on the unetane tokef

“on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur they stand him [the High Priest] at the Eastern Gate [of the temple mount] and they lead before him oxen, rams, and sheep, that he should recognize [each of them] and be conversant in the service”

we learn this from Mishnah, Yoma 1:3. it was important that the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] be able to distinguish the ox to be offered as a continual fire offering for the public, and the 1 to be offered as a sin offering for himself. likewise the rams; 1 for the public, and 1 for himself and his house [family]. all 7 sheep were offered as continual fire offerings for the public and the Day; none were designated for the Kohen.  now, what’s missing from this? well, the 2 twin goats; 1 to be offered as a sin offering, the other to be driven off into the desert “for azazel”…the famous scapegoat.

the sheep were distinguished from the goats, which 2 identical animals were the special sin offering that marks uniquely the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

ok, but what does all this have to do with the unetane tokef, that confounding prayer about passing before G’d like sheep, and the book of life, and big time judgement, and  who dies this way and that…and then that inexplicable something about t’shuvah, t’fillah and tzedaka?

well, the crucial word: “ma’avirin”, used in the passage from Yoma as “lead before” the Kohen Gadol standing in the Eastern Gate,  is exactly the word and form used in the unetana tokef at the crucial point of pivot from judgment to what gets beyond judgement:

u’t’shuvah u’t’filah u’tz’daka ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zerah 

which is often conventionally translated as “and repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship of the decree pass“. oy.

of unetane tokef’s central statement, no less a light than R’ Lawrence Kushner suggests that “ma’avirin” here, the “passing over”, if you will, is a sort of religious coping mechanism. if we do these 3 things we will be able to get over grandma’s death (ch’v) better. oy. maybe, but that’s pretty weak tea from a prayer that the ashkenazic world inserts just before the kedusha in the amidah! the old “religion helps the weak get over grief, and fear, and loss” bit.

let’s go back to Yoma and the 7-days of preparation of the Kohen Gadol. 7 days…of course…7 sheep….of course…special number, right? well, there are 7 usages of the hebrew root ayin bet(vet) resh in the unetane tokef. 7 and 7 only. aside from the root shin mem for “name” , as in Your Holy Name, ayin bet resh is the most often repeated root in the piyyut, the poem (that we have made into prayer). so let’s look at the rhythm of usage of the significant 7 ayin bet resh usages in the unetane tokef and think of the work as a poem (that is what a piyyut is after all) and be minful of the connection to and the picture painted above in Mishnah Yoma, and learn. and because a piyyut is a religious poem, we will see how particular usage of ayin bet resh connects also to revelation in Tanach, for unetane tokef is rife with allusion to scripture:

1. verse 10, “for they will not be innocent when You judge them, and all who enter the world will pass before [ya’avrun] You like sheep“.–this use of ayin bet resh is straight out of Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2. it is the epitomy of Rosh Hashanah that all living things pass before haShem and are recognised/known/seen/remembered for what they are and for what they have done. to be written in the book is to be recognised individually for your righteousness, and to be written is to be written for the life of the world to come….but to be blotted out of the book is to be consigned to spiritual death…as in karet. please note, careful readers, that there is no blotting out mentioned in the unetane tokef! quite the opposite, in fact, “and You will remember everything that has been forgotten, and You will open the book of remembrance…and it will be read from: everyone’s signature is in it“. everyone’s identifier is in the great book of remembrances…all are remembered in the smallest detail. but all are written, no mention at all is made of blotting anyone, or any deed, out.

and the purpose of the passing of the sheep before the Kohen Gadol before Yom Kippur? to know/recognise and then on Yom Kippur to remember the distinguishing characteristics of each animal. all are to be brought close to haShem. all are moving from the more earthly aspect to the more holy….

2. verse 11, “as a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under [ya’avrun] his staff–this usage evokes several passages of scripture. first consider Ezekiel 34:2ff wherein the shepherds are castigated for thinking of themselves, eating only the fattest sheep, using only the thickest wool, and slaughtering only the best….but forsaking the frail, the ill, the broken…and the lost, which the poor shepherd did not search for! G’d, however, is the shepherd that remembers the frail, the ill, the broken and searches for the lost (34:16). woe betide them as is fat and sassy, the 1% perhaps, though, for they will be dealt with with justice only….pure gevurah. chesed for the rest of us….

the Kohen Gadol reviews the passing animals to be sure that he gets the order of the service, and the part of each individual in it, correct. the care is for proper integration of each individual into the service of atonement for all…and animals are to be seen as individuals as well…and not just as slabs of meat (the modern way, it seems so often).

but the usage all calls up Leviticus27:32ff wherein we learn that chosenness is randomized and not just a selection based on merit or fitness: “any tithe…of the flock, any that passes under [ya’avor] the staff, the 10th one shall be holy to haShem. he [the shepherd] shall not distinguish between good and bad and he [the shepherd] should not substitute for it“. all will not be innocent when they pass under, but even the not so hot may be chosen in the passing of every 10.  holiness is not only derived from good vs bad. and the Kohen Gadol looked at the tithed creatures, and had to recognised them each for its own identity.

(note: the romans also practiced a variation on this. they called it “decimation” in which 1 in every 10 villagers from a rebellious place would be put to the sword in front of all the other inhabitants….decimation does not mean utterly wiped out, as moderns seem to think….but rather meant a cruel selection with punishing random effects. it seems that many jews today misread unetane tokef as though it were a roman ode to slaughter. they forget their own revelational context and let the roman-descended secular west get in their way. please do not do this, chevrei!)

3. verse 12, “so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by [ta’avir]”  note carefully that all living beings is used and not all living humans only. now, does that change your view of how the word “judgement” must mean in this piyyut? does one judge the righteousness of a sheep? of a narwhal? of a spider? it must mean something a little different then…..evaluation without condemnation, perhaps. or simply, as suggested by everything we have looked at already, it is remembrance and recording and distinguishing…without a strong note of “judgement” in a punitive sense. it is close observational science, in which G’d sees all in keen focus and know the tendencies and practices and troubles and fondnesses and perversions, etc, of all. he records, if you will “particularities” in complete detail, and, perhaps, trends…..consider Jeremiah33:12-13 where we see this use of ayin bet resh: “….there will yet again be in this place [the Land of Israel]….a cote for shepherds who rest their flocks….in the cities of Judah, the sheep will again pass before [ta’avir] the hand of the one who counts them, says haShem“. the counting here is a sign of life and redemption, the sign of a shepherd who is making sure none are left behind. passing here is recognizing, like the Kohen Gadol, the characteristics of each. many farmers (not factory farmers) will probably tell you that they know the sounds and looks of every one of their critters…even if they have hundreds. some farmers even know their livestock by distinctive names. such a shepherd is that drawn in unetane tokef, for everyone’s signature is recorded.

in 3 quick versese we learn a great deal about ayin bet resh in the imagination of the writer of the piyyut: he is thinking of objective observation; of counting (being worthy of searching out and bringing into the fold even if broken and lost and undesirable) and being counted; of random chosenness independent of good and bad; of all life and of humans in particular; of public, collective redemption and individual redemption. the relationship between G’d and Creation herein is anything but simple. and the idea of “passing” is certainly not associated with death, but with life. indeed it is redemptive, so passing over/under/before suggests transforming, just as the animals that are passed before the Kohen Gadol are moving from an earthy position to a holy position. change is the watchword, not punishment. consider at this juncture, chevrei, how these meanings relate to t’shuvah, t’filah, u’tzedakah….

4. verse 15, “how many will pass on [ya’avorun] and how many will be created [yibarei’un]” note first the similarity of sound of the 2 hebrew words, the first being our root and the second being a different root, but being oh so similar. so the question for us is do we have opposition here? ie, pass on (death) vs creation (life)? here’s the rub, right? well, the next line is certainly contrasting life and death….or at least who “will be” [yih’yeh–think of the first Name of G’d that Moses comes to know in Exodus 3:14] and who will expire and leave the earthly for the purely spiritual.

who at their end and who not (we usually translate this as “predestined time” vs “not predestined time”, but i don’t know why……and if you do translate it that way, what exactly does predestined and not predestined mean if it is all recorded in a book before it happens anyway? probably not a good translation, methinks, so what other sort of transformation might be hinted at?).

who by fire [hmm…Deuteronomy 33 reads as “His right hand from amidst the fire gave the Torah to us” sounds lively enough for me] and who by water [hmm…what about Isaiah 55:1 “behold, all who are thirsty, come for water”, which the mystics read as equating Torah with water…sounds more lively than deadly to me]

look at the list and see which can only mean “who dies by/with” this or that. look carefully, and try reading the list as “who lives by/with” instead. this may be a case of both and not either…all set up by the ambiguity of the first verse of the sequence, where the ambiguity of ayin bet resh suggests passing as being the transformational movement and not a reified euphemism for death….in hebrew at least. english is astoundingly unflexible just when you need it to be other….

5 would be our big line with ma’avirin and t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah…but before we take it up, let’s take a look at the 2 uses of ayin bet resh that follow, and that add new definition and apposition to the meaning.

6. verse 29, “like a passing [oveir] shadow and like a vanishing cloud“. and this impermanence of our condition is contrasted at verse 31 with the “living and everlasting” state of G’d. of course we are created in the image [tselem] of G’d, and the word tselem shares the root of shadow [tsel], which always brings to mind that we are but the silhouette of G’d, lacking all the particular detail of the full image. but the reference here reflects a verse in Psalm 144 “man is like a breath, his days are as a shadow that passes [oveir]“. an image of impermanence, but more, for consider its mate the “vanishing” cloud. what is the most famous iteration of the cloud? certainly that in which dwells the Holy One at the top of Sinai. is that a symbol of impermanence or of intermediary between man and G’d? and think too to the cloud that led the People in the wilderness by day, which transformed into a fire at night (and think back to “who by fire and who by water”!). G’d’s Presence is always within the cloud of the ketoret (incense). the cloud is impermanence with an attachment to permanence…the Divine Presence of G’d which is always available, but not always sought out by us or welcomed….it is a symbol not of passing away but of passage/movement/discontinuity without extinction, concentrating into existence and dissipating, but never evaporating completely away. but the reference to passing shadow has another connection to eternity…also in Psalms, but back at 121: “the Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shadow [tsel] upon your right hand“.  and like a shadow, you can’t be rid of…unless you step into the darkness (hold that thought). 2 verses later in the Psalm (121:7-8) we learn that “the Lord will keep you from evil [ra]; He will keep your soul. he shall guard your going out and your coming in….forever“. passage through and through.

7. verse 37, transitioning into the kedushah, “for [ba’avur] the glory of Your Name…“. we might just read “in the recognition of” as a better translation of this prepositional use of ayin bet resh…certainly that is the spirit of the first 3 iterations when read in light of scriptural antecedants. and look at verses 34 & 35 of the unetana: “Your name suits You, and You suit Your Name/You named us after You, act for the sake of Your Name“. we bear the Name that suits you well because you gave us that Name. and what is the Name of the People? well, our earliest name, the name by which our language is called is ivri or hebrew….and yes, it is from the same root ayin bet resh.

we are the People from Ever [ayin bet resh]. we are the the changeable people of permanence. we are always passing by/under/before/around/through/on/away/toward….that is the nature of t’shuvah, yes? a way of life for a changeable person, for a changeable People, but one bound to eternity.

we are like G’d EVEN in our shadowness our cloudness, and we are named by Him with His well-suited Name. we are ivri, those on the move, those who pass over, those who are recognised, those who count, those who are known, those capable of change forever…for our entire lifetime on earth and beyond.

NOW, LET’S GO BACK TO THE 5TH AYIN BET RESH, the one we started with, the one with the power number of 5:

u’t’shuvah, u’t’filah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hag’zarah

let’s look at this a little kabbalistically. we know that we traverse the kabbalistic tree of life, going from right to left to center right, etc. traverse means ayin bet resh, to pass/passage across/through/etc. and we learn in Psalm 121 that we are shadowed by G’d on our right hand, the hand with which He gave us Torah out of the fire. now note the odd choice of the root resh ayin [ra] which almost always means evil in the Tanach. the words for “hard” are kuf shin hay [kasheh] or chet zayin kuf [chazak] or others, but not ra, so using ro’a with hag’zarah [judgement or decree] must be indicating something more than “hardship”. in fact, the primitive root means “to break”.  evil is broken in need of….well, repair. how?

kabbalistically, the left side is the side that can slip into evil. too much of the sefirot on the left can go awry in serious ways. and we know that the primary right-left apposition is chesed on the right against din/gevurah on the left. t’shuvah is a change of direction, a return to G’d. t’filah is to judge oneself (and not be judged by another) or to make clear. and tzedakah is righteous, justice, fairness. hag’zarah (gzar) usually works with din (indeed it does in the unetane tokef itself at verse 13 where it is often translated as “sentence”) and represents the side of the left gone too far…that is why it is called ra, evil.

so return, self-judgment, and righteousness, transform the evil by returning it (and us!) across [ayin bet resh is trans in latin!] to the right side and chesed. we are charged, and blessed in that charge, with being able to take aveirah (“transgression” a crossing over bounds to the left ) and making it into a good deed by bringing it over to the right(eousness) by way of t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah. G’d, who recognizes, who counts us for something, who ever seeks after us, who knows us, who names us accurately for what we are and can be…not so very far from Him, dwells as our everpresent shadow at the right hand.

we are the ivri, the trans-People of history. and we know the technology of the right hand of the tree of life, to use it for repair, for redeeming the Divine Sparks, for living the life of return. the unetane tokef doesn’t teach us to do t’shuvah, t’filah,  tzedakah to help us cope with the tough stuff. oy. we do t’shuvah, t’filah, tzedakah to CHANGE THE EVIL INTO THE GOOD.

now we can get back to the Kohen Gadol. aren’t you wondering why the goats, the 2 identical goats, were not “ma’avirin” before the Kohen Gadol? the Gemara on Yoma (18a) teaches that because the goats would be sin offerings for the entire People, they would remind the Kohen Gadol of the many sins and cause him anguish….THE KOHEN GADOL COULD NOT ATONE FOR THE PEOPLE IN A STATE OF SADNESS OR ANGUISH, but rather only in joy. and THAT is the spirit in which we should celebrate the unetane tokef: with joy and awe, not fear and worry.

get out there and do t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah and lead the world over [ayin bet resh] to the side of the GOOD.


chatimah tovah





days of repentance: 19 Elul

“now, if you will obey My Voice indeed, and keep My Covenant, then….”

this is the king james version of the conditional preamble of  Exodus 19:5. does it puzzle you like it does me? first because of that “indeed”….obey me indeed. how does one obey more than just to obey? and is that the standard against which we measure whether we have failed in the doing of a mitzvah (“commandment”)? if so, doesn’t it seem that we are all pretty much doomed to fail? to obey indeed…to obey extremely well….to go the extra mile in obeying…..tough standard…indeed.

but this translation, like virtually all of the english translations is simply wrong. but not so much in the use of the intensifier “indeed” as in the use of the word “obey”, for in biblical hebrew there simply is no word for “obey”. surprised?

it isn’t that we are not to do the commandments. there is a word for “to do” in Torah. and we have a word for “to guard/keep/watch over”…in fact, it is the word that you see before “My Covenant” in the quote we began with. but “obey”? nope. the word used at Exodus 19:5 for what is translated as “obey” is the root shin mem ayin, the familiar shema, usually translated as simply to hear/to listen. at 19:5 it is intensified as shamoa tishm’u…perhaps “really hearken to My Voice”.  and it is used hundreds of times in Torah, most often in connection with mitzvot and how we are to react to them.

the 19th day of Elul is for t’shuvah for the month of cheshvan, which has the distinction of being the only month in the jewish calendar that has no particular holidays or mitzvot associated with it.  many modern jews see it as a sort of break after the heavily “burdened”, if you will, month of Tishrei, which has not only the Days of Awe, but also the long Festival of Sukkot, and all the particular mitzvot associated with all those special days and that special season. there is, of course, Rosh Chodesh in Cheshvan and Shabbatot, but none with special character associated with that month.

but Cheshvan does have something special in it (aside from my birthday, which is neither here nor there), for being the 8th month of the year (why the new year begins in the 7th is for another time), it is associated with the beyond natural…..and we learn in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah that Cheshvan is reserved for the Messiah and the mitzvot that will come to be understood in that Time. but the thing to remember is that the month is associated with redemption….

and that brings us back to why there is no word for obey for redemption is not a matter of obedience, but of hearing, truly listening to the Voice of G’d in the mitzvot, in the world, in ALL.

“we will do and we will hear”

this is the third and definitive reply of the People (Exodus 24:7) to the call to hearken and to keep that we began with. through the doing we will get at the hearing, the listening to the Voice of G’d, which is full understanding. and it matters, for transgressions are less “wrongdoings” in the end than “wronghearings”, akin to “misunderstandings”.  we learn that “we will do what we understand” (Mekilta d’rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7). and it is this distinction that allows for chesed (loving-kindness) to overtake gevurah (strict justice) allowing for t’shuvah to be the central point in judaism…not obedience.  sin is disconnection that comes from “wronghearing”. t’shuvah is getting the listening/understanding aright. the life of t’shuvah is one that gets and stays attuned to the Voice of G’d. and the mitzvot are the notes and and the holidays the rhythms by which we

“sing unto haShem a new song”

perennially new, miyom l’yom (“from day to day”), everyday, as King David, model and sire of the line of Messiah, sings in Psalm 96. maybe in Cheshvan we have the time to listen to all the doings of Tishrei as they echo in our souls…the lingering sostenuto.

a practice to follow might be to linger on what you are doing right…what brings you close to G’d already…the “righhearing” you already have. abide in it today.

ketiva v’chatima tovah

days of repentance: 18 Elul

“the month of Elul, a time of t’shuvah, a time of healthy tears”

This is the Ari’s comment on the nature of the month of Elul. healthy tears are life restoring, and that is something to remember on this chai day, for traditionally it is on this day that we begin to examine our failings more analytically, dipping into memory to recall our wrongs in time, month by month.

today begins the last 12 days of Elul, conveniently corresponding to the months of the year. and as you would then guess, today we reflect on our shortcomings and errors of Tishrei of the year now passing. indeed, we look again to the wrongs in our way from last Rosh haShanah on! so if you remember wondering the rabbi’s sermon would end more than you remember the message…..well, this is a good day to rectify that and reintegrate your ability to learn from every jew every day into your spiritual walk……

but wait…didn’t we finish with last RH on last YK? well, think about it. what is judged on Rosh haShanah? the walk we have walked in the year previous to that Rosh haShanah. and what judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur? the judgment from Rosh haShanah that just passed that year, so the judgment for your way between RH last and forward is yet to come….and this is another reason to remember that t’shuvah is not a one and done affair, but a continuous way.  hei vav hei…not hei and then just vav.

“bring us back to You, haShem, and we shall return to You”

ends a conversational debate between the Creator and the People recorded in midrash (Lamentations 5:21). G’d tells us to return, we say that it requires the power only G’d G’dself has! and guess what? we are right. let’s turn again to the letters of haShem: hei is the letter representing t’shuvah, the letter with a narrow escape route into the future, and the vav is the extent of G’d’s expression from “above” Creation all the way through it to the Creational level in which we walk–it is the representation of the straight line between the Holy One and us.  we’ve said already that hei brackets the vav…there is t’shuvah on either side of the axis between heaven and earth. to understand the midrash, we can just turn to the hei vav hei. the first hei is our own earthly impetus to return as we recognize G’d, and the second hei, the one after the reach down from heaven, as it were, is the G’d-empowered return.

“haShem is my light and my redemption…whom shall i fear?

haShem is the strength of my life…whom shall i dread?

yes, Psalm 27 yet again, chevrei. but it gives us another important way to look at the hei vav hei way of looking at t’shuvah. haShem as light source is 1 hei; haShem as strength source is the other. Chazal teach G’d is revealed before every transgression as a light to us (are we looking?), and after a transgression haShem is revealed to us as our source of strength for return. it is the “strength of my life” that we count on in the next 12 days to finish the work of rectifying a year’s worth of trudging cheit and aveirah. but i know also that this is the time of embracing and being embraced by beloved G’d

“may His left hand [gevurah] be under my head

and Her right hand [chesed] embrace me”

now do you see why R’ Akiva insisted on including Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) in the “canon”?

ketiva v’chatima tovah


haYom shisha u’sh’loshim yom, sh’heim chamisha shavuot v’yom echad, laOmer: chesed she b’yesodot

“notzeir chesed la’alafim”

this is the ninth of the 13 divine attributes that we recite during the Days of Awe and again throughout the year for major festivals as part of the liturgy for the day. Rashi comments on this phrase that the chesed, involved, the loving-kindness involved, is done by humans before G’d and thereafter held dear and “preserved” by G’d. the important point is that the chesed is not G’d’s direct doing, but rather the chesed done by people that is then preserved–as in remembered–for a long time by G’d. though chesed is a gift of G’d to man–Creation itself is done through it–the attribute of G’d that matters here is G’d’s preserving of it for thousands of generations, essentially remembering it forever.  when we recite the 13, we remind G’d of that to overwhelm the 3 or 4 generations for visitation of justice when non-chesed is done….

Ramban brings another layer of meaning. he notes that “notzer” has a richer  meaning than “preserve” or remember. he points to Isaiah 11:1 where the root occurs meaning “to grow out”, and suggests that what is meant is the when humans do chesed in Creation, G’d makes it grow out further for thousands of generations.

and i think “notzer” is a foundational concept for yesod, for it is the seat of contact, connection, and communication. it is the nexus of bonding. and as you will recall from the spirit guide menu posting for week 6, it is associated with the genitalia in connection with procreation….the great growing out of something from next to nothing in the human sphere. what’s more, to be blunt, the association with the penis in Adam Kadmon leads to another deep rooted support for the notzer as growing out.

so in this interinclusion we have the issue of contact, connection and communication of chesed, and the way it touches on human relationships of all kinds and on our holy, covenantal bonding in marriage. in Torah the two most intimate ways of communicating are in speech and in sex……so it is all about intercourse either way all this week.

and the notzer that expands for thousands of generations acts on chesed, the fluid loving-kindness that recreates the world everyday. so what does this mean for us when we invoke the ninth attribute in prayer? consider how different your prayer itself would be if you realized in your soul that we are part of G’d’s expanding of every bit of chesed that any one has ever done….that we were born not simply to latch on to the merits of the Foreparents, but to expand them. we may ourselves be small standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, but we are still standing on those shoulders from the get-go, reaching higher still everyday that we take chesed to heart as part of our foundational way of walking with G’d, take Deuteronomy 15:7 to heart:

“do not  harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman”

and remember on this 36th day of the Omer, that the next person you meet, whether vastly wealthy or indigent, may be one of the 36 tzaddikim who uphold the entire world….or even Moshiach. don’t go shutting your hand now, right?

mussar for chesed she b’yesod

with another….bein adam l’chaveiro    rather than just giving and indigent a little change, give a little of yourself in conversation. learn something more about how a homeless person got homeless….or just talk about the weather (that is an obvious differentiator between the homeless and the homed). try to make a bit of a bond as part of your tzedakah.

with yourself….bein adam l’atzmo    how well are you listening to the people around you? to your children? to your friends? your neighbors? to the one to whom you are bound in holiness…your spouse?  listen better today and make it transparent that you are deliberately listening….and open to more intercourse (speech will do in a pinch).

kabbalah for chesed she b’yesod

in assiyah….the world of doing/completion   there is no better teaching than that in Isaiah (1:17), wherein we do not simply do loving kindness, but we LEARN TO DO IT….we make it foundational. and the examples provided? well, i’ll just spill it:

“learn to do good. devote yourself to justice; aid the wronged. uphold the rights of the orphan. defend the cause of the widow”

he doesn’t tell us how exactly….he tells us to learn how. we each must find our own way of making the mitzvah so. what matters first, though, is we make it foundational and we communicate it in order to expand the chesed in this world.

in yetzirah….the world of feeling/formation    are you open in communicating your own needs to those in your family? with your spouse? in your wider community? people tend to open up to those who are open with them. intercourse is a 2-way street, so make sure you are in the right lane of traffic and giving the right signals when you need to turn. remember: who is your help-meet in each situation?

in b’riyah….the world of thought/creation    what bit of chesed have you learned from a generation before? perhaps from a parent, grandparent…a rabbi or an older friend? remember that you are taking part in “notzer chesed”….’growing loving-kindness in league with G’d, so today is a good time to call up an example that introduced or strengthened chesed into your life. then contemplate how you can extend/expand that loving-kindness in this generation.

in atzilut….the world of nearness to G’d/intuition    we know that chesed is foundational to the entirety of the world. meditate on how you recognize it in the renewal of each day….the foundations may be established, but the Creation renews daily. try to sense it, feel it, know it….intuit it.

kinyan 36 of 48 ways to acquire Torah

Eino Samayach b’Hora’ah….Not Delighting in Rendering Decisions.  we all wish to answer questions in a straightforward fashion. and often this is doable, baruch haShem.  but learned people, scholars and rabbis should be careful of rendering decisions without real care and trepidation. deep as your knowledge may be, you can never know it all, and to decide on an issue that others must then live by is an enormous responsibility. better to teach then to decide…..we learn in Sanhedrin (7a) that every Dayan (judge of an issue in halachah) must feel like a sword is between his legs and gehinom is opened up below him. it aint no walk in the park.

haYom tish’a v’esrim yom, sh’heim arba’a shavuot v’yom echad, laOmer: chesed she b’hod

hodu l’adonai ki tov….ki l’olam chasdo

‘praise-thank G’d who is good….everywhere and always is G’d’s loving-kindness’….we pray this regularly, with special fervor in Hallel for festivals, for it makes all the connections between hod (hodu) and chesed (chasdo) that anybody could possibly need. we give thanks because the loving-kindness is everlasting and everywhere….it is the aspect of G’d with which “olam” (‘universe/eternity’, ie, the whole of Creation) was created. these 2 belong together like Laurel and Hardy.

people forget that humility is not self-debasement…it is not demoralizing…it is not nicki minaj doin ‘stupid hoe’. it is not minimizing yourself to the detriment of yourself, but rather reserving what need not be in play. so it is humility….the sliver of the new moon…..that is the very seat of love and loving-kindness for another. why? because it is ready and right-sized for expansion, and chesed always wants room to expand. but to do chesed in hod, you have to have room to allow the other in. and to be grateful for the opportunity to have the relationship.

chesed in hod is having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ and a readiness to find the beauty in everything, no matter how small or subtle. hod is the appreciation of the other—heck, of ALL in Creation—chesed brings the overflowing love in, so what you have is the sun and the moon, really. the sun lighting it all up in loving-kindness and the moon reflecting that light with greater clarity simply by reducing the glare.

the gematria of hod is 15, which just happens to be the number of stair’s in the Cohen’s ascent to the Temple. it symbolizes the stages of approaching the Holy. and we do well to remember that it was Moshe’s lovingly generous brother Aharon to whom the closest regular approach to the Holy of Holies was given. Aharon is also  the agent of disseminating awareness of  G’d’s chesed through the procedures of atonement.

not surprisingly, chesed in hod is the attitude of temimut halev (‘sincerity of the heart’) which is the seat of ahavah called for in the Shema….you shall love G’d with all your heart….yet we must still find room to love our neighbor as ourself….

“there is still, in my love, so much room

and so many words for you”

Islam has Rumi and Hafez, for the jews, Ibn Gabirol. and here he teaches chesed she b’hod more compactly than anything i could ever write. let’s just leave it here. baruch haShem.

mussar for chesed she b’hod

with another….bein adam l’chaveiro    chesed in hod is about valuing the other for no reason other than that the other exists!…..is part of Creation!  why do you value and love the people in your life? show them; tell them….so many words for you.

with yourself….bein adam l’atzmo    for this one, to do a favor for yourself, you are better off by doing a favor for another in proximity to giving thanks. before you pray today, or this week, do chesed in tzedakah. more of you will be in the prayer thereafter.

kabbalah for chesed she b’hod

in assiyah….the world of doing/completion    today is Pesach Sheni (‘second passover’ or maybe ‘do-over passover), a halachah from written Torah itself (Nubers 9:6-8). the episode reflects the question brought by some who were unable to do the Pesach at the appointed time due to having been ritually unclean at the time through no fault of their own…they were doing the great chesed of tending to the dead. Moshe brought G’d’s word, which was itself chesed: ok, so you can’t do the passover with the rest of us? we’ll give you a do-over passover time a little later after you are ritually pure again.  so, in empathy with those who need the do-over, have some matzah today (again? already?) and remember that it too is one of those wonders brought forth from the earth…..just like yourself.

in yetzirah….the world of feeling/formation    r’ Mordechai Breuer, z’l, used to teach that the core of the shechechiyanu  blessing was the full, rich appreciation of life in the moment…the final words are “lazman hazeh” (‘this very minute’).  be mindful of (ie, meditate in real time) a single moment of your day today. it doesn’t matter which you choose. give thanks for it, and for what you open out of it.

in b’riyah….the world of thought/creation    we are an ancient People, who have cultivated many traditions and practices over time. choose one you don’t regularly do and do it mindfully today. contemplate all those who brought love for G’d and Creation through it in generations past.

in atzilut….the world of nearness to G’d/intuition    G’d is wherever we let G’d in. meditate on receiving with love today. find what stops you from doing it freely and resolve to remove those stops to chesed in hod.

kinyan 29 of 48 ways to acquire Torah

Ohev et haMakom…..Loving G’d (in the guise of place).   as we said, G’d is wherever we let G’d in. among the names of G’d is “haMakom” (‘the Place’) presumably due to G’d’s designated Place in the Bet haMikdash, which was the Place of the Indwelling Presence amongst Bnei Yisrael.  when you say Shema tonight, be mindful of place and how the prayer itself calls on us to teach the Oneness of G’d in whatever place and time we find ourselves in.

“you shall love haShem Your G’d…..when you sit in your house…when you walk on the road”

haYom sh’nayim v’esrim yom, sh’heim sh’losha shavuot v’yom echad, laOmer: chesed she b’netzach

“has the kindness of netzach disappeared forever?”

this is how r’ Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla, 13th century kabbalist and student of Abulafia, translates Psalm 77:9, doubling down on the significance of the “l’netzach” as both the sefirah of the name and the sense of eternity or forever.

the king james version in contrast, translates it (remember it is verse 8 in christain bibles) more colloquially as “is His mercy clean gone for ever?”—imagine!  “clean gone” used to be the king’s english!!!

but back to Gikatilla, who was reading very carefully, for the next verse goes on “is His promise come to an end for evermore?”  ‘forevermore’ is “l’dor vador”, which we usually translate as ‘from generation to generation’, even though that is not a close reading. but, thinks Gikatilla, if “l’dor vador” means eternity, than what is meant by the use of “l’netzach” in the first part of the verse?

being a good kabbalist, he immediately associates the presence of the word “chesed” (‘loving-kindness’) with netzach with more than just an expression of eternity. netzach is also victory, and we know that G’d’s victory does not change…

“the Netzach of Israel [G’d] shall not deceive and not regret (read shall not change His mind), for He is not a man who regrets” (1 Samuel 15:29)

chesed is directly connected to netzach on the right side of the sefirotic tree. the effects of chesed need not even pass through tiferet (the 3rd sefirah of the chesed-gevurah-tiferet triad), so they are very direct and exert great influence on the work of netzach. the persistence of netzach, the power of it,  is not to be regretted anymore than that of  loving-kindness. only the dark side would even consider taking the eternity away.

so, how do we work with this chesed-netzach nexus in the first sefirah of the triad that starts the 4th week of the Omer count? well, in kabbalistic thinking, the only real impediment to the extension of G’d’s loving-kindness in the world is the imposition of death since the transgression of the Foreparents, Adam and Eve.  netzach is associated with the bringing of Moshiach…specifically with the practical steps needed to help bring that ultimate tikkun about. netzach is all about the sort of victory that is t’shuvah, ‘repentance’. t’shuvah argues against the harsh decree…which ultimately means death (look again at the unetane tokef).

the Lurianic teaching is that in kedushah, in marriage, which is the lower union of tiferet (last week’ sefira hashavua) and  malchut (the still to come final week’s sefirah), the union of the spouses takes each to a higher sefirah: the groom to netzach and the bride to hod, both intermediated by yesod, the sefira of the genitalia. yes, sex is more than it might sometimes seem, chevrei. the groom enters into a state of consciousness of timeliness within time. a little bit of immortality, a fending off of death, in the possibility of engendering new life and the ‘out of the world’ sensations that go with it. (we’ll talk more about the lovely bride next week, don’t worry, ladies).

is it any surprise then, that chassidut (‘chassidic philosophy/kabbalah’) associates netzach with bitachon, ie, ‘confidence’?  and the forcefulness in G’dly action that comes of bitachon. so chesed in netzach is loving-kindness dispensed through and with confidence. and it is the chance for us to look at the obstacles that seem to keep us from loving well as a glass half full! why? well, we are imitating the spirit ways of G’d, whose victory/netzach is eternal/netzach and never a matter of regret or doubt. it is for us to make the Netzach Yisrael (‘G’d’) manifest in the world. G’d opens G’d’s hand and satisfies the needs of every living thing. for us, then, the hand that we open to offer with chesed is held wide open and extended as far as our powerful right arm can reach in netzach….there ain’t no pullin back.

mussar for chesed she b’netzach

with another….bein adam l’chaveiro   doing kindness for someone can change the world for the better in ways that none of us can fully imagine. know that. KNOW that. it is not accident that l’netzach netzachim (‘forever and ever’) is related to l’dor vador (‘forever, as handed down from generation to generation’), so know that the action you take today in loving-kindness has eternal impact on the world. now, what kind thing are you going to do for someone today? (and therefore forever?)

with yourself….bein adam l’atzmo   it’s a little trendy for me, but might work well for others, so here goes: formulate a mission statement for your life….or at least for the next decade or so…..do some personal long-term strategic planning (not tactical!) for your walk with G’d.

kabbalah for chesed she b’netzach

in assiyah….the world of doing/completion   consider how you can make your good work in the world persistent. remember a time in which you lost yourself in the doing of hard work….for any sort of good end. look to that sort of losing yourself as the model to repeat in your efforts in loving-kindness.

in yetzirah….the world of feeling/formation    a person needs a good dose on energizer bunny netzach when faced with chronic problems. family problems, friendship problems, spiritual problems with G’d, ch’v. all need chesed to be extended and not a one-off sort of thing. and the big issue with chronic problems is not the problem itself, but rather our accumulating negative feelings about something that just won’t go away very easily….seem like they never will. netzach is also the power of invention in these times…the energy that emboldens giving a shot at a new way of addressing chronic problems….and the energy to keep doing the necessary repetitive approaches as well.  meditate on how G’d manages to put up with us and our failings day after day, week after week, month after month….l’dor vador!

in b’riyah….the world of thought/creation    let’s extend the idea begun in yetzirah….every obstacle we face in actualizing our personal mission statement, our moral strategic plan, is chronic until we overcome it. we organize and break things down into manageable parts in our work, right? contemplate one of the areas of improvement you have identified….sigh, if you like….but break it down into steps…and consider it some loving-kindness for your own psyche!

in atzilut….the world of nearness to G’d/intuition   athletes talk about “breaking through”, or what we used to call “getting a second wind”. we all of us get a second wind daily if we open up to that fresh neshamah (breathed/breathing soul’) that is breathed into us daily. meditate on part of the daily morning prayer “Nishmat Kol Chai”: “ruach kol basar t’fa’er….tamid” (the spirit (ruach) of all flesh shall honor You…..always). can anything but persistent actions ‘honor’ the Eternal?

kinyan 22 of 48 ways to acquire Torah

Emunat Chachamim….Belief in the Wise.   actually it is faith in the teachings of the wise, and belief in the goodness of their efforts in the world. we may doubt whether some teachings are less helpful for us, but we should never turn aside the teaching of our great rabbis and thinkers completely, even when we have good reason to disagree, for we must know, have emunah (‘belief’ in the form of trust) that they intend good in all their teachings. and that they have more claim to wisdom than most of us! Torah is learning as well as teaching:

“faith is the essence of Torah”

now, go study and engage deeply with Torah with that in mind…learn from the wise wherever they are found.

haYom shiv’a asar yom, sh’heim sh’nei shavuot ush’losha yomim, laOmer: tiferet she b’tiferet

” the Rushing-Spirit of G’d flitted over the face of the waters”

this is the description in Genesis 1:2 of the Presence within the tohu v’bohu (’emptiness’ or ‘chaos’) of the as yet unmade creation. i have always viewed this description as being the ‘physicalesque’ manifestation of G’d presence in the unprecedented state of tzimtzum (‘withdrawal within’)….it answers in a way the question of what was the Presence of G’d in the Absence of G’d that G’d created in order to Create.

the whole of Creation being the utter release of Chesed within the utter confines of Gevurah in the emptiness made within the withdrawal of the without end….making a border where none could have been….ein sof is literally ‘without end’, without border, without phase change, without delimit of time or anything else, without escape horizon….suddenly self-limited within.

ruach is the rushing-spirit, the wind spirit, the spirit of turbulence, of flitting. the waters are the primeval Torah in which all, absolutely all that is knowable is to be known ultimately. i imagine that when G’d is not everywhere in absolute ein sof, then G’d’s touch is without stop, flitting/hovering over and around every part of the emptiness, forming and unforming like clouds, else it would again immediately become ein sof, for there is utterly nothing sustainable–nothing itself is not sustainable–without the Touch of G’d constantly.

the gematria of this phrase from Genesis is 1369. 1369 is also the gematria of the first triad of the lower 7 sefirot: chesed (72), gevurah (216), and tiferet (1081). the first and greatest center of all the interinclusions, for tiferet is center of centers in the middle way of the tree. tiferet is itself Torah in that it is the only sefirah that is directly connected to all the others…save malchut. and it is Shechina that is the Divine Presence in malchut, the Presence of G’d in Creation that is not Torah, that is independent of Torah, that was not created out of or by way of Torah. but to end the exile, malchut will have to be gathered into tiferet, and Torah into Shechina, to end the exiles of Creation. we should all know that sovereignty will have to be all compassionate to achieve the great rectification. no more war, no more dictatorial rule, no more market forces…….just compassion in its expression in power–rule by way of nothing but empathy/integration/harmony….the great Beauty, tiferet in tiferet…..entering into malchut in the end times.

1369 is also the square of 37, and the earliest gematria of 37 is in the name of Hevel (Abel), the son of Adam and Chava whose offering of First Fruits was the perfect and accepted korban (‘bringing near sacrifice’). but Hevel was slain by Kayin (Cain), whose offering of the carcass of one of the flock was not accepted. and power outside of compassion was born, in severity of the left side.

the Omer is all about the first fruits of barley, leading to the first fruits of wheat at Shavuot…the new year for the sustaining grains that are the bread that feeds the world. the bread brought forth from the earth directly by G’d, in his compassionate will, as we say in the motzi blessing. Hevel brought the Omer, the barley to begin the count. and in a real sense, we still await the ripening of the wheat in the times of the Moshiach, when swords will be beaten into ploughshares to tend the fields….and none will know war no more.

the word “hevel” also means ‘vapor,’ which is what rises from our heated study of the sea-waters of Torah, engaging ourselves vigorously in plumbing its depths…..as Chazal teach:

“the Torah of this world is hevel compared to the Torah of the world to come”

but therein the beauty of the integration in integration that is tiferet in tiferet, for we all know the rain cycle, yes?  evaporation from the great waters condenses in the clouds till water precipitates as rain and returns to earth and to the waters, over which the clouds hovered. do you see now how G’d’s great mark of compassion, his rachamim for us all, works?

“if you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then i will bring your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees shall yield their fruit”

when we choose the waters of Torah, we choose life. all in harmony, all in balance, all integrated; the life-giving rains raining the rachamim upon our heads and hearts and hands. tiferet in tiferet is the water in the vapor in the rain….the Rushing-Spirit of the Chai haOlamim (‘life of the worlds’) still flits above…wandering lonely as a cloud.

mussar for tiferet she b’tiferet

tiferet-tiferet with another….bein adam l’chaveiro   my teacher, r’ mordechai eliyahu, zt”l, taught that raising both your right and left hands together while saying the line in the ashrei prayer “You open Your Hand and satisfy the needs of all creatures” was a great yichud in hiddur, signaling the harmonizing of chesed and gevurah in tiferet. when you shake someone’s hand today, use both your hands. it is an embrace in tiferet.

tiferet-tiferet with yourself….bein adam l’atzmo   consider your most deeply held opinions about the nature of people. is your current view balanced? if expressed, would it tend to bring people together and create harmony? if not, work hard today to rid yourself of this error in your thinking. make your mind ready for compassion, not division.

kabbalah for tiferet she b’tiferet

in assiyah….the world of doing/completion    this time of year, the wording of our prayers changes focus from rain to dew. consider how dew is another life-giving precipitation of hevel in compassion. contemplate what is the sign in dew that is parallel to the rainbow in rain?

in yetzirah….the world of feeling/formation    most of us who are not afflicted with a psychological pathology, ch’v, are able to harmonize our good qualities with out faults. we do it without thinking most of the time. meditate on this harmony today. what else can you fold into it to make it more beautiful?

in b’riyah….the world of thought/creation   Proverbs 10:6 teaches us that ‘blessings are upon the head of the righteous’. can you make the blessings that are upon your head rain upon that of another?

in atzilut….the world of nearness to G’d/intuition    r’ kantrowitz brings this teaching: the 17th word of Psalm 67, the psalm we say each day as part of the counting of the Omer (see the spirit guide in this blog, is “yoducha” (‘they will thank you’). today is the 17th day of the Omer. meditate on the deep gratitude you owe to G’d for the blessing of spirit, the blessing of existence in Creation, the blessing of rain in its season.

kinyan 17 of 48 ways to acquire Torah

Miyut Sheinah….Moderation in Sleep.    my personal favorite (see Proverbs 6:9, 10). there is a popular story told to yeshiva students about an encounter between the Netziv, legendary rosh yeshiva of volozhin, and his younger co-rosh yeshiva, r’ chaim soloveitchik (founder of the Brisk method of talmud study). r’ chaim told it as follows (with “me” swapped out for r’chaim, as i am not he):

one night at 3am the Netziv, who was very old at the time, called for his granddaughter’s husband, r’ chaim soloveitchik. r’ soloveitchik. r’chaim rushed to the Netziv, worried that the older rav was not well to be calling him at such an hour. when he got to the Netziv’s room, he found him studying from several volumes of talmud.  the Netziv said that he wanted to show him (r’chaim) a proof of something they had argued out the previous day.  r’ chaim asked the Netziv to give him a minute to make the blessing for Torah study, seeing as he, r’ chaim, had just woken up. the Netziv heard this and started weeping. “what will become of this younger generation? it is already 3am and you, reb chaim, haven’t yet said birkat haTorah!”

the proverb (6:9. 10) asks, “how long will you sleep? lazybones. when will you rise from your sleep?”, but i prefer in this case Milton’s Comus:

“what hath night to do with sleep? night hath better sweets to prove”