Our Hands did not Spill this Blood… or did they? Parshas Behar-Bechukosai

*In Memory of Efraim Gordon*

יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

These are words proclaimed by the elders of the Jewish People when an unsolved murder takes place in their town. It’s part of a dramatic ritual found in Sefer Devarim known as Eglah Arufah. A victim of murder is found, no one knows who killed the individual, a calf is taken to a barren valley where it is brutally killed. And then all the leaders of the town proclaim:

ָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

It’s a strange statement, to put it mildly. Do we really need the elders of a community to state that they did not spill this blood? Did anyone really accuse the elders of doing so that they need to defend themselves?!

Of course not.

Rather the Torah is teaching us a radical idea about what it means to be a community and the extent of our responsibility for one another. If the elders need to state that we are not responsible that means that there is an implicit accusation against them that they are responsible for something. They are not accused of murder, but they are accused of enabling murder by allowing an environment to exist where an unsolved murder could take place; an environment where someone knows they could get away with something of that nature, an environment where a victim is defenseless, an environment lacking in justice.

We are responsible, the Torah is teaching us, not only for what we do or what we see. We are responsible to ensure that we live in a safe city, in a just society, in a culture where everyone know that we look out for each other and we will not allow injustice to prevail.

To that accusation, the elders must soul-search, they must do a cheshbon hanefesh, and ask themselves, are we really not responsible in any way? Did we really not have anything to do with this?

 

As I am sure you are all well aware, there was a murder in our community this past week. An unsolved murder. A young man visiting from Israel, who came for a joyous occasion, for a wedding, murdered on the doorstep of his uncle and aunt. And we must ask ourselves that same question, the same accusation leveled against the elders, were we responsible in any way for this tragedy?

I’ve been trying to do a cheshbon hanefesh, some soul searching on this question, and I’d like to share with you a couple of reflections:

1 – The first is positive.

In 1982, in a Senate hearing where some senators were threatening to cut off aid to the State of Israel, then Prime Minister, Menachem Begin famously replied: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”

We had been conditioned for thousands of years to beg and grovel and be dependent on others for our safety. Even in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, one of the greatest eras in our history, Yehuda Halevi describes his own people as the despised people.

But thank G-d, that has changed. More accurately, we have changed it – around the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, we started to develop pride in our culture, pride in our people, and pride in our traditions. And it’s only grown. We have developed a sense of independence and a recognition that we could and must take care of ourselves. Over the past few decades, the political involvement of Jews here in the US has grown exponentially, ensuring that we are represented on every level of government.

I shudder to imagine what this week would have looked like if we did not have a Shomrim who could give us an extra sense of safety when walking outside, if we did not have a Jewish councilman who we could turn to who did not sleep until there was sufficient security on the ground, or if we did not have a delegate who is also an assistant state’s attorney who can ensure that there is justice in our city.   

On that end, we have taken steps, with our votes and communal infrastructure that we support, to try to ensure that our community is a safe one, and thank G-d for that.

2 – Though we have grown, as a community, in our self-confidence, I don’t think we’ve grown enough. Someone who is truly confident cares not only about themselves, but also cares for others.

Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. So far this year, there have been 107 murders. . Baltimore, as you all know, is not exactly “The greatest city in America” as our benches claim, it is the city with the second highest homicide rate in the country.

One of the prohibitions in this week’s parsha is to not lend a fellow Jew with interest. For centuries, this prohibition and its implicit allowance to lend non-Jews with interest has been the source of explosive tension. Christians interpreted this verse to mean that charging interest on a loan is evil. The fact that Jews would lend Christians on interest and not their fellow Jew caused a good amount of ill-will. It was perceived as Jews not caring about Christians, about deliberately wronging them.

But that’s a mistaken view of the law. The Ramban explains that there is nothing immoral about charging with interest; it’s no different than renting out an item. I rent you my shovel for a few dollars and I’ll rent you my money for a few dollars!

It is not that we do not care about non-Jews. We care deeply for every human being; every human being is created in the image of G-d, every human being is deserving of respect and care and concern. It’s just that when you lend money to your brother or sister, it’s pas nisht, it’s not right to charge interest. Hence the prohibition. But we would never ever deliberately wrong a person just because they are not Jewish.

Unfortunately, too many Jews seem to have adopted the Christian view; that Jews are in some way meant to look down on non-Jews, that we are not supposed to care. And that’s wrong. It’s a perversion of our religious beliefs.

Once again, Efraim Gordon was not the first person murdered in Baltimore city. Did you lose sleep when a child was murdered by a stray bullet? Did you shed a tear when an innocent grandmother was mugged and killed?

“They’re not Jews?!” People say.

I know. And I agree! We cry for a brother differently than we cry for a cousin. We cry for a cousin differently than we do for a friend. But we still mourn the loss of life. Of course, losing family is more hurtful and more painful and that’s the way it should be. And the senseless murder of Efraim Gordon is more painful. But we live in a city where people are being murdered all the time. Do we care?

“As long as they stay on the other side of Northern Parkway, I don’t mind.”

That is ludicrous and beyond insensitive. There is a bloodbath in our city – doesn’t that bother you in any way more than our personal safety?!

It should. Because if it doesn’t then we cannot justifiably say,

  יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ”

Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see it”

Can we say those words? If we don’t care about justice, only Jews. If we don’t care about Franklin Ave., only Fords Lane?! Can we say those words?

We don’t live in a ghetto anymore; we need to develop sensitivity and care for everyone around us. And we need to demand safe streets on both sides of Northern Parkway, because everyone deserves to live in a just society.

Whether that means more policing, less policing, different policing. Better education system, better judicial system. I’ll leave that all to you. Whatever we’re doing now is not working and the very least we must do is care. If we don’t care, we are guilty.

Which brings me to my 3rd and final reflection – There is a comment of Rashi which I’d like to share with you. Rashi is also bothered by the question that we asked; in what way did the elders sin? No one could possibly be blaming them for murder.

Rashi answers, “What the elders are saying is that we did not see this murdered man. Had we seen him, we would have given him food and we would have escorted him out of the city.” The implication being that had the community been more supportive of this individual, the murder may not have taken place. Perhaps this is because in a community where everyone is so tight knit, the potential murderer knows that he cannot get away with it; he knows that no one will rest until he is found. But in a community where people do not care deeply about one another…

And so I ask all of you, none of us knew Efraim Gordon, none of us had a chance to give him food and escort him. But he has family who live here. He has cousins and uncles and aunts who are reeling. Have we provided them with any comfort? Have we made it known to them in any way that we care?

I am guilty of this myself. I too, tsk tsked, and caught up on the latest rumors. I too thought about it, talked about, and did nothing, even though there were tens of heartbroken and traumatized family members who had just celebrated a wedding and had their first cousin murdered in the same week living just a few blocks away. I am grateful that someone brought my insensitivity to my attention the other day. I called one of the cousins on Friday and shared some words of comfort on behalf of our shul.

But I ask myself, can I really say that my hands did not spill this blood? If someone had not brought this to my attention, would I have reached out? If someone is in need in my neighborhood, do I bring them food? If someone is dejected, do I support them? Or do I just care about myself, my family, and my friends?

The breaking of the calf’s neck, the entire ceremony of Eglah Arufah is meant to shock us. It is meant to ensure that we never get accustomed to immorality, to injustice, to pain. To borrow a phrase, one death is a tragedy, 107 is a statistic. But it’s not.  

We are in a position to advocate for ourselves, and that is worth celebrating. But strength is not measured by how well you protect yourself, but by how well you protect others. We must look out for our fellow Jews, for our brothers and sisters, and never treat their pain as a story. And we must care for every human being and not rest until we live in a safe city, a city of justice; one in which we can justifiably say, ידֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה, that our hands did not spill this blood.

 

Silence Parshas Emor

For months, they barely spoke to one another. They felt dejected – they were dejected; G-d had made it clear that He was unhappy with them. He didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

But slowly, they started to rebuild their lives. Children started to get together with one another. Soon the adults were socializing as well. They realized they could not go on like this forever.

The Jewish People, mere months after being told by G-d that He wanted to sever all ties, they started to come out of their shells and rebuild their lives. Yes, they felt weighed down with the guilt of having failed G-d so pathetically with that foolish Golden Calf, but pain, guilt, and shame have a way of dissipating over time.

They came together over a shared project; they would build a home, a meeting place for the people to converse again, and a resting place for G-d’s presence. From Yom Kippur through the month of Adar, for almost half a year, they toiled on this rehabilitation project, until finally, finally, the day had come.

For seven days they watched at a distance as Aharon and his four sons were trained by Moshe. No one was allowed in, but people would gather to peek through the curtains to watch the Kohanim train for the big day. Throughout the camp, there was a powerful smell of incense, and a steady column of smoke emanating from the Mishkan’s yard. The smells and the sounds created an electric energy as people eagerly anticipated the grand opening of the Mishkan and an opportunity to start again.

Finally, the eighth day – inauguration day – arrived. And not just any day! It was Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the one-year anniversary from the day that G-d had told them, back in Egypt, that they would be going free. There was palatable excitement in the air. It was a challenging year, with many setbacks, but they knew, this year was going to be different starting now.

Well before dawn, the courtyard was filled to the brim with hundreds and thousands of Jews packed together tightly. An elderly man started humming a tune, and before long, the entire Jewish People joined in. A new tune! Thanking G-d for breathing new life into their weary souls.

At the crack of dawn, Aharon, the Kohein Gadol made his way to the altar. The crowd stood in a hushed silence.

Slowly, methodically, deliberately, Aharon went through the Avoda, the service of the day. Until finally he was done. It was time.

They were told by Moshe that at this precise moment G-d would show them that He has forgiven them, that they were being invited to start anew.

They looked up, they saw a most incredible sight; a fire, a huge heavenly fire, descended from the sky onto the altar, the Mizbeiach Hanichoshes.

And as they fell to the floor, spontaneously, to bow and give thanks, their hearts feeling like they would burst from emotion – a terrible scream pierced the air.

Chaos, confusion. But within seconds, the news spread. Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, two up and coming leaders, were dead.

They had entered the Holy of Holies, on their own, without permission from Moshe and Aharon. According to some, they were intoxicated. No one knows for sure. But now they were lying on the floor of the Holy of Holies; unmoving, lifeless, dead. And just like that, their joy turned into mourning.

I paint this picture for obvious reasons. The parallels are so clear, I don’t think I need to pain you and me with spelling it all out. Israel is in a state of mourning. After so many deaths, after a year of distance and pain, finally, we thought, the country was ready for some healing. So many were vaccinated! Some music, some spirit, some achdus, some unity! But it all came crashing down. Literally. And instead of joy, we have funerals; parents, grandparents, and children; young sweet, innocent children.

 

 

Moshe turned to his brother; his brother, who just a moment before was filled with such joy, G-d had forgiven him! He, the one who had cast the gold, G-d had publicly demonstrated that there was hope! And now…

Moshe put his arm around his brother, and with tears in his eyes, told him,

הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד

What Moshe was trying to convey is up to debate. But please notice how Moshe did not lay any blame on Nadav and Avihu. Not because they were not guilty. They were guilty! Our Sages make that abundantly clear. And there were lessons to be learned. In the next passage, G-d instructs Aharon to be careful to never enter the Mishkan intoxicated. But Moshe does not use the moment to teach; he uses the moment to comfort.

We are so quick to develop a hot-take; to pontificate, to say, I told you so. Personally, when I realized the gravity of what took place, late Thursday night, I couldn’t stop reading articles and posts, each with their own perspective. But I’ll tell you, it was like a fly going after the light; every “brilliant” perspective was like a thousand claws scratching against a chalkboard. The less words the better. That’s true for a shiva house, that’s true for when a friend is in pain, it’s true for every tragedy. Moshe suggests some positive meaning and he is silent.

 

How does Aharon respond?

He does not.

וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן

He is silent.

What’s he thinking? We could only speculate. Anger at his children? Sadness over his loss? Bewilderment directed at G-d? Likely all of the above.

I spoke to a friend yesterday who was fuming; how could they have allowed the event to happen knowing full well that it’s so dangerous?! Was he right for being angry? Of course he was.

I spoke to a family member who was beside himself; what does G-d want from us?! How could this happen?! Was he right for being confused? Of course he was.

I know for me I initially had no emotion at all. It was just too overwhelming. Was I right or was I wrong? 

There is no appropriate emotion

What Aharon taught us is to make space for emotion; whatever emotions arise.

What Aharon taught us is to bite our tongue and reflect; to introspect individually, to hold back from discussion, because any discussion loses the intensity of the raging inner world.

May we learn from the non-judgmental comfort of Moshe and the emotion-filled and introspective silence Aharon.

***

I would be remiss if I did not share the following idea I recently learned from the great Izhbitzer (h/t Batya Hefter):

Our parsha begins with a commandment to inform the Kohanim not to become impure by coming into contact with the dead. Impurity, or what we describe as tumah, is not just a ritual state, it’s a state of mind. When we contact death, when come face to face with nature, in all its random ugliness, it could be a debilitating feeling psychologically and it can also cause us to question our faith. Where is the judge? Where is the jury? How do innocent people get crushed to death as they celebrate a holiday? How do children, who travel to Meron to taste some ecstatic worship, to have an experience that will inspire them their whole lives, how do those children not return home to their parents?!

 

That’s tumah. Tumah is confusion. Tumah is the hiding of G-d behind the veil of nature.

And to that, G-d tells us all, לֹא-יִטַּמָּא Do not allow that spirit of confusion to overwhelm you. There is a judge. There is a jury.

But notice how this message is taught in an atypical fashion. G-d does not say, daber, to speak this message. Rather, the name of our parsha is emor; speak softly, it’s a whisper.

We believe that G-d runs the world but we also know that’s it’s hard to see, and so we struggle to boldly assert our beliefs. Instead, we whisper. “I don’t get it. I don’t see it. But I believe.”

 

And that’s it. I didn’t want to speak today. I didn’t have the energy to do so. Like we learned from Moshe and Aharon, words are not always appropriate. I just wanted us all to remember that we have a history of tragedy and a history of dealing with tragedy; with compassion, without pointing fingers – at least not today, with silence, allowing whatever emotions arise find their place, and with a whisper of faith.

May the families of those mourning somehow be comforted and may those who were injured have a refuah sheleima.

 

We are all survivors Yizkor Pesach

I’ve avoided any analogies between this pandemic and the Holocaust for obvious reasons. No matter how great the loss – and there were many, not just “out there” but in our community; the lives we lost this year amongst ourselves were caused by Covid, directly or indirectly, and we mourn collectively for each of them. We mourn for the loss of so many innocent lives taken by a disease. But of course, any comparison between the atrocities and tragedy of the Holocaust is shallow, ignorant, and insulting.

What I’d like to do though is focus on what took place after the Holocaust; on the life and the path of the survivors. Again, not because the experience is identical but because I think it is instructive.

I grew up, like many of you, on stories of heroism during the Holocaust. They inspired me then and they inspire me now. What people did to survive, to persevere, to rebuild is supernatural. However, a few years ago, I was speaking to a survivor, a very prominent man in his community and he described to me what he and his friends did in the immediate aftermath of the war. I was shocked.

He, this very aristocratic, refined, devout individual, and his friends, engaged in all forms of licentious, drunken, and immoral behavior. I will leave at that.

I should not have been so surprised. These people experienced a deeply distressing experience, or what we call trauma, of the highest degree. Drinking and all forms of mind-numbing behavior are quite common as a way of self-medicating after a trauma. Again, not identical at all, but this past year has seen the alcohol market explode. One company reported a 350% increase in sales. Whether it was the illness itself, the fear of the unknown, being cooped up with family, watching one’s business fall apart, and the political upheaval, this past year, we all experienced some level of trauma; it was a deeply distressing experience.

What I should have been surprised by was how this survivor and so many other somehow got past that stage and rebuilt their lives.

It’s not to say that these survivors ever got past the trauma. Most did not seek therapy as they should have. Most of the survivors suppressed their feelings. It was only at night when they were no longer consciously able to fight back the demons, did their children and neighbors hear their screams of anguish from hellish nightmares.

Trauma lives on. It doesn’t just go away on its own.

Not only does it go on, it gets passed on. Let me share with you two quotes:

“When I chose my wife, I wanted someone who I felt would be able to run away from the Nazis when the time came someone who was strong physically and emotionally who could shoulder the burden of caring for children in a difficult time.”

And, “Any change in the political world almost anything in the news will have me frightened and fearing for my children’s safety.”

Sounds like the sentiment of people who lived through the Holocaust, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Those are quotes from the children of survivors. (https://mishpacha.com/a-scarred-inheritance/) And that’s because trauma, we have learned, gets passed on to the next generation. Sometimes, even to a third generation. (Heard from Dr. Norman Blumenthal)

But amazingly, despite the trauma, the Survivors rebuilt and built even more than they had in the Old Country. Of course, there are the famous ones, like Elie Wiesel, Israel Meir Lau, Abe Foxman, Tibor Rubin, Walter Kohn, Daniel Kahneman, Tom Lantos, Edith Eger, and the list goes on and on. Every field. There have been books written about this phenomenon. Overall, survivors were more driven people – and again, this passed on to at least another generation. As we all know, they would never waste any food, but they also would not waste any time; every moment was to be used and to be used well.  

Although the Holocaust haunted them, it also drove them. My perception, watching my grandparents rebuild their lives, despite the many difficulties, was that they were driven by two things; guilt and gratitude. Guilt for having survived and gratitude to G-d for allowing them to survive. Like all survivors, they couldn’t escape its dark shadow, but they also allowed it to animate them, to drive them, to do and accomplish. For the believers, they felt that G-d had allowed them to live, to survive for a reason, and they could not rest until they fulfilled it. They felt that their survival was a sign from Hashem telling them that He believed in them, that they were left as the remnant of the ruins for a special role that only they could fulfill.

We’re all familiar with the term PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Allow me to teach you a new term – PTG, post-traumatic growth. It’s a real thing, people can actually grow from trauma, and the Holocaust survivors are shining examples of what it looks like.

As I said, any comparison between what we went through and those who went through Holocaust borders on the absurd. But I feel like it is accurate to say that we are survivors with a lowercase s.

You could disagree; you could question this premise by arguing that you were super-cautious, and your survival was a matter of good hygiene or your age. I might counter by saying that I know someone quite well who was really cautious and who got pretty ill. Hi. I also have heard of many young and cautious people who have died.

You might counter, I did just fine; I cooped myself up at home and kept myself busy. I was safe and sound. I am not a survivor! Or, in our immediate community the strain for the most part wasn’t so strong. Rabbi, you’re being dramatic.  

But when so many people die, all around you, you are a survivor. And as a thinking person, that has to change the way you live.

These last days of Pesach, we celebrate Kriyas Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea, which took place seven days after the Jews left Egypt. Without getting into the textual support for this, there is an astonishing Medrash that suggests the sea split a second time. Once for the entirety of the Jewish People and once – for Dasan and Aviram. That’s right. Those are the two guys who constantly harass Moshe, who almost got him killed, who rebel against him, who are described as people with no portion in the world to come. The sea split a second time. Just for them.

Apparently, says the Medrash, they stayed behind in Egypt when the Jews left. Not only that, but they came along with Pharaoh when he came to capture the Jews at the sea. And as the Egyptians were drowning all around them, the sea split for these two guys. And they crossed to the other side.

What merit did they have to experience such an amazing miracle? The sea splitting just for them?! And for Dasan and Aviram, of all people?!

The Brisker Rav suggests that back in Egypt, Dasan and Aviram were in charge of their fellow Jewish slaves and when their quota was not filled, Dasan and Aviram stood up for their fellow Jew. And obviously this was an incredible merit and mitzvah.  But I think it was also their undoing.

Because you see, they told themselves, “Yeah, of course the sea split for us. We deserved it. We saved our fellow Jews.” And so they didn’t change their ways at all. They didn’t grow from the experience at all. So much so, that Rashi comments, whenever we find the word, ‘nitzavim/ standing’ in reference to unidentified people, it is them, Dasan and Aviram. You know why? Because they were stagnant. They were unmoved by the most moving experience of their time. They didn’t have Post-traumatic growth, they didn’t even have post-traumatic stress. They just pretended that nothing happened at all.

Imagine that. Imagine watching people die all around you, and you survive, and to just move. To so to speak, remain standing. To remain unchanged…

Regardless of our age, regardless of the absence of any underlying conditions, regardless of how much we believe in this doctor or that one, we just experienced Kriyas Yam Suf; many people died and we are here. The world came to a standstill. Jewish life came to a screeching halt. And now we’re back again.

I don’t know how much actual trauma you experienced. I don’t know how much trauma I experienced. Honestly, I think many of us are still in some level of shock.

But it’s wearing off. Vaccines are being rolled out. The shul is filling up. The world is getting back to normal. And we have a question to ask ourselves, will we grow from this experience or not? Will we be filled with gratitude every day of our lives, knowing that G-d has told us, through our survival that He believes in us, that He wants something from us?

Or will we just remain standing?

It’s a mindset; a mindset of gratitude. Yes, maybe even some guilt. And from a religious, believing perspective, it’s a mindset of G-d communicating to us. You know what He’s saying? He’s telling us that although we may be entirely unworthy, He cares about us and believes in us.

Allow me to share with you a story I recently heard and moved me to the core (heard from Rabbi Ephraim Schapiro):  

About 40 years ago there were a group of yeshiva students who were not behaving as they should and got involved in phone scams. They would make a prank phone call and scam people. They took it to an unconscionable abhorrent level and started calling great rabbis and pranking them asking them bogus questions. It was one boys turn to call the great Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and at 11:30 at night he called Rav Moshe. The Rebbetzin picked up and said, “The Rosh Yeshiva is sleeping. Is it an emergency? Should I wake him?” The boy said yes. Reb Moshe hearing it’s a halachik question washed his hands and came to the phone. He asked the boy what the question was and it was obvious it was a scam; a bogus question, completely made up.

R’ Moshe then asked the boy what yeshiva he learned in. The boy didn’t want to answer, he didn’t want to be incriminated.  “I won’t get you in trouble,” said Rav Moshe. “Where do you learn? What gemara are you learning in school?” He told him. “What daf are you learning? What page?” He told him. R Moshe said let me ask you a question on Tosfos on that Gemara.

He shared the question and then said to the boy, “Do you understand the question?” The boy said no. And in fact, judging from the caliber of this scam artists yeshiva student, it was a miracle he even knew what tractate they were learning. But the patience of Rav Moshe was legendary. Without a gemara, past midnight, with a teenager who tried to scam him, this true story is that Rav Moshe taught the boy on the phone the entire Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos of a whole page, word by word, line by line, top to bottom, soup to nuts.  He then asked the boy if he understood it? He said no. Rav Moshe reviewed it again. This went on another two times. After a whole hour he asked the boy, lovingly, if he understood the question on Tosfos? And the boy said, “Yeah, yeah, I do. Wow, that’s an amazing question.”

Rav Moshe instructed him that when he goes to Yeshiva the next day he should ask his teacher the question. The next day the boy raises his hand, the rebbe is wondering what in the world could this kid want. And he asks the question. And the Rebbe is astounded. “That’s incredible!  What a kasha! What a question! Where in the world did you get it from?” The boy answered, “Rav Moshe Feinstein.”

The Rebbe spent the entire week of class dealing with that question. Comes Thursday and beaming like a light bulb, the Rabbi walks into class and he said, “I have an answer to the question that you asked!”  Thursday evening, the boy comes home from yeshiva and he runs to his room and locks the door. The parents, surprised, shocked, come to the door, they ask to be let in, and they see their son crying uncontrollably. “What happened? What happened?” they ask him.

And all he could say through the tears were these words: “Reb Moshe believed in me. Reb Moshe believed in me. And if Reb Moshe believed in me then I believe in me.”

And the next morning he went back to yeshiva and he literally turned his whole life around. Today he is an accomplished individual, teaching young adults Torah, and if you ask him today why, he would say because Rav Moshe Feinstein believed in him.

Ladies and gentleman, with all due respect to Rav Moshe Feinstein and this boy, we all have an even greater claim. G-d Almighty believes in us. G-d Almighty spared us. G-d Almighty spent time watching us this year. Because He believes in us. He believes that we have something to contribute. He does not want us to just “go back to normal.” We cannot just remain standing. We must come out of here different people. We are survivors and G-d is telling each and every one of us, in our own way, “go make something of yourself. Grow.”

Someone asked me the other day, “How can I get my kids back to shul after all this time away?” And the answer is that trauma, both the good and the bad, they get passed on to the next generation. Like the many people here who are living with their parents’ ghosts and angels, our children will live with ours. If we dedicate ourselves to living life like a survivor; in a more meaningful fashion, with more urgency, with more vision, more prayer, more Torah, more chesed, they will too.    

Someone emailed before Yom Tov asking me why did G-d do this to us? And of course, I don’t know the answer. But more importantly, I cannot know the answer. And that’s because G-d speaks in 7.8 billion languages. He speaks to each and every one of us. All the time. But especially now. With the waves of the sea still crashing down around us, He’s speaking to each of us, telling us, I believe in you. Don’t stand still. Don’t just go back. You’re a survivor and I, G-d Almighty, believe in you.

When Erev Pesach falls out on Shabbos

A digest of the unique laws when Erev Pesach falls out on Shabbos: 

The fast of the firstborn takes place on Thursday, March 25th. In Ner Tamid, the siyum will take place at approximately 7:20 AM and will be streamed on Zoom. 

Bedikas Chameitz takes place on Thursday night after nightfall. 

Chameitz is destroyed Friday morning. This should take place no later than 12:10 PM.

The sale for Chameitz takes place Friday morning. Therefore, all chameitz that one intends to sale should be put away by 10:30 AM Friday morning. One should set aside some rolls to be used for the Shabbos meals in a safe place. Details on how to eat the Shabbos meals can be found below.

The passage known as Bittul (Kol chamira), which is normally said at the time of burning of the chameitz is said on Shabbos before 12:09 PM. 

Eating the Shabbos Meals: One should set their table with Pesach utensils and have Kosher for Pesach food. 

In order to fulfill one’s obligation of eating lechem mishna, Hamotzi on two rolls of bread, there are a number of approaches how to do so safely without getting chametz in one’s home. 

The simplest approach is to go outside to one’s porch and make Hamotzi there. Each person should eat a small amount of bread while outside. (The amount one must eat is approximately the size of a golf ball.) Any crumbs that fall to the floor can be ignored. 

The rest of the meal can be continued indoors.

One must finish eating all bread before 11:07 AM (Baltimore, MD). The meal can continue past this time.  

If one has any chametz left over that is large one could crumble it up and flush it down the toilet. This must be done before 12:09 PM. 

Seudah Shlishi – One is obligated to have three meals every Shabbos. There are are three ways to do so on Erev Pesach that falls out on Shabbos. 1. Start the first meal really early. Finish the meal and take a little break by reading a short book, or going on a short walk. Then return and eat the third meal with two rolls of bread. Of course this must be eaten before 11:07 AM. 

  1. There is an opinion that one can fulfill the obligation of eating the third meal with fruit, meat, or fish. One can then eat this meal at any point during the day. 
  2. There is an opinion recorded by the Magen Avraham that one can fulfill their obligation by learning Torah. This is not a conventional view. Nonetheless, one can rely on it if need be.

One cannot begin preparing for the Seder until nightfall on Saturday night, which is at 8:06 PM in Baltimore, MD. 

Stoudamire, Heschel, and Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei

A few weeks ago, the Yeshiva University newspaper, the Commentator reported an interview that took place in YU with former NBA all-star, Amare Stoudemire. They don’t typically interview NBA stars, but Stoudemire is anything but typical. A few months Amare changed his name to Yehoshafat and became a convert to our faith. You could see pictures of Yehoshafat studying Gemara, wearing a black hat, and videos of him sharing Divrei Torah. It’s really something.

I’ll share a couple of incredible quotes from the interview:

“I’m not a gefilte fish guy,” he quipped. “I love the concept… keeping you from borer, separating on Shabbos. But the taste… not my deal.” Chulent is a different story. “If it’s made properly with a little extra spice, then we’re good to go.”

Or, “The idea is always to stay strong… There [are] going to be times when the yetzer ha’ra [evil inclination] is gonna come after you; there [are] gonna be times that maybe you’ll be a little bit confused, but the ideal is to always keep your mind focused on Hashem. Never disconnect from Hashem and you’ll always find the correct derech — the correct path. So never get discouraged, stay with it, stay strong and keep pushing forward.”

But my absolute favorite was this one: “When you’re guarding Shaq, you just have to do your best. When you’re learning Gemara, you gotta do more than your best.”

Aside from the news of his conversion, what really made the Jewish news was the fact that shortly after converting the Brooklyn Nets hired him to join their coaching staff. One problem, “ain’t gonna work on Saturday.” But guess what? They hired him anyway. And so Amare Stoudamire joins the ranks of other high profile Shomer Shabbos individuals. From former Vice-Presidential Candidate, Senator Lieberman, through President Trump’s lead defense attorney, to Chani Neuberger, who was recently appointed as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology. You can be Shomer Shabbos and live in the world.  

It’s not to say there aren’t challenges, but it is certainly far easier than ever to keep the rules of Shabbos and hold down a good job.

Keeping the rules of Shabbos, as complex as they are, in one respect is now the easy part of Shabbos. Flexible work schedules, timers, and so many other social and technological advancements that make keeping Shabbos doable. The challenge is not being distracted by those rules and limitations. Too many people feel restricted and constrained by Shabbos, and that is a tragedy. 

The laws of Shabbos are cumbersome only if we don’t appreciate their function. The role of the many restrictions is to remind us that we are dealing with something sensitive that needs constant awareness. To quote Heschel, “One cannot… operate on a brain with a plowshare.” Shabbos, with all its minute and all-encompassing rules, ensures that we know we are dealing with something special. The laws, so to speak, clear a path, and in its place, we are able to experience something very special and unique.

I’d like to share with you today a summary of Heschel’s book, the Sabbath. It’s a short book, less than 100 pages, and well worth the read. He is one of the most eloquent Jewish writers. I certainly do not agree with many things he has written as some of his ideas seem to be out of line with our tradition. But the Sabbath is a most important and moving book which can transform our Shabbos experience.

He begins by describing what Shabbos is not. He quotes Seneca and other Roman thinkers who saw in Shabbos an expression of the Jewish People’s laziness. Everyone else in the ancient world worked every day and only the Jews slacked off. 

Philo, one of the great defenders of our faith, retorted that even athletes need to catch their breath. The goal of Shabbos, he wrote, is to help us be better workers. By resting, we will be strengthened and be able to work even harder.

But of course, this is mere apologetics and completely inconsistent with our worldview. Work is not the goal. We work so that we have Shabbos. Not the other way around. 

So what is the role of Shabbos?

And I quote: “Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem – how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.” 

In other words, we are slaves to the world around us. Whether it is people whose opinion we live and die by. Whether it is things or experiences that we are drawn after and cannot seem to live without. Technology that was meant to help us but often traps us.

“The solution of man’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization,” writes Heschel, “but in attaining some degree of independence of it.”

We Jews do not believe in abstinence, in escaping from the world, but in order to attain some level of harmony, we cannot be its slave. And so we once escape we flex our independent muscles. We are not bound by our profession, we sit equally as kings and queens (good ones, not like the British😊), and we create a small and healthy gap between us and the physical world.

This idea has become rather trendy; the notion of a Digital Sabbath. Many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, recognize that we have yet to figure out how to properly interact with technology and so at the very least, to ensure a sense of identity independent of its sway, once a week we shut it off. It’s healthy and can help ensure that we don’t get swallowed up in our devices.

That’s important, essential, but still superficial. Shabbos is that and so much more.   

Hechel’s main thesis is that Shabbos creates a sanctuary of time. In this week’s parsha we find a juxtaposition between the Mishkan and Shabbos, and that is so to convey this idea – the Mishkan is a structure, a beautiful, exquisite, detailed structure in space and Shabbos is a beautiful, exquisite, detailed structure in time. 

You and I, all humans, are mostly unfamiliar with time. We are only familiar with space. It’s too abstract. But it’s very real. The reason we describe Shabbos as a queen, the reason we bow to her at the end of L’cha Dodi, is to convey that Shabbos is not empty time, just a blank span of 24 hours, no! Shabbos is something we meet.

This is one of the novel ideas found in the Torah; that time can be sanctified, and it is space, i.e., the material world, which needs to receive its holiness from time. There is constant ambiguity regarding space in the Torah. Eretz Yisrael is not called the Holy Land in the Torah. Even the place of the Mikdash is referred to as, “the place which I will choose” implying that it is not intrinsic. We find far more mention of the “day of Hashem” than the “house of Hashem” in the prophets. idea that time is substantive Judaism taught the world about holiness in time. The very first Mitzvah the Jewish People were given in Egypt is the one we read of in the second Torah, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem.” The cycle of the month, time itself, is a gift to the Jewish People. A gift which the Jewish People were meant to teach the world.

Time is eternal, space decays.

Time cannot be shaped by us; it is both near and far. 

Space is exclusive; I stand here, and you stand there. Time is shared.

Time, explains Heschel, is the essence of the spirit. At the very least it is the greatest metaphor for what spirituality is; eternal, ethereal, universal, and even beautiful – but only if you learn to appreciate it.  

Writes Heschel, “Everyone will admit the Grand Canyon is more awe-inspiring than a trench. Everyone knows the difference between a worm and an eagle. But how many of us have a similar discretion for the diversity of time?” 

Our sensitivity to time is the sensitivity to spirituality. The goal of Shabbos is to sensitize us to time.

Shabbos, write the mystics, is not only mei’ein Olam Haba, similar to the World to Come, as the Talmud puts it. But rather, those words should be read, ma’ayan Olam Haba, it is the wellspring of the World to Come. If we do not learn to appreciate Shabbos, i.e. spirituality, we will not be able to appreciate the world to come. 

There is a story of a Rabbi who visited the world to come and saw rabbis learning. He was disappointed’ this is it?! This is what we do on earth. But as he was walking away, he was told, “You misunderstood. They are not in Olam Haba, Olam Haba is in them.” What that means is that we believe that one can taste eternity on earth. The more we listen to our soul, the more we become sensitive to the nuances of time, the more we think in spiritual terms, the more we live in Olam Haba. When we die, it is just a continuation. And so, Olam Haba is meaningful, but only if you start now.

One final quote to bring this together: “There is a world of things and a world of spirit… We usually think that the earth is our mother, that time is money, and profit is our mate. The seventh day is a reminder that G-d is our father, that time is life, and the spirit our mate.”  

Shabbos frees us; our identity is independent of our job, our self-worth is independent of likes; we are forced to come face to face with ourselves, with our soul; who we are, where are we going, where do we want to be going. The restrictions – yes, there are many, but they create a space, a space in time to remind us that our life is a sanctuary. That we are building something far greater than a resume and a shallow legacy.

For these reasons, we call Shabbos a gift. It is an otherworldly gift, allowing us to break through the space of this world, freeing us of the many things and people we are dependent on, giving us a glimpse into eternity. Good Shabbos!