Thursday, August 22, 2019

Greatness is Found in Small Gestures

My favorite article this week was on, the news wire for Major League Baseball. The article by Mandy Bell began as follows:

“Yasiel Puig said Monday’s off-day changed his life. The Indians outfielder took advantage of his first free day in three weeks to rent a helicopter that would fly him to visit Camp Simcha in New York’s Catskill Mountains….. “

The writer goes on to describe how Puig joined the kids on the dance floor, crowd surfed throughout the room, received a tour of the campgrounds, made candles, played catch and paid a visit to the infirmary to sit with a child who was too sick to participate in the group activities. The trip was very impactful; for the kids, but more so for Yasiel Puig himself.

“The Tribe slugger spent four hours at the campsite, struggling to convince himself to get back to the city to prepare for Tuesday’s game. He entered the day expecting to give kids advice on how to stay strong through difficult times, but it was Puig who left feeling inspired.
“[A boy] started talking about baseball, saying, ‘I love the way you play. Keep going, fight,’” Puig said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m the one coming here to tell you to keep fighting and everything will be fine, and you’re the one telling me to keep going, fight and work hard' -- and that made my day.”

The minute that he left, Puig began asking how soon they could return to visit with the kids. He wanted to make an impact, moving others to take advantage of their free time to visit with children in need. Although he may not know whether he’s influenced others to follow in his footsteps, he now knows his actions have been noticed throughout the world.”

You don’t have to be a sports superstar to make an impact on others. And it doesn’t require big actions to create huge impact. Our Parsha is named Ekev. The word “ekev” is difficult to translate. In many translations it is difficult to pinpoint the exact translation of the word. Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that translates the word as a heel, the bottom of your foot. Here Moshe is saying that we should be careful with seemingly insignificant mitzvot that we might discard and kick aside with our heel. Even such light mitzvot can have enormous impact. 

It is often those actions that are performed away from the limelight and with little fanfare that can be so meaningful and important. It is not surprising that Moshe teaches this lesson at the end of his life. The most humble of all Jewish leaders was also the most impactful. This lesson is evoked again later in Parshat Ekev, through the juxtaposition of these two verses (10: 17-18)

For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.

Rabbi Yochanan notes that God’s greatness is evoked alongside His “humility” ie concern for those who are often overlooked in society: widow, orphan, stranger. The lesson is that greatness is most evident in humble actions. To enjoy big and bold success we ought to practice the art of humility and appreciate the value of small deeds.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Right and Wrong Is Not Determined By Majority

Towards the end of Parshat V’Etchanan, Moshe says (7:7):

“Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.”

Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk, and how it reconciles with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand and the stars.

Rabbeinu Bechaye reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been, Hashem would have chosen them as His People.

Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combined populations of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.

Rashi explains that “me’at” in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and its leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise. (Proofs: Avraham – who says Anochi Afar V’Efer, and Moshe: the greatest spiritual leader ever, and yet the most humble as well.)

There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of”… In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.
I believe that there is another lesson to be learned from our dual status as chosen and few in number: Truth and righteousness are not determined by a majority. It is determined by objective morals and values informed by the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Amiel notes that in kosher laws we have a concept of Bitul B’rov- that if a small amount of non-kosher food falls into a much larger pot of kosher food- the non-kosher may be nullified, and we say majority rules. So, why do we not assume that the majority of public opinion, the majority world religion, the majority ethos of morality should rule, even when it contradicts Judaism? Rav Amiel answered that in Halacha we also have the concept of a davar hamaamid. If an ingredient maintains a presence, even if it comprises only a minute amount, it cannot be nullified and the entire dish remains impacted by that ingredient. Torah, objective morality, the Jewish perspective, are all examples of devaraim hamaamadim: principles that must continue to influence and impact the broader world, no matter how much of a minority the Jewish People might be.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Children Are A Gift

In an interview for the September issue of British Vogue magazine, Prince Harry interviewed noted primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall (who famously studied chimpanzees for 55 years) and the conversation turned to the need to preserve our planet for the next generation. Harry noted that his travels have allowed him to connect with and appreciate nature, “even before having a child, and hoping to have children.”

“Not too many!” Dr. Goodall said with a laugh. Harry responded: “Two, maximum!”

There is an idea that has gained increased traction in society that 1) The best thing we can do for our planet is have less children and 2) It is wrong/ selfish/ foolish to bring children into the world as it currently exists. This attitude is often associated with those who espouse a commitment to the environment. Earth is over populated. Too many people are fighting over scarce resources. More humans means more pollution and more damage to the planet. A number of celebrities, with millions of “followers” have subscribed to this way of thinking; either questioning whether it is proper to bring children into this world, or declaring that they have no intention of having children until there are major improvements in the environment. In the European Union today, the birth rate is 1.6 children per woman, well below the 2.1 “replacement rate” that is necessary to maintain populations.
But as Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe, points out, if they want to make the world better, the way to do so is not by depriving it of more children. He wrote in his column this week:

It is an inescapable fact of life that to be born is to suffer, to struggle, and to stumble. There has never been an age in which that wasn’t true, and people in most ages have contended with far more daunting fates than a warmer climate: war, famine, slavery, poverty, plague. Not having children may spare theoretical offspring from inheriting a world with terrible problems. But it also denies the world the ultimate resource for fixing those problems — human intelligence, imagination, and grit… Every time parents bring children into a world where things have gone badly wrong, they improve the odds that there will someone to help set things right.

Jacoby quotes the story of the birth of Moshe. At that time most Israelites had stopped having babies: saying why should we have more children subjected to this Egyptian cruelty and oppression? This was Amram’s thinking too, until his daughter Miriam convinced him otherwise. As a result Moshe was born, leader of the Jewish People who facilitated their redemption from Egypt.

On Tisha B’Av some of the most tragic stories are those involving the suffering of children: The tragedy of the children on the ship at sea (Kinah 16 “Zechor Ashar Asah”), the depressing tale of the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol (Kinah 23 “v’et Navi”), the gruesome story of Doeg Ben Yosef (see Eicha 2:20 and Talmud Yoma 38b). After such destruction and tragedy it might be understandable why some respond by vowing not to bring any more children into a world that is so broken and full of so much pain. And yet our Rabbis (Talmud Yevamot 62a) teach the exact opposite:

אין בן דוד בא עד שיכלו כל נשמות שבגוף

Moshiach will only come once all souls that have been destined to inhabit physical bodies will do so.
Every child can be viewed as one step closer to the ultimate Redemption. In Israel today the birth rate is 3.1 children per woman, significantly higher than all other comparable developed countries (Mexico is second with a rate of 2.15).  The birth rate in Israel is comparable to the "baby boom" in the United States after World War II.
We live in complicated times. Let us respond to these times by valuing the importance of children, for the Jewish People and for all of humanity.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Tapping into the Magic of Jewish Summer Camps

This week marked the midway point for many Jewish summer camps. A number of our youth returned from camp, while others embarked on their Jewish summer camp experience. Jewish camping as we know it began in the late 1890s as a way to provide children with a brief respite from industrialization. “By the late 1920s, Jewish summer camps had gotten explicitly ideological: socialist, communist, anarchist, Zionist, Yiddish,” writes Dan Nosowitz in his article The Evolving Ideologies of American Jewish Summer Camp.

“Zionist summer camps prepared kids to move to Palestine … [while] a socialist summer camp would have no individual money, and any packages a camper received from home would be divided equally to the rest of the camp. Labor was highly valued; a punishment for bad behavior would never be, say, cleaning the bathrooms, because bathroom duty was a noble and important role in the camp society.”

A 2011 report crunched the numbers and looked at the long-term influence of camps based on evidence from 26 studies on Jewish engagement. Among its findings:
Adults who are former campers are 55 per cent more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel.
As adults, campers are 45 per cent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month and 37 per cent more likely to light candles regularly for Shabbat.
And as adults, they are 30 per cent more likely to donate to a Jewish Federation.

From the study’s conclusion, “The impact of camp on Jewish community awareness should not come as a surprise. … The bonding experience of camp not only builds a long-lasting taste and yearning for community, it also creates habits of Jewish practice. It makes Judaism part and parcel of life’s most joyous moments. Moreover, those moments are experienced as integral parts of life in a beloved community.”

What is it about Jewish camps that make them so successful at instilling in children Jewish identities so deep that they last a lifetime? “Each camp has a very strong and intentional culture, camp by camp. Camp’s power to socialize young Jews — How do I be a Jew? How do I be a member of the Jewish community? — depends on this culture,” said Amy L. Sales, co-author with Leonard Saxe of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (Brandeis University Press, 2003). Culture encompasses everything, from how the Sabbath is observed to never deviating from grilled cheese on Mondays.

Why is camp so much more impactful in the lives of young people than most of the other activities in which they partake? Benjamin Kramarz suggested that camp effectively harnesses what anthropologists call “liminality,” the state of being in transition, the middle stage between one place and the next. While mainstream society mostly marginalizes and even suppresses liminality, pressuring us to “figure it out” and to decide who we are and what we stand for as quickly as possible, summer camp embraces and celebrates the in-between state, encouraging young people to openly explore themselves and the world around them.

Camp creates a whole new reality for young people, an alternate version of their lives that only exists between the months of June and August. In this space, everybody is between one grade and the next; everybody is in transition. This time, when children briefly lose their regularly assigned societal identity, is perfect for personal and communal transformation.
I think that the success of Jewish summer camps can serve as a model for other Jewish institutions, including shuls. By fostering a culture of ongoing religious growth, we can all tap into the liminality of our Jewish lives. Emphasizing community, valuing positive peer pressure, and valuing Jewish practice as both a part of our routine and yet something personally meaningful are just some of the ways we can seek to continue the positive impact of summer camp- once camp is over and once we age out of attending.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Message of the Mussaf

As technology and society has progressed in the 21st century there seems to be an ever growing sense that every situation and every moment can be replicated, recreated or made up for.  First it was the introduction of Dolly the cloned sheep. This technology opened up a new niche market: cloning your pets. The idea behind cloning is that biological material can be replicated. A few years ago, scientists claimed that with the help of a state of the art particle accelerator they were able to replicate the moment immediately after the Big Bang. If that very early moment of the universe’s existence can be recreated, then presumably everything else can be replicated as well. Science has taken us on a journey that indicates that no moment is so unique that it cannot be replicated in a laboratory.
This attitude has spilled over into society and popular culture. Miss a test or forget to do your homework? Don’t worry, there will be a makeup. Lost sleep last night? Don’t worry, you can always make it up. Deadlines are constantly being extended because people just cannot fathom that something can actually pass by without being made up later.  
A rejection of this attitude can be found in the Torah’s description of the special Musaf sacrifice offered on Shabbat. The Torah tells us:

Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato:

The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. The Midrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same. If I miss bringing the sacrifice this week, then I’ll just bring two next week. Comes the verse to tell us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there are no makeups. As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. It may seem like we are doing the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite every Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (ie if you miss Shacharit, you can say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the concept that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: for instance, the example of teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to the belief of some, there are things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. This is especially true with the moments of our lives. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to make better time.) We can’t go back in time. (alas, we have yet to discover the flux capacitor that enables at  1.21 gigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  Let us recall the message of the Mussaf: some things in life cannot be replicated; they must be appreciated and savored while we have the opportunity.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

2.2 million dollars. 4 days. 23,000 donors. One little girl. The story of two year old Eliana Cohen has gone viral. She was born with SMA Type 2, a rare genetic condition that prevents her from being able to stand or walk. A gene therapy was recently developed, called Zolgensma, which creates a gene that ensures she is able to breathe, eat and sit up on her own. At 2.2 million dollars for a single dose, it is the most expensive drug in the world. It was approved by the FDA only for babies under the age of 2 years. Due to a misdiagnosis at an early age, Eliana’s SMA Type 2 was only detected a month ago. Eliana was five days away from her second birthday when a crowdfunding campaign began.

                Within four days, 23,000 people had donated to the cause on the fundraising platform The Chesed Fund. At noon this past Monday, the goal was reached and the campaign was closed. In their thank you letter, her parents wrote, “Please continue to pray for Chana bat Shani (her name has been changed), as we still have a long way to go!”

This story reminds us of the very best elements of Jewish community. Many of those who donated did not know this little girl. They heard about this cause through “a friend of a friend” and the tight-knit nature of the Jewish community provided incredible results. This inspiring episode caused me to reevaluate one of Bilaam’s blessing in this morning’s Parsha.

In our Parsha, King Balak hired the great sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. As hard as he tries, Hashem does not allow this to happen. Not only is Bilaam unable to curse them, but Hashem forces Bilaam to utter blessings about Bnei Yisrael- three times. In his first set of blessings Bilaam refers to the Jewish People as (23:9) “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” Dwelling alone can seem lonely at times. But it has been the secret of our success and our continuity. The Jewish People have been unwilling to change our morals and values based on the current era or location. We turn to the Torah as our guide, even when it makes us unpopular or counter-cultural. We are a Light onto the Nations by wearing our distinctions as a badge of pride. As the nation who dwells alone we realize that we cannot rely on others for our survival. Rather we must rely on Hashem – and each other. This is why there are no “degrees of separation” between Jews. We are all family, whether we know each other or not.

I was recently learning with someone about the restriction of charging interest. I asked why interest should be forbidden: If we are allowed to rent our car for money and rent our house for money, then why can’t we rent our money for money? The answer we came to is that fundamentally I’m right. One should be able to rent their money for a profit. And in fact, you are allowed to charge a non-Jew interest (if charging interest was immoral we would not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews.) But that’s not how you treat family. And all of Klal Yisrael is family. Let us remember this reality, as we begin the Three Weeks period on the Jewish calendar, and as we constantly work on fostering a culture of caring within our community.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

“Talking to a Rock: More Productive Than You Might Think”

Our Parsha contains the mysterious events that transpired at Mei Meriva. After Miriam dies, the people are complaining again- this time because there is no water. Hashem tells Moshe to take the staff – and speak to the rock. Instead Moshe hits the rock, and water miraculously flows forth. While the people are happy- Hashem is angry; angry because Moshe did not do as he was told (and Aharon is faulted too- for not stopping Moshe?) Moshe and Aharon are punished harshly- they are denied entry into the Promised Land. One of the mysteries surrounding this episode is the initial Divine command: What’s the deal with talking to a rock? Of all possible manners to miraculously provide water at this juncture, why does God decide that it should come about as a result of speaking to a stone?
                Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that this Divine command was meant to convey an important lesson for us all: Sometimes it feels like we’re talking to a rock. That our message is falling on deaf ears. Nonetheless we should appreciate the value in speaking up in these situations, for even when we speak to a rock water may flow forth- ie there may be some beneficial outcome.

                You see, even when we’re talking to a rock, our words can still strengthen our own resolve. A UCLA psychology study suggests that labeling one’s emotions at the precise moment one is confronting a fear, can make you less afraid and less anxious. 88 people who have a fear of spiders were divided into 4 groups and exposed to spiders- with the following instructions:

One group was told to express their feelings of anxiety and fear before touching the spider. A second group was told to use words that helped to make the situation less threatening, such as “this little spider can’t harm me”- the typical approach used for de-sensitization. A third group was told to say something irrelevant to the spider situation and the fourth group was instructed to say nothing. The group that had the most significant decrease in their fear of spiders was the group that put into words what it was they were feeling- to say it as they felt it, not as they wished they would see things.   
                The verb to pray in Hebrew, L’hitpallel, is a reflexive verb. It means that the impact of the action is felt by the person doing the action. Just like L’hitlabesh means to get oneself dressed. Tefillah is an important exercise in self-reflection: When we verbalize words of prayer we are confronted with questions such as, “Do I believe what I am saying?”  “Are my values consistent with those I am expressing in my tefilot- and if not, how do I feel about that?”

                The same thing occurs when we speak to others. When we talk to/ yell at our kids to be more attentive or respectful- even if they are not listening to what we are saying, we need to be listening to what we are saying and be asking ourselves, “Are we modeling the behaviors and values that we’d like to see in our children, or friends, or co-workers?” Or are we in some way contributing to the behaviors and attitudes that we are verbally protesting against?

                Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock and it will flow forth water. From this story we learn that Hashem challenges us to speak up, even if it feels like we’re talking to a rock. For even if the rock cannot hear us, we need to hear ourselves. If we appreciate the importance of speaking up, even to a rock, may Hashem in turn hear our voices and bless our efforts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Inspiring Others, Inspiring Ourselves

One of the perplexing questions that emerges from this morning’s Parsha is: In what way was Korach mistaken? We read how Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon with the following statement:

"You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"

Korach’s specific complaint was regarding Aharon’s elevation as Kohen Gadol, a position of which he was envious. Korach’s larger complaint was the very notion of Jewish leadership: For if every Jew is holy, then why are there any positions of leadership within the Jewish community?

In some important ways, Korach is correct. It is fundamental to Jewish thought that all Jews are holy; we each possess a Divine spark in our souls. If that is the case, then one can legitimately question the need for leadership within the Jewish People.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that Korach’s challenge is predicated on a mistaken understanding of the role of a Jewish leader. The primary role of a leader is help people get more in touch with their Divine spark. In short, the job of a leader is to inspire people to inspire themselves. It’s true that every individual has the potential for holiness. But many of those same people cannot get in touch with that holy potential. Even those who are spiritually sensitive enough to bring holiness into their lives, still may need help to optimize that experience and maximize that potential for kedusha. It is the job of leaders to actualize that potential and to bring out the best in others.

And although not all of us can be leaders on the scale of Moshe or Aharon, each of us has the ability to be a Jewish leader within his/her realm of impact and sphere of influence. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (who passed away 25 years ago today, the 3rd of Tammuz) was fond of retelling the Chasidic saying “if you only know aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) - then teach aleph!” We all have something to teach others, and we can serve in a leadership role, for some people in some setting. Whether it is within our family, our neighborhood, our office or our shul, let us learn from the mistake of Korach and proudly wear the mantle of leaders. Let us do so by serving as positive peer pressure for others and by encouraging and validating their efforts at inspiring themselves.

This past week, I convened our annual meeting with Rabbi and Sara Frieberg to review the previous programming year and begin planning for 5780. As part of these meetings we focus on both concrete plans as well as questions that are meant to be thought-provoking (even if we cannot definitively answer them). One of the questions I posed was: How can we inspire more people; how can we inspire people more? Our conclusions were that 1) different people are inspired by different things, 2) while big events and gestures can be memorable, long-lasting inspiration comes from the accumulation of small gestures, interactions and experiences that have a cumulative inspirational effect, and 3) one of the most important things Rabbis and community leaders can do is inspire people to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for inspiration.

Let us learn from Korach’s mistake by both stepping up and being leaders when we can inspire others, while also doing the hard work of inspiring ourselves.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Lessons from Entebbe

July 4th marks the 43rd anniversary of Operation Entebbe. On June 27, 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked after a stopover in Athens. The 247 passengers and 12 crew members were flown to Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers were from a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The situation took a dark and ominous turn when soon after arriving at Entebbe, the non-Israeli passengers were separated from the Israelis, and then released. Besides the Israelis and the crew, all other Jews on the plane were also kept hostage, even if they were not Israeli nationals. (Remember this the next time someone makes the ridiculous claim that being anti-Zionistic is not the same as being anti-Semitic.)

Back in Israel plans for the rescue mission were being devised. The military officer in charge of planning this mission was Ehud Barak, who would later become Prime Minister of Israel.  The Prime Minister at the time, Yitzchak Rabin, was under tremendous pressure to ensure the safe release of the hostages – even if it meant negotiating with terrorists. PM Rabin finally gave the orders to embark on the rescue mission. The actual mission is the stuff of movies- in fact, three different movies.

The rescue mission was a success. All of the hijackers were killed, 102 hostages freed. But one Israeli soldier was killed during the operation- Yoni Netanyahu.  Soon the phone would ring in the home of Yoni’s brother, a young man then called Ben Nitay. Ben was studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The career shift of Yoni’s brother, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the most visible legacy of that mission, but the impact of Entebbe is felt in other ways too. The PLO stopped hijacking planes and Idi Amin was overthrown, both results can be traced back to the Entebbe mission. The US military man in charge of the operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was Admiral William McRaven, the author of a detailed study of the raid on Entebbe.
There are many lessons that emerge from Operation Entebbe. For us on Shabbat Parshat Shelach, two of those lessons stand out:

First, the Entebbe mission teaches us that enemies of Israel may be able to hurt and impede us, but nothing and no-one can prevent Jewish destiny from being realized. This was the mistake of the spies. After travelling the land, 10 of the 12 spies came back with negative reports about the Land of Israel. If we look closely at what they report, it is possible that their report is all factually correct. The inhabitants of the land were indeed giants. The cities were in fact fortified.  And yes, it was going to be hard to conquer the Land. But even though they may have been right about all of these details, the spies were still wrong- in their unwillingness to factor into their equation the Hand of God and Jewish destiny. As ben Gurion once quipped, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
Second, the Entebbe rescue mission demonstrated Israeli risk taking and initiative. As one military analyst noted, the fact that the Entebbe mission was a success was not surprising; the Ugandans were outmatched in all ways according to all opinions. What was impressive was the “guts” demonstrated by Israeli leadership in ordering the command to do the right thing and get the job done. This is the lesson that we can learn from Yehoshua and Kalev in our Parsha. These two spies understood the role of Divine intervention and Jewish destiny. They are forever remembered for their willingness to show the courage and resolve to speak up and to say what was unpopular and what most people did not want to hear (neither their fellow spies nor Bnai Yisrael).

Let us take a moment this July 4th to remember the lessons from Entebbe- especially those that intersect with the story of the Meraglim: The need to take risks, engage in bold initiatives, say things that at times may be unpopular, and do what needs to be done. At the same time, we must never underestimate the Yad Hashem, the role of God in the unfolding Jewish story. It is Jewish determination coupled with faith in God that assures that Am Yisrael Chai.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Meant To Be Difficult

          In Parshat Beha’alotcha we read about two objects that were impressively made from one single piece of metal.

          The Parsha opens with the command directed towards Aharon to light the Menorah. Then the Torah provides a one-pasuk description of the Menorah’s construction:
“This is the workmanship of the Menorah: hammered out of one piece of gold; from its base to its flowers it is hammered out.”

          The fact that the Menorah was sculpted out of one piece of gold was a feat so impressive that even Moshe was stumped as to how the Menorah was supposed to be built.

          Later in the Parsha, we read about the Chatzotzrot. Moshe was commanded to make two silver trumpets.  Here again the Torah specifies that the trumpets must be “Miksha”, hammered out of a single piece of silver. (This is probably why there are no Chatzotzrot in the IKEA catalogue.)

          Though not mentioned in our Parsha, there is one additional ritual object that had to be shaped from one piece. The Keruvim, which sat on top of the Holy Ark had to also be Miksha.

          The word Miksha comes from the word Kashe, which means hard or difficult. To sculpt these elaborate objects is certainly difficult. But why were these three items singled out for Miksha treatment? Is there any common thread between the Menorah, the trumpets and the Keruvim that can help shed light on this shared construction requirement?

          The key to understanding the Miksha factor is by seeking the symbolism inherent in each of the aforementioned items.

          The Menorah symbolizes Torah knowledge. The Talmud in Baba Batra learns from the position of the Menorah in the Mishkan that Harotzeh Sheyachkim yadrim: one who wants to become wise must go south. Similarly the Midrash recounts how Moshe would meditate by the light of the Menorah when he was trying to figure out a particularly difficult lesson from Hashem.

          Keruvim represent children. Rashi in Parshat Teruma (25:18) quotes the Gemara in Sukah (5b) which states: The Keruvim looked like children.

          The Chatzotzrot, trumpets, symbolize happiness. In this morning’s Torah reading, the last pasuk relating to the trumpets sums up the instances in which they were to be blown (10: 10). The sound of the Chatztzrot was supposed to both foster and express our feelings of joy.

          Torah, children and happiness: three of the most fundamental and essential aspects of our lives. Each stands on its own as an important pursuit, and yet they are inextricably intertwined one with the other. One might think that as fundamentals, success in these areas should be easy. Comes the Torah and tells us in each instance: “Miksha Hi.” They’re hard to accomplish and maintain. These three goals seem to pull us in three different directions. Spending time learning Torah versus time spent on maintaining the family. The financial stress of paying for a Jewish education for our children, and how much happier we imagine we could be without that expense.

          Some people believe that such tensions and questions are symptoms of a lack of faith and that the Torah has a clear answer for every situation.

          By examining the Menorah, the Chatzotzrot and the Keruvim, we are better equipped to appreciate that at times the Torah’s lesson is to embrace the challenge and the tension. By specifying these three objects the Torah teaches us that even with goals as noble and essential as Torah, family and joy, it’s okay to say “Miksha Hi.” Life is hard, and that’s why it’s meaningful. By appreciating the inherent difficulties, may we merit to enjoy the full measure of Hashem’s blessing in all of these areas.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

“All Our Deed are Recorded”

This week I attended a presentation for parents organized by Brauser Maimonides Academy presented by Dr. Eli Shapiro, creator of the Digital Citizenship Project. The goal of this project is to help children utilize technology in a healthy and positive way. One of the things we have to teach our children (and remind ourselves) is the notion of our “digital footprint”: that everything we post on social media and any place that we are mentioned on the internet becomes part of our permanent record, accessible via internet by anyone even years and decades later. Dr. Shapiro shared a news article that in 2017, Harvard University rescinded the admission of ten students after uncovering offensive and inappropriate posts on private Facebook messaging groups.

Some are fighting for a limit on the accessibility of their digital footprint. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Google had to remove links to out-of-date information about a Spanish man, because he wanted to be free of people learning about his bankruptcy more than a decade before, every time they searched for his name. This has become known as “the right to be forgotten”, and other European countries have adopted similar policies. Though some want there to be a “right to be forgotten” in the US, most scholars find it unlikely that such a law could pass, since it might violate the First Amendment (free speech and free press).

Judaism does not believe in a “right to be forgotten”. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:1) teaches us:
Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.

At the end of Parshat Nasso we read about the donations offered by the Nesiim at the time of the dedication of the altar. Rashi (7:3) notes that whereas at the building of the Mishkan the princes donated last, here they donate first. Rashi explains that earlier the princes made a mistake by waiting to see what was needed to finish building the Mishkan (and nothing was needed.) This time, the princes learned from their mistake and are the first to bring gifts.

This week marked the passing of Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, son of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and author of the (in)famous book The Making of a Gadol.  In a 2003 New York Times article about the book, Joseph Berger noted:

What has made the book so controversial is that the portraits are perhaps too human. Rather than the saintly figures often depicted in biographies for the Orthodox market, the Lithuanian sages -- a godol is a great sage -- are shown wrestling with the lures of secular life and with their own sometimes crusty personalities. Even as they display remarkable analytic powers in tackling the Talmud, they read Tolstoy, they have relatives tempted by Communism, they write love letters to their fiancées, they are mercurial and moody.

As a result, the first edition of his book was banned by some Rabbis. However Rabbi Kamenetsky defended his book by noting that all details of a great person should be remembered, as it provides a full picture of their greatness. For us, knowing that great Jewish leaders struggled with shortcomings and confronted challenges similar to ours, allows us to appreciate them more. And if they had similar struggles then we should look to them as role models whom we can emulate, and not angels that have nothing in common with mere mortals.  Here again, we are reminded that all of one’s deeds are remembered; not only in Heaven but here on earth.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Putting the “You” in Shavuot

During Torah reading people follow along either standing or sitting. However, as we read the Ten Commandments everyone is requested to rise, if they are able to. This is in accordance with the Ashkenazic tradition. This custom is not without its Halachik controversy. There’s a Mishna in Masechet Tamid that states that there once was a practice in the Beit Hamikdash for the Kohanim to read the Aseret Hadibrot as part of their daily Temple service. However, this practice was soon abolished because of a concern referred to as “Taromot Haminim” – the arguments of heretics. There was a fear that heretics would convince less knowledgeable Jews that only the Ten Commandments are true and the rest of Torah is false. They would point to the fact that the Ten Commandments received special treatment in the Beit Hamikdash as their proof. This Mishna is the textual basis for not standing for the Ten Commandments. The Rambam was strongly opposed to the custom to stand only for Aseret Hadibrot. He felt that this practice undermines our belief in the validity of the entire Torah. Yemenite and some other Sephardic communities follow the Rambam’s view.

        The most common Ashkenazic practice is to allow and even encourage standing for Aseret Hadibrot- especially on Shavuot. The reason is because on Shavuot we stand in order to re-enact the event of Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai as the pasuk says, (19:17):

“And the nation stood at the bottom of the mountain.”

        The Midrash takes the idea even further. It states that every Jewish soul ever to be born, as well as the souls of those who would convert throughout the ages, were spiritually present at the time of Matan Torah. That means that when we stand for Aseret Hadibrot on Shavuot morning, we were not just re-enacting an historical event, but re-experiencing in physical terms something that our souls experienced 3331 years ago. This Midrash reinforces the connection between Pesach and Shavuot. On Pesach we personalize the Exodus and appreciate that event’s direct impact on our lives. So, too, on Shavuot we must personalize the Sinai experience and appreciate the importance of Matan Torah in our own lives. Externally we show this by standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments. But how else can we foster a personal appreciation for the importance of Matan Torah?

        The Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua as to the most appropriate way to celebrate Jewish holidays. According to Rabbi Eliezer a person’s Yom Tov can be either spiritually focused- with an emphasis on prayer and Torah learning; or physically focused, with an emphasis on eating and drinking. Rabbi Yehoshua believes that the holidays should be evenly split between physical and spiritual pursuits.

        Comes Rabbi Elazar and says:
“Hakol Modim Ba’Atzeret Deba’inan Nami Lachem.”

        On Shavuot, everyone agrees that there must be some focus on the physical- ie eating and drinking. This seems counter-intuitive. If anything, I would have thought that on the day on which we receive the Torah, we should de-emphasize the physical and focus more on the spiritual elements of the holiday.

        Rabbi Elazar is teaching us a key to personalizing Matan Torah. We are better off for receiving the Torah, and to demonstrate that we are encouraged to indulge in physical enjoyment on Shavuot to reinforce the association between Torah and pleasure.

        It is through personalizing the experience of Matan Torah, putting the “You” in Shavuot, that we are able to fully celebrate this Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jerusalem: The Gratitude and the Prayer

On Israel Independence Day 1967 two things happened which now seem like prophecies. In the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook gave an historic speech in which he lamented: "Where is our Hebron, where is our Shechem?” And that night, at the Israeli Song Festival, an unknown singer named Shuli Natan got up and sang for the first time what would later become Israel's all-time favorite song – Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold - Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" which stirred the hearts of an entire country with longing to return to Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount.

Just three weeks later, Hebron, the Old City, and the heartland of Biblical Israel, were suddenly and miraculously restored to the Jewish People.

                Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the 52nd anniversary of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.  As a Floridian, I am especially proud this week as Governor Ron DeSantis, while making good on his campaign promise to visit Israel on his first foreign trip, made history by convening a Cabinet meeting in the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  Earlier this year, the Florida Cabinet issued a proclamation declaring Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.”

                On the same day that Florida’s Cabinet met in Jerusalem, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif made the news with his most recent untrue tweet: “Al-Quds (Jerusalem) is neither America's to give away nor Israel's to take.” I partially agree with Zarif, in that Israel cannot take Jerusalem, for you cannot take something that already belongs to you. We must call out those who espouse untrue histories about Israel and Jerusalem. Specifically we must push back on and reject the narrative that the Jewish right to Israel is a result of the Holocaust. The Jewish claims to Israel and Jerusalem go back 4,000 years (when God promised the Land to Avraham), not 75 years.

                David Ben Gurion once said, “If a land can have a soul, Jerusalem is the soul of the Land of Israel.” Throughout the 2,000 years of Jewish exile and dispersal, the Jewish People never forgot Jerusalem. In the immediate aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction, 2,500 years ago, the author of Psalm 137 declared, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This quote has remained relevant and the lived experience of Jews ever since.

                As happy as we are to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, it is also a time to note that the full potential of Jerusalem has yet to be realized. In Tehillim 122 we note

Yerushalayim Habenuyah k’ir shechubra la yachdav
The built-up city of Jerusalem is like a city that is united

Jerusalem continues to be built-up. As much as I love visiting that which already exists in Jerusalem, I am always excited to count the number of cranes one sees across the Jerusalem skyline. And yet the city still lacks a unity among its inhabitants: secular and religious, and even differences within the religious Jewish communities.

                Today on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Muslims are free to worship, but Jews and Christians are barred from praying on that site. Yet In Isaiah (56:7) the prophet refers to a future time when the Temple Mount will be available for prayer for all nations, as it was in the days of the Beit Hamikdash
כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָֽעַמִּֽים:
for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples
                On Yom Yerushalayim let us express our gratitude for our connection and access to Jerusalem today, even as we pray for the realization of Jerusalem’s full potential in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Observing Memorial Day

Recently our son Eitan asked both Rebecca and me questions about Memorial Day, observed this coming Monday. He had learned about Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and he wanted to understand how Memorial Day in the US compared/ differed with Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Specifically he was curious to understand why sales at stores, which he heard about on TV and radio commercials, were connected to Memorial Day, and how shopping was an appropriate way to mark the day.

Memorial Day in America has a fascinating history. In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30th should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. On Decoration Day, as Logan dubbed it, Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.

Although the term Memorial Day was used beginning in the 1880s, the holiday was officially known as Decoration Day for more than a century, when it was changed by federal law. Four years later, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 finally went into effect, moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. The move has not been without controversy. Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observance. For more than 20 years their cause was championed by Hawaiian Senator—and decorated World War II veteran—Daniel Inouye, who until his 2012 death reintroduced legislation in support of the change at the start of every Congressional term.

It seems that it was when Memorial Day was shifted to Monday that it became more closely associated with shopping and barbecues, and less observed as a solemn day of remembrance.
I believe that there are other factors at play that cause us, as a community and as a country, to downplay the solemnity of Memorial Day. First, most of us are detached from the military and the US soldiers serving and protecting us. In Israel, every citizen is expected to serve in the IDF. Military service and sacrifice are embedded in the country’s psyche. Here in America many of us don’t personally know any active-duty military. Military service can seem like something that other people do, but does not affect or impact us personally. Another factor that desensitizes us to the solemnity of Memorial Day is that we take our freedom and our safety for granted, when really it is in large part due to the efforts of the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces.

In 2000 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that all Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on Monday. This Memorial Day, let us take a moment to appreciate the service and sacrifice that allows Jewish communities like ours to thrive in America. We can utilize Memorial Day as a springboard to being more grateful and more aware of our role and responsibilities as members of society and citizens of this country.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Only Jews Have the Burden of Being "Adam"

The story is told that on one occasion the local Catholic bishop commented to Hagaon Reb Yitschok Elchanan Spector that one of the major causes of anti-Semitism was the Talmudic statement that "Atem kruyim adam ve'ein umos ha'olam keruyim adam". This statement is found in regards to ritual purity and literally means: “You (Jews) are called Adam (man) but the other nations of the world are not referred to as Adam”. The bishop argued that if the Jews do not consider non-Jews to be human beings, how could Jews expect anything less than animosity from non-Jews?

Reb Yitschok Elchanan explained to the bishop that he had not properly understood the Talmudic statement. What the Rabbis mean to say was the following: In Biblical Hebrew there are four terms for a person - ish, enosh, gever, and adam. The first three terms have a different form when used in the plural (anashim, gevarim). The last term - adam - remains the same even when used to refer to many people.

With respect to any other individual who murders, steals, or acts improperly, we do not say that his/her behavior is representative of the entire nation. We would say that that individual is bad, but the rest of the nation as a whole is basically good. We distinguish between gever (in the singular) and gevarim (in the plural); between ish (in the singular) and anashim (in the plural). But with respect to the individual Jew, we call him adam, used for both the singular and the plural, as a declaration that an individual Jew is in some way representative of the entire Jewish People. Only regarding the Jews is there a principle that "kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh", ie that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that the action/behavior of one Jew reflects on all of us. This application of nationhood only applies to the Jews: "Mi keamcha Yisroel goy echad ba'aretz"; other peoples are called "mishpachot ha'adamah" (families of the earth).

This is why Chilul and Kiddush Hashem can be performed by non-Jews as well, although the stakes are much higher for us Jews. Towards the end of Chapter 22 in Parshat Emor we read:
וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.

Within this phrase are two of the most important concepts in the Torah: Chilul and Kiddush Hashem. Our job is to bring G-dliness into this world, to be walking advertisements for Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish way of life. We must be careful not to do anything to undermine our efforts - which may lead to a decrease in the respect for and acknowledgement of Hashem, aka Chilul Hashem. We must always seek opportunities to create Kiddush Hashem. And we must realize that the unity of the Jewish People is both a gift and a responsibility. It is a gift because it provides us with a sense of identity and belonging. Anywhere a Jew goes s/he can enter a shul and feel a level of familiarity and comfort. We support Jews in our community and around the globe simply because they are part of the Jewish People. But this unity also connects each Jew to the community in a most profound way, such that each of our actions - for better or for worse, reflect on Am Yisrael. It is a serious responsibility, but one that we are up to, and one that pays incredible dividends.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dr. Chaim Saiman noted on Facebook that American Modern Orthodox schools and shuls are the last places that still associate Yom Haatzmaut / Israel with falafel. Many view falafel as the national food of Israel. However, according to Vered Guttman, falafel most likely originated in Egypt (though others claim it comes from India), where it is called ta’amiya and is made from fava beans. Jews who lived in Egypt and Syria where exposed to falafel for centuries. Falafel was made popular in Israel by Yemeni Jews in the 1950s. They brought with them the chickpea version of the dish from Yemen and introduced the concept of serving falafel balls in pita bread. Due to its popularity, falafel is sometimes called Israel’s national food. However Israel’s food scene is much more diverse than just falafel. That’s why the Israeli Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs has asked Israelis to explain to people abroad that Israel has plenty more to offer, and that Israelis do not eat falafel and hummus three times a day.

                Today Israel has a flourishing International culinary cuisine scene. Anyone who has been to the Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem after dark knows that to be true.  As I learned in the Kahoot online trivia game that Rav James prepared for Yom Haatzmaut, Israel has the third most sushi restaurants per capita, only behind Tokyo and New York. Israeli citizens come from 100 countries of origin, and the food scene in Israel reflects this fact. Even the way an Israel’s national food is served speaks to the “ingathering of exiles” in Israel:  a typical falafel sandwich may be served with Israeli salad, hummus, German sauerkraut, Iraqi fried eggplant, pickled mango sauce, Yemeni hot sauce and French fries.

                In Israel grilled meats are the most popular way to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. In a recent article in the Times of Israel, food anthropologist Prof. Nir Avieli tried to explain this phenomenon.  Avieli is a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, and he is an expert on the history and politics of food.

“Meat is the ultimate expression of power and control,” says Avieli, explaining mankind’s obsession with its favorite protein. “You take a knife and slaughter a living thing. You take its life and put it into your own body. Also, there is an assumption among human beings that if you eat meat, you are taking its power into yourself. These are beliefs that have a nutritional basis as well, but it’s mostly a social issue.”

Also, Avieli notes that throughout history, eating fire-roasted meat was a rare thing, limited to the wealthy and powerful. “Roasting meat is something that rich people do. If you take a kilogram of meat and cook it in 10 liters (roughly 2.6 gallons) of water, you get dozens of portions of soup. If you roast the cut over the fire, it shrinks, loses about half of its weight, and is enough for maybe two or three people.”

                As we reflect on Israel at 71 we note with pride the country’s strengths: military and economic, but also intellectual and religious and in the realm of global social activism. Whether you celebrated Yom Haatzmaut this year with falafel or a barbecue (or both like we did at YIH), let us reflect on the success of the State of Israel after 71 years and pray for her future achievement, safety, growth and peace.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Time to Be Silent; A Time To Speak Up

The beginning of Parshat Acharei Mot references the death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. This tragic story was originally told in Parshat Shemini. There we read the response of Aharon in the aftermath of his sons’ deaths (10:3): “Vayidom Aharon” “and Aharon was silent.” In the face of personal tragedy, silence is often the most prudent and appropriate response. There are no words; no words to explain why the tragedy occurred, nor words that can adequately comfort the bereaved.
While the default response to a private tragedy is silence, this is not the case when a tragedy occurs that impacts the Jewish People. In such a case we must speak out to remember the victims, commit to not forgetting, and resolve to respond in a way that is both healing and constructive.

The shooting at the Chabad of Poway is an example of a tragedy for the Jewish People. Last Shabbat, the last day of Pesach, a gunman entered the synagogue as the congregation was preparing to recite Yizkor. He opened fire and killed Lori Gilbert Kaye, age 60. He then shot at Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein stuck out his hands to block the gunman, at which point he was shot in the fingers, losing his index finger. The gunman then shot 8 year old Noya Dahan and her uncle Almog Peretz. According to Noya the gunman was aiming at the children.

Lori was murdered because she is a Jew. She died Al Kiddush Hashem. We mourn her death as a tragedy for the entire Jewish People, and we offer condolences to her husband, her daughter and the entire Chabad of Poway community. Since this was a national tragedy, the proper response is not silence but rather to speak up and speak out. First we must follow the heroic model of Rabbi Goldstein. This is what he said about the moments after the shooting, in a piece he wrote:

The ambulances had not yet arrived. We all gathered outside. I don’t remember all that I said to my community, but I do remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And I remember shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.

In the aftermath of this type of tragedy we cannot be silent. We must use our voices in at least two ways. First, we must denounce Anti-Semitism regardless of where or who it is coming from. We must also clarify that Anti-Israel and Anti-Zionist sentiment is usually poorly veiled expressions of Anti-Semitism.  Second we must use our voices to express our pride in living lives of Jewish values and Jewish observance. As Rabbi Goldstein wrote in that same piece:

From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

“Az: The Great and Powerful Word”

Az Yashir Moshe- in the aftermath of the splitting of the Red Sea and the ensuing drowning of the Egyptians, the Torah uses these three words to introduce the Shirat Hayam. The Midrash offers a perplexing comment on the choice of the word Az:

Amar Moshe Lifnei Hakadosh Baruch Hu: “Yodeia Ani Shechatati lefanecha b’Az …… l’kach ani meshabeichacha b’Az.”

Midrash refers back to the beginning of the Exodus story- Parshat Shemot (5:23). Moshe at that time was reluctant to represent Hashem in the process of redemption and only after Hashem promises that his efforts will be met with success does he agree to embark on the mission. However his first meeting with Pharaoh was a complete disaster: instead of things getting better for the Jews Pharaoh decrees that the slavery will intensify: no longer will the Jews be provided straw and yet their output of bricks must remain at the same level. Moshe, feeling dejected and embarrassed turns to God and says, “why have you caused evil to this nation? Why have you sent me? Umei’Az bati el Paro ledaber bishmecha, heirah l’am hazeh”- “Since I went to speak to Pharaoh in Your name, God, things have just gotten worse.”

                Fast forward to today’s Torah reading, Beshalach. Now that the Egyptian army has been decimated and the Jews are free, the Torah chooses to use the word Az once again to introduce the Shirat Hayam, indicating that Moshe wishes to atone for his usage of the word Az at the beginning of the story by using it again here. How are we to understand this Midrash, and what is the significance of the word Az?

                Rabbi Moshe Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in the 1930’s, explained that this Midrash is teaching us a lesson about the power of perspective: Our perspective can be a description or an aspiration. Sometimes our perspective is based on the reality as it seems. That is how Moshe used the word Az at the beginning of the story. After initially meeting Pharaoh Moshe could only see the reality as he confronted it- his meeting met with utter failure.

                The Torah comes back to the word Az to introduce the Shirat Hayam- once again spoken by Moshe but this time with a completely different meaning. Here Moshe is leading a people that is tasting its first moments of freedom. The possibilities at that moment are endless and Moshe capitalizes on the moment by using the word Az, but this time to indicate the potential of this new free nation under the direction and protection of Hashem. The usage of the word Az here indicates Moshe’s realization that man has the capacity to see the world not only as it is, but also as it can be.

                We all experience moments of inspiration and insight: Moments when we are inspired to take action. Moments when we realize change is in order. Moments when we understand that the way things have been need not be the way that things continue to be. By noting the word Az here and how it is compensating for its earlier usage, Chazal want us to understand that Moshe (and Bnai Yisrael) experienced such a moment of inspiration and insight at the Yam Suf. And so can we today as we commemorate that important and formative event in the development of the Jewish People.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bedikah and Bitul: Acting on Our Convictions

Next Thursday night we will perform Bedikat Chametz (the search for Chametz). After we search and find the pieces of bread we will recite a declaration in which we declare that any chametz we have not found should be considered nullified and like the dust of the earth. This is called Bitul Chametz. We recite a similar paragraph on Friday morning as we burn those pieces of bread.

On Pesach, we have an obligation to remove all chametz, leaven, from our possession. Before the Rabbis created a mechanism whereby chametz can be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of Pesach, the only way to be in compliance with this mitzvah was by ridding one’s home of every trace of bread. To help facilitate the fulfillment of this commandment, the Rabbis of the Talmud offered two suggestions: Bedikat Chametz, the search for chametz that we do before Pesach (this year Sunday April 17) to ensure that all of our chametz is accounted for; and Bitul Chametz, the nullification of chametz accomplished through a declaration that relinquishes our ownership over any chametz that might still be in our possession. Today both suggestions have been formalized as requirements in our pre-Pesach preparations.
Tosfot ask why we need to do Bedikat Chametz, if the Talmud concludes that everyone has to nullify their chametz anyway. If we are verbally nullifying whatever chametz we don’t know about, why do we need to actively search for that chametz as well?

            A number of answers are offered. Tosfot themselves answer that we are afraid to rely on verbal nullification alone, lest some chametz be found on Pesach. Even though that bread may not technically be ours (because of our earlier nullification), we are nonetheless afraid that if found we may accidentally eat it. The Ran is concerned with the efficacy and quality of a verbal nullification from the outset. Perhaps the Bitul was done half-heartedly. Perhaps it was done with full conviction, but if that person should find chametz, s/he would have second thoughts, invalidate the nullification and be considered in violation of owning of chametz from that point forward.
The interplay between Bitul and Bedikah can help us understand the relationship that exists between convictions and actions. Bitul represents our convictions: in this case, our conviction is that we relinquish all ownership rights to any chametz. Though Bitul theoretically suffices, the Rabbis understood that human nature is fickle: what we are convinced of one day may be forgotten by tomorrow. We need to back up our convictions with action. We need to back up our Bitul with a Bedikah. Words are not enough. It is telling that the codified practice is to first do Bedikah and then Bitul. At times we are called to act based on the courage of our convictions. There are other times when action is needed, even if we are not so committed to the cause. Through our actions (in this case, the Bedikah) we will become more committed to our beliefs (ie the Bitul). Actions must not only back up our beliefs: our actions must stand center stage, and be the way by which we demonstrate our beliefs and transmit them to our children and the world around us.

Friday, April 5, 2019

We are proud to be participating in the Yesh Tikvah Shabbat of Infertility Awareness. The following was written by Sharona Whisler, shul board member and coordinator of the Chizuk infertility support group, hosted at our shul (for more information contact
Anyone who has struggled or is struggling through the heartbreaking experiences of infertility and/or pregnancy loss probably understands why the concept of “Infertility Awareness Shabbat” was conceived of (pun intended). It is to address this issue which is quite prevalent, but is also largely unspoken about in the Jewish community. The statistic of infertility is that it affects approximately 1 in 5 couples. This means that your neighbor, the person sitting next to you in shul, your cousin, an in-law, or a friend is struggling or has struggled, whether you were aware of it or not. I believe the reason it is not discussed in the Jewish community is because it involves a very intimate and private part of a couple’s life.  Indeed, many of those who are affected by infertility do not feel comfortable discussing it either, understandingly so. However, there are ways to discuss it, it should be discussed, and every shul that is participating in “Infertility Awareness Shabbat” should be proud.

Medically speaking, infertility is the inability to conceive after 12 months of trying during the most fertile time of the month for a woman under 35, 6 months for a woman over 35. About a third of the cases are a result of female factor issue, another third, the result of male factor issues, the final third being a combination of both male and female factors, or an unexplained or unidentified reason. This can occur for the first time as primary infertility, or after no problems conceiving a first child or a second child, as secondary infertility. Beyond the medical definition, a diagnosis of infertility is devastating. The sorrow and emotional stress it inflicts is all consuming and has been compared to someone receiving a cancer diagnosis, by mental health professionals. Knowing this and recognizing that because of the prevalence, someone close to you may be dealing with this pain, having sensitivity and understanding is the best way to be there for someone. This means thinking about what you say before you say it. Perhaps it means not complaining about how busy your child-centered schedule is with someone who doesn’t have a child or who you suspect may be struggling to conceive. That type of schedule could be what dreams are made of for someone who just found out that another month has gone by without getting pregnant or has recently miscarried. As a friend or a family member, it means being available, but also recognizing that you may not be the person chosen to be confided in. If you are, it means listening and not offering unsolicited advice or clichéd words of wisdom like “it’s just not the right time”.   

One of the purposes of this Shabbat is to provide education and raise awareness to those who aren’t personally affected. However, it is also very much for those of us who are struggling; who are mourning the loss of a dream, mourning the loss of a potential life, mourning the loss of an actual life in utero, managing conflicting emotions of hopefulness and fear, the physical pain of surgery and injections. The unending questions and thoughts; when will this work? Will this ever work? How much can I endure? Why is this happening to me? I don’t know what to do next. Who do I go to? No one understands my sorrow…This Shabbat is for you to feel supported in your pain. It is for you to know that you live in a community that recognizes this struggle. And even though there are parts of it that the community is not able to help with, in the way that the Young Israel of Hollywood community is showing those who are struggling that we are here for them, it is meaningful.