The next blessing is one which asks G-d to redeem us from our suffering and hardships. the commentators explain that this blessing follows the blessing for repentance and forgiveness because it is only when we acknowledge that we have made mistakes and that it is our fault that bad things happen to us, do we have a right to now ask G-d to save us from those hardships. We are not accusing G-d for paining us, we are acknowledging that we are at fault but nonetheless we beg G-d for Hos mercy.
The justification we have to ask G-d to save us, is as the prayer states: “For Your Name’s sake.” Meaning, we are not asking G-d to save us because we cannot bear the personal and national pain. We ask Him to save us because it is a disgrace to G-d when we, the Jewish People, suffer. We represent G-d and when people see the Jewish People degraded and downtrodden it reflects poorly on our King. Therefore, we ask G-d, not for our sake but for Yours, please redeem us, g’oleinu m’heira l’maan sh’mecha.
The sixth blessing, asking G-d for forgiveness seems to be very much connected to the blessing that precedes it, the blessing for repentance. Our Sages explain that the reason they are made into two blessings is to ensure that we ask G-d to take us back to Him (repentance) not because we don’t want to be punished but simply because we want to be close to G-d. It is only after we ask G-d to please bring us back to Him that we ask Him to forgive us as well; erase the effects of our sins and do not punish us.
Here too the authors refer to G-d as our Father and as our King. When we ask G-d forgiveness for our unintentional sins (S’lach lonu Avinu ki chatanu) our relationship with Him is still a loving one. However when we deliberately sin we distance ourselves from G-d and therefore when we ask Him to forgive us for our intentional sins (m’chal lonu Malkeinu ki phashanu) we refer to Him in a less endearing way, namely, as our King.
“Return us, our Father, to Your Torah. Being us close, our King, to your service.”
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the first request is for G-d to bring us back to a life that is lived in accordance with His Torah. Afterwards, we ask G-d to constantly bring us close to Him through Avodas Hashem (service of G-d).
The prayer begins by describing G-d as a Father and then as a King. Some explain that when we repent G-d acts like a loving father waiting lovingly for us to return. After we do so He tests us to make sure that we were sincere and He does not act with us like a father but rather like a king.
Water and Trees: Two Models of Spirituality
A few years ago, while I was still dating Hindy I took her out to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. I don’t know why men take women to fancy restaurants when they’re dating. We both knew that if we get married this would be the first and last time we would be going to such a restaurant. But anyway, in the spirit of chivalry I took her to this fancy schmansy place. Now on each of the tables at this restaurant, in addition to the little bread basket on my table they had a bottle of water. And I thought, “Nice! They don’t just give you a pitcher of tap-water here, they give you bottled water. That’s great!” So in middle of our meal, I opened this fancy looking water bottle and poured myself a drink.
Now I knew something was wrong when I noticed the waitress start to giggle when I opened the bottle. But it wasn’t until I got the bill that I realized that those bottles of water were not for consumption; they were a center-piece! Can you believe it? The bottle of water cost me fifteen dollars! That’s right fifteen dollars! What could they have put in that water bottle already?! You and I grew up in the pre-water bottle era of civilization, so to spend fifteen dollars on water is nothing less than a shanda!
The moral of the story is that not all water is created equal.
Had I been paying more attention to today’s Torah reading I would have known that; our ancestors learned this lesson three thousand years ago. The Torah tells us that after the splitting of the sea, they travelled and travelled but couldn’t find any water. And finally, after three days, they find water. They’re ecstatic. They rush to the body of water and start to drink but they quickly find out that the water is bitter. Yes, it satiated them, but our ancestors didn’t just want any water, they wanted ‘fifteen dollars a bottle’ water. And G-d in His kindness gave it to them. He instructed Moshe to take an eitz, a piece of wood and throw it into the water. Moshe did and just like that, the water turned sweet and the Jewish People had delicious water to drink.
Now the Talmud does something very interesting with this story. Traditionally, we don’t assume a story found in the Torah is metaphoric unless there’s something compelling us to do so. However, in this specific section, the Talmud tells us that what the Torah is describing can be understood on a totally different level. The Gemara explains that when the Torah describes the Jewish People looking for water, what that means is that they were looking for a spiritual experience, they were seeking a connection to G-d. And that’s because as the Talmud states, “ein mayim ela Torah, water means Torah.” And therefore what the Torah is teaching us is that Jewish People sought a spiritual connection to G-d but didn’t connect for three days and when they finally did, it wasn’t a sweet connection; they didn’t feel engaged, they lost the spark and fire that they previously had. And so the water, i.e., the Torah, was not sweet.
The Talmud actually teaches us that this is the reason we read the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays – so that we never go through the same experience that our ancestors did. By leining Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos, we never go three days without a Torah connection to G-d. And by staying in touch and connected to G-d that ensures that our connection to Him never becomes bitter. Now of course that is only possible to fulfill if you come to minyan…. But we’ll leave that for another talk.
Ok, so this is a very nice interpretation but it leaves us with a question. If you tell me not to interpret this story literally, or at the very least that there is an additional metaphoric level of interpretation, then what in the world is the symbolism of the piece of wood that Moshe threw into the water? Why couldn’t G-d just make the water, or that spiritual connection, sweet? What was G-d teaching the Jewish People, both our ancestors and us, with this eitz, with this piece of wood??
The Maharsha, one of the commentaries on the Talmud suggests the following beautiful idea. He explains that the wood, or the eitz, as it is called in the Torah, represents the verse eitz chaim hi lamachazikim bo, a reference to the Torah. The tree in that verse refers to the Torah. And what we have here is two symbolisms that represent the Torah; water and a tree. But the two of them, explains the Maharsha, represent two very different experiences that one can have with spirituality and Judaism in general. We all have or have had a water-like connection to Judaism. We have been in situations where Judaism was sweet and fresh like water. Meaning, our Jewish experience was fulfilling, inspiring, meaningful, you name it. This was the only experience that the Jewish People had with G-d up to this point. From the moment Moshe came to Pharaoh, they have watched those who humiliated them become humiliated, they had a euphoric and prophetic experience at the sea, watching the grandest of miracles and divine justice rolled into one. This is Judaism? Sign me up! This is great! I love it! It’s inspiring, it’s enjoyable, it’s easy.
But the story continues. The Jewish People travelled for three days looking for that same experience and they couldn’t find it. The water, meaning that connection to G-d, to whatever Judaism represented at that time, it was bitter, it wasn’t fun. It was boring, it was irrelevant, it was cumbersome.
So G-d instructed Moshe to take an eitz, to teach the Jewish People that there is another way to connect to G-d. It’s not easy to digest like water, it doesn’t immediately quench your spiritual thirst like water, and it’s not easy to come upon. The Torah, G-d was teaching us, is also represented by a tree. Did you ever take a bite out of a piece of wood? I hope not. It has not taste. A tree is a process. You plant a seed, you wait. You water it, you wait. You prune it, you wait. And finally after years, you harvest and you take a bite out of a delicious fruit; so much sweeter and so much more nutritious than water. Eitz chaim hi lamachazikim bo, it is a tree of life to those who hold on; to those who have patience and to those who persevere, to them, the Torah and Judaism can be sweet like a delicious, juicy, fresh fruit.
In other words, G-d was teaching the Jewish People a timeless lesson. We all have aspects of our Judaism that are sweet like water. There are things that we do because they are enjoyable. Coming to Carlebach and sushi – that’s water Judaism! It’s fun, it’s easy. We all have different mitzvos that are more appealing to us. For some it’s Shabbos candles, for some it’s prayer, whatever it is, I hope you have some aspects of Judaism that are natural; that flow like water, from your soul to G-d. But there are other aspects of Judaism that don’t talk to us. Aspects of our religion that seem, and I hate to use the term, bitter. For example, in this week’s Torah Portion, all the way at the end, we read about the Mitzvah to wipe out the nation of Amalek. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with that. How is that moral? How is that ethical? And I’ll share with you another personal example, the Mitzvah of Torah study. I recall the first week I went to study in Yeshiva in Israel and after half a day of learning Talmud non-stop, I thought there is no way I am going to make it! I just can’t sit this long and study.
You can all come up with your own examples of practices that don’t talk to you or Mitzvos or even customs that you find difficult to observe. We, like our ancestors who stood at the bitter waters, struggle: What do we do with this? Do we try to embrace it or do we reject it and ignore it because it doesn’t talk to me?
“Moshe,” G-d says, “Teach the Jewish People that they are missing out. There is another aspect of their connection to Me that will not come easy. It’s going to come with labor, it’s going to come by applying themselves, by seeking out explanations, by pushing themselves way out of their comfort zone. Because spirituality is also like a tree and one needs to plant, one needs to prune, one needs to have patience, and only then can one reap its delicious fruits.”
It’s very easy to dismiss ancient practices as being dated and reject the observance of certain mitzvos as being too hard or not appealing. But we need to remind ourselves that Torah and Judaism is not a collection of feel-good practices or a culture of people attempting to live an ethical lifestyle. The Torah is a spiritual reality that we are trying to plant on earth. It is a way of thinking that isn’t just ethical, it is G-d’s ethics being imposed onto this physical world. Mitzvos and the customs that have been fashioned in the spirit of the Torah are our attempt to plant a spiritual reality in a physical being. Not everything will sit well; not everything will taste so sweet to our non-spiritual, very human palate. But with time, diligence and effort, we will be able to reap delicious spiritual fruit.
I can only speak from personal experience – although it was initially a struggle, today, I do not know a more sublime experience than Torah study and I would love to have an opportunity to spend a whole day studying once again. In terms of Amalek – I still haven’t found an explanation that sits well with me but I also haven’t stopped looking. It’s not the Torah that’s lacking, it’s my spiritual sensitivities that need to be pruned and cultivated.
So yes, not all waters are created equally. And by water I mean what the Talmud said, “ein mayim ela Torah” I mean Judaism, I mean spirituality. There are religious experiences that are cheap and religious experiences that are expensive, there are practices that taste good and practices that are bitter. But just because it’s hard to attain and just because it may not taste so sweet to us, doesn’t mean it’s not filled with sweetness.
May G-d bless us with the courage and patience to hold on to the tree of life and may we merit to taste its delicious fruit.
In this blessing we beg G-d to forgive us for our sins. Teshuva/ Repentance is seen as bordering on the miraculous. On face value it does not seem to be the biggest of deals. If a person were to be filled with genuine remorse and make a sincere commitment to change it is quite understandable if the one who was wronged would forgive. Why then is Teshuva seen as such a special gift that we must beg G-d for forgiveness three times a day?
There are two ways to look at sin. One is an act of rebellion; A king commands his people to obey certain commands and if they are disobeyed they will be punished. We can also see a sin like disobeying a doctor’s instructions. If one does not listen to their doctor they will jeopardize their health. One can apologize to the king and he may forgive but all the apologies in the world directed at the doctor won’t remove the effects of not following his instructions.
When we sin, we are not only rebelling, we are harming our soul. Teshuva is not only a medium for G-d to forgive our rebellion. The gift of Teshuva is that G-d in His infinite kindness removes any of the harmful effects that we brought upon ourselves through our misdeeds. For this reason we must beg G-d and appreciate the great gift called Teshuva.
(Shemoneh Esrei, R’ Zev Leff)
* Due to some technical difficulties the prayer blog has not run for the past few weeks. I am posting an overview of the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei below. We are currently up to the fifth blessing and I will pick up from there. *
An Overview of the First Blessing of Shemoneh Esrei
The Greatest Impediment to Prayer
Before we begin Shemoneh Esrei, we ask G-d to “Open our lips so that we may say Your praise.” This is a quote from a chapter in Tehillim in which King David begs G-d to forgive him for sinning with Batsheva. King David feels so distant from G-d that he doesn’t have the inner strength to pray. He sees himself as not worthy for G-d to even pay attention to him. For this reason, He begs G-d to give him the self-confidence to stand before G-d and to recognize that G-d always listens to one’s prayers.
There is no greater impediment to meaningful prayer than our own lack of self-worth. Some consciously, others sub-consciously see ourselves as too insignificant to be listened to by G-d. The sad consequence is a quick mumble through the words of the daily tefillah. If we would only know how G-d does desire our prayers; how He so cherishes our standing before Him and opening ourselves up to Him, our prayers would be dramatically affected. It is for this reason we begin our Shemoneh Esrei with a prayer that like He did for King David, G-d should give us the self-confidence to pray. “Open our lips so that we may say Your praise.”
The Theme of the First Blessing
The theme of the first blessing is G-d’s relationship with our forefathers. There are a number of reasons suggested as to why this blessing is placed at the beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei. Some suggest that we reflect on the historical relationship between all of our ancestors and G-d to help us better understand G-d. This helps us understand to some extent with Whom we are conversing.
In a similar vein, others suggest that each of our forefathers made one of G-d’s attributes known to the world through his actions. Avraham made G-d’s kindness known, Yitzchak made G-d’s Strength and through Yaakov’s life the world better understood G-d’s ability to blend the two. We therefore focus on our forefathers so that we can reflect on the characteristics of G-d that became known to us through their lives.
Lastly, some suggest that we focus on our forefathers to remind us of ourselves and the capacity we have for greatness. By reminding ourselves of where we come from and what genes and history we have inherited that should give us the confidence to attain great heights. In this elevated state of mind we can find more confidence in themselves to properly plead from and praise their Creator.
One of the central components of prayer is kavannah/ concentration. Ideally one should concentrate on the entire Shemoneh Esrei. If this is not possible one should strive to concentrate on the first section of Shemoneh Esrei (Avos), the entire section of Modim/ Thanksgiving and the concluding blessing to each section in Shemoneh Esrei. If this is not possible, at the very least one should concentrate on the first blessing.
There are two aspects to concentration when praying Shemoneh Esrei. 1) Know what you are saying – understand the meaning of the words. 2) Know what you’re doing – standing before G-d.
Bowing and Straightening Up
Both at the beginning of this blessing and the conclusion we bend our knees when we say Baruch, bow when we say Ata and straighten up when we say G-d’s Name. Bowing is seen as a sign of submission and we want to demonstrate, specifically when we begin our conversation with G-d, that we are humbled before Him.
The Sefas Emes explains that when we say Ata/ You, we are expected to feel overwhelmed – how can we stand before G-d and speak directly to Him?! We aren’t worthy of such an experience. We express this by bowing our body, demonstrating that we can’t stand before His Presence. However, when we say G-d’s Name we recognize that we do have a justification to stand before G-d and that is our connection to Him. We are not living a ‘me and you’ relationship. If I see my relationship with G-d as Ata/ You and me then I have no standing. If I see my life totally dedicated to G-d’s work, if my life is consumed by a desire to be one with Him then I can stand. Hence, when we say G-d’s Name, we stand demonstrating that our justification for standing before Him, and really our justification for living is only when we see ourselves as connected to G-d.
The Meaning of the Words
“Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers”
Chronologically, G-d is first the G-d of our forefathers and then our G-d. Why is it that we state that He is our G-d and only then do we acknowledge that He is the G-d of our forefathers? The Vilna Gaon explains that we cannot limit our relationship to G-d to one that is born out of a coincidence of birth. The fact that we are born to Jewish parents is what makes most of us Jewish but that cannot be the extent of our relationship with Him. First and foremost, He has to be our G-d. Meaning, we have to establish a relationship with G-d that is based on our own reasoning and experience. Therefore we say that He is our G-d – we have a personal relationship with Him. In addition, we have a historical connection through all the He did to our ancestors.
“Great, Strong, and Awesome”
The commentators explain that G-d’s greatness refers to His interactions with the world with love. His Strength is manifest when He interacts with the world with justice. His Awesomeness is manifest through beauty.
“The supreme G-d.”
Literally, the word elyon means above. This phrase means that G-d is above our comprehension. Although we are listing some of His attributes, we do not know all of them, nor do we comprehend the extent of each of those attributes.
“Who bestows good kindness and creates everything.”
The word gomel (bestows) also means to wean. A child who is weaned is no longer dependent on her mother. This term gomel is used because the manner in which G-d gives to us is such that we feel like we are not dependent on Him. Unless we think about it, we don’t naturally feel indebted to the never-ending kindness of G-d.
The greatest kindness is the fact that G-d created the world. G-d did not need to create the world. Rather, He created the world to give to us (Derecg Hashem, RaMChaL). Hence, these two attributes are connected – G-d who bestows kindness, and the greatest of them being His creation of the entire world.
“Who remembers the kindness of the ancestors and brings a redeemer to their children’s children.”
This is the first statement that is not said based on our knowledge of G-d but rather it is based on our faith in G-d. Until now we have described G-d based on what He has done in the past but this next phrase describes our deep faith in an ultimate redemption.
The Mabit asks how can it be that we will ever be worthy of being redeemed? The great generations that lived in the times of the prophets, the great generations of the authors of the Mishna, Gemara, Geonim, all those generation came and went and no redemption for the Jewish People – there is no way that we will be worthy of redemption?!
To this the author of the Shemoneh Esrei responds – “G-d brings the redeemer to those who build upon those who build.” The word ben which means child also means build and what we are stating is that G-d brings about a redeemer to even a generation that is not in any way similar to the generations of old because it is a cumulative process. Those great people built, and we their children are building upon their accomplishments until we will one day merit a final redemption. May it be speedily in our days.
“For His Names’ sake with love.”
The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that there are two ways the final redemption can come about; in its time or if we merit, at an earlier time. In that light we can understand these words: G-d will bring the redemption either “for His Name’s sake” meaning, because He promised to and it will come at the prescribed time. Or, it can come early, if we earn it, G-d will bring about the redemption “with love.”
“The King Who is a helper, redeemer, and shield.”
This describes the three ways that G-d saves us. 1) There are times that we try to help ourselves, be it through our efforts or prayers, but we still need G-d’s help. When G-d helps us in such scenarios, we refer to Him as our helper. 2) Sometimes we are helpless – there is nothing we can do. When G-d helps us in such a scenario, He is our savior. 3) There are countless situations where we are saved from harm even without knowing that we were in any trouble. For this reason we call G-d our shield for all the times He has shielded us from harm.
“….Shield of Avraham.”
The Medrashim explain that when Avraham was thrown into the fiery pit, the angels, upon seeing Avraham come out alive, exclaimed, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who shields Avraham.
The Sefas Emes explains that this statement is not just a reference to a historical event. Rather, “The shield of Avraham” is a reference to what is known as “The Pintele Yid’ – the little spark of connection to G-d that we inherited from Avraham that lives on in the soul of every Jew regardless of how far off the path they have gone.
*Most of the above is based on Rabbi Zev Leff’s book on Shemoneh Esrei and Lisa Aiken’s book called The Art of Prayer
New Month’s Resolutions
How many people here made New Year’s resolutions of any sort this past week?
According to some estimates, about 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. The bad news is that anywhere between 19% to as low as 8% of those actually achieve their New Year’s goal. Those pathetic statistics, well-known as they are, usually drive people in one of two directions: 1) They search the self-help section in the book stores or the millions of articles on-line on the topic until they finally find THE solution to sticking to this year’s resolution. Or 2) As Kevin Bacon, the famous actor, explained this past week, and I quote: “I don’t like to make promises to myself that I might not be able to keep because then, you know, you feel like an idiot. So I don’t do it.”
Now you might be surprised but to some extent I identify with Kevin Bacon on this one. Change is hard. Change is not only hard, it’s virtually impossible. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father of the mussar movement, a movement that propelled people to develop both spiritually and ethically, was once quoted as saying that it is harder to change a single characteristic than it is to master the entire Talmud.
But despite the fact that I agree with both Rabbi Salanter and Kevin Bacon, I too made a resolution this past week. However, I made a resolution not on Tuesday but on Thursday. And that’s because Thursday was the first day of the Jewish month of Shevat, otherwise known as Rosh Chodesh.
The first commandment given to the Jewish people is the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh – establishing a monthly cycle based on the appearance of the new moon. And although nowadays we have a calendar and we no longer establish the month based on the actual appearance of the new moon, the Talmud tells us that in order to demonstrate our love for this Mitzvah we do something called Kiddush Levana – we make a blessing every time we see the emergence of the new moon.
For anyone who has not performed Kiddush Levana, allow me to briefly explain what it’s all about. Kiddush Levana is in many ways similar to spending New Year’s at Times Square. We go out in the freezing cold. Instead of waiting for a ball to drop we often times wait for the clouds to part so we could get a glimpse of the moon, and after we finally see it, we turn to the person next to us and we —- give them a handshake and say Shalom Aleichem.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Chumash explains the significance of this Mitzvah: “Paganism knows no renewal, neither in the world, nor in man, not in its gods [that] it sets over the world and man. Today evolves from yesterday, and tomorrow from today. Just as paganism denies creation ex nihilo, the free creation by the free will of a Creator, it also denies the possibility of creation ex nihilo in man’s moral nature and in his destiny.
Thus in Egypt, in the land of consistent and radical paganism, where this pagan rigidity reached into the social structure of the state itself, creating the fetters of the caste system; in Egypt, G-d called the future leaders of His People, showed them the crescent of the moon struggling to emerge from the darkness to new light, and said: “This is to be your model!”
Hachodesh hazeh lochem rosh chadashim! This renewal of the moon shall be lochem for you a beginning of renewals. Your perception of the renewal of the moon should inspire you to undertake a similar renewal.”
In other words, Rosh Chodesh, Kiddush Levana, these Mitzvos are a reminder and a reflection of our experience in Egypt. Like the Jews who were slaves one day and a nation of kings the next, like the Nile that turned to blood and then back to water again – the moon shows us that change is possible. The symbolism of the moon is of utmost importance because it reminds us that regardless of how dark our lives may feel; how distant we feel from G-d or how distant we feel from our true selves, there’s always another chance to start again, to start afresh. We are not locked in to yesterday’s behaviors. G-d gave us this Mitzvah to remind us that there is not only constant renewal in the cosmos; we have the capacity for constant renewal in our lives as well.
But I believe that this Mitzvah has a much more important message – one that addresses our love/hate relationship with New Year’s resolutions and finds a happy medium between the 40% of the population who made a resolution this year and the Kevin Bacon’s of the world, and that message is this: If we need a monthly reminder, then G-d is acknowledging that we can easily run out of steam within the span of a month. If G-d is telling us that every month we need to look up to the sky and try to be inspired because if we wouldn’t we would become stale, then that means that He himself programmed us to stop being inspired after 30 days. What G-d is teaching us is that we shouldn’t make a New Year’s resolution. We should make a New Month’s resolution. Because the vast majority of us can barely last a month – let alone a year!
That was the message G-d gave the Jewish People as they became a nation and it was a message that stuck with them as they made their way to the Promised Land. The story of the Jewish People that we will read over the course of the year is not a story of success after success; it’s a story of failure and setbacks. The Jewish People didn’t leave Egypt and enter the Promised Land a few weeks later. It took them forty years! Forty years of complaining, of rebellion, and of outright idolatry.
But therein lies their greatness – because the Jewish People never got stuck. They served a golden calf but a few weeks later they were building a Sanctuary for G-d. They believed the slander of the spies but the very next morning they tried to travel to Israel. That is the story of the Jewish People – it is a people who know the taste of failure, but they know too how to get up again. And that’s because they were taught the secret of the New Moon. They knew how to look up to the sky and inspire themselves time and time again. And slowly but surely they made it to their destination.
One of the Rambam’s greatest works was the Moreh Nevuchim or the Guide for the Perplexed. In his introduction, Maimonides employs a metaphor which illustrates this idea. A man was once lost in a forest. The sun set and this man groped around looking for the path to his freedom. After a few hours he heard rumbling from the sky and before he knew it, he found himself in middle of a storm. All of a sudden a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Our friend had two options: I’m not sure if you’ve ever looked at the sky during a lightning storm. It’s actually beautiful. It looks like the raindrops are frozen in the sky. Now this man could look up and enjoy the view, or, he could use those few seconds that he has light to quickly look around and see if he could find the path that he’s looking for. And if he was smart and did look for that path then he would wait for the next bolt of lightning and when that next bolt of lightning lights up the sky he would quickly look around again and take a few more steps on his journey.
Inspiration could be a tease. It could be like a beautiful bolt, lighting up the dark sky, giving us a momentary vision of beauty. But if we are wise, we can take each one of those moments and capitalize on them. Every inspiring speech, song, experience, and every new beginning can be an opportunity to take a few steps further in life.
Yes, setbacks are a part of life. The first message G-d gave the Jewish People is that it’s okay to fall – once a month, once a week, and once a day. But when you fall, when your life is filled with darkness and you feel like you’ve been wasting all your time, like you haven’t gotten anywhere at all, whether it’s spiritually, whether it’s in your relationships with others, whether it’s in your career, look up to the sky and watch the moon renew itself and slowly but surely fill up the sky with its light.
Some wait around for 365 days for that short flash of inspiration encouraging change – but in the dark forest of life a single lightning bolt will not get you very far. We need to allow ourselves to be inspired as often as we can. We need to recognize that G-d, our creator, who knows our shortcomings, knows that the inspiration will wear off and it’s for this reason he gave us a Chodesh; a chance for chidush, for novelty; a chance for a new beginning every thirty days.
So for those of you here took upon yourselves a New Year’s resolution, chances are you will not make it. For those of you who didn’t make one at all, you’re selling yourself short. Do yourself a favor – Rosh Chodesh was only two days ago – make a New Month’s resolution. And next month, when you look back on last month’s accomplishments, make a new resolution for the month to come. Because Kevin Bacon is wrong – we can change. It may be hard and those changes may come about one small step at a time, but if our experience in Egypt taught us one thing, it taught us that nothing is set in stone, it taught us that yesterday’s failings have no bearing on today, and it taught us that we can change – one month at a time.
A Place to Pray #3
Being that it is Shabbos Mevorchim and so many of you signed up to make an extra effort to be quiet during davening on Shabbos Mevorchim, I’d like to once again dedicate my sermon to the important topic of prayer. But before I do I’d like to address a question that was posed to me a little while ago. One woman who I approached to sign up for our A Place to Pray Pledge asked me the following question: WHY? Prayer is obviously important, she said, but why is there this big emphasis on being quiet during davening? Why can’t we just pray and talk?
At first I was taken aback by the question, I thought it was so self-evident that talking during prayers was far from okay but then I looked around – not around the shul, but I looked around in general and found that maybe this is part of a general problem. So I’d like to share with you a rule of etiquette that I believe the world seems to be unaware of.
If I were standing here and talking to you – as I am doing – and all of a sudden Barry gets out of his seat and starts going like this: “Deet-deet-deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet.” I wouldn’t stop talking to you. However, if I was standing here talking to you, and it could be the most important conversation in the world, and all of a sudden a little contraption in my pocket starts going like this: “deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet- deet.” Then I would drop off in mid-sentence, give you the one minute sign and proceed to talk to whomever it is that just interrupted our conversation and I will carry on talking to them about the most inane topic until they’re done. Then, and only then will we continue our conversation.
For some reason we think that some conversations are interruptible. There is an unwritten hierarchy of conversations – cell phone vs. face to face = cell phone wins. Can anyone explain this to me? I don’t get it. But the bottom line is that it’s rude. It’s rude because interrupting a conversation is rude. It’s rude because there isn’t really a hierarchy. If you’re in middle of a conversation with someone, talk to them, pay attention to them, ignore the rest of the world.
When we pray, we are talking to G-d. We are having a conversation with G-d. Yes, it’s challenging to think that way because we don’t see Him, but we know and we believe He’s there, and He’s listening. So if I am talking to G-d and somebody comes over to me and says, “Hey, what do you think they’ll be serving at Kiddush today?” and I stop praying – I interrupt my conversation with G-d to discuss kugels and herring with my friend – it’s rude. It’s as simple as that. Praying is having a conversation with G-d. Stopping to pray to talk to someone else is interrupting a conversation with G-d. It’s just not polite. I hope that answers the question…
Moving on to this week’s Torah Portion. The main character of the parsha is the infamous Paraoh. Thanks to our Jewish education or our children’s Jewish education, we think of Pharaoh as a bumbling fool who sounds like a broken record, “No, no, no, I will not let them go. No, no, no, I will not let them go.” And honestly, that’s the only way to make sense of this man. How can it be, that after so many plagues he still doesn’t let the Jewish People go? Blood, frogs, vermin, wild beasts roaming freely, pestilence, boils, and hail, and still he doesn’t budge?! And yes, as we discussed earlier today G-d did harden his heart, but as the Ramban explained, that was in order to give him free-will! So the only way we could understand him is if we paint him to be a bumbling fool. He must be!
However, our Sages paint a rather different picture. They teach us, and they prove from many sources that Pharaoh was actually a shrewd and intelligent man. So how do we understand him? Pharaoh’s behavior is so obviously self-destructive and yet he forges forward bringing upon himself catastrophe after catastrophe.
I think the easiest way to understand him is to look inside; to honestly look at ourselves. Because we all, every single one of us, have behaviors that are destructive, they destroy our character and more often they chip away at our relationships, and we tell ourselves over and over and over again that we’re going to change, it’s going to be different, maybe you will even make a New Year’s resolution, but you know and I know, that it doesn’t happen. We know that our whatever, be it our temper, our laziness, our disarray, our need to be too perfectly organized, our inability to control our desires, our inability to express appropriate emotion, should I go on? We all have behavior that is destroying us and yet, we don’t change. So Mr. “No, no no, I will not let you go” – I get him, I can relate to him, and I think if we would be honest with ourselves, we can all relate to him on some level.
Here’s where I am supposed to provide a simple solution for us to make absolute changes in our lives with the snap of a finger. It’s not going to happen because there are no easy answers and often times it’s very hard to find even any solution to our problems. But I’d like to share with you a story about Rabbi Akiva. I don’t know about you but I really like Rabbi Akiva. His life story is so rich and colorful – at 40 years old he changes his life around in a dramatic fashion, transforming himself from an ignorant shepherd to the leader of tens of thousands of students. He loses his students to a terrible plague, lives through the destruction of the Temple and a failed uprising of a man he believed to be the Messiah and yet finds hope in everything he sees. There’s one story in the Talmud that is not as well-known. The Talmud in Kiddushin tells us that Rabbi Akiva used to mock sinners and their lack of self-control. Not verbally but he would think that these people who can’t control themselves are pathetic.
G-d decided to teach him a lesson and so one day, the Talmud relates, the Yetzer Hara appeared to him as a beautiful woman on top of a date tree. Rabbi Akiva, upon seeing this ‘woman’ quickly started climbing the date tree until the Yetzer Hara revealed its true identity. Needless to say, Rabbi Akiva stopped mocking sinners and their lack of self-control. The message of the Gemara is that the reason Rabbi Akiva did not succumb to sin was not because of his incredible self-control. It was because G-d watched over him as a reward for all his good deeds. But without that Divine Providence he wouldn’t stand a chance. That’s why the Talmud concludes the section by teaching us that the Sages used to pray to G-d for Divine assistance to overcome their drives, their inclinations and their shortcomings.
The Gemara is teaching us a fundamental lesson. We normally think of prayers for peace, prayers for health and for financial assistance. But this section in the Talmud teaches us that there is another form of prayer that is not only appropriate, it’s actually a universal need. Because some people are healthy, some people are well-off financially but none of us are perfect.
There are no quick-fixes to the behaviors and characteristics that destroy our lives, but there is one thing that we can do very easily and that is pray. We can all turn to G-d in any language and ask Him for help in overcoming whatever deficits we have. We can ask Him for the inner strength to overcome any temptations, to control our behavior, and to become better people. The difference between us and Pharaoh is not our ability to change. No, we both fall short at times. The difference is that we believe in a G-d who we can turn to Who can help us and wants to help us overcome our shortcomings.
There’s about twenty five minutes left to davening. Let’s spend that time talking to G-d without any interruptions. Let’s spend that time talking to G-d without rudely interrupting that conversation. And let’s ask of Him not only for our physical well-being but our spiritual well-being as well.
Pope Francis and How to Influence Others
About a year ago, standing at this pulpit, I joked around how the Vatican should cheer up a little bit and how the pope wearing a white kippah made me think of Yom Kippur. Well, quite a lot has changed since then. The Roman Catholic Church, as you know, elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, and in his short time in office Pope Francis has proven himself to be anything but Yom Kippur-like. When people think of the papal office these days most people think ‘rock-star’ because that’s exactly what this new pope has proven himself to be.
A week ago, Time Magazine named him the Person of the Year for 2013. He is not the first pope to receive the title but he is the quickest; receiving the title after less than a year in office. I think what’s incredible is not so much that he is well-loved; but what’s incredible is who loves him. Here’s a man who recently put out a manifesto in which he shared views on economics which many saw as having Marxist leanings, he took over a church that is embroiled in controversy, and he’s the head of a religious group that is anything but liberal in a world that is becoming less and less tolerant to religion. And yet, you have numerous conservatives – with the exception of Rush Limbaugh, you have numerous Jews – myself included, who admire this man.
What makes him so admirable is the fact that he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He doesn’t just preach about kindness to the less fortunate. We have pictures of him hugging individuals who have been disfigured by disease. He doesn’t just talk about giving to the poor but he supposedly leaves the Vatican late at night, dressed as a regular priest, and gives out food and money to those in need. That is how a leader educates his or her followers and that’s why so many adore this man.
But this is in no way limited to leaders.
I recently read an article by author Lee Sigel titled America the Vulgar. Mr. Siegel begins the article by lamenting the fact that whenever he is reading the news or watching a television show he has to keep his finger on the off-button in case one of his children walk by. The author goes out of his way to demonstrate that he is no prude but nonetheless feels that the offensive language and sexuality displayed in mainstream media has become so common that it has gone, as he writes, “from boorish to boring.”
He concludes by acknowledging that he has no solutions other than the hope that, as so often happens in America, restless impatience with the status quo will carry the day and the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction. He concludes the article by stating that in the meantime he’ll keep his finger on the off button of whatever device he is using just in case the kids happen to walk by.
Now I read the article, I thought it was interesting and so I shared it with my wife. As she was reading it I was watching her make all sorts of funny faces indicating that she was anything but impressed by the article. So I turned to her after she was done and asked her why she didn’t like it. “The article is fine,” Hindy said, “What I didn’t like is the fact that the author has absolutely no idea how to be a parent! If this guy really didn’t want his kids to be exposed to his email box, his favorite television shows and the news that he reads, don’t just turn it off when they walk in. Don’t watch it yourself!”
This is why I let my wife made executive educational decisions in our home – she knows what she’s talking about.
You could send your kids to the finest Jewish institutions, you could lecture them every day about the importance of doing what’s right, but if the parent isn’t leading the way, the child has no one to follow. Kids can smell a faker a mile away. Turning the off button when they walk by is simply not good parenting.
This week’s Torah portion introduces us to our first and greatest leader, Moshe. But before doing so the Torah shares with us a short story of two Jewish midwives who didn’t bow to Pharaoh’s demands. Pharaoh ordered them to secretly murder all Jewish boys. And these two women stood up to the most powerful man in the world and refused. This act of heroism, as remarkable as it is, doesn’t seem to relate to the context of the Torah portion. The Torah has two major themes in this week’s Parsha – the atrocities of the Egyptians and the birth and development of Moshe. What’s this story doing here?
The Medrashim fill in the blanks by informing us that those midwives were none other than Yocheved and Miriam. Yocheved was the mother of Moshe. And what the Torah is teaching us is that greatness is not born into a void. Moshe’s willingness to risk his life for the sake of the Jewish People, Moshe’s willingness to give up his place in the World to Come, – he learned that from someone. He learned that from parents who demonstrate the same willingness themselves. Greatness is not born into a void. It’s is cultivated by an environment that lives and breathes it.
So here’s a little quiz for you: Which one of these two factors will greater influence a child’s test scores? Is it, a) Reading to the child every night? Or, b) Having more than 100 books in the home?
The answer, studies have shown, is that there is a greater correlation between having 100 books in one’s home and higher test scores than there is with reading to the child every night. Why is that? Because having 100 books in the home indicate that the parent doesn’t only want their child to read, it indicates that the parent likes to read as well.
That is how you educate a child. If you want your child to love Shabbos then love Shabbos! If you want your child to be interested in their Judaic studies then come to Torah classes yourself! If you want your child to enjoy prayer then develop an appreciation for prayer!
The etymology of the word influence comes from a 13th century Old French term that describes the emanation from the stars that acts upon one’s character and destiny. That is because we use the word influence to describe a flow of something between one person and another. But in Hebrew the term used for influencing other people is hashpa’ah. Hashpa’ah comes from the word Shefa. Shefa means to overflow. Meaning, it’s not enough to direct your energy at someone else to influence them. True influence comes from a person who is so passionate and engaged in whatever it is they do that it affects the people around them. That is how you influence! So let me rephrase what I stated earlier, it’s not enough to lead by example. To teach, to lead, and to influence, one must lead with passion. Influencing others come about when you are so saturated with whatever it is you do that it trickles down and spills over to those around you.
Hindy and I have been running a monthly B’nei Mitzvah Program for a year and a half now. And I remember after our first session, when Eliana Albert left to go home, my wife turned to me and said “Wow! That is some girl!” And she was right. Eliana was polite, she was respectful, she was energetic, she was committed, she was fun and she was popular. And over the past two years I have watched her come to shul almost every Shabbos and start davening well before most of the congregation arrives, I’ve watched her volunteer first in the kitchen with setting up for the Kiddush, and more recently I’ve watched her volunteering with the groups upstairs. While most kids this age are being dragged to shul, Eliana is probably our greatest volunteer, shul-wide. If you go up to classroom 9 you’ll see the classroom that she just painted and is in middle of decorating as her Mitzvah project.
Where does it all come from? It comes from parents who are mashpi’im. When a father comes to shul virtually every day of the week – that has an effect on his family. When a father has numerous study partners set up and even sends me text messages during the day with questions from different Gemaras – that has an effect on his family. When a father volunteers to lead the congregation for years and years in a beautiful, soulful High Holiday davening – that has an effect on the family. When a mother, despite her own busy schedule, devotes so much energy to ensure the stability of her family – that has an effect on the family. When a husband describes his wife to me as an example of a true Eishes Chayil – that respect between husband and wife has an effect on the family.
And although I can’t speak of the characteristics of the new Evgey baby whom we just welcomed to the world, I am confident that she, very much like her older siblings will see the shul as their second home. And that’s because her parents, Itamar and Mily, see the shul the exact same way. The Evgey’s are one of the driving forces behind the growth of the young families. Not only do I mean that figuratively but I also mean that literally. For a while Itamar was driving around before Shabbos picking up some of the young men to join us for services. I am confident that your dedication and commitment to Jewish community and to Judaism will rub off on your new daughter.
Eliana and Maya Inbar, may you be both be a source of tremendous nachas for your parents. And may we learn from you, Scott and Aimee, Itamar and Mily and become true mashpi’im; may we overflow with commitment, with passion, and with desire to connect to the One Above.
Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, once observed that according to recent studies, people’s #1 fear is public speaking. The 2nd greatest fear is death. Which means, he pointed out, that at any given funeral most people would rather be in the casket than be the one delivering the eulogy.
Death is a topic that makes people very uncomfortable. And yet it’s inescapable. As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” So with tax season around the corner, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about death.
This week’s Torah portion is a gold-mine for valuable lessons about the end of life and the years and decades that precede it. I’d like to share with you three observations from this week’s Torah portion – all rather straightforward – but nonetheless worth repeating and contemplating.
The first is by the great medieval commentator, Don Isaac Abarbanel who suggests that the purpose of this week’s Torah portion is to teach us to prepare for death. The bulk of the Torah portion describes how Yaakov spent his last year making sure that everything was in order; where he will be buried, how he should be taken to Israel, which one of his descendants will care for the rest of the family, and ensuring that old wounds that stood between the brothers and Yosef would be forgiven and forgotten.
So whether you’re ninety nine or twenty two, there’s no reason not have a will to ensure that your money will go where you want it to go. There is no reason not to have a Halachic will – a straightforward and short document that makes a will acceptable from the perspective of Jewish law. And there’s no reason not to have a Living Will which gives the power of attorney to an individual of your choice who is competent in Jewish law and is empowered to make difficult decisions if the need ever arises.
You know, this is why I love being a rabbi. A friend of mine has been encouraging me for the past year to write a will and I have held out because things kept on getting in the way. But I can’t stand up here and preach to you about the importance of wills and not write one myself. So this past week I found those documents, printed them out, and I hope to take care of the rest of the will shortly – and I encourage you to do the same. Before Shabbos I posted these documents on the shul’s web-site and I would be happy to discuss the details in person.
There are two more observations from the Torah portion that I’d like to share that revolve around the last stage of life – not from the perspective of the one who is in their old age but rather from the perspective of their children and caregivers.
Recently, in China, the government made it mandatory for children to visit their parents. It’s also not uncommon for parents to sue their children for not providing their basic needs. In Jewish Law, a parent cannot sue their children for not supporting them. And while a child does have an absolute obligation to care for his or her parents, the emphasis is one of dignity and respect.
The Torah portion begins with Yakov asking a favor from his son Yosef. “Please,” asks Yaakov, “make sure to bury me in Israel.” But before he asks for this favor, he asks Yosef to do “chesed v’emes, true and absolute kindness.” The commentators explain that when one does kindness with one who is no longer living it is a true kindness because they anticipate nothing in return. Thus, Yaakov who was on his death-bed, requested from his son a true and absolute kindness.
What I never understood is how could we describe the kindness that a child does for his or her parent – the parent who brought the child into this world, who fed the child, who educated the child – how can that kindness be described as “true kindness”?! It’s true that there is no payback from the deceased, but doesn’t the child owe so much to the parent?! How is it that Yaakov describes this act as an act of true kindness? He should have demanded it from Yosef?!
But I believe that the Torah is teaching us the incredible sensitivity we must have for those we help. No one wants to feel like they’re a burden, not even a parent who is owed so much by their children want to feel that they are being helped because they have to be helped. The Torah is reminding us how vulnerable an individual who is in the need of assistance may feel.
What Yaakov was saying was don’t help me because you have to. Don’t drag your feet as you obey my dying command because you feel bad for me. I may not be able to care for myself, said Yaakov, but please treat me with respect, treat me with dignity.
The Talmud relates a story of an individual who fed his father rare meats and the father asked how son how he could afford such expensive food. To which the son replied, “Old man, what do you care? Chew and eat!” That’s a man, says the Talmud, who ends up in hell.
It’s not what we do. It’s how we do it. For many, there is nothing more difficult than being in a position of asking for help. Acknowledge that. Respect that. The overarching goal in giving to parents is not what we give them. The overarching goal is giving them kavod; treating them with respect. And that’s lesson number two – It’s not what we do for those we care for. It’s the attitude; the love and respect that we bestow on them that really matters.
There’s another dialogue between Yosef and Yakov where we see the sensitivity of a son to an elderly father. Yosef brings his two sons to their grandfather for a blessing, deliberately placing the elder son to Yakov’s right and the younger son to Yakov’s left. And yet, Yakov famously switches his hands and places his right hand on the younger son’s head. At first Yosef jumps in to correct him. Yaakov responds with three cryptic words: “Yadati b’ni yadati, I know my son, I know.” And with those words, Yosef steps back and allows his father to keep his hands the way they are. Many of the commentators suggest that Yakov’s response was packed with meaning and Yaakov was alluding to many different ideas with those three words. I would like to suggest that the verse can be understood at face value. And what we have is a son who thinks his father is wrong; a son who thinks his father does not understand what is going on around him. He tries at first to gently guide his father to a different point of view but when he realizes he can’t he accepts and allows his father to see the world his own way.
When caring for the elderly, and specifically with people suffering from Alzheimer’s, Yosef’s actions are incredibly instructive. There is a beautiful book I recently read called Broken Fragments. It is a collection of stories and perspectives shared by Jewish people whose loved ones have or had Alzheimer’s disease. One of the contributors spoke of a woman who would consistently confuse her own son for her deceased husband. Try as they might, they could not get her to understand that she was mistaken. Until finally they realized, and I quote: “[That] one cannot have a logical conversation with someone who has dementia, yet we need to acknowledge their words as reflecting their reality. We need to use their words to access that reality, to pursue their thought as they present it.”
Someone recently shared with me a beautiful story that happened to her when she was a teenager. She was sixteen at the time and worked as a volunteer at a Jewish senior citizen center. One day in middle of July one of the patients refused to eat. She kept on telling the staff that it was Yom Kippur and she was not allowed to eat. This young woman, watching what was happening, had a wonderful idea. She ran downstairs to the center’s chapel, grabbed a siddur, and handed it to the patient. Then she led the patient in a few short prayers, closed the siddur and said, “Okay, Yom Kippur is over. It’s time to break the fast!” Sure enough, this woman began to eat.
Yosef recognized that he could not change his father’s point of view. Instead of tiring himself out and getting frustrated at his father who just ‘couldn’t understand’, he stood back and allowed his father to see the world as he wished.
Allow me to conclude by reading you a letter someone shared with me. It’s a letter that is relevant to each and every one of us.
My dear child,
I know that you notice that I am getting old before your eyes. I beg of you, please be patient, and even more importantly, try to understand what is happening to me.
If when we talk I repeat the same sentence, a thousand times, don’t interrupt me in the middle and say: “You said the same thing a minute ago”, just listen, please. Try to remember the times when you were little and you read the same story before bed, night after night over and over again, until you fell asleep softly.
If I’m not ready to take a shower, don’t get angry and don’t embarrass me. Try to remember your childhood days when I ran after you, trying desperately to get you in the bath.
When you see how ignorant I am with regard to the wonders of technology, give me time to learn, and do not look at me with that look of yours. Remember, darling, the days when I patiently taught you to eat with a knife and fork, to get dressed, how to straighten your hair and cope with the very day crises of life.
If I lose you during conversations we have, give me time to remember, and if I cannot, don’t impatient or arrogant. Know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you. And when my tired old legs won’t let me move as quickly as before, put your hand out the same way I gave you mine when you walked for the very first time. Don’t feel sad. Just be with me while I get to the end of my life – with love. I cherish and thank you for the time you spent with me, the happiness and the joy that we shared. With a big smile and with the immense love I have always had for you, I just want to say, I love you.