Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rosh Hashanah and the Recitation of Malkhiot, Zikhronot and Shofarot

This month of Elul has been one of intense and powerful learning at the yeshiva. As we all now are focusing on our last minute preparations for Rosh HaShanah, I wanted to share with you a source sheet on Malkhiot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot, and the definition of the day of Rosh HaShanah.

As I discussed in my dvar Torah last week, this Rosh HaShanah will be more challenging than others, as there will be no blowing of the shofar on the first day. We can take heart in the position of Moshe Ibn Habib (1654-1696) in his work, Yom Truah, where he states that when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat and there is no blowing of the shofar, that the recitation of the Malkhiot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot becomes a Biblical mitzvah. Let us all strive this Rosh Hashanah to connect to our tfillot in general, and to the Malkhiot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot in particular, that our prayers may be received favorably by God, and that it may be a good year for all of us.

Click to download
Malkhiot, Zikhronot and Shofarot: Defining the Nature of Rosh HaShanah

Monday, September 14, 2009

Torah from our Beit Midrash

We are learning mesekhet Sotah this zman, which primarily focuses on the parasha in the Torah regarding a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery (Bamidbar 5:11-31). It is fascinating to see how Chazal's understanding of Sotah differs from the simple sense of the psukim. This issue has been explored by various scholars, in particular Moshe Halbertal and Judith Hauptman, who point out that in Chazal's understanding the process is one which is more based on objective fact (observed seclusion following a warning) rather than on the husband's capricious suspicions. An extreme example of this is the opening sugya in the gemara, where the dominant position is that this process of the husband warning his wife against seclusion with another man is not - as the tannaim would have it - a mitzvah or a permission, but is actually a forbidden act. A lot of our learning has been exploring these two competing themes, or processes, in various sugyot in the mesekhet, one based on raglayim li'davar (the objective basis for suspicion), and one based on k'peida d'ba'al (the husband's subjective jealousy and concerns). We have also been noting how the aggadata in Sotah shapes some of the themes, focusing as it does more on the husband (how is he perceived, what does this say about him?), and on what motivates men to commit adultery. Such aggadata is important for what it does not talk about - there is no diatribe against straying women or women who act - or whom their husbands think are acting - suspiciously. Clearly such situations are highly complex in real life, and responsibility often lies with both parties. However, the focus of the aggadata in the gemara serves as a counterbalance to the verse, "And the man shall be clean of iniquity, and that woman shall bear her sin" (Bamidbar 5:31). (It is also worth noting that a close read of the
shows different degrees to which the Torah is endorsing the husband's suspicions, or just tempering them and bringing under societal control).

In my opening shiur, I addressed the question of the repeated use of the term "zera" (seed) in the parsha of Sotah and one of the psukim of adultery. Ramban already points out that this can reflect that one (or even "the") underlying concerns regarding adultery is the issue of paternity. We explored this theme, saw how it does not play out in halakha in the case of adultery (which takes place even when there is no, or can be no, zera), but may - very slightly - have some echo in the Sotah case. We saw, finally, how this question is at the heart of the debate between Rav Moshe and the Tzitz Eliezer regarding the permissibility of artificial insemination. In such a case, there is no forbidden sexual act, but the issue of paternity is still there. This raises interesting general questions about the use of a (presumed) Torah value (the concern for zera) when it is not embodied by halakha, as well as specific questions regarding whether zera is an issue here (maybe it becomes hefker, ownerless, or the like), and whether this is truly a Torah value at all.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Here at the yeshiva, we started close to three weeks ago, right around Rosh Chodesh Elul. Since last year we have implemented a fixed Elul Zman. We start as close to Rosh Chodesh Elul as possible (next year that will be mid-August!), and we learn a Shas mesekhet for the entire 5 weeks - iyyun (in- depth learning) in the morning, bekiut (breadth- based) in the afternoon, mussar right after mincha, and some optional Jewish Thought classes in the late afternoon. We do not even start our halakha learning (Yoreh Deah or Niddah) or our professional classes until after the chagim. This has been a wonderful experience of pure talmud torah, and brings a great energy into the beginning of the year. This Elul we are learning mesekhet Sotah, which certainly presents its challenges in terms of its themes, but is serving as a great introduction to this year which will be devoted to Niddah and lifecycle events. Students are covering the entire mesekhet bekiut with a bekiut chazara shiur in the morning, and should be finished by the time they return from the chagim break.

In addition to the strong Elul zman itself, we are also blessed with a very strong first year class. In addition to those students who came from the Beit Midrash program - Aaron Braun, Aaron Shub, and Aaron Lerner - we have five amazing new students - David Fried, Rob Golder, Bradley Hercman, Noah Levitt, and Brachyahu Schönthal, as well as a second year student (a transfer student from RIETS), Josh Strosberg. [David Fried recently wrote a great letter to the editor which appeared in the Jewish Week, http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c53_a1653 6/Editorial__Opinion/Letter.html ]

I, and the rest of the rebbeim, just continue to be so impressed by the character, background, intelligence, and passion for learning and for achieving real gadlut bi'Torah of these students. They will make great rabbis for the Jewish community.

Another wonderful addition has been Rabbi Jon Kelsen. Rabbi Kelsen began with us last year as the rebbe of the Beit Midrash program, and his attention to pedagogy and to the students, combined with his knowledge and amazing teaching style, made last year one of tremendous growth for the Beit Midrash students. This year, Rabbi Kelsen is serving as a mashgiach and learning adviser to the students - meeting with them individually on a rotating basis to discuss their learning goals, the learning itself, and how they are working to get to where they need to for their future rabbanus. Students have deeply appreciated and benefitted from these meetings, and we are deeply grateful to Rabbi Kelsen for the work that he is doing with all the students this year.

Reflections on Rosh HaShanah

The Silent Day of Rosh Hashanah

This year, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. And so, after a month of blowing shofar in anticipation of this great day, we will celebrate the first day of Rosh Hashanah in silence. For most of us, this is greatly distressing - the very character of the day and our experience of its profundity are created through the blowing of the shofar, and we must sacrifice this for what seems like a minor concern - lest a person might forget and carry the shofar in the public domain. But does this make sense? Why must the entire Jewish people give up blowing the shofar because of how one or two forgetful individuals who live in communities with no eruv will act?

I believe that there is a deep message in this silence. A central part of our character, our human essence, is to do, to act, to create. This quality is, in fact, central to the day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is not the day the world was created, but the day that human beings were created. Created in the image of God, with a Divine mandate to follow and partner in God's act of creation - "fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the seas, and the birds of the heaven, and over every living things that moves on the earth." And on the anniversary of this day, on Rosh Hashanah, we must give an accounting for how we have lived up to this awesome responsibility - have we done all we can to partner with God, to create, to build, to make the world a better place?

But on this Shabbat, on this Rosh Hashanah, we are told to pull back. Our creative impulses must be reined in because someone could sin, someone could be hurt. We cannot allow the pursuit of the good and the right to bring about the hurt of others. We must be sensitive even to the slightest possibility of offense, no matter how remote it seems. It is specifically when we are striving for greatness and following our loftiest visions that we must be exquisitely sensitive to those around us, to the presence of others in this world.

The Talmud in Makkot tells us that Micah the prophet distilled the entire Torah to 3 principles - "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). The character of tzniut, humility, is the awareness that one is not the center of the universe, that God exists, the others exist, and one must comport oneself with this constant awareness. We all know that there are people who in their pursuit of abstract ethical causes are callous to the actual individuals that they work with or are serving. It is exactly when one is pursuing justice and loving kindness that one must be the most careful to walk bitzniut, to think about and attend to the needs of those around him or her.

I am a person who is always running somewhere - to give a class, to learn Torah, to go to shul. Looking back on this year, I cannot remember in any specific instance what I was running for. But what I can remember, what stands out most clearly in my mind, is the times that I stopped running and held the door for someone, or stopped to ask someone how she was doing, or stopped to help someone carry a baby in a stroller down the subway steps. Those were moments of real kedusha, of real holiness. And I also remember all those times that I did not stop, when what I was doing was to important to take out a minute to say hello, or to give a poor person some spare change, or when I bumped into someone and mumbled a quick apology as I hurried by. Looking back on those events, I can only wonder how important that thing I was running to really was, and how important it could have remained after I had been so inattentive to the needs and the presence of another human being.

This quality is the quality of tzimtzum, of contraction, the quality that preceded creation. For a world to exist, God had to pull back from absolute perfection so that space could be made for others, so that existence could be so multifaceted, so richly complex. When we create we, too, have to make sure that our creation is more than just an extension of ourselves. How much do we involve others in our plans, collaborate, listen to other perspectives and reflect upon them? How much do we truly value the unique contributions that our spouse, our friends, our colleagues can make? How much do we make room for the values of others, particularly when they differ from our own? This type of complex, rich creation can only come after the first powerful act of tzimtzum.

On Shabbat, on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, we will contract ourselves, we will pull back on our single-minded pursuit of the true and the good to make space for others. And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the shofar and give expression to our yearning to create a world that is right and that is good, we will know that we must go about this task bitzniut, with full sensitivity to those around us, so that the world we create will be world of richness and of beauty.

A ketiva va'chatima tova to you all,

Rabbi Dov Linzer