A Step Towards Unity:

A Step Towards Unity:

"Let all Your works revere You and all creatures bow before You. Let them all become a united society to do Your will wholeheartedly." (Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur Prayer)

Dear Friends,

As people who are drawn to the universal vision of the Torah, we can certainly appreciate the universal prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Many of us will chant these prayers with great fervor, for, as universal souls, we yearn for world unity and shalom. Are there, however, practical steps that we can take in order to bring the world closer to this universal goal? We will begin to answer this question by asking another question: Do we feel a sense of unity and shalom with those around us - family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers? If not, then we may need to do some soul-searching and explore whether we can engage in a healing process that can help us to feel that sense of unity and shalom with those around us. After all, the world that we universal souls love and appreciate begins with us and those that we interact with on a regular basis. 

Is there is an initial step that we can take in order to begin this healing process? There is an ancient Jewish custom for people to ask each other's forgiveness before Rosh Hashana. If it wasn't done before Rosh Hashana, then it should be done during the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We ask forgiveness for anything that we said or did that may have hurt the other person. A major reason for this custom is that Hashem - the Compassionate One - can forgive sins that are between us and Hashem, but sins that are between us and others also require "their" forgiveness. After all, they were the ones that were hurt. Asking others for forgiveness is therefore an act of justice which also enables us to gain atonement for the hurt that we caused others. 

A second reason for this custom is because it gives us the opportunity to forgive those who hurt us. It is important that we strive to forgive others before we ask the Compassionate One to forgive us. It would be an act of "chutzpah" to ask the Compassionate One to overlook our faults, if we do not have the compassion to overlook the faults of others. If we want our Creator to forgive us and judge us on the scale of merit, then we need to do the same to others. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the Compassionate One forgives the transgressions of those who forgive others (Rosh Hashana 17a). The custom of asking for forgiveness therefore brings spiritual benefit to those who forgive, as it enables them to gain atonement for their own sins.

There is also a third reason for the custom of asking for forgiveness before Rosh Hashana. Before we can pray on Rosh Hashana for the unity and shalom of the entire world, we first have to restore unity and shalom to our "local" world. As the progressive saying goes, 'think global, but act local." And when there is unity and shalom, "everyone" benefits.

I will share a personal insight that may startle many of you. I have had the privilege of knowing and working with idealistic and universal people for several decades, and I have discovered that a number of them find it very difficult to completely forgive any hurt done to them, even when the other person may have sincerely asked for forgiveness. I once read a book by the humorist, Sam Levenson, which was titled "Everything But Money." It described his experiences growing up in a large, extended family of poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe that settled in New York City. Almost everyone in his family had a strong sense of compassion and justice which was rooted in Jewish tradition. They were kind, sensitive, and loving, but there was one major problem: one uncle was not speaking to another uncle, one aunt would not sit next to another aunt, and one cousin would not go near another cousin. And a few years ago, a Jewish friend described to me her extended family. They too were very just and compassionate, but they too suffered from feuds that never seemed to go away. When she and I discussed the problem, we realized that many just and compassionate people find it difficult to let go of past hurts and forgive others. Why is this so? People with a strong sense of justice, who deeply feel the pain of any injustice that they encounter in the world, may also deeply feel the pain of any injustice - real or imagined - done to them. In addition, people who are very sensitive and feel the pain of others, may also be very sensitive to any hurt which they personally experience.  

Our sense of justice, however, can also motivate us to forgive. For example, we all want people to forgive us for "our" mistakes and failures. We all want people to give us the benefit of the doubt - to find reasons and excuses that will cause them to view our questionable behavior in a more favorable light. And we all want people to see the good in us, even when we say or do something which isn't proper. If so, then isn't it fair and just to do to others what we want done to ourselves? 

Forgiving others enables us to love others like we love ourselves. As the Torah states: 

"You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18).

The Torah first tells us not to take revenge and not to bear a grudge before telling us to love others like ourselves. The order of the verse may be teaching us that we first have to let go of our grudges and learn how to forgive others in order to truly fulfill the mitzvah, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
May Rachmana - the Loving One - help us to find the wisdom and the strength to forgive others, as through this act of forgiveness, we increase our capacity to love. In this spirit, I have attached some related teachings which are especially appropriate for this season.

May we be blessed with a year of love, unity, and shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his classical work on the Torah's mitzvos, "Horeb," discusses the mitzvah, "You shall not bear a grudge," and the following is an excerpt from his comments:
"Leave no room in your memory for wrong or insult which you may have suffered, even though you may not have desired to act in that spirit immediately. Quickly replace in your heart the love which your brother may have frightened away from it. However, he may have behaved towards you, retain for him the love which God requires of you for His child, and which you owe to your brother...Be easily appeased as soon as your brother asks for forgiveness and desires to be reconciled. He who soon forgives is soon forgiven. If you are really good, if humility is one of your qualities, you will forget hurt and insults without pardon being asked of you; like the well-known chasid, you will never lie down to sleep without being reconciled with the whole world, all of which God covers with the wings of His peace. Your forgiveness must be real and complete, so that no trace of rancour remains in you. It must be a genuine restoration of the old brotherly love; what has happened must be really obliterated. Do not deceive yourself. It is so easy not to perform this duty. If left to itself, the mind long remembers insults and injuries, even after forgiveness has been asked, even after reparation has been made; it goes on saying: 'How could a person behave to me so? We can never be the same friends again.' And so a feud goes on for generations, separating those whom God would wish to see united. Not so, you, Israelite! Your God requires you to forget, therefore forget. Practice this duty; start early and it will come easy to you; it is never difficult if you have humility." (Horeb, chapter 18)

2. The Chafetz Chaim writes that, before retiring for the evening, it is proper for one to forgive those who have wronged him. (Mishnah Berurah 239:1:9). Accordingly, many have a custom of saying a prayer before retiring which contains words of forgiveness for those who hurt them or harmed them in any way. The following is an excerpt from this prayer:
"Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me - whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration...May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer." (This prayer appears in the ArtScroll Siddur on page 288.)

3. There may be occasions when telling someone that you forgave him can actually be harmful. For example, you know a person who keeps stealing from you and others. He then asks you for forgiveness without returning what he stole. He wants your forgiveness in order to feel good, but he is not yet willing to make amends. If you openly forgive him before he makes amends, you may be encouraging his addiction to stealing. In your heart you may have already forgiven him, but before you verbalize this forgiveness, ask him to first return what he stole! In this way, you will be helping him to do teshuva - to return to the Creator by improving his ways. In general, we should not openly forgive people when their repentance is not sincere, for our words of forgiveness may only encourage them to keep hurting others. Forgiving others is a noble trait, but only when it increases love and shalom in the world.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon

A Universal Mitzva

Dear Friends,

One of the 613 mitzvos (precepts) of the Torah is the mitzva to do acts of "tzedakah" - to share our resources with those in need. The Hebrew word "Tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew word "tzedek" - justice. This word teaches us that the sharing of our resources with those in need is not only an act of love, but also an act of justice. Hashem - the Compassionate One - wants us to realize that the poor and the needy are His children who are "entitled" to our help and concern. The Torah therefore reminds us that the poor person is our brother, as it is written: 

"If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him - including the proselyte or Gentile resident - so that he can live with you" (Leviticus 25:35 - translation of Rashi)

 The Torah calls upon us to "strengthen him."According to Jewish tradition, these words are teaching us that the highest form of tzedakah is to give those in need the means to support themselves, so that they will not have to be dependent on the generosity of others. (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Gifts to the Poor 10:7)

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, is tzedakah a mitzva that Gentiles should also fulfill? A 13th century sage, Ramban - also known as Nachmanides - finds a reference to tzedakah and the nations of the world in the following teaching from Proverbs (14:34): "Tzedakah uplifts a nation." He writes: "Tzedakah exalts any individual nation that practices it" (Commentary to Leviticus 17:20). According to Ramban, the classic example of a society which failed to do acts of tzedakah was the city-state of Sodom, which was destroyed by Hashem for their evil deeds during the era of Abraham and Sarah. The story of Sodom appears in the Book of Genesis, and in his commentary on a verse from this section (Genesis 19:5), Ramban points out that the root cause of their destruction is described in the following prophecy of Ezekiel:

"Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw." (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

Ramban adds: "The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their 'being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly' is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: 'And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.' According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty."

Another 13th century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, expresses a similar idea:

"We find concerning the sin of Sodom, that although they sinned with many perverse acts such as robbery, violence, miscarriage of justice, and illicit relations, Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah, as it is stated, "Behold this was the sin of Sodom, your sister...she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy." (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:15).

According to Jewish tradition, there is a universal moral code known as "the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" which is the spiritual legacy of all humanity. (A copy of Hazon's introduction to the universal code is available upon request.) Tzedakah, however, is not specifically mentioned in this code; thus, why were the inhabitants of Sodom held accountable for their failure to perform acts of tzedakah?  One possible answer can be found in the writings of Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a sage of the 11th century, who wrote in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any precept of the Torah which is suggested by "reason and the understanding of the heart." Tzedakah can be viewed as a mitzva which is suggested by "the understanding of the heart," and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century sage, elaborates on this idea:

" Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world...so that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence." (Horeb, chapter 17).

The human heart was created with the capacity to be compassionate; therefore, when the Torah mentions the mitzva of tzedakah in the Book of Deuteronomy (15:7), the verse states: "You shall not harden your heart." We are not to allow selfish thoughts or desires to suppress our innate capacity for compassion. The Sodomites were therefore held accountable for the sin of suppressing this crucial aspect of their nature. 

The human being has this innate capacity for compassion, as the human being was created in the image of the Compassionate One. In addition, just as the Compassionate One nurtures all creatures, so too the human being has the capacity to nurture others. As Rabbi Hirsch taught, our compassion is to awaken within us the recognition that all beings have a claim to our "love and beneficence." In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim, a sage of the late 19th and early 20th century, writes:

"Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that 'God created the human being in His image.' The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with loving-kindness with others, as Scripture states: 'Hashem is good to all...(Psalm 145:9), and "He gives food to all flesh, for His  loving-kindness endures forever" (Psalm 136:25).  The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue...Hence whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person;  while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, 'why should I do good to others?' removes himself completely from Hashem, the Blessed One." 
("Loving Kindness" by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2) 

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz, a sage of the early 20th century, applies this teaching to Sodom:

"To deserve the title of 'human being,' a person should consider himself a pipeline to help others...The city of Sodom was destroyed because the inhabitants did not do acts of loving-kindness for others. They were guilty of other major crimes, as well, but had they been kind to one another, they would have nevertheless deserved the title 'adam' - human being. Their complete lack of tzedakah and kindness to others brought in its wake their complete destruction." (Cited in "Consulting the Wise" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

Contemporary societies will also be judged for their lack of compassion for the poor and their failure to perform acts of tzedakah. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a 19th century sage, cites a tradition that before the dawn of the messianic age, Hashem will judge the nations of the world for their oppression of the poor, as it is written (Psalm 12:6): "For the oppression of the poor, for the cry of the needy, I will now arise, says Hashem."  ( This teaching is found in the Beis HaLevi on the Haggadah, "This is the Bread of Affliction")

According to Jewish tradition, Hashem judges all human beings on Rosh Hashana - the New Year. The following excerpt from a Rosh Hashana prayer regarding the Divine judgement and the merit of tzedakah is therefore of universal significance:

"All those who came into the world will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict...But teshuva (returning to Hashem), prayer, and tzedakah remove the severity of the decree!" (Nesaneh Tokef)

In addition to teshuva and prayer, human beings are to engage in acts of tzedakah during this season of Divine judgement and renewal. Why is tzedakah so important during this season? During these days of teshuva, we pray for life, as we say: "Remember us for life, O Sovereign Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life - for Your sake, O Living God." If we ask for life for ourselves, then it is only right that we should engage in actions which give life to others.

May the Compassionate One inscribe us in "the Book of Life."

A Good and Sweet Year,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon -Our Universal Vision   www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/ 

The "Pious" Parakeet

In the joyful spirit of the approaching holiday of Purim, I am sharing with you the following true story. 

Dear Friends,

I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and I have four parakeets that are temporarily living in my apartment. One of them has become especially "pious", however, before I tell you his particular story, I need to tell you how these parakeets came to me. My friend, Hershel Zvi Chernofsky, was living in another neighborhood of Jerusalem, and this past summer he went to visit family and friends in Canada. He was unable to find someone who would take care of his parakeets when he was away, so I volunteered. Hershel was supposed to return before Rosh Hashana, but due to illness in his family, he had to extend his stay in Montreal. In the meanwhile, the parakeets are with me, and I am doing my best to nurture them.

The oldest parakeet is "Georgie" – the name that Hershel gave him when the parakeet was still a baby. When Georgie was very young, Hershel, who is a teacher of English and skilled with languages, was pleased to discover that Georgie learned how to say, "You're so cute!" Hershel therefore taught him a few other phrases.

A week before Georgie and friends were to move into my apartment, I began to imagine Georgie yelling in his high-pitched voice, "You're so cute!" Is this the message that is to be proclaimed in my holy dwelling? In a humorous spirit, I decided have a "heart-to heart" talk with Hershel. I reminded Hershel that my neighborhood of Bayit Vegan is a very spiritual neighborhood; moreover, almost all its residents are pious people. I therefore requested that Hershel teach Georgie to say some words that would be more appropriate for the neighborhood. Hershel asked, "What do you suggest?" I replied, "Teach him to say, "Good Shabbos!" Hershel promised me that he would try, and he succeeded. Hershel calls me by the nickname, Yossi, and on the day the parakeets moved in, Georgie called out, "Good Shabbos, Yossi!"

Since I have a Master's Degree in Education, I felt that I should continue to teach Georgie to say other spiritual phrases. For example, during the Festival of Succos, I taught him to say, "Chag Samayach" - A Joyous Festival. Some of the other Hebrew and Yiddish phrases that he learned are the following:"simcha" – joy, "l'chayim" - to life, "gevaldig" – great, and "zei gezunt" - be well! Georgie usually says these phrases to his mate, and I notice that she is very impressed by his mastery of human language.

He also learned how to say, "Baruch Hashem" – Blessed is the Compassionate Divine Name. I was especially proud when he began to say, "Learn Torah!" I was once in the middle of preparing a Torah lesson, and feeling very tired, I decided to take a rest. Suddenly, Georgie yelled out, "Learn Torah! Learn Torah!" I immediately felt a resurgence of strength and went back to writing.

Georgie's newest phrase is, "Gan Eden" – The Garden of Eden. Given his growing spiritual vocabulary, I decided that I should make a greater effort to take care of Georgie and the other parakeets with a spiritual consciousness. For our tradition teaches that we should do all our mitzvos – Divine mandates - with the awareness that we are serving the loving and just purpose of our Creator. For example, when I feed the birds before I eat, I remind myself that I am fulfilling the mitzvah to feed one's animals and birds before one sits down to eat.
In addition, before I start to feed the birds, I have the intention that I will be fulfilling at least two other mitzvos of the Torah. My friend Hershel Zvi is happy and relieved that someone is taking care of his birds; thus, when I feed and take care of the birds, I am fulfilling the mitzvah to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). There is also a mitzvah to "go in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9), and this means that we are to emulate the compassionate and nurturing ways of the Creator. When I nurture the birds, I am fulfilling this mitzvah, as it is written, "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9).

There is a special pleasure in having creatures in my home who love to sing; in fact, whenever I play my tapes of spiritual melodies, the birds begin to sing loudly. I also have a daily choir practice with them. For example, I go over to the birds and start to chant, "Baruch Hashem!" The other male, who is younger than Georgie, then bursts out with beautiful chirping and whistles. I call him the "cantor" of the group. And when the other birds decide to join in, it's truly beautiful. With a little more practice, I could take them on a performing tour.

I am grateful for all the pleasure that the birds give me, and I therefore have my feathered friends in mind when I sing the following words from a traditional song which is sung at the Sabbath table:

"Praises shall I prepare morning and evening, to You, O Holy God, Who created all life: holy angels and the children of humankind, beasts of the field, and birds of the sky." (Kah Ribon Olam)

When the Compassionate One created all life, all creatures dwelled in "shalom" - peace and harmony - in the Garden of Eden. This realization helps me to feel a special kinship with Georgie and his friends, for I remember that my ancestor and their ancestor were neighbors in the Garden. I also remember the prophecies which state that human beings and all creatures will once again experience the shalom of the Garden after the arrival of the messianic age. The following prophecy of Isaiah can serve as an example:

"The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper's hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder's lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Before the arrival of the messianic age, Georgie and his friends - who were raised in bird cages – would find it difficult to survive if they were returned to the wild, as studies have shown that birds raised in captivity lose some of the instincts and skills that they need in order to be protected from birds of prey and other dangers in the wild. This situation will change, however, with the arrival of the messianic age of shalom, for when the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One, creatures will no longer prey on one another, "and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay." The new spiritual consciousness, explains the Malbim, a noted biblical commentator, will affect even the animals. Georgie and his friends will therefore be able to leave their cages and enter into a renewed and elevated world, where no creature will ever harm them.

And just as they will be liberated from the confines of their cages, so too, will we human beings be liberated from the "cages" that confine us, whether they be physical, intellectual, or emotional. For in this new age, our souls will soar high like the birds of the sky, for "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Compassionate One, as water covering the sea bed."

Have a Happy Purim,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/