Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Every year, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan: A month long fast, from morning till evening, during the month of Ramadhan.
Qur’an, Ch. 2 – Surat Al-Bakara – verse 185: During the month of Ramadan the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance to the people… so those of you who live to see the month should fast it, and whoever is sick or on a journey should fast the same number on other days instead… magnify Allah for what He has guided you to, and give thanks to Him.
The great fundamentalist commentator on the Qur’an, Sayyid Mawdudi, explains, “… fasting during the month of the revelation of the Qur’an is more than an act of worship and more than an excellent course for moral training: it is also an appropriate form for the expression of our thankfulness to God for the bounty of the Qur’an.” (Tafhim al Qur’an, Ansari transl., 1988).
On the face of it, the Fast of Ramadan seems totally foreign to Jews. First of all it is commanded in the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, and not mentioned at all in the Torah. Second, even though we are familiar as Jews with the 24 hour fast of Yom Kippur, a month long fast – 29 days! – seems like a totally different ballgame. Finally, ideas like “moral training” normally are separate from rituals, especially those rituals linked to gratitude to God (Allah) or revelation.
However, a deeper look at the basic elements of Ramadan reveals that there is a lot for Jews to learn about Judaism itself, by reflecting on this Muslim worship. Outside sources, such as Islam and the Qur’an can help us understand what the Jewish sources are really saying and turning to them can give us new, innovative understandings of Judaism. From Maimonides to Nechama Leibovitz, Torah thinkers throughout the ages have turned outside the box to understand the Judaism inside the box.
Let’s start with the month of Ramadan itself: Islam follows the lunar calendar, which, after twelve months of the cycle of the moon, is at least 11 days shorter than the solar year. This means that Ramadan occurs in different seasons of the year, which are dependent on the sun, and takes on different flavors because of those seasons. What about Judaism? The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar months calibrated with the solar years by adding one leap, lunar month seven times over the course of 19 years – the second month of Adar. A careful reading of the Torah shows that Jewish holidays are both supposed to occur consistently in set seasons – Passover in the Spring and Sukkot in the Fall – but are also supposed to be declared based on the lunar calendar. Both the Jewish and Islamic calendars provide an independent identity from the Western, Gregorian solar calendar, but the Jewish system takes the solar world into account. However, when we say that “Rosh HaShana is occurring early this year”, we should think about what our Muslim friends might be saying about Ramadan – and together we should realize that while we follow the secular calendar for some things, we shouldn’t forget about the calendar of our own religion which is different.
In fact, Islam’s way of declaring the month of Ramadan preserves the ancient Jewish way of declaring all of our lunar months – and determining when Jewish holidays will occur. Ramadan cannot merely be predicted ahead of time because the month only starts when witnesses see the sliver of the new moon occurring at the beginning of each month. Will they see it in Arabia? It’s never 100% clear. And that was the way Jewish months were declared as well, relying on two witnesses who came to the court in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the Land of Israel, until, in the 4th century, according to traditional sources, the Hebrew calendar was fixed, and it could be predicted centuries ahead of time. Kara’ites today still use witnesses in Israel to determine the beginning of each month of the Hebrew calendar. So if we follow when Ramadan begins this year – in late August – we will get a taste of what it was like in earlier times when we needed to wait for the court to accept the witnesses in order to know when Passover or Sukkot would occur.
Realizing that there are more than a billion Muslims in the world who are fasting for a whole month should make Jews feel better about fasting during our days of fasts. Today, many Jews mark the great fast of Yom Kippur, but most don’t bother with the other “minor fasts”. That is a decision for every Jew to make on his or her own, but it should be done knowing that for a fifth of the world’s population, fastin 29 days is quite doable! Observing how Muslims traditionally break the fast of Ramadan can also be inspiring for Jews: Muslims wait until exactly sunset and then break the fast, traditionally, with water and dates, then men and women go to pray the Maghrib Salat, the fourth prayer service of the day, which can be prayed anytime from sunset until dark. Then Muslims return for the traditional Iftar, the daily communal break fast feast during the month. This system of coordinating the time of day with human rituals and behaviors teaches a discipline which Judaism also has embraced; in some ways Judaism is stricter, since traditionally the Jewish fasts end with dusk – three stars – not just with sunset. Islam’s attention to the detail of the tradition – in way that is beautiful, rather than harsh – serves as a model for Jews to follow Jewish traditions in a way that is precise, but beautiful, as well.
Discovering the reasons for the Fast of Ramadan – both in the Qur’an and in the oral Muslim tradition – can shed light upon the reasons for many Jewish rituals. Specifically, it is fascinating to see the connections in Islam between concern for the Muslim’s relationship with God, and then his or her relationship with their fellow human beings, and, finally, their understanding of themselves. Ramadan, is a holiday thanking God for the gift of revelation, but it doesn’t end with the relationship with God. The prayers ending each day of Ramadan include greetings and blessings to fellow worshippers – a custom to this day amongst Turkish Jews. The Iftar feast is supposed to be eaten with other people – making sure everyone has food to break their fast. The human element is a critical part of this ritual. Finally, it respect for the individual is clear in the care the Qur’an takes in giving people flexibility in fasting if they are ill or on a journey: the Muslim oral tradition recounts that Muhammad himself sometimes did not fast if he was on a journey – and was critical of someone who endangered his life by fasting. Judaism contains each of these elements and links, but observing Muslims keeping Ramadan and studying the detailed laws of the Fast can inspire us to better see these links between ritual, ethics and self respect in our own tradition.
Ramadhan and Elul:
Most Jews know at least a little about Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, but how many Jews begin the High Holiday season at the beginning of Elul? In our tradition, S’fardic Jews begin early morning S’lichot (forgiveness) prayers every day for the entire month of Elul, the month before Rosh HaShana, and even Ashkenazic Jews, who are a bit lazier, start blowing the shofar on the first day of Elul. It is an entire month devoted to reflection and repentance. Ramadhan provides a model of taking out not just one or two days – or even a week – but an entire month to celebrate and mark our relationship with God. If Jews would only ask: Why don’t I have a month for reflection and penitence as the Muslims do? We would be able to learn seriously about Elul and its traditions. This year, 2009, Ramadhan and Elul begin with the same sliver of the moon. If Jews were just a bit more aware of Ramadhan’s start, they would be on their way to realizing Elul is here for them. But the idea of a month-long theme is part of the Jewish calendar in other places: Tishrei is the month of new beginnings – the creation of the world; Adar is the month of joy; Nissan is the month of the start of Jewish peoplehood; Av is a month of destruction ending in hope. Each of these months, depending on the year, will exactly correspond to Ramadhan: Jews would be doing their Judaism a favor by following the start of Ramadhan and figuring out which Jewish month starts at the same time and finding out what that month means to them.
Starting and Ending the fast:
Finally, Jews should pay close attention to the details of the start and end to fasting on Ramadhan: The fast begins at sunrise (fajr) and ends at sunset (maghrib). Sounds simple enough. However, in Judaism, we rarely go for what is clear, and the Jewish times for beginning and ending all of the minor fasts, which are also morning to night is different. According to Jewish law, the minor fasts of the Tenth of Tevet, the 17 of Tammuz, Esther, and Gidalia all begin with dawn – with the first light in the east, over an hour before sunrise. Jewish law is not even clear when dawn begins – it is a vague idea, not clear cut like sunrise. Some opinions believe dawn begins 72 minutes before sunrise, others say it begins 90 minutes before sunrise. As far as the end of the day, Jews end the day not with sunset, but, rather, with dusk, with a certain level of darkness – dark enough to see three medium sized stars. There are so many differing opinions about how many minutes after sunset “three stars” , but they vary from as little as 15 minutes after sunset to over 90 minutes after sunset – and it differs as you move farther and farther from the equator. One of the principles of Judaism is that following God requires struggle, questioning and even uncertainty. Understanding Ramadhan and comparing the details of its fast to our fasts will lead to a much deeper appreciation of our tradition and its vision for the Jewish people.
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September 15, 2009 | 12:24 am
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
For the past four years, my synagogue has cosponsored, along with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, an Iftar in the Synagogue, which usually gets about 20-30 Muslims and 60-80 Jews. I feel it’s in the tradition of Middle East Friday Night that we did at the Oxford Jewish Society twenty years ago when we had Israelis and Palestinians reading poetry over a Shabbat dinner that followed davening. Iftar in the Synagogue also consists of schmoozing, then a teaching by a rabbi (me) and an Imam about the dates for Jews and Muslims, then Mincha – and this time almost every Jews stayed – then our Muslims friends go downstairs to break their fast, to pray Salat – usually in the JCC – and then we all feast together on Halal food from the best kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago. The dinner ends with Bircat Hamazon: which talks about the Land, Jerusalem and the future of the Jewish people. However, as we know, there are also universal parts to benching. It seems that at Iftar in the Synagogue everyone is looking at things that we have in common, that bring us together, rather than things that pull us apart.
But I wanted to point out that as concerned I am for peace in Israel, and for Muslims and Jews to get along and learn from each other in Chicago and America, as much of a believer I am that different people can come together and get a lot out of each other’s company, sometime the most rewarding part of an event like this is to see how it brings out the Jews. There were Jews at this Iftar – dozens – who only get to daven mincha in a shul, or only step into an Orthodox shul, when we can show them that we are open to Muslims coming to our synagogue as well. And if this is their path to Judaism, is this is the way we affirm that their heritage can speak to them as well, that’s great. That is what Morethodoxy is all about: showing people that despite what they may have been led to believe, Judaism is relevant in their lives. Judaism has a power to touch them.
I wish all of us, that just as doors to Judaism opened for some through Iftar in the synagogue, that we find ways to open the gates of Judaism, the gates of Mitzvot and Torah, which were closed to us this year. We have to be creative about finding those gates and figure out how to get through. Maybe even more creative than Iftar in the Synagogue. But we cannot afford to ignore all the doors that await us. We need to find those keys and those doors and allow ourselves to be led to new depths in our Yiddishkeit.
May we all have a year filled with open doors to grow closer to Hashem, our People and our purpose in life. A 5770 with more good, more opportunities for good, more appreciation of Hashem’s good and infinite gifts for us.
G’mar chatima tova l’chulan ul’chol Yisrael,
September 11, 2009 | 1:34 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
In a few days, on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah many of us will fulfill the once a year commandment of hearing the sound of the Shofar. The mitzvah of the Shofar, as reflected in the blessing we make upon it, is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound.
There are primarily two shofar sounds, the tekiah (one long sound) and the teruah (a series of shorter sounds). The tikiah is the main blast blown on the Yovel, the jubilee year, to declare freedom throughout the Land of Israel, and in a war to call the people to battle. It is a declaration, a public address system. But on Rosh Hashanah the main sound of the shofar is the teruah, the shorter staccato series of sounds.
The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah tells us that this teruah blast is the sound of crying. We blow two versions of the teruah sound, three medium blasts (shevarim) and nine very short blasts because we are unsure what type of cry to mimic, a waling cry (medium blasts) or a more staccato cry (short blasts) so we blow both on Rosh Hashanah. All of these teruah blasts on Rosh Hashanah are for one purpose, to express through the shofar horn, the sound of crying.
What is the purpose of this crying; this teruah blast? The Torah tells us (Lev. 23:24) that it is “zichron”, memory. But what are we to remember through the cry of the teruah and how does crying shofar sound help us to remember?
The medical and psychological literature on crying tells us that crying results from changes in, and usually losses of, intimate interpersonal relationships. As Don Quixote once said, “He loves you well, who makes you weep.”
What purpose does crying serve? Many people facing the loss of such a relationship report feeling less sad after crying. Though the relationship they were lamenting has not changed their crying was a kind of catharsis, a shedding of armor allowing deeper emotions and true feelings to emerge into awareness. Crying is a state that is quite vulnerable, one in which we become more ourselves, exposed and real. True crying is perhaps the most genuine of acts.
“Zichron,” or memory, is thus an essential part of crying. Without memory there is no change in relationship. Without memory things are only as they are. There can be no regret without memory, no hope for the relationship to be or have been other than it was. No feelings of loss for the past and no feeling of hope for the future.
Our Shofar sound, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy relates, also recalls two historical shofar blasts. That of the shofar at Mount Sinai when the Jews first received the Torah and became a godly nation, and the future shofar blast that will be sounded at the heralding of the messiah. We first recall the shofar of the past, the memories of our most intimate moment of relationship with God, the moment of our wedding as a nation to God at Mount Sinai.
Weddings are the most photographed and remembered moments. From no other event is cake saved for years to come only to recall the past, dresses preserved and videos watched. But weddings, as ours with God at Mount Sinai, are only one day. A wedding’s function in memory is to remember how the relationship can be, the intimacy that was possible in the past and can be again for the future. The intimate present of our relationship with God, facilitated by our memories of Mount Sinai in the past, will lead us hopefully to a deeper relationship in the future and ultimately the shofar of the Messiah.
Memory itself is an intellectual act, but crying along with memory, the teruah’s cry, helps us not only remember but for the memories to become real, to be emotionally overwhelming even in the present. To then relive and reestablish the relationship we remember, in the present and ultimately into the future.
Yes, Rosh Hashanah is about judgment and forgiveness but only as a tool to reestablish our intimate relationship with the Infinite one, from the past, in the present, and hopefully with God’s help, into the future.
Shanah Tovah! A Sweet Year!
September 10, 2009 | 8:40 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Today is the opening day of Yeshivat Mahara”t, a day I believe, that will go down in history. It is the first program open to Orthodox women that is willing not only to train, but to ordain women as spiritual leaders— as rabbinic leaders— in the Orthodox community. This is the message that I hope to impart to the inaugural class:
At the conferral ceremony just a few months ago, where I became a Mahara”t, almost everyone who rose to speak declared with joy, “zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagila v’nismacha vo.” This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it. And it truly was an inspiring moment, a day to rejoice and be glad. But for me, this day, today, September 10, 2009, 21st day of Elul, 5769, carries far more import. This is the dream that I have been waiting to see come to fruition. It is the dream, to quote this week’s parsha, of “kulchem:” “Atem nizavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem.” You are standing today, ALL of you, before God.” Kulchem includes all people, elders, officers, men, women, and children all standing together to accept and be included in God’s covenant.
The Alshich, a Biblical commentator living in the 16th century in Safed, notes that everyone—kulchem, were standing “equally in the presence of the Lord, simultaneously.” What an idyllic image, where one’s gender or status was irrelevant; for men, women and children, old and young, rich and poor, alike were standing together, in partnership before God.
Women’s learning and leadership has made tremendous strides over the past century. This space, this place that we are sitting in now, Drisha Institute for women, has been on the forefront of fortifying and nourishing women with knowledge, courage and confidence to become Jewish scholars. But, we cannot stop there. The time has come, the day has come, for women to transform their knowledge into service, to be able to stand together, with our male counterparts, as spiritual leaders of our community. And not because women should have the same opportunities as men – although they should – and not because women can learn and achieve on par with men – although they can. But because women, as Jewish leaders, have so many singular and unique gifts to offer, so much to contribute to the larger Jewish community.
So let us not let this day pass by without taking a moment to acknowledge and celebrate how much we have actually achieved, and to look forward to the achievements and milestones to come.
September 9, 2009 | 3:17 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
When we conjure up the typical profile of a “religious person”, one of the qualities that leaps to mind is temperance. In some religious traditions – not ours – this quality dictates the severe discouragement or outright prohibition of any alcoholic consumption at all. In many other traditions – including ours – temperance means careful moderation in consumption, as the state of drunkenness that would otherwise result is incompatible with the state of Godliness. Beginning when Aharon and his sons were forbidden to drink while on duty in the Temple, and continuing through Nachmanides’ oft-quoted characterization of drunkenness as the antithesis of holiness (see his commentary on “You Shall be Holy”, Leviticus 19:2), our religious tradition presents us with the assertion that we may enjoy the presence of God, or the buzz of inebriation - but not both. They simply can’t occupy the same mind simultaneously. And since we are told to stand in God’s presence at all times (shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid), drunkenness at any time is a sacrilege. Ibn Ezra likened habitual drunkenness to heresy (see his commentary to Deuteronomy 21:20). Rabbi Yosef Karo, writing in his Bet Yosef, ruled that drunkenness is prohibited even on Purim, for “drunkenness is an absolute prohibition, and there is no greater sin that it…” (Siman 695)
Tragically though, drinking, well beyond the simple “l’chaim”, has become something of a pastime among many males in the Orthodox community. Contributing to the nature of the tragedy is the fact that much of the drinking is specifically taking place under the guise of religious activity. The OU’s highly publicized recent campaign against shul-based “Kiddush clubs” provides ample testimony to the wide-spread nature of the phenomenon. Simchat Torah has somehow become synonymous with excessive alcohol consumption, in willful ignorance of what is allegedly being celebrated. And the drinkers seem to get younger and younger with each passing year.
This is tragic for many reasons. It disfigures and distorts religious life. It introduces the high statistical likelihood that the children of these men will also begin to drink. And it testifies to the troubling reality that many of our community’s men are enjoying little to nothing in the way of authentic religious experience. When davening itself (or learning, or acts of chesed) makes you feel good, it doesn’t occur to you to supplement your experience artificially.
While the Hasidic movement has contributed many great things to mainstream Orthodoxy, the contribution of “religious drinking” – rightly condemned by non-Hasidic scholars as thoroughly foreign to us – has been a disaster.
For the sake of the children, for the sake of the families, for the sake of God and the Torah, don’t smile and pretend that somehow it’s all harmless. Don’t wait till God forbid, something unspeakably terrible happens.
September 8, 2009 | 8:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
There have been a number of interesting reactions to my call of orthodox Jewish groups to support universal health care. Two themes have emerged: 1. Most people are covered by insurance they pay for, other enjoy Medicare or Medicaid coverage and those who are not in these categories do not deserve coverage. The logic goes something like this. If one cannot afford coverage it is because they have made bad life choices and therefore should not be bailed out by the Government. 2. Religious groups need not enter this discussion, as it is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue.
As for #1, I put this under the category of cruel and misinformed. There are millions of people (growing in this economic recession) without health insurance simply because they cannot afford it and are still not covered by any Government plan.
I wish, however to focus on reason #2; the claim that the health care debate is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue. Nothing could be further form the truth. Put simply, when human life is at stake and when the less fortunate are at a disadvantage and when there are ways to make it better – it is a religious/moral issue. This is the very definition of a religious/moral issue and our tradition is full of calls to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for.
One of the highlights of my week is the teaching I do for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. THE FMAMS is the world leader in adult Jewish education and they have created a powerful model of adult Jewish education across the country.
In preparing for my teaching I came across the phrase “citing God against God”, coined by Emil Fackenheim.
One very good example of this is when Abraham challenge God about His decision to destroy Sdom. After hearing God’s plan, Avraham cries out: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked….shall the judge of the whole earth not do justice?”
Another popular reason given as to why Jews need not come out in favor of universal heath care is based on the complexity of the issue in terms of the ultimate cost of universal care. After all, what will become of research since so much funding is generated based on the current system. “Won’t small business be burdened by crippling costs?”
These are important questions and they should not be ignored, but they should not be the cause for the end of the discussion. After al, the Torah does not record Avraham weighing the “costs” of saving Sdom. He could have hesitated to argue with god, reasoning that saving Sdom for the sake of a few tzaddikim would mean the continued existence of evil in the world and a reprieve for those who did not deserve it…but he did none of that. It is not that the details are unimportant; it is that it is the duty of the religious person to make sure the world keeps their eyes o the ideal.
The willingness to challenge God has become part and parcel of Jewish tradition.
In his book, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Anson Laytner highlights this idea that appears frequently in Chassidic literature.
One of the best-known practitioners of this is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, one of the early Chasidic leaders.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak once summoned a tailor and asked him about an argument he had with God. The tailor said: “I declared to God, ‘You wish me to repent my sins, but I have committed only minor offenses.” I may have kept leftover cloth, or I may have eaten non-kosher food, or not blessed my meal. But You, O God, have committed great sins: You have taken babies from their mothers and mothers from their babies. Let’s call it even; may You forgive me, and I will forgive You.’”
After listening intently, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak rose in anger and said, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to redeem the whole world!”
Perhaps more well known in is the kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak:
Good morning to You, Lord of the world.
I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, am coming to You in a legal manner concerning Your people of Israel.
What do you want of Israel?
It is always, “Command the children of Israel.”
It is always, “Speak to the children of Israel.”
Merciful Father! How many people are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites!
The Russians, what do they say?
Our emperor is the emperor.
The Germans, what do they say?
Our kingdom is the kingdom.
But I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
And I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say: I shall not go hence, nor budge from my place until there be a finish
until there be an end of exile—
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
Judaism has never accepted the position that we could sit back and let events unfold without a struggle to make things better. Any act of chessed that one person does for another is essentially a rebellion against God. After all, God made it one way and we, with out kindness and good will, desire to change the reality. Surely, if we can speak out against God’s plan we can speak out about social injustice.
This is why it is so important for Orthodox Jewish groups to enter the discussions about heath care. Not doing so is “un-Abrahamic” and ignores a tradition of speaking out on moral issues.
September 6, 2009 | 10:16 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Many of you know that my wife and I, and our four kids, plan to make aliya in the summer of 2011 to a new town being built 20 minutes north of Beer Sheva, Carmit. The vision for Carmit is that it should be a diverse, pluralistic town eventually growing to over 10,000 people, with affordable, quality, environmentally sensitive housing. We want to attract Americans, Anglos and Israelis, datti’im of all stripes and chilonim of all stripes – just as long as people are willing to live happily in an open-minded and non-judgmental community.
My plan is to be a community rabbi in this town, to be a Rav Kehilati of a shul that reaches out to all Jews, and believes in actively programming for the community and creating an environment of togetherness and growth. There is a new appreciation in Israel, especially amongst rabbanei Tzohar, that the shul has to be a welcoming place for everyone in the community, not just the regulars or those who feel that have to come to find a minyan or a place to hear Torah reading. I want to be part of that new trend. A group of us in Chicago, including a wonderful couple Dan and Rosie Mattio – and their young baby – have formed a non-for-profit called CIPF (Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund) whose mission it is to bring Americans to Israel by creating diverse and pluralistic communities. If you want more information see the web site: CIPF.org.
Already, without even starting any official publicity, we have over 35 families – from just out of college to retirement age – who have expressed strong interest in moving to Carmit. We hope that Carmit becomes a cultural, educational and religious destination in Israel – perhaps the pluralism capital of the Holy Land. I sincerely hope that the environmental groups in Israel welcome Carmit because the type of people moving to Carmit are excited about sustainable, green living and will be the best advocates Israel has for caring for the environment. Likewise, I hope that Carmit is seen as a friend of the Jewish and Arab population – especially the Bedouins – of the Negev, because we truly will be: we will be the advocates for all populations of the Negev, and we have already had ideas about how to reach out to Bedouins nearby, to Ethiopian Jews not too far away, and to the students who are part of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who are eager to engage in social action.
Carmit, just one hour from Tel Aviv (by train) and a bit over an hour from Jerusalem, will God willing be a town representing the best of Avraham and Sarah’s open, welcoming tent and will provide a model for Jews and human beings all over the world of how to live together in harmony, learning from each other, respecting each other and benefiting from diversity and different ways of being descent human beings.
September 4, 2009 | 1:28 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
The Rambam writes in the Laws of Tishuvah (return) about this season before the holidays that, “All people should see themselves as half guilty and half meritorious, if they do one sin now they tip themselves and the entire world with them to the side of guilt and cause destruction, if they do one mitzvah they will tip themselves and the whole world with them to the side of merit and will cause for themselves and the world return and saving…Because of this the Jewish people are accustomed during this time of year to give much charity, and increase their kind deeds and mitzvoth. (3:4)” I have always felt that this expressed a beautiful tension within Judaism. On one side this notion puts a great deal of pressure on each individual, on the other hand each individual is infinitely significant.
In contrast around this time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we may be inclined to see ourselves as sinful and lowly, as nothing. As we say on Yom Kippur in the viduy (confession), “Dirt am I while alive, certainly in death…” My favorite High Holiday piut (liturgical poem), which is said on Yom Kippur at the musaf service speaks I think to this dilemma and conflict.
“Vi’avitah Tihilah” -“You Desire Praise”
“Your awe is upon the angels, who are mighty and exalted, who dwell in beautiful heights.
And You desire praise from those stained with sin, passing shadows who dwell below — and that is Your praise.”
The human is both, a combination of Godly spirit and dirt (Genesis 2:7); the highest and the lowest. In infinite irony, what God-the-Highest truly desires is the praise of the lowest — humans; and not from our Divine image identity but from our sinful, fleeting, creaturely selves. Precisely on Yom Kippur, the day on which we are most prone to feeling like sullied failures, do we have the most potential, precisely from our lowness, to meaningfully praise the Highest.