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

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Friday, March 29, 2013

My Sins Are Better Than Your Sins

Over Passover, I had a friend come for a meal who I like very much, but don’t get to see so often.

As we were catching up about our learning, families and lives, he told me that he hadn’t had an alyiah to the Torah in a couple years.  I was a little surprised, because he normally davens at a mid sized shul and surely he would have been in the rotation several times over.  I know that he’s a regular minyan goer, so I asked why.  He told me that the shul he davens at his a policy about not giving an alyiah to someone who is married to a non-Jew.

Like me, this friend is a Ba’al Teshuva.  Unlike me who starting my spiritual journey when I was single and in my 20s.  He started his spiritual journey when he was in his 50s and already had a wife, several children & grandchildren.  Thought I have never met his family, from the stories he tells me, they sound like very nice people.  He told me that he’d discussed the situation with three different prominent Rabbis that his local Rabbis referred him to.  One told him to leave his wife, marry a young girl and start a new family.  The other two didn’t give him any advice but sympathized that he was in a very tough situation.  I’ve spoke to him many times about the situation and similarly to the ladder Rabbis, offered no practical advice or action plans.  I just offered my support and friendship and was there if he ever wanted to talk.  Part of being a kiruv Rabbi or any type of mentor is to know when to push someone into performing a mitzvah or stopping from a sin and knowing when to keep your mouth shut about or even council to someone to slow down their spiritual growth if they’re growing in a wrong direction or headed for burn out.  Leaving his wife, and essentially his children, would simply be too much to handle for this person.

The inspiration for writing this article is not to give practical advice to someone who is married to a nom-Jew.  For that there is no advice to give.  Everyone needs to make their own individual decision about what’s right for them.  When pressed for an answer regarding this question, I usually tell the person that there are 613 separate mitzvahs.  This is one of them.  Come back to me after they’ve fulfilled the other 612.

My inspiration is the synagogues decision of what sins one can perform and still get an alyiah and what sins they consider too great to be called to the Torah.  In my studies, I have not come across any type of defined ranking of sins from “not so bad” to “the worst.”  We go have some clues, because different sins have different penalties associated with them.  For example, eating non kosher food is punishable by lashes while improper marital relations and violating the Shabbas is punishable by death.  We may be able to derive from this somewhat of an order, but even this isn’t so clear.

Is eating non ritually slaughtered chicken the same as eating pork?  The punishments are.

Where do we draw the line about whose in the club and whose somehow outside?

Is it Shabbas observance?

Is it family purity?  (Appropriate use of the mikvah within marital relations) 

Is it improper speech which may embarrass someone?

I’m not trying to down play the negative effects of inter marriage. 

I am trying to point out that we don’t have the right or the knowledge to judge whose in and whose out… of whose sins are worse and whose sins are more forgivable. 

Its very easy for most of us to speak about how sinful intermarriage is or homosexuality, because most of us aren’t in that situation or have those temptations.  I have yet to see a Rabbi stand up and say that anyone who speaks improperly will no longer be called to the Torah.  Why not?  This is a sin, but somehow we look the other way.  Why?  Is it because it’s somehow less serious of a sin?  I would venture to say that’s not the reason.  We look the other way because we tend to judge sins that we commit as less severe and sins that other people commit as terrible.

Essentially, we’re saying that our sins are better than your sins.

In the Shabbas morning minyan that I typically daven in, there is one person who makes a strong attempt to keep down the talking during the davening by either shushing or making announcements.  A couple weeks ago, I noticed that he was talking during davening.  I went over and nicely, but sarcastically said, do you notice that whenever you talk during davening, it’s for the sake of heaven and whenever other people talk it’s for mundane purposes.  He laughed and acknowledged it was true.

Just to clarify, I am not advocating talking during davening, inter marriage or any other sin for that matter. 

I am advocating that we need to judge each other leniently and lovingly.  If we decide that we want to take a stand against sins, that’s great, but we should direct it inward towards the sins that we commit, because we all sin in one area or another.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are You My Rebbe?

There was once an orphan who was left at the entrance of a kibbutz when he was a baby.  The kibbutznicks took him in and raised him as their own. They took turns taking care of him so they could all share in such a precious mitzvah.   He spent time with all the men of the kibbutz, talking to them, learning from them, gleaning the positive qualities that appealed to him from each and every one.  Even though each man had many similarities to his fellow kibbutznick, there were also many differences in both substance and flavor. This went on from day to day and from year to year until he grew from a boy to a man of his own.

When he reached an adult, he asked the question that everyone knew he’d ask one day, but they still never came up with a good answer... “Who’s my father?” 

The silence was deafening as the men stood speechless finally confronting the very question that they had no answer for... Until one of the many men who had helped shape this young man replied… “We all are.”
This may or may not have answered what the young man was looking for. He knew he was an orphan.  He knew that he had no biological father to speak of.  What he was really asking was, which one if you is going to be the one that I call “my father”?  Which one of you should I call my name “Paloni son of ____”?  Which one of you shall grant me an inheritance? Which one if you will escort me to my chuppah?  Which one of you will help me shape my identity?

In his search for an individual answer, be found a collective one. In his search for an individual identity, he found his identity within the group.  This may not have been the answer he was looking for.  It may not have been the ideal answer, but it was his answer.

This story represents so many Baal Teshuvas searching for our spiritual father.  Our Rebbes are Chabad.  They are Aish HaTorah.  They are Or Samaech.  They went to Chofetz Chaim, Shappels & Berel Wein’s yeshiva.  How do we choose one of our spiritual fathers above the others?  How do we pick our Rebbe? 

They’re all so different.  They are all part of us, but their views are too different for us to be them.
They say that America is a melting pot, a place where different people can blend together to become one.  If that’s so, then we are the melting pot for Baal Teshuvas.  We take different ideas from our different Rebbes and the shape us into who we are.

The benefits are extraordinary.  Today’s Baal Teshuva isn’t interested in the any old fights.  We aren’t interested at attacking the minor differences.  We celebrate the beauty of the many facets to Torah and the approach of very different people.  Unfortunately, the challenges are enormous, for we have no one spiritual father.  We may struggle with our identity as Baal Teshuvas, not knowing who our spiritual father is.  Which minhag do I take on?  Which nusach do I daven?  Who is my Rebbe? 

While it would be ideal for us to find one Rebbe who understands us, its a tough role to fill.  For we have been spiritually raised by the collective.  A new BT can dance between the teachings of the Chassidim and the teachings of Vilna, from all spectrums of the Jewish life. This isn’t the ideal answer, but for some of us, it’s the only answer, they all are our Rebbes.  

May it come speedily in our days, may it come immediately today, the coming of the one and only Rebbe for the Baal Teshuva, the righteous Moshiach, please come to us and guide us.

I once read, in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the Holy Temple had a separate entrance for each tribe, but it also had one extra entrance... For those don’t know which tribe they’re from.

Inspired by my dear friend Yosef Chaim ben Yeshuah HaLevi who never seems to give up his desire to find his long lost Rebbe.