This is usually the Shabbos where we try to keep things light, it’s the Shabbos before Purim, a time of joy and happiness. This year was not supposed to be an exception; I had big plans of going all out today. But as I walked into my office on Friday morning to collect my thoughts, having just read the news, I felt very stuck. I felt very stuck until a well-known poem popped into my head. And as I thought about that poem, in light of everything that has happened this past week, the poem morphed into something new. And I apologize, I know, I am not a poet, but I’ll share it nonetheless.
First another man was killed in downtown Baltimore, and I scrolled to the next news item-
Because I was not black.
Then an Ethiopian plane crashed, killing 157 passengers, and I scrolled to the next news item —
Because I was not an Ethiopian.
Then they massacred 49 Muslims in New Zealand, and I scrolled to the next news item —
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for me—but I was too busy scrolling and I did not even realize.
The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, once said, that at the end of days, “Mi she’hu ba’al regesh, someone with a sensitive soul, eino yochol lichyos klal, won’t be able to live with themselves, she’sh’muah rodefes sh’muah al hatzaros v’al hag’zeiros, because one bad piece of news follows another.”
The only way anyone can survive, he suggests, is to just shut off your emotions. (H/T R’Joey Rosenfeld)
And so we read a tragic headline. And we scroll.
We read another headline. And we scroll.
But we never sit with that hurt. We never taste or experience the pain, that any normal sentient being should be feeling when reading such news.
Today we read Parshas Zachor, a section of the Torah that reminds us to obliterate a nation called Amaleik. Now this nation Amaleik is no longer around. They got swept up in the tide of history. But we still read this passage every year. And the reason we do so is because Amaleik represents the notion that there is evil in the world which has to be fought. In telling us how to remember Amaleik, G-d says, Zachor! remember that evil exists, and then, Lo tishkach! and never forget it. That is not repetitive. To remember something means that you see it, you read it, but the next moment, you forget it. Lo Tishkach, says G-d, when we read about evil, when we read about tragedy, we must sit with it, we must never forget.
You know, I used to hate moments of silence. The contrarian in me has a hard time with ceremony. But I’ve come to appreciate that to stop and to think about whatever it is you’re memorializing; to not just touch it at the surface but to let it sink in, that has the potential of being overwhelmingly powerful. So maybe not a full minute, but perhaps, when we read something tragic, when we read about the evils that exist in this world, we sit with it, for 30 seconds, maybe twenty seconds, before we scroll on to the next item. That’s what it remembers to not forget.
This idea is true and important on a macro level, but even more important and relevant to us in our individual lives and communities. There’s this incredible irony – As a society, I think it’s safe to say that there has never been such a self-aware population in history – something I hope to get back to in a few weeks. We know ourselves really, really well. But that depth seems to only go in one direction.
We don’t use that same depth to understand others, to feel the pain of others and to sit with it.
In the school my wife works at, as a lead up to Purim, they wanted to give the students a fun activity. And so last week, they had something called a Silent Dance Party. Apparently, this is a thing. It’s done in clubs across the country. The way it works is this: each student gets a pair of headphones and they get to choose whichever song they want to listen to – full volume. But no one else can hear it. So if you were to walk into a silent dance party, you’d see every student wearing headphones, listening to their song of choice, and dancing side by side.
What a perfect image of our society; It looks like everyone’s dancing and laughing together. But really, what’s really going on is that everyone’s just listening to their own song.
We’re not paying attention. “Uh huh” Scroll. “uh huh” Scroll. “uh huh”
Our Sages have a beautiful term they use to describe our concern for others, nosei b’ol im chaveiro, to carry the yoke with one’s friend. A yoke is something that weighs us down. And that’s the litmus test. When we become aware of the lack that our friend is experiencing, does it weigh us down – even just a little bit? Or do we just move on the next conversation?
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means to notice when someone looks like something’s troubling them and to check in.
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means to notice when someone is not in shul or at work or wherever they’re supposed to be and to follow up with them, to let them know they were missed.
To be nosei b’ol im chaveiro means that when we speak to others, we are thinking about how they are hearing what we’re saying, using our deep emotional awareness to understand not only ourselves, but others. To make sure that we are not coming across in a way that offends, or that is insensitive.
I’d like to conclude with a powerful idea that I heard this past week from Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld. The Talmud teaches us that someone who is drunk is not allowed to pray. The simple understanding of that is that praying while intoxicated is disrespectful. But there is an additional layer to this law taught by one of the great Chassidic thinkers, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, otherwise known as the Izhbitzer. He taught as follows:
Conceptually, to be drunk or to be high means that you have transcended the worries, the cravings, the lack in this world. To be high means you’re floating above it all. That’s why the addict gets high. They don’t like the drugs or the alcohol. He or she is attempting to escape the brokenness of the world.
But tefilah, prayer, the essence of our connection to our Creator, stems from a place of brokenness. We can only reach out to G-d, and we can only reach out to a better version of ourselves, when we’re sober; when we recognize how the world is not whole, how everything is not the same, how lacking we are, and how lacking the people around us really are.
But tragically, we’re all shikuur, we’re all drunk, in that we’re floating above the the pain of this world, and we refuse to acknowledge that there’s anything beneath the surface.
The mystics explain that Megilas Esther should be read as megaleh ha’hester, it is meant to reveal that that is hidden, that that we normally scroll over. Megilas Esther, literally the scroll of Esther, is in actuality, the anti-scroll. Look beneath the mask. Live beyond the surface.
What the Izhbitzer is teaching us is that to, so to speak pray, to live a spiritual life, one needs to sit – to sit in silence – with the fact that over 300 people will most probably be murdered in downtown Baltimore by the end of the year. To sit in silence with the fact that 159 people on a regular plane, lost their lives in a blink of an eye. To sit in silence with the fact that 49 innocent religious men and women were mowed down while they were doing exactly what we’re doing here today. To sit with that. To feel it.
To live a spiritual life means that we recognize the brokenness of the world, within and without.
And with that sober view, we strive, with speech, with prayer, and with action, to do whatever we can to change it.
– In the times of the Temple, announcements were made throughout the Land of Israel on Rosh Chodesh Adar that everyone should donate a half-shekel to the Bais HaMikdash to be used to pay for the daily sacrifices. Despite the lack of Bais HaMikdash there is an ancient custom that we donate money to the poor before Purim to perpetuate this practice. This custom is independent of the Rabbinic Mitzvah of giving charity on Purim. To properly fulfill this custom one should give three half-coins. (This is done because the Torah says the word “Terumah/ Donation” three times in the section that deals with this Mitzvah.) Since most people do not have three half coins of their own many shuls leave three half coins out for people to acquire (not borrow). By placing an equivalent amount of money in the basket one acquires the three coins and then gives those three coins to charity to fulfill their obligation. There are varying customs as to whom is included in this Mitzvah. Many have the custom that every member of the family should give (or should be given for).
– There is a Mitzvah to hear the Megillah read both in the evening and in the morning. It is an obligation for both men and women. Like all Mitzvos, there is an obligation on the parents to teach their children in fulfilling the Mitzvah. The appropriate age is subjective. When a child can sit through the entire Megillah reading (silently) they are ready to go hear the Megillah. Before this age it is better to keep the child at home so that they will not prevent the parent/s from fulfilling their obligation. It is forbidden to speak during the reading of the Megillah. If one spoke they have still fulfilled their obligation.
– To fulfill one’s obligation, one must pay attention to every word of the Megillah. Paying attention means that if someone were to ask them what was just read they could answer. If one has less concentration than that it is questionable if they fulfilled their obligation. If one did not hear or pay attention they can catch up by reading the missed words from the text in front of them (even though it is not a Megillah) and catching up to the reader.
– One of the Mitzvos of Purim is to give gifts to the poor. To fulfill this Mitzvah, every adult must give a meal or the monetary value of a meal to two poor individuals. The Mitzvah is to specifically do this during Purim day.
Practically speaking, one has what to rely upon to give as little as $5 for each poor individual for a total of ten dollars. Although the Mitzvah can only be fulfilled during the day, if one would like they could place their money in the Ahavas Yisroel basket in the shul on Purim night (the money will be distributed on Purim day on your behalf). One can give both gifts to the poor to Ahavas Yisroel and from a Halachic standpoint we can assume that the money you gave was divided between two poor individuals.
Even after fulfilling one’s obligation, the Shulchan Aruch teaches us that on Purim we should strive to give money to any poor person who asks for help.
– There is a Mitzvah to have a festive meal on Purim. While there is a Mitzvah to have a festive meal on many holidays, the festive meal is usually meant to facilitate the joy of the holiday but on Purim the festive meal is an end on to itself. The reason for this is that on Purim festive meals played a major role in the Purim story – according to the Medrashim the Jewish People sinned by attending the festive meal that Achashveirosh threw and we rectify this by having a festive meal that is a Mitzvah and the meal that Esther made for Achashveirosh and Haman where she revealed her identity and turned the tables on Haman.
The meal should take place during the day. It may extend into the evening.
– There is a debate among the commentators whether or not a person should become intoxicated on Purim. Many commentators suggest that a person should drink a little more than usual and if possible, take a little nap after drinking and in doing so, one fulfills the custom of drinking on Purim.
While there is what to rely upon to drink more than that, it is certainly forbidden to endanger one’s life in any way possible. If you plan on drinking please make sure you have a designated driver. In addition, while studies have shown that modelling healthy drinking is more beneficial for children than no modelling at all, it is extremely frightening and unsettling for a child to see their parent out of control. If you do decide to drink, please do so responsibly.
– There are many reason given as to the rational behind this custom. The simplest explanation is to commemorate the fact that the Purim story revolved around drinking. From the Jew’s participation at Achashveirosh’s festive meal to the drinking of Haman on the day Esther accused him of trying to kill her, wine plays a central role in the story.
I’m still flying high from this past weekend. That was a really nice Shabbos, no?
My favorite part? I didn’t have to speak. But to make up for it, today, I’d like to share with you, not one, but three different ideas. They’re actually reflections from this past weekend that I’ve been thinking about all week.
For starters, this past Shabbos reminded me of a song –
It’s a song written by Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum called, ‘Twas the Night before the Redemption… It’s about Mashiach, the Messiah, sent by G-d to reveal himself to the Jewish People. And he shows up at the first shul, a Chassidish shtiebel, bangs on the Bimah, and he says, “Hineni, here I am! I am Mashiach!!”
And they look up at him, they study him, and say, “Nuh uh, no way. You’re not Mashiach. You’re wearing a fedora. Mashiach most obviously would only wear a Shtreimel.”
So Mashiach says to himself, Shtreimel, hat, who cares, and he quickly grabs a Shtreimel and walks into the next shul, and again, he announces, “I’m Mashiach, here I am!”
They look him up and down, and say, “Mashiach in black and white? No way. Mashiach would probably wear a blue shirt, a knitted kippah, maybe brown shoes. You look like you walked out of Meah Shearim, you can’t be Mashiach.” So of course Mashiach does a quick wardrobe change and shows up at the next shul, only to be scoffed at for not wearing a hat.
The conclusion of this very tragic song has Mashiach heading back to Heaven, telling G-d that the Jewish People, with all of their boxes and preconceived notions, simply aren’t ready to greet him.
Now I’m not suggesting that Sivan Rahav Meir is mashiach, but her ability to transcend the classic divisions that stand between us, her ability to feel comfortable and make people comfortable in every setting – Ner Tamid to Ner Israel, Bais Yakov to Beth Tfiloh, that’s a trait that we should all be aspiring to. Perhaps we can even call it a Messianic trait.
Because all too often we walk into a “different” circle, be it a wedding of a neighbor, a shiva house, or just simply walking down the street, and when we find ourselves surrounded by “other” types of Jews, not even necessarily are they other types of Jews, we just make wild assumptions, based on their mode of dress or speech, and one of two things happen – we get defensive or we get critical, and usually a little bit of both.
And it was so refreshing to see someone who didn’t have the regular constraints that we all have, someone who could walk into any shul, and would be welcomed as “one of us.” And after the weekend, I asked myself, what’s her secret? How did Sivan do it, and how did she do it so well?
I realized, I think she actually told us how she did it. When she spoke on Shabbos morning, she explained that as a young child, it occurred to her that everyone could be interviewed, that everyone has a story, that every single person has something to teach the world. That’s what drives her journalism, but it’s also what drives her day-to-day living. Everywhere we went, Sivan and her husband, Rav Yedidya, would ask questions, they would take pictures. Sure, some of it made it into articles and Facebook posts. But there was a genuine and humble curiosity that permeated throughout. Haba l’lamed, v’nimtza lamed, she was ostensibly the teacher this weekend, but she was clearly listening and taking it all in at the same time.
Now being Mashiach is not on my bucket-list of things to do before I die, but we can all aspire to be a good reporter, to be genuinely interested about the people we interact with. It was an honor to have someone who exemplified this in our midst.
Reflection number two, also, something Sivan mentioned, this time in the Q and A during lunch. Someone asked her a thoughtful question about race relations in Israel. And she suggested that we should not conflate the race issues that we grapple with in the United States with those taking place in Israel. Her point was that they may look the same, but in actuality, they’re worlds apart.
As a rabbi, those words were especially poignant. You see, the rabbi’s job is to take two stories that have nothing to do with one another and find a connection. I actually have something called a sermon blender – the Bloom’s had a baby, Israel has a spacecraft heading to the moon, Netanyahu was indicted, and the Michael Cohen hearings. I put them in the sermon blender, VRRRRRRMM, and voila out comes a drasha.
It’s a wonderful gift to be able to connect seemingly disparate ideas into one talk, but it comes with a tremendous hazard, and that is the oversimplification of nuanced topics. As time goes on, this challenge becomes more and more pronounced. I was told that Rabbi Leibowitz would speak for at least a half hour every Shabbos, often longer. As time goes on, as our attention span shrinks even more, talks are expected to get shorter and shorter. Today, everything needs to be a soundbite. Your next rabbi is going to be expected to give two-minute sermons.
(Not a bad idea, no?)
The parsha we read today is known as the great rerun. Two and three weeks ago we read about the instructions on how to build the Mishkan. And then, instead of just saying, “And the Jewish People did exactly as they were told”, the Torah goes on a 5 chapter, 214 verse, and 2,740 word recounting of how they built the Mishkan. It could have been summarized in one sentence! What’s going on over here?
Rav Yehoshua Heller, a disciple of the great founder of the Mussar movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter, suggests that there is no repetition at all. The instructions on how to build the Mishkan are given before the Jewish People sin with the Golden Calf, and the execution, what we’re reading today and next week, the “recounting” is a Mishkan that is meant to reflect a post-Sin of the Golden Calf world.
What he’s suggesting is that if you look closely, there are countless differences. It’s not a repetition at all! Thursday night at the parsha class we spent an hour describing just one of those differences!
When you look at the world with a lazy eye, everything looks the same. When you get overly creative, there is nothing that cannot be connected to anything else. But in Judaism, wisdom is defined by being able to discern and distinguish, by the ability to tell the difference between one thing and the next. As the Talmud beautifully states, im ein da’as, havdallah minayin. Loosely translated, as the essence of wisdom is the discerning eye.
What a radical idea in this day and age! We live in a time, where the cultural wisdom is to say that everything is the same – animals and people, we’re all the same. This gender and that gender, there’s no such thing as gender. This religion and that, this philosophy and that one, everything is equally valid, everything is the same.
And to that Judaism says, im ein da’as, havdallah minayin. The essence of wisdom is the ability to see those differences, even when things look the same.
This idea, not to conflate race issues in one country with those in another, this idea of using a discerning eye is one that American Jews following Israeli politics, or really any politics, can really use a dose of. Comparing one form of nationalism to another, comparing any political move with the Nazi regime, comparing Israeli views, even those of extreme groups, to the viewpoint of Louis Farrakhan, all of that reflects a lack of discernment.
Can we learn to discuss these trends, speak of these movements, and on the one hand, not be shy with our criticism – to call out racist views when we see them, to not justify our flaws by pointing out the flaws of others, to not be okay with violent ideas that are antithetical to our tradition, and yet, not to make wild and inaccurate comparisons. It may make for a great headline to lump them all together, it makes for a great sermon. But im ein da’as, havdallah minayin, the essence of wisdom is the discerning eye. Don’t be lazy and don’t be creative. Be wise.
And lastly, a personal reflection.
I organized with a wonderful team this weekend with Sivan Rahav Meir. And because I was in charge, I was in camp director mode; totally focused on the logistics. The whole weekend I was fretting, will she get to this place in time? Will she say the right thing? How will we get her a ride to Reagan at 5 AM? Will she be comfortable at her host? The whole weekend, I was hyper-focused on the details of making this visit a success.
And as soon as it was over, Sunday morning, when I heard back from the guy who drove her to the airport that they made their flight, all of a sudden, tons of questions that I would have loved to discuss with Sivan and her husband popped into my mind. “How do you, as thoughtful journalists, overcome the soundbite dilemma? Sharing meaningful ideas in such few words?” “How do you recharge yourself? You’re giving all the time, teaching and lecturing non-stop, where do you get your spiritual energy?” “From your vantage point, what are the major issues facing the Jewish People? In Israel? In America? How could rabbis help?”
I had these two gifted, worldly, knowledgeable, humble, people in my car for hours, and none of that went through my mind at the time.
It gave me a new appreciation for something we find in the opening verses of this week’s parsha. As a prelude to the discussion of the Mishkan, G-d reminds the People of the Mitzvah of Shabbos.
There are many esoteric explanations, but I’d like to share a simple one. We are building Mishkans, samctuaries, bilvavi mishkan evneh, our heart, our existence is really a sanctuary for G-d. But there are two modalities needed to ensure that the Mishkan we build is a G-dly one. Part of life, by necessity, we live in Mishkan-mode; we build, we craft, we run, we organize. Whether it’s at work, whether it’s with the chesed we perform, whether it’s with our family – we do and we create.
But too much Mishkan-mode blocks out our ability for expansive thinking. When we get hyper-focused on a task, even a good one, we lose sight of the bigger picture, the big picture of our own life, the big picture even of the things we’re involved in. Why am I racing my kids out the door in the morning? Why did I choose this profession? Where am I going with my life?
And for that, we need to turn off our Mishkan-mode, and we need to turn on our Shabbos-mode. It’s not just for ovens.
Shabbos-mode is the time, once a week, but also throughout the day, when we stop, when we slow down, when we don’t distract ourselves with the billions of distractions, buzzing in our pocket or otherwise, and we just think, we allow our mind to wander, to expand, and we reflect on the big picture of life and existence.
I didn’t do that this past Shabbos and I wish I did. It’s specifically in our busiest times, at the times that we can’t even breathe, that we need ever so desperately to flip the switch, to take a deep breath, and experience the holiness and tranquility of Shabbos.
Now at this point, I am supposed to put those three ideas into my sermon blender and make them one, but I won’t. On principle.
So just to review, let’s live our lives as reporters, genuinely curious, humbling ourselves, and learn from those around us, those who are “different.”
- Soundbites are cute, but they are too often lacking in wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to distinguish and to discern.
- And lastly, Shabbos mode is not just for ovens. We too, especially when we find ourselves zooming in, need to take a break, need to think big, need to experience the beauty and serenity of Shabbos Kodesh.