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Parashat Nitzavim 5775 — 09/09/2015

Parashat Nitzavim 5775 — 09/09/2015

Deut 29:9-30:20

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh haShanah. In years in which there is no Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot (i.e. when Yom Kippur or Sukkot fall on Shabbat), it is combined with Parashat Vayelech and Parashat HaAzinu is read on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – there are seven days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, not counting the two days of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur themselves, so there is guaranteed to be exactly one Shabbat during that period). If there is a Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, as there is this year (Yom Kippur is on Wednesday, 23 September, and the first day of Sukkot is on Monday, 28 September), then we need an “extra” parashah and Nitzavim and Vayelech are split.

There are a couple of simple rules for remembering when the holidays can fall. Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Friday, because then Yom Kippur would be on Sunday, and it would interfere with the end of Shabbat (you can’t sing Kol Nidre on Shabbat as it has the form of a court proceeding, and you can’t sing it at night, after Shabbat is over, as court proceedings cannot begin after dark), and Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Wednesday, because then Yom Kippur would be on Friday, and one would be unable to prepare for Shabbat, or light the Shabbat candles. In addition, Rosh haShanah cannot fall on Sunday, because then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, which the Rabbis disallowed for historical reasons that would take another two paragraphs to explain. Since Sukkot is on the fifteenth of month of Tishri, it comes on the same day of the week as Rosh haShanah, which is on the first. Similarly, Shemini Atzeret is the 22nd and also falls on the same date. All the months between Nisan and Tishri have fixed lengths – all the possible adjustments to the Jewish calendar take place in the winter – Cheshvan and Kislev can have either 29 or 30 days, and in leap years, such as the upcoming year 5776, an extra 30-day month (Adar I) is added. Since all the months between Nisan (Pesach is the 15th of Nisan) and Tishri are fixed, Rosh haShanah always comes 2 days in the week after Pesach – Pesach 5775 was on Shabbat and Rosh haShanah is on Monday. Since Rosh haShanah can only fall on Shabbat, Monday, Tuesday or Thursday, Pesach can only fall on Thursday, Shabbat, Sunday or Tuesday, and the lengths of Cheshvan and Kislev are adjusted accordingly. Leap years occur 7 times in a 19-year cycle: in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19. The year 5776 is the 19th year of cycle #304 since the creation of the world.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming…

With the High Holy Days coming up in a few days, our thoughts naturally turn to t’shuvah, return to Gd. Rav Kook, the spiritual guide of the generation of Jews that began the return of our people to the Land of Israel, was especially attuned to the power of t’shuvah:

sin primarily harms the one who sinned, as it cuts him off from the roots of his very being, from the light of his soul. This estrangement is sin’s worst punishment. T’shuvah, on the other hand, redeems the sinner from this darkness. It rejuvenates him, restoring his previous state of life and joy.

The word t’shuvah literally means “return.” It is not an escape from the world. On the contrary, it is precisely through genuine, pure t’shuvah that we return to the world and to life.

Our tradition tells us that our essence is our soul, and that our soul is placed inside a body in order for it to be able to interact with the material world. The material world of course poses moral challenges for the soul, and it is through meeting these challenges that the soul grows, and the Divine plan for the perfection of the universe unfolds.

The body is described as the “garment” of the soul. Now a garment can both reveal and conceal. A tight-fitting garment may cover the entire body, yet it can also reveal quite a lot about that body! The body, by its actions, can reveal something of the character of the soul which inhabits it, but it can also conceal from that very soul the nature of its own source. The reason for this concealment is sin. The natural tendency of the soul is to seek its infinite Source, which is all good and is eternal bliss. The natural tendency of the body is to seek physical pleasure, as ephemeral as it may be. It is this tendency of the body to seek physical pleasure at all costs that creates the moral challenges the soul must face. Essentially the soul is in a constant battle to control the body, like a rider on an unruly horse. Sin occurs when the body “coerces” the soul into making a wrong moral choice, in order for the body to gain some kind of physical pleasure. The wrong moral choice distances the soul from its own nature, covers it over, as it were, with a thicker, less permeable crust of materiality, and in doing so, makes it easier for the soul to make further incorrect moral choices. As our Sages say (Pirke Avot 4:2) – a sin brings another in its wake.

We actually experience this mechanics in our day-to-day life. If we get a good night’s sleep we are fresh and clear, and we make good decisions. As the day goes on we get fatigued, our mind gets cloudy, and sometimes this causes us to make less than ideal decisions. Once we start making bad decisions, it seems to spiral out of control, as we frantically try anything to put the genii back into the bottle. In some cases, environmental stressors are so severe that they leave a deeper, long-lasting fatigue in the nervous system (e.g. child abuse victims). In these cases it appears that the individuals involved are trapped in dysfunctional patterns of behavior that quickly lead to serious trouble and institutionalization.

The remedy for these vicious cycles is t’shuvah. We do not deal with the sins/problems on their own level. It’s become a common saying that the kind of thinking that created a problem in the first place will never be able to solve it. With t’shuvah we return the soul to its infinite source and allow ourselves to see the world from a completely new perspective. Real t’shuvah is a life-transforming experience, one that irreversibly alters our perception and our behavior, because through it we are able to transcend our normal way of life, to contact the basis of our whole life. It forces us to readjust our priorities from the gaudy and ephemeral which demands our immediate attention, to the eternal, which is, after all, the only thing that counts, because it alone is real life.

In a few days we begin the 10 days of t’shuvah. There will be resolutions and much breast-beating. All this is a good start, but if we sit down to break the fast on Yom Kippur and we are the same person that we are today, thinking the same old thoughts and behaving in the same old way, then we will have cheated ourselves out of a precious opportunity to become what we really should, and can be. We need to think deeply and honestly about who we are, why we are here, and what we can do to accomplish what we have been put here to accomplish. It can be a painful process, but the result is living a clean, pure life, in the light of Gd.

L’Shanah Tovah uM’tukah to all

Pirke Avot, Chapters 5&6

Chapter 6, Mishnah 4

This is the way of Torah: To eat bread with salt, to drink water by ration, to sleep on the ground, to live a life of hardship and to toil in the Torah. If you do this, you will be happy and it will be well with you; you will be happy – in this world; and it will be well with you – in the World to Come.

The Mishnah cannot be interpreted on it’s surface level – after all, many of our greatest Sages were extremely wealthy men, including Rabbi Akiva, upon whose work the entire Mishnah is based, and R. Yehudah haNasi, who redacted the Mishnah. I would like to suggest another approach. In order to achieve the highest levels of Torah knowledge, one has to prioritize Torah study above everything else in life, as indeed our great Sages did. In this case, although one may have great wealth, one would actually be quite satisfied eating just a little bit of bread with salt, drinking a little bit when he absolutely needed to, falling asleep over his books, etc. In other words, he withdraws from the material world not out of fear of what it will do to him, nor of disgust with its ephemeral nature, but because he is naturally drawn into the spiritual world of Torah. Since Yom Kippur will soon be here, I’d like to point out that we can take this approach to the fasting and other “afflictions” of the day. The Torah says, v’initem et nafshotechem, usually translated as “You shall afflict your souls.” But it can also be translated, “You shall make your souls poor.” How do we make our souls “poor.” We withdraw from the material world and transcend the various sensory inputs (to the extent possible) by not eating or drinking or fooling around. Of course in doing so, our soul comes in contact with its unbounded, eternal nature, and this contact, to whatever extent, gets infused into the other days of the year. Thus transformed, we can live a happy and fulfilled life – a truly spiritual life – in both this world and the next!

This concludes this year’s readings in Pirke Avot. May the coming year bring blessings to us and to all Israel, and through Israel to the entire world.