by Motzen | May 23, 2021 | Sermons
How I yearn to just talk about cicadas.
I just wanted to joke about my introduction to Baltimore, having moved here 17 years ago with no warning about these creatures and just woke up one morning to a swarm of them outside my dorm. I was hoping, this Shabbos, especially in light of a ceasefire, to talk about something mundane, something that doesn’t touch upon questions of our existence. But alas, G-d has different plans.
When Jews are attacked eating sushi in LA, when Jews are harassed on the streets of New York in broad daylight, when an elderly Jew is beaten by a mob in Toronto, how could we talk about cicadas? How could we talk about anything else?
When incident after incident goes unreported in major news agencies, when we hear crickets, not the roar of cicadas, after Jewish violence goes unchecked, how could we allow ourselves to be distracted by bugs?
And yet, I keep coming back to cicadas. Not because they’re littering my lawn with their shells, not because my children are afraid of them, but because their life is really not so different than ours.
They sleep, they wake up, they mate, and then they die. Their legacy gets perpetuated by another generation that does the exact same thing. The scenery changes; bigger houses, nicer cars, faster internet, but it’s the same story over and over and over again.
We fight the same battles every cycle – my great-grandparents defended themselves against Cossacks, my grandparents outsmarted the Nazis, my parents fought Arabs, and we fight… I don’t even know who we’re fighting, but fighting we are. Every 17 years a battle, a struggle, an attempt to just breathe without having to look over our shoulder. Is there a victor? No! If one enemy crumbles, a new one steps in to take their place. We attempt to escape this vicious cycle but it’s futile.
And like the cicadas, after our time here on earth, we leave. And after a little while, no one really remembers that we were here.
In what way will we leave the world a different place from the one we entered? A stone here, a plaque there… dust in the wind. “All we are is dust in the wind.”
The only difference between us and the cicadas is that we are capable of recognizing how fleeting and pointless life can be, whereas the cicadas are blissfully unaware. Although here too, most humans prefer to dull their mind to this reality because it’s just too painful. Like the cicadas who make themselves deaf to their own noise, we too make ourselves deaf to the cries of our soul.
But there is one creature that cannot tolerate this vanilla-pointless-cyclical life. There is one creature whose soul is bursting at the seams and cannot bear the thought of “from dust you are formed and to dust you will return.” There is one creature who separates him or herself from the swarm, and that is the Nazir, the Nazirite.
Writes Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein: “Naziriteship is a spiritual process based on primal energies and ecstasies deeply implanted in the human soul.”
“Generally speaking, the Torah creates for us an orderly and systematic spiritual world, one that is based on the development of man’s intellectual and emotional strengths, and on the rational and structured use of these strengths. The world of mitzvot is characterized by spiritual discipline and the channeling of personal strengths through study and action. Naziriteship, on the other hand, is based on the primal energies dwelling in man’s soul. A nazirite is identified by his long hair, and his holiness is expressed by the fact that he allows his hair to grow wild:”
In other words, the Nazir is not content with the orderly, structured life. He rejects the world that he is born into, namely, the world of Monoach, a world of calm and serenity – also the name of the father of Shimshon, the ultimate Nazir. He or she, like Shimshon, fight a battle that they cannot win. But the alternative, that of doing nothing, that is a far greater loss.
Rabbi Lichtenstein makes an additional observation about the Nazir; when someone accepts to be a Nazir, the default amount of time they are to remain a Nazir is thirty days. In his words: “In contrast to the priest whose holiness is everlasting, the nazirite’s holiness is temporary (Nazir 7:1). This assertion is not only true in the practical sense; but rather it defines the quality and nature of the nazirite’s holiness. By its very nature as an expression of explosive and bursting forces, it is limited in time, for excitement wanes and routine takes control of life. The nazirite whose spiritual ascendancy is based on this eruptive quality is not built for a long-term process, and therefore, his holiness is defined by its very nature as temporary holiness.”
The Nazir is under no illusion; he or she knows that we cannot escape our mortality. It is precisely that awareness that drives the Nazir to, from time to time, explode. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that we can escape meaninglessness and the humdrum of the cyclical unchanging life. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that, like Shimshon, we don’t need to win the war – we cannot win the war, but the alternative of doing nothing at all, of living and dying,, accepting that is untenable, and not a life worth living. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that there is holiness and meaning in short-lived outbursts of spirituality.
Rashi, in this week’s parsha, teaches us that the Nazir does not become a Nazir in a vacuum. More often than not, the Nazir witnesses something that shakes him or her to the core. While most people take out their phones and start recording. While most people click, “like,” or, open-mouthed-face-emoji, and move on, the Nazir cannot ignore the tempest raging in his or her soul. And so the Nazir responds – the Nazir does something, it may be short-lived, it may not have any tangible impact, but he or she knows no other way.
There is a beautiful prayer I used to say when I would leave the Beit Midrash when I studied in Yeshiva. One passage goes like this: Anu ameilim v’heim ameilim, we toil and they toil. Anu ameilim umikablim s’char v’heim ameilim v’einam m’kblim sachar, we toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward.”
I found this passage to be especially uplifting. I’d finish a day of learning, from the crack of dawn until late at night, and as I would close my Gemara, I would ask myself, what did I accomplish today? What did I do? I woke up with a question on Tosafos and I still have that same question. Nothing changed. There was no novel approach developed, no journal entry, nothing.
But that passage I recited as I kissed my Gemara good night, reminded me that we do not measure success by accomplishments alone. It reminded me that as someone who believes in a soul, the impact on my neshama and the impact on the cosmos, though it cannot be tracked, is immense. It reminded me that on a physical and material plane, nothing changes; I work and toil and then I die, leaving nothing behind but a child – if I’m so fortunate – to live the same life I did. But on a spiritual plane, I am building something magnificent. On a spiritual plane, every passuk, every page of Talmud, every Mitzvah, every prayer, every struggle, every act of protest, of standing up for what is right, is meaningful.
The Nazir gets that. The Nazir recognizes that something is being accomplished by fighting back even when you do not win the war. The Nazir appreciates the momentary flight to holiness as being far more everlasting than a stone or plaque. For those who allow themselves to be awake to the fleetingness of life, the Nazir is our greatest role model.
Despite seeing so much death and loss this year, thank G-d most of us are not so callous as to not be moved by current events. We feel worried about Hamas and worried about growing antisemitism right here. We feel anxious about the Jewish future and allyship we used to take for granted. We feel vulnerable and uncertain.
I don’t have a plan of action, an exact set of steps that need to be taken in response, I don’t think anyone does. But I do believe that each one of us have a choice; do we respond like a cicada or do we respond like a Nazir?
A cicada goes to sleep, a Nazir takes action.
A cicada loses itself in acts of pleasure or perpetuation, a Nazir dedicates his or her life to acts of holiness.
A cicada lives and dies, a Nazir lives on forever.
A cicada calls his or her congressman, learns more, joins the IDF, prays more, makes aliyah, protests, or takes on a Mitzvah that he or she haven’t done until now. Be a Nazir. Do something!
Your actions may only last a month, a week, a day. But a Nazir knows that the impact of his or her actions live on forever.
by Motzen | May 9, 2021 | Sermons
*In Memory of Efraim Gordon*
יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”
Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”
These are words proclaimed by the elders of the Jewish People when an unsolved murder takes place in their town. It’s part of a dramatic ritual found in Sefer Devarim known as Eglah Arufah. A victim of murder is found, no one knows who killed the individual, a calf is taken to a barren valley where it is brutally killed. And then all the leaders of the town proclaim:
ָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”
Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”
It’s a strange statement, to put it mildly. Do we really need the elders of a community to state that they did not spill this blood? Did anyone really accuse the elders of doing so that they need to defend themselves?!
Of course not.
Rather the Torah is teaching us a radical idea about what it means to be a community and the extent of our responsibility for one another. If the elders need to state that we are not responsible that means that there is an implicit accusation against them that they are responsible for something. They are not accused of murder, but they are accused of enabling murder by allowing an environment to exist where an unsolved murder could take place; an environment where someone knows they could get away with something of that nature, an environment where a victim is defenseless, an environment lacking in justice.
We are responsible, the Torah is teaching us, not only for what we do or what we see. We are responsible to ensure that we live in a safe city, in a just society, in a culture where everyone know that we look out for each other and we will not allow injustice to prevail.
To that accusation, the elders must soul-search, they must do a cheshbon hanefesh, and ask themselves, are we really not responsible in any way? Did we really not have anything to do with this?
As I am sure you are all well aware, there was a murder in our community this past week. An unsolved murder. A young man visiting from Israel, who came for a joyous occasion, for a wedding, murdered on the doorstep of his uncle and aunt. And we must ask ourselves that same question, the same accusation leveled against the elders, were we responsible in any way for this tragedy?
I’ve been trying to do a cheshbon hanefesh, some soul searching on this question, and I’d like to share with you a couple of reflections:
1 – The first is positive.
In 1982, in a Senate hearing where some senators were threatening to cut off aid to the State of Israel, then Prime Minister, Menachem Begin famously replied: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
We had been conditioned for thousands of years to beg and grovel and be dependent on others for our safety. Even in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, one of the greatest eras in our history, Yehuda Halevi describes his own people as the despised people.
But thank G-d, that has changed. More accurately, we have changed it – around the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, we started to develop pride in our culture, pride in our people, and pride in our traditions. And it’s only grown. We have developed a sense of independence and a recognition that we could and must take care of ourselves. Over the past few decades, the political involvement of Jews here in the US has grown exponentially, ensuring that we are represented on every level of government.
I shudder to imagine what this week would have looked like if we did not have a Shomrim who could give us an extra sense of safety when walking outside, if we did not have a Jewish councilman who we could turn to who did not sleep until there was sufficient security on the ground, or if we did not have a delegate who is also an assistant state’s attorney who can ensure that there is justice in our city.
On that end, we have taken steps, with our votes and communal infrastructure that we support, to try to ensure that our community is a safe one, and thank G-d for that.
2 – Though we have grown, as a community, in our self-confidence, I don’t think we’ve grown enough. Someone who is truly confident cares not only about themselves, but also cares for others.
Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. So far this year, there have been 107 murders. . Baltimore, as you all know, is not exactly “The greatest city in America” as our benches claim, it is the city with the second highest homicide rate in the country.
One of the prohibitions in this week’s parsha is to not lend a fellow Jew with interest. For centuries, this prohibition and its implicit allowance to lend non-Jews with interest has been the source of explosive tension. Christians interpreted this verse to mean that charging interest on a loan is evil. The fact that Jews would lend Christians on interest and not their fellow Jew caused a good amount of ill-will. It was perceived as Jews not caring about Christians, about deliberately wronging them.
But that’s a mistaken view of the law. The Ramban explains that there is nothing immoral about charging with interest; it’s no different than renting out an item. I rent you my shovel for a few dollars and I’ll rent you my money for a few dollars!
It is not that we do not care about non-Jews. We care deeply for every human being; every human being is created in the image of G-d, every human being is deserving of respect and care and concern. It’s just that when you lend money to your brother or sister, it’s pas nisht, it’s not right to charge interest. Hence the prohibition. But we would never ever deliberately wrong a person just because they are not Jewish.
Unfortunately, too many Jews seem to have adopted the Christian view; that Jews are in some way meant to look down on non-Jews, that we are not supposed to care. And that’s wrong. It’s a perversion of our religious beliefs.
Once again, Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. Did you lose sleep when a child was murdered by a stray bullet? Did you shed a tear when an innocent grandmother was mugged and killed?
“They’re not Jews?!” People say.
I know. And I agree! We cry for a brother differently than we cry for a cousin. We cry for a cousin differently than we do for a friend. But we still mourn the loss of life. Of course, losing family is more hurtful and more painful and that’s the way it should be. And the senseless murder of Efraim Gordon is more painful. But we live in a city where people are being murdered all the time. Do we care?
“As long as they stay on the other side of Northern Parkway, I don’t mind.”
That is ludicrous and beyond insensitive. There is a bloodbath in our city – doesn’t that bother you in any way more than our personal safety?!
It should. Because if it doesn’t then we cannot justifiably say,
יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”
Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”
Can we say those words? If we don’t care about justice, only Jews. If we don’t care about Franklin Ave., only Fords Lane?! Can we say those words?
We don’t live in a ghetto anymore; we need to develop sensitivity and care for everyone around us. And we need to demand safe streets on both sides of Northern Parkway, because everyone deserves to live in a just society.
Whether that means more policing, less policing, different policing. Better education system, better judicial system. I’ll leave that all to you. Whatever we’re doing now is not working and the very least we must do is care. If we don’t care, we are guilty.
Which brings me to my 3rd and final reflection – There is a comment of Rashi which I’d like to share with you. Rashi is also bothered by the question that we asked; in what way did the elders sin? No one could possibly be blaming them for murder.
Rashi answers, “What the elders are saying is that we did not see this murdered man. Had we seen him, we would have given him food and we would have escorted him out of the city.” The implication being that had the community been more supportive of this individual, the murder may not have taken place. Perhaps this is because in a community where everyone is so tight knit, the potential murderer knows that he cannot get away with it; he knows that no one will rest until he is found. But in a community where people do not care deeply about one another…
And so I ask all of you, none of us knew Efraim Gordon, none of us had a chance to give him food and escort him. But he has family who live here. He has cousins and uncles and aunts who are reeling. Have we provided them with any comfort? Have we made it known to them in any way that we care?
I am guilty of this myself. I too, tsk tsked, and caught up on the latest rumors. I too thought about it, talked about, and did nothing, even though there were tens of heartbroken and traumatized family members who had just celebrated a wedding and had their first cousin murdered in the same week living just a few blocks away. I am grateful that someone brought my insensitivity to my attention the other day. I called one of the cousins on Friday and shared some words of comfort on behalf of our shul.
But I ask myself, can I really say that my hands did not spill this blood? If someone had not brought this to my attention, would I have reached out? If someone is in need in my neighborhood, do I bring them food? If someone is dejected, do I support them? Or do I just care about myself, my family, and my friends?
The breaking of the calf’s neck, the entire ceremony of Eglah Arufah is meant to shock us. It is meant to ensure that we never get accustomed to immorality, to injustice, to pain. To borrow a phrase, one death is a tragedy, 107 is a statistic. But it’s not.
We are in a position to advocate for ourselves, and that is worth celebrating. But strength is not measured by how well you protect yourself, but by how well you protect others. We must look out for our fellow Jews, for our brothers and sisters, and never treat their pain as a story. And we must care for every human being and not rest until we live in a safe city, a city of justice; one in which we can justifiably say, ידֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה, that our hands did not spill this blood.
by Motzen | May 2, 2021 | Sermons
For months, they barely spoke to one another. They felt dejected – they were dejected; G-d had made it clear that He was unhappy with them. He didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
But slowly, they started to rebuild their lives. Children started to get together with one another. Soon the adults were socializing as well. They realized they could not go on like this forever.
The Jewish People, mere months after being told by G-d that He wanted to sever all ties, they started to come out of their shells and rebuild their lives. Yes, they felt weighed down with the guilt of having failed G-d so pathetically with that foolish Golden Calf, but pain, guilt, and shame have a way of dissipating over time.
They came together over a shared project; they would build a home, a meeting place for the people to converse again, and a resting place for G-d’s presence. From Yom Kippur through the month of Adar, for almost half a year, they toiled on this rehabilitation project, until finally, finally, the day had come.
For seven days they watched at a distance as Aharon and his four sons were trained by Moshe. No one was allowed in, but people would gather to peek through the curtains to watch the Kohanim train for the big day. Throughout the camp, there was a powerful smell of incense, and a steady column of smoke emanating from the Mishkan’s yard. The smells and the sounds created an electric energy as people eagerly anticipated the grand opening of the Mishkan and an opportunity to start again.
Finally, the eighth day – inauguration day – arrived. And not just any day! It was Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the one-year anniversary from the day that G-d had told them, back in Egypt, that they would be going free. There was palatable excitement in the air. It was a challenging year, with many setbacks, but they knew, this year was going to be different starting now.
Well before dawn, the courtyard was filled to the brim with hundreds and thousands of Jews packed together tightly. An elderly man started humming a tune, and before long, the entire Jewish People joined in. A new tune! Thanking G-d for breathing new life into their weary souls.
At the crack of dawn, Aharon, the Kohein Gadol made his way to the altar. The crowd stood in a hushed silence.
Slowly, methodically, deliberately, Aharon went through the Avoda, the service of the day. Until finally he was done. It was time.
They were told by Moshe that at this precise moment G-d would show them that He has forgiven them, that they were being invited to start anew.
They looked up, they saw a most incredible sight; a fire, a huge heavenly fire, descended from the sky onto the altar, the Mizbeiach Hanichoshes.
And as they fell to the floor, spontaneously, to bow and give thanks, their hearts feeling like they would burst from emotion – a terrible scream pierced the air.
Chaos, confusion. But within seconds, the news spread. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, two up and coming leaders, were dead.
They had entered the Holy of Holies, on their own, without permission from Moshe and Aharon. According to some, they were intoxicated. No one knows for sure. But now they were lying on the floor of the Holy of Holies; unmoving, lifeless, dead. And just like that, their joy turned into mourning.
I paint this picture for obvious reasons. The parallels are so clear, I don’t think I need to pain you and me with spelling it all out. Israel is in a state of mourning. After so many deaths, after a year of distance and pain, finally, we thought, the country was ready for some healing. So many were vaccinated! Some music, some spirit, some achdus, some unity! But it all came crashing down. Literally. And instead of joy, we have funerals; parents, grandparents, and children; young sweet, innocent children.
Moshe turned to his brother; his brother, who just a moment before was filled with such joy, G-d had forgiven him! He, the one who had cast the gold, G-d had publicly demonstrated that there was hope! And now…
Moshe put his arm around his brother, and with tears in his eyes, told him,
הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד
What Moshe was trying to convey is up to debate. But please notice how Moshe did not lay any blame on Nadav and Avihu. Not because they were not guilty. They were guilty! Our Sages make that abundantly clear. And there were lessons to be learned. In the next passage, G-d instructs Aharon to be careful to never enter the Mishkan intoxicated. But Moshe does not use the moment to teach; he uses the moment to comfort.
We are so quick to develop a hot-take; to pontificate, to say, I told you so. Personally, when I realized the gravity of what took place, late Thursday night, I couldn’t stop reading articles and posts, each with their own perspective. But I’ll tell you, it was like a fly going after the light; every “brilliant” perspective was like a thousand claws scratching against a chalkboard. The less words the better. That’s true for a shiva house, that’s true for when a friend is in pain, it’s true for every tragedy. Moshe suggests some positive meaning and he is silent.
How does Aharon respond?
He does not.
He is silent.
What’s he thinking? We could only speculate. Anger at his children? Sadness over his loss? Bewilderment directed at G-d? Likely all of the above.
I spoke to a friend yesterday who was fuming; how could they have allowed the event to happen knowing full well that it’s so dangerous?! Was he right for being angry? Of course he was.
I spoke to a family member who was beside himself; what does G-d want from us?! How could this happen?! Was he right for being confused? Of course he was.
I know for me I initially had no emotion at all. It was just too overwhelming. Was I right or was I wrong?
There is no appropriate emotion
What Aharon taught us is to make space for emotion; whatever emotions arise.
What Aharon taught us is to bite our tongue and reflect; to introspect individually, to hold back from discussion, because any discussion loses the intensity of the raging inner world.
May we learn from the non-judgmental comfort of Moshe and the emotion-filled and introspective silence Aharon.
I would be remiss if I did not share the following idea I recently learned from the great Izhbitzer (h/t Batya Hefter):
Our parsha begins with a commandment to inform the Kohanim not to become impure by coming into contact with the dead. Impurity, or what we describe as tumah, is not just a ritual state, it’s a state of mind. When we contact death, when come face to face with nature, in all its random ugliness, it could be a debilitating feeling psychologically and it can also cause us to question our faith. Where is the judge? Where is the jury? How do innocent people get crushed to death as they celebrate a holiday? How do children, who travel to Meron to taste some ecstatic worship, to have an experience that will inspire them their whole lives, how do those children not return home to their parents?!
That’s tumah. Tumah is confusion. Tumah is the hiding of G-d behind the veil of nature.
And to that, G-d tells us all, לֹא-יִטַּמָּא Do not allow that spirit of confusion to overwhelm you. There is a judge. There is a jury.
But notice how this message is taught in an atypical fashion. G-d does not say, daber, to speak this message. Rather, the name of our parsha is emor; speak softly, it’s a whisper.
We believe that G-d runs the world but we also know that’s it’s hard to see, and so we struggle to boldly assert our beliefs. Instead, we whisper. “I don’t get it. I don’t see it. But I believe.”
And that’s it. I didn’t want to speak today. I didn’t have the energy to do so. Like we learned from Moshe and Aharon, words are not always appropriate. I just wanted us all to remember that we have a history of tragedy and a history of dealing with tragedy; with compassion, without pointing fingers – at least not today, with silence, allowing whatever emotions arise find their place, and with a whisper of faith.
May the families of those mourning somehow be comforted and may those who were injured have a refuah sheleima.