D'var l'erev Yom ha'Kippurim 5774
2013 S.H. Parker

Gut shabbos. Gut yontiff.

So. Where were we?

Ah, yes!

"Yom ha'Kippurim" means "day of covering over." 

Covering over is made by tsuvah. "Tsuvah," in connection with the yomim nora'im, is rendered "repentance." In other contexts, it is rendered "return." But it literally means "to turn around."

The obvious example is "if you can't resist temptation, just don't go into a situation where you know you will be tempted." If you perceive the opportunity to do evil, turn around and walk away.... Tsuvah. Right?

But, in using this example, I immediately fell into a trap the Rabbis set for us. While Yom ha'Kippurim certainly is concerned with sin, the Rabbis are simply obsessed with it, year 'round. Pirkei Avot, after the first few lofty and inspiring aphorisms from a variety of the Tannaim, quickly and thoroughly turns to discussions of sin, the avoidance and consequences thereof.

The Rabbis are obsessed with sin. Consequently, Jewish theology, much to its detriment, ever since has been also.

But there are two ways to "turn around."

We can turn from something. This is like turning away from situation where we know we will encounter temptation. This is how we avoid sin.

The Torah, unlike the Rabbis, mentions "sin" much less often and is much less concerned with it. Torah understands that people do wrong and, except for intentional murder, Torah says "you sinned, nu?, make it right, offer a hattat and don't do it again!" One of the few "discussions" of "sin" in Torah and, I think, the most revealing is Bamidbar 5:6:

Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins of humans, making a breech with God, that soul is guilty דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּי־הֹוָ־ה וְאָשְׁמָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא

Here, "sin" is formally defined. Sin is not violating a mitzvah, it is acting contrary to the way God expects us to act causing a breech with God. Why does this make a breech with God? Because such behavior violates the great principle of Torah that everyone/everything is God's creation. In contravening God's desire "you mess with MY creation, you mess with ME!"

Avoiding doing evil is fine and well but how does that express our national mission of priesthood? How does it express our membership in a holy people? How does it make tikkun olam?

This brings us to the second way we can "turn around," a way not spoken of so often. We can turn towards something.

I think I've previously mentioned the Gemara in Pesachim 50B:

The Gemara cites a contradiction in psukim between Tehillim 57:11 and Tehillim 108:5: "ki gadol ad shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great unto the heavens)" and "ki gadol me-al shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great beyond the heavens)." The resolution to this contradiction ["up to" in the first Psalm; "beyond" in the second - clearly a bit of pilpul] is: "kan beosin lishma, vekan beosin shelo lishma" "Here [the second verse] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah for its own sake, and there [the first] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah not for its own sake but for the sake of a reward Rav Judah said in Rav's name: "one should always occupy themselves with Torah and good deeds even if in hope of a reward, because out of doing mitzvot, even for the wrong reason, comes doing them for their own sake."

So, as Rav Judah's words demonstrate, some of the Amoraim are aware of "turning toward" and recommend just doing mitzvot for that purpose. Similarly, in Shabbat 31a (four paragraphs after "while I stand on one foot"):

Rava said, When man is led in for judgment he is asked, Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity, were you honest in business; "business" being the Rabbinic understanding], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand [deduce] one thing from another [i.e., "learn how to learn"]. Yet even so, if "the fear of the Lord is his treasure," it is well: if not, [it is] not [well]. 

Similarly, Devarim 25:15-16:

[Rather,] you shall have a full and honest weight, [and] a full and honest ephah measure, in order that your days will be prolonged on the land which the Lord, your God, gives you.    אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָּךְ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ
For whoever does these things, whoever perpetrates such injustice, is an abomination to the Lord, your God. כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל

The important part to note is the high-level principle: whoever perpetrates [any] unrighteousness is an abomination [lit. "objectionable thing"] to God. And, note, Rava asks "were you honest in your dealings with others?" not "did you do the rituals and holidays, etc.?" (Frankly, I'm not sure the Amoraim even knew about some of today's mitzvot, like tefillin.) In fact, nothing we associate with "frumkeit" is even mentioned in these texts.

So, with or without the "correct" motivation, do mitzvot, say the Rabbis....

There is a story about a chasidic rabbi. This rabbi asked a man "Do you put on tefillin?" "Put on tefillin?" he replied "I don't even believe in God!" Replies the rabbi: "Put them on and you will...." 

Right out of our gemara, right? Do it often enough and you'll end up doing it for the right reason.

Except....

I can cite any number of examples of "frumeh yidden," indeed haredi yidden, Jews who "keep the mitzvot," who keep shabbat, keep kosher, lay tefillin, wear tzitzit, keep needah, women who cover their hair and dress "modestly" (though often leaving little to the imagination), "etc., etc. and so forth" who:

  • abuse workmen
  • abuse children and, then, ostracize the parents when they complain
  • launder illegal monies
  • cheat non-Jews, financially, claiming "the rules don't apply to goyim"
  • throw stones at anyone who does not display sufficient frumkiet - as they understand "frumkeit"
  • listen to and act on gossip
  • pass on gossip
  • "de-convert" people based on hear-say
  • publicly defame persons with whom they disagree as "liars" and worse (such as, here in Chicago, accepting the Documentary Hypothesis)

People, in short, who are just nasty, mean-spirited, ignorant, presumptuous ... embarrassments as human beings much less as members of the tribe.

We have, here, a major case of cognitive dissonance. And it is clear to me, at least, that doing the mitzvot of shabbat, kashrut, tefillin, tzitzit, needah, etc - typically defining "orthodox" today -, does not consistently produce the kind of person, the kind of character that Torah envisions. In fact, seriously deficient characters are produced in the name of Torah with a disturbingly high frequency.

Something is wrong here. Especially in light of the mitzvah of tzitzit - wear them so that you can see them and be reminded!

BTW, I recently read that there is no mishnah for tzitzit, tefillin, mezuzot, hannukah, gerim (conversion). "But that's another story" (in the immortal words of Moustache).

It's a matter of derech (way or path), or so it seems to me.

My own understanding of the mitzvot is that they are intended shape behavior for the sole purpose of shaping character and, through shaping the character of individuals, shaping the character of society. Essential in doing mitzvot is to think about your behavior (perhaps that is why the Rabbis give greater credit to the baal teshuvah and the ger than one who has always been observant; the baal teshuvah and the ger knows what the alternatives are and has made a conscious decision): What is this mitzvah trying to create in me? Therefore, even for the most abstruse and arcane mitzvot, we need to be thinking about its intended effect on us, for therein the embedded value is revealed.

By way of contrast, these allegedly observant Jews, who do all these mitzvot, are like the pig. The pig puts forth his cloven hoof, showing the world "behold! I have a cloven hoof." But, inside, where the world cannot see, he does not ruminate.

So, too, is it with certain apparently observant Jews, Jews who do all those mitzvot that people can see. People see Moshe going to shul every morning, they see Sara with her hair covered, they see Chaim's tzitzit, they see Tzeitel's long dress. They do not see the absence of understanding of the mitzvot and that is why we can have these apparently observant people who cheat, steal, abuse children, who show no derech aretz at Jewel ... people who do not "deal faithfully."

It's not that these folks have no derech in learning. It's just that their derech lacks foundation. The derech isn't built on sand, it's built on hevel (vapor). Or, perhaps, I'm being charitable.

Most ultra-orthodox men learn gemara. While their early childhood learning may have begun with Vayikra their real "learning" begins with gemara. Certainly, they do get a bit of Torah on Shabbat morning ... but gemara is their be-all-and-end-all.

The compilers of the gemara, certainly the Tannaim and Amoraim quoted in it, feel as I do about character formation by doing mitzvot. But they made some assumptions, I think. They assumed that the Torah's "system," it's weltanschauung, its metaphysic, was understood when a person took up Talmud. They assumed that the value structure had already been internalized before study of gemara was permitted, just as true kabbalists insist a prospective student be thoroughly conversant in Torah (and 40 years old and married). Similarly, I believe that the Tannaim  expected that students had already learned the Torah.. (I also, now, begin to wonder whether they really intended Talmud study to be for everyone. "But, that," too "is another story.")

Not always, to be sure, but often enough to come to public attention, the first generations of Rabbis were wrong. The infrastructure of Torah's ruach (spirit) is often not grasped.

Some of you here have a different derech, approaching Torah through midrash, homiletic interpretation. This derech is the direct cause, in my opinion, of the wonderful devarim given here.

But what I really want to suggest is that folks like you and me must lead the way for our haredi brethren - as we are expected to as a holy nation, as nation of priests - in a return to basics: What does the Torah actually say, not what do you want it to say? We must proselytize a return, a teshuva, to the heathen within our own midst.

We need a revival of knowledge of what the Torah actually says, the basics which many simply lack, including many who do not appear to be reading the same Torah or even the same gamara as I do. I suggest that it is the in-depth study of the text of the Torah itself that we should all be working on. By deeply studying our text, with good companion commentaries (why make it hard on ourselves, it isn't supposed to be hard, it's supposed to be fun), we begin to grasp and to internalize the value system of TorahThis is what enables us to act out these values on the stage of history. It is this conscious immersion in Torah's system that gives us the tools for tikun olam, fixing the world. 

To the extent that laying tefillin or wearing tzitzit or keeping kosher or davening three times a day helps or reminds me about the core values and expectations placed on the am kodesh, to the extent that it focuses me on the things Torah values, these activities are good. Otherwise, they're a waste of time and a chillul ha'Shem..

Study the pshat, become the Torah's metaphysical agent, bring it into the current sociology (drosh), this is how we learn what to turn toward....

Gamar tov.