Category Archives: parsha

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


Hiding Under the Table?

It became clear to me when I saw the hole in the wooden table. While visiting the New Museum downtown on Bowery this week, a museum which features contemporary art, I saw one work called Scratching the Table Surface and Something More. And that’s what it was – a table with a hole scratched into it. But when I saw it, I understood something more.

This morning’s Torah reading, Vayakhel and Pekudei, essentially repeat two earlier sections, Terumah and Tetzaveh: they contain a description of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its vessels and the priestly garments, and many have wondered why. Some note a difference in order: in the first blueprint, the vessels come first, and the structure only later, while in this morning’s floor plan, the structure is primary, and the vessels follow. Certainly after last week’s golden calf debacle, the Jews are beginning to understand that context is what makes one golden vessel a vehicle for Divine worship, and another such vessel simple idolatry. Others offer this week’s portion as a re-start button. While God had promised to dwell in the midst of the nation before the golden calf incident, God must reassure the people in its aftermath with a repeat performance.

But the hole in the table tells a different story: it emphasizes process. As it happens, the hole was made by a man scratching the table with his fingernail for several moments each day over the course of two years. How it was made – rather than what it actually is – defines the piece (which is consistent with the goals of contemporary art in general). In stark contrast to last week’s portion, where Aharon claims – ואשליכהו באש ויצא העגל הזה- “I’m not sure what happened, how the golden calf was formed. I just threw the gold into the fire and, poof, out came this golden calf” – this week’s building of the Tabernacle is anything but haphazard. If Terumah/Tetzaveh tell us the what of the Tabernacle – what its dimensions should be, which materials are to be used, etc., this week, we learn about the process – how it was made – who got involved, who donated the materials, who fashioned the objects and using what talents.

The key term that appears over and over again to illustrate the process of creating the Tabernacle universe is thought – לחשוב, to think. The narrative uses it over ten times in various forms: מעשה חושב, לחשוב מחשבות, חושבי מחשבות and more. In fact, this week’s portion yields the term מלאכת מחשבת (melekhet machshevet), literally “thoughtful labor.” In explaining this phrase, some, such as the 16th century Kabbalist known as the Shnei Luchot HaBrit, suggest that these were mystical thoughts. As the women spun the thread for the Tabernacle curtains, as Bezalel and Oholiav fashioned the more solid materials, they meditated upon the metaphysical import of their activities.

But the Talmud and Onkelos choose a simpler reading. For Onkelos, this is עיבידת אומנוון (ividat umanvan), the labor of artisans, of craftsman. Machshevet means skill. And in fact, in deriving the laws of Shabbat from the construction of the Tabernacle, this very issue comes up (Chagigah 10b, Beitzah 13b). For anyone who has ever used an elbow to hit an elevator button on Shabbat in an urgent situation, melekhet machshevet has meaning. Only melekhet machshevet, things done in the proper way, in an artful way rather than sloppily, is prohibited on Shabbat – מלאכת מחשבת אסרה תורה – On Shabbat, the Torah outlawed only skilled labor. For anyone who has torn open a plastic bag of challah on Shabbat, melekhet machshevet is again at play – this is not skilled labor, or creative work, but mere destruction of materials.

Let us dwell though on a different explanation of melekhet machshevet offered by the Talmud, also in the context of Shabbat. One who slips on a banana peel and crashes into the light switch has not violated Shabbat because no melekhet machsheve has been done: the person who slipped had no intention to flip the switch (Bava Kama 26b)! Violation of Shabbat requires thought, intention to perform an action, just as the construction of the vessels in the Mishkan required thought. Unlike Aharon’s accidental creation of the calf, there is nothing accidental about this new Divine dwelling place.

While the thoughtfulness exhibited in this week’s reading seems positive, thinking can be dangerous – not because we may come to think that we know better, but because of the danger of overthinking. Overthinking – analyzing too much, making mountains out of molehills, playing and replaying dialogues or episodes in our heads. Things that seem within our grasp, so close – when we look down from that tightrope, when we overthink them, suddenly no longer seem achievable. “But how can I accomplish that? There are so many risks. There are so many challenges.” Or a conversation of several sentences may resurface repeatedly for days, leaving us wondering what another other person may think of us, when in fact that person has long since forgotten the interaction.

The good news is that we overthink less as we age. For people in their twenties and early thirties, studies  report that over 70% overthink to their own detriment. Once people reach 36, the number drops to around 50%, and for those in their sixties and seventies, the percentage is quite low. (Some might argue that they’ve earned the right to say and do whatever they want, without having to worry about it at all!) The bad news is that we all do it – exaggerating the significance of a moment, a comment, an interaction, a presentation. Rather than asking what the other person thinks, communicating, taking a plunge, we swirl around in our own consciousness trying to figure things out with no new experience, no new information.

And perhaps the worst of all – overthinking after tragedy strikes.  Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness, writes:

“Many of us believe that when we feel down, we should try to focus inwardly and evaluate our feelings and our situation in order to attain self-insight and find solutions that might ultimately resolve our problems and relieve unhappiness.”

But, she argues:

“…overthinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person’s ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative. Moreover, although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their ruminations, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives.”

It is no coincidence that the most mysterious commandment in the Torah, the red heifer which we also read about this morning, deals with death. When we encounter the saddest moment of all – mortality, loss of life – we just want to grieve, to lose ourselves in our sorrow. “I am suffering. I have so much to be sad about.” And while all that is true, rather than offering a ritual that is ripe with opportunity to think, the Torah offers opaqueness. Of course we want to feel, to get in touch with our sadness, but we must not get lost there. Here is a ritual that we cannot overthink-  no room for rationalization or inner debate – it is a ritual that simply helps us move from contamination back into life. Sometimes we must do instead of think.

For all of the times the term חשב is used in this morning’s reading, how many more times do we see the term ויעש or ויעשו – he did, they did! Despite their need to contemplate the golden calf and how it had perhaps changed their relationship and the identity of this Mishkan forever, despite their desire to think, they stepped outside of themselves and they acedt; they committed themselves to creating, to moving from internal anxiety to external activity.

And towards the end of the process, Moshe witnessed this spectacular event, and he reacted:

וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקוָק, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה.

And Moshe saw all of the labor, and behold they had done it – in the way that God had commanded, they had done it. And Moshe blessed them.

They had put their fears aside, they had quieted their innver voices, and they had acted. And in truth, they did not need Moshe’s blessing at all. For this ability to carry on, to boldly place one foot in front of the other, to act, is itself a blessing.

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Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Modern Orthodoxy, Mrs. Elana Stein Hain, parsha


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.


Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity …

I find the end of the book of Berishit (Genesis) incredibly moving. It’s an account of how, against the odds, a bitterly divided family became whole, and became a nation.

Yaakov Avinu (Jacob, our forefather) had two wives, two concubines and 13 children from those 4 different mothers. These children quarreled bitterly. There were rivalries, jealousies, suspicions, hatreds and vying for position that led to the most unimaginable acts.

When Yosef (Joseph) was sold to Egypt, it seemed that that was the end of the Jewish people. The brothers had stooped too low for words. They had lied to their father and covered up their sin. The shechina (divine presence of G-d) departed from Yaakov, Yehudah (Judah) left home, and things began to fall apart.

And yet, against all odds, a miracle happens. The family is made whole, the brothers are reunited, Yaakov sees Yosef again, old rivalries are put aside, and all talk of revenge, hatred or jealousies is brushed aside.

As Yaakov’s life is slipping away, the Torah is able to tell us:

כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם–אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם.

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. 

How completely impossible that must have seemed a short while earlier.

So what happened? How could a family, a people, divided by hatred, violence, moral shortcoming, slander and rivalry become whole again? And, in our times, when these words so perfectly describe much of what is happening in the Jewish world, how can we make ourselves whole again?

Interestingly, the Torah leaves out so much of what we would love to know. Did the brothers ever tell Yaakov what had happened, or did he prefer not to know?  When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers he rushes to tell them that all that had happened was Hashem’s plan – but after Yaakov’s death there is great unease that Yosef might now take his revenge. Clearly uniting such a family was no easy task.

One can only assume that a tremendous amount of patience, courage, determination on the parts of all concerned was necessary.

But, on his death bed, as Yaakov turns to bless his children, and to name his successor (one of his children who will be considered the leader henceforth), he reveals so much of what was in his heart.

In a scene of intense drama – even suspense – Yaakov explains who will succeed him. He addresses each of his children in turn:

 רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי–יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז

Reuven, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.

Reuven, you truly are the first born, it should have been you. You should have been my natural successor. You have so many talents and so many wonderful qualities – but that cannot be:

פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל-תּוֹתַר, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ;

Unstable as water, you will not lead; because you went up to your father’s bed;

Reuven you made terrible mistakes.

When Yaakov’s beloved wife Rochel (Rachel) died, the Torah tells us about Reuven (the first born of Leah) …

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו

Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine

Although Chazal (our sages) insist that what really happened was that he moved his father’s bed out of the tent of Bilhah (Rochel’s concubine), into Leah’s tent to show respect for his mother (whichever way you look at it), this was an act of tremendous disrespect.

Reuven was Leah’s oldest child. He felt it was his job to stand up for his mother, to be the leader – and it was. But – “pachaz kamayim” – he was unstable like water. He was impetuous, and rushed into leadership without thinking things through.

But there is even more to Reuven.

When the brothers saw Yosef coming to meet them that fateful day, they wished to kill him. It was Reuven who put a stop to that

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ.

And Reuven heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’

Reuven here is acting as leader. It’s his job, he is the one who considers himself born to lead, to end this madness. No killing, he tells his brothers. Instead, let’s put him into this pit, we can get rid of him without actually shedding blood.

Reuven leads – but his leadership is compromised. He won’t stand up to his brothers and their violence, and their evil plans. A true leader would have said, are you out of your minds? There will be no more of this talk – we may not like Yosef, but enough is enough.

But Reuven’s leadership is yet more flawed. His whole plan of putting Yosef in to the pit was …

לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו

He wanted to be a hero! He wanted to get the glory, the one to bring his brother home and receive the credit.

Again, Reuven takes a stand – but his leadership is flawed. It’s not principled. It’s not moral and, ultimately, it’s self-serving.

So Reuven cannot be the leader.

The Ramban (Maimonides) says that, although Reuven was the first to offer to guarantee Binyamin’s (Benjamin’s) safe return from Egypt, he had lost credibility in the eyes of Yaakov – and that’s why he couldn’t succeed him.

And when I think of Reuven, so much of what is happening in Israel and the Jewish world seems to be relevant.

There are those whom we regard as natural leaders. We look to them for leadership – but the leadership is flawed.  Rather than saying, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ, now lets live together, they use crisis to their advantage. Their leadership is moral, not political. It’s an opportunity to make themselves look good, without really leading and taking a clear moral position.

This week in Israel, we have seen (aside from genuine moves to reconciliation that I will talk about shortly) more and deeper division. The sickening sight of Chasidim dressed up, and dressing their children up, as victims of the Nazis, shakes us all to the core. It’s an attempt to play the victim card, to use these terrible events to foster, not unity, but rather advantage.

And, as I said last week, and want to re-enforce, at the same time, the vast majority of the Charedi community have no part in this extremism, but rather have been made the objects of group defamation and attack by much of the hard line secularist leadership.

Sadly, hardliners on both sides are using these events as a way of gaining political advantage. The tragedy we see before our eyes is that the tremendous advances that have been made (with Charedim entering the army and the workplace), all stand in jeopardy because those who claim to be leaders, who feel entitled to lead, aren’t leading, they are using this crisis for their own ends

And next come Shimon and Levi.

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים

Shimon and Levi are brothers.

What this means is, more than the fact that they are each other’s brothers (or even that they are unusually close) is that they are good brothers. They have an unduly developed sense of brotherhood, loyalty, and commitment to their entire family – more than anyone else.

When Dina was raped, it was Shimon and Levi, with their love of their siblings, who stood up for her.

And with that sense of family and commitment, Shimon or Levi would have been natural successors for Yaakov.

But that must never be, because …

כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם

They are men of violence.

They committed unspeakable outrages (Chilul Hashem, desecration of G-d’s name) of mass proportions, and Yaakov utterly rejects them – unambiguously, strongly, in ways we long to hear from even more of our leadership.

אָרוּר אַפָּם

Accursed be their anger!

And here is one of the paradoxes of modern Jewish life. In some of the most extreme parts of the Jewish world you find the most incredible sense of achva (brotherhood) and chesed (kindness) for fellow Jews. It never fails to astound me that, for example, Satmar is known both for its utterly extreme derech (path/philosophy), that often leads, on the part of some of its followers, to verbal and physical violence of the worst kind, and it is also known for its outstanding chesed. Anyone who has ever spent time in hospital in New York City will have been amazed at the Satmar Bikur Cholim system who will bring food, often cooked to order, for any Jew.  They do this with an incredible sense of giving. There are many Satmar Chasidim who wouldn’t hesitate to give you the shirt of their back if you needed it, and at the same time are part of a sect associated with violence and extremism. The same is true of other Chasidic groups, too. It really is amazing.

Yet Yaakov was uncompromising. You may be achim, good brothers, to your family, but you are not our leaders, and you are not our role models. Your anger and violence is completely rejected.

(And the same is true, regrettably, for extreme parts of the religious Zionist movement which are descending into violence. And Rabbi Riskin has condemned this – utterly and absolutely.)

And so, at long last, we come to Yehudah.

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.

Yehudah, it is you that your brethren praise…your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Yehudah, all agree that you are right for leadership, in you all the people are bnei avicha, a united family.

Why Yehudah? Why the fourth born child? Why the one who left the home, the one responsible for selling Yosef? Why is he to be the leader?

Yehudah is an individual who lived by his name – hodah – to acknowledge. He confessed (vidui) when his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant and he had condemned her to death. She sent word, privately, that he was the father. How easy it would have been for him to deny all – his reputation would have been saved, nothing ever known about what he had done. Instead, he allowed himself to be shamed and humiliated. He admitted – tzadkah mimeni – she is more righteous than I am. He confessed, and she was spared.

Yehuda made no pretensions of being perfect – far from it. But he acknowledged his imperfections. He rose above them. Because he was humble, he could be accepting of others failures as well. He became a leader because he wasn’t arrogant, he was trustworthy.

People knew that, even if it was against his own interests – overwhelmingly so – he would do what was right.

That is why when he looked Yaakov in the eye and said – אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ – I will take responsibility for Binyamin, his father believed him.

And when the unknown stranger was tormenting the brothers, accusing them of theft and threatening revenge – Vyigash elav Yehudah – it was Yehudah who stepped forward to save the family. He had learned what he was capable of, and he felt compelled to save his people. Not for glory, but out of love

And so Yehudah becomes the king, the true successor of Yaakov, the ancestor of Mashiach (the messiah).

When I think about Yehudah, I think of a remarkable group of people. I think of the community, the growing beautiful daati leumi, modern orthodox community of Beit Shemesh, and many other towns. Religious Jews, idealists – a huge percentage of them olim (immigrants) – committed people who gave up so much material comfort to make aliyah.

And I think of their idealism – genuinely committed to achdus – to being a bridge, a link between all parts of the Jewish world. They are raising their children to learn Torah and to earn a living, to love the land and State of Israel, and to serve in the army, if necessary, chas veshalom (G-d  forbid), to pay a price beyond our imagination.

A community that all through this crisis has acted with dignity and love.

We should be proud of them – yodoocha achecha – your brothers will acknowledge you. They are committed to being a bridge, holding together all the parts of the Jewish world – we in the diaspora, those in Israel, secular, religious, Charedi.

I spoke to a friend yesterday, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for over 10 years. He described how Bnei Akiva meets with secular youth, how members of their community set up roundtable groups for the entire spectrum of the city to come together, how Charedi women come to the Orot school and give the kids cookies for Shabbat,  how they have even reached out to (and met with) people from the Edah Charedis. These Yehudahs are at the center, in the midst of hate, of repairing the Jewish people. They are working, not to take advantage of the crisis, but rather to heal the Jewish people.

It’s moving beyond words, and it actually gave me pause.

Whenever there is a tragedy in the Jewish world – a terror attack, the awful murder of Leiby Kletzky, a forest fire in Israel, someone, somewhere is going to start fundraising. (I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing – there are wonderful organizations, Magen David Adom, the JNF, etc, do incredible things, and they know that people want to help.)

After a terror attack, G-d forbid, within an hour, I have usually received two or three emails from organizations raising money. I don’t think it would even occur to the idealistic, religious zionist community of Beit Shemesh to do that.

Who among us wouldn’t have written a check to the Orot School to help them after what they are going through? But just like the Biblical Yehudah who did not look to act out of self interest, so, too, this strong principled idealistic community is not interested in profiting from a crisis.

But the fact is, all Jews are named after the tribe of Yehudah – for all of us have this capacity.

Last week I spoke about how desperate I was to see condemnation from the Charedi leadership, at least for the violent extremists in their midst. And this week has seen incredible things. Hamodia, the ultra orthodox newspaper, and many important figures are speaking out.

The head of the Ponoveitsh Yeshiva issued a strong, heartfelt statement to the Ultra Orthodox community, telling people that it’s sinas chinam, baseless hatred, to blame the secular media for their attacks. Rather that this is a time for genuine soul searching on the part of Charedim, where we all have to look inwards.

The fact is that there are many different types of observant Jews. We all have our opinions, and our beliefs. And I hope we are passionate about them.

But beyond our group, is a people.

It is true that there are fanatics, and we have to speak out. And there are groups interested in tearing other groups down, or taking advantage of a crisis. But that’s not the way. And in Israel, I genuinely believe – and we all certainly have been davening (praying) for this these past weeks – that the spirit of od Avinu chai, our father Yaakov still lives, that Yaakov Avinu’s determination to leave behind one people – defined by a sense of unity and led by people who care for each other as much as for themselves – lives on.

Let us all strive to be Yehudahs. Let us reach out to Jews who are different from ourselves, learn to respect and love even those from whom we differ, and let us make sure that Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) remains a nation of Yehudim (Yehudahs), people who see greatness in each other.

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