With the past week's observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we finished the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals), each celebrating a monumental development of the Jewish nation. We topped it off with Simchat Torah, one of the happiest days of the Jewish calendar, on which we celebrated the completion of the Torah and the beginning of a new rotation of Torah readings, starting with Bereishit.
But Bereishit isn't an optimistic beginning. It's filled with man's disregard for Hashem, disrespect and mistreatment of other people, and sin after sin after sin. Bereishit has my pick for the most depressing parasha in the Torah. It has Adam's and Eve's (and the snake's) sin with the Tree of Knowledge; Cain killing Hevel after ignoring direct prophecy from God encouraging him to repent and improve; Lemech killing Cain and then his son by accident, and complaining to his wives instead of repenting; the rise of idol worship after Enosh; rulers who took any women that they chose; and other unnamed sins that led our Creator to eventually regret creating humanity, and plan to nearly wipe out His own creation!
And the Lord said, "I will blot out man, whom I created, from upon the face of the earth, from man to cattle to creeping thing, to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I made them."
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם:
The parasha reminds us of the strength of our Yetzer Hara, our evil inclination. The evil deeds of humanity were wiped out with the flood, but the Yetzer Hara will haunt us forever. With p'sukim like the one above, how can we remain optimistic about the new year?
By recalling the mistakes of our ancestors, we can make sure we don't repeat them. Unfortunately, these sins and others have been repeated throughout Jewish history. In acknowledging this fact, we realize the purpose of every new generation and of every new year: to do better than the last. It's a new year, a new chance--a chance to fulfill commandments rather than to ignore them, to treat each other with love and respect rather than ignorance, to sanctify Hashem's name rather than to desecrate it.
Parashat Bereishit does end on a more positive note: Noach found favor in the eyes of Hashem. Although Hashem planned to destroy mankind, he showed mercy to Noach and kept him and his family alive. Similarly, Hashem shows mercy to us when we repent. When we show Hashem that, like Noach, we are worth saving--that we are different than we were before--we appeal to His Attribute of Mercy and He gives us another chance. May He wash away our evil like He did with the flood!
Dan Jutan, Grade 11
Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
Why was Simchat Torah instituted on Shemini Atzeret, and not on Shavuot, "the time of the giving of our Torah"? The standard answer is that "since we complete the Torah, it is fitting to rejoice upon its completion."
The Chassidic masters offer another answer: the rejoicing of Shemini Atzeret is for the second tablets, given on Yom Kippur, which were "doubled for strength"; i.e., they had twice the spiritual value of the first ones.
One can further explain Simchat Torah's greater connection to the second tablets, rather than to the first ones given on Shavuot, as follows:
1) The first tablets were "G-d's handiwork and G-d's writing," symbolizing a gift from above. The latter tablets, by contrast, were G-d's writing on tablets made by Moses and thus, symbolized human effort. Simchat Torah is linked to the latter tablets, since true rejoicing only comes through labor and effort.
2) The second tablets were given as a consequence of the Jewish people's repentance; therefore, this bestowal in particular marks the restoration of the Jewish people's closeness with G-d, and inspires great rejoicing.
As we complete the High Holiday season, let us dance with the Torah in the company of our family and friends, celebrating our own accomplishments in strengthening our connection with Hashem and each other.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,
Rabbi Ari Karp, Judaic Studies Faculty 5-8
Atlanta Jewish Academy
“Whatever you do, don’t let go!” David said.
The young boy was learning to ride his bike and, having just removed the training wheels, his father was keeping the bike steady by holding on to the back of the seat.
“I will be by your side the whole time,” his father responded, knowing full well he planned to let go once the boy began to coast.
The first try didn’t go so well and the father stepped in to catch David before he fell over. The same thing happened the second and third time. On the fourth try, the boy got the hang of it, balanced himself and began to pick up speed. Dad let go and little David was off to the races.
Unfortunately, David’s success was short-lived. Just about 20 seconds later, he lost his balance, hit the curb and fell off his bike. David let out a piercing cry and immediately began inspecting the scrapes he had incurred. "You let go!” he accused his father. “This is your fault, Daddy...you said you would be there the whole time, and you weren’t!”
The truth is that he had been there the whole time; the boy simply needed to learn what it was like to ride on his own.
This story, I believe, is the answer to a difficult question on this week’s Torah portion.
דברים פרק לא פסוקים יז-יח
Devarim Chapter 31 Verses 17-18
וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא
וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם, וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל, וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת
רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת; וְאָמַר, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, הֲלֹא עַל כִּי-אֵין אֱלֹקי בְּקִרְבִּי, מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה.
Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?
וְאָנֹכִי, הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, עַל כָּל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה: כִּי פָנָה, אֶל-אֱלֹקים אֲחֵרִים.
And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.
The Torah describes how God will withdraw Himself from the Jewish people as a result of their misdeeds, causing them to experience many troubles. Then, the Torah predicts, the people will observe: “Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?” and God will respond by further withdrawing Himself.
Many commentators are troubled by this sequence. Isn’t acknowledging that “these evils” are due to the fact that “God is not among us” a degree of introspection worthy of reward? After all, our sages teach us that we must merely open a gap the size of a needle’s eye, and God will shower us with His mercy. Why, then, does God respond by further hiding His face?
Some have answered that the introspection described in the verse is not genuine, and therefore pushes God away.
To me, the story above is instructive in this case. David’s father was there all along. There is no question that he provided his son the freedom to make mistakes; however, the criticism he endured was misplaced as he, too, experienced the pain along with David when he fell.
The Torah is teaching us a sense of personal responsibility in these verses. When the Jewish people evaluate their troubles, they are directed inward, towards their own role in causing the challenges they have faced. When God hears their conclusion that it is all His fault, His reaction is one of midah kineged midah (measure for measure), and He pulls further away. Were we to simply embrace the freedom we have and recognize the mistakes we occasionally make, we certainly would draw God close and overcome all of our obstacles.
The timing of this portion could not be better, as we spend these days of repentance collectively and individually evaluating ourselves and looking forward to continued growth and success.
May it be His will that we realize our potential to the fullest, achieve our goals, and overcome any and all obstacles as we experience a happy, healthy and successful new year.
Rabbi Asher Yablok, Dean of Judaic Studies,
Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School
The holiday of Sukkot is characterized by the unique commandment of dwelling in sukkot, temporary, hut-like dwellings, as the Torah instructs us in Vayikra (23:42-43): "In booths you are to dwell for seven days ...so that your generations will know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt...."
The Sages in the tractate of Succah (11b) disagree as to what "booths" the Israelites dwelt in. Rabbi Eliezer says that these booths are a reference to the miraculous ananai haKavod, the "Clouds of Glory," with which G-d surrounded the Jewish nation throughout their forty-year sojourn in the desert after they left Egypt. These clouds protected the B'nai Yisrael from the elements and the hot desert floor, kept the Jews' clothing clean, and guided the nation of Israel through the desert. Rabbi Akiva maintains, however, that these "booths" refer to the actual booths or huts that the Jewish nation built while in the desert to serve as their dwellings.
The Aruch HaShulchan raises the following question: Whereas Rabbi Eliezer's booths were manifestations of a great miracle that G-d performed for the Jews in the desert, and certainly merits a commandment commemorating the infinite kindness and protection of G-d, Rabbi Akiva's interpretation is most puzzling in light of the commandment to dwell in the sukkah. What is the significance of the huts that the Jews lived in while in the desert?
The Aruch HaShulchan answers his own question. According to Rabbi Akiva, the sukkah commemorates the greatness of the Jewish people. Their faith in G-d was so complete and so total that they traveled into the uninhabitable desert wasteland at G-d's command. In this wasteland, the Jews did not even have permanent dwellings, but merely booths, trusting in G-d that He would care for their every need in the wilderness--which, of course, He did.
Based on what we have seen, both Rabbi Eliezer's and Rabbi Akiva's interpretation of the "booths" in the desert relate our observance of the commandment of Sukkot to G-d's miraculous protection of the Jews during their forty-year sojourn through the desert on route to the land of Israel. This protection was not furnished only to the Jewish people while in the desert, but in His infinite kindness, G-d has extended that protection to our people throughout the ages. This special protection, symbolized by the sukkah, has ensured the continued existence and survival of the Jewish people until this very day.
Debbie Bornstein, Director of Judaic Studies EC-8,
Atlanta Jewish Academy
I call to heaven and earth today to bear witness. I have placed the choice before you for life or death, blessings or curses; choose life. (Devarim 30:19)
Why does the Torah feel the need to instruct us to choose life over death? Can there be a more obvious choice?
The Torah's wisdom here has become clear, because we live in a time that is experiencing a culture devoted to death. Fundamentalism has corrupted the very essence and purpose of religion. At its heart, religion is a gift to mankind from our creator to support life. Fundamentalism, with its corrupted and distorted reading of texts, worships a culture that celebrates death and despair.
This disease has even infected some in our own home. The idea that failure to conform to one's religious dictates or beliefs justifies murder has led to the deaths of a 16 year old girl and the members of an innocent family of Israeli Arabs. Our holy Torah repeatedly admonishes us never to return to the idolatry and culture of Egypt, with its vast resources devoted to death. Our culture is one of loving kindness. Yet the ancient prophets decry our injustice to the poor, our cheating of the widow and orphan, and our failure to deal justly with murder and mayhem brought about by the wealthy and powerful.
This nightmare is real, and it is a fact that we must acknowledge and address now. How did we get here, we who know that the Torah commands us to choose life?
It all starts with confusion and ignorance, accompanied by a lack of leadership. When leaders are ignorant and sheltered, they cannot lead. When politicians choose to obscure the truth and haven't the courage to denounce evil, it will live and grow.
Possibly the most important of the the thirteen requests in the Amidah is the first, "Atah Chonen." We ask God to grant us wisdom. Our Rabbis teach us, "Without wisdom, where is differentiation?" Without discernment, one cannot differentiate between what is true and what is false, what is God's will and what is not, what is holy and what is profane, what leads to life versus what leads to death.
Today, our leaders are blind to the obvious. They lack the courage and fortitude to address or act to right what is wrong, leading to denial and distortion of reality. Evil is tolerated, murderers are freedom fighters, rogue regimes are given a pass, the guilty are guiltless, and the hated and despised are blamed. The world's treatment of Israel is the proof. As Alan Dershowitz says,
...Any objective person with an open mind, open eyes, and an open heart must see the double standard being applied to the nation-state of the Jewish people. Many doing so are the grandchildren of those who lethally applied a double standard to the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s...
The so-called civilized world is at it again, this time with our own American administration and its apologists leading the way. The murderous Iranian regime is legitimized, while Israel and the Jews are once again the villains.
However, our mission and purpose, given to us by the Holy One, is constant. We must glorify His name and make His presence known to mankind. We were and continue to be charged to "make the one and only invisible God visible to all of mankind."
This can only be achieved by living meaningful, purposeful, and loving lives that model our God's attributes. Our Rabbis teach us that just as the Creator grants love and goodness, deserved or not, so, too, must we.
Thrice daily, we recite, "He who blesses His chosen people of Israel with peace." We are a people of peace and thereby, able to bring peace to a world that desperately needs it.
We must champion love for all of mankind, and bring light to a world of darkness. We must be a people and religion whose every path is full of sweetness and love, whose every road leads to lasting peace.
This High Holiday season, I pray for leaders with discernment, and recommit myself to making the invisible, our one and only God, visible throughout the world. Join me in committing to live with purpose, meaning, love for all mankind and creation, and the pursuit of true peace for all.
Shabbat shalom and shana tova,
Rabbi Pinchos Hecht, Head of School
Atlanta Jewish Academy