From the Narrows I Was Liberated

A New Year Drasha/Dvar Torah by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein (5767)

“Min ha-meitzar, karati Yah, anani ba-merchav Yah.  Out of the narrows of distress I called upon God, God answered me with liberation (Psalm 118:5).”

With these words we introduce the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Hearing the shofar is the only precept/mitzvah we have on Rosh Hashanah. Shofar is the essence and symbol of the holiday.

With these same words we cast our sins metaphorically into fresh waters during Tashlich, one of our most esoteric and forgotten rituals. After understanding the meaning of this verse, and the Tashlich ceremony, a beautiful way to unlock the spiritual mission of Rosh Hashanah is revealed.

In the Me’am Loaz, 18th century Ladino-Turkish commentary, it is written that this verse recounts the occasion of King David’s deliverance:  “Out of a narrow place, where I found myself standing, with no way to turn, right or left—from the depths of my despair—I called upon God for deliverance…. God took me out into a broad expanse. Just as King David did not despair of redemption,  we are not to give up hope even in the midst of the most terrible distress of exile….”

The Hebrew word tashlich means “you shall cast away.”  The entire custom is based on Micah (7:19) “And You shall cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”  Tashlich is performed in the afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (except on years when the first day is Shabbat, and the custom is moved to Sunday).  Some recite Tashlich on the eighth day of Tishrei, and it can even be recited until Hoshanah Rabba, which is, according to real kabbalah, the last opportunity for repentance.

Tashlich is preferably recited near running waters that sustain life. Praying by a body of water reminds us of Creation and its purpose, and Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of Creation.  Water is a sign of humility, as it says in Lamentations, “pour out your heart like water before the face of God.”  Our insecurities and weaknesses, which were blocking our growth, can be washed away like water and disappear. The Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God, symbol of purity, mikvah, is strong near water. We pray by water as we seek to purify ourselves and seek the presence of the Shechinah in our lives.

The verses that make up the main prayers of Tashlich have special kabbalistic meanings and are taken from Micah, Psalms, and Isaiah. They correspond to attributes of God mentioned in the Torah, such as “God is slow to anger, great in love, and forgiving sin and rebellion….The Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, as water covers the sea.”  After shaking out our garments and pockets, casting crumbs in the waters, many have a custom to recite a prayer for parnasa, to make an honest living.

Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews observe Tashlich, though there is no direct reference of it in the Talmud or early rabbinic writings. Even the16th century Codex of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, has barely a mention of it.  Tashlich seems to be an invention to help Jews complete their spiritual mission on Rosh Hashanah.

The spiritual mission of Rosh Hashanah emanating from the sound of the Shofar is strong, penetrating, yet ultimately wordless. The Shofar is a primal, genetic call.  However, as the distance from the Shofar blasts accompanying the giving of the Torah grew, the message of the shofar needed to be deciphered. That is why Tashlich was created.

Tashlich does not have more potential or reach spiritually higher than the shofar.  Tashlich translates the meaning of the call of the shofar into terms and prayers that we can fathom.  That is why the Shofar and Tashlich use the same verse,  “From the narrows…liberation.” And what are we saying?

God, I am really stuck here, in this rut, these habits, bad relationships, unhealthy modes of thinking, in dead end jobs.  I am broke — financially and spiritually — and I ask you from the depth of this despair, can you help? Can you offer me a hand God?

As we stand by living w

ater, in the presence of the Shechinah, we pour out our hearts like water, the barriers to spiritual and personal growth are washed away, and we hear the voice of King David echoing throughout Jewish and personal history, from Egypt till the Crusades, from Babylon to the Holocaust, from enlightenment to assimilation — I will not give up on you Jewish people, don’t give up on Me. Here, take my hand.

 “Out of the narrows of distress I called upon God, God answered me with liberation.”

, ,


hugs.jpgThe weather was perfect, and Rosh Hashanah in Galus went as planned. Here in Long Beach we celebrated the New Year with services and meals and lots of honey. Many new students and veterans joined the festivities held over the last three days. It all culminated with a blowout huge Shabbos dinner at our home on Friday night. The love was there – it was ahavas yisroel time – and the vibe was just great.I turned on my computer after nearly four days of inaction, and it felt awkward. It felt so unnatural. Making a phone call. Driving to the pharmacy. It was all surreal after so many days off the grid.

We had great discussions over the chag. We spoke about community, about mitzvos, about the holidays, and about forgiveness. There is so much to fix in our lives, but I encouraged us all to start with forgiveness.

Forgive myself. Forgive myself for not doing the things I said I was going to do, but I didn’t. For the ways I wanted to grow, but didn’t. For the times I let others down.

and then forgive others. Even if those who hurt me don’t ask for forgiveness, I don’t want to drag this baggage into the New Year. Don’t let that stuff accompany me into 5768. Hurt that keeps me from living in joy at times.

Forgive people for all kinds of things. Forgive people for things they did unconsciously. Forgive my friends, my ex-friends, my students, my spouse, my kids, my neighbor, my teachers, and my parents for any little thing—I hope they forgive me too. Forgive them for the sake that we are human, and we need to build love not walls. Forgive them in my heart, and begin the process of repair.

It’s not easy the forgiveness game. Truly forgiving another for the pain they have caused. But how can I hope that Hashem will forgive me? How can I hope my friends will forgive me if I cannot forgive others…

And how can I forgive people who spoke gossip or slander against me? They have said things that I consider hurtful and spread them in the wind like dandelion seeds…How can I forgive this?

It does no good to hold on to the grudge. It festers. And loshon hora always comes back to haunt. Its like a boomarang. It might take time, but eventually, measure for measure, that which we say can be used against us.

Forgiveness. That is the work for the first few days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

If I have offended or hurt you, in my prose or comments… I am sorry.

Unless you defame, attack, or injure the Jewish people, seek Israel’s destruction, and other nasty stuff like that…

and then I am not sorry.

Sherwin Wine goes to Heaven

I have no way of knowing what the contents would be of a actual conversation but just as Wine would have believed that there is no such conversation, I have every right to believe that such a conversation would take place and it would be dripping with irony.If you have an open mind – consider reading further.

Sherwin Wine was killed on Shabbat while riding in a Taxi in Morocco. He was 79.
Here is an imagined conversation of Sherwin Wine at the Holy Gates.
HEAVEN: Sherwin, Welcome.
SHERWIN: Where am I?
HEAVEN: You are in Heaven. Well, technically at the gates of heaven. We are a pretty dissatisfied with your life Sherwin. You spent your entire career telling people that God doesn’t exist, that God is not needed in Judaism. You founded your own splinter group of Humanist Jews and ordained “rabbis”. You moved the Torah to the library and served pork in the social hall…
SHERWIN: Wait a moment… let me explain…
HEAVEN: You’ll get your chance Sherwin. You changed the Shma to read “We revere the best in man,” instead of “We shall love Hashem our God”. You replaced sacred prayers with bad poems, and replaced Bnai Mitzvah readings with oral reports about flute teachers, Lincoln, and others.
SHERWIN: What can I say? I really believed this was the natural evolution of Judaism from the ghetto to modernity, from superstition to science, from belief in God to belief in personal development.
HEAVEN: When you wrote: “Where is my light? My light is in me. Where is my hope? My hope is in me. Where is my strength? My strength is in me – and in you.” Didn’t you realize that not only is it bad poetry, but it is completely egocentric and selfish?
SHERWIN: I was young then, and besides, we needed something to say because I had thrown all the Reform prayer books in the trash.
HEAVEN: Wait here Sherwin, I’ll be back in a few minutes.
SHERWIN: Where are you going?
HEAVEN: I’m headed down to your funeral to represent God there. I’ll make sure that everyone at the funeral knows that in your final moments you said the real Shma, and that you asked that your group be disbanded and all its property sold and given to Jewish orphans.
SHERWIN: That would ruin everything I have built!
HEAVEN: And your point is?
SHERWIN: If I was so bad, how come I am at the gates of Heaven?
HEAVEN: There was a lot of debate about this up here, and finally God had the final word. God said it would be better to put you in Heaven where you will have to spend your eternity apologizing to all the great tzaddikim and righteous Jews for dissing them for so long, than send you to Gehenna. And besides, it is a great PR move that our publicists said might get us on Oprah!

The following is an explanation of my post.

Sherwin Wine did not believe in Heaven. For that matter he did not believe in Gehena either. So if Wine was right—he is not around in body or soul to see the great mourning that has accompanied his death by his followers and admirers. If Wine was wrong—his soul is now being judged, and he can see all of his co-religionists in their earthly dimension mourn his passing. If Wine was wrong, his soul is still alive, yet he cannot communicate his error to his flock. Wine will go to heaven – Kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek l’olam haba – I am not implying anywhere that he will not go to heaven.

The irony of Sherwin Wine’s fiery death last week does not stop there, and perhaps due to my writing was clearly lost on our readership and for that I apologize.

In synagogues across the world this past week – except for Israel which is a week ahead of us – we read the Ten Commandments and the Shma. The Ten Commandments are part of the basis for Western Civilization. The Shma is part of the foundation for monotheism and Jewish belief. Sherwin Wine disposed of the Shma, and revoked the special nature of the Ten Commandments.

Students of Jewish history cannot escape the realization that belief in the oneness of God, and rejection of worship of many gods, is at the root of Jewish identity and belief. Whether you eat rice on Passover or not, celebrating Passover is evidence of a historic Jewish belief in God. Even the Jews that rejected the authority of the Rabbis, and became separated from the Jewish people – believed in God. The Jews that lived in pre-mishnaic Ethiopia, held fast to their belief in the oneness of God. The Jews that were sent into exile, the Jews that survived the centuries of subjugation and estrangement – held fast to their belief in God, even as their observance undulated.

Many Jews do not believe in God, and I do not judge them. We have free will to believe in whatever we want. We have freedom to do and say and practice as we please. We also have the responsibility to be intellectually honest.

Sherwin Win did not found the “Society for Humanist Jews.” In other words, a group of Jews that deny the existence of God and want to organize themselves around principles of Secular Humanism.

Wine founded the “Society of Humanist Judaism,” which created a new set of religious beliefs in stark and obvious contradiction to Judaism, and labeled it Judaism. In fact he believed it replaced Judaism. He denied nearly every pillar of Jewish religious belief— whether part of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox—and substituted fundamental elements of Judaism for his own version of Secular Humanism. Then using his great charisma and oratory skills attracted many followers and adherents to his new religion.

Many Jews, ignorant of Judaism, latched on to Wine as a spiritual leader. He inspired deep affection, loyalty, and admiration among his adherents. In the 1999 he started to “ordain rabbis.” He conferred “rabbinic” ordination on followers who were equally emphatic in their rejection of Judaism and their embrace of Weinism.   There is no need to be an expert in Jewish law or Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, because, those are not taught.

Growing up in Detroit, I had a very good view of the entire endeavor. I watched as Wine’s Temple took in Jews and non-Jews with broken families, intermarried families, and families of Jews who had no affiliations, and converted them to his religious convictions. He told them they were part of a New Jewish movement that had transcended the need for the Torah and God, and evolved into a “new and improved” form of Judaism.

I cannot escape the deep irony of what happens when a leader of a secular movement that rejects the very history of the religion they’re trying to represent reaches heaven. Kol Yisrael Yesh Lahem Chelek L’Olam Haba – Everyone is Israel has a part of the world to come.


Human error

Get out of bed, cry out in the night; pour out your heart like water before the face of Hashem…(Eicha 2:19)

Todays is a national day of mourning observed for nearly 2000 years on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Basically, both Temples were destroyed because of human error. There was no computer malfunction. There were no acts of “god”. There was no overloaded control systems, and no faulty wiring.

While human nature is to always blame others when things go wrong – the Jewish way of remembering the human error which destroyed the Temples is to accept responsibility for what happened. And I don’t mean in the “I take full responsibility for what happened” way that public figures say when they are caught cheating, which almost sounds like they are sorry, but they are not. No, we actually accepted responsibility for the errors, established a day of mourning and fasting, and seek atonement even today.

And while much attention is rightly focused on the destroyed city of Jerusalem and other national tragedies over the last 200 centuries, the only way to go about fixing the errors is with corrective action today and in the future. The past human errors cannot be erased. Only future human error can be avoided. The human error which caused the hard drive to crash and meltdown, the security breach, the data loss, and the system malfunction, can be fixed with a simple do-it-yourself patch, and software upgrade.

The patch is Ahavas Yisroel aka love your fellow Jew i.e. network sharing and open sourcing , and the the upgrade is available by free download. Simply pour out year heart like water before God about so much trouble in the world – your own, your peoples, the world’s – and the software will be installed automatically.