It is the morning after the night before here at the Heller house. Although Purim was Friday here in Yerushalaim, because the married kids who came in from Neve Yaakov, Beit Safafa (what you never heard of Beit Safafa? Tell me, you heard of London? Paris? How could you have missed Beit Safafa?) . There was also a contingent from Beitar who was with us for Shabbos. The main reason was that we have, Baruch Hashem a new granddaughter who “belongs” to my son Yehudah and his wife Chaya Sara nee Stark (some of you know the Starks or have lived in their guest room). They made the Kiddush in their lobby, and then had over the immediate families (with marrieds, grandkids and others who are not actually relatives but feel like family, they had close to 60 people) for chulent. By the time we got back up the hill, no one had any real desire to do much but hang out. This includes the under- five set, whose idea of a relaxed afternoon is something that the adult mind cannot begin to fathom. They played Purim (including the roll of drunk bachurim lurching around the living room, squealing joyously as they dismember the furniture), giving each other junk food, and conducted numerous search and destroy missions. We all watched it happen in a post Purim food induced stupor. They are so cute that it was actually charming to watch the show, and to wait until after havdalah to restore things to an outward semblance of order.
And now it’s Sunday
How providential that Pesach begins so soon after Purim. Besides providing you with a reason to eat all the junk before it is relegated to the role of unwanted chametz, it also gives you a reason to clean up for real. The Talmud tells us that thirty days before a holiday arrives, it’s time to learn the laws of the coming holiday. I will take this opportunity to share with you some of the hard earned wisdom that I learned over the years with the goal of making the night you sit by the Seder more joyous.
1-Write out a plan now. If you are going to spend the holiday with your rabbi or other frum friends, let them know the good news as soon as possible to ensure that they have room for you. I know that this seems awfully early, but it isn’t. If you find that first person on your list isn’t able to have you this year, move onto the second one, without feeling rejected or rancorous. That’s why you have a list.
2-You own chametz. Yes, you do. You have to either get rid of it or sell it before Pesach. On the same list, write down a schedule of when and how you want this to happen. Don’t leave anything for the last minute if you don’t have to.
3-You might want to go shopping before the holiday. If you live in a frum area, the scene has all the charm of Back Friday. Shop early.
4-If you have your own home, work backwards when planning. If you want to have the day of Pesach free, to relax before the seder and look over some interesting commentaries on the Hagaddah, that means the seder food must be prepared, stored, and the kitchen tidied up the day before. That means that you have to plan to make it ready for Pesach the day before that. Allow yourself time to do this without exhaustion and craziness. The way you do this is to take off the many unnecessary tasks that some of us feel need to be done because it is Pesach. House repairs, painting, purchasing new linins etc. are fun but only put them on the list if you have plenty of time and energy. Similarly, deciding that now is the time to determine which of your clothes have to go, and which can limp through the next season doesn’t have to be done now. The thing is to see that the bedrooms have been vacuumed or their floors washed, (unless you never ever eat in your room, which to me is inconceivable) and that you change the linins before the holiday. You check the closets by darkening the room and using a flash light to seek out edible food (such as a soup nut), not dust. If you are not going to be using parts of your closet, it may be closed for Pesach and placed on your sold list.
5-Bathrooms just require that you store away any chametz products that you may have there.
6-The kid’s rooms can be simplified by either sectioning their closet so that you put the clothing that they are going to wear Pesach in one section and “sell ” the rest, or by going through the closet and taping it in a way that you (but not they) can easily open it, so that you take out their clothing every night. Their plastic toys (such as Lego etc.) can be placed in a Ziploc bag or zippered pillow case (my preference) and machine washed to unjam whatever unknown substances they have put in the crevices. Their games with paper parts (such as monopoly) are best “sold”-buy them a couple of new games for Pesach! Start buying chametz free junk food early on, so you don’t have to re-clean
7- The living room-dining must be cleaned thoroughly. This doesn’t mean do the windows, light fixtures, buy new curtains, and wash the walls. It means see that the chairs rugs and tables are free of crumbs etc. Use furniture polish not water to clean wood. If you own many books, you can take out the ones you are likely to want for Pesach and cover the rest. If you want to have the books easily available, shake them out (don’t examine page by page unless you want to take them to the table. Of course if you never eat while you read, your life will be different…).
8-The main thing is the kitchen. This is where you want to turn on the mp3 shiurim and music, and this is where you want to save your strength to do with some simchah, not exhaustion. The idea here is to really get rid of the chametz. Get boxes ready to put the stuff in, and sell it (or give it to the tzedaka agencies that sell chametz for after Pesach use for poor families). Don’t scrub the pots or redo clean dishes. Just put them away (or close your regular shelves for Pesach). The shelves and their corners may have chametz stuff embedded. Use a spray can of strong kitchen detergent to get the corners, rather than trying to see if you are absolutely positive that the black shadow isn’t a dead soupnut. If it was, you just killed it by turning it into something non-edible.
9-After you finish the shelves (leaving some for use until the end by cleaning them well and then putting newspaper on so that you don’t have to re-clean), it is time for the Bad Guys, the walls stove and fridge. You may have other appliances that you want to use for Pesach such as a microwave or coffee maker. Ask your Rav how feasible it is to clean them well enough to use. Ask before you clean….. This is where Pesach really happens.
What’s it all for?
One of the attributes of Mercy is that Hashem has compassion for you before you even sin. You may wonder why you need compassion at that point. One of the reasons is that as the Talmud tells you, no one can confront their destructive side without help from above. Hashem gives you the strength to take on all aspects of who you are. Chametz is the embodiment of inflated ego. Pesach is freedom from the dominance of illusion and Self. The physical act of getting rid of chametz takes you beyond what you would ever have chosen as a means of doing battle with ego and illusion. It frees you from the confines of your own mind and its limited consciousness.
March 3rd, 2015 - Purim Inside and Out
What a good time for sharing good news. Baruch Hashem, this week there two new engagements. Ilana is engaged as is Aviva Montrose. So far so good-Adar is fulfilling its promise of being a month in which you can (and should!) increase your joy.
Which reminds me of food.
The Purim story begins with the Jews attending Achachveirosh’s feast. The sages see this as an event of such overwhelmingly callousness to everything holy that they actually attribute Haman’s planned genocide to this seemingly harmless act. The issue wasn’t kashrut-the individualized portions made it possible for anyone to order whatever level of kashrut he wanted. The issue was the pleasure they felt when they should/could have heard and seen more than the ambience of the absolute luxury surrounding them and the gorgeous food on their plates. They could/should have seen that the entire event was staged to aggrandize everything that they couldn’t believe in and to mock everything that was real and holy. Achashveirosh wore clothing that was made for a Kohein Gadol, and served his guests with utensils that were earmarked for the Beis HaMikdash. The statement of both is that the Bais HaMikdash and everything it stood for is gone, and has been replaced by the icy heart of crass materialism that Persia epitomized. The material world was created to bond us with its Creator, that food, clothing, etc. are all gifts to make us aware of the love of their Giver. Once they become walls that separate us from Him instead of being bridges that draw us close to him, deep and sometimes irreversible changes take place inside us. The Outside replaces the Inside, and the Inside disappears.
How do you feel about food?
Personally, I am pro. Food becomes problematic is when it teaches you the wrong lessons. When you end up equating immediate gratification with real simchah, you are addicted whether or not your addiction shows up on the scale. No pleasure is more easily accessible than eating. The reason that so many of us fight the battle of the bulge with such limited success is not necessarily because of the lack of self-esteem etc. that we may have been fed (ugh-what a terrible pun) I think that It stems from the simple fact that so many high calorie treats taste awfully good. There is nothing wrong with enjoying food unless it replaces your ability to enjoy the rest of life, the part of living that could be sanctified. The pleasure it gives you can be the outer layer of what a meaningful life is meant to be. The traditional foods served on Purim (and on erev Yom Kippur, which has a very similar feel-redefining your relationship to material pleasure) are foods that have both and inside and an outside such as hamentashen and stuffed cabbage. The inside is concealed, you have to break through to get at it. You savor their flavors and let them “inform” you about what the holiday’s message really is. The custom of the costume (an even worse pun) has the same message, things aren’t always what they seem to be on the outside; underneath the mask is a real person who may tragically in real life rarely feel secure enough to remove his “mask” or the persona he adapts for other peoples consumption. The same holds true for the custom of men (yes dear girls, you read right; men, not you!) drinking to the point of intoxication. They live out the reality that the Jews of Shushan confronted. What your sober mind tells you is ultimately only the outside of reality. Their minds told them that they are part of a huge civilization and that there is no way out other than submission. Their emunah, their inner reality was touched when Mordechai didn’t bow or bend. At the moment, they felt he had betrayed them and endangered them. Later his example and his dedication to Torah ignited their faith. The other component of the turnabout was Esther’s fasting and praying. This gave them access to who they really are, and got them past what they were short time ago when they attended Achashveirosh’s feast. They learned that their faith in Hashem is the only force that’s going to pull them through.
The most lenient fast in the Jewish calendar is Ester’s fast. You aren’t obligated to fast if you feel the least bit unwell. Nonetheless, in many ways the fast is what opens the gates to the simchah of Purim. You are more than what you eat; you are what you believe and know and love.
Har Nof is no doubt going to be full of literally dozens of Queen Esther this Purim. Each little girl knows that the spiritual strength that Ester had when she faced down Achashveirosh and Haman is what saved the day. The Megillah is named for her even though the salvation came through both heroes, Ester and Mordechai. As you hear the megillah try on being Queen Ester for size; feel her faith and her desperation and apply it to your life and your struggles. Let yourself feel the
But don’t let it just touch the outside, let it touch the inside to the point that when you hear the word Light, you think Torah and not electric. When you hear the word simchah, you think Yom Tov-each holiday demonstrates a different dimension of Hashem’s love for us. When you hear the word Joy, you think of the joy of circumcision, and what bringing a new generation of people for whom the covenant is engraved their flesh would mean to you, when you think of honor you think of tefillin and living a life in which you head and arm and heart are all bound together. You got it! One day you will not only live it, but you’ll find the right people to bring into the circle (which is one of the reasons that I am so happy about Bnos Avigail’s opening next year), which is what sending mishloach manot and giving charity on Purim will do for us all.
Have the best Purim ever!
February 23rd, 2015 - Let It Snow
The snow was beautiful.
It began falling late Thursday night, making Friday and Shabbos a kaleidoscope of frustrated travelers, delighted kids, creative would be sculptors, and the timeless Jerusalem hills outside my windows looking (as usual) ancient and new at the same time. This time I saw the white stuff from my window, and much to my surprise was not at all unhappy to watch the scene with a hot cup of tea in my hand. I will be going back to work more or less full time starting tomorrow, which is something for which I will always owe a debt to Hashem that no human being can pay. I had two physiotherapists, one from the hospital and one from Kupat Cholim. Neiher of them know about the existence of the other. I felt no need to burst the beurocratic bubble that gave me so much of the coaching that I needed. I graduated. They have a finite number of exercises they put you through, and once you can do them easily, you are done. Since walking is good for me, (unlike standing, sitting, or going anywhere by car) I will have an excuse to go on long walks early in the morning or late at night as is my delight. I will, however skip the forest for a while. My friends have put me on food therapy, so moving around may get some of the extra weight off. I also have hopes that the entire event will make me a bit – less tied down to the kind of pettiness that traps me far too often so that I can keep my eye o on the bigger picture.
If nothing else, you guys learned enough Torah during the time you were at Neve to at least know that there is a bigger picture. I read a survey about what people define as success. The results were depressing. Nothing enduring came up. The endless ping pong game (earn it spend it) seemed to be the main theme. Every so often you might want to test yourself. Ask yourself what you mean when you say, “that was a really good day”. If there was some real simchah, giving, moving forward, then it was a good day. If it was a day in which you looked at reality with emunah it was a good day. If you resisted drowning in nonsense it was a good day. Without the Torah these treasures are awfully elusive (especially simchah that is almost impossible to maintain without a meaningful trusting relationship with Hashem). Last week’s Parshah spoke about the commandment to build a sanctuary through which Hashem will dwell in you. The Haftorah is about how Shlomo (King Solomon) built the Temple. It ends with the words, “Hashem will not abandon you”. That says it all. You’ll have your ups and downs, and days that work and days that don’t, but there’s always today a free gift with real possibilities. This week’s Parshah takes you further inward. It begins with narrating the construction of special garments that were worn by the kohanim. Before giving us the Torah, Hashem said that He is choosing us to be a holy nation and a kingdom of kohanim. That means that we have a capacity and responsibility to be living examples of what humans were created to be, and that we have the ability to bring down blessings and raise the animal aspects of the human psyche (which is what the sacrificial offerings were about). You may very reasonably ask what the garments that the kohein wore in the mishkan or in the Bais HaMikdash have to do with you in Chicago, Detroit, or the wilds of Flatbush. The garments of the soul are thought speech and action. These are the ways your deepest inner reality birth your identity. You are able to be part of something bigger than yourself and to forge an identity that follows the role of the kohanim in the sanctuary. The Vilna Gaon points out that everything begins with thought. If you want your speech patterns to change, and to be less negative and critical (and tinged with lashon hara) you have to learn to see people differently. Every Jew is in G-d’s image no matter how deeply he buries it under the barriers of ego and desire that are the source of all separation from their higher selves. If you can step back and watch your thoughts, you may be able to see others more positively if you are willing to judge them favorably rather than defensively. Your speech makes your inner life accessible to the world, it’s the beginning of having a self that is entwined with others. Your deeds will almost certainly follow your thoughts and your speech. If you began with looking for G-dliness in the other person, you will take this search to the way you seek G-dliness in the world you live in through bringing G-d with you so to speak as you live your life.
One of the girls asked me some questions about tzniut. She lives in Brazil. From her question it was clear that she does her best to keep the halachot properly. Wherever she goes, the message that she takes with her is, “there are alternatives”. Dignity is possible. You can make choices what a kohein she would have made!
Maybe write in some of the choices you made to take who you are on the inside with you. We all need a little encouragement.
Oops! Before I forget- the good news is that Brachah Bruce and Shoshanah Weiser are both engaged.
February 17th, 2015 - Yom Kippur Katan Adar
Tomorrow is Yom Kippur Katan, a tןme to review the month and enter the new month, in this case Adar, the happiest month of the Jewish calandar with a cleaner slate (after doing tshuvah), and a more open heart. Most of you haven’t heard of this, since it’s only just a custom that has been adapted by many but by no means the majority of communities. It sets the stage for seeing how every month opens new possibilities. Adar begins at the end of the week. If you were living in ancient Israel you would be waiting for messengers to reach your town or village to collect half shekels.The money was collected annually to pay for communal offerings. Messengers also went out to warn the farmers against growing kilaim (mixing specifies of plants by grafting or other means). Adar is the perfect time of year to do this, because the planting is just about to begin. Some people find this mitzvah somewhat difficult to grasp (and some people find every mitzvah difficult to grasp because of the underlying assumption that a commandment implies a Commander…). Even if you have enough spiritual maturity to accept that the Master of the unversed may know its rules, you may still find yourself asking,” What’s so really wrong with mixing a cherry with a banana and getting weird shaped cherries with hard peels? Wouldn’t they be easier to package?”
The answer to the question requires that you look at yourself. You are both physical and spiritual, and the truth is that everything in the world has both components. The Talmud tells you that every blade of grass has an angel that tells it to grow. That means that it has a spiritual role in the world, and that its physical presence is necessary not only for the sake of the world’s physical ecology, but for its spiritual balance as well. The arrogance involved in “fixing” things by intermixing species can trigger results that cause profound misbalance. Most of you aren’t farmers, and the laws of kilaim in agriculture aren’t all the relevant to your daily life. The idea of recognizing that everything has spiritual purpose is one of the most valuable lessons that you can learn.
One of the many civil laws the Torah told us in last week’s Parshah, Mishpatim, concerns theft. If you were to steal you usually have to pay back what you stole plus a fine of the same sum to compensate your victim for the anxiety and grief that is an inherent result of being victimized. If you stole a lamb, you have to pay back 4 times its value, and if you stole ox 5 times. The reason why there is a different penalty for a lamb and for an ox is that if you were to steal a lamb you would have to carry it home on your shoulders which is embarrassing, while if you stole an ox, it would follow you and let you maintain your dignity. The Torah’s laws usually don’t take into consideration the emotional response of the thief; it is more concerned with the victim. Imagine a judge adjudicting a case by considering if it was the theifs mom’s birthday, and judging him leniently because he has the pain of knowing how disappointed she is….. This case is an exception. Ben Yehoyada tells us. The reason is that theft is really very much like kilaim. When Hashem grants someone (say you…) a possession (say your phone) it’s because He wants you to have it to fulfill a specific aspect of what your mission on this world is. A theft is a distortion of your spiritual ecology. Assume that you were going to do good things with your phone (invite a friend over, be an empathetic listener, organize a kiruv weekend), you are at least temporarily unable to do so. This doesn’t only effect you, it effects the person who needed the invitation todayI or needed some validation now. The thief therefore needs to pay two different types of fines, one for the theft itself (which is double the value of the object stolen) and twice more for the blinders that he puts on before every theft that blind him from noticing that the world has a Master who governs His world with far more complexity and intricacy than he is willing or able to envision. If the circumstances of his theft awakened some shame within him, even though he obviously wasn’t able to move beyond himself enough to resist the temptation to steal, he is still in a far better place than the thief who feels no shame, who pays the heaviest fine of all.
What does this have to do with those of you who are neither thieves nor farmers?
IT should tell you that the world has spiritual ecology, and that everything that you are and everything that you have has is part of Hashem’s greater plan. As you head towards Adar and begin thinking of Purim, try to find the time to read through the megillah. If you can put yourself in the place of any of the main characters, Esther for instance, you will see that she always had enough spiritual sensitivity to recognize that there was a bigger picture. Otherwise she would have been content to be Miss Persia. She knew that there was a reason she was in the palace that was bigger than that.
Adar is almost here. It’s time to do battle against feeling the blahs. Recognize the gifts you have, see the Plan, and use a couple of minutes on Yom Kippur Katan to erase the nonsense that fogs up the screen.’
February 8th, 2015 - Learning to Love and Serve Hashem
I returned to Neve today (part time) after being out since I broke my hip. It was so good to be back in the saddle. This reminds me of the part of the Parshah that discusses the Jewish slave.
You have to be part of something and be dedicated to something if you want to have a reason to get up in the morning, one would think. You read the alarmingly painful stories of people who lost their jobs and became depressed and wonder whether they necessarily greeted each day with joy when they had their jobs. The odds are that they didn’t. The same thing holds true for women whose children grow up and leave the nest. They aren’t always ecstatic, but then again they weren’t always ecstatic when their days were full. You can of course stop reading here, and conclude that life is annoyingly deceptive; and that there are few really enduring pleasures. The next logical step is to have a piece of chocolate. There are other ways of looking at things. Keep reading.
In nature everything is maximized. All birds that can fly do so. For us humans, feelings of gratification and adequacy are very much entwined with whether or not you are doing what you can. Rambam describes loving G-d as being an encompassing and defining relationship. It has to do with who you are when you are at work or when you aren’t, and who you are when you mother children or when you don’t. Love has to do with feeling connected to the one that you love, and from that angle is very relative. You can love your work, your friend, your family members, and even yourself. How deep and real the word love is, depends on how deep and real the connection is. Some of us are so wounded that connecting to anything or anyone (even yourself) is frightening. What if there is disappointment or betrayal? Being connected to Hashem is on one hand the only perfect relationship since He is unchanging in His essential compassion. On the other hand, the idea of loving G-d sounds too abstract and almost airy fairy to some of us for it to be the core of your life. If you learn to love G-d, and serve Him, you can be maximized enough not to need to serve other masters. How do you get there?
1-You can “learn” G-d through the Torah. The same way that you “learn” anyone you care about through listening to what they have to say intently enough to grasp what they mean and not just what they say, learning Torah teaches you G-d. Look for what you enjoy learning-that’s your common language with Him. Find things that are relevant both practically and emotionally.
2-Observe the way He has always spoken to you through the providence that makes you you. Look carefully at the last week, and see what He was telling you about yourself and about the world around you. See where He is telling you what you can rectify, and let that give you pleasure. See where He is telling you what you do that is right and meaningful. Don’t just brush it off.
3-Look at nature, and let yourself realize that the same One who provides sustainance to a tree with thousands of leaves can give you everything that you need and more.
4-Any mitzvah that you do connects you with Him. This doesn’t just mean mitzvot that you have to perform actively like giving charity. It also means the mitzvot that you perform passively like not losing it when you are frustrated by other peoples limitations and mistakes.
When you were a teenager you may have at some time or another said something to the idea of, “sure-your’e my parents, but you know, I didn’t ask to be born”. Hopefully by now you grew out of it. Say you didn’t. Say, for instance, that you are so enslaved by what is happening (your relationships your job etc) or by what isn’t happening (no job, no relationships etc) that you wonder if life is really such a gift! The truth is that if your question is whether life is easy or not, the answer is that it isn’t. Your gratitude to two of the partners in your creations, your father and your mother, who provided you with your body are in partnership with Hashem, who gave you a spiritual soul that yearns to find its way back to its mystic connection with Him. Settling on anything else is glorified slavery.
Don’t sell yourself as a slave. That’s what happens when only your body or your emotions go to work. Bring your soul into the picture, and no matter what you do or don’t do, you can find a possibility of connection and meaning.
February 4th, 2015 - REALLY seeing!
When I grew up, everyone heard of the Ten Commandments. Most young unaffiliated Jews didn’t know the meaning of the word mitzvah, and even some well meaning Jewish employers were very skeptical when you told them you needed off for Shmini Atzeret (“Sure. No problem. Is the next holiday Rainbow day? How dumb do you think I am?”). One reason that the Ten Commandments stayed in our collective consciousness is that it is the core of all morality as we know it in the West. The other reason is Technicolor. It was one of the first Biblical extravaganzas with a cast of thousands, featuring wind machines to part the sea and endless vistas of “dead” Egyptians. You didn’t even need to see the movie to be swept away by the endless stream of advertising. There were no dearth of fictitious figures in Cecil B. deMilles version of “the greatest story ever told” who “added interest” to the narrative. One of the real characters who was not given much of a role was Yisro, Moshe’s father in law. All of the unaffiliated Jews who saw the film desperately needed a role model such as Yisro. His absence (among the innumerable flaws in the movie) cheated them out of knowing someone they needed to know.
He was a descendant of Kayin (Cain), Adam’s son who murdered his brother Hevel (Abel). Kayin name was chosen by his mother who said, “I have acquired a man, with G-d”. Yisro’s name is rooted in the word yesser which means “more”. Acquire. More. These words are iconic in our times.” You are what you own” is a message you have heard since kindergarten. If you want to be more, you have to get more. It doesn’t matter what it is, or whether you really want it or need it. There is another side to being an acquirer. You can at some point reach the conclusion that if you want to be more, (no you didn’t read the next phrase wrong), and you have to be more. Since the 60′s a veritable spiritual supermarket of new-age possibilities has hit the production line. This isn’t something new; Yisro was a spiritual seeker. He saw spiritual force wherever he looked. Eventually he grasped that there was an underlying unifying factor, an idea that was so radical in his era that he was ostracized by his entire people. He was living a life of forced isolation when Moshe took refuge in his home after he escaped from Egypt. When Moshe returned to Egypt to liberate the Jewish people, Yisro remained in isolation. He didn’t feel that he had a role in the drama that was unfolding for a people that was not his people, living lives that had nothing to do with his life. Two events changed things. One was G-d splitting the sea. The second was the defeat of the Amalekites.
Everyone in the world saw these two events.
No one in the world saw these events except Yisro.
Everyone else saw the sea split-the sages say that every body of water split. What happened next? Not much. Everyone in the world noticed that the day was miraculously extended to give us the opportunity to defeat Amalek. What did it say to them? Not much.
Yisro really heard, saw, and let what he heard and saw define his future. He joined the Jewish people because he recognised that he was part of their fate-his water split because the sea split. He wanted to draw close to a G-d who is indeed the G-d of the entire universe. He saw that G-d is the source of the water that sustains us, and is simultaneously the G-d of justice who destroys evil. The G-d who waged war against Amalek is the same G-d who nurtures each one of His people.
How much do you really see? How much just floats by?
Tonight my dear friend Ruth came by. She is one of the warmest and most delightful people in my considerable repertoire of people. She told me where it came from. Her mother trained herself as a medical clown way before anyone heard of it. She knew how to bring joy to others because she loved life, and didn’t let life’s goodness pass her by. She made the patients laugh, and then went on to the often grim faced staff. I thought of her when I looked at the small table in my living room. In its center is a large wooden box with dividers forming squares. Each square houses several teabags, each one with a different flavor. Since I broke my hip two weeks ago, almost every visitor who came brought something, with flavored tea being a great favorite. I am trying my best to not let the entire matter fade once I am more mobile. Things pass by so quickly, and are so easily forgotten unless you decide to really hear and see.
As the parshah continues you read about the time that we Jews really heard, and really saw. The first two commandments were given to us directly by Hashem; it was only after the soul shattering experience of hearing His Voice that we asked for Moshe to let us hear G-d’s commandments through him. How did it feel to really hear?
In the Song of Songs it says, “He shall kiss me with the kisses of His lips”. This is a reference to the two first commandments which are called “kisses”. There are two kinds of kisses. The first one is the kiss of connection, the kind of kiss that says, “I love you”. The second kind is the kiss of exclusivity, the kind of kiss that says, “I don’t love anyone except you”. Longing to feel Hashem’s love flows through positive mitzvot. Being willing to overcome any obstacle that separates you from Hashem is the source of our strength in keeping the negative mitzvot. The closeness we felt doesn’t ever really fade completely.
And that, my dear friends, is the real reason that the Ten Commandments still resonate so deeply.
January 27th, 2015 - Splitting the Sea
What a week this was!
I don’t mean the week that past for me personally as much as I mean the week that the Jews in Egypt lived through as is narrated in this week’s parshah, BiShalach. Before you start mumbling complaints under your breath about contrived introductions to a dvar Torah that I wanted to write, I’ll admit that the realities of the parshah resonate more vividly to me because of the way I experienced the past week.
I am writing this letter Monday night. Last week at this time I was out of the operating room after my hip replacement and spending the moments playing with a device that releases pain killers whenever you press the button. The result was that I was virtually pain free. This is very different than what I had been through vicariously when I saw other people emerge from their surgical nirvana. I wasn’t alone for even a moment over the next several days. Family and friends kept an eye on me, supplied me with everything they could imagine I would want (from playing cards to a very serious commentary on Kohelet). I returned home on Thursday to more and more of the same. The light of chessed appeared in many different forms. Each visitor left something of their own personality with me. The real question is “what am I going to do with it all” the illumination and grace that I experienced. The easiest thing would be moving on. Rashbi comments on the way the Jews in ancient Egypt felt the morning after the revelation of Shechina. He says that the Jews were overwhelmed by what they had seen the night before. They were people who were broken by their slavery both of body and of spirit, and suddenly they heard the angelic praise of G-d’s breaking all the rules. Their bodies could hardly contain their souls, and the dazzling clarity left the banal occurrences of normal physical life unappealingly gray. They felt imprisoned by the stress of facing up to the limits that are inherent to getting through their days, which now looked materialistic ordinary and worst of all limiting. The drama that unfolds in the Parshah reflects what was going on inside them. Pharaoh didn’t disappear. Neither does the yetzer hara, or the conflicted reality we face when material reality feels stifling, they became aware that he was in hot pursuit. The sea was in front of them, the desert and its horrors on all sides. Just yesterday they had enough faith to drop everything and head into the unknown. They had seen miracles that no one had ever seen before. And now they are locked into the grip of Today.
I don’t want the moments of great light and human kindness to fade the next time someone informs me non-verbally that they would prefer to get on the bus before me, or to let the disappointment when someone is revealed as being less than I wish they were blind me to the goodness that I have and am still experiencing from so many people. Finding ways to guard the moments that are worth guarding is something of a skill. It’s a skill that Hashem wants us all to learn. It is for that reason that Hashem didn’t have the Jews leave Egypt and find themselves in Eretz Yisrael after a short jaunt through Philistine territory via the western coast. They needed to feel trapped from all sides and rediscover their latent emunah. Then they needed to see the sea split.
Earning a living and finding a shidduch are both compared to splitting the sea. You have to reach a point of being fully aware that you aren’t your own salvation if you want these times to give you some light, and not just entrap you in heavier and heavier darkness. You have to be willing to both cry out, and to enter the waters…Sometimes in a concrete sense this means when you feel trapped by your indecision, or lack of seeming options, you pray, look at what your choices are, use your common sense, ask advice, and then close your eyes and jump! Just do what you have to do, and live in the moment Hashem gave you. The name of the man who jumped into the sea first was Nachshon ben Aminadav. Every so often, you need to step back, see the light you once saw, follow his example and just jump.
I had a sort-of-Nachshon experience. The woman who organized the Shabbaton where I fell didn’t seem to make much of an effort to find out what had happened to me after I disappeared by ambulance Shabbos morning. I was taken to Shaarei Tzedek which is a far walk from the hotel, so I wasn’t expecting anyone over Shabbos, but I was sure that immediately after Shabbos she would either come or call. She didn’t. I found myself repeating the story of how I fell to a revolving entourage of doctors, interns, nurses, etc. Each one asked about the response from the Shabbaton management. I decided to jump into the sea. Not only wouldn’t I fall into the trap of cynical judgment in my responses to them, I decided not to feel them. The Torah requires that we judge each other fairly which means not jumping to negative conclusions when there are other possibilities of interpreting situations. I searched my mind for possible excuses but didn’t come up with much. I finally decided (and for me that was the Nachshon moment) that the words I have to force myself to both think and say are, “I don’t know”. It didn’t always feel real, but I kept on going back to the IDK formula anyway. Today I found out that the reason she was out of touch is that her son got engaged that very night!! Of course she had to live out her story, in the ongoing narrative of her family. I have no way of knowing how many times she may have tried to call me since the phone was ringing constantly that motzoi Shabbos. I do know now that she was where she was supposed to be-at the only engagement party her son will ever have, G-d willing. I didn’t have enough imagination to think of this possibility, but knowing that halachah demands that you don’t judge others without knowing the entire story saved me from negative obsessing. The Baal Shem Tov said, “You are where your mind is”, and halachah kept me where I wanted to be. The only way you can make it when you are on the edge of the water is if you can recall the moments of clarity that are part of life. This is why remembering the exodus is so central. Making this clarity real only comes through knowing what Hashem wants of you moment by moment.
My family started a Mishneh Brura kollel in my husband’s A.H. memory. It is dedicated to sponsoring learning practical halachah. Although women don’t have a commandment to study Torah, they can gain the merit of learning through supporting this sort of endeavor. Unlike most learning program, this one has no expenses since the members learn wherever they want. They have to complete tests that my sons put together, and later grade. As long as they learn the halacha that they commit to which comes to about a half hour an evening, they receive $120 a month. You (or you and a couple or more friends) can sponsor a young man and in return you will actually get half of their reward for the learning. A binding contract (which is called a Yissachar-Zevulun agreement) was put together by a Rav, so that you can actually know which specific person is learning in your merit. You can email me (email@example.com) for details.
It gives you some strength if you want to jump into the sea.
January 20th, 2015 - A View From My Hospital Bed
I am writing this letter from Hadassah’s orthopedic department, room eight. It is a fairly large room with windows that face greater Mount Scopus. My roommates are as varied as the Eastern Jerusalem scenery that I face. One is a nun in her seventies. She was born in Barcelona, and entered the convent near the Mammilla mall as a young woman. She is a kindergarten teacher; her charges are unwanted children of both the Christian and Muslim communities to whom she is totally dedicated. Interestingly, she didn’t spend many hours at prayer; she made due with about fifteen minutes worth of devotions, spending the rest of her time recovering from her surgery, and entertaining the nuns who came to visit her throughout the day. Some of them were familiar faces. I had met them at the hospice where my friend Marcie Alter (who many of you know through these letters) has been living for the past six years. Sister Martalla was accompanied by her assistant, a young Muslim woman named Sabrina who has been with her for the last fourteen years. It took only a few minutes to discover (using my bad Arabic and her somewhat better English) that she lives in Ras al Amud, not far from Jabel Mukaber the nest of some of the worst terror organizations, including the one responsible for the killings in Har Nof. She is one of the most apolitical people I ever met. Although she must be in her late thirties, her interests were those of most American teenagers-clothes socializing and fun. In the melting pot of Hadassah nothing seemed discordant about our sharing time and experiences. My other roommate was a devout Muslim woman, who spent hours praying out loud to the tune of what those of you who went to Neve recall from the 4am muezzin that we all hear in Northern Har Nof. What bound us together was the unspoken sisterhood of having met Dr. Mattan, the orthopedic surgeon who we all got to know….
My own acquaintance with Dr. M. began on Motzei Shabbos. I was at the Leonardo-Plaza for a Shabbaton. My youth, high energy, and beauty must have deceived the organizer into thinking that the perfect room for me would be the one with a view of the Old City on the 15th floor. There is a Shabbos elevator, but I wasn’t sure whether it was meant for general usage or just for people who are elderly or disabled. I sent my daughter to ask the famous authority, Rav Neventzal’s son, to whom the elderly Rav often refers people. He told her that it is fine for someone of my age (again!!!) to use it, but if I wish to go the extra mile, I may feel free to do so. I saw this as a challenge (and a convenient escape from the reality of no longer being in what some euphemistically all, “my first youth). It took me no time and little effort to climb to my floor. The next morning, when got up early and when I saw the splendor of Yerushalaim before me, it was all worth it. I left at about 8am for the Great Synagogue to hear the famous chazzan Chaim Adler who perform (no… that’s not the right word…) on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh. I tripped on the concrete stairs via my slippers near the 14th floor. I guess I missed the Fountain of Youth this week. I spent about five distressing moments on the floor (with a pair of tourists and two eleven year old boys in their Shabbos suits stepping over me gingerly as though it is the most natural thing in the world to see a woman stretched out on the floor). A young man named Menachem Weiss stopped in his tracks. He offered his help with extreme care and courtesy. He went down to the desk, summoned help, walked back up and helped me into a chair. The emergency medicine squad soon appeared and recommended that I go to the hospital. Weiss had kindly gone to the synagogue and asked a religious American doctor to give his opinion as to what I should do. He agreed with the recommendation, and soon my daughter Chani and I were off to Shaarei Tzedek. This is where I had the first inkling of what I was meant to learn from the entire (mis)adventure.
I was stationed in the Emergency Room corridor. The woman in the bed behind mine, Batya Maklis, was the no-hold-bar most positive person that I ever met. The staff, G-d’s providence, meeting us, were all like gifts wrapped in beautiful packaging to her. All of the residual negativity that I felt faded, and I realized that meeting her was one of the most important things that had happened to me in a long time. After being examined, we consulted and were advised to transfer to Hadassah Har Tzofim. In case I didn’t get the message straight, the ambulance driveron Motzei shabbos told us that Dr. Mattan was our man. He recommended a hip replacement, and the surgery was set for the next day, Sunday. By this time, I was feeling really well as long as I didn’t move around. My second lesson was that you can think out of the box. I notified the people in England (where I had planned to speak on Monday when I ACTUALLY had the surgery…) and then asked the head nurse if I could do the shiur here. Yes. The nun, Muslim woman, and Sabrina were all pro. It was an unbelievable scene.
The third (and thus far last) important lesson came via one of my visitors. Esther Pollard came by. I was so moved that she extended herself in this way. It would be so easy for her to create a world around the embitterment of living in a world that used her husband Jonathan’s information to destroy the Iraqi reactor and then turned against him. Instead I found myself facing a well-dressed, friendly woman who gave me a get-well teddy bear. There were other women who came who are the Who’s Who of Torah Judaism. Lesson four- great people are humble.
So I’ll end off now by giving you a vision of the entire kaleidoscope- the nun and company watching me set up for the Torah shiur, The people like Batya Macklis and Ester Pollard who break the stereotypes, and finally the really chashuv rebbitzens who gave such wonderful lessons in humility.
Most of all, thanking you for all of your tefillos, I remain,
January 13th, 2015 - Seeing Hashem as the Author of Your Life
Today was Neve’s siyum on Breishit. Some of you may be knowledgeable enough to realize that Shabbos we will be reading VaEirah, the second parshah in Shmos, the next chumash. The reason for the delay was The Great Snow That Wasn’t.
This isn’t entirely true; there was what would have been called Moderate Snowfall in most of the Western Hemisphere. In Israel, it was the Friday night of the blizzard. It was lovely. All 500 or so girls on the campus had their meals together in a giant in- shabbos. They sang kabbalat Shabbat together, and after the meal danced against the backdrop of the pure white snow visible from the large windows and door. By the time Shabbos was over, the snow had melted, leaving only sweet memories of being really together. It all changed when the news came in.
The grocery store in Paris probably was filled with people buying food for Shabbos. There was nothing pure or innocent in what they faced. The only ray of light in the entire story was the worker from Mali who hid as many people as he could alert in the freezer, where they hid for the next five hours. Evil is tedious and mind numbing. The same proclamations, the same end of the story. Tomorrow the four men who just wanted to check out their challot, or fish, or drinks will be buried in the only Land that has a heart. No one really knows what to do with evil’s banal repetition. A great deal of fantasy has been dispelled. Jews are not at home in France, nor had they been truly at home since Toulouse. While unlike the holocaust, the government is not the source of the death lust that we see unveiled, it has been either unwilling or unable to hold back the tide of hatred that radical Islam has and is generating. I wanted to understand the headset of the Jihadists better, so I researched one of the main influences on the thought of the terrorists, a man named Anwar Awlaki. The American born Imam (who was killed in the course of his “work”) is also the voice behind the glossy women’s magazine, “Inspire”. Its name comes from a verse in the Koran telling you to “Inspire the believers to fight”. It is his self-described “gift to Islam”. In addition to recipes, household hints etc. the magazine features bomb making (anyone can do it!) and similar features. The main underlying message in his sermons for men, and his magazine for female Jihadists is what I would call Islamic paranoia. They ( the entire nation of Islam?) are an endangered species because we (everyone else) is out to get them, and prevent them from ever having their dream of a caliphate under sharia (Islamic law). Jihad is a movement born of desperation. It was then that I understood the heart of their evil.
They don’t really believe in G-d.
At least not the G-d who took the Jews out of Egypt, who is beyond the forces of nature that He created, and who can break any rule of His trusted servant, Nature. Pharaoh also had issues with grasping what Moshe meant when he said, “G-d”. He knew that Yosef attributed his ability to interpret dreams to G-d, but that was still within the realm of what Pharaoh considered possible. He, like all of the Egyptians, worshipped natural forces, and thought that dream interpretation was a marvelous skill, but just that. There was nothing that could possibly be beyond nature; his view was not unlike that of contemporary atheists like Dawkins who can’t grasp that nature didn’t “make itself” or like Awlaki who can’t grasp that G-d isn’t desperate for human assistance. If only they could have been at the siyum! Although the Parshah at hand introduces the plagues, which demonstrate G-d’s presence, ability, and care for each individual, there was something else that I wished that they could have seen.
He is retiring after completing a career at Neve that began in 1980. During this time, he began countless classes with the weather report. His purpose was to affirm that Israel has only good weather (storms, cold, heat are all good! They are gifts from the One who controls nature, and who loves His Land and His people enough to demonstrate His providence to them when they track the weather in Eretz Yisrael). To Rabbi Levi, even sinking down to the moral abyss that we witness is good, it is the darkness that will generate a search for light. To him every girl is a great person, welcome, and full of real significance and beauty. Every event in his life is authored by G-d, and the kind of paranoia that is espoused by Inspire magazine, is the opposite of the Torah that inspires Rabbi Levi; the Torah of gratitude and optimism that is only real because it is based on the assumption that G-d is, indeed, in control. Perhaps some of you may want to share your feelings and thoughts about the man who started his career as an electrician, redefined religious Detroit, and built an exemplary family and took all of what he became to you, and gave you himself unstintingly. I am sure that if you send him emails or letters via Neve that they will reach him.
May we all soon see the actualization of Rabbi Levi’s hopes, and witness the final act in the ongoing drama that leads to Mosiach’s coming.
January 4th, 2015 - That Jewish Thing
Did your friends or relatives ever accuse you of being obsessed about this “Jewish thing”? I haven’t ever had to face this overtly, but there are many unasked questions that I feel lurk below the surface quite often. What’s even more uncomfortable is that at least some of the time the reason that the questions stay unasked is an unspoken fear that a question may lead to a long winded answer aimed at spreading The Word, with little regard to the person that I am speaking to and their individual reality. It is assumed that my answer will be patronizing and/or guilt provoking. They think I am on one side, and they are on the other side.
There’s a reason that you could consider me obsessed. It’s because Torah isn’t just a way of thinking, it’s a way of being and doing. That means that it effects everything, and leaves you open to being accused of obsession and/or fanaticism. The fact that Torah isn’t Universalist makes the difficulty of understanding what it is you’re so involved with even more incomprehensible. You are perceived as being a missionary, but with no agenda to Spread the Word to the Pagans. The basic difference both between what being a Torah Jew and being a follower of the current prevailing religion, Materialsim (just joking…sort of) is kyou can take a vacation from materialism, but not from Torah. The real issue is the unasked question, Why Does It Matter? Many scholars (and even more non-scholars) discuss this. One of the most interesting approaches is one that is written in a sefer called Ben Yehoyada, written by Rav Yosef Chaim of Bagdad.
Yosef Chaim (1 September 1835 – 30 August 1909) was a leading hakham (Sephardic Rabbi), authority on Jewish law (Halakha) and Master Kabbalist. He is best known as author of the work on Halakha Ben Ish Ḥai(בןאישחי) (“Son of Man (who) Lives”), a collection of the laws of everyday life interspersed with mystical insights and customs, addressed to the masses and arranged by the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Yosef Chaim came to be colloquially known by the title of this book. Another book he wrote is called, Ben Yehodaya. It takes you through many of the Aggadic portions of the Tqlmud that leave you scratching your head (in addition to the many other topics he elucidates).
HERE IS ONE OF THE REAL ANSWERS TO WHY IT MATTERS
A passage in the Talmud concerns the laws of ritual impurity that comes through contact with the dead. A grave in which a Jew is buried brings about ritual impurity, and one in which a non-Jew is buried does not. The reason given is that the text in the written Torah states, that a human (Adam) defiles. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai as saying only Jews are called Adam. This obviously leaves you with your mouth open wide! What does that mean the rest of mankind is? Horseradish? Tosefos explains that the phrase Adam refers to Jews, while non-Jews would be referred to as Ha-Adam, the human being. That means that each non-Jew is an individual part of a group called humans. He is-the individual link in the chain. Jews are not called the human. We are not individual links. We are a whole, with the mission of bringing Torah to every aspect of life, excluding none..
Ben Yehoyada says that this difference is the most definitive one of all, and that the word Adam itself hints at this almost mystical unity. Before I tell you what he actually says, I want to point out one thing. In today’s world where anti-Semitism is rising alarmingly, religion isn’t the real issue. The twitter message put by a write in candidate for the US senate had the slogan “With Jews We Lose’. The likelihood of his ever having met an observant Jew is microscopic. His hatred isn’t about kosher, or about Shabbos. It’s about our being inherenbtly different. Israel is delegitimized because it is Jewish. It was hated before 1967. It is a magnet for attracting hatred. The way some Jews respond to this is to become Jews By Hatred. Meaning that their only sense of belonging to the Jews is bond of persecution that we share to one degree or another. You see a picture of a concentration camp, and you know that whether or not you observe Torah, if you were in Europe in 1942, that may very well have been your address. I want to suggest that there is another bond.
Ben Yehoyada points out that the word Adam begins with the letter aleph, which in the number-letter equivalency called gematria, equals number one. The center letter of the word Adam is mem, which is the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The word “echad” has the gematria of 13! The final letter, daled equals 4, paralleling the four basic elements that all physical reality is made of. It is the stuff that the human body, which is made of. Once you add the letter “hai”, making the word ha-adam, you are adding a letter that is not unified-it is constructed of two other letters, and literally means “the” which focusses on the individual under discussion. All of this may seem very arcane to you. I want to tell you why it isn’t.
You belong to a people who don’t like living fragmented lives. We take our sense of meaning to everything. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes not. We have never succeeded becoming “masses”, we always are a recognizable mass.
You have to be strong enough to search for the positive, definition of being Jewish if you want to enjoy it, treasure it, and let it touch your heart. You are part of the ones that the Creator believed in enough o give them the task of reflecting His unity with His world by including everything you do in your spiritual journey.
The trick is to enjoy it.
The fast of the tenth of Tevet is coming up. It is the first of the series of fasts commemorating the fall of Yerushalaim and destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Don’t see it as a tragedy. See it as a challenge to build.
December 22nd, 2014 - Changes That Last Forever
When you want to change, where do you start?
Good resolutions are for sure a beginning. But how many beginnings do you need? What happens when the ongoing drama called life makes you relegate the resolutions to the safe-deposit box somewhere in the back of your mind where you keep broken promises (to yourself and to others) and unfulfilled potentials? Tonight is the sixth night of Chanukah. The menorah is lit with enough lights to be impressive, visible, and more inspiring. A week from now, will I even remember how brave in brilliant the light was against the backdrop of night on Rechov Kablan? I would like to think that I will, but I can’t say that I know for sure that this year will be the one that the vision doesn’t fade in next to no time.
The debate between the scholarly academy of Hillel and that of SHammai speaks to me loud and clear. They debated the correct way to light the menorah. Do you begin with 8 and go down to 1, or visa versa. Is the best way to keep the light with you to begin with one light and to add another every night, (which is what we do, and will do until Moshiach comes) or is to start with the brilliant blaze of the happy ending, and let it stay with you even when its light isn’t visible any longer. We aren’t in paradise (I hope that I didn’t disillusion you too much). In order to get somewhere you need an image that will give you a picture of who you are, and what you are dealing with. Which image fits better?
In order to answer that question, I want you to picture Yosef (that’s right, the Yosef of the bible) in a pizza shop. He is with a small group of young men who look like they have a foot in each world. One foot is in the secular world (in his time that may have meant Egypt and its superficial culture and love of beauty, power and war) and the other foot is seeking spiritual meaning. A tzadik knows how to find the light in any other Jew, and if necessary will make himself smaller in order to make them bigger. The argument between Hillel’s academy and Shammais is one that was never fully resolved. Do you get out there, speak to people in the language that they understand, because you believe in them, or do you live a life that is so authentic that when they search they will discover that there is someone out there who is far beyond who they are, but close to who they want to be. We do what Hillel’s view is now. SHammai’s more perfect view is for later.
Everyone is complex. The answer to the question of how to light the menorah is one that the greatest minds have contended with for eons. You came to know Torah because there was someone out there who could and would sacrifice time and effort that they could have used in developing themselves. Rav Shach, one of the most highly regarded sages of last generation demanded that people tithe (give a tenth) of their time towards reaching out to others, just like they tithe their money to give charity. He was telling you that for now, you have to live with the pre-messianic reality of having a mission in an imperfect world that may take what you treasure the most, and demand that you use it unselfishly.
The Torah tells us that Yosef befriended Bilha and Zilpa’s sons. They were the sons of maidservants, whose entire claim to greatness was their ability to go beyond their own egos and devote themselves to being disciples of their mistresses, Rachel and Leah. The Torah makes mention of Yosef’s age at the time that these friendships blossomed. He was 17. The number 17 has the same numerical value as the word “tov”, which means good. He looked at them and saw them as they were. The word Bilha is related (in Yechezkiel) to the word bahala, which means panic. The word Zilpa is related (in Tehillim) to the word zalapot, which means rage. They were imperfect, and the Zohar tells us that at this point in their lives, the inner battle that we all have is one that they were in danger of…..losing. Yosef’s response was not to hide from this fact, or to be afraid to face it, but to draw them close, because he saw their goodness and responded to them with his own goodness.
You have no choice but to face the fact that your world and the world is painfully imperfect. You can make resolutions (and you do sometimes keep them!), or you can change your attitude. Your job is to be Yosef. Take the job you were given just by being born to these times. See the good in the people who surround you, give them your goodness, and never forget even for a moment that the only objective definition of goodness is the Torah itself. All other definitions are at best relative, and at worst false.
You may not make the world perfect, but you will have changed.
The reason that I am writing all of this is that the murders in Har Nof are already Old News. The families are dealing with their new normal, and the rest of the world has moved on to the newest News. This is as things should be, and as things always have been. With one qualification.
Keep your resolutions.
Don’t stay the same.
You have Torah inside you and so does every Jew you meet
Don’t be afraid to speak someone’s language
Don’t be afraid of their limitations
You are good, better than you ever could know
And so are they
December 15th, 2014 - 30 Days Later
Thirty days have passed since two perfectly sane men, men with family’s and jobs, entered the Bnei Torah synagogue and committed pre-meditated murder. Their village, Jabal Mukabar is right below the Haas Promenade. In Southern Jerusalem, not far from East Talpiot and Armon HaNatziv. If you want to see Yerushalaim from South heading North, this is one of the most beautiful places to do so. Avraham who was looking for Mount Moriah, (where the Bais HaMikdash was built hundreds of years later) must have seen it from this angle.
The homes in the village are mostly one family dwellings in the typical Jerusalem stone that is used throughout the city. There are a number of multi-storied buildings, gardens, and paths, and of course the minaret from which the kadi preaches love and hate, violence and compassion in the same sermon. It looks like any other placid and somewhat quaint village that dots the hills around Yerushalaim. The two men who equipped themselves with guns and a cleaver left the charm of their village to head towards Har Nof.
They earned their livings here.
Their sister is a social worker with Jerusalem’s municipality. They, like the other people of Jabel Mukaber, which is the home of quite a number of Terrorists Past. see people like me every day, and at the same time don’t really see them at all. They see one dimensional caricatures, captioned “Other” “Enemy” because I am not one of them. That’s enough to make me an enemy. They have learned to disengage from seeing of the subtle human dignity and vulnerable frailty that makes us tick. It would be easy to say that these two men were victims of their educations, and if only they had opportunities to interact with real Others, and learn more about what they are, things would be different. It hasn’t worked out that way. Education has provided the two men who set out to murder complete strangers the words and the skills needed to get Jabel Mukaber into the 21st century, but it hasn’t changed the inner workings of the village. What on earth were they thinking when they tied their shoes that morning? The Torah gives us some insight. The truth is, that this insight is the reason that I “brought you” to Jabel Mukaber.
The inner dimension of What Went Wrong in Yishmael is discussed in the Zohar. Both Avraham and Yishmael excelled in kindness. The difference between them is their point of departure. For Avraham did chessed out of humility. His humility was so deep that he said to G-d, “I am dust and ashes.” He was so humble that it was second nature for him to empathize with everyone he encountered. The same humility that he felt when he recognized that he lives in a world that is G-d’s creation and that he is one of them, let him see anyone else as also being G-d’s creation, and made him exquisitely sensitive to each individual who crossed his path needs and wants because he felt that they were part of him. Yishamael was deeply spiritual and at the same time as Hagar’s son had an unquenchable love of freedom. He submits to no authority any more than a lion or tiger would. He wants to give if giving buys him dominance. If it doesn’t, he is out of the game, and viciously attacks anyone who he feels competes with his desire to be top dog. There is chessed, but it is corrupted by ego. His spiritual heirs, the two men who left Jaabel Mukaber that morning, can’t bear my presence in a land that they claim. They can’t bear my breathing their air, walking their earth and they set out that morning to set things straight.
Tonight there will be a gathering in which the lives of their victims will be held up to the public. They were all different, but they all followed Avraham’s choices, not Yishmael’s. The real question is where does that put you? Making no change is a choice, just like making a change is a choice.
Tomorrow there will be Tehillim and learning at Kever Rachel leaving from Neve at 3:30. Its purpose is to replace darkness with light, trust in Hashem, and prayers for the surviving victims of that day’s treachery. Wednesday morning there will be an event in the Great Synagogue with the goal of creating tangible and positive goals for change. I am fully aware that you aren’t going to be at any of this. The reason that I am telling you about these gatherings is so that you can be there vicariously at least for a couple of moments, asking yourself tow questions. Do I want to be a giver? Do I want to do it like Avraham or like YIshmael? Am I on the bus, or off the bus?
On the subject of chessed, Maya Clausner who many of you remember isn’t well, and would love visitors. She is in the hematology department on the second floor of the main building in Hadassah, room 13. She wants friends to drop by, especially (but not only) those who know her.
With the initial 30 days over, most of us will go on to the next adventure that Hashem has in store, with love, awe and optimism. There is a lot to be thankful for. My son-in-law is doing well, and the kids are doing their home made version of play therapy, playing a ghastly game of “attack” where they kill each other all Shabbos afternoon. I just came back from the bris of Eitan ben Sara Mualmi’s brand new grandson! It was beautiful. The family is so positive and life-affirming. They had it in a hall with music! He couldn’t come because he is still hooked up to various devices at Hadassah, but they made real-time video for him. Consciously or subconsciously the family decided that this wasn’t going to be a bitter sweet event. It would only be sweet, and indeed it was. Keep the tefillah going, especially for Chaim Yechiel ben Malka Rotman, who so far hasn’t regained consciousness?
December 8th, 2014 - The New Normal
Things in my life are returning to normal. Not exactly the old normal, nor should it ever return to the old normal completely erasing the impression of events that are meant to change everyone whose lives they touched. There is the new normal; my son-in-law is home, Baruch Hashem. This is a miracle that no one who was there had any reason to expect. It is still a new normal; the old normal was that he would leave early in the morning to Mirrer Yeshiva and return at night. Miri would leave for the kindergarten that she has taught in for over ten years, and the kids would each arrive at their morning destinations. There were trips to the local supermarkets before Shabbos, and blessedly uneventful routines that have their own melody. The new normal is that everyone’s life is more or less on hold for the time being. Hopefully, the outer features of the old normal will replace it soon. There is something to be said for the new normal as well. I got to know a “new” branch of my extended family, the Jewish People. One of the first things that happened when we got to the emergency room was meeting up with an amazingly human staff. The confusion was overwhelming. In fact, the initial report we heard turned out for different patient, one whose injuries were far graver. Dr. Rifkin, who headed emergency that morning was completely composed, but simultaneously managed to be completely aware of the emotional turmoil that we were in. He began by telling us of the less severe injuries (the cuts on his hands aren’t deep, and will soon heal) and went from there to the kind of news that no one wants to hear, stopping every few sentences to say that things can change, and carefully and compassionately letting us absorb what he was saying. The next people we encountered while waiting to hear from the attending doctors after an initial surgery were the women from Ezer MiTzion. Two of the volunteers were “on duty”. They came with food, drinks, candy for the kids, and constant reassurance that we aren’t alone; they alternated sitting with us and Rotmans and the Mualmi’s. They were not surprised nor were they offended when the food remained un-eaten, nor did that stop them from bringing more food later in the day. They didn’t talk more than we wanted to talk. Their presence was silent, broken only by whispered Tehillim. A social worker soon joined There were none of the ridiculous “how do you feel ” interactions. Instead there was concrete information about the way the government and Hadassah would be footing the bills that would inevitably snowball in a very short time. Then something happened that I didn’t expect.
She told us that we all have emunah.
If there was ever an only in Israel moment, that was it.
The media soon arrived. It was very different than we thought it would be. Initially, we were not sure whether or not to give interviews (and some of the families chose not to do so). Why become someone else’s dinner time conversation? What if something awkward slips out of my mouth? What if they misquote me? What changed my mind was that I felt so enveloped by the Family of the Jewish People from the moment that I stepped into Hadassah, that I understood that the Family is waiting outside to hear what’s happening. The journalists and radio/tv moderators were human, concerned, and faithful to what I said. Arutz 2 is a secular news station. The interviewer called me up twice to check out how Shmuli is doing long after the news was “old”.
Part of the new normal is that Har Nof is showing its true colors. It’s a place where people take care of each other. No one is alone, uncared for or left to figure things out from zero. Rides, food, legal advice, material aid, friendship, are all part of the package. Another part of the package (that the secular press hasn’t as yet figured out) is the lack of rage, and its twin, tehh lack of despair. The women who will never see their husbands again, and children who are too young to really know their father’s love and caring, are holding on. They are like Yaakov, whose battle with Eisov as narrated in last Parshah, didn’t leave him unharmed, but he survived and in the next Parshah is described as “shalem”, which means whole.
There will be dark times and moments that defy rational interpretation. In those moments, if you don’t have emunah, you can forget who you are. The name of the area that Yaakov was injured is “gid hanasheh” in Hebrew, which means the the sinew that was stricken (perhaps the one leading to the sciatic nerve). The word nasheh, the Zohar points out, means forgetting. When you forget even briefly what you are and who you are, you are vulnerable to everything that life throws at you. When you have emunah, there is no such thing as “life throws at you”, there is only “a challenge to who I am and what I want to be”. One of the great sages, the Nimukei Yosef says that when any mitzvah is forgotten (nasheh), you have to be willing to keep that mitzvah with self-sacrifice and courage. Chanukah will soon be here. The 8 lights are the lights of a greater truth, one that is higher than anything that this world, created in 7 days offers. This light is the light of the Torah that was created on the first day, and is hidden within the Torah even now.
Going to Neve means that you all learned the art of living with a new normal, one that is holier and more meaningful than the old one. Going back home means that you have to learn another new normal. You have to learn to not forget who you are even when you are almost like Avraham-the whole world is on one side, and you are on the other side.
You don’t have to be Avraham. You can reach out for help. People want to be there for you. They are family. Call your local kiruv rabbi, go online for classes, and let your family in!
November 21st, 2014 - Choose Light
So many of you have showed concern and written, and even more of you have davened. I have no words to tell you how much this means not only to me, but to every one of us. Thank G-d, Shmuli is much better. He is aware, able to communicate and reminded a friend that he is only giving him his seat on the morning bus to Mir temporarily. That doesn’t mean that the story is over. If we closed the book here it would be a cruel denial of our having lived through a pogrom that left Har Nof with four new widows, and 24 new orphans.
The four men who were killed were buried, and their death caused many of us to rethink our ideas about what death is really about. Is dying a brutal death at the hands of people you never met and certainly don’t threaten in any way a senseless desecration of life? Is dying for no reason other than the fact that you are a Jew a meaningless tragedy? Death is never sweet for those who are left behind, but there is some comfort in knowing that the death of these four men was a reflection of the way that they chose to live.
Their death’s had meaning.
The men who died in Kehillas Benei Torah died as they lived; they were dedicated to living with emunah and beginning their days with dedication. They were killed for not being Muslim. When Miri received the call from the hospital social worker telling her to get to Hadassah as soon as possible and not to come alone was one of the worst moments that anyone could have. All four people in the car spent the twenty minute ride saying all of the variations of “I can’t believe that this can be happening. It sounds terrible” that you can possibly imagine. When we were allowed into the recovery room to see Shmuli after his initial surgery there were no tears, we were too shell-shocked. It takes only seconds to assume a new sort of normal. When I asked the nurse what the trickle of blood that I saw flowing out of Shmuli’s ear, she told me that they were able to control the majority of the flow, and that this isn’t really significant. When they do the second surgery they’ll take care of it. The answer sounded reasonable and left me feeling relieved. I had accepted that blood coming out of a man’s head was normal, and that a second surgery was something to look forward to. I don’t know what Miri was thinking, but the one thing that I know never crossed her mind or mine was regret.
Neither of us wished that he would have stayed home from the synagogue Tuesday any more than Sunday or Monday. Neither of us wished that Mordechai would be the kind of kid who doesn’t like to go to shul with his dad. We both know that the villain of the story isn’t the co-incidences of time and place that led them to be in Kehillas Bnei Torah Tuesday morning. The villain is the man with the cleaver and the man with the gun. They are the stars of the tragedy but you can’t let yourself be blind to the fact that they are supported by a cast of thousands. The countless kids who are taught hatred from their earliest youth for anyone who isn’t them. The kadi in the mosque who spews out Itbach al Yahud (kill the Jews) in his Friday sermon after duly praising Al-lah the Compassionate. There are bit players in the ongoing drama. They have made the media the message, and the subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitism disguised pathological hatred for Israel all deserve billing. Neither Miri nor I thought about them at the moment. We were both aware of something much bigger, more real than the ongoing soap opera called Them against Us. It’s called faith in G-d, who can turn things around in a moment, and whose will isn’t known to us, but His chessed is. It was the only thing that mattered in the recovery room.
Emunah means knowing that everything has one source, knowing that there is purpose and meaning. It means that you will one day account for your life to the One who gave it to you. It means that you are living on one page of an endless book, and the only thing that really matters is what kind of person you choose to become.
You can choose light. You can choose learning. You can choose acts of kindness. You can choose closeness to the wounded by continuing to daven for Shmuel Yerucham ben Baila, Chaim Yechiel ben Malka and Eitan ben Sara. The rabbanim have strongly recommended lighting Shabbos candles earlier. Maharal tells us that the light of these candles is the same light that Torah sheds. You can transcend your limitations and your attachment to materialism by giving charity. A fund has been started for the widows and orphans left behind. Donations can be sent to Kuppat HaIr, 20159, which is earmarked for the victims of Har Nof’s tragedy. Various funds have been started, but the Rabbanim of the neighborhood have recommended this one because they are able to provide you with an American tax-deductible receipt to those who wish them. Choose to be part of their lives at this time. After all, you are part of the family.
Post this to your friends who want to look beyond the surface.
November 19th, 2014 - Every day in Eretz Yisrael is a gift and a miracle
Yesterday at about 7am my daughter Miri called. “Mordechai just came home from shul. He said that Arabs came in and are shooting, and that a man with an axe is hitting everyone. Some of the people threw chairs at them, but it didn’t help”. The twelve year old had hit the floor along with everyone else when the bullets began to fly. He was fully aware of what was going on, and what it meant. He somehow found the courage to let go of his father’s hand, crawl towards the exit and break into a run. Some of you know Miri and her family. She has had some of you over for Shabbos and holidays, and others sleeping in one of her kid’s bedrooms when the crowd at my house gets too big to accommodate sanely. Mordechai is blonde, freckled, and a soft spoken somewhat introverted and studious boy, much like his father, Shmuli. He is not Huck Finn, and the courage he found at those moments were a gift straight from G-d. By the time he finished telling Miri what happened, sirens from Hatzalah ambulances, police cars, and Magen David could be heard telling her that there were casualties. “Where’s Shmuli” was the thought that entered her mind again and again as the seconds which felt like hours began to tick. She called me and said, “Say Tehillim. There is shooting in Bnei Torah”. I began to say the ancient prayers, stopped myself and called Rabbi Weidan, and told him what was happening. I then began the Tehillim again, knocked on my neighbor’s door and told her to do the same. Chani called and told me to look at the news to see what was really happening. Nothing was reported as yet. Of course not. It was only 7:10.
I realized that the whether or not the attack was over, that no one as yet knew whether the murderers escaped. I called again, asking that everything be done to see that no one leaves the campus, and then called Miri. Thank G-d she had the sense to stay indoors and not run to the besieged synagogue. When Mordechai came home, the shooting was still happening. By 7:20 we both realized that if she didn’t hear from Shmuli, something was very wrong. The police and other services had no information as yet to give to the public, but a family friend who had seen the terror with his own eyes, said that Shmuli had been taken to Haddassah Ein Karem.
When Mordechai let go of his hand, he instinctively ran after the child placing himself in the sight of the terrorists. One of them attacked him with his axe, hitting him on the left side of his head, his back and his arm. Somehow he made it to the door. Josh White, a student of Machon Shlomo was riding down Agassi on his bike. He noticed what he described later as “a lot of confusion” in front of Bnei Torah asked someone what was going on, and surprisingly (for Har Nof) the man answered him in Hebrew! In the midst of what to him was gibberish, he picked up the word Aravim (Arabs) and immediately grasped what was happening. He approached the shul and saw Shmuli who was still aware. The Machon student took of his shirt and stopped the bleeding, a move which may have saved Shmuli’s life. The shooting was still happening inside. It was about 7:15! The emergency crew drew back, but because Shmuli was already outside, they evacuated him thus making him the first of the wounded to be taken to Hadassah, another factor in his survival. Before collapsing, he asked where Mordechai was, and when he was told that the boy ran away from the carnage, he said, “Baruch Hashem”. Inside, the terrorists were continuing their “work”. When they entered they turned to their left, and immediately cut down Rabbi Twerski and Rav Kalman Levine who were standing in the corner. Reb Kalman was the husband of Chaya, formally Markowitz who was a student and later a madrichah at Neve. Her husband was not a regular attendee of Bnei Torah. He would generally daven in the earliest possible minyan so he could get in a couple of hours of learning before beginning his day. Yesterday he had a question about something he had learned and had gone after davening to Bnei Torah to put the question to its erudite rav, Rabbi Rubin. The question will now only be resolved in the Heavenly Acadamy. Rev Avraham Goldberg, the third man to be killed is Breina Goldberg’s husband. Many of you know Breina as the warm caring efficient secretary cum mother figure at the front desk in the afternoon. I don’t as yet know how her husband, or Reb Kupinski the fourth victim met their deaths. The only thing that I know, is that it was brutal and swift. The first policemen to enter were traffic cops who knew what they were facing, and also knew that they were not wearing protective gear. They entered anyway and together with the forces that came afterwards ended the bloodbath. By 7:30 the murderers were apprehended.
Miri, my daughter Guli, and her husband were in Hadassah. Miri’s other kids were watched by relatives and friends for the day. Mordechai was urged to speak about what he saw again and again in order to diminish the damage of the trauma he had undergone. The rest of the family flowed in, saying Tehillim and waiting for updates. The hospital social worker, Aviva, who is blessed with the rare gift of being empathic without being overbearing, and the women of Ezer Mitzion (a volunteer organization) kept us well supplied with food, calming conversation and practical advice. We were allowed to see Shmuli who was put under anesthesia. We don’t know if he heard us or not, but we were talking to him stressing that Mordechai was fine. In the hours before the surgery was done, we found ourselves with Risa Rotman. Her husband, Chaim Yechiel ben Malka, was also attacked, and the extent of his wounds are very serious. Some of you may know Risa (who if I am not mistaken also is an OBG) and those of you whose husbands learned in Ohr Sameach or who recall Reb Meir Shuster who he helped unstintingly for years, may know him as Howie. The policeman who entered first, passed away. May Hashem avenge his blood.
Every day in Eretz Yisrael is a gift and a miracle. I have no pretensions of knowing Hashem’s will, but I do know that everything He does is purposeful, and that His compassion that is often hidden from the human eye. Anyone who values human life and reality and the eternal nature of the soul is appalled by the idea of people entering a synagogue and killing people who they never met randomly.
Except for CNN. They reported the entire event as an attack on a mosque.
Except for BBC. They reported that the Israeli police killed two Palestinians (they meant the murderers). The victims of Israeli brutality presumably were going on a stroll through scenic Har Nof when attacked by the racist troops….
Please post the truth to whomever you can reach.
Please please continue saying Tehillim for Shmuel Yerucham ben Baila and the other victims. Daven that Hashem give strength to the five new widows and 24 new orphans. Most of all thank Hashem that we are not Them, and treasure Hashem’s Torah and His Land.
November 10th, 2014 - Beauty is in the mind’s eye of the beholder
What a week this has been!
There is so much to share, from the really good stuff, such as Michal Kazanov’s engagement, to the funny stuff, such as time a dear friend arranged for me to meet her in Manhattan. I took the mechita bus from Monsey (which was so refreshing in its way- everyone had a seat, everyone was doing what they wanted to do, and none of the men missed davening with a minyan. I can’t say that answering amein and responding to kedushah was anything less than a flash of light in the middle of a rather monotonous bus ride). When I got to 42nd Street, my friend called and told me that (believe it or not) mid-town traffic was impossible, so she would be delayed by about an hour according to her trusty GPS. I didn’t have any plans and did recall a Starbucks back on 6th Ave. When I turned around, I noticed that I was standing in front of the New York Public Library. Its stone lions wave at me (or at least they did in my mind) and welcomed me to the best hour I recall having in Manhattan since my teenage wanderings. You can be anyplace and do anything with the entire world within reach, if you like to read. I looked at all sorts of trivia (the first ladies wedding gowns, lives of obscure heroes and more) and then surrendered to my yetzer tov and spent some time in their vast and fascinating collection of old additions of classics in the Judaica room.
All of this came back to me later in Baltimore. A friend came by and told me a fascinating story. She had attended the Shabbaton along with her husband, a glassblower by trade and a true artist by temperament in the most positive sense of the word. Sensitive, gregarious and able to get to the heart of things more readily than most of us, he takes his artists eye and temperament to spiritual matters as well and embues them with another dimension of depth. My friend, who I will call Ethel (not her name) recently inherited an ivory statue from her parents. Although it was of an eight armed figure of a woman, the liberal rabbi who she consulted said that since no one worships idols any more, this one doesn’t count, and she may continue to own it. She displayed it in the living room and then Marco (not his name) took notice of the newest and least welcome addition to the household. When she left for a short while, he unceremoneously smashed it to smithereens and threw the shards in the trash. When he broke it, he discovered that deep within its core was a sapphire. There were no hesitations. He got rid of it without a thought to what it could have brought him if it were sold. When Ethel came back she noticed that the idol was gone. As soon as she heard Marco tell her how he felt when he utterly destroyed it, she was glad that this reminant of pure falsehood wouldn’t defile their home. It especially touched her that her husband who is so sensitive to beauty didn’t let it’s grace or its agelessness stand in his way; he knows the difference between outer and inner truth too well for that. When he told her about sapphire, she admits to regretting its loss for financial reasons, but wondered whether since it was only in the inside whether or not it was really something that had to go.
A few weeks later they had a repair done. The repairman who is a family friend, had an Indian assistant. Ethel told the story of the broken idol and her modern era Avraham. The Indian turned towards her and asked, “Did he also throw away its heart?” He was referring to the hidden sapphire. It was only then that she realized that there was no loss of anything that she wanted to own.
The entire world of learning is so broad and beautiful that there are really no words to describe the pleasure that getting a glimpse now and again can bring. You just have to be able to keep your minds eye on discerning the beauty and truth of the created world, and the falsehood that some people superimpose and use to redefine the entire spectrum of experience. It is fashionable to say all ideas are equal just because they are all ideas, and that truth is not only elusive but non-existent. If you fall for this line of reasoning there is no real difference between Mother Theresa and Bagdadi holding still another beheaded victim of his latest attempt to restore the Caliphate. They both are following the principles that they live by.
“If someone tells you that the nations have wisdom, believe them” says Midrash EIchah. “They don’t have Torah”, it continues. Torah is the world’s blueprint and soul.
Those of you who live in the secular world, work there, and have families who you love who have never really known Torah up close, have to keep the Torah fresh and real. I am not standing in your shoes, and Yerushalaim is far from LA, Boston and Philly. You can bring truth where I will never go. GO on Naaleh.com, get a lPartner for Torah. Take in enough to live truth wherever Hashem takes you.
Use the time you have back in what Rabbi Bear always called shmutz laaretz, and bring some light to a dark place.
October 31st, 2014 - Leaving Your Mark on the World
I had no idea of whether or not I would have the time and the access to a computer that would make writing a letter to you feasible. Here I am, 7:45 in my son’s house in Monsey watching the kids simultaneously color and eat some suspiciously sugary lookher ing dry cereal. One of them is using a pen with maple leaves that I brought with me from Canada. His four years of experience in Life left him singularly unimpressed by the international flavor of his new writing implement.
I am more impressed.
Whenever I get to the States, I am more and more moved by the way you girls have left your mark on the world in which you live, which by the nature of things is very different than the one you left behind in Yerushalaim. I am equally impressed by the way many of you have integrated and found your place IN the world. My trip began with Silver Springs (which is in close proximity to Washington DC). The arrangements were made by an OBG (those of you who read these letters regularly know what I mean. The rest of you can try to figure it out. When you finish, you can contact me and try to unlock the Magical Technological Wonder Phone that my son got me for this trip. SO far a teenager managed to unlock it momentarily, but it relocked. The teenage population of Monsey has not succeeded as yet breaking the code or contacting the Help/Assistance Individual in Estonia (no I am not making this up-) who helped teenager number one. Fran (who arranged the Shabbos) is totally part of life in her culture. There is no apology for her allegiance to Torah, and no need to cut herself off from the many positive features of the place where Hashem’s providence took her. The synagogue was halachic in every sense, but was user friendly enough to accommodate people with little background with warmth and honest pleasure in their presence, while at the same time bringing the authenticity of tefillah that was real enough to make the Rabbi’s family from Bnei Brak totally at home. He grew up in the America of the forties and fifties where the culture of the observant community was low profile and somewhat apologetic. He almost miraculously avoided these traps and managed to get these values across to his congregation at least to the degree that they could take it in.
Motzei Shabbos another world: the Storches hosted an open-house evening in Baltimore. Its purpose was to introduce the seminary that Rabbi Kass and I hope to open BEH next year. The questions here are and should be very different. The girls want to know how they can move forward rather than how they can integrate. The contrast is very deep and very significant. Without the girls who one day will go to Bnos Avigail and similar seminaries will set the standards of what Jewish women can aspire to be, the girls in Silver Spring have no models. For this to happen integration is not the goal; authenticity is. For you this is potentially very important information. Many of you will raise families and you will have to resist the temptation to raise them in your image. They have to move onward and higher. That doesn’t mean that they are “more” than you; it means that their choice box is different and more spiritually sophisticated.
In this passed week’s Parshah, Noach, you see the fate of those who survived the great flood. Each of Noach’s three sons made choices through which they made use of their G-d given potentials. Shem (whose name literally means “name” sought meaning. This led him to defining his life using moral parameters. He could have just as easily settled into the mind/heart numbing process of definition for its own sake. This could be manifest by studying science in a way that the creation blinds you to the creator, or by studying psychology in a way that the complexity of the human mind is removed from human conscious and spiritual (and certainly moral) aspiration. He didn’t
Yefet , the second son saw the underlying soul of the poetry and beauty hidden in the world. He kept his morality intact, but for reasons that are inherently less pure than those of Shem. When he saw his father, Noach’s disgrace (Noach was abused by his third son, Cham), he joined Shem in covering their father with a great deal of discretion, but his motive was that the deed was ugly, not that the deed was wrong. Although the outcome for Noach was the same, the outcome for Yefet was not. You can’t give what you don’t have, and his heritage is one in which beauty is a value but morality is at best an interesting addition. Think of the way models are used (and yes, this is the right word) by artists, and you have the entire picture.
Cham, the last son had enormous potential. Vitality, energy, passion are what your soul needs to give it a joyous and passionate relationship to its purpose in existence in this world. He corrupted it into vulgar exploitation.
You have your own choices, you are part of the Jewish people (who are descended from Shem via Avraham), but you have your own background and inherent tendencies.
I didn’t even get halfway through the trip. Maybe next letter will have more. I can’t resist leaving you without the best of the best. I was at Shulamis Pelz’s wedding. There is nothing like seeing all the pieces come together. May we always share simchas.
October 19th, 2014 - My husband Dovid’s First Yahartzeit
Tomorrow promises to be a day that I will never forget. It is my husband Dovid’s first yahartzeit, the anniversary of his passing.
From the Torah’s perspective a yahrtzeit (which means “a years’ time” in Yiddish) is far more important than a birthday. When you were born, you were all potential as yet unrealized. The joy that people feel when they see a new baby is like the feeling you may recall when you opened that great 64- color pack of Crayolas. The day of your death will be the one in which your choices have made you the person that you became. Your portrait is the one that you painted. A song that the Jews sang in the Bais HaMikdash during the water drawing ritual that was done on Succos gives you a glimpse into what I mean. One of the verses is, “joyous is one whose old age didn’t disgrace his youth.” When you are just starting out there are still unexplored horizons and the will to explore them. For many people this stage ends prematurely. They lose their sense of purpose and spiritual ambition early on. Dovid wasn’t the sort of person who “died” spiritually long before he physically left.
His life had three basic stages. He was born in Boston. His neighborhood was grim working class Irish and on the cusp of falling into the bottomless pit that the inner city often becomes. His best friend invited him to attend church at the age of 7 or so. This was the main reason that his parents decided to send him to Maimonides, the famous modern orthodox day-school. It required him to take a train and a bus. He was a child prodigy-not in the intellectual sense but in the spiritual sense. He gravitated towards anyone who was credible, Rabbi Margolis, Rabbi Heyman, the Bostoner Rebbe and anyone who was a step further than he was. Rabbi Meiselman, Rosh Yeshivah of Toras Moshe was of the same genre; although he is the scion of a renowned rabbinic family, he was completely familiar with the utter spiritual desolation that was the essence of Boston of that era. He recalled Dovid as being unique in his tenacity. He was one of the rare students of the academic day school who didn’t move on to an Ivy League University. Instead, he left Boston for yeshiva, and found himself in Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn.
Frum life in post war Brooklyn was another planet than the placid pre-sixties America he knew. The shomrei mitzvah of the era were pitifully low on money but unbelievably high on passion for Torah. The yeshiva was located on Stone and Pitkin in the heart of Brownsville. They somehow managed to purchase a building that was formally a bank. Its large marble lined interior became a Bais Midrash, but nothing else (tellers cages, upstairs offices) really morphed into becoming a dorm. The only room that the Rosh Yeshiva could offer Dovid was a large closet with the option of lugging a mattress from the storage area to make it homier (of course that was conditional on finding a place to put the debris that carpeted the floor). No one thought he would last. The kitchen was manned by a chef who was a holocaust survivor. He was far beyond letting anything faze him. To him it was “normal” to cook with a large pot on his head to avoid the constant drip of water from the numerous leaks in the floor above. The rabbis were Yiddish speaking scholars with international reputations for erudition. The secular teachers were whoever the yeshiva could convince to work for what they paid. The custodial staff was once found dead on the roof after sampling their own home-brewed liquor. It was a long way from Brookline…
His third stop was Israel. It was extremely unusual in 1965 to get on a plane for Tel Aviv. One of his friends has made the trek before him, and told him that there is nothing like it in the world. That was enough to get him to pack his things and move on. His plans were vague his connections few and far between, but he never looked back. Two years later we got married (a story in itself, but not for today), and after a month in the States returned. He always opened new doors. There were years in high profile yeshivas such as Brisk, followed by a stint in the North, a career in Ohr Sameach, with Rabbi Meiselman as his building/kitchen manager and finally in what to me was the job that most expressed him, in Pachad Yitzchak, the Israeli branch of Chaim Berlin where his learning and spiritual self-definition were solidified. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yonason David shlita, is the son in law of his first Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Hutner zatzal. He took enormous pleasure in serving Torah in every way. He lived at least three lives, with internal changes matching the external ones. Nothing was easy, and nothing of his idealism was abandoned.
All of this is important because you have to build the future using the past. My kids got together every Sunday night this past year to study and to draw close to what he was for them. The boys finished the entire Talmud (we had a rather major celebration of that event) and the girls are operating gemachs and studying kitzur shulchan aruch. The entire family resolved to see that we all do at least one act of kindness a day (above the basic decency that being a Torah Jew requires). The result is that we too discovered more resources than we knew we had, and recognized that the part of us that remains idealistic is more alive.
I’ll give you more of what the day was like next time, but in the meantime, let yourself explore what you really want to be.
October 6th, 2014 - New Beginnings
How were Yom Kippur?
There’s nothing like a new beginning. By the time you get this letter, you may be wondering how new your beginning really is. You are the same person, much as after the Pesach scourge, the kitchen is the same kitchen, just much cleaner.
It’s not so bad.
Over the years, I noticed that it isn’t at all unusual to note that a significant amount of people (maybe you?) don’t like themselves all that much. The proof is that they aren’t good to themselves. One of the reasons that this happens, is that you can get into the habit of setting your expectations not only to high, but not even on the right page. It is sort of like a rabbit hating himself because he isn’t a couch. The worst, is that when you discover that you aren’t the person that you want to be, you may end up raising the bar even higher!
The good news is succot.
The message of succot is that you are surrounded by Hashem, who loves you and has far more compassion for you than you have for yourself. You are just as much within His presence as were the Jews in the desert who lived surrounded by clouds for decades.
In Chovot Halevavot the author, Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pekuda lists seven ways of maintaining the kind of perspective that allows you to feel beloved, and from there to even feel the kind of sincere happiness that doesn’t fade almost instantly.
1-Remembering that Hashem has far more compassion for you than you have for yourself. He knows who you can be, and doesn’t expect you to be someone else. He understands your struggles more than you understand them.
2-He doesn’t neglect you or forget you or ignore you. Whatever is happening to you on the outside or on the inside is because He is there and because He cares.
3-No one can stop Him from giving you anything you need. His invincibility makes the word “impossible” irrelevant, and makes hope reasonable and real
4-He knows your needs, even needs that you yourself are not aware of
5-He is with you throughout your life, and never abandons you. There is no difference between your first day and your last.
6-He is the only one who determines your fate. No one can make anything come faster or delay what He knows is best for you.
7-His generosity and kindness is unlimited by any measure. He isn’t trapped into giving you only what you deserve, or what you have brought down by virtue of your striving. He gives unceasingly even to people who are undeserving. If you close a door, he opens another one.
Happiness is all about feeling safe and beloved.
At the end of Yom Kippur we all said shma Yisrael. It says that if you envision yourself willing to die al-kiddush Hashem (to sanctify G-d’s Name) it is considered as though you actually did it. Every year I felt an uncomfortable mixture of knowing that I didn’t know where I would stand if I had to face the hardest of all choices, and at the same time knowing that more than anything else, I wished I had that certainty. This year, I brought myself back to the war that already is beginning to fade in my memory. I recalled Hadar Goldin. He was killed in a tunnel, in an ambush, and it took time before his remains were even discovered. He knew what he was facing. It occurred to me that I could do this; if I was ordered to go into the tunnel I would have gone, knowing that I would be facing whose hatred towards me because I am a Jew, and because I am not one of them. Part of the reason is that the seven way of thinking that I wrote, which not my natural disposition. I tend towards being distrustful and diffident. Those of you from Brooklyn can relate.
The good news, is that things change, even your heart!
September 29th, 2014 - The Best Day of the Year
It’s too close to Yom Kippur for me to write you without thinking rather sentimentally about how much each of you are part of my life. I won’t go on and on, but Neve doesn’t let you remain alone-the other girls and the teachers become part of your higher self and your aspirations, and the same thing takes place for anyone who spends much time with you. The teachers are certainly changed; we become deeper, more spiritually informed, and more aware.
Yom Kippur is the best day of the year. I realize that for some of you this sounds like a typo. No one likes to think about failure. By the nature of things, reading the confession (VIduy) five times over the course of the holiday forces you to revisit places that you no longer wish to know. What makes Yom Kippur a celebration is that you no longer have to carry the burden of All That Stuff. The mistakes of the past are there; by and large the past is indelible. Yom Kippur is a time of miracle, a time in which the present defines the past rather than visa versa. The person you are, at least for this holiest of all days, is the person who you want to be. You have to be willing to work for the gift Hashem gives on this day. That means being honest enough to face your past and disassociate from it, and to regret the damage it may have done you. The most important part is The Plan. You have to be able to envision yourself as you want to be, and to figure out steps that are small enough to work and big enough to get you somewhere. The reality is that Hashem on His side is willing to take the burden of Then on Himself, once you have done the work you need to do. The way to draw His presence to you is to keep up what you have already done on Rosh Hashanah. You relinquished not only control, but the desire for control. This can be a completely new way to live.
My friend Helena isn’t what anyone would normally call a control freak. She doesn’t demand that everyone vote for her candidate, use her detergent, or arrive on time to her Shabbos table. Most of her numerous friends, and all of her even more numerous acquaintances see her as one of the most relaxed people they know. We were talking the other day, and she told me that she knows the truth. She wants life to flow on her terms; no surprises. Thank G-d, she found her husband, Shimon, without much grief or disappointment. Their life is blessedly normal. Even so, when Things Happen she falls apart. So far, she hasn’t had to face anything major, and she is wise enough to know it. There is the Other Stuff. The plumber who didn’t come erev a three day Yom Tov. The orthodontist who doesn’t take their insurance even though his secretary assured her that they do. Her mother-in-law who decided against going to Florida after all, and has alternatively planned to make an extended visit using the opportunity to explain to Shimon and Helena (still) again why they should relive her life rather than stay with their observant lifestyle. None of this would make the History of the Twenty First Century chapter in a textbook. This year Helena recognized that she was unwilling to bring Hashem’s plans for her into her tightly written narrative. Once she let go, she was able to redefine not just the specifics of her life, but what life is meant to be. This took longer to do than it does for me to write about it.
What does Helena and her life have to do with you?
You already declared Hashem as your King-not just The King. Once you did this, you are free of your need to have Things Work. Things are as they are; and are meant of offer you opportunities of renew your faith in G-d, and to bring light to dark places, including your own heart. The next step is turning the bad moments into something more, something that can draw you closer rather than farther from your life’s purpose.
Try something new.
Instead of asking yourself what you regret, ask yourself why you regret. If you regret speaking unkindly to the plumber or to your friend or your mother in law, ask yourself why you regret it. If you find yourself justifying the deed (I didn’t really mean it etc.) you haven’t really come to grips with why you would have liked things to be different. You may have to look more deeply, but you will probably find that you regret making life more painful than it has to be, or that you were a source of darkness (for yourself too) rather than a source of light. Once you are in this new, usually unexplored territory, you are able to let you.
Enjoy the best of all days, the day that your fasting and praying open doors that no human being could ever open on their own.
Have a gmar chatima tovah, and a great, joyous and unforgettable Yom Kippur!
September 17th, 2014 - Moving Beyond The Limitations Of The Now
I tried for “hi” and will try again, but I just seem to have a problem with not referring to you as friends. SO for today, we are back to the old fashioned greeting.
First the good stuff. Tonight is Aviva Kassel’s wedding! Another simchah of an entirely different kind is Nadia Marks exhibit. She will be presenting her art along with the Who’s Who of Israeli religious artists. The event is scheduled to take place in the gorgeous Aish HaTorah building in the Old City.
What gives me an especially great dolop of joy is that (although as you know I am not the most aesthetically sensitive person in the world) I like the kind of art in which the line that separates your inner world and your outer world meld. This takes place often in really good photography, and even more often when you train your eye to see it happen. There are times and places where this is the norm. The Bais HaMikdash was that sort of a place. The unbreakable partitions that separate Now from Tomorrow and Yesterday disappeared. The same thing happened in this week’s parshah when Moshe assembled the entire Jewish people from its greatest to the most invisible members including those who had not yet been born. Moshe informed the people he addressed that this was happening. They knew that they were experiencing a moment in which the lines fade.
It isn’t always easy to get beyond the limits of the moment you are in. Sometimes things that you know (even at the time) that what feels so important now, will be forgotten in a very short time, you just can’t tear down the barrier. You are stuck in NOW with all of its artificial bells and whistles. It is also easy to get stuck in NOW emotionally. You can easily lose track of the fact that the moment you are in is part of a continuum. I saw a fascinating halachah that talks about looking at reality with walls and limitations, or moving beyond walls and limitations. During the time that the Bais HaMikdash stood going up to Yerushalaim was one of the most central events in people’s lives. The journey in those days could be quite lengthy, and it was made at least three times a year, for Succot, Pesach and Shavuot. When they arrived, the people would offer various sacrifices. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “korban” which is rooted in the word “karov” which means, “near”. Ramban explains that there are forces that distance us from G-d, and that the function of the korban was for the one bringing it to meditate on the way his choices have taken him, and to give him the inner strength to redefine his path so that the animal self is no longer his master. The effect of course is to tear down a wall. One of the sacrifices made on the three holidays was called the korban reiya- when you see (and are seen). The Talmud lists which groups of people don’t do this offering. One is a person with one eye. When you consider that having one eye isn’t really such a grave handicap (compared too many handicaps), it leaves you wondering. Some of you may even have heard of the famous Israeli general and later Prime Minister Moshe Dayan, who lost an eye in battle but was never held up by this disability in any way. Ben Yehoyada takes up this question and points out that the fact that we have two eyes tells you that there are two ways of seeing. This is true physically, and it is certainly true spiritually. Your inner eye sees things the way your soul envisions life. Since you are in G-d’s image, your vision in a certain sense stems from the way He “sees” life. If you really want to know the implication of this statement, you have to look towards Him. When the Torah uses anthropomorphisms to describe G-d, each one is selected with profound meaning sometimes hidden in the metaphor given. When you talk about G-d’s Eye, you don’t mean anything physical. You mean the way He chooses to view and responds to events. One “eye” is what we will call “chessed”, meaning He chooses to respond to us in a way that we the outpouring of His kindness. When you get the perfect job, or perfect shidduch, you can’t help but noticing all of the steps along the way that took you there, and at that point you can feel the chessed Hashem’s interventions in your life. The other “eye” is what we call “gvurah” which means power. Sometimes Hashem’s responses leave you trembling. When things don’t go the way you would like, leaving you feel vulnerable, in pain, and hopeless, you can’t help but recognize the limitations of your own control over life. You may know that G-d is concealing His kindness to force you into choice-making and submission to a force that is greater than your ego. You may also know that this is the only way to ever become the person you want to be. Emotionally it is hard to see the positivity at these times. Stretch yourself. Reflect on the many things that took place in your life were uninterpretable at the time, but became clear later. You may have to go beyond yourself and look at the heroes such as Avraham who became greater and greater as he passed more and more test. You should be elastic! Get to the place that you can say honestly that you bless Hashem’s unending kindness for the good and bless Him for challenging you by the force of His concealing His kindness when He tests you. You are now ready for step two. There are people whose presence in your life is an undisguised blessing. When you look at them, you can’t help seeing how something of Hashem’s kindness is integrated into their hearts and souls. There are others who you may have to think deeply about who they are, how they affected you and the only color you see is black. They were critical, petty, demeaning, or worse. It is easy to file them away under The Bad Guys. You have another option. You can recognize them as people who are complex, flawed, and in your life to challenge you to move beyond rejection. This is what seeing with two eyes is all about. If you can’t see with two eyes, you can’t really experience what offering the korban reiya would have brought you to in the Bais HaMikdash. You are going through life without real depth perception.
This is true when you reflect on your own life. You have to see the parts of you that are great and potentially great. You also have to resist escaping from the parts of you that are limiting or even repulsive, and let them challenge you.
The practical side of this is to judge yourself and others with depth. The result will be liking yourself and others better, being kinder to yourself and to them. It also will (hopefully) take you to being willing to learn more and grow more and nurturing yourself.
Love, and best best wishes for a ketiva vechatima tovah- that you be written and inscribed for a good and SWEET year.
September 9th, 2014 - Daniel in the lion’s den: A modern day hero
As a Nation, we have been hated, and we have learned to live with it. The roots of the hatred that we still face as an integral part of our history are diverse. The responsibility of being chosen and the resentment that the role has created, is as ancient as we are yet as contemporary as the U.N.s double standards when Israel in the picture. The miracle of our survival is then a continuing drama.
The first rule of survival – both physical and spiritual – is to recognize that there are enemies out there. No one likes defending their right to exist and we yearn for the acceptance and validation that other nations enjoy, but which, in the history of our two thousand year old exile, we have found to be elusive. We fear being perceived as paranoid and as xenophobic. However, this fear is often the Achilles heel; our inability to stand our ground without apology. To determine our fate we need to look for heroes and role models from the past
One of the real heroes of our continued struggle for survival, is Daniel (of lion’s den fame). He faced both of the kinds of enemies we have faced: those who want us to disappear, and are willing to sacrifice every bit of their own humanity to make it happen, and those who want us to survive by becoming mirror images of them. They are willing to let us be as long as we don’t really exist. Daniel survived without committing the cardinal sin of the persecuted; becoming what we hate.
He was separated from his family at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. With the fall of the monarchy and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Davidic royal family were expelled to Babylon, where Daniel was chosen to be one of the “privileged” children who would live in King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. Nebuchadnezzar’s goal was to redefine the best and brightest of the Jewish children so that their energy, drive, and brilliance would become part of the Babylonian regime. Their Judaism would be forgotten, and they would a new identity willingly. Daniel’s name was changed to Belshazzar.
The question was though, whether he would make the decision to remain Daniel or whether he would become Belshazzar.
His first move was to refuse to eat the food that came out of the royal kitchen. This would not be an easy choice even for an adult. It would be almost impossible for most children, but Daniel understood that Judaism has to do with real world choices that affect your life. The servant in charge of the children’s maintenance was appalled. He would be held accountable for what he saw as an almost suicidal choice. Daniel refused to compromise. He survived on fruits and nuts and seeds.
His next move was to face up to Nebuchadnezzar who knew about his stubborn determination to remain Daniel. The Midrash tells us (Breishis Rabba 88:13) that Nebuchadnezzar had an unusual pet. He kept a snake which would consume anything that came too close. Daniel asked permission to approach and took out a bag of straw mixed with nails. The snake consumed the offering and died at Daniel’s feet.
Daniel was responding to Nebuchadnezzar’s symbolic message. Nebuchadnezzar was declaring that his civilization could swallow up any rival culture. He had conquered the entire known world, and the very idea of resistance was foreign. Daniel “answered” by showing him that when the same consumes nails, it would fail. The core personality of the Jews as a whole is as strong as steel, and survives those who endeavor to devour it whole.
In the course of time, Daniel’s intellectual brilliance took him to the highest levels of governance. Belshazzar was a name that everyone knew. Daniel was still the core identity of the Babylon’s rising star. Nebuchadnezzar’s ministers instituted the concept of a national religion. Their intent wasn’t religious by its nature; it was political. Religion was to become a means of taking the disparate members of Babylon’s polyglot population and homogenize them. Daniel made a point of praying at the window of his residence facing Jerusalem. He could have chosen the path of least resistance and prayed in a room where his rebellion against the latest decree would remain his own business. Instead, he decided to make a statement of principle. If your grandparents had a charity box where their coins went to rebuilding Israel, at a time when Israel was a concept rather than a reality, then they too had a bit of Daniel within them. His resistance led to the famous “lion’s den” story. Daniel was sentenced to death but his fate was in the hands of G-d, not the hands of humans. His survival was a miracle, but to tell you the truth, your survival as a Jew is not less of a miracle.
The issue that faces you isn’t physical survival. The vast majority of people who read this article are not in imminent danger of being killed. You are endangered by the difficulty of living in a tolerant society and still choosing to be Daniel rather than Belshazzar. The only way to make the choice more authentic is to learn more about what the Daniel within you represents. You have been exposed to Belshazzar for as long as you remember. But to make a truly educated choice, you owe it to yourself and to the generations past, to choose to be educated!
September 3rd, 2014 – Back in the Saddle
I recently learned experientially that nobody is “dear” anymore unless they are being addressed by someone who still remembers when people didn’t have cell phones. Nowadays “Hi” is the way to go. It’s folksy, youthful, and best of all sort of Midwestern-open and friendly.
So, how are y’all?
It’s really good to be back in the saddle. The learning this time of year is always the best-no one needs a vacation, and with Elul in the air, everyone wants to move forward. The girls of today (in all honestly and in contrast to what most other people maintain) are not all that different than the girls who came forty years ago. The external realities that they face are very different. The internal realities and conflicts are identical. The search for relevance and meaning in a world in which neither of these words are part of most people’s day to day reality hasn’t changed. I am honest enough to know that the real reason that my mind is flowing towards Neve of yesteryear is the funeral that I attended yesterday. Few of you are likely to know her. Miram Tova Weinberg attended Neve about 25 years ago. I still remember her from that era of her life. She was petite, blonde, soft spoken, fun and headed towards life with a heart full of optimism. She married, and had every reason to think her future would actualize her dreams. Nothing turned out the way anyone (especially Miriam Tova) could have planned. She had irresolvable health problems, financial issues, and every other brand of challenge that you can envision. What made her unique is that she recognized that she had choices to make. Her formula is the one that any one of you who spent Elul in Neve learned; the difference between her and so many other people, is that she lived what she knew. I am going to take you through the steps that she lived with, and that are part of what we all need to review.
1-Living with full acceptance that every event that takes place in your life is sent to you directly by Hashem. If it is challenging it is to give you the opportunity to explore and discover who you can be just as much as when things are easy and pleasing they test your capacity to move beyond complacency and egocentricity.
2-You take responsibility for how you interpret the events that transpire. You make the decision to give every event a positive interpretation, one that allows you to be actualized, joyous, and enthusiastic about living your life.
3-You get emotionally involved with the way you choose to live. Whatever path you decide is yours, you walk your road with passion
4-You are now ready to bring Hashem back into the picture by imploring him for clarity and strength. Then you move beyond reflection and get yourself back into the world of doing and being.
Miriam Tova would encourage people whose problems were far less dramatic than hers were. She would call people up and ask them to commit to saying Tehillim or taking on a specific numbers of hours a day to be really careful to refrain from negative meaningless speech in order to accrue spiritual merit for the person she was trying to help. One of her most interesting ways of helping others was finding out about various “sgulos”- and ascertaining that they were real, and had sources that were acknowledged by rabbanim. She, who never had children, was an expert on every sgulah for fertility. I don’t know them, but I recall one of them had something to do with esrogs made into jelly that she would make available to anyone interested in the segulah.
What is a sgulah? In the same way there are many things in the physical world that we know more about what they do (which can be learned by observation) than how and why their essential properties bring about the result that we observe, (such as electricity or aspirin), we also know that every creation has spiritual purpose . The Torah reveals some to the inner workings of reality (by for instance forbidding cross breeding species because the integrity of spiritual purpose of the species should be respected). There is a great deal that is only known by people who have studied these profound matters with great depth. There is even more that is “known” by superstitious people who want things to go their way and prefer to avoid bringing Hashem, Torah or meeting challenge into the picture. There is also a great deal “known” by fake kabbalists who have a tendency to ask a great deal of money for their supposed “help” and “insight”. Miriam Tova made it her business to spend the time and effort to consult people who could separate the real deal from the nonsense.
The Talmud tells us that in the Future World those of us who are considered important here (think People magazine. Now never think of it again…), are not important there. People who are not considered important here, like Miriam Tova who was the most unassuming person you can imagine are very important there.
This is the time to discover your own importance, and to figure out how this time next year you can be wiser, frumer, and more real.
August 27th, 2014 – The King Will Never Betray You
It’s Elul! For some of you this doesn’t mean much; you can live in Brooklyn, Golder’s Green or any other large “Jewish” city without ever knowing what the next forty days hold. Elul is the most beautiful days of the entire year (at least in my opinion). These are the days in which Moshe implored Hashem to forgive the Jews for the terrible betrayal of everything Hashem revealed to us by taking out of Egypt and giving us the Torah. When they built the golden calf, over three thousand years ago, they would have been doomed except for the transcendent love that Hashem has for us, and the spark of the Avot (patriarchs) that still lives within us. The culmination of this period is Yom Kippur, when Hashem told Moshe “I forgive you as you spoke”. These are days of love, compassion, forgiveness and renewal. These are also days of accounting to G-d (and to yourself) about the person you are, the person you were and the person who you want to become. Most of all, these are days of return.
The obvious question is, “Return where?”-you can’t go back to where you never were. None of us are perfect-what are we trying to return to? Why should G-d forgive our betrayals when they recur again and again? One of the most evocative stories of what return really means is found in the Vilna Gaon’s introduction to Shir HaShirim.
Once there was a King.
He chose a wife for himself from among the common people; unspoiled and real. He married her and brought her to the palace. It was a place of beauty and sophistication that far surpassed anything she had ever dreamed of. The problem was that she felt herself unequal to the task of living up to the role of royal queen. She always had to be courteous and elegant, “on” and aware of every word and every movement. As the days passed, her life became unbearable to the point of her feeling choked. She left. Her escape was daring, silent and catastrophically doomed. Yes. She got away. No. It didn’t make her life any better. The village that she lived in throughout her entire youth didn’t give her the respite she longed for. She was no longer like the peasants she grew up with. They seemed vulgar and coarse because they were! They were ignorant, brutal but human enough to recognize that she felt inner contempt towards their failed humanity. They hated her with the sort of hatred that only they could feel. They would beat her, spit at her, and do anything to show her their scorn.
Her husband, the King, came to the village. He knocked on her door, but she was too humiliated to open it for him. How could she face him after her disloyalty to him and to everything he built and stood for? He was insistent. He said, “You don’t have to be afraid to open the door. The ketuba (marriage contract) that I wrote for you is different than any other ketuba. He opened it and showed her a unique clause. It said,
“No matter how many times you betray me, I will never betray you”. This is the story of your life and mine. You want to return to being the person G-d envisioned when He made you. You may have fears that you just can’t “live in the palace”- that you will never feel okay about who you are and what you want to be. There are also many choices that you made that affirmed your closeness to the King. There are all sorts of impediments to getting back to being the person you wish you were. Your environment may not be all that supportive (to put it mildly), you may need to talk to someone for some mentoring or guidance and you don’t know where to turn. There may be unfinished business (relationships that need resolution, mistakes that need undoing). This is all normal, and part of what life is all about if you are really living. The one thing you have to watch out for most of all in Elul is letting your feelings of vulnerability and guilt hold you back. The King loves you, and on the deepest level, you love Him.
Shame is tricky. It can keep you on the straight and narrow, or it can destroy you from the inside out. The reason for its duality is that you have aspirations and expectations from yourself. Some of them are positive and honest (for instance feeling guilty and embarrassed if you are caught lying. Your discomfort reflects that you are a person with values that include rectitude). You may also have aspirations and expectations that are status oriented and artificial (for instance feeling body shame because you will never be size two, or feeling not quite as good as other women who have found the right man and are married while you are still single). Positive shame can inspire you to return. Negative shame can keep you from opening the door. You may be struggling with religious issues and find yourself falling again and again. You may find it easy just not think too much. You may have even noticed Hashem so to speak “knocking on the door” in various areas of your life, but you can’t bring yourself to open the door because you anticipate that the result will lead you towards guilt and shame. You have to remind yourself again and again, that your feelings are not at all reflective of who you really are. You may be subconsciously listening to your enemy the Little Critic who harps on your every mistake and makes everything that you do that is good and noble feel cheap and petty.
The King will never betray you. Everything that you have, and everything that you are comes from Him. It proves how invested He is in you, and how much He believes in you.
Use Elul to recognize that tomorrow can be more than today, that you will be challenged so that your potentials can be actualized. Trace your life, and if you see that you have made a wrong turn, don’t just keep on travelling down that road because it’s easy. Ask Hashem for help, for the strength to get beyond your guilt.
Giving tzedaka, (and don’t forget Neve!) asking forgiveness (and giving forgiveness) will make you stronger. Doing more davening will give you more connection.
This can be the best month of your year, and maybe even the best one of your life.
August 20th, 2014 – The Importance of Not Getting Stuck.
I am just coming back to reality after a few days in Tzfat. I stayed with dear friends, which made it even better. There is something about Tzfat that is both welcoming and transcendent at the same time. When you visit during the summer, the streets are full, and virtually everyone you see is seeking respite from the daily routine not so much by escape in the usual form, but rather by taking deep breaths of pure air and enjoying silent nights broken only by the crowds on Rechov Yerushalaim, Tzfat’s main drag. On motzei Shabbos we went to Meiron where as my son said, “the chareidim go let go” with almost-all-night dancing on honor of Rabi Shimon, intense tefillah and the craziness of the Various (and varied) Others who hang around the tomb of the second century tanna. There too, the feeling is not escape, but being more of what you are. There is constant food circulating, and always a certain number of older women who are pulling all-nighters with their Tehillim books.
All of this set me thinking about the importance of not getting stuck. It’s so easy to develop a pattern that works more or less, and stick with it for the rest of your life. This week’s parshah begins by telling you to look, and see that Hashem gives you opportunities to choose life-movement and change that can only come with making real choices for growth. Alternatively the Torah tells you that you can choose death-stagnation. G-d implores you to choose life.
One of the ways to get out of living the same day over and over again with minor variations is seeing that your Shabbos grows with you. In Midrash Ne’elam it says that the word “breishit”, which means “in the beginning” and is the Torah’s first word, can be broken up into two words. One is Shabbos and the other is trei, which means two in Aramaic. This hints that Shabbos really takes place on two planes. One if letting it bring Hashem’s presence into your life by your opening your heart to taking notice of His presence, and the other is by your actually changing your life to accommodate this change of consciousness. A hint of this is in the word “shalem” which means “whole”.
Just by way of preface, I have to point out that by and large I am not crazy about hints involving letter equivalents and gematrias. Although every word and phrase in Torah is rich with meaning and hidden codes, it seems to me you have to have some basis to think that the particular hint you see hidden a word has some sort of real meaning. There as so many ways to rearrange letters, that you can find some real doozies if all you are doing is playing word games. After all, the word nefesh (soul) can be arranged to spell shafan (rabbit)….How do you know when there is more than a statistical fluke that makes words match? The answer is that the hint tells you something that you know to be true, but that shows you the way the truth that you already know is hidden within the Torah itself in a multi-dimensional way. This came clear to me when I heard an almost unbelievable story.
There were three brothers who were arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. They survived the unspeakable journey in the cattle cars, and the initial screening process. They were each branded with the same number with only one digit different, because they were standing on line together. They were separated, and each thought that he was the only survivor. One of the three became a rabbi in Switzerland. Every day when he put on tefillin whoever stood near him couldn’t help but notice the numbers that defiled his arm. Being Swiss, the numbers registered in the minds of many of the members of the congregation the way we would recall letters that formed a word. One afternoon, which seemed like any other afternoon to the rabbi, he was sitting in his study when the phone rang. It was one of the women who was a regular, who was in Israel on a trip. She had found the tattoo on another man’s arm, and asked him whether he by any chance had a brother named Yankel. The rabbi fainted. The last time he saw Yankel, his younger brother, he had the dark greyness of the shadow of death in his eyes as he was sent to the line from which people never returned. The story of his survival isn’t what’s relevant here. The reason I am telling you about this is that the similarity of the two numbers on the brother’s arms opened the door for people to see that there was another chapter that needed to be revisited. In the same vein, a gematria or a hint tells you that there might be a reason to revisit ideas that otherwise seem unrelated. If the sages present you with these treasures, that tells you that if you don’t look further you may be missing something essential.
The word shalem is an acronym for “shraga” which means flame in Aramaic, “levush” which means garment, and “maachal” which means food. The hint is that there are two dimensions of lighting candles, dressing well and preparing (or buying) special food for Shabbos. One is related to consciousness. Your soul is a flame, your yearning for goodness and meaning which are as real as your need for physical survival, comes from the fact that it is sourced in Hashem. When you light candles next week, think about who you are, what you really want, what you want for your family and for the world. Your clothes should be different from the ones you wear during the week. They should mirror the fact that your soul can put on different “garments” on Shabbos. The soul “wears garments” (which means the way you can see it as being your soul, just like the way you can see someone you know from a distance is first by their clothing and only when you come closer you can see his face). The soul’s garments are thought speech and action. Think about someone you know well. When you ask yourself, what I really know about this person, you will see that you find yourself thinking about what they say and do, and maybe from there, you get to have some insight into what they think, what their inner life is really about. When you get dressed for Shabbos, try to put on “garments’ in the deepest sense that are unique to who you want to be on Shabbos, and let it touch the coming week as well. Finally you are at the table. Let every forkful of the delicious food make you aware of how beloved you are, and how well nurtured you are. Let this help you move away from the many imperfections that you have to contend with during the week.
Every Shabbos that you keep (especially those of you who have the challenge of “do it yourself Shabbos) choose life
August 11th, 2014 – It’s amazing how the word “normal” stretches.
The new normal here is that the ceasefires come and go, so people sort of arrange their lives accordingly. Yeshiva vacations have been truncated so the boys have gotten used to being more earnest and real; tiyulim and renting cars are out-it’s the new normal. It is also more normal for people to be taking the soldier whose names we have gotten from the organizations that match soldier’s names with those of us on the tefillah front. We take them with us to shul, “eat” hear Kiddush with us, and invisibly are with us all of the time. This is the new normal…
I imagine that some of you had to adjust to a new normal. Lashon hara in the workplace is “normal” in almost every job as long as the talk doesn’t get too vitriol and is basically true, and finding a way to change the subject (or try to tune out) is your new normal. Explaining why you can’t eat out with the rest of the family, and pasting on a smile as you drink still another diet coke is the new normal. The truth is, that adapting to the new normal is good for you. When you adjust to a new normal, you may find yourself wondering why you are swimming upstream. You are not alone; we Jews have been swimming upstream for thousands of years.
You may have heard of Rav Yankele Galinski. He was one of the most colorful voices in the yeshiva world, and an unforgettable public speaker. He had studied in the Navardok Yeshiva in his youth. One of the underlying goals of the yeshiva was to produce students who had such a strong sense of G-d that they were literally fearless. They learned to be unimpressed by disapproval, and immune to flinching in the face of the confrontations with mortality that were part of the pre-war reality. Rav Galinski lived in Russia in the Stalinist era when religious practice was forbidden, and teaching Torah even by example could lead to decades in the frozen gulag of Siberia. He was caught by the Soviets along with other students of Novardok. They were taken to a place so far removed from civilization that there was no need for a fence to keep the prisoners from escaping. There was no place to go for hundreds of kilometers beyond the frozen tundra. Their captors included a tragically high number of Jews, who were still enchanted by the dream of building a society in which each would contribute in accordance with his ability, and receive in accordance with his needs. This only turned into what we now recognize as one of the worst mistakes we humans have ever made after millions died in the course of the communist regimes struggle to dominate. The Jewish communists who were in control of the work camp to which Galinski and his friends were incarcerated new the rules of the game. If you want your normal to become the normal of the prisoners, you have to do whatever you can to make holding on to their old normal impossible. For that reason they deemed it necessary to do thorough searches in the pitiful stacks of belongings that the young men had managed to lug with them when they were arrested. They took shoes, blankets and coats when possible and anything else that would make survival more likely. Being Novardokers, they also took whatever books they could-siddurs, gemarrahs, chumashim etc. and buried careful in each boy’s bags were the most precious possession of all, his tefillin. Everything was found. The Soviets knew exactly what they were looking for. They lit a bonfire and burnt every last sefer, every last pair of tefillin in front of the eyes of the yeshiva boys who had no way of saving what they treasured most or even protesting. They were left with nothing that could offer them more than physical survival. Retaining their ties to their identities seemed impossible. They took a risk. Even though “public meetings” were strictly forbidden (this meant talking to more than two people at a time) they decided to get together and decide what their next step should/could be. It would be a one- time event (as far as they could see at the time) and would have to be short. They were honest with themselves. They knew they could end up risking their lives with no concrete results from what may have been a final meeting. For this reason they decided that everyone could speak, but not for more than 90 seconds. This is what Rav Galinski said when it was his turn to speak:
“In Parshas Ve’Eschanan the words Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad are stated. The Talmud tells us that we should elongate the word echad, especially the dalet. Why? The first letter, aleph, which is the first letter in the alphabet tells you of Hashem’s oneness as the source of all things. The ches equals 8, hinting at His being above us-above the 7 heavens and still here with us. The dalet tells us that He is in this world, the world of 4 directions. Even here, even in Siberia, there is no place where He can’t be found even without tefillin or sfarim.”
Even in English, which is a “longer” language than most, you can say this in 90 seconds. Try it.
I try to make it the formula for keeping my normal what I want it to be. This can be the formula for keeping whatever you want your normal to be. Hashem is there with you, here in Israel, in Long Beach and in LA, in Ashkelon and even in places that are more hostile.
August 5th, 2014 – Beautiful Close to Tisha B’Av at the Kotel
Last night at the Kotel was so beautiful!
I generally don’t go to the Kotel on Tisha B’Av until fairly late. The scene is far more moderate, and the heat less intense. This year, when I got there I found a circle of 250 boys who had come on a program who were spending their last moments at the Kotel. They sang all of the songs that give your soul words-from Ani Maamin to Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael. I don’t know if they all understood every word of what they were singing, but they surely felt every one of them. They were soon joined by a large contingent of yeshiva boys who were there, and then by the regulars who add color and variance to the Kotel, and force your heart open to the realization of what a remarkable people we really are.
As many of you know, Tisha B’Av also is the day that the ceasefire began. So far it seems to be holding, which means that Hamas must have gotten terms that they can live with-terms that make another war inevitable unless moshiach comes. It is over 3636 years since Avraham was born. He lived the kind of life that should have made child sacrifice something of the barbaric past of the world that he lived in so many centuries ago. Hamas still practices child sacrifice; they put their children on an alter that stays aflame through their undying hatred of anyone who isn’t them. The changes that have to take place before there can be peace here or anywhere else in the world requires profound internal changes, changes that mean loving peace from the inside, and loving people because they are in G-d’s image. Now that the war is over (at least for now), I can step back more, and see how much Hashem was drawing us close to Him through the miracles that just didn’t end. Almost every soldier has a story. My favorite story is one in which a child named Shmuly sent homemade cookies to the front. There were giant containers that held the goodies that people were sending. They were overflowing and since there is a limit to how many bags of chips and bars of chocolate even men can eat, a certain amount was left over. The hero of our story was lucky enough to get Shmuli’s cookies. He was standing in a large room near a window, looking for snipers, with another soldier standing at a parallel window doing the same. He took a moment to open the box of cookies. It had a letter in it. “Dear soldier. I made the cookies for you. I am only small, but I want to ask you a favor. Can you please say a bracha before you eat my cookies? Love, Shmuli.” He hesitated. He was hungry, but something in the letter touched him deeply enough to make him head towards the other boy, who was religious. “What do you say when you eat cookies?” he asked. The other boy guided him through the nine words that transform eating a cookie into bonding with G-d. He put a cookie in his mouth, and headed back to his corner. The explosion that would have blown him to kingdom come preceded him. If he hadn’t crossed the room to say the brachah, he would be dead. This sort of encounter can change you forever. Or not. You can be shaken to the depths of your soul but when you get home, you can just revert to being the person you have outgrown.
You moved forward and want to move further still. You met people who are what you want to see yourself evolving into as your life moves on, without losing the self that you are. You can’t expect the people you meet in secular society to echo your feelings anymore that you could have expected the soldier in the story to feel the same way about a brachah the day before he received Shmuli’s cookies as he did the day after. No matter who you face on a daily basis there are some rules that my students have taught me over the years.
1-Let your family and friends realize that you still respect them for who they are. The same holds true for people who are far from being family or friends. The more you show that you respect them the easier it is to demand that they too show you that they see you as worthy of respect.
2- Don’t leave yourself without any support from someone who is a step ahead of you. You must contact a rabbi. You may not feel personal affinity towards him, but that isn’t the most significant reason for keeping a connection to Torah. You need someone in your area, even if you aren’t the pick up a phone and call a stranger type. Tell him who you are, and ask about what his synagogue, or kiruv program, or shiurim have to offer.
3-When your family or friends ask you what the details of a mitzvah are (Oh no! Is that another religious thing?) tell them in SHORT what you are doing and ASK if they want to know more. Don’t preach, and don’t avoid letting them see what you are doing. Either mistake leads you down the path of being alienating and defensive. If you don’t know the answer to a question asked sincerely, tell the truth. “I don’t know. You really asked a good question. Next time I speak to Rabbi Cohen, I’ll ask”. If that leads to a “You are just superstitiously following blindly” as a response, you can very reasonably point out that you don’t have to study medicine to know when you need to go to a doctor. Then ASK.
4-Try to find out if there are other people who have been there and done that and can be very helpful.
5-Join a synagogue if there is one within walking distance. This will give you social connections and keep you in the loop.
6-Learn a few times a week. There are lots of Torah classes online, but if you like consistent learning, you may prefer an ongoing live shiur in your area. If there isn’t an appropriate shiur, get onto Naaleh.com, free online seminary.
7-Keep on davening even if it feels dry. It can transform you.
The Foundations of Tish B’Av – Modiin, July 30th, 2014
Today was anti-lashon-hara day here in Har Nof. Some of you may be wondering what on earth I am talking about. Others are familiar with this “holiday” that is now “celebrated” all over the world, from New York to Yerushalaim to Jo’berg and everyplace in between. The story begins with two women who initially didn’t even know of each other’s existence. One was an Israeli woman from a Chassidic family deep in the heart of the jungles of Meah Shearim. She decided to create a new and higher level of awareness of the power of speech. What inspired her was her diagnosis. She was informed that she was suffering from a form of malignancy that is invariably fatal, and she decided that the best response would be to make every day she had in this world a day worthy of the gift of life. She recognized that negative speech is addictive, and is a cause of veritable spiritual death. She was young, enthusiastic, and not particularly subtle. The word spread like wildfire because it was true; your own positivity changes the way you look at life. When you tell others random and unnecessary negative information, you develop a cynacle and toxic attitude towards the people you encounter, and you become wary of even the people who are closest to you because you see their faults in fire engine red, while their virtues are left as background grey. You also change the awareness of your willing or unwilling audience. They find themselves filtering out idealism and optimism because they come to accept a more “grounded” view of others, one that is totally corrupted by the grain of truth in the negative information that is handed out with such generosity. The other woman was my dear friend Carol (Tzippa) Weinberger. She too saw the problem. As a therapist, she heard case after case of people who destroy themselves, their spouses, and their potential for any sort of relationship through negativity. She recognized that the villain is lashon hara, which literally means an evil tongue. She took her incredible organizational skills and saw to it that about a week before the Big Day everyone would receive a large poster sized chart in their mailbox. It would present you with a map of where classes were held in Yerushalaim and later anywhere in Israel. The classes begin in the morning, and go all day. There are classes in Hebrew, English, French and in later years even Spanish. They take place deep in Frumland, but also in outlying areas where you would not have known that the demand would be as great as it is. Virtually every area of communication is discussed on every level. There are even children’s events (and events that take place in the Old Age residences).The climax of the day is a major event with world class speakers in Binyanei Umah, Yerushalaim’s largest event hall. One day is Hebrew and the next day is English. The hall is always sold out except for the seats on the very highest level where the speakers look like ants. Since Carol’s passing, the large nighttime events still take place, but at this point volunteers from each participating neighborhood or area organize their own events. No more posters leaving you in awe of how fast what has turned into a movement caught on, and how powerful the message it carries is. Neve is the location of the Har Nof English classes. The dining room was full, as women of every age and every walk of life streamed in to hear me, Rabbi Nissel and Rabbi Katz. The Boston synagogue and various other halls are open for the Hebrew programs.
What is this really about?
It’s not about guilt; it’s not about repression; it’s not about silence. It’s about being secure with yourself so that you don’t have to build yourself up on someone else’s shoulders. It’s about feeling free enough to give yourself permission to seek the good in the other person without having to be self-protective. Most of all, it’s about recognizing that each of us is in G-d’s image, and that when you see what is true and good in someone else, you are letting your sense of G-dliness expand.
When you are here it is relatively easy to get into the right headset for guarding your tongue. Other people are on track, they are supportive and you don’t feel dishonest or weird. Once go go back to a society in which seeking G-dliness in other people isn’t exactly what people talk about, you might feel a little isolated.
You aren’t there just because you have to be somewhere. It’s Hashem’s providence that brought you where you are, made you the child of your parents, and a member of your particular niche in the greater society. If you can change your speech patterns, you will end up bringing G-dliness where it may have been so concealed as to be virtually invisible.
We are now in the “9 days”, the time period between the first day of Av and the 9th, the day in which both Temples were destroyed. This is the most difficult time of the year; it is the time where you have to really look for the hidden goodness in the challenges that G-d gives you as an individual and as a member of the Jewish people. The more you can identify with the rest of the Jewish People, the stronger both your and their identity, and the more possible living with real unity becomes. There are all kinds of programs that teach the art of guarding your tongue. You might want to be in touch with the Chofetz Chaim Heritage foundation by phone or online, or you might even want to ask your Rebbitzen (women seem to be far more interested in communication than men. surprise surprise) about starting a group in your community.
Words of Chizuk – July 23rd, 2014
l’iluy nishmat Yuval Heiman who was just killed in Aza.
July 20th, 2014 – Living in a world which you’re never alone.
First of all the good news! Elisheva Buchanan and Shira Shiran, are engaged.
Yes, there is so much good flowing, that it makes it possible to take a breath and feel some of the wonder of living in a world which you’re never alone.
Things are getting hotter here, and promises to get hotter still. The world is aflame with protest against the Israeli army protecting us here. They seem to think that Hashem’s miracles in protecting us from close to 2,000 missiles render going into Gaza to blow up the tunnels from which they come an unnecessary imposition on the lives of the people who chose a government that has leaders who as of this writing are concealed under a beehive of bunkers under Sheba Hospital in the heart of Gaza City. If we didn’t know that we aren’t alone, the voices that shrilly decry our right to exist would be terrifying. Once you let your heart, not just your mind, take in the reality of never being alone, everything is different. The Baal Shem Tov’s parents died when he was a child of five. His father’s last words to him were to never fear anything but G-d, and to love every Jew. Rabbi Simchah Kook of Rechovot started a campaign in which anyone who chooses to do so can be given the name of a specific soldier to pray for. He is “your” soldier. In this past week’s Parshah, the narrative of the war against the Midianites who tried to destroy us in every way, gives us a glimpse into where the rabbi got his idea. The Torah tells us that there were a thousand fighters selected from each tribe. Midrash Rabbah tell us that the breakdown is that each soldier had a civilian spiritual fighter praying for him and another civilian guarding the rest of the nation who remained in their homes. It is impossible for Jews to win a war without drawing down the help from heaven that can give us the force to prevail over enemies who are inevitably more numerous and more hostile than we can ever be.
To get more of a handle of how this works, let’s go back a few months and be back at Purim. When the Talmud discusses the way the holiday should be celebrated (in a Mesechta aptly called Megillah) the question is raised whether women are obligated to hear the reading of the megillah. The answer is yes, because they were part of the miracle. A commentator called Ben Yehodaya asks exactly what miracle is the Talmud referring to. The women were certainly slated to be killed along with the men and the children. That’s no miracle (in fact, it is almost “natural” when you look at the history of Jews in exile….). They were also rescued, but that seemed to be G-d’s doing, not their doing. In order to answer his question, he asks what humans that could be called miraculous. His answer is that when Achashveirosh realized that Haman’s plan was one that would bring about a blood bath that would even reach his own palace; that his beloved wife Esther was Jewish, he added a new clause to the decree. He said that the day before the enemies of the Jews were to be able to execute their planned genocide, the Jews would be given royal authority to strike down their enemies. The megillah doesn’t tell us much more about what happened on that day. Obviously what you would expect to happen would be heavy house to house fighting. After all why would the sworn enemies of the Jews not try to kill them all before they themselves would be killed. The text of megillah reveals the “secret”, Hashem made them feel profound awe of the Jews, and they didn’t engage them in battle. Only the hardcore enemies were killed, because only they presented any opposition to the Jews. Since the women weren’t warriors, the Talmud’s question makes sense. They weren’t there on the battle field to face the worst threat we ever had in a place where there was no escape. Why indeed do we have to hear megillah- it seems that we were part of the threat, and part of the salvation, but not directly part of the miracle? He answers that they were the CAUSE victory- their prayers joined with Esther’s prayers bringing down the miraculous victory that we still celebrate today.
Don’t underestimate yourselves!
Some of you are more comfortable with a siddur and some of you are not. If you begin with any of the prayers that you know, you will be joining your voice with the collective voice of the Jewish people, not just those alive now, but those who lived from the time we became a people. The words may seem artificial, and you may feel that they don’t express what is happening in your heart. You might be right. The prayers are meant not only to express who you are, but to change who you are. IT is a process, and not one that necessarily takes a short time to integrate.
Talk to Hashem in your own words too. Open your heart even for a few minutes and talk to Him. This gives you the intimacy that you may need to get yourself to open a siddur.
Have a great week, and prepare for more miracles,
A Letter From Ancient Shushan
I feel like I am writing a letter to my friends back home from ancient Shushan in Esther’s time. As of this morning 335 rockets have been sent towards every part of Israel. They have landed for the most part in empty fields, but by no means exclusively in vacant areas. Ashdod, Rechovot, Ashkelon, Sderot, and many other cities have been attacked almost without respite. Nonetheless, there have so far not been the bloodbath that our enemies would like to see. There have been a small number of injuries (most, but not all, of which were not major, and were the consequence of running for shelter. There were two people who suffered fatal heart attacks, and one young man who was badly wounded by shrapnel). The Arabs have hit their own areas (Chevron, Bet Lechem, and Ramallah plus various small enclaves). There is only one word that describes what we are experiencing.
WE human beings are so funny. Some girls have already created a new normal. “Yeah, there was a siren. Nothing happened (yawn). What else is new?” You can’t allow yourself this misguided ennui. Most of us yearn for Hashem’s love, but for reasons of His own, we often have to contend with the sort of concealment that forces us to face tests without seeing the One who is challenging us to maximize our human and Jewish potential. Now He has chosen to lift the curtain, and let us see His presence. His Hand is stretched out and you have to make a choice, whether or not to open your hand in return.
Some people grasp what is happening around them. The highest building in Tel Aviv, Azrielli Tower, now has electric lights draped around its “body”. The lights spell out Shma Yisrael…Hashem Echad”. The Arabs have (thus far) showed no likelihood of relenting. On CNN they show the usual visual images of suffering Palestine without facing the question, “Why don’t you stop shooting rockets, and ask for a cease fire”. One of them actually said something to the idea of “Their G-d is fighting their battles, but it won’t last long”. I can’t help wondering what the internal agenda is of the people who don’t ever question why Israel retaliates.
The political issues aren’t the core ones. If you want to get in touch with the core event, open your Tehillim book and turn to psalm 100, a song of thanksgiving. Don’t close it. Leaf through the pages till you reach psalm 130. “I cry out to You from the depths”. The messages aren’t contradictory. They are both true. We are living as we have been for 2000 years, on the edge of a razor. We survive only because of Hashem’s love.
Well, now that I’m back from Shushan HaBira, here is some special news that is all good! Aviva Kassel is engaged. Sara Evans should be getting married soon, so Neve is sending off both a doctor and a lawyer into Married Land. If any of you happen to be Indian Chiefs, please don’t fail to let me know when you are getting ready for matrimony.
The miracles that surround us, and the miracle of anyone finding their match have something in common. If you feel real joy for either event, it is because you have a sense of self that is bigger than your ego. People talk endlessly about unity, but the acid test is when you hear about someone else’s life and at least to some degree, you feel like you are hearing about your own life.
In this coming week’s parshah, Mattos, the Jew’s are commanded to afflict Midian, the kingdom that did battle against them by trying to get them to abandon their basic morality by sending out their women to seduce the Jewish men. Interestingly, there was no command to do the same to Moav, which is the name of the nation that hired Bilaam to curse us! The Arizal tells us (Lekutei Torah) that these two nations each had a name that told us about their essence. Moav recalls the story of Lot and his daughters, and their incest. Ramban points out that they were also seeped in idol worship. To them, human life was trivial. These traits all stem from the same force of evil that later was integrated by the Jews during the end of the first Temple era. Again and again the prophets warned us against the three cardinal sins, sexual immorality, murder, and idol worship. This led to the destruction of the first Temple. Seventy years later, the Jews who had been expelled to Babylon (which in turn had been conquered by Persia) were given permission by the Persian rulers to return. Those who did (many remained in Babylon, which was now a part of Persia), faced difficulties that are in many ways similar to those facing Israel today. Other people had occupied Eretz Yisrael, and didn’t want to deal with our reclaiming our land. These hurdles were faced, and overcome. The one issue that doomed us was our constant infighting. The divisiveness that we see today, had its roots from that era. The word Midian has the same root as the word madon, which means quarreling. This form of evil followed us since the time we were in the desert, and found ourselves losing a sense of who we are (which happened when so many Jewish men fell for the seductions of the Midianite women). Once you lose your sense of identity, your connection to your fellow Jew becomes tenuous. It makes it impossible for you to appreciate the miracles that are done for your friends in Israel, and impossible to rejoice with Aviva and Sara. They are not you, and your vision is too narrow to let anyone else in.
It’s a good time to reflect on your identity and your bond to the rest of us. Five tragic events took place on the 17th of Tammuz.
1-Moshe broke the tablets of the law when he saw the Jews worshipping the golden calf-this was the ultimate compromise of our identity.
2-The Jews who had been expressing their dedication to Hashem for hundreds of years were prevented from bringing the daily offerings during the Babylonian siege of Yerushalaim.
3-Apostomos burned the Torah.
4-An idol was placed in the Bais HaMikdash.
5-The walls of Yerushalaim were breached by the Romans in 69 c.e. Three weeks after the Mikdash was destroyed.
Now is the time to regain our identity, and time to let Hashem’s love draw us together.
Accepting the Yoke of Self Sacrifice
Rebbetzen Heller gives this class just moments after the tragic news broke of the murder of the three boys. Please download and share her words of guidance through this dark time.
Yesterday was a day in which in many ways a circle closed.
My friend Chana Loecher who you may know since she is on The List. No, not the shadchan list; she is on the list that the madrichot use to help you find Shabbos meals. She is what they call a mitzvah girl. Her children are grown, and she devotes her days to making the world a place of joy. She does all of the regular acts of chessed (from volunteering at Melavev, an organization that provides a framework for people with alzheimer’s, to selling at the Yellow Door, a store that sells gently used clothes so that everyone can have a look that says, I’m normal. I’m okay). When she came by on Thursday I could tell by her expression that I would soon be joining her on one of her adventures. When she told me what she had in mind, I countered with the fact that Shabbos was going to come no matter what, and if I join her, we may end up eating peanut butter sandwiches. She relented (which in all honesty is in character) and yesterday (Sunday) was The Day.
We were off on three shiva calls. This was the last opportunity to give our words of comfort and care to the mothers of the three boys who were kidnapped and killed. It was a time in which the phrase, “You’re either on the bus, or off the bus” comes to mind. It’s either my suffering too, or it’s not. There wasn’t a whole lot of middle ground for me to stand on when Chana was asking, “Do you want to go with me, or not?”.
The first family, the Frenkels, live in Nof Ayalon, a strikingly beautiful yishuv not far from Modiin. The homes are well taken care of, on tree-lined streets that were artificially active with the flow of the hundreds of other people who had the same idea as Chana. The mourners were sitting in a large outdoor tent, since their home couldn’t have possibly accommodated the throngs of people who had come to be with them on the last day of their mourning. Mrs. Frenkel was as beautiful and as full as emunah as she had been throughout the ordeal. She accepted the words offered to her with grace and gratitude and didn’t let the fact that she didn’t know the vast majority of people who surrounded her change anything. When we had finished, Chana, another friend (also on the List-Jenny Breuer), got into the car and headed towards Talmon. The road there took us past Kiryat Sefer where my daughter joined us in journey towards Talmon, the home of the Shaer family. I had almost forgotten how hauntingly empty and how awesomely beautiful this part of Israel is. The car followed the windy road that transversed the silent road with mountains and deserts on either side. The yishuv at the almost-end-of-the-road was small enough that finding the shiva house took little effort. Things were different here, because people are different. The crowd was thinner (possibly because the yishuv is so far from anyplace else), and the parents seemed younger and more vulnerable. Just as we were leaving, the boys from the yeshiva came in. They were fresh faced, full of an admixture of grief, good intentions, and faith. There was a final stop, the family of Eyal Yifrach, the oldest of the murdered boys. He lived in Elad, a religious town that I had never seen. I had always wondered what it was like, and had assumed that it would be like Beitar or Kiryat Sefer, replete with tall buildings, large green spaces, and a population that favored the under tens. It wasn’t. It’s crowded, urban, and very much like Bnei Brak. Finding the right place actually required asking directions. The Yifrach’s are Yemenite, and the entire clan of family and near family was overwhelming. A volunteer family member was directing the flow of the crowd and dispensing bottles of mineral water. You couldn’t help being swept up with the feeling of being a fifth cousin twice removed-sort of a relative, but not a close one.
Jenny’s husband called to tell her the news. The police apprehended several kids who are suspected of killing the Arab teenager whose murder precipitated a week of rioting, near lynches of at least two people who made the mistake of driving through Arab areas, and as yet unknown numbers of burned cars. The kids are also ours, just like the boys who were kidnapped. The police have not yet released their identities, but they were described as minors. They wanted revenge, and the release it gives from the vulnerability of feeling like the eternal victim. No one here thinks that imprisoning terrorists works-they are often released in the wheeling and dealing of political survival. The murder was cruel and pitiless. I am deeply grieved that one of ours could have done it. This leaves you with the usual questions about why so much evil is part of life.
In last week’s parshah, we had Bilaam, a man whose life was dedicated to destruction of anything real and holy (in fact he was Pharoah’s advisor and had instructed him as to what to do about the Jewish Problem), becoming a person whose powers were so great that King Balak came to ask him to curse the Jews knowing that his words had enormous force. This leaves you wondering why G-d chose to grant him so much ability to do evil. His prophetic and mystic vision was as great as Moshe’s!
The Shla tells us that the only way to grasp this is by letting your mind take you towards thinking about Hashem’s unity. On the highest plane, there is only One-ness. What we call good and evil flows down from the same place. The difference between good and evil is how we humans use the powers Hashem grants us. You can take a force (such as depth and insight) and exaggerate its mystique by using it as a self-serving tool. You can enter the “I am so much more than you are contest” in which there are no winners. This was Bilaam’s path. You can use the same force by recognizing the wonder of the gift G-d gave you, with no ego corrupting its use. This was Moshe’s path.
Recognizing that everything comes from one source is crucial. Good is there to inspire you, and must be used. Evil is there to overcome, and turn you into a hero. It must be confronted. To teach us this, the Torah narrates how G-d forced Bilaam to bless the Jews instead of cursing them as he planned to. His evil can be a source of blessing.
We don’t always win. The response of facing the kidnapping with love, unity, prayer, and faith was a victory. If we had responded by rioting and violence it would be understandable, but it would have been a defeat. The kids who turned to murder and violence were defeated, and their tragedy is real. Somehow you have to turn this into a blessing, and let the lessons from both change your lives. Learn more, love each other, and most of all see that nothing just passes you by.
Love always, and wishes that we could talk more often,
Shabbaton at Yesud HaMaaleh
This past Friday I went up to Yesud HaMaaleh for a Shabbaton. My daughter, Devora, arranges them every so often. The same people often come to hear the speakers and to enjoy being together in a setting that provides a sort of physical and spiritual ambiance. I left at about 11:30 Friday morning, and arrived close to 3:00. The rest of Friday afternoon passed with unusual peace. Coffee and cake, a snooze, reading, and short trip to the tomb of Choni HaMaagel which is in nearby Chatzor.
The tomb itself was adorned with various pictures of people who dedicate themselves to its maintainence, and who feel a special bond to the ancient sage. He is described in the Talmud as a wonder-worker. When the rain had failed to come, threatening the Jews with famine, he drew a circle around himself and told G-d that he would not come out until He brings rain. It began to drizzle, but that would not suffice; he asked for more. When torrents began to flow, he demanded rain that was a blessing, not a curse. It happened just as he had asked. When one of the leading sages, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach heard about the miracle, his response was surprising. He said that he would have put Choni into excommunication except that he is like a child of G-d’s not like a servant from whom making this sort of demand would have been unspeakably arrogant.
Later I found out that while I was headed up north, a rocket made a direct hit on a gas station in Ashdod. The people in the area fled. There was at truck carrying 35,000 liters of benzine gas that failed to ignite miraculously. It made me realize that Hashem sees us as His children, and is treating us to miracles that will be remembered for many generations. We are too close to the picture to see the picture with the objectivity and accuity that it needs.
We should be dancing in the streets in our hearts as we find ourselves taking shelter simultaneoulsly as we hear sirens. Saying Tehillim 100 (a song of praise) and immediately after Tehillim 130 (from the depths) echo each other. We have no one to turn to other than Hashem, and He has parted the curtain that is so often closed to let us see His love for us.
When I was a child, summer meant escape
You may remember that two weeks ago I promised you more good news. You may have reasonably have thought that I was referring to Devora Leah Garrin’s engagement to Rabbi Dovid Weinberg. The truth it took me completely by surprise. The one that I meant is official NOW! It is Chaya Chertok, who many of you know since she took the entire route that Neve offers, from mechina to madrichah.
More news. You can see from my website that I have a new program, The Circle, whereby you can participate in live video conferences, ask questions, hear shiurim, and much more. It will make it possible to learn far more, and at the times that you have the opportunity to go online. It will make maintaining kesher far more possible.
Other good news is that the summer program has just begun. There are new faces, and a feeling of movement in the midst of the intense Israeli summer. The last few days have been white hot, but in Yerushalaim it is dry and bearable. When the evening begins the weather cools, and it isn’t uncommon to find people outdoors way after midnight.
When I was a child, summer meant escape. The long days of the ridiculously lengthy school vacation morphed into afternoons of fantasy play with my cousin Barbara, often followed by unending roller skating and culminating with flying through the sprinklers that were opened for the kids in the city playgrounds. We shopped endlessly, usually doing far far more looking, discussing, and trying on than buying. In those days we did not live with the assumption that it was our parent’s job to entertain us. The books we read and the shows we saw all had themes in which there was struggle, and usually triumph. It was inconceivable that anyone would write a book that actually reflected the ennui of our real lives. We both yearned for meaningful struggle. Because I was a rather precocious only child (and Barbara had to go home each night), I read voraciously. I bargained with the librarian to let me take home more and more books. The policy was to allow four books at a time, and eight if you say that you are going away for the summer. I took out eight a week, and wore out the rather tired (probably underpaid) woman at the desk with my rather convoluted version of logic. “Does it matter where you go? Isn’t Flatbush just as much a part of the world as the Catskills? If I lived in the Country, wouldn’t the library give me eight books to read in Flatbush?” At the time I didn’t know why I was so addicted to getting more and more information. Later I realized that I wanted to be wherever I wanted to be, and do whatever I wanted to do, and experience all that there was to experience. You can do it all in your mind, if you like to read. The problem is that when you close the book you are back to living with yourself.
Every so often it’s good to ask yourself what the hills and valleys of your life look like. You need struggle in order to find meaning, but do yourself a favor, and find struggles that do more than entertain you.
In last week’s parshah, Chukat, the Torah presents you with one of the most profound sorts of struggle. The struggle to find meaning within yourself, and to bring more and more revelation of Hashem into the world as you win your inner struggle. The Shla tells us that there are four kinds of commandments. The lowest level doesn’t require much in the way of self-transcendence. A commandment like, “Don’t steal” resonates with you. You don’t have to do battle with yourself. They do however change what you do, and this is of course very very important. Above that comes the mitzvot that are harder to penetrate, but the Torah gives you the key to their internal mystery. An example of that would be eating matzah on Pesach. If left to your own devices, it is highly unlikely that you would come up with this means of discovering inner freedom. Once you know about what its meaning is, it resonates. What this means is that you aren’t just watching cause and effect on the outside. Something real and deep is taking place on the inside. You are like a miner, who dug into the earth and found gold. You used the mitzvah to “mine” your heart and soul and to discover yourself. The third category are mitzvot that are beyond the grasp of all but the greatest scholars. What happens here is that you are changed without necessarily knowing the process. Do you remember when you began to keep kosher-for-real? You may have experienced the changes without necessarily being able to put it into words. The changes are engraved into you, but you can’t read what is engraved. The final, and deepest level are those that the human mind can’t grasp. Only those who approach reality with their souls, and not only their minds (such as Moshe, and much later Rabbi Akiva) can penetrate and experience the imprint of G-d’s will. An example of that is the sacrifice narrated in the Parshah, the red heifer. The drama and struggle have to do with how much you can make room for Hashem, by putting your ego on the side.
In this week’s parshah, Balak, the Torah tells you a fascinating story. The “hero” is a man who knew all of this; the difference between him and Moshe is that the reason he committed himself to this level of profound search and self-discovery was ego. There was no desire to serve, or to overcome, or even to be close to G-d. He was doing it for the great feeling of I DID IT,and corrupted by the desire to have as many people as possible say, HE DID IT. He was totally enslaved to his ego.
You may be wondering what on earth this has to do with you.
Go for the gold. Let your desire for living an exciting meaningful life take you inward as well as outward. Don’t lose yourself in the battle for meaning. Nowadays most people define themselves by their careers (and sometimes by what the world tells them about themselves based on their career choices and level of material success). If all there was was doing, this would work. The problem is that the real struggle is for being, not just doing.
There are no perfect people
Here is the good news promised! Sarah Evans is engaged. She is such an amazingly organized person that she already knows when she is planning to get married!
One of the greatest blessings that you can give a friend who is getting married is that the couple live together with peace and friendship. Peace isn’t what people think it is. It is too often confused with a mere lack of hostility in one extreme, or complete concord on the other. While there is absolutely no case to be made for overtantagonism, the absence of conflict leaves an empty space, which isn’t necessarily filled with peace. The word for peace, shalom, is related to the word shalem which means “whole”. A peaceful relationship is one in which each person welcomes the unique individuality of the other, and together try to build something real. It’s dynamic, rather than passive. With that in mind, I will tell you the bad news, which is also the good news.
There are no perfect people. Faults that are irrelevant from an emotionally safe distance are sometimes exquisitely painful when you recognize that you are merged with both the faults and virtues of the man who you marry. Recognizing this may feel like watching a dream shatter, if you had illusions that shalom means finding your clone, whose faults are the ones that you have somehow managed to forgive in yourself over the course of your life. If your vision of shalom is dynamic, you will realize that faults are one dimension of virtues. Every trait has two sides.
A person who is angry is saying, “things aren’t the way I would like them to be”. This can be almost idol worship, with the idol being the self. It also can be a misplaced yearning for wholeness, and the bitter fruit of misplaced idealism. If it is you who are the angry one, you have to accept your fault as being real, find a new address for the energy it generates and move on. You can and must learn damage control, but that isn’t the end of the story. If the fault is someone else’s, the temptation is to label it, dissect it, and despise it. This isn’t shalom. You have to be committed enough to see the hidden yearning for truth, and use it to build.
Rav Aryeh Levine, the famed tzadik of Yerushalaim, used to say that there are two kinds of people. There are those who hate lies, and those who love truth. A person who hates dishonesty will be sensitive to its presence, and see it lurking in the dark recesses of people’s inner lives and self-deceptions. They will despise the possessor of the trait because they despise the trait. Another type of person will seek the hidden truth in the heart of the person with whom they find themselves. They love the truth that emerges, and for that reason will love the person.
This isn’t only true in marriage, and the message of shalom is one that has to be carried with you wherever you go. It has to do with friendships, relationships with rabbis (what? Imperfect rabbis?), parents, just as much as it has to do with shalom bayit. The exception to this rule is illustrated in last week’s parshah. Korach fermented a rebellion against Moshe. He presented himself as sort of the Jefferson of the Biblical world. We are all equal, we are all holy. Why should one person rule over others? Why should Moshe’s brother be the Kohein Gadol? Isn’t this just warmed over nepotism? The problem in his argument is that these offices were given by G-d and not by Moshe. It is Hashem Himself who gave Moshe the qualities that he had to have in order to give the Torah, and Aharon the traits he needed to bring down blessing to the Jewish people. It is also G-d who, the Talmud tells us, since the time He finished creating the world has busied Himself with matching couples. This doesn’t mean only that He is the Ultimate Shadchan, but it also means that He creates the right situations to match the abilities of the people he destines to encounter those situations. Your role is to build, and to affirm. It isn’t to destroy or to negate. There are times when building is impossible, and then you have to have the vision and courage to move on. But the way to know whether that is the case can only come to the surface when you are really willing to question your own willingness to build, rather than to satisfy your ego by being the wronged party, or the higher deity on the totem pole. Lots of us enjoy machlokes (the opposite of shalom). It’s root is the word “chelek” which means portion. Finding the hidden truth is the only way out.
This past week has been such a beautiful one in some ways. Yair Lapid, the anti-religious head of one of the strongest parties in the government’s coalition, said that he davened with a siddur for the kidnapped boys. Little children gave their pocket money for tzedakah. Virtually every synagogue ends the services with tehillim. Two thousand five hundred secular Jews gathered to pray in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Minchah was held in the Knesset!
We are ready for more! It’s up to you to make real peace, in yourself, your family, your little piece of the world. That means responding to the life G-d gave you on His terms.
Have a great and peaceful week!
I wish you were there on Shavuot night, so I’ll try to take you!
The night of Shavuot was, as always, a gem on the backdrop of a surreal black velvet sky. The weather was unbearably hot later in the day, but the night was cool, and the thousands of people who were at the Kotel were able to daven in comfort. Apparently being at the Right Place at the Right Time has become less of the My Year in Israel Experience; the tourists were there, but not en masse, and the Women of the Wall let go of their almost insatiable yen for publicity. The vast majority of the masses of people who came, came to pray and to celebrate the most significant day in human history. The minyans were varied providing you with a cacophony of Ashkenaz, Sepharadi, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Modern and even the melodious formal choir of the Great Synagogue. It felt like there were innumerable possibilities to choose from (if you had the will and muscle to propel yourself where the action was). At sunrise there was suddenly silence, as the entire Kotel began to say shmone esre simultaneously. It captured some of the silence that must have been heard then, on the 6th of Sivan over three thousand years ago. The silence was very powerful and audible (yes, you can hear silence). This year I davened on the porch of an apartment facing the Kotel where the hosts invited about sixty or so people. I was both part of the scene and observing the scene at the same time.
Earlier some of the girls walked with me to the Old City after hearing classes at Neve. This year the venue of the shiur was the Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue. It’s a fascinating place; its foundations are what remain from a synagogue that was built in the second Temple era, and rebuilt many times subsequently. Its current “body” resembles the famous Hurva Synagogue but in miniature. I loved giving the directions to get there-it was so Israel. “Go down the shuk (which is full of people on Shavuot night). You will see a sign that says “KOTEL” on the right. Don’t go there. You will see another sign, this time on the left (yes you read right) that says “KOTEL”. That’s your spot. Turn, go down the stairs and up the stairs, and you will be in one of the most beautiful, little known, and ancient spots in the Old City. It is actually very close to where the Holy of Holies was. The man who most recently restored it made a stipulation that no particular group can claim it as its own. It fits Yerushalaim so beautifully.
I was ready for it. Several days earlier, the musical evening that Mrs. Levitan produced had a similar feel. The performers were from very different places geographically and religiously. The West End, Moscow, Panama, all provided the evening with extraordinarily talented refugees from their cultures who had used their days and years there to discover themselves and let Yerushalaim’s magic draw them back. They each brought something precious with them. There was more than just talent. There were girls from the States, here in Neve Tehillah who had the high energy of their nineteen or so years. Unlike mothers, who have to do whatever they have to do to find a place to love their children equally, I am under no such obligation. The one who touched me the most deeply was my former student Pamela Storch; played piano and sang pure spirit. Chana Levitan is so remarkable. She played both flute and guitar (at times simultaneously)! The entire evening was so varied that it was a virtual mosaic preparation to the many shades of light and darkness that I experienced at the Kotel just a few days later.
This past week’s Parshah, Behaalotcha, begins with narrating how the Kohein was to light the menorah. He had to stay with the process until each light was “independent”. Each one of your souls is compared to a flame that by its nature rises to its source. The goal of all of those who started you off is to see you able to remain aflame on your own, and to light the hearts of those who you come across. The seven branches of the menorah parallel the seven traits that we have been learning about during the weeks before Shavuot. When you come across someone who is struggling, it is tempting to see the part of them that is dark, imperfect, and distant. When you train your eye to see that there is always potential for light, you’ll find your relationship to them to be different. You will find yourself asking not only “what can I get from this person”, but “what can I give, and what can I learn”. As always, there’s a hidden trapdoor. You can find yourself wanting to find common ground and subconsciously (and sometimes less innocently) find yourself lowering yourself so that you relate on the basis of what you both lack, the dark places, rather than the light. It’s easier, and works better in the SHORT run.
For this reason, Maharal tells us, that when people use vulgar language they destroy themselves even more than when they speak lashon hara (which is worse for the victim and for the listener). The reason is that he teaches him to reach for the lowest common denominator and because the truth is that he will find the satisfaction of approval and bonding, he will close his eyes to the fact that he is strengthening his animal self.
Bring yourself with you wherever you go, and let Shavuot last more than one night!
Shavuot, is around the corner.
This tells you that they were like one person, with one heart. It also tells you that we are fully capable of being like one person with one heart”. When you look at the Jewish scene this sounds like mission impossible. There is a lot of fragmentation and territorial self-protection, and at the same time a lot of genuine movement towards expressing love and caring. The question which side of our somewhat schizophrenic reality will prevail. Here’s a little light in the darkness. I want to share some of my experiences as a teacher in Neve, which caters to young women with limited Judaic background.
1-Some came to Israel because someone helped you get here. It may have been Mr. Horowitz, or Birthright, or one of the tens of kiruv organizations such as Maor that heavily subsidize trips. The cost of getting them here and sometimes making their stay real is phenomenal. Most of the time the tab is paid by complete strangers who don’t feel like complete strangers. They feel like the young women are someone they know, care about, and are willing to give their cash to give them the opportunity to discover what being Jewish is all about because they think that this is morally right. Tonight (Sun) Mrs. Chana Levitan will be presenting a “Night to Remember”- a night in which the really talented women of Neve and other women –dancers who had careers, classical musicians, soul musicians and others will give the local women their gifts. The admission money will go to Neve (which as you know is in financial crisis). It isn’t as though Mrs. Levitan needed an outlet to fill her time; she is an author, teacher in many seminaries and runs her family. She cares!
2-When I was in the States I spoke in various places. As you know, NY has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. Rabbis are flooded with meetings, kiruv etc. When I was in Brooklyn I spoke at the Brooklyn Jewish Experience. The rabbi there approached me after the class and told me that he is always available to anyone. His name is Rabbi Fingerer and he can be reached at 6462290808. Ivy Kalazan (who some of you remember from her Neve teaching days) at BJE, and was very very “there” for the people who came. The same is true for Rabbi Yehudah Zakutinsky at 64659f17075. The fact that the information I just gave is irrelevant to you, and that you are not in a life situation to make use of it doesn’t make this unimportant to you. You should be aware of what we are capable of, and this will increase your belief in your fellow Jew and in yourself. For this reason, in future letters I’ll give you still more info about other people who care about you because you are very much part of them. This feels like showing family pictures, even if the person who gets to see the photos in my wallet will never end up meeting my family.
3-Next week I will be telling you about Shavuot in Jerusalem this year. What I can tell you now, is that when the first rays of light begin to illuminate Jerusalem’s sky, thousands of people, many of whom were up all night learning, will find themselves heading towards the Kotel. The reason is that it isn’t just that some people are still sensitive enough to feel that the rest of us are part of them, but that thousands of others know that they are part of something bigger than themselves –with many of them not even educated enough Jewishly to know why- and that is what brings them there at these moments. What exactly is it?
“If all the songs are holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies”, the sages say. This epic poem written by King Solomon is an allegory of the love between G-d and His people. The metaphor that recurs is a lover searching for His beloved, and Her yearning for Him. One of the images that appear is that of G-d and the Jewish people being compared to twin deer. There are many interpretations for this symbol. One of is that there is something that resonates only when we, G-d and the Jewish people, are together because, like identical twins, what we share in common is so great. Concretely this means that your deepest inner wish is to rediscover your souls source, and that His wish is to be discovered. That tells you why the symbol involves identical twins, but it doesn’t tell you why deer are used as the vehicle to express this need for connection. One of the Midrashim tells you that the “twin” aspect is a hint at the two tablets of the law. One side has five commandments that define our relationship to Hashem, and the other five commandments that are the basis of defining our relationship to each other. They are inseparable. The word for deer in Hebrew is “tzvi”. In Aramaic, the language that was spoken in Babylon, the first place that we were exiled as a people, the word tzvi means “will”. This tells us that even in exile, G-d doesn’t abandon us. His will is that we know Him. This is why the first commandment is “I am Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Egypt…). He doesn’t tell us to do anything specific about this. He wants us to know Him existentially, and to see this as the foundation of reality. The word tzvi is also relevant to the second side of the tablets, the side that has the commandments governing interpersonal relationships. To understand this, go to Tehillim 42, and you will find a verse that says, “Like a hart yearns for a stream of water, my soul years after you, G-d”. This means that you need to quench your thirst for G-d. The way that this happens is by developing the side of you that is authentically human. The commandments between man and man tell you how to do this. The very last one, “Don’t covet (be envious)” means that if you can rise above seeing the people you encounter in terms of what they have to offer you, or let yourself drift into subtle (and not always conscious) competition stop here! G-d gave that person his own mission unique to him. You have your story. He has his story. Act like a human in G-d’s image and let the part of him, your fellow Jew that is your “twin”, the part that wants being truly human come out. Hashem’s yearning for you, and your yearning to discover Him in your interactions with others as well as your search for Him will then be fulfilled. At that point you and the rest of are, in the deepest sense encamped before Mount Sinai. There are three sins that make this impossible to live out. One is idol worship-empowering anything that is only a creation to replace your potential for reaching G-d. The second is murder, which in a subtle sense means extinguishing the light of Hashem when you disparage and humiliate your fellow Jew. The last is adultery, whey you compromise having relationships that take you to real giving and keep you away from exploitation and animalistic drives defining you in what can be the deepest place of meeting between two people. These are the sins that kill you spiritually.
The Torah tells you to always choose life! That’s what Shavuot is all about, and that’s what keeps us one body with one soul!
Have the best Shavuot ever,
Lag B’Omer was crazier than crazy. I got back from the States on Friday, and Sunday morning I was on the bus to Meiron.
I travelled with three teenage granddaughters who disappeared with their friends almost as soon as we arrived.t I soon was found by Tali, Rachel, and Nadia, students of mine at Neve. They arrived on MOtzei Shabbos, after spending Shabbos in Tzfat. They discovered some deep folliage in an enclosed area right above the tomb. It is totally indetectable from the outside (it looks like one of the thousands of bushes that dot the surrounding area). Inside there was enough room to erect a tent! It was amazing. They could hear and see and at the same time stay invisible. It was like being a character in a Marvel comic. The granddaughters resurfaced and we spent time together overlooking the dancing, singing, intense praying and general undisguised joy. Tali found the right words: “the soul of the Jewish people is out there”.
One of the most moving things that happened to me on my trip to the States was on the last Friday I was there. I had an entirely free day-my plane came in at 10:30 and Shabbos was at 6:30. One of my Oldies But Goodies, gave me her entire day. She picked me up at the airport and took me to her home and then to the tomb of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and then to one of the most interesting people I ever met.
He is 111 years old.
The oldest living Jew in America resides in a hotel designed for the well-heeled elderly on the upper West Side. He is totally lucid, and told us ( me and a bevy of little girls of ages 5-6 who came along) about what life is about. “I kept fit”, he told us, “And I helped other people whenever I could”, said a man whose life had spanned so much time, social change, wars, and evolving cultures. The little girls were so moved, that one of them gave him a cookie, to which he told her that he likes chocolate. His attendant looked soemwhat disapproving, but hey, at 111 you can live a little. On the way out, we met another elderly gentleman (a mere 92) who, when asked what he thought the most important life message is, said, “The Golden Rule”. The girls looked puzzled. “Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you”. No sign of grasping what he meant was visible on their faces. “Be nice to the other children, just like you would like them to act to you”. THe clouds parted. They got it. The part of you that knows more than Me First was touched. They are ready for a trip to Meiron.
Tomorrow (Monday) we are having a special evening of tefillah and shiurim in Neve’s simchah hall. It is for the merit of Henny Machlis. Her shabbos table is legendary. Every week she makes two beautiful Shabbos meals for her family who enjoy it all (along with the 100-200 others she would have on a “normal” shabbos). My friends who have been there always tell me about her smile, her simplicity, and her real affection for each guest. I never was there for shabbos, but I count her amongst my good friends. I once asked her how she does it, and what made her think that this is a good idea. She told me that it started when her kids were small. THey would invite the neighborhood kids, many of whom were from secular or barely traditional homes, for shabbos morning kiddush. They would then come home, and hear her father say the words, and (to them) more importantly give them the goodies and the attention and the auro of holiness that they wanted so badly. She then began inviting guys from Ohr Sameach and their friends, and her policy of never saying “no” made her a legend. There is something supernatural about the entire story. Her apartment is the same size as mine, yet she fits in 100 or so more people than I can. She asks Hashem for help, and He consistantly comes through. She begins on Thursday night and so do I. She has some help ( a few friends from Arzei Bira come to peel, and another friend does the fish), and now her daughters have moved into her shoes but it still remains a one woman show.
She is very ill, and in need of your prayers. Her name is Henna Rasha bat Yitta Reitza.
When you daven for someone else, your circle becomes wider, and you join the invisible circle of people who care for each other and feel one with each other. You may be in prison, but I know your circle is wide. I hope our prayers will soon be answered.
All the best to all of you always,
Here I am in the USA!
It is always so good to see you. I spent time with some of the girls who were there at Neve’s beginning years, and some with girls who just left a week or two ago. Most of you seem to have adjusted to your natural habitat with a lot of grace and willingness to take who you have become to who you are. So far most of the time that I am abroad has been spent in N.Y. and the vicinity. This time more than ever, it struck me how little external change takes place. The buildings are the same ones that I saw when I was growing up: they are brick, high, and exude a sort of shop worn dignity rather than a warm welcome. I got to see the city more closely than I had planned. The bicycle marathon turned getting to Flatbush from Monsey a sociological tour of Brooklyn. The bridges and highways were off limits, so the bus rambled through the side streets. Williamsburg was very different than the Williamsburg that I knew as a child. It is cleaner, more urbane, and the Chassidic population has become the most dominant visual presence in the neighborhood. There were many sorts of Jews, but none of them lived Across the Border. Williamsburg ended abruptly with Heyward Street taking the role of unstated border separating Them from Us. Bedford Stuyvesant, the raucous, colorful, peripherally dangerous slum that began there and spread its wings till Fulton Street as another planet. Today it is almost completely gentrified (and evolved as Park Slope). Yuppies shop, eat, and hurry through the streets that they once would have hesitated to pass through even in broad daylight. It set me reelecting on the nature of change.
I spent Shabbos with my son and his family in Monsey. I spoke in the afternoon, and as always there was the Neve contingent of Oldies and their FFB daughters. It feels as though the chain that began with Avraham had torn and was fixed and made whole. The knot makes the difference between the two ends of the string smaller, but the place of the knot is vulnerable. The BT’s feel a dimension of spiritual awareness that their daughters sometimes seem to lack, but their daughter’s sense of who they are, what they are in the world for, and how to make it happen is much stronger. The younger generation is proud of their BT parents in a diffident but genuine way; they admire their courage, understand their struggle, but don’t want to replicate their lives. They want fewer complications, greater simplicity of faith, and more concrete expression of religious reality. This is no doubt part of the evolving plan that G-d put into motion in the creation when the dazzling light of creation gave way to the heavens and earth separating on the second day. Terra firma- feet-on-the-ground reality began then. They want less interesting and more Real.
Today’s week in the sfira cycle is netzach, which means “prevailing”. If you were any of the great heroes, Moshe for instance, you would have had many moments in which you could have chosen to despair. When Moshe saw the golden calf below him as he walked down from Mount Sinai, he could have easily asked himself whether there was any hope for a people who could fall so low after having reached a level of collective prophecy. If he was you or I his conclusion may have been that G-d’s suggestion, which was to destroy the Jewish people and start nation building all over again with Moshe’s descendants, is a logical next step. Instead, when he heard those words he had the courage to say to G-d “Forgive them….or erase me from the Book that You have written”. If you knew the end of the story, you no doubt would have the fortitude to do whatever you had to do to get to the final moment of triumph. This ability stems from a trait called “netzach” which is the inner consciousness of Hashem’s will always prevailing.
So many civilizations have risen and fallen, so many false beliefs such as Reform Judaism, Christianity, and countless others have sprouted where despair took root. The early founders of Reform Judaism thought that they could salvage Judaism by making it more digestible. Otherwise, they thought, it was doomed. The early Christians thought that they have to free Judaism of halachah, so that people won’t be “turned off” as we would say in today’s lingo. They both thought that we were too weak to bear the burden of netzach.
Well looking at full rooms where almost everyone walked further than their parents did gave me a sense of netzach!
You are all amazing examples of netzach in action.
It is now After Pesach.
That is almost like saying, “The baby’s born. Now what?”. Everything else can seem sort of anti-climactic. The famous Kabbalist, the Arizal, in fact compares Pesach to birth in a most unusual sense. If any of you ever envisioned a future career as a vet, imagine yourself attending a donkey in labor. The moment of birth arrives, and instead of seeing a tiny (everything is relative-a newborn donkey wouldn’t exactly rival Tinkerbell) donkey on the deliver table, you see a human baby.
The birth of a people is very hard to document. For the most part, land language and culture are seen as the components of nationhood. As you all are fully aware, we don’t all speak Hebrew, live in Israel, or have what anyone with a broad mind would call a common culture. How many Persian Jews out there in L.A. or Greatneck are dying for gefillte fish? Note; I said for, not from.
Years ago when we lived near the Diskin Orphanage (which is now, thank G-d, defunct for lack of orphans) we invited one of the kids for a Yom Tov meal on Succot. I came down to the Succah with a tray of the greyish cold patties with the gaily contrasting carrot about where the mouth would be if they were alive, and our young invitee burst into tears. I tried to think of words to make him want to enjoy the variations of multi-culturalism, but it just didn’t fly. The truth is of course that Ashkenazim aren’t any more broadminded when it comes to food. I have noticed on more than one occasion the suspicion that you try to conceal when the home made bitter greenish Hilba goes around. No, it isn’t culture (which of course goes beyond culinary experience, but if you take religion out of the picture, not much further) that make us a people.
We became a people by experiencing G-d’s love for us, and the hope that He invested in us when He took us out of a society that was so brutally materialistic that it can be compared to a donkey, a beast of burden with no inner will or vision. Most of us don’t associate brutality with materialism. In fact, in some circles it is still fashionable to present brutality as the logical and invariable consequence of material deprivation. The fact is that all material things are inherently limited. If you pass around the doughnuts at a table with twelve places, if there are only eight pastries on the tray, you have nothing to gain by sitting at the edge. This is a very basic sort of example, but this is equally true when the stakes are much higher. The fear of material lack is one of the primary causes of the “what about me?” mentality that is the underlying cause of so much of the fear and depression that you see around you. You can become a donkey, so driven by the unwholesome admixture of rote and anxiety that you forget who you really are. You aren’t a donkey. You are human, with human aspirations and a spiritual soul that can never be satiated with anything that you can weigh or measure. That’s the part of you that wanted out. That’s the part of you that couldn’t bear to stay in Mitzrayim (Egypt) any longer. That’s the part of you that you were in contact with at the Seder (whether you were really aware of the connection to that aspect of your identity, or whether you weren’t). No one can rob you of this. Arizal then tells us that something weird happened after the birth (which was weird enough). The baby re-entered the womb.
The symbol of birth is very inviting. Yes! If G-d wants to, He can turn each of you into a member of a nation that defies materialistic self- definition. The problem is, that if you don’t change from a donkey to a human through the process of real choice and integration, you end up being a donkey that looks like a human…..
The next phase is sefirah, the mitzvah of counting the days from the exodus until the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates G-d giving us the Torah. The meaning of the word sefirah is complex; it is related to the word “mispar” which means number. This tells you that you have to break down this goal into definable steps. The second word is the word “sippur”, which means story. This is also the time for redefining your narrative. Your old narrative may be ” I am doomed by betrayal (although I don’t believe that your narrative is that superficial) .Your old narrative may have been “I come from a place that made the word “dysfunction” possible. I am insecure after the criticism, neglect, and verbal abuse that came at my torrent after torrent when I was most vulnerable. It’s not my fault that I can’t love, trust, or say “no” to myself when I need to” You can turn it into “I am getting out of Mitzrayim. I know who I don’t want to be, and now its time to discover who I am, and who I see myself becoming”. Both negative narratives feed on feeling like a donkey. I am who I am, and I can’t change. I’ll just bear the burden and settle. Both positive narratives tell you that you are human, and that you have every right to aspire. Tell yourself your story differently every day. The third meaning of the world sfirah is “sapir” which means a sapphire, a precious stone. You have to discover the place in you that is holy, invincible and enduringly beautiful. Do something every day that puts you in contact with that part of you. There are a lot of enemies out there; denial and fear are probably on the top of the list.
Your soul has seven means of expressing its divinity, they are also called sefirot. They are chessed (giving forth your inherent goodness and kindness in your relationship to Hashem and to others) gvurah (being strong enough to hold back), tiferet (harmony-the ability to see the truth with all of its facets) netzach (being able to prevail-having an eye towards everything that is eternal real and transcendent) hod (being aware of G-d’s splendor to the point of having real humility) yesod (foundation-bonding and being loyal in all of your relationships) and finally malchut (the ability to be in touch with your capacity to rule over yourself with nobllity and grace, to that your world becomes G-d’s world).
I will be in the States soon (you can see the Neve site or my site for the details). I ho pe that I will see you guys!
Do you still remember your childhood?
The answer is “of course”-how can you forget what are the most significant years, the ones that turned you into you (for better or worse)? Even as a rather spoiled precocious only child I remember thinking that childhood is over-rated. Sure, you have no financial responsibilities, only as much academic responsibility as you want, and your social life is continually changing. It sounds carefree, but stress was still part of the picture. The fate of a misplaced piece of a game can take up as much emotional space as a major financial loss. Watching the faces of the captain of a dodge ball team who clearly didn’t want to get stuck with you can be as painful as hearing the shadchan tell you that, “he really thinks you are very special” when you know that the next phrase must be bad news. What makes childhood so wonderful is the optimism and energy that makes everything feel possible and real. If jumping on the couch looks like fun, there is no reason not to give it a try (unless you have already done that and been there, and encountered some parental limits). This may leave you fascinated with one of the Hagaddah’s most interesting passages, the “four sons”. The wise, wicked, simple sons, and their companion, the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question are presented as archetypes. They are “sons” not men. The word for son (ben) is related linguistically to the word banyan (building). A son is still in process; an adult is a finished product. At least for the night of the Seder, try to see yourself as still a child, still in process, still optimistic about the possibilities that your life may offer.
The first son is the wise one. His question is “what are the laws?”. He isn’t talking about what to do to stay out of trouble. The word for law (halachah) literally means the way to go. He wants to know what the map looks like, so he could set his course. Madoff recently sat for a rare interview. One thing is clear; he has no idea of what went wrong. When you look at your life mistakes, odds are that at the time you had no plans of things souring. The function of halachah is to take you beyond the limits of human subjectivity. You can see the world through G-d’s eyes, and make decisions that take you where you want to go. I am changing the details of the story I will tell you, but the core is exactly as I write it.
There was a girl in mechina from Dallas (you got it- NOT from Dallas…). She came for Friday night dinner. When I asked the girls at the table the safest of all questions-”Where are you from”? It turned out that the girl next to her, who was in Shalhevet, was also from the Lone Star State. They began to try the usual Jewish geography. It tuned out that they both worked at Barnes and Noble. “In fact, that’s how I got to Neve”, said the girl in mechina. You wouldn’t believe what happened. There’s a lot of theft in bookstores-it’s part of the business. The staff isn’t above taking-and-returning either. One day the store manager received a cashier’s check in the mail from a former salesgirl who had “borrowed” reading material at various times. He called a meeting of everyone who worked in the store, and read the letter. She wrote that she became more religious, and now recognizes that the “everyone does it” excuse that she used for her informal appropriations of the stock just doesn’t hold water. “Morality isn’t subjective” she wrote and asked forgiveness for her bad judgment. That’s what brought me to Neve. The other girl’s face turned progressively more interesting colors of the rainbow, ending in funereal white. The girl who was speaking didn’t notice, but I did. It didn’t take much detective work to figure out who wrote the letter… Halachah’s function is to save you from being the person you never wanted to be. The wise son sees beyond the moment, and wants to know what the picture really looks like.
The wicked son has only one question; it basically is, “what’s in it for me?” Why are YOU doing so much, living with restrictions and endless “work”? The only answer you can give him is that this “work” is the path that Hashem set for the Jews and through which he makes it possible for us to leave behind slavery and every form of limitation. Being free means being beyond slavery to your instincts and ego demands. If you aren’t free in this sense, then the freedom you have is the freedom of a newborn-you can’t be “forced” to do anything, but at the same time you have no authentic autonomy. The Jewish people as a group were created to be free.
The simple son has one question; “What is this?” The word for “this” used in the Haggadah is “zot”, which is the feminine form. Grammatically “zeh” the masculine form for “this” would have worked better grammatically. One approach is that this is a reference to the SHechina, the Divnine presence that we experience in this world through seeking Hashem and being open to the beauty and power of His presence. There is part of you that wants to know not only what to do, but to know where the path leads. That part of you isn’t necessarily sophisticated or philosophical. It is the voice of your soul. Yaakov was described as “Ish Tam”, a simple man. The word simple is used not as a substitute for unsophisticated or naïve, but in the same way that the word is used in chemistry, where it would mean whole and unadulterated. The most real part of you is “tam”, and the simplest question is one that you ask whether or not you can still hear it.
The last son is the one who doesn’t know how to ask a question. There are many reasons that question aren’t asked. The most substantial one is despair. When you try to find answers, and the ones you hear don’t ring true, you stop asking. You may have written off your spiritual aspirations as being overwhelming, or impossible in your current environment. Don’t give up asking! Be patient with yourself, forgiving and compassionate, until you are ready to hear.
All four sons live within your heart and mine, hear their voices as you get ready for Pesach, the most liberating time ever created!
March 7th, 2014,
This past week the last chapter of the book of Shmos (Exodus) was read in the synagogue, completing its yearly cycle. This week we begin Vayikra (Leviticus). Each book is unique. Shmos is called “sefer ha-geulah” the book of redemption, because it celebrates our birth as a people, beginning with the enslavement in Egypt, and ending with building G-d a sanctuary in the desert. Between these two points in time, many things occurred to make us who we are. G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, which arguably is the most significant event in the world’s entire history. It touches every human being in the world to one degree or another via the way its influence spread. In its only pure and authentic form, the Torah that we keep is far far more specific in its demands than the Torah that they have reduced to a collection of moral teachings (as important as they are).
Making yourself and your world a sanctuary to G-d is dependent on learning Torah and keeping the commandments without compromise. It can be very challenging to someone just entering religious practice to understand what the connection is between the details of the mitzvos and their spiritual source. You can see that the system works; if you do the mitzvos, you become the kind of person that you want to be- you will be in relationship with G-d, and attuned to the world and to the people you encounter every day. The ideologies that have removed what they consider to be the “mindless minutiae” are left sterile and empty parodies of the ideals that they sincerely promoted. Think back to your personal successes and failures. Is there a pattern? Inevitably involving your body and soul in unison. The Torah presents us with precise instructions, and it is the way that you may finally find yourself on the path towards self-discovery. The “trick” is that you don’t usually see the results of your choices at the very beginning of your journey.
This is true when you try to find the way to move forward without Torah. Whenever you end something significant, you probably find yourself thinking about what took you down this particular road. In life, the end doesn’t always live up to the promise of the beginning. Sometimes expectations were unrealistic, sometimes there just wasn’t the level of dedication that you would have to have had to reach the goal you had in mind. Sometimes unexpected events cause you to change direction mid-stream. Torah is different.
Shmos began with a census of the members of Yaakov’s family who descended to Egypt. It ends with a meticulous account of the materials that were used in the construction of the mishkan (sanctuary). Both the beginning and the end feature an interesting meeting of concrete definable things, and transcendental eternal outcomes. The census couldn’t be more concrete. Seventy people, however, soon became an innumerable nation. The Torah tells us that the more they were oppressed the stronger and more numerous they became. The next census, taken when they left Egypt shows us a total of over 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60. If you add in women, children and older people the total you get is millions. This is all without taking into account that the sages tell us that only 1/5 of the population lived to see the exodus. It is impossible to come to a reliable figure! This is not so surprising when you consider that the Jews are compared to the stars. There are stars that are so distant that we will never see them, because they will burn themselves out before they reach anywhere in the cosmos that is close enough to this earth to be seen. Some of them are huge, far bigger than the sun which is the closest star to our planet. Each Jew is a sun, shedding light and energy, but not all of them will leave an impression that you or I will know about (at least within our lifetimes). The last part of the book of Shmos gives us a very specific accounting of the gifts that were given to build a sanctuary, which seems a very earthbound sort of figure.
When you step back a bit you find that there is something far greater happening. The Zohar tells us that the sanctuary was designed to mirror the “little world”, every person. We have limbs and organs, and a soul which makes it all live. It also mirrored the “great world”, the spiritual and physical dimensions of reality that are outside of our range. They have properties, qualities, and other “definable”, but their life-force is G-d, who is the soul of the universe. When the Jews gave their gold, silver, and other gifts to build the sanctuary, they were taking what normally could only be used in a very finite way, and turning them into something infinite. Although the mishkan only existed for several hundreds of years, its effect was as a spiritual magnet. The sacrifices had the effect of enabling the entire nation to elevate the animal within them, and change the very nature of their inner and outer realties.
The reason that I am mentioning this is that it is really a huge idea! All of the nitty gritty mitzvos that you do may seem to have borders that are very limiting. You buy kosher food, eat, and when the meal is over, you may think, “so, is there a spiritual significance”. This is a myth. The meal brought you in contact with infinity. Your decision to live in accordance with Hashem’s will, and to subservient your more basic self to your soul, is what living is all about. The same thing holds true for the time you chose to answer your mom with respect that you may or may not have sincerely felt. That moment was a moment of real triumph (even though it may have felt like a surrender).
Never underestimate how important things that don’t feel important are!