MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF IYAR, 5778
A few,days after Pesach, someone sent me a video that was taken at a bakery in Jerusalem hours after Pesach was over. It depicted a mob of people fighting to get their fix of Chametz - literally hundreds of people brawling over their places in line to buy their bagels.
At first, I was very disturbed by what I saw. Grown adults were fighting over a little bit of chametz. This kind of behavior was warranted perhaps in a time of ration and famine, or with young children at a preschool, but not in a first world society of grown-ups. Couldn't these people wait a few minutes extra to get their prized food?
For the few hours after I watched the video, I couldn't get that image out of mind. Then suddenly something popped into my head, and I thought of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the famed Chassidic Rebbe of Barditchev. The 18th-century mystic and sage was famous for his love of people and his advocacy on their behalf. There are countless stories of his positive judgment of others, where he would give them the benefit of the doubt even in seemingly unflattering circumstances.
One story that illustrates his positive outlook is when he was walking home from the synagogue and saw a person greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing Tallit and Tefillin and praying. Most rabbis would have scolded the person for disrespecting the ritual clothing and prayer, but he exclaimed: "G-d, look how great Your people are; even whilst cleaning their wagons they wear the Tallit and Tefillin and pray to You!"
I wondered to myself, how might have R' Levi Yitzchak have reacted to this video? What merit would he find in these people? After giving it a few minutes of thought, I came up with something that gave me a new perspective and helped me see these people in a very different light.
In a philosophical treatise titled "8 Chapters", Maimonides discusses which form of service to G-d is greater: to appreciate the beauty of the Mitzvot and want to do them, or to have no desire for them, but fulfill them nonetheless because G-d wants you to. On the one hand, someone who appreciates the Mitzvah has a deeper understanding of his actions, a deeper relationship with G-d and a more developed spiritual side. On the other hand, the spiritually aware person is fulfilling the Mitzvah because of the benefit he sees in it. Someone who doesn't appreciate the Mitzvah is motivated solely by his devotion to G-d. He ends up concluding that for Mitzvot that aren't moral imperatives - because for Moral Mitzvot, to not want to fulfill them would be an immoral stance, something that can hardly be considered ideal - the best approach is to do the Mitzvah despite your lack of interest, and solely for the sake of G-d.
Getting back to the impatient people lining up for their Chametz. I sensed that their desperation for Chametz showed just how hard it was for them to withhold from it for the past 8 days. They clearly had a very strong desire for Chametz - to the point of fighting to get it a few minutes earlier - yet they were careful to avoid it for 8 consecutive days. Their devotion to G-d was immense! The greater their urge for bread, the more intense their struggle over Pesach must have been - and by the look on their faces as they hustled to get to the counter, their struggle must have been herculean.
This incident brought to light two important lessons: 1) Don't be quick to judge people, and whenever possible work to give them the benefit of doubt. 2) There is value in religious struggle. Sometimes the person who is struggling with their Judaism - and practices despite it - is greater than someone else who loves it.
I hope we can internalize these two lessons, and create a more positive mindset for ourselves and for the world - bringing the positivity of G-d into the world and bringing the ultimate positivity with the coming of Moshiach.
We are entering the month of Iyar, whose Hebrew letters אייר are an acronym for אני ה' ראפיך - I am G-d, your healer. It is a month of G-d's healing. Tradition tells us that G-d's healing is preventitive - it ensures we don't get sick in the first place. May we all be blessed with great health in body, mind and soul, and may all those in need of a healing experience G-d's healing to its fullest extent.
MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF NISSAN, 5778
We have The Simpsons to thank for one of the newest words in the English language: "embiggen". Over 20 years after the word was used on the show, the Webster dictionary has added it to their dictionary, albeit with the classification of "informal" and "humorous".
Language is an important part of society, and the words we use say a lot about us. We use language to express ourselves, so the development of the language is a pretty good expression of who we are.
When I first heard of this new word, I was a little disturbed. Judaism teaches the value of humility, of minimizing one's self. We are urged to become smaller, not larger. But then something happened this week that gave me a fresh perspective.
I was out of town for a day to celebrate a wedding, and asked someone to volunteer to be responsible for the Minyan. They accepted, but commented that they feel like Moshe Rabeinu, as he was somewhat reluctant to be the messenger. I instinctively responded, based on a Chassidic teaching, that we all have a bit of Moses in us. There's a spark of Moses' devotion and commitment to G-d within each of us.
When I later thought about that, I realized that as much as Judaism calls on us to be small, it asks us to embiggen the Moses element of our character. It actually goes hand in hand. The more we develop our spiritual selves the more we realize our place in the world. The bigger our "Moses" is, the smaller we feel.
We're taught that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the smallest mountain in the region, to symbolize that G-d rests in the humble people. What we fail to recognize sometimes is that it was intentionally given on a mountain in the first place, not a valley or flat land. We have to have an identity. We have to have pride. Only that pride ought to be in our depth of connection to G-d. We should be proud of being a mini-Moses.
This is one of the main messages of the Pesach Seder. We tell of how great it is to be a Jew and the wondrous things that G-d did for us. An outsider may see this as a group ego-building session. But it actually is not about our personal greatness, but our collective spiritual closeness with G-d. It is inflating our 'Moses', embiggening our spiritual sensitivity.
Some of my greatest memories of my childhood are sitting around the Seder table with my family, hearing beautiful stories and teachings from my father, of blessed memory. He would expound on the Exodus story in a way that helped us grow. Those Seder nights shaped us and nurtured our souls.
Another experience that had a similar growth effect on our Jewish identities was summer camps. I remember each year coming home after two months of camp, and everyone telling me how much I'd grown. The two months spent in the environment of a Jewish summer camp, nurtured our Moses and bloated our Jewish pride. They are part of the reason that I am who I am today.
Pesach is observed every year in the Spring (this is the source of the Jewish leap month - to align the lines calendar to the seasons), and is followed by the summer. I think that there's a message here. We have to take the message of the Seder--imbuing our children and ourselves with a healthy dose of Jewish pride--and translate it into our summer plans.
If you want your children to continue your path in the Jewish community, give them the opportunities to embiggen their Moses. Plan relevant discussions for the Seder. Send them to a Jewish camp. These experiences are priceless opportunities that you should take advantage of.
Sarah and the family join me in wishing you a joyous, kosher and zissen Pesach,
MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF ADAR, 5778
"Sorry, you can't come over today, my house is upside-down." "I can't even think, my life is upside-down." Sometimes messes get so big that we don't know where to start tackling them from. We tend to get overwhelmed and often give up ever fixing them. Even the most put together and organized among us has fallen prey to the "upside-down syndrome". It takes on many forms, but they are all the same expression of chaos, and almost always lead to despair.
The Purim story, which we will read in just under two weeks, can teach us a helpful lesson in dealing with these rock-bottom moments.
The Jews then faced a serious threat of annihilation. Haman had ordered a Holocaust that was sanctioned by the King, and the Jewish people were defenseless. Their fate seemed all but sealed: on the 13th of Adar, Jewish history would reach its end. It was a rock-bottom moment for a people that had been through so much. All of their hopes, dreams, and aspirations were turned on their heads. Their world was literally upside-down.
But they refused to despair. Led by Mordechai, the Jews clamored together in prayer, hope and resistance. They retained their faith and did everything in their power to avert the evil decree. Mordechai eventually summoned Esther to use her political clout, as Queen, to intervene on behalf of the Jews. Her task was far from easy and she was reluctant originally to take it on. It could have failed many times over, risking her life and the last hope of her Jewish brethren. But she didn't despair from G-d's salvation and put everything on the line to straighten up the mess.
We all know the end. The world that was upside down flipped again. In the words of the Megilla (Scroll of Esther): "On the day that the Jews' enemies looked forward to ruling over them, it was turned over, the Jews should rule over their enemies."
The Jews ended the Purim story much better off than they were. Politically, they had one of their's as Queen, Mordechai was promoted to a powerful ministerial position, and the process of returning to Israel and rebuilding the Temple was put in motion. Religiously, the crisis brought them together and strengthened their faith in G-d and commitment to Judaism. They flipped over an upside-down world to be better than before.
We can learn from the Jews of Persia to utilize a crisis as a moment of growth. When life gets stressful, and our regular way of living gives way - instead of giving up, use it as a moment of reflection. We can utilize the disturbance to our schedules as a time to rethink our priorities and realign our lives.
When life turns upside-down, it is a wake up call for you to adjust your living. Appreciate it, and harness it to help you become an even better person. Every challenge must be seen as an opportunity.
A few days ago I walked into Shul and Rabbi Menashe Wolf was finishing up a class on communication. He said something that moved me and demonstrates this idea. When a child does something terrible, often the parent's initial reaction is to yell at them and punish them. But that achieves nothing but exasperate the situation and make the child feel worse and have less respect for the parent. Instead, the parent can use the 'crisis' as a teachable moment, and calmly tell the kid what they did wrong. That can open a conversation about why the child did it, why it is wrong and how to ensure it won't happen again. Instead of being dejected, the child walks away feeling respected and knowing how to be a better person in the future.
Let's take this Purim lesson and transform any negative in our lives to positive, and together we will reach the ultimate transformation of the world for good with the coming of Moshiach.
Please join us at our annual Purim celebration on Thursday, March 1 at 4:15pm at the Shul. This year we are bringing the sounds, tastes and spirit of Israel to CBJ at PURIM IN ISRAEL. You can make your reservations and find out more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Congregation B'nai Jacob of Park Slope