Journeys 5782

“The phrase ‘Leich l’Shalom‘ is not merely a wish for a bon voyage; it refers to the striving for ever greater spiritual perfection.”

Ohr Torah Stone is proud to bring you a daily dose of Torah inspiration from our staff and global emissaries. Below, they share not only their Torah thoughts, but also offer a glimpse into their own personal journeys…

As our current journey toward Yom Kippur 5782 draws to a close, Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander shares his insights and inspiration in this video.

May your personal journey always continue along the path of good health, success and happiness.

Rabbi Shlomo Wallfish

Rabbi Shlomo Walfish
Senior Faculty (ra"m)
Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

(Five minute read)

The Mishnah in Baba Kama (Chapter 8, Mishnah 7) gives a summary of the compensatory damages that have to be paid by a person who injured or embarrassed his friend.  The Mishnah goes on to say that the offender not only has to pay damages, but he must also appease the offended party.  The Mishnah’s argument is based on the story in which Sarah was taken by King Abimelech and later returned to Abraham following an instruction from God.  From this episode, it seems that the offended party has to forgive his offender wholeheartedly.  A true expression of this sincere forgiveness is if the offended prays for the offender who has asked for forgiveness.    

“Even if he gives him [footnote: in other words – pays him], he is not forgiven until he asks for forgiveness, as is written: ‘And now give back the man’s wife…’ And whence do we learn that the forgiver must not show cruelness?  As is written: ‘And Abraham prayed to the Lord, and the Lord healed Abimelech.'”

The Gemara in Baba Kama (Babylonian Talmud 92:1) brings a commentary that adds to the Mishnah mentioned above, and reiterates the importance of asking for forgiveness: “All the damages mentioned above are for the actual shame that was caused him; however, for the sorrow caused by that shame – the very best of the world’s offerings will not suffice, and he is not forgiven until he asks for forgiveness…”  From here we learn that the severity of an injury is not only assessed by means of the monetary damage caused. Emotional or spiritual injury is also taken into account. Sometimes, no sum in the world will appease the person who has experienced grief; however, asking for his forgiveness wholeheartedly may reunite the two rivals.  

The other side of the equation is accepting the apology.  Many of us are familiar with the Rambam’s words in his book, Hilchot Teshuva instructing us not to be cruel, to accept any apology that is expressed sincerely and give our forgiveness.  This is the source for the directive stating that an offender need not ask for forgiveness more than three times.  The reason being that the offended party should not be stubborn and refuse to forgive [footnote: Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 2, Halachot 9-10]. It seems to me that what our Sages wish to teach us is that the process of forgiveness also involves the offended party praying for the person asking for forgiveness.  Although the Pnei Yehoshua points out that this prayer is not mandatory, from the following sources we can see that this prayer is not only very important, but is even compulsory on the part of the forgiver.  

A few years back, I learned this topic in depth, and on that very day God “gave me the privilege” of somewhat hurting a close friend.  We made up quickly, and peace soon prevailed, and so I asked my friend to pray for me, just as I had learned.  My friend looked at me in astonishment, with a look that said – “Surely, if anybody is supposed to pray for somebody, it should be you praying for me!”  I told him what I had learned, and he accepted it kindly.  Nevertheless, this little incident drew my attention further to this topic, and I decided to delve a little deeper into it.   

The Tosefta (in Baba Kama, Chapter 9, Halacha 29) advises one who has been offended to forgive and pray for the offender, even if the latter is not at all sorry for his wrongdoing:

“In the case of one who has injured his friend – even in such a case where the offender has not asked for forgiveness from the offended party, the latter must still pray for the offender, as is written: ‘And Abraham prayed to the Lord’.  The same idea is expressed in the Book of Job with regard to Job’s friends:  ‘And now take you all seven bulls and seven rams and offer them as sacrifice.’  And what follows?  ‘And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends.'”

This appears to be a very radical demand of man; some go so far as to say that only the very righteous are able to fulfill it:  Even if the offender has not asked for forgiveness, the injured party must still pray for him [footnote: Interestingly, Sefer Chassidim quotes this Tosefta as is (chapter 360), and seems to regard it as compulsory behavior].

Unlike the Tosefta’s difficult demand, the Mishnah takes a softer approach.  The prayer for the offender follows the latter’s plea for forgiveness.  The prayer in itself acknowledges the fact that even when a person wants to forgive, it is not always so simple. According to the Mishnah, the prayer uttered by the injured party for the offender is not only an indication that the injured person has given his forgiveness – an enlightening fact that is important in its own right – but beyond this, I believe that the very act of prayer can help a person forgive and overcome the injury he has experienced.  It is very difficult to shake off resentment for a hurt suffered, even if we really want to.  This can be proven quite simply.  Consider the following case:  A person hurts his friend, asks for forgiveness and the offended friend gives his forgiveness. If a short while later the same offender should hurt his friend again, it can only be expected that the offended party will not shake off the offense as easily as he did the first time.  Despite the initial forgiveness, the first offense leaves its mark and cannot be erased.  I don’t think we can expect the offended to react any other way.

In my view, our Sages wish to give the issue of asking for and granting forgiveness a different dimension, one that bypasses the problem posed above.  My commentary will attempt to bring the two contradicting approaches mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Tosefta somewhat closer:

When I am told I have to pray for a person who has asked me for forgiveness, I have to sit myself down and ask myself:  What do I wish for the person who has hurt me?  Am I angry at him to such an extent that I want his life to be miserable?  Indeed, I am still hurt; truth be told, if he were to hurt me again, I would add this new injury to the previous one, and my initial forgiveness would not erase the incident from my mind.  However, I still understand that he is sorry for what he did; I really do want to make things right again; I really do wish him all the best in life.  I am even willing to pray to God and ask him to fulfill that wish.  

In the prayer recited at the start of Yom Kippur – Tefilla Zakah – we say as follows:  “May no person be punished on my account” (in the siddur of the SHLAH HaKadosh, this verse also appears before the Shma Yisrael prayer recited when going to sleep).  Even when it is difficult to forgive, the understanding that refusing to forgive causes the other party pain puts into motion the wheels of forgiveness.  Consequently, two things happen: The first is the realization that despite the injury, one can still wish the offender well and want him to be happy.  This, in turn, circumvents the inability to forgive wholeheartedly.  Secondly, the very act of praying for the good of the person who has asked to be forgiven can trigger a process which culminates in full forgiveness.  In light of this, we might suggest a possible ‘forgiveness track’ even when there was no explicit apology on the part of the offender [footnote: See also the words of the MAHARSHAL (Yam shel Shelomo, Yevamot, Chapter 8), who also tries to reconcile between the approaches of the Mishnah and the Tosefta, and concludes that full atonement from God can also be achieved if the offended party prays for the offender.  Therefore, the forgiving party is obliged to pray for the friend who has asked for forgiveness after the former has been appeased].

In conclusion, we have presented a new and surprising model of prayer.  In most cases, prayer is perceived as a unidirectional act: one talks to another entity and asks for something.  This new type of prayer offers a new perspective.  Instead of a monologue, prayer becomes a dialogue, and perhaps even a multilogue.  Prayer is intended to arouse action in this world, and there is no need to define the exact parties involved in this dialogue.  In the case of a dispute where forgiveness has to be initiated – the forgiver can also impact the situation through prayer, not only the one asking for forgiveness [footnote: See also Likutei MOHARAN, Chapter 119, concerning a sick person who needs heavenly mercy.  He can only get that mercy if he himself shows compassion, as is written “And He shall give you mercy and show you compassion.”  There is a similar model here – the need to put into motion a certain action if one wishes to enjoy the effects of such action.  Perhaps it is not without reason that the Tosefta itself connected the laws of Tefilla to this verse].

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Rony Nathan -Photographer - www.ronyn.co.il - 050-6932626

Rabbi Sarel Rosenblatt
Rosh Kollel, Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary

(Four minute read)

We are now in the midst of the days of teshuva and tikkun; days of atonement, forgiveness and mercy; days of judgement and love; days of festivity and joy.  We will soon be going back and forth between the synagogue and the festive Shabbat and holiday table.  The days between the beginning of Elul and Shemini Atzeret are not considered to be one prolonged Jewish holiday; nor are they a collection of unrelated holidays.  In fact, all the days in this period of time are interconnected, forming one whole system, with a starting point and end point.  Furthermore, every holiday adds another spiritual dimension or emotional resource necessary for the success of this journey.  

Some people may view the prayers in the synagogue during these days as just another prayer service; similarly, the holiday meals around the table may be looked upon as “one more festive meal” or “one more day of rest.”  However, this is hardly the case.  Every holiday prayer has a unique component which creates a different melody; this, in turn, leads to a different form of spiritual and emotional self-calibration.  

In the following paragraphs we will attempt to present a form of internal re-tuning for the holidays of Tishrei, a spiritual guide, if you will, for the High Holy Days.  You might even call it the Gate of Intentions[footnote: Also the name of a book by the HaARI HaKadosh dealing with the intentions one should have during prayer and when fulfilling the commandments, especially those pertaining to the Jewish Festivals.]  for the prayers and mitzvot of the Tishrei holidays.

Our relationship with God has been described using concepts pertaining to human relationships: A king and his servants; a father and his children; a lover and his beloved.   We will try to connect among all of these different forms of relationship, but will focus mainly on that of man and woman.  Furthermore, we will attempt to arrange the entire sequence of days between Elul and Shemini Atzeret in such a way that will reflect the gradual building of trust and love between the Lover and the Beloved – between God and the People of Israel.  

Elul

The month of Elul is in essence the Jewish People’s greatest secret.  Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgement – not only for the Jewish People, but for all living creatures.  All pass before him on this day.  But it seems we are the only ones who are aware of this.  And being the good Jews that we are, we do not wait for the Day of Judgement, but start mending our ways in order to draw mercy to this world way before Judgement Day arrives.  Do not say – “When the day comes…”; rather – seize the day and let it come!  There is a halakha (Jewish law) that states that one who admits to a misdeed is exempt from paying an extra fine.  This is because we understand that when a person admits to a wrongdoing before s/he is caught by the police – this in itself is already a form of engaging in teshuva and rectification, both of which draw mercy.  We do not wait for Heaven to bring us to judgement; we are the ones that take initiative and give a full account of our actions.   Of our own accord, we call out to the King of all kings and seek to be close to Him, beseech His forgiveness and atonement.

According to Midrash Tanhuma (Ki Tisa, 31), on the first of Elul Moshe went up to the heavens to try and rebuild and revive all that had broken and shattered due to chet ha’egel (the Sin of the Golden Calf).  What can be learned from this Midrash is that our Avodat Hashem on these particular days is likened to the climbing of a steep mountain, in keeping with the verse in Psalms:  “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? and who shall stand in His holy place?”  

Notwithstanding the above, the Alter Rebbe (of Lubavitch) in his book Likutei Torah on Parshat Re’eh taught us another way to understand the month of Elul.   The King is said to be out in the field during this time and “He receives all, and embraces all warmly and graciously.”  The opportunity to forge a special relationship with the King during this period stems from the fact that Elul is an informal sort of month.  

During Elul we are not as festive and ceremonial as we are on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.  When we recite the slichot prayers, we do so in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed, dressed in our everyday clothes.  No make-up.  Our simple selves, no embellishments.  But it is this specific informal atmosphere that makes for a simple, straightforward encounter between us and the King, void of the etiquette and decorum required in the King’s palace.  If we were to take it to the dimension of man and woman, this might be the perfect opportunity for the Lover and his Beloved to meet in some casual setting rather than go out on a formal date.  The uniqueness here is that on the one hand, these are no regular days – after all, there is an encounter between the Lover and his Beloved.  On the other hand, this takes place casually and informally, in a setting allowing for an unmediated encounter, which can create the magic.

Rosh Hashana

People might err as to the true nature of Rosh Hashana.  We call it The Day of Judgement, but, in fact, make no mention of our sins in the prayers; nor do we confess to our crimes or beg for atonement and forgiveness.  The Rosh Hashana prayers contain two main motifs – coronation and commemoration.  As we say in the prayers – King of all the world, He who blesses Israel and the Day of Remembrance.  

Rosh Hashana as a day of coronation directs us to think of God’s reign over this entire word, and how He rules over every living creature.  The perspective presented here is a universal one.  Since the world is ruled by a king, it is also judged in accordance with the laws of the king.  However, as far as we are concerned, the most important element is not the judgment; rather it is our readiness to acknowledge God’s kingship and make His name known in the world.  We oftentimes find it difficult to acknowledge those standing before us because we are too wrapped up in ourselves.  Crowning God as our king allows us to step out of our skins and understand that our existence in this world doesn’t only revolve around our individual story; rather, the bigger story is about making God’s name known in this world.  

This perspective can bring about remembrance.  A glimpse at the verses from the prayer that recounts past events, shows us that the main message of these verses is recalling the mutual story and long-standing relationship between God and the Jewish People. We mention Noah, Abraham, Isaac, to name but a few.  In this sense, on Rosh Hashana we do not only coronate a great King for the entire world, but this King also becomes our Father.  The great commemoration of Rosh Hashana is the outcry of the son to his Father, begging Him to remember that he is not just any other person, but His own beloved son.  

If we connect the dots, we might come to understand that Rosh Hashana is a type of betrothal.  As the verse says: “And I will betroth thee unto me forever.”  The betrothal is the moment in which we enter a covenant and become committed.  Betrothal is not the stage in which the marriage is consummated; it is not yet the time of cohabitation, but rather – forging a soul connection and entering a covenant.  This is not a covenant between two strangers, but between the Lover and the beloved.  Coronating God is a proclamation of the covenant; the recollections fill this covenant with infinite love.

Our spiritual work during the month of Elul creates a bridge that makes it possible to transition between an awe-filled coronation and a love-filled betrothal. The reason for this is that Elul presents an opportunity to meet the King in the field, smile at Him and converse with Him and thus renew the relationship and get closer.  

The Ten Days of Repentance

Immediately following the betrothal, the couple has to engage in hard and intensive work in order to build their home and their life together.  With all due respect for vows and good intentions, a lot of repair work and building is required.  As the wedding draws near, the final touches and the precision of the work have to be of the highest quality.  This is no longer a first introduction, or becoming closer in a general sort of way; no, this is ironing out all the wrinkles; sorting out the nitty-gritty and bridging the gaps.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in the portion of Orach Chaim (603) states that someone who permits himself to eat bread baked by a non-Jew all year round should try avoiding it during the Ten Days of Repentance.  Much like a bride and groom who put in that extra effort on the days before their marriage in order to look good and find favor in each other’s eyes; not only externally, but also through actions that reflect true emotion and the desire to get closer.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the wedding day.  The are no better days for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, say our Sages.  And as the verse says, “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him on the day of his marriage, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.”  The day of his marriage refers to the day the Torah was received at Sinai, says the Mishna (Ta’anit 4, 8), referring to the fact that the second pair of Luchot HaBrit (Tablets of Stone) was given on Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is a happy day.  It is a day of purity and atonement, achieved by the very fact that we stand before God and our close proximity to him – “Before the Lord though shall become pure.”  It is our wedding day.  The second pair of Tablets, which are the Torah, are in fact our ketubah – the marriage contract and mutual commitment between God and the Jewish People.  Furthermore, when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, it is much like the bride and groom entering the cheder yichud (the private room into which they go immediately after the chuppah).  Much like the charm and grace of a bridegroom, such was the appearance of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  

We do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur, not only because it is prohibited, but also because we are very much like a bride and groom who have discovered after their first night together that they have forgotten to eat, out of sheer happiness and intimacy.  

The numerous confessions, the great big cry of The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (yud gimmel midot) stem from the great desire to tighten the bond and fine tune the strings of the Covenant with the hope that living life under the wings of the Lord will bear good fruits and give rise to life rather than the opposite.

The Days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot

These are special days of which the Midrash says that during this time God turns a blind eye to the sins of Israel (Tanchuma on the portion of Emor, 22).  These are the days on which we wish to absorb the greatness of the day of Yom Kippur.  Building the sukkah is, in fact, a consummation of the marriage.  After all, we do not want our love to remain a platonic one.  As soon as the fast ends, we start building “the bridal home”, a type of grove in which the bridal pair sit for seven days following their wedding.  

Sukkot

The sukkah is a guest house, of sorts.  A bridal home.  According to Ha’ARI Hakadosh of blessed memory (Sha’ar HaKavanot, teachings on Sukkot, 4), the sukkah – a structure with two full side walls and a third wall that may be partial (10 cm) – is reminiscent of an embrace: the upper arm, the forearm and the hand.  God envelopes us on all sides.  The schach – the foliage covering the sukkah – is the shade provided by the Shechina, the Divine Presence.  For seven whole days we live our lives and follow our daily routines (the mitzvah of Sukkah is fulfilled by eating, drinking, sleeping and spending time in the sukkah) – the only difference is that it is with the presence of God.  

There is a halakha that says (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 62, 7) that the sheva brachot – the seven blessings recited each day of the week following a couple’s marriage – depends on the presence of a “new face” i.e. somebody who was not present at the wedding.  Likewise, on Sukkot we welcome a new “guest” every single day – the ushpizin.  But not only do the ushpizin drop by for a visit to rejoice with the bride and groom – all living creatures come to pay their respects, as is written in the Talmud (tractate of Sukkah 55:2): On Sukkot 70 bulls were brought up as offering in the Temple, symbolizing the 70 nations of the world.  It follows then that the very same people upon whom we wished to crown God King on Rosh Hashana, are those who come to rejoice with us on Sukkot.  This is the reason that Sukkot is called the Time of our Rejoicing. And, indeed, it is the festival of happiness.  

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

The Talmud (ibid.) describes the Eighth Day (from the start of Sukkot) as the day following the grand party with the myriads of guests.  The Eight Day is the day the Lover and the Beloved are finally alone.  It is when the bride and groom go back to their natural environment, their home, but it is still a moment before daily routine resumes.  A little pause. In Hebrew it’s called atzeret, from the root “to stop and pause.”  Indeed, it is a moment to stop, breathe and internalize the entire process.  It is a moment to reflect upon the rendezvous with King in the field two months earlier, a moment that lead to building a relationship based on goodwill and mercy; a relationship that matured into a coronation, a betrothal and an attempt to finetune our actions and achieve rectification.  

It is a moment to reflect upon the day of marriage on which we were able to achieve purity and atonement through great closeness.  A day on which the intense love was so great that it sought to build a home and enable the great Divine light to fill the simple mundane vessels of our lives.  A moment to reflect upon all the visitors from all over the world, of whom the Torah says that all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through us.  On this Eighth Day of reflection, we merit to dance a little more, this time with a Sefer Torah.  We remember that the Torah is the very essence of our lives; the supporting pillar that maintains this relationship.  “Let us rejoice in the Torah; it is our strength; it is our light.”

The day after…

The day which closes this journey is not Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, nor is it isru chag (the day following a festival); rather, it is the next day.  The day we get back to our routine. The objective of this great voyage to the peaks of spirituality and sanctity is not to dwell there permanently, but to draw the heavenly abundance and blessing into our mundane lives and daily routines; to enhance our family life, our workplace and our encounters with people; to engage in business in good faith and to pray with greater devotion.  Much like two good friends venturing on a two-month journey to the Himalayas and encountering both moments of joy as well as challenges.  Upon their return from the voyage, it is apparent to all that a certain bond exists between them, one which is difficult to describe in words; so profound and unique is this connection, that when they reunite after a long separation – this deep bond is still apparent.  This is the feeling we should be taking with us when Tishrei comes to an end – such should be the bond between God and ourselves.  

So which scene from this two-month journey would you choose to hang on your wall?  Which scenery from this voyage do you wish to cherish in your heart?  What are your deepest aspirations?

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Rabbi Avi Bart

Rabbi Avi Bart
Straus-Amiel Emissary
Blake Street Synagogue
Melbourne, Australia

(One minute read)

At present, I am lucky enough to be the Assistant Rabbi at Blake Street Hebrew Congregation, a warm Modern-Orthodox shul and community centre in Melbourne, Australia. The community is led by fellow OTS graduate, Rabbi Noam Sendor. I, and all our community, are indebted to him for his inspirational guidance and leadership. As part of my role, I work with a team of lay leaders, creating opportunities for connection and engagement amongst 20 to 35-year-olds. In parallel to this role, I also study Medicine, Ethics, and Public Health and hope to meld my religious and medical interests. 

Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, I’ve always been interested in furthering my own Jewish journey and hope to take people along with me. Attending Yeshivah College, a local Orthodox Jewish Day School, and Melbourne’s Yeshivah Gedolah subsequently, I was always imbued with the importance of community, Torah learning, and strong leadership as cornerstones of a religious identity. In particular, it was clear to me that shlichut plays an important role in making these goals accessible to all community members. Gaining further leadership experience through community organisations like B’nei Akiva and Friendship Circle, I felt empowered in the recognition that I could play a role in both mine and many other people’s Jewish journeys. 

My time at OTS was a galvanising step in building my confidence and knowledge base to be able to return and do just that. In the subsequent four years since returning to Melbourne, I have sought opportunities to engage community members, connecting with people who are seeking depth and meaning as part of their Jewish experience. From giving regular shiurim to leading shul services, providing pastoral care, teaching at Jewish Day Schools, and various other rabbinic roles, I have been privileged with many opportunities within the Melbourne and broader Australian Jewish community.

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(Three minute read)

Eyes closed, face buried in your machzor; you stand in shul. Swaying gently in rhythm with the haunting melody of ונתנה תוקף ‘Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity’. Along with the Chazzan, you chant these ancient words וקול דממה דקה ישמע ובשופר גדול יתקע ‘A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice is heard’. You shudder as you read כבקרת רועה עדרו מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו, recognizing that today we are all sheep passing beneath our Shepherd’s staff. As the Tefilla continues, its imagery is clear before your eyes: Hashem as judge and you as defendant. You reflect on your year – the person you are, the person you are becoming, and the person you want to be. The Tefilla builds, you feel its power rising within you. Like a wave breaking on a beach, its swell crescendos and breaks as the entire shul cries out in unison ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה ‘But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree’. 

Teshuva is a central theme of the High Holy Days. But what specifically is Teshuva? Though Teshuva is such a well-known concept, evoking intuitive responses from all of us, it is interesting that the definition of Teshuva is contested within Jewish sources. Each of these alternative conceptions of Teshuva provides a different frame not only for Teshuva in a narrow sense, but for the entire goal and purpose of the Yamim Noraim in a broader sense. Following are four conceptions of Teshuva that resonate with and inspire me (and hopefully you too).

Teshuva as Repentance (Rambam)

In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance Chapter 2: 1-2), the Rambam outlines what has become a very traditional framing of Teshuva. After sinning, a sinner should distance himself mentally, verbally, and physically from his wrongful actions. Teshuva involves articulating the sin, being remorseful about the past, and resolving to do better in the future. As such, the marker of ‘complete repentance’ in a reformed sinner is one who has an opportunity to repeat the same sin but, due to the process of Teshuva, can overcome the desire to sin.

To me, the Rambam’s conception forms the cornerstone of Teshuva and the key themes of the Yamim Noraim. Over this past year, and all the preceding years, we have fallen short. Be it in our interpersonal relationships, spiritual connections, or work, each of us have instances where we should have acted differently. The Yamim Noraim are the time to acknowledge that ‘There is no completely righteous person on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err’ (Ecc. 7:20). We should all take the opportunity the Yamim Noraim provide us to perform a personal critical accounting and resolve to repent for our shortcomings. 

Teshuva as Self-Improvement (Alter Rebbe)

For the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch, the first Rebbe of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, Teshuva is better understood by considering its etymological root שוב – meaning ‘return’. For the Alter Rebbe, Teshuva means to refine our thoughts, speech, and actions as to ‘return’ our pristine souls masked in their worldly existence ever closer to their source – Hashem (Iggeret HaTeshuva 1). That is, Teshuva asks us not only to repent for our sins, but also to live our lives on a constant trajectory of spiritual growth and self-improvement. In this framing, the purview of Teshuva extends into all aspects of our lives, not just the parts in which we have obviously ‘sinned’. Teshuva urges us to consistently do more and strive to be the best versions of ourselves. 

Teshuva as Seeking Hashem (Rebbe Nachman) *
(*I am indebted to Rav Noam for teaching me this Torah of Rebbe Nachman in his weekly young adult shiur.)

The Torah of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Chassidic movement, is known for its raw honesty, emotional depth, and psychological insight. Rebbe Nachman recognizes the doubts, despair, and even sense of Divine abandonment that someone may feel in response to their repeated failings. For Rebbe Nachman, Teshuva starts with acknowledging that everything, including this person’s struggle, is rooted in Hashem – the source of all creation (Likkutei Moharan Part II 12:1). With this knowledge, Teshuva is then the act of seeking out the Divine from within our darkest places. Drawing on a phrase from the Kedusha איה מקום כבודו ‘Where is the place of His glory?’ Rebbe Nachman creatively punctuates: ‘Where’ – the very act of asking where is Hashem during this difficult moment? – is itself the place of His glory. Searching for Hashem in our personal difficulties redeems those difficulties and helps us repair ourselves and our world despite the challenges.

Teshuva as Self-Acceptance (Rav Shagar)

Aligned with his post-modernist leanings, Rav Shagar’s notion of Teshuva emerges from skepticism about the extent to which people can change (My Soul Will Return). Acknowledging the breadth and depth of forces influencing our decision-making, Rav Shagar posits that people in fact have very little ability to truly change. For Rav Shagar the central question of Teshuva is not “can I change my life,” but rather, “can I accept the way I am”.

Conclusion

Each of these conceptions of Teshuva resonates with me at different times and in different settings. Rather than committing to one view of Teshuva, I think it is most useful to draw on all of these different conceptions when appropriate. Repentance can best guide cases where we have fallen short; the self-improvement lens can be inspiring and motivating; seeking out Hashem can help us navigate difficult times; and self-acceptance provides an awareness of our all too significant limitations. By drawing on these four conceptions, we can have a richer and more nuanced approach to Teshuva.

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Rabbanit Sally Mayer

Rabbanit Sally Mayer
Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Lindenbaum

(One minute read)

I began learning Talmud in 9th grade, and I honestly didn’t understand the point – it felt as though we were going in circles to get the conclusion we knew already. After I posed this question in class, my teacher first suggested I be a bit more respectful, and then answered that the process is part of the point, pay attention and you will see. The Rabbi was right – I dedicated myself to understanding better and saw the richness and beauty in the complex arguments, and how their ideas could be applied to modern-day cases. My passion for Gemara grew throughout high school, although I often received comments about girls learning Gemara – maybe it wasn’t appropriate? Maybe I wasn’t capable? My love for this engaging study was cemented during my year as a student at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, where I found like-minded young women and teachers who believed in us and pushed us to achieve more. 

I continued learning at Stern College and at the Drisha Institute and became a Talmud teacher at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls. I remember one student who came from a more right-wing community once related that she was speaking about her Talmud class and said, “My Talmud teacher, she….” “You have a woman as a Gemara teacher?” her neighbors asked in surprise. “Is she shomer Shabbat?” they questioned. She responded, “You should see my Gemara teacher!” When she told me this story, I was not sure whether to laugh or cry. Of course, learning more Torah should make us more committed to religious practice, not less! My goal is to unite the two – women’s advanced Talmud learning has become much more accepted, and nothing is more exciting to me than opening that vista to young women, who can become part of the tradition as they study, ask questions, and reveal new understandings all the time. These young women also become more committed to Torah and mitzvot as they connect more deeply to the tradition. After making Aliyah and joining the faculty at Midreshet Lindenbaum, my beloved alma mater, I, together with my colleagues, work daily to make this dream a reality.

* A year of intensive study for post-high school women from English-speaking Diaspora countries, the flagship Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum provides an unparalleled Jewish learning experience, familiarizing students with the classic Jewish library in preparation for a lifetime of Jewish growth. The program promotes discussion and debate in a supportive religious environment, emphasizing character development while deepening individual commitment to Torah and the Jewish nation as a whole.

Inspired by today’s journey? Please donate TODAY to educate young women spending a transformative year at Midreshet Lindenbaum!

(Two minute read)

Why did God create us? From time to time, this question arises, especially around the the Yamim Nora’im (The High Holy Days), as we remember the creation of the world and take stock of our relationship with Hashem. Perhaps one answer lies in a brief, beautiful passage in the Talmud, Chagiga 16b. The Talmud states six facts about human beings, three ways in which humans are similar to God’s ministering angels, and three ways in which we are similar to animals. We are like angels in that we have intelligence, we walk upright, and we speak the “holy language,” Hebrew; we are like animals in that we eat and drink, reproduce, and must eliminate waste as the animals do. 

This simple passage carries a profound message for us. Hashem’s angels are heavenly beings, with no physical bodies, no temptations – and no free will. They follow God’s commands perfectly, as a robot would carry out its programmed mission. Animals, on the other hand, are purely physical; they act on instinct and have no commandments. There is no expectation that they will behave in any other way, no moral choices that they face. We human beings are unique – we are physical and limited, like the animals, and yet we have intelligence and holiness, like the angels. We are a unique creation, suspended between heaven and earth, pulled toward both. 

How are we meant to manage this dichotomy within us? Some would argue that our challenge is to push away the physical, placed within us merely to distract and tempt us; indulge only what we must and focus on the spiritual. I’d like to suggest that we are meant to elevate the physical, to take the same actions that we share with animals and to do them differently. We eat and drink like the animals, but we eat kosher food, make blessings beforehand and afterward, and ideally even eat for the sake of Heaven – not only for enjoyment but also to strengthen ourselves for the important goals we are accomplishing. We reproduce like animals, but our union is meant to be sanctified and elevated, circumscribed by halakha (Jewish law) and an opportunity to give to one’s partner. It is not merely a physical act. We eliminate waste as animals do, but in a private and dignified manner, and we even make the blessing asher yatzar after that action.

It seems that Hashem created people to stand up to the unique challenge of being human: to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, not to deny the physical or even to severely limit it, but even more challenging, to use the physical in our service of God. A moving piyyut from Yom Kippur, Asher Eimatecha, ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, expresses this idea.  It poetically describes the perfect service of the angels, but emphasizes Hashem’s preference for imperfect human praise. We are blessed with the challenge and opportunity to take the physical and make it holy, by refining our relationships, channeling our desires, and serving God as only we have the capacity to do. Hashem loves and appreciates our ability to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, despite – and because – we are imperfect. 

Inspired by today’s journey? Please donate TODAY to educate young women spending a transformative year at Midreshet Lindenbaum!

Avi Ganz head shot

Avi Ganz
Director, Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkyanu Program for Men

(One minute read)

My personal journey dovetails with that of Ohr Torah Stone’s Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Programs for Men and Women.  My wife, Chana Esther, did a year of national service as a madricha for the first cohort of Midreshet Darkaynu, the women’s program, in 2003-4.  I came to Yeshivat Darkaynu for men at the very beginning, when we first opened our doors in 2006.  As our family has grown, they have grown up with and around the participants in Darkaynu’s programs.  In the 15 years since Yeshivat Darkaynu opened, we have invested heavily in the program’s development and Darkaynu, in turn, has contributed significantly to my personal and professional development.  The Inclusion playing field is a journey in its own right, and like all journeys, it is dynamic and ever-changing.  I am proud of and grateful for my role in Darkaynu, and so appreciative of the innovative ways in which the Darkaynu Programs continue to contribute to the world of Jewish Inclusion programming.

* The unique Elaine and Norm Brodsky Darkaynu Programs answer the prayers of young men and women with special needs who – until now – could only dream of spending a gap year in Israel like their peers. Tailored to address the specific requirements of this special population, Darkaynu – which means “Our Way” – is the first “sidestreaming” program in existence; the student body functions as an independent unit, but within the larger, mainstream environments of Yeshivat Har Gush Etzion and OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum.

Inspired by today’s journey? Please donate TODAY to ensure that young men and women with special needs can experience their own gap year in Israel!

(One minute read)

On the Eve of Yom Kippur or, what we often call “Kol Nidrei Night,” men, women, and children across denominational, cultural, and generational spectra join together in shuls to usher in the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.  The Day of Atonement is also a day of “at-one-ment” when we commune with our Father in Heaven and He mercifully bestows forgiveness.  It is a day of introspection, self-criticism, and reckoning, to be sure, but also a day of promise and hope; a time for strengthening bonds and maybe brushing off the cobwebs from old commitments or aspirations.

On a day so lofty, why do we start our full day of prayer with the public annulment of vows?  After all, how many of us really make vows?  Of those who do, how many of those vows can be ceremoniously annulled in what amounts to a wholesale dissolution of very serious commitments?

Perhaps the message is not about the individual vows at all:  perhaps the message is about the very concept of a vows.  At their core, a vow is a verbal commitment for the future.  I understand today that tomorrow will somehow be better if I lock in today’s “rates.”  This idea is antithetical to what Yom Kippur and atonement are all about.  Sure, there are times when a commitment (tzedaka, a korban, a stricter adherence to a mitzvah, or a commitment to more frequent chessed) is inspired by something objectively good.  The mechanism is a Torah-prescribed mechanism for good.  At the same time, the idea that I can bind tomorrow by the perception of today is an idea that is foreign to the renewal of Yimei HaDin – the High Holy Day season.  We start off Yom Kippur with our public individual and communal declaration: “Today is a new day.  This year is a new year.  I am a new me. We are a new we.”

With this subtle reminder, we enter the day and indeed the year.  May it be a blessed year of renewed vigor and productivity; health and happiness.

Inspired by today’s journey? Please donate TODAY to ensure that young men and women with special needs can experience their own gap year in Israel!

Andi and Rabbi Nir Koren

Rabbi Nir and Andi Koren
Straus-Amiel Emissaries
Quito, Ecuador

(One minute read)

After serving in the Golani Unit of the IDF, combined with my yeshiva studies in Ein Tzurim, I went to study Law. I then took a break from university to tour the world and eventually arrived in Argentina where I met my wife, Andy.

Before we got married, we already knew we wanted to become shlichim in a Diaspora community.  Immediately after our wedding we began the Straus-Amiel program to prepare for that mission. When we finished the course, we were ready to start the journey and were hired as the rabbi and rebbetzin in Monterrey, Mexico. 

We arrived in Monterrey with one daughter and left with two. From there we moved to Cancún, where we had the great honor to build the first kosher mikvah in the area, start a kosher catering service, and made great friends with whom we are still in touch today. We left Cancún with a wonderful souvenir: our first son.

The next destination was Cali, in Colombia, where we had a wonderful time and also met amazing people with whom we speak every week, even though we left more than 6 years ago. In Cali I published my first book in Spanish: “Arre Jinete”, a book with a commentary about each Torah portion and stories from our journeys in different communities. 

We left Cali with 4 children (including a new daughter) and we spent a couple of years in Israel, enjoying family time and recharging for a new challenging shlichut in Ecuador. Our fifth son was born in Jerusalem, so he is part of the 10th generation of my family born in Israel.

In 2017 we arrived in Ecuador, where I published another book, “Hasta los 120” about life, death and what´s in between according to the Jewish perspective. We also published a siddur for kids with transliteration and Spanish translation. The Ecuador community welcomed us with open arms and its members became our family. Here we are involved in every area of Jewish life and we are constantly working on new projects. 

The pandemic brought us many challenges (as it did for everyone else around the world).  Many of the community activities moved to Zoom, a tool that allowed us to open new spaces and activities in the virtual world. In the last year and a half we had to reinvent ourselves, starting a Youtube channel with commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, recording classes for Bar Mitzvah students and even a culinary show where people share their favorite recipes.

The Ecuador community campus where the synagogue is located, is an amazing place with playgrounds, sport courts, a kosher restaurant and even a greenhouse planted by the community families, so whoever is in the area, you are invited to come and visit.

Inspired by today’s journey? Please donate TODAY to help prepare emissaries to inspire Jews in Diaspora communities worldwide.!

(One minute read)

At the climax of Yom Kippur, right after the solemn Tekia Gedola (the long shofar blast), a woman from our community who defines herself as someone who doesn’t connect very well  with the rituals and whose life is not very much influenced by religion, came to me, to my surprise, with tears in her eyes. “Rabbi, how can it be  that every time you blow the shofar I break down in tears”?  I answered, “The truth is that until 10 days ago (Rosh Hashana), I didn`t have a good answer to that question, but today, I can tell you why you cried as you listened to the sound of the shofar.”

I would like to go back to a few days before Rosh Hashana. I got a short telephone call to let me know that there was an Israeli woman in her fifties in jail in Cancun and that it would be nice if I would I visit her to see how she was doing. I went to see her that same day. For a long hour, I listened with great pain as she shared her story and her difficulties. I assured her that no Jew is alone, that she has a whole community in Cancun praying for her wellbeing and for her freedom.

However, the river of tears didn`t stop, “Rabbi, how can you tell me that there’s no Jew alone when Rosh Hashana is approaching and I’m going to spend it alone in jail? Without a shofar or apples and honey”? I answered that I would visit her on Rosh Hashana to blow the shofar for her and that with God’s help, she would also have apples and honey for Rosh Hashana. And again, with tears in her eyes she told me, “I don’t want you to come here.  The jail is too far from the city and it’s forbidden to bring fruit into the jail. (The prison staff later explained to me that they forbid bringing in fruit in order to prevent the inmates from making alcohol with it.)  “Actually I haven’t eaten fruit for a month,” she said.  As we said goodbye, I promised her that we would see each other in a few days, on Rosh Hashana.

The jail is located about 10 Kilometers from our synagogue.  In order to get there and return in time for mincha I had to hurry to finish my morning prayers. There wasn’t even enough time to eat lunch. I thanked my wife for the backpack she filled with a complete Rosh Hashana meal and all of the symbols of the holiday.  I quickly placed the shofar in the backpack and began running under the hot midday sun with the bag on my shoulders, aware that the way was long and the time was short. 

About fifty minutes later I arrived, sweating, at the jail’s door and tried to explain to the guards about Rosh Hashanah and the meaning of this strange ram’s horn called a shofar. When they started checking the content of the backpack, which contained pomegranate, apple, beetroot and other fruits and vegetables that symbolize the start of a New Year, they informed me that I wasn’t allowed to bring in the food. At that same moment as I tried to explain the importance of these items for the Jewish people, a manager arrived and something wonderful happened. The manager told them with a gesture, “It’s ok, he can go inside with everything he has.”

It’s hard to describe the woman’s happiness at my arrival.  Her surprise was even  greater when she saw the fruit and the food. “Before anything else,” I told her, “this day`s mitzvah is to listen to the shofar.” We recited the two blessings together and then, the sound of the shofar cut into the air. The ponderous silence was only interrupted by the bitter crying and the prayer coming from the woman’s lips. “God help me, get me out of here,” she cried. 

For the first time I really understood what “Judgment Day” means. For the first time I understood the verse “From my cell I called you, God” (Psalms 118:5). And for the first time I understood how a person who has submitted herself to judgment acts, knowing that her life depends on the trial and the verdict that will be handed down. A person who has submitted to a trial is like a thin leaf, shaky and scared, and cries from the bottom of her soul, “Please God save me.”  And for the first time I understood that if in front of a flesh and bone judge we cry from our hearts, will the shofar be played in the city and the people won’t tremble? (Amós 3:6).

And so, when my congregant asked me why she cries when she hears the shofar, I responded, “You asked me why you cry when you hear the shofar? The answer is that it’s not your mind that cries, but your heart, your Jewish heart, your Jewish soul that knows it will be judged today. It is your Jewish soul that moves you to tears on Judgment Day.”

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Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum
Director, Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Training Programs

(Five minute read)

For me, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days of contemplation, a time to reflect upon my life and my place in this world.  Alongside the beautiful prayers, the family meals and the various holiday customs and traditions, I challenge myself with existential questions.  Every year I ask myself the exact same questions, but the answers I give and conclusions I reach are not always the same.  This is the beauty of life; this is the wonderful thing about questions.  Questions and answers are dynamic and evoke thoughts.  On a personal level, and as one who was a soldier and an officer in the First Lebanon War and was, in a sense, resurrected from the dead, I cannot but ask myself this simple question:  Why am I alive?  Is there some sort of hidden message here?  Has God chosen me for something?  What does God want from me this year?  What does all of this say about the rest of my life and its significance?  

I am not a mystic.  I try to be a composed and level-headed person who takes a logical approach to things.  But this does not mean that I don’t dwell on the meaning of life and what the future holds.  Many years ago, I made a decision to work for the Jewish People – to seek the Jewish People and do what I can to preserve its existence and its future.  “Wherever I go, I go towards the Land of Israel,” said Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  In much the same way, I chose a way of life that is based on the notion of “wherever I go, I go towards the Jewish People”.  This life-long journey is both intriguing and challenging.  This voyage gives meaning to my life, and every Rosh Hashana I reaffirm my mission and purpose in this world in general, and in the Jewish world in particular.  

The insight I gain on Rosh Hashana is that my conduct with God must be one of mida k’neged mida – if I ask something of Him, I should realize He wants something of me in return.  If I ask God to watch over me and my family, it means I must do the same and watch over God’s people and embark on this mission and act as His emissary to protect Jewish lives.  This is how I came to found the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Institute under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone.  The institute trains rabbis and educators on how to engage in activities that will connect Jews to their Jewish identity in order to safeguard the future of the Jewish People.  

During the course of my visits to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, I try to get to know each community and understand its specific needs, as well as individual Jews and their situation.  I come not as a researcher of anthropology; nor do I come as a tourist who wishes to capture scenes of the Jewish community; rather, I come to talk to them at eye-level, as an equal and a partner, with the understanding that Jewish existence is a type of code that must be deciphered.  Many a time did I read and peruse the words of former Jewish travelers – Eldad Ha-Dani, Menashe ben Yisrael, Benjamin of Tudela and Rabbi Yaakov Sapir – with the hope of learning from them, walking in their footsteps and continuing their journey among the Jewish congregations.  

Rabbi Soloveichik’s words on the concept of shlichut helped me focus my thoughts on the need and the duty to choose a life of emissary work:

“The fact that a person lives in a certain time and era, in a defined place, and was not born in a different period under different circumstances can only be understood in the prism of Man as a being with a mission to fulfill.  God above knows how each and every individual, with all his faults and inner strengths, can fulfill his calling… For this very reason every individual was born in an era and a place in which he can fulfill his special calling.  (“Shlichut” in Days of Remembrance).

I believe with my whole heart that although the Jewish People are the Chosen People, its existence in the present must be strengthened so that its continued existence in the future will be ensured.  This is how I see my mission and calling in this world and my obligation as a Jew and a rabbi – to safeguard the survival and future of the Jewish People wherever they may be, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.  The real crisis at our doorstep – and this is true for both the State of Israel and world Jewry – is not a political one, but a spiritual one.  Jewish existence and Jewish continuity are in a perilous state, not only because of anti-Semitism, but, first and foremost, because Judaism has ceased to be relevant as a spiritual driving force for so many Jews.  

Many Jews, perhaps even most of them, ask themselves the question:  “What does it mean to be a Jew?  Why should I be a Jew?”  There isn’t always a ready answer for these existential questions.  However, if we act judiciously, in the right place and at the right time, using the right approach and choosing the right words to find the answers to questions like “Why does it pay to be Jewish?”, speaking with softness and kindness and showing how meaningful and relevant Jewish life is – then we might have a chance of saving individual Jewish souls, thereby saving the entire Jewish People.  

Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, Jews preserved their identity and their Judaism, and never had to tackle the question of why it pays to be Jewish.  They were simply Jewish, naturally Jewish, with no philosophical complications.  They were Jewish because their fathers were Jewish; they were Jewish because they had inherited their Jewish faith and wanted to pass it on to their children.  However, in our time, this Jewish chain is starting to break.  Jewish continuity is no longer a given.  Passing on the torch of Jewish faith and tradition is no longer as simple and natural as it once was, but requires explanations and convincing.  It is now considered legitimate to ask the question – “What is Judaism, and why should I practice it in my personal and family life?”  This question demands a relevant answer.  

The way to act in order to save myriads of Jews and safeguard the future of the Jewish People is through shlichut, emissary work.  This means emerging from our synagogues, halls of learning and religious neighborhoods and going out to the People of Israel, in search of our brethren, many of whom are lost and forsaken, not necessarily in the geographical sense, but in terms of spirituality and identity.

So what is shlichut?  I think this concept is based on the notion that Judaism requires of the Jew not only to redeem himself but redeem all other Jews, as well as humanity at large.  Tikkun Olam is the vision; shlichut is the means to achieving that vision.   The shlichut of each individual, whether it involves other individuals or the greater public, must be based on accountability for the Jewish People and mutual responsibility.  The Hebrew word for accountability – achrayut – is composed of the word “other” (acher) and “brother” (ach) thus reflecting the true essence of the word: treating the “other” as a “brother”. This is the foundation for shlichut.  

The concept of engaging in emissary work for the good of the Jewish People is not yet deeply anchored in our lives, nor is it one of our core values.  Shlichut is usually looked upon as a one-time mission, an act to be done and completed, and not as a way of life.  Shlichut is usually a short-term mission of a few short years rather than a life-long journey.  Consequently, we are required to build the philosophical and practical infrastructure for shlichut as a way of life, as a vision.  I truly believe that we can do much for world Jewry, displaying the necessary sensitivity and using appropriate and appealing language and relevant content in order to engage these Jews.  Safeguarding the future of the Jewish People can only be achieved through the notion that no Jew anywhere goes unaccounted for.  

We all have a shlichut, a mission in life, a way that we can help improve the world. As we embark upon these holy days, I encourage you to consider your own.  

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credit Rony Natan Rabbi Ohad Teharlev

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev
Director, Midreshet Lindenbaum Israeli Programs

(One minute read)

What brought me to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum and eventually to become the head of the Israeli programs and establish new Torah learning programs for women?

Both of my parents, in their own ways, planted the seeds in me that led to the work I do today.

For as long as I can remember, I always saw my mother learning. My mother was a religious and learned woman who learned a lot of Torah.   Unfortunately, when I was 13, she stopped keeping mitzvot. By definition, she continued to be religious and loved God, but in her own way. I was educated by my parents to love authentic truth and to listen to the inner voice of the heart. I was taught never to be afraid to follow my own path, even if it went against the broader society, to be willing to break boundaries and forge new paths. A sign that says “no entrance” doesn’t mean that there is no entrance; it means that we need to be creative and find new ways to enter.

My father was a very humble and giving man.   He was a “work horse”, who always gave tirelessly and with love to each person. My father, who worked long hours and didn’t have time to learn with us himself, made sure that from the time we were very young (only five years old) we had Gemara chevrutot (learning partners) from among talented local scholars, and thus, instilled in me a love of Gemara.

There is no doubt that my mother’s dominance in my life is behind my desire to empower women, especially in the realm of Torah learning, to not be afraid of breaking boundaries according to halakha and to develop new horizons in the world of women’s Torah learning.  This is also what inspired me to help establish our Claudia Cohen Torah/Army School – also known as “Hadas” – a program that combines serious Torah study with meaningful IDF service, thus forging new paths for religious women in the Israeli army and in Israeli society. I have been involved in creating new opportunities for religious women in the army and in Torah learning, including the MIdreshet Lindenbaum – Lod branch.

Four years ago, my son, Elhai, a Golani soldier, was killed in a terrorist attack at the Ofra junction. The disaster opened a huge gap in my life. It also created a tremendous desire to fill this gap with light and life and to consider how to increase good in the world, to help the weaker members of society, and to provide a response that improves society through Torah.

Inspired by today’s journeys? Please donate TODAY so Orthodox women serving in the IDF continue to receive your support.

(Four minute read)

There are two Memorial Days in the Jewish-Israeli calendar: Rosh Hashanah, and Remembrance Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror. These are both significant days that generate a change in the world.

The expression “And God remembered” appears three times in the book of Genesis, each time in a similar fashion. 

In the first instance, the Torah states , God remembered Noah and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters receded; The fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained” (Genesis 8:1-2).

In the second instance, we read, “And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt” (Genesis 19:29).

And the third instance, “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22).

We have a tradition from Rabbi Zadok Hacohen of Lublin, that the main essence of a word is determined according to the place in which it appears for the first time in the Tanakh. 

Accordingly, Rashi comments on Genesis 8:1:

AND GOD [ELOKIM] REMEMBERED — This Divine Name really signifies the God of Judgment (midat hadin) but it is transformed into Mercy (midat harachamim) through the prayers of the righteous. Whereas the evil practiced by wicked people transforms Mercy into Judgment, as it is said “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great” (Genesis 6:5) and, “And the Lord [HASHEM] said, “I will blot out” etc. (Genesis 5:7) — yet in these passages the Name signifies Mercy”. 

Rashi clarifies that the Torah uses the name Elokim, signifying Judgment, to show how Judgment becomes Mercy through the prayers of the righteous.  

And indeed, if we look at the verses preceding the term, “and God [ELOKIM] remembered”, we see that they describe the flood.

The flood is a mix of confusion and chaos. There is great chaos in the world, symbolized by the great spread of water (Judgment appears as a movement of negative grace in a spreading motion). 

And then – God remembers Noah, meaning: he stops the flood and the water (although stopping is usually a motion of reduction which is typical of Judgment, in this situation in which God stops the flood and the spread of the water, the stopping stems from Grace and Mercy).

The verse that refers to Abraham also appears in a context of destructive chaos, in which fire and brimstone are showered down on earth and Sodom is upended – this is Judgment, and this is the context in which God remembers Abraham’s request and his prayer. God halts and contains the chaos, turning Judgment into Mercy.

Similarly, the verse in which God remembers Rachel appears in the context of her barrenness. Barrenness is a motion of Judgment – stopping the possibility of birth. Rachel is in a status of Judgment before God remembers her. Judgment is also hinted at when Rachel names Bilha’s sons Dan and Naftali, and then Dina is born. When God remembers Rachel, he opens her womb through Mercy.

These three examples show that memory generates an inversion of Judgment to Mercy.

How is God’s memory a mechanism by which Judgment is turned into Mercy?

The action of remembering is a journey to the deepest, most intimate moments within us in which we encounter our dear ones who are no longer with us, through special moments engraved on our hearts.

It is a type of remembrance that usually generates tears, and touches upon a person’s most tender spot.  It is a place of compassion and reconciliation with the world and with ourselves.

Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror is also a day in which Judgment is turned into Mercy.

Everyone killed in sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) is killed in a reality of chaos and Judgment, either in war or terror attacks. A reality of death is a reality of Judgment, especially death which is so unnatural, being the result of a hateful scheme by people who choose to injure and murder out of identification with the forces of evil in the world.

The memory of the fallen has the potential to turn the great tragedies that generate intense feelings of agony, despair, and weakness within us into a tender, noble, and human spiritual motion and move us from a condition of Judgment and decrees to a reality of compassion and mercy.

When there is compassion and mercy, there is also great solidarity. Therefore Remembrance Day is a day entirely of national and human solidarity. The essence of this day is similar to Rosh Hashanah, the universal Remembrance Day, in which we ask and beg the Almighty to remember us favorably – “Who is like You merciful Father, Who remembers His creatures for life, in His mercy”.

Those great righteous men who invert Judgment to Mercy are the ones buried in military cemeteries.

“Ashrei Ha-am”, “Fortunate is the nation” that is capable of standing before the void left by the fallen and adding light, tenderness, love of humanity, and compassion to the world.

The proximity of Remembrance Day to Independence Day expresses the transformation of Judgment to Great Mercy. 

The coming into being of the State of Israel is an expression of God’s great mercy for the Jewish people. And the role of the State of Israel in the world is to increase human mercy and compassion and make the world more humane, more sensitive, and more compassionate.

The more tender and compassionate we are, the more we will be filled with great mercy. And as a result of our own mercy, God will have mercy on us.

Inspired by today’s journeys? Please donate TODAY so Orthodox women serving in the IDF continue to receive your support.

Rabbi David Kalb

Rabbi David Kalb
Director, Jewish Learning Center

(One minute read)

My journey towards serious Jewish learning and working for Ohr Torah Stone coincided. However, at that time I was not fully aware of where this journey would lead me. When I was eighteen years old, I met Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. I had a friend whose family was close with Rabbi Riskin. The Rabbi was visiting New York on one of his frequent trips to the United States. He was speaking at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Shabbat. Rabbi Riskin invited my friend to services, hear him speak and then join him for Shabbat lunch. Rabbi Riskin said, “if you would like, bring a friend”. I was the friend.

I was captivated by Rabbi Riskin’s Dvar Torah (Sermon). I was also fascinated, at how he answered what seemed like countless people’s questions, as we walked from the Synagogue to our hosts for lunch. Not only Halachic (Jewish Legal), but philosophical, pastoral and public policy. Each query he answered with erudition, compassion, and nuance. In several cases he would say, “your question needs further study and I need to discuss the matter in depth with you, let’s get together”. I was impressed. I thought to myself. Helping people, grow spiritually was a meaningful way to lead one’s life.

At lunch, I am not sure how this happened, but it seemed that everyone else was speaking to each other and Rabbi Riskin and I had a one on one conversation. If I monopolized Rabbi Riskin, since it is the season for Teshuva (Repentance), and there is no, statute of limitations on asking Mechilah (Forgiveness), please forgive me. We seemed to discuss everything. Talmud Torah (Torah Study), Halacha, theology, Tanach (Bible) Zionism, and pluralism. Most of all, we both agreed that the most pressing issues facing the Jewish world were assimilation, unaffiliation, and intermarriage. We both agreed that these were among the most important things a Rabbi who had the talent and ability to focus their attention on.

Rabbi Riskin encouraged me at that time to come and study at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, which I eventually did. My years at the yeshiva not only helped me to establish a Derekh Limmud (an approach to Jewish Learning) but strongly affected my outlook on life. Furthermore, it was in those years that Rabbi Riskin became my Rebbe, a relationship that has spanned all of these years. I eventually received semikhah (Ordination) from Rabbi Riskin.

I have had the opportunity of working for a number of prestigious Jewish institutions in the American Jewish community. However, when I was asked approximately eight years ago, by Rabbi Riskin, to create the Jewish Learning Center, a program of Ohr Torah Stone, it was one of the true honors of my life. I have come full circle, all those years ago, from that original conversation with Rabbi Riskin.

At the Jewish Learning Center we are dedicated to reaching out to all who are interested in learning about and being involved in the beauty of Jewish traditions, ideas, texts, history and community. The Jewish Learning Center provides intellectually stimulating Jewish educational programs, vibrant cultural activities, exciting social gatherings and important social action programs in the context of a spiritual, open and welcoming setting. A major focus of the Jewish Learning Center is reaching out to interdating and intermarried couples. The Jewish Learning Center offers an educational program that can lead to conversion. From the start of the process, we connect our students with a Beit Din (Conversion Board) that offers an inclusive approach to traditional Halachic conversion.

I would add, that as my journey with Ohr Torah Stone has continued, I have had the wonderful opportunity with working with many others in the Ohr Torah Stone family. Most recently, Rabbi Brander – one the great rabbis, Jewish leaders, educators and visionaries of our time. I look forward to continuing the journey.

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(Five minute read)

“People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. No one dared. Disturb the sound of silence”. (The Sound of Silence” by Paul Simon, recorded by Simon & Garfunkel on the album “Wednesday Morning 3 AM”)

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah comes from Bereishit (Genesis 21:1 to 34). For years, Avraham (Abraham) and Sarah try to get pregnant, to continue the Brit (the Covenant) they began with God. 

After struggling with infertility for years, Sarah tells Avraham to have relations with her handmaid Hagar, who then gives birth to Yishmael. Miraculously, 14 years later when they are much older, Avraham and Sarah finally have a son, Yitzchak. All is well. Then one day, וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛י אֲשֶׁר־יָֽלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Avraham mocking”. (Bereishit 21:9) Yishmael was mocking Yitzchak. The Hebrew term for mocking is “metzachek”. “Metzachek” is an interesting word. Metzachek is typically poorly translated as mocking, making sport, laughing, merry making with Yitzchak. These translations give the impression that Yishmael is making fun of Yitzchak, being a poor influence on him or truly mistreating Yitzchak. However, that is not what metzachek means.

Read the word metzachek out loud and listen to the word carefully, metzachek. You can almost hear the word Yitzchak in the word metzachek. What is the meaning of the word metzachek? That Yishmael wants to be Yitzchak. His desire: To take Yitzchak’s place. His goal: To be the Covenantal child. To receive the inheritance.

That is why Sarah says גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָֽאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָֽאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק  

“Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” (Bereishit 21:10)

How does Avraham react? וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם “This thing that Sarah said was grievous in his eyes.” (Bereishit 21:11)

The Torah is indicating that Avraham is pained in his eyes. Not in his ears, It is saying that Avraham sees but does not listen. Avraham is distressed when Sarah says this.  At this emotional time, God speaks to Avraham: כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָה “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Bereishit 21:12)

Let’s repeat God’s language, Shema bekola (Listen to her voice). What does Avraham do? , וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּקַּח-לֶחֶם וְחֵמַת מַיִם וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-הָגָר, “And Avraham arose early, and took bread and water and gave it to Hagar and the child and sent them away.” (Bereishit 21:14)

Did you follow what happened? God did not say, “Do what Sarah said.” God did not tell Avraham to get up early, pack some food and water and send Hagar and Yishmael away. God said, “Listen to Sarah’s voice.” That is the one thing Avraham does not do. He does not listen. Avraham actually never does that! God said, “Listen to Sarah”. Instead of listening to Sarah, Avraham makes provisions for Hagar and Yishmael and sends them away. What was Avraham doing here? Was he problem solving? Have you ever noticed that whenever we get into “problem solving mode”, we rarely solve any problems. We actually create a few extra problems. You know how I know? I am a big problem solver.  When I should be listening, I problem solve.

Of course Sarah said, “Drive out this Handmaid and her son”. Sarah said, “For this son of the handmaid shall not inherit  with my son, with Yitzchak”. Perhaps because she feared her son’s covenantal rights slipping away, she articulated some horrible thought to Avraham. That may have been the first thing that came into her mind and out of her mouth, while in her heart, maybe, just maybe, Sarah would never wish to treat Hagar and Yishmael in this way. Perhaps if she had the chance to think it over, she would have said something different. Maybe she was just very raw at this moment, and needed someone to listen.

We all sometimes say terrible things, and may even suggest wanting to do unkind acts when we are under tremendous stress — statements that we often regret later on. In these moments, we need someone to listen, not necessarily to act on our words. God told Avraham to listen to everything Sarah said, not do what Sarah said.

Remember God’s words to Avraham, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָה “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” (Bereishit 21:12) Now what do we do after the Torah service? We perform the mitzvah of shofar. It is interesting to consider how we fulfill the mitzvah of shofar.

Is the mitzvah to blow the shofar or to listen to the shofar? The mitzvah is to listen to the shofar, according to the Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Shofar 1:1. Furthermore, what is the bracha (the blessing) on the mitzvah of shofar: “Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melekh Ha-olam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzivanu, Lishmoa Kol Shofar”. (Blessed are You, Ruler of the Universe, Who has Sanctified us with your commandments, and has commanded us, to listen to the voice of the shofar.)

This is similar to what God said to Avraham, “shema b’kola” (listen to her voice). As mentioned, after reading a Torah text about not listening, we perform the mitzvah of shofar, which if you think about it, is an exercise in listening.

When we listen to people, it is important to treat it like a mitzvah. We need to put ourselves in the right frame of mind. When we listen to the shofar, we are not permitted to make an interruption. The same should be true in our listening to people.  We cannot interrupt. Just as we focus on each note, all 100 notes of the shofar blowing, we must concentrate on each word that a person says to us.

It is not just the mitzvah of shofar that demonstrates the value of listening in Judaism. Listening is central to our religious experience. There are other spiritual moments where listening plays an important role. Let me share just one, which had a profound effect on me.

When we enter a shiva home, a house of mourning, and come before a mourner, we are not permitted to speak to the mourner until they speak to us. According to the Shulchan Aruch, Hilchot Neecheem Avelim, 376:1. What is the halakha (the law’s) intention? It is directing us to listen to the mourner. While this law is specifically about shiva and the mourner, philosophically it can be applied to other times of sadness, death and tragedy.

I travelled to Pittsburgh just days after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I came as a rabbi, to be there for people. To show solidarity. Many rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and other clergy were there as well. You know what we did? We listened.

When tragedies happen, there is a desire to understand why they occured. Answers are difficult to come by. People inadvertently provide meaningless or hurtful suggestions. At Tree of Life, instead of attempting to offer wisdom, we came before the mourners as listeners.

I attended the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal. You might remember their story. Cecil and David had Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental disabilities. Cecil and David loved going to services. They went every Shabbat. They sat in the back of the synagogue, greeting everyone as they entered. It is possible that as the gunman came in, they welcomed him and wished him a Shabbat shalom, just before he murdered them.

As I walked out of the funeral, I saw my colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun. We were students together at the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, a professional development program for North American rabbis from all the movements of Judaism, to study together in Jerusalem. Jonathan is the son of Rabbi Alvin Berkun, ZTL, who was the Rabbi Emeritus of Tree of Life. Jonathan grew up at Tree of Life and he spent a lot of time with Cecil and David. When I first approached Jonathan, I said nothing. I just listened, and then I hugged him.

These spiritual examples of listening in our tradition need to transform us and make us better listeners. Easier said than done. No one listens. I am no better. However, we all need to strive to improve.

We need to listen to our friends and family. We need to listen to the people we work with. For those of us who are students and teachers, we need to listen to each other. As different types of Jews, whether we identify as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanist, Orthodox, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, we need to listen to each other. In Israel’s quest for peace, security, unity and justice for all, everyone needs to listen to each other. Israelis and Diaspora Jews need to listen to each other. Americans with different political perspectives, Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative, need to listen to each other. As citizens of the world, we need to listen.

Rosh Hashanah is a day focused on praying to God. Prayer is about speaking to God. When we pray, do we not need to listen to God. However, as spiritual beings, we have to become better listeners.

istening opens us up to miraculous possibilities. Eventually, we go beyond listening. It gives us deep feelings and vision. “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” (Scarlet Begonias ” by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, recorded by the Grateful Dead on the album “From Mars Hotel”).

As we listen to the blasts of the shofar this Rosh Hashanah, let us not only listen to the remaining blasts of the shofar. Let the experience of hearing the shofar transform us into the best possible listeners.

 Shana tova.

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Shlomo and Ahava Schachter Family 2

Rabbi Shlomo and Ahava Schacter
Straus-Amiel Emissaries
Congregation Schara Tzedeck
Vancouver, Canada

(One minute read)

Shlomo and Ahava Schachter were married on Lag Ba’Omer of 2015. We completed the Straus-Amiel program  and set out on shlichut a year later.  From the fall of 2016 until the spring of 2021 we served as the JLIC couple at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  During our time there, the community enjoyed significant growth.  We established the Champaign-Urbana eruv, expanded kosher food options in town and successfully stimulated the daily minyan. Orthodox enrollment at the university has more than quadrupled since our arrival there, and we were blessed to form meaningful and lasting relationships with hundreds of students. In addition to Shlomo’s daughter Tzedakah, who now lives in Nes Harim, during our time in Illinois we were blessed with our two sons, Meshullam Zalman Pele-Yoetz, now age 4 and Yechiel Netzach, age 2.  

After our five successful years in Illinois we moved on to Vancouver Canada, where Shlomo serves as associate Rabbi of Congregation Schara Tzedeck and Ahava is the Director of Women’s and Young Families’ Education.  We are proud to work as shlichim of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel program, and look forward to continuing to share our passion for Torah and love of Judaism with the community of Vancouver.  Please come visit us if you’re in the Pacific Northwest!

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(Three minute read)

As a general rule of thumb in Judaism, the more important something is to us, the more rules we have about it.  Shabbat, for example, is the archetype of holiness in time and a central pillar of Jewish practice.  We have an entire tractate of Talmud dedicated to the laws of Shabbat, going into great detail about what is obligatory, what is permitted and what is prohibited.  We even have another whole tractate on Eruvin, a Rabbinic enactment aimed to facilitate community by allowing us to carry… on Shabbat.  Food is heavily regulated with complex laws about what foods are and are not kosher, what blessing to say before and after and how to conduct oneself during a meal.  Accordingly our sages say (Brachot 55a) that today, a person’s table brings atonement like the sacrificial order did when we had a Temple.  Sexuality is regarded as a sacrament, with the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies depicting angels in a lovers’ embrace.  Consequently there are ‘family purity’ laws which govern marital intimacy.  Business, agriculture, clothing, the list goes on.  Even the most seemingly trivial elements of life such as how to conduct oneself in the washroom and how to put on your shoes have rules.  Having more laws about something draws our attention to it more closely and invites us to approach it with more intentionality.  Halakha (Jewish law) thereby allows us to engage even the most mundane, normative and “non-religious” aspects of life in a mindful and Holy way, thus elevating everyday occurrences by filling our actions with mitzvot.

Ok, then what about breathing?  Breathing is the most mundane, common and unremarkable thing we do, and yet it’s absolutely essential to life.  We each take approximately 20,000 breaths a day without thinking about it.  Wouldn’t it make sense for  the Torah to draw our attention to our breathing as a way of connecting to Hashem?  Is not all breath a gift from The Creator? Wouldn’t an injunction to conscious breathing be an essential ingredient in cultivating spiritual consciousness? Across the world, devotees of nearly all spiritual traditions emphasize conscious breathing as an essential practice.  Conceptually, there is clearly a connection between breathing and spirituality.  In fact, almost all of our words for spiritual matters are breath related.  The very word spirituality comes from spirit – breath, like respiration.  

 

In Hebrew the innate connection between breath and spirituality is even more pronounced.  The three words which the Torah uses that are usually translated as ‘soul’: ruach, neshama and nefesh, are all words about breath. Neshama comes from נשימה (neshima) which quite literally means breath, and more specifically to draw breath in.  נפש (nefesh) is closely related to the verb לנשוף which means to exhale. Ruach can  be translated as wind or spirit, but is most often used to mean breath as in (Genesis 7:15) “They came to Noah to enter the ark, two by two of every creature which had in it the breath of life”.   Ruach also used to describe being filled with the Spirit of God, as in when Pharoah meets Joseph and proclaims (Genesis 41:38) “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” or (Numbers 27:18) “Joshua ben Nun, a man in whom there is spirit”.

 

It is not accidental that breath is associated both with human respiration and the Divine presence.  Looking back at the creation of Adam, we find (Genesis 2:7) “The LORD God formed Adam of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living creature”.  More on this verse later, but for the moment suffice it to say that the very act of breathing inherently connects us to God.  The mystical tradition takes this verse a step further, such as when the Ramban wrote, “The One who blew, blew some of his own essence”.  Meaning, the spirit which was blown into Adam was not only the breath of life, it was also God’s Divine Spirit which is now permanently invested into each person.  Our neshama – the part of us which breathes – is a spark of Godliness.  

 

This makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level.  Just as we always keep breathing whether we are conscious of it or not, so too God is always with us, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Even if we were to consciously choose to not breathe for a time, eventually we would lose consciousness, and our soul’s innate will to live would take over and we’d breathe again, even against our conscious will.  This is analogous to the statement of our Sages that (Pirkei Avot 4:22) “Involuntarily you were created, involuntarily you were born, involuntarily you live…”  The ‘choice’ to breathe and to live is not being made by our conscious mind, it is our neshama, embedded within us by God, and like God, even when we neglect it, it continues to be there for us whether we like it or not.

 

Just because we can’t control our neshama doesn’t mean we can’t be active participants with it.  The more attention we invest in our breathing, the more meaningful it becomes.  Noticing one’s breath is the cornerstone of nearly all meditative practices. Becoming conscious of our breath merely requires actively directing our mind to it.  It is an act of mindfulness, and effectively places us in the presence of God, recognizing each breath as a summons to life from the Divine.   In his book Jewish Meditation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l describes a basic meditation in which Hashem’s Holy Name is spelled out in each breath.  י Yod is a single point, potential without any expansion – the empty lungs between breaths.  ה Heh is the expansion of the in-breath, bringing potential into actualization. ו Vav is the distribution of breath within the body and the exchange of gasses in the bloodstream. ה Heh is the contraction of the outbreath, giving vitality back to the world.  With this meditation we fulfill the familiar verse, (Psalm 150:6) כל הנשמה תהלל י-ה,  “All souls praise Hashem, Haleluyah!” However, with this understanding we can now translate it as “every breath praises Hashem” or “the entire breath praises Hashem, Haleluyah”.

 

All of this only further reinforces the question: If being conscious of our breath is so foundational to spirituality, why don’t we have rules and rituals about breathing?  

 

The first level answer is that rabbinic jurisprudence has a principle that “we don’t make a rule which the community cannot abide by”.  Breathing is so autonomic that making rules about when to breathe and when not to breathe would likely only serve to instill needless guilt among those of us who fail to live up to whatever standard was set.  We Jews have plenty of guilt already without being told that we’re breathing wrong.  That being said, there are a handful of instances when we do in fact have customs regarding breath.  One well known example is that when reading the megillah on Purim we customarily read the names of all 10 of Haman’s sons in one breath.  Similarly, in the Yishtabach prayer there are 15 articulations of praise, and it is customary to recite them all in a single breath.  Neither of these customs are ‘rules’ per say, but they are instances in which our attention is being purposefully drawn to our breath.  These two however are when not to breathe, and neither is of any halakhic significance.

 

To the extent of my knowledge, there is but a single instance in all of halakha that specifically mandates taking a breath (according to Ashkenazi tradition).  This singular moment of conscious intentional breath is during the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative code of halakha, reads as follows (Orech Chayim 590:5):  The 3 shevarim must all be done in a single breath, but the shevarim and terua, there are those (Ashkenazim) that say that they must be done in two breaths so long as there is no delay except to breathe…”   

 

The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who is the Ashkenazi editor of the Shulchan Aruch, adds, And our tradition is to do it always in two breaths, and one must not deviate from it.”  The following paragraph states: If one blew Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah all in one breath, they have still fulfilled their obligation, but some (again, Ashkenazim) say you have not”Anyone who has blown the shofar before knows that it is not difficult to blow the shevarim-teruah in a single breath, and even the Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah can also be done all in one breath without difficulty.  We see clearly from both of these halakhot, that (at least for Ashkenazim) breathing during shofar blowing is not out of practical necessity, but is both mandatory and an essential part of the performance of this mitzvah.

 

Ok, why is this breath different from all other breaths?  Why on Rosh Hashanah, and why during shofar blowing specifically is the halakha instructing us to intentionally breathe? Is there some inherent symbolic connection between hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and breathing? 

 

Yes indeed there is!

 

The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 29:1) tells us that the creation of the world began on the 25th of the month of Elul. As such, the first of Tishrei, the  the day we now know as Rosh Hashanah is actually the anniversary of the sixth day of creation. The sixth day is when Adam and Eve were created, the day on which they sinned by eating the forbidden fruit and were judged by God.  In our Rosh Hashanah rituals we reenact that fateful day of creation. We eat apples (this time with honey), Stand before Hashem to be judged and hearing the shofar.  So what then is the shofar blowing reenacting? 

 

Remember that verse we looked at earlier about Hashem blowing the breath of life into the dust of the Earth, imbuing the Holy spirit within him and bringing Adam to life as a living soul?  The Sfat Emet, Shem MiShmuel and several other Chassidic masters all understand the moment of the shofar blowing to be not a mere reenactment of the investment of the Divine spirit into Adam, but rather the very moment when Hashem renews our souls for the coming year. 

 

If indeed this is the moment in which Hashem blows our souls into us, how perfectly fitting that this is the one and only time in which there is a specific halakhic injunction to consciously breathe!  We receive our soul anew and are essentially re-created every year on Rosh Hashanah. By the Torah mandating that the shofar blower breathe at just the right moments, he essentially serves as the conduit for God’s Holy Spirit to come into each of us through the shofar.  While it’s true that the halakha only specifically mandates that the one actually blowing the shofar must breathe between the various intonations, nevertheless it is an incredible opportunity for us all to be aware of our breath as we literally inhale Godliness.  

 

The word Tekiah comes from the root תקע which means to “insert”, like a tent peg ‘driven in’ to the ground. The Tekiah then is the moment of being breathed into by Hashem, our souls perfectly unified with the Source of Life and yet fully invested in our earthly bodies.  The Shevarim and Teruah sounds are different ways to mimic human crying (which is always done in an outbreath) and symbolize the suffering the world endures because we are alienated from Hashem and our own Godly souls.  Then we always return to the Tekiah, breathing in, reconnecting to our souls and returning to Hashem.  

The shofar blowing, as the one and only moment of commanded intentional breathing, assures us that throughout the entire coming year, Hashem will never be further from us than our own breath.

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Pnina Omer

Pnina Omer
Director of Yad La'isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center

(One minute read)

I was the Director of another organization when, one day, I received a phone call from a good friend. “Yad La’isha is looking for a new director.  You would be perfect for the job.” I wasn’t familiar with Yad La’isha and I wasn’t looking for a job at the time, but I felt that if a door was opening, I should go in and see what it was all about.

A simple internet search revealed a horrible reality that shook my world. While cynically exploiting Jewish law, a terrible crime was taking place. In the 21st century, Jewish women are fighting for a basic right – the right to freedom. Men are abandoning their wives without giving a divorce, fleeing overseas and demanding money for freedom. Every fiber of my being cried out in the face of the injustice.

As a woman, I felt the pain of my sisters. As a religious woman, I felt a responsibility for their fate. As an activist, I was furious. I immediately understood that in order to change the reality, I had to get involved.

For five years now, I have been at the forefront of working to free agunot – women whose husbands refuse to grant a get (a Jewish divorce). The numbers are inconceivable. Yad La’isha alone has freed nearly 1,000 agunot. Yad La’isha’s team of warriors — women legal advocates, social workers and I wake up each morning seeking to change the reality through halakhic (Jewish legal) approaches. From the day my eyes were opened to this reality, there was no going back. In my opinion, finding a solution to the challenges facing agunot is the task of our generation and we must not rest until we complete it.

* Each year, 2,400 women join the circle of agunot and mesuravot get. Many of these women do not have the financial or emotional wherewithal, legal representation, social clout or political influence to fight for their freedom.  Ohr Torah Stone established Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline in 1997 specifically to help them and indeed, any woman in need can turn to the Center for help, regardless of her age, background or religious orientation. While today there are other organizations which also assist agunot in various ways, Yad La’isha remains the largest, most comprehensive and most experienced support center for agunot in the world, providing not only legal support in the rabbinical and civil courts, but also the services of in-house social workers and personal coaches who support clients emotionally and empower them to rebuild their lives.

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(Two minute read)

The journey of teshuva – repenting and finding forgiveness – during the High Holy Days stands upon three pillars: time, words, and melodies.  

The 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul (the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul) and Yom Kippur are days intended for gradual spiritual preparation which takes place over a period of time through prayers and melodies.  At the end of this journey in the quest for teshuva, the catharsis comes in the form of Tefillat Ne’ila, the closing prayer of Yom Kippur.  When the shofar is blown at the end, one cannot help but feel a sense of release, as though one has been filled with a burst of fresh air ahead of the New Year. 

Truth be told, the melodies of the High Holy Days start reverberating in me weeks before the Holidays begin.  Studies show that music directly affects our brains.  It even has powerful therapeutic traits, and affects us both emotionally and physically, sometimes even impacting the pace of our heartbeat.  A melody can arouse memories, and bring to life age-old images and feelings.  It plays on the strings of our hearts, and with the sweep of a conductor’s baton, it arouses us in ways over which we have no control.  Moreover, musical memory is exceptionally durable.  

I was further astonished to discover that singing in a choir, in particular, enhances a sense of belonging and motivation.  This fact left me wondering whether the act of singing the prayers out loud as a congregation is the biggest catalyst in our quest for teshuva.  

I close my eyes and become one with the congregation in the synagogue, as we all sing together the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Yud Gimmel Midot), which is the very heartbeat of the prayers.

“The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and clearing guilt…”  The minute the chorus sounds, I can feel God himself enveloping me with great mercy, and my heart yearns to connect with the Kind and Merciful One.  For me, this is a moment of great spiritual elevation, when all boundaries disappear; a moment that enables me to stand exposed and frail but ready to set forth on an introspective journey which takes place during these specific days.  However, this moment begins long weeks before the New Year is born.

As the days of Elul draw near, the melodies in my head come to life, and arouse the heart as well. The melody sung to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy starts humming in my brain like a stubborn, repetitive “earworm”, time and time again for 40 days at least.  

This is what makes the journey of the High Holy Days so great – the quest for teshuva is intertwined with time, words and melodies.  

But what happens when one of these three pillars is removed? 

Once, some 24 years ago, I got lost on my journey of teshuva.  I was a young woman at the time, recently married, and for the first time in my life I had left my parents’ home and went to pray in a synagogue which was as different as could be from the synagogue I was used to.

On Rosh Hashana, I arrived at the Sephardi synagogue with my husband, born to parents who were natives of Morocco and Algeria.  The day was holy; the words stared at me from the prayer book, but where were the melodies?  I stood there in the synagogue shell shocked and lost.  It was as though I was deprived of my journey; my High Holy Day experience was taken from me.  

I cannot even begin to describe how detached I felt that year.  I went straight home to the festive holiday table from the prayer service, but I felt no elevation of spirit, nor any feeling of festivity. The day had lost its joy.  I cried with longing for my melody.  

The melodies of the High Holy Days take me on a journey through time; they open chambers of my heart I didn’t even know existed; they play on the strings of my soul.

Melodies are paramount.  In his guidelines for cantors published in 1910, Pesach Minkovsky warns cantors that “traditional tunes must be preserved at all cost because only they can unite us, in whichever synagogue we may be.”  He also adds another warning and says that “a singer who is not completely familiar with all the traditional tunes sung during the prayer service, should not be recommended to serve as the cantor of the congregation.”

It goes without saying that the world is not limited to Minkovsky’s nusach (prayer melodies), but there is no doubt he knew well the value of melody:  the particular prayer melodies we grow up with stay with us until adulthood and evoke the journey of teshuva, the yearning for repentance.  Without our melodies, we feel incomplete.  

Years have elapsed, and I am older now.  I have visited the Sephardi synagogue many times since, and the Sephardi melodies have become my own.  The melody sung to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy still plays in my head when the month of Tishrei bears the smells of Autumn air, but I have made room in my heart for new melodies as well. I have opened my inner chambers to other voices, and have built a layer of new memories.  Melodies from my childhood reverberate alongside those from his childhood, and together they form the foundations of the home we have built together.  All these melodies make up the woman I have grown to be. 

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Tova Levine 1

Tova Levine
Beren-Amiel Emissary
Co-Director of Education for Hale Adult Hebrew Education Trust
Hale, England

(One minute read)

My personal journey to Jewish communal work and Shlichut probably started when I was five years old. I had dressed up as a Camp Unit Head in a kindergarten play adorned with a whistle, clipboard, while wearing my mother’s t-shirt and skirt. In fact, I received the tradition of being a Jewish community organizer from my grandfather, as well as my mother and father. Throughout my life, I always found myself involved in camp and on campus, recruiting new members, and trying to be warm and welcoming to all. I was a staff member at Camp Ramah New England for six summers; served on the student board at Chabad on Campus at Binghamton; volunteered for Hillel on campus; organized trips for my peers when I attended Hebrew University for my year abroad and then the Alisa Flatow program at Nishmat after graduating from university.

My husband, Evan, and I met when I was learning at Nishmat and he was learning at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva; we made Aliyah after our wedding and lived in Israel for 9 years before we embarked on our Shlichut to where we are now – Hale, Manchester, UK. Throughout my life, I have traveled to, visited, and lived in many Jewish communities across the USA and Europe and have met Jews of all stripes and colors just by living in Jerusalem for four years. Evan and I joined shlichut training programs where we realized the importance of teaching Torah, Hebrew, and topics about Israel, to diaspora communities. One of my favorite aspects of working at Camp Ramah was the fact that they had very strong Israeli mishlachat (emissaries), and I spent every summer learning and speaking Hebrew in order to communicate and really bond with them and to be able to connect to Israel and gain the skills to move there.

With Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel Educational Emissary Program , we traveled to four communities in Poland in order to see, speak with, and learn about the people living there and the Jewish community. Just hearing Rabbi Riskin speak every year about the importance of inspiring others at the culmination ceremony makes me emotional. Creating and strengthening Jewish communities outside the land of Israel is vital to the continuation of the Jewish people, and I believe that connecting to each other through Torah, Hebrew, and Israel is the way to achieve this.

* The word ‘Amiel’ literally means “to my people,” and reflects OTS’s unwavering commitment to the rejuvenation and cultivation of world Jewish community. The Beren-Amiel Educational Emissary Program is dedicated to the comprehensive training of committed, motivated and engaging educators who are sent to teach Judaic Studies in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox state and community schools across the Diaspora.

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(Three minute read)

In April of this year, I was eight months pregnant and in a serious car accident: my car just died in the middle of the motorway. I was in the middle lane and immediately put my hazard lights on. Despite attempts to restart the car there was no hope of getting over to the shoulder. I was sitting in my car in the middle of the motorway waiting for someone to hit me from behind, and sure enough (after a couple of cars managed to swerve out of the way) one van did hit my car at 75 miles per hour. The airbags didn’t deploy; the back of our seven-seater was crunched like an accordion — thank Hashem there was no one else in the car! I lost consciousness.

Ever since then I’ve been contemplating the miracle and meaning of life, of my life. Now with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, I’m also thinking about teshuva, improvement, self-growth, and the relationship between myself and the Creator. He obviously allowed me to survive this serious crash, and I began asking: why? Why me? Did He save me so that I can change my ways, or in order to continue on the path that I’ve chosen? What is so special about me and my mission in life?

Viktor E. Frankl writes in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about the uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence. He emphasizes that “when the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude” (Frankl, pp.86). We each are created for a reason, whether it be to fulfill a goal or to be part of a loving family. When we choose a religious lifestyle in accordance with Torah values then it becomes much more, as well. It becomes about believing in God, observance of the mitzvot, and being part of the Jewish community.

This is not to say that it is easy. It is not! Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel in his work, A Passion for Truth, discusses how a religious life is a perpetual struggle and tension, and God first intended to rule with stern justice the world which He created: “Realizing, however, that it would not endure, He gave precedence to divine mercy, allying it with divine justice” (Heschel, pp.133). Hashem wants us to strive for perfection, but us mere mortals need the divine attribute of mercy, otherwise we would all cease to exist.

Yet, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks always posits – life is not only about our belief in God, but also God’s belief in us. Hashem put each one of us here and knows that we can succeed in our own special way – He believes in us! We can do it! What that “it” is might remain a mystery. We might not each know our specific calling in life yet, if ever, but one fact that we do know is that God believes in us enough to keep us here on Earth for some grand reason. Now is the time of year where it all becomes real and God comes down to us, and simultaneously we’re supposed to be striving upward to Him.

Rav Soloveitchik points out that on Yom Kippur, Hashem knocks on the door of every Jew, […] Hashem yearns to be close to His people on Yom Kippur. But at the same time in Isaiah it describes how the Jew must “search for God where He can be found,” the initiative for the search rests entirely with man. How can it be both? Rav Soloveitchik adds that this path to God is not a straight highway, but rather a narrow, winding, and challenging road, reflecting the nature of teshuvah (Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, pp.99). Creating a bond with the Holy one is not straightforward, in fact, it’s confusing. He might be on the way down to meet us, but we might have missed each other! Hashem might be sending us messages that we don’t know how to receive or perceive. We climb up the ladder to show Hashem that we’re committed. This is the time of year where we receive the privilege and time to focus on these questions. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:

In the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, a voice inside whispers that it is time to return home. Some return, even from the most distant places. Some want to return but cannot overcome their ways. So, the voice inside whispers, “I know you want to return. I appreciate that.” Some more return. Some try but are just too tied down. So, the voice inside whispers again, “Even if you don’t return now, I want you to know that you are deeply loved.” Upon feeling such love, an unbounded love that comes from the very essence of being, who could not return? In the month before Rosh Hashanah, listen for that voice (Ma’amar Ani L’Dodi).

Improving oneself is one of the hardest things in life to do. After the accident I was in a state of spiritual shock. Every day — every moment — is a blessing, so shouldn’t I just be sitting on a hilltop somewhere in meditation thanking God for every moment and every blessing all day long? But normal life must go on and there is so much to be done: cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry, picking up the kids, working for the community, writing, sewing, fixing broken toys, learning Torah. And with this come the mistakes that I continue to make despite my best efforts: I still speak lashon hara, I still get frustrated with my children sometimes, I still have miscommunications with my husband. All I can show Hashem is that I am trying. I am trying and striving. To better myself. To make fewer errors. To have more patience. To listen more carefully. The list goes on.

I believe this time of year is about two things: yearning to be close to and opening up oneself to having a relationship with God as well as others in our lives. One of the main ways we accomplish this is through gratitude. In her book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, Miriam Kosman, relates a paraphrasing of Rav Eliyahu Dessler describing the experience of the World to Come: “[It is] an ecstatic joy [that is experienced as] an infinitely deepening experience of gratitude. Each soul encounters wave after wave of how gently, compassionately, and lovingly God was directing each detail of their life all along. […] the soul trembles with gratitude and this is its bliss” (pp.55).

I can’t say that I know for sure why I was put here on this Earth and what my exact mission is. I can’t know with any certainty why God saved me from the car accident. I can guess at some small reasons why and I can express gratitude. Our daughter, and fourth child, was born a month and a half after the accident. We named her “Hodaya Chaya” – “Thanks to God for Life!”

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Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes

Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes
Director, International Halakhic Scholars Program

(One minute read)

When I graduated from high school in Tel Aviv in 1983, I didn’t see a horizon for in-depth Torah Study for women. Some programs for women existed, but they were primarily geared towards young women from the Diaspora or the newly religious. They did not offer in-depth knowledge of the vast literature of halakha (Jewish law). When seminars I have attended offered sessions titled “The Role of Women in Judaism” I refused to join, because I felt that I was led to deny a part of myself that hungered for nourishment and yearned to be recognized. Not that I didn’t see myself fulfilling said “role,” but something crucial was missing from the language and the messages. By the time I finished my BA at Hebrew University, a religious kibbutz had started a midrasha, which later came to be known as Midreshet Ein Hanatziv. 

My life took me in different directions and I didn’t join women’s study programs that started to flourish at the time. However, like many other women of my generation I never stopped studying Torah, in informal frameworks and with chevrutot (study partners). When I joined Beit Hillel in 2013, I began my journey into the heart of halakhic (Jewish legal) study. Five years ago, the time was ripe, and with God’s help, the loving support of my family, and the initiatives of Ohr Torah Stone, I was able to join the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum. When Ohr Torah Stone, together with the Orthodox Leadership Project, decided, earlier this year, to launch an International Halakha program for women online, it was natural for me to join the efforts as director of the program. I was awed by the number of accomplished women worldwide, of all ages and occupations, who, in applying to participate in this new program, expressed the same yearning and hunger that I felt all those decades ago. I am thrilled to be part of the process of making Torah, in all its depth and width, available and loved by women, whose “role in Judaism” is taking its glorious past into the future.  

* The Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)  is launching the International Halakha Scholars Program (IHSP), a new study program for women educators, scholars and Jewish communal leaders to commence in October 2021. The four-year, part-time program will feature a course of advanced study of halakha (Jewish law) in the subjects of Shabbat, Aveilut (Mourning), Kashrut, and Nidda (Family Purity and fertility). In addition, the program offers two intensive seminars on the topics of leadership development, writing and communication skills, and philosophy of halakha. Scholars receive a certificate upon completion of each unit of study indicating their proficiency in that area of study, as well as a Graduate Certificate upon completion of the entire program.

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(Four minute read)

It is not always easy to get into a festive mind frame in the hustle and bustle of modern life.  Our places of work and study follow the Gregorian calendar rather than the Jewish one.  It follows that we often do not have the headspace to prepare for the upcoming Jewish holiday or give it its due attention.  This year, for example, the Hebrew month of Elul began in the second week of August.  In terms of work and studies, August is vacation time, so many of us don’t have a set routine or a fixed daily schedule.  Furthermore, another wave of COVID-19 hit us, undermining our sense of security and making it even more difficult to undertake any sort of spiritual work.  This year, once again, we were unable to convene for prayers, learning or any other form of spiritual arousal as we had done in the past.  The spiritual work in which we engage during the month of Elul is supposed to prepare us for Rosh Hashana, the day on which “all living creatures pass before him as a flock of sheep”, followed by Yom Kippur.  The fact that our Sages set the first day of the month of Tishrei as “the first day of each year; the first day of shmita year; the first day of the Jubilee (yovel) and also as the reference point for laws pertaining to fruits and vegetables” adds a dimension of both closure and renewal to this special day.  Even new beginnings require preparation, and we have the month of Elul for this exact purpose.  This coming Rosh Hashana will also mark the beginning of shnat shmita (the Sabbatical Year – the seventh year in the agricultural cycle) in the Land of Israel.  Thus, a unique opportunity presents itself – experiencing the birth of a New Year as something almost tangible, a renewal that directly impacts our daily lives.  This might better help us channel our attention to achieving the awareness needed for true renewal.  

The Talmud, in the tractate of Rosh Hashana (8b), asks how we know that the New Year, which begins on the first of Tishrei, is indeed the date that marks the beginning of the shmita year.  Why should the start of the Sabbatical Year not be on the first of the month of Nisan, which is called “the first of all months”?  The answer the Talmud gives is based on what is called a gezera shavah, which means a halakhic (Jewish legal) verdict that is reached by comparing two cases which contain similar words.  When the Torah talks of the mitzvah of shmita in Leviticus 25, it says the following:  “But the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land.” How do we know when the seventh year begins?  In most cases the Torah refers to the month of Nisan as the first of all months.  In Deuteronomy 11, where the Torah speaks of Israel’s behavior directly impacting the extent to which they prosper and flourish in the Land of Israel, special reference is made to the beginning of the year.  “A land which the Lord thy God cares for; the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.”  From this verse, the beginning of the year is understood to be the first of Tishrei, and not Nisan.  The reason the Talmud gives is that this particular verse refers to the rainy season, which begins in Tishrei and not in Nisan.  Consequently, the Talmud infers that the year mentioned with reference to the mitzvah of shmita – the seventh year – is analogous with the year mentioned in Deuteronomy, which is not the year beginning in Nisan.  The reason is that Nisan is mentioned as the first of all months, while the mitzvah of shmita in the book of Leviticus makes mention of the word year, a complete unit, irrespective of months.  The Talmud explains as follows:  “We may draw an analogy between one source that makes mention of the word year and no mention of months and another source that makes mention of the word year with no mention of months; we may not draw an analogy between a source that makes mention of the word year as well as months and a source that refers to the word year alone and makes no mention of months (ibid.).  This analogy is mentioned again in the Mishnah when it explains that the first of Tishrei marks the beginning of the year when it comes to planting, as well as in matters of how to calculate fruits that are orla (picked within the first three years of a tree’s life)  (ibid. 9:2).

Evidently, our Sages made a distinction between the first of Nisan, which is the first of all months, and the first of Tishrei, which marks the beginning of the New Year and is also the beginning of the rainy season.  This distinction is also conceptual one, and might better help us understand Rosh Hashana as a time of renewal.  The importance of the month count is connected to how the Jewish festivals are set in the Jewish calendar, as well as to the fulfillment of other commandments.  The significance of the new moon is not at all similar to the birth of a new year, which marks the beginning of a new era for most human beings.  The verse in Deuteronomy 11, which talks of the unique Divine Providence over the Land of Israel and the People of Israel from the start of the year until the year’s end, teaches us that the concept of “year”, as a significant and complete unit, should be taken very seriously.  The yearly cycle contains elements of beginnings and closures, both of which are related to our behavior as humans.  In keeping with this idea, God observes people’s behavior, assesses human trends and passes judgement in yearly units of time.  In much the same way that a period of one year suffices to assess the rain situation, one human year is long enough to give a fair idea of the human situation, be it negative or positive.  That said, one year does not give an accurate reflection of a person’ entire lifetime.  This means that the transition from one year to the next presents an opportunity for change and renewal, such that a new year also marks a fresh start in our human consciousness, allowing us to engage in introspection using “good” and “bad” as reference points.

The second Mishnah in the tractate of Rosh Hashana states that “all living creatures pass before him as a flock of sheep”.  Thus, the Mishnah sets Rosh Hashana not only as the beginning of the shmita year and the Jubilee, but also as the New Year of moral-spiritual human time.  This then becomes the time when we bring one era to a close and begin a new one.  Consequently, this is the time when we are able to create a new spiritual identity which is contingent upon our behavior throughout the year.  As stated above, the difficulty stems from the fact that it is not always easy to focus our attention on the process of transitioning into the New Year, which marks a new era in our lives; nor is it easy to engage in soul-searching or the process of teshuva, which is imperative during these very days.  

However, this coming year, which will also be a shmita year, the transformation between pre-Rosh Hashana and post-Rosh Hashana will be a very tangible one because the New Year will also open the gates to a Sabbatical Year.  The Mishnah in the tractate dealing with the shmita year elaborates upon the types of agricultural labor that are permitted before Rosh Hashana of the shmita year in order to prepare it for the Sabbatical.  There are a few particular activities which should be avoided a few months prior to the shmita year, e.g. plowing and tree planting.  However, these laws are only a type of prelude to the shmita year itself, and are related to growth-time calculations of the various crops.  

The transition from the sixth year to the seventh is not significant for farmers only; it has bearings on anyone who has a garden and anyone buying vegetables and fruits or any products containing any form of crop.  Even those living abroad and consuming products made in Israel, especially wine, must have greater awareness of the New Year and its implications.  This new beginning or renewal offers a unique opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah that is otherwise not a part of our daily routine.  It can also serve as an internal compass of sorts, directing us towards the change we wish to make in the coming year.  So, yes, this Elul caught us in the middle of August, making it much more difficult to be in the mind frame for spiritual preparation; nevertheless, the transition and transformation will be far more tangible this year.  If we add the memories evoked by the sound of the shofar to the memories aroused by the Sabbatical year, we might succeed in creating the right mood which will help us prepare for these Days of Judgement.  The New Year bears upon its wings a new spiritual and halakhic reality, which will hopefully lead to a novel spiritual awareness.

May the New Year be one of positive renewal and revival, and may our prayers be answered.  May the pandemic end, and may God shower great abundance on all those observing the shmita year so that we are all able to properly focus on our avodat Hashem and spiritual growth. 

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Rabbi Shay Nave

Rabbi Shay Nave
Director, Yachad Program for Jewish Identity

The Nave Family(One minute read)

My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a Bobov Hassid from Poland. My other great-grandfather was a Gur Hassid from Hungary. Unfortunately, I never knew either of them. Both were murdered in the Holocaust, part of a generation of Jews with long beards, black coats and hats. Their children made Aliyah after the Holocaust. They were enthusiastic Zionists who established their homes in Israel. My grandmother was among the founders of Kibbutz Massuot Yitzchak in 1946, a kibbutz that was destroyed during the War of Independence. My father was born in Poland, immigrated to Israel, grew up here and served in the Israeli army. My father, the son of a Holocaust survivor, was a colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He spoke Yiddish well, but his mother tongue was Hebrew. My mother was born in Israel, in a one-room building above the orchards of Netanya. I, the grandson and great-grandson, barely speak or understand Yiddish. I am an Israeli Hebrew speaker. There is a huge distance between the experiences of my great-grandfathers and myself – in terms of language, dress, technology, security, independence, Judaism, and the realities of life. Within less than 100 years, a huge gap has opened between us. Within this gap, the State of Israel has arisen, we have arisen.

I joined Yachad based on the awareness that we are living during an important historical moment. The events we are experiencing are on the level of those that took place during the times of Kings David and Solomon, of the Prophets Ezra and Nehemia, of the Exodus from Egypt.  I joined Yachad to help give every Jew the opportunity to connect with an inclusive Judaism, a just Judaism, a Judaism with space for religious and secular, alike. I joined Yachad from an awareness of the historic miracle that we call Israel. It is a gift that God has given us on condition that we know how to fulfill our destiny in the Jewish state, the destiny “that you will be my kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”.

Every day, 30 Yachad facilitators work to connect people to Jewish life in communities across Israel, to help people who don’t engage with Jewish tradition on a daily basis to find points of connection to their heritage and to each other.  It is a tremendous responsibility.

* Judaism belongs to everyone, but for the average Israeli it is not always accessible, or even appealing. The Yachad Program for Jewish Identity understands that the average Israeli is thirsty for meaning, connection and community – but not for coercive ritual. Yachad’s goal is therefore not to indoctrinate, but rather to empower the general population to engage in an active search for their roots and reclaim the sources and traditions of Judaism on terms which are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.

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(Two minute read)

Jewish time is a complicated business.  The Jewish calendar is a double calendar of sorts.  On the one hand, it follows the seasons and the solar year – the 365 days it takes Earth to orbit the sun.  On the other hand, the Jewish calendar is loyal to the moon and its 12 monthly orbits of planet Earth.  This means that our complex calendar is constantly trying to strike a balance between these two separate cycles; one might call it an attempt to “maintain a relationship” with both.  The Christians, unlike ourselves, only follow the solar calendar, while the Muslims count their years solely using the lunar system.  But we have to complicate matters, as always.  That’s why this coming year will be a leap year, which means we will be adding a full month to our calendar in order to be on par with the solar cycle.  

Our double calendar is a reflection of our double lives.  Being Jewish means being a part of the physical world, living and breathing everything it has to offer: nature, science, technology and culture.  However, it also means being able to transcend this world by being fully committed to the Divine Revelation at Sinai, aspiring to achieve sanctity and subjecting ourselves to morality.  The solar year, which began with Creation (the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the day on which the world “was conceived”), is also a seasonal cycle which takes agricultural time into account, and, as such, denotes the physical dimension and nature itself.  The lunar year, which started at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (“This month shall be unto you the beginning of all months…”), sets the time for the Jewish festivals and commemorations, and therefore denotes Divine Revelation and our personal history.  It follows that our double and highly complicated Jewish calendar is, in fact, a reflection of the integral Jewish aspiration to connect between Heaven and Earth, in an attempt to be both divine beings as well as earthly ones.  This means that the connection between sun and moon becomes a symbol for the bond between nature and Divine Revelation. 

A simple subtraction is all it takes to calculate the difference between a solar and lunar year: 10 days and a bit.  If one starts counting the days of the year on Rosh Hashana, which begins on the first of Tishrei, it follows that 12 lunar months later, which bring us to the end of the month of Elul, almost 355 days will have elapsed.  In order to make up for the 365 days comprising the solar year, we need an additional 10 days (365-355=10).  These are the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as Asseret Yimei Teshuva – the Ten Days of Atonement!

The Ten Days of Atonement are the days during which each and every one of us, both as individuals and as a community, must engage in introspection in order to determine to what extent we are able to hold onto our “Jewish time” and how well we are able to connect between Heaven and Earth, between the lunar and solar calendars.  We all want a piece of heaven.  We are all in search of meaning.  We all seek out moral values, kindness and sanctity. However, we are all bound tightly to the mundane — to our livelihoods, our bodies, our physical needs and desires.  The greatest challenge is to successfully integrate the heavenly and the earthly, solar time and lunar time.  The Ten Days of Atonement are that bridge.  

At the end of our daily prayers, we recite the passage called Pitum HaKetoret (“Preparing the Incense”) in which we recall the fact that during the time of the Temple, 368 portions of incense were burned each year: “365 portions for each day of the year and three portions which were burned by the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), on Yom Kippur.”  As mentioned above, if incense was first burned on the first day of Tishrei, this means that by the end of the year 355 portions had been offered, leaving them with 10 portions for the Ten Days of Atonement!  When all of these had been burned and offered, it was time for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies and burn the three additional portions of incense.  It follows that Yom Kippur concludes and completes this process of tikkun (repair).  Yom Kippur merges the solar year count with the lunar year count, making it the ultimate Day of Atonement and joy because it is a day of perfect harmony.  

May each and every one of us merit this harmony, and may we all feel that we need not be divided between heaven and earth, between the divine and the mundane; rather, may we feel whole and complete, able to combine our daily physical activities with the spiritual.  

Wishing everyone a year of happiness and blessing.

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Rabbanit Devorah Evron

Rabbanit Devorah Evron
Director, Susi Bradfield Women's Institute of Halakhic Leadership

(One minute read)

When embarking on a journey, it’s often a good idea to take a map. A map shows us where there is a path to walk along, where there is a stream to drink from. A map shows us our destination. In the past, maps were drawn by people who had walked the same path before us; today, they are drawn using satellite imagery. But what happens when you go on a journey and there is no map to guide you? You haven’t gone down this path before, and you can’t see it from the satellite because it doesn’t yet exist. When this happens, there is no choice but to acquire the skills needed to orient oneself in the field, and to forge a new path.

My path to halakhic leadership, educating and leading at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, is one such journey. I did not have a map to guide me to this point. Few women have traversed this path and therefore no trail had been forged, and many of the challenges encountered along the way were unpredictable.

Thankfully, God made sure that life would prepare me for this sometimes arduous journey: my parents told me that there was nothing I could not do, and expected me to take responsibility for achieving personal success. I had teachers who taught me how to learn at the highest level, and one teacher in particular who insisted that I speak my mind, share my views and not simply regurgitate what I had read.

The youth movement of my childhood was a place where I could experiment and make mistakes again and again as I forged my independence. My psychodrama teacher taught me to observe and to speak directly to my patients without judgment towards others; or towards myself. My friends and my chavrutot learning partners showed me perspectives that I was missing. 

My family, which I built together with my husband, Yuval, continues to serve as a safe haven from any storm.

And the Torah, both the written word and our oral tradition of the Talmud, the rishonim (early Rabbinic commentators), the achronim (later Rabbinic commentators), the plethora of responsa (commentaries), all taught me that while it is impossible to know in advance what every new challenge will be, the wisdom of the past contains tools for making decisions in the present. They are our guide to life– our map!

I thank God for the incredible opportunities He has given me along this journey of life and learning. And the road is yet long!

* The Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum is an unparalleled, full-time learning initiative providing qualified female scholars with a singular opportunity to participate in the ongoing halakhic discourse of the Jewish people and engage in Talmud Torah on a level high enough to join the top circle of Torah scholars and spiritual leadership.

Inspired by today’s journeys? Please donate TODAY to nurture the next generation of women Torah scholars!

(Four minute read)

The commandment regarding Rosh Hashanah appears several times in the Torah, yet only one account in the Tanakh (in Nehemia, chapter 8) states that it took place on the 1st of Tishrei, on Rosh Hashanah itself. 

The chapter describes a national assembly in Jerusalem in which Ezra the Scribe read from the Torah and his aides explained what he had read to the assembled crowd who had come to hear him. Ezra and Nehemiah were active in the period of Shivat Tzion, during which a group of those exiled by the Babylonians returned to Eretz Yisrael and joined the Jewish population who had remained after the exile. Upon their return, the leaders began reorganizing the Jewish population administratively, financially, and religiously. 

At the end of chapter 7 we read, “So the priests, and the Levites, and the porters, and the singers, and some of the people, and the Nethinim, and all Israel, dwelt in their cities. And the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in their cities” (7:72). By the month of Tishrei the children of Israel were in their cities, so it seems that the reorganization  of the nation was successful. 

Ezra and Nehemiah then gathered the nation on the 1st of Tishrei in Jerusalem. They built a special wooden platform for the event, on which Ezra the Scribe stood and read from the Torah to the entire nation, a reading that lasted several hours, from sunrise until midday (8:1-3).

The Torah reading caused the nation to weep (8:9). Most commentators understand that they wept because they had not been fulfilling the commandments correctly. The Malbim (a 19th century rabbi and commentator) is more specific and says that Ezra read the verses relating to the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. The people understood that that day was the Day of Judgment and so they wept out of fear. 

According to the sages, based on the “Ten Ancestries” [Asara Yuchasin] chapter of Tractate Kiddushin, the group that returned from Babylonia did not include many leaders. Although there were priests, Levites, and mevinim (comprehenders) who returned to Eretz Yisrael – some of whom helped Ezra the Scribe make the Torah more comprehensible to the assembly – most of those who returned lacked a Torah education. 

If so, when the nation heard Ezra the Scribe read from the Torah they experienced a double blow. They did not understand the language in which the Torah was written, and they were unfamiliar with the text that was being translated for them. They wept for the loss of their national and religious identity in the broadest sense. They did not know how to fulfill the commandments of the Torah and they feared they had lost the opportunity to begin again.

Ezra and Nehemiah calmed the people in two ways, each providing solace for one aspect of the crisis. First of all, they sent them to eat and drink and care for those less fortunate (8:10-11). Based on these instructions, the people learned what to do on this festival and how to behave on a holy day. They prayed and read from the Torah and then ate and drank and provided for those who had not (8:12). 

This is just as Maimonides decreed in Hilchot Yom Tov, (6:18–19):

The children should be given parched grain, nuts, and sweetmeats; the womenfolk should be presented with pretty clothes and trinkets according to one’s means; the menfolk should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no real rejoicing without meat and wine. While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other unfortunates. However, he who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving food and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach…. Rather, this is the appropriate measure: All the people rise up early in the morning to the synagogues and study halls to pray, and to read in the Torah about the topic of the day. [Then] they return home, eat, and go to the study hall, [where they] read and study until midday. And after midday, they pray the afternoon prayers and return to their homes to eat and drink for the rest of the day, until the night.”

After the people received an explanation on how to observe the holy day, both with regard to the actual timetable of this festival and the values that lie at its heart, they were given an insight from which to begin again – “Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (8:9). Do not be sad, say the leaders, for you are Israel, you are God’s exhilaration and joy (according to Shir Hashirim Rabba, Parasha 1). This is your fortress, this is your base, this is what strengthens you, and this is the starting point for procuring Israel’s national and religious identity once again.

The story in Nehemiah teaches us that Rosh Hashanah is the ultimate opportunity to renew ourselves. This is the date on which we can begin anew even if everything has been forgotten. Therefore, it is not surprising that the 1st of Tishrei is the first day of the year with regard to shmita (the seven-year agricultural cycle) and yovel (the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita), as seen in the first Mishna in tractate Rosh Hashanah. 

The renewal concept is especially prominent during yovel: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:10). 

Another connection we find between the yovel year and Rosh Hashanah is that one learns from yovel that the shofar is the vessel used for blowing on Rosh Hashanah. As we see in the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 38b:

The Sages taught: From where [is it derived that the soundings of Rosh Hashanah must be performed with] a shofar? The verse states: “Then you shall make a proclamation with the blast of the shofar”. From this I have derived only with regard to the Jubilee Year. From where do I derive that Rosh Hashanah [must also be with a shofar]? The verse states: “Of the seventh month.” Since there is no need for the verse to state: “Of the seventh month,” what is the meaning when the verse states: “Of the seventh month”? This comes to teach that all the obligatory soundings of the seventh month must be similar to one another”. 

The Talmud learns from the words “the seventh month” – which are redundant, as the verse already says Yom Kippur, so clearly it is in the month of Tishrei – that all the blasts mentioned during the seventh month must be with a shofar, as is stated regarding the yovel. The shofar is the vessel that reminds us that now is the time to start from the beginning.

The Midrash on Vayikra Rabba states simply: “On the first of Tishrei the first man was created.” Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the first man.  For all of us, all of humanity, this is the date that embodies the power of beginning, the possibility of starting again even if we feel we have forgotten everything; that we are beyond repair; that we are destined to continue in a direction that is not good for us. 

Ezra and Nehemiah taught the people in Jerusalem, and teach us today that repair is always possible, that we always have the opportunity to begin anew. All we need is to help each other remember.

Shana Tova!

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Ari and Laura Silbermann
Straus-Amiel Emissaries
Rav and Rabbanit of Mizrachi UK
Manchester, England

(One minute read)

Ari was born in South Africa and raised in Australia. After completing his business degree he began his Aliyah journey and completed the hesder program at Yeshivat Hakotel. From the other side of the globe (Teaneck, NJ) Laura boarded a plane for Midreshet Lindenbaum, but after two years underwent an unexpected process and instead of returning to the US, decided to shift gears and settle down in the Land of Israel – “התאהבתי בארץ (I fell in love with the land)”.

Ari grew up surrounded by shlichim (emissaries) in Australia who left a huge impact on him.  These meaningful encounters planted the seeds for his future shlichut.  The shlichim taught him Hebrew and connected him to Israel in a way that no lesson or book ever could.  One of the shlichot eventually set us up!  

From the very beginning, Ari spoke of his dream to one day go on shlichut. As the years passed, he became more and more enthusiastic about his desire to bring a piece of Torat Eretz Yisrael to Jews in the Diaspora.  We enrolled in OTS’s Straus-Amiel program and began to prepare for the upcoming adventure.  When we first met with Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein he said that those for whom it is so difficult to leave Israel are the ones needed on shlichut.

After numerous interviews (over zoom- BEFORE it became so popular!) and possibilities, we decided to join the Mizrachi UK team and made our way to Manchester along with our four children.  We were warmly received by the community.  It has been quite the rollercoaster ride (Covid hit half a year into our shlichut) with many highs and growth amidst the twists and turns.  We feel blessed to work for Mizrachi, an organization which embodies our ideals, alongside the local Mizrachi committee, which includes members of the community dedicated to these very ideals.  It’s a unique and uplifting experience to join a community as a complete outsider, and to slowly and gradually come to truly care for the families within it.  May we merit to fill our suitcases and hearts with those we have met upon our future return to Eretz Yisrael!

* The word ‘Amiel’ literally means “to my people,” and reflects OTS’s unwavering commitment to the rejuvenation and cultivation of world Jewish community. The Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program is committed to the spiritual continuity of the Jewish people everywhere, training rabbis to effectively strengthen Jewish identity and existence in communities across the Diaspora, with a special track geared toward Sephardic community rabbis.

The Beren-Amiel Educational Emissary Program is dedicated to the comprehensive training of committed, motivated and engaging educators who are sent to teach Judaic Studies in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox state and community schools across the Diaspora.

Inspired by today’s journeys? Please donate TODAY so shlichim like Rav Ari and Laura can continue their important work in communities around the world!

(Three minute read)

The piercing sound of the shofar is our way of enthroning God, and is  meant to inspire us to do teshuva (reflect on our actions, and literally, “return”). Jews around the globe, whether religious or secular, are struck by the sound. The Gemara (b.Rosh Hashana 33b) famously learns the nature of a teruah (one of the shofar blasts) based on the Aramaic translation in Bamidbar 29:1, of the word, yevava. This term refers to the sobs (vateyabev) of Sisera’s mother.  Sisera was an enemy of Israel who in The Book of Judges (5:28) dies at the hands of Yael. His mother awaits his triumphant return, only to realize he has died, and begins sobbing. By connecting the shofar’s blast to that of an enemy of Israel sobbing upon her son’s death, rabbinic commentators strike at the heart of the shofar’s haunting sound. It is the sound of a mother’s – any mother’s – cry for her son.  It is a sound that none of us ever wants to hear, but in Israel as elsewhere, we hear too often. It is a sound that turns the order of creation upside down. Mothers, creators of life, should not have to mourn their children. In this way, the cry of Sisera’s mother reflects the universality of the shofar’s cry, the striking sound that everyone feels deep down. 

How can this help us to understand Rosh Hashana and properly experience the shofar and its call to repent? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s insight into the meaning of hirhurei teshuva (thoughts of repentance) offers us part of an answer: 

On the seventh day of Pesach, 5727 [1967], I awoke from a fitful sleep. A thunderstorm was raging outside, and the wind and rain blew angrily through the window of my room. Half-awake, I quickly jumped to my feet and closed the window. I then thought to myself that my wife was sleeping downstairs in the sunroom next to the parlor, and I remembered that the window was left open there as well. She could catch pneumonia, which, in her weakened physical condition, would be devastating. I ran downstairs, rushed into her room, and slammed the window shut. I then turned around to see whether she had awoken from the storm or if she was still sleeping. I found the room empty, the couch where she slept neatly covered. In reality, she had passed away the previous month. The most tragic and frightening experience was the shock that I encountered in that half-second when I turned from the window to find the room empty. I was certain that a few hours earlier I had been speaking with her, and that at about 10 o’clock she had said good night and retired to her room. I could not understand why the room was empty. I thought to myself, “I just spoke with her. I just said good night to her. Where is she”? 

Rabbi Soloveitchik is describing what the shofar should awaken within us. The raging storm of emotions, the sudden shock that our perceived reality has deceived us. Hirhurei teshuva is the realization that our world is actually upside down, not right. Added to this realization is the feeling of loneliness and distance from the purity and holiness which embodies the natural relationship with God. As Rabbi Kook explains (Orot Hateshuva 7:3), it is through hirhurei teshuva that we hear the voice of God calling to us. Truly, the experience of hirhurei teshuva begins with a window flying open and an estrangement from what we think to be normal but ends in a reunion with our true selves. Rabbi Soloveitchik also uses the imagery of a mourner to explain the process of teshuva.  The sinner banishes God from within his midst, but like some mourners, may not feel the magnitude of the loss immediately. Like mourners, Jews will eventually realize the emptiness and disorder of the lost connection. Yet, unlike with a loved one who has passed, at any moment we can realize our longing for Hashem, and return to Him. 

The haunting cry of the shofar embodies this. It urges us to wake up and feel how distant our true selves have strayed from He who gave us life. We are shaken to the core because the Shechina (God) cries over her sons who have strayed so far and reminds us that such actions run against the universal order. 

However, it is precisely during Rosh Hashana that we can sense Hashem’s closeness. Metaphorically, the King is in the field (המלך בשדה); but He is also our father waiting for his children to come home. We certainly need to do our part to return, but we should know that Hashem is waiting with His arms wide open for us to come running into them. 

Inspired by today’s journeys? Please donate TODAY so shlichim like Rav Ari and Laura can continue their important work in communities around the world!

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