Sunday, July 18, 2021

Tisha B'Av Night Conclusion - 2021

This year, more than the last few years, I feel the pain of Tisha B'Av.

We have watched an unprecedented wave of hatred and antisemitism erupt in this country.

Diners at a Kosher restaurant were attacked and chased in LA.

Joseph Borgen was viciously beaten by protesters at an anti-Israel rally in New York.

In Boston, Rabbi Shlomo Noginski was stabbed eight times. It is a miracle that he survived. 

And this barely scratches the surface of the consistent and constant anti-semitic intimidation that has occurred. On campuses, Jewish students are afraid to support Israel. And in many places, Jews are afraid to wear a chai or a Kippah.

 And then there was the Hamas campaign and rocket attacks in Israel.

When I visited the Ashkelon a short while ago on a rabbinic mission, I saw a city that was traumatized. For a week and a half, they had lived under siege; a thousand rockets had been launched at their city. They were running to shelters, fleeing the destruction in the streets. In Sderot I saw the building where 5 year old Iddo Avigail was killed by a Hamas rocket (attached is a picture of the building). Iddo was in a safe room, and the metal shutter had been closed. But it seems that the Hamas rockets have gotten more deadly, and this rocket was able to pierce the shutter, and now the entire city of Sderot needs to put in thicker metal shutters. The Abigail family is left to grieve their beloved 5-year-old son who was murdered because he is a Jew.

All of this makes me cry. Yet even within these painful stories there is comfort.

A hundred years ago, Jews were despised because they were weak; they were mocked as pathetic and cowardly. They slandered and called parasites, a people too feeble to exist on their own, and needed to feed off others.

Now we're despised because we're strong. We are despised because We are successful. We are despised because we have the State of Israel, and it is a successful and strong state, a leader among the world.

And that gives me comfort. I'd rather be hated for being strong than hated for being weak. 

This is the lesson we need to take with us as we leave the synagogue tonight. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the following story about visiting Israel on a community mission at the end of the Yom Kippur War:

"When I had first begun my career as the rabbi  of  Lincoln  Square Synagogue,  one  of the  earliest rabbinical  functions I  attended  was  a  farewell  brunch  for  Rav  and  Rebbetzin  Schwartz,  for their impending aliya.  Rav Schwartz was a European rabbi living on the West Side, not really a practicing rabbi, but very well known and a  Talmud scholar of note.  He had lost his entire first family, wife and children, in the Holocaust, remarried in  America and now had two sons, a teenager and a pre-bar mitzvah. In  1964, he and his family decided to move to Israel, and because he was so close to all of the rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of the  West Side gave the Rav and Rebbetzin a farewell reception. I was a newcomer and I really barely knew them, but nevertheless I attended the brunch. Later  we were  all shocked and  saddened  to hear that their eldest son had been killed in the Six Day  War. And now, on the plane, on the way to Israel toward the end of the  Yom Kippur  War, I saw that their second son, their only remaining  son, had  been killed  in action as  well.  I  knew  that I  had to pay a condolence call…. The  Schwartzes  lived  at  8 Shimoni Street in a small apartment, and there must have been close to a hundred people who had come to try to console them. The Rav and Rebbetzin, who looked much, much older than I remembered them, were sitting on cushions on the floor.  Everyone else was standing.  The room was heavy with the press of the people and with an ominous and  shrieking  silence, a silence that seemed to scream out to the very heavens. Jewish  law dictates that when you pay a condolence call, the visitor is not supposed to speak first;  the mourner is. The visitor must listen to what the mourner has to say and respond to whatever that happens to be.  And if the mourners choose not to speak, then no one speaks. The Rav and his wife  were  sitting  and not  speaking,  so  no  one  was  speaking.  I  stood  in the back of the room for about twenty minutes.  I didn’t even know if Rav Schwartz remembered me at all. Since  I felt a responsibility for the group waiting for me back at the hotel, I began to leave, and, as I did so, I walked past Rav and Rebbetzin Schwartz,  saying  what one always says when  one  leaves a house of mourning:  “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch she’ar avelei  Tziyon vee’rushalayim.  May the  Almighty comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Rav  Schwartz looked up at me. “Rav Riskin, yes?” “Yes,”  I replied. “Rav  Riskin,”  he  said,  “why  is  the  subject  of  the prayer  that  you express  to a  mourner, ‘HaMakom?’ ‘HaMakom’ means place. Yes, in this context it’s a synonym for God, because the whole world is God’s place.  But wouldn’t it have made more sense for consolers to say ‘HaShem  yenachem  etchem, ‘May the God of  compassion  comfort  you,’  or  ‘May  Elokim,  the God of creation comfort you.’ Why use  ‘HaMakom?’  the Place? “I’ll  tell you why,”  he continued,  “I understand it now for the first time. When my family was destroyed in the Holocaust, there was no comforting me;  it was so senseless, so absurd.  But now that I have lost my only remaining sons and have no chance for other children, I am sad,  sad  beyond even the ability to speak, but I am comforted nevertheless. At least this time my sons died so that the Jewish people could live.  They died in defence of Israel.  They died in defence of  Yerushalayim. They died in defence of the Jewish  future. ‘HaMakom’,  the  place:  Jerusalem,  Israel,  the  Jewish  State. HaMakom menachem oti, the place comforts me  among  the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Tonight we cry for all those who have lost so much because they were Jews, because they wanted a better future for the Jews. We cry for the Schwartz boys. We cry for Iddo Avigail. We cry for those huddled in shelters, for those who are getting attacked in the streets. 

But what gives us comfort? That place, a place that our great-grandparents could barely dream of.  It gets us enormous comfort to know that now, Jewish destiny is in our hands.


המקום ינחם אותנו בתוך שאר אבילי ציון וירושלים.

May the Lord comfort us together with all who born for Zion and Jerusalem.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

What You Need to Say Before You Die

The Jewish ethical will is a forgotten genre of literature. Like an ordinary will, the ethical will offers a set of instructions to be followed after death; but instead of monetary directives, it offers moral advice. It is the parent’s last lecture about the right way to live life. The will’s instructions will often include exhortations about religious practice, ethics, character and marriage, mixed in with personal anecdotes, rebukes and blessings. Many of the authors go so far as to leave instructions about how often the ethical will should be reread by the children because it is also the rough equivalent of a family mission statement.

The earliest examples of formal Jewish ethical wills go back to the middle of the 11th century, but the practice is rooted in both the Talmud and Midrash. In the 19th and 20th centuries, several scholars brought attention to this genre; the great trailblazing scholar of Jewish literature, Leopold Zunz, wrote a study of Jewish ethical wills, and an in-depth study was done by Israel Abrahams of Jews College in 1891. Abrahams later published a two-volume anthology entitled “Hebrew Ethical Wills.” In recent years, Rabbi Jack Riemer has written extensively about ethical wills, in hope of reviving this practice.

The Book of Deuteronomy, Sefer Devarim, is actually an ethical will. In the final five weeks of his life, Moshe offers a series of speeches and lectures that become the final book of the Torah. Sefer Devarim contains all of the elements of a traditional ethical will, with rebuke, autobiography, advice, commands and blessings. In a series of extraordinary speeches, Moshe offers a paradigm of what a person needs to say before they die. 

We are obligated to pass our wisdom onto the next generation; life’s lessons carry profound insights, even divine insights. Don Isaac Abravanel writes that the contents of Sefer Devarim were originally Moshe’s words, and only later were these speeches chosen by God to be written down and incorporated into the Torah. Abravanel’s assertion is radical in terms of traditional views of Biblical authorship. But it also offers a very different perspective of religious knowledge, and asserts that human experience and interpretations can teach divine lessons. Later, this idea becomes the foundation of the rabbinic tradition; and even though there is a received tradition, rabbis from successive generations would still offer their own insights. Ethical wills have the same rationale; they recognize that each person has unique lessons that they alone can offer their children. As the 16th-century Polish rabbi Abraham Horowitz writes in his own ethical will, a true bequest goes beyond the financial. When a parent opens their heart and shares their final thoughts, they offer their children a spiritual bequest that is invaluable. 

Moshe's determination to share his ethical will is evident from the very beginning of the Torah reading. The verse reads “these are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire people of Israel.” The Hebrew words are "eleh hadevarim"; as the Midrash notes, these words are reminiscent of the exact words Moshe says when he initially refuses God's mission over forty years earlier. At that point, he tells God he is not ready to go to Egypt because of his stutter, and explains that "lo ish devarim anochi," “I am not a man of words.”

The similarity of phrasing in the two verses points us to a fascinating question: How did Moshe, who stutters and is not a “man of words,” give the speeches of Sefer Devarim at the end of his life? Perhaps, as one Midrash proposes, Moshe was transformed by teaching Torah, which healed his speech impediment. But there is another possibility: Moshe might have given this speech with the same stutter and stammer he always had. The speeches would have been painstakingly slow, and required great strength and determination. Yet Moshe perseveres; and in his final days of life, he teaches day in and day out, to ensure that these lessons won’t die with him. 

Ethical wills reflect this same desire and dedication. Parents open their hearts and speak honestly to their children about what is important to them. Sometimes the advice is very personal. Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky, a Lithuanian Rabbi, (who, among other stops in his career, presided over the 1904 High Holidays at my current synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun), exhorted his descendants not to follow in his footsteps and to avoid the rabbinate. But much of the advice is timeless. Make certain to visit shiva houses. Take your prayers and Torah study seriously. Treat your spouses with respect. Avoid losing your temper, and above all, avoid disputes. In his ethical will, Judah ibn Tibbon, the 12th-century philosopher who lived in Provence, wrote “Make thy books thy companions. Let thy cases and shelves be thy pleasure grounds and gardens.” Nachmanides, the 13th-century Spanish rabbi, writes: “accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men.”

Some of the most moving ethical wills are written as letters to family and friends during times of crisis. Yosef Hagar of Lesko wrote in his final letter to his children, before Rosh Hashanah in 1942: “don't lose your temper from so much sorrow ... be well and strong. I bless and kiss you. Keep this letter and remember that you once had a father in this world. I wish for you to be inscribed and sealed in the book of life, and have a blessed and good New Year.”

Eldad Pan, a soldier for the Palmach who died at age 20 in 1948, wrote the following reflections when considering he might fall in battle: “At best a man's life is short ... the years of life do not satisfy the hunger for life. What then shall we do during this time? We can reach either one of  two conclusions. The first is that life is so short, we should enjoy it as much as possible. The second is that because life is short and no one can completely enjoy it, therefore we should dedicate life to a sacred and worthy goal ... it seems that I am slowly coming to the conclusion that life by itself is worth little unless it serves something greater than itself.” These words jump off the page, and leap from one world to the next. Every ethical will aspires to do the same. 

I have tried to write an ethical will several times, and each time stopped before writing anything. Considering my profession, I might be called a “man of words”; but here words fail me. The task is intimidating, and it feels like there is plenty of time. It is also discomfiting to wrestle with mortality, even for a few minutes. I hope that when the time comes, Moshe’s example will help me through the hesitations and stumbles, and remind me that there are some things you need to say before you die. 



Bilaam and the Boy with the Flute

 Where did Bilaam go wrong? One early rabbinic tradition asserts that Bilaam was the greatest prophet to ever live, even greater than Moshe. Yet Bilaam is an exceptional failure. He is described in the Book of Joshua as a mere magician, and is put to death during the Israelites’ battle with Midian. How can a man with a direct connection to God lose his soul?

The authors of Pirkei Avot offer a fascinating comparison between Bilaam and Avraham. The Mishnah says:

“Whoever possesses these three things is of the students of Avraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things is of the students of Bilaam, the wicked. One who possesses a good eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite is of the students of Avraham, our father.  One who possesses an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite is of the students of Bilaam, the wicked.”

This comparison is not random. Bilaam and Avraham have similar beginnings; they share the same birthplace, Aram Naharaim (Deuteronomy 23:5). Both have abundant gifts of prophecy, and the Bible describes both as people whose blessing is a blessing and curse is a curse. The Mishnah explains that what separates Bilaam and Avraham is their character. Bilaam is arrogant, nasty, and selfish, and because of this, his remarkable spiritual gifts go to waste. A person can have the most profound experience of God, but without a well-developed character, that revelation is lost. The Mishnah’s explanation is straightforward, yet elegant: if you fail to be a good person, you will fail to be a godly person.

A further look at this comparison offers a second perspective. Jonathan D. Safren notes several textual similarities between Bilaam in this narrative and Avraham in the narrative of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis chapter 22. Bilaam and Avraham both wake up early and saddle their donkeys by themselves; both have two servants, and both confront angels. The verb “raah,” “to see,” appears five times in both narratives. These parallels imply another reason for Bilaam’s failure: unlike Avraham, Bilaam is not a faithful servant of God. In contrast to the self-sacrifice of the Akeidah, Bilaam pursues his self-interest.

I would argue that there is a third way of looking at this comparison. The most significant comparison between Avraham and Bilaam is found in a set of parallel narratives. In our Torah reading, Bilaam is requested to curse a nation; and Bilaam runs out the door in the morning to do so, hoping to destroy a multitude of complete strangers. Bilaam pushes forward despite divine warnings, and builds one altar after another, in hopes of convincing God to destroy the Jews.

Avraham responds in a very different manner when told about the impending destruction of Sodom. Avraham also pushes forward in his mission even after it is rejected, and argues with God to spare Sodom. Avraham uses his connection to God to save lives; Bilaam uses his connection to God to destroy lives.

Bilaam may speak to God, but his paradigm of divine power is a pagan one. Joshua Berman in his book “Created Equal” writes that “in the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian conceptions … it is not the common man who is the central focus of the gods but the king.” In Egypt, this went so far as to have the King worshiped as a demigod. In paganism, divine power belonged to the elite, and served their needs; the common man was ignored by God and can be oppressed by man. Bilaam wants God to provide him with wealth and prestige, while trampling on the backs of the Israelites. His God is the God of autocrats, serving the powerful while oppressing the weak.

Avraham’s vision of God is very different; he understands that God has a direct relationship with all of mankind. The reason Avraham has the chutzpah to argue with God about Sodom is because God is the God of all humanity, and would not want any innocent life to be lost. Avraham is an advocate of his fellow human beings; and the “students of Avraham” are advocates for humanity as well.

This understanding of God was revolutionary for the ancient world, and it remains revolutionary today. We may try to imagine a divine connection to each human being; but too often, our imagination fails us. An excellent example of this is the story about the Baal Shem Tov and the shepherd boy. This is the version offered by Shmuel Yosef Agnon in “Days of Awe”:

A certain villager used to pray on the Days of Awe in the House of Study of the Baal Shem Tov. He had a child whose wits were dull and who could not even read the letters in the prayer book, much less recite a holy word … when the boy became Bar Mitzvah, his father took him with him to the city for Yom Kippur, so as to be able to watch him and keep him from eating from simple ignorance.

Now the boy had a little flute on which he used to play all the time when he sat in the field tending his flock. He took the flute with him from home and put it in his coat, and his father did not know about it.

The boy sat in The House of Prayer all Yom Kippur without praying, because he did not know how.

During the Additional Prayer he said to his father. “Father, I want to play the flute.” His father became terrified and spoke sharply to the boy. The boy had to restrain himself.

During the Afternoon Prayer the boy repeated again: “Father let me play on my flute.”

Seeing that the boy wanted badly to play on his flute, his father said to him “Where is the flute? The child pointed to the pocket of his coat. The father therefore held the child’s pocket in his hand, to keep the boy from taking out the flute and playing on it.

Holding the pocket with the flute in this way, the man stood and prayed the Closing Prayer. In the middle of the prayer, the boy forced the flute out of his pocket and blew a blast so loud that all who heard it were taken aback.

When the Baal Shem Tov heard the sound, he shortened his prayer. After the prayer the Baal Shem Tov said: “With the sound of this flute the child lifted up all the prayers and eased my burden.”

We have heard this story so often that we forget how revolutionary it actually is. Yes, the Baal Shem Tov is a “student of Avraham.” But what would happen if a young man pulled out his flute during Neilah today: would people react like the father, or the Baal Shem Tov? Many of us subconsciously carry an elitist view of God, and lose our appreciation for God’s connection to the homeless and hopeless. The challenge of this Parsha is to learn how to be true “students of Avraham,” and see God’s love for every human being. Then, we will be able to appreciate the divine symphony of the boy with the flute.

The Secret to Jewish Leadership: Acharai

 "Acharai! After me!" This slogan, which epitomizes the culture of the Israeli army, is attributed to Nahum Arieli, a soldier in the Palmach. On April 8 1948, Arieli (who had just gotten married) led a rescue force to reinforce the beleaguered defenders of the Castel, a strategic outpost overlooking the road to Jerusalem. It was there that Arieli gave the command: "privates retreat, commanders stay behind to cover." Arieli fell in battle that evening. But his actions inspired the slogan "acharai" and reinforced the military doctrine that a commander doesn’t send his troops into battle; he goes in first and leads them.

This idea of "acharai" has deep roots in the Jewish tradition. Rashi offers an insightful explanation of an unusual turn of phrase in this week's Torah reading. Moshe is informed that he is about to die, and he asks God to appoint a new leader. Moshe says: "Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in."

What is the meaning of  the phrase "go out before them"? Rashi offers the following explanation:

"Not like the kings of the nations, who sit at home and send their armies to war, but as I [Moshe] did, for I fought against Sihon and Og."

Rashi's explanation offers a 1,000-year-old foundation for the idea of "acharai." A true leader does what Nahum Arieli did,  and dashes first into battle.

But does "acharai" actually make sense? On a strategic level, it seems foolish to endanger the leader, who is the most important member of the team. And because of the "acharai" ethos, the Israeli army loses critical leadership. In Operation Protective Edge in 2014, 44% of the soldiers that fell in battle were officers. How can you replace so many leaders? At first glance, "acharai" seems to be a romantic gesture rather than a well thought out strategy.

But there is actually a great deal of strategic value to "acharai." In the Battle of Princeton, George Washington led the army right up to the front lines, and nearly got shot; his personal aide, Colonel Edward Fitzgerald, put his hat over his eyes to avoid seeing Washington's all but certain death. Washington's charge may seem like a rash act of courage; but it had a powerful impact on his troops. David McCullough quotes one of Washington's officers who wrote, “I shall never forget what I felt … when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.” This dramatic display is one example of how Washington earned the love and respect of his soldiers. The following winter in Valley Forge, during an exceptionally difficult time, that love and respect is what kept the soldiers loyal to Washington. "Acharai" is not just how a commander leads; it is also why the soldiers follow.

Relationships are at the core of why "acharai" is so important in Jewish leadership. If you assess each soldier individually, you might say the commander needs to be offered much more protection; and historically, most armies have kept their officers away from the front lines. What this view overlooks is that an army is a holistic whole, and the commanders and the soldiers function as a team.

The Tanakh makes this point very powerfully at the beginning of the story of David and Bathsheva. At the opening of the narrative, the writer of the Book of Samuel makes a point of noting that David did not go out into battle with his army, saying: "David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him, and they devastated Ammon and besieged Rabbah; David remained in Jerusalem." David's failures begin when he sends his troops off and stays behind in comfort. And that triggers a series of events in which David sleeps with Bathsheva, the wife of an army officer, Uriah, and then David causes Uriah's death by sending him off into an impossible battle. David's decision to remain at home is a failure of leadership; and that failure is followed by multiple acts of corruption. A commander who is disconnected from his soldiers will lose his moral bearings as well.

"Acharai" also transforms the ordinary soldier. The commander works together with his soldiers as part of a team, and is their role model. This flattens the differences between commander and soldier; and when that happens, the soldier learns how to question and improvise, and become ready to take on leadership roles themselves. In the book “Startup Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue that much of Israel's high-tech success can be traced back to its military culture; and they point to this lack of hierarchy as being critical to developing leadership and creativity within the ranks. A commander who fights side by side with his soldiers is not just leading them, but also teaching them how to lead.

From this week's Parsha to the IDF, "acharai" has been the motto of courageous leaders. And when leaders lead, both they and their followers are transformed.





Thursday, July 08, 2021

Death, Guilt and Innocence - An Ancient Lesson


It was a painful cri de couer. A 22-year-old nurse wrote a letter to Rabbi Asher Weiss, asking how she can repent for a fatal mistake that she had made. She had been working in a coronavirus unit in a New York hospital at the height of the pandemic, and her supervisor asked her to add an additional overnight shift. A patient came in at 3:00 a.m. and was having great difficulty breathing. The hospital was short on ventilators, and scavenged for whatever units they could find. This nurse was given a donated, old, home use ventilator. Exhausted, she grappled with the unfamiliar machine, mistakenly putting the breathing tube into the wrong slot. She discovered her mistake only after the patient's condition got much worse. Sadly, he died soon after.

The nurse wrote to Rabbi Weiss saying she had not stopped crying since this happened. She asked him how she could atone for her sin.

Rabbi Weiss's response is an example of true rabbinic brilliance; it was compassionate, clear and insightful. He explained to her that she should take pride in the knowledge that she spends every day helping save the lives of others. If she failed to do so in this case, under extreme conditions, she should not feel guilty about it. First of all, failing to help is not the same thing as causing harm. He further explains, based on a remark by Nahmanides, that a medical professional can make fatal mistakes, but if they are deterred by the times that they fail, no one would ever take up the medical professions. Doctors and nurses need to appreciate that they are engaged in a high risk profession and they cannot be paralyzed by worry. He concluded by telling the young woman that her mind should be calmed, and that she should be happy and positive.

Dozens of questions like this are found in centuries of rabbinic responsa. The questions are all heartbreaking. Two different mothers, on different occasions, wrote to Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson about the deaths of their children; one failed to get out of bed when the baby had a crying fit, and found the baby dead the next morning. The other slept next to the baby, and presumably suffocated it by mistake during her sleep. Rabbi Akiva Eiger was asked to offer advice to a man whose son and his servant fell off his wagon and died. He recognized the accident occurred because he was driving too quickly. In the latter case, Rabbi Eiger advises the father to support poor orphans and to ask those the orphans to name a son after his son who died in the accident.

These responsa try to balance the need for responsibility and the need for forgiveness. The people posing the questions, like this nurse, are wracked by guilt, overwhelmed by the fact that their actions have caused the death of another. That is why they are turning to their rabbi. They don't know how they can live with themselves. But at the same time, most of the cases take place in the gray area between a premeditated crime and a truly innocent mistake. Each reply attempts to encourage repentance while offering comfort.

This week's Torah reading includes an important lesson about the gray area between absolute guilt and true innocence. When someone kills another person accidentally, they are exiled to a city of refuge. It is there that they will receive protection from the blood avenger, who is a member of the victim's family. This very law seems to acknowledge that the person can be innocent yet responsible at the same time.

Accidental murderers are confined to the city of refuge. This type of home arrest seems to be a punishment, and infers a level of guilt. At the same time, accidental murderers are protected from the blood avenger, which seems to imply innocence. Even the very sentence imposed upon them has an enormous grayness to it. They are to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But how long will that be? A week? Fifty years? No one knows. It is a gray and ambiguous penance given to a gray and ambiguous crime.

The lesson of this passage is that there are times when a person must embrace responsibility and accept forgiveness at the same time. The trauma of having caused an accidental death can destroy a person's life. In a 2017 article in the New Yorker, Alice Gregory wrote about six different people who had accidentally caused the deaths of others. Their pain is profound. In psychological terminology, they experienced moral injury. For this reason, the accidental killer seeks God's atonement, hoping to be released from a crime they did not want to commit. Perhaps this is why all the cities of refuge were also the cities of Leviim. The Leviim served in the Temple; and Shmuel David Luzzatto suggests that this means that the cities have a Divine character, and an extension of the Temple in Jerusalem. By being gathered into God's cities, the accidental killer experiences Divine forgiveness and protection.

But at the same time, the very need for exile is a reminder of the accidental killer's responsibility. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the accidental murderer often bears some responsibility. Even if the person was not negligent, there are many instances in which greater care could be taken. The proper response to an accidental murder is to do a serious self-examination. One hopes that will happen now, in the aftermath of the building collapse in Surfside. In a similar case in Israel, after the tragic collapse of a wedding hall in 2001, new legislation was introduced, and a method of building was outlawed. There are many mistakes that sit in the gray area between negligence and innocence; in cases where human life hangs in the balance, we must consistently check and recheck our standards to make sure those mistakes don't occur again.

More significantly, we believe that every tragedy requires a response, even if we are completely innocent. The best response to moral injury is to look for redemption, to think of how to bring more goodness into the world. A classic example of this is personified by Dr. Gisella Perl. She grew up in pre-WWII Sighet, Hungary, and completed her post-doctoral studies in gynecology, and then her life was turned upside down. She was taken to Auschwitz, and found herself forced to work with Dr. Joseph Mengele. One of her responsibilities was to notify him which Jewish women were pregnant. When she discovered that his sole intention was to perform medical experiments on these mothers and their fetuses, and then put them to death, Dr. Perl started to perform clandestine abortions on all the pregnant women in Auschwitz - and she had to perform thousands of abortions. After the war, she went on to a distinguished career at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and volunteered her services at the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem; she helped bring thousands of children into the world. Dr. Perl made it a habit of praying as she prepared to deliver each baby: “God, you owe me a life – a living baby.”

Guilt is painful; but the lesson of the Parsha is that even in such circumstances we can find refuge in God’s hands, and like Gisella Perl, bring redemption to the world, one baby at a time.