Family Not of Our Choosing Parshas Bamidbar

Does the date February 16, 2018, mean anything to any of you?

If you are a Jandorf, it should.

That is the Bat Mitzvah date of Ian’s older sister, Shana. On that date, and it took me a while to find this, I spoke about the Torah lessons we can learn from Harry Potter. Now I learned this past week that not only is Shana a fan of Harry Potter (or was a fan of Harry Potter), but so is Ian. So today, I’d like to pick up where I left off. But instead of telling you how Harry Potter can teach us Torah lessons, I’d like to focus on how Harry Potter is dissimilar to the Torah.

If you are a relative of the Jandorf’s and this is only the second time you have been to Ner Tamid, I do want to clarify, we discuss things other than Harry Potter in this shul.

The connections between Harry Potter and Judaism are easy. The premise of the book is that there is a regular world and a world of magic. In Judaism, we won’t call our world magical, but we believe in two dimensions, a regular world and a spiritual world.

In Book Seven, Harry is resurrected. Contrary to popular belief, resurrection is a distinctively Jewish idea. (I am sure there is someone here who is mad at me for just killing the ending of Book Seven for them. Guess what? We have passed the statute of limitations on needing to give spoiler alerts on Harry Potter. That’s like not spoiling the story of the Exodus. Yes, the Jews go free. And yes, Harry dies and comes back to life.)

More comparisons – Harry wears glasses. Most Jews I know wear glasses…

As I was saying, the comparisons are easy. So today, I’d like to focus on one very important distinction.

The first day a student arrives at Hogwarts (Hogwarts is the boarding school for kids with magical inclinations), the kids all assemble in the great hall and go through what is known as the sorting ceremony. There is a hat at the sorting ceremony that each child places on his or her head and it announces which one of the four houses the student is assigned to. Their assignment is based on abilities, personality, and preferences. Each house has a unique flavor to it, and this hat ensures that each student lands in a house that fits their persona. There is Gryffindor where they value courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry. Hufflepuff values hard work, patience, justice, and loyalty. Ravenclaw values intelligence, learning, wisdom and wit. And lastly, Slytherin values ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness.

Judaism also has houses, or more accurately, tribes. But it’s really the same idea. Each tribe has unique characteristics. The tribe of Levi is known for its zealousness. The tribe of Yehuda for leadership skills. The tribe of Yissachar for being wholly devoted to Torah study.

On the one hand there are twelve tribes so that means there is more variety than the four houses. But – and here is the crucial difference – there is no choosing hat. You are born into your tribe. Irrespective of your unique skill sets, you are a Levi, a Yehudite, a Yissachar, for life. You may be the most charismatic, brave, wise, leader, but if you were born into the family of Zevulun, you will never be a king. You may be the most devout and dedicated Jew, but if you were not born to the tribe of Levi, you will never serve in the Temple. You are stuck.

So let me ask you a question – if you had to pick between a Harry Potter reality, where you get to put on a hat, and it analyzes exactly who you are, and sends you to an appropriate ‘tribe,’ or a system where your tribe is assigned to you at birth, which one would you choose?

 

It’s a good thing none of us are in charge. G-d knew what He was doing. He doesn’t need my endorsement but let me share with you three reasons why being born into a particular tribe and being “stuck” in that tribe is one of the greatest blessings, and important ideas, especially in this day and age.

1.Contrary to our belief system, our personal identity is moored, connected, anchored, within our family of origin, where we come from. When we think of who we are, it is not just the choices we made in life; it’s the world, the people, the culture that we were born into, that makes us who we are.

Bruce Feiler, in his best-selling book, The Secret to Happy Families, shares research that indicates the stronger the bond to the past – the more we feel rooted within our family, whether we like them or not is irrelevant, but the more we feel a sense of our family being a part of who we are, the more confident, the more capable, the more successful we will be in life.

When G-d ‘imposed’ an identity on us, He was giving us the greatest gift possible – a sense of self, a sense of identity, that is rooted in something concrete. Even when I don’t know who I am, I know where I come from, and that gives me stability.

  1. Being stuck or limited, in general, is actually one of the greatest gifts possible. We sometimes tell young people that their options are endless. It’s a lie. And it’s a damaging lie. Our limitations, the tension in our life help us grow like nothing else.

You know when I start writing my sermons? Friday morning. You know why? Because if I would start on Tuesday or even Thursday, I would have too much time, and I wouldn’t be motivated to get the job done. 

Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham jail, wrote powerfully in defense of ‘tension.’ He was speaking about racism, and how some people avoid hard truths, who prefer to avoid tension. And he laments how much is lost when we don’t bring the tension out and address it. It’s not limited to racism; it’s true about everything. Tension is the secret sauce to romance. A world without tension is a world without personal growth and social change.

I’ve shared the story in the past of one of my young daughters who used to always steal my printing paper to color on. I would go to print my sermon before Shabbos, and there’d be no paper. So I bought her a coloring book, filled with unicorns and princesses, all the stuff she loved. When I showed her the coloring book, she started crying. “I don’t want to draw their picture. I want to draw my picture.” She didn’t want friction, tension, limitations, she wanted to be free and unencumbered by anything at all.

But two days later, I found her drawing in that coloring book with a big smile on her face. I asked her to explain herself. She told me that she realized that although she could not pick the pictures, she could pick the colors, and the pictures in the coloring book with her colors, are actually pretty nice, maybe even nicer than her drawings.

So yes, I did not choose to be a Jew. I did not choose which tribe I am a part of. I did not choose many things in my life. And that’s not just okay, it’s great. The limitations create a framework, they create tension, between my past and my future, between my autonomy and G-d’s commandments, and in between those lines, I could create something magnificent. Something I would not have created had I been left without being boxed in.

When G-d commands the Jewish People to be counted in this week’s parsha, and tells them, “You need to be counted in context of your family and of your tribe,” G-d is giving us two of the greatest gifts; a sense of self that goes deeper than my wishes and whims, and a framework, what some may even call limitations, so that within them we can draw the most beautiful pictures.

And now let me share with you the final reason why our tribe is assigned to us at birth. This reason is most relevant to you, Ian:

There is a story told of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, a great Chassidic Rebbe, otherwise known as the Sefas Emes. His parents died at a young age and he was adopted by his grandfather. When his grandfather died, the Chassidim, the students, turned to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, and asked him to take over this Chassidic group, to be their rabbi. He said no. “I am way too young.” He was 18 at the time.

Two years later, the question came up again, and this time he said, yes. So one of the chassidim not-so-respectfully asked him. “Uh, is there really such a big difference between 18 and 20? You’re still pretty young, rabbi?!”

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter replied, “You’re right, I am young. I’m just as unqualified as I was two years ago. But I realized something. I used to think that to be a great person, I had to climb a spiritual mountain. And that’s something I still haven’t done. But what I recently learned is that I don’t have to climb the spiritual mountain. I was born on a spiritual mountain. I have my father and mother’s legacy to guide me. I have my grandfather’s teachings to inspire me. I am not starting from the ground level. I was born on a mountain.

Ian, you were born on a mountain, a very high mountain. I am not going to talk about your parents today. I checked, I spoke about them on February 16th, 2018… Your parents are amazing people, conscientious, honest, and deeply committed to the Jewish People and our shul. You have wonderful grandparents, Joyce, Ross, Beverly, Betty, and Yisrael, who are all very proud of you. But who I want to highlight today is your great-grandfather, your namesake – Reverend Morris Klavan.

When Morris Klavan was in Duke college for engineering, he was told he had to take an exam on Shabbos. He refused. He switched majors and became an educator. I am sure that decision was not an easy one, certainly in that day and age. But I am also confident that he grew tremendously from the difficulty of making that decision. Tension is what brings out our greatness. It’s not lost on any of us how you go to a school where your observance may be different than some of your friends. But that has not made you weaker in your connection to Judaism, I have watched over the years as it has only made you stronger and more passionate about your Judaism.

 This Bar Mitzvah ‘hat’ with the words, Ha’eish sheli, my spiritual fire – is not like the choosing hat. So many of your qualities you inherited from your great-grandfather and those who came before you.

It’s a coincidence that your great-grandfather ended up being exceptionally dedicated to Judaism. As but one example – he read the Torah in this shul for 35 years! He’d be very proud of your reading the Torah here today.

So, Ian, Harry Potter is great, but the Torah is even better. We are bound to our people, to our tribe, and to our family, and that is a gift. There is inspiration and life lessons to learn from those who built the mountain you are born on. There are great qualities that you inherited from your parents like soccer skills, excellence in math, thoughtfulness for others – we know where that comes from. But there is a tension between where you come from and who you want to be. That tension is the greatest gift of all.

Rooted in your family story, inspired by the high mountain you were born onto, and limited by the picture that G-d gave to you, I am sure you will create a most beautiful picture of your own.

 

In Appreciation of Teenage Angstiness Parshas Bechukosai

No, I will not be talking about the court case.

I will not be talking about him.

The reason I won’t be talking about the court case or him is because nothing I say, no matter which direction I go, will change your mind about anything you currently believe.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I do want to talk about. How hard it is to change our mind; how hard it is to change. Not how difficult it is to change our political views. Frankly, they are not that important. But how difficult it is to change ourselves.

I was recently going through some old stuff. I have two small boxes of letters, pictures, and notes from when I was in high school. I found a song I wrote in 12th grade. It was all about trying to figure out who I am. It has the most angsty,

dramatic,

over-the-top lyrics.

In other words, it perfectly captures what it was like to be a teenager. You want to hear the song? Yes, of course you do. Imagine me with a lot more hair, a little split – those were cool back in the day, I promise, and a cheap acoustic guitar with a bunch of political stickers I did not understand. You ready?

I am not really going to sing it. But I will share with you the lyrics:

“I know where I belong, I know where I should be.

Reflection in the mirror, I wonder if it’s me.

All the things that I’ve said, the truth is so clear.

But every now and then the truth just disappears.”

Let’s skip to the chorus:

“Cause I’m torn within my soul. Searching for identity; who I am, who am I.

I’m torn within my soul, feels like I’m living in a lie.”

Can your 18-year-old self relate to those words?

Teenage-hood, young adulthood, are times when we explore who we are, how we are connected and not connected to our family, when we try to figure out what we want to accomplish in this life of ours; “who I am, who am I.” More than that, at that stage in life, we are especially attuned to the raging contradictions that reside in our psyche; “I am torn within my soul.” It’s an age when we are especially attuned to inauthenticity and contradictions around us, but also, perhaps most especially, the inauthenticity and contradictions within ourselves. It’s a time of radical honesty. And that biting honesty propels us to make difficult decisions and significant change.

And then we become adults. And it all stops.

The angstiness gives way to complacency. The exploration of self gives way to the rat-race of our careers. The pie-in-the-sky dreams give way to retirement calculations. We no longer question who we are. We no longer feel like we are living in a lie. We no longer feel torn. We no longer feel our soul.

But the truth is that our soul, our Neshama, is just as angsty as it was when we were teenagers. Maybe even more so. In adulthood, our souls and subconscious are far more aware of our mortality, of the fact that there is a countdown to our existence, and that’s scary, and that thought should propel us to make many significant changes to our lives. But despite the extra angst, the extra urgency, the extra sophistication on how to affect long-lasting change, our souls’ tornness is drowned out by the busyness of life. Who has time to think about such things? I have a job. I have a family. I have a life. Who knows where these thoughts will take me? I can’t afford to make any big changes at this stage in the game. And so, we drown out our soul with our job, with our family, with the real-life stressors that surround us. And we don’t change. Not only do we not change our political views. Far, far, far more importantly, we do not change ourselves.   

This morning, we read something known as the tochacha, a long string of curses that will befall the Jewish People when they do not obey G-d’s commandments. Out of all the sins, the Torah highlights one sin as the primary cause of all these terrible calamities – Shmittah, the Sabbatical year. Every seven years, the Jewish People are expected to take a year off. Why is this Mitzvah singled out as the biggest sin? Are there not so many sins that are far worse?

Rav Kook explains that taking a Sabbatical year is critical to our spiritual growth. Our soul, he explains, is constantly yearning, trying to draw us towards a more elevated life, but the rat-race, the busyness of life, drowns out her voice. We can’t hear her and her dreams and aspirations because the volume of life is just so loud. So once every seven years, we turn down the volume, we slow down the pace, and we listen. We listen to our soul as she reminds what we’re capable of, what we really want deep down inside, of what’s important for us to accomplish in this very short life.

So ladies and gentlemen, it’s been more than seven years since I joined the shul, I will be taking the upcoming year off…

I am kidding. Most of us cannot afford to take a year off for self-exploration. But we can afford to take a few days, maybe even a few hours. To give our soul a little time to breathe, to make her heard, and maybe we could even listen to her and make some changes.

As you know, I spent a few days in Israel two weeks ago. It was an exceptionally meaningful trip, but possibly the most meaningful part of the trip took place on the one afternoon we had off. I had a little bit of time and instead of taking a taxi back to my apartment, I walked. I had a good solid hour of walking. I wasn’t on the phone. I wasn’t listening to any podcasts or music. Silence. Me and myself. Me and my soul. That teenager who I forgot about, you know, the one with the cool hair and all that angstiness, I got back in touch with him.

We just finished Sefer Vayikra. Maybe you noticed when they did Hagbah and lifted the Torah, there was a large empty space between the book of Vayikra and the book of Bamidra. If that empty space was missing, the Torah would be invalid. Taking a break, sitting in silence, creating some mental space is critical to our spiritual growth.

I imagine many of you will be going on vacation over the next few months. Maybe you have a slightly slower schedule. Can we take a few moments during the summer ahead and ask ourselves some real questions; Are there relationships in my life that I need to repair? Are there characteristics I need to work on? Am I happy with what I have accomplished thus far? If not, what do I really want to do?

Who will be the next president of the United States is an important question that’s worth thinking reflecting on. But if you have a few minutes, a few minutes of quiet, it’s far more important to ask ourselves, ‘who I am, who am I.’

 

 

 

The Greatest Generation Parshas Emor

If you could live in any generation in history, which one would it be?

Think about it. I’ll return to that question.

As many of you know I just got back from a very short trip to Israel. I spent my entire flight thinking about what to share with all of you this Shabbos morning. Well, to be more accurate, I popped two Tylenol PM’s, slept for a few hours, played try-not-to-have-the-woman-sitting-next-to-you-fall-asleep-on-your-shoulder for a good hour, and then for the remaining hour or so, I tried to think of what to share with you.

And it’s hard. It’s hard because there was so much – so many incredible people, so many intense and varied emotions, and so much that just cannot be described with words. Which is another way of saying, if you haven’t been to Israel, please go.

Unfortunately, the experiences were too varied, and I was unable to bring them together into one theme. So instead, what I’d like to do this morning is introduce you to a few people that you should know.

The first person I’d like you to meet is Moran Freibach. Moran lives in a tiny community right near the Gaza border called Kibbutz Nachal Oz. Currently, he is the only member of that community who is living there.

On October 7th, in an attack that was identical to that of Be’eri and Kfar Aza, about a hundred Hamas terrorists streamed through Kibbutz Nachal Oz. They knew exactly where the weapons were stored and blocked access to them. They then systematically went from home to home killing whoever they could find. Amazingly, the casualties in this community were “only” 20 people and the houses are all intact. The reason this community looks so different than those other border cities is because a few weeks prior, 11 Israeli soldiers, a small elite unit, for whatever reason had nowhere to stay. They had friends in Kibbutz Nachal Oz who agreed to took them in. Those Israeli soldiers who were there “by coincidence” were able to save the lives of the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants.

We met Moran in Kibbutz Nachal Oz. We had to stand a few feet away from a shelter as missiles are still raining down in the area. Every few moments we would jump from the powerful booms from Israeli tanks. It is dangerous to live in Kibbutz Nachal Oz, and the government does not allow civilians to be there. So why is Moran there?

Moran is there to rebuild. Their farms and the irrigation system they set up was destroyed by Hamas. And Moran is there leading a team of workers to ensure that Hamas does not get the last word. He spends the night with his family, driving hours every day to be with them, but every day he is in the Kibbutz working tirelessly to rebuild. We were all very taken by his passion and bravery but I was not prepared for what came next.

He was describing how difficult October 7th was for his children when someone interrupted him to ask, “Isn’t always difficult living so close to the border?” Rockets from Gaza are a regular occurrence in Kibbutz Nachal Oz. Isn’t that difficult for the children?

His answer gave me the chills:

“You’re right. Living here is probably not good for my kids.

But this is a fight between good and evil. We are here to protect the people of Israel from terrorists.  

And I think what we are trying to do is bigger than our kids.”

I am still not sure how I feel about those sentiments. But I am jealous of them. We read today how the Kohein Gadol was not allowed to come into contact with any deceased family members. The Baal Hatanya explains that for him, on his high spiritual level, he is way above this physical earth, way above the notion of family, of DNA. For such a person who lives so removed from the physical plane, he is equally connected to everyone, and so there is no such thing as family. Again, we can debate if Moran’s sentiment was right or wrong, but imagine being so dedicated to a cause, imagine living on a plane where your ideals are so above the notion of family, that those words can come out of your mouth.

Let me introduce you to someone else. His name is Dror. When I met Dror, he had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a huge smile, and he was stirring some food in a makeshift kitchen. We were on the side of the road, a three-minute drive from Gaza, at a place called the Shura Junction.

The Shura junction was a busy place on October 7th. Anyone who was injured was brought there and was then picked up by helicopter and brought to the nearest hospital. Koby, Dror’s older brother went outside with some water and coffee to provide for the injured and the emergency personnel. A few days later, soldiers started streaming through the Shura Junction to go fight Hamas. Dror and his brothers were still there. Only now they had cakes and cookies and an awning so people could sit under its shade. Within a few days they built a little structure on the side of the road with a kitchen and started making hot meals. They collected items that the soldiers needed, socks, tactical gear, personal hygiene products, and made a store for soldiers – everything is free. When we arrived, there was a bench area, a kitchen, a store, a gazebo, all built by the brothers. Every day about 100 soldiers stop by for a meal or to pick up some items like batteries or whatever else they need.

It was remarkable, but I had one question.

“Dror,” I asked him. “What about your job?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Hashem will provide.”

I usually do not like that answer, but in this case, I loved it. These brothers saw a problem, they saw their brothers and sisters in need, and they dropped everything, so they could look out for them. And yes, it doesn’t make sense, it’s irrational, and that’s especially hard for people like you and me who like to have everything sketched out; when we are retiring, how much sleep we need etc. etc. But I’d venture to say that the most meaningful things we will do in life will be the ones that will not add up, the ones that some may describe as irrational. What I learned from Dror is that they are not irrational; they transcend the rational.

Another person I’d like you to meet is Noa Lewis. I am not going to justice to this woman. You have to see her, you have to hear her sweet voice, her angelic smile. She oversees the purification, the tahara that is done with the dead before they are buried, for soldiers and the victims of terror. In the space that she uses for this work, there is a bag attached to the wall filled with ashes from Auschwitz. Next to it is a bag filled with earth from the land of Israel. She looks at those bags to lift her spirits, to remind her that we can and we must rebuild. She needs to have her spirits lifted because she has seen the most horrendous atrocities. She and her team had to deal with everything that came from the Nova site, from the kibbutzim, and over the past few months, all the soldiers that were killed in action. She describes the love and the care and the respect that she has for each person who she cares for as she prepares them for the next world. People were asking her for blessings after she was done; you could tell you were standing in the presence of a pure angel who somehow maintained her purity even though she regularly comes face to face with devil.

She explained to us how she was at first a little upset. She wanted to be more helpful in the war against Hamas. “But then,” she said with her soft smile, “I realized I am also fighting Hamas. Hamas tried to dehumanize us; they did not just kill the innocent, they did so much worse. The care and the love that I give to each of these people, I ensure that their dignity is restored.”

The last person I want to introduce you to is someone anonymous. It is a woman who called a rabbi in Israel, and asked him the following question a few months ago:

“My husband and I have tried to have children for years. We tried every treatment and nothing worked. However, I just found out that I am pregnant. My husband is fighting in Gaza. I will likely hear from him in the next day or two and I am dying to share this incredible news with him. I am bursting at the seams. I so badly want to share it with the love of my life. Should I tell him?”

The rabbi did not understand. “What’s the question?”

She explained: “I know my husband. I am afraid that if he hears this news it is going to distract him from fighting.”

I heard many moving stories this past week, but this one brought a flood of tears. Imagine having that level of selflessness! Imagine having that level of deliberation! Imagine having that level of self-control for a cause greater than yourself!

I began by asking you which generation would you have wanted to be born in. Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, one of the great rabbinic leaders of our time, asked our group this question this past week, and you know what he said?

He said, I would want to be born in this generation because there is no generation like it. He reminded us of the Jewish People who left Egypt, how they were stranded between the sea and the Egyptians. And G-d told them to jump into the water. How many jumped in?

One person. Nachshon ben Aminadav.

But today, said Rav Rimon, if we would find ourselves in the same situation, you know how many of us would jump in? Hundreds of thousands! Millions!

And that’s because we live in a generation with people like Moran who is ready to sacrifice it all for the sake of this epic battle between good and evil. We live in a generation with people like Dror who is in the prime of his life and is not thinking rationally because he sees people who could use his help. We live in a generation with people like Noah Lewis who breathes life into death, who brings light into the darkest of places. And we live in a generation with that anonymous mother and thousands upon thousands of mothers and wives and brothers and sisters and soldiers and civilians who are doing so much for me, for you, for the land of Israel, for the Jewish People.

I began by saying there is no common theme throughout our trip. I stand corrected. There is one theme that was there in every single interaction; the ones you heard about and the many you didn’t. And that is pride. Meeting such people, seeing such people, I have never been so proud to be a Jew. To wear my kippah. To pray in public. To be a part of this holy nation. To be alive today in this incredible generation.

There are a lot of emotions in the air. Anxiety about growing antisemitism, uneasiness about the disharmony rearing its ugly head once more in Israel, the battles in Rafah, the uncertainty about the North. I beg of you, as you read through the news, as you navigate your emotions, look out for all the many heroes in our midst. Awaken an appropriate sense of pride in them and in yourself. Hold your head up high because you are part of the greatest generation.

 

The Dark History of Yom Hashoah and a Hopeful Path Forward

About two months ago, the Knesset voted to establish a day to memorialize the massacre of October 7th. They did not choose the actual Hebrew date, the 22nd of Tishrei, because that is a holiday, Simchas Torah, nor did they choose the next day, which is a quasi-holiday, Isru Chag. Instead, they chose the 24th of Tishrei as the day that the State of Israel would yearly remember the atrocities of October 7th. This vote took place on March 17th, less than a half year after that dark day.

Now contrast that with Yom Hashoah, the day the State of Israel commemorates the Holocaust. It was not until 1951 that the government dedicated a day to Holocaust memorial. This decision was a resolution. It would take almost another decade until the Knesset voted on making this day an official day for memorializing the Holocaust. What in the world took so long? In what alternative universe does it take the Jewish State 15 years to establish a day to remember the greatest calamity in Jewish history?!

If you dig a little deeper, it becomes quite clear. The truth is, the Rabbinate of the State of Israel did commemorate the Holocaust the very first year of Israel’s existence. They did so on the Tenth of Tevet, a day already dedicated to other tragedies in Jewish history. The IDF participated in ceremonies to mark this day, but it never really caught on. Not because, as some argue today, that the Holocaust needed its own date. In 1949, the opposite was true.

The little dark secret of early Israeli history is that no one wanted to talk about the Holocaust. The survivors were plagued with overwhelming and debilitating guilt. To talk about the Holocaust for them was unfathomable. Who can blame them for being silent? It is the rest of the Israeli population that carry the blame. They steered away from discussing the Holocaust because to them the Shoah was an embarrassment. “How did our European cousins allow themselves to be taken to the gas chambers like sheep? How did they not put up any defense?” The image of an inmate at Auschwitz, skin and bones, sunken eyes, obeying every bark of the Nazi, was an affront to Jewish pride. The Israelis of the late 40’s and 50’s wanted nothing to do with these weak-kneed Jews.

You’ll notice that when they did finally agree to establish a day for Holocaust memorialization, they did not call it Yom Hashoah. They called it Yom Hashoah V’hag’vurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. The day they chose was the 27th of Nissan. It was a controversial date, the rabbis were opposed, because Nissan is a joyous month, and a Holocaust memorial is inconsistent with this month’s festive vibe. The reason the Knesset pushed forward for that date, the reason they added the word “Gevurah/ Heroism” to the name of the day, is because the day they chose was the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. According to recently unearthed minutes of the Knesset discussions, the memorial day was going to ignore the Holocaust entirely and only focus on the uprising. When they finally agreed to focus on the Holocaust, the only way the proud people of Israel could commemorate the atrocities was by incorporating a memorial of the heroics of those who fought back. To simply remember concentration camps and gas chambers would be, according to them, shameful. Remembering the bravery of those who stood up against the Nazis was a way to save face.

How wrong they were.

They failed to understand the bravery, the courage, the superhuman perseverance needed to survive for a single day in a concentration camp. They were so fixated on their idealized image of strong, bronzed young men and women building up the new country, that they could not see how much inner strength it took to not take one’s life, how much determination it took to move one’s frostbitten legs on a death march. And that was just to survive.

They did not begin to appreciate what it took to maintain an element of dignity. When humans are beaten and starved, they lose their ability to think of anyone beyond themselves. The most chilling passage in Elie Wiesel’s memoir is the story of two people beating each other senseless over a single crust of bread. Those two people, writes Wiesel, were a father and son. But they were the exception, not the rule. People gave up their food – if you could even call it that, to help complete strangers. My grandmother survived Auschwitz due to the kindness of others. Do you know what gevurah, what heroism, is needed to hold onto the Divine spark when you are in the deepest darkest depths of hell?

And then – the men and women who kept Mitzvos in the Holocaust! The people who lit Chanukah candles, laid tefillin, blew shofar, all under the noses of the Nazis?! Is that not gevurah? Is that not heroism of the highest order?!

If it had been up to me, I would not commemorate the Shoah on Asarah B’tevet because it’s too minor of a day – no one would pay any attention to it. I would not commemorate the Shoah on the 27th of Nissan because doing so implies that without the Ghetto Uprising there was no bravery in the Holocaust. I would have chosen the upcoming holiday of Shavuos.

Rav Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, argues that Pesach and Shavuos are one long holiday. The days in between, during which we count from one holiday to the next, should be viewed as Chol Hamoed, no different than the days between Sukkos and Shmini Atzeres and the first and last days of Pesach.

What is the significance of calling these days Chol Hamoed? What is the meaning of connecting Pesach and Shavuos? Is there really a difference if we see Pesach as a stand-alone holiday or if it is related to Shavuos?

The answer is yes.

The very first survivors of violent and lethal antisemitism were the Jews who left Egypt. The Egyptians demonized the Jews, enslaved the Jews, and tried to exterminate them. This genocide lasted for two centuries. And then, miraculously, freedom. The holiday of Pesach. But if we end the story right there, then the story of Pesach is one of freedom from bondage, it’s a tale of overcoming hate, it’s a day to remember the dangers of antisemitism, it’s the original ‘Never again.’

But the story does not end there. The story continues. G-d turns to these people, likely as emaciated and lost as the survivors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz and asks them if they are interested in dedicating their life to Hashem. They are asked if they are open to living a life filled with commandments that will not be easy to uphold. They are asked if they are ready to receive a book that will guide them and their descendants for all of time. And they say, yes. Naaseh v’nishma.

The story of the Exodus is not one of overcoming hate. It’s a story of moral courage; of being able to accept the Mitzvah to love despite being hated. It’s a story of choosing the soul even when they beat your body. It’s a story of values and Mitzvos. The Pesach story was not complete until Shavuos when we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and accepted the Torah.

Had the members of the Knesset of the 1950’s understood this I don’t think they would have been so timid in establishing a day to remember the Holocaust. They would have appreciated how the concentration camps and antisemitism of the Shoah is only half the story. They would have appreciated how from time immemorial we have connected the story of spiritual bravery to the story of physical bondage. In that light, the Holocaust, and especially those who held on to their heritage in the darkness, is a dizzying tale of bravery.    

Many of the new people who recently joined the shul may not have heard of Max Jacob. Max Jacob was the face of our shul for many years. You could still see his face on a beautiful portrait right outside the chapel. Max was the volunteer Executive Director for decades. He also happened to be a survivor. He spoke about the Holocaust often, whenever he had a chance, both in public and in private. We must have spoken about the Holocaust hundreds of times. But there is one time that he spoke about the Holocaust that I saw him transform. He was normally cool as a cucumber. But there was one time I saw his emotions overwhelm him.

It took place in my home, in my Pickwick apartment, about a decade ago. Like I do every year, we had a post-Purim celebration in my home. It was the first or second year I was in the shul, it was a very small crowd. But we were singing joyously. We were sharing divrei Torah. And it was at that moment, not at the Holocaust memorials where we said Never Again, not when we sang Ani Maamin and cried, but in that moment of joy and connection, in that moment of spirited Judaism, in that moment suffused with Torah, Max stood up and he yelled: “Hitler! Where are you?”

“You are six feet under.”

“And I, I am here. WE are here.”

And he sat down.

I can only imagine how proud Max would be at the amount of Torah study taking place in our congregation. Because that’s how we respond to the Holocaust. And that’s how we respond to modern antisemitism as well. Yes, we are inspired and follow in the footsteps of those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But that is not the whole story. Shavuos is intrinsically connected to Pesach. We focus on the spiritual strength of our past and of our present.

After our Bava Kamma siyum, many people continued learning. Some are learning Daf Yomi, some Amud Yomi, some Nach Yomi, some Mishna Yomi. Some fell off the bandwagon. And some never joined. That’s okay. Tomorrow, Mishna Yomi is beginning a new book, the Tractate of Sotah. Mazel Tov to all those who finished Nedarim. Hadaran Alach, may we return to you and learn Nedarim again. On Thursday, Nach Yomi is beginning the book of Kings. Mazel Tov to all those who finished the book of Shmuel. Hadran Alach, may we return to you and learn Shmuel again. I invite you to join one of these Torah learning initiatives. I invite you to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors who shined the bright light of our Torah overwhelming the darkness of those who tried and try to destroy us. I invite you to commemorate the Holocaust not only this Monday, or on Asarah B’Teves, or even on Shavuos, but every day – every day we stand proud as Jews and engage in our heritage. I invite you to join me in trading ‘Never Again,’ for ‘Hadran Alach,’ may we return to you, the holy books of the Torah, again and again and again.

 

The End of the American Dream? Pesach Yizkor

Throughout Jewish history there have been too many false Messiash to count. Going all the way back to the first century there have been charismatic people, ascetics, warriors, simple shepherds, all claiming to be Mashiach. All of them ended their Messianic campaign in disgrace.

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, a brilliant 18th century kabbalist and philosopher, distinguishes between two types of false Messiahs. He invokes terminology found in classic literature that refers to Mashiach as a form of birth and explains that there are similarly two types of failed Messiahs. There are false messiahs, just like there are times that someone may think they are pregnant, but they are not. And then there are times when a woman is pregnant, but tragically, there is a miscarriage; the fetus dies before birth. Explains Rav Luzzato, there were times in history when a false Messiah showed up; people like Shabtai Tzvi and Jacob Frank. There are other times when someone had the potential to be the real Messiah, but it did not pan out. Perhaps Bar Kochba, who was embraced by Rabbi Akiva, is a good example of such a person. According to some historians, Luzatto himself, talented, brilliant, charismatic man that he was, may have thought himself to be a candidate for Mashiach. One way or another, as we wait for the real deal, we have a concept of false Messiahs and aborted Messiahs that helps us conceptualize the world around us.

Throughout much of history, Mashiach was seen as an individual. But in the late 19th century, many started to develop ideas of a Messianic era that would be heralded, not by a person, but by a movement. Marxism, a world of equality, in which the downtrodden are poor no more, has been described as being born out of the Jewish concept of Mashiach. Was that a false Messiah or a miscarried Messiah? I’m not sure. One way or another, it did not end well.

The return to Israel, Zionism, was a Messianic movement of sorts. This is one of the reasons that in its early years, many rabbis opposed the movement; many saw it as supplanting Judaism. And while we at Ner Tamid proudly describe the State of Israel as “reishit tz’michat ge’ulateinu,” the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption, we are not so naïve to say this definitively, especially after the humbling reminder of October 7th. Rather, we say it as a hope and as a prayer. May the State of Israel be the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.

There is another Messianic movement that was grabbing the attention of many Jews throughout the early 20th century, and that was the Golden Medina, the United States of America. It was a place where Jews could practice their religion freely, where Jews could become millionaire businessmen and Hollywood producers. It was a place where Jews could become judges and politicians like everyone else. “The wolf and lamb” can lay side by side.

The crown jewel of this new Messiah was higher education. That was the great equalizer. You could be a ‘greener,’ an immigrant with a thick accent, but if you were bright and ambitious, you would be accepted and respected. Sure, there were quotas and other bumps along the way. But those were the chevlei Mashiach, the birth pangs of this beautiful new reality. The poor and downtrodden Jew finally found a home. The third temple was the hallowed halls of Harvard, Penn, and Yale.

And yet here we are today. These citadels of education have taught their students almost everything – except basic Middle Eastern history. These citadels of tolerance have taught their students to be tolerant of every minority – except for Jews. These citadels of empowerment were supposed to be the pathway through which Jews could be full-fledged members. Instead, they have become the place where Jews are afraid to stay for Pesach. The warm and all-encompassing ivy has turned into poison.

To be clear, I love this country. The United States, coined by many leading rabbis as the ‘country of chesed,’ has been the greatest blessing to the Jewish People. It still is to this day Israel’s greatest ally and supporter. I value higher education. I am a proud alum of Johns Hopkins. Although the US in 2024 is not identical to Germany in 1933, but we cannot be ignorant of our history of false and aborted Messiahs. Is this quasi-utopia coming to an end?  

In the early 19th century, a Scottish historian by the name of Alexander Fraser Tytler proposed a theory; democracy cannot last forever. And I quote: “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.”

And yes, it has been more than 200 years since this glorious democracy was born. So maybe democracy was blessed with long life. Just because you have a long life does not mean you will live on forever.

And so, I wonder out loud – perhaps it’s time to start asking ourselves hard questions. Questions like, at what point of growing antisemitism do we reassess our way of life as Jews in this country to be either more or less vocal? At what point in the illiberal and ignorant education being offered in higher education, do we give up on the dream of sending our children to the Ivy’s and start sending them to Yeshiva University and Stern or find pathways that bypass higher education altogether? At what point of political unrest should we leave this country? At what point of growing antisemitism all over the world should we move to Israel and give up on the American dream?  

In Judaism we have a belief; nothing lasts forever.

There is, however, one exception to that rule. There is one thing in this world that does last forever and that is our Neshama, our soul.

In a moment we are going to pray for the souls of our loved ones. We may not be able to feel their warmth, we may not be able to embrace them or be comforted by them, we may not be able to share with them our deepest secrets, our dreams, our regrets. But they are still alive.

In a moment we are going to pray for the souls of those murdered in the Holocaust. They may not have graves, they may be drowned in the sea, thrown in a pit, burned into ashes. But they are still alive.

In a moment we are going to pray for the souls of those murdered since October 7th. In heaven, they are still dancing.

When we pray for their souls, it is not just for them, it is for us. It is an affirmation of our belief in an afterlife. It is an affirmation of our belief in a world of spirituality. It is a commitment to living a life focused not only on our bodies and our material and sensual pleasure. It is a commitment to not being seduced by the comfort of our host country. By speaking of the soul, by praying to G-d for the elevation of their souls, we are committing to living our lives by the light of a value system that has outlived Tytler’s theory not by a few decades, but by a few thousand years.

We hope and pray that what we are experiencing in Israel and here in the US are birth pangs, not a false alarm and not a tragic miscarriage. We hope and pray that our stay in this country remains safe and sound and that the State of Israel continues to flourish until the day that reishit tz’michat ge’u’loteinu, the beginning of the sprouting, blossoms into something so grand and beautiful we cannot even imagine. But while we hope and pray, while we petition and protest, while we do everything we can to continue on this course, let’s not forget to ask ourselves if maybe just maybe it’s time to move on once more. Let’s not forget what is real and eternal and what is false and going to inevitably decay. In the memory of those whose souls we pray, let us ensure that we live lives not dedicated to the American dream, but dedicated and attuned to the dream of our soul; a life of prayer, a life of Torah, a life of Mitzvos. May we merit to see the day when each of us reunite with our loved ones and the true Mashiach finally arrives.