A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.

LIP SERVICE

As the horn of a ram or similar animal is taken to human lips this Friday, it would do us well to momentarily mute the Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah that will be sounded throughout the month of Elul, and to focus on how a defense mechanism of a four legged creature ( horn) abuts a defense mechanism of a two legged human (mouth) and realize, that with but three exceptions (eating, voiding, and propagating) as  pointed out by the Talmud, the similarity ends there.

Unlike an animal, a human being is born with a conscience. Human beings are capable of being able to distinguish right from wrong. It may have taken eating from the Tree of Knowledge for Adam and Eve to develop a conscience, but that conscience was quite evident soon after their regrettable repast. As soon as the first couple heard the sound of HaShem manifesting itself in the garden, Adam and Eve went and hid among the trees. Adam and Eve were aware that they had done something wrong and they attempted (in vain) to evade the consequences. Their son Cain had a conscience as well. In response to HaShem’s question, “Where is Abel your brother”? Cain, out of a sense of guilt, went on the defensive and retorted “am I my brother’s keeper”? Animals, in contradistinction to humans, were not designed to have consciences. If they did, then canines would be nowhere as loyal to humans, even when those humans are undeserving, and humans would not make a “tsimmes”  when an animal shows care, concern and consideration for a human. How else would we explain humans resorting to the aphorism “bull in a china shop” in that the bovine creature is in no way aware of the havoc it creates. The very fact that we humans out of desperation (wrongly) refer to other humans lacking a conscience as “animals”, illustrates that we are very much aware that four legged creatures are devoid of a conscience.

It was the award winning Hebrew and Yiddish poet of Israel, Abba Kovner, who encouraged a new generation of Israelis to “remember the past, live the present and trust the future”.  Humans become aware of the future at a tender age. That’s why it is not uncommon for a three-year old in our culture to  express the following sentiment: “when I grow up…” Humans have the ability and are given the incentive to plan for the future. That’s why there are any number of investment firms touting their expertise in making your money grow, as they vie for your business; that’s why many jobs come with retirement plans where the employer matches the contribution or withholding on the part of the employee.  Preparing for the future among animals is purely instinct. Squirrels forage for nuts to sustain them through the winter, independent of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. While I know nothing about how squirrels communicate with one another, I find it totally incredulous that squirrels would discuss the challenge of collecting nuts in any given year and then compare what it was like to collect nuts the previous year.

Our Talmudic sages were quick to point out (that unlike an animal) that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Stated differently, they maintained that humans should always consider themselves forewarned or responsible when it comes to injuries of others, as well as to damages to their property and estate. How much more so then is an individual’s responsibility to oneself! To be sure, our culture has a track record of destroying animals that have incurred harm. But such animals were destroyed because they were deemed dangerous. The only time responsibility serves as a factor is when that animal is owned by a human, or when that animal has a master. In either case, responsibility falls squarely upon the human, but never upon the animal.

Let the Tekiahs ring along with the Shevarim and Teruah. As they pierce the highest heavens, so too let them pierce the innermost depths of out heart and souls. Let us marvel at tough animal cartilage pressing up against the sensitive human lip. Let us appreciate the contrast between four- legged animal and the two-legged human. With the human, HaShem has every right to expect a conscience that distinguish between right and wrong, an ability to anticipate  planning for the future and a keen sense of responsibility toward HaShem, one’s fellow man and oneself. Failure to do so will result in mere lip service.

NO AX TO GRIND

The Jewish National Fund should have gone out on a limb. Last week would have afforded the JNF yet another excellent opportunity to promote trees. For it was last Tuesday, the Talmud tells us, that a special name was conferred upon the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. Although still very much in the midst of summer, our rabbinic sages calculated that the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av was the specific date when the heat from the unforgiving sun over Israel, finally begins to dissipate. On that date, our sages declared that no ax may be swung at a tree for the purpose of providing kindling wood for the sacrifices of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Our sages referred to that day as Yom Tavar Magal or the day of the breaking of the scythe or ax.

Although two thousand years have passed since any trees have been felled for the purpose of providing wood for the altar, Yom Tavar Magal ought to live on.

A much overlooked sight for tourists visiting Israel is a monument located in the city of Ramat Gan commemorating ten young Jewish soldiers (the original list, other names were added later) who met their deaths at the end of a British noose. While the English language settles on the word “hanged”, the Hebrew language depicts those who lost their lives as Olei HaGardom or those who went up against the ax. The purpose of employing such phraseology, is that in the eyes of Zionism, the mode of execution employed by the British mattered little, if any. From the Zionist point of view, there was but one difference between the “civilized” British executioners of the twentieth century and the savage Roman executioners who murdered Jews in ancient times. We have no record as to the ages of the Jewish victims murdered by the ancient Romans. We do know however that without exception, that those who went up against the ax of the British were all in their prime of life. Put differently, the ax of the British denied its Jewish victims to benefit from the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was not the first to caution Jews against despair when he reminded us that the entire world is a narrow bridge and that we must never give in to fear. Two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan expressed a similar sentiment when they handed down the following adage for posterity: Even if a sharpened sword is resting on the neck of person’s neck, it should never prevent the victim from asking for mercy. The two rabbis then cite the following verse from Job 13:15: “Behold, he is about to kill me, shall I not turn to Him in hope”?

As creative as the Roman were when it came to introducing ancient Israel to architecture and engineering, there was a destructive side to the Romans as well. The ancient Romans had no regard whatsoever for forestation or for human life. Accordingly, they did a hatchet job on both. With no regard for either the flora or the fauna, the ancient Romans indiscriminately set about  clearing swaths of land, so that the enemy could no longer seek safety and find refuge deep in the forests; the Ancient Romans used the lumber for military purposes such as onagers (prototype of a wrecking ball used to knock down walls of fortified cities)  and battering rams,  allowing them to break through doors and gates. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan undoubtedly heard and perhaps even witnessed Romans – with no qualms whatsoever – swinging their axes into the necks of Jews. And yet, they adjured our people not to give up hope. Neither Rabbi would ever have claimed to speak words of prophecy. Yet, during any given year, the number of Israelis visiting Italy is amazing; the number of Italians visiting Israel and planting trees is awesome.

Our rabbinic sages were quick to notice the similarity between  shalosh (three) and shalish (military commander). Because of this, they ascribed great strength to trees, a product of the third day of creation. Yet, when iron was created, these great towers of strength began to tremble. They foresaw impending doom, should it ever happen that iron be sharpened into an ax. “Let not your heart be troubled”, said iron to the trees reassuringly. “As long as none of your wood provides us with a handle, no harm will come your way.”

Yom Tavar Magal continues to convey important teachings. It serves to remind us of young Jews who were denied eating from the Tree of Life as they went up against the British sword.  It recalls the optimism of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan who were able to see not only the forest and the trees, but the continuation of vibrant Jewish living as well. It cautions us against placing ourselves in harm’s way. Most of all, it reminds us that there are specific times for an ax to meet a tree. May those times contribute to a better world.