Friday, May 20, 2022

Lessons from Shemittah

The current Jewish year of 5782 is a Shemitah Year. The Torah tells us that the Land of Israel can be farmed for six years, but must remain fallow in the seventh year. That year is a Shabbat for the land. Shemitah was always a very difficult mitzvah to observe. It is a test on par with the test of the Mon during the Jews’ forty year sojourn in the dessert. At that time, the Jews were miraculously supported by food from Heaven. Every night the Jews would go to sleep without any food in their cupboards and hungry children fast asleep. They had no idea where they could acquire food in a natural fashion, if need be. They were totally dependent on the daily miracle of the mon. Such dependence was meant to foster within them their faith in Hashem. The lesson of the mon continues to reverberate for us. Although we are no longer supported in such a miraculous fashion, we nonetheless are challenged to recognize the indispensable role that God plays in our achievements. The test of Shemittah is no less challenging. During the seventh year, the farmer and his family may have produce from the 6th year to eat. However, leaving the land fallow puts into jeopardy the farmer’s ability to support himself the two years subsequent to the Shemittah year. Shemittah is a test of faith for the farmer. It is therefore not surprising that the prophets were constantly exhorting the Jewish People to strengthen their commitment to the mitzvah of Shemitah.

The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 84) mentions two other lessons that can be learned from the Shemitah year. First, it reminds us of the power of Chidush, renewal. God created the world in six days, but He also renews the world on a constant basis. Leaving the land fallow every seventh year re-energizes the soil and renews its potential to grow life-sustaining crops. Second, Shemitah teaches us the importance of caring for others. During the Shemitah year, one’s land is considered ownerless, and its produce is available to anyone who wishes to partake of it. The farmer is reminded that even though much of his energies are spent on worrying about his own family, he has a responsibility to his fellow Jew and the broader world as well.

We who live in the Diaspora have limited access to fulfilling the mitzvah of Shemitah. The technical rules of Shemitah become relevant when we vbiosit Israel this year or if Israeli produce is imported to our stores. However the lessons of Shemitah: trust in God, concern for other and appreciating the power of renewal, are lessons that are very relevant. Let us utilize Shemitah 5782 to strengthen our commitment to these values.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Our Count Begins the Day After Shabbat


In Parshat Emor (23:15), the Torah introduces the mitzvah of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot by telling us that our count should begin “Mi’macharat HaShabbat”, literally “the day after the Sabbath.” During the Second Temple era this phrase was the subject of a bitter debate between the Sadducees and the Rabbis. The Sadduccees understood this verse to mean that we begin to count Sefira on the first Sunday that occurs after the onset of Pesach. The Rabbis understood that the word “Shabbat” in this context refers to the first day of Pesach. We follow the Rabbis and begin counting Sefira on the second night of Pesach. The Talmud tells us that this debate was so contentious and serious that the date on which the Rabbis prevailed and the Sadducees relented was declared a holiday.

            If the Torah meant the day after Pesach, why does it use the expression “the day after Shabbat”?

            Judaism recognizes the integrity of both the Written and Oral Torah. Sometimes these two vehicles are utilized to convey two different lessons from the very same concept. The most famous example of this is the phrase in the Torah “An eye for an eye.” Our Rabbis interpreted this to mean that a person must pay money as compensation for the infliction of bodily injury. If the law is that money is paid and the perpetrator does not lose his eye, then why does the Torah use the language of “an eye for an eye”? The answer is that the Torah is teaching us a meta-legal principle. To really appreciate the extent of the damage that he has caused, the perpetrator should have to experience some degree of physical pain. No amount of money can make up for the loss and pain suffered by the victim. By right, “An eye for an eye” should be executed literally. However such a system would perpetuate a cycle of violence that the Torah does not want. By utilizing a strict language while interpreting the phrase in financial terms, we are able to learn both lessons from one phrase.

            The same can be said to explain our phrase by Sefirat Haomer. Practically speaking, the Rabbis teach us that the count begins on the second day of Pesach. Yet the Torah utilizes the language of “the day after Shabbat” to teach us an important lesson. The number seven symbolizes the role that G-d plays in the creation and maintenance of the world. G-d created the world in 6 days and rested/ created Shabbat on the seventh. The number eight symbolizes the need for human beings to add our input and become partners with G-d in this world. In the song we sing at the end of the seder, the number eight corresponds to the brit milah, performed on the eighth day of a boy’s life. The Medrash explains that one of the lessons of circumcision is that man is not created perfect by G-d. We have to do our part to perfect ourselves and the world.

            On Pesach we were redeemed from slavery by the grace of Hashem. The people were passive and depended on the kindness of God. Right after Pesach, we are commanded to count the Omer. It is now time for us to leave our mark on the world. “Mimacharat Hashabbat” teaches us that our count begins a new week and represents a new era. Now that we have thanked Hashem for the Exodus, it is time to do our part, add our unique imprint, and become partners with Hashem.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Be Happy- Like Israelis

 Are Israelis happy people? Based on their own admissions, the answer is a resounding yes. Israel has climbed three spots to ninth, its highest-ever placing, in the annual UN-sponsored World Happiness index. It came in 12th last year, up from 14th in 2020. Besides being the Jewish homeland, Israel is a country with a lot of positives. Perhaps most importantly, it is a country that while situated in a challenging part of the globe, understands the importance of optimism. Psychologist Martin Seligman identified a number of characteristics that are associated with optimistic people. Optimists are more likely to internalize positive events; they see themselves as in control of their destiny. That’s why optimists are not likely to give up in the face of adversity. On the other hand, pessimists externalize; they see success as being beyond their control.

 In light of Seligman’s research we can understand why Israel ranks so high in the Happiness survey. In the face of adversity, the founders of Medinat Yisrael never gave up. They took their future into their own hands. 74 years later, Israel continues to believe that a better future happens through our hard work and effort (and prayer).

 Today, many countries are stuck in a pervasive cloud of pessimism. We hear about an impending global economic crisis that many people believe was not our doing and yet we have no ability to avoid. This feeling of helplessness has been generalized and turned into a feeling of despair.

 The dangers of helplessness/ pessimism can be learned from a mitzvah in Parshat Kedoshim. In the fifth aliyah we learn of the prohibition against the disturbing idolatrous practices of Molech, which included child sacrifice. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the name Molech is related to the word Melech, but whereas Melech refers to a specific person, ie the king, Molech refers to an abstract concept of power. Rabbi Hirsch goes on to explain that whether the Molech service involved actual child sacrifice or merely passing children through a fire its purpose was to appease fate. The thinking was that the best we can do is offer one child up to fate with the hope that this will somehow protect the rest of our family from being hurt. (This might explain why if a person offers all of his children in a Molech service, then he is exempt from punishment.) 

The Molech service is predicated on a profound pessimism, a feeling that the world runs in a random fashion and that we have no control over our lives. The Torah makes a point to reject Molech and to emphasize the severity of approaching life in a pessimistic manner. On the heels of Yom Haatzmaut, let us commit to a can-do attitude. Like the Zionist pioneers, let us remember that we have the ability to shape our destiny through serious thought, hard work and an optimistic attitude

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Learning from the Mistake of Rabbi Akiva’s Students

 One of the reasons why the Sefira period is experienced with some mourning practices is based on the tradition that it was during this time of year that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. The Talmud states that Rabbi Akiva’s students died as punishment for “not showing respect towards one another.”

This Talmudic explanation has always perplexed me. One of Rabbi Akiva’s famous teachings is his comment on the verse “Va’Ahavta L’Reiacha Kamocha” “Love your neighbor as yourself” on which he stated that this verse is a most fundamental concept in the Torah.

If these 24,000 students were truly disciples of R’ Akiva, then how could they have not known their Rebbe’s teaching on loving a fellow Jew? I’d like to suggest two possible ways to understand the mistake of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

First, it could be that there was disconnect between what the students learned and how they acted. They might have knew Rabbi Akiva’s lesson by-heart but they did not take this lesson to heart.

Learning Torah and Living a Torah-oriented lifestyle should not only make us holier people, but it should also make us better, nicer, more compassionate and considerate people. If this is not happening, then we are learning something wrong.    

Second, it could be that the students took their teacher’s lesson a bit too literally. The verse in the Torah is “Ve’Ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha” which means “love your neighbor as yourself”. There is much discussion as to what the word “Kamocha” means in this context. Perhaps the students of Rabbi Akiva took it to mean that you must get along with people that are Kamocha: ie with whom you are similar; ie with people whom you share values and interests. But the students did not feel a need to show love and respect to those whom they did not consider to be like-minded.

It’s easy to like people that are similar to us; people that share our worldview, our values, and our priorities. But how do we treat people with whom we disagree? How do we treat those with whom we normally agree but strongly disagree on a particular topic that is very important to us? This is when “Love your neighbor” becomes harder and much more important.  

During this Sefira period, let us contemplate the strengths and opportunities that emerge from living in a diverse synagogue community like ours.  On any given Shabbat you are more likely than not to sit next to, share a row, or wish Shabbat Shalom to someone with whom you disagree with on one or many issues that you feel passionate about. How does that make you feel? What does that that say about our community?

Let us appreciate the importance of loving even those who are different that we are, and even those with whom we disagree. It is through interactions with those whom we are dissimilar that we extend ourselves and in the process grow from that interaction.



Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Hallmarks of a Hero

 On the Seventh Day of Pesach, we note the heroes that emerged on that very first Shevii shel Pesach at the shores of the Red Sea. Though he is not mentioned explicitly in the text, the most famous hero of today’s story is Nachshon ben Aminadav.

            The Heroic Imagination Project is a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching people to become heroes, or as they put it “To teach individuals the skills and awareness needed to make effective decisions in challenging situations.” The Project identifies 4 key elements of heroism:

It's voluntary

It is done in the service of people or communities in need

It involves some type of risk, either physical, social, or in terms of quality of life

It is done without the need for recompense or material gain

The actions of Nachshon at the sea encompass all of these elements.

            Jewish tradition offers two other traits of a hero. Pirkei Avot teaches: A Hero is one that conquers his/her natural inclination. Instead of heroic action always being found in grandiose initiative, Jewish heroics can be found in holding ourselves back. As Rav Soloveitchik wrote in an essay (Catharsis pg 42):

“The heroic person, according to our view, does not succumb to frenzy or excitement. Biblical heroism is not ecstatic but rather contemplative; not loud but hushed; not dramatic or spectacular but mute.”

            Avot D’Rav Natan (23:1) offers a second characteristic of being a Jewish hero: A hero is one that works to change enemies into friends. Conventional wisdom sees heroes as acting independently on behalf of others. The Jewish view is that a hero is one that broadens the boundaries of community. By turning enemies into friends heroes value inclusivity, thereby increasing the size and quality of the community.

There are two characters that we read about on Seventh Day of Pesach that act heroically.

We read how Moshe takes the bones of Joseph out of Egypt. The Midrash highlights the fact that while the rest of Bnai Yisrael were busy looting Egypt, Moshe was busy fulfilling the nation’s promise to their ancestor Yosef. Moshe’s heroism is expressed not only through what he was doing, but also through what he restrained himself from getting involved in. I can imagine that no one would have gained as much pleasure from looting Egypt as Moshe; the man who was doubted by his nation, by Pharaoh, by the Egyptians and even by himself. Yet he holds himself back in fulfillment of the Jewish definition of a hero- one who is kovesh et yitzro.

           Second, we read how Miriam led the Jewish women in song: Shiru LaHashem Gi Ga’o Ga’ah, Sus V’rachvo Rama Vayam. It may seem that Miriam is leading the women in a reiteration of the first line of Shirat Hayam. However, the first line is in the singular, while Miriam’s song is in the plural. Perhaps the Torah is noting the heroic nature of Miriam’s song, whereby she includes all of the women. Miriam encourages them all to sing. She is demonstrating a type of heroism that not only seeks to make enemies into friends, but strives to ensure that everyone is maximizing their potential in the community.

            Each of us can and must be a hero. Sometimes we may have a Nachshon moment, when we are called upon to do something extraordinary or unpopular. If/ when that happens let us learn from Moshe and Miriam about Jewish heroism and be inspired to do the right thing.


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Slaves? Maybe. “House of Bondage”? Never Again

How can it be that we say in the Hagadah “Now we are slaves” if we call Pesach the “Festival of our freedom”? Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel explained that the answer is found the first line of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who took you out from the Land of Egypt from the house of bondage”.

There is a difference between “Avadim” slaves, and “beit avadim”, house of bondage. There is bondage of the body and bondage of the spirit. When a slave is unable to own property and it all belongs to the master- that is slavery of the body. A slave has no autonomous will; he can only reflect the will of his master. The master’s position of authority not only permeates all of the slave’s actions, but even his thoughts as well. The slave’s main thought is how he can find favor in the eyes of his master; to gain the master’s approval. He has no independent identity. As a result of this mindset, the slave slowly shifts from fear of his master to love. (reflected in the verse at beginning of Mishpatim “Ahavti et Adoni”).

It is this mindset that the Torah calls “Beit Avadim”. The bondage of the psyche. A slavery that permeates one’s heart and soul, ideas and feelings.  This is the degree to which we were slaves in Egypt. Not just Avaadim, but trapped in “Beit Avadim”. After the Exodus and our receiving the Torah, we will never be trapped like that ever again to another human. We will develop similar patterns and feelings in our role as servants of Hashem.

The slavery to which we may still be subjected to is an external pressure, but no human can ever have a claim to our essence. Today a person may have a hold on our body or a hold on our possessions but no one has a hold on our soul.

God Himself told us at Mt. Sinai that He took us out of “beit avadim”. Although the entire Torah was given to us by God, there is a special status to that which we heard directly from Hashem Himself. What we heard from God is impossible for us to forget and impossible to be revoked, without exception.

It is therefore embedded in our DNA for Jews to love freedom, and despise any type of slavery or oppression in any form. History shows that Jews are always in the forefront of the great freedom movements – throughout the world and at all times. It is “established in our blood and our souls from the day we stood at Mount Sinai”- to love and fight for freedom- for all.

The Talmud teaches (Kidushin 22b) that it was at Sinai that God said “You are only servants to Me, and slave to no other human.” Rav Amiel explained that every Jew heard this, and even those Jews who heard nothing else and who keep nothing else internalized this mandate of freedom from Hashem They live this value in every facet of their lives. 

This is a permanent characteristics of Klal Yisrael: love of a principled freedom. As the Torah tells us, once we have experienced freedom - there’s no going back!


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Bad News? Good News

 My friend and colleague Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky retold a story that has always fascinated me: In a narrow, winding alley in the Old City of Yerushalaim, a remarkable encounter took place on Erev Pesach some 90 years ago. An older gentleman with thick-rimmed spectacles walked slowly yet purposefully, surrounded by a group of younger men. His name was Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel and founder of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva. He was walking with his students on the way back from the Kotel, preparing themselves spiritually for the awesome Seder evening ahead. Coming in the other direction was an elderly man with a flowing white beard, dressed in a long, gold-striped caftan. He, too, was surrounded by an entourage. It was Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, spiritual leader of Jerusalem’s Yishuv Hayashan, the older settlements within the walls of the Old City and the newer neighborhoods settled by the broader Hungarian community of Yerushalayim. Most of the inhabitants of these neighborhoods affiliated with the umbrella spiritual and administrative body created by Rav Sonnenfeld, known as the Eidah HaChareidis. Rav Sonnenfeld was known as “The man on the ramparts” for his staunch traditionalism and his uncompromising fight against the pernicious winds of secularism, and particularly of secular Zionism. From his community, there was often strong opposition to Rav Kook, himself unabashedly traditional in his religious world view, but whose mystical writings praised secular Zionists in their efforts to rebuild the Land of Israel.

To the Yishuv Hayashan and Rav Sonnenfeld’s students Rav Kook represented a heretical fifth column, and to Rav Kook’s students, those who objected to Rav Kook were wickedly disrespectful and hopelessly backwards. One can imagine that the tension was palpable. Rav Sonnenfeld turned to Rav Kook and said, “Iber a yohr, ihr vet zoyche zayn tzu geyen borfis in blut.” “In a year, you should merit to go barefeet in blood.” Rav Kook’s students were beyond livid, as this sounded like an unforgivable curse, yet the next thing they knew, Rav Kook had a smile on his face and said “Amen!” After they parted company, Rav Kook explained to his students that Rav Sonnenfeld had bestowed a Talmudic blessing upon him. The Talmud (Pesachim 65b) describes how, in Temple days, there were so many Paschal lambs offered that the Kohanim waded in animal blood. Rav Sonnenfeld was blessing Rav Kook- his ideological opponent, his dear friend and a Kohen that he would merit next year to take part in the service of the Korban Pesach in a rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

Sometimes in life we hear something that sounds or appears negative, when in fact, upon closer examination, it is really something quite positive. We have an example of this in Parshat Metzora regarding the tzaraat that can afflict a house in the Land of Israel (14:34). While an affliction on one’s home seems to be a setback or a problem, Rashi quotes a Midrash that puts a completely different spin on the whole story. Noting that the pasuk uses the word “give” to describe the affliction, Rashi writes: “This is [good] news for them that lesions of tzara’at will come upon them, because the Amorites had hidden away treasures of gold inside the walls of their houses during the entire forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, and through the lesion, he will demolish the house and find them. [Vayikra Rabbah 17:6]. It is not always easy to see the positive in a situation or to hear the positive in what at first sounds like an insult or injury. But as we see from our Parsha and from Rav Kook it is possible and something that we should always be striving to do.