Thursday, June 27, 2019

Greetings from Poland!

It’s with a heavy heart that I address you from land that has seen millions of Jews simply murdered in cold blood from the face of the earth. Part of me didn’t want to make this trip and see the worst part of our history up close and in person, just as part of me doesn’t want to observe Tisha B’av to mourn for our national tragedies. I then realized it was imperative to get a fuller understanding of our people’s story, and we must take an unpleasant look at the “hidden face of G-d.” These are some of the lessons I learned from spending four days in Poland.

Never Take Anything for Granted: It is hard to fathom the devastation until one actually gets here and gets to touch, feel, and breathe the reality of what occurred. In 1939, Warsaw was home to the second largest Jewish Community in the world with over 330,000 people and 800 synagogues. Today there are a tiny handful of Jews left with one remaining shul, and that is the one the Nazis chose not to destroy since it was used as a stable. Today it is once again a functional shul as I had the opportunity to participate in minyan there on Tuesday morning this week. Otherwise, the once vibrant and proud community has all but disappeared. The rich and meaningful Jewish life that was woven into the history of Poland goes back nearly a thousand years. There were great moments for the Jewish People in Poland as well. In fact, a few centuries earlier, Poland was seen as a place of refuge for Jews escaping from persecution in Western Europe. There was official Jewish representation in the Polish parliament including chasidic representatives as late as the 1920’s. Well, things can change pretty quickly as the lessons from the 1930’s taught us. The fact that a nation that was benevolent to the Jews for centuries now has over three million Jews’ blood-soaked in its soil should cause us to pause and reflect.

I Was There: We live in a time when the Holocaust survivors among us are fading away. There are fewer and fewer survivors among the living who will be able to look into the eyes of the uneducated and skeptics and say, “I was there. I experienced the hells of Auschwitz-Birkenau and had my arm tattooed”. Soon we must grapple with the reality that there will not be any first-hand accounts. There are no substitutes for that. However, the next best thing may be a personal visit to the Nazi concentration and death camps. After I exited the crematorium in the Madajanek Concentration Camp, the tour guide bent down and picked up some bone fragments and some ash from the ground. We walked a little further and saw the memorial established at Madajanek, and there is a large mound with human ash still there. There may not be any living survivors around for much longer, but anybody that dares to visit Madajanek can look someone in the eyes and confidently say- I was there!

We Will Outlive Them: One of the towns we visited was Lublin, which was a citadel of Torah. The famed Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin headed by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of Daf Yomi, was located there. There was a compelling story I heard from our tour guide, Rabbi Ilan Segal that I would like to share with you. One time prior to a group of Jews getting rounded up for being killed, the Nazi commander demanded that they start singing and dancing. At first, the Jews were in no mood to sing and dance and certainly in no mood to placate the sadistic Nazi. Soon the Jews started singing in Yiddish” מען וועט זיי איבערלעבען/ we will outlive them.” The song seems a little foolhardy as they were shortly put to their deaths. Yet, at a closer reflection after 75 years the Nazis have long been defeated, and the Jewish People in general and the Torah scholarship from Lublin with the Daf Yomi, in particular, has been growing in strength. Right up the road the in Krakow the Bais Yaakov movement was started by Sarah Schneir which now has tens of thousands of girls and young women in its thriving educational network. It’s seventy-five years later, where you might ask are the Nazis today that taunted the Jews in Lublin that day? Relegated to the dustbin of history. We have outlived them after all. Am Yisroel Chai!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Reflections on the Rabbinate

I have made an effort to engage in increased self-awareness. One of the several benefits of this exercise has been to pay attention to the position I occupy as the Rabbi at Etz Chaim Synagogue and be more conscious of the reason I chose this path in life as a career. The more I reflected I came to realize that it is a great privilege for me to be the Rabbi of such a wonderful shul and community. I also paid attention to some of the values that drive me in this position.
1. Leader of All People -When Moshe was informed that he would not be leading the people into the Promised Land, he prayed that G-d designate an appropriate successor. Interestingly, Moshe refers to G-d as the “G-d of all spirits.” Rashi famously writes, “that Moshe prayed for a leader who will be able to tolerate and understand all people according to their individual character.” The message here is that a leader should respect differences, as the conductor of an orchestra should work to integrate them, ensuring that many different instruments play their part in harmony with everyone. A leader does not seek to impose a top-down message of uniformity but rather respects diversity. This should not be confused as a weakness but rather a strength as the leader attempts to listen and understand every single individual for who they are and relate to them in this personal and individualized manner. I think this message is timeless and universal, but it especially resonates with me in this shul and community. We have a healthy diversity in our congregational body. There are so many individuals from varied backgrounds, ethnic groups, and levels of observance. My goal has always been that everyone should feel that Etz Chaim is their home and a vital resource in their spiritual journey in life. From the learned scholar to someone that can’t distinguish between an Aleph and Beis, there is nourishment provided for the Jewish soul that seeks a connection.
2. The Art of Listening- The Gaon of Vilna writes that there are three levels of listening: listening, understanding, and accepting. The third level means that the leader must accept the other opinion as to their correct position even if it is something that you ultimately disagree. In the public and congregational arena, many people have various thoughts and ideas. It is a goal of mine that everyone feels that their voice is heard in the marketplace of ideas and validated. Obviously, this does not mean that all opinions are to be implemented or adopted as policy, but rather, the courtesy of listening allows a person to feel valued.
3. Lead by Example - It is essential for the leader to be modeling good and appropriate behavior. There is far more value in a leader walking the walk than just delivering empty rhetoric. It makes quite an impact for people to view the leader as someone who respectful and kind of others than to preach these values. In Orthodox Jewish life, there is a myriad of laws and traditions that need to be observed on a daily and weekly basis. It can be overwhelming for a Rabbi to remind people of their errors and mistakes regularly. Coupled with ongoing education, I have attempted to be leading by example.
4. Avoid Burnout- This is something that led me to request a mini-sabbatical from my rabbinic responsibilities. After nine years of investing all of my energy to help the shul and community, I feel that my emotional, spiritual, and physical tank is running on low. This investment in communal and rabbinic life has also come at the cost of not spending enough time with my family or for personal time for study. It is precisely these two areas that I intend to prioritize over the next two months in our homeland of Israel.
I look forward to returning in a short time with renewed vigor for the challenges that lie ahead. I thank the Board and entire membership for your understanding and continued support.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

To the Graduating Class of 2019

The Class of 2019 is onto the big stage and eagerly anticipates its next step in life. After many years of investing energy and effort into their studies, they have earned their right to don the cap and gown and walk across the stage to receive their Diploma. One of the hallmark staples of the graduation ceremony has been the commencement address delivered to the students by some celebrity, scholar, or philanthropist. Some of these remarks have been uplifting and meaningful, and some have been cringe-worthy. Some have been magnanimous and yet some missing the mark. I have never been asked to deliver a commencement address, but if I had to offer some thoughts to the grads, I would probably share these ideas with the Class of 2019.

Responsibilities vs. Rights: In our society, we tend to focus on what our rights are. The notion of every human being having equal rights is a lofty ideal and something that this nation is built on as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. From the noble vision of Equal Rights for all people, the proliferation of rights to many different sub-categories in society has been incredible. From the bill of rights for airplane passengers to consumers purchasing auto insurance and everything in between including the animal bill of rights, we are on our way to becoming a rights-obsessed society. An alternative approach would be to focus on one's responsibility to others. If an individual focused on his responsibility to treat every human being with the dignity and respect they deserve as created in the image of G-d, our society would be far better off.  The advantage of a responsibility centered society vs. a rights-centered society is the difference between the former focused on being a contributor and giver, whereas the latter one is focused on being a recipient.

Live with Gratitude: Never take anything for granted. Every day is a gift that we have to appreciate G-d and all the wonderful people in our lives. It's imperative that we open our eyes to acknowledge and enjoy all the goodness that we are fortunate to have. Internalizing this vital character trait will not only make you a better person but a much happier one as you will be focused on the many blessings you have as opposed to the unfortunate circumstances that may come your way.

So, my dear graduates, this is your time and to paraphrase the words that G-d communicated to Adam, "Go forth and conquer the world"!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Greatest Sacrifice

“Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

These were the words that General Dwight Eisenhower imprinted on the hearts and minds of the courageous Allied Soldiers before D- Day, on June 6, 1944. This was arguably the most critical date in the history of the world as the Allied Forces led by the United States stormed the beaches of Normandy to rescue the world from the tyranny of the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine, but in the early 1940’s it seemed that the Nazis might actually win the war. A victory by the Nazis would have meant a world in which have been Judenrein or Free of Jews as the Nazis desired. They made no bones about it. They wanted to kill every Jew in the world and not just in Europe. The only things standing in the way of this evil scheme were the Allied Forces who stood up to the Nazis and defeated them. The chances of the Allied Forces surviving this harrowing invasion were remote. Using new studies, for the first time, we can forensically analyze the chances of survival. As 2,000 paratroopers faced 345,000 bullets, across an area of sky covering 9 squares miles, the chances of survival were 1 in 4. There were about 10,000 men that gave up their lives that day. They knowingly went to near-certain death to liberate a people they did not know and whose language they could not speak.
I reflected on this today, which is the 75th anniversary of D-day. From all the persecuted people that were liberated by the Allied Forces, it is the Jewish People that owe a significant debt of gratitude to these heroes for giving up their lives so that we could live to see another day. As of today, in the Normandy American Cemetery in France, 9,388 heroes are laid at rest. Interestingly, 149 are marked as Jewish graves. Instead of crosses, these burial sites bear marble Stars of David. Regardless of which religious symbol occupies this sacred space in Normandy, we must remember the enormous sacrifice that the heroes of the greatest generation made. We must never forget them. Yehi Zichrom Baruch. May their memory always be for a blessing!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Judaism is a Verb

It seems one of the most significant attributes a company can have is for it to be a verb. Google reached this milestone a few years ago of becoming a verb as people are now googling, or a person can google anything under or above the sun. Sometime later, it seems that Facebook reached the plateau of becoming a verb as some can facebook you. Who remembers when Xerox joined this elite class with folks saying ”Just xerox it”!
A more recent member of the group has been Uber with people now just ubering to work. This represents far more than a different function as a part of speech. It reflects a certain dynamism and vitality in society as people don’t associate the entity as something in a glass case but rather as something that is brimming with energy and on the move.

I believe that there is a profound message in this weeks Parsha that reflects the idea that the Torah is actually a verb. This week the parsha begins with a statement of “ אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ or If you will go with my commandments.”  Rashi interprets this text as one should toil or study the Torah with intensity. One may wonder if the point of this biblical text is that some should internalize the Torah, why is it expressed in the manner of going or walking? I believe that this is precisely the message. The Torah is not something to be stored literally or figuratively in a glass case. It is an entity that is full of dynamism, vitality, and relevance for contemporary life as it was thousands of years ago. The more we are engaged with Torah study and Torah values, it invigorates our soul and contributes to having a life filled with meaning and purpose. In other words, not only is Judaism a verb, but the Torah is a verb.

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...