Reflections on the Siyum Hashas Parshas Vayigash

I spent this past week in New York. Traffic, terrible. Food, delicious. But that’s standard and this week was unique. You see, I left Baltimore on Sunday under a dark cloud. Shabbos afternoon, my brother dressed in Shabbos clothes with a kippah on his head, was walking down Pimlico Rd. to go to shul and a car drove by. The car stopped and the man in the passenger seat rolled down his window and poured a cup of coke on my brother. My brother joked that being Israeli he’s used to anti-Semitic violence in the form of rockets and he would take a cup of coke any day. But jokes aside, it was jarring to be the recipient of blatant anti-Semitism in our quiet community. Later that night, out with my family, we heard the frightening news of a machete-wielding man who entered a shul in Monsey and stabbed numerous people. Monday morning, I went to shul in Queens, New York, for shacharis and took the first open seat I found. It happened to be near the door. A moment later I started wondering if I had been foolish to sit so close to the door. What if someone walks in with a gun, with a knife? I am right in the line of fire.

So let’s just say anti-Semitism was on my mind.

With anti-Semitism on my mind, I initially appreciated what I read on the news later that week: “90,000 Jews Gather to Pray and Defy a Wave of Hate” blared the Thursday headline of the New York Times. Or, 90,000 Jews  gather in celebration of Talmud after anti-Semitic attacks: ‘We will not be intimidated’ –  from  Fox News.  Or this from the Times of Israel, “Under tight security, 88,000 US Jews celebrate 7.5-year Talmud cycle.”

What these major news outlets were describing was the Siyum HaShas, which means the completion of the entire Talmud. The Siyum Hashas is an event that occurs every seven and a half years celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi, a daily learning cycle of the entire Talmud. If you were to learn one page of Talmud a day, it would take seven and a half years to complete the whole thing.

The idea of learning a page of the Talmud every single day was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a leading scholar in pre-war Europe. What started off as a small initiative, taken up by a few people, has in recent years, grown in leaps and bounds, especially through the translation of the Talmud by Artscroll. And after every cycle of 7 and a half years, a huge event takes place to celebrate the accomplishment. In the past it had been held at Madison Square Gardens, and this year, on January 1st it was held in MetLife stadium and had over 93,000 participants.

It was this event, the Siyum Hashas, that was covered by these major news outlets, all describing the Siyum in light of the recent uptick of anti-Semitic attacks in New York and across the country. Again, to quote the New York Times: “On a windy and biting cold day, the gathering offered a chance to affirm their faith in the face of those terrible acts. Some believed the event contained echoes of Jews who were held in ghettos or concentration camps during the Holocaust and resisted their persecutors by saying clandestine prayers, teaching their children the Torah or furtively blowing a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana.” Or as Fox News put it, “the historic completion of the study of the entire Talmud, sending a strong message of resilience days after a stabbing in a New York rabbi’s home left five people wounded.”

But ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you something, I was there, I was at the Siyum Hashas at MetLife stadium, and what I just read to you from Fox News and the New York Times, it is fake news. It really is.

Because you see, there was virtually no mention of anti-Semitism during the entire four-and-a-half-hour program.  No mention of bricks thrown in Crown Heights or knife attacks in Monsey. Instead, speaker after speaker, video after video, there was only one theme – Talmud Torah, the study of Torah; how Torah is our lifeblood, how it is our oxygen. That’s all I heard the entire event.

Sure, there was extra security and more guards than usual. But that just provided a greater opportunity to demonstrate what a life guided by our Torah could look like; it was just an opportunity for the 90,000+ crowd to thank each and every one of those guards, which they did, something I saw with my own eyes. And yes, I, like so many walked into that event looking over my shoulder, saddened by the sight of large guns held by the security guards, but within a few moments I was swept up with the tangible joy in the air; joy that I cannot remember experiencing in my life.

As but one example, after they finished the final lines of the Talmud, the orchestra broke into joyous music and all 90,000 Jews started dancing. I had the pleasure of being on the ground level, dancing together with my son, two of my brothers and my father, and as our circle spun, looking up and looking around and watching all 90,000 people sway back and forth as one.

I wish we could have all been there. I wish you could have experienced it, just those twenty minutes of dancing for yourself because I’m not doing justice describing it. My son turned to me while we were dancing. He said, “Abba, why are you crying?” I had tears streaming down my face and I tried to explain to him that they were tears of joy. He’s young, I don’t know if he understood. But I silently prayed that he too would one day have an opportunity to cry from joy. I prayed that the experience of the Siyum would make an impression on him and he would realize that Judaism is not a faith of fear or protest or victimhood. I prayed that he would see that our faith is one of knowledge, one of joy, and one of connection; to each other and to G-d.

That was the Siyum Hashas that I experienced. Instead of Never Again, people said, let’s do this again – in seven and a half years. Instead of focusing on martyrs, the vast majority of the event focused on people, people like you and me, with busy lives, who somehow found the time to study a page of Talmud each and every day. Like my friend, the lawyer, who lives a few blocks away, and manages to find the time to teach the Daf Yomi. Or the picture I saw of a Daf Yomi class in Rabbi Teichman’s shul on Smith Avenue where one of the participants was wearing a Ravens jersey. The class was taking place during a game, and this brave soul took a break from watching the game to study. Or those who studied their daily page on a subway car or listening to it on a Podcast on their commute to work. Or the story I heard of a boy from Baltimore who went to the last Siyum Hashas with his father and he wasn’t that excited about being there. And the father told his son, “Come along with me, meet all the rabbis I want you to meet and if you do, I will give you whatever gift you want.” And after sitting through the Siyum Hashas, this disinterested 13-year-old boy was so inspired that he turned to his father and said, “Dad, you know what I want for my gift? I want you to finish the entire Talmud and do the Daf Yomi.”

Sure enough, his father did finish the Daf Yomi cycle, and this Sunday, that 13 year-old-boy who is now 20, will be starting the next cycle with his father. So do yourselves a favor and ignore the headlines. Because what I just described to you, that was the real Siyum Hashas. And that is the real Judaism; it is joyful, it is intellectually stimulating, it is emotionally-riveting. And it is something Fox News or the New York Times cannot capture or even comprehend.

In this week’s Parsha, after Yaakov hears the unbelievable news that his son is still alive and decides to move the entire family to Egypt, the Torah says that Yaakov sent Yehuda before him to prepare. “V’es Yehuda shalach l’fanav el Yosef, l’horos l’fonov Goshna.” The Torah does not tell us how Yehuda is preparing? What is he doing in Egypt before the family arrives?

The Medrash Tanchuma says something astounding. It says that Yehuda was sent to prepare a beis Talmud, a place for them to study Torah.

There’s a part of me that reads that and says, c’mon, they didn’t have a Torah yet. What kind of study hall was he preparing?

But then I imagine the authors of this Medrash, gathered in some room, about two thousand years ago, reading this passage in the Torah and asking themselves the same question we asked, what would Yehuda be preparing as his family enters this new foreign land? What would be the one thing they would need to survive? Is it security? Is it a beautiful home? Is it good jobs?

And the only thing they could imagine that the family of Yaakov would truly need is a study hall. Historically, I’m not sure. But the message is priceless and powerful.

Yes, the Egyptians would soon turn on the Jews, like the Babylonians and the Persians would do years later. And yes, they would suffer at the hands of too many nations to mention, but the sons of Yaakov and their sons and their sons would survive. Not because they rallied in defiance of their enemies. No. Don’t believe the headlines! They survived because Yehuda had already defined for them what it means to be a Jew. Their Judaism was not a reactive force, ready to fight back when attacked. Their Judaism was proactive – before they even got to Egypt, Yehuda had set up a study hall. To be a Jew means to have a foundation of Torah that cannot be shaken by all the evil winds in the world. When your Jewish identity is defined by its beauty, by a deep and daily connection to the Torah, then all the anti-Semitism in the world just bonces off of you, it makes no impact.    

Now I know that Daf Yomi, the study of one page of Talmud each day is not practical for most of us. (Not all of us, but most.) But what is the foundation of our Judaism? Can it be more positive than defiance of our enemies? And can it be more consistent than every Shabbos? Can it be a Mishna a day? A halacha a day? A chapter or even a few verses of the Torah each day? A mitzvah a day? Something! Something beautifully Jewish that we can engage in every day of our lives.

Yes, there is growing anti-Semitism, and not just in the world, but down the turnpike and even down the block. But from the inception of our nation, our most effective tool was not to simply fight back – although that’s important as well. Our most effective tool was to set up a study hall before we even entered a new land. Our most effective tool was to strengthen who we are, not who we are against or who is against us. Arguing over who is more anti-Semitic, white nationalists or Hebrew Israelites did not keep the Jewish People alive throughout the millenia. Arguing over Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, Rashi and the Rambam, did. Our most effective tool has been by immersing ourselves in our legacy, in our tradition, in what makes us who we are, and that is the Torah. In the words of the great 10th century Babylonian leader of the Jewish People, Rav Saadia Gaon, “We are a nation only because of our Torah.”

***

I mentioned earlier that Rabbi Meir Shapiro was the one who started the Daf Yomi. The truth is it was his mother who started the Daf Yomi. (h/t Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for this beautiful story -) The story goes that one day as a little boy, Meir Shapiro woke up and found his mother crying. He asked her what’s wrong and she said that the Melamed, his teacher, wasn’t available that day. “Mommy,” he said, “he’ll be back tomorrow. It’s just one day.”

His mother shook her head. “Meir’le, you’re too young, you don’t understand. Each day is precious. If you miss a day of learning, you can never make up that day.” And with those words, and with those tears, the Daf Yomi movement was born.

May we recognize the importance of connecting to our heritage each and every day, and may our tears of yearning for more; more Judaism, more Torah, and more G-dliness in our lives, may they be transformed into tears of true unbridled joy.   

 

 

Social Civil War and Ner Tamids Raison D’etre – Vayeishev

On September 29th, President Trump retweeted the following: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office, it will cause a Civil War-like fracture… from which our country will never heal.”

The December edition of the Atlantic was titled, How to Stop a Civil War, and it included articles like, A Nation Coming Apart, and How America Ends.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled, In a Polarized Era, Will Impeachment Become a New Normal?

Whatever this new normal is, it’s not looking pretty.

Just about four years ago, right around Purim time, I gave a sermon – which was more of a spoof than sermon – on the presidential candidates. I made fun of Bernie, and Trump, and Hilary, and Chris Christie. And we all laughed, Republicans and Democrats alike. But to do so this year? I wouldn’t dare. The political climate has reached a boiling point. Impeachment is the new normal and invoking the civil war is the go-to historical context. Forget there being no place for humor, more and more it seems like there’s no place for civility.

I don’t care to talk today about politics. I, like so many of you, am just sick and tired of it all. I would like to speak about civility, about community, and what it means to be a kehillah.

As a people, the Jewish People, we have a long history of real and actual civil wars; infighting is nothing new. Whether it was Yosef being thrown in a pit and sold as a slave by his brothers which we read about today, whether it was the tribe of Binyamin being nearly decimated by the eleven tribes in the book of Shoftim, or whether it was the split between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel, we are no strangers to civil war.

As opposed to the American Civil War, none of these wars ended well. They were disasters without a happy ending. Nobody won.

Interestingly, each one of these Jewish civil wars pitted the children of Leah against the children of Rachel. Because of that, those more mystically inclined see these fights as not only a struggle for dominion, but as a conflict of ideas. The children of Rachel having one perspective on how to live life, how to be a Jew and the children of Leah have another. In this approach, the Jewish People fail to see how these two perspectives, how these two ways of life, though they do not need to be reconciled, the Jewish People do need to learn how to live in harmony – something they fail to do time and time again. And so, Yosef ends up in Egypt, the tribe of Binyamin is left with a handful of survivors, and the Jewish People split in to two weak kingdoms paving the way for their ultimate exile and destruction.

The Messianic vision is one of Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben Dovid, of a savior from Rachel and a savior from Leah. It’s a vision of a redemption that comes about when we recognize the leadership of both families; a recognition that we can live in harmony even if we do not all agree.

And in that light, I would like to say that this shul, Ner Tamid, is mei’ein olam habbah, it is otherworldly, and Messianic (not in that sense!). It is truly one of the few places in the world where you have such a broad cross-section of people in one room, one minyan, one shul.

Forget Judaism for a second, what other venue do you go to, concert, Broadway, event, lecture, activity, that has a cross-section like this?  Aside from the growing political divide, we have spoken in the past about the great age-divide in the world; how people born in different decades cannot see eye to eye with one another anymore.

In this room, we have strong representation of every age group. In this room, we have strong representation of every political view – make that very strong representation! As the Baltimore Jewish community has grown, like any community that grows, what typically happens is minyanim break away to accommodate every nuanced difference. You have the minyan that wants to start early and go quickly. The minyan that wants to start early and go slowly. You have the minyan for people middle-aged people, for young people, for old people. The minyan for those with five children, another minyan for those with three children. You know what I mean? Every few months there’s talk of a new minyan to accommodate a slightly nuanced difference of opinion or lifestyle.

And in this room, in this shul, we have bucked the trend. We had two minyanim on Rosh Hashana/ Yom Kippur, and they merged together. We had two minyanim on Shabbos, and they merged together. It wasn’t a walk in the park, it took concessions, it took hard work, but it happened. And it’s something we should be incredibly proud of. This is a rarity, it’s called community.

I believe a healthy question that every human being should ask themselves from time to time is why do I exist. What am I doing here? How am I contributing to the world in a meaningful way? Because if I’m just taking up space and resources, that’s sad.

It’s a question we need to ask, not only as individuals, but one I hope that every new shul/ school/ organizations ask themselves before they get started and one that every shul/ school/ organization has to ask themselves form time; what is our raison d’etre? What is our justification to be here? Are we contributing or taking?

And to me, the answer for us is – community. Ner Tamid is a breath of fresh air not only in the Jewish community but in the world at large.

At a time when the word ‘civil war’ is thrown around like it’s a football, in a world where impeachment is the new normal, in a world where families cannot talk to one another, we have our shul with all its glorious diversity.

It’s beautiful, it’s refreshing, and it’s truly magnificent. But when you’re swimming upstream it takes work. When you’re bucking the trend of the community around you, the country at-large, and perhaps even the world, it takes a lot of effort. It does not happen on its own. It’s something we need to be conscientious of and invest in.

  • It means going out of your way to say hello and Good Shabbos to people you’re not naturally connected to. That small human contact, that gesture of recognition goes an incredibly long way in ensuring that we remain one.
  • It means discussing things with civility. We don’t need to agree with one another about politics, about programming, about the direction of our shul. But we do need to have those conversations with the recognition that there is more than one legitimate way to look at things.
  • It means giving people the benefit of the doubt. Not demonizing a group of people that are different than us. Trying to remind ourselves that no one is maliciously trying to be rude or exclude. Remembering that we’re all carrying our own peckele, our own hardships and sometimes it spills through in an unflattering time and place.
  • And lastly, it means not generalizing, not stereotyping. Not assuming that every Democrat or Republican is the same, not every young person or old person is the same, and seeing one another as individuals, as precious individuals who make up this special community.

We have a good thing going for us, a beautiful thing going for us. Communities likes these are quaint, they are old-fashioned – and they’re also futuristic, they’re Messianic. This is our raison d’etre, the reason we exist. And it takes work to live up to one’s potential.

There’s one more civil war that I’d like to talk about and that is Chanukah. Like the uncle who tells the kids that Santa Claus isn’t real, I’m about to ruin your Chanukah. You see, Chanukah was not a battle between Jews and Greeks. It was – but not entirely. It was really a fight between Jew and Jew.

Judea was under Greek rule of the Seleucid empire. The Jews living in the region had adopted many of the Greek ways of life. It was a mixed marriage of sorts and it was working. There are beautiful elements to Greek culture that the Jews, even the religious Jews in the region, were comfortable assimilating into their way of life. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes v’yishkon b’ohalei Shem” Noach prophetically envisions a world in which the beauty of Greece finds its place in the tents of the Jewish People.

However, there were some Jews who wanted more Athens and less Jerusalem. These Hellenized Jews wanted more gymnasiums and less sanctuaries. It was these Hellenized Jews who erected Greek gods in the Temple. It was Hellenized Jewish priests who were exercising in the nude instead of performing the sacrificial order, and Jewish prostitutes who were running amok through the streets of Jerusalem. There was a fracture in Jewish society between those who wanted to live the traditional Jewish life and those who didn’t. 

And it was at that point that Matisyahu HaMaccabee lifted his voice and said, mi laShem elai! Whomever is with G-d, join me! And fought to defend the Jewish faith.  

When the dust settled, when the Hellenized Jews and the Greek army were defeated, when the Bais Hamikdash was reconsecrated and the Menorah was lit, the victors did not eradicate every vestige of Greek culture from Judea, no. They just ensured that there was more Jerusalem than Athens. That in coming together as one, in creating a Jewish community there was more spirituality than aesthetic. More Torah wisdom than Greek philosophy.

A challenge to any group of people that attempt to come together and create a community is which values get compromised and which values are held on to. Someone posed the following question to me the other day: “Ner Tamid’s tagline is something for everyone. So does that mean,” she asked me, “that we search for the lowest common denominator of observance, of values, and stop there to ensure the comfort of everyone here? Or do we strive for something higher?”

It was a good question. I’ll share with you what I shared with her. I firmly believe that we can create a spiritual environment that is welcoming and warm and open to all, and at the same time ask ourselves to leave our comfort zone and climb higher. But that too takes a lot of work.

  • It means respecting the fact that this is both a house of prayer and a house of gathering, a beis tefilah and a beis haknesses, but if our conversation conflicts with someone’s prayer, prayer wins.
  • It means growing, each in our own way, but creating a culture where everyone is going upward and not content with spiritual mediocrity; a beautiful mosaic of people coming from different places but all striving for more.

Again, we have a special thing going for us, a community truly like no other in a world bereft of communities. Ner Tamid, our community, is truly a light, a small flickering flame in a dark world, and it’s nothing to take for granted. But it takes work. It takes patience, it takes deep understanding, it takes stepping out of our comfort zone, both socially and spiritually. Mi lashem elai. Who’s in?

I hope we’re all in. I hope we’re all in in creating a magnificent breath of fresh air, in creating a merging of Rachel and Leah, of Democrat and Republican, of young and old, in creating an inclusive community filled with men and women, boys and girls, dedicated to their own and their community’s spiritual growth. 

Wishing you all a beautiful Shabbos and an uplifting Chanukah.  

How to Confront Evil – Vayishlach

The Medrash Rabbah informs us that when the Sages of Israel would travel to Rome to lobby for the needs of the Jewish People, they would first study this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, in-depth. It is the Torah portion which best illustrates the Rabbinic teaching of “the experiences of the father are an indicator of what the children will experience in the future.” Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav, according tour sages, is seen as the precursor to all encounters with the enemy.

This past week, Yaakov, the Jewish People, once again, encountered his enemy Eisav. This time Eisav did not yell Allah Akbar, this time Eisav did not write a right-wing nationalistic manifesto, this time Eisav was a Hebrew Israelite. But it’s all the same. The age-old lethal encounter between the strong and mighty Eisav and the faithful Jewish People was and is being reenacted in our times.

Like the sages in Roman times, we too can look to Yaakov’s strategies and actions as inspiration and guidance. Yakov, our Sages point out, prepared in three ways; with tributes or gifts, with prayer, and by preparing for war.

Though giving gifts to our government would be illegal, the notion of working with those in power is something we must embrace in our modern fight against anti-Semitism. For all its shortcomings, I, for one, am grateful that the President issued an executive order to protect Jewish students on college campuses. Aside from the outright violence that is taking place on college campuses, the exclusion of Jews from student government positions for simply going to Israel, the blaming of Israel for all the world’s problems, the most thinly veiled anti-Semitism that is taking place on campus has to stop, and receiving help from the government is something I welcome and am truly grateful for. And I am grateful for the many Jews and national Jewish organizations such as the Orthodox Union who took a page out of the Yakov Avinu playbook and worked together with our government.

Prayer, it goes without saying, is always appropriate, most certainly in a time of need. And it’s important that we acknowledge this time as being one of need. There are only so many anti-Semitic acts that could take place before we acknowledge that something is broken here. And as a people of faith, prayer, praying more than usual, praying with more fervor than usual, is incumbent upon each and every one of us. Not only after the next terrible attack (l’a), but today and today and the next day, in a time of distress we turn to G-d for mercy.

And lastly, like Yaakov we must prepare for war. No other time in the past two thousand years have we been able to do so like we do today. Not only ensuring that our shuls and schools are protected and that our cities and country is safe. But the fact that there is an army, one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, whose states purpose is to protect the Jewish People, not only in Israel, but anywhere they are found. We are a peace-loving people, and avoid war at all costs, but like Yaakov, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are nations who would like us dead, and having a force prepared to fight is an essential part of combatting modern anti-Semitism. 

Politics, prayer, and war. That’s how Yaakov prepared for his showdown with Eisav, and that’s how we will do the same.

But the story of Yaakov and Eisav does not end there. After preparing himself in these three manners, the Torah describes Yaakov going to sleep. And then he wakes up in middle of the night. He is undoubtedly filled with fear and anxiety, uncertainty about what will be, and so he cannot sleep. (see Rav Hirsch) He wakes everyone up and continues travelling, he carries his family and belongings over the Jabbuk stream, nachal Yabbok. And of course, famously, he is left alone, and he struggles and fights with the mysterious angel.  

There’s a detail there that for years I glossed over. Where is Yaakov travelling that night? The assumption we, and most commentators seem to make is that he is continuing on his journey towards Eisav. But the Rashbam says that is not the case. You know what he’s doing? You know where he’s going? He’s running away. He is afraid to encounter Eisav. He is overwhelmed by the prospect of an overpowering force that he cannot defeat. And so in the middle of the night, he changes his mind. I’m going back to Lavan. I’m running away.   

Many of us can relate to Yaakov’s anxiety, to Yaakov’s feeling of overwhelmingness – we’ve done so much, and nothing seems to be changing, there are no solutions in sight. And so we run. It’s far more pleasant to focus on Lamar Jackson than on the fact that three people were shot and killed in a kosher grocery store less than 3 hours away.

And it’s not just anti-Semitism that we’re feeling overwhelmed by and running away from. We all have something we’re afraid of, something that we stick in our closet and double and triple lock with the hope that it never comes out to haunt us. We’re all running away from something.

Says the Rashbam, you know how that angel was that fought with Yaakov? It wasn’t the archangel of Eisav as many commentators interpret it to be. You know what this angel was? It was a messenger from G-d who was stopping him. It was a messenger from G-d letting him know that you cannot keep on running away. You cannot distract yourself with your job, with Netflix, and even with good deeds. You need to stop running. Face your demons. Face the evil that exists in the world. Face the evil that exists in your closet.

And Yaakov listens. He starts to struggle. He wrestles. He grapples with evil. But it’s a stalemate. He’s not able to move forward, he’s not able to change.

Right over the horizon is a new name, Yisrael, a representation of a new man, who has dealt with his demons, with his weaknesses, with his past. But right now he can’t get there. Until, vateika kaf yerech Yaakov. The angel dislodges his leg. He breaks a part of Yaakov. Something gives. The ground Yaakov stood on a moment before is no longer. And you know what that represents?

It represents the sacrifices we have to make to fight evil. To choose but one of many examples, a few weeks ago, Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented move of calling out the “poison” in the Labor Party in the UK. Never before has a chief rabbi waded into politics this way and Rabbi Mirvis got plenty of criticism for doing so, putting his role as a chief rabbi at risk in the process. But Rabbi Mirvis understood that for change to take place you have to sacrifice, you have to give something up.

In all of our battles, internal and external, what holds us back is not our lack of awareness that there’s a problem – nah, we’re the most self-aware generation that ever lived. What holds us back is that we want it all. We want change but we’re not willing to sacrifice anything in the process. We want better relationships but we’re not willing to make ourselves vulnerable. We want more meaning in life but we’re not willing to change our lives around. So we just struggle.

To change, the angel taught Yaakov, you have to give something up. We’re all holding onto things, and in turn those things are holding us back. It’s comfortable to stay where we are. It’s comfortable to go back to the same patterns of frustration and fights that were so accustomed to. But the angel taught Yaakov, it takes not only awareness and not only courage to change, it takes sacrifice. Leave go of that resentment, that fear, that comfort. And only then will you become a Yisrael.

We would be remiss if we didn’t read just one more verse from this invaluable section. After being injured, after being renamed, Yaakov limps off the battle-field to meet up with his family, he encounters Eisav, and then the Torah states, vayavo Yaakov shalem ir Shechem. That for all the struggle, for all the challenge, for all the sacrifice, Yaakov arrives at the next city intact.

Before those murderers attacked the kosher store, they encountered Detective Joseph Seals at a nearby cemetery and shot him dead.  Immediately after the tragic news broke, an Orthodox Jewish group from Flatbush, N.Y., created a fundraiser to help Detective Seals’ family. They were hoping to raise $25,000. More than 1400 donations came in, ranging from $2 to $200 and in less than 24 hours, over $48,000 was raised. What an incredible and beautiful Kiddush Hashem.

Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem– we are diminished at times, we must sacrifice at times, but our essential character, will never be lost.

Politics, prayer, and war. A recognition that we can never outrun our problems. A recognition that to change, we need to be courageous, we need to sacrifice our comforts. And a firm belief in the eternal goodness of the Jewish People. Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem, may we, like Yaakov our father, arrive in peace at our destination, and see an end to this senseless hate.

 

Cynicism and Fresh Perspectives – Shabbos Nachamu

It seems to me that there are three types of shul-goers; there are those who come to daven, those who come to talk, and those who come to shush. You know who I’m talking about. The shushers.

These are the people who really wanted to be librarians but were rejected because they wanted to read Dante’s Inferno for the children’s reading circle. And so instead they take out all their pent-up ‘shush’ on the poor people sitting next to them in shul.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the science of the shush. Like how does the shusher decide when to shush? Is there a certain decibel that’s reached, and a little bell goes off in their head, “Uh-uh-uh! We’re there! SHHHHH!” Or is it just timed? Like every thirty-eight seconds, it’s time for another one. “I’m feeling it coming, here we go, SHHHH!”

I once went to this shul in Toronto, it was the quietest shul I ever went to, but there was a shusher who davened there, and he had no one to shush. He probably got thrown out of all the talking shuls. My heart really went out to this guy – it’s a terrible feeling, all those powerful shushing emotions welling up inside and no place to channel them, the existential loneliness of being a shusher in a quiet shul… But this guy was clever, he figured out what to do. I was praying there one day, and apparently, I am not the quietest davener, and so Mr. Shusher walks over to me, while I am davening, and goes, SHHHH!

I had no idea what he was talking about, or shushing about, I was davening?! But I forgave him though because I realized he’s just a shush-addict, he was just using me for his next high.

Think about it. Is the shush not just self-serving and self-indulgent? Because let’s be honest, when was the last time a shush got someone quiet. In shul?

It’s not even an effective sound. SHHHHH. It’s sounds like light rain on a rooftop – it is one of the most soothing sounds I know. It’s a setting on my sleep machine and in the background on my meditation app. C’mon.

You want a good sound to get people quiet, Try this: AAAAAAAAAAAH! That does the trick. Every time.

The truth is, if you want to get a shusher to stop shushing, there’s one thing you need to do: Invite him or her into your conversation.

Enough said.

Just kidding, don’t do that. Because,

Ladies and gentlemen, we are enabling the shushers. It is our moral duty to eradicate shushing from the world. It is my goal that by the year 2021, there will be a museum to remind us of a bygone era of shushing. And there is only one way to rid the world of this insidious disease – 

Stop talking during davening.   

Or at least during the Amidah and Kaddish.

 

Which was kinda my sermon from last week but packaged a little differently… Same point, but two radically different ways of saying it. And that’s really what this Shabbos is all about. Not shushing, but differing perspectives.

You see, we just finished the Three Weeks, Nine Days, and Tisha B’av; a pretty dark time on the Jewish calendar. For those of us here on Tisha B’av morning with Rabbi Katz, we learned that it was even darker than we ever thought. We sat on the floor, we mourned for the loss of the Bais HaMikdash, and really, for all the tragedies of the world. The overarching message was: The Messianic Era is not here. Life is terrible.

And then – less than a week later, we are here, this Shabbos is known as Shabbos Nachamu. It is a celebratory Shabbos. It is supposed to be an extra-joyful weekend. You know why? Because – The Messianic Era is coming. Life is great.

Which one is it? It can’t be both! Are we depressed because the world is falling apart or are we ecstatic because change is around the corner? Which perspective do we take?

 

Two weeks ago, an article was published on the Times of Israel, which was widely circulated. I don’t have the stomach, nor is this the appropriate place to read every line, I’ll read to you just a few:

“Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can: …

  • be convicted of sex offenses, spend time in jail for them, and still be revered by thousands of followers and honored with the lighting of a torch at a[n Israeli] government sponsored event (a reference to Rabbi Eliezer Berland).
  • [Today, in Orthodoxy, a man can:]
  • Confess to having touched students inappropriately and still teach at prestigious yeshivot, and be defended by some leading rabbis in the community (a reference to Rabbi Motti Elon).”

She continues:

“And a woman can:

  • have her motivations questioned and her learning belittled, even while her opportunities to learn are more numerous than ever before.
  • Expect all male committees to be the ones who define her communal roles and opportunities to participate in ritual…
  • See no images of women, even at an all-women conference.”

Heavy stuff, I know.

She concludes her piece with a rather biting statement: “Once we stood at Sinai together, men and women, “like one person with one heart.” Today, the heart of Orthodoxy is broken, splintered into a dangerous and gaping divide.”

 

Now I happen to agree with much of what she wrote. I agree that too often abusers, often male abusers, are protected and judged by other men “too favorably” when favorable judgment and public safety are entirely incompatible. I agree that we need to continue to dialogue about women’s roles in the community, and that women need to be part of that conversation. I agree that while the Torah does not believe in egalitarianism as we know it, that we do believe in divisions between Kohanim and the rest of us, between Jews and non-Jews, and between men and women, and with all that being said, we should not and must not create restrictions when there are none. We must simultaneously work to combat ideas that are antithetical to our tradition and at the same time, create opportunities for those whose needs are not being met by our current communal structure. I agree with her on a lot of things.

What I do not agree with – is her tone.

And this is not a judgment of her per-se. She is, as a friend of hers pointed out to me, at ground-zero. She lives in Beit Shemesh, she is an activist who deals with the community’s issues day-in and day-out. This is not about her, it’s about us. It’s about how we speak and how we frame the ills of our community and more broadly of our lives.

Because you see, it’s all about the framing. Whether I encourage you to stop talking in shul with a d’var Torah or a joke is not so consequential. But whether I speak about the state of Jewish life as a cynic or a problem-solver, now that’s a world of a difference.

Cynicism, which was once reserved for disaffected youth, is now the celebrated currency in every high society. In one longitudinal study by a marketing firm in Japan studying attitudes, they found a sharp and steady increase in cynicism over the past ten years.

And we Jews have been fine-tuning these tools for thousands of years. We are trained from a young age to think critically, to question, to see things from a different angle. But it would seem that over the years, this critical thinking has turned more and more into cynical thinking.

Society sees cynical people as smart, realistic, and even cool. Psychologists would add to that list that cynical people are also scared. In the words of psychologist and author, Dr. Jennifer Kunst: “Cynicism is related to fear because it offers the promise of protection, which is a deep human need. The way that it offers protection is simple: it promises to keep out the danger. The rules of cynicism are simple and straightforward: trust no one; don’t believe anything; close ranks; keep your guard up and your head down; keep your door locked and your weapons at the ready. Danger: do not enter.”

The problem is that cynicism is corrosive, it destroys relationships, and it blocks our ability to grow and to change. In the words of our sages, “One cynical remark can deflect a thousand words of admonition.” The more fortified we become in cynicism, the less anything has any true meaning.

To quote Dr. Kunst once again: “The cost of cynicism is great. It blocks change. It burns bridges. It builds walls. It undermines good will. It sinks compromise. It escalates conflict. We hear about it every week in the news. I hear about it every day in my psychotherapy office. A sour look, a cross word, or a poorly worded communication is used as evidence of betrayal and lends strength to isolation, depression, and discord. A misunderstanding becomes an avenue to violence. A traffic stop becomes a powder keg. Where there is no trust, there is no way to build something truly constructive, secure, and good.”

I love the fact that we are troubled by the many issues that we see around us. But how we talk about them makes a difference. If we talk about these issues with hope and with an eye on how we can change, then we will affect change. If we talk with cynicism, only one things will change; the attitude of our children. Why bother with Kosher if all I hear about is how expensive kosher food is? Why bother with sending my children to a Jewish school or joining a shul if all I hear about is corruption?

Our Sages teach us that the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed because of the sin of Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. Excuse my pun, but I would venture to say that what is holding it back from being rebuilt is the sin of Sina-cism.

And that’s what Shabbos Nachamu is here for. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that Nechama does not mean comfort. Nor does it mean to change one’s mind, as in the verse immediately preceding the flood, when G-d surveys the evils of mankind – vayinachem Hashem, which is incorrectly translated as G-d changed his mind. What Nechama means, explains Rav Hirsch is to take a new and fresh perspective. The way we do nichum aveilim, the comforting of the mourner is to shift their perspective ever so softly. So too Shabbos Nachamu. It’s here to tell us, that yes, things are broken, things are bad, things are terrible. The heart of the Jewish People is splintered indeed. But instead of griping and complaining, instead of turning even more people off from what we know to be beautiful, Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to change our perspective and to change our tone. To speak instead about how we change those problems, how we can fix them, and how we could do better. Not to ignore what’s wrong or to brush even more under the carpet. No! Shabbos Nachamu asks of us to not lose sight of all the brokenness in the world, but to speak in a language of building and hope, and not the corrosive language of cynicism.

The heart of the Jewish People is splintered. Mashiach is not here. The heart of the Jewish People can be healed by us, if we so choose it! Mashiach is around the corner.

(h/t to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg whose post on optimism and pessimism inspired this piece – https://rabbiefremgoldberg.org/jewish-community/the-heart-of-orthodoxy-is-healthy-and-strong-seeing-the-opportunities-within-every-difficulty/)

Rockets in Israel – Gratitude, Concern, and Hate

Concern. Gratitude. And hate.

Those were the three emotions that all of us should have experienced this past week.

Concern is the most obvious – between Tuesday and Thursday morning a total of 450 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel. 450 rockets! I cannot even imagine what that looks or feels like. I do know that if a single rocket were to fall anywhere in Maryland, we would all be so traumatized that we would just shut down for a week. But in Israel, while many spent a day or two at home – and by home, I mean running back and forth between their bedrooms and their bomb shelters – they force themselves up and out and attempt to continue to live a normal life.

I hope we all felt concern this past week. Not only for the physical safety of our brothers and sisters, young and old, who were in harms way. But also concern for the mental-health and wellbeing of children, whose schools get cancelled not for snow-days but for rocket days, who instead of being taught how to cross the street by looking in both directions are taught how to shield themselves from flying shrapnel. Concern for our brothers and sisters whose normal way of life is anything but normal.

And at the same time, I know that I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude this past week. Because the news in Israel made me stop and reflect that had we, as a people, only had the opportunity to live in the holy land and build small communities as we did since the early 20th century after 2000 years of exile, dayeinu, it would have been enough. And had we, as a people, only – only! – been given the opportunity to call a plot of that holy land ours and create a Jewish state – dayeinu.

And had we only had the opportunity to defend that land and repel five Arab nations from annihilating us – dayeinu.

And had we been given not just victory but also a doubling of that small piece of land – dayeinu.

Had we only been victorious in a miraculous fashion and been given the opportunity to once again claim Jerusalem as our own – dayeinu.

And had we only been able to transform a nation drowning in debt into an economical force while its population has grown from less than a million to almost 10 million – dayeinu, dayeinu, dayeinu.

And this past week to think about the fact that 450 lethal rockets rained down on Israel and that no Israeli was killed. To think about the fact that G-d blessed us with technology that is truly mind-blowing, shooting down rockets in the sky, intercepting the vast majority of those rockets – how can we not be grateful?

Thank you, Hashem, thank you G-d, for all the blessings that we too often take for granted, and specifically for the blessing of Israel.

Concern and gratitude – those were two feelings I felt this past week.

The third emotion – hate – is one that I did not feel but I should have felt, and I’d like to spend the next few minutes telling you why.

Most of what I will be sharing with you is based on a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, an essay written by Rabbi Meir Soloveicthik, and a recent article in Tablet Magazine.

In 1973, Rabbi Lamm spoke of an eminent Orthodox professor at Hebrew University who every year, based on a quirk of the Jewish calendar would avoid celebrating Purim. Not going to get into it now but if you live in Israel you could technically have two days of Purim or you could have no days of Purim. This professor chose to avoid celebrating Purim altogether. The reason? He felt that the booing and hissing that takes place during the reading of the Megillah and the hate directed at Haman and Amaleik was inappropriate. A holiday that celebrates the hatred of the enemy was something so off-putting to him that he chose to skip Purim altogether.

Rabbi Lamm wondered if there is value to this professor’s decision; is hatred, which undoubtedly Purim celebrates, so evil that we should avoid it at all costs?

Rabbi Lamm’s response was a full-throated no. It is not only okay to hate at times, but there is virtue in hatred.

I know you’re squirming in your seats as I say those words, “there is virtue to hatred” and I share your discomfort. But it’s important to acknowledge that the reason most of us are so taken aback is due to the fact that we are so heavily influenced by our Christian neighbors who have a very different tradition and philosophy of hate.

Whereas Jesus said, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Shmuel our great prophet executed the Amaleiki king, Agag with his own sword and the judge Devorah sang of the gruesome killing of Sisera, an evil enemy of the Jewish People. Whereas Catholics pray for Jesus “to lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” Esther asked Achashveirosh after the Jews had beaten their enemies to have the ten sons of Haman hanged.

(And though you may argue that today we read how Avraham begged G-d to spare the evil people of Sedom, a critical read will tell you that he prayed only for those who were righteous and accepted G-d’s judgment on those who were evil. (see Malbim))

Judaism, it would seem embraces hatred and the question is why. Why is it that hatred is not only allowed in our tradition, but it is at times, even celebrated?

Rabbi Lamm, in his sermon on this topic, shares a number of reasons, some of which I’d like to share with you. I will begin by quoting Rabbi Lamm: “I am weary of people,” he writes, “who cannot or never do not hate at all. I fear that they tend to fall into a far worse trap, into something far more debilitating than hatred, and that is — indifference. It was primarily indifference and not hatred that was the major and most corrupting vice of the Holocaust and from which we suffered.”

Ohavei Hashem sinu ra, King David wrote that one who truly loves G-d, hates evil. One who believes in right and wrong, in the notion that there are things which are objectively moral and immoral, and not fuzzy relativism in which every opinion is valid, such a person must feel hatred towards that which is unjust, towards that which is wrong. And thus, one who is incapable of hatred of evil cannot truly be capable of the love of G-d. Such a person, though they may be very loving, is lacking in their moral character.

A world in which there is only love and no hate breeds indifference; something that is anathema to Judaism.

In addition to a moral reason to hate, there is, Rabbi Lamm adds a psychological dimension. Hatred, he points out, is cathartic. One of the leaders of 18th century European Jewry was a man by the name of Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz. One day, the story goes, he was accosted by the Bishop of Prague who challenged him with the following claim; “Is it not true,” asked the Bishop, “that we Christians believe in the God of Love while you Jews worship the God of Vengeance?”

“Yes,” answered Rabbi Eibeschutz, “it is quite true. You Christians worship love, so you feel free to hate. Whereas we Jews ascribe all vengeance to the Lord, so our lives can therefore be filled with love and understanding.”

What Rabbi Eibishitz was suggesting is this: Hatred is a normal human emotion that will be expressed one way or another. Maybe it’s hate for our spouse, or for an ex-spouse. Maybe it’s for an actress or a politician. Or maybe, we follow the Torah’s direction and channel the natural human feeling of hate to those select few who are truly worthy of that emotion. What Rabbi Eibeschutz was saying is “that when we ban hate entirely it does not disappear, it flourishes on the moral black market.” (Ari Lamm)

And with that in mind, Rabbi Lamm concludes that there are people and movements who do not deserve our justifications and rationalizations. Hitler could have been diagnosed as paranoid, Stalin could have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but at some point, a man or woman crosses a line and all the rationalizations in the world don’t matter – what they did and who they are is evil. Plain and simple.  A genocide is a genocide and one who is involved in genocide loses their right to our compassion.

“There is a time to love and there is a time to hate.” As long as evil exists, hatred has a place in our emotional and spiritual repertoire.

This past week I did not feel hatred, but I probably should have. The catalyst for the latest rocket attacks was the IDF’s targeted killing of Baha Abu Al-Ata. To give you just a glimpse into who this man was. A decade ago, Abu Al-Ata infiltrated the Israeli border and killed two innocent civilians and over the past year, virtually all attacks coming out of Gaza were masterminded by him. That includes sniper attacks, drones with explosives, and rocket attacks, with another attack imminent, all put together by this man. That is evil and it behooves us to recognize it as such.

Where our faith and Christianity differ is our emphasis on human responsibility. Whereas Christianity believes that we are all undeserving in salvation – I, like Hitler, do not deserve G-d’s good grace. Judaism argues that man is capable, regardless of their situation to choose what is right and reject what is wrong. And therefore, when people make poor choices, or more accurately evil choices, they are fully responsible for their evil deeds. Baha Abu Al-Ata was an evil man and therefore worthy of our hatred.

And yet – there is of course, a danger with hate.

There is a danger in placing hatred front and center in our faith, instead of seeing it as a necessary evil, as a counterpoint to love, that allows love to flourish, and an extension of our strong emphasis on free-will.

There is a danger in losing control of hate. When we despise religious Christians because of centuries of evil perpetrated by the Church, or when we assume that all modern German people are bad because their grandparents were evil, when we do that, as too many Jews do, we are not keeping our hatred in check.

Or, when we lump together Baha Abu Al-Ata who deserved to die, together with the Asoarka family, an innocent Arab family of herders, who were mistakenly killed by the IDF this wek, when we lump all Arabs and Muslims together, we are guilty of blind hatred. We are guilty of allowing hatred to run wild. And that too is evil.

And so, as this difficult week comes to an end, let us never lose our connection with our brethren in Israel, their pain is ours and we pray for their safety; whether it makes the front page of our newspapers or not, let us not stop thinking about acheinu kol beis Yisrael, our brothers and sisters wherever they may be. May we never stop thanking G-d for the endless miracles that we have seen in our own lifetimes in our historic homeland. And may we develop within ourselves, yes, a healthy dose of hate; a recognition that there is good and there is evil, there is the moral and immoral and we refuse to rationalize the deeds of those who cross the line, and let that hatred remind us of the immense freedom that we are granted with which we can choose to do good or evil. And lastly, in channeling our hate to the very few who deserve it, “may our lives therefore be filled with love and understanding.”

The Torah’s Dance – Shmini Atzeres Yizkor

Earlier this year, at a more frivolous moment, I introduced a Jimmy Fallon-inspired game to the pulpit, something we called, Minhag or Shminhag. I would share a Jewish practice and ask the audience, I mean congregation, if the said practice was a minhag – meaning a legitimate and sanctioned practice, or a shminhag – a made up word for made-up practices.

Now I know this is a serious time for all of us, as we are about to say Yizkor, but we are also about to celebrate Simchas Torah, and this holiday, aside from being an extremely joyous one, is also ground zero for some of the strangest, logic-defying Jewish customs. Simchas Torah, more than any other day on the Jewish calendar is ripe with both minhagim and shminhagim.

I’d like to share with you just a few of these minhagim/ shminhagim.

In the Talmud, the only thing that is mentioned about Simchas Torah is that they would read Parshas V’zos Habracha, the final section of the Torah and that’s it. Meaning, in Talmudic times, Simchas Torah looked no different than Shmini Atzeres – a Jewish holiday like any other.

But then Jewish life happened. In a responsa from the year 1038, Rav Hai Gaon, living in Babylon, the center of the Diaspora, describes the following practice – the individual who would receive the final Aliyah of the Torah, known as Chassan Torah, would wear the Torah’s crown on his head to receive the Aliyah. What do you think Rav Hai Gaon had to say about that practice? Minag or shminhag?

Well, he didn’t love it as he saw it as an affront to the honor of the Torah, but since it was “so widespread” he let it go. And it became enshrined as a Simchas Torah minhag.

Another example – Dancing, not the shuffle, but real fast-paced dancing, is, per the Talmud, forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and yet, with the exception of Yekkes, German Jews, (who don’t know what dancing is anyway) every single synagogue has wild dancing on Simchas Torah. Forget minhag or shminhag, it is assur/ forbidden to dance like we do on Simchas Torah, and yet, this practice of dancing up a storm was accepted as the norm. Isn’t that amazing? Dancing went from being forbidden to being an accepted minhag.

Another example – Normally, drinking alcohol is frowned upon with perhaps the exception of Purim. Even then, to do so in the context of prayer is forbidden. For a Kohein to do Birkas Kohanim under the influence is a grave sin – a sin learned from the tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu who died doing the priestly service while intoxicated. And yet, on Simchas Torah, in an inversion of values, Birkas Kohanim is moved to Shacharis due to the fact that apparently there were no sober Kohanim by the time Mussaf came along. (If you do plan on drinking, please, please, please do so responsibly.) What a crazy minhag! But everyone does it!

My first Simchas Torah at Ner Tamid, someone told me that the minhag of the shul was that on Simchas Torah the rabbi does not sit up on his chair. I thought to myself, that is ridiculous. Shminhag all the way! But I later realized that there are a number of Simchas Torah minhagim which try to create a spirit of egalitarianism, so maybe it’s a minhag after all…

Let me share with you one more minhag/ shminhag, this is by far the wildest example. It is a practice quoted by the Maharil, Rav Yakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, probably the most important Ashkenazi scholar of the 15th century. He describes a custom where children would go from home to home, or rather from Sukkah to Sukkah, on Simchas Torah, and they would take the s’chach – with or without permission – they would collect the wood into one huge pile and light it, creating a tremendous bonfire to dance around. Minhag or shminhag?

This is illegal, assur mid’oraytah on so many counts!

First of all, the kids were stealing the wood. You know, like one of the ten commandments (sort of). Second, they were destroying a structure, something you are not allowed to do on Yom Tov. Third, they were lighting a fire that served no real purpose, again, a violation of the laws of Yom Tov. And yet, the Maharil writes a wildly creative justification. Not only that, but his student records that he encouraged the kids to take the s’chach especially from the grumpy people who were opposed to them doing so. Talk about a shminhag!

What in the world is going on here? How did Simchas Torah evolve into such a circus-like day? Especially since so many of our practices are not only strange and different but they are straight-up shminhagim, they are predicated on extremely shaky halachic ground.

Rabbi Professor Chaim Saiman has a fascinating article on the topic and that’s where I drew these many examples from. He shares a theory of his own, on the Lehrhaus website, which you could read for yourself (https://thelehrhaus.com/holidays/the-inverted-halakhah-of-simhat-torah/). But I’d like to just make a simple observation which I want to focus on today, and that is this: whatever the sociological factors may be, Simchas Torah evolved. Big time. If your great-great-grandparents going back to the year 500 came into a shul on any given day, they would feel right at home; the tunes may be a little different, but the liturgy, the customs that surround them, we’ve been doing the same thing for at least 1500 years, if not more. But on Simchas Torah, they would not feel at home. They wouldn’t know what hit them. I mean literally they’d probably get hit in the face with a candy. And then they’d try to get up but their tallis would be tied to their chair by some troublemaker – by the way, making a permanent knot on Yom Tov is another violation of Torah law. And then they’d wonder why we’re reading the Torah at night, something we never ever do. And they’d be shocked to see the guy doing hagbah, criss-crossing his hands, unroll the scroll a good eight (nine?) columns as if the Torah was a set of weights in a gym. Your great-great-grandparents would be totally lost.

And for the most part, I want to be part of a faith that could proudly say that Ravina and Rav Ashi, the authors of our constitution, the Talmud, would feel at home at our shul, at Ner Tamid. For the most part, I want to be engaging in rituals that Moshe Rabbeinu, were he to be here, would know exactly what we are doing. But there is also a part of our faith that is not static. There is also a part of our faith that evolves over time. And I’m not a sociologist so I can’t tell you why or how. But I could tell you that there is some ‘give’ in the Torah that allows for a subtle evolution of sorts.

From the Halachic standpoint, from the perspective of Jewish Law, you know how it works?

It’s a dance. A question is asked, an answer is given. A practice is tried, some take off, some do not. Some become established minhagim, others regulated to the dustbin on shminhag lore. There is a give and take, a dynamic, between us and our tradition, between the Jewish People and the Torah. It’s a slow dance, it’s not exactly a horah, but over time there is a slow and steady evolution.

While some may cynically see in that change a Torah that can be bent out of shape to match up with our needs and desires, I prefer to see something very different in this Torah evolution.

There’s an old song by Abie Rotenberg called the Place Where I Belong. The tune is so beautiful that it is sung almost universally on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur… But the words are just as majestic. It’s a story of a Torah scroll from the perspective of the scroll itself. She describes the process of her being written by the scribe with tenderness and care. Then she describes the procession as she made her way to the shul for the very first time to be placed in the wooden Aron. But before she’s placed there, the rabbi holds the Torah to his chest.

He spoke out loud and clear to all the rest.
He said, “No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.”

The Torah scroll then describes the generations coming and going but no matter what, they always take her out of the Aron three times a week. They always read from her and dance with her, and lovingly kiss her and return her to her place in the wooden Aron.

But then, the war breaks out, and before the Nazis come, the Shamash quickly hides the scroll in a dark cellar where she remains unused but safe until finally years later, someone finds her, they gently take her out of her hiding place, wrap her up and send her to America.

Tragically, she was not taken to a shul:

And in a case of glass they put me on display,
Where visitors would look at me and say,
“How very nice, how beautiful, a stunning work of art, ”
But they knew not what was inside my heart.

What we are celebrating today, tomorrow, and really every day, is that we know exactly what is inside the Torah’s heart. Not only do we know what’s inside, but we engage with her, we question her, she answers, she challenges us and we respond. It’s a dynamic. It’s alive. The Torah is not behind a glass wall. It’s something each and every one of us will have the opportunity to hold tomorrow, to kiss, to dance with.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the one day a year that is unrecognizable to our ancestors is Simchas Torah. Because it is on this day that we celebrate the Torah being alive. It’s the day we celebrate the tension of the Torah; how on the one hand the Torah informs our worldview and yet we grapple with the instances that this view conflicts with a modern worldview that at times seems to resonate even deeper. What do we do? How do we respond?

You know what we do? We dance. We ask, she answers, she challenges and we respond. It’s alive. And it’s ours. Not to be misused or misconstrued, it’s very easy to do that. As Shakespeare once said, the devil doth quote scripture. So no, not to misappropriate, but to honest and earnestly dance with the values and the laws that G-d transcribed into our Torah scrolls. Because ultimately, when the tension between us and the Torah are irreconcilable, it is the Torah that will remain unchanged, and we who will learn a new dance. This is why we dance around the Torah – she is at the center of our lives, and we can never lose sight of that. But sometimes when all the dancing is done, somehow, I am truly uncertain as to how, but over time, our practices have changed ever so subtly.

If you are here today for Yizkor, if you are here tonight or tomorrow for Simchas Torah, then clearly you have made a choice to dance with the Torah. Not literally. But for you, if you are practicing in any which way, that means the Torah is alive for you. It’s not something to gawk at in a museum. To regale your grandkids with stories of a bygone era. It’s part of your life. Judaism is real to you.

Maybe your parents danced more vigorously, maybe they danced less vigorously. Whatever the case may be, you are here, and because you’re here the evolution of the Torah is taking place through you. The questions you ask, the practices you engage in, you are keeping the Torah alive!

We are all part of this organism, this mass of people called the Jewish People, and the questions we ask, the things we do, impacts the future. Through our Jewish dance, we will define the Jewish future. That’s an amazing thing to reflect upon; we are not just bearers of a tradition, we are also tasked with ensuring its vitality by living, and by dancing with the Torah.

I’ve suggested and asked of you many things over this holiday season, and I’d like to make one final request; don’t stop dancing around the Torah. Never forget that the Torah is at the center of our lives. And please allow me to share with you two practical ways to do so:

The first is to ask questions. As an example – the Simchas Torah celebration at Ner Tamid, especially as it pertains to women, has changed a lot over the years and it is still very much in flux. Like so many other Simchas Torah customs, it has evolved. But it didn’t evolve on its own. It evolved because people cared, and people questioned, and people studied. And that’s wonderful. It is a beautiful expression of the fact that the Torah is alive to us.

But Simchas Torah is the analogy, it is the parable. It needs to reflect our entire Jewish experience. Ask Jewish questions every day! Not just about Simchas Torah! Ask Jewish questions not only about what we do in shul, but also what you do at home! You could text me, email, WatsApp. I even use the phone sometimes! Or forget me! Don’t quote me on this, but ask Rabbi Google! Engage in the Torah in any which way! Allow the Torah to change our lives! Be open to that evolution in our personal lives as well.

That’s the personal dance. The private dance.

But there’s also a public dance. Last week, Congressman Elijah Cummings passed away. Ladies and gentlemen, please no politics today. But one thing that we can all agree upon is that he made a genuine effort to create a bridge between the Jewish community and the Black community. I have met and heard from graduates of his youth program; Baltimore youth who were sent to Israel to learn about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish People, and to hear from them how that changed their view of this community. He led a magnificent dance between our communities and now he’s gone. And we mourn his loss.

But the dance must go on. And it must go on today, more than ever. Ties between communities, between people, is at an all-time low. What’s going on just a few blocks away from us is just beyond description. It’s complex, I know. But if we were to have the Torah at the center of our life, the most basic expectation she has of us, is to look out for those in need, it is to be a good neighbor. To say hello. To create relationships in a world where relationships with neighbors is old-fashioned. That’s one Torah ideal that I hope never evolves into anything else. As a community, we need to pick up our public dance with all of our neighbors.

I’ve said a lot today so let’s review: Simchas Torah reminds us that the Torah is not an artifact. It is alive and it evolves. But it only evolves through us engaging with her.

We’ve had a beautiful holiday season here in shul. Let’s bring that beauty into our homes and let’s bring that beauty into the streets of Baltimore. Let’s dance with the Torah every day of our lives.

No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.

Live by the words you’ll find inside my soul.