The blogospheres are filled with doomsday predictions. American Judaism will not survive this pandemic. Institutions will shutter, bank accounts will run dry. Jewish education will flounder. I hear the concern. Our institutions are indeed in uncharted and precipitous territory. But Yiddishkeit itself can and will continue, because there is one tried and true way to ensure the survival of our communities. This epiphany struck me this past Tuesday morning as I strapped my five year old and two year into the car, getting ready for camp.
The two year looked at me and said “Abba, I can’t put my mask on.” “Don’t worry,” her already-masked-brother said, “I’ll help you put it on.” She sat still as he looped it over her ears. “Look Abba,” she said excitedly. “It has unicorns on it!”
Kudos to my wife for getting fun masks.
But fun masks aside, three weeks ago, this entire story would have sounded fantastical. Impossible. Ridiculous. Mask wearing is uncomfortable. And children are notorious for being annoying about uncomfortable things. But it’s not just my kids wearing masks. Pulling up to the car pool line at Camp Ruach, you will find child after child, backpack in tow, happily wearing their masks. Their teachers and counselors have affirmed the same thing. Overall, and against all prior intuition, kids are wearing masks.
And so I wonder: Why are all these children wearing their masks? Why are they not throwing tantrums and yelling about their discomfort? Why are they so amenable? Most importantly what can this teach us about education. I think their are four reasons.
1: The adults in their lives are wearing masks. This is easy and obvious. Parents, teachers and counselors are all wearing masks. Not all of them. Not all the time. But the culture around them is clearly mask-wearing. Kids absorb culture. Kids instinctively know what their parents think is important. Adults are the ones who define “normal” or “new normal” in the lives of our children. If mask wearing is modeled, then mask wearing is imitated. But many good things are modeled, and kids fight them. Why is this working?
2: Mask wearing expectations are clear and consistent; but encouraged with empathy. Our kids know: You get in the car, you put on your mask. It’s a routine, it’s an expectation. If you don’t have it, you can’t go to camp. There are no negotiations, no exceptions. But what happens if you forgot your mask? Don’t worry, we have a spare right over here. There’s no moral judgement for forgetting it. We’re not yelling at them for misplacing it. We’re all working towards ensuring that all kids are wearing masks as much as possible. This enables kids to meet expectations with confidence and not fear failure.
3: They know why they’re doing it. Or at least they know, the stakes are high. No, our kids do not have advanced knowledge of epidemiology. But they know that there’s something called Coronavirus that makes people sick. And that it kept them inside for longer than they want to remember. They know that the virus is invisible, and that people can give it to each other without knowing. And they know that masks help. That’s all they know. But it’s more than enough. Most importantly, they know that they don’t understand everything about it. But the stakes are high.
4: Finally; your mask is important. Our kids understand that nothing in the whole world can replace their mask. They know: If you don’t wear one, the whole system is a little bit worse, a little bit weaker. And since you care about other people, this is your way of showing your concern, so that they don’t get sick.
All of this adds to saying that our children have Emuna. They believe that there is a virus that they cannot see. They believe that wearing a mask is helpful. And they believe that their mask wearing is important. And all of this is true despite the discomfort and annoyance of wearing it!
Now, think of the challenges that we face in raising committed, connected, passionate Jewish children: “My son doesn’t want to put on his tzitzis/tefillin. My kids don’t want to wake up to daven on a Sunday. My daughter doesn’t want to wear skirts. My teens are obsessed with their phones. They don’t want to come to night seder. Do you want me to force them? That’s gonna make them hate Yiddishkeit! I want them to love Torah! I want them to be inspired!”
Ok I hear you. But let’s consider: What do the adults in their life do? Are the expectations clear? Are they communicated with empathy and patience or with judgement and frustration? Do our kids have any idea why Mitzvos are important? Do they know that their mitzvah is important for the Jewish people?
Note: None of this need to be 100% consistent (and that would be impossible). Nothing needs to be iron-clad. Sometimes even the best of role models mess up. Sometimes amazing teachers get frustrated and upset. Sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain the depths of reasoning of kashrus or tefillin or tzniyus. But my point is that in order for a this to work, you don’t need all of it all the time. Just most of it, most of the time. It doesn’t need to perfect. It needs to be real. And it doesn’t take that long to instill this basic Emuna! (So far, we’re only three weeks into camp, and they’ve got this down!)
So why don’t we treat Chinuch, Torah, Tefillah, Tzniyus etc... like mask wearing at camp?
I have a hunch. Perhaps it’s becuase mask wearing is new. We’re not coming at it with years of preprogrammed guilt and baggage and narishkeit, and weird voices of our own parents, teachers and rabbeim in our heads. We don’t feel guilty about the “not doing it when we were teenagers so how can I expect it of my kids...” We don’t rationalize “I figured it our when I was in college, so they will as well...” We know that it’s important, and that it’s difficult and uncomfortable. And we’re gonna do it.
Imagine if we treated Torah and Mitzvos that way. With that level of commitment, forgiveness and empathy. Then when we would speak about about inspiration, we’d be talking about infusing meaning into a world that exists, not simply willing something from nothing.
Perhaps another nation-wide shutdown is imminent. Perhaps our schools and shuls will close again. Perhaps some of our institutions will not survive this pandemic. But Yiddishkeit will survive if we let go of our own baggage and show our children how to take Judaism seriously, with love, empathy and responsibility.
On the 17th of Tamuz the Luchos were shattered. The letters flew upwards, and the tablets fell to the ground. If we want those letters back in our lives, then our job, right now, and always, is to hew new tablets of stone. That is to say: carve out rock solid commitments to the importance of Torah, Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael. And Hashem should inspire us, our children, and our communities with the letters of His Torah that once flew to the sky.
So goes the conversation almost every day: Rabbi, look. Seriously. Everyone is touching the same door handles. Breathing the same air. You think we’re six feet apart in the grocery store? They’re not taking temperatures there! And if you really care about the risk of coronavirus, why don’t you also tell elderly people to stay home during flu season? And we should shut the Shul for every health and mental health concern! Is alcoholism less of an issue? We should never have kiddush again? Why are we wearing masks in Shul? Why aren’t we insisting that people who come to Shul wear masks everywhere? If camps can open, then schools can open!
It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. And every single measure we take is completely and entirely fraught with inconsistency. But what COVID-19 has brought to light is that we so desperately strive for a consistent set of principles to govern our behavior. And when consistency is impossible, we find ourselves flailing, tensions rise, and all progress is halted by “what-aboutisms”.
Truthfully, of course, we Jews have never lived a consistent life. Since Adam and Eve, everything is colored with both good and evil. Nothing makes perfect sense, and nothing is perfectly consistent. Rav Blachman told us once in Yeshiva “If Judaism was all or nothing, we would not be wearing Yarmulkas on our heads.”
This is this challenge of the Parah Aduma. It’s inconsistent. It makes impure people pure, and pure people impure. It doesn’t fit a defined rubric. So, as Rashi tells us at the beginning of the Parsha: ”The Yetzer Hara and the Nations of the World mock us for observing Parah Aduma.”
We know this mockery all too well. It’s the constant beat down and demonization of Israel in the media: “They say they’re a democracy, but what about (fill in the blank).” And this is also the voice inside our heads that says “Why are you coming to minyan or shiur today? Why are you saying Tehillim today? Why are you eating healthy today? Why are you going to the gym today? You know it’s unsustainable! You know you can’t keep it up...”
But the Torah screams out: No! So what if it’s inconsistent? So what if it’s imperfect? So what if we’re not going to get it right every time? Does that mean we shouldn’t do the right thing now? The drive for consistency should never lead us down a road of paralyzed nihilism.
And this is Rashi’s answer: לפיכך כתב בה חוקה, גזירה היא מלפני אין לך רשות להרהר אחריה - This world of Parah Aduma, of inconsistency, it’s a Chok. We can’t logic your way around it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know the right thing to do now.
The Medrash Rabba begins it's discussion of our Parsha with this point; quoting the Pasuk in Iyyov: מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד - “Who can derive purity from impurity? No one!” No one can resolve the inconsistencies. No one except for “The Echad” - The Only One, Hashem.
But the Yid HaKadosh of Pshischa would explain even further, that in order to draw purity from the world of impurity, in order to defeat the Yetzer Hara of “perfection”, all you need is לא אחד - One good "No!"
To the voices that shut us down for being inconsistent, we need to echo one good “No!” No, it’s not perfect. But that’s ok. We’re doing our best. Or even if we’re not doing our best, a little is better than nothing. So put the mask on. Do a mitzvah. Learn a Daf. Get to the gym. Say a Perek of Tehillim. Eat a healthy lunch. Make that phone call.
Or in the words of G. K. Chesterton: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."
A number of decades ago there was a Jew who attended a Lubavitch Shul but lacked the respect for the Rebbe that you’d expect. His mockery of the Rebbe in Shul wasn't infrequent. But at a certain point it all stopped. The Rabbi, who was a Lubavitcher, took notice and inquired as to what propelled this welcome change of demeanor.
To this inquiry, the man opened up to the Rabbi and said "I must confide something to you. After a long period of time of floundering income, I felt compelled to reach out for assistance. Being that I still had my pride, I opted to submit an anonymous ad to a newspaper which simply said [in Yiddish]; "Jew Needs help, contact (xxx) xxx-xxxx". There was only a single response. It was the Rebbe's secretary who was calling upon the Rebbe's instructions to find out what my needs were".
This week (3 Tammuz) we commemorated the 26th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצוק״ל, who, perhaps more than any other person in recent memory, left a legacy of caring for every single Jew, and indeed, for every human being.
Of course, the Rebbe did not invent the notion of Ahavas Yisrael. The centrality of valuing each and every Jew is as old as Yiddishkeit itself. It is, after all, the כלל גדול בתורה - The great rule of the Torah.
And to this end, Korach’s argument is so compelling, as the Torah describes:
Korach and his followers assembled themselves together against Moshe and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much on yourself, All the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and Hashem is among them: why then raise yourselves up above the congregation of Hashem?”
Korach's claim is so Jewish. So central to who we are. Korach, and the Rebbe are completely correct. The entire nation is indeed transcendent. We do indeed have the present of Hashem in our midst.
Rav Kook in his 1906 Ma’amar HaDor explains that the immense Jewish proclivity for socialism, communism and liberalism stems from the great desire of a Jew to see a world in which every human being is regarded as valuable.
And yet, somehow, Korach was wrong. This great conundrum was expressed by the The Yismach Moshe, Reb Moshe Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Ujhely.
He was once learning with his grandson, the Yitav Lev, and said that he remembered being in the Midbar and witnessing the machlokes between Korach and Moshe. His grandson asked, somewhat audaciously, which side he was on.
The Rebbe replied that he didn’t take a side. He stood back and waited to see what would happen.
The Chassidim were shocked! Holy Rebbe! How could you not side with Moshe. The Rebbe responded: “You didn't know Korach. You don't understand how hard it was to not follow him.”
The Klausenberger would refer to Korach is the Heilige Zeida , the Holy Grandfather Korach. Because he stood for so much good. But all of this deepens the question: Why was he wrong?
To answer this question, Hashem proposes a demonstration: Tell each leader of each tribe to bring their staff to the Mishkan, and the true leader’s staff will blossom. This was not simply a exhibition of who the true leader should be. For that, Hashem could have issued any number of miracles, signs and wonders. This purpose of this event was to educate a rejection of Korach; and demonstrate his mistake.
Reb Leibele Eiger (תורת אמת ר׳ קרח) explains:
“The primary desire of Hashem in His world is the growth of goodness and blessing and peace. And from Korach, the opposite developed - animosity and dissent.“
Essentially, explains Reb Leibele: In the murky uncertainties of human emotions and egos it is close to impossible to know whether an idea, a philosophy or a theory is good or bad. Any statement can be spun. Everyone’s words can be twisted to support an agenda.
So how can we tell if we, or anyone else is doing right? The only tool we have is to look at how the seeds they are planting will grow. And sometimes this is really tough. Sometimes, it takes years or generations to see how a particular seed grows.
But most of the time, we know what we are sowing. We know if we're sowing compassion, empathy and respect. We also know when we're sowing discord and malevolence. Others might not, but if we're honest with ourselves, the truth of our words and actions are apparent to us the moment we ask ourselves: “What will come from this?” Or rather “What do we want to come from this?”
Korach knew that despite his posturing for equality, he was really trying to destroy Moshe and Aharon. His staff was one of brokenness, and loneliness and competition.
There is a tremendous Yetzer Hara to see life as a zero sum game. Meaning: "If they have it, then I don't." If I say “their lives matter” it means “my life doesn’t.” But it's not true of life, and it's not true of Yiddishkeit.
The Ropchitzer would explain that anger, jealously and frustration are manifestations of a lack of Emuna. If Hashem wants something to work out for us, it will. And if not, it won't. And just because someone else is experiencing hatzlocha, it doesn't mean that Hashem cannot give you the same hatzlocha.
Last summer, while Aliza and I were beginning our Avoda in weight loss, we ran into a couple that hadn't seen us in while. They looked at us, and were duly impressed. The wife then asked us: "Do you guys have some kind of competition going?" To which I answered: "No. We're just trying to be really supportive of each other." She turn to her husband and said: "That would never happen in our family."
And I'm still trying to understand why not? Why is it that we choose competition over encouragement? It's a simply ludicrous way to live. Sure, you feel like a million bucks when you one-up your wife or husband. And they feel like a looser. But now you're living with a person that feels like a looser, and they blame you! How is this helpful on a personal level? How is this helpful on a nation level?
And we do this to children and our parents and our business partners and our colleagues all the time. We think winning will make us feel better. But the fundamental misunderstanding is that we're in this together. So Korach's seeds are poison, if for no other reason, than he can't be happy for Moshe and Aharon. He thinks his success must be predicated on their failure.
The Torah is asking us to not just to evaluate our words. But our motivations. Not just our philosophy, but the way we express it. Hashem should help us to plant and cultivate seeds that will blossom into the world He wants us to build.
This Shabbos marks a momentous event in our community. We're returning to the Makom Kadosh - the transcendent space - of our Shul. Our tradition is replete with the significance of davening in shul and of davening with a minyan. And as I write this, anxious and excited, I cannot help but wonder why we are returning.
Of course, we would not be doing any of this without the advice and guidance of doctors and poskim. We could not do this without social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers. But Baruch HaShem we're doing it. Our return to shul, awkward as it is, will be a small measure of "returning to normal" in a world of uncertainty.
And that's my concern. I don't want to go back to normal. And if I may be so bold, I don't think that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to go back to normal either. Being honest, I'm worried that with the countless zooms, whatsapps, meetings, emails and sign-up-sheets, we have already forgotten why we want to come back to shul altogether.
Our parsha begins with the obligation of the Kohen to kindle the light of the Menora in the Mishkan. But Shlomo HaMelech writes in Mishlei (כ:כ״ז) that נר ה׳ נשמת אדם - Each of us possesses a soul, a candle of the Master of the Universe. Rebbe Nosson (ברכת השחר ה:ה) explains that the obligation of the Kohen to kindle that light every morning exists within each of us. We are supposed to be on fire for Torah and Tefillah. We are supposed to light up the darkness of bedrooms and boardrooms. We are supposed to bring the Light of Hashem into the world.
And we're supposed to do it together. That's called Tefillah B'zibur. And we have a headquarters for this universe-altering mission. That's a shul. (And of course, it's temporary, until we rebuilt our permanent home in Yerushalayim.)
I don't want to attend a shul where passion and excitement for collectively connecting with Hashem is replaced with "relief" and "normalcy." Important as our health guidelines are (and they really are!) this is all futile without deepening Ahavas Hashem and Yiras Shamyaim.
There's a story from over a century ago that highlights this concern:
New Yorkers might know about a small bridge that stretches between the Bronx and Manhattan. It is called the Spuyten Duyvel bridge. This bridge receives trains coming up from Westchester that cross it and ride down the Hudson to lower Manhattan. What is special about the bridge is that it is constantly opening and closing in order to allow ships, large and small, to circle Manhattan.
In 1904, a train was coming up from Westchester, wanting to cross the bridge. In those days, there would be a lantern swinger who stood at the bridge to let the train know if it could pass. When he heard the call of the train's whistle he would swing his lantern if the bridge was up. If the lantern was not swung, the conductor would understand that the bridge was down and safe for passage.
Early one Friday morning at about 3 a.m., a train crashed into the water. It was a serious accident, a great tragedy, and of course everyone wanted to know who was responsible. Suspicion naturally fell on the lantern swinger. After all, he was the one responsible for swinging his lantern if the bridge was up and could not be crossed. He, however, protested his innocence with such vigor that the case, which had in the meantime been brought to court, could not be decided.
After six months of hung juries, his lawyer in a dramatic break from courtroom practice at the time decided to call the lantern swinger to the stand.
"What is your name?" the bailiff asked. "Mr. Lantern Swinger," he responded with alacrity. "Where were you early on the Friday morning in question?" "At my post," he responded calmly. "Did you see the oncoming train?" "Yes I did." "Were you inebriated?""No sir, I never drink."
"Then tell the court what happened when you saw the oncoming train. Did you or didn't you swing your lantern?" A hush fell over the courtroom . . . Only the sound of baited breath and reporters' pencils were faintly heard. And strangely, strangely, the lantern swinger, who had been fully poised, began to stutter . . .
"Yyy . . . ye . . . yes. I d-d-d-did swing the lantern," he finally blurted out. Although the jury did not know what to make of his stutter, they believed him. He was acquitted. However, as the last person filed out of the courtroom, and the defense attorney was left alone with his client, he exploded.
"I've been defending you for six months!! I've worked day and night! I've barely seen my wife and kids. You told me you were innocent. Why the stutter of a guilty man?"
The lantern swinger looked sadly at his attorney. "You asked me the wrong question," he said. "You asked if I swung my lantern. You forgot to ask if the lantern was lit."
At its core, Yiddishkeit is a relationship, not a check list. We should not come to shul to swing a lantern. We should be there to kindle the flame.
Welcome back, and Good Shabbos
I was in the middle of second grade when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The decades of Apartheid were officially over. When we returned from winter break that year, our teacher announced that we had two new students joining the class. Two black students.
I had never spoken to a black person my own age. I can still recall the shock and awkwardness of these two kids being led into an all white public school classroom. One of them was seated right in front of me. I was mortified to be so close to a black child. I don't know why. He just seemed so different.
Later that day, I raised my hand and told the teacher that I was having trouble seeing the board. I remember thinking that this would work. But she was smarter than me. She rearranged the room so that I would be sitting in the front row of the classroom; sharing a desk with the black girl who joined our class that day.
It's taken me many years to decondition myself from growing up in a fundamentally racist society. In some ways, I wonder if I'll ever rid myself of this sickness entirely. No one told me to fear or hate black people. Yet the way that people speak and act influence the way that society thinks. And I was part of that society.
This idea is brilliantly and famously expressed by the Sefer HaChinuch: (מצוה טז) אחרי הפעולות נמשכות הלבבות - Our emotions are influenced by our actions. Reb Aharon of Karlin (בית אהרן ליקוטים פא) explained that this phenomenon is true even if our actions were forced. We have all observed and experienced how our habits and behaviors shape our perspectives. And the more we persevere in a particular habit, the deeper its underlying philosophy becomes a part of us. This is why Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us so many mitzvos - רצה הקב"ה לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות. He wished to ensure that we became good people. So He gave us actions to do that would transform us from the narcissism of infancy to the transcendence of connecting to Him.
This week, in the final week of zoom-classes for the year, I discussed with my students the current events prevailing over the media and news feeds. It goes without saying that spilling the blood of Gorge Floyd was egregious and evil. Period. And we, Jews who are attempting to be Yarei Shamayim and Ohavei Hashem are left wondering what we are to do in our bubbles of life and in our sphere of influence. Is there even a concrete thing that we can do? I think there is. Specifically, it's changing the way we speak.
Most of the people I interact with are not overtly racist. Indeed, most of our community considers racism the depths of depravity. But even in our community, we are not immune. Consider for example the word shvartzer. It's a word with a long history of usage (which is not for now...). But however it was once used, practically today, the connotation of this word for most frum Jews is a sanitized, Yiddishized, surreptitious substitute for the N-word. It conjures and projects the same prejudices and disdain under the cover of unobtrusive frumkeit. And when our friends and neighbors and kids hear it, they translate it in their minds into the common parlance of the N-word.
It's not the only example. Sometimes we convey disdain through words, sometimes, tones of voice. Sometimes by omissions, and sometimes by comparisons. Sometimes, by turning to face away from another human being, or by turning up our noses towards them. (Rav Blachman told me that Rav Hutner said a person can commit murder simply by turning up their nose - it's a posuk in Vayechi: כי באפם הרגו איש.)
But the words and tones and facial expressions we use influence the way we think. The way we think influences the way we act. And our actions build or destroy the world around us.
As the news floods with more pain from people in the black community, I'm still trying hard to eradicate any smear of the irrational hatred of Apartheid South Africa. I'm trying to remember that the Ribono Shel Olam has brought each and every soul into this world with purpose. I hope that you'll join me.