There will be many terms that you will hear and read in the tributes to Queen Elizabeth II. Words like stability, dignity, tradition, unifier of her country, and grace. Those are all special terms in that they are hard to find in this day and age. As one columnist put it, “As I sit down to write about her life, I cry, realizing that all that she stood for is no longer.”
In addition to all that she stood for, there was something that surrounded her that is also ‘no longer’, something that would be worth spending some time contemplating and appreciating this morning, and that is awe.
In April 2009, President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle, visited the Queen of England. It was a disaster. The gift the first family presented the monarch was an iPod – which was derided as tacky. But far more controversial was the way the First Lady greeted the Queen. She gave Queen Elizabeth the Second a hug.
Now for most of you here that means absolutely nothing. What’s the big deal? None of the papers in the US picked this up as anything special. But across the Commonwealth, they were losing their minds…
You do not hug the queen. It is not just against royal protocol. It’s just unfathomable. The queen is sacred. The queen is literally untouchable. When in the Queen’s presence, if you are lucky enough to be there, you don’t breathe unless it fits with royal protocol. Like the big-hatted soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, in the Queen’s presence, you stand at attention. You stand in awe.
The concept of awe, the notion of something being sacred, is quaint, it’s old-fashioned. It is, to us democratic and egalitarian Americans, backward. And that’s a pity. Awe is the most… awesome emotion we can experience, but our culture, its speed, its tone, its self-centeredness all precludes us from experiencing true awe.
A few years ago, a group of students from Vassar College visited the home of Ludwig van Beethoven. His home is preserved as a museum in Bonn, Germany. The centerpiece of the museum is the room in which Beethoven’s piano is found. It’s the piano on which he composed most of his incredible musical pieces. The 200-year-old piano, valued at an estimated 200 million dollars, is of course, roped off.
However, one of the students came to the room that held the piano and just couldn’t resist the temptation to ask a museum guard if she could play it for just a moment. The guard allowed himself to be influenced by her generous tip and he let the young woman beyond the ropes for a few moments. She sat at the famed piano and knocked out several bars of Moonlight Sonata. When she finished, her classmates broke into applause.
As she stepped back through the ropes, the young woman asked the guard, “I suppose over the years, all the great pianists that have come here have played the piano, right?”
“No, miss,” the guard replied. “In fact, just two years ago I was standing in this very place when Paderewski, the famous pianist and composer, visited the museum. He was accompanied by the director of the museum and the international press, who had all come in the hope that he would play Beethoven’s piano. But when he entered the room, he stood over there, where your friends are standing, he gazed at the piano in silent contemplation for almost fifteen minutes. Finally, the director of the museum gently invited him to play the piano, but with tears welling in his eyes Paderewski declined, saying that he was not worthy of even touching it.” (h/t R. Efrem Goldberg)
That, my friends, is awe.
What would you do in that room? Would you play that piano, or would you stand in silent and awe-inspired contemplation?
The last passage of this week’s portion speaks of the archenemy of the Jewish People, the nation of Amaleik. We know they attacked us as we left Egypt. But they weren’t the only ones who did so. Why is the Torah so dead set against this nation?
If you look closely at the Chumash, it does not say they attacked us, it writes, asher karcha baderech, literally, this means they encountered you on the way. It’s a strange term, asher karcha. And so, our Sages, with their exquisite and sensitive ear, understand the term karcha not to mean encounter, but rather, from the word, kar, cold. They cooled you off.
You see, the nation of Amaleik is the anti-awe. The Jewish People, after the ten plagues, after the splitting of the sea, were revered, they were untouchable, they were seen as special by all. Amaleik could not stand this. They believed that there is nothing sacred. There is nothing called holiness. There is nothing that is worth an iota of awe. And so they attacked us to demonstrate that we are not that hot, that nothing is that hot.
Had they lived in 2022, they would have just tweeted a cynical tweet. Maybe they would have created a silly meme of the Jewish People. Or they would have written a hit piece. The Amaleiki people with their anti-awe philosophy would fit right in with our modern society. Amaleik would scorn the notion of an untouchable queen. Amaleik would sit down and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ at the piano of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Amaleik is no longer. But what they represent – anti-awe – is all around us. The quick pace of life precludes us from ever allowing ourselves to be swept up in a magical experience. Fashionable cynicism precludes us from admiring anything or anyone. Leon Kass once said, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder.” We, our generation, has forgotten to shudder.
So how do we develop this ability to shudder? How do we overcome the cynicism, the pace of life, and develop a sense of awe?
It starts here, in shul. One of the prime objectives in the institution of the synagogue was to instill within the Jewish People a sense of awe. According to Jewish Law, it is forbidden to kiss a child in a shul. Judaism is all about family, but in shul, we are meant to develop a sense of awe. This is why we have separate seating. Sitting with family is comfortable. But we are supposed be a little uncomfortable in the presence of G-d.
When I first joined the shul, I remember how David Greenfeld would get so worked up about making sure the people taking the Torah out of the ark all stood in the right place and all walked in formation following the Torah. My initial reaction was, who cares. But he was right.
We come to shul, especially during the days of awe, and we stand in silence, we bow, we listen, we have processions, we have pomp, we have ceremony. It’s slow. And you know what, it’s supposed to be slow. It’s meant to slow us down.
And then we open the siddur, and we start reading about things that we know and see all the time, but we ignore them or even worse, dismiss them. “Thank you, G-d, for giving me sight… for enabling me to stand… to walk.” We thank G-d for the cosmos, for light, for darkness, for Jewish history. Shul is one long exercise in developing a sense of sophistication and a sense of awe.
The goal is to then take that sense of awe and bring it to every part of life. I’ve shared this poem with you before but it’s worth sharing again. It’s an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe. The town-folk had never tasted, let alone seen, an orange in their lives. And so, when the orange was brought to town, everyone left work early that day. They gathered at the marketplace, and each and every person had a chance to hold and smell the orange. They admired its radiant color, they took in its powerful citrusy-sweet smell, and allowed their fingers to caress the smooth grooves of the fruit before passing it on to their friend.
The next day, after work they gathered again as the orange was peeled. They crowded together so they could catch the burst of juice as the peel was punctured for the first time. The peel was first grated and a lucky few were able to go home with some orange zest. The remaining peels were chopped and then distributed among the community members so they could each make a tiny little batch of marmalade.
The next day, they gathered again. This was the grand finale. They all stood in silence as one woman delicately peeled apart each segment of the orange. The people admired the ingenuity and uniqueness of a fruit that needs no chopping or dividing, a fruit that’s readily available for sharing. They oohed and aahd as the sections were separated and a chosen few were given an orange piece of their own to eat, to savor and to enjoy.
We don’t need to go to Buckingham Palace to feel this way. We live in a magical world, we’re surrounded by incredible people, we are the recipients of endless gifts from Hashem. Can we use our time here to slow down, to open ourselves up, and to experience a true sense of awe?
I’m sure by now you’ve seen the Pizza Hut commercial.
Certainly, the many people here today from the former Soviet Union know what I’m talking about. Da?
In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away this week, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial. He and his granddaughter are seen walking into a Pizza Hut, which of course, is an American franchise that had only recently opened its doors on Russian soil. At another table in the restaurant, two men who notice him start arguing. “It’s Gorbachev! Because of him, we have economic confusion,” says one of them. His friend, clearly a lot younger, replies, “Because of him, we have opportunity!” The argument continues: “instability”, “freedom”, “chaos”, “hope”, and back and forth and back and forth.
That argument of Gorbachev’s legacy is still going on today. There are people like Vladimir Putin who despise Gorbachev’s shift to restructuring the USSR to a policy of openness, or in Russian, glasnost and perestroika (how’s my Russian accent, guys?). And others, especially many Jewish leaders, who hail him as a hero who allowed millions of Jews to go free. You’ll find some obituaries that claim that he was a visionary who saw value in democracy, and others like Natan Sharansky, who argue that he was an ardent communist who was forced to make concessions.
So as this argument is playing out in this Pizza Hut commercial, an older lady stops the two men and exclaims, “Thanks to him… we have Pizza Hut!” Which no one can argue with. And before you know it, the entire Pizza Hut is raising their glasses to toast Gorbachev… for bringing them Pizza Hut. (Only in Russia do they have alcoholic beverages in Pizza Hut.)
My initial reaction upon seeing this commercial was that this is bizarre and pathetic. Clearly, Gorbachev was in need of funds – which he was, and therefore allowed himself, he, formerly one of the most powerful people on earth, to appear in a commercial for pizza. Not even good pizza, I am told, and allow himself to be mocked.
But I thought about it some more and I realized that maybe I was mistaken, maybe this commercial can teach us a profound truth about life and about Judaism. Hear me out:
Every one of us desires to have a legacy, right? We hope that we’ll be remembered for doing something good, positive, constructive in this world. So, we build our legacy. We give donations that will ensure organizations that we value will impact people for years to come. We build families – the clearest form of legacy. We come up with ideas that will change the world, or our communities, or our workspaces. We all want to leave our mark. And that’s great and it’s important. But sometimes, it comes at a cost.
There’s a Chassidic tale of a man who had a recurring dream. He dreamt that under a certain bridge in Cracow there was a huge treasure buried. Night after night, he kept on having this dream. This guy was poor, dirt poor. He figured he had nothing to lose so he packed his bags and started travelling across Eastern Europe until finally he arrived in Cracow. He finds the bridge and starts digging.
He’s digging and digging and digging until suddenly he hears a voice yell, “Jew! What are you doing?!” He looks up, there’s a Polish soldier staring at him menacingly. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He tells him the truth. “I know this sounds crazy, but I had this recurring dream that there’s a treasure buried under this bridge. So, I travelled from my home to come here and find it.”
The soldier looks at him and then bursts out laughing. “You fool! I also have a recurring dream of a treasure buried, but it’s across the country in Berditchiv. Do you think I am going to travel there to find it?”
The Jewish man says, “Wait, where in Berditchiv?”
The soldier replies, “In this and this street and in this and this home, under the fireplace.”
Sure enough, the address the soldier gave him was his address. The man went home, dug up his fireplace and found a magnificent treasure.
You see, sometimes we are so focused on the big picture, sometimes we are so focused fulfilling our dreams and laying out our legacy, on accomplishing all of our big plans, that we ignore and lose sight of what’s right in front of us, right under our nose.
Let me ask you a question, what is the mission statement of Judaism?
There is none. (The notion that being a light unto the nations as our prime goal is simply untrue. It’s important, but it’s not the entirety of our faith.) Nowhere in the Torah does Moshe say, this is what it’s all about. This is everything. This is the big picture. Instead, we are given Mitzvos. 613 Mitzvos. In addition to the 613 Mitzvos that are in the Torah there are a gazillion Rabbinic Mitzvos. There is a big picture in Judaism, but by not laying it out in the Torah, Moishe is teaching us not to worry about the big picture, not to worry about the End of Days, about the ultimate goal of the Jewish People. Because when we do so, we sometimes lose sight of, and even worse, we sometimes trample on, opportunities that are standing right before us.
There is a Mitzvah in this week’s parsha, that we are not to cut a down a fruit-bearing tree. And we extrapolate from there, that we are not to waste anything at all. Ba’al tashchit; do not destroy things for no reason. You take an extra piece of paper towel to dry your hands, you just wasted.
And the context of this Mitzvah is critical. It is describing the Jewish People in war. And in the context of warfare, when lives hang in the balance, the Torah demands of the Jewish soldier not to waste fruit trees. Really?! Is that so important right now? We have bigger things on our minds! But what the Torah is trying to do with this Mitzvah, it would seem, is sensitize us to the small things that we so often ignore, that we so often trample on in pursuit of what we believe to be greater and more important.
Our Sages take this even further, suggesting that an even greater sin than wasting material items is wasting time. Think about it –
… In the five seconds I just let go by, you could have turned to the person next to you and told them how nice their hair/ suit/ dress looks. You could have made someone’s day. You could have said a short prayer and rejuvenated your soul. But we’re sometimes so focused on what’s next that we forget about what’s now.
In the 16th century, a great rabbi by the name of Rabbi David ibn Zimra received a question. A Jewish man was in jail for life. But he was given the opportunity to take one day off. One day! And he sent a letter to this rabbi asking him which day should he take off? Should it be Yom Kippur so he could say Kol Nidrei and Neilah with a congregation? Should it be Pesach so he could have a seder with family? Maybe Rosh Hashana so he could hear the Shofar?
You know what the rabbi answered? He said, take off the first day you can. Whether it’s Shabbos, whether it’s a Tuesday. Because today, each day, is an opportunity. Each day has endless potential. Stop looking forward, stop looking up, stop looking big, and look right in front of you.
That old lady, in the Pizza Hut commercial, she was right. Legacies, fame, honor. They’re nice, but they’re not always attainable, they’re complicated, and most importantly, they could be distracting. Bringing people together, to enjoy each other’s presence, right here, right now, that is a big deal. Hail to Gorbachev!
Now, it’s a struggle. I’ll be the first to admit. This Friday morning, I was davening shacharis, morning services, and I was thinking about what I was going to say this Shabbos. And I had to stop myself. What am I doing? I am in middle of praying. I have an audience with G-d! And instead of appreciating what I’m doing right now, I am thinking about tomorrow. What a waste!
So maybe we can all practice this. We’re all going to go to Kiddush. We’ll be speaking to someone. Let’s try to speak to them and speak to them only. Let’s not worry about refilling our plate, let’s not worry about the friend we want to catch before they leave. Let’s value what is in front of us. It’s priceless.
In sixty seconds, we are all going to rise and have a few moments of silence. It’s called the Amidah, shemoneh esrei, the climax of today’s service. We believe that at that moment we are standing before our Creator. He’s listening to us. Every word. An audience with G-d. Let’s speak our mind. Or let’s just allow ourselves to relish and enjoy the experience of G-d paying attention to us, to me, to you, because we matter to Him. Wow.
I hope and pray that we all leave noble legacies behind, undisputed legacies. And we’ll need to dream big dreams to get there, we’ll need goals, we’ll need strategies. But on this great journey, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us, let’s not lose sight of the countless treasures that we can access every moment with small acts of kindness, with prayer, with Torah learning.
There is nothing more precious than what’s right here, right now.
During the Nine Days of Mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, it is forbidden, according to Ashkenazic custom to eat meat (except for Shabbos). However, there is a loophole – if one attends a siyum, the celebration of the completion of a Mesechet or Tractate of Gemara, they can, at the siyum, eat meat.
Growing up, I recall friends letting me know they were making a siyum and inviting me to a private nine-days barbecue for their immediate friends and family. More recently this dispensation has arguably gotten out of hand. There are allegedly meat restaurants that make a siyum every hour so that the diners can eat meat. There are organizations that schedule their gala dinner during the Nine Days, advertising the unique opportunity to have a meat dinner during this time. They offer a meat dinner by inviting someone to join them and make a siyum. Someone recently suggested having a Nine Days hotel, with non-stop siyumim taking place so no one will heaven forbid go a week, or even a day without a steak.
We can chalk it up to an increase in materialistic hedonism in our communities, but the truth is, this has been going on for some time. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the Aruch Hashulchan, the most important Halachic works of the 19th century, lambasted these siyumim that were taking place in his time. He writes: “How are we not ashamed? Is it not true that many of the nations of the world have many weeks during which they refrain from meat, milk, and eggs? And we, the Jewish People, about whom the Torah says, “You shall be holy” are not capable of holding ourselves back for eight days in the year in memory of the Beis HaMikdash?!” (h/t R. Rael Blumenthal)
Now I’ll be honest, I am not so bothered by the eating of meat at a siyum during the Nine Days. Full disclosure, I made a siyum myself the other day. Sorry for not inviting you all… What troubles me is the mindset that often underpins this practice. You see, there are three possible mindsets when it comes to Jewish Law. The first often sounds like this:
“Rabbi, I need a heter, a loophole. I want to do X, I recognize it may not be ideal. Can you help me figure out a way to do what I want to do without transgressing any Jewish laws?”
This is what I call the ‘obstacle course mindset.’ Jewish Law being the obstacle course, me, with all my wishes and desires being the person stuck in this obstacle course, and the purpose of Judaism is to avoid getting stuck in the obstacle course while I try to get to my destination.
I commend the people who live this way, I do. They obviously believe the Torah must be abided by. It is far better than those in the second category, who see the Torah as a ‘virtual reality obstacle course.’ This is the group of people who when they hit a wall in the obstacle course, they just remove the VR set from their head. To them, the Torah is not real, it’s a set of recommendations for when it’s not too inconvenient. So, I do admire people who believe with a full heart that the Torah must be observed at all times. But there is obviously something missing when our mindset is how can I do what I want without violating any Jewish law.
At one point I was using an app to help me eat more healthily. The way this app works is that you are given a certain amount of points each day and each food you eat costs you a certain amount of points. It’s a great app; you can scan the barcode of the food you’re eating and it will tell you how many points it will cost you and it really forces you to think about your food choices. But not all foods are in the database. Sometimes you have to input what you ate and try to figure out how many points it should cost you. And I remember one day, I was already low on points and I was kind of hungry, so I fudged the system: “Reeeeally, it’s not ice cream – which would cost me like 45 points. It’s really just churned milk, which is 2 points, and some sugar, 3 points, and some flavoring, another point. So really, it’s just six points.”
After devouring two pints of ice cream, I remember feeling quite silly. Who am I fooling? I am doing this because it’s good for me. This system was set up to help me eat more healthily. The only one who loses if I game the system is me.
So often we’re trying to game Halacha, Jewish law, but we’re only gaming ourselves in the process.
This week’s parsha begins with Moshe debriefing with the Jewish People before he hands over the reigns to Yehoshua. He spends some time reminding them of their many sins with the hope that they would grow from them and become better people. But one episode which he reviews seems a little out of place. He reminds them how at one point they shifted from Moshe being the only one who would answer all their questions to a system that trained thousands of others to address Halachic questions. That seems brilliant. That seems very efficient. That does not seem like a sin.
But the commentators explain that yes, while it was very efficient, the fact that the Jewish People were completely comfortable with losing Moshe as the one they would approach with all their Halachic questions betrayed their real mindset towards the Torah – they saw it as an obstacle course. They saw the Torah as a burden, a set of restrictions that we were born into. And if that’s all they are, I rather just go wherever I find the greatest leniency, the most convenient pathway to avoid all those cumbersome laws. The last person I’d go to with my questions is Moshe!
Had they really appreciated the Torah as the word of G-d, had they really appreciated the Torah as a set of laws that guide us towards the most elevated, ethical, and spiritual life, wouldn’t it be best to go to the source? Or at least as close to the source as possible?
The third and correct mindset is that the Torah is the pathway to life; not just in the world to come, but here on earth. The Torah and Mitzvos are meant to guide us through this jungle of confusion called life and give us clarity. How often are we unsure what is right and what is wrong in a given circumstance? How difficult is it to elevate ourselves and not get sucked into the rat race, hedonism, nihilism? Moshe was reprimanding the Jews for not having the right mindset; The Torah is not an obstacle course, it’s the most glorious, helpful, uplifting pathway known to mankind.
There is nothing wrong with eating meat at a siyum during the Nine Days. What is wrong is that we are living in a world in which it is so hard to see how the Torah helps us. What is wrong is that we live in a reality where what is the most precious gift feels like a terrible burden. What is wrong is that deep down or not so deep down, we all want to feel connection to the Author of those laws, but we can’t. What is wrong is how we confuse our physical hunger for a steak with spiritual hunger for G-d, and we end filling our life up with things that we know will never satisfy us.
Obstacle course mindset, VR obstacle course mindset, or the Pathway to Life mindset. In this world as we know it, it takes an incredible amount of effort to see the Torah in its true light. It is so much easier to be troubled by laws that grate on our “sophisticated” ears. It is so much more natural to see the Torah as a set of cumbersome restrictions getting in the way of my personal joy and satisfaction. And that is what we are mourning tonight and tomorrow.
The Bais Hamikdash, the Temple, was the nexus, the connection point between heaven and earth, between the physical world, and what exists behind it. When it stood, we didn’t need imagination or mindsets. We felt G-d’s presence as we studied His Torah or ate Kosher food. We stood in prayer and knew that we were talking to the Divine. We saw each sin as a flaming fire that would damage our pristine soul.
On Tisha B’av, I mourn for the disconnect. I mourn for the fact that I don’t see my sins as toxic waste eroding my soul. I mourn for the fact that I don’t see the explosive impact of a single Mitzvah. I mourn for the fact that I don’t notice the angels dancing very time I overcome a challenge. I mourn for the fact that I don’t feel Hashem holding me up in dark times and smiling with me in times of joy. I mourn for the fact that I sometimes find myself in an obstacle course instead of the pathway to an amazingly fulfilling life.
The rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash begins when we realize what it is that we are missing. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days.
I recently saw what I thought to be the most brilliant advertisement. It was a large truck and on the side of the truck it had the words: “It’s what’s inside that counts.” Here’s where it gets good. When you think of those words, you think of not judging a person by their cover, and how our middos, our moral character is so much more important than how we look. Right?
But this ad was an ad for Life Fitness, a company that sells exercise equipment.
And so under the words, it’s what’s inside that counts, there was an image of the inside of the truck. And what’s inside the truck? Exercise machines. “It’s what’s inside that counts.”
This ad caused quite a controversy with many people feeling like they were being disingenuous, that this ad was completely out of line with the products and the lifestyle they promote. How can a fitness company that normally highlights perfectly toned bodies tell you that what really matters is what’s on the inside?! What I think many people missed is that this ad was a perfect example of Knowing Thyself and having a deep and honest self-awareness. Let me explain:
Who was the most successful leader of the Jewish People?
Undoubtedly that award goes to Moshe. Leads the Jewish People out of Egypt, performs the most memorable miracles known to mankind, facilitates the receiving of the Torah, and leads the Jewish people to the doorstep of the Land of Israel. Moshe is the GOAT, there is no competition.
But Moshe has flaws. Part of his greatness is that he is cognizant of his flaws. The first flaw we learn about almost causes him to not take the job, and the final flaw we learn about causes him to lose his job.
What’s the first flaw, or more accurately, the first disability? Moshe’s speech impediment. When Hashem initially asks Moshe to lead the Jewish People, Moshe says he can’t because – k’vad peh anochi, I am a man with a ‘heavy mouth.’ Moshe, as we know, had some form of a stutter. His first role was that of a spokesperson. Standing before Pharaoh and stuttering is not intimidating, and standing before the Jewish People and stuttering is not inspiring.
How did Hashem respond? Mi sam peh l’adam? Who gives man a mouth?
?! What does this mean?! What kind of answer is that?
Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona, a 14th-century Spanish philosopher, shares a most beautiful idea: G-d was telling Moshe, “You think your speech impediment is a problem, an issue, something that will get in the way of your success as a leader of the Jewish People? It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! In order for you to be successful, you need to have that speech impediment!”
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The most important part of Moshe’s job was not to take the Jews out of Egypt, it was to help them receive the Torah. Moshe would be the one who would present G-d’s offer to the Jewish People: Do you want to receive the Torah? There are many laws, there are many responsibilities, it’s a big ask.
Now imagine Moshe was not Moshe. Imagine Moshe was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and when he presented this question to the Jewish People, he did so with an English accent. Not only an English accent, but he first delivered the lecture of a lifetime; he wove together philosophy, stories, insights into the psyche of man, and all of this in his impeccable English, perfectly timed pauses, and brilliant prose. Frankly, by the time Rabbi Sacks would be done speaking he could sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. His eloquence translated into a magnetic charisma and he could talk you into just about anything.
Now imagine Rabbi Sacks gave this delivery and the Jewish People answered their famous answer, “Na’aseh v’nishma!” We will do and we will learn!” and they accept the Torah. A few weeks later, or maybe a few years later, when the magic dissipates, don’t you think the Jewish People might make an argument that they never really willfully accepted the Torah? That they were inspired, enamored, swept up by Rabbi Sacks and his charismatic speeches that they said yes but they didn’t really mean it? It would be a pretty compelling argument, no?
Says G-d to Moshe: “You think your ‘deficit’ your speech impediment is a ‘problem’? Who do you think gave you that speech impediment? I DID! And I did so for a reason! I did so because it was critical to your life mission!” It was critical for Moshe to not speak perfectly so that no one would ever say that they were duped, that Moshe, the used car salesman talked them into it. No! If you said yes, it was because you meant it.
But G-d’s response is not just to Moshe; it’s to all of us. We all have our own ‘kvad peh’ our own impediments, be they physical, material, emotional. And what G-d is asking us to do is to stop seeing them as something that gets in the way and instead recognize that those ‘hindrances’ are a critical key to our life mission. That G-d gave us those handicaps, but not as a handicap, as a gift. For some, it’s figuring out how I can use that impediment to my advantage, like Moshe. And for others, it’s how I can overcome that impediment – that too is a life mission. To be born with something that can hold me back and to learn how to overcome.
G-d is telling each and every one of us, “That feature that you’re so embarrassed of? That life circumstance that you can’t stand? I gave it to you. I gave it to you because I believe in you. Because I believe that you can transform that impediment into something beautiful.
Sometimes though the goal is not to transform, sometimes we cannot even overcome, sometimes the goal is simply to be cognizant of our weaknesses, to learn how to see what’s in our blindspot. That too is an accomplishment and not a small order. And this brings us to the end of Moshe’s life.
There is one consistent character flaw throughout Moshe’s life:
The Jewish People are told not to collect man on Shabbos, some people do. What does Moshe do? He yells at them.
After the death of Nadav and Avihu die, the Kohanim leave an offering on the altar for too long and it gets burned. What does Moshe do? He angrily reprimands the remaining sons of Aharon.
And of course, most famously, when the Jewish People complain about a lack of water, Moshe takes his staff and hits the rock.
Moshe, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out, struggled with anger. Over and over his anger appears. It causes him to forget laws that he had learned, as our Sages teach us, anger causes forgetfulness, and it causes him to lose his leadership through the infamous hitting of the rock.
Despite the mishap at the rock, Moshe’s anger is still there. Once again, in this week’s Torah portion, we find him angrily reprimanding the Jewish soldiers as they come back from war. It never goes away. It never gets transformed into something beautiful. But Moshe’s greatness, in this instance, is his self-awareness.
How do we know that? When Moshe asks G-d for a successor, he has very specific criteria: “She’yehi sovel kol echad v’echad l’fi da’ato, that he will tolerate and will have patience for each and every person.”
Moshe recognized his limitation. Moshe, despite being the greatest man to live, never fully transcended that character flaw but what he did do was acknowledge it. “I don’t have the requisite patience, please G-d, find a successor who does.”
And that’s why I love that ad for Life Fitness. What is the biggest critique against a company that sells products that build your body and your body alone? The critique, the weakness, the deficit, is that by focusing on the externals, it ignores what really matters, what’s on the inside. Life Fitness leaned in, tongue-in-cheek, but they leaned in and acknowledged where they fall short.
This is something every company and every organization needs to do. Acknowledge your deficit. And then you have to figure out, is this a deficit that can be made into a benefit? Is my speech impediment really a gift? Or maybe it’s something that really is a problem? In which case, at the very least, I’ll acknowledge it.
I remember when I first became the rabbi of Ner Tamid and people asked me, who goes to the shul? Is it Modern Orthodox? Sort of. Is it traditional? Sort of. Is it for people who are newly observant? Sort of. Truth be told, it was awkward at first. But then I realized that’s not a weakness, it’s our superpower. There’s a word for that – we are the most diverse shul I am aware of! But there are other deficits that we have as an institution that we may not be able to reframe. And that’s okay. As long as we are aware of their existence they won’t hold us back.
We just started the Nine Days of Mourning. In a week we’ll be sitting on the floor reminding ourselves of the destroyed Bais Hamikdash. Our Sages teach us that any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if during that generation, the Temple is destroyed. So instead of spending these days just thinking about what they did wrong, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing wrong? What are our flaws? This is a question that needs to be asked as a community, but also for every thinking individual; do I know myself? Am I aware of my flaws? Because let me tell you, if you are not aware of any glaring flaws, then I could tell you what your flaw is, it’s a lack of self-awareness. Ein tzadik ba’aretz asher lo yecheta, there are no perfectly righteous people, only people who think they are.
There is an apocryphal story told of Abraham Lincoln. Before he was president, he was a prominent lawyer in Illinois. One day, an inidvidual showed up in his office and asked him to help with some legal problems, but it would involve some shady business. Honest Abe said no, I can’t help you.
The individual pulled out 50 dollars, a nice sum of money in the mid-19th century. Again, Lincoln said no. The man pulled out 100 dollars and put it on the table. Lincoln shook his head and said, no. Until the man pulled $500, equivalent to around $10,000, and at this point Abraham Lincoln said: “Sir, everyone has a price and you’re getting awfully close to mine.” He picked the man up and threw him out the door. Know thyself; know your flaws and know your limitations.
Life Fitness is right. “It’s what’s on the inside that really matters.”
They may not live up to that standard but at least, they know themselves. When we’re awake to our deficits and deficiencies, sometimes, we can transform that embarrassing flaw into a beautiful feature. But at the very least, the knowledge of our weakness is in and of itself the most incredible strength.
Introduction: More often than not, I write my sermon Friday morning. I knew this Friday would be a little busy so I woke up early and wrote it before davening. It was a wonderful feeling, some pressure of my back, and a certain lightness that accompanied me to shacharis that morning. After davening, Murray Friedman approached me and said: “Rabbi, I just want to confirm that the Haftorah this week is the special one for the Three Weeks, right?”
He was right and I, had just spent a good amount of time writing a drasha that revolved around the wrong Haftorah…
I quickly figured out what I would do, but I decided to have some fun with it and placed a poll on Twitter. I wrote: Rabbi Fail – I forgot that we switch this weeks haftorah because it’s the Three Weeks and spent the morning writing a drasha on what is NOT the Haftorah. Do I…
I then listed three options and asked people to vote, which over 50 people actually did. Option one was rewrite the whole thing. 11% thought that was a good idea. I think that’s a chutzpah. Option two, voted on by 20% was, Use the D’var Torah, no one will know the difference… And the final option, the option that I decided already to go with was, Use the D’var Torah and acknowledge that I am human and make mistakes. And hope I don’t get fired for not knowing what Haftorah it is…
Imagine the following scene –
Rob and Ray over there grab water hoses and start spraying water all over and all around this pulpit. Like a LOT of water. Then, we turn the sprinkling system on (we don’t actually have a sprinkling system, but work with me) and it’s pouring water all over. And then, I lift my hands up like this, and yell: “G-d, if You exist, if You can see us and care about the decisions we make, if You want us to be meticulous in Mitzvah observance, if You want each of us to turn our lives around, then send down a HUGE fire from heaven and burn this pulpit to a pulp!”
And then, a fire appears right above the pulpit, and slowly descends, and with all the water spraying everywhere, it consumes this pulpit in an inferno.
Now of course the first thing that will cross your mind is, “Wow, I didn’t know the rabbi’s also a magician…” BUT THIS IS NOT A MAGIC SHOW! You’ll know, somehow, that this is legit.
Would that change your life? A fire descending from heaven. It does not get more old-school miraculous than that. Would that change you? Would that make you a greater believer? Would that impact the way you daven? Would that change how you spend your Shabbos? Your every day? Knowing for a FACT – because you saw it with your own eyes – that G-d exists, that He sees you, that He cares about you. I can’t think of anything more inspiring or life-changing than witnessing a full-blown miracle.
About two thousand five hundred years ago, your great-great-grandparents lived in Israel. They weren’t that different than us. They went to shul, they kept some mitzvos, they identified themselves as good Jews, buuuut they also did some other stuff that didn’t exactly fit that billing. They weren’t always so careful about this Mitzvah or that Mitzvah. They believed but they had their doubts. Sounds familiar?
Eliyahu Hanavi, the great prophet, had a fabulous idea – I am going to inspire the Jewish People, by giving them the most magnificent, spiritual experience, so that this inner struggle, the inconsistency, the apathy, it will all be done with, once and for all.
And so Eliyahu gathers the Jewish People to a Mt. Carmel, and he does exactly what we just envisioned. He takes an animal, places it on an altar, surrounds the altar with buckets of water, and then he prays. And in full sight of the entirety of the Jewish People, a fire comes down from the sky, lower and lower, and then burns the wet animal, sitting in buckets of water, to a crisp. You know what happens?
The people go crazy – “HASHEM HU ELOKIM! Hashem is our G-d,” they yell out in a frenzy. Game over. Eliyahu nailed it. This is the life-changing, inspiring moment they’ve all been waiting for. Shabbos is going to be Shabbos; I won’t even dip my feet in the pool. Kosher is going to be Kosher; no messing around, even when I’m on vacation. I’m going to pray every day. Like, really pray. I might even show up to weekday minyan. I’m going to be kidn to people, not only in public, but behind closed doors. Torah study, lashon hara, you name it.
And it works. This group of Jews who were, in the words of Eliyahu, posei’ah al shnei se’ifim, who were wildly inconsistent, they change overnight.
But then, a day later, maybe a week later, it all falls apart. Despite that intense experience of rapture, it doesn’t stick. Before you know it, the Jewish People are back to their inconsistent, apathetic, Jewish life.
Out of all the challenges people present to me, there is one that I really struggle addressing. I get some pretty wild and difficult questions sent my way, and they’re painful, they rip your heart to shreds, but I’m not afraid of them. But there’s one question that scares me:
“Rabbi, I don’t feel inspired. How do I get back that spark of inspiration in my spiritual life?”
You ask me that question, in my head, I run for the door.
I’ll be honest, it’s embarrassing. You want to ask me why bad things happen to good people? I could spend the next ten hours giving you a lecture on the topic. Your relationship is on the rocks? I could try share some practical advice and happy to help finding you a good therapist. But the one question which is probably the most basic to my job – helping people feel connected to G-d, guiding people in finding a spark and passion, ensuring that there is a spirit of inspiration in our lives, that question… I can’t answer it. Or to say it better, I can’t answer it in a way that you, the questioner will be satisfied. And that’s a problem.
If you’ve ever experienced that feeling of being really inspired – maybe you felt your breath caught in your chest, or the room expanding, or you felt absolutely certain about something, or total clarity, or just a sense that you were standing before G-d – that feeling is bliss, right? But as we all know, those feelings don’t last for very long. And so those blissful feelings end up being the biggest tease. Because we know what they are; we’ve experienced them, they were awesome. But now we can’t. And so now, we feel like we’re groping in the dark.
“Rabbi, I don’t feel inspired anymore.”
“Rabbi, what do I do to feel connected?”
“Rabbi, how do I recreate that amazing sense of connection that I used to have?”
I’m comforted by today’s almost Haftorah. In the Haftorah we did not read, I learned that I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how to deal with this. Eliyahu Hanavi, after bringing that heavenly fire down to earth, after facilitating the most spiritual experience ever, after witnessing the Jewish People change overnight, and then witnessing them lose that inspiration entirely, he ran away. Now, part of the reason he ran away is because some people wanted to kill him. But he also ran away because he was experiencing an existential crisis; what did I do wrong? I did everything I can to bring the Jewish People back to G-d, and it failed. What else can I have possibly done to inspire the Jewish People? Eliyahu is down, he’s depressed, he can’t understand what went wrong. So G-d shows up and gives him a masterclass in inspiration and it goes like this:
First G-d sends a powerful wind, and Eliyahu assumes, this is an image of G-d, but he doesn’t see G-d in the wind. And then G-d sends an earthquake, and Eliyahu assumes that G-d is found in that earthquake, but He’s not. And then G-d sends a fire, and Eliyahu just know that this fire is a representation of G-d, but it’s not. And then finally, G-d sends forth, a thin still voice, kol d’mamah daka, and G-d, we read, is found there, in that thin still voice.
To paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: G-d was trying to teach Eliyahu by not appearing in the whirlwind, by not appearing in the earthquake, and by not appearing in the fire, that G-d is not to be found in violent confrontation, in drama, with spectacle. Rather G-d is found in gentleness and the word softly spoken. G-d was telling Eliyahu that true G-dliness is found far away from the drama.
And that’s why it’s so hard to guide people to be inspired. That’s why it’s so hard to say some words, and poof, the listener feels turned on. What we’re after is a fallacy. It doesn’t work. It’s not meant to work.
Moishe Bane, President of the Orthodox Union, summed it up quite nicely in a recent article. He wrote: “Perhaps we confuse holiness with religious exuberance just as young people often mistake infatuation for love. Infatuation, though exhilarating and intense, inevitably fades. Authentic love, by contrast, builds slowly over time. An authentic relationship with our Creator is the same.”
True love is not Hollywood. True love is showing up day in and day out. At times, it’s draining and difficult and not fun. Fireworks is getting the kids out the door in the morning. Passion is scrubbing the floor vigorously after someone spilled a bottle of milk. Romance is unplugging a toilet.
But between all that, there are sparks, a smile, a gaze, a touch. There is richness, there is beauty, and there is love, but it’s found thin voice and silence. And that’s exactly how inspiration works.
Can I invite you in to my davening experience?
I daven three times a day, every single day. And almost every day, I take three steps back, and I try to speak G-d. I say all the words and I try to say them with meaning. But more often than not it feels like I am smashing my head against a wall. Lightly. The words aren’t going anywhere. They fall flat. I could feel them falling flat. And then – once every, I don’t even know, the room melts away, and the words are like magic, they roll off my tongue, and I sense, I know, that they’re connecting to Hashem, and I feel G-d’s Presence right there in front of me. And then, smashing my head against a spiritual wall for weeks on end.
But that’s the only way it works, and that’s okay. Embrace it. Inspiration is found by showing up. Connection to G-d, that feeling of being lifted up and inspired is no different than love. You could dim the lights all you want, that’s not how romance works in real life. Day in and day out, consistency, the thin still voice, no drama. And in between the humdrum, the regular, the daily Mitzvos, the tefilos, the Torah study, that’s where love, and that’s where a deep and exciting and passionate connection to G-d is really found.
We’re celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of Yehuda Friedman. Yehuda, it has been a pleasure watching you grow up, and I mean that literally. Wow. In addition to height, G-d gave you many talents and qualities; you’re creative, you’re an artist, a sensitive soul. You’re protective over your younger siblings, you’re doting on your mother. You’re responsible – if anyone needs their lawn mowed, let Yehuda know. And today, Yehuda, you’re beginning a journey called Judaism.
Yehuda, I need to warn you – I hope over the next couple of years you have a wildy inspiring experience. Many of us, somewhere between teenagehood and young adulthood, have some life-defining spiritual experience that we never forget. But then, life’s going to get busy, you’re going to grow up, and you’re going to wonder, where’s that inspiration I once felt? Where’s that rush and intensity that I once had? Was it nothing? Can I ever access it again? How else will I feel connected to Hashem? How else will I feel inspired to be a good Jew?
And I hope you remember this speech. I hope you remember the lesson from Eliyahu Hanavi, the kol d’mamah daka, that in the thin still voice, and know to look there for inspiration.
But the truth is, even if you forget this speech, and even if you forget me, I’m not worried. Because you’ll have your Aba and Ima to look to. And you’ll see two paragons of quiet consistency, two people who if you look closely, glow ever so faintly, two people who so clearly are invested in one another, invested in you, and in their quiet and consistent way are teaching you what love really is, love of a spouse, love of a child, but also the recipe for love of G-d: kol d’mama daka, that thin, consistent, and still voice. Don’t give up. Show up. Because that’s where the magic is found.