I will not draw any lessons from the crisis in Ukraine. I refuse.
Imagine watching a house go up in flames with men, women, and children trapped inside, all screaming for help. And since I’m not a fireman, there’s nothing I could do, so I turn to the crowd of people gathered outside, and start lecturing them on the lessons learned from a house fire…
It would be wrong, it would be immoral, and it would betray utter insensitivity to the pain of others. Ukraine is not a TV show, it’s real life.
And yet, over the past week, we’ve all heard people say things like, “The Ukrainians are really bad people. They were the guards at the concentration camps.” It’s true, they were.
Or, “Who is worse? The Russians or the Ukrainians?” And then we have a historic debate.
Or, “Why should I care about this conflict more than any other conflict across the world? Do you know what’s happening in Afghanistan? Do you know what’s happening in Sudan? Do you know what’s happening in Tanzania?”
These are all good and fair questions, and they all stem from one mindset – that this is a video game, a movie, it’s something to debate. Yesterday, it was Major League Baseball lockout and today it’s Ukraine. But it’s not. There is a house on fire. And there are men, women, and children burning inside.
The fact that I do not care deeply about the fires raging in Syria, Sudan, and Tanzania, does not mean I should not care about this one for two reasons. One, this house on fire, the conflict in Ukraine, that’s your next-door neighbor’s house that’s on fire, and there are sparks flying everywhere. Sparks like possible war with countries that we are allies with, sparks like the prospect of nuclear war, and sparks like an unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe. And second, the fact that I do not care about other conflicts should not push me to not care about this one. The opposite is true. I should care about them as well.
The question, to me, is what we do when we don’t care they way we should? What do we do when this is all an academic discussion? Something to talk about with friends or a source of silly memes, punctuated by a sigh here and there. How do we get past that?
Rebecca, Rivkah, Yitzchak’s wife was barren, she was unable to have children. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak prayed for children “opposite his wife.” The explanation that many of us are familiar with is Rashi’s, who explains that Yitzchak went to one corner to pray and she Rivkah to the other – opposite, in that they stood opposite one another.
But Rav Dovid Kimche, a 13th-century French scholar, suggests that we should interpret “opposite” literally. In the ancient world, if you were a woman who could not have children, your husband said, “Farewell,” and found a new wife. Certainly, if you were an aristocrat like Yitzchak was and had endless options available to you. But that’s not what Yitzchak did. He recognized that his wife was in pain. And so he turned his attention to her. He turned his attention to her pain. He stood “opposite her” in that he concentrated on what she was going through; to taste and feel that fear that she was experiencing, the shame that she was hiding, the loneliness that even her loving husband could not break through. “Vayetar Yitzchak laShem nochach ishto, and Yitzchak implored Hashem, opposite his wife.”
Yitzchak focused all his attention on her pain, allowing her pain to become his pain, and then he turned to G-d.
What’s unique about this conflict is that we are able to place the pain of those caught in this insanity before us, opposite us. Yes, there are headlines and news reports. But there are also individual stories. People. Real people crying for help, and we could hear them. They’re posting their videos on social media or sending direct messages to friends. The house on fire is not in the next city, it’s next door. And you don’t need to strain your ears to hear the cries of those stuck inside. It behooves us to listen to their stories, to place them before us, opposite us, so we could feel the pain that we know we’re supposed to feel. Because when we feel the pain, it’s no longer an academic debate, it’s no longer something to schmooze about. It’s real. And it’s personal.
Don’t get distracted by headlines; listen to people’s stories. Place their pain opposite your heart.
Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough. Sometimes, and this is not limited to this particular situation, but sometimes we know we should feel something, but we just don’t. Maybe it’s love for a spouse, maybe it’s love for G-d. Maybe we don’t feel enough joy for someone’s celebration or not enough sadness for their misfortune. How do we feel what we know we’re supposed to feel but cannot?
One of the great ideas of Judaism, something that was discovered only recently in the world of psychology is that our emotions flow from our deeds, more than our deeds flow from our emotions. In the words of the 13th century work, Sefer HaChinuch: “Acharei hape’ulot nimshachot halevavot, the heart is drawn after our actions.” This, explains Sefer HaChinuch, is the purpose of Mitzvos. It is hard to feel compassion sometimes, so we are commanded to give regularly to the poor. It is hard to love G-d, so we are commanded to serve Him daily. Judaism demands action so that we will feel.
You want to love your children more? Do more for them until you love more. You want to love your spouse more? Don’t wait until you feel loving, spend time together so that you’ll feel what you’re looking for. You want to feel connected to Judaism, to Hashem? Don’t wait until you get hit by an inspiring bolt of lightning. Show up, daven, do, and the love will follow.
The same is true here. You’re struggling to feel connected to those in Ukraine? Give charity, or anything else you can do, and allow the feelings to follow.
The Torah’s recipe for feeling what we know we should feel is by placing the pain before us – opposite us, and acting, doing, and allowing the emotions to follow.
What I would like to do is exactly that. I want to tell you a story of one individual, and I’d like to invite you to place his story before us. And I’d like to suggest something we can all do, right now.
This past Tuesday, the Orthodox Union put together a call with communal leaders who are currently in Ukraine. One of the presenters was Rabbi Mendel Moskovitz, a Chabad shliach, situated in Kharkiv, Ukraine. R’Mendel was born in Brooklyn, but in 1990, when he was just seven months old, his family was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to help support the Jewish community in this city of Kharkiv.
His father described how when they arrived, the Jews in the region had no idea what a shofar was; they knew nothing. Little by little, in this G-d-less wasteland, the Moskovitz family built a spiritual sanctuary. Jews started attending services and they eventually opened a school in 1992. Last Wednesday, the day before the war began, they had an event celebrating the 30th year anniversary of the school which now boasts 400 Jewish students. The next morning, they were rudely awakened by bombs dropping.
R’Mendel described coming to shul Thursday morning to daven by himself – there was indiscriminate shelling taking place outside. And when he came in, he found 30 men waiting to daven together.
The most famous and moving statement from this entire saga was when the American government offered to fly the Ukrainian President, Vladimir Zelenskyy out of the country, and he responded, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” Inspiring. But when that same offer was made to the Moskovitz family, their answer was a little different, but no less inspiring. This Brooklyn family, who could so easily have slipped out of the country, responded: “This is our family, we’re not going anywhere.” And they stayed. Not only did they stay but they turned their shul into a bomb shelter and are housing and caring for over 100 people.
I’d like to read to you a text message Mendel’s mother sent out after last Shabbos. She wrote: “It says that you’re not supposed to cry on Shabbat, I failed that … this Shabbat.
The first time, was on Friday night when we managed to get to the synagogue. After the prayers we went downstairs for a Kiddush, filled with people who were brave enough to come, and the many people who have been living in the synagogue since the war started. After Kiddush we started singing “Nyet nyet nikovo”, a Russian melody that there is no one that we should fear besides Hashem alone.
The second time, I wasn’t able to hold it in, was Shabbat morning, when we blessed the new month of Adar, saying “Mi sheasa nisim l’avoseynu – Who did miracles for our Fathers”, I again felt the tears in my eyes. We also need miracles…”
So that’s the story, or that’s the person I want you to think of. Not the headlines. Just Mendel Moskovitz, a young 32 year old, whose family moved from comfortable Brooklyn to go help other Jews, who chose to stay in Ukraine and bring up his own family, who opened his doors to house a hundred refugees. And is there right now selflessly doing G-d’s work.
Here’s the action:
As I mentioned, the iconic line by the Ukrainian president who declined the ride and asked for bullets. Instead of asking for more bullets, the Moskovitz family asked for tefillin so they could put them on the people who want to pray. Instead of asking for more ammunition, they asked for food so they could continue to feed those who they are housing. Instead of asking for us to fight Russia, they asked us to keep on praying, to pray and to do more Mitzvos, so that this war could end immediately.
Maybe we feel it, maybe we don’t, but we must feel it. For two years, we here were held back or limited in our ability to be in our beloved shul, and today, we have been granted the ability to be here, to smile at one another, to pray unencumbered. We left shul, we missed shul desperately, and now we’re back, as if nothing happened. That cannot be. Granted, to change our lives around entirely is unrealistic, but to not change our relationship with shul just a little?!
We just read how the Mishkan, when it was finally complete, was filled with the glory of Hashem to the point that Moshe was unable to enter inside. Can we experience that? Can we make just a little bit more space for Hashem, and a little less space for us?
Maybe we talk the whole davening, can we talk only at certain times? Maybe instead of talking, we can whisper? Maybe we can commit to praying with a little bit more emotion, meaning, understanding?
Whether we feel it or not, we must take concrete steps, tangible actions, at a time like this. There are endless ways to do so and we should find ways that speak to who we are as individuals. But as a shul, can we be inspired by the self-sacrifice of Mendel Markovitz, by the 30 people who came to pray at a time of war, by the hundred men, women, and children who sang “Nyet nyet nikovo” and commit to doing the same?
In the merit of our congregation stepping up our davening just a little bit, may our actions translate not only into feelings, but may there be peace and tranquility in the region, may the refuges come back home, and may our brothers and sisters and all those in the line of fire be safe and sound.
As R’Mendel was finishing his message to us, his wife came running behind him, “Quick, air siren!” And his screen went blank.
Kharkiv has been bombarded since that day; we have no idea how many killed or injured.
Let’s pray. Let’s pray for Mendel. Let’s put those feelings into action, let’s allow our actions to engender the appropriate feelings. May Hashem hear our cries and may there be peace.