Holy – Handle with Care Parshas Acharei Mos Kedoshim

How in the world can I convey to you the depth and breadth of emotions that I experienced over this past week in Israel?

At every intense moment, and there were plenty, I thought to myself, I wish you could be here so you could experience this yourself. Because there’s no way I could express with mere words what I felt so deeply in my heart. I wish we could have all been there experiencing it together.

Some of the experiences were cute, like the first time I tried paying for a taxi and my credit card wasn’t working. The taxi driver, being a fellow Jew, even though he didn’t know me for a hole in the wall, shrugged his shoulders. “Ain baaya. No problem.” And he let me go… It would have been nice to smile to one another and say, “Only in Israel.”

But there was so much more than just cute. What I really wanted you to experience were moments like Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terror, at the cemetery in Gush Etzion. Gush Etzion was formally founded in 1943. But in 1948, during the War of Independence, one village in the Gush, Kfar Etzion, surrendered to the Arab army, and subsequently 127 Jewish inhabitants of the village were massacred. In 1967, the Jewish People reclaimed that land. But those 127 loom large over this community. It’s a community that was built on their blood. So you could just imagine what emotions are at their cemetery on Yom Hazikaron.

And as I’m standing there at the cemetery, I meet Hillel Fuld, the brother of Ari Fuld, Hy’d. Ari was a well-known pro-Israel activist who after being stabbed by an Arab terrorist, chased the terrorist, and shot the terrorist just one second before he attempted to stab someone else. Ari succumbed to his wounds. His brother, Hillel has continued in the ways of his brother with a larger-than-life love of the Jewish People and the State of Israel. To stand next to that beacon of strength… I wish you were there to feel it.

And then I look up and see Rabbi Dee and his daughters, and I just start crying, how could you not? A man who just a few weeks ago, had two daughters and his wife taken from him by an Arab terrorist. I watch as he walks over to the Fuld family, to give them hugs, to offer them words of comfort… I wish you were there to cry with me at such strength, at such Ahavas Yisrael, such love for a fellow Jew.

It was a beautiful ceremony, with soldiers, and poems, and tefillos. And then, almost on cue, all the young men and women spread out around the cemetery, visiting different graves, and they started singing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder. Acheinu kol beis Yisroel, songs of brotherhood. Esa einai, songs of devotion. And finally, the ultimate song of faith, Ani Ma’amin, I believe in Mashiach, I believe in the resurrection of the dead. To hear and feel those sentiments coming from those not-so-innocent voices of young adults and teens who know first-hand what loss is… I wish you were there to experience what faith in G-d sounds like, feels like, tastes like. It was so tangible.

And then, that evening to stand shoulder to shoulder with five thousand people, mostly Americans who had made Aliyah, and to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut together at a Tefilah organized by the Orthodox Union. Someone once suggested to me that celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in America is like celebrating a birthday party without the birthday girl. It’s a nice analogy, but after celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel, I realize it doesn’t do justice. Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a birthday, it’s a wedding. It’s a wedding of a 2000-year-old bride who finally gets married.

I don’t even know why they put out chairs. Ten minutes into Hallel, the whole place was on their feet, dancing together – not just the teenagers, the adults! dancing with abandon. And singing together, Hodu laShem ki tov! Thank you, Hashem for you are good! You gave us this land! The land that we had yearned for, cried for, died for. You kept Your promise. Thank you!… I wish you were there to experience true chibas ha’aretz, authentic love of the land. Because nothing I could say or do can give you a sense of what you have experienced at that moment.

I wish you were there with me to meet the people of Israel. You have to be a romantic to live in Israel. The country is so small, but every person is larger than life. Our lives here are so predictable. In Israel, every person, on some level, is living a great drama. And that’s true for the people behind the counter to the people in high-tech, but it’s especially for the leaders of the country. I am not talking about political leaders. I wish you were there with me to meet Natan Sharansky, a man who inspired and inspires all of us to never give up hope. I wish you were there with me to meet the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Lau, the great poseik, Rav Asher Weiss, and the endless number of scholars who saturate the land with fully-immersive Torah study, with holiness. I wish you were there with me to meet Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of one of “the three boys” who was brutally murdered. During those times while we all prayed for the safety of those boys and ever since she has become a matriarch, Mama Rochel, is a beacon of life and light, of Torah scholarship and Jewish leadership. I was so moved to speak to her, I couldn’t talk. I just stood there, mumbled some words, while she patiently smiled…  I wish you were there with me to stand next to greatness, to grasp the sparks of inspiration these people give off.

You see what I mean? How can I convey those experiences to you with words? You had to be there. Better yet, you have to be there. Our Jewish lives are so poor compared to the richness of Judaism in the Holy Land. And yes, there are reasons not to make Aliyah, good reasons! But we need to visit as often as we can. We need to dream of Israel and all it represents as often we can. We need to know that we may have beautiful houses here, but we are not home. I wish you were there. I wish we could all be there, to taste it, to feel it, to live it.


But there is one thing I am happy you were not there to see. As I am sure you know, Israel is in the midst of a crisis. The judicial reform, a proposal by the current Israeli government to curb some of the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court has set off a firestorm. And as I quickly learned, it’s no longer about judicial reform. There has always been some low-burning tension, a divide between the religious and secular elements of Israel, but that divide is quickly turning into an abyss… I am happy you were not there to hear from leading intellectuals, Chareidi and secular, who think this may be the beginning of the end. I am happy you were not there to watch as a politician on a panel to discuss judicial reform encouraged hecklers to disrupt his political opponent instead of engaging in dialogue. I am happy you were not there to see and hear the deafening roar of protestors trying to intimidate politicians and observers like me from having any form of meaningful conversations. I am happy you were not there to listen to American leaders of Jewry share how disconnected they feel from Israel due to the judicial reform and by extension how disenfranchised they feel from Judaism. I am happy you were not there to see their despair. I wiped away more tears at those discussions than anywhere else on this highly emotional trip.

I couldn’t help but think of all the Gemaras that speak about the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple; Hatred. Sinas chinam. Had the Jewish People united against the Romans, Jewish history would have looked very different. But as Josephus relates, instead, they divided themselves into factions. By the time they were done fighting one another, the Romans walked in and finished us off.

I couldn’t help but think of American history. The American Civil War broke out how many years after independence? 78 years later. To be around for 75 years is not that long. That’s a frightening thought… I am glad you did not have the experience of shuddering like I did.


At the end of Acharei Mos, Hashem tells us to act morally in the land of Israel, “lest the land vomit you out, V’lo saki ha’aretz es’chem.” Vomit is a harsh word to use to describe exile. The Torah could have written, you’ll be kicked out of the land. What imagery is G-d trying to convey by describing our exile from the land of Israel as the land throwing up?

Rashi asks us to imagine a prince, who his whole life only ate the greatest of delicacies. He had refined taste, a sophisticated palate, and because of that, a sensitive stomach (something all the Ashkenazim in this room can easily relate to). One day he eats something disgusting. A regular person, you and me, okay, we’ll manage. But the prince with his refined sensibilities, his stomach couldn’t handle it. And so, he threw up.

That’s what it means that the land will vomit us out if we do not act appropriately. It’s G-d’s way of conveying that the land of Israel is holy, it is kadosh. Holy things are sensitive, they are fragile and they need to be handled with care.

As proud as we are in the accomplishments of the State of Israel, and there is a lot to be proud of, we cannot take any of it for granted. It is holy and being holy, it is fragile.

To assume that since we made it this far, there is nothing stopping us. To say, as so many politicians said these past few days, that we are confident in the future of Israel is the height of hubris. 2000 years ago, the Jews in the land of Israel were confident. The Gemara records that while the Romans were massacring one half of a city, the other half was partying, arrogantly oblivious to the impending doom. Look how far that confidence got them. In a few months, I am sure I am going to receive the question I receive every year, “Why are we still mourning the Temple? Why do we still describe Jerusalem as destroyed?” Yes, Jerusalem today is magnificent. But it’s holy, and precisely because it’s so holy, it could so easily crumble.

What I took out of my trip to Israel, more than anything else, is the need to live with a heightened sense of kedusha, of holiness. What all the people I met in Israel shared in common – that taxi driver, the Fuld family, Rabbi Leo Dee, the teens singing in the Gush Etzion cemetery, the men and women dancing on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Racheli Fraenkels, what they all have in common is that they live with a deep awareness of the fragility of it all. They have a delicacy and urgency to their being. They’ve learned the hard way to not take life for granted, and so they live every moment to the fullest. They do not assume that tomorrow will be better; they make it better. Precisely because of the fragility of life they live such rich and meaningful lives. That’s what holiness demands of us; to step it up, to not allow inertia to move us forward; holiness needs to be handled with care.  

Eretz Yisrael is kadosh; we cannot take her for granted. We need to do everything in our ability to bring peace and understanding among its people and among all the Jewish people, and that starts here. And we need to pray today more than ever for the true and full return to Zion.

But the land of Israel is not the only thing that is holy. So are we. Kedoshim tih’yu. We have a mandate to recognize the holiness that exists within. We can live crude and coarse lives, where every day spills right into the next, and before we know it, it’s over. Or we could choose to live like those holy Israelis, with a deep recognition of the fragility of life, awakening ourselves to the sensitivity of our sleeping souls, to live on fire – just like they do b’eretz hakodesh, in the holy land.

May we merit to see the true rebuilding of the land of Israel, and may we live our lives, wherever we find ourselves, with the sensitivity, care, and passion that our inner holiness demands.

We are All Survivors Parshas Shmini/ Yom Hashoah

There is a passage in this week’s parsha that is often invoked in the context of the Holocaust. After the tragic death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, two young men who were slated to be the next leaders of the Jewish People who were killed during the inauguration of the Mishkan, on what was to be a most joyous day, Moshe attempts to comfort his brother. He fails. Instead, we are told vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent. There were no words. No rationalizations, no words of comfort. There was simply nothing to say.

This silence is often invoked when facing personal tragedy that defies logic. And most certainly when facing the senseless death of six million of our brothers and sisters. What flimsy rationalizations can be offered? What shallow comfort can be found? Vayidom. We are silent.

The silence of Aharon finds new meaning in this day and age. Today, at a time when there are fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust to share their story, a new and eerie silence reigns. You and I can scoff at the ludicrous deniers of the Holocaust because we heard from survivors with our own ears. But what stories will our children hear? Vayidom, we are silent, not because we want to but because almost no one is left to speak.

On Seder night, we engaged in the peculiar act of Jewish remembrance, what Professor Yosef Yerushalmi described as “making the past present.” We spoke of the experience of leaving Egypt in the first-person. “In every generation, one must see themselves as they left Mitzrayim.” I believe we are at a juncture in history where we, those of us who are not survivors, but knew survivors, who heard their terrifying stories, need to share their stories for them. We need to see ourselves as if we left Auschwitz. We need to see ourselves as if we left Bergen-Belsen.  

That’s what I’d like to do this morning, share a few stories that I heard growing up from my grandparents. And I encourage you, if you’ve heard first-hand accounts from family, or from those who were not family, to share those with others, k’ilu, as if those stories are yours. Because on some level they are.

I’ll start with my grandmother. Unfortunately, I don’t have any stories to share about her. With rare exception, she never wanted to share what happened to her. And that silence, to me, is one of the most powerful and painful stories; the trauma that was never communicated verbally, but was communicated in every sigh, in every cigarette that she smoked, in every forced smile.

My grandfather, Yosef Shlomo, did share his story, not to his children, he wanted to protect them, but to us, his grandchildren, and I’d like to share with you just a little but about him.

He arrived in Auschwitz just a little before Shavuos. He found a Jew who had a pair of tefillin. Every day, after a difficult day of labor, he would wrap the tefillin and would daven by heart.

Right before Rosh Hashana, he got his hands on a shofar. He and his uncle decided, despite the incredible risk, they would blow the shofar in Auschwitz. They calculated the most distant place from Nazi guards, two people stood on watch, and they blew thirty blasts, blasts of deep and unbreakable faith, in the darkest place on earth.

On that same Rosh Hashana, he was walking across the grounds and heard the screams of children. There were about 100 children locked in a holding room who were going to be brought to the crematorium as soon it was emptied. Without thinking twice, he broke the door down and allowed the children to escape. Later in life, he bumped into a few of them in Israel.  

For all the spiritual heroism of the day, it was also a day that broke him.  He witnessed 1000 children go to the crematorium. He related to us how later that day when he went to pray, he seemed to forget the words. It took him years until he was able to talk to G-d again.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much more. He never went into too much detail about the conditions in Auschwitz or the emotions he experienced. I don’t think he had the capacity, after all that he went through, to even speak in those terms.

What I did know my whole life was that he and my grandmother were survivors. Though they didn’t speak about it much, it drove them.

Despite better financial prospects in the US, they made Aliyah, and for the first few years, my grandfather worked as a janitor and lived in poverty. Years later, they lost their youngest son who was fighting as an Israeli soldier in the war of ‘82. But they never complained.

On the contrary, their sense of gratitude and purpose shined through everything they did or said. My grandfather, after retiring spent his waking hours studying Torah. My grandmother volunteered at a local hospital until she was no longer mobile. The image of my grandfather which will stay with me forever is the incredible emotion he had when he said the bracha of shehechiyanu at Kiddush. “She’hechiyanu v’kiy’manu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh, that you gave me life, kept me alive, and brought me to this day.” He was so overwhelmed with emotions he could barely make it through the words.

Some may describe what they had as survivors’ guilt, but all I witnessed was survivors drive and survivors gratitude.


A few pessukim after the death of Nadav and Avihu, the Torah describes Aharon’s other two sons, Elazar and Isamar. They are referred to as bonov hanosorim, his surviving sons. 

Rashi comments that even though they weren’t with their brothers, even though they were nowhere near the heavenly fire that killed their brothers, clearly, they were also supposed to die, and they are therefore described as survivors. If something happened to their brothers, clearly, it could have happened to them.

What a profound and poignant idea – We are all survivors, whether our grandparents or parents lived through the Holocaust, or not. World history could have looked very different. Hitler was not only intending to destroy the Jews in Europe alone. All of us survived the Holocaust.

By referring to Elazar and Isamar as survivors, G-d was teaching us that we all need to live as survivors. To live with the knowledge that there is a Mengele at every corner, that we can so easily be sent to our death and to therefore live with gratitude for every breath we take. To live with the knowledge that no matter what difficulties we face there is the possibility of rebirth, of starting over again. To live with the knowledge that the heroism, the choices we make today, will be spoken about by our grandchildren years later, and make an impact on who they are.

Those who have lived through the hell of the Holocaust are mostly no longer with us, but we are all survivors, and we can and we must live accordingly.

Israel at 75 Acharon shel Pesach

I’d like to share with you a story of one of our greatest teachers, Nachmanides, also known as Ramban (an acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, and not be confused with Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon). Ramban was born in Spain in 1195, a physician by trade, but was best-known for authoring brilliant commentaries on the Chumash and the Talmud, and for his philosophical works.

This was still centuries before the Inquisition, but anti-Jewish sentiment was growing in Spain. One technique used by the church was to “prove Judaism wrong” by holding religious debates — a disputation — between a rabbi and a priest. Such undertakings were fraught with danger. If the rabbi lost, Jews would be forced to convert. If the rabbi won, things weren’t necessarily any better. In one disputation, the rabbi won the dispute, nonetheless, copies of the Talmud were burned by the cartload.

In 1263, King James of Spain authorized a disputation between Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani. Nachmanides reluctantly agreed to take part, only after being assured by the king that he would have full freedom of expression. King James, who had a complicated relationship with the church, agreed.

According to our sources, Nachmanides won the battle, but lost the war. His arguments earned the king’s respect and a prize of 300 gold coins, but the Church ordered Nachmanides to be tried on the charge of blasphemy. A friend tipped him off and so, in the middle of the night, Nachmanides, who was 72 at the time, fled his homeland never to return.

Five years later, in 1267, after a long and perilous journey, Nachmanides arrived at the port city of Acco. He had decided to make Aliyah. After a brief stay, he traveled to Jerusalem where he was struck by its desolation. Buildings were dilapidated and abandoned. There were so few Jews that he could not even find 10 men for a minyan! In a letter to his son, he wrote as follows:

“What can I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places, and the desecration is great. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Yerushalayim is the most desolate place of all!”

I imagine Nachmanides standing there in Israel, thousands of miles away from his homeland, knowing that he would never see his family again. I’m sure he realized that the golden era of Spain was slowly coming to an end; the Jewish future looked bleak. And he comes to the Promised Land, a place described in the Torah as overflowing with milk and honey, but instead, what meets his eyes is utter desolation. 

And yet, amazingly, Nachmanides was hopeful. He recalled a passage in the Torah, in what is known as the tochacha, in which God describes the terrible suffering the Jewish People would go through. The land of Israel during this period of exile is described as follows:

“So devastated will I leave the land, that your enemies who live there will be astonished… Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.”

In his commentary to the Chumash – something he started writing upon arriving in Yerushalayim, he explains that those words “Your land will remain desolate,” words that are in the middle of a string of curses, are actually a blessing to the Jewish People. That verse, he argued in a fantastically creative leap from the simple text, was actually a reassurance from G-d. And I quote: “That which God states here, “Your land will remain desolate” constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our land will not accept our enemies! This is a great proof and assurance to us, for in the entire inhabited world one cannot find such a good and large land which was always lived in, and yet is as ruined as it is [today]. For since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it, but to no avail.” 

As creative of a read as it was, he had a good point. Throughout the many centuries since the Jewish People were exiled from their land, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling the land, Israel for two thousand years remained a wasteland. As Mark Twain wrote in the late 19th century, “A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.”

Somehow, in the ruins of Yerushalayim, Nachmanides saw a fulfillment of G-d’s promise that the land was waiting for the Jews to return. He understood that the destruction of the land was an incredible testimony to the bond between G-d and His people. He saw in the barren wasteland a living proof that G-d had not forsaken us. G-d made a promise to us, and He would keep it. G-d seemed so distant and removed from the world. The dark clouds of the Inquisition were descending over his native land. The temptation to convert was stronger than ever. And yet, Nachmanides saw through the land of Israel that G-d was sending him and all the Jewish People a message – “I am not that far away.” If one listened closely enough, with a sensitive ear like of Ramban, one could hear G-d whisper, ever so softly – “Look at this land! It makes no sense! How can a land that was at one point so fruitful become such a wasteland? It’s because I’m holding on to the land for you” said G-d. “I’m waiting for your return.” 

The Ramban’s tenacity and optimism are part of a long tradition. He was quite literally walking in the footsteps of another great sage who lived in Yerushalayim about a thousand years before him. The Talmud relates how Rabbi Akiva was once walking through the ruins of Yerushalayim with his colleagues. They had witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, they had lived through fierce and bloody battles, and on this one morning, they found themselves walking near the Temple Mount, or should I say, the former Temple Mount. There was nothing there. It was a razed field – a deliberate slap in the face by their Roman oppressors. And to add insult to injury, just as they walked by, a fox ran right over the space on which the Holy of Holies stood. The rabbis could not contain themselves, and they burst out into mournful crying. But Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. Shocked, they stopped crying, and asked him to explain himself. “Why are you laughing?”

“There is a verse in the book of Zechariah,” he told them, “Which speaks of foxes running through a desolate Jerusalem.” They nodded their heads. “But there’s another verse, this one in Isaiah, in which Zechariah and another prophet by the name of Uriah are mentioned. Uriah’s most famous prophecy is one we sing at weddings – “Od yishama, we will yet hear in the cities of Judah… the song of joy and happiness.” Now clearly, there is meant to be a connection between the two. It would seem that when the prophecy of Zechariah, of foxes running through a desolate Yerushalayim will be fulfilled, then the uplifting prophecies of Uriyah will be fulfilled as well!  When we see foxes running through the temple mount, it is G-d’s way of telling us that the prophecy of Uriah, that song and joy will fill the street of Yerushalayim, will also be fulfilled.”

Did you follow that? A little convoluted, right? That’s exactly my point. You see, for two thousand years, our greatest thinkers had to come up with the most creative leaps of faith, difficult, maybe even stretched explanations to find hope in the desperate darkness. But today? In 2023? Who needs creativity? Who needs Talmudic reasoning?  

If Nachmanides were to travel to Israel today, he wouldn’t write home about destruction. He would probably write a letter to his son describing Tel Aviv. 100 years ago, it was a patch of sand dunes, and it now boasts a population of just under half a million residents. He would describe Petach Tikvah, at one point a swamp infected by malaria, now a flourishing city that doesn’t stop growing. He would write about the economy that boasts the second-largest number of startup companies in the world, after the United States, and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America. He would describe a land overflowing with life and trees. Did you know that Israel exports tulips to Holland?! That Israeli wine makers export to France?!

At this point in history, you wouldn’t need to be a Rabbi Akiva or a Ramban to interpret verses creatively. Anyone who owns a Chumash can open it up and see for themselves. Any one of us can open Yechezkel to read a crystal-clear prophecy from over two thousand years ago: “Mountains of Israel shall give forth your branch and bear fruit for My people Israel.” Fulfilled in our days!  

Any one of us can recall the prophecies of Isaiah who described how G-d will one day gather Jews from all across the world, vikabeitz nidacheinu mei’arbah kanfos ha’aretz, G-d will ingather the Jewish People from all corners of the earth. Every plane-load of olim is a fulfilment of this promise!

G-d is no longer whispering to us that He has held on to His promise. He is shouting, loud and clear. That same land that was for so long forsaken, is now overflowing with milk and honey. I don’t typically share miracle stories. They’re not for me. I find my inspiration elsewhere. But the State of Israel is a miracle we cannot ignore.

I wish I could go back in time, to visit my great-grandparents right before they were gassed by the Nazis. I wish I could whisper to them what would happen in just a few years – the State of Israel would be born! Yerushalayim would be ours! Ha Habyit b’yadeinu! There would be a Jewish army – and they would be powerful! “How could it be?” they would ask. It’s a miracle, they would shout. And they would be right.

For most of us, our great-grandparents and grandparents are no longer here. For some, it is parents who we are missing. How jealous would they be of us to be living at this time? And how would they respond?

For all the political instability, for all the truly unspeakable terror that we witnessed these past few days, we are living in miraculous times. Hodu laShem ki tov! For the State of Israel to have been born, dayeinu. For the State of Israel to have reached 75, there are no words to express the emotion for a miracle of such magnitude. So, let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of redemption, to appreciate the gift that our ancestors yearned for two thousand years. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of thanksgiving, to thank G-d for what our ancestors had to imagine, and we can see with our own eyes. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of hope, to be inspired by the hope of those who came before us, so that we merit to see not only reishit tz’michat Ge’uloteinu, the messy beginnings of redemption, but the complete redemption speedily in our days. Amen!

TikTok, the Korban Chatas, and the Value of Extremism

Who here has ever flicked on a light on Shabbos by mistake?

Who here has ever forgotten they just ate some meat and ate a piece of dairy chocolate by mistake?

Who here has ever washed their hands before eating bread and spoke by mistake?

It happens, right? And when it happens, we probably feel bad for a second, then we shrug our shoulders, say, whoops, and move on. Right?

Who here has forgotten a birthday or anniversary of a loved one? Did you shrug your shoulders and say whoops?

You may have, but that probably didn’t end well.

At the end of the day, it’s just a mistake. Why is my spouse throwing things at me and breaking all the China?

Your spouse is throwing things at you because although it is indeed a mistake, deep down, if something is really important to us, if we really cared, it’s unlikely we would have made a mistake.

That is the premise of the Korban Chatas, a sin offering, that we learned about this morning. This offering which was not cheap and took a lot of time to prepare was not brought for a deliberate sin. It was brought when we made a whoops. We are mandated to bring this expensive, time-consuming offering, we are told that we need to atone because we make mistakes when we are careless, not careful. We make mistakes because deep down, we don’t really care.

Now you may think you care; you may genuinely believe that you care. You may be yelling and screaming, I really care about Shabbos, I just forgot that it’s Shabbos. I really care about you honey, I just forget that it’s your birthday.

But the Torah, by mandating a kaparah, an atonement, for these mistakes, is telling us that deep down, so deep we may genuinely be completely unaware of those feelings, but deep down we don’t care or we just don’t care enough, and therefore we are guilty. I hope I’m not causing shalom bayis issues with this talk…

We often say we care about things, and we truly think we care, but we often don’t know what we really care about.

The greatest proof to this is – TikTok. That’s right, TikTok, the social media best known for silly videos of teens dancing.

The CEO of TikTok spent Thursday on Capitol Hill getting grilled by politicians, mostly about the possibility of the app being used by the Chinese as a spying tool. Now there are many ways the Chinese spy on the US, some subtle, some balloon-in-the-sky-not-so-subtle. Why is congress so worked up about TikTok?

The simple answer is that TikTok is ridiculously popular. From the Washington Post – “TikTok’s website was visited last year more often than Google. No app has grown faster past a billion users, and more than 100 million of them are in the United States, roughly a third of the country. The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day — more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram, combined. And while half of TikTok’s U.S. audience is younger than 25… the industry analyst eMarketer expects its over-65 audience will increase this year by nearly 15 percent. AARP last year even unveiled a how-to guide.”

Why is TikTok so popular?

One simple reason – TikTok knows you better than you know yourself.

Most social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, ask you what your interests are. Or, they ask you to follow people. The algorithm then goes ahead and sends you videos or posts based on your choices of what you want. Or – what you think you want.

TikTok doesn’t care what you say. They calculate how long you linger on a particular video. They calculate every time you swipe a certain type of video. They build your personal profile not through the conscious choices you make, but base entirely on your behaviors. As one columnist recently put it, “I’m one TikTok away from walking into my next therapy session and simply handing (my therapist) my [TikTok] ‘For You’ page in place of explaining how I am.” If you want to know what you really care about, go download TikTok – after Shabbos. The reason this social media app is so popular is because it really gets us; it understands us better than we understand ourselves.

And so the next time we make a mistake and we tell ourselves, it was a real honest mistake, it’s worth remembering that maybe just maybe, I think I care, but I don’t. Despite the most sophisticated self-awareness, there are levels of consciousness that may be beyond our reach. I may click, Follow Shabbos, Follow Love, but deep down, there may be something else going on. And that’s why we have the Korban Chatas – through our mistakes, we are given a window not into who we think we are, but who we really are.

 But that’s not where the Korban Chatas ends, nor is it where TikTok ends.

The goal of the sin-offering is not just self-awareness. Some people love therapy because they get to talk about themselves endlessly. Not only that, but someone is listening to them. But that’s not Judaism’s view of growth. Self-awareness for the sake of self-awareness is just self-gratification. Self-awareness needs to breed self-transformation. Don’t be yourself. Be better.

TikTok’s power is not only that it can tell us who we are; it can also change us. In my opinion, the most insidious feature of TikTok is not the Chinese. It’s the fact that it’s changing our minds – especially the highly malleable minds of teenagers. A critical life skill is the ability to delay gratification. I could spend time in school because in a decade from now, it will pay off. I will be a faithful spouse because even though I may have some instant gratification, it will ruin a lifetime. I will save money and not have as much fun right now so that I will be able to pay for needed expenses in the future. In a world, or on an app where I’m getting dopamine hits every twenty seconds, our ability to self-regulate, to have patience, to make wise choices, it’s all out the window. That’s just one of countless examples. Social media is changing the way we think and the way we act. There are significant studies that are showing that social media is the prime cause of the explosion of mental health issues in teenagers these days.  

And while that’s depressing, it’s also uplifting. Because that means we can change. If by spending eighty minutes a day on an app, we can become more impatient, then with some work and time, we can become more patient. If we can become more judgmental, we can become more accepting. If we could become more critical, then we can become more complimentary. We can change who we are.

That’s what we’re doing when we bring a korban. It’s not just an act of self-awareness. I now realize that I don’t care enough about Shabbos, my community, my spouse, G-d, whatever it may be. But that’s not enough. We then spend time finding the perfect animal and then we take it to the Kohein, who goes ahead and slaughters it in front of our eyes, sprinkles its blood all over the place, chops it up, and throws half the animal on the altar. And you’re thinking this is gross. This is disgusting. I feel like I want to vomit. How does this work?

The Ramban says that is exactly the point. The experience at the Temple, with the blood splashing everywhere, and the animals screaming, and the fire, is meant to be a shocking experience. It is meant to be so intense that it catapults us into a whole new way of life.  

There are two ways to change ourselves; one is day in and day out, small adjustments that with time make a big difference. But there is a different way to change – a moment of intensity. A powerful experience. Something so intense, so overwhelming that we just can’t go back to our old way of life.

Says the Ramban, you go to the Bais Hamikdash, you’re over-awed by its beauty, overtaken by the powerful music, and then your animal is taken, your animal is slaughtered, your animal’s blood is sprinkled – that moment of intensity can change your forever.

I’ve been on a bit of a crusade for the past few years, telling people that Pesach preparation should not be intense. I gave a class three weeks ago, titled, cleaning your house for Pesach in twenty minutes. Last week I gave a class on how to have a Kosher for Pesach kitchen without a single piece of tinfoil. And I stand by all that I said. Pesach does not have to be stressful.

But there’s a counterpoint which needs to be mentioned. There is something beautiful about intensity. Do you have to kasher your countertops and cover them? No. Is treating corn syrup as kitniyos a tremendous stringency? Yes. Is moving every couch, checking every suit pocket, flipping through every book in your home to find chameitz really necessary? Not it is not. And we do not have to. But a little bit of intensity can do us well. It can change who we are.  

Rav Tzadok HaKohein observes that the very first Korban Pesach was celebrated with extra intensity; they ate quickly, they moved quickly, they acted in a deliberately extreme fashion. Rav Tazdok explains that to transform from a slave into a free person, to change from one type of person into someone else entirely, you can’t just take baby steps. You need to jump into a new reality. You need to be extreme. You need to be a little crazy.

It’s not only good for us, it’s good for our children. We’re constantly trying to crack the algorithm on how to inspire our children. Many suggest we chill out, we make Judaism light, because if it’s too intense, the children won’t take to it. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out that the two Jewish holidays that are most widely celebrated are Yom Kippur and Pesach – the two that make the greatest demands on us, the two that are the most extreme.

Pesach is a time of change. Change begins by learning who we are, by being open to the fact that as great as our self-awareness may be, there’s always more to learn. But we don’t stop there. Self-awareness is a means to an end. Through self-awareness we transform. Sometimes with small steps and small changes, and sometimes with acts of intensity. I hope and pray that the next week is a calm one for all of us, but I also encourage you to make space for just a little bit of crazy.


How to Properly Prepare for Pesach Parshas Hachodesh

Have you started planning for Pesach yet? Are you cleaning? Cooking? Making a menu? Pulling your hair out?

If we were living in ancient Egypt at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus, we would be chilling right now. Really. We weren’t working for the Egyptians – they had given up on us a few months prior. We did not yet know if and when we were leaving. I honestly don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they were getting camel rides or tours of the pyramids.

We read this morning (from the second Torah) that the Jewish People were introduced to the holiday of Pesach only fourteen days before it took place. That means that Pesach preparation would not start until this upcoming Thursday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan. You probably think that those two weeks were crazy; frenetic activity, getting ready for the very first Pesach seder, and even more so, getting ready to leave Egypt. But I don’t think it was as busy as you imagine. 

Were the Jewish People spending their time cleaning their homes from chameitz?

No. The average size of an Egyptian home in 2000 BCE was about the size of a two-car garage. They were far more economical with their food. Hardly anything went to waste. How long would it take you to clean an already fairly clean two-car garage? An hour? Maybe.  

Were they cooking?

No. They were only eating one meal at home and the main course, the lamb, was prepared on the eve of Pesach.

Were they packing?

Not really. Most Egyptians in that era, even wealthy ones, had almost no furniture. Poor Egyptians did not use dishes. Eating utensils did not exist. (That’s what we have fingers for.) They typically had a mortar, a pestle, a pot, a pan, and a bowl for storing things.

In terms of clothing, kids under six, did not wear any clothing… The adults had one pair of clothing – which they were wearing. So, when the Jewish People left Egypt there were no U-hauls. It probably took them fifteen minutes to pack.

For those keeping track, we are up to hour and fifteen minutes of prep time.

Perhaps they were borrowing objects from their neighbors, as they were instructed to do. Let’s give them a day to do that.

The men were getting circumcised. I assume they needed a few days to recover.

So, if we were being generous with their time, they needed at most a week to prepare for Pesach. And if that’s so, if my math and history are correct, the Jewish People really had oodles of time at their disposal, so why did G-d inform them about Pesach two weeks before it started? What were the Jewish People supposed to be doing during that time? Was He trying to just get us anxious?! What was that time for?


Clearly, no one was listening to the Torah reading today. Because the answer is right there. G-d says, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem, this month is the first month of the Jewish year.” And then, “On the tenth of the month, you should go a get a lamb to slaughter.” It’s quite clear that the reason G-d tells the Jewish People about Pesach fourteen days before it happens is for one reason and one reason only – to give them a heads up about the Pascal Lamb.

Now of course, this doesn’t fully answer our question. If they were not going to take the lamb until the tenth of the month, and not going to roast the lamb until the 14th of the month, why do they need to know about this Mitzvah two weeks in advance?

So, if you were listening to the Torah reading… you would know that there is a law about the Korban Pesach – lo sosiru mimenu ad boker, there were to be no leftovers. The entire lamb had to be eaten on the night of Pesach.

How many people could a lamb feed?

According to our good friends at bigroast.com, a regular sized lamb can feed… 45 people!

So, if you needed to make sure that there were no leftovers, and assuming your family size was let’s just say, 8 people, you needed to invite guests. A lot of guests.

I believe the extra week was given to the Jewish People for this reason alone; to invite guests for Pesach.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that this is precisely why we were instructed to make sure there were no leftovers; to ensure that the Pesach Seder would not be experienced alone. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who are not simply focused on their own survival and wellbeing. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who care about others.

This is why we begin the Seder with an invitation to guests. How do we begin the section of Maggid? “Ha lachma anya, this is the bread of affliction, kol dichfin, yeisi v’yechol, whoever is hungry, come and eat.”

It’s a bizarre passage. Who exactly are we inviting when we say those words? Our friends and family are already at the table with us when it’s said.

The Avudraham, a 14th century Spanish Torah scholar, relates that it was a genuine invitation. In his time, people would actually open their doors at the beginning of the seder and call out those words – “If you’re hungry, come and join me.” People in need would be waiting in the streets for these invitations. This practice was a perpetuation of the very first Pesach seder, in which no one ate alone, every person was accounted for. Though we no longer do this, by saying those words at the beginning of the seder, we remind ourselves of this beautiful custom. It’s so central to the night, that it is the opening passage in the section of Maggid. It’s to remind us that sharing, caring, ensuring that we are not just focused on ourselves is the primary feature of a free and dignified person.

The most shocking and devastating section in the book, Night, by Elie Wiesel, describes a German throwing a scrap of bread to a group of starving Jews. Wiesel relates how the Jews, who haven’t eaten for days start fighting viciously over the tiny piece of food. One man is victorious; he proudly holds up the crust of bread after wrestling it away from everyone else. And then he’s pounced upon by another starving man, who beats him, and ultimately beats him to death. Wiesel drily comments that it was a son who killed his own father for a piece of bread.

That’s what starvation does to a person. It turns them into an animal. That’s what a slavery does to a person. They become entirely focused on survival and self-preservation.

And so, on the weeks leading up to Pesach, the Jewish People were told, you are no longer slaves; you are free. You are no longer focused only on survival; you are dignified. You are no longer subject to the rules of our base inclinations; you are a master of your own destiny. You are no longer a taker; you are a giver.

For two weeks the Jewish People went around, checking in on their neighbors, especially those who didn’t have a family of their own, or those who didn’t have an intact family, or those who had less than the other Jews, and invited them to the Pesach seder.

Maybe they were turned down. But I hope that didn’t dissuade them. Perhaps they offered to walk near them as they travelled into the frightening desert to provide some moral support. Perhaps they made a mental note to check in with them at some later time in the year knowing that it wasn’t only Pesach that these people struggled. Perhaps they invited them to a different meal at a different time or take them out for the Egyptian equivalent of a coffee. There are many ways to make sure that those who are lonely feel a little less alone.

I imagine that stuffing 45 people into a home the size of a two-car garage was not so comfortable. Maybe some of the guests made them a little uncomfortable. But freedom is not always comfortable. Doing the right thing is not always comfortable.

We have two weeks and five days to prepare for Pesach – that’s five more days than our ancestors. Cleaning our homes from chameitz is important. Having a delicious Pesach menu is great. But real freedom, the freedom that our ancestors tasted in the days leading up to Pesach, is the freedom to share. Not everyone can have 45 people at their seder. But every single one of us can and must make sure that no one, no one at all, is left feeling alone.

The Ethic of Hate Parshas Zachor

I usually sing a pardoy sing on Parshas Zachor. A few years ago, it was Hamilton, last year a song from Encanto. This year, I asked some people which song I should cover. One friend suggested I cover a song called, Unholy. I found the song on YouTube… and about ten seconds into the song, I turned it off. And deleted my search history…

Someone else suggested I take one of the songs Rihanna sang at the Superbowl. I did not watch the game or the halftime show, so I asked her what she sang… and I quickly decided, no.

It reminded me of an experience I had in high school. I went to a Yeshiva high school and the school’s rule was that we were not allowed to be in possession of CD’s with non-Jewish music. A friend of mine had one of his CD’s confiscated; it was an Eminem album. Our principal was a very wise and out of the box thinker. Instead of getting this boy in trouble, he preferred to teach us why this rule existed. So the next day, he walked into our class with a print out of all the lyrics and started reading them, without skipping nay words. There were Eminem lyrics. For those of you who don’t know who he is, G-d bless you. For those who do, you could just imagine our faces turning colors as this bearded rabbi made us squirm in our seats.

He was trying to make a point. It’s not “just music.” There are messages that are problematic. Or maybe that’s too mild of a word. There are messages that are wrong. Immoral. Incorrect. And we should not be listening to them.

It took me a long time to appreciate his message, but it eventually sunk in, and I’d like to share how and why, but first let me tell you about a class I did not give this past week. Earlier this week, I spoke at WIT, the Women’s Institute of Torah. When they invited me, knowing that I’d be speaking a few days before Parshas Zachor, I offered to give a lecture on the morality of destroying Amaleik; the Mitzvah that we read about today, how we are mandated to destroy the men, women, and children of the nation of Amaleik. I was hoping to address the moral quandary; how could G-d command us to commit genocide? The organizers suggested that I choose a different topic; “The attendees,” I was told, “are not bothered by this question. If G-d says to do it, then we do. No. questions. asked.”

I was quite taken by that comment. On the one hand, I admire anyone who has such submission to G-d, that no matter what He says, we recognize that He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, good and evil, and so if it’s a Mitzvah, it is, by definition, positive. There’s a part of me that wishes I had that type of humility and faith. If G-d said so, it’s good.

On the other hand, I can’t ignore that fact that I am troubled by this Mitzvah. Why are we instructed to kill not only the soldiers, not only the men, but the women and children of this nation of Amaleik? Why are we instructed to kill not only the Amaleikim who attacked us in the desert, but all of their descendants? What did they do wrong?!

We are not the first to grapple with this question. It’s worth noting that the Rambam’s position on this Mitzvah is that we are to kill them only if they reject our overtures for peace; if they agree to live peacefully with the Jewish People, then the Mitzvah of destroying Amaleik does not apply.

While that makes it a little easier to understand, most commentators and understand the Mitzvah to destroy Amaleik applies even if they claim to want to live peacefully with the Jewish People. Instead, the Ramban and Abarbanel describe Amaleik as a nation that is intrinsically immoral. There is something in their spiritual DNA that is broken and unfixable. This is why we are commanded to destroy them.

I imagine for many of you, myself included, that does not sit so well. Does it?

Thankfully, this is an academic discussion. The nation of Amaleik no longer exists. And so, there is no group of people whom we are commanded to destroy. And yet, despite its seeming irelevance, we read Parshas Zachor every year. It is the only Torah reading of the entire year that is Biblically mandated. We are going to have a second reading of Parshas Zachor after davening for those who missed the first one. It is quite clearly a critical passage with an eternal message. What is it? What are we, in 2023, with no Amaleik in sight, expected to learn from this passage that elevates the genocide of a particular nation?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in his commentary on the Megillah, provides an incredibly important idea that puts the destruction of Amaleik in a brand-new and especially relevant light. He begins by acknowledging the dangers of hatred. Hatred is poisonous. Hatred is blinding. Hatred is contagious and toxic. And yet, hatred is also important, even critical, for a moral society to exist. Because if we tolerate evil, if we are forever looking for the good in others, if we are unwilling to say something is wrong, if we close our ears to physical or spiritual threats, then not only does the wolf devour the lamb, but the moral fabric of our society gets shred into pieces.

And so, in Judaism, we use a word that Western society has done away with – sin. And in Judaism, sinners are punished for their sins. “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,” is not a Jewish idea. Neither is the modern application of this idea, where all is relative and contextual. Last year a movie came out called Joker. It shared a backstory to the infamous Batman nemesis. By the time you were finished the movie, you were meant to feel compassion for this man who (in the movie) kills innocent people. It’s part of a genre of movies in which there is no such thing as evil, but that’s an insidious idea. Meaning, we do not diagnose and therefore excuse Hitler because he was paranoid. We do not diagnose and therefore excuse Stalin because he was schizophrenic. No. We read in today’s Haftorah how one of our greatest prophets, Shmuel, upon hearing that Agag, the king of Amaleik was spared, took a knife and executed him on his own. Hate, when properly directed, is of value, it reflects a conviction that we acknowledge and differentiate between good and evil.

And so, we are commanded to hate. Yes, hate. Because “Ohavei Hashem, those who love G-d,” writes King David, “sinu ra, they hate evil.” Indifference to evil is not a moral value, it’s a reflection of moral apathy. Someone with a strong sense of right and wrong has an emotional response to evil. “This” explains Rabbi Lamm, “is the basic motif of the commandment to read the Biblical portion of Amalek, and to observe the festival of Purim.” It’s not all fun and games.


I am not a very hateful person. I get angry like everyone else. I get frustrated at people. But I don’t recall hating someone; it’s just not in my psyche. Rabbi Lamm is teaching us, teaching me that that is a problem. Being too forgiving, too understanding, too accepting is morally flawed. We need to live with conviction. We need to care deeply about the world around us. We cannot shrug when we hear of someone doing something evil. It needs to hurt. We cannot dismiss every evil act with rationalizations, their terrible childhood, or the difficulties with which they live, or some other explanation. And for the same reason we cannot listen or take in videos or even music that normalizes twisted behavior. We need to call out evil when we see it. “Ohavei Hashem, sinu ra. One who truly loves G-d and good, despises what is evil.”


But please note, in 2023, without a living, breathing Amaleik, hatred is an emotion, it’s a feeling we are encouraged to experience, but it is not an action. Yes, “hakam l’harg’cha hashkeim l’horgo,” when someone attacks us or threatens us, we are allowed and even encouraged to fight back against the attacker – and the attacker only, to prevent harm, even if that means taking a life. But beyond the emotion of hatred, we are not to act on it. In Jewish law and thought, there is no justification for vengeance carried out by man. There is no justification for allowing our emotions to spill over into violent or even destructive actions. There is no justification to take the law into one’s own hands. When people burn down a city in response to evil, that is not taking the law into one’s hands. That too is evil.   

The Maharal of Prague was once asked, “The Sages teach us to emulate G-d’s compassion and kindness. ‘Mah hu rachum, af ata rachum. Why are we not instructed to emulate G-d’s vengeance and wrath? The Torah also describes G-d’s rage and violence?”

The Maharal explained that we should, but we can’t. It’s impossible to perfectly calibrate any emotion, but if we make a mistake and love someone a little too much, nisht geferlech, it’s not the end of the world. But if we make a mistake and hate someone excessively, the damage is too great, and so we don’t.

We hate in our hearts, we hate in our minds, but we do not hate with our hands, nor do we even hate with our words.

We act in self-defense. We have an IDF that protects us.

We have, if we need to, the right to defend ourselves if attacked, to even preempt an attack if we know of someone in particular who is out to get us.

And we spend time on Purim, reflecting on all those who tried to kill us, physically and spiritually. We stamp then out. We boo them. It is immoral not to hate evil.

But when hate gets out of control, when we cannot distinguish between Amaleik and other gentiles, when we cannot distinguish between terrorists and Arabs – yes, even those who live in a city filled with terrorists, when we cannot distinguish between thought and action, that too is immoral, and terribly dangerous.


The State of Israel is going through one of its most difficult times. It’s a tinderbox of powerful emotions that can, at any moment, heaven forbid, explode. It’s already starting to explode. They need our prayers. They need our support. They need our modeling, how to be filled with conviction without taking undue action.

I conclude with a hope and prayer from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm: “I want (them) [my children],” he wrote, “to know that there is a moral law which requires that those who have placed themselves outside morality deserve not our love but our contempt. I want my children to have available for themselves the psychological relief in hating those who deserve it, so that,” and here are the key words – “they can relate to all others constructively and lovingly. I want them to be halakhic Jews, and thus to handle hatred with extreme circumspection and caution and great care; and so, in effect, they will hate without hurt, and express their innate hostility toward evil by stamping and stomping and groggering … By restricting our hatred to evil and those who personify it … by chanting the commandment to obliterate Amalek and by hissing and booing at the mention of Haman’s name, we shall learn to act lovingly to all [of] G-d’s creatures.”