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Prayer #6

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 9, 2013

Before we analyze the text of Baruch Sheamar, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the source of this blessing. The entire Pesukei D’Zimra consists of sections from TaNaCh. Primarily from Tehillim, but there are sections from Divrei Hayamim as well as the Chumash. Baruch Sheamar has no early sources. It is not found in TaNaCh, nor is it even found mentioned in the Gemara. Because of this one prominent Halachic authority was of the opinion that the blessing is of lesser significance than all other blessings (all blessings that we say are found in the Talmud) and therefore, if one is in the middle of the blessing of Baruch Sheamar and they hear a blessing, they  may interrupt and say Amen, something that is not allowed during any other blessing.

However, we do not rule this way and it is forbidden to interrupt during the blessing of Baruch Sheamar even to say Amen. Not only that, but some of the commentators, writing in the eleventh and twelfth century, state that the text of Baruch Sheamar is found in the Jerusalem Talmud. The text of the Jerusalem Talmud that is in our possession makes no mention of Baruch Sheamar and therefore they must have had a text that we do not. There are other sources writing around the same time that cite a tradition that the text of Baruch Sheamar was written by the Men of the Great Assembly, the same people who penned the Amida, thus giving Baruch Sheamar a prominent status. It is because of this tradition, and because the Kabbalists understand Baruch Sheamar to be a very significant prayer, that we stand for the recital of Baruch Sheamar, symbolizing how significant this prayer is.

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Prayer #5

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 7, 2013

The underlying theme of Mizmor Shir Chanukas HaBayis is an acknowledgment that G-d has saved King David from difficult times. “You have drawn me up… You healed me… In the evening I go to sleep crying and in the morning there is joy… You have transformed my mourning into dancing” Over and over again, King David describes the terrible predicaments he was in and how G-d brought him up and out of those difficulties.

He concludes this moving Psalm by stating “So that my soul will sing to You and not be silent.” It would seem that King David understood that the purpose of all of his darkness and suffering was so that he could sing to G-d. And sing he did! King David managed to capture the rich emotions he experienced through his at times challenging and at times exhilarating life and put them into words – the Book of Tehillim.

While we may not write as poetically as King David, we could certainly learn from him and not stifle our emotions. Instead, like King David, we could use our inner tempest as a catalyst for prayer and develop a more meaningful relationship with our Creator.

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Prayer #4

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 7, 2013

Pesukei D’Zimra begins with Psalm 30, which opens with the words, “Mizmor shir chanukas habayis l’Dovid/ A psalm, a song for the dedication of the Temple, by David.” It’s interesting to note that King David did not actually build the Temple, it was his son Shlomo who built it after King David died. David wanted to build the Temple and even started working on it but he received a prophecy informing him that he was not allowed to go ahead with it. Nonetheless, King David decided to write a song about the Temple’s dedication.

Reciting this chapter of Tehillim in the beginning of Pesukei D’Zimra was introduced as late as the 17th century and there are many explanations as to why it was added and how it relates to Pesukei D’Zimra. One commentator explains that this psalm is recited not so much as an introduction to Pesukei D’Zimra but as a conclusion to the section beforehand. Prior to Pesukei D’Zimra, many have the custom to recite the Biblical passages that relate to the sacrifices. Therefore, to say a psalm that relates to the Temple, the location where the sacrifices were brought is certainly appropriate.

Taking this a little deeper, the Talmud in Berachos (6a) states that one who attempts to do a good deed but for whatever reason cannot go ahead with it, he or she is credited as if they did the good deed. A classic example of this is King David. He wanted to build the Bais HaMikdash and yet G-d Himself told him that he cannot. This psalm, written by King David and discussing the inauguration of the Temple indicates that he is considered as if he himself built it. With this in mind we could understand the relevance to the sacrifices that were just recited. We long for the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash where we can bring sacrifices. Until then all we could do is recite the Biblical passages that pertain to sacrifices and hope G-d considers that as if we actually brought the sacrifices themselves.

What a wonderful thought to start the day with! We all start the day with many lofty plans and goals. Unfortunately, not every day do we accomplish all that we would like to do. Mizmor shir chanukas habayis l’Dovid.” Don’t worry. Try your hardest. Whatever you don’t accomplish is considered by G-d as if it was done.

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Prayer #3

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 6, 2013

Pesukei D’Zimra was not always considered an intrinsic part of our daily services. Rav Sadya Gaon, writing in the 10th century, considered Pesukei Dzimra a voluntary section of prayers. (RWO)

Rav Yose states, let my portion be with those who recite Hallel every day (Tractate Shabbos 118b). This is the source for saying Pesukei D’Zimra, which like Hallel, is a collection of praises to G-d. The reason we say Pesukei D’Zimra before Shemoneh Esrei, as opposed to afterwards like we do with Hallel, is based on a statement by Rav Simai (Tractate Berachos 32a) who says that one should first praise G-d and then make requests. (RYS)

While the simple meaning of Pesukei D’Zimra is verses of praise, the mystics understand the term ‘zimra’ on a deeper level. The word ‘zimra’ in addition to meaning song also shares a root with the word ‘zomer’ to prune. They therefore explain that the function of this section is to prune away all distractions from our mind. By focusing on the beautiful world G-d created and the wonderful kindness He has bestowed upon us, we purify our minds and are more prepared to stand befor Him in prayer. (RYS)

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The Lonely Spiritual Traveler

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 5, 2013

The Lonely Spiritual Traveler

Parshas Re’eh 5773

It’s good to be back! I missed this. I missed shul, I missed you, I even missed this wonderful Baltimore weather.

It was a wonderful trip. It’s always nice to spend some extra time with family just to enjoy their company and to have the opportunity to teach my children a thing or two. We tried to teach them how to hike, how to boat, and even how to fish. But there are two things I taught my children that really stuck out. At one point our GPS wasn’t working so well. We were driving from New Hampshire to New York on a Friday and couldn’t afford to get lost. So I pulled up at a gas station and announced to my family that I was going to buy a map. At which point Tehilla, my four year old, said, “Aba, what’s a map?” So I explained to her that a map is a GPS on paper. Naturally, she understood.

Two days earlier, we were touring an old train station and she saw a phone booth. She’s a curious girl, and so she asked me, “Aba, what’s that?” And I of course explained to her that once upon a time, long long ago, not every citizen of the universe had a cell phone…

I wanted to dedicate my sermon to day to communication. I’d like to talk to you about cellphones, payphones, Facebook, and Twitter. Not only my sermon but I actually wanted to dedicate the next few weeks, the month of Elul, to this important topic of communication; communication between spouses, between family members, between strangers, between Israelis and Palestinians, and ultimately, explore our communication with G-d, otherwise known as prayer. But before we discuss communication, before we spend the next few weeks discussing how we express ourselves, I want to discuss where speech and where communication falls short. Communication, as great as it is, and speech, as powerful as it is, is limited. And it’s that limitation that I’d like to discuss today.

There is a book written by Abraham Joshua Heschel known as A Passion for Truth. It’s hailed as the greatest English book on Hassidism. In the book, Heschel compares and contrasts Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. One of the similarities between them is the fact that they both lived a portion of their life in solitude. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, otherwise known as the Kotzker, spent the end of his life in isolation, refusing to meet with just about anyone. And the truth is, historians point out that he wasn’t the only Chassid Rabbi to do so. Elie Wiesel has a book dedicated to four Chassidic Rabbis who also spent the end of their life in private. Now you have to appreciate how ironic it is for leaders of the Chassidic movement to spend the end of their lives in silence and sadness. These people were at the helm of the most significant spiritual revolution that the Jewish People experienced and the main thrust of this movement’s message was happiness! It was ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, serve G-d with joy! It was about brotherhood and creating a sense of community! And yet you have these leaders unable to communicate with anyone else. Chassidic leaders who were unable to transcend their despair! How ironic! How bizarre!

Heschel suggests that what caused the Kotzker to live out the end of his life in isolation, much like Kierkegaard, is precisely because they lived such rich spiritual lives. A man like the Kotzker, like Kierkegaard, and like those four Hasidic Masters who wanted to live honestly and share the beauty of G-d and of truth with others were stuck. They had so much to share, so much to say, but there was no one who could understand them, no one who could grasp the beauty and depth of their message and of their lives. It was precisely because they had so much to share that they had such a difficult time sharing it.

It’s like a sunset. I’m sure all of you have once and hopefully more than once have witnessed a majestic sunset or sunrise. Whether it was standing atop Masada, whether it was at the beaches of the Pacific, or right here in Baltimore and it just took your breath away. Have you ever tried sharing that experience with others? Have you ever tried to convey how you felt at that moment?

It’s impossible. It falls flat on its face. What can you possibly say that can convey the true beauty that you witnessed? Nothing.

And that’s why those great people went silent. They were fountains of spiritual creativity; their desire to come close to G-d was bursting at their heart’s seams – and yet it couldn’t be shared. Some spiritual giants were able to live with that tension. They weren’t.

Let me share with you a concrete example of what I’m talking about. So it seems like the only exciting thing that happened while I was on vacation was the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. But for sports fans, and specifically pro golf fans there was another significant birth that recently took place. A 31 year old golfer by the name of Hunter Mahan was winning the Canadian Open. Now the Canadian Open is not exactly the Master’s but for golfer’s in the know the Canadian Open is a serious tournament – not to mention the check for a million dollars that goes to the winner. Well, halfway through the tournament Mr. Mahan was leading the race when he received a cell phone from his agent. It was his wife on the phone calling from their home in Dallas, Texas. She was calling to tell him that she just went into labor – three weeks early and was on her way to the hospital. Hunter put down his golf club, and got on the next plane home to Texas and made it in time for the birth of his first child, Zoe.

Now there is another individual Jonathan Greenberg who lives in New Jersey. This past Thursday at 6 P.M. Jonathan was faced with a dilemma. He had a big project that he wanted to have finished by the weekend. But he also knew that at seven his toddlers go to sleep in addition to the fact that his wife needed some help cooking for Shabbos because they were having a lot of guests on Friday night. After a moment or two of deliberation, he jumped in his car and made it home right before his four year old and two year old were going to sleep, just enough time to tuck them in and give them a good night kiss.

So who’s the greater dad? Who’s the greater husband? Hunter or Jonathan? Leaving a million dollar game behind or leaving a self-imposed deadline? Being there for birth or being there to tuck the children in and peel potatoes? Which one is greater?

Obviously, the answer is who knows? Who knows if Mr. Greenberg had a father who was never there for him whereas Mr. Mahan’s father was always there for him? Or vice versa? Who knows if Mr. Mahan desperately needed the money and Mr. Greenberg was doing okay? Who knows if Mr. Greenberg’s wife told him that it’s no problem for him to stay at work if he needs to and Mr. Mahan’s wife said that if you don’t come home for our child’s birth then find a new wife. Who knows?!

Spiritual accomplishments are not measured by newspaper clippings. Spiritual success cannot be judged externally. Our internal struggle, the struggle between our neshama and guf, of body and soul, cannot be appreciated by anyone other than ourselves. We can talk about our struggles and the darkness we fight through, we can write about our accomplishments and the wonderful feeling of overcoming hardships, but no expression; no word, no letter, no image, can properly convey what’s going on inside. That inadequacy to share of oneself drove the the Kotzker into silence and it’s the tension and loneliness that all of us have to live with.

Let me share with you one more example. All of us are here came to shul today. We can say, that we all had the same spiritual accomplishment. But let’s look a little deeper at what that means. I’m sure some of you considered not coming to shul today and for you there was a challenge as to whether or not you should come. Some of you were certain you were going to come but had to pull yourselves away from the morning paper or to get out of bed a few minutes earlier to come at the time that you came – for you the battle was what time you should come. Others jumped out of bed and were here early and had to decide how much of davening will be spent speaking to the person next to you and how much time talking to G-d. To you there was no challenge getting here, but you had to battle with yourself as to how you should spend your time in shul. As for me, if I wouldn’t have been here at 9 AM with my tallis on and my face glued to the siddur, I’d be out of a job! I had no challenge whatsoever in getting here!

Do you see what I’m saying? We’re all here in the same room, we’re all davening, saying the same words, singing along to the same tunes, but in terms of what’s going on inside, in the spiritual dimension; in our struggles between body and soul we’re all radically different.

The reason I bring this up is because we are beginning the month of Elul this week. Elul is the precursor to the High Holidays, it’s a time to prepare oneself for a new year and a new beginning. As I said when I began, I would like to focus on communication over the next few weeks; communication with one another and communication with G-d. But I’d like to do that as a group, as a community. But as individuals, our struggles are so radically different than one another. Elul is a time to start thinking ahead; how am I going to become a better person this year? In what are do I need to change? In what area do I face the most challenges?

When charting our course for the year to come, let’s remember that my struggle is radically different than yours. Your accomplishments are radically different than mine. Let’s set goals for ourselves for the coming year but let’s make sure that we are taking a serious spiritual inventory of who we are; of looking deep down inside ourselves and understanding something that only we can understand – where we need to grow and where we need to change. In that light and with that understanding, we can make real goals for ourselves that will allow us to accomplish and achieve true spiritual growth.

The Torah Portion today began with the words Re’eh Anochi nosein lifneichem es hachaim v’es hamaves, See that today I have placed before you the choice to decide between life and death, between good and evil. And many of the commentators ask, if Moshe is speaking to the entire congregation, why does he say “re’eh, see” in the singular? It should be said in the plural? Re’u, you the entire congregation should see?

The Vilna Gaon explains that the reason G-d speaks in the singular specifically here at the beginning of this week’s Torah Portion is because this week’s Torah Portion begins with Moshe telling the Jewish People about a journey, a spiritual journey. And on a spiritual journey, when we are trying to grow in our unique ways, we have to recognize that it gets very lonely. Because my accomplishments are not your accomplishments, what challenges me doesn’t challenge you and vice versa. The path to spiritual greatness is very lonely indeed. Hence, re’eh, you, the individual should see because no one else can see what you see.

The Vilna Gaon concludes his explanation with a reminder to the spiritual traveler that although it’s lonely not being able to share one’s experience with others, although it’s lonely being the only one to truly appreciate one’s own accomplishments, one should always remember that there is Someone who does understand, and that’s our Father in Heaven. He’s with us, He understand us, and He’s rooting us on.



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Prayer #3

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 5, 2013

I would like to begin our journey through the siddur with Pesukei D’Zimrah. However, before I do so, I would like to explain the section we say immediately before – “Rabbi Yishmael Omer.” I have been asked many times why we say this section – it does not seem to be a prayer at all. The short answer is as follows: The Talmud suggests that each day we should spend time studying Tanach, Mishna, and Talmud. It is for this reason that our Sages added the many sections we say between Berachos and Pesukei d’Zimrah. Those sections include a passage from the Chumash, a few Mishnayos, and the section of Rabbi Yishmael – taken from the Talmud.

Of course this does not explain why we say this specific section out of all the sections in the Talmud. The significance of this section can be explained in the following fashion: There is a well-known Medrash that explains that when Moshe stood on Mt. Sinai for 40 days he learned the entire Torah. The Medrash continues and asks, how in the world was he able to learn the entire Torah?! The Torah is so vast and deep. Is it really possible to learn it all in 40 days? The Medrash explains that he was taught the principles that are used to interpret the Torah. Since the principles are the foundation for all of Torah knowledge it was as if he learned the entire thing.

Similarly, the passage of Rabbi Yishmael Omer is actually a compilation of the principles used to interpret the Torah. The principles are applied and spelled out throughout the Talmud, making up a good portion of the Oral Law. Because this passage is a list of the foundation of the Oral Law it was chosen as the section to recite to fulfill the Talmud’s suggestion of learning Talmud every day.

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Prayer #2

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 4, 2013

Before we open the siddur and begin to explore its contents it’s important to have a better understanding of how and when prayer became a part of our daily lives. This is actually a matter of great debate between two of the greatest Jewish philosophers, Maimonides and Ramban. Maimonides understands that prayer is Biblically mandated. Our Sages instituted the times and language that we use to fulfill this mitzvah. The Ramban argues that prayer is only Biblical in a time of distress. Accordingly, our daily prayers are Rabbinic in nature.

It should be noted that Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the two opinions are actually in agreement. They argue as to the definition of “distress.” In his words:

The views of Maimonides and Nachmanides can be reconciled. Both regarded prayer as meaningful only if it is derived from a sense of “tzara” [=distress]. They differ in their understanding of the word. Maimonides regarded daily life itself as being existentially in straits, inducing in the sensitive person feelings of despair, a brooding sense of life’s meaninglessness, absurdity, lack of fulfillment. It is persistent “tzara,” which exists “bekhol yom,” daily. The word “tzara” connotes more than external trouble… Certainly, the Psalmist’s cry, “Min hama’amakim karati Yah,” “Out of my straits, I have called upon the Lord” (Tehilim 118:5), refers to an inner, rather than an externally induced, state of constriction and oppression.  (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Reflections of the Rav, pp. 80-81)

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New Topic on the Rabbi’s Blog – Prayer

By: Rabbi Motzen | August 2, 2013

A number of weeks ago, I spoke about the importance of planting flowers in the garden of prayer ( What I meant was that the ideal way to develop beautiful and meaningful prayer in our shul and in our lives is that instead of shushing the people around us, we should instead focus on learning to make our own prayers so much more beautiful. But it’s not easy. The Talmud relates (Bava Basra 164b) a list of things that a person is guilty of on a daily basis, one of them is not paying proper attention to one’s prayers.

The story is told that the Gerrer Rebbe once walked over to a chassid of his after the chassid finished praying and said “Shalom Aleichem” – a statement typically used when welcoming someone back from a distant journey. Noting the puzzled look on the chassid’s face, the Rebbe explained that he had watched the chassid pray and noticed from the way he was praying that he had been all over the world with his thoughts – everywhere except in the siddur! And so he was welcoming him back from his journey… (RZL)

What I would like to do is spend some time exploring the meaning of our prayers. I believe that the more we are aware of what we are saying the easier it will be to be engaged in prayer. In the process of exploring the meaning of the prayers I will shed some light on the history and some select laws that pertain to prayer.

(I will be using a number of books and I will try to give credit where credit is due. I may add more books and names to the list as time goes on so feel free to reference this list as time goes on.

Primarily – Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein’s Baruch Sheamar – RBHE

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus’s Seder Hatfillah – RSP

Rabbi Dr. Orenstein’s A Window to the Siddur – RWO

Rabbi Zev Leff’s Shemoneh Esrei – RZL

Rabbi Yitzchak Sender’s The Commentator’s Siddur – RYS

Rabbi Shimon Schwab on Prayer – RSS

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J Twerski’s Twerski on Prayer – RAJT

and of course the Shulchan Aruch in discussing the laws of prayer – SA.)

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Laws of the Three Weeks #19

By: Rabbi Motzen | July 15, 2013

A mourner is not allowed to sit on a regular chair during Shiva. Similarly, on Tisha B’Av, until noon, it is forbidden to sit on a regular chair. Ideally, one should sit on the floor. If this is not practical, sitting on a chair that has a seat that is less than twelve inches high is permitted. If this is not practical, sitting on a chair that is lower than a regular chair is permitted. If this too is not practical, for example if one is sick or elderly, sitting on a regular chair is permitted.

While travelling no such restrictions apply.

A person should ideally sleep with less than their usual comforts. If one sleeps with two pillows then sleep with one etc. However if this will cause a loss of sleep then sleeping as usual is permitted.

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Laws of the Three Weeks #18

By: Rabbi Motzen | July 15, 2013

A mourner during the week of Shiva is not allowed to greet people. Similarly, on Tisha B’Av, greeting is forbidden. If someone greets you, you may respond but it is preferable to do so in a more subdued fashion than usual.

Wearing shoes with any leather is forbidden. While some may argue that wearing comfortable non-leather shoes, such as Crocs, is not in the spirit of the day, they are nonetheless allowed.

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