by Ner Tamid | Mar 26, 2023 | Sermons
Who here has ever flicked on a light on Shabbos by mistake?
Who here has ever forgotten they just ate some meat and ate a piece of dairy chocolate by mistake?
Who here has ever washed their hands before eating bread and spoke by mistake?
It happens, right? And when it happens, we probably feel bad for a second, then we shrug our shoulders, say, whoops, and move on. Right?
Who here has forgotten a birthday or anniversary of a loved one? Did you shrug your shoulders and say whoops?
You may have, but that probably didn’t end well.
At the end of the day, it’s just a mistake. Why is my spouse throwing things at me and breaking all the China?
Your spouse is throwing things at you because although it is indeed a mistake, deep down, if something is really important to us, if we really cared, it’s unlikely we would have made a mistake.
That is the premise of the Korban Chatas, a sin offering, that we learned about this morning. This offering which was not cheap and took a lot of time to prepare was not brought for a deliberate sin. It was brought when we made a whoops. We are mandated to bring this expensive, time-consuming offering, we are told that we need to atone because we make mistakes when we are careless, not careful. We make mistakes because deep down, we don’t really care.
Now you may think you care; you may genuinely believe that you care. You may be yelling and screaming, I really care about Shabbos, I just forgot that it’s Shabbos. I really care about you honey, I just forget that it’s your birthday.
But the Torah, by mandating a kaparah, an atonement, for these mistakes, is telling us that deep down, so deep we may genuinely be completely unaware of those feelings, but deep down we don’t care or we just don’t care enough, and therefore we are guilty. I hope I’m not causing shalom bayis issues with this talk…
We often say we care about things, and we truly think we care, but we often don’t know what we really care about.
The greatest proof to this is – TikTok. That’s right, TikTok, the social media best known for silly videos of teens dancing.
The CEO of TikTok spent Thursday on Capitol Hill getting grilled by politicians, mostly about the possibility of the app being used by the Chinese as a spying tool. Now there are many ways the Chinese spy on the US, some subtle, some balloon-in-the-sky-not-so-subtle. Why is congress so worked up about TikTok?
The simple answer is that TikTok is ridiculously popular. From the Washington Post – “TikTok’s website was visited last year more often than Google. No app has grown faster past a billion users, and more than 100 million of them are in the United States, roughly a third of the country. The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day — more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined. And while half of TikTok’s U.S. audience is younger than 25… the industry analyst eMarketer expects its over-65 audience will increase this year by nearly 15 percent. AARP last year even unveiled a how-to guide.”
Why is TikTok so popular?
One simple reason – TikTok knows you better than you know yourself.
Most social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, ask you what your interests are. Or, they ask you to follow people. The algorithm then goes ahead and sends you videos or posts based on your choices of what you want. Or – what you think you want.
TikTok doesn’t care what you say. They calculate how long you linger on a particular video. They calculate every time you swipe a certain type of video. They build your personal profile not through the conscious choices you make, but base entirely on your behaviors. As one columnist recently put it, “I’m one TikTok away from walking into my next therapy session and simply handing (my therapist) my [TikTok] ‘For You’ page in place of explaining how I am.” If you want to know what you really care about, go download TikTok – after Shabbos. The reason this social media app is so popular is because it really gets us; it understands us better than we understand ourselves.
And so the next time we make a mistake and we tell ourselves, it was a real honest mistake, it’s worth remembering that maybe just maybe, I think I care, but I don’t. Despite the most sophisticated self-awareness, there are levels of consciousness that may be beyond our reach. I may click, Follow Shabbos, Follow Love, but deep down, there may be something else going on. And that’s why we have the Korban Chatas – through our mistakes, we are given a window not into who we think we are, but who we really are.
But that’s not where the Korban Chatas ends, nor is it where TikTok ends.
The goal of the sin-offering is not just self-awareness. Some people love therapy because they get to talk about themselves endlessly. Not only that, but someone is listening to them. But that’s not Judaism’s view of growth. Self-awareness for the sake of self-awareness is just self-gratification. Self-awareness needs to breed self-transformation. Don’t be yourself. Be better.
TikTok’s power is not only that it can tell us who we are; it can also change us. In my opinion, the most insidious feature of TikTok is not the Chinese. It’s the fact that it’s changing our minds – especially the highly malleable minds of teenagers. A critical life skill is the ability to delay gratification. I could spend time in school because in a decade from now, it will pay off. I will be a faithful spouse because even though I may have some instant gratification, it will ruin a lifetime. I will save money and not have as much fun right now so that I will be able to pay for needed expenses in the future. In a world, or on an app where I’m getting dopamine hits every twenty seconds, our ability to self-regulate, to have patience, to make wise choices, it’s all out the window. That’s just one of countless examples. Social media is changing the way we think and the way we act. There are significant studies that are showing that social media is the prime cause of the explosion of mental health issues in teenagers these days.
And while that’s depressing, it’s also uplifting. Because that means we can change. If by spending eighty minutes a day on an app, we can become more impatient, then with some work and time, we can become more patient. If we can become more judgmental, we can become more accepting. If we could become more critical, then we can become more complimentary. We can change who we are.
That’s what we’re doing when we bring a korban. It’s not just an act of self-awareness. I now realize that I don’t care enough about Shabbos, my community, my spouse, G-d, whatever it may be. But that’s not enough. We then spend time finding the perfect animal and then we take it to the Kohein, who goes ahead and slaughters it in front of our eyes, sprinkles its blood all over the place, chops it up, and throws half the animal on the altar. And you’re thinking this is gross. This is disgusting. I feel like I want to vomit. How does this work?
The Ramban says that is exactly the point. The experience at the Temple, with the blood splashing everywhere, and the animals screaming, and the fire, is meant to be a shocking experience. It is meant to be so intense that it catapults us into a whole new way of life.
There are two ways to change ourselves; one is day in and day out, small adjustments that with time make a big difference. But there is a different way to change – a moment of intensity. A powerful experience. Something so intense, so overwhelming that we just can’t go back to our old way of life.
Says the Ramban, you go to the Bais Hamikdash, you’re over-awed by its beauty, overtaken by the powerful music, and then your animal is taken, your animal is slaughtered, your animal’s blood is sprinkled – that moment of intensity can change your forever.
I’ve been on a bit of a crusade for the past few years, telling people that Pesach preparation should not be intense. I gave a class three weeks ago, titled, cleaning your house for Pesach in twenty minutes. Last week I gave a class on how to have a Kosher for Pesach kitchen without a single piece of tinfoil. And I stand by all that I said. Pesach does not have to be stressful.
But there’s a counterpoint which needs to be mentioned. There is something beautiful about intensity. Do you have to kasher your countertops and cover them? No. Is treating corn syrup as kitniyos a tremendous stringency? Yes. Is moving every couch, checking every suit pocket, flipping through every book in your home to find chameitz really necessary? Not it is not. And we do not have to. But a little bit of intensity can do us well. It can change who we are.
Rav Tzadok HaKohein observes that the very first Korban Pesach was celebrated with extra intensity; they ate quickly, they moved quickly, they acted in a deliberately extreme fashion. Rav Tazdok explains that to transform from a slave into a free person, to change from one type of person into someone else entirely, you can’t just take baby steps. You need to jump into a new reality. You need to be extreme. You need to be a little crazy.
It’s not only good for us, it’s good for our children. We’re constantly trying to crack the algorithm on how to inspire our children. Many suggest we chill out, we make Judaism light, because if it’s too intense, the children won’t take to it. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out that the two Jewish holidays that are most widely celebrated are Yom Kippur and Pesach – the two that make the greatest demands on us, the two that are the most extreme.
Pesach is a time of change. Change begins by learning who we are, by being open to the fact that as great as our self-awareness may be, there’s always more to learn. But we don’t stop there. Self-awareness is a means to an end. Through self-awareness we transform. Sometimes with small steps and small changes, and sometimes with acts of intensity. I hope and pray that the next week is a calm one for all of us, but I also encourage you to make space for just a little bit of crazy.
by Ner Tamid | Mar 19, 2023 | Sermons
Have you started planning for Pesach yet? Are you cleaning? Cooking? Making a menu? Pulling your hair out?
If we were living in ancient Egypt at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus, we would be chilling right now. Really. We weren’t working for the Egyptians – they had given up on us a few months prior. We did not yet know if and when we were leaving. I honestly don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they were getting camel rides or tours of the pyramids.
We read this morning (from the second Torah) that the Jewish People were introduced to the holiday of Pesach only fourteen days before it took place. That means that Pesach preparation would not start until this upcoming Thursday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan. You probably think that those two weeks were crazy; frenetic activity, getting ready for the very first Pesach seder, and even more so, getting ready to leave Egypt. But I don’t think it was as busy as you imagine.
Were the Jewish People spending their time cleaning their homes from chameitz?
No. The average size of an Egyptian home in 2000 BCE was about the size of a two-car garage. They were far more economical with their food. Hardly anything went to waste. How long would it take you to clean an already fairly clean two-car garage? An hour? Maybe.
Were they cooking?
No. They were only eating one meal at home and the main course, the lamb, was prepared on the eve of Pesach.
Were they packing?
Not really. Most Egyptians in that era, even wealthy ones, had almost no furniture. Poor Egyptians did not use dishes. Eating utensils did not exist. (That’s what we have fingers for.) They typically had a mortar, a pestle, a pot, a pan, and a bowl for storing things.
In terms of clothing, kids under six, did not wear any clothing… The adults had one pair of clothing – which they were wearing. So, when the Jewish People left Egypt there were no U-hauls. It probably took them fifteen minutes to pack.
For those keeping track, we are up to hour and fifteen minutes of prep time.
Perhaps they were borrowing objects from their neighbors, as they were instructed to do. Let’s give them a day to do that.
The men were getting circumcised. I assume they needed a few days to recover.
So, if we were being generous with their time, they needed at most a week to prepare for Pesach. And if that’s so, if my math and history are correct, the Jewish People really had oodles of time at their disposal, so why did G-d inform them about Pesach two weeks before it started? What were the Jewish People supposed to be doing during that time? Was He trying to just get us anxious?! What was that time for?
Clearly, no one was listening to the Torah reading today. Because the answer is right there. G-d says, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem, this month is the first month of the Jewish year.” And then, “On the tenth of the month, you should go a get a lamb to slaughter.” It’s quite clear that the reason G-d tells the Jewish People about Pesach fourteen days before it happens is for one reason and one reason only – to give them a heads up about the Pascal Lamb.
Now of course, this doesn’t fully answer our question. If they were not going to take the lamb until the tenth of the month, and not going to roast the lamb until the 14th of the month, why do they need to know about this Mitzvah two weeks in advance?
So, if you were listening to the Torah reading… you would know that there is a law about the Korban Pesach – lo sosiru mimenu ad boker, there were to be no leftovers. The entire lamb had to be eaten on the night of Pesach.
How many people could a lamb feed?
According to our good friends at bigroast.com, a regular sized lamb can feed… 45 people!
So, if you needed to make sure that there were no leftovers, and assuming your family size was let’s just say, 8 people, you needed to invite guests. A lot of guests.
I believe the extra week was given to the Jewish People for this reason alone; to invite guests for Pesach.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that this is precisely why we were instructed to make sure there were no leftovers; to ensure that the Pesach Seder would not be experienced alone. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who are not simply focused on their own survival and wellbeing. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who care about others.
This is why we begin the Seder with an invitation to guests. How do we begin the section of Maggid? “Ha lachma anya, this is the bread of affliction, kol dichfin, yeisi v’yechol, whoever is hungry, come and eat.”
It’s a bizarre passage. Who exactly are we inviting when we say those words? Our friends and family are already at the table with us when it’s said.
The Avudraham, a 14th century Spanish Torah scholar, relates that it was a genuine invitation. In his time, people would actually open their doors at the beginning of the seder and call out those words – “If you’re hungry, come and join me.” People in need would be waiting in the streets for these invitations. This practice was a perpetuation of the very first Pesach seder, in which no one ate alone, every person was accounted for. Though we no longer do this, by saying those words at the beginning of the seder, we remind ourselves of this beautiful custom. It’s so central to the night, that it is the opening passage in the section of Maggid. It’s to remind us that sharing, caring, ensuring that we are not just focused on ourselves is the primary feature of a free and dignified person.
The most shocking and devastating section in the book, Night, by Elie Wiesel, describes a German throwing a scrap of bread to a group of starving Jews. Wiesel relates how the Jews, who haven’t eaten for days start fighting viciously over the tiny piece of food. One man is victorious; he proudly holds up the crust of bread after wrestling it away from everyone else. And then he’s pounced upon by another starving man, who beats him, and ultimately beats him to death. Wiesel drily comments that it was a son who killed his own father for a piece of bread.
That’s what starvation does to a person. It turns them into an animal. That’s what a slavery does to a person. They become entirely focused on survival and self-preservation.
And so, on the weeks leading up to Pesach, the Jewish People were told, you are no longer slaves; you are free. You are no longer focused only on survival; you are dignified. You are no longer subject to the rules of our base inclinations; you are a master of your own destiny. You are no longer a taker; you are a giver.
For two weeks the Jewish People went around, checking in on their neighbors, especially those who didn’t have a family of their own, or those who didn’t have an intact family, or those who had less than the other Jews, and invited them to the Pesach seder.
Maybe they were turned down. But I hope that didn’t dissuade them. Perhaps they offered to walk near them as they travelled into the frightening desert to provide some moral support. Perhaps they made a mental note to check in with them at some later time in the year knowing that it wasn’t only Pesach that these people struggled. Perhaps they invited them to a different meal at a different time or take them out for the Egyptian equivalent of a coffee. There are many ways to make sure that those who are lonely feel a little less alone.
I imagine that stuffing 45 people into a home the size of a two-car garage was not so comfortable. Maybe some of the guests made them a little uncomfortable. But freedom is not always comfortable. Doing the right thing is not always comfortable.
We have two weeks and five days to prepare for Pesach – that’s five more days than our ancestors. Cleaning our homes from chameitz is important. Having a delicious Pesach menu is great. But real freedom, the freedom that our ancestors tasted in the days leading up to Pesach, is the freedom to share. Not everyone can have 45 people at their seder. But every single one of us can and must make sure that no one, no one at all, is left feeling alone.
by Ner Tamid | Mar 5, 2023 | Sermons
I usually sing a pardoy sing on Parshas Zachor. A few years ago, it was Hamilton, last year a song from Encanto. This year, I asked some people which song I should cover. One friend suggested I cover a song called, Unholy. I found the song on YouTube… and about ten seconds into the song, I turned it off. And deleted my search history…
Someone else suggested I take one of the songs Rihanna sang at the Superbowl. I did not watch the game or the halftime show, so I asked her what she sang… and I quickly decided, no.
It reminded me of an experience I had in high school. I went to a Yeshiva high school and the school’s rule was that we were not allowed to be in possession of CD’s with non-Jewish music. A friend of mine had one of his CD’s confiscated; it was an Eminem album. Our principal was a very wise and out of the box thinker. Instead of getting this boy in trouble, he preferred to teach us why this rule existed. So the next day, he walked into our class with a print out of all the lyrics and started reading them, without skipping nay words. There were Eminem lyrics. For those of you who don’t know who he is, G-d bless you. For those who do, you could just imagine our faces turning colors as this bearded rabbi made us squirm in our seats.
He was trying to make a point. It’s not “just music.” There are messages that are problematic. Or maybe that’s too mild of a word. There are messages that are wrong. Immoral. Incorrect. And we should not be listening to them.
It took me a long time to appreciate his message, but it eventually sunk in, and I’d like to share how and why, but first let me tell you about a class I did not give this past week. Earlier this week, I spoke at WIT, the Women’s Institute of Torah. When they invited me, knowing that I’d be speaking a few days before Parshas Zachor, I offered to give a lecture on the morality of destroying Amaleik; the Mitzvah that we read about today, how we are mandated to destroy the men, women, and children of the nation of Amaleik. I was hoping to address the moral quandary; how could G-d command us to commit genocide? The organizers suggested that I choose a different topic; “The attendees,” I was told, “are not bothered by this question. If G-d says to do it, then we do. No. questions. asked.”
I was quite taken by that comment. On the one hand, I admire anyone who has such submission to G-d, that no matter what He says, we recognize that He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, good and evil, and so if it’s a Mitzvah, it is, by definition, positive. There’s a part of me that wishes I had that type of humility and faith. If G-d said so, it’s good.
On the other hand, I can’t ignore that fact that I am troubled by this Mitzvah. Why are we instructed to kill not only the soldiers, not only the men, but the women and children of this nation of Amaleik? Why are we instructed to kill not only the Amaleikim who attacked us in the desert, but all of their descendants? What did they do wrong?!
We are not the first to grapple with this question. It’s worth noting that the Rambam’s position on this Mitzvah is that we are to kill them only if they reject our overtures for peace; if they agree to live peacefully with the Jewish People, then the Mitzvah of destroying Amaleik does not apply.
While that makes it a little easier to understand, most commentators and understand the Mitzvah to destroy Amaleik applies even if they claim to want to live peacefully with the Jewish People. Instead, the Ramban and Abarbanel describe Amaleik as a nation that is intrinsically immoral. There is something in their spiritual DNA that is broken and unfixable. This is why we are commanded to destroy them.
I imagine for many of you, myself included, that does not sit so well. Does it?
Thankfully, this is an academic discussion. The nation of Amaleik no longer exists. And so, there is no group of people whom we are commanded to destroy. And yet, despite its seeming irelevance, we read Parshas Zachor every year. It is the only Torah reading of the entire year that is Biblically mandated. We are going to have a second reading of Parshas Zachor after davening for those who missed the first one. It is quite clearly a critical passage with an eternal message. What is it? What are we, in 2023, with no Amaleik in sight, expected to learn from this passage that elevates the genocide of a particular nation?
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his commentary on the Megillah, provides an incredibly important idea that puts the destruction of Amaleik in a brand-new and especially relevant light. He begins by acknowledging the dangers of hatred. Hatred is poisonous. Hatred is blinding. Hatred is contagious and toxic. And yet, hatred is also important, even critical, for a moral society to exist. Because if we tolerate evil, if we are forever looking for the good in others, if we are unwilling to say something is wrong, if we close our ears to physical or spiritual threats, then not only does the wolf devour the lamb, but the moral fabric of our society gets shred into pieces.
And so, in Judaism, we use a word that Western society has done away with – sin. And in Judaism, sinners are punished for their sins. “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,” is not a Jewish idea. Neither is the modern application of this idea, where all is relative and contextual. Last year a movie came out called Joker. It shared a backstory to the infamous Batman nemesis. By the time you were finished the movie, you were meant to feel compassion for this man who (in the movie) kills innocent people. It’s part of a genre of movies in which there is no such thing as evil, but that’s an insidious idea. Meaning, we do not diagnose and therefore excuse Hitler because he was paranoid. We do not diagnose and therefore excuse Stalin because he was schizophrenic. No. We read in today’s Haftorah how one of our greatest prophets, Shmuel, upon hearing that Agag, the king of Amaleik was spared, took a knife and executed him on his own. Hate, when properly directed, is of value, it reflects a conviction that we acknowledge and differentiate between good and evil.
And so, we are commanded to hate. Yes, hate. Because “Ohavei Hashem, those who love G-d,” writes King David, “sinu ra, they hate evil.” Indifference to evil is not a moral value, it’s a reflection of moral apathy. Someone with a strong sense of right and wrong has an emotional response to evil. “This” explains Rabbi Lamm, “is the basic motif of the commandment to read the Biblical portion of Amalek, and to observe the festival of Purim.” It’s not all fun and games.
I am not a very hateful person. I get angry like everyone else. I get frustrated at people. But I don’t recall hating someone; it’s just not in my psyche. Rabbi Lamm is teaching us, teaching me that that is a problem. Being too forgiving, too understanding, too accepting is morally flawed. We need to live with conviction. We need to care deeply about the world around us. We cannot shrug when we hear of someone doing something evil. It needs to hurt. We cannot dismiss every evil act with rationalizations, their terrible childhood, or the difficulties with which they live, or some other explanation. And for the same reason we cannot listen or take in videos or even music that normalizes twisted behavior. We need to call out evil when we see it. “Ohavei Hashem, sinu ra. One who truly loves G-d and good, despises what is evil.”
But please note, in 2023, without a living, breathing Amaleik, hatred is an emotion, it’s a feeling we are encouraged to experience, but it is not an action. Yes, “hakam l’harg’cha hashkeim l’horgo,” when someone attacks us or threatens us, we are allowed and even encouraged to fight back against the attacker – and the attacker only, to prevent harm, even if that means taking a life. But beyond the emotion of hatred, we are not to act on it. In Jewish law and thought, there is no justification for vengeance carried out by man. There is no justification for allowing our emotions to spill over into violent or even destructive actions. There is no justification to take the law into one’s own hands. When people burn down a city in response to evil, that is not taking the law into one’s hands. That too is evil.
The Maharal of Prague was once asked, “The Sages teach us to emulate G-d’s compassion and kindness. ‘Mah hu rachum, af ata rachum. Why are we not instructed to emulate G-d’s vengeance and wrath? The Torah also describes G-d’s rage and violence?”
The Maharal explained that we should, but we can’t. It’s impossible to perfectly calibrate any emotion, but if we make a mistake and love someone a little too much, nisht geferlech, it’s not the end of the world. But if we make a mistake and hate someone excessively, the damage is too great, and so we don’t.
We hate in our hearts, we hate in our minds, but we do not hate with our hands, nor do we even hate with our words.
We act in self-defense. We have an IDF that protects us.
We have, if we need to, the right to defend ourselves if attacked, to even preempt an attack if we know of someone in particular who is out to get us.
And we spend time on Purim, reflecting on all those who tried to kill us, physically and spiritually. We stamp then out. We boo them. It is immoral not to hate evil.
But when hate gets out of control, when we cannot distinguish between Amaleik and other gentiles, when we cannot distinguish between terrorists and Arabs – yes, even those who live in a city filled with terrorists, when we cannot distinguish between thought and action, that too is immoral, and terribly dangerous.
The State of Israel is going through one of its most difficult times. It’s a tinderbox of powerful emotions that can, at any moment, heaven forbid, explode. It’s already starting to explode. They need our prayers. They need our support. They need our modeling, how to be filled with conviction without taking undue action.
I conclude with a hope and prayer from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm: “I want (them) [my children],” he wrote, “to know that there is a moral law which requires that those who have placed themselves outside morality deserve not our love but our contempt. I want my children to have available for themselves the psychological relief in hating those who deserve it, so that,” and here are the key words – “they can relate to all others constructively and lovingly. I want them to be halakhic Jews, and thus to handle hatred with extreme circumspection and caution and great care; and so, in effect, they will hate without hurt, and express their innate hostility toward evil by stamping and stomping and groggering … By restricting our hatred to evil and those who personify it … by chanting the commandment to obliterate Amalek and by hissing and booing at the mention of Haman’s name, we shall learn to act lovingly to all [of] G-d’s creatures.”