My Rebbi made me join Twitter Parshas Eikev

“How can people possibly have nuanced discussions on social media?!”

“All everyone wants to hear these days are soundbites!”

“Can you really summarize a position on national defense in a Tweet?!”

That’s me, quoting myself.

I have lost track of how many times I’ve lamented the decline of serious debate and discussion due to social media and our shrinking attention span. How can we possibly have a nuanced discussion in 280 characters or less? But I’ve come around. I recently joined Twitter and I want to tell you why.

When the pandemic started, I began to post on Facebook far more often than I had in the past. Communicating through Facebook was not as simple as taking a sermon and pasting it onto a Facebook post. To catch the eye of someone scrolling at the end of a long day or during a short break, you need to catch their attention with something short and snappy. To change my regular writing style was challenging, but there was something – something that I could not exactly put my finger on at the time – that just felt right about writing that way.

Then, a short while ago, a friend of mine who is a digital media manager reached out and encouraged me to join Twitter. Twitter?! I thought to myself. The place where you cannot write a full paragraph?! The place I’ve been mocking from the pulpit?!

“Sure,” I said, “that sounds like a great idea.”

I remembered something I had learned from a teacher of mine, or my Rebbi (not be confused with Rebbe – a chassidic rabbi – or Rabbi, a shul rabbi, but Rebbi – literally, my teacher) in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. When my Rebbi was a young student at the prestigious Chevron Yeshiva, he had a private study session with one of the Roshei Yeshiva of the institution. Once a week there would be a lecture given to the entire yeshiva by one of the other leading teachers in this institution. My Rebbi would attend this lecture and then would visit the Rosh Yeshiva to study. But before they would begin, the Rosh Yeshiva would ask him to summarize the entire, brilliant, complex lecture he just attended – in one sentence. Remember, this was a discourse in Talmud in one of the leading yeshivas in Israel. One sentence.

My teacher would explain to his students the rationale behind this strange request: “If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When studying Torah, it is so easy to get caught up in the trees and lose sight of the forest. Ask any young yeshiva student studying a page of Talmud what it is that he is learning, and you will likely get a blank stare. I know that for many years, I could not answer that question. The Talmud is (seemingly) so disorganized and jumps from topic to topic without any warning. What is true about Talmud in particular is true about Judaism in general. Ask a room full of Jews what Judaism is all about, there would be as many answers as there are people. Is it this Mitzvah or that one? Ten commandments or 13 principles of faith? Beliefs or actions? Ask the same group of people two weeks later and you will get a hundred new answers.

“If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s what my teacher meant. That’s why his teacher asked him to summarize the entire class in one breath. And that’s why I joined Twitter.

What was appealing to me about these Facebook posts is that it was forcing me to be succinct. Twitter was an opportunity to go even further. To share on Twitter meant distilling an idea to its essence. That’s always important but especially now.

Our brains are currently overburdened with stress, anxiety, and fear like never before. Our schedules are haphazard – if you even have a schedule these days. Every time I sit down to work on an extended piece of writing, I run out of creative gas two paragraphs in. I cannot concentrate.

But now, when I start to prepare a thought for shul, I try to write it as a Tweet it and see how it sounds. (Sometimes I cheat and write a thread – a number of Tweets strung together, but I try not to!) To be clear, I don’t really have any followers – possibly because I’m using Twitter as a personal sounding board! Also, please be warned, Twitter can be a rabbit hole that you cannot escape from, so please do not see this as an encouragement to sign up for Twitter. But for me, Twitter is creating a tiny semblance of order in what is otherwise a rather messy mind during a really messy time.

It occurred to me that the very first individual to do this was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu.

In our Torah portion, he asks the following question – “Mah Hashem Elokecha doreish mimcha? What is it that G-d wants from you?”

For four and a half books of the Torah, we’ve read stories and laws, and more stories and more laws, but what’s it all about? What does G-d actually want from us? What IS Judaism?

Moshe tells us – “Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul.”

Did you catch that? Moshe just summarized all of Judaism in less than 120 characters?!

A few centuries later, the great sage, Hillel, does the same thing: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do onto others. Everything else is commentary.’ Only 63 characters!

You try. Really.

Maybe not to summarize what Judaism is, but at least what Judaism is to you. Because without having a succinct idea of what it is we’re practicing and striving for, it’s very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s true for our spiritual life as it is for our family life as it is for our professional life. We need to have a clear vision of what it is we’re doing or trying to do or else we get distracted. Steven Covey once said, “Everyone is so busy climbing the ladder of success that they don’t stop to ensure that it’s leaning against the right building.”

Only Moshe can answer what G-d wants from us. But what do you want from yourself? For me, it is ‘To constantly feel the presence of G-d even in dark times and to constantly draw even closer to Him.’ That reorients me when I feel like I am lost. It guides me when I need to make difficult decisions. Without a clear spiritual vision, it’s so easy to lose sight of what we’re really after.   

Everyone wants to love their family, but what does that really mean? Love is too vague. Can we distill the essence of our vision? This is what I came up with: ‘To develop an ever-deepening connection with my family members and constantly build them up.’ What do you want to accomplish every time you step into your home or speak to a family member? Without a succinct vision, we can interact with our family constantly, we can even love them deeply, but never have the family life of our dreams.  

Clarity is hard time to come by these days. Our minds are racing, our emotions are raging, and that fog in our head seems to be getting thicker and thicker. Take a moment to create a little light and direction that could guide you now and always. Take a cue from Moshe, our greatest teacher, and crystalize your goals, and may that little light dispel this great darkness.

Oh, and if you do join Twitter, make sure to follow me 😉  

Laws for Post-Tisha B’av

Usually the restrictions of the Nine Days continue through the day after Tisha B’av at midday. This year, because the day after Tisha B’av is Friday and we need to get ready for Shabbos, some of the restrictions do not apply. 

One may launder, cut hair, and bathe regularly starting Friday morning. If one will not have enough time on Friday, one may start Thursday night. 

One should not eat meat, drink wine, or listen to music until midday on Friday. In Baltimore, midday on Friday is at 1:13 PM. 

Laws of Tisha B’av

On Tisha Bav one is not supposed to do anything that can be seen as joyful.The following things are therefore forbidden:

– Eating and drinking (If one has any medical concerns please contact me before the fast)

– Intimacy

– Studying Torah that does not pertain to Tisha Bav

– Washing oneself in any way. This includes a prohibition against brushing one’s teeth. However, one may wash their fingers upon waking up. If one’s hands become dirty in any way, one can wash whatever part of their hand is dirty. If one wishes to bathe a child or wash dishes and their hands will get wet in the process it is permitted to do so.

  • This year, due to Coronavirus, if one is washing their hands after being in public etc., one may wash their entire hand regularly with soap. 

On Tisha Bav one may not wear leather shoes.

One should not greet others. If one is greeted they may respond.

One must sit on a low stool until Halachic midday, which in Baltimore will be at 1:13 PM on Tisha Bav.

One should not work for the first half of Tisha Bav. Ideally, one should not work the entire day.

There are some who sleep in a less comfortable fashion on the night of Tisha Bav. For example, if they normally sleep with two pillows they sleep with one. If they normally sleep with one pillow they sleep with none. If one can do so, it is a meaningful custom. If it will prevent them from sleeping and they will have a harder time fasting, or they have some condition which will make sleeping (or the next day) extremely uncomfortable, there is no need to do so.

The fast is over at 9:06 PM.

Facts and Faith

This past Shabbos, I spoke on the topic of racism. After shul and for the past few days I have received much feedback, and engaged in many passionate discussions. I learned a lot from those conversations. They also helped me crystalize the most salient point I had been trying to make: The dismal state of employment, education, health, and crime in the black community is undisputed. The impact this has on all Black people, the stereotypes they must all endure regardless of where in this country they live or how educated or wealthy they may be, is also something that most of us agree upon. These are the facts. Where there is less agreement is the question of cause; whose fault is it that this is the case? Politicians of a certain persuasion? The police? The black community? The white community? That’s where the disagreements begin.

So here’s the point I want to make – Ben is right, facts do not care about feelings. But faith does. Our faith cares deeply about feelings; the feelings of others and the emotional response from us.

What is so troubling to me is the detached tone to our conversations, as if we are discussing a theoretical question. There is a community of people who are suffering a few blocks away from us irrespective of who is to blame. It is the role of politicians and pundits to discuss, develop, and debate effective policies. It is the role of decent people to care.

I would argue that the appropriate emotional response is righteous indignation. I realize not everyone would agree with that assessment and I am not confident enough in my ability to interpret the statistics to say everyone should. At the very least, we must all feel compassion. Regardless of who is to blame, it must break our hearts that my child has to look both ways before crossing a street so that he won’t get hit by a car, and a little boy growing up a few blocks away has to look both ways so that he doesn’t get hit by a stray bullet. It must break our hearts that my neighbor, a tall, muscular Black man, must own a cute little puppy so people won’t call the police on him every time he walks down his own block. The sad state of the Black community and the never-ending prejudice they all must deal with should break our hearts. That’s all I’m suggesting, that we care.

If a man was executed in ancient Israel for committing a heinous crime, his wife and children, the widow and orphan, would still receive our compassion. We would still be prohibited from oppressing them in any way, and we would still be obligated in displaying the utmost sensitivity in dealing with them. Why? Because they are in pain and they feel vulnerable and G-d demands of us to feel and display compassion to those who are marginalized in our society irrespective of the cause.

Who is to blame, or rather what needs to change, is relevant and should be discussed, respectfully and without fear of being labeled in any way. Black Lives Matter is used at times to espouse antisemitism, and should be called out when they do. The fact that you were held up by a Black youth is scary, it impacts your worldview, and cannot be discounted. However, none of that should detract from the fact that our faith cares about feelings. And so should we.

Speak up for Israel: A Pre-Shabbos Message for Parshas Pinchas

Dear Friends,

This past Thursday, we began what is known as the Three Weeks of Mourning which culminate on Tisha B’av. It is a time to reflect upon the exile from Israel and the destruction of the Temple. Every year at this time, I am asked, the State of Israel was established over 70 years ago, Jerusalem has been in our hands for over 50 years, why are we still observing these days of mourning? The Three Weeks are passé! And every year I respond that we are not praying for sovereignty alone, but for the rebuilding of the Temple and all that it represents. The Bait Hamikdash is more than a building, it is an idea. It represents a return of Godliness into this world and all that His presence brings along; peace, justice, harmony, the love of kindness, and overflowing blessing. When we yearn for a rebuilding of the Temple, we are yearning for personal and universal redemption from a state of brokenness. In other words, I respond to their question by suggesting that the Three Weeks is not about Israel alone, its focus is on a far larger and more universal picture.

While my first inclination this year is to focus on the big picture – you do not need me to tell you how broken our world is today – I think we would be remiss if we do not take a moment to think about Israel. It is true that we have sovereignty, it is true that Israel’s military is mighty, it is true that the economy is strong, and it is true that Jerusalem is ours today more than it ever was before. However, there is a growing voice of dissent overtaking the Western world. Thinly veiled anti-Semitism seeking to delegitimize the State of Israel is rampant. It is being espoused by sports players, musicians, and intellectuals alike. It has muddied the waters of social justice movements and become the de facto viewpoint on many college campuses. Israel may be stronger than ever but those seeking to tear it down have grown frighteningly vocal and organized.

So as we reflect on our losses these Three Weeks – and there is much to reflect upon, let us also think about and speak up on behalf of our beloved ancestral land. The State of Israel is far from perfect, we are confident enough to admit our shortcomings. But we must also give voice to the fact that the State of Israel has tried and tried and tried to make peace but received violence in response. We must give voice to the fact that we have 3,000-year roots in the land. We must give voice to the fact that Israel has avowed enemies and it cannot afford be flippant about its security. We must give voice to the fact that though there is corruption, Israel is a beacon of democracy and a world leader in human rights and freedom.

May God hear our voice – of protest and of prayer – and may He wipe away the many tears that have been shed for our personal setbacks and losses, for the land of Israel and for our people, and for the world at large. May we merit to experience a true redemption speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Yisrael Motzen