Oct 16 2015

A Call for Unity


Yeshiva-Bochers-at-the-Kotel-14Oct15In this week’s Torah reading, humanity engages in two different sorts of evil. One generation becomes rife with theft and immorality, and the population is wiped out. Then a later generation unites to rebel against G-d, and G-d confuses their languages and divides them into distinct peoples.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki asks what should be a simple question: which generation was more wicked before G-d? The first didn’t try to fight with G-d Himself, and the second did. But the first one was wiped out, and the second, merely confused. How is that logical or appropriate?

He explains that the generation of the Flood engaged in theft, which tells us that there were multitudinous arguments between people about stolen property. There was divisiveness and discord. The generation of the Tower of Babel, on the other hand, displayed unity and brotherhood while engaging in their evil project… and so they were not wiped out. “This teaches you that discord is hated, and the greatness of peace,” Rashi concludes.

There is a paradox here. The Medrash tells us that when Hashem confused the languages of those building the Tower, the result was division! A person who asked for water was given earth. One who called for a rope was thrown a hammer, which killed him. His friends then took out their swords, and much of humanity perished before it was over. So Hashem created the discord all over again!

Or so it seems.

As we know well, different languages do not have to result in a lack of understanding, certainly not one culminating in murder. We are no longer confused when we hear a person speaking in a foreign tongue. But nonetheless, Hashem said we need to divide into distinct peoples, and final unity will only come in the Messianic era.

Within each nation, however, we are obligated to seek unity — especially within the Jewish nation. We see that unity is so powerful that even when the purpose itself is wicked, G-d takes unity into account. All the more so, when our purpose is Holy.

Today we are faced with enemies who, as always, could wipe us out if they would merely unify. But the terrorists of the one side are unable to unite with the terrorists on the other, and the Jewish People remain the Eternal Nation.

Israeli news reporters conducted a bedside interview with a Rabbi who was injured in one of the horrific attacks this week. They asked him what happened, and he said “that’s uninteresting,” it’s unimportant. He didn’t want to talk about the terrorist, or his own injuries. What did he want to tell us? That Heaven is sending a message to the People of Israel (meaning the Jews, all over the world), that we need to improve our character. We have to improve how we treat each other and how we perform our obligations to Heaven. That’s what he wanted to say.

He has it right, of course. What is happening in Israel is a call for unity and brotherhood. And we, all around the world, must participate. May we enjoy peace, speedily in our time.

Oct 09 2015

Come Rest with Us!


ShabbatTableThis week, we begin a new cycle of reading the Torah. The Torah begins, of course, by describing G-d’s Creation of Heaven and Earth. And at the end, He rested.

G-d, of course, did not need to rest. The Almighty, Creator of time itself, has no need for time off — and given that He is timeless, above all time, it’s a non sequitur as well. But Hashem nonetheless ceased creative activities after 6 days, to model the day of rest that he would then bestow upon the Jewish People.

People operate within time, and do get exhausted. Shabbos is described in the Talmud (Shabbos 10b) as a “precious gift” to the Jews. It is a time to restore, recuperate, and refocus. Busy Orthodox professionals talk about being available “24/6” because of their mandatory day off.

And many people, including many of our readers, have never had this experience!

A few years ago, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, created something called the Shabbos Project. It’s an effort to unify Jews around a common idea, observing a single Shabbos together. Last year, it became an international effort, and it continues to grow. This year, their target Shabbos is Oct. 23-24 — you can see their website for more information, (although it is limited and omits several communities).

It is certainly not too late to participate, and if you are Jewish and near Baltimore, this is a personal invitation as well! We’d love to do our part to make this global project a success. If we can help you to find resources nearer to you, please let us know as well. Let’s not miss this opportunity for global participation and Jewish unity.

Sep 21 2015

Ask Me Next Year


running-track-2-1528273-639x426This past January, the Jewish world lost a tremendous resource: Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l, who was known online as the “Facebuker Rebbe.” For him, Jewish outreach was about one thing above all else: finding what he could do for you, and trying to do it. In any field of endeavor, it is typical for us to get into a certain pattern — we have a line of products or area of responsibility, and we do what fits into our “mold.” Dovid didn’t limit himself; he was just there to help.

His brother Reb Shmuel relates that if you would ask him, “how was your Rosh HaShanah?” or “how was your Yom Kippur,” he would respond with a smile and say — “I don’t know. Ask me next year!”

First and foremost, this is the time to be thinking about the fragility of life. We are hoping to be written for another year, and must keep in mind that a person never knows — Reb Dovid passed away extremely suddenly, when the car in which he was traveling slipped on black ice. Now, when the King is “close by,” is our opportunity to ask Him for another year.

And what shall that year bring? These days are also our opportunity to ask G-d for a year of blessing: for our health, for our families, for our income, for our spiritual growth. But in that last area in particular, we are also setting a pattern for the year ahead.

Taking the lesson encapsulated in Rabbi Winiarz’s words, let’s first think back over last year. How did we do? Did we grow? Did we meet our goals? Or did we quickly slip back into old patterns? Then we can think about what we should be asking for, praying for, and working towards — so that when we look back next year, we feel accomplished.

Now, where do we want to be next year? When it’s time to look back one year from now, we will be, in essence, answering “how was your Yom Kippur?” Where would we like to be? What are we asking HaShem to do for us this year?

With those questions answered in our mind, we will be better prepared for Yom Kippur. Let us keep in mind everything we are asking for, everything we hope to accomplish. And let us go through Yom Kippur asking Hashem for help in reaching those goals.

Sep 11 2015

We Need to Do More


Prior to Rosh Hashanah, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim, “standing.” This comes from the first verse: “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders and your guards, every person of Israel” [29:9]. It is the perfect thing to read before Rosh Hashanah, the day when we stand before G-d in judgment each year. In fact, the Zohar says that “You are standing before Hashem today” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah.

Later in the reading, we have a section that immediately feels like it was written for our benefit, a message provided by Hashem from across the millennia:

And it will be when all of these things have come upon you, the Blessing and the Curse which I placed before you, and you have placed it upon your heart among all the nations where Hashem your G-d has exiled you there; and you return to Hashem your G-d and listen to His voice, according to all that I have commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul; that Hashem your G-d will return you from your captivity and have mercy upon you, and return and gather you from all the nations where Hashem your G-d has scattered you. If you have been pushed off to the end of the heavens, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you, and from there He will take you. And Hashem your G-d will bring you to the land which your forefathers inherited, and you will inherit it, and He will be good to you and increase you, more than your forefathers. And Hashem your G-d will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. — Deut. 30:1-6, the fourth Aliyah

After the horrors of the Holocaust, it is as if G-d gave us a head start. We are free to live and practice our religion in our homeland in a way that we have not been able to do for thousands of years. And for decades most of the world was reluctant to stir up ancient hatreds against us.

Now, however, those hatreds are returning to the surface. With every passing day, it becomes more obvious that the model for the boycotts of Israel today was never the boycott of South Africa, but rather the Nazi boycott of Jews. Anti-Semitism is rampant across Europe, and is infecting college campuses in America.

Emboldened by international support, terrorist attacks against individual civilians are increasing — a friend posted this morning that a rock was thrown through the window of her daughter’s bus home from school. Never mind that there was an Arab passenger or that she was treated (for, thankfully, just minor cuts) at the hospital by an Arab doctor, there are some reminding us that the old hatred is still there.

What are we supposed to do? Pray. That is always the first line of Jewish defense. Because we know that Hashem our G-d is listening.

But we also know that the promise made in our Torah portion comes with terms and conditions: “you return to Hashem your G-d and listen to His voice, according to all that I have commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” That is the deal: to return to the land and live there in safety and security, to enjoy His blessings, we are supposed to meet the terms and conditions.

Are we doing enough? The United Nations has done its job: to tell us no.

May the coming year be one in which Hashem sees our resolve to improve, and “circumcises our hearts” to serve Him as we should, a year in which Hashem is good to us and increases us, a year in which we truly inherit our land to live in safety, security, and peace.

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