Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim: Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

New Stories Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

Repentance is Life


This week is Parshas Vayeilech and Shabbos Shuvah, so named because of the Haftorah we read where the prophet Hoshea exhorts the Jewish People to repent from their sins. What does repentance mean? The Rishonim enumerate the steps that are involved in the process of repentance. Among these steps are forsaking the sin, regretting the past and acceptance not to sin in the future. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2) writes that the ultimate form of repentance is when one reaches the state of repentance where HaShem, Who knows all concealed matters, can testify on the person that he will not commit this sin again. One must wonder, however, how one can know when he has achieved this level of repentance? There are those who claim that after Yom Kippur, if one feels a true sense of relief, then he knows that he has gained atonement for his sins. Repentance certainly involves ones emotions. Nonetheless, the mitzvah of repentance is akin to shaking a lulav and blowing a shofar, where one must perform the action involved in the mitzvah and one should not be focused on whether HaShem has accepted his performance of the mitzvah. This being the case, why does the Rambam write that part of the process of repentance is that HaShem has to testify that he will never sin again? The Lechem Mishneh (Ibid) is bothered by another question. He asks, how it can be that HaShem testifies that a person will never commit this sin again. Does this not contradict the idea that man has free choice? The Lechem Mishneh answers that when one repents he must take HaShem as a witness that he will never commit this sin again. It would seem from the words of the Lechem Mishneh that the Rambam is not saying that HaShem is actually testifying on behalf of the person. Rather, the repentant is taking HaShem as a witness, similar to Moshe taking the heavens and the earth as a witness that the Jewish People were warned what will occur if they do not heed HaShem’s will. This is also the understanding of the Kesef Mishneh (Ibid). This explanation, however, is difficult, as the Rambam implies that HaShem will actually testify on behalf of the repentant. Furthermore, how does one take HaShem as a witness? Lastly, if one takes HaShem as a witness that he will never sin again, is it still possible to sin again?

This matter requires further research, but perhaps we can explain the words of the Rambam in a different manner. The Rambam (Ibid 1:1) writes that the mitzvah from the Torah is that one confesses his sins, and part of the confession process is that he repents. One of the confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur is that we sinned before HaShem with Viduy Peh, insincere confession. While one can certainly confess his sins verbally, it is insufficient unless he has truly repented. How can one know if he has truly repented? Regarding this the Rambam writes that if HaShem testifies upon the person that he will not commit the sin again, then he will know that he has truly repented. This is the only way that one can sincerely confess his sins, as without true repentance, one cannot recite a true confession. It is said (Yechezkel 33:11) emor aleihem chai ani nium HaShem Elokim im echpotz bimos harashah ki im bishuv rasha midarko vichaya shuvu shuvu midarcheichem haraim vilamah samusu bais Yisroel, say to them: ‘as I live – the word of the Lord HaShem/Elokim – [I swear] that I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather the wicked one’s return from his way, that he may live. Repent, repent from your evil ways! Why should you die, O House of Israel?’ Thus, we see that when one repents, he is now considered to be amongst the living. The definition of living is to be attached to HaShem and His will. One who repents is close to HaShem, as it is said (Hoshea 14:2) shuva Yisroel ad HaShem Elokecha, return, Israel, unto Hashem your G-d.

The Shabbos Connection

The Gemara (Yoma 86a) derives from these words that repentance is so great that it ascends to the Heavenly Throne. In a similar vein, every week we experience a spiritual elevation on the Holy Shabbos. How does this come about? I was struck by the words from the Haftorah that we read on a fast day. It is said (Yeshaya 56:3-5) vial yomar ben haneichar hanilvah el HaShem leimor havdail yavdilani HaShem meial amo vial yomar hasaris hein ani eitz yaveish ki choh amar HaShem lasarisim asher yishmiru es Shabsosai uvacharu baasher chafatzti umachazikim bivrisi vinsati lahem biveisi uvichomosai yad vasheim tov mibanim umibanos sheim olam etein lo asher lo yikareis, let not the foreigner, who has joined himself to HaShem, speak, saying, ‘HaShem will utterly separate me from His people’; and let not the barren one say, ‘Behold I am a shriveled tree.’ For thus said HaShem to the barren ones who observe My Shabbosos and choose what I desire, and grasp My covenant tightly: In My house and within my walls I will give them a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters; eternal renown will I give them, which will never be terminated. We can interpret these verses homiletically to mean as follows: and let not the barren one say, ‘Behold I am a shriveled tree, i.e. let a person not say that life is dry and without meaning. For thus said HaShem to the barren ones who observe My Shabbosos and choose what I desire, and grasp My covenant tightly, i.e. although during the week a person may feel that he is on the precipice of despair, he should know that one who observes the Shabbos and studies Torah will be more rejuvenated than one who bears children. The reason for this is because Shabbos is a semblance of the World to Come, which is eternal. One who experiences Shabbos has experienced true life. HaShem should grant us that this Shabbos the entire Jewish People observe the Shabbos properly, and then HaShem will grant us complete atonement on Yom Kippur, which will come upon us, for good.

Shabbos in the Zemiros

Yom Zeh LiYisroel

Some opinions attribute the authorship of this Zemer to the Arizal.

בֶּן דָּוִד מַלְכֵּנוּ, שְׁלַח נָא לָעִבְרִים, the son of Dovid, our king, send now to the Hebrews. We are instructed to believe in the imminent arrival of Moshiach. Why, however, do we constantly beseech HaShem to bring the Ultimate Redemption? Yaakov sought to reveal the day of the redemption and HaShem concealed it from him. Would it not be sufficient, then, to believe that Moshiach can come at any moment without constantly invoking our need for the redemption?

The answer to this question is that the Ultimate Redemption is not merely a tangential belief of our faith. Rather, the imminent arrival of Moshiach is the essence of our faith, and we must conduct our lives with anticipating and beseeching Moshiach’s arrival at any moment. Similar to one who is imprisoned and continuously awaits and hopes for his liberation, we view Moshiach’s arrival as liberation from exile, distress, and ultimately the perfection of the world that we live in. For this reason we are required to constantly beseech HaShem to bring us Moshiach and the Ultimate Redemption.


Shabbos Stories

Youthful Discretion

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky writes: Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum was one of the only Orthodox US army officers commissioned during World War II. Last year, he spoke at our yeshiva, and though I was enraptured by the harrowing tales of his war-time activities, one small incident that occurred to him as a young boy growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Depression did not escape me. In those days, few young men attended yeshiva or were committed to vigorous Torah observance. Meyer went to public school as well, but his parents wanted to raise him as an observant Jew. His friends would often make fun of his yarmulke, and few attended his bar-mitzvah. But that did not deter him. In fact, from the time he was old enough his mother would make sure that he attended the mincha service. Imagine the sight. A young boy coming to pray together with a group of elderly men who were hanging on to their tradition while their inheritors looked for newfound freedoms outside the decaying walls of the synagogue. Even the men who came to pray were only there to say Kaddish for a dearly departed. So when young Meyer entered the portals of the shul for the very first time their eyes widened in amazement. Their shock turned to pity as they assumed the young boy came to shul for the same reason that most of them came, and for the very reason that they prayed their children would one day come, for the sole purpose of saying Kaddish. The moment came when the Kaddish yasom, the mourner’s Kaddish, was to be recited, and the congregation began in a cacophonous unison the hallowed words, “Yisgadal Viyiskadash.” Meyer just stared up into space, waiting to answer the first responsive Amen. He was startled by the jab in the ribs by a crooked finger, which left his searing side and began pointing to the correct place in the prayer book. “Nu!” shouted the man, “They are saying Kaddish!” “I know that they are saying Kaddish!” answered Meyer. “So, what are you waiting for? Say along!” Meyer did not understand where the conversation was heading. But he had no time to think when another old man looked his way, motioning for him to join the mourners in the Kaddish recitation! “But I don’t have to say Kaddish!” answered Meyer tearfully, “my parents are alive!” “Your parents are alive?” asked the old-timer incredulously. “Yes, thank G-d, they are both alive! Why do you think that they are dead and that I should say Kaddish?” They gathered around him as the final Amen was said and explained their actions. “We could not imagine someone your age coming to shul for any other reason!” []

Shabbos in Halacha

לישה – Kneading

  1. Improving Upon an Existing Mixture
  1. Combining Two Mixtures

It is permissible to combine and knead together two fully mixed substances of the same consistency (i.e. both thick or both loose). Since all the particles in each mixture have already been fully blended, combining the two mixtures is not deemed to be an act of kneading. For example, one may mix a completed egg salad with tuna salad or with chopped liver (both thick), or blend applesauce with another fruit puree (both loose), without employing any shinui.

However, if one mixture is thick and the other is loose, combining the two mixtures is deemed to be an act of kneading because the particles of the loose mixture become tightly bound. Therefore, it is not always permissible to combine the two: One is permitted to do so (with the proper shinuim) if the combination will result in a loose mixture. However, if the final product will be a thick mixture, one may combine them only in a case of necessity, and by employing a shinui for each step of the process.

Shabbos Ta’am HaChaim: Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

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New Stories Vayeilech-Shabbos Shuva 5776

My Journey from Chinese to Jewish

A chance encounter with a Bible launched my 16-year road to conversion.

by Aaron Wood

I was born and raised in Tianjin, China, a city southeast of Beijing with 13 million people. My father was an engineer and my mother was a technician.

Under Communist rule, I received a very secular education. The very idea of religion seemed nonexistent. Although traditionally China is not an atheistic country – there are hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians – the more recent influence of Communism, nationalism, and even Western consumerism has produced a strong atheist component.

Aaron Wood: a baby in Tianjin, China

I attended university and studied mechanical engineering. In my senior year, after submitting my thesis, I had a lot of free time. So I began attending graduate-level English classes, taught by an American teacher.

One day after class, the teacher began speaking with me about religion and the Bible – a topic with which I was completely unfamiliar.

He gave me an English-Chinese Bible to read. I was eager to learn English, and the book seemed liked an excellent learning tool: English and Chinese sentences side-by-side, with each sentence numbered, making it easy to find the corresponding words.

I started to read the book carefully, word by word. This raised many questions – not only the definitions of certain English words, but also the concepts discussed in the book.

I went back to the teacher, again and again with my questions. I didn’t realize that he was a Christian missionary who had come to China on the pretense of teaching English… with the hidden agenda of proselytizing.

With my many questions, he did not waste the opportunity to indoctrinate me with Christian philosophy.

This process came to a sudden halt when his true identity was unmasked by the Chinese government. Though China generally has tolerance for religious activity, the government is suspicious of foreigners who may also possess subversive political goals – so he was not welcome to stay in China any longer.

I decided to seek out local Christian churches to continue my studies and began to attend church every Sunday. The Chinese pastors were not able to read the Bible in English (not to mention the original Hebrew), yet they impressed upon me Christian ideas such as: the Jews are guilty of deicide; Jews invented tradition to replace the holy revelation; Jews are blind and unable to see the light of truth, etc.

I had never met a Jew, nor knew anything of their history. All my information came from the Chinese media which depicts Jews as evil thieves and Israel as aggressive imperialists and an American proxy. So I did not question the validity of these negative Christian teachings about Jews.

Years in the Library

After graduation I got a good job working as an engineer in automotive design.

I spent most of my free time undertaking a more thorough study of religion. I obtained various versions of the Bible, both in Chinese and English, and read all of them very carefully, word by word. This was not an easy task. I spent years studying the Bible, along with any books I could find about Western religions.

I encountered various discrepancies in the translations. For example, the “virgin birth” is of fundamental importance to Christianity, yet in some Bibles the Hebrew word almah (Isaiah 7:14) is translated not as “virgin” but as “young woman.”

I tried to find a pastor who could help resolve this contradiction, but unfortunately, even in a country of a billion-plus people, I could not locate anyone with sufficient scholarship in the text.

I realized that if I truly wanted to understand the authentic meaning of the Bible, my only choice was to learn Hebrew myself.

I set my sights on the huge central library, whose foreign language section took up almost an entire building. This was before the Internet and the book catalogue was not computerized. The religion section was particularly poorly done and I had to pore through each book by hand. The good news is there were two librarians and I was the only customer.

After two years the library finally acquired a Hebrew-English dictionary.

It was a slow, steady process to becoming proficient in Hebrew. After about two years the library acquired a Hebrew-English dictionary which helped me learn the alphabet. Unfortunately I still didn’t know how to pronounce anything, because while a dictionary helps for reading, you can only guess at the sounds.

Another couple of years later, with Israel and China normalizing diplomatic relations, a Chinese tourist went to visit and brought back a “learn Hebrew” CD. That eventually got passed along to me and I crossed another hurdle in my quest, finally hearing spoken Hebrew for the first time.

After that I met a nice man, Avigdor Cohen from Maaleh Adumin in Israel, on a Bible-related Internet forum. We began corresponding by email and he sent me a Hebrew-English Bible. For those who have always had access to Judaism, it’s probably hard to appreciate how thrilling it was for me to finally have the authentic original text in my hand.

At the time I was teaching Chinese to foreign visitors, and one of my students gave me a Hebrew-only Bible. I brought it to church and showed it to the pastor in order to gauge his reaction. There was no reaction, however, because he had no idea that it was Hebrew he was looking at. At this point I was becoming more and more reluctant to rely on anyone claiming to be a “faithful believer in God’s Word” who could not even recognize the Words.

Again I became more independent in my search. I set out to read any book I could find that was even remotely connected to the Jews – everything from Holocaust memoirs to Israeli politics. Around this time the Internet was coming into full swing. The Chinese government had not yet instituted filtering technology, so I had full access to everything from Maimonides to Martin Buber. All this made a tremendous intellectual impact on me.

The more I read about the Jews, the clearer I saw how Christianity had taken Judaism and twisted it into something else. I assumed it was all a series of unintentional misunderstandings, so I began writing articles in Chinese about the Jews and publishing them on the Internet with the hope of dissipating Christian misunderstanding.

Before long, I received vehement threats from Chinese fundamentalist Christians. This awakened me to the persistent reality of anti-Semitism.

This attitude really bothered me because it raised a contradiction between what I read in the Jewish books of a nation subscribing to mankind’s loftiest ideals – universal education, care for the sick and the poor, justice for all – with the evil image of Jews that pervades the Chinese media.

I started to think about what being Jewish might mean for me and decided to try locating a Jew in China. You might think this was easy. After all, in the first half of the 20th century, thousands of European Jewish refugees arrived in China, and there has been a steady influx of Jews concurrent with the economic expansion of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

Finally I got in touch with a man named David Buxbaum, an American Jewish lawyer practicing in East Asia. (Coincidentally, his son Benyamin Buxbaum is the email list manager at We met in David’s office in Beijing, in the same building that houses the Israeli Embassy. It was a real breakthrough to talk with a flesh-and-blood Jew who believes in the veracity of the Jewish Bible.

Yet what really impressed me was how humble, sincere and scholarly this man was. Now I knew that the negative stereotypes I had been getting from the Chinese media were indefensible.

Coming Home

Throughout this process, I kept coming back to a memory I had from years earlier as a teenager.

I had been listening to my shortwave radio and although I could not understand what the people were saying, it sounded like they were reading Scripture. The only words I understood was a phrase that was repeated several times: “Return to Israel.” I didn’t pick up the context of their discussion, and at the time I didn’t even know what Israel was. Yet I somehow felt a deep emotional connection every time I heard “Return to Israel,” time and again.

During my years of research, this refrain kept ringing in my head. I identified very clearly with the Jews, wandering the world in search of the promised land. I felt that I, too, was wandering in search of my homeland.

After a long build-up I finally reached a point of utter clarity. I decided to become Jewish and move to Israel… although I had no clue of what precisely that would entail.

I needed a halfway stop to become Jewish and then go to Israel.

I soon discovered it was logistically impossible to achieve this from the confines of China. I needed a halfway stop to serve as a launching point – enabling me to gain Western citizenship, become Jewish, and then go to Israel.

There was no direct path and I needed a plan.

I had a friend living in Canada, a Chinese guy who had successfully navigated the immigration process. He showed me exactly how to do it. So in 2005 I moved to Toronto and that became part of my destiny.

I got a job in mechanical engineering. I began attending the Village Shul, which is part of the Aish network. I saw Judaism alive and in action. Imagine my first taste of matzah, my first shofar blast, my first dance at a Jewish wedding. It was all so beautiful, so pure, so untainted by the cynicism and materialism that has overrun our lives.

As I learned more and more, it felt hypocritical that I was not putting this into practice. So I made a decision to become observant: Lighting Shabbat candles. Prayer. Kosher. The big deal was when I stopped eating pork products, which is a main ingredient in almost all Chinese food.

I studied, I struggled, and I questioned. I was determined to take this as far as the truth would allow.

A few years past and I was starting to feel like a Jew. I identified with the Jewish people who have been so unjustly slandered and persecuted. I understood that Judaism is true, and in order to solidify my love for the truth, I was ready to become Jewish.

I studied extensively with Rabbi Robinson in Toronto, who guided me carefully through the whole process. In 2011, after 16 long years of journey, I completed my conversion with Rabbi Shlomo Miller in Toronto. I had finally come home to the Jewish people.

Some converts describe the conversion process as “gaining a new identity.” I did not feel that way, however. For me, it was more like the actualization of a longtime identity that I yearned to fulfill.

Not in a Vacuum

Since the conversion I have continued my passion of studying Torah, and in May 2012 I arrived at the Aish Yeshiva in Jerusalem. For me this opportunity was like winning the lottery. Who would have thought that a kid growing up in Tianjin would one day be studying Torah at the best location in the world – directly across from the Western Wall.

My goals are to study Torah, settle in the land of Israel, and fight anti-Semitism. As I have become more aware of modern anti-Semitism in the form of demonizing Israel, I began a Chinese blog to provide basic knowledge of Jews and Israel so Chinese people will not become easily brainwashed by the overwhelming media bias.

I am also working to translate counter-missionary materials into Chinese, in order to refute religious slander against the Jews.

I am disappointed that the modern State of Israel has less Jewishness than I expected. For me this was a culture shock. Ironically, I discovered there are around 20,000 Chinese workers in Israel, mostly involved in menial labor.

This whole thing has not been easy with my family. My parents don’t like religion and they have a very closed mind about this. I have a younger sister who is more understanding; she studied in D.C. and is now living in Shanghai.

Looking back, I see that my Jewish identity did not totally arise in a vacuum. The history of Jews in China actually dates back many centuries. Some people even suggest that China harbors some remnants of the Lost Ten Tribes.

It is believed that Jews first immigrated to China, through Persia, following the Roman Emperor Titus’s capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Jews lived in China throughout the Middle Ages and till today some Chinese communities practice rituals that resemble Judaism. For many centuries (1163-1860) there was a Jewish community in Kaifeng, 650 miles from Beijing. They did not eat pork, they placed some form of mezuzah on their doorposts, and they spoke of a faraway homeland called Israel. (Recently, 14 people from Kaifeng made aliyah and converted.)

In the early 20th century, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms moved northeast to China, as did Jews escaping the 1917 Russian Revolution via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Only much later did I discover that my own city of Tianjin actually has a non-functioning synagogue, built in the early 1900s by Russian refugees.

Ironically, today there is a growing Chinese fascination with Judaism. Three universities have departments of Jewish studies, with probably a few hundred master’s and doctoral candidates, all of whom are Chinese. In operating on a purely academic level, however, these studies tend to miss out on the spiritual core driving the Jewish people. The Talmud in particular has gained a reputation as the “grand repository of secret business advice.” With popular Chinese titles like Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules, this faux-Talmudic wisdom has now become a guide for those seeking fortunes.

As for myself, I am grateful to have discovered that the real “wealth” of Judaism is in its ethics and spirituality.

My Chinese family name is Chai, which translates as “wood.” It’s amazing that this same word is the iconic Hebrew word for “life.” I chose a new Jewish first name, Aaron, because the biblical Aaron was known as a man of truth and a lover of peace. The Jewish people are lovers of truth and peace. That’s why I joined. (









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