Conversations with the Future
(Some of these ideas were shared during the drasha in shul on the first day of Pesach 5781.)
Last week, I wrote an article in defense of my grandmother and yours. The basic idea that I wanted to convey is that our grandparents understood that there is a deep value in commitment, dedication and hard work. Especially, in the performance of mitzvos. It's a value that has fallen out of fashion in Yiddishkeit as we have endeavored to find more frictionless avenues for mitzvah observance (many for good halachik and hashkafik reason.)
In that article, the example I gave was of the voluntary acceptance of chumros in preparing for Pesach on the part of our grandmothers. The reason for this example was in part because of the timeliness of it. But also because this subset of the Jewish people - our maternal ancestors - are often robbed of any agency in our retrospective of history. This is true on the right and left.
On the extreme right, our mothers are often portrayed as saintly: Accepting the challenges of poverty and pain with unimaginable grace from which we could only hope to be inspired.
On the extreme left, these same women are viewed as ignorant victims of a patriarchal society that intentionally sidelined female voices.
No doubt, there is always some truth to every story, and a world of nuance in between. And since posting this article on Facebook, some of the ideas discussed have taken on a life of their own.
I am grateful for the responses and conversations. I have learned a lot from them. (Despite those that went out of their way to malign me, as insensitive, chauvinistic and obviously a dead weight at home, as evidenced by the fact that I had time to write such and article.)
What I found most fascinating, however, is how certain each camp is of their position and perspective of the meaning of events in history that none of us were privy to witness (myself included).
There's a famous and irreverent "joke" about R' Chaim Soloveitchik going to Shamayim and finally the Rambam, whose work R' Chaim spend his life dedicated to explain.
When he meets his great mentor he asks whether his understanding of a particular contradiction was correct. The Rambam replies quizzically: "Oh that was a typo."
R' Chaim looks at him incredulously: "And what do you know about reading Rambam?!"
The story has many layers to it such as authorship vs intent, and the appropriate reverence for personalties vs texts. But I think yeshiva bochrim tell the story as a point of pride.
From the perspective of the "now", we are the arbitrators of our history. Those that came before us can no longer answer for themselves. All that remains is how we understand them. And this understanding is fraught with the inherent inability of any person to think as if they were genuinely another person from another time and place.
All we have to work with is our own world view. And it is through these lenses that we see the world.
Chazal (יבמות מט ב) tell us that, even amongst the prophets, Moshe was the only one to see the Truth of Hashem and the world through a clear lens. All of the other prophets saw Hashem, the world and the Truth through a somewhat opaque lens. These definitions and differences are hard to contemplate in our world so far from prophecy. But the Sh'la Hakadosh (מס׳ שבועות תורה אורה ד׳) explains that this metaphor of Chazal means that every prophet, aside from Moshe saw Hashem on the other side of the lens, but since it was opaque, they also saw themselves.
That is to say, even prophecy relies on an image of ourselves that we cannot escape. It is this fact that allows for the possibility of a false-prophet: A genuine, legitimate prophet who allows their self image to interfere with the truth of their prophecy (ע׳ במי השלוח ח״א פ׳ וירא ד״ה והאלוקים).
(...Perhaps we could add that it was Moshe's extreme and legendary humility that allowed him to see so clearly. Meaning, that he too looked through the same window as all the other prophets, but his self-image did not obscure the vision of Truth he saw on the other side. - וצ״ע)
Of course, the older we get, the more our beliefs become entrenched. We also get better at deftly crafting logical constructs for the truths we each hold to be self evident. Our reflection become indelibly engraved onto the lenses we look through to see the world. Anyone following politics - even casually - knows that there are different Americas, different COVIDs and a different world depending on the source and perspective of your narrative.
So here's the hard question: Is it ever possible to know that we were correct in our interpretation of life? Perhaps it is us who are so sorely mistaken. Can we ever know if we will be judged kindly in the eyes of history?
But the Torah preprogramed the possibility of self-correction at least once a year on Leil HaSeder.
Every year, the Torah demands that we have a conversation with the future. We invite and encourage our children to challenge us.
Those that will carry our legacy are asked to put us on trial on Seder night. They challenge our convictions, the reasons we do mitzvos, and the basis of our faith.
For me, the most enlightening experience of publishing the original article was the anecdotal reports of grandmothers, and those that learned from them. I received dozens of messages telling me "I shared this with me grandmother and she loved it." As well as a number of far harsher messages, but no less true: "my grandmother told me that she was forced to clean for pesach and was never told their were more lenient opinions."
There is no guess work for those people. No fuzzy lenses. They know and understand exactly how their grandmothers felt. Because they told them.
I have sat with countless aveilim mourning their parents who they loved deeply. Yet so many are simultaneously convinced that their parents never understood them. And if a child feels misunderstood and dismissed, there is little hope of dialogue.
More troubling, the life lessons that the parent wishes to educate will always be marred by this schism. Tragically, our values, struggles and victories will attenuate from one generation to the next, reinterpreted within the value systems of the future.
Our generation understands the value of a meaningful life. But meaningful to whom? The Torah is instructing us this Chag to ensure that our lives are meaningful in the context of Jewish history. And the only way to achieve this is to speak to the future. To be open and vulnerable to their questions and challenges.
Ultimately, despite the meaning that we give to our own life stories, we are not the ones who will decide if our stories are meaningful.
Nelson Mandela once said: History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children. I would add: Specifically, our own children. They're the ones who will be determining if our lives were worth living.
Perhaps this is why we invite Eliyahu to the door on Seder night. As the Navi Malachi concludes:
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם י״י הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא. וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם...
I will send the prophet Eliyahu to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of Hashem. He shall return parents to their children and children to their parents...
Rashi expounds on this Pasuk:
והשיב לב אבות – להקב״ה. על בנים – ע״י בנים. יאמר לבנים דרך אהבה ורצון לכו ודברו אל אבותיכם לאחוז בדרכי המקום
That he may turn the heart of the parents back to Hashem. Through their children. Eliyahu will say to the children affectionately and appeasingly, "Go and speak to your parents to adopt the ways of Hashem."
Effectively, Eliyahu comes to our seder to remind us: If we want to live as authentic and agenda-free life as possible, if we want to be Avdei Hashem for real, we would do well to open ourselves to the questions of our children. Their voices still contain the truth of innocence, their challenges are issued without malice. Most importantly, it is they who will tell our story.
They tell a story of an elderly Chossid who came to the Izbitzer Rebbe and told him it was high time that he reign in his young grandson, Gerson Henich (who later became the Radziner Rebbe, Ba'al HaTecheles.)
"What is the matter of concern?" asked the grandfather. "The Rebbe's grandson is going around telling people that one day he will be greater than Moshe Rabbeinu. That's preposterous! Heretical!"
The Izbitzer closed his eyes and thought for a minute; then responded: "My grandson is right. For he is alive and Moshe Rabbeinu is not. Let him dream."
Hashem should grant us the strength to be challenged by our children, to see the world through their lenses, and to find in their questions, the answer: ועכשיו קרבינו המקום לעבודתו - And now Hashem has brought us close to His service.
Over the past few weeks, in shiurim, on social media, and in polite conversations, I have noticed a significant uptick in trash talking our grandmothers.
Specifically, we seem to be maligning that our grandmothers would spend weeks and months with palpable anxiety over the upcoming Chag HaPesach, and the crumbs they would need to find and destroy.
As we all now know, none of that was necessary. Our generation, with our unparalleled access to information, knowledge and wisdom, can safely assure our matriarchal ancestors that their efforts were in vain. Bedikas Chametz is simply not the same as spring cleaning. It never was.
And if only they would have been as wise, knowledgable and educated as we are, they too could have entered the Chag with more sleep and less stress.
If you detect a hint of sarcasm in my words, please know, there is no malice meant. I don't believe for a second that any Rabbonim or poskim are trying to belittle our grandparents. But I do think that our vastly superior access to Torah today is having some unintended consequences.
The Halacha is, of course, quite clear. Ask any Rov, and they will explain that the minimum requirements of Bedikas Chametz are really quite manageable.
But this understanding of cleaning for Pesach is not a novel invention. Since the days of the Mishna, the definition of Chametz and the places that need to be searched and cleaned have been publicly accessible.
In a Teshuva from the 1820's, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the great Chasam Sofer concludes his letter by expressing his regret that he cannot answer the question addressed to him in it's entirety (#136:4):
והיותי חוץ לחדר לימודי כי גרשוני נשים צדקניות המכבדי' לי"ט של פסח ע"כ לא יכולתי להאריך ככל הצורך
I find myself outside of my study, for I have been exiled by righteous women who are honoring Pesach, I am unable to cover the question appropriately.
It is hard for me to imagine that Rebbetzin Sofer did not know the Halacha. Her husband, the Chasam Sofer, was the single most influential halachik authority of their generation. One would think that he would have told her that in order to properly address the questions sent to him, she should understand the minimum requirement of Pesach Cleaning. With the world awaiting his responses, and for the sake of Torah and Klal Yisrael, cleaning his study should take no more than a few minutes, if that. But he didn't say that. He proudly accepted that the women of his household were correct in imposing his temporary exile. And fuller responses to questions would need to wait.
And so, in defense of our grandmothers, I would like to suggest that they were not ignorant (and perhaps we are). The Halacha was always well known, but many of our matriarchs chose to do more than was required.
If this suggestion is difficult to accept, perhaps it is because our basic assumption of Mitzvos is very different from theirs.
We think of Bedikas Chametz, indeed of all mitzvos, as a task to complete. There is a job to do, and result to be achieved. In the case of this particular obligation: The home needs to be cleaned of all chametz. And naturally, like all questions of Halacha, there is a basic minimum requirement of how much cleaning needs to be done.
But there is another aspect of mitzvos, a far more profound understanding: that the object of the mitzvah is not the house, but the person cleaning it. At the core of every mitzvah is transformation of the self.
Reb Pinchas of Koretz (אמרי פנחס ערב פסח קסו) explained:
Through the intensity of the preparations of Pesach, a person forgets themselves. They shed who they are, and then they can find themselves anew.
This is the secret that our grandmothers once knew, and apparently, that we have since lost: There are no short-cuts to transformation. Cleaning for Pesach was never about simply preparing our homes. It was about preparing ourselves.
At this juncture a disclaimer is important: I am not, for even a moment, suggesting that we begin to take on additional and unnecessary stringencies when we are subject to so many more pressures, deadlines and pressing needs. It is my firm belief that demanding more than the Halacha requires is a recipe for burn out, and does nothing to inspire connection and commitment. (It's also, most likely, the reason that so many families have fled from preparing for Pesach to Pesach hotels.)
What I am suggesting is two-fold:
Firstly, the obvious: That we look more kindly upon our mothers and grandmothers. They knew what they were doing. There is a reason so many of us more vivid memories of preparing for Pesach than for any other Chag. It was real, it was palpable and it was demanding. We owe those memories to the people that instilled them in us.
Secondly, a far more subtle truth:
The light-hearted sarcasm and distain that our generation and our community has developed for previous generations is borne of certain intellectual elitism.
But knowing more and understanding more does not make us better people. It only makes us capable of becoming better people.
Today, we can calculate and issue heteirim and leniencies for many of the practices of the Jews of yesteryear. Everyone knows that with the right amount of asking around there will almost always be some opinion we could find to justify our behavior (or lack thereof). But none of these brilliant explanations can generate the transformation that hard work, perseverance and dedication provides.
The Vilna Gaon (בפירושו לספרא דצניעותא) explains that at its core, Galus, exile, is the separation of the body and soul of the Jewish people. He continues: Our soul is the Torah, and the Body of our nation is our actions. Exile is when our thoughts are sublime, elevated, brilliant and lofty, and our body is off doing something else, disconnected from our minds and intellect. A genius idea that removes us from the world of action might make us feel smart, but it only perpetuates the notion that Torah belongs in Shamayim and in books, rather than in our hearts and homes.
I finally began to understand this while training for a marathon this year. Running a marathon is not about getting to the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles. It's about becoming a person who can run 26.2 miles.
There is a lot of knowledge that is required to train well. I needed to learn about the relationships between and effects of timing, heart-rate, hydration, weather, nutrition, sleep and stress. Not to mention the deep need to understand my own emotions. Marathon training forces you to learn about yourself. And to do it well you need to train smart.
Training smart is not the same thing as training hard. You can train hard and very badly, burning yourself out, getting injured. But every runner will tell you: No amount of training smart can absolve you from training hard.
There are better and worse ways to do it, but they are all hard. They are all time consuming and grueling. There is no easy way to train for a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do, because self transformation requires time, practice and training. Knowledge is not enough.
If you want to travel 26.2 miles without the hard work, get in a car.
I fear, that in the pursuit of a more compassionate and empathetic understanding of Halacha, we have been passively encouraging a disdain for the marathons of Yiddishkeit, in favor of the cars.
True, we'll get to the same place. Often much quicker. But we arrive at our destination no different than when we left. And what a tragedy it would be for us to Uber through our lives, with no change in who we are from one Pesach to the next.
I am not, God forbid, challenging the immense sensitivity of our poskim today. And I am certainly not advocating for stringencies that will cause damage.
If the thought of marathon training induces anxiety, and prevents your from more immediate and pressing obligations, then it is most certainly assur. The same is true about the "extras" of Halacha. All of this is to say: Pesach Cleaning does not need to be the difficult thing that you, or anyone in our generation, is working on. But something practical needs to be. We need to choose it, we need to lean into it. We need to work on it.
The mothers of our people spent the weeks before Pesach volunteering to do more than the minimum because that is how they transformed themselves. And that's how they demonstrated to their husbands and children that hard work is essential in the process of personal and religious growth. They role-modeled personal discomfort in pursuit of higher values. They demonstrated the accomplishment of hard work rather than a quick fixes.
Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew the harsh truth that we are not our thoughts but we are our actions.
And that's what being an Eved Hashem is all about. This is why He took us out of Mitzrayim: That we might choose to do something difficult in the pursuit of a better self, better home and better world.
When I was in 11th grade, I was privileged to spend a few weeks learning in the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg as part of their winter vacation program.
Like many teenagers, I was trying to figure out a system of priorities in life and Yiddishkeit. I realized, already then, that it's not always intuitive to understand what's important, what's extraneous and what's incorrect. This challenge is constantly compounded by multiple factors: community standards, family customs and differing opinions.
Even today, I'm working to establish rubrics and perspectives through which I should see the world. I imagine that this will be a life long project.
But I recall that winter that I approached the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein זצ״ל and asked him what he thought about me taking on the custom of Chalav Yisrael. He looked at me intently and then asked: "If you decide to eat only Chalav Yisrael, what will that mean when you spend Shavuos at your aunt? Will you be able to eat her cheesecake?" "No, I suppose not," I replied. "Do you think that will upset her?" "Probably." "Well then, it seems that you have a choice to make. Are you going to be Machmir to observe Chalav Yisrael, or are you going to be Machmir to have Derech Eretz for your aunt?"
"Always remember," he concluded, "There is no such thing as a Chumrah (a stringency) that doesn't come with a Kulah (a leniency) somewhere else."
This idea - conveyed in a few short moments - has been cemented in my mind since then. It is possibly one of the most powerful tools to asses and determine the right cause of action.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, was famous for instilling this sense of priority, as is evident by this, now famous, Pre-Pesach story:
When he was older, he no longer went to bake his own matzah before Pesach, but rather he asked his students to bake his matzas mitzvah for him. The students asked their teacher, “What are the ‘Chumros‘ (stringencies) the Rebbe practices during the time he bakes matzah?” All sorts of different stringencies are practiced by righteous individuals while baking their Seder Matzahs. They asked Rav Yisrael Salanter which Chumrah he was particular about. He told them “I am very careful not to yell at the woman who cleans up between every batch of matzah baking. She is a widow. Please speak kindly with her.”
Parents have often mentioned to me that they are at a loss to determine which, if any mitzvos should be "forced" onto their children. "My son doesn't want to come to minyan... My daughter doesn't want to wear skirts...(etc.) Is it right to force them? Or will it backfire? Will they simply rebel? And if don't will they think it is unimportant?"
I don't have any axiom or rubric to answer those questions - I think that they are particular to each parent and child and mitzvah. But there is a category of mitzvos that we most certainly should insist on: Derech Eretz.
Derech Eretz is universally understood. Insisting that our children are menchen is a Torah and societal imperative. Our morning davening contains the words: לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים - A person should always be fearing of Heaven. My Rebbe, Rav Blachman often told us that their is a comma here; לעולם יהא אדם - You should first be a person, a mench. Only then can you be a ירא שמים.
Tragically, observant Jews are often not well known for their Derech Eretz. The COVID pandemic has brought this to a fore in a powerful and upsetting way.
But thankfully, overwhelmingly, I think our community is likely a little above average in the Derech Eretz category. This doesn't mean that there isn't work to do in the ways that we speak, interact and educate. But at least in theory, we believe in treating all people with respect and dignity. We try to live with the feeling that each person is created in the image of God, and we grapple honestly with areas of Halacha that don't fit comfortably into our understanding of morality.
Rav Desler (חלק ד עמוד רמד) explains that דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה means that being a Mench is the prerequisite to a life of Torah. Without it, there can be no success in Talmud Torah.
But there is a fallacy that I fear we have fallen into. Classically, we understand that the value of "Derech Eretz" finds expression in מצות בין אדם לחברו - mitzvos between a person and their friend. And we assume that "Torah" is equated with מצות בין אדם למקים - mitzvos between a person and Hashem.
But this plainly incorrect.
Sefer Vayikra opens with Hashem calling Moshe to the Mishkan. Why does Moshe need to the called? He was the one who build the Mishkan?!
The Talmud (יומא ד ב) explains:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר לָמָּה הִקְדִּים קְרִיאָה לְדִיבּוּר לִימְּדָה תּוֹרָה דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם דָּבָר לַחֲבֵירוֹ אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן קוֹרֵהוּ
The verse says: “And He called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke unto him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying”. Why does the verse mention calling before speaking, and God did not speak to him at the outset? The Torah is teaching etiquette: A person should not say anything to another unless he calls him first.
At first blush, this seems like a nice idea; a good lesson in politeness and Derech Eretz. But this defies our categories. Chazal are telling us here that from Moshe's relationship with Hashem, we should learn how to treat our friends. Apparently, we are to act towards Hashem with Derech Eretz as well!
Having Derech Eretz for Hashem might seem strange; until we realize that beyond the halachik characterizations of mitzvos, Hashem wants us to have a relationship with Him.
This relationship might be different from others in our lives, but the fundamentals of Derech Eretz remain the same.
Consider, for example, that a parent wants nothing more than their children to love each other. The parent will often prioritize siblings getting along, over almost anything else.
But imagine a child that, after years of hearing the importance of being a good sibling, declares: "My parent doesn't really care about my love and respect of them as long as I'm nice to my brother and brush my teeth."
That would be a tragedy. That's the wrong conclusion entirely!
Shlomo Hamelech makes the argument for relating to Hashem as a friend in Mishlei (כז י):
רֵעֲךָ וְרֵעַ אָבִיךָ אַל תַּעֲזֹב - Your friend and your father's friend, you should not abandon.
Rashi explains here: Who is your friend and your father's friend. Hashem; who loves you and loves your ancestors.
Many of the Rishonim and Acharonim ask why it is that we will not be making a bracha on the Mitzvah of Telling the Story of the Exodus on Seder Night. And there are many explanations.
But The Sfas Emes writes simply: We never make a bracha on mitzvos that come from being a mench. We don't make a bracha on honoring parents, giving tzedeka or visiting the sick, though all of them are obligatory. We would have done it with or without a commandment. Likewise, our obligation of Telling the Story of how Hashem saved us is a simple expression of immense gratitude! If we can't say thank you to Hashem for saving us, loving us and giving us a life and future, then we're simply jerks.
Perhaps this should reframe the way we think of leniencies and stringencies. Perhaps this will redefine our focus in preparing for Pesach. It is worth considering: in which of our practices are we trying to build closer relationships with our friends, our families and Hashem?
Hashem should help us to become people of principles and priorities. We should live lives of Derech Eretz and closeness. And perhaps, we, just like Moshe, will be called back to the Mikdash.
At Havdalah last Shabbos, Aliza couldn't smell the besamim at all. So we packed the kids into the car, and went for COVID tests.
Needless to say, but of course, we've been home this week. Though it's a little different being quarantined now than it was a few months ago when the whole world was doing it together. On the one hand, I guess people are less judgmental of a people getting COVID, and I'm grateful for that. But on the other, it's challenging to see the whole world continue (in whatever way it is) while we and our children are staring in from zoom windows.
Baruch HaShem, we have a lot of wonderful and concerned people in our lives and community, who are offering help. (Thank you!)
Many have called and texted to ask how we're doing. And my response has been pretty consistent: Thank God, we're all feeling well. But living in a zoom bubble with our three kids all over again is really hard.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not ungrateful. Hashem has blessed us with a family and children. And they're amazing and we love them. I am well aware that this is a minor setback, and that there are many people for whom COVID has been deadly and devastating. Our challenge of negotiating which show to stream for our kids is meaningless in the big picture.
But right now, it's real. And learning to contend with the mess of real life is what Mishpatim is all about.
The Non-Curated Life is Real
At this point, bemoaning the perfectionism that social media demands is a well worn trope. We all know that no one actually lives a perfect instagram life. We know that not all recipes come out beautifully delicious. Not all beaches have perfect white sand, blue skies and picturesque palm trees. Not all homes are gorgeously designed and always clean.
We are painfully aware that these images are not a reflection of real life. But in the back of our mind we still see them as a representation of ideal life. What real life could be.
And that is the biggest lie. Real life should not be that. At least, given a moment of honest thought, you don't want to make it that. Of course, we could all give up on a dozen priorities in our lives for the sake of making instaworthy dinners. That's certainly possible. But it's not a smart idea.
Real life is much more about messy trade offs. And the idealization of perfection does a tremendous amount of harm, because it makes us think of our daily, messy lives as categorically not ideal. And that's a big problem. We live from day to day and week to week waiting for a little respite from the craziness so that we can live, even a little, like the idealized versions of our selves. But that could leave us waiting for a very long time.
Parshas Mishpatim introduces us to the world of the human condition with all of our inadequacies and indiscretions and challenges us to navigate through in a meaningful way. With no promise of even a moment of perfection on the other side.
The Eved Ivri
Our Parsha intentionally and jarringly descends from the other-worldly revelation of Sinai and enters in the murky complexities of interpersonal life; the world of Mishpatim.
From prophecy and miracles, we are about to engage with business, damages, loss, theft, bodily harm and poverty. And what law should the Torah begin with? Apparently the tragedy of the עבד עברי - the Jewish slave.
Rashi explains how a person could become a Jewish slave: He stole so much that he couldn't pay it back, and no one will bail him out.
By all measures, the עבד עברי has reached rock bottom. They are the cause of losing not only their home, assets, family, and friends; but ultimately their freedom.
It is in this state that the Torah introduces us not to the laws of being an עבד עברי, but aquiring an עבד עברי.
Chazal (קידושין כ א) explains that anyone who acquires an עבד עברי in actually is acquiring not a slave, but a master! Tosfos (ד״ה כל) elaborate, that if there is only one pillow in the house, it belongs to the eved. Ultimately, the purpose of his slavery is to be set free.
The Tzanz-Klaunseberger Rebbe (שפע חיים תשס״ב ע׳ רב) contrasts this encouraging and rehabilitating position with the norms of our world. (In his words: מושגי הקנאות - our concept of "zealousness".)
In our lives when a person who has failed and fallen we punished them in the hopes that they will see the folly of their way. But the Torah prescribes exactly the opposite. In the moments that people have failed is the place we must be most sensitive to their humanity; most cognizant of the reality that they too are created in the image of Hashem.
Incredibly, the Ramban explains that Parshas Mishpatim makes us the bulk of the Sefer HaBris - the Covenantal Relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. It was on these laws that we said the famous words: Na'aseh V'Nishma - we will do and we will listen.
Effectively, Hashem is telling us that the real work of being a Jew begins not with prophetic revelation, but in the pits of a really bad day for a person who has hit rock bottom. Do we punish him for falling so far from perfection? Or can we find a new ideal davka in the messiness of life?
A little while ago I had the opportunity to speak to a couple that was having some tension in their marriage. Chief amongst her complaints was that she felt her husband was not supportive of her. And likewise, he contented that she was not supportive of him.
With the air thick with accusations, both went on to list the countless times that were supportive of each other. "Don't you remember when you changed careers, how I was there to cheer you on?" And the other countered, "And what about the times when you needed me to pick up the slack so you could make it to gym?" The listing continued; both of them frustratedly defensive.
Amazingly, both considered themselves to be present, supportive and concerned with the other. And yet, incredibly, believed the other not to be.
The truth, we discovered, was that both husband and wife were indeed present, supportive and concerned with the other. But only to celebrate each others successes. When either encountered failure, both were well trained to retreat into a place of loneliness. In those most vulnerable moments, they most poignantly felt the absence of the other.
This feeling of dissonance is not unique to this couple alone. Many of us, our children, our teens, our friends and our parents feel similarly. We prefer to gloss over the less picturesque parts of our days, personalities and lives. In difficult and shameful moments, we don't invite others in, and we recoil from lending a hand to others in their weakest moments.
Being a Person
The Torah tells us in our parsha (22:30):
וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י - “You shall be holy people to me"
The Sfas Emes (משפטים תרל״ב) quotes from the Kotzker that Hashem has enough angels, what He wants is transcendent people ,אַנְשֵׁי־קֹדֶשׁ. Hashem wants us to embrace the mess that is the human condition, and raise ourselves up.
When an ox gores a cow (or a fender-bender in 2021) there is no perfection there. No-one is having a great day at that point. But there can be a meaningful and honest resolution. And both parties can walk away with a commitment to each other, to society and to Hashem. Because Sinai happened only once in history, while Mishpatim occurs daily.
Mishpatim is where Hashem explains that He wants us to find Him in the cracked facades of our imperfect lives.
When we insist that every moment, every person, every interaction be a "Revelation at Sinai", we are ultimately abandoning the reason Hashem put us here. We're here for the mess of it. We're here to attempt an optimal and meaningful life. Not a perfect one. We're here to make difficult trade offs with our time and energy and attention. And we're here to make mistakes in those assessments. And to do our best to fix the way we live and learn.
But most importantly, to understand that our primary work is in the challenge. That's real.
Yaakov Griffel was an agent for oil companies and was close with the Rebbe. One day, he called his friend, Rabbi Wineberg and told him that he urgently needed the Rebbe’s advice on something and asked if he could he go into the Rebbe with his request.
Arriving in 770, Rabbi Wineberg discovered that the Rebbe was in his room alone with his secretary and the door was closed. Not wanting to disturb but also wanting the matter to be brought to the Rebbe’s immediate attention, he placed the note in an envelope and stuck it in the crack of the door, hoping that when the secretary would leave the room he would notice the note fall to the floor and bring it to the Rebbe.
Rabbi Wineberg waited and sure enough the door opened and the secretary exited the room. However, since he left the room backwards out of respect, when the note fell to the floor he didn’t notice. Rabbi Wineberg was about to go and retrieve his note when the door opened and the Rebbe himself who must have noticed the note falling, picked it up.
Sure enough, less than an hour later he got a call from one of the Rebbe’s secretaries informing him of the Rebbe’s advice and blessing. Rabbi Wineberg was bothered. Although not intending to, he had troubled the Rebbe to stop what he was doing, get up and bend over to pick up his note. He decided he would write a note to the Rebbe to apologize.
A short while later he got an amazing response from the Rebbe, this is how it read:
“Is this not my entire occupation? To lift up those that have fallen. And especially those that have been overlooked by others.”
Be'ezras Hashem, we should have the strength to raise up ourselves and each other, davka in the moments we have fallen. And we Daven that Hashem should do the same for us.
The daughter of the Mitteler Rebbe, Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, was very precocious. Once, as a toddler, she was having a tantrum, as children do. In an attempt to placate his screaming daughter, Reb Dov Ber gave her a candy and put her on his lap. Sucking on the candy, she calmed down, as her father smiled. But a moment later, she looked up at her father and said, "you only think I stopped crying... but I'm just taking a break!"
This feels like an apt description of news and social media; certainly in the past year. Our experience is characterized by overwhelming screaming, with short breaks for entertainment. And the demands for us to join in the screaming as pervasive as it is exhausting.
Of course, when the world is falling apart (as it so often feels to be), decrying the insanities is an essential avoda, and, I dare say, a fundamental part of our culture. As Jews, it is our time-honored, sacred tradition to kvetch.
Learning How To Kvetch
Please don't misunderstand me; I am not being facetious. The Sod Yesharim (Haggadah Inyan 23 and Sefer HaZmanim 1) writes that the greatest evil in the world is thinking that everything is ok the way it is. The moment we realize that there are things lacking in our lives, is the moment we begin to repair it. If we don't think there is anything to complain about, we have no hope of growing.
Dr Stephen Bechen, a marriage therapist, writes about the phenomenon of couples doing therapy for years with little change.
At a recent lecture I gave, a member of the audience—a therapist—asked me if I get bored or frustrated in therapy. "Neither," I responded. "I have great empathy for my clients because I know first–hand how difficult the change process is." I even warn my clients: "If you want deep change, you'll have to hate your symptoms. You can't be somewhat aggravated, just as you can't say you'll give medical school a try—you're in the business of change or you're not."
The Medrash (מכילתא יתרו) tells us that no slave was ever able to leave Mitzraim. It's a strange Medrash. No-one?! We have stories of slaves in the South fleeing their masters, Jews in Nazi labor camps that were able to crawl out. But no Yid ever left Egypt?
So the Beis Yaakov (שמות אות כ׳) explains: The mindset of a Jew in Egypt was that it was so great to live there that no one, not even a slave wanted to leave. They couldn't imagine that life could be better anywhere else. That's not optimism. That's delusion. But they couldn't see beyond it.
The Geula began once people started to believe that life could be different. And for the first time, they cried out. The pasuk (שמות ב:כג) relates how the nation groaned:
וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה
And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the slavery, and they cried, and their cry came up to Hashem from the slavery.
This was not a well formulated, articulate tefillah, it was a cry. They finally kvetched.
Does that mean that we're all tzadikim for our constant social media outcries? Are we bringing the Geulah with by decrying moral injustice?
Maybe we'd like to think so; but I don't think it's true.
So Much Crying - Why So Few Tears?
There is a deep difference between decrying and crying. And it is this difference, I believe, in which we will find the way forward now and in general.
Decrying is rooted in anger and frustration. Decrying points fingers, assigns blame and calls for others to act in the interest of truth and justice. Decrying assumes malevolence, agendas and nefarious intent.
But crying the opposite. Crying is rooted in sadness and brokenness. Crying about a situation is not a protest against the people who caused it, but the situation itself. Crying does not assign blame. Crying assumes a better result could have been, if we were all living as our higher selves.
Which is a better response? The act of decrying is far more enticing. It simultaneously alleviates our personal responsibility, and creates an actionable step forward for someone else. But all parties decrying each other is an intractable gridlock.
Moreover, the loudness of our cries might well obscure the pressing need of any real work in changing who we are. And it promotes the most insidious notion that I shouldn’t need to work on myself because the world is so messed up that my actions are irrelevant.
Crying, on the other hand, offers little in the way of practical, actionable steps. And it doesn't feel very nice. But is does allow us to feel the pain of the wretchedness of our situation. And from that pain comes the license to dream again.
R' Aryeh Tzvi Frumer (ארץ צבי - וארא) explains that this is the promise that Hashem gives us in Egypt:
וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם
I will take you out from Egyptian suffering, and I will save you from their labor...
Ending physical slavery is called וְהִצַּלְתִּי (being saved from the harsh labor.) But that cannot happen until Hashem has extracted us from the confines of finger pointing, blame, and victimhood. Hashem is promising us something far more important as a first step: וְהוֹצֵאתִי - I'll free your heads and your hearts from the limits of Egyptian thought.
Geulah begins when we stop complaining, blaming and pointing fingers and we start dreaming again. Decrying evil is not the same thing as effecting change.
Bringing it Home
All of this is true from the level of Klal to P'rat, from the greatest public interest to the most localized individual concern. It is true regarding the USA, Israel, our local communities, friendships, families, marriages and personal challenges. Recognizing the problem is simply not enough. We need to cry, and not simply decry. Because we need to take ownership and responsibility, rather than assign blame.
Of course, in the deepest way, this is the ultimate recipe for getting out of Galus. Rav Shmuel Mohliver, the leader of Chibbat Tzion used to quip that the Jewish people will need to Mashiachs - Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David. One will take the Jews out of Galus, and the other will take Galus out of the Jews.
Hashem should help us that very soon, He'll will wipe away the tears and fears, and we will finally merit to have Galus taken out of us.
In the past week we have said goodbye to two more Gedolei Olam - Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. This compounds the loneliness, the pain and the isolation we have all felt in the past nine months. But in the wake of their passing, we are left asking the same painful question yet again: Who will replace them?
Of course, no one is ever replaceable. The candle might burn from one shabbos to the next. The challah might, once again stay fresh all week long. But for Avraham Avinu, Rivka will never replace Sarah. How could she?
But in the wake of her passing, Avraham knows that his and her legacy must continue beyond their lifetime. Avraham slowly, tragically comes to terms with his own mortality. And the reality that the task of bringing the entirety of humanity to a recognition of Hashem is bigger than one lifetime.
And so his goal, and the goal of every Jewish parent since, is to perpetuate this truth by cheating death - by having children.
For Avraham, the stakes are incredibly high. If Yitzchak fails, then the world fails. In no uncertain terms, humanity depends on Yitzchak finding a Shidduch that will partner with him in this mission.
And so the Torah describes how Eliezer, the faithful servant of Avraham journeys to find a wife for Yitzchak. He travels to Avraham’s homeland to find this bashert. Arriving at the well, Eliezer devises a test, and asks from Hashem:
The girl who I will ask to give me water and she offers water for myself and for my camels will be the girl for Yitzchak.
Indeed, Rivka presents herself as such a girl; giving water to the camels and Eliezer.
Rashi famously quotes the Medrash:
וירץ העבד לקראתה – לפי שראה שעלו המים לקראתה - He ran towards her because he saw that the waters rose in the well when she approached it (Genesis Rabbah 60:5).
Wow! Eliezer must have been duly impressed. She must be an incredibly special person - the water rose miraculously to meet her!
The Divrei Yisrael of Mozhitz asks a piercing question: If Eliezer saw that she was such a tzadekes, such a בעלת מופת - a miracle worker - why did he need to go through with his test?! Right then and there he should have known that Rivka was the right shidduch!
He explains: There is a world of difference between being a בעל מופת and a בעל מידות. Eliezer was not looking for a miracle. Miracles tell you how great Hashem is. Middos tell you how great a person is.
Another Kind of Gadol
I do not know who will fill the shoes of the Gedolim we have lost. There is no one alive who can issue a psak Halacha with the depth, breadth and sensitivity of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. There is no one in the wings that can represent our nation, our Torah and our message with the erudition and accessibility of Rabbi Sacks. We all have a lot to learn to begin to fill such shoes.
But there is another kind of Gadol. Really, the basis of all Gadlus: And that is Middos Tovos. This kind of greatness is readily accessible to each of us. Having good middos does not depend on intelligence, skill, aptitude, education or upbringing. It simply depends on the time and work invested into becoming a Baal Middos.
Chazal tell us that both Yitzchak and Yaakov spent decades learning in the Yeshiva of Shem Va’ever. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein notes there is barely a hint of all this Torah learning in the Torah itself! He explains: If a person that has the capacity to learn, they should learn. That doesn’t require a lot of explanation.
But to become a real Baal Middos - that is the mission of each and every one of us. The Torah spares no words in emphasizing the value of being an elevated, refined, considerate person.
What Do We Want Our Children to Become?
There’s a frightening study from 2014 that examined the priorities of kids and the messages their parents are teaching them. In short, the study asks parents, teaches and kids to rank their value system: Is it better to be happy, smart, successful or kind?
Amongst the key findings is: “When it comes to the child-raising priorities of their parents and teachers, a majority of youth say these adults are more concerned about achievement than caring.”
Perhaps even more concerning: “The “rhetoric/reality” gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and what kids are hearing is profound. The power and frequency of parents’ daily messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.”
Avraham and Eliezer knew that’s not how we will perpetuate Klal Yisrael.
How Can We Change?
A while back, Country Vues, published a “Fun Question of the Week” poll that asked the question “If You Could Have 3 Dinner Guests - Anyone from the Beginning of Time - Who Would You Invite?”
There were some very special people answering the question - some of the highlights included the Avos, Moshe Rabbeinu and dear family members.
Rabbi Dovid Feinstein answered simply: I would find 3 Aniyim (poor people.)
It takes a unique person to hear “You can take three people to dinner” and not even consider that he should use this opportunity for his own gain.
This middah was the result of a lifetime of learning, davening, and Mitzvos. But it was also the result of constant tikkun
He once remarked about his father, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein: “The world will gain nothing by knowing how many times my father finished Shas, or that he was fluent in all of Torah shebe’al peh, like Rabi Akiva Eiger or the Chasam Sofer. When people speak of my father, they speak of his compassion, how he had time for children, for brokenhearted individuals. The bigger a person is, the more chesed he must do, and that’s how we know who the true talmidei chachamim are.”
Hashem should help us to learn - as much as we all can. But more so, to work on filling the gaps in our world with Middos Tovos; with care and concern and sensitivity and chesed and ma’asim tovim.
“Avraham in the Idol Shop” is amongst the most cherished medrashim of our formative kindergarten parsha classes. It's a story of good old fashion Jewish smarts, of mesirus nefesh, of boldness and audaciousness.
Do you remember the first time you heard the story? And the punch line that he blamed it on the biggest idol. Brilliant! Look at him go! Smashing those idols, proving their worthlessness. Standing up to his parents, society and king. Every child leaves their kindergarten class thinking “when I grow up, one day I too will be like Avraham.”
But careful eyes will notice that there’s a major problem with the story. Because Avraham himself never grows up to be like Avraham. This is a one time event. Indeed, the Avraham that we meet in Lech Lecha is decidedly not an idol smasher.
And so the Chasam Sofer (ריש לך לך) questions: Why does Avraham destroy the idols in his home town of Ur Casdim, but never in Eretz Yisrael? Surely it would be his sacred duty to inform all those around him of the importance of ridding the Sacred Land of Israel of traces of Avodah Zara?
And yet he doesn't. This is not a result of weakness. Avraham is no push over. He goes to war against four armies and wins. And yet, never again does he wield the axe of destruction.
What changed? The Chasam Sofer explains:
In Eretz Yisrael, Avraham learned he could be successful without the axe. In Ur Casdim, no one believed him. No-one listened to him. Even his brother Haran acquiesced to Avraham's truth only after his miraculous salvation from Nimrod’s fire. But in the moment that Avraham realized that he could convince and convert and inspire without the axe, he abandons it forever.
From that point on, Avraham grows up to embody Chessed. He opens his tent, invites people in. He runs a perpetual soup kitchen, shabbaton and seminar and people flock to him.
This is his legacy. This becomes his life’s mission. Avraham understands that he was never successful with violence in Ur Casdim. There he was Avraham the "Ivri" the outsider, the maverick, the lunatic who gets thrown into the fire. It is only in Eretz Yisrael that he realizes there is a better way.
This year has proven that our society still values the perspective of the idol smasher. Of course, most often with a pen rather than a sword. With our sharpened wit and nimble words we slice and dice the idols of our friends and neighbors and commenters online. We cherish a good zinger, furiously forwarding that brilliant meme or laugh-out-loud clip. All in the name of bringing down the idols. And if we’re honest about it, we quite like it.
For all our whining about divisiveness and lack of civility, we enjoy the sport of idol smashing. We scream into our echo chambers precisely because we enjoy the sounds that come back. But Avraham teaches us that smashing idols has never convinced anyone of anything.
And political rhetoric is only the tip of the iceberg. Our idol smashing sometimes extends to relationships with our spouces and parents. It influences our parenting, teaching and friendships and that’s where it gets really dangerous.
I have yet to meet an adult who wears Tzitzis because his Rebbe embarrassed him at tzitzis check. I have yet to meet a women who was successfully shamed into becoming tzanua. And if they do exist, I pity them, and daven for mercy for the parents and teachers that traumatized them so effectively.
I don’t know of anyone who successfully changed their diets and eating habits because they were ridiculed for being fat. Has anyone's spouse ever become cleaner, more punctual, or more attentive as a result of yelling at them?
Of course, there are many people who grow in spite of the hatred direct towards them. But I think we can all agree that Avraham 2.0 is certainly a better model for us.
So how did Avraham figure it out?
The parsha opens with Hashem's directive to Avraham: לך לך - go for yourself. And Rashi famously comments: להנאתך, לטובתך - for your own benefit, for your own good. He promises Avraham much success and Bracha and thus the Torah (יב:ד) tells us that:
וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ י״י֔ - So Abram went, as Hashem had spoken to him.
The Tiferes Shlomo (חג הסוכות) explains: Avraham began to walk, to live, to operate, to speak to others, exactly as Hashem had spoken to him. Hashem says to Avraham "Go to the land I will show you, and its going to be great for you. Yiddishkeit is inspiring, its meaningful, it's filled with Bracha." This doesn't mean, of course, that it's always easy. But Hashem kindles within Avraham the capacity to model positivity. He does it for Avraham, and Avraham does it for the world.
Immediately, the Torah describes how Lot comes along, and then the הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן - all the people that Avraham had convinced in Charan.
All that Avraham needed was for Hashem to show him that you can do far more with a word than you can with a weapon. You can do far more by believing than by belittling. You can achieve far more with a dinner than a debate.
Ground Zero for PositivityThis is the secret of Avraham's success. He becomes Ground Zero for Positivity. He reorients his life in that moment to being a person who refuses to do anything other than love other people. And it's contagious, it's infectious. It's transformative.
And that's our challenge. To be children of Avraham is to be unshakably positive. Not just because it’s right. But because it simply works better. That’s the secret that Hashem told Avraham: if you show people that you believe in them, they will believe in themselves, in you and in your truth.
The story of the idols is not the story of Avraham's success. It's the story of his failure. It's the story of a methodology that he tried and abandoned because there is always a better way.
Recently, at a Seudas HoDa’ah someone made from being cured from a deadly sickness, he said that the following was the secret to his recovery: “One day, lying in the hospital, the doctors convened near my bed, assuming I was asleep since my eyes were closed. One doctor said that according to statistics, he barely has a chance to live. Yet, I'm certain he will survive because he has a strong desire to live. After hearing those words, I made a strong commitment to remain strong and pull out of the illness. I constantly thought, ‘I have the willpower to live and I will survive.’ That is what pulled me through the road until recovery.”
The man then introduced the doctor. In his speech, the doctor related the following: “Everything the patient said was true. I remember that meeting at his bedside, when I said that the patient will recover due to his strong desire to live. However, I was speaking about a different patient, not about him. His illness was so severe that I didn’t imagine he could survive, even with a strong desire. I learned from his recovery that when one has a strong desire to live, he can recover even from the most severe illness. Also, encouragement goes a long way, even when the patient only imagines that it was intended for him.”
That was Hashem's message to Avraham: Put down the axes, open your tent, and open your heart.
A student of Reb Yechezkel of Kozmir once got a job as a rabbi. Before he began his new position he went to his Rebbe to get a Bracha that he should be successful, and that people shouldn't give him a hard time.
Reb Yechezkel opened a Chumash to parshas Noach, and read:
אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ
This is the history of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, whole, among the people of his time. Noah walked with God.
He then turned to Rashi, who writes:
Some of our Rabbis explain this pasuk to Noach's credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
"Apparently," said the Rebbe, "even for a person who the Torah says is completely righteous, a צַדִּיק תָּמִים, at the moment they have a position of importance there will be people that approve, and people that disapprove."
It's an all-to-true observation of leadership.
Of course, attempting to resolve the ambiguity in the Pasuk is a fair endeavor. When the Torah tells us that Noach was a tzadik in "his generation", does that add to his righteousness or detract from it?
Let's consider: The Torah clearly tells us that Noach was a tzadik. He walked with Hashem. He alone is saved from the flood; he is the father of the new world. That's pretty good! And since when do we have to look so intensely to figure out whether or not he was such a tzadik?!
Drashos and commentaries throughout the ages have dealt with this problem; all suggesting that his flaws and faults make the ambiguity of his righteousness obvious.
Some have argued that Noach's end, getting drunk and becoming an "Ish Adama" call his tzadik status into question. Others argue that his lack of obvious entreating on behalf of his generation preclude him from being an absolute tzadik. Yet others argue that his failure to engage in the world after the flood is his downfall.
There's a lot to say about Noach. A casual read of the parsha reveals that he is a complex character. The questions remains unresolved. Which one is correct? Is Noach really a tzadik? Is he just the best of a bad generation? Which one is true?
The answer, of course, is that it's complicated. Because summing up, judging and evaluating a person is always complicated. Noach is a devout follower of the word of Hashem; he is impervious to the pressures of his generation. He single handedly builds an ark and sustains all life for a year, with immense self sacrifice. Does he fail? Sure. Does he succeed? Undoubtably! So which one is it?
Perhaps our estimation of Noach says much more about us than it does about him.
And the same is true about everyone we meet. There is no one in our lives, no-one ever, that isn't a complex amalgamation of שבח and גנאי - of praise and denigration. The story of Noach simply asks us: Which do you see?
The Toras Chaim of Kosov notes that Rashi himself has an opinion as to which perspective is correct. He notes that when Rashi informs us of this duality, he writes:
יש מרבותינו דורשים לשבח... ויש דורשים לגנאי
Some of our teachers explain his praise, and some explain his denigration.
Our teachers explain how to praise, others, do the opposite. The question that Rashi is posing is: who is your Rebbe? Is your role model the cynic? The scoffer? The critic? Or is your Rebbe the optimist? The humanist? The one who is looking for the best in other people? Both approaches are accurate, to an extent. And the choice of which perspective to highlight is open to us all.
And so Rashi tells us: Our teachers are the ones that say Noach is a tzadik.
This orientation towards people is baked into the most lasting impression of the Parsha: The Rainbow. The Torah tells us that the rainbow is a sign to remind us of Hashem's promise not to destroy the world for our sins. Indeed, in perfectly righteous generations, rainbows were never seen.
But the schism between how the rainbow appears, and the reason for it, is difficult to navigate. Hashem shows us a rainbow as Mussar, as rebuke. But what a strange sign of rebuke! A beautiful paining in the sky is hardly a fitting reminder of our downward spiral.
Perhaps like any good parent or teacher, when Hashem wants to give us Mussar, He chooses to show us the beauty of the world, the majesty of His creations. The rainbow is a reminder that we should live לשבח - with praise - it's the symbol of positive, colorful growth. It's a hug, it's not a finger wag. Ultimately, Hashem Himself is the Rebbe who is דורש לשבח - who explains how wonderful we are and could be.
A number of months ago, Sivan Rahav Meir shared the following story from Avinoam Hirsch which illustrates this point beautifully:
“At school, I gave a certificate of excellence to one student, but by mistake I sent a notification about it to the mother of another student: ‘Bravo! Your child received a certificate of excellence!’. By the time I realized my mistake and tried to delete it, I already got an answer: ‘You do not understand what your message did for me. It is the happiest thing that has happened to me this week’. I realized that her child is going to go home without really having a certificate of excellence, which he really did not deserve. That day I had even asked him to leave the classroom because he did not stop disturbing the class.
I went to him and told him what had happened, and then said: ‘Listen, you are the first student to whom I am going to loan a certificate of excellence. You do not deserve it, but I believe that your behavior in the upcoming week will justify it’. When he heard that I told his mother that he got a certificate of excellence, his eyes lit up and he said: ‘Just last night my mother cried that I make her so sad, after she talked with my English teacher. Thank you. I will not let you down’.
Throughout the following week, this naughty student, who had always ruined the classes, turned into an angel. The school’s educational consultant asked me if his mother started giving him Ritalin, and I answered: ‘No. He is on a much stronger stuff which burns inside of him. It is called trust’.”
There is always the option to denigrate, to put people down. But the option to lift each other up is always always present. Hashem should help us to live לשבח - to learn from Him to see the best. Those who believe it should be our teachers and we should become such teachers to world around us.
I am not ambivalent. I don't think anyone is, or can be. My orientation to this intense political drama is not resultant from a lack of thought or opinions. I, just like you, have opinions. Some of them are even strong opinions.
Why don't I care who you vote for? It's an Avoda. Every day I am attempting to live a dialectic - a bifurcation of sorts. Of course, there is the famous and well explored dialectic of separating between a person and their thoughts/actions. This distinction was crystallized by Bruria, the wife of Rebbe Meir who admonished her husband that Hashem does not want to see the demise of sinners, but of sins. We could all stand to do some more work in this arena.
But even invoking the "sin vs sinner" conversation is a branding of sorts that I'd like to avoid. It's a "looking down from my pedestal" approach. And in the heat of our current political brouhaha, I think you'd agree that it is unhelpful.
Instead, the dialectic I wish to explore is a little more nuanced, and less understood. It's the point of conflict between Torah and Tefillah.
Chazal (מסכת מגילה) tell us that a person may not approach Hashem with the claim: "You had mercy and commanded us to send away the mother bird, so too You should have mercy on us." The Talmud challenges: "Why not?!" Ostensibly, it's a good Tefilah. The Talmud answers: "One is explaining Hashem's laws as mercy, and they are simply decrees."
The Rishonim are intensely bothered by this answer. Especially considering that a considerable portion of Rabbinic writing is an attempt to understand Hashem's rationale behind the mitzvos. Indeed, Targum Yonasan, Rambam and Ramban all write that the Mitzvah of Sending Away the Mother bird is to express and/or educate mercy! The Ramban resolves the discrepancy by explaining that we do not follow the opinion of the Talmud in Megillah, and that suggesting explanations for the Mitzvos of Hashem is perfectly allowed!
The Mei HaShiloach (פרשת אמור), however, attempts to resolve the conundrum by making a fascinating and instructive observation: There is a stark difference between Torah and Tefillah. The job of a Jew in the Beis HaMedrash is to make every attempt to understand the reasons and rationales for Hashem's Mitzvos. We are invited, or even obligated, to use every shred of intellect to plum the depths of Ratzon Hashem and extract meaning, learning, and significance. The purpose of our God given intellect is to amass information and filter it through the prism of our unique perspectives. With enough time, thought, intellectual honesty, conversation and rigor, eventually we arrive at a well thought out conclusion.
But this is not true in Shul. When we approach Hashem in Tefillah, we need to resign our desire to explain and understand. Standing before the Master of All Worlds, it is not the height of audacity to claim "I know why You told me to do this mitzvah?" In the presence of Hashem, I am not a lawyer. I am not a chavrusa. I have no right to speak. This is why we begin our Shmonah Esrei with ה׳ שפתי תפתח - "Hashem open my lips..." If You don't, I cannot even start.
Essentially, the Avoda of Tefillah is to turn to Hashem and say: "I don't know why the world is the way it is. I don't know why You want it this way. But I know that without You nothing is possible." It's the epitome of humility. To know that everything I have worked and struggled to understand and develop, is barely a detail of a detail in the Infinity of the Mind of God. And yet, He gives me the opportunity to speak to Him. That's pretty cool. And it's something I should appreciate and learn from.
The Beis Yaakov (ריש פ׳ בראשית) explains that this perspective is ingrained in our weekly observance of Shabbos. It's a day that we remove our own creative capacity and focus on the reality the Hashem can - and does - run the world without us.
It is this dialectic, this dichotomy that I think is most instructive and constructive in the heat of our politically changed world. Put simply: If man plans and God laughs, then to be Godly is to laugh at our own plans as well.
Most laughable, of course, is the insanity of trying to sum up the entirety of another person based on a single variable.
We need to be able to balance our best intellectual rigor with the ability to laugh at ourselves. Of course, we need to be able to develop deep thoughts and profound opinions, but then we check them in at sunset on Friday afternoon. And every time we enter into a Shul or open a siddur.
In the intimate world of Tefillah and Shabbos, Hashem can bring health, happiness, redemption, security, success and prosperity in a myriad of ways, both red and blue. The inability to concede to that point is heresy.
Does that mean that I can't daven for the success of my candidate? Of course not! A Jew can ask Hashem for anything. But here's my personal attempt at formulating and articulating a Tefillah with humility:
Master of the Universe, our world is confusing, and many things seem to be at stake. From all that I have learned and understood, I think that the greatest Kiddush Hashem would be if candidate (X) wins the election. Please help that be so.
But You know everything. And I am limited and susceptible to all sorts of influences.
I might well be completely misreading and misunderstanding the world before my eyes. So, Master of the Universe, please help me. Help me to understand what You want from me, what You want from us. Help me to be a source of Bracha and Simcha in the world. Help me to listen with an open mind and open heart to those who agree and disagree with me. Help me to control my frustrations, and help me to avoid labeling people accordingly to an arbitrary and blunt binary. Help me to see the beauty and nuance of everyone I encounter, and help me to learn from them. Please help me to see Your Great Hand as You direct history towards the Geulah speedily in our days.
Ribono Shel Olam, as the people of the USA prepare to vote, please help me to vote for Torah and Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael and the Safety and Security of the State of Israel. Please help me to vote for Chessed and Charity and Kindness and Ahavas Chinam. Avinu Malkeinu, please help me to vote for You. And please keeping voting for me.
For a long time Rabbi Mordechai of Neshchiz longed for a tallit katan made of cloth from Eretz Yisrael. When the special fine wool finally arrived, he asked one of his favorite students to honor him by sewing for him a tallit katan. The student agreed. But unfortunately the student accidentally folded the cloth twice and instead of one neckhole he cut two, creating a tear that could not be repaired. The student was mortified about this, and feared that his teacher would be angry with him.
But Rabbi Mordechai did not reprimand his pupil, and did not even show anger toward him. Just the opposite. He smiled at him and said, “Good job, my son! You carried out the task according to Jewish law. I really need two pairs of the tallit katan. One to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit katan, and the other to put Reb Mordechai to the test, to see if he can overcome his yetzer hara (evil inclination) to get angry.”
It’s a great story. Though I’m not sure how well the great Rebbe of Neshchiz would fare in Tishrei 5781 in the USA.
This week alone we have had to contend with COVID-19 and the destructiveness of partisan politics in fighting it. We have been faced with brothers and sisters publicly defaming Torah and Klal Yisrael by burning masks in NY. And then needing to defend our values and community from the anti-semitism such insanity has spawned. We are constantly asked to choose sides with less and less nuance. The echo-chambers are getting tighter and louder, and the debates between those vying to lead this country are not safe for our children to watch (or adults, to be fair.)
Indeed, I think we’re are more than justified in finding much to by angry about.
But there is a cost to our anger. And there are loose ends on the other side of our righteous indignation. We are rightfully frustrated. We are justifiably upset. We are appropriately angry. But that also means we are frustrated, upset and angry. Where do these emotions lead? What lies on the other side of these honorable but undeniably negative emotions?
One thing is certain: Our emotions do not appear to change the actions of those who are responsible for these circumstances. We are not winning over the perpetrators to our side. Perhaps there are fence-sitters and bystanders that might be swayed. Perhaps by registering our frustrations we might absolve ourself of any associations with these rabble rousers and trouble makers. But these options are woefully insufficient vents for the negativity we generate and harbor.
Most often, we channel our frustrations in one of two ways: inside or outside. Channeling inside slowly eats away at our innocence and optimism. Given enough time, righteous indignation will transform even the most bright eyed dreamer into a cynic. Hope is lost to sadness and ideals crash on the shores of realism. We, sadly, call this "maturity".
Channeling the frustrations outwards has the advantage of keeping our dreams intact. The cost, however, is the growing resentment that the world will "never get it". The big "they" will never understand. Sarcasm becomes the new humor, and people stop listening to our ideas; knowing that their ideas and ideals will only be belittled in contrast.
So what is there left to do? Not have an opinion? Not protest the evils in the world? I do not think the Master of the World wants us to lobotomize ourselves into dim-witted shoulder shrugging.
Here are three suggestions:
1.Protest is not the same as Anger
Consider the following story:
A number of years ago, a certain bus arrived in the Bnei Brak terminal after Yom Tov. The terminal was packed with people eager to get back home to Jerusalem with the 401 bus. The bus was late. Kids were crying. Everyone was cranky and irritable.
A bus arrived at the terminal door with number 301 to a different city. After five minutes, a few people approached the bus driver and begged him to change the number to 401 and take them to Jerusalem.
The bus driver told them. "I am sorry but if I change my bus number, I risk losing my job, getting a fine, etc."
After a few minutes, people asked him again and pleaded with him.
The bus driver accepted and everyone quickly boarded the bus, thanking and lauding the heroic bus driver.
When the bus neared Jerusalem, one person asked the bus driver: "aren't you afraid of losing your job, your parnassah, getting a fine?"
The bus driver replied: "I'll tell you the truth. I really am the 401 bus. If I had come to the bus terminal as a 401, everyone would have been cranky and angry throughout the trip. But now, I am treated like a hero".
The bus driver understood - and exploited - the greatest secret of anger and frustration: They are, at their core, a response to mismatched expectations. Rebbe Nachman explains (שיחות הר״ן מב):
עצבות הוא כמו מי שהוא בכעס וברוגז כמו שמתרעם ומתלונן עליו יתברך חס ושלום על שאינו עושה לו רצונו
...anger and rage are a complaint against God for not fulfilling one’s wishes.
We get angry because we feel that the world should be the way we think it should be. And what will be if it isn't?! We are annoyed and upset.
We have transformed the essential obligation of calling out injustice into an emotion rather than an Avoda. The need to protest is not a license to feel anger, but rather a charge to display anger.
This distinction is well known to every good parent.
2.Don't Channel the Anger In or Out. Send it Up.
But what should we do if despite all attempts, we still get angry? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that our custom of saying Hoshanos throughout Sukkos is the staging of a formal protest to Hashem against the Yetzer Hara. “HoShana” literally means: “Save us from this!” We usually think we need saving from hurricanes, fools, anti-semites and stock market crashes. But truthfully, we need far more saving from the negativity of our broken thoughts and minds.
In the deepest sense, all of our tefillos on Sukkos are attempts to lift our problems to Hashem. At the very least, we should protest upwards as much as we protest outwards.
3. Ask: Where Does This Emotion Take Me?
Social media has yet to create an Emoji for the reaction that describes: “I would like to display my sincere displeasure. But really, I’m ok, and my world will continue with Simcha and Emuna.”
Chazal tell us that during Sukkos, we would bring 70 korbanos on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. In essence, the Jewish people in those years were a fulfillment of the promise that Hashem gave to Avraham:
וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה - And through you all families of the earth will be blessed.
Being a light of wisdom unto the nations comes later. Our first concern should be “What is my presence contributing”. This is a heavy charge. It asks us to consider: Am I a source of Bracha for the world, or God forbid the opposite?
We should take note of the emotions we are feeling and feeding. It becomes simple to see that while the source might be nobly founded, this does not guarantee that it leads us to place we want to be.
If we cannot hold back our anger from taking root, and we cannot channel it into a Tefillah, then, in my my humble opinion, we should reconsider the righteousness of our indignation. Perhaps it’s not so righteous after all...
The unique Avoda of this Chag is Joy - Simcha. The Gra explains (סוף אבן שלמה פרק יא) that the Simcha we are attempting to feel now is borrowed from the world of clarity yet to come. But if we want it, if we work on it, we can taste a piece of that now. Hashem should help us to because epicenters of that Simcha. And that despite the fissures and frustrations we should become a source of Bracha.