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.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

I returned on Tuesday from three of my favorite, most inspirational days of the year: AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC. I was joined by over 18,000 pro-Israel activists, including 50 from our synagogue. The theme of this year’s conference was “Connected for Good”. In many different speeches, sessions, and presentations, we learned and were reminded of the many ways that Israel is a force for good in our world, especially for the United States.

This is a message that is especially important at this moment in history. When a member of Congress suggests that support for Israel comes at the expense of the patriotism for the US, echoing age-old anti-Semitic tropes of “dual loyalty”, we need to be strong and clear that US support for Israel is based on shared values and shared interests. America prides itself in supporting democratic values across the globe. It is therefore obvious why the US would support Israel, the only democratic country in the region. As was mentioned at the conference, there is a misunderstanding (perhaps deliberate) about the source of AIPAC’s strength. AIPAC’s strength is not “all about the Benjamins”. The widespread support in America for Israel is not a result of AIPAC’s size, or financial spending on lobbying. The strength of AIPAC is a result of American support for Israel.

Although we expect this support from the Jewish community, at the Policy Conference I had a chance to see the diversity of the pro-Israel community: liberals and conservatives, Jews and Christians, Latinos and African Americans. Though the reasons for their support for Israel were different, there was a common theme among all of their stories: they see something in Israel that is familiar, something that relates to their own experience or upbringing. I heard from a businessman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He told a story of his visit to a Jewish community along the Gaza border, as part of an AIPAC educational trip of African American business leaders. There he heard about the anxiety and terror that families feel as they have only seconds to find shelter when a rocket is launched from Gaza. This businessman asked a mother whom he met why she chooses to remain with her family. Why doesn’t she just pick up and move to somewhere safer? She answered, simply yet poignantly, “because it’s my home.” At that moment this man from Louisiana was reminded of families who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. When they had lost everything in the deadly floods they too were asked why they stay. And they also responded “because it’s our home.” In that moment, this man sympathized with the Israeli cause. In that moment a pro-Israel activist was born.

I also heard from Mareshia Rucker, a former college student leader who was President of the Student Democrats Club on her campus. She was part of an AIPAC educational trip that took 25 college Democratic leaders and 25 Republican campus leaders to Israel. This articulate woman told how impacted she was to see bomb shelters alongside bus shelters, so Israelis can find cover in the all too common event of rocket fire. She noticed that the bomb shelters were painted in child friendly colors and motifs. This brought home the reality that these innocent Israeli children live life “under fire”. All of them have heard rocket fire and have learned from a young age what to do to stay safe in the face of incoming fire.

And this reminded her of her own painful family story. She grew up in a tough neighborhood in Georgia, where gang violence was common. One day she went to the store and her 4-year old sister followed her. She left her sister on a bench and walked across the street to talk to some friends. In the meantime, a fight broke out near the store between a young man and a gang member. Soon shots were fired and bullets were flying. Her 4-year old sister was shot, and died in her big sister’s arms. Seeing the bomb shelters in Israel brought home to this student leader the common challenges faced by her community and this Israeli community. And when that connection was made, a pro-Israel activist was created.

Part of being a Religious Zionist is realizing that our personal stories can and must include Israel. Israel is our inheritance, our heritage, our homeland. We must seek out ways to personalize our connection to Israel, thereby becoming greater “Lovers of Zion” and more active pro-Israel activists here in America.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On March 12, 2019, United States federal prosecutors charged 50 people who were allegedly part of a scheme to influence admissions decisions at several American research universities. Wealthy parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to a "college admissions counselor" who used the money to fake student test scores and bribe college officials.

The leader of the scheme, William Rick Singer, pleaded guilty and helped the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gather incriminating evidence against co-conspirators. He said he unethically facilitated college admission for more than 750 families. Prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts have unsealed indictments and complaints against 50 people, including Singer, university coaches he bribed, and people who are alleged to have used bribery and fraud to secure admission for their children at nine universities. Among the accused parents are prominent business people and well-known actors.

There are many issues and lessons that emerge from this news story that are worthy of our consideration. One issue is the proper approach parents and children should take when considering options for college. Most of our community families invest in our children’s Jewish education through high school. It would seem obvious that we consider and explore Orthodox Jewish life on the campuses that we consider for college. A few months ago Rabbi Adam and Sara Frieberg presented an evening for high schools Juniors and Seniors about choosing a college, and the types of things we should be looking for and the questions we should be asking when we tour college campuses. I am sure that they would be willing to review those suggestions with any interested parent or student. No secular college campus Jewish life can compete with what is available at a Jewish sponsored college setting. It also makes sense that the 12+ years of Jewish education be cemented and enhanced during the college years. That is why I believe every high school graduate should seriously consider one of the Jewish-sponsored college options such as Yeshiva University, Touro or Bar Ilan etc. And if one decides that a secular campus is best for them, then they must figure out how they will continue to thrive and grow Jewishly during these important and formative college years.

Another issue that this story brings up is the lack of proper parenting displayed in this unfortunate saga. Parents want what’s best for their children. But there is a limit to the ways that a parent can/ should intervene on their child’s behalf. Although there may be some ambiguous cases, lying, cheating and breaking the law to get them a college acceptance is a clear violation of proper parenting norms. Sociologists used to talk about “helicopter parents” as parents who would “hover” over their children, schedule their days, and plan their futures. Today they talk about “snow plow parents” (yes, even in Florida). These are parents who do whatever they can to remove all the challenges and difficulties out of their child’s way. These parents mean well. They want their child to succeed. They want their child to never encounter any difficulties or failures. But in so doing, these parents are doing a tremendous disservice to their children. For an important attribute to develop throughout life, but especially in adolescence, is resilience.

Children learn resilience by recovering from failure, by enduring challenges, and by adapting in the face of adversity. At some point in their lives, our children will be on their own, and have to navigate situations without the help of their parents, snow plow variety or otherwise. Part of properly providing for our children entails providing them with resilience and the confidence necessary to overcome challenges, setbacks, even failures.

In Parshat Tzav we read about a type of rejected sacrifice, called pigul. This is a korban that is from a kosher species and was prepared correctly. However when it came time to sprinkle the blood on the Altar the Kohen got confused and had a thought that was not applicable to this korban. It was the thought that invalidates the offering. Pigul reminds us that we must have proper thoughts and intentions throughout an endeavor. Ends do not justify the means. This is a lesson we must learn ourselves, and model to the next generation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Korban Oleh V’Yored in Our Lives

One of the first terms that I learned when I was working at a Jewish Family Service in NJ was sliding scale fee. As a not-for-profit mental health facility, Jewish Family Services are committed to helping those in need, irrespective of a client’s ability to pay; so most agencies have a sliding scale fee arrangement. A person pays what s/he is able to afford, based on their income and expenses.

One could say that the idea of a sliding scale fee structure is found in this week’s Parsha. Sefer Vayikra begins with an overview of the various types of sacrifices, and the circumstances surrounding the offering of each. Chapter Five teaches that there are some violations for which a Korban Oleh V’Yored is brought. A Korban Oleh V’Yored is a sliding scale sacrifice (Oleh V’Yored- up and down). One who is of means will bring a female sheep or goat as a Korban Chatat. If one cannot afford an animal then two doves are brought instead. Those who cannot even afford two birds are instructed to bring an offering of flour as a Korban. Korban Oleh V’Yored reminds us that our ability to have a relationship with G-d and be a valued member of Jewish society is not dependent on one’s economic status.

In explaining the “sliding scale Korban” the Sefer Hachinuch makes two points. First, quoting the Talmud, the Chinuch writes that if one has the means to afford a goat or sheep as their Korban but instead brings a less expensive sacrifice, that person has not fulfilled his or her requirement and must bring another sacrifice that is on par with their economic status. The message here is clear. People must be willing to honestly prioritize their financial resources and determine what it is they are able to afford. The Torah warns us not to undervalue nor undercut our religious obligations.

The second point that the Chinuch makes is that if a person of modest means overextends him or herself in order to bring a sacrifice that is out of their budget, that person has also NOT fulfilled their obligation of bringing a Korban Oleh V’Yored. What an innovative and remarkable idea! It seems odd: after all there is a rich tradition within the Halacha of Hidur Mitzvah, of spending more than the minimum in order to perform a mitzvah in a beautiful way. Why is it that a person of modest means who stretches to bring a more expensive Korban should be denied the opportunity?

The Sefer Hachinuch is teaching us the importance of living within our means. If the person cannot afford it, then s/he should not be buying it, even for the sake of a mitzvah. It’s a difficult lesson to take seriously in this country. After all, our government is 22 Trillion dollars (that’s twelve zeros) in debt. That works out to over $67,000 of debt for each person living in this country. Is it any wonder that personal debt has reached epidemic proportions?  The average household is burdened with 8,000 dollars of credit card debt. It has come to the point in this country that debt is good for your credit rating. A person with debt in most circumstances will be considered a better candidate for a loan than someone without debt.  Korban Oleh V’Yored teaches us the value of living within our means and of financial independence. The Torah is satisfied with different sacrifices from different people, as long as everyone gives it their best effort.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Parshat Pekudei begins by reiterating the critical roles of Betzalel and Oholiav in the construction of the Mishkan. Earlier Rashi noted that when the Torah mentions Betzalel or Oholiav, it often makes the point of providing their lineage: not only the names of their fathers, but also identifying the tribe from which they come.

“Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah…..With him was Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan….”(38:21-22)

Rashi explains that the tribe of Dan was the least respected tribe, as Dan was the son of a maidservant; while the tribe of Yehuda was the most respected tribe, the tribe of leadership and monarchy. The Torah wants us to understand that in order for the Mishkan Campaign to be successful, it needed to include, and be supported by, a full spectrum of Jews.

Last Friday, I joined 22 of my rabbinic colleagues from Young Israel synagogues across the country in signing a statement of concern directed towards National Council of Young Israel. NCYI is an umbrella organization with over 100 “branches” (ie independent Orthodox synagogues that utilize the name “Young Israel”). It’s stated mission is to “broaden the appeal of the traditional community synagogue as the central address for Jewish communal life by providing educational, religious, social, spiritual, and communal programming." The organization traces its beginnings to 1912 when a group of young Orthodox Jews decided to do what they could to make Orthodox Judaism more relevant to their peers, and combat the wave of assimilation.

I have a lot of respect and appreciation for what National Council has accomplished for Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century. They provided interest-free loans to help Orthodox synagogues get off the ground, thereby enriching the landscape of Orthodox Jewish communities across the country. I grew up attending a Young Israel, and I attribute my chosen career path to my experiences in my hometown shul. Recently NCYI convened a very successful Parenting Panel at our shul.
In the last few years NCYI has increased its political advocacy work and its press releases, both in terms of the quantity, as well as the breadth of issues that it comments on. This includes press releases on issues related to both policies and politics, in the United States and in Israel.

An Orthodox synagogue umbrella group should be both patriotic and Zionistic, ie find ways to support Israel and the United States, in both word and action. However in today’s hyper-partisan climate, my colleagues and I feel that NCYI should be careful when and what it comments on and how those views are expressed. Not every news item or current event, here or in Israel, requires a press release or statement. Since the platform for NCYI to issue press releases is built on the fact that it “represents” thousands of Orthodox Jewish families (approximately 5,000 of which are represented by the 23 congregations that initially signed the statement), we feel that there needs to be a transparent and inclusive process before statements are released “in our names”. Furthermore as a matter of priorities, we believe that NCYI should focus on synagogue services and advocacy work that directly impacts and benefits synagogues and their constituents, and not on press releases that can be partisan and divisive.

We must be vigilant that political views are never a litmus test for membership and involvement in our shul. We are a diverse community- and that diversity extends into the realm of politics. Everyone is welcome to be a part of our shul; so long as you subscribe to our vision of a model synagogue community built on Torah and Mitzvot, a trajectory of religious growth, and a culture of caring. We are each entitled to our opinions about politics and policies- both US and Israeli (and as Rabbi, I sometimes choose to share my opinions from the pulpit). But conflicting political positions should never be conflated into interpersonal conflict within our shul. We should be able to share our shul with those with whom we disagree. We must always remember, that like the Mishkan, our miniature Mishkan only realizes its potential when the full spectrum of committed Jews is included and involved.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Take the 30 Day “No Talk Challenge”. Thank you to Avi Ciment for bringing this initiative to our shul. The following is an article by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, recently written in memory of his grandmother Mrs. Gussie Hartman, Gitel bat Tzvi Hersh HaLevi (slightly condensed).
Grandmother spearheaded synagogue building campaigns wherever she lived: the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Harlem, and finally Brooklyn. But it was not as a community activist that she conveyed her spiritual fervor to me. Rather, it was when she drove me and my cousin, in the shiny black Packard, to purchase kosher groceries in the “old neighborhood” every Sunday morning. She would drive over the Manhattan Bridge, and just as we crossed the river, she would point to a large gray stone building just under the bridge. Her eyes would tear and her voice would choke every time we passed that building. In a very subdued voice, she would deliver this message: “That building was once a sheel, built by angels. Now it is no longer a sheel. It is a kloyster. Non-Jews worship there.”
When we asked her why “we” lost it and whether it was really built by angels, she would respond evasively, in typical grandmotherly fashion, “You are too young for me to answer you. One day, when you are older, you will understand.”
Grandmother passed away more than fifty years ago. Gradually, after her passing, I began to understand who the angels were who built the shul and why “we” lost it. I discovered the angels when perusing the Midrash Rabba on the Book of Kohelet one Sukkot afternoon. I came across this passage:
“Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa observed the people of his city bringing materials for the reconstruction of the Holy Temple. He wished to follow their example. He found a large boulder that would serve well as part of the Temple’s new wall. He sculpted the stone and polished it. But it was far too heavy for him to carry up to Jerusalem. He asked passersby to help him, but they would only do so for a fee, which he could not afford. Finally, he beheld five strangers approaching him. They agreed to carry the stone, but only on the condition that he would place his hand on the stone. He did so and suddenly found himself, and the stone, miraculously transported to Jerusalem. The five men were nowhere to be found. He entered the Temple chamber in which the Sanhedrin sat and inquired after them. The sages told him that they were not men, but angels.”
That passage in the Midrash taught me that those who simply lend a hand to a holy project are granted the assistance of the angels. Angels build synagogues.
That’s the good news. The sad news is that only angels can sustain synagogues once they are built. Only when those who attend synagogue behave like angels, in a decorous and reverent manner, do synagogues endure. Improper behavior in a house of prayer results in its ultimate destruction. More than one of our great sages has identified irreverence in the synagogue as the reason that many former Jewish houses of worship are now churches or mosques, theaters or museums, and often entirely destroyed.
I can hear Grandmother speaking to me today: “Synagogues are built by angels, but we must behave in them as angels would. If we don’t, we lose them.” She recognized that the old grey building in Lower Manhattan may have been built by angels, but it wasn’t maintained by angels. It was maintained by those who came to synagogue to chatter idly, gossip maliciously, and cynically mock the rabbi and the cantor. No wonder “we” lost it.
Achieving proper synagogue decorum has been a perennial problem for the Jewish community. When a community gathers to build a new synagogue, it does so as a group of angels with noble motives. But as we grow accustomed to the synagogue, as it becomes too familiar to us, we lose our “angelic” enthusiasm.
The Zohar is excited by the Torah’s description of a successful building campaign, of men and women generously donating gold and silver to the new Tabernacle. But then the Zohar offers these words of caution:  “Woe to the person who engages in mundane conversation in the synagogue. He causes a cosmic schism, a degradation of faith. Woe to him, for he has no portion in the God of Israel. He demonstrates by his levity that God does not exist, and that He certainly is not to be found in the synagogue. He asserts that he has no relationship with Him, that he does not fear Him, and that he is indifferent to the disgrace of the Upper Celestial Realm.”
With these words, the holy Zohar expresses in mystical terms what my Grandmother knew with her ample common sense. How well she taught me the lesson of our need to remain “angels” in the synagogue. I can still hear her tearfully grieving for that heilige sheel, and all too numerous other sacred spaces, which “we” lost because of our callous indifference to the Almighty’s presence.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bad Masks and Good Masks

Parshat Ki Tisa contains the episode of the golden calf. The Torah refers to the golden calf as (32:4) “Egel Masecha.” The Stone Chumash translates this as “a molten calf”.  “Masecha” could be a type of metal, and if so, the “Egel Masecha” would be a metal calf, or more precisely, a calf that had undergone the process of melting, since it was made out of many pieces of gold that needed to be fused together. “Masecha” can also be interpreted as deriving from the word “Masach”, an object used to conceal other objects. This is also the meaning of the “Masecha” we wear on Purim, which covers our faces.

                This is not the only appearance of a mask in our Parsha. After Moshe prays and Hashem forgives the Jews for the golden calf, Moshe is called upon to receive the second set of tablets. When Moshe comes down from the mountain, the Torah describes how Moshe’s face glowed as a result of his exposure to an intense Divine manifestation. Moshe resorted to wearing a “Masveh” (34:33) which is a veil or mask.

                In two episodes in Ki Tisa Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai to receive luchot from Hashem. In both cases, this act causes the need for a mask of some sort. The mask of the golden calf is one of the greatest mistakes in Jewish history. The mask that Moshe wears after descending with the second luchot is viewed as having a positive purpose. How do we understand the vast difference between these two masks?

                Our world is full of masks, hiding our appreciation for God’s role in our lives. The Hebrew word for world “Olam” is related to the word “hidden” (He’elem) because nature is a force that masks God’s handiwork. Political history is another mask that obstructs our appreciation for God’s role in unfolding events. We will celebrate Purim in less than a month. The story of Purim (like the story of the 6 Day War) can be read as a fascinating tale of political (or military) intrigue. But really those events are masking the Prime Cause of it all - Hashem. Idolatry can also be understood as a mask. It hides inconvenient truths, such as reward and punishment, and the need to submit to a Higher Being. This type of mask leads to destruction.

                Sometimes a mask hides the truth. But sometimes a mask is needed to allow the truth to come forth. Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that the Masveh was intended to make disputants less afraid to approach Moshe for assistance. Others suggest that Moshe wore the Masveh as a sign of modesty. In effect the Masveh allowed Moshe to express his true self, and not hide in any way.

                There’s a difference of opinion as to when exactly Moshe wore the Masveh. Everyone agrees that Moshe did not wear it when he was communicating with Hashem. Everyone also agrees that he did wear the Masveh when he was in the Israelite camp not engaged in teaching Torah. There’s a difference of opinion whether Moshe wore the mask when he was teaching Torah to the people. It would seem based on the pesukim at the end of Ki Tisa that Moshe would not wear the Masveh while he was engaged in teaching Torah. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, however, suggests that Moshe wore the Masveh even while teaching Torah to the people. Rabbi Eiger explains that Moshe wore the Masveh to hide his humility. As teacher and prophet, Moshe had to “hide” this innate quality of humility, for the benefit of his role as leader.

                 In sum, when a mask is used to hide God’s role in our lives, then it’s a bad mask. When a mask is used to bring out our true selves or to hide some of our innate qualities that can interfere with maximizing our potential, then it’s a good mask. As we think about our options for Purim costumes, let us make sure to avoid bad masks and get comfortable with good masks.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Mind Over Matter: Lessons from My Half Marathon Training

I wanted to share with you a quick update on my training for the Jerusalem Half Marathon, which will be held on Friday March 15th.

Last Sunday I ran 9.25 miles, my longest run yet. This past Sunday I ran 10.5 miles. One of the great things about the program in which I am participating, Rabbi Can Run, is that I am a part of a group of 13 Rabbis who are all working on pushing their limits and achieving a goal that seemed improbably just a few months ago. This has provided me with a lot of chizuk, inspiration. Such is the power of positive peer pressure. We often think of peer pressure as a negative force, but it can be a tremendous source of strength and positivity as well.

On our last conference call we heard from Owen Anderson, PhD. Coach Anderson is the founder of Lansing Sports Management, which coaches elite athletes from Kenya and manages their international competitions. He has enjoyed a successful career coaching runners of all levels. Coach Anderson provided a number of practical suggestions and recommendations for our training regimen. But the most impactful thing he said on the call related to fatigue. He noted that it is natural for runners to feel fatigue by the 10 mile mark. And there are some things that can be done to address the physiological symptoms of fatigue, specifically in regards to hydration and nutrition intake. But 

Coach Anderson pointed out that during a race, feelings of fatigue are primarily psychological. The thoughts and feelings may be triggered by something physical, but the overall sensation of fatigue can often be addressed psychologically. Specifically, when we feel fatigued during a run Coach Anderson suggested that we focus on the positive and engage in “positive self-talk”. By talking to ourselves in a positive manner, we can convince ourselves that we can accomplish this goal. It really is a case of mind over matter. I think we can all benefit from this life lesson: feelings of fatigue or pessimism very often are not based on reality, but rather they are the result of our minds playing tricks on us. We can change things for the better and accomplish our goals through “positive self-talk”: reminding ourselves how strong and capable we really are.  

Thank you to those who have generously contributed to the charitable cause for which my run is supporting: Olami. If you would like to make a donation you can click here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Golden Alter and Our Unique Jewish Identity

The last Aliyah of Parshat Tetzaveh introduces us to the Mizbeach Hazahav, the golden alter upon which the ketoret, the aromatic spices, were offered. All of the other vessels of the Mishkan were introduced and described 4 chapters ago, in Parshat Terumah. Why is the Mizbeiach Hazahav introduced separately, so much later?

The Meshech Chochma explains (based on a Talmudic passage in Zevachim) that unlike the other keilim in the mishkan, the golden altar was not critical for the Temple service. You don’t technically require the golden altar in order to offer incense. In the absence of the Mizbeiach, the spices could be offered on the floor in the location of where the golden altar should have been.  This insight of the Meshech Chochma just sharpens the question: Why is the ketoret alter different than all other vessels in the Mishkan?

A pasuk by King David in Tehillim can help us: In Chapter 141 it says:
תִּכּוֹן תְּפִלָּתִי קְטֹרֶת לְפָנֶיךָ מַשְׂאַת כַּפַּי מִנְחַת עָרֶב:
My prayer shall be established like incense before You, the lifting of my hands as the evening offering.              
Ketoret symbolizes the personal relationship that man has with God. Like burning spices, one’s Jewish identity can be ethereal- we may not be able to see it or put our finger on it, but we cannot deny its presence and its impact. 
The major goal of the Mishkan and its vessels is to create a national focal point and to foster a national Jewish identity. The Mizbeiach Haketoret is mentioned separately because it serves as a reminder of the need we each have to also create a personal Jewish identity; our unique relationship with Hashem.
Last week I joined together with over 800 people for the Broward Federation’s Community Campaign Celebration. I had the opportunity to hear from a number of Jews who found meaningful ways to contribute to the local and global Jewish community. Speakers repeatedly noted how their involvement in helping others strengthened their personal Jewish identity.

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed wrote that the purpose of the ketoret was to create a beautiful fragrance for people to enjoy as they visited the Mishkan and, later, the Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Moshe Schick, 19th century Hungarian Rabbi, explains that ketoret teaches us that our Jewish identities must be associated with pleasantness, meaning and inspiration. 

Although it is written in last week’s Parsha, the blessing of V’Shachanti B’Tocham that God will dwell amongst us can only come to fruition when all of the keilim, including the Golden altar are constructed and appreciated. We are truly blessed when we carve out a personally meaningful Jewish identity while remaining a part of the collective that is Am Yisrael.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

When Everyone is Included We Are All Winners

Though they have been big news in Israel for a while now, their story became widely known this week in the US: The Shalva Band.

The Shalva Band is comprised of 8 talented musicians with disabilities and performs to the highest musical standards by invitation at cultural venues and dignitary events throughout the year. Their musical talents were discovered and developed through Shalva’s music therapy program. Inspiring crowds with its musical repertoire and charm, the band is one of Shalva’s most celebrated inclusion programs.

The Shalva band was a contestant on the Israeli TV show “HaKochav Habah” (“The Next Star). The winner of the show becomes Israel’s entry into Eurovision, being held this year in Tel Aviv. The band was a crowd favorite, stealing the hearts of both judges and the audience. So much so, that the band had advanced to the final round of the show.

On Tuesday the news reported that the Shalva Band would be dropping out of the competition. Several members of the band are Shabbat observant and Eurovision holds its final dress rehearsals on Friday night and Saturday, complete with recording and filming. Band members said they were aware of the rules but had not expected to advance so far in the competition. Eurovision said the final rehearsals are vital because the performances are filmed and sent to international judges for use in scoring, and so the contest has a backup in case technical issues arise during the live performances on Saturday night.

It’s unfortunate that Eurovision was unwilling to find a way to be inclusive of the Shabbat observance of some members of a group that teaches and embodies inclusion in their every performance.
But in many ways The Shalva Band has already won. First, the band will be appearing at the international song contest after all – in a special appearance during the second semi-final.
A spokeswoman for KAN, Israel’s public broadcaster, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that it invited the band to appear as an interval act during the show, which will be held live on May 16 in Tel Aviv.

But beyond Eurovision, the band is a winner because of how beloved they became and the attention that they helped focus on disabilities awareness and inclusion. February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. We are excited to host Richard Bernstein at the conclusion of the 9 AM minyan in the Sanctuary and hear his inspirational story of overcoming obstacles and reaching one’s potential. Thank you to Mimi Jankovits, Teach Florida and GIL for helping to bring this opportunity to our community. I will also be giving a shiur Shabbat afternoon (at 5 PM) on Halachic views on disabilities and inclusion.

Inclusion is not only about allowing people that are not typical to feel more “normal” by including them in “normal” activities. Inclusion also means declaring that all Jews, regardless of their physical and mental differences, not only have a place in the Jewish community, but have something to contribute. Everyone has his/her unique ability. As a community we must be committed to bringing out the best in each and every person. Sometimes people may need support or accommodations in order to participate and contribute to our community. We should view these accommodations as opportunities to bring out the best in each person and the best in our community.

If you have ideas on how we can make our shul more inclusive, please let me or Sara Frieberg know. There is a tradition that the word “Yisrael” is an acronym for “Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiyot LaTorah” (“there are 600,000 letters in a Torah”) In truth there are far fewer than 600,000 letters in a Torah. However the number 600,000 is symbolic of the totality of the Jewish People (hence the tradition that there were 600,000 Jews who left Egypt and stood at Sinai). The lesson of the Yisrael acronym is two-fold. First every Jew has a unique connection to the Torah, and we should do our best to nurture and accommodate each person’s unique Jewish identity. Second, as a Torah scroll missing even one letter is not kosher, so too a Jewish community that is not accessible to all of its constituents is lacking in a fundamental manner. Let us do our best to ensure that our Torah – and our community- is complete.