The Melancholy of Aharon and Lincoln – A Vort for Parshas B’Haaloscha

President Lincoln’s depression is one of the most interesting chapters of American history.  Although it may not be taught in grade school, Lincoln’s friends, family, and political colleagues all knew of his “melancholy”.  In our modern-day clinical terminology we would call it depression. However, it was this element of his character that historians credit with giving him the skill, insight, and vision to lead the United States through its most troubled period.  In fact, modern scientific research has shown us that periods of depression in life can actually lead to more realistic evaluation of situations and better problem solving.

The very first Rashi in Parshas B’haaloscha presents us with another great leader feeling down.  Rashi wonders why the lighting of the menorah at the beginning of the parsha immediately follows the korbanos of the tribal leaders.  Based on the midrash, he answers with an incredible vignette.  Aharon, the High Priest, had difficulty watching the incredible service performed by the tribal leaders.  Chalsha az daaso, his mind became weak when he witnessed it, or as we would call it, “he started feeling down”.   Aharon felt left out that he was not included as well.  Although he was the High Priest, he was left out of one of the most defining moments of the dedication of the mishkan.  Who could blame him for feeling bad?  But Hashem comforts him, Chayecha! Shelcha gedolah mishelahem, By your life! Yours is greater than their’s – you will light the menorah.

What exactly was Hashem’s answer to Aharon?  Was it merely that he would get more exposure in the lighting of the menorah?  The great Chasidic master, Rav Yitzchak Vorker (Emunas Etecha – B’haaloscha) explained that Rashi is saying something much deeper.  Shelcha gedolah mishelahem, yours is greater than their’s, is not a reference to the lighting of the menorah.  It is a reference to Aharon’s sadness – Your sadness is a greater than their service.  He was saying to Aharon that his sadness at being left out and his longing to be included was a greater service in His eyes than any korban given by the tribal leaders.  Aharon was being told that heartfelt melancholy is one of the greatest strengths a Jew can have.  Rav Yitchak Vorker explains that this is why Aharon was given the honor of kindling the Menorah.  Only someone that understands the darkness of sadness can truly light up the world with Divine Light.  Like with President Lincoln, the depression is what leads to the greatest salvation there is.

Very often we have difficult periods in our lives.  These challenges may be different than Lincoln’s, but they are be trials that we truly never forget.  At these times we may react with chalishus hadaas, a sense of feeling down and depressed.  We often view those periods in a negative light and seek any means to escape the difficulty of the emotions they present us with.  Rav Yitzchak Vorker teaches us an incredible lesson.  It is at those very moments of struggle that we are special in Hashem’s eyes. Yours is greater than their’s.  Hashem looks at a person who struggles with hardship much like He viewed Aharon – with admiration and love.  We need not hide from those times or the memories we have of them.  These periods are our finest moments as people.  They are the times that define us as ovdei hashem, as servants of Hashem like the kohanim.  An incredible reward awaits those that see the beauty in those times of difficulty.  Like Aharon, a time of incredible light will follow when we kindle our own personal Menorah.  Our strength, courage, and example will then shine and serve as an inspiration to all.

Vignette of a Famous Rabbi- The Real Matanot L’evyonim

The Rambam (Hilchot Megilah 2:17) tells us that the most important mitzvah one can perform on Purim day is matanot l’evyonim – gifts to the destitute.  We usually understand this to mean gifts of food or money (Ibid; see also Ritva Megillah 7a).  However, the following story about Rav Kook ZT”L tells us that there is much more to the mitzvah than a few dollars:

Rav Kook’s house in pre-State Jerusalem was a thoroughfare for the destitute on Purim day.  They would all come looking for generous gifts from the Chief Rabbi’s Purim fund.  Rav Kook would not only give them money but he would invite them to sit around the table with him and the many respected rabbis that had come to give the Chief Rabbi Purim greetings.  As one can imagine, many of these individuals did not know how or were not able to conduct themselves in a manner that was befitting those present.  Yet Rav Kook kept on inviting each destitute individual to sit down – even when they overstayed their welcome.  One of the Rabbis finally took Rav Kook aside and confronted him about this practice which he felt was not respectful to the Rabbis nor to the office of the Chief Rabbi.

Rav Kook responded, “The Rambam tells us that bringing joy to the destitute is the greatest obligation of Purim.  These individuals get such pleasure and honor by being able to sit at the table of the Chief Rabbi. Many people can give money, but this is a joy only I have the merit to give them.  That is the greatest form of Matanot L’evyonim there is!”

(Moadei Ha’Reiyah pg. 244)

Slavery, Psychology, and Bibi’s Or Hachaim: A Vort for Parshas Shemos

British psychologist Steve Taylor describes a phenomenon he discovered in his research which he calls, SITE – “Suffering Induced Transformational Experiences”.  Taylor found that individuals who went through painful experiences (medical, emotional, loss, etc.) would often emerge from them with a new state of being which included, “increased well-being, intensified perception, a sense of connection, improved relationships, a less materialistic and more altruistic attitude, decreased cognitive activity, and reduced fear of death”.

Taylor’s discovery also explains the silver lining of our slavery in Egypt.  In one of the most powerful pesukim in this week’s parsha, the painful abuse of the Egyptians is described: וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ, But the more they afflicted them so did they multiply and so did they spread.  On a simple level, the Torah tells us that in spite of the harsh treatment of the Jewish nation, they continued to increase in numbers.

However, the Or Hachaim, commenting on the pasuk, tells us that this pasuk actually describes the mechanism of Taylor’s SITE long before he coined the term.  כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ do not only connote growth in numbers, they also refer to becoming great and growing spiritually stronger.  The Or Hachaim says that the pasuk is teaching us that the more painful and traumatic the affliction of the Egyptians to the Jews was, the stronger the Jewish nation grew in spirit and identity.  Indeed, the Hebrews who came forth from Egypt had the greatest “Suffering Induced Transformational Experience” in history – they transformed into Jews.  This type of transformation began in Egypt and has continued throughout Jewish history.  Our survival for so many millennia is intimately tied to the incredible strength our people draws from the difficult chapters of our history.  In fact, when Bibi Netanyahu spoke to the Grand Synagogue of Paris (skip to 10:50) , following the horrific terrorist attacks against the Jewish community, he actually quoted this pasuk and used it for this same message (I don’t think he realized he was being mechavein to the words of the Or Hachaim).

Yosef Mendelevitch, the famed prisoner of zion, spent years in the Soviet gulag.  He recounted that at one point in his imprisonment he decided to start cutting kippa-shaped pieces of clothe from his uniform and put them on his head.  Every time he did so he was severely beaten by the guards; but he would do it again nonetheless.  It came to the point that he had holes all over his uniform from so many kippot.  One day he heard the guards talking among themselves.  The name Mendelevitch came up.  One of the guards commented, “there is nothing we can do to him – he’s a free man already”.

The stubborn ability of Jews to grow from their suffering was not only the secret to our freedom from Egypt, it is the key to our freedom for eternity.  Only when we see our national and personal hardships as a part of a “Transformational Experience” to better, more altruistic people and a freer, more connected nation will we truly receive the blessing –  כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ

Vignette of a Gadol – The Chozeh and the Upside Down Heavens

The great Chasidic master, the Chozeh of Lublin, was known to have a bad leg.  His chasidim would often help him limp from place to place in his beis medrash.  One night it was time to recite Kiddush Levana.  The moon only was visible through a window on the far side of the beis medrash.  The Chozeh’s follower’s would help him walk all the way there every month.  This specific night one of the younger students of the Chozeh, who was not aware of the moon’s location, felt bad that his rebbe would have to limp so far gave a different suggestion.  Why not use the window right next to the Chozeh’s seat, on the opposite side of the building, as the one by which they would all recite Kiddush Levana?  The Chasidim chuckled.  But to there surprise – the Chozeh agreed.  They all approached the window where the moon could not possibly be and to there amazement – there it was!  Shining brightly as if they were on the opposite side.

They said a joyous Kiddush Levana all together followed by their traditional dance.  At the conclusion, the Chozeh spoke to his Chasidim.  “You’re probably wondering how it is possible the moon appeared through this window.  Do you really think this young man had the power to change the directions of the heavens?!  Certainly not!.  But I will tell you the true answer.  When you have pity on a fellow Jew.  When you truly desire to do one little act of kindness for them.  The entire heavens turns upside down for you.”

Reclaiming Mehadrin – A Vort for Chanukah

One of the most well-known questions raised in regard to the miracle of Neiros Chanukah is that of the Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (commentary to the smag; see also Pnei Yehoshua Shabbos 21b). The Re’em points out that the Gemara tells us that when there is no other choice, one may use impure oil for the lighting of the menorah (as a part of the general rule of “Tumah Hutra B’tzibbur”).  If this is so what was the purpose of the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights?  Could they not have used the remaining oils that were defiled by the invading Greeks?

Rav Asher Weiss (quoted in K’motzei Shalal Rav pg. 304) gives a novel explanation.  The Greeks were a unique type of enemy.  They were not traditional “anti-Semites” who wanted to kill the Jews or even destroy Jewish continuity.  They did not attempt to destroy the Beis Hamikdash or expel the Jewish nation from the Land of Israel as so many before and after.  The goal of Yavan was to destroy our identity in our own home.  Rather than destroy the Beis Hamikdash, they wanted to it to continue being used but for what they wanted.  They wanted Jews to continue living in the Land of Israel but without an authentic Jewish culture. 

Indeed, the Chashmonaim could have used the impure oil to light.  However, that would have been a victory for the Greeks.  There is nothing they would have liked more that performing the Temple service in a way not authentic to Jewish tradition.  Our ancestors relied on a miracle to have eight days of oil rather than give the Greeks this symbolic victory.  They did not want to perform the mitzvah in its non-ideal form.  The Chashmonaim wanted to do it in a mehadrin fashion, its most ideal form.  That’s why Chanukah is a halacha that is specifically fulfilled in it’s mehadrin form.  Although the Gemara gives a basic level of one candle every night, we fulfill it by lighting one more every night, which the Gemara terms mehadrin.  The halacha serves to remind us that the miracle of Chanukah was not merely the oil lasting, but the conviction of Bnei Chashmonai to restore the Menorah service in its authentic and mehadrin form.  It was this element of the miracle that served as the ultimate defeat of Greek culture.

Chanukah is about reclaiming the ideals of Judaism.  The neiros remind us that our ancestors never surrendered even when they had an excuse to do so.  The mitzvah is intimately tied to our house (see Gemara and Pnei Yehoshua Ibid) to remind us that we must only teach our families an authentic Yiddishkeit.  One that captures that glory of mehadrin in all its majesty.

Limping Away from Tragedy – A Vort for Vayishlach and in Memory of Ezra Schwartz HY”D

The struggle of Yaakov and Eisav is one of the most epic struggles in Jewish history.  It is a war that has raged since the fathers of both nations came into the world.  Vayishlach tells us of the most famous battle in this eternal struggle.  As Yaakov is left alone in the middle of the night, he meets up with an angel that is Eisav’s divine representative.  A physical battle ensues between him and Yaakov.  The Torah tells us that during the battle something incredible happens, Vayar ki lo  yachol lo vayiga b’chaf yireicho, vateika kaf yerech Yaakov b’heiavko imo, The malach saw that he could not defeat Yaakov so he struck the joint of his thigh and it became dislocated.  The Torah goes on to tell us that in spite of his injury he continued fighting and won.  A victorious Yaakov came out of the battle limping after defeating his arch-nemisis.  However, it is the concluding pasuk in the section that seems so very strange, Al kein lo yochlu bnei yisrael es gid hanashe asher al kaf hayerech ad hayom hazeh ki naga bichaf yerech Yaakov b’gid hanashe.  The torah tells us that we do not eat the gid hanashe, the displaced sinew of the thigh, until this very day as remembrance to the injury Yaakov sustained from the angel.

However, this is extremely strange.  Why would we want to have an eternal remembrance for such a thing?  Why would we want to always remember the injured thigh of our forefather Yaakov within every cow or livestock that we eat?  Isn’t an injury a sad and depressing thing to remember? This question was raised by the Sheim Mishmuel, the famed Rebbe of Sochotshov, Rav shmuel Borenstein.  Said the Sheim Mishmuel it is by no means the injury that the Torah is telling us to remember – that wouldn’t make any sense.  The Shem Mishmuel says the torah is telling us to remember that even though Yaakov was hurt, he didn’t stop fighting.  The Torah’s entire command of gid hanashe is not to remember some muscular injury, but to remember how heroic our father Yaakov was.  Even when he was hurt and could have given up, he stayed standing and fought until victory was his.  Said the Sochtchover, in this command of the gid hanashe we find one of lynch-pins of Jewish pride.  No matter how hard we are hit, no matter who it is that tries to overtake us, we as Jews never stay down.  We have a responsibility to be like Yaakov.  To rise up even while limping and broken and to fight on till our righteous way prevails.  The gid hanashe is the eternal remembrance for the greatness and triumph of the Jewish spirit – never destroyed and never broken.

One would think that having our own Jewish state would make the necessity of such intense courage less crucial.  Our experiences in the last few months show us otherwise.  Only Yaakov-like stubbornness can allow our people to overcome the fear and terror if knife-attacks, homicidal drivers, and suicidal shooters.  Ezra Schwartz HY”D did not allow the fear of travelling to Gush Etzion to stop him from doing chesed.  He went with his friends to help those in need at the time they needed it most.  Ezra did not die eternally in that murderous attack.  Like Yaakov, his strength limped away from there and now resides in the heart of every Jew.  A renewed commitment to being victorious in the struggle.  We don’t remember Ezra’s murder or any other victim of terror in order to mourn.  Like the gid hanashe, we remember tragedy because it reminds us the Jewish nation will never be put down.  May it be G-d’s will that we will continue limp ahead until the sun rises for us like it did for Yaakov.

Choosing the Road Less Traveled- A Vort for Lech Lecha dedicated to our Brothers and Sisters in Israel

Princeton university professor Walter Kaufmann described a condition where people are afraid of making decisions.  He called it Decidaphobia.  One would think that a regular person might have this disorder but not Avraham Avinu.  However chazal tell us (Tanchuma Vayeira) that Jewish history was changed forever by a decision Avraham was unsure about.  Following Avraham’s sojourn in Mamre, the Torah describes the covenant that Hashem makes with him.  At the conclusion Avraham gives himself and all his family and followers a bris milah, a circumcision.  However, chazal tell us that Avraham was unsure whether to go through with it.  As a result, he went to speak to Mamre, the ancient Canaanite ruler of where he was living.  It is was Mamre that encouraged Avraham to go through with the command he was given and give himself a bris milah.

One is astonished.  Why would Avrham avinu not be sure whether to follow G-d’s command?  We don’t usually find Avraham doubting Hashem!  Why by this command to give himself a milah would he be unsure what to do?  Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Midbar Shur – Drush 21) explained  that the answer to this question lies in another midrash.  The meidrash (Bereishis Raba 47-48)  tells us that Avraham was afraid to do the milah for one reason.  Not that it would hurt him or his family, but because it would make him different.  It would separate him from the rest of society.  When one creates a physical covenant that is foreign to others it tends to make you somewhat unapproachable.  Indeed, the midrash recounts that Avraham told G-d that he was worried that people would not easily follow him after the bris.  Beforehand, Avraham was known as the av hamon goyim, the father of all nations – he was a universal leader.  After the bris, he would no longer be the universal leader to all mankind he once was but be the leader of the Hebrews alone.  Said Rav Kook, it was this change that scared Avraham – losing universal approval and becoming a sectarian Jew.  The equivalent of most moving away from being a leader of a pluralistic social justice movement to being solely the father of the Jewish people.  That is why he went to Mamre.  He asked him whether he should give up on his place as moral leader of the nations to follow G-d down a sectarian path.    Said Rav Kook, Mamre told Avraham that he must not look to his universal stature as important any longer.  Rather, the time had come to become primarily the father of his son Yitzchak and founder of the Jewish nation.  To make Jewish continuity his utmost mission and give up on universal acceptance.  This decision changed Jewish history.  By following Mamre’s advice at that moment, Avraham, although it was hard for him, ensured there would be a unique nation separate from the rest of the world.  A nation that, at times, would have to do things that flew in the face of society.

In these last few weeks, the Jewish people have been faced with the same choice as Avraham Avinu.  Like Avraham our hearts are pained when we see the world so turn on us.  There is no care for Jews murdered in cold blood, no even-handedness in media coverage of Israel.  Open anti-Semitism is expressed by leaders and accepted by those silently listening.  Like Avraham, at times we want to stop acting in our interests and the interests of Jewish people in order to seek that acceptance we so want.  But Mamre’s advice is as true today as it was then.  A Jew is not defined by the approval or endorsement of society.  A Jew is defined by their bris, their internal covenant with G-d and the Torah.  At times we must abandon the natural Jewish desire for love of our fellow man in order to ensure Jewish survival.  There is no way that the world will magically wake up and feel bad for us.  All the explanations and rationality in the world will not put an end to age-old antisemitism.  Like Avraham before us, as scared and unsure of the future as we might be, we must renew our bris with Hashem.  To proudly express our joy at being sectarian Jews that follow their tradition and to confidently state our divinely given right to possess and protect our homeland.  Avraham’s decision resulted in exactly what he was afraid of.  It made him different.  Even unapproachable to some.  But our history has shown that it was the right decision.  Following G-d instead of following what people say is always the right decision.  Although our current struggle as a people is difficult, painful, and even traumatic, the brave decision of our forefather, Avraham, in Mamre is our only solution.

Two Empty Seats in the Sukkah – A Tribute to Rav Eitam and Naama Henkin HY”D

It is with tremendous grief that Sukkos, zman simchaseinu, must be used to eulogize a young Talmid Chacham and his wife.  Rav Eitam Henkin was an incredible Torah Scholar and Yarei Shamayim.  Although I never knew him personally, I have benefitted from his various essays on halacha, history, and Jewish thought for many years.  He was truly a renaissance man, whose knowledge and genius was apparent in everything he wrote.  What made him and wife even more special was that they accomplished so much in their short time in this world while spending every day redeeming the Land of Israel for future generations.  They performed the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, settling the Land of Israel, in its most pristine form.  In the end, they gave their life doing so.

Chazal tell us that the words of the righteous are their most fitting memorial.  Rav Henkin wrote an essay about the holiday of Tu B’av in 2009 that was published in Alonei Mamrei, the Torah Journal of Yeshivat Nir, the main yeshiva based in Kiryat Arba.  The same yeshiva that Rav Henkin learned in for ten years.  At the conclusion of the essay he presents a very fundamental question that gives us a new perspective on Sukkos.

The Mishnah (Taanis 4:8) tells us that the greatest Holidays the Jewish people had were Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur because it was customary on those days for unmarried women to go out in borrowed white garments and look for a husband.  The Mishnah seems to imply that these were the happiest days of the year.  Yet, the Mishnah in Sukkah (51a) tells us that “one that did not witness the joy of the Simchas Beis Hashoeva celebration in the Beis Hamikdash never witnessed joy in their lifetime”.  How is one to understand these two contradictory mishnayos?

The Ritva (Bava Basra 129b) comments that thre was a fundamental difference between the two events.  At the Simchas Beis Hashoeva only the very important members of Jewish society actually participated in the dancing, yet on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur everyone participated.  True joy for everyone only came on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.  That’s why those Yamim Tovim are considered the greatest in the Jewish calendar.

Rav Henkin explains that this point describes to us what the cause of real joy is for the Jewish nation.  Only when everyone is united and celebrating together can we really experience the true essence of a Yom Tov.  Rav Henkin suggests that this is the reason that all of the unmarried women wore borrowed garments these Yamim Tovim.  Chazal explain that any woman that did not have her own garment was not embarrassed to ask her friend for one specifically because everyone wore borrowed clothing.  Rav Henkin explains that this underscored the nature of true Jewish simcha being only when the Jewish community is all on the same playing field.  In Rav Henkin’s words, “There is no greater joy than the unity of the Jewish nation”.

There will be two empty chairs this shabbos in the national Sukkah of the Jewish people.  The unity that Rav Henkin and his wife so cherished is ever more lacking now that they are gone.  May his tremendous Torah learning and scholarship serve as a merit for the children he leaves behind.  And may his vision of unity and joy serve as the pillars of our national sukkah – a sukkah where every Jew will have a seat waiting for them.

Hashem Yikom Damam!

The Tale of the Esrog and the Wooden Coffin – A Vort for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos

One of my students once commented to me, “Don’t we look weird shaking this lemon look-alike and sharp green thing like our life depends on it?”  I myself always wondered what my neighbors think of me when I go in to my tent in my backyard to eat.  In any event, the mitzvos of sukkos require further analysis.

The two primary mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot are sitting in the Sukkah and taking the four minim.  Yet we find a very fundamental halachic difference between these two laws.  One can fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in a borrowed sukkah (sukkah 27b). In fact, the gemara goes as far as to say that the entire Jewish nation can even dwell in one sukkah and fulfill their obligation.  However, by the mitzvah of esrog we find the opposite to be true.  In order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of the four minim on the first day of sukkos, one must completely own their esrog.  What makes this even more puzzling is that the wording of the commands for these two halachos are very similar.  By the mitzvah of sukkah the Torah says: חג הסוכות תעשה לך – “You shall make the holiday of sukkos for yourself” (Devarim 16:13)  By the mitzvah of etrog the Torah says: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון – “And you shall take for yourself on the first day etc.”  Two halachot that both underscore the fact that the mitzvah should be done for yourself – yet the gemara learns out from different pesukim that one must be your own and one not.

What is it about the mitzvah of the four minim that requires one to own their set of minim?  On the other hand, what is the nature of the mitzvah of sukkah that allows it to be fulfilled when it is only borrowed or not belonging to you at all?

A fascinating explanation is suggested by Rav Chaim Kalman Gutman, a very well respected posek in the Chasidic world whose sukkah I had the honor of visiting this week.  In his work, Chaim L’Chag (pg.570), Rav Gutman advances the following theory:  The very nature of the mitzvah of sukkah is that one derives physical and material benefit from the mitzvah.  You can only fulfill the mitzvah by dwelling in the sukkah like you would in your house.  It is a mitzvah to eat, sleep, relax, and learn in the comfort of one’s sukkah.  In fact the entire reason that an individual who is ill, cold, hot, or bothered by the weather is permitted to leave the sukkah is because they are not enjoying themselves there.  On the other hand, the four minim are totally different.  One derives no physical benefit from the mitzvah at all.  There is no mitzvah to eat, smell, or even look at the four minim.  The only mitzvah is to use them in the way prescribed by the halacha.  Any benefit we derive from this mitzvah is spiritual in nature.  It is solely the joy of knowing we are performing an act that G-d commanded us, no matter how strange it might seem, that makes us feel good after shaking our minim

Rav Gutman explains that this crucial difference is the reason for the variance in the halacha of ownership.  Physical benefit and pleasure are all borrowed in this world.  They do not belong to us.  We don’t take them with us from one place to another and we certainly do not take them with us when we leave the world.  In truth, material pleasure does not belong to us at all.  Therefore, the mitzvah of  sukkah may be fulfilled in a sukkah that does not belong to you – to underscore the fact that no material benefit belongs to you.  Yet the four minim, which are completely spiritual in nature are different.  Our spiritual accomplishments and spiritual rewards belong to us completely.  We take them from place to place and they are the only thing that comes with us when we leave the world. An individual’s mitzvot – whether it be the meaning they bring one’s life or the legacy they leave – are the only absolute possession of a Jew.  Therefore, the mitzvah of esrog is fulfilled only when you completely own it – to underscore that the spiritual benefit you derive from life is yours and yours alone.

In fact, this could also be the reason why we read the book of Koheles on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos.  More than any other book in Tanach, Kohelet underscored this message for the Jew: Only love and awe of G-d and his Torah will lead anywhere in the end.

In our material-driven world we tend to forget just how fleeting wealth and possessions are.  Jewish communities throughout history tried to create customs that would remind them of this all important point.  The Rabbeinu Bechaye relates (Commentary to Parshat Terumah) that there was a custom of Chasidei Tzorfat, the pious Jews of France, to make their coffins out of the wood in their dining room tables.  This was done in oder to show that no matter the possesions one collects in the world, it is only the mitzvot they performed at their table (hachnasat orchim, seudat shabbat, divrei torah) that will come with them to the next world.

Perhaps this is the deep and profound message of sukkos.  As we begin our year anew after the Yomim Noraim, we are reminded of this key theme of Judaism.  There is more to life then a nice car, a nice house, and even a nice sukkah.  The halacha of lachem, present only by esrog, informs us of the incredible power of not just the mitzvah of the four minim but all mitzvot and observance in general.  The meaning cultivated in our lives by our loyalty to the Torah is our sole possession.

Shaila of the Week – Confession, Guilt, and Stolen Pencils

Some religions require confession in order to achieve absolution from sin.  But there’s a catch – the confession must be to another person.  The Halacha tells us that confession to another person, at times, is not only not required but morally reprehensible!

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) points out that different pesukim seem to contradict one another about whether to hide one’s past sins or reveal them.  The gemara resolves the issue with two possible answers: 1. Sins that are public knowledge require public confession on the part of the sinner whereas sins that the public is unaware of do not require public confession 2. Interpersonal sins must be confessed publicly, whereas sins against G-d alone do not need to be publicly confessed. The Rambam codifies this halacha (Hilchot Teshuva 2) with wording that seems to be in line with the second explanation of the gemara (see lechem Mishnah ibid).  Whereas, the Raavad seems to accept the first explanation of the gemara.  In fact, the Rambam goes as far as to claim that it is azut panim, unbridled haughtiness, to publicly confess sins against G-d.  It is worth noting that Kesef Mishnah (ibid) insists that even the Rambam agrees to the Raavad that sins against G-d which are publicly known must be publicly confessed.  Nonetheless, everyone is in agreement that sins against G-d that are not publicly known should not be confessed to another individual or in public.  The Shulchan Aruch (OC 607:2) codifies this in practice.

An Individual that Feels a Need to Confess

What if someone violated the Torah privately and feels a need to confess in order to do Teshuva?  The Rambam was very clear that this is wrong.  However, the point is made in even stronger fashion in the Shaarei Teshuva (ibid).  He mentions public confession of private Torah violation as the practice of some and completely rejects it as being foreign to Judaism.  However, he does allow confession of a sin if others are suspected of committing it and admission will clear them of guilt.

The Case of the Stolen Pencil

Rav Yosef Messas

Rav Yosef Messas, one of the great Morrocan poskim and Chief Rabbi of Chaifa, addresses a situation related to this discussion.  A student stole belongings from his fellow student and regretted it.  He asked Rav Messas if he could confess publicly to absolve himself.  Rav Messas responded (Shu”t Mayim Chaim 1:44) that he could do so.  Even though he would also be revealing a sin against G-d when he confesses, he would be absolving others who might be suspected.  Additionally, the sin against G-d is intimately intertwined with and interpersonal sin as well, namely the pain caused to the student he stole from.  Rav Messas claims that in such a case all would agree that the public confession is praiseworthy.

The Takeaway from this Halacha

Our society often teaches us that to absolve oneself of guilt they need to tell everyone about their missteps.  Even things that should be kept private as a part of one’s personal history are often revealed.  If these missteps included wrongdoing against another person – the halacha is in total agreement.  However, when dealing with private missteps bein adam l’makom, a Jew is neither required nor encouraged to do so.  Guilt is not absolved by confession in Judaism, it is absolved with private heartfelt teshuva.