Monday, May 21, 2007

Second Place Win!

Thanks for your support!!!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

JIB Finals Conclude Today

Remember, today is the last day to vote in the JIBs!

Please take a few moments to vote for this blog for "Best Torah Blog 2007."

Every single vote counts!!!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Zeved Habat - Baby Naming Prayer

Please read the latest post on my Ask Rabbi Maroof Blog, in which I briefly explain why I am dissatisfied with the traditional text used for newborn girls' baby naming ceremonies.

You can also download the PDF version of an original baby naming prayer I composed over two years ago when my daughter, Zehara Yehudit, was born.

(Also note the thoughtful constructive criticism there from my friend David G.)

Racism Against Sephardic Jews

That is the topic Rabbi Maryles considers in one of his most recent posts.

Hazaq U'varuch to him for taking a strong and principled stand on what is unfortunately a very sensitive issue.

(The comments are worthwhile perusing as well.)

Shavuot and Shemini Atseret - Two of A Kind (II)

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In the previous post, we identified five noteworthy characteristics that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret have in common. What is the reason for their strong resemblance?

The Ramban, in his commentary to Leviticus 23:36, offers a cryptic explanation for the holiday of Shemini Atseret:

According to the way of truth: For in six days did Hashem create the Heavens and the Earth; the seventh day is Shabbat and has no partner, and the Congregation of Israel is its partner, as it is written "and the Earth"; and behold, she is eighth. "It is an Atseret", for there everything is stopped (Heb. netsar hakol). And He commanded regarding the Festival of Matsot seven days with holiness before and after them, for they are totally holy with Hashem in their midst, and count from it forty nine days, seven weeks like the days of the world, and sanctify the eighth day like the eighth day of Sukkot - the counted days in between are like the Intermediate Days of the festival between the first and eight days of Sukkot - and that is the day of the giving of the Torah on which He showed them His great fire and they heard His voice from the fire. Therefore, the Rabbis always call Shavuot "Atseret", because it is like the eighth day of Sukkot which the Torah calls "Atseret"...

This statement of the Ramban is quite mysterious, but I believe we can still derive a tremendous insight from it. The key distinction he introduces is between the number seven - which, as he points out, is a reference to the seven days of creation in Genesis - and the number eight, which he understands as a symbolic reference to the Congregation of Israel.

Although he is deliberately obscure, it seems that the Ramban is therefore suggesting that the holidays that fall on "eighth" days - i.e., Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, which follow the seven-day holidays - are associated with the metaphysical identity of the Jewish people, whereas the seven-day holidays themselves are linked to the material world.

This simple observation has the potential to account for several of the unique properties of Shemini Atseret and Shavuot that we mentioned in the last post. But let us begin by considering the implications of this theory for the seven-day holidays that precede them.

Both Pesah and Sukkot relate primarily to our physical lives. On Pesah, we consume a new form of bread, and on Sukkot we eat and sleep in a new 'home' environment. Both holidays address our bodily existence and elevate our awareness of Hashem through the introduction of special mitsvot that "interfere" with our normal, physiologically-based routines. It is not unreasonable to say, then, that both Passover and Sukkot are holidays rooted in the "seven days of creation"; that is, they address us insofar as we are biological creatures, parts of the broader framework of the natural world.

By contrast, Shavuot and Shemini Atseret are related to the "Congregation of Israel" - our metaphysical, spiritual identity as human beings that distinguishes us from the rest of the created order and allows us to rise above it. The ultimate manifestation of this uniquely human capacity is the experience of revelation whereby we become cognizant of God's infinite wisdom. The product of that Divine encounter is the Torah, which is the focal point of both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. Put simply, these holidays are related to the spiritual rather than the physical dimension of our existence.

This is the concept of the Jewish people being the "partner" of Shabbat. The universe displays Divine Wisdom with breathtaking elegance. However, absent a group of people who are dedicated to observing and reflecting upon that wisdom, it would never become fully actualized; it would remain, as it were, undiscovered. The Jewish people literally 'complete' the Universe by contemplating the beauty of its design every Shabbat.

Thus, we see that the Torah institutes two seven-day holidays, each of which is followed by a one-day "Atseret". The seven day holidays heighten our awareness of God by implementing changes in the physical aspects of our lifestyle - what or where we eat, etc. For these adjustments to really have an impact, they must be extended over an entire week's time. Sitting in a Sukkah or abstaining from leavened products for only one day would not make a significant difference in a person's life. Internalizing the message of these holidays is a gradual process; it takes a while for our minds to absorb the implications of what our bodies are doing.

However, the ultimate goal of all of these concrete behaviors is to prepare us for the apprehension of Hashem's truth with our highest faculties - our minds. When we reach this final stage, embodied in Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, we celebrate the actual achievement of a new intellectual plateau - either the experience of revelation at Sinai or the completion of our annual course of Torah study - rather than focusing on the gradual process of reaching that plateau. Consequently, these holidays are observed for a single day only, just like Shabbat. It goes without saying that no physical rituals are associated with these days because their theme is, by definition, metaphysical in nature.

In summary, then, Pesah and Sukkot serve to lay the material groundwork for the more transcendent celebrations of Shavuot and Shemini Atseret. And, of course, both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret center on our holy Torah, which represents the intellectual interface between human beings and their Creator.

Two major questions still remain. First of all, being that Shavuot and Shemini Atseret both revolve around Torah knowledge, celebrating both of the seems redundant. Why do we need two holidays dedicated to the same theme?

Second, if they are indeed so similar, why is Shavuot separated from Pesah by a stretch of 49 days? We know that, unlike Shavuot, Shemini Atseret is directly appended to the seven days of Sukkot - it is literally the eighth day of the holiday. What is the reason for the disparity between the structure of Passover-Shavuot and the structure of Sukkot-Shemini Atseret?

Stay tuned - in a post to follow shortly, I will suggest an answer to both of these questions that I think sheds light on the nature of the Jewish Holiday cycle as a whole.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Shavuot and Shemini Atseret - Two of a Kind?

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What do Shavuot and Shemini Atseret have in common? A brief consideration of these holidays reveals that they bear an unmistakable resemblance to one another on a variety of levels:

1) Both are observed for a single day only (two days in the Diaspora).

2) Both are "appended", as it were, to seven day holidays - Shavuot is the culmination of the Omer count begun on Pesah, and Shemini Atseret represents the culmination of Sukkot.

3) Both are referred to as "Atseret" - Shemini Atseret is designated as such by the Torah itself (hence its name), whereas, in Rabbinic parlance, "Atseret" is the term used for Shavuot.

4) Both holidays lack any concrete ritual expression or seasonal commandment (outside of the special offerings brought in the Temple, that is). Unlike Passover, which is associated with the consumption of matsa, and Sukkot, which revolves around dwelling in the Sukkah and waving the Four Species, Shavuot and Shemini Atseret do not obligate us in any positive mitsvot at all.

5) Both Shavuot and Shemini Atseret are thematically linked to the study of Torah. Shavuot commemorates the Revelation at Sinai, while Shemini Atseret is "Simhat Torah" - the day that we celebrate our completion of yet another annual cycle of Torah readings.

What is the reason for these remarkable similarities?

Stay tuned for a fascinating answer based upon a cryptic commentary from Nachmanides.

Meanwhile, of course, educated guesses are welcome in the comments to this post.

Samples of Sephardic Cantillation

Two very exciting events are coming up for me this Sunday. The first is that Magen David Sephardic Congregation will be celebrating a hachnasat Sefer Torah - the welcoming of a new Torah Scroll to our community. The Sefer Torah in question is particularly special because it has been dedicated, not by a single individual or small group of philanthropists, but by the membership of our synagogue as a whole. Nearly every family in our congregation contributed funds toward the purchase of the Scroll.

The second exciting event scheduled for this Sunday is the wedding of one of my dear friends and congregants here in Rockville. Mazal Tov!

Because of all the positive energy in the air today, I have been in a singing mood. I channelled that into the preparation of recordings of various upcoming Torah and Haftara selections.

The Haftara of Bemidbar with Syrian/Yerushalmi Cantillation

The Haftara of Bemidbar with Moroccan Cantillation

Parashat Nitsavim (First Aliya) with Yerushalmi Cantillation

You will probably notice some minor grammatical and perhaps even musical errors in my reading. Please excuse me; I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet this morning.

If you are very perceptive (i.e., a nudnik), you will notice systematic differences in Hebrew pronunciation between the Haftarot and the Torah reading. The reason for this is that the Parasha was prepared for an actual Bar Mitsvah student; as a result, I tried to read in a more conventional Sephardic Hebrew than I am normally accustomed to using.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The JIBs Rigged?

Two hours ago, Vesom Sechel was in the lead for Best Torah Blog in the Jewish-Israeli Blog Award (JIB) Finals, with over 170 votes.

Moments ago, the number of votes to its credit was drastically reduced, leaving only 83. Vesom Sechel suddenly fell into a distant and rather precarious Second Place position.

I suspect that the process of vote-authentication being employed by the JIBs staff is far from objective, and that this caused Vesom Sechel to lose many of the votes it had rightfully earned.

Please make sure to cast your ballot if you haven't already!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Who is Mighty?

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In Pirqei Avot last week, we read the famous Rabbinic dictum "Who is mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination." Most people take this statement in a metaphoric sense. Really, they assume, the quality of "gevurah" (mightiness) means just that - the possession of brute, physical strength. But, they claim, the Rabbis transformed the concept into something spiritual in order to put a more positive spin on it, and to make it seem more worthy of admiration.

I disagree with this approach. I think that the Rabbis are providing us with a tremendous insight into gevurah that is intended quite literally.

The average person goes to great lengths to appear powerful and "in control" of his life. When we reflect upon the epitome of "coolness" in our culture, we envision an individual who is unswayed by environmental influences - he calls the shots, so to speak, and others carry out his bidding, while he remains consistently detached, calm and collected.

Yet beneath that veneer of mastery he exhibits in the outside world lies a turbulent inner life, dominated by passions and emotions that are very much in the "driver's seat" of that individual's decision making processes. He is not as powerful or well-put-together as he would like us to believe. His desire for instinctual and psychological pleasures of all kinds rages within him and influences his conduct on an almost constant basis. Whereas the external elements of his life appear orderly and well managed, his soul is a bundle of petty emotions that are his true "masters" in life. Only a person who has command over his internal world is really in control.

We encounter examples of this dichotomy in the media all the time. Recently, right here in the Washington, DC area, several high profile businessmen and politicians were disgraced when their names were found on the customer list of an upscale escort service. These purportedly mighty individuals are in reality putty in the hands of their instinctual drives. Once their indiscretions become public knowledge, it is difficult for them to regain the respect of the masses - respect that, it seems, was predicated on an illusion from the outset. These characters were admired because people believed they embodied genuine gevurah; the dispelling of this misconception is a source of great humiliation for all involved.

This insight into the concept of gevurah can also help us to explain a fascinating occurrence at the beginning of the Book of Joshua. When Joshua sends spies to Jericho to assess the morale of the locals, they stop in at the home of Rahav, the proprietress of an inn which also functioned as a 'house of ill repute'. The Midrash tells us that Rahav was not just any member of the world's oldest profession - she was the equivalent of the premiere "upscale" escort in Biblical times, who enjoyed relationships with all the rich and famous of Canaan.

The question is often raised - why did these righteous men see fit to lodge in a place of immorality and prostitution? Couldn't they have stopped in a more wholesome location?

In light of our analysis, the answer seems clear. The powerful leaders of Canaan had no problem maintaining a public image of coolness and detachment before their constituents. The common people may have been blissfully unaware of the private insecurities and deficiencies of their kings and princes. But Rahav saw these influential figures for who they really were - weak men, addicted to and enslaved by base pleasures and fantasies, who nonetheless sought to present themselves as larger-than-life heroes worthy of admiration.

Like many prostitutes and "adult entertainment" workers, Rahav had no respect for her customers and may even have despised them. She became disillusioned with the culture of falsehood and deception created and perpetuated by these lustful and immature men. Her recognition of the hypocrisy of the smooth-talking politicians of Canaan enabled her to appreciate the truth of the Torah's message and inspired her to cleave to the Nation of Israel.

We can see, then, that the Jewish spies selected their destination based upon a sound knowledge of psychological principles. They realized that the person who would be able to provide them with the most accurate assessment of the morale of the Canaanites would be Rahav. Because of her profession, the madame of Jericho had countless opportunities to interact with the most influential personalities in the region when their guard was down and their true colors were on display.

Although the leaders of Jericho appeared mighty on a superficial level, they lacked true gevurah. Their artificial image of confidence and control obscured the fact that, in truth, they were not the masters of their own destiny at all. These ostensibly powerful men allowed themselves to be enslaved by the most ignoble elements in the human psyche.

Visiting Rahav gave these men the chance to drop the charade, step out of character and be themselves for a while. And during these moments of weakness, they found comfort in sharing their hidden insecurities and fears with their professional paramour. Rahav was disgusted with the disingenuousness of the Canaanite power brokers and was more than happy to reveal what she learned from them to the invading Israelites.

The Rabbis teach us that mastery over one's environment is no substitute for gevurah. Only a person who rises above his passions and makes his decisions with wisdom and forethought is truly in control of his life.