CCAR Newsletter July/August 2021 - 7
master them, we must redefine and understand them
anew. Wisdom is not innate intelligence; it is rather the
effort expended to learn from everyone; might is not
power over others, but over oneself; wealth is measured
not in assets, but in satisfaction; kavod comes from
bestowing honor on others.
Wisdom, might, wealth, and honor are less about what
we possess than how we relate to, value, and live in
harmony with other people and what we have. So long
as we shine the spotlight on narrow self-interest, we
run the risk of missing the larger picture in which our
lives flourish through interactions marked by respect,
compassion, and generosity.
Ben Zoma teaches us that our most cherished goals-
wisdom, might, wealth, and honor-are achievable
when we understand their innermost meaning. Would
that this mishnah, which maps a path to a successful
life, were part of our High Holy Day liturgy; would
that it were among our daily prayers, reminding us that
we often confuse giving and receiving.
Rabbinic opinion on Shabbat Shuvah seems to be
split between those for whom it supplies another
occasion for a " big " sermon and those for whom the
sermon expected makes the burden of the Yamim
Noraim even heavier.
Vayeilech is composed of one 30-verse chapter. Often
tacked on to Nitzavim, from which the Torah reading
is more often chosen, it is frequently ignored. This
year Vayeilech stands alone on Shabbat Shuvah; the
impression it should make is colossal.
Moses has ordained Joshua as his successor. God
has told him he will soon die. He is preparing to
deliver his final peroration. In addition to bearing
the weight of 120 years, including four tumultuous
decades leading the Israelites through the wilderness,
God adds that once Moses has gone, the Israelites
will continue their recidivistic ways. Moses has one
last chance to educate, direct, and inspire his people.
Angry with them yet again, he condemns them for
actions God has told him they will take.
For me, Vayeilech speaks to the importance of
" legacy " -what we will leave behind of ourselves.
How fitting that it should coincide with Shabbat
Shuvah: Shabbat Shuvah is about self-assessment for
the year that has gone; Vayeilech is about a lifetime. It
is never too early to start thinking about the self we
leave behind-and the self we wish to leave behind-
as the new year unfolding offers us the opportunity
and blessing to live a better life.
My mantra is simple: remember how you wish to be
Our obligation to refrain from eating, drinking,
and intimacy on Yom Kippur derive from t'anu etnafsoteichem
/ you shall afflict yourselves (Leviticus
16:29). By forgoing these normal, but distracting,
aspects of life, we free ourselves to focus mind and
body on t'shuvah.
This year Yom Kippur arrives on the heels of the
extended COVID-19 pandemic, which imposed
many life-upending afflictions. Its exponential spread
necessitated our separation from others, denying
many of us spiritual fuel. We wrestled with the
reasonable and prudent requirements that closed off
in-person worship, face-to-face learning, and hospital
visits and severely altered how we attended to b'nei
mitzvah, funerals, and shivah.
Yom Kippur, a fixed spiritual inflection point in our
calendar, this year provides a timely opportunity to
consider how this year of " away-ness " offers us the
opportunity for improving who we are. How do we
harness the experiences of the past year and what we
have learned about ourselves to improve ourselves, to
become better versions of ourselves? Perhaps this will
require a different kind of cheshbon nefesh and a longer
period of reflection than the 25 hours of Yom Kippur
afford. But in truth, Yom Kippur is the culmination
of six weeks of t'shuvah that beings in Elul.
This year, we might ask ourselves: How have the
afflictions imposed by the pandemic changed me and
helped me to become a better person and a better
rabbi? What insights have I gleaned for supporting
and leading people through this? What have I learned
about my needs for self-care?
What are humans that You are mindful of them, mortals
that You take note of them, that You have made them
little less than divine and adorned them with glory and
majesty. (Psalm 8:5-6)
Haazinu takes us on a poetic tour of God's history
with Israel, and in particular Israel's failures of loyalty
and gratitude despite God's repeated acts of salvation,
including future acts of betrayal against God that
have not yet occurred. In the end, God will punish
Israel for her perverse rebelliousness, but God's anger
will turn away from Israel and toward her enemies.
Psalm 8's exalted view of humanity is not apparent in
There is much in our tradition to support two
opposing views of humanity: that we are created
b'tzelem Elohim and little lower than the angels, as
Psalm 8 joyously proclaims; and that we are selfish
animals unable to fulfill our obligations to God. And,
indeed, both are always true.
Upon completing his recitation, Moses adjures
Israel, Take to heart all the words I have warned you
this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they
may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.
For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very
life... (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). Moses recognizes
that Israel's national survival depends upon their
adherence to the Torah.
So, too, the direction and quality of our lives depend
upon our ability to see ourselves as little lower
than the angels, as creature capable of wisdom,
compassion, and ethical greatness, observing and
studying Torah. Hardly trifling!
The four species that compose the lulav and etrog are
iconic, yet the term etrog does not appear in Tanach.
Rather, Leviticus 23:40 speaks of the " fruit of the
hadar tree, " which our Sages interpret as the etrog.
Hadar is variously translated noble, lovely, fine, and
The earliest references associating the etrog with the
four species are Josephus's Antiquities 13:5, which
relates that the Maccabee king, Alexander Jannaæus,
who had allied himself with the Pharisees to cement
his claim to the throne and priesthood, subsequently
repudiates this support publicly at the water libation
ceremony during Sukkot. Furious, the Pharisees pelt
the king with their etrogim. A similar story appears in
the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkot 48b).
Cyrus Adler suggests that the etrog is native to India
and that its scientific name, Malus persica, suggests
that it traveled to the Mediterranean world via Persia
and that the Jews brought the tree with them back
from Babylonian exile (Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol.
5, p. 261). However, Adler is silent about the etrog's
early relationship to Sukkot.
If the " fruit of the hadar tree " is not the citron, then
what? In the Book of Nehemiah, when the people
depart the Water Gate to collect materials for celebrating
Sukkot, the only fruity tree mentioned is the olive
(Nehemiah 8:15). Could olives be what the returning
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CCAR Newsletter July/August 2021
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