Seeking Comfort – A Relatable Reflection on Rabbi Sacks Parshas Chayei Sarah

This week’s parsha begins with Avraham burying and eulogizing Sarah. You may have noticed in your Chumash, that in describing the tears that Avraham shed for his beloved wife, the Torah writes, “v’livkosah, to cry for her” with the letter, chaf, smaller than the rest of the letters. Rav Hirsch explains that this is meant to symbolize that the full extent of his sorrow was kept private. After all, this is the woman with whom he embarked on the most magnificent life-changing journey, the woman with whom he shared the many years of existential loneliness, not knowing if their great legacy would live on, the woman with whom he encountered numerous challenges and overcame them. She was the love of his life, and as the Torah makes clear, his guiding light. How could a eulogy adequately express his sense of loss? And so, the chaf¸ the inner center, the core of the word, be-ch-i, the guttural and most depth-conveying sound, is minimized, because it was not, and could not be conveyed.

The Jewish world, and the world-at-large has lost one of its most brilliant lights; a man of towering intellect, an exquisitely sensitive soul, and a gift for explaining Torah ideas – ideas which do not always sit well with the modern world, and yet he did so in the most compelling of fashions. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was truly one of a kind.

How many Jews in our history have been knighted? A handful. How many Jewish scholars have written books that are read by both lay people and scholars alike because they strike the most perfect balance between scholarship and practical application? Not very many at all. How many Jews in our history, as but one example, have been invited to a forum for Christian leaders in the Vatican and that one Jewish voice manages to steal the show with their powerful defense of family values? That has never happened before.

He was a Talmid Chochom, a true Torah scholar; in the early years of his rabbinic career, he wrote brilliant explanations of some the most complicated in Jewish law in his crystal-clear writing style. His books were read, reread, and read again, by observant and non-observant Jews, by people of all faiths and people of no faith. His viewpoint was central to any religious discussion or debate in the modern era. And, he was a mentch par excellence. V’livkosah with the smallest of chafs; how can we possible convey the sense of loss?

We cannot. And the truth is, this is a challenge with every eulogy, any time we attempt to summarize a person’s life in a few minutes, but it is especially difficult with a man as accomplished as Rabbi Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks would often quote the Mishna in Avos, “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, it is not incumbent you to finish the task, v’lo ata ben chrim l’hipater mimena, nor are you free from trying.” And so, in that spirit, we will try.

Every few hours, this past week, a new tribute was published and shared on the internet. Most writers described Rabbi Sacks’ greatness. Parenthetically, some writers described their own greatness and used a story of Rabbi Sacks as a cover. And of course, threw in a gratuitous selfie with them and Rabbi Sacks. That is never the purpose of a eulogy. The Gesher Hachaim records a custom, how in some places they stopped eulogizing the dead altogether because people were using the eulogy as an opportunity to grandstand. If a eulogy has the word “I” in it a few too many times, it’s not a eulogy, it’s self-promotion. Either way, reading through all these eulogies and tributes, I was struck by how much there is to say about him but also how untouchable and how unreachable Rabbi Sacks was. He was a giant – in knowledge, output, and impact, and we are like grasshoppers in his shadow.

But I was heartened by a quote I stumbled upon from Rav Dovid Feinstein, a great scholar and Torah leader, who also passed away this past week. He was reflecting of his father, the legendary, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the great Poseik (Halachic decisor) of America, and he said as follows: “The world will gain nothing by knowing how many times my father finished Shas (the Talmud), or was fluent in all of Torah shebe’al peh (all aspects of Torah) like Rabbi Akiva Eiger or the Chasam Sofer (two of the greatest scholars of the past 500 years). When people speak of my father, they speak of his compassion, how he had time for children, for brokenhearted individuals. The bigger a person is, the more chesed he must do, and that’s how we know who the true talmidei chachamim (Torah leaders) are.” (https://mishpacha.com/higher-purpose-on-the-lower-east-side/)

Rabbi Feinstein went on to explain that there is no purpose in talking about his father’s greatness in Torah scholarship, because no one can reach such a level, and so it serves no purpose. But his chesed, his kindness, we can hear stories about Rav Moshe and we can say to ourselves, “I can do that too.”

None of us can think like Rabbi Sacks, none of us could write or speak like Rabbi Sacks, and none of us have the influence of Rabbi Sacks. But I believe there are ways in which we can emulate this great man.

In a talk he gave to Chabad Shluchim in 2011, he described how the Lubavitcher Rebbe changed his life. Not yet-Rabbi Sacks was a student in Cambridge. He had questions about Judaism and travelled to America to seek out the Jewish leaders there and find some answers. Of course, one of his stops was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After some time, he was given a private audience and he posed his questions to the Rebbe. After he finished his questions, the Rebbe turned to Jonathan Sacks and started asking him questions; what does Jewish life look like in England? Are students able to grow in their faith? And them finally, the question that, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, changed his life, the Rebbe asked him, “What are you doing about it?”

That question caused Rabbi Sacks to spend some time learning Torah in-depth. That question ultimately caused him to reconsider his career. He was choosing between becoming an academic, a barrister, an economist, but with the Rebbe’s encouragement, he left those all behind, and decided to dedicate his life to the Jewish People. (https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1690783/jewish/A-Story-in-Three-Acts.htm)  

Now the story, in Rabbi Sacks’ telling was about the Rebbe’s greatness and his vision. But of course, the story is actually about Rabbi Sacks and his ability to respond to his calling. The Sefas Emes writes that the words, lech lecha¸ go! The first words uttered by G-d to Avraham are actually said to every individual. We all have a voice that we hear from time to time and it encourages us to go; to grow in our Torah knowledge, to deepen our connection to G-d, to become a more giving person. But most of us ignore that voice. Avraham’s greatness was not that he received that message; we all do. His greatness was that he listened.

I am sure the Rebbe encouraged many people to do many things. I imagine not all of them listened. Rabbi Sacks, despite having numerus career options that I am sure he would have excelled at. Instead, he chose to dedicate his life to an inner calling. He did not know at the time that he would assume a position as grand as he ultimately did. I am sure, at the time, it was a sacrifice of the highest order.

I am not suggesting you all become rabbis. It’s not good for me if you flood the market… What we can emulate is the sensitivity to listen to that inner voice. What we can incorporate into our lives is the courage to act upon that voice. That’s greatness within our reach. We all hear that voice from time, it pulls ever so gently on our heart strings. But to follow up on it? To change our lifestyle? To sacrifice? Can we really do that?  

Yes. Yes, we can. That is one way we can emulate Rabbi Sacks.

With time, and work, and effort, Jonathan Sacks became Rabbi Sacks, and with time, work, and effort, Rabbi Sacks became Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Now if there was anyone who rubbed shoulders with who’s who of English high society, it was him. If there was anyone who had exposure to all the greatest leaders; statesmen and religious leaders, it was him. But you know what’s remarkable, he never talked about it. Or at least rarely did so.

There is an episode of the Simpson’s – I know, I know, Rabbi Sacks would never quote the Simpson’s. He only utilized high culture, never low culture. I am not Rabbi Sacks… Homer got a job teaching in adult education center, but his classes were an absolute failure. No one paid any attention. Then one day he decided to share some personal information, and everyone was riveted. From then on, all he did was speak about his personal life and his class grew to the biggest one in the center.

As crude as the show may be, there is also a certain genius in Matt Groening’s writings. What he was alluding to is a gimmick that many speakers use – talking about themselves. It’s easy and it usually engages the audience. But it could also be distracting. At times, it could be even dangerous, as students become enwrapped in the life of their teacher. The goal of teaching is to convey information, not to cultivate a personal following. Moshe is our greatest teacher and not coincidently the most humble of men. He did not allow his ego to interfere with the precious message he was teaching.

Rabbi Sacks likely had the most amazing personal stories. I have read numerous books and articles he wrote, listened to lectures, and he rarely, rarely talks about himself. Almost no one knew that this was the third time he fought cancer, because he never spoke about his personal life. After Shabbos, when I heard the news of his passing, I checked Wikipedia to find out if he had children – I had no idea that he did.

We live in an era that is hyper-focused on the self (an idea Rabbi Sacks beautifully confronts in a Ted talk); self-esteem, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-promotion, or “branding” as it’s called in polite society. Rabbi Sacks, despite the bragging rights which he earned, despite the curiosity which we all had about who he really was, despite the stories which he could have entertained us with – it was never about him. It was never about him; always about the other.

Can we talk about ourselves a little less and be curious instead about the people we speak to? Can we focus a little less on our own pain and a little more on the pain of those around us? Can we in this particular fashion emulate Rabbi Sacks? I believe we can.

Which brings me to the final relevant lesson from his life. One constant theme in all of the tributes was his making himself available to mentor young rabbis. He had insight, a wealth of experience, and he shared it with anyone who asked. And it wasn’t just for rabbis that he took the time. Rabbi Soskil, the Judaic principal at Beth Tfiloh, told us that a class in middle school had a number of philosophical questions. They wrote them down and sent them to the office of Rabbi Sacks. Now you have to keep in mind, Rabbi Sacks had a team of people fielding his communications. He was busy beyond belief. But he took the time to record a video addressing every one of those questions. He lived his life to give, to impart, to share everything he knew and everything he had with others.

We all have our own gifts, our own knowledge, our own experience. Share it. We are not put on this planet to take. We are put here to give. While none of us are Rabbi Sacks, we all have something to give.

At the end of our parsha, we find Yitzchak welcoming his bride, Rivkah into the tent of Sarah. The Torah tells us that then, only then, was he comforted over the loss of his late mother. Was Rivkah a replacement for his mother? Of course not. Could her righteousness compare to a woman who are sages tell us had greater prophecy than her husband, Avraham? Impossible. But in her own way, through her own deeds, she brought the same light that Sarah brought into the world.

We have lost a most brilliant light that cannot be replaced, and for that we mourn. But if we, in our ways, in our life, emulate what is emulatable; by listening and acting upon that inner voice, by focusing more on the other and less on the self, and by sharing every G-d-given gift with those around us, then I hope and pray that we too can bring comfort to ourselves and bring merit to the soul of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. May his memory always be for a blessing.

The Fallacy of Happy Endings and the Timelessness of the Akeidah Parshas Vayera

In the 11th century a new form of poems started emerging from the Jewish communities in Germany. They were known as the Akeidah liturgy. The Akeidah, or the Binding of Isaac, was reimagined in light of the Crusades that devastated and traumatized these Jewish communities. These poems, or piyuttim, revolved around two pressing themes. The first was reclaiming the Akeidah. Christians had appropriated the Binding of Isaac, suggesting that it was a precursor for the resurrection of Jesus. While the Jewish communities couldn’t fight back or even defend themselves against the Christians, they fought back the way we always fought back, with words. And so, these poems reclaimed the Akeidah as a distinctly Jewish story and rejected Christianity in the process.

Additionally, these poems were used to justify a shocking act performed by many Jews in those impossible times. Parents, faced with the prospect of having their children converted to Christianity by the Crusaders chose to slaughter their sons and daughters to save them from this fate. And so, Avraham’s willingness to slaughter his son was invoked as a model for these survivors who were grappling with these complicated acts of martyrdom.

These poems were so popular, they even had their own tune. In many ancient siddurim you will find an annotation stating that this piyyut should be read in the tune of the Akeidah. We have no record of the tune, but it speaks to the central role that the Akeidah played in the lives of the Ashkenazi community of the middle ages.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Akeidah was once again invoked by Jewish writers and orators. Some went so far as suggesting that the Holocaust was the culmination of the Akeidah; that Avraham’s outstretched hand was frozen in place for thousands of years, that Yitzchak was waiting to be slaughtered for all that time. The senseless murder of six million, these rabbis suggested, was meaningful in the sense that it was Divinely ordained and part of a drama dating back to our forefathers.

In Israeli culture the Akeidah has been invoked time and time again. In the early years of the State, the notion of sacrifice, of what the early pioneers gave up was connected to Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice it all for what he believed in. During the Six Day War, first-generation Israelis watching with trepidation as their sons fought while they were too old to go out to war, gained inspiration from Yitzchak’s willingness to be slaughtered.

The biggest complaint my high school students in Beth Tfiloh have against the Torah is that it’s outdated, and I understand where they are coming from. But my personal experience, my relationship to the Torah is the exact opposite. My experience, and I think the experience of our people, is that these narratives have given us direction and inspiration in radically different times. That a single story can have so many relevant interpretations, it can comfort Jews being slaughtered in the Crusades and can give courage to Israelis in the Six-Day War, that’s remarkable. And to me, it speaks the timelessness of the Torah and its messages.

Thank G-d, we are not under threat of a Crusade, we are not healing from a Holocaust, and our children are not being sent to war. But I would like to share with you today, a continuation of this tradition, of finding modern meaning in the Akeidah, of somehow seeing in this ancient act a relevant message for our times.

Rav Yosef Albo, a great 15th century Spanish philosopher, suggests that the central message of the Akeidah is Avraham’s ability to forge forward in a state of uncertainty. Avraham was promised by G-d that his son specifically this son, Yitzchak, would be the one through which all the great promises would be fulfilled; that he would have descendants more numerous than the stars and sand, that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. And now, being told to slaughter this son, Avraham is left with impossible questions; How will Sarah take the news? How will I physically do this to my son? How will G-d’s promises come to fruition? Most specifically, Rav Albo suggests that Avraham wondered if maybe, just maybe he misunderstood G-d’s message. After all, a critical read of the text shows that it was not so clear.

So many unanswered questions, so much uncertainty, so much angst, and yet, Avraham carries forward.

The Torah is silent on what was going through Avraham’s mind, but the Medrashim paint a vivid picture of a raging inner battle where Avraham grappled with these questions, and numerous times, almost turned around.

But ultimately, he does not.

We are living in uncertain times, in an uncertain year, in a very uncertain week, and we are all feeling anxious. Before the pandemic, 18% of the country was affected by anxiety. I could only imagine what the rates are now. I recently heard from a pharmacist that Celexa, one of the most common medications used to treat anxiety was on back-order across the country. This angst is a terrible curse. In the tochacha, the curses that will befall the Jewish people if they disobey G-d’s commands, we are told that, “In the morning you will ask when is it evening. In the evening, you will ask when is it morning?” Pizur hanefesh, feeling torn, uncertain, and all over the place, is truly a terrible curse.

At the core of this anxiety, of those racing thoughts of what will be, of how will I do, of what if this goes wrong, is the very normal human desire to know things definitively. To know how I will do at work, how my children will manage, or – who will win this election. How many times have you checked the news since Tuesday night? Because maybe, just maybe there’s an update?

Avraham traveled for three days, not knowing what will be. It wasn’t that he believed that Yitzchak would be saved, as some scholars suggest, or that it would be okay. He was uncertain and he was scared. But the opposite of uncertainty is not certainty. The resolution to not knowing is not knowing. The opposite of uncertainty is the calm acceptance that we do not know.

I don’t know if everything will be okay with this country. But me knowing the final count in Pennsylvania is definitely not helping. Me refreshing my news feed for the latest legal batter every ten seconds is not changing anything.

We never know what will be, with ourselves, our parents, our children, this country, the world. We never know fully if the choice we made is the right one. But that’s okay. We can live with that. Because we don’t need to know and more importantly, we cannot know. It’s a fallacy to think that we can have absolute certainty in life. But like Avraham, we can try our best and still march forward.

As I mentioned, there are scholars who suggest that Avraham believed with perfect faith that Yitzchak would be saved. The most famous scholar to present this idea was Soren Kierkegaard in his book, Faith and Trembling. But it’s important to highlight that Faith and Trembling is a book of Christian thought and this idea, that Avraham believed that the story would have a happy ending is a decidedly non-Jewish idea.  

Quite often I hear people ask the following question: How could I believe in a G-d who allows this person to get ill, who allows this person to die, who allows me to suffer to this extent?

Or, I prayed every day, I gave charity, I did extra Mitzvos, and things still did not come out the way I wanted. It’s not fair. Where is G-d?

The G-d that we believe in, the G-d of the Torah, as understood by our Sages, never promised us that every story has a happy ending, that we should have faith that everything will be alright. Ultimately, we believe in justice, and that in the next world, we will receive reward for all the good we’ve performed. Ultimately, we believe there will be an End of Days, with peace and harmony and only good. But today?! Now?! G-d never promised me anything. On the contrary, whatever He gave me is a gift. We don’t come into this world with a little tag stating a guarantee that life will be good. Nor does the Torah state that if we do this or that Mitzvah, or if we pray, there is a guarantee that we’ll turn everything around.

On the contrary, Avraham prays for the people of Sedom and his prayers are rejected. He is given a son, Yishmael, and then told to send him away. He is given a son, Yitzchak, and then told to slaughter him on an altar. Faith in a happy ending in this lifetime… that is not a Jewish worldview. I am deeply disturbed by some of the stories my children come home from school with; the protagonist prays or does a Mitzvah at just the right time and everyone lives happily ever after. It conveys such a false sense of hope.

In modern Hebrew there is a term, magiah li. It means, I deserve this. And it is a philosophy that many of us have adopted. The notion that I have privileges, that I deserve certain things by dint of my existence.

But it’s not true. Lo magiah li shum davar, I am not entitled to anything. Everything I receive is a gift. Praying isn’t a magic trick where I say some words and G-d is now compelled to give me what I want. The Torah rejects this fallacy outright. To me, this is the most primary and most pressing lesson from the Akeidah. Avraham is rewarded because he recognizes that his son, his beloved, cherished precious, son does not belong to him. “Because you didn’t hold your son back from me.” Avraham knew, lo magiah li shum davar.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler suggests that the notion of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov being forefathers of our nation is a mystical one. It does not just mean that these people came first. It means that their actions created a pathway for us; that the battles, the inner battles they waged and succeeded with, make it easier for us to wage those same battles. There is, says the Sefas Emes, a little bit of Avraham that resides within each and every one of us; some residual spirit that can give us courage and direction.

The Akeidah is as relevant today as ever. We are not being persecuted, nor are we sending our children off to battle. But we have our own struggles, real struggles, of living with uncertainty in a chaotic world, of being bombarded with a worldview that states that we are entitled to all the good the world has to offer. The Akeidah grounds us and guides us to be inspired by Avraham to accept the uncertainties of life, not by lulling ourselves into a false sense of security, that all will be well, but by accepting the fact that lo magiah li shum davar, that every moment is a gift, and that G-d runs the world. There will be a happy ending. It may not be one I experience in my lifetime, but it will happen. In the meantime, we will forge forward, with prayer even though it may not be answered, with gratitude for a gift that may be fleeting, and with faith in the G-d of Avraham.

***

I was devastated after Shabbos to hear the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I am still processing the magnitude of the loss, both for the Jewish and for the world. I hope to write and speak more about him in the days to come but one recent comment of his is worth sharing in the context of this week’s message: 

In an interview with Tablet magazine in 2013, he was asked about two earlier bouts with cancer and coming face to face with death. This is how he responded: “…On both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him.” 

This is the faith of Avraham; not that the story will have a happy ending, but that G-d runs the world. Among so many other things, Rabbi Sacks taught us to be grateful for what G-d has given us and accept that it may be taken at any time.  

May his memory be for a blessing. 

  

 

Reflections for Election Night

The boards have been going up for quite some time now. 

Not just storefronts, but the windows of our soul have been shuttered. 

Hiding from diseases and dissent we’ve locked ourselves away into the false safety of echo-chambers and seclusion. 

But it all ends tonight, doesn’t it? 

 

Of course not. 

It ends when we choose for it to end. 

 

Noach’s attempt to silently escape the evils of the world was unsuccessful, so too, the attempt to build a world with one unified voice. That tower came crumbling down. 

We now know this from experience, from anyone brave enough to experience – 

that the secluded teivah-ark is stifling and the tower of Truth is so tall that dizziness bleeds into arrogance. 

 

Our hero is Avraham Ha-Ivri. Ivri, explains Rashi, from the word, eiver/side. “Avraham stood on one side of the world while everyone else stood on the other.” He was true to himself and his beliefs, and yet, still cared deeply about the many ‘others.’ Avraham fought injustice and yet, prayed for the wellbeing of his spiritual foes. One man against the world, armed with nothing but faith and kindness, and here we are, thousands of years later, that one man won. So enough with the towers and teivahs. They’re still not working. It’s time to dust off those ancient values. 

 

Yes, every vote counts, but as descendants of Avraham we know that…  

So does every prayer. 

So does every mitzvah. 

So does every attempt to understand a viewpoint other than our own. 

So does every step towards people of a different persuasion, color, faith.

So does every rejection of falsehood. 

So does every embrace of truth, even when it hurts.  

 

We’ve dropped off our ballots, the outcome of the election is completely out of our hands, 

but instead of spending the next hours in anxious wait, why don’t we do something meaningful tonight? 

 

Instead of checking the voting tally every ten minutes, why not pray for a peaceful outcome? 

Instead of going down the rabbit hole of possible electoral maps, why not pause for a moment to reflect on how much is not in our hands? 

Instead of doubling down on our candidate and why they absolutely must win, why not reflect for a moment on why almost 50% of this country disagrees with you? 

 

There is, after all, more at stake here than who will reside on Pennsylvania Avenue. The outcome of this country doesn’t end at the voting booth, nor in the electoral college, and not even on January 20th. This toxicity ends when enough individuals decide it’s time. Like Avraham Ha-Ivri, your actions can make a difference, and that’s true regardless of what state you live in; one man or woman alone can really change the world.

 

Why Meditation Has Not Helped Me Pray_A Short thought on Parshas Lech Lecha

Why Meditation Has Not Enhanced My Praying

“Has your meditation exercise enhanced your prayers?”

I recently returned to Johns Hopkins University after an eight-year hiatus and I am taking a class on mindfulness and meditation. My professor, a gifted educator, skilled at drawing out each student’s unique perspective, challenged me the other day to see a correlation between the daily meditating I am doing for the course and my daily prayers.

To the surprise of my professor and classmates, I responded in the negative. I did not see any improvement in my prayers despite a consistent regiment of meditation. The truth is, I was surprised myself. I experienced a number of tangible benefits from my meditating; I learned that my jaw – normally hidden behind my beard – is clenched tight, and meditating has helped me relax this anxious posture. I have also been more cognizant of my emotions, finding myself able to watch them from the outside and not get swept up in their power. Both of those changes I can directly correlate with meditating. However, when it comes to prayer, an experience which is intrinsically deeply meditative, I have not found that meditating helps me pray.

***

There are two fascinating insights into the nature of Jewish prayer that can be found in the saga of Avraham and Sarah. The first is Avraham’s prayer for the cities of Sedom (next week’s parsha). After much give and take, his prayer is ultimately rejected; God will not save the inhabitants of Sedom despite Avraham’s heartfelt pleas. Now this is not just any prayer, this is the first full and possibly only time we find Avraham praying and yet, the response from God is no. If the purpose of prayer is to receive help from God, this is a terrible introduction to its powers as Avraham’s prayers were flatly rejected. Clearly then, prayer has another role.

What that role is can be found in a Talmudic teaching (Yevamos, 46a) explaining a consistent theme in the life of our matriarchs; Sarah, Rivkah, and Rachel all experienced infertility. Our Sages pick up on this strange coincidence and suggest something radical; “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” In other words, God made these women infertile so that they would pray. Meaning, prayer is not what remedied their suffering, it’s what caused it in the first place! And while this does not seem very fair to these righteous women, it does tell us something important about prayer; prayer is not about getting something for ourselves, nor is it about alleviating our suffering. Prayer is so much deeper; it’s about a primary need in the fabric of creation for humans to reach out, from the depth of their being, and touch the Divine with their deepest yearnings.

Contrast that with the purpose of meditating, as stated by Buddha: The first principle in life is that man suffers. The purpose of meditation is to transcend that suffering. In other words, the goal of meditation is to alleviate suffering, through insight, and ultimately through transcendence.

While meditating likely helped my concentration, the energy of prayer, or at least that of Jewish prayer, is not found in healing, be it by Divine intervention or the psychological impact of mindfulness. The power of prayer is found in connecting to God, of allowing our soul to communicate with her Creator. The many psychological and physiological benefits of meditation that have been documented are certainly relevant to prayer as well. I can tell you from personal experience how freeing and anxiety-reducing prayer can be. However, these benefits are not the goal. Many are frustrated by prayers that are left unanswered, others find the experience to be somewhat stale. Perhaps if we were to recognize that the goals we have for prayer are not what it offers, we would be less disappointed. Perhaps if we were to recognize that the benefit of prayer is mostly mystical, a union between soul and God, an experience that may or may not be felt, we would find services more meaningful.

This understanding of prayer sheds light on one final Talmudic passage (Bava Kamma, 92a). We are taught from Avraham that one who prays for others is answered before one who prays for themselves. If the goal of prayer, like meditation, is to alleviate suffering this is incomprehensible. But if we understand that the goal of Jewish prayer is about connection then the less it is about ourselves, the purer our prayers will be. The more we are able to transcend our personal and self-serving needs the more authentic the connection between us and God.

The past two weeks, I have received so many messages from all of you about the many prayers on my behalf. Those prayers, prayers on behalf of another, were so much more powerful than prayers said for one’s own sake – and I felt it. I was beyond touched by all the calls, emails, and texts, thank you! Knowing that you were praying for me was heartwarming and the fact that I am able to write this message demonstrates that it was effective too!

While I will continue to meditate, as I do see many benefits from this practice, I am not sure if it will help me pray. I struggle to describe the impact that prayer has on me, but I feel it in my bones, or perhaps more accurately, in my soul. May we continue to pray for one another – we all need each other’s prayers now more than ever, and may God hear our prayers.

With much love, wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,

Yisrael Motzen

 

RBG and the Esrog Yizkor Shmini Atzeres

The topic of my talk today is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aleha hashalom. To be honest, I am nervous talking about her. I remember not too long ago when I could quote Ronald Reagan or John F Kennedy and not have to qualify that referencing them it is not a political statement. It was a time when I could share a story about Menachem Begin or David Ben Gurion and aside from one or two people who would grumble, most would understand that these were people of great consequence; flawed, of course, but influential, leaders who tried hard to make their country and the world a better place. So today, while our country burns figuratively and literally, I ask you to pretend for a moment that we live at a different time, at a time of civility, to not allow politics to muddy my message, and may we merit to return to such a place bimheira v’yameinu.

It’s Shmini Atzeres and technically Sukkos is over but I’d like to use some symbols from Sukkos nonetheless; the Lulav, the Esrog, the Haddasim-myrtle branches, and the Aravot-the willow branches. Possibly one of the most famous Medrashim that explain these species is found in Vayikra Rabbah. It describes how each one of the four species represents a different type of Jew.

First there is the Aravah – the willow branch, it has no taste and no smell. It’s been renamed the Covid-branch… Just kidding. The underlying idea of this Medrash is that taste represents Mitzvos, the commandments given to us by G-d through His Torah, and fragrance represents Middos, good character, something that is independent or complimentary to the Torah. And so, the tasteless and odorless willow branches represent the individual who has no Mitzvos, no good deeds, and has terrible character, no middos whatsoever.

Now I’ll tell you, I have never met such a person in my life. Have you? Nothing at all going for them?! No redeeming qualities?!

But apparently they exist. And you know what we’re told to do with them? On Pesach, we knock this figure in the mouth – hakeh es sheinov, but not on Sukkos. Not after we have cleansed ourselves of our sins, not after we have been humbled into recognizing how small we are, how much evil lurks within. So on Sukkos, we take the Aravah, the mitzvah-less and middos-less Jew, and we tie him and her up with our Lulav, with our Esrog and with our Haddassim. We embrace them. We do not push them away. We do not call them names. We do not ostracize them. We do not, Heaven forbid, pray for their demise. Because you know what happens when the aravot spend so much time in close proximity to the fragrant myrtle branches and the citron-smelling Esrog – it also starts to smell good.

Again, I don’t believe there are any Aravot in our midst – and I don’t just mean here in our shul. I mean in our community, local and beyond. There are things I see that make me cringe, sometimes even cry. But everyone means well as misguided as they may be. We don’t need more fighting, we don’t need more name-calling, we don’t need more sinah, more hatred in our Jewish world. If you think someone is an Aravah, pull ‘em closer. Don’t push them away. Bind them up. Reach out, speak kindly, say hello. That is what we do with the Aravah.

Then there is the Lulav – the Lulav comes from a date tree; tasty – I love dates, but they have no smell. And so, in this Medrashic scheme, the Lulav represents the Jew who performs many Mitzvos but is lacking in his or her middot. It is so sad and tragic that examples abound. That there are garbage fires burning in Brooklyn, started by religious Jews who are upset at the Governors orders. That there are ugly protests led by Orthodox Jews. What a Shanda! And don’t get me wrong – what the governor did in New York was not right; he didn’t work with communal leaders, he singled Jews out time and time again – he’s wrong, but so are we. The complete lack of safety, non-compliance with mask-wearing there and here in our own community. I don’t care about the science. If you legally have to wear a mask – wear one! It’s an absolute chillul Hashem to not do so. Frankly, I don’t care about the constitution and this obsession with individual rights. It is a lack of common decency, of basic middot. You can do all the Miztvos in the world, make a siyum on Shas every year, but a Lulav has no smell. It is inferior and rightfully so. Don’t be a Lulav; don’t hide behind your Torah observance and leave a trail of foul odor everywhere you go.  

Which brings me to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Hadass, if I may; the fragrant smelling myrtle branch, a symbol of love and romance in so many cultures. Without a doubt, Justice Ginsberg represented Jewish values. Yes, I know she was laid in state for a number of days and more, we’ll get there. Please hear me out.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exceptionally devoted spouse; an Eishes Chayil par excellence. Her husband, early in their marriage developed testicular cancer. They were both in law school at the time. But somehow, despite being in her second year of law school, despite having a young child to care for, she managed to shower her husband with devotion and care, going so far as to have notes taken for him by friends that she would later type up, so he too could make his way through school. A devoted mother and spouse.

She was a paragon of civility, known to be the left-leaning justice who was friendly with the Conservatives. Most famously, her relationship with one of the staunchest right-wingers on the bench, Justice Scalia, was legendary. They would go to operas together, they would celebrate New Years, and they even once went on an elephant ride together – just because.  Not only that but Brett Kavanaugh described in great detail how kind and generous Ruth Bader was towards him when he was accepted as a Supreme Court Justice. A model of chessed.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the early of days of being rejected from clerkships for her gender to the late years of her stardom as the Notorious RBG was a ferocious advocate of human dignity and equality. In 1999, she wrote the majority opinion in which the Supreme Court ruled that mental illness is a form of a disability. In 2020, she affirmed the rights of Native Americans to lands in Oklahoma. In 2013, she fought for Black citizens to have easier access to voting. And of course, most famously and iconically, time and time again Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for complete and absolute equal treatment of women in our society.

And yes, I know, our Jewish tradition’s worldview on other nations and women is complex, but allow me to read to you a short passage from another giant, a Torah giant who passed away last month, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz zt’l:

Egalitarian ideas are not supported by any evidence. The inequality of man is blatantly apparent. (Some are born short, some tall, some smart, some less so, etc.) The only way one can find any support for the idea of equality is in a very difficult religious concept: the concept that people are born in the Image of the Lord and are therefore equal [in some fundamental way]. There is no other argument that I have heard that serves any purpose. All egalitarian movements are an outcome of Judeo-Christian ideas that contain within them the notion of receiving a divine soul that for everyone is more or less the same …

All forces everywhere, within and without, work against equality. People are so inherently different – not only different, but unequal – that it requires a constant struggle to accept the notion of some kind of equality. The only justification for the idea is what you may call a mystical one: even though people don’t appear to be equal, there is something equal in them.

So yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight to bring equality to women and to all others who have been marginalized is most certainly a reflection of a beautiful and fragrant Jewish value of tzedek, of justice. And so I believe I am justified in describing her as the lovely Hadass.

But a Hadass, as you know, has a sweet-smell, but no taste; excellent middot, but a lack of Mitzvot. Not to say that she did not perform countless, hundreds, likely thousands of Mitzvos along the way, but her life was not one dedicated to the Torah, to our understanding of the Torah as a book of life, of not just values, but iron-clad rules and instructions that guide our every movement, Divinely-ordained, and eternally valid. This was not the worldview of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She did not her life in accordance with these Divine rules, she at times, from her powerful perch, ruled in ways that were perhaps inconsistent with the laws of the Torah, and her final stage on this world was a sad reminder of this reality. A fragrant hadass indeed, but I am sorry to say, not what we ultimately strive for.

The final and most significant of the four species is the Esrog. The Esrog is a rare breed. That’s why it costed me $180 this year to buy one… The Esrog that can so easily be disqualified, the Esrog that needs a magnifying glass to see its texture, the Esrog that needs certification to ascertain its origin. To be fragrant and tasty, to have majestic middos and to live one’s life in accordance with the Torah, it’s not easy, it’s almost impossible. But isn’t life about trying?

In a moment we’ll be saying Yizkor, and we will recall parents, loved ones who lived their lives so we can live ours. Many I am sure were hadassim, they lived their lives guided by beautiful Jewish values, of brotherhood and good food, of community and of kindness – I am sure you recall them fondly. Some were perhaps Lulavim, who learned Torah and performed Mitzvos but forgot to impart upon you the beauty of life. And some, I fear, may be remembered as Aravot – as people who made you second-guess your worth, who belittled you, who made you who you are today not because of them, but despite them.

Whomever we recall today, and in whichever fashion, it is not enough to perpetuate, to continue a family tradition. Our goal is to build on their accomplishments, spiritual and otherwise, to forge forward. Life, is about shaking our lulav, shaking our aravot, shaking our hadassim! Not accepting the status quo! It’s about striving to be an Esrog; to do more, to be more. To not continue the legacy of those who came before us but to honor them by continuing further on the path they started. That is the greatest gift we can give our parents; not imitating them but surpassing them.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are done; the High Holiday season is coming to an end. What are we taking with us as we leave? A little bit more Torah study that we can commit to on a daily or even weekly basis? There is so much depth in our tradition that we are painfully ignortant of. A little more prayer, in shul or at home? Maybe some Tehillim, that beautiful evocative poetry, that manages to capture all of human emotion? Our soul is thirsty. You know it is, you’ve felt it these past weeks. Give your soul its deepest desire, to talk to her Creator. Maybe a commitment to check up on one member just once week? On a friend? A family member? A dedication to speaking less cynically, more compassionately, with less judgment? What’s it going to be? Now’s the time to decide. We cannot leave this holiday holding our lulav and esrog limply. Shake it up.

 

Growing up, we had this beautiful custom – my father would take his Esrog after Sukkot and drill little holes in it and in those holes he would place cloves, besamim. And every Saturday night, we would use the Esrog as our besamim for Havdallah and begin our week with a constant reminder to strive, to grow, to not accept the status quo, to be an Esrog.

So today, as we recall loved ones, as we recall Jewish icons, as we recall what came before us, let us not just hold the past in our hands, let’s move it forward. Let’s shake ourselves and let’s shake the world, let’s strive for more, for more fragrance, for more taste, for ceaseless growth, for always wanting more, of filling and yet never satisfying our spiritual thirst. And may we merit, when we are no longer, to be remembered not as an Aravah, heaven forbid, not as a Lulav, not even as a Hadass, but as the Esrog; aromatic and fragrant in our character, delicious and delightful in our deeds.