Tuesday, December 24, 2019

20/20 Vision in 2020

In 1952, a young Florence Chadwick stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island, determined to swim to the shore of mainland California. She’d already been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways. The weather was foggy and chilly; she could hardly see the boats accompanying her. Still, she swam for fifteen hours. When she begged to be taken out of the water along the way, her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she was close and that she could make it. Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, she stopped swimming and was pulled out- quitting with less than a mile to go.

Afterwards she said, “All I could see was the fog… If I could have seen the shore, I could have made it.” It was not fatigue that defeated her, but the fog that blurred her vision and disoriented her.
As she put it, “Like doubt, confusion or discouragement, the fog alone had no power to stop me. But because I let it blind my heart and reason, as well as my eyes, then it really defeated me.”
Two months later, on September 20, 1952, Chadwick tried again. This time she was prepared to “see” the shore, even if the fog should hide it. Fog did in fact hide it, but in her mind’s eye the shore was there. The shore’s presence became a fact in which she found the courage and strength to persevere until her feet touched the California coast.  
Rabbi Simon Eckstein a’h, a cherished member of our community who was born in Jerusalem in 1919, made Aliyah at age 91 and passed away in 2016, utilized this story in a Chanukah sermon to explain the greatness of the Maccabees. He wrote that despite all indications that seemed to point to utter failure, the Maccabees were able to keep their eye on the goal even through the fog and maintain the hope and faith in Hashem that ultimately led to their victory. They may not have always been able to see clearly how a victory would be achieved, but they were always able to vividly imagine and visualize in detail what victory would look like and why it was so important.

Seeing the Chanukah lights is an important element of the mitzvah. As we say in Hanerot Halalu
V’eyn lanu reshut lihishtamesh lahem, ela lirotam bilvad:
We are only allowed to look at the Chanukah lights.
In an attempt to explain why a Menorah may not be placed higher than 20 cubits, Rashi explains:
“D’lo Shalta bei eina L’Maalah M’ Chof Amah, V’leika Pirsumei Nisa.”

A person (even with 20/20 vision) may not be able to see the Chankuah lights at a height above 20 Amot, and if the lights cannot be seen, then there is no publicity of the miracle, an integral aspect of the Mitzvah. The lesson of this halacha is that success can only be achieved if we see the goal/ light, whether with our physical eyes or in our mind’s eye.
The Talmud records (Shabbat 23):  “Rav Huna said: ‘If one is meticulously careful in lighting candles, he will merit to have children who are Torah scholars’.”
A colleague of mine asked: many people are meticulous in their lighting Chanukah candles, so why are there so few Torah scholars? He answered that Rav Huna’s promise is only fulfilled for those parents who sincerely desire that outcome for their children. The bracha will only be fulfilled in those families who include Torah study and spiritual achievement as important, something they see as valuable, a worthwhile and noteworthy achievement. If such ideals remain “Above 20 Amot”, ie outside of their frame of reference, then parents will look to other achievements as fulfilling their dreams for their children.

The battle encountered on Chanukah was a clash of cultures. The question that confronted the Jews at that time was: What is it that you see, what is it that you strive to see? Greek culture or Torah values? Bayamim Hahem ubizman Hazeh. The challenge continues in our day as well. Let us utilize the holiday of Chanukah and the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah to test our vision and adjust when necessary.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Power of Truth

At the end of Parshat Vayeshev Yosef shifts roles from dreamer to dream interpreter. After interpreting the Chief Butler’s dream, the Chief Baker decides to share his dream because: Vayar Sar Ha’Ofim ki TOV patar.” Rabbi Yaakov Mecklenburg, 19th century German Rabbi in his commentary HaKetav V’hakabalah explains that Tov here means “correct” or “true”, which begs the question: how could the baker know that Yosef’s interpretation was true, before it came into being?  Did Yosef have some inside information about the standing of these two prisoners? Did the dream of each one contain the interpretation for his friend’s dream? The Rashbam explains simply: Nikarin Divrei Emet- the truth speaks for itself.

We unfortunately live in an era where the self-evident nature of truth is no longer widely perceived. Perhaps it is due to the internet and the overwhelming amount of accessible, unverified (not fact-checked) information. Perhaps it is due to the overall pervasiveness of relativism. Perhaps it is our skepticism towards those who claim to “know the truth.” Whatever the cause, the result is that we live in an age in which Lo Nikarin Divrei Emet: the truth is not self-evident. It seems that in today’s world people are comfortable with the notion that everyone can have their own, equally-valid truth. This attitude can lead to moral relativism and a decline of society. 

A hallmark of greatness is the willingness to speak the truth- even when it is unpopular, even when it is dangerous. Yosef provides us with a model. At the beginning of the Parsha he speaks the truth of his dreams even though it is met with scorn by both his brothers and his father. He speaks the truth to the wife of Potiphar even as it causes him to lose everything he had and lands him in jail. Finally, at the end of the Parsha, Yosef’s truth speaking is recognized by his fellow prisoners and declared to be Tov, good: not just now, but all along and always.

Another speaker of truth is Yehuda. The Tosefta in Brachot quotes Rabbi Akiva’s question: By what merit did Yehuda become the tribe of the monarchy, Jewish leadership? One answer suggested is “Mipnei Shehodeh B’Tamar.” He admitted the truth of his mistake even though such an admission could have been very costly. Telling the truth can be impressive; and even ameliorate mistakes. According to many historians, neither of the two previously impeached US Presidents would have been impeached had they been courageous enough to speak the truth, even after the mistake. (Too soon to comment on this week’s events….)

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. Sometimes the truth is depressing. Nevertheless we must learn from the model of our forefathers, especially from Yosef and Yehuda, and be willing to speak the truth: in our homes, in our communities, and to the world.

According to the Kabbalists, this world is an Olma D’shikra, a realm of deceit. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that Chotamo shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu Emet: God’s signature is truth. The task for us then becomes clear: to speak the truth, and replace the deceit in this world with the sanctity of God’s signature characteristic.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

It’s Ok to Not Know- Then Go and Find Out

Towards the end of the Parsha, Yaakov travels to Bet El and fulfills the commitment he made 22 years ago as he made his way to Lavan’s house - by building an Altar and thanking G-d for keeping him safe through all of his difficulties. In response, G-d blesses Yaakov and changes his name to Yisrael. Then the Torah states,

“G-d ascended from Yaakov, in the place where he had spoken with him.”
On this verse Rashi comments,

“I do not know what this verse comes to teach us.”

Rashi does not comment on every single Pasuk. He could have not commented on the verse at all, and no one would have been the wiser. Rashi informs his students that there is something peculiar about this verse, something that the verse is trying to tell us - but Rashi does not know what it is. It takes tremendous modesty and intellectual honesty to say that there is something to learn, but I do not know the answer.

This is not the only time that Rashi informs his readers that he does not know something. Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his Gilyon Hashas notes on Tractate Brachot (page 25b) lists over three dozen examples throughout the Talmud where Rashi admits that he does not know something.
Rashi is following Talmudic advice. In one of the first pages of the Talmud, Brachot 4a, it states:
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’.”

It has been hard for me at times throughout my life to admit that there are things that I don’t know. I think it may go back to the kids’ TV show “You Can’t Do That On Television”, a comedy skit show that starred child actors that aired during the 1980’s and early 90’s. One of the show’s trademarks was when actors got “Slimed”. Whenever an actor said “I don’t know” green slime, a gooey substance, would pour on him/her from above. In retrospect, my reluctance to say I don’t know was partly due to the fact that as a “smart kid” I thought I was supposed to know everything; and partly due to some subconscious fear that if I said “I don’t know” I too would get slimed - either actually or metaphorically.

Saying “I don’t know” can be courageous and admirable, but then we have to do something about that gap in our knowledge. Once we admit that we do not know it becomes incumbent upon us to go and learn. As the Talmud states in many places:

Zil - Krei Bay Rav”- go and learn the topic from someone who does know.
There is a story told of Reb Eisel Shapiro of Slonim, a renowned nineteenth century Lithuanian Rabbi. Reb Eisel went on a visit to Volozhin and set a halakhic problem to the students of the great Yeshiva. He declared that whoever solved it would be worthy to become his son-in-law. The most brilliant students came to his door with proposed solutions, but were dismissed one by one. Eventually, it seemed, the students gave up and Reb Eisel packed up and got ready to leave. Just as he was leaving the city, a student came running and called on the carriage to stop. “Ah,” said Reb Eisel, “you found the correct answer?” “No,” replied the student, “I have no idea, but please, Rebbe, before you leave, I beg you, tell me the solution.” At which point Reb Eisel smiled and replied, “You are the one.”
May Hashem give us the courage of Yaakov and Rashi to say “I don’t know” as well as the intellectual curiosity and passion to exert ourselves to always go and seek the answers.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

It was a Torah lesson on Track 13-W. And none of the “teachers” were Jewish.

Settling into my seat, I barely heard the two women, 20’ish, speaking across the aisle from each other, one row in front of me, on a southbound Amtrak train, in the second-last car from the rear, one recent afternoon. But a woman in a seat behind them did. “This is a Quiet Car," she said firmly but kindly, pointing to one of the ubiquitous signs in the Amtrak car that designated that venue as a respite from cellphone conversations or discussions between seatmates that can be overheard by other travelers. "You can't talk so loudly that other people can hear you,” she added, making her point clear – she had heard them.

In the ensuing silence, my mind drifted to synagogue -  to several synagogues where I have prayed.
How many times, I thought, have I witnessed people (primarily men, because that is the section of shul in which I always sit) talking loudly and disturbingly in violation of fellow worshipers' kavana and the shul's unwritten and often-written (posted in conspicuous Hebrew signs) warnings about the halachic impropriety and derech-eretz implications of talking during times of Shemoneh Esrei, leining of the Torah and other times when spoken interruptions are inappropriate. The signs don't work.

What's the difference between Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and our congregation? Why do
Amtrak passengers obey, literally without a peep (my experience aside, you rarely hear an out-of-line sound in the Quiet Car), especially when corrected?

Many explanations come to mind: A shul is the daveners’ home, they’re not guests, they determine what goes. The people shushing them are friends, who can be ignored, unlike the strangers sharing a train coach. The people doing the talking aren’t necessarily interested in the worship experience of the morning in shul, unlike the shushers. Away from work, the talkers aren’t about to take orders from anyone; they resent the challenge to their machismo. Davening is long, especially on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and maintaining one’s level of concentration for several hours can be a challenge. There’s no penalty for out-of-place talking – no one’s likely to be asked to leave. Basically, they talk because they don’t think about the wider ethical implications of illicit words, and they know they can get away with it.

Unlike the situation on Amtrak, where Quiet Car talking is not an assertion of one-upmanship.
Common courtesy dictates that one should be still when any noise distracts others. Halacha sets higher standards; our prayers should be audible to ourselves – and to G-d – but not to the person standing next to us. Besides being rude and contrary to Jewish law, talking when silence should prevail undoubtedly hinders one's kavana. How many of us have the power of concentration to focus fully on our tefillot when our neighbors in the pews are talking about the stock market, the previous night's ballgame, their kids, their upcoming trip to Eretz Yisroel or other sundry matters best left for Kiddush time, over a plate of kugel?

The problem is that minyanim frequented by talkers tend to be friendly, welcoming minyanim, where people feel at home. They’re the minyanim someone would want to join. On the other hand, the quieter minyanim are, I have found, largely cold and unwelcoming. In the former, a stranger is likely to be approached by the regulars, offered a tallit or an aliyah or a Shabbos meal invitation; in the latter, you’re more likely to be ignored. The friendliness, which is laudable, breeds the comfort to talk. The challenge is to combine the best of both worlds.
Amtrak has the right idea – there’s a time and place for friendly conversation, but a Quiet Car and a
minyan are not the place; a minyan certainly is not the time. Maybe we don't need rabbis to enforce decorum in shul. Maybe we should invite some Amtrak conductors and passengers to our minyanim.
All aboard?

(Excerpted from “How to End Talking in Shul: A New Training-ing Technique” by Steve Lipman.
Full article available at: https://www.jewishideas.org/node/2726/pdf)

Monday, November 25, 2019

Follow- Through is Key

Recently I’ve decided to try golfing. I am still working on my swing at the driving range. The good news is that I’m missing the ball less often. I also have no plans of giving up my day job. One of the things I’ve learned about golf is the importance of the follow-through on a swing. Good follow-through enables the golf ball to travel further and more accurately. The same is true in baseball (something I know a little more about than golf). As a baseball coach, I would remind my players of the importance of follow- through: both when hitting the baseball, as well as when you’re running to first base. Follow-through is an important quality to have in life. A person without follow-through ends up being inconsistent and not dependable. When we examine Eisav’s persona, one trait that stands out is his lack of follow-through

If Eisav was such a bad guy, how could Yitzchak have loved him? Our point of departure is the Torah itself, as it says at the beginning of Parshat Toldot: “Yitzchak loved Eisav Ki Tzayid B’fiv.
According to the literal meaning of the words, Yitzchak loved Eisav because Eisav provided him with good meat. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Eisav tricked Yitzchak into loving him. The Midrash goes on to elaborate that Eisav would ask his father things that would make him look righteous, such as whether one needs to give tithes from salt. The question still remains: How could Yitzchak have been fooled so easily?

There are two ways in which a person can be deceitful. A person can have an accurate sense of self but tries to fool others by not showing his or her true colors. Alternatively, a person can take the deceit so far that they even deceive themselves. In this case it is much more difficult to spot the deception as the lines between truth and lies has been blurred. Eisav is depicted as a person who began to believe his own lies. Medrash Rabba teaches that Eisav is symbolized by the pig. A pig has split hooves but does not chew its cud. The pig is described as always laying down with its hooves outstretched for everyone to see, as if to say, “look at me, I’m kosher.” Eisav’s ability to deceive even himself was what caused Yitzchak to be deceived as well.

Alternatively, one can view Eisav as being sincere, yet his flaw was being terribly inconsistent. Our Rabbis teach that on the day that Eisav sold the birthright to Yaakov he violated five serious sins, among them “Kafar B’Ikar” denying the very existence of G-d. And yet this does not prevent Yaakov from demanding that Eisav swear that his deal to buy the birthright is binding. It seems peculiar that Yaakov would accept Eisav’s oath in light of the grave sins that Eisav had recently committed. The Altar from Slobodka explains that Eisav’s problem was that he lacked any shred of consistency. He was capable of committing the worst of sins one moment, and then takes an oath and truly means what he says.

The Talmud in Sotah quotes the Midrash that Eisav’s head was buried in Me’rat Hamachpela with his righteous relatives. This is because Eisav might have had good intentions. However there was never any follow-through that enabled those intentions to be translated into attitudes and deeds. Let us learn from Eisav’s shortcoming and ensure that we have good follow-through that enables our intentions to translate into actions that hit their mark every time.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Shabbat Chevron

Parshat Chayei Sara has been designated as Shabbat Chevron because the Parsha describes Avraham’s purchase of the Machpela Cave and surrounding land as a burial location for Sara. Last year 40,000 Jews celebrated Shabbat Chayei Sara in Chevron, in a strong demonstration of the Jewish connection to this city. 

The Ramban cites Bereishit Rabbah (55:10), which claims that the origin of the name Machpelah (double) may stem from the fact that the Hashem is said to have folded the very tall corpse of Adam in half, in order for it to fit into the cave. Even though the cave was always known as Machpelah, the local Hittite people were unaware of the name’s significance, or that there were graves in the cave. That may also be the reason why in our Parsha, the local people refer to the entire area as Machpelah, whereas Avraham refers only to the cave as Machpelah.

The Midrash teaches that Avraham and Sara had longed to be buried in the final resting place of Adam and Eve. However, no one knew the exact location of that burial place. On the day that Abraham was informed by the angel that Sara would give birth to Yitzchak, Scripture states (Genesis 18:7) that Avraham went out to his herd to select animals in order to prepare a feast for his guests. According to the Midrash, one of the calves ran away into a cave. When Avraham followed the calf, he found Adam and Eve resting on their couches, and a spiritual light of incredible brilliance burning above them. The entire scene was enveloped in incense-like fragrance. This place was the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, the Hittite

Chevron was Avraham and Sara’s first permanent home in the land of Canaan. They lived there for some 25 years, relocating to Beer Sheba only after the destruction of Sodom and the incestuous behavior of Lot and his daughters. In Beer Sheba, Avraham proclaimed monotheism, and the Torah states (Genesis 21:33) that he maintained an Eishel in Beer Sheba, which is interpreted by the Midrash to mean a food pantry, or an inn for wayfarers. Even when living elsewhere, Avraham apparently visited Beer Sheba frequently. We now find that Avraham and Sara have moved back to Chevron, and they have been living there for approximately twelve years.

As residents of Beer Sheba, Avraham and Sara were concerned that the Hittites would not allow them to purchase the burial plot in Chevron; so when Sara was 115 years old, they moved back to Chevron, in order to establish permanent residency there, enabling them to purchase the plot.

The name Chevron comes from the Hebrew root of Chibur. As we learn from the previously cited Midrash, Chevron is a location that connects Heaven and Earth. This is one of the hallmark tasks of a Jew: to contribute to the world while acknowledging and publicizing the existence of a spiritual realm. Chevron is also a location that fosters a connection between us and the land of Israel, as well as the connection between us and our heritage / our ancestors (as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, besides Rachel, are all buried there).

On this Shabbat Chayei Sara/ Shabbat Chevron, let us consider our connection to the Land of Israel and to our Jewish heritage: In what ways are they meaningful? How can we gain more from these connections? How do we transmit the importance of these connections to our children? How can we strengthen these connections in the future?

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Cultivating a Culture of Caring

As a way to purify himself and improve his character, Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk accepted upon himself two years of wandering in exile. When he finally returned to Lizhensk, Reb Elimelech wanted to know how his family had fared during his self-imposed exile. He approached the very first man he saw and inquired about his family. The man replied that his son Eliezer was very sick. Reb Elimelech hurried home, burst into his home and immediately asked his wife, “What’s wrong with Eliezer?” His wife responded that Eliezer is fine and in school at the moment. “But I was told that Eliezer was very sick,” Reb Elimelech explained to his wife. After a moment’s thought she responded, “Whoever told you that must have confused our Eliezer with another Eliezer in the neighborhood, who is indeed very sick.” Reb Elimelech was relieved to find out that his son was okay. But after a moment of reflection, he chastised himself saying, “Elimelech! After two years of exile, undertaken to improve your character, you still distinguish between your Eliezer and someone else’s Eliezer?!” If so, then I have not accomplished anything with my exile.” Then Reb Elimelech turned around and went into exile for another year.

In Parshat Vayera we read how Hashem remembers Sara and she gives birth to Yitzchak. This episode comes immediately after we are told how Avraham prayed on behalf of Avimelech and his household, thereby restoring their reproductive functions after they were taken away as a Divine punishment. The Talmud (Baba Kamma 92a) notes the connection between these two stories and teaches:

“Anyone who asks for compassion from Heaven on behalf of another, and he requires compassion from Heaven concerning that same matter, he is answered first.”

The Tiferet Shmuel translates this Talmudic passage slightly differently: “Anyone who prays for another as intensely as he would pray for his own needs, is a prayer that will be given priority.”

Empathy and sympathy are benevolent emotions. Both are ways in which a person shows concern for a fellow human being. But neither of these emotions achieve the level of connection and concern that Jews are supposed to show for one another. Within the Jewish People, it’s not enough to love one another. The Torah commands us to “Love your fellow as you love yourself.” Rabbi Akiva taught that this mandate is a fundamental principle in the Torah. It is a high degree of identification with another person, one that is meant to be a hallmark of the Jewish People. The principle upon which this identification is built is called Arvut: Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Lazeh. On a spiritual level, the Jewish People are one complex yet unified organism. If one Jew is in trouble, it’s not only a personal problem, but it has an impact on the totality of the nation. When we help a fellow Jew we should view it in some way as if we are helping ourselves.

Parshat Vayera has been designated as Bikur Cholim Awareness Shabbat. Just as God visited Avraham when he was recuperating from his circumcision, so too do we have an obligation to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of those who are ill out of a sense of Arvut. Please take a moment to review all of the services offered by Bikur Cholim of Hollywood and find a way to get involved.
We are also fortunate this Shabbat to host participants in the Peace of Mind program. We are honored to have with us a group of soldiers who bravely defended the State of Israel. As proud Zionist we believe that members of the IDF serve not just the State of citizens of Israel, but all Jews around the world. It is a privilege for us to express our sense of gratitude and Arvut to those who have demonstrated their sense of Arvut in defense of the Jewish State.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

New Cheshvan Holidays

The Jewish month after Tishrei has no Biblical nor rabbinic holidays contained therein. While most people refer to our current month as Cheshvan, according to most sources its proper name is Marcheshvan or M’rachsh’van. Marcheshvan is probably derived from its location in the calendar. In Akkadian (Babylonian/Assyrian), “w” (vav) and “m” (mem) sounds can interchange. As a result, Marcheshvan which is from the two words “m’rach” and “shvan,” would have been “warh” and “shman,” in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew “yerech shmini,” thus “eighth month.” When the eighth month is mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud, it is referred to as Marcheshvan. Throughout all of Rashi’s Biblical and Talmudic commentary, he also refers to the month as Marcheshvan.
Some people erroneously think that the correct name for this month is Cheshvan, and the prefix “Mar” was added because it’s the Hebrew word for “bitter”.  According to this theory, Cheshvan is “bitter” because there are no Jewish holidays contained therein, and the bitterness is even more pronounced due to the abundance of holidays in the previous month of Tishrei. Even though this is false, this misconception has halachic implications. Since the mistaken practice of simply calling the month Cheshvan is so widespread, either Cheshvan or the two-word Mar Cheshvan is now acceptable, post facto, if erroneously used in a legal document such as a get (Aruch Hashulchan, Even Ha’ezer 126:17).

In Israel today, Cheshvan contains two Jewish holidays. On the 29th of Cheshvan is the holiday of Sigd. Sigd is a holiday of the Ethiopian Jewish community, known as "Beta Israel". The Knesset legislated the Sigd Law-2008, declaring the 29th of Cheshvan as a national holiday. The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew word for prostration, "sgida".

During Sigd, which is celebrated on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan – 50 days after Yom Kippur (similar to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Passover), the community marks the renewal of the covenant between the Jewish people, God and His Torah. During the holiday members of the community travel to Jerusalem and visit the Wailing Wall and the promenade in the city's “Armon Hanatziv” neighborhood. The holiday serves as an annual gathering of the entire Ethiopian community, and its members view it as an opportunity to strengthen the connection with their roots and culture.

The Kessim (Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders), dressed in their traditional robes, carry the Torah scrolls while holding multi-colored umbrellas. They stand on an elevated stage, read excerpts from the Bible and recite prayers before members of the community, also in Hebrew. Public officials attend the celebration and greet the audience, and many of the community members continue to fast until late in the afternoon.

And this past week, on the 7th of Cheshvan, was Yom HaAliyah, the newest Cheshvan Jewish holiday. It is an Israeli national holiday established to acknowledge Aliyah, immigration to the Jewish state, as a core value of the State of Israel, and honor the ongoing contributions of Olim to Israeli society. Originally, the proposed date was the 21st of Tevet, Eliezer ben Yehuda’s birthday, since he was the one who revived the Hebrew language. They felt that his birthday would be the best day to celebrate since Modern Hebrew is the tie that connects all of the immigrants to the State of Israel and gives them a common language. Then people began to celebrate Yom Ha’Aliyah on the 10th of Nisan, the date that B’nai Yisrael crossed the Jordan River 3500 years ago when the entire nation made aliyah and entered the land with Yehoshua bin Nun. However, the date was rejected since the 10th of Nisan falls out during Pesach vacation and would not be celebrated properly. The final date that was decided on is the 7th of Cheshvan which always falls out during the week that we read Parshat Lech Lecha, where we read about Avraham and Sarah’s aliyah to the Land of Israel.
The 7th of Cheshvan is also the date on which in Israel, the request for rain is included in the weekday Amidah. It emerges that in modern times, after a busy month of Biblical Tishrei holidays, Cheshvan is an opportunity for us to celebrate the modern miracle of the State of Israel and the ingathering of Jewish exiles from around the globe.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Our Toldot, Our Legacy

Our Parsha begins:
אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹ-הִ֖ים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ:
וַיּ֥וֹלֶד נֹ֖חַ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים אֶת־שֵׁ֖ם אֶת־חָ֥ם וְאֶת־יָֽפֶת:
These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God. And Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

These verses beg for further elucidation. After the Parsha opens with “these are the generations of Noach” we would expect the Torah to immediately list his children. Why does the Torah seem to go on a tangent and describe Noach the man after promising the reader to list his generations?

Ibn Ezra and Radak suggest that “Toldot” here does not mean descendants, but rather it means “the progeny of time” ie a person’s own history. According to this interpretation, the Torah first tells us about Noach’s spiritual accomplishments and then lists his descendants.
Rashi explains that by describing Noach’s virtues before his descendants, the Torah is teaching us an important lesson:
Another explanation [for why the names of the children are not mentioned immediately following “These are the generations of Noah”]: To teach you that the main generations [progeny] of the righteous are good deeds.

Malbim explains that a person produces three kinds of "progeny". These parallel the three different parts of human identity: the animal (as part of the natural world), the human (chai-medaber, the living speaking being), and the Divine. Whereas the animal side of man produces physical children as do the animals, the human side of man produces acts of kindness and justice in society. Finally, the "progeny" of the divine side of man is his study of Hashem's ways, true beliefs and other Torah concepts. These three kinds of "toldot" produced by Noach are mentioned by the Torah: "These are the progeny of Noach: 1) Noach was righteous (alluding to his acts of justice and kindness in his interpersonal relations), 2) Noach walked with G-d (referring to his study of Divine concepts), 3) Noach bore three children... (denoting his physical descendants)".

It is a tremendous credit to an individual, when s/he not only creates “toldot” through their interpersonal good deeds and Torah study, but also leaves children who have followed in these righteous ways. There are no guarantees that children will emulate their parents’ positive traits. Nonetheless, parents are not exempt from doing all that they can to not only do good deeds, but be a role model and encourage those behaviors in the next generation, so that their children perpetuate their legacy.

Parshat Noach gives us a lot to think about in terms of what legacy we leave and how we go about shaping that legacy. It is therefore appropriate that we have designated this Shabbat as our Life and Legacy Shabbat. This Shabbat is the kickoff to our effort to inform, educate and invite the community to commit to after-life giving to ensure the future of our shul, as well as a strong future Jewish community in Broward County. Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale has been accepted by the Jewish Federation of Broward County to take part in a 4-year partnership program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF) that will assist our Broward County community to promote after-lifetime giving to benefit Jewish day schools (including Brauser Maimonides Academy), synagogues, social service organizations and other Jewish entities.

Through training, support and monetary incentives, LIFE & LEGACY motivates Jewish organizations to secure legacy gifts, steward donors and integrate legacy giving into the philanthropic culture of the Jewish community. But what makes Life and Legacy especially appropriate to launch on Parshat Noach is that a legacy gift is not only a gift, but a statement. It is a statement to our children and our community of our priorities, ensuring that our legacy is a proud and noble one.

Thursday, October 24, 2019


When I was a graduate student at Wurzweiler School of Social Work I took a course titled “Jewish Social Philosophy.” The course explored the Jewish underpinnings of this helping profession. As part of the course, I had the privilege of learning Rav Soloveitchik’s Essay “Lonely Man of Faith” from Dr. Norman Linzer, father of our Dr. Dov Linzer, who had created the course many years earlier.

        In that essay, Rav Soloveitchik notes that the story of the Creation of mankind is recorded twice in Parshat Breishit. Rav Soloveitchik maintains that the two narratives in Breishit refer to two different Adams, Adam I and Adam II; they speak of two different aspects of the human condition, two different elements of our relationship with God, and two different responsibilities that we seek to carry out in fulfillment of our purpose.

        In Chapter 1, the Torah portrays mankind as created B’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Just as God is creative and constructive so, too, do we strive to follow suit. This is what the Rav referred to as majestic man. Majestic man seeks to understand the world around him/her and conquer it, manipulate it, achieve through it. Adam I is completely utilitarian in motivation, and boldly aggressive in approach.

Chapter 2 speaks of man being created from the dust of the earth. According to the Rav: Adam II “speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing, of acting ‘irrationally’ instead of always being reasonable.”

        Adam I seeks dignity, while Adam II seeks redemption.  Dignity is a social quality of the surface personality; redemption is an existential state of the inner personality. Redemption is attained by control over oneself, dignity by control over one's surroundings. Redemption expresses itself in surrender to God, dignity in defiance of nature. Redemption is characterized by retreat, dignity by advance. 

        Both Adams, both aspects of the human condition, seek out religion - but for two entirely different reasons. Adam I is “not searching for faith… but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action. But the convenience one discovers in a comfortable serene state of mind…”

        The religion of Adam II is one which “requires the giving of one’s self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action and retreat.”

        The key word is commitment. Adam I practices a religion of convenience. Adam II’s religion is one of commitment.

        This reminds me of the story about the chicken and the cow. A cow and a chicken are walking down the road. The chicken says: "Hey (cow), I was thinking we should open a restaurant!" Cow replies: "Hmm, maybe, what would we call it?" The chicken responds: "How about steak-n-eggs?" The cow thinks for a moment and says: "No thanks. Because in that business, you’d be involved, but I would be committed!”

        Though commitment may be demanding and limiting in many ways, it is what gives religion its status and its meaning.  Today many people have become averse to commitment, and society has allowed us to do so with limited consequence. The paradox is that when commitments are de-emphasized in religion we would expect an increase in those willing to affiliate, and yet the opposite has occurred. We have more excuses today not to commit than perhaps ever before in history.

        The basic building blocks of society simply erode without commitment. Commitment is the very essence of relationships: both with Hashem and with our fellow human beings.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Starry Night

The Halacha is very clear that a sukkah is kosher only if the schach blocks out a majority of the sunlight- Tzilta Merubah Me’Chamta- which means that inside the sukkah there must be more shade than sunlight. Chazal have attributed many philosophical meanings to this legal requirement. Sitting in the sukkah is supposed to remind us of the ever-present protection that we experience from Hashem. The Zohar teaches that when we sit in our sukkahs we should try to experience, or at least appreciate, the Tzila D’Hemnutah, the protection that G-d provides that in return strengthens our faith in Him. It is interesting to note that just as shade symbolizes G-dliness, sunlight can represent the antithesis of G-dliness. According to Maimonides, the sun was the first being other than G-d that was worshipped by human beings. The worship of the sun began a downward spiral that ultimately led to a decrease in recognition of Hashem among all humans. As we sit in our temporary and flimsy huts we are reminded of our dependence on Hashem and therefore are careful to minimize the presence of sunlight.

            However there is another Halacha associated with our schach. Just as it can’t be too thin, it also shouldn’t be too thick. The Halacha states that one should be able to see the stars through the schach. Some poskim understand this requirement to mean that one should be able to see the stars from at least one vantage point in the sukkah. Q: What is so important about the stars that they are required viewing from our sukkahs?

            One of the most famous paintings in the world is “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. In describing his inspiration for this painting Van Gogh wrote “When I have a terrible need of- shall I say the word- religion- then I go out and paint the stars.” Although van Gogh was mentally ill, this statement has a lot of truth to it. Stars, both their physical existence as well as their symbolic meaning, have been fertile ground for religious interpretation and inspiration.

            Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his philosophical work Derech Hashem writes that the stars serve as the pipeline through which heavenly influences are brought into the physical world. Nevertheless, stars are far removed from our reality. The closest star to our planet is four light years away. In Parshat Breishit, the pasuk tells us about the creation of the stars only after emphasizing the creation of the sun and moon. Rav Hirsch comments that the importance of stars for the earth is less recognizable. Stars play a much more central role as a Jewish symbol and in our own imaginations.

            According to Rav Soloveitchik we must be able to see the stars from our sukkah in order to keep our horizons broad. The Rav explained that man's problem is that his personal schach obscures his vision. It prevents a person from seeing the world, from seeing the full grandeur of Hashem. Each person believes that he has discovered the world's deepest secrets and fancies himself all knowing and all capable. Each of us sits in his or her own tiny booth with such thick personal schach that we cannot fathom the existence of stars, of something beyond our own worldview. By looking at the stars, we remind ourselves that there is a whole universe out there full of possibilities and promise.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Jewish Unity: A Focus of This Season

In Parshat Haazinu we read:

הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ כִּי כָל דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא:
The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God,
without injustice He is righteous and Yashar – upright.

The Avot, patriarchs, are often described as Yesharim, and Chazal occasionally refers to Sefer Bereishit as "Sefer Ha-yashar."  The Netziv explains that Yashar denotes proper interpersonal conduct – when integrity and respect are shown even to those whose lifestyle we disapprove.  For instance, Avraham prayed on behalf of the corrupt city of Sedom, whose values and conduct ran in direct opposition to everything he stood for. Yitzchak responded forgivingly to the leadership of Gerar even after they drove him from the city.  The patriarchs were Yesharim because they acted in a dignified, respectful manner even towards those with whom they profoundly disagreed.

            The Netziv goes on to explain that in this pasuk in Haazinu, Moshe foreshadows the destruction of the Second Temple, a calamity that God brought upon the Jewish people on account of the baseless hatred they displayed towards one another.  That generation consisted of many distinguished scholars who were otherwise tzadikim, but they quarreled bitterly with one another.  Every disagreement immediately bred mutual accusations of heresy, and the disputants treated one another with ruthless hatred.  Moshe here declares that God is Tzadik ve-Yashar, He demands both spiritual piety (tzadik) as well as respectful manners (yashar).

This message contained within our Parsha is especially timely and relevant in our highly polarized culture.

It’s okay to disagree, even passionately. But when doing so, we must be careful to do it in an agreeable manner. We should listen to what the other side is saying, for it can help us understand them and even ourselves better. We should not impugn the other side’s motives. And we should think about “the day after”; how we plan on living together and working together going forward with those whom we share many values, while disagreeing on certain issues.

One of the names for the Jewish People, utilized in this morning’s Parsha, is Yeshurun.
Ibn Ezra suggests that the name “Yeshurun,” is derived from the Hebrew word Yashar – “straight.”  It refers to the Jewish People in our ideal state, when we represent to the world a path that is passionate and opinionated and maybe argumentative, but always done in the spirit of Yashar. Let us learn from Hashem’s model of Tzadik V’yashar to engage in debates within the Jewish community from a spirit of civility, good will and unity.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in each Amidah we ask Hashem:

וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים. וְיֵעָשׂוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם.

to create a scenario in which “all of creation will worship You, and they will be bound together as one, to carry out Your will with an undivided heart.”

The theme of Jewish unity continues into the holiday of Sukkot, when we bring together the four species to fulfill the mitzvah. Each one is different, and each one represents a different type of Jew with different perspectives. And yet when it’s time to fulfill the mitzvah, they put aside their differences and join forces in order to fulfill the Divine plan. Let us heed the lesson of this time of year by never losing sight of Jewish unity, and living up to our name as Yeshurun and Yesharim.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

We Are Worthy

“Hayom Harat Olam” today is the birthday of the world. Actually, today commemorates the 6th day of creation, when Man was created and the purpose of G-d’s world came to fruition. The Talmud in Masechet Sanhedrin gives an hour-by-hour account of what occurred on that first Rosh Hashana:

During the first three hours of the day, Adam’s physical body was fashioned. In hour four he received his soul. During the fifth hour he stood erect for the first time, and in the sixth hour he named all of the animals. In the seventh hour Adam was paired with Eve, and in the eighth hour, Eve both conceived and gave birth to their first children. In the ninth hour Adam was commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and already in the tenth hour he sinned by eating from it. During the eleventh hour Adam was judged and in the twelfth and final hour of the first day of his life Adam was punished and banished from the Garden of Eden.

Now that I’ve learned this Gemara, I will be very hesitant to complain about any of my days being too busy! From here we learn that the idea of today being a Yom Hadin, Judgement Day, has existed since the very first Rosh Hashana. Not only was humankind created on Rosh Hashana, but so was the notion of human sin and Divine Judgement. Adam and Eve’s punishment was multi-faceted and included banishment from the Garden of Eden and a more difficult and grueling life. Another aspect of the punishment is expressed by the words:

“For you are dust and you shall return to dust.”

With Adam’s sin, death was created. It is with this background that we can more fully understand the words that we recite right after U’netaneh Tokef:

“A man’s origin is dust and his destiny is back to dust. At risk of his life he earns his bread.”
This description is historical – it alludes to the outcome of events that transpired on the first Rosh Hashana. But it is also rather depressing. The piyut goes on:

“He is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

If this is meant to serve as a model of how to view Rosh Hashana, then we are left feeling worthless and hopeless. If these are the only facts available for admission, then it seems impossible to mount a successful defense of ourselves and our existence.

However, there is more to the story of that first Rosh Hashana. On that day Hashem exercised His judicial discretion in the form of Rachamim. G-d had compassion on Adam and utilized restraint when sentencing Adam and Eve. But why?

Rav Soloveitchik explained that Adam was saved due to his potential for greatness. Although his past actions required improvement, it was his potential that justified Adam’s continued existence. It emerges that Rosh Hashana also commemorates the first time that man’s potential was utilized for his redemption.

On Rosh Hashana we do not defend our sins. Rather we declare – to Hashem and to ourselves – that we have the potential for greatness. Before we reflect on our actions and look for areas in which to improve, we must be thoroughly convinced that we are capable of improving and that we are worth the effort. The pre-requisite for Teshuva is that we do not give up on ourselves.

On Rosh Hashana our task is to make the necessary preparations for Teshuva. Each of us must appreciate his or her self-worth and potential. In the process of proclaiming G-d as King we are also proclaiming that as servants of the King we are valuable and worth the effort towards improvement.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Public Displays of Mitzvot

One afternoon in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yakov Vann was on his way to the synagogue for the afternoon prayers when somebody called out from a doorway asking him to complete a minyan in a house of mourning. He gladly agreed to pray with the mourners, but upon entering the apartment, he was surprised to observe that although it was full of seforim (sacred Jewish books), the mourners themselves did not appear to be religiously observant.

After the prayer service had concluded, Rabbi Vann took out a Mishnah Berurah to examine it, and he was even more taken aback to see that its margins were full of astute insights and comments. He inquired about the owner of the seforim, and one of the mourners replied that they all belonged to the deceased, his father. Rabbi Vann probed further, asking whether any of the other family members used the books. Sadly, the son responded that although his father had been a very pious and learned Torah scholar, none of his children had followed in his ways. He explained that when his father came home each night, he would lock himself in his study and spend hours poring over his beloved tomes. However, because his Torah study only occurred behind closed doors and not in the presence of his family, his children never observed him learning and therefore did not absorb his passion for Torah and mitzvot.

As Rabbi Vann left the mourners, he realized that this encounter gave him a newfound appreciation of a novel Torah thought that he had recently heard. In Parshat Nitzavim, Moshe told the Jewish people.

הַנִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת לַה אֱלֹ-הֵ֑ינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָֹ֤נוֹּ וֹּלְֹבָֹנֵֹ֨יֹנֹוּ֨ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם לַֽעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת:

The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah.

Rashi understands this verse to be referring to sins. We believe that Jews are responsible for one another, not only on a physical level but on a spiritual level as well. This means that if a Jew witnesses a fellow Jew doing something wrong and does not speak up to correct the situation, then the bystander shares in the guilt of the sin. Rashi explains that this verse is teaching us that this is only true for public sins. We might be worried that we all share in the guilt of hidden sins as well, even though we don’t know about them. That is why the verse says that hidden matters belong to Hashem. God will take care of the secret sins. But each of us must step up and address those sins that are done in public.

However, Rav Aharon Rokeach, the fourth Belzer Rebbe and uncle of the present Belzer Rebbe, suggested that the verse can be interpreted as referring to mitzvot: “Hidden things belong to God”- if we hide our mitzvot by doing them privately, then only Hashem will know about our righteous ways. On the other hand, “the revealed things apply to us and to our children.” If we take a different approach and reveal our good deeds to our children, then our religious priorities and values will remain ad olam - for all eternity, as they will be carried on by our children and descendants for all generations.

Humility is a valued character trait. But when it comes to performing mitzvot we need to have some ego. We need to proudly exhibit, even flaunt at times, the mitzvot that we do, so that it can positively impact our children and our community.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Connecting To Community: A Suggestion for a Successful High Holidays

The Torah records two occasions when the Jewish people entered into a covenant (brit) with G-d regarding observance of the mitzvot. The first covenant was at Har Sinai and the second was in the Plains of Moav, just before the passing of Moshe Rabbeinu. Parshat Bechukotai describes the covenant made at Har Sinai; the covenant that occurred right before the Jews entered Israel is found in our parsha, Ki Tavo.

Why was there a need for a second covenant? If the covenant at Sinai was legally binding, what dimension was added with the brit of Ki Tavo?

Rav Herschel Schachter explains that this second covenant is not only binding on the individuals present at that time, but on all future generations as well. The covenant at Sinai was only binding on those individuals who were present. (This could be the impetus for the Midrashic caveat that ‘all souls were present at Sinai.’)

The concept of "Am Yisrael" only emerged in its fullest sense once the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisrael and acquired their own national homeland. For a covenant to be binding on future generations, it must be entered into by a nation; a nation to which future generations will still belong. The covenant of Ki Tavo was only begun by Moshe Rabbeinu, and was really completed by Yehoshua bin Nun at Har Grizim and Har Eival. The principle of arvut (that all Jews are held responsible for each other because they all constitute one entity) only started after the declaration of the blessings and curses at Har Grizim.

The verses in Bechukotai are written in the plural, as opposed to the text here in Ki Tavo, where all of the pesukim appear in the singular. The Vilna Gaon notes that when a parsha appears twice, once in the singular and once in the plural, the parsha in the singular is addressing all of the nation as one entity, while the one in the plural is addressing each and every individual. In our case as well, Parshat Bechukotai has the text of the covenant made with each individual Jew, while in Ki Tavo the text of the covenant made with Klal Yisrael is as one entity - one nation.

Ezra HaSofer instituted that we read Ki Tavo close to Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps this is because an important way to prepare for the High Holidays is by deepening our connection to community, to Klal Yisrael. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are judged as individuals. But the nation as a whole is also judged. Tradition teaches that the nation as a whole is guaranteed forgiveness from Hashem. This was indicated in the times of the Temple by the red string turning white on Yom Kippur. Individuals cannot be assured of atonement. We need to earn it through teshuva, tefilah, tzedaka, etc. At the same time the more we connect, identify and support the community, the more we can benefit from the Divine guarantee of national atonement.

We have launched the Kol Nidrei campaign for 5780. The Kol Nidrei Appeal is the largest fundraiser of the year for our shul. It enables us to continue to be the center of Orthodox Jewish life in Hollywood. Your generous pledge is an expression of appreciation for what the shul has provided in the past, a recognition of the shul’s critical role in the lives of present day Hollywood- Ft Lauderdale Jews, and an investment in our shared exciting future.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Parenting Lessons from the Rebellious Child

Parshat Ki Teitzei contains within it a discussion of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh, the rebellious child. The Torah describes a tween-age child that is gluttonous and rebellious and does not listen to his/her parents. Exasperated, the parents together bring the rebellious child to the judges of that city. The Torah treats such a situation with the utmost gravity, and such a young person is subject to capital punishment if found guilty.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71) is skeptical if such a scenario ever actually occurred. According to one opinion, the Ben Sorrer Umoreh never actually existed in reality, and the Torah was aware of the impossibility of such a scenario. According to a second opinion, there is the hypothetical possibility of a Ben Sorrer Umoreh existing, but the probability of it actually occurring in real life is slim to none. According to both of these opinions, the purpose of the Torah introducing us to this rebellious child is “Derosh v’Kabel Sechar”, analyze the case, learn its lessons, and be rewarded for your efforts. What are the lessons of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh, from which we can learn and gain insight?

The Maharsha suggests two important lessons. According to the opinion that the Ben Sorrer Umoreh never could really happen, the reason is because there is an emphasis in the Talmud on the parity between both parents (same voice, same appearance) in order for the rebellious child to be liable. The Maharsha writes that such consistency is impossible, and the child can claim that sometimes the father would warn him and sometimes the mother would warn him, but never both of them at the same time- which is a requirement to be labeled a Ben Sorrer Umoreh.

The Maharsha continues to explain the rationale for the opinion that a Ben Sorrer Umoreh is possible but improbable. Although it is possible for both parents and child to fulfill all of the criteria laid out by the Torah/Talmud, it is highly unlikely, writes the Maharsha, that the parents would ever tell on their child and bring the child to be punished by the judges of the city. One of the requirements is that both parents bring the child to be disciplined. The Maharsha writes, based on his own observations, that it is more likely that the parents will have an abundance of compassion and tolerance towards their child, and not bring him/her to be disciplined. According to the Maharsha, the parents’ attitude constitutes misplaced compassion and tolerance that is detrimental to both the child and society at large.

As we begin a new school year it behooves us, as parents and educators, to heed well the lessons of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh as taught to us by the Maharsha. First, we must strive to present to our children a consistent message as far as our values and our expectations. To be most effective, the message should be consistent between each parent, as well as between parents and teachers. Children get confused and opportunities are missed when our lessons and messaging lack consistency.  Second, we must understand, as the Rambam teaches, that an abundance of almost anything is dangerous.  Gluttony is one type of overindulgence.  But as the Maharsha explains, there is such a thing as overindulging our children: too much compassion and tolerance for a child’s misbehavior. When we love our children, but do not set limits, we can be doing more harm than good.

If we strive for a consistent message, and love our children while providing for their limits, then we will, B’Ezrat Hashem, be worthy of the reward that is promised to those who explore the meaning behind the Ben Sorrer Umoreh.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Weathering the Storm - Together

June 1st is my son Avi’s second favorite day of the year; with only his birthday ahead of it. As every Floridian knows, June 1st is the first day of hurricane season, and Avi is an amateur meteorologist. For his birthday last year he got a weather station that we installed outside, and the weather readings are sent to a display that we keep in our family room. Avi follows the weather carefully this time of year, especially any disturbances in the Atlantic. Whether invest, tropical wave or tropical depression, you can be sure that we will hear about it over dinner.

The first couple of months of hurricane season are generally quiet in the tropics, lulling some people in to complacency. Even as we are reminded to review our storm plans and check our hurricane supplies, many of us choose to remember the past storm seasons that were quiet, with limited impact on us. This allows us to postpone and delay our preparations and plans.

And then we wake up one morning, like we did last week, and the meteorologists inform us that the storm is headed right at us, and it is gaining strength. That was the case with Hurricane Dorian. At one point the forecast was that Dorian was a Category 4 hurricane and headed right at South Florida. One model showed the storm coming to shore in Miami and then heading North through the tri-county area as a catastrophic hurricane.

It was at that point that people began to notice/ panic. This was evident by the lines at gas stations and the empty shelves at supermarkets and Home Depot stores. Here at shul, we began to implement our shul’s hurricane protocols. The protocols are divided into two categories: building and people. Our building supervisor Luis oversaw the steps we take to protect our shul campus and ensure that we have the supplies needed to function after a storm. We reviewed the 2019 hurricane member survey to see who had indicated they might need help and who volunteered to help. We also created a WhatsApp group chat to allow community members to share any needs/ information they had storm-related. It was heartening to see our community pull together and help each other out: whether it was updating each other on where to find available supplies, to the person who was about to get on a long line to buy himself batteries, and offered to pick up some for anyone else who needed.

Thankfully Dorian remained off shore, leaving our community with minimal impact. Some see all of the preparation and anxiety as a waste of time and energy. I think there are valuable lessons for us to consider. First, a lesson regarding preparation: Prepare early for best results. This is just as true about our spiritual lives as it is about hurricane prep. Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe will be upon us in less than a month. Instead of waiting until the very last minute, it is much more effective to engage in a process of reflection and teshuva throughout the month of Elul. Come to one of the special Elul classes. Sign up for my daily Elul Reflection via WhatsApp.

Second, we weather the storm best when we do so together. Worse than being impacted by a storm is thinking that there’s no-one to turn to for help. Our shul is built upon a foundation of chesed. This culture of caring is evident at times of need, like during a hurricane.

This coming week our shul will be launching a 24 hour online matching campaign to purchase security hardware necessary for our shul campus. More information will be sent via e-mail and through social media. The safety of our campus is very important to us. We are hoping for everyone’s participation in this security campaign. Just as with Dorian, synagogue safety and security is best weathered together.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Blowing Shofar During Elul

Two of the well-known customs during the month of Elul are performed one right after the other at the end of Shacharit services: the blowing of the shofar and the recitation of Tehillim Chapter 27 “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”. Of the two customs, shofar blowing during Elul is more established and referenced earlier and more often in books of Jewish law. Due in part to its more established status, some Rabbis believed that the proper order of operations is to recite Psalm 27 first and end services with the sound of the shofar. Although this makes a lot of sense and would seem to be a more dramatic way to end services, it is not the customary order of operations in most synagogues, including ours. We blow the shofar and then recite “L’Dovid”. We can get a better understanding of why we do what we do by briefly reviewing the reason for each custom.

The Tur (O.C 581) quotes Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer to explain why we blow the shofar in Elul. Historically, Moshe broke the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz. After praying for the People’s forgiveness, Moshe was finally ready to ascend Mt. Sinai again to receive the second tablets on the first day of Elul. On that day, the shofar was sounded as a warning to the Jewish People not to make the same mistake this time around.

In effect, the sound of the shofar during Elul is a reminder of how very difficult it is for human beings to change their ways. The sin of the Golden Calf was a once-in-history type of event. And yet, as Moshe ascends Mt Sinai to receive the second tablets the shofar is sounded to remind the Jewish People not to make that mistake again. When we hear the shofar, we too are being challenged to change our ways and perspectives. But we are creatures of habit. If the Jews who erred and were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf were suspected of not changing, what hope can we have?
That is why we recite Tehillim Chapter 27 after the shofar blasts. As King David writes in this Psalm, Hashem is our light and our salvation. Teshuva may be difficult, but if we put our trust in Hashem then it is well within our reach. During the month of Elul, Teshuva is the natural outcome if we heed the call of the shofar and understand the lesson of “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”.

The Tur also notes that blowing the shofar—which is actually a Rosh Hashanah activity—for a month in advance “confuses the prosecuting angel”, who now has no idea what day is the real Rosh Hashanah. How is blowing the shofar for a month going to confuse the prosecuting angel? Wouldn’t the crafty angel catch on after a few hundred years? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that by hearing the shofar and internalizing its message, we will feel remorse over past misdeeds and set ourselves upon a fresh new path. If so, the case is already sealed—and we won. Hashem has already inscribed us in the book of life for the coming year, even before Rosh Hashanah. This leaves the prosecutor confused. What’s left for him to do when the trial date finally arrives?

That’s the meaning of “not knowing what day is Rosh Hashanah”—the prosecuting angel can no longer tell when the judgment occurs. Because we proactively took care of the whole thing on our own accord and in advance of the Day of Judgement.

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Greatness is Found in Small Gestures

My favorite article this week was on mlb.com, 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.