Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shuvah, Hashem, v'Hinacheim

During the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it is the job of every Jew to spent much time learning, praying, and meditating to bring themselves to a place of repentance and contrition for the wrongdoings, so that they might put themselves on a more correct path. However, it is a central principle in Judaism that since all mitzvos (commandments) are true because they are extensions of the Truth (G-d), then G-d also keeps all of the mitzvos. The same, then, applies to teshuvah (repentance).

It is a somewhat strange thing to think that G-d repents, but the Torah itself cites examples of G-d doing repentence. In Shemos (Exodus) 32:14, the Torah says, "V'yinacheim Hashem, al hara'ah asher diber laasos l'amo" ("And G-d repented for the evil which He said He would do to his people"). The same is found in Tehillim (Psalms) 90:13, where we read "Shuvah Hashem...v'hinacheim" ("Return, O G-d...and repent").

While it is presented in the Torah that G-d does teshuvah, there is also the principle that G-d does not change. However, when looking at the Torah, our lives, and the world, we seem to have countless instances when G-d has changed, given a new decree, or decided against continuing punishment. The truth is, though, that it is not G-d who has changed, but us. Each step a person takes in the world of spirituality brings them to a brand new madreiga (level), which has its own set of opportunities, blessings, and availabilities. When we experience hardships, or see ourselves moving toward impending calamity, and work to elevate ourselves spiritually to correct our path (i.e. repent), our new level opens up brand new vessels to receive a completely different aspect of G-d's kindness, which was not available to us on the previous level.

When we do true teshuvah, and move as a people beyond a previous state, we not only reach a new level, but the previous misdeeds are transformed into good deeds, as they are now seen in the light of being instrumental in our current elevation. This is why it is extremely important for the Jewish people to have a strong connection with and follow the righteous people within each generation, since there exists the rule, "Tzadik gozer, Hakadosh Baruch Hu mekayem" ("A righteous person decrees, G-d enacts"). It isn't that a tzadik (righteous person) forces G-d to act in a certain way, but the minhagim, chidushim (insights), and other gazeiros (decrees) that the tzadik gives to his followers open up endlessly exapnding vessels, through which G-d can impart unimaginable goodness guaranteed by our new level.

So, how is it that G-d does repentence? The previously quoted verse in Tehillim is followed by verse 14, which says, "Sabeinu vaboker chasdecha," ("Satisfy us in the morning with Your mercy"). That is to say, after we have done our teshuvah, after we have implemented the directives of our tzadikim, after we have seen ourselves to a new spiritual level, satisfy us with the realization that You (G-d), too, have responded by revealing the innate goodness and holiness found deep within our previous punishments, and are refreshing us with as much revealed goodness now as hidden goodness in the past.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ashreichem, Yisroel

In Tehillim (Psalms) we find the verse, "Rosh devarcha emes" ("The beginning of your word is truth"), which leads us to ask, "Why the beginning?" Because each word is of vital importance in the Torah, there must be a reason why the word "beginning" was chosen over the word "all", or simply "Your word is true". Chazal (the Jewish sages) comment on this verse in the Gemara. They note that when the nations of the world heard the Ten Utterances (Ten Commandments), they heard "I am G-d", and immediately began to assume that all of the commandments and lessons in the Torah were simply to be a result of G-d's own pleasure and because of G-d's need for recognition. However, when the nations heard later commandments, such as "Honor your father and mother", and "Do not steal", they saw that the beginning statement, "I am G-d", must also be true.

The nations, therefore, legitimized G-d's existence and truth through the seeming universality of what was revealed after the initial statement of G-d's existence. This is the way that the world seems to work: it is only after the results are in that we can give an account of the deliverer of those results, and they apply the same to G-d. However, when they see the Jews practicing actions that do not go by any logic or understanding that will seem to be "intrinsically true", then they mock the Jewish people with regard to the practice.

For the Jewish people, however, it is the opposite. Continuously during Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we say, "You, G-d, are true". This means that there is no truth, no reality, nothing at all other than G-d. We are not forbidden to steal because it is universally good and intrinsically logical not to steal, but we are forbidden to steal because it is given as an extension of the Truth, which is G-d. Therefore, Dovid HaMelech (King David) says in Tehillim, "The beginning of Your word is true," to show that since the first of the Ten Utterances was "I am G-d," it qualifies all to follow as completely true, since Truth is revealing it. We may not agree, we may not understand, and chas v'shalom we may not follow, but none of that makes it less true.

Therefore, during the prayers for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we say, "Your throne is established in kindness, and You will sit upon it in truth". By defintion, this kindness (chesed) is something that extends to all people, even those who seem to not deserve it. It might appear to be counterintuitive for those that we deem unworthy to receive G-d's kindness, but these things do not depend upon our values and assumptions, as the verse says, "and You will sit upon it in truth". There is no such thing as "intrinsic" or "universal"; there is only G-d, which is Truth.

It follows then, that Rabbi Akiva says in the Mishnah, "Ashreichem Yisroel! Lifnei mi atem mitaharin? Mi lifnei m'taheir es'chem? Avichem shebashamayim!... V'yomer, 'Mikveh Yisroel HaShem', ma mikveh m'taheir hat'mei'im, af Hakadosh Baruch Hu mi'taheir es Yisroel" ("Fortunate are you Israel! Before whom are you cleansed? Who cleanses you? Your Father in Heaven!... And it is said, 'The mikveh of Israel is G-d', for just as a mikveh cleanses something impure, so The Holy One cleanses Israel"). The Jewish people are fortunate because we recognize that truth exists only because it is an extension of G-d, allowing ourselves to accept our role as His children, making Him our Father, which in turn allows Him to treat us with the overflowing kindness that a father shows a child, purifying us even when we do not seem to deserve it... and when we are purified by the source of all truth, we are truly purified.

(As learned from the holy sefer Aish Kodesh, by Hagaon Harav Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, HY"D, the Rebbe of Piacezna. May he receive zechus from those learning his words during this time of teshuvah and cheshbon.)