I’d like to contrast two speeches made by two incredibly well-connected statesmen at very similar junctures in Jewish history. The first was made this past Wednesday a few miles from here in the Capitol building. Israeli President Yitzchak Herzog was invited to address a joint meeting of Congress attended by nearly all congressmen and women, with the exception of a few of the usual suspects. President Herzog comes from the closest thing we have to royalty in modern Judaism. His father, Chaim Herzog served as a general in the IDF and then president of Israel. His grandfather, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel after the establishment of the State. As I said, royalty.
There’s a certain pride I am not alone in feeling when an Israeli political leader is invited to speak at such a gathering. To think that just over ¾ of a century ago, a group of leading Jewish rabbis, coming to beg form the American government to save Jews from the inferno of the Holocaust couldn’t even get an audience. And today, a Jew is invited to speak to a packed house. To think that for so many of the past 75 years, Israel has been completely dependent on others, but just this past week in a widely-shared article, two writers entertained the notion of Israel ceasing to accept American aid – not because Israel is not a friend of the US, these were Zionists who wrote the article. They were arguing that Israel is now at point where it does not need such assistance! Whether they are right or wrong, but the fact that not that many years after Israel was pulled from the brink of bankruptcy by other nations, not that many years after Israel was completely dependent on the weapons and intelligence of other countries, the fact that this can even be entertained is astounding. What a proud moment in Jewish history we live in.
And then the speech itself; a masterclass. Allow me to quote: “When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the land which the Almighty promised to Abraham, to which Moses lead the Israelites, the land of the Bible, of milk and honey, evolved into an exquisite land of democracy. Against all odds, the Jewish people returned home and built a national home, which became a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles. A land which welcomed the ingathering of exiles from one hundred different countries.
A land which became the Startup Nation – a bustling hub of innovation and creativity, social action and intellectual discovery, spiritual awakening and business ventures, scientific ingenuity and lifesaving medical breakthroughs.
We built a nation-state which has faced relentless war, terror, and delegitimization since its birth. A country fighting to defend itself from enemy and foe, yet whose citizens continue to greet each other with the word “peace”, Shalom.
A country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.
A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
A country which is ever evolving. A diverse amalgam of accents, beliefs, backgrounds and customs. Truly, a modern-day miracle.
This is the sweetness with which our country has been blessed.”
Yes, President Herzog spoke about the-not-so-sweet; Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the internal strife playing out through the judicial reform. But ultimately, it was a message of hope. Again, to quote:
“As President of Israel, I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA…
Israel’s first seventy-five years were rooted in an ancient dream. Let us base our next seventy-five years on hope. Our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.”
Approximately, two thousand five hundred years earlier, a speech was given by another dignitary. His name was Yeshaya, Isaiah. He too was part of the royal family; his uncle was King Amatzya, and his daughter ultimately married a future king, Chizkiyahu.
Yeshaya also spoke during a time of incredible prosperity. The Jewish People at this time had just developed modern weapons which they used to fortify Jerusalem and attack their enemies. And they were wildly successful; they conquered the Philistines, a nation that had been a thorn in the Jewish People’s side for decades, they took control of a tremendous portion of land in the South, and the neighboring nations fearing for their lives were paying tribute to the Jewish king. It was a time of prosperity. The wealth in that era is described as rivaling that of King Solomon. And this was all taking place as the king led a spiritual revival.
And so Yeshaya, the well-connected dignitary, living in of the most opulent and secure times in ancient Jewish history, gets up to speak to what I am sure was a packed crowd. It was the Haftorah we just read in shul, Chazon Yeshayahu, the vision of Yeshayahu, that the Abarbanel suggest was shared at this high point in Jewish history. But unlike the President’s vision, the Prophet’s vision was anything but hopeful. We’ve been learning the Book of Yeshaya on Shabbos afternoons for the past year. When we started out, I would summarize each chapter with a little poem, and so please indulge me as I share with you a poetic summary of Isaiah’s speech:
Political strength, spiritual heights; we’re growing at dizzying speeds.1
Safer than ever, increasingly wealthy, matched by our many good deeds.
If we listen real close, footsteps approach, it’s Mashiach! He’ll be here so soon!
But a lone man cries out, and shatters our dream, with a message of impending doom:
You see, Yeshaya had a choice; he could have focused on the prosperity, the security, and yes, even the explosion in Jewish learning and practice, and be filled with immense pride. But he chose to focus on what was still missing, what was still broken. What was broken? What were the flaws that he saw around him? They are flaws that are not so different than the ones we experience today; an explosion of Torah observance but a lack of connection to G-d; external practices that do not reflect one’s inner world. And chesed, kindness, that is skin deep; giving to the poor, but not caring for the poor. A lot of lip service but not a lot of service of the heart. Yeshaya is so dismayed with what he witnesses, that he describes the people of Israel as the people of Sedom.
“Ketzinei Sedom, Am Amorah, Hashem is not bribed by your deeds.
Your learning, your prayer, means nothing at all, if you don’t stop to think about Me.2
You give to the poor, but ignore their real needs, not caring for feelings and pain,
Can you not hear the cries of the marginalized, drowned out by tzedakah campaigns?3”
And so while everyone around him was patting themselves on the back; look how mighty our army is – 4th strongest army in the world! Look how prosperous we are – we are the start-up nation! We could survive without American support! Look how much learning is taking place! Yeshaya recognized that hope that is not tethered to introspection is hopeless. A people who only pat themselves on the back and don’t demand of themselves radical change, even and most specifically, when things seem great, that is a people that is doomed.
“Where you see great buildings, I see desolation, we’re marching into an inferno.4
The ads are all glossy, the children are matching, but my vision sees what is internal.
The silver is shiny, the wine is aplenty. Look deeper, it’s all watered down.5
Don’t be shocked when a city of faith is no longer; not when, it’s happening now.”6
To be clear, this was not a reflection of depressing cynicism; it came from a place of optimism – we have the ability to change. When we only focus on the good, we can too easily become proud and stagnant. When we focus on our flaws, we become motivated to fix them. And that is the avodah, that is the practical focus of these next few days leading up to Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av shakes us out of our complacency; yes, in two thousand years, it has never been better to be a Jew, but simply taking pride in this moment will not get us anywhere.
Tisha B’av reminds not only of our tragic past, it begs of us to change. And by asking us to change it is letting us know we can change. Like our ancestors we too are far too superficial in our service of G-d. Like our ancestors we too do not do enough to the underprivileged amongst us. The illness of Yeshaya’s time was superficiality, of commitments that are skin deep; I cannot think of a more relevant message. But these are reflections that are meant to propel us to action. If we believe we can be corrupt, we must believe that we can be pure. If we believe that we can be callous, we must believe that we can become full of heart. If we can believe we can cause the destruction of the Temple, we must believe we can cause it to be rebuilt.
And so Yeshaya concludes his message:
As the people despair, desert, and decry, the man stops them, “Yesh li od chazon!” (I have another vision)
“It’s never too late, Hashem is your father, and you are his daughters and sons.
No matter how dirty, how sinful, how evil, to white snow red blood can transform.
With justice and fairness, and true self-awareness, to Tziyon, I will return.”
- The opening prophecies of Yeshaya take place during the rule of Uziyah, a time of great military conquests, expansion of the Southern Kingdom, and great spiritual accomplishments.
- R. Adin Steinzaltz understands the famous critique against the Jewish People’s many offerings – “why do I need your many sacrifices?!” – as an indication that they were following all the laws, but their intentions, doing Mitzvos for the sake of Hashem, was entirely lacking.
- The Malbim understands that the court systems, at least in the early stages, were just, only that they did not seek out justice for those who could not come to court, like the underprivileged.
- אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ
- כַּסְפֵּךְ, הָיָה לְסִיגִים; סָבְאֵךְ, מָהוּל בַּמָּיִם – the simple understanding is that the merchants were cheating people by selling inferior products. The Malbim understands this to be a metaphor for the deeds of the Jewish People, which appear righteous but in truth, are diluted.
- In line with footnote 5, the Malbim explains that Yeshaya is responding to their shock of, “How did the faithful city become a city of harlotry?” by telling them that such things do not happen overnight. The people are rotting within, there is no inner vitality – “the trees are withered,” but it is not yet evident from the outside.
I finally came to terms with why everything is so expensive in New York City – the taxis, the food, the hotels; everything is a fortune. Hindy and I spent last Shabbos in Manhattan and I realized the reason you’re paying a premium on everything is because you’re actually in an amusement park. When you’re in an amusement park, you pay a premium. You pay 5 bucks for a coke and that’s just the way it is.
Think about it – you have people walking in the wildest costumes. There are literally people walking around decked out in cartoon costumes – they’re not part of parade; just walking around. There are people walking around like they just walked out of a museum exhibit of 16th century life in the Americas. There are people walking around with almost no costume at all. Ironically, I’m the one getting stared at because I’m wearing a kippah. Do you see yourself?!
You’re also surrounded by an ongoing soap opera. Everyone is talking to each other or on the phone about the most intimate things – full volume. I’m assuming this is why so many screenwriters live in NYC. They’re probably all just sitting in Central Park with a pen and paper taking notes.
Then you have the amusement park rides. Find me a more thrilling ride than taking an Uber in the city. Switching lanes at full speed, avoiding pedestrians, and flying out of our seats as we go over ten-foot potholes.
And then the most extreme sport in all of NYC – crossing the street. Talk about risking your life. Everyone huddles at the street corner and waits for that light to turn green. You’re crammed between businessmen, people in the middle of a jog, people sleeping on the floor – there is no discrimination at the street corner; we are all equals beholden to the mighty power of the light. The nanosecond the light changes, the race begins. Here’s the crazy part – apparently, you’re not allowed to look up. Everyone keeps their eyes completely glued to their phone as they walk ahead at full speed ahead. I don’t know how they do it. To top it off, the people driving – they have a ten second rule. For at least ten seconds after the light changes, you are allowed to run a red in NYC. Or so it seems. And so the car is flying full speed ahead, you’re trying not to trip on a homeless person’s sleeping bag, listening to the person next to you spill the beans on their entire personal life, all while checking your emails. Who wouldn’t pay a few extra dollars for such a thrill?
While we were there, we decided to go Sefardic for the weekend. Friday night we went to a beautiful shul that will not be named with a completely different nusach. For about ten minutes during davening I had no idea what they were saying. I couldn’t even pick out the words he was saying. All I heard was the Middle Easterm Sefardic ukulele sound… For all the people here who struggle to follow along with davening, I feel your pain.
But what really stuck out was this one little kid who was making noise. He was actually just trying to sing along with the chazzan, but I learned one thing – you do not make noise at a Sefardic shul. This poor little boy was getting death stares.
I thought that was intense, but the next day, I got a real lesson in decorum. We went to the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, the oldest shul in New York, whose customs go back to the conversos or anusim who escaped Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th century. They take decorum and ceremony very very seriously. First of all, no one talks. There were two women who were talking, but they were just moving their mouths there was no sound coming out… It was impressive. Second, all men MUST wear a talis. I was standing next to a visitor who was not, the gabbai immediately walked over with a talis, held it until he got the hint. And everything is choreographed. Right before the rabbi speaks, anyone who wants to make a donation comes forward and gets a blessing from the rabbi. They wait in line, when it’s their turn they come forward, receive the blessing and then the rabbi and the donor bow at one another, congregant turns to the left and follows a path back to his seat. And then, the best part, if you get an honor in their shul you MUST wear a hat and tie. When you walk in, there is a stack of hats and a stack of ties for those who are under-dressed. All in all, I was very taken by the decorum, the formality, the ceremony that we found in the Sefardic community.
And I was thinking – we have always struggled with decorum in our shul. It’s gotten much better, but there’s still a good amount of chatter. So I’d like to propose that Ner Tamid goes Sefaradi. From now on, parents of children who talk have to give an extra donation, and anyone who gets an honor must wear one of my old hats or ties. I’ll be happy to bow and walk in a perfect line and all if us will be deathly silent during davening. What do you think? (Do we have to bring this to the board?)
Many years ago, we had a gabbai committee, and we were trying to ensure that all the unique customs we have were codified. We were trying to create a rigid structure for our gabbaim to follow so everything would run smoothly. The individual tasked with creating the gabbai handbook was Mitch Mirkin, of blessed memory. Mitch was a gem of a person, who was tragically taken from us about a year ago. Mitch took davening very seriously – he was one of the brave people who sat up front in shul. He was working on this handbook for months and then one day he turned to me. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’ll tell you the truth, I think this gabbai handbook is a mistake.” He went on to explain that one of the things that attracted him to our shul was that things didn’t always run like clockwork. While I was busy looking at whatever every other shul was doing, he found the way our shul functioned as charming. I think about what he said. A lot.
Every shul and every community has its own unique character. Every shul has its own unique set of customs; some are Halachic customs, and some are just the culture of the shul. A child singing along in one shul may get death stares and here, the child will likely get a high five. Some shuls have four hundred clocks, ensuring that davening finishes at an exact time, and here, the is no pressure to finish at a specific time. Is one right? Is one wrong? No, there are different pathways in the service of Hashem.
Many years ago, I overheard a comment that really stuck with me: “When Mashiach comes,” this person was saying, “we won’t have the same debates between the Religious Zionists and the Chareidim etc etc. We’ll finally know who was right all along.”
I remember thinking then and I still stand by this now – I could not disagree more strongly. In ancient times, we had twelve tribes; twelve unique approaches to serving G-d. Nowadays, for the most part we don’t know which tribe we’re from, but the notion that there is a plurality of approaches to G-d is very much alive. Whether it’s Sefardi or Ashkenazi. Whether it’s Chassidic or non-Chassidic. Whether it’s Chareidi or Modern. Those are the modern tribes of Israel.
To be clear, there were twelve tribes, not 1000 and not even 100. Not every purported pathway to G-d is legitimate. But the varying cultures and communities that are committed to Halacha, committed to Torah coming from Sinai, who possess a belief in the 13 principles, all of those approaches are legitimate.
The final instructions given in the book of Bamidbar, which we concluded today, was that each tribe was expected to only marry from within their own tribe. Intermarriage, back then, meant someone from the tribe of Shimon marrying someone from the tribe of Yehuda. This was not only done so that tribes would hold on to their territory. We were expected to marry within our own, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, to maintain the spiritual character of each tribe. It is critical that we appreciate and build upon the unique strengths that our community possesses. If we are constantly looking over our shoulders, if we’re just copying, then we lose out in the unique role that we have to play.
And at the same time, there is a danger with this approach. There is a danger that each tribe or each culture will become so confident in their own way that they distance themselves entirely from the other tribes. Too often, we become so confident in our value system that we become disdainful of those who don’t share those same values. We become so loving of our way of life that we become disgusted by the lifestyle of our brothers and sisters who have chosen to live on a different path.
And that’s exactly what happened to the shevtaim, to the tribes of Israel. Yes, they developed their own way of life, but in doing so, they no longer felt connected to their brethren. So much so, that a few hundred years after arriving in the land of Israel, a civil war broke out, and the tribe of Binyamin was almost entirely decimated.
The leaders of that generation realized that there needed to be a greater bond among the people and revoked the practice of not marrying between tribes. But we haven’t yet found a perfect balance. It was tribalism that led to the splitting of the Davidic Monarchy, which in turn led to the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash. It was factionalism that led to the feud between the Hasmonaean kings which led to the destruction of the second. We have been unable to find the balance between a confidence in our own way of life and a respect for a different point of view.
We are about to begin the Nine Days of mourning, during which we reflect on the loss of the Temples and why they are no longer here. There are a lot of things we cannot do during this time but I’d like to propose an exercise, something proactive that we can and should do. Can we take a moment each day of the Nine Days to reflect on a group of Jews who are living differently than we are? We don’t have to travel to NYC, we could look out the window or read the news. Can we not learn something from “them”? Can we not find value in something “they” are doing? We’re not going Sefardi (sorry). We can and must maintain our own customs and our own way of life without making the same mistakes as our ancestors. We have the ability to break this thousand-year cycle of infighting. *
In the merit of this exercise, in the merit of our ability to see the good, may we merit the day when we return to our Bais Hamikdash, where we are taught that each tribe, each group will enter through their own unique gates, but once through those gates, we will all connect to our one common Father.
*This Nine Days exercise was inspired by a Tweet by @wordpaley
Every once in a while, Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, the fast day that kicks off the Three Weeks falls, out on July 4th and we have a real dilemma. How do we reconcile fasting all day with a barbecue? Do you wake up really early in the morning before the fast starts, have a coffee, and quickly grill a hot dog or two? Do you barbecue to fulfill the Mitzvah of barbecuing on July 4th and just not eat? Do you break your fast on corn on the cob?
These are the things that keep American rabbis up late at night.
In all seriousness, as American Jews, and yes, I will include myself in that category even though I only have a green card – as American Jews – Jews who live in and love America, this upcoming week is a wild mix of contradictions.
On July 4th, Independence Day, the day that the people of this country declared independence from British rule, we will celebrate.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the day that the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem after a long and deadly siege, we will mourn.
On July 4th, Independence Day, we will pledge allegiance to this glorious country.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, we will pray to leave this country and for our return to the land of Israel.
On July 4th, Independence Day, we will praise democracy, plurality, and religious freedom.
On July 6th, Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, we will dream of a Messianic king, a Jewish State, and a return of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish Supreme Court that will enforce Jewish Law in the land.
How to fast and barbecue on the same day is the least of our problems; the Jewish dream and the American dream are not as compatible as we often think.
I’d like to share with you a story about a man named Jonas Phillips that is emblematic of the tension that we will experience this coming week. On September 7, 1787, a few days before the ratification of the United States Constitution, Jonas Phillips, formerly Pheybush, a German Jew who immigrated to the US, wrote a letter to George Washington to complain about religious discrimination. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, delegates were required to take an oath and swear that the Old and New Testaments were written through divine inspiration – something that no Jew would dream of doing.
The thinking of the time was this that was fully in line with freedom of religion as no one was being forced to worship a religion they didn’t believe in. The fact that this precluded one from being a delegate was immaterial. But Jonas argued that true freedom of religion meant being able to be an involved member of society, to take one’s religion into the public square and have the exact same privileges as all other religious individuals. Ultimately, they changed the rule and allowed Jews to become delegates and set the stage for the freedoms that we enjoy today.
Jonas Phillips was the embodiment of all the good that America has to offer. He was an immigrant who came with nothing but built up a number of successful businesses. Though he was German, he married a Sefardic woman. In the 18th century that was considered “marrying up” for a German Jew – something that would only happen in the melting pot called America. And despite his involvement in business and politics, he remained a devout and unabashed Jew.
But at the same time that this glorious American freedom was opening so many doors for him and his co-religionists, it came with its own set of problems.
Jonas’s wife, Rebecca, was the daughter of the Chazan of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York. The Spanish Portuguese synagogue was led by its lay leaders and they ruled with an iron fist. They would fine people for misconduct. They would fine people for not coming to shul when they were supposed to… They were the ones who decided who could and who could not sell kosher meat. It wasn’t just a shul, it was the center of the community, through which the entire community was led. For most of her life, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue was the only shul in New York city. But as this country started to embrace and elevate the notion of freedom, the model of a hierarchical synagogue seemed backward, it seemed rather British. This is the land of the free!
During the last years of Rebecca’s life, a breakaway shul opened in Manhattan, and the same trend continued all over the country. It’s not a Baltimore Pikesville invention. Professor Jonathan Sarna traces a direct line from the American Revolution to breakaway shuls and the dissolution of the community-synagogue. The splintering of communities which we are so accustomed to today is a byproduct of the new-found freedom and autonomy that this country had to offer.
And that’s benign compared to some of the other byproducts of freedom. Jonas and Rebecca Phillips had 21 children. Most of his children, it seems, within a generation or two did not keep the faith. Yes, it was certainly hard to find Jewish spouses in the 18th century, but that trend continues today. The intermarriage rate in the US is currently at 61%. Freedom of religion means freedom to opt out of religion.
And then there are other impacts of freedom and independence that are not unique to Judaism. Franklin Moses Jr. was a grandson of Jonas Phillips. He became the 75th governor of South Carolina; fought for equal right for black citizens and also embezzled significant funds from the government. He spent the last years of his life in and out of jail as he struggled with an addiction to meth.
The US has the highest rates of drug usage in the world. There is growing evidence that suggests a correlation between our independence from one another and America’s rising rates of depression and self-medication. The freedom to be independent from one another, to not be responsible for one another feels good, but it is not necessarily good for us at all.
The Phillips family is a cautionary tale about the mixed bag called American Freedom. The story of Jonas Phillips and his family is one worth thinking about on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz. Because absent a Bais Hamikdash which we will be praying for on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, without that central place that unites us all, we continue to splinter. Not only by religious practices and beliefs, but even by differences like politics or age.
Absent a Messianic Era which we will be praying for on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, in which a rich and all-embracing spirituality will be felt in the air, more and more Jews will continue to walk away from their faith as there is nothing compelling them to stay.
Absent a firm commitment to a value system that compels us to look out and be responsible for one another, we will continue to descend into maddening loneliness.
There is a lot to pray for and yearn for on July 6th, on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz.
But I am happy that Shiva Assar B’Tammuz does not coincide with Independence Day. Because we also need to give thanks for this wonderful country. Just this past week there was a critical ruling by the Supreme Court that was completely overshadowed by the Affirmative Action ruling. A man by the name of Gerald Groff, an Evangelical Christian lost his job as a US postal deliveryman because he refused to work on his Sabbath. The USPS argued that Groff’s not working on his Sabbath caused his employers undue hardship and they were therefore justified in penalizing him for not working on his Sabbath. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the USPS was incorrect, and that it was they who had to accommodate to his religious observances. This ruling has tremendous implications for Shabbos observant people in the workforce and it continues the long and great legacy of religious rights and protections kick-started by Jonas Phillips.
The Ibn Ezra suggests that the sin of Moshe at the rock was not that he hit the rock instead of speaking to the rock, not that he got angry. His sin can be found a few verses later where the Torah tells us Az Yashir Yisrael, that the Jewish People sang because the water gave forth water. Last time the Torah had the words, Az Yashir, it concluded with Moshe. Here Moshe was silent. He did not sing and that was his sin; not giving thanks for the water they received. To allow our concerns about America and the dangers of freedom to prevent us from giving thanks would be a grave mistake.
In 1984, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the greatest Halachic authority of the 20th century, wrote: “On reaching the shores of the United States; Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety. A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov — recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation.”
So, enjoy your barbecue on July 4th, and have a meaningful fast on July 6th. Let’s appreciate what we have and yearn for something even greater.
These past few days, the entire country has been riveted by the fate of the passengers on the Titan. The Titan was what is known as a submersible, a submarine-type vehicle that was able to travel all the way down to the depths of the ocean. The travelers, each of whom paid $250,000, were on a journey to explore the ruins of the Titanic. Tragically, it appears that the Titan imploded two hours into their journey. (Parenthetically, when five human beings die, regardless of their politics, regardless of their net worth, it is a tragedy. In this day and age, there are people celebrating their death which is obscene.)
Let me ask you all a question – there has been a lot of discussion of safety concerns on the Titan, but let’s just say, those concerns are addressed, and the company that runs these tours, OceanGate, goes through a proper safety audit, and they are now open again to the public. Would you take a tour on a submersible? Let’s ask our Bar Mitzvah boy, Ben, would you go down to the bottom of the ocean on the Titan 2?
It costs $250,000 for a ticket. Ben is going to need a lot of money. So please think twice, ladies and gentlemen, before writing him a check for his Bar Mitzvah.
When I was your age, Ben, I probably would have. When I was a little older than you, I had a bucket list of crazy things I wanted to do; bungee jumping, skydiving, backpacking around foreign countries. To my parents’ utmost horror and dismay, I knocked everything off that bucket list. Though for the record, I would NEVER dream of jumping out of a plane at this age. I don’t know when, but something switched in my brain and now I go on the ski lift ride around Dutch Wonderland, we’re like twenty feet off the ground, and I am freaking out: WHY ARE WE RISKING OUR LIVES?!?!
What drives people to jump out of planes, to climb tall mountains, to go to the depths of the ocean?
Ambition, drive, a sense of purpose and the very human desire to break free from the stifling regularity and monotony of life. In the words of one man who was asked why he attempted to climb Mt. Everest – “Because it’s there.”
Ambition is not a bad thing, nor is it limited to extreme activities. If we didn’t have ambition, we wouldn’t show up to work. If we didn’t have ambition, we would never push ourselves to be better at what we do. If we didn’t have ambition, we wouldn’t have retirement funds. The Medrash Tehilim (37) writes that without ambition people would not get married or build a home. It’s what keeps the world going, it’s what drives us forward. Sometimes it’s expressed in silly things like extreme activities, and sometimes it’s expressed in life-saving discoveries and companies that make our lives so much better.
In fact, Wendy Rush, the wife of Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate who tragically died this past week, is the great-great-granddaughter of Isidor Straus, a co-owner of Macy’s, the famous department store. Isidor was an incredibly ambitious person. He came to the United States at the age of 9. His family was discriminated against because of their Jewish faith; the business his father had hoped to start failed. But by the age of 16, Isidor had started a successful business that grew and grew until he became one of the wealthiest and most politically connected people in the country. Thank G-d for Isidor Straus’s ambition – how many pieces of clothing have you purchased at Macy’s? Half the ties I own I bought at Macy’s! And clearly, his ambition was passed on from generation to generation. His great-great-granddaughter, aside from growing her family’s wealth, had gone on three expeditions in the Titan.
However, sometimes I fear that we are stifling ambition. I was watching a video from a graduation speech in a Jewish school the other day, and the principal was calling up a student to speak on behalf of all the students. “Every student is special,” she said. “Every student could have been called up to speak, but we had to pick one. So I am calling up this person even though I could have called up anyone. And you know I would really love to call up each student because they are all so deserving…” When I was graduating high school, the principal got up and said, “We are now calling up our valedictorian, our brightest, most impressive student who we believe will accomplish great things.” The rest of us understood the implication quite clearly.
This sentiment of everyone is special was actually the argument made by Korach in this week’s parsha. Korach led a rebellion against Moshe with a slogan that would be incredibly popular in the 21st century – “Kol ha’am kulam kedoshim/ The entire nation is holy! Why do you, Moshe, stand above us all? Aren’t we all the same? Aren’t we all holy?” That resonates, doesn’t it?
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik explains that Korach was right – to a point. We are all innately holy, we are born with a pure soul which we believe to be connected to G-d Himself. But that’s only part of the story. We are then instructed to build on that holiness, to use that soul to transform ourselves, and change the world around us. What Korach was arguing for was the notion that whatever you do is okay, whatever you accomplish is enough. You’re all special, you’re all equally holy.
Ironically, Korach, we are taught was exceptionally wealthy. When it comes to our professional life, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, “You know, I started as a temp getting minimum wages. This is who I am. I’m okay with that.”
No! We have ambitions. We want to climb that ladder. We want more. And that’s fine and that’s great. But where are our spiritual ambitions? Why is it that when it comes to giving more to others, to being a better spouse or parent, how we pray, how much Torah we study, that only there do we seem to be content with what we have, with the inherent holiness that we were born with? When it comes to spirituality, ambition goes out the window.
We need to have BOTH material AND spiritual ambitions! Isadore Straus wasn’t only a business mogul, he and his brother, Nathan, who co-owned Macy’s were two of the most generous people of their generation, giving to a wide variety of causes, in their community and beyond. The city of Netanya in Israel was seeded by Nathan Straus and is named after him – Nentanya from the name, Nathan. And perhaps most famously – Isadore was on the Titanic with his wife when it started to sink. According to eyewitnesses, Isadore, because of his incredible stature was given a seat on a raft which was being filled up by women and children. He refused to get on the raft because he would be taking a seat from a woman or a child, who he felt should go before him. Seeing what was happening, his wife, Ida, got up and left the raft to be with her husband. “Wherever you go,” she said, “I go.” In the movie Titanic, there is a scene in which an elderly man and woman are embracing one another as the ship goes down. That was as a nod to Isadore and Ida Straus who died on the Titanic. That is high level selflessness, dedication, love, that’s called not settling for mediocrity.
We probably all have a detailed list of where we want to vacation, of an exact number of how much we want to retire with, but does anyone have a spiritual bucket list? Not just a vague idea of wanting to be a good person. I’m talking about an ambitious and detailed list of spiritual ambitions. I want to be the type of spouse who is so selfless that I will not get off a sinking ship without my loved one – not just in the Titanic, but every day in my home. I want to be a non-judgmental friend. I want to be a parent who is 100% engaged. I want to pray like my soul is on fire and I am standing before G-d. I want to use my strengths and resources to build the community around me. I want to finish shas, I want to know the entirety of Tanach.
Ben, you are an ambitious young man. You were gifted natural athleticism, but you worked hard to become an even better athlete. You are not content with being just okay. And it’s not just in the physical realm that you are ambitious. Ben was not content with leining this morning – which you knocked out of the park, he wanted to do more, so last night, he led davening in our shul. And that wasn’t enough so he asked if he could lead davening on the day he turned Bar Mitzvah, which he did. But that wasn’t enough, so he asked if he could lein in shul on Thursday, which he did. And learning for his Bar Mitzvah and school wasn’t enough, so he spent time weekly learning Mishnayos. Ben, don’t ever allow your spiritual thirst to be quenched.
You’re lucky, you have wonderful role models of spiritual ambition. They put so much thought into your education and your spiritual well-being. They are ambitious in their middos, in their character and in their love of family. Had your parents been on the Titanic, it would have been them embracing one another with selflessness.
Ben, you’re young, you’re full of energy. Now’s the time to create a spiritual bucket list, and I hope to G-d, you knock everything off that list and then you start a new one and then do that again and again and again. And I hope you inspire us to strive a little but higher, to ask ourselves this morning, what are our spiritual ambitions? What is on our spiritual bucket list? And not be content with spiritual mediocrity.
Isadore Straus sank on the mighty Titanic. His great-great-grandson-in-law’s company will probably never set sail again. Macy’s will likely not be around in ten years. It is only our soul, our spiritual ambitions and accomplishments, that will live on.
In 1873, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan published a book that would become revolutionary. The topic of the book was gossip and slander, two aveiros, two Biblical sins, that had effectively been ignored for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course, people knew such a prohibition existed, but it was so difficult to abide by that for all intents and purposes, the Mitzvah of proper speech had become extinct. The book, known as Chafeitz Chaim, organized all the laws that pertained to speech, breaking down the details of what a person can and cannot say. In addition, he wrote an entire philosophical section where he laid out the value of using our mouths for good and the danger of using our mouths for evil.
Ultimately, Rabbi Kagan became synonymous with this book, and he is known to us as the Chafeitz Chaim. He was the leading Torah sage of his generation, he wrote countless books including the Mishna Berura, a wildly popular commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, but it was this book that became his legacy. I believe this was because of its revolutionary impact. Thanks to his work, while you and I may still gossip from time to time, we do so with a sense of guilt. We know it’s wrong. Rabbi Kagan literally saved a Mitzvah from extinction.
In 1940, a young Austrian refugee by the name of Yosef Rosenberger arrived in the US. He came to the country with nothing, he lived in a home for immigrants. His father had been in the clothing industry, so he was especially attuned to what people wear. He noticed that in the US nobody seemed to be aware of the Biblical prohibition of wearing fabric that is made of wool and linen, otherwise known as shatnez. The prohibition of shatnez was extinct in the US.
Within a year of arriving at Ellis Island, he developed a simple chemical test that could be used to ascertain if a piece of clothing was made of wool and linen. He used space in the offices of the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, where he would test people’s clothing for shatnez. He would do the testing at night. During the day, he would create PR material on the importance of shatnez and had it published in all the leading Jewish periodicals. Yosef Rosenberger saved the mitzvah of shatnez from extinction.
This morning, I’d like to mention a mitzvah that I believe is also on the verge of extinction, at least in our circles, what some may call Modern Orthodoxy. I am hopeful that someone here may be the revolutionary to save this mitzvah from extinction.
I go to New York City from time to time and travel on the subway. Like most people my age, I usually spend my time on the subway with my phone in my hand, oblivious to my surroundings. This time, the individual I was traveling with asked me if I noticed the ads in the subway. I did not – though that was probably a function of my height. I looked up and looked around and noticed that the entire subway was decked in ads for Tinder.
For those who do not know what Tinder is (G-d bless you), Tinder is a dating app that is known for its swipe right or swipe left feature. A picture of a potential match shows up on your screen and you decide if you like them or not with the flick of your finger. The thing is, it’s not really a dating app; it’s what is known as a… people getting together more casually app… The entire subway was filled with every sexual innuendo possible. I recalled that the month before the entire subway was covered with a different set of ads, this time for lingerie – innuendo was out the window.
In this week’s parsha we are introduced to a mitzvah, a prohibition against gazing or thinking about matters of sexuality outside the context of marriage. Lo sasuru acharei l’vavchem v’acharei eineichem, do not stray after your hearts and eyes. Why? The Torah does not tell us why but we could surmise the following:
Intimacy is described by Nachmanides (Iggeres HaKodesh) as “kodesh kodashim, holy of holies.” Let’s think about the Holy of Holies that existed in the Bais Hamikdash to better understand the imagery Ramban is trying to paint for us. The Holy of Holies was special and sacred – the most sacred place in Judaism; intimacy must therefore also be sacred. The Holy of Holies was partitioned away, only entered once a year, and even then only by the Kohein Gadol. The limitations enhanced its charm and uniqueness. Similarly, intimacy in particular and sexuality in general must therefore be limited, not because it’s dirty, but in order to enhance its beauty, its magic and uniqueness. My favorite part of Shabbos morning here in shul is watching the children run up to the Aron when it’s opened. They know it’s special because we hide it away for 95% of davening. Similarly, due to the potency and power of intimacy, the incredible force that can bring absolute union between a husband and wife, the Torah creates a set of restrictions in order to maintain and enhance its sacred mystique.
Unfortunately, many of our co-religionists paint a very dirty and negative picture of sexuality. To their credit, in many circles this mitzvah is not even close to extinction, on the contrary, it has become the most important mitzvah of all. One’s exposure to anything sexual is the litmus test of spirituality.
However, in their zeal, sexuality is too often not described as kodesh, holy, it’s described as shmutz, as something dirty and corrosive. Even worse, the way sexuality is discussed too often denigrates women and it is women who are often the casualties of this approach. This mindset is the driving force behind a number of Orthodox publications going ahead and removing women’s images from their magazines, leaving young girls most especially second-guessing their worth. The other casualties of such an approach are those who are left thinking that intimacy is a necessary evil, instead a gift from G-d to bring closeness to a husband and wife. That is a Christian approach, not the way of the Torah. (To be fair, an ascetic tradition exists in Judaism, but for much of our history it was not a mainstream view.)
And so, our community is stuck between two unhealthy approaches. We don’t want to make purity the most defining mitzvah, we don’t want to rail against sexuality at every turn and describe it as evil. (Personally, I get extremely uncomfortable when someone obsessively talks about this prohibition. My ‘he doth protest too much’-alarm bells go off very quickly.) But instead, we say nothing. Instead, we allow this prohibition, which we repeat as part of Shema twice a day, to teeter on the verge of extinction. All we are left with in our circles is the societal default of subway cars filled with ads for Tinder and lingerie.
Our community, as scrupulous as we may be with other mitzvos – we don’t think twice about the content available on our phones, on our screens, all around us. We forget that there is a value in restraint, in looking away, in shifting our thoughts. We begin to think, like so many in our culture think and those Tinder ads imply, that intimacy is just an enjoyable act divorced from any meaning. We begin to believe that intimacy can be divorced from a relationship and from commitment. We forget why it was called intimacy to begin with!
We are left consuming whatever shows up on our screen; we’re left consuming whatever lyrics our favorite musician sings about. And our relationship with that that is holy, sacred, magical, is severed as this beautiful mitzvah of lo sasuru, to not blindly following our eyes and hearts, slowly becomes extinct.
A young woman in our community, Bracha Poliakoff recently co-authored a book on tznius, what some loosely describe as modesty, called Reclaiming Dignity. Tznius is a close sibling to the mitzvah we are discussing this morning. Tznius is more about our expression, lo sasuru about our consumption. Her book has flown off the bookshelves because she and her co-author were able to find a language that delicately expresses the importance and beauty of that mitzvah.
How beautiful would it be if someone could pick up where Bracha Poliakoff left off. A revolutionary like the Chafetz Chaim or Yosef Rosenberger who could save this mitzvah from extinction, by compellingly describing the value and majesty of self-restraint to those of us who live in a society that so elevates consumption. Someone who will have no studies to draw upon – there are no studies on the impact of our hyper-sexualized society because there is no control group in existence – someone who won’t talk about the impact on one’s mind, but rather the impact on one’s soul. Someone who could soberly develop best practices for filter usage on our devices and on our minds. How beautiful would it be for someone in the modern world to save this mitzvah from extinction.
I shared with some of you in the past about a walk I had years ago with a man who lived in the heart of Meah Shearim. I ate at his home in Meah Shearim on Friday night, and he was walking me back to my hotel. His neighborhood shuts down completely on Shabbos, but my hotel was in an area where cars were driving by. Every time a car would drive by, I’d hear him whispering. I eventually asked him what he was doing, and he explained to me that he’s accustomed to a car-free street on Shabbos; he’s accustomed to the sanctity of Shabbos permeating his whole neighborhood. When he walks beyond his neighborhood, it’s distressing. It chips away at his sensitivity. Now there are some people in his community who throw rocks at these cars. They are likely violating even more prohibitions than those driving. “But for me,” he said, “in order to not become completely desensitized, whenever I see a car, I whisper to myself the words, “Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos.””
Until we find that revolutionary who saves this mitzvah from extinction, the man or woman who takes up a pen or keyboard to give us the language we so desperately need, until we recreate our world in a way that reflects our divine value system, until that time, we too can whisper, “Holy, holy, holy.” We can whisper by turning away, by changing the channel, by adding a filter, by closing our ears. In doing so, we will allow the beauty and magic of intimacy, and the beauty and magic of our precious souls shine bright once more.
Much thanks to Dr. Leslie Klein for reviewing this drasha and for her insights