Category Archives: Personal Reflections

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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.

Clear Lens, Clear Image

 I hadn’t planned to awaken at 3 a.m. on Wednesday night, even though it was the peak time for catching sight of meteors – commonly called “shooting stars” – born of the earth’s yearly passage through the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

But awaken I did, and so I decided to go out on the deck to scan the sky for evidence of what is called the Perseid meteor shower.  My wife had never seen a meteor, and so I woke her up, thinking she’d want to join me.  (Thankfully, I was right.)  And baruch Hashem, we spied a couple of the ephemeral streaks of light in the relatively dark Staten Island sky, and recited the brachah of oseh maaseh bereishis.

Not everyone finds such things exciting; many people find amusement parks, performances or miniature golf more to their liking.

That’s unfortunate, I think.  Firstly, because nature is really so much more of a thrill.  Watching a caterpillar weave a cocoon or the butterfly it turns into leave the structure; witnessing a spider spinning its web; planting a seed and observing it as it grows into a plant; staring at even a comet-less night sky and contemplating the unimaginable distances of the suns one is viewing – all such astounding realities are more viscerally compelling than anything man-made.

Secondly, though, and more ultimately important, the thrills that nature offers us pave a path from mindlessness toward a most important mitzvah: ahavas Hashem.

At least, that’s what the Rambam states in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (2:2):

“And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him?  When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem…”

Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos (Mitzvas Aseh 3), the Rambam seems to take a different tack:

“…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…”

So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His mitzvos?

The two seemingly different approaches to the mitzvah of  ahavas Hashem may not be what they seem.  As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the lens; the other, the view.  Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a mashal:

A visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases.  Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses.  The visitor is subsequently deeply impressed by the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning.  And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos.

Because doing so impresses on us the idea of right and wrong, forces us to confront a choice: to view our lives as meaningless or as a mandate.  And if they are a mandate, there must be a Mandator.

Then, through that clear lens, one can truly see, and appreciate, to the extent a mortal can, the unfathomable wisdom inherent in the wondrous world around us.

It’s unfortunate that “science,” as the word has come to be used, has become the perceived enemy of emunah.  In truth, though, it is Scientism – the conviction that nature is all that there is, and that the wonder it engenders has no further point – that stands in opposition to the truism that Creation has a Creator.

Genuine science, though, the Divine implication-sensitive observation of the world around us, and of the worlds light-years (both literally and figuratively) beyond our ken, is a key to the deepest, most genuine feeling a human being can attain.

When, thrice daily, we declare that Hashem satisfies “all living things” with their needs, there is no comparison between just comprehending the simple meaning of the words and pronouncing them with keen awareness of the number of distinct species on earth (10 million on land, and another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) and the astounding intricacy of the way they all are provided their species-specific nourishment.

Reciting Ashrei can lead one to“…immediately love and praise and extol and experience a great desire to know Hashem…”

© 2015 Hamodia

Be Alarmed

Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia

A Magical Encounter

Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting.  “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind.  As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry.  I laughed and said, “I wish!”  The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers.  What aptitude we have lies in our tefillos, not the hocus-pocus little Musa was eagerly imagining.

I don’t know if it had been his mother who informed the boy then that we Jews are sorcerers (she had walked ahead), or whether it was something he had been taught earlier.  But it’s unlikely that the characterization was intended to endear us to him.  Whether my friendly demeanor and denial of the charge will in any way prevent him from absorbing his “chinuch” is something I’ll not likely ever know.  But one can hope.

The view of Jews as sorcerers is an ancient one.  When half of Europe’s population perished in the 14th century’s Black Death, Jews were less affected than their neighbors (something commonly attributed to our regular hand-washing, an activity shunned by non-Jews at the time).  Jewish communities were massacred on the assumption that their members had poisoned wells or cast magical spells on their neighbors

Apparently the imagining of our sorcery, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, persists today.  Last year, Tehran University professor Valiollah Naghipourfar was asked by an interviewer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting whether jinns, or demons, can “be put to use in intelligence gathering.”

His response was: “The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews.”

And in 2013, Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Namir charged that evil Jewish (and Christian – the fellow’s an equal opportunity paranoiac) demons had possessed Palestinians, and were behind a Gazan mother’s attempt to murder her child.  She was, Mr. Namir explained, possessed by “sixty-seven Jewish jinn.”  Palestinian exorcist Sheikh Abu Khaled reported that “most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”

And so it goes.

It’s easy today to become oblivious to how some ignorant people among our neighbors see us. After all, we regularly come into contact with unbigoted, friendly non-Jews.  The morning of the day I’m writing this, a bus driver who could have ignored the bearded, black-hatted man walking up a hill instead signaled happily that I didn’t have to rush, that he’d wait for me. From my desk at Agudath Israel’s headquarters, I regularly see respectful public officials who have come to visit.

Sure, we all realize that there are third-world inhabitants with benighted attitudes toward Jews, who cling to dark fantasies about the Yahuds.  But we don’t often imagine that our neighbors might be sullied by such psychological slime. My post-Shacharis interaction was a little reminder, I suppose, a reality check.

And yet, it’s not hard to understand the assumption of our wizardry.

To be sure, divination and witchcraft are foreign to Jews and forbidden.  As Bilam will remind us this Shabbos, as he does each year, “There is no sorcerer in Yisrael.”

But isn’t the fact that, through millennia of persecution and attempts at our annihilation we Jews persist as a nation… if not magical, miraculous?  And aren’t the achievements of Jews, not only in the most meaningful realms like Torah and chessed, but even in fields more readily appreciated by “the world”… astonishing?

There is indeed magic here, though, of course, it’s not the right word.  We’re not sorcerers, chas v’shalom.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something supernatural – in the word’s most basic meaning, “beyond physical nature” – behind our survival, in our successes, and lying in our future.  As we prepare to enter Bein Hametzarim, our mourning should be tempered by that thought.

© 2015 Hamodia

Normal=Wonderful

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the feelings of Funchu Tamang, a 101-year-old man who was pulled alive from under the rubble of his home a full week after the recent devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal.  But what went through his mind as light met his eyes for the first time in days and he realized that he was being rescued is ideally what should go through our own heads every morning, when we are pulled from the depths of sleep into a new day of life.

That’s what Modeh Ani is for, of course.  That short statement of gratitude uttered by every observant Jew upon waking up is meant to focus our thoughts on the fact that, just as some earthquake victims are not rescued, so do some sleepers never awake.  And on Chazal’s description of sleep as a taste of death.  In a way, no matter how many times we may have arisen, we greet every morning as beneficiaries of techiyas hameisim.

And there are other resurrections, too, that we experience but don’t always fully appreciate.  For several weeks this winter, I was homebound and in considerable discomfort with a, baruch Hashem, non-life-threatening but debilitating illness.  As I recovered, I came to understand something I had never given much thought to before.  I gained a sudden comprehension of why the phrase “rofeh cholim” is included in the bracha of “mechayeh hameisim” – why Hashem’s healing of the sick falls under the category of His resurrection of the dead.

When one is ailing, in distress and depleted of energy, appetite and even the ability to concentrate or do much more than hurt, it really does feel as if he isn’t really living, just sort of present in the painful moment – and that the moments are endless.  And when the illness passes, it’s like re-entering the world, like being born anew.

The capacity to fully function again provides an appreciation of normalcy.  When asked by people who knew that I was laid up how I’m feeling now, I respond with two words: “Wonderful” and “normal.”  Because normal, I now keenly know, is wonderful.

That’s a lesson that living an observant Jewish life drives home daily.  From Modeh Ani, those first words out of our mouths when we arise – to brachos like Asher Yatzar and those of Birchos Hashachar and Shemoneh Esrei and Hamapil (among others), we are guided to recognize the blessing of life and health and being, “Your miracles that are with us every day…,” in the words of Modim.

And it’s not just life and health and the normal functioning of our bodies and minds that we are enjoined by our mesorah to pause and be thankful for each day.  What happens to us each day, what we experience, is no less worthy of our grateful focus.

A young woman of whom my wife and I think very highly – we’d think the same even if she weren’t our first-born daughter – has a wonderful custom.  Every night, before sending each of her children off to bed, she asks him or her to identify “the best thing that happened to you today.”

Each of us (and, presumably, those children) have days that we tend to think of as “bad ones,” as having afforded us nothing really to feel positive about.  But we’re wrong.  There’s always a “best thing.”  It might not rate anywhere near the top of the list of our personal “best things that ever happened to us” list.  But everything’s relative; there’s always something we can identify as the high point of even the most dismal day.  It might be a small thing, even something that happens often.  But identifying it nightly and giving it some thought focuses one’s mind to appreciate it when we otherwise might not.

Not a bad idea even for those of us who aren’t sent to bed by our mothers, who retire for the night of our own accord.  Before Hamapil we might look back over our day not only, as many are accustomed, to make a cheshbon hanefesh, to identify things we did that we might have done better or might have better not done, but also to identify the best thing that happened to us over the hours since we last said Modeh Ani.

As a result, we might find it easier not only to fall asleep peacefully but to focus and feel appreciative when, the following morning, we say that next Modeh Ani.

© 2015 Hamodia