The Birds are Getting Louder – Shavuos Yizkor

“No honey, the birds are not louder than before.”

My daughter, like many others, was wondering why the chirping of the birds seemed so loud these days. I explained to her how the birds were not getting any louder, it was the world that was getting quieter. Fewer cars on the streets, fewer planes overhead, creating a quieter soundscape in which the otherwise subtle chirping of the birds can be heard quite distinctly.

It is not only the birds that we hear more clearly these days. Many of us are experiencing our thoughts and feelings far more intensely than usual. The New York Times had an article on the topic of world leaders crying in public, a common occurrence these past two months. Of course, a global pandemic is a good reason to be more scared, anxious, and even more angry than usual. But it is not only the negative emotions that have been intensified. Feelings of hope, love, and inspiration have been amplified as well.

The novelist and poet, Jason Reynolds, once quipped that ‘People always love people more when they’re dead.’ It is a cynical statement with a kernel of truth. The emotions we feel towards our loved ones when they are no longer living is far more powerful than when they are. It could be because our minds play tricks on us and we only remember the positive memories. But I would like to suggest another reason that I will call raw ratzon.

Ratzon is Hebrew for desire or will. The mystics see our desires as the highest part of our existence; what we want to do or who we want to be is who we really are. But we Jews are a practical people and we are asked to constantly express our will into action. It is not enough to respect our parents; we are asked to feed and clothe them. It is not enough to love our fellow Jew; we are asked to lend him money and return his lost object. It is not enough to love God; we are asked to do the Mitzvot to express that love. The purpose of these actions is to make our feelings more concrete by expressing them in the physical world. However, something gets lost in the process. Like when you try to share a powerful feeling or experience to a friend and the friend cannot fully grasp the depth of what you are trying to convey, so too your actions are never full expressions of your thoughts. They always fall short. And so, paradoxically, actions are needed to make our feelings more real and yet, in transforming our feelings into action they are diminished.

There are times when we cannot transform our feelings into actions, such as expressing our love to one who is no longer with the living. We wish we could hug them, kiss them, and spend time together, but we cannot. In such a case all we have is the powerful feelings that well up inside, their intensity intact, undiminished by our feeble actions. The reason we seem to love even more in death is because our desire to love, our ratzon, like a pressure cooker is building up inside.

Perhaps this is why we are all experiencing life in such high intensity right now. There is so much we want to do – so much ratzon – but it cannot be expressed. We want to hug our friends and loved ones, we want to go to our houses of worship; we desire to do so much, but it is just building up inside without being transformed into deeds. We are all experiencing the intensity of unbridled raw desire.

We are living through challenging times, but it is also an opportunity to understand ourselves and grow like never before. Who we are, our wishes and desires, are more accessible to us than ever. Like the chirping of the birds in a world with less noise, our identity, not drowned out by our actions, is bare before us.

Shavuos is a holiday that celebrates the Jewish People proclaiming, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will listen. It was only a wish, a desire, but it was enough. Because it was at that moment of clarity when our ancestors said with deep conviction that all they desired was to live a better life, a Godly life, a life of Torah, that we became a people.

Many of us will be at home for Shavuos unable to say Yizkor like it is normally said. Take a moment to touch and feel the intensity of feelings towards your loved one. Many of us will be eating alone unable to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Take a moment to appreciate how deeply you feel for your family. Many of us will be praying or studying alone. Take a moment to appreciate what community means to you. Relish this unique experience and feel the intensity of your unbridled and raw ratzon.

May we experience very soon the opportunity to express the many deep feelings welling up inside. In the meantime, may we use the quiet to better understand ourselves, to change ourselves, and to grow.

Bamidbar – A Journey of Growth

Bamidbar, literally, the wilderness. Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah and describes the Jewish People’s journey through the barren wilderness. It’s mostly a tragic tale. The Jewish People complain a lot, they die a lot through Divinely ordained plagues and punishments, they rebel against Moshe’s leadership and against G-d, and almost all of them die in this wilderness. 

But while we’re focusing on all these setbacks we miss the most important theme of the book. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) in his introduction to Bamidbar describes it as a book of transitions. The most important transition is how this book begins with the Jewish People not that far from Egypt and concludes with them at the banks of the Jordan. While they were complaining, rebelling, and even dying, they were also taking steps forward to their ultimate goal until they got there. 

The analogy is straightforward. We are all travelling through an uncharted wilderness with loss and setbacks at every juncture. But we’re also making progress. Not only have we transitioned to Phase 1 in many states around the country, but I’d venture to say that for all the personal setbacks, we’ve also grown tremendously. We didn’t really have a choice, did we? Existential questions that our fear, anxiety, and boredom forced us to grapple with. Multi-tasking as we ran schools, playgroups and our businesses from our living room watching our patience unravel thread by thread. Relationship issues that shelter-in-place prevented us from avoiding. 

We so often look for resolution to the spiritual challenges we face thinking that it is only when we ‘pass’ the test that we have accomplished anything. That’s a depressing outlook. Who can honestly say that they have resolved any of their inner conflicts? Perhaps the Book of Bamidbar can remind us that as we struggle, or more accurately because we struggle, we are actually moving forward, closer and closer to our goal. 

How have you grown from this pandemic? 

I know that for all my personal setbacks – and there were many – I feel like I have taken many steps closer to my Holy Land. I hope you too can look beyond the failures and appreciate the growth that you have certainly made. 

A sweet and peaceful Shabbos to you all. 

Yisrael Motzen

Dear Vayikra

Dear Vayikra, 

Let me begin by just putting it all out there. We both know it to be true, but I never had the audacity to say it out loud – I have been ignoring you my whole life. Yes, I’ve given you a nod from time to time, but for the most part, I have never given you the attention that you truly deserve. 

Instead of grappling with the applicability of Korbanos in the modern era on Parshas Vayikra, I lazily defaulted to talking about the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach. On Parshas Tzav and Shmini, I pretended there was no parsha at all! I used Shabbos HaGadol to talk about whatever was on my mind, thinking that no one, myself included, could relate to the inauguration of the Mishkan. In doing so, I failed to mine these texts for their lessons on intentionality and preparedness. 

I’m embarrassed to talk about Tazria-Metzora. Of course, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut would be so much more relevant than “arcane” laws of a mysterious and highly contagious infection understood by few and that necessitated a two-week quarantine. I get it now. No need to say anything at all. 

Acharei Mos and Kedoshim weren’t even that hard to discuss. Family purity and the sanctity of marriage are clearly paramount in Judaism. We even read you on Yom Kippur! As a society, we are clearly falling short of the Torah’s expectations. But you know how long it takes to research the latest on love and relationships? And then, to delicately craft a message on these themes?! It was so much simpler to talk about Rabbi Akiva’s students and the need for greater tolerance and understanding. 

Lag B’omer with its bonfires and mystique were far more appealing than Parshas Emor and a strained discussion on why the Torah disqualifies Kohanim with disabilities. The laws of Shmita and Yovel or the drama of the Six-Day War? I’m sorry, Behar-Behcukosai, you didn’t stand a chance. And then, what I was really waiting for, Chazak chazak v’nis’chazeik! Finally! 

And now, to say, Chazak?! With no Sefer Torah, all alone, reading mournfully from my Chumash?! Chalash, chalash, would be more fitting! I readily admit, I deserved it. I ignored you and you ignored me back. I’ve learned my lesson and now I miss you dearly. 

Please believe me when I say, I have changed!  I yearn to better understand you, and to give you the attention you deserve; to kiss your parchment, your letters, and to hold you near to my heart. Vayikra, I beg you, please take me back. 

With humility and deep yearning, I remain,  

The Rabbi 

Yizkor Initiative

Dear Friends, 

I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones doing well. 

It hurts to write these words, but it is looking extremely unlikely that our beloved shul will be open for Shavuos. For many of you this means missing Yizkor twice this year and I cannot imagine how much that is weighing on you. There is no replacement for the experience of Yizkor; sitting, for many of you, in a seat that evokes so many warm memories, praying together, being inspired together, and then allowing yourself to recall those powerful memories of your loved ones. It is a most personal experience, and yet there is comfort in doing so in the warm embrace of community. 

While there is no replicating this experience, perhaps we can still feel connected to one another this Shavuos as we say Yizkor in our homes in the following fashion: We will be publishing a special Yizkor book for these unique times which we will deliver to your homes. In addition to the regular Yizkor prayers, this booklet will be filled with memories of your loved ones. This way we can connect to those we miss most and do so together as a community. 

To do this, we need your help. Please take a moment to share a response to one of the three questions. For each person you will be remembering this Yizkor: 1) What is the value they lived their life by and how did you see this exemplified? 2) What is your fondest memory of your loved one? 3) If they were here today, what wisdom do you think they would share regarding the pandemic we are living through? 

In addition, please write out the full name of your loved one, as well as their date of birth and passing. If you have a picture you can upload, please share as well. Please email your response/s to no later than Thursday, May 21. 

May God bless us all with much strength and comfort. 

Looking forward to seeing you all as soon as possible,   
Yisrael Motzen

Rabbi, Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue

Don’t Sit in your Old Seat! – a message from G-d

As you read your newsfeed, and start to plan ahead,
For phases and stages, with safety and health,
I have one request before the buildings are full,
Please don’t go back to your old seat in shul.
I closed My shul doors, because I felt too confined,
I hoped that you’d look up and find Me outside.
Living room prayers, with children, and wives,
Singing and dancing, now tefila’s alive.
I had you reach out to the old and the ill,
You ensured they had food, prescriptions you filled.
But My goal was far deeper, I was breaking the chains,
Of constricted social circles to those of your age.
I made you say no to those needing a meal.
A seder alone was truly surreal.
But it’s not just on Pesach they’re feeling this way,
Invisible and miserable is so often their fate.
“V’shinantam l’vanecha” for too long you outsourced.
So I brought the kids home, and to teach you were forced.
Conjugation, formulation, you’re missing the point,
What they need from you is unconditional, love and support.
I’m excited as you are for Shabbos tables with friends,
Of bustling stores, of jobs, and good health,
But please don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned,
And don’t just go back – to your old seat in shul.