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Shabbat Rosh HaShana

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From the World of Rabbi Avraham Kook (first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael)
“The days of repentance are a time to act for G-d; the time to repent is at hand. That is, it is time to attach the branches of life…to their root and source, to the purity of the soul, to their noble glory and life-source. Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d!” (Ma’amarei HaReiyah 145)

Rabbi Dov BegonRosh Yeshiva of Machon Meir
Message for Today: “Rosh Hashanah – Our Good Day of Remembrance”

Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Remembrance”. On this special day we remember and are remembered. We remember here on earth, and we are remembered On High. We remember that G-d is King and His kingdom is sovereign over all. We remember on this day that the Master-of-the-Universe, who sees down through the generations in advance, chose us, took us out of Egypt and gave us His Torah, and He orchestrates our existence in this generation, in this land, and in Jerusalem.

“We recall that the core of Israel’s unique spiritual essence is their constantly remembering the content of life and its eternal, enduring spiritual foundation, which embraces the entire universe and enriches it.” (Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Le’Netivot Yisrael). Not only we remember, but G-d remembers as well, as it says, “You will then be remembered before the L-rd your G-d, and will be delivered from your enemies” (Numbers 10:9); and, “The L-rd will not cast off His people, neither will He forsake His inheritance” (Psalm 94:14).

Today, when we hear the wondrous sound of the shofar, we must remember the thought and the purpose inherent to those shofar blasts, the tekiah, teruah and tekiah that recall for us the way G-d treats us. It is well known that the tekiah is the simple blast, which alludes to the fact that G-d’s good will is simple and is found within everything, as it says, “The L-rd is good to all, and His mercy is over all His works” (Psalm 145:9). The teruah consists of staccato blasts, rather than a single, simple blast. The teruah is the sound of weeping, of sighing and wailing, and it carries an allusion to our own complex world, beset by hardships and complications. Our task is to improve this world with truth and faith, and with enormous patience, as it says, “We must perfect the world under the reign of the Almighty” (Aleinu).

After the teruah comes another tekiah, once more, a simple blast. By way of perfecting ourselves and our world, we will be privileged to see G-d’s goodness. At the end of all the shofar blasts comes the “tekiah gedolah,” the great blast that alludes to the redemption of Israel and of the world, as it says, “On that day, a great shofar shall be blown” (Isaiah 27:13). Then, it shall be revealed for all to see that the L-rd, G-d of Israel is King, and He is sovereign over all. May you be signed and sealed for a good, sweet year!

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Shlomo AvinerChief Rabbi of Beit El
“Wars and Improving the Individual”

During the past six decades we entered a new era in which we have an army, whose fame accords with its name – “the Israel Defense Forces”. Ours is not an attack army for conquering foreign lands, but an army to defend our people and land. It is thus an army of the highest moral bearing possible. Einstein said, “The moral barometer of a people is its behavior during wartime.” He added, “The barometer is on low.” We can add, “Our barometer is on high… even too high.” The humorist Meir Uziel said, “”I don’t understand how in the “Miss Morality” competition, amongst 143 countries we always end up in last place, when we are the only ones to enter the competition.”

Our sages include “war” amongst the stages of the redemption process (Sanhedrin 97a). Rashi explains, “Wars between idolaters and Israel”. It is in this context that the famous expression “atchalta de’geula” [start of the redemption] appears. The Talmud states, “War is likewise the start of redemption” (Megillah 17b). If, in contrast to the pogroms of Europe, we are defending ourselves, then the redemption has definitely begun. Rambam provides a realistic title: “The Laws of Kings and Wars,” and he defines as follows the king’s tasks: “A priori a king is not crowned for any purpose but to execute justice and wars, as it says, ‘We want a king to judge us and to go out before us and fight our battle’ (I Samuel 8:20).” (Hilchot Melachim 4:10). Also one of the yardsticks of a first verification that someone is the Messiah is that he “fight G-d’s wars” (ibid., 11:4). The final verification is when he “vanquishes all the nations around him” (ibid.). Indeed, the Prophet Isaiah acutely describes the Messiah’s wars (Isaiah 63).

Until this vision of peace is fulfilled, it will be impossible for any people to live in its land without an army. Therefore, amongst the Jewish People, the army is a people’s army. It is not a volunteer army or a mercenary army, but one consisting of “everyone twenty and older who is fit for service” (Numbers 1:3).

Our ancestors were men of war. Abraham fought the four kings. Jacob was too, referring to “Shechem, which he took from the Amorites” (Genesis 48:22). Certainly Joshua, to whom the Torah was handed down by Moses (Avot 1:1) was a man of war already in the battle against Amalek, and later on with the conquest of the Land. As our master, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook wrote: “We look back upon the early generations, described in the Torah, Prophets and Writings, those generations that were preoccupied with wars… and they were the very same people to whom we relate with love and reverence.” “In those times, those wars were so vital. They were struggles for our survival” (Orot, HaMilchamah 2)

Yet let us not think that because we are busy with problems besetting the entire Jewish People, that we can allow ourselves to abandon the improvement of individual Jews. That was certainly not the approach of Rav Kook. His approach can be defined as “concern for both the nation and the individual,” or more precisely, “concern for the individual as part of the nation”. Moreover, the righteousness of the individual is the basis for victory in war. As Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, explains, King David “would go to war with strong faith in G-d,” and would beseech G-d, “Let me pursue my enemies and overtake them! Let me not turn back until they are consumed” (Psalm 18:38). He could do this because he would “quickly cleanse himself totally” of all sin (Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 10). The sins in question were not those universally considered sins, but rather sins that people commonly commit, while thinking they are permissible. As our sages said, “Most people violate theft, a minority violate sexual sin, and everyone uses speech verging on forbidden gossip” (Bava Batra 165a).

Ramchal explains that that source is not referring to actual stealing, but to abject business ethics, to people who allow themselves to profit through their fellow man’s loss. Likewise, the source is not referring to straightforward sexual sin, but to immodesty in what one looks at, says, hears or thinks. As for forbidden speech, we unfortunately know how much this plague has spread (Mesillat Yesharim 11).

The foundation of all is faith in G-d and good character, hence we must joyfully fulfill the mitzvoth associated with having a Jewish State and an army. We mustn’t complain against G-d, demanding that He orchestrate all of history according to our own thoughts and plans. We mustn’t be spoiled. We must maintain a state of high alert, ready to deal with the numerous problems that await us along the path towards redemption, and we must thank G-d, “the beneficent One, whose mercies never fail; the merciful One, whose kindnesses never cease.”

Rabbi Ya’akov FilberGuest Lecturer at Machon Meir
“Free Will” (Part II)

Repentance and free will are two fine gifts that G-d gave man. He gave man free will so that man could be free to build his future and to fashion the path he would follow and the deeds he would do. Yet since “there is no man on earth so righteous that he only does good and never sins” (Eccliastes 7:20), man is doomed to mistakes and failures. Because of this he was given repentance, so that he could rectify what he corrupted. Thus, repentance relates to man’s past and free will to his future.

Every individual has an equal possibility of repenting, as Rambam wrote in Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1: “Regarding all the mitzvoth in the Torah, both positive and negative precepts, if a person violates one of them, intentionally or inadvertently, when he repents from his sin, he must confess before G-d.” And even regarding sins that delay repentance (see Chapter 4, ibid.), a person is able to repent. As Rambam wrote, “Nothing can prevent repentance. Once a person repents from a sin, he becomes a penitent, with a portion in the World-to-Come.”

Such is not the case, however, with free will. Here, seemingly, there is no equality between people. It is true that everyone has free will, yet in actual fact, different people start from different points of origin. People differ not only in their strong points, but in the details of their lives. One person may have been born in a good environment, to a family on a high moral and spiritual level, and he may have received a good Torah education, etc. It is then no surprise that when he grows up, he will make good choices. By contrast, someone else may have been born to a family of heretics, or may have lived in a crime-ridden environment, not receiving a proper education, etc. It is then no surprise that when he grows up, following such beginnings, he will make bad choices.

How is it possible to compare these two children and to judge them by the same yardstick? Why should one be punished and the other receive reward? Why should one merit the World-to-Come and the other Gehinnom? Shall the Judge of the entire earth not be fair?! We are forced to say that G-d’s standard of justice does not measure all people by one yardstick. Rather, G-d judges every individual taking into account his personal background and situation, in accordance with the point of origin from which he began to exercise free will, which we might call his “locus of free will”. In his sefer “Michtav Me’Eliyahu” (I:113), Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler likens a person’s locus of free will to two nations at war with each other. In every war, there is the territory where the battle is taking place, and everything behind a particular army is that side’s home front, where everything is under that side’s control and faces no opposition. The same applies with the opposing side as well. When either side advances and the other side retreats, the area that previously belonged to the retreating side moves over entirely to the first side, and the battle moves to the new frontlines where the two sides are now facing off. Thus, in actual fact there is one front, but the potential exists for any part of either country to be the battleground.

This parable is talking about the war between the good and the evil impulse. That war goes on within every person, only that the nature of the battle differs within each individual. Within the unique context of each person, each side tries to expand the areas under its control. When the good impulse succeeds in this, we say that the individual has improved his ways. If, G-d forbid, it is the evil impulse that succeeds, we say that the individual has been corrupted.

The place inside a person where the struggle between the two impulses takes place is his locus of free will. Everyone’s free will is located at the meeting place between real truth and illusory truth. In that meeting place, man’s struggles and uncertainties go on. The struggle is limited and changing, because in actual fact, regarding most of a person’s deeds he has no uncertainty. Either they are good deeds that he accustomed to performing as a given, uninfluenced by the evil impulse, or they are negative deeds which he is likewise accustomed to performing unhesitatingly, under the sway of the evil impulse. The struggle takes place at the locus of his free will. That is where his real trial occurs over which will succeed in attracting him, good or evil. As far as the role of heredity and environment, a person is exempt from responsibility for sin like someone who ceased Jewish practice after being captured by idolaters as a child. The sins that result are not his fault. Therefore, neither will they be taken into account by Heaven.

Different, however, is a person’s situation which is the result of his own free will, and which was created by his good impulse surrendering to his evil impulse. Regarding such sins where he indeed could have turned over a new leaf, but which he neglectfully left within him, man is responsible and will be called to task. This includes even situations over which he no longer has any control. It is as our sages said, “Once a person sins and repeats his sin, he begins to relate to it as permissible.” These, as well, are the result of his free will. According to this explanation, there is equality and fairness regarding free will. Every person is judged according to the personal starting point of his free will, and how he coped with it. Has he expanded it in the direction of good or failed and succumbed to his evil passions? With a good choice, a person ascends upward, expanding his goodness. Conversely, choosing evil unseats the good impulse from its place, leaving the evil impulse to take over. This struggle goes on inside every man in accordance with his unique moral and spiritual situation, and he is judged based on how he behaves in his unique situation.

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