We are in a period called “The Three Weeks of Mourning,” culminating to “Tisha B’Av,” literally translated as the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, which is the greatest mourning day of the Jewish year. Never heard of it before? Don’t worry, neither had I. That’s part of why we are mourning. Officially, on Tisha B’Av, we are mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. But through the years, the holiday has taken on additional meaning.
I didn’t know what the Kotel, or Western Wall, actually was until I saw it on my first trip to Israel when I was 19 years old. The Kotel is a part of the foundation of the Western Wall of the Second Temple, which the Jews built in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. It is a remnant of Jerusalem’s former glory, when G-d’s presence openly rested on this holy site. The site of the First and Second Temples is the same place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and where Jacob dreamed of the ladder. It is the direction to which Jews face when they pray, wherever they are in the world. It is the main pipeline where all the prayers are collected and ascend to be answered. It is the interface between G-d and humanity on earth, and this is why Jerusalem is one of the most fought over pieces of land in history.
Unfortunately, the Jews have been kicked out of Jerusalem several times. The Babylonians drove us out and destroyed the First Temple and then the Romans kicked us out and destroyed the Second Temple, bringing us into our current 2,000-year-old exile.
Yet, is not the Babylonians or the Romans who did anything on their own. G-d used them as the conduits to our exile because we were not fitting as a nation to merit His presence in the Holy Temple during those times. In the time of the First Temple, we were engaged in idol worship and baseless hatred of each other. During the Second Temple, we were exiled again because we didn’t learn our lesson and continued to treat each other improperly.
So today, we are reduced to praying to a remnant of the foundation of the Temple to beg for the redemption, when a Third Temple will finally be rebuilt. You might be thinking, “But we have the state of Israel; how could we be in exile?” While we do have a Jewish state, we still do not have a Temple, which means that G-d has abandoned his home on earth, so to speak. As a result, G-d’s presence is more hidden. One manifestation of G-d’s hiddenness is that sometimes we see things perfectly clearly and meant to be, while at other times we are plagued with doubt and confusion.
Still, I find myself thinking, what would reality be like if we were not in exile, if G-d’s presence was fully revealed? I imagine it would be easier to connect to G-d because of a clearer distinction between right and wrong. We are so disconnected from our history as a people that we can’t really relate to a world with a Temple. We are so deep in exile that we don’t even realize we are in exile. This, I once heard Rabbi Doniel Katz say, is part of why we mourn this time of year.
What Can We Do About It?
The true Temple is not the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple in the heart of man. When G-d told the Jews to build Him the Mishkan (the temporary Temple in the desert before the Jews entered Israel), He said, “I will dwell within them,” instead of “ within it,” meaning G-d will dwell within the hearts of man, rather than in the Mishkan. From this we understand that the Temples in Jerusalem were external instruments of the inner Temple of our hearts. Thus, when our hearts became corrupted, the outer temples were destroyed as a reflection of that. This principle, of an external, physical reality reflecting internal, spiritual reality, is a recurring theme in Jewish thought. The rebuilding of the third and final Temple in Jerusalem is dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple in our own hearts.
This time of year, we need to think: are we part of the problem or part of the solution? Do we engage in the very behavior that put us into exile in the first place? Do we commit idol worship by worshipping ourselves and our desires above all else? This is 21st century idolatry. For instance, I find myself thinking about this as I debate whether to spend my money on charity or on a new item that I want, but don’t need. What about baseless hatred? Do we talk badly about anyone? Or do we try to see the good in all people and give them the benefit of the doubt?
We need to “step it up” as a nation so that we can merit G-d’s revealed presence in Jerusalem once again. I once heard my Rebbetzin tell her children that every little gesture of trying to reconnect to our spiritual heritage builds another brick in the wall of the Third Temple. We should merit to be those builders.
How To Thrive On Yom Kippur: Practical Tips For An Easier Fast
Yom Kippur, one of the most sacred Jewish Holidays of the year, is upon us. Here are ways you can prepare yourself for the 25 hour fast. These pointers will help keep your stomach from grumblin’ and your breath from stankin’.
1) Cut down on the caffeine For all you coffee/tea addicts out there, your morning cup of caffeine is a must. In fact, some of you are quick to develop headaches/migraines if you don’t have that cup. What to do: Days preceding the fast, try to minimize your caffeine intake as much as possible. Try some herbal tisanes, perhaps. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. There is nothing better you can do for yourself than to drink. Stay away from alcohol; poppin’ bottles will only make you more prone to dehydration, causing unpleasantness during the fast.
2) Did I mention HYDRATION? The difficulty we experience during the fast is not usually linked to lack of food; rather, it is the lack of fluids. Best choices: You can never go wrong with the good ol’ H20. Experts suggest drinking EIGHT 8 oz cups of water per day. Try to reach that goal or even surpass it by drinking more the day of. Eat your way to hydration by stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the most hydrating foods include: Cucumber, iceberg lettuce, celery, grapes, tomatoes, watermelon, green peppers, and spinach, to name a few. A handful of these ingredients mixed together sounds like a delicious salad, no?
3) What to eat the day of? On the day of the fast try eating balanced meals. For the meal before the fast, eat a proper meal that includes protein, carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables. Eating more carbohydrates will help make you feel fuller longer (you can never go wrong with potatoes, pasta, and bread). Try to avoid salty and spicy foods as much as possible. The over-consumption of salt causes thirst because the body requires more water to absorb the extra salt. Knowing that we won’t be able to eat for 25 hours drives us to eat as much as possible before the fast begins. However, do yourself a favor and try not to eat a heavy 5 course meal fit for a Prince. The more you eat, the more water is needed from the body to digest it.
Now, you are fully equipped to a be an angel for the day. May we all be inSKRIBED and sealed in the Book of Life!
Laws of Dayenu!
There is a beautiful practice among Persian Jews worldwide to whip each other with scallions during the recitation of the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah. We strike family members with scallions when the Hebrew word Dayenu is read, symbolizing the whips endured by the Israelites under the ancient Egyptians.
Much to my dismay, many of our young children are not following the proper traditions laid down by our forefathers. In many cases, I have seen gross negligence on their part, so much so that I don’t think they have even fulfilled their obligations for Dayenu. I have jotted down some important points as a guide.
Dayenu is an ancient custom; anyone who makes fun of this or mistakenly calls it barbaric should not be invited to the Seder table. If one has family over and because of Shalom Bayit purposes must invite such evil doers to their home, they should only be invited for the dinner portion so as not to disrespect this holy Mitsvah. In general, one should be careful about exposing their children to such people throughout the year, as well.
- Yom Kippur is an auspicious time to pray for properly sized and shaped scallions that can cause the most pain. There is a custom to plant scallions right after Yom Kippur in one’s backyard.
Type of Scallion to Use
- The color of the scallion leaf should be fully green and ripened. Our Sages say it should be ripe enough to leave a dime-sized mark on a new white cloth.
- Lengthwise, the scallion must be a minimum of two tefachim (handbreadths). However, one who uses scallions that are at least an amah (arms length) will receive special blessings from heaven. Note: length does not include the head/bulb.
- Preferably, scallions from Iran should be used, and they must be checked for Chametz a minimum of 3 times. (Elat Market has a special shipment for only $27 per scallion. It must have Kosher for Passover supervision).
- If there is a famine and scallions cannot be found, whole round onion may be used. If one does not have onions either, a belt can be used provided it is 100% pure leather without any additives or synthetic ingredients.
- There is a dispute among authorities as to the proper size of the scallion. Some say the head should be olive-sized (around 18.753 grams) and others say egg-sized (around 32.256 grams).
- The scallion head/bulbs should have at least two visible root hairs.
The Custom of Dayenu
- To properly fulfill the Mitsvah, one must hit at least two Jewish males above the age of Bar Mitsvah at least two times in at least 3.5 minutes. If this is not done, one must go back and Dayenu again.
- The Mitzvah of Dayenu should be done while standing, however old people and Shirazis may sit.
- There is a debate amongst Rabbis as to whether this custom came from a Jewish source or the ghettos of Iran. Therefore, when in doubt, no blessing is recited. One can simply say ‘Baruch Sh’asani Heyvun’ without mentioning G-d’s name.
- If one fell asleep during the seder and wakes up in time for dinner, the latest he can make up Dayenu is by midnight. If he misses this time, he has to wait until the second night and do it twice. If he forgets both nights, he should hit himself with the scallion every night before he goes to sleep as a penalty for not doing it properly the first time.
- Although many say Dayenu was established to remind us of slavery, some say that the scallions represent our Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) and Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination), and that it is a Mitsvah to rebuke others even by force. Therefore, it is better that two scallions are used at same time, symbolizing that we are beating up our friends and family to make them serve the Almighty with both inclinations.
- The mystics tell us that there should be direct contact between the hands and the scallions. Therefore, special blessings come to those that do not wear gloves and remove rings before Dayenu.
- For the Dayenu hit to count, an audible “ouch” or “aay” should be heard at least 6 steps away from the person being hit.
- One should preferably use another fellow Persian to fulfill this custom. If an Ashkenazi was invited to the Seder, one can fulfill his obligation by hitting him as well. Please note the 6-step audible requirement (see previous halacha) would instead be 3-steps as Ashkenazim are not as rowdy as Persians. (Please also note that it is forbidden to feed Ashkenazim rice, however, one can be lenient and serve them food that was cooked in a rice pot).
- Hitting the face is not allowed as we fear the person will become blind and not be able to fulfill the Mitsvah of reading the Haggadah.
- It is not becoming of Jewish women to do Dayenu. The custom is that the women go to the kitchen and prepare the meal at this time. Nowadays, if there is a concern that the women would be offended, or if there is a chance that they will leave the seder altogether, it is permissible for them to engage in the custom. However, G-d fearing men should not gaze at ladies doing Dayenu. They should quickly find another G-d fearing man, do the Dayenu ceremony together, and find a corner to stare at while the frivolous immodest ladies finish Dayenuing.
- There is a Torah prohibition against hitting parents. One must be very careful to get permission in advance from their parents if they want to use them to fulfill this Mitsvah. Fortunately, there is no prohibition against in-laws.
After the Dayenu
- Since the scallions have been used for a Mitsvah, they are considered very holy and one should not profane them by disposing them in a trash can. Some have the custom of putting the scallions under their bed as a Segulah (omen) to have righteous and calm children. For those that don’t believe in such nonsense, the scallions may be buried.
- If someone is summoned to a non-Jewish court for damages incurred by the Dayenu ceremony, he should explain his religious obligation and demand his right to religious freedom.
My Worst (Or Best?) Rosh Hashanah
Two years ago, I had the privilege of spending my first Rosh Hashanah in Israel. That first morning I woke up to my roommate getting dressed. It was only 7:30 a.m. but I remembered one of my mentors telling me that since Rosh Hashanah is Judgment Day, it is best to make it to shul on time. I pulled myself out of bed.
My friends and I were amongst the first women in the shul that morning in Ramat Bet Shemesh. The natural light poured into the tall windows and beamed onto the white walls. Everything looked so pure. All that could be heard were the whispers of people’s morning prayers.
I found the clock; we had about five hours of prayer ahead of us. An hour or so into the service, I began to squirm. I glanced at my friends. Their heads were buried into their siddurs (prayer books).
I flipped to the back of the siddur and saw that we had about two hundred pages to go! As time went on, it was becoming harder and harder to sit still and focus. I heard myself think, “I don’t want to be here.” Then louder, “I want to leave!”
I looked around, paranoid that someone heard me. Then I realized how silly I was. My friends might not have known what I was really thinking, but G-d did. I couldn’t hide from Him. And what’s worse, I was being judged today. Suddenly it felt like all of the growth I accomplished in the past year didn’t matter because today, deep down, I wanted to leave and go home and read in bed.
I tried to ignore these blasphemous thoughts and continue praying, but a battle raged in my heart. Finally, I decided to engage my feelings of resistance. “O.K., Jenna,” I told myself, “You can leave. No one is stopping you. If you could call a cab right now and leave, what would you do?” I imagined the yellow cab waiting on the dusty road outside the shul. Then, as I imagined myself getting into the cab and driving away, a quiet voice within me said, “No!” What was that? I thought.
There were two voices within me: the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov.
In one corner of the ring: the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is our “evil inclination,” the voice within us that is aligned with our basic, animalistic desires. The yetzer hara always speaks loudest and always speaks first.
Yet Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski points out that the essence of our yetzer hara is not its desire for physical pleasures, but its desire for freedom. I felt constricted that day in shul, with a long script of prayers I had to recite. Me, who had chosen to come to Israel that year to deepen my connection with G-d. Who knew that the Sages had written these holy prayers with Divine inspiration, a secret formula so to speak, to connect with G-d on the deepest level. Yet I still felt that this day was being thrust on me. Today of all days, which was about crowning G-d as our King and part of me just wanted to break free.
In the other corner of the ring: the yetzer hatov. The yetzer hatov is our “good inclination,” the voice within us that is aligned with our spiritual aspirations. It is the voice that wants us to be our best selves, aligned with G-d’s will. It is the quieter voice. Deep down, when I gave myself the theoretical option, I could hear myself say that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be right there, in the last row of the crowded shul, praying to G-d from the bottom of my heart.
When the shofar blew, there was silence. I could hear my friend sobbing into her siddur. I was exhausted; I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I turned inward and said the only words I could say with total honesty: I want to want good, I told G-d. Please send me the blessings I need to be my best self, to achieve my purpose. G-d: I want what You want for me this year. I repeated this over and over again. The cry of the shofar awoke the cry in my heart. I want to want good. Help me, please.
That year, I left shul feeling like a failure. Looking back, I realize that I was a spiritual champion. Just because I struggled to engage in the long day of prayer did not make me any less holy than my friends. If anything, my merit was in my struggle.
Despite the voice within me that wanted to leave, I chose to act upon the voice that wanted to stay. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller says, we are an accumulation of the choices we make. By acting on the voice that wanted good, I was one step closer to becoming my best self. With each good choice we make, Rebbetzin Heller explains, choosing good becomes easier.
I bless us all that we should be empowered to make the right choices in our lives and we should be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a healthy, happy, and sweet new year!
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