Broken Homes Erev Tisha B’av

In a Facebook post this past week, a prominent Jewish thinker and teacher wrote as follows:

“It’s time to stop using the expression “broken home.” Please.

As a child of divorced parents,” she goes on to write, “I… wish that my parents hadn’t lined us up on the living room couch and told us that they were getting a divorce. But as the oldest, I felt the burden of their unhappiness on us, and that, too, was too much for children to bear.

Now 40 years later, in a loving marriage of my own and with children and grandchildren, I have one thing to ask of a society so sensitive about language. It’s time to drop the expression “broken home.” Each time I hear the expression, it breaks my heart a little. I want to shout back: “I am not broken. I am strong. And I am loved.””

 

With all due respect, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the expression, as I have the utmost respect for the writer of this comment – I disagree.

While she does go on to acknowledge that of course, divorce causes the children to be broken in some way, she argues that so many other things in life break you as well.

And that is true, so many things break you as well. But I would argue that none break you quite the same way as a broken family. And that’s something that we as a society seem to have forgotten – the value of an intact family.

In 2021, 40% of births take place outside of the context of marriage. This is up from 28% in 1990, and far higher than most other countries. Almost 50% of marriages in the US will end in divorce. And over 50% of Americans are single, whereas in 1950, that number was 22%. Something changed. Something dramatic changed.

While we all know how essential family is, admittedly, it’s hard to explain. The arguments against family, or the predominant modern way of thinking that may not be opposed to family, but certainly does not see family as being all that important, has some compelling questions for us, such as:

Why burden ourselves to this commitment called marriage? It’s just a ‘construct’ anyway? And if it’s not working, move on.

Why bother having children? Or why bother having more than 1.9 children with all the obligations and burdens it entails?

Why invest so much energy into familial relationships? If my siblings do not get along with me, who cares? I have plenty of good friends.

And at the end of the day, it’s just biology!

Maybe this thinker was right, a broken family is just one of many ways to be broken. What is family anyway?

 

And yet, we all know intuitively, even if we cannot articulate it, that family and family relationships are so important. There is a certain magic and comfort that we -usually- find with our family. What is it? What is the magic of family?

According to the Torah, the significance of family is not the shared DNA. The significance of family is the invisible matter that stands between us. It is the responsibilities that bind us – the care that a parent must provide a child, the respect a child must give to a parent, the concern a sister must have for her brother, and the commitment that a husband and wife must have for one another. And not only is it commitments that bind us, it is our family stories; the shared experiences, the joys and the setbacks and everything in between, that mold us into a single entity.    

Responsibilities to one another and shared identity, two of the highest values in our faith, and simultaneously, those are two values viewed as backward and archaic by much of our society. Our society celebrates rights, not responsibilities. Our society celebrates the individual, not the collective. The pillars upon which family are established, a sense of identity broader than just myself, an alterable responsibility, are no longer in vogue. So it’s no surprise that families are falling apart.  

***

In defense of the author of that aforementioned Facebook post, her main point was to not box in the children of a divorce; to not see them as less than or to make assumptions of their ability to have a solid relationship. And with that, I fully agree. Many have incredibly successful and loving relationships. But not because they were not and are not broken; they are. One way or another, the trauma of not having a full family cannot be escaped. Someone who has a prosthetic leg and successfully runs a marathon, still has a prosthetic leg. Similarly, someone whose family is not intact and has a wonderful marriage, still has an essential part of them, that is broken. If they are successful in not perpetuating what they experienced, it is not despite what they saw, it is likely because of it. My parents got divorced when I had already moved out of the home. I was independent. And nonetheless, there is a part of me that is forever broken. So yes, I firmly believe and try to live with the idea that divorce should not define a child of divorced parents negatively, but it will always define them. Our parents, our siblings, our children, are an integral part of who we are. Any fracture in those relationships is a fracture in our identity.

***

Tonight, we will be commemorating the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. As we all know, its destruction is attributed to Sinas Chinam, baseless hatred. The story that is meant to illustrate this point is found in Meseches Gittin, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza It’s a story of a man who is friends with Kamtza and an enemy with Bar Kamtza. This man makes a party and sends an invitation to Kamtza but the invitation ends up with Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza comes to the party, the host throws him out of the party, and Bar Kamtza goes ahead and informs on the Jewish People to the Romans which leads to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. This is THE story of baseless hatred; how the host hated Bar Kamtza, how Bar Kamtza hated the Jewish People.

Now who is to blame in this story?

The host, presumably. Bar Kamtza, most certainly.

And yet, the Talmud tells us that Kamtza is also to blame. Rav Yochanan proclaims that the Bais HaMikdash was destroyed because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Now what did Kamtza do? He doesn’t even show up in the story?!

The Maharsha suggests that Kamtza was Bar Kamtza’s father. Bar, after all, means, the son of. Bar Kamtza is the son of Kamtza.

You see, the real story of Kamzta and Bar Kamtza is not one of societal hatred; it’s a story of a broken home. It’s a story in which a father does not have a loving relationship with his own child; how he is able to be best friends with a man who hates his own son. That is the sinas chinam, the baseless hatred, that we are meant to work on during this time. Yes, our society needs healing, but our first responsibility is healing our home.

***

On most years on Erev Tisha B’av, it is customary to eat an egg before the fast begins. An egg is a sign of mourning, some explain, because it is round, and reminds us of the cycle of life. I wonder if perhaps we eat an egg because its shell reminds us of the fragility of life. Perhaps we eat an egg to remind us how easy it is to lose what is important to us unless we constantly invest in it.

We all know how important family is – everyone here will tell you it is the most important thing in the world. But family, a solid family, takes work and effort; we need to constantly remind ourselves how fragile the bond between us is, especially in a world where the value of family is cheapened.

Obviously, not every marriage is meant to last forever, as Jews we believe in divorce. Not every parent-child or sibling to sibling relationship can be maintained, there are times when estrangement is the right thing to do. This is not a critique or commentary on any particular person or decision. It is an observation that as a society, we cannot lose sight of the importance of family and how we are obligated to those closest to us before anyone else; our family’s identity is our identity and family is our primary responsibility.

And so, we cannot work on bridges between communities or within communities, until the bridges of our own family are intact and strong. We cannot refrain from gossiping about others but speak about siblings behind their backs. We cannot afford to read books, listen to podcasts, or go to trainings on becoming better professionals before we become better parents, spouses, and siblings. We cannot spend so little time with our family, and when we do allow it ourselves to be so distracted. Let’s not allow ourselves to forget that the most precious things in life are fragile, nor to be swayed in thinking that family is unimportant. We know that a broken family is the worst form of brokenness.

One of the most well-known prophecies of the Messianic era, one that we sing at every Jewish weddings is, Od yishama b’arei Yehuda uv’chutzos Yerushalayim, there will be heard again in the cities of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem, kol sasson v’kol simcha, the sound of joy and happiness, kol chassan v’kol kallah, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride. We believe that the rebuilding of the Temple begins with the rebuilding of the home. May we see them both rebuilt speedily in our days.

My Heart is Not in the East – a prayer for the Nine Days

How long can I beg Him to take me home when all I need to do is buy a ticket?

How long can I beg Him to rebuild Jerusalem when a new development sprouts every week?

How long can I beg Him to “see with my eyes” when all I have to do is open them?

My hypocrisy chips away until my soul is calloused. My prayers become more superficial by the day; my dreams more faint. My heart is in the East… I think. At least that’s where I saw her last.

***

So I fly on eagles wings to where I belong. I take in the sights, the sounds, and the smells of my beloved city until she overwhelms my senses. I caress the stones, kiss the walls, I’m infatuated by her beauty.

But in those narrow streets, I seem to lose sight of You. In the roar of Torah learning and heady spirituality, my soul is deaf to Your loneliness. In the heart of Jerusalem, I have forgotten; I am home, but You are not here.

My heart is not in the East.

My heart is with You.

Please come home.

 

Avoiding Pain Parshas Chukas

The Parah Aduma, the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer, is introduced with the words, Zos chukas hatorah, this is the LAW of the Torah. Rashi explains that this Mitzvah is called a chok, an absolute law, as a response to the taunts of our evil inclination and the nations of the world. Says Rashi, when they hear about the laws of the Red Heifer, they mock us and persuade us to not follow the Torah. They say: “Look! This law makes no sense! None of them make sense!” and they laugh at us. And we respond, “You’re right, this Mitzvah makes no sense, but it is a law, a chok, a decree from our King and so we accept it.”

Now I’ll be honest, my evil inclination is very talented and very clever, but he has never woken me up in middle of the night, and said, “Psst!”

What is it?

“Don’t go to shacharis tomorrow morning.”

Why not?

“Parah Aduma”

That’s never happened. 

There are many things I don’t understand that do keep me up at night, such as:

Why my children who never want to hear a helmet, or a seatbelt, who jump off porches and wrestle viciously with one another, are afraid to walk outside because of cicadas.

Or, why Seven Mile Market switched from their blue bags to white bags? That makes no sense.

Those blue bags are the punchline of every Baltimore joke I have ever heard. It’s iconic. It’s like switching the colors of the American flag…

Or, I don’t understand how Naftali Bennet’s kippah stays on his head. And yes, I heard about the chewing gum, I don’t buy it.

There are many things in life that make no sense, Parah Adumah just doesn’t make the cut. And yet, our Sages see the Parah Adumah as the quintessential irrational law.

Why is that? What is it about this law that is so hard to understand? That could be used as an attack on our faith more than any other Mitzvah? There are plenty that are hard to understand – why this?

Let’s take a step back and describe the ceremony of Parah Adumah that we’re discussing. In the times of the Bais HaMikdash, when a Jew came into contact with the dead, they would assume a status known as tamei, or impure. While impure, there were certain foods they could not eat, certain places they could not go, and certain contact that need to be avoided. To remedy the situation, a Red Heifer is burned, its ashes are mixed with water from a spring – known as a mayim chaim – and the mixture is sprinkled on the individual who is tamei. At that point, two things happen – the individual who was tamei becomes pure and the individual who was previously pure who handles this mixture of ash and water, that person becomes tamei.

The Rambam in Mishna Torah shares his opinion that this entire process, from beginning to end, is beyond our comprehension. The notion of impurity, the process of purification, and of course the strange finale where the purifier becomes impure and the impure becomes pure – none of it can be understood. But Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch develops an elegant and profound idea which I want to share with you this morning:

Rav Hirsch explains that Tumah is not simply a mystical state, it reflects a psychological reality. When we come into contact with death, not just physically, but when we come face to face with tragedy, when we become cognizant of our mortality and the fleeting nature of existence, when we acknowledge our pettiness and how small-minded us humans can be, our natural reaction is to recoil, to shut down. What’s the point of trying? What are we really accomplishing anyway? What are we doing here?

The laws of Tumah create a space for such feelings and emotions. We mourn. We cry. We stop and we sit with those dark thoughts.

But then, after a period of time, we’re invited to change those thoughts – we are told that we can return to society, we can reintegrate, we can move beyond the debilitating feelings of loss and small-mindedness. And the way we do so is profound.

Many people mistakenly respond to sadness by fighting it, by pushing it away and ignoring it, by candy-coating the pain of life with sugar.

“I’m having a bad day” – “It could be worse.” 

“I lost my grandmother.” – “At least she lived for so long.”

Or, my favorite, “Just be positive!”

Ignoring or belittling pain doesn’t take it away, it makes it worse. The Torah instructs us that the way to counter the psychological state of tumah is by taking mayim chaim, water from a bubbling spring, which represents life and all that’s good and positive, and we mix it with eifer, with ashes from the corpse of the heifer, representing death and sin. We heal by feeling the pain and the darkness and also making room for everything else that’s beautiful and uplifting as well; ashes of death and water of life – the full gamut of human experience and existence. Destruction, loss, sin are a part of who we are, but so is creating, so is new life, so is purity! It’s the tension between these two that makes life so beautiful. The most gorgeous time of day is sunrise and sunset, when the darkness clashes with the light. It’s when we allow those contradictory feelings to rub against one another that we are at the peak of our creativity and the heights of our spiritual experience.

This idea stands at the core of monotheism, the co-existence of good and evil within one being, and this is what the nations do not understand and what our evil inclination deceives us with. They persuade us to believe that light clashes with darkness, that we are either close to G-d or distant from Him. That we are either good or bad. That we are either happy or sad. What they don’t realize is that G-d “forms light and creates darkness” that “even as I walk through the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because G-d is with me,” that even when I hide from G-d, He’s right there, holding me up, giving me life. It’s the mixture of light and darkness, that’s where the beauty is found.  

***

Earlier this week, I was flipping through the latest copy of the WhereWhatWhen, and I saw a letter to the editor that caught my eye. The anonymous writer took the publication to task for publishing the many stories involving someone struggling with mental health, the news items that described tragedy, and the columns that speak of people in different forms of distress.

My gut reaction, “This is ridiculous! Life’s tough. Deal with it. More toxic positivity, that’s all we need.”

None of you wrote it, right?

But on further reflection, there’s some validity to what the author wrote. You see, I didn’t share with you the entire piece from Rav Hirsch. He continues this beautiful piece with something that took me, and is still taking me, time to digest. It’s an idea which at first glance contradicts what he just said, but I don’t think it does, and it goes like this:

Rav Hirsch addresses the most mysterious feature of the ceremony. Why is it that the man or woman who was impure becomes pure and can now reenter society, but the individual who officiates the ceremony, he becomes impure? How are we to understand that?  

He Hirsch explains that yes, the way to move away from darkness is by embracing it. But the individual who is not thinking about his or her mortality and the fleetingness of life, the individual who is not awake to the feebleness of our minds and the self-deceptions that we allow ourselves to be guided by, that person must not be exposed to the ashes of death. Because when they are, they become tamei, they cannot escape its impact.

Rav Hirsch is arguing that death and darkness should not be a part of our everyday thinking; that darkness is acknowledged but never invited.

*** 

Maybe he’s right. Maybe as a society, we have gone too far in our rejection of toxic positivity and become a little bit too negative, too cynical, and a little bit too dark. Listen to the music, the literature, the way people talk – I love it, but it’s depressing. Maybe as a people, we should start to take our birthdays as seriously as we take our Yahrtzeits – a little more life, a little less death. Maybe we should utilize our laser sharp cynicism that allows us to see right through the words and deeds of others and ourselves and use that penetrating scrutiny to find the good which is right there as well. The individual who is not tamei must not touch the ashes of death.

I struggle with this idea because being happy all the time, being positive, strikes me as superficial. But it’s not.

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked why his followers always seem so happy. “Are they deaf to the pain in the world? Are they blind to all the suffering around them?”

The Baal Shem Tov responded, that no, they weren’t deaf or blind at all. On the contrary, they had developed such an exquisite sense for the beauty of the world that they could find it where others don’t see it at all. They see the positive that exists around them in a far more sophisticated fashion than everyone else.

So yes, when we find ourselves in a pandemic, we acknowledge the angst and pain. When we heaven forbid, lose a loved one, we acknowledge the gaping hole. When we find ourselves in a cloud of fog or darkness, we embrace it and see its beauty. And that’s a hard lesson that our Yetzer Hara prevents us from understanding.

But perhaps even harder, perhaps something that at least for some of us, takes even more work, is the ability to avoid tumah, to seek out the good, to buck the trend of cynicism, to think more positively, to speak more positively, to surround ourselves by positivity, and to develop the sophistication needed to see the good that surrounds us at all times.

 

Defying God Parshas Shelach

This may possibly be the most radical idea you will hear from an Orthodox rabbi’s pulpit:

In the Torah portion we read today the Jewish People send spies to the land of Israel. They return with slanderous reports which the Jewish People believe. As a punishment G-d says, this generation will not enter the land of Israel. Most of us know this story quite well. But what happens next is fascinating:

The Torah tells us that the next morning, the Jewish People wake up and they feel terrible. They messed up royally! They made a terrible mistake! How could they believe in the spies and not believe in G-d? What were they thinking? How could they reject everything Moshe had taught them after experiencing the miracles of the Exodus?!

When this horrible thought sinks in, a large group of Jews gather together and declare: “Hinenu v’alinu el hamakom asher amar Hashem – ki chatanu./ We are ready, and we will go up to the place that G-d spoke of because we have sinned!” And they start travelling to Israel.

Moshe tries to stop them. He says, “Don’t go! G-d is not with you! G-d does not want you to go!”

And then he adds, “Hi lo tizt’lach, this won’t succeed!”

Our commentators, ever sensitive to the nuances of the Biblical text, infer the following mind-blowing lesson: Why does Moshe say, “this” won’t succeed? “This” implies that something quite similar will succeed. What can that possibly mean? Is there ever a time when we can defy G-d, go against His command, do something when He is not, so to speak, with us, and be successful?! Is that what Moshe means?!

Says the Zohar, that is exactly what he means. The Zohar suggests that there will be a time, a time much, much, later in Jewish history, a very dark time, after centuries of exile, when G-d will say no, and the Jewish People will say, yes! And the Jewish People will be successful.

Sounds heretical, no? Moses is telling the Jewish People that in the future you can defy G-d. G-d will say no, and you will say, yes, and in that situation, you will be successful?!

As heretical as it may sound, it is also exactly what happened.  

80 years ago, G-d communicated to us through His hand in history, that He was not with us, that He was, to use the Biblical term, hiding His face, turning away from His people. The consequence of that turning away led to concentration camps, gas chambers, and the decimation of half of world Jewry. G-d made it abundantly clear, for reasons we do not dare explain or understand, that He was not among us.

And while this was happening in Europe, there were Jews who were fantasizing – they had a crazy dream of a Jewish State, of Jews emigrating to their historic homeland en masse. And again, G-d said, no. He said no by allowing local Arabs to terrorize the Jewish who were trying to build a homeland. He said, no, through the British and their infamous white paper, severely limiting emigration to Israel. And shortly thereafter, G-d said, no, through the mighty and powerful neighboring Arab countries who swore to destroy the Jews if they dared declare statehood.

Everything was stacked against us, every Divine sign you could ask for pointed us to throw in the towel, to give up on our heritage, to bury our dreams. G-d said, no!

And the Jewish People said, yes. 

V’hi lo sitz’lach, and this time, said Moshe, you will not be successful. But in the future, you will.

***

This idea helps explain a bizarre sounding passage in the Talmud. The Gemara writes, Kol ma’she’omer l’cha ba’al habyis, aseh. Chutz mitzei. Whatever your host tells you to do, you should do. Except for when he tells you to leave.

Let’s say my host tells me to eat asparagus, I should eat it?! Really? I don’t like asparagus! In all seriousness, what does the Talmud mean to say?!

And then the second part of the statement, “Listen to everything except for when he tells you to leave.” Really?! Did they have no etiquette in ancient Babylon where they wrote the Talmud? When your host tells you to leave, you better leave! What in the world is going on here?

Rav Tzadok HaKohein explains, in line with the Zohar we just learned, that the Talmud is not talking about a regular host. It’s talking about a capital-H, host. G-d Almighty. G-d, after all, is the real ba’al habayit, Host of all hosts. And whatever He tells us to do we need to do – He is in charge.

But when G-d, our host, says, “Get out of my land,” when He says, “Go away from me,” then we don’t have to listen. We could stay. We should stay.

You know what this means practically?

There are times when G-d makes it very difficult for us to live in His home, the land of Israel, but we are told to ignore all the signs that tell us to leave. Instead, we are encouraged to stay.

Why He does this to us, we don’t know. Maybe it’s a test, maybe it’s a punishment, who knows? Hanistarot laShem Elokeinu, these are things beyond our comprehension. But what we do know, what the Talmud is teaching us is that we can ignore it and stay put.  

And this is true, by the way, not only for G-d kicking us out of His physical home, but also when G-d seems to push us away from Him.

We have many people in this room today, who were born in a country where it was almost impossible to maintain any connection to their faith. A country in which G-d allowed people, diabolical people, to indoctrinate generation after generation with the notion that religion is evil, irrational, an “opiate.” G-d blocked all the doors, literally – closing the doors of the synagogues and Jewish schools, but even more impactfully, by blocking Jews of the former USSR from connecting to Hashem and to His Torah.

G-d said, no. G-d said, tzei, go away.

And once again, the Jewish People said, yes. We are not going anywhere. G-d, you can make it as difficult as you’d like; we’re staying put.

Elan, when I was your age, I remember being blown away by stories of Resfuseniks like Natan Sharansky, Jews in the former Soviet Union, who made their aspirations to make Aliyah to Israel clear to all. I was inspired by stories of the clandestine learning of Torah that was taking place. I was humbled by the men and women, the teenagers (!) who knew nothing and were struggling their way through the Alef Beis. Jews who said, no. They said no to the Communists, and ultimately, they said, no, to G-d. We’re not leaving our heritage.

But you, Elan, you do not need stories and you do not need books. You wake up every morning and you see a mother and father who defied the odds to bring you to a point where you can stand here and comfortably read the entire Parsha, where you could share a D’var Torah that you wrote, where you can talk freely and easily about your commitment to G-d and Judaism.

Judaism is more than Mitzvot. It is a shared heritage that taught us values that we treasure. You, Elan, you are a living testimony to the uniquely powerful trait and value that we as Jews inherited, of being defiant. Of never giving up. Of fighting everything that stands in the way of our spiritual dreams – even G-d Himself.

(I told you it was a radical idea.)

But this is not just history. This need for spiritual defiance, of staying put even when the Master of the House seems to be pushing us away, that battle is not over.

I’ve had so many conversations these past few months with people, who after not being in shul for over a year, they don’t feel so inclined to come back. I’ve heard from so many people who say they feel jaded, disillusioned, disheartened, distant from G-d and from our Torah. People who feel like all the signs are pointing them away, almost as if G-d is nudging them away from Him.  

Elan, there will be times in your life where you may feel that way. We all do at times. But I hope and I pray that you, and all of us, are reminded of what Moshe taught in your Bar Mitzvah parsha, that there will be a time in the future, a time that we are clearly living through, where G-d will seem to be pushing us away. And Moshe tells us, don’t give in. Don’t give up. Keep pushing. Keep fighting. Even if the Master of the House says, leave, you can ignore Him!

If you keep fighting, eventually you will have a State of Israel. If you keep protesting, eventually those walls will come down. If you keep trying to come closer to Me, says G-d, eventually, you will. 

 

Responding to Antisemitism… like a cicada or a nazir Parshas Nasso

How I yearn to just talk about cicadas.

I just wanted to joke about my introduction to Baltimore, having moved here 17 years ago with no warning about these creatures and just woke up one morning to a swarm of them outside my dorm. I was hoping, this Shabbos, especially in light of a ceasefire, to talk about something mundane, something that doesn’t touch upon questions of our existence. But alas, G-d has different plans.

When Jews are attacked eating sushi in LA, when Jews are harassed on the streets of New York in broad daylight, when an elderly Jew is beaten by a mob in Toronto, how could we talk about cicadas? How could we talk about anything else?

When incident after incident goes unreported in major news agencies, when we hear crickets, not the roar of cicadas, after Jewish violence goes unchecked, how could we allow ourselves to be distracted by bugs?

And yet, I keep coming back to cicadas. Not because they’re littering my lawn with their shells, not because my children are afraid of them, but because their life is really not so different than ours.

They sleep, they wake up, they mate, and then they die. Their legacy gets perpetuated by another generation that does the exact same thing. The scenery changes; bigger houses, nicer cars, faster internet, but it’s the same story over and over and over again.

We fight the same battles every cycle – my great-grandparents defended themselves against Cossacks, my grandparents outsmarted the Nazis, my parents fought Arabs, and we fight… I don’t even know who we’re fighting, but fighting we are. Every 17 years a battle, a struggle, an attempt to just breathe without having to look over our shoulder. Is there a victor? No! If one enemy crumbles, a new one steps in to take their place.  We attempt to escape this vicious cycle but it’s futile.

And like the cicadas, after our time here on earth, we leave. And after a little while, no one really remembers that we were here.

In what way will we leave the world a different place from the one we entered? A stone here, a plaque there… dust in the wind. “All we are is dust in the wind.”

The only difference between us and the cicadas is that we are capable of recognizing how fleeting and pointless life can be, whereas the cicadas are blissfully unaware. Although here too, most humans prefer to dull their mind to this reality because it’s just too painful. Like the cicadas who make themselves deaf to their own noise, we too make ourselves deaf to the cries of our soul.

 

But there is one creature that cannot tolerate this vanilla-pointless-cyclical life. There is one creature whose soul is bursting at the seams and cannot bear the thought of “from dust you are formed and to dust you will return.” There is one creature who separates him or herself from the swarm, and that is the Nazir, the Nazirite.

Writes Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein: “Naziriteship is a spiritual process based on primal energies and ecstasies deeply implanted in the human soul.”

“Generally speaking, the Torah creates for us an orderly and systematic spiritual world, one that is based on the development of man’s intellectual and emotional strengths, and on the rational and structured use of these strengths. The world of mitzvot is characterized by spiritual discipline and the channeling of personal strengths through study and action. Naziriteship, on the other hand, is based on the primal energies dwelling in man’s soul. A nazirite is identified by his long hair, and his holiness is expressed by the fact that he allows his hair to grow wild:”

In other words, the Nazir is not content with the orderly, structured life. He rejects the world that he is born into, namely, the world of Monoach, a world of calm and serenity – also the name of the father of Shimshon, the ultimate Nazir. He or she, like Shimshon, fight a battle that they cannot win. But the alternative, that of doing nothing, that is a far greater loss.

Rabbi Lichtenstein makes an additional observation about the Nazir; when someone accepts to be a Nazir, the default amount of time they are to remain a Nazir is thirty days. In his words: “In contrast to the priest whose holiness is everlasting, the nazirite’s holiness is temporary (Nazir 7:1). This assertion is not only true in the practical sense; but rather it defines the quality and nature of the nazirite’s holiness. By its very nature as an expression of explosive and bursting forces, it is limited in time, for excitement wanes and routine takes control of life. The nazirite whose spiritual ascendancy is based on this eruptive quality is not built for a long-term process, and therefore, his holiness is defined by its very nature as temporary holiness.”

The Nazir is under no illusion; he or she knows that we cannot escape our mortality. It is precisely that awareness that drives the Nazir to, from time to time, explode. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that we can escape meaninglessness and the humdrum of the cyclical unchanging life. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that, like Shimshon, we don’t need to win the war – we cannot win the war, but the alternative of doing nothing at all, of living and dying,, accepting that is untenable, and not a life worth living. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that there is holiness and meaning in short-lived outbursts of spirituality.

Rashi, in this week’s parsha, teaches us that the Nazir does not become a Nazir in a vacuum. More often than not, the Nazir witnesses something that shakes him or her to the core. While most people take out their phones and start recording. While most people click, “like,” or, open-mouthed-face-emoji, and move on, the Nazir cannot ignore the tempest raging in his or her soul. And so the Nazir responds – the Nazir does something, it may be short-lived, it may not have any tangible impact, but he or she knows no other way.

***

There is a beautiful prayer I used to say when I would leave the Beit Midrash when I studied in Yeshiva. One passage goes like this: Anu ameilim v’heim ameilim, we toil and they toil. Anu ameilim umikablim s’char v’heim ameilim v’einam m’kblim sachar, we toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward.”

I found this passage to be especially uplifting. I’d finish a day of learning, from the crack of dawn until late at night, and as I would close my Gemara, I would ask myself, what did I accomplish today? What did I do? I woke up with a question on Tosafos and I still have that same question. Nothing changed. There was no novel approach developed, no journal entry, nothing.

But that passage I recited as I kissed my Gemara good night, reminded me that we do not measure success by accomplishments alone. It reminded me that as someone who believes in a soul, the impact on my neshama and the impact on the cosmos, though it cannot be tracked, is immense. It reminded me that on a physical and material plane, nothing changes; I work and toil and then I die, leaving nothing behind but a child – if I’m so fortunate – to live the same life I did. But on a spiritual plane, I am building something magnificent. On a spiritual plane, every passuk, every page of Talmud, every Mitzvah, every prayer, every struggle, every act of protest, of standing up for what is right, is meaningful.

***

The Nazir gets that. The Nazir recognizes that something is being accomplished by fighting back even when you do not win the war. The Nazir appreciates the momentary flight to holiness as being far more everlasting than a stone or plaque. For those who allow themselves to be awake to the fleetingness of life, the Nazir is our greatest role model.

***

Despite seeing so much death and loss this year, thank G-d most of us are not so callous as to not be moved by current events. We feel worried about Hamas and worried about growing antisemitism right here. We feel anxious about the Jewish future and allyship we used to take for granted. We feel vulnerable and uncertain.

I don’t have a plan of action, an exact set of steps that need to be taken in response, I don’t think anyone does. But I do believe that each one of us have a choice; do we respond like a cicada or do we respond like a Nazir?

A cicada goes to sleep, a Nazir takes action.

A cicada loses itself in acts of pleasure or perpetuation, a Nazir dedicates his or her life to acts of holiness.

A cicada lives and dies, a Nazir lives on forever.

A cicada calls his or her congressman, learns more, joins the IDF, prays more, makes aliyah, protests, or takes on a Mitzvah that he or she haven’t done until now. Be a Nazir. Do something!

Your actions may only last a month, a week, a day. But a Nazir knows that the impact of his or her actions live on forever. 

 

Our Hands did not Spill this Blood… or did they? Parshas Behar-Bechukosai

*In Memory of Efraim Gordon*

יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

These are words proclaimed by the elders of the Jewish People when an unsolved murder takes place in their town. It’s part of a dramatic ritual found in Sefer Devarim known as Eglah Arufah. A victim of murder is found, no one knows who killed the individual, a calf is taken to a barren valley where it is brutally killed. And then all the leaders of the town proclaim:

ָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

It’s a strange statement, to put it mildly. Do we really need the elders of a community to state that they did not spill this blood? Did anyone really accuse the elders of doing so that they need to defend themselves?!

Of course not.

Rather the Torah is teaching us a radical idea about what it means to be a community and the extent of our responsibility for one another. If the elders need to state that we are not responsible that means that there is an implicit accusation against them that they are responsible for something. They are not accused of murder, but they are accused of enabling murder by allowing an environment to exist where an unsolved murder could take place; an environment where someone knows they could get away with something of that nature, an environment where a victim is defenseless, an environment lacking in justice.

We are responsible, the Torah is teaching us, not only for what we do or what we see. We are responsible to ensure that we live in a safe city, in a just society, in a culture where everyone know that we look out for each other and we will not allow injustice to prevail.

To that accusation, the elders must soul-search, they must do a cheshbon hanefesh, and ask themselves, are we really not responsible in any way? Did we really not have anything to do with this?

 

As I am sure you are all well aware, there was a murder in our community this past week. An unsolved murder. A young man visiting from Israel, who came for a joyous occasion, for a wedding, murdered on the doorstep of his uncle and aunt. And we must ask ourselves that same question, the same accusation leveled against the elders, were we responsible in any way for this tragedy?

I’ve been trying to do a cheshbon hanefesh, some soul searching on this question, and I’d like to share with you a couple of reflections:

1 – The first is positive.

In 1982, in a Senate hearing where some senators were threatening to cut off aid to the State of Israel, then Prime Minister, Menachem Begin famously replied: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”

We had been conditioned for thousands of years to beg and grovel and be dependent on others for our safety. Even in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, one of the greatest eras in our history, Yehuda Halevi describes his own people as the despised people.

But thank G-d, that has changed. More accurately, we have changed it – around the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, we started to develop pride in our culture, pride in our people, and pride in our traditions. And it’s only grown. We have developed a sense of independence and a recognition that we could and must take care of ourselves. Over the past few decades, the political involvement of Jews here in the US has grown exponentially, ensuring that we are represented on every level of government.

I shudder to imagine what this week would have looked like if we did not have a Shomrim who could give us an extra sense of safety when walking outside, if we did not have a Jewish councilman who we could turn to who did not sleep until there was sufficient security on the ground, or if we did not have a delegate who is also an assistant state’s attorney who can ensure that there is justice in our city.   

On that end, we have taken steps, with our votes and communal infrastructure that we support, to try to ensure that our community is a safe one, and thank G-d for that.

2 – Though we have grown, as a community, in our self-confidence, I don’t think we’ve grown enough. Someone who is truly confident cares not only about themselves, but also cares for others.

Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. So far this year, there have been 107 murders. . Baltimore, as you all know, is not exactly “The greatest city in America” as our benches claim, it is the city with the second highest homicide rate in the country.

One of the prohibitions in this week’s parsha is to not lend a fellow Jew with interest. For centuries, this prohibition and its implicit allowance to lend non-Jews with interest has been the source of explosive tension. Christians interpreted this verse to mean that charging interest on a loan is evil. The fact that Jews would lend Christians on interest and not their fellow Jew caused a good amount of ill-will. It was perceived as Jews not caring about Christians, about deliberately wronging them.

But that’s a mistaken view of the law. The Ramban explains that there is nothing immoral about charging with interest; it’s no different than renting out an item. I rent you my shovel for a few dollars and I’ll rent you my money for a few dollars!

It is not that we do not care about non-Jews. We care deeply for every human being; every human being is created in the image of G-d, every human being is deserving of respect and care and concern. It’s just that when you lend money to your brother or sister, it’s pas nisht, it’s not right to charge interest. Hence the prohibition. But we would never ever deliberately wrong a person just because they are not Jewish.

Unfortunately, too many Jews seem to have adopted the Christian view; that Jews are in some way meant to look down on non-Jews, that we are not supposed to care. And that’s wrong. It’s a perversion of our religious beliefs.

Once again, Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. Did you lose sleep when a child was murdered by a stray bullet? Did you shed a tear when an innocent grandmother was mugged and killed?

“They’re not Jews?!” People say.

I know. And I agree! We cry for a brother differently than we cry for a cousin. We cry for a cousin differently than we do for a friend. But we still mourn the loss of life. Of course, losing family is more hurtful and more painful and that’s the way it should be. And the senseless murder of Efraim Gordon is more painful. But we live in a city where people are being murdered all the time. Do we care?

“As long as they stay on the other side of Northern Parkway, I don’t mind.”

That is ludicrous and beyond insensitive. There is a bloodbath in our city – doesn’t that bother you in any way more than our personal safety?!

It should. Because if it doesn’t then we cannot justifiably say,

  יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

Can we say those words? If we don’t care about justice, only Jews. If we don’t care about Franklin Ave., only Fords Lane?! Can we say those words?

We don’t live in a ghetto anymore; we need to develop sensitivity and care for everyone around us. And we need to demand safe streets on both sides of Northern Parkway, because everyone deserves to live in a just society.

Whether that means more policing, less policing, different policing. Better education system, better judicial system. I’ll leave that all to you. Whatever we’re doing now is not working and the very least we must do is care. If we don’t care, we are guilty.

Which brings me to my 3rd and final reflection – There is a comment of Rashi which I’d like to share with you. Rashi is also bothered by the question that we asked; in what way did the elders sin? No one could possibly be blaming them for murder.

Rashi answers, “What the elders are saying is that we did not see this murdered man. Had we seen him, we would have given him food and we would have escorted him out of the city.” The implication being that had the community been more supportive of this individual, the murder may not have taken place. Perhaps this is because in a community where everyone is so tight knit, the potential murderer knows that he cannot get away with it; he knows that no one will rest until he is found. But in a community where people do not care deeply about one another…

And so I ask all of you, none of us knew Efraim Gordon, none of us had a chance to give him food and escort him. But he has family who live here. He has cousins and uncles and aunts who are reeling. Have we provided them with any comfort? Have we made it known to them in any way that we care?

I am guilty of this myself. I too, tsk tsked, and caught up on the latest rumors. I too thought about it, talked about, and did nothing, even though there were tens of heartbroken and traumatized family members who had just celebrated a wedding and had their first cousin murdered in the same week living just a few blocks away. I am grateful that someone brought my insensitivity to my attention the other day. I called one of the cousins on Friday and shared some words of comfort on behalf of our shul.

But I ask myself, can I really say that my hands did not spill this blood? If someone had not brought this to my attention, would I have reached out? If someone is in need in my neighborhood, do I bring them food? If someone is dejected, do I support them? Or do I just care about myself, my family, and my friends?

The breaking of the calf’s neck, the entire ceremony of Eglah Arufah is meant to shock us. It is meant to ensure that we never get accustomed to immorality, to injustice, to pain. To borrow a phrase, one death is a tragedy, 107 is a statistic. But it’s not.  

We are in a position to advocate for ourselves, and that is worth celebrating. But strength is not measured by how well you protect yourself, but by how well you protect others. We must look out for our fellow Jews, for our brothers and sisters, and never treat their pain as a story. And we must care for every human being and not rest until we live in a safe city, a city of justice; one in which we can justifiably say, ידֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה, that our hands did not spill this blood.