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,
Rabbi Hecht's Message for Rosh Chodesh Kislev
It's unfortunate that it often takes a tragedy to bring families together.
The broader Jewish family experienced this recently in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre. Across America and around the world, people from all backgrounds came together in record numbers to strengthen each other and show solidarity with the community in Pittsburgh. At our Shul, we had a moving Shabbat dinner with a large turnout to remember the 11 victims and show our support for the Pittsburgh community. I want to once again thank David and Olga Fainkich for sponsoring the dinner in memory of David's father, on the occasion of his first Yahrzeit, and in honor of his mother, may she live an be well.
If only we could recognize the importance of family and community during the good times too. We shouldn't need to wait to connect with the people we love until it's too late.
Someone recently approached me with a dilemma. They had a friend's wedding on the same night as a cousin's wedding; which one should they attend? They had no personal preference, and were asking me if Judaism had some light to shed on the matter. It just so happened to be that I had spoken that week in my sermon about Abraham going out on a limb for his nephew Lot. I emphasized the importance of family and shared that we can learn from Abraham that blood is thicker than water. In light of that talk, the answer to this person's question was a no-brainer. "Imagine," I said, "if it were a cousin's funeral - would you have a doubt about going? Why should a celebration be any less important then a death?" Of course they should go to the cousin's wedding. Family is the most important thing we have.
Sarah and I experienced this first hand. A couple of months ago, we had the good fortune of travelling to South Africa for my nephew's wedding. The flight there was quite eventful, and to make a long story short, we ended up missing the Chupa (which I was supposed to participate in officiating). We were obviously disappointed, but made the most of the trip anyway, experiencing the beauty and nature that South Africa has to offer - some of which you heard about in my High Holiday sermons.
We complained to the airline, and hoped for a little compensation. I wasn't too optimistic, but said to myself that if we get refunded for the tickets, we'd go back to South Africa for my niece's wedding in November. Luck struck, and Delta customer service went beyond our expectations, fully refunding our tickets. We had no excuses now to miss my niece's wedding, and thankfully we are currently in Stanton, SA celebrating with my brother and his family.
This little episode reminded me how lucky we are to have such close family ties, and how fortunate we are to have the opportunities and wisdom to spend time with our family. Blood is truly thicker than water, and families that stick together have richer, happier and more fulfilling lives.
We are entering the month of Kislev when we celebrate the Holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is generally a family time, and now more than ever we need to strengthen our relationships. We should all capitalize on the opportunities to spend time with our families, and think of ways to strengthen our family units. Jewish life provides a lot of opportunity for family bonding that can do wonders for the family dynamic, like weekly Shabbat dinners and family Chanukah parties. In light of everything going on in the world, this year we should all make an extra effort to show up to, or host, a family Chanukah party, and do what we can to enhance our family relationships.
Just as it's important to bond and strengthen your immediate family, it's important to strengthen your wider family - the community. As we have each year, we'll be hosting a Menorah lighting every night of Chanukah at Grand Army Plaza, and kicking it off with a concert on the first night, Sunday, Dec. 2. The lighting is a beautiful event and an opportunity to showcase our Jewish pride and our strong sense of community. I hope you can join us and I look forward to seeing you there.
Chodesh Tov from South Africa,
Rabbi Shimon Hecht