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Abraham's Faithful Binding of IsaacSuggests that the Akedah offers insights into thinking about our unanswered High Holy Days questions, that Abraham was struggling with the questions of his yetzer ha-ra, which he "beat to pieces," so that he didn't use his unanswered questions to abandon his faith in God. (11:55) [HIGH HOLY DAYS, ROSH HASHANAH 2]
Atonement and Moral Spiritual RebirthAcknowledges the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as the consequence of introducing personal desires into the religious life of the nation, in contrast to subordinating their will to the Torah, leading to moral and, ultimately, physical death; the modern-day counterpart of personalizing communal worship that takes the form of wholesale rejection of the Torah as authoritative, preferring instead momentary sensual satisfactions; the symptoms and consequences of alienation from the Torah vision and path of our high moral spiritual calling; and the process and power of atonement to achieve both moral and spiritual rebirth by inculcating in ourselves the habit of continuous confession. (10:03) [HIGH HOLY DAYS
Ending Our Estrangement from GodRecognizes that misconceptions about Jewish ideas of sin are widespread among Jews, often reflecting non-Jewish concepts, the Jewish view of sin, desensitization to sin in modern life, and the value of engaging others in our process of reflection to avoid sin. (13:42) [HIGH HOLY DAYS]
Finding the Holy in High Holy DaysNotes that most Jews regret their wrongdoing and want to do better, that the High Holy Days are designed to help us nurture that which is alive and life-giving within us, and that to have an experience of awe during High Holy Days requires a significant commitment; and offers suggestions on preparing for the High Holy Days, including the emotional and spiritual "posture" most conducive to finding holiness and the hope and joy that accompany it. (08:37) [HIGH HOLY DAYS]
Isaiah on Spiritual DevelopmentLooks at Isaiah's prophecy (57:14-58:14) as a teaching on how to achieve spirituality, that one day of atonement doesn't suffice, the need to free ourselves from the prison of preoccupation with sensual satisfactions, the rewards if we choose the derech Adonai, and particular ways in which we can invigorate our congregational community. (12:47) [YOM KIPPUR]
Jewish Survival and SuccessRecognizes the Barchu as a ritual of solidarity, a supplement to solitary efforts to foster kindness and uphold justice; the news of the last year that suggests the high costs of promoting kindness and justice; how the seeming irrelevance of Judaism and congregational life to those ends can change in an instant, becoming indispensable for our survival and success as Jews; and the purpose of the High Holy Days, not to exclusively find personal happiness through teshuvah, but to ensure our survival and success as a community and a people. (08:17) [YOM KIPPUR]
Let Them Know—Considers the challenge of forgiving someone who has harmed or wronged us; the connection between holiness and how we treat our neighbor; the necessity to reprove others and avoid hatred, revenge, and grudge-holding—reflecting our commonality as children of God; and the particulars of how, under the circumstances, we are "to love one's neighbor as oneself." (16:38) [YOM KIPPUR]
Let's Look for a Way Out togetherProposes that High Holy Days may be used productively to search for and act out the highest and best parts of ourselves, the fears that keep us from teshuvah, the basis in hope and faith to overcome our fears, and the value of acting with others in a congregational community. (09:58) [HIGH HOLY DAYS]
The Miracle of Yom KippurRecognizes that the greatest pain of our wrongdoing for us is the subsequent spiritual alienation we experience, which incrementally destroys our capacity for love, joy, and contentment; the tendency to reify the deadliest parts of ourselves as unchangeable; the redemptive functions of the Temple olah, chatat, and mincha offerings and their prayer substitutes; and the role our prayer offerings play in the miracle of Yom Kippur. (09:59) [YOM KIPPUR]
The Second Day of Rosh HashanahProposes spiritual purposes for the second day of Rosh Hashanah; the necessity of suffering in one's life to take those purposes seriously; the character of spiritual suffering experienced by contemporary American Jews; their estrangement from their spiritual inheritance; and the relevance of the second day's prophetic reading. (10:26) [ROSH HASHANAH]
Shared Responsibility for TeshuvahPoints out Moses' concern for the future moral spiritual well being of the people; his extending the covenant beyond those present at Moab; how Jews yet unborn could be obligated in the covenant; Moses' goal to make Israelites responsible for one another; the view of our commentators that teshuvah requires not only personal virtue but communal leadership; and that every Jew is responsible for the teshuvah of others within appropriate arenas of authority. (07:45) [NITZAVIM, HIGH HOLY DAYS]
Training Our Children for LifeContrasts the life-affirming character of Yom Kippur with unwittingly training our children to kil;, reviews the writing of a retired Lt. Col., a former Army Ranger and now a psychologist, outlining how children are trained to kill by video games and other violent media; exhorts parents to engage in self-examination regarding their role in the exposure of children to these learning experiences; and suggests steps to avoid complicity in such learning. (07:14) [YOM KIPPUR]
Yomim Nora'imAwe or Fear of GodHighlights the sound of the shofar as a call to spiritual yoveil; the difficulty of responding, given daily pressures and the search for sensory pleasures to assuage them; the importance of yirat Adonai and the choice we have between fear and awe of God; the role of teshuvah; and the necessity for hitvadah to find the intellectual, emotional, and physical intimacy that accompanies living in awe of God. (05:21) [HIGH HOLY DAYS]
IN THE MORNING
It’s been my “minhag” for the past several years to get up every morning while it’s still dark outside and ride12 miles on my bicycle.* This radical departure from my previous early-morning activity (i.e., sleep!) was inspired by Dr. Mark Hyman’s book, Ultra-Metabolism (Scribner 2006), which got me thinking about exercise and pikuach nefesh in a much more personal way.
A recent innovation for my early-morning ride has been the addition of "gratitude miles," somewhat in the spirit of our arising prayer in which we thank God for returning our souls to us. Inspired by James Autry's Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have (Smyth & Helwys, 2012), the first few miles of my ride are preoccupied with thinking about the blessings and gifts given to me in the previous 24 hours. It does wonders for the rest of my day.
When I first began riding in the early morning, I realized that my ride was the perfect opportunity for davening, but I also knew it wouldn’t be practical to carry a siddur while riding my bike. And even if I could carry a siddur, it would be wildly impractical to read the prayers by the light of passing lampposts while trying to look out for road hazards.
So if I was going to daven on my bike ride, it would have to be from memory. But that idea was problematic: first, because the tradition teaches us that praying from memory runs the risk of “swallowing” a vowel sound, thus changing meanings; and second, because in the absence of a siddur, we may end up “searching” in our minds for the required prayers and their particular words, thus undermining our kavanah.
I wondered about davening without the use of a siddur, and not the traditional liturgy but my own "prayers." Many years ago I had composed music and mostly English prayers that Magidah Khulda and I regularly davened together then. I asked myself whether now I would want to use the mostly English “liturgy” of my bike-riding davening to replace the traditional Hebrew liturgy as an alternative? Clearly, I would not. Our oldest traditions, dating from the precursors for prayer found in the rites of sacrificial offerings of the Ohel Moeid, put me off such an idea. So my solo, bike-riding davening of my own liturgy would supplement the traditional liturgy, not be an alternative to it. Traditional Shacharit davening would continue at sunrise after my bike ride.
Ordinarily, when I begin my solo davening, my unwitting tendency is to launch into a performance, even though I’m all alone. In effect, much of my psychic consciousness and emotional energy is focused on producing the nusach and hazzanut. I become aware that instead of davening, it’s as if I’m up on the bimah, trying to shape the sounds made by my voice to please a congregational audience.
But as my davening kavanah emerges, I begin to effect a transition from performing to praying. It’s difficult to explain the process precisely, because it’s more a matter of transitional emotions than thoughts, but it entails imagining myself not on the bimah but among the congregation, no longer producing, but somehow consuming the service. At that point, I’m listening to the sound of my own voice, as if it were the voice of someone else, coming from a source other than myself.
Then I begin to daven in earnest: the words and what they represent come to me as challenges, visions and paths against which to compare my own life and the day-to-day ways in which I’m living it. The liturgy of the Torah calls to me, asking me to take in its wisdom and thrive on its life-giving mitzvot. As I finish, the words that come to me are these: You have filled me with your wonder, lifting me high up above; you have thrilled me beyond knowing, taking me out of myself.
R' Moshe* I gave up this minhag after ten years, in 2016, when my orthopedist told me I must replace my bike-riding with extended daily weight-bearing (walking) exercise for the sake of my bone health—although I have continued my early-morning "Solo Davening."
[Key: E = English, H = Hebrew, E & H = English and Hebrew]
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