THE JERUSALEM JEWISH VOICE
SHEMINI ATZERET-SIMCHAT TORAH
(This one day holiday, the 8th day of Cessation or Assembly or Gathering, occurs right after the seven days of Sukkot)
A DAY TO REMEMBER
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THIS STUDY IS DEDICATED BY OUR AMBASSADOR TO EVANSTON, ILLINOIS, ELI WOLF, IN TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY OF HIS BELOVED REBBE AND SPIRITUAL FATHER, HARAV BEN TZIYON CHAYIM SHLOMO MESHULAM ZUSIA TWERSKY, ZTZ"L. MAY GOD BLESS US ALL WITH SUCH GOOD TEACHERS, AND ALL GOOD TEACHERS WITH SUCH DEVOTED GOOD DISCIPLES.
A. IS SHEMENI ATZERET A SEPARATE HOLIDAY?
B. SIMCHAT TORAH.
C. THE TORAH READING, V'ZOS HABARACHA-- ITS BACKGROUND, & AN OVERVIEW.
D. A SYNOPSIS OF V'ZOS HABARACHA, WITH MANY CITES & INSIGHTS.
E. THE HAFTARA.
F. "'Tis the Season to be Chummy"
A. IS SHEMENI ATZERET A SEPARATE HOLIDAY?
All authentic or valid Jewish Generalities, characterizations, conclusions or "Philosophy" (whatever that word means-- see if philosophy majors can give you a sensible answer) must be reflected in specific details of halacha (Jewish Law; Rav J. Soloveichik-- see our Yom Kippur study, B.). So we must first examine the laws of both holidays, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, to determine their essence and interface. The Talmud (Sukkot 48a) concludes that Shemini Atzeret is indeed an independent holiday, for which we bless God for reaching a new season of joy (per Rav Nachman, vs. Rav Sheshet). But 5 laws distinguish Shemini Atzeret from Sukkot: 1) a separate lottery determines which priests officiate in the Temple that day. 2) a different set of public sacrifices are brought in the Temple that day (1 bull, 1 ram, as on Rosh Hashana). 3) there's no more dwelling in the sukka or taking the 4 species, nor any mention of Succot in the prayers, on Shmini Atzeret. 4) a different Psalm is sung by the Levites in the Temple on the 8th Day (Ps. 12-- A SONG FOR THE 8th). 5) the king delivers a special blessing to Israel on Shemini Atzeret.
But Rav Yehoshua expounds "7" & "8" in "Give a portion to 7, yea, even to 8" (Ecc. 11:2) as referring to the 7 days of Pesach and the 8 days of Sukkot (in Israel-- Eruvin 40b; Rav Eliezer says that "7" refers to the 7 days of Creation, "8" to those of circumcision). So Rav Yehoshua includes Shemini Atzeret in Sukkot, its 8th day, and no one questions his view-- so we must conclude that this holiday is indeed an independent unique entity, yet also fully part of its immediate past, emerging from the Sukkot Experience (cf. caterpillars turning into butterflies, and "independent" children and alleged agnostics and atheists, who suddenly cling to their parents and God during a crisis; there's no atheist in a foxhole-- Stephen Hawkins too?).
SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT?: As we're forced to conclude that Shmini Atzeret is a new entity, which also retains and reflects its origins, we'd expect to find this concept elsewhere in God's world-- in physical reality, Man's soul and Torah. If God makes stars, He also makes starfish, star fruit and snowflakes. "Body by Fisher", similar structures of all creation, tho of varied complexity, better characterizes our Universe than a set of unrelated random explosions of gas and accidental mutations of evolution-- a Cadillac is quite similar to a Chevy, not because it "evolves" from it, but only because they share a common designer, who creates simpler and more complex models.
Dr. Yaakov Schroeder, in a Root and Branch lecture, noted that the creative divisions in our 15 billion year Big Bang world history (matter, water, plant and animal life, etc.) correspond to those of the Biblical 7 days of creation; 7 days from a Divine perspective corresponds to 15 billion years from ours, per Einstein's Theory of Relativity; scientists long ago disproved Darwin's theory of gradual evolution, with 99.99999....% of his alleged links never found in the fossil record, and recorded evidence of the equivalent of a Big Bang in the evolution of life; but their Darwinian bias, their fear of a radical change in their paradigm, led to the suppression of these discoveries until as late as 1985-- they continued to teach that vertebrae "evolved" from non-vertebrae, long after knowing that all phyla burst into existence independently over a relatively short period in world history. So Andrew Sanders, in Dear Maimonides, shows how stubbornly the Rambam and many of his contmeporaries clung to scientific ideas for which they had no basis, while some of their less famous contemporaries got it right.
Likewise, many, especially Israeli, haredi Jews over-Jew it and perpetuate incorrect and pernicious non-traditional paradigms of their East European ancestors, e.g. the alleged innate evil of non-Jews, Zionism and worldly civilization, while secular Zionists, Yiddishists, and humanists stubbornly cling to the faithless faith of their fathers in the possibility of a Godless morality and Judaism, despite Hitler, Playboy and rampant intermarriage and assimilation. Their celebration of Red May Day is a rather sick joke. The dream of the early, often vulgar and assimilated, Yiddishists, was that Yiddish culture would replace Torah's role as the focus of Jewish Civilization; how many of their descendants are still Jewish, leave alone Yiddish speakers? Ironically, the most insular haredim are the only Jews still using Yiddish as their mama lashon, the vehicle of their cultural expression; nothing Jewish, including Jews, can long survive without a link to God's eternal Torah.
Almost as ridiculous was the vision of Mordecai Kaplan, who was instrumental in destroying the originally somewhat truly traditional JTS and Conservative Movement (one condition of RIETS in discussing a possible merger between JTS and REITS, many years ago, was that JTS sack Kaplan; the merger didn't come off and both institutional heads, Rav Bernard Revel and Cyrus Adler, served from 1915 until Revel's untimely death at 55)-- that Torah itself would survive as a voting, but not a vetoing, component of a secular Jewish civilization, rather than being the determinative authoritative word of God. His error is perpetuated by most of the non-Orthodox rabbinate and religious movements, as well as Israel's secular Zionist cultural leaders. His daughter married another rebellious scion of true Torah tradition, Ira Eisenstein, whose zaide, pants manufacturer Yehuda Dovid Eisenstein, who taught at Yeshiva's Teachers' College, edited, with Dr. Revel and others, the old great Otzrot series of Jewish encyclopedias, including Otzar Yisroel, praised by one of the very greatest, perhaps the greatest, rabbis of the 20th century, Chayim Hirschenson, of Jerusalem, Turkey and Hoboken, N.J., Tamar DeSola Pool's dad-- it's a must in every Jewish library. Unfortunately, modest Yehuda did not include an article about himself in his encyclopedia.
So, indeed, just as Shmini Atzeret emerges from Sukkot, without severing its roots, so transformation, rather than total obliteration or perpetuation, of origins indeed characterizes the universal biological patterns of life, death and rebirth, reflected in Sukkot, the prime agricultural festival-- earth becomes plants which die and feed and become mammals which decompose to earth... Indeed, "Nothing's (100%?) new UNDER the sun" (Ecc. 1:9-- all physical phenomena, unlike God, demonstrate cause and effect, development from that which already was). But Sukkot's optimistic joyful Ashkenazic Kohelet message is that ultimate existential human hope, breaking the cycle of life and death, only a dream in this world of photosynthesis, does exist, BEYOND the sun; we experience this transcendence on non-agricultural Shmini Atzeret, with no physical mitzvot. So Shabbat's a foretaste of the world to come (as are sunshine and sexual intercourse or defecation!), but only 1/60 of it-- Berachot 57b! So Torah's "a tree of life to those who grasp it"-- Prov. 3:18; but one must first imbibe the heights of this fleeting physical world on Sukkot to realize, conquer and sanctify its limitations; the sukka, which must provide more shade than sun, via its roof of dying vegetation, and the 4 plucked dying species help teach this lesson.
So all generations retain much of their predecessors' experience and conclusions, tho pretending to forge ahead in totally new directions. In our Haazinu study, we explored discovering God in history, understanding the "years of generation-to-generation (Deut. 32:7f)". Just as Schroeder, Aviezer, Domb, Sherman, etc. have successfully sought and found Him in Science, Torah-steeped Jewish historians. e.g. Josephus, De Rossi, Halevy, Yavetz, and Wein, etc. have done so in history.
WHO AM I? My independence and self-creation is so limited, so determined-- I'm so much a product of the era and environment into which I was born and raised w/o my consent (see our Yom Kippur study-- L.); death must come one day. I'm composed of countless physical and spiritual products of millions of people-- I'm made of the milk of farmers I've never met, from a page of Shakespeare, from the wheat of Dakota, from a lullaby hummed by my mother, from tea leaves of Ceylon. As I can't pick my past, so my future-- a butterfly in Singapore flutters his wings, eventually causing a storm in London; so my every word and deed has limitless effects upon others, good or bad, way beyond my ken. Yet Torah teaches me that I have choice and free will; I can be unique like God, if I connect myself to Him, via His Torah and my pure soul. Rambam teaches that certain traits are innate in each person from birth, corresponding to his physical constitution-- cf. Galen's doctrine of humors; she has a strong inclination toward others, and chooses some under environmental and internal influence (M.T. Daot 1:1-2; in his earlier 8 Chapters, Ch. 8, man's soul is presented as a clean slate).
Shmini Atzeret remains part of Sukkot. Is the butterfly still a caterpillar? Is there a bit of tadpole left in a frog? Is the child I once was really "me"? Tho I now reject so much of what he felt and thought, I retain his features, tho with new cells; his thoughts and feelings somehow generated mine and lurk and pulsate in my memory bank. His simple joy and wonder may be a deeper and truer response to a magnificent world, created by a loving God, than my adult sophistication. I may again be he, at some level of my being; old folks return to their youth; so converts, returnees and those who left Torah may return, at least partially, to their origins-- Resh Lakish questioned the superiority of his rabbinic collegues to his former fellow thieves (B.M. 84a). Pennfield found that we forget nothing-- our earliest memories return upon electrical brain stimulation in our old age; cf. Hillel's adage in Avot 2:4: "Don't be sure of yourself until the day of your death"-- but what am I supposed to do about it?*-- perhaps follow Hillel's preceding advice, to be part of the community, somewhat submerging your precarious individual identity into the eternal existential identity of Klal Yisroel, the community of Israel, spanniing all eras and all places; so we're especially urged to befriend converts, to make them part of our community, perhaps that their communal identity overcome their residual origins.
We must be patient and understanding with converts and returnees who may, at times, wistfully regard their past beliefs and life-style, while helping them to overcome them. One of the best ways of helping former Christians to overcome their longing for a sweet kind father figure is to become such a real, not mythical and imaginary, figure for them (Rav Chayim Lifshitz, who was interviewed with me and 19 other teachers, in Shalom Freedman's In The Service of God).
*Rav Shimon Green suggests that Hillel warns one to specially protect himself from potentially negative influences (YF: e.g. Wellhausen and Michael Jackson, Richard Rubenstein and Madonna, H.U. and H.U.C., Satmar and Yigal Amir) by avoiding them, or, if he cannot or should not do so (YF: maybe he'll influence them; but maybe it will be the opposite), by strengthening himself before the encounter.
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IS MY CHILD ME? AM I MY FATHER AND/OR MOTHER? is a closely related identity issue. The Torah stresses the separate identity of children, who aren't to die for parents' sins; yet sons carry on fathers' tribal roles, e.g. Levites, tho only mothers determine their Jewish essence. Every Jewish father teaches his sons God's Torah as he sees it, what he really believes, tho he may not practice it himself (Rav A. Henoch Leibowitz, one of my early major influences). Yet we must respect our children's own unique feelings, values and personalities for them to feel self-worth; the lack of this, the attempt of their otherwise kind and loving parents to mold them in their own image, was a common complaint of young substance abusers being aided by Nachas Ruach. A difficult, but necessary, task is to balance this with our strong and proper desire to have our children continue to observe and preserve our objectively valid Torah tradition; even the most liberal value-free secularist doesn't want his kid to become a drug addict or cult groupie or homosexual. Tho many children seem to be the very opposite of their parents, this may be a response and reaction to them, or development of repressed aspects of one or both of their parents' personalities (including their reaction to their own parents), or an amalgamation of opposing parental positions, e.g. Yaakov's synthesis of Yitzchak's disciplined g'vura (strength, inwardness) and Rivka's outreaching chesed (kindness, extroversion).
ON THE 8th DAY THERE SHALL BE AN "ATZERES" FOR YOU (Num. 29:35). ATZERES is usually translated "convocation", tho it might be translated "cessation" (from the busy mood of worldly involvement, which characterizes Sukkot, just before it); "FOR YOU" is stressed; after 7 days of pomp and circumstance-- the 4 species, sukka, and the 70 bulls, sacrificed for the 70 nations-- God and Israel just quietly enjoy each other's presence and vibrations ("groove" in teenglish), alone in deep quiet transcendent intimacy; only those closest to the bride and groom (and the loneliest) linger at a wedding after the food, drink and band are gone. Targum Yonason translates 29:35: ON THE 8TH DAY, YOU SHALL JOYFULLY GATHER (YOURSELVES) FROM YOUR SUKKOS INTO YOUR HOUSES. On Shemini Atzeret, man lives as a rooted being, a creature of depth, in his home; Sukkos expresses his other side-- an exploring restless universal wanderer, a creature of breadth, rooted only in God (the brief Sukka experience, a week a year, suggests either that this is man's minor theme, or that a brief reminder is enough to put males back on their primary exploring track-- women are exempt from Sukka; males must constantly remind themselves that God's not made them women; otherwise women must become men and everyone's unfulfilled**-- see Sexual Suicide, Gilder and Machisma, Lichtenstein, which portrays wandering women, some so detached from their own nature that they prefer wild adventure to nurturing motherhood-- unless you're terribly and uncontrolably masochistic, don't marry them).
We reflect on such paradoxes, during this harvest-Kohelet season of stocktaking, e.g. Man's greatness and his nothingness; we go from feast (Rosh Hashana and 9 Tishre, just before Yom Kippur) to fast (Tzom Gedalia, 3 Tishre and Yom Kippur) to feast (Sukkot). Idolatory is the sole stress on any aspect of God's creation, w/o the balance of its paradoxical opposite (Rav Y. Emden, Shalot Yavitz 2:15, and Rav J. B. Soloveichik).
Rav Soloveichik (Majesty and Humility, TRADITION, 17:2) sees a more basic paradox reflected in the souls of the settler and the explorer: cosmos-conscious man and origin-conscious man. "MAN YEARNS FOR GOD, BOTH IN HIS FEVERISH HASTE TO GET FARTHER AND FARTHER FROM HOME, AND IN HIS LONESOMENESS FOR HOME, EXPERIENCING THE SPELL THAT HOME CASTS UPON HIM. He seeks God in His infinity (His expansive creative personality) and in His contracting self-limitation, sharing His world, Tzimtzum" (Ex. Raba 34, a concept later developed by kabbalists). The Rav (ibid, The Community) correlates God's two states with those of every man-- his creative original side's rooted in the first tale of God's creation of Man-- LONELY & ALONE, THEREFORE FREE & UNLIMITED. His other side, stressed in Genesis' second saga of Man's beginnings, is SOCIAL MAN, WHO FORMS COMMUNITIES; he's SELF-LIMITING (m'tzamtzam), TO BE ABLE TO JOIN AND SHARE WITH OTHERS (those who aren't self-limiting, can't-- psychotherapy or Divine punishment are remedies; cf. Scrooge; see Getting The Love You Want, which explains how we inevitably attempt to "fix" our relationships with our primary caretakers in choosing spouses, and how to make it indeed work well-- cf. Women Who Love Too Much, Norwood). Jewish greatness sometimes is manifested in the community (cf. Clal, UJA), sometimes in the lonely defiant prophet who attacks communal status quo (cf. TOP, Leibowitz). So one must find oneself, not lose oneself, in the community of marriage. Rav M. Friedman stresses the need for each spouse's realms of privacy (unless they destroy marital intimacy thereby, e.g. by close friendships with the opposite sex, tho no physical contact occurs).
Kabbalistic Ramban (Lev. 23:40) labels esrog the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Adam sinned in taking it w/o the other 3 species. The esrog symbolizes perfection in both deed and spirit-- its both edible and fragrant. Ramban's message may be that the perfect person (tzadik) mustn't be completely separated from mundane mankind; he or she must be in their midst, to influence and inspire them. Moshe's to leave the kollel of kollels, Sinai, to go down and clean up the Golden Calf Disco. Yet he must keep a certain distance to retain his higher state; a religious leader shouldn't be aloof, nor just another guy. Sometimes he must be alone, charge up his spiritual batteries, develop his depth and integrity, rather than selling the whole world the Ultimate product-- THE ESROG ISN'T BOUND TO THE OTHER SPECIES, tho held together with them. Rav M. Feinstein suggests that one give maasar, 10-20% of his time, to influencing others, the rest to developing himself still higher. Kohelet, read at this period of seasonal changes, warns: THERE'S A TIME FOR EVERYTHING UNDER THE SUN. We leave our homes and disown them as the ultimate source of our security on Sukkos; a week later, we re-embrace them as a precious nourishing gift of God. We prepare to enter winter-- hibernation, surface death, with no Biblical celebrations. Our sins turned from red to white, our Yemenite esrogim from black-purple to green to yellow to brown decay, we settle down to preserve and perpetuate our new higher state. We also begin to pray for enough winter rain (a frequent metaphor for Torah) to carry us thru the year and sustain next summer's crops.
B. SIMCHAT (REJOICING OF THE) TORAH is a post-gaonic name for Shemeni Atzeret, 22 Tishre; it can occur M, Tu, Th, or Shabbat in Israel; its "2nd day", 23 Tishre, can be S, Tu, W, or F, in the painful exiles of Syria, Golders Green, Yemen, Great Neck, etc. This day we "finish" the Torah, reading Deut. 33-4, Zos HaB'racha; but the Torah's last letter is treated as a point on a circle (or Simchat Torah Hora), not the end of the line-- we immediately read after it Genesis 1:1 (Sh. Aruch 668:2); there's no real beginning and end to the Torah, the timeless blueprint and basis of Creation. As God's Will recreates Creation every instant, so He activates another leader, Joshua, years in the making, upon Moshe's departure. True, A GENERATION (or TENANT upon God's earth) GOES-- but remember, A GENERATION (or TENANT) COMES (in its place to continue humanity's task), AND EARTH REMAINS AT A STANDSTILL FOREVER (not moving or progressing, unlike humanity; Ecc. 1:4-- cf. Zech. 2:7, TT #228, and our Haazinu sheet). So we can read "The secret things are for God, our Lord, and the revealed matters are for us AND FOR OUR CHILDREN (cf. Deut. 11:21) forever, to perform all the words of this Torah" (Deut. 29:28) as teaching us that "the secret things", our unconscious weaknesses and sins, per Psalms 19:13 and the Yom Kippur liturgy, are gradually revealed thru the multi-generational study of psychology and mysticism.
But we do mourn the loss of relatives, friends, and leaders-- part of us dies with them. True, one's function in the journey toward God, from Adam to Meshiach, has ended; others now carry on the task. Yet her particular unique Divine Image isn't to be forgotten; no two humans are the same. So halacha recognizes distinctions of class and quality amidst the unity of all mankind-- the 4 Sukkos species represent different levels of human development in spirit and deed.
This widespread custom, reading Genesis as a climax or sequel to Dvarim, goes back to the 14th century (it's not in Meg. 31a). If we didn't start Genesis right away, Satan would claim that Jews celebrated finishing the Torah, no longer having to read it! (Tur O.H. 669-- cf. many bar mitzvahs and farewell parties for friends and relatives). The Torah parade and calling up all the children to read (OH 669) the Torah on Shemini Atzeret bear similar messages of joyful continuation. Indeed, to survive after the Holocaust of the Crusades, Jews had to stress their continued faith; they had to carry on, despite their emotional shock and tragic sorrow, in response to all going on about them-- perhaps this survivor mentality continued long after the cruel Christian Crusades, until the Besht; he successfully restored joy and inspiration to sad Ashkenazic Jewry, by grafting onto it the ambiance and traditions of the less persecuted Sephardic community.
So much of our saddest poetry in Selichos and Kinos, as well as the huge Ashkenazic increase in public mourning, stems from the Crusades. Today, in an age of Jewish prosperity and expansion, we may need the opposite-- to express the joy of life via Torah-- to keep Jews and Judaism alive. Rav Shlomo Carlebach is the father of modern post-Holocaust mid-Messianic Jewish Joy music (per Rav J. Soloveichik). A mood of joyous optimism, a sense of messianic dawn, replaces the mourning of so many generations, who could only numbly proclaim their faith, during the long dark nights of history. Perhaps Genesis comes immediately after Deuteronomy to remind the Jews entering the Holy Land that their task there is to bring the world back to Eden; Jewish uniqueness is to bring universal redemption, not just another ethnocentric nationalism-- don't over-Jew it!
C. V'ZOS HABARACHA-- ITS BACKGROUND, AND AN OVERVIEW
After Haazinu, his epic song of warning, correction and prediction, Moshe closes both his last day of life and the Torah with poetic blessings to Israel and its tribes. Moshe's blessings are similar to Yaakov's deathbed blessings to his 12 sons; Moshe, however, is healthy, tho 120 (see 31:2, 34:7; maybe Yaakov, who died at 147, was also in much better shape when only 120!). Unlike Yaakov, he doesn't criticize Israel here, perhaps because he's already done so thruout Dvarim. The Torah now closes with Moshe's panoramic tour of Israel, death and burial.
D. A SYNOPSIS OF V'ZOS HABARACHA
AND THIS (Zos) IS THE BLESSING WITH WHICH MOSHE, MAN OF THE LORD, BLESSED THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, JUST BEFORE HIS DEATH (33:1). The word AND connects this portion with the end of last week's; there God tells Moshe that the Jews are now fit to enter Israel, so he may give them his blessing-- AND Moshe now does so (Baal Haturim). AND may connect the blessing to God's preceding decision-- that Moshe must die for failure to inspire the Jews; nevertheless, his only desire is to bless them; thus only here is Moshe called "MAN OF THE LORD"-- only such a divine personality could then bless them and mean it (Rav Sorotzkin)! AND may hint that Moshe's blessing is a continuation of Yaakov's, which ends with AND THIS (Zos) IS WHAT THEIR FATHER SPOKE TO THEM... (Gen. 49:28). Moshe here begins with the same words. So Yaakov began his blessing-- AND YAAKOV CALLED HIS SONS... (Gen. 49:1), with that term with which his father ended his blessing-- AND YITZCHAK CALLED YAAKOV AND BLESSED HIM (Gen. 28:1). Yitzchak started his blessing with SO GOD GIVE YOU... (Gen. 27:28) as Avraham had so finished his-- AND AVRAHAM GAVE ALL HE HAD TO YITZCHAK. (Gen. 25:5; Gen. Raba 11:1).
This Midrashic Message is that each great Jewish leader only adds a link to the great chain of world redemption, stretching from Avraham to Messiah; he builds upon foundations of those who came before (see A. above), passing on when his contribution is done. Men of lesser vision may fully achieve much more limited tasks (R. Avraham Cohen, SABBATH SERMONS). One mustn't neglect his share in great goals, tho he can't achieve them in his own lifetime (cf. Herzl, Rav Kook; see our Haazinu study). The rabbis had to implant such important messages in their folk, especially in difficult moments in history. They had to somehow link them to their weekly discourse on the Torah, their Midrash-- Shabbat was the only time when all the people assembled. Thus the idea conveyed is far more important than the plausability of the particular verse-link (asmachta) chosen-- thus we don't argue with their expositions (ein mashevim al hadrush).
"MAN OF THE LORD" is the tribute to 18 men, including the prophets and Eliyahu (Sifre, 342); the term implies that one close enough to God can affect the course of nature by his prayer (LORD, elokim, in Hebrew = 86 = Nature-- Hateva; this is the only name of God used in Kohelet and pre-human creation). Moshe's blessings create reality. Yet, even he's never called "the man of GOD", only "servant of God" (Josh. 1:1), which gives him the power to be a "man of the Lord"; no man reaches the infinite essence and unity denoted by the name "GOD" (only women are created "kirtzono", like God's own essence or personality, "His Will"-- see the morning blessings). Per Rashi, Moshe blessed Israel now, as this was the last chance to do so; this implies that Moshe was first concerned with straightening Israel out, only later with blessing and comforting them (the former may be a sine qua non for the latter; cf. Yaakov's "blessings", and Jewish ethical wills).
Before commencing his blessing, Moshe speaks of God's Revelations at Sinai, Seir, and Paran, with part of His holy entourage: "at His right hand was a law of fire for them" (33:2). Per Ramban, this introduction is to praise God and condition all blessings upon God's dwelling in Israel, and upon Israel accepting the Torah (is Oslo a result of cheap Israeli TV and discos?). We too praise God before our requests to Him. The introduction also praises Israel, justifying their blessings; they accepted the Torah when it was rejected by other descendants of Avraham, who couldn't take its restrictions. Esau of Seir, father of Rome, the Crusades, and the Holocaust, wouldn't foresake violent aggression; Yishmael of Paran, father of harems and the tourist-pinching shuk, was too addicted to sex as a snack-- some say that theft was his obsession. All other nations were also offered the Torah; when they'll ask for another chance in the Messianic age, God will offer them the commandment of Sukkah and laugh when they despise it on a boiling hot day! (Talmud A.Z. 2b; it's hard to be a Jew). (AT HIS RIGHT HAND WAS) "DAAT LAMO","A LAW FOR THEM" (33:2); these two words contain the letters TALMUD, the unique Jewish oral tradition from Sinai. So God proclaims: "By the MOUTH of these words (the oral tradition), I've made a covenant with you and Israel" (Exodus 34:27; per Rav Yehuda ben Nachmani, the oral and written Torahs are to be kept distinct; Rav Yochanan claims that the greater part of Torah is found in the oral law, tho Rav Eliezer claims that it is in the written-- but probably only if you read it very carefully!-- see Gittin 60a-b, Yer. Peah 2:4).
THOUGH HE EXHIBITS LOVE FOR NATIONS, ALL HIS HOLY FOLK ARE IN YOUR HANDS, THEY WERE SMITTEN AT YOUR FEET, ACCEPTING YOUR LAWS (33:3). Both Rashi (in his first comment) and Ramban say "nations" refers to the Jewish people, each tribe a "nation". Moshe praises the Jews for accepting Torah; he stresses tribal uniqueness, a common Torah theme; this was ignored by secular Zionism (B.G. & Co.)-- it wiped out communal religious traditions of immigrant communities; this, together with the shock of the modern age, may have led to their turning away from the ways of their fathers, toward low western values, leading to drugs, prostitution, etc. (cf. similar responses of "Our Gang"-- Murder Inc., etc.-- in the 20's). Rashi's second explanation is that the Jews kept perfect faith, even when it appeared that God had transferred his love to other nations and gave them power over the Jews. Prof. Y. Leibowitz Z"l concludes: Faith's an internal process, independent of external events. During Exodus, God openly displayed His choice of the Jews and they rebelled; during the holocausts of the Crusades and Inquisition, it appeared that God had changed His mind about the Jews-- the Church reigned supreme over a thousand years, destroying all in its wake; yet, just then, Jews clove to Torah and let themselves die, rather than be baptized. The Jewish response was: "MOSHE COMMANDED US THE TORAH, AN INHERITANCE OF THE CONGREGATION (not "the children") OF YAAKOV" (33:4)-- Torah will never disappear from Yaakov's seed and those who join them, via conversion (Ramban). Per Rashi, the Jews proclaim that they've taken the Torah and will never abandon it.
AND THERE WAS A KING IN YESHRUN, WHEN THE HEADS OF THE PEOPLE GATHERED TOGETHER, THE TRIBES OF ISRAEL UNITED (33.5). God is Israel's King only when they're peacefully united (Sifre). Tribal uniqueness must not lead to national disunity; yet each tribe and individual has his particular mission in the national task-- to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). This may explain Rashi's view: Moshe spoke ABOUT each tribe, not TO it, as he blessed them-- each tribal blessing was a blessing to all the Jews; each tribe needed all the others to perform their national mission-- cf. instruments in a symphony and colors in a painting. The "Gathering of Israel" is linked to their acceptance of the Torah (Ramban); its Jewry's unique unifying factor, uniting Yehudah and Yosef, Yeki and Yemenite, Dudu and Mary Lou. This is one of 3 explicit verses in the Torah re God's kingship (as Exodus 15:18, Numbers 23:21); in Rosh Hashana's Musaf prayer, we add Shma Yisroel (Deut. 6:4), as the 4th verse proclaiming God's kingship. Jewish unity and commitment downstairs, on earth, somehow similarly affects supernatural forces upstairs, in God's heavenly kingdom (Ramban, a Kabbalist-- some of them seem to divide God into parts (e.g. The 10 Sfirot), then try to get Him back together; but Rabbi-philosophers, e.g. Rambam, never divide His unknowable abstract Unity, and never relate it to this physical world-- see The Faith of Maimonides, Y. Leibowitz).
Moshe then begins his blessings, actually facing and addressing each tribe as he blesses it (Ramban, vs. Rashi). He opens with that of Reuven, Yaakov's first born, the first tribe to acquire territory in Transjordan. Moshe prays that he live, not die, that his men "be numbered". On a simple level, this is a prayer that his troops, committed to lead the other Jews in war, return safely, w/o loss; the extra words-- "and not die"-- suggest that Moshe's concern is beyond this limited life, when all die anyway, sooner or later; Moshe was afraid of Yaakov's deathbed reproof of Reuven, for ignoring his father's honor, re Bilhah-- Reuven may lose eternal life and not be "numbered" as a separate tribe in Israel; so Shimon's tribe was merged into that of Yehudah (Rashi vs. Ramban, who says Shimon's omission was only technical). Nevertheless, Reuven's tribal double portion as firstborn is transferred to Yosef, now two tribes; yet Reuven's still numbered first in the census, a firstborn right: "for number one's the unit from which all numbers originate" (Ramban; Ibn Ezra: Every number exists, in potential, in 1; 1 exists, in reality, in every number-- cf. GOD IS ONE). These commentaries imply that acts of individuals affect, consciously or unconsciously, their descendants for many generations-- cf. genetics (see A. above, Ramban on Ex. 20:5, Genesis 38:8; cf. doctrines of transmigration of souls, denied by Saadya, Albo, etc., and the Yom Kippur liturgic tale, not historically true, of the 10 saintly martyrs, who die simultaneously for Yosef's brothers' sin).
Yehudah, first to fight for his portion of Israel, receives a similar blessing-- may his troops return safely. He's the great military leader of the Jews, who conquers more than his share; he needs no human aid, only Divine blessing (Ramban). Levi's praised for not joining Refidim's wilderness rebellion; the Levites retained faith that God would provide water-- their leaders, Moshe and Aharon, surely had similar faith when they struck the rock; they were punished only for failing to transmit their faith to the other Jews. Thus Aharon's descendants will be priests, with the Divine Urim and Tumin (Ramban). This also reminds other Levites to recognize the unique role of the Kohanim-- Korach ignored this. Their blessing is to teach Torah to Israel and that the Cohanim shall prosper, despite their dangerous service of Divine Encounter, via incense and sacrifices.
Rashi and Onkelos deem the Levites specially suited to teach Torah; perhaps only they should receive money for teaching and learning Torah; Ramban and Shulchan Aruch prohibit this for other Jews, who must make their living in secular pursuits (see Rambam's grand exposition of Avot 4:7: "Do not make the Torah a spade to dig with"); perhaps Levites too could not charge for teaching Torah, when the Temple stood-- then they received agricultural and pastoral dues, supplemented by their own limited crops and animals, in the green belts surrounding their cities. They fought God's enemies, idolators, including their own grandparents and grandchildren; so Moshe blesses them that God aid their efforts and incapacitate their enemies (i.e. those who contest the high priesthood and the Greek-Syrian enemies of the Levite Hasmoneans-- Rashi).
After blessing the firstborn son's tribe, Reuven, and those of Yehudah (including Shimon) and Levi, the royal and priestly leaders, Moshe goes on to Benyamin, in whose territory the Temple would be built; he's blessed in that God will hover over him "all day long"-- this implies that the Temple, where Man can sense God's imminent presence, will never be moved elsewhere (it's not the Vatican, Mecca or Salt Lake City); the Temple's "between his shoulders", below the head-- so it's site was the second highest spot, Har Moriah, rather than En Etam (Yoma 31a; yet Ezek. 40,45, and 48 imply that the third Temple will be 45 mil from Jerusalem, one of them moving from its previous site-- see Artscroll's A-1 Ezekial by Rav Eisenman). Thus NECK's a metaphor for the Temple, which connects body and head, heaven and earth. Yosef weeps on Benyamin's NECKS, for his 2 Temples, to be destroyed (Gen. 45:14) and Benyamin on the NECK of Yosef for the temporary sanctuary at Shilo, in Yosefland. The 3 phrases in 33:12 refer to God's relation to the 3 Temples in Benyaminland; so Yitzchak's 3 wells in Gen. 26:19-22 teaches that all (Arabs too) will accept our forthcoming Rehovot Temple, the successful "neck-link" in our developing Messianic era (Ramban).
Yosef's blessed with BOTH great abundance of produce, natural wealth, AND THE WILL OR PERSONALITY (Ratzon) OF HE WHO DWELLS IN THE BUSH (33:16). Chatam Sofer explains the symbol of the bush-- a life of simplicity is needed to get really close to God amidst the fire (Torah of fire) of the burning bush; the crown of Torah (ON THE HEAD OF YOSEF) only comes through limiting (not excluding) worldly pleasure (Avot 6:6); an exception is made for Yosef, WHO'S SEPARATED FROM HIS BROTHERS (ibid.). He can have both Torah and wealth; perhaps he who's suffered degradation and poverty won't be turned from Torah by wealth and pleasure, as Rav Yonaton says: "EVERYONE WHO FULFILLS TORAH IN DIRE STRAITS WILL EVENTUALLY FULFILL IT IN WEALTH". But if wealth turns his head, then: "ALL WHO IGNORE TORAH IN WEALTH WILL EVENTUALLY IGNORE IT IN POVERTY" (Avot 4:11).
**Ratzon, God's will, personality, or satisfaction, is the natural state of woman, if not messed up by Western masculine education; she BLESSES God daily for making her LIKE HIS RATZON-- naturally Divine and spiritual; the male thanks God for not making him so naturally close to God's will (WHO'S NOT MADE ME A WOMAN)-- so that he, image of the Lord of Nature (Abarbanel applies this lower, less infinite, aspect of God only to males), has the great challenge of conquering both himself and the world as his leit-motif; her leit-motif, as God's, is love and nurturing. Each sex also has a SUBMOTIF of the opposite sex, reflected by physical vestiges of the opposite sexual characteristics; it too must be developed, but shouldn't become the leit-motif, engendering disharmony between body and soul, between man and woman-- see Grace Lichtenstein's Machisma.
Both strength and beauty of majesty, symbolized by the ox and the wild-ox, are Joseph's, coming to fruition in his holy conqueror, Yehoshua. Zevulun and Yisachar, the 5th and 6th sons of Leah are blessed next-- each is to rejoice in his natural role, bringing blessing to the other (cf. Avot 2,1: "Which is the right way that a man choose?-- One GLORIOUS to both him and humanity"-- not just proper or respectable. Zevulun rejoices in his worldwide commerce and shipping and Yisachar in his farming and Torah study; combining Torah and "the way of the earth" produces the ideal balanced man; but marketing the produce, the world of commodity futures, sullies the pure soul so acquired; so Zevulun successfully markets Yissachar's bit of produce abroad, as a favor; he brings his business connections from all over the world to Yisachar's holy farm (a religious kibbutz hotel with a Torah Program?) and to the Temple, where they get turned on to Torah and the Jews (S. R. Hirsch who, as Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, believed that Torah scholars should work and support their families, while their wives build the home Sanctuary-- see Ashet Chayil in Hirsch's Siddur; Rashbam too claims that Yisachar worked).
Finally, the tribes of the concubines, Gad, Dan, Naftali and Asher, are given their unique blessings. Gad bravely settles Transjordan; he believes the area is somehow blessed by Moshe's unknown gravesite. Dan's also a great border guardian, who expands his territory in different directions. Naftali has all one needs, around the Sea of Galille; he fishes. Asher struck it rich with (olive) oil, yet had wonderful children; his daughters were prime marriage material (Rashi; not JAPs or JIPs?). Israel together is then blessed as a unique nation of God.
Moshe, in full strength, sees Israel and dies-- no one else will be so great a prophet in Israel. God keeps reminding him that he must die and can't enter Israel. Chana Henkin wonders why He keeps rubbing it in! She posits that Moshe's sin made him miserable, as one who's hurt his best friend. God sets his mind at ease, by stressing that he's NOW being punished for it, leaving him a clean slate for the world to come. He dies "by the word of God", a Divine kiss, with complete atonement. God buries him in an unknown gravesite. THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL (ALL is not stated) CRIED OVER MOSHE IN THE PLAINS OF MOAV 30 DAYS (34:8). Israel mourns Moshe less than they mourn less judgmental, more empathetic, Aharon-- ALL THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL CRIED OVER HIM 30 DAYS (Num. 20:29); yet Moshe may be better for them, e.g. re the Golden Calf. Some say that HOUSE refers to Israel's family units, who benefitted from Aharon's marital counseling! Midrash Raba Deut. 11 describes Moshe as much greater than heaven and earth, to whom he gives orders, even greater than celestial beings; he far surpasses Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Other midrashim stress the superiority of the patriarchs, who had more faith than Moshe, tho God didn't reveal Himself so openly to them. Perhaps this was only at the beginning of Moshe's career, when he rejected his great mission with so much self-doubt. Also pioneers may be much greater people than their far more successful descendants, by virtue of their initiative and sacrifice, tho they accomplish far less. The son of a penniless semi-literate immigrant turns his successful store into a small chain, his son makes it a franchise, and his grandson takes it public!
The Midrash continues with dramatic encounters between the Angel of Death and Moshe, who refuses to be taken away. No "good" angel, Michael or Gabriel, is willing to take Moshe, only Sammael, chief of all accusing angels. Moshe, superior to angels, successfully defies him; he only agrees to go upstairs when God himself descends to take him, accompanied by Michael, Gabriel, and Zagzagel (an interesting name for your next kid?), who perform the last rites. Moshe's soul (a distinct part of him-- cf. concepts such as ego and superego) doesn't want to leave his pure body, in which there never has been an offensive smell; its a far higher abode than the highest heaven under the Throne of Glory, where angels dwell (cf. "Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, O' why, can't I?"); God finally removed Moshe's soul with a Divine kiss. This Midrash teaches that the body itself, the physical world, can be transformed into the holiest entity by one who really works on himself. Still all life leads to death, which leads to higher life. Eternal life must be preceded by temporal death (see A. above). ANYONE WHO TAKES ALL TALES OF THE RABBIS LITERALLY IS A FOOL-- ANYONE WHO SAYS THEY CAN'T BE LITERAL IS A HERETIC! (attributed to the Kotzker). The Midrash concludes: THE MEMORY OF THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL BE FOR A BLESSING (Prov. 10:7), and his soul for the life of the world to come. Amen. May this be His will. Blessed be God forever. Amen and amen.
CHAZAK, CHAZAK, V'NISCHAZAK-- As we finish another Torah cycle, may it gradually make us stronger and stronger until we, as Moshe, become sources of Torah strength to ourselves and others.
MAFTIR is Num. 29:35-30:1, commanding the festival sacrifices, symbols of man's active and passive states-- active bulls and rams, passive sheep and lambs, and rambunctious goats (Hirsch).
E. THE HAFTARA, Joshua 1 (read on Simchat Torah in the Diaspora) completes the Torah's tale of Israel's conquest-- Yosef now assumes leadership, via Yehoshua of Efrayim. Had Israel not sinned, Joshua would have completed the Bible with the tale of Israel's conquest (Ned. 22b). The Biblical path forks off in 3 directions after Dvarim-- 1) historically, on to Joshua, continuing Israel's saga. 2) Israel's not yet completed its task, the aim of Torah and Jewish History, reviewed in Dvarim-- to understand and Re-Create Creation in Israel; so we go back to Genesis, which sets forth man's challenge and task in Creation-- to develop his potential Divine Image; when he fails, immersed in pleasure and power trips, God chooses the Patriarchs and their descendants as models to help Everyman return to himself and God-- tho Leibowitz points out that thye're not yet very good models!. 3) to the first Mishna in Berachot, beginning the Talmud, the ever-deepening oral law process, begun by Moshe in Dvarim-- Deuteronomy's traditionally called Mishna-Torah, where Moshe our teacher combines written and oral law, Mishneh and Torah, as he reviews the Torah, universal history and Israel's mission (Rav J. Soloveichik, based on Ramban).
THE DIASPORA HAFTORA, on Shemini Atzeret, is I K. 8-- Solomon's grand prayer that Jewish integrity match his just completed magnificent temple, which is to affect all mankind, not just Jews. After 14 days of sacrifices and rejoicing, Solomon took leave of everyone on Shemeni Atzeret; they left the next day. These 14 days must thus include Yom Kippur; some talmudic sources state that the great holy joy of the Temple overrode even Yom Kippur, not celebrated that year. Others say they interrupted its rejoicing for Yom Kippur.
Events such as the San Francisco earthquake make us aware of how far we've drifted from our original harmony with nature; the message of both the Flood and the destruction of S'dom is that nature becomes perverse and ugly when humans pervert their own higher nature. May San Francisco rebuild itself in tune with true human nature-- families and babies; perversion is just that, not an "alternative life style".
F. "'Tis the Season to be Chummy"
Every significant human experience, from birth to death, acquires deep Jewish meaning in 3 ways: 1) Intensive study of all relevant Torah and human wisdom. 2) Thoughtfully and ardently reciting the appropriate conscious-raising blessings, e.g. upon experiencing great and/or unusual folks and natural phenomena. 3) By focused performance of mitzvos, religious commandments, associated with the experience.
Sometimes we find no links to, or expressions of, a particular human experience in Judaism; but it usually turns out that we're simply unaware of the relevant realm, or of the relevance of a realm, already known to us, to that experience. Here are 2 examples, arising from our long far-flung exile--
1) The Jewish response to the awesome springtime rebirth of nature is a beautiful annual blessing, often done in public, over blossoming fruit trees, in Nissan; but both the knowledge and the practice of this blessing were lost long ago by most Ashkenazic Jews, who lived in cold climes, where no fruit trees bloomed by Nissan; while they naturally appreciated the glorious arrival of their own late spring, they thus, unlike Sephardic Jews, did not experience its deeper religious meaning; the public blessing was recently revived for Ashkenazic Jewry by the Bostoner Rebbe and others (see my article in Pesach 1995's JP religious supplement, Bakehilla).
2) Sleep is a primal human experience. One of its clear-cut halachic expressions is the most important part of "dwelling" in the Sukka, incumbant upon every Jewish male, optional for every Jewish female-- sleeping, even napping, only in the Sukka, unless it's quite uncomfortable to do so. But Ashkenazim lost this mitzva too, in physically and spiritually cold Europe; but many even not-so-observant Sefardim, who remained in the Middle East, strictly observed it-- see my article in the 1996 JP Sukkot Magazine.
OPEN HOUSE or A PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE
Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah are the holiday season during which social relationships, a very beautiful, valuable and important part of life, come to the fore; other Biblical holidays are primarily celebrated within one's own family circle, while hosting a few outsiders, or in the synagogue. But sukkot is the time for getting together in mass public celebrations, such as "simchat beit hashoeva", an ancient Jerusalem rejoicing upon drawing the water for the Sukkot Temple libations; at "hakhel", after each Biblical shmita cycle, when the entire nation gathered in Jerusalem on Sukkot, the king read them God's Torah; both ancient institutions are commemorated today by large joyful public gatherings, while we pray for their speedy restoration in our nascent Messianic era. Of course, as Pesach and Shavuot, Sukkot is one of the 3 pilgrimage festivals, when all male adult Jews are required to come to the Temple in Jerusalem, often accompanied by their families.
Sukkot, the season to be especially jolly (ach somaach), is also the time for visiting old friends, whom we may not have seen for some time, in their sukkot-- much more so than Passover or any other holiday. It is also the only holiday when Israel is to host representatives from every other nation, and offer sacrifices in their behalf in our Holy Temple. So today, thousands of Christians from all over the world, organized by The Christian Embassy, come up to Israel at Sukkot Time, to celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people in our messianic state of Israel. Finally, Jews fill the streets and shuls on Simchat Torah, dancing together in celebration of God's great gift to Israel, His Torah, Man's factory authorized instruction manual. The holiday season culminates, for those fortunate to be "In Jerusalem", with the huge public second hakafot in Liberty Bell Park, when folks of every sort-- Israelis and tourists, Jews and non-Jews-- sing and dance in harmony.
The mitzva applicable when we encounter others, even complete strangers, visiting our holy city, is obvious-- hosting them, bringing them into our homes, shuls and sukkot; this is also the only correct approach to those who drive on Rehov Bar Ilan on Shabbat-- invite them for kiddush and kugel! But we'd also expect some blessing to raise our consciousness of the value and spirituality latent in our interpersonal relationships, especially with those who are near and dear to us. Indeed, "Rav Joshua ben Levi said: 'One who sees his friend after 30 days says: Blessed be He Who's kept us in life, and has preserved us, and has enabled us to reach this season (the shehecheyanu blessing); if it's after 12 months, he says (instead, or in addition): Blessed be He who revives the dead! (Talmud Berachot 58b)'"; the preceding Mishna, composed by Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi, mentions making the shehecheyanu blessing only over a new house and utensils; Rav Joshua ben Levi, a first generation Amora, then expands it to a far greater peak experience-- encountering another friendly Divine Image soul!. "Rav said: One who died is not forgotten from the heart until after 12 months, for it is said: 'I am forgotten, as a dead man, from the heart; I'm like a broken vessel' (Ps. 32:13; clay vessels usually last a year, and lost property can only be claimed within a year, whereafter the owner is assumed to have abandoned hope of recovering it, and the finder may take possession of it-- Talmud Baba Metzia 28a)".
No one disputes Rav Joshua's statement. Rambam, about 1000 years later, simply repeats it in his Code, Mishna Torah, Berachot, 10:2, after the exemplars of shehecheyanu of the Mishna: "So one who sees his friend after 30 days blesses "shehecheyanu", AND, if he saw him after a year, blesses: 'Blessed are you God, Who revives the dead'. He who sees a fruit which renews itself from year to year, upon his first sighting of it (tho he doesn't eat it) blesses shehecheyanu"; Rambam later adds the recital of shehecheyanu upon receiving abundant rainfall, and upon one's becoming the sole heir of his father. While another medieval source, Tosafot Ri, Berachot 58b, limits the blessing to very close friends, whom you're really delighted to see (perhaps not if they're in bad shape), the talmud has no such limitation; it's unlikely that once again meeting a beautiful human soul, with whom you're friendly, should be less significant than a piece of fruit, upon which one makes the blessing, even if its not such a prize-winning peach. But Shulchan Orach, Orach Chayim 225, accepts the Ri's caveat; he opens his laws of Shehecheyanu with the blessing on meeting the returning friend.
Others limit the blessing to cases where you haven't heard from your friend in any manner during the period of absence (see Mishna Berura 225:2)-- this is also an unlikely limitation, as the talmud doesn't mention it; true, they had no telephones and videos back in the bad old days, but they did write letters and convey greetings from place to place; Karo himself indeed stresses the experiential limitations of correspondence, when he rules (O.H. 225) that seeing a penpal whom you've never met, no matter how much you like her, does not justify the above blessings; true love needs more than letters; seeing a person face-to-face is usually a far more satisfying experience than just corresponding with (or phoning?) them (so rules Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Piskei Siddur, 12:11, and Rav Yechiel Epstein, in Aruch Hashulchan, 225). So R. Yehuda Hanasi claimed that he learned Torah better than his collegues, as he could at least see his master Reb Meir's back from his classroom vantage point, whereas they didn't see him at all; had he seen his face, he would have been even sharper! (Talmud Eruvin 13b, based on Isaiah 30:20: "... and your teacher shall no longer be concealed from you, and your eyes shall see your teacher").
The Artscrolls Siddur, usually very thorough, omits this occasion, and those of the Mishna, getting a new house or significant utensils, for reciting shehecheyanu; yet they're found in the Talmud, Mishna Torah and Shulchan Aruch; the S.A. lists the Mishna's occasions separately (Shulchan Aruch 223:4), for they do not always generate the shehecheyanu blessing; for example, if others also benefit from them, the blessing "Hatov V'Hamativ" is said instead. Artscrolls lists only 4 applications of the blessing: Upon (a) eating seasonal fruits of a new season the first time; (b) purchasing a new garment of significant value to the wearer (e.g. a new suit or dress); (c) performance of a seasonal mitzva; or d) deriving significant benefit from an event.
One Jerusalem rabbi, who prefers to remain anonymous, is concerned that revival of the blessing may lead to its insincere utterance-- we may not really care about him/her, the object of our blessing, especially given the relatively large number of people to whom it might apply in our contemporary daily life, and our desire to flatter, rather than offend, our friends and relatives. But the blessing need not be audible to the recipient; also the very act of making it may bring us closer to him/her; in any event, the talmud did not raise this problem, just as real then as now, in legislating the blessing.
Rav Yeshayahu Hadari, who leads dancing and singing Yeshivat Hakotel students to the Wall on Shabbat, told me a tale about the Vilna Gaon, who promptly made the appropriate blessing when he encountered his sister, whom he hadn't seen for some time; he then told her that he was too busy studying Torah to really talk to her, but that he'd make up for it in the next world, where they'd have a nice long chat!! So I heard that the Gaon got so engrossed in praying and talking Torah with his son-in-law, when the Gaon visited the latter's town after many years, that he had to continue on his way and just sent regards to his daughter, unaware that she'd passed away. He also urged men deeply involved in Torah scholarship not to worry about their family's livelihood. But Rabbanit Naomi Hadari fears that such tales of great Torah scholars' lives are dangerous, for behavior which is indeed appropriate at their very high level of saintliness, appreciated by those close to them, is most inappropriate for those nowhere near their level, who try to copy it. So Miriam and Aharon are criticized for criticizing Moshe's appropriate celibacy-- tho they're prophets too, they're on a lower level, where celibacy is inappropriate.
It's likely, however, that the orphaned joyful Baal Shem Tov, who saw true holiness in simple ignorant folk too, would have responded quite differently to these situations, and that he would probably have seen the nice long chat with a long lost sister as a inspiring fulfillment of, not an obstacle to, his learning; his spirit, and that of these blessings, is sustained today by Shlomo Carlebach's memory and chevra, where all rejoice in each other's soul essence. Ashkenazic abandonment of the above truly pleasant, positive and life affirming Jewish traditions may be symptomatic of spiritual malaise, a natural result of their constant torture and persecution, from the Crusades, inspired by the Church, to Hitler, inspired by Luther. The Besht turned to the traditions of the more upbeat and vital Sephardim, including kabala, song and dance, as a legitimate way to revitalize moribund Ashkenazic Jewry, steeped in mourning for so many centuries.
I hope that we all have had, and still will have, many occasions to make these blessings during this holiday season, and that we incorporate them into our religious routine. But we must not use the blessings as a substitute for a real renewed relationship with our friends-- who knows if and when, we'll indeed ever meet again. The blessings help us appreciate the unique beautiful experience of encountering each of our friends again, and to keenly sense what we lack in their absence; getting used to making these blessings also reminds us of how little time we have for each precious relationship in our brief sojourn on this earth, between eternities.
Mazal Tov to Joshua and Tali Wander and their families upon their marriage; may their new home in Israel be as beautiful as their Jerusalem wedding.
Mazal Tov to Chaim Dovid, Penny and Reva Saracik, David and Rita Star and Dora Gurkavitz upon the Bar Mitzva at the kotel of Elisha Nachman Saracik. May he add his own unique contribution to his family's Reb Shlomo Chassidic tradition.
The illustrations with Hebrew and Yiddish texts are from the introduction to Otzar Yisroel.
Melev's new crisis hotline for english speakers, a project initiated by Dr. Joshua Ritchie, with his family and friends, is (02) 6541111; from 11/2/97, it will be a toll free 1-800 number
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