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.