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 chizukmiami@yahoo.com)
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 clich├ęd 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.