Monday, March 6, 2017

Jews and Muslims Unite against Hate! A Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of G-d's name)

Over the last two weeks, three Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized (St. Louis, Philadelphia and then Rochester). In addition to the vandalized cemeteries, we have also been witnessing bomb threats at JCC’s and Jewish schools around the country including at our very own Bender JCC in Rockville and at the CESJDS. These events are very distressing and they must stop.

At the same time, we have seen unprecedented gestures of support from those outside of the Jewish community. Now that I am on facebook,  I have learned about all of these amazing things!  Last week, a crowd-funding campaign was started by two American Muslims to raise money to restore the vandalized cemeteries and provide funds for targeted Jewish organizations. The Campaign raised more than $150,000. One of the organizers of the campaign, Tarek El Messidi of Philadelphia, was planning on going out of town on Sunday night. When he heard that a second Jewish cemetery was vandalized on Sunday in Philadelphia, he cancelled his trip so that he could help mobilize the Muslim community to support the clean up!

Finally, there is a new campaign made of Muslim US Army veterans who are volunteering to stand guard outside synagogues, JCC’s and cemeteries. I literally saw posts from Muslims saying “my name is ________. I am a Muslim American Army Veteran living in _______. If your Jewish Organization needs protection, please contact me.”

But, I also learned (from Facebook of course!) that some in the Jewish community are not so excited about these gestures of generosity coming from the Muslim community. People are questioning motives and wondering if this will legitimize and normalize positions on Israel (including BDS) which are held by some of the Muslim do-gooders. I have been thinking that one of the saddest outcomes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that when someone offers the Jewish community a gesture of love and support, instead of accepting it and saying “Thank You,” we feel like we have to immediately ask, “what is the their angle?” Why are they doing this? Is it good or bad for the Jews and Israel?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I understand the questions. Support for the State of Israel is very important and BDS is a very dangerous movement. It just saddens me that we are so traumatized that we cannot just be a normal recipient of a gesture of support and just say thank you.
So does our Tradition have anything to say about this issue? What should we do when people, with whom we strongly disagree on Israel, offer to help us here with our cemeteries and JCC’s?
The Shulchan Aruch (16th century code of Jewish Law) has a very strong statement that would seem to oppose not only taking money or support from pro-BDS Muslims but from any non-jew.
אסור לישראל ליטול צדקה מן העובד כוכבים בפרהסיא (יורה דעה  רנ"ד)
“It is forbidden for a Jew to take charity from a non-jew in Public.” (Yoreh Deah #254)
This is pretty explicit but don’t worry! There are many rabbinic workarounds, so if you can find someone who is not jewish to retire our shul’s mortgage, we will accept the donation!
Why would the Shulchan Aruch forbid us from taking money from Non-Jews?
Rashi explains (on the gemara which is the source of this halacha) that it is a Chilul Hashem (a desecration of G-d’s name).
Why would it possibly be a Chilul Hashem to accept charity from non-jews?
Rabbi Mordechai Yoffie (author of 16th century halachic work called, “Levush”), offers a fascinating insight as why it would be a Chilul Hashem to accept charity from non-jews.
אומרים, אין אומה זו יכול לפרנס את ענייה (this is from memory, I still need to find exact quote – NA)

People will say that this nation (the Jews) cannot or will not take care of their own poor. This is why it is a Chilul Hashem. Could you imagine if we had security concerns at our Beth Sholom cemetery and then Muslim or Christians seeing that we were not taking care of it, volunteered to stand guard. It would be a Chilul Hashem.
Could you imagine if we couldn’t find enough volunteers to do Bikur Cholim or support our schools and shuls and Muslims volunteered and offered funds to support our needs. Could you imagine if holocaust survivors in our community were in need (they are) and Muslims seeing that we were not taking care of our own, raised money for them, this would also be a chilul Hashem.
This is the basic halacha and I think it still makes sense today unless we make the following shift which I will demonstrate from another amazing story that I heard about on Facebook!

Two weeks ago a mosque in Tampa was greatly damaged after an arson attack. Adil Kareem (a muslim member of the mosque) set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to repair the mosque. He raised nearly $60,000 in a week but realized that many of the donations were coming in at $18 and $36. This was certainly strange! He then looked at the names which were, Schwartz and Levine and Goldberg….
He then learned that Jews give in increments of Chai – 18. He was blown away, He reported this on facebook and concluded his post with #chaidelivered!
This is the answer to the the Shulchan Aruch’s prohibition of receiving money from non-jews. It assumes a society in which each faith community would only think about supporting itself. If the Jews need Muslims or Christians to help it is a Chilul Hashem as it demonstrates that we cannot or are unwilling to take care of our own. If, however, we are supporting torched mosques and Muslims are donating to our JCC’s and cemeteries, it is not a Chilul Hashem. It is the greatest Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name)! We are showing that we are united against Hate and ready to embrace the Tzelem Elokim (image of G-d) in all of us!

To be sure, we each have and should have our own parochial and religious specific needs. We should of course do everything to affirm our uniqueness in a world where sometimes everything seems to be just one big melting pot. But, where we can come together against hate and show love and support for each other, this is beautiful! This is a Kiddush Hashem. I pray that we can continue to find ways to strengthen these bonds and begin a much needed process of healing the rifts between the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Path of Avraham

This past week, Maharat Fruchter did something amazing and inspiring. She wanted to bring some love into a world that seems to be so full of hate so she contacted a refugee social service agency to find out if she could help. Within a few hours, they asked her if she would be willing to host an asylee family (mom and 5 year old daughter from Tanzania). The Maharat agreed and by that night, she had a family, whom she had never met, living in her house.

I had a chance to meet them on Monday night when they came to my house for dinner. My kids played with the 5 year old. I talked to the mom who is a very religious Christian and knew her bible, chapter and verse, a lot better than me!

I have been thinking about what the Maharat did all week. At first, I thought it was because I was so inspired. But then I realized that there was another emotion. I felt guilty. After all, I have a pretty large home. I have a finished basement with a bedroom and I have never thought to invite a refugee family in.

How many times have I read holocaust stories in which a Righteous Gentile risks his or her own safety to saveJjews and protect them through the war. I always ask myself, “If I would have been a non-Jewish Pole during the Shoah, would I have risked my life to save a Jew? Would I invite them into my home?” I know I wouldn’t have been a Nazi or even one of those anti-semitic Poles who once the Nazi’s started the job, kicked the Jews when we were down. But would I have had the courage and concern to save a Jew?” I have always hoped the answer is yes. But now that I see what Maharat Fruchter has done and recognize my inaction, I am actually worried that I would have not been one of the Righteous Gentiles. And therefore I feel guilty.

This feeling of guilt makes me think of all of the excuses.
  1. I want to help but it is not the right time. I have so many things going on in life and my family to take care of that I cannot possibly do something like this.
  2. Security. How do I know if I will be safe bringing in a refugee. Maybe the vetting will be insufficient. Will I be putting my family at risk?
  3. Priorities in Giving - Even if I am able to do this, shouldn’t I reserve all of my chesed and charity for Jews before helping out non-Jews?

So I thought of these excuses as I read about Avraham in this morning’s parshah. The Parshah begins with Avraham at the door of his tent (פתח האהל). Rashi says he was at the door “to see if there are passersby to welcome them into his home.”

Now if it ever was “not the right time” for hospitality, this was it. Avraham was a 99 year old man who just had a circumcision. It was on the third day when according to the text, the pain is the most acute. Yet, Avraham is at the door looking to bring strangers in.

He sees three men. Who were they? They were not three Yiddin (Jews) with payos (sidecurls)! We know they were angels but Avraham thought they were Arab Idolaters (see Rashi verse 4). He brings them in without any vetting and literally no way to protect himself. To appreciate this point, let us consider another Biblical incident that happened on the third day post circumcision. Shechem had kidnapped Dinah. So Dinah’s brothers, Shimon and Levi devise a scheme where all of the people of Shechem are circumcised. Then, on the third day when the people are defenseless they go in and slaughter them.
In our story, Avraham and all of the men of his house have just been circumcised. They are literally defenseless. Yet Avraham brings in these three Arab Idolaters without any vetting or security check.

Now, I am not recommending that you do this at home! I am also not talking about governmental policies but about personal responsibility. I am asking us to challenge ourselves. When we say, “it is not the right time,” was it the “right time” for Avraham? When we say that we want to help but there are security concerns, was Avraham worried about this? When we say we want to help refugees or homeless or any other non-explicitly Jewish cause, but are priorities are to give to Jews first, did Avraham say this?

In our parshah, we have a foil for Avraham. It is not a person but a city - Sodom. G-d wants to destroy Sodom. What did they do that was so terrible?

There is a Mishnah (Avot Chapter 5) that talks about different kinds of people:
  1. One who says, What is Yours is Mine but what is Mine is still mine. This person is evil.
  2. One who says, What is Mine is Yours and Yours is yours. This person is pious.

But then there is a third kind of person.  This person isn’t pious but isn’t evil. He says, “Look, your stuff is yours but my stuff is mine. I will not steal from you (I am not evil) but I am not going to go out of my way to help you.
He isn’t the Nazi or even the Pole who took advantage of the Jews when they were down, but he also isn’t the Righteous Gentile willing to put himself out. He says, “I don’t like what is happening to the Jews, but this isn't “the right time.” I have to take care of myself and my family. There could also be concerns for my safety. And besides, if I was able to help, I would help a fellow Christian Pole who needs help right now. I am not going to help a Jew.
Well what is this guy like? He isn’t pious but also not evil. What is he?
Two opinions in the Mishna
  1. He is an average guy
  2. This is Sodomite Behavior

What?! This is Sodomite behavior. Just because I am not Avraham or a Righteous Gentile, I deserve to be destroyed?

Well I saw an insightful interpretation from Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel. Rabbi Amiel was an Eastern European Rabbi (from Telz and Vilna) who became one of the first to join the Mizrachi (Religious Zionist) Movement. He made Aliyah in 1936 and became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He was one of the architects of infusing the new state with Jewish values.

Back to our Mishna. Rabbi Amiel explains that the two opinions are not really arguing. The first opinion, (that someone who says “what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine,” is average) is referring to an individual. Just because he or she is not Avraham, they are not so bad. They are average.
The second opinion, (that classifies that behavior as Sodom) is referring to a society. Individuals might have excuses. It might not be the right time or they might be scared. But a society that has this approach, is evil. It is Sodom.
The Artscroll Chumash has a comment on the sin of Sodom that literally made me jump out of my seat! I hope it doesn’t get removed in the next edition!
“Sodom was a rich and fertile region and, as such, it was a magnet for people seeking to make their fortune...But the Sodomites wanted to maintain their own prosperity and not be encumbered by a flood of poor immigrants….To discourage undesirable newcomers...the Sodomites institutionalized state cruelty, so that it became a crime to feed a starving person…” - - Artscroll Stone Chumash page 81

Sodom was evil because they punished their own citizens who wanted to be like Avraham. They were not going to oppress the poor immigrants they just punished those who tried to help them.

Back to Rabbi Amiel - Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He died before the establishment of the State but the values he taught became part of Israel. If there ever was a state who could argue “this isn’t a good time,” (that it has to worry about its own troubles), it would be Israel. If there was ever a state that would be worried about security, it is Israel. Yet, every time there is a humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world,Iisrael is the first to send a rescue mission, set up a field hospital and save lives and deliver babies. These are not simple calculations. After all, there are Israelis back home in need of surgeries and other resources, but these things are being used to save people in Haiti or in Sri Lanka. But Israel is following the model of Avraham. Israel will not become Sodom.

And so, I would like us to use Avraham as a mirror for all of our explanations. Is it really, “not the right time”? Are the risks and security concerns that we express legitimate? (please note, I am not referring to governmental policies but to our individual responsibilities). Finally if we want to prioritize helping Jews over non-Jews, well what are we doing to help out Jews? There are Jewish families who have loved ones at the NIH or other hospitals. They need a place to stay. Have we called up Bikur Cholim to see if we can host someone? Do we volunteer to take people to the hospital?

There are many children (Jewish and non-Jewish) in Montgomery county who do not have a safe home to live in. Have we volunteered to be foster parents?

I know I have done none of these things in my life. My finished basement is empty much of the year. If I would have been a Gentile during the Holocaust would I have brought a Jewish family into my home or would I have used all of those excuses? Now, seeing Maharat Fruchter’s action and my inaction, I think that there is a good chance I would not have brought a Jewish family in. This makes me feel guilty.
But guilt is not always so bad if it spurs us into action.
May G-d bless all of us with the courage to act.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Yom Kippur 5777 - Marathon Living vs. Daily Living

A few weeks ago (just before Rosh Hashana), I went on a century bike ride with a number of people from our shul bike club. I have been on a number of centuries before, but this one was different. I didn't really train for it and I was really not ready. Mile 40 felt like mile 60, mile 60 felt like I was already at mile 80 and by the time I actually got to the rest stop at mile 80, I was spent. I had nothing left and I still had 20 miles left. It was at the rest stop that I heard people saying that because of the indirect nature of the the final 20 miles, it was possible to do a direct 6 miles back to the finish line. That would make a total of 86 miles, not bad for a ride! But there was no way that I was going to take the shortcut! I set out to do 100 and I was going to do it no matter how I felt. I rode the last 20. It was painful, slow, hard. Each and every short hill felt like a steep climb. But I finally finished.

When I got home, Sarah, my wife,  asked me how the ride was. I told her how hard and painful it was. To which she said, “let me get this straight, I let you take an entire day off to go on a bike ride. I watch the kids by myself take them to all of their activities, make them lunch and dinner (all this a week before rosh hashana!) and you did not even enjoy yourself. ….

But of course I felt excited about my Marathon like accomplishment. But that feeling didn't last. You see, I tried to use the momentum of the century to break into a more regular exercise pattern. ½ hour a day, 4 times a week. But I have failed miserably.

I realized that it was easier for me to ride 100 miles in one day then exercise ½ hour, (or even just 10 minutes!) 3 times a week for a longer term.

This really got me thinking about how in so many areas of life, it is easier to to do the herculean  task than the disciplined, consistent, ongoing daily or weekly behavior.

A few examples:

Torah - It is easier to literally stay up all night on shavuot or learn Torah for 6 hours straight than incorporate a daily 5-10 minute learning practice into your life.

Many of you know, I am very fond of the Daf Yomi, the practice of studying a page of Talmud a day. Thank G-d, we have about 30 members of our shul who have been studying a page of talmud since the summer of 2012 and are hoping to finish on January 4 2020. The most important part of Daf Yomi, is not the daf. It is the Yomi. The idea that we are learning something every day. It could be an Amud, or a mishna, or an aliyah from that week's Torah reading, a chapter of Tanach. It doesn't matter what it is. It only matters that it is Yomi.

The same is true about so many areas of life. We want to be good parents, spouses, children, and friends. So what do we do? When there is a crisis or a celebration, we are there. We will fly around the world to be there, stay up all night etc. But what about the Yomi (daily) or even Shvui (weekly). At the end of each week, can we think of quality time we spent with each of our kids, or one thing we did special for our spouse. Sure, we will find the strength to be Marathon parents, spouses, children or friends. But what about the daily and weekly.

Sarah and I had a friend in NY who was in a 12 step program and part of her recovery process was to do a small act of chesed every day. It sounds easy. But it isn't when it has to be Yomi. She described how sometimes at the end of a long day, she would realize that she had not done an act of chesed. She would have to go down to the street and try to find something she could do. Living in Manhattan, she described some amazing things. But the real question is not if we can do Marathon Chesed in crisis mode but if we can do a small act of chesed, Yomi.

There is a line in the Vidui (confession) that makes me shudder every time I read it.
הרי אני לפניך ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה
“I am before You (G-d) like a vessel full of shame and humiliation.”
We have all of these negative emotions inside - Shame, embarrassment, remorse, regret. These feelings are so heavy, especially regret and the inner shame it causes. What do we do with our regrets? It is so hard.
I believe that most of the regrets that we have in life do not come because we were not that marathon parent, spouse, friend or jew. Because we probably found the energy during that crisis mode. Our regrets come from failing to do the Yomi stuff.

This past Sunday, we dedicated the Torah classroom as Chuck’s room, in honor and memory of my dear friend Chuck Wheeler who passed away a few months ago.. At the dedication, Chuck’s Hebrew teacher called him a “Matmid,” which means a diligent and persistent student. She pointed out that the root of “Matmid” is “Tamid” which means continuous.

In the temple, there were two kinds of sacrifices. Tamid (daily) and Musaf (additional on holidays like rosh hashana, Yom Kippur). The Tamid is basis for Shacharit and the Musaf for, you guessed it, Musaf. Which one is more important? Let's say they only had one animal. Or let’s say we can only pray either Shacharit or Musaf, which one is more important? The daily boring one done each and every day or the special one, with the longer elaborate service that is dedicated for special occasions?
תדיר ושאינו תדיר, תדיר קדם
This rule is not only about order. It is also about priority. If you can only do one, you do the boring daily one over the exciting Marathon one! In Judaism, the boring daily one wins out every time! It is because it is the boring commitment of the Yomi stuff that makes us as people.

Sometimes I wonder: What if G-d’s commitment to us was like our commitment to G-d and to other people.
What if G-d was really good in the crisis mode at being a Marathon G-d but not so good at the daily stuff.

We thank G-d in the Modim prayer for נסיך שבכל יום עמנו - the miracles of everyday. The fact that we have food to eat, the fact that when we eat food, we are able to digest it. The fact that when we wake up, there is oxygen for us to breathe. We thank Hashem that these miracles are כל יום (every day).

Every day, Tamid. G-d is a Matmid!
Could you imagine if G-d said, I will do it when I can. If I provide oxygen 90% of days, that is pretty good.
No, we need it to be “Yomi.” So then we also need to be “Yomi.”

I want to conclude with a story but the story needs a brief introduction. Many of us know the 12’th Ani Maamin (“I believe”) of Maimonides.
אני מאמן באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח
I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach. I believe that this world can be perfected that my actions matter and that I can make a difference.
ואע"פ שיתמהמה
And even though Moshiach is delayed and it sometimes seems like the world is regressing and that I cannot do anything to make a real difference.
עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא
I still wait for Moshiach. I still have hope and act and live my life with that faith and hope.
But there are two extra words. I wait “Kol Yom” - every day. It must be Kol Yom, daily.
So here is the story about that Ani Maamin.
Reb Azriel Dovid Fastag owned a simple clothing store in Poland before the war. His livelihood came from the store but his passion was composing nigunim for his Rebbe, Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazar, the Modzitzer rebbe. When one of his new niggunim arrived in Modzitz, it was mamash a yom tov for the rebbe. Reb Azriel Dovid was also the chazan in the Modzitzer Shtibel (shul) in Warsaw.
In the late 1930’s the rebbe escaped and eventually made his way to NY but unfortunately many of his chassidim, including Rav Azriel Dovid, were left behind.
One very dark day, Rav Azriel Dovid and the jews of his town were rounded up and put in cattle cars on a train to Treblinka.
As an aside, I always like to look up cities on a map  when I hear about them in stories. So I went on Google Maps and found Warsaw and then Treblinka and hit the button for car directions. It said that Warsaw-Treblinka was an hour and a half drive. But Rav Azriel was not in a car, he was on a train. So I asked for train directions. You know what it said: “Sorry, there are no trains routes from Warsaw to Treblinka.” If only that would have been the answer 70 years ago.
But it wasn't. And Rav Azriel and most of the Modzitzer Chassidim from Warsaw were on that train.
Inside the crowded cars, the situation was deteriorating. Imagine the starvation, the crowding, the gasping for air the stench as the days wore on, the crying children and the parents who couldn't help. It was awful.
All of the sudden, in the midst of that awful scene, Reb Azriel Dovid, saw the letters of the Ani Maamin before his eyes. And he started composing a tune. He hummed at first and then he started singing softly:
Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, B’emunah Shlaima. Beviat Hamoshiach, Beviat Hamoshiach Ani Maamin.
As his voice got louder, people started listening and then joining in. They no longer felt their hunger or could smell the stench. First the parents then the kids and pretty soon the entire cattle car was singing:
Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, B’emunah Shlaima. Beviat Hamoshiach, Beviat Hamoshiach Ani Maamin.
Then the people in the next car overheard and started singing. Eventually the entire train of cattle cars stuffed with Jews (chassidic, misnagdic, religious, and secular) racing along the beautiful countryside from Warsaw to Treblinka was singing:
Ani Maamin, Ani Maamin, B’emunah Shlaima. Beviat Hamoshiach, Beviat Hamoshiach Ani Maamin.
Reb Azriel David opened his eyes to the sight of the singing train. He ripped off part of his shirt and wrote down the musical notes of the song he had just composed. He then said: “If Anyone brings this shirt, with the musical notes, to my rebbe in NY, will get half of my share in the World to Come.
Two young men appeared, promising to bring the song to the Rebbe at any cost. One of them climbed upon the other, and finding a small crack of the train's roof broke out a hole from which to escape.
The two proceeded to jump off and eventually were able to bring the song to the Modzitzer Rebbe in New York.
It is told that on the first Yom Kippur that the Modzitzer Rebbe sang the Ani Ma'amin, there were thousands of Jews in the shul. The entire congregation burst into tears,
"With this niggun," said Rebbe Shaul Yedidya Elazar, "the Jewish people went to the gas chambers. And with this niggun, the Jews will march to greet Moshiach."
When I think about this story, while I am of course very inspired by what happened on the Cattle car, I am more inspired by what happened later. The song made it to NY and so many Jews sang it and were inspired by it daily living their faith and their values Kol Yom, every day. What happened on that train was truly heroic. It was the ultimate Marathon Judaism and G-d gave them the strength to sing the Ani Maamin. But what happened and continues to happen every day as people are inspired by that story and others and live a life of hope and faith in a world in which their daily actions matter, this is the essence of life. This is living Yomi.

May Hashem bless all of us with the ability to live out our Values Yomi. May we have the courage to continue working on ourselves and transform those regrets and shame into beautiful Mitzvot and acts of Chesed. May we all be inscribed for a wonderful 5777!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Rosh Hashana 5777 - Faith Lost; Faith Recovered

I would like to begin with a very personal and intimate story about myself. About 18 years ago (when I was 19), I was studying in a Chareidi Yeshiva. I was very religious and had deep faith. My goal in life was to stay in the Yeshiva, get married, and study and teach Torah my entire life. I was not even planning on going to college for, at that time, I didn’t believe in secular studies.

But even as a devout Yeshiva student, I was always plagued by questions. How do we know G-d exists? Where was G-d during the Holocaust? How do we know the Torah is Divine? And for some reason, as a yeshiva student living in Jerusalem just a few miles from where terrorists were killing people in the name of Islam, I was obsessed with the thought that had I believed G-d wanted me to kill innocent people, I would have done it.

I remember going to the Mashgiach Ruchani (Spiritual Mentor) of the yeshiva with my questions. I was not satisfied with his answers and I kept challenging. Finally, he looked at me and said, “Nissan, do you want to believe?” I said, “Yes, very much.” He told me to stop thinking about G-d. I told him this was impossible because every time I studied Bible or Jewish thought, the questions would come back. So he put me on a course of study where I would only study Talmudic Tractates that dealt with tort law (Baba Kama, Baba Metziah) all about what happens if my ox gores your cow or if we someone is negligent when watching someone else’s property. I buried myself in these Talmudic discussions for about 6 months and thereby buried my questions.

Until….one day I got sick. It was nothing serious but I was running a high fever and could no longer study Talmud. I laid in bed for three days and all I could think about were my questions. My mind was about to explode. After three days, my fever broke and I went to Ben Yehuda street because I heard that there were some used book stores. I needed to find answers to my questions.

I found a bookstore. The first floor only had the “kosher” books and I was not interested in that. But upstairs is where they had the “heretical books.” I walked up the old rickety wooden staircase. I found the shelf that had books on Academic bible, comparative religion and philosophy. I had never before in my life read anything unsanctioned by the yeshiva. With great trepidation, I took some of the books off the shelf, went over to a bench in the corner and started reading. 3 hours later, I realized something changed inside me. I had completely lost my faith. I no longer believed the Torah was divine. I was no longer sure that G-d existed. 12 plus years of wonderful day school education, hundreds of thousands of dollars of day school tuition, countless hours of praying with real tears and devotion, all of it gone. All of it was lost, in 3 hours, on a bench, on the second floor of a used bookstore in the holiest city in the world.

I share this deeply personal moment with all of your (my 500 best friends!) because I have had conversations with so many of you who are struggling with your faith. I hope that my own story (which includes loss of faith but then an intense long process of rebuilding my faith) can serve as a model for you wherever you are on your faith journey.

I have been rereading Elie Wiesel's books in the three months since his death. For many people, Wiesel's writings (especially “Night”) are a glimpse into the horrors of the Shoah. But for me, when I read  “Night” as a 19 year old, the Holocaust was just the backdrop. Almost every page of the book was like an arrow piercing into my heart of faith. Let me give one example.

At one point, Wiesel’s foot was frozen and infected. He almost lost it. He was in the infirmary talking to his neighbor in the next bed. They hear bombing and shooting coming from the Allied forces and Wiesel had hope that the nightmare would end. His neighbor said:

“Don’t let yourself be fooled with illusions. Hitler has made it very clear that he will annihilate all the Jews before the clock strikes twelve…
Weisel bursts out:
“What does it matter to you? Do we have to regard Hitler as a prophet?”
The neighbor’s glazed eyes look at Wiesel. At last he says in a weary voice:
“I’ve got more faith in Hitler that in anyone else. He’s the only one who’s kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” (“Night” page 87)

As a 19 year old, passages like these crushed my faith in the G-d who controls the world and who answers prayers. It was a very scary time for me because my entire anchor and foundation was faith and it was all coming crashing down.

So how did I get from that very scary place to here? How am I now a rabbi with a rebuilt faith that in many ways is stronger and more enduring than before?

For this I turn to one of the names of Rosh Hashana, Yom Harat Olam (anniversary of the creation of the world). It is not really the anniversary of the creation of the world. That happened 6 days ago on the 25th of Elul but today is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. G-d could only be coronated as King of the Universe once there were people. So how did this coronation take place 5,777 years ago on the first Rosh Hashana. Well there were no synagogues, no minyan, and no shofar. All they had was G-d, Adam and Eve, and the snake. G-d told Adam (who then told Eve) not to eat from the tree of Knowledge. In other words, the entire Torah was this one commandment. They were told that if they eat, they will die.
In comes the snake and tempts Eve with the fruit. At first she says she will not eat because she does not want to die.
(I remember this feeling. As a teenager, as much as I would have loved to have a cheeseburger, I was convinced that I wouldn't be able to even finish it before lighting would strike me dead!)
The snake convinces her that she won’t die so she and Adam eat the fruit. Now here is the schocker. Whose prediction was correct, the snake or G-d? The snake was correct. They did not die!
(This is like the rebellious teenager who starts to lose faith and eats the cheeseburger and….no lightning….G-d is not going to do anything).
So Adam and Eve are probably in a pretty bad place (from a faith perspective at this point). They have just violated the only commandment and G-d’s threat did not materialize.
But that is not the end of the story. I think there is a shofar in the story. It is a question. The first question in the Bible. Ayeka - Where are you? They hear G-d’s existential question. What is the point of being here. Who are they? This question which is deeper than any faith proposition draws them back.

I think that what saved me when I was 19 is that I always heard that question. I always heard the sound of the shofar. I always wanted to reconnect as my connection it was something much deeper than any article of faith and I held onto it and built on it.

This is not the place or time to go through the theological underpinnings of my reconstructed faith. My questions took me to Kabbalah and Chasidut, to Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and many other works. I would be happy to go into more detail at other opportunities. But for now, I have one message:
Don’t give up on faith! Don’t give up on Torah and our amazing jewish values and teachings. Even if you feel like you are struggling with (or have even completely lost) your faith, ask yourself if you hear the call of “Ayeka” (Where are you). When you will hear the shofar in just a few minutes, will it just be a sound or will it reach some place deep inside of you? If you don’t hear it, try to listen even harder. If it reaches that place, grab onto it and if you want it, I promise you, you can build on it.

Let me return to Elie Wiesel. I just finished rereading “Night.” Now, in reading the book that originally shattered my faith, I found G-d on almost every page. An example:

When Wiesel and his family first arrived in Auschwitz, they heard the SS Officer say those fateful 8 words:
“Men to the left. Women to the right.”
“For a part of a second, I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father. I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand.” (“Night” page 39).

As heartbreaking as this passage is, I see G-d all over it. I see G-d in Wiesel’s mother’s hand as she stroked her daughter’s hair. I see G-d in that holy space between father and son as they walked together hand in hand.

Later in the book, when Wiesel sees another son who abandons his father for the sake of his own survival, Wiesel offers a prayer “to the G-d I no longer believe in” that he should be able to take care of his father. I see G-d and faith in their beautiful relationship throughout the book. In recent years, I have also become very taken by Holocaust responsa and I see G-d in every Jew’s attempts during the Shoah to keep the holidays or kosher or in attempts to share a piece of bread or even a smile with their fellow.

I want to underscore that this sermon is not a theological treatise on the question of “where was G-d during the shoah?”. It is also not a description of my personal theology (nor should it be analyzed as such). It is just my way of showing that if you continue to hear the sound of the shofar, if you continue to hear the question, Ayeka, you can grab onto it and pull yourself back.

We just observed the 15th anniversary of 9/11. 9/11 happened at the time when I was working on reconstructing my faith. The images of the twin towers and the pentagon became a prominent metaphor for me. I started to think of my old faith like the World Trade Center Towers. My faith, like the towers, was soaring and majestic. It reached the heavens. But as soon as it was hit with a severe blow, it all came crashing down. My new faith is more like the Pentagon. It is lower to the ground. It is spread out. It takes a long time to navigate and understand. But when and if it receives a blow, it will continue to stand. It can be rebuilt. I am told that the pentagon has many underground floors and rooms. In other words, while it might not soar to heaven it has deep roots. A great part of my rabbinate is helping people build their pentagon faith.

This past summer, I was in Israel. I have visited Israel many times since but have never returned to that bookstore. This time, I had a burning desire to return to the place (אל המקום) that impacted me so much.
So I started looking for the bookstore. I went in one bookstore, not the right one. A second, not it either, but I was given directions to a third. I walked into a narrow alley. Found the bookstore and walked inside. This was it. I climbed those rickety wooden stairs to the second floor. I went to the shelf. I swear that some of those books on the shelf were the same ones from 18 years ago! I took a book off the shelf and walked over to the bench but instead of reading, I started to weep. It was a deep cry. I don't know where it came from but I couldn't stop for at least 5 minutes.
I had never mourned my lost faith. I never mourned my world trade center tower which soared to the heaven and now I was weeping for that loss.
After 5 minutes the tears dried up and in its place came a great sense of happiness. I looked around the shelves with the knowledge that I could read any of these books and while I might get challenged and have to rethink things, no book could shatter my faith. My new faith is strong and enduring and comes from the deepest part of my being.

So I decided I had to buy a book but not from the second floor!. I walked downstairs to the “kosher” section and I found a Yom Ha’atzmaut Machzor (prayerbook). This was particularly exciting for me because my first faith did not have room in it to celebrate Zionism and the miracle of the modern state of Israel. Today, with my new faith, Yom Ha’atzmaut is a day I celebrate the “Hand” of G-d acting in this world through human initiative.

So I ask all of you as you hear the sound of the shofar, listen for that question, Ayeka - where are you and where do you want to go? When you hear the shofar does it touch you some place inside of you? If so, grab onto it and allow it to propel you into a wonderfully fulfilling and deeply meaningful 5777.

Shana Tova!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Pesach and Tefilin - 6th Annual Beth Sholom Guys Night Out - Pre Pesach learning

A number of years ago, shortly after 9/11, Sarah and I travelled to Iowa. On our way home, as we were going through security, I got called over for additional screening. I saw the TSA officer going through my carry on bag. He pulled out my Tefilin bag and was trying to figure out what was in there. He seemed like a really nice guy but he definitely was not Jewish and I don’t think he ever saw Tefilin before. He said to me, “Sir, what is in this bag?” I was about to say, “Oh don’t worry that is just my Tefilin,” but I realized that he of course would not know the Hebrew word, Tefilin. So instead I said, “Oh those are my phylacteries.” That certainly settled it!
Who came up with the word, “Phylactery” as a translation for Tefilin? A “Phylactery” sounds like something you take when you are constipated!
At any rate, the officer says to me, “What is a phylactery?”
I say, “well you see, it comes from Deuteronomy when G-d commands us to write sections of Bible and put them in these black boxes.”
“What do you do with them,” he asked. I told him that I put them on my arm and head.
The officer then looked at me and with 100% sincerity said, “Now I am believer just like you. I am a Christian. But why would the Lord want you to put those things on your head?”
I was stumped! I didn't have a good answer for him then, and I have been looking for one ever since. Tonight, I would like to share an answer with you and relate it to the Seder and Pesach.

I will begin with two important tefilin images from the 20th century. The first was in the beginning of the 20th century. As Eastern European Jews came over from Russia and Poland and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, many Jews did something very tragic. Many threw their tefilin overboard into the Atlantic Ocean. Their conception of Liberty was throwing off the tefilin. They wanted to be frei, or free from the shackles of Torah and Mitzvot.

The second image takes us to the days leading up to the 1967, six day war. Troops from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia advanced to Israel’s border. Israel was being strangled. The low death toll estimates for Israel were over 10,000. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren was preparing the country’s public parks to be cemeteries. About a week before the war on Lag Ba’omer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke to thousands of youth. He announced the first of the 10 mitzvah campaigns. Jews all over the world, including the troops in Israel, should put on Tefilin, and he said, “This will be a merit for victory.”  Israel was of course victorious and the tefilin campaign resulted in over 400,000 men putting on tefilin at least once.

I think about these two moments in Jewish history. In the beginning of the 20th century, Jews who had been religous, who wore tefilin their entire lives, were throwing off their tefilin. In 1967, Jews who had been secular, who never wore tefilin or had not put them on since their Bar Mitzvah, were now putting them back on. We are still part of this movement of Jews around the world becoming more and more connected to our beautiful mitzvot.

So this is all nice but what does it have to do with Pesach?
In order to understand the connection between Pesach and Tefilin we actually have to look inside the Tefilin. The Tefilin have 4 Torah sections. The arm Tefilin (shel Yad) have the 4 sections on one rolled up piece of parchment. The head tefilin (shel rosh) have the same 4 sections on 4 different pieces of parchment.

But what sections of Torah are actually in the Tefilin? Most people, if asked, would probably say the “shema.” This is correct. The 3’rd and 4’th sections are the first two paragraphs of the shema. But what are first two Torah passages in the Tefilin? The answer is they are passages from Chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus. They are all about the Seder! Included in the Tefillin are the following verses:
  1. “Remember that you were in Egypt”- source for commandment to discuss Exodus on Seder night
  2. “Eat Matzah”
  3. Don't eat Chometz”
  4. The answer to the Wicked Son and the One who doesnt know how to ask.
  5. The question and answer to the Simple Son.
  6. The requirement to teach your children on seder night.
  7. The obligation to see ourselves as having gone forth from Egypt.

Did you know that all of that is in your Tefilin?!?!
It is all in there!

So now I have a new way of understanding the essence of the Tefilin. We all have a beautiful seder. We teach our children and grandchildren our deepest values and beliefs. We show them why we are Jewish and why we hope they will carry on our traditions. But then, we leave the seder and pesach and what then. Are these ideas only discussed one or two nights a year? Well the idea of the Tefilin is to literally capture the magic of the seder and put it in little black boxes. We then put them on every morning on our head (as we dedicate our thoughts, hopes and dreams) and on our arm (as we dedicate our actions) to the values of the Seder. The seder is too amazing to be limited to Pesach! The tefilin enable us to take the seder with us each and every day and make our life all about those values!

I have asked a number of people, “what are the biggest hurdles in wearing Tefilin?” The two answers I get are:
  1. It takes too long. I don't have enough time in the morning.
  2. I don’t know how to put them on.

The answer to hurdle #1 is that while it is nice to pray shacharit with tefilin on (and this does take time), we should remember that the mitzvot of Tefilin and Prayer are independent of each other. Even if you have 2 minutes, put on tefilin, make the blessings, close your eyes and make a commitment to take the magic of the seder (and the shema) into your day. It will only take 2 minutes.

The answer to hurdle #2 is that I don’t know any rabbi or friend who wouldn’t love  to help. Please set up a meeting with me (or with your rabbi, if you go to another shul) and learn the how to and meaning of the tefilin. It will change your life and your family.

So here is the takeaway. The seder will be here in less than two weeks. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. Take the Haggadah with you wherever you go; on the train, to work etc. Make it your companion. Whenever you have an extra few minutes, go through it. Take notes. Try to think of the deepest values and ideas that you want to communicate to your children and grandchildren this Pesach. Why be Jewish? Why does the Exodus story matter to them. How can it elevate their lives? You would never show up to an important interview or business meeting unprepared, so how can you show up to the most important Jewish family moment of the year unprepared.

Then after Pesach, after you have had the holiest and deepest seder experience, bottle it up in your tefilin and take it with you each and every day for the rest of the year until your tefilin will be recharged with next year’s Seder Magic.

Now I want to tell you why I really spoke about this topic tonight. Sure, I am interested in the Tefilin Passages and its connection to Pesach but I really spoke about this because it is deeply personal.

In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Lubavitcher Rebbe intensified the Tefilin Campain. A Jewish man who was in his thirties (married with two children), who had not put on tefilin since his bar mitzvah, heard the Rebbe on the radio. The Rebbe requested that all Jewish men put on Tefilin to bring a merit to the Israeli soldiers. This man decided to go the shul and put on Tefilin. He then did a second time and a third and before the end of the year, this man and his family were 100% religious. That man is my father.
Now I mentioned that before wearing Tefilin, my parents had two children. Well I am child #4 of 6! After my parents became religious, they had another 4 children! I literally only exist because of Tefilin! One of my favorite pictures is my father sitting next to me wearing his Tefilin holding my son at his bris. The three generations. We only exist because of the Gift of Tefilin. Please give your family the gift of Tefilin. Please take the magic that you will create at the Seder this year, bottle it up and make it part of your daily practice every morning.

Wishing everyone a Chag Kasher V’sameach!
Rabbi Antine