This Shabbos, the Torah tells us of the most tragic parenting story possible; the story of the Ben Sorer U'moreh. A child, just before bar mitzvah who begins down a road that will lead to his own destruction. His parents will bring him to the Sanhedrin to be executed.
But the conditions for a boy to become a Ben Sorer U'moreh are difficult to achieve. He must have had access to a stellar education, wonderful loving parents, excellent health for himself and his parents, etc... Only when everything in his life is perfect will the Torah conclude that such a boy is liable for his actions. Absent of even one detail, he cannot be a Ben Sorer U'moreh.
This is a powerful perspective in our understanding of people in general. How often is a child (or adult) simply reacting to the challenges that they are experiencing? Are we so convinced that the negativity we’re seeing in someone is originates with them? Indeed it would seem that creating such an ideal environment is so nearly impossible that the Talmud suggests that throughout Jewish history, there has never been a Ben Sorer U’moreh.
But let’s imagine it happens. The perfect child, from a perfect family, in a perfect community who starts down the road of rebelliousness and brokenness.
Imagine the tears, the horror, the despair. No doubt, schools have been warning about this child for years. He's bounced from class to class, teacher to teacher. His parents have spend hundreds of sessions and thousands of dollars in therapy. And yet this child is apparently incurable.
Picture that child - determined, defiant, arrogant, angry. The has Sanhedrin has ruled that he must be executed, and as they are taking him away, his parents begin to cry uncontrollably. Please, they beg, despite everything, we forgive him, we want him, we love him.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (88a) tells us: “בן סורר ומורה שרצו אביו ואמו למחול לו מוחלין לו - A stubborn and rebellious son whose father and mother sought to forgive him, they can forgive him.”
The Rambam (ע׳ שיעורי ר' דוד מסכת סנהדרין עא:א) explains that this mechilah - this forgiveness - works even once they have sentenced this child to death! Even in the last moment. They can pick him up and bring him home.
This idea, while beautiful, is peculiar. A Ben Sorer U'Moreh is not judged based on what he has done, but for what he will become. His crimes are that he stole, ate too much meat and drank too much wine. Ordinarily, these crimes are not deserving of death; but the Torah declares with Devine certainly that such a child, at that age and stage of life will become a menace to himself and society. Better that he die now, rather than destroy himself and the world further.
So how could it help that his parents forgive him? His fate is sealed!
The Shem Mishmuel (תרע"א) explains:
כשאביו ואמו מוחלין לו הנה הוא עדיין נקשר בשלשלת הקודש, שוב אינו נהרג, שיכול להיות שעוד ישוב בתשובה שלימה המתקבלת - The moment that his parents forgive him, it reconnects him to the Jewish people, and his fate is not yet sealed. As long as his parents believe in him, his fate is not sealed. Only for one who is completely disconnected from Ahavas Yisrael, from Yiddishkeit, from parents and friends can we say, it's all over.
This, of course, is not limited to our relationship with our children. No Jew's life experience exists in a vacuum. When we relate to people with ahava, with kavod, with mechila, it transforms who that person is.
But this influence - the effect that our confidence has on those around us - is not only transformative, it’s the primary Avoda of our generations.
The Mishna in Avos (1:2) famously tells us:
שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Shimon the Tzadik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say, "On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service and on acts of lovingkindness."
During the summer months the Sfas Emes would learn Pirkei Avos with his son, later to become the Imrei Emes. Commenting on that Mishna, the Imrei Emes explained from his father:
The world stands on three things: Torah, Avoda and Chessed. But our history has shown that we have not always worked on these pillars simultaneously. Before Matan Torah, the world did not have Torah. And since the destruction of Yerushalayim, we no longer have the Avoda of the Korbanos. Therefore, we must conclude that the world stands on either Torah, Avoda or Chessed - depending on the era.
And then the Sfas Emes explained in the name of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk: Until the time of the Arizal, the world stood on Torah. Now the world stands on Gemilus Chassadim - taking care of other people. Our job is to love each other.
So as Rosh Hashanah approaches, we so desperately want to keep our world standing. This has been the shakiest year in recent memory, and if we’d like 5781 to feel a little more solid, our Avoda is to grow in Ahavas Yisrael.
A bachur came to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt'l and told him that he was thrown out of his yeshiva. The Klausenberg Rebbe summoned for the mashgiach of the bachur’s yeshiva and asked him why he threw this bachur out. The mashgiach told him all the bad things the boy had done, and concluded, “It’s impossible to keep him in the yeshiva if he does these things.”
“That’s true,” the Rebbe agreed, “but I spoke with the bachur, and he told me that he’s ready to change.”
The mashgiach said in exasperation, “This bachur promised me a thousand times that he will improve and he never keeps his word.”
The Rebbe held his white beard and said, “Throughout the many years of my life I promised Hashem even more than a thousand times that I will improve, and I haven’t done so yet. According to what you’re saying, I should give up. But actually, as long as a Yid lives, he still has potential to change...”
This school year is going to be a challenge unlike anything we have faced before. This Tishrei and Yamim Nora’im will be unlike any we have experienced. The uncertainty of health and scheduling, coupled with the demands of distancing, mask wearing and the politicization of all of the above are all taking their toll.
None of us are immune from the anxiety of COVID-19. No one has antibodies from the past six months of insanity and uncertainty. Everyone could use a little more love, a little more understanding and a little more patience.
Our love, attention and patience for our children and each other is the cure we all so desperately need.
Or as Viktor Frankel would say: “If we take man as he is, we make him worse. If we take man as he should be, we make him capable of what he can be.”
In a few days, perhaps, a week or two, many of us will be sending our children back to school for whatever the year will bring. For those with young children at home, there is a palpable feeling of relief. For months we have endured infinite hostage negotiations regarding the remote control and playing personal assistant to always-hungry but don’t-know-what-I-want-to-eat children.
Serving as tech support to help with yet another zoom-class-login debacle was only the tip of the frustration iceberg. Cancelled summer plans were met with overwhelming uncertainly, and awkward social interactions. None of this has been simple.
But one thing has emerged from the wreckage: The manicured hedges that separated “work” and “life” could no longer be maintained. The switch out of family mode and into office mode is frankly impossible when you share office space with a toddler brandishing a sharpie.
But the truth, as anyone with children knows, is that we never had a work life balance to start with. It might be true that we had separate physical spaces. But no one I know has such neat emotional, mental and psychological divisions.
Little by little over the years, the bifurcation of our time has become impossible. Technology has ensured that work encroached on our home time, and in turn, our homes invaded our work time. School plays, graduations, doctors visits, sports games all demand parental attention, leading to awkward conversations of “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make that meeting today.” With the sheepish “because I have parent-teacher-conferences” added. We feel the need to groan to our bosses and colleagues about how dumb these school events are. Really, we want to be working non-stop, Right? We complain about our family obligations almost as much as we yell at our spouses about the importance of this deadline or that conference call.
But at the core, we’re not happy. Because this is not possible, and it’s not sustainable. But why are we in this mess? How did we get here? Why is it that we feel so overwhelmed and exhausted? And why has the total upheaval of our lives during this pandemic provided no cure to the stress - despite the shakeup of schedules, commutes, schooling and travel?
They tell a story that many years ago, a poor farmer had done a great favor for a powerful king.
In gratitude for what this poor farmer had done, the king decided to publicly reward him with a day of celebration in his honor.
The whole city was invited to the large royal estate where all manner of festivities were enjoyed. Great food, wine, music and entertainment. The king then regaled the crowd with the story of the great kindness of this poor farmer and proudly announced this poor farmer would be handsomely rewarded.
Turning the farmer, the king declared, "Tomorrow, you will earn your place amongst the nobles of this land." The astonished farmer turned quizzically to the king, who continued: "Tomorrow morning we will meet here once again, at day break. As the sun rises, you will begin to walk, and every parcel of land that you cover tomorrow, until the sun sets, will belong to you."
The poor farmer had no idea what to say, and stammered a "Thank you your majesty. Tomorrow at day break. Thank you, thank you."
It's not everyday that a person is given such an opportunity, and the whole town was so electrified by the excitement of what the next day would bring, barely anyone slept a wink.
The farmer, for his part had arranged teams of friends and family to relay food and water for him, as untrained, he prepared for a once in a lifetime marathon, that would change his life forever.
An hour before sunrise, he, along with everyone else was standing outside the royal estate. When the king appeared on the balcony in the dim morning light the people fell silent immediately, collectively holding their breath.
The king descended from his balcony and motioned to the farmer to approach. As the sun peeked from the horizon, the king's voice thundered through the throngs of people. "You may begin!"
What a rush! The farmer ran through the crowds to cheers of "Good luck! Pace yourself! Save some for us!"
As the heat of the day grew stronger, friends arrived in wagons, and on horse back to provided essential provision, as the farmer covered acres upon acres. But by mid afternoon, he was feeling the strain of the challenge. His legs were aching, his heart was thumping in his chest, the blisters on his feet had blisters of their own. What began as a run and then a jog, was now barely a brisk walk.
Friends joined him to encourage him "Don't give up! Just another two hours!" Others had practical advice "take a minute to stretch, have some more water!"
Thirty minutes later, as the day began to cool, the farmer's head was getting dizzy. His vision was blurring, and his legs felt like lead.
The walk slowed to a snails pace, with encouragement coming from all sides "You can do it! Look over that mountain - if you get over it, if you conquer it, the whole valley will be yours!"
But a mountain in such a condition was more than could be imagined. Yet, echoing in his ears were years of education: "You can anything if you put your mind to it... Mind over matter." And the farmer, mustering every ounce of will power began to crawl up the mountain, as the sun began to dip behind it.
Those standing nearby waited with bated breath. They watched, awestruck as their friend finally collapsed in broken exhaustion, as the sun was setting, as he crested that mountain. He finally stretched out his shaking hands, straining to cover those last inches. “This, too, is mine,” were his dying words.
In those hazy, early days of the pandemic shutdown, I hoped that we would become a little less like that farmer. You hoped for that as well. In the confusion that surrounded us during Pesach there was the undeniable optimism that somehow, in some way we would become better for it.
In some cases, these dreams materialized. But for everyone who learned how to play the guitar in the past five months, there are dozens of dusty guitars yet to be picked up. A far greater proportion of people gained weight than lost it. And many more books were left unread on the bedside table.
Looking back on the past five months, everything in our lives changed completely. And somehow, none of the changes in our schedules made way for the changes we wanted in our lives.
It turns out then, that we don’t so much suffer from an imbalance of work and life. In my humble opinion, we suffer from an imbalance of priorities.
Mori V’Rabbi Rav Blachman once made the observation that we struggle to differentiate between what is necessary and what is important.
At any given moment, we have choices to make between spending time on neccesary tasks or important ones. But before we can make those judgement calls, we need to define what is necessary and what is important. Because in the absence of our own definitions, we will, always, by default, gravitate to the definitions of other people.
The imbalance that we feel between work and life is nothing other than the guilt of having someone else’s priorities overwhelm our own poorly defined priorities. We resent that our bosses, spouses and children are telling us what is important for us right now - because we failed to do so ourselves. And that’s how the farmer dies at the top of the mountain; without a moment to consider whether this once in a lifetime opportunity is necessary or important. Without thinking if this is a means or an end. And who ever said that this farmer needs to have this land?
The Avnei Nezer explains that this question is the Avoda of Parshas Shoftim: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ - Set up judges and police in each of your gates. At every juncture in life we need to make a judgement call, that’s Shoftim/Judges. But then we need to live by it, enforce it and make sure to communicate it clearly. That’s Shotrim/Police.
This Elul, Hashem is asking each of us: “What do you really want to do with your life? I’ve shaken up Planet Earth. Nothing is as it was. There is no balance to which you must subscribe. There is only the question: What is necessary and what is important for you?”
The gates to 5781/תשפ״א are beginning to open. Hashem should help us to get our judges in place.
This Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
It’s a good thing that Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t weigh as much as I did two summers ago. Or Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank would likely not have survived to tell the story.
Baruch HaShem, my eating habits have changed a lot in the past two years. But for a long time, it didn’t seem possible.
The Shulchan Aruch (או"ח קפ:ה) records the custom of putting away the knife before beginning Birkas HaMazon. As to the reason for this minhag, there are a number of approaches in classical sources. But Rabbi Avraham of Stratyn would explain that the Zohar tell us that שעת אכילה שעת מלחמה - “Meal time is time of Battle”. And when we put the knife away, we’re declaring that the battle is over... for now.
This article is the beginning of a conversation long overdue in our shuls, schools and communities. It’s a conversation about engaging in this battle.
For anyone who is struggling with overeating and being overweight, you are already skeptical of anything am I going to say. You have already read, attempted and failed at an uncountable host of weight loss programs. You have ridden the weight-loss/weight-gain rollercoaster more times than you care to count, and most likely you have, at least at some point, concluded that this will be your life forever.
We all know and understand that book stores and blogs are filled with diet and weigh loss advice and information, precisely because there is no easy solution to this problem. And of course, the judgements that our society (and ourselves!) place on overweight people makes flip-flopping and failure far more than an issue of food. The number on the scale has become a measure of self worth; with the steepest of inverse proportions. As the number rises, our self esteem plummets.
And all of this is communal and personal fat-shaming is starkly contrasted with the abundance of indulgent food available at kiddushes, simchas, and Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. This is an issue for adults who are struggling, and perhaps even more so for children and teens who we are conditioning from the earliest of ages to associate Shul and Yiddishkeit with candy.
(We should also take note of the devastating truth that we are currently in the midst of pandemic which is far more dangerous and deadly for people struggling with obesity.)
So what might a Rabbi have to add to this conversation? I am neither a doctor, nor a dietician. I’m a not a fitness guru. But I’m not trying to sell you anything either. And in the past two years I have lost almost 100lbs. I’ve run a few half marathons, and a full marathon as well. All of this, comes after spending three decades of my life making some very poor choices.
Today, I feel pretty good about my accomplishments in these areas. But not totally, and not completely. Which should inform you of the harsh truth that you already know: We’re never completely out of the woods. I am fitter, skinnier, faster and healthier than I have ever been. But staying this way means constantly re-engaging in that battle.
So how did I do it? And how I am keeping it up? Of course, there are dieting tricks, meal prep hacks, and exercises that I have learned along the way. But tricks, hacks and exercises are not the reason for sustainable life changes. I suspect you share similar sentiments and cynicism.
My success has come from different kind a diet. Not of food (or lack thereof), but of ideas. It’s a diet of Ruchniyus, Mussar, Chassidus and Torah that exist in the empty, unspoken space between the fat-shaming we suffer and the indulgences we’re supposed to enjoy, endure and sponsor. This is the conversation that I’d like to begin.
In a very real and palpable way the first major breakthrough I experienced was framing this challenge as an Avoda in Teshuva. It stopped being about carbs or pounds or clothing. It was a simple realization: I Don’t Want to Be a Ba’al Ta’ava Any More.
This simple thought felt like a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions. It was the day I decided I didn’t want to loose weight anymore. I didn’t want to be skinny anymore. Sure, I didn’t want my belly to jiggle when I brushed my teeth, but that wasn’t the goal any longer. I had a new goal. I wanted to enjoy sitting at the Shabbos table, and feel like I was in control.
It dawned on me in that moment, that a piece of me really didn’t enjoy the Shabbos table. I enjoyed the food, every sushi roll, every chicken nugget, and every bowl of cholent (which, as I typed this, just got autocorrected to cholesterol?!). But I dreaded Shabbos meals. Because I knew how I would feel at the end.
The moment I realized that I was in a battle for control with my Yetzer Hara - that Avoda became the main course.
That basic idea is step one. That was the spark. Since then, I have expanded my palette of thoughts, Torah’s, and emotions. I return to them over and over again, as I have worked to incorporate these changes into my life. In the deepest way, nothing I have gained would have been possible without constant review of these ideas.
These are the ideas that I’m inviting you to learn and review with me starting this Thursday night at 8:30pm, as Chodesh Elul begins. Each week we’re going to learn a little together, in a simple and straight forward way, on a mutual quest to experience a kind a Teshuva that we have been attempting for years. Of course, none of this limmud is limited to food/eating exclusively. These ideas can and will provide insight and inspiration for all of our battle with the Yetzer Hara.
Our Parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu telling us: רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה - “See, I am putting before you today a blessing and a curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim explains this presentation was not a once-off occurrence. The same choices exist for each of us every day. And each day Hashem gives us the ability to make the right choices. Indeed, in gratitude for our God-given capacity to make the right decisions, we make a Bracha every morning: הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה - You, Hashem give me the ability to discern between day and night.
Hashem should help us, our children and our communities to choose between light and darkness today and everyday. I’m looking forward to learning together.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of Jewish education. To lay the facts out as simply as possible:
With all of this being the case, it is instructive to rethink why we have Jewish day school at all. To illustrate, consider the Chinuch that Moreinu V’Rabbineu Rav Soloveitchik received:
In 1913, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik became the Rabbi of Chaslavitch in White Russia. His son Yoshe-Ber, or Berel, later to become “The Rav” was a young boy at the time. Then, as now, Jewish education was of paramount importance, and as such, Berel was sent to learn in the cheder of Reb Baruch Reisberg, a Lubavitcher chosid. (The Rav would often reflect upon the value of his early chassidic education saying that without this exposure to Chassidus he would never have known the difference between one Yom Tov and the next.)
But it soon became apparent to his mother, Rabbanit Pesia, that shortly after the parents had brought their children to the cheder, the Rebbe would tell the boys to put away the Gemaros and take out their Tanya.
She was so bothered by this that she brought the matter to her father-in-law, the great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who agreed to test his grandson on what he was learning, so as to ascertain the extent of the problem. Reb Chaim turned to his grandson and asked “what are you learning?”, and as young Berel opened his mouth, the words of the Tanya rolled out with nary a word of Talmud.
Reb Chaim called his son over, and instructed Rav Moshe: “You must take personal charge over Berel’s education.” And so it was, that the Rav’s primary teacher of Talmud for the next 10 years, was his own father, a privilege that he benefited from and spoke about his entire life.
Reb Chaim’s point, is that at it’s core, the obligation Chinuch, of education children, is a personal parental duty. This obligation is described by the Torah in the second paragraph of Shema in our parsha: וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם - “You shall teach these words to your children to speak of them”. Practically, this means that every parent is obligated to ensure that their children are technically proficient in Torah, such that they can (at minimum) perform all of the Mitzvos of the Torah in which they are obligated with consistency and accuracy. Inclusive in this mandatory curriculum is that a child has a correct hierarchy of Torah and life values, that will reflect the way they live, work and participate in society. (ע׳ אגרות משה ח״ח עמ׳ מח - סימן י״ד).
The continuation of the Pasuk commands parents to educate our children בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ - when you are at home and when you are traveling. Reb Yehoshua of Belz explains that this obligation is in the second person. When you are at home, your children should learn with you, so that when you are unavailable, out on the road, they have the skills and motivation to learn themselves. That’s the goal of
So why do we have Jewish day schools? Because not every parent has the time, knowledge and wherewithal to successfully educate their children. To that end, we hire professionals to help us perform this essential and fundamental mitzvah. The obligation of paying tuition to achieve this goal is codified by the Rambam (הלכות תלמוד תורה א:ג). Of course, if a parent can personally provide adequate education to their children, they have no obligation to pay tuition. That being said, I do not know many people today that have the right mix of educational expertise and available time to absolve them of obligation to hire teachers for their children. There are not many Rav Moshe Soloveitchiks around.
Now, Coronovirus has created a situation where the normative infrastructure of Jewish Day Schools is compromised. So where to from here? Currently, both parents and schools are all at a point of hoping and wishing that in-person school works out. But what happens if the hopes in wishes don’t work out? Best case scenario is that only a few teachers are laid off, and our children receive yet another sub-par educational experience. Worst case? Our schools join the growing list of institutions that did not survive COVID-19, leaving parents and communities to figure out Jewish education from scratch for years to come. (My dear friend on college Rabbi Philip Moskowitz addressed the untenability of such a scenario during Kinnos on Tisha B’av morning.)
We need to ensure that none of this comes to pass. To that end, here are a number of suggestions that go beyond hoping and wishing.
Essentially, if schools cannot (any whatever point) meet in-person on-campus, there are a host of conversations that need to be had. Parents, teachers, schools and administrators are going to need to make consessions and work flexibly to ensure that effective Chinuch can occur. The only thing that absolutely must notoccur is that schools go online, and parents withdraw their children or stop payments without deep conversations about how to do this better.
The Tifferes Shlomo writes that והיה עקב תשמעון means that we should listen at the end of time, in these days of עקבתא דמשיחא - the days just before Moshiach arrives. Because any mitzvah, great or small is so precious in the insanity of our world. When Moshiach will come, please God very soon, he will run through our communities with tears in his eyes picking up each and every one of our children, singing with them, dancing with them, and saying “Wow! Baruch Hashem, you managed to hold on to Torah and Yiddishkeit when so many others let go.”
Chevra, let’s hold on just a little while longer. For us, for our teachers and schools and communities. But most importantly, for our children, so that Moshiach will know to pick them up on the way to Yerushalayim.