This Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
It’s a good thing that Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t weigh as much as I did two summers ago. Or Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank would likely not have survived to tell the story.
Baruch HaShem, my eating habits have changed a lot in the past two years. But for a long time, it didn’t seem possible.
The Shulchan Aruch (או"ח קפ:ה) records the custom of putting away the knife before beginning Birkas HaMazon. As to the reason for this minhag, there are a number of approaches in classical sources. But Rabbi Avraham of Stratyn would explain that the Zohar tell us that שעת אכילה שעת מלחמה - “Meal time is time of Battle”. And when we put the knife away, we’re declaring that the battle is over... for now.
This article is the beginning of a conversation long overdue in our shuls, schools and communities. It’s a conversation about engaging in this battle.
For anyone who is struggling with overeating and being overweight, you are already skeptical of anything am I going to say. You have already read, attempted and failed at an uncountable host of weight loss programs. You have ridden the weight-loss/weight-gain rollercoaster more times than you care to count, and most likely you have, at least at some point, concluded that this will be your life forever.
We all know and understand that book stores and blogs are filled with diet and weigh loss advice and information, precisely because there is no easy solution to this problem. And of course, the judgements that our society (and ourselves!) place on overweight people makes flip-flopping and failure far more than an issue of food. The number on the scale has become a measure of self worth; with the steepest of inverse proportions. As the number rises, our self esteem plummets.
And all of this is communal and personal fat-shaming is starkly contrasted with the abundance of indulgent food available at kiddushes, simchas, and Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. This is an issue for adults who are struggling, and perhaps even more so for children and teens who we are conditioning from the earliest of ages to associate Shul and Yiddishkeit with candy.
(We should also take note of the devastating truth that we are currently in the midst of pandemic which is far more dangerous and deadly for people struggling with obesity.)
So what might a Rabbi have to add to this conversation? I am neither a doctor, nor a dietician. I’m a not a fitness guru. But I’m not trying to sell you anything either. And in the past two years I have lost almost 100lbs. I’ve run a few half marathons, and a full marathon as well. All of this, comes after spending three decades of my life making some very poor choices.
Today, I feel pretty good about my accomplishments in these areas. But not totally, and not completely. Which should inform you of the harsh truth that you already know: We’re never completely out of the woods. I am fitter, skinnier, faster and healthier than I have ever been. But staying this way means constantly re-engaging in that battle.
So how did I do it? And how I am keeping it up? Of course, there are dieting tricks, meal prep hacks, and exercises that I have learned along the way. But tricks, hacks and exercises are not the reason for sustainable life changes. I suspect you share similar sentiments and cynicism.
My success has come from different kind a diet. Not of food (or lack thereof), but of ideas. It’s a diet of Ruchniyus, Mussar, Chassidus and Torah that exist in the empty, unspoken space between the fat-shaming we suffer and the indulgences we’re supposed to enjoy, endure and sponsor. This is the conversation that I’d like to begin.
In a very real and palpable way the first major breakthrough I experienced was framing this challenge as an Avoda in Teshuva. It stopped being about carbs or pounds or clothing. It was a simple realization: I Don’t Want to Be a Ba’al Ta’ava Any More.
This simple thought felt like a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions. It was the day I decided I didn’t want to loose weight anymore. I didn’t want to be skinny anymore. Sure, I didn’t want my belly to jiggle when I brushed my teeth, but that wasn’t the goal any longer. I had a new goal. I wanted to enjoy sitting at the Shabbos table, and feel like I was in control.
It dawned on me in that moment, that a piece of me really didn’t enjoy the Shabbos table. I enjoyed the food, every sushi roll, every chicken nugget, and every bowl of cholent (which, as I typed this, just got autocorrected to cholesterol?!). But I dreaded Shabbos meals. Because I knew how I would feel at the end.
The moment I realized that I was in a battle for control with my Yetzer Hara - that Avoda became the main course.
That basic idea is step one. That was the spark. Since then, I have expanded my palette of thoughts, Torah’s, and emotions. I return to them over and over again, as I have worked to incorporate these changes into my life. In the deepest way, nothing I have gained would have been possible without constant review of these ideas.
These are the ideas that I’m inviting you to learn and review with me starting this Thursday night at 8:30pm, as Chodesh Elul begins. Each week we’re going to learn a little together, in a simple and straight forward way, on a mutual quest to experience a kind a Teshuva that we have been attempting for years. Of course, none of this limmud is limited to food/eating exclusively. These ideas can and will provide insight and inspiration for all of our battle with the Yetzer Hara.
Our Parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu telling us: רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה - “See, I am putting before you today a blessing and a curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim explains this presentation was not a once-off occurrence. The same choices exist for each of us every day. And each day Hashem gives us the ability to make the right choices. Indeed, in gratitude for our God-given capacity to make the right decisions, we make a Bracha every morning: הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה - You, Hashem give me the ability to discern between day and night.
Hashem should help us, our children and our communities to choose between light and darkness today and everyday. I’m looking forward to learning together.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of Jewish education. To lay the facts out as simply as possible:
With all of this being the case, it is instructive to rethink why we have Jewish day school at all. To illustrate, consider the Chinuch that Moreinu V’Rabbineu Rav Soloveitchik received:
In 1913, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik became the Rabbi of Chaslavitch in White Russia. His son Yoshe-Ber, or Berel, later to become “The Rav” was a young boy at the time. Then, as now, Jewish education was of paramount importance, and as such, Berel was sent to learn in the cheder of Reb Baruch Reisberg, a Lubavitcher chosid. (The Rav would often reflect upon the value of his early chassidic education saying that without this exposure to Chassidus he would never have known the difference between one Yom Tov and the next.)
But it soon became apparent to his mother, Rabbanit Pesia, that shortly after the parents had brought their children to the cheder, the Rebbe would tell the boys to put away the Gemaros and take out their Tanya.
She was so bothered by this that she brought the matter to her father-in-law, the great Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who agreed to test his grandson on what he was learning, so as to ascertain the extent of the problem. Reb Chaim turned to his grandson and asked “what are you learning?”, and as young Berel opened his mouth, the words of the Tanya rolled out with nary a word of Talmud.
Reb Chaim called his son over, and instructed Rav Moshe: “You must take personal charge over Berel’s education.” And so it was, that the Rav’s primary teacher of Talmud for the next 10 years, was his own father, a privilege that he benefited from and spoke about his entire life.
Reb Chaim’s point, is that at it’s core, the obligation Chinuch, of education children, is a personal parental duty. This obligation is described by the Torah in the second paragraph of Shema in our parsha: וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם - “You shall teach these words to your children to speak of them”. Practically, this means that every parent is obligated to ensure that their children are technically proficient in Torah, such that they can (at minimum) perform all of the Mitzvos of the Torah in which they are obligated with consistency and accuracy. Inclusive in this mandatory curriculum is that a child has a correct hierarchy of Torah and life values, that will reflect the way they live, work and participate in society. (ע׳ אגרות משה ח״ח עמ׳ מח - סימן י״ד).
The continuation of the Pasuk commands parents to educate our children בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ - when you are at home and when you are traveling. Reb Yehoshua of Belz explains that this obligation is in the second person. When you are at home, your children should learn with you, so that when you are unavailable, out on the road, they have the skills and motivation to learn themselves. That’s the goal of
So why do we have Jewish day schools? Because not every parent has the time, knowledge and wherewithal to successfully educate their children. To that end, we hire professionals to help us perform this essential and fundamental mitzvah. The obligation of paying tuition to achieve this goal is codified by the Rambam (הלכות תלמוד תורה א:ג). Of course, if a parent can personally provide adequate education to their children, they have no obligation to pay tuition. That being said, I do not know many people today that have the right mix of educational expertise and available time to absolve them of obligation to hire teachers for their children. There are not many Rav Moshe Soloveitchiks around.
Now, Coronovirus has created a situation where the normative infrastructure of Jewish Day Schools is compromised. So where to from here? Currently, both parents and schools are all at a point of hoping and wishing that in-person school works out. But what happens if the hopes in wishes don’t work out? Best case scenario is that only a few teachers are laid off, and our children receive yet another sub-par educational experience. Worst case? Our schools join the growing list of institutions that did not survive COVID-19, leaving parents and communities to figure out Jewish education from scratch for years to come. (My dear friend on college Rabbi Philip Moskowitz addressed the untenability of such a scenario during Kinnos on Tisha B’av morning.)
We need to ensure that none of this comes to pass. To that end, here are a number of suggestions that go beyond hoping and wishing.
Essentially, if schools cannot (any whatever point) meet in-person on-campus, there are a host of conversations that need to be had. Parents, teachers, schools and administrators are going to need to make consessions and work flexibly to ensure that effective Chinuch can occur. The only thing that absolutely must notoccur is that schools go online, and parents withdraw their children or stop payments without deep conversations about how to do this better.
The Tifferes Shlomo writes that והיה עקב תשמעון means that we should listen at the end of time, in these days of עקבתא דמשיחא - the days just before Moshiach arrives. Because any mitzvah, great or small is so precious in the insanity of our world. When Moshiach will come, please God very soon, he will run through our communities with tears in his eyes picking up each and every one of our children, singing with them, dancing with them, and saying “Wow! Baruch Hashem, you managed to hold on to Torah and Yiddishkeit when so many others let go.”
Chevra, let’s hold on just a little while longer. For us, for our teachers and schools and communities. But most importantly, for our children, so that Moshiach will know to pick them up on the way to Yerushalayim.
This Shabbos is one of comfort - Shabbos Nachamu, so named for the opening words of the Haftarah: נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי - The Navi is instructing us to be comforted in the wake of the devastation of Tisha B’av. But what is this comfort? What are we supposed to feel?
“Making someone comfortable” means something very different when you hear it in a nursing home. There, the sadness of comfort becomes very real. I can still vividly recall the first time I asked what what “making him comfortable” meant, and since that day, I can no longer feel comfortable with being comfortable.
Comfort, as we know it, is a fairly recent consideration of humanity. For most of our history, life was decidedly uncomfortable. Heat and cold were aspect of nature to contend with, to mitigate if possible. Sickness, ailments, pain and aging, were parts of life.
But in the past century, we have moved beyond mitigating these discomforts. Indeed, with the wonders of modern science and technology, we have all but eradicated the major discomforts of our ancestors. And now comfort reigns supreme. Comfortable beds, shoes, clothes, seats, cars, shuls, schools and couches.
This is a good thing. Without the constant barrage of daily frustration, we now have the time, headspace, and wherewithal to devote ourselves to loftier pursuits on both personal and national levels. Right?
But if we’re honest, we know know that’s not true.
A number of years ago, a close friend of mine told me the story of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who made her way to the United States. With the characteristic perseverance of one who could not allow Hitler to win, and despite her poverty, she raised her children with to value life, learning and the Jewish nation.
At some point in the mid sixties, after a number of a years, saving penny by penny, she had finally saved up enough to buy an electric washing machine. On that day, she called her children together and told them, “Now that I no longer need to spend all day at home - we’re going to the library. If we have free time, it’s to be used for learning.”
But we don’t live that way. I’ve often joked to my talmidim that when the aliens land, they’ll see us carrying these rectangular slabs in our pockets. They’ll ask us “what are those?” And we’ll respond “These are smart phones. They give us the ability to connect to our friends, and families, and almost anyone on the planet. With these marvelous devices we can access all of human knowledge. We can use them to learn skills, languages, and art.” “Amazing,” they will say. “And what do you use them for?” “Netflix, Lashon Hara and memes...”
Why do we live our lives with such disaffection for our own values? I hesitate to say it: But I think we have completely misunderstood the meaning of comfort. We imagine that it means the absence of pain as an inherent value. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Rashi (בראשית ו:ו) tells us the meaning of the word נחמה. It doesn’t mean the removal of pain. It means:
נהפכה מחשבתו ... וכן כל לשון ניחום שבמקרא לשון נמלך מה לעשות
A change of mind, of perspective... Every נחמה in the Torah means a consideration of what to do now.
To illustrate, in our world: COVID has presented us with unprecedented disruptions to our lives, our families, our school, shuls and Yiddishkeit. Attempting comfort mean trying to accept this new reality, and work within it. To let go of our previously held notions of the importance of community, of Tefillah B’Tzibur, of Talmud Torah B’Rabim, of welcoming guests, and visiting the sick.
But Nechama argues that we should be profoundly uncomfortable with this new reality. We should long for, work for, yearn for the return of events and gatherings that are so meaningful to our lives. And yet we must continue un-paralyzed to do the best we can with the state of the world in which we live.
As it pertains to the Churban and Tisha B’Av: The deepest tension in our lives must be to make our lives as elevated and perfected as possible and yet still never give up on the dream of Yerushalayim. To work on making our communities greater, and yet be ready leave it all in moment for the chance of Geulah.
Comfort heralds a mixture of resilience and acceptance. But at it’s core, comfort is about resignation. Nechama, on the other hand profoundly and boldly demands responsiveness and responsibility. Nechama asks us to live with the tension of doing our best in a broken world, while never capitulating to reality. Or in the words of Dylan Thomas, Nechama asks us to “Rage against the dying of the light.”
In a few days, we will celebrate the mysterious holiday of Tu B’av - the 15th day of the month of Av. There are many reasons for this holiday, but the most peculiar is the opinion of Rav Menasya (תענית לא,א׳), who explained: They called the fifteenth of Av the day of the “Breaking of the Axes”, as from this date onward no more trees were cut down for the Mizbeach (since it was the rainy season).
There are many questions to ask on this Gemara. Why is stopping to chop wood for the Mizbeach a cause for celebration? Furthermore why break the axes? And why celebrate the breaking?
To understand this enigma, consider the Medrash in Bereishis Rabba (5:10) telling us the story of the creation of steel:
When Hashem created steel, the trees began to tremble. Said the steel to them: "So long as none of you serve as my handle, no tree will be harmed."
The Maharal (Chidushei Agados Sanhedrin 39b) explains this Medrash:
כי רגיל הוא שפורענות יבא על האדם מצד עצמו - Most of the calamities that happen to a person, come as a result of themself.
Essentially, the Maharal is teaching us, there are only two ways to respond to challenges: Either we respond with resignation or responsibility. Either we see ourselves as the unfortunate tree that must contend with being chopped. Or as the wood that built our own axe. Are we trying to be comfortable, or achieve Nechama? Comfort numbs us; Nechama heightens our senses.
This decision effects every part of our lives, from our careers, to raising our children. From marriage to davening. From success to failure. This decision effects the way that we look at everything - is this failure a simply a challenge or a new reality? Is this year a speed bump or a road block on the way to Redemption?
Nechama doesn’t mean pretending everything is great. It means choosing to respond to everything with greatness.
Rav Kook writes in Oros HaTechiyah (פרק ה׳):
גדולים אנחנו וגדולות הנה משוגותינו ובשביל כך גדולות הן צרותינו, וגדולים גם תנחומותינו
We are so great and so great are our meshugasim (our mistakes). And because of this, our pain is great. And how great will be our Nechama.
If Hashem has given our generation a level of material comfort that humanity has never seen before, we dare not waste it on “making ourselves comfortable.” We should leave Tisha B’av with deep discomfort, but not despair. We should commit ourselves to changing our reality. That’s true meaning of Shabbos Nachamu. Be comforted with the knowledge that you can fix this. But please, never be comfortable.
There is a new marker of time in our home. My children call it BC - Before Corona. “Remember Before Corona when we went to shul?” “One time, Before Corona, when I went to my friend’s house...” “A long time ago, Before Corona when I was at school...”
It’s hard for adults. But for kids, it’s heartbreaking. What we would give to go back to normal again? Because this, whatever this is, is not normal. And now it’s slowly dawning on us that normal is far, far away. Whatever school will be this year, it won’t be normal. Whatever Shul will be for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur this year, it won’t be normal. Neither will malls, or vacations or travel. None of it will be like it was BC - Before Corona. None of it will be normal.
But what is normal? It’s a hard concept to pin down. Now they say we have a “new normal”. But how long until “new normal” is just “normal”. What’s the gestation for a “normal” until it’s no longer new? And is there any objective measure that makes last years normal more normal than now? Other than familiarity, of course?
I share these questions with you because this week, this Shabbos, we are in the darkest time of our year. These days from Rosh Chodesh Av until Tisha B’av are days set aside to consider what normal is really supposed to be. And how far we are from it. But the truth is, it’s been a few thousand years since anything was normal.
The story is told of Reb Menachel Nachum of Chernobyl, the Meor Einayim (1770-1837). During one of his many travels he once stayed at the inn of a simple Jew. As was his practice, Reb Nachum woke up every night at midnight to say Tikun Chatzos (the prayer to mourn for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash).
That night in the inn, far away from his family and community, Reb Nachum lost himself in words of the Tefillah and began to cry over the ongoing suffering of our people.
Hearing the crying, the inn-keeper, woke up and quickly ran to Rav Nachum’s room to see if everything was alright. “Rebbe, I heard you crying, is something wrong?” Rav Nachum responded, “I was crying over the destruction of the Temple.”
But the inn keeper, a simple man who was raised with little education asked: “Rebbe, I am not familiar with the Temple or its destruction.” Reb Nachum’s eyes lit up as he proceeded to explain to the inn-keeper about the Bais HaMikdash and what it meant to our people. He spoke about Yerushalayim, and David HaMelech, of prophecy and nationhood, of Moshiach and the yearning to return. And he when concluded his explanation, Reb Nachum turned and said, “My dear brother, don’t despair, Moshiach will come soon and we will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. But tell me when Moshiach comes, will you be ready to travel to the land of Israel?”
The inn-keeper, ever pragmatic, responded, “Rebbe, this is a very important question. I have to ask my wife.” So at 3am, the inn-keeper shook his wife awake and explained to her the conversation he had with their peculiar and saintly guest. He told her about the Beis HaMikdash and Israel and Moshiach, and that when he comes, please God soon, the Rabbi says we can go! For the very first time, this Jewish couple was talking about Jewish destiny and their place in it.
But a while later the inn-keeper returned to Rebbe and said: “Rebbe, my wife and I discussed your generous offer, and she makes a good point. We cannot go to the Land of Israel when Moshiach comes, because we have invested our whole life and livelihood in this inn. We have cows, chickens and horses and a host of responsibilities. What will be with them if we just get up and leave?”
The Rebbe would not relent. “My dear friend, he continued, “There is so much anti-Semitism, the Tartars, the Cossacks – every day there is someone else who wants to kill you. Forget about the animals and the inn and promise me that when Moshiach comes you will come with us to the Land of our Ancestors”.
The inn-keeper was all to familiar with Jew hatred and the Rebbe’s words washed over him like a splash of cold water. “Rebbe” he said, “I understand – let me go discuss it with my wife.”
The inn-keeper returned a few minutes later, “Rebbe we discussed it, and my wife has a fantastic idea. Listen to this,” he said excitedly. “When Moshiach comes, you can arrange for him to take the Tartars and Cossacks to the Land of Israel, and then we’ll be able to stay here in peace!”
Reb Nachum cried that night saying that the deepest devastation of exile is when we don’t even want to go home.
The Shela HaKadosh, Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz writes (סוף עשרת הדברות, מסכת סוכה, דרך חיים):
“I must tell you what burns deepest in my heart: When I see Jews building their exquisite houses and setting up a permanent home in this world, in a land of impurity. And of course, it is true, that the Talmud tells us that one day the homes of tzadikim will be lifted to Eretz Yisrael. But there are so many who are building here, wanting nothing more than to leave a legacy and inheritance for their descendants. It seems to me, God forbid, that they have forgotten the meaning of Redemption, they have forgotten the meaning of home.”
Home is Eretz Yisrael. Home is Yerushalayim. Home is Jewish Sovereignty, with peace and safety and security. Home is dignity. Home is prosperity. Home is the ability and desire to keep the Torah, to value the Torah, and to uphold the values of the Torah and never to be afraid.
This Shabbos, Moshe tells us: רב לכם שבת בהר הזה פנו וסעו לכם - It’s been long enough that you’re settled at this mountain. It’s time to move on.
The Kli Yakar explains:
הסבו פניכם אל הארץ וסעו לכם אל עצמות מקור שלכם כי משם נוצר חומר של אדה״ר כדרך שאמר לאברהם לך לך
Moshe is telling them... Turn your attention to the Land. To the essence of your source. From that soil Adam HaRishon was created. Like Hashem told Avraham: Go to yourself.
This year Hashem has flung us up into the air. And I don’t want to land where we started. I don’t want the new normal or the old normal. This week, this year, more than ever, I want to go home.
Jew hatred is on the rise in the USA. Or perhaps, it would be more correct to say that noticeable acts of Anti-semitism are on the rise. We all know that Jew hatred has never ceased. It has morphed and shifted and hidden behind various guises: Anti-Zionism, privilege, intersectionality, wokeness etc... And of course, when this Oldest Hate raises its ugly head, our job is to call it out for what it is. We need to take note, to raise our voices.
We are obligated to take a stand and call out the inconsistencies in our culture’s evaluation of Anti-Semitism: the only crime that cancel-culture seems to tolerate. We know the stakes are high, not just for us, but for American society in general. History has borne out a singular truth: Sanctioning Jew hatred has always lead to the moral decay of a nation.
And so we take to our keyboards, our phones and our feeds. We link and share and post and comment. Some of us, have the power of connections to people in positions of power. Some of us have media connections. But in reality, there is the nagging reality of a sense of hopelessness. We know that we are yelling into our own echo chambers with little effect on the views of general society.
How ironic that a people who allegedly control the world media, should struggle to educate this country about the worse calamity in our history. In January this year Pew Research found that: Fewer than half of Americans (43%), know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. And a similar share (45%) know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
So we put down our phones and dejectedly close our laptops. We wonder if and when something, anything will change. But at least we’re doing something about it? At least we’re making a noise, doing what we can, how ever small that might be? Right?
I don’t think so.
But before I say more, please,don’t misunderstand me. Anti-semitism is real and evil. And we must do everything in our power to raise awareness, provide education and ensure that our communities are protected. But fighting Jew hatred is not the primary Avoda of our generation.
The Maharal (נצח ישראל פרק יד) explains that all of Jewish history can be divided into two categories. Times when we are in control of our own destiny, and when we are subject to the control of others.
For many generations, we were not in control of our own destiny. Subjugated by the nations of the world, we fought valiantly to preserve Jewish lives and traditions with immense self sacrifice. And despite the countless casualties and tragedies, we have emerged victorious. The Avoda of a generation of subjugation is clear: Fight the Anti-Semites with all of our might; spiritually, physically and politically.
These were the generations of the Exodus from Egypt, of the Destruction of Yerushalayim. Those that fought to survive the Crusades, Tach V’Tat, the Inquisition, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. Their Avoda was fighting Anti-Semitism.
But this is not the Avoda of our generation. We are the generation that comes next: The generation that wandered the desert. Our food might not be provided from Heaven, our water may not be from a rock. But undeniably, we are living in a time of unprecedented prosperity - even with Coronavirus!
So what was the role of the generation of the Midbar? And what is our purpose?
The Ohr HaChaim (במדבר לג:א ועיין בספר ארץ צבי ע׳ קצב) explains: At each station in the Midbar there were internal challenges to overcome. Sure, there were still wars with Amalek, Sichon, Og, Moav and Midyan. But for the vast majority of the forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were working on themselves. They were refining their character traits; becoming better parents, better children, better spouses and better friends. As they travelled from place to place, new issues arose that required them to reign in their tempers, practice empathy and deepen their trust in Hashem.
The Gemara (ברכות י״ז א׳) tells us that after Rabbi Alexandri finished his Sh’moneh Esrei he would add a short Tefillah: “Master of the Universe, we want to do what You want us to do. So who is stopping us? The Yetzer Hara and the subjugation of the nations of the world. Please save us from them.”
That is to say: We face enemies from within ourselves and from without. It is tempting to pour our efforts into fighting Anti-semitism, but that’s the side-bar of our generation. The real work is fighting the enemies within.
The Magen Avraham (או״ח תכח ס״ק ח׳) writes that when we read the beginning of Parshas Masei in Shul, listing the forty-two camps in the desert, we should not break in the middle, but read them through. Why? These forty-two stations allude the forty-two letter name of Hashem. The Sifsei Tzadik of Piltz explains: The character refining challenges of the Midbar brought an immense light of Godliness into world. Each stop was necessary, and by reading them we can learn to traverse our own challenges as well.
This work is not only for those who are politically connected. It is not reserved for the financial elites, or those with powerful social networks. This is the Avoda of each and every one of us. If we want to see an end to Jew hatred, we should fix the brokenness in ourselves so that we can fix the brokenness in the world. And if the world is fixed, then redemption will come.
As Yirmiyahu (ד:א-ב פר׳ רש״י) says at the end of our Haftara:
If you return to Hashem, and if you rid yourself of your dirt, you will escape exile... Then the nations of the world will bless each other to be like you, and their greatest praise will be “to be like a Jew.”
The blogospheres are filled with doomsday predictions. American Judaism will not survive this pandemic. Institutions will shutter, bank accounts will run dry. Jewish education will flounder. I hear the concern. Our institutions are indeed in uncharted and precipitous territory. But Yiddishkeit itself can and will continue, because there is one tried and true way to ensure the survival of our communities. This epiphany struck me this past Tuesday morning as I strapped my five year old and two year into the car, getting ready for camp.
The two year looked at me and said “Abba, I can’t put my mask on.” “Don’t worry,” her already-masked-brother said, “I’ll help you put it on.” She sat still as he looped it over her ears. “Look Abba,” she said excitedly. “It has unicorns on it!”
Kudos to my wife for getting fun masks.
But fun masks aside, three weeks ago, this entire story would have sounded fantastical. Impossible. Ridiculous. Mask wearing is uncomfortable. And children are notorious for being annoying about uncomfortable things. But it’s not just my kids wearing masks. Pulling up to the car pool line at Camp Ruach, you will find child after child, backpack in tow, happily wearing their masks. Their teachers and counselors have affirmed the same thing. Overall, and against all prior intuition, kids are wearing masks.
And so I wonder: Why are all these children wearing their masks? Why are they not throwing tantrums and yelling about their discomfort? Why are they so amenable? Most importantly what can this teach us about education. I think their are four reasons.
1: The adults in their lives are wearing masks. This is easy and obvious. Parents, teachers and counselors are all wearing masks. Not all of them. Not all the time. But the culture around them is clearly mask-wearing. Kids absorb culture. Kids instinctively know what their parents think is important. Adults are the ones who define “normal” or “new normal” in the lives of our children. If mask wearing is modeled, then mask wearing is imitated. But many good things are modeled, and kids fight them. Why is this working?
2: Mask wearing expectations are clear and consistent; but encouraged with empathy. Our kids know: You get in the car, you put on your mask. It’s a routine, it’s an expectation. If you don’t have it, you can’t go to camp. There are no negotiations, no exceptions. But what happens if you forgot your mask? Don’t worry, we have a spare right over here. There’s no moral judgement for forgetting it. We’re not yelling at them for misplacing it. We’re all working towards ensuring that all kids are wearing masks as much as possible. This enables kids to meet expectations with confidence and not fear failure.
3: They know why they’re doing it. Or at least they know, the stakes are high. No, our kids do not have advanced knowledge of epidemiology. But they know that there’s something called Coronavirus that makes people sick. And that it kept them inside for longer than they want to remember. They know that the virus is invisible, and that people can give it to each other without knowing. And they know that masks help. That’s all they know. But it’s more than enough. Most importantly, they know that they don’t understand everything about it. But the stakes are high.
4: Finally; your mask is important. Our kids understand that nothing in the whole world can replace their mask. They know: If you don’t wear one, the whole system is a little bit worse, a little bit weaker. And since you care about other people, this is your way of showing your concern, so that they don’t get sick.
All of this adds to saying that our children have Emuna. They believe that there is a virus that they cannot see. They believe that wearing a mask is helpful. And they believe that their mask wearing is important. And all of this is true despite the discomfort and annoyance of wearing it!
Now, think of the challenges that we face in raising committed, connected, passionate Jewish children: “My son doesn’t want to put on his tzitzis/tefillin. My kids don’t want to wake up to daven on a Sunday. My daughter doesn’t want to wear skirts. My teens are obsessed with their phones. They don’t want to come to night seder. Do you want me to force them? That’s gonna make them hate Yiddishkeit! I want them to love Torah! I want them to be inspired!”
Ok I hear you. But let’s consider: What do the adults in their life do? Are the expectations clear? Are they communicated with empathy and patience or with judgement and frustration? Do our kids have any idea why Mitzvos are important? Do they know that their mitzvah is important for the Jewish people?
Note: None of this need to be 100% consistent (and that would be impossible). Nothing needs to be iron-clad. Sometimes even the best of role models mess up. Sometimes amazing teachers get frustrated and upset. Sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain the depths of reasoning of kashrus or tefillin or tzniyus. But my point is that in order for a this to work, you don’t need all of it all the time. Just most of it, most of the time. It doesn’t need to perfect. It needs to be real. And it doesn’t take that long to instill this basic Emuna! (So far, we’re only three weeks into camp, and they’ve got this down!)
So why don’t we treat Chinuch, Torah, Tefillah, Tzniyus etc... like mask wearing at camp?
I have a hunch. Perhaps it’s becuase mask wearing is new. We’re not coming at it with years of preprogrammed guilt and baggage and narishkeit, and weird voices of our own parents, teachers and rabbeim in our heads. We don’t feel guilty about the “not doing it when we were teenagers so how can I expect it of my kids...” We don’t rationalize “I figured it our when I was in college, so they will as well...” We know that it’s important, and that it’s difficult and uncomfortable. And we’re gonna do it.
Imagine if we treated Torah and Mitzvos that way. With that level of commitment, forgiveness and empathy. Then when we would speak about about inspiration, we’d be talking about infusing meaning into a world that exists, not simply willing something from nothing.
Perhaps another nation-wide shutdown is imminent. Perhaps our schools and shuls will close again. Perhaps some of our institutions will not survive this pandemic. But Yiddishkeit will survive if we let go of our own baggage and show our children how to take Judaism seriously, with love, empathy and responsibility.
On the 17th of Tamuz the Luchos were shattered. The letters flew upwards, and the tablets fell to the ground. If we want those letters back in our lives, then our job, right now, and always, is to hew new tablets of stone. That is to say: carve out rock solid commitments to the importance of Torah, Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael. And Hashem should inspire us, our children, and our communities with the letters of His Torah that once flew to the sky.
So goes the conversation almost every day: Rabbi, look. Seriously. Everyone is touching the same door handles. Breathing the same air. You think we’re six feet apart in the grocery store? They’re not taking temperatures there! And if you really care about the risk of coronavirus, why don’t you also tell elderly people to stay home during flu season? And we should shut the Shul for every health and mental health concern! Is alcoholism less of an issue? We should never have kiddush again? Why are we wearing masks in Shul? Why aren’t we insisting that people who come to Shul wear masks everywhere? If camps can open, then schools can open!
It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. And every single measure we take is completely and entirely fraught with inconsistency. But what COVID-19 has brought to light is that we so desperately strive for a consistent set of principles to govern our behavior. And when consistency is impossible, we find ourselves flailing, tensions rise, and all progress is halted by “what-aboutisms”.
Truthfully, of course, we Jews have never lived a consistent life. Since Adam and Eve, everything is colored with both good and evil. Nothing makes perfect sense, and nothing is perfectly consistent. Rav Blachman told us once in Yeshiva “If Judaism was all or nothing, we would not be wearing Yarmulkas on our heads.”
This is this challenge of the Parah Aduma. It’s inconsistent. It makes impure people pure, and pure people impure. It doesn’t fit a defined rubric. So, as Rashi tells us at the beginning of the Parsha: ”The Yetzer Hara and the Nations of the World mock us for observing Parah Aduma.”
We know this mockery all too well. It’s the constant beat down and demonization of Israel in the media: “They say they’re a democracy, but what about (fill in the blank).” And this is also the voice inside our heads that says “Why are you coming to minyan or shiur today? Why are you saying Tehillim today? Why are you eating healthy today? Why are you going to the gym today? You know it’s unsustainable! You know you can’t keep it up...”
But the Torah screams out: No! So what if it’s inconsistent? So what if it’s imperfect? So what if we’re not going to get it right every time? Does that mean we shouldn’t do the right thing now? The drive for consistency should never lead us down a road of paralyzed nihilism.
And this is Rashi’s answer: לפיכך כתב בה חוקה, גזירה היא מלפני אין לך רשות להרהר אחריה - This world of Parah Aduma, of inconsistency, it’s a Chok. We can’t logic your way around it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know the right thing to do now.
The Medrash Rabba begins it's discussion of our Parsha with this point; quoting the Pasuk in Iyyov: מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד - “Who can derive purity from impurity? No one!” No one can resolve the inconsistencies. No one except for “The Echad” - The Only One, Hashem.
But the Yid HaKadosh of Pshischa would explain even further, that in order to draw purity from the world of impurity, in order to defeat the Yetzer Hara of “perfection”, all you need is לא אחד - One good "No!"
To the voices that shut us down for being inconsistent, we need to echo one good “No!” No, it’s not perfect. But that’s ok. We’re doing our best. Or even if we’re not doing our best, a little is better than nothing. So put the mask on. Do a mitzvah. Learn a Daf. Get to the gym. Say a Perek of Tehillim. Eat a healthy lunch. Make that phone call.
Or in the words of G. K. Chesterton: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."
A number of decades ago there was a Jew who attended a Lubavitch Shul but lacked the respect for the Rebbe that you’d expect. His mockery of the Rebbe in Shul wasn't infrequent. But at a certain point it all stopped. The Rabbi, who was a Lubavitcher, took notice and inquired as to what propelled this welcome change of demeanor.
To this inquiry, the man opened up to the Rabbi and said "I must confide something to you. After a long period of time of floundering income, I felt compelled to reach out for assistance. Being that I still had my pride, I opted to submit an anonymous ad to a newspaper which simply said [in Yiddish]; "Jew Needs help, contact (xxx) xxx-xxxx". There was only a single response. It was the Rebbe's secretary who was calling upon the Rebbe's instructions to find out what my needs were".
This week (3 Tammuz) we commemorated the 26th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצוק״ל, who, perhaps more than any other person in recent memory, left a legacy of caring for every single Jew, and indeed, for every human being.
Of course, the Rebbe did not invent the notion of Ahavas Yisrael. The centrality of valuing each and every Jew is as old as Yiddishkeit itself. It is, after all, the כלל גדול בתורה - The great rule of the Torah.
And to this end, Korach’s argument is so compelling, as the Torah describes:
Korach and his followers assembled themselves together against Moshe and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much on yourself, All the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and Hashem is among them: why then raise yourselves up above the congregation of Hashem?”
Korach's claim is so Jewish. So central to who we are. Korach, and the Rebbe are completely correct. The entire nation is indeed transcendent. We do indeed have the present of Hashem in our midst.
Rav Kook in his 1906 Ma’amar HaDor explains that the immense Jewish proclivity for socialism, communism and liberalism stems from the great desire of a Jew to see a world in which every human being is regarded as valuable.
And yet, somehow, Korach was wrong. This great conundrum was expressed by the The Yismach Moshe, Reb Moshe Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Ujhely.
He was once learning with his grandson, the Yitav Lev, and said that he remembered being in the Midbar and witnessing the machlokes between Korach and Moshe. His grandson asked, somewhat audaciously, which side he was on.
The Rebbe replied that he didn’t take a side. He stood back and waited to see what would happen.
The Chassidim were shocked! Holy Rebbe! How could you not side with Moshe. The Rebbe responded: “You didn't know Korach. You don't understand how hard it was to not follow him.”
The Klausenberger would refer to Korach is the Heilige Zeida , the Holy Grandfather Korach. Because he stood for so much good. But all of this deepens the question: Why was he wrong?
To answer this question, Hashem proposes a demonstration: Tell each leader of each tribe to bring their staff to the Mishkan, and the true leader’s staff will blossom. This was not simply a exhibition of who the true leader should be. For that, Hashem could have issued any number of miracles, signs and wonders. This purpose of this event was to educate a rejection of Korach; and demonstrate his mistake.
Reb Leibele Eiger (תורת אמת ר׳ קרח) explains:
“The primary desire of Hashem in His world is the growth of goodness and blessing and peace. And from Korach, the opposite developed - animosity and dissent.“
Essentially, explains Reb Leibele: In the murky uncertainties of human emotions and egos it is close to impossible to know whether an idea, a philosophy or a theory is good or bad. Any statement can be spun. Everyone’s words can be twisted to support an agenda.
So how can we tell if we, or anyone else is doing right? The only tool we have is to look at how the seeds they are planting will grow. And sometimes this is really tough. Sometimes, it takes years or generations to see how a particular seed grows.
But most of the time, we know what we are sowing. We know if we're sowing compassion, empathy and respect. We also know when we're sowing discord and malevolence. Others might not, but if we're honest with ourselves, the truth of our words and actions are apparent to us the moment we ask ourselves: “What will come from this?” Or rather “What do we want to come from this?”
Korach knew that despite his posturing for equality, he was really trying to destroy Moshe and Aharon. His staff was one of brokenness, and loneliness and competition.
There is a tremendous Yetzer Hara to see life as a zero sum game. Meaning: "If they have it, then I don't." If I say “their lives matter” it means “my life doesn’t.” But it's not true of life, and it's not true of Yiddishkeit.
The Ropchitzer would explain that anger, jealously and frustration are manifestations of a lack of Emuna. If Hashem wants something to work out for us, it will. And if not, it won't. And just because someone else is experiencing hatzlocha, it doesn't mean that Hashem cannot give you the same hatzlocha.
Last summer, while Aliza and I were beginning our Avoda in weight loss, we ran into a couple that hadn't seen us in while. They looked at us, and were duly impressed. The wife then asked us: "Do you guys have some kind of competition going?" To which I answered: "No. We're just trying to be really supportive of each other." She turn to her husband and said: "That would never happen in our family."
And I'm still trying to understand why not? Why is it that we choose competition over encouragement? It's a simply ludicrous way to live. Sure, you feel like a million bucks when you one-up your wife or husband. And they feel like a looser. But now you're living with a person that feels like a looser, and they blame you! How is this helpful on a personal level? How is this helpful on a nation level?
And we do this to children and our parents and our business partners and our colleagues all the time. We think winning will make us feel better. But the fundamental misunderstanding is that we're in this together. So Korach's seeds are poison, if for no other reason, than he can't be happy for Moshe and Aharon. He thinks his success must be predicated on their failure.
The Torah is asking us to not just to evaluate our words. But our motivations. Not just our philosophy, but the way we express it. Hashem should help us to plant and cultivate seeds that will blossom into the world He wants us to build.
This Shabbos marks a momentous event in our community. We're returning to the Makom Kadosh - the transcendent space - of our Shul. Our tradition is replete with the significance of davening in shul and of davening with a minyan. And as I write this, anxious and excited, I cannot help but wonder why we are returning.
Of course, we would not be doing any of this without the advice and guidance of doctors and poskim. We could not do this without social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers. But Baruch HaShem we're doing it. Our return to shul, awkward as it is, will be a small measure of "returning to normal" in a world of uncertainty.
And that's my concern. I don't want to go back to normal. And if I may be so bold, I don't think that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to go back to normal either. Being honest, I'm worried that with the countless zooms, whatsapps, meetings, emails and sign-up-sheets, we have already forgotten why we want to come back to shul altogether.
Our parsha begins with the obligation of the Kohen to kindle the light of the Menora in the Mishkan. But Shlomo HaMelech writes in Mishlei (כ:כ״ז) that נר ה׳ נשמת אדם - Each of us possesses a soul, a candle of the Master of the Universe. Rebbe Nosson (ברכת השחר ה:ה) explains that the obligation of the Kohen to kindle that light every morning exists within each of us. We are supposed to be on fire for Torah and Tefillah. We are supposed to light up the darkness of bedrooms and boardrooms. We are supposed to bring the Light of Hashem into the world.
And we're supposed to do it together. That's called Tefillah B'zibur. And we have a headquarters for this universe-altering mission. That's a shul. (And of course, it's temporary, until we rebuilt our permanent home in Yerushalayim.)
I don't want to attend a shul where passion and excitement for collectively connecting with Hashem is replaced with "relief" and "normalcy." Important as our health guidelines are (and they really are!) this is all futile without deepening Ahavas Hashem and Yiras Shamyaim.
There's a story from over a century ago that highlights this concern:
New Yorkers might know about a small bridge that stretches between the Bronx and Manhattan. It is called the Spuyten Duyvel bridge. This bridge receives trains coming up from Westchester that cross it and ride down the Hudson to lower Manhattan. What is special about the bridge is that it is constantly opening and closing in order to allow ships, large and small, to circle Manhattan.
In 1904, a train was coming up from Westchester, wanting to cross the bridge. In those days, there would be a lantern swinger who stood at the bridge to let the train know if it could pass. When he heard the call of the train's whistle he would swing his lantern if the bridge was up. If the lantern was not swung, the conductor would understand that the bridge was down and safe for passage.
Early one Friday morning at about 3 a.m., a train crashed into the water. It was a serious accident, a great tragedy, and of course everyone wanted to know who was responsible. Suspicion naturally fell on the lantern swinger. After all, he was the one responsible for swinging his lantern if the bridge was up and could not be crossed. He, however, protested his innocence with such vigor that the case, which had in the meantime been brought to court, could not be decided.
After six months of hung juries, his lawyer in a dramatic break from courtroom practice at the time decided to call the lantern swinger to the stand.
"What is your name?" the bailiff asked. "Mr. Lantern Swinger," he responded with alacrity. "Where were you early on the Friday morning in question?" "At my post," he responded calmly. "Did you see the oncoming train?" "Yes I did." "Were you inebriated?""No sir, I never drink."
"Then tell the court what happened when you saw the oncoming train. Did you or didn't you swing your lantern?" A hush fell over the courtroom . . . Only the sound of baited breath and reporters' pencils were faintly heard. And strangely, strangely, the lantern swinger, who had been fully poised, began to stutter . . .
"Yyy . . . ye . . . yes. I d-d-d-did swing the lantern," he finally blurted out. Although the jury did not know what to make of his stutter, they believed him. He was acquitted. However, as the last person filed out of the courtroom, and the defense attorney was left alone with his client, he exploded.
"I've been defending you for six months!! I've worked day and night! I've barely seen my wife and kids. You told me you were innocent. Why the stutter of a guilty man?"
The lantern swinger looked sadly at his attorney. "You asked me the wrong question," he said. "You asked if I swung my lantern. You forgot to ask if the lantern was lit."
At its core, Yiddishkeit is a relationship, not a check list. We should not come to shul to swing a lantern. We should be there to kindle the flame.
Welcome back, and Good Shabbos
I was in the middle of second grade when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The decades of Apartheid were officially over. When we returned from winter break that year, our teacher announced that we had two new students joining the class. Two black students.
I had never spoken to a black person my own age. I can still recall the shock and awkwardness of these two kids being led into an all white public school classroom. One of them was seated right in front of me. I was mortified to be so close to a black child. I don't know why. He just seemed so different.
Later that day, I raised my hand and told the teacher that I was having trouble seeing the board. I remember thinking that this would work. But she was smarter than me. She rearranged the room so that I would be sitting in the front row of the classroom; sharing a desk with the black girl who joined our class that day.
It's taken me many years to decondition myself from growing up in a fundamentally racist society. In some ways, I wonder if I'll ever rid myself of this sickness entirely. No one told me to fear or hate black people. Yet the way that people speak and act influence the way that society thinks. And I was part of that society.
This idea is brilliantly and famously expressed by the Sefer HaChinuch: (מצוה טז) אחרי הפעולות נמשכות הלבבות - Our emotions are influenced by our actions. Reb Aharon of Karlin (בית אהרן ליקוטים פא) explained that this phenomenon is true even if our actions were forced. We have all observed and experienced how our habits and behaviors shape our perspectives. And the more we persevere in a particular habit, the deeper its underlying philosophy becomes a part of us. This is why Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave us so many mitzvos - רצה הקב"ה לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות. He wished to ensure that we became good people. So He gave us actions to do that would transform us from the narcissism of infancy to the transcendence of connecting to Him.
This week, in the final week of zoom-classes for the year, I discussed with my students the current events prevailing over the media and news feeds. It goes without saying that spilling the blood of Gorge Floyd was egregious and evil. Period. And we, Jews who are attempting to be Yarei Shamayim and Ohavei Hashem are left wondering what we are to do in our bubbles of life and in our sphere of influence. Is there even a concrete thing that we can do? I think there is. Specifically, it's changing the way we speak.
Most of the people I interact with are not overtly racist. Indeed, most of our community considers racism the depths of depravity. But even in our community, we are not immune. Consider for example the word shvartzer. It's a word with a long history of usage (which is not for now...). But however it was once used, practically today, the connotation of this word for most frum Jews is a sanitized, Yiddishized, surreptitious substitute for the N-word. It conjures and projects the same prejudices and disdain under the cover of unobtrusive frumkeit. And when our friends and neighbors and kids hear it, they translate it in their minds into the common parlance of the N-word.
It's not the only example. Sometimes we convey disdain through words, sometimes, tones of voice. Sometimes by omissions, and sometimes by comparisons. Sometimes, by turning to face away from another human being, or by turning up our noses towards them. (Rav Blachman told me that Rav Hutner said a person can commit murder simply by turning up their nose - it's a posuk in Vayechi: כי באפם הרגו איש.)
But the words and tones and facial expressions we use influence the way we think. The way we think influences the way we act. And our actions build or destroy the world around us.
As the news floods with more pain from people in the black community, I'm still trying hard to eradicate any smear of the irrational hatred of Apartheid South Africa. I'm trying to remember that the Ribono Shel Olam has brought each and every soul into this world with purpose. I hope that you'll join me.