soul and not associated himself with his body.
Sabbath, as the seventh day of the week, is where the physical world of creation "returns" to G-d its Creator, the Ultimate Source of everything (the word Shabbat rearranges to spell shov, return). Yom Kippur is a "Sabbath of absolute rest" where atonement for man's misdemeanors similarly demands returning to one's spiritual roots, in repentance and coming close to G-d.
The day's atonement and focus calls for man to rise above his bodily needs. He is prohibited from activities that involve his body or express his physicality such as eating and drinking, because, as explained by the Maharal, this is a day whose entire emphasis is on returning to his spiritual and pure essence. As such, Yom Kippur is when man metaphorically becomes an angel. (On this day, like the angels, we recite aloud the verse "Blessed is your Name, the glory of your Kingdom for eternity").
Identifying himself exclusively with his pure essence, means disassociation from sin.

Wishing you g'mar chatimah tovah, an easy fast and chag sameach! May all our sins be forgiven!!

03 September 2013

Welcome to the Coronation!


29 Elul 5773
Erev Rosh Hashanah

It seems to me that when we focus so much on "judgment" on Rosh Hashanah, we miss a major aspect of the Yom HaTeruah celebration - primarily the coronation of HKB"H as King of Kings.  By living in a world of democratic governments, we miss out on the nuts and bolts of malchut - of monarchy and kingship.  Without some understanding of that, it is very difficult to relate properly to this day.

Rabbi Yossef Carmel writes:
Much of the focus of the day of Rosh Hashana, both in terms of time and energy, is on tefilla. At the center of the tefillot is Musaf, and at the heart of Musaf there are three very unique berachot: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. What are the main themes of these three berachot and how do they find expression in the activities of the day?
Malchuyot is a vehicle to reconfirm the coronation of Hashem as King of the Universe, on this day that commemorates the beginning of the world’s existence. We invoke the concept of kingdom, the most grand and powerful position in human hierarchy, in order to try to capture something of the awe-inspiring nature of Hashem. Of course, the metaphor can take us only so far, as Hashem’s grandeur and omnipotence cannot be fully described in human terms or grasped by the human mind.
After reaching some type of picture of Hashem’s greatness, we are hit with the question: could Someone so great be interested by and involved in the lives of lowly humans? Through the p’sukim in Zichronot, we are reminded that Hashem was and will continue to be involved in the course of human history. He recalled and acted mercifully with Noach in the ark and with Bnei Yisrael in the depths of their servitude in Egypt and remembers for our benefit our belief in Him as we ventured out to the wilderness.
Other questions still linger on. He exists and leads us through history. But isn’t He too distanced to communicate with? To deal with this question, we are introduced to an ancient yet contemporary form of communication, the precursor l’havdil to the dots and dashes of Morse Code, which far surpasses even the codes of modern computers in its power. That is described in Shofarot. Hashem has used the shofar to communicate with us at Har Sinai and He has instructed us to use it communicate with Him. The sound of the shofar contains our emotions, in sounds that are more profound and versatile than words could ever be.
It is interesting that each of the three elements is the center of a different part of the day’s religious activities. Malchuyot is the center of our tefillot, taking over the main beracha of the day ("melech ...mekadesh ...v’yom hazikaron") and appearing prominently in many of our piyutim. Zichronot is highlighted in the Torah reading, where we read of Hashem’s remembering Sarah and the akeidat Yitzchak, two of the main themes of that beracha. Of course, Shofarot is carried out in the main, active Torah mitzva and the only motif of the day that the Torah mentions explicitly, the blowing of the shofar (Bamidbar 29:1). Thus, the three pillars of our spiritual existence, our tefilla ("service of the heart"), Torah study, and our performance of mitzvot, are all utilized to give proper expression to the concepts of the day.
Sometimes, we look at ourselves and see so much need for improvement and so little progress since the last accounting that we feel defeated before we ever get started. We feel too humbled and too ashamed to approach the Great King.  Teshuvah!  What does it even mean!? It feels so hard and so hopeless!

On this day of all days, I think we should begin simply by deciding where we stand in the kingdom of HKB"H.  Despite our shortcomings and failures, are we basically a loyal servant of the King or have we entered into rebellion against His kingship, actively working with those trying their best to topple Him from His throne, even though it's an impossibility!  

If we have joined the rebels, nothing can help us but to throw ourselves on the King's mercy and beg another chance to prove our loyalty and faithfulness.  Outright rebellion against royal authority is punishable by death, God forbid!

If we have remained loyal and faithful through the preceding year, we have nothing to worry about. The King desires all his good and faithful servants, but if we've done a poor job and become lax in our duties, this might bring a reprimand or encouragement to do a better job in the year ahead.  It all depends on our circumstances, with which our King is well familiar. 

You see, the month of Elul which is now nearly finished was for the purpose of approaching the King while He was in the field - to get to Him before the big day and to make a private arrangement with Him so that we will not be ashamed and unable to joyously celebrate this very auspicious day. But, if you have already waited to the last minute, it's not too late.  

Stop whatever you are doing right now and give HKB"H your complete and undivided attention and tell Him that you want more than anything in the world to be the best and most loyal servant in the kingdom and more than anything else, you'd really like another chance - another full year of life and health and parnassah to be able to do just that.  Meditate on the Greatness and Awesomeness of our Great King - the King of all Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He and just wait for Him to respond to you - He will!!

And you will take that with you into the New Year and you will celebrate the renewal of HKB"H's Kingship with ecstatic joy!

May this be for all Am Yisrael the realization of the final and complete redemption when Hashem will be acknowledged as King over the entire world by its entire population and every living thing will bow to Him alone.

L'shanah tovah!