Simchat Torah & Women

28 09 2010

Excerpted from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s Question and Answer series on

Achieving Balance:  Class #9


Your discussion of women and Simchat Torah did not help my relationship with the chag.  I have no particular desire to dance like the men but I find just standing around and watching it to be deeply boring. My feeling is that observing the dancing does nothing to develop my connection to Torah. What I’ve done for the last few years is to spend the long morning learning Torah by myself, consciously valuing the experience and enjoying it.  Is this ok or should I really be standing in shul with the other women?

I understand your misgivings and I think your solution is excellent. Not all women enjoy learning on their own, though. Many women are not as intellectually inclined as others.  Additionally, not all Simchat Torah celebrations are necessarily shallow. I’ve seen many with depth. I don’t know where you live and what your opportunities are, but generally genuine simcha can be found where people really learn. There the celebration will be earnest.

In places where people learn less seriously or learn when they can because their lives flow in other directions, they’ll want to celebrate with the Torah and they’ll do what they’re supposed to, but it may sometimes come across forced or superficial. I’ve also seen the difference between yeshivas where the boys are young and where the boys are more mature and real in their celebration. I won’t say watching the simcha has no effect, but I do understand that for some people experiencing the Torah directly through learning may do the same thing or more. However, I would still recommend you try a place where true simcha is palpable in the air.

Making Sukkot and Simchat Torah Meaningful for Children

21 09 2010

Bringing Torah To Life: Sukkot & Simchat Torah #2
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Yom Kippur, Succos, and Simchat Torah for Children

Sukkot is a colorful holiday full of meaning for children. A good way to get kids involved is to have them decorate the sukkah. Sometimes the whirlwind of activity can take on an energy of its own. Therefore, it’s important to take time to explain that the sukkah is holy, that we are beautifying it for the Shechina, and that we are working hard to make it pretty in honor of Yom Tov.
Very young children won’t understand the deeper concepts behind the four species. Try to bring some ideas down to their level by talking about how the species are different. Compare this to how Hashem employs myriad ways to help us in varied situations and how he created all kinds of people that make up the Jewish nation.

Older children already have the ability to grasp the kedusha related to the arba minim and the sukkah. Try to listen to shiurim that explain the depth of the holiday, such as Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg’s sichot. You can then simplify it for your children. Tell them about the love between the Jewish people and Hashem, the encompassing nature of the Shechina, and about the concept of Hashem Hu Elokim, He is with us in every possible way of being.

Sukkot is about bitachon and about Hashem’s love and care for us. Tell them how Hashem acts like our sukkah and constantly envelops us in His protective embrace.

Chol hamoed looms with the big question of what to do with the children. Spend quality time reading stories to your kids about bitachon. For young children, the thin blue Machanayim books are great. For older children, stories about overcoming obstacles, such as Marcus Lehman’s book, are wonderful. Visiting friends and relatives is a good way of spending time together. If you live in Israel or close to Yerushalayim, touring holy sites such as the Old City and the Kotel with the children is a superb option. If you don’t live in Israel, you can take them to a nature reserve, the botanical gardens or the zoo to keep them satisfied.

Entertaining teenagers takes a little more thought. Prepare before Sukkot and plan how you will keep them busy and happy. Make sure whatever they do is appropriate and is appropriate for the extra kedusha inherent in Chol hamoed.

Sukkot is a time of love. Do everything you can to make your teenagers feel beloved and important. Give them freedom and let them choose what they would like to do. If you don’t feel you can trust them, you may need to go to places that may not interest you all that much to make sure they stay in line.

Whatever you do let this message flow through. Sukkot is a special time because Hashem made it so. Let us be grateful to Him for protecting us through the year and bringing us to this point.  Let us tap into the kedusha of the holiday and elevate our joy to simcha shel mitzva.

On Sukkot We Reach the Pinnacle of Joy

20 09 2010

Sukkot – Service of the Heart
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Sukkot- Service of the Heart

In Shir Hashirim, King Shlomo movingly depicts Hashem’s profound love for the Jewish people. “B’tzilo chimaditi v’yashavti…. I have desired his shade and I have dwelt there, his fruits are sweet to my palate.” Midrashicly, this refers to the mitzvot of sukka and lulav, which are our central medium of connection to Hashem on Sukkot.  Why did Hashem need to give us two mitzvot, why was one not adequate?

The Shem MiShmuel explains that man is a dual combination of mind and heart. This is reflected in the ten sefirot, which are expressed on intellectual and emotional levels. Moshe, the paragon of intellect, and Aharon, the embodiment of emotion, were the founding fathers of the Jewish nation. Moshe’s role was primarily moach – intellect, bringing Torah to Jewry, Aharon’s purpose was lev­ – emotion, achieving harmony between man and Hashem. His prayers and service in the mishkan were the focal point of Yom Kippur. Additionally, he pursued peace and mended troubled relationships between people.

The Torah emphasizes, “Hu Aharon U’Moshe,” the role of Aharon was equal to Moshe’s. The Shem MiShmuel notes that perfection of intellect is intertwined with perfection of emotion. Both are needed to attain sheleimut. Indeed, when we examine the lives of our Torah giants we see this combination of wisdom of mind and heart.

The Gemara writes that the mitzva of sukkah serves as a remembrance to the Clouds of Glory, which were given in the merit of Aharon. The sukkah signifies the life and essence of Aharon. Aharon personified peace, fulfillment, humility, and total subservience to Hashem. This is the sukkah – modesty, harmony and completion. The lulav represents the teachings of Moshe. It is a straight line that corresponds to the direct intellectual logic of Torah. Both mitzvot help us tap into the dual essence of the holiday.

Rosh Hashana is the head of the year. It signifies a new beginning and corresponds to the soul of Moshe, who personified intellect. It is a day to think about our past deeds, make a personal reckoning, and plan for the future. Yom Kippur is lev – emotion. It symbolizes Aharon Hakohein. The Torah writes, “B’zot yavo Aharon el hakodesh.” It links Aharon specifically with the service in the Mishkan. Rav Soloveitchik notes that the essence of Yom Kippur is not so much the avodah of the kohein gadol but the avodah of Aharon who was the paragon of ahavat Hashem and ahavat Yisrael.

On Rosh Hashana we rededicate our intellect to Hashem. On Yom Kippur we reignite our souls to ahavat Hashem. All this culminates with Sukkot. Then we reach the pinnacle of joy and completion as we celebrate the melding of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual purification.

On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves, “Where am I?”

16 09 2010

Path To Teshuva-Part I
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

Path To Teshuva-Part I

The Chafetz Chaim once said that the telephone was invented to teach us that what is said here can be heard there.  When a person speaks lashon hara or uses bad language, it’s all heard “up there.”  A train teaches us the value of time. If you arrive a second late you’ve missed it. A telegram teaches us that every word counts. Credit cards also impart a valuable lesson.  In life, you can get anything you want, but eventually you’ll have to pay for it.

There is a way out, though. During the Ten Days of Repentance in Shmoneh Esrai we say, “Zachreinu l’chaim…l’manecha Elokim chaim. Remember us for life, for Your sake.” If you’re working for the Big Boss, it’s a company expense, otherwise it’s charged to your account. If you buy a new dress in honor of Yom Tov, the bill’s on Hashem. If you buy it for your own honor, the bill’s on you. If you build a big fancy house to knock people’s eyes out, you’re going to have to pay for it. If it’s to do hachnasat orchim, Hashem foots the bill.

The Torah termed Esav, ish sadeh, a man of the field, because even when he was in the Beit Midrash, his head was in the fields. In contrast, Yaakov was called yoshev ohalim. Wherever he found himself, his head was in the Beit Midrash. This is the question we need to ask ourselves on Yom Kippur, “Where am I?” Is my mindset that of Esav or do I identify with Yaakov?

It’s not enough to hear the shofar, it has to move us to action. When we move the clock back, people always exclaim, “Great! An extra hour of sleep.” Do we stop to think what we’re saying? Sleep is one sixtieth of death. We’re grabbing on to the tree of death. Can we ask Hashem for life if we’re squandering it on sleep?  Why waste time sleeping if we can fill those very hours with Torah and mitzvot?

Before Ne’ila on Yom Kippur, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would make a deal with Hashem. He would offer his sins in exchange for forgiveness, life, sustenance and children; life so that he could continue to thank and praise Hashem, sustenance so that he could have strength to bless Him, and children so that they could engage in Torah and mitzvot. Let this heartfelt prayer be on our lips as we earnestly beseech Hashem, “Give us life, l’manecha- for your sake – so that we can extol and glorify your name.” May it be a blessed, sweet, new year.

On Yom Kippur Hashem Welcomes Us Back as His Children

13 09 2010

The following inspiring Yom Kippur article is based on a class by Rabbi Michael Taubes

One of the most moving and inspiring highlights of the Yom Kippur davening is Kol Nidrei. We preface this prayer with the words, “Al daas Hamakom, v’al daas hakahal. With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation.” “Hamakom” is one of the names of Hashem, which connotes that He is found in every place. Why do we specifically refer to Hashem here as “Hamakom?”

Rav Soloveitchik explains that we find the name “Hamakom” used in situations where we might think that Hashem is far away. We comfort mourners with the verse “Hamakom yinachem eschem.” We remind a person grieving over a loved one that Hashem is right there with him, feeling his pain, and that he will help him through this tragedy. Similarly, in our prayers on Monday and Thursday we say, “Hamakom yirachem aleheihem,” where we pray for people who are suffering. In times of affliction one can very easily succumb to feelings of abandonment. Therefore we emphasize that Hashem never leaves us and
that He will always stand by us come what may. During the Pesach seder we recite, “Baruch Hamokom baruch hu.” Here too, while we recount the torment of our forefathers in the midst of Egyptian enslavement, we refer to Hashem as Hamakom.

On Yom Kippur we may think that our many sins have formed a barrier between us and Hashem and that He is now far away from us. Therefore we use the name Hamakom. We inject that element of chizuk and accentuate that He is still here with us waiting patiently for our return as a loving father welcoming his wayward son back home.

Shabbat Shuva: Torah & Tefila, Components of Teshuva

6 09 2010

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Shabbos Shuva

In the Haftora of Shabbat Shuva we read, “Kechu imachem devarim v’shuvu el Hashem. Take with you words and return to Hashem.” The verse continues, “Kol tisa avon vekach tov uneshalmah parim sfaseynu. May You forgive all iniquity and accept good, and let our lips substitute for bulls.” It seems as if the end of the verse is a repetition of the beginning. The Malbim explains that the first part signifies teshuva m’yirah while the second part refers to teshuva m’ahavah. When one does teshuva out of fear, one gains an understanding of what it means to be close to Hashem and to experience the sweetness of Torah. This propels us further to continue and deepen our love for Hashem.  Teshuva m’ahava transforms sins into good deeds. Consequently, in place of sacrifices, only words will be necessary. Devarim refers to words of Torah and tefila. How do these words impact teshuva?

The Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva notes that a sinner’s mitzvot are destroyed and can only be recaptured when he performs teshuva. What does this mean? Rav Solomon explains that it does not mean that the mitzvot are actually decimated. Rather, they are like burning candles hidden behind a thick veil of sin waiting to be revealed.  “Kechu imachem devarim,” confess your sins. “Imru eilav,” pray to Hashem. “Vkach tov,” allow the good energy to flow through.

This is why we recite on Kol Nidrei night, “Ohr zerua l’tzaddik ulyishrei lev simcha.” Let us bask in the light planted for tzaddikim. Now that we’ve repented, allow us the joy and benefit of those hidden mitzvot. Rav Dessler notes that a critical part of teshuva is praying to Hashem to remove the sins blocking our path so that we can ascend further in avodat Hashem. It is difficult to repent in darkness and the light of mitzvot cannot be accessed before doing teshuva.  Therefore, the first step is to do one or two mitzvot and feel its hidden sweetness. This will ignite a person’s desire to do teshuva and ultimately propel him onward.

In Timeless Seasons, Rabbi Roberts quotes the Gemara that “Kechu imachem devarim” refers to words of Torah. Without knowing what is wrong a person cannot see the error of his ways. Therefore, a pivotal part of the teshuva process is studying the Torah, particularly halacha. One can only be a true servant of Hashem if he studies the details of how to be one.

On Shabbat Shuva, the prophet Hoshea adjures us, “Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha. Return   O Israel to Hashem.” The greatest aspect of teshuva is “Ein od milvado,” recognizing that there is no entity that we can rely on, but Hashem. Physical strength, finances, and well connected friends, are all illusory and transient.  Just as an orphan has no one to turn to but Hashem, our only real hope is our Father in Heaven.

Insights of the Chassidic Masters: Standing Before G-d

5 09 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

Chassidic Masters

The Baal Hatanya, in his introduction to his essay, “Atem Nitzavim” explains the Torah’s ambiguity about Rosh Hashana. He writes that Rosh Hashana is the day we were created. It is the beginning of man’s existence. Therefore, Hashem wanted us to strain to understand it, to uncover the starting point within each of us, to remember the struggle and to recapture the magic of this very pivotal moment. This is compared to a couple remembering their wedding, and to parents recalling the birth of their first child.

When we study the Torah, mussar, chassidut, or halachot relating to a particular holiday, it is critical to understand its central core.  All learning and prayer connected to a particular holiday shines forth from this point. The Torah does not specify the theme of Rosh Hashana, but Chazal tell us that “Hamelech” sums up the essence of the day. In fact, old Chabad chassidim would call Rosh Hashana the “Day of Coronation,” for on this yom tov we crown Hashem as king over us.

The Gemara writes, “On Rosh Hashana, Hashem tells us, ‘Say before me these prayers: Malchiyot, so you will accept my kingship, Zichronot, so that I will remember you in a good way. How does one accomplish this? With the shofar. From this passage we understand that the essential theme of Rosh Hashana is accepting Hashem’s kingship, and the shofar is the means to attain this. Additionally, if we examine the prayers of Rosh Hashana, we will find that they revolve around the theme of kingship. The writings of Chassidut explain that our mission on Rosh Hashana is to reconstruct the malchut of Hashem by making ourselves worthy of crowning Him.

Rav Sadya Gaon lists several reasons why we blow shofar, but the inner meaning of the shofar is kingship and coronation. We verbalize and actualize our acceptance of Hashem’s kingship through the shofar.

In Tehilim, King David writes, “Bakshu fanei, es panecha avakesh.” Hashem says, “Seek my face.” Panei is related to penimiyut. Our avoda on Rosh Hashana is to reveal the deep inner connection between our soul and the essence of Hashem. For a person to say “Hamelech” on Rosh Hashana and ignore the King is not only absurd but dangerous. If Hashem is really our King what kind of effect has He had on our life? Accepting the yoke of Hashem’s kingship as a means to fulfill one’s responsibilities as a Jew is a very important outgrowth of Rosh Hashana but it is not the core. The essence is making Hashem a part of life during the year; knowing what “melech haolam” means when we say a bracha and developing a real connection with malchut Hashem. This will all depend on how we crowned the King on His coronation day. The call of the shofar jolts us awake and the prayers of Rosh Hashana helps us realize that nothing rules over us except Hashem.  Our “Hamelech” is not Wall St, Elvis Presley, our boss, or our physical desires.   We answer to a Higher Authority.   By tapping into the power of “melech” in everything we do, we will become stronger more dedicated servants of Hashem.

Parshat Nitzavim: Chassidut on the Parsha

1 09 2010

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Nitzavim begins with, “Atem nitzavim hayom, You, the Jewish people are standing before Hashem.” Rashi writes that the Jewish nation renewed their commitment to the Torah by making a special covenant with Hashem. Why was this covenant needed now? To answer this, Rashi asks another question. What is the connection between the parshiyot of Ki Tavo and Nitzavim? He explains that after the Jews heard the 98 curses they recoiled in fear. Therefore, Moshe immediately comforted them by reminding them, “You have sinned in the past and yet, “Atem nitzavim,” you are still standing.

The Shem MiShmuel explains this idea further. In Parshat Vayeilech, we read how the Jewish people will sin and suffering will come upon them. They will say, “Ein Elokai b’kirbi. Hashem has left us.” Hashem will then say, “V’anochi haster astir panei, I will hide my face.” The Shem Mishmuel emphasizes that the most fundamental reason that leads a person to sin is “Ein Elokai,” he forgets that Hashem is constantly before him. In a sense, he experiences temporary spiritual amnesia. If the Jewish people have recognized this and have begun the process of teshuva, why does Hashem then say he will hide His face?

Rav Bunim MiPeshischa answers that stating that one’s misdeeds drove Hashem away is a terrible sin. Hashem never leaves the Jewish people. Our sins may create a certain distance but He is still there with us. Hashem says, “Anochi haster, I will hide.” But even in the worst concealment, my great hidden light, “panai,” remains with you.

After the Jewish people heard the 98 curses, they were worried that their faith would not remain intact after these awful punishments would be meted out. Therefore, Moshe deemed it necessary to make a new covenant, assuring the Jewish people that Hashem would never leave them come what may and that they too would remain bound to Hashem. This is the power of “Nitzavim,” the steadfast faith that every Jew carries in his heart, through myriad tragedy and suffering.

Nitzavim comes from the root word, matzeiva, meaning solid rock. Our foundation is as strong as rock and this is the legacy we bequeath to our children. The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah writes, “The Jewish people are compared to angels, of angels it is written, they stand on high and of the Jews it is written, behold you are standing.” We read in the book of Zecharya, “V’natati lecha makom ben ha’omdim haelah, you will walk through these standing angels.” Angels do not have free choice. Therefore they are referred to as “standing” – they will neither fall nor rise. In contrast, the prophet Zecharya is told, “You will move between these angels.” Man has the power to ascend to a level higher than the angels. On the one hand, we are meant to be similar to angels, nitzavim – firm in our faith, never descending to the depths of sin. Yet on the other hand, we are meant to be greater than them, always striving to reach further levels in avodat Hashem.

The Midrash says that Yaakov gave us the evening Maariv prayer because his life was filled with darkness and baffling challenges. Through it all he never wavered and remained strong and steadfast in his faith. Sometimes, life may hand us the “raw deal.” It is specifically at those times that we must bolster our trust in Hashem and tap into the hidden reservoirs of strength contained in Nitzavim.