by Ner Tamid | Jan 21, 2023 | Sermons
A few months ago, I was riding the Amtrak train from New York to Baltimore, sitting by myself, talking on the phone, when someone approached me, trying to hand me something. My first assumption was that this man was a Christian missionary. Who else gives things out to people – especially Jews? I finally looked down at what he had in his hand and saw it was a Chazzanus CD. I assumed maybe this man knew of my father – honestly, I wasn’t really sure. I took the CD and motioned that as soon as I got off the phone I would come over to him.
A few minutes later, I sat down with this man, who introduced himself as Zev Lewis. He was a philanthropist who had just commissioned a Conservative synagogue in New York to create a CD with cantorial music. We chatted for a little while, I told him about our shul, he told me about what he does, and that was it.
About a week later, I received a letter from Zev with a check for $100. So nice! I though to myself. This is not his shul, he goes to a Reform temple in DC, but this man is clearly very thoughtful and classy. So, I sent him a message, thanking him for his generosity.
A month later, I received a letter in the mail, this time with $50 cash, telling me to use it for my family for Chanukah. Now this was over the top. I barely know this man and he’s giving me Chanukah gifts. This time I picked up the phone to thank him. While we were schmoozing, he told me his foundation was about to give some major gifts so I figured I’d tell him about some things happening in our shul that could use sponsorship, hoping that maybe we would receive one of those gifts. I shared a project or two with him and waited to see how he would respond. After a long pause, he said, “I’ll be honest, none of these projects really speak to me or our foundation. However, I really appreciated how you called me to thank me. Not enough people do that. I’ll send you something.”
Two weeks later, I opened a letter from Zev Lewis to find a check for $10,000.
(We subsequently found something that was in line with his foundation and directed the funds to that project.)
Now let me ask you a question – was my being on that train a coincidence or not? If I remember correctly, I was actually supposed to take a different train and changed my ticket last minute. Was the fact that I was on that train two rows behind Mr. Lewis a stroke of luck, pure chance, or was it divinely ordained?
Most people I shared this story with said, “It was bashert!” The Yiddish word for something predestined. Others would say it was a sign of Hashgacha Pratis, which means, Personal Divine Providence. Hashgacha Pratis is the belief that everything that happens to us is divinely orchestrated, that there are no coincidences.
Sometimes we realize it – we receive a check in the mail for $10,000, and sometimes we don’t. But it’s always there. The Ramban, in explaining why we are constantly reviewing the story of the Exodus from Egypt, writes beautifully, how through the open miracles of the ten plagues, we, the Jewish People are supposed to open our eyes to the endless hidden miracles that take place every moment.
This belief in what I would call Extreme Hashgacha Pratis, how every single occurrence in my life is set up by G-d is part of the everyday education of our sons and daughters. They will be bombarded with beautiful stories of apparent mishaps that turn out to be blessings. Stories like people missing planes on 9/11 and the like.
Most recently, a mini-movement has developed, known as Thank You Hashem. It is a movement which promotes this idea – that no matter what happens to us, we need to say, thank you Hashem. You may have seen their bumper-stickers, #TYH, or countless other forms of TYH swag, they even make TYH jewelry. They composed a song, called, you guessed it – Thank You Hashem. The music video is filled with people losing their job or experiencing other mishaps, but learning to nonetheless say, “Thank You Hashem!”
Beautiful! No? What could possibly be wrong with more gratitude and more G-d-awareness?
Let me tell you another story. My wife was once seeing a client. A young woman who was really struggling. It turned out that this young woman was once violated, which she was obviously grappling with. But what she was really grappling with was – why did G-d want this to happen to me? What did I do wrong that I was deserving of this terrible punishment?
You see, if I believe in Extreme Hashgacha Pratis, that every single that happens to us is G-d pulling the strings, then just like G-d wanted me to sit down next to a future friend and donor of Ner Tamid, G-d also wanted this horrific violation to happen to me. I must be a terrible person. I must be scum of the earth. G-d must hate me. Why else would He do this to me?
I could just imagine the Thank You Hashem theme song screeching to a halt.
I remember being very moved by this young woman’s ordeal and her theological dilemma. I penned a little dark poem in response:
#ThankYouHashem for returning my precious soul
#ThankYouHashem for making me so whole
#ThankYouHashem for new opportunities each day
#ThankYouHashem for friends and family You have sent my way
#ThankYouHashem for making me so ill
#ThankYouHashem for depression, anxiety, and pills
#ThankYouHashem for loneliness each night
#ThankYouHashem for abusing me; I’m traumatized for life
There is a dark side to this belief of personalized Divine providence. I imagine that some, if not many of you have experienced this question on some level; why did G-d do this to me? Why is G-d punishing me?
The truth is that many great Jewish philosophers rejected this idea of Extreme Hashgacha Pratis. They argued that of course G-d is able to orchestrate anything, G-d is Omnipotent after all, but He most often does not (this is opposed to a heretical view espoused in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, which claims cannot always act). The ten plagues, in this view, are the exception, not the rule. Yes, there is justice – we will be rewarded for our good deeds, punished for the bad, but for the most part, not in this world. Justice will take place in the next world. And yes, G-d can intervene, that is the premise of prayer – asking G-d to change nature, but for the most part, He does not. He allows nature to run its course.
Within this second view of how G-d manages the world, when something happens to us, good or bad, it’s nature. G-d did not, heaven forbid, want you to be violated. G-d did not want you to be ill. G-d created a world with the capacity for evil, with the capacity for illness, and for the most part, He stands back and allows nature to do its thing, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And again, to emphasize, G-d is cognizant of what is taking place on earth, but the way He set things up is that He does not regularly intervene.
When my wife shared this second approach with her student, her entire sense of self changed. You mean this was not a punishment from G-d? You mean I have every right to be furious at the man who did this to me? You mean G-d does care about me, and like a parent, at times, makes the incredibly decision to stand back? Yes. Yes, and yes.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, a 12th century poet and scholar, in his magnum opus, The Kuzari, presents both views. He demonstrates the pros and cons of each one, there are philosophical and textual challenges to each one of these perspectives, and then he concludes with a pragmatic approach – assume that the big things in life come from G-d and take them to heart. The small things, not so much.
If he’s not willing to weigh in the I certainly will not do so either. I can’t tell you which one is right. I cannot tell you how to live your life – whether everything that happens is from G-d or everything, or most things that happen is a coincidence. I will leave that to you, to think about, to discuss, to debate. A sermon does not give us enough time to discuss this incredibly weighty topic properly.
But I do want to leave you with one definitive belief. Whichever way you land, extreme hashgacha pratis or a more hands-off approach, there is one belief that both these approaches agree on, and that I beg you to believe in as well. It’s a two line passage in a book called Tzidkas HaTzadik. Tzidkas HaTzadik was written in the late 19th century by a man named Rav Tzadok Rabinowitz, otherwise known as Rav Tzadok Hakohein. He was a young prodigy, married into a very wealthy family, and was set to live a life of uninterrupted scholarship for the entirety of his life. Unfortunately, things did not work out so well between him and his wife. He wanted to get divorced. She refused. He was forced to travel around Eastern Europe, penniless, with nothing to his name. He never had children and spent most of his life completely unknown.
In the 154th chapter of Tzidkas HaTzadik he writes, “K’sheim shetzarich adam l’ha’amin b’Hashem Yisborach, Just like a person must believe in Hashem, kach, with the same level of belief, with the same intensity, tzarich l’ha’amin b’atzmo, a person must believe in themselves. Ratzah lomar, meaning to say, sheyeish l’Hashem Yisborach eisek imo, Hashem cares about you… shenafsho mimkor HaChaim, that one’s soul is from the Source of all holiness, v’Hashem Yisborach misaneig umish’ta’sheia bah k’sh’oseh r’tzono, and G-d takes incredible delight when we fulfill His will.”
Whether our life is orchestrated by G-d down to the very detail or whether what is happening to us is simply nature running its course, G-d cares. A lot. About you. About me. About each of us. He is there, watching us, rooting us on, crying when we’re in pain.
Personally, I struggle with the #TYH bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot say thank you, Hashem. My version, based on that teaching of Rav Tzadok, would sound something like this. This is the conclusion of the poem I wrote:
#ThankYouHashem for holding me when I am ill
#ThankYouHashem for understanding me when no else will
#ThankYouHashem for loving me despite my many flaws
#ThankYouHashem for life; with all its gifts and all its loss
by Ner Tamid | Jan 15, 2023 | Sermons
Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, dismisses the significance of a name. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”
I beg to differ. Let me tell you a story about a little boy and his name.
Almost 39 years ago, in a hospital in Montreal, a boy was born. His parents named him Yisrael. He was named after the first Modzhitzer Rebbe, a Chassidic group most well-known for their music. He grew up on tunes and stories of his namesake. Most notably, how Rabbi Yisrael of Modzhitz once had to undergo surgery, at a time that anesthesiology did not yet exist, and so the Rebbe composed a song – a haunting song during his surgery, channeling his personal pain into a melody that expressed the pain of the Jewish People. Young Yisrael was very moved by these stories, and it inspired him to compose songs at a young age – just like his namesake. Parenthetically, the songs were lousy, but it was a unique hobby for a young boy. Young Yisrael was also inspired to dream of teaching Torah and of leading a congregation – just like his namesake.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, I am awkwardly talking about myself in the third person. This is a story about me.
They say that when parents name their child, they receive a spark of prophecy. Looking back on my childhood, I realized that it’s perhaps more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we teach a child why he or she is given a particular name, that name casts a spell on their thinking and ultimately their life decisions.
Moshe Rabbeinu was named Moshe by Batya, the Egyptian princess who drew him out of the water, ki min hamayim m’shisihu. His name reminded him of Batya self-sacrifice, risking her life to save his. His name represented responsibility, and that’s how he lived his life. Hs name defined his essence.
As a child I really loved my name, but then I got a little older. I had a nickname, a fairly common nickname to Yisrael and that was Sruli. But you see, this nickname was only common in certain circles. I lived in a community where no one ever heard of that name. Sruli became Sroooli. I had to repeat my name often until people got it straight. I remember sticking out in my Modern Orthodox neighborhood. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was a French teacher who just could not get my name straight and eventually started calling me, Squirrel.
So, I wanted to change my name. I thought I’d fit in more in my neighborhood. I dreamt up a new name that would create a new identity, a new me. I remember bothering my mother about this for quite some time. Her response was masterful. She listened, she was empathetic, and then she shared with me the amount of paperwork I would have to go through to make this name change happen. In French, mind you! I begrudgingly moved on.
There is something incredibly appealing about changing your name as a child or a teenager. At that stage, we’re often times uncomfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we feel like our name doesn’t represent who we are, or who we’re aspiring – or pretending to be. What I experienced as a child is normal, it’s healthy, it’s part of human development.
The greatest prophet of all times grappled not only with his name, but with his entire identity. Despite growing up among Egyptian royalty, Moshe had a kinship with the Jewish People, until one day, after risking his life to save a Jew, he sees firsthand the corruption of his Jewish brethren. Two Jews after witnessing him save a fellow Jew inform on Moshe! These Jews have no commitment to one another. These Jews are pathetic. And Moshe starts to second-guess his commitment to his people.
In the next passage, when we find him at the well in Midyan, he is described by the daughters of Yisro as an Egyptian. Rav Yosef Soloveicthik suggests that Moshe being described as an Egyptian was not only describing his appearance, it reflected his inner state as well – Moshe did not feel connected to his family. The Torah tells us that Moshe ran from Paraoh, but in truth, he ran from his people as well. Moshe was lost and confused.
It took Moshe decades, untold soul-searching, arguments with G-d Himself, until finally, Moshe was comfortable enough to return. How does G-d bring Moshe back home? How does G-d wake him from his slumber?
From the depths of the burning bush, G-d calls out, “Moshe! Moshe!” He calls him by his name, and that wakes him up. Yes, Moshe struggled with his name. Yes, Moshe struggled with his identity. But he still responded to the name of his youth. When our sages teach us that the Jewish People merited the redemption in Egypt because they didn’t change their name, perhaps this is what they mean. It was their name and the stability that the name provided, the connection to the past that only a name can hold on to, that’s what prevented the Jewish people from fully assimilating into Egyptian culture. Holding on to our name grounds us, stabilizes us, in a topsy-turvy world.
So, I kept my name. Perhaps it was my name, the stability it gave me, that helped me stay the course through some turbulent teenage years. Who knows. Eventually I learned to love my name. I learned the meaning of my name. I learned how each Hebrew name, according to the mystics, represents one aspect of G-d Himself.
There is a beautiful custom that I adopted – The Shelah Hakadosh teaches that right before we take three steps back at the end of the Amidah, we should say a verse that represents our name. If you look at the back of the siddur, page 924, you’ll see a list of verses – each passuk is connected to a different name. Those pessukim all describe G-d, in one way or another. And what we are meant to think about when we say this verse is that our name, that WE, have a part of G-d within us. That G-d accesses this world through us, through ME. Our name serves as the conduit for G-d’s greatness to be revealed here on earth.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once quipped that this the meaning of the third of the ten commandments – Do not carry My Name in vain. Each Jew carries G-d’s name in their name, each Jew carries an utterly unique mission, each Jew carries a purpose – Do not forget that! Do not carry that slice of G-dliness in vain. You’re too precious to not take advantage of the G-dliness that you carry within.
Now let’s be clear, there is no sin in changing your name. There are even times, like if someone is severely ill, when the Jewish custom is to change or add a name. What I am trying to convey is that in this utterly confusing world in which we live in, our name is a connection to our past, our name grounds us with a constant that helps us weather difficult storms, and our name reminds us of the Divine within. How many of us spend any time learning about our namesake? How many of us spend time trying to understand what our name means? We should treasure our name as one of the greatest gifts we have.
As we begin the book of Shemos, the book of names, a book that is a story of the Jewish People, but told through the experiences of individual people, the Torah is asking us to remember our name, to value our name. It’s telling us that Shakespeare was wrong – and I am so glad I didn’t listen to him. The name you were given is prophetic, it paints a picture of your future. The name you were given is an anchor, giving you a sense of who-you-are in a confusing world. The name you were given is a piece of G-d, reminding you of the unique mission that only you can fulfill.
by Ner Tamid | Jan 7, 2023 | Sermons
“Democracy in Israel is dead.”
Have you seen that headline yet?
Versions of this headline have been making the rounds in American newspapers over the past few weeks. And it is simply not true. To call a government that was voted in, in an election that had the largest turnout in Israeli history, as a sign of the death of democracy is ironic at best.
It is true that some of the policies of some of the representatives of this new Israeli government are extreme, and in my opinion, wrong. But last time I checked, the same could be said about Republicans and Democrats – there are extremists in each party, and yet, no one is sitting shiva over the death of American democracy.
It is not the time and place to review their policies and to try to understand why so many Israelis voted for them (see Daniel Gordis for more on that: https://danielgordis.substack.com/p/no-one-has-the-privilege-to-act-or#details). What is most relevant to us is the response of American Jews to this new Israeli government. A few days ago, a very troubling letter was circulated. The letter, titled, A CALL TO ACTION FOR CLERGY IN PROTEST OF ISRAELI GOVERNMENT EXTREMISTS was signed by over 300 American rabbis and communal leaders. In their words, the new government “will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship, as they are an affront to the vast majority of American Jews and our values.” They conclude the letter by pledging to block members of the new government from attending their synagogues and call on other clergy to do the same.
That, my friends, is not only extreme. It is downright dangerous.
The UN is passing daily resolutions against Israel, the BDS movement and J-street are picking up steam, our children are getting cursed at on college campuses, visible Jews are getting beaten on the streets of New York, anti-“Zionism” is alive and well. And the best you, Jewish leaders, can come up with is further demonizing Israel?!
The Jewish People have been fracturing over the past two hundred years. The Jewish People have been shrinking due to assimilation over the course of the century. The establishment of the State of Israel was the greatest blessing, not only for all the obvious reasons, but it also brought our divided people together like nothing before it. Over the past decades, Birthright trips have been one of the most important features in ensuring continued Jewish identity. The future of Jewish identity among millions of Jews is at stake. And the best you, Jewish leaders, can come up with is further demonizing Israel?!
Where is the vision here? Where does demonizing the democratically elected government lead us? To more antisemitism cloaked as anti-Zionism, or less? To more Jews staying connected to their faith, or less?
And where is the knowledge of history? We’ve been here before. It doesn’t end well. Our Sages taught us the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, a story of two individuals who could not stand each other’s presence. The sages described how their toxic relationship led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Josephus helps us understand that story to be emblematic of the intense infighting that led to the fall of Jerusalem. He describes more Jews dying by the sword of a fellow Jew than dying by the sword of the Romans.
The story goes back even further, all the way back to the birth of our nation. The epic story of Yosef and his brothers is understood by many of our sages to be so much more than sibling rivalry. Many commentators suggest that Yosef and his brothers were arguing over the future of the Jewish People, they had competing visions of what it would mean to be a Jew. Some brothers argued for a particularistic and segregated lifestyle. Others, most notably Yosef, argued for a universalistic way of life. The brothers saw Yosef as an existential threat. Their vision and his were at absolute odds, there was no room for compromise, no room for coexistence. Yosef too, saw himself in his dreams as king, and the other brothers, his slaves. This was a zero-sum game. The only solution was to eliminate Yosef.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa points out that if you read the text carefully, you’ll notice, that even after the brothers reunite, their brotherhood is on shaky grounds. The question of succession, of which vision, which ideology will come out on top has not been resolved. Who will receive the blessing that G-d gave Avraham and not the rest of the people of the world, the blessing that Avraham gave to Yitzchak and not Yishmael, the blessing that Yitzchak gave to Yaakov and not Eisav. Who will it be?
On his deathbed, Yaakov calls his whole family together. This is it. They know he is about to appoint a successor. The right way to serve G-d. The right way to lead the people. Sure enough, Yaakov acknowledges the brothers who have unique leadership skills, who have differing viewpoints and ideologies. And then – vayevarech osam – he blesses them all, each one of them receive the family blessing.
Yaakov, in a radical break from his forefathers, does not choose one brother over the other. He introduces a concept that was totally foreign to them – you, the children of Israel, are one family.
It’s at this point, observes Rav Simcha Bunim, that Yosef and the brothers ask each other for forgiveness. There was no winner. There was never meant to be a winner. The children of Israel from thereon in would be a people with competing views, with differing emphases, with ideologies that would be in tension with one another, who would come together at a Shabbos table, yell and scream, debate like there’s no tomorrow, and then when it’s all said and done, one brother would lead them all in Birkas Hamazon. Because the children of Israel are a family. And that’s how families are meant to function.
You know what I would like to do? I’d like to invite the 300 rabbis who signed on to that letter to Ner Tamid. I’d like to also invite Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the two ministers who are seen as most extreme. And I’d like them to have a conversation led by Eliana “Ellie” Glazer, a young woman in our shul who is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah today.
I remember the first time I met Ellie, I thought she was about five years older than she is. Not because of her height, but because of her maturity. She carries herself with dignity and confidence that is well beyond her years. Her social group includes an incredibly diverse group of friends. Those are great, but that’s not why I would want her to lead the conversation.
You see, Ellie told me how her grandparents are her role models in life. And perhaps Ellie, you would be able to share with the people in this gathering what your grandparents had to go through, running from the Nazis, hiding from the Communists. Maybe Ellie, you could remind them of our history, of how important a Jewish homeland is for our safety. And how we cannot take that safety for granted with glib rhetoric that is destructive to this cause.
But also, Ellie could share with this group what it means to be a family. If you ever want to know what it means to be a family, look no further than the Glazer’s. The dedication they have for “mishpuche” as Yehuda Glazer of blessed memory would always tell me, is unparalleled. When Ellie told me that her favorite part of Judaism was spending time with family, I was not in any way surprised.
I think this group of rabbis and politicians would have a lot to learn from Ellie.
Unfortunately, this gathering will likely never happen. But Ellie, you’re going to go far in life, we all know that. Please hold on to those incredible values, reminding yourself where you came from, what your ancestors had to fight against and fight for. And no matter what, never forget what it means to be a family.
I’ll conclude with this – A few weeks ago, I was invited to a panel discussion with a reform and conservative rabbi. We were asked to address a small group of up-and-coming leaders in the Baltimore community. Most of the questions were kind of light until the final question when they asked us about intermarriage. Our answers were not only different, they were in direct contradiction with one another. I spoke last and described what one of the panelists had just painted as a value, I painted that same value as a grave mistake, a sin. And then you know what happened? There was not yelling, no screaming, no name-calling. We wrapped up our conversation, we got up, we smiled at each other and shook hands, and said, “Let’s be in touch.” Because that’s what you do when you’re a family.