Holidays, Holiness, and Patience: Lessons From Jacob

Jacob's Dream | Baruch Maayan
Baruch Maayan

Many will meet over the coming weekend and subsequent weeks for Thanksgiving and the various winter holidays in America. This year, in its all too familiar and unprecedented fashion, has come complete with a caveat. We are being advised to hunker down; avoid large gatherings, and celebrate only with immediate family members whom we are already exposed to regularly. During a time when everyone is longing for the light at the end of the tunnel, many of us feel as if the tunnel has become too much to bear. Even with multiple vaccines seemingly fast approaching, the end of this collective nightmare feels to many like it might never come. 

Luckily, we have the Torah to glean lessons and insights from. This week’s parsha is Vayeitzei, which has much to do with Jacob’s journey from Beer-sheba to his uncle Laban’s house in Haran, and all of the activity that unfolds therein. I would like to take a look at the beginning of the parsha for a moment, for I think that we can discover a message there that might resonate with all of us. In Genesis 28:11, it is written of Jacob: “He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set.” Many believe “the place” to be Mount Moriah, which would be the future site of the Holy Temple, and Jacob’s exact resting place would be the location of the Holy of Holies. When Jacob falls asleep he goes on to have his famous dream wherein, “…a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). Soon thereafter, God speaks directly to Jacob, and assures him that the covenant that was originally made with Abraham will continue to be upheld via Jacob and his lineage. God simply tells Jacob, “I am with thee.” 

Other than the obvious awesomeness of such a “panim-el-panim” encounter with God, Jacob’s experience stands out. Jacob is stricken with pure awe as he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16). Jacob again shows his sense of excitement and wonder as he utters a phrase that has become so dear to my own heart: “Mah-nora ha-makom hazeh!”, or “How full of awe is this place!” in verse 17. Jacob is finding the holy in the liminality; he is standing at a threshold, and is nothing if not in between. Remember that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending the ladder in his dream. What to make of this? While there are a sundry of interpretations available, one of my favorites is sprinkled with a touch of the numerology of Gematria. There is a Midrash which compares the Hebrew words “Sinai” and the word for ladder, “Sulam.” The numerical values of Sinai and Sulam are identical, both at 130. This Midrash claims that the angels are representative of Moses and Aaron. God was at the top of the ladder, as he was present to give the Torah at the top of Mount Sinai. The Torah, which is taught by sages a la Moses and Aaron, is the ladder that we use to bridge the gap from heaven to earth. 

There is certainly a lot to unpack here, and this is only the first snippet of the parsha! Let us examine. Jacob came to rest in “the place.” He only halted there because the sun had set and he required a place to rest his head for the night. This “place” likely appeared rather ordinary. Jacob was in between his flight from Esau’s wrath and his new experiences in Haran. He was not at a sacred or religious site. While his head was on a rock in the space between, God appeared to him and showed him the awesomeness that can exist in any “place” and at any time. This Thanksgiving and following might feel to us like a rock underneath our heads. We are uncomfortable. We are more alone than we are used to being, and used to feeling. Are we truly solitary, or are we living in the moment wherein our eyes are about to be opened wide letting a flood of beautiful and Holy light in? 

Jacob’s experience teaches us something else that we might do well to keep in mind over these holidays: the art of patience. When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel. He loves Rachel so much that he is willing to wait for her. Laban asks Jacob to serve him for seven years before he will allow him to marry Rachel. What follows is perhaps one of the most beautifully romantic verses in the Torah: “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Gen. 29:20). Many of you know that Jacob was subsequently duped by Laban into marrying his elder daughter Leah, and actually served Laban another seven years for Rachel. Even so, Jacob’s love for Rachel did not seem to spark in him impulsivity and short-term thinking. He loved her, so he waited patiently.

If we truly want to show love to our families, friends and all those whom we hold dear this Thanksgiving and following, we might take a lesson in patience from Jacob. He loved Rachel, so he waited patiently. We love our people, so we would be wise to think and act similarly. We know this is not the year for large gatherings, tight embraces, and close conversations. We are being told to wait. This year, to wait is to love fiercely. 

While we are biding our time, may we all be blessed to find “the place” where we are. The Divine is with us where we happen to be, and the time and space in between is as holy as anywhere that is labeled as sacred. Our time with loved ones is sacred, so let us honor it with patient waiting. The ladder between heaven and earth is around us always if we are willing to gaze openly at our angels. I pray that the moment we are all able to be together again seems as Jacob’s years waiting for Rachel: but a few days.

May you all have a healthy and blessed Thanksgiving.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Too Many Funerals

Jewish survivors walk behind a wagon of coffins during a funeral procession  through the snow covered streets of Czestochowa. - Collections Search -  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

It has been a bit difficult to write lately. Perhaps it has simply been cumbersome to attempt to focus on anything at all. While my last tidbit was delivered primarily in reference to the highly contentious presidential election, there was an apolitical monster running rampant through the world; caring not for democrats or republicans, but only for suitable hosts. When I was writing posts related to COVID-19 so many months ago, I had hoped that the subject would become obsolete, and that the novel coronavirus would lose its novelty. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, as we have now seen 194,000 cases in one day in the United States, 11 million total cases, and over 245,000 deaths. 

Our Torah study has been interrupted. Our sages, whom we know revered the study of Torah above almost all things, tell us that the study of Torah can be interrupted in order to attend a funeral procession. The Talmud informs us that Rabbi Judah bar Ilai would cease his Torah analysis and review to attend a funeral procession, with the caveat that the procession not contain “enough people.” According to Rav, “enough people” would be six thousand people and six thousand trumpeters. Many others said that “enough people” would be the amount it would take to form an uninterrupted line from the city to the gravesite (B. Ket 17a). Judging by the math of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, twelve-thousand people would be the sufficient amount to attend a funeral procession. This seems like a rather large number, but what do we know of numbers anymore? 

Some people read the Torah and are initially taken aback regarding some of the numbers. How outrageous and ridiculous some might say! Let us look at this past week’s parshah to tie some of those numbers into our discussion. We recently read about Chayeii Sarah, or the Life of Sarah. Sarah is said to have died when she was 127 years-old. Abraham, who also passes in the portion, is about 175 years of age at the time of his death. How do we account for this? Rabbi David Rosenfeld explains that God originally gave human beings long spans of life in order to gain sufficient time to inch closer to perfection. Rabbi Rosenfeld goes on to assert the fact that God subsequently saw the sins of humankind become more prevalent, and shortened the human lifespan in order to make us all aware of our mortality. Perhaps if we know we are close to death, we will examine our behavior more thoroughly. Some people simply believe that the ages of many in the Torah were meant to be hyperbolic; perhaps utilized simply to symbolize a very long life. Whatever the purpose of the highly advanced ages, the contemporary reader often struggles to take the numbers seriously and literally. 

This is one of those many moments wherein the Torah becomes so beautiful and relevant. Abraham; dead at 175. Absurd! From March 1st to April 4th, the United states originally reported about 8,000 COVID-19 deaths (we have since learned that the number was much higher). I remember my wife and I hunkering down in our isolation along with our newborn baby and five-year-old, worried about what the next day would bring. Fast forward only 7 or so months later, and our country alone is at approximately 250,000 deaths from this virus. 250,000 certainly seemed like an absolutely absurd(!) number only 7 months ago, and now we simply want the exponential growth to stop. 8,000 feels like a blip. The ages of our patriarchs and matriarchs can teach us, if nothing else, never to scoff at the numbers. What seems impossible to our very human understanding can prove to be far too possible in the blink of an eye. 

What can we take away from all of this? We need to find a way to continue studying Torah. We need to find a way to stop the interruptions with the devastating need for funeral processions. If we do not act quickly and rightly, the numbers, which are already trending in a catastrophic direction, will continue to rage ferociously out of control. Rabbi Yohanan concluded that the people of Israel are like the olive. Why? Because the olive does not produce oil unless it is crushed. Rabbi Yohanan said that the Israelites required affliction to return to the right way (B. Men 35b). Have we all not been afflicted enough? Have we not learned the importance of wearing masks, socially distancing, and at this point, perhaps just staying home? How much crushing do we need in order to yield oil? Surely, we must meet God along this path, for our relationship is bidirectional. 

The Mishkan T’Filah says, “You meant Torah for me: did you mean the struggle for me, too?” Perhaps we are meant to be like Jacob becoming Israel, after having wrestled (or struggled) with a divine being? Are we ready to transform into Israel, or are we still searching for the right way? I pray that our struggles with truth and righteousness begin to come to a healthy cessation in terms of COVID-19. If we politicize, minimize, or turn away as Jonah originally did, we will lose time with Torah. We will be as Rabbi Judah bar Ilai; busy attending far too many funeral processions.

Right now, the numbers are not in our favor. But, as we have learned, action can change ourselves, and change the world. I pray that our noses are soon back in Torah uninterrupted, and that we are able to utilize the oil of our affliction for the betterment of this world. Please stay safe and healthy.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Our Nation’s Soul

Why the electoral map is even better for Joe Biden than it looks -  CNNPolitics

Well, here we are. Many of us have spent close to the past week in a state of acute exhaustion. We have been refreshing the pages of our chosen news websites and television stations, wondering where “the count” currently stood. Whatever your particular political leanings happen to be, I do not think that there can be much doubt that something far greater than politics stood at the center of the United States of America during this election cycle. We stood on the border of light, and we wondered as the Mishkan T’Filah wonders; Where shall our hearts turn?

We seem to have our answer, and it is important that people take the time to celebrate. There is no denying the fact that we all could use a reason to rejoice during such troubling times. So many who opposed the elected candidate do not feel this joy, and we will still find our country deeply polarized. It is now that I bring forward the words of Rabbi Eleazar, which can be found in the Talmud:

“When the Holy One assigns high rank to a man, He assigns it to his children and his children’s children unto the end of all generations. But if that man becomes arrogant, the Holy One brings him low” (B. Meg 13b). 

If we look at Rabbi Eleazar’s excerpt at face-value, we can simply attribute his words to the discussion of royal bloodlines. A king makes a king makes a king ad nauseum.What I see is a call for responsibility from our leaders; a responsibility not only to the people that the leader is serving, but to legacy, the future, and to the Divine spark within all things. After all, does arrogance historically exclude one from being king? There have certainly been arrogant kings, and they remained in power for quite some time. Rabbi Eleazar seems to be indicating that the responsibility to justice and righteousness of a ruler cannot be ignored–at least not for long. 

Let us look at the state of affairs in our own country. Our newly minted President-elect has been chosen by God. Yes, by God, because I believe that we all contain the fragments that collectively compose God. We have chosen a leader with the trust that he will use his power with an eye toward Tikkun Olam, and a drastic betterment for the future of this world. Climate change, racial inequality, women’s reproductive rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community; all of these issues and many more hang in the balance. Not only will our new leader make a lasting impact that will attach itself to his own name, but also the name of his children, and to all of those who used their power to give him his. We hope for a leader who shows caring and humility.  

We have seen how the flipside of this works in terms of leadership. We can now begin clearing our national throat of the unholiness and arrogance that has been poorly posing as leadership. Rabbi Eleazar said of an arrogant leader that, “…the Holy One brings him low.” This has just played out before our very eyes. The Talmud tells us, “When the shepherd is lost, so are the sheep” (PRE 42; B. BK 52a). A few years ago our country chose a shepherd who not only seemed to be lost, but quick to anger and erratic. We lost too many sheep along the way, as the arrogance of the shepherd uncovered a heart as hardened as a pharaoh’s. Now the Divinity that lives inside of the people has spoken, and it has brought him down. If he will ever see the error of his own ways, and find his way to some form of teshuvah is yet to be determined. 

We can only move forward with a new leadership, and hope that we can find some hints of Moses. The Moses who took Yitro’s advice in Exodus and appointed “…capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people” (Ex. 18:25). This is likely a good place to talk about the “capable men” portion of that verse. We have our first woman Vice President, and it is long past high time for this to have occurred. We need good women and men helping to lead our country. A diverse and inclusive cabinet is a promise that must be kept in order to maintain the proper perspective that will truly represent the breadth of this land. Exodus 19:14 says, “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people.” The Talmud asserts that Moses went directly to the people, not to his own house to deal with his own affairs, as he always had the best interest of those whom he was serving at heart. As our nation heals, we certainly crave a leader who will tend to the issues of the people first and foremost, as we have just suffered through one who is truly more concerned with his own affairs than anything else. 

I would like to begin concluding with another bit from Rabbi Eleazar, who clearly was very interested in the subject of leadership. The great Rabbi said, “Any leader who guides a community gently will merit guiding it in the world-to-come” (B Sanh 92a). I hope we are on our way to a gentle leader, who will demonstrate compassion, and an overtly kind character. I have hope (I have been using the word “tikvah” much lately) that our new leader will prove to be the humble and gentle leader that would have made Rabbi Eleazar, and will make all of us, proud. 

Let us end with the Shehecheyanu Blessing, which is generally recited when something is done for the first time in a given year. It is also recited before the eating of “first fruits,” which feels so appropriate given the brand new beginning that many feel has commenced today. May the next chapter of this country bear so much fruit for all of us. May we all come together, heal, and restore the neshamah of our nation. 

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”

L’Shalom,

Joshua

These Three Things

Alexander The Great Kneels Before Shimon HaTzaddik

There are often times when I am reading or studying a Jewish text, and I want to share it all with you. Obviously, that is not realistic, as Judah HaNasi already redacted the Mishnah, so there is no need for me to jot that down again. Also, I don’t think you would stick around to read such volume in one sitting. On this particular day, at this particular moment, I happen to be reading the Pirkei Avot section of the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), is probably the most cited section of the Mishnah, and has many famous quotations. One of those prominent bits struck me in an interesting way as I was reading tonight. 

Pirkei Avot 1:2 gives us a quotation from Shimon HaTzaddik (Shimon the “just” or “righteous”). But first, a bit of a detour. Rabbi Marc Angel’s commentary gives us an interesting anecdote about an exchange between Shimon HaTzaddik and Alexander the Great. Apparently, as the latter was making his way through Eretz Yisrael, Alexander the Great met HaTzaddik and was thoroughly impressed with what Angel refers to as Shimon HaTzaddik’s “spiritual demeanor.” Alexander proceeded to demand that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple; because what better way to honor a sage’s spiritual competence than by commissioning a statue of yourself? I mean, we’ve all done it, right? No? Well, I digress. After ever-so-tactfully explaining to Alexander that statues are not allowed in the Temple, HaTzaddik does something rather smart. He tells Alexander that while he cannot accommodate his statue request, what he can do is have all the children of priests be named Alexander for a year. Better to appease Alexander than to simply tell him “no,” I presume. So, if you know any Jewish people named Alexander, and have thought, that sounds rather Hellenistic, now you know why!

Now, back to Pirkei Avot 1:2. While I usually don’t put the actual Hebrew in my posts, I am feeling a change for tonight. I will put both the Hebrew and I will transliterate for those who do not read:

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

“Al sh’losha d’varim haolam omeid, al hatorah v’al haavodah v’al g’milut chasadim”

“On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.” 

These three things that Shimon HaTzaddik has so concisely and profoundly offered us seem to touch every aspect of life in one way or another. When we study and embrace Torah, we are bettering ourselves. We are expanding our minds, learning to open ourselves up to novel ideas, and honing the discipline of our own intellectual inner life. When we worship the Divine, we are fostering a relationship with a force greater than ourselves. We can exit our own minds, and enter into infinite and eternity. When in the act of worship or prayer, we might strive to leave our physical bodies aside for a moment, and look at the human experience from an elevated vantage point. Worship brings us out of any inkling of bookishness and opens our souls to the possibility of being filled with the warm radiance of Divinity. Through “g’milut chasadim,” or acts of loving-kindness, we are able to turn our attention to our relationships with others. Acts of kindness, no matter how perceptually large or small, are all gargantuan. Without human-to-human interaction and application of study and worship, we could become hermetic; and what is knowledge and Divine inspiration without including and serving our fellow humans? The Torah and God are not meant to be kept secret. How can we share with the world? 

Let us reflect for a moment. According to Shimon HaTzaddik of the Mishnah, the world is kept upright through Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness. Perhaps you do not read the Torah, worship the Divine, or consciously partake in acts of righteousness. Perhaps it is a good time to ask ourselves some questions. What do you do to feed your mind, and your intellect? Do you challenge yourself with simple reads, or have you tried pacing your way through that more intense piece? Do you take the easier classes that you are less interested in than the classes that might stimulate your mind and interests more effectively? Do you feel challenged enough to gain a sense of accomplishment? Perhaps it is time to find your Torah. I know that not everyone attends Shabbat services weekly, or even at all. Do you have a method of connecting with a power that is far greater than yourself? Do you sense a higher purpose to your life? Have you seen the holiness in the apparently mundane lately? Perhaps it is time to find your soul’s fuel. Finally, what have you done for others? Do you serve others, and not take the time to recognize your own service? Do you spend all of your time studying or worshipping, and lose touch with the world of the living and suffering? Perhaps it is time to directly connect with the people with whom you share your world. 

May we all be blessed to find our Torah, our soul’s nutrition, and the service of loving-kindness within ourselves. If we can work to balance these three aspects of ourselves, perhaps the world will follow suit, and begin to operate more evenly and effectively. If we all search for our versions of these three things, what beautiful equilibrium we could bring to this world. 

In the meantime, no statues, Alex!

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Morning Anxiety? A Jewish Suggestion

Why do I wake up with anxiety? How to reduce morning anxiety or stress -  Insider

We are living during a time when a vast majority of people are experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety. We worry about COVID-19, we worry about the results and aftermath of the elections, we worry about the safety of our children and the state of schools. The list could go on ad nauseam. There is simply no escaping the fact that 2020 (or 5780 and beginning of 5781) has been an anxiety-ridden year. If you are a person who already grappled with the sometimes-relentless clutches of anxiety, this past year has probably done nothing but exacerbate feelings of doom, fear, and dread. 

Many of you can empathize with the feeling of waking up with your heart pounding out of your chest, hypervigilant, overly alert, and panicked for no particular reason. I count myself as one of those who is prone to waking up in this abrupt and disturbing manner. What a way to start the day, right? How can you wake up on the right (or even wrong) side of the bed when it feels as if anxiety has sprung you straight out of it? Anxiety is the alarm that wakes us, and it does not do so with kid gloves on.

What can be done? I can only share what has been working for me, and perhaps something similar might be of benefit to you. Enter the Modeh Ani. I make a conscious decision to recite this blessing every morning as soon as my eyes open. When I feel that anxiety and fear start to rear its ugly head, I immediately begin chanting or simple recitation:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ רוח חַי וְקַיָּם שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ

Modeh ah-nee lifanecha, Ru-ach chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bee nishma-tee b’chemlah rabbah emunatecha.

“I gratefully acknowledge Your Face; Spirit lives and endures;

You return my soul to me with compassion; How great is your faith in me.”

This translation comes to us via Shefa Gold. I find particularly meaningful the change to “Ru-ach” from its original “Melech.” Ru-ach, meaning “Spirit,” leaves this blessing open to more interpretation than the more narrow “Melech,” which translates to King, and seems a bit limiting and gendered. It makes sense that we would thank the Divine for returning our souls to us, as it is customary to recite the “Hashkiveinu” in the evening. When we recite The Hashkiveinu, we request that God allow us to lie down in a state of peace and wake up with our souls restored to us. I try to look at the Modeh Ani as a direct extension of our evening plea. We ask at night, and say thank you for having our request fulfilled in the morning. 

What is this of our souls being returned to our bodies? Where did my soul go?! Oy Vey! Kabbalah and the Talmud give us some beautiful answers. According to Kabbalistic thought, God (who Heschel always reminds us is longing for human contact) cannot stand to be away from us for too long. When we sleep, at least a part of our soul ascends to the heavens, where our spirits attain a nest egg of nourishment for the next day. We return to our physical bodies with a spiritual thirst quenched just a bit more from our nightly journey. The Talmud tells us that sleep is actually 1/60 of death. Our souls depart from our bodies during sleep, but return upon waking. When we finally die, our souls simply do not return.

We express our thanks to the Divine not only for having given us the gift of another day, but also for having spiritually nourished us during our sleeping ascension to more Divine closeness. Perhaps you are thinking, “When I wake up, I definitely do not feel like I have just ascended, attained any sort of closeness with God, and then returned.” When we awaken full of fear and anxiety, we are back in our earthly bodies, which can often feel anything but perfect and restored. The last line of the blessing, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ “rabbah emunatecha” actually comes to us via Megillat Eicha, which is more widely known in the English-speaking world as the Book of Lamentations. For anyone at all familiar, this is neither a pleasant nor happy book, in that it deals with the theological crisis surrounding the aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE. “How great is your faith in me.” We get such an uplifting bit from a book that is anything but. 

What to make of this? Even when we feel down, tired, drained, like we need to lament, or simply cannot get out of bed, perhaps we can take some time to be thankful for just being alive. The 100 mitzvot per day can wait for a breath or two. Sometimes just being present in the moment is enough. When our eyes open, we have our first gift of the day. Since I have begun to chant the Modeh Ani, it has actually brought me a sense of calm that I had a lot of trouble experiencing upon waking prior. Many people try to begin their day with mindfulness or gratitude practice. Perhaps this is just another way of doing so, but in a specifically Jewish manner. 

If you are struggling, give the Modeh Ani a chance, and if it does not work for you, keep trying until something does. Waking up with Divinity is such an amazing way to begin a good day. Even when we don’t immediately feel it, God and His gifts are there. It is our job to seek them, just as the Divine seeks us. Perhaps we can meet in the middle. May your mornings be calm, and your days long and full of light and wonder.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

A Coat or a Fire?

The Story of Noah and the Ark in the Bible - Jewish History

Next week’s parshah brings us to the very familiar story of Noach, or Noah, and his building of the famous ark. While many of us remember the Noah of our youth as someone to be admired, for he was literally the most righteous person on Earth, I would like us to take a closer look at what the story of Noah might teach us about our responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our fellow human beings. In Genesis 6:9, it is written, “Noah was in his generation a man righteous and whole hearted; Noah walked with God.” At first glance this sentence seems like a great compliment. After all, the ultimate word in Hebrew for a righteous individual; the word “tzaddik” is used to describe him. But why the qualifier “in his generation?” According to Rabbi Yohanan of the Talmud, Noah would not have been considered righteous in other generations. Essentially, Rabbi Yohanan is telling us that Noah was the best of a bad situation. “And the Earth was corrupt before God, and the Earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In a world full of immorality, horror, and unrest, perhaps Noah passed the individual test in that he kept his nose clean, and stayed out of trouble.

Let’s look at the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Does it clue us in to some of Noah’s failings? We can discover a lot if we look at Noah and Abraham under the same lens. Rabbi Judah tells of a parable of a king who has two sons, one was an adult and the other was just a child. When speaking to the young son, the king said: “Walk with me,” but when speaking to the adult son he said, “Walk before me.” In Genesis 17:1, God says to Abraham, “Because you are whole-hearted, walk before me.” Rabbi Judah tells us that Noah’s spiritual fortitude was meek when compared to the mighty spiritual strength of Abraham. Perhaps, Noah would not have been considered a “tzaddik” if he had lived in the generation of Abraham. Noah walked with, and Abraham was given the privilege of walking before God.

Can we see the shortcomings of Noah in his actions, or inaction? Upon hearing of God’s plan to destroy the earth and all who inhabited it, how did Noah react? God told Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13). After telling Noah of His plans, Noah’s response was to do all that God commanded him–no questions asked. When God told Noah of his plan to destroy the entire world, Noah was silent, and did not question in the slightest. Who does question God? Fast forward to Parshah Vayera. God is prepared to destroy the city of Sodom, saying “…their sin is exceeding grievous.” (Gen. 28:20). Abraham’s response could not have been more disparate. Abraham immediately pleads with God for the sake of Sodom. He says, “Wilt thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 28:23). Abraham proceeds to bargain with God, eventually convincing God that the city should be spared if even ten righteous people live within the city. Rabbi Levi tells us that Abraham understood that in order for a world to exist, justice could not be too strict. You cannot have overly strict justice, and also a world. God was asked to relent a bit, and He listened.

Let us look at the stark contrast: God is set to destroy the entire world, and Noah is silent in response. God is set to destroy just one city, and Abraham makes a case for the hypothetical righteous residents within. Would Noah have been righteous in Abraham’s generation? The answer seems to be “probably not.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that Judaism teaches us a “collective responsibility.” Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh (“All Israel are responsible for one another ”). If we only look after ourselves, and stick our heads in the sand when wrongs are being done to others, are we truly acting in a righteous manner? We are to aspire to the highest level of justice as we are taught in Deuteronomy 16:18–“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.” While it is vital that we look after our people, is it not also important that we care for the rights of others? When the flood waters approach our neighbors, or even strangers whom we do not know, do we build our own boat in solitude, or do we reach our hand to help those paddling for their lives? The Chasidim referred to Noah as a “tzaddik im peltz,” which translates to a “righteous man in a fur coat.” This phrase refers to the way in which Noah protected himself. When someone is in need of heat or reprieve from the elements, they can wear a coat, or they can ignite a fire. A coat will only protect you, but a fire can warm a community of people.

As Noah wore his fur coat, we see the ultimate righteous act in Abraham’s kindling of fire. Silence is an answer, and Noah made his answer clear.

In our world today, we see injustice taking place every day. We are still fighting for equity and equality in all facets of our society. As Jews, is it not our responsibility to speak up for the sake of humanity and its survival? Do we not have a responsibility to Tikkun Olam, or to repair the world from whatever sort of bruises it has endured?

Will we wear a coat as Noah did, or light a fire as Abraham did? Will we insulate and isolate ourselves or ignite the flames of justice and righteousness whenever and however we can? The choice is ours as Jews, and as decent human beings living amongst one another. Let us hear the words of great Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.”

May we all be blessed with this gift of gab. May we all challenge appropriately, and understand that God truly is in search of man and humankind. It is our responsibility to make our voices heard. The world depends on it.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

President’s Message

Rosh Hashanah was different this year. I am very engaged in the virtual service! Forgive the askew tallit!

**Below, I share my President’s Message that was given to my congregation on Erev Rosh Hashanah. It is short, and I believe the message to be true for all of our Jewish communities, as we are one family, or mishpachah. I wrote it down, so I wanted to share it here for those who could not attend, and also for the general reader.

I want to wish you all a “Shana Tovah U’Metukah, ” Or a good and sweet New Year. Thank you all for being flexible and adapting to Temple [Insert Schul/Synagogue Name] via Zoom. The past 6 or 7 months have been strange to say the least, and at times, most difficult and sad. I am beyond honored to represent the Temple as President during a time of great challenge; but I have also been able to be a part of witnessing the beauty of the true spirit of our congregation. The body of Temple [Name here] might be on “Main Street in Anonymoustown USA,” but the soul of the congregation manifests in all of you here, and also in those unable to be today. 

We have been forced to look at the world differently, but still with positivity amidst obstacles. Those who know me well know that I am an avid fan of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I would like to share one of his many beautiful quotes: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

And amazed I have been. I have been amazed by our ability to keep Temple [Redacted Specific Name] not only alive, but thriving. Our Friday evening services are well-attended and invigorating. Our Religious School is buzzing with the constant excitement of Jewish learning, and our weekend Midrash and Torah study classes challenge and enliven our spirits. To put it frankly, Temple has never closed, nor should it ever. We have, as the Jewish people have always done, adapted. 

What has also remained unchanged is our need for your help. During these difficult times, and as we work to re-enter our building in the future we will be in need of funds for required deep-cleaning, ensuring that our Temple has proper ventilation, and a number of other costs that we never could have imagined incurring less than a year ago. Your help, as always, is not only appreciated, but needed now, perhaps more than ever. We will not stop offering, and we hope you do not either. 

Famous Medieval Torah Scholar Maimonides claims that contained within the sound of the Shofar is a personal message. It is a time to awaken from whatever respective slumbers have kept us from moving forward. The blast of the Shofar contains new beginnings. As we begin the year 5781, perhaps we should all listen to the same blast that pierced the air during the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai so many years ago. As we create new beginnings, I urge you to do so with Temple [Name Again] in mind. Like the blast of the Shofar, our goal is to continue to ring out through the generations as a center of vibrant Jewish life. We can only do so if we support one another, and our small Jewish community. 

I wish all of you and your families a sweet and happy New Year, and a meaningful Yamim Noraim. Todah rabah and thank you very much!

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Back to Love

The Month of Elul | My Jewish Learning

We find ourselves in the middle of the moth of Elul. This sixth month of the Jewish year immediately precedes the Norim Yoraim (The Days of Awe), or what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively. In Hebrew, Elul is spelled “aleph, lamed, vav, lamed,” which is often viewed as an acronym of the phrase “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” These romantic words come to us from the Song of Songs, which we can find in our tradition’s canon thanks in large part to Rabbi Akiva, who saw in the Song of Songs more than just a love poem. He saw a proclamation of love between God and His people. If God is our beloved, what does it mean in a modern manner, with our contemporary set of sensibilities, to love God? This is a question for reflection that we can all ask ourselves during the contemplative month of Elul. As I have personally been studying Torah, pondering my own life, and the lives I see and hear of all around me, I have come to a realization: There is a Divine plan at work, but we tend to resist following it.

We can see history of this resistance of Divine wisdom if we look at this past week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. God tells the people, “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot…” (Deut. 19:4). God tells the people that he has led them in a roundabout manner for forty long years, not because it was the most direct route to the Promised Land, but because He knew that the people of Israel needed time to learn before they were to enter Canaan. There is an Aggadic anecdote in the Talmud that speaks to this exact plan. God took care of the people’s basic needs (see the clothes and shoes above), so that they would have time to study Torah, and take to heart the words of God without the worries of what psychology’s Maslow would refer to as the most basic of physiological needs. The Talmudic story gets interesting due to the fact that it claims that when the Canaanites first caught wind that the people of Israel were about to enter into the land, they burned newly planted seeds, uprooted trees, and destroyed buildings. Essentially, the Canaanites were akin to an angry tenant who, upon notice of eviction, figured they would trash the place. God of course knew of this, and decided to lead the people of Israel on a forty-year trek that would force the Canaanites to repair and rebuild what they had damaged. After all, God had promised Abraham for his descendants “eretz z’vat chalav u’dvash”—a land flowing with milk and honey.

As we can see above, God had a plan to make the lives of the people of Israel better, and He wanted to keep his promise. Not only was He working “behind the scenes,” but He was also using the allotted time to guide and educate the people. If you read the Prophets of the Nevi’im, you are quite aware that God’s teachings were not always first and foremost on the minds of the people once they got comfortable in their new milk and honey-laden digs. God often expressed his abandonment pains through the Prophets. After all of the teaching and the warning, the people still were led astray by false prophets and idols.

Fast forward to today. We are living in a divided society wherein the warnings and teachings of the learned are ignored, and false prophets fill the airwaves. We are distracted by bumper stickers, flags, and the colors of a party. We are worshipping empty heads, and people have found their gods in the senseless noise of it all. Back to our original question; what does it mean to love God? I believe it is our responsibility as Jews to step back and seriously consider this query. If you believe, as the Kabbalists (and myself) do, you know that Divinity is in every person, affixed there during the thunderous shattering of creation. When a pharaoh sits on the throne and stokes the fires of hatred in order to dim inner lights, we must resist.

I grew up, as many, or at least most of us, probably did, believing in our land as the greatest in the world. There is no doubt that drastic changes have occurred. We have become distracted, led astray by the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that has been pushed to the forefront of the body politic by a boy-king who worships only himself. It is time for us to remember why we were led through the wilderness for all those years. If loving God is loving the world that God created, and every thing that God created, why are we falling short? Today, there exist many gods that one can worship, but the relationship with the gods of the monetary and material will always be unidirectional; they will never love you back. Is it time to hold a mirror up to ourselves, and truly reflect (pun intended).

 Can we find our way back to God, whatever He or She means to you? I believe we can, but only if we are willing to find our way back to love, for there will we find Him or Her—and there will we find the purpose that is hidden just beyond the profane. I challenge all of us–dare to delve into the holy this New Year, and we can begin to change the world. There is a plan, and I pray that we allow Divine work to be done. As the ancient cry of the shofar rings out this month and beyond, may we pray that it cuts through the noise of our current world, and may we answer its call with reflection which leads to redemption and reconciliation with the true nature of the Divine.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Open Schools? Tisha B’av Says “No!”

The mystery of why Jews fast on Tisha B'Av - World News - Haaretz.com

This week, and possibly when you are reading this, many Jewish people around the world are mourning and fasting on what is the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. We have arrived at the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av. So many tragic and devastating events are reported to have happened in history on or around the 9th of Av, explaining the reason for the mourning. The two most prominent events associated with this date are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with the first being destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonia), and the second in 70 CE by Titus (Rome). This date is also associated with the formal defeat of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, and the subsequent Roman recapture of Jerusalem. Let’s keep going. The 9th of Av (in the year 1290 CE) was also when Edward I strongly urged, via an edict, that all Jews leave England. Many people think of the year 1492 as the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Well, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Oh, and World War I began on the 9th of Av in 1914. Enough already, right?

What did the sages think? Just to scrape the surface a bit: Rabbi Akiva, one of our Talmudic stalwarts, said that whoever works on the 9th of Av will never see a sign of a blessing, while some other sages believed that the joy of Jerusalem will never be renewed if one does not specifically mourn for Jerusalem on the 9th of Av (B. ta 30b). The Book of Lamentations (which is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) says, “She weepeth, yea, she weepeth in the night” (Lam. 1:2). Rabbi Yohanan thought that the “double weepeth” represented the First and Second Temples, respectively. Tisha B’av is a tragedy–There is no joyful break the fast a la Yom Kippur. In fact, Jews are urged to maintain a serious tone throughout the day, displaying the gravity of what is being represented. 

How is this relevant right now? Unfortunately, Tisha B’Av 5780 is beginning to look foolishly grim, and I feel it must be addressed. As we all know, we are living in what has become the time of COVID-19, and what a confusing tsuris-laden experience it has all been thus far. We are faced with a time that will be looked back upon by historians as tumultuous and dangerous, to say the least. As individuals squabble over the most basic protection (a facemask!) against an airborne illness, people are dying in great numbers. As of this moment, over 150,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The number of those who have died does no justice to the fact that each of these “statistics” was an elaborate and beautiful “Etz Chayim” or “Tree of Life,” which, if you believe anything about Kabbalah, contained sparks of Divinity within them. With each life lost, we lost a bit of ourselves and the “Echad” or Unity that holds us all together in a macro sense. 

Now, we are standing on the precipice of what seems to be a terrible mistake. Is this an error in judgment by so many, or something else? Honestly, it feels a bit sinister. During a time when we must admit that we know very little about COVID-19, especially its long-term impact, we are considering opening up schools and sending in our precious children, their teachers, and many staff members who could so easily become ill themselves, or spread this deadly disease to vulnerable others. How can we expose our children, who trust us to protect them from harm, to a virus that could kill them? Are we so lost? Many people talk of the financial strain that will be placed on them if school does not open up. School is not a child care center, and our teachers are not babysitters. Our schools are supposed to be places of exploration and learning, and our teachers–the educators and guides leading our greenest citizens on the journey of discovery in a safe environment. Yes, school has not always proven to be 100 percent safe (the horrible reality of school shootings, bullying, etc. do exist), but do we ever consciously place our children in harm’s way? Our society is about to knowingly take advantage of the inborn trust of our children, and risk their lives for the sake of what is perceived as convenience. We might struggle financially while we wait for the pandemic to conclude in some form or fashion; but we can recover financially. How can we emotionally recover from the loss of a loved one due to decisions that were made with full knowledge of the lethal potentialities?

I am reminded of a Talmudic writing regarding the binding of Isaac. According to this Aggadic writing, Satan went to Isaac’s mother Sarah, in the form of Isaac himself, while he was bound by his own father, Abraham. When Sarah saw her son, she asked, “What did your father do?” He answered, saying: “My father took me, led me up hills and down into valleys, until finally he brought me up to the summit of a high and towering mountain, where he built an altar, set out the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and grasped a knife to cut my throat. Had not the Holy One said to him, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad,’ I would have been slaughtered.” It was said that before Satan even finished telling the story, Sarah’s soul left her (Tanhuma, Va-yera 23; Eccles. R. 9:7). 

Whenever a new “plan” for a school opening comes out, I feel a bit like Sarah from the story–I want to jump out of my own skin. Are we collectively prepared to lead our children, who follow us as Isaac so willingly followed Abraham, to a crude altar to be sacrificed? Are we prepared to tell that story, and have that be written and told by others? I am praying that the Holy One will intercede at the last moment again, and we will know that we have all been tested as Abraham was. However, if Judaism teaches us anything, it is to pray for things as if they depended on God, but to act as if everything depends upon us–our Mishkan T’Filah siddur tells us to do so come every Shabbat. 

While mourning on the 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av, I have decided to do so with hope in my heart. There is still time to do the right thing, to make corrections, and follow through with sensible and safe decisions. I pray that we can all look into the eyes of our children, and know that we are not sending them into what we know to be danger. I feel the pull in the collective air between yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, or our good and evil inclinations. Let the good overcome the evil, and let our children be safe, even if it means inconvenience and financial struggle in the short-term.

If we have free will, and the Divine is awaiting our next move, I hope that we decide to save lives that we have the power to save. Some part of most of us must know that distancing desks, mandating masks to six-year-olds, and staggering schedules is equivalent to setting a room on fire because we think it will clean up spilled water. Yes, action is being taken, but the place is now burning. Sometimes doing less is the answer. We need to clean up the mess in the correct fashion, not create more devastation and chaos. 

I pray that this 9th day of the month of Av will not consist of actions that lead to an outcome that will be added to the list of tragedies surrounding this day. Let’s be smart, and protect and love one another.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Talmudic Realities Underline My Points

What Is the Talmud? Definition and Comprehensive Guide - How and ...

While reading some Talmudic and Aggadic writings, I came across a section from Pirkei Avot that I simply could not ignore. Now, for those not familiar, Pirkei Avot, (meaning “Ethics of our Fathers”) is a section of the Mishnah, which is the first text of the oral Jewish law. The writings of Pirkei Avot are mostly aggadic, and do not contain halakha (or law). What we have in this Jewish text are the thoughts and ideas in the collective consciousness of the rabbis at the time of the Mishnah. These writings would be dated around the beginning of the Common Era. We are talking about thoughts from the great rabbinic minds of approximately 2,000 years ago. It might be easy to write off such mature texts as antiquated or obsolete. The question becomes–does human nature ever truly change? 

Let’s look at Pirkei Avot 5:7

According to this chapter and verse, there exist seven characteristics in a person whose mind is imperfectly developed, and seven in a person who is wise. What are the seven characteristics of one who is wise? According to the rabbis:

  1. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom.
  2. A wise man does not break in on the words of his fellow.
  3. A wise man is not hasty to answer.
  4. A wise man asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate.
  5. A wise man speaks on the first point first and on the last point last.
  6. A wise man says of that which he has not heard: “I have not heard it.” 
  7. A wise man acknowledges the truth.

I do realize that I utilized the words “wise man.” I used “man” as opposed to “person” because this verse catalyzed a visceral reaction in me as it relates to one particular man. I am confident that by the time you are finished reading, I will not have been mistaken when thinking that it was unnecessary to even type his name on the page. 

It is not a secret that our country is sick and in need of r’fuah sh’leimah, or a complete healing. As the global pandemic continues to ravage the citizens of our nation, we are also at a time of reckoning in terms of this country’s long-surviving systemic racism. While it would be unfair to expect any one human being to possess the capacity to single-handedly fix the multitude of issues and injustices of this country–it does not seem as if anyone is asking for such prolificness. What am I asking for?

I am asking for someone who defers to, and especially does not denigrate, the foremost expert on infectious diseases in the country during a deadly pandemic–someone who does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom. I am asking for someone who, when faced with opposing viewpoints, let alone simple fact-checking, does not angrily stop an interview–someone who does not break in on the words of his fellow. I am asking for someone who does not “tweet” or speak before considering the aftershock. Yes, anti-semitic, racist, and hurtful and baseless statements do matter–someone who is not hasty to answer. I am asking for someone who when faced with the largest public health crisis in a century, and during a time of unspeakable pain and outcry from people of color, does not hold a dangerous and irresponsible rally where he talks about how well he drinks water and walks down ramps–someone who asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate. I am asking for someone who, when faced with the aforementioned significant issues and direct questions, does not deflect and discuss the artificiality of media or the water in a dishwasher–someone who speaks on the first point first and on the last point last. I am asking for someone who, instead of assembling and deferring to a qualified team of experts, talks of possessing a “mind of extreme intelligence and stability”–someone who says of that which he has not heard: “I have not not heard it.” I am asking for someone who simply does not lie, especially an approximated 23.8 times per day–someone who acknowledges the truth. 

According to the rabbis of two millennia ago, the reverse of these seven characteristics portray a mind that is imperfectly developed. This is not a political post, but a post of great concern for the welfare of the country that I was told was “tviz’ot goyim,” or coveted by all the nations. For those who would follow this particular man as if he were a sage or a prophet, I would urge you to be wary. The Talmud seems to be speaking to you as well. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: “When a man boasts, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his gift of prophecy departs from him” (B Pes. 66b.) What “boasts” do I speak of?

“No one is more conservative than me.”

“No one is stronger on the Second Amendment than me.”

“No one respects women more than me. No one reads the Bible more than me.”

“There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”

“There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

“There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues.”

“Nobody knows more about taxes than me, maybe in the history of the world.”

I truly pray that everyone in this country be granted peace and good health. The wounds are deep right now, and we need a steady hand to steer the ship during these especially tumultuous times, not a clouded mind rife with imperfection and boastfulness. It does not take 2,000 year old texts to see this–but in case it does, you can read again from the beginning. And, wow, there is certainly so much more where that came from. 

I pray that we cross over this river and enter the promised land as a society sooner rather than later. We do not need a sage or a prophet. We just need clarity and decency. Stay healthy and be well. 

L’Shalom,

Joshua

P.S. Did you get the wink in the post’s title?