Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Solutions for "scattered soul" syndrome (Derashah, Rosh HaShanah 5772)

I'm speaking at a minyan on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, before shofar; here's what I plan to say. Critiques very welcome. My derashah owes a lot to Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University, and the comments he offered on the below-cited Yerushalmi and Chovos haLevavos during a visit to our Beit Midrash. Sources are listed at the end.

"When I stand in Shemoneh Esreih, I count birds," said one.
"I count the bricks in the wall!" said another
"I'm grateful for my head, because when I arrive at Modim it bows on its own", even if I'm not thinking about the words! said a third.
No, these weren't answers to a shul poll – all of these lines came from amoraim, sages of the gemara, in a Yerushalmi.
Some chachamim have offered alternative, less indicting ways to read this gemara, but as Tosafos said, the bottom line is that even our greatest sages had trouble concentrating.

Personally, I don't count birds or bricks. I count my kollel families and their needs. I think about my kids –not necessarily in a davening-for-their-welfare way. Shiurim. Problems. Disagreements. Jobs. And so on.

The gemara says אין אדם ניצול בכל יום, no one escapes distraction during davening, every single day. The distraction may start with something worthy, like Torah, but before you know it we're in the land of birds and bricks.

This problem of distraction has a source, named by Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda in Chovos haLevavos 950 years ago. It's פיזור הנפש (pizur hanefesh), scattering of the soul. Rabbeinu Bahya quoted an anonymous elder's daily prayer, "המקום יצילני מפיזור הנפש," Gd save me from a scattered soul.

We scatter our souls when we embed pieces of ourselves in a million worthy causes, in work and spouses and colleagues and learning and kids and parents and cousins and friends and vacations and organizations and sports and hobbies and investments - this is פיזור הנפש. Many of these are important – but collectively, they leave us drained and empty.

Henry David Thoreau saw the problem in the 19th century; his solution, as he wrote to Emerson, was, "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" [To which Emerson replied, "I think one 'simplify' would have sufficed."]

Think of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort's horcruxes, pieces of his soul embedded in objects that had some significance to him, to the point that he drained his humanity.

Contrary to the counsel of many psychologists, today's multi-tasking didn't invent the problem; it's just made our פיזור הנפש worse, and we need a way out.

When I first thought about speaking about this issue on Rosh haShanah, I worried it was too pedestrian compared to more momentous themes like the Day of Judgment, Israel and the UN, and the Leafs' playoff chances. But I believe this is up there with the most important of our concerns, because פיזור הנפש is not a narrow issue; פיזור הנפש drags down every aspect of our lives.

It kills relationships. Do you know that voice someone gets when he's talking to you but he's also scrolling through his email? The longer-than-expected pauses, the repeating of the last words you said while his conscious mind catches up with his subconscious? It's not just when we're checking email, either; we hold too many goals in our minds.

More - פיזור הנפש means we have trouble sticking with projects and fulfilling commitments.

And פיזור הנפש fuels stress levels, with pressure from deadlines and concerns in too many diverse areas.

פיזור הנפש
invades and undermines our spiritual, social and personal existence; it demands a voice on Rosh haShanah, when we chart our path for the year.

Fortunately, Rosh haShanah also offers antidotes for פיזור הנפש: By reviewing three different roles of the shofar, we can learn three ways to treat our distraction.

First: The historical shofar, with its overpowering blast. The shofar of Jewish history is an overwhelming, ever-intensifying, limitless assault which brooks no disruption. From the start of our Jewish national existence at Sinai, to the end of history with the arrival of Mashiach, the shofar's voice resounds, a קול שופר חזק מאד ויחרד כל העם אשר במחנה. This historical shofar crushes outside noise – specifically, the distractions and ambitions that drain our focus.

This means emulating Thoreau by simplifying our lives:

• Figuring out which involvements have become more of a drain than they are worth, and which ones we need to cut even though they are very worthy.

• Turning off our phones and external distractions whenever we need to focus.

• And here's an experiment which may sound a little odd, but it has worked for me: During davening on a weekday, or during telephone calls, or while learning with a chavrusa, keep a piece of paper and pencil nearby. As extraneous topics come to mind, jot them down - not during Shemoneh Esreih, of course. This will tell us what is occupying our minds. This will be the list of our horcruxes, the domains which hold hostage fragments of our souls, and it should give us some idea of what we need to drown out with our historical shofar.

Simplifying our lives is instrumental in reclaiming them.

And second: The halachic shofar, with its status as a mitzvas aseh, an action performed to fulfill the expectations of our Divine Creator. A mitzvah demands כוונה, it demands focus. The sages of the mishnah offered us simple advice for developing that focus: Stop and think before the mitzvah. Ask: "What am I about to do?"

About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to hear lectures by Rabbi Maurice Lamm – author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning" – on visiting the sick and grieving. For me, his greatest recommendation was actually the same advice from that mishnah: Before you enter the hospital room, before you enter the shivah house, stop and ask, "What am I going to say?"

Think of the הנני מוכן ומזומן or לשם יחוד that some of us say before mitzvos or before berachos - it's that concept, expanded.

This is a step toward establishing dominance over our lives: Before any activity, the halachic shofar asks, "What am I about to do? What is my kavvanah?"

And third: The prophetic shofar, invoked by Hosheia and Amos and Yoel and other neviim, is a siren.

• As the Rambam put it, עורו ישנים משנתכם והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם, the shofar cries, "Wake up!"

• The Meiri added, "שכל שומע קול שופר הוא נזהר ומתבונן שאין תקיעתו בלא סבה," "Anyone who hears the sound of the shofar is moved to contemplation, for the shofar's blast is never without purpose."

The prophetic shofar is an alarm, calling us to cut our distractions and to concentrate before we act. But this prophetic shofar is insufficient; it's just one alarm clock, once a year, and thinking about distractions once a year will achieve nothing. If we are to eliminate our life-eroding distractions and restore our selves to ourselves, we will need such shofar reminders all through the year:

• A note for a particular day in our on-line calendar, or in our pocket calendar for those who still use such things.

• A message we write to ourselves in our siddur, "Are you still focussed?" or "This part is important." I write all over my siddur.

The prophetic shofar shows that reminders can accomplish a great deal in gaining our attention.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch noted that Tehillim 81 links the Shofar of Rosh haShanah with the harp used in the Beit haMikdash on Succos. Rav Hirsch explained, "Only the shofar leads to the harp."

Succos is זמן שמחתנו, the time of our great joy and satisfaction – and in order to achieve those heights of rejoicing, we need to first use the Shofar to eliminate our פיזור הנפש, the dispersion of focus that keeps us from fulfilling our spiritual and personal potential.

• To channel the historic shofar by eliminating the distractions which claim pieces of our souls.

• To channel the halachic shofar by thinking and planning before we act.

• To channel the prophetic shofar by sounding the alarm regularly, all year.

If we want to keep our minds from the birds and the bricks, if we want to bow for Modim because we feel humility and not because our heads are on springs, if we want to avoid the stress and disconnection of fragmented lives, if we want to earn a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, let's learn from the shofar now, and so merit the joy of the harp in the future.

1. The opening gemara is from Yerushalmi Berachos 2:4. There are variant explanations of אפרחייא there. The Pnei Moshe suggests these amoraim were distracted by thoughts of Torah. See, too, Rav Tzaddok in Pri Tzaddik to Vayyeshev, and Belzer thoughts at The Tosafos I mentioned is found in two places - Rosh haShanah 16b and Bava Batra 164b.

2. Bava Batra 164b says the distractions in davening are daily. For a strong rebuke on the topic of distraction during mitzvos, see Rambam's Moreh haNevuchim 3:51.

3. The Chovos haLevavos actually talked about pizur hanefesh in terms of finances, and Rav Zev Wolf haLevi of Zhitomir, in his 18th century Or haMeir, expanded it to include the other goals and ambitions which we invest with pieces of our selves.

4. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 589:8, Taz 589:3 rule that shofar requires kavvanah.

5. The advice of waiting before davening is in Mishnah Berachos 5:1.

6. The Rambam's description of the shofar as an alert is in Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4; the Meiri's comments are in Chibur haTeshuvah 2:3 ועל דעת ז"ל.

7. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's observation, part of a great essay, is printed in Collected Writings Vol II pg. 69.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review the Rabbi's Speech

First: I request forgiveness from anyone I have hurt this year. More, please let me know (privately, thanks) if I did anything hurtful; I'd like to learn.

Here’s a Rosh HaShanah request: After Rosh haShanah and Shabbos, please post here your review of your rabbi’s derashot – Rosh haShanah and/or Shabbos Shuvah.

Many rabbis (although clearly not the ones who come to my blog via searches for "Rosh Hashanah sermon") put an inordinate amount of work into crafting these messages. This is their chance to reach people who are otherwise absent from shul, and draw them in. This is their chance to inspire people to daven the most serious tefillos of the year. This is their chance to chart a visionary path for the shul for the year ahead, and beyond. So rabbis often come across ideas as early as Kislev or Shevat and write them down, saving them for just this occasion. This is Prime Time.

I would love to hear reviews from as many people as possible – not just for the vicarious pleasure of hearing rabbis reviewed, but also so that my rabbinic readership (including the "Rosh Hashanah sermon" Googlers) can steal their material for next year.

Among the areas in which reviews would be welcome:
Theme – What was the topic of the speech? Was it a dvar torah about the Torah reading or Shofar? Did they include the Palestinians and the UN? The economy? The NBA strike?

Message – What was the chief message? Was it a call for personal growth, for community activism, for unity, for learning Torah and davening? Did it happen to also appear in the YU Rosh haShanah To Go?

Target audience - Was the target audience the year-round crowd, or the once-a-year attendees, or a blend? If it was a blend, how did he manage the trick of speaking to both?

Rants – How much mussar made it into the Shabbos Shuvah derashah? And about what?

Midrash pliah - Did the rabbi cite any midrashim that were just bizarre? You know what I mean - the ones we use to wake you up and get your attention, and that we say we will explain but that really defy our forced explanations?

Jokes – Did the rabbi dare to start a Rosh haShanah or Shabbos Shuvah derashah with a joke? If it was good, feel free to repeat it here.

Stories – I love it when rabbis tell good stories, particularly original stories; these can be a great way to get a point across. Were there any particularly memorable ones?

Endings – Did the rabbi end speeches with “and so we will merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah / to be inscribed and sealed for a good year,” or “mashiach tzidkeinu amen?” Or did he just finish his topic and sit down? Or did he have a great big bang of an ending?

There is only one rule for this survey: Please respect your rabbi’s anonymity. I will have to delete any comment that gives away a rabbi’s identity. Thank you.

May all of us be blessed with a happy and healthy new year, a year of blessing, a year of peace, a year in which HaShem will grant us the fulfillment of all of our wishes, for the best.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shailophobia: The fear of answering Shailos

I first wrote the post below in a different forum, in Sept '06. I still feel much the same.

It comes to mind now as I draft my viduy for another Rosh HaShanah, and I recall a dozen Yom Kippur viduys in which I apologized for any psak in which I may have erred.

One of the perks of being out of the shul rabbinate is that Shailophobia is mostly academic for me these days.


I don’t know whether my experience reflects that of other rabbis or not, but I become very nervous when faced with a shailoh (question of Jewish law).

Over the years I’ve dealt with such commonplaces as Living Will/Power of Attorney, brain death, organ donation, meat-lid/dairy-pot, mikvah chatzitzah (items on one’s skin that disqualify ritual immersion), personal eruv extensions, taharah (preparation for burial) problems, fertility treatments, etc - the sort of thing that every rav has to be able to handle, whether personally or with the help of a serious posek (legal authority).

I’m not that nervous about the knowledge issues - Thank Gd, I know where to look for answers. If need be, I know who to ask for help. My problem is with the application to real-life situations, and the nuances of psak for real, sensitive, people.

It’s hard to know when people are up for the l’chatchilah (ideal answer) and when the bedieved (ex post facto leniency, often employed under duress as well) is called for. It’s about knowing what their background is and how they’ll respond here. It’s about the strength of their commitment. It’s about whether they can afford to buy a new one. It’s about how they’ll handle future issues.

It’s about their friends, who will hear about this and make their own judgments as well as their own extrapolations to other circumstances. It’s about their cousin who’s a rabbi and who will hear my kula (leniency) and think I must be a lunatic lefty. It’s about their sister who will hear my chumra (stringency) and try to convince them I’m a right-wing nut. It’s about my own yom hadin, when I’ll have to answer for my mistakes in allowing that which was prohibited, or prohibiting that which was allowed.

There really is no up-side in psak (issuing legal decisions). At best you handle the situation correctly; at worst you fouled up her kitchen or his taharah or her tvilah or his tfilah, etc. But poskim are needed, nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


An Elul thought I'm writing up for this week's Toronto Torah:

I've been thinking about the ways we depend on viduy (our recounting of sin) to help us repent. The more I think about it, the more I think that viduy is insufficient. To me, based on my own experience and the experiences reported by others, a healthy drive for growth requires both negative and positive motivation, lo taaseh and aseh, avoiding sin and drawing closer to G-d.

Our need for the two halves is evident in two complementary mitzvot which summon us to remember the Beit haMikdash, to motivate us to rebuild it: Zecher l'Mikdash requires us to relive its splendour, and Zecher l'Churban obligates us to recall its destruction. Envisioning the glory of our past and recognizing the decline of our present, we are motivated to return to greatness in the immediate future.

The Jew approaching Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur often performs a Zecher l'Churban for himself, counting sins and deficiencies and so recognizing the decline of the present. We klop al cheit, day after day. But where is our Zecher l'Mikdash? Do we dedicate time to recall our heights, to relive the glory days of our righteous relationship with G-d? Months we spent in yeshiva or seminary, years of training our children in mitzvot, the time we spent writing checks for tzedakah or tuition, learning with a chavruta, helping our spouses, volunteering for community organizations, taking care of our parents, these are our Mikdash!

As we approach the days of judgment of mercy, may we perform both the Zecher l'Churban and Zecher l'Mikdash for ourselves, and so be motivated to return to greatness in the coming year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A leining note from this past Shabbos

For 12 years I was the regular "baal keriah [Torah reader]" for my shuls, as well as the main Bar Mitzvah teacher. One of the elements I always tried to accentuate for myself and for my students was to place the emphasis on the proper syllable in a word. Putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable in a Hebrew word can change the meaning entirely.

I noticed an example of this in opening sentence of the Haftorah this past Shabbos, Yeshayah 60:1:

קומי אורי כי בא אורך
Kumi ori ki va oraych

If the second word is pronounced with the emphasis on the end (oh-REE, like the first African-American in the NHL), then the translation is, "Rise, my light, for your light has come."

But if the second word is pronounced with the emphasis on the beginning (OH-ree), then the translation is, "Rise, shine, for your light has come."

The latter is correct - and it's up to the baal keriah to get it right.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Half" Jews

The issue of "Half-Shabbos" is still on my mind, months after it broke in the media – but my approach has changed. At first I thought in terms of peer pressure and brain development, and then I blamed individualism/consumerism and the way that people of all religions are re-defining their beliefs and practices to suit their personal wants. But now I'm thinking again.

The aforementioned elements are important, but I've come to think that a major factor, perhaps The major factor, is that the kids who text on Shabbos are emulating their parents, who go "Half" in many halachic areas even as they tell their children to go "Whole". Herewith some examples:

Slumlords and insider trading, home-based daycare centers operating without licenses, sheitel machers and at-home barbers taking cash only.

"The Vaad says that's not kosher, but I think it's (a) a shift to the right, (b) just politics, (c) ignorance of 'real' halachah, (d) all of the above. I use it anyway – and Rabbi X says that's fine." "This bug thing is crazy." "They've gone too far this time." Sound familiar?

Movies and television shows which rebbeim tell their children are inappropriate for them – but which adults freely watch. Off-color jokes traded with a smirk. Sarcasm about school dress code policies.
When I was 12 or 13, a friend of mine babysat for a respected community figure. He was inappropriately curious, and he opened some cabinets he shouldn't have opened – and found some reading material which we had always learned didn't belong in a Torah-observant lifestyle. Of course, he told the rest of us… and what kind of message did that send us, as children?

Coming to shul late, or leaving early, so that we only catch half of davening. Going out for a drink in the middle. Spending the repetition of the Amidah schmoozing with our neighbors. What is this, if not "Half-Tefillah"?

Half-Kavod haTorah
Complaints or slander about parents, teachers, and rabbis, both in the media we watch and in the words coming out of our own mouths – even as children learn that they are obligated to show respect to all of the above.

I could go on with more "Halves", but I think/hope the point is made – if adults are comfortable leading a "Half" Jewish lifestyle, why are we surprised that children do the same?

The irony is that adults are troubled by this. When I was a late teen, the constant refrain I heard was that mature adults understand that the world is not Black and White, but Gray – and that we teens had to grow up and learn to be Gray, too. I still hear that today; kids come back from Israel with an un-nuanced perspective, and their parents are frustrated.

Well, here we have a problem of a different stripe. Children absorb the justification offered by "Half" adults for their own conduct, that the world is Gray, and they make it their own.

For that matter, kids do it in many areas – sexual activity, davening, and more. So why are parents surprised and upset? Just because it's Shabbos?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Spending beyond our means?

The words of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (aka Chafetz Chaim) in his afterword to Ahavat Chesed (original Hebrew at the end of the post):

In truth, when we inquire of a person about his conduct in his household spending, in which he acts as though he was wealthy and great beyond his means, his answer is ready to hand. He says that he cannot reduce his household needs one iota, and he trusts Gd to help him with this.

However, when a matter of tzedakah and chesed comes before him, he toughens his heart and closes his hand and makes himself out to be needy and indigent, and he does not even give according to his means.

Regarding this Mishlei 13:7 says, "There is one who acts as though he is wealthy and he has nothing, and one who acts as though he is poor and he has great wealth."

I find this not only in the way I spend my money, but in the way I spend my time and energy – as he writes, it's about chesed, too, and not only tzedekah. For certain things I can always find time and push off other concerns. For other pursuits, I suddenly have no time.

A good thought as we begin Cheshbon haNefesh (personal accounting) season.

The original Hebrew:
ובאמת כאשר נשאל לכל אחד ואחד על הנהגתו בהוצאת ביתו שהוא מתנהג כעשיר ורב הוא יתר מכפי ערכו תירוצו נכון לפניו שאי אפשר לגרע מהנהגת הבית מאומה והוא בוטח בד' שיעזרנו על זה ואלו כשבא לפניו ענין צדקה וחסד הוא מאמץ לבו וקופץ ידו ועושה את עצמו לעני ודל ואינו נותן אף לפי ערכו ועל ענין כזה אמר הכתוב יש מתעשר ואין כל מתרושש והון רב

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Blessing of a Stiff Neck

[This is my article from this week's edition of Toronto Torah; sorry, no time to write something fresh for the blog these days. Five shiurim to give today. It's not my best writing, but it's an idea I love.]

Am k'sheh oref, the Divine description of Jews as a "stiff-necked people", was not originally intended as a compliment. It certainly was not a prescription, either! Rather, it was a statement of Divine frustration, kaviyachol, an epithet used by G-d three times over in the wake of the Golden Calf to justify His decision to separate from the Jewish people:

"They are a stiff-necked people; leave me alone and I will rage against them and destroy them” (Shemot 32:9-10).
"I will not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people and I might consume you en route” (Shemot 33:3).
"You are a stiff-necked people; in a moment I will ascend among you and destroy you” (Shemot 33:5).

Nonetheless, the sages of the Talmud saw great value and Divine purpose in our stubborn strength. They described three brazen entities – Jews among humanity, dogs among animals, and roosters among birds - and they said of this brazen character, "Had the Jews not received the Torah, no nation could have stood before them." (Beitzah 25b; see also Maharsha there) Brash chutzpah can undermine our internal spiritual life, and in commerce among humanity it brands us as uniquely difficult, but it has been key in our Torah commitment and instrumental in our survival. No matter how hard we are hit, no matter how many ways we are hit, we keep moving forward.

A stiff neck has been the story of the Jew from the start. From the wilderness Jew who heard a Divine death sentence and yet marched forward to Canaan, to the Zevulunite who was vassal to the Canaanites and yet rallied to the call of Devorah and Barak, to the Aragonese Jew who was forced to sit through Christian sermons but raised his children to perform mitzvot, and so on through the centuries to our own day, Jewish history has not a trail of tears but a monument to courage. A frustrated Martin Luther wrote, "But the Jews are so hardened that they listen to nothing; though overcome by testimonies they yield not an inch” (Table Talk, Hazlet translation). He meant this as an insult, but we wear it as a badge far more native to our identity than the yellow stars and red hats forced upon us by Muslim and Christian governments from the ninth century CE forward.

This week we read the tochachah, a warning of horrific punishments which may befall the Jewish nation, should they depart from the service of G-d. Over the centuries, we have had many opportunities to compare our suffering to these Mosaic predictions. Whether the massacre of Jews by Roman forces two thousand years ago, the slaughter by Mohammed's armies at Khaibar in the seventh century, the pillaging of Jewish communities during the Crusades, the numerous expulsions from European lands in the Middle Ages, the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-1649, or the horrors of the Holocaust, we have endured not only the explicit tochachah, but also every inconceivable manifestation of its ultimate curse: "Gd will also bring upon you every ailment and every blow which is not recorded in this scroll of the Torah." As Prime Minister Begin noted to President Carter, in the Holocaust we were not merely decimated, we were tertiated– and we suffered such high ratios of destruction multiple times in our history.

Nonetheless, G-d designed the Jew with a boldness which cannot be cowed. It is a strength tailored to the demands of the Torah, to the high standards of personal conduct and spiritual achievement set by Avraham and Sarah. It is a brashness which makes us dangerous, but which also makes us capable of great heights. This is the double-edged sword of our stiff neck.

As we prepare to approach our Creator on the Day of Judgment, we would do well to look at our own indomitable streak and decide how best to harness that strength. Our brash chutzpah is meant not to sow discord among ourselves and undermine our service of G-d, but to defend against descent and to fuel our rise. Elul is the time to investigate the way we deploy our stiff neck, and correct our course as needed.

The tochachah appears twice in the Torah, once in Parshat Bechukotai and once in this week's reading of Ki Tavo. In the former it ends positively, with an invocation of G-d's covenant with our ancestors. The second edition seems to end depressingly differently, though, with a prediction that we will be sold as slaves and "ein koneh", "there will be no buyer." However, Rav Betzalel Zolty saw in this ending an upbeat note. He contended that the clause should be read, "there can be no buyer." A Jew, even imprisoned and enslaved, always retains his freedom. (Hillel Goldberg, Tradition 38:2) May this ever be so.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wanted: A 7th Grade Rebbe

An incomplete musing on Jewish schooling:

Last week I heard about a local Junior High School limudei kodesh (Judaic studies) teacher who spoke with his students about September 11th. I'm glad he did it.

I am not among those who want the junior high Rebbe to stick to the curriculum. Sure, I will be frustrated when the curriculum is not completed, and I will want the kids to know much more tochen (content) than they will receive in school, but to my mind the kids need a Rebbe at this stage, far more than they need the tochen.

In my junior high school years at HALB in New York, a Rebbe of mine urged us to get out of our Hebrew Academy world and go to high school at Chofetz Chaim; he even gave us a strategy to convince our parents. (“Tell them you want to go to Telz, and they’ll settle for Chofetz Chaim.”) [Whether I like the idea of teachers undermining parents is another discussion...]

Another rebbe allowed us to draw him into conversations on matters of being “shomer negiah” (avoiding intergender physical contact, in accordance with Jewish law) and “the M word”. A rebbe brought us to his home and neighborhood in Brooklyn for a Shabbaton.

At that age, many kids cease to view their parents as sole role models, or role models at all, and they need healthy alternatives. If the instructor is limited to curriculum and lesson plans, the connection to the students cannot evolve into a broader, role model-oriented relationship. So where will the kids find their mentors?

I wonder if any of the “half-Shabbos” phenomenon stems from teachers who are told to be instructors rather than rebbeim.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My derashah from the Shabbos after September 11th

This is the derashah I delivered on Shabbos Parshas Netzavim, September 17, 2001. There are elements I would present differently were I writing it today, but in the interest of authenticity I'm leaving it as is:

I said something on Tuesday night [the night of September 11, at a Tehillim session; see here] , which was not quite true. Of course the Morning Call would quote one line out of a speech and it would be the one line about which I had mixed feelings. I said, “This is not a funeral; America yet lives.”

America yet lives, but thousands of people are dead. America yet lives, but thousands of families have been shattered. America yet lives, but a nation is suddenly terrified at the thought of entering a tall building or entering an airplane. So isn’t it a funeral for the dead? Isn’t it a funeral for a nation which is no longer whole?

On further reflection, though, the answer must be that this is not a funeral, and the answer comes from this week’s Torah portion - Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem, You are standing here today, all of you.

What is the context for this verse? It comes on the heels of a description of horrible punishments which Gd promises he will bring against the Jews if they stray from His covenant. It comes right before a description which is eerily similar to Tuesday’s pictures – Gafris vaMelach Sereifah Kol Artzah, Ash and salt will burn the entire land. Moshe says: Don’t panic, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You’re still standing.”

But how can Moshe say this? Moshe was addressing a group which was a She’eiris, which was a remainder from massive destruction. Thousands died after the Golden Calf, thousands died after the incident with Midian, a generation had been wiped out after the Spies – so how could Moshe say to them, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You’re all still standing?” It’s manifestly false! Most of them were not still standing, at all! Most of them died in the desert!

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning of the word “Nitzavim,” which we translated loosely as “standing.” Onkelos, the ancient Aramaic commentary to the Torah, renders “Nitzavim” as “Kayyamim.” “Kayyam” doesn’t refer to ‘standing,’ in the physical sense; “Kayyam” refers to survival, to endurance. When Moshe says “Atem Nitzavim,” he is saying, “You have Kiyyum,” a lasting existence.

Rav Dovid Kviat points out a similar use of the verb root, “Nitzav.” Yosef had a dream in which he saw himself and his siblings as sheaves of wheat. All of the other sheaves were bowing to his sheaf, and his sheaf is described as “Kamah Alumasi veGam Nitzavah,” “My stalk stood, and was also Nitzavah.” If “Nitzavah” refers to standing, the word is redundant! “It stood and it also stood?!” No – Yosef is saying, my sheaf stood, and endured, and will endure forever. That is the meaning of “Nitzav.”

The Baal haTurim throws in another, similar use of the root of “Nitzav.” The Jews assembled at Sinai, and we are told, “Vayisyatzvu beSachtis haHar.” “They stood at the bottom of the mountain.” They stood at Sinai, yes, but more than that, they committed themselves to an eternal stand, to a covenant with Gd. Their acceptance of Torah rendered them eternal.

In fact, the word “Nitzav” shows up as a base for another word which is, unfortunately, familiar to most of us. How do you say “gravestone” in Hebrew? A Matzeivah. A Matzeivah is a monument, an eternal mark.

Moshe says to the Jewish people, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem.” Not “All of you are standing here,” because not all of them were standing there. But “All of you are eternal,” are part of an enduring whole.

What makes the Jew eternal? The answer is also in this morning’s Torah reading – it’s the Torah they accepted at Sinai, but it’s also something extra.

Moshe says to the Jewish people (29:28), “HaNistaros LaShem Elokeinu,” “the hidden deeds are for Gd to deal with,” “veHaNiglos Lanu Ulevaneinu Ad Olam,” but public acts are for us and our children to take care of, forever – Moshe and the Jewish people committed themselves here, as a nation, to the concept of Arevus, and that Arevus is what makes us eternal.

What is “Arevus?” “Arevus” means a mixture, it means joint responsibility. A co-signer on a loan is called an “Arev.” A mixture containing various inseparable elements is an “Irbuvya.” We are Arevim, we have joint responsibility for each other, every Jew has a responsibility for every other Jew. This isn’t meant to be chauvinist against the rest of the world; it’s a family covenant that we accept an extra level of responsibility for each other.

This extra layer of responsibility has important practical ramifications. Rav Soloveitchik held that this joint responsibility is what makes one Jew able to perform a Mitzvah on behalf of another Jew. For example, I can make Kiddush and fulfill the Mitzvah for everyone who says, “Amen.” Why does that work? Because my responsibility isn’t over and done when I complete my Mitzvah; my responsibility includes making sure that everyone else gets done with their Mitzvos. That’s the concept of Arevus.

This is also the source for the concept of Ahavas Chinam, the idea of baseless love. I have a responsibility to love each and every other Jew. Why? What if they haven’t done anything for me? What if I don’t know them? Doesn’t matter – we are part of this contract.

That's the agreement the Jews signed in this morning’s Torah reading, and that’s what made them “Nitzavim,” enduring. When the Jews created a nation – and that’s what they were doing here – they also united themselves with all of their descendants. That verse I just read, about the hidden and public acts, concludes, “veHaNiglos Lanu Ulevaneinu Ad Olam,” the public acts are for us and for our descendants forever – we are all one, across the generations.

And that’s how Moshe could stand before the Jewish people, a tattered remnant which had survived fire, famine, drought, war and plagues, and say, “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulchem,” “You are all Nitzavim today.” They weren’t all still alive and breathing – but they were all enduring, all eternal, with the Torah they had accepted and their joint responsibility for each other.

We are still standing, too – as part of America, and as Jews, we are still here. It’s been an awful year, a lifesize nightmare, from stones, firebombs, car bombs, and mortar attacks, to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have lost friends and relatives; we hold out hope that more will make it out of the rubble, or turn up in hospitals. Our confidence is shaken, our certainty that “It can’t happen here” is gone for now – but Atem Nitzavim, but we stand as part of an enduring nation, with a commitment to Torah and a commitment to Joint Responsibility, and a commitment to build a better year.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What could a rabbi have said on September 11th?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I was 29 years old on September 11, 2001, several weeks into my rabbinate in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was sitting in the office that Tuesday morning, working on something or other for Rosh HaShanah, when someone called and told me to turn on the radio. I listened, then called my parents, who were working in Manhattan.

I don't remember much else of that day. I remember talking to people in the shul office about how it couldn't possibly be Hamas, because they wouldn't dare to take on America. I remember trying to convince my parents not to go back into Manhattan for work the next day. I remember that Martin Tower in Bethlehem, the next town over, was closed out of fear that it might be attacked. I remember the self-righteous indignation of, "How can they tell Israel to absorb dozens of attacks like this, when Americans react with such furor to just one?"

That night we held a Tehillim session after minchah at shul and I spoke briefly there, and then I spoke about the attack again on Shabbos. I spoke at a municipal memorial program (theme: remembering the candles of heroes). I spoke about it again each day of Rosh HaShanah (1st day: Valuing life, and the mitzvos which are said to earn long life; 2nd day: Dealing with crisis and challenge).

It wasn't enough, at least for some. I was confused when someone said to me during Succos, "Rabbi, we need you to speak more about this." What had I not said?

I thought he was talking about other aspects of September 11th, so for Shmini Atzeres I spoke about the question of giving tzedakah to help 9/11 victims vs. giving tzedakah to help victims of terror in Israel. On Shabbos Bereishis I spoke about the crisis of faith involved, the "Where was Gd" question.

As I've aged, though, I've come to think that he was still looking for something different. Beyond the speeches and tehillim, beyond the one-shot activism of a blood drive or a community unity event, I think he wanted us to be engaged in some kind of on-going action and conversation that would reflect the sea change that had taken place in his life, and in the lives of many people in the community. He wanted, perhaps needed, his own life to become different, to reflect the change in the world around him.

I didn't really understand that at the time. It's hard for a 29-year old, even one who thinks of himself as worldly from his four years in the shul rabbinate, to understand what it means for a 69-year old to experience a paradigm shift. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Here's what I said at the tehillim program on the evening of September 11, 2001:

The thoughts that cross my mind seem so trite, so ineffectual after seeing those horrific images today on the various websites. What can we say, what can we do, in the face of this staggering level of destruction? New York has this image of brassy invulnerability, Washington is the seat of government of the world’s only superpower, and both have been bloodily violated, what is there for us to say?

Some of us have lost friends. I don’t know yet, but perhaps some of us have lost close family today. I know I spent the morning afraid of the phone because my parents work in midtown Manhattan.

Part of me wants to say, “I told you so.” Part of me wants to turn to all those people who said Israel should absorb terrorism and not fight back, and ask what they think now. Part of me wants to make sure they all saw CNN’s footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets, celebrating today’s attacks. But there will be time for recriminations later; we need a different sort of action now.

The Jew takes action – we donate blood, we offer whatever assistance we can provide, of course. But there is another kind of action we take, and that is prayer – we recite Tehillim, Psalms.

What good is prayer? Will prayer bring back the dead? Will my prayer help the thousands of people who are hospitalized? Can we roll back the last 20 hours?!

No, we can’t. But prayer is a crucial cog of communication in our relationship with Gd, and that relationship must persevere, that relationship must grow, because yes, that relationship defies death and destruction, and even keeps us alive.

We must be able to talk to Gd, directly, to express our hurt, to express our anger, to have a conversation, and prayer is the foundation of that conversation.

It’s hard to pray at a time like this; King David knew this. King David was a warrior, he fought Goliath, he fought the Philistines, he fled for his life and he fought for his life. And yet what is King David most known for, what is his legacy? The book of Tehillim, the book of Psalms. David knew the ineffectual feeling that comes from facing disaster, from facing death, and he knew that prayer would keep his relationship with Gd alive, that communication would help him survive. We read his words, we read what he wrote when struggling against powerful enemies, we read his letters to Gd and make them our own.

Judaism teaches that it is never too late to pray; so long as there is breath in our lungs, so long as our hearts beat, we are alive and we can recover. This is not a funeral; America yet lives, and we yet live. We are here to build, to grow, to recover, to re-visit that Divine relationship which is damaged every time we suffer a loss. We are here to use the words of King David, who was a great general but who knew “Gd is the One who saves me from my enemies.”

Let’s use the words of Tehillim, of Psalms, to connect with Gd, and to pray on behalf of both the victims and survivors of today’s attacks.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Maharsha on the Arrogance of our Schools

It has been argued that our elementary schools do our children a disservice by pushing a gemara curriculum at the expense of Tanach, philosophy, tefillah (prayer) and halachah.

The blame is cast in many directions – to parents for pressuring elementary schools out of fear that their children won't get into the right high school, to high schools for placing a premium on gemara education, to school administrations and teachers for poor time management. I don't know enough to comment.

Here's an interesting take, though, on the central cause: According to Maharsha, writing in 16th century Poland, the problem is one of arrogance.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) links the name בבל (Babylon) with the word בלולה (mixed-up), to say that in Bavel their learning is a mixture of Tanach, mishnah and talmud (meaning analytic study).

The gemara there does not state whether this is a positive or negative, and Tosafot there actually sounds like it is a feature rather than a design flaw, but Rabbi Yirmiyah adds what certainly sounds like criticism: "Eichah 3 says, 'Gd placed me in darkness, like the dead of eternity' – This is the study of Bavel."

Maharsha there explains:

"As a result of their arrogance, their learning is all mixed up and out of order; the one who should learn Tanach at 5 is studying mishnah, the one who should be learning mishnah at 10 is learning talmud. In their youth they learn a mix of mishnah and talmud, as a result of their arrogance.

"Rabbi Yirmiyah said regarding this, 'They placed me in darkness' – The prophet Yirmiyah (not to be confused with Rabbi Yirmiyah) declared this regarding the Babylonian exile, and Rabbi Yirmiyah used it regarding himself, for he was Babylonian and he had learned in that mixed-up system."

So the gemara's line is not describing the multidisciplinary nature of Babylonian Talmud. Rather, it's criticizing the educational approach in Babylonian schools, teaching children Mishnah and Talmud before they are ready.

What does the Maharsha mean? What's the connection between arrogance and starting kids on gemara too early?

Is he saying that parents pressure teachers and schools because they want to believe their children are precocious?

Or does he mean that teachers and administration rush students into the advanced curriculum to build/maintain a school's reputation?

I'm not anything resembling an expert, but I wonder what the Maharsha meant.

Sanhedrin 24a:
אמר רבי יוחנן בלולה במקרא בלולה במשנה בלולה בתלמוד +איכה ג'+ במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם אמר רבי ירמיה זה תלמודה של בבל
Maharsha's text:
והוא שמתוך גאותן לומדין בלול ומעורבב לפי הזמן דבן ה' למקרא לומדין משנה ובן י' למשנה לומדין תלמוד שבקטנותן לומדין מעורבב משנה ותלמוד מתוך גאותן וקאמר רבי ירמיה על זה במחשכים הושיבני וגו' ירמיה הנביא אמר האי קרא על גלות בבל ואמרו רבי ירמיה גם כן לסימן על עצמו שהיה מבבל ולמד שם תלמודם מבולבל ומעורב

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Rabbi's first speech?

What should go into a rabbi's opening derashah, his first speech to his new shul?

I had cause to think about this twice recently – first when a new Rabbi began his service at the shul where I daven, and then again when we hit Parshas Shoftim this past Shabbos and I remembered that Shoftim was my first Shabbos as rabbi of Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, back in 1997.

My opening derashah in Rhode Island was a basic dvar torah, as though this week was no different from the one before. I began with appreciation for the community, of course, but moved rapidly into a dvar torah analysis of tzedek, and the difference between indifferent justice and a righteousness which understands the complexity of situations and moderates itself according to the needs of the moment. [Not a bad theme, but for a while in there I veered into comments about talking in shul, conversing with a spouse over the mechitzah, and missing minyan during the week. It wasn't a rant by any means, or even rebuke, but I wonder about the thought behind that choice of direction, especially as I had lived in the community for all of 6 days. I look at the text now with no small amount of amusement. The me of 1997 would be duly insulted.]

Fast-forward to Behaaloscha in 2001, my first Shabbos in Allentown. I began with profuse gratitude, appropriate to the warmth of the welcome we received in the community. Then I went into a discussion of the Menorah's branches and division which leads to destruction vs. division which leads to growth. It was a tone-setting derashah, an attempt to outline, through a dvar torah, an embrace of certain ideals, but still a derashah and not explicit about expressing a larger vision. I think I was afraid of coming off as self-indulgent.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and the new Rabbi of my shul in Toronto opened with gratitude, followed by what could be considered a State of the Union address, a peroration on the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community of our day. There was a good blend of humor and stories and prescription and vision, certainly, and it went over very well… and, as the Rabbi noted, it wasn't really a derashah at all. It was what many people wanted - a chance to celebrate a new beginning.

What's best? The dvar torah (with or without mussar)? The tone-setting derashah that is too self-conscious to lay out a platform? The State of the Union address?

צריך עיון.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Things people say on their deathbeds

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

The other day I heard someone use the old line, "No one ever said on their deathbed, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'" (I've seen it attributed to Paul Tsongas, but I don't know that he originated it.) I've been at deathbeds, and I can tell you that this is false.

The facile nature of popular aphorisms should come as no surprise; this is only one of many pieces of 'wisdom' which don't stand up to examination. Like, "Your mind is like an umbrella – it only works when it's open." Who says? Maybe your mind is like a bottle-cap – it only works when it's twisted. Or your mind is like bulghur wheat - it only works when it's cracked. Or your mind is like a fire door – it only works when it's closed. Or your mind is like a seat belt – it only works when it's buckled… But back to our point.

People do say, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office", just in different words. They say, "I wish I had provided for my wife." They say, "I wish I had been a better role model for my kids' work ethic." They say, "I wish I had made a mark on the world."

So why do we devalue the time spent at the office?

Maybe it's because we disconnect the effort from the results, because the effort can be so frustrating, or because the effort does not necessarily lead to the results in any case, or because the effort itself [lining up widgets, managing accounts, calculating risks] seems meaningless. So we value the results, and we reject the process.

In the secular world this isn't a big deal, because devaluing work isn't a big deal so long as you do the work. But I think the same phenomenon exists in many Jews' attitude toward Judaism, where it's religiously dangerous. To Judaism, the process, the mitzvah, is often more important than the results, and shorting the process is the same as shorting the result.

Example: People run out of minyan before its over, or, if they are tzaddikim gemurim with endless resources of patience, the moment it's over. [I'm guilty of this, too, although that's generally because I can't be late to drop my kids off at school and arrive at the beis medrash.] We value what comes from davening – the connection to Gd, the reality check of where we are as Jews, the feeling of humility – but we devalue the work/mitzvah that brings us there, even though that work has inherent value.

Example: People want to learn Torah in the most expedient, quickest way possible. They want their children to learn in the most efficient way, so that they will be able to pack in other studies. We want to know, we want our children to know – but the process itself is not valued. For many, Talmud Torah is valued as a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

So it's fine if people don't say, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" - that's not the end of the world, as long as they work. But if Jews don’t say, "I wish I'd spent more time at minyan," "I wish I'd spent more time learning Torah," there will be problematic consequences.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Relief of the Shofar

This was a first for me: When the shofar blew after davening on Wednesday morning, I felt a real wave of relief.

Yes, relief.

I normally put my tallis over my head before the shofar is blown, and wait to feel two changes: A humbling as I face judgment, and an increase in stress about that coming judgment. Today, the start of Elul, had the first of those two changes, but instead of stress, I felt relief.

Part of that relief was because I am no longer a shul rabbi. Elul's Shofar does not mean, "You are facing a gauntlet of three-day Yamim Tovim, you need to write 15 derashos, boy are you in trouble!" So a world of stress is gone from my shoulders.

And, Wednesday's shofar brought me relief because it is the starter's gun for real reform. I have spent weeks and months thinking about things I should be doing differently – but now the season has begun for implementing those changes. Think of it as "nesting" for the soul.

And a big part of it is that I welcome the arrival of these High Holy Days because they bring with them the world of honest emotion.

The intellectual pursuits of Torah study, teaching and debating, can be beautiful and inspiring, but they can also be depressingly empty. It is easy to be tempted into the superficial. It is easy to learn without the intensity required for long-term memory. It is easy to get caught up in making arguments to prove a pilpulish point, to explain an idea that is known to be incorrect, to determine that an author was consistent in his incorrect conception. It is easy to invest hours are in pursuing a reading that is not followed in practice, because it was the reading used by a particular scholar. It is easy to become involved in the pursuit of knowledge for all the wrong reasons - to demonstrate personal greatness, to defeat others.

In discussions of philosophy, unfounded doubts may be raised about fundamental elements of faith and unfounded assertions may be made in defense of those fundamental elements of faith. Theories are sometimes proposed even though their proponents themselves don't trust them, and archaic constructions explored even though the ideas involved have long since been discredited. I find that wearying.

Emotion, on the other hand, is honest and substantive and large to me, and real regardless of its stimuli and motivations. The crying of grief; the joy of a birth; the laughter and smiles of people enjoying each other's company; the love of a couple or of parents and children – to mangle a line attributed to Rav Chaim Brisker, "You can shlug up [refute] a dvar torah, but you can't shlug up the human heart." You can't shlug up humility, or tears, or commitment to improvement.

So Elul's shofar siren that summons us to self-analysis, to humility, to honesty, to regret, is welcome. Even though I know I will find myself short in many areas, I prefer that.