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We are a people only because of the book
And yet, this is exactly what we do on Simchas Torah in Shuls around the world. We collect all the Torahs from around the shul, sing and dance in a spirited fashion and kiss each Torah as it passes us by. What explains our seemingly bizarre behavior, especially in contrast with the attitude and approach every other legal system and religion brings to their law books?
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains so beautifully:
“A Torah scroll is the nearest thing Judaism has to a holy object. Still written today as it was thousands of years ago — on parchment, using a quill, by a master-scribe — it is our most cherished possession. We stand in its presence as if it were a king. We dance with it as if it were a bride. We kiss it as if it were a friend. If, God forbid, one is damaged beyond repair, we mourn it as if it were a member of the family.
The Koran calls Jews a “people of the book,” but this is an understatement. We are a people only because of the book. It is our constitution as a holy nation under the sovereignty of God. It is God’s love letter to the children of Israel. We study it incessantly. We read it in the synagogue each week, completing it in a year. During the long centuries of Jewish exile, it was our ancestors’ memory of the past and hope for the future. It was, said the German poet Heinrich Heine, the “portable homeland” of the Jew. Some Christians have found it hard to understand the Jewish love of law. To them it sometimes seems like an obsession with detail, the “letter” rather than the “spirit.”
To us, though, it represents the idea that there is no facet of life that cannot be sanctified and turned into the service of God: eating, drinking, relationships, the workplace, the economy and our welfare system. God belongs to society as well as to the inwardness of the soul. Which is why we need law as well as love.”
We live in a world of great darkness in which people are desperately searching for meaning, purpose, happiness, joy, direction, fulfillment, family values, and more. While so much of the world struggles, we are amazingly blessed, fortunate and privileged to be charged by the ideals, values and laws of the Torah that truly provides a prescription for a meaningful life. It is not ours alone and we have no monopoly on its message. Etz chaim hi, lamachazikim bah, it is a tree of life for all those who hold on to it.
As we close in on seven long and intensive weeks that began with the first of Elul and ends with Simchas Torah, many of us feel burnt out, tired, and sick of cooking, eating, long davening and yes, even preparing and listening to sermons and classes. It is no coincidence that exactly when we begin to feel Jewish holidays and observant life are burdensome and difficult that we observe Simchas Torah and remember how fortunate and blessed we are to have Torah and the true simcha it brings.
As we head into the final stretch of this marathon season, I wish you a Chag sameach and a year filled with the simchas Torah, the joy of Torah and simchas ha’chayim, the joy of life.
I must admit, I am confounded and conflicted in my emotions.
Zman simchaseinu, Sukkos as a time of great joy, took on a whole new meaning this year with the announcement that Gilad Shalit will be released in the next few days. After 5 years languishing in a Hamas dungeon in an undisclosed location with absolutely no visits or contact from family, the people of Israel or even the Red Cross, Sergeant Shalit is finally coming home.
I must admit, I am confounded and conflicted in my emotions. On the one hand, I feel unbridled joy, jubilation and euphoria. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has said on a number of occasions, “Gilad Shalit is the son of every Israeli family,” and I would add of every Jewish family. Who could imagine the conditions he has faced, the treatment he has received, and the torture he has been forced to undergo by the brutal terrorists, Hamas. The mere thought of his release and return to his family and all of Israel elicits a feeling of boundless happiness.
And yet, on the other hand, I feel unbridled sadness and grief when contemplating the price that Israel must pay to secure Shalit’s return. The release of 1,000 terrorists who are sworn to the destruction of Israel and to the murder of innocent men, women and trouble is a source of sadness, anger, resentment and fear. Undoubtedly, there will be a hero’s welcome and a national celebration when Shalit is reunited with his family. But how will we all feel if God forbid just one of these vicious terrorists being released succeeds in striking Israel again, resulting in casualties?
On the one hand, Israel is showing incredible and remarkable commitment to her soldiers by displaying a willingness to go to extraordinary lengths to bring Gilad Shalit home. Morale in the IDF will surely be lifted by the knowledge that no matter what happens to them, their country will do everything in their power to protect their soldiers and secure their freedom.
However, on the other hand, how do the soldiers who risked their lives to capture these 1,000 terrorists feel, knowing that their efforts are being reversed when the prisoners they arrested will be back on the street and back to planning heinous attacks?
On the one hand, parents and family members of every Israeli soldier must be comforted to know how much the country values each and every soldier. On the other hand, how does the family of those murdered or injured by one of the 1,000 terrorists being released feel about this news?
Sukkos is a time of great simcha, joy, but it is specifically on this holiday that we read Kohelles which reminds us of our own vulnerability, fragility and the futility of many of our efforts. Even under the Chuppa, a moment of incredible happiness, we break a glass to remember the threats, challenges and problems we face.
As we celebrate Sukkos anticipating the return of our beloved soldier, Gilad Shalit, it seems to me to be appropriate to feel unbridled happiness and joy as well as unbridled sadness and sorrow at the same time, after all that seems to always be the Jewish way.
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True greatness is not the ability to obey your thirst, it is the capacity to resist your thirst.
We are living in a time and culture that promote happiness, satisfaction and indulgence. Indeed, we are regularly inundated with messages and marketing such as “obey your thirst,” and “just do it.” In that context it is particularly difficult and onerous to observe a fast and to resist the temptation for food and water for a full 25 consecutive hours. And yet, the Torah associates Yom Kippur, the Holiest day of the year, a time in which we can achieve extraordinary heights in our spiritual ambitions, with self-restraint and self-control. True greatness is not the ability to obey your thirst, it is the capacity to resist your thirst and pursue a greater goal.
Judaism rejects embracing asceticism as a path to holiness. Yet, we collectively engage in abstinence from all types of physical pleasure for a full day to prove to ourselves and to God that we can. There is one temptation, one urge and desire that is not included in the abstinence of Yom Kippur, but which I would humbly submit we accept upon ourselves nevertheless. For some, this form of self-denial may be even more difficult than fasting from food and drink. I am referring to speech and the powerful and potent force it represents in this world.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with food. Indeed, we need it to nourish ourselves and to sustain our existence. We are permitted and encouraged to indulge in tasty foods the other days of the year. However, on yom kippur, we achieve angelic status by elevating ourselves above the everyday mundane needs, wants and desires.
Similarly, not only is speech not inherently bad, it is good and serves as the bridge to allow us to communicate with others and Hashem. We should speak freely (but appropriately) throughout the year, but I would like to suggest that for Yom Kippur we accept upon ourselves to try to go a full day without speaking. In fact, some of our most pious men and women throughout Jewish history observed a ta’anis dibbur, a fast from speech, on yom kippur.
Not speaking to others for 25 hours sounds like an impossible goal and unachievable objective. Yet, doing so, I believe, would accomplish a number of goals. Firstly, we would eliminate the temptation to gossip, slander, or speak inappropriately on the holiest day of the year which most certainly would be a great merit. Secondly, by going into the day knowing that we will absolutely not talk for this period of time, we would be able to focus on our davening without feeling pressured to entertain conversation with the person sitting next to us. Lastly and most importantly, not talking to others would force us to spend time talking to ourselves, something we rarely do, but which is a necessary component of self-growth and development.
For many, accepting a ta’anis dibbur, a fast of speech for a full day is impossible. I understand that those with little children or elderly parents, etc. can’t simply check out for a full day. However, I would suggest that every single one of us is capable of observing a ta’anis dibbur while in Shul. Let’s collectively accept upon ourselves for 25 hours not to say a single word while in Shul, even during the parts of davening in which it is permitted to talk.
Throughout the year, when people approach me on the bima during davening, I struggle with my commitment not to talk on the one hand and the importance of not being rude on the other. Of course if there is an emergency or pressing issue, feel free to interrupt me or any of the Rabbis who can be of assistance. However, if you are just coming to say good Shabbos, please accept my apologies if I simply shake your hand and give you a big smile without engaging in a conversation.
Let’s all enter a social contract and commit to use the Sanctuary for davening exclusively and reserve our schmoozing for the lobby. I am confident that if we do, our personal and communal yom kippur experience will be greatly enhanced as a result.
We should be focused on lifting ourselves up instead of knocking ourselves down.
Instead, in this particular email, the author concludes the sentence by saying, “it is natural for each of us to take stock of our accomplishments.” The message continued by listing a series of achievements and milestones the organization celebrated this past year. At first, I reacted cynically and thought to myself, of course, it is much more convenient to focus on success rather than on failure, but what a distortion of the essence of this time of year.
However, after thinking about it for a moment it occurred to me, that maybe they are on to something. Of course Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are a time to consider our shortcomings and how we can grow, but should that necessarily translate into guilt, negativity and a feeling of failure. Perhaps we would do better to identify our successes, our achievements and with pride, reflect on what went right this past year, so that it can be repeated and expanded to other areas of our lives.
Our main task on Rosh Hashana is to be mamlich Hashem, to coronate God as King. In the process, we should recognize how fortunate and blessed we are, not only to be His loyal servants, but as His children to be princes and princesses, members of the royal family. Indeed, we preface Avinu before Malkeinu in our prayers. We should be focused on lifting ourselves up instead of knocking ourselves down.
Spend time these two days thinking about what went wrong, why did it go wrong and how can we prevent it from going wrong again. But don’t forget to take as much time to focus on what went right and feel pride in the accomplishments and achievements of the past year. I believe giving ourselves positive reinforcement will propel us forward to have an evening greater year ahead.
It’s not too late to get ready.
When it comes to a call with the President of the United States of America, the leader of the free world, our voices are muted, and our input is silenced. The call was a monologue, not a dialogue. It is remarkable to consider that in contrast, when we conference with the Almighty, the King of Kings, the Creator of the World, our voices ring loudly, our input is welcomed and our opportunity to speak freely and openly is invited. We are blessed to have God’s ear, whenever and wherever we choose. We can close our eyes, shut out the world and communicate with our Creator whenever we like.
In less than a week from now, we will be sitting in Shul in marathon davening sessions. Could you imagine signing up to participate in the NY City or Boston Marathons and not training whatsoever? How well would you do if you kept your normal eating pattern and sedentary lifestyle and then just showed up on the starting line to begin the race? Not only would you not win, you would likely not make it past the first few miles. People who participate in marathons train for months, increase their stamina, their concentration, learn how to best pace themselves and adjust their diet to achieve maximum performance.
We are now a few days away from our marathon, two Rosh Hashana days of davening, followed by the intensity of the ten days of repentance and culminating in Yom Kippur. Have we trained adequately? Are we ready to not only qualify or complete the marathon, but to achieve our very best? Are we in maximum performance shape?
We simply cannot expect to just show up on Rosh Hashana and have a meaningful, purposeful, transformation experience. While we will likely blame the davening, the décor, the Rabbi or the location of our seat for why we were not moved or inspired, the truth is that the success of this time of the year is directly proportional to the effort and investment we make in it.
It is not too late to get ready. In the next few days set aside time to meditate and reflect on areas we can improve, mistakes we have made and how they can be avoided, things for which we should be appreciative and goals for the coming year. Give extra time, attention and effort to davening three times a day, preferably with a minyan and hone your ability to connect. Talk to Hashem like you are having coffee with your best friend who wants to hear everything in your life, because He is your best friend and He does want to hear everything.
If we spend time preparing and getting ready, I am confident we will have the best Yamim No’raim ever.
If we want to have credibility when we criticize, we must be willing to praise, when warranted.
As the situation progressively worsened, Israel was unable to make contact with their Egyptian counterparts to intercede. Prime Minister Netanyahu called President Obama who placed the weight of the United States behind the demand of the Egyptians to protect the trapped Israelis. Following the incident, PM Netanyahu said “I would like to express my gratitude to the President of the United States, Barack Obama. I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, ‘I will do everything I can.’ And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude.”
Former Director of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy spoke at a conference in New York this week and said, “I believe the leadership that the President of the United States showed on that night was a leadership of historic dimensions. It was he who took the ultimate decision that night which prevented what could have been a sad outcome—instead of six men coming home, the arrival in Israel of six body bags. And I want to say to you very openly and very clearly that had there been six body bags, there would have been a much different Israel today than we have been used to seeing over recent years.”
PM Netanyahu and Efraim Halevy were not the only ones to praise President Obama this week. The Zionist Organization of America praised and thanked President Barack Obama for his public commitment to veto a Palestinian statehood bid if it reaches the United Nations Security Council. ZOA National President Morton A. Klein said, “We commend President Obama for making it publicly clear that his administration will veto the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations Security Council.”
The Pro-Israel community has not been shy in voicing our criticism of President Obama’s policies and messaging towards Israel. In fact, most pundits have interpreted Bob Turner’s victory over Democratic state Assemblyman David Weprin in a special election Tuesday as a referendum on Obama’s attitude towards Israel. The Drudge Report even ran a headline “Revenge of the Jews; Dem Seat Turns in NYC.”
However, as the country gears up for the countdown to the next election, it behooves us to remember that if we want to have credibility when we criticize, and we must not hesitate to be vocally critical when it is warranted, then we must also be willing to praise and extol when they are warranted as well. The President, in my opinion, deserves great praise and thanks for his efforts in protecting the Israeli diplomats in Cairo and his conviction in vocally opposing the declaration of Palestinian Statehood at the UN.
What do you do?
How often is our first question to someone we meet, what do you do? How often do we ask about someone else, what does he or she do? How often do we define our own self-worth by our profession or if we aren’t working by what takes up the bulk of our time? For too many of us our identity is entirely wrapped up and monopolized by our profession. We mistake ‘earning a living’ for actually living. If we are not working, we still often mistakenly identify with the details that take up the greatest quantity of our time, not quality of our time.
We need to challenge ourselves to create a meaningful list of goals outside of how we earn a living. Will our list include making a million dollars, or making a difference? Will it include finishing a stamp collection or finishing shas? Will it include spending money on a nicer car and nicer home or spending time with our spouses and children?
The Netziv, Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, was once visited by a student he had not seen in a long time. He greeted him with the popular Yiddish idiom, vus machstu, which is used in the vernacular as how are you, but literally translates as what do you do? The student answered, I am well Rebbe, Baruch Hashem I am healthy and earn an excellent living. They sat and made small talk and after a little while the Netziv again asked so “vus machs tu?” Again, the talmid answered, thank God I am well and grateful I am very successful financially. They spent the next hour in discussion and again the Netziv, a third time asked nu, vus machs tu? The student finally turned to his Rebbe and said forgive me Rebbe, but this is the third time you asked me the same question and I have already told you all is well, I am healthy and parnossa is great. The Netziv turned to him and said, maybe you didn’t understand the question. You answered that you have good health and an excellent livelihood. That’s what Hashem does for you; I asked vus machstu, and what do you do?
As we rapidly approach Rosh Hashana, let’s be ready to answer the question – what do you do?
Learning is a Lifelong Endeavor and its Mission is Never Complete
Parents have let out a collective sigh of relief. The new academic year has started and, thank God, the kids are back in school. It is amazing that, at the end of the school year, parents are so grateful to have a reprieve from supervising homework, making lunches and driving carpools. By the end of the summer, however, they are all too happy to resume those duties and have their kids back in a structured, productive and learning environment.
While we mostly think about the end of summer as a time that kids go back to school, Judaism teaches that it is specifically this period of the year that all of us, adults, kids, men and women are encouraged to return to learning, studying and personal growth. Learning is a lifelong endeavor and its mission is never complete.
Over the past few weeks, I attended two siyumim, the celebrations over completion of a major body of learning, that deeply inspired me. During the nine days, our member, Jeff Silkin made a siyum on an entire mesechta (tractate) of gemara. Remarkably, when Jeff and his family first moved to the circle he would classify himself as a beginner with little background or learning skills. Yet, by committing to study one night a week with his chavrusa (R. Mayer Englander), something he considers totally ordinary, he was able to achieve an extraordinary feat.
Last Shabbos at Seudah Shlishiet, another of our members, Dan Waldman, made a siyum on Shas Mishnayos, having completed every single mishna in the six orders. He told the story of how, as a survivor, he tried to learn about his murdered ancestors so he could visit their graves. When he recognized that, tragically, he could not locate much information, he decided he would study the entire mishna and dedicate it to them. Through this process of study that took several years, he became their monument. Ask Dan how he completed this rigorous project and his answer is simple – one mishna at a time.
Like our many children and like Jeff and Dan, this Elul, let’s all go back to school. Challenge yourself to complete an area of study, to read a challenging book, to attend an inspiring lecture or to engage a regular study partner. Participate in the Beis Midrash program nightly or Shabbos afternoon in the Senders Library. If you need a chavrusa, feel free to contact me any time.
May we all use Labor Day to return to school for a labor of love – Torah study, and may we attend each other’s siyumim and celebrations for many years to come.