Our True Connection to the Land of Israel
Parshas Lech Lecha
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef, who passed away this week at the age of 93. Rav Yosef was the leader of the Sephardic community both in Israel and abroad and was widely respected for his encyclopedic mind and his legendary kindness. While he was controversial at times, the entire nation is sorely lacking by the loss of this giant of a man. G-d willing, I will discuss his life at length next Shabbos.
Today, I’d like to begin by reading to you an article found on the Times of Israel website. It’s titled ‘Dear BDS Movement: Please Don’t Be Hypocrites.’ BDS, as many of you know, stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. They are a movement that attempts to do exactly that to anything and everything that has to do with Israel.
The author begins by acknowledging the two Israeli citizens who won Nobel prizes this past week for their advancements in the field of chemistry. It brings the total number for Israeli Nobel laureates to 12; which is a remarkable number for a country that’s 65 years old.
Allow me to quote: “Fine, continue your boycott. But do us a favor. Put your money where your mouth is and boycott everything to do with Israel. Any chump can boycott Israeli potatoes in their local supermarket and buy home grown ones instead. Nobody is going to lose sleep at night by replacing Israeli olives with Greek ones. Everyone can boycott Soda Stream and just buy a Coke instead.
So boycott Vaxil BioTherapeutics, the Israeli company which hopes to have a cancer vaccine ready in about six years, one ‘that could be applied to 90 percent of all known cancers, including prostate and breast cancer, solid and non-solid tumors.’
Boycott graduates of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Biodesign program who have developed GuideIN Tube, a robotic intubation device that automatically identifies the lungs using an infrared source and helps navigate toward it, making a dangerous medical procedure far safer and easier.”
The author goes on and on listing the medical achievements of Israeli scientists and concludes with the following sarcastic remark:
“If there comes a time when you or a family member desperately needs a life-saving Israeli technology or medicine, remember Desmond Tutu’s words: “Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation”, and just say ‘no’.”
When I attend the AIPAC policy conference, the speakers don’t talk about Israel’s latest medical and scientific advancements. Rather, all emphasize the unique role Israel plays and how without Israel in the Middle East there wouldn’t be a single true ally to the Unites States. They repeat over and over, that Israel brings security and stability to a region that is anything but.
These are the arguments we Israel-loving Jews love to make. We remind the world of the incredible contributions by Israel to the stability of the region, the medical and not to mention technological advancements of the country. What would the world do without the USB flash drive – another Israeli invention? What about the Intel 8088, the microprocessor, or the brains of the first private computers?
The argument we make is essentially, “How could you vilify and hate a country that you so much depend upon?”
It’s a powerful argument, I admit. But I’ve been wondering. What if that was not the case? What if Israel was not a democracy? What if Israel was a backward land filled with illiterate farmers? What if Israel had no contributions to make to the world and their only relationship with the civilized world was draining their resources? What would we say then?
It’s an uncomfortable question, I know. But we, who profess a deep love for the land, should at least try to answer it.
Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN and in his speech he stated with his usual passion the following: “Ladies and gentlemen, Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself. I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
It was that last line that to me was most significant. Not because it was a novel idea – Israel and the Jewish People standing alone is as old as our religion. But it was significant because it reminded us that the Jewish People, even in this day and age of reason and enlightenment, must still stand alone.
Rav Soloveitchik makes this same point in his seminal work, The Lonely Man of Faith begins his book by stating, and I quote: “that he looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society.” Now if there is any Jewish leader who was not a stranger in modern society it was Rav Soloveitchik. He was more comfortable with the Christian writings of Emmanuel Kant than the greatest Christian theologian. He was a man who never shied away from scientific inquiry and its latest advancements. And yet, he calls himself a stranger in modern society.
What he was saying was precisely this idea – that sometimes to be a Jew; to be a man of faith in a largely secular society can be very lonely because society does not speak your language; the language of G-d and prayer, the language of faith and providence. Society does not share the same values; values of modesty, the same understanding of life and of meaning. Thus, the man of faith can often be rather lonely.
The source of this tension between the modern world and the Jewish People, the source of this tension can be found in this weeks’ Torah portion. G-d appears to Avraham who is at the time 99 years old and had lived a life that was entirely dedicated to morality and ethics, and G-d says “Hithaleich l’fonay, v’heyey tamim, Walk before me and be perfect.” This is a puzzling statement. What does that mean?! Avraham was an embodiment of perfection. He was righteous, he was caring he was loving, he was giving. What did G-d want from him?
The commentators explain that all that was true; Avraham was perfect; he was as perfect as a human being can become on their own. However, G-d was now giving Avraham the commandment of circumcision; he was teaching him that there is another dimension; he was teaching him that being humane and civil is not a substitute for Judaism. Judaism is not simply a guide to a moral life. Judaism is the guide to a G-dly life. Yes one can live a moral and upstanding life without it, as Avraham himself did. But to be tamim, to be perfect, one needs Divine direction and one needs a Divine perspective. G-d’s perspective is at times not understandable by the modern world, at time it is at odds with the perspective of the modern world, but nonetheless it’s a perspective that’s provided to us from the Creator Himself.
And I believe that this idea, the recognition that our worldview is so dramatically different than the world around us is essential to maintaining a true bond to the Land of Israel. Because our bond to the land of Israel transcends human reasoning. To us, Israel represents a relationship between man and G-d. Not only a relationship of the past – the rich Jewish history in Israel from the times of our ancestors to the times of the Roman expulsion. It’s also a relationship of the future – because we, like many other Modern Orthodox synagogues, proudly proclaim in the Prayer for the State of Israel that Israel is “reishit tzemichat geuloteinu, that Israel is the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” What we are saying is that the Jewish People gathering in Israel, that the development of the barren desert into a flowering country is a step closer to the final redemption. Those are ideas that don’t carry much weight on the world stage.
And the truth is that our relationship to the land transcends even history. Our relationship to the land rests upon the words in this week’s Torah portion, “l’cha n’taticha ul’zaracha ad olam, to you I gave the land and to your children forever and ever!” Our relationship to the land of Israel is not dependent on scientific advancement, it’s not dependent on technological breakthroughs, and it’s not dependent on military alliances. The Jew’s relationship to Israel rests upon one thing – G-d’s word. And that is something that is unexplainable and inexplicable on the world stage. That is a different language and a different mindset than that of the modern world that we live in.
To properly understand our connection to Israel, to properly appreciate the bond of love thatexists between us and Israel, we must identify with Rav Soloveitchik’s sentiment. We must appreciate that to be a Jew is to be a lonely man or woman of faith. On the world stage, we could and should focus on Nobel laureates, technological and medical advancements, and strategic alliances. But we must remember that as Avraham’s descendants “we are strangers in a foreign land.” In our heart of hearts we must hold on tight to the great heritage of Avraham by acknowledging a Higher calling, by viewing the world through the perspective of the Torah, and by recognizing that no matter what, Israel is G-d’s gift to the Jewish People.
Az Yashir begins with a statement to the effect that after the Jewish People witnessed the Egyptians drowning in the sea they believed in G-d. This is rather puzzling considering the fact that they had just witnessed the ten plagues. What was unique about the splitting of the sea and the Egyptians drowning in it that caused the Jewish People to “believe”?
Rabbi Orenstein (A Window to the Siddur) suggests that the Jews surely believed in G-d prior to the splitting of the sea. What took place afterwards was a qualitative change in the belief. What they had witnessed throughout the ten plagues was divine retribution. The Egyptians were evil and G-d punished them. Ultimately, those plagues enabled the Jews to go free, their ancestors, the generations before them, weren’t as lucky. At the yam suf, the Jews turned to G-d because they were in imminent danger and for the first time in their experience G-d immediately responded. G-d is not only a vengeful G-d, He is also a G-d who saves! After witnessing their pursuers drown in the sea, the Jewish People understood and subsequently believed in G-d in a broader, more accurate fashion.
There is a well-known custom to give charity during Vayevarech Dovid and specifically while saying the words, “V‘ata moshel bakol, You rule over everything.” The simple reason we give at this time is because the greatest impediment to giving charity is our false belief that we are in control of our finances. The more we are aware that G-d runs the world, the easier it is to give charity.
Rabbi Pincus explains a deeper reasoning for giving during Vayevarech Dovid. He explains that Vayevarech Dovid and Az Yashir serve as a bridge between Pesukei D’zimra and the blessings preceding Shema. Pesukei D’zimra primarily focuses on the world as we know it whereas the blessings of Shema focus on the realms that are not discernible by the naked eye. It is when we experience miracles that we become very much aware of the great hand of G-d that is hiding behind the scenes and that there is a reality that we are not aware of. Vayevarech Dovid begins with a list of praises that the Talmud in Berachos explains to be referring to different miracles that G-d performed for the Jewish People and Az Yashir is a song sung by the Jews as they crossed the Yam suf. Thus, this section serves as a connection between ‘heaven and earth.’
In a similar fashion, money is a means of connecting the two worlds. Money is on the one hand a source of greed and many other base desires, symbolizing a lowly part of humankind. At the same time, if lifted up and used for an appropriate cause it can be the most spiritual of items. Therefore, paralleling the bridge that is being built as we read these words, we give charity which is an act of bridging the two worlds as well.
Between the last Hallelukah and Vay’varech Dovid there are a few verses from Tehillim that begin with Baruch Hashem. They are placed there to indicate that Pesukei D’Zimra originally concluded at that point (just like we conclude Pesukei D’Zimra with the blessing of Yishtabach, these verses of Baruch Hashem acts as a quasi-blessing to conclude the original Pesukei D’Zimra).
At the end of the paragraph we say Amein twice. This is done because Amein has two meanings; it is true and may it be G-d’s will. We conclude this section of Pesukei D’Zimra by reaffirming everything we have just said. In addition, we ask G-d to bring to realization the many prayers that relate to the Messianic era.
A Complex World
There’s a whole lot going on in the world; the government shutdown, Netanyahu’s recent speech at the UN, for television junkies the season finale of Breaking Bad, and for us in Ner Tamid, a new break in middle of davening.
Now I know on face value, none of these events seem to be connected, but I believe that they are all very much related. The common thread connecting Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian Prime Minister, who was the focus of Netanyahu’s speech, the way out of the deadlock between Republicans and Democrats, a very popular television show, and the break, is that they are all products of a post-mabul, a post-great flood reality. Allow me to explain.
The commentators explain that a dramatic shift took place after the great flood. The era preceding the great flood was a time of black and white, it was a reality with crystal clear distinctions. There was good and there was bad. There was right and there was wrong. The great change that was introduced after the flood was nuance; a reality where there is a blurring of lines, a world where absolutes no longer exist.
For example, in a pre-flood world, meat was forbidden. In a post-flood world, some meats were allowed and some were not. In a pre-flood world, the Medrashim suggest that the world experienced a single season the entire year – perpetual springtime even here in Baltimore! Afterwards, seasons; a waxing and waning of the sun and cold is introduced to the world. In other words, before the flood the world was a world of simplicity, with defined lines distinguishing between one thing and another, whereas after the flood, there is confusion and complexity.
And it wasn’t limited to the rules of G-d or the rules of nature. Those changes in the seasons and in what was allowed and not allowed was just an expression of a dramatic shift that took place in man himself. The Nesivos Sholom makes the brilliant observation that G-d describes the people who were wiped out in the flood as “Kulo ra, entirely evil.” However, when we describe an evil person, we call him or her a rasha. What’s the difference in spelling between the word ra and the word rasha? The letter shin. The letter shin is the letter that we place on the outside of our mezuzas, it’s the letter that is on our tefillin because shin represents G-d and G-dliness. The reason we describe an evil person as a rasha, meaning ra with a shin in the middle is because there is no longer such a thing as an individual who is totally evil. Even an evil person is not ra, entirely evil but rather a rasha, evil but with a spark of G-d burning inside. When Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his very powerful speech to the UN, described Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he was touching upon this idea. What he was saying is that the new Iranian prime minister is a product of a post-flood world. He’s complex. He speaks of peace and democratic development and sounds and may even be sincere. But at the same time, we must acknowledge the facts on the ground, his history of involvement in terrorist acts, the continued development of nuclear weapons in Iran. That’s because in a post-flood world, there are no absolutes. Sincere aspirations and evil actions, moral justifications and crime, can go hand in hand.
I think a great example of this is a trend in popular culture. Trend-watchers in the television industry have noticed a sharp shift from the typical good guy/ bad guy division. We grew up watching films and television shows with a villain and a hero. But over the past little while, more and more televisions shows are featuring hero-villains; ex-teachers who are drug-lords, psychopathic murderers who murder bad people, and unfaithful spouses in unloving relationships; people who are acting in an absolutely immoral way and yet are considered the heroes of their respective shows. On the one hand one could argue that this is a disturbing trend, and I do think it’s a terrible thing when half of America is watching television shows that glorify abhorrent behavior. But it’s also an acknowledgment that “the bad guy” in real life is much more complex than we would like to think. The fact that these television shows are wildly popular is a testimony to a maturity of the audience, recognizing that there are virtually no truly evil people in the world and that most criminals, while we must be vigilant against their actions, we can also recognize some nobility in their deeds.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this was the meaning of the rainbow that G-d showed Noach after the flood. A rainbow is one unified ray of light in its purest form, broken up into seven colors. The colors range from red, which is the closest to the light, to violet, which farthest from the light merges into darkness. And yet, they are all shades of light.
Rav Hisrch explains that this symbolizes all of mankind. There are some who are moral, upstanding and G-d fearing – they are symbolized by the red light, people who have strong rays of Divine light shining through them. And then there are those who are very close to darkness, people who seem to have not a trace of G-dliness within them. And yet, the rainbow reminds us that as distant as they may be, as dark as they may be, they still possess a glimmer of G-d’s Divine light.
This idea of complexity, of a mixing of good and evil, is true too about our opinions and world-views because in a world where absolutes, for the most part, do not exist, it is virtually impossible for one opinion to be absolutely correct or absolutely wrong. Now if only someone can tell this to our representatives in Washington! True compromise comes about when we seek out what is valuable in an opinion other than our own. It’s only when we recognize that there is nothing that is totally devoid of light, we are more equipped to find that light in others.
There’s one last expression of this post-mabul complexity that I’d like to focus on. According to one version in the Talmud, the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve partook in was actually grapes – they drank wine that was forbidden to them. In a pre-flood world, in a world of absolutes, there was no compromise. G-d said you many not eat at all from the fruits of that tree. And after the flood, Noach also sinned with wine, but his sin was rather different. Noach was allowed to drink wine. Actually, according to some he was justified in drinking wine. He just witnessed the virtual destruction of the human race – he needed an escape! As King Solomon writes in Proverbs, T’nu sheichor l’oveid, v’yayin l’marei nefesh, give alcohol to those who are sad. The Shulchan Aruch (actually, the Rema) concludes the section of Orach Chaim with the statement Tov lev mishteh tomid, that to have a good heart one should always drink. And every Shabbos we welcome and say good-bye to Shabbos over a cup of wine. And yet, Noach is punished, if not explicitly than at least implicitly by being disgraced by his own son. So which one is it; does Judaism see alcohol as good or as bad? Is drinking a virtue or a vice?
And the answer as you can well imagine, is that in a complex, post-flood world, there are no absolutes. Everything, even alcohol, is not good but nor is it bad – it’s complicated. It has to be dealt with and interacted with with extreme caution and incredible care in order to ensure that we do not end up like Noach; ashamed, embarrassed, and because of his drunkenness greatly impacting the development of his son. In a post-flood world, alcohol can and at times should be used, but we must always recognize the incredible danger that lurks within.
I’d like to conclude by sharing with you a story, a modern day version of the story of Noach. The OU, which as you know has an extreme position regarding alcohol consumption and Kiddush club’s in shul ran a story a few years ago which I’d like to read to you: A particularly vehement opponent of our attempt to stop the kiddush club practice happens to be an officer in one of our regions. He was an avid member of a Kiddush club at his synagogue until several weeks ago when he took his sons and their friends to a basketball game. Some people in the row in front of them were drinking and beginning to show the effects of the liquor. When the father muttered about how poorly behaved those people were, the kids spontaneously answered, “But they look just like you guys do when you come back to shul for Musaf after the kiddush club.”
We live in a world of rainbows; a world where we can on the one hand acknowledge the righteousness in those that are evil, and at the same time recognize and identify the dangerous in that which is good. To live in a world of complexity one needs caution and moderation. One needs to take care not to slip – not too much to one side and not too much to the other. One needs to learn from the mistake of Noach and seek out a healthy and perfect balance.
May G-d give us the insight to find that balance; to seek out the good in others, to find the validity of opposing opinions and the ability to recognize the dangers that exist without moderation.
One last note about the final Hallelukah. One of the instruments listed is a neivel. Artscroll translates a neivel to be a lyre (a stringed instrument, similar to a harp). The Jerusalem Talmud explains that the reason it is called a neivel is because it makes the other instruments “embarrassed” because of the beautiful music it plays. The commentators point out that the word neivel also means disgusting and that is because the other instruments sound disgusting when compared to the lyre.
The problem with such an explanation is that it seems totally backwards. It is the other instruments that are embarrassed and disgusting relative to the lyre, and yet we describe the lyre with those negative terms?!
The Chidushei HaRim explains that there is an important moral message to be learned from this. There are people who make themselves look important/ beautiful/ intelligent by putting down the people around them. The neivel teaches us that they are not important/ beautiful/ intelligent people. Those people are actually disgusting. A truly special person knows that they are special without having to lower the people around them.
As we mentioned yesterday the final “Halelukah” of Pesukei D’zimra is also the concluding chapter of Tehillim. There is one difference in the way it is listed in the Siddur – the last verse “Kol Haneshama…” is repeated in the siddur, whereas in Tehillim it is only said once.
Rabbi Boruch Epstein explains the reason for this repetition based on a Kabbalistic sources that explain how the final chapter of Tehillim relates to Rosh Chodesh. There are twelve times that variations of the word hallel appear in the chapter. This alludes to the twelve months that we say Hallel for (on Rosh Chodesh). Rabbi Epstein adds that during a leap year, there is a thirteenth month in which Hallel is said. For this reason, he explains, the authors of the siddur decided to repeat the final verse in order that we would say hallelukah one extra time.
The last ‘Halelukah’ that we say in Pesukei D’zimra is actually the last chapter of Tehillim. There is a lot to say about this chapter of Tehillim but a closer look at the overall theme points to an oddity. The entire book of Tehillim is about King David’s expression of his emotions; his setbacks, his yearnings. Finally, in the last chapter, he describes praising G-d with musical instruments. Does that not seem to be out of place in a book that is arguably the richest expression of verbal praise known to mankind?
Rav Soloveitchik explains that Dovid HaMelech was trying to teach us an important lesson. While it is true that Dovid dedicated this book of Tehillim to expressing his praise of G-d, he concluded by informing us that properly praising G-d is actually impossible. We fall pathetically short of capturing the grandeur of G-d and adequately thanking Him for all His goodness. It is for this reason that he concludes by telling us to praise G-d with instruments – without words. Because in the final analysis, there are no words that can properly encapsulate the appropriate praise that G-d deserves. (RWO)
21st Century Judaism: A Religion Without a G-d
Shabbos Shuva Drasha
I’d like to discuss a trend. Trends are a challenging topic because it’s hard to fully understand what causes trends to come and go, we can only examine what we actually see. For example, there are countless elderly people who tell me that they used to wear skinny ties like the one I’m wearing right now a good seventy years ago. Who decided that it’s back in style? Beats me but apparently it is. Who decided to start eating raw fish and making it a delicacy? I’m sure you all remember the first time someone tried talking you into eating sushi. And now all we have to do is put the word sushi on a sign and we have a packed shul. So while it is very hard to appreciate the source of trends, we can look at pictures to see when certain articles of clothing were worn or what people were serving at meals over the years.
That’s all true for superficial trends like clothing and eating habits. But when we start to examine trends of thought it’s not only challenging to understand how and why they came about, but it’s virtually impossible to even measure such trends. How do we get into someone’s mind? How can we figure out what people were thinking years ago? Thanks to Google this has become less challenging. Recently, our good friends in California developed a tool that can provide us some insight into the human mind over the ages. (I promise this is the last time I mention a Google invention over the holidays!) This innovative tool measure literary trends. What they did was upload millions of books into an online database. To use it, all you have to do is type in a word and with a click of a button the tool will tell you how often that word was used in books in any given year. Not only that, but this tool graphs for you the changes in usage. Meaning you could type in a word like justice and see how from the year 1800 and on the word has been used less and less in literature. You could similarly type in the word freedom and watch as over that same time frame the word has been used more and more.
Being a rabbi I decided to use this tool to observe religious trends in literature over the years. As you probably guessed the word G-d, from 1700 and on has been written less and less in English works. No one likes to write about or talk about G-d. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Eric Weiner writes: “In my secular, urban and urbane world, G-d is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but G-d? He is for suckers, and Republicans.”
Now you may be thinking to yourself that a drop in the usage of G-d’s name doesn’t seem to be a very relevant topic for a group of people who were probably here for three hours today praying to G-d and are now back again to listen to a lecture by a rabbi who claims to be speaking the word of G-d. But no, I did not take the wrong notes to shul today. These are my notes for Ner Tamid, not for the atheist’s convention, and I do think that one of the most pressing challenges of our time is the omission of the G-word.
Truth is, I’m in good company. I’m not the only one who thought that deeply religious people struggle with the G-word. The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, how he once summoned all of the Jews of his town to assemble in the main Synagogue the next day at noon because he had an announcement of great importance. He ordered everyone to close their stores, put down whatever they were doing to be in attendance when he made this great announcement. The people speculated what important news he would be sharing with them. Was it a pogrom? A new tax? Was the Rabbi going to leave the city? Was he going to reveal the time when the Messiah would arrive?
At noon the entire community, without exception, packed the Synagogue to its capacity. At exactly twelve, the Rabbi rose and said: “I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah, have gathered you here today in order to tell you that there is a G-d in the world!”
And today I’d like to tell you the same thing. We need to know, or perhaps become more aware of the fact that G-d exists. We need to become more comfortable talking about and talking to G, dash, D – G-d. And we’re not.
How often do we say a story that has G-d as part of the plot? I imagine not very often. How often a day do we talk to G-d? And I’m not even talking about praying in the classical sense. How often do we have a conversation with G-d? I imagine not very often at all. So today, I’d like to discuss a) Why this is a problem, b) Why it’s a really big problem, and c) What we can do about it.
The problem begins as a small and seemingly insignificant one. You know, all of us are aware of stories that go something like this, “I was terribly sick, I was about to die, when suddenly I rethought everything I knew, I turned to G-d and lo and behold I was totally healed.” Or, “I was in a crazy accident, I blacked out, the doctors thought it was the end, miraculously I came back.” Or, “I was living the life, I had everything I could possibly need, but I felt terrible inside, I met a man who taught me about meaning etc.” I feel like thousands of stories can fit into that template. And all those stories have two common denominators. One is that the main character in the story sees G-d. And two, all those stories are dramatic. And who doesn’t love some drama? We Americans want everything to be dramatic. We’ve taken cooking and made dramatic televisions shows like Iron Chef – out of cooking! There’s a family business somewhere out in Louisiana that sells little contraptions that make a duck call – they’ve made a television show about them! We don’t want information, we want dramatic information. Have you been on the weather channel’s website recently? They used to just say the news. Now they have videos of crazy people videoing a tornado from a few feet away. They have videos of people escaping a tsunami. In the corner, if you look closely, you can actually find the weather! And so it’s no surprise that we want a dramatic G-d. We want a G-d who saves us from illness, we want a G-d who saves us from accidents, and we want a G-d who flips our life on its head.
We want the G-d Who we sing about every Shabbos morning – If Ner Tamid would have a theme song I think it would be safe to say that it would be Mizmor L’Dovid. And in Mizmor L’dovid we say Kol Hashem bakoach, kol Hashem behodor, kol Hashem shover arozim, the voice of G-d is in power, the voice of G-d is in majesty! The voice of G-d breaks the cedars! In Mizmor L’dovid we describe a G-d of drama, a G-d of upheavals and great events.
But there’s another section in TaNach where G-d and His voice appear in a very different way. Eliyahu HaNavi, the great prophet is most famous for his dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al, a popular form of idolatry in his day. At that showdown, Eliyahu brings a fire down from heaven and proves to the people that “Hashem, hu haElokim” there is only one G-d. And the entire nation proclaims right there and then, Hashem, hu haElokim, Hashem, hu haElokim!
However, not too long later, G-d shows Eliyahu a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a fire, but G-d isn’t found in any of those. He then appears to Eliyahu in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19). He asks Eliyahu twice, “What are you doing here?” and Eliyahu replies both times: “I have been very zealous for the L-rd Alm-ghty.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that Eliyahu did not understand G-d’s message. G-d had been trying to tell him that He is not to be found in violent confrontation, in drama, and with spectacle, but rather G-d is found in gentleness and the word softly spoken. And it’s at that point that G-d tells Eliyahu to appoint a successor.
Because you see G-d isn’t always dramatic. Life isn’t always dramatic. And the great challenge is finding G-d in the boring hum-drum of every day existence.
I am sure that there are so many of you here who on Rosh HaShana were asking for G-d to grant health to you or to someone you know and love. And I’m sure that there are so many of you here who were asking G-d for financial help for you or for a loved one who is struggling. There are others here who were asking for peace at home between spouses, children. And that’s what prayer is there for – for us to turn to G-d and ask Him for help. But we can’t allow the dramatic events in our life eclipse our need for His help in our everyday living. We forget so easily that our every breath is dependent on His will. We forget so easily that we need Him for everything! We need G-d so that the words that you’re hearing right now, coming from my mouth enter your ears! The coordination necessary between my lips, jaw, tongue and larynx, is more sophisticated than the coordination of the most amazing symphony. Those movements create a sound, or more accurately they create a vibration which moves the particles in the air, which moves the particles next to it, etc., etc., until it reaches you ear. And then our ear catches those sound waves, directs them to the hearing part of your ear, and translates what is being heard into electric signals which could be understood by the brain. We take those things for granted. But we can’t. We need to appreciate the fact that G-d is found in our every-day life; in our every movement and in our every breath.
It’s like the famous joke of the guy who is looking for a parking spot on a busy street in Manhattan, driving in circles for ten, fifteen minutes. He has a job interview which he can’t be late for and so as a last resort, he turns to G-d and says, “G-d, please, please, please allow me to find a parking spot! Please, I’ll start eating kosher!” Nothing doing. “I’ll start praying!” Nothing doing. And finally, “G-d, if you find me a parking spot I’ll wear tefillin every day! I’ll start learning Torah and I’ll give 10% of my income to charitry. Just get me a parking spot!” And just as he says those words, the car to his right zips out of its spot. The man turns to G-d and says, “Never mind I found a spot!”
I never appreciated the depth of this joke until recently. You see, when this man wanted G-d to find him a spot, he understood that G-d finding Him a spot meant something out of the ordinary taking place. He expected a car to vanish into thin air and make way for his car. He expected a flood to wash away the entire row of cars next to him and only his car will be left with more than enough room to park. That would be G-d intervening. But for the person next to him to pull out, that’s not G-d. That’s the person next to him pulling out. Where’s the Divine intervention in someone moving a car out at the right time?
But that’s a mistake. Because G-d is found in that silent, thin voice. We need G-d to make it through a regular day just like we need Him for when everything goes wrong.
Now the reason I bring this up is because not appreciating this subtle G-d idea is a theological problem. The first commandment is “I am your G-d.” A misunderstanding of what and who G-d is, is at best a violation of the first commandment and at worst a violation of the second, not to serve idols. The Greeks believed in god, but their conception of god was radically different than ours. They believed in the god of drama; it was a god who put the world into motion, but he was up there. The first commandment is not “I am your G-d.” Rather, it is “I am your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” The significance of those words “I took you out of Egypt” is explained in the following way. In Egypt, G-d manipulated all of nature through the ten plagues. But He actually did much more than that. He also distinguished between the water of a Jew and the blood of an Egyptian and he distinguished between the firstborn of a Jew and the firstborn of an Egyptian. That demonstrated two things 1) G-d is able to bend the rules of nature at will and 2) He is very well aware of all the details of creation. He knows who is deserving of reward and who is deserving punishment and He acts accordingly. “I am G-d who took you out of Egypt” teaches us that G-d knows exactly what’s taking place here on earth and He cares. He cares for each and every one of us and takes care of every detail of our life.
One of Maimonides’s principals of faith is “I believe with a perfect faith that He alone created this world, and guides all creatures.” This is especially true, explain all Jewish thinkers, when it comes to human beings. G-d pays attention to every single one of our needs.
It’s hard to imagine such a thing. And because we have a hard time believing such a thing we get very bashful when it comes to prayer – Does G-d really care? Is He really listening to me? Who am I? Why should He care? And I believe that that is one of the greatest impediments to meaningful prayer; our disbelief that G-d actually cares about our needs.
Our Sages, in their brilliant wisdom, tried to help us with this challenge. They did so by formulating blessings; blessing for every food that we eat – so that we’ll appreciate and see G-d in the fruits, vegetables, and starches that we eat. They formulated blessings for beautiful smells and for wondrous sights. And probably one of the most beautiful of all these blessings is the blessing they wrote for one who uses the bathroom; thanking G-d for the fact that all of our organs work exactly the way they are supposed to so that we could properly dispose of our bodily waste. If you’ve never taken a moment to read the text of that blessing I strongly recommend that you do so. It’s in the front of every siddur. It is truly a magnificent prayer and it can really help someone become more aware of the existence and never ending help from G-d in our lives.
Saying blessings will make us more G-d conscious and they’ll also make us more appreciative. If we say blessing already then saying them with more concentration will serve the same purpose. And that is really my first point – we need to recognize that G-d is in our lives on a day to day, moment to moment basis. Not being aware of G-d’s participation in our lives is a big problem and on the flip side, becoming more aware of G-d will only serve to enhance our lives and our relationship with G-d.
Everything I said until now is important but it’s not colossal. Today is Shabbos Shuva, it’s a day to focus on major issues that plague us as a community and as a people and I think this G-word issue has much wider and more destructive ramifications.
People often ask me, why is it that the Torah, and specifically G-d, is so obsessed with idolatry, with avodah zara? It is by far the most recurring commandment in the Torah. Moshe warns the Jewish People “Do not succumb to idol-worship” over and over and over again. Maybe idolatry was relevant two thousand years ago, but nowadays? Give me a break.
The truth is that idolatry was much more sophisticated than we think. I’ll use probably the most bizarre form of idolatry to illustrate this point. There was a form of idolatry that was called ba’al peor. There are a number of strange aspects of baal Peor. One is its form of worship – its worshippers would perform disgusting acts in front of the idol, and the more disgusting the act, the more praiseworthy was the form of worship. The classic form of service was defecating in front of the idol. The Talmud relates that a certain individual defecated in front of the idol and then used the idol to clean himself. The prophets of Pe’or who were standing nearby commented that no one had ever worshipped this idol in such a magnificent way.
What is the nature of this idol? Idolatry in general is hard to understand but this form of worship is nothing less than bizarre?! Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that the very essence of Baal Peor was the desire to not be subjugated to any being or power. As a consequence of this freedom one is able to break all boundaries and rules that come with subjugation to a higher source. All other worshippers recognized the need to respect and honor the focus of worship, however worshippers of Baal Peor strived to uproot the human impulse of genuine service and replace it with degradation of authority. Accordingly, the more disrespectful the act, the greater the form of ‘worship’! This is why the depraved individual who used the idol to clean himself was demonstrating the greatest “service” to this philosophy – he was showing that he had absolutely no regard for anything at all.
Pe’or is just one example but if we could get passed the absurdity of the actions they committed we could start to see that all of idolatry was actually rather sophisticated. Perhaps we no longer feel the same drive as they experienced to serve idols but it was not an empty and meaningless act. And I want you to understand that – idolatry was a sophisticated system of worship.
But let’s take a step back, where does idolatry stem from? Or more accurately, how in a world that G-d created can idolatry just sprout up? Where did it come from? How did it begin? The Torah indicates that there were forms of idolatry already in the third generation from creation. Imagine that, Adam’s grandchildren were serving idols! Let’s appreciate the absurdity of such a thing – “Hey Zaide, who were your parents?”
And Adam would respond, “I didn’t have parents. G-d created me.”
And yet, those same grandchildren who knew better than we do that G-d exists, somehow introduced idolatry into the world. How can such a thing take place?
The Rambam in his famous work on Jewish Law explains that the first stages of idolatry did not deny G-d at all. On the contrary, the introduction of idols was meant to facilitate humankind’s service of G-d. The rational was that since the sun, stars and the moon are agents of G-d, they are entities that G-d gave honor to by placing them high in the sky and allowing them to be the source of light to the world, we should honor them and through that honor G-d. What drove them was that by serving the stars and the moon, the service of G-d would be more accessible. We all see and appreciate the function of the stars and the moon, they are an extension of G-d in this world, let’s look to them and through that serve G-d. It’s easier to connect to them and through them to G-d. A very noble idea indeed!
But as the Rambam points out, they made a grave mistake. Before long, people forgot that the sun, stars and moon were meant to facilitate a connection to G-d and they ended up serving the sun, stars and moon alone and forgot about G-d.
I bring this up because I think one of the greatest challenges that the Jewish People face is this exact problem; a form of what the Rambam described as the early stages of idolatry. We have lost sight of Who we are serving and we are serving a part of the whole; we aren’t serving the constellations, but we are serving valuable ideas that are a part of Judaism but not its essence.
Over the years we have developed many strands of Judaism, what some like to call hyphenated-Judaism. Even within Orthodoxy, there are countless ‘fill-in-the-blank’ hyphen Orthodox groups going around. The Jewish Times not too long ago had an article about the many boxes and categories of Orthodox Jews. I used to think that the greatest tragedy of all these boxes and hyphens was the disunity it causes. It’s bad enough we are a minority and have a hard time getting along with other nations, but do we really need to distinguish ourselves from other Jews – especially Jews who all follow the same Code of Law?!
But over time I’ve come to realize that the great tragedy of all the sub-categories of Orthodoxy is not the disunity. Rather, it’s that in defining one’s niche; when each group along the spectrum finds its cause, whether it’s Israel, whether it’s Russian Jewry, Mashiach, stemming the tide of intermarriage, women’s rights or even Torah study, in doing so there is a serious risk of losing sight of the big picture.
All of those callings I just mentioned are incredibly valuable; Mashiach, stemming the tide of intermarriage, women’s rights and Torah study. Many groups have adopted one of those callings as their feature, sometimes this is done to draw more people to a more committed Judaism; focusing on this one feature is meant to facilitate a greater devotion to an observant lifestyle. Sometimes it’s done because the people leading those movements believe that it is the most important thing to focus one’s energy on. Either way, it poses a serious risk.
I’ll share with you one slightly controversial example. Full disclosure – We recently made a siyum on Sefer HaTanya, a book written by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe; a landmark book with brilliant insights. I am also a huge fan of the past Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a man whose wisdom and foresight touched the souls of countless Jews around the globe. But as you know, one of the defining features of the movement was and is their emphasis on the Messiah, on Mashiach. The Rebbe felt that if people had a tangible goal and direction that their mitzvos would be focused towards they would be more excited to do so. Meaning, you and I do mitzvos. Why? Some may say because it gives them a more meaningful life. Some might say, they are concerned about the afterlife. Both those approaches may be meaningful but they aren’t so exciting. Chabad’s message was that if we do mitzvos we can change the world; we can stop all the suffering that we see, we can bring peace and we can bring about real, stable change. It’s not an idea that is exclusive to Chabad. It’s found in the Talmud. But what they did is emphasize this point, presumably to give their followers an extra drive and urgency in fulfilling the Torah.
And it worked incredibly well! There is no group in Orthodox Judaism who is as passionate as they are. They will go to the far corners of the earth to help people do mitzvos because that brings mashiach closer. They will have their young children stop people on street corners, asking them, begging them to wear tefillin, in order to bring Mashiach closer. I’ll speak from personal experience – I don’t know how but when I was growing up their children’s periodical, a magazine called Tzivos HaShem was delivered to my house, and I remember being inspired to do more mitzvos – I too wanted to bring Mashiach closer. It worked and it works really well.
But it’s also incredibly dangerous.
Over time, and specifically with the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, a faction of the group veered off the beaten path. You see the members of Chabad were driven by a Messianic fever. In addition to that passion for Mashiach, many if not all of the followers of Chabad, felt that their rabbi was the Messiah. When he passed away it was devastating; people didn’t know what to do with themselves. They invested all their energy into seeing their rabbi lead them back to Israel and into a new era – and somehow he had passed away. While many followers of Chabad were mourning, a splinter group came out of the ashes. This group is a group called the Meshichists; they fervently believe that Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah, and is still among the living, albeit in a different form. At their shuls, in the middle of davening, you will hear them proclaim the following words, “Yechi adoneinu moreinu v’rabeinu, melech hamashiach l’olam va’ed/ Long live our master, our teacher, the king, the messiah for ever and ever.” There are even splinter groups from this group which have taken things even further but I think you get the point. It was a great idea; it was captivating and exciting but it obscured what Judaism is really all about. Judaism is not about fulfilling a particular commandment, it’s not about living up to a vague idea of being a light on to the nations, it’s not about any specific causes or values, it’s about serving G-d. Anu avadecha v’ata malkeinu, We are your servants and You are our king. Anu banecha v’ata avinu, we are your children and You are our Father. Period. G-d asks us to keep his Torah, to do his miztvos. That is my definition of Judaism. It’s not very eloquent but I think it rings true.
I know that when I’m done and someone will ask you what I spoke about you will tell them I spoke about Chabad. Please don’t get distracted by this example. I have an enormous amount of respect and gratitude to the movement. My point is not to denigrate any element of Jews whatsoever. My point is, that all along the Orthodox spectrum there are groups of people splintering off who represent one cause or another, one mitzvah or another. Whether it’s Mashiach, Israel, Torah study, women’s rights, tikkun olam, whatever, they are all wonderful and important causes and I don’t in any way mean to denigrate the movements, but let’s be children and servants to G-d, let that be our calling. We strive to fulfill His will. If we’re attracted to one value or mitzvah – that’s great. We can have organizations, rallies, and even movements that promote any of these values, but we can’t allow them to define our perception of Judaism. We are Jews, we are the children and servants of G-d. No hyphens necessary.
There was a great Torah scholar, Rabbi Pinchas Scheinberg, who passed away not long ago. For some reason – and nobody really knows why – he wore an incredible amount of tzitzis. If you’d see a picture of him, you would think he was a husky football player. But really, it was just layer after layer of tzitzis. Why? For some reason he thought tzitzis was a mitzvah that he should focus on and so he did. But he never started a movement called Tzitzis Orthodoxy. Because he was an oved Hashem, he served G-d. An expression of his service of G-d was wearing a whole lot of tzitzis.
Torah study, the greatest of all mitzvos can become idol worship if a person studies for the sake of the Torah and not for the sake of connecting to G-d. Women’s place in religious life, an incredibly important question and cause, can also become idol worship for the exact same reason. Israel, the holiest of places can become idol worship if our religion is no longer about G-d but it’s about a land. We can’t lose sight of the goal here. It’s about G-d. It’s about serving Him. We can pick mitzvos and causes that we are ‘in’ to, but it has to be an expression of a holistic, all-encompassing religious life, not one that is slanted and defined by a certain value. It’s not that the individual who studies Torah with no thought of G-d is doing so for ulterior reasons. It’s just that that is not Judaism. Judaism is serving G-d. Period.
And that is my second point. When we take G-d out of the equation, when He is no longer the focus of our lives, there is a very slippery slope that takes us further and further away from G-d. There are important causes that we must fight for and there are more mitzvos that may warrant being focused upon, but let it be just that – a cause or a mitzvah, not a form of Judaism that we subscribe to.
So what do we do? How do we bring G-d back into our lives? How do we bring G-d back onto the national consciousness?
First of all, we need to start using this G-word a lot more. We need to take G-d out of hiding. People ask what does the halacha say about this and that? The real question is what does G-d say about this and that! The Shulchan Aruch is G-d’s mouthpiece. What does Judaism say about abortion? The real question is what does G-d say about abortion! Someone here once told me off for saying “the Torah says.” He said, “Rabbi, the Torah is a book. If you believe that G-d is the author then G-d says is much more appropriate!”
And he’s absolutely right. I still have a hard time saying it because I wasn’t brought up speaking that way but he’s right. If we want to be more G-d-conscious the place to start is clearly in our discussions of Judaism, we have to remind ourselves that it’s all about G-d.
And by the way, it goes a long way. I’ll share with you a quick story.
A little while ago I had one of the most refreshing conversations in a long time. I met up with an old friend. He is a modern day version of the stereotypical simple Jew of the past. He prays every day, he learns every day, he is a good husband, a good father, and a hard worker who runs a modest but successful business. But there’s no games, no airs to him at all. He was describing to me a dilemma he had; he needed a p’sak, a halachic ruling for a difficult question, and he knew even before asking that this rabbi would say this, this other rabbi would say that. He knew that either way he turned there was what to rely upon. But as he said to me, “What I really want to know is – what does G-d want from me?”
Now of course it’s not simple knowing what G-d wants from us. But the point he was making was that he doesn’t just want the rabbi to rule leniently for him, he didn’t just want a ruling that was convenient. He recognized that G-d stands behind the Jewish legal system and knowing that gave him a very different attitude towards Judaism than most of us have.
But it’s not just in the realm of Jewish law and torah study that we need to be G-d-aware, it’s in our daily lives. There is a wonderful little segment on the Aish HaTorah website called Lori Almost Live. It’s a weekly 2-3 minute video by a woman called Lori Palatnick. She lives in Rockland and helps run an outreach program. She recently started an organization called The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project a wildly successful trip for women to go to Israel and connect to their Jewish heritage. Anyway, on one of those videos that she posts she talked about something she does at her Shabbos meal. In order to get desert at her table one must share one story how G-d was watching over them in the past week. Now these stories are not dramatic; they don’t involve people recovering from deathly illnesses and being rescued from burning cars. They are stories like meeting the right person at the right time, or – finding a parking spot when you really needed one. These are simple stories where something worked out just the way they needed it to. And she forces people to take a moment and recognize that G-d is watching them every week and every day, not just in the dramatic stories we share with people, but in the simple moment to moment existence.
There’s one last area in which we could bring G-d more into our lives. Until now I’ve discussed talking about G-d, but to truly bring G-d into our lives we have to talk to Him as well. I am not talking about coming to shul more often. I am talking about having intimate conversations, in your native language, with your Creator.
I’d like to share something with you. It’s very personal and I feel a little uncomfortable sharing something so personal. But at the same time, I feel encouraged to do so by the words of the great Rav Yosef Soloveitchik who said in 1968: …I do not believe that we can afford to be as reluctant, modest, and shy today as we were in the past about describing our relationship with the Almighty. If I want to transmit my experiences, I have to transmit myself, my own heart. How can I merge my soul and personality with the students? It is very difficult. Yet it is exactly what is lacking on the American scene”
If it was true in 1968, then it is certainly true now.
The story goes back around a decade. I was 20 and I was spending the holiday of Sukkos in Toronto. While I was there I bumped into some teenage boys and quickly realized that these boys were not doing well. Broken families, drugs, you name it. So I decided to do something about it. The summer time is the worst time for these teens – they would typically stay home for the summer and whatever they would do during the year, they would do in the extreme over the summer. So I decided I was going to get them out of the city and travel around the United States with them to keep them out of trouble. I started working on this camp, crunching numbers, developing a route, etc. I only had two problems. 1) I had to fundraise 10 thousand dollars and 2) I had no campers.
Anyway, it was the day before Purim and I found some people who would fundraise for the camp in New York but I wasn’t sure if the camp was even going to happen because I hadn’t had a single camper sign up.
How in the world was I going to talk parents in to trusting a twenty year old with their children while they drive around the country? So I had a dilemma; should I first see if I could find the campers and then start fundraising or should I fundraise now – people are more generous on Purim – and hopefully pull it all together? And after speaking to some wise people who counseled me to go forward I decided I would.
But I still wasn’t sure if this whole thing was just a pipe dream. Was this whole thing really practical or was it just a cute idea?
That night I took a walk and on that walk I stopped and I turned to G-d and I said, “G-d, You obviously don’t owe me anything. But I am making a camp and I’m making this camp for You. I don’t need it. But these kids, Your children, they need it. Now I have no idea how this is going to work out, but G-d, it has to work out. For the sake of Your children, it has to work out!”
And it did work out. I ran the camp for two summers and the camp eventually blossomed into a sleep-away camp for high school boys in Toronto. But that’s not the point. To me, that walk and that short conversation with G-d was the most spiritual moment of my life. I could even tell you exactly where I was standing. It was so incredibly powerful. I spoke honestly and openly with my Creator. And to me, the whole camp was worth that one moment where I deepened my relationship with G-d.
Prayer, as I mentioned on Rosh HaShana, is not limited to shul and it’s not limited to Hebrew. Talk to G-d. Pour out your heart to Him. Develop a real relationship with your Creator. The most straightforward and meaningful way to bring G-d into our lives is by talking Him, by inviting Him in to our lives, into our moments of joy and our struggles.
I began with a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and I’ll finish with one. The story goes that he was once walking through the town and he heard a little girl crying. He walked over to her to see what was wrong and she explained, “I was playing hide and go seek with my friends. I went to go hide and I waited for them to find me. I waited and waited and waited. And finally I realized that they stopped looking for me! There I was hiding and no one’s looking for me!” And she continued to cry.
Rav Levi Yitzchak listened to her and then burst out crying himself. That obviously made the girl stop crying and so she asked him, “Rabbi, why are you crying?”
And he told her, “Young girl, you’re in good company. G-d created this world and then He hid inside the world. The purpose of hiding was that we could find Him. And G-d also cries because it seems like no one’s looking for Him anymore.”
Let’s look for G-d! Let’s talk about G-d! Let’s remind ourselves that everything we have and do is a gift from G-d. Let’s remind ourselves and our families that everything that happens to us is the hand of G-d! As a nation, let’s see the forest for the trees! Again, do not to give up on whatever causes we are most passionate about, but to always remember what Judaism is really about – G-d! And in our own lives let’s create a dialogue with our Creator, our Father, and our King.
These ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is a time that we are supposed to recognize that G-d is our king and our father and He runs the world. Let’s do exactly that. Let’s proclaim, not in a loud voice, but in a soft one, that Ad-nay hu hoElo-im, that G-d is in this world. He is in our lives. All we have to do is open our eyes and find Him.
The Sefas Emes (Parshas Beshalach) explains that the word shir (song) is connected to the word shura, a line. That is because true song comes about when a person can draw a connecting line between what they are experiencing and the meaning behind the experience. When the confusion of life vanishes, even for a moment, one is brought to a state of joy and song.
Psalm 149 speaks of a new song that will be sung, a shir chadash. The commentators explain this chapter of Tehillim to be referring to the Messianic era. The primary features of the Messianic era, as listed in this psalm, are the Jewish People no longer being scorned and disgraced. In addition it is describes as an era of Divine justice. Such a time, when people see the connection between G-d’s People and G-d, and people see a creation and a Creator, is truly a time of seeing the connections in the world. It is for this reason that Dovid HaMelech calls for a brand new song.