Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sukkot 5768: Kohelet, Blues and Laundry

Every year we get to Sukkot, the holiday we are commanded to be happy, and I wonder: why at this time of the year do we read Kohelet, known in English as Ecclesiastes? The other megillot make sense. For Shavuot, Ruth is about the harvest and about taking an oath of loyalty – and living up to it. For Purim, there’s obviously Esther, and for the Ninth of Av we read Lamentations. The Song of Songs for Passover describes the world free, bright and fresh as spring love. Kohelet however starts out on a rather blue note,

2. Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3. What gains a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? 4. One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides for ever. [Kohelet 1:2-4]

For Kohelet, traditionally believed to be King Solomon, Life is, to use a euphemism, B.S. Life is futile and meaningless. To use his expression, it’s chasing after wind. The only thing you can count on is dying, and that death will wipe out everything you did, assuming you did anything at all in the first place, which by the way was totally worthless anyway. Although Kohelet is sung to Megillah cantillation, I have always believed it really belongs in 12-bar Blues on an old acoustic guitar with some serious blues riffs thrown in. Robert Johnson should sing Kohelet, not a cantor. It’s the blues before there was the Blues.

Yet like the blues, there is some comfort about singing about the hopeless, futile situation we find ourselves in. I was trying to write about this while doing the laundry early this morning. I did not make much progress, two little paragraphs was all I got. I understand the frustration Solomon wrote, but I could not put it into words. Tradition has it he wrote the three books of wisdom attributed to him at different times of his life. Song of Songs was written in his youth, and Proverbs in his old age, with Kohelet in his middle years. Often I’ve believed that was inaccurate. Kohelet and Song of Songs are both from his youth: the hopeless romantic and the angst that young people seamlessly switch between. I’m hitting those middle years, and I get what Kohelet is talking about – yep this is a middle age thing – but how to put it into words.

While sitting looking out the window on my apartment’s laundry room, a repairman walked in. He greeted me quite friendly and commented to me while looking out the window that this has got to be the best view of any laundry room he deals with. Since my apartment building was built 56 years ago, our laundry room is on the 21st floor with windows looking out onto a river of trees leading to a beautiful view of the park and zoo below. I’ll admit, while writing I was very distracted by those same trees, noting their color changes just beginning. Yet, out from behind a washing machine, this woman interrupting our conversation, jumps up and fires out a litany of complaints about this recently remodeled, rather luxury laundry room. I don’t think there was anything she liked.

On my way down the elevator I realized what I needed to write, why Sukkot is associated with Kohelet. The building did quite the job at re-designing the laundry room a few months back, adding many amenities for those who wait for their laundry including a big screen TV and wi-fi. For the professional like me this is wonderful as I can get several things done at the same time such as e-mail and writing the Drash. They doubled the number of washing machines and added several dryers. They changed the hours from 8:00AM-8:00PM daily to 24 hours. At the heart of all of this is environmentally friendly, silent, energy efficient washing machines. It was these front loaders which this lady went off on the most, seemingly hating them with her dying breath, and extolling the virtues of the old, noisy top loading machines.

I realized something after this. Kohelet wrote about it too:

5. As you do not know what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child; even so you do not know the works of God who makes all. 6. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both alike shall be good. [11:5-6]

There are things in life we can change and there are things we cannot, we cannot even know what will change. Yet there are many things that we cannot change that we hold on to too tight, it hurts for them to change. Most of the very biggest we have no say in, such as the day of death. Death for Kohelet is the big equalizer. It does not matter how rich, happy, wise, poor, miserable, or foolish you are. You come into the world the same, and go out of the world the same. Someone else will get your stuff; you can’t take it with you. It’s a change that we really have no control of. Laundry machines may not be the most appropriate analogy, but we as tenants really didn’t have much control of what kind of laundry machine goes in. Yet those who think of a laundry machine as one of these old noisy things will have hard time dealing with these new energy efficient models and actually get angry about removing such things from their reality. Change happened and there are two ways to deal with it. One is to feel pain, to complain and get angry. The other is to let go, change your world view, find what’s good about it, and move on. Worrying about what kind of laundry machine you’re using really is chasing after wind.

Walking before dawn to get coffee I noted the twenty degree drop in temperature this morning from yesterday. The weather of fall is fast approaching. With fall, trees, birds and animals will go into their winter modes, either going to sleep until the spring or flying away to better climates. In Avodah Zarah 8a we are told Adam became very afraid his first autumn. As the world grew dark and the world around him began its first seasonal sleep he thought God was destroying the world. As the world gets darker and darker with earlier sunsets and later sunrises, in a sense that is true, a reminder of our own mortality, particularly in the shadow of Netaneh Tokef and that decree of who shall live and who shall die.

Yet Kohelet in his blues let us know not to worry too much about that. Everything’s chasing after wind. Doing bad is only going to make your meaningless existence worse, with unpredictable results. Gaining wisdom, following God, and enjoying yourself on the other hand may not help you after death. Yet, you have lived well in this life, even though there is always more you could have done. Kohelet, in his own version of “Down and Out Blues” brings us to a place where we are free to dream of all possibilities since everything ultimately has the same value after death – none at all.

I headed to Erev Sukkot services on an elevated train, in the orange light of late afternoon turning treetops yellow and orange. Passing many neighborhoods, each different from the previous one, I listened to blues tunes and they seemed to fit. Often these are songs of total misery, pain and want, yet even standing on a crowded rush-hour train, you can’t help but feel good and tap your feet. Somehow in its depressing message, Kohelet is uplifting in its message this time of year. While not anywhere as simple or Pollyanna as the more pop music tune of Bobby McFerrin “Don’t worry be happy,” Kohelet’s message is really the same one with a stipulation:

13. The end of the matter, all has been heard. Be in awe of God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14. For God shall bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it is good, or whether it is evil. [12:13-14]

At the beginning of the year, we are to live a good year, and not be afraid to take chances and expand our possibilities. There really is little to fear, since there is only one ultimate outcome. Yet, we must always remember there is God, and while nothing else might have purpose, our adherence to the mitzvot do. I believe that Kohelet was wrong in one respect however, He wrote “there is nothing new under the sun” [1:9] Yet, As did R. Isaac in the name of R. Johanan [Ta’anit 5b], I believe differently, and there is something beyond death even in this world. We create memories, both good and bad which reflect and ripple out to others. The mitzvot do not just bring us closer to God, but also bring us closer to other humans to reflect in their joy. This is not only in the time we are in this world, but in the time we are not. Sukkot is a time to relate; to understand our relationship to everything outside of us. In the most open of structures we see the world around us in a way our brick walls and small windows never allow. The joy we spread on these days will be new under the sun. The pleasure we give others will be here forever, and even reflect in the world to come. We can take that with us.

May your Sukkot be a joyous one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Yom Kippur 5768: Passing Netaneh Tokef

Every year during the High Holidays, we hear the prayer Netaneh Tokef. In the middle of this piece of liturgy we read:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many pass on, How many shall come to be
Who will live and who will die
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not
Who by fire and who by water
Who by sword and who by beast…

…But repentance prayer and charity temper the stern decree. [Gates of repentance 313]

While hearing the cantor reciting this piece of liturgy, I thought about something I hadn’t before. Six times the verb-root avar (עבר) shows up in Netaneh Tokef. It was the passage above which first caught my eye using this verb in two very different meanings, one of which the Reform Prayer book Gates of Repentance quoted above happens to translate loosely.

Avar in its simplest meaning is to pass or cross. Checking with my dictionary, I found seventeen meanings in three conjugations for this one verbal root. Reading the dictionary further, I found something interesting about this word. Many of these meanings can also mean their opposite. Depending on conjugation and context it can mean to be dead or to be pregnant. It can also mean to sin and to forgive.

Yet, Netaneh Tokef, in its essence comes down to the one phrase, with its key verb an avar root word. But repentance prayer and charity pardon (ma’AViRin) the stern decree. By doing the right things, we prevent the bad things. Last week I talked about Repentance, about changing direction. It’s good to have a pause to do that, however distressing it is, to be lost and directionless for a moment then to turn.

This week I’ve been thinking about the second of those, prayer. For many they read that key phrase in Netaneh Tokef phrase with an implicit addition: But repentance prayer and charity on this day pardon the stern decree. While discussing the state of dating with a friend, I quoted a survey done in 2004 of a popular Jewish singles dating service. Of the sample of 402 singles ages 18-40, 54% go to high holidays services only, 30% attend at least one Shabbat a year and 16% never go at all. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population survey notes observance has similar, though not necessarily comparable numbers for the entire American Jewish population. 59% fast on Yom Kippur at least part of the day, and 27% attend services at least once a month. In either case, we have almost double who attend services in one ten day stretch than those who attend services even sporadically throughout the year. The prayer of Netaneh Tokef apparently is you pray for yourself on this one day and then go back to your life.

But what is prayer? Is this a good way for the individual to look at prayer? A few Al Heits and skipping breakfast and lunch does the trick? That seems as sensible and effective as a crash diet for ten days a year, then hitting the all-you-can-eat dessert table every day for the other 355.

As I said last week, I make a different assumption here than does this majority and the pshat of Netana Tokef. The High Holidays are not the only day of Judgement all year, with a decree to be given at the close of the Neilah service. Instead, the Days of Awe might be used as a sample of the patterns we have established that need change.

Holiness, whether we believe it or not, is everywhere. God speaks to us all the time. Most never “hear” God. I believe its not that God isn’t saying anything but we are not listening or perceiving what God tells and shows us. It is the still small voice of Netaneh Tokef and of Elijah in I Kings 19:12. How do we learn to hear better? Through prayer, which is a way of getting in tune and learning to listen to Holiness. It’s not a one time thing once a year, but a continual thing. It’s not even a three time a day thing but a hundred every day blessings for the things in the world around us.

How many of us have ever really spent the time to realize and appreciate it is God who made the cloud and moves it, grass that both grows and withers, The flowers both growing and wilting and the light and the shadow the cloud and the sun cast. The wind and the dust that flies through the air is also God driven. All of it is interconnected as well. The wind moves the dust and the cloud, the flowers and grass grow or wilt depending on the size of those clouds. A big one rains precious water for nourishment, yet without the wind to move it, the cloud may also obscure the sun in shadow and make growth difficult for the plants. That shade may yet also keep the sun from burning the grass and flowers.

The Netaneh Tokef talks about flowers, shade, wind and grass. Such are used in metaphors for passing on, for death. Yet maybe they mean something else, something that seeing holiness in the world puts into context. The world is always moving, passing from state to state. The cherry blossom wilts to bring on the cherry, the cherry falls, rots or is eaten by animals to leave the seed somewhere else for a new tree to grow. Flowers give way to seeds, a unique metaphor for the dual meaning of death and pregnancy in our word Avar.

In our secular world we tend to think in terms of business as usual. We are so loudly being static or listening to the loud sounds of fire and water, sword and beast, hunger and thirst, earthquake and plague we do not hear the still small voice. All of those do require attention but that attention is so much more when we make a habit of stopping and listening to the still small voice which can cause angels to tremble in fear. We must think in terms of the holiness of transition, of Avar, of passing from one state to another. It’s the dynamic way the world is constantly changing in response to a voice we cannot usually hear.

Our prayers on Yom Kippur are not the only ones we need to make. But they mark a point where we can begin to add prayer and blessing to our habits and daily and weekly practices. Be it set liturgy or not, in Hebrew, Yiddish or English doesn’t matter as much as the act of praising God and noticing how much we have to praise, how holy the world is and our responsibility to such a world of holiness.

In his last interview, Abraham Joshua Heschel stated “Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.” As we enter into the Day of Atonement, if you cannot concentrate on any of the prayers in the Mahzor, try to think about that remarkable statement.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rosh hashana 5768: Reflections on the Book of Fully Living

5767 has gone by, and 5768 starts.

I’m not motivated this week to comment on a passage we will be reading from Torah for Rosh Hashanah or for Shabbat Shuvah. This Rosh Hashanah is such a personal milestone for me I have a lot to reflect on besides that.

I have commented many times before about my view of being inscribed in the Book of Life or the Book of Death. Although part of the tradition, I’m not the biggest fan of the concept. Instead, I’ve looked at the Book of Life as the Book of Fully Living. We each have our own book, one that we fill with narrative; it may be exciting, joyous or adventurous. The book may be sad tragic, or even boring and pointless. Put together it becomes, to mix the metaphor, a tapestry. It is a wonderful testament to a life that affected other lives. If we experience and contribute to the beauty of God’s Creation, then we live fully. If we don’t, it is living something less than full, even to the point of a living death.

Have I been fully living? In the contemplative mood of the annual opening of the gates of repentance, I’m wondering what I have really done to make my book a Book of Fully Living. This reflection, if not brooding, is strong in my mind due to a few things which began five years ago.

Just before Shabbat Nachamu five years ago, I received an e-mail that was sent to the congregation I was involved with at the time. The e-mail was one filled with slander against a candidate for a rabbinic position at the synagogue. Although for my own reasons I had a lot of doubts about this candidate, I wrote back to the congregation in defense of the candidate, a piece about the Torah portion of the week and Lashon Hara. Because I enjoyed writing it so much, I wrote another Torah Commentary the week after, then the week after. It’s become a habit really. At the time, my niece had an obsession with Sesame Street’s Elmo, and the Elmo segments “Elmo’s World.” Somehow when singing the tune to Elmo’s world, I changed the words to “Shlomo’s Drash” and this column got a name (and a theme song).

Five years ago, I began to learn Aramaic. This in itself wasn’t remarkable, as I had just finished learning Biblical Hebrew. What was remarkable was this was the first of many classes leading to my Master’s in Jewish Studies. I’m now finishing the last two appendices of the last paper of that degree. I have had pause to look back, and to look forward. Looking back I see all the things I learned and all the perspectives that changed. I’ve struggled with some of those issues right here, and some I’m still formulating about what to do. But with the end of this part of my life, I feel like many graduates: I have a lot of fear. For five years I knew where all my brain power would be directed. Now I’m not so sure.

In that same five years I changed from an employee to a business owner. Given the status of my business, this is certainly the least proud part of my life. I’ve yet to become as successful in my profession as I would have liked, nor am I as respected in my industry as others. There are lots of things I can attribute to that, not least of all my intense attention to graduate school. Trying to fill the shoes of the previous owner, a man of mythic proportions to the clients, didn’t help. A grasshopper getting out of a shadow of a giant is never an easy task. Nor did being the proverbial corner tailor when Wal-Mart came to town, nor being a luxury item in a lot of very tight budgets.

For the first Rosh Hashanah in a long time, I keep asking myself the question "What now? Where do I turn next?” Instead of turning the page in my book of fully living with enthusiasm, I dread it.

The key word of the next two weeks is the word t’shuvah. In English we translate this word as repentance. Its root ShVB(שוב) actually means to turn. Repentance is really turning, reversing our direction. Earlier this year I motioned this in terms of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of God in Search of Man. Humanity, since the Garden of Eden has been hiding and running away from God, who keeps asking “Where are you?” Most often, we run away from holiness. At any time, we as humans can merely turn around, reversing our direction and move towards holiness, declaring what cantors worldwide will sing over the holidays “Hineini! Here I am!” While we spend a lot of time asking God to forgive our sins, those things we did to run away from God, we need to also think about reversing direction and moving towards God and holiness. It is in that sense that the Talmud writes:

If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement. [Yoma 85b]

On the path where God is in search of Man, and we do t’shuvah, turning towards holiness, we need to turn 180°, not 360°. Yet often we turn completely around, look towards holiness and then go back to the path we were already on.

A decade ago, I did change paths. Another use of the word t’shuvah is return. The word Baal in Hebrew means master, lord, or husband. A Baal T’shuvah is therefore a master of returning. Ten years ago, I was hardly even Jewish. I’d probably call myself a Taoist back then, and avoid virtually anything Jewish if I could. Yet, I somehow turned. Here I am today finishing a paper explaining a folio of Talmud after translating the whole thing from the Aramaic. Here I am getting ready to read and chant Torah on Yom Kippur. Here I am nearly every week, writing commentary on the Torah using Talmud, Midrash, and Targums.

Actually, I do remember the last time I felt so lost and directionless. It was a bit over ten years ago, when I graduated with my Master’s in Education from Loyola University. It was in that directionless vacuum that I became a Baal T’shuvah. Graduation seems to do that to people I guess, at least it does it to me. Maybe when we are walking on the road of life, or plotting the pages in our book of fully living, it’s hard to change direction while we are moving. We really do need to completely stop, or leave part of a page blank to start a new chapter. The thing that makes us stop more than any other is getting lost. When we are lost, we need to stop and take stock of the directions in front of us, and the direction we just came from.

The Days of Awe are a graduation of sorts. We made it through another year. Yet it also is a time to be a little lost, a little directionless and look around and get our bearings. It is only then we can pick the right path and turn towards holiness, because we know where it is. Hopefully we’ve learned what paths move away from holiness and which one looks promising. Then we move forward in the right, best direction.

Many books leave blank spaces between chapters. The Ten Days can be that blank space, the pause between chapters, so that the next one can be different than the last one. Books which repeat the last chapter are pretty boring, it’s when the characters change or deal with new things in a new way that we are engaged in the book. So too in our own books of fully living, to fully live means we need to change and do things differently. To remain static and do things as we always have is to be inscribed in the boring book, the book of living death.

This High Holiday season, I therefore wish you:

May your journey be towards holiness

In 5768, May you write a fabulous adventure in the book of fully living.

And of course

L’shana Tovah! Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Nitzavim-Vayelech 5767: The Oven and the Gates

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

This week, in a double portion we have the last of Moses’ speech to the people. One very well known passage from this week’s reading is this one:

11. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. 12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. [Deut 30:11-14]

The phrase It is not in heaven, from Deuteronomy 30:12 is the key element in one of the most known, but often misunderstood stories in the Talmud. The first bit of the story occurs in Mishnah Kelim 5:10, which is a ruling about a type of oven and whether it is spiritually clean or not:

If an oven was cut up into rings, and sand was inserted between each pair of rings, R. Eliezer rules: it is clean; but the sages rule: it is unclean. Such an oven is known as the oven of Aknai.

The R. Eliezer of this portion is R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus. The best summary given of him can be found in the Perkei Avot:

If all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance and Eliezer b. Hyrcanus in the other scale, he would outweigh them all. [2:8]

Yet Eliezer, the teacher of such powerhouses such as R. Akiba did not have such kind words for his comrades and students:

R. Eliezer said: Let the honor of you friend be as dear to you as your own; and be not easily provoked to anger; and repent one day before thy death. He also said: Warm yourself before the fire of the wise, but beware of their glowing coals, that you would not be singed, for their bite is the bite of a fox, and their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire.[2:10]

Why such bitterness against his colleagues? It has to do with that oven. What happened during this debate is recorded in the Gemara to Baba Metzia:

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’[Baba Metzia 59b]

Most will look at this story in terms by R. Jeremiah’s comment and R. Nathan’s Elijah conversation. It is not in heaven is the clincher. The majority of scholars decide what are the rules, no matter how iron clad the argument is, or how much divine intervention is staged. R. Nathan’s epilogue paradoxically indicates that even God delightfully agrees with this.

The president of the court at the time was Eliezer’s brother-in-law R. Gamliel II. What happened next, yet often not told as part of the story is very significant, all of which had to be led by R. Gamliel:

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.

In one day, over the cleanliness of an oven, a man’s life and career were destroyed. Formers students would not talk to him not respect him – no one would. His wife Imma Shalom, Gamliel’s sister, was put into a difficult position. Though losing a lot of status herself, she tried desperately not to let her husband pray to God about the hurt he felt about this one incident, that divine retribution would harm her brother. One day, she wasn’t able to prevent him,

[On her return] she found him fallen on his face [in prayer]. ‘Arise,’ she cried out to him, ‘thou hast slain my brother.’ In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. ‘Whence dost thou know it?’ he questioned her. ‘I have this tradition from my father's house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.’

Before his death, Gamliel would suffer in a similar situation. Yet again, wounded feelings would appear, and again two from The Oven of Aknai incident would be in the center of it, though R. Gamliel and R. Joshua butted heads many times. After several insults against R. Joshua over a period of time in such matters, and some outrageous autocratic behavior in the courts, Gamliel was ousted from his position as head of the courts. R. Eleazar b. Azariah was appointed head. At one point Gamliel was even locked out of the building. Some of his rulings were overturned, and several issues were railroaded through. Gamliel, who despite these stories is usually known as quite the gentle soul even to his servants, does apologize to R. Judah and is for the most part restored to his position. [Berachot 28a-b]

This was a generation of superheroes of halacha, of Jewish law as formulated into our own time. They created a system that had the authority by majority to rule on matters of religious observance, and that such power was greater than imminent divine revelation was a great innovation and probably one of the most significant survival traits of Jewish thought since that time. Their names are attached to the major rulings found in the Mishnah. Yet they were fallible humans with feelings. Since R. Eliezer is not mentioned during the ousting of R. Gamliel it may be hard to place the two stories in sequence, or if the bad feelings and grudges from one effected the other. Yet one has to wonder. Here, and elsewhere in the Talmud, we have stories of Rabbis and hurt feelings. Even legends are human in the Talmud. Like any other two fallible people Rabbinic masters hurt other rabbinic masters too.

There are two sayings from these sections of Baba Metzia I try to remember. Ironically one from Eleazar b. Azariah, the Man Who replaced Gamliel after his ousting:

Since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer are locked… Yet though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not.

Ima Shalom said in the name of her father (i.e. Shimon b. Gamliel) :

All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.

The oven of Aknai is not just about the legitimacy of rabbinic authority and the formation of Halakah. It is not just about it is not in heaven. Instead, it is about the end of that passage, But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. How we do Torah and the commandments are just as important as how we express our thoughts and emotions in our words. All must be good when it comes to words. Hurting people with our mouth and heart is just plain bad, even for the sake of Torah.

The gates of repentance will open soon. We are told that those gates are about the repentance of our transgressions against God. They do not help against the continually open gate, the gate of tears, those transgressions against the hearts of our fellow human beings. The gates of bad feelings need closing in a different way. Like R. Gamliel, we close them by asking for forgiveness of those we offended. The greatest sages of all time were fallible enough to hurt those around them, even family. How much more so people like us! Like the Rabbis, in things we think seriously matter, we are even more fallible to hurt others. In our passion for a cause or a belief, we might even be blind to it being offensive. In my experience, I known I’ve been offended like this on occasion. Yet such experiences and the Oven of Aknai remind me I’m not immune either, I’m sure throughout my life and my enthusiasm for many of the things in my life I’ve offended or hurt someone. Although I have learned a lot about a media such as this one, I still make mistakes right here in my words I write every week. Like every year at this time of year, I need to stop, think about that for my writing and my life, ask for forgiveness, and try better next year.

So If I have offended you this year for any reason whether I know it or not, please forgive me. If you offended me, I forgive you too.