Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rav Soloveitchik, Margaret Mead, and the Jewish Generation Gap

In March 1969, Margaret Mead gave a series of lectures at the American Museum of Natural History which focused on a problem she called “the generation gap.” She noted that since the end of World War II, the younger generation had been rebelling against governmental and educational systems. Mead argued that this was occurring because nowhere in the world are there elders who know what children know... In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up with a cultural system. Today there are none. Contemporary culture is constantly evolving, and it is the younger generation that now knows best. The longstanding paradigm of wisdom being the province of the elders has now evaporated, and instead, the older and younger generations struggle for dominance, each certain of their own rectitude. For Mead, generation gaps are inevitable, and part of an ever-quickening process of cultural evolution. Her view is that the only end to this conflict is if the older generation abdicates their vision and ceases to be trapped in the past; instead, they should seek to pursue the future alongside the younger generation.

At a Pidyon Haben in 1974, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offered a dramatically different understanding of the generation gap; namely, that with a timeless tradition, there is none. The baby boy at the Pidyon Haben was both the child and grandchild of the Rav’s students, and the topic of his speech was “The First Jewish Grandfather.” The Rav explained that contemporary man is so proud of his technological achievements that he has contempt for the past. His pride in progress makes him reject introspection. Scientific progress is mistaken for human progress, and the average person loses his appreciation for age-old insights into the human soul. A generation gap arises due to a lack of respect for the past. But, in the house of Jacob, Rav Soloveitchik explains, there is no generation gap. We see in this week’s Torah reading, Yaakov connects directly to his grandchildren, and leaps over the gulf of generations. This is because all who study Torah -  old and young -  are part of the same fraternity - the Mesorah community. The first Jewish grandfather teaches us how revelation and tradition erase the bounds of time. Rav Soloveitchik then dramatically describes his own classroom, where he, a teacher in his 70s, sits with students a half a century younger than himself. But as they study together, they bring the text to life; and Rabbis from centuries ago, Rashi, Rambam, Rabbi Akiva and others, join them in the classroom. The tradition unites young and old into one timeless generation.


Rav Soloveitchik’s lecture teaches us how the tradition ought to function. But that is not how it actually does. The irony is that today, the idea of “generation gap” is no longer relevant; in 21st century America, younger and older generations seem to work extremely well together. But the Jewish community is different. The 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews reported runaway rates of assimilation. The younger generation of Jews, who are less embracing of Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel, don’t see eye to eye with their elders. There still is a Jewish generation gap.


Yaakov’s interaction with Ephraim and Menasheh actually tells us a different story. It is not the timelessness of the tradition that bonds old and young together; rather, it is the love of family that bridges the generation gap. When Yoseph brings Ephraim and Menasheh to his father, Yaakov asks: “Who are these?” This might be explained by Yaakov’s dimmed vision, or perhaps because he didn’t get to know his grandchildren well. But metaphorically, as the Midrash points out, this is a statement that expresses spiritual distance. Even Yoseph’s response, They are my sons, whom God has given me here expresses distance: Yoseph is explaining that these are the grandchildren born far away from the family home, in Egypt. Yaakov is confronting grandchildren who are foreign both in birth and in manner.


Yet Yaakov uses this moment to connect with love; he offers kisses, hugs and blessings.  And then he blesses Ephraim and Menasheh, and declares, In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.  Yes, Yaakov is saying, these children were born far from home and have lived at a distance from our family. But they, too, will carry our legacy; even these children raised in the court of Pharaoh will be part of the Jewish future.


The key to understanding this section is the word “name.” It reminds us that Menasheh and Ephraim have names that celebrate breaking away from Yaakov’s home. Yoseph named them when he was disconnected from his family, and their names mean “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” and “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”  Their names represent a breaking away, an attempt to let go of the past and begin a new future. In offering Menasheh and Ephraim his own name, Yaakov brings them back home; they are forgotten children no more.  In one embrace, a painful separation is healed.


There are two methods for overcoming the generation gap. One way is to bond together in a timeless tradition, where young and old live simultaneously in the past, present and future. But that is not always a possibility. Not everyone connects to the tradition of Moshe on Sinai. But there is another way. They can respond to the embrace of Aharon, which will bridge differences and bring the Jewish family back together again.


When faced for the first time with a Jewish generation gap, Yaakov hugs, kisses, and blesses. And in uncertain times for Jewish identity, we might want to consider doing the same.

Monday, December 28, 2020

When Hugs Really Matter: Yaakov's Lesson for the End of Covid

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Yoseph vs. Romulus: A Lesson About Jewish Leadership

Romulus and Remus are the foundational figures of Roman mythology. The descendants of Kings and Gods, these twin brothers live legendary lives, fleeing jealous rulers and becoming courageous military leaders as young men. The brothers resolve to build a city together, but they cannot agree on which hill to do so. Romulus begins to build a city on his own, which will eventually become the great city of Rome. But then, as the dispute with his brother intensifies, Romulus murders Remus. The first century Roman historian Livy recounts the tale:

...Remus, in derision of his brother, leaped over the newly-erected walls, and was thereupon slain by Romulus in a fit of passion, who, mocking him, added words to this effect: ‘So perish every one hereafter, who shall leap over my walls.’ Thus Romulus obtained possession of supreme power for himself alone. The city, when built, was called after the name of its founder.

Rome is built on top of Remus’ blood; its origin story gives an account of states and statesmanship which sees true virtue as a political failure and ambition as a political good. Leo Strauss, commenting on Machiavelli’s commentaries to Livy, writes: According to Machiavelli, the founder of the most renowned commonwealth of the world was a fratricide: the foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime. To achieve greatness, one must be a severe and ruthless leader, ready to do whatever necessary in order to maintain power.

Our Torah reading offers a very different origin story, with a very different account of leadership. Yoseph and his brothers have two confrontations that nearly devolve into violence. First, the brothers nearly murder Yoseph for having ambitions of leadership. Then, after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph torments his brothers in revenge, framing, imprisoning and enslaving them. In both instances, this story almost ended in fratricide.

Yet this catastrophic end is prevented because of Yoseph’s transformation, and a new vision of what leadership should be.

Yoseph begins his career with a profound sense of ambition. He is his father’s favorite, a primping, preening gossip with regal ambitions. He has grandiose dreams of ruling his brothers that can easily be dismissed as the products of an egocentric mind.

Those dreams cause him a great deal of heartache. But after enduring thirteen years of slavery, Yoseph achieves great power in a great empire. And then, nine years after becoming the viceroy of Egypt, Yoseph confronts his brothers again. As Don Isaac Abravanel explains, Yoseph is in emotional turmoil and uncertain about what he wants to do.  Revenge suggests itself as a possibility; his hostile accusations certainly bring great anguish to his brothers.

The Torah tells us that when he first sees his brothers after a twenty-two year hiatus, Yoseph remembers his childhood dreams. This is the key to his ultimate transformation. Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, the Ketav Sofer, offers a fascinating insight. The words of the verse say chalam lahem, which literally means Yoseph dreamed for them, for his brothers. The Ketav Sofer explains that at this moment Yoseph understood that his dreams of leadership were actually meant to benefit his brothers. Yoseph now recognizes that his dreams are not to fulfill his own ambitions, because the leader's job is to serve everyone else. In hindsight, Yoseph recognizes that his journey was meant to transform him; the years of servitude were meant to break his ego and awaken his humility and compassion.

A Jewish leader must know how to put others first.  Yoseph began training for true leadership the moment he was sold into slavery. And now that he is reunited with his brothers, it gradually dawns upon him that he must step up and serve. After Yoseph reveals his identity, he makes an extraordinary statement to his brothers:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you...But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Yoseph now sees his odyssey as part of a Divine mission to help his brothers; his leadership role is one of devotion to his brothers, because a Jewish leader is meant to be a servant leader.

The term "servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay,  "The Servant as Leader." After having served an entire career in management training at AT&T, Greenleaf was left disenchanted by what he saw as the authoritarian model of leadership that most corporations had. In that essay, Greenleaf writes:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first….That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Yoseph begins his young life with visions of being the absolute leader, someone whose own parents bow to him. Luckily, he transforms himself into a servant leader just as his family needs it most. Instead of seizing his brothers as slaves or sending them home to starve, he takes it upon himself to support them and to reunite the family. In becoming a servant leader, Yoseph ensures the survival of the Jewish people.

Twenty-first century America is a deeply individualistic society, where the pursuit of leadership is one and the same as the pursuit of personal ambition. Yoseph teaches us a very different model of leadership, and his example inspires many others over the years; and it is these servant leaders who have sustained the Jewish community for generations. As we read this parsha, we must offer our gratitude for those humble leaders who have put their followers first.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Winter, Christmas, and Chanukah


Winter brings a shiver to the soul. It is the season of hibernation and stagnation. The nights are longer, the air is frigid, and there are moments when the world feels unforgiving, dark and dreary. Winter can very easily become a season of discontent.

Both Judaism and Christianity have holidays right around the winter solstice, and both holidays have thematic connections to the season. In a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a), we are told about the origins of Saturnalia, the pagan predecessor to Christmas.  Adam, the first man, sinned and was thrown out of the Garden of Eden. It was fall, and he noticed that each day became progressively shorter and colder. Adam began to worry that "perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark, and will return to chaos and disorder." He fasted and prayed to be spared; and then the solstice arrived, and the days got longer. Adam, overjoyed with the realization that winter is not the end of the world, established a holiday to thank God. However, this initially well-meant holiday was eventually appropriated by pagans for idol worship. The Talmud teaches us that passing the winter solstice has a spiritual message: light will return, and man, despite his flaws, will be delivered from his distress. Winter is not endless, nor is it the end.

This message is transformative, because belief in a better future makes us more resilient. In a famous 1957 study, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Curt Richter, tested the resilience of wild rats. Richter placed the rats in a bucket of water to see how long they would swim before giving up. Most would drown within 15 minutes. However, if the rats were “saved” by being taken out of the water before they would drown, they would swim for increasingly longer periods of time, and could continue swimming up to 60 hours. The possibility of being saved made the rats more resilient.

Hope is more than a warm fuzzy feeling; it provides all living beings with greater strength and determination. And each winter, as we pass the solstice, we learn to hope again.

But it is here where Chanukah's message is different. It tells of another type of hope, one that doesn’t depend on the memory of deliverance. Chanukah teaches us that the greatest miracles are products of the soul, which is strong enough to persevere even in the darkest moments. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov notes that Chanukah arrives just before the solstice, on the darkest, most hopeless night of the year. This is because the triumph of the Maccabees is a triumph of inner hope, of finding inspiration when none is apparent. The Maccabees should have given up before they started. How could a small group of men take on a powerful empire? What kept the Maccabees going was their own inner light, a refusal to despair despite the overwhelming odds against them.

The spirit of Chanukah can bend reality. Natan Sharansky tells of one Chanukah in the gulag when the guards confiscated his improvised Menorah. Sharansky declared a hunger strike; in an attempt to avoid bad publicity, the commanding officer in the camp, Major Osin, allowed Sharansky to light Chanukah candles in his office. As Osin stood by, Sharansky improvised this Hebrew blessing: "Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Chanukah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Chanukah candles many times in your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.” Then, Sharansky added, "And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say 'Amen.'" Osin, hearing the end of the blessing, politely added in "Amen." While it would take many years before Sharansky made it to Jerusalem, this too was a Chanukah miracle: one courageous man so determined to hold on to his Judaism, that he managed to enlist a KGB Major to pray for his emigration.

Chronologically, Chanukah is the final holiday in the Jewish calendar - the last one established before the destruction of the Second Temple. It arrives at a moment when miracles are few and the Divine Presence is hidden; and it teaches a lesson for an age when deliverance is improbable. For much of the last 2,000 years, Jewish history has been an endless winter, a hopeless, barren terrain of exile. Yet, during this time, there has been an ongoing miracle of faith, the spirit of a remarkable people who never lost hope. And on the darkest night of the year, Chanukah reminds us of a hope that requires no promises, just the miracle of perseverance.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

We Need Chanukah More Than Ever This Year

It is easy to dismiss Chanukah as relatively unimportant. In America, what has made Chanukah prominent actually diminishes its value; it is an also-ran holiday that only achieved importance as the Jewish counterpart to Christmas. But Chanukah has a universal message, one that is more meaningful than ever. Eight months into a pandemic, our morale is already wearing thin; and now we face a challenging winter, where we are forced indoors just as a new spike of cases arrive. Chanukah reminds us to never let hold of hope, no matter what.

“What is Chanukah?” It is surprising to see this question posed by the rabbis of the Talmud, as if the origins of the holiday were unknown to them. By the time the Talmud was written almost 2,000 years ago, the holiday was well known, and the story had been recorded in the  Book of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha. There had been a war of independence fought by Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, against the Seleucid Empire, and afterward the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated. The celebration of this event was called “Chanukah,” the Hebrew word for dedication.

Yet if this were the rationale for Chanukah, the holiday should have disappeared once the Temple was destroyed. It would have been irrelevant. Why celebrate the rededication of a Temple that no longer existed? This is what the Talmud is wondering when it asks, “What is Chanukah?”

The Talmud offers an alternate reason for Chanukah. It tells of a miracle involving the menorah, the Temple’s candelabra. During the rededication, the Maccabees found just one jar of the High Priest's olive oil, enough for one night; but miraculously, the menorah remained lit for eight nights. With this explanation, Chanukah no longer depends on the rededication of the Temple. Yet this explanation prompts a question of its own: Why institute a holiday for a miraculous jar of oil?

The Talmud is actually reinventing Chanukah. For Jews in exile, this holiday celebrating a former triumph was transformed into a festival of hope, and the relatively unimportant miracle of the menorah now took center stage. One small jar of oil lasting for eight nights became a metaphor for a small community overcoming the odds against them. Jews in exile could take heart in the fact their Maccabees ancestors were able to overcome all odds; they were inspired to think that they could too. 

Hope is a puzzle; many observers are unclear as to what  value it has. To some, like  the Roman Philosopher Seneca, hope is a denial of reality, which prevents us from “adapting ourselves to the present”. Others see a value in hope as a useful myth, one that prods people to feel more confident, and to aspire to build a better future. This certainly is enough of a reason to be hopeful. But a Jewish theology of hope goes much further, and sees hope as part of the divine blueprint. Hope is based on the belief that the world is always taking another step in the direction of redemption. And even one small Menorah miracle can serve as a reminder of that blueprint.

For nearly two millennia, the ritual of lighting candles on the longest, darkest and coldest nights of the year gave an embattled people hope. And it is the very smallness of the ritual that makes it so powerful. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement said: “A little light pushes away a great deal of darkness.” The same is true of hope. Even a bit of hope gives us the strength to continue onward and pursue redemption.

Last December, paramedics were called to the home of an elderly couple in Lakewood, N.J. As they were taking the wife to the ambulance, they noticed that alongside the Chanukah menorah there was a burning wick embedded inside a half of a potato. When the paramedics asked what the potato was for, the husband explained that during the Holocaust, he was on the run from the Nazis, hiding in different locations. He had very little, but for Chanukah he was able to improvise a menorah from a potato, some oil and a wick. After his liberation, the man explained, he continued to light a potato Menorah, to remember the miracle of his survival.

This December, hope is on the horizon, with the first deliveries of covid vaccines. But there will be much worry and suffering to come before the end of this pandemic. Right now, the lesson of the Lakewood man’s Chanukah potato is especially useful: A little hope can go a long way, and a little light pushes away a great deal of darkness.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Siyum to Eruvin


In the past, I have noted that frequently the final passage in each Mesechet is subversive, and offers a corrective to the message of the entire Mesechet. Eruvin is no exception to this pattern.

The final Mishnah of Eruvin says:

If a [dead] creeping thing was found in the Temple, a priest should carry it out in his girdle in order not to keep the impurity there any longer than is necessary, the words of Rabbi Yohanan ben Beroka. Rabbi Judah says: [it should be removed] with wooden tongs in order that uncleanness shall not increase…. Rabbi Shimon says: wherever the sages have permitted you anything they have only given you what is really yours, since they have only permitted you that which is forbidden as shevut.

After an entire Mesechet devoted to rabbinic prohibitions, the final section offers  a series of exceptions where rabbinic law. More dramatically, it includes a statement by Rabbi Shimon about the flexibility of boundaries. The Talmud relates it to the following passage, earlier in the Mesechet: Rabbi Shimon says: Even if he was fifteen cubits beyond the limit he may enter the town, because the surveyors do not precisely demarcate the measures; rather, they mark the Shabbat limit within the two thousand cubits, due to those who err.

A Mesechet about boundaries ends with a statement that sometimes the boundaries are actually imprecise. And one must listen carefully to Rabbi Shimon’s actual words: wherever the sages have permitted you anything they have only given you what is really yours.” This phrase implies something larger; that Rabbinic law itself is something that is flexible, prohibiting actions and objects that actually rightfully should be permissible.

In addition, the final Mishnayot of Eruvin explain that Rabbinic law is put aside in the Temple. And this might offer a lesson of its own; in a God’s house, a purely divine law reigns. Rabbinic law is not an ideal; but it is needed for those who live in private courtyards and do business in public domains, 

The lesson of this last passage is a corrective for the rest of the Mesechet. Rabbinic law is about humans and their foibles, and without the intervention of Chazal, Shabbat might become a day of travel, moving and warehousing. While we have emphasized the details of Rabbinic law for the last 103 pages, we must remember these laws don’t represent a new ideal; actually, these laws were instituted because of human weakness. 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

When You Can't Say Goodbye: Yizkor Shemini Azeret 2020

There's an old Jewish joke that asks: what is the difference between a Jew and a Frenchman at a party? A Frenchman leaves and never says goodbye, but the Jew says goodbye and never leaves.

This joke is more than a joke; it actually is a pithy statement of Jewish theology. The holiday of Shemini Azeret is quite strange. It is the 8th day of Sukkot, which itself is unusual; this makes Sukkot one day longer than its sibling holiday of Pesach. This 8th day of Sukkot is also peculiar because it has neither of the Sukkot rituals, Lulav and Sukkah. How does one make sense of Shemini Azeret?

Rashi offers an explanation. He explains that Shemini Azeret is not part of the original design for Sukkot, and is meant to be seen as an extra holiday. He writes that:

..כְּמֶלֶךְ שֶׁזִּמֵּן אֶת בָּנָיו לִסְעוּדָה לְכָךְ וְכָךְ יָמִים, כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ זְמַנָּן לִפָּטֵר, אָמַר, בָּנַי בְּבַקָּשָׁה מִכֶּם עַכְּבוּ עִמִּי עוֹד יוֹם אֶחָד, קָשָׁה עָלַי פְּרֵדַתְכֶם:

“..It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, “Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!”

Rashi’s explanation makes intuitive sense. Shemini Azeret marks the end of the pilgrimage festivals, when all of the nation came to visit the Temple, and it is the end of the Tishrei holidays, which after the destruction of the Temple, became a time of unique connection to the synagogue. With Shemini Azeret, the holiday schedule comes to a close; this eighth day of a seven day holiday represents a bittersweet final farewell to the holidays.

However, the Midrash itself is problematic. It says that a day is added to Sukkot because it is difficult to say goodbye. But how will staying one more day make it easier to say goodbye? The problem of saying goodbye will come back the next day! For an example of this, at the end of the Book of Judges there’s a narrative in which a man continually asks his son-in-law to stay for one more day, because he can't bear having him leave. All that staying one more day will do is postpone the difficulty of saying goodbye.

I think this Midrash is making a different point. By staying one more day beyond the end, we have demonstrated a significant truth: the end is not the end. With an extra day, the last day of Sukkot is no longer the last day of Sukkot. Shemini Azeret is actually an attack on the very notion of endings. 

And Jews don't believe in endings. Our notion of time is founded on the understanding that a timeless being created the world; therefore, a concept of time with rigid beginnings and ends is impossible. For those whose greatest aspiration is to have an experience of the infinite, the constraints of time, with its beginnings and ends have a very different meaning.

This inability to accept endings is very much a part of Judaism’s DNA. On Simchat Torah we will be concluding our yearly reading of the Torah; yet immediately, almost compulsively, we must start reading the first book of the Torah, the Book of Bereishit again. The Torah might have a final chapter but it has no end. We will return, and return again and again to the Torah.

Jewish history also has no end. Jews have refused to accept the dignified burial that so many demanded of us. We have managed to survive, revive and thrive, to the confusion of the pundits and the frustration of our enemies. Every time it looked like there was an end to Jewish history, there was a new beginning, even more remarkable than the previous one.

At Yizkor, we also refuse to accept an ending. Our hearts are sometimes overwhelmed by the thought that עלי קשה, how painful it is to be apart from those we have loved; but we take comfort and consolation in knowing that there is no true end, and their spirit still remains with us.

When a baby is named after a family member who has just passed away, you can see an unusual look on the family’s faces when the name is announced; they are crying and laughing at the same time. They are crying because  עלי קשה,  it is so difficult not to have those we love with us. And yet they smile, because it as a moment of עַכְּבוּ עִמִּי עוֹד יוֹם אֶחָד , in which the final chapter gets rewritten. The ending is now no longer an ending, but the beginning of a new chapter. A baby naming is a moment of true timelessness.

Today we say yizkor, and we remember a past that is not yet a past.

We remember those whose impact on our lives very much remains with us.

We remember those whose names and whose legacies are being carried by the next generation into the future.

And as we say Yizkor, and shed a tear for those when we desperately miss, we do something that is deeply Jewish: we refuse to let the end be the end.



Shabbat Shuvah 5781 Fasting: Human Weakness or Human Greatness?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rosh Hashanah 2020: How Do I Get Through This?


I was counseling a friend, a stay-at-home mother with two children, who was going through the dual crisis of bankruptcy and divorce. The question she asked me is one that still reverberates in my mind: How do I get through this?

Rabbis hear this difficult question all too often. There’s the  couple whose young son got an ear infection on Friday and whose funeral was the next Tuesday, and the person who went for a regular checkup and found out that she has a frightening disease. Standing at the threshold of a crisis, these people wonder if they will be able to cope with what lays ahead.

In the past year so many of us have been wondering: “how do I get through this”. While the Torah is not a psychology textbook, it does help us wrestle with the existential questions of life; and the texts of the Jewish tradition offer a great deal of guidance on how to navigate a crisis.  Humanity confronts its first crisis right at the beginning of the Bible, in the second chapter of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden; and from there on, the texts of the Jewish tradition tell of generations of strugglers, people who grappled with personal and communal challenges.

The spiritual response to crisis recognizes that our spiritual lives are organized around different relationships. The Maharal of Prague, in his commentary to the beginning of Pirkei Avot, explains that there are three such relationships: between man and God, between man and his fellow man, and between man and himself. Man must always look inward, outward, and upward for inspiration; and all three relationships can help us overcome challenges.

We must look inward to find courage.

One of the great Biblical lessons about courage comes from our ancestor Jacob. The Bible describes the moments before he is about to confront his brother Esau. The twin brothers have not seen each other for 20 years; and the last time they did see each other, Esau vowed that he would murder Jacob.

Jacob gets up in the middle of that night to move his family, and then an angel comes and wrestles with him. But this is puzzling:  why is Jacob moving his family in the middle of the night, and why is God sending an angel to wrestle with him?

The Rashbam offers a fascinating explanation. Jacob was afraid, and had planned on running away from Esau that night. But God did not want Jacob to run away; and to teach Jacob the lesson of courage, he sent the angel to keep Jacob from fleeing. After wrestling the entire night, Jacob vanquishes the angel, and the angel then offers Jacob a new name, Israel, because Jacob "has wrestled with God and with man and prevailed".

The Rashbam's explanation fits the text very well, but it poses a further question of its own. How is it that Jacob is praised for wrestling that night, when in actuality he was a coward who wanted to run away?

The answer to this question has to do with an understanding of where courage comes from. Many believe that courage is inborn; but it's not.

Courage is not natural. But when you are thrown into a situation that demands courage, you can find an inner strength you never knew that you possessed, much like Jacob. And that itself deserves to be highlighted. The lesson Jacob teaches us about life is that we need to just jump in and wrestle. We all have a lot more courage than we imagine.

When I was a child, we had a basement that was foreboding for me, particularly at night; I was afraid to go down there. But my mother constantly encouraged me to go down into the basement. She felt strongly that I needed to train myself to overcome my fears.

It was only when I became an adult that I realized that my mother's insistence was autobiographical. She was a survivor of the Holocaust. As a teenager she was deported from a privileged home, wearing a fur coat and fancy jewelry. From there she was thrust into the horrors of the Holocaust overnight. In an instant, my mother had to train herself how to be courageous. And she truly was.

My mother was trying to teach me a life lesson that she had learned with a great deal of pain: you can do it. You don't need to be born with courage. In fact you don't even need to be courageous to have courage. You just have to be ready to wrestle when that is what life demands.

If there is a lesson we all need this year, It is a lesson that Jacob/Israel is teaching us: You can do it.

But we can’t get through the crisis alone. Our relationship with others is critical.

The first two human beings don't get off till a good start. Adam and Eve eat forbidden fruit, and when confronted by God over this failure, end up playing the blame game. This isn't a great start to a relationship.

And yet after being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, confronting a cruel, cursed existence, they find comfort in each other, have children and build a family.

One can fully see the shift in their relationship when Adam gives his wife an admiring new name, Eve, reflecting the fact that she is the mother of all mankind. (Before that she was simply the generic "isha", which means "woman".) This shows Adam's deepening respect for the woman he previously had bad-mouthed to God.

Then Adam and Eve endure a second crisis, even more horrible than the first. One of their sons murders the other. And yet they continue to build a family, and have another child, Seth.

Man is a social animal, and cooperation is critical to the success of any significant project. But it is in times of defeat and difficulty that we need each other more, for companionship and compassion. It is with love that we find renewed strength, and the ability to face even the most horrible of circumstances.

Adam and Eve remind us  of the power of love and family. And I've seen this demonstrated in the lives of friends who were survivors of the Holocaust.

I have one friend who, as a teenager, saw his brother murdered, and then escaped into the woods alone. He would tell me over and over again, that the first thing he wanted to do after the war was to start a family; and he built a flourishing multi-generational family. Another person I knew spent the last two years of the Holocaust in a Hungarian labor camp. There, one of the other inmates showed him a picture of his sister. He looked at the picture, and then looked at his friend and said: she is beautiful. I want to marry her.

And he did.

Even at the worst moments of their lives, these men were thinking about family and love. And that is inspirational.

Iddo Landau has written a book entitled “Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World”. At one point in the book he explains why the subject of meaning is so important to him. He writes that:

"I was born in the late 1950s and spent most of my childhood and youth in Jerusalem. Many of my neighbors, and some relatives were Holocaust survivors. I remember being impressed as a teenager by the ability some of of them had to lead meaningful and sometimes even happy lives….many of them had gone on to create new families and new lives...

Meeting some of these people in my youth left on me a strong impression that has lasted to this day."

This is finding strength through love.

Finally, we must also look upward. It is during crises that our relationship with God becomes strained. But there is one aspect of our relationship with God that becomes particularly important during this time.

There is an element of faith that many Jewish thinkers refer to as "bitachon". According to Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, the Chazon Ish, it refers to a faith that God has a plan for each of us. But how does one understand God's plan for us? 

I believe that bitachon  is about recognizing that our existence has been endowed by God for a greater purpose, and that we all have a mission in life. And we sometimes find our mission at our most painful moments.

One of the more remarkable survivors of the Holocaust was the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam. The war had taken the lives of his wife and their eleven children, but the Rebbe continued to be a true spiritual leader, and after the war gave strength and encouragement to thousands of other survivors. During a death march, the Rebbe was shot in the shoulder, and he lost a considerable amount of blood. As he was losing his strength he made a vow to God: “If I merit to survive, I will garner all my energies to build a hospital in the Holy Land where every human being will receive the same dedicated medical care irrespective of nationality or creed.”

After the war he kept his vow. In 1955 he started to work on the project of building a hospital in Netanya. After nearly 20 years, his hospital, the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, opened in 1975.

Not all of us will end up building a hospital. But the mission we need to find is not necessarily one of decades or years. As the Baal Shem Tov once said, "a soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years just in order to do one good deed."

Sometimes even one act of kindness is a transcendent mission; one care basket for a lonely neighbor, one phone call to a long lost friend. We all have a mission to fulfill, and it is in times of crisis that we need to embrace it firmly.

These are Jewish lessons about crisis: reach inward for courage, reach outward in love, and look upward in search of our destiny.

When we look back years and decades later, we can see how powerful these responses are.

Let me end with one example.

 On June 22, 2016, I officiated at a special wedding in Caesarea, Israel.

 The bride was the granddaughter of my late friend John from Montreal. He was a survivor of the Holocaust whose entire family, except for his mother, were murdered by the Nazis.

 When I arrived in Israel, John told me he had been up for a few nights thinking about the date June 22nd. Like all weddings, the couple had chosen the date for logistical reasons, but in the back of John’s mind he knew June 22nd was also a very important date; he just couldn’t remember why.

 Then 2 days before the wedding, John realized that on June 22nd, 1941, the Germans had invaded Russia. It was on that day that the Russians took him away for military service, and it was the last day John saw his father, brothers and sister. June 22, 1941 was a tragic day in Jewish history, and on that day John’s young life was torn apart.

 But then 75 years later, something else was happening on June 22. His granddaughter was getting married in Israel to a veteran of an elite IDF unit. John could barely imagine that he would survive, and now his granddaughter was getting married in the Jewish state.

 This is what the response to crisis looks like 75 years later.

 And right now, as we continue to struggle with this crisis, we should remember that with courage, love and a sense of purpose, we can transform the world. 

 Shanah Tovah!

The One Blessing That's in Your Hands: A Thought for the Days of Awe #yo...

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Siyum to Shabbat: When Work is Play


The conclusion of Shabbat, much like the conclusion of many other Mesechtot, contains a contextualizing and corrective message.

The text reads:

עוּלָּא אִיקְּלַע לְבֵי רֵישׁ גָּלוּתָא. חַזְיֵיהּ לְרַבָּה בַּר רַב הוּנָא דְּיָתֵיב בְּאַוּוֹנָא דְמַיָּא וְקָא מָשַׁח לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אֵימַר דְּאָמְרִי רַבָּנַן מְדִידָה דְמִצְוָה, דְּלָאו מִצְוָה מִי אֲמוּר? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מִתְעַסֵּק בְּעָלְמָא אֲנָא.

 “Ulla happened to come to the house of the Exilarch. He saw Rabba bar Rav Huna sitting in a tub [avna] of water and measuring it. He said to Rabba bar Rav Huna: Say that the Sages said that it is permitted to measure on Shabbat only a measurement for a mitzva. However, with regard to a measurement like this one, which is not for a mitzva, did they say that it is permitted? Rabba bar Rav Huna said to him: I am merely acting unawares and am not at all interested in the measurements. Therefore, it is not prohibited.”

Rabba bar Rav Huna is spending his Shabbat bathing in the house of the Exilarch. This itself is unusual for several reasons. The Exilarch’s house is a place where Shabbat observance was lax (see Shabbat 48a, 55a). In addition he is sitting in a tub of water, which Rabbi Meir has prohibited one to do on Shabbat. And the commentary of Ben Yehoyada points out, onlookers might think the water was hot, which would be impermissible according to all opinions. And then he is measuring, which in ordinary circumstances is prohibited because of its secular or business like nature.

Ulla is surprised by his colleague's actions. But the answer Rabba bar Rav Huna offers opens a window of understanding into what Shabbat ultimately is about. He says that he is merely מִתְעַסֵּק, having some absent minded fun. However, the language of מִתְעַסֵּק is usually a technical term, a category that exempts a person from an action which is completely unintentional; and it hints a much larger perspective.

The meaning of this answer, is that what is considered labor on Shabbat is to a large extent defined by intent rather than by action. After an entire Mesechet which discusses what actions are prohibited, we must again reflect on the mental aspect of Shabbat. The Talmud has emphasized that beyond the technical Halakhic rules of melacha/work, there are categories of weekday-like labors that are restricted as well. But this second type of labor is certainly in the eye of the beholder. Running around the field with a trash picker picking up garbage is labor; running around the same field with a golf club hitting a ball is leisure. Play can resemble work, and may even require some work; but we don’t want to squelch moments of relaxation, even if they seem "not Shabbat-like". Too harsh a halakhic regime would undermine the enjoyment of Shabbat; and those moments of Shabbat enjoyment allow us to celebrate God’s creation and man’s inherent freedom. Because the experience of Shabbat is in many ways subjective, we must find a way for Shabbat to engage hearts and minds. The laws of Shabbat have to find a careful balance, to avoid weekday type labor on one hand, without preventing one's ability to enjoy the day; and Rabba bar Rav Huna sits right at the fault-line between these two values, and reminds us that even a rabbi can celebrate Shabbat by sitting in the bath.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Why This Tisha B'Av Must be Different: Short Remarks for Tisha B'Av Evening

This Tisha B'Av must be different.

There is a custom among some Chasidic Jews to play pranks on each other on Tisha B'Av. In many places to have the children throw berelach, little thistles during Kinot to lighten up the mood. Chasidic leaders felt that the Jews in Eastern Europe lived with too much difficulty and sadness, and a painful Tisha B'Av would do more harm than good.

These strange customs have a firm foundation in the themes of the day. Tisha B'Av has two sides to it. It is first and foremost, a day of mourning and grief. It is the day in which we remember not just the destruction of both Temples, but all of the catastrophes during the 2000 years of exile.

But aside from this, there is another side. Tisha B'Av is also a day of comfort. On the afternoon of Tisha B'Av, we recite a prayer, Nachem, to ask for comfort. We get up from our low chairs, put on our tallit and tefillin, and in these small comforts recall the Talmudic tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av.

Most years, it is more important to discuss the difficult side of Tisha B'Av. It is easy for us who are so comfortable to lose touch with the difficulties our ancestors endured. It is easy for us to become complacent and not search for a way to make the world better.

But this year, we must have a Chasidic Tisha B'Av. We have had enough difficulty and enough uncertainty. We do not need to be brought lower, to find greater sadness. Right now, we need to find as much comfort as we can, even on Tisha B'Av.

And the comfort that we have is in recognizing how far we have come. We need to recognize that the previous generations, whose tragedies we mourn, would have so much joy to see how far we have come. We have built a State of Israel, a miracle on the world stage. We have come so far.

Danny Gordis related an anecdote from the years of the intifada:

 But I’ll always remember what Siggy said to me one morning, in the midst of the intifada, as we were about to recite Yizkor.

It was a time in Jerusalem when life was sad, and often frightening…..That holiday morning, as I made my way out of shul for Yizkor (since my immediate family is all still living), Siggy, who sat not far from the door, grabbed my arm just as I was about to step outside.

“You’re going out for Yizkor?” he asked me. When I nodded, somewhat perplexed, he continued. “When we first got here, after the war, there wasn’t a single person who could go out for Yizkor.

Not a single one.” And then, he said, “Ba’u od milhamot venaflu od banim.”

“More wars followed, and more boys fell.  So for more years, no one could go out for Yizkor.”

He stopped for a moment, and I saw that his lips were trembling, ever so slightly. He pointed to the courtyard right outside our shul. “Ve’achshav, tistakel – kulam bahutz.” “And now, look!” he pressed me. “Everyone’s outside.” “Hamedina hazot nes.” “This country is a miracle.”

This year has so many of us feeling so low, after a 4-month battle with a horrible plague; but we can turn to Tisha B'Av for comfort. We can look at the arc of history, and recognize that we truly are the privileged ones. Even as we suffer, we are comforted by the fact that we already have overcome so much, and we will continue to do so in the future.

And we can be comforted that if the authors of the Kinot were here today, they would be smiling, even if it is Tisha B’Av.