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    The Last Wish On Rosh

    Hashanah night, the

    Kazaks captured the

    rabbi, the cantor and

    the president of the

    synagogue, and granted

    them a final wish

    before they would be

    put to death. The

    Rabbi: All year round I

    prepare for my Rosh Hashanah

    sermon. You can’t kill me before you let me present

    this sermon and get it out of my system. “OK,”

    proclaimed the Kazaks. “We well allow you to give the

    sermon.” They turned to the cantor. “How about you?

    What is your final wish?” “For 364 days a year, I

    prepare for my cantorial presentation on the High

    Holidays. For this year I composed many new brilliant

    and extraordinary compositions. You have to let me

    sing them before you kill me.” “Granted,” said the

    Kazaks. “And you,” they said, turning to the president,

    “what is your final wish?” “Kill me first,” he said.

    Sermons and Melodies It’s been a longstanding

    tradition among Jewish communities the world over, to

    employ for the High Holiday services cantors, often

    accompanied by choirs, to entertain, engage and inspire

    the multitudes of crowds flocking to synagogues during

    the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In

    many a congregation, the cantor embodies the primary

    focus of the High Holiday experience. As in a concert

    or opera, the cantor’s choice of melodies, his cantorial

    skills and manipulation of sounds and pitches

    constitutes the zenith of the services. Especially if the

    musical presentation is coupled with a rabbi who

    knows how to tell a good joke or bring a tear to the eye,

    it is a hands-down success story. “Spit not in the well

    from which you drink,” suggests the Talmud. I should

    be the last one to find fault with this phenomenon, since

    I, too, am employed by a lovely community in New

    York to serve as a cantor and pontificator. Yet a

    moving thought from the great master the Baal Shem

    Tov concerning this “cantor” and “rabbi” phenomenon

    may be worthwhile for all synagogues and all of us to

    reflect upon. An Angry Lion The Baal Shem Tov, one

    of the most profound thinkers in the history of Jewish

    spirituality (1698-1760), once shared this following

    allegorical story. Once upon a time, says the Baal

    Shem Tov, the lion grew furious with all of the other

    jungle animals. Since the lion is “the king of animal

    life,” and is most powerful and dominant, his ire

    evoked deep fright in the hearts of the other animals.

    “What should we do?” murmured all the animals at an

    emergency meeting. “If the lion lets out his anger, we

    are all done.” “No worries,” came the voice of the fox,

    known as the wiliest of animals. “In the reservoirs of

    my brain are stored 300 stories, anecdotes and

    vignettes. When I present them to the lion, his mood

    will be transformed.” A wave of joy rushed through all

    the animals as they embarked on a march toward the

    lion’s home in the jungle, where the fox would placate

    him and restore the friendly relationship between the

    lion and his subjects. The Fox Forgets During the

    journey through the jungle pathways, the fox suddenly

    turns to one of his animal friends and says, “You know,

    I forgot 100 of my entertaining stories.” Rumors of the

    fox’s lapse of memory spread immediately. Many

    animals were overtaken by profound trepidation, but

    soon came the calming voice of Mr. Bear. “No

    worries,” he said. “Two hundred vignettes of a brilliant

    fox are more than enough to get that arrogant lion

    rolling in laughter and delight. “They will suffice to do

    the job,” agreed Mr. Wolf. A little while later, as the

    extraordinarily large entourage of animals was nearing

    the lion, Mr. Fox suddenly turned to another colleague.

    “I have forgotten another 100 of my anecdotes,”

    lamented the fox. “They simply slipped my mind.” The

    animals’ fear became stronger, but soon enough came

    the reassuring voice of Mr. Deer. “No worries,” he

    proclaimed, “One hundred fox stories will suffice to

    capture the imagination of our simple king.” “Yes, 100

    jokes will assuage the lion,” agreed Mr. Tiger. A few

    moments later, all of the hundreds of thousands of

    animals were at the lion’s den. The lion rose to his full

    might and glory, casting a fierce gaze at all of his

    subjects, sending a shiver through their veins. The

    Moment of Encounter As the moment of truth arrived,

    all of the animals looked up with beseeching eyes to

    their bright representative the fox, to approach the lion

    and accomplish the great mission of reconciliation. At

    that very moment, the fox turned to the animals and

    said, “I am sorry, but I forgot my last 100 stories. I have

    nothing left to say to the king.” The animals went into

    hysteria. “You are a vicious liar,” cried they cried.

    “You deceived us completely. What are we to do

    now?” “My job,” responded the fox calmly, “was to

    persuade you to take the journey from your own nests

    to the lion’s nest. I have accomplished my mission. You

    are here. Now, let each and every single one of you

    discover his own voice and rehabilitate his own

    personal relationship with the king.” Lacking a

    Personal Relationship This story, concluded the Baal

    Shem Tov, illustrates a common problem in

    institutionalized religion. We come to synagogue on

    Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or any other time of

    the year, and we rely on the “foxes” — the cantors and

    the rabbis — to serve as our representative to the King

    of Kings. “The rabbi’s sermon today was

    unbelievable,” we often proclaim after services. “He is

    really awesome.” Or, “That cantor? His vibrato just

    melted my soul.” These clergy all-too-often become

    the “foxes” who know how to get the job done for us.

    Yet, sooner or later, we come to realize that the foxes,

    with all due respect, don’t really have what it takes to

    address the king on behalf of you and me. Each of us

    must discover his or her own inner voice and inner

    passion and spirit, and speak to G-d with a distinct and

    unique. Cantors and rabbis during the High Holidays

    (and the rest of the year) ought to view themselves as

    the Baal Shem Tov’s foxes: Their function is to

    persuade and inspire people to leave their own

    self-contained domains and embark on a journey

    toward something far deeper and more real. But each

    and every one of us must ultimately enter the space of

    G-d alone. So this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,

    don’t rely on any foxes. Speak to G-d directly. With

    your own words, with your own soul. Heart to heart,

    from your truest place to His truest place. Nitzavim A

    Small Step for Man; A Giant Step for G-d It’s Never of

    All Nothing Teshuvah Relativity An Odessa Jew meets

    another one. “Have you heard, Einstein won the Noble

    Prize. “Oh, what for?” “He developed this Relativity

    theory.” “Yeah, what’s that?” “Well, you know, five

    hairs on your head is relatively few. Five hairs in your

    soup is relatively many.” “And for that, he wins the

    Noble Prize?!” Today we will discuss this “theory of

    relativity” in Jewish spirituality. What may seem small

    on one plane is seen quite differently on another.

    What’s the Novelty? Teshuvah, or repentance, is one of

    the greatest gifts that Judaism and Torah have given

    humanity is the idea that G-d gives second chances.

    This is a fundamental part of the Jewish experience and

    is written in innumerable places in Torah — and it is the

    focus during this time of the year, as we welcome Rosh

    Hashana and Yom Kippur. Which is why it comes as a

    surprise that Rabbi Akiva, the famed Jewish leader and

    Talmudic scholar living in the second century CE,

    some 1500 years after Sinai and the writing of the

    Torah, seems to have been surprised, inspired, and

    even astounded by the idea that G-d gives a second

    chance to the sinner who repents. I refer to a statement

    Rabbi Akiva made which has since gained fame in

    Jewish songs, chants, and liturgy, and it is recorded in

    the Mishna.1    -     !             -,

          !             -?              –

          ,       -                 -      (        )-

       -             -.’             -(        )

                       -   ,      . Rabbi Akiva

    said: How lucky are you, O Israel! Before whom are

    you purifying yourself, and who purifies you? Our

    father in Heaven! As it is written (Ezekiel 36), “I will

    sprinkle upon you purifying waters, and you will

    become purified,” and it is said (Jeremiah 17),

    “Hashem is the mikva of Israel,” just as the Mikvah

    purifies the impure, so too does G-d purify Israel.2

    What innovation, what revolutionary idea is Rabbi

    Akiva teaching that has not been taught for over a

    thousand years? That G-d purifies the impure, forgives

    the penitents, and absolves the sinner? This is an axiom

    of Jewish thought dating back to Abraham! This idea is

    fundamental to Judaism itself. It is as old as Moses and

    the Jews of the Golden Calf, as Joseph forgiving his

    brothers, as G-d giving Adam a second chance after

    eating from the tree of knowledge. The entire concept

    and institution of Yom Kippur—discussed at length in

    the Book of Leviticus—is that G-d cleanses the people

    of Israel! Comes Rabbi Akiva 1500 years after Yom

    Kippur was created, and declares a novelty! How

    fortunate are you Israel. Why? Because your father in

    heaven cleanses you from your blemishes. It seems that

    Rabbi Akiva has suddenly “discovered America,”

    when in essence he is repeating an ancient axiom of all

    of Tanach! The question is stronger: To support this

    thought, Rabbi Akiva quotes verses that were

    transcribed some 500 years earlier which clearly state

    this very truth! Yet even the verses he quotes are from

    Ezekiel and Jeremiah, rather than from the Five Books

    of Moses, which clearly state the same truth.3 Even if

    you can find some reason why Rabbi Akiva repeated

    this ancient idea, why did the Mishna have to record it?

    The Mishna is a collection of original Jewish Law, and

    not the place to record inspirational sentiments that do

    not teach us anything new and innovative. Two Extra

    Words Many times, when studying Torah we will find,

    that if there are two questions on the same text, one

    question will be answered by resolving the other. Here

    too, there is another problem on the concluding words

    of Rabbi Akiva: -            

          -            . “Just as the Mikvah purifies

    the impure, so too does G-d purify Israel.” Every word

    in Mishna is precise. There is not an extra word used,

    not even for esthetical beauty. Every word of the

    Mishna was carefully edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince

    and is exact and necessary. Rabbi Judah chose from

    thousands of collected records of teachings and

    manuscripts and redacted in the Mishna only the best

    and most exact wordings. In this statement of Rabbi

    Akiva, it seems, we have two superfluous words. It

    should have written simply, “Just as a Mikvah purifies,

    so too does G-d purify Israel”? Why add the extra

    words, “purify the impure”? We all know that a mikvah

    is designated to purify someone who is impure! Who

    else would be going to the Mikvah but someone who is

    impure? Why state the obvious? Yet, in these

    seemingly superfluous two words lies a wondrous

    secret. But first, we have to understand a little about the

    functioning of a Mikvah. Two Types of Impurity There

    are different degrees of impurity, and there are

    different methods of purification from these various

    states of impurity. [These were mostly relevant in

    biblical times and during the days of the Temple, when

    people had to be very careful to maintain their ritual

    purity in order to enter the Temple, or east the sacred

    food of sacrifices. Today, we don’t pay much attention

    to these ritual patterns; which is why most Jews would

    not tour the Temple Mount, since you may not enter the

    space of the Temple if ritually impure.] For example, if

    one touches a dead rodent, he becomes impure for a

    day and can become pure simply by immersing in a

    mikva and waiting for nightfall. On the other hand, if

    he touches a human corpse he becomes impure for a

    week, and needs a lengthy process of immersing in a

    mikvah, as well as being sprinkled by mixture of water

    and ashes of the red heifer. Now imagine if someone

    has become impure, on both accounts, he both touched

    a rodent, and a human corpse. He is inevitably impure

    due to the corpse for a week regardless of whether he

    goes to the mikva or not for the rodent-tumah. The

    mikvah, usually potent for purification from

    rodent-impurity, seems now meaningless and impotent

    due to the stricter corpse–impurity that remains

    inevitably for a week. Is there any benefit of him going

    to the mikvah? It would seem not. He will anyway

    remain impure because he has also touched a corpse.

    However, that is not the case. And here we discover

    something fascinating. The law is that a mikvah will

    purify and remove the lesser impurity even if the

    stricter degree of impurity remains!4 This then is the

    profound innovation of Rabbi Akiva. “Just as a Mikvah

    will purify the impure person” who is destined to

    remain impure, even after going to the mikvah, so too

    does G-d purify the penitent who still remains, in some

    ways, distant and separate from G-d! A person who is

    not prepared to repent and to return to G-d fully, he is

    not ready to take the plunge and surrender away all of

    his sins and pet peeves, this person might think that

    G-d accepts all or nothing. He might think: Either I

    truly repent for everything, or I do nothing. Either I

    entirely change my life, or not bother at all. Since I

    know that I cannot make so many changes in my life,

    let me not even begin. Imagine if someone—a

    borrower, an investor, a partner—owes you $50,000,

    but really has neither the desire nor intention to pay you

    now. It’s not that he denies that he borrowed the

    money, it’s just that he cannot be bothered, and maybe

    does not have the money. Then one fine morning,

    perhaps the day before Yom Kippur, your dear

    ungrateful and audacious borrower or partner shows up

    at your door announcing proudly: “I want to pay you

    $5,000!” “$5,000?? What’s that for? You owe me

    50,000!!” “I know, but seriously, I only feel like paying

    you back 5,000. For now, let’s forget about the rest. We

    will deal with that another time. Ok? Deal, or no deal?”

    How would you react? Chances are you would throw

    this man out head first, with his measly $5,000. And

    rightfully so. The sheer chutzpah! What is he thinking?

    How Lucky! This is what Rabbi Akiva is talking about.

    As Jews we turn to G-d each year, and all of us, to some

    degree or another, feel some sense of remorse or regret

    for one or two or three things in our life that need to be

    mended. Not that we are ready to turn over a new leaf,

    not that we are ready to make the serious changes in

    our life, not that we are ready for a complete

    transformation, but there is that one little aveira, that

    one little sin, that one little lie or cheat, that is nagging

    me. And I really want to get it off my chest. I may have

    hurt someone in a dramatic way and it sits on me; I may

    have done something wrong that is really perturbing

    me; I may have insulted someone in a nasty way and I

    am upset at myself; I may have been involved in

    something that is eating up on my conscience. So I

    repent for just that one thing. I ask G-d, or whoever it

    was that I wronged, to forgive me for that one act.

    What is going to be with the rest of my issues I cannot

    be bothered, and I neither know, nor care too much at

    the moment. I don’t have time or energy to deal with all

    my sins. But this one thing I am ready to deal with. Is

    this worth anything? Does G-d care for this type of

    repentance? Comes Rabbi Akiva and says:

              -    . Just as a Mikvah purifies the

    impure, the one who will remain impure even after the

    mikvah, the one who either way has contracted a much

    more severe and serious impurity which he is not

    dealing with right now, yet, the mikva works and will

    purify him at that moment for the lesser impurity,

    exactly so does G-d purify Israel! Why? Why doesn’t

    G-d act as any normal person would, and throw our

    measly attempt at reconciliation back in our faces? To

    this Rabbi Akiva tells us:       -?

          ! Because G-d is our “Father in heaven,” father

    who is anxiously waiting for the merest sign of positive

    movement from, us, his child. A good father will

    embrace and appreciate the tiniest effort his son makes

    to connect with him, regardless and oblivious to the

    fact that the son has done wrong in so many more areas.

    Today, all psychologists and educators agree that the

    way to educate is by focusing and drawing attention to

    even the smallest positive successes of our children and

    building on them. Education through criticism has been

    debunked and proven to be futile at best, and

    destructive at worst. But Rabbi Akiva said this almost

    2000 years ago. G-d is the ultimate loving parent.

    When he sees that a Jew makes even the slightest

    movement of Teshuva, regardless of how much he has

    left to go, G-d immediately embraces this movement

    with the deepest love, and purifies him just as the

    mikvah does.5 Fix One Thing How many of us have

    not attempted something because we are afraid of

    failure? How many of us give up on our dreams

    because we know we will never fulfill them perfectly?

    How many of us remain paralyzed by perfectionism?

    How many of us look at things as all or nothing, and

    therefore do not begin jobs that we know we can never

    fully complete? How many of us deprive ourselves of

    this gift of a mitzvah that is so dear to us, just because

    we are scared to become “completely religious?” We

    feel that if we do not get it all right, we will get nothing

    right, and it is not worth the effort? Rabbi Akiva is

    telling us that a Jew must know, that G-d values and

    cherishes every single mitzvah a Jew does. G-d

    embraced and cherished every act of change. Even if I

    regret one mistake in my life and change that, G-d

    accepts it fully and purifies me. Whatever you manage

    to accomplish, any step you manage to take forward,

    towards a better more inspired, G-dly life, is infinitely

    treasured by G-d who can purify even the one who still

    remains impure. It may be one small step for man; but

    a giant step for G-d.