Category Archives: Holidays

A Seder of War, Famine, Wild Beasts and Plague

A Seder of War, Famine, Wild Beasts and Plague

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Much has been written, spoken, videoed and shared about the coronavirus pandemic we are all living through. I beg those who for whatever reason are still not taking it seriously, to please take all the requested precautions seriously. There is a natural tendency to think “it won’t happen to me.” I pray that it won’t, but the growing circle of our friends and acquaintances who have been struck by this disease is proving the foolishness of thinking anyone is more impervious than others to the disease that has run rampant around the globe. And if you have less concern for your own safety, at least please be mindful of others.

However, to the other end of the spectrum, to those who are living in dread and fear, I beg you to continue to take the requested precautions seriously, but to also be cognizant of your mental health. It is counterproductive to be so fearful that it affects your health, your wellbeing and that of those around you. Reach out. Talk to someone whom you trust or someone you think can give you the needed emotional support we all need, especially now. There is no shame in doing so.

It is indeed a time of global havoc. Not just health-wise, but also economic. Most of us have not seen such widespread dislocation in our lives. Many are on the front-line, saving lives from this invisible enemy. Many are supporting that effort. Many are wondering how they will survive the economic turmoil. Many are suffering in isolation; many because they are alone; many because they aren’t. The turmoil, pain, and despair are real.

Many platitudes can be given about being strong, about having faith, about this being an opportunity for growth. I believe in them. However, I also know that they will fall on deaf ears for those in the grip of fear. For those who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those millions of people globally who are now unemployed and have no idea how they will generate income. I don’t know the answers. And that brings me to Pesach.

Our ancestors, more than 3,300 years ago, faced tremendous uncertainty. Others have already written about the parallels to the deadly plague of the firstborns which forced the Jews to remain locked in their homes on Pesach night. I want to focus on the uncertainties they faced. There was a massive shift in the world order occurring in those days. The mightiest empire on Earth, the powerful, centuries-strong Egyptian empire was ravaged by plagues. The Jewish people, a slave caste, was on the brink of not just freedom, but of being cut off from the only source of sustenance and employment they had known for generations. They were about to leave the only homes and possessions they knew. They were to follow Moses into the unknown, into the harsh, lifeless desert, with only the command of an unknowable God to back up the claims of His first prophet.

Did they not have reason to fear? Did they not have reason to distrust Moses and His invisible God? Did they not have a reason for cynicism? They did. However, we are the descendants of those who believed. We are the descendants of those who took a leap of faith. We are the descendants of those who had the courage, the strength, the spiritual drive to step into the unknown; to believe in an all-powerful God and His prophet; to believe in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to believe in the ancient promises, the divine covenant between God and our patriarchs. We believed. It is that unshakeable belief that has sustained our people through the most pernicious and devastating horrors humanity could inflict on us for over three millennia. We persevere. We stand, even with a sense of triumph. The triumph of being on the side of eternity.

We are an ancient people. We have seen empires rise and fall. We have seen civilizations built, destroyed and rebuilt. We have experienced and survived war, famine, wild beasts and plague. We can handle this. We shall overcome.

May this Seder, whether we are doing it alone, on our own, in smaller or different circumstances than we’re used to, be a meaningful Seder. May it be a reaffirmation of our unbreakable connection to our past Exodus; may it be a signal of our upcoming Exodus. May it signify our freedom. Our freedom from fear, our freedom from not just the microscopic plague that ails humanity but also the spiritual plagues that have infected our society. When we eat the Matza, that long-lasting poor man’s bread, may it be more heartfelt. When we drink the four cups of wine, symbolizing salvation, may we do so with greater significance. When we invite Elijah the Prophet to our home, may it be with greater emotion. And when we pray and sing to celebrate all together in a rebuilt Jerusalem next year, may we really mean it.

Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, joyous and inspiring Pesach.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,


Correction on last week’s post: my dear friend, Rabbi Gad Dishi, pointed out that my interpretation of last week’s Meshech Chochma was not as accurate as possible. I translated the term “minim” as ancient atheists and understood the Meshech Chochma to be referring to people at the time of the Temple. Rabbi Dishi correctly pointed out that the Meshech Chochma appears to be referring to post-Temple Christians and their Eucharist service. However, the more accurate translation doesn’t change the gist or message of what I wrote.

Rosh Hashana message 5776: The Eternal Optimists

The Eternal Optimists

  The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Einstein sardonically stated that to attempt the same thing over and over again and expect different results is the definition of insanity. Then perhaps we are an insane people. Here we are celebrating the New Year yet again. It’s not a big surprise. The rituals are exactly the same. The prayers haven’t changed in hundreds of years. The shofar is the same type and form which has been used for over 3,000 years. Yet how many of us can state that there was some significant difference in our lives after Rosh Hashana? What does all the praying, moaning and bellyaching actually do? I can understand the food and the festive meals. That’s always fun and I’ll accept any excuse to celebrate. But what are we doing yet again in the synagogue?

I think that the secret is none other than an intrinsic, divinely inspired type of insanity that is nothing less than pure optimism. In the face of years and years of failure, disappointment, heartache, loneliness, illness and all the other maladies that are the human condition, we stand in front of God and we say: “We want better.”

And perhaps the madness is that we expect an answer. We expect God to listen to our pleas. We expect God to serve us our cure, our success, our comfort, our prize on a silver platter. On rare occasions He does, though we are often so distracted or clueless that we fail to note or appreciate the divine intervention. On many occasions the answer is a brutal no. No, you will not get better. No, your loved one will not survive. No, you will not find a job. No, you will not find the love of your life. No. No. No. The constant failure, the constant silent rejection of our innermost pleas is devastating.

Yet we come back again. We plead again. We pray again. We hope again. This is the definition of insanity.

But our sages, our traditions, instruct us to continue with this insanity. They command us never to give up hope. While there is breath in our bodies we look to God to deliver us. At the same time our traditions guide us to deal with our reality, to accept present circumstances, yet always hoping, praying, working for a better future.

That is the secret of Rosh Hashana. That is why we return every year to meet our Creator. That is the unquenchable optimism, which states that no matter how bad things are, no matter how many times we’ve been down the same road, we are allowed, we are enjoined, we are commanded to seek better. We must never give up. We must never tire. We must never quit.

Perhaps this Rosh Hashana will be different.



The Holidays, Again

The Holidays, Again

There is both something boring yet something comforting about the Holidays. Thanks to yearly repetition, we know more or less what to expect. There are particular things about the Holidays that each of us likes, and there are probably more that we can do without, but we put up with it, out of respect for our parents, family, friends, community and tradition.

This predictability is both a great strength and a fatal weakness. There is a tremendous value in repetition. Studies have shown that repetition of any act is not a cumulative effect but an exponential force at reinforcing that act as part of our psyche. However, that same, sometimes mind-numbing repetition of anything, is what often causes us to miss out entirely the deeper meaning, potential and force that each Holiday has contained within it.

I will divide each of the Holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar, namely, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, into three different aspects:

  1. Symbolic commandments, acts and traditions of the day.
  2. Liturgy
  3. Spiritual essence of the day.

Perhaps by taking a closer look and analysis, someone will uncover a personal connection point to find greater meaning in what it is we’re doing, or supposed to be doing on that day.

A. Rosh Hashana (September 25, 26) [The numbers in parenthesis are the Gregorian dates of the holidays for 2014. The holiday begins from sunset of the day before and ends at nightfall of that day. Every year it falls on different dates]

  1. Commandments: Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday celebrating the New Jewish Year has two biblical commands: Not to work on those days and to hear the blasts of the Shofar. During the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, many have the tradition to eat from a variety of foods that symbolize either blessings for us or curses upon our enemies.
  1. Liturgy: The day-time prayers of Rosh Hashana are longer than usual with the highlight being the Shofar blasts and the Musaf service where we refer to God’s Kingship, His Memory of our Ancestors, and the Shofar.
  2. Essence: Rosh Hashana is an ideal time for introspection, for review of our acts, accomplishments and misdeeds during the past year and to chart a new, better course for the following year. The liturgy and the Shofar is meant to awaken in us feelings of repentance while acknowledging and crowning God as King over us, His loyal subjects.

B. Yom Kippur (October 4)

  1. Commandments: Yom Kippur likewise has two commandments: Not to do any work and to fast (which includes no eating, drinking, bathing, using ointments, wearing leather shoes, or having intimate relations). The restrictions of Yom Kippur are considered to be extremely serious and Jewish tradition frowns strongly upon those who violate Yom Kippur.
  1. Liturgy: The prayers of Yom Kippur are the longest of the year (can’t do anything else anyway, so might as well stay in the synagogue) and provide the congregant with long lists of possible sins that we may have committed and gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness of God for those sins. This is an essential aspect of repentance. We must acknowledge our sins, whether they are sins we’ve committed against our friends and fellow man, or if they are ritual matters, that according to Rabbinic understanding, God is disappointed if we take his commandments lightly. After we acknowledge the sins, and that they are indeed sins, we need to regret having done them and then resolve ourselves to avoiding them in the future. Repetition, as mentioned above, helps a lot with this process.
  1. Essence: According to Jewish tradition, the process of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur has the effect of bringing us closer to the level of angels that day. There is a power in the day of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse us of our sins, of our mistakes, of our regrets. But we need to want it. The Jewish way, for more than 3,000 years has been to fast, pray, become spiritual beings for a day, reach to God and connect with him in a fashion that is not possible all the other days of the year. Perhaps for this reason Yom Kippur retains a special place in Jewish consciousness above all other Holidays.

C. Sukkot (October 9 – 15)

  1. Commandments: There are several:
    1. To use booths (Sukkot) primarily for eating, for one week.
    2. To take the Four Species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Arava) and shake them during the appointed times each day of Sukkot.
    3. Not to work the first two days (October 9, 10) of Sukkot.
    4. To be happy.
  2. Liturgy: The prayers of Sukkot are much more joyous. We sing the Hallel. We shake and march with the Four Species. It is a special sight to see a congregation with their green Lulavs all held straight, circling within the synagogue.
  3. Essence: We have finished with the more serious and somber holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate! God apparently wants us to celebrate with many commandments and to be actively happy. We do this by gathering in the unique Sukkot which takes us out of the routine of our homes, allows us to bond with friends and neighbors that we wouldn’t have otherwise and gets us off to the start of the new year on the right foot.

D. Simchat Torah (October 16, 17)

  1. Commandments: Two: Not to work and to be happy. Note: There is absolutely no commandment to drink or get drunk on Simchat Torah (see my article about drinking on Purim) – whoever gets drunk on Simchat Torah (or any other day of the year) is making a grave mistake and has little to no support or basis for this from Jewish sources.
  2. Liturgy: Very similar to the liturgy of Sukkot, plus there is the added traditions of the completion of the cycle of reading the Torah and the celebration of that event.
  3. Essence: The essence of the day of Simchat Torah is the incredible love God has for the Jewish people. He doesn’t want to be separated from the closeness that has been engendered by these weeks of holidays and being close to Him. In addition we have both the completion and the immediate restart of the cycle of reading the Torah – God’s instruction guide for living and succeeding in His world. We should cherish this last day of His close embrace, until the next encounter.

Other comments:

“Not to work”. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme/commandment. It is something that many people take lightly in our day and age. I will address two aspects of this prohibition. One is the restriction on what we’ll call creative actions, which include the direct manipulation of electricity. I won’t get into further details of this aspect of the prohibition of what we call “work”.

The other aspect of “work” is what is more commonly understood as work for gain, whether it is as an employee or a company or a store owner. This type of work is likewise prohibited on the Sabbath and Holidays. Furthermore, traditional belief is that whoever works on these days will see no blessing in that work.

Whoever believes that whatever financial gains he receives is completely due to his direct efforts is a person of limited faith in God. We need to make reasonable efforts to make a living. However, if we believe that ultimately God is the one who is providing us with our sustenance and success, then it makes no sense to go against the rules and wishes of the ultimate Boss. This may be difficult for many people to either believe or understand, especially if they, and their parents before them, spent a lifetime ignoring such directives – and saw material success.

I promise you this, however. Those people who find ways to abstain from working on the Sabbath and the Holidays, will find blessings in their lives, their families and their work. Those who ignore our ancient directives on so important a matter will reap what they sow.

For anyone wanting advice, strategies, solutions on how to reduce and cut out work on the Sabbath and Holidays, please feel free to contact me.

In closing, I hope that each of you individually, your families, our entire community and the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora will be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the Book of Good Health, in the Book of Good Livelihood, in the Book of Great Success and in the Book of Great Joy. Amen!