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Avraham’s Legacy of Chesed

Good Yom Tov.

I recently read a fascinating book – Sin-a-Gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought by Rabbi  David Bashevkin.

In it he tells a great story about Rav Yizchak  Hutner:

Rav Hutner learned in Slabodka; the Rosh Yeshiva was R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka – Richard and Marcia’s grandson is named for him.  One morning, the Alter found Rav Hutner learning by himself while all the other students were paired off in Chavuta.  He asked Rav Hutner where his chavruta is.  Rav Huner responded: “I’m learning with my yetzer ha-rah, my evil inclination.”  The Alter of Slabodka asked, “Why don’t you learn with you yetzer tov¸ good inclination, instead?”  To which Rav Hutner answered back, “I can always count on my yetzer ha-ra to show up to morning seder on time.  The yetzer tov is not as reliable.”

I wanted to share an idea of Rav Hutner’s that is appropriate for Yizkor and the transition to Simchat Torah.

The Gemara in Ketuvot 8b states the following:

א”ל קום אימא מלתא כנגד מנחמי אבלים פתח ואמר אחינו גומלי חסדים בני גומלי חסדים המחזיקים בבריתו של אברהם אבינו (שנאמר (בראשית יח, יט) כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו וגו’) אחינו בעל הגמול ישלם לכם גמולכם ברוך אתה משלם הגמול

Reish Lakish said to the disseminator: Stand and say a statement with regard to those who comfort the mourners. He began and said: Our brothers, bestowers of loving-kindness, sons of bestowers of loving-kindness, who embrace the covenant of Abraham our Patriarch, as it is stated: “For I know him, that he will command his children…to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). Our brothers, may the Master of reward pay you your just deserts. Blessed are You, Lord, Who pays the just deserts.

 This is brought להלכה by the Rambam in הלכות מתנות עניים י:א

א) חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית יח יט) “כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו” (בראשית יח יט) “לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה”.

We must be especially careful to observe the mitzvah of tzedakah, more so than any other positive mitzvah, for tzedakah is a sign of the righteous [tzadik] lineage of Abraham, our father, as it is said, (Genesis 18:19) For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity [to keep the way of the LORD] by doing what is just [tzedakah].

But Rav Hutner raises a question.  In the פירוש המשניות the Rambam establishes a key principle:

ושים לבך על העיקר הגדול הנכלל במשנה הזאת והוא מה שאמר מסיני נאסר לפי שאתה הראית לדעת שכל מה שאנו מרחיקים או עושים היום אין אנו עושין אלא במצות הקב”ה ע”י משה רבינו ע”ה לא שהקב”ה אמר זה לנביאים שלפניו

Pay attention to the important principle included in this Mishnah.  Namely, when it says “it was ordained at Sinai” since you have been shown to make known that all that we distance ourselves from, or what we do today, we do only because of God’s commandments to Moshe and not because God told it to earlier prophets.

If this is the case, then how does the Rambam base the mitzvah of tzedakah on the directive to Avraham?

Rav Hutner asks another question on this Gemara in a different מאמר:

Avraham is identified as אבינו, our forefather because of his commitment to חסד.  This seems to be different than the אבהות – forefatherliness – of Yitzchak who bequeathed us the attribute of פחד or יראה.

Rav Hutner explains that there are two types of attributes which we can receive from our Avot.  The first is in the DNA.  It’s either a physical trait or an attribute that is passed down in a natural process.

The second is one which the Av actively seeks to pass it down.  When it comes to Yitzchak’s midah of awe, it is something that was in his DNA.  Avraham’s attachment to Chesed is something that he actively sought to pass on.

The significance of the Gemara is not that Avraham was our forefather and therefore bequeathed us the attribute of Kindness.  Rather it is because Avraham had a deep attachment to חסד and a desire to bequeath it to his descendants that he became our forefather.

Similarly, he explains that the Rambam justifies the requirement for Chesed because of Avraham’s commitment to Chesed by explaining that the obligation for Mitzvot comes only from Hashem at Har Sinai.  But attributes do not come from Sinai.  The Gemara’s and Rambam’s explanation that we should be committed to tzedakah because of Avraham is because of the מדה of Chesed and not the Mitzvah of Chesed.

One of pesukim that figures prominently in Simchat Torah (Devarim 33:14):

תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:

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

The Chizkuni comments:

סרסהו:  תורה צוה לנו משה להיות מורשה לנו קהלת יעקב.

‘תורה צוה לנו משה וגו, this verse appears in a truncated mode and should by rights read: תורה צוה לנו משה להיותה מורשה לנו קהלת יעקב, ”Moses commanded us this Torah in order for it to become a heritage to the congregation of Yaakov.”

In other words, we have to take ownership over the Torah and make it the heritage/legacy.  We must pass Torah on in the same way Avraham passed on the midah of chesed.

Finally, an insight of the Sefat Emet

ואמרו חז”ל אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורשה ככלה לחתן ושניהם אמת. כי באמת התורה מתנה בנפשות בנ”י אבל כפי תיקון האדם כך מתחדש לו אור התורה.

 [The verse continues: An inheritance for the community of Jacob]  The sages said:  Do not read it as “inheritance” [morasha] but rather as “betrothed” [me’orasah], like a bride to her bridegroom.  Both readings are correct.  Torah really is a gift within the souls of Israel, but it is only as the person prepares himself that the light of Torah is renewed for him.

And the comment by Prof. Art Green:

Here he warns against those who view Torah only as an “inheritance,” something to be passed on unchanged to the next generation.  Such a Torah will indeed have “strength” the power to protect Jewish existence, but it will be without “light” the true purpose for which Torah was given…“Preserving the tradition” is not an end in itself, but only a means to making God’s light shine forth through it.

As we prepare to say yizkor, we reflect on both the passive traits that we have received from our loved ones.  Those physical, emotional and spiritual traits that were part of their DNA.  But we also reflect and appreciate those traits and values that they consciously and deliberately sought to pass on to us.

We too should reflect on what are those values and traits that we seek to pass on to our children and grandchildren.


Yom Kippur 5780 – Space Dreams

In reflecting back on the past year, 5779, I would like to invite you all to join me in remembering April 11, 2019.  I’m not sure the date will immediately mean anything to you.  It is the day that the Beresheet Moon Lander was scheduled to land on the moon.  Like many of you, I watched excitedly from my computer at work as the mission was being live-broadcast.  Up until that moment I had not been fully invested in Beresheet or its mission.  I was not sure what to make of it But at the moment when Beresheet sent a Selfie back to earth, I was all in –  overcome by a sense of awe, inspiration and pride.  A few minutes later as the screen went blank for a few seconds and it became clear that there were communication issues, my heart sunk.  And when word was given that the mission had failed my heart broke.

As the emotional roller coaster continued, the immediate commitment to return to the moon and to see the mission through to completion was remarkable.

In the aftermath of the Beresheet failure, a fascinating speech made the rounds.  The speech, thankfully, was never delivered and had to be dug out of the National Archives.  It was written by William Safire on behalf of President Nixon in anticipation of the Apollo 11 moon landing in the event that that mission failed.  The short speech reads in part:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice…

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

(For the full speech see

50 years later, the sentiment remains true.  Even in failure, space exploration inspires great dreams.

The Yom Kippur davening is an exercise in imagination.  Tomorrow, the centerpiece of the Musaf davening is the Chazan’s telling of the avodah – the service of the Kohen Gadol in the  Beit haMikdash.  dAccording to the summary found in our Machzorim there were 42 steps in the Kohen Gadol’s avodah and we go over each one of them.

  • The kohen gadol immersed in the mikvah 5 times
  • The details of changing his clothing multiple times from the white clothes בגדי לבן to the בגדי זהב golden vestments
  • We are right there with the Chazan, and the Chazan as we recollect the sprinkling of the blood

וְכַךְ הָיָה מוֹנֶה. אַחַת. אַחַת וְאַחַת. אַחַת וּשְׁתַּֽיִם. אַחַת וְשָׁלשׁ. אַחַת וְאַרְבַּע. אַחַת וְחָמֵשׁ. אַחַת וָשֵׁשׁ. אַחַת וָשֶֽׁבַע:

Each time he sprinkled, he counted aloud. One and two; One and three; One and four; One and five; One and six; One and seven.

  • As the Chazan comes to each of the three times that he said ודוי confession, we are transported to the Beit haMikdash. And as the Machzor recalls the reaction of the congregation assembled in the Beit haMikdash holding their collective breath as the Kohen Gadol recites the ודוי (confession) and the שם המפורש (God’s Ineffable Name) from the קודש קדשים (Holy of Holies)

וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהָעָם הָעוֹמְדִים בָּעֲזָרָה. כְּשֶׁהָיוּ שׁוֹמְעִים אֶת הַשֵּׁם הַנִּכְבָּד וְהַנּוֹרָא מְפֹרָשׁ יוֹצֵא מִפִּי כֹהֵן גָּדוֹל בִּקְדֻשָּׁה וּבְטָהֳרָה. הָיוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים וְנוֹפְלִים עַל פְּנֵיהֶם. וְאוֹמְרִים בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד:

And the priests and the people who were standing in the Temple Courtyard; when they heard the glorious and awesome Name [of God] explicitly pronounced from the mouth of the High Priest, with holiness and with purity, they bowed, prostrated themselves, offered thanks, and fell upon their faces, and said: “Blessed [is His] Name, His glorious kingdom is forever and ever.”

We too fall on our faces and call out ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד.

The avodah ends with image of the Kohen Gadol successfully exiting the קדש קדשים without injury.  He would make a yom tov – a holiday, a feast – for all his loved ones.  The machzor then tells us the prayer he would recite upon exiting and we then break into the glorious song of  מראה כהן (mareh Cohen).

If we allow ourselves to truly feel it, to truly be in the moment then it is as if we are there.

Our recollection of the avodah service during Musaf is not just a memory of the past; it is our collective dream for the future.  One day we will once again observe Yom Kippur in the Beit ha-Mikdash, with the Kohen Gadol performing the avodah ceremony.  And all together we break into song –

אמת מה נהדר היה כהן גדול בצאתו מבית קדשי הקדשים בשלום בלי פגע

True!  How majestic was the kohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies in peace, without injury.

As we sing this song and celebrate our completion of the avodah, we can almost picture the kohen gadol emerging from the Holy of Holies.  We can almost place ourselves there.

[I cannot speak of the imagined reality we are meant to feel during the avodah without mentioning the truly amazing song by Yishai Ribo, Seder haAvodah  that has taken the Jewish world by storm (; for a wonderful analysis of the song, see  Ribo is able to so vividly imagine the drama of the day as he puts himself in the mind of the Kohen Gadol performing the avodah.]

It is not just in regards to the Yom Kippur davening that we need to exercise our creative imagination.  The basic premise of Teshuva is that we are capable of change.

We first have to be able to imagine ourselves as a changed person.

The Gemara (49b) introduces the idea of הרהורי תשובה, thoughts of Teshuvah.

על מנת שאני צדיק אפילו רשע גמור מקודשת שמא הרהר תשובה בדעתו

If a man proposes, “Marry me on condition that I am a tzaddik,” then even if he is fully wicked, she is married; perhaps thought of teshuvah in his mind

Rav Kook further develops this idea (Orot haTeshuva 7:3-4):

על ידי הרהורי תשובה שומע האדם קול ד’ הקורא עליו מתוך התורה, ומתוך כל רגשי הלב, מתוך העולם ומלואו וכל אשר בם… הרהורי התשובה הם הם מגלים את עומק הרצון, והגבורה של הנשמה מתגלה על ידם בכל מילוי הודה, ולפי גדלה של התשובה כך היא מדת החירות שלה.

Via thoughts of teshuvah, one hears the voice of G-d calling to him from within the Torah, from within his heart’s emotions, from within the world, its fullness and all therein… Thoughts of teshuvah reveal the depth of one’s desire, and the strength of the soul is revealed in all of its glory through those thoughts. The greater the thought of teshuvah, the greater its liberation.

The effect of not being able to imagine a new reality, is seen powerfully in the story of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt.  At the beginning of Parshat Va’era (Exodus ch. 6), Hashem appears to Moshe and reminds him that Hashem has made a promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov to take B’nei Yisrael out of slavery and return them to the land of Canaan.

(ו) לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה’ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ (ז) וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹקִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה’ אֱלֹ֣קֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ח) וְהֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י ה’׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (7) And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. (8) I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”

What is B’nei Yisrael’s response?

 (ט) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃ (פ)

(9) But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

The Ohr haChaim (Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar,1696-1743, Morocco) explains:

מקצר רוח. אולי כי לצד שלא היו בני תורה לא שמעו, ולזה יקרא קוצר רוח כי התורה מרחבת לבו של אדם:

for impatience of spirit and cruel bondage. Perhaps the people did not respond positively to this assurance because they had not yet received the Torah. Since Torah broadens a person’s mind, the Torah may hint at that by describing the Israelites’ state of mind as “narrow minded, limited.”

In other words, B’nei Yisrael suffered from shortness of vision.  They could not imagine themselves as anything other than slaves to Pharaoh.  And so they rejected Hashem’s message.

Some of you might remember last year, before Neilah, I shared a story from Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture.  Pausch was a professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie Melon University who was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He prepared a final lecture to impart wisdom and life lessons he wanted to share with his family.  A favorite story of mine from this book relates to the summer of 1969 when Pausch was 8 years old and was at sleep away camp and the Apollo mission 11 to the moon, that we discussed earlier,  took place.  The night that Neil Armstrong was to step on the moon, the camp set up a TV for all the kids to watch.  But as Pausch tells it:

…the people running the camp kept looking at their watches.  It was already after eleven.  Eventually, while smart decisions were being made on the moon, a dumb one was made here on Earth.  It had gotten too late.  All of us kids were sent back to our tents to go to sleep.

As you can imagine, young Randy Pausch was not a happy camper that night.  There was some comfort when he got home a few weeks later and learned that in the days before DVR’s, VCR’s and on-Demand broadcasts, his father had taken a picture of the family TV set preserving for Randy the moment that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.  “He had preserved the moment for me, knowing it could help trigger big dreams.”  And it did.  As he writes at the beginning of the chapter:

When man first walked on the moon, “I knew then that pretty much anything was possible.  It was as if all of us, all over the world, had been given permission to dream big dreams.”

And while we gain much inspiration from man’s first landing on the moon 50 years ago and Israel’s efforts to reach the moon, we also take much comfort and inspiration from Avdimi bar Chama bar Dosa in Eruvin 55a.  Explaining the significance of the pesukim from Parshat Nitzavim (Devarim 30:11-13)

יא) כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ (יב) לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ (יג) וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. (12) It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

There is significant debate as to whether this passage refers to the Torah as a whole or if it refers specifically to the mitzvah of Teshuvah.  Avidmi bar Chama’s comment holds true either way:

והיינו דאמר אבדימי בר חמא בר דוסא מאי דכתיב לא בשמים היא ולא מעבר לים היא לא בשמים היא שאם בשמים היא אתה צריך לעלות אחריה ואם מעבר לים היא אתה צריך לעבור אחריה

And this idea, that one must exert great effort to retain one’s Torah knowledge, is in accordance with what Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Dosa said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea” (Deuteronomy 30:12–13)? “It is not in heaven” indicates that if it were in heaven, you would have to ascend after it, and if it were beyond the sea, you would have to cross after it, as one must expend whatever effort is necessary in order to study Torah.

Hashem did us a kindness by making Torah something near and dear to our hearts.  This is the promise. As we enter Yom Kippur may our Tefilot and our Teshuva know no limits.  May we dream big dreams for ourselves, our family and our community.  And once those dreams have been formed and expressed may it be a year in which all of our hopes and dreams are realized. As the passage in Devarim concludes (Devarim 30:14):

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃

The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.


Rosh Hashana 5780 Holy Myths

We are living in the age of fake news.  Anytime a story breaks, it is immediately followed by claims that it is fake.  At the same time, the new cycle is impossible ot make sense of.  In a week where a Congressional impeachment inquiry was announced against the President,  the most divisive figure in the news might have been Greta Thurnbergthe 16 year old environmental activist. 

With this in mind I want to share an incredible story about the origins of the recycling movement.  It is a story that might be familiar to some of you.  It begins with a garbage barge called the Mobro 4000.  In 1987 the Mobro set sail from Islip, Long Island with more than 3,100 tons of garbage – that’s 6.2 million pounds!  In a story that dominated the nightly news for months, the barge was not allowed to unload its cargo at its intended destination in North Carolina and spent more than two months at sea looking for a place to dump its load.  (For the full podcast on which this is based, click here: 

The story that led the barge on its failed journey is a good one.  It begins with Lowell Harrison, a businessman from Mobile, Alabama.  As Lowell tells it, growing up as a sharecropper in rural Alabama in the 1930’s, nothing went to waste.  Literally.  “Everything we had to eat, we raised on that farm.”  He concedes that they got an occasional sack of sugar or flour.  But once the contents had been emptied, his mother would make dresses for his sisters out of the sacks.  Lowell goes so far as to assert that his house did not have a garbage can Fast forward to the 1980’s and Lowell is in the construction business but is also at a loss to see the crazy amount of garbage that is being produced.  And so he decides to venture into the emerging field of alternative energy.  His idea was to trap the methane gas produced by decomposing garbage and convert it into power.  He found a landfill site in North Carolina, but in order for this to work, he would need a lot of garbage.  And so Lowell turned to the only place able to provide enough garbage to bring his project to life – New York City.  Problem was that garbage was controlled by the mafia.  “Garbage in New York, that was like a controlled substance. There was a cartel that controlled the flow of garbage. And that’s who you had to deal with.”  So Lowell reaches out to Salvatore Avellino, a chauffeur in the Lucchesse Family, who controlled garbage hauling in Long Island and who would spend 10 years in jail for conspiring to murder. 

On March 22, 1987 the barge was loaded and began its first trip to North Carolina.  But as it slowly makes its way down the coast, people start to notice.  New York City had already begun trucking much of its garbage to landfills in other states, but this barge was the first time that the garbage was out in the open for people to see.  As it happens around the same time as the Mobro’s journey, the EPA had come out with more strict regulation over what type of garbage could be landfilled.  Rumors started that there was toxic waste on the barge and a court order blocked the barge from unloading in North Carolina.  As Lowell tries to sort out what to do with his garbage the barge sits out at sea. 

And as state after state, even other countries — the Mexican Navy sent a boat with the message “don’t think of taking your garbage to Mexico — refuse to take the garbage, the story eventually becomes one about America’s garbage problem.  Add to this that at the same time a large number of local dumps were closing.  People began to wonder, “why is all this garbage sitting out at sea for months on end?”  And they came to the conclusion that it must be that there is nowhere to put it.    

But here’s the thing, there was plenty of landfill space in the US.  The issue was that due to stricter regulations, many smalltown dumps were no longer in compliance with EPA regulations.  So there was no space problem; just a problem of people putting two stories together and jumping to the very wrong conclusion. 

And here’s the really interesting thing.  It was this non-existent crisis that gave rise to the recycling movement in America.  Because people THOUGHT there was no more space to dump their garbage, there was a push toward recycling.  The barge incident was finally resolved with a judge ordering the garbage back to New York where it was incinerated.  Greenpeace activists showed up at the incinerator with a sign, “Next Time, Recycle.” 

What does any of this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? 

I once heard a fascinating shiur from Rabbi Mark Dratch who is the Executive Director of the RCA and married to Rachel Levitt Klein, who used to teach at Beth Tfiloh.  Rabbi Dratch spoke of holy myths that feature prominently in the davening.  For example, as part of the Musaf service in a few minutes we will sing the piyut  וכל מאמינים.  We assert that Everyone believes… 

וְכֹל מַאֲמִינִים שֶׁהוּא אֵל אֱמוּנָה הַבּוֹחֵן וּבוֹדֵק גִּנְזֵי נִסְתָּרוֹת: 

וְכֹל מַאֲמִינִים שֶׁהוּא בוֹחֵן כְּלָיוֹת הַגּוֹאֵל מִמָּֽוֶת וּפוֹדֶה מִשַּֽׁחַת 

And all believe that He is the faithful Almighty;  who probes and searches hidden secrets. 
And all believe that He probes man’s conscience; Who redeems from death and rescues from the grave.  

But this is clearly not true.  Not everyone believes. 

In ברכת המזון we assert נער הייתי וגם זקנתי ולא ראיתי צדיק נעזב — I was young and am now old and have not seen a tzadik abandoned.  Again, empirical evidence does not support this claim. 


Here’s another one – As Yaakov is returning to Canaan and his encounter with Esav, he sends messengers with the following message:  

בראשית פרק לב 

כֹּה אָמַר עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי וָאֵחַר עַד עָתָּה: (ו) וַיְהִי לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ: 

Thus says your servant Jacob: ‘I have stayed with Lavan and remained until now.  I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.” 

Rashi comments: 

רש”י בראשית פרק לב 

 דבר אחר גרתי בגימטריא תרי”ג, כלומר עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותרי”ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים 

Garti (I have stayedis the same gematria as TARYAG (613).  That is to say, I lived with the wicked Lavan and observed all 613 mitzvot; I did not learn from his evil ways. 

Many of the commentators are troubled by this.  How can Yakov claim that he kept all 613 mitzvot while in Lavan’s house.  Not only must we reconcile the fact that the Torah had not yet been given, but there are many things that Yakov did in his life that are in direct violation of some of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.  The most glaring example is that he married two sisters – something that is explicitly forbidden in the Torah.  Another problem is that while living with Lavan in Charan Yakov was outside the borders of Eretz Yisrael.  He therefore could not have kept the מצות התלויות בארץ – those mitzvot unique to the Land of Israel.   

Even more surprising is a midrashic comment made a little later in the story.   

After sending Esav a wide range of gifts to appease him, Yakov’s messengers report back to him that they brought the gifts to Esav and that Esav is on his way to meet Yakov along with 400 men, Yakov’s reaction is:   

בראשית פרק לב 

 (ח) וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וְאֶת הַצֹּאן וְאֶת הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת: 

Yaakov was greatly afraid and he split the people with him in two camps and the cattlesheep and camels. 

The Mechilta asks: 

מכילתא בשלח 

אדם שהקב”ה הבטיחו – היה ירא ומפחד? אלא שאמר יעקב אבינו אוי לי שמא יגרום החטא!  

A person whom God had promised [security] was afraid?!  Rather, Yakov said, “Woe to me!  Maybe the sin will cause [my downfall]!” 

Yakov’s fear stems from the fact that he is concerned he may have sinned!  But what happened to the confidence he displayed just 2 verses earlier in declaring תרי”ג שמרתי – I kept all 613 mitzvot?! 

My preferred explanation of Rashi’s comment that Yakov kept all 613 mitzvot is that of רבינו אפרים על התורה (Rabeinu Ephraim on the Torah), who explains 

 אע”פ שגרתי עם לבן בעמל וביגיע לא נתרשלתי מלעסוק בתורה שכוללת תרי”ג מצות 

Even though I lived with Lavan with much difficultydid not desist from occupying myself with the Torah that includes 613 commandments. 

 Yakov’s statement to Esav is not that he kept each one of the 613 mitzvot in a technical or a literal sense.  Rather, it is that he remained commited to the principles and values of Torah, even while living in a hostile environment.  It is possible to be committed to Torah in a general sense but to fall short in some of the details.  As Yakov prepared to meet Esav he engaged in a process of Teshuvah and Cheshbon ha-Nefesh.  He realized that even though בגדול (broadly) his commitment to Torah was strong, he may have fallen short in some of the details.  And this explains his fear of sin. 

The above myths would be described as productive.  They allow to express our ideals and aspirations even if we know they are not 100% factually true. 


But some myths that we hold strong to are counterproductive and even harmful.  I bring your attention to an important article written by Rabbi Ari Segal, head of school of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.  The article is titled “Sex Drugs and Orthodox Students” (  Rabbi Segal describes his experience at a retreat for educators – heads of schools, shul Rabbis, and campus educators.  Rabbi Segal decided to bring up the topic that no one else was willing to talk about but was on everyone’s mind: 

Why do we not have serious discussion in our yeshiva day school system about Jewish sexual ethics, the realities of Shabbat observance on a college campus, belief in God, the ubiquitous and insidiousness of pornography or the culture of drinking and drugs? 

He offers two explanations: 

 …institutional doubt and institutional insecurity. The doubt is that we are not sure these realities should be spoken about on a mass level in our school systems. Often, when we acknowledge and talk about the realities of our religious lapses, they can become acknowledged as the standard. Perhaps we don’t talk about the issue so as not to imply tacit approval. We want to protect the religious idealism of our institutions. 

The insecurity results in no school wanting to be the first to acknowledge and address these issues lest they will be perceived as the only one with the problem. So instead of all of us having a frank conversation with our students, we all remain silent. 

In a powreful follow-up article, Dr. Rivka Schwartz, the Associate Principal at SAR High School, who also served as the Rebbetzin at Mt. Sinai in Washington Heights, a shul teeming with young singles describes her  attempts to foster such conversations (  The school has created a cuttingedge curriculum and encourages its teachers to research and write “about how one teaches about sexuality in an Orthodox Jewish context, being honest about the realities of kids’ lives and upholding fealty to halacha.”  They have similar projects addressing drug abuse.  

As she explains: 

the disconnect between halacha and the lives that they are living can be profoundly religiously alienating for some of our young adults, in a variety of ways. Some are tormented by shame and guilt because of the gulf between what their schools, summer camps or youth groups have taught them and what they are doing, a pain that they carry privately even as they go about their Orthodox lives. Others, seeking to avoid that guilt, leave Orthodox institutions or practice entirely 

It’s easy to point to the holy myths that our community holds as they relate to teenagers.  But let’s think about all the other “holy myths” that stifle honest conversations in our community and among ourselves when it comes to our religious lives. 

Again, it’s easy to point to the big ticket items that dominate the Jewish press: 

  • Women’s leadership 
  • Our relationship to the State of Israel 
  • The place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community 

But what about those ideals and values that we profess to hold by, but always seem to come up with excuses as to why we don’t do more 

  • Do we make the proper effort to daven on a regular basis?  With a minyan? 
  • As a community we value Torah learning.  How much Torah do we actually learn?  Are we קובע עתים? 
  • Chesed – Do we make an effort to invite people for Shabbos who we know are on their own or going through tough times?   Signing up for a meal train when it’s first sent out is easy.  But once the meal is delivered, do we call the person to see how they’re doing?  If they could use another meal? 

Rabbi Segal concludes his article with the following: 

I am reminded of an anecdote told by Robert Caro, famed biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Following the death of JFK, Johnson met with his advisers about the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. They told him to avoid pushing for civil rights legislation. They called it a “noble cause, but a lost cause.” Johnson is said to have responded, “but what the hell is the presidency for then?” A similar question can be asked of Jewish leaders, myself included. If we are unable to broach the most pressing and trenchant issues facing our students [– and ourselves — ], “what is Jewish leadership for?” We cannot shy away from the tough issues, regardless of how fraught they may be or how murky the path forward may seem. 


I began my Drasha with the story of the Mobro 400 and the incorrect assumptions that gave rise to the recycling movement in America.  The logic may have been flawed, but no one can argue with the end results.  No one can deny that recycling and a greater awareness of our environment is a good thing.  There is perhaps no greater Jewish message or no message more on point for Rosh Hashanah than the slogan of the recycling movement: Think Global Act Local. 

But knowing this story also forces us to confront the many “holy myths” that exist in our Jewish community. We must continue to articulate and aspire to live by the ideals – even if in reality we do not live up to them.  Like Yakov we must be committed to תרי”ג שמרתי.  We also have to be honest about the holy myths that stifle our growth or prevent honest conversations and reckoning with our faults and shortcomings.  May this be a year where we engage in honest conversations with ourselves, our families and communities while continuing to strive to realize all our dreams and all our aspirations. 


Will Our Kids Remain Religious?

Earlier this week I sent out an article that has been making the rounds and causing quite a stir. The article is titled “Will My Children Remain Religious” by an Israeli woman named Racheli Malek-Buda. ( She opens by describing an email sent by her shul looking for volunteers to teach over the Shavuot holiday:
• I used to respond to such a request with an automatic “yes.” A former seminary student would have no problem writing that sort of lecture. A peak or two at the Rambam and Rabeinu Tam, a nice anecdote from an Agnon story, and you’ll have a source sheet for a brilliant lecture you’ll never forget.
Instead, I was assaulted by panic, which quickly turned into shame. I didn’t know how to tell them that… well… I forgot how to study Torah. I abandoned that muscle. And suddenly, realizing I might have to use it again, I felt it spasm.

A bit later in the article she tells of her son’s application process to attend a Yeshiva high school:
• When my son wanted to enroll in a religious high school, they announced there’d be a Judaism exam. “Say,” I wondered suddenly on our way to his test. “Do you even know Al HaMichya by heart?” Of course he didn’t. After all, the perfectly Orthodox-Light family he grew up in doesn’t force the kids to bench anymore.
She explains what she means by the term “Orthodox-Light.”
• I thought I could instill in my children the ability to be religious in theory. To know the blessings but not say them. To go to Shul but not to daven passionately. I failed.
By Orthodox-lite I don’t think that she means she harbors any antagonistic thoughts or feelings toward Judaism. Rather she means to say an education rooted in the knowledge and practice of Orthodoxy but kept strictly to an intellectual realm. Orthodox-lite is an Orthodoxy that is not forced down anyone’s throats. It’s a sound Orthodox education that allows the child decide for him or herself how much they will practice.

Finally, Racheli Malek-Buda tells of her cousin who stopped being religious many years ago, and who to her shock suddenly began putting on Tefilin every day. As he explains it: “My boy’s celebrating his Bar mitzvah soon. I used to know how to lein, I thought I could teach him, but I forgot it all. I suddenly asked myself, ‘what am I leaving behind for him? What sort of heritage?’”

She concludes:
• And now, I have only to admit – if my kids stay religious, it’ll be because of their grandfather, who insists they make Kiddush. Because of their grandmother, that won’t but them ice cream that doesn’t have a Kashrut. Because of the insistent educators we were too scared to be ourselves.

My friend, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld who is a rabbi in Chicago posted a second article along with Racheli Malek Buda’s. This was written by Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz in the summer 2011 edition of Jewish Action titled “Why Aren’t Our Kids in Shul?” (
Goldmintz turns to research in the Christian world about church attendance:
“Most children regard worship as uninteresting and boring, nevertheless, it is the children who have been regularly involved in it who are more likely to retain the habit of church attendance when free to abandon it.”
In other words, many children don’t want to attend religious services, but those adults who end up attending services on their own are those who went as children even though they didn’t want to. Simply put: the more you force your child to go to shul, the more likely it is that he or she will continue to go to shul later in life.
I’d like to share a thought on the parsha and then come back to discuss the article.
The parsha concludes with the parsha of tzitzit, which as we know is the final paragraph included in kriyat Shema.
The Gemara in Menachot (43b) asserts:

תניא אידך וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ שקולה מצוה זו כנגד כל המצות כולן

It is taught in another baraita: The verse states: “That you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord”; this teaches that this mitzva of ritual fringes is equivalent to all the mitzvot of the Torah.

This seems like a clear case of Rabbinic hyperbole. The Gemara Brachot (12b) in understanding why this parsha was included in the Shema says:

פרשת ציצית מפני מה קבעוה אמר רבי יהודה בר חביבא מפני שיש בה חמשה דברים מצות ציצית יציאת מצרים עול מצות ודעת מינים הרהור עבירה והרהור עבודה זרה

The Gemara continues: Why was the portion of ritual fringes established as part of the recitation of Shema when its content is unrelated to that of the preceding portions? Rabbi Yehuda bar Ḥaviva said: The portion of ritual fringes was added because it includes five elements including the primary reason for its inclusion, the exodus from Egypt (Melo HaRo’im): The mitzva of ritual fringes, mention of the exodus from Egypt, the acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot, admonition against the opinions of the heretics, admonition against thoughts of the transgressions of licentiousness, and admonition against thoughts of idolatry.

In other words, there’s nothing fundamentally special or unique about this paragraph from the Torah. Rather, it’s a nice smorgasbord of ideas
Perhaps the most creative explanation for the Gemara’s statement of how the mitzvah of tzitzit is equal to all the Mitzvot of the Torah is brought by Rashi:

רש”י על במדבר ט״ו:ל״ט
(א) וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’. שֶׁמִּנְיַן גִּימַטְרִיָּא שֶׁל צִיצִית שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת, וּשְׁמוֹנָה חוּטִין וַחֲמִשָּׁה קְשָׁרִים הֲרֵי תרי”ג (תנחומא):

(1) וזכרתם את כל מצות ה׳ AND YE SHALL REMEMBER ALL THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD — The tzitzit will remind one of all the commandments because the numerical value of the letters of the word tzitzit is six hundred, and there are eight threads and five knots in the fringes, so that you have six hundred and thirteen, which is also the number of the commandments of the Torah.

I think there is a more fundamental and essential explanation of the importance of tzitzit which is based on the continuation of the same Rashi quoted above. Rashi explains that the parsha’s ending with tzitzit is meant to serve as a corrective to the meraglim story that opens the parsha:

(ב) ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם. כְּמוֹ “מִתּוּר הָאָרֶץ” (במדבר י”ג); הַלֵּב וְהָעֵינַיִם הֵם מְרַגְּלִים לַגּוּף, מְסַרְסְרִים לוֹ אֶת הָעֲבֵרוֹת, הָעַיִן רוֹאָה וְהַלֵּב חוֹמֵד וְהַגּוּף עוֹשֶׂה אֶת הָעֲבֵרָה (תנחומא):

Rashi on Numbers 15:39
ולא תתרו אחרי לבבכם — The verb has the same meaning as in (Numbers 13:25), “and they returned from searching (מתור) the land”. (The translation therefore is: AND YE SHALL NOT SEARCH AFTER YOUR OWN HEART). The heart and the eyes are the “spies” of the body — they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’lach 15; cf. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:8).
Another important feature of the tzitit is the תכלת. In Tanach we find techelet associated with two important institutions – מלכות and כהנה. As such, the commandment for every Jew to wear Tzitzit becomes an embodiment of the Torah’s directive immediately before Har Sinai

שמות י״ט:ו׳
(ו) וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Exodus 19:6
(6) but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

This is especially true in light of the Meraglim’s (spies) report:

במדבר י״ג:ל״ג
(לג) וְשָׁ֣ם רָאִ֗ינוּ אֶת־הַנְּפִילִ֛ים בְּנֵ֥י עֲנָ֖ק מִן־הַנְּפִלִ֑ים וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃

Numbers 13:33
(33) we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

The parsha of tzitzit is so important and is included as part of Kriyat Shema because it contains the powerful reminder to us that by living a life committed to Torah and mitzvot, and a life that is deeply entrenched in the history of our people (as evidenced by יציאת מצרים, the Exodus from Egypt) then we truly are a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש (a Kingdom of priests and a holy people). We are so much greater than what appears on the surface.

Let us return to Racheli Malek-Buda’s article. The first issue that stand out to me is her stated goal of raising a family that is “Orthodox-lite.” It should come to no surprise that if one’s goal at the outset is “lite” then the results will be less than desired. Though the Modern Orthodox world is often described as “less intense” than those to the right, that should not be what defines us. We must have a deep passion for our Yidishkeit.
A second takeaway for me relates to the lesson of tzitzit. The details of halacha matter but only if we can place those details in a larger, more grandiose context. And no one argues that to achieve greatness requires hard work. I like the analogy that Racheli Malek-Buda uses to atrophied muscles. Our religious practice and observance, our spirituality requires us to constantly exercise those muscles and to find ways to continue to grow and develop.

Lastly, I am not one to weigh in on what is appropriate to force our children to do or not do. A crucial piece of my own story is that I went to a Solomon Schechter Day School my whole life. Many people ask how is it that someone who went to a Conservative Day School became an Orthodox rabbi? And I always say that had I gone to an Orthodox school I would not have reacted very well to having halachic observance shoved down my throat. Pedagogically, it is much preferred for children to come to something on their own. Yet it is hard to argue with the conclusions reached by Racheli Malek-Buda and Jay Goldmintz: There should be things that are not up for debate when it comes to our children’s religious upbringing. Obviously, each child is different and we must follow the dictum of חנוך לנער על פי דרכו – teach a child according to what is appropriate for him/her. What I can say is that it is certainly the case that if we are to have any sway over our children then we must model for them that this stuff is important to us. It matters deeply. We need to have to conviction to be able to persuade them that it is worth their while. We need a strong backbone. If in our own eyes we are like חגבים – insects or grasshoppers – when it comes to our Judaism, then we have no hope for our children to be committed. This does not mean that we must know all the answers or that we cannot continue to struggle with certain details or elements of Judaism. But even if we struggle and even if we have questions, we have to be able to answer for ourselves and for our children why it is still important. Why it matters to us and why it should matter to them.

I hope that the article and this drasha will inspire much more conversation around this important topic. Shabbat Shalom.

Mourning Sarah; Mourning Pittsburgh

Dedicated in memory of the victims of last Shabbat’s attack on  the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

The parsha opens with death and mourning.

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃ (ב) וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.  Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:1-2)

The Torah’s description of Avraham’s mourning invites a number of questions.

We read that Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron and that Avraham came to mourn for her cry for her.  The Rabbis want to know why Avraham CAME to mourn for Sarah.  This implies that he was elsewhere when she died.  Perhaps most familiar to us is the comment of Rashi that Avraham did not tell Sarah of Hashem’s commandment to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice.  The Satan showed her an image of Isaac on the altar.  The shock  led to Sarah’s death.

The Midrash upon which Rashi’s comment is based offers another explanation from whence Avraham came:

בראשית רבה נח:ה
וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה מֵהֵיכָן בָּא, רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר מִקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל תֶּרַח לְשָׂרָה בָּא

And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah-From where did he come? Rabbi Levi said: He came to Sarah from the burial of Terach. (Breishit Rabbah 58:5)

And so from the very beginning of the parsha we are confronted with shocking, distressing imagery, which for Sarah – who is the Matriarch and the representative of the Jewish people —  was too much to bear.  We are shown how one man – Avraham – who is the representative of the entire Jewish people is forced to deal with the death of two loved ones – and the near death of Yitzchak – within days of each other.  The parallels to Pittsburgh are stark.

The Torah records two verbs describing Avraham’s mourning.  לספוד לשרה )to eulogize Sarah)  ולבכותה (and to cry for her).  Many point out that these represent  two stages of mourning.  One stage is the raw, emotional state of someone who experiences a loss.  We might describe this as a universal, human stage of mourning.  The second stage, though is more controlled and regimented – the formal steps of אבילות (mourning) required by halacha.

The Netziv writes that the formal, halachically mandated stage of mourning is indicated by the verb לספוד (to eulogize) while the raw, emotional stage of mourning is indicated by the very לבכות (to cry).  But if this is so, then the Torah’s description seems off.  Usually the most emotionally intense stage of mourning comes as soon as the loss occurs, or as soon as one learns of the loss.  The normal course of action would have been for Avraham to cry – לבכות first, and then to go through the formal acts of mourning.  Why then do we read וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ – first the formal more regimented stage of לספוד and only afterwards the more intense emotional stage of לבכות?

דרך העולם תחלה לבכות בינו לב״ע ואח״כ להספיד ברבים וכמש״כ ויקרא ה׳ לבכי ולמספד. אלא משום שהיה אברהם בא ממקום רחוק לשם ובין כה וכה נתקבצו המון העם סביב הבית כדאיתא בסנהדרין דף מ״ו דמשהי לה לשרה לפני קבורה יותר מן המורגל עד בוא אברהם. מש״ה נזדרז להספידה תחלה ברבים.

Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and cry for her — The way of the world is first to cry to oneself and afterwards to eulogize in public, as it says” My Lord GOD of Hosts summoned on that day To weeping and lamenting…” (Isaiah 22:12).  But since Abraham had come from a far off place to there, in the meanwhile the masses had assembled by the house, as we see in Sanhedrin 46b that they waited to bury Sarah longer than usual, until Abraham came.  For this reason he rushed to eulogize her in public first.

As we have gone through a week of memorial services, prayer vigils, reading countless articles memorializing the victims, decrying antisemitism, etc. it is clear that there is no normal way to process and mourn what happened.  There is no script for such public, communal mourning and there is no way that is usual.  We recognize that the families, friends and local community of those who were killed are entitled to mourn their loss privately.  Yet, their loss is our loss, and the public outcry – and the media’s need to cover the events – are certainly warranted.  And so like Avraham Avinu we recognize that we are thrust into the public, regimented displays of mourning without the “luxury” of our own private time.

The parsha offers another point of view when it comes to mourning and reaction to traumatic events.  While most of the parsha details the quest of Avraham’s servant to find a wife for Yitzchak, it is only toward the very end of the Parsha that we actually see Yitzchak.

 וְיִצְחָק֙ בָּ֣א מִבּ֔וֹא בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י וְה֥וּא יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב׃  וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃ וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃  וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס׃  וַיְסַפֵּ֥ר הָעֶ֖בֶד לְיִצְחָ֑ק אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃  וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃ (פ)

  • Yitzchak came from Be’er La-Chai Ro’i.
  • He goes out to the field toward evening time – our sages tell us that he was davening Mincha – and he sees the caravan of camels bringing Rivka approaching.
  • The couple meets for the first time and Yitzchak brings her into Sarah’s tent.
  • Yitzchak was comforted over his mother  ((Breishit 24:62-67))

Many point out that this is the first time we see Yitzchak since the Akeidah.  According to the chronology developed by our Rabbis based on the Torah’s intimations, it has been three years. Without developing the idea in the text, it is clear to me that he presents a classic case of Post Traumatic Stress.

The Zohar(II:34:2) wants to know why Yitzchak davens in the field –

וְכִי לָא הֲוָה לֵיהּ בֵּיתָא, אוֹ מָקוֹם אַחֵר לְהִתְפַּלֵּל.

Did he not have a house or somewhere else to pray?

Rather, the Zohar suggests that he was praying in the same field that Avraham had purchased in order to bury Sarah.

 אֶלָּא אוֹתָהּ הַשָּׂדֶה הָיָה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה אַבְרָהָם סָמוּךְ לַמְּעָרָה,

Yitzchak was visiting his mother’s grave!

The contemporary Israeli commentary Da’at Mikra elaborates:

יצחק יצא אל שדה עפרון — סמוך למערת המכפלה — לשפוך לפני ה’ את שיחו = צריו על מות אמו, עליה לא פסק מלהתאבל שלוש (!) שנים,

The prayer that Yitzchak offered was his pain and distress over the loss of his mother for whom he had not stopped davening for three years!

While the commentary itself expresses shock that Yitzchak was so distressed, this critique is unwarranted especially when one considers the traumatic events of Yitzchak’s life.

I’d like to make one more observation about this.  Clearly, Yitzchak is bothered by his mother’s death.  And clearly he has a complicated relationship with Avraham after the Akeidah. One way in which this is expressed is in the way that the Parsha describes each of their mourning processes.  At the beginning of the Parsha, the entire focus is on Avraham – ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולכבכותה .  It’s as if to say that Avraham mourned for Sarah alone.  Shouldn’t it have said ויבאו אברהם ויצחק לספוד לשרה ולבכותה  — that father and son came together to mourn for Sarah – their mother and wife; just as we see at the end of the parsha when Yitzchak and Yishmael come together to bury Avraham (Genesis 25:9).

On the one hand, this offers the important insight that each person mourns in his or her own way.  There is no right or wrong way, and that differentiation is recognized and respected by the Torah.

At the same time, the fact that Avraham and Yitzchak do not come together in grief only highlights the tension in their own relationship and the deep impact of the trauma on each of them.

Thank God this has not been the case for Am Yisrael after last week’s tragedy. We have come together as a unified community,  able to mourn this tragedy together. The mantra of the week, repeated at every gathering and prayer vigil has been אחינו כל בית ישראל (Acheinu kol Beit Yisrael; our brothers, the entire House of Israel).

Allow me one more thought.  During the introduction to the parsha I mentioned the seemingly contradictory identity used by Avraham at the beginning of the parsha.  We he approaches B’nei Chet to purchase a burial plot he says to them (Genesis 4:4)

 גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃

“I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

If he is a Toshav – a resident – then how is he also a ger – a stranger?  There are many who feel like the attack in Pittsburgh highlights this tension for the American Jewish community.  We are full citizens of America.  Yet, in light of this attack there are many who question whether we will ever be fully accepted; or will we always be seen as a stranger or the other?

It is certainly scary to witness this attack and read about the rising antisemitism in the US and across the world.  Yet we cannot give up on our status as Toshav – residents.  In this light, I’d like to share the thoughts of Rabbi Barry Kornblau:

“At this time of our need and grief, our American Jewish community is currently experiencing an outpouring of love and support from others outside our community. In addition to thanking those who offer such assistance now, we Jews must also recommit, now, to our principled tradition of extending hands and hearts of love to other communities who, in their present and future times of grief and need, will appreciate our support.” 

We offer our prayers that those who were physically injured in the attack should have a Refuah Shleimah and as well as those who have been emotionally and psychologically scarred.  We pray that the families of the victims, the Tree of Life Congregation, the community of Pittsburgh and the entire Jewish people have a Nechama – are comforted.  Good Shabbos.

Rosh Hashanah 5779: Who We Are

“Excuse me.  Are you Jewish?”

It’s a straight-forward question.  Given that today is Rosh Hashanah and we are all in shul, the answer should be pretty obvious, as well.  But in different settings, the question may elicit very different reactions.  If someone were to ask on the streets of Pikesville, we might think, “how much is this going to cost to me?”  But if we were asked on the streets of one of the European cities where anti-Semitism is on the rise, we might run the other way.

As most of you know, I am fond of listening to podcasts.  This past summer as I made one of my many drives back and forth to the Poconos where Toby and the kids were at camp, one of these podcasts wrestled with the “are you Jewish?” in a fascinating way.

The podcast is called Unorthodox.  It features three Jewish hosts, none of whom are Orthodox.  They spent the day on a Chabad Mitzvah Tank in Midtown Manhattan asking people if they are Jewish and then offering them Shabbos candles or the opportunity to put on Tefilin. (

It was quite interesting to hear their own personal reflections to how they feel when they are asked whether they are Jewish.  As one of the podcasters said at the beginning: “All non-Orthodox Jews, when they are approached by Lubavitchers, have feelings about it.  Nobody is neutral…They really force Jews to confront Judaism.”

They struggled with how to ask strangers the question, how to avoid profiling people and making assumptions about their appearances.  And they spoke about how to understand and interpret people’s reactions to the question.  One of the most interesting discussions they had, and a favorite game was to guess which people who said “No, they are not Jewish” and walked on, were in fact Jewish but were too embarrassed/ashamed/upset, etc. to admit it.

It is not only Jews on the streets of Manhattan accosted by strangers who have a hard time admitting who they actually are.  In fact, being able to articulate who we are and what we stand for is one the greatest challenges facing us today.

A few months ago the Jewish world was up in arms over the passage of the Israel Nation State Law.  While Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu declared that the law was a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel,” not everyone shared his excitement.

First some of the basics.  Here are the basic features of the bill:

  • Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, who have the unique right of national self-determination
  • The flag and the Menorah are national symbols. Hatikvah is the national anthem
  • Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel
  • The official language of Israel is Hebrew.

I was most surprised to learn that these were not well-established laws from the founding of the State in 1948.

I was perhaps less surprised if not deeply disappointed to hear the outcry against the bill.  The American Jewish Committee, for example, issued a statement saying it was deeply disappointed by the law” and that it “put[s] at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said: “This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy.  The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous.”

Much of the criticism stems from the fact that the new law downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to a language with special status.  This combined with the fact that only Jewish rights to self-determination are recognized, leads many to conclude that the bill is racist and promotes apartheid.  Non-Jewish citizens of Israel, especially Arab citizens, are being relegated to second-class citizens.

Others were less concerned about the content of the bill – after all, these are firmly established facts on the ground.  Rather they questioned the need to pass a bill stating the obvious and questioned what political gains there were in entrenching these facts into law.

Similar questions were raised over President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  Rather than celebrate a move that was long overdue, much of the Jewish world reacted as if the move was a tragedy.

The words of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, resonate with me.  In an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press titled “Stop Apologizing for Jewish Values,” he writes:

It seems to me, in this season of forgiveness, the one deserving some of these apologies is the Almighty, for how in the interest of political correctness, we sometimes put His agenda second and our eagerness to be loved and to integrate first. …While we must always carry ourselves with sensitivity and concern for others, we must not apologize for our existence or for being ourselves. (

In a very different context, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon gave a shocking commencement speech at the Hebrew Union College Institute for Jewish Religion.  Intermarriage remains one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community.  In the broader Jewish world, among sociologists and demographers, there is almost universal agreement that intermarried families should be welcomed into the Jewish community.  If conversion has not occurred, perhaps it will some time in the future.  And at the very least, the children should grow up with a Jewish identity.  But all agree that the best way to assure Jewish identity and Jewish continuity is in-marriage.  Jews should marry Jews.  That is, all except Chabon.

He told the graduates at HUC:

“were you to ask me if I hope my children marry-in, I would say, Yes. I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone, like all constructs, to endless reconfiguration.”

Anticipating the obvious response that such an attitude will ultimately lead to Judaism’s extinction, Chabon seemingly shrugs his shoulders and says:

“If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history—far from it—that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population.”  (

A former teacher of mine, Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman co-wrote a response to Chabon along with Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, where they claim that Chabon’s views are already gaining traction:

It is tempting to dismiss Chabon’s thinking as hyperbolic, idiosyncratic or unworthy of reply, perhaps performance art of a personal psychodrama in a public setting. But Chabon’s undeniable and sometimes dazzling talent as a novelist and the high status he enjoys among elite reading audiences make it critical to respond…
Chabon’s views are worrisome because among liberal American Jews they are not so outlandish. We live in an age that not only is opposed to behavioral norms imposed from above but to social boundaries to our left and right. Jews, a tiny minority in a sea of over 300 million Americans, are being engulfed increasingly by the majority society.  (

And a friend of mine, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, who is the rabbi of a shul in Chicago wrote a response with Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Toronto:

In our view, even on a universal level, Chabon is wrong. The absence (and vilification) of identity is self-defeating. If you want to be a good universalist, you need to have a solid and particular identity. Judaism has done this throughout its history. Judaism has something to teach the world at a moment when so much political debate surrounds borders and the interface between particular and universal identities.   (

This is the very message of Rosh Hashanah.  Rosh Hashanah is the most universalistic holiday that we have.  It marks the anniversary of the creation of the world and all of humanity; not just the Jewish people.

The Gemara Rosh Hashanah 27a states that we follow the opinion of R. Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei.  Tosafot explain that there is a competing opinion that the world was created in Nissan.

Rabbi Yehdua Mirsky explains the debate as follows:

To say that creation began in Nissan, therefore, is to imply that the rhythm of the universe follows the rhythm of this one people’s life.

Tishrei is the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel, when new life replaces the brown fields of summer. Looking outward from where we live, Tishrei appears to be when nature – rather than history – is born. To say Tishrei is the moment of creation is to stress the universal, the beginning of a universe in which the people of Israel is just a small part.  (R. Yehuda Mirsky “When the World Began, When We Began”  Uri L’Tzedek Mah Ani: Self Reflection and Social Action for the High Holidays. )

And because it is the anniversary of the creation of the entire world, ALL of humanity is judged.  After sounding the Shofar we declare:

היום הרת עולם.  היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים

Today is the birthday of the world.  Today all of creation stands in judgment.

This morning’s Torah reading concludes with the story of Avraham and Avimelech, the king of the Gerar creating a covenant, or a peace treaty.

בראשית כ״א:כ״ב-כ״ג
(כב) וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֗לֶךְ וּפִיכֹל֙ שַׂר־צְבָא֔וֹ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר אֱלֹהִ֣ים עִמְּךָ֔ בְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה׃ (כג) וְעַתָּ֗ה הִשָּׁ֨בְעָה לִּ֤י בֵֽאלֹהִים֙ הֵ֔נָּה אִם־תִּשְׁקֹ֣ר לִ֔י וּלְנִינִ֖י וּלְנֶכְדִּ֑י כַּחֶ֜סֶד אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂ֤יתִי עִמְּךָ֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה עִמָּדִ֔י וְעִם־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־גַּ֥רְתָּה בָּֽהּ׃

 (22) At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything that you do. (23) Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you.”

With this covenant Avraham is established as a player on the global scale – or at least in the Ancient Near East.  What prompts Avimelech to forge a covenant with Avraham now?

The Rashbam writes:

רשב”ם על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
ויהי בעת ההיא – שנולד יצחק משרה וידע אבימלך נסים שעשה לו הקב”ה, לכך בא עתה לכרות ברית עמו.

Rashbam on Genesis 21:22:1
ויהי בעת ההיא, at the time when Yitzchok was born by Sarah and Avimelech had become a first-hand witness to the miracles G’d had performed for Avraham. This is why he and his chief general were now interested in concluding an alliance with Avraham.


The Sforno similarly explains:

ספורנו על בראשית כ״א:כ״ב:א׳
אלהים עמך לפיכך אני ירא ממך לא מגבורתך ועשרך לכן אני מבקש שתשבע לי:

Sforno on Genesis 21:22:1
אלוקים עמך, seeing that G’d clearly is on your side I am afraid of you. I am not afraid of your personal strength, but of that of your G’d. This is why I ask you to swear to me.


As he emerges as a political force, recognized by other for his closeness to God, Avraham has a new challenge.  He must be able to articulate who he is and what he stands for.


In previous years we have discussed the significance of the Torah identifying Avraham as Avraham ha-Ivri (Breishit 14:13).

Genesis Rabbah 48:2 בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת לך לך פרשה מב:ח

רבי יהודה אומר כל העולם כולו מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד,

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

Being isolated, going against the tide is no easy task.  But integration and acceptance into broader presents challenges as well. Not only are there challenges of maintaining one’s commitments and identity, but there is also the challenge of being able to articulate your beliefs, and commitments to others.

This is one of the great challenges that the Modern Orthodox community faces.  Over Shabbos we discussed Rambam’s idea of negative attributes – that when it comes to God, we cannot make any positive statements describing God.  We can only say what God is not.  God is not corporal.  God is not bound by time. Etc.  This allows us to approximate an understanding of God, but it would be wrong and problematic for us to try to say what God IS.

This is one area in life where we are very good at acting Godly.  Because too many times we define ourselves by what we are not.

  • We are Orthodox, but not Crazy Orthodox like the Black Hatters.
  • We believe that women should have more roles in shul and leadership opportunities. But NOT like the Reform or Conservative.

Our challenge is to be able to articulate a vision of what it means to be committed, Modern Orthodox Jews. What does it mean to be a community that is accepting, and non-judgmental and also bound by Halacha?  What are our red lines and how can we express them in ways that are true to who we are and not hurtful to others?

In Hichot Teshuvah the Rambam writes that viduy/Confession is an essential component of Teshuvah.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains in Al Ha-Teshuvah

Feeling, emotion, thoughts and ideas become clear and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure.  As long as one’s thoughts remain repressed, as long as one has not brought them out into the open, no matter how sublime or exalted they may be, they are not truly yours; they are foreign and elusive…Repentance contemplated and not verbalized is valueless. (pp.91-92)

The same is true when it comes to our religious lives.

I began my talk by describing a ragtag group of Jewish podcasters who spent a day with Chabad Shluchim on a mitzvah Tank in Manhattan.

After spending a long time asking people if they are Jewish, they get their first yes…. Sort of.  Someone says they’re Jewish but don’t have time for Tefilin.

They turn to one of the Shluchim and ask, “Does that count?”

The Shaliach answers  “Well make it this way.  You have a Jew who in the middle of the streets of NYC is proud to say ‘Yes.  I am Jewish”

And that is a success.  To embrace and articulate who you are.

The bracha and the challenge to us this year is that we should be able to articulate – first to ourselves and then to others – who we are and what we stand for.  Shanah Tovah!

Family Separation and Parah Adumah

My inbox has been filled this past week with emails from friends and colleagues – Rabbis wondering whether it is okay to speak about the latest development of families being separated at the US border. Part of the difficulty is the more general question of whether it is ever acceptable to speak about politics from the pulpit. Others question whether this is a political issue or one a more basic moral/ethical question. Here’s what I came up with…

The parsha contains two details that bother everyone. The first, is the opening chapter describing the ritual of the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer), which is recognized by our Rabbis as being one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah.

When someone comes in contact with a corpse and as a result is in a state of טומאה (impurity) they must go through a purification process that involves sprinkling over them the ashes of a red heifer mixed with some other ingredients followed by immersion in the mikvah. Why this is effective is anyone’s guess. A second mysterious detail associated with this ritual is that while it achieve the desired effect of being מטהר את הטמאים (purifying those who are impure), at the same time it is מטמט את הטהורים it renders the person who sprinkles the waters over the defiled individual impure.

The second troubling passage in our Parsha is the punishment of Moshe and Aharon so that they may not enter the land of Israel. Again, our sense of justice is questioned. Moshe and Aharon were instructed to speak to a rock in order to provide water for the people. They hit the rock instead. To be certain, they were wrong and they did not follow instructions, but the punishment seems rather excessive for a seeming misdemeanor.

I’d like to offer a few approaches to these great mysteries in light of current events.

When it comes to the  פרה אדומה (Parah Adumah), I heard a fascinating analysis on a podcast. The podcast is called ParshahLab and it features Rabbi David Fohrman, whose approach to Tanach is AMAZING. The truth is, I’ve been looking to present one of his ideas as a way of introducing the podcast and his website – alephbeta academy ( – to those who are not familiar with his work. This week the podcast featured an idea of one of the staff writers, Rabbi Daniel Loewenstein, which he develops along with Rabbi Fohrman.

The key detail that they focus on is the Torah’s description of the liquid mixture containing the ashes of the Red Heifer. In Bamidbar 19:9 we read:

(ט) וְאָסַ֣ף ׀ אִ֣ישׁ טָה֗וֹר אֵ֚ת אֵ֣פֶר הַפָּרָ֔ה וְהִנִּ֛יחַ מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה בְּמָק֣וֹם טָה֑וֹר וְ֠הָיְתָה לַעֲדַ֨ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לְמִשְׁמֶ֛רֶת לְמֵ֥י נִדָּ֖ה חַטָּ֥את הִֽוא׃

(9) A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing.

It is called מי נדה (Mei Nidah).  Don’t even bother trying to understand the English translation “water of lustration.” We know that נדה refers to a woman who is menstruating. But what does that have to do with our purification ritual?

Rashi, following Rav Sa’adiah Gaon says that נדה means sprinkling, either because that is its meaning in Aramaic (Torat Chayim footnote on R. Sa’adiah Gaon 19:9) or because we find similar usage later in Tanach.

(ב) למי נדה. לְמֵי הַזָּיָה, כְּמוֹ “וַיַּדּוּ אֶבֶן בִּי” (איכה ג’), “לְיַדּוֹת אֶת קַרְנוֹת הַגּוֹיִם” (זכריה ב’), לְשׁוֹן זְרִיקָה:

(2) למי נדה FOR WATERS OF נדה — i.e. for waters of sprinkling (or casting); similar are, (Lamentations 3:53) “and they cast (וידו) a stone upon me”; (Zechariah 2:4) “to cast down (לידות) the horns of the nations”, both of which are expressions denoting “casting”.

Rabbis Loewenstein and Fohrman turn our attention back in Tanach to the first time the word נדה (or its root) appears.  It first appears in the aftermath of the story of קין והבל (Cain and Abel) in Breishit 4. Cain’s punishment is (Breishit 4:10-12):

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ (יב) כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! (11) Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (12) If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.”

To drive the point home, this episode ends with us being told that Cain settles in the land of Nod (4:16) (same root as Nidah/Nad)

(טז) וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃

Cain is punished to be a wanderer, or more precisely to be DISTANT from his current place.

They further point out that once our attention is focused on this story, another key parallel emerges. The פרה אדומה (Red Heifer) is spelled חסר, without the ו (letter vav).  This spelling can be vocalized as אדמה (land/earth). קין, we are told is וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃ Cain worked the ground (Gen. 4:2). Further in the story we find:

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

How does this help us to understand the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer)? The suggestion made by Rabbis Fohrman and Loewenstein is that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is supposed to take us back to the shocking story of Cain murdering Abel. Not only is it the first act of murder in the Torah, it is the first recorded instance of death!

Death is supposed to be shocking. It should not be easily accepted or understood. One of the more troubling details in Cain’s response to Hashem is how un-shocked he is by his own actions. Not only is Cain distanced from the physical place he had been, but he is distanced from his own true self.

Parah Adumah brings us back to Cain and Able as a corrective. Cain wasn’t shocked and dismayed by his encounter with death. But WE should be deeply affected when we encounter death. פרה אדומה is illogical because there is no good way to make sense of death when we encounter it.   It renders the individual who sprinkles the ashes impure because he faces the greatest danger of becoming desensitized to death – he is involved with this ritual all the time, and thus constantly coming into contact with death.

If Parah Adumah was meant to be a wake-up call or splash of cold water to ensure that we remain properly sensitized and shocked by encounters with death, then I would suggest that the whole question of family separation serves as a modern day Parah Adumah – no matter where one stands politically, no matter one’s position on immigration policies – the idea of separating parent from child crosses a red line. This is unacceptable.

Which brings me to the second mystery of our Parsha – why were Moshe and Aharon given such a harsh punishment for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?

When Hashem conveys the punishment, He tells them (Bamidbar 20:12):

(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Rashi explains:

ב) להקדישני. שֶׁאִלּוּ דִּבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע וְהוֹצִיא, הָיִיתִי מְקֻדָּשׁ לְעֵינֵי הָעֵדָה, וְאוֹמְרִים מַה סֶּלַע זֶה שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר וְאֵינוֹ שׁוֹמֵעַ וְאֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְפַרְנָסָה, מְקַיֵּם דִּבּוּרוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם, קַל וָחוׂמֶר אָנוּ:

להקדישני TO SANCTIFY ME — For had you spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified before the whole congregation, for they would have said: What is the case with this rock which cannot speak and cannot hear and needs no maintenance? It fulfils the bidding of the Omnipresent God! How much more should we do so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l expounds:

Contrary to our intuitive sense that there must be something wrong with what Moshe and Aharon did, the verse states simply and explicitly that the sin is grounded in what they did not do…

Sometimes, failure to act is far more serious than negative action. We must do all that we can so that when we come before the Heavenly Court, we can answer in the affirmative: Yes.

Rav Yakov Medan, one of the current Rashei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion says that the key to understanding it occurs before Hashem even mentions the stick or the rock. When B’nei Yisrael first come to complain, how did Moshe and Aharon respond?

וַיָּבֹא֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן מִפְּנֵ֣י הַקָּהָ֗ל אֶל־פֶּ֙תַח֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־יְהוָ֖ה אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (פ)

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them,

Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, failed to exercise proper leadership in this instance. Instead of addressing the challenge, he falls upon his face, in a gesture of helplessness and despair….

Again, to apply the lesson to our current day situation, when we experience the Parah Adumah moments in life; When we are shocked and outraged by what we see around us, we cannot sit and do nothing about it. Moshe, our greatest prophet and leader faced his biggest punishment because of his failure to act.

With President Trump’s signing the executive order, things have taken a turn for the better. But children are still separated from their parents and many questions remain up in the air. I can’t tell you what the proper actions are, but if you are upset by this, then there has to be action as well – attending a rally, donating money, calling the offices of our representatives, etc.

Wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat. Shabat Shalom.