On May 3rd, 2002, the movie, Spider-man was released. Critics and audiences agreed that it was a great film; the first to gross 100 million over a weekend, and at the time, was the most successful film based on a comic book. (Wikipedia) What most audience members did not know, is that one of its most compelling and dramatic scenes were deleted by the producers before it first screened. It’s a scene you could actually still see in previews for the film – the scene has bank robbers making a quick get-away in a helicopter, racing through New York City, only to be caught by a web, spun by Spiderman. The tremendous web Spiderman spins stretches between the north and south Towers of the World Trade Center.
Sam Raimi, the director said, it would be “unfathomable” to leave the scene in and deleted it. In retrospect he called the decision and the controversy around it, “the biggest issue in American etiquette.”
Similarly, the Sopranos deleted the towers from their opening credits. The Simpsons didn’t rerelease a 1997 episode which has a little Homer racing across the World Trade Center plaza. On the other hand, the director of Armageddon consciously chose to not edit out the towers when the movie was released a second time after 9/11.
On the one hand, seeing the towers in films can be jarring at best, and for those who were in one way or another impacted, it can be downright traumatic. On the other hand, leaving the towers in films, pictures, and tv shows, is a tribute to what once was and can provide a sense of healing. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/movies/9-11-twin-towers-tv-movies.html?searchResultPosition=17)
How we treat the past is not limited the silver screen, it’s a philosophical question with great implications. It’s been noted by historians that civilizations see time in very different ways from one another. Generally speaking, the Eastern world sees time as a cycle; it is a world that believes in reincarnation and practices meditation. The Western world on the other hand, sees time in a linear fashion; a beginning and an end, influenced no doubt by the Bible. It’s a world of progress, of trying to change the future.
In the past few decades, there has been a strong influence of Eastern thinking here in America. Things like Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling book, the Power of Now rated by Oprah as the must-read book or meditation, which is no longer reserved for new-agers, but takes place in board rooms, and in medical centers. It’s wonderful! I’ve even started meditating a little, and I love it.
This focus on the present has even made its way into Jewish thought. There’s a Jews song that was popular a few years back with the catchy words, ha’avar ayin, ha’atid adayin, v’hahoveh k’heref ayin. The past is gone, the future has not yet taken place, and the present is gone in the blink of an eye. Da’gah minayin, why worry, the song concludes; if you live in the now there is nothing to fear. (Most likely, this “Jewish” aphorism was taken from Buddha, whose pupil recorded him saying: “What is past is left behind, the future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there.”)
Now who could argue with such a wonderful philosophy? A philosophy that encourages us not to be held back by the past? A philosophy that embraces the present? A philosophy that gives us endless new beginnings?
Peter Beinart, in a thoughtful article in last month’s Atlantic, hints to some negative implications of the power of now. In explaining why Kamala Harris and Corey Booker are doing so poorly in the race for presidential nomination, he points to one fatal issue – presentism. Presentism is the uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.
You see, Booker and Harris were both very successful in their respective government roles. As senator of New Jersey, Booker declared Newark the charter school center of the nation, and over the past ten years, students attending charter schools rose from 12 to 33 percent. According to a recent Harvard study, the impact has been impressive. While math skills have remained flat, English gains in Newark charter schools has been significant. But guess what? Thanks to a philosophy of presentism – the current trend being that charter schools are bad for society – Booker has continuously distanced himself from one of his greatest achievements.
The same could be said for Kamala Harris whose truancy campaign brought the number of students not attending school in San Francisco down by over 50%! But the most current way of thinking – in the present – would tell you that fighting truancy is unfair to the poor, and so Senator Harris has apologized for the behavior of the courts against these truant students.
Assuming the present way of thinking is better than it was in the past, Beinart argues, isn’t helpful. Instead you ruin both the present and the future. For example, he goes on, and I quote, “In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were so eager to distinguish themselves from the isolationists of the 1930s that they forgot that an earlier generation’s skepticism of war—born from the disillusionment of World War I—had lessons to teach despite the necessity of World War II.”
Or more recently, “After the economic woes of the Jimmy Carter years, Clinton-era New Democrats were so determined to prove that the party was not antibusiness that they deregulated Wall Street in ways that contributed to the 2008 financial crash.”
We may have made mistakes in the past, but to ignore the past, and all its lessons, we do so at our own peril. ‘Now’ is good and ‘now’ is great, but to see each unit of time divorced from everything that came before it, ends up leading us down the path of making the same mistakes we did before.
Let’s talk about this practically for you and me. I used to do something a little cute with one of my children. If they were in a bad mood or in a bad place, I would walk them to the door and ask them to come back in all refreshed. Start again! Pretend the past hour didn’t happen. You’re coming home from school now for the first time. It was a nice gimmick, and it worked. (It worked so well that I would do it sometimes!)
We all do this. We have a bad day, we’ve been grumpy. So we go to sleep and tell ourselves, tomorrow is a new day, we wake up a new person. Beautiful.
In that respect, the power of now, ignoring the past, presentism, it serves us well.
But what if you keep on making the same mistake? What if you keep on finding yourself in an argument with the same person about the same thing? What if you keep on finding the projects that you pursue to never come to fruition? What if many of your relationships end up getting sabotaged?
Going out the door and coming back in, getting a good night’s sleep, ignoring the past would be a disaster!
We destroy evil, our Torah portion teaches us, not by ignoring it, but by remembering it! Timcheh es Zecher amaleik! We have an obligation to destroy Amaleik and not just the nation, but the evil inside that this nation represents. And you know how we eradicate the memory? Lo tishkach! By not forgetting! We all have demons, we all have flaws, we all have issues. We can’t just shut our eyes to what was. The only way to erase is to remember.
Our Torah portion begins with a rather controversial law – the laws of the captive woman. Ki teitzei lamilchama, when you go to war and you see a beautiful woman, the Torah allows the soldier in the throes of battle, with raging emotions, to take the woman captive and marry her. The Torah then goes on to describe the process she must go through until marriage is permitted; shaving of her hair, crying for her parents, and only then can she be converted as a Jew, and allowed to marry this Jewish soldier.
It is a morally-challenging passage which needs to be explored further and explained. But today, I want to focus on the Kabbalistic read of the section. The Zohar explains that the captive woman represents us, our soul. It represents our soul as it transitions from a place of failure, a place of sin, a place of shame, into a place of holiness and spiritual accomplishment. Commenting on the words of uvach’sa et aviha v’et imah, that she must cry for her parents, the Zohar Hachadash says, da yarcha d’Elul, this is the month of Elul. Her crying for her parents, in some ways represents the process of repentance.
I believe the meaning of the passage is clear. Transitioning to becoming a better person demands of us to focus on our parents, ie, our past. This beautiful woman, our soul, cannot just become a Jew, cannot jump from one reality to the next. She needs to mourn what was, she needs to sit with those uncomfortable memories. And so she shaves her hair, she grows her nails, she cries and she mourns. Why? Because it hurts to think about the past. It hurts to remember who we were. It is painful to be honest about what was once important to us. And it’s also essential.
We don’t ignore the past; we learn from it. As painful as that may be.
One of the classes I teach at Beth Tfiloh is on the topic of failure. In the last class I asked them the most basic existential question of all, who are we, how we define ourselves. And of course they answered with what I expected them to answer; my aspirations, my dreams, my values, my memories.
And I shared with them an idea from Rav Tzadok HaCohen, an idea I’ve shared with some of you before, and that is that the core of our identity, who we are is where and how we fail. Dreams are what we want, values are what we believe, memories are what we think, but failure is who we are.
Our failures are an integral part of our being and that’s why it hurts so much when we try to change. There’s a reason we get angry at this or that, there’s a reason we sabotage relationships with our defensiveness, there’s a reason we cannot control certain passions; our failings are the deepest and most essential part of our soul. And like the Zohar Hachadash teaches us, we cannot just escape the past and jump into the future, we don’t whitewash the past or edit the films of our life, we acknowledge our failings, as painful as it may be, we kick and scream and we cry. That is the avoda, that is the service of this month. And then, as the passage concludes, v’hayta lecha l’isha. If we face our demons with honesty and with humility, G-d welcomes us back as his bride and our relationship with Him and with ourselves is restored.
First of all, I need to thank you Zavdi for introducing me to a great online game! I don’t think I’ve played an online game since I was a teenager but thanks to Zavdi’s recommendation, I went to americanhistoryusa.com/campaigntrail and was tested on my presidential knowledge. I chose the 11th president, President James Knox Polk, as I just finished reading a biography about him.
Now this game puts you on the campaign trail and you are tasked with answering policy questions to constituents. If you answer the right questions, you win the election, the wrong ones, and you lose.
Well, I lost. I got 47% of the popular vote, and Henry Clay received 49%. Due to my lack of knowledge, Oregon, New Mexico, and California are still part of Mexico and Great Britain. Sorry.
I am confident that had Zavdi been playing he would have done just fine and Polk would have been elected president. And that’s because Zavdi, as some of you may know, is a real history buff. He knows ancient and modern politics better than most of us here – which makes this week’s Torah portion a rather interesting one.
In the second Aliyah of this week’s Parsha, we are introduced to Judaism’s perspective on government. And like most things that have to do with government, it’s complicated.
First and foremost, there’s a debate among our classical commentators, as to whether or not establishing a king is a mitzvah or not. Some say it is – the Torah says, “som tasim alecha Melech, place upon yourself a king.” Others argue the Torah is not commanding us, but is merely giving us permission to establish a king. And then there is the opinion of Don Isaac Abarbanel who argues that the Torah is not giving us permission, it’s just telling us what will happen. Not only is there no Mitzvah to establish a king, according to Abarbanel’s approach, but a monarchy is a disaster that we should avoid at all costs. His proof? All of Jewish and non-Jewish history.
Inasmuch as we are all biased towards democracy, even the great champion of democracy, Winston Churchill, wasn’t such a fan. His most famous quote on the matter is, “Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others.” Or less famously, but far more telling of his personal views, he once quipped, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” I am sure he is turning in his grave right now as Britain implodes with the Brexit saga. And that’s because following the popular vote doesn’t always end well.
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, one of the later commentators on the Chumash attempts to reconcile these divergent views. He suggests that establishing a king could be a Mitzvah and could be a sin, it depends. It depends, he writes, on one’s motivation, it depends on why. If you establish a king so that you will be like all the other nations, so that the Jewish People will look mighty and modern, as they did in the time of King Saul, that’s not a good reason, and it will end in self-destruction. But if the agenda is pure, if they want a king to unify the people, to represent G-d, something we hope to see in a Messianic Era, then a monarch is actually a blessing.
Same act, two radically different agendas. Same form of government, but two very different perspectives on what it means and why. And I was thinking about this as I read the final chapter of the Polk biography. The final chapter was a reflection on his presidency. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t know anything about this guy, nor do we think much of him. And you’re in good company. In the standard American history texts you could find quotes like this one: “His mind was not of the first order.” And other not such kind remarks. And for years, this was the common thinking. But in 1910, more than sixty years after he died, his personal diary was published, and the world was given insight into who he really was. Not just the actions, but the thoughts, the backroom conversations that we were all unaware of, the thoughtful reflections; the self-doubt and the convictions, and a whole new portrait was painted. In light of these new findings, in 1962, Arthur Schlessinger, polled 55 leading historians to rate the best presidents of all time, and James Knox Polk, came in at #8.
We all knew what he did until that point, but only after getting insight into why and how he did it, did we see someone else entirely.
I would like to think that his diary didn’t just give us insight into who he was, but it gave him insight into he was. You see, some of the most insightful and creative people in history kept personal diaries as a way of not only catching their thoughts but fleshing them out –
Mark Twain kept 40 to 50 notebooks which he carried with him at all times. Sometimes writing jokes but often writing insights into his own character or the character of others.
General Patton who struggled mightily to succeed in life, failing his first year in West Point, he pushed forward with the help of his notebooks, in which he would jot down reflections on leadership which served to motivate him: “Do your darndest always.” Or, “Always do more than what is required of you.” Sometimes he would remind himself what they were trying to accomplish at war: “Find the enemy, attack him, invade his land, raise hell while you’re at it.” Or more meaningfully, “Officers must be made to care for their men. That is the Sole Duty of All Officers.”
Thomas Jefferson, George Lucas, Charles Darwin, Beethoven, Hemingway, and of course, Benjamin Franklin all kept diaries. Do you see a pattern here?
Some of the most wildly successful people in history kept personal diaries in order to collect and organize their thoughts, in order to better understand themselves.
Now it’s no easy feat keeping a diary. As Mark Twain himself wrote in Innocents Abroad: “If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.” But what it does speak to is the importance of getting in touch with our inner selves. There is the public persona and the private one. Like President Polk, our external accomplishments cannot be understood and do not have meaning if they’re viewed independently from what is going on inside.
In the passage that describes the Jewish King, there is a commandment for the king to always have a Torah with him, to literally carry around a Torah scroll. (I imagine it was a small one.) But if you read the verse carefully, you’ll notice there are two Torah scrolls! One, as Rashi explains, that he travels with, that he walks around with all day, and another one that he leaves in his personal safe, in his treasury. What’s the deal with two scrolls? Not to mention the cost. Why not just carry the same one both inside and outside?
Explains the Nesivos Sholom – there are two books that we live our life by – there is the outside book and there is the inside book. They are both crucial to our well-being and success. As David Brooks puts it, there are resume values and eulogy values. The resume values are the things we accomplish in the world, what everyone on the outside can see and appreciate. The eulogy values are the ones that only those around us know; who we really are, our character. Both are essential to being not just a great king or president, but both are essential to be a great person. Not just a good public persona, but a deep and developed private one as well.
Zavdi, today you are entering a new chapter of your life. It is a chapter where our minds start to expand and they allow us to see ourselves not only in the mirror, but in a far deeper way. At this stage of life, you develop insight. You start to see yourself, understand yourself, and as time goes on, and if you work on it, that understanding gets deeper and deeper.
You are so fortunate to have such a loving family and such wonderful role models to help you do so. Your parents, Morris and Ariella, are idealists, they have convictions, and they’re as sweet as can be. And you, Zavdi, are deep, you march to your own drumbeat, you’re inquisitive. As time goes on, your ability to understand the world around and understand yourself will get better and deeper, but only if you work on it, only if you pay attention to what’s going on inside. A journal may be too much to ask, but to spend some time just thinking about your inner world, about your motivations, will go a long way in your future success. One day, I look forward to mentioning your name in that list of other great thinkers, people who also spent time trying to understand who they are.
The truth is, we are all entering a new chapter, it’s a special time of year, known as month of Elul. Last week we spoke of one acronym of Elul and today I’ll share another one, not as well-known, from the Arizal. Elul he says is an acronym of es levav’cha v’es levav. It comes from a verse that speaks of the heart, of a change of heart, of inner work. And that’s because Elul is a time for self-reflection, for self-awareness, and for self-growth. For some of you maybe that means journaling during this month. For others it means not listening to music or a podcast while driving to work and just listening to yourself. It means making sure your inner self is just as important to you as your outer shell.
I’d like to conclude with a story, probably a myth about a president we all know quite well; Abraham Lincoln. To appreciate the story you have to know two things, one, as you all know, Lincoln was known for his integrity, Honest Abe. The second, historians point out that Lincoln’s emotional intelligence was really high. Lincoln knew himself really well.
Story goes back to before he was a president, before he was a congressman, and he was just a simple lawyer. One day a wealthy man entered his office and asked him to take care of some legal work for him. Lincoln quickly looked it over and it was readily apparent that this was illegal work. Lincoln looked up and said, “I’m sorry, I cannot help you.”
The man really wanted Lincoln’s help and so he offered to pay him an additional ten dollars – a large sum of money back then – beyond the price. Lincoln refused.
“Twenty dollars?” Again Lincoln refused.
“Seventy-five?” Lincoln shook his head, no.
Just as the man was about to offer a hundred dollars, Lincoln picked the man up, threw him out of his office, and said, “Everyone has a price and you’re getting awfully close to mine!”
Know your price. Know yourself. Because that’s the path to greatness.
Uri Shachar, a young Israeli man, came to shul on Yom Kippur like he did every Yom Kippur, only that this Yom Kippur was different. It would be the first time he would say Yizkor for his beloved father. His father, Yaniv had passed away a short two months ago and Uri couldn’t stop thinking about him. The good times they had together playing soccer, the invaluable life lessons his father taught him in their many long walks. And also the many implicit lessons that he learned from his father, a man who went through so much hardship and yet never lost his faith.
Uri needed this Yom Kippur. He was actually looking forward to Yizkor so he could pour out his heart and feel the warmth of his father who he missed so desperately.
All through the morning services, he heard whispering, people coming and going, something was clearly going on, but Uri tried to ignore it. He needed Yizkor and wanted to be in the right frame of mind when the congregation got there. However, it was not to be. As they were concluding the Torah reading, a siren was heard, a sound he was all too familiar with – there was a war. The date was October 6th, 1973, and what he did not know at the time was that Israel was just attacked by surprise by a joint Arab coalition. What Uri did know was that it was only a matter of minutes before they would call him up join at the war front.
Uri made a quick decision – forget Yizkor. He ran out of the shul down the winding roads and made his way to the Kotel, the Western Wall. He clutched the ancient stone and broke down in the most gut-wrenching tears. His thoughts and emotions were overpowering; fear, sadness, loneliness. His yearning for his father melted into a yearning for the Father of all mankind.
As he pulled back from the Kotel and released his tight grip from the stones, a few notes that had been tucked into the crevices fell out. As any decent human being would do, Uri quickly picked them up and started stuffing them back into the cracks in the wall. As he was about to replace the final note, a strange sensations overtook him and he quickly opened the note and read it and this is what it said:
Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, ani yodei’a, I know, that I do not have much time to live. I will not be able to fulfill the most basic duty of a father, to watch over his child. Master of the Universe, please do me this one favor – tishmor al haben sheli, watch over my son.
Signed, Yaniv Shachar.
In a daze, unsure if what just happened was a dream or reality, Uri ben Yaniv Shachar folded the small piece of paper, placed it his shirt pocket and made his way to the Suez Canal where he fought in numerous bloody battles.
Though many of his friends were not as lucky, three weeks later, Uri returned to the Kotel, took a small piece of paper out of his front pocket, kissed it, and returned it into its place in the wall.
This story lived with Uri; he would go on to share this story time and time again for decades, telling anyone who would listen how this note that he found changed his life. I actually heard this story from someone who heard it directly from him. (Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, aish.com)
When something of that magnitude happens to you, when something that would be statistically near impossible to occur does occur, there is no greater wake-up call than that. If you were a skeptic, this would turn you into a believer. If you never really saw G-d in your life, you would now see G-d in everything and everyone around you. If you used to feel alone, you would now feel G-d’s presence hovering over you, embracing you, and with you every step and breath you take. A wake-up call like this one would change your life forever.
The reality is that most of us will go through our lives without such a wake-up call. Some close calls, some near misses, some interesting coincidences, but nothing so powerful, nothing so loud to jolt us out of our routine.
And yet, here we are, starting the month of Elul, 30 days from Rosh Hashana, and we are asked to wake up! Uru yesheinim mishinas’chim! Wake up! Wake up from your sleep! This is the theme of the month of Elul, says the Rambam. It is a time of breaking free from our routines, a time to reflect on how we’ve done over the past year, with our family, with our friends, with G-d. It’s a time to be honest with ourselves and reorient ourselves to the values that we want to live our life by. But how do we wake up?
So we blow the shofar in shul every day of the month, the shul sends you incessant reminders to buy your high holiday seats, you start inviting guests for Rosh Hashana (we’ll be done davening at 1:30 latest…), but none of that is going to really wake you up! None of that is jolting us to rethink our lives, is it now?
As many of you may have noticed there have been a whole lot of contraptions placed all around the shul over the past couple of months. Intercoms, blue lights in every room, switches, speakers, safety buttons… These were all part of a security grant that we received. Thank you, Barry. What you also may have noticed is that every once in a while, some alarm would go off in the building.
Now some of the alarms in the building were faulty and needed to be fixed. And they were. Thank you, Carl. But more often than not, an alarm would go off, and we’d all just kinda stare at each other. I wonder why those blue lights are flashing. I wonder why there’s an incessant beeping sound coming from the speakers. Hmm. Pass the kugel.
The alarms were working just fine, we just weren’t listening. We weren’t paying attention. We ignored them.
(Over the past couple of weeks we’ve met numerous times with our security company and someone is working on emergency protocols as we speak. Thank you, Devorah.) The point I am trying to make is that often times there is a wake-up a call, we just don’t hear it.
Because the only way you hear a wake-up call is if you want to hear that wake-up call.
A little while back, I tried setting my phone alarm to vibrate so that I wouldn’t wake my whole family up in the morning. It worked. No one woke up, including me. But on other occasions, when I have to catch a flight or I am doing something I am very excited about, I wake up before my alarm even goes off.
There are no shortage of alarms ringing, no shortage of wake-up calls, flashing lights and blaring sirens, but if we’re not open to hearing it, we’ll just sleep right through it. Sometimes, we’ll wake up just enough to hit the snooze button, making some minor changes in our routine, but more often than not, we’ll just sleep right through it.
Talking about waking up – I woke up really early today. One of my children, no names, woke up reeeeally early and was inconsolable. There were children sleeping upstairs, in-laws sleeping downstairs. I had nowhere to go. So I took her outside. I took her across the street and amazingly, she immediately stopped crying. We were just standing there, the light of the sun was painting beautiful colors in the sky; pink, purple, and blue. The birds were starting to chirp, there was a deer in the distance. Our feet were getting wet from the morning dew. We didn’t speak, we just stood there in silence, holding each other’s hands and taking it all in.
And then it occurred to me. I see this same picture every morning!! It’s about when I leave to shul. But instead of taking it all in, I jump into my car, and fly down the street.
Because if you’re not listening out for it, you just won’t hear it!!
As I mentioned earlier there is a custom to blow the shofar every day this month after morning services. But the custom is actually not to blow the shofar. The blessing we say on the shofar, is lish’moa kol shofar, to hear the call of the Shofar. It’s not enough to make noise, you have to listen.
Our sages famously comment that the name of this month, ELUL, is an acronym for the words, ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me. I’ll tell you the truth, I hate acronyms like this. If this month is really all about loving G-d, then just say so! Don’t hide it in the letters Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed.
But perhaps that’s the point, perhaps the message of Elul is hidden on purpose. Because most of us will never find a note in the wall that is meant for us. Most of us will never have an experience where G-d will just tap us on the shoulder, and say, Hineini, here I am.
If we want a relationship with G-d, if we want to change our lives around, we need to listen closely. We need to strain our ears, stretch our eyes, and open our hearts and then maybe just maybe we’ll be able to see what was always in front of us:
G-d is reminding of His existence in every sunrise and sunset, in every tree and every blade of grass. G-d is telling us He loves us in the first breath we take every morning and the millions of breaths we take in between. G-d is watching over us and the proof is the fact that we are here, alive. And G-d is waiting for us to stir, to wake up to the powerful sound of the shofar, to reorient our lives to living the life we know we’re meant to live.
We may never receive a note from Heaven like Uri Shachar. But if we close our eyes and listen closely, we will hear G-d quietly calling out to each one of us, with open arms and an open heart, ani l’dodi v’dodi li. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.
Mazel Tov to all Torontonians on the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA finals!
What’s amazing is that it’s not just Toronto celebrating the Raptors win. All of Canada thinks the Raptors play for them!
What’s ironic is that we are the same Canadians who get so upset when someone’s like, “Oh, you’re from Toronto, do you know the Goldberg’s from Vancouver?” which is the equivalent of asking someone from New York City if they know someone from LA. Canadians get all red in the face and – very politely – say, “No, I am sorrrry, they are two separate cities in different provinces, hundreds of kilometers apart.” But now, the entire Canada is celebrating because their team won. Imagine if every time New England wins a Super Bowl you all celebrate because an American team won!
And as all you real sports fans with real connections to a particular team know, there is nothing more irritating than bandwagon fans; the fans who only show up when all is well.
Today, I’d like to discuss a form of ‘bandwagonning’, not in regards to sports, but in regards to great Jewish leaders. You see, most of the biographies of our great Jewish leaders over the past few centuries are more hagiography than biography; they skip a lot, they gloss a lot, and ultimately paint a picture of perfection, of angelic perfection, no losses, only wins. And for some people, that’s great! These are our bandwagon fans – don’t bother me when they’re losing, wake me up when they’re in the finals. I’ll borrow a jersey and cheer along.
And for decades, this was the only thing available for people who wanted to know about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, the Chofetz Chaim; wins, wins, and more wins.
There were, on the opposite side of the spectrum, more so in academic circles, biographies written about some of these people, often written by people who were not observant lacking in certain sensitivities and understandings, some formerly observant with a chip on their shoulder, and these biographies tended to only focus on the losses, as if these great gedolim, these great leaders, never made it to the top and were just troubled, self-centered frauds. These are the opposite of the bandwagon fans, these are the anti-fans. They will not cheer anyone on. Ever.
And then, about two decades ago, a man by the name, Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky came along. He was part of a dynastic rabbinic family, he himself was a tremendous Torah scholar and teacher, sweet as honey, and a special soul.
(I remember once being at a Shabbat Chazzanut – in Israel, there are a lot of big fans of cantorial music, and they would rent out hotels and spend an entire Shabbos listening to cantorial music. Which is crazy. They would finish Shacharis at 11:30, take a break for lunch, and daven mussaf for another few hours. Needless to say, the people who come to these things love cantorial music! Unfortunately, they don’t usually love prayer, just the singing. It’s like going to the opera just you can’t sit with your wife. Most people there are listening like they’re at a concert. But I remember this one weekend, I was looking at the crowd and there was this one man there, he was listening, but he was davening, like really, really praying along. And afterwards I learned that this was Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky.) Special family, scholar, spiritual, and he decided to write a biography as a true fan. Not an anti-fan and not a bandwagon jumper. He decided to tell the whole story from the perspective of someone who had the utmost respect for the leaders of the Jewish People.
He spent years researching, documenting, corroborating, and finally a published a book titled, Making of a Gadol. It’s the story of how these great Jewish leaders people became gadol, how they became great. And it wasn’t always pretty. He described the rather steamy letters that one great Rosh Yeshuva had sent to his fiancée. He described anger management issues, struggles with depression, bad habits that couldn’t be kicked. I found the book to be so inspiring! And again, this wasn’t an anti-hero book. He was describing the truly human struggles that these people had, and how they ultimately became who they became! This was the ultimate fan book!
But not everyone thought so.
A firestorm erupted. His book was banned (which made its price sky-rocket), he was publicly humiliated, called all sorts of names, and became public enemy number one. He tried to republish his book in a way that would address some of the concerns brought up, but no. The public, or at the least the vocal public in his community did not cease to harass and lambast this great man.
This past week, Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky passed away. In reflecting on his life, I think he really exemplified what his book stood for. It was a book of struggles, it was a book of setbacks, it was a book of being patient with one’s self and with others, and ultimately succeeding. And that was the story of his life. Despite the horrible things that were said about him, he held his head up high. Despite the many people who failed him, he remained a loving and trusting person. Making of a Gadol, his book, made him into a gadol, made him into a hero.
And you and I know, and especially those of us who spent Shavuos studying the life of King David, that the Torah always paints the full picture; that the flaws of our great leaders are put on public display and we celebrate their imperfections, knowing that despite their shortcomings they became the great ones.
In our parsha, this point is highlighted and in some ways, taken even further. The heroes of this week’s Torah portion are a group known as the Nesiim, the princes. They are the ones given the great honor of inaugurating the newly constructed Mishkan with their personal gifts and sacrifices. But when we’re first introduced to them in the book of Shemos, Rashi, quoting a Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin, observes that their name, Nesiim, is spelled missing a letter, missing a Yud. The Talmud explains that the missing letter represents a flaw – that when Moshe invited the Jewish People to bring donations to the Mishkan, the Nesiim said the following: “Let everyone bring what they bring. We’ll take care of everything else.” They had assumed that there would be a tremendous shortfall. But they assumed wrong. And by the time the Nesiim woke up, there was almost nothing left; just a few stones for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. And in this reading, the word Nesiim alludes to a rather damning connotation; it speaks to their laziness and arrogance.
And yet, in another Talmudic passage, we are taught that that same word alludes to a great miracle that was performed on their behalf. The Gemara tells us that the word Nesiim has a second meaning, clouds. The Biblical term for clouds is nesiim. And the Talmud explains that a great miracle happened to these people – clouds drifted by and dropped off the precious stones for them. Special delivery! A miraculous intervention for people who are obviously deserving of it. And this is also learned from the word, Nesiim. So which one is it? Bad or good? Worthy of criticism or of Divine intervention?
Rav Tzadok Hakohen explains that the two are intertwined. It’s really one story. First the Nesiim failed. They fell short. They did not behave as they were supposed to. But then they had remorse. Then they learned from their mistakes, and they changed, and they grew, and they became worthy of divine intervention, they became worthy of a miracle. Their failings caused their greatness, their stumbling caused their ascent.
I think we all know this. I don’t think what I’m telling you is earth-shattering. But what I think we do not do enough of, is what Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky did, and that is to tell the story. Not about others, but about ourselves.
We all know we’re not perfect, we all know that we’ve failed time and time again. But how often do we share those stories? Not with the whole world, that’s weird. But with our spouses, our children, a close friend, and even ourselves. We bury those shameful stories, when in truth they are the most important ones. They are the ones that must be told.
Bruce Feiler, in his celebrated article, the Family Stories that Bind Us, describes a tool used by psychological researchers, called the Do you know Scale that has been used in researching children and resilience. “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
[In the first study using this tool, researchers] asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” (The Family Stories that Bind Us, New York Times)
After realizing this, the researchers dug even further and what they found is that there are different types of family narratives. “There is the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”
Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”
But “The most healthful narrative… is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ” (The Family Stories that Bind Us, New York Times)
Today, many of you are celebrating the graduation of a child. That’s an incredible accomplishment. It’s an accomplishment for that particular child, an accomplishment for you, and an accomplishment for all those who came before this child. And I am confident that it wasn’t all peachy getting to this day. There were setbacks, there were close calls, there were dark days, months, and years, and there were many, many tears.
The greatest gift we can give our graduates and to our children is that story, is our story. To let them know what it took for you to bring them to where they are today, what it took your parents to bring you to where you are today, what it took your grandparents, etc. etc., going back as far as you can.
Thank G-d, we have been blessed as a people, to have true gedolim, truly great people. But they did not become that way overnight. As every true fan knows, no great sports dynasty was born overnight, nor any great person. They struggled, they fought, and often through that struggle they attained their greatness. Let’s share their stories, let’s share our stories, and may we merit, like them, to grow from their failings, and ultimately become gedolim and nesiim in our own right.
A few weeks ago, we had a lecturer here talk about gun control and Jewish law. I do not plan on rehashing any of the arguments for or against – it’s a really loaded topic.
I do want to talk about something that does come up in the context of gun control and specifically, lo aleinu, when Heaven forbid, there is a shooting, and someone says, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Corey Booker, most famously responded, “Thoughts and prayers are…” Connecticut Senator, Chris Murphy, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings framed it a little more eloquently, when he tweeted, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing — again.”
After the San Bernardino attacks, the New York Daily News, started a trending hashtag by headlining an article with the title, G-d isn’t fixing this, yet another dig at thoughts and prayers.
A thoughts and prayer meme that was circulated widely depicts a garbage truck in a landfill with “Thoughts and Prayers” written on the side. Another shows the empty back of a cargo truck with the words “Excellent News The First Shipment of Your Thoughts and Prayers Has Arrived.” (sources, https://arcdigital.media/thoughts-and-prayers-a-defense-53ad28e299b2)
All in all, “Thoughts and Prayers” has gotten a bad rap.
Again, I don’t want to talk about gun control, however, I do want to lament the fact that “thoughts and prayers” has gone from a sincere wish, to a cynical meme.
And let’s just clear the air before we go further – if you are able to do something and you don’t, and you just pray, that’s wrong, and that’s unethical. But if you are doing what you genuinely think is right, and you are doing all that you can in your position, and you want to tell someone that you care about them, that you’re thinking about them, it’s a sad day when we have to second-guess that. It’s sad that we live in such a cynical world that we assume people are disingenuous. And it’s sad that such a meaningful phrase has lost its luster. Personally, I find myself hesitating to use that phrase when I speak to people going through hard times. And I find that to be rather tragic. I find it tragic because I believe in prayer and I find it tragic because I believe that letting people know that you’re praying for them makes a difference.
At the end of this week’s Parsha, Miriam, Moshe’s sister, gets Tzaraas, leprosy, and Moshe, her brother prays for her wellbeing, for her to heal. It’s the shortest prayer in the Torah, and it goes like this, “Vayitzak Moshe el Hashem leimor, and Moshe cried out to G-d saying, Keil na, G-d please, r’fah na lah, heal her now.”
Rashi is troubled by the usage of the word, leimor, saying… Usually the word “saying” means the message is being passed on to others. For example, vayidaber… leimor, G-d spoke to Moshe with the intention that Moshe pass on the message to the Jewish People. But over here, Moshe is speaking to G-d, who is this message being repeated for?
Rashi gives an answer, but I’d like to suggest that while Moshe was speaking to G-d, perhaps leimor teaches us that his prayer was meant for a wider audience, and that he was somehow also letting Miriam know that he was praying for her.
And this would make a lot of sense because it’s actually Jewish Law to do so. When a person visits the sick, there is an obligation to pray for them while you’re still there in their presence. (So much so, that on Shabbos, the rabbis were concerned that if you pray for the sick in their presence, it may be too emotional, and inappropriate and incongruent to the spirit of Shabbos, so you have to actually apologize to the ill person and explain to them that you cannot pray because it’s Shabbos. This is where the phrase Shabbos hi milizok…that we say at the end of the Mishebeirach for the sick, actually comes from. What it means is that on Shabbos we are not allowed to cry out but don’t worry G-d will heal you. The implication is that every other day, we do pray in their presence.) One reason for praying in the sick person’s presence is that when facing an ill person, our kavannah, our intent is stronger. But another possible reason for doing so, is so that they know that you’re praying for them. That is part of the healing process. Moshe did not only pray for his sister, he let her know that he was doing so. “My thoughts and my prayers are with you, Miriam.” That message, in it of itself, is efficacious.
In March, Alex Trebek, the long-time host of Jeopardy, announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Days later, he thanked the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers who sent cards or emails wishing him well and praying for his health. Then two months later, he reported that his cancer was in near remission, something his doctors have never seen before, and he attributed it to those well-wishes. So much so, that some physicians have dubbed this the “Trebek effect” and have argued, based on a number of studies, that knowing that people care about you, knowing that people are wishing you well, actually makes a difference. Trebek’s chances of survival are still slim, but the prayers, from a purely psychological perspective, made a difference. A big one. (Rabbi Josh Flug) So yes, you should most definitely let people know that you’re praying for them.
This past week, this point was driven home to me in the most beautiful way possible. I attended a funeral for a woman I never met. Shira Perlman, a member of ours, lost her sister-in-law, Shira Saperstein, a young and clearly very special woman. One of the speakers was a rabbi from Silver Spring, Rabbi Rosenbaum. He was not the family’s rabbi, and I was wondering why he was speaking there. And he quickly explained. He said, he didn’t really know this couple very well at all, but one day, Perry Saperstein, the late Shira’s husband, approached the rabbi and said the following: “I understand that you don’t have any children. We also don’t have any children. The Talmud says, that when you pray for someone else for something that you yourself need, your prayers are more likely to be answered. So I’d like to propose the following: Me and my wife will pray for you, and if I could ask, that you do the same, and pray for us.”
Imagine a more-or-less complete stranger coming up to you and saying that. Rabbi Rosenbaum described himself being taken aback but also very moved and he accepted. A few years later, Rabbi Rosenbaum and his wife did indeed have a child and then another and then another. The Saperstein’s never did have biological children, but they did create the most powerful bond between the families, they created a sense of belonging, and a sense of comfort during the most trying of times.
So yes, there is tragedy in the world, and we must do whatever we can to change the wrong and evil that exists. But often times, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps we’ve done everything we can, and the situation is still broken. To distract people from their pain, to minimize their pain, none of that is helpful, and it’s downright wrong. But letting those suffering know that you’re thinking about them, that you’re praying for them, is not only effective spiritually, but gives people comfort in their time of existential loneliness. And if we can take it that step further and incorporate what the Saperstein’s taught us. To turn to people who are going through similar experiences as we are or have. I say similar because no two experiences are identical and it’s audacious and wrong to tell someone, I’ve been there, I am there, and I know. We never know.
But if instead, we can find people who are going through similar situations as we are, a loss of a job, childlessness, a divorce, loneliness, illness, you name it, and to tell them, “I cannot begin to understand what you’re going through, but I too am going through something similar. Let me pray for you, and please, can you pray for me.” The connection made, the sense of camaraderie formed, is immeasurable.
I believe, and I hope we all believe, be’emunah sheleima, with complete faith, in the efficacy of prayer. The primary goal of prayer is to connect us to our Creator. With “Our thoughts and prayers” we can also create a deep connection with those going through difficulties. May G-d hear all of our prayers, and may we use our prayers to let those suffering know that G-d, and we, are with them.
So a little while ago, I went to the doctor and he told me I have to get some more exercise. I thought to myself, no big deal, I do exercise. I play roller hockey every once in a while. It’s a fast-paced game, great cardio workout – I’ll just play more often.
But it didn’t work.
It didn’t work because there was nothing compelling me to play every Saturday night. I knew it was important to exercise, I liked playing hockey, but it was too open-ended, there was no set goal, and so it never went anywhere.
I thought about getting myself a Fitbit, but I realized it’s a lot cheaper just to count steps in your head. 1043, 1044. Also, I found that Fitbits kind of control people’s lives. You ever see someone pacing in their office, and you’re like, hey, is everything okay? And they’re like, yeah, my Fitbit says I need to take 900 more steps before the end of the day.
Finally, I decide that the only way I was going to exercise was if I had a goal. The goal I decided upon was to run in the Jewish Caring Network’s 5K. (This is not an appeal to support my run. But feel free to, it’s a great cause.) And it worked. It worked because I had a goal. My goal was to run from the start line to the finish line, something I could not have done a year and a half ago. I had a secondary goal to beat all the other rabbis, who for the record all have longer legs than me. I beat them all except for Rabbi Marwick and I was very excited for a rematch this year but apparently, he will be “out of town.”
We all know that exercise is important for our health, but what distinguishes between the casual exerciser, that often times does not get things done, and the real thing is goals. Whether that’s running a marathon, whether that’s hitting the gym a certain amount of times a week, or whether it’s tracking the amount of steps we take each day – without those concrete goals, we tend to not accomplish very much.
I was thinking about my stint as a casual exerciser, and I realized there are other areas in my life, areas of great, actually, far greater importance, where I was also quite casual. Most mitzvot are concrete – you could check off a box if you did it or you didn’t. Put on tefillin, check. Lit Shabbos candles, check. Prayed, check. Gave a certain amount to charity, check. But there’s one Mitzvha that is so important and yet is entirely open-ended, and that is Torah study.
On the one hand, as we said this morning, Elu devarim, these are the things which have benefit both in this world and the next, and it goes on to list all the big Mitzvos, honoring one’s parents, lovingkindness, having guests, etc. etc. v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is equal to all other Mitzvos! And tonight, we will say, ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, that Torah is our life, that the study of Torah is the essence of our existence. And thank G-d we do learn Torah! We listen to the baal koreh read the parsha, many follow along in the English translation, some look at the commentaries, some will come to a class from time to time, some have a Jewish book that they are making their way through… but how much of our Torah learning is casual and how much of our Torah learning is goal-driven?
Our Sages in the Talmud teach us that when we get to Heaven, the first question they ask is, kavata itim baTorah? Did you set aside time for Torah study? Not did you study Torah. But did you make it keva. Keva means set, scheduled, goal-driven. Casual Torah study is not enough.
My son came home from school the other day with a flier from a national program called, Masmidei Hasiyum. It’s a program for children in grades 1 – 8. Every verse of the Torah that they study, every Mishna they learn, and every line of Gemara gets them a ticket for some raffles. That’s not unique. What IS unique is how it works. They call a hotline and enter how much they’ve studied each day. And after entering how much they studied, the automated tells them how many verses or Mishnayos they’ve learned in total. And I watch my son call in and hear, “You’ve learned 436 verses.” And that compels him to do more! I’ve done 436, I want to do 500! I want to do 1000! It’s a Torah Fitbit and it works! (http://agudathisrael.org/masmidei-hasiyum-children-take-an-active-part-in-the-siyum-hashas/)
I know many of you know the following story, and so I apologize for repeating it, but it’s worth repeating. My father had a younger brother who was tragically killed as a soldier in the IDF in 1982. To memorialize him, my grandparents invited my late uncle’s friends from Yeshiva and from the army, to come study as a group in my grandparents home, in his memory. And they did. And then three weeks later, they came back to study again. And then three weeks later, they came back again. During this time, the young men grew up, they had families, they moved all over the country, my grandparents moved from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak to Petach Tikvah, but every three weeks these men would come and learn some Torah together. About a decade ago, my grandfather passed away, they still kept coming. And just over a month ago, my grandmother passed away as well. By providence, a video highlighting the learning of this group aired on the day my grandmother died. Every three weeks for 37 years, these men got together and learned Torah. Using our exercise model, this was the Iron Man of Torah study. And we all thought after both grandparents passed, it was time for this class to come to an end.
In my grandmothers will she wrote, I have one request of my children, only one request – that you continue to memorialize my son the way we always did.
Sure enough, two weeks ago, a group of men made their way to my grandparents apartment. The people who lived there are no longer, but the spirit of Torah, the flame of our Peoplehood, will not be extinguished.
Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu; Torah is the lifeblood of Judaism. It is both a guide to life, it is our family history, it’s a book that our ancestors collectively pored over for millennia, it is the word of G-d, and according to the mystics, a peek into the inner working of G-d’s mind, whatever that may mean. In short, Torah is everything. It is all-important and a casual relationship with Torah is simply not enough.
They say a story of a fabulously wealthy man who lived somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. One day this man shows up at the top Yeshiva and says to the dean, to the Rosh Yeshiva, “Find me the top bochur, the top student, for my daughter. I’ll take care of him, I’ll make sure he studies his whole life.”
So the Rosh Yeshiva points the top student out, the wealthy man meets with him, they talk about marriage, and the student is on board and so the wealthy man takes him back home with him.
True to his word, even before the wedding, he builds him a mansion, he gives him an American Express platinum card, you name it, whatever this young man needed, and even what he didn’t need, he would give him. At every function the wealthy man would attend, he would take his future son-in-law with him, and let everyone know, “this is my chosson, he’s top bochur in his Yeshiva.” And everyone would look and everyone would nod approvingly.
But there was one problem, the chosson never met his kallah. He was never introduced to his bride. This went on for months. Finally, the groom, a little sheepishly turns the wealthy man and says, “Um, can I meet your daughter? When are we going to get married? What’s going on here?”
And so the wealthy man says, “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t really have a daughter. But all my friends have daughters, and they show off their grooms, I wanted to also have a groom.” (Rav Elimelech Biederman)
Tonight and tomorrow is the holiday of Shavuos. Shavuos is the holiday that celebrates our relationship with the Torah. I am sure many of you cooked up a storm, you made the best cheesecake ever! You got a haircut, you got new clothing, you bought flowers! Like the wealthy man who went all out for his groom, everything is ready, everything is beautiful and perfect, but we need the bride! Without a relationship to Torah, we’re left with an empty mansion, a wedding without the bride, a chuppah for one.
This is the holiday during which we commit ourselves to this special gift called Torah. Thankfully this is not a one-size-fits-all type of Mitzvah; there is practical law, there is the intellectually stimulating Talmud, uplifting writings of the Chassidim, the philosophy of the great Jewish thinkers, the self-help of the Mussar movement, the fascinating stories of Tanach. There is so much there!
Three thousand three hundred and thirty two years ago, our ancestors, newly freed, stood at a small mountain and committed their lives to the Torah. Let’s make a commitment to their commitment by studying that precious gift, not causally, but with a plan. By choosing a Jewish book, a sefer, a class, a certain amount of pages, of verses, whatever it may be. I’d be more than happy to make some recommendations. Make a goal, a plan, a schedule. Track it. Spiritual exercise is no different than physical exercise. May we merit to taste the sweetness of Torah study and the even sweeter taste of having spiritual goals and accomplishing them.