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Making of a Sports Dynasty… and a Gadol Parshas Nasso

Mazel Tov to all Torontonians on the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA finals!

What’s amazing is that it’s not just Toronto celebrating the Raptors win. All of Canada thinks the Raptors play for them!

What’s ironic is that we are the same Canadians who get so upset when someone’s like, “Oh, you’re from Toronto, do you know the Goldberg’s from Vancouver?” which is the equivalent of asking someone from New York City if they know someone from LA. Canadians get all red in the face and – very politely – say, “No, I am sorrrry, they are two separate cities in different provinces, hundreds of kilometers apart.” But now, the entire Canada is celebrating because their team won. Imagine if every time New England wins a Super Bowl you all celebrate because an American team won!

And as all you real sports fans with real connections to a particular team know, there is nothing more irritating than bandwagon fans; the fans who only show up when all is well.

Today, I’d like to discuss a form of ‘bandwagonning’, not in regards to sports, but in regards to great Jewish leaders. You see, most of the biographies of our great Jewish leaders over the past few centuries are more hagiography than biography; they skip a lot, they gloss a lot, and ultimately paint a picture of perfection, of angelic perfection, no losses, only wins. And for some people, that’s great! These are our bandwagon fans – don’t bother me when they’re losing, wake me up when they’re in the finals. I’ll borrow a jersey and cheer along.

And for decades, this was the only thing available for people who wanted to know about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, the Chofetz Chaim; wins, wins, and more wins.

There were, on the opposite side of the spectrum, more so in academic circles, biographies written about some of these people, often written by people who were not observant lacking in certain sensitivities and understandings, some formerly observant with a chip on their shoulder, and these biographies tended to only focus on the losses, as if these great gedolim, these great leaders, never made it to the top and were just troubled, self-centered frauds. These are the opposite of the bandwagon fans, these are the anti-fans. They will not cheer anyone on. Ever.

And then, about two decades ago, a man by the name, Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky came along. He was part of a dynastic rabbinic family, he himself was a tremendous Torah scholar and teacher, sweet as honey, and a special soul.

(I remember once being at a Shabbat Chazzanut – in Israel, there are a lot of big fans of cantorial music, and they would rent out hotels and spend an entire Shabbos listening to cantorial music. Which is crazy. They would finish Shacharis at 11:30, take a break for lunch, and daven mussaf for another few hours. Needless to say, the people who come to these things love cantorial music! Unfortunately, they don’t usually love prayer, just the singing. It’s like going to the opera just you can’t sit with your wife. Most people there are listening like they’re at a concert. But I remember this one weekend, I was looking at the crowd and there was this one man there, he was listening, but he was davening, like really, really praying along. And afterwards I learned that this was Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky.) Special family, scholar, spiritual, and he decided to write a biography as a true fan. Not an anti-fan and not a bandwagon jumper. He decided to tell the whole story from the perspective of someone who had the utmost respect for the leaders of the Jewish People.

He spent years researching, documenting, corroborating, and finally a published a book titled, Making of a Gadol. It’s the story of how these great Jewish leaders people became gadol, how they became great. And it wasn’t always pretty. He described the rather steamy letters that one great Rosh Yeshuva had sent to his fiancée. He described anger management issues, struggles with depression, bad habits that couldn’t be kicked. I found the book to be so inspiring! And again, this wasn’t an anti-hero book. He was describing the truly human struggles that these people had, and how they ultimately became who they became! This was the ultimate fan book!

But not everyone thought so.

A firestorm erupted. His book was banned (which made its price sky-rocket), he was publicly humiliated, called all sorts of names, and became public enemy number one. He tried to republish his book in a way that would address some of the concerns brought up, but no. The public, or at the least the vocal public in his community did not cease to harass and lambast this great man.

This past week, Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky passed away. In reflecting on his life, I think he really exemplified what his book stood for. It was a book of struggles, it was a book of setbacks, it was a book of being patient with one’s self and with others, and ultimately succeeding. And that was the story of his life. Despite the horrible things that were said about him, he held his head up high. Despite the many people who failed him, he remained a loving and trusting person. Making of a Gadol, his book, made him into a gadol, made him into a hero.

And you and I know, and especially those of us who spent Shavuos studying the life of King David, that the Torah always paints the full picture; that the flaws of our great leaders are put on public display and we celebrate their imperfections, knowing that despite their shortcomings they became the great ones.

In our parsha, this point is highlighted and in some ways, taken even further. The heroes of this week’s Torah portion are a group known as the Nesiim, the princes. They are the ones given the great honor of inaugurating the newly constructed Mishkan with their personal gifts and sacrifices. But when we’re first introduced to them in the book of Shemos, Rashi, quoting a Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin, observes that their name, Nesiim, is spelled missing a letter, missing a Yud. The Talmud explains that the missing letter represents a flaw – that when Moshe invited the Jewish People to bring donations to the Mishkan, the Nesiim said the following: “Let everyone bring what they bring. We’ll take care of everything else.” They had assumed that there would be a tremendous shortfall. But they assumed wrong. And by the time the Nesiim woke up, there was almost nothing left; just a few stones for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. And in this reading, the word Nesiim alludes to a rather damning connotation; it speaks to their laziness and arrogance.

And yet, in another Talmudic passage, we are taught that that same word alludes to a great miracle that was performed on their behalf. The Gemara tells us that the word Nesiim has a second meaning, clouds. The Biblical term for clouds is nesiim. And the Talmud explains that a great miracle happened to these people – clouds drifted by and dropped off the precious stones for them. Special delivery! A miraculous intervention for people who are obviously deserving of it. And this is also learned from the word, Nesiim. So which one is it? Bad or good? Worthy of criticism or of Divine intervention?

Rav Tzadok Hakohen explains that the two are intertwined. It’s really one story. First the Nesiim failed. They fell short. They did not behave as they were supposed to. But then they had remorse. Then they learned from their mistakes, and they changed, and they grew, and they became worthy of divine intervention, they became worthy of a miracle. Their failings caused their greatness, their stumbling caused their ascent.

I think we all know this. I don’t think what I’m telling you is earth-shattering. But what I think we do not do enough of, is what Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky did, and that is to tell the story. Not about others, but about ourselves.

We all know we’re not perfect, we all know that we’ve failed time and time again. But how often do we share those stories? Not with the whole world, that’s weird. But with our spouses, our children, a close friend, and even ourselves. We bury those shameful stories, when in truth they are the most important ones. They are the ones that must be told.

Bruce Feiler, in his celebrated article, the Family Stories that Bind Us, describes a tool used by psychological researchers, called the Do you know Scale that has been used in researching children and resilience. “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

[In the first study using this tool, researchers] asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” (The Family Stories that Bind Us, New York Times)

After realizing this, the researchers dug even further and what they found is that there are different types of family narratives. “There is the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

But “The most healthful narrative… is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ” (The Family Stories that Bind Us, New York Times)

Today, many of you are celebrating the graduation of a child. That’s an incredible accomplishment. It’s an accomplishment for that particular child, an accomplishment for you, and an accomplishment for all those who came before this child. And I am confident that it wasn’t all peachy getting to this day. There were setbacks, there were close calls, there were dark days, months, and years, and there were many, many tears.

The greatest gift we can give our graduates and to our children is that story, is our story. To let them know what it took for you to bring them to where they are today, what it took your parents to bring you to where you are today, what it took your grandparents, etc. etc., going back as far as you can.

Thank G-d, we have been blessed as a people, to have true gedolim, truly great people. But they did not become that way overnight. As every true fan knows, no great sports dynasty was born overnight, nor any great person. They struggled, they fought, and often through that struggle they attained their greatness. Let’s share their stories, let’s share our stories, and may we merit, like them, to grow from their failings, and ultimately become gedolim and nesiim in our own right.

Thoughts and Prayers Parshas Behaalos’cha

A few weeks ago, we had a lecturer here talk about gun control and Jewish law. I do not plan on rehashing any of the arguments for or against – it’s a really loaded topic.

Pun intended.

I do want to talk about something that does come up in the context of gun control and specifically, lo aleinu, when Heaven forbid, there is a shooting, and someone says, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Corey Booker, most famously responded, “Thoughts and prayers are…” Connecticut Senator, Chris Murphy, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings framed it a little more eloquently, when he tweeted, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”

After the San Bernardino attacks, the New York Daily News, started a trending hashtag by headlining an article with the title, G-d isn’t fixing this, yet another dig at thoughts and prayers.

A thoughts and prayer meme that was circulated widely depicts a garbage truck in a landfill with “Thoughts and Prayers” written on the side. Another shows the empty back of a cargo truck with the words “Excellent News The First Shipment of Your Thoughts and Prayers Has Arrived.” (sources, https://arcdigital.media/thoughts-and-prayers-a-defense-53ad28e299b2)

All in all, “Thoughts and Prayers” has gotten a bad rap.

Again, I don’t want to talk about gun control, however, I do want to lament the fact that “thoughts and prayers” has gone from a sincere wish, to a cynical meme.

And let’s just clear the air before we go further – if you are able to do something and you don’t, and you just pray, that’s wrong, and that’s unethical. But if you are doing what you genuinely think is right, and you are doing all that you can in your position, and you want to tell someone that you care about them, that you’re thinking about them, it’s a sad day when we have to second-guess that. It’s sad that we live in such a cynical world that we assume people are disingenuous. And it’s sad that such a meaningful phrase has lost its luster. Personally, I find myself hesitating to use that phrase when I speak to people going through hard times. And I find that to be rather tragic. I find it tragic because I believe in prayer and I find it tragic because I believe that letting people know that you’re praying for them makes a difference.

At the end of this week’s Parsha, Miriam, Moshe’s sister, gets Tzaraas, leprosy, and Moshe, her brother prays for her wellbeing, for her to heal. It’s the shortest prayer in the Torah, and it goes like this, “Vayitzak Moshe el Hashem leimor, and Moshe cried out to G-d saying, Keil na, G-d please, r’fah na lah, heal her now.”

Rashi is troubled by the usage of the word, leimor, saying… Usually the word “saying” means the message is being passed on to others. For example, vayidaber… leimor, G-d spoke to Moshe with the intention that Moshe pass on the message to the Jewish People. But over here, Moshe is speaking to G-d, who is this message being repeated for?

Rashi gives an answer, but I’d like to suggest that while Moshe was speaking to G-d, perhaps leimor teaches us that his prayer was meant for a wider audience, and that he was somehow also letting Miriam know that he was praying for her.

And this would make a lot of sense because it’s actually Jewish Law to do so. When a person visits the sick, there is an obligation to pray for them while you’re still there in their presence. (So much so, that on Shabbos, the rabbis were concerned that if you pray for the sick in their presence, it may be too emotional, and inappropriate and incongruent to the spirit of Shabbos, so you have to actually apologize to the ill person and explain to them that you cannot pray because it’s Shabbos. This is where the phrase Shabbos hi milizok…that we say at the end of the Mishebeirach for the sick, actually comes from. What it means is that on Shabbos we are not allowed to cry out but don’t worry G-d will heal you. The implication is that every other day, we do pray in their presence.) One reason for praying in the sick person’s presence is that when facing an ill person, our kavannah, our intent is stronger. But another possible reason for doing so, is so that they know that you’re praying for them. That is part of the healing process. Moshe did not only pray for his sister, he let her know that he was doing so. “My thoughts and my prayers are with you, Miriam.” That message, in it of itself, is efficacious.

In March, Alex Trebek, the long-time host of Jeopardy, announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Days later, he thanked the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers who sent cards or emails wishing him well and praying for his health. Then two months later, he reported that his cancer was in near remission, something his doctors have never seen before, and he attributed it to those well-wishes. So much so, that some physicians have dubbed this the “Trebek effect” and have argued, based on a number of studies, that knowing that people care about you, knowing that people are wishing you well, actually makes a difference. Trebek’s chances of survival are still slim, but the prayers, from a purely psychological perspective, made a difference. A big one. (Rabbi Josh Flug) So yes, you should most definitely let people know that you’re praying for them.

This past week, this point was driven home to me in the most beautiful way possible. I attended a funeral for a woman I never met. Shira Perlman, a member of ours, lost her sister-in-law, Shira Saperstein, a young and clearly very special woman. One of the speakers was a rabbi from Silver Spring, Rabbi Rosenbaum. He was not the family’s rabbi, and I was wondering why he was speaking there. And he quickly explained. He said, he didn’t really know this couple very well at all, but one day, Perry Saperstein, the late Shira’s husband, approached the rabbi and said the following: “I understand that you don’t have any children. We also don’t have any children. The Talmud says, that when you pray for someone else for something that you yourself need, your prayers are more likely to be answered. So I’d like to propose the following: Me and my wife will pray for you, and if I could ask, that you do the same, and pray for us.”

Imagine a more-or-less complete stranger coming up to you and saying that. Rabbi Rosenbaum described himself being taken aback but also very moved and he accepted. A few years later, Rabbi Rosenbaum and his wife did indeed have a child and then another and then another. The Saperstein’s never did have biological children, but they did create the most powerful bond between the families, they created a sense of belonging, and a sense of comfort during the most trying of times.

So yes, there is tragedy in the world, and we must do whatever we can to change the wrong and evil that exists. But often times, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps we’ve done everything we can, and the situation is still broken. To distract people from their pain, to minimize their pain, none of that is helpful, and it’s downright wrong. But letting those suffering know that you’re thinking about them, that you’re praying for them, is not only effective spiritually, but gives people comfort in their time of existential loneliness. And if we can take it that step further and incorporate what the Saperstein’s taught us. To turn to people who are going through similar experiences as we are or have. I say similar because no two experiences are identical and it’s audacious and wrong to tell someone, I’ve been there, I am there, and I know. We never know.

But if instead, we can find people who are going through similar situations as we are, a loss of a job, childlessness, a divorce, loneliness, illness, you name it, and to tell them, “I cannot begin to understand what you’re going through, but I too am going through something similar. Let me pray for you, and please, can you pray for me.” The connection made, the sense of camaraderie formed, is immeasurable.

I believe, and I hope we all believe, be’emunah sheleima, with complete faith, in the efficacy of prayer. The primary goal of prayer is to connect us to our Creator. With “Our thoughts and prayers” we can also create a deep connection with those going through difficulties. May G-d hear all of our prayers, and may we use our prayers to let those suffering know that G-d, and we, are with them.