Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh Hashana speech: 5751

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7)

"...and I am called wise... but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, 'He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing'." (Socrates in Plato's Apology)

There are few stories in Tanach as striking as Akeidat Yitzchak. And there are few more troubling. It tends not to sit well with modern sensibilities, but I would assume that the image of a father holding a knife above his son’s bound body, ready to strike, would chill the blood of a reader in any place or time. It is a central story in our tradition and liturgy. Althought often skipped or rushed through, it is part of the daily service. But it is really accented on Rosh Hashana, where the story featured as the Torah reading, referred to in the mussaf, and alluded to by the ram’s horn shofar. Why is that? What makes this piece of text so central to Rosh Hashana in particular?

I don’t know.

But the answer may lie in exactly the aspects of the story that make us, 21st century modern Orthodox Jews, so uncomfortable. Sure, there’s the violence, but we’ve grown pretty comfortable with its appearance in various media. I think that what really rankles is Avraham’s submission of his logic, ethics, judgement and emotion to the Divine will. This may have sounded less troubling in the Middle Ages, and that is precisely the sticking point. The transition from the Midevil to the modern is defined by the progress that came from the move from religious/magical thinking to humanist/rational thinking. There is no question that civilization has progressed because of this paradigm shift. In fact the very idea of civilization’s inevitable progress, (exemplified, for instance, in the assumption that our grandchildren will have easier lives than we will) is a direct result of this change.

So Avraham’s behavior is disquieting to us. We have a strong culturally formed intuition that tells us to trust our own judgement over the rules of religion. But of course, this too is folly. Every time that we do this, and trust ourselves over Torah, we are pitting our own wisdom against God’s. along with thre thousand years of the accumulated wisdom of our sages. Fundamentalist religious thinking that eschews moral and rational thought leads to disaster. But the 20th century was replete with man made disasters that destroyed millions of lives. Rational, bright, well intentioned decision makers is three successive American administrations waged the war in Vietnam, which perpetrated horrors on the indigenous population, and cost us dearly in blood and treasure. Modern, rational thinkers brought horrific damage to their own country, and accomplished nothing. The damge was so great, because modern science and technology allowed destruction on a scale that would have been unimaginable three hundred years earlier. And this is, of course, but one example.

It is hubris to believe that we can fix the world without relying on received wisdom. Judaism characteristically demands a balance. There is no simple formula to resolve every percieved conflict. But presumably. Avraham found that balance. Note that he responds to both God and Yitzchak with the submissive, “Hineini - I am here”. This indicates that he has not absolved himself of paternal devotion, but has weighed it on the scales with his role as servant to his Creator. The same man who go into an ethical argument with God Himself over His plan for Sdom, submitted completely when given a direct command. The word mitzva does not mean “good deed”, it means commandment. Of course, Avraham chooses to follow the Deity whom he calls the “Judge of all the earth”, and trusts Him to choose good. Once the brit is entered, the terms are to be kept unequivocally, and commands are to be followed. 

Establishing this firmly in our minds is key to the process that we begin on Rosh Hashana. It is often observed that while we have begun the Ten Days of Repentance, there is little mention of that topic in the liturgy. What role does Rosh Hashana play in this process?

Firstly, I would argue that teshuva itself is a means, not an end. The goal of this season is to bring ourselves as close to God as we can, achieving a deep union by Neila of Yom Kippur. In the time of the Temple, we would send our representative into the King’s inner sanctom sanctorum on that day, a deeply intimate religious act. The Ten Days of Repentance are needed to bring us to the point where such an event is possible. How can we stand before our Creator, filled with sin as we are, without at lest acknowledging our wrongdoing and resolving to improve?

Rosh Hashana is the beginning of this process, because it establishes the terms of the relationship. The Torah simply refers to it as a day of trua, but int the time of Ezra and Nechemia it clearly became the time to publicly establish the terms of our relationship with God, in order to create the context for teshuva. (in order to grow close to God) The sages crafted to liturgy of the mussaf service in order to make that context foremost in our minds. The three themes of malchiot, zichronot and shofrot are meant to do just that. Each of these sections begins with explicationm of the theme, followed by illustrative verses and sealed with a shofar blast. The sages divided the different meanings of the shofar sound over these themes.

Malchiot establishes God as King, and humanity as his subjects. As Jews, we are priveleged to attend the annual coronation, and the shofar here represents the celebratory horns at this event. Zichronot deals with God as the Judge who remembers all deeds, as well as the terms of the covenant that He has with us. At this point the shofar is the alarm and reminder that we are entering the season of judgement and will be found wanting if we fail to redress our behavior. Lastly, Shofarot deals with God as the Revealer of truth, Whose word is wisdom and law at the same time. At this point, the shofar functions as the echo of the revelation at Har Sinai, where the senses of Bnei Yisrael where overwhelmed when reality itself was pierced by the presence of the Most Holy.

The Akeida represents all of these awesome themes in one small story. The terms of our relationship with God as King, Judge, Revealer and even Partner in a covenant are all expressed in this one chapter. The reward for this act of Avraham is stated explicitly. 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.'

This is precisely the decree we ask for on Rosh Hashana. A powerful Jewish nation, free from the threat of enemies, becoming the kind of beacon to the nations that Avraham was to his neighbors. This is the result of the successful process of teshuva, when accomplished by us as individuals, families, communities and nation. At this juncture between the reading of the Akeida, and the beginning of mussaf, let us focus and work to create true Hagshama, an actualization of the values that are expressed by Rosh hashana and the ten days of repentance. 

Ktiva vechatima tova.

P.S. Obviously, the spoken version of this was different, i.e. more questions at the beginning, more colloquial language, etc.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rav Kook's The Lights of Teshuva

Dara and I are giving a shiur this Shabbat. The topic is Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook on Teshuva. I'm handling the latter. This is the text of my handout. I used Ben Zion Bokser's translation as a guide, but I made my own changes and choices. 

To me, Rav Kook's thoughts are meaningful and powerful, especially at this time of year. I don't know how I could get through life without him.

Orot HaTeshuva
Chapter One:
We encounter the phenomenon of teshuva on three levels: 1) natural teshuva, 2) faith teshuva and 3) rational teshuva... 
Rational teshuva comes after [the previous two] have taken place. It represents the peak expression of teshuva... inspired not only by a natural malaise, physical or spiritual, or by the influence of religious tradition. (whether induced by fear of retribution or conditioned acceptance of some law or precept) Rather, it comes from a comprehensive outlook on life and the world... This teshuva, in which the previous are included, abounds in endless delight. It transforms past sins into spiritual assets. From every error it derives noble lessons, and from every fall it derives the inspiration for the climb to splendid heights. This is the type of teshuva to which all aspire, which must and will come.

Chapter Two:
In terms of time, teshuva is divided into two parts: sudden teshuva and gradual teshuva.
Sudden teshuva comes from a certain spiritual thunderbolt that enters the soul. At once the person senses all the evil and ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being...
There is also a gradual for of teshuva... he feels that he must mend his way of life, his will, his patterns of thought. On this path he gradually acquires the ways of equity, corrects his morals, improves his actions...
The highest teshuva comes from a flash of illumination of the general good, the Divine Good which casts its light on all worlds, the light of eternity. The Universal Soul is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it. Isn't the All so good and noble, and the good and noble within us and expression of what connects us to the All? How then can we allow ourselves to be severed from the All, a strange crumb, detached like worthless dust?

Chapter Three:
There is teshuva aimed at a particular sin or many sins...
The person faces his sin, and feels remorse for falling into its trap... How anguished was the soul when burdened by sin, with its dark, vulgar and terribly oppressive weight upon her! How depressed she was, even it outer riches and honors fell fell to her!... And how she is now in the inner feeling that her sin has been forgiven, that the nearness of God is alive and shining within her, that her inner burden has been made lighter...

The other kind of teshuva is unspecified and general. No past sin or sins occur to him, but he feels generally depressed, pervaded by sin, that the Divine light does not shine on him, that there is nothing noble in him, that his heart is unfeeling, that his moral behavior does not follow the right course worthy of sustaining a meaningful life and a pure soul, that his state of education is crude...

Chapter Four:
3. General teshuva, which involves raising the world to perfection, and private teshuva, which applies to the personal life of every individual... all constitute one essence. Similarly, all cultural reforms through which the world rises from decadence, the improvements of social and economic order in every form of wrongdoing, from the most significant to the most minute... all constitute one inseprable whole.

Chapter Five:
6. Were it not for the thought of teshuva, its peace and security, a person would be unable to find rest, and spiritual life would not be able to evolve in the world. Man's moral instinct demands perfect good and justice. But how distance is the actualization of moral perfection, how weak he is to conform his behavior to the purity of the ideal, complete justice? How can he strive for that which is impossible to achieve? Therefore teshuva is natural to man, and perfects him. Although man is always prone to stumble and deviate from justice and morality, this does not damage his perfection, (wholeness?) since the essential foundation of his perfection is the constant striving and desire for perfection. This desire is the basis of teshuva, which always influences his path and perfects him.

Excerpts: (from the website – )

1) Why do we fall? Because we do not realize how easy teshuva is.
Orot Hateshuvah 14:4a

2) If you want to become completely righteous, you will find it hard to even repent.

But always desire to repent. Immerse yourself in the idea. Yearn to see the manifestation of teshuva in action. Then your teshuva will lift you to the level of a completely righteous person-and even higher.
Orot Hateshuvah, 14:36

3) A person who is constantly pained because of his sins and the sins of the world must always pardon and forgive himself and the entire world.

And in this he draws forgiveness and lovingkindness onto all of existence, and he gives joy to God and joy to people.

First he must pardon himself. And then he draws a general pardon onto everything, starting with that which is closest to him: the extensions of his roots from the aspect of his soul, his family, his friends, his nation, his generation, his world, and all worlds.

And in this he is a "foundation of the world" on the highest level, on the level of the Holy Tongue. And "a soft tongue can break the bone"-the bone of a donkey, "a bone that is evil on the outside"-so that all of the hidden good is revealed in everything.

And then he attains to the blessing of Abraham, whose likeness appears in every generation.
Arpelei Tohar, p. 54

4) Teshuvah derives from the aspiration of all existence to be more refined, stronger, and better than it is. Hidden in this desire is a life force that would overcome the limited dimension of being and its weaknesses. And the particular teshuvah of an individual, and all the more so of the community, draws its strength from this fount of life, which continually exercises its strength in never-ending action.
Orot Hateshuvah

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Now why can't all debates on the Middle East go this well?

Michael Naftali Unterberg Is there a logical counter argument?
Will a fight over the theology of Zionism derail Mideast peace?

    • Aaron Berger If there was an Arab leader who actually wanted peace, this would be a worthwhile discussion for us to have amongst ourselves.
      Monday at 2:23pm · ·
    • Ariella Unterberg Gabbay i could think of a few....
      Tuesday at 1:33am · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg I don't think this op-ed had anything to do with peace making. I doubt that will happen any time the neasr future. It has to do with a choice we have to make for the near future of our state. Do we want to be a democracy or an apartheid state?
      Tuesday at 1:22pm · ·
    • Aaron Berger
      ‎'Will a fight over the theology of Zionism derail Mideast peace?' had nothing to do with peace making?
      And while on the topic of Arab leaders who want peace, what about Abbas' lukewarm condemnation of the barbaric murder of 4 Jews?
      As much I would love for there to be peace, we are as far from it as ever.See More
      Yesterday at 7:15am · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg And yet, the essential question remains. Or to make it more simple, do we want Abbas and his people living in or out of Israel? Sharon's approach (which this op-ed was about, one sentence notwithstanding) was not about achieving peace. It was about securing Jewish democracy in Israel. I have yet to hear a better plan.
      Yesterday at 9:46am · ·
    • Aaron Berger
      Unfortunately, that is not the essential question. The essential question is 'will the Arab/Muslim world accept a Jewish state in their midst?'. Answer: not yet. These discussions over how to treat the Arabs in our midst; how to reconcile t...he right of Jews to live in Judea/Samaria with the desire to make peace; etc., are all interesting discussions for us to have amongst ourselves around the Shabbat table; on seminar; in sleepaway camp. It's theoretical.
      Not that anyone asked me, but for a true peace (and I don't mean what exists between Israel and Egypt or Israel and Jordan), I'd be willing to divide Jerusalem.
      Four innocent Jews were slaughtered on Tuesday by Arab savages, a short while after Abbas (the 'moderate' 'peace-maker') made a speech where he condemned Jews living in Judea/Samaria as illegitimate.

      The Jew hating NY Times is raising the issue now to preempt the failure of the current talks and be able to pin the blame on the Jews.
      See More
      Yesterday at 10:12am · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg
      Couldn't agree more with your assessment of peace prospects.

      Not at all sure why you refuse to engage my point and keep dismissing it as irrelevant. You can answer it, or not, but please don't repeat evidence for the poor prospect of peace ...with people who won't recognize our right to exist. We agree completely. Take peace off the table. Let's assume that everybody from the NYTimes to the post office is out to get us. This is an identity question for a future Jewish State.
      I will restate it.

      We rule over another ethnic group that does not want us. We have few choices, and certainly no good ones. We can:
      1) enfranchise them and give them citizenship
      2) continue to rule them without giving them rights and citizenship
      3) withdraw from their territory and leave their fate in their own hands, creating a terror state on our border (like we did with Gaza)

      (I am leaving genocide and war crime beyond the pale of discussion)

      Can Zionism, a movement of National liberation, which desires to be a Jewish democracy, survive if it chooses option one or two? If not then we are only left with the horrendous option three.

      I see no other options, and am forced to agree with Sharon. Unilateral disengagement will not lead to peace in our time. But it just may be the only way to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish democracy in the future.

      That is what I was discussing. Your points are valid and well taken. (well, I disagree about the Times motives) But you are changing the subject I was interested in by saying it is not a good or relevant question. I disagree and think that it is existentially relevant to Israel's future.

      I suppose we may have to leave it at that.
      See More
      Yesterday at 10:36am · ·
    • Aaron Berger
      The choices you give are all bad- i'll take # 2, though, with a caveat. From what I read, it seems the economy (for the Palestinians) is doing well- people have jobs, and more people than ever see a future. So why mess with it? Let them con...tinue to prosper and hopefully a leader will emerge that wants to make peace with Israel.
      But don't prop up the Holocaust-denying Abbas as some moderate who is willing to make peace. He isn't; he can't.
      I object to the Times raising this subject- as if they really care about the future of the Zionist enterprise. It's kind of like Glenn Beck's memorial to Reverend Martin Luther King.
      And if this current round of talks fail (which I hope it won't, but am very convinced will), we'll hear the usual nonsense about 'extremists on both sides'- the Arab savages murder 4 innocent Jews, and the 'extremist' Jews who decide to build a kindergarten in Neve Daniel or renovate a bathroom in Talmon.
      See More
      Yesterday at 11:38am · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg
      The choices are all bad, and they are the only choices.

      Option 2? That makes Israel an apartheid state that exists by ruling over people who don't want its rule and denies them rights and citizenship. I guess where we disagree is that I am ...unwilling to accept that for ourselves.

      I think that you are treating the NYTimes as a one person uni-mind, when it is more complex. But I don't really feel like arguing about that.

      But I ultimately don't care what people say about Israel. And I ultimately can't be concerned with the Palestinians getting their act together and forming a healthy, civilized culture. I think my goal has to be protecting Israel's future. From a security perspective, I would rather have an enemy living outside narrower borders than living inside expansive borders. But that was not the point of the op-ed.

      Again, where we disagree is that I think option 3 (surrendering our land) does less damage than option 2. (compromising our principles and values)

      I think this is something that intelligent people can disagree about.
      See More
      Yesterday at 11:49am · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg I enjoyed this back and forth, by the way. Would you be ok with me posting it on my blog?
      Yesterday at 11:59am · ·
    • Aaron Berger
      Thanks for the compliment, but we're not done yet. I don't like my choice all that much, but as for yours, what happens the day after? When the Arab/Muslim extremists are more emboldened than ever? When Hamas takes over the West Bank Palest...inian areas and now rockets start flying in to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?
      When all the progress that has been made in the average West Bank Arab's life comes to a screeching halt because of the inevitable conflict with Israel?
      At least now, progress is being made. Why mess with it?
      See More
      Yesterday at 12:04pm · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg
      We send out leaflets that say that any city block from which a rocket has been fired will be wiped off the face of the earth within 24 hours, and then do it. Israel is very good, B"H at deterring attacks from states across her borders, less... good at stopping murderers from within like yesterday. I think it will lead to a more secure Israel.

      Am I sorry that option 3 will cause suffering for west bank Palestinians. I realize that some of their economic progress will be demolished. Hopefully they will either prevent this or repair it. But they are not our people, and it is not ours to control or decide.

      Perhaps, like an addict, hitting rock bottom will be the only way for them to make true progress beyond malls and mail service. But ultimately, I am more concerned with our choices than their's. They may not use their self determination well, but its their's to use as they see fit.

      And then we get to live in a Jewish democracy. We are the only western style democracy on earth that rules over hundreds of thousands of people without giving them rights & citizenship. That's not a good way to go forward, and the demographics only makes the future of the status quo less tenable. I think that the status quo with Gaza is better for Israel than the west bank status quo, with the caveat that any missile attack must get a prompt and devastating response.
      See More
      Yesterday at 12:22pm · ·
    • Aaron Berger
      Oh, come on- this is exactly what we said when the Gaza disengagement was being proposed. And did Israel annihilate Gaza city? No. Because we just can't do it. And now Israel can barely hold together an embargo on Gaza; Gilad Shalit remains... in captivity, and Israel faces global condemnation for any action it takes.
      So you can absolutely forget about your leaflets.

      They will most definitely NOT hit rock bottom in this scenario. Hamas will take over, funded by Iran, and we will see the Gaza scenario played out, just on a larger scale, with more of Israel's territory at risk.

      Feel free to post this on your blog- I'm honored.
      See More
      23 hours ago · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg
      Actually, we did destroy Gaza city. I think it is criminal that we waited seven years and did it in one fell swoop. If we had stichted in time, and done it block by block, we would never have had to have that level of full scale invasion.

      T...hat being said, it has been a reletively quiet border since then due to deterence. Again, we disagree about Gaza. I think the current situation is better than having them in Israel and allowing in suicide bombers. See More
      3 hours ago · ·
    • Aaron Berger It's interesting how two relatively sane individuals can look at the same situation and come up with two opposite conclusions.
      Shana Tovah to you & your family!
      9 minutes ago · ·
    • Michael Naftali Unterberg Umayne!
      a few seconds ago · ·