Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ketoret Standoff

The showdown between Korach and Moshe reaches its climax with the “ketoret standoff.” Moshe suggests that the disagreement be settled by everyone offering incense to Hashem. So Aharon, Korach and 250 Korach-followers offer incense on fire pans. In response, Hashem shows His displeasure with the 250 men by sending a fire to consume them (16:35). 

The next chapter opens with God commanding Moshe to tell his nephew Elazar HaKohen to collect the firepans that were utilized by those 250 men and fashion them into a covering for the altar, “because they have become holy.” (17:2) These pans were used in a rebellion against Aharon and Moshe- why should they be considered holy and worthy of being kept? 

Rashi suggests that the pans became holy when the 250 men used them to offer incense to Hashem. Ramban questions this theory: after all, this was not a sanctioned offering – this was done as an expression of rebellion against Moshe! Instead, the Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because they were utilized as a vehicle through which G-d was ultimately sanctified. They became a symbol of the Divine choice of Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. From the Ramban we learn that sometimes people or situations can be used as messengers of Kiddush Hashem even if they have no idea or don’t mean to.

The fact that these firepans were fashioned into a cover for the altar is significant. It was on the mizbeach that a person would offer a sacrifice, a ritual that demonstrates humility, perhaps even a negation of self before the will of God. The cover on the altar is a cautionary note that warns people of how easily we can fool ourselves into believing in the righteousness of our cause. These 250 men were willing to die for the cause that they allowed themselves to believe whole-heartedly. 

It’s easy to allow ego, ulterior motives or even laziness to get in the way of what’s really important. The fire pans protecting the mizbeach served as that warning – then as well as now. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

As I’ve shared with you in the past, Rav Soloveitchik taught that in response to challenging times, the only useful question to ask is not “Why?” but “What now?” Of course we must do what we can to lower our risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus, and to mitigate its spread. But the real, inspirational response to this unprecedented communal challenge is found in the stories below.
Wishing all of us a Shabbat of recovery, health, and peace.
~ Rabbi Weinstock

From Dozens of volunteers spread out across Westchester County, NY on Purim, to read the Megillah at over 130 locations where Jewish residents are currently in quarantine.
Organized by Chabad of Westchester County, located in New Rochelle, the epicenter of New York’s coronavirus outbreak, groups of bochurim and men were sent to read the Megillah and bring Purim joy to those in quarantine.

Fear of the spread of the coronavirus - 82 people have been infected in Westchester County - had upended Purim plans in the entire area, with Megillah readings and events canceled.
Shlucha Rochel Butman coordinated dozens of volunteers to fan out across the area to make sure anyone who needed would be able to fulfill the Mitzvah of Megillah from their homes.
Working with medical professionals, they devised a set of guidelines for volunteers to make sure they stay safe and protected while doing this Mitzvah.

All volunteer readers remained outside of the home of the quarantined individuals and maintained a distance of 10-15 feet.

Residents were grateful and moved by the volunteer bochurim who took the time to visit and help them fulfill the Mitzvah, many times ending with a festive Purim dance to liven the streets.
“I have never cried during the opening brachos of Megillas Esther before,” Gary Berger, one of the quarantined residents wrote on Facebook. “Overwhelmed with emotions, we are eternally grateful to Chabad of Westchester for pulling off the miracle of having individual readings on hundreds of patios and lawns across New Rochelle.

“May the Zechus of this amazing Mitzvah lead to a complete Refuah shelaima for all of our friends and families.”

“These Chabad boys are amazing! They stopped some people of our street, who they thought were Jewish, unaffiliated, and offered to read to them. They said yes!” another one wrote.
“I just want to let you, Chabad and the community know that we just received a call from our Irish Catholic neighbors. They called to tell us how inspired they were last night by the Chabad boys. (They could hear it from their window at 11:30 pm.) The wife told us she started to cry when she saw and heard it and how amazing our community is and how nice it was,” another wrote.

From The Daily Portion by Sivan Rahav Meir: “Shalom Sivan, this is Levi Mendelzon from Chabad. I am writing on behalf of a Megillat Esther reading project for those quarantined by the coronavirus. When we began this project a week ago, we could not have imagined that so many people would be forced to enter home quarantine and would ask to hear the Megillah. Reading the Megillah under these circumstances was utterly surrealistic: to stand in the stairwell of an apartment building, to press the light switch continuously so it would not go out, and to read the Megillah for just one quarantined listener; to stand under a window and loudly read the Megillah in the street for a single quarantined individual listening from that window. It was extremely emotional to see how these people would not give up on hearing the Megillah. Not on YouTube, but in person.
Today, we are used to sending everything on WhatsApp, but tonight we saw that there is significance in physical proximity, in recitation of the Megillah directly from one person to another. The listeners' emotional reaction to this personal connection reminded me that one of the purposes of Purim is to connect with one another through the mitzvot of the day: the Purim feast, the reading of the Megillah, mishloach manot, and gifts for the poor. I call upon all of us to find those around us who are isolated, and not only because of the coronavirus. This can be someone who is a little neglected, for example, and send that person mishloach manot. Have a Happy Purim."

Thursday, March 5, 2020

AIPAC Policy Conference and the Kohanim’s Inauguration Ritual

In Chapter 29 we read about the inauguration ritual that Moshe performed on the Kohanim to install them into their new status. Part of that ritual included a rather peculiar element (29:20):

“You shall slaughter the ram, take [some] of its blood and put it upon the cartilage of Aaron's right ear and upon the cartilage of Aaron's sons' right ears, upon the thumbs of their right hands, and upon the big toes of their right feet, and you shall sprinkle the blood upon the altar all around.”

Why is blood sprinkled specifically on the Kohen’s ear, thumb and big toe? Perhaps this ritual is meant to teach us three important qualities that a Kohen must have to serve and lead effectively. The ear is singled out because a Kohen must be a good listener. The thumb is highlighted because a Kohen must be willing to act decisively. The big toe is mentioned because a Kohen must stand up and lead.

This week I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC along with close to 60 members of the Young Israel of Hollywood – Ft. Lauderdale community. It was great to see a number of our high school and college students in attendance. The theme of this year’s convention was “Today. Tomorrow. Together.” The conference organizers wanted to highlight the strength of the US-Israel relationship in the past, present and future. They also wanted to highlight the bipartisan and broad based support for Israel that exists in the US Congress as well as American society. Though there are individual members of Congress who are against foreign aid to Israel, and others who have expressed anti-Israel sentiment (including support for the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement), on display at the Policy Conference is the diversity of people who are passionate about the US-Israel alliance.

When it comes to supporting Israel and the US-Israel relationship, we should focus on the qualities that were important for the Kohanim to possess in their leadership role. First we must be willing to listen. One of my favorite aspects of Policy Conference is the opportunity to hear from people that think differently than I do and hold views very different than mine, and yet they are passionate about the work of AIPAC and the US-Israel relationship, just like me. Too often in our lives we live in echo chambers. We listen to the news and read the papers that are slanted to agree with our worldview. Just as the Kohanim had to listen in order to lead, so too we must listen in order to learn and grow the movement of pro-Israel Americans.

Second we must be willing to act. Whether it is lobbying our elected officials on Capitol Hill, calling/ e-mailing our representatives or supporting pro-Israel candidates, we must act in accordance with our beliefs and our ideals.

Third, we must be willing to stand up for what we believe. The big toe provides us with balance. We must be firm in our convictions and willing to stand up and share our views on the importance of the US-Israel relationship; to those who are uninformed as well as to those who currently disagree with us.

Just as the Kohanim were installed into their service through their ears, hands and feet, so too we must listen, act and stand up in our roles as pro-Israel activists.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lessons from Keruvim

In describing the construction of the Keruvim, the Torah notes that, “el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim.”  The Keruvim were looking down, towards the Kaporet and the Aron. In explaining this position, Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes the Talmud (Baba Batra 89) that this posture is like a student who lowers his eyes before his teacher, as an expression of reverence. When we have questions, comments or complaints concerning Jewish law or Jewish values we need to do so with humility and reverence towards a faith tradition that has been   important to the moral development of humanity and that (hopefully) provides our lives with many outlets for meaning and satisfaction.

But that’s not all the Torah tells us about the position of the Keruvim. The full pasuk reads: (25:20):

1)            Vehayu Hakruvim porsei kenafayim L’maalah: these figures had wings that stretched upward
2)            Upneihem Ish El Achiv: we are also told that the Keruvim were facing each other
3)            Lastly, el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim: they were looking down
Explains the Abravanel so beautifully: The position of the Keruvim teaches us three important lessons: Just as the Keruvim’s wings stretched upward, so too should our thoughts be directed towards Heaven. We must consider our relationship with Hashem and how to enhance it, especially through the ritual Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Makom. And Just as the Keruvim faced each other, so too must we take notice of our fellow Jew and all fellow human beings. We must foster our empathy, our sympathy and our sense of responsibility towards others, especially through the enhancement of our interpersonal Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro. And just as the Keruvim were looking downward towards the Aron, so too must we keep our eye on the Torah as a guide for how to fulfill the mitzvot and how to navigate life.

According to the Abravanel, the keruvim looking down don’t teach us to be humble; rather, they teach us to keep our eye on the Torah! When we have questions, comments or issues with our Torah or with Jewish life, our approach should be one of humility and reverence. But humility is not enough. We then need to empower ourselves by looking to our Torah. We must commit to learning and understanding so that we are better equipped to address our questions. Sometimes by keeping our eye on the Aron we may be able to resolve our own questions. Sometimes keeping our eye on the Torah, coupled with a healthy dose of humility, allows us to admit that we can’t figure this out on our own and that we need to seek advice or guidance from someone more knowledgeable.  And sometimes it means having the humility to bear the question without an answer.

The synthesis of Rabbeinu Bachaye and the Abravanel resonates with me. The posture of the Keruvim is both a call for humility and an appeal for Jewish literacy. May Hashem give us the strength to emulate the Keruvim: by being a conduit to bring Hashem’s Presence into our lives and into our world. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Parshat Mishpatim

The end of Parshat Mishpatim tells the rest of the story of what happened at Mount Sinai. In Chapter 24, we learn that Moshe wrote down the words of Hashem and he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, along with twelve pillars corresponding to the twelve tribes. In the next verses (5-7) we read:

And he sent the youths of the children of Israel, and they offered up burnt offerings, and they slaughtered peace offerings to the Lord, bulls. And Moses took half the blood and put it into the basins, and half the blood he cast onto the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, "All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear."

Rashi explains that these youth were the firstborn, who served in the role as priests prior to the sin of the golden calf. Ramban explains that these youth were not necessarily firstborn, but rather young Jews who were passionate and excited about the Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. Moshe provides them with a special role, because this youthful enthusiasm and idealism was an important ingredient in the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah at this juncture. It is after the youth of Israel come on the scene that the entire nation is inspired to say the famous formula of “We will do and we will hear.”

On Wednesday I returned from a 6 day trip to Israel. During my trip I engaged in a number of learning opportunities with some great institutions such as National Library of Israel, Machon PUAH, Eretz Chemdah Institute and Ateret Kohanim. I look forward to sharing with you more about these experiences. But the highlight of my trip was the opportunity to meet with close to 20 of our Young Israel of Hollywood youth who are currently studying in Yeshivot and Seminaries in Israel. It was inspiring to hear about their studies, their plans and their aspirations. These young adults are passionate and idealistic. They have their whole lives ahead of them and I am excited to see how they develop and find their unique paths.

I am a firm believer that we should embrace the times in which we are living; we should not dwell too much on the past nor on the future.  Yet, the one time that I look back on with great nostalgia, the one stage of life that I would consider doing over again, is my time learning in Israel post-high school. The challenge for us adults is to remember those feelings of idealism and zeal and find ways to incorporate them into our lives today.  This week I had a great reminder of what can be for all of us at every stage of life, by looking at and listening to the optimism, idealism and passion of the young adults of our community.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Yitro’s Important Parenting Lesson

At the beginning of the Parsha we read how Yitro came to Bnei Yisrael along with Moshe’s wife and two children. Not only are we informed of the names of Moshe’s sons, Gershom and Eliezer, but also the meaning behind each of their names. We have already been told about the birth of these boys - back in Parshat Shemot. (Gershom’s birth and name are explained and Eliezer’s birth is alluded to in the episode towards the end of Parshat Shemot when Tziporah circumcises her son in order to save Moshe’s life.) Since we have already been told the reason for Gershom’s name, why is that information repeated again here in Parshat Yitro?

        If Yitro is bringing Moshe’s children with him, then the Torah is telling us that they, like Yitro, only heard about the events and miracles that occurred to Bnei Yisrael but they did not experience them firsthand.  It is not clear from the Torah when exactly Moshe’s family left him and moved in with Yitro in Midyan, or why. We know that they are all together as Moshe makes his way back to Egypt to reunite with his brother Aharon and begin the process of redemption by initially approaching Pharaoh. But at some point Tziporah takes her sons and goes to live with her family.

        Did Tziporah demand that her children not be subjected to the fear and uncertainty of the redemption process, especially since she had a home in Midyan where she could take refuge? Was Moshe, overwhelmed/ busy with the needs of the Jews that had to be in Egypt, amendable to the idea of not having to worry about his wife and sons during the most intense periods of Yetziat Mitzrayim and its aftermath?

        It is only now, after the splitting of the sea, the miracle at Mara and the defeat of Amalek that Moshe’s sons finally come back to their nation. It was Yitro who made sure the reunion occurs at this time. Yitro is teaching Moshe, and all of us, a lesson by bringing the boys back, and this lessons is hinted at by repeating the reason behind Gershom’s name.

        Moshe’s older son is Gershom because “Ger Hayiti B’eretz Nochriya” “I was a stranger in a foreign land”. Yitro is teaching Moshe: it is understandable and even commendable that you want to protect your sons from experiencing trauma and challenge and fear. But at some point you must stop protecting them and let them experience challenges. You named Gershom at a time in your life that you felt alone and distant and confused. Out of that difficult time you were able to persevere and become the greatest Jewish leader.

        Now’s the time to allow your children to experience similar challenges.  You can’t protect them forever, we can’t live in a bubble our whole lives. Sooner or later Moshe’s sons must join the Jewish People- and experience all of the challenges and hardships along with their brethren. Additionally, Yitro recalls Gershom’s name which reminds Moshe that real life entails an amalgam of joy and sadness- ie remembering that he was a stranger, while celebrating the birth of a child. By recalling the reason for Gershom’s name, Yitro is telling Moshe life contains an amalgam of joy and sadness, Hashem is with us through it all, and it was now time for Moshe’s sons to experience this along with the rest of Am Yisrael.

        We want what’s best for our children, and we don’t like to see them experience any negative feelings or situations. And yet Yitro is reminding us that part of raising strong and resilient children is allowing them to be exposed to challenges, and encouraging them to grow from those experiences.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Challenge of Privilege

Perchik: Money is the world's curse.
Tevye: May the Lord smite me with it! And may I never recover!
Fiddler on the Roof

In Parshat Beshalach we are introduced to the manna from heaven that sustained the Jewish People during their 40 year sojourn in the desert.

The manna is a fascinating topic, full of mystery and intrigue. For example, what did this miraculous substance actually taste like? In this week’s Parsha the taste is described as “like a wafer made with honey.” However elsewhere (Parshat Behaalotcha) the manna’s taste is described as “like bread kneaded with oil.” The rabbis of the Talmud famously solve this apparent contradiction by claiming that the manna tasted like anything you wanted. If you wanted it to taste like cheese- it tasted like cheese. If you wanted it to taste like a hamburger- it tasted like a hamburger. If you wanted it to taste like a cheeseburger….. it tasted like a cheeseburger that was either made with pareve cheese or pareve meat.

Another interesting discussion concerning the manna is: what bracha did one recite over manna? On the one hand, the fact that manna is not identifiable as requiring one of the specialized blessings would lead us to say that the proper blessing is “Sheakol”, the most generic and catch-all blessing. On the other hand, the manna was a miraculous substance, seemingly deserving of a more prominent blessing. According to one opinion, the blessing made before eating manna was unique: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Hashamayim”, Blessing G-d as “He who brings bread from the Heaven” (as opposed to the text of the blessing we recite on normal bread: “He who brings bread from the earth”).

In this week’s Parsha the manna is described by Hashem as a test. The commentators offer different explanations as to what the test was. Ramban explains that the manna was a test in our belief in G-d. There was no natural food in the desert. Each day G-d would provide enough manna for that day alone. Each day the Jews went to sleep at night with their pantries bare, no food in the refrigerator and no natural way of attaining their food the next day- neither for themselves nor for their children. From a natural perspective, it was a pretty hopeless situation. Bnai Yisrael were forced to depend on Divine intervention each and every day. The manna was a means of helping the Jewish People realize that their fate is really in G-d’s hands.

The Seforno offers a different understanding of the test. In a very succinct yet powerful comment he writes:
“The test was in whether the Jews would do G-d’s will when He provides food and clothing without pain, without effort
According to Seforno, the test of the manna was the challenge of privilege. How would the Jews respond to their every need taken care of, without even having to ask? Would it create a greater appreciation for G-d, allowing them to focus on more lofty goals? Or would they begin to develop a sense of entitlement, and become dissatisfied and spoiled?
From the story in the Torah it appears that the Jewish people did not pass the test of the manna with flying colors. Instead of appreciating the manna, they began to complain about it and claim that they needed more variety in their diets. The challenge of the manna continues to be a challenge that we face today. Studies have indicated that greater wealth does not correspond to greater levels of happiness. We must recognize that all that we have (and all that we don’t have) comes from G-d. What we have, and what we don’t, can be both a blessing and a challenge. We must utilize all of our experiences to develop a sense of appreciation and a connection with the Divine.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Most Important Election That You’ve Never Heard Of

The Zionist Congress was established in 1897 by Theodor Herzl as the supreme organ of the Zionist Organization (ZO) and its legislative authority. You would think that once the State of Israel was established, the World Zionist Congress would cease to function. However that is not the case. For according to Zionist ideology, the State of Israel is the nation state for all Jews, even those who currently do not live within its borders. Most decisions related to the governance of the state are decided exclusively by Israeli citizens. However there still remain areas in which Zionists from around the world are invited to have a say. That forum is the World Zionist Congress, which continues to meet every 5 years. The Zionist Congress is the supreme ideological and policy-making body of the World Zionist Organization. This gathering represents the entire political and religious spectrum of the Zionist movement.

Those elected from the United States will join delegates from Israel and around the world at the 38th World Zionist Congress in October 2020, the international “parliament of the Jewish people”, to make decisions regarding key institutions which allocate nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry (including the World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael – Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel).

I am proud to have been a delegate to the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem five years ago from the “Vote Torah” slate. This time I am proud to be an ambassador for the Orthodox Israel Coalition (Slate #4) along with our members Trudy Abramson and Lisa Baratz, who are also slate ambassadors. Our slate brings together the major Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Organizations in the US including: Religious Zionists of America‒Mizrachi, AMIT, Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, Touro College, Rabbinical Council of America, National Council of Young Israel, Torah MiTzion, Bnei Akiva.

The “Core Four” principles of the OIC slate are:
1)      Expand security funding and provisions to protect Jewish life at US synagogues, yeshiva day schools and Jewish community centers.
2)      Combat BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and antisemitism with programs that empower our students on college campuses across the US.
3)      Proliferate continued Jewish growth in the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
4)      Fight for funding to perpetuate Torah values that enables more of our children to study in gap year yeshiva/seminary programs and expands the global network of shlichim.
Funding priorities within the WZO’s $1 billion budget are determined by the delegates at the World Zionist Congress.  The more votes OIC receives the stronger our voice will be concerning issues related to Israel and our relationship to Israel.

One example of the impact of this election is the MASA subsidy program for American students studying on gap year programs in Israel. Weak voter turnout in the last election resulted in this funding decreasing dramatically from $1000 to $200. By voting for OIC you help us advocate for greater MASA subsidies for our children who study in Israel.

This Shabbat we welcome the “Bnei Akiva Dream Team”, a group of shalichim who have volunteered to travel across the US to inform and educate about these elections, and encourage voting for the OIC slate. Please welcome them to Hollywood and ask them any questions you might have. They will be with us over Shabbat as well as Saturday night at Panoply, Sunday morning at minyanim and Sunday evening at the Super Bowl party.

Voting for the 38th Zionist Congress is open now through March 11. All American Jews over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. The easiest way to vote is online by using our shul’s personalized link
I urge you to exercise your right to vote and enable our Religious Zionist voice to be felt in these elections.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Kotzer Ruach Syndrome

Why didn’t the Jews listen to and rejoice in the news of redemption that Moshe was spreading? Didn’t they want to leave Egypt, or at the very least be free from the slavery in which they currently found themselves? The Torah itself gives us the answer (Shemot 6:9):

Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.

Bnai Yisrael did not listen to Moshe due to two factors: the hard work, and “Kotzer Ruach,” a type of “shortness of breath”. What exactly is Kotzer Ruach?

According to some commentators, Kotzer Ruach refers to a lack of perspective. As much as they may have wanted to, Bnai Yisrael were unable to see beyond their current reality. It is possible to be so entrenched in a situation that one cannot imagine anything different.

In Key West, there is a beautiful building designed over 100 years ago by William Freret of New York, the Supervising Architect of the United States Government at that time. This building has a number of unusual features. For one, the building has a tin roof. The architect felt that a tin roof would be most beneficial in capturing the huge amounts of snow and helping to quickly melt it into drinking water for the use of the building’s employees. The building was also equipped with eleven huge hearth fireplaces, capable of keeping the building warm through the fiercest of winters.

This impressive building with its shiny tin roof and fireplaces sits in Key West, Florida as testimony to the difficulty man has in adapting to new environments and situations.

Bnei Yisrael may have wanted freedom. But this desire was tainted by an inability to truly envision the reality of their freedom. Kotzer Ruach occurs when the comfort of familiarity overpowers any goals for the future. We may want something, and yet be stymied by unwillingness or inability to imagine what that goal would actually look like when realized.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose yahrtzeit was Friday, explains that “Kotzer Ruach” refers to impatience. The Jews may have desired to be free, but could not wait for a process to unfold. They wanted immediate gratification. For Bnai Yisrael it was “now or never”- if freedom could not be achieved right now, then it might as well never occur. Impatience was an ongoing problem for Bnai Yisrael during the early stages of their development. For example, no matter how one understands the sin of the Golden Calf, the precipitating cause was the Jewish People’s impatience.

The American poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.” Impatience breeds fear, stress and discouragement. Around this time of year many Americans make resolutions for the new secular year. Many of us may follow suit or just review those resolutions we may have made almost four months ago on Rosh Hashana. The greatest impediment to fulfilling resolutions is impatience. When results do not come as quickly as we would like, we give up. This is the attitude of Kotzer Ruach that Bnei Yisrael suffered in Egypt. And this is the Kotzer Ruach that we must be mindful of in our pursuit of success.

Along with hard work and help from Hashem, a desire is crucial for success. But that desire must not be tainted with Kotzer Ruach. When striving for our goals, we have to be able to envision what actual success will look like, while at the same time remaining patient.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Challenge the Status Quo- And then Improve It

Sefer Shemot tells the story of the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. At first they were prosperous and comfortable, but over time they became enslaved and oppressed. It is in the context of this oppression that we meet two of Amram’s children: Miriam and Moshe. These two prophets ultimately lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. They are the two featured “singers” of Shirat Hayam, the song sung at the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus. Our introduction to these two great Jewish leaders is in Parshat Shemot, and they exhibit a common important trait, necessary for all leaders. They both challenge the status quo in an effort to make it better.

The Midrash tells us of Miriam’s activism. When she was a young girl, Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male babies should be killed. In response, Jewish fathers, including Miriam’s, decided to cease having more children. Miriam challenged this status quo, and provocatively accused Jewish men of being worse than Pharaoh; for the Egyptian decree was directed at only Jewish boys, while the fathers’ decision negatively impacted the potential for both Jewish male and female children to be born. The Midrash concludes that Miriam’s argument was accepted, and her challenge to the status quo was vindicated. Among those who listened to Miriam was her father Amram, setting the stage for the birth of Moshe, who led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage.

Our introduction to Moshe in Parshat Shemot is also within the context of challenging the status quo. After being raised in Pharaoh’s home, Moshe “goes out to his brethren” and sees an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave. He acts heroically and kills the Egyptian. Instead of being congratulated or thanked, Moshe’s efforts are met with suspicion and scorn. At this point Moshe realizes that the Jewish People are stuck in their mindset and it will be very difficult to challenge their status quo. It takes some time but by the end of Parshat Shemot we read how Moshe is ready to challenge the status quo in Egypt and enhance the Jewish People’s condition; ultimately leading to their redemption.

President Ronald Reagan said it well: “Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in'.” It’s important on a personal and communal level to occasionally stop and ask ourselves why it is that we do what we are doing. Let us learn from these two great Jewish figures to effectively question the status quo’s of our lives in an attempt to better ourselves and our world.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Choosing Between Right and Right

After Yosef and his brothers bury their father Yaakov in Chevron, on the way back the brothers are afraid that Yosef will now take his revenge. So they tell Yosef: “Before our father died, he told us to tell you to forgive us for selling you into slavery all those years ago.” In response Yosef cries. Yosef cried because he was sad that the brothers even suspected him of taking revenge.

Rashi notes that Yaakov never said this to the brothers. Rather the brothers made up this story and “Mutar L’shanot Mipnei HaShalom”: it is permissible to alter/ change the truth for the sake of peace.
This idea that Rashi quotes is found in the Talmud.  Lying for the sake of peace is an example of the real challenges that emerge when we have to make real life decisions. To decide to do good, or to avoid doing evil, is pretty straightforward. Much more difficult is determining the priorities of which good to do first. Or which good to do if you can only do one.

For example, the Talmud discusses what one should do if there is an opportunity to attend a funeral, but it is also time to say Shema. Both are good deeds. Which one is more important? Do you skip Shema to attend the funeral? Or skip the funeral to say Shema?

On the other side of the coin, it can be difficult deciding between two bad options.  For example, if someone says “I’ll kill you if you don’t kill your friend”- both options are very bad. What do you do? (Answer: allow yourself to be killed, and don’t actively take another’s life.)

Saving life is an important value. Keeping Shabbat is an important value. What happens when these values conflict: ie a person is in health danger and needs to drive to the emergency room? How do we decide which value is more important? It’s not so easy. It’s complicated. We must look to our tradition, to our teachers, to the Halacha to help guide us in these complicated situations.

Peace is an important value. It is one of God’s names (that’s really what we mean when say “Shalom Aleichem”). Truth is an important value. The Talmud says that God’s signature is “Emet”. Which value wins out? Can you lie for the sake of peace? Here we say yes, but it will depend: What kind of lie? And what kind of peace?

Determining these priorities, these values, what is most good and what is least bad, is a lifelong challenge. As children we are taught to differentiate between right and wrong. As adults we must grapple with prioritizing two rights or two wrongs. What makes life complicated but also exciting is our need to learn the Jewish perspectives in creating a hierarchy of values, and then applying this system in real life situations.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Parshat Vayigash

In Parshat Vayigash, Yosef and his brothers are reunited. Yosef instructs his siblings to bring their father Yaakov down to Egypt, along with the rest of the family. He tells his brothers to tell Yaakov (45:9-11)

“And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me, you and your children and your grandchildren, and your flocks and your cattle and all that is yours.”

Later in the Parsha Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that their family business in shepherding. Yosef explains why he is so insistent that the brothers share this information (46: 34):
“You shall say, 'Your servants have been owners of livestock from our youth until now, both we and our ancestors,' so that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians."

One of the effects of living in Goshen that Yosef anticipated would be that Yaakov’s family would be able to maintain their distance from the rest of Egyptian culture. They would be able to maintain their unique culture, practices and identity. As Robert Frost put it, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Goshen could serve as a Jewish enclave in Egypt where Yaakov’s clan could live their lives in peace, without antagonism from the majority Egyptian society.

Although this may have worked while Yosef was alive, this situation was short-lived. In Parshat Shemot we learn that the Egyptians began to oppress the Jewish People within Goshen itself. Ramses was a major city in Goshen and the Egyptians enslaved the Jews to work in that city. We also learn that the Jews began to leave the confines of Goshen as the community grew. This is alluded to in Shemot 1:7:

“The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with them.”

The Jewish community may have left the confines of Goshen out of necessity: Perhaps there was no more room for housing, perhaps housing prices made Goshen no longer affordable. Leaving Goshen for other parts of Egypt may have also been a way that Jews sought to avoid Egyptian persecution. It could be that some of the Jews in Goshen thought that they were targets because they were living a separate, cloistered life that raised the ire of other Egyptians. If only they would live across the country, then Egyptian-Jewish relations would improve. The Torah tells us that this did not happen.
“But as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength, and the Egyptians were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

When the Jews were isolated in Goshen, the Egyptians hated them. And when the Jews spread out across the land, the Egyptians also hated them.

I think about these lessons in light of this month’s two most horrific attacks against Jews. On December 10, three people were murdered in a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, NJ. The Mayor of Jersey City identified the attack as a hate crime against Jews, and said that there’s a high probability that the shooters intended to harm the Jewish day school next door to the grocery, which teaches more than 50 Jewish children. This past Saturday night, the 7th Day of Chanukah, a man entered the home of a Chasidic Rebbe in Monsey and stabbed multiple people with a machete, leaving two with critical injuries. Monsey is a town in Rockland County, where 31 percent of the total population is comprised of Orthodox Jews. In much of Monsey the percentage of Jews is even greater. Jersey City, NJ has a population of about 250,000. Over the last decade, about 100 Chasidic families have moved into Jersey City in search of more affordable housing and a better quality of life.  What these two anti-Semitic attacks remind us is that there is violent Jew-hatred today in America, both in locations comprised of predominantly Jewish enclaves, as well as in areas where Jews live as a small minority among our non-Jewish neighbors. The first step in addressing this latest wave of violent anti-Semitism is to recognize that this hatred exists due to the existence of Jews in the world, and is independent of where Jews live.