Tag Archives: Repentance

Three Reasons to be Religious

An artist’s rendition of the Ark of the Covenant

In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.

1. Personal Development that Works

Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”

Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.

One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:

The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.

Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.

Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.

2. The Importance of Community

While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.

“Belongingness” fills the third rung of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Judaism neatly facilitates the fulfilment of all five rungs.

Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.

It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.

And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!

3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe

Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.

While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.

And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.

In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.

The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.

Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.

And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.

Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)

Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.

How to Receive God’s Blessing

This week’s parasha is Re’eh, which begins by stating:

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you will heed the commandments of Hashem your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of Hashem your God…

God promises that a person who fulfils His mitzvot will be blessed, and one who does not will be cursed. The phrasing is interesting: we might assume it would be clearer to say a person who fulfills God’s mitzvot would be blessed, and one who sins or transgresses the mitzvot will be cursed. Instead, the Torah connects the observance of mitzvot with receiving blessing. What, exactly, is a blessing? And what does it have to do with a mitzvah?

Heaven Down to Earth

The Hebrew word for blessing, brakhah (ברכה), shares a root with two similar words. The first is brekhah (spelled the same way), which means a “pool” or source of water. The second is berekh (ברך), which means a “knee”. What do these seemingly unrelated things have to do with blessing?

Our Sages teach that a blessing is a source of abundance, like a well from which water can be drawn continuously, hence its relation to brekhah. Each blessing in Judaism begins with the words Barukh Atah Adonai, meaning not that we are blessing God (which is impossible), but that we recognize God is the infinite source of all blessing and abundance. The name of God used here is the Tetragrammaton, denoting God’s eternity and infinity, alluded to by the fact that the Name is essentially a conjunction of the verb “to be” in past (היה), present (הווה), and future (יהיה) tenses.

The blessing continues with the words Eloheinu Melekh haOlam. Now, the name of God switches to Elohim, referring to His powers as manifest in this world. Thus, he is described as Melekh haOlam, the “king of the universe”. That same ungraspable, ineffable God permeates every inch of the universe He created, controlling and sustaining the tiniest of details. And so, when we recite a blessing, we are stating that God is the ultimate source of all things, transforming the infinite into the finite, and showering us with constant abundance.

This is where the second related root of berakhah comes in—the knee. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the purpose of the knee is to allow a person to bend down or descend. Thus, when one recites a blessing, they are causing God to “descend” into this world, so to speak, and bless us. When we are blessing, what we are really doing is receiving a blessing. This is alluded to by the very root letters of the word for blessing, beit (ב), reish (ר), and khaf (כ), whose corresponding numerical values are 2, 200, and 20, respectively. These doublets represents the two-way nature of a blessing.

Plugging in to the Source

Our holy texts affirm that God is constantly showering us with blessings. Yet, oftentimes it may seem like our lives are devoid of blessing. What’s going on? Imagine walking out into a torrential rain and trying to catch the water with your bare hands. No matter how much water is pouring over you, it is unlikely that you will succeed. Now imagine doing the same thing with a bucket in each hand.

The same is true for blessings. One needs the appropriate vessel to receive the abundance. In this case, the vessel is the person. To receive holy blessings, the vessel must be made holy. This is accomplished through the performance of mitzvot, which are designed to rectify and sanctify the person.

On a deeper level, the purpose of the mitzvot is to bind a Jew directly to God. In fact, it is taught that the root of mitzvah actually means “to bind”. God is the Infinite Source of all things, and if one wants to receive from the Infinite, they must only tap into It and form the right connection. Once such a connection is made, there is no end to how much blessing can be obtained.

This is why the parasha begins by telling us that a person who fulfils the mitzvot will be blessed, while a person who does not fulfil them will be “cursed”, devoid of all blessing. It is also why Jews going to receive a berakhah from a great tzaddik are often given a blessing only on the condition that they take upon themselves some kind of mitzvah. The same is true in prayer, during which it is customary to give tzedakah, tying our requests with the fulfilment of an important mitzvah.

Every mitzvah that is done opens up another channel of Heavenly Light, and each time it is repeated that channel is widened and reinforced. In fact, our Sages speak of precisely 620 channels of light shining down into this world, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the rabbis (or the additional 7 Noahide laws).

As we enter the month of Elul and begin a forty day period of heightened repentance and prayer, we should be thinking about which mitzvahs we can take on, which we might improve upon, and how we can further sanctify ourselves in order to become the purest possible vessel of divinity. We mustn’t forget that the blessing is always shining down upon us; we must only be prepared to receive it.

Should Jews Celebrate New Year’s?

On December 31st, much of the world’s population stays up past midnight to commemorate the start of the new calendar year. This event is considered to be the most widely-celebrated public holiday in the world. Yet every year, many Jews wonder if they should be participating in these celebrations. Some answer with a quick no, since January 1st is associated with the circumcision of Jesus (as it is the 8th day following Christmas, December 25th). Others may say yes, since, among other reasons, we all use the Gregorian calendar, and January 1st is simply a secular holiday, having lost any past religious affiliations. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Back to the Roman Calendar

Roman Empire (Credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia)

Roman Empire (Credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia)

Today’s Gregorian calendar is based on the older Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar. Historical records show that by the time of Julius Caesar, the Romans celebrated their new year on January 1st. In fact, “January” is named after the Roman god Janus, the deity of beginnings and ends, doors and gateways. Janus is always depicted as a double-headed god, with one head looking back into the past, and the other gazing into the future.

January 1st was also the start of the consular year in Rome, when the two highest-ranking elected officials, the consuls, took up their office for a single year term. From this information, we see that January 1st was already celebrated as a new year long before the time of Jesus.

Was Jesus Circumcised on the 1st of January?

Today, some Christian denominations still commemorate January 1st as the “Feast of the Circumcision”. The math is simple: if Christmas is the holiday of Jesus’ birth, then like all Jews he would have been circumcised on the eight day following his birth – January 1st. The question is: was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

Of course, many are aware of the fact that Jesus was certainly not born on the 25th of December. The New Testament does not mention the date of his birth at all, and suggests it was sometime in the summer, since it mentions people going to take a census (always done in the summer months), and that the shepherds were out watching their flocks (which they probably wouldn’t do in the cold winter nights of December). Early Christian leaders gave various dates to the birth of Jesus, ranging from March 28th to November 18th. Today, scholars believe it was likely the end of September.

Ironically, early Christian leaders actually mocked those who celebrated birthdays of any kind, especially that of Jesus, and considered it a pagan ritual. Alas, this is where Christmas actually comes from. Originally, December 25th was around the time of the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Later, it was also instituted as a holiday in honour of the birth of Sol Invictus, the solar deity. This comes from an ancient tradition to celebrate the “birth of the sun”, since the days start getting longer around this time of the year, hence the “solar rebirth”. To make Christianity more palatable to pagans, Christian leaders eventually switched “birth of the sun” to “birth of the Son”, ie. Jesus. And so, Jesus was not born on the 25th of December, and certainly wasn’t circumcised on the 1st of January.

(That is, of course, if Jesus had existed at all. More and more scholars are agreeing that Jesus probably never existed to begin with. Click here to read more about this.)

Celebrating the New Year on the 1st of January

Most European countries actually adopted January 1st as the start of a new year quite recently. The British Empire celebrated the New Year on March 25th until 1752! Similarly, many calendars continue to celebrate a new year sometime in the spring, including the Iranian, Assyrian, and several Indian calendars. Others have New Year’s days at other times, most famously the Chinese New Year in late January/early February. Nonetheless, most of these places, including China, also commemorate January 1st as the start of an international new year. Today, January 1st is definitely devoid of any real religious significance, and is perhaps the one truly global celebration. Having said that, it may still be tied to a historical bitterness for the Jewish people.

Sylvester’s Day

In several European countries, New Year’s Eve is called “Sylvester” or “St. Sylvester’s Day”. In Israel, too, December 31st is called “Sylvester”. This is the day of the passing of Pope Sylvester I, later canonized as a saint. Essentially nothing is known of this pope, though various legends arose over the centuries. Historical records suggest that it was during his reign that the Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Milan which, among other things, stripped Jews of various rights and forbade them from living in Jerusalem.

Yet, Sylvester has nothing to do with New Year’s Eve itself; it is simply a coincidence of dates. Besides, many churches mark Sylvester’s Day on January 2nd, not December 31st. Either way, few people commemorate Sylvester’s Day at all, and most people have never even heard of it. (If Sylvester really was so bad for the Jews, maybe we should celebrate the day of his death!)

New Year’s in the Talmud

Amazingly, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) actually discusses New Year’s, calling it by its Roman name, Kalenda, or Kalends. The Mishnah here begins by listing it among the holidays of idol worshippers. However, it then goes on to explain that Kalenda originates in the Torah!

The Rabbis explain that following the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, Adam soon noticed that the days were gradually getting shorter. (Since he was created on Rosh Hashanah – in the autumn – and consumed the Fruit that very same day.) Adam mistakenly thought that the days must be getting shorter because of his sin, and the world was descending into eternal darkness. He started to fast in repentance, and after eight days of fasting, the winter solstice came, and Adam noticed that the days were once again getting longer. In celebration, Adam established an eight-day feast (to balance out his eight-day fast). The following year, Adam commemorated both the winter solstice (around December 25th) and the day that marked the end of his eight-day feast (January 1st). The Talmudic sages conclude: “However, [Adam] established them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appropriated them for the sake of idolatry.”

So perhaps, if we have the sake of Heaven in mind, we may just be able to celebrate New Year’s after all.

The Legend of Azazel: Scapegoat, or Fallen Angel?

The parashot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are typically read together. The major part of Acharei deals with various sacrificial services, most notably those concerning Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Kedoshim begins by telling us that it is every person’s mission in life to become holy, just as God Himself is holy. This parasha is concerned with ethics, morality, and the path to righteousness, and includes the famous dictum to “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Perhaps the most peculiar item in this week’s portion is the mention of Azazel. As part of the atonement procedure on Yom Kippur, God commands Aaron to select (through a random lottery) two goats: one to be sacrificed, and another to be sent “to Azazel, in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:10). Aaron would place his hands on the goat to Azazel, and confess all of the people’s sins, as if transferring them to the animal (v. 21). The goat was then sent off into the wilderness.

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 46) writes that this act is completely symbolic. It does not mean that the High Priest literally transferred the people’s sins onto the goat, but that witnessing this act was meant to inspire a sense of repentance in the people, “as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

But what exactly is “Azazel”? What does the word mean? And why was the goat that symbolized sin sent towards it? The Talmud (Yoma 67b) maintains that the word Azazel can be broken down to mean “hardest of mountains”. This may be why some believe that the goat was sent off the edge of a mountainous cliff down to its death. The Talmud then presents the opinion of the school of Rabbi Ishmael: Azazel is a contraction of two names: Aza (or Uza) and Aza’el, and the goat atones for their sins. Other than this short allusion, this page of Talmud says nothing more.

Who were Aza and Aza’el?

The Fallen Angels

The origins of Aza and Aza’el are described in the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 44). When speaking of midrashic literature, it is important to remember the old adage that goes something like: one who believes that midrash is not true is a heretic, but one who believes that midrash is literally true is a fool. After all, the midrash corresponds to the third level of Torah study, referring to the metaphorical and allegorical level. (The other levels are peshat, the literal meaning; remez, the sub-textual meaning; and sod, esoteric/metaphysical secrets.)

Aza’el and Aza (also known as Shemhazai) were angels who saw the terrible sins of the people in the pre-Flood generation and scoffed at the pathetic humans. God told them that if they had been on Earth and given free will, they would succumb to their evil inclination far worse than people do. The angels wanted to prove God wrong, and asked Him to send them down to Earth into a physical body. God complied, and just as He had said, the angels quickly fell into all forms of evil.

Firstly, they could not hold back from the beautiful women, and this is what Genesis 6:2 means when it refers to divine beings mating with humans. The Midrash continues to say that it was these angels that taught women the art of makeup and provocative dress in order to entice men into further sin. These angels helped to bring the sword to the world, increasing bloodshed and warfare, as well as the consumption of animal meat, which was at this point forbidden, as God had only permitted Adam and Eve to consume fruits and vegetables.

Ultimately, the Midrash tells us that Shemhazai recognized his evil ways, and began a long process of repentance. No longer on Earth, but still not welcome back in the Heavenly realms, Shemhazai was suspended between the two worlds. Aza’el, on the other hand, refused to repent, and continued his evil ways. Thus, the Midrash concludes that the High Priest, in an act of repentance, would symbolically send the people’s sins towards Azazel, the one who taught mankind a new level of sinfulness, and refused to repent.

More details can be found in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha refers to various ancient books which were not officially included in the Tanakh. Their origins are unclear, as is their authenticity. Nonetheless, they appear to have been well-known among the Jewish Sages, and are referenced in Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalistic writings. One of the most famous of the apocryphal books is the Book of Enoch, which describes the journeys of Enoch (Hanoch, in Hebrew), who is briefly mentioned in Genesis 5:22. In the Book of Enoch, it is recorded that God sent the angel Raphael to apprehend Aza’el and stop his evil ways. Aza’el was chained to the “hardest of mountains” in the wilderness, as the Talmud quoted above explained. His painful imprisonment was a punishment, and the goats sent his way were a form of atonement for his sins. It is written there that at the End of Days, his time will come to an end, and Aza’el will finally be gone for good.