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Let’s Get Medieval on Yom Kippur!
Parshat Vayelech/ Yom Kippur 5779

Just five miles east of the I-75 is the medieval era. Get off the highway, pass through a generic town or two, drive through some cornfields, and make a left turn into the 1500’s. It’s not always there, only at magical times, such as every weekend from late summer through the middle of the fall. It is during those bewitched moments that the Michigan Renaissance Festival rolls into town, and for a twenty-four dollar admission fee, you can enter a world where capes are more common than capris, cloaks more common than coats, and swords more common than smartphones.

The Renaissance Festival is the only place in Michigan where people talk Fantasy Speak which comprises the language and accents any individual ascribes to the world of dragons and unicorns. Fantasy Speak is far from homogenous, but most of it sounds vaguely Olde English and contains words like: Sire, arghh, m’lady, methinks, arghh, whilst, privy, n’er, yonder, and arghhh.

But why only talk the talk if you can also walk the walk? There are hundreds of shoppes sprinkled throughout the castles, markets, and jousting fields of the Renaissance Festival. You can buy battleaxes, herb infused oils (good for healing anything that ails ye’), troll’s walking sticks, personalized coats of arms, brocade doublets, and anything else you won’t find at your local Macy’s.

Thousands of people stroll by in full costume, from homemade peasant garb   to elaborate pirate regalia, well appointed ladies in waiting to masked and cloaked fiends. There is no sense of incongruity in a Roman legionnaire in full battle armor jesting (or jousting) with a 15th Century burgher, or a witch doctor carrying a staff crowned with a full size hen explaining to someone that despite her carrying the chicken,  the chicken actually tells her where to go.

People challenge each other to impromptu duels, using weaponry as varied as light sabers to broadswords, flanged maces to Zweihanders, and of course the ever present TRTB, trusty reliable traditional bludgeon.  Duels involve a lot of swinging motions, simulated noises, imaginative battle cries, and the ability to perfectly fall to the floor writhing in pain when “hit” by a posion tipped pike, crying “METHINKS I SHALL FORSOOTH EXPIRE FROM THIS BLOW!!! FIE ON THEE, POXY SCOUNDREL!”

A few years ago, my family and I went to the Renaissance Festival as Muggles, people wholly unacquainted with magical worlds, proper etiquette for greeting a duke, and the medicinal properties of pennyroyal and wartroot. We wore Old Navy and Land’s End, carried cell phones, and drank Powerade. But despite coming from a different world, we truly appreciated being in a place where people could live out their basement fantasies without  having to feel the least bit self conscious. If dressing up like an ogre, hulking around all day muttering different variations of arghhhh, and wearing coarse woolen mantles in August floats your boat, the Burnham family supports you having a place to do it all with impunity.

But the one question that nagged at my mind all day was: What do these people do when they go home?  Do they just lay down their flagons and pick up Starbucks on the way home, or do they drink mead out of them the next morning. Do they come home and say, “Hi, Dad!” or do they exclaim, “Good e’en, sirrah!” It’s all good and fun at the Renaissance Festival, but do these people differentiate between the medieval world and the real world? Do they spend hours and hours online, playing fantasy world games (a multibillion dollar industry), messaging other people in Fantasy Speak, wearing their favorite leather jerkin? Is this their occasional escape from reality, or is this their reality?

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This Tuesday night starts Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. The Day of Atonement is a day when we look back at the individual actions of the previous year, and focus on how we are going to change the ones that are dragging us down. The three main components of the repentance process are; sincerely regretting our mistakes, verbally voicing our reticence, and making plans for changing our future actions. But many of us are plagued by the thought that we have been through this before, we did this whole process exactly one year ago, and probably for the same mistakes! How can we do it all over again?

An important question to ask ourselves on Yom Kippur is who are we really when all the fantasy is taken out of the picture. Sure, we sometimes fool ourselves into doing things that are foolish, silly, or worse. But have they taken over who we are, have they become our reality? Or, can we separate ourselves from those actions and stand up and say, “That is not who I am! It may be something I’ve done, but it is not who I am!” That is the job of Yom Kippur. It is the one day where all foolishness is set aside, where we desist from all distractions like food or other physical indulgences, and we ask ourselves, “Who am I now? Who am I when the festival is over, when the bright lights are off, when it is just me, myself, and my Creator?”

Yes, we might stumble again, we might not be perfect next year, but when we bow our heads and quietly recite the viduy,  we are in effect saying, “All those things I did are not who I am, and not who I want to be!”

If we can truly recognize that our negative actions have been an escape from our reality, the next job is to focus on how we can better represent who we truly are in the coming year. What life changes can we incorporate that will prevent us from acting like someone we’re not? We don’t want to take on resolutions too big to follow, but rather to find one or two meaningful changes that we know we are capable of, and we know will bring us closer to who we really are. If every year we map out one or two small changes on Yom Kippur and then follow through with them throughout the year, our incremental change will become a life altering force. We will begin to live our reality more and more, and leave behind the fantasy world that never delivered more than kicks and giggles anyway.

Yom Kippur is not a day to fear or dread, but a day to joyfully and solemnly embrace. Yom Kippur is when we reaffirm who we are, and put ourselves on the road to achieving everything we know we can accomplish, by cutting away the fantasy.  We don’t need a broadsword, a mace, or a battleaxe, just a few moments of serious introspection, and the willingness to change. And when done right, we come out like the white knight in shining armor, riding confidently into battle, confident in our success.

Gmar Chatimah Tova!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

The Dvar Torah this week comes from Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky’s wonderful piece on Torah.org

Parshas Vayelech has Moshe handing the reign of power to his beloved disciple Yehoshua, who now will grasp hold of the destiny of the Children of Israel. Moshe does not leave him without first guiding him through the difficult mission of leadership. At the end of Parshas Vayelech, (Deuteronomy 31:7), “Moshe summoned Yehoshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous and do not be broken before them, for Hashem your G-d — it is he who goes before you.'”

The Torah does not specify what “strong and courageous” actually means. I conjured my own visions of how to be strong and courageous when dealing with a “stiff-necked” nation. It entailed exacting demands and rigid regulations. The Medrash, however, offers a totally diametric explanation.

The Yalkut Shimoni, a compendium of Midrashim compiled in the Middle Ages, discusses a verse in Hoshea. “Israel is but a beloved lad and in Egypt I had called them my child.” It quotes the verse in Deuteronomy 31:7, and explains the words “strong and courageous.” Moshe explained to Joshua, “this nation that I am giving you is still young kids. They are still young lads. Do not be harsh with them. Even their Creator has called them children, as it is written, (Hoshea 11:1) “Israel is but a beloved lad.”

Can the Midrash find no better words to translate the phrase telling Joshua to “be strong and courageous” other than be patience and understanding? In which way does forbearance show strength? How does courage translate as tolerance?

In the years of World War I, a young student who was fleeing the war-ravaged city of Slabodka sought refuge in Tiktin, a village near Lomza, Poland. A prodigious Torah scholar, he compensated for room and board by becoming a simple cheder teacher. He gave his lecture in a small schoolhouse, but the townsfolk were quite suspicious. There were no shouts from inside the one-room schoolhouse as it was with other teachers; the boys seemed to be listening. Rumor had it that the young man even let the children play outside for ten minutes each day in the middle of the learning session.

They decided to investigate. They interrupted his class one morning and were shocked. The kanchik (whip) used by every cheder-Rebbe was lying on the floor near the trash bin. Upon interrogating the children the parents learned that this radical educator never used it.

Outraged, the townsfolk decided to call a meeting with their Rabbi to discuss the gravity of the situation. Who knows what ideas a teacher who would not use the kanchik was imbuing in our children? They worried.

The local Rabbi pointed to a picture of Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Spector, the leader of Lithuanian Jewry. “Do you see that picture of the Kovno Tzadik?” He asked the townsfolk. “One day thousands of homes across the world will have this young man’s picture hanging on their walls.”

The elderly Rabbi was right. The young man became the leader of a generation, teacher of thousands and dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. It was the beginning of, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky’s career in education.

Moshe, the guide and architect of Jewish leadership, was empowering his disciple with a message of guidance. The words “be strong and courageous” embodied leadership of love and understanding. One can not talk of forbearance and patience without talking of strength and courage. But more important: one can not show true strength and courage if he is not patient and understanding.

 

Parsha Summary

The Parsha Summary this week was taken from Chabad.org

General Overview: This week’s reading, Vayelech, recounts the events of the final day of Moses’ terrestrial life. Moses transferred leadership to Joshua and wrote a Torah scroll which he handed over to the Levites. Moses commanded the Israelites to gather following every Sabbatical year, and informed them of the suffering which will be their lot when they will abandon the laws of the Torah.


Moses addressed the people, saying that he is 120 years of age on that day, and he is not permitted to cross the Jordan River together with them. Instead, Joshua will lead them, and G‑d will go before them and destroy their enemies.

Moses continued his talk: G‑d will vanquish the inhabitants of Canaan as He did the Emorites and Bashanites. Moses enjoined the Israelites to be strong and not fear their enemies.

Moses summoned Joshua and told him to be strong and courageous, for G‑d will be going before him and will not forsake him. Moses then wrote the entire Torah and gave it to the Kohnaim (priests) and the Israelite elders.

Moses gives the commandment of Hakhel (assembly), whereby every seven years, during the holiday of Sukkot which follows the Sabbatical year, all men, women, and children assemble and the king publicly reads sections of the Torah.

G‑d commanded Moses to enter the Tabernacle together with Joshua. G‑d appeared to them both and informed them that a time will come when the Israelites will abandon G‑d and stray after alien gods. At that time, G‑d will hide His countenance from the nation, and they will be subjected to much evils and troubles. Therefore, G‑d says, “Write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness…” This ‘song’ is narrated in next week’s Torah reading.

When G‑d’s wrath will find the Israelites as a consequence of their evil actions, they will claim that the misfortunes are befalling them because G‑d has abandoned them. At that time, the song which Moses and Joshua wrote will bear testimony that these events are in fact punishment for their sinful behavior.

Moses took the freshly concluded Torah scroll and gave it to the Levites. He instructed them to place it beside the Ark which contained the Tablets. Moses then gathered the entire nation to hear the song, wherein he would call upon the heavens and earth to be witnesses that the Israelites were forewarned regarding their fate.

Quote of the week: It takes a strong man to say sorry, and an even stronger person to forgive.

Random Fact of the Week: There are 293 different ways to make change for a dollar.

Funny Line of the Week: I imagine if you knew Morse Code, tap dancing would drive you crazy!

 

Have an Introspective Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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