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.