Insights and Inspiration
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
"Your friend in Karmiel"
September 23rd 2012 -Volume 2, Issue 45 –5th of Tishrei 5773!!
Vayeileich/Shuva/ Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur’s Mystery Man Tour
One of the rewarding skills that you develop when training to become a tour guide, is the ability to see things along the road that you might pass daily and learn to appreciate the hidden secrets and history that might lie behind their simple appearance.
“Look out from this vantage point over here. Here’s where Avraham stood and looked out with his son to the mountain of Hashem before the binding of Yitzchak”
“This valley we are standing in is the same valley where David fought Goliath”
“This stream we are kneeling before is the one that Gideon had his troops kneel before to drink before the battle against the Midianites”
“See those white ripples in the middle of the kinneret that is where our sages tell us the well of Miriam is still rolling under the great lake-or maybe it’s those ripples…or those…”
Our Tanach, our history, and our tradition all come alive when you are standing at various places and you uncover the history that took place there. The connection we have and feeling for our heritage is awe inspiring. One of the greatest treats of being a tour guide here in Israel is to be able to reveal those hidden connections to your tourists, as you show them that the stories and inspiring figures that they are familiar with are not just fairy tales of the past that they read about in books, or even study about in Yeshiva, rather they can reach out, touch and connect with those same figures as they traverse the Holyland where they once dwelled.
The truth of the matter is, that it is not only a tour guides job to do this. Every Rabbi, parent and teacher as well is meant to pass down our tradition in that same way. Our Pessach Seder is based on this concept of a hands-on experiential telling of the story; from the Matzah, Bitter herbs and four cups of wine. Our Purim feast gives a taste of the joy of the holiday, our Chanuka candles connect us to the light of the miracle of the Menorah and our sitting on the floor, fasting and mourning customs connect us to the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av. Our religious experiences are not only meant to be days of commemoration but experiences that have many layers, insights and nuances that are all there waiting to be uncovered and most powerfully to give us a sense of appreciation and connection to the thousands of years that our ancestors have been doing the same things at the same time.
Which brings us to Yom Kippur; the day that should be the most inspirational of the year. For many though, the 15 out of 25 waking hour fast day, stuck in synagogue with a prayer book that never seems to end, recounting your long litany of sins, fasting, looking at your watch and wondering how much longer do we have go, does not necessarily seem like the most exciting way to spend your Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, afternoon and evening. Chazanut and singing is nice for a bit. But wouldn’t it be great to have a tour guide through the Yom Kippur davening? Someone who can make the prayers a little more alive for us? A guide to connect me and my prayers on a deeper level to thousands of years my ancestors have been saying these same words? Back in the old country J Our West Seattle TLC Yom Kippur services were kind of like that as I would intersperse our davening regularly with different insights.(For those of you still in Seattle you can experience that still with the TLC’s newest Rabbi in West Seattle my colleague Rabbi Yehudah Greer-contact the Seattle Kollel for more details) Here in Israel though it is my understanding that if the Rabbi tries to speak more than once during a service and for more than 10 minutes he is liable to be left without a Minyan by the time he is done in the best case scenario and he may himself be given a tour by the few remaining members. So instead we have this weekly E-Mail to give you, my beloved readers and for that Rabbi/Tour Guide in me the outlet to share with you a little bit of inspiration for your Yom Kippur Tour this year as you prepare for our upcoming day of Judgment.
Today’s tour, which of course has to start with a connection to the weekly Parsha as we come closer to the end our annual Torah reading and the end of the Moshe our great leaders life, starts with Moshe’s statement that he is 120 years old, his birthday and day of passing and he is preparing for death. The Talmud tells us that when Moshe went up to receive the Torah Hashem instead shows him the future generations. In this vision he sees another great figure over a thousand years later, the great Rabbi Akiva who is teaching Torah in the Beit Midrash. Moshe is overwhelmed at how Rabbi Akiva would explain even the small shapes and crowns of each letter in the Torah, to the degree that he says “You have Rabbi Akiva what do you need me for?” When Rabbi Akiva than says that we have learned this all from Moshe on Sinai though Moshe is consoled.
Rabbi Akiva, who like Moshe according to the Medrash also lived 120 years (Hillel and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai are the other two mentioned), is the hidden figure that if one looks carefully can be found all over the Yom Kippur davening. In fact the Chi”da notes that Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred on Yom Kippur, is in fact the essence of Yom Kippur and all of our prayers should be in his merit. So let’s start from the beginning (a very good place to start) and your homework this Yom Kippur is to find various places in the service where our sages, who formulated our prayers, placed references to Rabbi Akiva and his ideas.
Our introduction to the Yom Kippur service before Kol Nidrei is the recital of the verse
“Ohr ZaruAH La’TzadiK U’LiyishreI LeV SimchA- A light shall shine for the righteous and joy for those of a stalwart heart”. If you noticed the last letters of each one of the words actually spell out Rabbi Akiva’s name. Cool! Well that’s pretty neat (we tour guides like it when you say that). So our prayers start off with a hint of Rabbi Akiva. Even more inspiring though is that as this is said we take that Sefer Torah, that he explained every nuance of (even the word Es), around the Beit Knesset and lovingly kiss it as we think of the love he had for the Torah. We then recite verses and a statement of how we are permitted to pray together with sinners for in truth
“Kol H’Am Bi’Shgagah- we are all unintentional sinners (at least)”
That concept of all of us being connected and responsible for one another falls under what Rabbi Akiva coined as the Torah’s golden rule- “Amar Rabbi Akiva- Va’Ahavta Li’rayacha Kamocha- Zeh Klal Gadol Ba’Torah- And you shall love your fellow as your self is a primary principle of the Torah.”
Next before we recite our Shmona Esrei for the evening service, we recite the verse
“On this day you shall atone for all your sins to cleanse you; from all your sins; before Hashem you shall be cleansed.” Once again we can hear the voice of Rabbi Akiva as he exclaimed upon reading this verse
“How fortunate are you Israel! Before whom are you purified and who purifies you? Our Father who is in heaven. Just as a Mikva purifies the un-pure so too Hashem purifies Israel.”
One can feel the awe of the day that Rabbi Akiva must’ve had.. All we have to do is jump into that mikva that is the love of our forgiving Father and and Hashem himself will clean off all the shmutz our soul has accumulated over the year.
The truth is, there is perhaps no greater figure in our history who symbolizes new starts and the concept of Teshuva. Rabbi Akiva who only started off himself learning to read Hebrew at age 40 (when he would go to cheder with his little son) writes about himself that when he was a simple shepherd and saw a Torah scholar he would say- “give me a Talmid Chacham and I will bite him like a donkey!”When asked, “Why not like a dog?” he answered: “A dog’s bites tears the flesh, but a donkey’s bites breaks the bones. Can you hear in these words sadly many of our typical secular and anti-religious brothers and sisters? Yet, with all the challenges of a secular background and inspired by the potential he saw in the power of water to penetrate a rock, he decided that his heart which is so open to the love of Hashem, and the Torah which is so powerful should certainly be able to return, grow and develop.
Our tour continues with another prayer that we have recited repeatedly since Rosh Hashana and will recite multiple times on Yom Kippur; The prayer of Avinu Malkeinu- our Father our King (see my email last week). The Talmud tells us that the author of this prayer was none other than our Rabbi Akiva. The story being, that it was a time of famine without any rain falling in Israel and many of the sages tried praying for rain to no avail. Until Rabbi Akiva was got up and recited this prayer which was accepted. Why Rabbi Akiva? The Talmud says that although his teacher Rabbi Elazar was greater than him but Rabbi Akiva was one who was able to transcend his natural instincts and have mercy even in places and times when he was justified to act harshly. How appropriate it is that the quote mentioned from Rabbi Akiva in Ethics of our Fathers is
“Beloved is the man that he was created in the image of God; an extra love is made known to him that he was created in God's image, as it says (Genesis 9:6) "for in His own image God made humankind." Beloved are the Jews that they are called sons to God; an extra love is made known to them that they are called sons to God, as it says (Deuteronomy 14:1) "You are children of the Lord your God." Beloved are the Jews that there has been given to them the precious instrument; an extra love is made known to them that they were given the precious instrument of the world's creation, as it says (Proverbs 4:2) "For I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching."
Rabbi Akiva was able to transcend because he knew he was created in the image of Hashem who does so as well. He felt beloved by our Father and inspired by the Torah and he taught us how fortunate we are to have the power of that knowledge embedded in our souls. And when we behave in that fashion Hashem as well reflects that and grants us renewed life.
Finally for the conclusion of today’s tour we recite during our Musaf prayer the story of the death of Rabbi Akiva. His martyrdom was on this holiest of days in the theater of Casarea, before the mocking Roman masses as his skin was flailed off his body with burning iron combs for the crime of teaching our tradition to his people. His students cried out
“Is this Torah and is this its reward?’ and Rabbi Akiva responded
“My whole life I have recited the Shema and have been unable to fulfill the verse to serve Hashem with all of my soul and now I have been given the opportunity to fulfill that as well”
Rabbi Akiva died in an act of martyrdom. Ironically enough it was Rabbi Akiva himself who taught that one is not obligated to give up one’s life for another commandment besides the three cardinal sins (even to save a fellow Jew). For the Torah teaches us that one is meant to “Live by the commandments”- not die by them. Yet for him a life without the study of Torah without closeness to God was not a life worth living or as he described like a fish without water. That was life. It is that life that we are praying to be written and sealed in this Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Akiva died with the words Shema Yisrael on his lips as he sanctified Hashem’s name one final time before his death. We, as well, conclude our Yom Kippur Neila service with that cry of Kiddush Hashem, Shema Yisrael, echoing that call of Rabbi Akiva that has held us together as a God’s chosen nation for millennia. May Hashem bless all of us this year, in the merit of the teachings and inspiration of the great Rabbi Akiva whose ways and deeds still serve as a light for us, that we be signed and sealed in the book of good life, redemption and salvation, sustenance and support, merits, forgiveness and pardon.
May your first Shabbos of the year 5773 be an incredible start to a fantastic year
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
GRAVE OF RABBI AKIVA,TIVERYA- High up on the mountain top overlooking the kinneret and the city of tiverya, th Golan (and on a good day even the Hermon) is the grave of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Although Rabbi Akiva was killed in Casera seemingly his body was brought here the final resting place of the Sanhedrin of which he was a part of for burial. Interestingly enough Rabbi Akiva’s great wife Rachel who attributed all his greatness (Rabbi Akiva says Who is a rich man?- he who has a wife who has beautiful deeds) to is not buried near him rather she is lower in the city of Tiverya. The reason being that Rabbi Akiva was married three times his last wife the former wife and convert of the Roman governor Turnus Rufus is buried here with him. Also a much later tradition places the burial of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal) the 18th century Italian Jewish writer, kabbalist, philosopher and Ethicsist who wrote the great Mussar works Mesilat Yesharim and Derech Hashem, who was persecuted and eventually died in Akko. There are those that suggest that the RaMChaL only lived for 40 years and as Rabbi Akiva did not study for the first 40 years of his life he shared the soul of RaMChaL who rectified and completed the soul of Rabbi Akiva. One rarely will come to visit this grave and not find a group of sefardic Jews that are Barbequing and picnicking at this incredible spot for prayer and gorgeous views. Who knows maybe they”ll let you join them.
RABBI SCHWARTZES FAVORITE RABBI AKIVA VIDEO OF THE WEEK
RABBI SCHWARTZES YOM KIPPUR JOKE OF THE WEEK
Mrs. Epstein, A Hebrew School teacher at Beth Israel Congregation had just concluded her lesson in preparation of Yom Kippur and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She asked her class, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness for transgressing one of the commandments?”
There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up and said, "Transgress one of the commandments.”
AHHHH THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN