Monthly Archives: September 2013

Kol Mevaser – the Voice of the Herald

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March, Sukkot 5774 – צעדת ירושלים תשע”ד

Something amazing occurred to me this morning in the Synagogue, during Hoshana Rabba prayers, as I recited the last of the liturgical poems, just before beating the willow branches against the ground. The poem begins with a declaration, repeated emphatically by the congregation after each stanza:

!קול מבשר, מבשר ואומר
The voice of the herald, announces and proclaims!

The image of the mevaser, the herald who announces the coming of the final Redemption, is based on a number of verses in the book of Isaiah (for example see 52:7). The poem we read this morning anticipates the coming of that Redemption by poetically describing what that future world will look like, and invites us to hear the voice of the herald announcing its arrival.

As I recited a few lines from this poem, I thought about some of what I saw and experienced yesterday in Jerusalem. We went into the city as a family to take part in some of the holiday festivities. As always, being in Jerusalem on chol hamoed is an exhilarating experience. The streets are packed with tens of thousands of visitors from around the country and around the world. There are Sukkot on every block and people carrying the Four Species everywhere you turn, restaurants are packed and there are street festivals and music playing throughout the city…and of course when you enter the Old City and approach the Western Wall, you can get a taste of what it must be like to fulfill the commandment of aliya laregel – ascending for the pilgrimage to the bet hamikdash.

With that image in mind as I recited the following lines, I realized that today, to hear the “voice of the herald” announcing the coming redemption, all one needs to do is to come to Israel, and particularly to Jerusalem on Sukkot:

!קול מושיעים יעלו להר ציון, כי חלה גם ילד ציון – מבשר ואומר
!קול נשמע בכל גבולך, הרחיבי מקום אהלך – מבשר ואומר
!קול שימי עד דמשק משכנותיך, קבלי בניך ובנותיך – מבשר ואומר

The voice of the saviors ascending Mount Zion, for Zion has given birth to her children – announces and proclaims!
The voice that is heard throughout your borders, as the place of your dwellings extends [in all directions] – announces and proclaims!
The voice of your dwellings extending and approaching Damascus, in order to receive your [returning] sons and daughters – announces and proclaims!

As I said these words, I remembered walking yesterday afternoon through the Old City gate on what is today called Mount Zion – a gate marked by the bullets of the Jewish saviors who indeed “ascended Mount Zion”. I was surrounded by my fellow Jews, those whose homes today extend in all directions from Jerusalem (even approaching Damascus) and those who are currently returning from exile. Indeed I can hear the voice of the herald announcing the approaching redemption. That voice, which just a few decades ago was faint and barely perceptible, is today very loud.

However, the most amazing part is actually in the earlier verses of the poem. Those verses make reference to the prophecy recorded in Zecharia chapter 14, which we read in the Synagogues last week on the first day of Sukkot. That prophecy of the End of Days includes the following verses:

…והיה ה’ למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה ה’ אחד ושמו אחד
והיה כל הנותר מכל הגוים הבאים על ירושלים ועלו מדי שנה בשנה להשתחוות למלך ה’ צבאות ולחוג את חג הסוכות. (זכריה יד:ט,יז)

And Hashem shall be King over the entire earth, on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One…
And then all who remain from all the nations who rose up against Jerusalem shall ascend every single year in order to bow before Hashem, and to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot. (Zecharia 14:9,17)

One of the things we did yesterday was to watch the annual “Jerusalem March” parade through the streets of downtown Jerusalem. The parade began with groups of soldiers, police and other security forces, followed by groups of Israelis representing various towns and villages, companies and organizations. But the most moving part of the parade were the groups that followed after that – non-Jews from all over the world who come to Israel every year on Sukkot to show their support for Israel and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. I don’t have the full list handy, but there were groups from every continent on earth (among the countries I recall seeing are the USA, Bolivia, Brazil, Norway, Slovakia, China, Korea, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana, Australia and New Zealand). They come in colorful native costumes, waving their own flags and Israeli ones, carrying banners in many languages (most of which also have Hebrew on them) and proclaiming their love for Israel and the Jewish people.  Just as Zecharia promised they would.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

As they walked down the streets of Jerusalem, they proudly waved at the Israelis who stood on the sidewalks watching them. Many greeted us excitedly, saying “Shalom” and wishing us a “chag sameach“- they all seemed to have learned the words for “happy holiday”. My children, who were excited to see so many different cultures, approached some of the more exotically dressed visitors and asked to take a picture with them. The marchers from around the world not only agreed readily, but many asked if they too could take a picture, probably to show off to their friends back home that they met some “real Israelis”.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

To be sure, the final Redemption is certainly not yet here. In case we were unsure of that, the tragic murder of one of our soldiers in Hebron on Sunday – as thousands of Jews were celebrating Sukkot there – provided a chilling reminder. And of course, my “pilgrimage to the Temple Mount” yesterday ended abruptly with Mincha at the Western Wall and not at the bet hamikdash, because although the city of Jerusalem has been magnificently rebuilt, its most important site remains in ruins.

So no, the Redemption is not here yet. But as we declared this morning in the Synagogue, the Voice of the Herald announces and proclaims! And those announcements are getting louder all the time.

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושליםJerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים Jerusalem March Feast of Tabernacles צעדת ירושלים

A Religious Person or A Good Person – What’s More Important?

As we try, during these Days of Repentance, to improve ourselves, an important question arises: What’s the most important thing – to be a “religious person”, or a “good person”? Meaning, is it better to be someone who prays to God and tries to worship Him, or to be a kind and ethical person, someone who’s very careful about how he/she treats other people?

Believe it or not, this question is so important that it’s at the heart of most of the major military conflicts that have threatened the world in recent years. For us here in Israel as for the majority of the Western world, our most vicious enemies these days are the radical Islamists, be they the Shiite groups led by Iran, or the Sunni groups organized under the banner of Al-Qaeda. While these groups disagree about many things (and are currently fighting and killing each other in Syria), they both agree that the most important thing is for the world is to worship God in the correct manner (as they understand it), and they are willing to do anything necessary – including killing their enemies’ or their own children – to bring that about.

These groups are opposed by the Western world, who believe (to quote the US Declaration of Independence), that all people are “created equal” and are entitled to “certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One of the most important “unalienable rights” the Western world believes in the freedom to worship God (or any other god or gods) in any way one sees fit – or to not worship at all.

So those are the extremes – the Islamists believe that serving God takes precedence over treating people with kindness and sensitivity, whereas the West believes the exact opposite – being ethical comes before being religious.[1]

What does the Torah say?

The obvious answer is “both”! The Torah clearly addresses our relationship with God as well as our relationship with other people, and gives us many commandments relating to each of these concepts. These twin ideas are represented by the two tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed – the first one lists commandments “between man and God” and the second lists commandments “between man and man”. So the Torah clearly says that you need both.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. After all, the Islamists also believe in the values of kindness and justice, and the Western world values (or at least respects) religion. The question isn’t whether you need only one or whether you need both – the question is which one comes first and which second?

There is a certain philosophy currently being promoted by various individuals and groups within the Jewish People, which argues that the essence of Judaism and of Jewishness is to be a good, kind and ethical person.[2] Numerous rabbinic sources, such as “דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה” (sometimes translated as something like “ethical norms come before religious law” – although it may very well mean something else) can be quoted to support this position. Speakers advocating for this approach do not suggest that prayer, ritual and other ways of serving God aren’t important; they agree that “you need both”. Just that the “laws between man and man” come first and “between man and God” second. These people often criticize other philosophies within Orthodox Judaism, who they accuse (correctly or not) of prioritizing ritual over ethics.

So, who is right? Is “religion” the first order of priority and “ethics” a close second? Or the other way around?

I think an intriguing answer can be found in the mitzvah of Shabbat. If we look at the short text of this mitzvah in the Ten Commandments as they appear in the book of Shmot and compare this to the parallel text in the book of Devarim, something very interesting emerges.

According to the text in Shmot (20:10), Shabbat is a religious law whose purpose is to bear witness to the idea that God created the world:

“For in six days the Lord made the heaven, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the day of Shabbat and sanctified it”

But the text in Devarim (5:13-14) says something entirely different:

“…in order that your man-servant and maid-servant may rest [just] like you. You must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the day of Shabbat.”

According to this, Shabbat is a social law designed to bring a measure of equality into a very unequal relationship. All week long there are slaves who do the work and masters who order them around. On Shabbat, though, all work ceases, so the slaves get to rest just as the masters do. The master is commanded to allow his slave this weekly respite out of empathy, and also as a result of the realization that he was once a slave himself – so he should know to treat the slave in an ethical and compassionate manner.

Is there a contradiction between the two Biblical texts? Are there competing traditions as to the reason for the mitzvah of Shabbat?  Of course not.  The two passages not only complement each other, but in fact they are one and the same.  And understanding how and why that is can help us answer our initial question.

The text in Devarim says that we must observe Shabbat in order that our slaves will be able to rest, just as we do.  This is not only presented as a matter of ethics and kindness, but also because “the Lord your God brought you out from [Egypt] with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”.  Thus the idea in Shmot – that Shabbat testifies to the idea that God created the world, leads directly to the idea in Devarim – that He also continues to rule the world.  He decides who is on top and who is on the bottom, who is wealthy and who is poor, who a master and who a slave.  If you are a master today, that is only because He wills it as such – once upon a time you were the slave, and the situation could change tomorrow as well.

The master who internalizes these messages realizes that he must allow his man-servant and maid-servant to rest just as he does because indeed, all people are equal.  God is the true master and we are all His slaves.  So the theological message emphasized in Shmot leads directly to the social message emphasized in Devarim.

And perhaps, therefore, the answer to our original question – is it more important to be a “religious person” or an “ethical person” is that the Torah teaches us that the two are actually one and the same. The only way to truly be an ethical person is to be a religious person, and a truly religious person will by definition be ethical.  Any philosophy that argues for one over the other misses the point.

May we all reach true religiosity, true ethics and true kindness, and may we all merit to be sealed in the Book of Life.

[1]This particular point is actually crucially important. The two cultures that currently dominate the planet and are involved in a huge confrontation actually each represent an interpretation of part of the Torah’s message. I hope to elaborate on the significance of that in a future post.

[2]The more extreme formulations of this idea can be found in radical movements like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism – which have redefined Judaism as an essentially cultural and philosophical system whose most important tenet is to make the world a better place and which don’t involve worshiping (or perhaps even believing in) God at all. Of course, one could argue that these groups do not represent authentic Judaism at all; they are merely expressing the ideas of secular Western culture using Jewish terminology. But a very similar idea, in a more mild form, can also be found among Orthodox Jews who follow halacha scrupulously. These groups affirm the necessity of serving God – just say that this is secondary to being an ethical person.