A teacher of mine, Rabbi Eliezer Breitowitz, once asked me the following question. The Gemara in Sanhedrin states that if all the Jews become fully engaged in Judaism then Mashiach will come early. If all the Jews become disengaged then Mashiach will come early as well. It would be safe to assume, he said, that we are closer to the latter than the former (This is before the Pew study. Now it’s a fact.) That being the case, why don’t we, the few Jews who are still observant throw it all away and that way we can bring Mashiach to the world a lot faster?
There are three general positions on a hockey team; offensemen, defensemen, and a goalie. Each has a unique role; one is to play offense, one to play defense, and one to protect the net. What they are supposed to do is play their role, not win the game. So for example, if the goaltender were to start playing offense his coach would get mad at him because that is not his role – even though the team needs goals to be scored. If they all play their individual role properly, the team will ultimately win the game. The same is true with Mashiach. We all have unique roles – the Mitzvos and our unique challenges. If we overcome all of our individual roles then Mashiach will arrive. Mashiach is the sum-total of us fulfilling our individual roles.
It is perhaps for this reason that Kaddish is said with a group of ten. The main theme of Kaddish is a plea for the Messianic Era and for the end of days. We are reminded, by saying Kaddish in a group, that it is only together that we bring about a change in the world. Individually, we all have to stick to our unique role and script and to attempt to do as many Mitzvos, and overcome as many challenges as possible.
We have began to discuss the prayer of Kaddish. There are primarily four different types of Kaddish that are recited during our daily prayers: Kaddish Shaleim (the complete Kaddish), Chatzi Kaddish (half Kaddish), Kaddish Yasom (Mourner’s Kaddish), and Kaddish D’rabanan (Rabbi’s Kaddish). The latter two are said by mourners even though the theme of Kaddish is in no way related to a commemoration. On the contrary, the theme of Kaddish is the future – it is a prayer which asks from G-d to bring about the End of Days.
The earliest mention of Kaddish are found in the Talmud but not in the context of prayer. We are taught that “Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’vorach l’olam ul’olmei olmaya” was said at the conclusion of the communal studying that took place on Shabbos afternoon. Kaddish became a part of the daily prayers in the era of the Geonim (650-1100).
Over the next few days we will discuss the meaning and significance of Kaddish and its relevant laws.
Rav Ovadya Yosef’s Legacy
I’d like to talk about a challenging topic today and that is the challenge of agunot. An agunah is a women who would like to but is not able to remarry. There are two categories of agunot. One is a woman who does not know if her husband is alive and is therefore Halachicaly seen as still being married and the second is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get. Personally, I can’t think of a more tragic plight than these women; people who desperately want out of a relationship – a non-existent relationship – and yet are bound, unable to move forward.
The term agunah, means someone who is chained, because that’s exactly the way such a woman feels – bound and chained, unable to move. How many women are agunot is unknown but one thing is clear and that is that one agunah is one agunah too many. There have been many solutions that have been presented over the years. As far back as the 19th century attempts have been made to make sweeping reforms to solve the problem. In 1884, an individual by the name of Rabbi Michael Weil of Paris attempted to introduce a form of conditional marriage and most recently, a group has suggested making all marriages while not explicitly, at least implicitly, conditional. This type of approach has been dismissed time and time again because it goes against the premise of Jewish marriage, which is an unconditional commitment. Divorce is not simply an annulment of the marriage contract. Divorce is a new reality whereas a conditional marriage, exactly as it implies, says that the marriage was never fully committed to. In addition to those who have attempted to bend Jewish law out of shape there are others who have resorted to force to ensure that husbands who are not willing will be forced to be “willing” and give a get. This approach, in addition to the very illegal coercion and force that’s involved, is not necessarily valid from a Torah perspective either.
One solution that has been both sanctioned as consistent with the Jewish view of marriage and Halacha and has been rather successful is the pre-nuptial agreement. It’s a legally binding agreement that a husband and wife make before they wed, that if the husband does not give his wife a get, he must pay a daily fine. Money talks and it often works to ensure that the husband does indeed give a get to his wife. Most recently, a post-nuptial agreement has been introduced which serves the same purpose.
The biggest drawback of such agreements is that they have only gained popularity in recent years and so I imagine that it would be safe to assume that the vast majority of people in this room probably don’t have one. Which leaves us with a question, what can we do? We have our precious Torah on the one hand, our rock, our source of life, and our source of direction emanating from G-d Himself. And on the other hand we have the plight of these women; broken and desperate to break free.
I think in the context of this painful dilemma, one could better appreciate the great loss that the Jewish People experienced with the passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef. There is a little rabbinic secret that I’m going to let you in on. When preparing for a class on a certain topic the most obvious place to look for information is an encyclopedia. Rav Ovadia was a walking encyclopedia. When rabbis are looking for sources for a class, the first stop is any literature written by Rav Ovadia. He wouldn’t quote one source to support his view, he would quote fifty!
The only thing that was equal to Rav Yosef’s mind was his heart; his love for the Jewish people. Ten years ago, at the age of 83, he suffered his first heart attack. The doctors decided that he must immediately undergo surgery. But he begged them to be taken home for three hours and only then go under the knife. Reluctantly, the doctors gave in to his strange request. After the surgery he explained that when he had the heart attack he was in middle of using his depth of knowledge to find a Halachic way out for a woman who was an agunah. He was in the middle of writing a Halachic ruling that would have allowed her to get remarried. He was afraid that he wouldn’t make it out of the surgery alive in which case this poor woman would be left unable to remarry for the rest of her life.
That was one example of thousands. Literally. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War there were approximately one thousand women who were unable to remarry because there was no proof that their husbands had died. The country turned to Rav Ovadia who set up a beit din, a court that worked tirelessly to ensure that each and every one of those women would be able to remarry in a Halachically-acceptable fashion.
That’s why somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million people attended his funeral. By whatever estimate, it was the largest funeral in Israel’s history. That’s because he was not a man who lived in an ivory tower of academics. He was a man of the people; a man who felt their pain and did whatever was in his ability to help them.
He taught the Jewish People so many important lessons. He taught us to never stop connecting ti G-d through His Torah. This was a man who knew everything – and yet never stopped studying! He was a man who taught us how to love a fellow Jew. But he also taught us an essential lesson about Jewish law. Here was a man who cared so deeply for these agunot, nearly risking his life to save theirs. And yet, he accepted the fact that regrettably there was no dispensation that he could find for a sweeping reform to protect all agunot for all of time. It wasn’t because he didn’t care – he did. It wasn’t because he was cautious and lacking in confidence in his ability to make such a ruling – he had very, very broadest shoulders. But nonetheless he understood, not despite of his broad shoulders, but because of his broad shoulders, because he had such a vast and deep knowledge of the Torah way, he was so at home with the weltanschauung of Judaism, he understood that there was nothing that could be done on a national level. Instead he worked tirelessly to help individual after individual.
He embodied the famous Mishna in Avot “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not your responsibility to finish the task, V’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, but neither are you free to shy away from it.” We may not be able to solve the great problems of society, but our Jewish tradition encourages us – actually mandates us – to do whatever we can to bring about a change. Like Avraham who prayed for the people of Sedom even though G-d just told him that they were evil and deserving of annihilation. But you know what Avraham said, “So what! I will do whatever I can and bring about a change!”
That legacy of Avraham, the legacy of Rav Ovadia Yosef, is a legacy that forces us to ask ourselves, “What are we doing to solve the world’s problems?” How are we saving these women from a life of sadness and loneliness? Of course we have to recognize our place in the world. If you don’t have broad shoulders and a vast knowledge of Torah, your help will not be in the Halachic relam. So help with money. Help with your emotional support. There are countless ways to help. But most importantly, that legacy reminds us that help is not limited to solving an entire issue. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not your responsibility to finish the task, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, but we aren’t free to walk away from trying!
And it’s not just agunot. Has anyone here read the Pew report? It’s sad and pathetic! We are not doing well. The Jewish People are shrinking! The Jewish youth are disinterested! So how are we solving this issue – the major national issue? And if we aren’t capable of doing that then how are we solving the small issue – the neighbor next door, the old friend? How are we ensuring Jewish continuity?
I’d like to conclude with a beautiful story. It’s a story of an old man who was walking on the beach at dawn when he noticed a young man picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing them back into the sea one by one. He went up to the young man and asked him why he was doing this. The young man explained that starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. You won’t be able to save them all. How can your effort make a difference?” The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and threw it to safety. “To this one” he said, “it makes a difference.”
Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not our duty to finish the job. Meaning, know your limitations. If you don’t have the depth and broad Torah knowledge of the ilk of Rav Ovadia Yosef then you probably shouldn’t come up with innovative ideas that you think are in line with the Torah. And if you don’t have very, very deep pockets then you will probably not be able to provide the financial means necessary to get us out of the financial holes that so many parents of Jewish day school children find themselves within. However, lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, just because you can’t solve the big picture doesn’t mean that every individual and every little thing that we can do doesn’t count. It does.
May we incorporate the lessons of HaRav Ovadya Yosef into our lives and may his memory stand for us as a source of strength, blessing, and inspiration.
Towards the end of Az Yashir, we state “Ki laShem ham’lucha, umoshel bagoyim, that to G-d is the sovereignty and He rules over nations.” The two terms that are used to describe G-d are very similar melech and moshel. They are often interchanged. However, the Vilna Gaon points out that they have a very different meaning. A melech is one who rules over people who willingly accept the king’s rule. A moshel is one who rules by force. This explains the meaning of our verse: G-d is our king. He rules over all the nations. Meaning, we accept G-d’s authority. the fact that others do not does not limit G-d’s authority over them. It is just against their will.
This also explains the final verse of Az Yashir – “On that day G-d will be the king of the whole world.” In the end of days, G-d will be the king, meaning the accepted ruler, not only over the Jewish People, but over the entire world.”
There is a Medrash which explains that the words “Zeh Eli V’anveinhu, this is my G-d and I will beautify Him” was not said by the Jewish People but was said by the Egyptians who converted to Judaism. This is evident by contrasting this verse with the one that follows – “The G-d of my father and I will exalt Him.” The converts did not refer to G-d as the ‘G-d of my father’ because He was not.
The Gemara tells us that the verse “Zeh Eli V’anveinhu, this is my G-d and I will beautify Him” teaches us the importance of ‘beautifying’ mitzvos. Meaning, a person should not just by am esrog that is Halachically acceptable but one should buy one that is aesthetically pleasing as well.
Perhaps there is a connection between these two points. In Parshas Noach we find Noach blessing his son Yefes with the gift of aesthetic beauty. His son Shem, the great-grandfather of Avraham was blessed with spiritual gifts. This would explain why we learn the idea of aesthetic beauty in the performance of mitzvos from the same verse that is uttered by the converts. It is to teach us that to properly understand beauty we must look beyond Judaism and learn from the world around us.
The shira of Az Yashir begins with an explanation as to why the Jews sang to G-d – “Ashira LaShem ki ga’oh ga’ah; sus verochvo ramah vayom, I will sing to G-d because He is exalted over the haughty; the horse and its rider were thrown in the sea.” (Artscroll translation)
Rabbi Baruch Epstein explains that ga’oh ga’ah does not mean He is exalted over the haughty. Rather, it means that the Egyptians were doubly haughty. They were haughty as individuals, led by Pharaoh who saw himself as a deity and due to the country’s achievements in science and technology. This is symbolized by the horse drawn chariots – a sign of the Egyptians sophistication and power.
The Jewish People were explaining that the reason they are singing was not only because of the incredible miracle of the splitting of the sea. They were singing because they watched the Egyptians, the most powerful, sophisticated, and respected nation in the world get drowned in the sea.
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.