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Non-Trends in Jewish Life – Parshas Devarim

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 16, 2019

One of my favorite stories is about the author of the Jewish Code of Law, Rav Yosef Caro. Apparently, he was troubled by a passage in the Talmud for many, many years. And he would always come back to this passage and try to come up with solutions to the question, but to no avail. Finally, after years of mental gymnastics, he figured it out; he was able to reconcile the two contradictory passages and come up with a resolution.

This took place late one night. And so the next one morning, he shows up at his Yeshiva in Tzfat, he starts giving his daily lecture, hundreds of students in attendance, hanging on to his every word. After all, he is the leading sage of the 16th century. Towards the end, he poses the question that he has been grappling with for over three decades. He pauses dramatically, allowing the question to sink in, knowing that the students will all be baffled by the complexity of the challenge. He looks around and sees his students eagerly waiting for him to provide a brilliant solution. And then, from the back of the room, possibly the least intelligent student, the least studious disciple, pipes up. “Rebbi,” he says, “It’s simple. The resolution is as follows.” And he goes on to provide the answer that Rabbi Caro was about to share; the answer that he had worked on for three decades, the resolution he a moment ago had thought was one of the most profound ideas he has ever come up with. And this young whippersnapper, without putting much thought at all, nails it.

Rabbi Caro face turns white. He dismisses the class.

Rabbi Caro is beside himself. You ever experience imposter syndrome? Imposter syndrome is when you doubt your accomplishments and you feel like a fraud. Rabbi Caro had imposter syndrome, big time. How could it be? He asked himself. Maybe I’m losing it? Maybe I never had it?

That night he goes to sleep and he has a dream, and in that dream an angel appears to him and tells him as follows: “Yosef, you’re no imposter. That question was a good one. The resolution, even better. For years, many great people have asked that question and no one could come up with an answer. But when you figured it out, you brought the answer down to earth. You made the answer accessible. The answer is now in the air, so now anyone can get it. It’s through your toil, your contemplation, your efforts that have made it possible for anyone to now understand, on their own, the answer to the question.”

I know, it’s a rather esoteric story. But it speaks to something that we see all the time. That there are ideas “in the air” and even when people are not communicating with one another, people, in the same era, are coming to the same conclusions.

Two of my favorite Jewish thinkers, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rav Tzadok Hakohen, never met, and never read each other’s works, but they both lived at the turn of the 20th century, and both wrote extremely creative works, with an astonishing amount of similar ideas. There was something in the air.

You find this in many places. There was a significant Jewish community in 12th and 13th century Germany known as the Chasidei Ashkenaz, literally the German pietists or devout ones. They were mystics and had a number of strange practices. One of them being self-flagellation; having themselves whipped, extreme fasting, rolling in snow, you name it. And there is significant discussion among historians about the Christian influences of these practices. Asceticism, which is certainly more of a Christian idea, was at its height in 12th and 13th century Germany, and some historians argue that these practices were simply copied from their Christian neighbors. Of course, others argue that it’s the other way around; the Christians adopted Jewish practices. Alternatively, there was “something in the air” – not necessarily a mystical something, but due to a whole host of sociological, economical, and psychological reasons, there are trends that are consistent in religions across the spectrum at any given era.

So for example, if we were to look for some commonality through all faith groups in America, today, I think it would be safe to say that one significant common denominator is positivity, happiness, and wellbeing.

“Through G-d you will find happiness.”

“Through the church/ synagogue/ mosque you will find peace.”

“Everything is awesome.”

In Jewish circles, this movement was kick-started by the creator of Aish Hatorah, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who would constantly preach how Judaism can make you happy. In more modern times, there is a movement known as neo-Chassidism, young, Modern-Orthodox, mostly men, who have adopted elements of Chassidic dress and emphasize the beauty of Judaism; the intensity of prayer and the joys of singing Jewish songs.

At the same time, you’ll find articles in the New York Times by Christian leaders explaining why going to church is good for your health. Preachers who focus on the joy that comes along with living a life as a good Christian. Christian literature and music that embraces the elevating and uplifting elements of their faith.

And all this positivity dovetails quite well with the explosion of a relatively new field known as positive psychology, which promotes happiness, joy, and fulfillment. The self-help section in any given bookstore or library is busting at the seams, with books teaching you how to be happy and how to be fulfilled.

Now in Jewish thought, all of these ideas, positivity, happiness, kindness, they all stem from one characteristic known as ahava, love. One of the central commandments of Judaism is to love G-d. Praying with fervor, singing with emotion, living a happy life, giving to others, and really all the proactive mitzvot that we perform, are all behaviors that relate to love. Love is beautiful, love is powerful. Who doesn’t love love?

But in Judaism, there are two central characteristics from which everything flows. One is love, ahava and the other is yirah.

Let me tell you what’s associated with yirah. Sin, transgression, prohibitions, fear and punishment.

When was the last time you heard a preacher or rabbi talk about that?

Yirah is not in the air. We do not like using the s-word, sin, as people find it offensive. We do not like talking about transgressions, instead we use words like mistakes. We do not talk about prohibitions, instead we talk about parameters. And fear is a psychological impairment and so instead we use words like awe.

It’s not trendy to talk about yirah, and yet it is a crucial part of our faith.

Judaism does have rules. Judaism does believe there is something called sin. Judaism does suggest that our relationship with G-d is not only one of love and joy, but also one of awe and trepidation.

Ahava and yirah are needed in every relationship. In a healthy relationship, it’s not enough to love someone, we need to respect them. It’s not enough to do the things we both love doing, we need to sacrifice and do things we do not enjoy. It’s not enough to say, I see it differently, we need to say, I’m wrong. A healthy relationship has both the positivity of ahava and the restraint and respect of yirah.

Tonight and tomorrow, we will be sitting near the floor, fasting, and restricting ourselves, as we mourn for the destroyed Temple, the Bais HaMikdash. There are many mitzvot that took place in the Beit HaMikdash, but almost all of them were performed by the Kohanim, by the priests. There was one Mitzvah that affected every single Jew – and it is called Morah HaMikdash, a sense of awe that we are commanded to feel when we stand in that holy place, when we stand in the presence of G-d.

We do not today have a Bait HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. But we do have what is called a Mikdash Me’at, a small temple, the synagogue, a shul. And the Mitzvha of morah, of fear, of respect, applies here as well.

 

You know why people built nice and large shuls, at least here in America? Professor Jonathan Sarna, the leading expert on American Jewish history suggests that these beautiful buildings were built because in the shtiebels there was too much talking and a complete lack of decorum. American Jews were embarrassed to bring their Christian friends to a shtiebel. Their Christians were accustomed to quiet and reverential services. And so these early American Jews built these impressive buildings, with pews so people could sit in their seats and not walk around, and built imposing pulpits and furniture to inspire reverence, so that there would be a sense of decorum in shul.

I’m not sure when it happened but now it’s the other way around. It’s quiet in the shtiebels, and really noisy in the big shuls.

 

Yirah is not trendy, I get it. But if there’s one place where we can exercise this essential part of our Jewish experience, it’s here, it’s in the house of G-d.

Aside from the fact that the person next to you wants to concentrate and us talking is distracting them – it is the most basic derech eretz to respect the people around us. Aside from the fact that there are people in your row who are praying with all their heart and soul for a job, for a spouse, for a child, for health – and us talking is detracting from their heart-felt pleas. But even if everyone was talking, we need to respect G-d, and we need to respect His House.

And I will be the first to admit, I am guilty as charged. Often, I am catching up on shul business with our president between aliyos (or Adam’s asking me really difficult parsha questions which I pretend to forget by the time the next break in Torah reading comes up). And I love, love the fact that this is such a friendly and warm place. We exemplify the characteristic of love. But I don’t think that has to preclude us from exemplifying the characteristic of yirah as well.

Look, I don’t believe in zero-tolerance policies. But perhaps, perhaps, during two parts of our Shabbos morning prayers we can all grow in our yirah, we can all exercise this essential part of our religious identity.

  • The Chazzan’s repetition is seen as a communal prayer, it is the holiest of prayers. Let’s listen to the chazzan, let’s sing along. And if we can’t, let’s just use that moment to reflect and sit in G-d’s presence.
  • Again, one of the holiest of prayers. A man or woman is praying to G-d and remembering their loved one, tears are welling in their eyes, and we’re laughing. It’s an insult to the memory of their loved one and it’s insult to the sanctity of the prayer.

Two parts of davening, I think that’s doable.

Let’s make yirah trendy again. Let’s continue to be loving, positive, and joyful, but let’s inject a sense of awe and fear into our lives. Let us be respectful of those around us, and let us recognize that when we stand in this room, we stand before G-d.

May we merit a time when both love and fear are “in the air” and may we experience the intensity and beauty of these emotions in the rebuilt Temple speedily in our days.

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The good IN the bad – Tzidkas Hatzadik #170b

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 16, 2019

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The good with the bad – Tzidkas HaTzadik #170a

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 16, 2019

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What Elul is all about – Tzidkas HaTzadik #169

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 16, 2019

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Tzidkas HaTzadik – Riding the Waves of Anxiety and Guilt

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 7, 2019

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Laws of Tisha B’av

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 7, 2019

There are a number of unique practices this Shabbos due to the fact that it is the ninth of Av and Erev Tisha B’Av.

Ashkenazi custom is to avoid marital relations unless it is the night of the Mikvah or if it could impacts one’s mitzvah of having children.

One eats a regular Shalosh Seudos but must complete eating by sunset (this year sunset takes place at 8:08 PM in Baltimore).

There are differing opinions about learning Torah after midday. Ideally one should study sections that relate to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash.

One should not go on a walk for pleasure after midday (1:11 PM).

On Tisha Bav one is not supposed to do anything that can be seen as joyful.The following things are therefore forbidden:

– Eating and drinking (If one has any medical concerns please contact me before the fast)

– Intimacy

– Studying Torah that does not pertain to Tisha Bav

– Washing oneself in any way. This includes a prohibition against brushing one’s teeth and putting on deodorant. However, one may wash their fingers upon waking up. If one’s hands become dirty in any way, one can wash whatever part of their hand is dirty. If one wishes to bathe a child or wash dishes and their hands will get wet in the process it is permitted to do so.

On Tisha Bav one may not wear leather shoes. One should not greet others. If one is greeted they may respond.

One must sit on a low stool until Halachic midday, which in Baltimore will be at 1:11 PM on Tisha B’av.

One should not work for the first half of Tisha Bav. Ideally, one should not work the entire day.

There are some who sleep in a less comfortable fashion on the night of Tisha Bav. For example, if they normally sleep with two pillows they sleep with one. If they normally sleep with one pillow they sleep with none. If one can do so, it is a meaningful custom. If it will prevent them from sleeping and they will have a harder time fasting, or they have some condition which will make sleeping (or the next day) extremely uncomfortable, there is no need to do so.

The fast is over at 8:50 PM.

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Tzidkas HaTzadik – On Being Consistent Part 1

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 5, 2019

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Theological Responses to the Holocaust – An Overview

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 5, 2019

Bus trip to the Museum of Heritage, Auschwitz exhibit, NYC.

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Dealing with tragedy: The Secret of Tachanun

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 5, 2019

If one were to rank our daily prayers from most beloved to least – something we should never do – but if we were to, without a doubt Tachanun would come in at dead last. Tachanun, for the uninitiated, is a prayer said after the weekday Amidah, the Shemone Esrei, at both the morning and afternoon services. People seem to despise Tachanun and I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it’s because on Mondays and Thursdays we say a longer version of this prayer, of Tachanun and people are itching to get to work. Maybe it’s the fact that we omit this prayer on some special occasions and therefore people assume the prayer is really not that important. Maybe they’re intimidated by all the details of Tachanun, because you see, in addition  to there being different versions of this prayer – one for Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and one for Mondays and Thursdays, there are also a whole bunch of things you have to do while saying this prayer: The first part is said with your head resting on your arm – in the morning, on your right arm, in the afternoon, on your left arm. Then you sit up for the second part of this prayer, and then you stand for the final part of this prayer. It’s so confusing that one man who was in mourning told me he did not want to lead the services for one reason – he was afraid of Tachanun. Too many details. Dr. Michael Kidorf has a theory that when we skip Tachanun there is always a larger crowd in attendance, and he has been subtly suggesting that we permanently omit Tachanun so that we get a bigger crowd in shul. All in all, no one seems to like this prayer.

Except me.

Not only do I like it, I love it. Tachanun is a beautiful prayer. It really is. It is the most evocative part of our daily liturgy – it conveys a sense of brokenness and absolute dependence on G-d that no other prayer conveys. “My soul is utterly confused, until when, G-d? Until when?” or, “I am worn out from sighing, I have soaked my bed in tears.” The dark and haunting poetry is magnificent, I encourage you to take a moment to read it. But today, I’d like to focus not on the text, not on the words, but on the actions that go along with Tachanun.

As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the unique features of this prayer is that we rest our head on our arm. There are many symbolic actions we perform during the services, but most are straight-forward. When we bow, we are showing submission. When we stand up, we are showing respect. What is the symbolism of this action? Where does resting one’s head on our arm come from in our tradition and what does it mean?

Today we finished the book of Bamidbar, and this idea of resting one’s head, otherwise known as Nefilat Apayim is learned specifically from this book. A number of times in the desert, when Moshe is confronted with a difficult situation, he falls flat on his face in prayer – nefilat apayim. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv shares a beautiful understanding of the symbolic nature of this action. But before I tell you what he says, it’s important to know who Rav Levi Yitzchak was.

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv was a Chassidic rabbi who lived in Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. What he was most well-known for was being the quintessential optimist. Where others would see evil, he would see righteousness, where others would despair, he would find hope.

One emblematic story that is told about this great rabbi, has him walking through the streets of Berditchiv one morning and seeing a number of people pointing at someone. He sees them laughing and snickering. He comes closer and he sees a Jewish man, a wagon driver, wearing a talis and wearing tefillin, while he’s greasing the wheels of his wagon – not exactly a clean job. Clearly this man was in a rush and didn’t have time to pray before work and so he decided to pray while he worked. The little crowd gathered around this man are mocking his sacrilegious behavior. “This is how a person davens – pheh!”

Rav Levi Yitzchak takes in the scene, he lifts his eyes up to the Heavens, and says, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, look at your holy children! Even while they work, they still pray!”

You see, an optimist, like Rav Levi Yitzchak, does not get taken down by the evils of the world. The optimist reminds him or herself that things are better today than they ever were; that things are really not that bad. Life expectancy has steadily increased over the years. So many terrible diseases have been cured. Literacy, which was once the exception in many countries, is now the norm across the globe. Dizzying advancements making our lives more and more comfortable. Life is good. And as a religious optimist, like Rav Levi Yitzchak, it’s even sunnier. Yes, it’s true people are suffering, but is it not for a good cause? Kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid. Yes, it’s true bad things seem to be happening, but I have faith in G-d –gam zu l’tovah, everything is for the good.

A person with such a sunny disposition, with such endless optimism, and boundless faith, as great as it, they have one problem – and that is prayer. How do you pray for G-d to change something if ‘everything is for the good?’ How do you truly feel the pain of a friend who is going through hardship with a mindset that ‘illness is part of life’ that ‘in the grand scheme of things, is not that bad.’ Where and how does the optimist find the sympathy needed to empathize with a friend? Where and how does the optimist find the sense of neediness and utter dependence that is necessary for prayer? The optimist, though she may feel self-conscious sharing this with others is probably thinking, “G-d, keep up the good work.”

Says Rav Levi Yitzchak (last piece in Chukas), that’s where Tachanun comes in. He explains that the optimists optimism stems from seeing the big picture; when your view is that of all of history; the eras of peace side by side with those of war, the progression of civilization side by side with its regression. When you look at all the healthy people in the world side by side with all those who are ill, when you look at your own life and all the blessings side by side with all that you’re missing, then life is good! History is for the most part marching in a pretty good direction. That’s the big picture.

But what Tachanun demands of us is to put our head down for a moment, to not see that big picture, to zoom in. Tachanun demands of us to ignore the good of the world, and to focus on what’s broken, to see not the people who are ill, but the individual who is ill, the individual who is lonely, the individual who is broken, and to ignore the big picture.

Tachanun demands of us to just feel their agony and nothing else. Putting our head down, blocking out the big picture, zooming in, allows us to feel the raw pain and deep sorrow of the world. And that is a powerful and all-important exercise for an optimist; to train oneself for a few moments every day to not see the fullness of the cup, and only to focus on what’s missing. To not see the joy and all the good that we experience, but only the bad and only the pain. Min hameitzar – in that small, constricted place, we turn to G-d and we pray that He heals, that He saves, and that He brings us salvation.

And that makes Tachanun a perfect model for this time of year. (There was recently an article in Tablet Magazine describing Jews in the early 20th century, who would, so to speak, vacation from their Judaism in the summer. The writer describes the decadence and frivolity that would take place at the upstate bungalow colonies.) There’s something almost incongruent between the rules and structures of Judaism and the free-spirit that summertime evokes. And to make things even more dissonant, during these hot summer days, we observe the fast of Tisha B’av, the Nine Days of mourning that lead up to it, and the Three Weeks – all completely out of sync with what’s going on around us!

But I think Tachanun, whether you say the prayer or not, provides a model of how to engages in these days of mourning. Tachanun acknowledges that there is a lot of good, there is a lot to be happy about, to celebrate, but sometimes we have to force ourselves to constrict our vision. Sometimes, the Jewish calendar asks of us not to pretend that we do not live a wonderful life, but to focus on what’s missing. Because when we pause to reflect, there is a lot that’s missing:

We’re missing a Temple, a place where we can feel G-d’s Presence, where our connection to G-d is not as fleeting as a cloud, something we seem to be endlessly chasing and never reaching.

We’re missing justice; the “less than-picturesque-model” of family in our Jewish communities, and across the globe, the poor, the underprivileged, all those who are not given the help, respect, and love they deserve.

We’re missing direction; in our personal lives, in our religious lives, in the world over. Too often, we feel like our communities and our country is like a ship without a sail.

We’re missing wholeness and togetherness; we all feel like we’re all over the place, being pulled in so many directions, talking to so many people, and yet, connected to none.

If we want to experience these Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’av properly, especially for the optimists among us, it’s important that we learn the secret of Tachanun; that we take a moment on each of these days, a short break from our busy lives to reflect on all that is missing in our lives and in the world. And in that small limited space, to turn to G-d and to pray that He save us. Min hameitzar karasi Kah, from the constricted place I call to you, O, G-d, anani bamerchav Kah, G-d, you answered me with expansiveness.

 

A few weeks ago, I was giving a class on Shabbos afternoon to a group of women, the topic was Pirkei Avot. This was the Shabbos after a terrible tragedy took place in Norfolk, VA. A young rabbi, father of four, a counselor in a local day camp, was tragically swept away by a riptide. They were searching for him that Shabbos, but it did not look likely that he would still be alive. After the class, a woman asked me how do we deal with this tragedy. How do we go home to our kids? How do we go on?

I was very touched by how this woman really felt the pain of this young family, how this family’s loss weighed so heavily on her even though she never met them. I also had a feeling that this woman is not a Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv-type, I had a feeling she is someone who often feels weighed down by the tragedies of the world, by the disasters that the news broadcasts to us 24/7, by the illness, and sadness, and disorder.

She’s certainly not an optimist but she too needs Tachanun. Because you see, after we put our head down, we pick our head up. After we hunch over, we sit straight. And then we rise. And that too is a crucial lesson.

Because you see, we cannot and must not live in a state of Tachanun. We cannot walk around with our heads down and shoulders hunched. That is not the posture of a Jew! There are only nine days of mourning, that leaves 356 days for joy! We are not defined by Holocausts and Yahrtzeits. We are defined by survival, by rebuilding and by growth, by the State of Israel and by Shabbos. That’s who we are. We may walk though the shadow of death from time to time, but even there, we see G-d, we see light and we find joy.

Our Sages, in constructing our daily routine and our yearly calendar, incorporated Tachanun and Tisha B’av. It is important for us to learn how to zoom in, feel pain, and beg G-d for change. But they also asked of us, to brush ourselves off, to stand up and to stand tall.

I want to conclude by reading to you a poem. Our dear member, Ayala Weinberg, recently lost her mother, Rebbetzin Munk, a survivor and a very special lady. While going through some of her pictures, Ayala found a poem that she had never seen before. This poem, as the title made clear, was composed in Auschwitz. I want to share it with you. It’s in Hebrew and I will do my best to translate it:

“Rachok, rachok, b’eretz r’choka. Far, far, in a faraway land,

Al admas Polania v’Germanya, on Polish and German soil.

K’asirim anu m’valim hayamim, like prisoners the days wear us down.

Ul’af echad lo yecholim lichtov michtavim, barred – from communicating to the world.

Anu chayim tachat mishmor, s’vivoveinu chayalim, we live under watch, surrounded by guards.

Ach anu mei’hem lo m’fachadim, ki anu ma’aminim. But we do not fear them, because we believe!

Al pi hashira, al pi hamanginah, [and so] with song and with music,

Ponim el acheinu b’vakasha, we turn to our brethren with a request.

Al na tivku…, do not cry. Ham’shichu l’ha’amin…, continue to believe.

… b’karov nih’yeh b’artzeinu hak’dosha, soon we will be in our holy land. Birushalayim hab’nuyah, and Jerusalem will be rebuilt.”

Even in Auschwitz, even in the most Tisha B’av-like experience that our people have ever endured, we can pick our heads up and see a bigger picture

May we learn how to balance the sorrows and joys of life, to be zorei’ah b’dimah b’rina. May we incorporate the secret of Tachanun; to know when to put our head down to see the pain and experience the loss in our own lives and those around us, and when and how to stand up, like Rebbetzin Munk despite our circumstances, to hold our head high and see the big picture and dream for a better tomorrow. May we experience the fulfillment of the optimistic and hope-filled dream of our faith speedily in our days.

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Tzidkas HaTzadik – Our Role in this Pre-Messianic Era

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 1, 2019

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