CONGREGATION B'NAI JACOB
of Park Slope
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
RABBI'S MESSAGE FOR THE MONTH OF CHESHVAN 5779
30 Tishrei - First day of Rosh Chodesh Mar-Cheshvan
As we approach the end of the Month of Tishrei, I want to thank all those that contributed to putting together all of our programs and services and making them successful. A special thank you to Eliezer Abramsky, who bridged the beginning of the month with its end by helping sponsor the Rosh Hashanah Dinner at the very beginning of the month and the First Friday Shabbat Dinner at the end. I would also like to sincerely thank our Cantors Naftali Silverberg and Yanky Hecht for their inspiring Chazzanut and singing and Rabbi Menashe Wolf for his commentary and insights to the prayer services. A special thank you also to Darin Cabot for all of his efforts, to Daniel Abraham for his help, Shelly Brafman for beautifying the Shul with floral arrangements and to Leizer Gillig for his dedication as office manager.
Acharon Acharon Chaviv - most of all, I would like to thank you - each person reading this - for contributing to the beautiful, meaningful and loving atmosphere of our High Holiday prayers, for participating in and enhancing our programs and Holiday meals, and for responding generously to the appeals made on Yom Kippur.
Tuesday and Wednesday of this week mark Rosh Chodesh - the head of a new month of Mar-Cheshvan. We observe 2 days of Rosh Chodesh because of the way the Jewish calendar works. In the lunar calendar, some months have 29 days while others have 30. In a month of 30 days, the 30th day of the month is celebrated as Rosh Chodesh for the next month in addition to the next day, the first day of the new month.
Lately, I have been wondering about this. Why do we include the 30th day of the previous month in the celebration of the new one?
I came across a teaching this week from the Chassidic master the Baal Shem Tov that gave me an answer. He explains that the energy of the first Shabbat of the new Torah cycle is so deep and profound that it resonates for the whole year. He describes it in Kabbalistic terms: On Shabbat Bereishis, the light and vitality of Chochmah shines forth and it flows across the entire subsequent year.
I think that is true of the whole month that has just passed. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur and Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Tishrei is full of profound and meaningful Holidays and experiences that inspire us for the whole coming year. The challenge, though, is to take the insights and inspiration that we have gained over these Holidays and translate them into practical growth when we go back to our regular schedules. To sit in the synagogue and be excited about Judaism is not enough; we have to put it into practice once we leave. So we need a healthy transition from the spiritually saturated month into the rest of the year.
That's why we need a second day of Rosh Chodesh. By celebrating the new month while it is technically still the old month, we bridge the two months and anchor the inspiration from Tishrei in the every day living of Cheshvan. If we wait until the month is over, our inspiration will be dried up and we won't be able to carry it with us. But if we think of practical takeaways while the iron is still hot, so to speak, we can translate our inspiration into action.
I hope that we all can find positive takeaways from our month of celebrating together, and I invite you to translate your inspiration from Tishrei into joining some or all of our ongoing classes and programs: Enroll in the Monday night One-On-One Study to be paired with a Rabbinic/Seminary student for a private study session (open to men and women,); celebrate Shabbat with us on the first Friday of each month; or join our other classes and services that we have scheduled throughout the week.
It is customary to announce at the end of Tishrei the verse (Genesis 32:2): "And Jacob went on his way." When Jacob traveled towards Israel, he was accompanied by divine angels who protected him. As we embark on a new year, may G-d send us his Heavenly angels - divine energy and assistance - to guide us and escort us through our journey. May we be blessed with a pleasant winter, and a year of great accomplishments and may we see the good in everything.
Chodesh Tov and Shana Tova,
A few months ago, I shared my birthday resolution. As I entered my 60th year, I was committing to help 600 people put on tefillin, and influence 60 women and girls to commit to lighting Shabbat candles weekly, before my 60th birthday.
So far I have been moving steadily along. As of this writing, I have aided over 127 men in donning Tefillin and have had 9 women and girls commit to lighting candles. If you'd like to be a part of this project and help bump that number up, please reach out to me.
This project has motivated me to share the mitzvah of tefillin with many new people and has allowed me to participate in many beautiful experiences along the way.
One of the people I enlisted is an investment banker at one of the local banks that I frequent. After my birthday resolution, I asked him if he'd like to say a prayer in tefillin. He agreed, and since then it has become a weekly ritual. In fact, instead of me chasing him down, he now reaches out to me to make sure I come to the bank on a day he is there.
Last week as he invited me warmly into his office, I casually asked him how business is going. He shared that since he had been putting on the tefillin he has seen an unbelievable increase in business. He was amazed and had no other explanation for the sudden success other than his weekly tefillin meeting.
This week we entered the month of Iyar. Our sages tell us that Iyar is an acronym for "Ani Hashem Rofecha - I am G-d, your healer (Exodus 15:26)." There are many ways of reading this verse and understanding G-d as a healer. One understanding is that G-d, the Master of the world, can cure anything, and we trust in His power of healing. Another meaning takes the context of the verse into account.
Here is the full verse: "If you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, heal you." The context of G-d as a healer in this second interpretation is in following the guidelines of lifestyle that He lays out in Torah. The Mitzvahs are all designed to help us navigate life in a mindful and balanced way. G-d gave us the tools for living a healthy and successful life. Torah is a recipe for healing, therefore G-d - who gave us the Torah - is our healer.
It doesn't surprise me that our weekly Tefillin wrap has brought success to this banker. It's not just a magic formula or supernatural payback scheme. It's also a very natural cause and effect. The few minutes of prayer introduce calmness and intention into the day, allowing him to be more focused and productive. The short meditation of Shema helps him escape the distractions of life for a few moments to discover an inner calm and purpose.
This week I heard on the radio that daily meditation is proven to reduce stress. Since we all suffer from stress in one form or another, meditation leads to healthier living. Torah is way ahead of its time. For thousands of years, Jews have made it a point to start the day with a prayer/meditation, take a break in the middle of the stressful day for a short prayer/meditation and close the day with a prayer/meditation.
So here's an exercise to try for the month of Iyar (and hopefully continue beyond it): schedule at least 5 minutes a day, preferably in the morning, for prayer. For those few minutes, turn your phone on silent and escape the busyness and distractions of life. Focus on what's important to you. Embrace your inner calling. Connect with G-d. Pray. If you are a man, do this while wearing your tefillin. Give it a shot and the results will astound you.
May we all be blessed with healthy bodies, minds, and souls,
Rabbi Shimon Hecht