Aside from being the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was also the Ba’al Kriyah of his shul, reading the Torah every Shabbos.
Naturally, whenever he would travel, there was a big tumult who should Lein in his place. And it so happened that one year, the Rebbe was away for our Parsha, Parshas Ki Savo in which the terrible curses are read.
The leining began without a hitch. The Chossid chosen to read was clearly an expert; not only in the grammar and tunes, but his reading and inflections displayed a profundity of understanding of the words he was reading.
But in the middle of the reading, there was a sudden commotion: the Alter Rebbe’s son, Rabbi Dov Ber, had fainted.
When he was revived, he was asked what had affected him so much. “I could not bear to hear such curses,” he said. “But surely this is not the first time you’ve heard them?!” the chassidim asked. “You hear them every year!”
“It’s true that we read these curses each and every year, but when I hear them from my father, I don’t just hear the curses, I hear the blessings in them as well.”
Each one of us has experienced moments of hindsight induced clarity. On some level, we can all relate to stories of the job offer that tragically fell through, which enabled us to get the much better job later. Of course, we all know of the house or shidduch that didn’t work out, only to yield much better opportunities just when we thought it was impossible. Countless stories abound of missed trains and planes which ended up saving their lives. Or painful and invasive surgeries that unwittingly and miraculously revealed hidden cancers.
Sometimes we are fortunate to see the blessings in the curse.
But oftentimes we are not. Those that have lost loved ones to COVID are not easily finding the blessing in this curse. Those that cannot visit their kids or hug their grandchildren; those who will not be attending shul this Yom Tov are all having a hard time seeing the Bracha.
Reb Shlomo of Krasna explained that it is for this reason that we read the Tochacha, the curses softly. Because the ability to hear the Brachos in the horror and tragedy is a secret. And secrets must be whispered. I cannot whisper the secrets of the Alter Rebbe and I do not know the secret of hearing the brachos in illness and tragedy. I don’t know how to whisper meaning to those who have suffered and are sill suffering. To those who have been hit hardest by this pandemic, I can offer only comfort, love and support.
But for many of us, this year has been shocking, but not shattering. Our lives have been shaken but not turned over. We have seen the curses, but many have heard the whisper of Brachos as well. So allow us for a moment to whisper together a little.
Many in our community and beyond have noted that as the world shut down we have enjoyed more time with family. The past few months have afforded us a deeper appreciation of Torah and Tefillah, greater opportunities and more quality and quantity time with our children. Of course, not all of us, and not all the time.
But some have found extra hours in the day in place of our daily commutes. Some no longer have to travel out of state for business. Naturally, none of this has been simple. It has all come with a cost - sometimes higher than we wished to pay. But there have been Brachos. (And some of the women of our community are the most honest regarding the Brachos of having their husbands at home for extended periods, often for the first time since marriage.)
But as I speak to some of the chevra, there is a strange and tense guilt in appreciating and graciously accepting the Brachos within this cursed year. We count ourselves “lucky” for these “benefits”. We feel as if by some twist of fate we dodged a bullet. And we feel a sense of shame in expressing gratitude to Hashem for these opportunities. We wonder: How can I be grateful for a situation that has caused so many others so much pain? This thought is indeed noble, but misguided. If Hashem is turning the world over and we are gaining something - anything - from it, that warrants recognition and gratitude. (The Halacha (או"ח סי' רכג ס"ב) is clear: If a person loses a loved one and simultaneously inherits a fortune, they make two Brachos; דיין האמת - that Hashem is the true judge in this tragedy, in addition to שהחיינו - how fortunate we are to receive this inheritance!)
But that’s where the misguided nobility ends and the Yetzer Hara takes over. The thoughts spin around our heads: “Do you really think you deserve to have been spared the worst of this pandemic?! No way! You who does ______________, and you who doesn’t ______________..?!” (Feel free to fill in the blank for your own Yetzer Hara.)
And of course, since it’s an election year, there are different flavored Yetzer Haras for Republicans and Democrats. The Republican Yetzer argues that “it must be that there really wasn’t ever any danger. You were saved from nothing, and this is all a big overhyped mistake. You have nothing to be grateful for.” The Democrat Yetzer Hara retorts that “You got really lucky so far - but just you wait... It’s coming for you. Don’t think you’re anything special.”
But in the meanwhile, if we’re honest, we realize that many of us have been spared from a calamity that has engulfed communities around the world. And our lack of desire to display understanding and gratitude is devastatingly dangerous.
A pillar of our understanding of Torah and the Universe is that the Ribono Shel Olam is a good accountant. In His infinite wisdom he is giving each of our communities and families exactly what we need. If this year has presented youwith new opportunities and perspectives, then this is what Hashem wants for you.
After one-hundred-and-twenty, the Master of all Worlds will ask us: “Do you remember 5780? Do you remember how I put the world on pause and turned it upside down and saved you and your family? Do did see how I gave you these opportunities to fix your broken relationships, your broken schedules and priorities? Did you see how I buried the greatest Brachos in hidden worlds where no one was bothering you...?”
Are we confident that are answers will satisfy us then?
Throughout Elul we have been sounding the Shofar, and the Rambam famously tells us that the sound of the Shofar is designed to wake us up. It’s waking each of us on our level. To come to minyan, to put on tefillin, to daven, to learn. It’s waking us up to give tzedaka, to lose weight, to control our anger. It’s waking up us to spend more time with our family and less time with our screens. It’s waking us up to go for a walk or run, to read a book, to clean out the garage. The shofar of this Elul is waking us up to hear that the world might be going back to “normal”, but that our normal must be, and needs to be quite different. It’s waking us up to make time, to make Aliyah, to make difficult decisions, to make a change.
The Bracha we will say on the Shofar is לשמוע קול שופר - to hear to the sound of the Shofar. Amazingly, the Ba’al Halachos Gedolos writes that the correct bracha is לשמוע בקול שופר - To Listen to what the Shofar is saying. (We don’t accept this opinion להלכה, but the sentiment is certainly true: We have a lot of listening to do.)
Chazal tell us that we read these curses before Rosh HaShana so that the “year and it’s curses will end.” And we all know that there is much we’d like to see an end to of this year. But there is also a tremendous amount of Bracha yet to be claimed before this year is completed.
There is no shame in being grateful for your Brachos, knowing that even in the pain and confusion, Hashem is holding our hands, helping us through, giving us exactly what we need.
Hashem should help us to wake up and listen to the whispered Brachos in these challenging times, and give us the courage to hear Him cheering us on towards 5781.
This Shabbos, the Torah tells us of the most tragic parenting story possible; the story of the Ben Sorer U'moreh. A child, just before bar mitzvah who begins down a road that will lead to his own destruction. His parents will bring him to the Sanhedrin to be executed.
But the conditions for a boy to become a Ben Sorer U'moreh are difficult to achieve. He must have had access to a stellar education, wonderful loving parents, excellent health for himself and his parents, etc... Only when everything in his life is perfect will the Torah conclude that such a boy is liable for his actions. Absent of even one detail, he cannot be a Ben Sorer U'moreh.
This is a powerful perspective in our understanding of people in general. How often is a child (or adult) simply reacting to the challenges that they are experiencing? Are we so convinced that the negativity we’re seeing in someone is originates with them? Indeed it would seem that creating such an ideal environment is so nearly impossible that the Talmud suggests that throughout Jewish history, there has never been a Ben Sorer U’moreh.
But let’s imagine it happens. The perfect child, from a perfect family, in a perfect community who starts down the road of rebelliousness and brokenness.
Imagine the tears, the horror, the despair. No doubt, schools have been warning about this child for years. He's bounced from class to class, teacher to teacher. His parents have spend hundreds of sessions and thousands of dollars in therapy. And yet this child is apparently incurable.
Picture that child - determined, defiant, arrogant, angry. The has Sanhedrin has ruled that he must be executed, and as they are taking him away, his parents begin to cry uncontrollably. Please, they beg, despite everything, we forgive him, we want him, we love him.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (88a) tells us: “בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו - A stubborn and rebellious son whose father and mother sought to forgive him, they can forgive him.”
The Rambam (ע׳ שיעורי ר' דוד מסכת סנהדרין עא:א) explains that this mechilah - this forgiveness - works even once they have sentenced this child to death! Even in the last moment. They can pick him up and bring him home.
This idea, while beautiful, is peculiar. A Ben Sorer U'Moreh is not judged based on what he has done, but for what he will become. His crimes are that he stole, ate too much meat and drank too much wine. Ordinarily, these crimes are not deserving of death; but the Torah declares with Devine certainly that such a child, at that age and stage of life will become a menace to himself and society. Better that he die now, rather than destroy himself and the world further.
So how could it help that his parents forgive him? His fate is sealed!
The Shem Mishmuel (תרע"א) explains:
כשאביו ואמו מוחלין לו הנה הוא עדיין נקשר בשלשלת הקודש, שוב אינו נהרג, שיכול להיות שעוד ישוב בתשובה שלימה המתקבלת - The moment that his parents forgive him, it reconnects him to the Jewish people, and his fate is not yet sealed. As long as his parents believe in him, his fate is not sealed. Only for one who is completely disconnected from Ahavas Yisrael, from Yiddishkeit, from parents and friends can we say, it's all over.
This, of course, is not limited to our relationship with our children. No Jew's life experience exists in a vacuum. When we relate to people with ahava, with kavod, with mechila, it transforms who that person is.
But this influence - the effect that our confidence has on those around us - is not only transformative, it’s the primary Avoda of our generations.
The Mishna in Avos (1:2) famously tells us:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Shimon the Tzadik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, "On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service and on acts of lovingkindness."
During the summer months the Sfas Emes would learn Pirkei Avos with his son, later to become the Imrei Emes. Commenting on that Mishna, the Imrei Emes explained from his father:
The world stands on three things: Torah, Avoda and Chessed. But our history has shown that we have not always worked on these pillars simultaneously. Before Matan Torah, the world did not have Torah. And since the destruction of Yerushalayim, we no longer have the Avoda of the Korbanos. Therefore, we must conclude that the world stands on either Torah, Avoda or Chessed - depending on the era.
And then the Sfas Emes explained in the name of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk: Until the time of the Arizal, the world stood on Torah. Now the world stands on Gemilus Chassadim - taking care of other people. Our job is to love each other.
So as Rosh Hashanah approaches, we so desperately want to keep our world standing. This has been the shakiest year in recent memory, and if we’d like 5781 to feel a little more solid, our Avoda is to grow in Ahavas Yisrael.
A bachur came to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt'l and told him that he was thrown out of his yeshiva. The Klausenberg Rebbe summoned for the mashgiach of the bachur’s yeshiva and asked him why he threw this bachur out. The mashgiach told him all the bad things the boy had done, and concluded, “It’s impossible to keep him in the yeshiva if he does these things.”
“That’s true,” the Rebbe agreed, “but I spoke with the bachur, and he told me that he’s ready to change.”
The mashgiach said in exasperation, “This bachur promised me a thousand times that he will improve and he never keeps his word.”
The Rebbe held his white beard and said, “Throughout the many years of my life I promised Hashem even more than a thousand times that I will improve, and I haven’t done so yet. According to what you’re saying, I should give up. But actually, as long as a Yid lives, he still has potential to change...”
This school year is going to be a challenge unlike anything we have faced before. This Tishrei and Yamim Nora’im will be unlike any we have experienced. The uncertainty of health and scheduling, coupled with the demands of distancing, mask wearing and the politicization of all of the above are all taking their toll.
None of us are immune from the anxiety of COVID-19. No one has antibodies from the past six months of insanity and uncertainty. Everyone could use a little more love, a little more understanding and a little more patience.
Our love, attention and patience for our children and each other is the cure we all so desperately need.
Or as Viktor Frankel would say: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse. If we take man as he should be, we make him capable of what he can be.”
In a few days, perhaps, a week or two, many of us will be sending our children back to school for whatever the year will bring. For those with young children at home, there is a palpable feeling of relief. For months we have endured infinite hostage negotiations regarding the remote control and playing personal assistant to always-hungry but don’t-know-what-I-want-to-eat children.
Serving as tech support to help with yet another zoom-class-login debacle was only the tip of the frustration iceberg. Cancelled summer plans were met with overwhelming uncertainly, and awkward social interactions. None of this has been simple.
But one thing has emerged from the wreckage: The manicured hedges that separated “work” and “life” could no longer be maintained. The switch out of family mode and into office mode is frankly impossible when you share office space with a toddler brandishing a sharpie.
But the truth, as anyone with children knows, is that we never had a work life balance to start with. It might be true that we had separate physical spaces. But no one I know has such neat emotional, mental and psychological divisions.
Little by little over the years, the bifurcation of our time has become impossible. Technology has ensured that work encroached on our home time, and in turn, our homes invaded our work time. School plays, graduations, doctors visits, sports games all demand parental attention, leading to awkward conversations of “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make that meeting today.” With the sheepish “because I have parent-teacher-conferences” added. We feel the need to groan to our bosses and colleagues about how dumb these school events are. Really, we want to be working non-stop, Right? We complain about our family obligations almost as much as we yell at our spouses about the importance of this deadline or that conference call.
But at the core, we’re not happy. Because this is not possible, and it’s not sustainable. But why are we in this mess? How did we get here? Why is it that we feel so overwhelmed and exhausted? And why has the total upheaval of our lives during this pandemic provided no cure to the stress - despite the shakeup of schedules, commutes, schooling and travel?
They tell a story that many years ago, a poor farmer had done a great favor for a powerful king.
In gratitude for what this poor farmer had done, the king decided to publicly reward him with a day of celebration in his honor.
The whole city was invited to the large royal estate where all manner of festivities were enjoyed. Great food, wine, music and entertainment. The king then regaled the crowd with the story of the great kindness of this poor farmer and proudly announced this poor farmer would be handsomely rewarded.
Turning the farmer, the king declared, "Tomorrow, you will earn your place amongst the nobles of this land." The astonished farmer turned quizzically to the king, who continued: "Tomorrow morning we will meet here once again, at day break. As the sun rises, you will begin to walk, and every parcel of land that you cover tomorrow, until the sun sets, will belong to you."
The poor farmer had no idea what to say, and stammered a "Thank you your majesty. Tomorrow at day break. Thank you, thank you."
It's not everyday that a person is given such an opportunity, and the whole town was so electrified by the excitement of what the next day would bring, barely anyone slept a wink.
The farmer, for his part had arranged teams of friends and family to relay food and water for him, as untrained, he prepared for a once in a lifetime marathon, that would change his life forever.
An hour before sunrise, he, along with everyone else was standing outside the royal estate. When the king appeared on the balcony in the dim morning light the people fell silent immediately, collectively holding their breath.
The king descended from his balcony and motioned to the farmer to approach. As the sun peeked from the horizon, the king's voice thundered through the throngs of people. "You may begin!"
What a rush! The farmer ran through the crowds to cheers of "Good luck! Pace yourself! Save some for us!"
As the heat of the day grew stronger, friends arrived in wagons, and on horse back to provided essential provision, as the farmer covered acres upon acres. But by mid afternoon, he was feeling the strain of the challenge. His legs were aching, his heart was thumping in his chest, the blisters on his feet had blisters of their own. What began as a run and then a jog, was now barely a brisk walk.
Friends joined him to encourage him "Don't give up! Just another two hours!" Others had practical advice "take a minute to stretch, have some more water!"
Thirty minutes later, as the day began to cool, the farmer's head was getting dizzy. His vision was blurring, and his legs felt like lead.
The walk slowed to a snails pace, with encouragement coming from all sides "You can do it! Look over that mountain - if you get over it, if you conquer it, the whole valley will be yours!"
But a mountain in such a condition was more than could be imagined. Yet, echoing in his ears were years of education: "You can anything if you put your mind to it... Mind over matter." And the farmer, mustering every ounce of will power began to crawl up the mountain, as the sun began to dip behind it.
Those standing nearby waited with bated breath. They watched, awestruck as their friend finally collapsed in broken exhaustion, as the sun was setting, as he crested that mountain. He finally stretched out his shaking hands, straining to cover those last inches. “This, too, is mine,” were his dying words.
In those hazy, early days of the pandemic shutdown, I hoped that we would become a little less like that farmer. You hoped for that as well. In the confusion that surrounded us during Pesach there was the undeniable optimism that somehow, in some way we would become better for it.
In some cases, these dreams materialized. But for everyone who learned how to play the guitar in the past five months, there are dozens of dusty guitars yet to be picked up. A far greater proportion of people gained weight than lost it. And many more books were left unread on the bedside table.
Looking back on the past five months, everything in our lives changed completely. And somehow, none of the changes in our schedules made way for the changes we wanted in our lives.
It turns out then, that we don’t so much suffer from an imbalance of work and life. In my humble opinion, we suffer from an imbalance of priorities.
Mori V’Rabbi Rav Blachman once made the observation that we struggle to differentiate between what is necessary and what is important.
At any given moment, we have choices to make between spending time on neccesary tasks or important ones. But before we can make those judgement calls, we need to define what is necessary and what is important. Because in the absence of our own definitions, we will, always, by default, gravitate to the definitions of other people.
The imbalance that we feel between work and life is nothing other than the guilt of having someone else’s priorities overwhelm our own poorly defined priorities. We resent that our bosses, spouses and children are telling us what is important for us right now - because we failed to do so ourselves. And that’s how the farmer dies at the top of the mountain; without a moment to consider whether this once in a lifetime opportunity is necessary or important. Without thinking if this is a means or an end. And who ever said that this farmer needs to have this land?
The Avnei Nezer explains that this question is the Avoda of Parshas Shoftim: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ - Set up judges and police in each of your gates. At every juncture in life we need to make a judgement call, that’s Shoftim/Judges. But then we need to live by it, enforce it and make sure to communicate it clearly. That’s Shotrim/Police.
This Elul, Hashem is asking each of us: “What do you really want to do with your life? I’ve shaken up Planet Earth. Nothing is as it was. There is no balance to which you must subscribe. There is only the question: What is necessary and what is important for you?”
The gates to 5781/תשפ״א are beginning to open. Hashem should help us to get our judges in place.
This Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
It’s a good thing that Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t weigh as much as I did two summers ago. Or Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank would likely not have survived to tell the story.
Baruch HaShem, my eating habits have changed a lot in the past two years. But for a long time, it didn’t seem possible.
The Shulchan Aruch (או"ח קפ:ה) records the custom of putting away the knife before beginning Birkas HaMazon. As to the reason for this minhag, there are a number of approaches in classical sources. But Rabbi Avraham of Stratyn would explain that the Zohar tell us that שעת אכילה שעת מלחמה - “Meal time is time of Battle”. And when we put the knife away, we’re declaring that the battle is over... for now.
This article is the beginning of a conversation long overdue in our shuls, schools and communities. It’s a conversation about engaging in this battle.
For anyone who is struggling with overeating and being overweight, you are already skeptical of anything am I going to say. You have already read, attempted and failed at an uncountable host of weight loss programs. You have ridden the weight-loss/weight-gain rollercoaster more times than you care to count, and most likely you have, at least at some point, concluded that this will be your life forever.
We all know and understand that book stores and blogs are filled with diet and weigh loss advice and information, precisely because there is no easy solution to this problem. And of course, the judgements that our society (and ourselves!) place on overweight people makes flip-flopping and failure far more than an issue of food. The number on the scale has become a measure of self worth; with the steepest of inverse proportions. As the number rises, our self esteem plummets.
And all of this is communal and personal fat-shaming is starkly contrasted with the abundance of indulgent food available at kiddushes, simchas, and Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. This is an issue for adults who are struggling, and perhaps even more so for children and teens who we are conditioning from the earliest of ages to associate Shul and Yiddishkeit with candy.
(We should also take note of the devastating truth that we are currently in the midst of pandemic which is far more dangerous and deadly for people struggling with obesity.)
So what might a Rabbi have to add to this conversation? I am neither a doctor, nor a dietician. I’m a not a fitness guru. But I’m not trying to sell you anything either. And in the past two years I have lost almost 100lbs. I’ve run a few half marathons, and a full marathon as well. All of this, comes after spending three decades of my life making some very poor choices.
Today, I feel pretty good about my accomplishments in these areas. But not totally, and not completely. Which should inform you of the harsh truth that you already know: We’re never completely out of the woods. I am fitter, skinnier, faster and healthier than I have ever been. But staying this way means constantly re-engaging in that battle.
So how did I do it? And how I am keeping it up? Of course, there are dieting tricks, meal prep hacks, and exercises that I have learned along the way. But tricks, hacks and exercises are not the reason for sustainable life changes. I suspect you share similar sentiments and cynicism.
My success has come from different kind a diet. Not of food (or lack thereof), but of ideas. It’s a diet of Ruchniyus, Mussar, Chassidus and Torah that exist in the empty, unspoken space between the fat-shaming we suffer and the indulgences we’re supposed to enjoy, endure and sponsor. This is the conversation that I’d like to begin.
In a very real and palpable way the first major breakthrough I experienced was framing this challenge as an Avoda in Teshuva. It stopped being about carbs or pounds or clothing. It was a simple realization: I Don’t Want to Be a Ba’al Ta’ava Any More.
This simple thought felt like a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions. It was the day I decided I didn’t want to loose weight anymore. I didn’t want to be skinny anymore. Sure, I didn’t want my belly to jiggle when I brushed my teeth, but that wasn’t the goal any longer. I had a new goal. I wanted to enjoy sitting at the Shabbos table, and feel like I was in control.
It dawned on me in that moment, that a piece of me really didn’t enjoy the Shabbos table. I enjoyed the food, every sushi roll, every chicken nugget, and every bowl of cholent (which, as I typed this, just got autocorrected to cholesterol?!). But I dreaded Shabbos meals. Because I knew how I would feel at the end.
The moment I realized that I was in a battle for control with my Yetzer Hara - that Avoda became the main course.
That basic idea is step one. That was the spark. Since then, I have expanded my palette of thoughts, Torah’s, and emotions. I return to them over and over again, as I have worked to incorporate these changes into my life. In the deepest way, nothing I have gained would have been possible without constant review of these ideas.
These are the ideas that I’m inviting you to learn and review with me starting this Thursday night at 8:30pm, as Chodesh Elul begins. Each week we’re going to learn a little together, in a simple and straight forward way, on a mutual quest to experience a kind a Teshuva that we have been attempting for years. Of course, none of this limmud is limited to food/eating exclusively. These ideas can and will provide insight and inspiration for all of our battle with the Yetzer Hara.
Our Parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu telling us: רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה - “See, I am putting before you today a blessing and a curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim explains this presentation was not a once-off occurrence. The same choices exist for each of us every day. And each day Hashem gives us the ability to make the right choices. Indeed, in gratitude for our God-given capacity to make the right decisions, we make a Bracha every morning: הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה - You, Hashem give me the ability to discern between day and night.
Hashem should help us, our children and our communities to choose between light and darkness today and everyday. I’m looking forward to learning together.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of Jewish education. To lay the facts out as simply as possible:
With all of this being the case, it is instructive to rethink why we have Jewish day school at all. To illustrate, consider the Chinuch that Moreinu V’Rabbineu Rav Soloveitchik received:
In 1913, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik became the Rabbi of Chaslavitch in White Russia. His son Yoshe-Ber, or Berel, later to become “The Rav” was a young boy at the time. Then, as now, Jewish education was of paramount importance, and as such, Berel was sent to learn in the cheder of Reb Baruch Reisberg, a Lubavitcher chosid. (The Rav would often reflect upon the value of his early chassidic education saying that without this exposure to Chassidus he would never have known the difference between one Yom Tov and the next.)
But it soon became apparent to his mother, Rabbanit Pesia, that shortly after the parents had brought their children to the cheder, the Rebbe would tell the boys to put away the Gemaros and take out their Tanya.
She was so bothered by this that she brought the matter to her father-in-law, the great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who agreed to test his grandson on what he was learning, so as to ascertain the extent of the problem. Reb Chaim turned to his grandson and asked “what are you learning?”, and as young Berel opened his mouth, the words of the Tanya rolled out with nary a word of Talmud.
Reb Chaim called his son over, and instructed Rav Moshe: “You must take personal charge over Berel’s education.” And so it was, that the Rav’s primary teacher of Talmud for the next 10 years, was his own father, a privilege that he benefited from and spoke about his entire life.
Reb Chaim’s point, is that at it’s core, the obligation Chinuch, of education children, is a personal parental duty. This obligation is described by the Torah in the second paragraph of Shema in our parsha: וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם - “You shall teach these words to your children to speak of them”. Practically, this means that every parent is obligated to ensure that their children are technically proficient in Torah, such that they can (at minimum) perform all of the Mitzvos of the Torah in which they are obligated with consistency and accuracy. Inclusive in this mandatory curriculum is that a child has a correct hierarchy of Torah and life values, that will reflect the way they live, work and participate in society. (ע׳ אגרות משה ח״ח עמ׳ מח - סימן י״ד).
The continuation of the Pasuk commands parents to educate our children בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ - when you are at home and when you are traveling. Reb Yehoshua of Belz explains that this obligation is in the second person. When you are at home, your children should learn with you, so that when you are unavailable, out on the road, they have the skills and motivation to learn themselves. That’s the goal of
So why do we have Jewish day schools? Because not every parent has the time, knowledge and wherewithal to successfully educate their children. To that end, we hire professionals to help us perform this essential and fundamental mitzvah. The obligation of paying tuition to achieve this goal is codified by the Rambam (הלכות תלמוד תורה א:ג). Of course, if a parent can personally provide adequate education to their children, they have no obligation to pay tuition. That being said, I do not know many people today that have the right mix of educational expertise and available time to absolve them of obligation to hire teachers for their children. There are not many Rav Moshe Soloveitchiks around.
Now, Coronovirus has created a situation where the normative infrastructure of Jewish Day Schools is compromised. So where to from here? Currently, both parents and schools are all at a point of hoping and wishing that in-person school works out. But what happens if the hopes in wishes don’t work out? Best case scenario is that only a few teachers are laid off, and our children receive yet another sub-par educational experience. Worst case? Our schools join the growing list of institutions that did not survive COVID-19, leaving parents and communities to figure out Jewish education from scratch for years to come. (My dear friend on college Rabbi Philip Moskowitz addressed the untenability of such a scenario during Kinnos on Tisha B’av morning.)
We need to ensure that none of this comes to pass. To that end, here are a number of suggestions that go beyond hoping and wishing.
Essentially, if schools cannot (any whatever point) meet in-person on-campus, there are a host of conversations that need to be had. Parents, teachers, schools and administrators are going to need to make consessions and work flexibly to ensure that effective Chinuch can occur. The only thing that absolutely must notoccur is that schools go online, and parents withdraw their children or stop payments without deep conversations about how to do this better.
The Tifferes Shlomo writes that והיה עקב תשמעון means that we should listen at the end of time, in these days of עקבתא דמשיחא - the days just before Moshiach arrives. Because any mitzvah, great or small is so precious in the insanity of our world. When Moshiach will come, please God very soon, he will run through our communities with tears in his eyes picking up each and every one of our children, singing with them, dancing with them, and saying “Wow! Baruch Hashem, you managed to hold on to Torah and Yiddishkeit when so many others let go.”
Chevra, let’s hold on just a little while longer. For us, for our teachers and schools and communities. But most importantly, for our children, so that Moshiach will know to pick them up on the way to Yerushalayim.
This Shabbos is one of comfort - Shabbos Nachamu, so named for the opening words of the Haftarah: נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי - The Navi is instructing us to be comforted in the wake of the devastation of Tisha B’av. But what is this comfort? What are we supposed to feel?
“Making someone comfortable” means something very different when you hear it in a nursing home. There, the sadness of comfort becomes very real. I can still vividly recall the first time I asked what what “making him comfortable” meant, and since that day, I can no longer feel comfortable with being comfortable.
Comfort, as we know it, is a fairly recent consideration of humanity. For most of our history, life was decidedly uncomfortable. Heat and cold were aspect of nature to contend with, to mitigate if possible. Sickness, ailments, pain and aging, were parts of life.
But in the past century, we have moved beyond mitigating these discomforts. Indeed, with the wonders of modern science and technology, we have all but eradicated the major discomforts of our ancestors. And now comfort reigns supreme. Comfortable beds, shoes, clothes, seats, cars, shuls, schools and couches.
This is a good thing. Without the constant barrage of daily frustration, we now have the time, headspace, and wherewithal to devote ourselves to loftier pursuits on both personal and national levels. Right?
But if we’re honest, we know know that’s not true.
A number of years ago, a close friend of mine told me the story of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who made her way to the United States. With the characteristic perseverance of one who could not allow Hitler to win, and despite her poverty, she raised her children with to value life, learning and the Jewish nation.
At some point in the mid sixties, after a number of a years, saving penny by penny, she had finally saved up enough to buy an electric washing machine. On that day, she called her children together and told them, “Now that I no longer need to spend all day at home - we’re going to the library. If we have free time, it’s to be used for learning.”
But we don’t live that way. I’ve often joked to my talmidim that when the aliens land, they’ll see us carrying these rectangular slabs in our pockets. They’ll ask us “what are those?” And we’ll respond “These are smart phones. They give us the ability to connect to our friends, and families, and almost anyone on the planet. With these marvelous devices we can access all of human knowledge. We can use them to learn skills, languages, and art.” “Amazing,” they will say. “And what do you use them for?” “Netflix, Lashon Hara and memes...”
Why do we live our lives with such disaffection for our own values? I hesitate to say it: But I think we have completely misunderstood the meaning of comfort. We imagine that it means the absence of pain as an inherent value. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Rashi (בראשית ו:ו) tells us the meaning of the word נחמה. It doesn’t mean the removal of pain. It means:
נהפכה מחשבתו ... וכן כל לשון ניחום שבמקרא לשון נמלך מה לעשות
A change of mind, of perspective... Every נחמה in the Torah means a consideration of what to do now.
To illustrate, in our world: COVID has presented us with unprecedented disruptions to our lives, our families, our school, shuls and Yiddishkeit. Attempting comfort mean trying to accept this new reality, and work within it. To let go of our previously held notions of the importance of community, of Tefillah B’Tzibur, of Talmud Torah B’Rabim, of welcoming guests, and visiting the sick.
But Nechama argues that we should be profoundly uncomfortable with this new reality. We should long for, work for, yearn for the return of events and gatherings that are so meaningful to our lives. And yet we must continue un-paralyzed to do the best we can with the state of the world in which we live.
As it pertains to the Churban and Tisha B’Av: The deepest tension in our lives must be to make our lives as elevated and perfected as possible and yet still never give up on the dream of Yerushalayim. To work on making our communities greater, and yet be ready leave it all in moment for the chance of Geulah.
Comfort heralds a mixture of resilience and acceptance. But at it’s core, comfort is about resignation. Nechama, on the other hand profoundly and boldly demands responsiveness and responsibility. Nechama asks us to live with the tension of doing our best in a broken world, while never capitulating to reality. Or in the words of Dylan Thomas, Nechama asks us to “Rage against the dying of the light.”
In a few days, we will celebrate the mysterious holiday of Tu B’av - the 15th day of the month of Av. There are many reasons for this holiday, but the most peculiar is the opinion of Rav Menasya (תענית לא,א׳), who explained: They called the fifteenth of Av the day of the “Breaking of the Axes”, as from this date onward no more trees were cut down for the Mizbeach (since it was the rainy season).
There are many questions to ask on this Gemara. Why is stopping to chop wood for the Mizbeach a cause for celebration? Furthermore why break the axes? And why celebrate the breaking?
To understand this enigma, consider the Medrash in Bereishis Rabba (5:10) telling us the story of the creation of steel:
When Hashem created steel, the trees began to tremble. Said the steel to them: "So long as none of you serve as my handle, no tree will be harmed."
The Maharal (Chidushei Agados Sanhedrin 39b) explains this Medrash:
כי רגיל הוא שפורענות יבא על האדם מצד עצמו - Most of the calamities that happen to a person, come as a result of themself.
Essentially, the Maharal is teaching us, there are only two ways to respond to challenges: Either we respond with resignation or responsibility. Either we see ourselves as the unfortunate tree that must contend with being chopped. Or as the wood that built our own axe. Are we trying to be comfortable, or achieve Nechama? Comfort numbs us; Nechama heightens our senses.
This decision effects every part of our lives, from our careers, to raising our children. From marriage to davening. From success to failure. This decision effects the way that we look at everything - is this failure a simply a challenge or a new reality? Is this year a speed bump or a road block on the way to Redemption?
Nechama doesn’t mean pretending everything is great. It means choosing to respond to everything with greatness.
Rav Kook writes in Oros HaTechiyah (פרק ה׳):
גדולים אנחנו וגדולות הנה משוגותינו ובשביל כך גדולות הן צרותינו, וגדולים גם תנחומותינו
We are so great and so great are our meshugasim (our mistakes). And because of this, our pain is great. And how great will be our Nechama.
If Hashem has given our generation a level of material comfort that humanity has never seen before, we dare not waste it on “making ourselves comfortable.” We should leave Tisha B’av with deep discomfort, but not despair. We should commit ourselves to changing our reality. That’s true meaning of Shabbos Nachamu. Be comforted with the knowledge that you can fix this. But please, never be comfortable.
There is a new marker of time in our home. My children call it BC - Before Corona. “Remember Before Corona when we went to shul?” “One time, Before Corona, when I went to my friend’s house...” “A long time ago, Before Corona when I was at school...”
It’s hard for adults. But for kids, it’s heartbreaking. What we would give to go back to normal again? Because this, whatever this is, is not normal. And now it’s slowly dawning on us that normal is far, far away. Whatever school will be this year, it won’t be normal. Whatever Shul will be for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur this year, it won’t be normal. Neither will malls, or vacations or travel. None of it will be like it was BC - Before Corona. None of it will be normal.
But what is normal? It’s a hard concept to pin down. Now they say we have a “new normal”. But how long until “new normal” is just “normal”. What’s the gestation for a “normal” until it’s no longer new? And is there any objective measure that makes last years normal more normal than now? Other than familiarity, of course?
I share these questions with you because this week, this Shabbos, we are in the darkest time of our year. These days from Rosh Chodesh Av until Tisha B’av are days set aside to consider what normal is really supposed to be. And how far we are from it. But the truth is, it’s been a few thousand years since anything was normal.
The story is told of Reb Menachel Nachum of Chernobyl, the Meor Einayim (1770-1837). During one of his many travels he once stayed at the inn of a simple Jew. As was his practice, Reb Nachum woke up every night at midnight to say Tikun Chatzos (the prayer to mourn for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash).
That night in the inn, far away from his family and community, Reb Nachum lost himself in words of the Tefillah and began to cry over the ongoing suffering of our people.
Hearing the crying, the inn-keeper, woke up and quickly ran to Rav Nachum’s room to see if everything was alright. “Rebbe, I heard you crying, is something wrong?” Rav Nachum responded, “I was crying over the destruction of the Temple.”
But the inn keeper, a simple man who was raised with little education asked: “Rebbe, I am not familiar with the Temple or its destruction.” Reb Nachum’s eyes lit up as he proceeded to explain to the inn-keeper about the Bais HaMikdash and what it meant to our people. He spoke about Yerushalayim, and David HaMelech, of prophecy and nationhood, of Moshiach and the yearning to return. And he when concluded his explanation, Reb Nachum turned and said, “My dear brother, don’t despair, Moshiach will come soon and we will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. But tell me when Moshiach comes, will you be ready to travel to the land of Israel?”
The inn-keeper, ever pragmatic, responded, “Rebbe, this is a very important question. I have to ask my wife.” So at 3am, the inn-keeper shook his wife awake and explained to her the conversation he had with their peculiar and saintly guest. He told her about the Beis HaMikdash and Israel and Moshiach, and that when he comes, please God soon, the Rabbi says we can go! For the very first time, this Jewish couple was talking about Jewish destiny and their place in it.
But a while later the inn-keeper returned to Rebbe and said: “Rebbe, my wife and I discussed your generous offer, and she makes a good point. We cannot go to the Land of Israel when Moshiach comes, because we have invested our whole life and livelihood in this inn. We have cows, chickens and horses and a host of responsibilities. What will be with them if we just get up and leave?”
The Rebbe would not relent. “My dear friend, he continued, “There is so much anti-Semitism, the Tartars, the Cossacks – every day there is someone else who wants to kill you. Forget about the animals and the inn and promise me that when Moshiach comes you will come with us to the Land of our Ancestors”.
The inn-keeper was all to familiar with Jew hatred and the Rebbe’s words washed over him like a splash of cold water. “Rebbe” he said, “I understand – let me go discuss it with my wife.”
The inn-keeper returned a few minutes later, “Rebbe we discussed it, and my wife has a fantastic idea. Listen to this,” he said excitedly. “When Moshiach comes, you can arrange for him to take the Tartars and Cossacks to the Land of Israel, and then we’ll be able to stay here in peace!”
Reb Nachum cried that night saying that the deepest devastation of exile is when we don’t even want to go home.
The Shela HaKadosh, Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz writes (סוף עשרת הדברות, מסכת סוכה, דרך חיים):
“I must tell you what burns deepest in my heart: When I see Jews building their exquisite houses and setting up a permanent home in this world, in a land of impurity. And of course, it is true, that the Talmud tells us that one day the homes of tzadikim will be lifted to Eretz Yisrael. But there are so many who are building here, wanting nothing more than to leave a legacy and inheritance for their descendants. It seems to me, God forbid, that they have forgotten the meaning of Redemption, they have forgotten the meaning of home.”
Home is Eretz Yisrael. Home is Yerushalayim. Home is Jewish Sovereignty, with peace and safety and security. Home is dignity. Home is prosperity. Home is the ability and desire to keep the Torah, to value the Torah, and to uphold the values of the Torah and never to be afraid.
This Shabbos, Moshe tells us: רב לכם שבת בהר הזה פנו וסעו לכם - It’s been long enough that you’re settled at this mountain. It’s time to move on.
The Kli Yakar explains:
הסבו פניכם אל הארץ וסעו לכם אל עצמות מקור שלכם כי משם נוצר חומר של אדה״ר כדרך שאמר לאברהם לך לך
Moshe is telling them... Turn your attention to the Land. To the essence of your source. From that soil Adam HaRishon was created. Like Hashem told Avraham: Go to yourself.
This year Hashem has flung us up into the air. And I don’t want to land where we started. I don’t want the new normal or the old normal. This week, this year, more than ever, I want to go home.
Jew hatred is on the rise in the USA. Or perhaps, it would be more correct to say that noticeable acts of Anti-semitism are on the rise. We all know that Jew hatred has never ceased. It has morphed and shifted and hidden behind various guises: Anti-Zionism, privilege, intersectionality, wokeness etc... And of course, when this Oldest Hate raises its ugly head, our job is to call it out for what it is. We need to take note, to raise our voices.
We are obligated to take a stand and call out the inconsistencies in our culture’s evaluation of Anti-Semitism: the only crime that cancel-culture seems to tolerate. We know the stakes are high, not just for us, but for American society in general. History has borne out a singular truth: Sanctioning Jew hatred has always lead to the moral decay of a nation.
And so we take to our keyboards, our phones and our feeds. We link and share and post and comment. Some of us, have the power of connections to people in positions of power. Some of us have media connections. But in reality, there is the nagging reality of a sense of hopelessness. We know that we are yelling into our own echo chambers with little effect on the views of general society.
How ironic that a people who allegedly control the world media, should struggle to educate this country about the worse calamity in our history. In January this year Pew Research found that: Fewer than half of Americans (43%), know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. And a similar share (45%) know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
So we put down our phones and dejectedly close our laptops. We wonder if and when something, anything will change. But at least we’re doing something about it? At least we’re making a noise, doing what we can, how ever small that might be? Right?
I don’t think so.
But before I say more, please,don’t misunderstand me. Anti-semitism is real and evil. And we must do everything in our power to raise awareness, provide education and ensure that our communities are protected. But fighting Jew hatred is not the primary Avoda of our generation.
The Maharal (נצח ישראל פרק יד) explains that all of Jewish history can be divided into two categories. Times when we are in control of our own destiny, and when we are subject to the control of others.
For many generations, we were not in control of our own destiny. Subjugated by the nations of the world, we fought valiantly to preserve Jewish lives and traditions with immense self sacrifice. And despite the countless casualties and tragedies, we have emerged victorious. The Avoda of a generation of subjugation is clear: Fight the Anti-Semites with all of our might; spiritually, physically and politically.
These were the generations of the Exodus from Egypt, of the Destruction of Yerushalayim. Those that fought to survive the Crusades, Tach V’Tat, the Inquisition, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. Their Avoda was fighting Anti-Semitism.
But this is not the Avoda of our generation. We are the generation that comes next: The generation that wandered the desert. Our food might not be provided from Heaven, our water may not be from a rock. But undeniably, we are living in a time of unprecedented prosperity - even with Coronavirus!
So what was the role of the generation of the Midbar? And what is our purpose?
The Ohr HaChaim (במדבר לג:א ועיין בספר ארץ צבי ע׳ קצב) explains: At each station in the Midbar there were internal challenges to overcome. Sure, there were still wars with Amalek, Sichon, Og, Moav and Midyan. But for the vast majority of the forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were working on themselves. They were refining their character traits; becoming better parents, better children, better spouses and better friends. As they travelled from place to place, new issues arose that required them to reign in their tempers, practice empathy and deepen their trust in Hashem.
The Gemara (ברכות י״ז א׳) tells us that after Rabbi Alexandri finished his Sh’moneh Esrei he would add a short Tefillah: “Master of the Universe, we want to do what You want us to do. So who is stopping us? The Yetzer Hara and the subjugation of the nations of the world. Please save us from them.”
That is to say: We face enemies from within ourselves and from without. It is tempting to pour our efforts into fighting Anti-semitism, but that’s the side-bar of our generation. The real work is fighting the enemies within.
The Magen Avraham (או״ח תכח ס״ק ח׳) writes that when we read the beginning of Parshas Masei in Shul, listing the forty-two camps in the desert, we should not break in the middle, but read them through. Why? These forty-two stations allude the forty-two letter name of Hashem. The Sifsei Tzadik of Piltz explains: The character refining challenges of the Midbar brought an immense light of Godliness into world. Each stop was necessary, and by reading them we can learn to traverse our own challenges as well.
This work is not only for those who are politically connected. It is not reserved for the financial elites, or those with powerful social networks. This is the Avoda of each and every one of us. If we want to see an end to Jew hatred, we should fix the brokenness in ourselves so that we can fix the brokenness in the world. And if the world is fixed, then redemption will come.
As Yirmiyahu (ד:א-ב פר׳ רש״י) says at the end of our Haftara:
If you return to Hashem, and if you rid yourself of your dirt, you will escape exile... Then the nations of the world will bless each other to be like you, and their greatest praise will be “to be like a Jew.”
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."