Guarding the Sanctuary: New Initiative to Provide Protection for Israel's Synagogues

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By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

Even if we do not understand why repentance works, the important thing is to believe that it works.

Modern technology has made it easier for us to comprehend certain Jewish concepts that had previously been more difficult to grasp.  For example, digital data storage helps concretize for us the notion taught to us in Pirkeh Avot, “vechol maasecha basefer nichtavin” – everything we do is written in a Heavenly record.  Hidden video and audio recorders which have been used for spying help us understand more clearly the notion that Gd hears and sees everything we do and say.  It might be hard for us to imagine, having grown so accustomed to technology, but in previous generations these concepts were more difficult to grasp and internalize.

The same can be said about another wonder of modern technology that we all take for granted and use many times throughout the day – the “delete” button.  It’s truly an amazing thing.  You write something which you then realize is completely wrong, and you are able to just get rid of it, forever.  The erroneous information just disappears, as though it was never there in the first place.  Or, a person begins writing something very inappropriate that he intends to post online or email to a friend.  But before clicking “post” or “send,” he comes to his senses and deletes the text.  In an instant, it’s gone.  Nobody will ever know about it.  It’s as if those words were never written in the first place.

This simple yet remarkable feature should serve us well as we begin the month of Elul and the 40-day period of retrospection and repentance which culminates on Yom Kippur.  The institution of teshuvah is, in essence, a “delete” button.  It allows us to simply erase the past, to “delete” all the mistakes we have made so we can have a fresh start.  Of course, teshuvah is far more difficult and complex than pressing a button.  It requires serious thought and contemplation, and, in the case of interpersonal offenses, heartfelt apologies and sincere efforts at reconciliation.  But the effect of teshuvah is precisely the effect of pressing “delete” – making the past disappear.

Gd’s “Selective Memory”

In the beautiful haftarah reading for Parashat Ekev, which we read this month, the prophet Yeshayahu (49) tells of an emotional exchange between the Jewish People and Gd: “Zion said: ‘Hashem has abandoned me, and my Lord has forgotten me!’  Does a woman forget her infant, to love the issue of her womb?  Even if these would be forgotten – I will not forget you!”

After the destruction of the Bet Ha’mikdash, the Jews mistakenly assumed that Gd had abandoned them, that the special relationship between Him and the Jewish Nation had been permanently terminated.  They figured that if Gd could let His earthly abode go up in flames, and allow idol-worshipping nations to exile the Jews out of their homeland, this must mean that Gd has rejected them forever.  Gd therefore proclaims that nothing could be further from the truth.  Just as we cannot possibly imagine a mother abandoning her newborn infant, we should not consider for a moment the possibility that Gd would abandon His beloved nation.  In fact, Gd adds in this prophecy, “Gam eleh tishkahnah” –even if we could imagine a disturbed woman abandoning her helpless newborn, “ve’anochi lo eshkahech” –we should still be unable to imagine Gd doing the same to the Jewish Nation, because His love for His people exceeds even that of a mother to her beautiful newborn baby.

The Gemara, in Masechet Berachot (32b), interprets this exchange on a deeper level.  Even after Gd promised the Jews that He will never forget them, they were still concerned.  If, indeed, Gd never forgets, and His memory is perfect and eternal, then He remembers our mistakes, as well, those elements of our past which we desperately wish that He would erase from His memory.  Perhaps, then, Gd will always remember het ha’egel – the sin of the golden calf, the time when, just 40 days after Beneh Yisrael received the Torah, they made an idol and announced, “Eleh elohecha Yisrael – This is your god, O Israel!”  If He never forgets anything – then He will never forget this incident, which will permanently remain as a dark stain on our record, and a source of eternal shame.  Gd therefore proclaims, “Gam eleh tishkahnah” – He will, indeed, forget the sin of the golden calf, the time when we announced, “Elehelohecha Yisrael.”  Although Gd is all-knowing and never forgets, He is prepared to forget even a sin as grievous as the golden calf.

Still, the people’s concerns were not put to rest.  If Gd could forget the golden calf, they worried, then perhaps He will also forget our finest moments – such as the moment of Matan Torah, the time when we stood at Sinai and enthusiastically accepted the Torah.  Gd therefore reassured the people, “ve’anochi lo eshkahech” – He will never forget the moment of “Anochi,” the time when we heard Him speak to us at Sinai and proclaim, “Anochi Hashem Elokecha – I am the Lord your Gd.”

It almost sounds heretical, but the Gemara is teaching us that Gd’s memory is “selective,” as it were.  He never forgets the good deeds we perform, which remain eternally as a source of merit for ourselves and our progeny.  Yet, He is always prepared to “forget” our misdeeds, to overlook our blunders and indiscretion and offer us another chance to prove ourselves.  In His infinite kindness and love for His nation, He remembers what we want Him to remember, and forgets what we want Him to forget.  All the mitzvot we perform are permanently engraved in our heavenly record, whereas our mistakes can be eradicated from memory through sincere repentance.

“It’s Too Late”

This is, in fact, the primary message of the story of the golden calf.  The Gemara elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 4) teaches that Beneh Yisrael were not worthy of committing such a grievous sin.  This was a generation known as “dor deah – the generation of knowledge.”  They were characterized by their unparalleled understanding and knowledge of Gd.  They lived a miraculous existence in the wilderness, and just forty days earlier had beheld Gd’s revelation and heard Him communicate to them directly.  They were not the kind of people that would normally worship an idol.  However, the Gemara explains, Gd granted the yetzer hara (evil inclination) especially fierce power so he could lead the people to this unthinkable act, in order to set for their descendants – us – an inspiring and reassuring precedent of repentance.  Gd allowed this sin to occur so that future generations could look back and see that even this sin was forgiven. 

More than any other being, Gd knows just how frail and imperfect we humans are, and He knows that we will make mistakes and fail on occasion.  And, He knows that despair is our most dangerous foe, the tallest obstacle standing in the way of personal growth.  He therefore provided the antidote to despair by enabling the sin of the golden calf.  We are to look back and reflect upon this incident, and realize that Gd was willing to forgive the people for worshipping an idol less than six weeks after they beheld the Revelation.  If the sin of the golden calf could be forgiven, then certainly anything sin we commit can be forgiven, as well. 

The story of the golden calf takes away from the yetzer hara’s arsenal the deadly weapon of “It’s too late.”  If we ever hear ourselves uttering these words, we are to remember the story of the calf.  Gd forgave Beneh Yisrael.  The broken tablets were replaced, and the Ten Commandments were engraved anew.  The covenant was restored.  He rift between Gd and His people was mended.  It was not too late then, and it’s not too late for any one of us now.  No matter what happened in the past, the future can be different – and Gd wants us to make the future different.  All we need to do it press “delete” through the process of teshuvah.

Scaring Away the Satan

This message is powerfully conveyed by the most prominent mitzvah associated with the High Holiday season – the mitzvah of shofar.

The Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (16b) notes the widespread custom to sound two sets of shofar blasts – one set before the Musaf service, and a second set of blasts during the Musaf prayer.  The extra set of shofar blasts, the Gemara explains, serves to “confound the Satan.”  Somehow, the Satan – who always tries to prosecute against us before the Heavenly Tribunal, especially as we are judged on Rosh Hashanah – becomes befuddled by the extra set of shofar blowing.  We repeat the shofar blowing in order to “confound” the Satan so he cannot speak out against us as we stand in judgment.

How does this work?  Why is the Satan unaffected by the first series of shofar blasts, but silenced by the second?

One of the reasons given for the mitzvah of shofar (as discussed by Rav Saadia Gaon) is to commemorate the event of Matan Torah, which featured the sounding of a shofar.  The truth is, however, that there were actually two events of Matan Torah – one before the sin of the golden calf, and one after the nation earned forgiveness, whereupon they received the second set of stone tablets, marking the reinstatement of the covenant.  It has thus been suggested that the two sets of shofar blasts correspond to the two events of Matan Torah.  We blow the first set of blasts to commemorate the original Matan Torah, which was undone by the people’s worship of the calf, and we then blow a second set of shofar blasts to commemorate the reinstatement of the covenant with the engraving of the second set of tablets.

This easily explains why the Satan is silenced by the second set of shofar blasts.  When we blow the shofar before Musaf, he is not fazed.  He knows we commemorate the original Matan Torah, the effects of which did not last.  The memory of the Revelation does not frighten or discourage the Satan because he could view it as just a fleeting moment which had no lasting impact.  This is why Hazal ordained the second set of shofar blasts, which commemorate the second set of tablets.  This commemoration shows the Satan that even after the failure of the golden calf, Gd was still prepared to forgive and renew His special relationship with the Jewish People.  When the Satan hears the second set of shofar sounds, he realizes the power of teshuvah, that regardless of what we have done over the past year, we are still able to earn Gd’s favor and grace through repentance.  And this is why he is “confounded.”  His strategy is to draw Gd’s attention, as it were, to our spiritual failings, to all the things we did wrong over the course of the past year.  When he is reminded of the second Matan Torah, that Gd forgave Beneh Yisrael for the sin of the calf, his strategy backfires, because he sees that no matter what sins we are guilty of, we can still repent and earn forgiveness. 

Initiating the Process

There is a famous allusion to the month of Elul in a verse in the book of Shir Hashirim (6:3): “Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.”  The first letters of these four words, which speak of the intense love between Gd and His people, spell “Elul.”  Less well-known is a verse earlier in Shir Hashirim (2:15), which expresses the same concept, only in reverse sequence: “Dodi li va’ani lo – My Beloved is for me, and I am for my Beloved.”  These two verses both speak of the love between Gd and His nation that allows for repentance and forgiveness, but they refer to two different processes.  “Ani ledodi vedodi li” describes a process of teshuvah that we initiate, recognizing our inadequacy and driven by a sincere desire to draw closer to our Creator.  In this process, the first step is “Ano ledodi” – our desire to get close to Gd – and then Gd responds by lovingly accepting our repentance – “vedodi li.”  The other verse, by contrast, speaks of a process initiated by Gd, who at times thrusts a person into a difficult situation in order to spur introspection and lead the person to teshuvah.  First, “Dodi li” – Gd comes to the person and summons him – and then, hopefully, “va’ani lo” – the person responds by repenting and gradually drawing closer to Gd.

Of course, the first process is the more preferred method of teshuvah.  The verse says in Tehillim (41:2), “Ashreh maskil el dal – Fortunate is he who is wise towards the poor.”  The simple meaning of this verse is that it praises those who understand the plight of the poor, and recognize what precisely their needs are, so they can provide valuable help.  On a deeper level, however, the words “el dal” represent the phrase, “Ani ledodi vedodi li.”  The verse speaks in praise of those who are wise enough to initiate the process of teshuvah, rather than wait for Gd to do so.  We are fortunate if we follow the model of “Ani ledodi vedodi li” rather than wait for “Dodi li va’ani lo.”  The verse concludes, “beyom ra’ah yemaletehu Hashem – Gd will save him on the day of evil.”  If we initiate the process of repentance, then we will obviate the need for a “day of evil.”  We will not need Gd to send us a “wakeup call” in the form of a crisis or tragedy, because we will have embarked on the process out of our own initiative.

Many of us, however, fail to take the initiative in this regard.  As we say in the Selihot prayers which we begin reciting this month, “kedalim…dafaknu delatecha – We have knocked on Your doors like paupers...”  We come to Gd like a “dal” (“pauper”), which stands for “Dodi li.”  Rather than coming and knocking on Gd’s doors on our own, we have waited for Him to come wake us up, and have only then come to Him begging for forgiveness and seeking to enhance our relationship with Him.

Why do we delay?  Why do we fail to initiate the process of teshuvah?

Often, it is simply a matter of laziness, our unwillingness to face the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth that we need to make changes in our lives.  But for many of us, it’s the voice of the yetzer hara telling us that it’s too late, that we’ve already strayed too far, and that Gd cannot possibly want us back after everything we’ve done. 

It is no coincidence that just before the month of Elul begins, we read Gd’s guarantee, “Does a woman forget her infant, to love the issue of her womb?  Even if these would be forgotten – I will not forget you!”  Gd loves us more than a mother loves her baby.  A baby can keep his mother up all night, demand round-the-clock attention, dirty his and her clothing, and vomit all over the floor – and his mother will still love him, cherish him, and care for him with complete devotion.  When it comes to our relationship with Gd, what matters is not what happened yesterday, but rather what will happen today.  Gd wants us to press the “delete” button, to start fresh, and to begin a new chapter of sincere, dedicated devotion to mitzvot.  And there’s no time like Elul to begin this process.