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The Protocols of the Elders of Orthodox Baltimore Parshas Vayigash

In 1903, a Russian newspaper started publishing articles about a secretive group of Jewish leaders who run the world. Eventually, these articles made it into book form, known as – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The book caused untold harm to our people. As you all know, this conspiracy theory of Jewish domination is making a resurgence among a growing number of antisemites. But what I want to talk about this morning is the theory’s popularity within the Jewish Orthodox community, the many people in our Eruv and even in this room who believe in it.

What I am referring to is the frequency with which I am asked questions like, why don’t the rabbis do X? Why don’t the rabbis do Y?

The number of people in this community who believe that in some back room of I don’t know, Tov Pizza, a group of rabbis get together to plot how to lead the Baltimore Jewish community is astounding. So let me disabuse you of some conspiracy theories:

  1. It would be nice if us rabbis had that much power, I really wouldn’t mind. But we don’t. Virtually every initiative, organization and institution that exists in this community was started by people who are not rabbis. Some of these people shared their idea with rabbis, some may have even asked for their advice before starting. Many others never bothered with getting any form of rabbinic approbation whatsoever. And that’s okay.
  2. The Vaad HaRabbanim, the Orthodox Rabbinic group here in Baltimore, gets together as often as we can, which is not always so often. We also try very hard to get along, but being… Jewish, we don’t always agree on everything. Also, okay.
  3. Lastly, we are rabbis. We have rabbinic ordination. We are qualified in telling you if your chicken is kosher. Many of us are lousy politicians. I find the notion of rabbis being Machiavellian plotters rather comical.

“What’s Rabbi Motzen referring to?”

“He sounds pretty defensive, I hope he’s okay.”

Why am I telling you all this?!

I’m telling you this because the more we believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Orthodox Jewish Baltimore, the more we put our faith in a fictional group who run this community, the more we sit around waiting for someone else to do something, the less we all do. If someone else has the keys to this community, if someone else is pulling all the strings, if someone else is in charge, then the way to affect change is by waiting for them, maybe even lobbying them, but there is nothing I can do without them. And that mindset is fatal to the health of our beloved community.

It’s also in direct opposition to everything the Torah stands for. The entire book of Bereishis is a sustained assault against this idea of waiting for leaders to do something. In the ancient and not so ancient world, it was the eldest brother who was the de facto leader of the family. Kayin and Havel, Sheim, Cham, and Yafes, Yishmael and Yitzchak, Eisav and Yaakov. Over and over again, the assumed leader, the elder, is not a leader at all. The leader shirks his responsibility and someone else steps in and saves the day. The Book of Bereishis begs us to not look up for change, but to look within.

This theme comes to a crescendo in this week’s Parsha. The eldest brother of the tribes is Reuven. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in one of his sichos suggests that Reuven was the holiest of the brothers. After he sinned, according to Chazal, he spent his nights and days repenting. When things started to unravel for them in Egypt, it was Reuven who immediately recognizes that it was G-d punishing them for selling Yosef. But that’s all he does; he prays, he lectures, he casts blame. But he does not act.

Imagine if the brothers would sit around paralyzed, waiting for Reuven to take charge. Maybe they’d write a nasty social media post. Maybe they’d talk about his lousy leadership at their Shabbos table… The brothers would live and die in the land of Canaan and Yosef would never reunite with his family.

But thankfully, that’s not what happens. Because one brother doesn’t wait around for the ‘leader’ to do something. One brother sees a problem, rolls up his sleeves, and takes responsibility.

And so, when Binyamin is taken captive by Yosef’s men, it’s Yehuda, the 4th brother, who stands up to Yosef, and ultimately causes Yosef to reveal himself. And it’s Yehuda’s descendants, who are far from perfect, who aren’t necessarily the most righteous, but who consistently take responsibility, and thereby become the kings of Israel.

***

Two weeks ago, I posted on Facebook, asking people to suggest the names of individuals in this community who are making a difference. Baltimore’s community is filled with ‘Yehuda’s’ – people who see issues but don’t just criticize, they step up and take responsibility.

I remember my first exposure to this was immediately after Hindy and I got married. We were both students, living mostly off of wedding gifts, and we had virtually no furniture. One day I noticed a sign in Ner Yisrael that said, “Free furniture.” Apparently, someone had realized that there were many people who wanted to get rid of furniture, and there were many people, like Hindy and me, who needed furniture but couldn’t afford it. I called the number and was told to show up at a storage center on Reisterstown where the furniture was kept, and who was there to meet us, who was the man behind this all? Our Bat Mitzvah girls’ father, Yossi Burstyn.

Yossi, did a rabbi call you and ask you to do this?

I didn’t think so.

Let me share with you some of the responses I received on my Facebook post:

Rochel Ziman and Shoshi Glazer were nominated for starting an organization called, A Single Impact. What is A Single Impact? It’s a fairly new organization created to support, provide resources, and advocacy for frum singles. They coordinate meet and greet events with multiple dates resulting from each event. Beautiful, right?

Stacey Goldenberg got nominated for all the incredible work she does for the Jewish Caring Network, an organization dedicated to helping people through illness – and their families. Work that she can never tell anyone about due to its sensitive nature.

Another person listed was Dovi Ziffer who davened here last week. He is involved with countless organizations, but most recently started something called the Baltimore Chesed League, a fun way for middle schoolers to be exposed to all the Chesed in this community and to start training them to be leaders.

Shushi Ehrenfeld and Yona Openden who started a branch of ORA, an organization that helps vulnerable women in our community.

The list goes on and on and on. I feel bad that we just don’t have the time to read each one. They’re all remarkable. There are so many Yehudas in our community! Personally, I find it both humbling and inspiring. It pushes me to do more. These are all people who saw the same problems we do, but didn’t just complain, they act.

But there is one person who got the most votes on this post. Hands down. And that is Adina B.

As a side note, she was nominated like twelve separate times in the same thread. Here’s a little primer on how to use the internet – before you post something, you need to scroll up and see if fifteen people just posted the same thing!!! If they did, all you have to do is press ‘like.’

Here are some quotes – “She is the most giving person that I know.” “A true friend to so many.” “Adina B is the best.”

We are extremely privileged to have Adina B in our community, both Baltimore at large, and in the Ner Tamid community. In just a short amount of time, you have befriended the entire shul, you recruit more members than I do, almost immediately after joining you assumed leadership of the Sisterhood, and you help run virtually every event and project of Ner Tamid. Thank you!

Tehila, you asked me to speak about your mother, so I did. Well, what you actually said was that if you were going to be embarrassed, I should embarrass your mother as well. Done. Now I’m going to talk about you.

Tehila and her mother came to meet with me last week. I was running a little late and I asked them how long they were waiting outside. It was really cold that night. Adina said, “We weren’t even waiting!” But Tehila with a sweet little smile said, “We were out here for a very long time.”

But behind all the fun and games, behind that easy smile, is an exceptionally thoughtful and sensitive young woman. Someone who uses those qualities to look out for others. When someone in your class needs a kind word, you’re there for them. When your family needs you, you step in. You’re constantly looking around to see who could use you a smile, a kind word, a little hug. Unsurprisingly, you have inherited the qualities of a Yehuda. You told me you don’t know what you’re going to do professionally when you grow up. Neither do I. But I am confident that you will continue to use those skills to not just sit around and complain, to not just point out all that’s broken, but that you’ll make a difference. A real difference in the world.

***

The truth is, maybe I was a little too harsh on the rabbis of this community. They all work very hard to do what they believe is best. And we do try, when we can, to work together to affect change. But don’t sit around waiting for things to change. Don’t fuel the toxic conspiracy of the Elders of Orthodox Jewish Baltimore. You can be a righteous Reuven and see the ills of the world better than anyone else, or you can be a Yehuda, a change-maker who takes responsibility on his or her own and fixes those problems. You can’t be both so choose wisely.   

 

 

 

Parenting Lessons from Yaakov Avinu Parshas Vayishlach

We’re going to do a little thought experiment today. For those of you who are blessed with children, whether they are young, teenagers, or adult children, – What is the worst thing your child ever did? Everyone else, what is the worst thing you ever did as a child?

Don’t answer that out loud.

Now what I want you to think about next is, how did you, or how did you parent respond? I want you imagine the words used, the tone, the volume. Got it?

On the count of three, you’re all going to blurt exactly what was said, at the same volume and with the same tone. One, two,

Just kidding. You definitely should not be saying that out loud. We’re in a shul, after all.

By the look on your faces, I think the experiment was successful. It brought about what we all know to be true –  Parenting is difficult. Very difficult. The Talmud describes parenting as tza’ar gidul bonim, the pain of raising children. It hurts. Children push every button we have, and more importantly, they teach us about countless buttons we didn’t even know we have.

But if you think you have it bad, I want to reacquaint you to a certain someone who had it worse. His children were exceptionally difficult.

By way of introduction, there are three cardinal sins in Judaism; murder, adultery, and idolatry. With that in mind, let’s review this week’s parsha. Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, are appalled by a crime committed against their sister, Dina. How do they respond? By murdering the entire population of the city of Shechem. A few passages later, Yaakov, the successor of Avraham and Yitzchak, the great teachers of monotheism, turns to his family and says, “Guys, it’s time to get rid of all the idols that you’ve been carrying around with you.” And then – “Reuven lies with Yaakov’s wife, Bilhah.” Many do not read that verse literally, but it doesn’t sound good at all. 3 for 3. Murder, idolatry, and adultery.

It kind of pales in comparison to too much screen time, doesn’t it?

How would we respond? How would we react to our children coming home one day covered in blood? How would we lecture our children if they were storing a cross in their bedroom? How would we respond if a child of ours were to commit some form of adultery?    

Again, don’t answer that question out loud.

But let’s see how Yaakov responds. And I’d like to point out a general theory I have with the narratives of our forefathers. They do not start out as Tzadikim, as purely righteous. Their lives follow a trajectory of growth. For example, the first few episodes in Yaakov’s life are filled with deception and lies, but as time goes on, he becomes more and more straightforward and honest, eve when it hurts. Similarly, as we read how Yaakov responds to his children, as we witness the parenting skills of our forefather, there seems to be a trajectory of growth and change.

Story #1 – Shimon and Levi return home after murdering the entire male population of the city of Shechem. Yaakov is understandably incredulous; he loses his mind. “Are you guys crazy?! Do you not realize what you’ve done?! Do you not realize that even if your act was justified, the danger you’ve placed us all in with your impetuous actions?!”

Shimon and Levi respond. They defend themselves. “We had to defend our sisters honor!”

And then Yaakov does something remarkable. Although he disagrees, although he thinks what they did was a travesty and a total lack of judgment. But in the heat of the moment, with his children arguing back that they were right, and he was wrong, Yaakov bites his tongue. The Biblical narrative concludes with Shimon and Levi getting the final word.

Would you be able to do that? Would you be able to hold yourself back from belaboring the point that these kids of yours are criminals, that they are rash, that they are going to grow up to be terrible people. But Yaakov says nothing at all and gives them the final word.

And we’re not even done yet. Next up, idolatry. Yaakov is told by G-d that his family is harboring idols. Let’s remind ourselves who Yaakov is. In modern terms, he is the chief rabbi of the world and his son has a nativity scene set up in his bedroom, his wife is holding on to a little statue of Mary, and his other son wears a necklace with a big fat cross on it. If this would happen to me… How does Yaakov respond?

With zero emotion. “Remove the idols from your midst.” No rebuke, no labels; this is what needs to be done. Is that how we speak? “You need to do your homework.” “You need to wake up.” “You need to speak with a different tone.” Without nagging? Without emotion? Without characterizing them for their failures?

Then we have the grand finale. Yaakov’s eldest Reuven, according to the simple read of the Torah sleeps with his stepmother. Our Sages make a compelling case to demonstrate that this is not to be taken literally. But be that as it may, Reuven committed a crime that was tantamount to adultery and incest. How does Yaakov respond?

 

He does not.

וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֗֔ן וַיִּשְׁכַּ֕ב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֑֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑͏ֽל {פ}
וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר  

“And Reuven went and lay with Bihah. Yaakov heard. And the sons of Yaakov were twelve.”

He didn’t throw him out of the house. He didn’t yell and scream. He heard. He knew. And he chose to say nothing at all.

Dr. Laura Markham, author of the best-selling book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids writes as follows: “Most parents think that if only my child would behave, I would be able to maintain my composure as a parent.” How often do we say that? If only my children would act normally, I’d be such a calm and nice person. “But it’s actually the other way around.” A parent’s ability to demonstrate what is known as emotional regulation, the ability to control emotions in difficult situations, is far more important than anything we say or do as parents. The most impactful thing we could to our children is do nothing at all. To produce children who are respectful and responsible, we need to stay calm.

In the 14th century, a French Torah scholar and philosopher by the name of Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon, otherwise known as the Ralbag, drew the same lesson from the life of Yaakov. Yaakov, he writes, did not downplay the terrible sins of his sons. He held on to them until the day he died. But his lack of emotional reaction, his ability to maintain his composure in the face of boiling rage, of justified righteous indignity, and the fear, the fear that every parent knows so well, what in the world is going to be with this child if this is the way he or she acts right now?! – the fact that Yaakov was able to hold on to all those emotions, that is the greatness of our forefather, and that’s why the Torah records these sordid tales. Yaakov developed with time the ability to regulate his emotions, to maintain equilibrium in the face of whatever cards his children dealt him.

It took some time for his children to integrate these lessons, they would not become angels overnight – there’s a few more bumps along the way. But ultimately, Yaakov’s modeling paid off. His son Yosef demonstrated heroic self-control in the face of extreme temptation. His son Yehuda demonstrated the highest form of responsibility, shaming himself to take ownership over his misdeeds. And the final scene of this book of Bereishis, we find Yaakov with a mitah sheleima, surrounded by children who are all righteous in their own right.

I remember one of the children of Rabbi Herman Neuberger telling us how he took his father’s brand-new car for a spin and crashed. He was totally fine. The car, not so much. His father did not say a word. That, this man told us, was the greatest parenting lesson he ever learned in his life. We cannot control our children, but we can control how we react to them.

There’s a story told of Rabbi Boruch Ber Lebowitz, one of the leading scholars of the 20th century. Apparently, he also struggled with regulating his emotions. And so, he came up with a plan. He would only allow himself to vent his anger at his children if he was wearing his special “anger hat.” That’s right, he designated a special hat in his closet that he would wear before getting angry at his family. And you could imagine what happened. By the time he got to the closet and put on the hat, the anger was gone.

We don’t know what tools or tricks Yaakov used to control his emotions. But what we do know is that he leaves us a legacy, a way of life towards which to aspire. Regulating our emotions is the greatest gift we can give our children. May G-d give us the emotional strength to perpetuate this legacy and may we blessed with healthy, respectful and responsible children. 

 

 

 

Yaakov’s Nightmare Parshas Vayeitzei

Sigmund Freud was a lousy scientist. Most of his theories were unscientific postulations that painted every human being as a… sicko. But one thing he did get right is the interface between our subconscious and our dreams. There’s a lot going on up here right now that we are not conscious of. Even the most self-aware individual does not and cannot comprehend the full extent of fears and unmet desires that are flitting through our brain that we suppress. We walk around looking and feeling confident and good, blissfully unaware of the anxieties and doubts that are lurking beneath. But when we close our eyes at night, our defense system goes to sleep as well, and all those emotions hiding in the dark corners of our mind, they all come out to play.  

We see this most clearly with Yaakov our forefather. He is the most stoic of our ancestors, facing a murderous brother, a sinister father-in-law, and a life of endless travails. But none of it seems to affect him. For all intents and purposes, he is successful as can be. He is wealthy, the father of 12 strapping young men and a beautiful daughter, and he’s looked up to by all who meet him. He faces each challenge with equanimity, and even when he reunites with his beloved son after decades, not a tear can be found in his eyes. Complete control of his emotion, no fear, no worries.

Until he goes to sleep…

וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם

“Yaakov went to sleep, and he dreamt.”

ְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

“There’s a ladder with its feet on the ground and its top in the heavens. And on it, angels are ascending and descending.”

Who are these angels?

The Ramban quoting Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer explains that the vision of Yaakov was a vision of all his suppressed fears. The angels climbing the ladder were not cherubic angles of goodness. These angels were evil, they were enemies – his enemies and the enemies of his descendants, who would climb to incredible heights. And while some would go up and go down, the ladder reached the heavens – Yaakov sensed that some of those struggles would never seem to end. A never-ending ascent of evil that he and his children would have to bear. Yaakov realized for the first time, that although he put on a good game face, although he had swagger, although he felt confident, but deep down he was scared. Very scared.

Like all the stories of our forefathers, they repeat in our lives. This nightmare of Yaakov’s sounds awfully familiar. It’s a recurring dream lurking in the subconscious of the entire Jewish People. We may be wildly successful, both materially and spiritually. On the outside, we look comfortable. Our leaders are getting invites to White House Chanukah parties. We’re expanding our homes. Our day schools are busting at the seams.

But sometimes, late at night, we look up and we see this ladder being climbed by powerful antisemites and it just does not seem to end. We see former rapper, Kanye spewing insanity – “Hitler was a good person,” “I like Nazis.” And yes, he is not well, but the millions of fans that endorse his views, are they also all crazy? And we look higher on the ladder, and we see people like comedian Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live giving voice to every antisemitic trope of Jews running the world while arguing that it’s not really antisemitism. And then we look higher on the ladder, and we see hundreds of Black Hebrews marching through New York chanting, “We are the real Jews.” And then we look higher, and we see our good friends at the UN, who never fail to surprise us with how low they could go, who this past week, voted to commemorate the “Nakba.” Nakba means catastrophe and it’s the word used that may Arabs use to describe the establishment of State of Israel. וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה This ladder truly reaches the heavens.

I know exactly how Yaakov felt that night, tossing and turning, not knowing what’s in store.

But G-d shares with us a message. It’s a three-part message He conveyed to Yaakov three thousand years ago, and it’s just as relevant today. It’s a message that may not be so novel, but it’s worth repeating from time to time.

  • אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ I am Hashem, the G-d of Avraham your father.

G-d begins comforting Yaakov by reminding him that their relationship goes way back. Because you see, the claim that we are not the real Jews did not start with a lousy movie streaming on Amazon. There were those who claimed we came from the Khazars and we were not biological descendants of the Jewish People. There were those, like the Church, who claimed that we may have been biological descendants but G-d walked away from us due to our sins. This claim goes all the way back to Eisav who argued that despite his evil ways, and despite selling his right to the firstborn he was the rightful heir to Avraham and Yitzchak.

And to this G-d replies, “I am Hashem the G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak your father.” You are the real Jews. There is not a smidget of evidence connecting us to the Khazars. Our DNA traces us back to the Near East. Historical records demonstrate an unbroken chain leading us back to the Land of Israel. And G-d in this prophetic message He shares with Yaakov and throughout the entire Torah makes one thing clear that He will never ever let us go. You are the real Jews, G-d told Yaakov, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Then G-d continues,  

  • הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָThe land upon which you lie, will be given to you and your descendants.

The number of people who claim that we do not belong in our homeland is staggering. Not only non-Jews, but Jews as well. But G-d promised us the land and then He gave us that land, leaving no doubt to anyone with a drop of integrity that we are the indigenous people of the land of Israel. We could argue about the merits of a two-state solution forever. But what we cannot do is argue if Israel is our land. Every day, new archeological digs present layer of evidence and after layer of evidence.

And yet, on college campuses all over this country, our children are taunted and assaulted over their connection to their home. Aside from the not-so-thinly-veiled antisemitism cloaked in antizionism, it’s just false. It is our land.

And finally, G-d concludes,

  • הָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה and your children will be like the dust of the land, spreading to the west, east, north, and south  

And here, the antisemites are on to something. G-d promises that we will spread through the world, and this has certainly taken place. Not only have we spread through the world, but in each place we are exiled, we quickly climb the ladders of success. It’s this success that led comedian Dave Chapelle to comment on the abundance of Jews in Hollywood, leading banks, and the media.  

Now I don’t have to tell you that none of these Jews get along with one another and are certainly not coordinating anything in back rooms. We could barely get ten people in this room to agree on anything, the notion of a Jewish cabal is hilarious.

But it’s the end of the verse that we Jews often omit. “וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כׇּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָ֖ה and the nations of the world will be blessed through you.” Our success is not meant to be self-serving. We are meant to be a light of morality, not materialism. We are meant to be outward-focused, not xenophobic. We are meant to be a blessing. Not a curse.

This is the action item. When we face antisemitism, yes, we need to affirm our connection to our homeland, we need to remind ourselves how G-d will always remain connected to us, but we also need to look in the mirror. Are we a blessing? Or are we a curse? Are we ensuring that not only do the nations of the world have nothing negative to say about us, but that they walk away from our every interaction with a sense of being blessed because they met us.

 

As Yaakov struggled with his deepest darkest fears, as Yaakov with questions that we, his descendants would grapple with daily, G-d conveyed a message of comfort, hope, and direction.

  • I am your G-d, and I will never let you go. G-d will never forsake as a people, and so too, He will never forsake anyone of us.
  • The land of Israel is the land of Israel. Don’t let anyone rewrite our history.
  • And lastly, we must use our success to be a blessing to the world.

Allow me to conclude with the words of Mark Twain, words that we’ve quoted before but words that bring me comfort when I find myself, like Yaakov, unable to escape the nightmares of antisemitism:

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.  He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it.  The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.”