Rosh Chodesh Elul: Hashem is my Light and Salvation

A couple of years ago, on Rosh Chodesh Ellul, during one of the darkest and most challenging periods in my life, I visited the Alma Cave with my children. The Alma Cave, located near Tzfat, is the deepest cave in Israel. While preparing for the trip I saw that flashlights are required, but I thought that our mobile phone lights would suffice. Apparently, that was not the case.

The path is very narrow, steep and slippery and you need both hands to navigate. Luckily, a family emerging from the cave saw our problem and graciously offered us their head-lights. After walking for 20 minutes into the cave, my youngest daughter complained that it was too scary for her and she couldn’t continue, but the other children refused to quit and exit. Since it’s an out-and-back trail, I suggested that I would stay with her until the others returned, and I gave them the head-lights.

I sat down with my daughter in complete darkness, unable to move either forward or backward, since the reflective trail signs were not visible without a light source. I proposed that we try sitting quietly in the dark and reflecting on our lives. These 45 minutes in complete darkness, were among the most powerful moments of my life. The first verse of the special psalm we say during Ellul – “Le’David Hashem Ori ve’Ishi” – “The Lord is my light and my salvation” – ran through my head over and over again.

Sometimes, we find ourselves at a point of total darkness in our lives. We don’t always know what brought us there or how to get out of it. The path is not visible, and wherever we turn we hit walls. What we truly need at such times is a special light that can illuminate the road signs and lead us slowly but surely toward the light at the end of the tunnel, to our personal salvation.

Perhaps this is the essence of the month of Ellul. Before beginning the actual mitzvot and rituals of repentance and atonement during the Days of Awe, we have a whole month of preparations in which to “let go and let G-d”. During this month we should be open to receiving and absorbing the Divine light that can illuminate the road signs along our life journey. That has been my personal experience; the most meaningful journey of my life started in that tunnel and became an open-ended journey of personal growth and unqualified faith, in which I have been fortunate to see many clear road signs.

The Hebrew word for crisis is mashber. The root of that word is shever, brokenness, but the origin of that word is the exact opposite, it means a birthing stool: “Ki vau banim ad mashber – for the children have come as far as the birthing stool and have no strength to give birth” (Melachim II 19:3). Every crisis that we experience has the potential to be the birthplace for a new stage in our lives, and to serve as a driving force for epic personal growth. Writing my recently published book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge”, the most significant and meaningful project in my life, was a direct outcome of one of the biggest crises I had to face – a beam of light that emerged from the frightening darkness.

Usually, people who find themselves facing major challenges and times of acute pain do anything possible to escape and numb these dark feelings. We keep ourselves busy with work, imagine ourselves as victims, blame others and inflict pain on them, and sometimes resort to self-destructive behaviors.

The Jewish way of dealing with darkness is exactly the opposite. When facing darkness and pain, it is time to return to ourselves, to the essence of our soul, to the core of our inner being. This is the beginning of the process of Teshuva which we start during Ellul, as Rav Kook articulates: “The first act of Teshuva, which illuminates the darkness immediately, is for one to return to himself, to the root of his soul.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

For many of us this year, these excruciating experiences are familiar, particularly with the traumas caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the terrible uncertainties that we are living with, the upcoming month of Ellul gives us an opportunity to practice that sort of Teshuva – by returning to ourselves and opening our minds to the Divine light. This can illuminate the road signs and help us to turn the global crisis into the birthplace of a profound new dimension in the way we live our lives, with more strength, resilience and faith. As King David exclaims in the opening line of the Elul psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; who shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; who should I be frightened of?” (Psalms 27:1)

inner vision glasses

New Inner Vision Glasses for Life

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse;
The blessing that you will hear…
and the curse, if you will not hear…”

The title of the weekly Torah portion usually epitomizes its content. Moshe Rabbeinu in his fiery speeches in Sefer Devarim, frequently utilizes the motif of hearing: “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear Israel,” In our Parsha too, Moshe speaks of the power of hearing as the root of the blessing: “The blessing that you will hear.” However, the Parsha opens with the word ”Re’eh” which means “see”, and this word was chosen as the Parsha title.

In order to understand the profound meaning of a word in the Torah, we usually look at the first time it appears. The first time we read about the human sense of sight is in the story of the tree of knowledge:

“When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and then they heard the voice of G-d”

Chava sees the fruit of the tree, desires it, and is unable to resist eating it. According to the Kabbalah, if Chava had waited only three hours until the beginning of the first Shabbat, she and Adam would have been allowed to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

As an outcome of their sin, Adam and Chava open their eyes, but in fact they lose their sense of sight. Until this moment, their sense of sight was a divine and spiritual sense, a vision that penetrates deeply and observes the inner reality. Their sin, which resulted from looking externally and superficially at the fruit of the tree, blocked them from being able to see more deeply.

That is why Adam and Chava suddenly see their bodies and are ashamed of their nakedness. Before the sin, their vision penetrated through the screen of the body and they saw into each other’s souls. After the sin, they also lost their ability to see God and they were only able to hear His voice. The new reality of blindness to the inner reality is frightening, which is why Adam says to God:

“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

When the Children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, we were given a second chance to reacquire that spiritual sense of sight that enables us to see the internal reality:

“And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.

Rashi in his commentary explains that seeing the voices was an extraordinary sensory experience: He explains: “They saw what was audible, which is impossible to see elsewhere.” This intense seeing experience frightened them too, and they ask Moshe to make this stop and allow them to return to using the normal sense of hearing:

“You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.”

Eventually, Moshe ascended alone to meet God, and the people in an act of impatience made the golden calf and caused the breaking of the tablets and the loss of that special sense of inner sight.

I believe this is the message that Moshe Rabbeinu is trying to convey in his phenomenal speech in our Parsha. He teaches us to adopt other “glasses for life” – glasses for inner vision. Inner vision requires restraint, patience, courage and depth. Not everything that looks sweet on the outside is good on the inside. The power of desire that blinds Chava’s eyes is a power that contemporary culture glorifies. Many advertisements rely on our desires to promote products, and this adds layers of blindness to our inner vision of reality.

Similarly, not everything that seems painful and upsetting is actually to our detriment. When we face major challenges in life, when someone hurts us or causes us pain, we have the choice whether to become victims or survivors, with the courage to recognize that reality can serve as a mirror for us. Sometimes the people who hurt us reflect faults that exist within us and need fixing.

The Sages taught us: “Everyone who disqualifies someone else, disqualifies them with his own flaws.” Someone who sees a defect in others is afraid to look inside themselves and therefore inflicts their weaknesses on others. Understanding our own reality, and looking in the mirror that other people sometimes hold up for us, enables us to use our inner vision. Such inner vision can allow us to grow out of any crisis, instead of blaming others for our troubles. Adam and Chava blamed others for their errors and perhaps that was their biggest mistake:

“The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree; so I ate.”    

“The serpent enticed me, and I ate.”

In contrast, Moshe Rabbenu tries to teach us how to adopt that inner vision as the source of finding blessing in our lives.

By improving our inner vision, by putting on new glasses and seeing the world through different eyes, we can hear God callings to us through the events in our lives, through our social interactions and through our closest relationships “The blessing that you will hear”.

If we can wear these perceptive new glasses, we will see immediately, even during the current crisis, how even the most excruciating challenges we face are designed for our benefit. When we find the courage to look inside ourselves, we can understand that what seems to be a curse may actually be a blessing. These are the special inner-vision glasses that Moshe Rabbenu recommends for us in our Parsha:

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

The Power of Listening

The title of the weekly portion usually epitomizes its content. Why did the Torah choose the word ‘Ekev’ instead of other more commonly used Hebrew words for ‘if’ such as ‘Im” or ‘Asher’, which express the same meaning. Apparently, the English translation of the opening verse “ve’Haya ekev tishmeun” does not reveal that nuance: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made with your fathers”. What is the significance of the word Ekev in that context?  Furthermore, why does the Torah promise us a reward? We believe that this is not the ultimate way to worship G-d, as Antigonus said in Pirkei Avot (1:3): “Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward.”

The key to understanding the usage of uncommon words is to look at the first time that the word appears in the Torah. The first time the word ‘Ekev’ appears is describing the punishment of the serpent: “Hu yeshufcha rosh, ve’ata teshufenu akev” – “They shall strike at your head and you shall strike at their heel”. In this context, the word ‘Ekev’ has a different meaning – ‘heel’ – rather than ‘if’.

The first sin of humanity, the sin of Adam and Chava, began with a misuse of their sense of hearing -‘shemi’ah’. They listened to the voice of the serpent instead of listening to G-d. When they were able to hear G-d calling them, they ran away from His voice and tried to seal their ears:  “Va’Yishmeu et kol Hashem” – “And they heard the voice of G-d…and the man and his wife hid from the LORD G-d among the trees of the garden.”

The head is our most upper and anterior part, the opposite of the heel which is the lowest and posterior body part. In order to correct the first sin and learn how to listen, we need to get to the bottom of things, from the head to the heel. Often, we don’t have the courage to truly listen to other people. We hear but we don’t listen, out of fear, insecurity or self-defense. When others speak to us and say things we don’t like to hear, we often cringe, become defensive and start to prepare our response while they are still talking, without really listening. We often listen to their ‘headlines’  – to what they appear to be saying, but we are not brave enough to get to the bottom of the matter – to the ‘heel’ – ‘ekev’.

When we are not able to really listen to our loved ones it is often because we think they are threatening us, when in fact they serve as the mirror for our weaknesses. We instinctively feel the need to get into defense mode, or to flee, block our ears, and even blame others for our errors.

If we have the courage and patience to listen to the end, to the ‘ekev’,  we can truly grow and deepen the bond with those closest to us. This will give us the courage to listen to opposing opinions, not to be afraid of them and not to try to silence them. Once we can let go of all these defensive strategies, we will begin to realize that true listening in the key to self-growth: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” (Avot 4:1)

We are all experiencing stressful times now. Uncertainty about the future, together with serious financial and personal challenges, are making people  impatient, angry and even verbally or physically violent. The sense that the political leadership is not helping people with these challenges is adding fuel to the fire. However, these negative behaviors are triggered by our default defense mechanism, as an instinctive reaction to the vulnerability and insecurity that we are feeling. Especially now, we need to pay special attention to the need for hearing and listening, in our families and our communities, as individuals and as leaders. The challenges we are facing  offer us the opportunity to let go of all these false protective screens and open ourselves up to the strength and resilience that lies within the authentic experience of vulnerability.

The entire book of Devarim deals with the power of hearing – “Shema Yisrael” – “Hear O Israel”, “Et ha’bracha asher tishmeun!” – “The blessing if you will hearken!” The true blessing is to efficiently utilize and develop the muscle of hearing. The consequences of truly listening are not a reward but rather a blessing. If we learn to hear, this true blessing will come naturally into our lives. So, do we have the courage, especially now, to let go and truly listen?

Frozen Tu B'Av

Unfreezing Our Hearts – Reflections on Tu B’Av in COVID-19 Times

“Frozen” is my youngest daughter’s favorite Disney movie, so I have seen it a few times and even remember many lines by heart! Here is the essence of the story for whoever has missed out. Princess Anna falls in love with Prince Hans, and from their first date she knows she wants to marry him. Her sister Elsa is very angry with her, refusing to accept the idea of love at first sight, so she runs away and freezes the world. Anna goes searching for Elsa with  a simple rural guy named Christoph. During their journey, Anna’s heart freezes. In order to save her, they must find someone who truly loves her, as only true love will thaw her heart. Christoph, who secretly loves Anna, does his best to bring her to Prince Hans, but he refuses to help. Olaf, the wise snowman, tells Anna a very important secret: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before your own. Christoph was willing to sacrifice everything to bring you to Hans and therefore only he truly loves you!”

Why am I sharing this? Tu B’Av is coming up (August 5 this year) and in some Jewish circles this day has become an imitation of Valentine’s Day – a day that focuses on the superficial aspects of love and romanticizes the idea of love at first sight. This perception is based of the following description of the Mishnah: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days, the daughters of Jerusalem…came out to dance in the vineyards. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.” (Ta’anit 4:8)

However, when reading the entire text of the Mishnah more carefully, a different kind of love story would be found: “On these days, the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to embarrass anyone who had nothing.” Our clothes are our most personal items of self-expression, and on Tu B’Av every bride-to-be was willing to wear a simple dress so as not to embarrass her friends who did not have beautiful outfits to wear. As Olaf taught us, true love is putting someone else’s needs before your own.

On Tu B’Av and on Yom Kippur, the girls wore white dresses and not colorful clothing. White symbolizes simplicity and purity. These were not days for “showing off” but rather times for authenticity, for showing our true colors, with no judgment or competition – only empathy and compassion. That is why Tu B’Av, should be the happiest day of the year and a festival of true and authentic love.

We are taught that our Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – and that in order to rebuild our nation, we must increase Ahavat Chinam – true and unconditional love. This means developing authentic love for one another, based on our ability to recognize  and prioritize the needs of others. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us –  as individuals, families, communities and Jewish institutions – unprecedented financial challenges. Many have lost their jobs, businesses are suffering, philanthropists are reducing their donations, and Jewish institutions find themselves in dire straits. Many families are struggling to keep their children in Jewish education frameworks. We need to prepare for a new reality for the coming few years. We need to create support systems in our communities to ensure that we do not “embarrass anyone who has nothing”, so that anyone who wishes to keep their children in Jewish education and maintain their membership of their community and other Jewish institutions will be able to do so, regardless of their financial status. Now is the time to practice Ahavat Chinam literally; it’s time to love other people unconditionally and include each and every family in our communities and our schools, even if they don’t have the money to pay (chinam). 

Tu B’Av, the festival of true love, is the day on which we can start to repair our past errors, by sowing the seeds of Ahavat Chinam that will ultimately bring the rebuilding of our nation, as Rav Kook wrote so beautifully:

“If we were destroyed, and the world was destroyed with us, on account of gratuitous hatred, then we will be rebuilt, and the world with us, through gratuitous love.” (Orot HaKodesh 3, p. 324) 

On Tu B’Av and Ahavat Chinam

Tu B’Av is colloquially known as the Festival of Love.  It was one of the two best days of the year, along with Yom Kippur:

Rabban Shimon son of Gamliel said: “Israel did not have better days than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass those who did not have them.

And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? “Young man, look and observe well whom you are about to choose. Do not dwell on the beauty, dwell on the family”.

(Mishnah Ta’anit, 4:8)

What is Tu B’Av all about, and why is it compared with Yom Kippur? Our Rabbis give six reasons for the special events that took place on the fifteenth of Av, among which were:

  • The day on which the tribes were allowed to intermarry” – When the Bnei Israel came to Eretz Israel, intertribal marriage was forbidden to prevent land being passed on from one tribe to another in cases where daughters inherited from their fathers. This decree was abolished at the time of the Judges on the 15th of Av.
  • The day on which the tribe of Benjamin was allowed to return to the congregation” – After the terrible disaster known as Pilegesh BeGiva – the concubine on the hill – there was a war between the various tribes of Israel in which 70,000 men were killed. Benjamin was the tribe responsible for this conflict, and the elders of the congregation declared that no other tribe must marry its men. This decree was also revoked on the 15th of Av.
  • The day on which Hosea son of Ella dismissed the guards, appointed by Jeroboam son of Nebat, to guard the roads and prevent the Israelites from making pilgrimages, and said that whoever wishes to make a pilgrimage may do so” – After the kingdom was split into Israel and Judea, King Jeroboam placed army guards on the roads to Judea to ensure that his subjects do not make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. King Hosea son of Ella abolished this law and permitted all to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem once more.

The joy associated with Tu B’Av stems from the empowerment of equality as a value, as the Mishnah states: “For on them the maidens of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass those who did not have them.” On that day, the social strata were ignored. No one took pride in what she owned, and no one was ashamed of what she didn’t have. Even the elite daughters of society removed their beautiful garments and wore borrowed clothes. This key event on Tu B’Av was held in the vineyards with everyone mingling with one another, without condescension or alienation. It was a huge display of love, in which members of every sector participated.

That was also the reason behind the dance. It was performed in a circle, where no classes or strata can be discerned. Every point in the circle is equally far from the center, and thus Tu B’Av was in fact a Jewish celebration of social equality.

Moreover, the decrees annulled on that day were associated with reconnecting the various parts of society to one another: tribes were allowed to intermarry, Benjamin was allowed back into the congregation and the Israelites were allowed to return to the unifying  city of Jerusalem: “The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together.” (Tehilim 122); “Said Rabbi Yehushua Ben Levi: A city that makes all Israel chaverim (friends).”  (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 2:6).

The Beit HaMikdash was destroyed on 9th Av because of baseless hatred, and in that sense Tu B’Av, celebrated 6 days later, is the day of atonement and rebuilding. just as Yom HaKipurim. It is a day of Ahavat Chinam, unqualified and unconditional love, which is the very foundation for the rebuilding of Beit Hamikdash, as Rav Kook says:

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — Ahavat Chinam. (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

We have been practicing social distancing for months, because it has proven to be the most effective way to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the pandemic of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) from which we have been suffering for thousands of years should be battled with the exact opposite weapon – social closeness. By this I mean not physical closeness but rather emotional closeness, despite all of our disputes and disagreements. Social closeness is the spiritual essence of Tu B’Av and the reason that it should be the happiest days of the year.

Happy Festival of Love and Unity!