Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Seventy Years Young

70 Years Young
Rabbi Yosef Weinstock
Adopted from a sermon delivered on the Last Day of Pesach 5778

In the Hagadah on Pesach we read:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: "Behold, I am like a seventy-year-old man,

Tradition teaches that Rabbi Elazar was really much younger, but a miracle happened whereby he underwent a drastic change in appearance. This was for his benefit; so that his rabbinic colleagues would respect him in his new leadership position. The story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya indicates something that Einstein would later mathematically prove: Time is relative. Age is just a number. Rabbi Elazar was “KEBen Shivim Shanah”- like a 70 year old, when really his chronological age was something different.

I think about Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, especially this year as we prepare to celebrate the 70th birthday of the State of Israel. For in many ways, Israel, too, is like 70 years old. On the one hand the modern State of Israel is the culmination of a hope that had existed for over eighteen centuries- since the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century CE. 

On the other hand 70 years seems like too short a time when we reflect on the tremendous accomplishments packed into those seven decades: absorbing millions of immigrants, developing and maintaining a vibrant democracy in a very challenging area of the world. At first Jaffa origins were Israel’s biggest export. Today, it’s high tech startups that are bought by companies like Apple. Jews around the world have much to celebrate, and mush to be grateful for, on Israel’s 70th.

Time is relative. Recent events can sometimes feel like they occurred a long time ago. And sometimes, events of the distant past remain vivid and relevant

In 1936, the Peel Commission questioned David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, concerning Jewish rights to the Land of Israel. Ben-Gurion understood that the underlying question was: how can Zionists speak about a single homeland for all of world Jewry, after 2 thousand years of exile and dispersion? Is it really true that Jews of Russia and Jews of the Middle East and Jews of South America still constitute one nation? The following is an excerpt from his testimony:
'Three hundred years ago, a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. On it were Englishmen unhappy with British society and government, who sought an uninhabited coast to settle and establish a new world. They landed in America, and were among the first pioneers and builders of that land.

'This was a great event in the history of England and America. But I would like to know: Is there a single Englishman who knows the exact date and hour of the Mayflower's launch? How much do American children — or grownups — know about this historic trip? Do they know how many people were in the boat? Their names? What they wore? What they ate? Their path of travel? What happened to them on the way? Where they landed? The name of their captain? The conditions of the sea during the journey?

 'More than 3,000 years before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Any Jewish child, whether in America or Russia, Yemen or Germany, knows that his forefathers left Egypt at dawn on the 15th of Nisan. What did they wear? Their belts were tied, and their staffs were in their hands. They ate matzot, and arrived at the Red Sea after seven days.

 'He knows the path of their journey through the desert and the events of those forty years in the desert. They ate manna and slav birds and drank from Miriam's well. They arrived in Jordan facing Jericho. The child can even quote the family names from the Torah.

 'Jews worldwide still eat matzah for seven days from the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus, concluding with the fervent wish, "Next Year in Jerusalem." This is the nature of the Jews.'
(Quoted from 'The Jewish Case Before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine' (Jerusalem, 1947), p. 63, 65.)

The Mayflower is history. Over time, the details of that story begin to fade from memory. The Exodus is OUR story. No amount of time distances us from the relevance and pride that we attach to the specifics of those events. The same is true concerning Medinat Yisrael. The Promised Land was the destination God had in mind all along when He promises to take us out of Egypt. Our task is to develop a personal relationship with Israel, and by doing so we will surely cherish her and take pride in every one of her achievements. 

A strategy for developing that appreciation emerges from the two other Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya quotes in that paragraph from the Hagadah:
“I could not win [the argument against the other sages] having the exodus from Egypt recited at night, until Ben Zoma derived it [from a Biblical source].”

Rabbi Elazar learns from Ben Zoma that we recall the Exodus even at night. Halachically this means that the third paragraph of Shema (which references the Exodus) is recited at night also, and not just during the daytime. However the implications of Ben Zoma’s teaching goes much further. Even in the darkest moments of Jewish history Jews have found strength from the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim – the story of our nation’s founding and the moment when God chose us as His People. Just as recalling the Exodus is appropriate “at night”, so too recalling the dark chapters of Jewish history allow us to better appreciate the miracle of the State of Israel.

The justification for Medinat Yisrael is not the tragic events of the 20th century. We know that the Jewish claim to Israel goes back to Creation, and at least 4000 years to God’s promise to Avraham. And yet we dare not be blind to the juxtaposition of the Holocaust followed by the establishment of Israel. Appreciating this flow of narrative makes us more grateful and more appreciative for Medinat Yisrael.

Lastly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya quotes the teaching of the Chachamim:
But the Sages say: "Days of your life" means the present world; "All the days of your life" includes also the era of Mashiach.
Our relationship with Israel is not merely predicated on Jewish history, but on Jewish destiny as well. As Religious Zionists we believe that our story, individually and collectively, will be linked more and more with Israel in the future. The question we must ask is: what are we doing to inject Israel into our story, into our identity? Are we learning about Israel? Are we visiting Israel? Are we supporting Israeli causes? Are we including Israel more and more into our story? And are we seeking ways in which we can be included in Israel’s story?

So let us celebrate Israel’s birthday- 70 years young. As she reaches KeBen Shivim Shanah, it is an appropriate time to be grateful, to be joyful and to consider the formative and transformative ways that Israel has been a part of our Jewish past, our Jewish present and our Jewish future.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Death of the Righteous Shall Atone: Reflections on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron

The Death of the Righteous Shall Atone: Reflections on Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron

“The death of the righteous shall atone.”  Does that sound Jewish to you? For some at first glance it may even sound a little Christian. And yet that is the language utilized by the Talmud Yerushalmi to explain the connection between Yom Kippur and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, both found in Parshat Acharei Mot. The first depiction of the death of these two sons of Aharon is in Parshat Shemini.

Rabbi Chiya ban Abin said…… just as Yom Kippur atones for the Jewish People, so too do the deaths of the righteous atone. (“Mitatan Shel Tzadikim Mechaperet”)

The literal interpretation of this Talmudic phrase did not sit well with Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temima.  He suggests that we understand Mitatan Shel Tzadikim mechaperet in light of a story concerning the death of Shaul, the first King of Israel, as described in Shmuel Bet (Chapt 21):

And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the sephulcre of Kish his father; and they did all that the king commanded. And God was entreated for the land after that.

ידוַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֶת עַצְמוֹת שָׁאוּל וִיהוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ בְּאֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן בְּצֵלָע בְּקֶבֶר קִישׁ אָבִיו וַיַּעֲשֹוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֵּעָתֵר אֱלֹהִים לָאָרֶץ אַחֲרֵי כֵן:
Rabbi Epstein explains that God showed compassion to the people in response to their appropriately mourning Shaul and appreciating his accomplishments and his legacy.
Mitatan shel Tzadikim Mechaperet is premised on the obligation we have in this world to be Makir Tov: to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who have passed - especially when they died Al Kiddush Hashem.

The Torah Temima’s explanation is important for us to consider- especially now as we find ourselves on the calendar between Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day for those who have died in defense of Israel. Both of these days mourn the passing of Kedoshim, martyrs, and also Tzadikim- righteous souls.

 A student once approached Rav Auerbach and asked for a timeout from his studies so he could travel north to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman looked perplexed but didn’t immediately answer. Sensing hesitation from his Rabbi, the student elaborated, explaining he had some personal issues to think through and he felt praying by the righteous would help. Rabbi Auerbach replied that he fully understood what the student wanted to do and why he wanted to do it, but could not understand why he would travel four hours to pray by the graves of a few Tzaddikim when there were thousands of them buried on Har Herzl (Israel’s military cemetery), just five minutes from the yeshiva!

Every day, someone would drive Rabbi Auerbach from his home in Sha’arei Chesed to his Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. The Rabbi would occasionally ask the driver to pull over for a few moments outside Har Herzl, where he would recite Tehillim at kivrei Tzadikim, the graves of the righteous women and men who served and sacrificed on behalf of the State of Israel.

Mitatan shel Tzadikim Mechaperet, the death of these Tzadikim can serve as a source of atonement and spiritual inspiration and growth; but only if we learn the lessons from their lives and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

If we utilize Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron appropriately then not only will Mitat Tzadikim Mechaperet, but we will merit the fulfillment of the verse in Av Harachamaim- V’Chiper Admato Amo; may we be worthy to fully appreciate the gift of the State and Israel and celebrate its birth with full religious passion, as it deserves.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finding Our Voices- and Using Them Effectively

On the seventh day of Pesach we read that upon leaving Egypt, the Jews camp at a place called Pi Hachirot. Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that the name Pi Hachirot is related to Cheirut- freedom. The Jews began to feel the freedom upon arrival at this location.

If we look at the first part of the name of the location, we realize that Pi Hachirot may refer to freedom of the mouth or free speech.

Slaves are not allowed to speak freely. They can only speak when spoken to. They are also not at liberty to express, or even possess, their own opinions. Originally Pi Hachirot was called Pitom, which some suggest is a contraction of the words Peh Satum- a closed mouth. It was at Pitom that Bnei Yisrael lost their freedom to protest.

                At Pi Hachirot Bnei Yisrael found their voice. The ability to freely speak is a gift and a responsibility that Bnei Yisrael did not immediately utilize effectively. The first use of their voice is to complain to Moshe: “Were there no graves in Egypt that we had to come out here to die?” We prefer to have never left Egypt and remained as slaves without a voice rather than to die in the desert where we will similarly be silenced!

Instead of answering them with words, G-d splits the Sea and causes the people to experience a revelation unlike anything in history. In response Bnei Yisrael sings Shira- they come to appreciate the power of their voice. They utilize their freedom of speech in an effective and meaningful manner.
The story of Pesach is the story of Bnei Yisrael finding their voice as they begin to taste freedom. As we commemorate this event we must commit ourselves to utilizing our freedom of speech: By speaking up even when our views go against today’s popular culture or conventional wisdom. By speaking up even when we think that our views are obvious or that everyone is in agreement. Chances are they are not nearly as obvious or unanimous as we think. By speaking up even when we don’t know if anyone is listening.

The Maharal writes that the word Pesach is a contraction of the words Peh Sach, the mouth that speaks. Pesach celebrates the finding of our voice and the liberation of our power of speech. Just as it was then, so may G-d give us the insight and strength to utilize our voices today in a powerful and productive manner.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Our Seder: No Matter What

At the start of the Passover Seder, we hold up a matzah and announce, "Ha lachma anya" - "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt."

But some Haggadot have a slightly different text. They read, "Ke­-ha lachma anya" - "This is like the bread of affliction." Why are there two versions? The Dubno Maggid explained with the following parable.

Once upon a time there was a man whose business never took off. It barely met expenses, and he was unable to properly feed his family. They lived in a crowded, run-down shack, and they wore old and tattered clothes. One day, this man’s luck changed. Suddenly his business started prospering, and he became moderately wealthy. He moved his family into a large home. He was able to afford custom-made business suits and stylish dress shoes. His family was able to enjoy the finer things in life.

This man had an unusual custom. Once a year he would take off his fine suit and clothes, and put on his old, tattered clothes that he kept stored away in a closet. He wanted to remind himself of where he had come from, so that he would never forget the past and fail to appreciate his present affluence. On that evening, he would wear these old rags at the dinner table, and his entire family would remember their difficult circumstances in the past and be grateful for their current state of financial success and stability.

Unfortunately, one day this man’s luck changed again - this time for the worse. The small fortune he had made with his business was lost. His properties and acquisitions were repossessed. He was forced to sell all of the nice items that he and his family had grown accustomed to. Once again, all he had were his old, tattered clothes. This time he went home, gathered his family and told them that they were no longer wealthy. "You see these old rags?" he said. "This time I am not wearing them to remind myself that once I was poor. I am wearing them now because I really am poor!"

The Dubno Maggid’s parable reminds us of the changing fortunes of the Jewish People, collectively and individually, throughout history. Sometimes we celebrated Pesach in relative comfort, affluence and safety. At these Seders, we taste the bitterness of the Maror and try to imagine what it is like for life to be hard. In such years we say “KeHa Lachma Anya” this is a commemoration of difficult times- much different than the current time of blessing.

At other times, the Seder was “celebrated” in the most difficult and oppressive conditions, such as during the years of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center – created an online photo exhibit commemorating the celebration of Pesach before, during and after the Holocaust, entitled “And You Shall Tell Your Children.” It has incredible pictures- the ones most meaningful to me are the pictures from the Warsaw ghetto- women baking matzah, people gathered around seder tables. In the darkest of times- when suffering and oppression were all around- these people showed tenacity and courage to celebrate the Festival of Freedom. At such moments we say “Ha Lachama Anya”; not only do we empathize with the suffering of our past, but we too are suffering. At such times we eat Maror as an outward expression of bitterness that we already feel.

In good times and in challenging times, for us as individuals or as a nation, we gather around the Seder table. Let us appreciate the power of the Pesach Seder, as a source of comfort, strength, gratitude and optimism.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Identifying Slavery and Finding Our Freedom Today

Identifying Slavery and Finding Our Freedom Today

At the Seder we will declare that the Exodus from Egypt is relevant to us today; for had Yetziat Mitzrayim not occurred we would still suffer from a slave mentality (regardless of whether we still lived in Egypt or not). Rav Soloveitchik taught that there are three characteristics of a slave mentality:
                A slave is Pasul L’Edut; his testimony cannot be accepted in a court of law. A slave cannot make his own decisions. His ability to distinguish between truth and lies, between right and wrong is never sufficiently developed. Furthermore, truthful testimony can only be offered by a person who will not be coerced or punished due to what he says. Slaves live in a constant state of fear, and we are concerned that the slave will testify based on what his master wants to hear.

                Secondly, a slave is exempt from time-bound commandments. A slave’s time belongs to his master. He does not have the freedom to set his own schedule or calendar. Therefore, the slave develops an attitude of indifference or even antagonism toward time, as it is a reminder of his restrained predicament.

                Lastly, a slave is unable to get married. Marriage is not merely a utilitarian institution for the fulfillment of certain personal and social needs. Rather marriage encapsulates a spiritual relationship, one in which spouses depend on each other, while at the same time being obligated one to the other. Since the slave has a human master, he is unable to obligate himself to anyone else nor depend on and develop that spiritual relationship with anyone else.

                None of us are technically slaves according to Halacha. However, many of us struggle with traits intrinsic to a slave’s mentality.
                We may be kosher witnesses, but many of us struggle with discerning between right and wrong, especially when the difference between the two is not black and white. Even when the right choice is clear, we may still struggle. We may not be coerced by a slave master, but we are often enslaved by peer pressure or our own self-doubt, which can lead us to act in ways contrary to what we know is right.

                Each of us has a connection to time-bound Mitzvot. Unlike slaves, we have the capacity for time awareness, time-management and even time-mastery. And yet many of us are enslaved by time. Sometimes time crawls by slowly, but more often time flies by. The great increase in technology over the past decades was supposed to save us time. Instead it has created the desire for multi-tasking: the attempt to cram more activities into the same amount of time or less (an impossibility). These new technologies have also given us countless new ways to waste time as well.

                Unlike slaves, every free person has the capacity to get married. And yet many people struggle with the commitments necessary to get married or to make a marriage work.  Some are enslaved by the notion of self-sufficiency. They find the idea of being obligated to someone as unimaginable and being dependent on someone else as a sign of weakness.
Marriage, and any quality interpersonal relationship, requires vulnerability. When you ask someone out on a date or propose marriage, you are vulnerable to rejection, because the other person can say no. If you express your feelings or share your thoughts with someone you also become vulnerable because they may not agree or feel the same way. Whether it’s a first date or after years and decades of marriage- relationships require a degree of vulnerability and commitment and effort that some people find uncomfortable.

                At the Seder and over Pesach, let us reflect and discuss with our family ways in which we are prone to modern forms of slavery. And let this Festival of Freedom inspire us to find our personal freedom.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Children and Infertility: At The Seder and in Jewish Life

As we celebrate Rosh Chodesh this Shabbat, the countdown to Pesach reaches 2 weeks. Pesach is a holiday with a strong emphasis on children. The 4 Questions that children (of all ages) recite at the Seder are based on verses in the Torah that are introduced by the words “Ki Yishalcha Bincha, when your child will ask.” The story of Egyptian slavery and redemption contains a strong focus on the plight and importance of children: Pharaoh’s decree against Jewish children, the heroism of Shifra and Puah who risked their lives to save Israelite children, the fertility of Jewish women in Egypt (six babies at once according to one Midrash). The story culminates with the plague of the firstborn, which enabled Jewish parents to appreciate their children more when confronted with the death of so many Egyptian children.

While much joy can come from Pesach’s close associations with family and children, this characteristic can also be a source of pain and disillusionment for couples in the Jewish community who are struggling with infertility. Infertility—defined as the inability to get pregnant without medical intervention within one year of trying—can be devastating for couples who endure physical, emotional and financial stresses related to the procedures. Roughly one in every six couples suffers from infertility. And while the incidence of infertility in the Orthodox community is not higher than that of the general population, being an Orthodox Jew can exacerbate the already difficult experience. Due to the centrality of family within traditional Judaism, many childless couples suffer from a pervasive feeling of being left out. One woman explained that some of her most painful moments were during the Pesach Seder. “How could I fulfill the mitzvot of the Seder without children?” she wonders.

This Shabbat, our shul is participating in the Third Annual Infertility Awareness Shabbat along with over 100 other synagogues in North America, Australia, and Israel in partnership with Yesh Tikva. This initiative aims to give infertility a “voice” and to spread awareness in the Jewish community. Too often, infertility is a silent struggle, such that you may not even be aware when your friend, family member or neighbor is suffering.  For more information on how Yesh Tikva can support you visit www.YeshTikva.org.
I am proud that our shul hosts CHIZUK, an infertility support group for women. CHIZUK is for those who are struggling to start or expand their family, seeking medical treatment for infertility, or are in the process of fertility treatments. Meetings are held the first Wednesday of every month in the Chapel. I thank Sharona Whisler for her leadership and ongoing help on this project. For more information, please contact Sharona.

One of the challenges for those who want to be supportive is that it’s hard to do so when the problem is rarely acknowledged. If these couples don’t ask for help, what should their family, friends and neighbors do to help them?
Here are two suggestions, in their own words, from people who have struggled with infertility (quoted in Rebecca Wolf’s article The Childless Couple, Jewish Action 2005):
“Just give me space. If I don’t want to go to a simchah, then don’t press me. Going to a Bris or [a] Simchat Bat, in particular, is too painful.”

“The entire conversation revolved around children—nursery schools, pediatricians, toys, et cetera. It’s not that I want the world to stop, but it was an incredible instance of insensitivity, and I don’t even think people were aware of it.”
In our effort to enhance our shul’s culture of caring, let us be sensitive to those who are confronting infertility. May Hashem hear their prayers and grant them the blessing of children.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Uplifted Hearts and Inspired Spirits

I am just back from this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. It was an exciting, informative, and inspirational three days in Washington DC with 18,000 pro-Israel citizen activists (including close to 60 from our shul). I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts and some of what I learned from this year’s conference in the days and weeks ahead. One common theme that emerged from many of the people I met is a theme that underlies the story of Zionism and the modern State of Israel: idealism and initiative. It was not enough for Herzl to dream of a Jewish homeland. For it to become a reality, there needed to be ways implemented for that dream to be actualized. Idealism and initiative are just as critical in today’s Israel as they were in the times of Herzl.
In Parshat Vayakhel we read how the people step up and contribute in different ways to build the Mishkan. The pasuk states (35:21):
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ
Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity brought the offering of the Lord for the work of the Tent of Meeting.

What is the difference between an “uplifted heart” and an “inspired spirit”? The people had no idea how to go about building the Mishkan. They were not trained in architecture nor engineering.  I imagine that any associations they may have had with building were negative, as it reminded them of their slave days in Egypt. Nevertheless, there were Jews who stepped up and took initiative. They were not trained professionals, but they were moved by the cause. Going in they didn’t know what they were doing, but they were determined to get the job done. The Ramban explains that this is what it means to have an “uplifted heart”: to be motivated to take initiative on behalf of a cause because of how strongly you believe in it; even when your skill set does not obviously lend itself to success in this endeavor.

Those with uplifted hearts are pioneers. They create start-up companies. They found non-profit organizations that make the world a better place. They do so because they act upon their “uplifted hearts”. Even if they don’t have the experience or the training- they see a need and motivate themselves to fill that need. Those with “inspired spirits” I believe are the people who are inspired by these innovators to get involved in the cause after it has been started.
Just as with the Mishkan and the State of Israel, our community’s continued growth and development depends on those with uplifted hearts and those with inspired spirits. We look to uplifted hearts to create, innovate, and build. We look to those with inspired hearts to support, participate and contribute. It was the efforts of these two types of people that allowed for the completion of the Mishkan, culminating in God’s Presence dwelling therein. And it is through the partnership of these two types of people that our community can soar and we can feel Hashem’s Presence within.