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.”


Shavuot: The Night of Torah

Parsha Poster (from Parshat Yitro: We saw it on the mountain) by Hillel Smith* http://bit.ly/parshaposter

Parsha Poster (from Parshat Yitro: We saw it on the mountain) by Hillel Smith* http://bit.ly/parshaposter.

Each year the gift is tendered,
recalling, at the outset,
how we stood as one before You
trembling and awestruck
on the bedrock of the mount.

Do You glory in Your people, on
the night before the Giving,
disregarding sleep
as they learn until the morn?

Intent upon their study
they sit beside each other
external separations
for once are laid aside.

Do You feel the stirring charge
that permeates the room;
do You relish the diversity,
the myriad ideas?

Do You revel in the wrestling
all for Heaven’s sake,
as each one seeks a different face
that speaks to her alone?

The Midrash tells us that on the night before the Giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel went to bed early in order to be well-rested for the fateful following day. However, they overslept, and Moses had to wake them up as God was already waiting on the summit of Mount Sinai. To compensate for this, the tradition arose, once only among the orthodox, to stay awake all night to learn Torah. This is called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot – The Rectification of the Night of Shavuot.”

Legend has it that the custom of all-night Torah study dates to Ottoman Salonika in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch invited Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and other Kabbalistic colleagues to hold Shavuot-night study vigils for which they prepared for three days in advance, just as the Israelites had prepared for three days before the giving of the Torah. During one of those study sessions, an angel appeared and taught them Jewish law.
(The mass-consumption of coffee in the Ottoman empire is thought to have aided in this all-night ritual of Torah study on Shavuot!)

In traditional communities, although any subject might be studied on Shavuot night, Talmud, Mishnah, and Torah are the most common. People may learn alone or with a chavruta (study partner), or attend late-night shiurim (lectures) and study groups.

However, in recent years, all-night study sessions are no longer the domain of the orthodox.
In May 2015, the Times of Israel reported that Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar added an extra session to its Shavuot overnight programming to serve as a platform for Conservative and Reform rabbis. The decision followed criticism of Tzohar for leaving non-Orthodox rabbis out of their lecture schedule for the holiday and the subsequent decision of some participants not to attend. Tzohar’s partner organization for the event, the Tzavta cultural center, said it made the decision to hold the extra session given the importance of being seen “as giving space and voice to all streams of Judaism…we have turned Shavuot learning into a tradition that will pull hundreds more secular, traditional and religious Jews together.” (Tzavta Executive Director Hayman Gold).
The Vice President of Tzohar Rabbi Yakov Gaon added, “We remain steadfastly committed to ensuring the widest range of Israeli Jews are able to experience the joys of studying Torah and recognize the undeniable link between the delivery of the Torah at Sinai and our lives thousands of years later,” He emphasized that Shavuot’s theme of Jewish learning was ideal for bridging differences between denominations.
“Our people face many threats of all different types; physical and spiritual. Overcoming these challenges can only be achieved if we refrain from creating unnecessary internal divisions and appreciate that we are one people with one heart and one soul.”

In recent years, the annual event of nighttime lectures and Jewish studies sessions at Tzavta has attracted a mixed crowd of religious and secular Jews, of over 1,500 people.

In an article from the Jewish Chronicle from 2015, http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/136554/you-dont-have-be-frum-study-shavuot Rabbi Joe Wolfson recalls that while he was at University, “one of the keenest consumers of our Jewish society’s educational offerings was a practising Christian who would attend everything from Hebrew lessons to in-depth Talmud classes. I once asked him what the learning was like at church. He looked at me surprised, “We don’t do learning”. He explained that although the vicar would frequently preach based on a biblical story, the culture of study as a religious act – with its intense debate and diversity of opinion, accessible to, and expected from all members of the community – was something uniquely Jewish.”
Rabbi Wolfson says that he realised then that whereas all religions endorse prayer, “Judaism’s unique contribution is to see study as an equally important dimension in which humans encounter the divine. The metaphor of Sinai as wedding canopy for the marriage of God with Israel is no abstract image. If Judaism is a relationship between God and His people, then the study of Torah – an interaction between people, text, and God – is the way in which that relationship finds daily expression.”
He notes that in recent years, both in Israel and the diaspora, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional texts among those who do not identity as religious. He says, “While for myself I cannot separate the study of Torah from the presence of God – like trying to talk about a novel without mentioning its central character – I understand that Torah study can still be meaningful for those who are not believers. This seems to be anticipated by the Talmud itself, “Let them forget Me but not forget My Torah, for if they remember My Torah they will eventually return to Me”. Although secular Torah enthusiasts may reject the conclusion of that statement, they would agree with its implicit assumption that Jews can be engaged with Torah even if they have forgotten God.”
He says that ex-MK Ruth Calderon brings a beautiful depiction of studying Torah. He says, “She described Jewishness as a lens for viewing life. The more one studies, the deeper one’s intimacy with the ocean of texts, the more profound one’s appreciation becomes of the nuances and rhythms of life. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a conversation between two sages as they saw the dawn over the Galilee mountains, “Thus is the redemption of Israel, at first a tiny glint of light, then it begins to spread, and finally its light bursts everywhere.” ”
Rabbi Wolfson adds, “The tradition is authoritative but also diverse and to regularly study ancient texts brings that tradition alive. Hillel, Rambam and the Shach cease to be historical figures encased in dusty tomes and become members of the same study hall.
“Diverse emotions accompany intensive learning. One can be humbled by the vastness of the Torah and how much there is to learn, and yet simultaneously sense oneself not only as observer but also as participant, contributing one’s own insights to the texts that millions have encountered before. For while every subsequent generation is further removed from the original light of Sinai, nevertheless with every new year there is more Torah in the world, more additions to the ever expanding corpus.”
Rabbi Wolfson concludes with a story, “Once on a flight from Tel Aviv to London I sat in my scruffy jeans and T-shirt next to an elderly Chasid. After an hour of politely ignoring one another – we were both English – my neighbour could no longer contain his interest in the classes that I was preparing using the Responsa Project, software that has digitised all classical Jewish texts.
“There followed an intense and warm discussion about the sale of Joseph.
“Later I went for a walk on the plane and someone I slightly knew engaged me in conversation. He was secular but had grown up ultra-Orthodox. He told me that his family had refused to speak to him for many years and that the gentleman I was sitting next to was his great-uncle. Would I ask him if he would speak to his nephew?
“I reported the request to my neighbour. He looked perturbed. He hinted that his nephew had suffered serious abuse – “things that should never be done to a child” – but that his public apostasy was so severe that he could not bring himself to talk to him.
“Rather than continue the conversation I searched on my laptop for the Talmud’s advice on giving rebuke: “Push away with the left and draw close with the right”. According to the ancient story, the errant student of a rabbi who failed to mind this maxim became the founder of Christianity. I showed the screen to my neighbour. He paused and then nodded. I swapped seats with my acquaintance and the Chasidic uncle and estranged nephew sat next to one another for the rest of the flight.
“Judaism must not be reduced to bagels, humour, vague values and victimhood.
“Shavuot recalls that at Sinai a shared inheritance was received that has space for all varieties of Jewish self-understanding.”

*Hillel Smith is an American artist and designer creating contemporary Jewish work with deeply traditional content. In particular, much of his work explores the history and potential of Hebrew typography, which he sees as the common thread linking Jews together across time and space. Other projects he’s working on include an animated GIF for each day of the Omer, at bestomerever.tumblr.com, and a Hebrew mural series (some here and some here under Murals). Anyone can subscribe to project updates via eepurl.com/bdqZIT.

Pesach: The Eighth Day

Joyfully shall you draw water from the wellsprings of redemption…((Isaiah 12:3) from the Haftarah of the eighth day of Pesach, and in Israel of Yom Ha’Atzmaut).

Each year we tell the dismal tale of bondage:
the exit from the confines of the straits
on a journey that traverses arid sands.

We eat the greens, awash in brine;
unleavened bread that dries the tongue.
We swallow down the bitter herbs

then forge ahead, foreseeing freedom,
celebrating with four cups of heady wine, yet
redemption is suspended beyond reach.

We have not found the wisdom and the valor
to wipe out wanton misery and vice;
nor yet can trust the feral with the helpless –

we have not yet drawn water from the wells.

In a commentary about the last day of Pesach, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/pesah/5772/last-day-passover, Dr Alan Cooper discusses the eighth day of Pesach, (which in Israel is already no longer Pesach). He notes “…many Hasidim relax some of the dietary restrictions of the first seven days, and they also gather for a special meal called a se’udat mashiach (messianic feast), reminiscent of the seder in its inclusion of matzah and four cups of wine. This meal, allegedly instituted by the Baal Shem Tov himself, is a lovely complement to the haftarah that we recite on the eighth day (Isa. 10:32–12:6), which looks forward to the messianic era as a time of universal peace.”
He says while the first seven days of Pesach relate the historical events from the hasty exodus from Egypt on the first day, until the crossing of the Red Sea on the seventh, the eighth day “brings us back to the present and reorients us towards the future.” He cites Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet who says, “Just as the first day celebrates the redemption from the first exile, the last day celebrates the future redemption from our final state of exile. The two are intimately connected, the beginning and end of one process, with God in the future redemption showing wonders ‘as in the days of your exodus from Egypt’ (Micah 7:15).”
The haftarah recited on this day*, (and by many in Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) which is celebrated shortly after Pesach) contains a series of prophesies spoken by Isaiah, anticipating a great redemption to come. As the Etz Hayim (Commentary of the JPS) notes, “It moves from foretelling an end to foreign oppression to utopian visions of national justice and ingathering….A vision of social and natural transformation lies at the center of this haftarah…” It envisions leadership through “wisdom and insight…counsel and valor…devotion and reverence for God.” Aside from the prophesy of justice and equity towards the downtrodden, Isaiah foresees radical changes in the natural world in which predators and prey will live peacefully together.
The haftarah contains some of the verses recited at the conclusion of Shabbat, in the Havdalah service, including “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountain springs of salvation.”(Isaiah 12:3)
Dr Cooper suggests that this is the day “to redirect our gaze from the past to the future, and the haftarah… encourages us to envision and yearn for a better, safer, and healthier world. ” However, he concludes that we have to take an active part in striving for the fulfilment of these prophesies of peace and justice.

*Translation from the JPS Tanakh can be found at this link:


Pesach: Sitting at God’s Table

The mid-month moon glows lambent
against the star-strewn sky
as, hungry and impoverished,
we gather to partake.

Wondering and wordless
we filter through the door.
Each soul is undiminished:
the sum of all its parts.

The pristine table, candle-lit,
extends along the room.
Sitting down as strangers,
by night’s end we are kin.

We fill each other’s goblets;
in their patina we see
each image, undistorted, and
each bears the stamp of God.

Relinquishing all judgment:
none wicked nor more wise; at
the table of the peerless Host
His children reunite.

In a commentary about Seder night, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=8259, Reb Mimi Feigelson asks this question, “What would you do, how would you prepare, what would you need to know if I told you that this year (and every year to come) you would be sitting at God’s table???”
Reb Mimi brings a teaching by the Tosafot* in which we learn that we are all sitting at God’s table – the Aramaic expression of which is “A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan.”
She says, “It is here that we are taught that even though it may appear that we are the ones that engage in all the work and toil required for seder night, it is at the moment that we sit down that we are asked to surrender ownership of all that is in front of us and recognize that we are all the children of our Creator, and we are sitting together, regardless of where we may be geographically, at God’s table.”
In the last two Parashot that we read in the yearly cycle, Tazria and Metsora, and which always fall near Pesach, we read of the treatment of the leper, “the other”, and the ultimate aspiration that he or she will belong in society and not be exiled “outside the camp.”
Modern society is fractured into groups excluding “others” on grounds of ethnic origin, religious differences, political affiliations and sexual orientation to mention only a few.*
Reb Mimi wonders, “What would it mean to be set free of the enslavement of our self-definitions and acquisitions/possessions? How can we open our heart and soul to be in life and belong to God in a way that we’ve never experienced before? What does it mean that our hands are no longer holding on to emotional, psychological and even spiritual territories that we have declared in the past as ‘mine’, allowing us to receive divine abundance like never before?”
She concludes, “For Rabban Gamliel, as we will read in the haggadah, seder night is defined by the three words “Pessach“, “Matzah” and “Maror“. For me, the prerequisite for this are the three Aramaic words “A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan“!
“I pray that this seder night we will be blessed with the freedom and courage to sit together at God’s table! I pray that we will be able to greet each other with “shabbat shalom” and “chag sameach” as we sit down together; knowing, trusting and believing that indeed, A’tacha d’Rachamana Samchinan!”

*The Tosafot are medieval commentaries on the Talmud. They take the form of critical and explanatory glosses, printed, in almost all Talmud editions, on the outer margin and opposite Rashi’s notes.

**Numerous organizations and initiatives are designed to counter these divisive societal tendencies, some of which are, sadly, endorsed by religious authorities. (I mentioned the attempt to exclude a child with Down’s syndrome from a Talmud Torah in this post from last year on Parashat Metsora https://parashapoems.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/metsora-outcast/). ‎

It is notable that earlier this month, dozens of Israeli Orthodox rabbis signed a religious edict urging religious communities to accept gay members without prejudice. The Beit Hillel organization, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic group comprising 200 men and women that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox Judaism, published a document the aim of which is to encourage “an integrated path between religious law and loving-kindness and peace.”

Tu BiShvat: Planting the Tree

The azure vault spans far beyond,
immaculate save a soaring speck –
a solitary bird – while the humming
of a passing bee suspends the sleepy silence.

Squatting on the fertile ground,
engrossed in digging dark soft loam,
she pauses: with her inner eye she sees
the tree, full grown and lush with fruit.

Heavy footsteps break the peace,
a voice calls out, “Messiah’s here!
Come, meet him at the city gate
and speed him on his way!”

Tenderly she plants the sapling,
smoothing down the mounded earth
and sprinkles water-drops like dew
and then she hastens to the gate.

The one-day festival of Tu BiShvat is not mentioned in the Torah, but appears in the Mishnah as one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar. The discussion of when the New Year occurs was a source of debate among the rabbis, as we read in the Mishnah: “There are four beginnings of the year. The first of Nissan is the beginning of the year for kings and holidays. The first of Elul is the beginning of the year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say [animal tithes start] on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year for years, for the Sabbatical years, the Jubilees, for planting, and for vegetables. The first of Shevat is the beginning of the year for trees, so says Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says it is the 15th of that [month]. ” (BT Rosh Hashana: 2a).
The rabbis of the Talmud ruled in favor of Hillel on this issue. Thus the 15th of Shevat became the date for calculating the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the purpose of biblical tithes. This day is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot – New Year of the Trees.”
In the Middle Ages, Tu BiShvat was celebrated with a feast of fruits in keeping with the Mishnaic description of the holiday as a “New Year.” In the 16th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu BiShvat seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.
On Tu BiShvat 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement, took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov. This custom was adopted in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union and later by the Jewish National Fund (Keren HaKayemet L’Israel), established in 1901 to oversee land conservation and afforestation in Israel. In the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund devoted the day to planting eucalyptus trees to stop the plague of malaria in the Hula Valley.
In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In an article from 1982, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1358, entitled What to Do Until the Messiah Comes: On Jewish Worldliness, Dr Stanley N. Rosenbaum says the following, “In Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, the symbolic Jewish character says, “I was told to wait, and I wait.” With admirable tenacity, Benjamin survives for centuries on the edges of a fast-flowing civilization, contributing little save his own Wandering Jewish presence, a lonely witness to the unredeemed state of the world. His Messiah does not come and he doubts now that he will. Either way, his is the perennial Jewish problem: what to do in the meantime.
“What Jews seem to have done in the past, whenever chance allowed, was to heed Jeremiah’s advice to the Babylonian exiles to plant gardens, build houses and live in them; to seek after the good of those countries on whose shores we are cast.”
Dr Rosenbaum points out that “… not all Jews, now or ever, believed in a Messiah. While modern Orthodox maintain that Messiah is implicit in Torah itself, scholars suggest that the idea, and the hope, grew as a function of Israel’s national powerlessness after the destruction of the First Temple. In the Middle Ages, Joseph Karo, compiler of the authoritative Shulchan Aruch, excluded Messiah from those beliefs required of Jews. No doubt his ruling came partly in response to the new, outdoor sport of disputation, the church-sponsored debates between Christian apologists, usually converts from Judaism, and local Jewish leaders. The latter were constrained to confute Christian claims concerning Jesus without refuting Christianity. If the rabbis lost, they were expected to convert; if they won, they could be exiled, tried for heresy or killed.
“Then again, Karo may have been reacting to the exploits of David Reubeni, the latest in a long line of pseudo-messiahs. Jewish history shows no shortage of claimants.” Dr Rosenbaum suggests that probably more of these have been forgotten than those of whom we have heard. He adds that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, whom he notes was
a contemporary of Jesus, is quoted as saying, “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire/receive him.” (Avot deRabi Natan 2:31)
Dr Rosenbaum surmises, though, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s remark was based not on scepticism but rather on the practical way in which Judaism works in the world. He emphasizes that notwithstanding Jewish philosophers, Judaism is a religion of deeds, and he cites the phrase in Shemot 24:7, “Na’aseh venishma – we will do and we will understand.” The work of redeeming the world, he maintains, is ours, and he cites Franz Kafka who wrote, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”
Dr Rosenbaum concludes, “… The Jewish job of redeeming the world remained. It still does. Some of us were told to wait, and we are waiting. We will do, and then, perhaps, we will understand.”

Chanukah: Awaiting the light

They walk in silence, shadows
cast on darkened streets.
They gaze upon the nascent moon
that sheds no earthbound light.

At every turn they see the glow
through misty panes of glass,
of beacons brightly heralding
the wonder of the light.

They stare into the sky once more
as if to probe the dark,
“Our lamps are lit,” they softly say,
“we now await Your light.”

There is a Midrash in Pesikta Rabati Chapter 36, which says, “Our Rabbis taught that when the King Messiah will appear, he will stand on the roof of the Temple and he will announce to them, to Israel, saying, “Humble ones, the time for your redemption has come, and if you don’t believe it, see (His) my light which shines upon you, as it is written, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of God is shining upon you.” [Isaiah 60:1]”
Rabbi Dov Berkovits answers a question on the Kipa website (Ask the Rabbi) http://www.kipa.co.il/ask/show/228896 in which someone enquired about the meaning of a modern Chassidic song, the words of which are derived from this Midrash (the adapted words and melody are by Yossi Green, sung here by Odeliah Berlin http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaYc2XrgE-k).
Rabbi Berkovits comments that this Midrash is an introduction to Isaiah Chapter 60 which describes the redemption of Israel. He says that the first verse in the chapter addresses Jerusalem or Am Yisrael – the people of Israel and the phrase “your light” relates, not to God’s light, but to the transmission of a renewed spiritual energy which emanates from among them. Rabbi Berkovits continues that there is an important and compelling melding between the light that emanates from below – from Jerusalem or Am Yisrael, and from “the glory of God that is shining upon you.”
He explains further that the Midrash expands on this idea of the light that ascends from below, from the world and from man, and connects it to the image of the one who heralds the redemption described in the chapter – the Messiah – even though he is not actually mentioned in the chapter. The Messiah’s role is to focus the light that is always to be found in Jerusalem and in the people.
Rabbi Berkovits suggests that the expression “humble ones” describes the people when they are worthy of redemption. He says the redemption is not going to happen when we will all be prophets, rather when holiness and purity become part of our lives – when humility and integrity imbue both deeds and faith. Rabbi Berkovits suggests that the expression “and if you don’t believe” refers not to faith itself, but to belief in the redemption. The Jewish people, as the Midrash says, having undergone terrible afflictions in exile, might already find it hard to believe, after so many years of unfulfilled expectation, that now the redemption had arrived. So the Messiah addresses the people and invites them to look at their light, his light, in the light of God.

The Tanach is replete with allusions to light emanating from Divine but the people are also instructed to bring their own light. On Parashat Tetsaveh, in which we learn about the kindling of the ner tamid – the eternal lamp, in the sanctuary – the Mishkan, the Sefat Emet comments, “In the Midrash: “A candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). “The blessed Holy One said: “Let My candle be in your hand and yours in Mine.” And what is the candle of God? That is Torah, as Scripture says: “For a commandment is a candle and Torah is light” ” (Proverbs 6:23). What is “a commandment is a candle”? Whoever does a mitsvah is like one who lights a candle before the blessed Holy One …”*  By means of service, the Sefat Emet is telling us, we draw down divine providence and the light of God’s countenance into the world.

*From The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

Sukkot: The heart of the Sukkah

let the walls of my heart
be easily moved
as the walls of the Sukkah
that sway in the wind

let the roof of my heart
be porous to tears
as the roof of the Sukkah
that lets in the rain

let the space in my heart
be open to guests
as to Ushpizin
who pass through each night

let the beat of my heart
be a vital reminder
that life here is transient –
a temporary dwelling

let the walls, left unsealed,
and the roof, with its lattice,
frame the cracks
that will let in the light

In her article on the Ushpizin, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ushpizin-welcoming-guests/ Lesli Koppelman Ross notes that one aspect of this ritual of inviting the celestial guests, the Ushpizin, is that it serves as a reminder of the duty to take care of the needy. In some congregations, she describes how provisions were delivered to the poor with a note saying, “This is the share of the Ushpizin.” Koppelman Ross adds that the Ushpizin were reputed to refuse to enter a sukkah where the poor were not welcomed.