Yom Kippur & Parshas V'Zos HaBracha

United Nations

One of the sections of the Amida on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ. Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that shouldn’t seem odd to request for awe and fear of God to spread – the world is messed up. A newspaper is considered something inappropriate. The news! How many hundreds of thousands of civilians are killed in wars they are not part of, every year? How many trillions of dollars are spent on new ways to kill and destroy, every single year?

This is why we say וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים.

Let the world become united. Instead of spending trillions on warmongering and fashion, let them spend it on food and medicine. Consider that Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army – their Defense budget is now an education budget, and everyone gets a free education. The prophet Isaiah says that one day, war will be obsolete. Weapons will be converted from destructive tools into creative ones.

We pray that וְיֵעָשֹוּ כֻּלָם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם – let them truly unite. If all of humanity got together, on the same page, can you imagine how that would look? It is the vision of a perfect world, for noble reasons – לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ. The world would be perfect, the way we know we can make it – כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ. If we acted perfectly, people would learn from our behaviour from their interactions with us. The world can change in a heartbeat, and Hashem can make it so. After the formation of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, an atheist, declared that anyone who said there were no miracles in the War of Independence was not a realist. כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ שֶׁהַשָּׁלְטָן לְפָנֶיךָ. We know how things could be.

This is followed by a prayer for the Jewish people – וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ. תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ. וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ. שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ…

We pray that we get the spotlight to shine on the right things. What if headline news wasn’t about some degenerate’s new makeover, but instead, “Man helps lady across street”? תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ – if the people getting praised were God fearing individuals, would society look the way it does? This is not even confined to Judaism – what if in the secular world, children wanted to be Gandhi and Mandela, not rock stars?

If the world recognised the value of Torah-type, and mitzva-wavelength things, the world would be more than fine. Not everyone is at that level of earning such praise, but people can try – וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. Some people are too far away even for that – but they recognise its value and yearn for it – וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. We are desperate.

We conclude by asking for the return and reestablishment of Jerusalem and its glory. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ – שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ. These are words used for weddings. Just a few years ago, Dr David Applebaum, and his daughter, Nava, were at a cafe, the day before her wedding. The cafe was targeted for a terror attack, and a suicide bomber detonated in the crowded cafe, murdering 7, and maiming many more. On her wedding day, her fiancé buried her, and buried her wedding dress alongside her. Hasn’t there been enough tragedy? Aren’t we owed some ששון ושמחה? Have we not suffered enough? וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ.

When that day comes, evil will vanish, and everyone will rejoice – וּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָחוּ וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלזוּ. וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִילוּ. The way we describe the evil disappearing is וְהָרִשְׁעָה כֻלָּהּ בֶּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה – evil will diffuse like smoke. Evil is not substantial, and has no roots. Smoke has the molecular properties of a solid, but it is as porous as could be. Hashem can just blow it away, because there’s nothing to it.

The world is quite a mess, and we need all the help we can get. We pray for help, but we need to make sure we help ourselves too.

Boldly going where no man has gone

On certain special milestones, a blessing called שהחיינו is made, that thanks Hashem for the opportunity of living to see the momentous event. The completion of the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah seems to fit the criteria of such a milestone event, yet it is not said. Why not?

It isn’t said on Shavuos either, which commemorates the Torah being received, because the blessing of שהחיינו is only said at conclusions – Shavuos is only the beginning.

R Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out the anagram לב – heart. The Gemara says that what God wants from us is an emotional commitment.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confusion” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah looking forwards, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is לב. A cycle is never isolated – every new cycle lends further light on previous cycles, and new insights abound.

Truly, this lends light on the adage that the Torah never finishes, and we immediately start again from the beginning. There is truly no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

The job is never done, never finished, and as such, no שהחיינו is made – or in other words, there’s no והגיענו!

Remember us!

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we insert the following plea into our prayers:

זכרינו לחיים, מלך חפץ בחיים, וכתבינו בספר החיים למענך אלוקים חיים – Remember us for life, our King who desires to grant life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake.

זכרינו לחיים

We grow up learning about the “Books” of Life and Death, which are essentially the books that categorise one as righteous or evil. So how can we implore Hashem that זכרינו לחיים – that He should give seemingly give a biased judgment? It would seem a fairly simple evaluation; are we or are we not worthy? The judgment should be impartial, so what are we asking for?

One doesn’t transform into a tzaddik because they pray or ask for something; and this isn’t a plea despite our sins. This is a prayer for us to be found righteous. How does it work, if we don’t deserve it?

Being a tzaddik is multi-faceted. Our sages teaches that one can be righteous in certain aspects of their lives.

Does a Paralympian athlete not deserve a gold medal if there is an Olympic athlete who can perform better? No – because the lines are drawn between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

We say זכרינו לחיים – see us as people worthy of life, so treat us individually, separately, in our own category. Let our accomplishments be foremost in our own unique category.

If a child does their best, but fails a test, will the parent get angry? They shouldn’t. Disappointment should only be manifest when the child is capable of more.

מלך חפץ ביים

It’s impossible to be perfect, and no one can stand comparison to objective perfection – the Gemara says that even Avraham would wither in the face of this comparison. But Hashem is kind, and does not expect this of us.

A tzaddik is someone who does their best, which is entirely subjective. What we’re good at can be evaluated externally, and crumble in the face of analysis, or can be evaluated on a personal level – מלך חפץ ביים – that Hashem wants to and can find a way to judge us as being good in our own way.

למענך אלוקים חיים

Why should Hashem give us things we don’t necessarily deserve?

If a person is looking for a house, and the real estate agent asks for a million dollars, is there a problem handing it over? The agent is acting for you; of course there’s no problem!

Hashem has no problem giving us things that help us serve Him better – למענך אלוקים חיים – they’re free! We can ask Hashem for things to help us serve Him better even when we don’t deserve it.

Fool me twice..?

During the Selichos, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayers, we regularly mention that Hashem is ותיק ועושה חסד – He is old, and kind.

We’re probably not paying enough attention when saying this, but this clearly sounds very odd. What is the intent of the prayer by labelling Hashem as “old”, and what effect does that on His kindness? My father explains with a parable.

If someone gets pulled over for speeding on a particular road, and the police officer is in a particularly good mood, perhaps a very good explanation about a family emergency or what have you, will get them off the hook.

But if the same person gets pulled over by the same cop the next day, will the same excuse work? Absolutely not.

Every year, we make the same promises, and make the same excuses. Hashem is ותיק, that same “old” judge as last time, and yet ועושה חסד – nonetheless, He will act kindly with us.

Aramaic with a Kittel

We begin the story telling aspect of the Seder, Magid, with a short prayer, הא לחמא עניא – This is poor man’s bread… But next year, may we have liberty in Jerusalem.

It is classically understood that angels gather prayers and transport them to Heaven. This particular prayer is not in the usual Hebrew, but in Aramaic, and this presents a thorny issue. It is similarly understood that angels do not relate to Aramaic, and so cannot present or transmit prayers in Aramaic; as such, prayers are not meant to be said in Aramaic. Why then, is this portion in Aramaic?

Perhaps there is a way around this issue. There are times when an emissary is not required. There is a Gemara that teaches that Hashem’s presence is manifest in the room of an ill person. Prayers are more effective – there are no angels required; Hashem is right there.

The Shaagas Aryeh points out how the same is true on Yom Kippur – the Kohel Gadol goes into the Kodesh HaKadashim, and utters a prayer in Aramaic. How is that the prayer can pray in Aramaic? It is because he is in the Kodesh HaKadashim, in front of the Ark, where Hashem’s presence is most manifest. No angels necessary.

Most of the year round, we are subject to the influence of the Satan. But not all year – השטן has a value of 364, a year, less one day – that is one day per year that the Satan does not influence us – Seder night; it is a Leil Shimurim. When we are enjoined to keep Pesach, we are told that וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה – the word ימימה is very odd; this is it’s only appearance in the Torah. It has the same initial letters as the second part of Tehillim 93:3 – כִּי הוּא יַצִּילְךָ מִפַּח יָקוּשׁ מִדֶּבֶר הַוּוֹת – Hashem Himself will save us, ימימה. This is why there is no Satan on Seder night – Hashem is there. We don’t say Shema for this reason.

Just like on Yom Kippur. Which is one reason for a kittel. But it goes deeper – the animal used for the korban Pesach is set aside on the tenth of the month, the tenth of the month that Yom Kippur is. ימימה is a 24 hour day, but it is not the same day.

It is the combination of the evening of Seder and Yom Kippur day that Hashem is in front of us, and therefore we wear a kittel and pray in Aramaic.

Lord – I need a miracle! – Effort and the Eternal Flame

In the set of laws pertaining to how sacrifices are conducted, is the set of laws about the Mizbeach – the altar:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out. (6:6)

This is an instruction to the attendant Kohanim, that they need to constantly stoke and fuel the fire. The Mishna in Avos says that their job was made easier – עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש (…) ולא כבו הגשמים את עצי המערכה – Ten miracles occurred in the Temple, (… and) the rains did not extinguish the logs on the fire.

Miracles are supernatural events – they are deviations from the usual expected order of events. That being said, miracles are always as simple and natural as possible – it would have been simpler for it not to rain there at all, as opposed to having rainfall on the fire but not extinguish it. Why is the miracle unnecessarily complicated?

R’ Chaim Volozhin suggests a very powerful lesson. Our circumstances are fixed, our “rain” does not stop. All we can do is try our best; אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – the fire burnt continuously– even in the pouring rain, it would not go out.

We can have all the excuses in the world to stop and falter from what is required of us as Jews. But we have a clear model in how to conduct ourselves in the attendant Kohanim, who would fuel the fire in the pouring rain. The Mishna clearly states that God took care of what was beyond their control. Perseverance and perspiration are what it takes. People pray for miracles, when they don’t see that they need to their part – their hishtadlus. This hishtadlus is the part we play in solving our problems, and the solution is ever in our hands. Miracles don’t materialise on their own.

The fire on the Mizbeach was not activated by a miracle – it was only sustained miraculously. The fire wasn’t “magic”; it didn’t burn on it’s own. It required constant additional logs; with twenty-four hour work, over hundreds of years, it did not extinguish.

Perhaps it is worth considering that the Kohen Gadol went into the Kodesh Kadashim one single time per year, on Yom Kippur. He performed the service, and said one prayer. The sole prayer ever said in the Kodesh Kadashim was that Hashem should not listen to travellers and tourists who didn’t want rain, and that it should rain as much as possible. Literal and figurative.

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

Reverence for a Sage, and the Ten Martyrs

Every year, on Yom Kippur and 9 Av, we recall the death of the Asara Harugei Malchus – the Ten Martyrs

One of the reasons revealed about their death is in the prayer itself, quoting the Midrash that the Ten Martyrs died as an atonement for Yakov’s sons abducting Yosef. It’s a powerful notion; but the there were Ten Martyrs and only nine brothers who sold Yosef. Reuven had returned home, and Binyamin hadn’t left with them, and Yosef was not party to his own sale. What is the discrepancy; if the Martyrs were to absolve the brothers of their sin, there ought to only have been 9

R’ Shimshon Ostropolier answers that after the brothers sold Yosef they agreed a Cheirum – an excommunication order on anyone who revealed the truth to their father.

But, as mentioned above, there were only nine brothers present and for the order to come into effect there would need to be ten present – a minyan. The Midrash says that Hashem joined to be the tenth and to formalise the order. This is easily proven by the fact that Yosef’s outcome was withheld from Yakov, in spite of his prophecy.

Nine Martyrs gave up their lives as an atonement for the nine brothers. But one of the Martyrs gave up his life for the tenth member of the minyan to. R’ Shimshon tells us that it was R’ Akiva, but why was R’ Akiva in particular selected for this honour?

The Gemara in Bava Kama 41b discusses how there were two Tanaaim who expounded on all instances of the word ”את” appearing in the Torah. They hypothesised that את implies a secondary law. Their observation worked until they reached “את ה’ תראה” – ‘Hashem your G-d you shall fear’. They weren’t sure what to derive from this “את”. What is supplementary or secondary to God? They were unable to complete their project from lack of being able to expound upon this particular “את”.

Generations later Rabbi Akiva figured out the explanation. He said the “את” was including Talmidei Chachamim, that one must fear the Talmidei Chachamim as he fears G-d.

Rabbi Akiva demonstrably proved the importance of honouring Sages. Not that they are remotely equal or even similar, but to say that a Talmid Chacham must be revered just as we revere Hashem. By extending the honour of the Torah, he merited being the Tenth Martyr.