Friday, February 23, 2024

An Ever-Present Void


Graves at Har Herzl. Israel’s military cemetary.

Moses is not mentioned in Parshat Tetzaveh, the only such instance in the last four books of the Torah. This point, first mentioned by the Baal HaTurim, is a favorite of elementary school teachers looking for fun facts, and pulpit rabbis looking for sermon topics.

On its own, this observation is purely an exercise in poetry; in reality, multiple factors determined the division of Torah readings, and the fact that one short Parsha ended up without Moses’ name is not all that strange.


What does matter is not whether Moses is “missing” from the Parsha, but our perception of it. The fact that this question is constantly repeated says a great deal about the reader; Moses is not mentioned, and it’s noticed.


Even when Moses is gone, he leaves behind an ever-present void.


Many of those who comment on Moses' absence relate it to his date of death, which according to the Talmud (Kiddushin 38a,) was on the seventh of Adar; and most years, Tetzaveh and the seventh of Adar are on the same week. (This year they are a week apart.)


The seventh of Adar is included on a list of fast days compiled by the Baal Halakhot Gedolot, an 8th-century work. While these fasts have long fallen out of practice (Rabbi Yoseph Karo writes they had already been discontinued by the 15th century), the fast of the seventh of Adar continued to be practiced by burial societies (Chevrei Kadisha). They would assemble together for morning services, and recite special selichot prayers about the tasks of a Chevra Kadisha. At night, they would join together for a special meal in honor of their service to the community.


The connection between Chevrei Kadisha and Moses is twofold. First, Moses was buried in an unmarked grave by God Himself. In each burial, the Chevra Kadisha follows in God’s footsteps, and does a true act of kindness. (Because Moses' grave is unknown, the Israeli rabbinate designated the seventh of Adar as the memorial day for soldiers whose burial places are unknown.)


The second reason is that Moses is a role model for Chevrei Kadisha. As the Jews left Egypt, Moses made certain to take with him Joseph's bones for burial in Israel. Even 400 years later, Joseph's bones were not seen as a funerary relic of the distant past; he was seen as family. And this is the very mission that every Chevra Kadisha is tasked with: to ensure that those who are gone are never forgotten, and receive a proper burial.


It is a profoundly holy task. On our missions to Israel, we visited the Shurah Army Base, where the bodies of the 1200 people murdered on October 7th were processed for burial. The scenes that played out there in the first few days of the war were gut-wrenching. Rabbi Benzi Mann, who has been serving at Shurah since October 7th, spoke about how every refrigerated truck in the country, including dairy transports covered with advertisements for chocolate milk and yogurt, were conscripted to transport bodies; to this day he feels uneasy seeing dairy trucks on the highway. When Benzi would open the trucks’ doors, there were so many bodies piled up that blood would come pouring out.


But despite the traumatic circumstances, these incredible reservists worked day and night to ensure the dead got a proper burial, and that their families had a chance to wish their loved ones farewell. The dedicated Chevra Kadisha at Shurah did everything possible to treat the dead, and their families, with love.


Rabbi Mann related a conversation between Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of England, and President Isaac Herzog of Israel. Rabbi Mirvis told President Herzog he had visited Shurah. President Herzog replied that it was an awful place, “the gates of hell”; the very imprint of Hamas’ depraved crimes was on the body of every person murdered.


Rabbi Mirvis responded that on the contrary, Shurah was the “gates of heaven,” and a place of awe; it was a place where holy volunteers had heroically restored dignity to the deceased and their families.


The task of the Chevra Kadisha is to ensure the body is treated with respect. In preparation for burial, they do what is called a taharah where they do what they can to clean the body and purify it, and recite prayers for the soul of the deceased. (In the case of those murdered on October 7th, many of the usual procedures were suspended; murder victims are meant to be buried in their clothes. However, the prayers and the arrangement of the bodies in the coffin remain the same.) Other societies may cremate remains, or toss them away; Tibetans practice a “sky-burial,” in which bodies are placed on the mountaintop to be eaten by vultures. Judaism’s perspective is different and views treating the body with respect as the highest priority.


The Chatam Sofer explains (Teshuvot 2:328) that the taharah procedures are in place to show respect for man, who is created in the “image of God.” Even the dead body continues to carry a reflection of the divine image. The Chatam Sofer reminds us that by offering proper respect for the dead body, one offers respect for the living.


Jewish funerary and mourning rituals are not about closure and putting the death behind us. On the contrary, they are about preserving our connection to those who have passed away. We want to build a bridge from this world to the next, and to continue to keep our loved ones in our hearts.


This is what Avishai Margalit has called “the ethics of memory.” While the philosophical basis of this idea is complex, it is very much a part of the Jewish tradition. The ritual of Shiva and the prayers of Yizkor and Kaddish all articulate the same idea: we must continue to remember those whom we love. We remember because to love someone is to love someone forever; we remember because we could never forgive ourselves for forgetting.


On the last day of our most recent mission, we visited Har Herzl, Israel's military cemetery. Two sections have been designated for this war’s fallen soldiers. We went on a rainy day and it seemed like the stones were crying. All around us were the graves of people in their twenties and thirties, who once had a bright future ahead of them. A young widow, married for just two months, was sitting next to her husband’s grave; he was 23 years old. Our guide Michal spoke about the soldiers she knew in the section, who were friends from her neighborhood and school. Michal is far too young to know such tragedy; but now she does. Like every Israeli, she has gone to shiva after shiva, comforting and bereaved all at once.


On Har Herzl this overwhelming sense of loss, this endless void, is most profound. There is no grief like the grief of losing a young child at the height of their potential.


But at the same time, there is a recognition that within this absence those who have died will be ever-present. Virtually every grave was decorated by the families in tribute to their loved ones. Bottles of scotch, Israeli flags, soccer flags, photographs, letters, and miniature Torah scrolls all embrace the memory of those who are still loved. They are declarations that the fallen will never be forgotten. At every simcha, every Seder, every family get-together, they will be remembered. There may be a gaping void in the mourners’ hearts, but within that void, the memories of their loved ones are ever-present.


The Bible says, “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) These bereaved families have declared that their love is forever, tied to the heart with an eternal bond. Nothing, not even death, can take their love away.


They will always remember their loved ones. And so will we.


May their memory be for a blessing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024



Our group, in front of the Asma’s Restaurant.

(Credit: Gil Golan)

(Sermon given at The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, Parshat Terumah, February 17, 2024)

There is a Hasidic tradition that every Torah reading contains hints regarding the events and news of that week. The Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to this idea frequently, and it can be found in Rabbinic writings as early as the 1600’s.  

This morning we read Parshat Terumah, and I would like to share my personal connection to this week’s Torah reading.

I am in Israel as part of a mission of nearly 50 people from Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. After spending a week here, it was obvious that this verse at the beginning of the Torah reading reflected our experience:

Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly from their heart, you shall take My offering.

Now is a time of great distress and difficulty; the agony of the October 7th massacre is compounded by the continuing tragedy of a painful, grinding war.

Yet against this bleak, dark background, there are a myriad of points of light, beautiful acts of courage and kindness. So many have stepped forward and are giving from the heart. 

There is a balagan of courage and kindness. We met a soldier in his 30’s who was living with his family in India, and operated several businesses there. He flew back immediately to join the battle against Hamas and was seriously injured in battle. Yet he was proud of having fought for his country, and spoke passionately about a communal project in Israel he was planning.

In the Galilee we met Asma, a Druze woman whose late husband was an IDF soldier who fell in battle. After the war started, she turned her restaurant Kosher so she could supply Jewish soldiers with meals. She often gives soldiers meals for free, paying for the costs out of her own pocket. 

These acts of kindness are bringing very different people closer together. At Hatzalah, we heard about Yossi, a Chassidic volunteer who, along with two friends, rushed out of synagogue on October 7th and drove an ambulance down to the Nova Festival. After completing several hospital transfers, they were transporting a young woman, who complained that she was very cold in the ambulance. Yossi and his team had already used up all the ambulance’s blankets, so Yossi reached into the front seat, took his Tallit and covered the young woman with it. The Nova Festival is worlds apart from Yossi’s Hasidic shteibel; but on that day they were united as one. 

Never before has a Tallit accomplished such a holy task. 

Despite all the distress and difficulty around us, we were buoyed by the remarkable kindness we saw; and as I reread Parshat Terumah last week, I understood it differently. 

What stood out to me this year was the chronology of the donations mentioned at the beginning of the Parsha; the newly freed slaves offered these gifts just a short time after the Exodus. Moses didn’t need to call for voluntary donations in order to gather the requisite resources for building the sanctuary; the far simpler method of making an assessment, in which each person is taxed, could have accomplished the same thing. (This method would eventually be used with the half-shekel levy in the following Parsha.) 

I would argue that the voluntary donations served a larger purpose. Giving is a critical step on the road to freedom, and these donations were instituted to retrain the former slaves. 

Several Rabbis have made a similar observation about the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah begins with ha lachma anya, a section that symbolically invites in guests. Why is this the starting point of the Haggadah? Both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explain that slaves don’t invite guests. Rabbi Soloveitchik simply notes that slaves can’t give to others because they have no property of their own; whatever they have belongs to their master. Rabbi Sacks explains that slaves are self absorbed, overwhelmed by their day-to-day needs. “Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. Someone who fears tomorrow does not offer their bread to others.” Giving is a milestone of freedom, a clear sign that one is no longer an anxious slave. 

I would take this connection in a different direction, and say that generosity is not just an outcome of freedom; it actually creates the mindset of freedom. A slave is a slave so long that they think like a victim; and a victim cannot figure out how to help themselves, let alone help others. Altruism changes one’s self-image; to help others is heroic behavior. Generosity, no matter what the circumstances, allows one to grab hold of their own destiny.

On our mission, one of the most powerful meetings we had was with Lahav, a special forces veteran who was at the Nova festival with his younger brother. During that day, Lahav nearly lost his life multiple times; his brother was injured. Finally, they managed to escape and get home. The next day, while still in shock, Lahav received a message that he was being called up.

Lahav certainly didn’t have to report for duty; but he did anyway. Lahav told us that he realized he needed to flip the narrative; instead of being the victim, he was going to grab hold of his destiny and serve his country.

The next day Lahav was in Kfar Aza, fighting Hamas. 

Flipping the narrative is precisely why charity is a critical step on the road to freedom; one becomes a giver, and no longer sees themselves as helpless and needy. That is why this act of communal generosity in Parshat Terumah was so critical for the former slaves.

And today, the charity we saw in Israel speaks of a Jewish spirit that refuses to play the victim.

But this verse also hints at a second insight: charity can teach us a great deal about authentic strength and power.

The Torah portion speaks of the nediv lev, one who is giving of their heart; they have a heart that is virtually dripping with goodness. This stands in contrast with Pharaoh’s heart, one which is kaved, hard, and chazak, strong.  

Which heart should triumph? One might think the heartless, like Pharaoh, hold the advantage. Actually, the opposite is true. Strength without solidarity fails in the long term. 

One of the most difficult visits our group made was to the Shurah army base, which had the grim task, of preparing for burial, the bodies of the 1,200 people murdered on October 7th. Here, dedicated volunteers from the Chevra Kaddisha have restored dignity to the dead and offered comfort to their families. Their actions have sanctified this base, which is truly the gates of heaven.  

Noa, the head of the women’s Chevra Kaddisha explained that “I am also fighting Hamas. When we do good we fight Hamas.” 

In this short phrase, Noa offered a powerful insight into this parsha: a giving heart is stronger than a heavy, hardened heart. Hardened hatreds can cause a great deal of destruction in explosive bursts of violence; but long-lasting communities require trust, solidarity, and compassion. The nediv lev will always outlast the hard-hearted.

This will be true of this war as well. Yahya Sinwar hides, (or hid,) in tunnels, safe from the very war he set in motion; he uses his people as human shields, and cares very little for them. What we saw in Israel was the opposite. People putting others first. People giving from the heart. People standing up for each other. 

In Israel we saw that there is nothing as strong as a people united for each other.

And that is the power of the nediv lev.

Friday, February 02, 2024



An illustration from a published 1723 in Amsterdam, Jan and Kaspar Luiken

No moment in the Bible is more magnificent, no event more central. At the revelation on Mount Sinai, the veil between the mundane and the divine was torn away, and all assembled could see God directly.

The encounter at Mount Sinai carries great theological significance. Nachmanides says there is a daily commandment to never forget the encounter at Mount Sinai; Yehuda Halevi explains that this nationwide revelation is the foundation of the Torah. All of Judaism is a footnote to that day, an ongoing exploration of this intense spiritual singularity.

Words fail to describe that day. The Torah, in Parshat Yitro, describes something akin to a simultaneous hurricane and volcanic eruption, in which “...there were thunderings and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the Shofar was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled … Mount Sinai was completely covered in smoke ... Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:16-18.)


Midrashim further dramatize this depiction. Rabbi Akiva says that the Jews saw the voice that spoke on Mount Sinai, something that is otherwise physically impossible. Other Midrashim say that all those who were blind and deaf were healed that day, and able to take part in the revelation. Another Midrash says that the call of Sinai was heard throughout the world, and all of humanity, in a sense, stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.


Taken together, these texts emphasize that the encounter at Mount Sinai was unparalleled and transcendent, an event that will never be repeated or equaled.


So where does that leave those of us who were born too late to stand at Mount Sinai? This question is particularly difficult for those with deeply religious souls. They search for God and long to hear His voice. They wait patiently for a divine calling. But sadly, there are no new Mount Sinais available, no casual daily revelations.


Most people of faith find ways to accommodate this gaping lack of inspiration. Sometimes, even an occasional glimpse of transcendence can satisfy years of spiritual cravings. But at times, we need to turn in a different direction to discover the divine.


Rav Simcha Bunim of Przysucha can help direct us. Rav Simcha Bunim was the “Un-Rebbe,” a radical Hassidic leader who diminished the importance of his own position, and urged his followers to find their own path. He would illustrate his view of the Rebbe’s role with the following parable:


Isaac from Krakow was a poor tailor, who was plagued by a recurring dream. In the dream, he had a vision of a large bounty of gold which was hidden under a bridge outside the imperial palace in Prague. Night after night, this dream would repeat itself, until finally, Isaac decided he had to make the ten-day journey to Prague to find this treasure. He explained to his wife why he had to go, and started his journey.


In Prague, Isaac arrived and found the bridge just as it appeared in his dream. But he couldn’t dig for the treasure, because it was always under heavy guard; the bridge was right outside the palace, after all. For three nights, Isaac studied the guards’ rotations, hoping to find a pause long enough to allow him to start his search. On the third night, one of the guards grabbed him and arrested him. The guard shouted at Isaac, “You spy, I recognize you! You’ve been here three nights in a row, plotting against the king.” Isaac, in shock, began to sputter how he was an innocent man who was there because he had had a dream about some gold hidden under the bridge. Recognizing the simple sincerity of Isaac’s words, the guard released Isaac, and with a laugh, said: “You fool, you stood there for three nights straight just because of a dream! Last night I had a dream that there’s a treasure buried in the backyard of Isaac, the tailor in Krakow. Do you think I’m going to travel all the way to Krakow just because of a silly dream?”


Isaac immediately returned home. When he entered his house, his wife asked him: “Where’s the treasure?”


Isaac responded: “Give me a shovel and I’ll show you.”


Isaac went outside and dug up the gold. The Prague treasure had been hidden right in his backyard all along.


Rav Simcha Bunim used this tale as a parable about spirituality and wisdom. People chase spiritual gurus and great rabbis in the hope of achieving spiritual heights. But in the end, what we are looking for is hiding in our own backyard, buried under a lot of nonsense. 


For those in search of great revelations, Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable reminds us that before looking elsewhere, we need to turn inward and find the treasures buried in our own hearts.


This is true of the encounter at Sinai as well. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) relates that every child is instructed the entire Torah in their mother’s womb, only to have an angel force the child to forget what they learned at birth. This text is a bit of a riddle; why teach the fetus Torah, if it is meant to ultimately forget it a few weeks later?


Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable explains this text well. The Torah once studied may be forgotten, but its imprint remains. What makes revelation compelling is that our hearts are already attuned to what is being said. There are debates among philosophers as to whether all of the commandments can be understood intellectually; but they are certainly understood by the soul, which immediately attaches itself to the divine. And that a priori appreciation of revelation, that knowledge before knowledge, is a treasure we carry in our own hearts. Even when we stand far away from Sinai, there is another source of inspiration, right at our side.


Since October 7th, I have heard story after story of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. When they tell others about what happened, they share one refrain: “I never imagined that I could have done this.” Yet in a time of crisis, these heroes found remarkable inner strength. Ordinary Israelis took on the battle from day one, rushing to the front lines before being called up. A soldier sacrificed his own life by falling on a grenade to save his comrades’ lives. Rescuers entered the Nova Festival under heavy fire and saved the lives of hundreds of participants. Dedicated parents, brothers, sisters, and children, have traveled everywhere demanding that the world bring the relatives home from captivity. A young mom built a large distribution center for evacuees in just a few days. Academicians have become ad hoc military suppliers, providing much-needed protective gear to soldiers. Bereaved parents have spoken to group after group, offering strength and comfort to others even while their own hearts are broken. Amidst all the darkness and destruction, these accidental heroes heard a small, still voice of inspiration, and answered the call.


For years, I wondered if I could ever experience something like the encounter at Sinai; when would I feel the ground tremble with divine inspiration?


Now I have an answer. We stand at Sinai once again when we meet one of these heroes. They are spiritual treasures, right here in our own backyard. Listen to them, listen to their stories. What they have done is amazing.


And the world trembles before their greatness.