Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Ferry Tale

Sitting among other commuters in the cavernous terminal, waiting for the next ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I sensed some commotion in my periphery.  Looking up from my reading, I saw a 40-ish man struggling against several ferry terminal employees, who were trying to get him to exit the room.

Homeless people regularly spend time in the ferry terminal, as they do in other transportation hubs in New York and elsewhere.  They’re often sleeping, and taking up seats with their bodies and their belongings. It’s easy to feel resentful toward them, especially if there are no other seats available.  Until, that is, one thinks about the fact that the large bags of sundry items they lug around and park nearby represent all that they own in the world.  And that their only options for getting rest or staying warm in the winter – other than to subject themselves to crime-ridden public shelters – is to bed down in train, bus or ferry terminals.

Although he wasn’t one of the “regulars,” the fellow who had just entered the room clearly belonged to the fraternity of people with no place to call home.  He was laughing and moving somewhat animatedly as the ferry terminal personnel, who seemed to know him, gently escorted him out of the room.  “C’mon, Jerry,” one large uniformed fellow cajoled him, “Let’s go.”

“No, no,” the homeless man replied, and looked around the room.  “I just want to talk to… the rabbi!”

That would be me, of course.  Oy.

“No, you don’t, Jerry,” Mr. Burly said with a loud laugh.  “You leave the rabbi alone!”

“Just for a minute,” Jerry pleaded, and, releasing himself from his captor’s grip, he ambled over and introduced himself.  “Sholom aleichem, rabbi!  I’m Yosef Shmuel ben Aharon!”

I would never have guessed the fellow was a relative.  “Pleased to meet you,” I replied, smiling, and hoping my discomfort didn’t show.

“Would you happen to have a spare yarmulke on you, by any chance?” he asked.

I was taken aback by the unexpected request.  “I’m so sorry,” I replied.  “I don’t.”  Which was true, but, after he thanked me all the same and was led out of the room, I felt ashamed.  I was wearing a yarmulke under my hat, after all.  Couldn’t I have given it to him and worn my hat at work?  It might have looked a little strange as I moved my morning coffee from the kitchen to my desk, but it would not have eternally stigmatized me.

That entire day, my response to the homeless man bothered me.  Actually, at night, too.

The next day, I put a spare yarmulke in my pocket, just in case Jerry might be at the terminal again.  I had never seen him before, so I wasn’t optimistic. But when I arrived, there he was, sitting quietly in one of the waiting-area seats.  He didn’t see me and I just watched him from afar. When the call came for passengers to board the ferry, though, I went over to him and offered him the yarmulke.

His eyes opened wider than I imagined possible.  He took the yarmulke, leaped to his feet and practically shouted “Thank you so much!”

“My pleasure,” I said, and rushed to make it to the boat before the doors closed.

So many bein adam lachaveiro mistakes in life are not easily correctable, so I was grateful for the opportunity to undo one of my bad judgments.  And yet I worried, too, that I may have made a friend who would come to occupy more of my time than I might wish.  I try to use my commute for learning and reading.  I turn down ride offers from neighbors, so cherished is my “quiet time.”

So, even though I sincerely wished Jerry only well, and hoped that his new (well, to him) yarmulke would somehow benefit him, if only to identify himself as a Jew, I feared that I might have paved the way for a daily conversation with someone who might not even be mentally balanced.  But I didn’t regret my small gift; I knew I had done the right thing.  And that’s all any of us can do, no matter what consequences might ensue.

It’s been many weeks since my two encounters with Jerry.  I haven’t seen him since.

I know it might strike some as silly, but I can’t help wondering if he might have been placed there those two days just for me.

© 2016 Hamodia

Routing Rote

“Please don’t bring your toys into my kitchen, young lady!” the busy mother warned her loaded-up little daughter.  The child’s response: “Well, it’s MY kitchen too!”

Her parents had a good laugh over that “memorable kids’ pronouncements” moment, and it returns to us this time each year, when parashas Metzora comes around.

Because of the miraculous malady called nigei batim that existed when our ancestors entered Eretz Yisrael and afflicted the walls of houses.  Such discolorations, we are taught by Chazal, result from tzarus ayin, literally, “narrowness of the eye” – the Gemara’s term for stinginess.

That cause is evident in the requirement (Vayikra 14:36) that the homeowner remove all of his possessions from the house before it is pronounced menuga.  The reason for that, the Torah explicitly states, is to prevent the possessions from being rendered tamei (as tumah only affects the house and its contents when the kohen renders his judgment).  So the Torah is pointedly demonstrating concern for protecting the homeowner’s things, a concern that is the antithesis of tzarus ayin.

What is more, Chazal point out, the rescued vessels sitting on the homeowner’s lawn reveal to neighbors who may have sought to borrow such items but were told by the tzar ayin that he hadn’t any, that the reality was otherwise.

And, finally, the hint the Gemara (Arachin [Erechin] 16a) sees as identifying tzarus ayin as the cause of the negaim is the phrase “and the one to whom the house belongs should come…” (Vayikra, 14:35).  The Torah is conveying that the homeowner’s perception of his house and other possessions – the idea that they are actually his – is what the nega is meant to explode.  In the Kli Yakar’s elaboration:

“The reason Hashem gave him an inheritance, a home full of good things, was to test him, to see if he would use his possessions to do good for others as well… for all that a person gives to others is not of his own, but rather from what the ‘Heavenly table’ has provided him…”

There are few, if any, communities as committed to tzedakah as ours.  The amount of charity that Orthodox Jews donate to help others is truly astounding.  Might there, though, still be room for improvement in our recognition of “whose house” it is?

Chazal created a specific vehicle for us to reflect on the reality that we aren’t the owners of what we tend to think is “ours”: birchos hanehenin – the blessings we recite before eating, drinking, or smelling fragrant spices, bark or flowers.

Such brachos state that what we are about to enjoy is a gift, not a birthright.  As the Gemara notes (Brachos 35a), the passuk that says that “To Hashem is the earth and all it contains” (Tehillim, 24:1) does not contradict the one that says “And the earth He gave to human beings” (Tehillim 115:16): “One [verse] is [referring to] before the brachah [is recited]; the other, after the brachah.”  Once we acknowledge the gift, recognizing that it wasn’t truly “ours”, we are permitted to enjoy it as if it were ours.

The impact of that truth only happens, though, when we think of what we’re saying. If we, for instance, pronounce the nine simple words meant to thank Hashem for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple as a string of slurred semi-words (the first three as “buchatanoi”), taking two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning, we’re missing the point.

It’s an occupational hazard of observance, of course, to become so accustomed to a tefillah or brachah that we don’t give it the attention it requires.  It’s what the Navi Yeshayahu describes as mitzvas anoshim melumadah (29:13), rote observance of mitzvos.   But occupational hazards are hazards all the same; and just as the construction worker needs to secure his helmet, we need to secure our mindfulness when saying the words that permit us to partake of blessings.

There’s irony in the fact that as materially blessed a generation as ours may need a renewed focus on brachos.  But we would do well to emulate true talmidei chachamim and nashim tzidkaniyos (and baalei teshuvah), who manage to rout rote.

The little “MY kitchen!” girl has a family of her own today.  She is not only a paragon of politeness but an inspiring, delightful parent.  She and her wonderful husband teach their children – as, with her innocent bluntness decades ago, she taught her parents – just Whose kitchen it really is.

© 2016 Hamodia

Hear Me Out

You probably know that when a person loses some hearing, it can never be recovered.

But did you know that 10 million Americans suffer noise-induced hearing loss?  Or that exposure to some common sounds, even for limited periods of time, can cause permanent hearing damage?

Loud sounds damage microscopic hair cells, known as stereocilia, that line the ear, leading, in time, to the need to use hearing aids.

Uninterested?  Stay with me, please.  This is going somewhere important.

According to the World Health Organization, 15 minutes of 100 decibel noise is considered unsafe.

The music of an average chasunah band registers at approximately 110 decibels – with many bands considerably, even greatly, exceeding that.

In fact, professional musicians are almost four times more likely to suffer noise-induced hearing loss than other people, according to researchers who analyzed health insurance records of 7 million people from 2004 to 2008.

The professionals were also about 57 percent more likely to suffer tinnitus – constant ringing in the ears.

Musicians have learned the hard way about the damage they cause to themselves, and that is why one sees many musicians wearing earplugs when they perform.

Baruch Hashem, multiple chasunos take place every night when halachah permits.  The community has grown, and so has the number of simchos it celebrates.  But there is a hidden cost to those celebrations: future hearing loss to the celebrants.  Especially children who are present, as a child’s ears are more sensitive than those of adults to sound.

Published research yields the fact that about 12.5 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 have measurable noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears.  And the average American child is probably not as often exposed to loud music as are siblings of chassanim and kallos.

There’s no escaping the fact: When we attend simchos that feature loud bands, we are injuring ourselves; and, if they are with us, our children.

Many people innately sense that fact, even if they are unaware of the science or statistics. They just feel discomfort or pain in their ears at celebrations.   One increasingly sees chasunah attendees who had the prudence to bring earplugs, and who quickly put them in place as soon as the band strikes up.  And others who, in pain, run out into the lobby to escape their audio-rodef.

Can anything be done about this hidden danger?  Of course.  We just need the will and foresight to do it.

My wife and I, baruch Hashem, have had the good fortune to walk most of our children to the chuppah.  At every chasunah but one (where the mechutanim’s good friend, a band leader, supplied the music), there was a one-man band, in which circumstance the volume of the music is more easily controlled – and control it the band-man did, as per the instructions he received.

I have attended many chasunos with any number of band members, and can attest to the fact that the simchah felt and expressed by the guests at our chasunos was in no way less enthusiastic than at any multi-instrumented affair.  Or any louder one.

Band leaders will tell you that their parnassah is dependent, indirectly, on the loud volume of their musical offerings.  Friends of the chasson and kallah, they claim, insist on louder music, “to get them going.”  And those friends will, b’ezras Hashem, be celebrating their own marriages one day, and will surely hire only the loudest bands.

If that is true, then the chasson and kallah in those cases are, sadly, bereft of true friends, who would not need their eardrums overstimulated to celebrate their friends’ marriages.  Music should aid the simchah; it is not what creates it.

So, when you are next planning to walk your child to the chuppah, consider doing one of two things:

Distributing earplugs to all guests as they sit down to the seudah.

Or stipulating to the band person or leader, when he is hired, that he will only be compensated for his great and appreciated efforts and talent if the music is kept to whatever decibel level you decide is safe for your guests. (Someone with the ability to download a decibel-measuring app to a phone can aid you here.)

You’ll be doing your part not only to make the simchah more enjoyable to the majority of the guests, but to help ensure that when the chosson, kallah and their friends are walking their own children to the chuppah, they won’t be wearing hearing aids.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Evidence in the Barrel

Back in a previous lifetime, when I was a mesivta rebbe, I once heard a menahel exhort our talmidim to not get carried away on Purim.  As an illustration, he described how a certain Gadol on Purim simply went into his backyard and swung back and forth on a children’s swing.  The implication was that the Gadol hadn’t imbibed much.  I wasn’t so sure, myself. Ad d’lo yoda can express itself in different ways.

One thing is certain.  Kedoshim u’tehorim on Purim, unleashed from the constraints of full daas,  are more often seen singing and dancing spiritedly, even wildly, sharing divrei Torah and divrei sod that one might not ever hear from them the rest of the year.

Needless to say, and unfortunately, some who are less kadosh or tahor can overindulge on Purim and come to act very differently.  They may imbibe stronger things than wine (the preferred mitzvah) in excess, even to the degree of actually endangering themselves.  That is nothing short of a horrific Purim mask, an aveirah in the guise of a mitzvah.

But when the mitzvah is done right, though, even if the results are something more… well, dynamic than a placid visit to a backyard swing, something important about Klal Yisrael can be revealed.  After all, Rabi Iloi (Eruvin 65b) tells us that one way a person’s essence can be discerned is “in his cup,” in his behavior when inebriated.

Something so important, in fact, that I once witnessed a Purim celebration causing an Italian cook at a yeshivah where I once taught to investigate geirus.  By her admission, she told me that, over the years, she “had seen many people very drunk, but never so many people so drunk – without any fighting.”  All she saw was celebration, friendship, good humor and happiness, and that, she said, had impressed her beyond words.  (She was nevertheless dissuaded from her geirus plan.)

Chazal teach us (Shabbos, 88a) that something was lacking at Mattan Torah, and the lack only remedied centuries later in the Persian Empire.

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa tells us there that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis [a barrel]” to force them to accept the Torah.  One approach to that statement is that it refers to the experience of being directly addressed by the Borei Olam.  Receiving direct communication from Hashem was so overwhelming, so traumatic, so crushing – after all, it caused our ancestors’ souls to leave them, and brought them to beg Moshe to be the only one to directly receive the final eight dibros – that it simply left no other choice but to accept His mission.

Experiencing the Divine fully does not leave one with truly free will to say “no.”

Rabbah comments that the “coercion” remained a remonstration against Klal Yisrael, that it colored our acceptance of the Torah as less than willful – until the “days of Achashverosh.”

For it was then that the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where there was no “mountain” held over their heads, where it was not only not overwhelming but not even obvious.  Our ancestors chose to see Divine Providence in seemingly mundane, if alarming, political happenings, took the events to heart as a message from Above, and responded with tefillah, taanis and teshuvah.  Thus, kiymu mah shekiblu kvar, they “completed” Mattan Torah, supplied what had been missing. The nation truly perceived Hashem, not only in thunder and lightning but in words inscribed on parchment and in a signet ring removed from a royal hand.

Moving back to what is revealed when Yidden have a proper simchas Purim, I’ve often wondered about Rav Avdimi’s strange choice of imagery. “Holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel.”  Wouldn’t a mountain looming above be galvanizing enough?  What’s with the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Gemara, is a container for an intoxicating beverage.  Chazal’s description of the implement of coercion at Har Sinai, in other words, is a beer-barrel.

Rabi Meir in Pirkei Avos (4:20) admonishes us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” It wouldn’t seem outlandish to perceive some pertinence of that admonition to the gigis to which Har Sinai is compared. Or, in turn, to Purim, when wine allows the essence of Klal Yisrael, our truest nature, to be revealed.

Don’t dwell, Rabi Meir may be saying, on our compromised acceptance of Hashem at Har Sinai in a state of coercion, but rather at our wholehearted, free-willed embrace of Him in our states of mindless purity.

Golden Silence

The mother was understandably concerned.  Her first-grader was a sociable, talkative little girl, and so her teacher’s phone call was certainly disturbing.

This is a true story and took place mere weeks ago in an “out-of-town” community.  The teacher, who called just after school had adjourned, recounted how “Leah,” six years old, had seemed ill at ease the entire afternoon.  In the morning all had seemed well.  But later in the day, although Leah seemed attentive, she was uncharacteristically quiet.  So quiet, indeed, the teacher said, that her little student wouldn’t even respond to questions or as much as open her mouth in class.  That was very unusual.

Leah’s mother, herself a long-time teacher and someone who, along with her kollelman husband, had wonderfully guided their older children through early childhood, had never before received such a phone call.  She was worried, but knew she couldn’t substantively respond to the report before seeing and speaking to Leah herself, and so, with her little one expected home any minute, she thanked the teacher for the “heads up,” and waited for Leah’s arrival.

The teacher, it turned out, had not been imagining things.  Leah walked into the house silently, and just retired to the couch, looking uncomfortable.  She wouldn’t respond to her mother’s “How was school?” or her subsequent “Is everything alright?”

“If you don’t want to tell me what’s wrong” her wise and gentle mother whispered to her daughter, a precocious child who, even at her tender age, can write full sentences, “Can you write down what’s bothering you?”  Leah nodded yes.

Pencil and paper in hand, the girl scribbled away.  At lunchtime, she wrote out, she had washed her hands and made the brachah for netilas yadayim.  But, then, when she went to her lunchbox, the sandwich she had expected to be there wasn’t!  So, she explained, she wasn’t able to speak.

The first feeling that washed over her mother, as one might expect, was relief.  Then, after giving Leah a piece of bread on which to make her Hamotzi, she felt pride.

Had Leah been a bit less bashful, she could have hinted to her quandary, or written a note about it, to someone at school and been given some bread.  Had she realized that speaking after washing for something pertinent to eating is permitted, she could have solved her problem by just telling her teacher about it.

But, being self-conscious and not knowing that halachic fact, she just chose to do what she felt she had to do to be a good Jew.  When the teacher was informed of what had happened, she was deeply impressed.  Ditto for me when I heard the story.

We adults often face difficult situations where halachic concerns come up against personal “needs.”  We seek, and often find, ways of satisfying both.  And then, of course, there are times when there is no seeming reconciliation of the two.  What do we do then?  Hopefully, the right thing.  Leah thought she faced an at least temporarily irreconcilable pair of challenges – wanting to talk but assuming it would be halachically wrong – and, to the best of her understanding, did the right thing.  She thereby became a teacher herself.

Dovid Hamelech sang to Hashem that “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You have established strength…” (Tehillim, 8:3).

The straightforward p’shat of that passuk is, as per Metzudos Dovid, that the miracle of a human baby and his latent power of speech demonstrates Hashem’s “strength,” or power.

The Gemara (Sotah, 30b) applies the words to how, when our ancestors emerged from the Yam Suf and Hashem’s presence was manifest, even babies and sucklings declared “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him!”

Also implied by Dovid Hamelech’s words is that, as Resh Lakish in the name of Rav Yehudah Nesiah teaches us (Shabbos 119b), the world only perseveres because of the hevel shel tinokos shel beis rabban, “the mouth-breath of the youngsters in their places of study.”

That is usually understood to mean that Torah studied by the purest of souls, children, keeps the universe going.  And that is certainly true.

But I’ve often wondered at the word hevel, “mouth-breath.”  “Hevel,” in other contexts, means “nothingness.”

The story of Leah’s silence, though, makes me wonder if, perhaps, there are times when even a child’s silence, when it’s an example of how a Jew should see his obligations, can itself be a foundation of Creation.

© 2016 Hamodia

Bernie’s Kibbutz and Mine

The disclosure of which kibbutz Senator Bernie Sanders spent time at in1963 was red meat for the voracious purveyors of what, regrettably, passes for political commentary these days.

Mr. Sanders – now the first Jew to win a U.S. presidential primary – lived for several months in Sha’ar Ha’amakim, near Haifa, a kibbutz affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the secular, Zionist-socialist movement.  (It was quite an active one during part of last century; this one, not so much.)

Right-wing media seized on the socialist element, with the American Thinker featuring an op-ed with the headline, “Bernie Sanders Spent Months at Marxist-Stalinist Kibbutz.”

On the other side of the partisan divide, various blogs attacked Mr. Sanders for having been part of a kibbutz that was founded, in the words of radical leftie Philip Weiss, on “ethnic cleansing.”

Intelligent discourse proceeds apace.

For my part, the disclosure of Sanders’ sanctuary evoked memories of my own time on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz – beautiful Ein Hashofet, a mere ten miles from where Bernie bedded down less than ten years before I arrived in the area.

I spent only two days at Ein Hashofet, having traveled there before the start of Elul zman in Yeshivas Kol Torah to visit one of the kibbutz’s founders, my uncle Nachman.

Back in pre-war Poland, when my father, shlit”a, was a little boy, two of his older brothers became involved in a Zionist youth enterprise and surreptitiously made their way to Eretz Yisrael.  My father was determined to study Torah and, after he became bar mitzvah, just as the war broke out, he left his parents and other siblings to learn in a Novardok yeshivah that had been relocated to Vilna.  Eventually, the Soviets sent him and his chaverim , along with their Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, to Siberia.  Eventually, my father emigrated to America; of his large family, only he and his two brothers in Palestine survived the war.

The kibbutzniks were very welcoming of the young yeshivah bochur who had come from America (no, he told them all, he didn’t know their cousins there) to study in Yerushalayim.  I must have seemed, and definitely felt, out of place there.  But I was “Nachman’s nephew,” so I got the royal treatment.

During my stay at the kibbutz, I lived on Tnuva products and some packaged foods I had brought with me.  When it was time to leave, some of the kibbutzniks gave me small gifts – a Hebrew booklet about Van Gogh, a plastic Egged tik, some doodads – that (despite the place’s strict socialist ethos) they possessed.  I was very touched, and remember the residents’ kind sentiments fondly to this day.

My greatest takeaway, though, was from my uncle, in the words he spoke a year later, when he visited me in Bayit Vegan as I prepared to return to the U.S.  Tears welling in his eyes, he wished me well and said, wistfully, that he wondered if, had he retained his Jewish observance, his children might have remained in Eretz HaKodesh.  Most of them, despite their father’s dedication to the Land, had left Eretz Yisrael to find their fortunes in other places.  I didn’t know what to say, and just hugged him goodbye.

Fast-forward fifteen years.  My Israeli uncle and aunt, visiting the U.S., were driven by my father, shlita, from Baltimore all the way to Providence, Rhode Island, where I and my family were living at the time.  It was wonderful to see them again, and, at some point, my uncle mentioned – and there was pride in his voice – that the kibbutz had recently put mezuzos on its doors.

I noticed, too, that he had brought with him a pair of tefillin.

My uncle is now long gone from this world, but I’m reminded of the Gemara about a man who betroths a woman on the condition that he is a righteous person (Kiddushin 49b).   Even if the man was not known to be righteous, the Gemara says, if the woman accepts his kiddushin, they are married.  Because “perhaps he mused about repentance in his heart.”

A hirhur teshuvah – a “mere musing of repentance” – can change a person.  And what matters more than where we are is the direction in which we are headed.

I don’t know if Bernie Sanders’ few months on a kibbutz had any impact on him.  But, as I recall my uncle’s words about his children, and those tefillin, it seems to me that his more than half-century on his kibbutz, ironically, may have yielded him a keener perspective.

© 2016 Hamodia

Through Others’ Eyes

There were ample arrows in my quiver for shooting down the question, or at least for deflecting it.  But our Shabbos night seudah guest, a young Jewish woman with limited Jewish background visiting the neighborhood as part of “The Shabbos Project,” didn’t deserve to be subjected to a long shiur about the meaning and beauty of tzniyus, how it elevates those who adhere to it, and how men and women have distinct roles in Judaism.

She clearly felt comfortable at our Shabbos table, a tribute to the calm of Shabbos, my wife’s affability and the presence of another, even younger, guest, our 14-year-old grandson, whose home is Milwaukee but who is a talmid at the Yeshiva of Staten Island.

Our older guest wasn’t aiming to challenge our mesorah, only to convey something that bothered her about authentic Jewish life, to which she is otherwise attracted.  She knew, she told us, that a special tisch was planned for later that night for locals and guests at a nearby shul.  She knew, too, that the women would be up in the balcony ezras nashim, while the men would be seated below, eating, drinking and singing. “I will be a spectator,” she said, “not a participant.”

For some reason, I resisted the reflexive urge to offer my shiur.  I paused for a moment – always a good thing to do – and responded instead from the heart.  “You know, I totally understand how you feel,” I said.  “That’s the way things are done, and the way they need to be done.  But I can really relate to your feeling as you do.”

Pretty lame response, I chided myself.  Surprisingly, though, our guest’s reaction was otherwise.  She seemed taken aback.  Now it was she who paused before speaking.  “Nobody has ever said that to me before,” she finally said. “Being validated in my feelings means more than you can imagine to me.”

I expected I might impart some lesson that night.  Instead, I learned one.  Sometimes it’s not about “answering” or even “addressing,” but simply about empathizing.  And, giving it more thought, I realized that that’s the case not only in kiruv but in life.  Chazal teach us as much when they tell us not to “judge one’s fellow until you have reached his place” (Avos, 2:4). The message there isn’t simply to not judge others; it’s that we need to put ourselves in the place of others, to see things through eyes that aren’t ours.

The same thought subtly inheres in the passuk that Rabbi Akiva (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4) called a klal gadol baTorah: “V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha.”  There, too, the Torah isn’t exhorting us just to love our fellow, but to love our fellow like ourselves.  We see things through our own eyes; we are admonished to try to see through the eyes of others.

On the way to shul that Shabbos morning, I wondered if my grandson had been able to relate to our other guest’s angst over, as she saw it, being “left out of things.”  So I posed a thought experiment to him.  Imagine, I said, if only boys with black hair could have bar mitzvah celebrations.  Aharon’s bar mitzvah, a year earlier, had brought two sets of grandparents and an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins to Milwaukee, where he, his parents and siblings and the extended family all had a truly uplifting and wonderful Shabbos.  And Aharon has reddish-blond hair.

He didn’t say anything, but he’s bright.  I think he got the point.  Our Shabbos guest, unfortunately, had no understanding of tzniyus.   To her, separating men and women was no more comprehensible than my imaginary “black hair rule.”

Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy.  Sometimes it seems almost impossible.  “How could he ever do such a thing?”  “What was she thinking?”  “What’s the matter with them?”

And empathy isn’t likely the way to go when we’re faced with a psychopath or someone wont to commit premeditated crimes.  But most veerings from the straight and narrow are neither calculated nor psychopathic.  Whether what stunned us were the actions of a parent or a child, a friend or a stranger, a “kid at risk” or an adult long “off the derech,” it’s easy to admonish or condemn.  It’s harder, though, and more important, to put ourselves in the shoes of the offender, imagining the effects of his upbringing, personal experiences, his particular yetzer hara, his distinctive compulsions.

All of us, after all, have personal histories and individual challenges of our own.  It pays, in myriad ways, to try to imagine those of others.

© 2015 Hamodia

Spaghetti and Jewish Unity

Last week afforded me an opportunity to sit with a group of Jews spanning the gamut of American Jewry – resolute secularists, members of non-Orthodox congregations and Orthodox Jews – to discuss Jewish unity and how it can be strengthened.

Most American Jews, rightly or not, don’t think they are capable of living observant Jewish lives.  With the passage of time, the Holocaust has lost the binding power it once had for many Jews; and Israel, unfortunately, has become a source of contention rather than unity for many American Jews, particularly younger ones.  It’s unfortunate, but unfortunately true.

Someone in the group raised the fact that the coming Shabbos – the Shabbos past, as you read this – was to serve as a Jewish unifier, through the “Shabbos Project,” the brainchild of South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein that has brought together thousands of Jews in observance and celebration of Shabbos over the past two years. More than 550 cities in 70 countries were set to participate in this year’s event.

What other means, though, could bring Jews together?  Many aspects of Torah-centered life involve things that, sadly, do not resonate with – or, worse, sadly, even offend – some American Jews, infected as they are with misguided notions like “egalitarianism.”  And even Shabbos, in the end, observed properly, involves trials that might challenge many a Jew who was not raised observant – a fact to which anyone who has been stuck in an erev Shabbos traffic jam near shkiah can readily attest.

I suggested the study of Torah, which, after all, is the very genesis of Jewish unity, that which was bequeathed us all at the foot of Sinai, when we stood “as one person, with one heart.”  And the proposition that Torah-study remains a potent unifier of Jews is well borne out by the experience of programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates.  (The brachah we make each morning, it’s worth noting, is “Nosein haTorah” – pointedly in the present, not the past, tense.  The Torah is still being given to Klal Yisrael.)  The idea was well received.

Afterward, though, I thought of another mitzvah that should present no problem to any Jew, and that can serve as a unifying observance.

The two d’Oraysa brachosbirkas haTorah and birkas hamazon – and the many other brachos we make regularly on foods or mitzvos, or as birchos hoda’ah – comprise a paramount element of Yiddishkeit.  They focus our attention on the Source of our blessings, and can serve as a potent unifying force for all Jews.

By undertaking to recite brachos, an otherwise distant Jew can be reminded that he or she is connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael multiple times a day, every morning, every time a flower is sniffed, thunder is heard or one is sitting down to a plate of spaghetti.

What a powerful campaign a broad-based “Brachos Project” could be.  No non-Orthodox Jew could have a problem with it – brachos, after all, are egalitarian.  There are many excellent guides to brachos in English, and reciting them entails no expense or inconvenience.

Truth be told, such a project could also do us some good, too.  As we are reminded by the baalei mussar, reverence can all too easily devolve into rote, and that is particularly true when it comes to brachos.  Many of us find ourselves reciting them by habit, without pronouncing their words distinctly, much less focusing on their meaning. Anyone who’s watched a baal teshuvah recite a brachah has been graced with a good example to follow.

Rav Chaim Vital testifies that the Arizal called birchos hanehenin “the essential way for a human being to attain the spirit of holiness… removing the [unholy] shells and [sublimating] his physicality,” adding that the Arizal “admonished me greatly about this…” (Etz Hachaim, Shaar Ruach Hakodesh).

The mystical perspective alluded to by those words is that the human being straddles the realms of the physical and the spiritual. Food mediates between the two, nourishing the bodies that house our souls.  So it should not be surprising that the act of consuming food would provide opportunity for bringing the holy into the mundane, for removing the “shells” and rarifying physicality.

What better empowerment of Jewish unity could there be than a rededication of Jews from all types of communities and walks of life to sharing in an observance that reflects the quintessential Jewish ideal of acknowledging Hashem’s blessings?  And, at the same time, strengthening our own dedication to brachos?

Who knows what other shells might thereby be removed?

© 2015 Hamodia

Govrov Selichos, 1939

This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia

Musing: Atticus and the Yomim Nora’im

The American 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the news this summer, the result of the publication of an earlier version of it, a sequel in reality, that its author, Harper Lee, had written, and which was apparently only recently discovered.

Millions have found the 1960 book inspiring, and it is indeed a rare work.  It wonderfully captures Southern American life in the 1940s, and deals thoughtfully with themes like racism and friendship.  What’s more, it is suffused with subtle humor.

And it has provided American culture with a hero, in the form of “Atticus,” as the father of the narrator, a little girl at the time the novel takes place, is called.  Atticus, a lawyer, is a paragon of honor, rectitude and compassion, and, although a mere fictional character, has been an inspiration to many a living lawyer and judge.  The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him.

Were I a literature teacher and had assigned the book to students, a question I would ask them would be to identify Atticus’ most heroic act.  Some might point to his acceptance of the legal case at the heart of the book, defending a black man against a white accuser.  Others to his standing up to a crowd intent on a lynching of the suspect.  Some might even respond with his facing down of a mad dog, which he kills with a single rifle shot.

My own answer to my question, though, would be something very different.  At one point in the book, it is recounted how a character, Bob Ewell, a wretch intent on seeing the defendant found guilty and executed, approaches Atticus on the street and spits in his face.

Atticus, who has every reason and ability to lay the scoundrel low, instead, in the words of the woman recounting the incident, “didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat.”

In Hebrew, the closest word to “hero” is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its definition is provided us in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos:  “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

Heroism and strength in Judaism are evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.  Something to think about as the Days of Judgment grow closer.