by Motzen | May 29, 2022 | Sermons
I’d like to share with you two personal stories that took place – and could only take place – in Jerusalem, Yerushalayim ir hak’dosha. The first took story place the very first time I traveled to Yerushalayim on my own. I was studying in a Yeshiva near Ashdod and had no familiarity with the geography of Jerusalem. After a few weeks in Yeshiva, we went on break, and I took a bus to Yerushalayim to meet up with some friends. I followed the directions my friends gave me, got off the bus, called my friend: “I’m here.”
Which street are you at?
(look up) “Hamelech Gorga.”
Sruli, there is no street in Yerushalayim with that name.
“I don’t know what to tell you. That’s what the sign says. Hamelech Gorga.”
All of sudden, my friend starts laughing hysterically. King George, you fool!!! King George!!!
Oh, That’s right. A gimmel with an apostrophe makes a soft g sound. Hamelech George. King George. Got it…
Why is this street in Jerusalem called King George street? I believe, I am not sure, but I believe it has something to do with the fact that on June 25, 1943, King George VI, visited Jerusalem. And if you’re standing on King George street, you could turn off of the street and go down Rechov David Hamelech, King David Street, named after the king who lived there and likely walked that path. And you could turn off that street and go down a street called Shivtei Yisrael, named after the Jewish People divided into twelve tribes, and you will literally walk on the same pathways that the tribes of Israel walked as they made their way to the Bais Hamikdash. You could find Rechov Rabbi Akiva, named after the sage, who revolutionized Torah learning and supported a rebellion against the Romans, who also walked down that street. Need I go on?
I live on Lincoln Ave. I am fairly certain that Abraham Lincoln never walked down this street. But in Yerushalayim, every step, every time you kick up a little dust, you can’t help but wonder who stepped here before me, who breathed this air, who touched these walls?
Yerushalayim is a place that connects us to our heritage like no other. Every street sign reminds us of the people who came before us. Every step retraces the steps of our ancestors all the way back to Avraham Avinu.
Story number two takes place six months later. I was spending Pesach in Yerushalayim. One day, I’m walking through the streets of the Old City, and I’m stopped by a middle-aged man who says, “Kotel?”
He clearly doesn’t speak English or Hebrew, so I point him in the right direction. (point in five directions)
He starts walking and I realize he’s not going to make it. So I turn around and start walking with him. As we walk together, I try to make some small talk, only that he doesn’t speak English, only Spanish, and I don’t speak any Spanish. But we try.
Eventually, I pull out a pad of paper from my pocket and we start drawing pictures of our life stories. I learn that he’s not observant but traditional. I learn that he has two little kids. I learn that he’s divorced. I learn that he’s struggling. And this Pictionary-dialogue goes on and on and on.
45 minutes later, we stop “talking,” we embrace each other, he gives me a kiss on the cheek, and he walks down the steps to the Kotel.
Two strangers, but in actuality, two brothers, both descendants of the same great-great-great-grandparents, reunited in the city that reunites us all.
Yerushalayim is where our ancestors would gather for a mega-family reunion three times a year. Yerushalayim is where Heaven, according to our tradition, meets earth. Yerushalayim is the ultimate place of connection, where we realize we are not alone; we are part of a history that goes back thousands of years, we are part of a people, who we may not know, but no matter what, are our brothers and sisters.
This notion of connection and belonging has been on my mind a lot recently, especially these past two weeks. Something is terribly broken in this country, and that is an understatement like no other. In just a few days, for a man to walk into a grocery store and indiscriminately shoot and kill ten black people. For an 18-year-old to walk into a school and murder 2 teachers and 19 children… And for us, if we were honest, to start getting used to this to some extent…
I am not naïve enough to suggest a single solution. There are hundreds of things that must change; the political gridlock in Washington where they cannot even discuss what if anything needs to be done about guns in this country, the mental health crisis that is killing people left and right – and the survivors are far from well, the hatred that fills our social media feeds, that fills the air, the ideation of violence, the list goes on and on.
It’s overwhelming to think about what needs to change to heal society. So what do we do? Do we just stand here paralyzed by the vastness of the problem? Do we just default to “thoughts and prayers” or, “thoughts, prayers, and angry social media posts?”
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps one piece of the puzzle, one small piece of this enormous crisis, something small that can help cut through the inability of people with different ideologies to talk to one another and make needed changes in Washington, something tiny that can help people who yell and scream and curse at one another online and in person to start arguing peacefully, something miniscule that can allow children who feel bullied to recognize that they have people who care about them, a slight step towards ensuring that adults who feel isolated and alone are part of something bigger than themselves, is to create a sense of identity.
A sense of belonging.
A sense of… Yerushalayim. And yes, I know, Yerushalayim is the most divided city in the world. Not that Yerushalayim. The Yerushalayim that we pray for; the city of peace, the city of connection. That’s what we need. Desperately.
Bruce Feiler, in a New York Times article that was so popular it was turned into a book, describes the vast research demonstrating that a sense of belonging is one of the most critical factors in a person’s well-being. The more a family has a shared narrative, the better off the children are. The more a child feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves, the less depression, the less loneliness, the less drugs, the less anger. A sense of connection. A sense of belonging. A sense of Yerushalayim; the city that bridges heaven and earth, that city that in a future we pray for, will be the gathering place not only for all Jews, but for all the nations of the world.
We’re celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, Mica Lewin. Mica, you are an impressive young man. You like Shakespeare, you wrote scripts for TV shows that will one day make you millions, you used to make comics in third grade and sell them, you’re funny, and you have an easy smile.
You did a really nice job leining. And I know it wasn’t easy for you. You worked really really hard to get here.
Mica goes to public school and the amount of work and effort he put in to read this Haftorah is very impressive. And I learned something about you, Mica. That you go to school every day with a Kippah on your head. And not just a Naftali Bennet-barely visible kippah. You wear a KIPPAH. That takes character, that takes strength. And I am confident that you have received that from your parents, both in their own ways, who fought and fight to hold on to their faith. You have a family narrative of perseverance, and you should be proud of where you come from.
But I want you to think about something every day when you put on this Kippah and as you walk through the halls of school, one of the only visible Jews in the building. That Kippah connects you. It connects you to every single person in this room; some of them you know and some of them you don’t. But when you finished leining, ALL OF US sang for you, we are all part of your family. And it’s not just us. There are millions of people who consider themselves your family. Millions. That Kippah of yours should remind you of the many others who you are connected. That Kippah of yours should remind you of your past; of the generations of amazing people who came before you; people like you, who faced challenges and persevered. Can you think about that every time you put that Kippah on your head? Every time someone stares at you? Every time someone says, what’s that strange thing on your head?
What about us? Where do we find our sense of connection? Our sense of belonging? Where and how do we grow the necessary muscles to live in this broken world? Where and how do we fix this broken world in our small corner?
Of course, what we really need is Yerushalayim, the real Yerushalyim to be rebuilt. We need the Bais Hamikdash, the temple to stand, giving us, all of us, a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. Our Sages, in their wisdom, came up with something to hold us over until that time, something that can create a microcosm of what will be – they nicknamed it the Mikdash Me’at, the small Temple, otherwise known as the shul.
Let me paint for you a picture. Feel free to close your eyes as I paint this delicious picture.
The other night, there was a two-minute break between Mincha and Maariv. In those 120 seconds, I ran to the back of shul to welcome back a regular who missed a few days because he was sick. I don’t always know when someone misses a few Shabboses in a row, I wish I did. But sometimes it’s just hard to keep track. But if you’re a regular during the week, not only do I know when you’re gone, all the regulars start asking about you and following up.
As I’m walking back to my seat, it occurs to me that no one is in the room for themselves; Mincha and Maariv during the week is not exciting. There is no kiddush. There is no singing. There is no sermon. Everyone is there because of a sense of responsibility to others. Responsibility to a loved one who died who they are now saying kaddish for, responsibility to the community; people come because they know that we struggle to get a minyan during the week, and others who are there because they feel a responsibility to Hashem. No one is there for themselves.
I look around. I see a 60-year-old talking to a thirty-year-old, two people who used to argue over masks are now joking around. I overhear two people arguing about which party is to blame for the obscene gas prices; “It’s the Democrats!” “It’s the Republicans!” I see people who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another becoming friends, coalescing into something beautiful.
I hesitated to start Maariv. It was just such a touching sight. Such a unique, counter-cultural experience of connection, of belonging, of Yerushalayim.
I am not suggesting that if we get everyone to minyan, we will solve this country’s problems. But I do believe we need more connection with one another. I do believe we need a stronger sense of belonging. I do believe we need a greater sense of identity – and this is especially true for children these days. I do believe that if we strengthen our sense of self and sense of belonging, we will have a much healthier society. And I do believe that minyan, weekday minyan, is one of the few places on earth where this takes place.
Tomorrow morning, on Yom Yerushalayim, we will be welcoming Beth Tfiloh, Shomrei Emunah, and Suburban Orthodox, for an uplifting tefilah with Yehuda Green. We will thank G-d for the Yerushalayim that is; a place where we can, on some level, feel a sense of belonging and connection. We will pray for a rebuilding of Yerushalayim, the real Yersuhalayim; not just a place but a time when people will disagree but get along, when people will not feel so lost, they will live with meaning, when schools will be places of growth, and school shootings a distant memory. But if you really want to do more than just pray, come back tomorrow evening, and join the fifteen or twenty of us, men and women, who are creating a sense of connection and belonging right here and right now.
by Motzen | May 8, 2022 | Sermons
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to have to stop my sermon, I’m feeling a little dizzy.”
Those words may sound familiar to some of you. They were the last words I said last week from this pulpit before everything went black.
The next thing I remember is being surrounded by people, taking my pulse, and calling my name. For better or worse, someone who knows me too well assumed this was actually part of the sermon I was giving; some gimmick to get a point across.
It was not. It was a pretty lousy experience to pass out in shul while giving a drasha. But I’m okay now, I really am, and I appreciate all of your concern.
But it was unsettling though, right?
It gets worse.
Exactly one week before this incident, just a few feet away from where I fainted, another unsettling event took place. At Mincha on Shabbos afternoon, someone was carrying the Sefer Torah and slipped on one of the stairs. Our crown jewel, the centerpiece of our shul, the Torah scroll fell on the floor. Since then, I have had recurring flashbacks of the chazzan and the Torah sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. And I’m not done.
This past Tuesday morning after Shacharis, I came home and noticed that my wife had gone out quite early. Only that when I came inside, she was still there. Apparently, it wasn’t her who took the van, it was someone else… But don’t worry, we found the van… or more accurately, the police found it, smashed into a 7-11 after a hit and run, in which thankfully, no one was hurt. But our van is no longer with us.
Quite a week. Are you spooked yet?
Now in the larger scheme of things, none of this is terrible. I am alive, my family is healthy, and our Sefer Torah is okay. But I’d like to use this as an opportunity, if I may, to address the age-old question, of why bad things happen to good people. Because all of us have and will have setbacks and difficulties in life. All of us will be faced with a choice of how we respond to those events. I’d venture to say that how we respond to the question lies primarily in how we ask the question.
What I’ve learned over the years is that there are three ways to pose this question; actually, three postures. The first and classic way to ask this question is to point a finger at G-d Almighty and yell, J’accuse! You’re guilty! Lama ha’rei’ota? Why have You brought evil? What did I do?!
I’ll be honest, I’ve never asked this question, not because I’m that righteous. On the contrary, it’s because I know I am not.
What do I owe G-d and what does G-d owe me?
When G-d dropped my soul down into this world, He never told me how healthy I’d be, how comfortable or uncomfortable my life would be. He never even told me how long I’ll be here until He’d send an Uber to pick my soul up. So G-d’s holding up His side just fine.
But He did ask me to do a few things. Not just “be a good person” and to “try your best.” Nope, that’s not what He said. That’s the criteria we make up to make ourselves feel good, not His criteria. He told me exactly what He wants me to do. 248 positive Mitzvos, 365 prohibitions.
I am not holding up this side of the bargain. I am trying. Usually. Sometimes. Not always. I have no right to ask, why did You do this to me.
The only context that this question makes any sense in, is in regard to a child who suffers; a child is not responsible like we are as adults. But as adults, can anyone legitimately say they’ve followed through with their responsibilities? Really?!
I may indeed be the nicest person in the world – which I’m not. But how can I point a finger at G-d and claim injustice using watered-down criteria that I made up and not His.
So no, I am not pointing a finger at G-d this week. I am way too aware of all my many shortcomings to have the audacity to claim that He is in the wrong. No way.
Now there is another similar way of asking this question of why. It’s not directed at G-d, but it’s also directed outward. It goes like this: Why did you drop the Torah? Why did you ask me so many questions before Pesach making me so exhausted? Why did you steal my van?
These questions are fair ones. But we’re usually not very satisfied with the answers we receive from the people we feel who wronged us. If we’re still holding our finger out after they respond, we’ll pose harder questions, like what kind of answer is that, and we’ll get weaker answers.
It’s a fair reaction to tragedy and hardship, but it’s not a very healthy one. Holding our finger out there, wagging it in every which way. It’s going to get tired. We’re going to get tired. We’re going to get bitter; very, very bitter.
Which might lead a person to believe that the best way to ask this question of why bad things happen is to not point any fingers, but to shrug. This is the path, by the way, that is most natural to me. Temperamentally, I am not confrontational, I am ready to just move on. I need to take better care of myself, make sure the people carrying the Torah are careful as they go down the stairs, and make sure my cars are locked at night… that’s it, no fingers, no questions, case closed.
I could even justify this approach from our tradition. There is a line of thinking in many classical Jewish sources that describe olam k’minhago noheig. According to this approach, G-d is not a puppet master and us humans have full autonomy. What we see happening around us and to us, is nature running its course. Of course, G-d allows for the world to run this way, and we believe G-d can, at any moment, change anything. But for the most part, according to this line of thinking, 99% of the things that happen in this world are just nature running its course. A Torah dropping a few feet from where you’re standing, fainting in middle of a talk, and your van stolen? People slip, people faint, people steal. All within ten days? Coincidence. Nothing more and nothing less.
There is another type of shrug which has become much more mainstream over the past few decades. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the question of why was posed over and over again. While bad things happening are not necessarily a product of our misdeeds – there are numerous reasons listed as to why tragedy can befall a person, sin is the most obvious and most discussed in our literature. And so, to counter this explanation which would be too much for the survivors to bear, the leading rabbis of the day shifted our attention to the fact that we ultimately do not know G-d’s ways. “We cannot know,” became the most well-known refrain in response to suffering. A shrug. A heavy shrug, but a shrug.
This party-line was a hora’at sha’ah, it was meant for a specific group of people at a specific juncture in time. To shrug when bad things happen to ourselves is to close our eyes to what historically, has been the most powerful call to personal growth and change. To chalk up our misfortunes to being beyond our comprehension or to a fluke of nature, while both potentially theologically-sound, allows our tragedy to be doubled by ignoring its possible message.
Which brings me to the third and final way to ask the question of why bad things happen. It involves asking the question, not just shrugging and moving on. But instead of pointing a finger upwards or outwards, it involves pointing a finger toward oneself; why did this happen to me?
It involves stopping and appreciating that something is wrong; not just the things that happened around us, not just the people messing up and being mean around us. But something is wrong inside. Some people, when bad things happen to them, they check their Mezuzahs. I have to tell you, if G-d is manipulating nature to send me a message, if He’s making ‘all that effort’ to speak to me, I’m fairly confident there are things in my life that need fixing that are far more important than my mezuzahs. You want to check something? Check your soul.
Am I really living my life to the fullest? Am I actualizing the potential that G-d filled me with? Am I using the gifts G-d gave me to better the lives of the people around me, to the full capacity, or am I getting by with just enough to fool anyone watching? That I believe is the question that needs to be asked; why did this happen to me. It’s a question I need to ask myself. It’s a question we all need to ask whenever there is disruption. It’s the only question worth asking, and it’s the only question that we can answer – and answer it we must.
We’re about to begin Yizkor. There are people in this room who have questions – fingers pointed to G-d; Why? Why did you take my loved one? What did He do to you? What did I do to you?
And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.
There are people in this room who have different types of questions – fingers pointed at parents who are no longer alive. Why? Why didn’t you give me the attention I begged for? Why didn’t you respect me? Why did you give me so much pain?
And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.
There are people in this room who have no questions at all – the eino yode’ah lish’ol, just gliding through life, unmoved.
And then there are people in this room who are taking advantage of this moment, filled with memories both good and bad, and asking difficult questions like, how can I not make the mistakes my parents made? How can I be an even better person inspired by the love I received? How can I show my appreciation for this gift of life? They are also pointing a finger, but it’s directed at themselves.
We have a tradition that only 1/5th of the Jewish People crossed the Yam Suf. The rest of them remained back in Egypt. Why? Or more accurately, how? The water had turned to blood, there were frogs, lice, animals dying, hail, locust, darkness, death of the firstborn. How could they have not seen what was happening? How could they have ignored all of that?
You see, 4/5th of the Jewish People just never stopped to ask, why? They shrugged and went on with their lives as if nothing happened.
I imagine if we were to ask that question to one of those who stayed behind, he would scoff at us; You’re asking me why I didn’t open my eyes to the miracles around me?! Israel is in your hands, Jerusalem is your capital, you have freedom, you have health, you have everything. How could you not see what’s happening? How could you ignore all of this?
We must live with these burning questions. Not only when disaster strikes, but when the sun shines. Not only when we lose loved ones, but when we wake up and see them sleeping near us. Not only when we are ill, but when we can take in this brilliantly fresh air. To be a Jew is to ask questions. To be a good Jew is to ask the right questions in the right direction.
Why did this happen to me? Why am I living in these incredible times? In what way do I need to change my life?
by Motzen | May 8, 2022 | Sermons
Ambition and serenity. Accomplishment and acceptance. Change and stability. Future and present. Creation and cultivation.
These are but a few of the conflicting pulls and pushes that we find ourselves torn between; a constant charge to change and to conquer on the one hand, and a sense of silence and serenity on the other.
Historically, different cultures embraced one direction over the other. The Western world, for years, has placed progress on its altar of worship. From the Industrial Revolution and onward, it has been one steady climb higher and higher on the ladder of achievement. Just the same, in the Eastern cultures of the world, the present was chosen over the future. They embraced a sense of being over becoming, contentment over desire.
In fact, David Landes, in his book the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, argues that despite the fact that the East was far more advanced than the West, the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe and not in China precisely because the East embraced the here and now, while the West valued moving forward.
In more recent years, the lines have blurred. CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies pride themselves in doing yoga between conference calls, and the Western version of success has taken root across the globe. Lawyers meditate and Buddhists have Twitter accounts. All of us recognize the need for these two all-important directions, the drive for more, and the need to put on the brakes. What we’re challenged with is balancing the two and living a healthy life with the appropriate dose of each.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, argues that this is precisely the purpose of the Torah, to provide our lives with equilibrium. Six days a week we toil, one day a week we rest, allowing ourselves to find the Divinely-ordained balance between future-thinking and appreciating the moment.
Not only does the Torah address this conflict, it addresses them all. Today we celebrate a holiday with good food, singing, and friends, and tomorrow we begin the mourning period of Sefira, a time during which no weddings take place, live music is frowned upon, and haircuts are forbidden. There is Purim and there is Tisha B’av. It’s important to laugh but it’s also important to cry. The laws of Kosher teach us an allowance to indulge but also to restrain. The laws of Taharat HaMishpacha, of Family Purity, are directed at this same tension. The Torah acknowledges the value of everything but seeks to guide us in finding the perfect balance.
And so in this worldview, the laws of the Torah are not an arbitrary set of instructions. They are a blueprint for finding equilibrium in our lives, and through the Mitzvos, through the vast body of Jewish Law we are taught a perspective, an implicit education about the Jewish approach to life. Yes, it is a set of laws, black and white, and sometimes grey. But they are laws that are meant to paint a colorful picture of values and of principals which should make up our worldview.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday, my wife came home from Seven-Mile with hot dog buns. Hot dog buns! What a shanda! It was the first time we had hot dogs during Pesach in my life! Now these hot dog buns were obviously not bread but made out of potato starch. My children, not realizing this, immediately went to the sink to wash their hands before eating what they thought to be bread!
So let me ask you, is it or is it not appropriate to eat potato starch hot dog buns on Pesach? On the one hand, the Torah does not want us eating bread on Pesach; there’s a value being taught, not only a law, so maybe fake bread shouldn’t be eaten either! On the other hand, the Torah dictates what bread is, and potato starch is not bread!
Yes, I did it eat the hot dog buns, but it’s not so simple when you look at the laws as values and not simply a set of rules.
The Kabbalists take this one step further. They explain that just like individual laws teach us principles, just like Kosher teaches us the need for balance between indulgence and restraint, just like Shabbos teaches us the balance between striving and accepting, so too the laws that relate to men and women, the laws that distinguish between men and women, represent and teach us about the delicate balance between the opposing poles that we began with, between ambition and serenity, between accomplishment and acceptance, between change and stability, between future and present, and between creating and cultivating.
So for example, in Halacha, Jewish Law, men are obligated in saying Shema twice a day, putting on Tefillin, wearing Tzitzis, circumcision, and about ten other Mitzvot that women are exempt from. In Jewish literature, Torah study is emphasized for men and in that same literature, prayer is emphasized for women.
Is that to say that women cannot understand the depth of the Talmud like a man? No, that’s ridiculous. Is that to say that a man cannot pray like a woman? No, that’s equally ridiculous.
What it is perhaps saying is that G-d, in creating two genders, and G-d, in creating differences in the laws that govern those genders, sought to ensure a sense of equilibrium in the world. Prayer is a tool to cultivate a relationship and Torah study, and those aforementioned laws are tools to change the way we think and to transform the physical world. Through the holidays, through the laws, and even through people, G-d created a sense of differentiation to create a sense of balance. Just like abstaining from work on Shabbos brings a sense of ‘being’ and acceptance into our lives, a woman who is exempt from certain laws or who has certain Mitzvot emphasized, brings precisely the same values into our lives, while the men with their emphasis on Mitzvos that change and transform bring their yin to the women’s yang, and together they create a balance in the world.
And just like we asked with the potato-starch hot dog bun, should the bun be eaten or not? We similarly grapple with what precisely are the values that are meant to be taught through this gender-divide.
There are those who take the values they glean to the extreme, claiming that it is forbidden for women to drive a car, to speak before a man, and to have certain types of jobs. And there are others, on the opposite extreme who argue that there is no value being taught whatsoever, and we must find every way possible for women to do exactly what men do in the religious arena.
And I would argue for something, something admittedly ambiguous, and not so clearly defined, but something in the middle – I believe the Torah is teaching us values, the Torah is teaching us the need for these two forces in our lives, the drive for creating and accomplishing, and the sense of serenity and cultivation, both are needed in the human experience. And just like that is somehow accomplished by working for six days and resting on the seventh, and just like we could technically do more things on Shabbos but we don’t because we want to maintain that spirit, I would posit that we similarly, respect that gender-divide; not adding made-up laws to erase women from our society, but respecting the values that 51% of our nation is supposed to teach us.
Okay, so what does this all mean? I’ve been talking all the way up here, let’s talk in real terms.
Let me ask you a question. Who is the #1 role model for young women in April of 2016?
Beyonce! Of course! Beyonce, for all of you who just came down to earth, is a singer, song-writer, owner of fashion companies, and on the side she does some philanthropy. In some regards, I respect her, I really do. But at the same time, she is not the type of woman that I would want my daughters to look up to. Just to name one example, her modesty, and I am not even talking about the way she dresses! Last week she released an album titled Lemonade, which broadcasted to the world that her husband has been unfaithful. That was essentially the theme of the entire album.
In Judaism, there are laws of modesty that govern both men and women, but the laws that govern women are certainly more restrictive. Is it to help men? No. It’s to bring into our shared world a heightened sense of sacredness, a deeper respect for sensitivity, that’s the value that modesty teaches us.
You know who my female role model is? (Because by the way, every human has a feminine side as well as masculine, and both need to be cultivated.) You know who my female role model is? It’s my mother.
She’s a professional. She works full-time and even with six rambunctious children jumping off the walls, she brought tons of work home with her. But to me, she exemplified and exemplifies the ideals we’ve been talking about. She taught me in the way she rushed to prepare for Shabbos. She taught me in the way that she would say Tehillim every single day, before nightfall, and carve out some meaningful time with her Creator.
Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, known for his mastery of Torah, what we described as masculine in some respects, shared the following telling description of his mother: “I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”
I think we could all relate to that on some level. I once stood at this pulpit and mocked those eulogies that make me ravenously hungry; the eulogies where the rabbi gets up and goes on and on about the kneidlach and the Matzah Balls that old Mrs. Gross used to make. And then the children get up and talk about the Strudels and the Kugels and cakes. And I would sit at these funerals thinking to myself, “Really? Is this really all this woman accomplished in her life?”
Personally, I have a rule that I don’t make any food that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat, which limits me to cereal and toast. (My wife, thank G-d does not have the same policy!) And so my mouth would be watering and I’d be exasperated, silently pleading for these ridiculously trivial eulogies to go on.
But that’s exactly the point!!
I may value conquest, I may value achievements.
But there are lessons to be learned from making chicken soup, from the patience, from the sense of nurturing for those who will eat it, and the magical way that those foods represent to all of us the holidays, the Shabbos, Judaism itself.
So no, Judaism does not suggest that women belong in the kitchen, nor does it suggest that women are in any way second-class citizens. What it does suggest, broadly-speaking, is that we, men and women, represent different values, and through the laws of the Torah those values find expression.
Within each and every one of us there is an aspect of masculinity and an aspect of femininity. Our goal is to find the balance within by observing the balance from without. The goal is not in any way to stifle the G-d-given talents and abilities that each of us have been blessed with. We spent the past four sermons describing four remarkable women, Donna Mendes Gracias, Miriam the prophetess, Sarah Schenirrer, and Golda Meir. There are so many more we could add to the list. We could add numerous Biblical women who defied any stereotype that we would expect the “patriarchal” Bible to present. Sarah, the not-so-passive matriarch, Devorah, the judge/ warrior/ prophetess, in later years Yehudis, the brave fighter, and the list goes on.
I don’t think the Torah wants men to have a certain profession and women to have a different one. I don’t think the Torah wants us to view women as Heaven forbid, worse than men.
I think the Torah wants us to see value in cultivation, like a pregnant or nursing woman cares for her child. I think the Torah wants us to see the value of things that are intangible and yet holy, like a chicken soup made for Shabbos. I think the Torah wants us to see value in modesty, both physical as well as verbal through the emphasis on Mitzvos that take place in private or in the home and not in the Synagogue. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in patience, in the strength needed to care for a crying child and a hysterical infant. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in acceptance like the mother who accepts her grown child regardless of what he or she has accomplished. I think the Torah wants to give expression to someone that everyone in this room has met and someone that many in this room will be mourning for in just a moment, and that is our mothers. The love, the patience, the stillness, the warmth, the strength, and the stability, that is the Eishes Chayil, the woman of strength; the Jewish mother, the wife, the daughter, the Jewish women, who through our rich tradition, exemplifies these ideals.