Carlebach selichot with yehuda green

Special Selichot in The Carlebach Shul with Yehuda Green, in the Carlebach tradition of seeking forgiveness through song. At West Side Institutional Synagogue, 120 W. 76th

Parshat Shavua: Ki Tavo

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama. 

By Samantha Hulkower
This week's Torah portion spends a lot of time enumerating bad things that will happen to klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) if they stray from the Torah. As Rosh Hashanah is coming up, there must be a connection.

First, it is important to notice the language the Torah uses, "...if you do not guard to do the mitzvot and laws commanded by G-d..." (Devarim 28:15). It's not a forgone conclusion that any bad thing needs to happen. Also, the section comes after Moshe Rabbeinu lists all the blessings the Jewish people will receive for following the Torah (basically, they will always have more than enough food and supplies and will be safe - all-in-all a comfortable life).

Our Sages tell us that we can learn from this that how we choose to respond to this week's Torah portion is how G-d will respond to us on Rosh Hashanah. Do we choose to follow the mitzvot - to be kind to our parents, to eat kosher food, to be compassionate to those in need, to love our fellow Jews? If so, then G-d will respond to our compassion and love with His compassion and love towards us. It seems almost too easy - follow the rules, which include being a decent human being, and you will be blessed in life. If only everything was so easy!


This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Jackie Ross

The month of Elul is a time set aside in the Jewish calendar for reflection about the previous year and ways to make the next year better. Part of this process involves saying prayers during the month for forgiveness (selichot is the plural of the word to ask for forgiveness, slicha, which is also used in modern Hebrew to say 'Excuse me'). The practice is to rise early to recite them in the morning, usually before daybreak or the morning Shacharit prayers are said. Jews of Sefardic and Mizrachi descent say selichot for the whole month, while those of Ashkenazic descent say it usually just the week before Rosh Hashana.

The ikar, or main point of Selichot is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that G-d told to Moses after klal Yisrael had committed the sin of the golden calf in the desert. You might recall that after Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, Moshe went up to receive the rest of the commandments (only the first two were said by G-d). When he didn't return forty days later like the people thought he would, some of the nation built the golden calf to 'serve' in G-d's stead. When he arrived shortly after he broke the two tablets of sapphire carved by G-d with the Ten Commandments. He did however, on Rosh Chodesh Elul go back up Mount Sinai to receive the entire Torah from G-d and also ask for forgiveness for the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf. While up on Mount Sinai the second time G-d told Moshe the Thirteen Attributes that the Jewish people should recite in times of distress when they want to awaken G-d's Divine mercy and forgiveness. An explanation of each of the thirteen are:

-G-d is compassionate to a person before he sins
-G-d is still compassionate after he sins
-Mighty in compassion, giving all living things what they need
-Gracious to those in distress
-Slow to anger
-Great in lovingkindness
-Great in truth
-Merciful to descendants
-Forgiving of iniquity
-Forgiving of transgressions
-Forgiving of sin

While some of these might sound similar in English, the Hebrew words have very esoteric meanings. Ultimately, all thirteen are reminder that G-d wants to forgive those who are remorseful of their misdeeds. A positive thought for the month!

pirkei avot 3:13 - How to Put Laughter and Frivolity in their Proper Place

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

Elisheva Maline
Rabbi Akiva used to say, "Laughter and frivolity draws a person toward promiscuity. Tradition is a safety measure for Torah, tithing -- a safety measure for wealth, oaths -- a safety measure for abstinence, and a safety measure for wisdom is silence.

As the era of prophets came to an end, the men of the great assembly gathered for a mass meeting; as they put their heads together, one stroked his beard and said, "Now that the age of open communication with Hashem (G-d) is ending, how can we come up with alternate measures by which we may serve the Creator of the universe?" Prophetic vision has been likened to a person's being able to view miles of landscape from the top of a mountain. After G-d removed our desire for idol worship, however, we lost this "extra" sight and with that, the ability to get down to brass tacks and nails, i,e, to know what G-d really wants. So things got a little murky. Argument over small differences of opinion sprang up. Over the years, trying to deduce G-d's will, in any given situation, became trickier and trickier. Therefore, our sages of blessed memory fought to nip the problem in the bud by adding fences, or safety measures, hence the adage, "Build a fence for Torah."
The association with fences is that they are there to either keep people out or in. For instance, Donald Trump has been crystal about the wall he plans to build on the border between of America and Mexico; he wants to keep the illegal immigrants out. According to our sages, particularly Rabbi Akiva, without whom this mishnah would not exist, fences are meant to guard. Just like no responsible adult would allow a child to climb into a roller coaster without a seat belt, so to our Rabbis of yesteryear understood that if their future descendants were to have a fighting chance in maintaining a long term relationship with Hashem as well as keeping the Torah and its laws, people would need to build fences.

What would a fence look like? I'll explain with a simple parable: there was a child who liked cheese. He liked it so much, in fact, that he had an extremely difficult time saying no whenever he passed by a certain pizza place that sold pizza, even if he had just eaten meat and was required to wait a certain amount of hours. Therefore, his mother made a rule, "Honey, I forbid you from even entering the block where the pizza place is. I don't want you to, G-d forbid, end up slipping up. Now, ask yourself if the mother is cruel or kind. She is saying no to a potentially pleasurable time. However, by saying no to the child and setting strong boundaries, she is giving the child a chance to strengthen: you are helping him avoid temptation.       

When Rabbi Akiva wrote out the above mishnah, he had a similar idea in mind. Good time management is all about prioritizing. When I spend my day working toward specific goals: making the deadline at work, cooking dinner for my family, making sure I get in a little exercise, I find that there is less time for sitting around and gossiping about the upcoming elections or what Kate Middleton wore last week. Every one of us has different needs and therefore, different formulas for how to become better versions of ourselves. However, Rabbi Akiva offered us a one size fits all option. There is room for every one of the above safety measures to fit into our daily routine.

Parsha Ki Teitzei

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Arye Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.

This week's torah portion touches upon an idea we've talked about before - the mitzvah of 'viahavta l'arecha komocha' to love your neighbor as yourself. These few words are so simple, but have such deep meaning. One of the facets of this idea can be found in the parsha, which states in essence, "If you see something of your brother's don't leave it, you must return it to him" (Devarim 22:1). 

Even though the Torah uses the word 'אח' which means brother, the true meaning of the word in this sense is your fellow Jew (this is part of the reason why all of klal Yisrael are considered to be part of the same family). At first glance, this doesn't seem like such a big deal, you see something on the street that you know belongs to a friend or acquaintance, so you pick it up in order to return it to them. But the requirement is more than that. You need to hold on to it until you can return it to him - even if you don't know who it belongs to.

The Torah is requiring us to become hoarders, filling our homes with misplaced items impossible to return to their rightful owners. In fact, it's demanding of us two things - firstly, don't be lazy. If you see something you know someone has lost, pick it up. Secondly, try to return it to its owner. There are of course rules for extenuating circumstances - if the item is perishable food that would go bad quickly if not consumed you are allowed to eat it. Or if it's so generic that it's impossible to find its owner, such as a ballpoint pen, or if you can be certain the owner has considered it lost, then you are allowed to keep it, but otherwise you have to try to return it. What is G-d's motivation in commanding us to try to return an item to it's owner? After all, Judaism doesn't exactly advocate having lots of material things. One possible explanation is to make us more compassionate. 

First, if we think of every Jew as our brother or sister, automatically we will be more caring about them (ideally). A person is much more likely to go out of their way for an immediate family member than a stranger. Then, by commanding you not to keep the item, but to guard it until it can be returned, you are forced to practice some self restraint. That effort allows you to visualize and appreciate how happy the owner of the item will be once they are reunited, and perhaps even motivate you to find the owner as quickly as possible. It's small actions like these that are really the glue of a society. 

We can see how this mitzvah has been internalized by klal Yisrael with the fact that Israel has a low crime compared to other cities and countries. Just another reason why Israel is the best place to be!

Yashar LaChayal

Birthright Israel - Taglit

The majesty of the Western Wall