Friday, August 12, 2022

Nachamu: Who Comforts Whom?


Nachamu nachamu ami – Comfort, oh comfort, my people.” (Isaiah 40:1)

After the trauma of Tisha B’Av, God offers solace and consolation. For the next seven weeks, we will read Haftorahs about various elements of what this comfort entails.

I believe these words can also be read as directed towards us. “My nation, you must console each other.” In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, an aggrieved nations longs for the embrace of our Father in heaven. At the same time, each of us must find ways to be a source of comfort for those around us. We are to become a nation of consolers.

We know that, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish reality changed. Ritually, we shifted away from sacrifices towards prayer. Geographically, we moved from the Temple into shuls. Communally, we became more decentralized into individual communities. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon, notes that after the destruction, there is a relational and attitudinal shift as well. The Mishnah in Avot (1:2) teaches that the world rests upon three things: Torah, avodah (service), and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). The Vilna Gaon says that all three of these are only found during Temple times. After the destruction of the Temple, we don’t have full access to Torah or avodah. Nowadays, all we have is chesed.

Nachamu, nachamu ami – People, comfort each other. Say hello to each other. Smile at each other. Make someone else feel better through words and deeds.

Rabbi Israel of Rizhin (1796-1850) once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Aruch. The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “do you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.”

Shabbat Nachamu is a call to comfort and consolation. Yes, we turn to God and await His role in the redemption. At the same time, we have comfort to provide. Each of us can turn to one another with a smile, a friendly greeting, acts of chesed, or just be a mensch.

Friday, August 5, 2022

What Did Kamtza Do Wrong?

Rabbi Yochanan said… Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. (Gittin 55b)

We all know the story.

A certain man was hosting a large party. He sent out his servant to deliver invitations – including to his good friend, Kamtza. By mistake, however, the servant brought the invitation to a man named Bar Kamtza, who happened to be on bad terms with the host. (Even back then, the mail was terrible!)

Bar Kamtza, pleasantly surprised with the invitation, attended at the party. The host was aghast and immediately ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, not wanting to be embarrassed, offered to reimburse the host for whatever he consumed. The host refused the offer, even as Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half, and then all, of the party. Finally, in front of all the guests, including many respected sages who made no move to intervene, the host physically removed Bar Kamtza from the party.

Angry and humiliated, Bar Kamtza took his revenge by telling the Roman Emperor that the Jewish people were rebelling and that they would reject any offering that the Emperor would send to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Emperor sent a calf, Bar Kamtza waylaid it and made a tiny blemish that would make it unacceptable as a sacrifice. The Sages debated what to do and even considered offering the calf anyway to avoid antagonizing the already tense relationship with Rome. In the end, the sacrifice was rejected, the Emperor was insulted, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled.

Blame the host. Blame Bar Kamtza. Blame the Sages. But why blame Kamtza?!? He had no idea anything was going on since he never received the invitation. He doesn’t appear in the story!

The explanation is that Rabbi Yochanan isn’t assigning blame to Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. He is describing the destruction of the Temple taking place in an environment in which people feel divided, excluded, disconnected, and alone. Why did the host hate Bar Kamtza so much that he threw him out of the party despite his offer to pay for it? Did Kamtza and Bar Kamtza know each other? Why was Bar Kamtza excluded in the first place? Why didn’t the Sages encourage better behavior? Rabbi Yochanan is describing the sad situation in which people were not friendly, sympathetic, welcoming, and hospitable. Kamtza – like the host, Bar Kamtza, and the Sages – is very much a part of the problem if a society feels so disjointed.

Elie Wiesel recounts the story of the Gerer Rebbe, who asked one of his disciples: “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” The disciple didn’t know. “What!” shouted the Rebbe. “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof? You study the same book? You serve the same God? You dare tell me that you don’t know how Moshe Yaakov is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?!?”

A society in which people can just “pass each other in the night” without stopping to connect with one another to create a caring community is heading in the wrong direction.

We begin Tisha B’Av with the words “Eicha yashva badad – Alas, the city is lonely…” Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are examples of a society that is torn apart, in which people feel alone. We cannot allow that to exist and must find ways to bring people together. Say hello to an unfamiliar face. Invite somebody new over. Introduce someone new to the Shul.

Destruction is the result of disconnection. Redemption will come from reconnection.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Aharon's Unique Yahrzeit & A Timely Lesson for Today


“Aharon Ha-Kohein ascended Hor Ha-har and died there in the fortieth year... in the fifth month on the first of the month” (Bamidbar 33:38). Aharon’s date of passing, 1 Av, is the only yahrzeit recorded in the Torah because both Aharon and the date combine for a unique message for us today, on Rosh Chodesh Av. 

Aharon’s passing was a greater blow to the Jewish people than even the passing of Moshe. The entire people wept for Aharon. (Bamidbar 20:29) According to the Midrash, when Elazar and Moshe returned from burying Aharon, the people refused to accept the reality of Aharon’s passing and continued to look expectantly for Aharon to return to the camp. Why was Aharon so beloved? Pirkei Avot (1:12) provides the answer:

“Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace (oheiv shalom) and pursuing peace (rodeif shalom), loving mankind (oheiv et ha-beriyot) and drawing them close to the Torah (mekarvan la-Torah).”

Aharon was a peacemaker. He had a specific system for ending conflict. He would approach each belligerent individually and tell them that he had a message from the other person. He would then explain how the other person longed to resolve their issue and had sent Aharon to reconcile on their behalf. Aharon would then do the same thing to the other side. When the two sides would meet, each would assume the other wanted peace, and the confrontation would end peacefully

I think the teaching in Avot gives us much deeper insight into Aharon as peacemaker and lover of humanity. Each expression adds another layer of the connection Aharon wished to forge with others.

Oheiv shalom – a lover of peace: People can choose between fomenting conflict, ignoring it, or wanting to see it end. Aharon hated conflict and wanted people to get along.

Rodeif shalom – a pursuer of peace: Many people hate conflict but don’t do anything about it. Aharon acted on this desire and sought reconciliation.

Oheiv et ha-beriyot – a lover of people: Aharon was a gregarious fellow. He liked being in the company of people and wanted people to appreciate the company of others.

Mekarvan la-Torah – draw them close to Torah: For Aharon, it wasn’t just socializing; it was mission driven. He wanted people to better themselves and live in accordance with their Jewish mission.

Aharon is beloved for his love for others, for his desire that others should love others, and his ability to encourage others to live their best and truest selves.

That is quite a legacy – and a timely one on 1 Av. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) famously teaches:

“Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed... But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot and acts of kindness? Because baseless hatred (sinat chinam) prevailed. This teaches you that baseless hatred is equal to the three sins of idolatry, illicit relations and murder.”

This has, in turn, inspired Rav Kook’s oft-quoted teaching:

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love, ahavat chinam.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

Ahavat chinam is not as easy as flicking on or off a switch. The love we need is the complex, mature, aspirational love of Aharon.

In an interesting twist, Aharon’s death is recorded in Parshat Chukat, but we only learn the date of death in Parshat Masei, which is always read during the week in which Rosh Chodesh Av occurs. While the weekly Torah reading is of much later origin, we should not ignore this coincidence and the opportunity it provides us with to commit to Aharon’s legacy of love, peace, people, and Torah.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Bnot Tzeladchad Versus Bnei Gad & Reuvain

Since Pesach, there has been a different weekly Parsha in Israel than the one we read in the Diaspora.

Due to the 8th day of Pesach occurring on Shabbat, we read the special holiday reading, while Israel reads Parshat Acharei Mot. This one-week discrepancy has continued ever since and will only be rectified next week when we will read the double portion of Matot-Masei and Israel will read just Masei.

I’m sure that you, too, are losing sleep over the question of why we wait so long to get everyone back on the same page. Why didn’t we just read a double portion after Pesach or any time since? Why wait till now?

I think the answer can be found this week when we compare two sets of children and their relationship with the Land of Israel.

In Parshat Pinchas, the Diaspora is reading about the Bnot Tzelafchad, the five daughters who want to claim their fair share of the land of Israel. (They have the BEST names: Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.) Based on the standard laws of inheritance, only the males inherited, so the daughters demand their portion in Israel, and God agrees. The Bnot Tzelafchad model a love for Israel in which it is unfathomable and intolerable to remain unattached to the land.

In Israel, they are reading Parshat Matot, which includes the story of the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuvain. Due to their abundant cattle, these tribes (along with half of the tribe of Menashe) wanted to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan River. When challenged that they would be dividing the nation, they agree to fight alongside their fellow tribes to conquer the land but would settle outside of it. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuvain are committed to Israel but choose to live outside the land where they feel they will be more successful. 

This week, WE read about the daughters who want in, while ISRAEL reads about the sons who want to remain out. This sounds about right. 

We in the Diaspora can use a lesson in love of the Land of Israel. Bnot Tzelafchad are very compelling examples for those of us dwelling outside of Israel. We may not be ready to go (yet), but we should always maintain that desire within us. Do we love the land in a way that we wish we could go or have some “achuzah,” some portion there we can call our own?

In Israel, they’re reading about Jews who remain outside of Israel but promise to stand up for their brothers and sisters in the land. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuvain show that there is an essential, symbiotic, synergistic relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Recently, efforts have been increased to teach Israelis about Jewish life outside of Israel. No longer is Diaspora Jewry the “big sibling” in the relationship.

In a very fitting conclusion to this saga, next week, all Jews will read Parshat Masei, which recounts BOTH stories in one parsha. 

This Shabbat, we should think about Bnot Tzelafchad and their longing for the land. We will be hosting IDF soldiers as part of a Shabbat with Friends of the IDF (FIDF). Encountering young men and women who defend Israel provides an up close and personal example of what it means to live and love the land. Greeting them, thanking them, and supporting them are our “achuzah,” ways – albeit indirect – for us to possess the land. I feel this very personally when I encounter chayalei Tzahal and in the fact that our daughter, Meira, is serving in the IDF. Another small way I connect with this feeling is when I pray for the IDF and the State of Israel, I pronounce the words with hav’ara Sephardit, the Israeli way to pronounce words, as opposed to the hav’ara Ashkenazis, the Ashkenaz pronunciation which I use for the rest of davening.

Everyone has their own unique way to connect, but this is a Shabbat for longing and loving the land, the soldiers, and the people of Israel.


Friday, July 15, 2022

Looking to the Stars & Finding Ourselves


Earlier this week, NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will enable us to see light from the most distant stars and galaxies, in existence just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Launched into orbit last year and only now fully operational, the JWST is a vast upgrade over NASA’s earlier Hubble Space Telescope.

The pictures are breathtaking, fascinating, and awe-inspiring.

Take this image:

A science writer explained: “While there are a few interloper stars in the photo, nearly every dot in the image is a galaxy. For a sense of scale, if you could hold a grain of sand at arm’s length up to the sky, that spec is the size of the view. It is one minuscule sliver of our universe, filled with thousands of galaxies, each with billions or trillions of star systems in each of those with its own planets.”

Michael Kaplan, a former NASA engineer who worked on the JWST more than a quarter of a century ago, captured the religious nature of the project’s accomplishment. A synagogue member from Boulder, Colorado, he noted: “God created the universe and God created us. He blessed us with the intellect and the curiosity to want to explore the universe and he gave us the intellectual capacity to be able to design and build such amazing instruments as James Webb and as the Mars Rovers and all the other amazing tools that we have to explore the universe… Why wouldn’t we expect that the universe that God created be a beautiful universe, right? I mean, in a sense it’s just as I expected.”

We are a “starry” people.

וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ׃ 

God said to Abraham, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”—continuing, “So shall your offspring be.” (Bereishit 15:5)

I don’t think only Avraham is meant to look towards the stars. Whenever we need a reminder of the Jewish mission or a burst of encouragement, “the stars declare the glory of God.” (Tehillim 19:2). If things seem overwhelming, the stars remind us of just how small we are compared to the rest of the universe. Such an awareness isn’t meant to make us feel small; rather, it provides us a sense of just how complex the universe is. 

Seeing the universe is meant to inspire religious feelings. As Rambam wrote:

“When a person contemplates God’s wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify God, yearning with tremendous desire to know God's great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God’ (Psalms 42:3). We know God by way of the wondrousness of his creations. ‘When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers... [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him’ (Psalms 8:4-5)”. (Foundations of the Torah 2:2)

Scientists sometimes feel this way. Nobel Physics Laureate Joseph Taylor, Jr. said: “A scientific discovery is also a religious discovery. There is no conflict between science and religion. Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery we make about the world.”

The synergy between our appreciation of the cosmos and religious feeling can be expressed in the laws of berachot. There are blessings recited on various astronomical phenomena. Shulchan Aruch teaches:

Upon a comet, which is a type of star that is seen like an arrow shooting across the sky from place to place, whose light stretches like a staff; and upon shaking of the earth, and upon lightning, and upon thunder, and upon winds that blow angrily: on each of these one says, "Blessed are you, God our Lord, king of the world, creator of the original creations (oseh ma’aseh bereishit)." And if you'd like, say, "Blessed are you, God our Lord, king of the world, whose strength and might fill the world (she-kocho u’gevurato malei olam)." (Orach Chaim 227:1)

The new JWST photos do not require us to make a blessing, but they are very real reminders of God’s glorious creation and the complexity of His universe. In a world that moves so quickly, how often do we feel a sense of wonder? Whether it’s a sunset, the ocean waves crashing against the shore, or our expanding view into the cosmos, we should look up for some inspiration in appreciating our role in God’s universe.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Who is John Galt?


“Who is John Galt?”

Do you recognize the line? It is a recurring question throughout Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which becomes an expression of helplessness and despair at the current state of the novel's fictionalized world. When things happen which can’t be understood, changed, or improved, the characters simply declare, “Who is John Galt?”

This came to mind perusing the headlines of the past week - especially the July 4 massacre in Highland Park, Illinois. I understand bad news gets more attention – and there are certainly happy stories out there, too, but it seems like it’s the same bad news over and over and over again. Take another example: violent behavior at the Kotel. Last week, a group of extremists overran the egalitarian plaza of the site disrupting a Bar Mitzvah service. (There was a disturbing picture of someone blowing their nose in a Siddur.) Exactly five years ago, I addressed a similar episode in a Shabbat sermon! A congregant wrote to me this morning wondering why these types of things keep happening. I wanted to reply, “Who is John Galt?”

In a way, “Who is John Galt?” seems to channel how we approach the verse, ”Zot chukat haTorah – These are the rules of the Torah (19:2).” A chok is understood as a mitzvah without a reason. We just do it because we do it, and that’s all there is to it. Why do we eat Kosher, observe Shabbat, or sprinkle the ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer) on one who comes into contact with a dead body? Just because.

For some, the use of the word chok is a cop-out. If a practice cannot be understood, we fall back on it being an obligation. There is some truth to this argument. At the end of the day, God commands, “Jump!” and we respond, “How high?” At the same time, employing a chok is not the same as saying we don’t know why or “Who is John Galt?” A chok provides us with a deeper, more sophisticated approach to life and Judaism.

Rabbi Norman Lamm addresses this more complex nature of a chok. He acknowledges that our inclination is to try to make sense out of everything. Modern man wants answers. The existence of a chok pushes back against this. We don’t have all the answers. In fact, the more we know, the more we should respect the fundamental mystery of existence. People like to be able to compartmentalize problems, to put them into boxes. Rabbi Lamm challenges this mentality: “When we affix labels to problems, we erroneously think that we have solved them.” Similarly, if we can explain behavior – ritual or otherwise, then we feel ok. If we cannot, then it’s just something we do. That’s not the case. Describing a ritual as a chok is not a “cop-out” or performance of an action “just because.” Judaism doesn’t accept “Who is John Galt?” resignation or despair. Instead, the chok reminds us that life is more than biochemistry and that there are situations which make no sense that we cannot easily solve – but we persevere and seek a path forward.

In contemporary headline terms: I do not presently have a way to prevent crazy, lone gunmen from perpetrating mass shootings, but that doesn’t mean I live with resignation. Each month may feature heated encounters at the Kotel, but that doesn’t mean I give up on those Jews with whom I disagree. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted: “Neither side should exaggerate on the issue. Each side has a place to pray – and therefore we must not think of victory or defeat.” Life is full of chok situations – complicated, frustrating, possibly without resolution, but we can still move forward.

In the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8), Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai describes a chok in the following way: God said, “I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (chukah chakakti, gezeira gazarti),” and you have no permission to transgress. A chok is something engraved. It is part of who we are. It tells us there is no instant gratification or easy answer. In fact, there will likely be a lot of aggravation. This doesn’t minimize the situation. In fact, it deepens it.

As Rabbi Lamm concludes: A chok teaches us that there comes a time when living without explanation is the only valid explanation for life and Judaism that is beyond explanation.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Cold as Korach


I like it cold. I think air conditioning is one of humanity’s greatest inventions.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, would often say to his disciples, “Everything a Jew sees or hears should serve him as a lesson in his service of his Creator.”

One winter day, the Baal Shem Tov’s students witnessed a group of peasants who had gathered on the surface of a frozen river, from which they carved a block of ice in the shape of a cross to use in a religious procession. They asked their master what lesson they could possibly derive from such an “un-Jewish” scene. The Baal Shem Tov replied, “In the Torah, water has spiritually cleansing properties; but when it is frozen into ice, even the purest substance can be made into an icon of heresy.”

Like Korach.

The Midrash links the name Korach (spelled קרח) with the Hebrew word which means “baldness,” spelled with the same Hebrew letters. I’d rather avoid that topic…Seriously, though, the Midrash connects Korach, who divided the nation and tore people apart, with the prohibition against tearing one’s hair out and creating a bald spot when mourning for the dead.

It is much “cooler” to note the similar spelling of Korach and kerach (קרח), ice.

Korach “threw ice water” on the leadership structure of the Jewish nation. He challenged Moshe’s leadership and also questioned the relevance of Torah laws. This is analogous to skepticism or cynicism diverting us from passionate religious engagement. Ice makes it harder to enter the water. It creates an obstacle. Korach was a roadblock in the Jewish nation continuing its journey led by their God-appointed leader following Torah and mitzvot. Korach crossed the line from genuine questioning and skepticism to aggressive attacks and froze out any attempt at reconciliation.

A Jew should never be cold.

A Jew who is religiously cold - who prays by rote, who is dispassionate about the rituals and who is unmoved by Torah - is on a slippery slope. There is a Chasidic saying, “A narrow divide separates coldness from heresy.”

We are people of action more than emotion and passion, but a cold Judaism isn’t complete. We need to try to blend the body and the soul of Judaism, the law with the spirit, and the religious obligation with the religious experience.

As it gets warm outside, it is natural to try and cool off. Korach reminds us not to get too cold on the inside. There are plenty of opportunities to fire things up to combat the cold: prayer, study, charity, kindness. When the Torah warns us not to be like Korach, it doesn’t only envision us as rebels who want to tear the community apart. The Torah is also concerned lest we embrace the ice-cold attitude of Korach in tearing people and practices apart.

Stay cool on the outside but warm and passionate on the inside.