Ishay Ribo, the Israeli musical superstar, in his song Halev Sheli, describes the Yam Suf/ the Red Sea as a reflection of the inner state of the Jewish People. The throbbing sea, the throbbing hearts. The crashing waves, the clashing thoughts. Like a body of water in a storm, the inner state of the Jewish People is a chaotic mix of conflicting and confusing emotions. As they attempt to cross the Yam Suf, they are also attempting to navigate the raging waters inside their mind and soul.
In Ribo’s depiction of the splitting of the sea, the drama of Kriyas Yam Suf is both timeless and universal. We are constantly faced with the challenge of navigating difficult times and attempting “to walk on the dry land in the midst of the sea.” And even as we do so, even when we forge forward, the waters of the sea tower over us “to their right and to their left,” leaving us both exhilarated and full of fear as we rush to our destination.
As we commemorate the anniversary of the splitting of the sea on these last days of Pesach, this imagery could not be more relevant. Who is not filled with raging and conflicting emotions at this time? Fear of an impending illness that we cannot see, countered by gratitude for our good health, and then feelings of guilt for feeling well when others are no longer living. Despair over joblessness and retirement funds that have dried up, and hope that the economy will rebound before it’s too late. Overwhelming loneliness, exasperation at being unable to care for young and bored children, and feelings of inadequacy and dependency that are anything but natural to us. At times appreciating the change of pace, and at others, missing the structure and rhythm of our not so distant past. We are heartened by the uplifting stories of medical professionals whose self-sacrifice is heroic and we are crushed by the growing death toll. And all of these thoughts and feelings are compounded by the incessant news-cycle that we know we shouldn’t pay constant attention to, but we cannot pull ourselves away from.
Even as we push forward, like the Jewish People, and attempt to cross over this chaotic mix of feelings, we cannot ignore the towering walls of water on both sides, and we are reminded that we are not where we are supposed to be. We celebrated Pesach without family, without friends, and some celebrated all alone. And today, as we remember our loved ones for Yizkor, a time that we are normally surrounded by the warm embrace of community, we are feeling especially vulnerable and especially lonely. The Jewish People walked on dry land in the heart of a sea and we are celebrating the most communal of holidays in solitude.
Much has been written about the great value of solitude; the deep introspection that the quiet allows for and the independence that solitude can foster within. But solitude can too easily bleed into loneliness, a most debilitating state of being. As the novelist Honoré de Balzac once quipped, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
More than just sharing with others, our need for others comes in the form of validation. When we share our experiences with one another and we feel understood, when we do something and we feel appreciated, that recognition breaks through our sense of loneliness and insignificance. A slightly eccentric teacher of mine would respond to my wishing him a good morning with, “Thank you for acknowledging my existence.” He was right. When we nod at each other, when we smile at a story, when we empathize, and when we share, we feel acknowledged, and thus we feel alive.
There are many people who feel more alive today than ever. These are mostly those on the front lines, the heroic doctors and nurses, and all those ensuring that the rest of us are well. In one of the great ironies of the human experience, in their flirting with danger, they are living the most meaningful life, and when they are not feeling overwhelmed with fear and exhaustion, there is a sense of pride and purpose.
But there are many others who are “inessential.” There are many others who need to justify their every movement and cannot leave their home without an excuse. We all thrive on the approval, explicit or implicit, from others, and our lack of interaction makes us second-guess our worth. After all, I am not essential to the wellbeing of society. And so, when we are not distracting ourselves by the news-cycle, feelings of loneliness and questions of self-worth wave over us and threaten to overwhelm. “Save me, Hashem, for the water has come up to my soul.” (Tehillim, 69:3)
If you read the Torah’s account of the splitting of the sea carefully you will notice a number of seeming redundancies, some of which imply that the sea was split twice. There are numerous theories that explain the repetition away, but the most intriguing of them all is alluded to in the commentary of Yonasan ben Uziel, a first century sage. According to this approach, the sea actually did split twice. Once for all the Jewish People, and the second time for none other than – Dasan and Aviram! The same Dasan and Aviram who left over manna when Moshe told them not to, the same Dasan and Aviram who joined the rebellion of Korach, and the same Dasan and Aviram who told the Egyptian authorities what Moshe had done to the Egyptian taskmaster and almost had Moshe killed.
Dasan and Aviram had actually stayed behind in Egypt, choosing not to go along with the Jewish People. But then, after hearing about the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, had a change of heart. When they arrived at the sea, this theory goes, the sea split a second time, just for them, and them alone.
We are mistaken when we think that the sea split to save all of the Jewish People and it was only in the merit of the entirety of the nation that they were saved. Dasan and Aviram demonstrate that this was not the case. In the words of the Sefas Emes, the sea could have split for each and every individual Jew. Regardless of merit, regardless of popularity, regardless of how important they were in the eyes of society, the sea would have split for them – and for any of us, and for any of us alone. And that’s because we are essential, as essential as can be.
Those who say Yizkor know this lesson all too well. As you cover your faces with your Yizkor book and reflect on the lives of your loved ones, as your eyes give forth their tears at the simplest of memories, you know. You know exactly how essential your loved ones were. They may not have had titles, fame, or fortune, but to you, they were everything.
And so, as we face the raging sea of our times, we too must not forget how essential we are. We are essential to our family, though they may not always express it in a way that we wish. We are essential to out friends and colleagues. And most importantly, we are essential to G-d. He imbued us with a soul and with life and is constantly watching over us.
The sea would have split for me. The sea would have split for you. The great sea would have split for each and everyone of us. Even if we feel all alone and even if we feel insignificant. Because we are not alone, and we are very significant. There is family that feels connected to us. There are friends who appreciate us. And there is G-d who always loves us. They are all standing with us as we face the turbulent sea. As we attempt to cross the Yam Suf of our life. The conflicting emotions are frighetning, the solitude could feel debilitating. But we are not alone. We are all essential. And with G-d’s help we will cross this sea.
Please find 3 old Pesach drashas/ sermons for you to read from home this Pesach. They are all Yizkor sermons though Yizkor will not be said until the final day of Pesach on April 16th. I hope to send a new sermon for that time.
Pesach Yizkor 2019 – Notre Dame’s Caretakers Failed. Will We?
“I learned that Notre-Dame was burning on Monday night when a stranger — an older man — stopped me on the street. A shrieking ambulance had just sped past us. He pointed to a plume of smoke in the distance, and said: “It’s going to Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame is on fire.”
So begins an article by Pamela Druckerman of the New York Times, titled, We Were the Caretakers of Notre Dame. We Failed.
She continues: “The French don’t spend much time in churches. Though most of the population is nominally Catholic, France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened. A Parisian writer once assured me that God died in the late 1960s.
And yet, the fire at Notre-Dame feels as if it has struck everyone here. Drone footage of the fire showed the cross-shaped building entirely in flames. When President Emmanuel Macron came on national TV around 11:30 p.m., with the still-burning structure behind him, he called it “the cathedral of all the French, even those who were never here.”
It’s partly that, at 856 years old, Notre-Dame has witnessed much of French history. It’s where Henry VI was crowned, and Napoleon became emperor… Though most Parisians don’t visit often — and some never do — Notre-Dame is more than just a tourist attraction or a historic monument. It sits in the middle of the city, walking distance from practically everywhere, on the bank of the river that divides the city. Residents might not have fully realized it until Monday, but I think it reassured them to know that at the heart of their highly planned city was someplace entirely non-rational and non-Cartesian. Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence has long suggested that there is something mysterious and unknowable at the center of it all.”
Druckerman concludes with the lament: “There’s … a shared sadness and disappointment that, with the extensive damage, we’ve failed, as a civilization, to be the caretakers of something priceless.” End quote
It’s a building, of course, and in light of the terrible atrocities that took place this past week in Sri Lanka, in some ways it feels morally out of sync to be mourning the destruction of a building when innocent people were cut down, but we do mourn the cathedral of Notre Dame. We mourn because of what this building – and its demise represented, namely, as Druckerman put it, “our failure, as a civilization, to preserve something priceless.”
My colleague, Rabbi Avi Goldstein, drew my attention to the parallel between the cathedral of Notre Dame and Pesach. ((In his (lightly edited) words,)) “Jews regardless of their backgrounds and levels of religious observance observe the Seder. Many, who wouldn’t think twice of eating pork during the year, on Pesach are careful to avoid eating bread at all costs. The dedication to Pesach isn’t just because it’s Thanksgiving without the turkey but with more wine… There is something much deeper here. All Jews, regardless of how secular a life they lead, understand that there’s something unbelievably unique about being Jewish. The Atheistic Jew, the Agnostic Jew, the Hedonistic Jew, the Buddhist Jew, the “leave me alone I’m living the American Dream” Jew, somewhere deep inside understand that there’s something transcendent about the heritage they’ve inherited. It may not find expression throughout the year. Shabbos maybe a day for golf or the mall, they may have forgotten exactly what happened on Shavuot, but that spark finds expression on Seder night. Why? Why is that?
Because the Seder is a magical night. The Seder is the night of Jewish identity. The Seder is the night when we formally transmit our Jewishness to the next generation. In the company of grandparents and grandchildren, with wine stained Maxwell House haggadahs, the charoset recipe that’s been in our family for generations, we tell our kids the Jewish story. Our story. We tell them why we’re Jewish. And why they should stay Jewish. We tell them where we’re from, what we’ve endured throughout the millennia and that we pray that next year we should be in Jerusalem. Like the effect of Notre-Dame’s hulking, Gothic presence on secular Parisians, so too, even for the most secular Jew, the hulking, ancient presence of the Pesach Seder has long reminded us that there is something mysterious and precious about Judaism.”
And very much like that ancient cathedral, our heritage, tragically, seems to also be going up in flames. Yes, we have come out of the ashes of the Holocaust, yes, we have defied all odds with the establishment of a State, and yes, there is Torah knowledge today on levels that are unparalleled in our past. But with an assimilation rate outside of Orthodox Jews, hovering over 70%, with apathy, disinterest, and cynicism, fermenting from within our most observant ranks, relying on some miracle to extinguish this fire seems fanciful. Assuming that our traditions and our faith will survive the inferno on its own seems irresponsible at best.
Experts have made it clear that the destruction of the cathedral could have been prevented. But those charged with its upkeep decided not to put in firewalls, they decided not to put in sprinklers, they decided not to take the necessary steps to prevent its demise. As the EU’s top cultural official said last week, “We are so used to our outstanding cultural heritage in Europe that we tend to forget that it needs constant care and attention.”
We too are so used to our outstanding Jewish heritage, that we tend to forget that it needs constant care and attention. There is no guarantee that those who celebrated the Pesach seder this past year, will celebrate it again in the year to come. We all know people who used to celebrate Pesach and do so no longer.
So how do we do our part in ensuring that this trend gets reversed? What are the fire walls and sprinklers of Judaism? How do we contribute to the safety and the preservation of our beautiful heritage?
This past week, I took my children to an entertainment complex. My six-year-old, Shira, was very excited about the bumper cars and she asked me to watch her. So I stood there watching her and this is what she did. She got in line. There was no line, there weren’t too many people there. The gates opened, she got onto an orange bumper car that was parked right by the exit. The bell rings, engines rev up, and my daughter just sat there in the corner without steering. She just sat there in her orange car for the entire time. Second bell rings, everyone is asked to leave their car. My Shira exits the car and runs to the front of the line to go ride on the bumper cars again. Gate opens and she gets back on the same orange bumper car in the corner and does the same thing once again.
So I finally turn to her and say, “Shira, what are you doing? You just sat in your car in the corner the whole time, and now you’re going back again. What’s the point?”
She explained to me, as only a six-year-old could, that she was sitting in that car in the corner so that when the session was over, she’d be closest to the exit, she’d be able to run out first and therefore be the first in line, so she could get the same car for the next session… brilliant!
But it’s not just six-year-olds on bumper cars who have this childish thinking – we all do! That orange bumper car by the exit is the Shabbos that I experience the same way, every week, every week. That orange bumper car is the prayers that I pray whenever I pray, the same way, every time. That orange bumper car is the Pesach Seder I experience the same way my parents did, every year, exactly the same. I just sit there – and I enjoy sitting there like my daughter enjoyed sitting there – and then I get out until I come back and do it again, in exactly the same fashion.
But there’s no point in just doing it over and over again! In just imitating our past! Preservation needs constant care and attention! It needs our investment of time and energy, not just a rote imitation of what was. The nostalgia will wear off. Nostalgia isn’t enough to keep us going!
I want to share with you a story which I may have shared in the past but it’s certainly worth reviewing. In Chassidic communities they have something called a badchan. A Badchan is a jester. And the jester performs at wedding and special occasions. There is a story that at one of the Gerrer Rebbe’s children’s weddings they had hired a prominent badchan to enhance the simcha. So the badchan began by poking fun at the couple and after a few minutes proceeded to make fun of the Rebbe. Now you see the Rebbe had a very distinctive way of davening. He would shuckle in a very peculiar way, close his eyes, wave his hands- and the badchan, the jester proceeded to imitate the Rebbe perfectly. The whole room was laughing hysterically at his replication of the Rebbe’s prayers. And then all of a sudden, to the jester’s horror, he noticed that the Rebbe, this grand and great rabbi, was crying. This was a chassid’s worst nightmare to insult the Rebbe. He immediately stopped his act and ran up to the Rebbe, threw himself at the Rebbe’s feet and apologized.
“Rebbe, Rebbe,” he cried, “I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to insult you; I was just doing an imitation. Please, please forgive me!”
The Rebbe took the jesters’ hand and held it in his own. He said, “My dear friend I am not insulted that you imitated me. That’s not why I’m crying. I’m crying, because as I watched you perfectly imitate my davening, I realized that so often I too am just going through the motions. I realized that more often than not, I am just imitating myself.”
We’re all just sitting in our orange cars, waiting for the next ride, we’re all just imitating ourselves, we’re all just imitating our past. But to preserve, we need more.
Pesach is the quintessential holiday of memories – Zecher litzias Mitzrayim. Yizkor is the ultimate time to remember – yizkereim Elokeinu l’tova. But memories in Judaism, are not a time to simply get misty-eyed. Memories in Judaism, paradoxically, are fuel for change. V’zocher chasdei avos umeivi go’el livnei v’neihem. G-d remembers our past and changes our future! That’s Jewish memory. Jewish memory is about change, about development, about constantly pushing for more. And to be clear, to preserve our past, we need not necessarily do more, we need to do better, we need to do deeper.
Meaning, I remember the meaningful Seder of my parents and because of that I will make an even more meaningful seder! I remember the charity and the good deeds my parents did, and in their memory, I will give of myself even more! I remember the Shabbos, the prayers, the Judaism, and add to it! That’s how we ensure that our heritage is not consumed in the fires of indifference.
We are the caretakers of our heritage. It’s beautiful. It’s magnificent. But we dare not take it for granted. We dare not fail those who came before us, nor those, who with G-d’s help, will come after us. And so I ask you on this day dedicated to memory, at this time dedicated to memory, to think about what you already do, Shabbos, Pesach, Yizkor, whatever it may be, and to do it deeper. To ask yourself how I could make these practices more meaningful to me and to my family. To learn more about them to study them, to ask questions and try to understand them.
Our Sages teach us that a parent is never jealous of a child. We know our parents had great nachas in us surpassing them professionally, intellectually, and most certainly they will only have great joy in us surpassing them Jewishly as well. Let us cherish the memories of our past and let us use them to preserve and to build an even greater future.
Pesach Yizkor 2017 – Beyonce and My Mother
Ambition and serenity. Accomplishment and acceptance. Change and stability. Future and present. Creation and cultivation.
These are but a few of the conflicting pulls and pushes that we find ourselves torn between; a constant charge to change and to conquer on the one hand, and a sense of silence and serenity on the other.
Historically, different cultures embraced one direction over the other. The Western world, for years, has placed progress on its altar of worship. From the Industrial Revolution and onward, it has been one steady climb higher and higher on the ladder of achievement. Just the same, in the Eastern cultures of the world, the present was chosen over the future. They embraced a sense of being over becoming, contentment over desire.
In fact, David Landes, in his book the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, argues that despite the fact that the East was far more advanced than the West, the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe and not in China precisely because the East embraced the here and now, while the West valued moving forward.
In more recent years, the lines have blurred. CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies pride themselves in doing yoga between conference calls, and the Western version of success has taken root across the globe. Lawyers meditate and Buddhists have Twitter accounts. All of us recognize the need for these two all-important directions, the drive for more, and the need to put on the brakes. What we’re challenged with is balancing the two and living a healthy life with the appropriate dose of each.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, argues that this is precisely the purpose of the Torah, to provide our lives with equilibrium. Six days a week we toil, one day a week we rest, allowing ourselves to find the Divinely-ordained balance between future-thinking and appreciating the moment.
Not only does the Torah address this conflict, it addresses them all. Today we celebrate a holiday with good food, singing, and friends, and tomorrow we begin the mourning period of Sefira, a time during which no weddings take place, live music is frowned upon, and haircuts are forbidden. There is Purim and there is Tisha B’av. It’s important to laugh but it’s also important to cry. The laws of Kosher teach us an allowance to indulge but also to restrain. The laws of Taharat HaMishpacha, of Family Purity, are directed at this same tension. The Torah acknowledges the value of everything but seeks to guide us in finding the perfect balance.
And so in this worldview, the laws of the Torah are not an arbitrary set of instructions. They are a blueprint for finding equilibrium in our lives, and through the Mitzvos, through the vast body of Jewish Law we are taught a perspective, an implicit education about the Jewish approach to life. Yes, it is a set of laws, black and white, and sometimes grey. But they are laws that are meant to paint a colorful picture of values and of principals which should make up our worldview.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday, my wife came home from Seven-Mile with hot dog buns. Hot dog buns! What a shanda! It was the first time we had hot dogs during Pesach in my life! Now these hot dog buns were obviously not bread but made out of potato starch. My children, not realizing this, immediately went to the sink to wash their hands before eating what they thought to be bread!
So let me ask you, is it or is it not appropriate to eat potato starch hot dog buns on Pesach? On the one hand, the Torah does not want us eating bread on Pesach; there’s a value being taught, not only a law, so maybe fake bread shouldn’t be eaten either! On the other hand, the Torah dictates what bread is, and potato starch is not bread!
Yes, I did it eat the hot dog buns, but it’s not so simple when you look at the laws as values and not simply a set of rules.
The Kabbalists take this one step further. They explain that just like individual laws teach us principles, just like Kosher teaches us the need for balance between indulgence and restraint, just like Shabbos teaches us the balance between striving and accepting, so too the laws that relate to men and women, the laws that distinguish between men and women, represent and teach us about the delicate balance between the opposing poles that we began with, between ambition and serenity, between accomplishment and acceptance, between change and stability, between future and present, and between creating and cultivating.
So for example, in Halacha, Jewish Law, men are obligated in saying Shema twice a day, putting on Tefillin, wearing Tzitzis, circumcision, and about ten other Mitzvot that women are exempt from. In Jewish literature, Torah study is emphasized for men and in that same literature, prayer is emphasized for women.
Is that to say that women cannot understand the depth of the Talmud like a man? No, that’s ridiculous. Is that to say that a man cannot pray like a woman? No, that’s equally ridiculous.
What it is perhaps saying is that G-d, in creating two genders, and G-d, in creating differences in the laws that govern those genders, sought to ensure a sense of equilibrium in the world. Prayer is a tool to cultivate a relationship and Torah study, and those aforementioned laws are tools to change the way we think and to transform the physical world. Through the holidays, through the laws, and even through people, G-d created a sense of differentiation to create a sense of balance. Just like abstaining from work on Shabbos brings a sense of ‘being’ and acceptance into our lives, a woman who is exempt from certain laws or who has certain Mitzvot emphasized, brings precisely the same values into our lives, while the men with their emphasis on Mitzvos that change and transform bring their yin to the women’s yang, and together they create a balance in the world.
And just like we asked with the potato-starch hot dog bun, should the bun be eaten or not? We similarly grapple with what precisely are the values that are meant to be taught through this gender-divide.
There are those who take the values they glean to the extreme, claiming that it is forbidden for women to drive a car, to speak before a man, and to have certain types of jobs. And there are others, on the opposite extreme who argue that there is no value being taught whatsoever, and we must find every way possible for women to do exactly what men do in the religious arena.
And I would argue for something, something admittedly ambiguous, and not so clearly defined, but something in the middle – I believe the Torah is teaching us values, the Torah is teaching us the need for these two forces in our lives, the drive for creating and accomplishing, and the sense of serenity and cultivation, both are needed in the human experience. And just like that is somehow accomplished by working for six days and resting on the seventh, and just like we could technically do more things on Shabbos but we don’t because we want to maintain that spirit, I would posit that we similarly, respect that gender-divide; not adding made-up laws to erase women from our society, but respecting the values that 51% of our nation is supposed to teach us.
Okay, so what does this all mean? I’ve been talking all the way up here, let’s talk in real terms.
Let me ask you a question. Who is the #1 role model for young women in April of 2016?
Beyonce! Of course! Beyonce, for all of you who just came down to earth, is a singer, song-writer, owner of fashion companies, and on the side she does some philanthropy. In some regards, I respect her, I really do. But at the same time, she is not the type of woman that I would want my daughters to look up to. Just to name one example, her modesty, and I am not even talking about the way she dresses! Last week she released an album titled Lemonade, which broadcasted to the world that her husband has been unfaithful. That was essentially the theme of the entire album.
In Judaism, there are laws of modesty that govern both men and women, but the laws that govern women are certainly more restrictive. Is it to help men? No. It’s to bring into our shared world a heightened sense of sacredness, a deeper respect for sensitivity, that’s the value that modesty teaches us.
You know who my female role model is? (Because by the way, every human has a feminine side as well as masculine, and both need to be cultivated.) You know who my female role model is? It’s my mother.
She’s a professional. She works full-time and even with six rambunctious children jumping off the walls, she brought tons of work home with her. But to me, she exemplified and exemplifies the ideals we’ve been talking about. She taught me in the way she rushed to prepare for Shabbos. She taught me in the way that she would say Tehillim every single day, before nightfall, and carve out some meaningful time with her Creator.
Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, known for his mastery of Torah, what we described as masculine in some respects, shared the following telling description of his mother: “I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”
I think we could all relate to that on some level. I once stood at this pulpit and mocked those eulogies that make me ravenously hungry; the eulogies where the rabbi gets up and goes on and on about the kneidlach and the Matzah Balls that old Mrs. Gross used to make. And then the children get up and talk about the Strudels and the Kugels and cakes. And I would sit at these funerals thinking to myself, “Really? Is this really all this woman accomplished in her life?”
Personally, I have a rule that I don’t make any food that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat, which limits me to cereal and toast. (My wife, thank G-d does not have the same policy!) And so my mouth would be watering and I’d be exasperated, silently pleading for these ridiculously trivial eulogies to go on.
But that’s exactly the point!!
I may value conquest, I may value achievements.
But there are lessons to be learned from making chicken soup, from the patience, from the sense of nurturing for those who will eat it, and the magical way that those foods represent to all of us the holidays, the Shabbos, Judaism itself.
So no, Judaism does not suggest that women belong in the kitchen, nor does it suggest that women are in any way second-class citizens. What it does suggest, broadly-speaking, is that we, men and women, represent different values, and through the laws of the Torah those values find expression.
Within each and every one of us there is an aspect of masculinity and an aspect of femininity. Our goal is to find the balance within by observing the balance from without. The goal is not in any way to stifle the G-d-given talents and abilities that each of us have been blessed with. We spent the past four sermons describing four remarkable women, Donna Mendes Gracias, Miriam the prophetess, Sarah Schenirrer, and Golda Meir. There are so many more we could add to the list. We could add numerous Biblical women who defied any stereotype that we would expect the “patriarchal” Bible to present. Sarah, the not-so-passive matriarch, Devorah, the judge/ warrior/ prophetess, in later years Yehudis, the brave fighter, and the list goes on.
I don’t think the Torah wants men to have a certain profession and women to have a different one. I don’t think the Torah wants us to view women as Heaven forbid, worse than men.
I think the Torah wants us to see value in cultivation, like a pregnant or nursing woman cares for her child. I think the Torah wants us to see the value of things that are intangible and yet holy, like a chicken soup made for Shabbos. I think the Torah wants us to see value in modesty, both physical as well as verbal through the emphasis on Mitzvos that take place in private or in the home and not in the Synagogue. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in patience, in the strength needed to care for a crying child and a hysterical infant. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in acceptance like the mother who accepts her grown child regardless of what he or she has accomplished. I think the Torah wants to give expression to someone that everyone in this room has met and someone that many in this room will be mourning for in just a moment, and that is our mothers. The love, the patience, the stillness, the warmth, the strength, and the stability, that is the Eishes Chayil, the woman of strength; the Jewish mother, the wife, the daughter, the Jewish women, who through our rich tradition, exemplifies these ideals.
Pesach Yizkor 2018 – Heaven’s Knocking on our Door
Exactly two weeks ago, on March 24th, somewhere between 1 and 2 million people nationwide demonstrated in support of tighter gun-control laws. March for our Lives, as the demonstration was named, was unique, not only because of the size of the demonstration; one of the largest in American history, but far more significantly because of who organized it. Although some claim that it was organized by special-interest groups, who probably did have a lot to do with putting it all together, there is no denying that a driving force in these protests were teenagers, and that’s something worth celebrating.
Is gun-control the solution to mass shootings? What does the Second Amendment really mean? Are protests even effective in impacting gun control legislation? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, as important as they are. The reason I am celebrating, and the reason I believe you should celebrate, whether you would like to repeal the second amendment or you’re a card-carrying NRA member is because it’s good to see teenagers, right or wrong, trying to tackle these issues.
This past week was the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. In one of his most acclaimed papers titled, Kol Dodi Dofeik, he elaborates on a chapter of Shir Hashirim, that we read today. Written by King Solomon, Shir Hashirim is a story of a lover and his beloved which our Sages interpret to be an allegory for the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People.
In the fifth chapter of Shir Hashirim, the beloved, the woman goes to sleep. This, explains our Sages, is meant to represent the Jewish People straying from G-d, allowing their relationship to slide. Nonetheless, the lover, G-d, seeks out the Jewish People.
Writes King Solomon, Kol dodi dofeik, I hear my lover knocking, and He’s saying, pis’chi li, open the door please! Achosi, rayosi, yonosi, tamosi, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfection, please open the door!
But, says the Jewish People, says the woman in the story, huf’shat’ti kutanti, I took off my tunic, I’m lying in bed. I can’t get up now, I’m too tired.
King Solomon describes the woman tossing and turning until she finally does get up but by the time she opens the door, the lover is gone.
The obvious message is that there are times when G-d knocks on our door, and it is incumbent upon us to answer it immediately. To not wait, to not calculate how we should open the door, what we should be wearing… just answer the door! Just show that you heard His knock. Just show Him that you care.
Rav Soloveitchik, in his essay, which I should add was written in the 50’s, explains that G-d, through the establishment of the State of Israel, has been knocking on our collective door. Six knocks to be exact:
The fact that the United States and the Soviet Bloc agreed about something, as they did by voting in favor of the establishment of the State of Israel – that was G-d knocking on our door, letting us know that He is here.
The fact that the tiny defense forces of Israel defeated the mighty armies of the Arab Nations – that was G-d knocking on our door, letting us know that He is here.
The fact that Christians, who for two thousand years have pointed to our homelessness as a proof to us being wrong and are now silenced – that was G-d knocking on our door, letting us know that He is here.
The fact that that Jews had something to take pride in, the fact that the nations recognized that Jewish blood is no longer cheap, and the fact that every Jew knows that he or she has a home – that was G-d knocking on our door, letting us know that He is here.
Since Rabbi Soloveotchik wrote this article, I would add that there is a seventh knock, and that is the incredible success of this young democracy, politically, financially, and otherwise – all of that is G-d knocking on our door, letting us know that He is here.
And the challenge then is to get up from our slumber, from our comfort, from our indifference, and to be moved by G-d’s knocking. To say, “G-d we hear you!” We’re coming to the door, we will change, we will do, naaseh v’nihsma! G-d has not knocked like this since the times of the Exodus. He’s pounding on the door, begging us to wake up.
And yet, these knocks no longer move us. The fact that we live in a Jewish world unrecognizable to our ancestors… we lay in bed and turn over.
Even worse, there are Jews who not only ignore the knocks of Heaven, but they see it as a nuisance. “Why are you waking me up?” they yell. “Having a Jewish State is unethical, immoral, it’s racist!” they say. And they hope that the knocking stops, so they could rest comfortably, undisturbed by their awkward relationship with G-d and even more awkward knowledge of them belonging to a tribe in a post-nationalist world and pretend that no one is at the door.
But G-d still knocks.
He knocks on our collective door as a nation, through the State of Israel, and through the remarkable history of the Jewish People that continues to unfold. And He also knocks on our individual doors, through events that we experience deeply, through news we hear that shakes us, through moments of inspiration that move us, that’s G-d knocking! And He’s waiting, waiting, waiting… Will we answer the door, or will we just sleep on?
That’s why I celebrate those boys and girls who marched in DC and across the country. I applaud them not because they know what they’re doing, not because gun safety can be distilled to slogans, and not because they are right just because they’re the loudest. I applaud them because while their friends are eating Tide pods and snorting latex, while adults are consumed by their work or busy vacationing, these kids noticed that something happened; something happened to some of them directly, like Emma Gonzalez, who lost many friends in the Parkland shooting, something happened and continues to happen to some of them on an ongoing basis, like Naomi Wadler, who witnesses street violence all the time, and some of them just saw what happened from a distance, but they were all moved! They heard a knock on the door, and they got up, and they responded.
In a moment we will be saying Yizkor, and during this sacred time many of you will hear a knock. Not the knock of G-d per say, but the knock of your beloved; of a spouse, of a sibling, of a mother, of a father, of a child. Listen to that soft knock, listen to what it tells you. For some of you it may be a reminder to love your children more deeply. For some of you it may be a call to remember your heritage and the customs and values that your parents lived by. For some of you that knock may be a reminder of an earlier version of yourself; more youthful, more energetic, more optimistic.
All of us will be staying indoors for the first two memorial prayers. The first one we’ll be reciting is for those who died defending the land of Israel. They too are knocking, wondering if they died in vain. They’re hoping that we can still today be moved by the existence of a Jewish State, of millions of Jews living securely. They’re hoping that we too can proudly defend our country and our faith, from external and internal enemies.
The second memorial prayer that we’ll all be saying is for the martyrs of the Holocaust whose knock is getting fainter by the year. I am sure they are wondering, will their memories be limited to monuments, memorials, and platitudes? Or will we answer the door before it’s too late? Will we wake from our slumber and allow the memory of the six million to remind us of our unique place in this world; because while the Holocaust left us with so many unanswered questions, questions of how, and what, and why, one thing that was answered was who – we are the Jewish People, it is a yoke and it is a calling. What a tragedy it would be to let that knock be in vain.
Every day G-d knocks on the door of all of civilization.
Every day G-d knocks on the door of the Jewish People.
And every day G-d knocks on our own individual door, ever so softly.
Let’s not just listen to those knocks.
Let’s answer the door.
It is less than a week before Pesach. This time of year, the streets are normally abuzz with people driving to and fro, picking up groceries and other Pesach goods. This time of year, many are usually welcoming out of town guests into their homes or travelling to loved ones. This time of year, Ner Tamid is usually going through a deep clean, as we would prepare to welcome so many of you for the Siyum for the Fast of the Firstborn, for the many guests at our Second Night Seder, and for the many congregants and friends who would join us for services and classes over the holiday.
But alas, this year is not a normal year.
Though I, like many of you, am experiencing my fair share of fear and anxiety during this time, I am also feeling inspired.* Just about 3300 years ago, our ancestors also experienced a Pesach like no other – the very first Pesach. Then, like now, the streets were empty, as G-d had instructed them to remain at home. Then, like now, there were rumors flying in countless directions, providing comfort to none. Then, like now, there was anxiety in the air as our ancestors were preparing for an unknown.
Five days before Passover, the Jews were instructed to find a lamb and bring it into their home. We could easily imagine the scene, as there were was a mad scramble to find a lamb. I am sure, kind individuals stepped up to help secure a lamb for those who weren’t able to get one themselves. And that finally, after much chaos, a lamb was secured for all who needed one.
In addition to the practical challenge in finding a lamb during this chaotic time, there was also a physical risk. Lambs, were a revered god in the Egyptian world. Bringing a lamb into one’s home would be seen as a terrible affront to the Egyptian populace. For these reasons and more, many Hebrews refrained from finding a lamb. They knew this was G-d’s will but the expenditure was too high and the risk was too great.
There were other Hebrews, our ancestors, who found the courage from deep within and followed G-d’s command, and in doing so displayed more faith than they even knew they had. They fought their fears, their concerns, their demons, and forged forward, holding on to the flickering flame of hope and faith, and in doing so established themselves, at that moment, as B’nei Yisrael, those who would ultimately merit the redemption.
The day this great drama unfolded was Shabbos. It was the Shabbos immediately preceding Pesach, and it became known for all of time as Shabbos HaGadol, the Great Shabbos. Some commentators suggest the term “Great” is in reference to G-d’s ‘great’ protection over our ancestors on that day. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm argues that the greatness of this Shabbos is a reflection of the great faith and courage of our ancestors. Shabbos HaGadol – the day the Hebrew slaves found the greatness that existed within.
Crises are, by definition, challenging, They push us and pull us into uncharted emotional territory. We find ourselves experiencing emotions that we didn’t even know existed and that is frightening.
One of the greatest challenges of a crisis like this one is that there is so little we can do. There is no enemy to fight. There is no person to call for help. We just stay at home as much as possible and hope that we did not contract an invisible disease.
I, for one, never felt so powerless. I am accustomed to responding to problems with solutions and actions. But there are few solutions and limited actions to take, and I find that very challenging.
At the same time, there is a new experience that I find myself encountering – faith. New experience? Yes, new. You see, in Jewish theology, there is a fine line between faith and effort – where and when do we stop exerting our own efforts and turn to G-d? The answer, according to most classical Jewish thinkers, is somewhat elusive. We are never supposed to stop exerting effort, we are expected to do anything and everything in our abilities to change a negative situation into a positive one. Where does that leave room for faith?
Tonight and tomorrow is Shabbos HaGadol. It is the day that 3300 years ago, our ancestors found faith deep within themselves, faith they didn’t even know existed. For the first time in my life, I am finding myself forced to confront my inabilities like never before. But in that vacuum of inability, we have a choice – do we allow it to be filled with despair and helplessness or do we fill it with faith?
I choose to fill it with faith. I choose to close my eyes and imagine G-d’s warm embrace. I choose to submit myself to the knowledge that there are so many things – so many things that I normally fool myself to believe are in my control, but really are not. I choose to accept that I do not understand how and why but ultimately believe there is a higher purpose to it all. I choose to affirm that not all stories have a happy ending, but they do have a meaningful one. On this Shabbos HaGadol, I choose to have faith, and I invite you to join me in tapping into the unbelievably deep reservoirs we all have, and do the same.
There is still much to do. We have houses to prepare for Pesach, we have doctors orders to abide by, we have community members to look out for emotionally, physically, and financially. But in the void that has been ripped open by our current situation, in the moments of raw vulnerability that we are all experiencing, let us, like our ancestors before us, choose faith.
Wishing you a peaceful, healthy, and inspiring Shabbos HaGadol. Allow yourself to find and feel the greatness within. May we experience a great salvation speedily in our days.
With much love,
*If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or addiction recovery and concerned about managing during the holiday, please speak to your mental health provider. Feel free to reach out to me so we can discuss how you can best observe the holiday while ensuring that you remain healthy and well.