September 25, 2018

Rabbi Mordecai Finley: A Deep Dive Into Happiness

What is the Jewish take on happiness? It’s probably not what you think. Rabbi Mordecai Finley discusses his provocative essay in the Jewish Journal where he argues that Job was the happiest character in the Bible.

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Working the Path

Photo from GoodFreePhotos.

Most good people want to become better people. The slightly less good people just want other people to become better people. Few people actually have a plan, for themselves or others. The Jewish tradition offers many such plans — systems for moral and spiritual improvement.

I don’t think most people suffer unnecessarily because they had less-than-optimal parents. That widespread misfortune might be a factor, but people suffer unnecessarily primarily because they don’t think clearly and they don’t manage their feelings well. For example, many people think (perhaps unconsciously) that the best way to improve a spouse or a child is to criticize them. A bit of rational reflection can correct that misguided approach fairly quickly. There are spiritual practices that can reduce the feelings of anger and frustration that usually prompt the criticism.

Reduced anger and frustration? There’s a better person already.

Other people not only want to become better in the moral sense, they also want to grow spiritually. That word, “spirituality,” connotes many things: Centeredness. Courageousness. Kindness. Reflectiveness. A sense of the transcendent. The word is a constellation of many related ideas.

Inner-life work in the Jewish tradition, and in all traditions, holds that there are better and worse ways to think, feel, speak and behave. If we gain some mastery over the inner life, we not only will act righteously, but we also will be on a path toward spiritual well-being.

There are many terms in the Jewish tradition referring to moral and spiritual growth. I like the words “work” and “path” to describe this striving. Inner-life work is the path, and the path requires inner-life work. (Hence, “working the path.”) If you work the path, everything gets better. Maybe it won’t get better in the way you imagined it, but still, it will be better.

Maybe it won’t get better in the way you imagined it, but still, it will be better.

The inner-life side of the Jewish tradition is ancient, rich and varied. As this tradition is carried through time, new interpretations are added, and every now and then new teachings are formed. This spiritual side of our traditions might not be a walk on the wild side, but it can come close to that. As you walk on that side — the inside — you might come across some insight or teaching that both destabilizes your ego self and adds lucidity to your soul.

Think of the confessional on Yom Kippur. You’d never come up with that by yourself, reading a litany of confessions, most of which have nothing to do with you personally. Until a wise guy utters the confession of mocking, and suddenly sees something about himself that he does not want to see.

OK, I was that wise guy. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. On the High Holy Days, we teenagers were assigned to sit in the social hall. At some particularly long, tiresome point in the service, we ducked out and went to the local supermarket to buy munchies. One of the old-timers saw us as we tried to get back in through the parking lot. He saw our spoils and said to us that we should not be spending money on Rosh Hashanah. “It’s OK,” I said triumphantly, “we stole it.” My remark got a great laugh from my friends, and I was immensely pleased with myself — until Yom Kippur, that is, when I came across that “mocking parents and teachers” line. I thought something like, “So this prayer-book is actually looking right up, at and through me.”

Busted. Our tradition caught me.

It still catches me.

The time we are in now, the seven-week “counting of the Omer,” has that quality of “looking at you and through you” as well. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot are devoted to contemplating one kabbalistic quality per week. These qualities (such as love, justice, truth, beauty, etc.) name contours of our souls that produce the greatest meaning and some of the greatest pain in our lives.

For example, in that first-week contemplation of Hesed (roughly: lovingkindness), I recalled a truth learned long ago: Some of the greatest pain we suffer and cause in life is from not acting lovingly when we should have.

How can we love better and defend our hearts when others don’t? Stay tuned.


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

Moving and Shaking: JBBBSLA’s Big Event, Board of Rabbis Installation, New JCF Chair

From left: Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles honorees Gary Weinhouse, Kallyn Woodward and Elizabeth and Glen Friedman. Photo courtesy of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles.

At its annual “Big Event” on Feb. 9, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) honored Elizabeth and Glen Friedman with its Inspiration Award, Gary Weinhouse as Big Brother of the Year and Kallyn Woodward as Big Sister of the Year.

The agency served 1,753 children in 2016, including 225 who were matched with a “Big” and 1,311 who attended its Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus, said the group’s CEO, Randy Schwab.

Woodward’s “Little,” Liam Sason, presented her with the Big Sister award. Weinhouse’s “Little,” Michael Heller, a grown man who has been paired with Weinhouse since he was a little boy and today is a “Big” to a child in need, presented Weinhouse with his award.

Attendees at the event, held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, included longtime Big Brother Barry Oppenheim. A congregant of Temple Beth Am and father of two, Oppenheim told the Journal that volunteering with the organization has been the best thing he has done, other than having kids of his own.

Additional attendees included volunteer Alana Bram, who wore a pin that read, “I am a Big”; philanthropist Bob Waldorf; Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Executive Vice President Andrew Cushnir and the organization’s director of community engagement, Ashley Waterman.

The event raised more than $400,000, according to a JBBBSLA statement.

Founded in 1915, JBBBSLA is one of three Big Brother Big Sister mentoring organizations in the Los Angeles area. It is open to all Jewish children, including those with special needs, who are in need of a positive role model.


From left: Rabbis Kalman Topp, Ilana Grinblatt, Jason Weiner, Amy Bernstein, Lynn Brody Slome and Morley Feinstein attend the installation ceremony for Weiner, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

From left: Rabbis Kalman Topp, Ilana Grinblatt, Jason Weiner, Amy Bernstein, Lynn Brody Slome and Morley Feinstein attend the installation ceremony for Weiner, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s chaplain, Rabbi Jason Weiner, was installed as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California on Feb. 15 during a ceremony at Cedars-Sinai.

Weiner, the senior rabbi and manager of the Cedars-Sinai Spiritual Care Department since 2011, is the first chaplain-rabbi to serve as president of the Board of Rabbis in its 80-year history.

“My goal is to contribute to the ongoing professionalization of chaplaincy and to help chaplains gain better support and recognition,” Weiner said. “I also hope to bring attention to non-pulpit rabbis who may sometimes feel that their voices aren’t sufficiently heard by large, communal organizations.”

Attendees at the ceremony included Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation and a Board of Rabbis vice president; Rabbi Amy Bernstein of Kehillat Israel, also a vice president; Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue and the immediate past president of the board; Rabbi Ilana Grinblatt, a lecturer in rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University; and Rabbi Lynn Brody Slome of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California is a membership organization for synagogues both large and small that provides programming and leadership training in the areas of interfaith engagement, social justice, healing and spirituality, professional development and more.


From left: Richard Foos, Ohr HaTorah member; Rabbi Mordecai Finley; and Cliff Chenfeld, visiting from New York.

From left: Richard Foos, Ohr HaTorah member; Rabbi Mordecai Finley; and Cliff Chenfeld, visiting from New York. Photo courtesy of Ohr HaTorah.

“Steve Bannon is a racist.”

“Trump is mentally unstable.”

“[Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos is uneducated.”

Those were some of the comments from participants in a group session that Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue held Feb. 10 in response to people’s requests for counseling on how to reduce their post-election anxiety.

Committed to an apolitical pulpit, Finley offered this overarching advice at his Los Angeles sanctuary: be vigilant, seek to understand other perspectives, take action when fears are justified by measurable outcomes and, most of all, keep calm.

“Fighters who win can take a punch and fight calm,” said the interdisciplinary rabbi, citing his martial arts training.

Avoiding polemics, Finley, a Holocaust scholar, cautioned the approximately 50 attendees not to equate President Donald Trump’s rise with the rise of Hitler.

“Don’t throw around Holocaust, Hitler and genocide until someone deserves the title,” Finley said, “because all it does is make someone hysterical.”

Rather, he advised, people should seek to reduce and avoid sensationalist, incendiary labels and comments: “Be afraid of a thing, not an indefinite phenomena.”

Referencing Abrahamic traditions, Finley advocated for a “civic covenant” to maintain constructive, open, thoughtful dialogue, especially among families and friends torn apart over the presidential election.

Citing the closing of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address — “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” — Finley reminded the attendees of the bloody U.S. Civil War, which puts today’s divisive political climate in perspective.

Preaching tolerance, Finley told the rabbinic tale of Abraham kicking out a guest in the middle of the night when he found him worshipping idols, to which God responded: “I’ve had to deal with the guy for 70 years and you can’t take him for one night?” To which Finley added: “That’s part of our Jewish ethos.”

—Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer


ms-rabbi-arushRabbi Shalom Arush, 64, author of the best-selling books “Garden of Emuna” and “Garden of Peace,” delivered lectures at The Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills and at the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana on Feb. 7 and 8, respectively, to audiences totaling 2,100 people.

The Israeli Breslov rabbi, founder of the Chut Shel Chessed Institutions, visited from Jerusalem at the invitation of Unity 3000, a local organization founded three years ago by Ariel Perets. The organization aspires to bring together Orthodox, secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews through unity and faith, Perets said.

Jews, Muslims and Christians who have read the rabbi’s books and love his message attended the rabbi’s lectures, Perets said. Arush is not a typical Orthodox rabbi, which is perhaps one of the reasons his lectures attract Jews and non-Jews. At times during his lecture, he started singing and audience members clapped their hands in unison and joined in.

For non-Hebrew speakers, the organizers provided headphones offering translations to English and Spanish. The rabbi discussed the importance of faith in a person’s life and how everything that happens, whether it’s good or bad, happens for the best and has a reason to it.

Born in Morocco, Arush made aliyah with his parents at age 13. After graduating from high school, he served in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite naval rescue unit as an airborne combat-medic and took part in many clandestine missions. After five of his closest friends were killed in a helicopter crash while on a mission, he decided to make a change in his life and studied in several yeshivot until he discovered Breslov Judaism, a branch of Chassidic Judaism founded by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Arush travels the world now giving lectures about Breslov Judaism.

At the end of each of the L.A.-area lectures, many people from the audience approached the rabbi and asked him for his blessing.

“It’s very rare to see an Orthodox rabbi who appeals to people who aren’t religious or aren’t Jewish, and that’s why I chose to bring him here for this lecture,” Perets said. “I discovered him after reading one of his books and flew all the way to Uman [a pilgrimage site in Ukraine for Breslov Jews] to see who is this person with simple wisdom that touched my heart.”

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer


Shalhevet High School Dean of Students Jason Feld (second from right), who has accepted a job in Seattle as head of school of Northwest Yeshiva High School, poses with his family. He starts that position on July 1. Photo courtesy of Feld.

Shalhevet High School Dean of Students Jason Feld (second from right), who has accepted a job in Seattle as head of school of Northwest Yeshiva High School, poses with his family. He starts that position on July 1. Photo courtesy of Feld.

Jason Feld, Shalhevet High School’s dean of students, has accepted a position as the head of school of Northwest Yeshiva High School in Seattle, effective July 1, according to an announcement by Shalhevet’s Head of School Ari Segal.

“It’s a wonderful community and amazing school, and I think I have something to add and contribute to it,” Feld said in an interview. “I am very, very excited about it.”

“While we will sorely miss Jason and his family, we are so happy for him as he embarks on this exciting new chapter of his career,” Segal said in the Jan. 30 statement.

A successor for Feld, who has been at Shalhevet for 10 years as a teacher, administrator and student adviser, has not yet been named.

“We are exploring all of our options, including filling the components of the role internally,” Segal told the Journal in an email. “Just happy for Jason and also for Shalhevet to be a talent feeder to other schools.”


ms-bill-feilerWilliam Feiler has succeeded Lawrence Rauch as the chair of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, effective Feb. 2.

The leadership transition at the grant-making organization follows a four-year term served by Rauch.

During Rauch’s term, the foundation surpassed $1 billion in assets, attracted more than $508 million in charitable contributions and distributed more than $322 million in grants locally, nationally and in Israel, said Lewis Groner, the foundation’s director of marketing and communications.

Feiler, a longtime donor, trustee and officer at the foundation, is the former managing director and founding member of Bel Air Investment Advisors.

“He possesses the insight and understanding of our mission, our operating practices and unique position we occupy in the Jewish and general community,” Groner said of Feiler. “He just has long-term experience with us.”

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: A hub is born

Meirav Finley believes that she “complements” her husband, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the independent Ohr HaTorah synagogue in West Los Angeles. In her view, the rabbi is the deep, spiritual, brilliant teacher and synagogue leader, while she is the creative and practical partner who helps implement and promote his vision.

Well, I have to tell you that after spending time with both of them, I see it another way. In my view, they don’t so much complement as mirror each other.

The rabbi, for example, is known for his intensely spiritual teachings. You might think this means “escaping” to a higher spiritual plane, but it’s actually the opposite. His spirituality is as grounded as the work of the carpenters, electricians and landscapers who are currently renovating the grounds of his synagogue.

He will say things like “every human flaw is an expression of an inner wound” and then quote Chasidic masters to expand on the idea. But just when you think he’s about to float off into mystical land, he brings you back with a question like, “When you are resentful that life is so unfair, what is that really about?”

He then explains that your resentment is the klippah that covers up your holiness, which is expressed in your yearning for fairness. So, like a carpenter, you must carefully “break” the klippah of resentment before you can tap into your own holiness and rewire yourself for a “life of truth.”

Just as the rabbi likes to go deep before going “practical,” his wife does the same. For example, Meirav had to internalize the deep alienation many Jews feel toward their religion before coming up with the idea of transforming their synagogue into “The Hub on Venice.”

This evolution is the result of many years of observation and reflection as she and her husband have built Ohr HaTorah into a community of more than 250 families. Meirav, an Israeli of French-Yemenite descent who majored in English literature and is a trained classical pianist, comes from a solidly traditional background. Yet she is savvy and “spiritual” enough to understand that she had to break the klippah of communal habit in order to unleash more holiness into the world.

The Hub on Venice is the physical expression of this breaking of the klippah.

Meirav saw that most synagogues today are “empty 90 percent of the time” because they’re stuck with their habit of being primarily houses of worship. But if Judaism is indeed a roadmap to a better life that nourishes mind, body and soul, and has something for everybody, shouldn’t a “house of Judaism” be more than just a synagogue? And shouldn’t it be mostly busy rather than mostly empty?

The Hub on Venice aims to be just that, a busy gathering place that caters to different interests and crowds, such as the literary and culinary crowd (Sophos Café, a restaurant and music-poetry lounge); the spiritual and personal growth crowd (Institute for Spiritual Formation and Moral Psychology); Jewish families with young children (Early Childhood Center); unaffiliated Jews who can sample an array of classes and Jewish activities (Beach Communities Jewish Center); and even non-Jewish families from the neighborhood who might be interested in things like homework clubs, music, art and fitness classes or volunteer work (Venice Boulevard Community Center).

Of course, the heart of The Hub continues to be the “progressive yet traditional” Ohr HaTorah synagogue, with its full program of Torah and liturgy classes by Rabbi Finley, as well as prayer services that Meirav orchestrates with an innovative blend of musical traditions.

Will this ambitious Hub concept take off? You can judge for yourself on April 22, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., when The Hub on Venice will host its community open house at its location on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue.

It’s clear that it took an enormous amount of effort and diligence to get this far. Getting financial support for big new ideas is not always easy. Last summer, Meirav took her Hub concept to community donor groups, but with little success. In the end, the initial funding has come from Ohr HaTorah’s own base of supporters, which include a few Hollywood players who are devoted followers of the Finleys.

I can see why the Finleys have attracted devoted followers. For one thing, they have no patience for things that don’t work. The rabbi’s teachings, which often delve into psychology, are unapologetic in trying to improve people’s lives and attitudes. “Just because you’ve been hurt doesn’t mean you’ve been wronged” is a classic example of his no-nonsense approach.

Meirav’s approach is also deep and rigorous, but these days, she’s so task-oriented that her motto might be, “Just because I’ve been wronged doesn’t mean I’ll get hurt.”

So, maybe she’s right — in many ways, they do complement each other.

But if they do, it’s not in the sense that one helps to fulfill the vision of the other. This vision of a community Hub is one that has been nourished equally by both of them — by Mordecai’s probing intellect and rigorous spirituality and Meirav’s ability to observe, imagine and make things happen. 

Groundbreaking concepts that merge different ideas into a singular vision can’t happen overnight. Maybe it took all this time for the Finleys to arrive at The Hub because they needed their own individual gifts to merge and become one.

The Hub, then, is not just an idea whose time has come. It’s also a partnership that has blossomed.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Ohr HaTorah ends 15-year trip in a walk down Barrington to a new home

It was a sight Mar Vista doesn’t see every day a guitar-studded procession of more than 100 Jewish revelers marching jubilantly down South Barrington Avenue with five Torah scrolls.

Members of Ohr HaTorah synagogue, which until this month held services at a church in West Los Angeles, donned sun hats and sneakers Aug. 8 to carry their Torahs south to the congregation’s new location and first permanent home on Venice Boulevard.

The walk was only 2.8 miles, but the journey was 15 years in the making.

“We finally have a place that feels like home,” said Meirav Finley, who ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”550″ height=”491″ />

Final Lesson

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Fill in the Blank

When I began to study Torah seriously as a college student, I was introduced to its spiritual depths. I found that the meanings of the holidays went beyond the agricultural and historical sources, and often had complex spiritual teachings woven in. I remember that, back in those days, I could find little spiritual or poetic meanings of Shemini Atzeret. It was blank, or more accurately, a cipher.

I discovered the key when I learned that the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, is known in the Talmud as “Atzeret.” The word means something like “stopping time.” Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover, concludes a long period of spiritual work. For those clued into the spiritual study of the calendar, Passover is not only a time of remembering the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt; it is also a time to learn how we exit from the slavery of bad habits, destructive thought, emotion, behavior. Right after Passover starts, we have that seven-week period called the counting of omer, where, instructed by kabbalah, we thoroughly examine all parts of our lives that are resistant to the light of truth. On Shavuot, we hope to be so cleansed of impediments that the light of Torah can shine into us on that day when we recall the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. And then that holiday period comes to a “close” — Shavuot is called atzeret (the closing).

With this in mind, I looked at Shemini Atzeret, shemini meaning “eighth” or “eighth day” — it falls eight days after Sukkot begins, and concludes Sukkot. But did it also have a sense of the “Atzeret” of Shavuot, of a closing day where we celebrate freedom and the giving of Torah?

The Jewish calendar, with the aid of Chasidic texts, takes us on a deep journey. We are taught in the Torah that the first Shavuot, with all its promise, failed at some great level. Moshe went up the mountain after the Ten Commandments were spoken on Shavuot, but when he came down 40 days later, the people were cavorting with Molten Calf. The tablets were broken — symbolic of the broken heart of God and the broken spirit of Moshe. Only the penitence of the Jewish people could repair the break.

We repented all that summer; we wanted to be worthy of the name God gave us in Exodus chapter 19 just before that first Shavuot — a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets, according to tradition, on the first day of Elul. He was to stay 40 days. Ten days before he was to return, we recommitted ourselves to becoming a kingdom of priests. On that day we accepted God as our sovereign — that is Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the sovereignty of the divine in our lives. On the 40th day, when Moshe finally returns, he finds us in disciplined, contemplative, quiet fasting — that was Yom Kippur, the the culmination of our atoning for the calf.

In the Torah, the Jewish people immediately begin to build the mishkan — a habitat in which the tablets of the covenant would be housed. We symbolize that building with our construction of the sukkah, a habitat that represents the new habits we assume, so that our lives can house the new spiritual self born during these holidays.

At the closing of this period, on Shemini Atzeret, we step away from the sukkah, but not fully back into our lives. It is as if God were saying: exit from all these holidays, from all these observances, but spend a last day with me. There is no special observance on Shemini Atzeret — no matzah, no historical commemoration, no fasting, no shofar — a blank. The blank is to be filled in by each of us, as a community, in our unique individuality.

The ancient rabbis showed amazing reticence around Shemini Atzeret; they usually fill all the holidays with interpretations and historical allusions. I believe this rabbinic reticence is intentional; their quietude helps define the holidays. The tradition quiets down for a day and says: you, individual Jew who has been doing so much spiritual work, you fill in the meaning. God gave us a Torah and a tradition — let’s see what we make of it.

Of course, such reticence could not last, but the way the tradition finally filled in the day is another stroke of genius. Sometime in the post-talmudic period, the celebration called Simchat Torah was born and the second day of Shemini Atzeret took on its own meaning. Since that time, the second day of Shemini Atzeret is when we end the book of Deuteronomy and begin Genesis amid singing, dancing and celebration.

Take a deeper look. A holiday called Atzeret, in which Jews sing, dance, cavort, make merry? Is this not a second chance at that original atzeret, the first giving of the Torah when we were cavorting with the calf? We failed God and ourselves in the aftermath of Shavuot — when Moshe tried to give us the tablets, we had already rejected him.

But on Shemini Atzeret, after all the reflection, contemplation and joy we have gone through from the High Holidays through Sukkot — and then our own private day of reflecting on the whole process — we burst into joy. On Shemini Atzeret, through our quiet putting together of the whole process, we have finally learned what to dance for, what music to dance to and, on Simchat Torah — when we reenact Moshe coming down the mountain — we finally get the giving of Torah right.

Happy quiet, happy dancing!


Mordecai Finley is senior rabbi and co-founder of Ohr HaTorah.