Holy Cow!

redShabbat Parah

This week is a special Shabbat, called Shabbat Parah. It is named after the special supplemental reading, called the maftir, from Numbers 19 that describes the process for sacrificing the Red Heifer. This portion is always read before the beginning of the Jewish month of Nissan.

In biblical times, every person was required to bring a Korban Pesach, a Passover Sacrifice on the eve of Passover that was to be eaten during the Seder. However, only people who were ritually pure were able to partake of it. Therefore, right before the month of Nissan (the month in which Passover falls) a public announcement would be made that every person who had become impure must purify themselves, and be extremely careful not to become impure before Passover.

The parah aduma (red heifer) represents the quintessential chok (a divine decree without any seeming rationale). The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for purification. Through the death of a calf, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and those who served were purified and ritually cleansed to serve in the presence of G-d. The ashes were also used to purify someone who became ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

In Likutei Halachot, Rebbe Nachman explains why this special portion (Shabbat Parah) is read after Purim. In the course of our victory over Haman-Amalek, we become defiled through contact with death and evil, and need to be purified. The Sfat Emet further explains that tumat met (impurity from the dead) is a function of mortality, which entered the world as a result of the primordial sin of Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge. According to Rabbi Zvi Leshem, man’s desire to be all knowing like G-d, placing the value of knowledge over that of faith, led to his downfall, bringing death and impurity into the world. Ritual purity comes through the willingness to serve HaShem even in a reality permeated by doubts and confusion.

On this Shabbat Parah we focus on a cow. Although this does not make any sense to our rational minds in the modern age, there are significant reasons. For it is not about us, but about HaShem. The purpose of the red heifer is to to bring forth purification and life where there seems only death.

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Divine Presence

Parashat Terumah

What is the connection between the construction of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and the Presence of G-d among the people of Israel?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, centers on the instructions concerning the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and its furnishings. This raises an interesting question. For if the Bible’s overall theme is about G-d’s relationship with humanity through the Jewish people, then why is so much attention given to the details of objects? The answer is deeply connected to the purpose of the Mishkan, its services, and the manifest presence of the Divine.

The Torah states, “They shall make for me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them (25:8).” The Hebrew name for the Tabernacle is mishkan, which means “to dwell” or “dwelling.” As such, even the word mishkan denotes HaShem’s presence that would dwell among the people of Israel.

Ibn Ezra comments that “while Moses was still on Mt. Sinai, G-d commanded him concerning the tabernacle so that it would be a permanent place among the people for the glory that had rested on the mountain.” Further, Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch notes that the key to the Tabernacle is directly related to Israel’s calling in verse 8. The Sanctuary represents Israel’s obligation to sanctify itself in its personal life. When the nation carries out that primary responsibility, G-d responds by dwelling among them.

G-d has always desired to tabernacle among His people. And the purpose of the Mishkan was to be a constant reminder of G-d’s presence residing among the Jewish people. The mishkan represents G-d’s shechinah (from the same word as mishkan) – G-d’s manifest presence on earth.

The author of Revelation writes that this continued presence of G-d among the Jewish people will continue beyond the second coming of the Messiah and even into the “New Jerusalem.”

“And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of G-d is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. G-d Himself will be with them and be their G-d (Rev. 21:3).’”

This promise echoes passages from the Torah in which G-d promises that He will be Israel’s G-d, and that they shall be His people. This promise of Israel’s unique relationship will continue into the Olam HaBa – the World to Come. May we, as followers of Yeshua, our Righteous Messiah, continue to live personal lives aware of G-d’s manifest presence, and may we continue to work to bring that Presence to the rest of the world – thereby affirming our calling to be a Light to the Nations.

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Yahrzeit of Rabbi Lichtenstein

Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, and also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Ignácz (Isaac) Lichtenstein, one of our great Messianic Jewish forbearers.

Lichtenstein’s Early Life

Rav Lichtenstein was born in 1824, and became a rabbi before turning 20 years old. After officiating for several years in different communities in northern Hungary, he finally settled down as the Chief/District Rabbi in Tápiószele, where he remained for nearly 40 years.

Early in his career, one of his teachers in the communal school of the district casually showed him a German Bible. Turning the leaves, his eye fell on the name “Jesu Christi.” He became angry and reproved the teacher for having such a thing in his possession. Taking the book, he flung it across the room in a rage; it fell behind a shelf where, dusty and forgotten, it lay for some thirty-odd years.

Tisza Eslar Affair and Franz Delitzsch

In April of 1882 a fierce wave of anti-Semitism broke out in Hungary, culminating in the now historic “Tisza Eslar affair.”  As is often the case, the blood libel was ultimately demonstrated to be false and baseless – thanks largely to a number of prominent Christian leaders, most notably Dr. Franz Delitzsch, a Biblical scholar and Professor at Leipzig University, who rose to the occasion to defend the Jewish people against the outlandish blood libel.

This act of defense by Delitzsch, such a prominent Christian, played a key role in Rabbi Lichtenstein beginning to rethink his position on Yeshua and the Brit Chadashah:

“In articles written by [Delitzsch] in defense of the Jews of Hungary, I often met with passages where Jesus was spoken of as He Who brings joy to man, the Prince of peace, and the Redeemer; and His Gospel was extolled as a message of love and life to all people. I was surprised and scarcely trusted my eyes when I espied in a hidden corner the New Testament which some 30 years before I had in vexation taken from a Jewish teacher, and I began to turn over its leaves and read. How can I express the impression which I then received? Not the half had been told me of the greatness, power and glory of this Book, formerly a sealed book to me. All seemed so new, arid yet it did me good, like the sight of an old friend who has laid aside his dusty, travel-worn garments, and appears in in festive attire, like a bridegroom in wedding robes, or a bride adorned with her jewels.”

Lichtenstein’s New Boldness

Lichtenstein’s synagogue in Tápiószele.

For two or three years Rabbi Lichtenstein kept these convictions a secret. However, in time, he slowly began to teach some of these strange and new doctrines in his synagogue which both interested and astonished his hearers. At last he could contain himself no longer. On one Shabbat, while teaching on a parable of Yeshua, he openly proclaimed that his subject was taken from the New Testament and spoke of Yeshua as the true Messiah and Redeemer of Israel.

He ultimately embodied his ideas in three publications appearing in rapid succession which created a tremendous sensation within the Jewish community, not only in Hungary, but throughout Europe. Here was an old and respected Rabbi, still in office, calling upon his people in burning words to align themselves under the banner of the long-despised Yeshua of Nazareth, and to hail Him as their true Messiah and King.

Opposition and Persecution

A storm of persecution quickly broke out against him. From the Jewish pulpit and in the Press, insults were hurled against Lichtenstein, and he who but a few weeks before was considered among the noblest leaders and teachers was now described as a disgrace to his nation.  Falsehoods were spread against him and he was eventually cited to appear before the assembled rabbinate in Budapest.

On entering the hall he was greeted with the cry, “Retract! Retract!”

“Gentlemen,” said Rabbi Lichtenstein, “I shall most willingly retract if you convince me I am wrong.”

Chief Rabbi Kohn proposed a compromise. Rabbi Lichtenstein might believe whatever he liked in his heart, if he would only refrain from preaching about Yeshua publicly. The Synod of Rabbis would draw up a document stating that what Rabbi Lichtenstein wrote was done in a temporary fit of insanity and all he would have to do would be to add his name to this statement. Rabbi Lichtenstein answered calmly but indignantly that this was a strange proposal to make. When it was clear he would not sign the document, they demanded that Lichtenstein should resign his position and be formally baptized to indicate that he was leaving the Jewish people. But he replied that he had no intention of joining the church and had found in the New Testament the true Judaism, and would remain as before with his congregation, and teach it in the synagogue.

And he did so … in spite of tremendous persecution and reproaches. From his official position as the District Rabbi he continued to teach and preach from the New Testament. This was also a testimony to the strong commitment of his own community, which alone had the power to request his dismissal. In fact, much pressure was brought against members of his congregation, and relatives of his wife were completely ruined financially; but still they supported their esteemed rabbi.

Rabbi Lichtenstein and his writings become widely known across Europe and different church and missionary organizations sought his services with tempting offers – including the Pope.  However, to all Rav Lichtenstein had but one reply:

“I will remain among my own nation, I love Messiah, I believe in the New Testament; but I am not drawn to join Christendom. Just as the prophet Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem, in spite of the generous offers of Nebuchadnezzar and the captain of his host, chose rather to remain and lament among the ruins of the holy city, and with the despised remnant of his brethren, so will I remain among my own brethren, as a watchman from within and to plead with them to behold in Yeshua the true glory of Israel.”

Lichtenstein’s Resignation as Chief Rabbi of the District

Finally, after losing all his abilities to save the members of his congregation from total ruin, and with his health greatly deteriorating as a consequence of his bold stand, he voluntarily resigned his office as District Rabbi. He then settled in Budapest, but the opposition to him was relentless. He was shadowed and even physically attacked on the street. His barber was bribed to disfigure his beautiful beard. His landlord kept a close watch on everyone who visited him and reported to the rabbinical authorities. But, with all of this opposition also came interviews and discussions from fellow Jews from every walk of life.

The Final Years 

Rav Lichtenstein’s recently restored tombstone in the Central Jewish Cemetery in Budapest. Courtesy of Zsolt Marton.

Over the next twenty years Rabbi Lichtenstein traveled to many parts of Europe to speak about the truth as he saw it in Messiah. However, the storms of controversy, of misunderstanding and antagonism, began to take their tole on him. But his spirit remained undaunted. In his An Appeal to the Jewish People, Lichtenstein wrote:

“At the very outset I make my honest and public confession, the result of earnest thought and inward struggle, that it is my steadfast, unalterable conviction … Yes, as a Rabbi grown grey in office, as an old Jew faithful to the Law, I confess candidly, Jesus is the predicted Messiah of Israel … for whom we long, and for whose Advent our people have ever expected. He is come! This is now my shout of rejoicing, which my lips and pen, and, if God wills, my prolonged life shall serve to make known.”

Quite unexpectedly he became very ill. As he realized that his end was approaching, in the presence of his wife and the nurse, he said:

“Give my warmest thanks and greetings, to my brethren and friends; goodnight, my children; goodnight, my enemies, you can injure me no more. We have one God and one Father of all who are called children in heaven and on earth, and one Messiah who gave up His life on the cursed tree for the salvation of men. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

On the morning of Hoshanah Rabbah, Friday, October 16, 1908, at the age of 85, Rabbi Lichtenstein entered into Paradise. On this Hoshanah Rabbah, a day of joy and celebration, we also remember Rabbi Lichtenstein.

A collection of his writings, The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, is now available through First Fruits of Zion.

Zichrono livracha … May his memory continue to bless and inspire us until Mashiach returns!

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Changes Ahead

For those who have not yet heard … after seven years at Ahavat Zion Synagogue I will be leaving at the end of this month to become the rabbi of Beth Emunah in Agoura Hills beginning June 30th. We will also be moving to the Conejo Valley.

We will deeply miss being a part of Ahavat Zion but look forward to a new season ahead.

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Passover: Redemption Draws Nigh

Passover begins tonight (Friday, March 30, 2018).

While living in Budapest, Hungary, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder with a large group of Holocaust survivors. This special group opened my eyes to a deeper message of freedom and redemption.

Sitting with Jewish people who experienced one of the worst atrocities in history, and to see how excited they were to be at that Seder was encouraging. For most, it was their first Seder since they were children, and for a few of them, it might also have been their last. Yet to experience and celebrate with them not only our liberation from Egypt, but their deliverance from the Holocaust, made the message of redemption during this season very real.

Pesach (Hebrew for Passover), recounts G-d’s deliverance of the Jewish people from Egypt approximately 3,300 years ago. The Passover week actually includes three separate, yet connected holidays – Pesach (only the first night), Chag HaMatzot (the Feast of Unleavened Bread), and Yom HaBikkurim (the Feast of First Fruits and Resurrection). Passover has remained a distinct identity marker of the Jewish people throughout years of dispersion and turmoil, and remains one of the most widely observed Jewish practices.

Pesach, as did all the Biblical festivals, played an enormous role within the life of Yeshua and his followers. There are over 28 references to the observance of Passover within the New Testament alone. Many believe that by the time of Yeshua, an order of service was being developed around the covenant meal, called a Seder, where, according to the Biblical text, lamb is commanded to be eaten along with matzah and maror (bitter herbs). As many of us are already aware, the Seder is the context for Yeshua’s last covenant meal (often called the Last Supper) shared with his disciples before his death.

The Biblical text is clear that we can never atone for ourselves. Only a blood covering can provide atonement for sin. That was the role of the sacrificial system – to make atonement for our shortcomings. The blood of the Passover lamb was placed on the door-posts, which caused death to “pass over” the homes of the Israelites. Through the sacrifice of Yeshua, death in our lives is “passed over” once and for all.

Our sages teach us that in every generation we should celebrate Passover as though we ourselves are personally being delivered from Egypt. For within Jewish understanding, “Egypt” represents more than just a geographical place on a map. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which is related to the word maytzorim, meaning boundaries and limitations. As such, to be “redeemed from Egypt” is to overcome and be redeemed from those natural limitations that impede the realization of our fullest potential. Passover is our opportunity for redemption!

This “Festival of Freedom” is one all of us can benefit from – Jews and non-Jews alike. And I pray that it should be so for all of us. Freedom to think beyond ourselves … to not take who we are, and what we have for granted. Freedom to think on a larger scale and have a bigger vision for what G-d wants to do in our lives and in our congregations. G-d is only as limited as we make Him in our lives. Be encouraged in this Passover season, for redemption draws nigh!

Chag Pesach Sameach – Have a wonderful and Happy Passover!

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Passover, Elijah, and Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol

This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that occurs at the beginning of the week in which Passover will be observed (Passover begins next Friday evening). There are five special shabbatot leading up to Passover. Each special Shabbat has special readings that are read in addition to the weekly portion. The exception is Shabbat HaGadol. Instead of an additional reading from the Torah, Shabbat HaGadol is highlighted by only a special Haftarah reading from Malachi which concludes with the words:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of HaShem” (Mal. 3:23).

Jewish tradition teaches us that Elijah is a messianic figure who will usher in Mashiach and the Messianic Age. This is purposely fitting at this season because Passover is our reliving and retelling of our redemption from Egypt. Both Jewish tradition and the New Testament portray Elijah as representing the coming of messianic redemption. That is why the figure of Elijah is so connected with Passover. Passover today commemorates our connection with not only our physical redemption from slavery, but our spiritual redemption as well.

The Besorah of Luke associates the personification of Elijah with John the Immerser:

“And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the L-rd” (Luke 1:17).

So John the Immerser was a partial fulfillment of this week’s special Haftarah reading from Malachi 3:23 in preparation for the incarnation and revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Yet, the role of Elijah is still not complete, for there is an expectation that Elijah himself will yet return ahead of our glorious Mashiach. This is the reason Elijah is referenced so often in Jewish tradition, especially during Passover. During the Seder there is a whole place setting (or in some homes, simply a cup) that is specifically set aside. It is left untouched in the messianic hope that each year we will open the door during our Passover festivities, and welcome in Elijah, who will in turn usher in the return of our Messiah.

Next week during the Seder, we will proclaim, “Eliyahu HaNavi … Come quickly and speedily with Messiah the Son of David.” As we sing those words this Passover, let us also remember the words associated with Shabbat HaGadol – “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the HaShem.”

May we all merit the return of Mashiach and see that day fulfilled speedily and soon!

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Esther the Superhero

In honor of Purim … a Classic Reprint from Monique!

What little girl doesn’t want to wear a Queen Esther costume for Purim? She’s the paragon of our every dream – the beauty of all Jewish beauties, the savior of the Jewish people, the dutiful niece of great Mordechai …

I remember feeling slightly competitive with the other little girls in my shul when they showed up in Esther costumes, as well. The nerve! I’m the daughter of the President of the Board. Doesn’t she know better?!?! In defense, I adopted Vashti as my Purim alter ego, and imagined her as an enlightened feminist with too much dignity to put up with her dopey king. There was never any competition there in the costume category.

Secretly, though, I’ve never given up my admiration for Esther. So I’m particular delighted that she’s been recast as a Jewish superhero in the wake of recent fanfare over the role of Jews in the comic book industry.

It all started with Arie Kaplan‘s book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Published in 2008, his book inspired the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to open ZAP! POW! BAM!, an exhibit documenting “the genesis of cultural icons such as Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman.” Wonder who was behind these characters? Yup, Yids.

Three years ago, we brought our synagogue’s youth group to the above exhibit, and were stunned to see artwork (published well before the United States’ intervention in WWII) of Captain America and other comic book heroes battling Hitler and other Nazi villains. Turns out these poor Jewish kids growing up on the East side of Manhattan in the 30s and 40s found their creative outlet in the comics, and their depiction of Jews as superheroes shaped an entire generation.

Well, all this superhero hullabaloo inspired Hayley Siegel at Jewcy to reflect on the “real” Jewish superheroes, in a blog post titled “What it means to be a Jewish Superhero.” My little Esther-loving heart is twitterpated. Here’s an excerpt:

Within both Jewish tradition and comic books, there comes a pivotal moment when every hero must step into his/her destiny and take charge of his/her obligation to help those in need. However, during these moments of change and transition, a hero oftentimes has to negotiate for the opportunity to save the day! Once these characters openly convey their heroic intentions, they find the courage to step into swift action when the time calls. For example … in Megillat Esther, Queen Esther comes forward with the admission of her Jewish identity to the King. Esther’s confession, which comes just at the right moment, saves the entire Jewish nation from the perilous schemes of Haman. In the world of comic books, we find that superheroes such as Spiderman, Superman, and Batman initially run away from their heroic duties. However, after they complete honest conversations with loved ones and supporters (like Esther!), each character eventually acknowledges that they must utilize their powers for tikkun olam (repair of the world).

Maybe next year I’ll wear an Esther costume … with some Wonder Woman power cuffs for added measure.

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Purim: A Sudden Reversal

Shabbat Zachorpurim

The Shabbat that precedes Purim is called Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembrance. For on this Shabbat, there is an added maftir (a different concluding reading) and a different Haftarah reading because we are to recall the Torah command to blot out the memory of the Amalekites.

The sages recognized the direct connection between the command to blot out the memory of Amalek (Deut. 25:17-19) and Purim. Haman, the chief villain of the Purim story is a descendent of Agag (see Esther 3:1). And we learn from the special Haftarah reading this week (1 Samuel 15:1-34) that this is King Agag, the king of the Amalekites during the reign of King Saul.

Thus, the rabbis maintained that this portion should be read right before Purim because Haman was an Amalekite – a descendent of King Agag. Haman continued the same hatred against the Jewish people as his ancestors, the Amalekites, did. Therefore, Purim is not just a deliverance from Haman the individual, but a deliverance from Amalek.

In her commentary on jewschool.com, Alana Vincent raised an additional interesting question regarding the Torah command to “remember what Amalek did to you … (Deut. 25:17)”:

What does it mean to remember? How on earth am I supposed to remember something that happened thousands of years ago, to someone else? How can we both remember and blot out the remembrance of Amalek? Why go through such terrible mental contortions at all—isn’t it better to just forget?

Amalek and Purim represent a clear biblical theme of sudden reversal – when G-d turns everything upside down. After all, with all of this talk of wiping out the Amalekites, and the threatened destruction of the Jewish people mentioned in the book of Esther … why do we celebrate? Why is Purim associated with so much joy? As Alana asks, isn’t it better to just forget?

Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair points out that the only difference between a tragedy and a comedy is the ending. The book of Esther is written in the classic style of a comedy. The whole tragedy is turned upside down, Haman is hung on the enormous gallows he himself built, the Jewish people are saved, thousands of Persians convert to Judaism, and a Jewish girl becomes queen of what is now modern day Iran. The irony of the book should be evident.

And yet, Rabbi Sinclair adds that this is what it will be like with the coming of Messiah. It will be a sudden reversal. “When Mashiach comes, he will come in an instant and things will be turned upside down in a second just like Purim.”

We must always remember … and … never forget. We must never forget our past and struggles, and yet we must remember that redemption is near, for Mashiach is coming.

Chag Sameach!

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Sukkot: A Festival of Joy, Gladness and Redemption

The festival of Sukkot begins tonight, Wednesday, October 4th.

Sukkot is one of the most joyous occasions on the Jewish calendar. It is deeply connected to the earlier High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and is the culmination of the Fall festival period.

But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei), when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe a festival to HaShem for seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest. On the first day you are to take a choice fruit [an etrog], palm fronds, thick branches, and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of HaShem your G-d for seven days. You are to observe it as a feast to HaShem seven days in the year; it is a permanent regulation, generation after generation; keep it in the seventh month. You are to live in sukkot for seven days, every citizen of Israel is to live in a sukkah, so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am HaShem your G-d (Leviticus 23:39-43).

Sukkot is an agricultural festival, and recalls several themes:

  • Our wandering in the desert for forty years
  • Our dwelling in temporary shelters (sukkot)
  • Of G-d’s faithfulness in providing for us and our crops
  • Our regathering back to our Land
  • And of a future in-gathering of the Nations.

By dwelling in sukkot every year, we are faced with the reality of our human frailty and immortality. Just like the sukkah, our earthly bodies are but temporary dwelling places. When forced to dwell in a sukkah during the festival days, we find ourselves exposed to the elements, eating our meals without certain familiar comforts, and spending time in a shelter that at any moment could be brought down by weather.

So too it is with us. Our gufot, our bodies, are also fragile temporary dwelling places, where at any time, could be brought down. This reality forces us to recognize our dependence upon HaShem, who daily causes us to live. When we arise every morning, we say “Modeh ani … I am grateful unto you, O King who lives forever, for having once again, as I awaken, restored my soul unto me.” In this prayer, we acknowledge every morning that if G-d so willed, He could have chosen not to restore our souls unto us another day. So for giving us another opportunity to do His will, we give thanks to our Creator.

Sukkot is our ability to appreciate HaShem’s blessings. It is the recognition of our constant dependence upon G-d, and the culmination of the High Holiday season. Sukkot additionally marks the final conclusion of our pleas to G-d for a sweet new year, and for blessings in the seasons to come.

Sukkot also marks our ultimate messianic hope of salvation. For Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha’Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. For it is in this festival, we are taught, that a day will come when all nations will be gathered to Jerusalem and worship the one true G-d, the G-d of Israel. It is also the hope of the greatest Hoshanah Rabbah, when we will see Yeshua our Righteous Messiah return in all His Glory and regather the scattered remnant of His people.

Chag Sameach!

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Kol Nidrei: Tensions and Paradoxes of Yom Kippur

4991049347_74422fe281_m“All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called ‘ḳonam,’ ‘ḳonas,’ or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.” -Kol Nidrei Prayer

Tonight begins Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish/biblical calendar. The holiday always begins with Kol Nidrei, one of the most well-known Jewish prayers. Yet, the mysterious question is … why do we begin Yom Kippur with this strange prayer? What seems more bizarre is that it is not even a prayer at all but rather a technical legal formula.

Throughout the centuries, great rabbinic and halachic minds have actually tried to get rid of this prayer. The first mention of it is in an 8th century responsum by Rav Natranai Gaon. Most of the gaonim and rishonim apposed this prayer. Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, thought it was scandalous and should not be recited. Even Samson Raphael Hirsch, the father of Modern Orthodoxy, tried to do away with it in his first congregation in Germany. Yet this prayer has outlived all of its critics. Despite the repeated attempts in every generation to exclude this prayer, it’s still there. And interestingly, instead of the rabbis, it has largely been the common people who have chosen to keep it.

So what is it about this beloved and quintessential Jewish prayer? In my opinion, Kol Nidrei, and the halachic declaration right before it, can serve as an illustration of what Yom Kippur is really about, for within them are hidden lessons of the mysterious nature of this special evening.

wvkc3356176Tension, Mystery, and Paradox

First of all, Kol Nidrei teaches us about the tension, mystery and paradox of Yom Kippur. It has already been mentioned that Kol Nidrei is not even a prayer at all. Rather, it is a halachic declaration for the annulment of vows. For example, with all the beautiful parts of a wedding, it’s like singing the Ketubah. And yet, we “pray” it. Furthermore, Kol Nidrei actually begins our holiest day of the year.

On this holiest day when we stand before HaShem, you would think we would literally hear the sound of angels wings, float on clouds, and be engulfed by an incredible aura of God’s manifest presence. Although a degree of that does exist, we rather celebrate our holiest day by praying through long lists of sins, repeating ancient words in a foreign language, and discussing at length the role of the High Priest and sacrifices.

There is a tension that exists between our participation in heavenly worship with the angels on Yom Kippur and the realities of the earthly world we inhabit, with all its limitations. On Yom Kippur when we enter the synagogue and hear the sound of Kol Nidrei, we sense that something is different … something special … something holy.

On this holiest night of the year we stand before HaShem and are confronted by the same tensions within ourselves. Between the part of us that is holy and yearns to be re-united with our Creator, and the other part of us in need of atonement. Within each one of us is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a tension … a war within ourselves.

A Perceived Paradox

What is even more jarring than Kol Nidrei itself is the halachic formula we recite just before hearing the actual prayer:

With the approval of the Heavenly court and with the approval of the congregation; in the convocation of the Omnipresent One and with the consent of this congregation, we declare it lawful to pray with sinners.

Right away you should be struck by the wording, “we declare it lawful to pray with sinners.” It makes you want to look around the room, hushed, and wondering who this is referring to … when you realize this prayer is about you. That each one of us is a transgressor and sinner in need of atonement.

This tension is summed up nicely in a great teaching by Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa: Every person should carry two slips of paper. In one pocket should be a slip of paper which reads, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other pocket, a slip of paper which reads “the world was created for me.”

Throughout most of the year we are, as Paul writes in Romans (8:37), “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” and we “can do all things through Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).” But on Yom Kippur, as the opening phrase of our service reminds us, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and redemption. On Yom Kippur we are confronted not by our strengths, but our weaknesses. And the plural language of our prayers reminds us that we are all in this together and that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Each one of us is responsible for one another … and the sin of one of us, affects all of us.

It says in the Talmud (b. Shavuot 39a):

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה … All Israel is responsible for one another.

That is why when we stand and recite the sins in the Al Chet, Ashamnu or Avinu Malkeinu, it does not matter whether you personally committed each sin, because someone in the room did and we are now all responsible. On Yom Kippur we are confronted by the reality that each one of us, as individuals, sin, and are personally accountable. But we are also reminded that there is a corporate accountability as well.

Paul wrote in his letter to his young disciple, Timothy:

So here is a statement you can trust, one that fully deserves to be accepted: the Messiah came into the world to save sinners, and I’m the number one sinner! But this is precisely why I received mercy – so that in me, as the number one sinner, Yeshua the Messiah might demonstrate how very patient he is, as an example to those who would later come to trust in him and thereby have eternal life. So to the King – eternal, imperishable and invisible, the only God there is – let there be honor and glory for ever and ever! Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded of the tensions and competing themes of the day, and the tensions and perceived paradoxes within ourselves. As stated above, on Yom Kippur we are confronted by the reality that each one of us is a “Chief sinner.” Within each one of us there is an inner-struggle and a battle between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On Yom Kippur we must ask, which one are you?

On Erev Yom Kippur we recite Kol Nidrei, and the halachic declaration right before it that it is now lawful to pray with sinners. And by doing so we are reminded of what Yom Kippur is really about and the hidden lessons of the mysterious nature of this special day.

G’mar chatimah tovah … May you be sealed for a great new year!

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