Rabbi Nachman of Breslov told the following story:
The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would became insane. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”
“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the not normal ones.
“Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”
The World of Galus
This perspective has, for the past two-thousand years, been the view of our nation in exile. There was once a time when the world was sane, when the Jewish people lived securely in our own land, when we were cultural leaders of the world. There was a time that Yerushalayim was the center of morality, ethics and law for the world - כי מציון תצא תורה - from Tzion came for the wellsprings of wisdom.
But then the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, our nation was sent into exile and the world became insane. Instead of looking at our people, the people of the book as a source of divine wisdom, moral understanding and compassion in the world, we began to be viewed as vermin, the embodiment of evil, emissaries of the Devil. This insanity became our new reality. The grain of the world became tainted with the poison of exile, with the sickness of anti-semitism.
And we Jews had only one choice. We ate from that same crop. We too became insane. From being princes of the universe, we became scum of the earth. Dirty Jew, they called us, greedy Jew. And slowly but surely we started to look at ourselves in the same light; desperate, lonely and sad. As time went on, we longed for the embrace of the nations of the world. Some of us gave up, some of us gave in. We took solace in the cries for "tolerance", the kindness of our saviors, the compassion of our protectors. All the while wondering how it could be that we became so needy.
But every now and then, we turned to each other, and noticed there was a sign on our forehead, our Yiddishe Kop, that reminded us that this was not the way it was meant to be. And so, in secret, the majesty of the Jewish people continued. It was found in the four amos of Halacha, in the great writings of Mikra, Mishna, Talmud and Agados. As Chazal said: מאן מלכי, רבנן - The place of kingship is with the sages. The sign on our heads reminded us that the we were the sane ones in a world that was growing increasingly more insane.
Every time a Jew was killed for being Jewish, every time a shul was desecrated, a city destroy, a cartload of books set aflame, we drew further inwards, trying desperately to hold onto sanity, remembering that the world is crazy. We looked to the signs on each others foreheads, and dreamed of a time that we could live beyond the insanity of a world where senseless murder is an even an option.
The World of Geulah
But Rebbi Nachman also told a different version of this story (שיח שרפי קודש (ברסלב) א-רעא):
In this version, it was the star gazer who suggested that they would have to eat from the tainted grain, but the king vehemently rejected this, saying that just because the whole world was crazy, they do not, and should not be crazy. And if they would appear to be crazy to the rest of the world, so what. That is no reason to eat the grain that makes people crazy. So they would prepare grain for themselves.
This version of the story has had far fewer adherents throughout our history. But in every generation there have been Jews that never gave up on their own majesty, and have insisted on the majesty of the Jewish people. There have always been those who subsisted on tiny amounts of grain from the ancient fields of Yerushalayim rather than eating from the tainted grain of the world. They reached deep into the store houses of the Beis HaMikdash Shel Maalah, and ate meager meals of Jewish pride.
For these brave souls, every single Jew has always been and will always be a בן/בת מלך - princes and princesses of the King of the Universe. We have never stopped being an אור לגוים - a shining light to the nations of the world.
For those that have never tasted those tainted grains, when faced with the horror, shock and pain of anti-semitism, they did not give up, they did not give in. They rallied around one central cry: We are not OK. This is not normal.
They gathered together and dreamed of, or rather, described and lived, a world where Jews were not simply safe from persecution, but beacons of hope and light for the world.
In their eyes, safety and security were tropes from the world of Galus, from a world where we are ashamed of our nation, our Torah and our God. In the world of majesty, safety and security are not granted by a benevolent host country, they are expected, assumed and obvious.
The Seeds of Geulah
For those who are wondering, where we can find some of these ancient grains, the field was planted in this week's parsha, when the Torah describes Yitzchak Avinu going into the field:
Chazal tell us that at this moment, Yitzchak instituted the Tefillah of Mincha. Indeed, the Gemara details how Avraham instituted Shachris, Yitzchak instituted Mincha, and Yaakov, Arvis.
In his beautiful Olam HaTefillot, Rabbi Eli Munk relates these three Tefillos to the lives of the Avos. Avraham lived during a time of great light; the dawn of Yiddishkeit. He experienced regular engagements with the Ribbono Shel Olam, and enjoyed success in every aspect of his life: וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל. Yaakov lived a very different life; a life of Galus. Aside from the years of his youth, he admits to Paroah that his life has been shorter and more bitter than the years of his predecessors.
But what of Yitzchak? Yitzchak lives a life that begins in the sunshine, and ends with the clouds of exile swirling around his head. It is in this life, not quite sunshine, not quite darkness that Yitzchak plants the seeds of Mincha. What is Tefillas Mincha?
Mincha is Yitzchak Avinu's insistence that we not eat from tainted grains, that we not accept the darkness of hatred, despair and subjugation. Yitzchak stands alone crying for us to abandon the madness.
The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas put it succinctly:
The Kedushas Levi explains: In times of great light, we praise God. That's called Shachris. In times of tragedy, we cry to Him, that's Maariv. But this tefillah, the cry of holding back the night, is called Mincha, a gift. It's the greatest thing we can give to Hashem.
Our gift to Hashem is our refusal to accept that we are anything less than royalty, despite what the world may say or do to us. Despite how they make us feel.
How Do We Know?
The question then arrises: How do we know if we have eaten from the tainted grains and gone mad, or if we are still sane? In a crazy world, there is only one acid test:
If, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, are we driven to point fingers, cast blame and spew hatred, then it is clear we have imbibed the same poison as those who wish to destroy us. We have accepted their madness that a Jew is not inherently beautiful, wonderful and amazing. We have chosen to believe that a Jew is only as good as how useful they are to me, my country, my Beis Medrash or my political party and agenda.
But if, instead, we cry: This is not normal, We are not OK!, then perhaps we retain a shred of sanity from the world of truth. If we are now inspired to gather together with Ahavas Yisrael, then we might still have a chance of shaking this malady.
We must ask ourselves: are we willing to see that the differences between right and left are only so stark if they are not hands connected to the same body?
Are we able to understand that the roots of anti-semitism were planted by Jews who sent us into exile because of Sinas Chinam? Do we realize that we are ones who taught our enemies how to hate a Jew?
Are we able to mourn the loss of eleven Jews who were murdered on Shabbos, in shul, not because "it could've been us," but because it is us? Because our world is broken. Because we don't feel like royalty when we keep mitzvos, because we don't treat each other as royalty when we disagree.
Where to Begin?
For those who fear that we too have been tainted by the madness of anti-semitism, we should begin with the advice of Rebbi Nachman - to find sanity by looking at each other. If we would look, really look, into the faces of our family, friends, neighbors, and rivals, would would see the beauty of the Jewish people.
But the challenge of restoring Jewish majesty does not stop at Ahavas Yisrael. We need to see ourselves as privileged to be Avdei Hashem. We need to daven loud and proud. To wear our Yiddishkeit proudly on our sleeves, and abandon the cynicism that often accompanies our shmiras hamitzvos. Most importantly, we need to see each other as partners; to encourage, assist and cheer each other on, as we grow in Torah and mitzvos.
This past shabbos, we in Boca lost a shining light of our community; a teacher of many of the kids in our shul, Mrs. Dannie Grajower. One of my students, a student of Mrs. Grajower wrote about his teacher:
If a mother of three, undergoing radiation could take the time to value each and every student, then I believe we too have a job to do. Eleven lights were extinguished last Shabbos in the broken of a world that doesn't understand the value of Jew, of a shul, of Torah and of a life. It is up to us to rekindle the light that was lost, by embodying the opposite: Treating each Jew as royalty, filling our shul with the sounds of davening and learning and abandoning the pettiness that keeps us apart. Perhaps then we will merit to live in a world of sanity.
Our Avoda This Elul
5778 - Re'eh - Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul
Our Avoda This 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."
What Not To Do
We might not feel the weight of that Elul, but we do need to feel something. To try something, to begin somewhere.
The Torah instructs us:
The meforshim grapple with this command: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God. What is it that we should not do?
The Baalei HaPeshat (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Seforno) explain: We should not emulate the ways of the idol worshipers. They have varied locations and avenues for their service, we have a central location. Our relationships with Hashem, (whilst unique to each person), coalesces into a larger national relationship: הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם.
Rabbeinu Bachya (כד הקמח בית הכנסת) writes that today we find this reality in shul:
Rashi, however, quotes Chazal, that this pasuk is one of the 613 mitzvos:
In the world of Halacha, their is a prohibition of treating the name of Hashem, and the Places dedicated to Him with disrespect.
Letters of the Scroll
This should be a good point of departure to talk about the respect that we should have for our shul, and our davening. But before we do so, there is an deeper level of understanding of this pasuk that unifies the pshat and the Halacha.
The Gemara (מ״ק כה א) tells us:
The Ritva (שם) questions : How can we compare every person to a Torah scroll? Of course, people that uphold the values of Torah contain within them parts of Torah, but what about people that are not engaged with Torah and mitzvos, are they also likened to a Sefer Torah?
He quotes from the Ramban (שער הגמול) that the Neshama of a person - every person - is likened to the names of Hashem that are inscribed in the Sefer Torah. That is to say, inside of each and every Jew is a Neshama. That Neshama is quite literally a "piece" of Hashem - a חלק אלוה ממעל. It's a name of Hashem.
The Imrei Emes (אמרי אמת ראה תרס"ח) thus explains: When the Pasuk tells us לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God, and when Rashi tells us "Don't erase the name of Hashem" the Torah is telling us not to erase the part of Hashem that is inside of each of us. But beyond that, the part of ourselves that we cannot ignore, erase or forget - that's the part that unites us in Avodas Hashem; in the Mikdash, and in the Mikdash Me'at.
You're the Tzadik
The Chiddushei Harim once noticed that a certain Chassid was staring through his window. He asked him "What are you doing?"
The chassid explained: Moshe begins his speech this shabbos with:
The Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh explains that by looking at Moshe, the face of a tzadik - they would receive Bracha.
The Chassid continues: I too would like to look at a tzadik!
The Chiddushei Harim replied: In that case, you should know that the pasuk tells us ועמך כולם צדיקים - we are all tzadikim. Perhaps you should find the tzadik within yourself and stare at him instead.
Conversations with the Tzadik
I would like, thus, to have a conversation with the tzadikim in our shul, which each one of us; the Neshamos of every person here. Our conversation today is between the deepest, most connected parts of ourselves. Because to have this conversation with only bodies and minds, could, Chalila, result in frustration or even insult.
Rav Kook (Olat Re'iyah I, p. 11) explains:
That is to say, at our core, everyone here wants to daven in the most real way.
If we address our need to daven purely as a bodily function, (which, of course it is as well,) to ensure that our physical needs are met, then davening is little more than a shopping list. "Hashem, I need health and wealth and lactose free milk and gluten free, sugar free cookies, and avocados..." Such requests are necessary, important, even, but that is not what our Neshamos crave.
If we address Tefillah from the perspective of our intellect, our obligations and Halacha, there too, we have a religious requirement to discharge the duties of Tefillah. So we can rattle off some words and be "Yotzei" - we can fulfill the technical obligation.
But ultimately, as everyone knows, what we really want and need is to have a moment of connection - d'veikus with Hashem. Moments to disconnect from the insanity of the world and login to the world of Avinu Av HaRachaman; to deepen our connection with the Ribono Shel Olam. To get to know Him, and ourselves.
With this understanding, talking to the deepest needs of our Neshamos, I want to address the concerns of a number of people in the past few months regarding our talking in shul.
I am always hesitant to bring this up, because I truly believe that talking in shul is reflective of our Ahavas Yisrael, the desire to connect to our friends. Of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to talk in shul, good reasons even. And I don't like to give mussar to the incredible chevra in our Kehillah.
But if we're honest, we all know that the reasons we have to talk in shul might good and acceptable for the body, perhaps we can rationalize them our minds. But our Neshamos are deeply in pain.
So I have some suggestions to make, but before that, the first thing we should all know, is that Hashem does not put us in boxes. For anyone who thinks "I'm a habitual talker, this is not for me,", I have good news! You're wrong. Elul is the time for Teshuva; if we want to be different, there is no reason not to.
The Torah tells us ועתה ישראל - and now, Jewish People... Reb Baruch of Mezhbizh would explain, that regardless of what we've done in the past, ועתה and now, ישראל, you can be a good Jew.
Making a Commitment
These are my suggestions:
The Tosfos Yom Tov instituted a מי שברך - A special tefillah for people who don't talk in shul, and we will be adding that Tefillah to our davening during Elul. Beginning now:
I wish to challenge each of us, this Elul, to treat our shul as a real Makom HaShechina. To ensure that this space enables that real and deeper connection with Hashem to shine. To know that we are truly amongst those who fulfill לשכנו תדרשו - we seek out space for Hashem in our lives, in our shul.
May we be zocheh to the words of the Medrash, as quoted in the אגרת הגר״א:
Trying to Repair a Fractured World
This past Thursday night, I stood in the middle of a crowd of over ten-thousand people; giving support, paying respects and sharing the pain of loosing 17 innocent people to a senseless act of murder and violence.
And as the sun set and the stars appeared, it dawned upon me that it was Chodesh Adar. The first night of the month of Adar, about which Halacha commands, we should increase our simcha. I thought about that line in Shulchan Aruch as I heard a father question whether he had said "I love you" to his daughter on Wednesday morning, the last time he saw her.
Ten thousand people held their breath as the senior class president of Stoneman Douglas high school read the names of the 17 people murdered.
I looked around me, as I was standing amongst the friends, classmates and students of the victims. With each name she read, more and more of the people around me, students, parents, and community members melted in tears, as the sound of sobbing overwhelmed the crowd.
This Thursday, February 15th, was also our daughter, Ayelet's 6th birthday.
Living in a world of contradictions
There's a feeling of sadness that is only matched by the feeling of helplessness. For me, this is compounded with the confusion of wanting to mourn on the hand, and wanting to celebrate on the other. Am I supposed to be happy today? It's Adar, it's Shabbos, my daughter turned six. And yet the horror of Wednesday seems to permeate the air.
One of my friends and colleagues related that saying Hallel this Rosh Chodesh Adar was more challenging than they could manage.
The Strength to Build a Mishkan, and a World
There is a famous machlokes, an argument, with regards to the building of the Mishkan. Rashi is of the opinion that the Torah portions are intentioned recorded out of their historical sequence. Meaning, that after the Torah was given, the Jewish people sinned by worshipping the Egel HaZahav. Only afterwards did Hashem command the building of the Mishkan.
The Ramban disagrees. He argues that the command to build the Mishkan came before the Golden Calf.
Both agree that the Mishkan was build after the Egel. They disagree on when the command was issued. But one wonders, what is this argument really about? What's the nekudas hamachlokes?
To understand this, we must understand, that the Mishkan was, of course, not an ordinary building. And thus the command to build it was asking a tremendous amount from Jewish people.
The Pasuk describes what the Mishkan was to be:
The Mishkan was a place, a space, in which Hashem's presence could be felt in the world. And through that experience, a person could bring Hashem into their lives, into their world. The Mishkan, and the Mikdash after it, epitomized the tefillah of לתקן עולם במלכות ש׳די - To fix the world with the Kingship of Hashem.
To accomplish such a feat, the Jewish nation would need nothing less than a Herculean devotion to realize this dream. Indeed, when Hashem instructs Moshe on the building, the Torah relates:
Rashi explains that this נדיבות לב - this selfless generosity is defined as רצון טוב - a will to do good. Such a powerful will for good that it has the capacity to bring Hashem into the world.
From Where is this Power Derived?
The Shem Mishmuel, Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Socatchov, explains (Terumah 5672) that there are two places from whence such a powerful will can be derived.
Either it comes from the great heights of Sinai, or the great tragedy of the Egel Hazahav.
One can draw immense strength from Matan Torah, from Chodesh Adar, from the milestones of our children's lives. We can build a Mishkan from the great moments of our history, as individuals and as a nation.
But there is another source of strength. One that is drawn from staring at the abyss of pain, and loneliness and failure, and terror. There's a Mishkan that we build from that place as well; when standing amongst thousands of people, and committing to building a better and safer world.
The Sfas Emes notes that the Mitzvah of happiness in Adar is conveyed in the strangest of ways in Shulchan Aruch:
He explains that real growth, connection to Hashem and living a fulfilled life, can be achieved through both simcha and pain. In Adar, we find Hashem in Simcha - we make the choice to live passionately, with gratitude and grace. But sometimes, we find Hashem in the pain of loss; in the recognition that the world is not perfect; that people are suffering and that we still have a long way to go.
Ultimately, we are building the same Mishkan. Just like we are obligated to find Hashem in joy, we find Him in tears.
Regardless of the Place
These two notions are so beautifully describes by David HaMelech in two of our best known Tehillim, 121 and 130:
And, of course:
Both of these, looking to the great mountains, and calling from the depths, are called שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֑וֹת - a song of Ascents.
Rav Hirsch (תהילים קכ א) explains that, of course, this refers to the singing of the Levi'im on steps of the Beis HaMikdash, but beyond that, these songs raise us to higher and higher heights.
May Hashem give us the strength to combine and channel the love, compassion and concern for the victims, with the simcha, passion and zeal that we have for Yiddishkeit. Perhaps, by drawing strength from both high and low, we will merit to rebuild the Mikdash, and see the fulfillment of the words of Yeshayahu (Perek 2):
The Elul Challenge
The Elul Challenge
5776 - Re’eh
ASPIRATION IN A WORLD OF DISTRACTION
INTRODUCING THE ELUL CHALLENGE
Rabbi Rael Blumenthal
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 in 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.”
Our world has moved a distance from those days. And with it, the notion of free time has become more and more elusive. We live in an ever more connected world. Emails expect answers, texts have read receipts, and cell phones have made us accessible at any moment, and in any place.
This has a clear and predictable outcome: we suffer not just from a lack of free time, but a serious lack of distraction free time. What is sometimes less obvious is the ramification of our constantly connected, plugged in and distracted lives.
Of course, there has been much research on the effects of technology in our lives, and there is yet much to uncover as the human race moves faster and further than ever before.
For example: A new study being published by the World Federation Of Societies of Anaesthesiologists (WFSA) claims that giving a child an iPad to use before surgery can be as relaxing as a sedative before administering the aesthetic.
But while researchers and scientists debate the psychology and science, there are palpable outcomes that we experience on a personal level, almost daily.
the mystery of yerushalayim
The Rambam (הל׳ בית הבחירה ב:ב) quoting Chazal describes the history and significance of the Mizbeach - the Alter - that stood on Har HaBayis. He writes that:
It is clear that we have a long history with that place. And yet when The Torah in our parsha describes the process of building the Beis HaMikdash it labels Yerushalayim in a most peculiar way:
The obvious question: Was it not chosen already? Perhaps it was not revealed yet - but it was most certainly chosen.1
The Malbim explains this future tense in context of the rest of the pasuk:
The essence of Yerushalayim is aspiration. Yerushalayim by its very definition is a place of the future, not the present. Indeed, the city was always intended to be a place of aspirations, of hopes and of dreams. Yaakov Avinu learns for 14 years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, but only dreams of that great ladder to Heaven, only aspires to ascend when he arrives in Yerushalayim.
Last year, just like Yaakov Avinu, we too left Neilah with dreams. We decended from that great hill top reinvigorated, inspired and driven. If Yom Kippur is Kodesh HaKodashim of the year, we’re now entering into Sha’arei Yerushalayim - the gates of Yerushalayim.2 Now, more than ever, Hashem invites to dream once again. What kind of people to we want to be? What kind of parent, child, student, teacher, wife and husband do we want to be? If last year we dreamed and failed, then this year we can dream and succeed.
The Chasam Sofer writes on the pasuk that:
distraction - enemy of aspiration
The challenge of course is in the follow through. In the ups and downs, the hustle and bustle of this year, many of those dreams are now on the back burner.
For most of us, The great enemy of dreams and aspiration is not failure, lack of ability or even demotivation. The real dream killer is distraction.
This is the most devastating effect of our constantly connected world. We no longer have moments to dream or to aspire; our minds are flooded with clicks baits, and clips, picture and gifs. Technology is getter smarter: We now get suggestions of future distractions based on our current distractions.
If that grandmother would witness our generation, she we see us walking around with entire libraries in our pockets; the sum total of all human knowledge accessible in seconds. And we use it to play angry birds, watch videos of cats and speak lashon hara. Think of the dream we could chase instead!
Technology has given us access to all the knowledge in the world, and sapped away our ability to appreciate it.
the elul challenge
Last year I asked a class of tired students how many of them go to sleep with their iPads or phones. Every hand went up.
So this summer, I tried an experiment. After reading article after article decrying my own bed time and sleep habits, I decided to take the plunge and move my phone charger away from my bed, and out of the bedroom.
Research has shown over and over again how devastating screen time is before sleep. From lowering the quality and quantity of sleep, to increased anxiety in the morning, it is clear that a bedroom is no place for technology. Within a week, I noticed real changes my focus, alertness, positivity and motivation.
So here is my challenge for us, as a kehilla. Banish technology from the beginning and end of our days. Just for a few moments. Moments to sleep like a mensch, and wake up like a mensch.
As a community, let’s take those precious minutes at the beginning and end of every day to introspect, reflect, and dream. To deepen relationship with our spouses and with Hashem. This in and of itself will be life changing. But we can do even more.
Replacing the nightly ritual of clicking, liking and tagging, catching up on news, weather and sports, we could say Shema with a little focus. Replacing the morning ritual of anxious email, Modeh Ani - a moment of gratitude. All in all, this might change no more than a few minutes each day - but the effects will jettison us further and higher than we could ever imagine.
As Robert Browning once said:
September 05, 2016 at 04:58PM
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5776 - Devarim - Shabbos Chazon
A number of months ago, I was learning Mesheches Megillah with my students at Yeshiva High School. We were discussing the halacha of when to read the Megillah if you’re traveling between Yerushalaim - a walled city - and anywhere else - unwalled cities. We explored various scenarios, iterations of cases and I tasked my students with extrapolating the law in each case.
At one point, a student raised their hand and asked: “What happens if you don’t read the Megillah?” “I don’t know,” I responded. “I guess you didn’t do a mitzvah. I don’t know how Hashem deals with that.” They replied, “No, that’s not what I meant. I want to know, if I miss the Megillah - I didn’t hear it all of Purim - is there a make up date? Is there anyway to fix it?”
The answer of course is no. Amongst the harshest realities of our existence, in almost every aspect of our lives, we don’t get do-overs. The Baal Hatanya in his Igeres HaTeshuva (פרק א׳) writes that one can never fully atone for not performing a positive mitzvah, much like one can never catch a bus that they missed. You can always get another bus, but that first opportunity is lost forever.
As the American author Kurt Vonnegut once said:
Missed Opportunities in Jewish History:
The tragedy of missed opportunities is intensified and compounded when their is so much greatness latent in the moment that is missed. These days are commemorated in our calendar, at this time of year.
The day we call the 17th of Tammuz was the day that the Roman legion breached the walls of Yerushalayim, signaling the beginning of the end for the Jewish Capital. Yet our sages tell us that the tragedy of the day began many centuries earlier:
When the Jewish people were getting ready to build the golden calf, Aharon HaKohen tried to delay them. As the calf was completed, he stalled the people saying “חג לה׳ מחר” - Tomorrow will be a festival for Hashem. Seemingly, his hope was to delay so that Moshe would return in time, and the festival for the calf would be cancelled.
The Ari HaKadosh, the great 16th century Kabbalist, writes (ליקוטי תורה כי תשא ד״ה ויאמר חג) that:
The same, of course is true of Tisha Be’av. Chazal tell us (תענית כ״ו ב) that the first calamity that befell the Jewish nation on Tisha Be’av was also wrought by our own hands. It was not the destruction of the Second Temple, or even the First, but rather that Tisha Be’av was the day the spies returned.
On that day a the Jewish people decided not to enter the land. It was supposed to be the day of national Aliyah. Nefesh b’Nefesh Day. People should have been packing their bags, with Moshe Rabbeinu at the helm; ready to inherit the land that Hashem had promised to Avraham. But we missed that opportunity to make the day great.
Indeed, Eicha refers to Tisha Be’av as a Moed - a festival. In context of the passuk, it means a time appointed for the destruction of Yerushalayim, and yet our sages use this verse as a source not to say Tachanun on Tisha Be’av. It sounds almost humorous, but the depths of this truth are astounding. Tisha Be’av should have been a Moed - a Yom Tov.
Missed Opportunities in our lives:
All too often we live our lives procrastinating important activities and decisions. Wasting hours, failing to harness great moments, not taking advantage of that which is in front of our eyes. This is the real Churban. The Gemara (סנהדרין צו עמוד ב) teaches us that when the Babylonians set fire to the First Temple, a voice rang out from heaven: “You’re burning a burnt house!” A Beis HaMikdash that no one cared for is burned already. A squandered opportunity.
There’s a peculiar halacha in Hilchos Tisha Be’av that captures this idea perfectly. The Shulchan Aruch writes (או״ח תקנא ס׳ ט) that during the month of Av we do not get married. Ashkenazi practice is to begin this period from the 17th of Tammuz. Marriage is an expression of Simcha, and this not the time. Nevertheless, the Shulchan Aruch continues
The Shulchan Aruch is saying, you’re allowed to get engaged on Tisha Be’av, because if you don’t you might lose out on that opportunity. Perhaps this teaches that if Tisha Be’av is the day that we mourn lost opportunities, it cannot be commemorated with the same flawed behavior. We must ensure we don’t make the mistake again.
This is one Avoda of this time period - valuing our opportunities, with gratitude and alacrity ensuring that we don’t repeat the mistakes of history. But is no way to fix the world we’re in now? And if so, how?
Rav Kook’s Tikkun (מועדי הראי״ה ע׳ תקלו):
From a young age, Rav Kook, later to become the first chief Rabbi of Palestine, would close his Gemara around midnight, throughout the three weeks. He would sit on the floor, and say the tikkun chatzos - The midnight memorial for the Beis HaMikdash. And he would cry. His chavrusa recalled later, that Rav Kook would cry inconsolably, and genuinely, until one night that friend mustered up the courage to ask him how it is that he cries so much. “I too love Eretz Yisrael, and Yerushalayim, and I too wait for Mashiach”, he said “but neither myself not my father nor my grandfather cry as you cry. Why?”
Rav Kook answered: “Because while you, your father, and grandfather are all talmidei chachamim, I am a Kohen. I miss the Beis HaMikdash.”
Perhaps that’s what Rav Nachman M’Breslov means when he writes that the word קינות - Lamentations and crying, is the same letters as תיקון - Fixing. We’re fixing the world by realizing and understanding what we’re missing, for in that we ensure we don’t squander these opportunities any longer. The mourning of Tisha Be’av tonight is our promise that we will not take Yerushalayim for granted. And as we make our commitments, Hashem makes his:
He promises that He will one day fix these days as the Navi Zechariah (זכריה ח,יט) says:
This doesn’t just mean we won’t fast any longer - it means that Hashem will somehow allow us to capture the essence of these days. To reinstate them as they should be.
If it is to be that we mourn Tisha Be’av this year, then we take it upon ourselves to ensure that it will be the last such Tisha Be’av. We take upon ourselves to harness the potential of this day and everyday, with the confidence that the Almighty will do his share. May we see it soon, speedily in our days.
Many of us have heard of the Shabbos Shouters. Young men who stand on Israeli Streets, shouting “SHABBOS!” at passing cars. In the worst of instances, there have been those who have thrown stones.
Obviously, this is not the conduct of Talmidei Chachamim. Aside from being rude, it’s not effective. Such protesting will not make someone pull over and walk. At best, it might make driving through certain areas unappealing. Perhaps thats the goal. But this runs the obvious risk of further distancing Jews from one another. In short, it’s a bad idea.
Thus is was surprising when the students of the Brisker Rov heard their famed teacher quietly protesting “SHABBOS” as a car drove by one Shabbos morning. And it was an ambulance.
“Rebbe” they wondered, “What good will it do? And the ambulance is allowed to drive on Shabbos. We all know that saving a life takes precedence!”
“Yes” replied the Brisker Rov, “You are correct. But I didn’t want Shabbos to become any less important in my mind. So I protested to myself.”
In that spirit, this is a protest. A protest that might not teach any new values but it must have an effect. Not on others, but on ourselves.
The value we are protesting, is in defense of the sanctity of human life.
A week ago the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed the critically endangered silverback gorilla Harambe after a small boy fell into his enclosure. Then came the outrage, and the myriad of questions. Animal behavior experts argued the gorilla didn’t have to die. People questioned why not use a tranquilizer dart? Some animal rights activists looked at this incident as a prime example of why zoos shouldn’t exist in the first place. Online onlookers unleashed anger at the boy’s parents for not keeping a closer eye on him; questioning their competence as parents. Fingers were pointed at the zoo. How could anyone build an enclosure that a child could get into? Twitter lit up with the hashtag #JusticeForHarambe.
Make no mistake. We, as Jews, and as people have an obligation this planet and it’s inhabitants, as both caretakers and cultivators. This charge was handed down from God to Adam when He invested mankind with the duty לעבדה ולשמרה - To work and to guard. When an animal becomes extinct due to greed and negligence, we must bear a level of responsibility.
But this was not the case in the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Torah instructs us, that beyond all other obligations, there is a mitzvah to preserve life. Of all the 613 mitzvos, we transgress all but three to preserve a life. With the three exceptions being Idol Worship - abandonment of God, Murder - the destruction of another person, and Sexual Immorality - the destruction of personal morality and interpersonal relationships.
For all the rest, Shabbos, Kashrus, Yom Kippur, Pesach - We invoke וחי בהם - You should live by them.
It’s so painfully obvious to even say it, but yes, any question; even a question of a question when a child’s life is in danger? The life of a child is more important that the gorilla. Period. There is no room to debate; this is our most formative value. The sanctity of life.
The Shulchan Aruch, OC, 328:2 rules:
מי שיש לו חולי של סכנה מצוה לחלל עליו את השבת והזריז הרי זה משובח והשואל הרי זה שופך דמים:
One who is deathly ill, or in grave danger, one is obligated to transgress Shabbos for them.
One who expedient in doing so is praiseworthy, and one who stops to ask has spilled blood.
Such is the understanding of Halacha. Questioning and failing to act immediately in a potentially life threatening situation deems a person “one who spilled blood.”
This Shabbos, however, I also shared the comment of the Mishna Berura there, who explains:
ובירושלמי איתא הנשאל הרי זה מגונה פי’ משום שהתלמיד חכם במקומו היה לו לדרוש בפרקא לכל כדי שידעו כל העם ולא יצטרכו לשאלו
(Paraphrasing) The text from the Yerushalmi places blame, not on the questioner, by on the one who is asked the question. Meaning the Rabbi. It is the Rabbi’s sacred duty to educate to all that Life takes precedence over Shabbos.
Indeed, the Rebbe of Izbica, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner in the Mei HaShiloach teaches that this is the lesson of the obscure mitzvah of Erchin.
We read of the tragedies that will befall the Jewish people. Every curse and calamity that we might suffer; that we have suffered, and when it’s all done the Torah teaches us about Erchin.
It’s the service by which a person donates their own value, their fields, or animals to the Beis HaMikdash. Says the Mei HaShiloach, this is to teach that no matter what happens we never lose our intrinsic worth. That each person is inherently valuable.
We pray for a time when such decisions need not be made, and the wisdom choose correctly until that time comes.
At 4:16pm on May 14th, 1948, in the Tel Aviv Museum, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman got up from sitting next David Ben Gurion to say the bracha of Shehechiyanu. Arguably, the greatest Shehechiyanu heard in 2000 years. In that moment, Rabbi Fishman realized the dream of a return to our homeland of generations.
But Rabbi Fishman’s presence there should not be taken for granted, and his private purpose for being there, was not at all obvious to the hundreds in attendance that day.
In the weeks leading up to the end of the British Mandate, Jerusalem was under siege, no one could get in, and no one could leave. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman was one of the fortunate few to be invited to the declaration, but feared he would not be able to attend due to the impossibility of getting from Yerushalayim to Tel Aviv under siege.
Despite Ben Grunion’s intentions to keep the meeting and times for the declaration a secret, it soon became public knowledge, that the State was to be Declared on Erev Shabbos, May 14th, 1948. To that end, Rabbi Fishman was approached by a pilot of a two man plane, who offered to fly the Rabbi from Yerushalyim to Tel Aviv. The Rabbi hesitated. Not from the obvious danger of Jordanian bullets, but because his leg was broken and in a full cast, and he feared he would not be able to get into the tiny two seater plane.
But with the stakes so high, and with the help of some friends, Rabbi Fishman was loaded into the passenger seat of the tiny plane, while his broken leg was strapped on to the side, and left dangling outside the plane.
Reb Dovid Kav, one of the senior Rabbeim in KBY, who lived in Yerushalayim at the time told us the story of Rabbi Fishman flying over the city, with his leg out the door.
But his journey was not simply to say Shehechiyanu at this momentum occasion. He arrived with the intention of ensuring that Hashem’s name would appear in the Declaration of Israeli Independence.
In the days preceding Yom Haatzmaut, the members of the Moetzet Ha’am - the national advisory council debated including the line:
Rabbi Fishman argued that the Megilat Haatzmaut could not possibly be complete without mention of God’s name, while members of the secular Zioist parties disagreed.
Finally, at 3pm, just one hour before the State was declared, it was decided that the phrase would read:
We as religious Jews know that as a reference to God, while the secular camp would interpret it as they wished - a reference to the Land.
But Rabbi Fishman would not relent. When signing the Declaration, just before his name, he wrote the letters: בעז׳ ה׳: or בעזרת ה׳ With the Help of God. Thus ensuring that the momentum document itself would bear clear reference to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
This decades old debate still rages. It rages over busses, and flights, and public funds and services in Israel. It rages in fights over army service, tax breaks and government subsidies. The question of whether or not we include Hashem in the State of Israel is one that we cannot ignore. Factions on the Left as well as the Right, the religious and the secular, debate these issues hotly on a daily basis.
But the debate does not rage in the State of Israel alone. It rages daily in the hearts and minds of Jews worldwide. More importantly, it rages in our own hearts and our minds everyday. And the question is simple:
How much is God included in our day-to-day lives? Is Hashem a part of our daily Declaration?
Is Hashem’s presence felt in our cars, and commutes? Do we include Him in our daily decisions? In running our own lives, do we put the little בעזרת ה׳ before going work, going to the gym or going out for lunch?
The State of Israel today is a reflection of us, and we of it.
In our own way, we too struggle with framing our lives as Avdei Hashem, we, like Yerushalayim, are under siege from western culture, and our lives are so often so broken we don’t know where or how to go. But the question is obvious. Are we willing to put that little בעזרת ה׳ next to our lives?
This notion is the charge and challenge of Kedoshim Tihyu. As the Ramban famously comments in this weeks parsha, קדש עצמך במותר לך - We are commanded to increase our kedusha in the parts of our lives that the Torah does not comment on. It’s not just about what we eat, what we say, what we do, but how we eat, speak and behave. Are our lives stamped with the בעזרת ה׳ - With Hashem’s help. Are we inviting Hashem into our world, or leaving Him in shul as we rush out to Kiddush?
But it’s hard. Living a committed life is challenging, and it’s oblivious that there are set backs. We’ve all faced them. But conquering is not the point:
And this is the secret of Sefiras HaOmer. We left Mitzrayim behind us, and we’re on our way to Matan Torah.
The Holy Aish Kodesh writes in his sefer Tzav V’ziruz that for a Jew to know they are growing is to know what challenge they’re working on right now. Where’s the place in our lives that we’re looking to put the ב״ה? Where are we striving, yearning and pushing ourselves? Which tefillah, or mitzvah or middah or sugya are we trying to grow in? It’s not about results, it’s about embracing the challenge of kedoshim tihyu.
Ultimately, the Avoda of Sefiras HaOmer, the challenge of Kedoshim Tihyu, and of course, the way to bring our beloved State of Israel to a place that reflects our ideology, history and future, is all the same.
We need to muster up the courage, strap our broken legs into a two seater plane, and plant that בעזרת השם all over our lives. One day at a time.
* Rabbi Fishman's signature is the second from the bottom in the second column.
Rabbi Rael Blumenthal is the Rabbi of BRS West, as well as a Rebbe at the Yeshiva High School of Boca Raton.