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Succot 5777: Personal and Collective Kavanah in Prayer Vs Systemic, Engrained Habits and Imposed Time-Limits
by Moshe Burt
Having emerged from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, hopefully all have been inscribed and sealed for a happy, healthy, successful and meaningful year and years ahead, we now find ourselves in the midst of Succot. As we enter Succot, there are thoughts which this author has discussed in previous Succot vorts regarding tefillot which appear, in this author’s eyes, to necessitate additional repetition and amplification.
We recite Tehillim psalm #27: “L’David Hashem O’ri…” twice daily from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simkhat Torah night (through Shemini Atzeres in Khutz L’Aretz). The Succot makhsor (Nusakh Ashkenaz, pages 68-69) explains:
The custom to recite this psalm of repentence is based on the Midrash [Vayikra Rabbah, Perek 21, siman 4] which expounds: “Hashem is my light” on Rosh Hashanah; “and my salvation” on Yom Kippur; “He will hide me in His shelter”… an allusion to Succot. The implication is that Rosh Hashana, Hashem helps us to see the light and repent; on Yom Kippur, He provides us salvation by forgiving our sins. Once we are forgiven, He shelters us from all foes and dangers, just as He sheltered our ancestors in the wilderness.
Various commentators cite the Zohar Vayikra daf 31b which indicates that the final sealing in the Book of Life occurs on Hoshana Rabbah. Thus, one could draw a definitive spiritual connection between this final sealing of one’s future in the coming year on Hoshana Rabbah, and the recitation of Tehillim psalm #27: “L’David Hashem O’ri…” from Rosh Khodesh Elul through Simkhat Torah night.
[Again, many thanks to R' Yedidya Kramer of Ramat Beit Shemesh for his help in nailing down the exact sources: (Vayikra Rabbah, Perek 21, siman 4 and Zohar Vayikra daf 31b above)]
During Succot, the B’nai Yisrael, as an Am Segula (a nation apart and unique from the other nations) — as Hashem’s special, chosen people, visit and bond with our brethren while celebrating our special and unique relationship with HaKodosh Borchu.
From the above citing: “He will hide me in His shelter”… an allusion to Succot; Jews recognize that Hashem has dominion over the world and that man can’t look to or have trust in the physical, such as stone, iron or steel structures, etc. to provide protection. The nations, conversely, look to tall, fortified edifices for security and protection.
But before we can question what the relationship is between the War of Gog and Magog and the simanim of Succot: the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravah, and before we approach the simcha, the happiness and light of Succot; to this author fundamental questions still remain, and seemingly need thought and introspection. These questions regard where one’s personal kavanah (intent, concentration and understanding) regarding tefillah is, or should be.
One need wonder; what motivation of the nations could be behind their seeking reward? Would the nations perceive Succot as “an easy Mitzvah”, “a free pass” courtesy of HaKadosh Borchu (that is until Gemura Mesechet Avodah Zora, daf Gimmel relates that while the head of state of the nations sat in the Succah, an unbearable heatwave came whereupon he and and his party bid a hasty retreat from the Succah kicking down the door with disdain as they left)? And might we also ask questions of ourselves as to whether we have seemingly accepted or institutionalized short-cuts in our tefillot? Whether our tefillot, all year long, are worthy of our unique relationship with Hashem?
With the added insight regarding the parallel between “L’David Hashem O’ri…” and the final sealing in the Book of Life, this author yet again asks the following questions: Are we collectively and systematically programmed for success or failure by our personal kavanah in tefillah? Why must we thrice daily run a dread race with the Shaliach Tzibbor (representative of the kehillah assigned to lead prayers) during our personal Shemonah Essrei? Why have Shaliach Tzibborim seemingly drawn “a bye”, a free pass in “the system” regarding “Rabbinic injunction” concerning correct, fluent pronunciation and not slurring or running-on words of tefillot, etc. during Chazarat HaShatz?
Rabbi Yisrael Rubin, in his Sefer “The How and Why of Jewish Prayer,” powerfully writes (page 54):
The Shaliach Tzibbor should be cautioned against charging through prayers with lightning speed. His speed may, G’d forbid, prevent the Kehillah from fulfilling threir prayer obligations. In their [the Kehillah's] desperate attempt to keep up with him, they may not only forfeit any Kavanah, but may end up slurring or mispronouncing words.
The Rabbi or Gabbai should tactfully approach a Shaliach Tzibbor explaining to him that as representative of the entire kehillah he has an obligation to pronounce every word carefully…. Perhaps the Rabbi would talk about the importance of clear recitation of prayers…. [in his drasha].
R’ Rubin’s urging of caution to the Shaliach Tzibbor should not only apply during chaggim, i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, but to all of the chaggim, Shabbos, Rosh Khodesh, Kiddush Levana as well as daily tefillot: from korbonot, to pesukei d’zimrah, through Shema, Shemoneh Esrei, all the way through to, and particularly including Aleinu, throughout the entire year. And this spirit would also seem to extend beyond the tefillot itself, to how we treat Shul facilities and the kavod that we show for siddurim, chumashim and all other s’forim in the way we take them off of the book shelves, and replace them on their appropriate shelves when finished with them.
We might broaden discussion of correct, fluent pronunciation and not slurring or running-on words in asking why those given Aliyah honors seem exempted from Halachic rules concerning distinct pronunciation of Baruch Attah Hashem and Melekh HaOlam during Brachot over the Torah? Rabbanim such as HaRav Chaim Zev Malinowitz, Sh’lita have discussed and taught this very point.
And we might ask; why the elaborated, elongated time-consuming, self-ego-enriching khazzanut during Khazzarat HaShatz (repetition of Shemonah Essrei) at the cost of both distinct pronunciation of the words and of short-shrifting Aleinu? Can any communal leader provide rationales?
One may well wonder what is meant here. Bluntly, and to the point: Is an individual’s spiritual growth as well as his bonding and kesher with Hashem being systemically stifled, stymied, blunted and nipped in the bud by collective peer-pressure to conform to seemingly accepted or Kehilla-imposed time-limits at each step or section of tefillah?
These time-limits become models for young talmidim in Khedar, in Yeshiva Ketanah, Yeshiva Gedolah propelling them to ever-faster robotic tefillah totally lacking in kavanah, i.e. who can daven the fastest Shemonah Essrei?. And these robotic habits then become impossible to break in adulthood.
This author views these questions and thoughts as critically important to air, even now, once we have passed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, lest we begin to back-slide into the old familiar patterns.
This author is NOT a Talmud Khakham, but when Rabbanim urge their followers, the Kehillot to “slow down — you are standing before The Melekh Ekhad, The Creator — pronounce the words of tefillah properly — understand what you are davening,” those words are strong, powerful, to be taken seriously. But how does one reconcile the words of mussar with the day-to-day reality; the compelling and disruptive pressure that an individual, or a significant segment of a Kehillah, is made to feel in order to conform to seemingly accepted or systemic Kehillah-imposed norms such as “the 6 minute rule” for Shemoneh Esrei, the sub-one minute Aleinu, etc. lest his personal concentration be totally shot by the Chazan’s repetition or Kaddish?
And when stam individuals suffer the continual conflict of the dread race with the Shaliakh Tzibbor to Khazarat HaShatz, imagine the extent of the compelling and disruptive pressure felt by Kohanim who are Halachically compelled to be ready to have their hands washed at or shortly after conclusion of Kedusha in order to be ready to ascend to the Duchan by the Bracha of Retzei. And imagine the pain, anxiety and fear of embarrassment felt by one who must say Kaddish at appropriate points in Davening, including after Aleinu under these circumstances.
One could go on and on as to the contradictions in spirit inherent in seemingly accepted, but unrealistic Kehilla-imposed systemic time limits at each stage of tefillah.
So we ponder why Moshiakh has not yet appeared. And if, as we are told by our Rabbanim, that we must ask, pray to, beseech Hashem in order to receive, it seems likely that our short-comings in tefillah are continuous, seemingly built-in to the system and seem directly attributable to not receiving what we seek and denial to our brother of the same opportunity to ask and receive, both on a personal and national level. In essence, it seems as if we have collectively been systemically programmed by “the system” to fail by virtue of catch-the-Shaliach Tzibbor prayer.
And so we ponder the War of Gog and Magog:
“When Gog, all his army and all of the nations attack Israel, even in a redemption ‘in haste,’ Israel will tremble with fear. Afterward, G’d will rise up and destroy the nations in the final redemption, as in the first one.” (”The Jewish Idea”, by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Z’l, Vol. 2, page 984)
“Our sages said (Tanchuma, Re’eh, 9); “…In the future, Gog and Magog will attack Israel, and they too will be burnt up with one fire, as it says, ‘I will punish him with pestilence, blood and torrential rain […fire and brimstone]. At that moment, I will magnify and sanctify Myself, and make Myself known to many nations.’” (Yecheskel, 38.22-23 in part, as quoted from ”The Jewish Idea”, by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Z’l, Vol. 2, page 984)
May it be that there be root changes in the way that B’nai Yisrael davens such that questions about intent need not be repeated in the future, so that we — the Jewish people truly distinguish ourselves in Hashem’s view, and that we collectively merit being sealed for life in the coming year and always and that we merit Moshiakh and the Ge’ula Shlaima before its time.
May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of two years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!
L’Shana Tova, Chag Same’ach and Good Shabbos! — may all who read this enjoy healthy, happy, sweet and prosperous 5777 and every year thereafter to at least 120!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.