May 23, 2024
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Raritan Valley Vaad Provides ‘Evening of Inspiration’

As the community prepared for the first night of Selichot and the week before Rosh Hashanah, the Vaad HaRabonim of Raritan Valley offered a compact and uplifting series of shiurim to help community members get in the right frame of mind.

Congregational rabbis from Orthodox shuls in East Brunswick, Edison and Highland Park each spoke for 10 minutes in a Zoom gathering that at its height attracted over 150 participants. The “Evening of Inspiration” served not just as a springboard for spirituality but also as a model of achdut at an auspicious time.

What follows are brief summaries of each rabbi’s remarks.

Rabbi Jaffe asked: “When we arrive at Selichos, what should our mood be?” He answered by quoting Perek Chet in Sefer Yirmiyahu. “The harvest has passed, the summer has gone, but we are not redeemed.” In his experience, the summer of 2020, with all the COVID-19 precautions and concerns, has been “blurry.” What is clear to us is that we have not yet been saved. He offered a moshul (example) of a supermarket, where the manager announced over the loudspeaker that as a special promotion, every shopper would get the items in their baskets at that moment for free. The shoppers would be excited but might also regret not being more expeditious or decisive in their shopping up to that moment. So too for us, as we stand before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, we may regret that we did not place as many mitzvot as possible in our baskets. But there is still time to collect a few more.

Quoting a segment of one of the Selichot, Rabbi Eichenstein stated: “In the House of God, we walk with trepidation.” He suggested that we may experience this feeling more acutely this year, as our visits to shul are weighted down with restrictions and worries about the current pandemic. He then shared an insight from his grandfather regarding the mitzvah of bikurim (first fruits). According to the Halacha, if the Kohen believes a person’s bikurim have become tamei (impure), he is to discard the fruits but keep the basket in which they were delivered. This basket represents the giver’s broken heart, as he does not get the anticipated pleasure of sharing the bounty of his harvest with the Kohen. On Rosh Hashanah, we offer Hashem our empty basket, our broken heart, for all the ways we have allowed our gifts to become tamei. And it is that empty basket, that broken heart, which is very precious to Hashem.

Citing the statement we just read in Parshat Nitzavim in which Moshe exhorts the Jewish people to “choose life,” Rabbi Unterman asked: “What kind of choice is that? Of course we choose life.” He answered that Hashem knows our potential and the obstacles we face; the most important action we face is the first step, when we choose life. He cited an insight from the Alter Rebbe, who asked if the verse in the holiday davening that states: “Return to me, (and) I will wipe out your sins” is in the right sequence, because we should wipe out our sins first, in order to return to Hashem. He answered that our job is to take that first step, to choose life, and then Hashem will help us advance in the journey by wiping out our sins.

Rabbi Miodownik used the imagery of soldiers at war, some on the front lines and others in support positions “behind” the fighting soldiers. It is the soldiers on the front lines who often get the accolades, the parades and the acclaim. On the chagim, we see ourselves as going “into battle” for our lives and neshamot. This year, there will be two groups involved in the “battle”; one group davening in shul, the other davening individually at home. He said we may be tempted to think that the people in shul are on the “front lines” and the people at home are ancillary. Actually, it may be the other way around. He pointed out the dispute in the Gemara about whether our prayer system of Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv services is based on the korbanot or on the prayers of the Avot. If it’s based on the korbanot, it’s halachic in nature. If it’s based on the Avot, it’s informal, personal and intimate in nature. He asserted that the people in shul may be following the korbanot model while those davening at home are following the Avot model. Interestingly enough, many of the scriptural readings on Rosh Hashanah highlight Torah characters who are praying individually. So those who daven at home these chagim are following in the footsteps of the Avot.

Rabbi Luban asserted that with the global pandemic hovering over us, there is more to daven for this year than in years past. We have a double task—praying for ourselves and praying for the entire world. Yet it’s difficult to feel that our prayers are making a difference. This is true even in our own lives, but especially true if one wonders how a single person’s prayers can affect the world. Rabbi Luban shared the concepts of the Rambam, who said that if a person is judged to have more mitzvot than aveirot, he is a tzadik; if he has more aveirot than mitzvot, he’s considered a rasha; and if his mitzvot and aveirot are balanced he is considered a bain oni. Rambam teaches that every person should see him or herself as a bain oni and that one more mitzvah can tip the scales. Rambam said further that a person should also see the world as perfectly balanced and one more mitzvah can tip the scales for the whole world. This is, in part, why we have the minhag to do more mitzvot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, because they may help tip the scales.

Rabbi Kaufman asked why Ashkenazim have the custom to start Selichot the motzei Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. He suggested that it might relate to a passage in Gemara Pesachim, which relates that as it got dark on the first motzei Shabbat in human history, Adam and Chava got discouraged. Hashem gave Adom the insight to rub two flints together, producing the sparks that allowed him to create fire. We, too, may be in need of that spark, that inspiration, to head into the chagim and Selichot may help light the spark. Picking up on Rabbi Luban’s comments, Rabbi Kaufman asked how Rambam could suggest that a person’s mitzvot and aveirot could be so balanced. He suggested that we may go through a year largely uninspired and even if we do many mitzvot, they are lukewarm; we need the spark of the chagim to light the fire of our mitzvot.

Rabbi Drucker shared that one lesser known Halacha in the area of Kibud Av V’Aim is that if a parent enters the room, their child should stand. Yet the parent has the right to waive their kavod in this manner. Citing the writings of the Chidah, Rabbi Drucker said that we may draw on this Halacha during the chagim when we acknowledge that we didn’t honor Hashem, our father, as we should have; however, we can ask Hashem to waive his honor. The only problem with this approach is that our prayers also refer to Hashem as King of the World and a king cannot waive his honor. How do we resolve this dilemma? Rabbi Drucker said we should consider the circumstances if a king’s son shows dishonor to his father: how do we regard this in the father/son framework or the king/subject framework? The answer, according to Rabbi Yaakov Gallinsky, can be seen in Sefer Melachim, where Dovid HaMelech faces a rebellion of his son Avshalom and yet he tells his generals: “Do not kill him in battle.” The father/son paradigm wins out, so long as the son is easily identified as the child of the king. Rabbi Drucker suggested that our task is to act in ways that are befitting as royalty, as children of the King of Kings, and then we can ask Hashem to waive his honor for us.

By Harry Glazer

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