Friday, September 29, 2006

Haazinu - Shabat Shuva

Biographies and Resumes

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

When I was inducted as a rabbi in 1998, I received numerous gifts from friends, teachers and fellow students. It was a joyous occasion and as is the way of things, people find these times an excellent opportunity to give a present.

I received big presents, small presents, expensive ones and inexpensive ones; some dear and some not so dear. One gift was particularly special. It was the book "Hidushei Torah". This was from my friend Michael, who is, today, a Rabbi in the Hong Kong Jewish community.

At first I was very touched. I saw a beautiful cover and immediately wanted to return home in order to begin reading it. However, when I opened it, I was astounded. The book was empty - the pages were blank!

"With G-d's help -Michael told me- you will write several Torah commentaries and lessons of your own...Simply use this book."

Since then, I've written dozens of ideas for "Drashot" and "Divrei Torah".
Without a doubt, after seven years, I feel that this blank notebook was the best gift I received to set me on my way.

In the artistic world, there is a famous and painful syndrome. When architects, graphic designers, musicians and writers begin their tasks, they all have excellent creative ideas. Yet when faced with a blank page, they experience a few minutes or hours of creative black-out -"The Blank Page Syndrome".

It seems to me, that each year, at this time, we too receive the gift of a notebook, with empty or blank pages that we need to fill up throughout the coming year. Only we can complete the book with a nightmare or a dream, a song, a prayer or a blessing or -G-d forbid- a curse.

From time to time, we also get stuck and suffer from "The Blank Page Syndrome".

This week sees the end of the current chapter of our book - the chapter written during the past year. It is still our book, but we will no longer have the possibility of erasing or fixing any mistakes or correcting the style.

In a few hours the books in heaven above will be sealed, and our books on earth below will open on a fresh page. Again they will be inscribed with our dreams or fears, songs, prayers, blessings or -G-d forbid- curses.

Now let us take a few moments to consider the differences between a biography and a resume (Curriculum Vitae). How do they differ?

Above all, a resume is a marketing concept. It includes information and it is a manufactured advertising strategy. We try to sell ourselves and to elaborate the complimentary elements. No one would write a resume of his or her errors and failures.

A biography, on the other hand, exposes all our successes and failures. It reveals the things we want hide. As a resume is synthetic and subjective, so a biography is in-depth and objective.

A resume is the subjective and personal fruit of our own hands whilst a biography must be the objective fruit of another's hands.

Even though we would like to write our resumes during these Ten Days, in fact, G-d Almighty is writing our biographies - each and every exact detail. As long as the Heavenly Gates remain open, these can still be revised and corrected.

Yom Kippur is a great and terrible day throughout which we stand before a mirror, preparing to write the final chapters of our own autobiographies and to correct the distortions within them, honestly and earnestly with all sincerity...

...After all, a biography does not lie.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Yamim Noraim

Ascent for the sake of Descent

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A few days ago I talked with a friend about the difference between the days of Pesach and the Days of Awe. When spring arrives and Pesach comes, we all want to link up with the earth, to go out into nature, to hike, to go on picnics etc.

In contrast, when fall arrives and Rosh Hashanah comes, we all want to link up with the heavens.

These are days of increased spirituality, and this is good for us. We need these days at least once in twelve months in order to cleanse ourselves from the "pollution" that we have absorbed during the year. The high point of spirituality and the knock on the door of heaven comes on Yom Kippur, the day that every Jew becomes an angel and cuts himself off from the material world.

There is a well known idiom in Hebrew "Yeridah Letzorech Aliyah" ("Descent for the sake of ascent"). The source of this idiom lies in the world of Hasidism. Descent, in any possible form, is sometimes essential for ascent.

Slavery in Egypt, for example, was descent for the sake of ascent. We descended to the lowest possible depths in order to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and to rise to a new dimension. In any case, descent is sometimes dangerous. For example, a man who falls spiritually may totally forget the desire to rise.

However, ascent is also dangerous, perhaps more so. A person in continual spiritual ascent may completely forget the material world. Thus I would describe the "Ten Days of Awe" with the similar but opposite idiom: "Aliyah Letzorech Yeridah" ("Ascent for the sake of Descent").

Perhaps during these days we will reach the gates of the heavens. But the intention is to arrive there in order to be able to return to the earth with greater intensity.

We read in Parashat Nizzavim "It is not in heaven" (Deuteronomy 30:12). "Don't remain in the heavens!", says the Torah. The heavens are only a temporary dwelling place. Arrive there only to descend...

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze the famous dream of Ya'akov appears.

"And he dreamt and behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12).

Our rabbis already took note of this strange expression. We would expect the Torah to say "descending and ascending" and not "ascending and descending"! The angels live in the heavens, not on earth!

Perhaps the Torah wants to teach us that is the correct way during these Days of Awe when we try to don the garb of angels: "To ascend and to descend".

Avraham Avinu, who is the main character in the Torah readings of the High Holidays, is the perfect bridge between heaven and earth. He knows how to obey the commands of heaven, without forgetting the earth.

To say "Lech-Lecha is to say "Avraham Avinu". His first trial began with a "Lech Lecha" ("Get thee out of thy country") and his last trail began with another "Lech Lecha" ("Get thee into the land of Moriah).

The idiom "Lech Lecha" is composed of two letters (in Hebrew): the "Lamed" whose long neck reaches heaven and the final "Kaph" whose long leg stands on the earth. Avraham is the bridge between these two extremes "ascent for the sake of descent".

An old joke tells that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the famous detective team, went out into nature. They lit a campfire, drank coffee and had a great time. When darkness fell, they went into their tent and fell asleep.

Sherlock Holmes awoke up before dawn very alarmed and woke up Dr. Watson.

"Lift your head to the heavens and tell me what you see", he said.

"I see millions of stars", answered Dr. Watson.

"And what is their significance?", asked Sherlock Holmes.

After deep thought, Dr. Watson answered: "From an astrological standpoint, the significance is that each man has different luck according to his star, from an astronomical standpoint, the significance is that the universe is enormous, from a statistical standpoint, it is reasonable to think that there are other worlds in this universe, and from a meteorological standpoint I say that it will rain here tomorrow".

"And what do you see?", asked Dr. Watson.

Sherlock Holmes made a face and said, "I see only one thing: from a practical standpoint, someone stole our tent".

The Torah warns us: "It is not in the heavens". The heavens are a temporary dwelling place and not a permanent home. Here, on earth, our attention is required.

May G-d grant that our ascent will indeed be for the sake of descent so that we may have a fruitful year and a year full of deeds.

May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nitzavim - Vayelech

We were there
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

On a flight to Buenos Aires I once met a man who embraced me as if I'd always known him. I looked at him, and he understood that he had made a mistake.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know you." He blushed, but cleverly got himself out of an embarrassing situation by saying "Perhaps we met at the revelation at Mount Sinai. We were all there!"

The reaction of that Jew finds support in one of our Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which is described the renewal of the covenant that was made 40 years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai.

"Not with you only do I make this covenant and administer this oath, but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our G-d, and also with him that is not here with us this day." (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14). Rashi explains: "And even with future generations."

In effect the Torah tells us that we were all there to the same extent as we all went out of Egypt and received the Torah. Throughout the generations Jews are born and live within a culture that teaches that we were all witnesses to the revelation, even those who became part of the Jewish religion later. This was a unique event, unparalleled in human history, that the entire Jewish people, from children to the aged, were privileged to meet G-d. All other claims to divine revelation in other cultures and other peoples are based on one man or on a limited group that received divine revelation.

This perception is revolutionary and incomprehensible to other peoples. Our neighbors and those that hold anti-Zionist views are sure that the Jewish people has no right to our land because most of us are not descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.

"Your place is in Russia, or Poland, or Rumania" they say to Jews of Ashkenazi origin. Not long ago an enemy of the Jews said that the Middle Eastern conflict will be resolved when we return to those places.

An interesting halachic issue deals with the same point. The Rambam was once asked by Ovadiah the convert, who had been born to a Christian family in Italy, if he was entitled to make the blessing and say "Our God and the God of our fathers" (Eloheinu Ve-Elohei Avotenu) or "That sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us" (Asher Kidshanu B'Mitzvotav V'Tzivanu) or "who has set us apart" (Asher Hivdilanu) or "who chose us" (Asher Bachar Banu) and so on.

The Rambam's answer was unambiguous. Whoever joins the Jewish people is a Jew in every sense, and he joins the Jewish heritage of generations, even if from a genetic point of view he does not belong. Even he who was not present was there. Whoever chose to join the Jewish people chose to be present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.

We all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. For Mount Sinai is not simply a geographical site. Belonging to the Jewish people does not involve a DNA test.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ki Tavo

Recognizing the Good

Rabbi Gustavo Suraski

A millionaire left his office as usual at the end of a day's work and found a beggar asking him for charity.

"Ten shekels in the name of G-d", said the beggar. "I will soon be going to sleep and have not yet drunk a cup of coffee…".

The millionaire put his hand in his pocket, gave him a one hundred shekel note and said to him: "Take a hundred, so that you can drink not one, but ten cups of coffee".

The next day the same beggar was again waiting for the millionaire after work, and boxed him straight in his left eye.

"Tell me", the millionaire said, immediately recognizing him..."Are you crazy?! Only yesterday I gave you a hundred shekels so you could go to sleep with a little food in your stomach...and now you hit me?!".

Then the beggar said to him: "And who do you think can sleep after ten cups of coffee?!".


"Todah Rabah" ("Thank you very much") is one of the first expressions every child (or even every new immigrant) learns to say. How often does a child hear the words "Say thank you"? And every parent knows that it's not enough to simply think it to yourself. We have to say it.

But knowing "how" to say "Thank you" and to feel the need to say "thank you" are two completely different things. Feeling and expressing thanks are difficult things to do.

The mitzvah of Bikurim, with which we begin the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, symbolizes the recognition of goodness. A Jew who is able to perform this mitzvah brings the first of his fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where he presents them to the priest while professing his thanks to G-d for all the goodness He has shown him.

The traditionally accepted way in which we express our thanks to G-d for His goodness and forgiveness is called "Mikra Bikurim", and this is the opening line of the portion. "And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruits of the soil, which Thou, O G-d, hast given me" (Deuteronomy 26, 10).

The expression of thanks is a central value in Jewish tradition, and here are some examples.

Firstly: The first word which every Jew is supposed to say when he wakes up in the morning is the word "Modeh" ("I give thanks to Thee, O living and eternal King, who hast restored my soul unto me in mercy: great is Thy faithfulness").

Secondly: We must always remember the meaning of the word "Jew". The word "Yehudi" (Jew) comes from the word "Hodaya" (thanksgiving). When Judah was born, his mother Leah said: "Now I shall give thanks to G-d" (Genesis 29, 35). We are expected to know when to express thankfulness.

Thirdly: It is written in the Midrash: "In the Time to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled and all prayers will be annulled except for the thanksgiving prayer, which will never be annulled (Lev. Rabbah 9).

Recognizing the good and giving thanks were instituted by our Sages as a central aspect of our daily routine: not only "Modeh Ani" but also the blessing "Modim" in the three daily prayer services, and "Nodeh Lecha" in grace after meals. Saying "Thank you" rids a person of the idea that he deserves everything.

There are those who go about with the feeling that the whole world is always indebted to them. Therefore anything they receive is owed to them and there is absolutely no need to recognize it as good.

Fourth and last example: At the end of every "Amidah" prayer we have, as I have already mentioned, the blessing "Modim". On repeating the Amidah, when the cantor says "Modim Anachnu Lach" the congregation says in a whisper what is called "Modim De-Rabbanan". "Modim De-Rabbanan" is a blessing which was instituted by our Sages, just as all the blessing were instituted by them (actually the "Modim" which the cantor says was also compossed by our Sages).

So why the need for a double thanksgiving? Why don't we whisper a second version for the other Amidah blessings?

Rabbi David Abudraham says in his explanation for the Siddur that a representative can release us from all Amidah blessings, health blessing, blessing of making a living etc., but there is one thing that he cannot do in our name, no one can say "Thank you" instead of us.

There, the "Power of Attorney" held by the shaliach is no longer applicable.