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by Rabbi Zushe Greenberg
It's Yom Kippur eve, and the synagogue is packed with worshippers ready for Kol Nidrei. All rise as the ark is opened and the Torah scrolls are removed. The room is charged with emotion, and the cantor begins the moving traditional tune, which dates back thousands of years. "Kol Nidrei ..."
What is Kol Nidrei? And what is it about the Kol Nidrei service, that even Jews who are not regular synagogue-goes, make every effort to be present on Yom Kippur eve?
Kol Nidrei is a prayer written in Aramaic which literally means "All the vows." It's a declaration that nullifies all future vows and, according to some opinions, also retroactively repeals all the vows which one might have made during the course of the previous year.
The root of the Kol Nidrei prayer is found in the Torah (Num. 30:2). "When a person makes a vow to G-d or takes an oath... he may not violate his word, and he must act in accordance with whatever he uttered"
The Torah places a strong emphasis on promises; therefore, the Jewish people found it necessary to institute a special prayer to nullify in advance all vows that we may end up not being able to keep.
Why does the Torah place such great emphasis on the spoken word? Kabala tells us that speech is a very important component of our lives. The Torah points out that man is created in the image of G-d, referring (among other concepts) to the power of speech. Just as G-d created the world through speech, "Let there be light," so, too, our words, although we don't see them spoken, create a certain level of reality.
Based on this notion, Chasidic tradition emphasizes that a person should be extra careful not to utter negative predictions ("He has only six months to live," etc.). On the contrary, they should make special effort to predict positive outcomes, as in, "He'll certainly recover from this illness" or "This business will be successful." These positive words often carry the power to make them come true.
This idea goes one step further. Not only do words have power, even thoughts can have long lasting effects.
There was once a Chasid who came to the third Chabad Rebbe, begging for a blessing for a family member who was very ill. The Rebbe's response was, "Tracht gut, vet zayn gut! - Think good, and it'll be good!" In other words, your positive thoughts can actually bring about positive outcomes.
Speaking positively is a matter of carefully choosing the words that you say, but thinking positive is a real challenge, because it's human nature to worry. If you are able to overcome this urge, you might enjoy great positive outcomes.
As you go about your day, it's inevitable that bad news will come your way. Remember this simple Chasidic remedy, "Think good, and it'll be good!"
Rabbi Zushe Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Solon, Ohio.
The Torah portion of Vayeilech teaches us about the commandment of Hakhel: During the times of the Holy Temple, the Jewish People made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every seventh year to hear the king read the Torah aloud, "that they may hear and that they may learn and fear G-d."
At that time, the kohanim, or priests, surrounded the city of Jerusalem. With golden trumpets they signaled that it was time for everyone to assemble at the Holy Temple. In fact, this musical alarm was so important that, "any kohen who did not have a gold trumpet did not seem to be a kohen at all."
This curious comment needs further explanation. To understand what was meant, let us examine what exactly the kohen's job in the Temple was.
The kohanim were responsible for serving in the Temple, and performed many of the tasks associated with the worship there. Sounding the golden trumpets in the outskirts of Jerusalem was, however, only the preparation for the commandment of hakhel, and not part of the mitzva itself. What, then was so important about this, that a kohen who did not participate was not considered a "real" kohen?
One of the most important and central services performed by the kohanim in the Temple was the burning of the ketoret (incense). Maimonides explains that the purpose of the incense was to dispel any offensive odors and make the Temple smell pleasant.
As with all aspects of Torah, this is understood on many different levels. It is explained in the Zohar that the kohanim were not merely interested in converting unpleasant smells to pleasant ones; the inner purpose of the ketoret was to dispel the foulness of the Evil Inclination.
The ketoret was composed of various inedible substances, among them chelb'na (galbanum), a particularly foul-smelling resin. The Talmud teaches that this ingredient symbolized all that was lowly and inferior. The task of the kohanim was to take the lowly and mundane and utilize it in the service of G-d. Their job was to elevate even the most mundane aspects of life and infuse the physical world with holiness.
This fundamental service of the kohanim found its most emphatic expression in the preparation for the commandment of hakhel. For seven long years prior to this day, the kohanim had been busy in the Temple elevating the physical world. Now it was their turn to elevate the entire Jewish People to a higher spiritual level.
To a certain extent, this was the "test" which determined a kohen's mettle. If he took his G-d-given task to heart, he would run to assemble his fellow Jews, and thereby prove that he was of priestly stock. If, however, he lazily remained at home, he "did not seem to be a kohen at all."
In a broader sense, every single Jew is also a kohen, as it states, "And you shall be a nation of kohanim (priests)." It is every Jew's task in life to go out into the world and "sound the trumpet," arousing his fellow Jews to reach spiritually higher and higher.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Have You Seen My Chicken...?
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
I lost my chicken the day before Yom Kippur. You may be wondering why that is a problem. But you see, this was not an ordinary chicken. On Erev (the day preceding) Yom Kippur we observe the custom of kaporot, by circling a chicken over our heads to atone for our sins (the connection between a helpless chicken and sins is another discussion). Yes, I am sorry to admit that I do have my share of sins. So off I went in search of my chicken in S. Monica.
What was I doing in S. Monica? I flew there from New York to lead a Yom Kippur service - a fascinating experience of its own.
My dear friend Peter, with whom I collaborate for the Yom Kippur service, has a chicken waiting for me. He calls me on my cell. He is waiting in an SUV filled with chicken stench. "You better get down here immediately, or else..." I hurry down. Off we go with cackling chickens in the back, some already used by Peter's family. One chicken is particularly loud. "That must be your chicken acting up," I tell Peter.
We finally reach the slaughterhouse, and go to retrieve my chicken from the back of his car, and... off the chicken runs, clearly aware of its impending fate. I never saw a chicken run so fast; my sins must have frightened him to death.
Finally we corner that naughty rascal. I have an allergic resistance to touching this chicken. I finally grab him under the wings, walk over to the door of the slaughterhouse, and am surprised to hear the sound within. Mexican music is blaring out the door. But as I peek inside, the smell and ambiance of the makeshift chicken factory are unmistakably Erev Yom Kippur'dik.
And so, I did kaparot to the tune of La Bamba... Yes, it was quite a scene.
This is how my Erev Yom Kippur unfolded on a cool morning on the West Coast.
You may ask, what is the metaphor and lesson in all of this? And what is this thing with a chicken anyway? Why do innocent chickens have to die for our sins?
Perhaps it is just to teach us a humble lesson. Instead of escaping on Yom Kippur into meditating on lofty concepts, the chicken forces you out of your head and into reality. Yes, this is not just some academic exercise; it is about life and death. It is about holding in your hands a chicken throbbing with life and knowing that your actions will affect the destiny of this creature.
In my case, this particular year, I needed to pursue this white rooster, no small feat, and look into its blinking eyes and acknowledge that I have some things to account for, which this chicken will not allow me to forget.
I don't relate to the word "sin." The guilt thing just never got to me. What is a sin after all? The word in Hebrew for "sin" is "aveira," which means "dislocate" ("ha'avara m'reshut l'reshut - movement from on entity to another"). A sin is a mode of behavior or an action that dislocates us from our essence.
Yom Kippur is a day when each of us has the unique opportunity to return to our true being. To reconnect even after we have wandered off. To reintegrate who we really are and our preoccupations.
Yom Kippur is the birth of hope. On this day Moses returned to us after 80 arduous days of prayer, beseeching G-d to forgive the Jewish people for their iniquities.
There is no greater celebration than the ones that comes from returning and reconnecting to one's essence.
And there I was in plastic L.A. chasing after a chicken in preparation for the holiest day of the year. It doesn't get more hilarious, and at the same time serious in a strange way.
I was not surprised to discover that this Yom Kippur was one of the most memorable in my life. The prayers came alive as we applied them to our daily lives. We experienced a true combination of history draped in real life. The holiest day of the year, thousands of years of prayers, beginning with Moses at Sinai, all integrated with our struggles today created a most powerful experience. Traveling the journey of Yom Kippur's five step prayer service, climbing the ladder from prayer to prayer, through the five levels of the soul, nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida (the five levels of life: functional, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, the essence), was exhilarating and transforming.
Indeed, Yom Kippur is a day that allows you to leave behind for 26 hours a world of monotony and often pain into a purer world of spirit. A world that is driven not by pettiness and competition, with all the distractions and tiresome efforts of trying to make ourselves feel important. A world where you are just there and feel you belong unconditionally, with no airs and pretenses.
If you let yourself go - and that chicken in S. Monica sure loosened me up - Yom Kippur becomes the most powerful cleanser.
And that is the greatest cause of celebration, when we celebrate the awe of Yom Kippur.
Whoever said that Yom Kippur can't be fun?
Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of the best-selling Toward a Meaningful Life which has been translated into Hebrew, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Japanese. He is the director of the Meaningful Life Center. Reprinted with permission from www.meaningfullife.com All rights reserved.
Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Beyond
The Outreach Department of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, as well as the Prison's Department of that organization, have been spear-heading holiday programs throughout the New York Metro area for five decades. Patients in local hospitals as well as home-bound elderly were able to fulfill the special mitzva (commandment) of hearing the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana thanks to volunteers who walked from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, headquarters to other parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Prisons in the Federal and State system were visited before Rosh Hashana so that Jewish inmates could get a taste of the Jewish holiday season of their own. For the upcoming Sukkot holiday, there will be mobile Sukkot traversing the streets of Manhattan and other boroughs to bring the mitzvot of the Sukkot holiday to people on the go.
Freely translated from a letter of the Rebbe
The days immediately preceding and following Rosh Hashana are the time dedicated to sincere introspection and a careful and honest examination of the record of the outgoing year, with a view to the proper deductions and resolutions which are to regulate one's personal daily life, as well as that of his home, and all his affairs in the year to come.
Moreover, these are exceptionally propitious days, days permeated with the core of the Psalm: "Search my inwardness; Thy inner essence, G-d, do I seek" (Ps. 27:8). They call and demand:
Search for the innermost and the profound within you; seek out also the inwardness of everything around you, the soul of the universe; search for and bring to light the G-dliness that animates and pervades the world!
Both aspects - the honest self-appraisal and the search for the inner essence of things - are interrelated and interdependent.
In evaluating the results of the outgoing year, one is very prone to err by taking into account only the external, both in himself and in the environment. In doing so, one is on equally treacherous grounds in regard to setting the pattern of daily living in the year to come.
To forestall this misleading approach, these auspicious days sound their message and challenge:
Do not sell yourself short! Do not underestimate your capacities and abilities!
For no matter what your spiritual "stock-in-trade" is, your "visible assets" - the existing possibilities that you have to conduct your life in accordance with the teachings of our Torah; no matter how formidable is your strength of character and your ability to cope with a frustrating environment, and with undaunted perseverance to follow your path of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) -
Much greater and richer are your "hidden reserves" of powers to create new possibilities, and of inner qualities giving you the ability to overcome obstacles and to shape your life and the life around you to be in harmony with Truth and Goodness.
In order to reveal and apply these powers, however, it is necessary that you search for and release your potential forces. But you are promised: "You will discover - because you will search with all your heart and soul" (Deut. 4:29).
What has been said above is more especially and more fully applicable to those who occupy positions of spiritual leadership and influence, from the rabbi of the community down to the individual parents who set the pace of the spiritual life of their household and family.
All too often do we see them stymied by doubt and fear, afraid to use, what seem to them, a strong word or excessive demand lest they might alienate, instead of attract.
To them these days address themselves with this message and challenge:
Search inwardly: seek deeply and you will unravel the innermost treasures of those whom you would lead and inspire; evaluate them not externally, but according to their inner resources, according to the capacity of their soul, the veritable spark of G-d-liness from Above.
For with the right approach and by indefatigable effort you will be able to uncover and activate in everyone his inner spiritual resources, so that they begin to animate his daily life.
6 Tishrei, 5766 - October 9, 2005
Positive Mitzvah 154: Resting on Shabbat
This mitzva is based on the verse (Ex. 23:12) "And on the seventh day you shall rest."
We are commanded to stop all our work and rest on the seventh day, Shabbat - from before sundown on Friday until after nightfall on Saturday. On Shabbat, we do not concern nor involve ourselves in our weekday work and occupations.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
There is a custom on the eve of Yom Kippur to eat "lekach" - honey cake. The reason for this custom is that honey cake is a sweet dessert. By eating it, we are expressing our desire and hope that G-d will bless us with a sweet, pleasant, good year.
There is also a custom to give (and receive) honey cake. The reason for this is much less well-known. When we receive honey cake from someone we do it with this thought in mind: Let the honey cake be the only thing this year that we have to take from someone else. Let us be self-sufficient, self-supporting, even be able to help support and provide for others, with G-d's help.
Thus, if there was any possible heavenly decree that the person would have had to ask another for his food during this year, when one asks for lekach the decree has been fulfilled and there will be no further need to ask; all one's needs will be provided for by G-d.
On a deeper level, even the lekach is not really being received from a person! In reality, all food comes from G-d, and therefore a poor person who receives food from a person thanks G-d, Who "provides nourishment and sustenance for all." This is because the person is only an intermediary for delivering G-d's blessings.
However, both parties still feel that a transaction has taken place between two human beings. The giving of lekach on the eve of Yom Kippur is not like this, however. Since these are the days when G-d is "close," all parties involved feel that G-d Himself is doing the giving, and the giver is no more than a messenger. Even more so, the giver is not even seen as a messenger, but just a link enabling G-d's gift to come to the person.
May we, this very Yom Kippur and even before, see with our own eyes that G-d is truly the Giver and that He gives only good, with the complete revelation of our righteous Moshiach NOW!
...Because my G-d is not in the midst of me, that these evils have overtaken me" (Deut. 31:17)
The Baal Shem Tov used to say that if one sees something bad in someone else, it is a sign that an element of the same negative trait exists in the person finding fault. It is as if one is looking into a mirror and sees his own reflection. Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch added his interpretation on this verse: "Because my G-d is not in the midst of me - because my own face is dirty and my own connection to G-d and holiness is flawed, have these evils overtaken me - that is why I find fault in others.
Assemble the people together (Deut: 31:12)
Even a newborn was obligated in the commandment of hakhel, the once-in-seven-year assemblage of all Jews to hear the reading of the Torah. We learn from this that a Jewish child's education begins right after his birth, even before he learns to speak or go to school.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
You have been rebellious with G-d. (Deut. 31:27)
The verse does not say "against G-d," but "with G-d." With every improper thing that we do, we cause G-d to be a partner. This is especially true when we do these things in the name of a mitzva (commandment)!
Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, wife of the scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson and mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, passed away in the late afternoon on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, 1964. At the time that Rebbetzin Chana returned her pure soul to her Creator, her chair in the women's section of the main Lubavitch synagogue ("770" Eastern Parkway) inexplicably caught fire and burned.
The following vignettes about Yom Kippur are from Rebbetzin Chana's memoirs. They took place during Rav Levi Yitzchak's years of exile by the Soviet government in Chi'li, Kazakhstan.
On Yom Kippur, the three of us-my husband, a Roumanian Jew, and I-enclosed ourselves in our room. It is hard to set down on paper the emotions and the spiritual states that we experienced on that day.
Suddenly, we became aware of eyes peering at us through the window. Our guest and I were frightened to open the door, but as soon as the Rav realized what was going on, he went over to the door and threw it open wide. Our unexpected guest turned out to be a young Lithuanian Jew, also in exile.
Here, in exile, this young fellow worked as a wagon-driver. He related to us that while driving his wagon, he had caught a glimpse of the Rav and was struck by his appearance. Since this had occurred during the week before Yom Kippur, he had decided to find out who this person was and where he lived, so that he could try to be in his presence on the holiday. The lad felt that if he could be privileged to be with the Rav on this holiest of days, it would ease the weight of his sorrows and be a balm for his soul. Somehow, our young visitor had managed to locate us.
Half an hour later we heard a knock on the door. We opened it to find a frightened woman who, like the young wagon-driver, yearned to be in the Rav's presence on this day. It seemed that she and her husband had been exiled here from Nikolaiev, and while her husband refused to pray anymore, she herself felt a greater need to pray now than she had ever felt in the past. Not allowing the grueling fast to deter her, she trudged a distance of four kilometers in order to reach our house.
The influx of refugees to our area brought about a severe housing shortage, and the Government responded by issuing a decree restricting each person to a specific number of square meters of living-space. According to the new law, our one room was now large enough to house five people.
The head of the Department of Housing in our area was a gentile engineer, also an exile. He had authored several books on mathematics and occasionally engaged the Rav in scholarly discussions on that subject. Because of his great respect for my husband, this man overlooked the "vacant" space in our room and did not send anyone to share our quarters.
This was a great favor to us.
One day, the daughter or our landlady arrived in the village together with her two children and immediately began dispatching a flurry of petitions to the Chief of Housing. Making great play of the scandalous fact that an exiled Jew had such a large apartment while she, a true proletarian and a loyal Communist, had no place to live at all, she insistently demanded authorization to move into Schneerson's room, especially since it was situated so close to her mother's place.
Having no choice, the Chief issued a permit which gave its bearer the right to move into our room. However, he did not give this permit to the landlady's daughter but to someone else, instead. A teacher with a small child had also applied for a dwelling, and since she was a refined person, he assumed that we would get along much better with her than we would with the landlady's daughter.
The next day, the teacher and her son arrived at our house. Waving the permit at the landlady, she crowed triumphantly, "Schneerson doesn't want a gentile neighbor? - I'll show him!"
The day on which this happened was only a couple of weeks before Yom Kippur. With tears in his eyes, the Rav said to me, "How will I be able to pray here on the Holy Day?" Immediately he began to search his mind for a solution. And we faced yet another problem - keeping kosher - since the kitchen would have to be shared with a gentile.
We were amazed when, without explanation, the teacher left the permit with us and walked out. One week passed, and then another; she never came back! And when the landlady's daughter came along, voicing her demands, we showed her the permit - proof that the room was already occupied to capacity.
After Yom Kippur, the teacher approached my husband on the street. "Rabbi," she inquired in Yiddish, "how was your fast? I also fasted!"
It turned out that this woman was a Jewish refugee from Poland who, in order to save her life, had forged a passport indicating that she was gentile. Subsequently, she had wandered from place to place until arriving in Chi'ili.
"As soon as I saw you," she explained, "I decided not to inconvenience you in any way. Live on in your room, alone and in peace; if anybody complains, you can show them my permit."
Similar causes for small celebrations would arise from time to time. They invariably came about as a result of the high esteem in which everyone held my husband - even those who saw him for the first time.
From A Mother in Israel, the Life and Memoirs of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, translated by Yrachmiel Tilles, Kehot Publications
All of the Prophets prescribed teshuva (repentance) and said that the Jewish people will be redeemed only through teshuva. The Torah has given assurance that Israel will do teshuva - at the end of its exile - and will be redeemed immediately, as it says in Deuteronomy: "It will be when all these things have happened... you will return to G-d... and G-d will return your captivity and will gather you from among all the nations where He dispersed you"
(Maimonides, Laws of Teshuva)