One concluding thought regarding the first Bracha of Keriyas Shema. The general theme of this blessing is clearly an acknowledgment of the incredible world we live in; from the earth to the sun, stars, and moon, and even the angels. The connection between this blessing and Shema is that the main theme of Shema is the cultivation of a love for G-d (V’ahavta). There are three ways to develop a love for G-d: 1) By observing the world 2) through His Torah and c) by appreciating G-d’s hand in the course of history. This is the connection between the blessings of Shema and Shema itself: The first blessing teaches us to love G-d by reminding us of the incredible world He created, the second blessing focuses on the Torah and the third blessing reminds us how G-d has saved us time and time again (Goal Yisrael). The purpose of these blessings is to reinforce our relationship with G-d.
The first blessing of Kriyas Shema concludes with a long list of praises. One of the terms that is used is “Zoreiah tzedakos” which means that G-d “plants righteousness.” There are two ideas that planting brings to mind 1) One small seed can bring about a whole lot of fruits and beauty, and 2) It takes time to plant.
Some commentators explain that #1 is the meaning of this statement. G-d not only rewards us for our good deeds, but He rewards us for all the ramifications of the deed as well. If one does a kind deed that affects someone else which in turn affects someone else the person who began this chain reaction receives reward for all the good that was brought in to the world. According to this interpretation, we are praising G-d for rewarding us not only for the seed but for all its subsequent fruit.
Others understand this to mean that G-d will sometimes reward us in a delayed fashion. This is most specifically true for prayer. As many mystics like to say, “No prayer is left unanswered.” What that means is that sometimes G-d delays answering a prayer and it is only many years later that G-d does so. According to this explanation, we are expressing our faith in G-d who may not answer our prayers immediately, but we believe that ultimately no prayer is left unanswered.
After praising G-d for the wondrous world we live in we discuss the praise of the angels. The simple explanation as to why we now discuss what is taking place in the angelic realm is to remind ourselves that angels too praise G-d. A great misconception in ancient times was that the angels were gods and therefore deserving of praise. To counter this we remind ourselves that the angels are subservient to G-d.
The mystics explain that this is a progression from Pesukei Dzimra; a prayer that focuses on this world, and the prayers now focus on the angelic realm; the level above this world. We are acknowledging that G-d is master of the world that we experience in addition to the world that we don’t.
Rav Shimshon Pincus suggests that we discuss the angelic realm to impress upon ourselves the idea that this world consists of more than meets the eye. As we begin our day it is crucial to remind ourselves that although we may struggle and although we may not accomplish everything that we would like to accomplish, the reality that we see and feel is not the entire picture.
Being that this Shabbos is Shabbos Mevorchim and we, as a congregation, committed to working on Tefillah every Shabbos Mevorchim, I want to talk to you today about prayer. And I’d like to begin by reading to you an article from the Wall Street Journal titled, The Loneliness of the Empty Nest:
“Many people look forward to an empty nest—when the kids finally move out—so they can get back to all the fun things they used to do together as a couple before diapers and car pools and homework took over their lives.
[However,] according to a March 2012 paper [titled] “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” by researchers at Bowling Green State University, couples eagerly awaiting this day might be in for a surprise. In 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, that number jumped to more than 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced.
When their youngest child went away to college, Lise Stoessel and her husband of 23 years almost stopped talking to each other. Each woke at a different time, ate breakfast alone and went to work. When they had dinner together, the conversation was little more than updates on their three daughters. For most of each evening, he read in the living room and she spent time on her computer in the den. It was a far cry from their past routine, when the family of five ate dinner together, hiked, planted a vegetable garden in the backyard and made jam in the fall.
“When the kids were there, at least we did things together,” said Ms. Stoessel, 59, a preschool teacher. After they left “we were on separate tracks, just two ships passing in the night.”
The Stoessels began to bicker. He liked the house quiet in the evenings and complained when she had company. She harped on him to clean up his mess. They went to marriage counseling, discussed getting a divorce and agreed to wait until their youngest daughter graduated from college.”
In other words, the stressors of life – the waking up in middle of the night, the astronomical tuition bills, the running around for carpool, is ironically, often times the glue that keeps many relationships connected. When those stressors are no longer there, when the couple has nothing they are working on together, the relationship, in too many cases, falls apart.
In this week’s Parsha we learn about the life of Yitzchak, the second of our forefathers. And to be quite frank, his life is just not exciting. His father Avraham was a revolutionary; he stood up to a corrupt world and defied them. He trail-blazed a new path that would be followed by more than half the world’s current population. Yitzchak’s son Yakov also lived a very exciting life. He lived a life on the run; escaping the many people who wanted him dead. And somehow through all those struggles he developed an outstanding family. And Yitzchak? There is nothing new in his story. He travels on the exact same path that his father travelled. Literally. He travels to the exact same geographical locations that his father travelled. The most lengthy discussion in the Torah of his personal life tell us about the wells that he dug. But they weren’t even his own wells! The Torah tells us that he dug the wells of his father that were stuffed up. That’s it!
If they ever make a movie about our forefathers, they’d probably just write Yitzchak out of the script! And yet in G-d’s script, it’s there. So obviously, it’s coming to teach us something. Avraham teaches us how to build. Yaakov teaches us how to survive. But what does Yitzchak teach us?
If one digs a little deeper, it becomes clear that it is Yitzchak who teaches us one of the most revolutionary ideas that Judaism taught the world. You see, our forefathers lived in a world that believed in deities. They believed in gods who controlled the world. What Avraham taught them was that there is only one deity; he taught them there is only one G-d. But again, everyone believed in gods and therefore prayer was not something that Avraham came up with. Men and women of ancient civilizations would turn to the sun, starts and moon, to their gods and ask them for help; for health, sustenance, and safety. So when Yakov prayed to be saved from the clutches of Esav and from Lavan’s machinations, there was nothing novel about this form of prayer. What was novel is Whom he prayed to. When Avraham prayed for the people of Sodom, he taught us that one should care and pray for others, but once again, he was praying because people were in distress which is not a novel idea in prayer. But when the Torah relates that Yitzchak prays, it’s not in a moment of distress – things are good in his life, things are great. Yitzchak prays for one reason and one reason only – he wants a connection and relationship with G-d.
The Torah describes Yitzchak’s prayers as sicha. …Lasuach baseda. In Hebrew there are two terms you could use to have conversation. One is lasuach and one is l’daber. L’daber comes from the term davar which means item or thing. L’daber means to have a conversation that relates to a specific item; I want to convey to you an idea or ask from you a specific favor. The conversation revolves around a davar, an item. But lasuach is a conversation that does not revolve around anything specific. Lasuach is to talk for the sake of talking.
Yitzchak’s revolutionary idea was that one can have a relationship with G-d that revolved around nothing but the relationship itself. Yes, Yitzchak did not have the challenges that his father or his son had. Yes, his life was much simpler. But despite that he was able to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with G-d. That is the incredible contribution of Yitzchak and one that is so relevant to all of us.
In the article I began with, the author quotes Dr. Eli Karam, the assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program, who suggests a few ideas to ensure that empty nesters don’t become a sad statistic. Dr. Karam suggests, and I quote, “to start early to prioritize what he calls “Protected Time”—a period every week to do something together and, at the same time, talk.” “Time,” he continues, “where couples learn about each other’s world.” If couples carve out time to talk about themselves, about life outside of their children and stressors, and just spend time connecting – that is one of the greatest ways to ensure a lasting relationship.
Yitzchak taught us that this is true in our relationship with G-d as well. All of us are very good at praying for people who are sick, all of us are good at turning to G-d when we need His help. But what we need to learn to do is to pray and connect to G-d when everything is good and when everything is quiet; when we are not in need of something specific. We need to teach ourselves to not only share “dibbur” with G-d, a conversation that revolves around something that we want. We need to learn how to have sicha; to talk to G-d for the sake of strengthening our bond with Him.
I’d like to share with you something, perhaps a little personal, but it’s well worth sharing. In the summertime, I like vacationing in areas where I don’t think I will bump into anyone I know. It allows me to focus on the family and spend real quality time together. The drawback is that it’s almost impossible to find a minyan in such a place. Well at one point during our vacation this summer, my wife and I were staying at a cabin in middle of nowhere. The children were being watched by my in-laws. The first morning there, I woke up – no kids screaming, no one vying for my attention. There was a little attic in this cabin – a completely empty room. I went up to the attic, put on my tallis and tefilin and started to daven. Now you have to bear in mind, I was about a week and a half into my vacation, I was well-rested, High Holidays were far-off. I felt relaxed. I felt peaceful. And I started to daven. No one was waiting for me to finish Shema, no one was waiting for me to finish Shemoneh Esrei. Just me and G-d. It was incredible! It was amazing! I was able to treasure each word and think about its meaning. “Baruch Ata” Blessed are You! You! I’m talking to G-d. What an amazing thought! How would I feel if I had the opportunity to talk to the President of the United States? The Prime Minister of Israel? Abraham Lincoln? King George?! And here I am talking to the Master of the Universe! The Creator of the world! Is there anything more sublime? And the prayer continues, “The G-d of our ancestors.” To think of all the generations that preceded me. To think how G-d protected them all, from slavery, from famine, from wars, thousands of people had to be kept alive just so I could be standing here right now! And then the next blessing, “G-d who brings back the dead.” Many of you in your own lives have witnessed this; how a nation that was given up for dead has come roaring back; both in size, in political strength, in wealth, and even establishing a country!
We committed as a congregation to spend every Shabbos Mevorchim working on making prayer more meaningful. If we just take a moment to think about in front of Whom we’re standing. If we just take a moment to think about what we’re saying. Not just to translate. But to really try to understand the words of our prayers. If we do so, I promise you, we will find ourselves praying with so much meaning.
Friends, let’s teach ourselves to have relationships that don’t revolve around fixing problems. Let’s develop relationships that revolve around sicha; let’s make time to talk to our loved ones for the sake of connecting to them and let’s make time to talk to G-d for the very same reason. Let’s nurture within ourselves an ability to just enjoy standing in G-d’s presence and in doing so we will develop a true and loving relationship with our Creator.
After the opening bracha the section continues with a praise of the incredible world that G-d created: “The One who gives light to the world and to those who dwell upon it, with compassion.” The compassion referred to here is a reference to the fact that we are not too close and not too far from the sun. It provides for us exactly what we need.
The prayer continues: “And Who renews the creation daily.” Jewish philosophers have noted that our belief in G-d differs from many faiths in that we believe that G-d not only created the world but He is constantly willing it to exist. Creation was not a one time event but for the world to continue G-d must constantly will it to do so.
Chassidic teachings use this idea to inspire us to living a more energized life. One of the greatest impediments to an uplifted existence is our failings. We believe that we cannot become better people because we have failed so often in the past. A recognition that G-d constantly renews the world, meaning, our lives are constantly refreshed, our history is erased, allows us to continue to live without all the excess baggage of our past.
After Borchu the service continues with what is known as the blessings of Kriyas Shema. At first glance these blessings have nothing to do with Shema, but upon further study it will be clear that they are very much connected.
The section begins with a blessing, praising G-d “Who fashions light and creates darkness.” These words are taken from Isaiah who described G-d to the Babylonian king as the “One who fashions light and creates darkness.” The Babylonians, as well as much of the pagan world believed in two spiritual forces in the world; those of good and those of evil. Isaiah was presenting to the king the idea of Monotheism, namely that both good (light) and evil (darkness) emanate from one G-d. This idea of ‘One G-d’ will be reiterated in the Shema itself when we say “G-d is One.”
The implications of such an idea are profound. On the one hand it opens the door to questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people.” At the same time, bearing in mind that not only the good in our life comes from G-d but even the challenges are guided by Hashem our struggles become an opportunity for finding the meaning within.
Always a Youth
Parshas Chayei Sarah
There’s a cardinal rule that rabbis should never share their political leanings with their congregation. It’s just not worth it. You’re bound to offend somebody. I think the only thing worse than that is when a rabbi shares with his congregation which sports team he’s rooting for. But today, I’m going to break that rule. As many of you here know I don’t know much about baseball, and frankly I don’t care much for baseball. But this year, in this year’s World Series being played this week, I am rooting for the Boston Red Sox. Why? Because they are the most childlike group of baseball players I have ever seen. During the game they are joking around in the dugout like they’re a bunch of middle school kids. And at the same time, the players on the Red Sox have the most fantastic, most outlandish, facial hair. Nearly every player on this Boston team has a very substantial beard.
Biblically, beards are very significant. The first time a beard is mentioned, it’s actually mentioned in the context of shaving. We are told that when Yosef was presented in front of Pharaoh they brought him to a barber to have him shaved. And that’s because, as the historian Leon Kass observes, the defining cultural feature of ancient Egypt was its obsession with achieving immortality. The whole rational for mummification was to ensure that the body would last forever. According to other sources the mummification procedure would conclude with the following prayer, “You will live again, you will live forever. Behold, you are young forever.” Yosef’s beard was shaven because in Egypt, to appear before the Pharaoh one had to demonstrate an allegiance to the Egyptian youth-worship.
There are other societies which have a very different perspective regarding youth and old age. In China there is a proverb that goes like this: “Of all the good virtues, respecting elders is most important.” Traditionally, in China the elder of the family makes all major decisions for the family and families are expected to not only obey but also support their parents into old age.
At first glance, Judaism seems to take a very similar approach. We have an actual commandment to stand up for an individual who is over seventy years old. And although we don’t have a commandment to have a beard, there are certain restrictions to ensure that we do have some facial hair, which once again, represents age.
But this week’s Torah Portion paints for us a very unique model for age. The Torah tells us that our first matriarch Sarah lived until she was 127 – quite an old age. However, the Torah tells us this in a very unique fashion. The Torah states that she was seven years old, twenty years old, and one hundred years old. The commentators explain that the reason the Torah describes her age in such a strange fashion is to tell us that she wasn’t just 127. Rather, she was one hundred years old and she was also twenty years old and she was also seven years old. Meaning, each age has a unique characteristic that has to be learned and incorporated into the persona. A seven year old is blessed with innocence. A twenty year old is blessed with ambitions and dreams, and a hundred year old is blessed with wisdom accumulated over the years. Sarah wasn’t just an elderly woman of 127. At each stage of life, she tapped into the unique characteristic of that age. But the Torah doesn’t just teach us the idea of psychological development – something that we have become more aware of in the past few decades. The Torah teaches us a truly novel idea. The Torah states that Sarah did not only incorporate those age-specific characteristics – she held on to them! What made her truly unique was her ability to hold on to it as she progressed in life! She never lost her innocence of childhood. She never lost her dreams and ambitions of young adulthood, and she was able to balance all of that with true and deep wisdom. That is greatness! And that is Judaism’s unique perspective of age. There is no age that is better than the next. Each age has unique qualities, and if they are incorporated properly, can bring out the best in any individual. What we learn from Sarah is that it’s not enough to use the qualities at the appropriate age, but one must strive to maintain those great characteristics as they march along in life.
And today, I’d like to focus on the stage that Eitan just entered. Because today Eitan, you are no longer a child. But I’m going to be honest, at 13, you’re not exactly a man. What you are is what our Sages describe as a na’ar, a youth. The term na’ar means to shake off. That’s because the great characteristic of youth is the ability to not accept the status quo; to “shake off” the assumptions of the world. The great quality that you need to acquire as you stand at the threshold of developing into a man is the gift of questioning, of aspiring, of never settling for what currently exists. A naar never stops, a naar constantly shakes off the assumptions made the day before and is on a highly energized dash for more in life, for more meaning, for more depth, and for more understanding.
Eitan, you have two wonderful role models who can teach you what it means to be a naar. People who know what it means to question everything they know. Your incredible parents did exactly that and that’s why you’re standing here today.
And I’ve already seen this quality in you Eitan. You know, I met with Eitan a number of times over the past couple of weeks. And one of the first things he told me is that his class is learning Mishnayos and he told me that he just doesn’t like learning Mishnayos. And immediately in my mind I started thinking, “Oh no, another young boy who is disinterested in Judaism.” And then Eitan, perhaps seeing the sad look on my face, piped up again and said, “Rabbi, I want to learn Gemara. I want to learn Talmud!”
That is the positive side of being a naar. Don’t stop! Keep it up! Keep on questioning! Keep on climbing! And keep on growing! Do it for yourself and your own personal growth, but do us a favor – do it for us; your friends, your family, your congregation. Because we, all of us, so desperately need role models to teach us what it means to be a na’ar. We may not be teenagers anymore, but as we learned from our matriarch Sarah, true greatness involves maintaining the great strengths of each stage of development and incorporating them into who we are.
Unfortunately, we don’t do so. Unfortunately, I hear people telling me all the time, “Rabbi, this is who I am. I can’t change myself.” Or I hear a couple say, “This is who we are. We fight a lot. We’ll never get passed that. We’ll never rekindle that old spark” But Eitan, you’re going to remind us that we’re wrong! You’re going to remind us what it means to be a naar! To shake it off and not accept the status quo! You’re going to remind us not to stagnate and to keep on wanting more and more and more out of our lives! Can you do that for us?
And that’s why during this year’s World Series I’ll be cheering for the Red Sox. Maybe I’m reading too much into their facial hair and silly antics but those Red Sox remind me of this important message. Their youthfulness on the one hand and their facial hair on the other remind me that old age and young age are not a contradiction. They remind me that as we age, our goal is to take what we learned and bring it with us as we progress on the path of life.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old slaves are to regrets.” With all due respect I would suggest that a full life can be lived at every stage of life. But to do so one must learn how to dream and how to regret, how to be altruistic and how to be realistic, like Sarah, one must learn how to incorporate the fine qualities of youth with the fine qualities of age, and then, and only then will one’s life be lived to its fullest.
A teacher of mine, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, once asked me the following question. The Gemara in Sanhedrin states that if all the Jews become fully engaged in Judaism then Mashiach will come early. If all the Jews become disengaged then Mashiach will come early as well. It would be safe to assume, he said, that we are closer to the latter than the former (This is before the Pew study. Now it’s a fact.) That being the case, why don’t we, the few Jews who are still observant throw it all away and that way we can bring Mashiach to the world a lot faster?
There are three general positions on a hockey team; offensemen, defensemen, and a goalie. Each has a unique role; one is to play offense, one to play defense, and one to protect the net. What they are supposed to do is play their role, not win the game. So for example, if the goaltender were to start playing offense his coach would get mad at him because that is not his role – even though the team needs goals to be scored. If they all play their individual role properly, the team will ultimately win the game. The same is true with Mashiach. We all have unique roles – the Mitzvos and our unique challenges. If we overcome all of our individual roles then Mashiach will arrive. Mashiach is the sum-total of us fulfilling our individual roles.
It is perhaps for this reason that Kaddish is said with a group of ten. The main theme of Kaddish is a plea for the Messianic Era and for the end of days. We are reminded, by saying Kaddish in a group, that it is only together that we bring about a change in the world. Individually, we all have to stick to our unique role and script and to attempt to do as many Mitzvos, and overcome as many challenges as possible.
We have began to discuss the prayer of Kaddish. There are primarily four different types of Kaddish that are recited during our daily prayers: Kaddish Shaleim (the complete Kaddish), Chatzi Kaddish (half Kaddish), Kaddish Yasom (Mourner’s Kaddish), and Kaddish D’rabanan (Rabbi’s Kaddish). The latter two are said by mourners even though the theme of Kaddish is in no way related to a commemoration. On the contrary, the theme of Kaddish is the future – it is a prayer which asks from G-d to bring about the End of Days.
The earliest mention of Kaddish are found in the Talmud but not in the context of prayer. We are taught that “Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’vorach l’olam ul’olmei olmaya” was said at the conclusion of the communal studying that took place on Shabbos afternoon. Kaddish became a part of the daily prayers in the era of the Geonim (650-1100).
Over the next few days we will discuss the meaning and significance of Kaddish and its relevant laws.
Rav Ovadya Yosef’s Legacy
I’d like to talk about a challenging topic today and that is the challenge of agunot. An agunah is a women who would like to but is not able to remarry. There are two categories of agunot. One is a woman who does not know if her husband is alive and is therefore Halachicaly seen as still being married and the second is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get. Personally, I can’t think of a more tragic plight than these women; people who desperately want out of a relationship – a non-existent relationship – and yet are bound, unable to move forward.
The term agunah, means someone who is chained, because that’s exactly the way such a woman feels – bound and chained, unable to move. How many women are agunot is unknown but one thing is clear and that is that one agunah is one agunah too many. There have been many solutions that have been presented over the years. As far back as the 19th century attempts have been made to make sweeping reforms to solve the problem. In 1884, an individual by the name of Rabbi Michael Weil of Paris attempted to introduce a form of conditional marriage and most recently, a group has suggested making all marriages while not explicitly, at least implicitly, conditional. This type of approach has been dismissed time and time again because it goes against the premise of Jewish marriage, which is an unconditional commitment. Divorce is not simply an annulment of the marriage contract. Divorce is a new reality whereas a conditional marriage, exactly as it implies, says that the marriage was never fully committed to. In addition to those who have attempted to bend Jewish law out of shape there are others who have resorted to force to ensure that husbands who are not willing will be forced to be “willing” and give a get. This approach, in addition to the very illegal coercion and force that’s involved, is not necessarily valid from a Torah perspective either.
One solution that has been both sanctioned as consistent with the Jewish view of marriage and Halacha and has been rather successful is the pre-nuptial agreement. It’s a legally binding agreement that a husband and wife make before they wed, that if the husband does not give his wife a get, he must pay a daily fine. Money talks and it often works to ensure that the husband does indeed give a get to his wife. Most recently, a post-nuptial agreement has been introduced which serves the same purpose.
The biggest drawback of such agreements is that they have only gained popularity in recent years and so I imagine that it would be safe to assume that the vast majority of people in this room probably don’t have one. Which leaves us with a question, what can we do? We have our precious Torah on the one hand, our rock, our source of life, and our source of direction emanating from G-d Himself. And on the other hand we have the plight of these women; broken and desperate to break free.
I think in the context of this painful dilemma, one could better appreciate the great loss that the Jewish People experienced with the passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef. There is a little rabbinic secret that I’m going to let you in on. When preparing for a class on a certain topic the most obvious place to look for information is an encyclopedia. Rav Ovadia was a walking encyclopedia. When rabbis are looking for sources for a class, the first stop is any literature written by Rav Ovadia. He wouldn’t quote one source to support his view, he would quote fifty!
The only thing that was equal to Rav Yosef’s mind was his heart; his love for the Jewish people. Ten years ago, at the age of 83, he suffered his first heart attack. The doctors decided that he must immediately undergo surgery. But he begged them to be taken home for three hours and only then go under the knife. Reluctantly, the doctors gave in to his strange request. After the surgery he explained that when he had the heart attack he was in middle of using his depth of knowledge to find a Halachic way out for a woman who was an agunah. He was in the middle of writing a Halachic ruling that would have allowed her to get remarried. He was afraid that he wouldn’t make it out of the surgery alive in which case this poor woman would be left unable to remarry for the rest of her life.
That was one example of thousands. Literally. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War there were approximately one thousand women who were unable to remarry because there was no proof that their husbands had died. The country turned to Rav Ovadia who set up a beit din, a court that worked tirelessly to ensure that each and every one of those women would be able to remarry in a Halachically-acceptable fashion.
That’s why somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people attended his funeral. By whatever estimate, it was the largest funeral in Israel’s history. That’s because he was not a man who lived in an ivory tower of academics. He was a man of the people; a man who felt their pain and did whatever was in his ability to help them.
He taught the Jewish People so many important lessons. He taught us to never stop connecting ti G-d through His Torah. This was a man who knew everything – and yet never stopped studying! He was a man who taught us how to love a fellow Jew. But he also taught us an essential lesson about Jewish law. Here was a man who cared so deeply for these agunot, nearly risking his life to save theirs. And yet, he accepted the fact that regrettably there was no dispensation that he could find for a sweeping reform to protect all agunot for all of time. It wasn’t because he didn’t care – he did. It wasn’t because he was cautious and lacking in confidence in his ability to make such a ruling – he had very, very broadest shoulders. But nonetheless he understood, not despite of his broad shoulders, but because of his broad shoulders, because he had such a vast and deep knowledge of the Torah way, he was so at home with the weltanschauung of Judaism, he understood that there was nothing that could be done on a national level. Instead he worked tirelessly to help individual after individual.
He embodied the famous Mishna in Avot “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not your responsibility to finish the task, V’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, but neither are you free to shy away from it.” We may not be able to solve the great problems of society, but our Jewish tradition encourages us – actually mandates us – to do whatever we can to bring about a change. Like Avraham who prayed for the people of Sedom even though G-d just told him that they were evil and deserving of annihilation. But you know what Avraham said, “So what! I will do whatever I can and bring about a change!”
That legacy of Avraham, the legacy of Rav Ovadia Yosef, is a legacy that forces us to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to solve the world’s problems?” How are we saving these women from a life of sadness and loneliness? Of course we have to recognize our place in the world. If you don’t have broad shoulders and a vast knowledge of Torah, your help will not be in the Halachic relam. So help with money. Help with your emotional support. There are countless ways to help. But most importantly, that legacy reminds us that help is not limited to solving an entire issue. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not your responsibility to finish the task, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, but we aren’t free to walk away from trying!
And it’s not just agunot. Has anyone here read the Pew report? It’s sad and pathetic! We are not doing well. The Jewish People are shrinking! The Jewish youth are disinterested! So how are we solving this issue – the major national issue? And if we aren’t capable of doing that then how are we solving the small issue – the neighbor next door, the old friend? How are we ensuring Jewish continuity?
I’d like to conclude with a beautiful story. It’s a story of an old man who was walking on the beach at dawn when he noticed a young man picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing them back into the sea one by one. He went up to the young man and asked him why he was doing this. The young man explained that starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. You won’t be able to save them all. How can your effort make a difference?” The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and threw it to safety. “To this one” he said, “it makes a difference.”
Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not our duty to finish the job. Meaning, know your limitations. If you don’t have the depth and broad Torah knowledge of the ilk of Rav Ovadia Yosef then you probably shouldn’t come up with innovative ideas that you think are in line with the Torah. And if you don’t have very, very deep pockets then you will probably not be able to provide the financial means necessary to get us out of the financial holes that so many parents of Jewish day school children find themselves within. However, lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, just because you can’t solve the big picture doesn’t mean that every individual and every little thing that we can do doesn’t count. It does.
May we incorporate the lessons of HaRav Ovadya Yosef into our lives and may his memory stand for us as a source of strength, blessing, and inspiration.