On September 29th, President Trump retweeted the following: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office, it will cause a Civil War-like fracture… from which our country will never heal.”
The December edition of the Atlantic was titled, How to Stop a Civil War, and it included articles like, A Nation Coming Apart, and How America Ends.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled, In a Polarized Era, Will Impeachment Become a New Normal?
Whatever this new normal is, it’s not looking pretty.
Just about four years ago, right around Purim time, I gave a sermon – which was more of a spoof than sermon – on the presidential candidates. I made fun of Bernie, and Trump, and Hilary, and Chris Christie. And we all laughed, Republicans and Democrats alike. But to do so this year? I wouldn’t dare. The political climate has reached a boiling point. Impeachment is the new normal and invoking the civil war is the go-to historical context. Forget there being no place for humor, more and more it seems like there’s no place for civility.
I don’t care to talk today about politics. I, like so many of you, am just sick and tired of it all. I would like to speak about civility, about community, and what it means to be a kehillah.
As a people, the Jewish People, we have a long history of real and actual civil wars; infighting is nothing new. Whether it was Yosef being thrown in a pit and sold as a slave by his brothers which we read about today, whether it was the tribe of Binyamin being nearly decimated by the eleven tribes in the book of Shoftim, or whether it was the split between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel, we are no strangers to civil war.
As opposed to the American Civil War, none of these wars ended well. They were disasters without a happy ending. Nobody won.
Interestingly, each one of these Jewish civil wars pitted the children of Leah against the children of Rachel. Because of that, those more mystically inclined see these fights as not only a struggle for dominion, but as a conflict of ideas. The children of Rachel having one perspective on how to live life, how to be a Jew and the children of Leah have another. In this approach, the Jewish People fail to see how these two perspectives, how these two ways of life, though they do not need to be reconciled, the Jewish People do need to learn how to live in harmony – something they fail to do time and time again. And so, Yosef ends up in Egypt, the tribe of Binyamin is left with a handful of survivors, and the Jewish People split in to two weak kingdoms paving the way for their ultimate exile and destruction.
The Messianic vision is one of Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben Dovid, of a savior from Rachel and a savior from Leah. It’s a vision of a redemption that comes about when we recognize the leadership of both families; a recognition that we can live in harmony even if we do not all agree.
And in that light, I would like to say that this shul, Ner Tamid, is mei’ein olam habbah, it is otherworldly, and Messianic (not in that sense!). It is truly one of the few places in the world where you have such a broad cross-section of people in one room, one minyan, one shul.
Forget Judaism for a second, what other venue do you go to, concert, Broadway, event, lecture, activity, that has a cross-section like this? Aside from the growing political divide, we have spoken in the past about the great age-divide in the world; how people born in different decades cannot see eye to eye with one another anymore.
In this room, we have strong representation of every age group. In this room, we have strong representation of every political view – make that very strong representation! As the Baltimore Jewish community has grown, like any community that grows, what typically happens is minyanim break away to accommodate every nuanced difference. You have the minyan that wants to start early and go quickly. The minyan that wants to start early and go slowly. You have the minyan for people middle-aged people, for young people, for old people. The minyan for those with five children, another minyan for those with three children. You know what I mean? Every few months there’s talk of a new minyan to accommodate a slightly nuanced difference of opinion or lifestyle.
And in this room, in this shul, we have bucked the trend. We had two minyanim on Rosh Hashana/ Yom Kippur, and they merged together. We had two minyanim on Shabbos, and they merged together. It wasn’t a walk in the park, it took concessions, it took hard work, but it happened. And it’s something we should be incredibly proud of. This is a rarity, it’s called community.
I believe a healthy question that every human being should ask themselves from time to time is why do I exist. What am I doing here? How am I contributing to the world in a meaningful way? Because if I’m just taking up space and resources, that’s sad.
It’s a question we need to ask, not only as individuals, but one I hope that every new shul/ school/ organizations ask themselves before they get started and one that every shul/ school/ organization has to ask themselves form time; what is our raison d’etre? What is our justification to be here? Are we contributing or taking?
And to me, the answer for us is – community. Ner Tamid is a breath of fresh air not only in the Jewish community but in the world at large.
At a time when the word ‘civil war’ is thrown around like it’s a football, in a world where impeachment is the new normal, in a world where families cannot talk to one another, we have our shul with all its glorious diversity.
It’s beautiful, it’s refreshing, and it’s truly magnificent. But when you’re swimming upstream it takes work. When you’re bucking the trend of the community around you, the country at-large, and perhaps even the world, it takes a lot of effort. It does not happen on its own. It’s something we need to be conscientious of and invest in.
- It means going out of your way to say hello and Good Shabbos to people you’re not naturally connected to. That small human contact, that gesture of recognition goes an incredibly long way in ensuring that we remain one.
- It means discussing things with civility. We don’t need to agree with one another about politics, about programming, about the direction of our shul. But we do need to have those conversations with the recognition that there is more than one legitimate way to look at things.
- It means giving people the benefit of the doubt. Not demonizing a group of people that are different than us. Trying to remind ourselves that no one is maliciously trying to be rude or exclude. Remembering that we’re all carrying our own peckele, our own hardships and sometimes it spills through in an unflattering time and place.
- And lastly, it means not generalizing, not stereotyping. Not assuming that every Democrat or Republican is the same, not every young person or old person is the same, and seeing one another as individuals, as precious individuals who make up this special community.
We have a good thing going for us, a beautiful thing going for us. Communities likes these are quaint, they are old-fashioned – and they’re also futuristic, they’re Messianic. This is our raison d’etre, the reason we exist. And it takes work to live up to one’s potential.
There’s one more civil war that I’d like to talk about and that is Chanukah. Like the uncle who tells the kids that Santa Claus isn’t real, I’m about to ruin your Chanukah. You see, Chanukah was not a battle between Jews and Greeks. It was – but not entirely. It was really a fight between Jew and Jew.
Judea was under Greek rule of the Seleucid empire. The Jews living in the region had adopted many of the Greek ways of life. It was a mixed marriage of sorts and it was working. There are beautiful elements to Greek culture that the Jews, even the religious Jews in the region, were comfortable assimilating into their way of life. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes v’yishkon b’ohalei Shem” Noach prophetically envisions a world in which the beauty of Greece finds its place in the tents of the Jewish People.
However, there were some Jews who wanted more Athens and less Jerusalem. These Hellenized Jews wanted more gymnasiums and less sanctuaries. It was these Hellenized Jews who erected Greek gods in the Temple. It was Hellenized Jewish priests who were exercising in the nude instead of performing the sacrificial order, and Jewish prostitutes who were running amok through the streets of Jerusalem. There was a fracture in Jewish society between those who wanted to live the traditional Jewish life and those who didn’t.
And it was at that point that Matisyahu HaMaccabee lifted his voice and said, mi laShem elai! Whomever is with G-d, join me! And fought to defend the Jewish faith.
When the dust settled, when the Hellenized Jews and the Greek army were defeated, when the Bais Hamikdash was reconsecrated and the Menorah was lit, the victors did not eradicate every vestige of Greek culture from Judea, no. They just ensured that there was more Jerusalem than Athens. That in coming together as one, in creating a Jewish community there was more spirituality than aesthetic. More Torah wisdom than Greek philosophy.
A challenge to any group of people that attempt to come together and create a community is which values get compromised and which values are held on to. Someone posed the following question to me the other day: “Ner Tamid’s tagline is something for everyone. So does that mean,” she asked me, “that we search for the lowest common denominator of observance, of values, and stop there to ensure the comfort of everyone here? Or do we strive for something higher?”
It was a good question. I’ll share with you what I shared with her. I firmly believe that we can create a spiritual environment that is welcoming and warm and open to all, and at the same time ask ourselves to leave our comfort zone and climb higher. But that too takes a lot of work.
- It means respecting the fact that this is both a house of prayer and a house of gathering, a beis tefilah and a beis haknesses, but if our conversation conflicts with someone’s prayer, prayer wins.
- It means growing, each in our own way, but creating a culture where everyone is going upward and not content with spiritual mediocrity; a beautiful mosaic of people coming from different places but all striving for more.
Again, we have a special thing going for us, a community truly like no other in a world bereft of communities. Ner Tamid, our community, is truly a light, a small flickering flame in a dark world, and it’s nothing to take for granted. But it takes work. It takes patience, it takes deep understanding, it takes stepping out of our comfort zone, both socially and spiritually. Mi lashem elai. Who’s in?
I hope we’re all in. I hope we’re all in in creating a magnificent breath of fresh air, in creating a merging of Rachel and Leah, of Democrat and Republican, of young and old, in creating an inclusive community filled with men and women, boys and girls, dedicated to their own and their community’s spiritual growth.
Wishing you all a beautiful Shabbos and an uplifting Chanukah.
The Medrash Rabbah informs us that when the Sages of Israel would travel to Rome to lobby for the needs of the Jewish People, they would first study this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, in-depth. It is the Torah portion which best illustrates the Rabbinic teaching of “the experiences of the father are an indicator of what the children will experience in the future.” Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav, according tour sages, is seen as the precursor to all encounters with the enemy.
This past week, Yaakov, the Jewish People, once again, encountered his enemy Eisav. This time Eisav did not yell Allah Akbar, this time Eisav did not write a right-wing nationalistic manifesto, this time Eisav was a Hebrew Israelite. But it’s all the same. The age-old lethal encounter between the strong and mighty Eisav and the faithful Jewish People was and is being reenacted in our times.
Like the sages in Roman times, we too can look to Yaakov’s strategies and actions as inspiration and guidance. Yakov, our Sages point out, prepared in three ways; with tributes or gifts, with prayer, and by preparing for war.
Though giving gifts to our government would be illegal, the notion of working with those in power is something we must embrace in our modern fight against anti-Semitism. For all its shortcomings, I, for one, am grateful that the President issued an executive order to protect Jewish students on college campuses. Aside from the outright violence that is taking place on college campuses, the exclusion of Jews from student government positions for simply going to Israel, the blaming of Israel for all the world’s problems, the most thinly veiled anti-Semitism that is taking place on campus has to stop, and receiving help from the government is something I welcome and am truly grateful for. And I am grateful for the many Jews and national Jewish organizations such as the Orthodox Union who took a page out of the Yakov Avinu playbook and worked together with our government.
Prayer, it goes without saying, is always appropriate, most certainly in a time of need. And it’s important that we acknowledge this time as being one of need. There are only so many anti-Semitic acts that could take place before we acknowledge that something is broken here. And as a people of faith, prayer, praying more than usual, praying with more fervor than usual, is incumbent upon each and every one of us. Not only after the next terrible attack (l’a), but today and today and the next day, in a time of distress we turn to G-d for mercy.
And lastly, like Yaakov we must prepare for war. No other time in the past two thousand years have we been able to do so like we do today. Not only ensuring that our shuls and schools are protected and that our cities and country is safe. But the fact that there is an army, one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, whose states purpose is to protect the Jewish People, not only in Israel, but anywhere they are found. We are a peace-loving people, and avoid war at all costs, but like Yaakov, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are nations who would like us dead, and having a force prepared to fight is an essential part of combatting modern anti-Semitism.
Politics, prayer, and war. That’s how Yaakov prepared for his showdown with Eisav, and that’s how we will do the same.
But the story of Yaakov and Eisav does not end there. After preparing himself in these three manners, the Torah describes Yaakov going to sleep. And then he wakes up in middle of the night. He is undoubtedly filled with fear and anxiety, uncertainty about what will be, and so he cannot sleep. (see Rav Hirsch) He wakes everyone up and continues travelling, he carries his family and belongings over the Jabbuk stream, nachal Yabbok. And of course, famously, he is left alone, and he struggles and fights with the mysterious angel.
There’s a detail there that for years I glossed over. Where is Yaakov travelling that night? The assumption we, and most commentators seem to make is that he is continuing on his journey towards Eisav. But the Rashbam says that is not the case. You know what he’s doing? You know where he’s going? He’s running away. He is afraid to encounter Eisav. He is overwhelmed by the prospect of an overpowering force that he cannot defeat. And so in the middle of the night, he changes his mind. I’m going back to Lavan. I’m running away.
Many of us can relate to Yaakov’s anxiety, to Yaakov’s feeling of overwhelmingness – we’ve done so much, and nothing seems to be changing, there are no solutions in sight. And so we run. It’s far more pleasant to focus on Lamar Jackson than on the fact that three people were shot and killed in a kosher grocery store less than 3 hours away.
And it’s not just anti-Semitism that we’re feeling overwhelmed by and running away from. We all have something we’re afraid of, something that we stick in our closet and double and triple lock with the hope that it never comes out to haunt us. We’re all running away from something.
Says the Rashbam, you know how that angel was that fought with Yaakov? It wasn’t the archangel of Eisav as many commentators interpret it to be. You know what this angel was? It was a messenger from G-d who was stopping him. It was a messenger from G-d letting him know that you cannot keep on running away. You cannot distract yourself with your job, with Netflix, and even with good deeds. You need to stop running. Face your demons. Face the evil that exists in the world. Face the evil that exists in your closet.
And Yaakov listens. He starts to struggle. He wrestles. He grapples with evil. But it’s a stalemate. He’s not able to move forward, he’s not able to change.
Right over the horizon is a new name, Yisrael, a representation of a new man, who has dealt with his demons, with his weaknesses, with his past. But right now he can’t get there. Until, vateika kaf yerech Yaakov. The angel dislodges his leg. He breaks a part of Yaakov. Something gives. The ground Yaakov stood on a moment before is no longer. And you know what that represents?
It represents the sacrifices we have to make to fight evil. To choose but one of many examples, a few weeks ago, Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented move of calling out the “poison” in the Labor Party in the UK. Never before has a chief rabbi waded into politics this way and Rabbi Mirvis got plenty of criticism for doing so, putting his role as a chief rabbi at risk in the process. But Rabbi Mirvis understood that for change to take place you have to sacrifice, you have to give something up.
In all of our battles, internal and external, what holds us back is not our lack of awareness that there’s a problem – nah, we’re the most self-aware generation that ever lived. What holds us back is that we want it all. We want change but we’re not willing to sacrifice anything in the process. We want better relationships but we’re not willing to make ourselves vulnerable. We want more meaning in life but we’re not willing to change our lives around. So we just struggle.
To change, the angel taught Yaakov, you have to give something up. We’re all holding onto things, and in turn those things are holding us back. It’s comfortable to stay where we are. It’s comfortable to go back to the same patterns of frustration and fights that were so accustomed to. But the angel taught Yaakov, it takes not only awareness and not only courage to change, it takes sacrifice. Leave go of that resentment, that fear, that comfort. And only then will you become a Yisrael.
We would be remiss if we didn’t read just one more verse from this invaluable section. After being injured, after being renamed, Yaakov limps off the battle-field to meet up with his family, he encounters Eisav, and then the Torah states, vayavo Yaakov shalem ir Shechem. That for all the struggle, for all the challenge, for all the sacrifice, Yaakov arrives at the next city intact.
Before those murderers attacked the kosher store, they encountered Detective Joseph Seals at a nearby cemetery and shot him dead. Immediately after the tragic news broke, an Orthodox Jewish group from Flatbush, N.Y., created a fundraiser to help Detective Seals’ family. They were hoping to raise $25,000. More than 1400 donations came in, ranging from $2 to $200 and in less than 24 hours, over $48,000 was raised. What an incredible and beautiful Kiddush Hashem.
Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem– we are diminished at times, we must sacrifice at times, but our essential character, will never be lost.
Politics, prayer, and war. A recognition that we can never outrun our problems. A recognition that to change, we need to be courageous, we need to sacrifice our comforts. And a firm belief in the eternal goodness of the Jewish People. Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem, may we, like Yaakov our father, arrive in peace at our destination, and see an end to this senseless hate.
The Menorah that is used on Chanukkah should have branches that are of equal height and they should be arranged in a straight row. Like all mitzvos, there is significance in making the mitzvah beautiful. One should therefore endeavor to have a beautiful Menorah. If no Menorah is available one can still fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukkah candles by placing candles/ cups of oil in a row.
It is ideal to use oil for lighting the Menorah. One can fulfill the mitzvah using candles. One cannot fulfill the mitzvah using an electric Menorah. If one is using oil there is an argument about using previously used wicks. Some prefer to use new wicks every night as it is more respectful while others maintain that a used wick actually burns better and is therefore preferable. Used wicks should not be disposed of in the regular fashion that one disposes waste. Because it was used for a mitzvah they should be disposed of with care. One can either burn the wicks or put them in a bag and then place the bag in the trash.
The prevalent custom outside of Israel is to light the Menorah indoors. The Menorah should be lit by the window that can be seen by the most people possible (this is not always the most convenient window). When lighting at one’s window one should light on the right side of the window (right side from the perspective of the one lighting the Menorah). However, if there is more than one person lighting the Menorah then it is best to place a space between each Menorah so that those outside can see clearly which night of Chanukkah is being celebrated.
One should light by their window even if they live in a high rise apartment. The assumption is that people from the street or people in other tall buildings will see the Menorah. When staying at a hotel on Chanukkah one’s lighting options become limited. To light at the window would be pointless because [most] hotels have blacked out windows. To light inside near the doorway, which is the next best place, is usually very difficult as most hotel rooms open up to a narrow hallway with a bathroom on one side (can’t light there) and a closet on the other (safety hazard to light there). The best place to put the Menorah is in the area where the hall opens into the main room on the right side. If that is not feasible then lighting the Menorah anywhere in the room is fine.
If one is traveling on Chanukkah but some members of the family stay at home, one technically fulfills their obligation by having those at home light. The widespread custom is that even in such a scenario one lights wherever they are staying. However, one must light before the members of one’s home are lighting. If one lights afterward one does not say the regular blessing on lighting.
As mentioned earlier, a husband and wife are one unit and only one Menorah is lit for both. That being the case, if one of the spouses will be arriving at a later time in the evening, there are two options. 1) The spouse can wait up for the other and light together. 2) The spouse who is at home can light at the appropriate time, thus fulfilling the obligation of both spouses. (In such a case, the spouse who is not at home should attempt, if possible, to hear someone else make the blessings over their own lighting.)
The appropriate time to light the Menorah is a matter of dispute. Some state that is should be lit at sunset, others argue that it should be lit at nightfall, and others suggest that a compromise be made and the candles should be lit in between, approximately 25 minutes after sunset. The prevalent custom outside of Israel is to light at nightfall.The latest time to light the Menorah is at dawn. One may say a Bracha when lighting as long as it not yet dawn. If one missed a night of lighting, one can light the next night with a Bracha.
The lights of the Menorah must burn for at least a half hour after nightfall. This is especially important to keep in mind on Friday afternoon when one lights the candles before candle lighting. Thus for example, in Baltimore this Friday, Shabbos candle lighting time is 4:31 PM and nightfall is 5:34 PM, so one’s candles should be able to last for a little over an hour and a half (from before 4:31 until 6:04 PM). Even after the candles have burned for a half hour one should not extinguish them. However, if one is in a situation where there is a concern for a possible fire etc. they are allowed to extinguish the lights after 30 minutes.
It seems to me that there are three types of shul-goers; there are those who come to daven, those who come to talk, and those who come to shush. You know who I’m talking about. The shushers.
These are the people who really wanted to be librarians but were rejected because they wanted to read Dante’s Inferno for the children’s reading circle. And so instead they take out all their pent-up ‘shush’ on the poor people sitting next to them in shul.
Now I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the science of the shush. Like how does the shusher decide when to shush? Is there a certain decibel that’s reached, and a little bell goes off in their head, “Uh-uh-uh! We’re there! SHHHHH!” Or is it just timed? Like every thirty-eight seconds, it’s time for another one. “I’m feeling it coming, here we go, SHHHH!”
I once went to this shul in Toronto, it was the quietest shul I ever went to, but there was a shusher who davened there, and he had no one to shush. He probably got thrown out of all the talking shuls. My heart really went out to this guy – it’s a terrible feeling, all those powerful shushing emotions welling up inside and no place to channel them, the existential loneliness of being a shusher in a quiet shul… But this guy was clever, he figured out what to do. I was praying there one day, and apparently, I am not the quietest davener, and so Mr. Shusher walks over to me, while I am davening, and goes, SHHHH!
I had no idea what he was talking about, or shushing about, I was davening?! But I forgave him though because I realized he’s just a shush-addict, he was just using me for his next high.
Think about it. Is the shush not just self-serving and self-indulgent? Because let’s be honest, when was the last time a shush got someone quiet. In shul?
It’s not even an effective sound. SHHHHH. It’s sounds like light rain on a rooftop – it is one of the most soothing sounds I know. It’s a setting on my sleep machine and in the background on my meditation app. C’mon.
You want a good sound to get people quiet, Try this: AAAAAAAAAAAH! That does the trick. Every time.
The truth is, if you want to get a shusher to stop shushing, there’s one thing you need to do: Invite him or her into your conversation.
Just kidding, don’t do that. Because,
Ladies and gentlemen, we are enabling the shushers. It is our moral duty to eradicate shushing from the world. It is my goal that by the year 2021, there will be a museum to remind us of a bygone era of shushing. And there is only one way to rid the world of this insidious disease –
Stop talking during davening.
Or at least during the Amidah and Kaddish.
Which was kinda my sermon from last week but packaged a little differently… Same point, but two radically different ways of saying it. And that’s really what this Shabbos is all about. Not shushing, but differing perspectives.
You see, we just finished the Three Weeks, Nine Days, and Tisha B’av; a pretty dark time on the Jewish calendar. For those of us here on Tisha B’av morning with Rabbi Katz, we learned that it was even darker than we ever thought. We sat on the floor, we mourned for the loss of the Bais HaMikdash, and really, for all the tragedies of the world. The overarching message was: The Messianic Era is not here. Life is terrible.
And then – less than a week later, we are here, this Shabbos is known as Shabbos Nachamu. It is a celebratory Shabbos. It is supposed to be an extra-joyful weekend. You know why? Because – The Messianic Era is coming. Life is great.
Which one is it? It can’t be both! Are we depressed because the world is falling apart or are we ecstatic because change is around the corner? Which perspective do we take?
Two weeks ago, an article was published on the Times of Israel, which was widely circulated. I don’t have the stomach, nor is this the appropriate place to read every line, I’ll read to you just a few:
“Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can: …
- be convicted of sex offenses, spend time in jail for them, and still be revered by thousands of followers and honored with the lighting of a torch at a[n Israeli] government sponsored event (a reference to Rabbi Eliezer Berland).
- [Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can:]
- Confess to having touched students inappropriately and still teach at prestigious yeshivot, and be defended by some leading rabbis in the community (a reference to Rabbi Motti Elon).”
“And a woman can:
- have her motivations questioned and her learning belittled, even while her opportunities to learn are more numerous than ever before.
- Expect all male committees to be the ones who define her communal roles and opportunities to participate in ritual…
- See no images of women, even at an all-women conference.”
Heavy stuff, I know.
She concludes her piece with a rather biting statement: “Once we stood at Sinai together, men and women, “like one person with one heart.” Today, the heart of Orthodoxy is broken, splintered into a dangerous and gaping divide.”
Now I happen to agree with much of what she wrote. I agree that too often abusers, often male abusers, are protected and judged by other men “too favorably” when favorable judgment and public safety are entirely incompatible. I agree that we need to continue to dialogue about women’s roles in the community, and that women need to be part of that conversation. I agree that while the Torah does not believe in egalitarianism as we know it, that we do believe in divisions between Kohanim and the rest of us, between Jews and non-Jews, and between men and women, and with all that being said, we should not and must not create restrictions when there are none. We must simultaneously work to combat ideas that are antithetical to our tradition and at the same time, create opportunities for those whose needs are not being met by our current communal structure. I agree with her on a lot of things.
What I do not agree with – is her tone.
And this is not a judgment of her per-se. She is, as a friend of hers pointed out to me, at ground-zero. She lives in Beit Shemesh, she is an activist who deals with the community’s issues day-in and day-out. This is not about her, it’s about us. It’s about how we speak and how we frame the ills of our community and more broadly of our lives.
Because you see, it’s all about the framing. Whether I encourage you to stop talking in shul with a d’var Torah or a joke is not so consequential. But whether I speak about the state of Jewish life as a cynic or a problem-solver, now that’s a world of a difference.
Cynicism, which was once reserved for disaffected youth, is now the celebrated currency in every high society. In one longitudinal study by a marketing firm in Japan studying attitudes, they found a sharp and steady increase in cynicism over the past ten years.
And we Jews have been fine-tuning these tools for thousands of years. We are trained from a young age to think critically, to question, to see things from a different angle. But it would seem that over the years, this critical thinking has turned more and more into cynical thinking.
Society sees cynical people as smart, realistic, and even cool. Psychologists would add to that list that cynical people are also scared. In the words of psychologist and author, Dr. Jennifer Kunst: “Cynicism is related to fear because it offers the promise of protection, which is a deep human need. The way that it offers protection is simple: it promises to keep out the danger. The rules of cynicism are simple and straightforward: trust no one; don’t believe anything; close ranks; keep your guard up and your head down; keep your door locked and your weapons at the ready. Danger: do not enter.”
The problem is that cynicism is corrosive, it destroys relationships, and it blocks our ability to grow and to change. In the words of our sages, “One cynical remark can deflect a thousand words of admonition.” The more fortified we become in cynicism, the less anything has any true meaning.
To quote Dr. Kunst once again: “The cost of cynicism is great. It blocks change. It burns bridges. It builds walls. It undermines good will. It sinks compromise. It escalates conflict. We hear about it every week in the news. I hear about it every day in my psychotherapy office. A sour look, a cross word, or a poorly worded communication is used as evidence of betrayal and lends strength to isolation, depression, and discord. A misunderstanding becomes an avenue to violence. A traffic stop becomes a powder keg. Where there is no trust, there is no way to build something truly constructive, secure, and good.”
I love the fact that we are troubled by the many issues that we see around us. But how we talk about them makes a difference. If we talk about these issues with hope and with an eye on how we can change, then we will affect change. If we talk with cynicism, only one things will change; the attitude of our children. Why bother with Kosher if all I hear about is how expensive kosher food is? Why bother with sending my children to a Jewish school or joining a shul if all I hear about is corruption?
Our Sages teach us that the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed because of the sin of Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. Excuse my pun, but I would venture to say that what is holding it back from being rebuilt is the sin of Sina-cism.
And that’s what Shabbos Nachamu is here for. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Nechama does not mean comfort. Nor does it mean to change one’s mind, as in the verse immediately preceding the flood, when G-d surveys the evils of mankind – vayinachem Hashem, which is incorrectly translated as G-d changed his mind. What Nechama means, explains Rav Hirsch is to take a new and fresh perspective. The way we do nichum aveilim, the comforting of the mourner is to shift their perspective ever so softly. So too Shabbos Nachamu. It’s here to tell us, that yes, things are broken, things are bad, things are terrible. The heart of the Jewish People is splintered indeed. But instead of griping and complaining, instead of turning even more people off from what we know to be beautiful, Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to change our perspective and to change our tone. To speak instead about how we change those problems, how we can fix them, and how we could do better. Not to ignore what’s wrong or to brush even more under the carpet. No! Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to not lose sight of all the brokenness in the world, but to speak in a language of building and hope, and not the corrosive language of cynicism.
The heart of the Jewish People is splintered. Mashiach is not here. The heart of the Jewish People can be healed by us, if we so choose it! Mashiach is around the corner.
(h/t to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg whose post on optimism and pessimism inspired this piece – https://rabbiefremgoldberg.org/jewish-community/the-heart-of-orthodoxy-is-healthy-and-strong-seeing-the-opportunities-within-every-difficulty/)
Concern. Gratitude. And hate.
Those were the three emotions that all of us should have experienced this past week.
Concern is the most obvious – between Tuesday and Thursday morning a total of 450 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel. 450 rockets! I cannot even imagine what that looks or feels like. I do know that if a single rocket were to fall anywhere in Maryland, we would all be so traumatized that we would just shut down for a week. But in Israel, while many spent a day or two at home – and by home, I mean running back and forth between their bedrooms and their bomb shelters – they force themselves up and out and attempt to continue to live a normal life.
I hope we all felt concern this past week. Not only for the physical safety of our brothers and sisters, young and old, who were in harms way. But also concern for the mental-health and wellbeing of children, whose schools get cancelled not for snow-days but for rocket days, who instead of being taught how to cross the street by looking in both directions are taught how to shield themselves from flying shrapnel. Concern for our brothers and sisters whose normal way of life is anything but normal.
And at the same time, I know that I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude this past week. Because the news in Israel made me stop and reflect that had we, as a people, only had the opportunity to live in the holy land and build small communities as we did since the early 20th century after 2000 years of exile, dayeinu, it would have been enough. And had we, as a people, only – only! – been given the opportunity to call a plot of that holy land ours and create a Jewish state – dayeinu.
And had we only had the opportunity to defend that land and repel five Arab nations from annihilating us – dayeinu.
And had we been given not just victory but also a doubling of that small piece of land – dayeinu.
Had we only been victorious in a miraculous fashion and been given the opportunity to once again claim Jerusalem as our own – dayeinu.
And had we only been able to transform a nation drowning in debt into an economical force while its population has grown from less than a million to almost 10 million – dayeinu, dayeinu, dayeinu.
And this past week to think about the fact that 450 lethal rockets rained down on Israel and that no Israeli was killed. To think about the fact that G-d blessed us with technology that is truly mind-blowing, shooting down rockets in the sky, intercepting the vast majority of those rockets – how can we not be grateful?
Thank you, Hashem, thank you G-d, for all the blessings that we too often take for granted, and specifically for the blessing of Israel.
Concern and gratitude – those were two feelings I felt this past week.
The third emotion – hate – is one that I did not feel but I should have felt, and I’d like to spend the next few minutes telling you why.
Most of what I will be sharing with you is based on a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, an essay written by Rabbi Meir Soloveicthik, and a recent article in Tablet Magazine.
In 1973, Rabbi Lamm spoke of an eminent Orthodox professor at Hebrew University who every year, based on a quirk of the Jewish calendar would avoid celebrating Purim. Not going to get into it now but if you live in Israel you could technically have two days of Purim or you could have no days of Purim. This professor chose to avoid celebrating Purim altogether. The reason? He felt that the booing and hissing that takes place during the reading of the Megillah and the hate directed at Haman and Amaleik was inappropriate. A holiday that celebrates the hatred of the enemy was something so off-putting to him that he chose to skip Purim altogether.
Rabbi Lamm wondered if there is value to this professor’s decision; is hatred, which undoubtedly Purim celebrates, so evil that we should avoid it at all costs?
Rabbi Lamm’s response was a full-throated no. It is not only okay to hate at times, but there is virtue in hatred.
I know you’re squirming in your seats as I say those words, “there is virtue to hatred” and I share your discomfort. But it’s important to acknowledge that the reason most of us are so taken aback is due to the fact that we are so heavily influenced by our Christian neighbors who have a very different tradition and philosophy of hate.
Whereas Jesus said, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Shmuel our great prophet executed the Amaleiki king, Agag with his own sword and the judge Devorah sang of the gruesome killing of Sisera, an evil enemy of the Jewish People. Whereas Catholics pray for Jesus “to lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” Esther asked Achashveirosh after the Jews had beaten their enemies to have the ten sons of Haman hanged.
(And though you may argue that today we read how Avraham begged G-d to spare the evil people of Sedom, a critical read will tell you that he prayed only for those who were righteous and accepted G-d’s judgment on those who were evil. (see Malbim))
Judaism, it would seem embraces hatred and the question is why. Why is it that hatred is not only allowed in our tradition, but it is at times, even celebrated?
Rabbi Lamm, in his sermon on this topic, shares a number of reasons, some of which I’d like to share with you. I will begin by quoting Rabbi Lamm: “I am weary of people,” he writes, “who cannot or never do not hate at all. I fear that they tend to fall into a far worse trap, into something far more debilitating than hatred, and that is — indifference. It was primarily indifference and not hatred that was the major and most corrupting vice of the Holocaust and from which we suffered.”
Ohavei Hashem sinu ra, King David wrote that one who truly loves G-d, hates evil. One who believes in right and wrong, in the notion that there are things which are objectively moral and immoral, and not fuzzy relativism in which every opinion is valid, such a person must feel hatred towards that which is unjust, towards that which is wrong. And thus, one who is incapable of hatred of evil cannot truly be capable of the love of G-d. Such a person, though they may be very loving, is lacking in their moral character.
A world in which there is only love and no hate breeds indifference; something that is anathema to Judaism.
In addition to a moral reason to hate, there is, Rabbi Lamm adds a psychological dimension. Hatred, he points out, is cathartic. One of the leaders of 18th century European Jewry was a man by the name of Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz. One day, the story goes, he was accosted by the Bishop of Prague who challenged him with the following claim; “Is it not true,” asked the Bishop, “that we Christians believe in the God of Love while you Jews worship the God of Vengeance?”
“Yes,” answered Rabbi Eibeschutz, “it is quite true. You Christians worship love, so you feel free to hate. Whereas we Jews ascribe all vengeance to the Lord, so our lives can therefore be filled with love and understanding.”
What Rabbi Eibishitz was suggesting is this: Hatred is a normal human emotion that will be expressed one way or another. Maybe it’s hate for our spouse, or for an ex-spouse. Maybe it’s for an actress or a politician. Or maybe, we follow the Torah’s direction and channel the natural human feeling of hate to those select few who are truly worthy of that emotion. What Rabbi Eibeschutz was saying is “that when we ban hate entirely it does not disappear, it flourishes on the moral black market.” (Ari Lamm)
And with that in mind, Rabbi Lamm concludes that there are people and movements who do not deserve our justifications and rationalizations. Hitler could have been diagnosed as paranoid, Stalin could have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but at some point, a man or woman crosses a line and all the rationalizations in the world don’t matter – what they did and who they are is evil. Plain and simple. A genocide is a genocide and one who is involved in genocide loses their right to our compassion.
“There is a time to love and there is a time to hate.” As long as evil exists, hatred has a place in our emotional and spiritual repertoire.
This past week I did not feel hatred, but I probably should have. The catalyst for the latest rocket attacks was the IDF’s targeted killing of Baha Abu Al-Ata. To give you just a glimpse into who this man was. A decade ago, Abu Al-Ata infiltrated the Israeli border and killed two innocent civilians and over the past year, virtually all attacks coming out of Gaza were masterminded by him. That includes sniper attacks, drones with explosives, and rocket attacks, with another attack imminent, all put together by this man. That is evil and it behooves us to recognize it as such.
Where our faith and Christianity differ is our emphasis on human responsibility. Whereas Christianity believes that we are all undeserving in salvation – I, like Hitler, do not deserve G-d’s good grace. Judaism argues that man is capable, regardless of their situation to choose what is right and reject what is wrong. And therefore, when people make poor choices, or more accurately evil choices, they are fully responsible for their evil deeds. Baha Abu Al-Ata was an evil man and therefore worthy of our hatred.
And yet – there is of course, a danger with hate.
There is a danger in placing hatred front and center in our faith, instead of seeing it as a necessary evil, as a counterpoint to love, that allows love to flourish, and an extension of our strong emphasis on free-will.
There is a danger in losing control of hate. When we despise religious Christians because of centuries of evil perpetrated by the Church, or when we assume that all modern German people are bad because their grandparents were evil, when we do that, as too many Jews do, we are not keeping our hatred in check.
Or, when we lump together Baha Abu Al-Ata who deserved to die, together with the Asoarka family, an innocent Arab family of herders, who were mistakenly killed by the IDF this wek, when we lump all Arabs and Muslims together, we are guilty of blind hatred. We are guilty of allowing hatred to run wild. And that too is evil.
And so, as this difficult week comes to an end, let us never lose our connection with our brethren in Israel, their pain is ours and we pray for their safety; whether it makes the front page of our newspapers or not, let us not stop thinking about acheinu kol beis Yisrael, our brothers and sisters wherever they may be. May we never stop thanking G-d for the endless miracles that we have seen in our own lifetimes in our historic homeland. And may we develop within ourselves, yes, a healthy dose of hate; a recognition that there is good and there is evil, there is the moral and immoral and we refuse to rationalize the deeds of those who cross the line, and let that hatred remind us of the immense freedom that we are granted with which we can choose to do good or evil. And lastly, in channeling our hate to the very few who deserve it, “may our lives therefore be filled with love and understanding.”