Friday, November 27, 2015

From Tragedy to Triumph

From Tragedy to Triumph

The Jewish world was captivated this week by the wedding in Jerusalem on Thursday of Sara Litman and Ariel Beigel. The wedding was postponed due to the murder of Sara’s father and brother, Rabbi Yaakov and Netanel Litman, on November 13. During shiva the young couple announced that the wedding had been rescheduled and all of world Jewry was invited to attend. Thousands of Jews, including many from overseas who flew in just for the occasion, waited for hours on line outside Jerusalem’s convention Center in order to dance at the wedding. 
What a tremendous demonstration of perseverance and the Jewish resolve to transform tragedy into triumph and life-affirming joy.

In Parshat Vayishlach we read of the birth of the youngest tribe and the death of Rachel:

And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni, but his father called him Benjamin.

יחוַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בֶּן אוֹנִי וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין:
All other 11 tribes- the mother named the child. Why should this child be different?
Ramban explains it is NO different than all of the other sons. Rachel called the child Ben Oni- and Yaakov called the child Ben Oni.
Rachel meant Ben Oni “son of my pain and mourning”
Yaakov meant ben Oni “son of my strength”- like the word Oni is used in Parshat Vayechi in Yaakov’s blessing to Reuven:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank and superior in power.

גרְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז:

The word Oni can mean sadness and it can mean also strength. Yaakov says to Rachel, “you are right, his name is Ben Oni. But it means he is a son of strength” Binyamin is not a different name for the boy- His Name was Ben Oni. Binyamin is Yaakov’s interpretation of the name that Rachel initially gave him.
Ramban puts it beautifully:
“V’Aviv Asah Min Oni- Kochi”
Yaakov translated and transformed  Ben Oni as Binyamin, sadness and challenge - into strength.
Yaakov may have learned this attitude from Hashem, in an episode earlier in the Parsha: Before his reunion with Eisav we are told that Yaakov found himself alone and separated from his family. There he struggled with an Ish. There are different interpretations as to who was the Ish- was it Eisav’s Guardian Angel, was it an internal battle within Yaakov. In either case, Yaakov was confronted with a crisis. We read that Yaakov survives the crisis- but is permanently injured. But it is only in response to the struggle that Hashem gives him a new, more lofty name – Yisrael.

And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."

כטוַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל:

You, Yaakov have struggled, experienced pain and suffering yet you have persevered. Not only have you persevered, but you have grown as a result of the challenge. Hashem here teaches Yaakov- and us his descendants – the lesson that the greatest growth may result from the greatest crises.
The Vilna Gaon once said that if you want to know what your purpose in life is- don’t focus on what you’re good at, or on what comes easy to you. Think about your greatest challenges; for it is in confronting and growing from your biggest challenges that you will find why you were put in this world.
Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write about the Crucibles of Leadership; one common trait found in all leaders is their ability to learn and grow from adverse situations and difficulties. It can be a major crisis or a moment in which they felt challenged- externally or from within.
All of us descendants of Yisrael are leaders. As Hashem declares when he confirms Yaakov’s name change later in this week’s Parsha (35:11)

And God said to him, "I am the Almighty God; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins.

יאוַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ וּמְלָכִים מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ:

Let us learn the lesson of the name Yisrael, the lesson that Yaakov conveyed in his explanation of Ben Oni. Let us each in our own way Asah Min Oni- Kochi: appreciate the potential for renewed and expanded strength that exists in every challenge.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Be a Yehudi: Maximize Your Attitude of Gratitude

In Parshat Vayeitzei we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children. Leah gives birth to his first four sons, and the Torah gives us the reason for each name:
Reuven: Hashem has seen my humiliation
Shimon: Hashem has heard that I am unloved
Levi: My husband will now become attached to me
Upon the birth of her fourth son, Leah names him Yehuda: “This time I will thank Hashem”

Many commentators throughout the ages have noted that Jews are referred to as Yehudim, due to Yehuda’s name. The lesson generally learned is that we are referred to by a name that indicates gratitude; for integral to being Jewish is a sense of gratitude- to others and to God.
However I cannot help but note that it was only upon the birth of her fourth son that Leah expressed her gratitude. The oft-quoted Medrash explains that through prophecy it was known that Yaakov would have four wives and 12 sons. If each wife shared equally in birthing the Tribes of Israel, then each woman would have 3 sons. It’s only upon leah’s receiving something above and beyond that which she expected/ that which she felt she was entitled to, that she expresses gratitude.
Perhaps this is the reason why we are referred to as Yehudim. To repair the expression of gratitude made by Leah and express gratitude for everything we receive- even those things that we feel are owed to us, even those things to which we feel entitled.
Many psychologists note the incredible sense of entitlement that children express today.  Entitlement is connected with the pervasive ingratitude that has infected our society.
Perhaps we Jews are called Yehudim to teach ourselves and the world around us that entitlement and gratitude need not be at odds with each other. We can provide for our children and also teach them the importance of saying thank you.  
One concrete step we can take to better the world is by taking our status as Yehudim seriously and thanking others for even the small things: Like a teacher when she hands back a test, or a mail carrier when the mail is dropped off, or a cashier when s/he checks you out of a store. Or thanking Hashem for the small things: like waking up in the morning (Modeh Ani), or for a drink of water (Shehakol).
These may seem like small gestures, but they add up to create an entirely overhauled perspective- for ourselves and those around 

Friday, November 13, 2015

On the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg hy"d

The following sermon was delivered on Parshat Toldot 5769, the day after the murder of the Chabad Shluchim to Mumbai, India by Islamic terrorists.

After Yaakov gets the blessings that his brother wanted, Eisav plots to murder Yaakov. Rivkah is informed of Eisav’s plan and sends Yaakov to her brother Lavan’s house so that Eisav has time to cool down. Once Eisav forgets a little, Rivkah promises that she will send for Yaakov. The purpose of this plan is as Rivkah puts it.
לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד:
 “Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?”

Rashi explains the utilization of the word “Eshkal” and writes:

Why should I be bereft: Heb. אֶשְׁכַּל. I will be bereft of both of you. [This teaches that] one who buries his children is called שָׁכוּל, bereft. And so, concerning Jacob, it is said (below 43:14):“As I am bereft (שָׁכֹלְתִּי), I shall be bereft (שָׁכָלְתּי).”למה אשכל: אהיה שכולה משניכם. הקובר את בניו קרוי שכול. וכן ביעקב אמר (להלן מג יד) כאשר שכלתי שכלתי:
“One who buries his children is called bereaved.

Today we note with sorrow the bereaved parents of those Jews murdered by terrorists in the Chabad House in Mumbai India. Among the dead are the Chabad shalichim to Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, age 30 and his wife Rivkah, age 28 whom we mentioned earlier in the Kel Malei prayer. In 2003, Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife left New York to run the Chabad center known as the Nariman House in Mumbai, where they managed a synagogue and led religious classes and other social and outreach activities at the center.

Things like this are not supposed to happen. A couple sacrifices the familiarity and comforts of their homes to serve the Jewish community in a far flung location and share their passion – only to become sacrifices themselves, dying Al Kiddush Hashem. In the early hours of the attack, the news reported that this was an attack on the financial infrastructure and neighborhood of Mumbai. In the aftermath, it has become very clear that Jews and Israelis and the Chabad House were specifically targeted in this attack.

The Hotzberg’s two year old son Moishy, was also inside the Chabad Center when the terrorists attacked. He was miraculously saved by the center’s cook who was able to escape from the Chabad House during the siege. Moishy is now in the custody of his grandparents from Israel, his second birthday is tomorrow. The news sources are reporting that the young boy keeps asking for his mother. We too have some questions that we just can’t shake and yet we know we won’t find satisfying answers.

At the beginning of the Parsha, we read that the precipitating event that leads to the sale of the birthright was that Yaakov was cooking lentils. The Medrash explains that Avraham had just died and Yakaov was preparing the first meal for his father who was now an Avel.  And why are lentils an appropriate food for mourners? Rashi quotes two answers.
 ולמה עדשים, שדומות לגלגל שהאבלות גלגל החוזר בעולם
“For they resemble a sphere- and mourning is a sphere that makes a circuit in the world.”

Although technical mourning practices are only customary for specific close relatives, the impact of a death reverberates among a much wider audience, including those who personally knew the deceased or those who were affected by that person either directly or indirectly. When people are killed because they are Jewish, the mourning and its effects are felt by all Jews across the entire world.

On Friday I officiated at a funeral at which the burial took place in a different location than the chapel service. I rode with the family to the cemetery and when we arrived we had to wait a few minutes while some paperwork was being filled out in the office. As we were all standing in the small business office a woman approached the entrance, in need of directions to a plot. Among our group for the burial were three Rabbis. The woman looked at the Rabbis and then walked back to her car. At that point I overheard her say, “it looks like it’s busy in there. I don’t know with what, but maybe it has something to do with what happened today. Let’s wait a few minutes, or maybe there’s someone else we can ask.

It was then that I received my first update of the Mumbai situation since the night before. It was also at that point that I realized that it is a natural reaction for Jews in the worst of times to feel as if “we’re all in it together.” That woman may have never learned the Talmudic statement of “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh B’Zeh” All Jews are responsible for one another. She may have never come across the Midrashic statement that Bnei Yisrael act “K’Ish echad B’Lev echad”. But she did something more important- she lived this reality. If there is tragedy within the Jewish community it affects all of us in a profound way.

The second reason suggested by Rashi as to why lentils are offered to mourners is because:
 ועוד מה עדשים אין להם פה כך האבל אין לו פה שאסור לדבר. ולפיכך המנהג להברות את האבל בתחלת מאכלו ביצים שהם עגולים ואין להם פה, כך אבל אין לו פה
“Just as lentils are round and have no mouth, so too the mourner has no mouth for he is forbidden to speak.”

We suggest that mourners exercise a degree of verbal restraint and silence in the face of their personal tragedy, lest they think or say or do something that they will regret later. The response of silence is especially necessary in the face of a collective tragedy. Our words must be directed towards remembering and comforting and not in trying to get the answers to why did this happen or how could this happen.

(Those who come to comfort mourners as well, need to exercise verbal restraint, as described by Erica Brown in her essay in this week's Jewish Week)

In addition to the therapeutic effects of silence in the face of tragedy, our Parsha also describes three situations in which people had to deal with difficult questions.

Towards the beginning of the Parsha, when Eisav is contemplating whether to sell his birthright to Yaakov he says,
וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה:
 “What profit shall the birthright be to me?
When Eisav cannot think of any positive answer to this question right away, not only does he sell his birthright but the Torah goes further to say,
 וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה:
“Eisav spurned the birthright.”

The question Eisav asked was a legitimate one – as well as complicated. After all the birthright as Eisav understood it, entailed many responsibilities, some of which if not performed correctly could make a person liable for punishments- even death! Instead of getting himself entangled in a complicated question with no quick answer, he decides to divest himself from the entire issue- he sells the birthright to Yaakov.
The Torah tells us clearly its opinion of a person who looks for a quick escape when confronted with a theologically difficult situation “Vayivez eisav et Habechora”- because he was unwilling to take the time to think about and explore the issue involved it is considered that Eisav spurned the birthright.
Eisav teaches us the wrong way to respond to difficult questions, namely by avoiding them. His mother Rivkah teaches us the right way to deal with such questions, in two places in this morning’s Parsha.
At the very beginning of the Parsha Rivkah is experiencing a difficult pregnancy to which Rivkah reacts,
הּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי  
“If so, why am I thus? 
Notice the usage of the same words "Lama Zeh" by both Eisav and Rivkah
Rivkah asks: What’s the point if things are going to be so difficult? I do not see how this situation can end up with a happy ending, or even anything positive emerging. Instead of avoiding the question or getting rid of the problem the Torah tells us. 
“She went to inquire of Hashem.”

In times of tragedy, silence should not be discounted. But when the question is urgent, we must make sure that we address the question in the proper fashion. Asking Hashem is an admission that G-d is still involved. Asking Hashem is also an implicit recognition that we don’t have all the answers, G-d does and He may not be divulging those answers to us.
At the end of the Parsha, as mentioned earlier, Rivkah sends Yaakov away to save him from the murderous intentions of Eisav. Her rationale as the Torah describes it is in the form of a question
לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד
“Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?”
The context of this question is one of conflicted feelings and moral ambiguity. Rivkah loved Eisav, and yet she just helped Yaakov deceive Yitzchak for the blessings. Rivkah’s responds to this question in a different yet similarly positive and admirable way: with constructive action. She sends Yaakov away thereby saving Yaakov’s life and Eisav’s soul. 

Sometimes the only answer to a question is to table the question and just do something that will positively affect the overall situation even if it is not a direct answer to the specific issue.
In May of 1957 fedayeen terrorists entered the village of Kfar Chabad in Israel. They made their way to the synagogue of the local agricultural school, where the school's young students were in the midst of the evening maariv prayers, and raked the room with fire from their rifles. Five children and one teacher were killed and another ten children wounded. Despair and dejection pervaded the village, and began to eat away at its foundations. There were some who saw what happened as a sign that their dream of a peaceful life in Israel was premature. The idea of disbanding the community was raised. The village was slowly dying. The Chasidim sent a telegram to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York and eagerly awaited a response.
Finally, five days later, a response came from the Rebbe. The response via telegram had just three words: Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu. By your continued building will you be comforted.
There is no doubt that with its indomitable spirit, Chabad will rebuild. But the words of the Rebbe can help all of us that have questions today or in the future. Bhemshech Habinyan Tinachamu. Through building ourselves, we will be comforted. We must not deal with questions the way Eisav did, by ignoring them. Sometimes silence is the only constructive response. And if something more is needed, then we must look to constructive actions, in the hopes that ultimately Hashem will provide comfort, if not answers.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Be A Part of the Triple P (Positive Peer Pressure) Revolution

In the past few days I have had a number of conversations with parents in our community. A common theme among these conversations was how challenging certain aspects of parenting can be. One of those challenges is getting kids to meaningfully engage and participate in Shabbat programming at shul- whether at the youth minyan, teen minyan, or Shabbat morning groups. The parents expressed frustration that many other children do not participate in any program and this creates a “negative peer pressure” that encourages kids to avoid meaningful youth programs available to them; and instead they hang out with their friends outside of any program or minyan.

Peer pressure is a powerful force. We learn this from Rivka, whom we are introduced in this week’s Parsha as the wife of Yitzchak. At the beginning of next week’s Parsha, Toldot, we summarize the events that are described in Chayei Sara:
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife.

כוַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה:

Rashi quotes the Midrash concerning the description of Rivka in this verse:
the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister of Laban:Was it not already written that she was the daughter of Bethuel and the sister of Laban and from Padan-Aram? But this is to tell her praise, that she was the daughter of a wicked man and the sister of a wicked man and her place was [inhabited by] wicked people, but she did not learn from their deeds. [From Gen. Rabbah 63:4]

בת בתואל מפדן ארם אחות לבן: וכי עדיין לא נכתב שהיא בת בתואל ואחות לבן ומפדן ארם, אלא להגיד שבחה שהיתה בת רשע ואחות רשע ומקומה אנשי רשע, ולא למדה ממעשיהם:

Not only was Rivka kind and modest and strong, but she did so in the face of tremendous familial pressure to act in a contrary fashion. Jews in America, as a minority religion, must overcome peer pressure from society. Observant Jews confront even greater degrees of peer pressure as we are challenged on a number of facets of our lives that are influenced by our commitment to our religion (“do you really need to eat kosher?” or “Simchat Torah- you’re making up that holiday to get an extra day of work off!”)

It is unfortunate that even within our shul, there are children and adults that feel a negative peer pressure that leads them to behaviors that are not spiritually enriching or not as meaningful as other activities that are offered on our synagogue campus.

But here’s the secret that I want to share with you. Many of you who worry about the negative peer pressure that you sense may feel as if you are alone or part of a very small minority who care. The truth is that you are not alone, and there are many others like you. I know, because although you may not talk to each other about this, you talk to me. And I have spoken to a lot of like-minded parents who are seeking to create positive peer pressure, among children and adults, to provide meaningful outlets for themselves and their families at our shul.

The first step in effecting change in this realm is to acknowledge the issue. The second step is to talk to your peers- your friends and the parents of your children’s friends, and engage them in conversation around this topic. It only takes a few families to resolve to improvement; and working together they can create a “snowball effect” that creates a force of positive peer pressure and, hopefully, a more successful and meaningful shul experience. 

I am happy to help connect like-minded parents together and facilitate such conversations.