On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shavous – The Eternal Marriage

In exactly one week from today, the Jewish people will celebrate the anniversary of their marriage to G-d on Shavous by renewing their vows and once again accepting the Torah. 

The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people has been described by the Rabbis as a Marriage with G-d being the groom and the Jewish people being the bride.  Even though that’s a nice idea, marriage is an interesting analogy for the relationship.  On one hand, there are no two people who are more connected then a man and wife.  Their bond is so strong that we compare them to two half’s of the same soul that are connected with marriage.  The alternative side is we know that unfortunately some times marriages don’t work out.

Even though divorce is frowned upon in Judaism, (The Rabbis say that G-d’s alter cries when a couple divorces) it is allowed. Since divorce is allowed, one could apply the possibility of it to the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people.  Considering how many Jews are so far removed from Judaism and act is if they couldn’t care less about what the Torah says, is there grounds for a possible divorce, G-d forbid?  Once we take a look at the laws of divorce, even briefly, we recognize that the bride can not initiate a divorce.  This probably explains why no matter how fare a Jew thinks he his from his Judaism, it’s never severed.  In life’s hardest challenges that same person will often sacrifice his own life rather and sever his connection completely with G-d.  Just like no matter how bad a bride wants to divorce her husband, she can not without his cooperation so since G-d isn’t cooperating, we are eternally bound to him and our marriage commitment through his Torah.

In taking the divorce analogy further, what happens if the groom consents?  What happens if G-d gets so frustrated (so to speak) with our unfaithfulness that he decides to give the divorce document and separate him from us?

To understand this, we must examine the circumstances of the original marriage that happened with the receiving of the 10 commandments on Shavous.  In the Torah portion Yisro, chapter 19 verse 7, Moses came to the elders and instructed them on everything that G-d had commanded him.  In response, the entire Jewish people said, “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do.”  A few lines later, in verse 17, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people stood under the mountain.  There are several explanations of what “under the mountain” means.  In the Gemara Shabbas 88a, it says that G-d picked up the mountain and threatened the Jewish people saying that they should either accept the Torah or he would throw the mountain down and kill them. 

The questions is asked, if the Jewish people already accepted the Torah in verse 7, why does G-d need to make a threat in verse 17?  Though there are many explanations, the one that I prefer has to do with an odd law found in a different place in the Torah that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with this at a glance.

In the Torah portion Devarim, chapter 22, verse 28, the Torah tells us that if a man takes a girl by force and lay with her, he may never divorce her.  In looking at this law by itself, it’s pretty strange.  What woman would want to marry her rapist?  And is the punishment for a rapist to lose his right of divorce a fitting punishment for his crime?  It doesn’t seem to make sense.  In fact, I would imagine that since no girl would ever agree to marry someone who took them by force, the entire law is useless.

However, if we equate G-ds threat to the Jewish people of throwing the mountain down, he would essentially become the man who takes a woman by force.  Then, once the marriage is official, he loses the ability to ever divorce her. 

It would seem that G-d, in his infinite wisdom set up the scenario just like the Jew is bound to G-d in marriage no matter how far removed he may think he is, G-d has also bound himself, through this law in his perfect Torah, to never leave the Jewish people no matter how many mistakes we make.

Since now that we know our marriage is eternal and nobody is leaving, let’s make it the best possible marriage it can be by reaccepting with a full heart G-d’s Torah on Shavous.  When we do, we can all say once again “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do!”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Parsha Behar & Bechukosai – The land is ours… or isnt it?

As we all know, there is know place on earth that is more highly sought after then the land of Israel.  Over the past several thousand years, it’s been inhabited my many different peoples and the desire to control the land, especially Jerusalem, places it at the center of the world. 

Even though both Muslims and Christians have claimed it has a holy site for them, we Jews believe in our hearts that the land is ours.  It’s been the center of Jewish life, either in practice, or in thought for over 3,000 years.  Some of us use this argument when debates over Israel arise… The land is ours, because G-d gave it to us.

I love Israel as much as the next person.  For me, the greatest spot on earth is in the Kotel courtyard.  On my trips to Israel, I could literally spend the entire time in the Old City.  That being said, I need to share a thought that comes up whenever the “It’s our land” argument comes up…

It’s not our land.  Don’t get nervous.  I haven’t joined the enemies of Israel, but it’s simply not our land.  The Parsha of Behar is very clear about this.  In chapter 25, verse 23, G-d says “the land is mine.”

Israel wasn’t an unconditional gift that we can use however we please.  It’s a responsibility.  Imagine if the King gives a peasant his crown to watch after with instructions on how to maintain it.  The peasant has no right to do what he pleases with the crown.  He must maintain it per the King’s instructions or the King will take it away.  Israel is the same thing.  Yes, the L-rd said that we’re supposed to dwell in and take care of the land of Israel, but he also said 612 other things. 

In the Parsha of Bechukosai, G-d is very clear of what will happen if we follow or don’t follow his commandments.

Last Shabbas, someone had a guest in shul that was from Israel.  He’s visited our community before and is a very nice guy.  A conversation came up about how Israel is perceived in the world and particularity in the United Nations.  For reasons that have no rational explanation, Israel is constantly persecuted within the United Nations.  His proposed to solution for this was to create a media campaign to point out this blatant anti semitic policy of the UN.  I believe that Martin Luther King Jr said “When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews." 
While I agree with our visitor that the UN’s policies are clearly anti semitic, I don’t think we need to shout that from the roof tops.  Everyone knows it.  There’s only one solution to the world’s hatred to Jews and Israel.  When we start listening to G-ds 612 other instructions, G-d will give is all the rewards that he promises in his Torah and we can finally live in peace.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Definitions – Is he speaking English?

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a class designed for Jews in their early stages of their reconnection to Judaism.  About a half hour into the class, the person sitting next to me leaned over and said “When the Rabbi said “Hashem”, he means G-d, right?”

Sometimes we get so comfortable with our learning that we when we’re speaking, we forget that we’re adding in words of different languages that our listener may not be familiar with.   Adding in some Hebrew words to English is confusing enough, but some of us also throw in some Yiddish to form a whole new language.  This is affectionately called Yeshivish or Yinglish.  Whatever it’s called, I thought it would be a helpful idea to come up with a brief dictionary of words that you may hear and not understand.

Hashem AKA Hakodesh Barachu – The word “Hashem” is literally translated as “the name.”  Since we don’t verbalize any of G-d’s names unless we’re praying or reading the Torah, we simply call him Hashem in other situations.

Mamash, Dafka & Stam – All of these words don’t really have an independent meaning other than to emphasize the other words surrounding them.  One might say “the BT Handbook is Mamash a great website.” J  It would be similar to using the English word “really” in the same sentence.

BT AKA Ba’al Teshuva – Someone who has reconnected with their Judaism after not be connected with it for a while or ever.

Frum – Religious.

FFB AKA Frum from birth – Someone who was born religious.

Gut Yuntuf, Chag Sameach – Happy holiday.

Shaal Sheudas, Seudas Shlishi – The third meal or Shabbas afternoon meal.

Daven - Pray
Shacharis – Morning prayer.

Minchah – Afternoon prayer.

Maariv AKA Aarvit – Evening prayer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Parsha Emor – Unruly kids

About 4 years ago, my family and I moved to a decent size Jewish community.  There are several Torah institutions in town, but we typically go to the big shul.  With a 100+ year history and a good 300 people on Shabbat, there is always something going on. 

There are a lot of young families and the shul provides Shabbat programming for different age kids.  For whatever reason there are some kids that don’t go to the Shabbas Groups and end up either sitting with their parents or, more often than not, playing with their friends in the hallways and social hall. 

As I’m sure you can imagine a bunch of kids playing without adult supervision can sometimes get lauder than appropriate for a shul.  Personally, I enjoy the sounds of young Jewish children playing in shul, even if I’m praying or learning at the time.  I realize that not everyone appreciates the beauty of the noise and would rather have a quiet atmosphere.  Unfortunately, some of these adults have the bad habit of yelling at the children for running around or being too loud.  I’ve seen this happen both in the hallways and even from the bimah.

I have very few memories of going to shul growing up.  We went to a reform synagogue and I’m sure we didn’t make it so often.  My only memory of Shabbat or holiday services is the Rabbi yelling at me and my friends for being too noisy.  When I started going to shul again in my late 20s, I made it a mission of mine to make sure that other children don’t have the same memories that I do and often come to the kid’s defense.  In my old community, I distinctly remember one of the older members making an announcement at a Kiddush about how parents should control their unruly kids during services.  Afterwards, I made an announcement about how people should control their unruly seniors during services. (The older members of our congregation, made much more noise during services than the kids.)

What is even more perplexing is that the same people who yell at children to be quiet in shul would never dream of yelling at an adult.  If an adult is talking too loudly, they’ll either ask them nicely to keep in quiet or maybe give them a stare, but yell… never.  This doesn’t make any sense.  Adults are responsible for their actions.  Adults understand, at least on some level, that you’re not supposed to make too much noise while other people are praying and listening to the Torah.  It doesn’t make sense to yell and children who don’t know any better while being polite to adults.  It would be proper to be polite to everyone.

My shul is not alone in this phenomenon.  One time when traveling to a different community, I witnessed an old man give a kid a patch, because the kid ran by him and bumped into him.  I was appalled.

To find a proof of what I’m saying is correct, we don’t have to look any further then the opening line of this week’s parsha.  The English translation is “Hashem said to Moses: Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say…”, but we need to look to the Hebrew to get a better understanding.  In Hebrew it’s “Vayomer Hashem Al Moshe Emor.”  There are different ways of saying speak and say in Hebrew and this is the only time that this formula is used.  Typically it would be worded “Vayidaber Hashem Al Moshe L’emor.” 

The great Torah commentator, Rashi, tells us that this language is used because Hashem instructs Moses to teach the adult Kohanim (priests) and to have them teach their children.  When dealing with children, we much speak in a softer way. 

The laws are very clear that the prohibition of embarrassing someone extends to children as well as adults.

I agree that we need to teach our children a proper awe of G-d and of shul, but that only comes after they develop a healthy love of G-d and shul. 


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Parsha Acharei Mos – An after death experience

On a normal week, I think about the Torah portion and what in it that inspires me either when I’m learning or at shul.  Unfortunately this week, instead of going to shul for morning and evening services, I spent most days at a Shiva house. 

A close friend and member of my community lost his father late last week and as the usually custom, services were held throughout the week of Shiva (Same root as Sheva meaning seven or Shabbat) at his home.  I tend to say a fair amount of extra things after morning services so I’m usually the last to leave and the other day I found myself alone with the mourners and their immediate family.  My friend expressed to me how grateful he was that the community had rallied around him in his time of need and this experience has strengthened is faith.

As I left the home and made my way to work, I thought to myself that it was just the normal thing to do to support someone in their time of need.  Nothing so special. It’s just what we do as a community.

It wasn’t until a period in between the afternoon and evening services later that day that what he said started to sink in.  As the Rabbi was teaching a Mishnah (yes I should have been paying attention) I found myself staring at the sign on the wall with the traditional mourners blessing “May the Omnipresent console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” 

I further thought about the room we were sitting in.  Services were being held in my friend’s basement.  I thought about how many times I had been in that basement before on countless Shabbas afternoons playing with my son and my friend’s son.  We laughed and always had fun times.  So many times, I sat playing games on the same couch that I now sat on to pray and comfort my friend in his time of need. 

When we bless someone, we typically extend the blessing to others as well.  When we comfort the mourner, the blessing is “may G-d comfort you and all of the other mourners.”  When we celebrate with someone, we typically sing Siman Tov U Mazel Tov… which the full translation is “May there be a good sign and a good fortune for us and for all of Israel.”  The same is true for the blessings of the Shemona Esrei.

There are many reasons for the plurality of our blessings.  I’ve learned such explanations as to ward off the evil eye and the collective merit of the Jewish people.  Individually, someone may not deserve a to be comforted so quickly, but when combined with the other mourners of Israel, maybe the whole group is greater then the individual mourners. 

As I sat there, I thought of another possibility.  Maybe it’s not only that we’re wishing consolation on the mourner in front of us and the other mourners of Israel, but we’re also wishing consolation on ourselves.  After all, the Jewish people are one family.  If a fellow Jew passes to the next world and he leaves behind mourners, shouldn’t a part of me be mourning with them?  I once read a story where Rebbetzen Jungreis described that when her father would go to a Shiva house.  He wouldn’t say a word.  He would embrace the mourner and weep with them.  He was so sensitive that he felt their sorrow essentially turning himself into a mourner along side of them.  Mourners reported back to her that this was more comforting than anything that anyone else said to them.

It would be great if we could always be so sensitive to our fellow, but sometimes it’s only when our friend is celebrating or, as in the name of the parsha acharei mos (literally after death), that we can really reach a point where we can truly merge our feelings to be one with our fellow.

If we can do get to the point where we can do that on a regular basis then we don’t need to look any further in the Haftorah for Acharei Mos, as Amos says “On that day, I will erect David’s fallen Sukkah. (Allusion to the Third Temple)  I will repair their breaches and erect their ruins, and I will rebuild it as in the days of old.”

This week’s Dvar Torah in the memory of Leib ben Bear.