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Laws of the Three Weeks #6

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 26, 2013

It is customary not to say the blessing of She’hechiyanu during the Three Weeks. Therefore, one should avoid eating fruits that they have not eaten for a year, as this would necessitate saying the blessing. In addition, one should not wear new clothing that requires making the blessing of She’hechiyanu. This includes new suits and new coats. One may purchase these items during the Three Weeks, it is wearing them for the first time that is a problem. One may purchase and wear any other type of clothing during the Three Weeks.

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Laws of the Three Weeks #5

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 26, 2013

There is some debate among Halachic authorities as to when exactly the laws of the Three Weeks begin; is it the night of the 17th or the day of the 17th. Either way, all Ashkenazi Halachic authorities rule that no later than the day of the 17th until after Tisha B’Av the following rules apply: 1) No haircuts. 2) No weddings. 3) No music.

 

To reiterate something I discussed at Shalosh Seudos this week, it is very difficult for us, living thousands of years after the times of the Temples to truly appreciate the impact of not having them. This is why we start off with less severe forms of mourning and as we get closer to Tisha B’av the level of mourning becomes more and more intense. As we begin these three weeks, let us take the time to ask ourselves and come to better understand why we are mourning for a building that was destroyed 2,000 years ago and a city that at first glance seems to be rebuilt already. The Talmud states that one who truly mourns the loss of the Temple will be able to appreciate its rebuilding. May we merit for such a day speedily in our times.

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Mah Tovu Oholecha Ya’akov Parshas Balak

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 24, 2013

You may have noticed a mini-revolution taking place in Ner Tamid as of late. There have been many changes over the past year but I think the most obvious one that immediately meets your eyes is the aesthetic change that has taken place. If you walked in today through Lincoln Avenue you would have noticed beautiful plants and flowers gracing our front yard. If you go through the door off to my left, you’ll find a bridal room that has been transformed from a throw-back to the 70’s into a chic and inviting room for brides and nursing mothers. The kitchen is being reorganized and there’s discussion about beautifying many other parts of the shul.

And to me, it’s really a source of pride. Not because I have anything to do with this revolution – I don’t. But because I’m associated with such a beautiful shul. I’ve had the pleasure of giving a few mini-tours of the shul in the past few months and as we go from the Sephardic shul to the chapel to the main sanctuary I beam with pride – Ner Tamid is truly a beautiful shul thanks to the efforts of the many people that have been involved in building the structure of Ner Tamid over the years and all the people who are currently breathing a new life into the shul.

According to our Sages, the idea of having a beautiful shul is the most significant message in this week’s Torah Portion. Now for all of you who followed along with our baal koreh, you may be scratching your head. We read about a sorcerer, an evil king, and a talking donkey. There doesn’t seem to be any mention of synagogues in this week’s Torah Portion, certainly not the main theme!

Well, the Talmud teaches us that our Sages were considering including the entire Torah Portion that we read today into the daily services, specifically, in Shema. So if you’ve been grumbling about how long it takes to wait for me to finish shema, imagine how long it would take with an extra 100 verses! The Talmud explains that the reason they wanted to include this week’s Torah Portion is because of one verse; “Mah tovu oholecha Ya’akov, How good are you tents, Jacob.” The most classic understanding of this text, suggested by the Talmud, is that the tents of Jacob refer to the Beit Knesses, the shul, the synagogue. Bilam, the evil sorcerer, was praising the Jewish People and their beautiful synagogues. So I may not be in the best company when I say this, but mah tovu oholecha Ya’akov, Ner Tamid is truly a beautiful shul!

But as you can imagine Bilam didn’t only mean the physical edifice of the shul. Don’t get me wrong, the physical edifice is important, it’s essential in so far as it sets the tone. But that’s all it does, it sets the tone. It’s up to us to play the beautiful music, to fill the shul with beautiful prayer.

I remember this one teenager in my high school who bought a Martin; a high-end guitar. The only problem was that he had no idea how to play guitar. It was such a tragedy. At least buy a lousy guitar! But there he was strumming on a guitar that probably cost a thousand dollars and it sounded terrible. So yes, a beautiful shul is a wonderful thing but if you have a beautiful shul you have to have beautiful davening!

So I’d like to begin a conversation today. These are opening comments to a large and complicated topic and that is decorum in synagogue. It’s a universal problem, or at least a universal problem in Orthodox synagogues. Many, if not most shuls across the world struggle with people talking in shul. We all know that a shul is a place to pray. Yet, at the same time, “it’s been a busy week” and it’s nice to get a chance to schmooze a little with friends.

I’ve done some research on the topic to see what other shuls do and I think the focus of the conversation is misplaced. The conversation revolves around how to get people to stop talking or how to make shul a place of proper decorum. The solutions that are offered to making a shul a quieter place are either shushing every two minutes or informing people of the laws that forbid talking during services. I’m not belittling the laws that do indeed exist; talking during many parts of services is forbidden. However, I’m not sure if that’s the right approach.

It’s kind of like the beautification job that was done to our front yard here in shul. I was speaking to one of the people involved and I asked her why they weren’t uprooting the green monster that’s sitting out there. You know what I’m talking about? There’s this huge bush outside that doesn’t really have a defined shape. It’s an eye sore. But she wisely replied, removing that blob is a huge job. We’re starting by planting some beautiful flowers. Hopefully, the beautiful flowers will overwhelm the ugly blob and the front yard will look as good as it can for the time being.

So let’s do exactly that. Let’s begin ‘gardening’ our approach to prayer, not by uprooting the problems, but by planting beautiful flowers and plants. Let’s begin by gaining a better appreciation of prayer.

The first and most important insight I’d like to share is found in the statement I quoted above, “Mah tovu ahalecha ya’akov, how good are your tents, Yakov,” which as I mentioned is a reference to synagogues. Why does Bilam refer to synagogues as a tent? We normally call a synagogue a house of worship or a house of gathering. Why does he refer to a shul as a tent?

And I believe that what Bilam was describing with those words is really the essence of prayer – prayer is a reflection of our temporal existence. Prayer reminds us that we don’t stand on sturdy ground. We need G-d for our daily needs; for our health, for our sustenance, for our faculties to work, for everything. And if we are broad-minded people, we recognize that the world isn’t standing on very firm ground. After the Federal Reserve decision to slow its economic stimulus program, it didn’t only affect future homebuyers, it caused a serious ripple effect in Europe’s economy. People are still concerned that another market crash is on the way. Tens of thousands of people are getting killed in Syria and all the world leaders can’t seem to get their act together. Somewhere between one and two million people die a year from AIDS. These are serious problems. We all know the famous proverb that there are no atheists in a fox hole. Prayer reminds us that we’re always in a fox hole!

 

Mah tovu ahalecha Ya’akov! Prayer is represented by a tent because it reminds us that we’re not here forever, that we’re not on solid ground and that we need G-d to maintain our existence.

But there’s another idea that I have to share with you. It’s an idea that transcends this world and all its problems. It has nothing to do with G-d saving us from difficult times and it has everything to do with who we are and what we’re made of. I’m sure you’ve all experienced in your life a feeling of loneliness. Often times our loneliness doesn’t stem from not being around people. It stems from being around people that we can’t communicate with. We could talk and talk but they simply can’t understand us and so we feel trapped and we feel alone. Human beings have a natural desire to communicate and to not be able to properly communicate is a terrible feeling.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine, says that our soul, our neshama, feels this way on a daily basis. Our neshama is a spiritual entity and it has nothing to connect to and to communicate to in this world. Our soul thirsts for an ability to express its deepest feeling and longings but there’s no venue for it do so. Prayer is the one opportunity our soul has to be redeemed, to break free from its loneliness, and to be able to connect and communicate to the One Being that truly understands her. That’s what prayer is all about, explains Rav Kook. It’s about a relationship between us, our inner selves, and G-d.

There’s a story that drives this home that I’d like to share with you. It’s one I’ve shared with you in the past but it’s worth repeating.

In the late 1700’s there lived a great Jewish teacher by the name of R’Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. One year, he stood up to speak right before Neilah, as was the custom. The Synagogue was packed, the mood was somber, everyone was ready to hear a moving pre-Neilah address. But before the Rabbi was even able to open his mouth he was interrupted by a voice that was yelling “Aleph, Bet, Gimmel!” Everyone shushed the rude interrupter and the Rabbi once again attempted to begin. But again, a voice rang out, “Lamed, Mem!” At this point, people started looking around for the source of this voice. And finally, two men found a young teenager, Yankel, an orphan, who was also known as the town’s petty thief. These two men grabbed Yankel by the legs and started to drag him out of the shul. But the Rabbi stopped them and asked Yankel to come forward. And R’Levi Yitzchok asked Yankel what he was doing. Yankel started to cry. “As you know, I sometimes take things that aren’t mine. And today was no different. I was walking around and I noticed no one was in the street. So I started going into people’s houses and taking a silver spoon, a piece of cake.. I was going from house to house and then I started wondering, where is everybody? So I looked and looked until finally I came to the shul. And I looked inside and I saw everyone dressed in white, swaying back and forth, signing and chanting. And I don’t what possessed me but I came inside. And I picked up a prayer book, a siddur. And I couldn’t read a word. I felt terrible. I wanted to join these people in their prayers, it looked so moving and meaningful, but I can’t read. And then suddenly I remembered that I did know something! Right before my father ran off, I went to cheder just for a little while. And in cheder they taught me the Aleph, Bet. And so I decided I would join everyone in prayer and I would say the alphabet with all the concentration I can. I am so sorry,” said Yankel, “I didn’t mean to disrupt your talk. I just wanted to pray.”

The Rabbi, R’Levi Yitzchak, turned to his congregation and said  “In Heaven, our prayers were not sincere enough and they were being stopped at the gates of Heaven before reaching G-d. The gates were closed to ours prayers, but then suddenly, the gates of Heaven were flung open…and what opened them was the sincere Aleph Bet of Yankel. The sincerity that accompanied his simple prayer could not be stopped, and now our prayers are following his and reaching our Father in Heaven.”

That’s what prayer is. The structure, the text, knowing the proper time to bow – all of that is of utmost importance. But what G-d wants out of it all, is for us to be able to sincerely communicate with him; to allow our thirsty souls an opportunity to experience something that transcends this world.

As I said, this is the beginning of the conversation. I don’t think there are any easy solutions but we need to start with planting some beautiful flowers. We need to appreciate what tefillah is; it’s a reminder that our lives are that of a tent; that we have a temporal existence and we need G-d to help us ride the waves of life. And that prayer is about our soul breaking free from the mundaneness of this world. I’ve started the conversation and I invite you to help me with your ideas and suggestions to make this shul a beautiful place, not only in its physical appearance, but in its spiritual appearance as well.

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Laws of the Three Weeks #4

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 24, 2013

If one is fasting and feels truly incapable of functioning due to the fasting, they should break their fast. Feel free to contact me if you are uncertain as to whether you meet that criteria.

 

If one has a condition where they are concerned that they will come to that state, please contact me and we could discuss what to do.

 

If one needs to take medication, as long as it is not good tasting medicine, one may swallow the pills without water. If water is needed, one should use some bitter tasting water (if the pill will dissolve in water, one can dissolve the pill in a little bit of water and use that water).

 

One may brush their teeth on minor holidays, such as Shiva Asar B’Tamuz, taking care not to swallow any water. Ideally, one should not use water when brushing one’s teeth.

 

It is customary not to shower on the fast day.

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Laws of the Three Weeks #3

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 21, 2013

The fast of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz which falls out this Tuesday must be observed by all men and women. There are some communities where women had the custom not to fast. If this is one’s custom there is what to rely upon to do so. Women who are pregnant or nursing need not fast.

 

Although some ‘train’ older children in fasting, strictly speaking there is no obligation for them to fast. If one is ill one need not fast and actually should not fast.

 

In any of the aforementioned cases where one is exempt from fasting one should not indulge on a fast day. One could and should eat regularly to ensure that they are healthy but should probably hold off on things like an ice cream sundae and the like.

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The Laws of the Three Weeks #2

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 20, 2013

There are three distinct periods within the ‘Three Weeks.’ The first runs from the Seventeenth of the month of Tammuz (Tuesday, June 25) until the first day of the month of Av (July 8). The second period runs from the first day of the month of Av and concludes at the end of that week (July 13). The third period runs from Sunday before Tisha B’av until after Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av falls out on July 16 this year.

The first period begins with a public fast day, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (lit. the seventeenth of the month of Tammuz). The are five tragedies noted by our sages that took place on this date. 1) Moshe broke the first set of tablets after witnessing the Jewish People serving the Golden Calf. 2) During the first Bais HaMikdash (Temple) the siege of Jerusalem prevented sheep being brought in to the city. This caused the daily offering to cease. 3) The Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem (second Temple era). 4) A Torah scroll was burned during the era of the Second Temple. (Unfortunately, over the past two thousand years many Torah scrolls were burned. Our sages of that time calling the act a major tragedy indicates how rare this was at that time.) 5) An idol was placed on the Temple mount.

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The Laws of the Three Weeks #1

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 19, 2013

The Talmud (Bava Basra) relates that after the destruction of the second Bais HaMikdash (Temple) there were many people who stopped eating meat and drinking wine altogether. Rabbi Yehoshua asked them why they have such a practice and they explained that since the sacrifices are no longer, how can they eat meat? And since the wine libations have stopped, how can they drink wine?

Rabbi Yehoshua then asked them why they eat bread since the meal offerings have stopped, or why they eat fruit since the first fruit ceremony is no longer. The people agreed with each one his claims saying that they would find something else to eat. Finally, Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that they stop drinking water because of the yearly water libation ceremony that took place in the Bais HaMikdash. At that point, the people realized their approach was not going to work.

Rabbi Yehoshua then shared with them a more balanced approach. On the one hand, he said, we must mourn the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash. On the other hand, we cannot institute decrees that cannot be kept. Therefore, he suggested, we will have some limited and doable laws of mourning throughout the entire year. There are three weeks  a year when we spend more time and effort in to mourning the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash and Yerushalayim. Why those dates specifically and what we are expected to do over those days will be discussed over the next few weeks.

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Help Comes From God

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 18, 2013

An abridged version of a sermon I once gave on the topic of suffering, printed in last week’s Baltimore Jewish Times:

http://jewishtimes.com/help-comes-from-god/

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Eizer/ K’negdo: A Healthy Relationship

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 17, 2013

Parshas Chukas

Jerry was at a marriage seminar, and the leader of the seminar, a lady, was asking everybody how long they were married for. When it was Jerry’s turn Jerry said that he was married for almost 50 years. “Wow” the leader gushed “that’s amazing, perhaps you can take a few minutes to share some insights with everybody, how you stayed married to the same woman for so long.”

“Well,” Jerry said after thinking for a few moments, “I try to treat her nice, buy her presents, take her on trips…………. and best of all, for our 25th anniversary I took her to the Bahamas.”

“Well that’s really beautiful, and a true inspiration for all of us” the lady said “maybe you can tell us what you are going to do for your 50th anniversary” she said with a smile

“Well” Jerry said “I’m thinking of going back to the Bahamas to pick her up.”

We are celebrating today the aufruf and the upcoming marriage of David Hausse who will be marrying Etti Chayun. So before I continue I’d like to wish a very big Mazel tov on behalf of the entire congregation to Charles and Lynn Hausse, and to the entire Hausse family, to Moti and Eileen Chayun and the entire Chayun family, and to the proud grandfather, Marvin Keyser, and the entire Keyser and Shwartzman family. Mazel Tov!

David, I am sure over the next few days you will be bombarded by people giving you marriage advice. And it’s a funny thing – When you got your driver’s license, I can’t imagine that too many people cared to share with you driving tips. And the same is true for when you went to college – I can’t imagine you had people telling you the best way to study or to take notes. But when it comes to marriage everyone is lining up to tell you their advice on how to live a happy life together. And the obvious reason is because it’s not so easy. The statistics of failed marriages are much higher than car accidents or college dropouts. And so today I’d like to join the crowd and share with you a model; an understanding of marriage that I believe to be a rather healthy one. It does not involve leaving your wife in the Bahamas for twenty-five years.

To better appreciate this model, I think it’s important to first analyze two models which are unhealthy. Two models which cause quite a lot of stress and unhappiness in marriage. The first model is inspired by Bill Withers. It’s called the “Lean on me” model. It’s probably the one we are most familiar with, thanks to popular culture. You find this model expressed in song lyrics like, “I need you” or “Without you I’m incomplete.” It’s the idea that two people cannot function and cannot make it through life’s challenges on their own. It’s the classic love story of two people who on their own have flaws but together they compliment and compensate for one another.

It’s a nice idea, and on some level, we as Jews believe that through marriage one can find completion, but it’s also a dangerous idea. That is because when two people become so intertwined with one another, their concept of self and their self-regard becomes totally dependent on their significant other.

A classic manifestation of this is a spouse coming home to find his/her spouse in a lousy mood. In a matter of minutes, the “lean on me” spouse is also in a bad mood. And before you know it, they’re both grumpy and miserable. Or perhaps a more severe example, just as common, if a spouse in a “lean on me” relationship insults or offends the other spouse. Oh boy is that going to hurt! And that’s because each spouse’s self-worth is totally dependent on the other. If my boss insults me I could manage. But if my spouse insults me, and I rely on them for my self-esteem, I’ve just been deflated. That’s the “lean on me model”.

There’s another model that stands at the opposite side of the spectrum and that is when two spouses are totally indifferent. Basically, a husband and wife are room-mates. They live next to each other, they may share children, and their lives intersect from time to time but there is no deep emotional connection. This often happens as couples get older or worse, when a spouse who leaned on the other got tired of getting burned in the process and so the spouses each pull back until they live in their own parallel worlds. It goes without saying that being in an indifferent relationship is painful and certainly not the ideal.

So now we’re ready to appreciate the third model, one that is inspired by Jewish sources and customs. How does the Torah describe the idea of marriage? What is Judaism’s understanding of the relationship between a husband and wife?

The place to begin is obviously in the book of Bereishis where we read about G-d creating Eve. We find G-d commenting about Adam, “Lo tov heyos ha’Adam levado, It’s not good that man is all alone, E’eseh lo eizer k’negdo, I will make him an eizer, which means a help, someone to lean on, k’negdo, which means opposite him. Eizer k’negdo, a helper/ opposite him.”

Our Sages observe and ask the obvious question – these two terms are by definition contradictory. A helper is one we lean upon and someone who is opposite us means that we cannot lean on them, they stand away from us. Which one is it?

And I believe that the answer is both. The Torah, when it introduces to us the concept of union between two spouses is teaching us that we must live somewhere between these two poles. That our spouses are on the one hand people we lean upon – the idea that we are one. And at the same time, our spouses stand apart from us – we each have our own identity. Eizer and k’negdo are both true – the challenge of marriage is striking the right balance. Marriage is a balancing act between being so incredibly intimately connected and at the same time maintaining some personal space; recognizing that we are different and apart.

This idea of balancing ‘me’ and ‘we’ is also expressed in the mitzvot that relate to marriage. One of the most recent ancient cities in Israel to be excavated is right near a city called Modiin Ilit. In the excavations the archeologist found a Synagogue in the center of the town, they found numerous homes, and they also found a mikvah – a ritual bath. And that’s because no city was ever inhabited with Jews unless they first built a ritual bath. In the Mishna, our Sages teach us that building a mikvah takes precedence to building a synagogue. We are even allowed to sell a sefer Torah to receive funds from which to build a mikvah. Why? Why is a mikvah and family purity such a big deal?

I believe it’s because a mikvah and family purity represent this exact idea; the Jewish model of marriage, which is that a couple is together and yet they are apart. They have an existence as a unit and an existence that is totally independent of one another.

Let’s try to understand this on practical terms. I’ll share with you an example of one of the million areas in marriage where friction is found. Let’s take a fictitious couple, Matt and Samantha. Matt’s not so good at complimenting. Samantha buys a new outfit, no response from Matt. Samantha cooks a delicious meal and again no response from Matt. Understandably, it bothers Samantha. So what should she do?

Well, if Samantha is in a ‘lean on me’ relationship then she’ll be a mess. Her self-worth is totally dependent on her spouse who is not giving her the compliments that she so badly needs.

If Samantha’s in an indifferent relationship then she shrugs her shoulders and says, “Who cares? I’m sure someone else out there likes what I do” and she moves on. Obviously, this is also not a very healthy response.

But if Samantha is in an “eizer k’negdo relationship” then you know what she does, she asks herself, what vulnerabilities and fears do I possess that my husband’s resistance to compliment me is so difficult for me? What does this say about me and in which areas should I now work on to move beyond that?

Yes, there’s a time and place to work on what’s going wrong between a husband and wife but in a healthy relationship, each spouse should also be asking themselves what is it about this difficult situation that’s evoking from me such intense resistance and deep emotions?

So David, this is my advice to you. It goes without saying that your job as a husband is to be there for your wife monetarily, physically, and emotionally through all of life’s challenges. Judging by the happy glow on your face, I am sure you’ll do a wonderful job being there for her. But just as importantly, don’t lose yourself entirely. Marriage is the greatest opportunity for growth, for becoming a better and more developed individual. And here’s the most important part – the stronger you are, the firmer you stand on your own two feet, the better spouse you’ll be able to be. It’s a lot of work but the payoff is immeasurable.

A couple of months ago at the Oscars, Ben Affleck, in his acceptance speech said about his marriage, “It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”

Not too long afterwards, social media outlets everywhere had people voting whether or not Ben slept on the couch that night. But you know what, and you won’t hear me endorse a Hollywood star’s philosophies all that often, but he was right. Marriage is a process, it’s not a destination. But through that hard work, it’s an opportunity for the greatest development possible. If each spouse uses moments of conflict to make themselves better people by becoming more aware of their weaknesses and ultimately changing themselves, you will live a very, very happy and full life together.

And so I conclude with the blessing that you will be hearing at your wedding in just a short while, Sameiach t’samach rei’im ahuvim, may you, the beloved companions David and Etti, rejoice with the joy and fulfillment of true and healthy companionship. May you each grow through your marriage and learn about yourselves and develop yourselves. In the process may your marriage be one of intense happiness and overflowing joy.

Good Shabbos and Mazel Tov!

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Shmiras HaLashon #38

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 17, 2013

It is very difficult to generalize the following rules because the application is so nuanced. However, in a very general sense, there is an obligation to share any information that can objectively destroy a relationship. For example, in a marriage prospect, to share the fact that one party has a severe psychological condition should be done. Information that is subjective; questions like is the person intelligent, etc. may be shared if asked but should not be volunteered. Information that is purely a matter of preference, such as what type of music does the individual like, can be shared if asked but one can just as easily side-step such questions without any guilty conscience since that type of information is not essential to the well-being of the relationship.

Again, every case is unique. It is therefore preferable to ask someone who knows these laws before sharing such information. The good people at the Chafeitz Chaim Heritage Foundation have a hotline where people are ready to answer questions about shmiras halashon, 718-951-3696. That’s a pretty amazing service to provide!

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