Welcome to HHNE’s D’Var Torah page. These submissions have been written by our students—we welcome you to download and print any that you wish to share.
9.29.17 – Nesya Sloane, Class of 2018
As part of the haftora on Yom Kippur, we read the book of Yonah. In it, Yonah infamously refuses to obey God’s command that he go the city of Nineveh and tell its people to repent. He then gets thrown off a boat and swallowed by a fish, before finally ending up in Nineveh, and with a few more digressions, eventually completes his mission and gets the people to repent. Why was it however, that Yonah initially thought to run from God’s command? Why would a seemingly decent person have reason to refuse to help a city full of people avoid destruction through repentance? The verse says only that Yonah “arose to flee to Tarshish from before the Lord,” (Jonah 1:3) but Yonah never explains to God why he does not want to go to Nineveh. Rashi comments that Yonah was reluctant to prophesy destruction to the people of Nineveh, not because he thought they would not listen, but because he thought they would listen too well. He was worried that they would repent so quickly that they would cast a shadow over the Jews, who often did not heed the words of prophets, at least not immediately. When he does finally get it together and tells the citizens of Nineveh to repent, Yonah has yet another concern. Rashi says he is worried that if the people repent, God will forgive them, nothing will happen to them, and he — Yonah — will look like a liar for have predicted their demise. Throughout this whole narrative, Yonah epitomizes concern about one’s appearance in the eyes of others. He spends a lot of time worrying about what others think of him, but not about what God thinks of him. In contrast, the Yom Kippur service of the Kohen Gadol that is detailed in the main torah portion is deeply personal. The Kohen Gadol alone performs the service for the entire people. He interacts with almost nobody but God on for the entire day. What we can learn from Yonah is that it is impossible to be an instrument of repentance, or indeed to foster any real connection with God, if we are constantly thinking about how other people see us. The purpose of the Yom Kippur fast is to distance ourselves from the physical world, and that includes somewhat distancing ourselves from other people. All year long, but especially on Yom Kippur, it is important to remember that our spiritual standing with God is independent of how others see it. If a connection to God is something that we want to foster, we have to do that for God and ourselves, not for the sake of appearance to those around us.
9.20.17 – Leia Resnick, Class of 2018
In this week’s parsha, Bereishit, God creates the world in six days, and lists the generations that are born. In Chapter 26, verse 17, Avraham’s wife, Hagar, is in the desert. Hagar’s son is dying, and the verse says, “And God heard the lad’s voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is.” What does the verse mean by “where he is”? Is it talking about the physical place where he is lying or something deeper and more spiritual that can be connected to Rosh Hashana?
Rashi quotes a verse from Rosh Hashanah 16b: “According to the deeds that he does now he is judged and not according to what he is destined to do.” Rashi is saying that “where he is” means the place where he is religiously. Rashi then quotes a story from Gen. Rabbah 53:14: “For the ministering angels were accusing and saying, ‘O Lord of the Universe, for one who is destined to kill Your children with thirst, You are bringing up a well?!’ And He answered them, ‘What is he now, righteous or wicked?’ They replied, ‘Righteous.’ He said to them, ‘According to his present deeds I judge him.’” Rashi says, “And that is the meaning of ‘where he is.’” How does this connect to Rosh Hashana? On Rosh Hashana, God may judge us by our past sins, but what we are truly judged by is how we act in the present, just as it says in the story. There is another theme underlying this, the theme of reflection. Rosh Hashana is not only about being judged, it is about reflecting on what we can change in ourselves. In the story, God was making a well for a man who was “destined to kill Your children with thirst.” And yet, God asked them what he is in the present – righteous or wicked. This shows that people change, and the thing that you are judged on and that matters the most is not how you acted in the past, but how you act now.