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Yom Kippur 5778 Self-Definition

 

There are certain questions that are bound to bring about anxiety.  We know the question is coming, and it is almost never asked with ill intent.  But still, we can drive ourselves crazy thinking about how we will answer the question, and then spend the next hour analyzing the answer we gave.

To give one example:  when I was the Rabbi at Brandeis I would walk on egg shells every time I ran into a senior during the second semester.  Social norms require me to ask what their plans are for next year.  But I also knew that for so many seniors whose plans were up in the air as they awaited responses from grad schools or job applications, this innocent question could bring on a full-blown anxiety attack.

Recently, I’ve acquired my own anxiety-inducing question:  “What do you do?”

As many of you know, I recently completed an MBA and during the week I work as a financial analyst.  My friends are still surprised to hear me say that I went to business school or that I have anything to do with a position with the name “financial” in the title.  People that I work with do not know what to do make of it when I tell them that I am a Rabbi.   And in the office building where I work, which is occupied 100% by Orthodox Jews, I am fairly certain that I am the only one in the building with the Semicha.  I am also the least frum person in the building.  At least in Baltimore, such a statement makes sense.

Indeed, we all face dilemmas when it comes to defining ourselves and who we are.

Yom Kippur davening offers a few models how to answer the question of how we define ourselves.

  1. Yonah – עברי אנכי

We will recall the story of Yonah:

  • Yonah is told by Hashem to go and prophesy to the city of Ninveh that if they do not improve their ways, Hashem will destroy them and their city
  • Instead of going on Hashem’s mission, Yonah runs away on a ship headed to a far-off land.
  • Hashem brings a storm.  All the sailors on the boat pray to their gods to no avail.  While this is happening Yonah is sleeping.  They wake him up and he tells them that he is to blame for the storm because he has run away from Hashem.
  • Yonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant whale.  Yonah prays to Hashem and is freed from the whale
  • He goes to Ninveh and delivers Hashem’s message.  The people repent.

In his encounter with the sailors when he explains that he is to blame because he has run away from Hashem, Yonah uses an interesting term.   וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם עִבְרִי אָנֹכִי  I am a Hebrew (Ivri)

The term עברי/Ivri   is first used in the Torah in relation to Avraham.  And R. Yehudah offers a fascinating explanation of this phrase

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח
רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

R. Yehudah – all the world was on one side and he stood alone on the other.

To be an ivri means to stand in opposition to the world around you.

Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction to the Koren YK Machzor:

To be a Jew is not to go with the flow, to be like everyone else, to follow the path of least resistance, to worship the conventional wisdom of the age.  To the contrary, to be a Jew is to have the courage to live in a way that is not the way of everyone.  Each time we eat, drink, pray or go to work, we are conscious of the demands our faith makes on us, to live God’s will and be one of His ambassadors to the world.  Judaism always has been, perhaps always will be, counter-cultural…The sages said that Abraham was called haIvri because all the world was on one side and Abraham on the other.  To be a Jew is to swim against the current, challenging the idols of the age whatever the idol, whatever the age.

On Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our religious and spiritual lives, we are reminded what it means to be a Jew, an עברי.    We must be prepared to answer, “What do we stand for?”  “Wat unpopular positions do I take?”  What unpooular position am I prepared to take?”

2. Nadav and Avihu

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur comes from Parshat Achararei Mot, which opens with mentioning the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

ויקרא טז:א
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

Why does the Torah introduce the description of the Yom Kippur service with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?  This is an especially troubling question when we consider that the story of their death has already been recorded with great detail in chapter 10.  So why repeat it now?

I always understood it as follows:
The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aharon. Because Aharon was so deeply affected by his sons’ deaths, he heard and internalized the details as well as the overall purpose of Yom Kippur differently.  Aharon must serve as the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur as he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed.  His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own sons.  Aharon is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.

Part of our self-definition must include the capacity to empathize with others.  Empathy means to identify with someone else – to expand the definition of the self.  This is certainly addressed by the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the YK Torah reading.

I came across another explanation for the inclusion of Nadav and Avihu in the Yom Kippur Torah reading in the Ba’er Heitev commentary to the Shulchan Aruch.

באר היטב או”ח תרכ”א:א
אחרי מות. והמצטער על מיתת בני אהרן ומוריד דמעות עליהם בי”כ מוחלין עונותיו ובניו אין מתים בחייו זוהר והאר”י ז”ל.

One who is saddened over the deaths of Aharon’s sons and cries for them on YK, his sins are forgiven and his children will not die during his life.

This seems a bit extreme.  How can a person have so much emotion and empathy for something that happened thousands of years ago?

R. Chaim Shmuelevitzz” l, who was Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva during its sojourn in Shanghai and again in Jerusalem, answers with a Gemara from Chulin 71a.

חולין עא.
חבל על בן עזאי שלא שימש את רבי ישמעאל

He then said to me these very words: Alas for Ben ‘Azzai, that he did not attend upon R. Ishmael.

Rashi expounds:

חבל על בן עזאי – הפסד וחבלה היא בעולם תלמיד ותיק כמותי אני בן עזאי שלא שמשתי את ר’ ישמעאל.

It is a great loss to the world that an established student such as myself, Ben Azzai, did not serve R. Yishmael.

Rabbi Shmuelevitz writes:

ואף זהו הטעם להצטער על מיתת שני בני אררן שעולם כולו נחבל ונפסד בחסרונם, ורישומו של הפסד וחבלה זו שבעולם ניכר אף לאחר אלפי שנים, כי הפסד וחבלה כזה הוא חסרון אשר לא יוכל להמנות, ועל חסרון זה יש לבכות מרה ולהצטער עד מאד, והבכיה על זה היא תקון גדול לכפרת עונות ולהצלת בניו.

This is the reason to be disturbed by the death of the sons of Aharon.  The entire world has lost out by their demise, and the impact of this loss is recognized and felt even after thousands of years.  Such a loss cannot be measured.  For this loss, one should cry and be extremely distressed.

We read of the death of Nadav and Avihu to teach of lost opportunity; what could have been had they lived.  How their teachings and leadership may have impacted the world.  Their inclusion in the Torah reading of Yom Kippur emphasizes the deep sense of loss felt over missed opportunities.

I heard an interview with Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio.  — She must be very busy this time of the year.   A distinction is made between regrets of commission – when you regret having done something and wish you hadn’t – vs. regrets of omission, where you regret NOT having done something.   (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=550260750).

Research shows that in the short term people are more likely to have regrets of commission:

SUMMERVILLE:… And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you’re going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment.

But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list, basically. And that – as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

While I’m sure we all have regrets of both kinds, we cannot let those regrets define who we are.  It is okay to be remorseful for things that we wish we could have done differently or for things we wish we had done, but we cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those regrets. 

3. Acting Godly

For the past two weeks, with the recitation of Selichot, and most certainly for the next 25 hours, our tefilot have revolved around the י”ג מדות רחמים– 13 Attributes of Mercy.  The source for this is a statement by R. Yochanan in Rosh Hashanah 17b:

ראש השנה יז:
ויעבור ה’ על פניו ויקרא א”ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב”ה כשליח צבור והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה ואני מוחל להם

The verse states: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Were it not explicitly written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this, as it would be insulting to God’s honor. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a prayer shawl like a prayer leader and showed Moses the structure of the order of the prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order. Let the prayer leader wrap himself in a prayer shawl and publicly recite the thirteen attributes of mercy, and I will forgive them.

There is an interesting debate among the commentators:  Is R. Yochanan simply saying that we must say these words and somehow, they will achieve forgiveness?  Or, does he mean to say that not only must we recite the words of the יג מדות but we must ACT on them.  יעשו לפני (“They should ACT before Me”)– which brings us to the famous idea of imatio Dei – we must emulate God.  מה הוא רחום… Just as He is Merciful, so you should be merciful…

Whichever side is right, they both agree on a fundamental fact.  In our tefilot of Yom Kippur and the entire Yamim Noraim season we are being called upon to emulate God.

It is especially hard when we are immersed in Teshuvah, which is often accompanied by deep feelings of regret and remorse, to remember that we are created בצלם אלקים  (in God’s image).  Part of our self-definition has to be that as beings created in God’s image, we must be Godly in all that we do.

4. Kol Nidrei

Finally, we come to the prayer that we just recited – to usher in Yom Kippur – Kol Nidre.  Kol Nidre is perhaps the most “famous” prayer we have, but also one of the most controversial.

Many objections are raised on technical grounds and conceptual grounds.  It remains unclear if the intention of the prayer is to nullify vows that were made LAST year, or if we are nullifying vows that we will make in the COMING year – different versions of the prayer exist.

The legal/halachic mechanism that allows for התרת נדרים, the nullification of vows, is the notion of חרטה, regret. The vow-takers adduce that there were circumstances beyond their cognizance at the time the vow was taken that now have led them to reconsider the vows.

Kol Nidrei, then, is a reminder to ourselves and a declaration to our community that we will not allow ourselves to be victims of circumstance.  We will not let the world around us define who or what we are.  We don’t let the image of ourselves that we once held close to hold us hostage to whatever preconceived notions we hold.

There will always be questions in our lives that bring about anxiety.  Yom Kippur forces us to reflect on the essential question of who we are, what defines us and how we define ourselves.

  • We are created in God’s image and we are called upon to act Godly, even when engaged in an intense process of teshuva that could lead us to feel down on ourselves.
  • We must be prepared to act as an Ivri, and to know what we stand for and which unpopular opinions we hold.
  • Part of our self-definition is to empathize with others; to see ourselves in the other
  • We refuse to allow regrets of what might have been define who we are.
  • And finally, we make the strong statement that we will not allow our preconceived notions of who or what we SHOULD be prevent us from becoming who we CAN be.

 

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Meditation before Neilah 5778 — Don’t Hold Back

The day is almost over. I know that everyone is hungry and tired. I want to share a very short thought to hopefully help us get over that last hump.

 

The Selichot that we have been saying for the past two weeks and that serve as the cetral piece of Ne’ilah are structured around the 13 attributes of mercy. Each time they appear, the section concludes with alluion to another episode in the Torah, Moshe’s asking for mercy in light of the חטא המרגלים (sin of the spies). It concludes with God’s response:

ויאמר ה’ סלחתי כדברך — And God said, ‘I forgive them according to your words” (Bamidbar 14:20). This, then becomes our focus in Selichot– Hashem forgives us according to our words; according to what we ask for.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has an interesting insight into this idea in his commentary on the Haggadah of all places. He writes, describing the slavery experienced by the Jews in Egypt:

“The real tragedy of the slave consists in the fact that he himself does not understand how shameful and horrible the experience of slavery is. the Jewish slaves in Egypt complained only about the work, the physical labor they were forced to do. However, the did not cry about the disintegration of the famil community caused by Pharaoh’s edict. They did no indict Pharaoh for denying them the basic rights that God granted to every human being…Yetziat Mizrayim would not have been a total act of redemption if god had been guided only by their prayers.

“Indeed, I always say that we would be a most unfortunate people if god were guided exclusively by our prayers. Sometmes we pray for things that are a menace to us, and sometimes we not pray for things that are of the greatest importance….” (The Seder Night. An Exhalted Evening, p. 75)

 

I was reminded of a great story that relates to this. The story comes from Randy Pausch, who was a professor at Carnegie Mellon, author of The Last Lecture. Pausch was diagnosed with brain cancer. He prepared a final lecture to impart wisdom and life lessons he wanted to share with his family. His focus of study was computer science and artificial intelligence. From the time he was a young kid, he was fascinated by Walt Disney World and one of his lifelong dreams was to work at Disney as an Imagineer. He was able to realize that dream when he was able to convince his university and Disney to allow him to spend a sabbatical working at Disney on one of their first rides employing Artificial Intelligence, the Aladin Ride. The story describes a family vacation to Disney. Pausch is with his father and his son, Dylan:

ON MY dad’s last trip to Disney World, he and I were waiting for the monorail with Dylan, who was then four years old. Dylan had this urge to sit in the vehicle’s cool-looking nose-cone, with the driver. My theme-park-loving father thought that would be a huge kick, too. “Too bad they don’t let regular people sit up there,” he said.

“Hmmmm,” I said. “Actually, Dad, having been an Imaginer, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to getting to sit up front. Do you want to see it?”

He said sure.

So I walked over to the smiling Disney monorail attendant and said: “Excuse me, could the three of us please sit in the front car?”

“Certainly, sir,” the attendant said. He opened the gate and we took our seats beside the driver. It was one of the only times in my life I ever saw my dad completely flabbergasted. “I said there was a trick,” I told him as we sped toward the Magic Kingdom. “I didn’t say it was a hard trick.”

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

As we say Neilah, let’s keep this in mind. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Hashem is listening and prepared to answer for whatever we ask for. Let’s not hold back.

 

Rosh HaShanah 5778: Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

 

On Rosh Hashanah it will be posted and on Yom Kippur it will be tweeted…

How many will unfriend and how many will send friend requests?
Who will follow and who will unfollow?…
Who will live in harmony and who will have non-stop arguments in Facebook groups?
Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer relentless requests to play Candy Crush?
Who will have their accounts cloned and who will have theirs verified?
Who will receive hundreds of likes and who will have to go and try Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat instead?
But reading, liking and sharing this post removes the evil of the decree!  (English comedian Ashley Blaker)

There is one halacha relating to תקיעת השופר that truly resonates with me this year.  The Mishnah Rosh Hashnah 3:7 says:

הַתּוֹקֵעַ לְתוֹךְ הַבּוֹר אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַדּוּת אוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַפִּטָּס, אִם קוֹל שׁוֹפָר שָׁמַע, יָצָא. וְאִם קוֹל הֲבָרָה שָׁמַע, לֹא יָצָא.

One who blows into a cistern, or into a cellar or into a barrel; if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled [his obligation]; if he heard the sound of an echo, he has not fulfilled [his obligation].

The Gemara elaborates:

ראש השנה כז
אמר רב הונא לא שנו אלא לאותן העומדים על שפת הבור אבל אותן העומדין בבור יצאו

Rav Huna said: They taught this only with respect to those standing at the edge of the pit, i.e., on the outside, as they can hear only the echo coming from the pit. But those standing in the pit itself have fulfilled their obligation, since they initially hear the sound of the shofar.

Why my interest with this Halacha?  Though many of us may feel like we are living on the edge of a symbolic cliff or pit, that is not my intention.  Nor am I particularly concerned with the commentators who point out that on a technical, scientific level we are always confronted by this Halacha – the only way we hear ANYTHING is by echo.

No, my focus on this halacha, this year, is the overwhelming sense that each of us is living in our very own echo chamber.

Urbandictionary.com defines an echo chamber as: “an insular communication space where everyone agrees with the information and no outside input is allowed.”

And Wikipedia, the ultimate source for all knowledge and definitions adds, “…Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

Oftentimes we become only aware of the echo chamber when it goes wrong.  To give an example: When I was the rabbi at Brandeis I would constantly get ads in my Facebook feed telling me that single women in Waltham, MA want to meet me.  I could not figure out what was going on, nor did I think it would be appropriate to ask anyone else about these ads that kept popping up.  Until one day it hit me: Almost all of my interactions are with Brandeis students – at least half of whom were single women living in Waltham.  Facebook tried putting two and two together….
That is the echo chamber gone wrong.

Eli Pariser, author of the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You explains: “Increasingly, you know, every website has a sense of who you are, of what your interests are, and many of them are using that information to try to extrapolate what kinds of content, what kinds of articles, what kinds of ideas are you going to be most interested in. So the filter bubble is the ideas that get through that filter and that you get to see. And what’s scary about it is there’s a bunch of stuff outside of that filter that gets filtered out and that you don’t see.”  (http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=486941582)

It is the echo chamber led to complete shock among so many of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.  And it is the echo chamber that has led to the phenomenon of “fake news.”  Or as Tali Sharot, an Israeli-born professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London explains in a number of TED Talks and a provocative article on CNN.com titled “Why Don’t Facts matter?”  She points to countless examples where people ignore clear evidence in favor of their personally-held beliefs.  For example:

  • Climate change
  • How many people were at the 2017 presidential inauguration?

And it is not only politics where facts don’t matter.

  • People avoid going to the doctor or being tested for illness in order to avoid alarming information.
  • People will not check their investment accounts when they think they have performed poorly.
  • And after this season of 3-day yumtifs, I’d guess that many of us will avoid stepping on the scale for a long time.

Of course not everybody avoids uncomfortable facts all of the time, but on average people are more likely to seek confirmation of what they believe.

While the confirmation bias has long been known, Sharot writes that in our digital age, “as information is more readily accessible and people are frequently exposed to different opinions and data points, this bias is likely to have an even greater role in shaping people’s beliefs – moving ideological groups to extremes.  Even more scary – Sharot writes that many would assume that holding such untrue biases is a trait of people of lesser intelligence.  In fact, scientists have discovered that those with stronger quantitative abilities are more likely to twist data at will.

Judaism has long recognized the danger of echo chambers.  In a fascintating passage, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) tells us of the relationship between Reish Lakish and R. Yochanan.  Reish Lakish was a criminal whom R. Yochanan was able to bring to a life of Torah.  One day as they were studying the halachot of tumah and taharah (purity and impurity), they encountered a debate over when a weapon such as a sword or a dagger is considered completed and thus susceptible to the laws of tumah.  R. Yochanan concedes to Reish Lakish and declares, “The Bandit knows his trade.”  Reish Lakish was so hurt by R. Yochanan’s allusion to his former life that he becomes ill and dies.  R. Yochanan is deeply upset by the death of his friend and his study partner.  The other rabbis of the day decide that Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat is a worthy chavruta to appease Rabbi Yochanan and help him get over the loss of Reish Lakish.

אזל יתיב קמיה כל מילתא דהוה אמר רבי יוחנן אמר ליה תניא דמסייעא לך אמר את כבר לקישא בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא ואת אמרת תניא דמסייע לך אטו לא ידענא דשפיר קאמינא

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat went and sat before Rabbi Yoḥanan. With regard to every matter that Rabbi Yoḥanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would say to him: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakha by itself would become broadened and clarified. And yet you say to me: There is a ruling which is taught in a baraita that supports your opinion. Do I not know that what I say is good?

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau drives home the point of this powerful passage:

R. Yohanan is incredulous that R. Elazar thinks this will replace Reish Lakish.  It was precisely the ongoing argumentation between R. Yohanan and Reish Laskish that led to a flowering of Torah.  This is what R. Yohanan feels cannot be replaced.  R. Yohanan is teaching us that the ideal chavruta is not the person who quickly endorses everything his study partner says.  On the contrary!  The ideal chavruta challenges one’s ideas.  This process generates growth in learning.  We should add that the same principle also applies to other forms of friendship.  Instead of looking for friends who will always agree with us, we should seek out those who are willing to tell us when they think we have erred, whether intellectually, ethically or religiously…

Indeed, many of the rabbis in the Talmud are known to us in reference to their Bar Pelugta – literally the person with whom they disagree.  Hillel and and Shammai.  Rav and Shmuel.  Abaye and Rava.

So, what are we to do?  We all live in echo chambers and we  may even be aware of this.  But, as we have already seen, simply knowing on an intellectual level will not necessarily change our behavior or our biases.

With this in mind, I want to share with you a bar pelugta  I recently encountered:  J.D. Vance.  He is the author of a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.  Many hailed this book THE Most important explanation of the current political environment in America.  The author is a proud Hillbilly, whose family began in Kentucky and migrated to Middletown, Ohio after WWII and his book was lauded for explaining the Middle America that voted Donald Trump into office to the great shock of those living on the coasts.

Vance is able to escape the cycle of poverty and violence that has taken hold of his community.  He attended university, served in the Marines and went to Yale Law School.  He does not reject the community from which he came, despite being painfully aware of the many shortcomings and failures.

Rod Dreher wrote about the book in American Conservative:

The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read…You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

In one of the more telling passages of the book, Vance describes the deep despair felt by many in Appalachia.

I’m the kind of patriot whom people in the Acela corridor laught at.  I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood’s cheesy anthem “Proud to be an American.”  When I was sixteen, I vowed that every time I met a veteran, i would go out of my way to shake his or her hand, even if I had to awkwardly interject to do so.  To this day, I refuse to watch Saving Private Ryan around anyone by my closest friends, because I can’t stop from crying during the final scene.

Mamaw and Papaw [his grandparents] taught me that we live in the best and greatest cocunry on earth.  This fact gave meaning to my childhood…
If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.  The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished.

For me, reading J.D. Vance’s account of growing up in Middle-America was a wonderful way to get way beyond the echo chamber in which I so often find myself.  Vance is a relatable character.  He is thoughtful and insightful.  And he is not afraid to point out what is wrong with his own community.  There is certainly an echo chamber that exists when it comes to politics, the news.

And it is true when it comes to Judaism and the Jewish people.  We talk about a love of klal Yisrael of אחינו כל בית ישראל. And we are surrounded by Jews of all stripes – to the right and to the left of us.

But let me issue personal challenge to all of us here today.  There is a great irony that exists in our shul and shuls like ours and in the Modern Orthodox world in general:  We are passionate and staunchly committed to our intellectual openness and tolerance.  We talk about pluralism.  Yet, for all of our talk, look around.  Think about who our friends are.  We are an extremely homogenous community.   The challenge as we prepare to hear the Shofar – the true sound of the shofar and not the echo – is for us to break free of the echo chambers in which we live.

The shofar is a powerful call to us:  There are many “voices” and “noises” that surround us all the time.  The shofar challenges us to find the sincere voices among all the echoes.  And those sincere voices exist in all communities among all types of people.

Let me end by quoting one of the most authoritative and authentic voices in America, Bruce Springsteen.  In his memoir he writes:

There are many good, even great, voices out there tied to people who will never sound convincing or exciting.  They are all over TV talent shows and in lounges in Holiday Inns all across America.  They can carry a tune, sound tonally impeccable, they can hit all the high notes, but they cannot capture the full emotional content of a song.  They cannot sing deeply.
If you were lucky enough to be born with an instrument and the instinctive knowledge to know what to do with it, you are blessed indeed

As we prepare to hear the Shofar, let me riff on this – if we are able to HEAR the sincere voices that will carry us beyond the echo chamber, then we are blessed indeed.

Shanah Tova.

A Bracha on the Eclipse? Reflections on the Eclipse and Charlottesville

With all that is going on this past week, I’m sure that some of you can understand that my mind naturally turns to the movies.  There is one scene in particular that I keep coming back to, from the great classic The Blues Brothers.

In this scene, Elwood (Dan Aykrody has just picked his brother Jae (John Belushi) up from jail.  They are making their way back to Chicago when they are stuck in a traffic jam.  There is a policeman walking among the traffic and John Belushi asks him:

Jake: Hey, what’s going on?
Cop: Those bums won their court case, so they’re marching today.
Jake: What bums?
Cop: The f@?!ing Nazi party.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis.
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
At this point Elwood pulls his car out of the line of traffic, floors the gas pedal, and drives straight for the bridge, causing all the marchers to jump off the bridge into the water below.

The parallels to last week’s events in Charlottesville are obvious.

There is another, much less obvious reason I have been thinking about this scene, or more broadly about the Blues Brothers.

Before Charlottesville happened, I had been looking forward to speaking about this Monday’s eclipse.  There is another famous line from the The Blues Brothers right before the epic car chase at the end of the film.  Dan Akyroyd says:
” There are 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

OK, it may not be the strongest connection to the eclipse, you know, sunglasses…eclipse…

Many rabbis, educators, have been writing about what significance, if any, there is from a Jewish perspective to the eclipse.  The most common question is whether one says a bracha over an eclipse?   This question presents an excellent test case for the functioning of Halacha and how we as Modern Orthodox Jews bridge our commitment to Halacha and our commitment to science, nature, and the pursuit of knowledge.

For everyone, the question of whether to say a bracha on an eclipse begins with the Mishnah in the 9th perek of Brachot.

מתני׳ הרואה מקום שנעשו בו נסים לישראל אומר ברוך שעשה נסים לאבותינו במקום הזה מקום שנעקרה ממנו עכו”ם אומר ברוך שעקר עכו”ם מארצנו על הזיקין ועל הזועות ועל הרעמים ועל הרוחות ועל הברקים אומר ברוך שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם על ההרים ועל הגבעות ועל הימים ועל הנהרות ועל המדברות אומר ברוך עושה בראשית רבי יהודה אומר הרואה את הים הגדול אומר ברוך שעשה את הים הגדול

One who sees a place where miracles occurred on Israel’s behalf recites: Blessed…Who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place. One who sees a place from which idolatry was eradicated recites: Blessed…Who eradicated idolatry from our land. One who sees conspicuous natural occurrences recites a blessing. For zikin and zeva’ot, which the Gemara will discuss below, for thunder, gale force winds, and lightning, manifestations of the power of the Creator, one recites: Blessed…Whose strength and power fill the world. For extraordinary (Rambam) mountains, hills, seas, rivers, and deserts, one recites: Blessed…Author of creation. Consistent with his opinion that a separate blessing should be instituted for each individual species, Rabbi Yehuda says: One who sees the great sea recites a special blessing: Blessed…Who made the great sea…

For many, including a large list of Rabbis living in Baltimore, the discussion ends with this Mishnah as well.

Their argument is that the Mishnah does not list an eclipse as one of the events for which one should say a bracha, therefore we don’t say a bracha.  This argument is augmented by the general stringencies that we have adopted when it comes to questions of unnecessary or doubtful brachot, as well as the strong sentiment that we are not allowed to contravene the rulings of Chazal.

As was recently published in Baltimore Jewish Life, a statement issued by the Star-K:

  1. Is a bracha recited on an eclipse? A. No. Although a bracha is recited on other niflaos haboray such as an earthquake, thunder, and lightning, a bracha is not recited upon viewing a solar or lunar eclipse.

This is a compelling argument and one which makes good sense, especially for anyone who has spent any time studying Halacha and Halachic reasoning.

The argument against a bracha is strengthened by the second sources that anyone thinking or writing about the eclipse quotes.  The Gemara in Sukkah 29a

ת”ר בזמן שהחמה לוקה סימן רע לכל העולם כולו משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שעשה סעודה לעבדיו והניח פנס לפניהם כעס עליהם ואמר לעבדו טול פנס מפניהם והושיבם בחושך

The Sages taught: When the sun is eclipsed it is a bad omen for the entire world. The Gemara tells a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern [panes] before them to illuminate the hall. He became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.

While the Gemara continues and offers varying explanations of whether the siman ra (bad omen) associated with a solar eclipse is the same as that associated with a lunar eclipse, the Gemara believes an eclipse is a סימן רע, bad omen.    Thus, those who were already inclined to forbid saying a bracha bolster their argument by pointing out that an eclipse is a bad omen.  Why would anyone want to make a bracha over a bad omen?!

A final argument against making a bracha is that the eclipse is a natural phenomenon.  We understand exactly what is happening and why it is happening.  Perhaps in ancient times when they had limited understanding of science, they would see it is a bad omen, but this no longer holds true.  At the same time, since we understand what is happening during an eclipse, there is need to say a blessing.

This final argument is very weak.  After all we have a whole list of natural phenomena for which we do say a bracha, even though we have very good scientific explanations for all of them: thunder, lightening, earthquakes, rainbows, etc.  But still we will return to this point in a little bit.

This is a basic summary of those who argue against saying a bracha over the eclipse.

Rabbi Linzer penned a teshuva on this question as well.  Those of us who are familiar with Rabbi Linzer can already guess, his approach is quite different.  (Rabbi Linzer’s Teshuva can be found here.)

The first point Rabbi Linzer raises is to question whether the list in the Mishnah is exhaustive or illustrative.  He acknowledges the position that says it is not listed explicitly in the Mishnah.  But then he questions: Does it really make sense that a valley should get a blessing but not a waterfall? As the Talmud says elsewhere (Gittin 33a): “Do you then expect the author of the mishnah to list everything announcing his wares like a spice merchant?”

With this we turn to the deeper philosophical debate at hand.  Yes, we must maintain fealty to Halacha and the Halachic source, but we cannot ignore the question that Rabbi Linzer poses:

“What does it mean when our religious impulse to praise God and see God in the world is not able to find expression in halakhic forms, such as the recitation of brakhot?  Does this not run the risk of making halakhah an experience only of following rules?”

He cites an apocryphal story:
It is well known that when Ben-Gurion completed the public reading of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948, R. Yehudah Leib Fishman (Maimon) stood up and recited the she’hehiyanu blessing.

Afterwards, a man came to the Rabbi and asked, “I don’t understand. How could you make this brakhah? Where does it say in Shulkhan Arukh that you make a brakhah for an occasion like this?”
Rabbi Fishman responded, “You don’t understand. I just got a new tie. I was making a
brakhah for that.”
“Oh,” said the man, “Now I understand. Thank you.”
To which R. Fishman replied: “What are you thinking?! You would make a brakhah for a tie, but you wouldn’t make a brakhah for the founding of a Jewish state?!”

To address the argument “we already know and understand what’s happening, “we turn to the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. . . He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. . .”

And finally, to address the argument that says we should not be saying a bracha over an eclipse because it is a bad omen.

First, it is worth noting that there are many phenomena listed in the Mishnah that have the potential to be much worse than an eclipse.

An earthquake, or as many of us experienced a few weeks ago her in Baltimore, thunder and lightning, etc.

But the same Mishnah that serves as the basis for so many to rule that a bracha should not be said over an eclipse because an eclipse is not listed, famously says:

חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה

A person must bless over the bad, just as they do over the good.

The most familiar manifestation of this halacha for most of us is the bracha of Dayan haEmet that we say when God forbid a loved one passes away.

We have a religious obligation to make a bracha over bad news and over bad events.  Of course, this drives home the point that EVERYTHING comes from Hashem.  We may not always like it or understand but we recognize the Hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) in everything that occurs in our life.

At the same time reciting a Bracha helps us to express wonder, awe, and gratitude to Hashem.  When, God forbid, the bracha is over an ominous event, the bracha helps us to focus ourselves to Hashem – for only God can help us in some situations.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the rabbis who did not allow reciting a bracha over the eclipse.  Both because the Mishnah does not mention it and because it is mentioned as a bad omen.  But, he said that while a formal bracha is not allowed, we should use the bad omen of an eclipse (and other similar ones) as an opportunity to turn to Hashem in prayer and introspection.

With this thought in mind, let us turn back to the tragic events of Charlottesville. With all the marches, protests and counter protests taking place today, taking place maybe right now, I am terrified to check the news after Shabbos.  This is not a question of politics.  If ever there was a time that our country needed the message of the Mishnah, it is now: כשם שמברך על הטוב כך מברך על הרעה.  Just as one must bless over the good, e/she must bless over the bad.  First and foremost, this requires us to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad.  What has happened this past week is not good.  And the Mishnah teaches that there is a bracha for this.   We must turn to Hashem in prayer and recognize that for this too there is an appropriate religious response.  There is a necessary religious response.

I would like to conclude by inviting you to join me in saying two brachot.  One bracha that the US will find healing and experience moral clarity that has been sorely lacking. There should be no more violence in our streets.

And I invite you to join me on Monday – at least symbolically, as we will not be in the same physical location (with safety glasses of course) to recite the bracha of עושה מעשה בראשית (Blessed is God who makes the works of creation).  In the concluding words of Rabbi Linzer:
This coming Monday, go out and view the solar eclipse. Safety first, so make sure to view it only through proper glasses; you will risk injuring your eyes if you look at it straight on. And when you safely observe the eclipse, give religious and halakhic expression to our sense of wonder when contemplating God’s glorious creation and recite the brakha of oseh ma’aseh bereishit. Truly, mah rabu ma’asekha Hashem!

The Power, Danger and Placement of Vows

I have a confession to make.

I don’t cry.  No matter what is going on, how sad or hurtful, I don’t cry.  In fact, there is only one sure way that I ever cry.  And that is when is I am cutting onions.

While I have come to accept this reality, some of my friends are quite bothered.  When I got married, some of my friends felt so strongly that I should cry under my Chupah that they brought onions to wedding and made sure that I got a good whiff!

I was reminded of my friends’ attempts to get me to cry at my wedding this week when I was putting my ids to bed.  They have been asking “Abba, why do you have an itchy, scratchy beard?  Why don’t you shave it already?”  And I try to explain to them that Tisha B’Av is coming up and it is a very sad day.  I grow my beard because we are not supposed to shave or get haircuts because we are sad, or we are supposed to be sad and this helps us to be sad.

This is an appropriate question for this week’s parsha – can our external actions really bring about internal, authentic emotions?

The parsha opens with laws of Nedarim, vows.  We are told that we are able to accept vows upon ourselves.  The Torah then proceeds to describe ways by which vows can be nullified and gets into the very technical question of whether a father is empowered to nullify the vows of his daughter or a husband the vows of his wife.  This is the subject of an entire chapter in Masechet Nedarim.

The Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France) opens his commentary on the parsha by relating a question that was posed to him in a particular city in France:

רשב”ם על במדבר ל׳:ב׳
נשאלתי ביוניוב [=שם עיר] בכרך לושרון [=שם מחוז בצרפת].

I was asked by people in some town in France, Anione

The petitioner is bothered by the opening pasuk of the Parsha:

Numbers 30:2 במדבר ל׳:ב׳
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה ה’
(2) Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

Unlike any other section of law in the Torah which is introduced with the sentence:
“וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר”  “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying” Our parsha opens with Moshe communicating directly to the heads of the tribes.  As the Rashbam’s questioner put it:

לפי הפשט היכן מצינו שום פרשה שמתחלת כן? שלא נאמר למעלה וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר איש כי ידור וגו’. והיאך מתחלת הפרשה בדיבורו של משה שאין מפורש לו מפי הגבורה?

where else we find a portion commencing with the words וידבר משה, (Moses spoke…) without being told first that God had told Moses to deliver the message or legislation in question to the people.

One particularly provocative answer to this question is suggested by the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain).

Ramban says that it would be inappropriate to teach this section of law to the masses.  If the entire people will know that there is a possibility to be מתיר נדר (nullify vows), they will not take their vows so seriously.  The Ramban goes so far as to suggest

ואולי צריך להעלים אלה החוקים מהם שלא ינהגו קלות ראש בנדרים

Maybe we should hide these laws [from the masses] so they will not treat vows lightly.

But when it comes to the leaders of the nation, there is no way to avoid teaching them the laws of nullifying vows.  So it was not transmitted with the normal fanfare by which other halachot were transmitted, but it was muted and conveyed only to the leaders.

While this is a fascinating suggestion, I’d like to focus on a different path to explain our question.

Rav Amnon Bazak, a RaM (teacher) at th Gush, says that the key to understanding why the section of vows is conveyed only to the leaders of the tribes, and not the heads of the nations, is found at the end of last week’s Parsha, Parshat Pinchas.  Pinchas ends with the description of the מוספים the special sacrifices that were brought on the holidays throughout the year.  The Torah concludes:

Numbers 29:39במדבר כ״ט:ל״ט

(לט) אֵ֛לֶּה תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ לַה’ בְּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶ֑ם לְבַ֨ד מִנִּדְרֵיכֶ֜ם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם לְעֹלֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ וּלְמִנְחֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וּלְנִסְכֵּיכֶ֖ם וּלְשַׁלְמֵיכֶֽם׃

All these you shall offer to the LORD at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, meal offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.

We are commanded to offer the Mussaf offerings in addition to the voluntary sacrifices that one vows to bring.  Rav Bazak explains that after the lengthy description of the Mussaf offerings, and indeed of the prolonged description of the Mihkan, one might come to the conclusion that the only way to come close to God, to worship Hashem is via the sacrificial system that the Torah describes.  Proper religious observance comes only by obediently following the rules.  Rav Bazak says that our pasuk teaches that this is an incorrect understanding: It hints that there is still place for man to initiate his own holiness, via his vows and voluntary offerings.

Rav Bazak says that the opening of our parsha, in which Moshe gives instructions to the heads of the tribes directly without being prompted by Hashem, drives home this point: There is room for human initiative in worshipping God and finding spirituality and holiness.

This same idea is expressed by Maimonides in a halacha that I’m sure we can all relate to.

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ג

 מִי שֶׁנָּדַר נְדָרִים כְּדֵי לְכוֹנֵן דֵּעוֹתָיו וּלְתַקֵּן מַעֲשָׂיו הֲרֵי זֶה זָרִיז וּמְשֻׁבָּח. כֵּיצַד. כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁהָיָה זוֹלֵל וְאָסַר עָלָיו הַבָּשָׂר שָׁנָה אוֹ שְׁתַּיִם. אוֹ מִי שֶׁהָיָה שׁוֹגֶה בַּיַּיִן וְאָסַר הַיַּיִן עַל עַצְמוֹ זְמַן מְרֻבֶּה. אוֹ אָסַר הַשִּׁכְרוּת לְעוֹלָם.

Whoever makes a vow to fix his ways or his thoughts, it is praiseworthy.  Such as someone who is gluttonous and vows against eating meat for one or two year; or someone who someone who drinks too much wine or alcohol…

The Rambam says it is praiseworthy to make vows in order to help oneself overcome his/her personal vices.

But, as he so often does, the Rambam throws a wrench in this explanation just two halachot later:

משנה תורה, הלכות נדרים י״ג:כ״ה
(כה) אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים (גמרא נדרים נט א) כָּל הַנּוֹדֵר כְּאִלּוּ בָּנָה בָּמָה“. וְאִם עָבַר וְנָדַר מִצְוָה לְהִשָּׁאֵל עַל נִדְרוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא מִכְשׁוֹל לְפָנָיו.

In Laws of Vows, Chapter 13 law 25 he quotes a Gemara from Nedarim:
“Whoever makes a vow is as if he has built a bamah.”  What is a bamah?  It is a personal altar built in a person’s home or in their city where they would offer sacrifices outside of the Beit haMikdash.  The rise of the bamot was quite problematic and led to much of the idolatry that led to the downfall of the Jews in ancient Israel.

So which one is it – is making a vow something that is praiseworthy or is it something comparable to idolatry? And how do we understand this analogy?

Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and whose seventh yarzheit was observed earlier this week, explains:
What is the meaning of this comparison? A bama represents a person’s desire to depart from the standard route of worship in the Temple in order to establish his personal, alternate route. Likewise, self-imposed prohibitions taken on through vows also represent a retreat from the normal world of mitzvot; the person adopts an additional track through which to worship God. Rather than remaining content with the mitzvot that God gave, the person chooses the Torah-sanctioned track of vows, thereby isolating himself from the standard world of avodat Hashem (divine service).  (http://etzion.org.il/en/vows-and-stringencies-going-beyond-halakha)

He then tells an interesting to illustrate his point:
I once rode in a car with a student in the Yeshiva who is now an important rabbi. I turned to him and remarked: “I would wager that you wear an especially large garment on which to place the tzitzit.” “Rebbe,” he responded, “how did you know?” I answered, “Since the Mishna Berura writes that a God-fearing person should don a larger garment, I assume that you see fit to heed his words. I, on the other hand, do not fancy myself to be in that exclusive category, and therefore am satisfied wearing a smaller garment.”

Hashem has given us a tremendous gift with the laws of vows – a recognition that sometimes we need extra motivation or inspiration.  Sometimes the normal channels of Halacha don’t work for us.  And we all experience this need for external factors to motivate or inspire us.  But we can’t allow that to become the norm for us.  We can’t become overly dependent on them either.

Soccer or Basketball?

Chag sameach.  We are in the midst of somewhat of a revolution. It is nothing as radical or historical as some of the other great revolutions in history, but it is still of some significance.  I am referring to soccer becoming one of the most popular sports in America.

I was recently made aware of a very interesting book which offers a fascinating way of looking at the world.  I have not read it yet, but it is at the top of my list.  The book is called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong, written by Chris Anderson – a former professional goalkeeper and now an Ivy League Economics professor) and David Sally a behavioral economist at Dartmouth.

One of the key theories in the book is that soccer is a weak-link game.  What this means is that a team’s success or failure will be determined by its weakest player.

What matters more if you want to build a really great soccer team – how good your best player is or how good your worst player is?  In soccer, what matters most is how good your worst player is.

David Sally, one of the authors explains: “Soccer is a game where if you get a single goal, if you just happen to get lucky, that goal might hold up.  And so mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport.  That leads you to think about, ‘Well mistakes more often happen or are more often produced by weaker players on the pitch.”

Sally and Anderson did a statistical analysis.  They looked at the top soccer clubs in Europe and showed that if those teams upgraded their poorest players instead of their best players, they would score more goals and win more games.  A lot more.

“having a better superstar was of course better.  But having a better end of the bench or 11th guy on the pitch was actually more influential to whether you won matches or not.”

This is the exact opposite of basketball.  What matters in basketball is not how good your fifth player is, it’s how good your superstar is.  It’s a strong link game.  Think about basketball and whoever your favorite player is/was:  Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Larry Bird, Jerry West.  Any one of them could take over a game at will.  They didn’t even have to pass it to their teammates if they didn’t want.

As we prepare to say yizkor, and stand on the cusp of Simchat Torah, I find this discussion of weak link and strong link scenarios to be quite relevant.  

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, whose explanation of Yosef being freed from jail and learning a new language, we explored on Shabbos Shuva brings an interesting story in his volume of Pachad Yitzchak on Sukkot.  Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos no. 57-Tells the story of the Chiddushei HaRim who watched two students dancing on Simchas Torah and predicted one student to tire before the other. He explained that one was dancing for the Torah he had learned up to this point.  The second was dancing for the Torah he would learn in the future. There is a limit to the past but there is no limit to what there is in the future.

With this in mind, we very much are the link in the chain bridging the Torah, the commitment to Judaism of the past with that of the future.  And this is felt most strongly during yizkor.  When we recall the memory of our loved ones who are no longer with us and accept the responsibility of passing on their values to our children and grandchildren.

The question to ponder is whether Judaism is a weak link phenomenon or a strong link phenomenon.  Is Judaism best preserved and passed on to the next generation through emphasizing the “superstars”/elite or is it best preserved by emphasizing the weakest link – by ensuring that EVERYONE has a part in Torah.  Should we treat Judaism and our Jewish heritage more like soccer or more like basketball?

Simchat Torah, more than any other holiday offers a resounding answer to this question.  We are absolutely a weak-link religion.  On Simchat Torah everyone gets to hold the Torah and dance with the Torah.  Everyone is called to the Torah for an Aliyah.

One of the central pesukim from the reading of Simchat Torah is

Deuteronomy 33:4 דברים פרק לג

 (ד) תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:

When Moses charged us with the Torah/ As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob

The Talmud and Midrashic tradition offer two explanations of what it means that Torah is a מורשה (heritage).

On the one hand we find in Shemot Rabbah 33:7 and in Yalkut Shimoni

אל תקרי מורשה אלא ירושה

As an inheritance, we passively receive Torah.  We need not do anything to stake our claim in it.  We have no choice in the manner.

But the Gemara in Brachot 57a, Pesachim 49b has a different read:

אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורסה

As a betrothal, following the metaphor of a marriage, we must work to strengthen and solidify our relationship to Torah and yidishkeit.

The Sefat Emet maintains that both readings are true.  Torah is an inheritance to us and it is also a betrothal.  We must honor both if it is truly to become our מורשה.

One of the ways to deal with a weak-link issue is to use the Kohler effect.  Kohler conducted experiments on members of a rowing club.

First, he tested how long each standing rower could, while holding and curling a bar connected to a weight of about 90 pounds, keep the weight from touching the floor.
Then he doubled the weight, paired the rowers and tested how long they could curl the heavier bar together. This is a weak-link task because the weight was too great for any single person to hold up: the 180 pounds would hit the floor when the weaker partner’s biceps gave out. Köhler found that weaker rowers would endure significantly longer when they were paired than when they were solo. In doing so, he had isolated one of the key characteristics of psychology: the gain in enthusiasm and effort and perseverance that comes from being on a team.

The Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.

I have spent a lot of time talking about the voice initiative.  I sent a letter over the shul listserv right before Shabbos.  I will not go into all the details now, other than to say that I can think of no better way to show our commitment to creating opportunities for everyone to contribute and to strengthen each person’s knowledge, commitment and ability to contribute.

Chag Sameach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Ushpizin: Shimon Peres

I have been listening to a really great podcast called “Presidential”  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/business/presidential-podcast/) .  They started it 44 weeks before the election and each week talk about a different president.  One of the host’s go-to questions that she asks every week is “What would it be like to be set up on a date with this president?”  It helps her interviews to think about the person in a very different way.

In the episode on Abraham Lincoln, one of the Lincoln experts that was interviewed said something really interesting.  She said that there are certainly lots of really big, important questions that she would love to ask Lincoln:

  • What would you have done in your second term had you not been assassinated? How would reconstruction have looked under your leadership?
  • What do you think of the state of racial relations in the US today?
  • Etc.

But if given the chance to have dinner, or a date with Lincoln, this expert would simply say, “Mr. Lincoln, can you please tell me a story?”  Because it was through his stories and his ability to captivate that Lincoln was truly unique.  And that is how one could best experience Lincoln.

I want to use this as a way to introduce the topic of Ushpizin – the historical, imagined guests that we invite to join us in the sukkah each day of the holiday.  Traditionally we symbolically invite a great figure from Jewish history to share the meal with us – Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Aharon, Moshe and David.  Many have added the custom to invite female counterparts to join us as well.

And today I would like to focus on a more recent “ushpiz” historical figure that I would love to be able to share a meal with.  That person is Shimon Peres, who of course recently passed away after a remarkable career serving the State of Israel in so many different capacities.

I will always think of Peres in terms of some unique circumstances around his funeral.  My brother works for the State of New York and was supposed to be part of the governor’s delegation to attend the funeral.  But at the last minute Gov. Cuomo was unable to attend the funeral because of the train crash that happened in Hoboken.  So my brother went by himself representing the State of New York.  That in itself is pretty cool, but after the funeral and Shabbat when my brother was supposed to fly home and then come spend Rosh Hashanah with us in Baltimore, the El Al pilots decided to go on strike.  So my poor brother was stuck spending Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem on El Al’s dime.

Anyway, I want to share some thoughts and reflections about Peres and hopefully connect them to Sukkot.

One of Peres’ most impressive accomplishments was his ability to secure arms for the fledgling State of Israel in 1948, and perhaps even more impressive, his role in Israel to achieve nuclear capacities in 1948.  I share with you a description from Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land.  Shavit is a very outspoken leftist journalist in Israel.  I do not agree with most of what he says, but his book was a really enlightening and sometimes painful read.  But no matter what you think of Shavit or his politics, his chapter describing Israel’s ascent to nuclear power is amazing.  As he writes:

Ari Shavit My Promised Land.  “The Project, 1967”

In 1956, only three nations possessed nuclear weapons: The US, The USSR and the UK.  Even France would produce and assemble a nuclear bomb only four years later.  In contrast to those wealthy countries, the Israel of 1956 was a fragile immigrant state of 1.8 million people not yet capable of manufacturing even transistor radios.  The mere thought that this tiny, weak nation would succeed in obtaining nuclear capabilities seemed audacious, megalomaniacal; even unhinged. And yet the founder of the Jewish State [Ben Gurion] was adamant: Israel must acquire a nuclear option… (p. 178)

There was actually much internal disagreement among the Cabinet whether Israel should pursue nuclear capacities.

Shavit continues:

Ben Gurion remained undeterred. In the summer of 1956, he sent his sorcerer’s apprentice, Shimon Peres, to Paris to wield his wand. Improbably the director general of the Defense Ministry got what he came for.  He deftly manipulated the anti-Arab sentiment of the Suez era and the pro-Jewish sentiment of a decade after Vichy, and he appealed to the bruised patriotic ego over Algeria, the demise of colonialism, and the decline of Europe.  In a very short time, the thirty-three-year-old graduate of the Ben Shemen Youth Village School – a student of the pacifist Siefgried Lehmann – pulled off one of the greatest strategic feats of the postwar years, persuading a major European power to give a minor Middle Easter nation its own nuclear option…Ben Gurion’s vision, Peres’s cunning, and the diligent work of a few other Israelis who joined Peres in Paris convinced France to place in Israel’s hands the modern ages’ Prometheus ‘fire.  For the first time in history, the Jews could have the ability to annihilate other peoples.  (p. 179)

It is just amazing to think that Peres was able to do.

Another interesting thing about Peres, and this is something that was really news to me.  I grew up with my first memories of him in the 1990’s when he and Yitzchak Rabin were championing the Peace Process.  But Peres and Rabin were actually bitter rivals for most of their lives.  They hated each other.  One of the miracles of the Peace Process is that they were able to work together.

Over Yom Kippur I read a story from Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers.  The author served as a top advisor to seven Israeli prime ministers.  In 1977 he was a top advisor to Rabin when Rabin had to resign as prime minister over a controversy involving Rabin’s wife opening illegal bank accounts.  Peres was going to take over the premiership.  Yehuda Avner got word that Peres would offer him a job as advisor, but he confided to Rabin that he would not accept the job because of his loyalty to Rabin.  “It is too difficult under the circumstances.”  To which Rabin responded:

“Shtuyot!”  Rubbish!  You were never involved in my differences with Shimon Peres, and I’m not going to let you get involved now.”

“That’s easier said than done,” I muttered.

“Maybe, but by what moral right will you say to the next prime minister of Israel that you refuse to work for him because of me?  If Shimon Peres as the same view of you as I do – and I think he has – that’s all that matters.  Must everything be a matter of personal allegiances?  What about the country?  What about the people?  You have no right to refuse him.  You’re not a politician, you’re a civil servant.  Keep it that way.” (334)

This story ties in so well with the holiday of Sukkot.  When we sit in the Sukkah we are making a statement that our material possessions are not that important.  We are far more concerned with our relationship with Hashem and keeping our priorities straight.  So we leave the comfort of our home and we live in the sukkah for a week.

This same attitude was true for Rabin, Peres and the entire “founding generation.”  They were able to maintain a sense of the big picture and do what was right.  It was that ability to keep priorities straight that helped Peres become the great leader that he was.

[Another aspect of Peres that has gotten a lot of coverage is his unending optimism.  As President Obama remarked in his eulogy:

Shimon Peres reminds us that the State of Israel, like the United States of America, was not built by cynics. We exist because people before us refused to be constrained by the past or the difficulties of the present. And Shimon Peres was never cynical. It is that faith, that optimism, that belief — even when all the evidence is to the contrary — that tomorrow can be better, that makes us not just honor Shimon Peres, but love him.

This too connects very powerfully to the idea of the Sukkah.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Sukkah serves as a powerful and apt symbol for the Jewish experience through most of history.  We are familiar with the notion of the “wandering Jew.” For most of our history we were without a permanent home, and we had to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  As Rabbi Sacks writes:

“Sitting in the sukkah underneath its canopy of leaves I often think of my ancestors and their wanderings across Europe in search of safety…”

He continues and says with this in mind, it would have made much more sense for the Sukkah to be associated with sadness and difficulty of life in galut.  But that of course, is not the case.  Rather we celebrate Sukkot as זמן שמחתנו – the time of our rejoicing.  This is because, as he explains, the Sukkah

“in all its vulnerability symbolizes faith: the faith of a people who set out long ago on a risk-laden journey across a desert of space and time with no more protection than the sheltering divine presence.”

Rather than get depressed over his ancestors’ search for safety, Rabbi Sacks begins to understand that the Sukkah emphasizes that “faith was their only home.  It was fragile, chillingly exposed to the storms of prejudice and hate. But it proved stronger than empires. Their faith survived. The Jewish people has outlived all its persecutors.”

So much like the Sukkah, Peres’ life and his outlook teach us that we have reason to be optimistic and to trust in a better future even when the present circumstances seem dire.]

I want to conclude with one more piece of Peres’ legacy.  A friend of mine from college, Michael Koplow is a writer and thinker about Israel.  He serves as the policy direct of the Israel Policy Forum.  He wrote a very insightful reflection on Peres’ life where he notes that much of Peres’ life was marked by failure.  Peres never won an election for Prime Minister and was only chosen as President because the Knesset, and not the general public made that decision.  When Peres was Prime Minister (following Rabin’s resignation in the 1970’s and Rabin’s assassination in the 1990’s), Peres did not win reelection in what should have been slam dunk victories.  My friend Michal Koplow wrote:

Rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you…By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became…

Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.  (https://ottomansandzionists.com/2016/09/28/the-legacy-of-shimon-peres/)

This brings us to the final Sukkot connection.  Yesterday Gavi Gershowitz asked how it is that we can rejoice on Sukkot when it comes right on the heels of Yom Kippur when we have spent all day doing viduy and confessing our sins.

Some of you may have seen, on Yom Kippur I made available copies of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ speech in which he offered a viduy (confession) for all the good things we did in the previous year.  Indeed Yom Kippur can be depressing if we see the viduy as a means of beating ourselves up for all the mistakes we have committed.  For some people this approach works and is quite powerful, but for many it just leaves a bad taste with no constructive outlet.

The other approach though is to use our mistakes as opportunities to learn, grow and change.  This is the enduring legacy of Shimon Peres.  He could have easily got hung up on his failings and been bitter and depressed.  But that was not his reaction.  Peres used his many failures as growth and learning opportunities.  He became better as a leader and as a person because of them.

This is what we do on Sukkot.  The midrash comments that we leave Yom Kippur unsure of the verdict that was passed.  But on Sukkot we carry our lulav and etrog and proudly march through the streets like soldiers bearing arms.  We are confident and we are upbeat.

There is so much more to say about Shimon Peres but our time for now is done.  Perhaps we can all symbolically invite him to our tables for lunch today and continue the conversation.