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 above is adapted from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here

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.


The above article is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!