Thursday, August 29, 2019

Blowing Shofar During Elul

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Greatness is Found in Small Gestures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Right and Wrong Is Not Determined By Majority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Children Are A Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

אין בן דוד בא עד שיכלו כל נשמות שבגוף

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

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Tapping into the Magic of Jewish Summer Camps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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