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Talking To Your Children About Tragedy

It has been a very difficult few weeks for so many millions of people, particularly in New York. Two weeks ago we were reeling with shock – we are still reeling with shock – at the news of the horrific murder of two little children Leo and Lucia Krim, at the hands of their nanny.

For all of those who are parents or grandparents, all who love children, this was so very hard and difficult – a tragedy that sickens, but also that comes so close to home. The protective bubble, the lifestyle that we have built in this neighborhood and city (that is truly such a special place), that cocoon that we build for our families (including trusted nannies) – we realize that it’s not a bubble, or a wall, or a solid foundation, but rather, like so much, is just so thin, such a fragile thing. Then there is the fragility, the vulnerability, the realization that what we thought was so solid – homes, brick walls, neighborhoods – was anything but. And then the realization that what we relied upon – power, light, heat – could be cut off (and still not return for two weeks). Our pleasant, ordered, reliable world (in the strongest, most prosperous city in the world) became anything but reliable. This has been deeply, deeply disconcerting. And that it could take weeks longer is just unbelievable.

I spent a day this week in Far Rockaway, doing some volunteering at JASA, a social services agency that operates a complex of 25-story tower blocks full of elderly Russian Jewish immigrants. These are solid built buildings so there was no sign of water damage, but there is no heat or light, save a small amount from emergency generators, and there are no elevators. Our task was to try and persuade residents to leave for shelters, particularly before Wednesday’s storm.

I met one elderly Russian man and we communicated in a mixture of languages. “I was in the Russian army,” he said, “and cold doesn’t bother me.” So I said, “You are not in Russia now, this is America!” And he said, “No. This feels like Russia to me.” And, it is indeed. Disorientating, frightening, to see how quickly our security, our comforts, all the things we rely on, fail.

I want to speak this week about how we talk to children about disaster, but I hope the words are somehow applicable to all of us, whether we are parents of small children or not. How do we help bring up our children? How do we support others in our lives? How do we find the resources, ourselves, to cope with so much pain, tragedy and uncertainty? The world can be a scary place – how can we learn coping skills?

I’ve often been fascinated by the parsha of Chaye Sarah. However much you look at it, it’s an anticlimax from earlier in the Torah. Last week’s parsha had so much: the Angels, destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the birth of Yitzchak, the sending away of Yishmael, treaties and kings, and, finally , Akeidat Yitzchak.

That’s a parsha!

This week, Chaye Sarah, we have a funeral, a wedding, another wedding, and another funeral. We have some water and some camels, and that’s it. (With the exception of the camels, it sound like my typical Sunday!)

Why couldn’t the parsha have been divided up differently? Why not throw in some action? Perhaps hold the akeidah over from last week?

I think the answer is that we should never lose sight of the importance of the humdrum, the routine, the ordinary aspects of life. Of course, weddings and funerals are not exactly routine, but they happen, they are part of the rhythm of life. Everything in last week’s torah reading is larger than life, everything in this week’s is … predictable.

I spoke last Shabbat about how Avraham Avinu, at each one of these awesome moments, demonstrates the chesed, kindess, that, at times of super human challenges, is to be performed

Chaye Sarah gives us no less of an important message: In ordinary life, day to day life, a funeral, seeking a partner for marriage rather than money or looks or anything else, Chesed is the sole criteria.

Chesed is not just what we do when hurricanes and tsunamis and wars (G-d forbid) happen, rather it is what we do every day of our lives. That is the message of Chaya Sarah, indeed the life of Sarah Imenu.

In reading and thinking about speaking to children about disasters, some common themes emerge: Don’t make children frightened, don’t tell them why they should be worried, always try to be calm and reassuring. Most importantly, don’t talk, listen. Allow children to express their fears and their concerns, to give voice to, rather than to bottle up, their anxieties. Then you can discuss them. We can reassure, offer love and support, but we can never, ever promise that bad things will never happen.

One of the themes is the importance of stability, routine, security. When life changes, not everything has to change. Familiar routines, meal times, bed times, and indeed shabbat, daveningbentshing, become life lines.

That is, indeed, a hidden part of the life of Avraham and Sarah.

We have to be careful about analyzing the Avot and Imahot. We have to be careful of turning torah narratives into psychological (or pop psychology) case studies, particularly because the torah doesn’t tell us anything about these people’s real inner lives and relationships. Consider the following: the Torah recounts not one conversation between Sarah and Yitzchak, her only son! Not one! Does this mean that they did not speak? Of course not, but the torah deals with other issues. We can say with certainty that, upon her death, Yitzchak mourned his mother, grieved for her deeply and sorrowfully.

When Yitzchak married Rivka, and took her into his mother’s tent, the Torah tells us, poignantly:

וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ

And Yitzchak was comforted for his mother.

Yitzchak mourned his mother, because we are told that he was, only later, comforted from her passing. But how did that comfort work?

Let us remember. Yitzchak, a young man (maybe a child) , is woken early one morning by his father, roused from his warm bed and out in to the cold night.  Akeidat Yitzchak, that searing, terrifying ordeal, is a test of faith for the two of them.

Yitzchak never saw his mother again, she died when she heard what had happened. His life had turned tragic. We can not imagine what Yitzchak Avinu endured in those years. We know one thing – apparently, he withdraws from the world. After the Akeidah there is no mention of him. There is no mention that he came off the mountain, no mention that he was at his mother’s funeral. His father doesn’t even raise the question of marriage with him directly, he sends his servant to find him a wife. Yitzchak is surely the model of the trauma victim: withdrawn, scarred, deeply affected.

And here is the unexpected thing: Yitzchak goes on to have an astonishingly successful life. He marries. He sustains relationships. Even his difficult child Eisav (who would try any parent) he loves and is loved until the end. Yitzchak works, he prospers, he carries on. He develops and betters his father’s work. He remains loyal to G-d and his father, and he prospers and succeeds in unimaginable ways. He is, as we will see in next week’s parsha, a multi-millionaire: worldly, conversant with G-d, friend of kings.

What happened? What saved Yitzchak from the scars that made him almost disappear from the torah text?

There is only one answer.

His mother!

As Yitzchak marries, we are told:

וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק, הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ

And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother.

Rashi says, it doesn’t mean, literally, Sarah’s tent, but rather this tent became like Sarah’s tent. That tent had been characterized as a unique place. As Rashi describes it:

שכל זמן ששרה קיימת היה נר דלוק מע”ש לערב שבת וברכה מצויה בעיסה וענן קשור על האהל ומשמתה פסקו וכשבאת רבקה חזרו

For as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent.

The possibility of nechama, of comfort, of going on to be able to sustain relationships, build a family and a career came because Yitzchak had been raised in Sarah’s tent.

As we have seen, the most important thing we can all do (and especially for our children) at time of tragedy, when we hear bad news or live through terrible events (like 9/11 or awful hurricanes and disasters), is to be as consistent as possible. To give the security that comes from keeping life together as much as possible.

In Sarah’s tent, no matter what storms were raging outside, no matter what else was happening, there was a safe place. The candles burned (all week), the dough baked (all week), the cloud hovered (all week).

This is so important for psychological health. Being able to cope with upheavals is to keep everything else constant.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Shabbat candles symbolize Shalom Bayit,peace in the home.

Even in times of crisis there was peace, serenity. Sometimes parents inadvertently frighten their children because of their own anxieties. But in Sarah’s tent, there was peace – not shouting nor anxiety.

Dr David Pelkowitz speaks about a child, one of a set of twins of about 5 or 6. After 9/11 the boy was frightened for months and months and eventually the boy was taken to speak to a therapist. The therapist asked: “What makes you frightened?” and the child answered: “I keep hearing about the twin towers being destroyed. Why do people hate twins?” What we say, and what kids hear, and what they pick up on, is so important.

And the bread/dough was always blessed.

I think this means that there was reassurance that meals would be served, guests entertained. The home was a place of routine, but also of Chesed. The dough that Sarah made was baked to be shared, to be given away.

One of the most effective things we can do as communities, and even more as families, is Chesed. We have to respond. Not only is it a mitzvah, but also, doing Chesed helps to reassure us that, if the worst happened, we wouldn’t be on our own.

This week, in Far Rockaway, I visited the Shar Yoshuv yeshivah, which, thanks to the incredible Chesed organization Achiezer, has been turned into a staging area for all sorts of much needed services. I saw a family  with small children come in and start to look for warm clothes. It was a very sad sight, but I was comforted by one thing. For any active, communally involved Jew it didn’t look like a clothing give away, it looked like a(n only slightly) disorganized shul Chanukah gift fair. If you are part of a community, then if you ever need to take, it’s so much easier, so much safer and less jarring, when the Jewish community is your family.

Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that in all of her years as Member of Parliament for Finchley, a very Jewish neighborhood in London, no Jew ever came to her for financial assistance. It was understood that the Jewish community looks after each other. I was always brought up knowing two things: if Jews were in trouble in Europe, we could go to Israel; if a Jew was ever overtaken by poverty, the community would help.

And lastly – the cloud hovered over the Tent of Sarah.

The cloud represents the shechinah, the Divine Presence. And the shechinah dwells only in a place of simcha, of happiness. Sarah’s tent was not a fraught, tense place, rather it was a place where people laughed and were at ease, relaxed, at home, safe and secure. It was a place where you felt the love of G-d, and the love of parents.

I am not a very good parent and so I don’t normally talk about parenting. But there is one thing I try to do. When I see that kids are having a tough time at school, or with friends or whatever, I always say to them: “No matter what, whatever happens to you at school or outside, never, ever forget that you have parents and grandparents who love you and who think the world of you, and who know how so very special you are.”

That’s how I was raised. Whatever challenges I faced, I always felt I was somebody special, because I mattered to somebody.

And that’s what we need to do.

In these difficult, tense times, when we are so aware of how vulnerable we are on so many levels, our job is recreate Ohalei Sarah, tents of Sarah. To build homes and communities – safe, warm, welcoming and reliable places, places of peace and serenity, places of warmth and Chesed, and most of all, places of unconditional love.

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Posted by on November 11, 2012 in current affairs, Modern Orthodoxy, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


Sandy, Parshat Vayera and the Kindness of Strangers

Shabbat shalom.

I want to welcome everyone to shul today, all our visitors those who are here for the bar mitzvah, and an equally warm welcome to those who are here because they have been displaced because of the storm. We all join you in hoping that any damage to your homes and neighborhoods is soon repaired and that you and your loved ones are safe and well.

I’d like to speak about the hurricane and what kind for a week it has been for our city and our region. The incredible destruction of so many neighborhoods, communities towns and cities within a few miles of here destroyed – people freezing, starving, in the dark – these are real human tragedies of a truly awful extent. To all those affected – those bereaved or injured, those whose lives have been devastated, those who have lost homes and businesses – our thoughts and tefillot (prayers) are with you.

It may have been Tennessee Williams who coined the phrase “The kindness of strangers”, but it is something we have seen played out in our streets and neighborhoods this past week, and something that without question has its roots in our parsha.

Possibly no parsha (portion) in the Torah focuses our thoughts on the importance of Chesed – acts of loving kindness – to a fellow human being, as the parsha of Vayera. Sometimes we wonder, in our secure world, why Chesed seems to matter. Doesn’t everyone we know have enough? Aren’t people in need, by definition, from different towns, neighborhoods, countries?

But we don’t think that anymore, and we understand why. Chesed has to be practiced, and perfected. It has to be a habit – because one day it’s going to be needed, badly.

Our parsha opens, famously, up with multiple acts of Chesed. Avraham is sitting at his tent awaiting guests (and we have seen, this week, what an unbelievable mitzvah, hachnasat orchim, hospitality of guests, is), but there’s another act of Chesed, too:

Vayera elav Hashem: Hashem appeared to Abraham.

This is bikur cholim, visiting the sick, says Rashi. Avraham is sick, he’s in pain, he’s had an operation, and he needs a visit. And I think there is an important lesson.

Avraham is a person who does Chesed, who does for other people. Suddenly, it’s not so easy for him. He’s ill. And Hashem comes to check up on him. Sometimes in life, even the biggest doer of Chesed is going to be on the receiving end. And that’s ok. It’s not easy – imagine what its like to be in a position where somebody comes to you and says: “I know you could use help.” He/she means well, but it hurts to take. I know there are many people in shul today who wish they were elsewhere. To a generous person, to suddenly need help, to be a guest, is so very difficult.

This week we were collecting and distributing clothes and blankets in shul. I got a call from a member who was volunteering in a shelter. A person had come by, a Jewish lady from the West Village. She had walked up town because she had no heat, no light, no power in her apartment – and it was getting cold. She needed blankets, and the shelter didn’t have any to provide. So he called the shul and he sent her over to us.

I met her in the ballroom, and I gave her a bagful of warm blankets. Then she asked, if, by any chance, there were any warm coats. I looked around and I found a zippered-up garment bag and I opened it. Inside there was
– and I don’t know if it was real or not but – a full-length, beautiful fur coat that somebody had donated. I gave it to her and she tried it own, and she started crying.

And I knew why she was crying. To suddenly find yourself needing a coat, wanting a coat from a clothing drive when you’ve never needed to take a penny from another person your whole life – I think I’d cry too. But whoever gave that coat (and chances are that it was somebody in this room) – what a mitzvah you did!

As the parsha opens, Avraham is being made to understand it’s not “them” and “us” – “we” who give, “them” who take. You never know, and you have to know, what it’s going to feel like to need to have to accept Chesed.

Avraham Avinu is the one who teaches the world the importance of Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality to strangers: a meal, a place to wash. It’s something that we have seen all over the region, and it’s something we have seen in our neighborhood (thankfully spared so much trauma): people opening up their homes to guests, strangers.

But then comes one of the most challenging stories of the chumash. The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the five cities of the plane. In previous years I have make a joke about Hashem destroying the 5 towns … but this year it isn’t funny at all. Indeed just the opposite. In the coming weeks we will hear more and more of the
stories to come out from communities like the 5 towns, of people who have lost so much, who are helping neighbors, friends, strangers. (I saw a picture of a prayer service, a minyan and Torah reading, in a shul with no
power.) More and more stories of fortitude, Chesed and, yes, heroism are gradually emerging. But amidst the story of destruction (that seems eerily familiar from this week’s events) is Avraham’s reaction. Avraham,of course, pleads for the people – whoever they are. They stand for the opposite of what he does – he is good, they are bad, very bad people. But Avraham asks for them to be saved. And he does it without bias.

Yesterday we were filling up a car outside shul. (A member of the shul kindly volunteered to drive some bags of much needed coats, blankets, toys and clothes to a shelter.) A few wonderful volunteers and staff members (amongst them our bar mitzvah boy, Alexander, were loading the car. And a Jewish couple stopped outside to see what was going on, and I started to talk to them. They were from outside the city and had no power. I explained what the bags were, and where they were going. He asked me if there were Jews in the shelters (really, more a question of clarification than anything else). I answered by saying, when Avraham asked for Sodom and the other cities to be saved, he didn’t say: “Sodom? I have mishpacha, family, there. There are Jews  there, save them.” Instead he said: “Hashem, please don’t destroy them – any of them.”

Avraham Avinu never discriminated in his Chesed, neither should we. Of course, as Jews, we are going to help our fellow Jews rebuild their lives and communities, but we are not going to limit our aid to the Jewish community.

What happened after the destruction is very relevant too:

וישכם אברהם, בבוקר:  אל-המקום–אשר-עמד שם, את-פני יהוה

“And Avraham rose early in the morning, to the place he had stood, before G-d”

From here we learn that Avraham invented Shacharit, morning prayers, but Sforno points out that it also means that Avraham, even after the decree, never stopped davening, praying. He stood there praying for the people, hoping that some would be spared, and looking out for any possible survivor, anyone who he could aid.

Our parsha continues in this theme, that even as Avraham grew in stature and importance, he never stopped practicing Chesed. Even when he was a man making treaties with the king and involved in important matters, we read:

וייטע אשל, בבאר שבע

And Avraham planted an eshel in Beersheba.

What is eshel? The rabbis say it means he planted a place of Chesed. Treating אשל as an acrostic, the letters can stand for: achilah shtia lina: a place to eat, drink and sleep. He though of people’s needs and he provided it for them.

And that is the incredible thing about Chesed, and something we all have to focus on in the coming weeks. You have to think about what the other person needs. One of the most reported stories from the “dark zone”, lower
Manhattan, is about people needing a place to charge a cell phone. A person may think that Chesed is about
blankets or food or water but, if you need power to charge a cellphone, providing that is Chesed, too.

I want to say I am so proud of the response of our community, spearheaded by our youth department. At our emergency clothing drive we filled at least 150 big black bags full of toys, games, coats, blankets and clothes. Our youth director Ben reported what it was like at a shelter on 49thst where he saw kids who hadn’t changed their clothes since Sunday. We were able to deliver dozens of bags of clothes – your kids clothes are being worn by someone who really needs them.

Finally, at the end of the parsha, comes the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Hashem commands Avraham
to take his child, his beloved child Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice. Avraham learnt something very profound that moment. His job is not to question, to seek to understand. G-d runs the world, and he makes the wind blow and the rain fall. Things happen at His will that we can’t begin to understand. When Avraham is
asked to do the unthinkable, he understands that his test (which is our test, too) is to live with faith even when we see things that we can’t possibly reconcile with what we think should be. He doesn’t complain or criticize, because he knows that what he thinks doesn’t count. This week I’ve already heard at least a dozen explanations of why the hurricane happened: bitul torah (neglect of Torah study), failure to observe Mikvah (family purity), tsnius (lack of modesty), gay marriage, lack of support for Israel, etc. I am always amazed that people always know why these things happen, and it’s always a lesson for other people. It always conforms to the world view of the person speaking.

But that’s wrong. It’s very wrong, and it was never Abraham’s way. His response was not “why did this happen?”, but rather “what can I do?”

That is the most profound of Jewish lessons.

Remember the beginning of the parshaAvraham is in the middle of aconversation with G-d, and he sees strangers coming to his tent. He turns to G-d and says: “Wait. There is something more important that I have to
do”. And everyone asks, how could he do that? Why would he do it? Sure, he wanted to do a mitzvah, hospitality, but he was already doing a mitzvah! He was talking to G-d!  What could be more important?

Do you know what is holier than talking to G-d? What is it that makes you even closer to G-d than having a conversation with Him?

Answer (And I learned this from one of my students): Acting like him. Not to be G-d, but to be G-dly. Not to try to understand G-d, explain G-d’s ways, or to call yourself a prophet. What is even holier than speaking to G-d is being like G-d, resembling Him, doing deeds of Chesed.

Running to the guests meant he was running towards G-d – closer and closer to what G-d wanted of him (rather than standing still and talking to G-d.)

Hashem doesn’t need us to be G-d, he needs us to be G-dly. To feed, clothe, offer a shoulder, or
a bed, or a power outlet, or a shower, or a coat, to people who suddenly find themselves without these things. These are not the little things, the small details, these are the pinnacle of what a human being can become.


State and Religion – In Your Bedroom?

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Posted by on May 6, 2012 in current affairs, Modern Orthodoxy, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


The Wicked Child and Boycotts

Every year when I come to write a drasha for Pesach, I find myself returning to the same theme – the wicked child!

Perhaps, as a second child, I identify with this second child more than the others, or because we are all fascinated by the rebel (especially the one whose rebellion does not prevent him from coming home for Yom Tov).

But still … who is the wicked child, and why do we label him so?

The relevant verse, the source of the question of the wicked child, is found in chapter 12 of Shemot (Exodus), verse 26

וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם

And it will be when your children say to you “what is this service to you?”

On the page of the chumash, in the eyes of the commentators, there is nothing wicked here – the question, the syntax, the tense – all is in place. It’s a question regarding keeping the laws of Passover.

In the eyes of the author of the Hagadah this is the question that is asked by the wicked child.

I think that the wicked child is indeed wicked, and one who we have to deal with in our day and age, too.

Who is he? What is the definition of a rasha (wicked child)?

The first definition of the phrase rasha we see in the Torah is when Moshe sees two Jews quarreling in Egypt, and one is striking the other.

וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ

And he said to the wicked one – why do you strike your fellow Jew?

A rasha is, and this has halachic implications, one who endangers his fellow Jew. Who strikes him and causes him pain.

And this, I think, is the problem with the rasha, the wicked child of the Hagaddah

He is not just rebellious, questioning and critical – he aims to harm.

Let’s look at his verse again: ki yomru aleychem – this child does not ask, he declares. He is not interested in a dialogue, in knowing the answer. He proclaims his question.

This is not discussion, its polemic.

But more: mah havodah hazot lachem – what is this “avodah” (slavery, burden) to you. Unlike the wise child who invokes “Hashem Elokeynu” (The Lord our G-d), the wicked child – and this is the source of the wickedness – speaks entirely as an outsider.

This is not dialogue, there is nothing shared about this conversation.

In the New American Hagadah – which I really like – Jeffrey Goldberg grapples with the very idea of, in this day and age, having a wicked child and says that he is the one who says “the fate of the Jews is not my concern.”

I agree, but I think that the wicked child goes further.

Mah avodah hazot lachem?

What is so terrible with the question? What is wrong with it is that he talks to his fellow Jew in the way that the worst critic of the Jews from outside the Jewish people would. He talks of Judaism like an anti-semite: “What’s the matter with you people?”

For this child, a transformation has happened. He adopts a non-Jewish way of looking at, talking about, the Jewish people.

This goes beyond being a critic – critics are important. If the wise child is truly wise, he will need, as the Prophets and outstanding Scholars do in every generation, to challenge the assumptions, corruption, lazy thinking, and prejudices of the Jewish community.

And it is beyond assimilation – assimilation is a tragedy. But the assimilated Jew is not at the Seder night at all.

The wicked child is there to protest.

He taunts the father: why this avodah – this burden, this slavery? But the irony, the painful irony, is that for no one else around the table is Judaism an avodah. But it is for the wicked son.

Because he doesn’t participate as a Jew. He participates as one who can’t look at Jews with anything other than hostile eyes.

I had this insight into the real wickedness of the wicked son when I was thinking about why it is that Jews seem to be at the forefront of so many campaigns to harm Israel.

For example, Habimah, the Tel Aviv arts company is not, I imagine, known for its hard right wing or militaristic views. Yet, because it performed a play in the settlement of Ariel, artists in London (with Jewish names being the most prominent and the most eager) insist that it should be boycotted and not be allowed to perform in the UK.

(In truth, it is not necessary for them to have performed in the settlement wherever Israeli artists, athletes perform, they are the target of campaigners and protesters.)

Yet, it is Jewish people at the forefront of these boycotts. The recent attempt to boycott Israeli hummus at the Park Slope Food cooperative is just one example, of what is happening – even here in New York – more and more.

When a Jew says “I care about Israel and I want to change her”, that’s everyone’s right.

When a Jew joins in the obsessions of the non-Jewish world with Israel and the Jews – that is not alright.

Israel today is, as for the last 60 years, vilified, blamed, obsessed over and despised. What for other people would be a national right of self protection, for Israel, is a war crime.

Syria can massacre people in their thousands, and the world, in fact, yawns. Yet for anyone who has ever come face to face with an anti-Israel campaigner, there is, to my mind, a hatred, an obsession, with Jews that has its roots far earlier than 1948.

And when a Jew becomes part of that, expresses their attachment to Judaism by being like those who obsess, blame, vilify hate Israel and the Jewish people, only more so, that is to say “mah avodah hazot lachem”. To look at Judaism with the cold disapproval of much of the rest of the world, and in doing so legitimize and make common cause with Israel’s enemies, that is who the Hagadah refers to as the wicked child.

May Jews criticize Israel? I hope so! We all have that right and we should use it wisely.

But when Jews join in with the greatest manifestation of anti-semitism since the holocaust, when they adopt the anti-semites’ world view that Israel is uniquely guilty, uniquely dangerous, uniquely evil, then they have crossed every acceptable line.

Its not criticism of Israel – it is incitement. It is not motivated by a concern for human rights, but rather by hatred.

The agenda of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) in delegitimizing  Israel, is an attempt to destroy the state of Israel, to places the lives of millions of people at risk

The father says to the wicked son: Do you look at Israel and see it, for all its problems and shortcomings, as a miracle, our safe haven, our homeland, our people? Or do you see it as the worst country in the world, an embarrassment, a threat to peace, uniquely guilty, uniquely dangerous, born in sin? Do you look at your fellow Jews, of whatever persuasion, and see them as family – quirky, infuriating sometimes, but loveable, people to whom you belong, and you would protect, like a mother would protect her children? Or do your recoil, in shame and embarrassment, paranoid that your friends may think that you are just like them?

Its has been pointed out that much of the Hagadah is really an answer in one form or another to each of the 4 children.

So, for example, “Dayenu” may be an answer to the simple son, helping him see how much really happened at yetziat metrayim.

The story of the “Rabbis at Bnei Brak” is directed at the chacham, the wise son – even if you think you know it all, you really do not.

What part of the Hagaddah directly addresses the Rasha?

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ. שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving. For, not only one arose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and Hashem saves us from their hands.

You may think you are sophisticated, that you have much more insight than we do. You may think you are, on some level, helping. That if we sacrificed more of our safety, accepted the words of people who are murderers and say one thing in Arabic and another in Hebrew, we would be safer. That if we apologize some more it will help us?

But you are dead wrong. Because we are under attack.

Omdim aleynu likaloytenu – and you need to wake up and ask yourself – how did it happen that I have become so treacherous, that I can rival the worst anti-Semite with my hatred for my fellow Jews?

I read on Erev Yom Tov of the Jewish Voices for Peace Hagaddah. It contains, for example, “the 10 plague of the Israeli occupation”, the nakba dayenu and a l’chayim to the boycott of Israel.

Critics of Israel are not wicked. Democracy and debate are the greatest of freedoms, and we embrace them. Truth be told, the Jewish community needs always to be open to a plurality of views on Israel.  But somehow, one of the greatest tragedies of our times is that those who truly wish to harm us, delegitimize and weaken Israel to the point of destruction, have Jews more than ready to help them at every turn

In the baffled words of Moshe rabeynu, we may indeed ask:

וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ

And he said to the wicked one – why do you strike your fellow Jew?

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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in current affairs, Holidays, Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


The Importance of Memories at Pesach

I’d like to speak a little about the importance of memories at Pesach. What do you think of when you first taste the matzah, the charoset and all of the other traditional Pesach foods?

In “Remembrance of Things Past” Marcel Proust describes the feeling of tasting a long forgotten food – Madeleine cakes – and the rush of memories that came with them:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Pesach is my favorite holiday. Yes it is, as all of us can testify, a lot of work, but it is such a special time – such a spiritual time, so emotional.

And one of the appeals of Pesach, for all of us, is tradition. A sense of continuity. A sense of the generations, stretching back, stretching forward.

I don’t know where the contemporary tune for Mah Nishtanah originated. It may not even be that old, but I don’t imagine there is a market for a new one.

There are parts of Pesach, seder night in particular, that are just defined by the way they have always been.

And I think what makes Pesach so beautiful is that however much work it can be (and it is a huge amount of work) when we come to seder night – with grandmother’s Passover dishes, zaide’s hagadah, a favorite aunt’s recipe for charoset, or just reminiscences – the powerful sense of nostalgia, memories, makes it all worth it.

And I say all of this, because that means we might be doing Pesach all wrong.

B’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim

“In each generation, each individual must view himself as if he was personally liberated from Egypt.”

This means the opposite of nostalgia. It means having a sense on seder night – not of the familiar, but of the utterly, totally unknown.

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.

Thus said the LORD: I remember for you the kindness of your youth, how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.

Yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) for the Jewish people was a moment of disorientating rushing – and also an act of huge faith. It was an act of love, chesed Hashem calls it. We followed Him in to the desert, like a young couple, with an unknown future, an uncertain path ahead of them.

They were fleeing everything they knew.

Their leader was unfamiliar to them, their destination unfamiliar, their G-d unfamiliar.

They were not going home to the land they missed. They were not waiting being allowed to practice the religion they had been forbidden from keeping.

Everything for them lay in the future, the unknown.  There was nothing familiar or comforting about the first Pesach. Nothing nostalgic – it was a huge leap of faith.

Many commentators are bothered by a seemingly inexplicable fact of the narrative of the book of Shemot (Exodus).

We know we eat matzah on seder night to commemorate the fact that dough of the Jewish people didn’t have to time to rise. Yet in the 12th chapter of Shemot, the Jewish people were commanded to eat matzah the night before they left Egypt, while they were waiting in their homes during the last plague.

At that meal they eat, for the first time, the Korban Pesach (the Pascal sacrifice), commemorating an event. G-ds passing over the house of the Egyptians – that had not happened yet. I think the explanation is as follows:

When we eat matzah (and in the temple, the Korban Pesach) we are trying to recreate the experience of the first time these foods were eaten. And they were not eaten for the first time in the desert, a year later on, as an act of commemoration, of thanksgiving, for coming out of Egypt, celebrating a year of liberty.

They were eaten first by people for whom this was all happening in real time. In confusion, in fear, in faith, in the moment of leaving.

When we taste matzah, maror, korban pesach  we are supposed to feel the opposite of the familiar. We are supposed to feel that anything is possible. That events are happening that means that nothing will ever be the same again. That years and centuries of suffering can be overturned in an instant, that hopelessness and resignation can be swept away by miracles and new possibilities. That Hashem, in an instant, can show Himself. That His plan can be made clear, suffering suddenly explained. That we have to be ready to acknowledge that what we thought were the assumptions of the fabric of our daily lives can be swept away in an instant.

Pesach demands from us that we embrace and celebrate not just the very familiar, but be alive and open – indeed yearn – to experience the totally unfamiliar, the earth shattering.

The Maharal of Prague reminds us that matzah is the true symbol of freedom, because being made of the minimum of ingredients, in the minimum of time, it represents independence – the trait of not being dependent – on more things, more time, to be fulfilled.

To be a Jew is to know that certainty and stability are an illusion. Almost every holocaust memoir I have ever read notes the stark fact: In the 1930s, those who could not imagine leaving all that was familiar, did not get out – even when they had a chance.

In my life as a rabbi, I would say that not a week goes by without me meeting a Jew who tells me, in one form or another: I would love to do more, learn more, keep more, move to Israel, change myself – but my circumstances don’t allow it.

Matzah, and all of Pesach, can remind us of many things.

We rejoice in the memories. The tastes, as Proust so eloquently describes, can transport us. The embrace of tradition is more comforting than anything else can be.

But Pesach is supposed to do more than comfort. It is supposed to transport us to the day when we left Egypt, when all was new, all was fresh, when everything was possible. Let us embrace change, and never stop looking for ways for changing ourselves for the better.

Chag sameach

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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Holidays, Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


The Blessing and the Burden of Memories

Jews are used to being told to live with contradictions, but it is hard to think of one quite so blatant, so difficult, as in the special reading that we leined this shabbat morning for Parshat Zachor:

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth out of Egypt;


תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם

You shall erase the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven

Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings puts it as follows:

מצות עשה לאבד זכר עמלק שנאמר תמחה את זכר עמלק ומצות עשה לזכור תמיד מעשיו הרעים

There is a positive commandment to destroy the memory of Amalek […] and a positive commandment to constantly remember their wicked deeds.

So which is it? Are we supposed to remember, or to erase the memory?

And before we try and answer the question, lets broaden it. When a student at Yeshiva University wrote an article entitled “Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust” in which he wrote the following, was he correct?

“Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.”

He caused an outpouring of anger, but does he have a point (even if clumsily made)?

How do we live Jewish lives not burdened by persecution? Can we,should we, live in the sunlight?

In “What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank”, Nathan Englander discusses the concept of never forgetting, of asking about every gentile one meets: “Would this one save us, would this one shelter us?”

Do we construct a Jewish identity, a self-image, based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust? Is our message to the next generation “Live as Jews because so many were killed for being Jews?” Is that a compelling argument, or an unacceptable burdening of guilt, a robbing of innocence?

So what is it supposed to be?

Zachor or timcheh? Remember or erase memory?

I want to explain what the mitzvah to destroy Amalek involves.

From a grammatical point of view it seems that the zecher Amalek, is an association. Technically, “timcheh et zecher amalek” means “destroy the things associated with Amalek”. Not only the people, but also, the animals, the possessions, anything that invokes, or that can be associated with, having to be to do with Amalek.

And, indeed, whenever the moral challenge of this mitzvah is pointed out, often an important fact is omitted. It is the view of the Rambam, Maimonides, that the mitzvah of obliterating Amalek is not about genocide, rather it is about reform.

Again in the Laws of Kings we find his ruling:

אין עושין מלחמה עם אדם בעולם עד שקוראין לו שלום

One does not wage war on anyone until we first offer them peace.

And he goes on to apply this rule explicityly to the nation of Amalek

כן הוא אומר בעמלק תמחה את זכר עמלק. ומנין שאינו מדבר אלא באלו שלא השלימו שנאמר לא היתה עיר אשר השלימה אל בני ישראל

So it says regarding Amalek : “Erase the memory of Amalek”. And from where do we know that this applies only to those who do not make peace with us […].

But how can this be sustained when the Torah itself says destroy Amalek? That the mitzvah is conditional, that a peace treaty is also a possibility?

The Kesef Mishnah, Rav Yosef Caro (also the author of the Shulchan Aruch) explains Maimonides ruling:

שאם קבלו עליהם שבע מצות הרי יצאו מכלל שבעה עממין ומכלל עמלק והרי הם כבני נח הכשרים

Once they stop behaving like Amalek, and they accept the rules of ethics and monotheism, they are yatzu miclal Amalek. They are now kosher – like the best of the gentile world.

It’s a remarkable ruling, but it’s the ruling of Maimonides. What is objectionable, what is to be destroyed about Amalek, is their deeds, their hatred. If they relinquish that, then they are no longer Amalek.

When Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the name of his father and grandfather, said that Amalek exists today, that any time a nation arises to destroy the Jewish people, that is an embodiment of Amalek, I believe he was referring to this idea.

What is dangerous, evil about Amalek is not their sheep and cows, not anything with a label signaling it as Amalekite. What is evil is the idea, the hatred, the irrational all consuming detestation for the Jewish people that exists. And when we encounter that, we encounter Amalek.

It is not that we have a mitzvah, G-d forbid, to kill (except for self-preservation). What we have is a mitzvah to ensure the destruction and ending of those ideas. As long as that exists, those hatreds, those obsessions with harming the Jewish people, then the Torah commands us loud and clear: Zachor et asher asah licha amalek, Don’t forget what Amalek did to you. You cant forget, because you cannot afford to forget.

This, I think, is where, not just one misguided (and I am sure by now repentant) student at Yeshiva University, but so much of the Jewish world, gets it wrong.

We cannot “get over” the Holocaust, because the Holocaust could happen again. We cannot “get over” anti-Semitsim, because anti-Semitism has never gone away. And we cannot let down our guard, because there are people who would not hesitate to harm us in the worst possible way.

What is anti-Semitism? Why does it survive, like a mutating germ, adapting to new surroundings, new terminology, but still the same poison that has existed for thousands of years?

Why do people who have never met a Jew, in far flung places in Europe and elsewhere, who look out of their windows and see unemployment, poverty and deprivation on their own doorstop, decide that the most pressing issue for them is to boycott Israel?

How can otherwise intelligent college kids, look at the massacre of innocents that has been going on for months in Syria and decide the real morally troubling part of the middle east is Israel, and hold ‘Israel apartheid week’, seeing that the freest and most protected Arab population in the middle east lives in Israel?

I don’t look for anti-Semitism and I am not paranoid. If I get bad service in a store, I don’t assume its because I am Jewish. If Israel is occasionally criticized, that is not always anti-Semitism.

But when it is out of all proportion … when it is, as it is for millions of people, an obsession, an irrational hatred … when trade unions and church groups all over the world, and increasingly in America, wish to boycott Israel (and Israel alone) … there is no other explanation. It is anti-Semitism.

We forget that at our peril. We have a duty to remember.

This past week there was a conference in the Arab city of Doha. It was sponsored by the Arab league. It was called International Conference for Defense of Jerusalem.

The Arab League was kind enough to invite some Jewish representatives. One, a representative of American Friends of Peace Now, wrote a column after the first day of the conference. She was surprised – shocked in fact – that almost none of the speakers at this conference believed that the Jews had any legitimate claim to Jerusalem at all, any authentic connection.

She wrote:

“All throughout the day, it was unfortunately the same story. Participants talked about Jerusalem as if Jewish history did not exist or was a fraud — as if all Jewish claims in the city were just a tactic to dispossess Palestinians.”

What should be sad to us is not just the sentiments expressed in Doha, but the knowledge that this flat out rejection of peace, rewriting of history, naked anti-Semitism, should be, in any way, a surprise to anyone.

When we, in our longing for peace, which is laudable, forget how irrationally obsessed so much of the world is with destroying Israel … when we fail to realize that our liberal tendencies cannot deal with the irrationality and venom of the hatred against Israel … we are forgetting that which the Torah says must be remembered.

We must not forget, because these are powerful forces, and to forget is to endanger ourselves.

There is, if not Amalek, a zecher Amalek, of a much greater dimension and threat. And that is Iran.

[And I know that all over the country this Shabbat Zachor, rabbis, who are, as is well known, experts on everything strategic, military and political … who see classified intelligence and are the best qualified to express exactly what Netanyahu and Obama need to do to Iran … Rabbis will be speaking about Iran. I have to confess that my certitude has failed me. I am not even remotely qualified to say what should be done. We have to pray to G-d that he is with our leaders because $5 a gallon for gas will be the least of our problems if one false move is made.]

But I have a different point. The danger Iran poses is being debated politically, but I do not feel it in the room. We hear about the threat, the rhetoric, the danger – but how are we sleeping at night? Where are the heartfelt prayers, the tears? I address myself first and foremost.

This is about more than politics – more than AIPAC and JStreet, Bibi and Obama. It’s about zachor et asher asa licha amalek, a threat of a contemporary Haman: “liharog ulihabed […} minashim ad taf”, to destroy us all; men, women and children.

If we aren’t sick to our hearts, it is because we don’t understand what it is that we are up against, and how much we need rachamei shamayim, mercy from above.

We live in a world where we have to remember Amalek, because Amalek has not forgotten about us. It is not the ideal, it’s not what we want. It would be great to be able to “get over” it all, but we dare not. Not now, not yet.

There is a remarkable commentary by Rabeinu Bachaye, a Spanish medieval commentator and great kabbalist:

והפרשה הזו התחילה בזכרון וסיימה בשכחה, להורות שעתיד זכרם להשתכח מן העולם, וזה בזמן המשיח

The Torah reading of Amalek opens with the word “remember” but ends with the word “forget”, to teach that, in the future, the memory of Amalek will be forgotten from the world – in the days of the Messiah.

Ultimately, the contradiction between being commanded to remember, and the command to obliterate the memory, cannot stand. And it will be resolved in forgetting.

The Torah commands us to remember Amalek. We should hold on to the memory in order that, one day soon, all the hatred, all of the obsession with trying to destroy us, will be erased. Until then, every mitzvah we do –  every Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv that we recite, every page of Torah we learn – is dedicated to that goal of bringing the days of Messiah, when we, and the whole world, will live in peace and security. May we merit to see them soon.

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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in current affairs, Modern Orthodoxy, parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


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The 10 Commandments – From Freedom From Slavery to Freedom From Envy

Thinking about it, the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, is one of the strangest passages in the Torah.

There is no readily apparent connection among each of the commandments, and it is almost impossible to figure out why these specific 10 are considered so emblematic of the rest of the mitzvot. For example, why is Shabbat one of the 10 and not Pesach? Why is not bearing false witness “in”, and the laws of, for example, tzitzit, “out”?

Moreover, aside from the content of the mitzvot, the structure of the wording is curious:

ב) אָנֹכִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

Verse 2: I am the Lord your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Is that a commandment, or not? And why does the Aseret Hadibrot have to refer to slavery? What is the significance of the phrase “m’beit avadim” (from the house of slaves)?

And, at the other end of the text:

יד) לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ:

Verse 14: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

On an emotional level, this is a mitzvah almost impossible to keep. I understand I shouldn’t steal, but wanting things, desiring them, being envious – those are emotions. Am I really expected to control not just what I do but also what I feel – even involuntarily?

The more I think about the 10 commandments, the more I think they are really one unit, a process, a ladder or a step-by-step guide, a way of bringing a person from the “house of slavery” to the point where they can control even the pang of envy at somebody else’s possessions.

I want to state this slightly differently: the Ten Commandments are about freedom, the promise of freedom, and how to achieve it.

“I am Hashem, I took you out of Egypt” is the prelude. And, if you do these commandments, you will never again go back to the beit avadim, the house of slavery. You will achieve lives of freedom.

And the Ten Commandments are more than a just a list of mitzvot. They are – from Anochi to Lo Tachmod, from beginning to end, divine pathways to achieving liberty, self determination and authentic purpose in life.

Let me explain.

There is more than one way that people can have their freedom taken away. There are many ways of being slaves, and many ways of enslaving others.

Each one of the 10 commandments addresses an aspect of slavery in the human condition.

I will not address the aspect of freedom in each of the 10 commandments, but consider the following:

ג) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי:

Verse 3: (The second commandment) You shall have no other gods before me.

Idolatry has its roots in a world of terror and insecurity.  Mankind feels puny and vulnerable before the unconquerable forces of nature – famine, flood, natural disasters occur for no reason. Avoda zara (idolatry) is a desperate attempt to appease/bribe these uncontrollable forces. It is, the rabbis say, ultimately self-serving, because it is a form of worship based on appeasing the gods that they will give you what you think you need.

But to fall into avoda zara is to become a slave. The Torah teaches that the universe has a purpose, and we do the will of our creator as best we can. Avoda zara says that the world is anarchy, purposeless – all is blind fate and random coincidence, or a world run by greedy and unpredictable forces. All we can do is hope to bribe our way through. In doing so we surrender any notion of choice, moral determinism or meaning.

Next comes the commandment of Shabbat:

ט) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ:

Verse 6: For six days you shall labor and do all your work.

For six days, not for seven. You were not born to be a slave. There is a need to work, but there is life beyond work. That is the difference between being a slave and not.

Next is to Honor One’s Parents. This is to make a statement not to cut yourself off from your origins. The gemara (talmud) in Brachot says that one is not allowed to call a slave Abba (father) or Imma (mother), even as a term of endearment. It seems that slavery robs a person of identity. It dehumanizes and makes origins and backgrounds irrelevant. When people disown their own roots, move away, lose touch, disrespect their parents and origins, it’s a step towards slavery.

And there are many similar examples. For example, the rabbis’ insistence that lo tignov (you shall not steal) in reality refers not to stealing money, but rather to kidnapping – taking someones liberty away. Adultery reduces a person to being a slave to their passion, false testimony, to a life of lies – reducing a person to being imprisoned by falsehood.

So I maintain that the point of the Aseret Hadibrot is to show us how lives of liberty on all levels –  personal, moral, sexual, financial, is possible. How every human being can be released from the beit avadim, the house of slavery, in which we would otherwise live.

But what about the last commandment? Lo tachmod – you shall not covet anything that belongs to someone else?

What does that have to do with freedom?

Is it even possible?

Jealousy has everything to do with freedom, because coveting other people’s possessions is not merely about what they own, but rather it’s about the life they lead. It’s about a powerful sense of dissatisfaction, rejection, regret of one’s own life and choices, because of the seemingly more successful life that someone else is living.

The Guardian newspaper recently reported on a new book, written by a nurse who has spent many years working with patients with terminal illness. The book is called “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying” and number one on the list is the following statement:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

And the author, Bronnie Ware, explains:

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made”

When we decide what we want from life based on what others want, that our expectations of lifestyle, career, happiness, are what we read about in magazines or in the media, or we look at each other and say, “that’s success: that kind of house, that kind of job, that kind of car”, that’s bal tachmod, and that’s slavery.

You have given away your freedom, your right, your need to choose your values. Instead you have taken on other people’s. In this sense the contemporary Jewish world offers not so much freedom, as slavery.

Let me explain how I nearly allowed a good friend to ruin my life.

Over 20 years ago I was a single yeshiva student living in Efrat. A good friend from the UK was visiting Israel, so I invited him to be my guest for a Shabbat. I had recently decided to become a rabbi and he had decided to enter his family business.  The gulf in our respective directions and expectations from life had never seemed to matter as much as they did on that Shabbat.

In order to make a good impression, I had invited the two of us over to a wonderful young couple who had made aliya from the USA, and were living in a small, two bedroom apartment with their two young children. The husband has given up a successful business in America, and was planning on working half the day and learning Torah half the day – and they were loving every moment of their life.

Lunch was, as I recall, a regular Efrat Shabbat lunch … some chicken, challah, kugel and so on. Nothing terrible, nothing over the top.

After lunch we left the house, and my friend let rip.

Those people are criminal he said. How dare they throw everything away? What kind of life are they giving their children? Look what they have given up – a big house, cars, enough money not to have to worry – and for what?  A crammed house in the middle of nowhere?

And so we argued. What’s the point of life, I said? He’s living the dream – Israel, Torah, commitment,  what more is there?

“What more is there?” he retorted. “Let me tell you what more there is. There is travel, there is freedom, there is providing your family with the best of everything, every opportunity, every advantage you can. Surrounding yourself with beauty and comfort. That’s what there is.”

For an entire week I couldn’t learn Torah. I kept thinking to myself that I had made a terrible mistake. That, in truth, that what he wanted, I wanted, too – that it sounded so wonderful, so appealing, so much better.

I began thinking I was making a mistake becoming a rabbi, I should go in to business.

But eventually I came to my senses. Why would I want to live someone else’s life? My point is not at all that my friend wanted the wrong things. Not at all. But those were not my choices. I had made my decision, I was proud, passionate committed to my choices – for the record, I still am – and yet I still remember that week as one of the most difficult of my life. I understood how envy, desire, can cause a person to live not life as they want to, but life as other people feel that we should.

Envy, at its root, is to do with a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that a profound mistake has been made. There are many reasons to want to have a better standard of living. That’s not prohibited. But to measure yourself – and not your possessions, but your life, your worth in the light of what other people own – that is to fall prey to one of the darkest and dangerous of human emotions. It is the darkest form of slavery that there is, that I have to live my life by what other people think I should be doing.

The tenth commandment tells us that we can, and we must, live life according to our decisions, not other people’s. And that takes courage, wisdom and understanding.

It’s a long and difficult process. The journey from the first commandment – the promise of freedom – to learning through keeping and studying Torah – knowing our creator and knowing ourselves – to arrive at the point when we can be so secure in our thoughts and our values that we have achieved liberation from the pressure to want what others want.

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