Thursday, September 26, 2019

We Are Worthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Public Displays of Mitzvot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Connecting To Community: A Suggestion for a Successful High Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Parenting Lessons from the Rebellious Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Weathering the Storm - Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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