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.
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.