Tuesday, May 10, 2016

All of Jewish History, in Just Two Minutes

Several years ago I returned from a mission to Poland and Israel. At the time, our group was left with one inescapable conclusion: Jewish History is a rollercoaster of horror and happiness. In Poland we saw piles of human hair and cans of zyklon-b pellets. In Israel we saw smiling schoolchildren and maternity wards . In Poland we saw cattle cars. In Israel we saw proud soldiers. In Poland we saw gas chambers. In Israel we saw new construction. Up close, Jewish History becomes an emotionally turbulent experience.

The Israeli calendar is even more chaotic. The day before Independence Day is Memorial Day. Unlike the United States and Canada, in Israel Memorial Day is quite melancholy. Everyone attends a memorial, and the entire country stops when the siren rings. When I asked our security guard, Amit, to say a few words about Memorial Day, he choked up with tears; he had served in a combat unit and had lost friends in battle.

And then, immediately after this comes absolute celebration. As if by the flick of switch, the entire country is transformed into a one big block party, with revelers roaming the streets and families barbecuing in the park. In a uniquely Jewish fashion, we insist on commemorating tragedy immediately before celebrating independence. (Much like the Passover Seder includes mention of both slavery and freedom).

This Jewish need to combine bitter and the sweet memories together is what lies at the heart of an authentic Jewish historiography. Jewish history consists of both exile and redemption. We don’t view exile as meaningless historical time, something we’d prefer to forget. On the contrary, exile is carefully remembered. And this is the paradox of Jewish History: it sees exile and redemption, seeming polar opposites, as deeply connected experiences. And like all good paradoxes, it is meant to be a question that keeps asking questions.

This paradox teaches multiple lessons. It underlines the fact that Israel (and the Jewish people) continue to survive and thrive, despite our challenges. It reminds us that the manifold miracles of contemporary Israel, such as blooming deserts, the return to the Western Wall, and cutting edge medical research are expensive miracles; over 23,000 soldiers paid with their lives for these achievements. And it teaches us that we must continue to claim the moral high ground, and refuse to descend to the level of the terrorists who attack us.

At the end of Memorial Day, I was at a ceremony in which the Israeli flag, flying at half mast, was raised to full height. At that moment, I understood I was experiencing all of Jewish history in two minutes. Jewish history lives at the intersection of exile and redemption, the point of transition between half mast and full glory. It may seem an absurd way to look at history; but wasn’t it also absurd for this small, persecuted people to persist in living on? 

Happy 68th, Israel!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Holocaust, 71 Years Later: A Yizkor Sermon

I had a dispute with a friend of mine a few years ago. I had just given a sermon that included an inspiring story that took place during the Holocaust.

My friend, who was a survivor of the Holocaust, came over afterward and said to me: “Nothing about the Holocaust was good. Don’t make it sound so positive.”

And he was right.

There is good reason to believe that remembrance of the Shoah can only be expressed in mourning and grief. Lawrence Langer, in his book Preempting the Holocaust, critiques those who find “positive lessons” in the Holocaust. He cites an incident at Matthausen, when a group of Jews were thrown into a pit of quicklime, and shouted for hours as they died an agonizing, slow death. Langer concludes that “Nothing we hear from well-intentioned commentators about….. the light of human community emerging from Holocaust darkness….or "fellowship of the suffering and the long suffering"... can silence the cries of those hundreds of Jews being boiled to death in an acid bath.”

Langer is correct. The 6 years of the Holocaust are an enormous black hole of barbarity, an inexplicable horror that one can mourn, and only mourn.

But let me explain why I think I am right as well. There is another side to remembering the Holocaust, because memory can focus in more than one direction.

Rav Soloveitchik speaks about this idea in lectures on the Haggadah. He notes there are two statements in the Haggadah that seem to say the same thing in different ways:

 וְאִלּוּ לֹא גָאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, עֲדַיִן אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרַיִם

“If the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would still be enslaved..”

וּבְכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

“In every generation one must view oneself as though one had personally left Egypt..”

The Rav points out the second statement is about reliving the original event, while the first statement is about seeing contemporary events in light of the past.

These two perceptions of the past are actually quite different. In one, we see ourselves as if we left Egypt, and in the other, we see ourselves today as people whose current situation is directly influenced by the Exodus.

It’s not just the Exodus that can be seen from either a narrow or broad perspective. Any moment in history can be seen from two vantage points, which I would call: "telescope time" and "microscope time".

“Microscope time” focuses completely on one narrow moment. What did it feel like the night we left Egypt? What is the experience of a year in Auschwitz like? Like a microscope, this perspective of time looks at one moment only.

“Telescope time” takes a broader view. It looks at an event and considers: What is the meaning of this event in the course of a life, of a history? What perspective do we take after a life of 70 or 80 years? How do you describe the historical experience of an entire century?

Like a telescope, this perspective of time focuses on a large area of time, and looks beyond the moment to consider the past, present and future at once.

Even on the darkest days of the calendar, we never lose the perspective of “telescope time”. The Orchot Chaim (R. Aharon ben R. Jacob ha -Cohen of Narbonne, France, early 1300’s) states that even for Tisha B’Av, which focuses on the tragedies of the past, we need to lessen the mourning in the afternoon, because we always keep an eye on the future. He writes:

אך מנהג קדום שהנשים רוחצות ראשן מן המנחה ולמעלה ביום ט' באב והזקנים הראשונים ז"ל הנהיגו זה ועשו סמך לדבר זה על מה שאמרו בהגדה כי המשיח נולד ביום ט"ב וכמו שעשו זכר לחורבן ולאבלות כן צריך לעשות הזכר לגואל ולמנחם כדי שלא להתיאש מן הגאולה.

“The ancient custom is for the women to wash their heads on the late afternoon of Tisha B’Av, and the elders of blessed memory who instituted this (counter- halachic) custom did so on the basis of the fact that the Aggadah says that Messiah will be born on the 9th of Av. And just like we make a commemoration for the destruction, so too we make a memorial for the redeemer and consoler; and this is done so we never lose hope for a future redemption.”

This is an eloquent statement of “telescope time”. We sit in mourning on the 9th of Av, yet never forget that there will be a future redemption. The Messianic future intrudes on the sadness of Tisha B’Av, and reminds us to remain hopeful and positive.

We know the reality of “microscope time” and “telescope time” from our own experiences.  When we are observing shiva and narrowly focused on mourning our loss, there are still times when we open up and see a larger picture, and smile and laugh at pleasant memories. And at weddings, when the couple focuses on their joy under the chuppah, reality still telescopes in, and with tears in our eyes we remember the people who are missing.

The concept of “telescope time” is why I am right too. Yes, there is no room for talking about the uplifting aspects of the Holocaust when you recognize the 6 million voices crying out in anguish; yes, there is no room for inspiration when you mourn for close to 70% of European Jewry.

But when you see the Holocaust in terms of the last 71 years, there is another narrative.

So what would be the larger narrative of the last 71 years? In terms of world history, little has changed. Over and over political leaders have vowed “never again”; but that promise has proved false. Since 1945, there have been genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Even Samantha Power, who writes eloquently about ending genocide, serves an administration that did nothing for the civilians of Syria. In the last 71 years, the world has not changed very much.

But in terms of Jewish history, things have changed dramatically. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism, and should have broken our spirits. Survivors should have given up hope, and world Jewry should have collapsed.

Yet nothing of the sort occurred. In the shadows of the concentration camps, orphaned survivors got married and started new families. The “bericha” sent ten of thousands of survivors to Israel, where many went directly to fight for the new state. And survivors around the world built communities, and garnered remarkable accomplishments in business, scientific and political life, including several Nobel Prizes.

Alongside the survivors, the Jewish world reenergized itself. After 1,900 years of exile, Jews returned to their homeland and built a state that is a world leader in multiple areas. The arc of Jewish history since the Shoah has been nothing short of miraculous, with a people rising from the ashes in a manner no one could have predicted.

On Yom Hashoah, we need to keep two perspectives in mind. Our first responsibility is to reflect on six years of carnage, and mourn the 6 million. But at the same time, we must be inspired by the remarkable story of the past 71 years, when the Jewish world was transformed by heroes who toiled quietly, home by home, community by community, to rebuild the Jewish world.

One excellent example comes from an obituary I read last year in a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. The paper has a column where friends can contribute significant obituaries about people who may not have been famous, but were important. After Pesach last year, an obituary appeared about Eta Birnbaum Chaim, 96. Eta had saved the life of her younger sister in Auschwitz, and then came to Toronto.

The obituary continues:

“Eta was deeply devoted to her religion and family, which included six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren…...Well into her 90s, she walked two kilometers each way to attend shul every Saturday. For five years, she walked the same distance, twice a day, to see Harry in Baycrest Hospital after he suffered a stroke….Last February, she chose to forego surgery when told she had an incurable tumor…..

She continued to prepare and host Shabbat suppers and made her best batches of gefilte fish and egg noodles for 35 guests at Passover, her favorite holiday. Eta took to her bed the following week and slipped gently away, whispering her Shema prayer with her family at her side, leaving a legacy of common values, uncommonly lived.”

Until the last seder, Eta made sure that the story of the Jewish people was told and retold. Because of wonderful women like Eta, Jewish history did not end with the Shoah, and because of her that we can say today “Am Yisrael Chai”.

Today, we are reciting Yizkor for people like Eta, who made a difference in a quiet way, with love and compassion. As we say Yizkor, there is one more thought I’d like to consider about “telescope time”, because the idea of telescope time solves a mystery about Yizkor.

How can we say Yizkor on a holiday; doesn’t it bring us to tears? A Yom Tov is meant to be a time of joy. We even suspend mourning in deference to Yom Tov; so how do we say Yizkor?

This question is cited by the Tzitz Eliezer (12:39) in the name of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein (the founder of the Chevron Yeshiva).

Perhaps the answer is this: seeing Yizkor through a “telescope” view of time is different. Yes, we cry during Yizkor; but we also can reflect recognize that while we feel a profound sense of loss, this pain we feel is the reflection of a true legacy. The person we grieve for continues to inspire us, and their legacy continues to live with us.

And even if we cry at Yizkor, there is still a feeling of appreciation for a life lived.

Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the name given was named Rochel; this baby was the first child to be named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. I cried for my loss, yet at the same time, took enormous pride in the legacy my mother had left us.

These tears are the tears of Yizkor, tears well suited even for the happiest of days. We cry, but at the same take pride in the legacy we have, a legacy that still lives on.



Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Job of a Rabbi


What do you do at your new job?

I have been asked this multiple times since moving to New York. The curiosity is quite understandable; what Rabbis do is always a bit mysterious. So much so, that a favorite rabbinic joke is the story of the student who is thinking of becoming a rabbi and asks to meet the Rabbi to ask a few questions. When the meeting starts, the young man turns to the rabbi and asks: “Rabbi, I know you give a sermon for 15 minutes every Shabbat morning. But what do you do the rest of the week?”. The rabbi immediately retorted: “young man, with questions like that, you don’t want to be a Rabbi; you want to be a synagogue president!”. What fills a Rabbi’s schedule is a grab bag of responsibilities far from the public eye.

Joking aside, there is one question I’ve started to think about again since I’ve started my new job: what is a Rabbi’s mission? One answer, attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, is that a Rabbi is supposed to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." (It was disappointing to learn that the quote is actually from the film “Inherit the Wind”.) Whatever the source of the quote, there is great wisdom to it, and it describes the mission of a Rabbi perfectly. A colleague once pointed out a similar pattern in prophetic literature. Before any catastrophe, the prophets would rebuke, warning the people to change their ways. But afterwards, when the people were exiled and hurt, the prophets would offer comfort and hope. The prophet’s job was to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and this is the mission of the Rabbi as well.

But this mission is paradoxical: how can prophets and rabbis do two opposite things at the same time? One way to decipher this paradox is to recognize that parents are also called on to do two opposite things at the same time. In research on parenting styles, John Martin and Eleanor Maccoby noted that there are two elements to parenting styles: how demanding the parent is, and how responsive the parent is. Permissive parents are responsive but not demanding, authoritarian parents are demanding but not responsive. But the ideal parent is authoritative, both responsive and demanding, someone who knows how to comfort an afflicted child, while at the same able to afflict the comfortable child and lead them to excellence. The job of a parent and a prophet are pretty much the same: they lead their charges to excellence through a combination of demandingness, compassion and inspiration.  

But we live in a day and age where the thought of demanding anything is foreign. It is difficult to speak about standards, as most people prefer to indulge and be indulged. The question for the modern rabbi is this: can you afflict the comfortable?

Even 2,000 years ago the Rabbis of the Talmud noted that “no one can rebuke, and no one can accept rebuke”, and since then afflicting the comfortable has gotten far less popular.  William James in 1902 noted that “We have now whole congregations whose preachers, far from magnifying our consciousness of sin, seem devoted rather to making little of it.”  Whatever the merits of what James calls the religion of the “healthy-minded”, it is clear that an undemanding Judaism ceases to inspire, and at times ceases to be authentic. As Rabbi Joseph b. Soloveitchik points out,  "Kedusha (sanctity) is not a paradise but a paradox". Without the demands and challenges of kedusha, Judaism dissolves into a meaningless mush of nostalgia, a cultural artifact ready to be forgotten in the attic.

So we must move beyond comfort in our search for the spiritual. But as I run out of space, I must leave you with a simple question: how do we do this in the 21st century?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Shira's Torah

(This originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, February 15, 2016. The article is based on my remarks at the Torah dedication.)


The Zohar remarks that even a Sefer Torah can be subject to luck; some are destined to be used prominently, and others are fated to gather dust and be ignored. If that is so, I know of one of the luckiest Torah scrolls in the world, which despite the fact that it sits humbly in a bomb shelter in Jerusalem, is arguably the most important Sefer Torah in the world today.


This Sefer Torah was donated in response to a terrible tragedy. Shira Banki, a 16 year old student, was murdered this past summer while marching in the Jerusalem pride parade. Her assailant was a Charedi Jew who despised gay rights. Sadly, judging from “pashkevil” notices posted after her murder, a significant number of people in the murderer’s community supported this horrible crime.


At the same time this murder disturbed many other Orthodox Jews, who were disgusted that the Torah was used as a justification for bloodshed. In particular, this horrible crime had a profound impact on Dr. Mark Wainberg, a leading AIDS researcher who is also an observant Jew. For him, this was a clash of the two worlds he lives in; he is a past President of an Orthodox synagogue, and at the same time works side by side with the LGBT community in the battle against AIDS. Mark decided to do something dramatic in response to this awful murder: he pledged to donate a Sefer Torah in Shira Banki’s memory. Shira had been murdered in the name of Halacha, and the murderer said the Torah was on his side. In response, this Sefer Torah declares loudly that the Torah stands on the side of Shira, on the side of the dignity, decency and the Jewish people.


After months of preparation, the day arrived. Shira’s family asked that Torah be given to a disadvantaged community. After some investigation, an Ethiopian synagogue housed in a bomb shelter on the periphery of Jerusalem was chosen to receive the Torah. A few dozen members of the synagogue, some of Shira’s family and friends, and members of the Israeli AIDS research community gathered for the dedication. And here something remarkable occurred. Jews of every background: Charedi, secular, Ethiopian, Ashkenazic, American and Israeli pulled together in dedicating this Torah. Shira’s mother Mika remarked in her speech that “Just like Jews have suffered together for generations, so it is fitting that when we are finally in our own country that we be together, for good and for bad, without checking each other’s Tzitzit”. And for a moment in this ramshackle synagogue, that hope came true.


That is why Shira’s Torah is exceptional. There are those who carry the Torah in the name animosity and division. But this Torah is different; it’s a Torah of unity and humanity. The Talmud compares the Torah to a song (“Shira” is the Hebrew word for song). The point of this metaphor is that like any song, the words are incomprehensible without fully understanding the melody. You need to follow the tune in order to know the purpose and emotion behind those words. The Torah cannot be understood without hearing its’ inner melody, without hearing the song of the Jewish people.


For a contemporary Orthodox Jew, there are struggles that arise when reading some sections of the Torah, including the prohibition against homosexuality. I cannot diminish the authority of what is black letter law; but at the same time, I cannot forget the incredible humanism implicit in seeing in every human being a reflection of the divine. As I struggle with these questions, I recognize that I may not merit to find a reconciling verse. But nevertheless, I can still find guidance in the melody of the Torah, whose tune is one of kindness, charity, blessing and life. And Shira’s Torah sings this melody, a melody that the Jewish world so sorely needs.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Menorah Lightings

This appeared in the CJN, January 13th, 2016

It turned out to be a farce. Our community Menorah was vandalized on the first night of Chanukah, hours after the annual Menorah lighting. In the course of an afternoon, a special Menorah lighting for the second night was organized. Hundreds arrived in solidarity, and Mayor DeBlasio and political leaders attended. The message on the second night was clear: New York City will not tolerate intolerance.  This evening of solidarity was wonderful, except for one problem: the vandalism had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. A few days later, a 14 year old was arrested; he said he had vandalized the Menorah because he was “bored”. In retrospect, it was much ado about nothing, a rally against an anti-Semitic act that never was.

This phantom hate crime brings up a complicated subject: anti-Semitism. It’s hard for many to recognize that anti-Semitism is no longer an existential threat for North American Jews. (The situation is very different for European Jews). To be clear, anti-Semitism is a serious issue for all Canadians and Americans, just like any act of racism; democracies must react forcefully, to prevent prejudice from spreading. But anti-Semitism is no longer the primary challenge facing North American Jews. George Washington hoped that “the children of the Stock of Abraham” would “merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants”; that is certainly the case in 2015. Jews in North America are established, admired and affluent; yet despite all the good news, our community is shrinking rapidly.

Today, the greatest threat to Jewish life is assimilation. The people who show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the ones who matter most: young Jews. The Pew report of 2013 reports that 32% of Jews 35 and younger identify themselves as Jews “with no religion”. Exactly at the moment when we’ve overcome historic struggles with discrimination and hatred, we find ourselves facing an even greater test: acceptance.  

Acceptance is the achilles heel of the Jewish community. In medieval Europe, Jews in Northern European countries experienced greater persecution than their peers in Spain, yet the Spanish Jews were more likely to convert out of Judaism. Paradoxically, Jews have found it easier to keep their Jewish identity when when it was difficult to be a Jew.To paraphrase Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, success is a test as well. And for American Jews, success is turning out to be a greater challenge to Jewish identity than persecution.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed,” because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. He’s absolutely correct. We have made our way into restricted country clubs, and now thrive in once-restricted neighbourhoods. But what are we going to do about assimilation?

While there are no quick fixes for assimilation, the annual Menorah lighting is part of the solution. This program, sponsored by Chabad and the KJ Beginner’s program, has one simple assumption: that even one Chanukah candle can open the door to a meaningful Jewish identity. And engagement initiatives like this have had a wide-ranging effect on American Jews.

American Jewish history is the tale of these two menorah lightings. One story is the 350 year battle against anti-Semitic prejudices, a heartwarming story of refugees from other countries finding full acceptance in the United States and Canada; that was on full display when the Mayor attended the second Menorah lighting. But the story of the 21st century Jewish community, one that remains to be written, is whether Judaism can continue to compete for the hearts and minds of young Jews. While it’s wonderful that the Mayor lit the Menorah on the second night of Chanukah, our future depends on whether we will be able to inspire the next generation of Jews to light the Menorah all eight nights of Chanukah.





Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Small Time Boy Comes to the Big City

(originally appeared in CJN)

I just moved to New York City from Cote Saint Luc, a suburban village that is the closest thing to a shtetl anywhere in Canada. So everyone’s been asking me the same question: what's life like in the big city?

It’s a good question. When I grew up in Monsey, New York, it was a small town, a place where everyone looked out for each other. And like any small town boy, I still crave that unique sense of camaraderie. Rod Dreher features this small town spirit in his memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”. Dreher left his small town in Louisiana as a teenager. After years of city life, he returns when his younger sister is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Dreher was so impressed by communal support given his sister that he decided to move back to Louisiana. There’s simply no community like small town community.

Big cities are very different. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his classic work “Community and Society”, describes the city as dramatically different than small towns: it is built around advancing individual ambition rather than building communal cohesiveness, and as a consequence, is rather cold and impersonal. And to the minds of many, big cities should be avoided. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

So what happens when a small town boy like me moves to the big city?

Actually, this question is relevant to every Jew, wherever we live, because Jews are fundamentally small town folk. The Book of Genesis offers an extended critique of big cities; the plans of the first city builders are frustrated by God, and there is marked contrast between the hospitable small town ways of Abraham and the big town coldness of Sodom and Egypt.

Yet despite the failures of cities and empires, the Torah does not demand that the Jews remain tent dwelling nomads; in fact, it encourages us to build a cosmopolitan state with well developed institutions.

So what happens when small town Jews build a big city? We bring the small town with us. Maimonides teaches that despite the Biblical obligation to love one’s neighbor, the Rabbis added additional obligations to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the bereaved, and marry off brides. The point of these additional obligations is that we must do more than love our neighbor; we are obliged to extend beyond our immediate social circle and build community. It is not enough to treat those we know with kindness; we must create an embracing community that cares for all of the sick, each mourner and every bride. And the magic of the Jewish tradition is that even when we build large cosmopolitan societies, we insure that within them beats the heart of a small town community.

Israel is an excellent example of this unique small town ethos. In 2014, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas, fell in battle. There was virtually no one to attend the funeral. But after a worried friend posted a Facebook message about his funeral, news spread like wildfire, and in the end 20,000+ people attended Sean’s funeral. This outpouring of kindness could only happen in Israel, where a large country still carries the warmth of a small town.

Now that I’ve arrived in New York City, I’m learning that in this bustling metropolis there’s a small town hiding underneath. In my first Shabbat at my new synagogue, we honored the outgoing chair of the synagogue’s Bikur Cholim; this dedicated group visits patients at Sloan Kettering every Shabbat. Here in middle of Manhattan is a team of volunteers visiting the sick, making this community, like every Jewish community, one big small town.

So what’s it like living in the big city? To tell you truth, as a small town boy, I feel right at home.