by Motzen | Sep 15, 2021 | Sermons
It was a Friday night, in a little shtetl in Eastern Europe. A number of teenage boys were roaming the streets after their Shabbos meal. Teenage boys being teenage boys, they got bored and decided to push some boundaries. Despite it being Shabbos, they decided to go smoke a cigarette. Of course, they couldn’t do so publicly in this very religious shtetl, so they snuck off to one of the barns, one of the boys pulled out a cigarette, and they started to smoke.
Unfortunately for them, someone tipped off their parents. The parents told some of their neighbors. The neighbors told the rest of the town, and before you knew it, the entire shtetl started marching towards the barn, led by the town rabbi. They burst open the doors of the barn, the boys froze. The cigarette is dropped immediately but the barn stinks of smoke; the boys are busted.
Everyone starts yelling and screaming, “Shabbos!!!” But the rabbi silences them. He turns to the adults and whispers, “Maybe the boys are sorry. We need to give them a chance.” The adults stand back.
“Boys,” says the rabbi, “do you have anything to say for yourselves?”
The first boy responds, “Yes, yes, yes, I do. I am, um, terribly sorry. I-I am sorry because I forgot that today is Shabbos.” The people of the town nod their heads in approval.
The next boy comes forward. “I am also sorry. I am sorry because I forgot that you’re not allowed to smoke on Shabbos.” Once again, the townsfolk nod along.
The last boy steps forward. “I am terribly sorry.”
“Nu, what are you sorry for?” asks the rabbi.
“I am sorry that I forgot to lock the barndoor.”
(Heard from Rabbi Judah Mischel)
It’s a cute story. But there’s a powerful lesson here. We’re spending the next 24 hours saying, I have sinned, I am sorry. Which “sorry” will we be emulating? Boy one who “forgot” it’s Shabbos, boy two who “forgot” that it’s forbidden to smoke on Shabbos, or boy three who forgot to lock the barndoor?
My goal is to emulate boy three.
And let me tell you why.
One of the strange things we do on Yom Kippur is repeat ourselves. A lot. We just said Kol Nidrei – three times. We will conclude Neilah by saying, Hashem hu Ho’Elokim over and over again. Throughout the day we will repeat the words, “I am sorry.” We beat our chest and say Viduy, the great apology or confessional, ashamnu, bagadnu, five times in the five shemoneh esreis we say on Yom Kippur, and we repeat it again during the five repetitions. Ten times in total! There is a lot of repetition in Judaism – we are expected to say shemoneh esrei three times a day – but Yom Kippur is unique in its repetitiveness.
In the past I have told you that the reason we repeat viduy so many times is because each time we are going to a deeper place. We begin on level one, spiritually & psychologically, it’s somewhat superficial. As the day progresses, as we progress, as we change and grow through the holiness of the day, we climb the rungs of holiness, of kedusha. Deeper and deeper, higher and higher, until we reach Neilah, at which point, we have ripped away all the psychological barriers to our apologies, we have climbed to the highest rung of holiness, and now we can say, ashamnu and bagadnu at the highest or deepest level.
While that answer is true, there’s another answer that is perhaps even more true, and that is: If we say our confessional ten times, if we apologize over and over again, there is a chance that out of those ten times, we will apologize at least once in a genuine fashion. (Based on the Shibolei Haleket) In other words, we are shooting for a spiritual batting average of .100. One genuine apology. It sounds easily attainable, no?
But it’s not.
Years ago, I remember apologizing to my wife. I wish I remembered what it was about. Like most disagreements, it doesn’t really matter five minutes later. But this was not just any apology. I said all the right words. I even wrote it down in a letter. I acknowledged all of my shortcomings. I recognized the impact they had.
Well, Hindy gave me permission to share with you that the apology fell incredibly flat. It didn’t resonate at all.
What I learned that day is that an apology is not judged by the words we use or even the truths we reveal. It is judged by the sense of presence that we experience in the process. Are we really here apologizing? Or am I just standing here, just saying or writing words, but “I,” me in the fullest sense, is not really here. That’s why my apology fell flat, and that’s why it’s not so easy to properly say Viduy on Yom Kippur. To be present, to see and know who we are standing before and to speak from the heart, is no easy task.
The term we use to describe that sense of presence is vulnerability, the act of truly opening up to someone else. Despite my eloquence and saying all the right words, my apology betrayed no vulnerability whatsoever.
These days, it’s very hip to be vulnerable; everyone’s sharing everything about their lives to one another, everyone’s saying I am sorry, everyone is acknowledging their fears, and there’s a part of me that is so tired of hearing that word. Doesn’t vulnerability lose its magic if everyone is being vulnerable?
But the truth is, what we are surrounded by is not vulnerability; it’s faux vulnerability. It’s the cheap stuff.
Vulnerability is judged not by what you say, but by how it makes you feel. If it is an act of revelation – of revealing oneself, it should make you a little uncomfortable. If it does, it’s a sign that you’re doing it right. Otherwise, it’s a fake. Otherwise, you aren’t really here; you’re standing here, your lips are moving, but you’re communicating, not from your heart, but from somewhere else entirely.
So yes, we will say the same apology over and over and over again with the hope that one time it will come out right. Because it’s not easy at all. But vulnerability is what G-d really wants from us. Rachmana liba ba’i. Hashem wants our heart. He wants us fully. He wants us to stand before Him – an awareness of ourselves and an awareness of who we are standing before.
Rav Chaim Brisker explains that there are two essential components to prayer; knowing what we’re saying, and the knowledge that we are standing before G-d. People tell me all the time how they struggle with prayer. They could read the English translation, but they don’t really understand the words. I get that; it’s not easy to really understand all the words even if they’re translated into English. But standing before G-d; closing our eyes and imagining, or not even imagining but acknowledging that we are standing before the Creator of the World, that we are in an audience with our Father, our true Father, that’s something we can all strive for regardless of how much we know.
But it takes vulnerability to do so. And on no day, does it take more vulnerability than today. I’ll speak for myself here. On Yom Kippur, I am going to say, I am sorry for things that… I am not sure if I could really change. I am going to say I am sorry, knowing that in a week from now, maybe a day from now, I will be doing those things again. I want to change, but I’ve been here before. I don’t know if I can.
And so, I do what I did when I apologized to Hindy, I say the words, but I am not always fully present. How could I be?
A little while ago, someone I know quite well called me to discuss an issue. The man on the phone told me he recently realized he’s gay, he told me he’s now in a relationship, and he’s confused. Not confused about being gay or about his relationship, mind you, but about whether or not he could identify as an Orthodox Jew. He asked me what I thought.
This is what I told him. I said, “I don’t speak for G-d. I don’t know what He is thinking. But I do feel very confident in telling you the following:
You show up. You turn to G-d and acknowledge who you are – no matter who you are. You turn to G-d and acknowledge what you do – no matter what you do. Be present. Be honest. Because G-d loves you. He will love you no different than He did last year. If anything, if anything, He will love you more for being honest, for being vulnerable with Him.”
Now before you get a little ‘judgy’ about my friend, let’s all be honest here – Show me a person who has no internal contradictions and I’ll show you a person who has zero self-awareness. We are all full of inconsistencies, and if we were to be honest with ourselves, that is one of the great impediments to fully standing before Hashem. We ask ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, “Does He really love me? Does He want to hear from me?”
The answer is yes. He does love us. He does want to hear from you and He does want to hear from me. Not just the words. Rachman liba ba’i. He wants us fully. He wants our heart. And to stand before Him fully we need to be vulnerable, we need to be honest, and it’s not easy! It hurts to be vulnerable! That’s why we don’t like experiencing it. And that’s why we need to say the words over and over again until we get there.
That boy who was sorry for not locking the door – obviously that is not the be-all of teshuva, of course not! We need to change from who we are, always. But his apology was far more honest than mine. His self-awareness, his honesty is where and how the process of change begins.
Throughout this Yom Kippur, we will stand in silent prayer five times. We will say, I am sorry, over and over again. Can we be fully present before G-d? Can we close our eyes and recognize that we are standing before the Creator of our world; a Creator who breathed life into our nostrils, who felt the world was incomplete without us? Can we envision and appreciate what it means to have an audience with the Master of the Universe who created this beautiful planet and all the galaxies? Can we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with gratitude as we stand before Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, who guided our people from Egypt to the Land of Israel, from the Holocaust to the State of Israel, from the beginning of time until today? Can we be filled with warmth knowing that we are standing before our Father, who wants nothing more than for us to be honest with Him, to open ourselves up, to share our dreams with Him, our aspirations, a Father who loves us – no matter what. Can we experience this for just one moment out of these next 24 hours?!
That’s my goal for Yom Kippur. To truly stand before G-d. And when I’ve truly internalized that I am standing before Him, to say, with a full heart, with genuine vulnerability, I am sorry Hashem for leaving the barn door unlocked.
by Motzen | Sep 10, 2021 | Sermons
I was young (younger?), single, living here in Baltimore. I was expected to start dating like many of my friends. It was assumed that I would continue studying at Ner Israel and start taking night classes at the master’s program I was accepted to at Johns Hopkins. But I couldn’t.
I had an itch, a bug, something that was compelling me to put it all on pause. It was something that I could not quite articulate, but I knew, I just knew, that I had to head back to Israel. And so I did.
I had previously studied in Israel in a Hesder Yeshivah known as Kerem B’Yavneh. The Yeshiva is a few feet away from Kibbutz Yavneh. Aside from the terrible stench from the cows and chickens, it was the most idyllic place on earth. Away from the hustle and bustle of Israel’s major cities, this farmland-turned-yeshiva was the perfect place for a post-High School teenager to study Torah and grow spiritually without any distractions.
This time, I decided to study in the center of Jerusalem. Not just in the center of Jerusalem, but in the largest yeshiva in the world with approximately 9,000 students, the Mir Yeshiva.
Allow me to take you on a little journey into a day of my life during that special year.
The apartment I lived in, if you could even call it that, was what we call a hole in the wall. You had to walk up three flights on a rickety staircase over a courtyard that looked like it was bombed out by the Jordanians. The apartment itself had two bedrooms packed with 10 beds. There was a narrow hallway to a single bathroom, which also doubled as a kitchen. The bathroom, an add-on structure to the original building, was encased in aluminum siding, which was frigid in the winter and deathly hot in the summer. The bed I slept on was cracked in the middle. I knew this because my mattress was so thin, I could feel every time another piece of wood snapped away.
And I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Those ten months were the best ten months of my life.
I’d wake up in the morning to the sound of a rooster. That’s right, one of our neighbors had a rooster that crowed out at the crack of dawn. I’d jump out of bed, make my way around the block to this huge complex known as the shtieblich. If you think Rabbi Eichenstein’s shul is a minyan-factory, you haven’t seen anything. (Thank G-d, almost no one drives in Meah Shearim, so there were no parking issues!) The shtieblich had more rooms than I could count and every fifteen minutes a new minyan would start. The amazing thing was that despite us calling it a minyan factory, which gives us the impression of people standing at an assembly line praying, the people there really davened. No one talked. No one seemed to be daydreaming. At least that’s the way I remember it. There was a palpable energy in the room, as people started their day, thanking G-d for the good in their lives, begging Him for help, for health, and just connecting with their Creator.
I finished praying and ran over to the Mir Yeshiva’s cafeteria. In the Mir, there were set seats in the dining hall. I sat with a group of Yiddish speaking chassidim. I am not a chassid and I don’t speak any Yiddish. I sat there deliberately. My goal that year was to be laser focused on spiritual growth, and I wanted to eat without any distractions. I sat down at this table every day, I nodded at the chassidim, they nodded at me, and they’d continue their conversation in fast-paced Yiddish, while I quickly ate my meals.
Now I have no good way of describing to you what comes next. With the exception of quick meals and Mincha and Maariv, I’d spend the next 15 hours immersed in Torah study. If you haven’t experienced it, you can understand what I mean intellectually, but it was so much more than an intellectual experience.
Imagine for a moment – a thousand students, crammed into a study hall. A thousand students! Now imagine those students studying in pairs of two – at full volume! But when you walk in the room, you don’t see pairs of two. You see and you feel a mass of people swaying, singing, arguing, as one. I’ve been to Ravens games, I’ve been to hockey games, I am telling you the energy does not come close. People are not on their phones, no one seems to be distracted, it is 1000% immersion into the holy texts of our tradition. It’s like a roaring wave and it just pulls you in.
I sit down next to my study partner, and we start to read the text. We open commentaries, we debate the finer points of what they’re saying; we become one with this mass of people and one with the text. Before I know it, the first study session has gone by. We have not moved from our seats for the last three hours.
The Rosh Yeshiva, the dean, enters the room. The people by the door notice his entrance and immediately rise, the people in the next rows follow suit, and like the wave at a ball game, all one thousand people in the room jump to their feet. The study hall is perfectly silent, you can hear a pin drop, as the Rosh Yeshiva makes his way to the podium to deliver a lecture.
The Rosh Yeshiva at this time was a man by the name of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He grew up in Chicago, he went to Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a modern Orthodox school in Skokie, Illinois, and even played on their basketball team. He was 62 at the time I met him. He looked like he was 85. And that’s because he had advanced Parkinson’s. He would shake violently due to his illness, and it was clearly very taxing on his frail body.
Despite the fact that he spent a good part of his day lying down due to his illness, and despite the fact that it was sometimes hard to hear what he had to say, a few things shined through brilliantly; his love for people – he had a smile that could light up the world. He made time for anyone who wanted his attention. And he was a paragon of good middos. A friend of mine once watched him, after a ten-minute laborious walk down his block with the assistance of two aides, turn around, go back home, because he realized he had forgotten to say goodbye to his beloved wife before leaving their home.
The other thing that shined through was his love for Torah. He sat down in the front of the room with two microphones on either side of him – so that even when he moved, the microphone would catch his words, and he immediately jumped into a deep discourse on the page of Talmud that we were studying. I remember one time, as the lecture carried on, I sensed that his voice was getting weaker and weaker. And then it just stopped. He literally taught until he had no energy left to speak.
He was our hero. We emulated him in our behavior, our attempt at kindness and personal growth. And we emulated him by studying until our bodies forced us to stop. And so late at night, we’d begrudgingly close our books only when we felt spent. We’d make our way back to our apartment, quickly change out of our clothes, and fall into a deep sleep, at times dreaming of the Talmudic dialogue that we just engaged in.
Every week, usually on Fridays, I would walk to the Kotel. I left the enclave of Meah Shearim and entered the Jerusalem that many of you are more familiar with. But despite the hustle and bustle that surrounded me, I was lost in my thoughts. That walk, to me, was symbolic of my entire year. It was like I was meditating on a mountaintop on my own, but I was also surrounded by a sea of the loudest and noisiest people on earth. It was the strangest mix of noise and silence I have ever experienced, and it was sublime.
Friday is usually a quiet day at the Kotel; everyone in Israel is running around getting ready for Shabbos. So I usually had a few feet of the wall to myself, to pray. To stand there, just a few feet from the Temple Mount and all of its history. To talk to G-d, b’himotzo, where He is found. To stand close to His presence. To caress the stones that millions of Jews caressed before me. To add my tears to the river of tears that were shed at this wall…
When people ask me what spirituality is, my mind immediately goes back to those months in Jerusalem. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe it wasn’t as long. Maybe it was a single event. Maybe it was spending some time in Israel. Maybe it was sitting in shul with a parent or a holiday meal with your grandparents. Maybe it was a time a Jewish melody touched your soul. Or really anything at all. Experiences of transcendence vary widely, but I imagine we all have a spiritual memory or a set of spiritual memories that reside in a special place in our heart. If you’ve chosen to live a Jewish life – whatever a Jewish life means to you, if you’re sitting here today, there is likely a memory, or a set of memories that are fueling your connection. Those moments in which you have this almost out-of-body experience, or maybe a sense of calm and being at peace. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?
They’re beautiful but thinking about them years later could also be depressing.
Because you see it’s only because we’ve tasted moments like these, that we now know how much we’re currently missing. It is only because our life was at one point so vibrant that we now feel such a void. The greater the previous high, the lower we now feel.
In the words of one contemporary poet, “The memory of that momentary blaze… can become a reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time.” (Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss)
I now have five beautiful, rambunctious children vying for my attention. I have a family to support, a congregation to serve. I don’t even think I could concentrate for that many hours if I wanted to. I am not going back to Israel and living the life of a pseudo-ascetic. Those days, with all that powerful energy is behind me. And that makes me sad.
Studies have shown that our most memorable memories typically take place between the ages of 15 and 30. That’s because it’s during that time when we experience our first love, our first kiss, our independence, our first job, our first big decisions. As life goes on, things become more familiar and a little less memorable. So is that it? Is all the excitement of life behind us all? That feeling of energy, of flow, is it just a distant memory?
And if that is the case, if all we have is stability and that’s all we care for, if all we have is the same as yesterday, then, to put it in the bluntest fashion possible, what’s the point of living for tomorrow? Is that the goal? Is that our desire, to live in a perpetual repetitive, Groundhog’s Day loop, until one day we die?
I sure hope not. And I don’t think it has to be.
I’ve come to realize that those memories of my spiritual highs haunt me due to a fundamental mistake we all make about the process of teshuva. Teshuva, repentance, spiritual growth, the theme of these holy days, is normally seen as an exercise in retrospectivity. In the past I was good. I need to return, to get back there. Isn’t that what the word teshuva means, after all? To return? I look back to this past year, to think about the mistakes I’ve made, and to ask G-d for forgiveness. I asked him to erase all the mess I’ve made, to clean me up, so I go back to the innocent, uplifting, spiritual, and idealistic self that existed decades ago.
I am constantly looking back, but that is fundamentally wrong. Maybe wrong is too harsh of a word, but it is the most superficial level of teshuva.
Allow me to read to you the words of the Aish Kodesh, Rav Kolynomous Kalman Shapira, from a sermon he gave in the Kovno Ghetto in 1941. He is explaining the connection between the New Year, the anniversary of the creation of the world, and repentance. He writes:
“The time for teshuva is Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of the world. This is because teshuvah… is also a kind of creativity. The Hebrew word teshuvah means repentance and return. However, as a creative act, teshuvah is not a simple return. We return to what we are meant to be but have not yet become. We return to growth and possibility that has lain dormant within us and not yet flourished, much as a sculpture lies hidden within a brute block of stone.”
We are here today, and frankly, we are here every day of our lives, not to pine for the days of old, of what was, of who we once were. That is lifeless. We are here to look forward; to create something new. The new reality looks nothing like those memories of old because our new growth is a creative response to who we are today.
It may not feel as great as our feelings of the past – and that’s okay. That’s a function of our age, we need stability and form to our lives. But that does not in any way, preclude us from changing, from injecting new and fresh meaning into our lives.
In just a moment we will blow the shofar, the staccato of the teruah, the broken sound of the shevarim, each sandwiched within the uninterrupted tekiah. The shofar blow is a prayer, a primal scream of the soul. It is a prayer that begins and ends with stability, with the things, the good things, to remain the same, like the Tekiah – that straight, unbroken sound. But tucked within that prayer is an aspiration and a commitment. The broken, jarring sound of the shevarim-teruah cry out: “G-d we will shake things up, we will not be the same person this coming year. We will create! There will be disruption of the most beautiful kind, in my relationship to my family, in the development of my character, in the relationship to my faith, in my relationship to you, Hashem!”
Ladies and gentlemen, will we just resign ourselves to accept that the great spiritual highs of our lives are all behind us? Or that whatever remains will just come our way – on its own? I, for one, refuse to accept that. But that means that I must, we must, create something new.
I remember flying home from Israel after that whirlwind of spiritual highs. As the plane took off, I remember looking out the window and watching the land of Israel, the source of my powerful emotions, get smaller and smaller and smaller. Eventually, I stopped craning my neck and turned around. For the first time, I noticed my surroundings. There was an elderly man sitting next to me, who introduced himself and we started chatting. A stewardess came by to offer me my kosher meal, which I thanked her for. And a little boy in the seat in front of me, turned around to stare at me. I gave him a little wave. He laughed and waved back.
It was time to stop looking back. It was time to start planning for my next destination.
It’s time for all of us to start planning for that next destination.
by Motzen | Sep 9, 2021 | Sermons
I’d like to begin with a little poll: Chocolate or vanilla?
Which taste do you like better?
Music from the 80’s, 90’s, or the past two decades?
Spicy food or sweet food?
Modern art or renaissance art?
Thank you to all those who participated. I wasn’t keeping track of who likes what, but it’s quite clear that we do not all agree, and that is fine. Isn’t it?
In Israel, there is a phrase, “al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach, regarding taste and smell, there is no reason to argue.” It’s a proverb coined by Avraham Shlonsky, a Russian poet, and it doesn’t need much explaining. We have different tastes, it’s as simple as that. Some of it is genetic, some of it is the environment that we grew up in. You stop arguing about such things when you graduate, I don’t know, elementary school because it’s silly. Al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach.
Let’s continue our poll: Is the temperature in our main sanctuary too hot, too cold, or Goldilocks-perfect?
How about the pace of services on a typical Shabbos – too fast or too slow?
Once again, we could invoke al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach, there is no perfect temperature and there is no perfect davening pace. But these types of questions evoke a liiiittle bit more emotion, don’t they? Maybe because my taste on these questions have a direct bearing on you.
How about this one – Trump or Biden?
Masks or no masks?
It just got really hot in here, didn’t it?
Aside from being mad at me for bringing up politics and the most divisive questions of 2021 on the first day of Rosh Hashana, you may also be wondering what those questions have to do with this list. Mask-wearing and who to vote for are not questions of taste. They are questions of morality, of beliefs, of right and wrong.
That’s what it would seem, but it’s not so simple.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt is a prominent social psychologist and professor at NYU. In one of his best-selling books, The Righteous Mind, he lays out the case to describe our inner moral system as taste receptors. Just like we have all different tastes in food, in music, and in temperature, we also have different tastes in morality. This is not an analogy. He means it literally. Citing an exhaustive collection of data, he argues that just like our DNA defines how we respond to certain tastes, our genetic code significantly impacts our moral judgment.
His theory, again, backed up with significant evidence, is that we are born with moral inclinations that are predisposed to certain political parties and ideas. Each of us are born with a full palette of moral taste buds. And just like we are born with differing tastes for different foods, some of us have moral taste buds that are more strongly geared to one form of morality over others. Some of us are born with a strong moral “taste” for fairness and protecting the vulnerable. These people will likely, but not necessarily, vote Democrat. Some are born with moral taste buds that are especially sensitive to loyalty, respect of authority, the notion of sanctity, and liberty. These people will likely, but not necessarily, vote Republican.
To be clear, by saying that our moral taste buds are genetic, he does not mean that they are static. No one here liked brussels sprouts the first time they ate them, and no one here liked Scotch the first time they drank some (– despite pretending otherwise). Our moral taste buds are also malleable. Through nurture, through our social surroundings, they can change.
The implication of this theory cannot be overstated. This would mean that my moral decisions and your moral decisions are less a function of reason, and more a function of DNA. Which would mean that when we argue about moral issues, to some extent we are arguing over what tastes better, chocolate or vanilla.
Now some of you are likely quite offended by what I’m saying, silently screaming, “No! My political views are guided by pure reason!” (Which of course implies that the other person’s political views are guided by a lack of reason.) I know this is a lot to swallow. I know that you all feel like I have insulted your intelligence and all I have accomplished thus far, is uniting this very diverse crowd in a dislike for me. Okay.
But let’s run with this for a moment, or at least the possibility that it’s true. If Dr. Haidt’s theory is correct, then I cannot think of a more important idea to share with you this Rosh Hashana. Because if 2020 was the year of uncertainty, then this past year was the year of divisiveness. Elections that are still being contested almost a year later, bipartisanship of any sort being grounds for dismissal from one’s political party, an attack on the Capitol which left people dead and numerous police officers committing suicide in its wake, and none of this deep hatred is limited to Washington, which would be bad enough. It surrounds us, it’s in this room!
To make matters worse, we are shockingly masked up again, not only because of the Delta variant but because of a national debate over the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and because of a deep and growing distrust of the medical establishment – a distrust of any and all establishments. Covid killed millions of people. Divisiveness is destroying whatever is left.
And thanks to these national debates, our immediate surroundings, the Jewish Orthodox community we live in, is fracturing even further. We are a nation divided. We are a people divided. We are a community divided. This has been a year of divisiveness like no other.
In the leadup and aftermath of the elections, it was truly disturbing to hear friends discuss those who voted for a different party than them. For some reason, everyone assumes I vote for the same party they do. (They forget that I am Canadian, and I did not vote for anyone.) But they were candid, and this what I heard: “All liberals are socialist snowflakes.” “All conservatives are dishonest and immoral.” If you’re a mask-wearer, all those who don’t wear a mask are selfish. If you are not a mask-wearer, all those who do are sheep.
And once we’re at it, let’s be honest, how do we feel about our fellow Jews? Some of us may struggle with our relationship to Jews of different denominations, seeing them as cheapening and ruining our faith. Some of us may struggle with our relationship to other Orthodox Jews, seeing them as fundamentalists who are trampling on others to further their cause. And everyone is too right or too left – except for us. Mm hmm.
In the mid-1800’s, the Chassidic movement, still in its infancy, was being ripped apart by in-fighting. The center of much controversy was Rav Nachman of Breslov, a man known for his over-the-top statements and outlandish behavior. His followers were persecuted, chased out of many a town. Rav Nachman’s prime student, Rav Nosson penned an important piece where he explained to his followers that they should not bear any ill-will against those who persecuted them. Why? Because their opinions, the theories that animated their hate for the Breslov movement, stemmed from their unique shoresh haneshama, the root of their soul. Referring to the big fights in the Chassidic movement, he suggested that there is no right and wrong, it was a matter of individual souls being rooted in different places in the Heavens, and therefore possessing very different views. What Dr. Haidt describes as moral taste buds, Rav Nosson described as ‘roots of the soul.’ But they both agree, we have innate differences of opinion.
So maybe, just maybe, we can begin this year, coming off of a year filled with so much hate with a mantra. A mantra of al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach. To run with the possibility that most people are not malicious, nor are they dumb. They, like us, are assessing every situation with a moral compass, only that our moral compasses, like our souls, are hard-wired differently. Of course, there are limitations to what is considered moral, and as believing Jews, the goalposts of morality are not that wide, but wider than we often assume. Al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach. Let’s start there.
But it’s not enough. Al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach teaches us to stop arguing and hopefully stop hating. But we are encouraged to love every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike. We are commanded to love every Jew. Is this a Mitzvah that we can proudly say we fulfil?
This Mitzvah is important every day and especially today. The very first historical recording of the Jewish People celebrating Rosh Hashana, in the book of Nechemia, describes our ancestors, not listening to the Shofar, not spending the day in shul, not doing tashlich, or dipping apples in honey. Nechemia instructs the Jewish people to go home and to give gifts to one another and to establish new relationships. Why is that? Why are they told to be loving on this day?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana, 1) explains that on Rosh Hashana, the day that G-d chose to create us, which was an act of kindness and love, the greatest act of kindness! He does not need us. He chose to create us to give, to love. On this day we emulate Him by doing the same. Olam chesed yibaneh, G-d created the world, the ultimate act of love, and we are asked to create our own worlds of love, starting today. So how do we do so?
Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson, a journalist and speaker, once described the difference between anti-Semites and Jews. An anti-Semite says, “I hate the Jewish People.” “The Jewish People are thieves.” “The Jewish People are a parasite.”
And then you ask this anti-Semite, “Okay, but what about your dentist, Dr. Weinstein?”
“Dr. Weinstein? He’s an exception.”
“And Stanley Green, your accountant? Don’t you trust him?”
“Oh, Stanley. He’s the most honest guy I know. But the rest of the Jews – they’re terrible.”
A Jew says, “I love the Jewish People. Am Yisrael chai. I would give my life for the Jewish nation.”
And then you ask him, “But what about Shloime, your neighbor? You know, the one you don’t talk to.”
“Shlomie? He’s an absolute jerk. Do you know what he did to me?!”
“And that group of guys who broke away from your shul and started their own minyan?”
“What a bunch of rabble-rousers, chutzpinyaks!”
The anti-Semite hates the Jewish People but has no problem with individual Jews. The Jew loves the Jewish People, but particular Jews… eh.
So how do we do it? How do we love not just “the Jewish People” but each Jewish person, especially today, when the disagreements run so deep? This is a Mitzvah we can all rally around. Loving your fellow Jew is not controversial. And yet, sometimes, it’s really hard to perform.
One of the exercises I do with my high school students, is I ask them to describe themselves. They typically tell me about their interests, about their favorite classes, and what they do in the summer. Try the same exercise in a non-Western country and you’ll hear another category of self-identification. The students, in non-Western countries will answer, “I am a child of my parents.” “I am part of this nation.” “I am a part of my family.” They will describe themselves and identify themselves as part of a group of people.
One of the great ideas that the Enlightenment brought to the Western world was the notion of individualism. Individualism, at its finest, means that every human is endowed with liberties and rights and this idea changed the world. It was the idea that helped overthrow tyrannical kings, it ended slavery, and it animated the civil rights movement, bringing personal rights and freedom to all.
But there is an underbelly to this idea, a negative and unintended consequence; the notion that each of us stand completely apart from one another, that we are a world onto our own, that I have no responsibility to anyone but myself; the goal of life, in this worldview, is to actualize my potential and to live my dream. Family may play a supporting role, and I will care for them, but my sense of self is exactly that – my self. Whereas in the ancient world, my identity was my family, my faith, my country. In the modern Western world, my identity is me.
Over the past twenty years, this notion of me being the center of the universe has been amplified and distorted. Think about it – the marketplace is no longer a place to sell ideas, we now sell ourselves, and incredibly – people are buying it. Reality television was the first hint to this phenomenon. Facebook posts highlighting my vacations, my dinner, my pet cat, liked by hundreds and thousands of people, make me believe that I am the center of the universe. Tik Tok videos of me dancing, talking, of me videoing my parents yelling at me, shared all over the internet, all reinforce one idea – we are all on a stage and we are all the star actor.
The Kabbalists explain that we all share one soul, what they describe as a nefesh k’lali. By all, I mean the entire world, not just Jews. But for today, or maybe for this year, let’s start small, seeing ourselves as one entity with the Jewish People. Not in the abstract, but with every particular Jew. You know what, forget every Jew! Can we see ourselves as one with every Jew in Baltimore? Can we do so with every Jew in this room? One entity.
How does seeing ourselves as one help anything?
It helps a lot. Franz Kafka, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, grappled with the same question we are. He wrote, “What do I have in common with Jews?” Is that now what so many of us grapple with? How can I have something in common with Jews who are so different, who are so dangerous, who are acting so foolishly?
Listen to his answer: “What do I have in common with Jews?” he asked. And he answers, “I hardly have anything in common with myself.” “I hardly have anything in common with myself.”
As individual people, we are made up of a mess of good and bad, pride and shame, but we still like ourselves, don’t we? Despite some characteristics that we are quite embarrassed of. No? Can we look at the people around us with the same compassion? You’re a part of me, I am a part of you. We are one. That’s what it means to see ourselves as one. The same compassion we have towards our own shameful qualities, can we direct some of that self-love to others? Can we?
So we now have a floor, and we have a ceiling. At the floor, the lowest place we’ll be this year, we have the saying, al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach. We will fight for science, and medicine, for morality. But we will also realize that some people are hard-wired very differently than we are. And hopefully that phrase will catch us from stooping to saying or even thinking things that disparage others; not dumb, not evil, just hard-wired differently. The ceiling, what we are aspiring to is to see ourselves as one. What the Kabbalists describe as nefesh k’lali, a collective soul.
I imagine some of you are still stuck. It’s a lot to swallow, I get it. So allow me to conclude by sharing with you one final story. It’s a story I did not initially believe until I heard it from the granddaughter of the man it happened to, someone I trust, Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg from Boca Raton Synagogue, and it goes like this:
Yocheved, her last name was then Bruckstein, was a young girl in sleepaway camp, at Camp Chedva. On visiting day, her parents and grandparents came to see her. As they were walking through the campgrounds together, her grandfather walked by another older gentleman and nodded hello – and kept on walking. Yocheved’s father was curious. “Who is that man, dad? I’ve never seen him before.”
The grandfather initially tried to brush it off. “It was nobody.” But that made his son even more curious. “Who is he?”
And so finally the grandfather said, “He was my best friend before the war.”
“Your best friend before the war?! And all you did was nod?! What’s going on, dad? Why didn’t you give him a hug, or even talk to him?” The grandfather stopped walking. “Let’s find a seat, I want to tell you a story.”
They found a place to sit, and the grandfather continued. “As you know, I had a wife and a son in Romania before the war. I saw the writing on the wall; I knew what was coming so I got visas for myself, my wife, my son, and my in-laws, and I had plans to leave just before the Nazis arrived.”
“The day before I left, I went over to the house of my best friend; we used to study together, we shared so many ups and downs together, I couldn’t leave without telling him. I told him about the visas, I told him they were hidden away and that tomorrow I would be leaving. And we hugged each other goodbye.”
“The next morning, I went to get the visas – but they were gone. And so was my friend and his family.”
“The Nazis came, we were deported to Auschwitz, and I lost everyone; my in-laws, my beloved wife, and my precious son.”
The son could not believe his ears. “Dad, a moment ago I wanted to know why you didn’t hug him, now I want to know why you didn’t punch him in the face? He killed your family?! How could you even say hello to him?!”
And the grandfather replied, “Son, it was a different time. People were scared, people acted in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. We cannot understand it. We just have to move on.”
Friends, we are living in a time of violent divisiveness, sinat chinam run wild, not just out there, but here. In our community, in our shuls, in our families. It does not have to be so. If Mr. Bruckstein could find it within himself to “move on” with the person who quite literally caused the death of all the people he loved, there is almost nobody that we cannot forgive.
We need to be compassionate with the knowledge that we are all hard-wired differently. No one is dumb, we are different. Al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach. At the very least, let’s stop fighting over matters of taste. We need to strive to internalize the reality that we share a nefesh k’lali; we are one. Lastly, even when we know people who have made terrible decisions, decisions that are lethal – when the dust settles, when this saga is all over, we need to forgive and to forget; we need to move on.
Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad, bless us our Father, together as one.
by Motzen | Sep 5, 2021 | Sermons
Every once in a while, quite often actually, I am asked what my vision for the shul is. “What’s your dream, Rabbi, for Ner Tamid?”
Really these questions are a cover for very particular question. Though people use broad words like vision, or dream, they’re really just trying to avoid using a word that rhymes with pizza. Or maybe metzitza. And like pizza and metzitza, it’s a topic that is controversial and gives many people indigestion.
But today, it’s the last Shabbos of this crazy year, so I will answer the question. You’re ready?
This is my vision, my dream for Ner Tamid:
This past week, someone joined us for evening services. He was in mourning and asked to lead davening. He also happened to be a Satmar chossid, and so his davening sounded something like this: “Boo-reech ahtaw…” I loved it because I dream of a shul in which Jews of all stripes feel comfortable in these walls. All Jews. And that means that on Shabbos, no one should be able to find parking for at least five blocks around the shul, not because we endorse driving to shul on Shabbos but because people who do feel comfortable coming to our shul. It means that in the shul, you will see streimels and t-shirts, black hats and doilies, kippot srugot and no covering at all. All Jews. A shul in which Jews of all races, orientations, and all identifications can say this place is my spiritual home.
Though we sometimes struggle with our weekday minyan, what I love about it is its intimacy. It is such a small crowd that everyone seems to know each other’s name, everyone knows when a regular is missing. I dream of a shul where we may not all be best friends – that’s not realistic, but where everyone knows everyone’s name. A shul in which, if someone is missing even for a Shabbos, they get a call or a text to let them know they were missed.
Many children in this shul went to camp this summer. I love sleep away camp. The energy that is generated in those setting is very hard to replicate anywhere else. In speaking to these boys and girls there is one recurring theme – regardless of where they went to camp, one of their top highlights is Friday night services in camp, in which the campers, their counselors, the head stuff would welcome Shabbos with beautiful energy-filled singing and dancing. The energy in summer camps is awesome. I dream of a shul in which every Shabbos tefilah is like camp. A shul in which no one feels any inhibitions and lets loose with full-throated singing, with spirited dancing, every time the siddur opens.
Someone who is part of our community told me he’s going to Uman this Rosh Hashana. Every year there is a mass pilgrimage of Jews who go to the site of Rav Nachman of Breslov’s grave and celebrate Rosh Hashana there. These men leave their wives back at home – it’s men only. Someone sent me a meme in which a man tells his wife he’s going to Uman for Rosh Hashana and she says, “No problem. When you’re at the holy site, do yourself a favor and pray for a good shidduch.”
These people go to Uman because they can’t find services that are so soulful in America. I dream of a shul in which these spiritual seekers can find comfort. A shul in which is pin-drop quiet, but not deathly quiet – those shuls in which you’re afraid to talk lest you get silenced by the shushing czar. A shul in which people are quiet the way they are quiet in a museum of fine art, they are so moved, they just cannot speak.
One of our members, Nomi Maine celebrated her Bat Mitzvah this weekend. When Nomi and I were talking this past week, I learned that she is a big fan of Ariana Grande, a very popular singer. She told me that she wouldn’t mind getting a bottle of Ariana Grande’s latest perfume. I didn’t buy her a bottle of perfume as a gift, but I did look it up, and it turns out that her latest perfume is called, God is a Woman, and it’s inspired by Ariana’s song, God is a Woman. I looked up the lyrics of the song – and I quickly decided to not talk about the song!!
However, the subtext of the song title is a powerful challenge – why is G-d always referred to as a man? Why not a woman? Within the English language, it’s a good question; why do ‘genderfy’ Hashem? In Hebrew though, everything, even inanimate objects are either masculine or feminine, you have to pick one. But the challenge is not really about G-d; it’s about power, it’s about inequality, it’s about roles. And these are tough topics in society and especially so for Torah-observing Jews. We do believe that there are different roles for men and for women as expressed through the different Mitzvos. We also recognize that as opposed to a home setting where the is spiritual equality, or if anything, a far stronger set of responsibilities and opportunities for woman, in a shul setting, which has particular emphasis on minyan and things of that nature, Judaism comes across as terribly skewed.
I dream of a shul in which we do not oversimplify, we do not just do what others are doing, in which we continue to grapple with this question, and yet, we create endless opportunities for growth, for spiritual experiences, and advanced learning for women. I dream of a shul in which all the girls here have a spiritual role model, a woman who is on the payroll, who women can turn to for sensitive questions, for guidance, for Torah.
One thing that I love about our shul is that people care so deeply about communal and global issues. It is a community with a big heart. I dream of a shul in which that heart is expressed in action, in doing, in taking on projects, in using our collective energy to not just talk about the world around us but to change it.
We are a shul of Zionists and every once in a while, families get up and move to Israel. Making Aliyah is not for everyone. But I dream of a shul in which we are constantly losing members because they are living in Eretz Yisroel. These members are replaced by new members. And then we continue to lose members to Aliyah, who are replaced by new members. And on and on.
I dream of a shul in which Torah learning plays a central role in everyone’s life. In which classes are a supplement but everyone, in their own way, has a unique and personal relationship with this unbelievable heritage of ours and spends time every day, at home or at shul, studying these sacred texts. Growing through the uplifting teachings of our Sages.
I dream of a shul in which we comfortably talk about G-d and comfortably talk to G-d.
And lastly, one of the most famous and moving messages of the prophets are the words of Malachi: Hinei Anochi sholei’ach lachem es Eliyahu hanavi. G-d promises the Jewish People that one day in the future, He will send Elijah the prophet to herald the Messianic era. V’heishiv lev avos al banim, and the hearts of parents will return through the hearts of their children. This is the ultimate Jewish dream, for our children to surpass us spiritually. This is the Messianic vision of Malachi, that the arc of the spiritual universe is long, but it bends further with each generation.
And that is my dream for Nomi, and for all the children in this shul, that they live this dream. That they experience what it is to be a member of a community, of a shul in which everyone is accepted, in which the prayers are soulful and services are magically silent, in which people are constantly dancing and singing in prayer, in which girls and women, and boys and men, find opportunity, endless opportunity for spiritual growth, in which we change the face of our community by rolling up our sleeves, in which we deepen our connection to the land of Israel, in which we are all well-versed in Torah, Gemara, Halacha, and Jewish thought, in which we all have a relationship with G-d. I dream that the children not only experience this reality but that they pave the way to make it happen. That’s my dream.
When I spoke to Nomi, we discussed her career plans. She said, she might want to become a doctor or a businesswoman – which is awesome. She didn’t tell me where she wants to go to college and what grades she’s going to need to fulfill her dreams. And that’s because those are details. She is thinking big and that’s the only way to fulfill our dreams. The details will follow, but we cannot lose sight of the big dream.
There is a famous question asked, why we first celebrate Rosh Hashana and then Yom Kippur. Shouldn’t we first atone for our sins and then clean from our misdeeds, start the year with a fresh slate? It seems out of order.
Our Sages explain that the goal of Rosh Hashana is to think about the dream, the big picture, where we really want to be. Once we crystalize that picture, we then zoom in and focus on the many things that are getting in the way. And so we first celebrate Rosh Hashana, where we accept G-d’s kingship, and our role in His world. And then on Yom Kippur, we focus on our sins, the many impediments that are preventing us from living up to that dream.
There are details that we, as a shul, need to address if we want to live this dream. But they are details. Let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Let’s not lose sight of the dream.
May we be done with all the trials and tribulations of these past two years. May G-d bless us with peace, with harmony, and with health, so that we, together, can transform all of our dreams into reality.
by Motzen | Sep 1, 2021 | Halacha
Who can think of Sukkos? We haven’t even celebrated Rosh Hashana!
The Talmud instructs us to study the laws pertaining to a holiday 30 days before the holiday. It’s less than 30 days to Sukkos and the laws of Lulav and Esrog are complicated and many. So let’s begin!
Before we get into the what, let’s take a moment to discuss the why. There are a number of reasons suggested as to why we take the Lulav and Esrog on Sukkos.
The Rambam (in the Guide to the Perplexed) sees Sukkos as the culmination of the Exodus. As our ancestors traveled through the desert there were no trees or vegetation. Upon arriving in the land of Israel, the lush greenery overwhelmed them and made them immediately aware and grateful for the beautiful land that they were given. By taking the four species on Sukkos, species that were readily available throughout the land of Israel, we are reminding ourselves of the excitement our ancestors felt, and this in turn should inspire us to be grateful for the gift of Eretz Yisrael.
The Sefer Hachinuch suggests another reason behind the Mitzvah of Lulav and Esrog. The holiday of Sukkos is described in the Torah as Chag Ha’asif, the festival of gathering, as the holiday coincides with the harvesting of one’s produce. The harvested produce would naturally bring great joy to the owners. The taking of the Lulav and Esrog is a way of channeling the self-joy we experience at this time and direct it to G-d. Additionally, celebrations can at times take a turn away from the spiritual. By utilizing the same items that we are ecstatic over, we ensure that our celebration will maintain a spiritual flavor.
There are three layers to an Esrog; the glaze on the outside, the green/ yellow skin, and the white flesh. When purchasing an Esrog, one of the things to look for is if any of the flesh is missing. If it is, the Esrog cannot be used on the first day and therefore should not be purchased. It may take an expert to distinguish between the different layers and to ascertain if flesh is missing or if there is a discoloration.
If any part of the stem of the Esrog is missing it is invalid to be used on the first day of Sukkos. The same is true if any part of the flesh is missing (see Laws #3). On the second day of Sukkos, if a small part of the flesh or stem is missing it may be used.
All Esrogs grow with a pittum but many fall off as it grows. If the pittum falls off after it is harvested it is invalid. If a little bit of wood of the pittum remains it may be used.
One may use an Esrog whose pittum fell off on Chol Hamoed if no other Esrog’s are available.
Discoloration of the Esrog can make it invalid. White, black, dark brown, and dark green are colors that can make an Esrog invalid. One discolored dot on the top of the Esrog invalidates the Esrog. The top of the Esrog is defined by where the Esrog begins to slant. Two such dots on any other part of the Esrog invalidates.
However, for these dots to cause an invalidation they must be seen when holding the Esrog at a comfortable distance. Seeing these dots up close does not invalidate the Esrog.
Shaking the Lulav and Esrog: Take the Lulav in the right hand, Esrog in the left and hold the Esrog upside down. Say the blessing (on the first day a second blessing of Shehechiyanu is added), turn the Esrog over and shake in the four directions as well as up and down.
After Sukkos, one may dispose of their Lulav and Esrog in a way that is not degrading. Although some have the custom of burning them with their Chameitz so as to include them in another Mitzvah one may wrap them in a bag and place them in the regular waste.