Just Shabbos Rosh Hashana Day One

My favorite moment on Rosh Hashana is the minute or two leading up to the blowing of the Shofar. Parents are running around in the social hall scooping up their children and bringing them inside. The men and women all adjust themselves to find the perfect position to stand by at attention. Children start to gather around the bimah, faces beaming with anticipation. And the ba’al tokeiah, with a creased forehead and a sense of heaviness on his shoulders, makes his way through the preliminary prayers. 

The Shofar.

It’s why we come to shul on Rosh Hashana, to hear those blasts, to be moved by their wordless cry. To remind ourselves of the shofar at the giving of the Torah, to blow trumpets as we coronate G-d as our king, to express our faith in the great shofar of the Messianic era.

And then there are the memories. I am sure for many of us the sounds of the Shofar awaken dormant feelings. Perhaps the warm memories of standing near a parent or grandparent as the shofar was sounded. Or maybe a Rosh Hashana during which we felt especially inspired. Sound, especially musical sounds have the power of stirring memories from their sleep. So much symbolism and so many memories packed into a tekiah, a shevarim, a teruah.

But alas, ‘those rabbis,’ they came along and ruined everything. Because as you know, (and despite what it said on our High Holiday tickets) there is no shofar blowing today. Although the Torah instructs us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana even when it falls out on Shabbos, the Gemara in Rosh Hashana teaches us that the rabbis were concerned.  What if someone needs to brush up on their shofar blowing skills on Rosh Hashana. And what if they decide to walk over to someone else’s home who is an expert in blowing the shofar for a last-minute tutorial. And what if they live in a community that does not have an eruv making carrying forbidden. And what if they forget that they cannot carry and they walk outside, carrying a shofar, and they violate the law of carrying on Shabbos. And soooo, it is forbidden to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana that falls out on Shabbos.

What?! Are you kidding me?!

All of that beauty, all of that magic, all of that spiritual and emotional power thrown out the window because some shmendrik living in a community without an eruv will forget and carry on Shabbos?! Give me a break!

The great Baal HaTanya, the very first Lubavicther Rebbe, was also bothered by this question. How could it be that the rabbis robbed us of this incredible spiritual opportunity?

He offers a profound insight in response. He points out that the mere fact we’re asking the question betrays the fact that we are missing out on something so much greater than the yearly Shofar blowing. The fact that we are bothered by a lack of blowing a Shofar on Shabbos means that we do not appreciate what Shabbos has to offer. You see, that shmendrik carrying the shofar, he’s just a scapegoat. It’s not about him at all. The real reason we do not blow the shofar on Shabbos is because – we do not need to. We do not blow the shofar on Shabbos because every seven days, the magic, the emotions, the power of the shofar can be attained. What the rabbis were trying to convey to us is that we do not have to wait 365 days to feel that nostalgia. We do not have to wait until the shofar is blown to feel that excitement. We do not have to wait until the Ba’al tokeiah is red in the face to feel a tingling down our back. Every Shabbos can and should feel this way. You want nostalgia? You want meaning? You got it. Every seven days. For a full 25 hours. It’s all there.

You’re not sold, I know. C’mon, Rabbi Motzen, Shabbos is nice, but it is NOT Rosh Hashana.  

But I’m in luck. Something happened this year that in my opinion, serves as the perfect metaphor for Shabbos. It will help us, I hope, understand how and why Shabbos is indeed so awesome that we don’t need to blow the shofar when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbos.

This event was so grand that it grabbed the attention of millions of people, it impacted the economy, it got the attention of all politicians and even more amazingly, our incredibly distracted teens. It was something that even caused a small earthquake – Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. That’s right, the singer, Taylor Swift, and her series of concerts, called the Eras Tour.

On November 15th, 2023, presale tickets for her concerts went on sale. Ticketmaster had anticipated the sale of 1.5 million tickets. 14 million people flocked to their site causing the site to crash and spawned a federal investigation into Ticketmaster’s practices. The revenue from her tour is estimated at over a billion dollars – the most ever for a concert tour. But she’s not the only one raking it in. Glendale, Arizona reported more profits for local businesses during her visit than the Superbowl had generated a few months prior. The governor of Illinois credited her three-night stay with reviving the tourist industry of the state. Politicians across the world are falling over themselves trying to bring her concert to their cities. Santa Clara made her honorary mayor when she visited, and Minneapolis renamed their city for a day to be… Swiftie-apolis…

After spending an embarrassing amount of time scouring through tens of articles, I came up with three reasons Taylor Swift and her concerts are so popular – (What is Rabbi Motzen doing? Taylor Swift on Rosh Hashana?! It’s a good analogy. Hear me out.)

  1. She’s a good songwriter, but it’s more than that. Her lyrics are highly personal but also universal. Her fans all claim that they find their own stories in her
  2. It’s not just a concert. It’s a journey through time – the Eras tour takes you through her history, which for her fans is their It’s like going in a time machine.
  3. Her concerts bring together a community of people with a shared love and a shared language and even shared rituals, like giving each other friendship bracelets.

Personal story, historical journey, and a sense of community. And that, my friends, is a terribly sacrilegious but perfect metaphor for the magic of Shabbos.

Every Friday night I open my siddur to the words of l’cha dodi, a beautiful 16th century composition by the great mystic, Rav Shlomo Alkabetz. I am tired, physically and emotionally, after six days of giving it my all. But most of all, I feel distant from myself, from my life mission, from who I know I could be. I know there’s more to life than the daily grind, but I am usually so consumed by the task at hand that I cannot bring myself to imagine anything beyond. I imagine I am not the only one who feels this way on a regular basis.

And then, “Hisna’ari mei’afar kumi, shake it off (😉), get up from the dirt!” Who is this song speaking of? Shabbos? Mashiach? No. It’s talking about me! “Livshi bigdei tifarteich ami, put on your royal clothes!” You are not the sum total of your struggles; you are royalty, you have so much to offer. “Uri, uri, shir dabeiri, wake up, wake up, sing your song!” “K’vod Hashem alayich niglah!” There is a personal mission, a song that only you can sing, G-d is watching over you, He is rooting for you; spread your wings and let yourself soar!

That song, that story of Shabbos – my story, it lifts me up from the dirt every single week.

As I walk home from shul, the sun setting over my week, with no phone to look down to, I look up at the darkening sky, and I am reminded of the very first sunset. I imagine two beings standing in awe at the world around them – vayechulu hashamayim v’haaretz, G-d had just concluded the finishing touches of this planet with all its brilliance. Imagine the peace and serenity of a world with just two people?

The next morning as I look out to the community gathered here in shul – v’shamru b’nei Yisrael es haShabbos, imagining our ancestors in a barren desert being taught to rest on the seventh day, for the very first time. I imagine the communities of Jews who held onto this radical idea through the ages. I feel inspired by them, connected to them and connected to each other. 

And by the end of the day, as the sun begins to set again, I have a memory of something I have yet to experience – Avraham yageil, Yitzchak yeranein, a time in the future, a true Shabbos, a time of peace, health, and prosperity for all.

Shabbos is the ultimate time machine – a historic journey from the beginning of time to its glorious end.

And lastly, Shabbos is the glue of Jewish Peoplehood. I remember hearing a prominent member of the Jewish Conservative movement lamenting their decision in the 50’s to allow the driving of cars to shul. That, he said, was when their movement’s membership started to decline. Because Shabbos, with its restrictions on travel and carrying, forces us to live with community. And yes, we can complain about how expensive it is to live within the eruv, but when the nation is facing a crisis of loneliness, I’d pay a premium for a neighbor who I can say hello to.

Shabbos is the ultimate experience; it’s my story, it’s a historic journey, and it connects us with one another. I don’t know about you, but Shabbos causes a seismic movement, a mini earthquake, in my life every seven days.

And like all good things in life, it comes at a cost. You can’t get into the concert unless you pay up. The cost of Shabbos is a hectic Friday that lets you know you’re about to embark on something magical. The cost is shutting down your business and shutting down your laptop and turning off your phone for 25 hours. Yes, there are restrictions, but there are also restrictions as to what you can bring inside the stadium at a Taylor Swift concert. Those restrictions are there to create an ambience like no other.

And hey, it’s a free country, you don’t need to go all the way. You could do a half-Shabbos; a Friday night meal, some candles, keep some of the rules, ignore others. But it’s the equivalent of partying in the parking lot pre-concert. It’s nice. But it’s just not the same as standing inside, swaying, singing, being lifted up by the crowd.

And for all of us who “keep the rules” of Shabbos, before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s take our metaphor one step further. You’re at a Taylor Swift concert, or for all you alfa males out there – maybe you’re at a Ravens game, and excuse me, but you need to go to the bathroom. Okay, okay, you need to make a quick call or you’re hungry and want to buy a drink or some food. How long do you spend outside in the hallway at the food stands? We’ve all done this. We move as fast as we possibly can. We’re at an amazing concert! We’re at a game! We don’t want to miss a second!

How much of Shabbos do we miss out on?  

The Gemara teaches us that on Shabbos we have an extra soul. Some understand this to mean we have an extra appetite on Shabbos. I guess that explains all the food. The deeper meaning is that on Shabbos, our spiritual impact is so much greater. During the week, we’re up in the nosebleeds with an obstructed view and on Shabbos, we’re up against the stage, but it’s not Taylor on the stage, it’s G-d! It’s an unparalleled opportunity to connect to Him through prayer and through Torah study. And you know who else is standing up there with you? Your loved ones, yourself – you know, the people you ignore throughout the week. Shabbos is an unparalleled opportunity to connect to our loved ones, to go on a walk, to have a real and uninterrupted conversation, and it’s the ultimate time for self-reflection. Are we really going to spend these precious moments waiting in line for popcorn?  

It’s not just Swifties who are looking for a transcendent experience. We are all weighed down by the bad news we hear daily, by the challenges we face and bear. We all feel assaulted by the hate and discord in the streets. We all have that gnawing feeling from time to time that there is more to life than work and play.

Thank G-d, there is a tried and tested method to revive our faith in humankind. There is a tool we have access to that strengthens the bonds between us, our family, and friends. There is a mechanism at our fingertips to awaken our soul. “More than the Jews kept Shabbos, Shabbos kept the Jews.” Shabbos is what keeps us together in a culture that tries to divide us – look around at this wonderful mix of people! Shabbos is what keeps us sane in a world that spins faster and faster by the day – who here doesn’t feel like they’re drowning? Shabbos is what keeps us in touch with our soul in a world that denies her existence. So yes, Shabbos is the most timely message of all. And now we have a choice to make. What is it going to be?

Can we put our phones down for 25 hours and recharge our soul? Can we take our Shabbos meals seriously and fill them with meaningful conversation, a weekly opportunity to strengthen our family values? Can we look into the eyes of our loved ones for a few moments a week and connect ever so deeply? Can we lose ourselves in a book for a few hours, maybe even a Jewish book, and allow our minds to soar? Can we take advantage of the magical atmosphere on Shabbos and pray, slowly, thoughtfully? Can we sing? Here at shul? At home? Yes, song – the ultimate spiritual tool to bring people together that allows us to feel the edges of our soul? Can this be a year in which we invest in what G-d describes as the greatest gift to humankind? 

We don’t need Taylor Swift.

We don’t even need the Shofar.

We have Shabbos. 

Good Shabbos. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Akiva and the Infinite Game of Torah – Rosh Hashana Day Two

No one knew what she saw in him, but it must have been something special. He was impoverished, she was fabulously wealthy. He was a nobody, she was the daughter of the wealthiest man in Israel. He was an ignorant shepherd, she, an educated aristocrat. So vast was his distance from a Torah lifestyle that when he would encounter rabbis, he would later relate how he would have to fight an urge to bite them. And yet, she, Rachel, believed in him, and it allowed him, Akiva, to believe in himself.

We are our own worst critics. Most of us underestimate our capabilities and talents. I sometimes wonder how many artists are in this room, too nervous to share their art. I wonder how many great thinkers there are, with ideas that can change their family, their community, the world, but are too bashful to speak up. I wonder how many Torah scholars lived and died without ever opening a holy book. What a gift Rachel gave her husband by letting him know what she saw.

She planted a seed, but it took time to flower.

Their early years were spent in abject poverty. If that wasn’t bad enough, she, the heir to a fortune, was disowned by her father, who thought she lost her mind. They slept in a barn, and in the mornings, Akiva would tenderly pluck the pieces of straw out of his wife’s hair. He would then wipe the tears she tried to hide from her face. “I promise you,” he said, “one day things will be different. One day, I’ll buy you the most beautiful jewelry made of gold.” But she assured him, she didn’t want gold. She wanted him to grow, to succeed, to express the talents that she knew he had.

You all know the next part of the story. Akiva was one day walking by a stream and saw a rock. It was no ordinary rock; in the center of the rock there was a hole, from one side of the rock to the other. How does a solid rock have a hole in it? Akiva noticed an almost imperceptible drop of water from the nearby stream, dripping and dropping on the rock. And with that, the seed she planted burst through the soil. “If that dense rock could be penetrated by a constant drip of water, then I too can change.”

Legend has it, that he enrolled in the local school with his own son. Imagine the 40-year-old Akiva walking his five-year-old son to cheder, but instead of kissing him goodbye, walking in with him and sitting by his side. His students would later teach, “Ain habayshan lameid, one who is embarrassed cannot learn.” His strength of character, earlier expressed in his hate for the rabbis, was now being used to become one.

The rock proved to be an apt metaphor. The constant drip of Torah made an impact on him. Within a few years of study, he blossomed, transitioning quickly from an ignoramus to being educated to being a scholar. With his wife’s blessing, he kept at it. He was no longer dependent on her encouragement; he was finally able to see it in himself; he was bright, he was creative, and he soon discovered that he was also a master educator. His small group of students swelled to a staggering 24,000 students, and before long, he became known as Rosh Chachamim, the chief of the sages.

It was an exciting time for the Jews living in Judea. Though the Romans had recently destroyed the Temple, there was hope. A brave warrior, Bar Kochba, amassed a following of his own, soldiers who were fearless and were inflicting great damage on the Roman army who started to retreat. The Jews of Judea minted coins with a picture of the Temple on it. It was only a matter of time until Bar Kochba would rout the Romans entirely from the region and they would rebuild the Temple once and for all. Bar Kochba’s biggest supporter was the chief of the sages, Rabbi Akiva, who proclaimed that Bar Kochba was the messiah. History was coming to its glorious end.

And that’s when tragedy hit. A plague. A plague that impacted his students disproportionately to the rest of the population, wiping out every last one. At the same time, Bar Kochba was killed in battle. His soldiers, disillusioned without their leader, tried to surrender but were massacred by the bloodthirsty Roman army. Within a few weeks the legacy Rabbi Akiva was creating, the future he believed in, got ripped out of the soil. His bed of roses trampled under the randomness of illness and the venom of the Roman army. His students were dead; buried in a mass grave. The soldiers were hacked to pieces, the few who survived were dragged to Rome where they were paraded for all to see.

We don’t know what Rabbi Akiva was thinking during this time. I imagine they were very dark thoughts. Everything he worked for, everything he believed in… gone.

What we do know is that somehow, he was able to pick himself up. Likely with the encouragement of his greatest fan, his beloved wife Rachel, he did not wallow in self-pity. But he didn’t just forge forward. He reimagined what Judaism in general and Torah study in particular is really all about.

You see, until this point in life, his pursuit of spirituality was concrete and finite. The daily drop of water breaks through a rock, meaning, if only I study every day, eventually I will become someone different than who I am today. He collected students, seeing each additional student as a notch on his spiritual belt. He believed in an imminent end to history; today we are in exile, tomorrow we will be free. All these beliefs and practices are finite. A changed person, a number of students, a beginning and an end.

But it was at this juncture in his life that he had to face the question –What happens when all that you’ve invested in is gone? What happens when you cannot track or mark your success? What happens when you have nothing to show for all your hard work?  

I think that’s a question that our community struggles with more than any other in the Orthodox community. I’ve been grappling with an uncomfortable question for quite some time now – Why is there less Torah study in Modern Orthodox communities than in Chassidic communities? Chareidi communities? Yeshivish communities? There’s no denying it. Whereas in some communities, the daily or weekly study of Torah is a given, you can see it in their shuls, in their publications, in their everyday life, in our community, you have to look a lot harder.

And I wonder if it has something to do with how intangible Torah study can be. You want to tell me to put up a Mezuzah, I buy it, I place it, I am done. You want to tell me to build a sukkah, I build it, I eat in it, I am done. You want to tell me to put on tefillin, to light candles, to give Tzedakah, all these mitzvos have a beginning and an end. But Torah study? How is that tracked? By the amount of minutes I engage in? By how I feel afterwards? And let’s be honest, I’ll never know enough to really be knowledgeable in Torah. Or as I hear so often, I just don’t see the relevance of this passage to my daily living. Sounds familiar?  

I think we’re in good company. Rabbi Akiva must have grappled with this same question. He had nothing to show for it. What’s this all for? Where’s this all going? Why should I?

It was at this point, with this huge question hanging over his head, that Rabbi Akiva created his true legacy. He transformed once again, in a subtle but profound fashion. He didn’t think the Messianic era would come tomorrow, but he had perfect faith that it would indeed come – at the right time. When his colleagues cried over the destruction of the Temple, he laughed; let it be rebuilt today, tomorrow, two-thousand-years, it doesn’t matter. He decided to continue teaching Torah, only now he didn’t care for numbers. Instead, he gathered a mere five students around him. What happened? What changed?

What happened is that Rabbi Akiva went from playing the finite game of life to the infinite game of life.

Allow me to paint for you an image that will help us understand what I mean, the difference between a finite game and an infinite one:

A signpost stands at a fork in the road.

Pointing in one direction, the sign says “Victory.”

Pointing in another direction, the sign says “Fulfillment.”

We must pick a direction.

Which one will we choose?

If we choose the path to Victory, the goal is to win!

We will experience the thrill of competition as we rush toward the finish line.

Crowds gather to cheer for us!

And then it’s over.

And everyone goes home.

(Hopefully we can do it again)


If we choose the path to Fulfillment, the journey will be long.

There will be times in which we must watch our step,

There will be times we can stop to enjoy the view

We keep going.

We keep going.

Crowds gather to join us on the journey.

And when our lives are over,

those who joined us on the path to Fulfillment

will keep going without us and inspire others to join them too.


This is how best-selling author and business consultant, Simon Sinek, begins his book, The Infinite Game. Finite games have a beginning and an end, winners and losers, infinite games do not. Football is a finite game. Pickleball is a finite game. The important things in life are typically infinite. Love is not a finite game – there is no winner or loser, and the goal-line is constantly being moved. The pursuit of knowledge is not a finite game – we may have stages in our education, degrees and the like, but there is no beginning or end point, and when one of us becomes more knowledgeable, we all win.

Sinek’s thesis is that too often, likely because we are concrete, finite beings, we look for something to hold on to, some marker of our success, something tangible to point to, to assure us that we have accomplished. But in focusing on the tangible, we stop striving, we stop growing, we lose out in the richness of playing the infinite game.

Rabbi Akiva shared his newfound life philosophy in another well-known tale. Teaching Torah after the Bar Kochba revolt was a crime punishable by execution, but that did not deter Rabbi Akiva. “Are you out of your mind?” they asked him. “Why are you risking your life? For this?”

Rabbi Akiva shared a parable of a fox who saw a fish swimming furiously away from some fishermen. The fox encouraged the fish to join him on the shore where he would be safe, to which the fish replied, “You fool. Yes, I am endangering myself by staying in the water. But without water, I am dead. Without water, there is no life to preserve.”

Torah study, Rabbi Akiva now realized, is not a finite pursuit. It’s not about the books you’ve read, the students you have, the titles before or after your name. Torah is our life. “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu,” we say in the evening prayer. “For it is our life and the length of our days.” No beginning, no end. It’s an opportunity to transcend our finite world.

The mystics explain that when we pray, we are speaking to G-d, but when we study, it’s as if G-d is speaking to us. His infinite wisdom is somehow captured in the stories, the lessons, the laws, and given to us to imbibe. It’s not about learning a particular lesson; it’s about understanding and connecting to G-d Himself. Some go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to us, His beloved people.

In the 10th century, Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that the Jewish People are a people, not due to shared geography or culture, but by virtue of the Torah. According to him, studying Torah is about Jewish Peoplehood and identity. It’s about connecting through this shared language to our past, present, and future, and to Jews all over the world.

There is no beginning or end. The lessons are at times relevant to our day-to-day, and at times entirely impractical. But so are so many of life’s infinite pursuits, love, wisdom, and yes, deep and immersive Torah study.

Rabbi Akiva, as we know, gave up his life for this infinite pursuit. But infinite pursuits live on beyond the grave. His name is invoked, his teachings are taught, his legacy has lasted for two thousand years.

 And he wasn’t the only one. Throughout the centuries, our ancestors sacrificed so much to bring you and me to this place and time. What were they sacrificing it for? They too believed in the infinite. They too believed, like Rabbi Akiva’s colleague who was murdered together with him, that the finite scroll may burn, but the infinite letters, the teachings, they go up to the heavens. That each generation may come and go, but there is something precious, our national treasure, the Torah, that will live on.

But we struggle, like Rabbi Akiva once struggled, with this task. We, who live with plenty, who have career paths with concrete goals, who get monthly statements from our banks, who live in a most material, physical, and finite world, we struggle to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of something that defies our finite world. Perhaps we can be inspired by Rabbi Akiva. Perhaps we can be inspired by the ignorant shepherd who hated the Torah and its teachers. Perhaps we too can change.

With Rabbi Akiva as my inspiration, I’d like to invite you to join me in a project. It is the most ambitious project that I, and our shul, have ever engaged in. I want to invite you, when I say you, I mean every single one of you, to learn every day from Sunday through Friday. Not for an hour, not even for a half hour, but anywhere from 1 to 13 minutes. That’s it, a maximum of 13 minutes. No one here does not have 13 minutes to spare.  

We’ll call it 6/13. Get it? Six days, 13 minutes.

And I’m going to make it easier for you. I’m going to suggest what we learn each day. There’s this well-known book. It’s actually sitting right in front of you. That blue book that the mystics would describe as THE ultimate love letter from G-d, or the rationalists would describe as THE book which our entire Jewish identity revolves around. It’s a good book; a bestseller, we read it every week in shul, and we are called the people of the book, but how well do we know what it says?


And I’m going to make it even easier for you. I’ll be giving daily classes – not longer than 13 minutes, I promise, sharing a synopsis and insights from the weekly Torah portion so that together, as a community, we can complete THE book within a year.

Now I don’t want you to commit to an entire year. I want you to consider it. Whether it’s with me, by yourself, with a friend, or using one of the incredible apps that can help you do so. I’ll send an email after Rosh Hashana with all the information you need.

Can we strongly consider doing this for a year?

Can we try doing this for at least the exciting book of Bereishis, from Simchas Torah to the end of December?

Can we commit to joining me just for this week?


It’s Rosh Hashana and G-d is deciding what our year ahead will look like; life and death, health and wellness, gains or losses. But He’s not the only one making decisions today; we also have decisions to make. We are all standing at that crossroad – Do we continue down the path of finitude? Of trackable accomplishments that will live and die? Or do we take the path of the infinite? Reaching beyond ourselves into eternity?

I hope you can join me on this journey.  

Happiness is a Fish You Can’t Catch Parshas Ki Savo

In 1997, a man by the name Martin Seligman was trying to do some gardening work. The only problem was that he had a five-year-old daughter, Nikki, and she had different plans. Every time he’d pull out some weeds, she’d pick them up and gleefully throw them all over the place. He asked her to stop and started plucking weeds again. She playfully picked them up and threw them all over. Finally, Martin lost his cool. He yelled at Nikki.

But Nikki was no ordinary five-year-old. She looked at her father, and said, “Dad, I used to whine all the time. And one day I decided to stop. I don’t whine anymore. Why can’t you just stop being such a grouch?”

Now I’m not sure how I would respond if my five-yar-old would say that to me, but to Martin’s credit, he not only listened, he used his five-year-old daughter’s feedback to redefine the field of psychology.

You see, Martin Seligman had just been elected as the president of the American Psychological Association. He had written extensively on depression, and that’s what catapulted him to fame and to his new and prestigious role. But something was gnawing on him. His daughter’s comment – “Stop yelling at me, stop trying to fix me,” made him realize that instead of focusing on fixing negative behaviors, psychology should instead focus on wellbeing, not human brokenness but on human flourishing. And with that, the field of positive psychology was born.

Positive psychology in the early part of this century was all the rage. Affirmations – you are great, you got this, believe in yourself, were everywhere. Gratitude journals and meditation were being encouraged in otherwise cut-throat office spaces. Even the US Army employed Seligman to train soldiers in positive psychology.

The only problem is it didn’t work. Since the turn of the century, American happiness has continuously declined. According to some studies, we are the country that smiles the most and we are also the country that uses the most drugs to boost our mood. The entire field or as some cynically called it, the happiness industry, was predicated on a goal of becoming happy. But like the title of a popular Canadian band’s album, apparently, happiness is a fish you cannot catch.

Despite the immense investment of energy and resources into making us happies, our happiness levels kept dipping. Seemingly, the pursuit of happiness is futile. Some would argue that the pursuit of making myself happy is not only futile, it’s counterproductive.

There’s a story of someone who wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The letter real like this: “I would like the Rebbe’s help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help.”

The Rebbe sent back a reply that did not use a single word. All he did was circle the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The circled word was the letter, ‘I.’

Perhaps it’s our fixation on making ourselves happy that is actually contributing to the problem. Positive psychology focused our attention on ourselves, and that is a recipe not for happiness, but for the opposite.

When the Torah does talk about happiness, it’s never about us, it’s always about others. The word appears twice in our parsha. One time in the tochacha, the string of curses that we read today, of all the evil that will befall the Jewish People if they misbehave, The Torah tells us why these bad things are happening – tachas asher lo avad’ta es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha, because you didn’t serve G-d with happiness. In a chapter of Tehillim we say every day, we read, ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, serve G-d with happiness. Each time happiness is associated with service of Hashem.

We experience joy when we accomplish something that we’ve worked hard to achieve. A big project for work, childbirth – or so I am told, running a marathon. Every time we toil and get to the finish line of something we find meaningful, we experience simcha, or joy. We know that. But what the Torah is teaching us is that true joy can be found not just in any accomplishments, but most specifically in the service of G-d.

Two years ago, I started teaching a class known as Semichas Chaver. It’s part of an international program that teaches Jewish law from the original sources to modern day applications. The founder of the program has a number of restrictions on how the program can be taught and one of the rules is that it is only for men. So not too long after I started teaching Semichas Chaver, a number of women approached me and said, lama nigari? What about us? Why can’t we learn in-depth text-based Jewish law? And they were absolutely right.

So I started a class at 8:30 AM on Sunday mornings for women. I assumed no one would come at that hour, but I was wrong. Over the past year and a half, we’ve had crowds as large as 35 people coming to learn. This year, I decided, we weren’t only going to learn together, but there would be an exam when we concluded the book we were studying.

In the days leading up to the exam, I received numerous calls, texts, and emails, from some of the women describing the intensity of their preparation. It’s a lot of work to memorize the laws of meat and milk, of kashering a kitchen, and how to keep it kosher. But despite the difficulty, nine very brave women took that exam and I’m happy to announce that they all passed.

I’d venture to say that they all feel pretty good about themselves. Because you worked hard on a goal, and more specifically, you worked hard on a spiritual goal, on doing something for G-d.

I know I feel happy. A year ago, right before Rosh Hashana I described to all of you my goals for the shul and one of them was high level Torah learning for women. This class and that test is a spiritual goal of mine and I know that it brings me great joy.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge those women:

Shayndee Lasson, Yael Friedman, Channah Rothchild, Lisa Friedman, Faige Bauman, Dina Cotton, Adriene Kozlovsky, Karyn Toso, and Shelley List.

We start a new topic after Sukkos; I invite all the women here to join us.

There’s another place in this week’s parsha that the word simcha, happiness, appears, and that is in sharing our food with others; inviting those who do not have food or do have family to partake in our blessings. Once again, contrary to the notion of running after our own happiness, the Torah encourages us to make others happy.

And wouldn’t you know, giving to others is actually one of the greatest keys to happiness. In a series of studies that took place in Northwestern and the University of Chicago, participants were given five dollars daily. Half the group was asked to spend the money on themselves, and half the group was asked to spend the money on others. Those in the first group, the group that spent the money on themselves, described their happiness level decreasing with every consecutive day. Those who gave the money to others described the opposite – an increase in happiness.

Did you know that there are fourteen Yom Tov and Shabbos meals over the course of a few weeks? That’s a lot of time to be eating alone. Or, it’s a lot of time for all of us to be experiencing genuine joy. The choice is ours.

Simcha, in Judaism, is the loftiest of emotions. It is, as I spoke about two weeks ago, one of the prime themes of this holy month of Elul. We attain true simcha, true joy, not sunbathing on the beach drinking a pina colada – though that’s important from time to time, but in service, in service of others and in service of G-d.

We are two weeks away from Rosh Hashana. What spiritual goals do you have for the year ahead? How will you share what you have with others?  In what way will your spiritual accomplishments bring you joy in the year 5884?


A Breslov Elul (Parshas Shoftim)

Experiencing Israel with fresh eyes. What a treat!

I spent the past week in Israel with my son Shlomo who had never been before. Through him, and specifically through the many, many questions he asked me, I had the absolute joy of seeing Israel ‘as if’ for the first time. To some degree, all of us who have been to Israel before, and certainly those of us who have spent meaningful time there, take Israel for granted – just a little bit, and that’s normal. But to see the sights of Israel for the first time – the majestic view from the top of Masada, the barbed wire and security walls, the ancient mikvaos, the Kotel; to hear Israel for the first time – the harmony of languages, the blaring of the car horns, the revival of our ancient tongue and the “Baruch Hashems!” shouted by people from whom you least expect it; and to smell Israel for the first time – the spices, the sewage, and the shawarma, that’s special.

Everywhere we went Shlomo had questions: What’s with all the traffic? Why does everyone honk endlessly? Are there more mopeds than cars in Israel? Why do the moped drivers drive between the cars? Are they crazy? Can we buy a souvenir?

How do they know that this walkway goes back two thousand years? Did Dovid Hamelech really live here? Can I climb that ancient wall? Can we buy a souvenir?

Are all the Arabs dangerous? Why is there so much barbed wire? How do the security guards protect the Kotel if all they’re doing is flirting with the women?

Oh yeah, and can we buy a souvenir?

Okay, he didn’t really ask me all those questions though he did ask plenty. There was one question he asked that really took me back to some very warm and eye-opening memories. We were at the shuk one night and we heard really loud techno music. I assumed it was some club down the block, but it wasn’t. It was a van with a walled-in structure built on top of the van. The car had souped up speakers that were blasting songs with the lyrics, “Rebbe Nachman Mei’uman,” and there were three guys dancing on the van’s roof with abandon.

“What,” Shlomo asked me, “is THAT?”  

I asked the same question twenty years ago, though, as I’ll explain,

with fall less tact. You see, my ‘happy place’ in Israel is Tzfat. When I was studying in Israel, I didn’t leave my yeshiva often but when I did, I would go to Tzfat, usually without any plans, no meals and not even a place to stay, knowing that it would somehow work out, which it always did.

I would usually daven in the Breslov shul. Breslov is a Chassidic group that was started by a man named Rav Nachman. He was a charismatic and complicated Chassidic Rebbe who lived in the late 18th century. Rav Nachman was most famous for preaching hisbodedus, private communion with G-d, for long and complicated parables, and for encouraging his followers to always be happy. He went so far as to add a 614th Mitzvah – mitzvah gedolah liyhos b’simcha tamid. He himself likely suffered from depression or was bi-polar and many read his teachings which speak about extreme highs and lows as being somewhat autobiographical.

After he died, his primary student, Rav Nosson wrote all his teachings down, but no one assumed the mantle of leadership. There has not been a Breslov Rebbe since the death of Rav Nachman, leading some to describe Breslov Chassidim as the dead chassidim, as their teacher is dead – even though his teachings are very much alive.

In Tzfat, I would often attend lunch at one Breslov chassid who would have huge crowds of guests. After a delicious meal he would share a story from Rav Nachman. The story would go on for at least an hour and I would invariably get lost at some point. The story had so many twists and turns, I am pretty sure my host was lost as well. Then after finishing his story, he would teach us a Breslov song that went like this: Lo yodeiah kloom, I don’t know anything. Lo meivin kloom, I don’t understand anything. Rak ma’amin, rak ma’amin, shehakol l’tovah. I only believe that everything is good. Todah rabbah l’cha Hashem yitborach, thank you Hashem…”  

You get the point. This song symbolized to me what Breslov chassidus was all about. Song, gratitude, and not a lot of deep thought.

This is all leading to the following story: One weekend, my friend and I made our way to Tzfat. We found a place to stay. We davened Friday night at the Breslov shul and when davening was over, we waited by the door for an invitation. None came. We said ‘Good Shabbos’ to everyone who walked by, but no one took the hint. Finally, the last person left. And just as he was walking away, he turns around, and says, “Do you need a meal?”

All the while home, he doesn’t talk, he just hums the tune, to Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, a song about serving G-d with joy. I rolled my eyes. Classic Breslov chassid.

At the meal, the host told us that he used to be a Chassid of Chabad. Now Chabad is known for the intellectual rigor of its founder. Breslov to me represented the exact opposite – absent-minded story-telling and singing. And so, like my son, just without any tact, I turned to my host and said, “What is this? How did you go from the most intellectual Chassidic group to the one that is the most illiterate and childish?” Yeah, not very tactful, I know.

He smiled – again, classic Breslov. He surprised me, he went on to share a profound answer about the differences between Chabad and Breslov, which was honestly way above my head.   

But then I got my real answer. Before the main course, he and his wife went into the kitchen. I needed the restroom and as I walked by the kitchen, I overheard them discussing how to best cut up the one piece of chicken they had for their meal so there would be enough for me and my friend and that we would not notice how little they had so we wouldn’t feel bad.

You see, the singing, the stories, the dancing, the seeming simplicity of the Breslov chassidim is a reflection of one of Rav Nachman’s central teachings. It is built around a single term that is repeated over and over in the book of Devarim – atah, now. Why does Moshe keep on repeating that word, asks Rav Nachman? To teach us the importance of the present. Don’t worry about how people are going to perceive you. Don’t worry about the past. Don’t worry about the future. What’s most important is what is happening ata, right now.

And you and I may say that’s completely irresponsible, and it is. But then again, you and I would not turn around after leaving shul to invite two complete strangers to our home, would we? You and I are weighed down by our stress and can’t just walk through the streets happily humming a tune, can we? You and I would not share a meal when we don’t have any food of our own, right?

But if we trained ourselves to stop worrying so much about tomorrow, if we worked on ourselves to appreciate the beauty of the here and now, if we allowed ourselves to get lost in our emotions from time to time, if we were Breslov chassidim, then maybe we would.

We just started the month of Elul. I was always taught how the great rabbis of yesteryear would tremble with fear at the mere mention of the word, Elul. But Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, taught that the true character of Elul is happiness and joy. That’s a theme that I think we can all use a good dose of. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing a weekly exercise meant to increase my happiness and my joy during this month of Elul and I invite you to join me. 

We hear so much these days about rising anxiety about the future, rising depression about the past. Rav Nachman’s philosophy of ‘living in the now’ as impractical as it may be to do so fully is a breath of fresh air.

As I was flying home from Israel, I realized just how difficult it is for us to do so. I spent too much time on the flying worrying about what I was going to speak about on Shabbos. There I was flying, flying like a bird! thousands of feet above the air using technology that should blow our mind, with stunning views of the sun and clouds right out the window – the earth is thousands of miles below, sitting next to my precious son, breathing! and I am worrying about tomorrow?!

Can we take a moment each day this week, literally a moment, maybe when we open our eyes in the morning, maybe at a meal with loved ones, maybe before we go to bed, to pause and appreciate what we have right now. You could do it right now. You’re surrounded by people who care about you. You’re sitting in a comfortable chair, feel it. You’re in the presence of G-d. You’re in a moment.

We don’t have to sing, we don’t have to dance, but if we can just turn off the worry, turn off the sadness, and appreciate what we have in this moment, we can take a small first step in ensuring that we have a joy-filled month of Elul.      


Dugo Falafel and Shabbos Nachamu

In merit of a refuah sheleima for Mindal Mariam bas Risal

I am sure everyone here has read many a Holocaust memoir. Some stories understandably sound rather similar to the next. However, there is one memoir that begins with the following rather atypical warning:

“Courageous readers can go ahead and read the terrible story of what happened to me when I was a boy. Whoever doesn’t have the courage can read a little bit and then close the book, go to the kitchen and take some ice cream out of the freezer.”

Yes, this is the introduction to a Holocaust memoir, written by Avraham David Leitner, nicknamed, Dugo.

Due to a strange circumstance, Dugo, had two separate numbers tattooed on his arm. He describes it as a 2-for-1 special…

In 1944, crammed into a cattle car, on their way to a concentration camp, the then 14-year-old, turned to the man next to him and asked if he could have his ticket. He almost got beaten for that one.

He describes himself in the cattle car: “My shoulder was up inside Father’s shoulder, and Shmuel was pushed up against his other side. Mother was stuck to him, and Rachel and Esther and Ethel were stuck to her, and Nathan was in the middle of us all. But the main thing was that we were together. And – that I did not have to go to cheder.”

You get the picture, right?

Dugo was a street-smart trouble-maker who grew up in Hungary. He describes his rebbe in cheder wanting to give him a good old-school beating, cornering him into the back of a classroom, and then, with nowhere to go, jumping out the second-floor window to escape.

Those skills served him well when he came to Auschwitz. He was sent to the ‘wrong’ line, but he realized it wasn’t good for him, and so he slipped into the line with the adults. Mengel saw him and pushed him back to the other line. He waited and as soon as he got a chance, he slipped back with the adults, and in doing so saved his life.

Recognizing that he had to be working and working hard to stay alive, he and some friends offered themselves as sewage cleaners. They were given a nickname which I can’t say out loud. He describes it as the best thing that could have happened to him. Because it was such a terrible job, they got extra food.

At one point, he was taken into the infamous showers, but right before they closed the doors, a Nazi asked for 50 strong men to come forward to help with a particular job. Of course, Dugo, despite his age and size stepped up, and in doing so, saved his life.

On January 18, 1945, as the Soviets came close to Auschwitz, the death march began. Writes Dugo, “It was freezing cold, wearing a thin shirt and a pair of pants with one leg three quarter length, while the other reached my knees. I couldn’t open my eyes, I was almost a block of ice. We walked for three days without stopping. People were falling all around me and the march just continued.”

There was no food and he was starving and completely sleep-deprived. At one point, he describes himself sleep walking and dreaming as he trudged along. “I dreamt about my home and I cried like I had never cried before.”

He dreamed of bilkelah, a type of sweet bread that his mother used to make for him.

“My mother always told me about the Land of Israel and how good it was there, and that one day soon we would go to live there. She used to say that in the Land of Israel bilkelah grew on trees. ‘David, if you’re ever hungry you can just pick a bilkelah from the tree.’ In my dream I asked my mother, ‘Please mother, give me just one bilkelah now,’ and her voice returned to me in the dream. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now. Only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem.”’

That dream kept him alive.

Though most of his family perished, he and his brother, Shmuel survived. In 1949, he moved to Israel. The first thing he did was go to Yerushalayim. While there, he passed a falafel stand. And I quote: “I saw them frying these reddish brown balls in oil, and memories of my mother and the death march came back to me. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now, only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem. Remember what I told you about bilkelah, here it’s called falafel.’”

He bought himself a falafel and every bite tasted like freedom. He bought himself another falafel. And then, he decided that every January 18th, he would commemorate the death march and the vision of his mother by buying falafel.

He moved to and became one of the founders of Moshav Nir Galim, a few minute drive from Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He met his wife, had two children, 10 grandchildren, and tens of great-grandchildren.  

But every year, on January 18th, he would make his way to a falafel stand and buy two falafels. “Never again,” he would say, “will I go hungry.”

Over the years, people heard about Dugo and his strange minhag. And they started copying him. Thousands of people in Israel would go every January 18th and buy falafel in his honor. They’d post pictures of themselves eating falafel with the hashtag #OperationDugo. In 2019, then Israeli President Rivlin invited him to the presidents’ home for falafel.

He never lost his sense of humor or his positive energy. Three years ago, at a gathering in Auschwitz to commemorate 75 years since liberation, at the end of an exceptionally solemn service, someone yelled, “Am Yisrael Chai!”

It was Dugo, of course. He felt like the event was important but lacked a yiddishe Neshama, some Jewish soul, so he felt compelled to pierce the silence with, ‘Am Yisrael chai.’

The subtitle of his book, which summed up his attitude to life is, Wasn’t it enough that I was an orphan – did I have to be sad as well?

You see, Dugo made a choice, an impossible choice, one that was almost superhuman. He chose to focus on the positive. Not on the fact that he lost his family in the war, but that he had a new family in Israel. Not on the fact that he went through so much hardship, but on the fact that he survived. Not on the fact that he went hungry for so long, but that now he could eat falafel.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Nachamu, literally the Shabbos of comfort. It’s a festive Shabbos; it’s meant to be uplifting and joyous- we remind ourselves of the Messianic era and how G-d promises us that we will one day be redeemed. If you were to go to the Catskills, there are huge Jewish concerts taking place all celebrating how great things are and how great things will be.

It’s beautiful but also bizarre.

We just spent a day on the floor, crying, bemoaning our fate. And now, we just stand up, dust ourselves off, and sing and dance?! Are we expected to be sad over the lack of a Bais Hamikdash or celebrate the fact that a new one is on its way?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the answer can be found in the name of this Shabbos – Nachamu. We often translate Nechama as comfort. But he explains the real translation is to turn or to shift one’s attention.

When we go to be Menachem aveil, to “comfort” a mourner, we are not taking away the pain of their loss, we are sharing stories of their loved one, we’re showing them how we care about them, and in doing so, we are turning their attention ever so slightly away from focusing on the pain onto a different perspective that they weren’t paying attention to, but was always there.

Yes, it’s tragic that we live in exile. That we still have so much in-fighting, illness, corruption, you name it. And on Tisha B’av we pay attention to all that is broken. But on Shabbos Nachamu, we turn our gaze, we look at a different perspective – one that was always there, but we weren’t giving it any attention.

This past Wednesday, on Erev Tisha B’av, Dugo passed away at the age of 93. He was an embodiment not only of Shabbos Nachamu but of the Jewish spirit; to face death in the eyes and to sing, to bear untold tragedy and to smile, to go through the Holocaust… and eat falafel. May his memory be for a blessing. Am Yisrael Chai!  


Sources: https://aish.com/holocaust-survivors-falafel-is-tribute-to-his-survival/, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/my-tears-for-falafel-dugo-the-holocaust-survivor-who-screamed-before-kings/, https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/the-people-of-israel-live-endure-and-eat-falafel/2017/04/24/

The President and the Prophet: A Tale of Two Speeches

I’d like to contrast two speeches made by two incredibly well-connected statesmen at very similar junctures in Jewish history. The first was made this past Wednesday a few miles from here in the Capitol building. Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog was invited to address a joint meeting of Congress attended by nearly all congressmen and women, with the exception of a few of the usual suspects. President Herzog comes from the closest thing we have to royalty in modern Judaism. His father, Chaim Herzog served as a general in the IDF and then president of Israel. His grandfather, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel after the establishment of the State. As I said, royalty.

There’s a certain pride I am not alone in feeling when an Israeli political leader is invited to speak at such a gathering. To think that just over ¾ of a century ago, a group of leading Jewish rabbis, coming to beg form the American government to save Jews from the inferno of the Holocaust couldn’t even get an audience. And today, a Jew is invited to speak to a packed house. To think that for so many of the past 75 years, Israel has been completely dependent on others, but just this past week in a widely-shared article, two writers entertained the notion of Israel ceasing to accept American aid – not because Israel is not a friend of the US, these were Zionists who wrote the article. They were arguing that Israel is now at point where it does not need such assistance! Whether they are right or wrong, but the fact that not that many years after Israel was pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by other nations, not that many years after Israel was completely dependent on the weapons and intelligence of other countries, the fact that this can even be entertained is astounding. What a proud moment in Jewish history we live in.

And then the speech itself; a masterclass. Allow me to quote: “When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the land which the Almighty promised to Abraham, to which Moses lead the Israelites, the land of the Bible, of milk and honey, evolved into an exquisite land of democracy. Against all odds, the Jewish people returned home and built a national home, which became a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles. A land which welcomed the ingathering of exiles from one hundred different countries.

A land which became the Startup Nation – a bustling hub of innovation and creativity, social action and intellectual discovery, spiritual awakening and business ventures, scientific ingenuity and lifesaving medical breakthroughs.

We built a nation-state which has faced relentless war, terror, and delegitimization since its birth. A country fighting to defend itself from enemy and foe, yet whose citizens continue to greet each other with the word “peace”, Shalom.

A country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.

A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

A country which is ever evolving. A diverse amalgam of accents, beliefs, backgrounds and customs. Truly, a modern-day miracle.

This is the sweetness with which our country has been blessed.”

Yes, President Herzog spoke about the-not-so-sweet; Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the internal strife playing out through the judicial reform. But ultimately, it was a message of hope. Again, to quote:

“As President of Israel, I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA…

Israel’s first seventy-five years were rooted in an ancient dream. Let us base our next seventy-five years on hope. Our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.”

Approximately, two thousand five hundred years earlier, a speech was given by another dignitary. His name was Yeshaya, Isaiah. He too was part of the royal family; his uncle was King Amatzya, and his daughter ultimately married a future king, Chizkiyahu.

Yeshaya also spoke during a time of incredible prosperity. The Jewish People at this time had just developed modern weapons which they used to fortify Jerusalem and attack their enemies. And they were wildly successful; they conquered the Philistines, a nation that had been a thorn in the Jewish People’s side for decades, they took control of a tremendous portion of land in the South, and the neighboring nations fearing for their lives were paying tribute to the Jewish king. It was a time of prosperity. The wealth in that era is described as rivaling that of King Solomon. And this was all taking place as the king led a spiritual revival.

And so Yeshaya, the well-connected dignitary, living in of the most opulent and secure times in ancient Jewish history, gets up to speak to what I am sure was a packed crowd. It was the Haftorah we just read in shul, Chazon Yeshayahu, the vision of Yeshayahu, that the Abarbanel suggest was shared at this high point in Jewish history. But unlike the President’s vision, the Prophet’s vision was anything but hopeful. We’ve been learning the Book of Yeshaya on Shabbos afternoons for the past year. When we started out, I would summarize each chapter with a little poem, and so please indulge me as I share with you a poetic summary of Isaiah’s speech:

Political strength, spiritual heights; we’re growing at dizzying speeds.1

Safer than ever, increasingly wealthy, matched by our many good deeds. 

If we listen real close, footsteps approach, it’s Mashiach! He’ll be here so soon! 

But a lone man cries out, and shatters our dream, with a message of impending doom: 

 You see, Yeshaya had a choice; he could have focused on the prosperity, the security, and yes, even the explosion in Jewish learning and practice, and be filled with immense pride. But he chose to focus on what was still missing, what was still broken. What was broken? What were the flaws that he saw around him? They are flaws that are not so different than the ones we experience today; an explosion of Torah observance but a lack of connection to G-d; external practices that do not reflect one’s inner world. And chesed, kindness, that is skin deep; giving to the poor, but not caring for the poor. A lot of lip service but not a lot of service of the heart. Yeshaya is so dismayed with what he witnesses, that he describes the people of Israel as the people of Sedom. 

“Ketzinei Sedom, Am Amorah, Hashem is not bribed by your deeds. 

Your learning, your prayer, means nothing at all, if you don’t stop to think about Me.2

You give to the poor, but ignore their real needs, not caring for feelings and pain, 

Can you not hear the cries of the marginalized, drowned out by tzedakah campaigns?3” 

And so while everyone around him was patting themselves on the back; look how mighty our army is – 4th strongest army in the world! Look how prosperous we are – we are the start-up nation! We could survive without American support! Look how much learning is taking place! Yeshaya recognized that hope that is not tethered to introspection is hopeless. A people who only pat themselves on the back and don’t demand of themselves radical change, even and most specifically, when things seem great, that is a people that is doomed.

“Where you see great buildings, I see desolation, we’re marching into an inferno.4 

The ads are all glossy, the children are matching, but my vision sees what is internal.

The silver is shiny, the wine is aplenty. Look deeper, it’s all watered down.5

Don’t be shocked when a city of faith is no longer; not when, it’s happening now.”6

To be clear, this was not a reflection of depressing cynicism; it came from a place of optimism – we have the ability to change. When we only focus on the good, we can too easily become proud and stagnant. When we focus on our flaws, we become motivated to fix them. And that is the avodah, that is the practical focus of these next few days leading up to Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av shakes us out of our complacency; yes, in two thousand years, it has never been better to be a Jew, but simply taking pride in this moment will not get us anywhere.

Tisha B’av reminds not only of our tragic past, it begs of us to change. And by asking us to change it is letting us know we can change. Like our ancestors we too are far too superficial in our service of G-d. Like our ancestors we too do not do enough to the underprivileged amongst us. The illness of Yeshaya’s time was superficiality, of commitments that are skin deep; I cannot think of a more relevant message. But these are reflections that are meant to propel us to action. If we believe we can be corrupt, we must believe that we can be pure. If we believe that we can be callous, we must believe that we can become full of heart. If we can believe we can cause the destruction of the Temple, we must believe we can cause it to be rebuilt.

And so Yeshaya concludes his message:

As the people despair, desert, and decry, the man stops them, “Yesh li od chazon!” (I have another vision)

“It’s never too late, Hashem is your father, and you are his daughters and sons. 

No matter how dirty, how sinful, how evil, to white snow red blood can transform. 

With justice and fairness, and true self-awareness, to Tziyon, I will return.” 


  1. The opening prophecies of Yeshaya take place during the rule of Uziyah, a time of great military conquests, expansion of the Southern Kingdom, and great spiritual accomplishments. 
  2. R. Adin Steinzaltz understands the famous critique against the Jewish People’s many offerings – “why do I need your many sacrifices?!” – as an indication that they were following all the laws, but their intentions, doing Mitzvos for the sake of Hashem, was entirely lacking. 
  3. The Malbim understands that the court systems, at least in the early stages, were just, only that they did not seek out justice for those who could not come to court, like the underprivileged. 
  4. אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ
  5. כַּסְפֵּךְ, הָיָה לְסִיגִים; סָבְאֵךְ, מָהוּל בַּמָּיִם – the simple understanding is that the merchants were cheating people by selling inferior products. The Malbim understands this to be a metaphor for the deeds of the Jewish People, which appear righteous but in truth, are diluted. 
  6. In line with footnote 5, the Malbim explains that Yeshaya is responding to their shock of, “How did the faithful city become a city of harlotry?” by telling them that such things do not happen overnight. The people are rotting within, there is no inner vitality – “the trees are withered,” but it is not yet evident from the outside.