Most people who have read a little about Kabbalah probably know that this mystical tradition of Judaism talks a great deal about light – what it calls the Endless Light. The Kabbalah teaches that through our actions we draw and increase this Divine Light into the world or diminish its presence.
For a long time, I had difficulty in understanding this Kabbalistic metaphor until one day it all came together. As a way of explaining this difficult concept, let me ask you to imagine for a moment that you have walked into a magic store. And there, they are selling special flashlights equipped with magic lights of different kinds. For example, you can buy the light of science, and when you point that flashlight at your hand, you see not a hand, but cells and blood vessels and tendons and ligaments. Or you can buy the light of art, and you point that flashlight at your hand, you see your hand as if it were a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci – you see form, and color, and texture. And you’re having a lot of fun trying out the different flashlights with the different lights. And then you see one labeled “the light of Chanukah.” What will you see in that light?
It is interesting that according to Jewish law, when we light the Chanukah Menorah we are prohibited from using its light –from reading by it, or doing some other task by it. Instead, we are commanded to simply look at the light. All year long we are looking at what we see in the light, but on Chanukah we are to focus on seeing the light itself. We are to fill our eyes with the light of Chanukah so that when Chanukah is over, we will continue to see our lives in this special light. What is special about the light of Chanukah?
When King Solomon wrote in his famous work, Ecclesiastes, “everything is vanity … nothing is new under the sun” he was talking about what it is like to see the world in the light of the sun, in the light of nature.
But the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah, teaches us everything is new when seen in the light beyond the sun.
The light of Chanukah is the light beyond the sun, it's the light beyond nature, it's the light of miracles. And what does the world look like in the light of miracles? The world looks like a miracle. In the light of nature nothing is new but in the light of miracles everything is new and novel.
When I point the light of science at my hand I see cells, I see veins. When I point the light of art at my hand I see form, I see shape, and I see color. But when I point the light of Chanukah, I see a miracle. We fill our eyes with the light of Chanukah for eight days, so that when the holiday is over, we see that everything is a miracle, we see that even nature is actually a miracle.
Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways of looking at the world – either you see nothing as a miracle or you see everything as a miracle.”
The Jews see everything as a miracle. The Greeks saw nothing as a miracle. To the Greeks, a miracle was an absurdity. To them only what is reasonable, logical, and rational can be real. Miracles are illogical and therefore not possible.
The Greeks could never access the light of Chanukah, the light of miracles, because they only believed in the light of reason. To them the world always existed, it never was created. History was an inevitable process – the present linked to the past and the necessary outcome of the past. Nothing unusual can happen, history will march on, a consequence on top of the last consequence. Similarly, their view of G-d, or rather of G-ds, was of super-beings detached from the world, contemplating themselves. Their G-ds didn’t care about man. For the Greeks nothing is new under the sun—what “was” always “will be”. Therefore miracles are impossible.
This is why Judaism irritated the Greeks so much that they decided to wipe it out. Judaism said G-d created the world, cares about man, and invites man to be His partner in making history and perfecting the world. The Greeks assumed that the world was perfect already. Everything was as it should be. The world was eternal, history was inevitable, G-d was impersonal. No expectations of miracles, no hope. Life is a Greek tragedy.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained that the difference between the Jewish perspective of history and the world's perspective of history is that the world generally sees history as an unfolding out of the past, as if the past is pushing history forward. But Judaism believes that it's actually the future that is activating history -- history is actually being pulled, not pushed, towards the future.
If sometimes -- because man has free will as G-d's partner in making history -- history goes off the road, then G-d might interfere for the sake of the future with the natural transition from past into present. Then the present may not be determined by the past, but the present may be determined by the future. That’s when miracles happen.
One key example of that is the survival of the Jewish people which historians have puzzled over for centuries. The Jews should not be here. We broke all the historical rules. No other nation has survived under these kinds of conditions. We are a people of miracles who believe in a G-d of miracles. We believe in a G-d who cares, a G-d who relates to us. And if G-d so wills it, something radical and new can happen at any moment. We have reason to be hopeful.
This is why we light candles on Chanukah and bring the light of Chanukah – the light of miracles – into our lives every year. On Chanukah we are celebrating the light beyond the sun, the light of hope and miracles. We fill our eyes with that light so that we can use that light all year long, once we've internalized it within ourselves.
In fact, it is only in the light of Chanukah that we can understand Chanukah at all. It's only because the Maccabees had the light of miracles already in their souls that they went ahead to accomplish something very unreasonable and very irrational. A small group of weaklings stood up against the warriors of Greece and won. But they knew it was possible because G-d created the world and is free to do as He pleases.
Their victory was a miracle in itself, so why top it off by keeping the Menorah miraculously lit for eight days? It seems most unnecessary. When you think of it, this was a very strange miracle. There are lots of miracles that have happened in the history of the Jewish people, but this seems to be an unnecessary miracle. Okay, the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks and when they went to light the Menorah there was only enough oil for one day. And yes, unbelievably that oil lasted for eight days until more oil could be pressed and brought in. But this doesn’t seem like a very important miracle. If they hadn’t been able to light that Menorah the world would not have fallen apart. So, they would have had to wait another eight days – would that have been so terrible?
But that is the definition of miracle – its unnecessary. Natural phenomena are necessary. If I put a drop of ink into water, it necessarily will dissolve. That's nature. But a miracle is just the opposite. It doesn’t have to be, indeed in the light of nature it shouldn’t be. But it is because G-d wants it to be. G-d needs no reason to make a miracle. G-d wants to, and G-d does it. That's why Chanukah is such an incredible holiday of miracle, because it's the holiday which really celebrates the essence of miracle, the essence of the unnecessary.
When you look at the world in the light of Chanukah, you realize that the world is completely unnecessary. That you're unnecessary. That everything is unnecessary. And yet the world is here and you are here. Celebrating the unnecessary is really the celebration of love. Because the ultimate expression of love and kindness is not in doing what I have to do, but in doing what I don’t have to do. If I dent your car and then offer to pay for it, that is not an act of love. That is the law which says what I have to do. But if one day I decide to wash your car or buy you a new one, that is an act of love.
Judaism believes that we are here by the grace of G-d because G-d – out of His infinite love – created us. It is a miracle that we are here and at Chanukah, more than at any time of the year, we see that and we marvel. We see ourselves in the light of miracle, in the light of miracle and hope.
Without the light of Chanukah we would be totally blind to the true Chanukah victory--- the triumph of G-d’s love. It is only in the light of Chanukah that we are able to see the infinite possibilities of love. In the light of science and in the light of art we see aspects – and only some aspects – of what is there. But in the light of Chanukah – in the light of miracles – we see all that is and all that can be.
In the light of Chanukah we see that everything is a miracle and only love is real. Anything is possible-- so never lose hope.
Getting out of Egypt was more than a political emancipation of the Jewish people. It was a spiritual transformation. The Jews were not only physically enslaved but also spiritually enmeshed in Egyptian culture. Egypt was the epitome of egotism and haughtiness. But in truth we all know that in actuality, a person is egotistical because he lacks true self-esteem and confidence of his self-worth. His haughty airs are really a cover-up, a guise. He is trying to compensate for his painful sense of inadequacy and insecurity.
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher living in the Twelfth century, explains that humanity’s lack of self worth was what led them to idolatry. He explains that the ancients were unable to fathom that G-d would personally care about them. Therefore, they sought out help from an intermediate power other than G-d. They believed that their lives were guided by the power of the stars because G-d, the Creator, does not personally care about them. They reasoned, “Of what worth are we that the Creator would have any regard for our situation?”
The Passover story teaches us that this despairing attitude is false. A verse in the Torah reads, “Don’t make intermediate G-ds, guard the Festival of the Matza.” The Sages explain this odd juxtaposition: “This is to teach us that anyone who disgraces the Festival is as if performs idolatry.” In other words, celebrating Passover affirms our belief that G-d loves us and personally takes care of us; there is no need for any intermediaries between us. To think otherwise is the beginning of idolatry.
Judaism teaches that G-d’s love and care for us is unconditional. Therefore, in the times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem we were obligated to come there and, so to speak, greet G-d face to face. Of-course the presence of G-d fills the earth and we are in His presence wherever. However, in Jerusalem that truth is more readily experienced. On the holiday of Passover even a simpleton with no preparation could experience a sudden quantum leap in his spiritual level and feel worthy to enjoy a personal loving relation with G-d. Each and every one of us is befitting to bask in G-d’s loving presence.
The Torah refers to a Festival as a Moed, which literally means “to meet.” The portable sanctuary that the Jews carried with them in the desert was called the Ohel Moed—the Meeting Tent. It was a place to meet G-d. The Festivals, however, are a time to meet G-d. The Torah also refers to a festival as a Mikra Kodesh a “Calling of Holiness,” because it calls forth from each of us our innate holiness and G-dliness. Therefore, to deny yourself the celebration of a Moed—a direct meeting with G-d --- is as if to accept the claim of idolatry; that G-d doesn’t love and care about you because you are insignificant and, therefore, unworthy of His personal attention.
In truth, we are always connected to and loved by G-d. However, three times a year on the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot we are able to readily feel that truth without preparation.
Other mitzvot and customs have no apparent connection to what happened on Purim. Why are we required to give charity to the poor, send two food items to a friend, and get so drunk that we do not know the difference between Haman, the villain, and Mordechai, the righteous hero of the story? (This last mitzvah, I understand, is very rigorously kept in college dorms all year round.)
What is behind the customs to dress up in costume and to eat hamentaschen, delicious, sweet tarts named literally, "Haman's hat"? In Hebrew, the tarts are called "Haman's ears." Imagine that you didn't know that much about Jewish culinary customs, and you walk into a bakery before Purim, and the Hasidic guy in front of you orders, "a dozen of Haman's ears." Over the counter they hand him something with black stuff in the middle, which he gives to his little children. And the kids munch away happily, saying, "I love these Haman's ears." Doesn't that sound sick? Why would anyone want to eat a part of the sadistic anti- Semite Haman?
The scroll of Esther, the Purim story, in Hebrew is called, "Megillat Esther." "Megillah" comes from the root word meaning, "revelation." The name Esther is related to the Hebrew word for hiddenness. So Megillat Esther suggests "the revelation of hiddenness."
The hiddenness which is revealed on Purim is the hiddenness of Hashem's (God's) oneness. You see, the oneness of Hashem is such that Hashem can create a being who has free choice, yet, mysteriously, that free choice cannot oppose Hashem's will and plan. It can do other than Hashem's will, but it won't in any way interfere with Hashem's will and plan.
We see this paradox illustrated throughout the events of the Purim story. The Jews of the Persian Empire are assimilating. The evil Haman decides to destroy the Jewish people, and proceeds to execute his plot, making his moves toward the final solution of the Jews. The irony of the story is that everything he does to destroy us, destroys him-and saves us. By threatening our existence, Haman indirectly initiates a renewal in the Jews' commitment to Torah, reversing the tide of assimilation which is always the greatest threat to Jewish survival. And Haman digs his own grave, or more accurately, builds his own gallows, for the gallows he had built to hang Mordechai are used for Haman's own execution.
In the Purim story, there are no miraculous interventions, no sea splitting. In fact, Hashem's name is not even mentioned in the Book of Esther. This is a tremendous revelation of Hashem's oneness. The greatest revelation of Hashem's oneness is that Hashem does not have to interfere. This is the revelation of hiddenness: that within the natural world, within the free choices of human beings, Hashem's plan is being completely fulfilled, step by step.
Hashem has written a script, and we are the actors in that drama. The question isn't whether we are going to play our parts, but how we will play our parts-whether consciously and willingly, or obliviously and resistantly. Whether we choose to work for Hashem's plan of growth, love, and oneness, or against it, is our choice.
Again, we see this illustrated dramatically in the story of Esther. Esther, who is secretly Jewish, has by a strange set of circumstances married the King of Persia. (Sounds like fate at work?) But soon after, Haman the Prime Minister begins to execute his plot to destroy the Jewish people. So Mordechai, Esther's uncle, says to her: "We've got to save the Jewish people. Perhaps Hashem has orchestrated things in this very manner so that you could be queen and in a position to save the Jewish people."
But Esther isn't convinced. She tells Mordechai, "You know the rules of the palace. If I go to the king without being invited, he could have me killed!"
To that Mordechai says something bizarre: "If you don't do this, Esther, the salvation of the Jews will come from someplace else."
What kind of argument is that? I mean, if you want to get somebody to do something, and you're Jewish, what method do you use? Guilt! Mordechai should have said to Esther, "If you don't do it, the Jewish people will be destroyed. This will be the end of Jewish history."
Instead he says, "If you don't do it, the Jews will be saved anyway, but you'll lose out on the starring role."
Mordechai was teaching Esther the secret of choice: In terms of Hashem's great plan, it doesn't make a difference what you do. But in terms of your own life, it makes all the difference in the world. Do you want to actively, consciously participate in Hashem's plan, or not? If you don't sign on, it will still happen. But you'll lose out. You can be the star, or an extra on the set. That's your choice.
And Esther decides to do it. The Jewish people are saved, with Esther in the starring role, because she chose to play her part.
On Purim we try to get to a drunken state where we don't perceive a difference between "Blessed Mordechai" and "Cursed Haman." In gematria, the numerical equivalent of each phrase is the same: 502. In what way is the evil Haman equal to the righteous Mordechai? Because they both serve the Divine plan, Haman, with all his foul machinations, initiated the process of repentance which saved the Jewish people from assimilation and eventually made them worthy to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Now you'll understand why the sweet treat of the holiday is "Haman's ears." Because that bitter, destructive man turned out to be the source of sweetness and nourishment for Jewish survival.
That's Haman's greatest punishment: to realize that he saved the Jewish people. The Talmud teaches that Hashem's praise comes out of Gehenom (hell) as it comes out of Gan Eden (paradise). In other words, the evil ones also end up serving Hashem's plan, albeit against their own will.
On Purim, we're celebrating that everything is going according to Hashem's plan. Whether we see it or not. On Purim, we recognize Hashem's hiddenness, and celebrate that hiddenness. That's why we dress up in disguises. We are emulating Hashem, who is the Master of Disguise, the Master of Hiddenness. Hashem's plan disguises itself even as the evil people in the world. On Purim, we see that it's a disguise. There is only one Actor, playing a myriad of roles. Hashem is One.
In our ordinary consciousness, we do not see this transcendent oneness. But on Purim, with a little Jack Daniels, it's amazing what we can see. So, I wish each of you an incredible Purim. And if you happen to see a redhead wandering around the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, please send him home. His children are waiting for him.
There is a part of me that really dislikes Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanna seems to be a very uncomfortable experience -- not a pleasurable day at all. It’s called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment and I simply dread being judged. Who enjoys feeling fear, feeling threatened, or thinking about possibly being punished? It is also referred to as Yom HaZicharon, the Day of Memory. On this day God remembers everything -every little itsy bitsy tiny weenie little thing that I did last year and then decides my fate for the upcoming year.
There is, however, another part of me that feels much love for Rosh Hashanah. It is an opportunity to take inventory of my actions, reflect and make changes to improve myself and my relationships with others. Judgment is actually empowering. It tells me that God cares about my choices and that I make a difference in this world.
There is a verse from the book of Psalms that summarizes my ambivalence. The sages associate this verse with Rosh Hashanah. It states “Serve God with reverence, rejoice in trembling”. This seems to be a paradox-- either I am happy and rejoicing or I am frightened and trembling. How can I be doing and feeling both? Yet on Rosh Hashanah somehow I am rejoicing about my trembling.
On Rosh Hashanah when I acknowledge that God is the one and only King and Judge my ego feels frightened and overwhelmed. My illusion of being self-contained without any accountability to a higher power is shattered. This egotistical illusion is what the Kabbalah calls klipah – the hard shell. When the shell is broken I realize that I cannot do whatever I want, whenever I want or where ever I want. I am not independent and self defined. There is someone that I am responsible and accountable to. That is very frightening for the ego, but also very reassuring for the self.
The self wants to feel accountability because if I am not accountable then I don’t count. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah while my pained ego shatters into little pieces my true inner self, the soul, is encouraged and rejoices.
On Rosh Hashanah we tremble with joy because we know that God’s judgment is actually an expression of great love and care.
Imagine one day you receive a love letter. You are at work and eating lunch at the employee cafeteria, and someone drops a letter in front of you. You see that it’s a letter from the one you love. Do you rip open the envelope and start to speed-read through the letter? No, of course you don’t. You save this letter. You’re going to read it in a very special place because this letter deserves more.
Now imagine you’re in that special place. You open the letter carefully, you start to read your beloved’s words and you actually begin to hear her voice. And then you feel her presence.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll read the letter over and over again, because you know there’s much more to this letter. The first time you read it you get the simple meaning. But then you read it even more carefully. You notice that she tells you about the weather and then she starts talking about her mother. What’s the connection, you wonder. You then read the letter again and now you see that there are hints in this letter. You pay attention not only to what she says, not only to the way she’s structured her sentences, but you look at how she forms the very letters. Then you go over it again because you realize that it’s even deeper than even that. There are secrets in the actual letters. Then you start looking for the deeper subtle meanings.
Once you’ve analyzed every nuance, you carefully refold the letter, place it in its envelope and tuck it away for safekeeping. You save this letter because you sense the presence of your beloved within the sheets of paper.
Now let’s imagine that someone else is reading that letter. Is that person going to feel the presence of someone else’s beloved? No. He’d just get the letter’s simple meaning, the information. But for you it would be different. You wouldn’t just be reading the letter, you’d get involved in it. And through your involvement with the words, nuances, and deeper meanings, you’d meet your beloved.
This, in essence, is learning Torah. Through our involvement with the text, we hear G-d’s voice, feel the Divine presence and experience G-d’s love. Getting involved in Torah is a living encounter with G-d—the Author.
To learn Torah you have to get involved with its Author through the text. Other books, however, you can just read or study regardless of any relationship with the author. In fact, most of the time when you read a book you know next to nothing about the author and you are generally not so interested in getting to know him. You simply want the story, ideas, facts, and information contained in the book.
Torah knowledge is not just about amassing ideas and facts. To know Torah is to connect with the Author. The more involved we are with it, the better we get to know and connect with G-d—its author. G-d speaks to us through the text.
“What about my pencil? What about my book?” he wonders, as he picks them up and lets them go. “Ah ha! Apples, books, and pencils fall! There seems to be a consistent force that draws things down,” he realizes.
Did he invent gravity? No, he just discovered it. Gravity is a physical principle that has been guiding the movement of physical bodies since the beginning of time. Having finally understood it, this fellow was able to articulate a principle that had always been the force through which G-d directs the world. This is what Isaac Newton did when he formulated his theory of gravitation. This, in fact, is what all scientists attempt to do.
We naturally live in accordance with the laws of gravity. It is obvious to us all that it would be absurd for us to oppose it. However, what if, suddenly, a group of activists decides that they have had it with gravity and organize a world movement of anti-gravitationists. “Who says we’ve got to adhere to gravity? It’s archaic and suppressive. We are going to petition the world. We will establish a new world order. We shall overcome!”
Next thing you know millions of people are signing the petition, declaring their opposition to gravity. They convince millions that gravity is a plot fabricated by scientists. It’s a downer! Then they hold a mass anti-gravitation rally on some mountaintop. “Down with gravity, up with people!” they protest. The rally climaxes, as the leader declares, “This is it! Let’s race off the cliff and show the world!” They charge full-speed ahead and leap off the cliff, singing, “Dowwwwwn with gravityyyyy, dowwwwwn with gravityyyyy.” And they fall to their death.
Whether or not you accept gravity does not make a difference to its existence and it influence upon you; it does not ask your opinion. As long as the earth exists, gravity is a principle that was, is and will be. To deny it only brings ruin.
Judaism teaches that the spiritual and moral dimension of life is no different than the physical dimension. And, like gravity and other laws of nature, there are spiritual and ethical laws, which govern the nature of our spiritual life. And these laws have been guiding the universe since its very inception. The experience at Mt. Sinai, over 3,000 years ago was not a revelation of the theory of gravitation or the theory of relativity. It was a revelation of the universal principles of spirituality and ethics, with specific instructions regarding the Jew’s particular role and responsibility. What were revealed at Mt. Sinai were the Divine principles and laws that had always directed life. The laws of the Torah are the givens. But it was only then that the Jewish people were ready and willing to receive them. There are many Torah principles to which we are already naturally attuned. For example, I doubt that anyone reading this article has entertained having relations with a horse. Most people already know that “thou shall not have bestial relations.” Most of us do not need G-d to tell us this. Now imagine it is 50 years from now. You are sitting in your living room watching television, when your daughter comes in excited.
“Mom, Dad!” she beams. “I’m engaged!”
“Who’s the fellow?” you ask. “Is he Jewish? What’s he like?”
“He’s just fantastic!”
She opens the door and in walks a horse. You are beside yourself. “He’s a horse!” you yell.
Your daughter stares at you. “I thought you were open-minded! You’ve always taught me to find my own way. I can’t believe you said that. You’ve probably hurt his feelings. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met!”
What would you say at this point? Would you say it is wrong to have relations with a horse? If you did, you would be in real trouble. You would not be able to say it is right or wrong, only that there is a certain way that things are done and a certain way that life is lived, and this is not one of them. But she may look at you and not understand.
Let’s say you decide to send your daughter to a psychiatrist, whom you pay about $300 an hour to discuss the problem with her. She tells him that she has no problem rather it is her parents who really need his help. They are obsessing over the fact that she is engaged to a horse. The psychiatrist says to her, “Happiness means accepting who you are, and if this is who you are, then everyone should accept your decision. It’s a free world and you are not hurting anyone.” Your daughter comes home and says, “Mom, Dad! I’m really happy because the psychiatrist told me that he is also engaged to a horse and that it’s okay.” At this point, you would say to yourself, “I don’t understand. Why is this so clear to me that nobody should ever marry horses? It’s just not the way things are!” But your daughter is wondering what is wrong with you. It is difficult to articulate that this is a given principle, like gravity, that we just cannot go against. And it will only bring ruin upon us if we do. But that is the only true response.
The only honest response is that this is the way G-d planned it; this is the way it is. Even if millions of people petition for this right and that right, it does not always determine that it is right.
When G-d offered the Torah to the Jews, they recognized that G-d was presenting the principles upon which life has been functioning since its very inception. Their first response was, “We will do it.” They understood that the Torah was, is, and always will be the guiding force of the universe at the core of all being. They realized that the principles and the mitzvot of the Torah empower them to be who they are in harmony with life and at one with G-d.
Therefore, we eat our meals there, entertain our guests there and even sleep there. The sukkah reminds us of the huts that the Jewish people lived in during the forty years that they wandered in the desert prior to finally entering the land of Israel. The sukkah also symbolizes the miraculous clouds of glory that G-d enveloped the Jewish people, giving them shelter and protection.
Another main feature of the holiday is the four species: the lulav (palm branch), which is bound together with three myrtle branches and two willow branches and an etrog (citron), which looks somewhat like a lemon. We are commanded to own a set of these four species and each day wave it towards the four corners of the world, upwards and downwards.
Recovering Our Inner Child
I find the contrast of Sukkot next to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur amazing. We just spent 10 heavy days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, immersed in intensive introspection, probing the depth of our souls to uncover our flaws and confront our mistakes, expressing heartfelt remorse for our wrongdoings and courageously committing ourselves to long lasting changes. Then, the very next day after Yom Kippur, we are out and about like playful children admiring the beauty of nature; looking at etrogim, palm branches, willows and myrtles. And we are building and decorating clubhouses—the sukkah.
What’s going on?
Although we value the maturity of the repentance process—we paid a price for the process. The heavy concentration and intensity of the last tens days often weakens us and damages the spontaneity and joy of our inner child.
The seriousness of repentance takes it toll on the joyfulness of life and our naturalness. Although repentance is a process of spiritual healing, there are side effects that need to be attended to. Even though we are over the sickness, we need to become healthy, whole and strong again. We need to reconnect with our vitality and life force. On Sukkot we recover our playfulness and our zest for life.
Passover is referred in the holiday prayers as the “time of our freedom.” Shavuot is called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” However, Sukkot is described as the “time of our happiness.” On Sukkot we reclaim the joy and liveliness of our inner child and remember “Toyrah R Us.”
Yom Kippur, however, is another story -- it's about love and forgiveness. It's about how we are always inseparably close to G-d. On Yom Kippur we get a glimpse of ourselves, our choices and our relationship to G-d from another perspective --God's perspective. This is the transformational power of Yom Kippur that makes it into a Day of Atonement and forgiveness.
There is a cryptic verse in the Book of Psalms (139:16) which the Sages say refers to Yom Kippur:
The days were formed, and one of them is His.
Everyday of the year we see the world from our perspective but there is one day --G-d’s day -- when we get a glimpse of the way the world looks from His perspective and everything changes in light of that perspective. On Yom Kippur we see it all from the perspective of the World to Come where you get to see the whole picture.
The Talmud teaches that in this world when something good happens to us, we praise G-d --“Blessed is He Who is good and does good.” When something bad happens we must say -- “Blessed is He Who is a true Judge.” However, in the future we will say – “Blessed is He Who is good and does good,” even about the misfortunes in our lives.
In other words, when we will look back and see the whole picture, we will realize that every bad event that happened to us contributed to G-d’s plan which is to bring upon us ultimate goodness. This is also true about every bad act we that we did.
According to Jewish Mysticism, although we have the free choice to do other than G-d’s will, G-d is always in control. In other words, even when we can do other than G-d’s will we cannot oppose His will or undermine His plan.
Therefore, when we have done wrong and are sorry for that, we must realize that no matter what we have done, it can all be recycled back into G-d's plan and contribute to the ultimate good of the world. Of course this does not mean that we can just go ahead and do wrong. The path of transgression removes us from G-d. This distance causes us feelings of alienation and spiritual anguish which may become manifest as physical ailment.
However, it is important to remember that if you sincerely regret your wrongdoings and resolve never to do them again then you are forgiven and your past will be recycled and put towards future good.
Yom Kippur is an amazing day of transformation where your darkest deeds from the past turn into light. This is because the light of the World to Come, so to speak, is shining into our world on this day. You can receive this light and be transformed by it if you plug yourself into the expanded consciousness of Yom Kippur through the proper acts, prayers and thoughts prescribed for the day.
Rosh Hashanah is a day dedicated to understanding our selves and G-d in the light of Monotheism. Yom Kippur, however, celebrates how everything looks in the light of Pan-en-theism which is the perspective of the World to Come.
Monotheism means that there is one G-d, one King and we are not G-d. Panentheism teaches that G-d is not just the one and only ruling power and there are no other G-ds, but that G-d is absolutely the one and only reality -- there is nothing but G-d and we exist within G-d. That does not mean that you and I are the Almighty G-d. However, we are souls—sparks, aspects and expressions of G-d. We do not exist apart from Him but rather within Him.
In other words, as it is explained in the Kabbalah, G-d created a space within Himself, so to speak, and created beings other than Himself. This self-imposed limitation is called Tzimtzum -- the restriction or the withdrawal of divinity. G-d withdraws and limits His endless being to create a space and a place for beings other than Himself—free beings who can do other than His will. We exist within G-d similar to an idea that exists within the mind of its thinker. The difference, however, is that an idea has no free choice. We, however, have free choice but mysteriously any choice we make still remains within the context of G-d’s being and the confines of G-d’s will. Therefore, we are free and yet, ironically, G-d is still absolutely in control. We are free to disobey and do other than G-d’s will, but we are not able to oppose G-d’s will or undermine His plan. This, of course, is a mysterious paradox that cannot be comprehended by our rational minds.
What difference, then, do our choices make?
Our real choice is whether to become a conscious partner to G-d in the making of history or an unconscious tool for G-d. We can choose to do G-d’s will and contribute to His plan in an active and conscious way, and thereby, experience the ecstasy of the unchangeable truth that G-d is one and we are one with G-d. Or, we can choose to oppose G-d’s will and ironically, through our own choices, fulfill G-d’s plan without even knowing it. When we do this, however, we deny ourselves the joyous knowledge of our inseparable connection to G-d and instead painfully suffer feelings of alienation and separation from G-d.
We choose to disobey G-d’s will only when we mistakenly think that we exist separate and independent from G-d. When we do that, we support and nurture these illusions about ourselves. Our wrongdoings are actually our punishment. They make us feel disconnected, alienated and isolated from G-d, Who is actually the ground, context and essence of our very existence. In other words, our choices create our own heaven or hell.
If we knew deep in our hearts that G-d is One and that we are one with G-d, then even though we could do other than G-d’s will, we would not want to.
There is a very strange sacrificial service performed on Yom Kippur that seems to be the very antithesis of Judaism. Two goats are brought before the High Priest, and lots are drawn. One goat is designated for G-d and the other is for the Azazel—the satanic forces. The High priest would confess the sins of the people and symbolically place all their transgressions upon this goat destined for Azazel and offer it up as an offering.
If this were done on any other day of the year it would be the cardinal sin of idolatry. But on Yom Kippur even the darkest act can be transformed into light. On Yom Kippur, even an act that is the antithesis of Judaism, when viewed from G-d’s perspective (in the light of the World to Come) can actually contribute to G-d’s plan. Even though during the year this act would promote and nurture the illusion that we exist independent and separate ofG-d, on Yom Kippur it ultimately contributes to the higher consciousness that we are one with G-d. Perhaps this is why it is called the Day of At-one-ment.
A Day Like Purim
Strangely, the Hebrew words Yom Kippur hints to the fact that it is a Yom - a day that is K’Purim - like Purim. That is because the mysterious truth revealed on Yom Kippur -- that we exist within G-d -- is revealed with even greater intensity and clarity on the day of Purim.
On Purim we are supposed to get so drunk that we actually say, “Blessed is Haman.” In other words, we are so intoxicated that we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai, the righteous man, and Haman, the evil person, who tried to destroy the entire Jewish people. How could this be?
There is a fundamental principal in the Talmud that teaches, “When wine goes in the secret comes out.” The secret is the mysterious and miraculous oneness ofG-d. If you are in a normative sober state of rationality it doesn’t make any sense to bless the wicked Haman. Only when we get drunk can we go beyond the confines of the rational mind. On Purim we are able to say “blessed is Haman” because although he is evil, even Haman contributed to G-d’s plan for goodness.
From the higher perspective, we can see that Haman, the force of destruction, was actually a nourishing force. Perhaps that is why we eat special cookies called hamentashen, Haman’s hat, on Purim. In fact, in the grand scheme of things we owe gratitude to Haman because the Jewish people were assimilating and he catalyzed their return back to their Jewish identity. By trying to destroy the Jews, Haman actually propelled them forward in history. But only on Purim can we bless evil. On any other day it would be a very dangerous thing to do. Only on Purim are we able to transcend the day-to-day, the seemingly obvious, and acknowledge that from a higher perspective, looking at everything within the context of the bigger picture, all that Haman did to destroy us actually contributed to our survival. Everything Haman did to conceal the truth of G-d in the world actually brought about a greater revelation.
Haman’s true punishment is his unintentional accomplishment. The greatest punishment for Haman is the realization that everything he did to destroy the Jewish people actually pushed them forward in history and served as the source for their survival and renewal. This is the greatest punishment that Haman will have to endure forever. Everything he did to oppose G-d’s will did not oppose it at all. G-d does not have to fight the evil forces. G-d says, “Do what you want. Just know that if you choose to go against My will and seek to destroy the Jewish people then it is you who will actually save them and cause them to thrive. Every move you make will only serve Me and used against you.”
That is the irony of the Purim story. Haman built a gallows for Mordechai and ended up hung from the very gallows he built. Irony is beautiful. It is G-d’s Oneness. If G-d would have to fight evil that would not be Oneness. The greatest manifestation of G-d’s oneness is that man has choice. You can go ahead and choose to do whatever you want, but you will see that no matter what choices you make, you will play into G-d’s plan. Your only true choice is whether you want to work with G-d or whether you want to live the illusion that you can play against G-d. Your choice determines how you will live your life and how you will experience your life. But your choice does not determine the outcome. Only G-d determines the outcome of our choices.
Yom Kippur is like Purim because on that day even our misdeeds can be seen as positive forces in serving G-d’s will and plan. Therefore, on Yom Kippur G-d forgives and we can forgive ourselves. The darkness can serve the light and the ugly past can be recycled into a beautiful future.
The Joy of Regret
Unlike Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur I can confess all my sins to G-d with the realization that they too can contribute to His plan. On Yom Kippur, when G-d’s oneness is so manifest, the mention of our sins can be a source of greater light. This is not so for Rosh Hashanah—the day of judgment. On Rosh Hashanah I already feel so far away from G-d because of my wrongdoings; I wouldn’t want to even mention a sin and add to my feelings of distance. But on Yom Kippur when G-d’s oneness is so revealed and the light of His eternal love for us is shining, don’t be afraid. Confess your transgressions even a million times. In fact, be as clear and precise as you can because on Yom Kippur you actually experience greater love precisely from every single wrong you regret you did.
Moments of love are the best time to remember the times we wronged each other because when we feel so at one with each other we are able to appreciate how all the conflict of the past, in the end, actually served to enhance our unity. In a funny way conflicts are great for relationships. Once the storm calms and we stop yelling at each other, we suddenly feel so foolish, we then uncontrollably embrace and profusely apology. In the back of our minds, however, there is this very strange sense of satisfaction and appreciation that this was a great fight. The conflict, alienation and separation that it created actually contributed to a heightened awareness of our true love and eternal oneness.
The best time to remember your mistakes and wrongdoings and ask forgiveness of your beloved is in moments of love. The contrast between the bad times that were and the good time that is happening right now generates even greater feelings of love and appreciation. Therefore, the dark conflicts of the past when viewed in the present light of love actually serve to intensify the brilliance and warmth of the moment. Yom Kippur, however, is more than a moment of love- it is a full day. And it reveals the truth that G-d’s love forever shines upon us. It is only our foolish attitudes and wrongdoings that have blocked out the light creating the dark shadows in our life. As the prophet Isaiah said in the name of G-d, “It is only your wrongdoings that separates you and Me.” In other words, it is your misdeeds that cause you to feel that you and G-d are separate. But that is a lie. We are forever one with G-d and there is nothing that we can do to change that fact, although there is much that we can do to conceal that fact.
On Yom Kippur, the timeless truth of G-d’s oneness and our oneness with G-d is bright and clear. So on Yom Kippur let it rip. Remember every dumb and wrong thing you ever did that seemed to separate you from G-d because on Yom Kippur it only adds to the ecstasy of love and the joy of forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, the dark illusions of separateness enhance the incredible light of our oneness and love with G-d. G-d allows us to make mistakes and do wrong because He knows that eventually the painful feelings of alienation will increase and enhance the ecstasy of our love.
The Great Master of the Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac Luria, explains that the first couple, Adam and Eve, ate from the forbidden fruit because they thought that in order to contribute to their awareness of G-d’s oneness and their oneness with G-d, it would be better for them to do something that would suggest their separateness. They wanted to increase their awareness and appreciation for their true relation with G-d by creating a contrast to it. But the Torah teaches us that you should never think; “I will sin so that I can later repent.” Just as you can’t say, “I will start a fight with my wife so that we can later make up and better appreciate how much we really love each other.” It just doesn’t work that way. But don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities that present themselves for fights with your spouse--you don’t have to create them. And there are plenty times that we will transgress without any need for preplanning. But when conflict and breakdowns happen, it’s good to know that even the fight can be used to enhance your love. We can now understand even better how Yom Kippur is like Purim. On Purim we get so drunk that we say, “Blessed is Haman.” On Yom Kippur, in a manner of speaking, we can find the blessing in all our wrongdoings of the past. This, of course, is true only if we sincerely regret our misdeeds and commit to never return back to these foolish ways again. Then, and only then, can we appreciate that all that we did in our life that took us so far away from G-d is now helping us to revitalize and increase our feelings of closeness and love for G-d. If we realize that, then all the conflict was worth it. The past is redeemed in that moment, like the embrace after the fight with your spouse, when you realize more than ever how much you love each other. And then all the pain of the past turns into ecstatic pleasure.
The purpose of a mitzvah is to promote G-d’s oneness and our oneness with G-d – to reveal the light of love. Sins, on the other hand, promote separateness and create feelings of conflict and alienation. But when the separateness is recycled to promote the oneness, then really what you have is a mitzvah. Therefore, your sins can be converted into the value of mitzvot. This can happen only when your penitence is motivated by your love for G-d and your desire to experience G-d’s oneness and your oneness with G-d. However, penitence motivated by fear of punishment does not accomplish this transformation. Penitence out of fear is based on the perspective that I exist separate and independent of G-d, I am here on earth and G-d is over there in heaven and I should not act against G-d’s will for fear of punishment. Penitence from fear cancels out the negative effects of sins but it cannot transform them into the positive force of mitzvot. Penitence from love, however, empowers us to cash in on our previous debts.
There are two reasons to make up with your spouse after a fight. One reason is fear. You may fear that she will tell all your friends what a jerk you are or she will lock you out of the house. Therefore, to save yourself the embarrassment and discomfort, you say sorry. However, there is another reason that is higher. You could apologize for the sake of love. You realize how silly it is to fight with the one you love, the one with whom you are one. For a moment you lost your mind and forgot how much you really care for each other and how deep and eternal is your connection. The issue of contention is so petty compared to the power and beauty of your soul connection to each other.
When you apologize because you fear punishment then you successfully end the argument and prevent further damage. But you don’t cash-in on your conflict, the fight was simply a waste and this is really just a cease-fire. But when love motivates you then the conflict turns into a force that promotes an even greater awareness of your oneness and adds to your love -- you actually gain.
Yom Kippur offers the perfect ambiance to return to G-d in love, redeem your dark past and turn it into light. On Yom Kippur we celebrate forgiveness because we realize that only love is real; everything else is illusion.
This past Tisha B’Av, I watched my thirteen year old son publicly recite Eicha for the first time. As he read Jeremiah’s heart wrenching words his voice started to quiver and tears began to pour down his cheeks, I thought to myself, what am I doing to my son? Why put him through this pain and cause him such grief? Why pass on to him a history of Jewish pain? I too began to cry. Growing up the son of a holocaust survivor, I was very conscious of the pain of being Jewish. My mother’s experiences in the holocaust made me aware of the horrors that Jews have experienced throughout our history. Until I revisited Judaism in my teens, I did not love being Jewish. In fact, I hated it. I realized that if I were born a couple decades earlier, I too would have known the horrors of life in a concentration camp. Focused on the pain of my Jewish identity, it took me years to find within it power and joy. How can Jews find meaning, power and beauty in our long history as victims of incredible oppression and cruelty?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is necessary for humans to feel pain in order to feel joy. We strive to be happy our whole lives and avoid all sadness and pain. But only people who truly know pain and sadness can truly know pleasure and joy. And only people who truly know pleasure and joy can know pain and sadness. We live in a dualistic world. We know black from white and white from black, up from down and down from up. At the very breathtaking peaks of life are the beginnings of the slopes down. The mountain and the valley are interfaced and one. To be fully alive and aware we must be willing to embrace the total spectrum of human emotions and experience. We must be willing to feel the pain and pleasure, the sadness and the joy because they are the two sides of the one coin of life.
Although God promised that eventually the Temple will be rebuilt, Jewish tradition teaches that only those people who truly understand and feel the pain over the destruction of the Temple will have the ability to rejoice at the rebuilding of the Temple. In a strange way, on Tisha B’Av we take pleasure in our ability to mourn and we experience profound fulfillment in our tears.
Unfortunately, society has perpetuated the silly attitude that men should not cry. But without a good cry, we cannot have a good laugh. One of the most powerful and beautiful moments of my life was when I cried the first time in front of my wife. In fact, crying in front of your spouse is one of the greatest opportunities to share your genuine humanness. Animals do not cry nor do they laugh. The laughing hyena is not expressing intense joy; it is simply making a sound that sounds to us as laughter. According to Jewish mysticism animals feel pain, but they do not know they are feeling pain. It is not as if in the middle of their pain, they think, “Oye, if only I could be happy.”
We feel pain and joy most acutely when we are looking at it. Those are the times we really sob and rejoice. When we are in our pain and we remember all of the joyous moments of our lives. And in our most joyous moments, we remember all of our pain. These paradoxical moments capture the profundity of life and the unique power of human consciousness.
Illustrating this point, in the very midst of Jeremiah’s woes, he says, “What does a living human being have to complain about?” It is a serious question. Are we complaining about our crying and suffering? Are we complaining about complaining? Jeremiah realizes in the depth of his pain that we cannot know the joy of being alive without experiencing the pain that comes with it. And we should be thankful for the very ability to cry—it is a sign that we are fully alive and conscious. Our ability to cry and feel pain is itself part of our ability to laugh and feel pleasure—together they capture the miraculous experience of being alive. Understanding the depth of Jewish history and life takes the courage to open yourself up to both mourning and celebrating, crying and laughing.
It is strange how we cry in moments of pain but also in moments of intense joy. What does pain and joy have in common that they can both move us to tears? Both pain and joy can bring us face to face with the bedrock of life and this encounter is overwhelming. Suddenly it hits us: We are real and this moment is real and life is overwhelmingly mysterious, miraculous and incomprehensible. Our intellectual and emotional faculties, with which we generally grasp reality, are simply too small to capture the truth we face and we simply break down in tears. This is hinted to in the metaphoric language of Jewish Mysticism that describes how the finite vessels of our perception broke down because they could not contain the endless light of God’s truth --- the manifestation of ultimate reality. I can imagine (please G-d) that when I will be standing under the wedding canopy, the chupa, of my children, I will be crying my eyes out. When you really open yourself up to the most powerful, deepest experiences that life offers, you cannot help but cry. Jeremiah, while lamenting the destruction of the Temple, tells us to, “Pour out your heart like water.” It is an interesting phenomenon that tears are salty. Salt water does not quench your thirst; rather, it makes you thirstier. However, Jeremiah is teaching us that when our tears pour out of our hearts then such tears actually satiate us like fresh water.
Crying from the heart satisfies a very deep need; it quenches. The famous psychologist Carl Jung said that neurosis actually is a substitute for legitimate suffering. In others words, denial of our pain is counterproductive and even destructive. If a person is not ready to accept his legitimate suffering, then he will express it in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways. However, acknowledging and expressing sadness through crying heals our hurt, helps turn our pain into a source of motivation and empowers us to feel joy with even greater sensitivity.
To be fully alive means to open ourselves up to the spectrum of life’s experiences and to embrace the dialectical dance of pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, laughter and tears. Judaism is not about being happy its’ about being whole. Wholeness, however, is actually the only true path to real happiness because then you experience an inner happiness even when you are sad. You take pleasure in your ability to feel pain. You embrace and celebrate the totality of your humanness. To be whole we must be willing to immerse ourselves in the complete drama of being alive and human.
Therefore, even as I struggle to share Jewish pain with my children, I feel a strange joy in it. It gives me a deep sense of peace to share with my children this battle, this restlessness that we Jews feel because this is truly the path to wholeness and experiencing the fullness of life.
The oral tradition teaches that when our enemies destroyed the temple G-d told them that they only destroyed a building already in ruins. The temple was really a symbol of the Jewish people’s worldview and spiritual orientation to G-d and life. When the people destroyed their elevated state -- the building had no meaning.
Jewish Oral tradition teaches that when the temple was destroyed the Shechina (the Divine Presence on earth) departed to Heaven, an iron wall separates Israel from G-d, there is no laughter before G-d, the sky is no longer seen in it’s purity, the taste, fragrance and nourishing quality of the fruits were lost, the taste of sex was taken away and G-d only dwells within the four cubits of Jewish Law.
How can we understand this?
Jewish mysticism teaches that G-d is paradoxically both beyond and yet within our physical world—transcendent and yet immanent. Therefore, although heaven and earth-- the spiritual and the physical-- are opposites they are not in opposition. They are one. In addition, Jewish mysticism explains that our true inner self, the soul, is godly and we are only attracted to and derive ultimate pleasure from the godliness within the physical world. Therefore, the more we are in touch with ourselves as souls and the more we are attuned to the godliness within the physical ---the more sensual we become and the more pleasure we experience.
The temple expressed this mystical truth. However when the Jewish people, through their wrong doings, negated this truth the meaning of the temple was destroyed. And then inevitably the building was destroyed.
Therefore, when the temple was destroyed the Shechina (the Divine Presence on earth) departed to Heaven. In other words we now perceive God as transcendent and removed from ourselves and the physical world. We now feel an iron wall separating us from godliness. Because we have set ourselves and the physical world up against God our world seems so trivial and we have lost the ability to truly laugh and enjoy life. The sky has lost its godly luster and can no longer be seen in it’s purity. We have numbed our taste buds and lost our true power for sensuality. Therefore the taste, fragrance and nourishing quality of the fruits was lost. Even sexual pleasure has gone. And we only seek G-d within the narrow confines of the four cubits of Jewish Law, when in truth His splendor fills the earth.
In other words, when the temple was destroyed our sense for the divine within this world and within each other was lost and with it the ultimate vitality and true pleasures of life.
For this we mourn.