Friday, August 30, 2013

ROSH HASHANA 5774: Blow the shofar like a pro

The most important Mitzva of Rosh haShana is listening to the Shofar. The Shofar is an animal horn which was modified removing its inside material (keratin) and opening a mouthpiece in its upper narrow ending. The most common horn used to make a Shofar is a ram's horn. When blown, the Shofar emits a deep and loud sound. The sound is produced by releasing air through its mouthpiece.

If you try to blow a Shofar do not place it inside your mouth in between your lips the way you would blow-up a balloon. Place it on or against your lips, usually on one side of your mouth (most people use their right side). Then you should blow air with your lips tightly closed. Buzzing or emitting the sound of the letter 'P' while vibrating your lips as you release the air. Don't inflate your cheeks and don't force your lungs. Breath as normally as possible. The most difficult part is adjusting the placement of the Shofar on your lips, avoiding air to escape from any other point of your mouth.

The Shofar normally produces one sound. In Rosh haShana we play three different voices using the same sound. The three voices have theoretically the same length but are divided differently. The first voice Teqi'a is a plain uninterrupted sound.  Then we have Shebarim a voice divided into three smaller unit.  And finallyTeru'a consisting of nine very short units.

The typical combination of sounds in Rosh haShana is the following:
teqi'a/ shebarim-teru'a/ teqi'a.
teqi'a/ shebarim/ teqi'a
teqi'a / teru'a/ teqi'a.
This formula repeats itself several times until we reach more that 100 sounds.
Candle lighting in NYC    7:12 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC    8:10 pm
Great tutorial on the technique you need to blow the Shofar.
How to Play the Shofar : How to Make Sound on a Shofar

Thursday, August 29, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 3:4 When the Shofar talks

The most important Mitzva of Rosh haShana is listening to the Shofar. The Tora does not mention the reasons for the Shofar. But our Rabbis did.

1. The Shofar was used in ancient Israel to announce the King's coronation. In Rosh haShana we announce that God is our King ('ol malkhut shamayim). We are His subjects and as such we follow His rules. Among other prerogatives the King had the power to sentence to death or spare someone's life. In Rosh haShana we realize that our lives are ultimately in the hands of God, the supreme King and Judge. The key word which is added and emphasized in the prayers of Rosh HaShana and Yamim Noraim is melekh (=King). God is the King and Supreme Judge. He decides who lives and who does not. 

2. The Shofar also reminds us of aqedat Yitzhaq. Abraham Abinu was ready to sacrifice his own son, following God's commandment. Once Abraham showed his unconditional obedience and love to God, God told him to hold back.   Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket and he offered it as a sacrifice to Him instead of Ytzhaq. The Shofar is a ram's horn. 

3. In ancient times, the Shofar was also used as a kind of a siren. It warned the people when the enemy was approaching and about to attack. The Shofar announced that lives were in danger. In Rosh haShana the Shofar serves as a spiritual wake up call. Reminding us the fragility of our lives and inviting us to introspect and repent. The Shofar remind us that God is NOW judging us and our lives are on the line. 

In Hilkhot Teshuba 3:4 Maimonides explains that when listening to the Shofar we should hear the following message: "Wake up, sleepy ones. And those who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds. Remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth because of the temporary distractions and throughout the entire year, devoting their strength to the pursue of vanity and material emptiness which will not benefit, not save. Examine your ways and your deeds. Abandon the paths of evil. And stay away from destructive habits and negative thoughts."

A modern narrative of 'aqedat Ytzhaq

Shofar Callin': The Rosh Hashanah song

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 4:2 When the King repents

Maimonides explains the difficulties of admitting to ourselves that we have sinned. Taking charge of our misdeeds -hakarat haHet- is probably the hardest step in the process of Teshuba. In the days before Rosh haShana we are expected to act as our own judges evaluating objectively our past actions. "Objectivity" is not an easy state of mind. It goes against our normal mental behavior. We naturally tend to justify our actions. Everything we have done becomes right in our own eyes.

David haMelekh committed a terrible sin. He took bat-sheba, a married woman, and sent her husband, a soldier, to a sure death in the battlefront. David did not repent by the call of his own conscience. Natan the prophet was sent by God to admonish the King and help him realize the seriousness of the sins he committed. Natan came to the court of King David (back then, the King was also the supreme Judge) and presented him with a fictitious case to judge: A rich man owned thousands of animals. His poor neighbor had only one lamb. One day the rich man had an important guest coming to his house. In order to spare one of his own animals the rich man decided to slaughter his neighbor's lamb, which he dearly loved.  As Natan expected the King reacted angrily toward this injustice. King David said: "That man (=the rich guy) deserves to die!" Natan the prophet then turned to David and said: atta ha-ish.... "You are that man!".  Faced now with the objective facts and having issued the harsh sentence against himself King David recognized his wrongdoing. He repented and humbly confessed: 'hattati laHashem...' , 'I have sinned against God'. 

Due to the irreparable damage caused by these transgressions, David was not permitted to build the bet-haMiqdash. But God accepted his repentance. 

Natan opened the King's eyes. And helped him realize the gravity of his actions objectively. By presenting him a fictitious case he forced the King to play the role of an impartial judge. Allowing him to "watch at himself from the balcony". Freeing him from the psychological mechanisms of self-defense. Which often represent the biggest obstacle in the way to repentance.

Rosh haShana and the Chinese Bamboo

The Chinese Bamboo

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 4:1-2. Obstacles in the way of Teshuba

In Chapter 4 of Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides enumerates twenty-four actions, personality patterns or attitudes which prevent or make very difficult for a person to begin or undergo the process of repentance.

Three illustrations.

Those who because of their teachings or their bad example.... induce or influence other people to sin. Sometimes, if we have taught or inspire other people to act in the wrong way, we have triggered a negative domino effect which eventually gets out of our hand. In this case repentance is virtually impossible. Why? Because part of the process of repentance consists in repairing what I have done wrong. So, even if I personally repent from my wrong actions,  how could I be able to repair the damage other people have caused because of my wrong teachings or bad example? In this
 scenario, I'm virtually beyond redemption. Because despite my own personal repentance my example is still exerting a negative influence in other people to an unknown extent.  

CALCULATED TESHUBA (4:1) Sinning with the intention of repenting later. Maimonides refers here to a situation in which I'm about to commit a sin and before I do it I say to myself :  "I will sin now and repent for this sin later on." Or I say to myself: "Since Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness, I will sin now and God will forgive me for this sin in Yom Kippur". In these conditions Teshuba is unacceptable. Because Teshuba is welcomed by the Creator when it comes from a sincere remorse, not when it is part of a calculated game-plan. 

DEFENSIVE PERSONALITY (4:2) Someone who refuses to be corrected or criticized. Imagine a person incapable of accepting a minimal dose of positive criticism, even when coming from those who care for his or her well being. Many times, this type of personality-disfunction is a consequence of a low self esteem or other psychological issues which prevent a person to cope with any criticism.   This person, Maimonides concludes, will likely continue with his or her bad habits because is incapable of seeing himself as other people perceive him. 


Great minds talk about ideas. 
Average minds talk about things. 
Small minds talk about people. 
   Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, August 26, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 3:14 Maimonides on Bullying

 In the third chapter of Hilkhot Teshuba, Halakha 5,  Maimonides asserts that the Jews, and the righteous among the gentiles (haside ummot ha'olam), will be granted a share in 'olam habba, the afterlife. 

Then Maimonides writes about the exceptions to the above-mentioned rule. Those individuals who are excluded from the world to come because of the severity of their sins (unless they repair the damage they have caused and repent during their lifetime).  Maimonides enumerates twenty-four categories of sins. These include heretical statements-such as denying the existence of God, and sins with irreparable effects, like committing national treason (moredim, moserim) killing, and slandering (ba'ale leshon hara').

Toward the end of the chapter (3:14) Maimonides refers to eight cases, seemingly of a lesser severity, which were also mentioned by the Rabbis as sins for which one would lose his or her part in the world to come. 

Four of these cases could be translated in modern term as "bullying" (nicknaming, verbal abuse, etc.). Bullying is a verbal offense which can cause as much damage as physical violence. Unlike physical violence, though, bullying is usually not penalized by secular law and could go unseen for a long time. Victims of bullying, especially if they suffer from low self esteem, usually do not denounce the perpetrators (and low self-esteem is an effect of bullying-do you see the vicious cycle here?). Because of this, abusive bullying tends to continue with devastating emotional effects for long periods of time. 

Unfortunately, in our days bullying has become epidemic. In some cases the classroom or bus is divided into three groups: the bullies, the victim/s of bullying and those who watch and do nothing. 

As parents, we need to be alert and detect the symptoms of bullying.  We should educate our children in the following ways: First, to identify and denounce bullying if they are victims of it.  Second, to not be passive bystanders when they witness acts of bullying. Third and most importantly, to respect the dignity of every human being and keep away from this hideous behavior.