Congregation B'nai Jacob of Park Slope
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 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.
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 email@example.com
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