This year, you may have noticed that Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat. Traditionally speaking, shofar is not sounded on Shabbat, which is why Rosh Hashanah is a two-day festival even in Israel; with two days, the shofar will be sounded on at least one of the two. My inclination was to not have shofar in our service this year, but instead to gather the next day in the park and have a little shofar service then, which we did. However, as news of my decision spread throughout the Torah of Awakening service leader world, I heard that someone from our team was not happy. I called Estelle, and I made my case. I told her that I want this Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat to feel different, by adding special Shabbat songs and prayers, and making room for them by not having shofar. She expressed that shofar is the most important part of Rosh Hashanah, and that many won’t hear it at all if we don’t do it on the first day. Plus, she said, what’s the problem, since you have musical instruments anyway!
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
This was a perfect example of a makhlokhet l’shem shamyim, an “argument for the sake of heaven.” But this makhlokhet was unlike many of the halakhic disputes of the rabbis, in which there are clear winners and losers. For example, the argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, in which Beit Shamai said we should light all eight candles on the first night of Hanukkah and then light one less for each of the eight days, and Beit Hillel said that we should light one candle the first night, two on the second and so on. Hillel’s view became the common practice, not Shamai’s.
But in this case, we compromised. We left shofar out of Musaf so that the davening would feel different for Shabbat, but we brought it back at the end so that anyone who wanted to hear shofar could hear, and anyone who wanted to step out could do so. I felt good about our compromise, not just because it’s good in general to work out our disagreements, but because it points to a deeper level of the halakhic process – the process by which questions of Jewish practice are worked out.
After all, what is the point of Jewish spiritual practice? The ordinary understanding is that God gave the Jewish people Torah and mitzvot.
Teaching and commandments, and that those are the means through which we can connect with God and fulfill our purpose. The non-religious, secular scholar view, on the other hand, denies the idea of divinely given Torah and mitzvot, and sees Judaism and all religion as an essentially human creation.
But this dualism of Divinely given vs. human creation is, in my view, born from an insensitivity to the miracle of the ordinary: Far more extraordinary than the idea of Divine revelation with miracles and pillars of fire, is the simple miracle of two beings having a conversation and resolving a conflict. And on a deeper level, more extraordinary than any holy book is the very fact of our own consciousness, of our own minds as outposts of the Divine mind, manifesting right now in these bodies we inhabit.
The duality then is not human creation vs. Divine revelation; it is either being sensitive to the mystery of consciousness as a Divine miracle, or being insensitive, conditioned and unimpressed. In truth, Torah is happening constantly, as the arising of thought within this miraculous field of consciousness that we are.
You might disagree, saying that much of what arises in consciousness is not wise or interesting. And it’s true. As I say these words that have arisen within this consciousness that I am, there is, perhaps, some sense of the miracle. But if Buggs Bunny appears in my mind, I dismiss it rather than saying it, even though I just said it. Buggs Bunny doesn’t necessarily point to something sacred or Divine. But, the process of Torah actually includes this process of discernment between Wisdom and Buggs Bunny:
סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. מַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּיִן וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַסֹּלֶת:
There are four types among those who sit before the sages: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve. A sponge, soaks up everything; a funnel, takes in at one end and lets out at the other; a strainer, which lets out the wine and retains the lees; a sieve, which lets out the coarse meal and retains the choice flour.
- Pirkei Avot 5:15
This remarkable passage contradicts the traditional idea of the Torah as eternally perfect and whole, which we might see reflected in this Torah passage, in which God says:
אֵ֣ת כׇּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
All of this matter that I command you, you shall guard to do; do not add to it, nor take away from it.
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 13:1
Pirkei Avot seems to be saying that it is up to us to discern which parts of the teaching are good and which parts should be dismissed, while the Torah verse seems to be saying that the Torah is perfect as it was given, and we shouldn’t add or subtract from it. How do we resolve these two verses?
The answer, I believe, is hinted in אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם – that I command you. The “you,” meaning we, are part of the process. In other words, our own discernment is the means by which we are “commanded” – we must discern what is truly important – first for ourselves, so that we know what our own values are, and then in dialogue with others, so that we can be in harmony with their values and find a path that serves all to the best of our ability. Once we’ve found that, THEN we must not add or subtract from it – meaning, we must not insist that our way is the only right way, that would be adding, nor must we deny our own values when we confront the strong opinions of others – that would be subtracting. Instead, תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת – you shall be attentive to do it.
But, of course we can only do this if we purify ourselves to know our own depths and to be in clean relationship with others; this is the meaning of כפרה on this Day of Atonement. Kaparah means making up for something, correcting a wrong, making whole and unifying that which was broken and fragmented. In this sense, the English play on the word “atonement” is appropriate, in which we read “atonement” as “At-One-Ment.”
And how do we make at-one-ment? We do it by giving something up, by compromising, by be willing to feel the slight sting of not getting our way completely, in order to avoid the far worse sting of broken relationship. That willingness to feel the slight sting is the kaparah – like the goat sacrifices of the ancient Yom Kippur rite, it substitutes for the brokenness, and heals.
Interestingly, another way of saying “substitute” is מְמַלֵא מָקוֹם which literally means, “filling the space.” We avoid the filling of the vacuum created by our misdeeds with disaster by filling it with something else – filling it with dialogue, compromise, or other healers of relationship such as apologies.
On the deepest level, our kaparah sacrifice is something we can practice any moment, when we recognize that our minds tend to “fill up the space” of our consciousness with thought. Sometimes that thought is just Buggs Bunny, sometimes it is the channeling of Torah, but if we are to be the student that “retains the choice flour,” we must practice being aware of our own minds, “filling the space” not with always thought, but with Presence, with awareness… Then we can experience מְמַלֵא מָקוֹם – that the whole world is filled with the radiant Mystery of Being that we call the Divine…
Learn Integral Jewish Meditation
Get Free Guided Meditation Below:
Daily Meditation on Zoom and Live-Stream:
Experience our Growing Community Here