Nov 21 2014

The Test of Time

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gradfather-grandson-learning-torahThe Torah reading this week begins: “These are the generations of Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham fathered Yitzchak” [25:19]. It seems redundant to say that “Avraham fathered Yitzchak” — the Torah has, by this time, presented in great detail the circumstances of Yitzchak’s birth, his near sacrifice, and the process by which his wife was identified and brought from her home to marry him. Even in this verse, the Torah calls him “Yitzchak ben Avraham,” which of course means Avraham was his father! What’s the message?

The Ramban [Nachmanides] points out that at the end of last week’s reading, the Torah describes “the generations of Yishmael ben Avraham” [25:12], so you might think the two are equal. “Therefore the Torah goes back and says Avraham gave birth to Yitzchok, to say that Yitzchak alone is his progeny.” Yitzchok was the fulfillment of Avraham’s potential, the creation of another patriarch of the Jewish nation. Yitzchok, not Yishmael “whom Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Sarah, birthed to Avraham” [the continuation of 25:12] nor any of the children of Keturah, was the one who carried Avraham’s mission forward.

From the beginning, the Torah talks about the importance of carrying the Jewish mission from one generation to the next. Today, of course, a person is a member of the Jewish people whether or not he or she is even aware of it, much less able to personally educate the next generation. But nonetheless, Judaism requires that we educate both ourselves and our children.

When Project Genesis started over twenty years ago, the first National Jewish Population Survey had recently shocked the Jewish establishment with an intermarriage rate of over 50% among young Jews, and a general decline in Jewish affiliation. In a state of near panic, complete with projections of only 10,000 Jews remaining in the New York area by the end of the 21st century, money was suddenly allocated for “Jewish continuity” programming. Most of that money, however, was (and is still) invested in social programming, music and dance — and as the recent Pew Report showed us, nothing has changed.

Nothing, that is, save the rapid growth of communities where Jewish day school is the norm, rather than the exception. The Orthodox community has defied the demographic trends identified by the NJPS, recognizing that there is a core mission to transmit Avraham’s message to the next generation. Helping every Jew to grasp hold of our heritage is not a way, but the way, to ensure that he or she is part of the Jewish future.

Nov 14 2014

Building from the Dirt

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Following the death of his wife Sarah, Avraham purchases the Machpela cave from Ephron the Hittite to use as a burial site. Ephron makes it sound as if he is prepared to give the cave to Avraham, but in the end takes a tremendous sum for the property.

Shovel_DirtAt the end of the story, as Ephron takes his money [Gen. 23:16], the Torah spells his name without the letter Vav — so one could pronounce the name as Afran, from the word Afar, dirt. Ephron is considered a “person of the dirt,” because, as Rashi explains, “he said a lot, and didn’t even do a little.” Everything was for show and self-glorification, while in reality he was not a charitable person at all.

Avraham, by contrast, declared himself to be “dirt and ashes” in last week’s reading, as he begged G-d to spare Sodom [18:27]. And who was Avraham? The person who recognized G-d’s Presence in the world and rose to prophecy by himself, with no one to educate him, and devoted himself to sharing knowledge of HaShem with the world. Yet even at the moment that G-d Himself shared with Avraham what he intended to do, Avraham, rather than feeling at all self-important, says of himself that he’s nothing but dirt.

Our Sages tell us that the test of a person in this world is the extent to which he or she can rise above physical nature. It is “natural” to want all the pleasures of this world, to want money to be able to indulge in them, and to seek honor. But who is, in the end, admired? One who sacrifices for the spiritual, e.g. to study Torah, and is charitable with his or her money, and who honors others while being self-effacing. Ephron, who sought prestige and portrayed himself as generous while coveting wealth, is recorded as a person of “dirt,” dragged down into the material world. And Avraham, who spoke about our human origins in “the dust of the earth,” became the father of the Jewish nation.

Nov 07 2014

Elimelech – American Hero

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kids-kicking-cancerHave you ever heard of Elimelech Goldberg? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. [Dr. Elimelech Goldstein, the volunteer medical director of Hatzalah of Baltimore, is a friend and former roommate, but that’s another story entirely.] But if you’re familiar with the Orthodox community, you’ve surely heard of the Chai Lifeline organization, and their incredible Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Rabbi Goldberg was, for many years, the director of that camp; his first daughter, Sarah, passed away at age 2 after fighting leukemia, so he had a powerful bond with children fighting illness. And he is also a black belt in a style of martial arts… one that you’ve probably never heard of either. But that’s relevant, so bear with me please.

A South Korean man named Kwang Jo Choi was a leading instructor in Tae Kwon Do, which is probably more familiar (and if not, it’s the South Korean version of Karate). He moved to North America in order to find orthopedists to help with injuries suffered as a result, which, he learned, were caused by the way he was performing martial arts. So he created a new style, called Choi Kwang Do, which incorporated techniques which he had learned from his rehabilitation exercises — including breathing and stretching exercises which help a person to combat pain.

So Rabbi Goldberg, at Camp Simcha, found himself teaching a 5-year-old boy breathing exercises during chemotherapy. And it worked. Mental and breathing exercises helped the boy ignore the pain of treatment.

So, in 1999, Rabbi Goldberg founded an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer. As described by CNN, “The program provides free martial arts classes focused on breathing techniques and meditation for children battling serious illnesses.”

CNN? Well yes, you’ve heard of CNN. And for the past seven years, the CNN network has identified and nominated ten people as “CNN Heroes: everyday people changing the world.” This year, Rabbi Goldberg is one of the nominees, giving us the opportunity to highlight the outstanding way in which he is changing the world for the better.

I hope you will join me, as I vote for Rabbi Goldberg to be the CNN Hero this year. You can vote once per day, with each of your email addresses and with Facebook, through Nov. 15. Both because of his outstanding work and the way it will help his organization (and by extension, Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha), he deserves our support!

Oct 31 2014

A “Lot” of Losses

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5634567317_b4d5b61ff8_m_empty-pocketIn this week’s reading, we learn about two wealthy individuals. Avram, as he was then called, gave up his local work and reputation to move to the land of Cana’an, where, he was told, he would receive much greater blessings. And, as promised, he prospered.

The Torah tells us that his nephew Lot journeyed with him, and prospered as well. Rashi tells us that the Torah isn’t simply reminding you that Lot was Avram’s traveling partner when it says [Gen. 13:5] “And Lot, also, who escorted Avram, had flocks, cattle and tents.” Why repeat the fact that Lot was going

with Avram? Because, says Rashi, that’s why he became wealthy — this is cause and effect. By being in the presence of such a holy person as Avram, Lot prospered.

Lot, however, didn’t understand the source of his blessings. The shepherds who worked for him would let his cattle graze on other people’s property, which Avram did not permit his own shepherds to do. The conflict between the shepherds is, as Rashi tells us, what led Avram to suggest that they split up, in order that there not be an argument between them and between their shepherds. Lot, of course, agreed.

And where did he go? To Sodom! At the time, as the Torah describes it, the territory around Sodom was extraordinarily fertile and vibrant — yet the people were evil. Lot chose the fertile land, despite the evil neighbors, over remaining with Avram. From a business perspective, it had all the makings of a good decision: his flocks would have more room to graze, on the best land available.

And what happened? He lost everything.

When Lot lost himself in material pursuits, he was willing to leave his holy uncle to go live among evil people rather than get his shepherds to behave correctly. And that, in the end, is what led to the loss of his fortune (and his wife). Following the more honest, more spiritual, more positive path will always pay off in the end — in more ways than one!

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