Lech Lecha: Hagar (Reposted from 2014)

Sarai… had an Egyptian maid-servant whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” Abraham heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian…and gave her to her husband Abram as a concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault!…now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right!” Then Sarai maltreated her and she fled from her. An angel of the Lord found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur…(Bereishit 16: 1-7).
And she called the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-Ro’i,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” (Bereishit 16:13).

Black slave-maid
Hagar shuts her eyes
to hide the jumble of emotions:
she hears she will be freed –
to be Abram’s concubine.

She strokes her pregnant belly,
her face betrays ambivalence, as
restlessly she contemplates
her future and her child’s.

She witnesses the tension,
hears the conflict in the tent:
Sarai’s pain and anger,
Abram’s mute response.

Exploited woman
Her face deformed by bitterness,
Sarai treats Hagar unjustly
saddling her with chores
as their husband holds his peace.

Hagar’s anguish spills
in an avalanche of misery, as
she flees to seek the stillness –
an oasis in the desert.

Single mother
Swollen with her unborn child
alone beneath the scorching sun,
she sets out through the sand
and turns her face to home.

Seen by God
In the silence of the dunes
she hears the voice of God:
and now she knows at last
that she is truly seen.

Phyllis Trible, a contemporary bible scholar, describes Hagar as a symbol of oppression: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially…rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth,… the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with a child…the homeless woman, …the welfare mother…” from Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

In the ancient Near East it was customary for a barren wife to provide her husband with a concubine to bear children. This would inevitably lead to a shifting of the dynamics in the complex relationship – the barren wife feeling diminished and her maidservant feeling superior.
The Ramban points out that Abram only conceded at Sarai’s urging. The Midrash comments that Sarai first made Hagar a free woman. Later, though, when Sarai complained to Abram and he let her do as she wished with Hagar, the Midrash adds that he cautioned Sarai that she could no longer reduce Hagar to slave status. Sarai paid no heed to this. The Ramban criticises Sarai for abusing Hagar, and Abram for permitting the abuse.
The angel found Hagar on the road to Shur, which is described in Bereishit 25:18 as being close to Egypt, so we can speculate that she fled in the direction of her native land, hoping maybe to reach home.
The Etz Hayim commentary says that when God appears to this lowly Egyptian maidservant, offering her a message of hope and comfort, the narrator’s sympathies are clearly with Hagar. It further notes that Hagar’s name for God, “El-Ro’i” can mean “God – Who – sees – me.” Her exclamation, “Have I not gone on seeing…” is understood as evidence that Hagar was spiritually stirred by her revelatory experience, and became conscious of God’s concern for the oppressed and marginalized  whom human society ignores.

Noah: Through the window

At the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark he had made…(Bereishit 8:6)

They found him often on the topmost floor
oblivious to endless clamour,
his eyes bewitched by that patch of wall
through which he dreamed his dreams.
As through a window, he saw the waters
glinting in the sunlight, dappled by the moon
as the ark sailed over the sunken earth.
He divined, outside, a different world,
devoid of raucous cries and untamed drives,
a new beginning – to plant and grow.

They found him again on the topmost floor,
oblivious to falling raindrops,
hewing a hatch through wooden wall
as though to reach beyond.
He moved his hand uncertainly
and paused and dared once more, until,
gazing through his window,
he saw the time had come
to start again.

In a commentary on Parashat Noah from 2012, http://www.jtsa.edu/daydreaming-out-the-window, Rabbi Abigail Treu addresses the puzzle of the window in the ark, which Noah opens at the end of the forty days of torrential rain. She notes that the Rabbis wondered about this window (“chalon”) because in the very detailed blueprint of the ark’s construction, no such window is mentioned. Rabbi Treu comments that Rashi maintains that the window is the “tsohar” mentioned in Bereishit 6:16. This word, however, never appears again in all of the Tanach. It has been translated as “daylight” and is purported to be something that illuminated the ark, perhaps a skylight built in the roof of the ark, or the Rabbis speculated, perhaps a precious glowing gem. Even though the medieval Rabbis accept Rashi’s thesis that the two terms are synonymous, Rabbi Treu wonders why, if that is the case, the same word is not used.
She brings a suggestion by (then) JTS rabbinical student Shuli Passow, that the window is not the same aperture as the tsohar because Noah designed and built it himself, later. Rabbi Treu imagines Noah incarcerated in the ark for a seemingly endless period [what would turn out to be 370 days], cooped up at close quarters with a small group of people and a large group of animals all clamoring for his attention. The world he knows has vanished, and Rabbi Treu says “I like to imagine that one day he decided he needed a place to sit and look outside and daydream about a different kind of a life; about what might come next, after the ark. And so he built a window.” She suggests that this is why the window isn’t described earlier – because it was never in the initial building plans which Noah followed in constructing the ark. She submits that Noah built it during the flood. She says “Maybe before the waters were up too high on the sides of the ark, or maybe right there in the thick of things, while the rains were pouring down. Maybe he got soaking wet in the process and even let some of the rain water into the ark — life is messy like that sometimes. Especially in the middle of a crisis in which the survival of one’s self and family (and perhaps all of life as we know it) is at stake.”
She imagines Noah focusing on that hatch he has made, beginning to dream about the new world that will be established outside, and slowly readying himself for it. She conjectures “He stands by that window and gathers the courage to open it, to imagine a different life than the one he is living. Bravely, he tries sending different things out, tentatively testing.” Rabbi Treu notes that the Torah uses the same verb “ShLCh” for “sending out” the raven, the dove and his hand. It seems to be a process as Noah waits by his window. She points out that the text tells us that the raven seems to circle around but is unclear whether it returns or not. She continues, “One has the impression that a lot of time passed, a lot of time in which Noah waited by the window. Patiently? Impatiently? With hope? With dread?…” Rabbi Treu suggests that Noah’s first move of launching something through that window was “the most courageous and important first step, for it opened up the possibility that a different reality lay on the other side. And how hard it must have been to wait, to sit still to see what might happen.”
She regards the next step, of sending the dove, as further progress. She contends that Noah, gradually accustomed to his “dream window” hosting movement between his world within the ark and the one outside, now dispatches the dove to see if the world is habitable. She says, “This is new: Noah is beginning to make plans, to turn his dreams of a new life — ever so tentatively — into reality.
“Finally, Noah stretches (sh”l”ch) his own hand out too, catching the dove on its way home to him. The move betrays Noah’s ambivalence: he is eager for the dove to tell him it is time to build a new life, but he is not quite ready yet. He is anxious to leave and nervous, ready only to stretch one hand out. The flood has been difficult enough; transitioning again from what has become the “new normal” to another new reality is a slow process. Noah is testing, waiting until the time is right, and readying himself because the world has changed.”
Finally, the text records the periods of waiting between each move: Noah sends the dove out and it returns. He waits seven days and tries again. When the dove returns with an olive branch which indicates that the waters have subsided, he waits another week and sends it out again, after which it does not return. Rabbi Treu points out the interesting use, twice, of the word “to wait” from the root “YChL“, the latter time with a different conjugation, leading the exegetes to ponder the nature of this waiting – whether he was eager or reluctant. [The Midrash describes Noah as reluctant to leave the ark, afraid that those that come after him might again corrupt the world and trigger another flood, while Dr Avivah Zornberg, a contemporary commentator posits that he is eager to leave and divest himself of the responsibility for an ark-load full of people and animals.] Rabbi Treu suggests that this “waiting” readies Noah for life outside. She suggests that the olive branch symbolises that “life on the other side of the window is possible and is indeed in progress, that the dove no longer needs the window or the ark, and neither does Noah. Both are ready for that new life for which Noah has slowly been readying himself.”
Rabbi Treu addresses the symbolism of the olive leaf, which the Midrash says is bitter. She wonders whether that means that life, outside the shelter of the ark, is bitter. She cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who teaches, “Our sages take this bitter olive leaf in the mouth of the dove to preach the great fact: Bitter, unusual, normally intolerable food, eaten in freedom and independence, is sweeter than the sweetest in a dependent condition. So for us the olive leaf is not a symbol of peace but of the value of independence and freedom and of content and moderation.” Rabbi Treu concludes, “The olive leaf, brought in through the window of Noah’s initiative, is the beginning of his new reality, the tangible result of his having been brave enough to build a window in the ark, to dream about a different life and to find a way to live it.
“We each sail on the seas of unknown waters, wondering what new things might be revealed if we dare to open a window and dream – see what is on the other side. From Noah we learn that courage is part of being a tzadik, a righteous person; the daring to dream and build windows, to open them and slowly send ideas through them, is what brings us from one stage of our lives to the next.”

Bereishit: Ready?

We see once again the glory of Eden,
sunrise and sunset in unclouded skies

we shiver once more at the chill of expulsion
and leave on a journey to find the way home.

Our innocence fades as the story unfolds,
brother slays brother and God Himself weeps.

Do we dare to show up and wrestle once more
and search for the light embedded within?

In her book Our Lives As Torah: Finding God in Our Own Stories, Dr Carol Ochs notes that psychologists have long understood the value of storytelling: therapy facilitates the reframing of the patient’s “story”. She says, “The power of story is evident in the political domain. People fight against repressive regimes by remembering better times, and by forming stories of liberation. Regardless of what Jews have undergone in the past two millennia, they recall that they were slaves and that, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God liberated them. This memory shows them the possibility of God’s intervention on their behalf; it gives them a vision of possibilities and keeps their hopes alive.”
Dr Ochs notes that we live in a society that offers us a plethora of stories, but frequently we remain oblivious to their relevance to us. However, she suggests that the stories related in the Torah, which we read and re-read, uncover for us the presence of God. She says “In other words, the invisible gives rise to the visible.”
She discusses the story of Joseph and his brothers. We see how the narrative, initially focused on the dysfunctional relationship between the brothers, gradually “zooms out” to portray the brothers’ gradual transformation. She notes that after having escaped being murdered by his brothers, sold into slavery at their hand and undergoing years of exile and imprisonment, Joseph looks back on this painful history with the largest possible perspective and declares, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Dr Ochs acknowledges the difficulty inherent in reframing the story and entering a broader perspective. She continues, “We live in a complex time, no longer nomads or shepherds. Yet we find that the biblical stories resonate with our fundamental questions about family, our essential goodness, suffering, our quest for meaning and our relationship with God. The Bible stories are difficult because the characters are not simply heroes or villains. But the stories are instructive for the same reason. The characters are flawed, and their flaws help us examine, integrate and accept our own flaws.”

Within the Torah are hidden all our stories. This week we begin the cycle again, rolling the scroll back to the beginning. We know how the stories end, yet with each re-reading, maybe we can uncover something that will serve us in our own lives.

In a commentary on Parashat Bereishit from 2016, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2016/10/back-to-normal.html Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes about returning to normalcy and beginning again, after the spiritual whirl of the Days of Awe followed by Sukkot. She concludes, “And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there’s still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It’s a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.”

On a personal note
I wrote the first poem that set me off on this journey on Sukkot 2012, and the following year, with the encouragement and indispensable technical assistance of two of our sons, I started posting subsequent poems and commentaries on this blog.
I am about to embark on a two-year program in Jewish Studies, to which I am looking forward immensely, but which I suspect will not leave me enough time to continue writing, at least not at the same frequency as previously. I hope to post sporadically and to re-post previous work. I have loved writing and especially researching the poems that have appeared here. I am filled with gratitude for having had the opportunity to share what I have discovered. Thank you so much for reading and commenting (on these pages and off) and learning with me.

Vezot Haberachah: Re-reading the words

Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Devarim 33:4)

Meticulous, mindful, the scribe writes the words
that haven’t been altered in thousands of years

yet each year they change as we read them once more
for we have transformed in the year that has passed.

If once we believed that we grasped what they say
today we might see that they speak to us otherwise.

Parashat Vezot HaBerachah, the last parasha of the Torah, actually has no Shabbat of its own: it contains two chapters that we read on Simchat Torah. We thus complete the yearlong Torah cycle and seamlessly start to read again from the first parasha of the Torah – Bereishit. In a commentary from 2000, http://www.jtsa.edu/kafka-and-returning-to-torah, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes that one of the verses from VeZot HaBerachah, “Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4) was chosen by the Talmudic sages to be the first verse of Torah that parents teach their young children. Rabbi Schorsch says “Long before our children start their formal education, we are obliged to give them a sense of place. As Jews, our lives are shaped by Torah. The triad of God, Torah and the people Israel is an inseparable and indestructible unity. The compression of the verse has a creedal force that will take a lifetime to unpack (B.T. Sukkah, 42a).”
“The ritual statement of this unity is the festival of Simhat Torah. There is to be no interruption in our public reading of Torah, because it is the link that joins God and Israel. Torah is the medium through which Jews experience the reality of God as well as express it. Torah is the form and content, language and substance of our religious being. Its centrality in the synagogue service merely reflects its seminal role as the infinitely expanding curriculum of daily study.”
Rabbi Schorsch continues that the pathway to this ever-expanding study of Torah is pointed to in the Shema, the cornerstone prayer that we recite morning and night: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Devarim 6:5-6).” Rebi, who compiled the Mishnah, teaches that the second verse is advising us how to fulfill the first. By constant, assiduous study of Torah we “take to heart” these instructions, and thus understand more and wish to cleave to God more closely. Rabbi Schorsch notes “The specificity of Torah helps to concretize our inarticulate love (Sifre, ed. by Finkelstein p. 59).”
Rabbi Schorsch continues, mentioning a further rabbinic comment on the clarification that the Shema offers us, which notes the present tense of the verb, “which I charge you this day.” He says “That immediacy suggests that, “we are not to regard the Torah as an old statute to which no one pays attention any more, but rather like a new one that everyone is eager to read (Sifre, p. 59).” Each time we take up the Torah should be like the first, full of novelty and discovery.”
Rabbi Schorsch suggests that the each reading of the Torah might reveal something new to us, only if we allow “our growth and maturation” since the last encounter, to unmask something that we were unready to detect before. He says “The lens through which we look at Torah is always being modified by experience. The great German philosopher Hegel stated this deep truth in a striking way: “The absolute idea may be compared to the old man, who utters the same religious doctrines as the child, but for whom they signify his entire life. The child in contrast may understand the religious content. But all of life and the whole world still exist outside it.” Thus the creed with which we began, “Moses charged us with the Torah…” contains the same words for toddler and grandparent alike, yet the meaning they carry for each could not be more different.”
Rabbi Schorsch recounts an encounter between Franz Kafka* and a small girl, which illustrates this phenomenon: On his last visit to Berlin before his premature death from tuberculosis, Franz Kafka encountered a small girl in a park where he often walked. She was crying inconsolably. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. He could not find the doll, but he composed a letter from the doll which he read to the little girl at their next meeting. In it, the doll purportedly told the child that she was not lost but had gone on a trip, and would return. In the meantime, she was sending letters with anecdotes of her adventures. On each subsequent day, the two met, and Kafka read another letter to the little girl. On his final day in Berlin, Kafka came to meet the child one last time, and brought with him a doll which he lovingly gave to the child. However, the doll did not look at all like the one she had lost, and the little girl said so. Kafka reassured her that it was her doll, telling her that her travels and experiences had simply changed the way she looked.
Rabbi Schorsch concludes, “For millennia Jews have pored over the same sacred canon. But history has recorded its effects in their understanding of its words. Alongside the Written Torah of Moses, unfolded and accumulated the Oral Torah of Israel, befitting the settings and sensibilities, the dilemmas and disputes of generations of Jewish interpreters, who coupled ingenuity with reverence and freedom with fidelity. As experience proliferated layers upon layers of meaning, the underlying sacred text remained immutable, effectively yielding a canon without closure, ever open to new readings. The concept of a dual Torah spawned a discourse over the ages that embraces both continuity and change.
“Thus Simhat Torah, which is the latest of the traditional Jewish holidays (not found in either the Tanakh or the Talmud), celebrates a religious culture founded on the plasticity of the written word. The Torah we are about to begin anew is not exactly the one we have just finished, because in the intervening year we ourselves have changed.”

In an interview on the Days of Awe, from On Being http://www.onbeing.org/program/sharon-brous-days-of-awe/82, aired in 2010, Krista Tippet interviews Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous also addresses the need to discover the newness and relevance as the Torah is studied each time. She notes that rabbinic tradition holds that the Torah was transmitted in fire, and in fire it has to be handed down from generation to generation. Rabbi Brous considers the analogy of fire to allude to the need to find something to warm and illuminate, something more than “just the memory of something that once touched our great-great-grandparents…” She searches continually for what it means to her, and adds “…not only does it mean something different to me than it meant to my grandparents, it means something different to me this year than it meant to me last year.” She concludes “And that…[is] the great power of a religious tradition. It’s versatile enough to really sustain itself over the course of many thousands of years, to say…the text is the same every year, but we are different. There is something newborn every time that I encounter this text or this holiday or this piece of liturgy.”

*Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) was a German-language writer of novels and short stories who is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature.

Ha’azinu: God of faithfulness

The Rock! — His deeds are perfect, indeed, all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, true and upright is He. (Devarim 32:4)

God Who formed the world
in all its glory –
and its brokenness –
entrusted it to us:
a jigsaw, incomplete –
a sweep of endless hues
and incomparable design.
We stand before Him,
with all our shades
of dark and light,
and He has faith that each of us
will add the absent piece.

In a commentary on parashat Ha’azinu from 2008, (when parashat Ha’azinu fell, as it does this year, on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot,) http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5694, Reb Mimi Feigelson cites the Alexander rebbe, Rabbi Chanoch Chenich HaCohen Levin (1798 – 1870) who re-interprets a phrase from the parasha. The Children of Israel are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land and Moses is singing his valedictory poem to them reprising the themes of the first section of D’varim: God’s faithfulness and Israel’s folly. The phrase describes God as “El emunah ve’ain avel – a God of faithfulness, without injustice”. This is understood to mean that we believe in God Whom Rabbi J H Hertz describes as possessing “unchangeable rectitude” which is to say that we can rely on His moral perfection. But the Alexander rebbe turns this around to suggest that this verse does not allude to our faith in God, but rather His faith in us. Reb Mimi adds that her teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925 – 1994) would add, when sharing this teaching: “Imagine how much faith God has in us to create a world and then hand it over to us!”
Reb Mimi continues that now we have no Temple and therefore no high priest who intercedes for us in the Holy of Holies [on Yom Kippur] “we all stand before God as a high priest or priestess. And it is with greatness that we are asked to do so. The Talmud teaches us that the service of Yom Kippur was solely dependent on the high priest – that if he could not fulfill the practices of the day, they were rendered not fit (literally not “kosher“). Imagine how much responsibility lay on his shoulders! This is the responsibility that now rests on ours!”
Reb Mimi points out that on this Shabbat of Ha’azinu, we are, in a sense, poised between the Holy of Holies of Yom Kippur and our Sukkah. She says “…we are invited to join Moshe and to sing to God. Moshe is our teacher in knowing that humility resides with greatness. He is the most humble of men on the one hand, yet the one who God speaks to face-to-face. His shortcomings walk hand in hand with his virtues and it is with this sense of integrity that he leads us through the desert, sometimes in greatness, sometimes in what may seem as a compromised face of leadership.”
She notes that it is Moses’s wholeness that has empowered him to move from being a stutterer who lacked the confidence to express himself, to becoming the poet he is today. She submits that in parashat Nitsavim that we read a fortnight ago, when Moses said to the people “You are all standing here today” he was addressing “the totality” of each person standing there. She continues “The God that believes in us, versus the God that we believe in, is not blind to our shortcomings or challenges. The contrary is true – they are apparent to the Divine even in those moments that we ourselves are blinded to them. The God that believes in us seeks a true and honest encounter – similar to a relationship that ripens beyond the trappings of a first or second date.”
She quotes Rebbe Meir Hagadol of Premishlan (1711 – 1773) who says that there are three mitzvot that we dwell in as we are – [with] garments, dirty shoes, compromised consciousness etc. – [and these are] the Land of Israel, the Shabbat, and the Sukkah. Reb Mimi says that before entering into the Holy of Holies, we must divest ourselves of our clothes and immerse in the pure waters of the mikvah. But, she says, “to enter into a sukkah we need nothing more than the courage to step inside. Where do we derive our strength to take that step? From where do we draw trust that enables us to stand as we are in God’s temporary dwelling?”
She concludes, “God created a world and handed it over to you, so that in return you can shape it and change it; a world that you can actualize and evolve. God is the God of faith – the God that believes in you. The God that we believe in is sufficient to draw us into the Holy of Holies, but it is the God that believes in us that invites us into His/Her divine chamber for seven days.”

God’s faith in us is reflected, too, in the first prayer recited on awakening, while still lying in bed – the “Modeh/Modah ani” prayer. We thank God for having returned our soul to us, in His great faith that we will use the day to accomplish the work for which He brought us into the world, even if, on the previous day, we did not fulfill our potential.

In a article entitled God’s Faith In Us – #Thoughts4YomKippur5775, http://www.rabbisacks.org/gods-faith-us-thoughts4elul-5775/, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the work of Professor Reuven Feuerstein (1921 – 2014) who was an eminent child psychologist “a man who transformed lives and led severely brain-damaged children to achievements no one else thought possible.”
Rabbi Sacks, who knew Prof Feuerstein, notes that although the latter’s methods and theories were complex, the improvements that he achieved with special needs children were rooted in three crucial factors. Rabbi Sacks enumerates “First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else.
“Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.”
Rabbi Sacks continues, “I learned from Professor Feuerstein that faith really does change lives. The one thing that can rescue us from despair and failure to fulfill our potential is the knowledge that someone believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.
“That is what God does. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. However many times we fail, He forgives us. However many times we fall, He lifts us. And He never gives up. As we say in Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi [the psalm we recite from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the end of Sukkot]: “My father and mother might abandon me but God will gather me in.” (Psalm 27: 10).
“At the heart of Judaism is one utterly transformative belief: our faith in God’s faith in us. That, as Reuven Feuerstein showed, can lead us to a greatness we never knew we had.”

Yom Kippur: Relinquishing the bonds

All the promise I deny
the labels I affix
the vanities I cherish
the image I project
the shell that shields me
from changing who I am
the vow that stops me
from being something more
the bonds that tie me
to last year’s former self

I now relinquish
from this Yom Kippur
to next

Before darkness, as we approach Yom Kippur, we recite the “Kol Nidrei” prayer that lends its name to the entire opening service of Yom Kippur: “All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement, may it come to us for a blessing. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”

This prayer has, in fact, a very chequered history. It was widely believed that it originated during a period of unbearable persecution, during which Jews were forced to convert on pain of death (either to Christianity or Islam) and that Kol Nidre was intended to nullify that forced conversion. However, it was already in existence in the Geonic period (589–1038 CE). The Torah very clearly prohibits the indiscriminate making of vows, and because of the ethical difficulties arising from unfulfilled vows, the Halachah has a mechanism for absolution from them (either by a scholar or expert, or by a “court” of three Jewish laymen). Thus the ease with which vows could be made and annulled spurred the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to diminish the power of dispensation. (The study of Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths was thus outlawed for a hundred years). So Kol Nidrei  was regarded as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom. The Kol Nidrei declaration was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies. Even today, certain communities do not recite it.
Originally, the ceremony of the annulment of vows took place on Rosh Hashanah – the New Year, ten days before Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Nedarim 23b) says, “Who wished to cancel his vows of a whole year should arise on Rosh Hashanah and announce, ‘All vows that I will pledge in the coming year shall be annulled.'” (There is a ritual for this – the hatarat nedarim – annulment of vows) in which the person comes before a tribunal of three others and recites a Hebrew formula (nothing like the one in the Kol Nidrei prayer) and he asks for annulment of every vow or pledge that he swore and the trio responds by reciting a formula three times, reminding him that there exist pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and releasing him of his vows. He then declares the vows null and void.
So prior to the formulation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, there was this ritual for Rosh Hashanah. According to Asher ben Yechiel (early 14th century), Kol Nidrei was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, because that service seemed more solemn and appropriate to the underlying themes on Yom Kippur of repentance and remorse, and also, perhaps, because Yom Kippur services (even then!) were better attended. In addition, the Kol Nidrei prayer includes an expression of penitence with which to open the Day of Atonement (as opposed to the legalistic formula employed in the hatarat nedarim), and the entire congregation is present.
Although the notion has been disproved that Kol Nidrei was composed by Spanish Anusim (Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity, yet who clandestinely practised their Judaism as far as they were able), they did recite this prayer, and this may account for its resonance and widespread adoption.
The original wording of the Kol Nidrei prayer actually said “…from the last Day of Atonement until this one” and Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century) made a significant change in the tense, from past to future ie “from this Day of Atonement until the next”. Thus the annulment does not concern past vows, rather future ones. He also added the words “we do repent of them all”, as annulment is conditional upon genuine repentance. The Talmudic discussion of annulment of vows relates to those to be made in the future. Furthermore, should a person die with his vows unfulfilled, having annulled them in advance would be preferable than dying with them unfulfilled and unatoned for.
Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel’s son tried to render the grammatical tenses more accurately, but for unclear reasons, did not succeed, so two versions still exist, and because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some communities, (especially in Israel) recite both versions (usually referring to the previous Yom Kippur the first and second times and the next Yom Kippur in the third).

The Kol Nidrei prayer is prefaced by the words “With the sanction of the Omnipresent, and with the sanction of the congregation, by authority of the Heavenly Court, and by authority of the earthly court, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed,” and the Zohar offers a very different slant to that suggested above. It submits that if we, in the earthly domain, can unbind ourselves from vows we made using the Kol Nidrei mechanism, perhaps God, in the Heavenly Court might be persuaded to annul vows He has made concerning punishments He might otherwise inflict upon the people for their sins. The Orot Sephardic machzor (festival prayer book) says: “According to the holy Zohar, Kol Nidrei is recited on Yom Kippur because, at times, the Heavenly judgment is handed down as an ‘avowed decree’ for which there can normally be no annulment. By reciting the Kol Nidrei annulment of vows at this time, we are asking of God that He favor us by annuling any negative decrees of judgment that await us, even though we are undeserving of such annulment.”
The Kol Nidrei prayer was used by non-Jews as proof for their accusation that an oath taken by a Jew may not be honored. There was even a special oath formulated for Jews (“Oath More Judaico”) and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, due to the untrustworthiness they believed was reflected in this prayer. In 1240, in the Disputation of Paris, Yechiel of Paris defended Kol Nidrei against these charges. However, Rabbinic sources unanimously confirm that the only vows released by this prayer relate to obligations a person undertakes towards himself or regarding his own religious obligations. The formula is constrained to those vows between man and God alone; and not to those vows made between one man and another. No form of vow or oath that concerns someone else (Jew or non-Jew), a court of law, or the community is implied in the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.”
Regarding the annulment of vows (described in B’midbar 30), in his additional notes on vows and vowing in Judaism, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz wrote:”… Not all vows or oaths could be absolved. A vow or oath that was made to another person, even be that person a child or a heathen, could not be annulled except in the presence of that person and with his consent; while an oath which a man had taken in a court of justice could not be absolved by any other authority in the world.”
None-the-less, concerned about possible anti-Semitic ramifications, the prayer was omitted from the liturgy by the pioneers of the Reform movement, but was restored by popular demand (its haunting melody is considered by most to be an inextricable element of the entire Yom Kippur service). However, it was not only among the Reform communities that the prayer was omitted. The eminent pioneer of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, omitted it during Yom Kippur services at least twice, but then restored it.

In his Shabbat Shuvah (5777) derashah, The Power of Custom and the Limits of the Law: The Case of Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sinclair surveyed the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer, from its beginnings, when it was outlawed by the Geonim, until its almost universal recital today. He noted that if we look at the confessions that we recite together throughout the Yom Kippur services, the vast majority of sins that appear on the lists are speech-related. He pointed out the tendency to speak unthinkingly, unkindly or coarsely, rather in the manner of a rashly made vow. So he sees a value in starting the whole service, relating to the Kol Nidrei prayer as a way to contemplate the adoption of thoughtful, appropriate speech.

In his book Or P’nei HaMelech (In the Light of the Countenance of the King) Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsalz) notes that we attach to ourselves all sorts of labels, nicknames, associations, definitions. He says a person might define himself as an intellectual or a Chasid or not a Chasid or someone not easily roused to emotion. We splint ourselves, he says, into all sorts of limitations: there’s a certain thing we convince ourselves that we cannot do; there are certain things about which we are not willing to think or talk; and there are certain issues that we convince ourselves do not relate to us at all. And then, when we shut ourselves up in our shell, nothing can influence us. So he paraphrases “All those associations, affiliations and definitions that I have fixed on myself and perhaps will fix on myself, they should all be annulled and revoked. I release myself from all of these, from the past and in the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may it come to us for a blessing.”

Vayelech: Leading the words

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel (Devarim 31:1)

I hold the book before me,
reciting prayers by rote,
my mind afloat far off.
The power of the words
might yet invite me, guide me back.

But sometimes, focused,
I hope that I might find within
a vessel, to hold the ancient words.
I might then lift them up
and set them free.

The opening words of Parashat Vayelech “Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel”  (Devarim 31:1) elicit the immediate question “Where did Moses go to speak these things?” He was already in front of the assembled people, as we know from the last parasha.
Surprisingly, Rashi has no comment on this, but other exegetes offer their suggestions: the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194–1270) teaches that after Moses finishes his address to the people (in Parashat Nitzavim), the people disperse to their tents. Moses desires to bid them all farewell before he dies, but he wishes it to be a personal leave-taking – he wants to deliver his message himself. So this is the meaning of “he went” – from the Levite camp where he lives, to the tribal areas where the people live, and speaks to them all in turn.
Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089–1167) makes a further suggestion of where Moses goes: he submits that Moses wants to comfort and encourage the people in the face of his imminent death. He assures them that God will guide them, through the agency of Joshua. Ibn Ezra surmises that it is now, when he visits individually with each tribe, that Moses bestows his final blessings, as we read later in Parashat Vezot Ha’berachah.

The Chasidic Masters also have suggestions concerning the nature of Moses’s “going”. The Noam Megadim (Rabbi Eliezer HaLevi Horowitz of Tarnigrad, d. 1806) teaches: “Moses, even after he went, after he died and passed from the world – “He spoke these things”, he is still speaking and making the voice of his Torah heard – “to all Israel”, because anything a learned pupil might suggest in the future, has already been said to Moses…”
The Mishmeret Itamar (R. Itamar ben Israel Wohlgelerenter of Konskowola, d. 1831) teaches “The steps [literally “goings”] of his life and his behavior throughout his days and years – Moses spoke these things to all Israel – he discussed and taught to all of Israel.”
The Devash veChalav’s teaching, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Krengel of Krakow, 1847-1930) suggests that the people knew that Moses was to deliver all 613 mitsvot to them before his death. Until he gathered them together, as we read in last week’s parasha Nitsavim, they had only received 611 (the last two yet to be given were “Hakhel” – concerning the mandatory assembly of all Jewish men, women and children, as well as “strangers” to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel once every seven years; and the instruction to “Write down this poem [and teach it to the people of Israel…]” (the commandment for each Jew to write a personal copy of the Torah – nowadays, helping towards the purchase of a Sefer Torah and having a scribe fill in a letter on one’s behalf at its completion is considered fulfillment of this mitsva). So the Devash veChalav brings the notion that the people did not assemble again to receive these last two, thus delaying the bitter moment of Moses’s death. Once he realised, “Moses went” himself to instruct them about these last commandments, as he did not want their entry into the land to be delayed on his account.
The Me’aynah shel Torah (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman 1897 – 1943 (incarcerated in the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Trawnicki)) notes “It is not written where [to which place] Moses went, but the end of the phrase clarifies its beginning. “Moses went – to all Israel” – he entered the heart and spirit of all Israel. In the innermost recesses of every person in Israel, in his blood and his soul, in all the times and eras, there can be found a spark of Moses our Teacher.”
From the Toledot Yitschak (Rabbi Yitschak Karo 1458-1535) we learn: “And it is not written to where Moses went – because wherever he went, he spoke these words: in the street, during negotiations, at work, in private and communal undertakings – everywhere he introduced the word of God.”
Chasidic writings add “This phraseology has not been used elsewhere in the Torah. Everywhere it says: he said, he spoke, he gathered – and here – he went. So we learn that according to the sages (in Berachot 31) “Before taking leave of his fellow a man should always finish with a matter of halachah, so that he should remember him thereby” thus when Moses was about to take leave of the world, he died with a matter of Halachah – the laws of repentance and the commandment to reprove one another [a loving rebuke intended as constructive not destructive criticism]…”

However, the Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, has a different idea for this enigmatic phrase. In his book A Partner in Holiness* vol 2 Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary on Parashat Vayelech from the Kedushat Levi – the teachings of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The Berditchever suggests that we interpret this verse in the light of the idioms which the Talmudic sages employ in speaking of someone leading the congregation in prayer. They use two idioms, one found in Shabbat 24b “[shaliach tsibbur ha’yored lifnei ha’teivah] – a prayer leader who goes down before the ark” (here we can visualize an ancient amphitheater-like synagogue), and the other in Berachot 34a “[ha’over lifnei ha’teivah] – one who passes before the ark.”
Rabbi Slater quotes Rabbi Levi Yitschak “When a righteous person prays before God, he must attach himself to the words (teivot) that he is praying [a play on words – teivah means both word and ark]. Those holy words direct him in prayer. But there are those who are at a higher spiritual degree and they direct the words of prayer.” This, he tells us, is the level of Moses, as we learn in the Zohar. Rabbi Slater continues with Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching, “So someone who “goes down before the ark” is led by the words, and he is below the words (teivah). But there is a righteous one who “goes before the ark,” and she leads the words (teivah, she stands above them. Here we are at the end of Moses’s life when the wellsprings of wisdom were stopped up from him (cf Sotah 13b), and so instead, the first quality applied to him and the words led him. This is the sense of our verse “Moses went and spoke” – he went toward Speech, and the word was above him.”
Rabbi Levi Yitschak then suggests an explanation why Moses’s prophecy in Ha’azinu (next week’s parasha) is quite enigmatic, unlike anything else in the Torah. He says that until then, Moses’s prophecy had been as through a clear glass, whereas all other prophets’ prophecies had been as through unclear glass (Yevamot 49b). Thus Moses was able to express his words exactly as he had received them from God, with no “garment” or use of riddles or parables. The other prophets had to “dress” their words with parables and thus their prophesies are frequently enigmatic. However, before Moses died, the channel of wisdom was transferred to Joshua. Hence the poem Ha’azinu is obscure and “covered in garments.”
Rabbi Slater extrapolates Rabbi Levi Yitschak’s teaching to modern times. He says that today we might have a different explanation for the obvious contrast between the language used in Ha’azinu and elsewhere in the Torah. But the Berditchever, he says, is always seeking to “connect Torah to lived experience, to help us apply it to our own lives.”  So he frames the experience for us, not in terms of prophecy, but of prayer.
Rabbi Slater says, “The experience of (Moses’s) prophecy is likened to the experience of one who prays with such concentration that authentic words of prayer issue forth with clarity and intention. We can assume that this sort of prayer is grounded in the siddur [prayer book] but extends beyond it. The words of the prayer book may be the start of prayer but no longer lead the person in his or her devotion. This is, in Levi Yitschak’s eyes, a higher form of prayer. The lower form – “going down before the ark (word – teivah),” being led by the words of the siddur – is still that of a righteous person (a tzaddik), and so laudable. But the challenge to us, perhaps, is to investigate how we pray, how we pray the words of the siddur, and how we express ourselves through those words and beyond in our prayers.”

*A Partner in Holiness: Deepening Mindfulness, Practicing Compassion and Enriching Our Lives through the Wisdom of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s Kedushat Levi