I asked my boss for two days off for the Jewish New Year. I was nervous he was going to ask why two days for a new year celebration. He didn't. He figured the second day was to get over the hangover. But he did ask me why Jewish New Year is in the middle of the year. I answered that it is in the beginning of the year according to the Bible. He asked for a quote. So I looked it up only to find that according to the Torah, Rosh Hashana is celebrated in the seventh month! How do we explain that?
The Jewish year has two beginnings. We just can't keep it simple, can we?
The first month of the year is the Hebrew month of Nissan, when we went out of Egypt and became a nation. Rosh Hashana, exactly half way through the year, is the day Adam and Eve were created.
But we only celebrate Rosh Hashana as the new year. Because Rosh Hashana is not the beginning of the year, it is the head of the year. And your head is centered in the middle of your body.
There are two drivers of the human personality, the head and the heart. Your head is the seat of intellect, while your heart represents emotion. Unlike your heart, which veers off to the left side of your body, your head is symmetrically placed in the middle. This is because intellect in its pure form is balanced, objective and unbiased. The mind is impartial, dispassionate and removed, and thus able to judge. So it sits over the middle of the body. Emotion takes sides, is biased and subjective. Our heart is the home of passion and feeling, it can tend to extremes, and so it rests to one side of the body.
There is an age-old quandary. Who should be king over our castle, the mind or the heart? Should we think before we act, or should we follow our feelings? Should we live a life of heated passion, or of cold calculation?
The Zohar teaches that "the mind directs the heart." Passion is wonderful, as long as it is pointed in the right direction. Start with the head, and then introduce the heart. Before getting subjective about anything, look at it objectively. This is why we celebrate Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, in the middle of the year. We start off in the balanced center, so our passions can be focused and channeled.
Life is lived in the heart. But life decisions have to be made with a steady head. On Rosh Hashana, we get into the right headspace to start the year with clear direction and a well thought out vision. The head has to be in charge. Your boss should get that.
I wish you a sweet new year, may you be written in the Book of Life,
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Question of the Week:
Why do we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah? I know it is supposed to symbolise a sweet new year, but there are plenty of other sweet foods we could eat. I imagine in times gone by that was the only sweet food that was readily available. But these days we have much more choice, so why do we still dip apples in honey?
The biggest question Judaism faces today is how to respond to modernity. How can Judaism appeal to a new generation? What will ignite the Jewish soul in the 21st century? Does Judaism need an update, or should we try to go back in time and recreate the lost world of Jewish life that existed in times gone by?
There are two common answers, the traditionalist and the modernist.
The traditionalist says that whatever was done in the past is right, and anything new is evil. What was good for our great-grandparents is good for us too. We need to go back to the good old days. Modernity can go jump.
Then there is the modernist. The priests of progress say that whatever is old is out, and whatever is new is in. We are not our grandparents, and we are not living in their world. We need to update Judaism to fit into the latest fads, the newest of new-age ideas, the most recent cutting edge worldview. This view claims that Judaism needs to move with the times.
In truth, they are both wrong. Traditionalism won't work, because it doesn't deal with the unique challenges and blessings that we face today. Modernism won't work either, because it has no roots, no eternal truths, it is fickle and flimsy, superficial and empty.
There is as third approach, one that I believe is the authentic Jewish approach. This is the apples dipped in honey approach. Not traditionalism, not modernism, but applehoneyism.
Both apples and honey are sweet foods. This they have in common. But where they differ is in their shelf life. An apple goes bad very quickly. Even after a few minutes left exposed, a slice of apple will go brown and soft, and soon be inedible. Leave an apple in a fruit basket for a few weeks, and it will shrivel up and become mushy and rotten. Apples need to be eaten fresh.
Not so with honey. Honey does not decompose. In fact, the ancients used it as a preservative. Jars of honey were found in the pyramids in Egypt, unspoiled after thousands of years. Honey never goes bad.
Apples represent the modern world, the here and now, that fleeting moment in time we call the present. It is fresh today, stale tomorrow. Honey on the other hand represents tradition, a force that is unchanging and constant, timeless and stable.
Jewish spirituality is a delicate marriage of these two forces. For our spiritual life to be dynamic and alive, it must change and keep up with the times. But to have substance and meaning, it has to present a truth that is above change, that is timeless.
The true way to achieve this balance is by not making up new traditions, but rather finding new depth in the old traditions. The laws and rituals of Judaism are as compelling and inspiring today as they ever were. But their message needs to be communicated in a way that speaks to today's world. Maintain the beliefs and rituals of our grandparents, but bring to them a new vitality, by exploring deeper reasons and explanations that talk to our generation. You don't need to change our traditions to make them relevant. All you need to do is dig deeper into their meaning. In the infinite well of Jewish wisdom you will find the message for today.
The apple alone will go rotten fast, as will every spiritual fad not based on truth. Dip your apple in the honey of our eternal tradition, and it will be preserved forever.
Chaim Munitz, a young and energetic rabbinical student from Buffalo, N.Y, has utilized his personable demeanor to mentor dozens of students in the yeshiva system and has devoted his summers educating campers in camps all across America and Canada. He loves teaching young school children and showing them the beauty of Judaism.
Mushka Munitz was born in Simcha (Santa) Monica, California and is an outgoing ball of energy & joy! 12th in a family of 14, Mushka has loved children from a very young age and has always dreamed of becoming a teacher. After high school, Mushka's dream became a reality when she attended Teacher's Seminary in Canada and graduated with a degree in child development and special education.
Together they have put together an action packed children's program for Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur and they can't wait to make the Shul experience meaningful, educational and fun for your children!
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Question of the Week:
I am in a bind. I left Catholicism many many years ago and would never return to it. I love the majesty and depth of Judaism. But for several reasons I can't convert and don't intend to. For one I can't commit to all the laws of Judaism. So I feel I am sort of spiritually homeless. Help!
You are not alone. You are a part of a community of searching souls who find direction and spiritual sustenance in the Torah, and yet remain outside of Judaism.
There have always been gentiles who admired and embraced the ways of Torah, from the Subbotniks of Russia, to the converts of San Nicandro Italy, the Abayudaya of Uganda and the Sabbatarians of Hungary. Some made the leap and converted to become Jews. Others remained on the outside, hovering around the edges of Judaism but never plunging in.
Those who converted were integrated into the Jewish family, and those who did not either reverted back to their original religion, or stayed somewhere in between, neither here nor there.
But there is another option. You don't need to choose between embracing Torah or dropping it. You can be a Noahide.
Noah was the father of all mankind. His story is told in the Torah, because though the Torah is G-d's message to the Jewish people, it also includes a universal message to all peoples, the children of Noah.
Being a Noahide means following the seven laws of Noah as described in the Torah, without keeping the 613 laws of Moses, which only apply to Jews. That is quite a discount. The exact same G-d at a drastically reduced price. Jewish festivals and Shabbos meals not included.
You don't need to be Jewish. But don't be Jewish-ish. Be a Noahide.
What is Judaism's take on looking into our future? I've always been under the impression that it is forbidden for us to consult with spiritual 'mediums', but more and more I'm hearing of people who are paying big money to find out what their future may hold. Is it possible to know our destiny?
The Torah forbids looking into the future, not because it isn't possible to do, but because it isn't a good idea.
There are indeed ways to divine the future. There are Jewish sources that speak of the wisdom of horoscopes and palm reading, clairvoyants and soothsayers. The problem is not that these are false (though many practitioners of them are), it is that there is a danger when they are used to predict the future.
These readings can do nothing more than predict someone's destiny based on current circumstances. The way things stand now, if all variables remain unchanged, this is your fate. What they can't predict is human free choice.
We have the ability to choose our path, to change our destiny and to outsmart fate. We are not bound to a future that is out of our control. While we can't change the forces of destiny, we can change ourselves. When a person improves themselves, becomes a better person, then they are now a new being with a new destiny. The human power to change is a variable no seer can predict.
This is why we are better off not knowing what is in store for us. Because once we hear it, we may become stuck in the belief that our future is set. And this itself may affect our future negatively, as our will to change and freedom to choose becomes paralysed.
If I am told that my future is all good, I will have wealth and love and happiness, this knowledge may make me complacent and lazy, expecting these things to just come on their own. But they will not. If I want wealth I need to work, if I want to find love I need to meet people, if I want happiness I need to live a life of meaning. G-d may want to bestow much good upon me, but it won't happen without my effort.
So too if I am given a negative prognosis, if I am told that I am destined to suffer and be sick, then the worry and anxiety caused by such a prediction can itself lead to the suffering and sickness I am dreading. The prediction becomes self-fulfilling, as I give in to a fate that need not be mine.
For these reasons and more, you are better off leaving the future for tomorrow and focusing on today. If you do that, I predict good things in store for you. Your destiny is not in your palm, it is in your hands.
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Question of the Week:
Here's a question I struggle with: every year 13-year old bar mitzvah boys in synagogues around the world will intonate the Torah's commandment to stone people to death, including rebellious sons who fail to yield to their parents commands (however unreasonable they may be, Deut 22:18-21); and our "very own brother, son or daughter, or beloved wife" if they suggest worshipping alternate gods" (however that may be proven, Deut 13:6-11).
I struggle with these passages because they promote such incommensurate violence. If I am blessed with a son and he has to read one of these verses for his bar mitzvah, I will find myself seriously conflicted. Even if there is an alternate, non-literal interpretation to these passages, a 13-year old boy may not have the maturity to understand it. Aren't we teaching our sons to be violent?
Bar mitzvah boys have been reading these passages that you say "promote incommensurate violence" for the last 3000 years. This is not a new phenomenon. So let's examine, what affect has that had on them? Are boys who read these passages more violent than those who don't have a bar mitzvah at all? Has Torah study been a negative influence on them? Have violent acts of crime been attributed to the negative impact of bar mitzvah lessons?
It can be easily proven that even you don't believe this. Imagine you were walking down a dark alley alone late at night, and a bunch of youths came out of a building just ahead of you and were walking your way. Would it calm you or alarm you to find that they were a group of yeshiva students who study Torah all day long just leaving a lecture? Can you honestly say that you would not breathe a sigh of relief if you saw Torah books under their arms, books containing the very verses you quoted? When it comes to your basic survival instinct, I think you would agree that you would feel safe.
But we don't need to rely on such anecdotal evidence to prove that Torah promotes goodness and not violence. We have statistics. The city with the highest poverty rate in the entire United States is Kiryas Joel, an entirely Chasidic enclave in upstate New York with a population of 21000. Yet violent crime is almost non-existent among the teenagers of that community. And there are a lot of bar mitzvah boys in Kiryas Joel. Almost 60% of its population is under 18, and they all learn Torah. I am not suggesting Kiryas Joel is utopia and it certainly has its share of social issues, but teenage violence is not one of them.
It is easy to pluck a verse out of context and show how violent Torah is. It is much harder to find people who have become violent from learning Torah. Religion is all in the teaching. What seems like a religion of peace can turn into a cult of death, and what looks like a book of violence can be interpreted as a masterpiece of kindness. The application of the law, not the letter or the law, is what counts. It's not what's in the books, its what's in people's hearts.
Of all the influences in a teenage boy's life, his bar mitzvah lessons are far more likely to temper his aggression than aggravate it. If your son does end up learning one of those passages for his bar mitzvah, I would have no qualms meeting him in a dark alley any time.