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Life Lessons from Harry Potter_Parshas Terumah

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 22, 2018

My high school principal was a brilliant man who was also very wise – unfortunately, those two do not always go together. Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, our principal, was blessed with a wealth of knowledge and an uncommon amount of common sense. In middle of eleventh grade, a young man applied to the school. Applying to a school midyear is in it of itself highly unusual but to make matters worse, two minutes into his entrance exam, it became quite clear to my principal that this applicant knew no Gemara, which is what the entrance exam primarily revolved around. A minute later it became clear that he also knew no Chumash. But the young man implored the principal to accept him because although he acknowledged he knew very little, “I want to learn,” he said. “And I promise, I will catch up to everyone else in my grade.”

Well, the principal was very impressed by his commitment, but he was also stuck, he needed to test the boy before accepting him; he needed to assess his level of intelligence to make sure that he would fit in. And so, after a couple of silent moments, the principal asked this young man if he read… Harry Potter! Turns out he did. Turns out he loved Harry Potter. And so for the next twenty-five minutes, the principal judged this young man’s critical thinking skills and values by grilling him on Harry Potter.

Today, this young man is a director on NCSY’s national team. Turns out, there’s a lot more to Harry Potter than we assume.

Shana Jandorf, who is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah today, is a HUGE Harry Potter fan, and so I thought it would be appropriate to mine those books for some relevant wisdom which I could share with you on this important day. It’s been a while since I read them (and I only got through the first four!) so excuse me for any mistakes. These are three life lessons that I think you, and really all of us can learn from Harry Potter. Are you ready? Here we go:

#1) The first lesson is certainly the story behind the story. It’s well-known that Joanne Rowling, otherwise known as JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series was living in poverty for years while she worked on the Harry Potter manuscript. She was divorced, had an infant daughter, and was dependent on government subsidies to survive. Through it all, she pursued her dream and worked on her book. After somehow completing her manuscript, twelve publishing houses rejected it, until finally, a small publisher, Bloomsbury, took it on.

In her own words, “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

“Failure,” she continues, “gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.” (Harvard commencement speech)

In this week’s parsha we read about the building of the Mishkan. According to many, the building of the Mishkan was in response to the terrible sin of the Golden Calf. Imagine that! The Jewish People commit one of the gravest sins, serving an idol, immediately after G-d took them out of Egypt, and immediately after G-d gave them the Torah telling them NOT to serve idols! As soon as they realized what they had done, as far as they were concerned, their relationship with G-d was over. They had officially stooped to the lowest level, they have committed the most serious of mistakes.

And yet, G-d forgives them. Not only does He forgive them, He instructs them to build a home – a beautiful structure that would represent the eternal, unbreakable bond of their relationship.

Our Sages take this all one step further. They suggest that G-d actually caused the Jewish People to sin! You know why? So that He could teach them a powerful lesson, so that He could teach them that the only way to learn that we can grow from our failure is by failing, so that He could teach them that G-d will always forgive us, no matter what we do, no matter how grave the sin. And so, G-d caused them to fail to teach them the power of failure.

Now please don’t walk away from here thinking that you can go ahead and sin and just say, G-d made me do it. What I do hope you walk away from here learning is that through their sin, through the Jewish People’s failure, they received a magnificent Mishkan. Through their failure they learned how strong their connection was with G-d. Through their failure they learned how we have the incredible power to reinvent ourselves even when we hit rock bottom.

So Shana, the first lesson I would learn from Harry Potter is this: You’re a very talented person. You’re bright, you’re kind, you’re athletic, you’re talented, and you’re well-liked. But you will, if you haven’t already, taste the bitter pill of failure. Defeat is miserable, and it could feel unbearable at times. But I hope you can learn from the Jewish People and from JK Rowling that in the clarity of failure you can actually find your true friends, that in the clarity of failure you can find your true self. Because the real lessons of life are learned not when we succeed but when we fail.

#2) And this is my favorite part of Harry Potter – Life is full of platforms like platform 9 ¾. For the uninitiated, in Harry Potter world, platform 9 ¾ is a nexus between the regular world which we live in, otherwise known as the world of muggles, and the magical world of wizardry. So boys and girls who wanted to travel Hogwarts, the wizard school, would have to find this magical location tucked between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross Station in London, through which they get on a platform that takes them to their school.

What platform 9 3/4 represents is that there are places, often places that cannot be recognized by the naked eye where two worlds touch, where we can travel from one world to the next. One such place in Judaism, is the Mishkan. The function of the Mishkan was to serve as a place where Heaven meets earth, where G-d’s Divine Presence can be found on this planet. Other such places are the Western Wall, or a shul, a study hall.

But there are many other places that also serve as a bridge between this physical world and a more spiritual reality. And like platform 9 ¾, most of the places that we can truly connect to G-d and connect to spirituality are non-descript; we don’t think of them as spiritual, but in truth they are as spiritual as can be.

As a great Jewish thinker once said, “G-d is wherever you let Him in.” As Jews we believe spirituality is not limited to “holy” places. We believe that going to work, spending time with our children, going on a jog, all of that can be an opportunity to connect to a higher, more spiritual existence. How we behave, how we interact with people, our mannerisms, and even our thought-process; those are all potential connection points, we just have to find them, we just have to let G-d in.

And it’s quite obvious that this is the case from this week’s Parsha. The Mishkan was a rather restricted location. Only Kohanim, only male Kohanim were allowed in. Even then, only the Kohein Gadol was given full access! Where was everyone else supposed to connect to Hashem if they couldn’t get in?

Clearly, Judaism believes that while the Mishkan or Bais HaMikdash serves a role, there is spirituality in many, many other places as well. “Make for me a holy home,” G-d says, “and I will rest among all of you.” There is holiness to be found among each and every person in each and every place.

And I believe this is especially important for you, as a young woman, to think about. As a community, we are struggling with the question of where and how women play a role in our spiritual community. There are some who have gone to one extreme, and photoshop or blur woman’s faces out of magazines and out of history. That’s certainly not our approach and it’s counterproductive. But there are others in our community who are creating new rituals and titles in order to be more inclusive. And as a community, we discuss and debate, what is allowed? What is appropriate?

I don’t know where this will all end, but no matter what conclusions we reach as a community, I hope that you, Shana, always remember that while the synagogue, like the Mishkan, is the most obvious nexus between heaven and earth, but the opportunities for spirituality and Divine connection are endless and everywhere. G-d is not limited to one place; not a Mishkan nor a synagogue. G-d is not limited to one group of people; not Kohanim nor men. “G-d is wherever you let Him in.” The opportunities to connect to Him, the spiritual opportunities that exist are endless and everywhere. Platform 9 ¾ is often where you least expect it.

And #3, the final lesson, and this is one is true not only in magic books, but it is especially true in Harry Potter – It’s often the most unassuming people who turn out to have ridiculous powers. Harry Potter, who lost both of his parents at young age was forced by his aunt and uncle to live in a dusty cupboard under the stairs. His cousin was given all the attention while his adoptive parents completely ignored Harry. But of course, with time, it becomes quite clear that it’s Harry, not his obnoxious cousin who is the really special one.

We see this everywhere in the Torah; it’s Moshe, the humble man with a speech impediment, who is chosen to lead the Jewish People, it’s Har Sinai, the low mountain, that is chosen to be the location for Matan Torah, and it is Betzalel, a young 13-year-old boy, who is elected to oversee the building of the Mishkan.

Now the Torah doesn’t choose the underdog because it’s more dramatic. G-d chooses the underdog because it is conveying to us a basic tenant of leadership – humility is the foundation of accomplishments.

Rabbi Herman Neuberger, a man who accomplished more than we can imagine, used to comment, “What you can accomplish is endless – as long as you don’t take credit for it.” Our natural desire for recognition and for being important so often gets in the way of what we’re trying to do. Humility, modesty are the foundations for true success in life.

Shana, you are very fortunate. Our greatest and most natural role models are our family members. You have many wonderful family members to look up to and grow from, but today, I’d like to highlight your parents. And that’s because I believe they are paragons of the value of modesty and humility.

At virtually every shul event, Esther, your mother will be working at the door. At the last event we had, after all the people filed in, Esther picked her stuff up and started to head to the exit of the shul. I said, “Esther, aren’t you staying for the event?”

She shrugged and said, “Nope, I’m just here to help.” And she left.

Your father is always available, always willing to help the shul in any way, and he is more than happy to take a lead or to take orders, as long as the job gets done. There’s no ego, no chasing of honor, that gets in the way of their life choices; it’s about what’s right, now what other people think. And having role models like that is something that you, Shana, should not take for granted.

So Shana, you’re eventually going to grow out of Harry Potter – at least I think you will. But I hope you never lose of these lessons; of JK Rowling and the importance of failure; how through failure we succeed, of platform 9 3/4; how G-d is everywhere, not only in shuls or in titles. And lastly, how Harry Potter lived in a cupboard under a staircase; how humility paves the way to true success in life. Learn this trait from your wonderful family, and there is nothing Shana, nothing at all, that you will not be able to accomplish.   Mazel Tov!


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Mash-Up #4

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 20, 2018

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Is the Mishkan Ideal or a Concession? Parshas Terumah

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 15, 2018

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Laws of Purim #4

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 21, 2018

There is a Mitzvah to hear the Megillah read both in the evening and in the morning. It is an obligation for both men and women. Like all Mitzvos, there is an obligation on the parents to teach their children in fulfilling the Mitzvah. The appropriate age is subjective. When a child can sit through the entire Megillah reading (silently) they are ready to go hear the Megillah. Before this age it is better to keep the child at home so that they will not prevent the parent/s from fulfilling their obligation.

It is forbidden to speak during the reading of the Megillah. If one spoke they have still fulfilled their obligation.

To fulfill their obligation every word of the Megillah must be heard. Tomorrow we will discuss what to do if one misses a word.


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Laws of Purim #3

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 17, 2018

In the times of the Temple, announcements were made throughout the Land of Israel on Rosh Chodesh Adar that everyone should donate a half-shekel to the Bais HaMikdash to be used to pay for the daily sacrifices. Despite the lack of Bais HaMikdash there is an ancient custom that we donate money to the poor before Purim to perpetuate this practice.

This custom is independent of the Rabbinic Mitzvah of giving charity on Purim.

To properly fulfill this custom one should give three half-coins. (This is done because the Torah says the word “Terumah/ Donation” three times in the section that deals with this Mitzvah.) Since most people do not have three half coins of their own many shuls leave three half coins out for people to acquire (not borrow). By placing an equivalent amount of money in the basket one acquires the three coins and then gives those three coins to charity to fulfill their obligation.

There are varying customs as to whom is included in this Mitzvah. Many have the custom that every member of the family should give (or should be given for).

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Laws of Purim #2

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 16, 2018

There are four special Torah portions that are read immediately preceding and during the month of Adar; Parshas Shekalim (February 10), Parshas Zachor (February 24), Parshas Parah (March 9), and Parshas Hachodesh (March 16).

One should make an extra effort to hear those portions being read at shul, however it is only Parshas Zachor which one has an absolute Biblical obligation to hear. If one misses hearing Parshas Zachor one should try to find a place where they are reading the section later in the day. Many shuls have a second reading of Zachor for anyone who missed.

If this is not possible, one should make sure to be in shul for the reading of the Torah on Purim day and have in mind to fulfill one’s obligation through the reading of that passage.

It is a matter of debate whether this is a Mitzvah that women are commanded to fulfill. It is advisable that women do make every effort to hear the Torah reading on Parshas Zachor.

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Laws of Purim #1

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 15, 2018

There is a Mitzvah to increase one’s joy during the month of Adar. It is a time when great things happened to the Jewish People and so it is also seen as an opportune time for success. 

Our Sages, in explaining the methods of increasing happiness during this time, focus on ‘simcha shel mitzvah’ the joy that comes from fulfilling G-d’s will and doing what’s right.

Happy Adar!

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The Opioid Epidemic: Nothing as Whole as a Broken Heart Parshas Mishpatim

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 12, 2018

As a very young child, I remember thinking that my family was part of a Chassidic dynasty. There is a Chassidic group known as Modzhitz; they’re most famous for their music; the many beautiful songs their Rebbes composed, such as the tune I use every month for Birkas Hachodesh. Well, Modzhitz, Motzen – they kind of sound similar, I knew I was named after the first Modzhitzer Rebbe, Rav Yisroel, and my father was a devout Modzhitzer chossid. So in my five-year-old brain, I just assumed that I was part of this great legacy.

Turns out, there is no connection whatsoever, and to top it off, my grandfather who was Chassidic growing up was part of an extremist group known as Satmar who probably saw the Polish Modzhitz as a bunch of heretics for their more moderate views.

Despite growing out of this thinking-I-was-the-next-Rebbe phase, there was one story of the Modzhitzer Rebbe that made a deep impression on me. My father told me the story numerous times, how in 1913, the Rebbe, who suffered from diabetes, traveled to a specialist in Berlin. The doctor declared that the only way to save the Rebbe’s life would be to amputate a part of his leg. And so the story goes that the Rebbe declined any form of anesthesia and instead, on the operating table, composed a beautiful song, a masterpiece known as Ezkera Elokim, a song that is sung in many shuls on Yom Kippur, and sang it to himself throughout the surgery.

That story made a very deep impact on me, and I think it’s a story that’s worth reflecting on in a time in which pain medication is administered like candy – actually more freely than candy. We Jews are very quick to call things a crisis. Everything seems to be in crisis when it’s really not. But when people describe our drug issue as an epidemic it is not hyperbole. Currently, the leading cause of death in America, more than illness, more than car accidents, more than gun violence, is drug overdose. And, here’s the scary part, over half of those deaths are from prescription drugs. In 1999, 4,000 people died from opioid overdose. In 2016, 64,000 people died from opioid overdose. Those deaths were caused by drugs like OxyContin and Percocet; items that many of us probably have sitting in our medicine cabinet.

The story behind this epidemic is a rather frightening one. Two doctors, read about a study in which the vast majority of patients who had received narcotics did not develop addictions, so these two doctors wrote a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine, a top medical journal, stating that, “We conclude that despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction.”

This was not a paper, not a peer-reviewed study, but a letter to the editor; a letter that was so inconsequential that years later, one of the doctors claimed to have forgotten that he ever wrote it. But he did write it and this letter ended up being cited by a group that was advocating for more pain-medications to be administered by the medical world and they described it as a peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine. And before you could say, “Doctor, my back hurts,” OxyContin’s and Percocet’s were being prescribed left and right. It has been cited as “a peer-reviewed article” in 900 publications since then.

As an aside, it turns out, surprise, surprise, that the advocacy groups were heavily funded by the drug companies. One way or another, new guidelines in the medical world, encouraged by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the NIH, caused Oxycontin prescriptions to go from 316,000 prescriptions in 1996 to 7.2 million prescriptions six years later.

Let me share with you a personal story. About twenty years ago, I had my wisdom teeth pulled out. After a day or two, I realized something was wrong, so I went back to my dentist, and he informed me that my gums had gotten infected. To be clear, I came in because there was inflammation, not because I was in any pain. And yet, I left the dentist’s office with a pill bottle packed with Percocet’s that could have lasted me for around three weeks! The scariest part, was that on the way out, this dentist told me that if I had extras he could take them back because he would dispose of them for me. How nice.

That is one small anecdote that reflects the reckless prescribing of potentially addictive medication and, this specific story, also speaks to the prevalence of drug abuse. Dentists do not dispose of extra drugs! A dentist who is asking for your extra pills is either selling them or using them himself.

So yes, there is an epidemic and the question is, what is there to do about it? Is there anything to do about it?

Thankfully, a lot has already taken place. Doctors and legislatures across the country are taking action. And while there are still a few doctors lagging behind, many doctors are leading the way in preventing any further abuse of drugs and are working tirelessly to combat the misuse of opioids. Most of the change will have to take place on that level and I pray that they are successful in their endeavors.

But I believe that there is work to be done on a communal and on a personal level. The first and most obvious thing we can do is educate our children. And I’m speaking to parents because it is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children. So whether or not a school has an educational program about addictions, it is imperative that parents have such conversations with their children. And to bear in mind that children are experimenting with addictive substances at a much younger age.

Not too long ago, someone called me to let me know that at a Kiddush in our shul, a rental Kiddush in which there was a table packed with bottles of scotch, a young, a 12-year-old got himself completely intoxicated. (Since then, our rental policy has changed that for alcohol to be served at a Kiddush, there must be an adult overseeing the table.)

Policies aside. 12 years old. That’s quite young.

So yes, tell your children, when you feel they’re old enough to hear it, about the dangers of addiction; of what it looks like.

Role play and review with them how they could turn down an offer of drugs or alcohol. Give them the knowledge and the tools to not succumb to peer pressure and to do what’s right.

Beyond formal education, there is also informal education. As Jews, we have many opportunities for informal education. Whether it’s Pesach, Purim, Kiddush, or a Sunday night, Judaism is not opposed to a little indulgence. Those could be great opportunities to teach your children what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior.

And we need to ask ourselves some straightforward questions: How often are we drinking to the point that we are noticeably impacted by our alcohol? What message does that give our children? And what does that say about ourselves?

Because quite often, not always but often enough, there is some underlying pain that leads a person down that path. Substances are quite often an escape from a stressful life, a dark past, or a meaningless existence. One of the best preventative tools is making sure that our children are emotionally healthy, that we are emotionally healthy, and that we don’t feel the need to escape from our regular life.

And lastly, we also need to educate ourselves to appreciate that addictions are an illness. If we know someone with an addiction, to have sympathy towards them, to get them help; there are often boundaries we may need to create, but they should be enforced with sympathy and with love. If we, heaven forbid, have a child who is struggling with addiction, we need to not be ashamed to reach out to the many, many local qualified therapists or institutions that can guide you or your child.

Too often we take a whack-a-mole approach to these problems. If we don’t let our children go here or there then they won’t get access to drugs or alcohol. Kids are smarter than that. And so when we block access here, they find access somewhere else. Obviously, we need to keep them away from places where substances are readily available but we also need to dig deeper; we need to give them the tools to refuse, we need to give them love, and we need to build their self-esteem to make them not want substances because they’re happy with their life, and perhaps most importantly, we need to role model a healthy attitude of a balanced lifestyle.

And it’s that balanced lifestyle and attitude that I really want to focus on. Let’s go back to my visit with the dentist. I didn’t tell you what I did with those pills… Are you ready?

I took one pill. That’s it.

You see, I was a teenager when this happened and teenagers process everything through a ‘coolness calculator.’ A coolness calculator measures the coolness of every word that comes out of your mouth, every piece of clothing you wear, and how much of a swagger you walk around with. So my teenage coolness calculator came out with the following equation – it was far cooler to be stoic and to tell my friends that I only took one pill then it would been to be high and have taken the whole bottle.

That was how my coolness calculator processed things two decades ago.   But I don’t think a teenager in 2018 would come to the same conclusion. And that’s because, coolness aside, the ethos of our generation is to experience no pain. Stoicism, what does that even mean? Pharell William’s Happy song is our anthem. And if you want to get scientific, according to the World Database of Happiness, in the 1960’s, there were about five studies measuring people’s levels of happiness. Currently, there are over two thousand happiness studies being conducted yearly. That’s all we care about. How do I get happy? How do I live a pain-free life?!

Now it’s not politically correct to talk about morality when you talk about addictions. Addictions are a disease. I get that. But the prescribing of pills to preempt pain (!), the quickness that we go to the medicine cabinet, is part of a bigger MORAL problem. Our moral failing is that we want to live a stress-free, sadness-free, anxiety-free life.

There was a book that came out a while ago. It was about a drug addict whose mother, at one point started popping pills herself. In one chapter, he talks to his mother about it and he realizes that she’s doing this to herself because she hates her life and she’s so lonely. On his way home, in the cab, he reflects on the conversation and it dawns upon him that that’s exactly what he’s doing; he’s sad, he’s lonely, he feels empty inside, and he starts to cry.

He cries for ten seconds but he can’t handle the sadness. And so a moment later, in the back of his cab, he pulls out his needle, his eyes dilate, and he flies away into his happy place.

That scene symbolizes our generation’s mentality. It’s a pathetic moral failing and it’s also such a pity.

A pity not only for the 66,000 Americans that died from opioid use this past year, a pity not only for the countless tens of thousands of others who abuse drugs on a regular basis, and a pity not only for the countless others who do so recreationally. But it’s a pity for all of us to be striving for this pain-free life because in doing so, we miss out in so many ways from the beauty and the true joys of life.

Today we welcomed in the month of Adar, a month during which we are expected to increase our joy; Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha. Today, and every year, immediately before the month of Adar, we read about the machatzis hashekel; the half-shekel that the Jews were expected to donate to the Bais HaMikdash. According to the Chassidic masters, the half or the broken shekel symbolically represents a broken self; a sense of existential loneliness, a sense of pain, a sense of anxiety, and a sense of not always knowing the answer – brokenness. I would suggest that we read this section deliberately before the month of Adar. We’ve been pursuing happiness for so many years and it hasn’t really worked out. We’ve been gratifying ourselves faster and faster and with more and more. But we’re even hungrier. Perhaps what we need is a little bit of brokenness.

The machtzis hashekel represents the ability to accept brokenness as a part of life; to not always be in a good mood, to cry and not run away from it, to not always feel so physically comfortable, to not have quick and shallow answers to existential questions. Spiritually, there is nothing more powerful than reaching out to G-d in prayer after feeling so down and distant from Him. Emotionally, there is nothing more cleansing than crying without restraint. And physically, while we don’t need to be masochists, we don’t need to sing a song to ourselves in the surgery room, there is a time and place for pain medication, I get it. But it’s probably not a bad thing to condition ourselves to being able to deal with some level of pain.

Brokenness leads the way to the joys of Adar and I would conjecture that it could lead the way to a healthier and happier society.

Legislation. Education. And perhaps adopting a new attitude, one that allows for some level pain; physical, emotional, and existential.  I hope and pray that as individuals and as a society, we can learn the true meaning of what a wise man once said, that “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”


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Teruma Themes

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 12, 2018

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Judaism’s Radical View of Slavery – Parshas Mishpatim

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 8, 2018

A tremendous thank you to Rabbi Elchonon Samet for most of the sources I share in this class.

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