Ul’Ner Tamid Ekach Li

I remember once someone commenting to me how no one noticed their new glasses. “On the contrary,” I told them, “The best compliment is when something fits so perfectly that you don’t even realize it’s new.”

This past week, someone approached me after davening and said, “Have I lost my mind? Those words above the Aron were they always there?!”

They fit perfectly. They look magnificent. And I find them incredibly inspiring. I’d like to spend the next few moments sharing with you the story behind the words, what these words mean, and why I find them to be so moving.

The story begins in the mid-16th century. There was at that time, a spiritual revival taking place in Northern Israel. Israel was under Ottoman rule, and this allowed the country to become a safe-haven for Jews running from the Inquisition. Within a short amount of time, and with some extra help from the philanthropist, Gracia Mendes, cities like Teverya and Tzfat began to flourish. In addition to the material success, the region developed as a center for mystics, most famously, Tzfat was the home of the AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who revolutionized Kabbalistic thought.  

One of the many great Kabbalists in the region was a man by the name Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri. He composed the words of Yedid Nefesh… an evocative song we sing to welcome Shabbos and send her off. He also wrote a book called, Sefer Chareidim. The premise of the book is that we, each and every one of us, is a temple. For most of us, when we think of holiness, we think of a shul, we think of the Kotel, perhaps we even think of what once stood behind the Kotel, the Temple, the Bais Hamikdash. But Rav Azikri asks us to imagine, or to recognize that the Temple is you.

For our story to continue, we’ll need to fast-forward to the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. At around the same time that our shul decided to change its name from Greenspring Valley Synagogue to Ner Tamid, a man was reading this book and was quite moved by its message.  The man’s name was Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner He had studied at the University of Berlin and the top European Yeshivos. Ultimately, he moved to the US and influenced some of the most important teachers of Judaism in our day.

After Sefer Chareidim Rav Hutner penned the following:

Bilvavi mishkan evneh lahadar k’vodo – In my heart a sanctuary I shall build to the splendor of G-d’s honor.

Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo – and in the sanctuary an altar I shall place, to the rays of His glory.

The notion that our body is a sanctuary, is a temple, is about as 2022 as it gets. The notion that I am worthy of worship, that I am the center of attention, that I am the focal point dovetails quite nicely with our hyper-self-centeredness.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, his chart of human development, the highest rung is self-actualization, when I learn to utilize all my skills, talents, and experiences, to become the best version of me. That’s the purpose of life.

In Judaism, there is a rung above that one – it’s called self-negation. A healthy form of taking all those talents, skills, and experiences, and utilizing them for others. We are here, explain our great thinkers, to give. Not to make a name for ourselves and ensure that we have the best tombstone in the cemetery. No. We are here to make room for others. To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. The happiest marriages are those in which each spouse makes space for the other to be his or her self. Great parents make space for their children. Great leaders make space for their followers. Great teachers make space for their pupils.”

Yes, we are a temple. We are important. Each and every one of us is critical for the world to function. But we are here to serve. To serve our family, to serve our friends, to serve our co-workers, to serve the stranger. And ultimately, we are here to serve G-d.

“In my heart, I build a sanctuary,” not to me, but “to the splendor of His honor.” “And in the sanctuary I place an altar, to the rays of His glory.” – not my glory.  

The poem continues: Ul’ner tamid ekach li “And for an eternal light I take…”  What is this eternal light? What does the Ner Tamid symbolize? It symbolizes us. It symbolizes that we are here in this room.

There is a war going on in Europe and we will continue to pray for peace and the wellbeing of all those in the region. Why is it being fought? Among other reasons, Russia is attempting to regain its past glory. Will it be successful? We obviously don’t know. But surprising things happen. We were shocked when the wall came down in 1989, will we be shocked again when it goes back up? There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of America, of the US losing its status as a superpower. Will this change in our lifetime?

Anyone with an eye to history has to be open to this possibility. Every great empire thought they would live forever. Until they didn’t.

And as we think about the shifting sands of power, we should pause and think about ourselves. To quote Mark Twain: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.”

That is the Ner Tamid. The eternal light. That has somehow outlasted all those seismic changes. We are a light, not only in the fact of survival. But a light in that it shined. We shined. We stubbornly held on to values that seemed backward. We held on to beliefs that seemed archaic. With time, those backward ideas were embraced. To quote the Christian historian, Paul Johnson: “The world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

That’s the Ner Tamid, the eternal, shining light.

And where do we take this light from?

Me’eish Ha’akeidah. We take it from the fire of the Akeidah.

The Akeidah, in Jewish literature is a symbol. The original Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, was the first time we were asked to give up our life for our beliefs, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The destruction of the Temple was an Akeidah. The Crusades were an Akeidah. The Inquisition was an Akeidah. And of course, the Holocaust was a cataclysmic Akeidah.

But not only did these Akeidot, these moments of sacrifice not hold us down, they propelled us forward. Some of the most creative bursts of Jewish thought and practice were born out of the darkest of times. The development of the Mishna and the Talmud in the aftermath of Roman persecution, the explosion of mysticism that was rooted in Tzfat is a direct outgrowth of the Spanish Inquisition, and of course, in modern times, the establishment of the State of Israel and the unprecedented growth of Jewish knowledge that has taken place since the Holocaust.

Today we are reminded of two women who took the fire of their Akeidah, and built, and built magnificently. Sally and Bluma Saks, two sisters, born to a family of seven both endured the horrors of the Holocaust. By the time it was done, most of their family had perished, and they were left with scars that went deeper than we can ever imagine.

But both Bluma and Sally made a very conscious choice not only to survive, but to thrive. They chose to use their pain as a catalyst to give their children a life full of joy. To be a bridge between an old world and a new one. It would take hardship, it would take poverty, it would take overcoming language barriers, but none of that stopped them. Bluma, who many of us knew personally, could be seen whenever she was here with her tremendous smile. In the years prior, Bluma and her sister would be giving endlessly and selflessly to the shul, to the community, and to anyone and everyone who they saw. The fire of the Akeidah, the fire of their horrific past, burned bright in the most beautiful. It was the catalyst to ensure that the future would be sunny and bright for their descendants. And today, almost 20 descendants carry their legacy.

To conclude the song, the final stanza: “Ul’korban akriv lo es nafshi, and for an offering, I bring forth my soul, et nafshi hayechida, my unique soul.”

Rav Nachman of Breslov was quoted as saying: “The day you were born was the day that G-d decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.”

I would add, that every morning you wake up, G-d has decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.

Yes, we are here for others. But we, me, you, and you, and you, are each needed for a different purpose, have a different, have a different role to play in the tapestry of history. A role that only you can play. That is the naf’shi hayechida that we bring as an offering. Recognizing our place, our role, and our worth, and using it for a higher purpose.          

The story of this song that started in Tzfat, and continued in the poetry of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and was the lived experience of Bluma and Sally Saks, that story continues here, through us.

It is a story of dedication to others and to a higher cause – we are a temple for G-d, we dedicate our lives for the other. Bilvavi Mishkan evneh.

It is a story of surviving – we have been through it all and we will continue to be through all the changes that G-d and history have in store.

It is a story of thriving – we have all been through our own hardships. The Ner Tamid reminds us to shine, to learn and to grow and to never stop reaching higher, not despite the past, but growing through it.

It is a story of recognizing our unique worth, our singular soul: You are here on this earth because G-d decided that the world needs you. You are here in this shul today because G-d decided that you have a role to play. Figure it out. Use your unique powers.

And so, to the man who asked me if these words were always here, the answer is yes. We may not have seen them, but they have animated every part of this shul’s life. Jews who wanted to live in suburbia and be connected to Hashem and to their traditions built this shul. And Jews who want to climb ever higher in their own growth, who want to be there for the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community, who recognize their own worth, the beauty of their tradition, the challenges and opportunities of modernity, these Jews, these Jews, will continue to hold that Ner Tamid up high.


The Situation in Ukraine: My Innards Moan like a Harp

In the 7th century BCE, Yeshaya, our most quoted prophet, described a feeling of utter brokenness: “My heart cries,” “I will water you with my tears,” “My innards moan like a harp.” (Chapter 16) 

Yeshaya was not talking about the Jewish People, though there was plenty to cry about. He was talking about Moav, a nation with a history of ingratitude and maltreatment towards the Jewish People. Their behavior was so repulsive that they were singled out as one of the few nations that cannot marry into the Jewish People. Nonetheless, when the nation of Moav was viciously attacked by Assyria, and her people were brutally taken off to captivity, Yeshaya cried bitterly.

This morning after davening, we said a chapter of Tehillim. 

We prayed for the Jewish communities across Ukraine. They are family and it is natural and appropriate to care about family before others. 

We prayed for ourselves. Though we are not in imminent danger, this war will likely affect us in one way or another, and it is natural and appropriate to look out for oneself.  

Lastly, we prayed for all the people in the region. They are not family. We have a terribly painful history with their ancestors. It may not be natural, and in this case it may be unnatural, but it certainly is appropriate to care and to care deeply about all of humankind. 

May we merit to see the day when “Nation shall not raise sword against nation; no more will they learn to make war.” 

Whoopi Goldberg and Jewish Culture Parshas Terumah

I think The View would have saved themselves a lot of heartache had they changed their name to A View, or, A-View-by-People-who-have-No-Background-in-any-Topic-they-Discuss-but-are-simply-Sharing- their-Uninformed-View. The View?! It’s like they’re asking for it.  

Anyway, as you all know, this past week on a wildly popular show, one of the hosts, Whoopi Goldberg, made a ridiculously uninformed comment. She said, and I quote, the Holocaust was “not about race … it’s about man’s inhumanity to other man.” The Holocaust, not about the Aryan race being superior, and the Jewish race being in the need of extermination. Hmmm…

The next day she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (which by the way, A Late Show would probably be a little more accurate, but okay), and instead fully of taking responsibility for her ignorance, she said things like, “I felt differently,” or, as a Black woman she sees race as based on skin color, and she encouraged people to stop telling her off. In other words, she didn’t exactly apologize.

ABC, the producers of the View, then went ahead and suspended Whoopi Goldberg from the show for two weeks.

Now my initial reaction was wow, this is amazing. This was the same week in which Neo-Nazi protests, attended by sheriffs, were taking place in Florida. This was the same week that swastikas were found all over a Jewish community in Chicago. This was the year in which antisemitic acts skyrocketed. And despite all this blatant rise in antisemitism, I, and so many of us have felt like no one other than Jews seems to care. And so, the fact that a prominent individual was punished for her insensitive remarks, that played into dangerous stereotypes and misunderstandings of who the Jewish People are, was very heartening; people are standing up for us.

A little later, Whoopi met with Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL and did apologize. But a new question arose; was her apology sincere? Was her apology complete? Was her apology enough? Sign onto your favorite social media platform and watch as people debate this point.

If we were zoom out just a little, we would see how this entire saga touches upon one of the major trends of the day; cancel culture. Cancel culture is defined by Wikipedia as: a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been “cancelled”.

Some examples: Some obscure Dr. Seuss books incorporate some negative stereotypes and images. The publisher recently decided to remove the books.

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are being “reimagined” as gender-neutral so as not to be offensive to those who do not identify as a male or female.

Prominent conservative politicians led the way in cancelling Colin Kaepernick, the knee-bending football player.

People tried to cancel J.K. Rowling for comments that were not seen as sufficiently progressive.

And my favorite, a leading food magazine, Bon Apetit, publicly apologized for running a title, How to Make Actually Good Hamantaschen. The author, who is not Jewish, apparently does not like Hamantaschen – neither do I, but his comments were seen as offensive, and he ultimately lost his job.

The final example, I guarantee this speech and its writer will be cancelled. Guaranteed.  

On the one hand, it really is beautiful that our society has been awakened to the power of words, and how “comments” can hurt far more than sticks and stones. And at the same time, the fact that there are cultural police on the left and the right, ensuring that people are saying only what is ‘correct’ prevents healthy dialogue. If we don’t like you, we shut you down. There is no exchange of ideas and there are no second chances. You say the wrong thing, you’re canceled. You wore the wrong thing ten years ago, you’re canceled. And once you’re canceled the damage is done.

And as the term so perfectly captures it, it is not just that people are being canceled, it is a culture of cancellation. Every comment we make is seen through the prism of cancellation. Not just with prominent people, but I hear it all the time among friends and even family. “I no longer speak to this person because they said XYZ.” Though they may not use the words, that is culture cancel culture at work. When we reject an apology out of hand from a spouse because it’s not enough or it’s too late, that’s cancel culture at work. I am less worried about the impact of cancel culture on Whoopi Goldberg and Hamantaschen, they’ll both be okay. I am worried about how Cancel Culture is affecting me and you.

Our parsha begins with instructions to build a Mishkan. According to Rashi, the Mishkan was a gift to the Jewish People. After sinning with the Golden Calf, G-d wanted to make it abundantly clear how He accepted their repentance, and so He instructed them to build a shared home, so they would know that He forgave them.

When the Jewish People sinned, G-d invited Moshe to defend the Jewish People. He didn’t immediately take to Twitter and start posting #It’sOver. He asked Moshe if he had a defense for the Jewish People’s egregious sin. Let’s talk about it.   

If there was anyone who should have been cancelled, it was the Jewish People. A mere few weeks after G-d saved from slavery, they disobeyed one of ten rules that He gave them. Put differently, a few days after beginning a relationship with G-d, they sabotaged the relationship. The Talmud describes their sin as a bride committing adultery during Sheva Berachos. Not only that, their apology was imperfect. They were unable to undo the impact of their sin.

And yet, G-d said, salachti, I have forgiven you.

G-d said, I will always forgive you.

A fundamental flashpoint between Judaism and Christianity is this point: Did G-d ever ‘cancel’ the Jewish People? We firmly believe that the answer is no. Our bond with G-d is unbreakable. G-d is always ready to forgive.

Judaism rejects cancel culture out of hand. We have a different culture. It’s called Teshuva Culture. It’s a culture that promotes dialogue, forgiveness, and understanding.

The Torah places the building of the Mishkan before the sin of the Golden Calf in order to demonstrate how deeply imbedded forgiveness is in the fabric of life. The reconciliation is mentioned before the sin to demonstrate that the starting point and foundation is one of Teshuva, of repentance, change, and reconciliation. The Mishkan, the Bais Hamikdash, and their progeny, the Shul, all remind us of the culture we are meant to build. A culture of Teshuva.

What exactly is Teshuva culture? What does it look like?

In Teshuva culture, when someone says something you disagree with, we reach out to them before blasting them on social media or to all of our friends. Teshuva culture is a culture in which we speak to one another and try our best to understand where the other party is coming from.

In Teshuva culture, when someone apologizes, we try our utmost to accept it. We recognize that it’s very hard to apologize, but we believe that people are ultimately good and want to change and be better.

Teshuva culture means that instead of attacking the smallest misstep of our spouse, of our family member, or our friend, we celebrate the smallest move in the right direction.

Teshuva culture means that we do not give up on others and that we do not give up on ourselves.

Judaism has been a counter-cultural movement from its inception. In the first few days of our nation’s existence, G-d made it clear that we are not a culture of cancelation, we are a culture of acceptance, of forgiveness, of belief in the basic good of one another. The world needs a culture of Teshuva today more than ever. It’s time to start a cultural revolution. Not on social media, not through TV shows that don’t really matter. But in our homes and in our hearts. A culture of forgiveness, of seeing the good in others and in our selves, of believing that G-d never gives up on any human being, and trying to do the same.