When Bad Things Happen Yizkor 2022

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to have to stop my sermon, I’m feeling a little dizzy.”

Those words may sound familiar to some of you. They were the last words I said last week from this pulpit before everything went black.

The next thing I remember is being surrounded by people, taking my pulse, and calling my name. For better or worse, someone who knows me too well assumed this was actually part of the sermon I was giving; some gimmick to get a point across.

It was not. It was a pretty lousy experience to pass out in shul while giving a drasha. But I’m okay now, I really am, and I appreciate all of your concern.

But it was unsettling though, right?

It gets worse.

Exactly one week before this incident, just a few feet away from where I fainted, another unsettling event took place. At Mincha on Shabbos afternoon, someone was carrying the Sefer Torah and slipped on one of the stairs. Our crown jewel, the centerpiece of our shul, the Torah scroll fell on the floor. Since then, I have had recurring flashbacks of the chazzan and the Torah sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. And I’m not done.

This past Tuesday morning after Shacharis, I came home and noticed that my wife had gone out quite early. Only that when I came inside, she was still there. Apparently, it wasn’t her who took the van, it was someone else… But don’t worry, we found the van… or more accurately, the police found it, smashed into a 7-11 after a hit and run, in which thankfully, no one was hurt. But our van is no longer with us.

Quite a week. Are you spooked yet?

 

Now in the larger scheme of things, none of this is terrible. I am alive, my family is healthy, and our Sefer Torah is okay. But I’d like to use this as an opportunity, if I may, to address the age-old question, of why bad things happen to good people. Because all of us have and will have setbacks and difficulties in life. All of us will be faced with a choice of how we respond to those events. I’d venture to say that how we respond to the question lies primarily in how we ask the question.

What I’ve learned over the years is that there are three ways to pose this question; actually, three postures. The first and classic way to ask this question is to point a finger at G-d Almighty and yell, J’accuse! You’re guilty! Lama ha’rei’ota? Why have You brought evil? What did I do?! 

I’ll be honest, I’ve never asked this question, not because I’m that righteous. On the contrary, it’s because I know I am not.

What do I owe G-d and what does G-d owe me?

When G-d dropped my soul down into this world, He never told me how healthy I’d be, how comfortable or uncomfortable my life would be. He never even told me how long I’ll be here until He’d send an Uber to pick my soul up. So G-d’s holding up His side just fine.

But He did ask me to do a few things. Not just “be a good person” and to “try your best.” Nope, that’s not what He said. That’s the criteria we make up to make ourselves feel good, not His criteria. He told me exactly what He wants me to do. 248 positive Mitzvos, 365 prohibitions.

I am not holding up this side of the bargain. I am trying. Usually. Sometimes. Not always. I have no right to ask, why did You do this to me.

The only context that this question makes any sense in, is in regard to a child who suffers; a child is not responsible like we are as adults. But as adults, can anyone legitimately say they’ve followed through with their responsibilities? Really?!

I may indeed be the nicest person in the world – which I’m not. But how can I point a finger at G-d and claim injustice using watered-down criteria that I made up and not His.

So no, I am not pointing a finger at G-d this week. I am way too aware of all my many shortcomings to have the audacity to claim that He is in the wrong. No way.  

Now there is another similar way of asking this question of why. It’s not directed at G-d, but it’s also directed outward. It goes like this: Why did you drop the Torah? Why did you ask me so many questions before Pesach making me so exhausted? Why did you steal my van?

These questions are fair ones. But we’re usually not very satisfied with the answers we receive from the people we feel who wronged us. If we’re still holding our finger out after they respond, we’ll pose harder questions, like what kind of answer is that, and we’ll get weaker answers.

It’s a fair reaction to tragedy and hardship, but it’s not a very healthy one. Holding our finger out there, wagging it in every which way. It’s going to get tired. We’re going to get tired. We’re going to get bitter; very, very bitter.

Which might lead a person to believe that the best way to ask this question of why bad things happen is to not point any fingers, but to shrug. This is the path, by the way, that is most natural to me. Temperamentally, I am not confrontational, I am ready to just move on. I need to take better care of myself, make sure the people carrying the Torah are careful as they go down the stairs, and make sure my cars are locked at night… that’s it, no fingers, no questions, case closed.

I could even justify this approach from our tradition. There is a line of thinking in many classical Jewish sources that describe olam k’minhago noheig. According to this approach, G-d is not a puppet master and us humans have full autonomy. What we see happening around us and to us, is nature running its course. Of course, G-d allows for the world to run this way, and we believe G-d can, at any moment, change anything. But for the most part, according to this line of thinking, 99% of the things that happen in this world are just nature running its course. A Torah dropping a few feet from where you’re standing, fainting in middle of a talk, and your van stolen? People slip, people faint, people steal. All within ten days? Coincidence. Nothing more and nothing less.

There is another type of shrug which has become much more mainstream over the past few decades. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the question of why was posed over and over again. While bad things happening are not necessarily a product of our misdeeds – there are numerous reasons listed as to why tragedy can befall a person, sin is the most obvious and most discussed in our literature. And so, to counter this explanation which would be too much for the survivors to bear, the leading rabbis of the day shifted our attention to the fact that we ultimately do not know G-d’s ways. “We cannot know,” became the most well-known refrain in response to suffering. A shrug. A heavy shrug, but a shrug.

This party-line was a hora’at sha’ah, it was meant for a specific group of people at a specific juncture in time. To shrug when bad things happen to ourselves is to close our eyes to what historically, has been the most powerful call to personal growth and change. To chalk up our misfortunes to being beyond our comprehension or to a fluke of nature, while both potentially theologically-sound, allows our tragedy to be doubled by ignoring its possible message.

Which brings me to the third and final way to ask the question of why bad things happen. It involves asking the question, not just shrugging and moving on. But instead of pointing a finger upwards or outwards, it involves pointing a finger toward oneself; why did this happen to me?

It involves stopping and appreciating that something is wrong; not just the things that happened around us, not just the people messing up and being mean around us. But something is wrong inside. Some people, when bad things happen to them, they check their Mezuzahs. I have to tell you, if G-d is manipulating nature to send me a message, if He’s making ‘all that effort’ to speak to me, I’m fairly confident there are things in my life that need fixing that are far more important than my mezuzahs. You want to check something? Check your soul.

Am I really living my life to the fullest? Am I actualizing the potential that G-d filled me with? Am I using the gifts G-d gave me to better the lives of the people around me, to the full capacity, or am I getting by with just enough to fool anyone watching? That I believe is the question that needs to be asked; why did this happen to me. It’s a question I need to ask myself. It’s a question we all need to ask whenever there is disruption. It’s the only question worth asking, and it’s the only question that we can answer – and answer it we must.

***

We’re about to begin Yizkor. There are people in this room who have questions – fingers pointed to G-d; Why? Why did you take my loved one? What did He do to you? What did I do to you?

And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.

There are people in this room who have different types of questions – fingers pointed at parents who are no longer alive. Why? Why didn’t you give me the attention I begged for? Why didn’t you respect me? Why did you give me so much pain?

And we stand there with our fingers outstretched.

There are people in this room who have no questions at all – the eino yode’ah lish’ol, just gliding through life, unmoved.

And then there are people in this room who are taking advantage of this moment, filled with memories both good and bad, and asking difficult questions like, how can I not make the mistakes my parents made? How can I be an even better person inspired by the love I received? How can I show my appreciation for this gift of life? They are also pointing a finger, but it’s directed at themselves.

***

We have a tradition that only 1/5th of the Jewish People crossed the Yam Suf. The rest of them remained back in Egypt. Why? Or more accurately, how? The water had turned to blood, there were frogs, lice, animals dying, hail, locust, darkness, death of the firstborn. How could they have not seen what was happening? How could they have ignored all of that?

You see, 4/5th of the Jewish People just never stopped to ask, why? They shrugged and went on with their lives as if nothing happened.

I imagine if we were to ask that question to one of those who stayed behind, he would scoff at us; You’re asking me why I didn’t open my eyes to the miracles around me?! Israel is in your hands, Jerusalem is your capital, you have freedom, you have health, you have everything. How could you not see what’s happening? How could you ignore all of this?

 

We must live with these burning questions. Not only when disaster strikes, but when the sun shines. Not only when we lose loved ones, but when we wake up and see them sleeping near us. Not only when we are ill, but when we can take in this brilliantly fresh air. To be a Jew is to ask questions. To be a good Jew is to ask the right questions in the right direction.

Why did this happen to me? Why am I living in these incredible times? In what way do I need to change my life?  

 

 

 

 

 

Beyoncé and My Mother Pesach Yizkor 2017

Ambition and serenity. Accomplishment and acceptance. Change and stability. Future and present. Creation and cultivation.  

These are but a few of the conflicting pulls and pushes that we find ourselves torn between; a constant charge to change and to conquer on the one hand, and a sense of silence and serenity on the other.

Historically, different cultures embraced one direction over the other. The Western world, for years, has placed progress on its altar of worship. From the Industrial Revolution and onward, it has been one steady climb higher and higher on the ladder of achievement. Just the same, in the Eastern cultures of the world, the present was chosen over the future. They embraced a sense of being over becoming, contentment over desire.

In fact, David Landes, in his book the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, argues that despite the fact that the East was far more advanced than the West, the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe and not in China precisely because the East embraced the here and now, while the West valued moving forward.

In more recent years, the lines have blurred. CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies pride themselves in doing yoga between conference calls, and the Western version of success has taken root across the globe. Lawyers meditate and Buddhists have Twitter accounts. All of us recognize the need for these two all-important directions, the drive for more, and the need to put on the brakes. What we’re challenged with is balancing the two and living a healthy life with the appropriate dose of each.

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, author of the Kuzari, argues that this is precisely the purpose of the Torah, to provide our lives with equilibrium. Six days a week we toil, one day a week we rest, allowing ourselves to find the Divinely-ordained balance between future-thinking and appreciating the moment.

Not only does the Torah address this conflict, it addresses them all. Today we celebrate a holiday with good food, singing, and friends, and tomorrow we begin the mourning period of Sefira, a time during which no weddings take place, live music is frowned upon, and haircuts are forbidden. There is Purim and there is Tisha B’av. It’s important to laugh but it’s also important to cry. The laws of Kosher teach us an allowance to indulge but also to restrain. The laws of Taharat HaMishpacha, of Family Purity, are directed at this same tension. The Torah acknowledges the value of everything but seeks to guide us in finding the perfect balance.

And so in this worldview, the laws of the Torah are not an arbitrary set of instructions. They are a blueprint for finding equilibrium in our lives, and through the Mitzvos, through the vast body of Jewish Law we are taught a perspective, an implicit education about the Jewish approach to life. Yes, it is a set of laws, black and white, and sometimes grey. But they are laws that are meant to paint a colorful picture of values and of principals which should make up our worldview.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday, my wife came home from Seven-Mile with hot dog buns. Hot dog buns! What a shanda! It was the first time we had hot dogs during Pesach in my life! Now these hot dog buns were obviously not bread but made out of potato starch. My children, not realizing this, immediately went to the sink to wash their hands before eating what they thought to be bread!

So let me ask you, is it or is it not appropriate to eat potato starch hot dog buns on Pesach? On the one hand, the Torah does not want us eating bread on Pesach; there’s a value being taught, not only a law, so maybe fake bread shouldn’t be eaten either! On the other hand, the Torah dictates what bread is, and potato starch is not bread! 

Yes, I did it eat the hot dog buns, but it’s not so simple when you look at the laws as values and not simply a set of rules.

The Kabbalists take this one step further. They explain that just like individual laws teach us principles, just like Kosher teaches us the need for balance between indulgence and restraint, just like Shabbos teaches us the balance between striving and accepting, so too the laws that relate to men and women, the laws that distinguish between men and women, represent and teach us about the delicate balance between the opposing poles that we began with, between ambition and serenity, between accomplishment and acceptance, between change and stability, between future and present, and between creating and cultivating.

So for example, in Halacha, Jewish Law, men are obligated in saying Shema twice a day, putting on Tefillin, wearing Tzitzis, circumcision, and about ten other Mitzvot that women are exempt from. In Jewish literature, Torah study is emphasized for men and in that same literature, prayer is emphasized for women.

Is that to say that women cannot understand the depth of the Talmud like a man? No, that’s ridiculous. Is that to say that a man cannot pray like a woman? No, that’s equally ridiculous.

What it is perhaps saying is that G-d, in creating two genders, and G-d, in creating differences in the laws that govern those genders, sought to ensure a sense of equilibrium in the world. Prayer is a tool to cultivate a relationship and Torah study, and those aforementioned laws are tools to change the way we think and to transform the physical world. Through the holidays, through the laws, and even through people, G-d created a sense of differentiation to create a sense of balance. Just like abstaining from work on Shabbos brings a sense of ‘being’ and acceptance into our lives, a woman who is exempt from certain laws or who has certain Mitzvot emphasized, brings precisely the same values into our lives, while the men with their emphasis on Mitzvos that change and transform bring their yin to the women’s yang, and together they create a balance in the world.       

And just like we asked with the potato-starch hot dog bun, should the bun be eaten or not? We similarly grapple with what precisely are the values that are meant to be taught through this gender-divide.

There are those who take the values they glean to the extreme, claiming that it is forbidden for women to drive a car, to speak before a man, and to have certain types of jobs. And there are others, on the opposite extreme who argue that there is no value being taught whatsoever, and we must find every way possible for women to do exactly what men do in the religious arena.

And I would argue for something, something admittedly ambiguous, and not so clearly defined, but something in the middle – I believe the Torah is teaching us values, the Torah is teaching us the need for these two forces in our lives, the drive for creating and accomplishing, and the sense of serenity and cultivation, both are needed in the human experience. And just like that is somehow accomplished by working for six days and resting on the seventh, and just like we could technically do more things on Shabbos but we don’t because we want to maintain that spirit, I would posit that we similarly, respect that gender-divide; not adding made-up laws to erase women from our society, but respecting the values that 51% of our nation is supposed to teach us.

Okay, so what does this all mean? I’ve been talking all the way up here, let’s talk in real terms.

Let me ask you a question. Who is the #1 role model for young women in April of 2016?

Beyonce! Of course! Beyonce, for all of you who just came down to earth, is a singer, song-writer, owner of fashion companies, and on the side she does some philanthropy. In some regards, I respect her, I really do. But at the same time, she is not the type of woman that I would want my daughters to look up to. Just to name one example, her modesty, and I am not even talking about the way she dresses! Last week she released an album titled Lemonade, which broadcasted to the world that her husband has been unfaithful. That was essentially the theme of the entire album.        

In Judaism, there are laws of modesty that govern both men and women, but the laws that govern women are certainly more restrictive. Is it to help men? No. It’s to bring into our shared world a heightened sense of sacredness, a deeper respect for sensitivity, that’s the value that modesty teaches us.

You know who my female role model is? (Because by the way, every human has a feminine side as well as masculine, and both need to be cultivated.) You know who my female role model is? It’s my mother.

She’s a professional. She works full-time and even with six rambunctious children jumping off the walls, she brought tons of work home with her. But to me, she exemplified and exemplifies the ideals we’ve been talking about. She taught me in the way she rushed to prepare for Shabbos. She taught me in the way that she would say Tehillim every single day, before nightfall, and carve out some meaningful time with her Creator.

Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, known for his mastery of Torah, what we described as masculine in some respects, shared the following telling description of his mother: “I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”

I think we could all relate to that on some level. I once stood at this pulpit and mocked those eulogies that make me ravenously hungry; the eulogies where the rabbi gets up and goes on and on about the kneidlach and the Matzah Balls that old Mrs. Gross used to make. And then the children get up and talk about the Strudels and the Kugels and cakes. And I would sit at these funerals thinking to myself, “Really? Is this really all this woman accomplished in her life?”

Personally, I have a rule that I don’t make any food that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat, which limits me to cereal and toast. (My wife, thank G-d does not have the same policy!) And so my mouth would be watering and I’d be exasperated, silently pleading for these ridiculously trivial eulogies to go on.  

But that’s exactly the point!!

I may value conquest, I may value achievements.

But there are lessons to be learned from making chicken soup, from the patience, from the sense of nurturing for those who will eat it, and the magical way that those foods represent to all of us the holidays, the Shabbos, Judaism itself.

So no, Judaism does not suggest that women belong in the kitchen, nor does it suggest that women are in any way second-class citizens. What it does suggest, broadly-speaking, is that we, men and women, represent different values, and through the laws of the Torah those values find expression.

Within each and every one of us there is an aspect of masculinity and an aspect of femininity. Our goal is to find the balance within by observing the balance from without. The goal is not in any way to stifle the G-d-given talents and abilities that each of us have been blessed with. We spent the past four sermons describing four remarkable women, Donna Mendes Gracias, Miriam the prophetess, Sarah Schenirrer, and Golda Meir. There are so many more we could add to the list. We could add numerous Biblical women who defied any stereotype that we would expect the “patriarchal” Bible to present. Sarah, the not-so-passive matriarch, Devorah, the judge/ warrior/ prophetess, in later years Yehudis, the brave fighter, and the list goes on.

I don’t think the Torah wants men to have a certain profession and women to have a different one. I don’t think the Torah wants us to view women as Heaven forbid, worse than men.

I think the Torah wants us to see value in cultivation, like a pregnant or nursing woman cares for her child. I think the Torah wants us to see the value of things that are intangible and yet holy, like a chicken soup made for Shabbos. I think the Torah wants us to see value in modesty, both physical as well as verbal through the emphasis on Mitzvos that take place in private or in the home and not in the Synagogue. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in patience, in the strength needed to care for a crying child and a hysterical infant. I think the Torah wants us to see the value in acceptance like the mother who accepts her grown child regardless of what he or she has accomplished. I think the Torah wants to give expression to someone that everyone in this room has met and someone that many in this room will be mourning for in just a moment, and that is our mothers. The love, the patience, the stillness, the warmth, the strength, and the stability, that is the Eishes Chayil, the woman of strength; the Jewish mother, the wife, the daughter, the Jewish women, who through our rich tradition, exemplifies these ideals.            

Lobby Pressure (Pre-Purim Parody of Surface Pressure, Encanto)

Front Lobby Pressure (parody of Surface Pressure, Encanto)

 

We’re the strong ones, we’re not nervous

We’re as tough as the crust of the cha-llah is

 

We move ha-arts, we move shu-uls

And we kvell ’cause we know what our worth is

 

We don’t ask how hard the work is

Got volunteers for every purpose

Zoomdalah, and youth groups, classes, and kiddush

Our member-ship’s growing, Ner Tamid is glowing

But

Under the surface

I feel meshugah-as

a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus

Under the surface

Was David ever like “Yo, I don’t want to fight Golias?”

Under the surface

I’m pretty sure we’re worthless; toilets’ out of service

A flaw and a crack

The straw in the stack

That breaks the lobby’s back

What breaks the lobby’s back it’s –

 

Leaking like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa

Carpet’s tearing like a rip, rip, rip ’till it just goes pop, whoa

If you think you’re old, our lobby’s older

Decades of wear and tear it can’t shoulder

Who are we if we don’t have a front hall?

 

If we stick with –

Styles that were hip, hip, hip, 60 years ago, whoa

Bathrooms like a jail, jail, jail, how would I know, whoa

If you think you’re old, our lobby’s older

Decades of wear and tear it can’t shoulder

Who are we if we don’t have a front hall?

If we falter

 

Under the surface, I hide my nerves, fallen plaques gonna hurt us

Under the surface, The shul doesn’t swerve, despite the big bu-dget

Under the surface, I think about our purpose, can we somehow preserve this?

Our building’s dominoes

A light wind blows

You try to stop it tumbling

But on and on it goes

 

But wait –

If we could raise some big donations for renovations

Would that free some room up for G-d

Torah, and prayer, or time together,

Instead we measure this growing pressure

Keeps growing, keep going

‘Cause our whole roof is

Leaking like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa

Glass is cracking like a crack, crack, crack ’till it just goes

pop, whoa

If you think you’re old, our lobby’s older

Decades of wear and tear it can’t shoulder

Who are we if we can’t raise the cash?

 

If we stick with –

Styles that were hip, hip, hip, 60 years ago, whoa

Bathrooms like a jail, jail, jail, how would I know, whoa

If you think you’re old, our lobby’s older

Decades of wear and tear it can’t shoulder

Who are we if we can’t raise the cash?

All it takes

Please help us raise,

No pressure!

Sign up today to help! https://web.causematch.com/sign-up/ner-tamid

Encanto, Amaleik, and Intergenerational Trauma Parshas Zachor

A couple of weeks ago, my children were off from school, and they decided to have a family movie night. I usually skip these and get some work done, but my children persuaded me to join them on the couch. I gave in, but of course, I decided that whatever it was we were going to watch was going to be made into a sermon.

They decided to watch Encanto, which I thought was perfect. I was especially excited to learn that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music – for those of you with a good memory, you may recall that a few years ago, on the Shabbos before Purim, I wrote some Purim-themed lyrics to his music, utterly embarrassing myself in front of you all.

I was excited to do so again.

But there was a problem, two problems actually. The first problem is that it’s kind of a serious movie. I finished the movie and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Wow, that’s a perfect analogy to the Holocaust.” I’m a real killjoy sometimes. My whole family just looked at me like I was crazy, but really, I cannot think of a better analogy to Holocaust survival. We’ll come back to that.

The other problem is that apparently half of you haven’t seen the movie.

Which is kind of awkward. Your rabbi is not supposed to consistently know more pop culture than all of you. You’re making me look bad. You know, maybe you should have gotten a rabbi from YU after all…

Since half of you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick summary. Encanto is a story about a family with superpowers. There is Camilo, he shapeshifts. Then there’s Bruno, he’s like a prophet. But he has problems. Sort of. We won’t be talking about him today… ? There’s Isabela – she’s perfect. Also, sort of. Luisa is super strong, and we’ll be getting back to her later.

The matriarch of this family is a woman by the name of Abuela who holds it all together. Also, sort of. She’s kind of like a Yaakov Avinu type. She’s been through a lot, and she holds – or tries to hold her family together.

Using their superpowers, the family builds up a community around them. Everyone loves them, and they seem to love themselves. But beneath the surface, there are cracks. The house that they live in, which is the center of the town, starts to break. And what that symbolizes is a sense that they’re all buckling under the intense pressure of their superpowers and their overbearing matriarch who is trying desperately to hold it all together.

Like all good movies, there’s a backstory: What brought them to this city and gave them the superpowers was a terribly traumatic event. Abuela, her husband Pedro, and their three infants were on the run from Colombian soldiers who were killing innocent civilians. They were ambushed by these soldiers and Pedro bravely distracted the soldiers to save his family. Tragically, Pedro was murdered by those soldiers in front of his wife’s eyes.

Throughout the movie, Abuela has flashbacks of her husband getting killed. Meanwhile, she tries so hard to hold her family together, to make sure they don’t make any mistakes, to keep them as perfect as possible and never talks about what they went through. Why? Because she’s protecting them.

But her approach causes a lot of dysfunction.

To quote Dr. Dara Greenwood (Four Powerful Lessons from Encanto, Psychology Today): “…Psychologists have studied “legacies of silence” that follow traumatic experiences, such as the many devastating losses Jewish families experienced at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. My own Polish grandmother,” she writes, “escaped from Europe to New York, after the Nazis took Poland and killed her father in the street. In her attempt to escape the pain of her own unimaginable losses, she then failed to truly acknowledge the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack and in doing so, prevented my mother from grieving his loss.”  

She continues, “Children are exquisitely attuned to the emotional “rules” of the household and are quick to learn what they are not supposed to know or talk about (Bruno included). They are also motivated to bear up under difficult conditions to protect their parents’ emotional vulnerabilities, just as the family members in Encanto felt pressure to be perfect for their Abuela, who herself was trying to bear up under her own traumatic loss.”

In other words, the impact of trauma is ongoing and expressed in many ways: Children of those who experienced trauma, and even the grandchildren, can inherit certain learned behaviors and sometimes even genetically-influenced characteristics that can cause them to not trust others, to be more susceptible to anger, to be unable to connect to others deeply, and more. (https://www.choosingtherapy.com/intergenerational-trauma/)

There’s a book called, ‘“I love you” They Didn’t Say,’ written by a child of survivors. The title says it all. Many survivors could not bring themselves to say those words, and even more importantly, could not feel those emotions as they were weighed down and held back by guilt. And that gets passed on.  

We just read Parshas Zachor – a reminder to destroy this nation called Amaleik. Why? Because they attacked us as we were leaving Egypt four thousand years ago. It’s puzzling. We make such a big deal about it; it’s the only Biblically-mandated Torah reading of the year. And yet, who is Amaleik? They’re gone. It’s ancient history. This nation does not exist anymore.

There are endless apologetic approaches attempting to explain how really, the evil characteristics of Amaleik are still here, and it’s an internal battle within ourselves. Or, there are those who suggest that any nation that is set against the Jewish People assumes the title Amaleik. Otherwise, why else would we still be talking about them?

But the fact that we ask the question betrays a lack of understanding of how human beings work. You know why we still talk about Amaleik? Because we’re still feeling the brunt of their actions. When a group of people, after being enslaved for centuries finally gets freed. And they feel at that moment the warm embrace of a G-d who cares about them, who does everything for them. And then, without warning, for that loving protection to be viciously punctured. For that sense of security to be ripped away by some tribe who randomly, with no reason, comes along and attacks them, that goes deep.

You know why Jews are obsessed with having passports ready at all times? Yes, the Holocaust. But also, progroms. And also, inquisitions. And also, the Romans. All the way back to Amaleik. They’re the ones who first made us so uneasy. So nervous. So neurotic.

When I see a schoolbag on the floor of our shul, you know what the first thing that goes through my mind is – bomb. It’s not just me. Yes, it’s because of Arab terrorists, but it’s also because of Amaleik.

מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַהֹ בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר – A war between G-d and Amaleik, midor dor, from generation to generation. That battle is called intergenerational trauma and we are still picking up the pieces. 

In Encanto the children and grandchildren of Abuela push themselves to be perfect; there’s an overcompensation, a need for perfection to ensure that the tragedy doesn’t happen again.

We Jews take pride in the success of those who rebuilt after the Holocaust, and we should take pride. But we have to realize that the success came with a price. It was driven by guilt, it was driven by fear, it was driven by a sense of holding it all together to protect the children. It’s a powerful force, but it could also be destructive.

When we are told to eradicate Amaleik, perhaps what we are meant to do is think deeply about all the “stuff” that we have inherited, the impact of generations of trauma on this nation. We are being asked to acknowledge it, to work through it, and to change it.

We are being asked to learn how to not hold on to all of our emotions, to let our guard down, just a little.

We are being asked to learn how to trust people; to let them into our lives, into our being.    

We are being asked to not be driven by so much guilt, but to be driven by love.

And maybe even to say, or whisper, I love you.

***

One of the characters in the movie is a man by the name, Bruno. As the now-famous song goes, “We don’t talk about Bruno.” The family in Encanto never discusses him. But Bruno’s not just a person. He represents all the flaws, the cracks, the things the family is ashamed of.

It turns out – spoiler alert – that even though they don’t talk about him, and even though they thought he left them decades ago, he’s actually living in the walls of the house. Just like all trauma. Just like all the other things we try to ignore. Not talking about something does not make it go away.

When they finally invite him in, when they finally acknowledge him, the family begins to heal. When we are asked to erase Amaleik by remembering Amaleik, we are doing exactly that. The only way to get past the trauma, the pain, the shame, the guilt, is by acknowledging it. When we do, when we make ourselves vulnerable to our loved ones, acknowledging our fears, our shame, our real self, then we can properly move past Amaleik.

It’s not a coincidence that we remember Amaleik immediately before the most joyous day of the year. When the family acknowledges their flaws and fears, when they acknowledge how they need other people to help them, they are able to rebuild their home. And not surprisingly, it’s far more beautiful than it was before.

As the Kotzker Rebbe once said, there is nothing as whole as a broken heart, or the modern Leonard Cohen version, the cracks are where the light gets in. When we’re brave enough to acknowledge Bruno, to remember Amaleik, to be vulnerable, to recognize our imperfections, that is the pathway to the greatest joy.

Ukraine – Awakening our Sleeping Hearts Parshas Pekudei

I will not draw any lessons from the crisis in Ukraine. I refuse. 

Imagine watching a house go up in flames with men, women, and children trapped inside, all screaming for help. And since I’m not a fireman, there’s nothing I could do, so I turn to the crowd of people gathered outside, and start lecturing them on the lessons learned from a house fire…

It would be wrong, it would be immoral, and it would betray utter insensitivity to the pain of others. Ukraine is not a TV show, it’s real life.

And yet, over the past week, we’ve all heard people say things like, “The Ukrainians are really bad people. They were the guards at the concentration camps.” It’s true, they were.

Or, “Who is worse? The Russians or the Ukrainians?” And then we have a historic debate.

Or, “Why should I care about this conflict more than any other conflict across the world? Do you know what’s happening in Afghanistan? Do you know what’s happening in Sudan? Do you know what’s happening in Tanzania?”

These are all good and fair questions, and they all stem from one mindset – that this is a video game, a movie, it’s something to debate. Yesterday, it was Major League Baseball lockout and today it’s Ukraine. But it’s not. There is a house on fire. And there are men, women, and children burning inside.

The fact that I do not care deeply about the fires raging in Syria, Sudan, and Tanzania, does not mean I should not care about this one for two reasons. One, this house on fire, the conflict in Ukraine, that’s your next-door neighbor’s house that’s on fire, and there are sparks flying everywhere. Sparks like possible war with countries that we are allies with, sparks like the prospect of nuclear war, and sparks like an unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe. And second, the fact that I do not care about other conflicts should not push me to not care about this one. The opposite is true. I should care about them as well.

The question, to me, is what we do when we don’t care they way we should? What do we do when this is all an academic discussion? Something to talk about with friends or a source of silly memes, punctuated by a sigh here and there. How do we get past that?

Rebecca, Rivkah, Yitzchak’s wife was barren, she was unable to have children. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak prayed for children “opposite his wife.” The explanation that many of us are familiar with is Rashi’s, who explains that Yitzchak went to one corner to pray and she Rivkah to the other – opposite, in that they stood opposite one another.

But Rav Dovid Kimche, a 13th-century French scholar, suggests that we should interpret “opposite” literally. In the ancient world, if you were a woman who could not have children, your husband said, “Farewell,” and found a new wife. Certainly, if you were an aristocrat like Yitzchak was and had endless options available to you. But that’s not what Yitzchak did. He recognized that his wife was in pain. And so he turned his attention to her. He turned his attention to her pain. He stood “opposite her” in that he concentrated on what she was going through; to taste and feel that fear that she was experiencing, the shame that she was hiding, the loneliness that even her loving husband could not break through. “Vayetar Yitzchak laShem nochach ishto, and Yitzchak implored Hashem, opposite his wife.”

Yitzchak focused all his attention on her pain, allowing her pain to become his pain, and then he turned to G-d.

What’s unique about this conflict is that we are able to place the pain of those caught in this insanity before us, opposite us. Yes, there are headlines and news reports. But there are also individual stories. People. Real people crying for help, and we could hear them. They’re posting their videos on social media or sending direct messages to friends. The house on fire is not in the next city, it’s next door. And you don’t need to strain your ears to hear the cries of those stuck inside. It behooves us to listen to their stories, to place them before us, opposite us, so we could feel the pain that we know we’re supposed to feel. Because when we feel the pain, it’s no longer an academic debate, it’s no longer something to schmooze about. It’s real. And it’s personal.

Don’t get distracted by headlines; listen to people’s stories. Place their pain opposite your heart.

Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough. Sometimes, and this is not limited to this particular situation, but sometimes we know we should feel something, but we just don’t. Maybe it’s love for a spouse, maybe it’s love for G-d. Maybe we don’t feel enough joy for someone’s celebration or not enough sadness for their misfortune. How do we feel what we know we’re supposed to feel but cannot?

One of the great ideas of Judaism, something that was discovered only recently in the world of psychology is that our emotions flow from our deeds, more than our deeds flow from our emotions. In the words of the 13th century work, Sefer HaChinuch: “Acharei hape’ulot nimshachot halevavot, the heart is drawn after our actions.” This, explains Sefer HaChinuch, is the purpose of Mitzvos. It is hard to feel compassion sometimes, so we are commanded to give regularly to the poor. It is hard to love G-d, so we are commanded to serve Him daily. Judaism demands action so that we will feel.

You want to love your children more? Do more for them until you love more. You want to love your spouse more? Don’t wait until you feel loving, spend time together so that you’ll feel what you’re looking for. You want to feel connected to Judaism, to Hashem? Don’t wait until you get hit by an inspiring bolt of lightning. Show up, daven, do, and the love will follow.

The same is true here. You’re struggling to feel connected to those in Ukraine? Give charity, or anything else you can do, and allow the feelings to follow. 

The Torah’s recipe for feeling what we know we should feel is by placing the pain before us – opposite us, and acting, doing, and allowing the emotions to follow.

What I would like to do is exactly that. I want to tell you a story of one individual, and I’d like to invite you to place his story before us. And I’d like to suggest something we can all do, right now.

This past Tuesday, the Orthodox Union put together a call with communal leaders who are currently in Ukraine. One of the presenters was Rabbi Mendel Moskovitz, a Chabad shliach, situated in Kharkiv, Ukraine. R’Mendel was born in Brooklyn, but in 1990, when he was just seven months old, his family was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to help support the Jewish community in this city of Kharkiv.

His father described how when they arrived, the Jews in the region had no idea what a shofar was; they knew nothing. Little by little, in this G-d-less wasteland, the Moskovitz family built a spiritual sanctuary. Jews started attending services and they eventually opened a school in 1992. Last Wednesday, the day before the war began, they had an event celebrating the 30th year anniversary of the school which now boasts 400 Jewish students. The next morning, they were rudely awakened by bombs dropping.

R’Mendel described coming to shul Thursday morning to daven by himself – there was indiscriminate shelling taking place outside. And when he came in, he found 30 men waiting to daven together.

The most famous and moving statement from this entire saga was when the American government offered to fly the Ukrainian President, Vladimir Zelenskyy out of the country, and he responded, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” Inspiring. But when that same offer was made to the Moskovitz family, their answer was a little different, but no less inspiring. This Brooklyn family, who could so easily have slipped out of the country, responded: “This is our family, we’re not going anywhere.” And they stayed. Not only did they stay but they turned their shul into a bomb shelter and are housing and caring for over 100 people.

I’d like to read to you a text message Mendel’s mother sent out after last Shabbos. She wrote: “It says that you’re not supposed to cry on Shabbat, I failed that … this Shabbat.

The first time, was on Friday night when we managed to get to the synagogue. After the prayers we went downstairs for a Kiddush, filled with people who were brave enough to come, and the many people who have been living in the synagogue since the war started. After Kiddush we started singing “Nyet nyet nikovo”, a Russian melody that there is no one that we should fear besides Hashem alone.

The second time, I wasn’t able to hold it in, was Shabbat morning, when we blessed the new month of Adar, saying “Mi sheasa nisim l’avoseynu – Who did miracles for our Fathers”, I again felt the tears in my eyes. We also need miracles…”

So that’s the story, or that’s the person I want you to think of. Not the headlines. Just Mendel Moskovitz, a young 32 year old, whose family moved from comfortable Brooklyn to go help other Jews, who chose to stay in Ukraine and bring up his own family, who opened his doors to house a hundred refugees. And is there right now selflessly doing G-d’s work.

Here’s the action:

As I mentioned, the iconic line by the Ukrainian president who declined the ride and asked for bullets. Instead of asking for more bullets, the Moskovitz family asked for tefillin so they could put them on the people who want to pray. Instead of asking for more ammunition, they asked for food so they could continue to feed those who they are housing. Instead of asking for us to fight Russia, they asked us to keep on praying, to pray and to do more Mitzvos, so that this war could end immediately.

Maybe we feel it, maybe we don’t, but we must feel it. For two years, we here were held back or limited in our ability to be in our beloved shul, and today, we have been granted the ability to be here, to smile at one another, to pray unencumbered. We left shul, we missed shul desperately, and now we’re back, as if nothing happened. That cannot be. Granted, to change our lives around entirely is unrealistic, but to not change our relationship with shul just a little?!

We just read how the Mishkan, when it was finally complete, was filled with the glory of Hashem to the point that Moshe was unable to enter inside. Can we experience that? Can we make just a little bit more space for Hashem, and a little less space for us?

Maybe we talk the whole davening, can we talk only at certain times? Maybe instead of talking, we can whisper? Maybe we can commit to praying with a little bit more emotion, meaning, understanding?  

Whether we feel it or not, we must take concrete steps, tangible actions, at a time like this. There are endless ways to do so and we should find ways that speak to who we are as individuals. But as a shul, can we be inspired by the self-sacrifice of Mendel Markovitz, by the 30 people who came to pray at a time of war, by the hundred men, women, and children who sang “Nyet nyet nikovo” and commit to doing the same?

In the merit of our congregation stepping up our davening just a little bit, may our actions translate not only into feelings, but may there be peace and tranquility in the region, may the refuges come back home, and may our brothers and sisters and all those in the line of fire be safe and sound.

***

As R’Mendel was finishing his message to us, his wife came running behind him, “Quick, air siren!” And his screen went blank.

Kharkiv has been bombarded since that day; we have no idea how many killed or injured.

***

Let’s pray. Let’s pray for Mendel. Let’s put those feelings into action, let’s allow our actions to engender the appropriate feelings. May Hashem hear our cries and may there be peace.

 

https://www.ou.org/watch-rabbonim-from-ukraine-discuss-the-crisis/

Dispatch from Ukraine

Ul’Ner Tamid Ekach Li

I remember once someone commenting to me how no one noticed their new glasses. “On the contrary,” I told them, “The best compliment is when something fits so perfectly that you don’t even realize it’s new.”

This past week, someone approached me after davening and said, “Have I lost my mind? Those words above the Aron were they always there?!”

They fit perfectly. They look magnificent. And I find them incredibly inspiring. I’d like to spend the next few moments sharing with you the story behind the words, what these words mean, and why I find them to be so moving.

The story begins in the mid-16th century. There was at that time, a spiritual revival taking place in Northern Israel. Israel was under Ottoman rule, and this allowed the country to become a safe-haven for Jews running from the Inquisition. Within a short amount of time, and with some extra help from the philanthropist, Gracia Mendes, cities like Teverya and Tzfat began to flourish. In addition to the material success, the region developed as a center for mystics, most famously, Tzfat was the home of the AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who revolutionized Kabbalistic thought.  

One of the many great Kabbalists in the region was a man by the name Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri. He composed the words of Yedid Nefesh… an evocative song we sing to welcome Shabbos and send her off. He also wrote a book called, Sefer Chareidim. The premise of the book is that we, each and every one of us, is a temple. For most of us, when we think of holiness, we think of a shul, we think of the Kotel, perhaps we even think of what once stood behind the Kotel, the Temple, the Bais Hamikdash. But Rav Azikri asks us to imagine, or to recognize that the Temple is you.

For our story to continue, we’ll need to fast-forward to the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. At around the same time that our shul decided to change its name from Greenspring Valley Synagogue to Ner Tamid, a man was reading this book and was quite moved by its message.  The man’s name was Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner He had studied at the University of Berlin and the top European Yeshivos. Ultimately, he moved to the US and influenced some of the most important teachers of Judaism in our day.

After Sefer Chareidim Rav Hutner penned the following:

Bilvavi mishkan evneh lahadar k’vodo – In my heart a sanctuary I shall build to the splendor of G-d’s honor.

Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo – and in the sanctuary an altar I shall place, to the rays of His glory.

The notion that our body is a sanctuary, is a temple, is about as 2022 as it gets. The notion that I am worthy of worship, that I am the center of attention, that I am the focal point dovetails quite nicely with our hyper-self-centeredness.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, his chart of human development, the highest rung is self-actualization, when I learn to utilize all my skills, talents, and experiences, to become the best version of me. That’s the purpose of life.

In Judaism, there is a rung above that one – it’s called self-negation. A healthy form of taking all those talents, skills, and experiences, and utilizing them for others. We are here, explain our great thinkers, to give. Not to make a name for ourselves and ensure that we have the best tombstone in the cemetery. No. We are here to make room for others. To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. The happiest marriages are those in which each spouse makes space for the other to be his or her self. Great parents make space for their children. Great leaders make space for their followers. Great teachers make space for their pupils.”

Yes, we are a temple. We are important. Each and every one of us is critical for the world to function. But we are here to serve. To serve our family, to serve our friends, to serve our co-workers, to serve the stranger. And ultimately, we are here to serve G-d.

“In my heart, I build a sanctuary,” not to me, but “to the splendor of His honor.” “And in the sanctuary I place an altar, to the rays of His glory.” – not my glory.  

The poem continues: Ul’ner tamid ekach li “And for an eternal light I take…”  What is this eternal light? What does the Ner Tamid symbolize? It symbolizes us. It symbolizes that we are here in this room.

There is a war going on in Europe and we will continue to pray for peace and the wellbeing of all those in the region. Why is it being fought? Among other reasons, Russia is attempting to regain its past glory. Will it be successful? We obviously don’t know. But surprising things happen. We were shocked when the wall came down in 1989, will we be shocked again when it goes back up? There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of America, of the US losing its status as a superpower. Will this change in our lifetime?

Anyone with an eye to history has to be open to this possibility. Every great empire thought they would live forever. Until they didn’t.

And as we think about the shifting sands of power, we should pause and think about ourselves. To quote Mark Twain: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.”

That is the Ner Tamid. The eternal light. That has somehow outlasted all those seismic changes. We are a light, not only in the fact of survival. But a light in that it shined. We shined. We stubbornly held on to values that seemed backward. We held on to beliefs that seemed archaic. With time, those backward ideas were embraced. To quote the Christian historian, Paul Johnson: “The world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

That’s the Ner Tamid, the eternal, shining light.

And where do we take this light from?

Me’eish Ha’akeidah. We take it from the fire of the Akeidah.

The Akeidah, in Jewish literature is a symbol. The original Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, was the first time we were asked to give up our life for our beliefs, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The destruction of the Temple was an Akeidah. The Crusades were an Akeidah. The Inquisition was an Akeidah. And of course, the Holocaust was a cataclysmic Akeidah.

But not only did these Akeidot, these moments of sacrifice not hold us down, they propelled us forward. Some of the most creative bursts of Jewish thought and practice were born out of the darkest of times. The development of the Mishna and the Talmud in the aftermath of Roman persecution, the explosion of mysticism that was rooted in Tzfat is a direct outgrowth of the Spanish Inquisition, and of course, in modern times, the establishment of the State of Israel and the unprecedented growth of Jewish knowledge that has taken place since the Holocaust.

Today we are reminded of two women who took the fire of their Akeidah, and built, and built magnificently. Sally and Bluma Saks, two sisters, born to a family of seven both endured the horrors of the Holocaust. By the time it was done, most of their family had perished, and they were left with scars that went deeper than we can ever imagine.

But both Bluma and Sally made a very conscious choice not only to survive, but to thrive. They chose to use their pain as a catalyst to give their children a life full of joy. To be a bridge between an old world and a new one. It would take hardship, it would take poverty, it would take overcoming language barriers, but none of that stopped them. Bluma, who many of us knew personally, could be seen whenever she was here with her tremendous smile. In the years prior, Bluma and her sister would be giving endlessly and selflessly to the shul, to the community, and to anyone and everyone who they saw. The fire of the Akeidah, the fire of their horrific past, burned bright in the most beautiful. It was the catalyst to ensure that the future would be sunny and bright for their descendants. And today, almost 20 descendants carry their legacy.

To conclude the song, the final stanza: “Ul’korban akriv lo es nafshi, and for an offering, I bring forth my soul, et nafshi hayechida, my unique soul.”

Rav Nachman of Breslov was quoted as saying: “The day you were born was the day that G-d decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.”

I would add, that every morning you wake up, G-d has decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.

Yes, we are here for others. But we, me, you, and you, and you, are each needed for a different purpose, have a different, have a different role to play in the tapestry of history. A role that only you can play. That is the naf’shi hayechida that we bring as an offering. Recognizing our place, our role, and our worth, and using it for a higher purpose.          

The story of this song that started in Tzfat, and continued in the poetry of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and was the lived experience of Bluma and Sally Saks, that story continues here, through us.

It is a story of dedication to others and to a higher cause – we are a temple for G-d, we dedicate our lives for the other. Bilvavi Mishkan evneh.

It is a story of surviving – we have been through it all and we will continue to be through all the changes that G-d and history have in store.

It is a story of thriving – we have all been through our own hardships. The Ner Tamid reminds us to shine, to learn and to grow and to never stop reaching higher, not despite the past, but growing through it.

It is a story of recognizing our unique worth, our singular soul: You are here on this earth because G-d decided that the world needs you. You are here in this shul today because G-d decided that you have a role to play. Figure it out. Use your unique powers.

And so, to the man who asked me if these words were always here, the answer is yes. We may not have seen them, but they have animated every part of this shul’s life. Jews who wanted to live in suburbia and be connected to Hashem and to their traditions built this shul. And Jews who want to climb ever higher in their own growth, who want to be there for the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community, who recognize their own worth, the beauty of their tradition, the challenges and opportunities of modernity, these Jews, these Jews, will continue to hold that Ner Tamid up high.