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Rambam on Olam Haba #2

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 12, 2019

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Rambam on Olam Haba #1

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 7, 2019

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Tzidkas HaTzadik #190 – Eye vs. Heart

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 7, 2019

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Tzidkas HaTzadik – Two Pathways to G-d

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 7, 2019

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Meseches Shabbos Daf 19

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 31, 2019

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Yosef Part 2 – What was Yakov Thinking?

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 31, 2019

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Yosef Part 1 – The Challenges of Succession

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 31, 2019

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Shoftim – Shimshon Part 1

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 30, 2019

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The Torah’s Dance – Yizkor Shmini Atzeres

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 24, 2019

Earlier this year, at a more frivolous moment, I introduced a Jimmy Fallon-inspired game to the pulpit, something we called, Minhag or Shminhag. I would share a Jewish practice and ask the audience, I mean congregation, if the said practice was a minhag – meaning a legitimate and sanctioned practice, or a shminhag – a made up word for made-up practices.

Now I know this is a serious time for all of us, as we are about to say Yizkor, but we are also about to celebrate Simchas Torah, and this holiday, aside from being an extremely joyous one, is also ground zero for some of the strangest, logic-defying Jewish customs. Simchas Torah, more than any other day on the Jewish calendar is ripe with both minhagim and shminhagim.

I’d like to share with you just a few of these minhagim/ shminhagim.

In the Talmud, the only thing that is mentioned about Simchas Torah is that they would read Parshas V’zos Habracha, the final section of the Torah and that’s it. Meaning, in Talmudic times, Simchas Torah looked no different than Shmini Atzeres – a Jewish holiday like any other.

But then Jewish life happened. In a responsa from the year 1038, Rav Hai Gaon, living in Babylon, the center of the Diaspora, describes the following practice – the individual who would receive the final Aliyah of the Torah, known as Chassan Torah, would wear the Torah’s crown on his head to receive the Aliyah. What do you think Rav Hai Gaon had to say about that practice? Minag or shminhag?

Well, he didn’t love it as he saw it as an affront to the honor of the Torah, but since it was “so widespread” he let it go. And it became enshrined as a Simchas Torah minhag.

Another example – Dancing, not the shuffle, but real fast-paced dancing, is, per the Talmud, forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and yet, with the exception of Yekkes, German Jews, (who don’t know what dancing is anyway) every single synagogue has wild dancing on Simchas Torah. Forget minhag or shminhag, it is assur/ forbidden to dance like we do on Simchas Torah, and yet, this practice of dancing up a storm was accepted as the norm. Isn’t that amazing? Dancing went from being forbidden to being an accepted minhag.

Another example – Normally, drinking alcohol is frowned upon with perhaps the exception of Purim. Even then, to do so in the context of prayer is forbidden. For a Kohein to do Birkas Kohanim under the influence is a grave sin – a sin learned from the tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu who died doing the priestly service while intoxicated. And yet, on Simchas Torah, in an inversion of values, Birkas Kohanim is moved to Shacharis due to the fact that apparently there were no sober Kohanim by the time Mussaf came along. (If you do plan on drinking, please, please, please do so responsibly.) What a crazy minhag! But everyone does it!

My first Simchas Torah at Ner Tamid, someone told me that the minhag of the shul was that on Simchas Torah the rabbi does not sit up on his chair. I thought to myself, that is ridiculous. Shminhag all the way! But I later realized that there are a number of Simchas Torah minhagim which try to create a spirit of egalitarianism, so maybe it’s a minhag after all…

Let me share with you one more minhag/ shminhag, this is by far the wildest example. It is a practice quoted by the Maharil, Rav Yakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, probably the most important Ashkenazi scholar of the 15th century. He describes a custom where children would go from home to home, or rather from Sukkah to Sukkah, on Simchas Torah, and they would take the s’chach – with or without permission – they would collect the wood into one huge pile and light it, creating a tremendous bonfire to dance around. Minhag or shminhag?

This is illegal, assur mid’oraytah on so many counts!

First of all, the kids were stealing the wood. You know, like one of the ten commandments (sort of). Second, they were destroying a structure, something you are not allowed to do on Yom Tov. Third, they were lighting a fire that served no real purpose, again, a violation of the laws of Yom Tov. And yet, the Maharil writes a wildly creative justification. Not only that, but his student records that he encouraged the kids to take the s’chach especially from the grumpy people who were opposed to them doing so. Talk about a shminhag!

What in the world is going on here? How did Simchas Torah evolve into such a circus-like day? Especially since so many of our practices are not only strange and different but they are straight-up shminhagim, they are predicated on extremely shaky halachic ground.

Rabbi Professor Chaim Saiman has a fascinating article on the topic and that’s where I drew these many examples from. He shares a theory of his own, on the Lehrhaus website, which you could read for yourself ( But I’d like to just make a simple observation which I want to focus on today, and that is this: whatever the sociological factors may be, Simchas Torah evolved. Big time. If your great-great-grandparents going back to the year 500 came into a shul on any given day, they would feel right at home; the tunes may be a little different, but the liturgy, the customs that surround them, we’ve been doing the same thing for at least 1500 years, if not more. But on Simchas Torah, they would not feel at home. They wouldn’t know what hit them. I mean literally they’d probably get hit in the face with a candy. And then they’d try to get up but their tallis would be tied to their chair by some troublemaker – by the way, making a permanent knot on Yom Tov is another violation of Torah law. And then they’d wonder why we’re reading the Torah at night, something we never ever do. And they’d be shocked to see the guy doing hagbah, criss-crossing his hands, unroll the scroll a good eight (nine?) columns as if the Torah was a set of weights in a gym. Your great-great-grandparents would be totally lost.

And for the most part, I want to be part of a faith that could proudly say that Ravina and Rav Ashi, the authors of our constitution, the Talmud, would feel at home at our shul, at Ner Tamid. For the most part, I want to be engaging in rituals that Moshe Rabbeinu, were he to be here, would know exactly what we are doing. But there is also a part of our faith that is not static. There is also a part of our faith that evolves over time. And I’m not a sociologist so I can’t tell you why or how. But I could tell you that there is some ‘give’ in the Torah that allows for a subtle evolution of sorts.

From the Halachic standpoint, from the perspective of Jewish Law, you know how it works?

It’s a dance. A question is asked, an answer is given. A practice is tried, some take off, some do not. Some become established minhagim, others regulated to the dustbin on shminhag lore. There is a give and take, a dynamic, between us and our tradition, between the Jewish People and the Torah. It’s a slow dance, it’s not exactly a horah, but over time there is a slow and steady evolution.

While some may cynically see in that change a Torah that can be bent out of shape to match up with our needs and desires, I prefer to see something very different in this Torah evolution.

There’s an old song by Abie Rotenberg called the Place Where I Belong. The tune is so beautiful that it is sung almost universally on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur… But the words are just as majestic. It’s a story of a Torah scroll from the perspective of the scroll itself. She describes the process of her being written by the scribe with tenderness and care. Then she describes the procession as she made her way to the shul for the very first time to be placed in the wooden Aron. But before she’s placed there, the rabbi holds the Torah to his chest.

He spoke out loud and clear to all the rest.
He said, “No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.”

The Torah scroll then describes the generations coming and going but no matter what, they always take her out of the Aron three times a week. They always read from her and dance with her, and lovingly kiss her and return her to her place in the wooden Aron.

But then, the war breaks out, and before the Nazis come, the Shamash quickly hides the scroll in a dark cellar where she remains unused but safe until finally years later, someone finds her, they gently take her out of her hiding place, wrap her up and send her to America.

Tragically, she was not taken to a shul:

And in a case of glass they put me on display,
Where visitors would look at me and say,
“How very nice, how beautiful, a stunning work of art, ”
But they knew not what was inside my heart.

What we are celebrating today, tomorrow, and really every day, is that we know exactly what is inside the Torah’s heart. Not only do we know what’s inside, but we engage with her, we question her, she answers, she challenges us and we respond. It’s a dynamic. It’s alive. The Torah is not behind a glass wall. It’s something each and every one of us will have the opportunity to hold tomorrow, to kiss, to dance with.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the one day a year that is unrecognizable to our ancestors is Simchas Torah. Because it is on this day that we celebrate the Torah being alive. It’s the day we celebrate the tension of the Torah; how on the one hand the Torah informs our worldview and yet we grapple with the instances that this view conflicts with a modern worldview that at times seems to resonate even deeper. What do we do? How do we respond?

You know what we do? We dance. We ask, she answers, she challenges and we respond. It’s alive. And it’s ours. Not to be misused or misconstrued, it’s very easy to do that. As Shakespeare once said, the devil doth quote scripture. So no, not to misappropriate, but to honest and earnestly dance with the values and the laws that G-d transcribed into our Torah scrolls. Because ultimately, when the tension between us and the Torah are irreconcilable, it is the Torah that will remain unchanged, and we who will learn a new dance. This is why we dance around the Torah – she is at the center of our lives, and we can never lose sight of that. But sometimes when all the dancing is done, somehow, I am truly uncertain as to how, but over time, our practices have changed ever so subtly.

If you are here today for Yizkor, if you are here tonight or tomorrow for Simchas Torah, then clearly you have made a choice to dance with the Torah. Not literally. But for you, if you are practicing in any which way, that means the Torah is alive for you. It’s not something to gawk at in a museum. To regale your grandkids with stories of a bygone era. It’s part of your life. Judaism is real to you.

Maybe your parents danced more vigorously, maybe they danced less vigorously. Whatever the case may be, you are here, and because you’re here the evolution of the Torah is taking place through you. The questions you ask, the practices you engage in, you are keeping the Torah alive!

We are all part of this organism, this mass of people called the Jewish People, and the questions we ask, the things we do, impacts the future. Through our Jewish dance, we will define the Jewish future. That’s an amazing thing to reflect upon; we are not just bearers of a tradition, we are also tasked with ensuring its vitality by living, and by dancing with the Torah.

I’ve suggested and asked of you many things over this holiday season, and I’d like to make one final request; don’t stop dancing around the Torah. Never forget that the Torah is at the center of our lives. And please allow me to share with you two practical ways to do so:

The first is to ask questions. As an example – the Simchas Torah celebration at Ner Tamid, especially as it pertains to women, has changed a lot over the years and it is still very much in flux. Like so many other Simchas Torah customs, it has evolved. But it didn’t evolve on its own. It evolved because people cared, and people questioned, and people studied. And that’s wonderful. It is a beautiful expression of the fact that the Torah is alive to us.

But Simchas Torah is the analogy, it is the parable. It needs to reflect our entire Jewish experience. Ask Jewish questions every day! Not just about Simchas Torah! Ask Jewish questions not only about what we do in shul, but also what you do at home! You could text me, email, WatsApp. I even use the phone sometimes! Or forget me! Don’t quote me on this, but ask Rabbi Google! Engage in the Torah in any which way! Allow the Torah to change our lives! Be open to that evolution in our personal lives as well.

That’s the personal dance. The private dance.

But there’s also a public dance. Last week, Congressman Elijah Cummings passed away. Ladies and gentlemen, please no politics today. But one thing that we can all agree upon is that he made a genuine effort to create a bridge between the Jewish community and the Black community. I have met and heard from graduates of his youth program; Baltimore youth who were sent to Israel to learn about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish People, and to hear from them how that changed their view of this community. He led a magnificent dance between our communities and now he’s gone. And we mourn his loss.

But the dance must go on. And it must go on today, more than ever. Ties between communities, between people, is at an all-time low. What’s going on just a few blocks away from us is just beyond description. It’s complex, I know. But if we were to have the Torah at the center of our life, the most basic expectation she has of us, is to look out for those in need, it is to be a good neighbor. To say hello. To create relationships in a world where relationships with neighbors is old-fashioned. That’s one Torah ideal that I hope never evolves into anything else. As a community, we need to pick up our public dance with all of our neighbors.

I’ve said a lot today so let’s review: Simchas Torah reminds us that the Torah is not an artifact. It is alive and it evolves. But it only evolves through us engaging with her.

We’ve had a beautiful holiday season here in shul. Let’s bring that beauty into our homes and let’s bring that beauty into the streets of Baltimore. Let’s dance with the Torah every day of our lives.

No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.

Live by the words you’ll find inside my soul.

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Modern Antisemitism – What would Max Jacob say – Kol Nidrei

By: Rabbi Motzen | October 18, 2019

For the past seven years, every Kol Nidrei night, I would stand up on the bima with Max Jacob. Dressed in his white kittel, truly looking like an angel, Max would open the Aron, the Ark, and then do what he did best; he would manage and direct. “This person should take this Torah, this person should take that Torah.” And if there were ever too many people and not enough Torahs, he would find the perfect comment to whisper to the individual who was Torah-less, making sure they did not feel bad.

We would stand together, and I would hear him hum along as the Chazzan sang the ancient melody. The haunting, stilted tune of Kol Nidrei, going back at least a thousand years is evocative for all of us, it arouses some of our deepest memories.

Standing with Max, I would wonder what memories would be going through his head. Was it memories of his father? Of his mother? Of his sister who were murdered by the Nazis? Was it memories of a Yom Kippur spent in the ghetto? In a concentration camp? Or would it be the more positive memories of life after death, of when he somehow managed to rebuild out of those ashes?

After Kol Nidrei, Max would ensure that each Torah was placed in its rightful spot. He would then pull the chord, the curtain would close, and then, as everyone made their way back to their seats, Max would turn to me with a big smile and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.” And he would walk off the bima.

Each year, though I hoped and prayed that we would indeed ‘do it again next year,’ but as I watched him slowly make his way down the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder, would we really? Can this frail man who went through so much, who was still battling so much more, would he really be back again for Kol Nidrei the following year?

But of course, each year he would surprise me. Each year, he would stand here, sing along with the Chazzan, say the blessing of Shehechiyanu, close the Ark, turn to me and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.”


One of the last conversations I had with Max Jacob was at the Good Samaritan hospital in late October of 2018. It was days after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I asked Max what his thoughts were; did he think this was the beginning of a new era of antisemitism in America? Did he think what happened in Europe in the 30’s and 40’s could possibly happen here?

Now you have to understand – though Max and I spoke openly about everything, we both avoided talking about antisemitism with one another. I think we both realized early on that we had very different viewpoints on the matter. Max would want to commemorate the Holocaust at every opportunity, and I would try to avoid talking about the Holocaust as much as I could. Max’s attention would be drawn to an antisemitic incident anywhere in the world, and he would sound the alarm bells, and I would try to minimize these events as best as possible, reminding everyone that we are living in a very different world.

My ideology about anti-Semitism doesn’t come from optimism per se. It actually comes from a fear; a fear that for too many years, Jews have been bombarded with messages of the Holocaust, of martyrdom, and of being victims to antisemitism. For too many Jews, they’re identification with Judaism revolves around the Holocaust alone. According to a recent Pew report, 73% of American Jews consider the Holocaust to be essential to their Jewish identity – a higher percentage than anything else, higher than Israel, than G-d, than morality. Judaism to so many Jews is all about people trying to kill us and about suffering. And I find that to be a real shame and a threat to our self-identity. To define ourselves by our victimhood is a recipe for attrition. Who wants to be a victim? Who will be inspired by being the hated people? And aside from the negative impact on Jewish continuity, it’s just not true. This negative self-view eclipses so much of the beauty, the meaning, and the optimism that Judaism has to offer.

Max, a Holocaust survivor, having been born into a different world, with a different set of experiences, with gaping losses and nightmarish memories, obviously saw things a little differently. And so, we generally avoided the conversation.

Amazingly, in response to my question about Pittsburgh, Max said he was not worried about a new wave of antisemitism. He told me that things are different in America. That we were safe here.

Now, maybe he said it to make me feel good – I will never know. I will never know because that was the last real conversation I had with him. No more quick coffees with him in the morning where I could grill him on pre-Holocaust life in Romania, no more planning sessions in the shul office, where we would prepare for a Shabbos or Yom Tov at Ner Tamid where I would marvel at his quick wit and political astuteness. And no more Yom Kippur’s. With Max standing near me. Shaking my hand.


I have wondered since then, if Max would have changed his optimistic view that Pittsburgh was an exception. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when just a few months later, on April 27th yet another shul in America was attacked by a gunman, this time in Poway, California. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when politicians in Ocean County started encouraging their constituents to “rise up” against the Jews moving in. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind after an Orthodox Jew was beaten with a brick on the streets of Crown Heights, one of many such violent antisemitic incidents on the streets of New York these past few months. I have wondered if he would have been perturbed knowing that Jeremy Corbyn, an unabashed anti-Semite, is one seat way from ruling England’s parliament.

I don’t know if his opinion would have changed, but I know that mine has. For the first time I find myself worrying. For the first time I find myself uncertain about the future. And for the first time I find myself not being able to ignore antisemitism.

For the first time in my life, I found myself researching anti-Semitism. Not the history of anti-Semitism, we are all too familiar with that. But a theology of anti-Semitism. What does Judaism have to say about this eternal hatred, dating back to even before we were a nation?

Of course, there is a well-known Medrash, a Sifrei, that “Eisav soneh et Yaakov” – that Eisav, who in this passage represents the nations of the world, hates Jacob, hates the Jewish People. To me, a statement like this one, understood superficially, as it usually is, only exasperates the issue. Aside from ignoring the vast majority of righteous gentiles, it does not explain why.

Another oft-quoted passage is found in the writing of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, otherwise known as the Ohr Samayach, one of the most respected rabbis of the early 20th century. He describes how every few hundred years, after Jews have settled into a new land, they start to assimilate with their host nation. And to prevent further assimilation, to prevent the Jews from completely losing their identity, G-d sends a terrible storm, in the form of pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and crusades to disrupt their lives. In an almost prophetic paragraph, he describes the state of Judaism in his time – he is writing in the 1920’s – he describes Jews who are so assimilated to their host country that they describe Berlin as the New Jerusalem. And he concludes with a warning of a new storm, a new disruption, even fiercer than any that came before. To Rabbi Meir Simcha, ironically, antisemitism is the great buffer against assimilation.

Diving deeper, into the esoteric sources of our tradition, Rav Tzadok HaKohen, a great mystic suggests that all of anti-Semitism comes from a Messianic impulse. In a future world which we pray for, the world will be unified and together, all as one. But today, now, in this pre-Messianic world, when we the Jewish People stand out more so than any other nation or faith, when we have different customs and different laws, when we have a nation state and not a full-fledged democracy, this is something that cannot be tolerated by the nations of the world. And so, in a premature and perverse way, they act on this Messianic impulse by forcing us to not be so different by fighting against our unique practices, and when that does not work, they go even further, eliminating us from this world. To Rav Tzadok, antisemitism is a premature impulse from a utopian world.

Fascinating ideas, but no direction. No action items. What do we do with these ideas? How are they to impact us? None of them provide a coherent and practical response to the hatred that we are experiencing.

I wish I would have asked Max Jacob what he could have done differently in Europe in the 40’s to prevent the onslaught. I wish I had that conversation with him, but I never did.

And so, I turned to my colleagues. I posted this question on a list-serve with hundreds of rabbis, hoping someone would enlighten me. But I was dismayed. Some suggested political action, which goes without saying. Of course, we must use every tool at our disposal to fight anti-Semitism on the local and national level. Others suggested that we must all move to Israel – as if there’s no anti-Semitism there. I am the biggest proponent of making Aliyah, but we have been around too long to naively think that Israel is immune to destruction. Heaven forbid that such a thing should ever happen. Others just threw their hands up and said, kach hi darko shel olam, this is the way of the world.

And I refuse to accept that. The only thing more supernatural than the survival of the Jewish People after all these years, is the incessant, undying, ever-morphing hatred of the Jewish People. How could we just ignore such an exceptional phenomenon? To be aware of such a logic-defying reality and not be moved by it any way is unacceptable.

But I missed my chance to ask Max, and my colleagues, though I love them and respect them, fell short. So to whom do we turn for direction when there is no one to turn to?


The Talmud in Pesachim, daf samekh-vav, describes the famous sage, Hillel, being questioned by the rabbis on a number of intricacies of Jewish law. For each question he has an answer. They ask him things that they had been grappling with for years and Hillel coolly quotes verse after verse, logical inference after logical inference and tradition after tradition, and leaves them all amazed.

But then they ask him a question which he has no answer for; he does not know. This was a question though, that needed to be answered. It was a question about Erev Pesach and it was just a few days before Pesach. The rabbis were worried, what will we do? What will we tell our congregants? Our followers? But Hillel was calm as can be.

He told them, and I quote, hanach lahem l’Yisrael, don’t worry about the Jewish People. Im ein nevi’im heim, even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets. G-d will somehow make sure they know what to do. He will drop the right idea in their collective minds. And sure enough, on Erev Pesach, the Jewish population on their own, without any direction from their elders or leaders, as if driven by some mystical intuition, knew exactly what they were supposed to be.

Our elders are no longer – we do not have a Max Jacob and those of his generation. We do not have clear guidance from our leading rabbis. We no longer have prophecy. But we do have a Jewish People. And even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets, and they will tell us what to do. So let me share with you what the Jewish People are doing in response to the most modern threat of anti-Semitism:

Listen to the words of Miranda Levy, a young non-observant, freelance journalist who normally writes about entertainment and family life, who now lives in the UK:

“Two weeks ago,” she writes, “I went to my local synagogue for the first time in 33 years. This was surprising because I haven’t set foot in a shul in all this time apart from a couple of weddings and the odd bar mitzvah. This is because over the past few months, both my political sensibilities and my sense of cultural identity have radically changed.

You may have heard that the UK has a problem with anti-Semitism … This moved sharply into the mainstream when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. Now there is a realistic chance that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister.

Now, in response, me and so many others are reconnecting to our Judaism. I have a friend who said: “Jeremy Corbyn has made a lot of people who didn’t feel very Jewish, Jewish again.” MP Margaret Hodge agrees. “I remember my dad tried to make me Jewish and failed,” “The local rabbi tried to make me Jewish and failed. It took the leader of the Labour Party to do that.” On Twitter @Gilana25 wrote that “I had always felt Jewish, but British first,” “Now it’s Jewish first.” And for me, newly single, I am enjoying an online flirtation with a Jewish novelist from Chicago I met on Twitter. I am proud of my Jewish surname (which) I haven’t always been. As I am writing this, a message from a Jewish friend pops up on Twitter. “Will I see you in shul on Friday?” The answer, most emphatically, is yes.”


Like so many others, Miranda took part in the post-Pittsburgh campaign of solidarity to show up for Shabbos, to attend a synagogue even for those who normally do not. But for so many, it wasn’t just that weekend that they showed up, they keep on showing up for Shabbos.


And it’s not just in the UK. Listen to the words of Bari Weiss, a young, non-observant editor for the New York Times, and I quote: “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.

In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul — and in the souls of everyone who throws in his or her lot with ours.”

These are not the words of rabbis, of survivors, or of famous Jewish thinkers. There are just regular Jews, b’nei nevi’im, the children of prophets. These are Jews who otherwise wouldn’t always have been so proud of their Judaism but are now embracing it. And you know what they’re saying?

They’re saying, Show up for Shabbos. Come to shul! They’re saying, don’t be embarrassed to defend our historic connection to our homeland. They’re saying be proud of your heritage! They’re saying defy the anti-Semites not with less Jewish life, but with more of it.

And I realized as I read these messages, as I saw the pictures of thousands of otherwise disconnected Jews attend services after these terrible incidents, that this was Max Jacob’s message after all. I reaized I made a mistake. Max did not define himself by anti-Semitism. He was not one of those people who felt their entire Jewish identity was wrapped up with the Holocaust. It was the opposite! His entire identity was a rebellion against the Holocaust. His Jewish life was a protest against the anti-Semites of the world, telling them with his life, with his joy, with his Jewish pride, that they make have taken so much away, but they cannot rob him of his connection to his G-d and to His people.

And in retrospect, I realized that the most powerful memory I have of Max is not from Tisha B’av, or Yom Hashoah. The most powerful memory I have is at my dining room table on Purim. Max was smiling with his beautiful smile that lit up the room. He was smiling because we were sitting together, with maybe 30 or 40 of us, singing songs of joy, celebrating our Judaism with pride and with passion. He took in the scene and he asked if everyone could be silent for a moment and he stood up and said, “Hitler! Where are you?! You’re six feet under. Look where I am! Look where the Jewish People are!” and he sat back down and we continued to sing.

Max showed up for Shabbos. Max showed up for minyan. Max showed up for every Mitzvah. Max’s response to anti-Semitism like the youth of our generation was not one of sadness or cowardice, but one of pride of becoming even more Jewish.   

Ladies and gentlemen, as much as I’d love to, I cannot and we cannot ignore anti-Semitism anymore. It’s here and it’s ugly. Of course we must do everything in our power to fight it politically. But that’s not enough. The prophets of our generation are speaking. Young men and women who probably wouldn’t dream of stepping into an Orthodox shul like this one are telling us what we need to do, and they are right. They are telling us to be better Jews. To be prouder Jews. To show up.

We will be commemorating Max Jacob as a community in a month and a half from now, and I hope you will all be able to contribute to that event. But tonight, on this holy night I have a different appeal to make. How will you fight antisemitism? In what way will you show up? In what way you will connect to your heritage with even more fervor? Is there a particular Mitzvah you’ve been ignoring that perhaps it’s time to embrace? Maybe it’s showing up to shul just a little more often? Maybe it’s learning something new? Maybe it’s just being an amazing person, a proud and passionate Jew?


We pray to G-d on this holy day for an end to this senseless and age-old animosity. But if he dares rear his ugly head, let us never define ourselves by this hate. Instead, we will define ourselves in defiance of this hate, by being even more proud and even more passionate. May the fires of our bold Judaism extinguish the cowardly fires of antisemitism once and for all. And let us say, amen!

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