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History or Memory: Honoring our Survivors by Attending a Yom Ha’Shoah Program

on Wednesday, April 27 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

How many people do you know who fast on the 20th of Sivan?  The likely answer is zero.  It is not one of the minor fast days, and obviously not Tisha B’av or Yom Kippur, so why would anyone fast?

Twice in our history, the 20th of Sivan was designated as a permanent fast day to commemorate massacres against our people.  The first time was by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson in 1171, after 31 Torah scholars were executed as a result of a blood libel in France.  Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a day of fasting “greater than Tzom Gedalya, like Yom Kippur,” and instituted special selichos to be recited.  Shortly after, the Crusades expanded and for the next 150 years would bring great devastation of Jewish communities.  It overshadowed the incident of the blood libel and the fast ceased being observed.

Almost 500 years later, from 1648-1649, Polish Anti-Semite Chmielnicki launched a series of pogroms that led do the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the loss of hundreds of Jewish communities.  The Shach, Rav Shabbsai Ha’Kohen, instituted the 20th of Sivan as a private fast day for his family to commemorate their great loss.  Soon after, the Council of the Four Lands, the rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, adopted the fast for all Polish Jewry in commemoration of the tragedies of what became known as Tach V’Tat.

Twice the 20th of Sivan was designated as a day commemorating Jewish tragedies, and twice the observance faded until it is now entirely obsolete.

Learning about the 20th of Sivan, one can’t help but wonder – what will become of Yom Ha’Shoah?  Will it continue to be observed 20 years from now?  Will gatherings, commemorations, ceremonies, and school assemblies be held, or as time passes will Holocaust Remembrance Day fade into oblivion?

Sadly, the likelihood is that Yom Ha’Shoah will go the way of the 20th of Sivan.   While the Holocaust was a defining event and experience for the last two generations, evidence shows that young people today want to “move on,” put it “behind us,” and come “out from under its shadow.”   The younger generation is rapidly seeing the Holocaust in the context of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain: events that are part of our past, rather than as something that happened to our parents and grandparents, a very real piece of our personal lives.

I don’t know what will happen with Yom Ha’Shoah in the future.  What I do know, is that as long as we are blessed to have our precious and holy survivors, Yom Ha’Shoah is not just about commemorating an event of Jewish history and memorializing the kedoshim, the 6 million who were murdered in our past.  For who knows how much longer, Yom Ha’Shoah is about the present and the opportunity to honor and express our awe at the extraordinary survivors in our midst.

Our survivors have lived through the greatest atrocities and most horrific circumstances in the history of the world.  They endured unimaginable suffering, inconceivable loss, and profound pain.  They rebuilt their lives with deep faith, amazing and inspiring optimism, and in most cases little to no expectation that the world owes them anything in return for what they have been through.

With the Holocaust survivors whom I have been privileged to know, I have found that there is one request they have of us, one wish and hope: they are desperate for us not to forget what they went through.  They reawaken their darkest memories and become traumatized each time they share their horrendous stories.  More than one survivor has told me that for days after telling their story, they cannot sleep, eat, or find a peaceful moment.    Nevertheless, they open themselves up to great pain continue to tell their story with the hope and expectation that we are listening, that we will remember, and that we will continue to tell it long after they are gone.

In his Hagaddah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as part. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity.

Our survivors tell their story and give personal testimony because more than anything they don’t want the Holocaust to be relegated to history; they desperately want it to remain part of our collective memory.

In his article, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom Ha-Sho’a” published in Tradition 41:2, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter traces the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah and examines the great debate surrounding its observance.   Whether you feel Yom Ha’Shoah should have been established or you believe Holocaust remembrance should be incorporated into our day of national mourning, Tisha B’av, is academic at this point.  The reality is that the Jewish calendar marks Yom Ha’Shoah and failure to participate in remembering is essentially a slap in the face of our beloved survivors who yearn to know that we have not forgotten their loss and suffering.

Our Yom Ha’Shoah program this year will take place on Wednesday evening beginning with a live presentation via phone from Rabbi Broide and our students participating on March of the Living.  The formal  program begins at 7:00pm and features remarks by Mrs. Tova Friedman and the powerful film, “Treblinka’s Last Witness.”

If you have children of a suitable age, I implore you to bring them.  Older people and adults have lived with and met Holocaust survivors.  It is specifically children who are running out of time and opportunities to meet these extraordinary people whom they will look back at later in life and only wish they could have known better.  Babysitting is available at no charge by registering with Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger at rge@brsonline.org

With all the pressures on our time and the endless list of things that we must get done, I simply can’t imagine a more important place to be on Wednesday evening than with your children at your side honoring the survivors of our community.  What could possibly be more important?

(Reposted with modifications)

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Managing Expectations is the Key to a Beautiful Holiday

on Wednesday, April 20 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

According to the 2013 Pew study, while only 23% of American Jews said they attend religious services at least monthly, 70% reported that they participate in a Seder on Passover. More than any other holiday, Pesach brings family together. These reunions are often filled with promise and hope of quality time that will yield only the most positive memories. In reality, however, it can be difficult to be with lots of people in cramped quarters for numerous meals that go on for hours without some conflict, competition, or quarrels arising.  After all, they say the definition of a dysfunctional family, is any family with more than one member.

An unusual custom regarding matzah is very instructive as to how to prepare for a family Pesach together:

The holiday of Pesach, and the Seder in particular, are brought to us by the number four: four questions, four sons, four cups of wine. And yet, when it comes to matzah, we have three. Why?

Many explanations have been offered:

  • The halachik explanation is that we need to have lechem mishna, two full matzahs, just as we have two challahs every week. Since we plan on breaking one at yachatz, rendering it ineligible for lechem mishna, we need to begin with three.
  • The matzahs commemorate the three measures of fine flour that Avraham told Sarah to bake into matzah when the three angels were visiting. Rashi points out in his Torah commentary that the angels’ visit occurred on Pesach.
  • The Magen Avraham, Rav Avraham Gombiner, suggests that the three matzahs represent Moshe, Aharon, and the Jewish people.
  • One suggestion is that the three are for Chachma, Bina and Da’as, known commonly by its acronym, Chabad.
  • More popular explanations include – Kohein, Levi and Yisroel, or Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov

We have come to take it for granted that there are three matzahs, but Sefer Minhagei Yisroel by Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan references a fascinating custom. In the 17th century, the practice was to have four matzahs at the seder, not three. Rav Yaakov Reischer was a dayan in Prague before being called to the Rabbinate, first in Galicia and ultimately in Worms. In his work, Chok Yaakov, he mentions that the custom in his community is to bake four matzos, in order to have a spare. His commentary, published in 1696, indicates that this was the prevalent custom already at that time in Eastern Europe. In addition, there are mentions of the custom to bake four matzahs in the eighteenth century in England.

This custom was opposed by great halachik authorities, not because they didn’t like the idea, but for a technical reason. They felt the more matzah baked, the more dough necessary and the more dough necessary, the greater the chance of chametz. So, in the end, we only have three matzahs. But I believe the symbolism of the fourth is very meaningful for us as well.

Why have the fourth matzah? It was called the matzas safek. Its purpose was to be a reserve matzah in case one of the other ones breaks. But that explanation raises questions as well. Sure the matzah is delicate, but so is the pittom of an esrog and we don’t say to have an extra esrog handy. We don’t have a spare shofar, or a backup menorah. Why specifically do we have a backup, reserve matzah?

Studies show that depression and anxiety spike during holiday time. “A lot of times it’s the disconnect for many people between what is supposed to be a really warm family gathering and what it’s really like for some families,” says Dr. John Oldham, chief of staff and senior vice president of The Menninger Clinic in Houston.

Shofar, esrog, the menorah, etc. can all be accomplished and fulfilled on one’s own. There is no dialogue, no relationship, and no interaction involved with those mitzvos. The seder, in stark contrast, is characterized by haggadah – a dialogue and conversation. Pesach above all other holidays brings people together. “How many are you having for yom tov” or “How many are you having for the seder” are common questions this time of year.

We bring high expectations to our holiday reunion. This year will be great. Everyone will get along. I won’t have to compete for attention. The kids will be enraptured by the seder and not distracted. Nothing will spill. Perhaps the custom of a fourth matzah originated because we must understand going into the seder that matzah is going to break.  The Torah does not describe a utopian life. The Torah is designed to inspire and enrich our imperfect lives.

The message of the matzas safek, though we may no longer practice it, is to adjust your expectations and set yourself free. Maintaining hope in a perfect experience, relationship or holiday is exhausting and burdensome. Understanding at the outset that things will go wrong and bumps will be encountered along the way is liberating and cathartic.

Part of the seder, the order of life, is preparing for the broken pieces. A chassan and kallah, groom and bride, stand underneath the chuppah and ceremony concludes with breaking glass. It is critical before they even take leave of this most auspicious and special moment that the young man and woman realize that things will break, obstacles will be encountered, and that this is ok. We can’t control other people and we can’t control all events and circumstances. We can control our expectations and, more importantly, how we respond in turn. That ability to control and adjust our expectations is freedom.

May our lives and our matzahs remain whole, but let us be prepared for something to break and know that we have the ability to put it back together again.

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Thanking Those Who Packed Our Parachutes, The Essence of Dayeinu

on Thursday, April 14 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It Would Have Been Enough, Really?

It is almost impossible to imagine the Seder night without the singing of dayeinu.  Young children to octogenarians can be found humming the addictive melody to dayeinu.  Interestingly, the Rambam does not have dayeinu in his Hagaddah and even Rav Saadia Gaon whose Hagaddah serves essentially as the basis for ours, only has dayeinu as an addendum at the end of the Haggadah among those songs that only those who can hold their wine sing.

Yet for us, dayeinu is central, a centerpiece of the hagaddah and a highlight of Seder experience.  The tune is catchy, but the words and theme are frankly bizarre.  Had you taken us from Egypt but not split the sea, dayenu.  Really, would it have been enough?  If you had taken us to Har Sinai but not given us the Torah, dayenu, it would have been enough.  Really, don’t we talk about how the Torah is the air that we breathe, indispensable to our lives and to our very existence?   Had He given us the Torah but not brought us into Israel it would have been enough.  Really?  Wasn’t Israel created before the world because it, the Jewish people and Torah and the three pillars upon which the world is built?

Every commentator and every Hagadda asks the same question:  What do you mean dayenu, it would have been enough?   Most of the discussions of dayeinu, center around an analysis of individual and particular stanzas.  However, I want to share with you an insight that will give you an entirely new way to understand dayeinu. Understanding what dayeinu is really all about and why it is a centerpiece of our Seder requires us to zoom out the lens and instead of investigating specific lines, to look at the poem as a whole.   What do the 15 stanzas have in common?  Why were these events or experiences chosen?

Rabbi Nachman Cohen in his Historical Haggada offers a fantastic insight.   If you look at the Chumash and in Tehillim, chapter 106 in particular you will notice that every stanza of dayeinu corresponds with an incredibly gracious act God did for us and our absolute ungrateful response.

Here are a few examples: We say “had God just taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough.” However, if you look in Deuteronomy 1:27 it wasn’t enough. “Because God hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.”

Another example: we say, “If you just fed us the manna it would have been enough.” But it wasn’t enough. We said, “our soul loathes this bread.” We say, If You just brought us into Israel dayeinu, it would have been enough,” but it wasn’t. It says in Numbers, “[Israel is ] the land that eats up its inhabitants.”

Explains Rabbi Nachman Cohen, dayeinu is our reflecting on our history and repairing the lack of gratitude we exhibited in the past. Seder night we look back on our national history, we review our story and we identify those moments, those gifts from God that we failed to say thank you for. We rectify and repair our ingratitude and thanklessness through the years by saying dayeinu now. In truth, dayeinu, each of these things was enough to be exceedingly grateful for.

Freedom demands gratitude.   If you have are set free, but fail to acknowledge how you attained that freedom, you in fact remain enslaved to your ego and you selfishness.   If you can’t recognize what has been done for you and that you could not have done it yourself, you are not freed from your narrow, self absorbed way of life.  Gratitude is a byproduct of true freedom.

The Midrash describes – He who has no gratitude is like one who negates the existence of God.  If you are so insensitive to those who benefit and sustain you, certainly you will never recognize the blessings which God provides.

Ingratitude is a fatal character flaw individually and nationally.  On the night of Pesach, when we relive the experience of becoming a people and celebrate our national birth we repair the ingratitude of our past with the recognition that we are unworthy and dayeinu, all that God did for us was beyond what we deserved.

Instilling Gratitude in the Home

A couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled, Raising Children With an Attitude of Gratitude, Research Finds Real Benefits for Kids Who Say ‘Thank You’.  The author, Dianna Kapp writes:

“A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings indicate parents’ instincts to elevate the topic are spot-on. Concrete benefits come to kids who literally count their blessings.  Gratitude works like a muscle. Take time to recognize good fortune, and feelings of appreciation can increase.”

The mere act of giving thanks has tangible benefits, research suggests. A 2008 study of 221 kids published in the Journal of School Psychology analyzed sixth- and seventh-graders assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with kids assigned to list five hassles.

“The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here,” says University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons.  Parents need to model this behavior to build their children’s gratitude muscle. “It’s not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have,” Dr. Emmons says.

Everyday actions may be even more important than big efforts, researchers say. “Express gratitude to your spouse. Thank your kids,” Hofstra’s Dr. Froh says. “Parents say, ‘Why should I thank them for doing something they should do, like clean their room?’ By reinforcing this, kids will internalize the idea, and do it on their own.”

Seder night is an incredible opportunity to model gratitude for our children, grandchildren and all gathered.  During dayeinu, pause to be appreciative, not only to Hashem for what He has done for our people and for each of us.  Be thankful to those who worked so hard to make Pesach happen.  Someone or someones had to work hard to earn the money to pay for pesach.  Someone had to shop, cook, clean, prepare, set up, clean up, etc.  Don’t just thank your spouse or your parents, but as the article says, thank your children for what they did to pitch in.

Dayeinu teaches that Pesach is not just a time to learn the attitude of gratitude and how to say thank you for the present.  Pesach reminds us that to set ourselves free we need to look back at our lives and identify those who made all the difference and whom we neglected to thank.  Pesach pushes us to make a tikkun, to repair the ingratitude and reach out to say thank you.

Who Packed Your Parachute?

Charles Plum, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands.   He was captured and spent six years in a Communist prison.  He survived that ordeal and one day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam and you were shot down!”  “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.   “I packed your parachute,” the man replied,  “I guess it worked!”

That night, Plumb couldn’t sleep while thinking about that man.  He kept wondering what this man might have looked like in a sailor uniform.  He wondered how many times he might have passed him on the ship and never acknowledged him.  How many times he never said hello, good morning or how are you.   You see, Plumb was a fighter pilot, respected and revered, while this man was just a ordinary, lowly sailor.    Now it grated on his conscious.  Plumb thought of the many lonely hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the fabric together, making sure the parachute was just right and going to great lengths to make it as precise as can be, knowing that somebody’s life depended on it.  Only now, does Plumb have a full appreciation for what this anonymous man did and he now goes around the world as a motivational speaker asking people to recognize, who’s packing your parachute.

I have a friend who set up a couple 20 years ago.  He told me something incredible.  Every single year on their anniversary, this couple not only get one another gifts but they get my friend, their shadchan, matchmaker, a gift as well.  For their big anniversary they got him a big gift recognizing that the happiness they have together would never have happened without his bothering to set them up.

I know someone who received scholarships from the schools he attended growing up from elementary school through graduate school.  When he became financially successful, the first thing he did was write a beautiful thank you note and make donations to each of the schools that helped give him a chance.

Have we thanked those who contributed to the lives we are blessed to live?  Imagine if our kindergarten teacher got a note from us thanking her for nurturing us with love.  Imagine if our high school principal, our childhood pediatrician, our housekeeper growing up who cleaned our room, out of the blue got a gesture of gratitude showing that we cared enough to track them down and say thank you after all of these years.   Did we ever properly thank the teacher who was patient with us, the orthodontist who straightened out our teeth, the bus driver who drove us?  Did we express enough appreciation to the person who set us up with our spouse, gave us our first job, safely delivered our children?

We all have family, friends, mentors and neighbors, whose efforts are responsible for who we are today.  Freedom means knowing that we didn’t get here on our own.  This Pesach, let’s sing our own personal dayeinu and repair our ingratitude by saying thank you to those who packed our parachutes.

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What a Victim of ALS Can Teach Us About Our Power of Speech: Just Shine a Little Light

on Thursday, April 7 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Imagine being a prisoner in your own body, fully aware, entirely conscious, thinking and emotionally feeling, and yet unable to move or speak at all. For many suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that is exactly what their life looks like day in and day out. Through a couple of viral videos, last week the Jewish world was introduced to an extraordinary individual suffering from ALS.

Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz and his wife Dina, together with their seven children, were the dedicated spiritual leaders of the Chabad in Temecula, California. R’ Yitzi was always the life of the party, filled with energy, enthusiasm, and love for all people. In 2013, however, his life dramatically changed when he suddenly started slurring his speech and found walking difficult. He was diagnosed with Bulbar ALS and soon after he was no longer able to walk and his voice disappeared entirely.

In a short three years, R’ Yitzi, forty-one years old, has become completely paralyzed and breathes through a permanent ventilator. His only means of connecting with the world is by moving his eyes which allow him to control a screen and choose the letters one by one that spell out words that combine into a sentence and turn into a paragraph. Remarkably, R’ Yitzi publishes a weekly blog (http://yitzihurwitz.blogspot.com/) with a Dvar Torah on the Parsha, which usually contains a message of faith, hope, and optimism. It takes him all day to write the message and leaves him exhausted and spent, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He once wrote, “I don’t know why G-d made this happen, but there must be something I can accomplish now, that I wasn’t able to before this. I have always taught others that everything G-d does is for the good although we don’t always see it openly. So now, when this happened to me, I have to live with this same belief and deepen my faith, so that it is not just a matter of words.”

Recently, R’ Yitzi’s family found an old memory card and discovered an original song he had composed called Shine a Little Light. Famous Jewish musicians worked together to produce a wonderful version of the song and music video tribute to him.

In cannot be a coincidence that R’ Yitzi’s story has gone viral during the very weeks that we read about the gift of speech and the power it contains. We must never take for granted the capacity to communicate easily or the potency in that gift. In fact, Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, teaches us (Mishlei 18:21) “Maves v’chaim b’yad lashon, death and life are in the hand of the tongue.”

Speech can be used to build, to create, to uplift, to encourage, to console and to provide confidence and worth. Or it can be used for what the Torah dedicates two full portions to, namely the consequences of using speech to diminish and destroy, to isolate and to denigrate.

How we use our power and gift of speech says everything about who we are and what we strive to be. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

The Parsha of the metzorah, the one who is stricken with spiritual leprosy after speaking gossip begins by reminding us that the choice of whether to use speech for the purpose of being constructive or destructive is ours: “adom ki yiheyeh b’or b’saro – if a person will have on the skin of his flesh.” A number of commentators ask ,why does the Torah employ the term adom for man? Normally, when the Torah is teaching Jewish law it uses the word ish, why here does it say adom?

Perhaps the Torah uses the unusual term adom at the beginning of the discussion of the metzorah to remind us of the original use of the word adom, in the chapters of creation in Parshas Bereishis: “Vayehi ha’adom l’nefesh chaya, and man became a living being.” This pasuk describes man gaining life and becoming a living creature, in distinction to animals. Unkelus translates the terms l’nefesh chaya as l’ruach melalela, meaning a talking being. According to Unkelus, what distinguishes man from the rest of creation is the ability to talk, to communicate and to express.

Perhaps the Torah chooses to use the term adom in introducing the laws of the metzora in order to remind us of the original adom and that as a ruach m’malela, a speaking being, we have a choice. We can use words to construct or destruct, to build or to destroy. The Sefer HaChinuch writes, “The greatest treasure which the human being possesses is the power of speech, because through this, he is greater than all other creatures.”

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, formerly a prominent Rabbi in Atlanta, writes in his memoirs of the most difficult question he was asked in his entire rabbinic career. He once received a call from a woman who was desperate to meet with him. When they met, he asked her what is so urgent, how could he help? The woman went on to say, “Rabbi, I have cancer of the larynx and next week and I am having surgery to have my larynx removed.” This was before the advent of the device that when placed next to the voice box emits an electric voice. And so she asked him, “Rabbi, I will never be able to speak again, but I can chose the final words my lips will ever utter, what should they be?” Rabbi Feldman describes this as his most difficult question.

What would you answer and what would you choose? Would your last words be an expression of love to a spouse or children, would they be a statement of your faith, would it be a prayer that you offer or a song you sing? If you could only speak one more time, what would you say? And, if that is what you would say if you had one last chance to speak, why not say it now? Why not value every opportunity to communicate as if it is our last.

Last week’s Parsha, Shemini, discusses the laws of kashrus, of what we eat, consume and ingest. Rav Yisroel Salanter points out that it is followed immediately by this week’s Parsha dealing with lashon hara to remind us that what comes out of our mouth is as important as what goes into it.

Though Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz is paralyzed and only able to painstakingly communicate through his eyes, he continues to inspire with his indomitable spirit, his courage and faith and his joyful soul. If that is what he accomplishes with the greatest limitations, imagine what we could do if we all used our power of speech to shine a little light.

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