First Yahrzeit Shiur for my Brother-in-law

The following is the Yahrzeit Shiur I delivered last night in memory of my wife’s brother. 

יארצייט שיעור ראש חודש אלול 5770

ר’ זוין in his מועדים בהלכה,[1] points out that when it comes to the month of אלול, the majority of דרשות about the month are based on אגדה as opposed to הלכה.  As an example, how do we know that אלול is considered the month of preparation for ראש השנה?  We know that אלול is the month of preparation because it is the sixth month, and all sixes are preparations for the seventh, which represents שבת, as it says והיה ביום הששי והכינו את אשר יביאו, but on the sixth day when they apportion what they have brought in (שמות ט”ז: ה). In this case, the sixth month, אלול, is the preparation for the seventh month, תשרי, which contains שבת שבתון, יום כיפור.  The month of אלול is the time we work towards being able to stand before G-d in judgment on ראש השנה.  ר’ זוין continues by saying that אלול also contains areas of halachic consideration that help define the essence of the month, as the month of G-d’s presence being at its most accessible. 

ר’ זוין continues by expounding upon the following הלכה that occurs certain years with regard to ראש חודש אלול.  Throughout the year, when ראש חודש falls out on Sunday, we have the custom of skipping the prescribed הפטרה for the פרשה and instead we read the הפטרה of מחר חודש.  However, for ראש חודש אלול, this is not so clear cut for we also have the מנהג of reading from the הפטורות known as the שבעה דנחמתא, the seven הפטרות of comfort, which we read to find comfort after the harrowing experience of תשעה באב.  There is a מחלוקת between the מרדכי and תוספות regarding which of these two מנהגים take precedence.  According to the מרדכי, the custom was to skip the הפטרה of ראה, עניה סערה לא נחמה, for the הפטרה of מחר חודש because מחר חודש is Talmudic while the שבעה דנחמתא is non-Talmudic, found in the פסיקתא (a non-Talmudic rabbinic work of the same time period).  תוספות disagree, for the שבעה דנחמתא are to be said as they result from having the ג’ דפורענותא, the 3 הפטרות of suffering, which are said during the three weeks leading up תשעה באב.  As such, these הפטרות take precedence over מחר חודש.  The same rule applies for פרשת שקלים and פרשת החודש, in which the special הפטרות for those פרשיות take precedence over מחר חודש, although for these two הפטרות, the פסק is not as challenging for פרשת שקלים and פרשת החודש are also to be found in the גמרא as opposed to other non-Talmudic works from the same time. The רמ”א[2] in the ש”ע states that the הלכה follows תוספות.

However, if ראש חודש אלול is שבת, the מרדכי presents two opinions with regard to whether we read the הפטרה for ראש חודש or the הפטרה for ראה.  This מחלוקת is then found in the differing customs of אשכנז and ספרד, in which the ספרדים read the הפטרה for ראה, while מנהג אשכנז, as taught by the רמ”א, is to read the הפטרה for ראש חודש.  While הפטרת ראש חודש, like מחר חודש, is discussed in the גמרא, it would appear at first as the מחלוקת would follow the same logic as the previously stated מחלוקת, namely whether the הלכה follows the גמרא qua גמרא or that the הלכה would follow the פסיקתא because the theme of the day shouldn’t change.  However, since the הפטרה for ראש חודש relates to the theme of this time period, finding comfort for the tragedies of our history, it falls into the broader category of נחמה, and hence, for בני אשכנז, is read on שבת ראש חודש אלול.  As an interesting aside to this, it is the custom to still read the הפטרה of עניה סערה two weeks later, as part of the הפטרה for פרשת כי תצא.

Why does ר’ זוין connect these two points, discussing אלול as the month of preparation and also as a time of continuing נחמה.   ר’ זוין’s reason for connecting the idea of אלול being the month of preparation with the question of what is read when ערב ראש חודש אלול or ראש חודש אלול and שבת coincide is to highlight the uniqueness of אלול in that the month encompasses two ideas, one based on looking backward and one looking forward.  Facing backwards, אלול is the month of comfort, the continuation of the comforting days of מנחם אב, the days after the 9th of אב, the day on which we mourn for all the Jewish communities’ tragedies.   After תשעה באב, we begin picking ourselves up through G-d’s words of comfort.  This is a challenging task, taking seven weeks, for we struggle to truly accept that G-d is comforting us.  We need a complete cycle of time, seen in the notion of seven being a complete week, a שבת.  The same holds true for שבעה, for it takes a complete cycle, a seven, to begin coming to grips with the reality of a tragedy.    

During אלול, G-d is close by, providing us comfort and promising חסד, kindness. Yet we must also recognize that אלול is the time of חשבון הנפש, investigating ourselves to see what can be improved in preparation for ראש השנה.  This preparation is not from a place of love of G-d, but rather from fear, for we try to prepare to face G-d and show why we should be judged favorably for the coming year.  Therefore, we can conclude from the duality of the month of אלול that finding comfort must come through our own actions, not just the words of others.  It is not enough to hear the words, נחמו נחמו עמי, comfort, comfort my nation, but we must find a way to bridge the chasm created by the tragedy that has occurred. 

The bridge is built by תשובה.  When we refer to תשובה, we are referring not to the notion of penance, but rather to the literal definition, namely returning.[3]  When אלול begins, we, who will be awakened by the sounding of the שופר, must begin returning to G-d.  We find ourselves having become distanced from G-d throughout the year, as the highs of ר”ה and יום כיפור are in the distant past.  But, as the בעל שם טוב taught, the King is now in the field, ready to be encountered.   

The תשובה of אלול is most manifest through the מנהג of reciting לדוד ה’ אורי from the beginning of אלול through שמיני עצרת.  In this chapter from תהילים, דוד beseeches G-d for protection and to be allowed to dwell in G-d’s midst.  As time moves further from tragedy, a different perspective begins to arise.  On תשעה באב, at the conclusion of our reading the terrifying laments of ירמיהו, the book of איכה, we repeat the second to last verse השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה, חדש ימינו כקדם, Take us back, G-d, to yourself, and let us come back, Renew our days as of old (5:21).  We cry out to G-d to remove the tragedy that occurred from our midst, for while we must face tragedy head on, we also need to recognize the future possibility of comfort.  The same is also paralleled in שבעה, for in the midst of mourning, the mourners are constantly offered words of comfort upon leave taking, המקום ינחם, May G-d comfort you.  While those words can sound shallow at the time, they are said as a means to looking towards the future, when comfort can be found. 

Coming back to לדוד ה’ אורי, its appropriate that we do not recite this Psalm until אלול and not immediately after תשעה באב, because we are not ready yet to ask G-d to be allowed to dwell in His midst.  We need to integrate the loss first.  Just like in שבעה there are different הלכות regarding visiting do the first 3 days and the remaining 4 days, so too, it is only after the completion of the month of אב, the first three weeks after תשעה באב, that we can begin to truly look back to G-d to not forsake us and to give us the hope that we will have the strength to endure. 

Once we ask this of G-d, we must confront the other aspect of finding comfort, the need to change and search for the lessons of a tragedy.  While it is not appropriate for people to offer reasons for why something happened, it is the natural human reaction to tragedy that we want to know why.  For example, חז”ל taught that if the בית המקדש is not built in one’s lifetime, then it is considered as if the בית המקדש was destroyed during one’s lifetime.  Why are we unable to rebuild the Temple?  That is the challenging question, to which I am not in a position to even offer a sliver of an answer.  The only statement I can make is that if it wasn’t built, we must continue to work towards that goal, for something continues to be lacking.  And we reach that goal through תשובה, returning to G-d, working on ways to come closer to G-d. 

As we gather here today to face the first anniversary of our collective tragedy, we reflect back upon the past year.  Grieving the loss of a loved one is not just about allowing time to pass and thinking back about the person’s life.  Grieving is about the actions we take to begin integrating into our lives the chasm that has been created by the loss.  We have tried to accept the harsh reality that is our loss, and we have looked for ways to rise up from the loss.  In the most basic sense, this is through the study of משניות, which many participated in during the year.  We do things that merit the soul of the deceased.  The study of משניות also represents a form of action.  We integrate this loss, as hard as that is, by not sitting idly by, continuing with our routines, but rather by taking upon ourselves actions that require us to do more than we usually would. 

And as with all losses, the loss of a dear person leaves us looking to find comfort in strange places.  For me, a comfort I can offer was one I witnessed at the end of שבעה.  When escorting ברוך’s soul out of the house, I recall that the day was gray.  It was a cloudy early morning at the end of August.  Yet, when I looked up to the sky, I saw a sliver of blue, a clearing of the gray, a ray of hope in the midst of tragedy.  As we enter אלול, we should collectively find comfort during this period of נחמה, leading us to rekindling our relationship with G-d as we get closer to ראש השנה and יום כיפור.  May we find that the work we have done and the work we will do be a source of comfort for ourselves and this community as we commemorate the first יארצייט.

[1] מועדים בהלכה כרך ב’

[2] אורח חיים תכ”ה: ב

[3] See Torah Studies by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, פרשת האזינו.  This work is an adaptation of talks by ר’ מנחם מנדל שניאורסון זצ”ל.


Clergy burnout

The Rebbetzin’s Husband’s blog posted a link to a NY Times article published Sunday on the issue of increasing clergy burnout.  The article talks about the challenges clergy face with taking time for him/herself and how that contributes to higher rates of burnout.  Additionally, as we are in a world of instant communication, this issue becomes all the more prevalent because it is harder to “get away.”  In the blog post about the article, The Rebbetzin’s Husband talks about another factor of burnout, namely the need for fulfillment coming from the job instead of from other personal involvements.  Interestingly, a couple of years ago, in the Jewish Action, they interviewed seven old time rabbis, all who have served congregations for 50 yrs.  One of them stated he didn’t understand the concept of burnout because burnout would only occur if one doesn’t enjoy the work.  While I agree burnout is less likely in work that is fulfilling and pleasurable, this doesn’t mean burnout is not possible.

While the article and the blog focus on clergy in religious institutions, I am reflecting on the same as a chaplain in health care.  It is very difficult to avoid the pitfall of looking at work as the primary element of one’s life.  For example, this is why I have insisted on teaching classes at my local synagogue, as for me that is an outlet.  It gives me the opportunity to use other areas of myself, which I feel are underutilized as a chaplain.  I also have the luxury of having Shabbat off (though that is soon to change, with a new job on the horizon) in which my phone is shut off for a day.  It gives me the opportunity not to worry about needing my cell phone all the time (though with having a smart phone, its not such a burden).  Nevertheless, it is hard not to worry about the people you are working with, as they feel a trust in you to be with them in the darkest of times.

Messianism and End of History

Eliyahu Touger, most well known for his translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, authored a book about messianism and his experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l,  From Dawn to Daylight.  While his book rehashes the standard Chabad messianic descriptions (not to be confused with doctrines of Rebbe as Messiah), I found his first appendix to be most fascinating.  In it, he discusses how the world we live in today is already manifesting aspects of the predicted messianic period.  More people have the luxury of recognizing G-d in life, whether due to modern technology or to the increase in new-age spirituality, in which finding meaning in the divine, in whatever manifestation, is at an all time high (even as the latest religious revival comes to an end).  Without being able to discuss this in much detail, his appendix reminds me of the debates regarding “the end of history.”  These debates took place in the post-berlin wall world, before 9/11 might have changed the world back into empire building (an example is Robert Kagan’s recent works, including “The End of the End of History.” and his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams).