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Ki Tetzei 5779 - Searching for our Spark

09/16/2019 10:45:30 AM


Rabbi Herzfeld

“Ki tetzei la milchma al oyevekhah, when one goes into battle with our enemies” (Devarim 21:10).

The baalei mussar explain that this does not only refer to a physical enemy on a battlefield, but that life is a constant struggle with our internal enemies.

The greatest enemy is not the enemy from without, but the yetzer harah that is constantly trying to lead us astray by distracting us and causing us to focus on the wrong thing.

Let’s be clear.  The yetzer harah is not some separate entity.  It is a part of us -- an integral part of us that uses our own tendencies and weaknesses to thwart us from acting in a way that is in our best interests.

The yetzer harah is very smart.  The yetzer harah knows how to get us.  The yetzer harah knows that if he comes to us and tries to trick us into doing a sin like eating pork on Yom Kippur that we will react with outrage and kick the yetzer harah out of our lives.  So the yetzer harah gets us in a different way. 

The greatest tool of the yetzer harah—the supreme challenge for many of us, is not the temptation to do wrong—although that is a great challenge--but rather, the fight against exhaustion.  We are so busy with so many responsibilities that we are often unable to focus on our spiritual needs.  The yetzer harah convinces us to be apathetic and to put less effort into our spiritual needs.  The yetzer harah sucks out the life from us.  The yetzer harah does this by distancing us from Torah and spirituality, which is ironic and sad.  Because spirituality is in actuality the cure for exhaustion, the antidote to apathy, and the recipe for a meaningful life.

How do we defeat the yetzer harah’s attempt to deflate us?

The yetzer harah is too strong for us to beat on our own.  We need tools to help us. Our faith teaches us that there are ritual objects and symbolic objects that can inspire us and help us awaken from our spiritual hibernation and energize our lives. Our highly educated and intellectual society sometimes overvalues the mind and as a result we often overlook the power of symbolic aids to help inspire us.  But as I grow older I am finding myself more and more drawn to these ritual objects as a way of directing us and as a source of inspiration.

This is the logic behind the symbolic foods (simanim) that we eat on Rosh Hashanah.

The Talmud tells us that on Rosh Hashanah it is a good practice to bring certain foods to our table:

Amar Abbaye: Hashta deamras simana milta—now that we have established that symbols are a thing.  A person should be accustomed on Rosh Hashanah to eat pumpkins, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates” (Keritot 5b-6a).

Another talmudic text tells us that we are not required to eat these foods, but only to look at them (Horayot, 12a).

Rashi explains that reason for the custom is because these foods are sweet.

The great sage, Rav Hai Gaon, actually says that the custom is not only to eat these foods, but first to look at them, then embrace them, and actually stroke them with love (cited in teshuvat hageonim).

Some of our great rabbis were bothered by this practice as it smacks a little bit like superstitious omens which are forbidden.  So how can we be encouraging these simanim on Rosh Hashanah?

The Maharsha (R. Samuel Eidels 1555-1613) explains that the Talmud doesn’t say that if we don’t eat these foods, that something bad will then happen.  It simply says that we will receive a blessing if we do eat them.  Since the natural state of the world is actually a state of blessing, by bringing these foods to our table on Rosh Hashanah it is a way of strengthening ourselves and reminding our souls of the blessings around us in our lives. 

We bring these simanim to our table on Rosh Hashanah because we believe that just by being in the presence of these beautiful positive symbols we will be adding blessings and inspiration into our lives.  The purpose of these simanim is not to magically transform the heavens, but to inspire us by awakening our souls to the blessings in our life.

The way to defeat the yetzer harah of exhaustion is to focus on our blessings.  We cannot–will not--give in to despair or negativity.

This is why we put these symbolic fruits on our table on Rosh Hashanah.  It is a reminder that we have so many blessings in our life.

But what about the apple?

Everyone knows the song, “Dip the apple in the honey.”  But the apple is not mentioned in the Talmud.

The reason we take an apple today is primarily because they didn’t have these other middle eastern fruits in many parts of medieval Europe, so around the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries began the custom to use an apple instead of a date (see Tur and Maharil).

This is a reminder that we must always be seeking new symbols to inspire us.  Our faith must be alive and ready to adapt.  The way the medieval Jews added an apple to their Rosh Hashanah table, we too must always be seeking new ways of inspiring our souls in order to awaken our connection to Hashem.

Another word for a symbol is a spark.  We always need to be on the lookout for sparks.

This is true of all of us, but it is especially important for rabbis and Jewish educators.  Rabbis have the dual responsibility of inspiring others and inspiring themselves.  Rabbis must always look for ways to light a spark.  Being a rabbi is about constantly seeking ways to kindle a spark.  We are up against so many challenges and distractions; perhaps, the biggest threat is people losing their spark.

In a 1953 article addressed to Jewish educators, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel told the following story: 

“A young man once wanted to become a blacksmith. So he became an apprentice to a blacksmith, and he learned all the necessary techniques of the trade - how to hold the tongs, how to lift the sledge, how to smite the anvil, even how to blow the fire with bellows. Having finished his apprenticeship, he was chosen to be employed at the smithery of the royal palace. However, the young man's delight soon came to an end, when he discovered that he had failed to learn how to kindle a spark. All his skill and knowledge in handling the tools were of no avail.”

And then, Heschel (a man whose writings and actions have inspired so many) added:

'I am often embarrassed when I discover that I am myself like that apprentice - that I know facts and I know techniques, but I have failed to learn how to kindle a spark. I conclude therefore, with the hope that you who work in the royal smithery of Jewish education will each of you be able to kindle a spark" (In this Hour: Heschel's Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile - a collection of writings in the mid 1930's, now translated from German into English for the first time,  xxxii of the Introduction).  (Thank you to Jeffrey Burt for sharing this source with me.)

For me this past year, the Torah scroll that I had the great honor to write has been the spark that I have latched on to.  It has been a spark that has lit up my life and hopefully it has been a spark in your lives.

I thank all those in our congregation who through your tremendous support gave me the strength to work on this project.  I felt so much love from so many of you who came into my office and sat with me for your meaningful moments in life and shared in the writing with me and encouraged me on this journey.

The daily attachment to the writing of the holy words of the Torah was a true spark in my life.  I felt the holiness in each and every word and every line.  I felt a deveykus with Hashem that I have never felt before in my life.  Everyday when I would come into my office and look at the pieces of the Torah, I felt a spark of holiness.

If I can accomplish one thing with my rabbinate it would be to help everyone understand the importance of taking on a long-term spiritual project.  It is so important for the health of our souls.  For example, tens of thousands have received tremendous spiritual nourishment from our commitment to the daf yomi, a 7+ year commitment to Talmud study.  Many other are committing to the 929 English project, which is a daily study of the study of Tanach.–-english

Others have made long term commitments to serve as volunteers in a specific area, like chaplaincy or care.  This long-term commitment is necessary to fan the flames of our soul.

We desperately need sparks in our lives in order to defeat the yetzer harah.

The Torah scroll is the most powerful spark.  It is the most important symbol that we have and such an essential part of every Jewish community.  For example, one is not allowed to sell a Torah scroll even if one has no food to eat (Laws of Sefer Torah, 10:2).  The reason is because we can live for a few days without food, but what is life without a Torah?

And yet, at the same time, we must be very careful not to overvalue symbols, not to mistake the spark for the essence.  Even the Torah scroll itself, is just a spark to set us on our path.  It is not the ultimate goal.

In our portion this week we read that one who violates  a prohibition of the Torah is sentenced to lashes.  The Torah says, “arbaim yakenu, lo yosif, give him 40 lashes, do not increase that number” (Devarim 25:3). 

Even though the Torah says he gets forty lashes, the rabbis say that it really means 39 lashes.

In this context the Talmud tells us the following teaching:

Kama tipshei shaar inshei dekeimei mikmei sefer torah velo kaimei lifnei gavra rabbah.  De’ilu be sefer torah ketiv arbaim ve-atu rabanun ubatzru chada

How foolish are the people that stand before a Torah scroll but do not stand before a great man.  For in the Torah it says forty lashes and the rabbis came along and reduced it by one (Makkot 22b).

The Talmud teaches us that as great as the Torah is, a great person is even more important.

The example of the Talmud is instructive.  They could have taken many instances where rabbis altered the simple reading of the written text.  Indeed, they could have cited an earlier verse which states, “tisperu chamishim yom, count fifty days,” which our rabbis explain really means 49 days (Vayikra, 23:16).

So R. Yechiel Michal of Ostrovitz explains that it doesn’t take a gavra rabba to add harshness into the Torah.  We become a gavra rabba when we are somehow able to use Jewish law to soften some of the words of the Torah (Cited by R. Shalom Rosner,, Ki Tetzei, 5773). 

The Torah is all good and all kind.  The written Torah is a blessing.  But an even greater blessing is the Oral Law—the rabbinic interpretation, which is able to mitigate some of the literal harshness of the Torah.

The written Torah is meant to be a spark in our lives to help us become closer to Hashem and to be better people.

As proud as I am of the written Torah, it doesn’t come close to the pride that I take in being a part of this incredible community.  The acts of kindness and generosity that have come to define and must continue to define our accomplishments and our metric for what is important in life and for what we want our community to be about.

The Ari z”l taught that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah corresponding to the souls of the 600,000 that left Egypt. 

From a literal perspective this is inaccurate as there are 304,805 letters.

What the Ari z”l is teaching us is that each of us has a letter in the Torah.  Each of us has our own letter.

The Pnei Yehoshua adds to this that each of us has our own mitzvah.  That there is a mitzvh in shamayim that when we were created, we were created to perform that mitzvah.

Each of us has a letter.  Each of us has a mitzvah.  We must discover our letter.  We must discover our mitzvah.  When we do so, we pray that the letter be a spark in our lives in the lives of others.

Mon, February 24 2020 29 Shevat 5780