Friday, September 21, 2007

The Avinu Malkenu Paradox (Yom Kippur 5768)

Since Rosh HaShanah, we have said the beautiful prayer Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King – numerous times. Painfully aware of our inadequacies, we approach God, our benevolent father and ruler, and beg Him to bless us in every possible material and spiritual way. Its first and last lines read:

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You….

Our Father, Our King, show us grace and answer us, for we have no [good] deeds. Perform acts of benevolence and kindness for us and save us.

The text is familiar, yet the opening phrase of each line expresses a surprising reality about our perception of God, touching on what is sometimes called the ‘immanence-transcendence paradox’. It is axiomatic that God is distinct from everything in creation, perfect and unbounded in every way – as the ruler of the universe, He transcends it. Yet we also perceive Him as our Father, concerned and intimately involved with the affairs of each of us, our constant support and rock. Struggling with this contradiction is a feature of any meaningful religious life.

In the Avinu Malkenu prayer, the paradox is simply stated: it is acknowledged in every line, but not resolved. When we stand before God we ask Him for life, health, success and redemption as though He were our father, yet simultaneously we recoil in awe, overwhelmed to stand in the presence of transcendent, wholly other-worldly, power. We sense that we may have to live with the paradox and not let it overly trouble us.

That is until the Ne’ilah, (closing) service of Yom Kippur. Just before finishing ten arduous days of prayer and introspection, we again say Avinu Malkenu, but append a short affirmation, said only on this occasion and by a person close to death. The key line of this declaration is borrowed from I Melakhim 18:39:

Adonay hu HaElohim.

Translated roughly into English, this equates to saying that God is God, which seems to be tautology. However, the original context of the verse offers some insight: it is the story of the prophet Elijah fighting the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. After a fierce religious contest, the outcome of which would determine the fate of the Jewish people, God answered Elijah’s prayers by consuming the entire altar upon which he had prepared an offering with fire. When the people experienced the sudden revelation of the true God:

they fell on their faces and said: Adonay is Elohim.

The name Adonay refers to God in His essence – the ruler of all, unbounded by time or space - whereas Elohim describes Him manifest in this world. There is often a huge dichotomy between our expectations of the perfect King and the harsh reality of the imperfect world in which we live, where suffering and inequity abound. We may find it impossible to accept that the source of all life and love is the same God who allows pain and apparent injustice to exist.

In the time of Elijah, the Jewish people had been attracted to Ba’al worship; like other ancient religious systems, it probably drove a wedge between heaven and earth - between two different and apparently irreconcilable perceptions of the Divine. It acknowledged that God may be in heaven, but claimed that the forces controlling life on earth are not in His control and must be worshipped separately. Yet when the fire of God consumed Elijah’s offering, the people realised, albeit momentarily, that there really is no distinction – Adonay is indeed Elohim. It may remain beyond our comprehension on all but the rarest of occasions, but it is true nonetheless: the God of perfection is the same God who inhabits and is manifest within our imperfect reality.

Declaring Adonay hu HaElohim at the end of Yom Kippur is the profoundest achievement of the entire religious year: the apotheosis of ten days of devotion. It is an incredible, unparalleled spiritual moment, in which we find ourselves able to shout out with complete conviction that Avinu – our Father – is Malkenu – our King.

The earth-shattering collapse of boundaries in our understanding of the Divine that characterises the end of Ne’ilah may only last for a few moments, but its impact must reverberate throughout the rest of the year. One of the remarkable gifts we can take from Yom Kippur is a heightened awareness that the imperfection that seems to pervade our world is not as it seems. A close friend pointed out to me that every experience, including those challenges that seem unfair, unjust or are unbearably painful, emanate from a perfect, all-knowing and all-loving God, who while He is not always evident to us, acts for our long-term good. He is, despite appearances to the contrary, simultaneously Adonay and Elohim. This provides us with a fresh lens though which to greet with fortitude everything that God has in store for us in the year ahead.

Based on a short address given each year by the author to his community at the end of Ne’ilah.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents.

A Special Day (Yom Kippur 5768)

The sources express considerable interest in the opening lines of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning:

God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before God and they died. God said to Moshe: speak to Aharon your brother that he should not come near at any time to the holy place from the house of the curtain, to before the cover that is upon the ark, so they should not die, since in a cloud I shall appear upon the cover. With this Aharon shall come to the holy place: with a cow of the herd as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering. (VaYikra 16:1-3)

This refers to the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies (the house of the curtain, etc.), the sole exception to which was the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, whose activities there occupy the rest of the reading. The introduction, mentioning the death of the sons of Aharon, is particularly poignant, as it seems that their unauthorised entry to the Holy of Holies was the cause of their demise. Thinking about the ramifications of the death of Aharon’s sons is considered of some importance:

It is mentioned in the Zohar that anyone who is distressed by the death of Aharon’s sons or even cries tears for them, all his sins are forgiven… The primary purpose of this is that some should set one’s heart to repent of any sins that one may have in hand, for if this happened to such great people, what of ordinary mortals? (Mishnah Berurah, Orech Chaim 621, paraphrased)

The exception, as we have mentioned, is the entry of the Kohen Gadol to perform the special expiation ceremonies on behalf of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur. The esoteric writers alight on the word ‘with these’ ((בזאת in the third verse of the Torah reading. They understand the word זאת to refer to a most unusual confluence of occurrences – only in those circumstances could even the Kohen Gadol enter the holy place. In accordance with the writings of the Maharal of Prague and later, the Chassidic writers, these confluence is know as ‘world’, ‘year’ and ‘soul’, more easily understood as ‘place’ ‘time’ and ‘special human being. Only when a special person (the Kohen Gadol) was in a certain place at the right time, would entry to the place be permitted.

The common factor is the lack of space and time. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year is imbued with a sense of timelessness – we transcend our normal needs and activities to devote a complete day to God. The Land of Israel, and especially Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were said to be able to hold as many people who visited there. The Mishnah notes that although thousands of people were crammed into the Temple courtyard, when they prostrated, there was unexpectedly room for everyone. Even more curiously, the ark, which rested in the Holy of Holies itself, apparently occupied no space itself (the room was larger than the ark). The Kohen Gadol was deemed to express the pinnacle of human spiritual development; this reached its zenith on Yom Kippur, when he was understood to be almost angelic. Only with זאת – on the holiest day of the year could the holiest man at the peak of his spiritual powers enter the holiest place on earth.

We may have no Temple and no Kohen, but we are capable of experiencing 25 hours of intense other-worldliness on Yom Kippur. Armed with a proper understanding of the majesty and potential of the day, we can transcend space and time for one day, touch the Divine and change ourselves and our world forever.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

At Least Remember The Rabbi's Joke (Rosh HaShanah 5768)

A childhood memory: I am walking home from Shul on Rosh HaShanah with my father. En route, fellow congregants are discussing two aspects of the recently-finished services: whether the rabbi’s joke was funny and how long his tekiah gedolah (final shofar-blast) had been. Years later, and now the likely subject of such pre-prandial chit-chat, I hope that I will feel inspired to preach on a topic that will disturb my congregants’ conversations well into lunch, perhaps even beyond their Yom Tov afternoon nap. Should I fail, I trust that they will at least remember my joke and that they will have cause to glance at their watches before my breath gives out!

Preceding Rosh HaShanah, the month of Elul, is traditionally dedicated to introspection, extra prayer and reviewing the past year’s achievements ahead of the season of Divine judgement. It is difficult for anyone with a busy schedule to manage this, but paradoxically, this period can find a pulpit rabbi torn between personal and communal responsibilities.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. During this period a rabbi (supported by his lay-team) must ensure that all of the practical details, such as timetabling and arranging officiants, are in place. He will need to rehearse relevant parts of the services, prepare news-sheets containing community information and inspirational ideas, assemble numerous special lectures and, of course, write those all-important sermons. As Yom Kippur and Sukkot approach, the number of halakhic questions that congregants ask increases, and before Yom Tov, senior rabbis will often find their counsel sought by a bevy of junior colleagues. This will have to be fitted around a rabbi’s regular teaching, as well as any pastoral, consultancy and writing commitments.

My ideal Elul would be a more private and personal one. It would consist of days scrutinising the texts of the Yamim Norayim (High-holy days) prayers, repairing relationships with those I have upset during the year, internalising the guides to self-improvement of Maimonides, Luzzato and Rav Kook, exercising more than usual, and getting some early nights. However, since it is simply impossible to completely accommodate both sets of demands, some aspects of personal development must be shelved in favour of communal responsibility.

But beyond the fact that there is insufficient time to achieve everything in the pre-Yom Tov period, there is a clash of paradigms that is seldom mentioned. It is often unclear what expectations occasional congregants have of their Yom Tov Shul visit, but it is likely that they differ considerably from those of their rabbi. Ask an Anglo-Jew, ‘Why participate in the three-times-a-year show?’ and the response will probably be, ‘it’s just something I’ve always done,’ or, ‘I’d feel guilty if I didn’t’. Ask the same question to that person’s rabbi and he will say something like, ‘it’s an unparalleled opportunity to reawaken one’s divine consciousness, repair one’s relationships with other people, and declare God sovereign over all creation.

This explains why a rabbi may conduct himself as though the first day of Rosh HaShanah (in most Anglo-Jewish Shuls, the noisiest of the year) is the ultimate moment of mystical union with God, while some of his congregants are catching up on a year’s news. This mismatch of expectations can inhabit every aspect of the Yamim Norayim experience, including the style and timing of the prayers, what constitutes appropriate conduct during services and, it must be said, the objective of the sermon. Some pulpit rabbis are fortunate to have a community of receptive, intelligent and knowledgeable people, eager to hear an inspirational Jewish message. Yet others may struggle to square the rich aspirations of their own ‘inner’ Yom Tov with the reality of their congregants’ expectations of light entertainment.

These unarticulated tensions can obviously lead to frustration, but also to something worse – a miserable rabbi who assumes that all the preparations have been pointless, even that the Yom Tov season was a failure. To avoid this, I try to focus on two things. First, despite what I have written, I endeavour to plan a sermon that will stir both me and my congregants, by concentrating on some universal aspect of the human condition, such as the challenges of faith or the importance of personal growth. Indeed, I would like to think that my most successful sermons to date were those that almost moved me to tears when I delivered them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I try to remember that it is a sublime privilege to be the religious leader of a community. For whatever reason, God has granted me the opportunity to carry hundreds of people with me on a spiritual journey at this time of the year: this fact alone allows all of us to share the same inspiration and makes the whole enterprise indubitably worthwhile.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A Sense Of The Majesty Of The King (Rosh HaShanah 5768)

God and God of our ancestors: rule over the entire world, all of it, in Your glory and be elevated over all the earth in You majesty. (Amidah, Rosh HaShanah)

It is well-know that the central them of the whole Rosh Hashanah prayer service is the sovereignty of God. Recognising God as ruler of all history and experience is described by the Talmud and commentators as the primary objective of the day. The shofar service may be seen in the same light as a coronation ceremony for God: sounding the trumpets to announce the arrival of the King.

The lines above introduce the final paragraph of the section of the Amidah dealing with this theme, and seem to contain a redundancy. Why the apparent repetition of ‘entire’ and ‘all‘? The commentators see in this a profound idea: the difference between quality and quantity in our perception of the Divine:

The intention of the apparently redundant repetition in ‘rule over the entire world, all of it’ actually refers to two aspects of the sovereignty of heaven: in quantity and quality. The phrase ‘rule over the whole world’ refers to quantity –the dominion of God should extend over the entire creation and be evident to all. The phrase ‘all of it, in Your glory’ refers to quality – the hope that the entire creation and every tiny part of it will be filled with the glory of God. Only that will be complete Divine rule. (Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, commentary to Amidah)

This is a neat answer to the textual problem – it is a prayer for God’s majesty to pervade everything and in every way. It seems quite theoretical, though, so the prayer continues by expressing the concept in more practical detail:

Everything created shall know that You created it, everything formed shall understand that You formed it, and everything with a breath in its mouth shall declare that the Lord God of Israel is King and His kingdom extends over everything.

The awareness of God’s sovereignty is to be translated into understanding of its consequences and eventually into a declaration of its reality. Again, Rabbi Friedlander:

It is insufficient for them to simply recognise God’s sovereignty…. Their recognition of the sovereignty of God must come to expression through the Jewish people who utilise the creation to perform His will.

This quite startling – the declaration that God is King both in quantity and quality is achieved through action. This is always the Jewish way – thought and theology are only a prelude to action: behaving in a way that expresses the concepts of Judaism. Real, meaningful religious life is to be expressed not merely by thought but by action, for only through action do we change ourselves and improve the world.

In this context, we should see the shofar (and the whole Rosh HaShanah experience) as a clarion not just to awareness, but to action. What we will be doing in the year ahead to make God’s reality more tangible? Will we be more engaged in social projects, religious development and communal activity? Will we see events in the news, especially those involving the Jewish people and Israel, as opportunities to see the Divine? If Rosh HaShanah can help us achieve these objectives even in small measure, it will have been two days well spent.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Not In Heaven (Nitzavim 5767)

For this Mitzvah is not [too] wondrous for you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven that one would say: who will ascend for us towards the heaven and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? Nor is it across the sea that one would say: who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us in order to tell it to us so that we should do it? For the matter is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to do it. (Devarim 30:12-14)

The simple understanding of this is that the Torah, once given is in the hands of Man. One need not ascend to the heavens to retrieve it, as it has already been placed in the human domain, nor must one cross the world to find it, as it is accessible to all.

Rashi offers an unexpected interpretation, based on the Talmud:

It is not in heaven –were it in heaven, you would have to ascend after it to learn it.

How could this be so? Perhaps Rashi means that God would give us the means to extract the Torah from heaven. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary, as the Torah has already made it into the human domain. One may extend this to the conceptual realm: no miraculous or supernatural means are required or indeed allowed, to determine Torah law.

This is exemplified by the famous story of the halachic status of the ‘oven of Achnay’ (a type of collapsible portable oven):

It was taught there: they divided it into sections and put sand between each section – Rebbi Eli’ezer purified and the sages impurified. This is the oven of ‘Achnay’. What is ‘Achnay?’ Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Sh’muel: they turned impurified it. (the rabbis disagreed as to whether this oven was subject to ritual impurity).

It was taught: on that day Rebbi Eli’ezer gave all the responses in the world, but they did not accept them from him. He said to them: if the halachah is like me, let that carob tree prove it. The carob uprooted itself from its place for 100 cubits and some say 400 cubits. They said: one may not bring proof from a carob tree. He returned to them and said: if the halachah is like me, let the water spring prove it. The water spring started to flow backwards. They said to him: one may not bring proof from a water spring. He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let the walls of the study hall prove it. The walls of the study hall began to cave in, as if to fall. Rebbi Yehoshua rebuked them by saying to them: while Torah scholars may try to beat each other in halachah, what have you to do with it? They didn’t fall, respecting Rebbi Yehoshua, nor did they stand upright, respecting Rebbi Eli’ezer and they are still standing, but leaning! He returned and said to them: if the halachah is like me, let it be proved from heaven. A heavenly voice emerged and said: what are you doing with Rebbi Eli’ezer, for the halachah is like him in every place! Rebbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: it is not in the heavens. What does ‘it is not in the heavens’ mean? Said Rebbi Yirmiyah: since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we don’t rely on heavenly voices, for it was already written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: incline after the majority. Rebbi Natan found Eliyahu and said to him: what is God doing just now? He said to him: he is laughing and saying – My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me! (Bava Metzia 59a-b)

The Seforno gives a completely different explanation. He assumes that the Torah tells us that we won’t need prophets to interpret the text for us, nor:

…sages who are distant to explain it for us. It is presented in a way that we can observe it even in exile…

The Torah can be understood by an ordinary person at any time in Jewish history – perhaps this is one of the miracles of Jewish survival.