Congregation B'nai Jacob of Park Slope
MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF TAMMUZ 5778
I recently attended a ceremony to honor someone I am close with. The MC, in introducing the honoree, chose to highlight their achievements by belittling and downplaying the achievements of others close to them. I was reminded of a teaching that I learned in my youth, that the way to lift yourself up is to climb higher, not to put others down.
This teaching is especially pertinent in today's divisive and polarized culture. Now more than ever we have to learn to respect people who think or act differently to us and raise ourselves without feeling the need to knock others.
This Shabbat we commemorate the Yahrzeit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneorson. It is hard to encapsulate the Rebbe's life, legacy and leadership in a few paragraphs. He was a scholar and teacher, visionary and leader, mentor and organizer, and so much more.
But one thing in particular stands out about the Rebbe, that expressed itself in so many of the Rebbe's interactions.
The Rebbe saw the positive in everyone and everything. He sought to uplift each person by finding the good in them and giving them the tools to climb higher.
George Rohr is a prominent New York businessman and philanthropist. In the early 90s he started a beginners service for the High Holidays at Kehilat Jeshurun in Manhattan. On the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he went to visit the Rebbe to receive a blessing for the new year.
When it came his turn to speak with the Rebbe, Rohr told him proudly, "Rebbe, you will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services, Jews with no background."
"No Jewish background?" the Rebbe asked him. "Go back and tell them that they have a background. They are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah!"
The Rebbe took over the helm of Chabad leadership in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and sought to rebuild the Jewish community from its ashes. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once eloquently put it: "Just as Hitler sought out every Jew in hate with the intent to eradicate Judaism, the Rebbe sought them out in love with the goal to bring them closer to Judaism." Not only did the Rebbe seek to bring out the best in each person, he helped them reach their spiritual potential and inspired them to grow in their Judaism.
Nowhere is this felt more than in Germany itself. The Rebbe's Shluchim have rebuilt a Jewish community even in Germany, reaching out to, and lifting up, each Jew. We are hosting this Shabbat one of those emmisaries, Rabbi Wagner, the first German-born Rabbi to be ordained after the Holocaust. He'll be sharing his reflections on the resurgence of the Jewish community in Germany, and speak about the Rebbe's influence on himself and his community at a special lunch and lecture at B'nai Jacob. Please join us to hear his engaging talk following services at approximately 12:00.
May the Rebbe continue to be an inspiration for our growth, and may we emulate his positivity and strengthen our love for every Jew and learn to appreciate the precious values that they all possess, which will hasten the fulfilment of our prayers--and something the Rebbe worked so hard towards--for the ultimate redemption and the coming of Moshiach.
Good Shabbos and Gut Chodesh,
Rabbi Shimon Hecht
A MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF AV, 5778
There's a woman who has been at Methodist hospital for the last few weeks, fighting the odds of a critical illness. As the Jewish chaplain, I have been making regular visits to her bedside, providing spiritual and emotional support. She was very lucky to be surrounded almost constantly be her family. Over the weeks I have come to know her family, and have spent time speaking with them.
During the visits, I offered the family members to put on Tefillin and say a prayer for their sick relative. They refused. I persisted to politely offer the Tefillin at each visit. But there were no takers.
One day last week I decided to try a different tactic. I walked into the hospital room where the family was sitting and conversing in hushed tones and announced that I wouldn't be allowing any of them to put on Tefillin. They were obviously surprised and asked me why not. I didn't offer an explanation, only reiterated my point: "Today, none of you can use my Tefillin."
The woman's father was taken aback by my attitude and began questioning me about the meaning of Tefillin. We got into a long discussion on the relevance of Tefillin and its powerful meaning and symbolism. After our heated talk, he asked me if, despite my earlier announcements, he could please put on the Tefillin. I was only too happy to acquiesce. The elderly man put on Tefillin that day for the first time in over 60 years! The lack of opportunity created the desire for it.
But I don't think that this was just reverse psychology at play. I believe there's a deeper reason why this fellow agreed to put on Tefillin only after I didn't let him.
Truthfully, I was inspired to try this technique from an enigmatic passage in the Talmud about the arrival of Moshiach (Sanhedrin 97a): "The son of David [Moshiach] will not come until people have despaired of the redemption." As long as we still hope and expect the arrival of Moshiach, he will not come. Only after we have despaired will he redeem the world.
I think the reasoning behind this teaching is profound: Our perception of the Messianic era is limited. We are stuck in our imperfect world mindset, and can only imagine a goodness that fits into what we know. We can't fathom a radically different world that doesn't have the problems we know of. When we pray for and await the arrival of Moshiach, the redemption we expect is far from the redemption that we have been promised. In effect, our limited expectations for Moshiach are blocking his arrival.
Once we admit the limits of our imagination and accept that Moshiach is far greater than any idea we can conjure up--i.e., we have despaired of OUR Moshiach--we create a conceptual space for the full realization of the redemption to unfold. The Moshiach that can come as a result of our hopes and prayers will be a better version of the current reality. The Moshiach that we have been promised is going to usher in an entirely new reality, one that can't just be a realization of our expectations from the vantage point of our current reality.
That's what happened, on a small scale, when this Jew put on the Tefillin. When I approached him with my request to put on Tefillin, he was responding to my agenda and fought against it. In his eyes, the value of Tefillin at my request was small; he would be doing a favor for the rabbi. As soon as I despaired and gave up on my request, I created the space in his mind for him to consider the true value of Tefillin. His curiosity led him to find out more about the infinite value of the Mitzvah which in turn led to his interest in fulfilling it.
The reason I love this teaching is that I think it is so relevant. We look around the world and get a sense that most of the world--including most of the Jews--have despaired from a redeemed and perfected world through the coming of Moshiach. It's hard, then, not to despair ourselves and give up on the thousands-of-years-old dreams of the Jewish people. People often ask me: Do you really think now the world is ready for the coming of Moshiach when so few Jews actually await him?
My answer is an emphatic yes. This is exactly the formula that the Talmud lays out, that Moshiach will arrive once the world has given up on his coming. And it makes sense too. We may have given up on our version of the Messianic era and realized that the Moshiach that we have expected isn't coming. But that's not a terrible thing. It allows us to await a Moshiach that will herald an era far beyond our imagination. It creates a space for a world order that is greater than our hopes and dreams. The void creates a space of infinite potential.
We are entering the month of Av, in which we mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem on Tisha B'av. May our mourning over the lack of the Holy Beis Hamikdash bring about its rebuilding, with the coming of Moshiach, and instead of fasting on Tisha B'av this year we will celebrate in the third Temple.
Rabbi Shimon Hecht
MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF ELUL 5778
Endings are always bittersweet. As the Jewish year nears it's end, and we reflect on the year that has passed since last Rosh Hashanah, there are mixed feelings for most of us. We have so much to be thankful for - starting from the very fact that we're still here and able to reflect - yet, for most of us , there are also disappointments. We haven't lived up to our expectations and dreams. There are things we wanted to do this year that escaped us.
There's a beautiful teaching that I shared this past week in my sermon. Moses, in describing G-d's protection over the Land of Israel, says that G-d watches it "מראשית השנה ועד אחרית שנה - from the beginning of the year to the end of [the] year." In the Hebrew, the first 'year' has a prefix of the letter Hei, meaning 'the', but the second 'year' is missing it (it was put in parentheses here for clarity).
One commentary explains this beautifully. At the beginning of each year, we have high hopes that this is going to be THE year; this year I will get in shape and be consistent in going to the gym; this year I will commit to a weekly study session; this year I will meet my bashert and build a home together; this year I will have the courage to start my own business; this year I will celebrate Shabbat each week; this year we want to have a child; this year I will be more kind and charitable. But then life gets busy and reality settles in. By the time the end of the year rolls around, we have long forgotten our commitments and dreams, and instead are struggling just to keep up with life. At the end, it was just another ordinary year.
As I was reflecting on the sermon, I realized something interesting. We read this passage at the end of the year. Wouldn't we be better off reading it at the beginning of the year, when it can serve as an encouragement to keep strong and remain consistent with our resolutions? Now, at the end of the year, it's a little too late.
Then it dawned on me that we read this passage, not at the end of the year, but towards the end of the year. The portion is read about a month before Rosh Hashanah. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the timing is actually perfect, and carries a powerful message.
Even though 11 months have passed, and there's only one month left to the year, it's still not too late to reclaim the year. There's still time to fulfill your dreams. There's still hope that this year will have been THE year. The verse drives home a very important lesson, that we don't have to be held down by the past, and have the ending of the year be captive to its beginning. You can change the entire year's balance sheet in the final stretch.
On the Jewish calendar, we are going to be entering the year 5779. The way the year is written in the Hebrew, the 5000 is symbolized by the letter Hei. Pursuant to this teaching, this lends extra significance to the expectations - and the subsequent ability to meet them - of the year's potential.
May we be empowered to have the strength and courage to utilize the last few weeks of the year to make it השנה - THE year, surpassing our wildest expectations, and may we merit the ultimate achievement of the coming of Moshiach which will ensure that this year was truly THE year for the world at large.
Sarah and my family join me in wishing you a K'siva VaChasima Tova Le'Shana Tova U'Metuka.
Rabbi Shimon Hecht
MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF SIVAN, 5778
2 Sivan 5778 - May 16, 2018
Today is a special day in Jewish history, known as יום המיוחס, or the Day of Designation. 3330 years ago on this date, the newly liberated Jews stood at the foot of Sinai, and G-d informed them that they were to be the Chosen Nation. Even before they experienced the revelation and received the content of the Torah, they were bestowed with chosenness and tasked with its accompanying responsibilities.
What exactly are we chosen for? The Jewish nation was chosen to have a unique role in the universal quest to make the world a better, more divine, place. We were given the tools to achieve this; through the observance of the Mitzvos and the spiritual and moral framework they provide, we have an indelible impact on the world. Our role was not meant to be insular, though. Part of the impact we have is influencing the rest of the world to live by the morals and values that G-d gave us, specifically the 7 Noahide Laws, the instructions G-d gave to humankind before Judaism began. As the prophet Isaiah famously phrased it (Isaiah 42:6): "And I made you for a people's covenant, for a light to nations."
Being in a position of influence comes at a price. People in positions of power aren't often liked, and superiority more often than not creates envy, animosity, and hate. The Sages recognized this when they explained the name of the mountain that G-d gave the Torah on, Mt. Sinai, as related to the word שנאה, or hatred. They explained that with the receiving of the Torah, a hatred to the Jewish people was born. Unfortunately, we feel this hatred too much lately. Despite societies progressiveness, there is still a pervasive anti-semitism that is relentless. From off the cuff remarks of politicians to newspaper headlines to anti-Israel bias, we still suffer from the pushback to our chosenness. But this ever-present anti-semitism should only serve to further encourage us. It means that our position of influence is recognized, and the fact that people feel threatened by our existence is a sign that we are living up to our responsibility.
I read this week a recent Pew report that pleasantly surprised me. According to the report, 9 in 10 people believe in a Higher Power. Apparently, we have been doing a great job in spreading an awareness of G-d. Even though about a third of those people don't believe in the G-d of the Bible, the fact that they believe in a Higher Power would still motivate them to live for something greater than themselves and commit to a moral life. The light has been spread to the nations.
The United States Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, recognized this at the end of her remarks yesterday at the UN Emergency Meeting on Violence in the Middle East with this idea: "In this United Nations Security Council, on behalf of the American people, I congratulate our friends in Israel on the remarkable achievement of 70 years of independence. From humble and desperate beginnings, a proud people have realized the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of a light unto the nations. May the next 70 years be ones of strength, of hope, and of peace."
But our job is far from done. There's still a long way to go to spread our messages of faith, morality, respect, and peace to the world. We have to continue living a life committed to Torah values and being role models to the world of moral and ethical living that stems from faith in G-d. It's the final 10 percent that are the toughest nuts to crack. But it can be done.
The Talmud emphasizes a strange connection between the number 3 and the giving of the Torah (Shabbat 88a): "Blessed is the all-Merciful One, Who gave the three-fold Torah [Torah, Prophets, and Writings], to the three-fold nation [Priests, Levites, and Israelites] by means of a third-born [Moses, who followed Aaron and Miriam in birth order] on the third day [of the separation of men and women], in the third month [Sivan]." While it makes for nice poetry, this passage doesn't seem to have any message or meaning. What is it trying to tell us?
In Jewish law and culture, something happening three times creates a permanence, a chazakah. Three is a number that connotes strength and establishment. By finding a pattern of threes in the giving of the Torah the Talmud is suggesting that Torah's vision and mission is permanent and strong, and it will ultimately prevail.
Every year we relive the moment of revelation on its anniversary, Shavuot. I hope you can join us at our Shavuot programs this weekend. On Saturday night we'll be having a dairy dinner followed by an all-night learning program with a great line up of talks being presented by members of the community. Then on Sunday morning we'll be reading the 10 commandments with a special Shavuot Family Program featuring some fun activities for the kids (including make-your-own-ice-cream!) followed by a dairy lunch for the whole community. And on Monday, we'll be hosting a BBQ for the community at our home, 70 Prospect Park West.
Sarah joins me in wishing you a Chag Sameach,