Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Price of Exclusion

A thought on Parshat Chayei Sarah:

The villains of Bereishit are rarely “Monsters of the Week”, appearing for a single episode, threatening the Jewish protagonist and being vanquished by G-d and our intrepid heroes. Many of the foes introduced in the Torah’s early chapters – Aram, Canaan, Amalek, Edom and Moav, for example – participate in centuries-long biblical arcs of antagonism, and along the way they teach us lessons about our identity and mission. One such foe is the nation of Midian.

A History of Midian
At first, Midian seems like a footnote in our genealogy. After Yitzchak marries Rivkah, Avraham weds Keturah, and she births six sons. Midian, the fourth of these sons, does not stay in Canaan long; he is exiled to the east, along with his brothers and the anonymous children of unnamed concubines. As Bereishit 25:6 states, Avraham “gave them gifts, and he sent them away from his son, Yitzchak,” lest there be any confusion about who would be included in the Jewish national line.

Midian is far from done, though. They re-surface to play a role in drawing Yosef from the pit, and sending him down to Egypt. (Bereishit 37:28) Later, Moshe becomes a fugitive from Egyptian justice and flees to Midian. (Shemot 2:15) Further along, the Moabites recruit Midian for support in hiring Bilam to curse the Jews. (Bamidbar 22:4) Then, when Bilam fails to harm the Jews, Midianite women join with Moabite women to seduce the Jews and draw them into idolatry. A Midianite princess, Kozbi, publicly embraces Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. (Bamidbar 25)

The Midian Motif
When we examine these stories of Midian carefully, we recognize two consistent Midianite markers.

First, the Midianite national subconscious remembers being excised from the line of Avraham, and intentionally or unintentionally, they pay back their ancestor by separating his other descendants from the family:
Yosef is separated from his family via the agency of Midianites;
Yitro, a Midianite, welcomes Moshe to spend decades apart from the Jews enslaved in Egypt.
Kozbi separates Zimri from the Jewish people, drawing him to her before the entire nation.

Second, Midian tempts the isolated Jew sexually and religiously, attempting to strip our ethnic and religious identities:
When Yosef descends to Egypt via Midianite agency, the wife of Potifar attempts to lure him into a liaison – an act which Yosef labels “a sin against G-d.” (Bereishit 39:9) Neither immorality nor idolatry actually takes place, and that is a credit to Yosef’s righteousness.
When Moshe goes to Midian, he marries Tzipporah, the daughter of Yitro, “the priest of Midian”. The act has the appearance of impropriety; indeed, Zimri justifies his deed with Kozbi by asking Moshe, “Son of Amram! Is she prohibited or permitted? And if you will say she is prohibited, then who permitted the daughter of Yitro for you?” (Sanhedrin 82a; and see Sotah 43a) Certainly, Moshe’s marriage to Tzipporah and relationship was ultimately neither immoral nor idolatrous, but like Yosef’s refusal of Potifar’s wife, that is a credit to the righteousness of the participants. [It is also worth noting that Midrash Aggadah to Shemot 18:3 ascribes to Yitro a quasi-successful attempt to educate Moshe and his children in idolatry.]
Finally, in luring Zimri and other Jews, Midian succeeds in separating Jews from their family, leading them first into immorality, and then into the idolatry of Baal Peor. Midian has achieved her revenge.

The Moral of Midian
Perhaps Midian’s cross-generational retribution carries a message for the descendants of Avraham. I have not seen any traditional commentator criticize Avraham’s treatment of Keturah’s children, and I would never suggest otherwise. The apparent motivation of averting challenges to Yitzchak’s inheritance is sensible. Nonetheless, the most benign separatism remains exclusive, and our human social drive naturally resents exclusion.

For all of its emphasis upon darchei noam [paths of pleasantness] and community, Torah is exclusive, even within our family. Certain rituals are limited to particular groups, and laws like kashrut and tumah compel the observant to keep a measured distance from the non-observant. May we learn from the saga of Midian, and recognize the pain this inflicts. Even when such pain is necessary, we would do well to find methods of mitigation beyond “Avraham gave them gifts.”

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Avshalom, King Yoshiyahu and President Obama walk into a bar

From my vantage point, it seems that Avshalom, King Yoshiyahu and the American Democratic Party all fell victim to a common leadership mistake.

About 3,000 years ago, wicked Avshalom launched a failed coup against his father, King David. Achitofel, described in Tanach as the greatest counselor of all time, advised Avshalom to lead an immediate assault to eliminate his father, but instead he listened to the flattery of a shepherd who said that the whole nation was on his side, and he had already won. If Avshalom had not taken the nation's support for granted, he might not have taken three lances in the heart. (See Shemuel II 16-18)

About four centuries after Avshalom's death, righteous King Yoshiyahu suffered not three lances, but three hundred. The prophet Yirmiyah warned him not to go to war against Egypt, but he didn't listen; Yoshiyahu thought the nation was behind his attempts to restore Torah law, and that their merit would ensure victory. The result was his death, and the end of his pious campaign. (See Eichah Rabbah 1:53)

Which brings us to Donald Trump's surprising victory in this week's American election. Analysts will debate this upset for a long time to come, but from my perspective there is at least one clear lesson in the rejection of President Obama's legacy by sixty million American voters: Never take for granted that the nation is behind you .

This president passed healthcare, trade deals, the Iran nuclear agreement, environmental legislation and more by aggressive lobbying or executive order. As the New York Times wrote, "Once skeptical of executive power, Obama has come to embrace it. Mr. Obama will leave the White House as one of the most prolific authors of major regulations in presidential history." Pollsters and Hillary Clinton's team thought that the president's supporters and beneficiaries outweighed those who had been legislatively overpowered over the past eight years ; it was only Tuesday night that we learned that given one vote per person, the balance of power would swing the other way. In politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

To my amateur eye, the shared experience of Avshalom, King Yoshiyahu and the Democrats teaches a critical lesson in leadership. As Mishlei 28:14 preaches, "Fortunate is the one who is always afraid." A little bit of insecurity in our leadership, a little less bullying and a little more bargaining, can go a long way.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Brought to you by..."

A few people have tried to console me post-election by noting that Jewish tradition credits G-d as the coronator of kings, הממליך מלכים.

Somehow, though, I find little comfort in the idea that Donald Trump is brought to you by the Maker of Pharaoh, Nevuchadnezzar and Titus...

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Understanding the Yom Tov connection of "Kah Keli"

Many Ashkenazi shuls say the piyut of "Kah Keli" (י-ה א-לי) after the haftorah and before Ashrei on Yom Tov mornings. The poem (text available here) consists of three verses, each of which starts with one unique sentence, and then continues with two sentences of refrain. The refrain lists various types of korbanot, and then asks Gd to bring us back to our land.

So what does this poem have to do with Yom Tov?

Looking at the standard Artscroll and Koren commentaries didn't yield anything for me, but here are my thoughts:

1. The opening line of each verse refers to one of the three Regalim:
Verse 1 describes Gd as גואלי - "my redeemer" - Pesach.
Verse 2 describes Gd's unfathomable wisdom - לתבונתו אין חקר - the Torah of Shavuot (granted that Shavuot is mainly about the bikkurim, in liturgy it is closely associated with the presentation of the Torah at Sinai)
Verse 3 speaks of Gd "joining the tents" - חבר כל אהלו - a reference to the Succah. (There may also be a pun in לבלב for לולב.)

2. The refrain is an appropriate introduction for Musaf, as it lists the korbanot and asks Gd to bring us back to our land in the merit of those korbanot.
This is a point that the Artscroll and Koren translations seem to miss, even though it makes the piyut a reiteration of the overall theme of the musaf amidah - remember our korbanot, and bring us back home.
The refrain lists the korbanot of various kinds, and then requests, "זכור נלאה אשר נשאה והשיבה לאדמתך - Remember the exhausted one who lifted up (or carried), and bring her back to Your land." The standard translations assume that this means "the exhausted nation who received Your favour" or "the exhausted nation who bore suffering," because they can't identify an antecedent for what it was that the nation lifted up/carried/bore. But the antecedent is that list of korbanot - "Remember the exhausted one, who lifted up all of these offerings, and bring her back to Your land."

3. And building off of #2, there is another layer of association, which turns Yeshayah's criticism of our festivals on its head.
In Yeshayah 1:14, Gd says that He hates our holidays, they are burdensome to Him, and נלאתי נשוא, "I am exhausted from carrying them."
Our poet reverses the line, describing us as נלאה אשר נשאה, the exhausted one, who carried the korbanot. Gd cannot tell us that He rejects our festivals and is tired of them; we exhausted ourselves, bringing those korbanot to Gd on those festivals, and we claim that merit for ourselves.

So there's a lot a going on here - all of which leads me to Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 5:1, in which he protests loudly against davening with piyutim which require this sort of detective work in order to make sense of them. I tend to agree...

[Added note: I just saw footnote 80 in the Goldschmidt machzor for Succot here, attesting to a late (17th century?) origin for this piyut, and noting its mystical character. Interesting.]

Monday, October 10, 2016

Asking for Help on Yom Kippur? (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5777)

Some of you may remember my 2012 blog post, "G-d, please bring me back my son". This is directly related. 

The Ari’s Prayer
Rabbi Moshe Alshich was one of the leading sages of the city of Tzefat in the middle of the 16th century. Ordained by Rabbi Yosef Karo, he was expert in Tanach, Talmud, Halachah and Kabbalah. But as Rabbi Chaim Vital reported, Rabbi Alshich’s son converted to Islam. Distraught, Rabbi Alshich went to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari z”l for help. The Ari gave him a text to recite in the daily amidah:

May it be Your will, HaShem, our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, that You tunnel beneath Your throne of honour[1] and receive the repentance of so-and-so, for Your right hand is extended to receive those who return. Blessed are You, Gd, who desires repentance.

In ensuing generations, the Ari’s appeal to Gd for intervention appeared in multiple, increasingly stronger texts. In the 18th century, Rav Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover added, “יהופך לבבם לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם”, May You cause their hearts to be reversed, to perform Your will wholeheartedly. Gd, make them repent!

The question
While the Ari z”l perhaps pioneered this prayer, he was far from the first to suggest praying for Gd to help people follow a proper path:
·         Dovid haMelech davened: “May HaShem, Gd of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, remember eternally my dedication of materials for the Beit haMikdash, and therefore turn the nation’s hearts to Him. May He give my son Shlomo a complete heart to guard His mitzvot and laws.[2]
·         And the Talmud speaks of praying for Gd’s assistance with teshuvah; think of the classic story of the local gang who tormented Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir davened for them to die; his wife, Beruriah, davened that they repent.[3] And the conclusion seems to follow Beruriah’s view.

In truth, praying for someone to return is a dangerous game; it can easily feed into facile self-righteousness. Who am I to decide that someone needs teshuvah - and needs help doing teshuvah? And maybe they don’t want my help at all; maybe they view me as a busybody! But the idea is there, with a solid pedigree in Dovid, Beruriah and the Ari z”l. It requires cautious humility, but we are indeed empowered to ask Gd to help others repent.[4]

We could ask many questions about the Ari’s prayer, and the examples of Dovid haMelech and Beruriah, but here’s one fundamental problem: How can we ask Gd to help with teshuvah? We are taught that Gd will not seek to control יראת שמים, that emotional awe which is so often the driving force impelling our return![5] How can we expect Gd to break that rule?

I am far from the first to ask this question. The Maharsha[6] offered one suggestion, and the Ben Ish Chai[7] offered another.[8] But I would like to suggest a third approach, which is important not only if we daven for others to repent, but also in davening for help with our own teshuvah process.

An answer from Eliyahu
In the middle of the era of the first Beit haMikdash, at the height of the reign of King Achav and Queen Izevel, at the apex of influence of the prophets of the Baal and Asherah over the Jewish people, Eliyahu haNavi issued an invitation for a showdown, a duel of dieties. In one corner, hundreds of prophets of idolatry; in the other, lonely Elijah. Both would attempt to summon fire from the heavens to consume their offering. At stake: The faith of a nation.

The priests of Baal batted first; they struggled mightily, they cried out and capered and cut themselves, while Eliyahu mocked them – and no fire came. At last afternoon arrived, and Eliyahu addressed Gd. He declared, “HaShem, Gd of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael![9] Let it be known today that You are Gd in Israel, and I am Your servant, and all I have done has been at Your word. Answer me, Gd, answer me, and this nation will know that You are Gd -” And then he spoke fateful words, “For You have turned their hearts backward, ואתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית.” And at that, fire descended from the sky and consumed the totality of the offering – the animal, the wood, the stones of the altar, the dirt, even the water Eliyahu had poured over the altar.[10]

“For You have turned their hearts backward!” As explained by Rabbi Elazar and most classic commentators,[11] Eliyahu here launched an accusation at Gd: it’s Your fault that they sinned! You invested them with a yetzer hara driving them to sin, and You have failed to provide a counter-inspiration.

Long before this, Moshe accused Gd of setting up the Jews for their sin with the Golden Calf,[12] but Eliyahu went further than Moshe. Moshe only asked Gd to forgive the Jews; Eliyahu demanded that Gd act constructively, and provide the impetus which would lead to our national return.

This may be what permitted the Ari’s prayer for Divine help. Gd invested each of us with a set of desires – ego, insecurity, lust, greed, laziness, rebelliousness, and so on. Assuredly, there was good reason for doing this; those traits even work to our advantage, at times. But the decision to design each human baby anew with these traits brings with it Eliyahu’s charge – ואתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית, You have led them astray! We know You want us to repent and to do right, so please help us out. Don’t rob us of free will, but give us a sign, as You did at Har haKarmel, to help us see the truth. Or decrease the temptations with which we struggle. Help us.[13]

We lack the righteous track record of Eliyahu HaNavi, such that we could independently utter his intrepid demands with our mouths; blaming G-d is a popular sport, but Eliyahu’s righteous outrage seems a bit contrived on the lips of such willing participants in sin. Nonetheless, the Ari harnessed Eliyahu’s message and taught us that in this case we may use those words as well. It is legitimate and meaningful for us to daven to HaShem to balance things out, and to help those who have sinned to return.[14]

For ourselves
In the standard Yom Kippur davening, we already make use of Eliyahu’s approach for ourselves. At every amidah of Yom Kippur, after we perform viduy acknowledging our sins, we turn to HaShem with this request:

יהי רצון מלפניך, ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי, שלא אחטא עוד
May it be Your will – HaShem, my Gd, and Gd of my ancestors, that I not sin again.

It’s Eliyahu’s principle at work: We are entitled to claim assistance from Gd.
·         We are obligated to perform cheshbon hanefesh, to account for our past deeds.
·         We are obligated to regret, to make amends, and to apologize.
·         We are obligated to devise methods by which we will replicate our good deeds and avoid replicating our transgressions in the future.
·         But at each step, we are within our rights to say to HaShem, אתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית. I am doing my best – but I need Your help to clean up the mess I’ve made.

And it’s an obligation to do so for others
We have seen two points: We are justified in turning to HaShem for help with our own teshuvah, and we are empowered to turn to HaShem for help with the teshuvah of others. But there is one more step we must take.

Rabbi Elazar Azikri was part of the Ari’s 16th century circle. He compiled a book of mitzvot called Sefer Charedim, and in it he also addressed the idea of praying for others to repent – and he wrote,

כשם שחייב אדם להתפלל על עצמו כך חייב להתפלל על פושעי ישראל... שישובו בתשובה
Just as one must pray for himself, so one must pray for the sinners of Israel… to repent.[15]

What is the nature of this obligation? What obligates us to pray on behalf of the teshuvah of others?
·         One might suggest that it is a function of the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem; we are commanded to increase love of Gd in the world.[16]
·         One might suggest that it’s an act of chesed; we hold doors for others, we give tzedakah, and we try to help others to repent.
·         One might suggest it’s part of the mitzvah of tochachah; we are to educate others so that they don’t sin, and we help them avoid sinning in other ways – like by davening for their return.
·         But we might look at it as a function of being a member of a community; it’s about ערבות, our mutual responsibility. My mitzvot are not complete until everyone’s mitzvot are complete – and so I must humbly ask Gd to help others to repent, too.

In a moment, we will stand as a community and commemorate our extended family – victims of the Shoah, victims of terror, and the fallen of the Machteret and the IDF. Individuals will recall immediate family members.

The main purpose is to daven and pledge tzedakah on behalf of those who have passed away, but we may also draw on their example. Kedoshim, many of whom acted heroically for others in the worst of situations. Soldiers who gave their lives to defend their brethren. Family members who raised, nurtured and protected their loved ones.

May we be inspired by their example:
·         to daven not only for our own teshuvah, but for the teshuvah of others.
·         To use the words of the Ari z”l, or to use our own words.
·         And to ask Hashem to be a partner in our own teshuvah, and in the teshuvah of our nation.

Eliyahu was correct – HaShem has had a part in our errors. But HaShem is צופה לרשע וחפץ בהצדקו, as we say in the piyut of וכל מאמינים, “He sees the wicked person, and desires his reform.” Or as some versions actually say, “וחפץ להצדיקו, Gd sees the wicked person and wishes to make him righteous.[17]” May this be the year when Gd acts on this wish, for us and for all around us. ד' חפץ למען צדקו, יגדיל תורה ויאדיר.

[1] See Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2, re the teshuvah of Menasheh
[2] Divrei haYamim I 29:18-19, paraphrased
[3] Berachos 10a; and see Abba Chilkiyah’s wife in Taanis 23b, and Moshe Rabbeinu in Sotah 14a from Yeshayah 53:12
[4] For an opposing view for which there is no room in this derashah, see
[5] Berachos 33b, among other sources
[6] Maharsha to Berachos 10a. Similarly, see Chazon Ish cited by R’ Yehudah Lavi ben David in Beit Hillel.
[7] Ben Ish Chayil Shabbat Shuvah 1
[8] I cite both in a shiur available on-line at
[9] It is interesting to note that Dovid, too, in his abovecited prayer for Gd to turn the hearts of the Jews toward Gd, invoked the Gd of “Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael”.
[10] Melachim I 18:36-38
[11] Berachot 31b; note Rav Saadia Gaon’s alternative approach, reading this in the manner of Dovid’s request, “Please turn their hearts backward [to You].” And see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6:3, Shemonah Perakim 8, and Daat Mikra to Melachim I 18:37.
[12] Berachos 32a
[13] As indeed Gd promised He would, in Yechezkel 36:26-27
[14] One may note a similar idea used to explain Gd’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart against the makkos
[15] Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot haTeluyot b’Eretz Yisrael 5. This is also seen in the version of the Ari’s tefillah presented in Tefillah l'Dovid, by R' Chaim Dovid Amar, talmid of the Or haChaim, 18th century Morocco (
[16] Raavad contends that this is the basis for the mitzvah of aiding conversion to Judaism
[17] See Yechezkel 18:21-23, as noted in the Goldschmidt machzor

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Defining "Middle Age"

A morbid thought occurred to me in the run-up to Rosh HaShanah (I am post-dating this for after Yom Tov; it's too sad for Erev):

Middle Age is when you stop davening for what you want to happen, and start davening instead regarding what you are afraid will happen...

There is a great deal to say about this, but do you know what I mean?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Derashah: Chaggai the Optimist (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Feedback welcome!

The Great Depression
Once upon a time, Jews lived as a minority, subject to the whims of the regnant majority. Impoverished and unpopular, they began to fall away from Torah; they stopped speaking Hebrew, they stopped observing Shabbat and Yom Tov, and they married out. Then, suddenly, unbelievably, that regnant majority granted the Jews permission to return to Israel and build up their land, we even held Jerusalem again – but most of the Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity, unable to believe that their redemption had arrived. Those who did go encountered nasty neighbours as well as difficult living conditions; the feebleness of their settlement was taken as evidence that this was no Messianic time, and their leaders failed to inspire the majority of Diaspora Jewry to join them.

This sounds a lot like the early years of the State of Israel, but as I suspect many of you recognize, it is actually a story that is 2500 years old. It is the history of the Jews who were allowed by the Persians to return to Israel and build the second Beit haMikdash.

We were small in number, and without resources, relying on the generosity of the Persian government. We lacked the sacred relics of the first Beit haMikdash – the Aron, the Tablets, and so on. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins; we were without defenses, so that we needed to allocate precious manpower just to stand guard protecting those who were trying to build. The local Samaritans objected to our plans, and successfully lobbied the Persians to halt our construction of the Temple. The Jews still in Babylon sent a disheartened and disheartening inquiry: “Should we still fast on Tishah b'Av? It doesn’t look like your Redemption is happening so fast.”

And on to this depressing stage stepped one man, who would electrify the Jewish people and change history. His name was Chaggai, and here is the story of his four inspiring prophecies.

Message 1: The First of Elul
·         Recall that on the first day of Elul in the Jews’ first year in the midbar, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to acquire the second set of tablets, replacing the first, broken Luchot.[1]
·         And on another first day of Elul, Chaggai proclaimed a message of equal renewal: Just as the original tablets were destroyed but replaced, so our Beit haMikdash, brutally shattered, will yet be replaced.[2]

But Chaggai did not merely put forth a message of potential rebirth; the prophet declared rebirth our obligation! He proclaimed,So declares G-d, Master of Multitudes: This nation says, ‘The time has not yet come, the time for the House of Gd to be built.’… Tell me something: Is it the time for you to dwell in your homes, while this house is in ruins?[3]

In other words: Don’t think that the default is to sit at home, and there is a particular time for building. Just the opposite: Sitting at home is only for a particular time! You are natural born builders, the default is to build, not to sit at home, so go do it!

Message 2: The 24th of Elul
Chaggai then followed up with a stirring second message which to me is the most important of his four prophecies: Don’t overthink it, don’t overanalyze your options and methods and particulars. Just build! “So declares Gd, the Master of Multitudes: Pay attention! Go up the mountain, bring wood, and build the house![4]” It’s that simple: just bring the materials, and ignore the static.

And unlike the experience of so many biblical prophets, the Jews listened to Chaggai. ביום עשרים וארבעה לחדש בששי, On the 24th day of the sixth month, the 24th day of Elul, the day before the anniversary of Creation of the World, the Jews began a new act of preparation for Creation, preparing wood as well as stone for the construction.[5]

Message 3: Hoshana Rabbah
But Chaggai was not done. On the 21st day of the seventh month, the 21st of Tishrei, Hoshana Rabbah, Chaggai proclaimed a third message.

Hoshana Rabbah is the last day of Succot, the last day of prayers for rain, a time when the first Beit haMikdash saw שמחת בית השואבה, the great water-drawing. The Talmud states that one who never saw שמחת בית השואבה has never seen true joy; there were jugglers of torches, there was ecstatic dancing and singing! But there were neither jugglers nor dancers for these Jews, who had only sticks and stones and an altar, and they must have been a most forlorn band on that Hoshana Rabbah.

Chaggai played the cheerleader for this dejected group, declaring: “Who among you saw this house in its former glory, and what do you see now? It seems like nothing on your eyes, I know. But Gd declares: חזק, be strong Zerubavel [the governor of Judea], and חזק, be strong Yehoshua, Kohen gadol, and חזק, be strong, O nation! עשו, just do! For I, Gd, Master of Multitudes, am with you.[6]

This was the third message: Despite your descent, Gd will be with you. If you build it, He will come.

Message Four: 24 Kislev
And then there was one more message, בעשרים וארבעה לתשיעי, on the 24th day of the ninth month. The 24th of Kislev, Erev Chanukah, to us. For the Jews of that time, who would not know the Greeks for centuries, it was significant for another reason: it was the end of the season for bringing ביכורים, the offering of their first produce.[7]

The process of bringing Bikkurim, dedicating the first of our crops to G-d, could not happen for those Jews in the first years of the second Beit haMikdash. And to them Chaggai offered one last message, a charge of responsibility. This message may be understood on many levels, but here I am following the approach of Rabbi Meir Leibush, Malbim.

Chaggai asked: “If you were to take meat from a korban inside your garment, and the garment were then to touch bread, stew, wine, oil or some other food – would that communicate holiness to the bread, etc?” And the answer was No; holiness cannot be communicated that way.

Then Chaggai asked:“If someone who was impure would touch any of these things, would that communicate impurity?” And the answer was Yes; impurity can be communicated with that kind of contact.[8]

What in the world was Chaggai talking about?! All of the other messages were clear, but what is this riddle about sacred items and impurity? Malbim explains Chaggai’s message to those Jews who were distressed at the lack of Bikkurim: Impurity is highly contagious, communicated easily. But holiness, like that of a korban? That isn’t transmitted easily. It takes prolonged, direct exposure.

These are Chaggai’s messages:
1.       On the first of Elul I told you that you must build, this is your basic nature.
2.       I also told you that you shouldn’t overthink it – just take the materials, go up the mountain, and do the job.
3.       On Hoshana Rabbah I told you not to be depressed at your insufficiency, for Gd is with you.
4.       And at the end of the season of the first fruits I tell you that you will need to persevere, to overcome obstacles and fight your way through challenges, in order to produce those fruits and parade with them to Jerusalem once more.

The Message
In context, of course, Chaggai’s message is about returning to Zion and building the Beit haMikdash – but it is equally applicable to each of us on the first of Tishrei.

I asked one of my classes last week, “What do you want to hear about on Rosh HaShanah?” To which one thoughtful participant replied by email, “I would want to hear a wise person discuss the topic: What does it mean to start a new year? What are man's obligations? What should we hope for from ourselves?”

I have been Mordechai Torczyner for too long to think myself wise - but Chaggai was most wise:
·         To start a new year means to recognize that we are builders by nature, that it is time not to sit in our homes but to act.
·         Man’s obligations at the new year are to take wood, go up the mountain, and build the house. Don’t overthink teshuvah and self-improvement, the way you can change yourselves and the world; we know our weaknesses and the needs of our community and our world, and we know the way to correct the weaknesses and fill the needs. We don’t need intricate plans and we certainly don’t need fear of failure. Our King is with us.
·         And what should we hope for, from ourselves? The perseverance to see the process through, catalyzing the communication of holiness by prolonged exposure and endeavour, so that when we come back here next year, we will be witnesses to a fine building perched atop that mountain.

Just about fifty years ago, on December 10, 1966, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to S. Y. Agnon and Nelly Sachs. In an outstandingly Jewish Nobel acceptance speech, Agnon introduced himself to the King of Sweden with these words: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”[9]

Agnon saw in himself a child of a nineteen-hundred-year exile, employing that age-old perseverance to return to our land. As he explained, “At the age of nineteen and a half, I went to the Land of Israel to till its soil and live by the labour of my hands.” He took wood, he ascended the mountain and he built a house – simple, but powerful. And oh, was Gd ever with him, and oh, did he ever succeed!

All of us are exiles of Jerusalem. And on Rosh HaShanah, we remember that we are also exiles of our own souls, driven out by the foolishness of the year past. But we also remember Chaggai’s eternal words – We are builders by nature. We only need to take simple steps. And when we persevere, HaShem will be with us, and grant us a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

[1] Rashi to Shemot 33:11
[2] See Abarbanel to Zecharyah 1:1
[3] Chaggai 1:2-4
[4] Chaggai 1:7-8
[5] See Rashi to Chaggai 1:14
[6] Chaggai 2:3-4
[7] Mishnah Bikkurim 1:6; and Chaggai 2:19, which says they don’t yet have various forms of produce – 6 of the 7 bikkurim species – supports this association.
[8] Chaggai 2:11-14