Festivals V - Hoshana Raba - The Quality of Emptiness

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Festivals V - Succot - Circles and Spirals

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Festivals V - Succot - In the Shadow of Faith

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Festivals V - RH to YK - Balance of Judgment

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Festivals V - Rosh Hashanah and Community

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Festivals IV - The Extra Soul of Shabbat

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Festivals IV - Exodus, Miracles and Sinai

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Festivals IV - Esther’s Beauty

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Festivals IV - Purim - Doubt Certainty Revenge

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Festivals IV - Chanuka - I Do I Atheism

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Festivals IV - Tisha B’av - Destruction of The Mind

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Ten Commandments - Shabbat

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How to perform a miracle

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In the Beginning…” (1:1)

There’s an old saying about building a house that goes, “The first ninety percent of the work takes ninety percent of the time, and the remaining ten percent of the work takes the other ninety percent of the time.”

When considering any task, we blithely assume that all we need is to do this and do this and do this and then – then it’ll be finished; our project, in all its glory, will spring suddenly into existence. So often we become frustrated when things don’t go according to plan.

But if you think about it, why should they?

We assume that the actual segues from the potential; that it’s all one system. In reality, plans exist in a different dimension to implementation. The gap between preparation and execution, potential and actual, is as cavernous as the gap between dreams and the waking world.

The fact that things have been done in the past, buildings built, ships constructed, records recorded and paintings painted - even in their trillions - does not lessen the fact that bringing something from the world of could-be into the world of is, is a leap of dimension, a change of magnitude.

In other words – a miracle.

The Jewish year has two beginnings(1). The first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, is known as the beginning of the new year; however, the first of Nissan is also called the beginning of the year.

How can there be two beginnings to something?

Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the year spiritually. This was the day when God thought to create existence. This is why we refer to Rosh Hashana as harat olam, the day of the world’s conception. God “conceived” the world on Rosh Hashana, however the first of Nissan is the day that the world became a physical existence. Thus Nissan is related to the word nitzan, which means ‘first bloom’(2). Just as the first bloom is the beginning of the completed state of the flower, so Nissan marks the first bloom of existence. Thus Nissan is always in the Spring when new life ‘springs’ forth, blooming from the earth.

After the original creation ex nihilo, God does not bring anything new into existence3, rather He forms and re-forms, using the existing building blocks of creation. Anything we manage to create uses pre-fabricated pieces of existence in new and different permutations.

With one exception.

The process of actualizing our thoughts and aspirations, of giving substance to our dreams, is akin to God ‘thinking’ to create the world and then bringing His thoughts to fruition.

When we manage to transform a concept into a reality, we are imitating G-d actualizing His ‘thoughts’ to bring existence of out total nothingness.

Maybe we should remember that we just performed a miracle.

———-
[1] Tos. Rosh Hashana, 27a ד”ה כמאן
[2] Shir Hashirim 6:11
[3] Ramban Bereshit 1:1

Posted in: Jewish Holidays

The Secret of the Dreidel

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The dreidel.

A children’s game, played in the firelight of a cold winter night, the menora silently glowing in the window… The dreidel. four sides spinning around the still point in the turning circle; spinning so fast that its sides blur into nothingness… The dreidel. So seemingly insignificant - and yet this little dreidel contains the story of the Jewish people; the history of the whole world.

Our story starts not with the miracle of Chanuka, but 1,437 years earlier with Yaakov’s ladder. Yaakov had a prophetic dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached from the ground to the heavens. These angels weren’t hollywood extras with fluorescent tubes over their heads - they were incorporeal spiritual messengers, the protecting forces of four great kingdoms. four kingdoms that would in the future dominate and exile the Jewish people: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

At first, Yaakov saw the angel of Babylon ascend the ladder seventy steps and then he came down - the Jewish people were in the Babylonian exile for seventy years. The protecting angel of the empire of Persia and Media then climbed up the ladder fifty-two steps before he descended - the Jewish people were in exile in Persia fifty-two years. Then the angel of the empire of Greece climbed 180 rungs - the domination of Greece lasted 180 years. finally, the protecting angel of the Roman empire climbed up the ladder, but he didn’t come down; he kept going up and up and up. Yaakov feared that this final exile would never end until God promised him that even if the angel were to rise up like an eagle and make his nest among the stars, he would bring about his eventual fall.

We are still in that final exile, in the softly asphyxiating embrace of Rome’s spiritual heirs…

THE FOUR KINGDOMS:

Babylon
In the year 3338 (422 BCe), the first of our holy Temples was razed to the ground by the Babylonian emperor nevuchadnetzar. The offerings brought in the Beit haMikdash represented a unique pipeline between God and man. When these ceased, the flow of spiritual energy was severed. This connection is symbolized by the word nefesh, “soul” (“When a soul brings an offering” - Vayikra 2:1). Nefesh begins with the letter nun, and nun represents the kingdom of Babylon.

Persia
In Megillat Esther, haman found the final solution to the Jewish problem - genocide. The exile of Persia and Media represents the threat to the body of the Jewish people - the “guf,” the physical threat of annihilation. Guf begins with gimmel, which stands for the kingdom of Persia and Media.

Greece
Greece, on the other hand, represents the attack on the Torah - the wisdom of Israel. The hebrew word for “intellect” is sechel. The Greeks weren’t interested in the physical destruction of the Jewish people; rather, they wanted to destroy the Torah, Judaism’s spiritual core, and leave a hellenized hulk that would conform to the Greek norms of aesthetics - the superficial wisdom. Sechel begins with the letter sin - that’s the letter of the kingdom of Greece.

Rome
The fourth kingdom, Rome, is the summation of all the other exiles. At the beginning of their dominion, the Romans, like the Babylonians, stopped the offerings in the Temple. Then they destroyed the Second holy Temple and inflicted unthinkable carnage on the “guf,” the body of the Jewish people - after the massacre of Betar, they used Jewish blood as fertilizer for seven years.

At first, Rome was the intellectual scion of Greece, but with the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 Ce, the Catholic Church became the spiritual heir of the Roman empire. After the demise of the influence of the Church, the mantle of Rome was subsequently worn by secularism and materialism - the spiritual incarnation of Rome in our own times.

Rome is all the exiles rolled into one, and thus it is represented by the hebrew word hakol, meaning “all.” Its first letter is the letter heh. Where is the point at the center of a circle? Can you define it? And yet it exists, just like the letter yud in the hebrew alphabet - a single dot from which the whole universe was created. There is a still point in the turning circle around which the whole world turns. The Jewish people are that little dot - so infinitesimally small, and yet around this immutable dot the world turns.

What is the opposite of that little dot, that central point that occupies no space? north, south, east, and west. expansion in four directions. four is the antithesis of the One. four is the number of the kingdoms that stand eternally opposed to he who is One, who stand eternally opposed to his reflection in this world - the Jewish people. Take another look at our dreidel spinning. What do you see? four sides. Spinning around a central point that occupies no space. And when those sides spin, they themselves cease to have direction anymore. now, in the blur of their whirling, they are a circle, a reflection of the still small point at its center.

What is it that is carved on the sides of our dreidel? Nun, gimmel, sin, heh… On one level, those letters stand for “Nes gadol hayah sham - A great miracle happened there.” The commemoration of a miraculous victory of a faithful few over the might of the Greek empire. On a deeper level, however, the dreidel is a microcosmic representation of the four kingdoms - Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome spinning around the center, the Jewish people. And the hand that spins the dreidel comes from above…

Every empire thinks that it will last forever, but the hand above only spins the dreidel of history for a predetermined time, and then each empire, despite its vainglorious boasting, falters on its axis and crashes.

The dreidel. A children’s game, played in the firelight of a cold winter night, the menora silently glowing in the window… The dreidel. Its four sides spinning around the still point in the turning circle, spinning so fast that its sides blur into nothingness… The dreidel. So seemingly insignificant - and yet this little dreidel contains the story of the Jewish people; the history of the whole world…

Posted in: Jewish Holidays

The Seeds of Doom

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The honor of Shabbat is very dear to the Jewish People and to greet the Shabbat Queen while fasting would be inappropriate. For this reason, when Hillel II fixed the Jewish calendar in the fourth century CE, he arranged that none of the Rabbinic fasts could ever fall on a Friday or Shabbat. However, he made one exception.

Which event in the Jewish calendar could be so important that it causes us to reduce the pleasure of Shabbat? Which day is so tragic that we break our fast with the Friday night kiddush wine?

You might think that it’s Tisha B’Av – the ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of both our Holy Temples and of so much other Jewish suffering. Or maybe, the seventeenth of Tammuz, when amongst other tragedies, Titus and the armies of Rome breached the walls of Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s the Fast of Gedalia, which we observe the day after Rosh Hashana: With the death of Gedalia ben Achikam, Jewish rule ceased over the Land of Israel for nearly 2000 years. But no, Hillel II fixed the calendar so that none of these dates ever fall on a Friday.

The only fast that can fall on a Friday is the Tenth of Tevet

Looking at the Tenth of Tevet, we would be hard pressed to discern why this fast is exceptional. On that day there was no battle, no massacre, nothing was burned. The event that the Tenth of Tevet commemorates is the surrounding of Jerusalem by the armies of the Babylonian king Nevuchadnetzar. What was so tragic about the surrounding of Yerushalyim?

Pick up a DVD. You’re holding a feature film in your hands. You can’t see the film but the film is there now.  It just has to be played.
Pick up an acorn.  You’re holding a mighty oak tree in your hands. The seed contains everything that the tree will ever be. Everything needed for the tree exists now in the seed. What follows afterwards is no more than the dénouement of a reality that already exists. It’s not that the seed holds the potential for the tree to grow, but that the tree is really here now.

It is for this reason that the Tenth of Tevet is such a tragic day, a day that is allowed to infringe on the pleasure of Shabbat itself.

Although the Tenth of Tevet was only the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, in reality, it was as though the two Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples), and the other disasters contained in that seed, had already happened - what followed was merely the playing out of a scenario that was already a fully-fledged tragedy.

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Why do trees need a new year?

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If we were to compare the seasons of the year to the ages of man, which age would winter represent?

“Old age,” you would say. Winter connotes the chill of rapidly receding years and ultimate death. Winter’s snow covers the world with a white and aging head. In every language, winter symbolizes old age. every language, that is, except one. In hebrew, the word for “winter,” choref, can also connote the hidden burgeoning of youth into maturity. As it says in the book of Iyov (29:4): “as it was in the days of my winter.” “Winter” here means dormant vigor. how is it that winter can symbolize the bursting forth of life? how can we understand a worldview where winter is not necessarily connected to death - but to the flourishing of life?

On the fifteenth of the hebrew month of Shevat, a new year will begin. There will be little or no television coverage of this event. It will be the quietest new Year’s day in the world, and yet Tu BiShevat - the new Year for trees - is one of the most significant days in the calendar. But apart from its halachic ramifications, why should trees need a new Year? Are they going to make resolutions? What does it mean that the trees have a new Year? And why is it specifically on the fifteenth of Shevat?

let’s start with the last question. Tu BiShevat takes place in the middle of winter. everything outside seems frozen and lifeless. however, hidden from sight, something is happening deep inside the trees. under the frozen bark, at the very core, the sap is beginning to rise. everything looks the same as yesterday, everything seems unchanged - but, inexorably, new life is starting to burgeon. It may not be the end of winter, but it is the beginning of the end.

You can look at winter in two ways. You can look at it as The end. You can look at its deathly chill. Or you can look at it as a silent birthday. The same is true of life itself. You can look at the winter years of life as the end. Or you can see those same years as looking forward to a life just about to be born on another plane.

The Torah likens man to a tree: “for man is the tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). Just like the tree contains an unseen vigor which rises in the depths of winter and death, so too man has an unseen vigor planted inside him - an eternal existence that springs to life when we leave this winter-world of suffering and pain, as we say in the blessing after reading the Torah, “eternal life You have planted within us.”

When we celebrate Tu BiShevat, we are not just celebrating the new Year for Trees. In a way, we are celebrating our own renaissance. We are reminding ourselves that this is just a winterworld. Winter brings us the shortest days of the year. night seems to dominate the day. Winter is a paradigm of this world. In this world, darkness seems to rule. It’s easy to think that this is a brief walk in darkness between two greater darknesses. But to the Jew, this world of darkness is no more than a prelude to a great light. The Jew sees this winter-world as the harbinger of spring, not the executioner of summer.

At the very beginning of Creation, the Torah repeats the following phrase many times: “And it was evening and it was morning…” evening precedes morning; night precedes day. Why does the day start with the evening? If you were creating the world, wouldn’t you think it more logical to start with the morning, with the light?

Right at the beginning of the Creation, there is a hint. A hint that this is an evening-world. A world of winter and darkness. And it is only after this evening-world that we will finally enter the morning-world to live on an eternal plane.

That’s the secret message of Tu BiShevat, the day when we celebrate new life rising in the tree. Tu BiShevat is a new Year that proclaims that “it was evening,” but soon it will be morning.

WINTER-WORLD
of the bleak views
of the knowing snow
of the price of ice and rain
of the World’s conspiring
skydiving
out of control -
out of all of this I know
there is a hearth
in the heart of darkness.

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Yom Kippur

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Festivals II -  Yom Kippur: Beyond the Impossible

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Festivals I - Shavout - Seeing Sound

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Festivals I - Leaving Egypt - Freedom & Obligation

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Holidays - Yom Kippur: The Secret of Permanent Change

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Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen will be launching a exclusive online membership program on his site LawrenceKelemen.com in the near future.  If you would like to be notified when this launches just send us your email below.




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Holidays - Twas The Day Before Yom Kippur

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NEWS:

Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen will be launching a exclusive online membership program on his site LawrenceKelemen.com in the near future.  If you would like to be notified when this launches just send us your email below.




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