Was it President Lincoln in 1863, President Washington in 1789, or the Pilgrims themselves in 1622? While historians may debate when the holiday of Thanksgiving was first instituted, the practice of giving thanks began much earlier.
We read in last week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, that Leah names her fourth son Yehudah from the root hoda’ah out of gratitude to Hashem. Indeed, the Talmud (Berachos 7b) quotes Rav Shimon bar Yochai as teaching that, in fact, Leah was the first person in history to say “thank you” to Hashem.
How could that be? Did Adom Ha’Rishon upon being exiled from Gan Eden and learning about second chances not say “tov l’hodos laShem, it is good to thank the Almighty?” Did Noach and Malki Tzedek not express their gratitude to the Master of the Universe? Did Eliezer not communicate appreciation for divine assistance in fulfilling his mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak? And the list could go on. How could the Talmud make such a bold assertion when it seems from the Torah itself not to be true?
Rav Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg offers a beautiful suggestion. Yes, there were individuals prior to Leah who had expressed gratitude. However, their gratitude was always in response to a supernatural phenomenon, to the revealed hand of God in their life. Leah, in contrast, was the first to say thank you for something which others considered completely natural. Her thank you wasn’t the result of being miraculously saved or being given a second chance. Leah expressed deep gratitude to Hashem for the natural, biological experience of having a baby. Her thank you was an implicit acknowledgment that even that which appears natural, regular or ordinary is also the result of the extraordinary hand of the Divine.
As we mark the holiday of Thanksgiving this weekend, it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the most authentic thanks is for that which we are tempted to take for granted and not even recognize at all. If you woke up this morning and you have all your faculties, you should give thanks. If you have a roof over your head and food to eat, you should give thanks. If you are blessed with a spouse and children, you should give thanks.
And as our brothers and sisters in Israel have tragically learned too often of late, if when you go to sleep at night, everyone in your family and in your home is as healthy and well as they were when you and they woke up, you should give tremendous thanks.
The great Rav Yeruchem Levovitz offers another answer to our question. He explains that most people say thank you in order to pay off their debt of gratitude. Someone does something nice for us and in a quid pro quo, we say thank you to them to settle the score. Indeed, in each of the incidents that preceded Leah saying thank you, the speaker offered a one-time expression of appreciation and moved on.
Leah did something categorically different. She named her son Yehudah. She named him, “I am grateful.” Every time she called out his name – “Yehudah come for supper, Yehudah did you do your homework, Yehudah – what time will you be home tonight,” she reawakened her sense of appreciation. Unlike the others who said thank you and paid off their debt of gratitude, Leah formulated a feeling of thanks that was sustained, perpetual, and that was felt each and every day on a consistent basis.
Rav Yeruchem explains that this is what Leah meant when she gave him his name. “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem?” Should I only thank Hashem this one time and move on? No! I will continue to thank him over and over again.
The United States may officially celebrate Thanksgiving one day a year, but to be a Jew, to be the progeny of our Matriarch Leah, is to be overflowing with thanks each and every day. The Chiddushei Ha’Rim of Ger, Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, points out that we are called Yehudim after Yehudah specifically because we as a nation are to be characterized by an ever-present sense of gratitude.
Though we read of Leah naming Yehudah last week, her message continues to resonate into this week as we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Let us live up to our name as Yehudim, and rather than be consumed by only worry and concern, feel deep and profound gratitude for all of the blessings in our lives, particularly those that we too often take for granted and fail to appreciate.
I wrote the following letter to the BRS family after attending the send off of Ezra Schwartz H’yd at Ben Gurion Airport:
Dear BRS Family,
The term levaya, which we use to describe a funeral service, means to accompany. At Ben Gurion Airport tonight, hundreds gathered to accompany Ezra Schwartz Hy”d to the flight that will bring him back to Boston and to his burial. Though the gathering was not publicized and intended for those who knew Ezra and his family, with the permission of the yeshiva I attended to show support and love to our Boca students at Ashreinu, particularly a precious member of our shul who was in the van when it was brutally attacked.
I feel compelled to share a few thoughts with you, my beloved family, about what was one of the most meaningful and powerful experiences in my life. As the crowd gathered, Ezra’s fellow classmates at Ashreinu and their Rebbeim stood in a large circle, some draped in Israeli flags, swaying back and forth with their arms around one another singing song after song. The songs were of course not about revenge, anger, or violence, but were about emunah, longing for peace, and love of Torah and Eretz Yisroel.
Eighteen-year-old American students are normally carefree, living with little pressure and enjoying a gap year learning, discovering themselves and exploring the beauty of our homeland. This special group of boys has learned a harsh and cruel lesson that is not intentionally part of any curriculum and that we wish and pray is never learned again. Their pure, innocent classmate and friend was murdered for no other reason than being a Jew. As tears flowed down their cheeks, the final song they sang before the short memorial began was Israel’s national anthem – Hatikvah.
The first speaker was the heroic refusenik and Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky. He described that when he spoke to Ezra’s father, Dr. Schwartz who had just suffered the unimaginable murder of his son, shared his memory of marching on behalf of Soviet Jewry as a student in Ramaz. Mr. Sharansky observed that this terrible loss is a link in the chain of Jewish History that includes the story of Soviety Jewry and now the story of our continued fight to live in peace in our homeland. Ezra is a martyr, one of the kedoshim of which Jewish history is made up. But we are also living Jewish destiny, he said, and part of our response must be to fortify and strengthen our conviction to our homeland and to our people.
His words resonated deeply for me, not just because of their significance, but because I was standing next to Ofir Shaer, the father of Gil-ad Hy”d who was kidnapped and murdered over a year ago. He came to show respect, to honor Ezra z”l, and to give chizuk by his presence. He is one of too many parents who have experienced the incomprehensible murder of their children. This must stop, it must end!
Ezra’s uncle spoke about his incredible eyes, his smile that could light up a room, his sense of humor, his athleticism and his larger than life personality. He read a letter from Ezra’s father, in which he thanked everyone for their help and for this gathering, and spoke about Ezra, but also which said something absolutely incredible. He said that doesn’t regret sending Ezra to Israel and knows that sending him to learn and grow and be part of the people of Israel was the right thing.
Rabbi Yudin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ashreinu, spoke passionately about Ezra and described that Ezra had made a pledge the morning of his murder to complete the study of Tanach this year. Though he was exhausted and thought about staying back on Thursday, Ezra was determined to participate in the chesed outing that day and so he went with the intention to sleep on the van. He never fully awoke again as he was murdered while on the very way to participate in chesed, loving-kindness.
Rabbi Yudin stressed that the best way to honor Ezra’s memory and our greatest response to both the terrorists who took his life and those that are determined to drive us from our land, is to come to Israel and do the learning and the chesed that Ezra will not be able to complete.
I am currently in Israel for my nephew’s bar mitzvah and to visit with our students who are studying here, but also to see a few seminaries with my 12th grade daughter who will be coming next year. I know that there are parents who have thought about bringing their children home due to this latest wave of terror. I also know that after Thursday, there are parents wavering about signing their children up to come study here next year. God forbid, we should never judge anyone for their personal decisions based on their own calculations and considerations. Everyone has to do what they feel comfortable with and what they could live with.
However, as a parent in that same circumstance, I must tell you why I don’t hesitate for one moment from encouraging my daughter to come next year and why I feel energized by the fact that we will visit schools together tomorrow. The gift and the blessing of the modern State of Israel and the miracles that enabled us to have it are not for our brothers and sisters that live here alone. Israel is the homeland and the responsibility of the Jewish people, wherever we live in the world. It is not simply a place to visit when times are good, or a place to spend Sukkos or vacation when there is calm.
We, and our children, don’t bear the burden of protecting Israel and by extension Jews around the world that know they can turn to Israel for refuge. We delegate that awesome responsibility to our family in Israel who courageously and faithfully serve in the IDF. They risk their lives on the front line of ensuring the safety and continuity of our people and our nation. Our minor role, the small part that we play, is to make sure that they never feel they are doing it alone or that they are abandoned.
If we stop coming to Israel, if we stop sending our children to study here, not only do the terrorists earn a victory, but we have spit in the face of our very family members who have take upon themselves the lion’s share of forging our destiny.
My dear family, we have learned that when evil and wicked men and women are bent on murdering innocent people, it doesn’t matter if you are in the Twin Towers, the streets of Paris, Tel Aviv or Yerushalayim.
Of course we must act prudently and be vigilant and careful about where we go and how we travel, in Israel and around the world. But, we must absolutely not stop coming and sending our children. If you shed a tear over the recent murders, if you have cried out over the plight of what is happening in Israel, if you want those living in Israel to know how much you care, it is simply not enough to post on Facebook, talk about it at your Shabbos table or even open a Tehillim alone.
If you truly care, and you have the resources to make it happen, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to immediately schedule a trip to Israel. Come to visit family, come to tour, come to shop or come for no reason at all other than to make a statement to those that terrorize us that we will not be scared away and those that we love that we will not abandon them and leave them alone.
Come to learn a perek of Tanach or volunteer for the act of chesed that Ezra Schwartz can no longer do. Come to Israel, you will not regret it.
May we all have a Shavua Tov! May the week ahead be much better, more peaceful and more blessed than the week behind.
With a deep pain in my heart and a love for all of you,
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
The second of Stephen Covey’s highly acclaimed “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to “begin with the end in mind.” In explaining this habit, Dr. Covey invites us to visualize our own funerals and carefully consider how we would like to be remembered and described by our family, friends, and community. When we have formulated an answer to that question and begin with the end, we will have a vision for how to conduct ourselves, make the choices, and live the life that will indeed earn and elicit the eulogy we aspired to.
Covey’s advice about how to live our lives on the whole strikes me as critically important. Without referencing Covey, my father taught me an invaluable lesson early on in my career that I think about almost every day. Most people walk into a meeting or enter a conversation with a general idea of the subject or agenda, but give very little thought as to what they hope to accomplish or the most effective strategy to achieve that goal.
To be effective and successful, my father taught me, before every meeting you walk into and every professional (and even personal) conversation you enter, take a moment to determine what you are trying to achieve, what is your desired outcome, and what is the best way to achieve that result. For example, he said, when you are out on a date and discussing some subject, telling your date that her position is wrong and relentlessly arguing why your position is right, may allow you to win the argument, but is unlikely to allow you to win the girl. What is the more important outcome for you?
Clearly, knowing what is really important allows you to keep your eye on the ball, execute the strategy effectively, and remain focused throughout, no matter any distractions or diversions. Achieving the goal will sometimes mean swallowing pride, overlooking slights and poor conduct, or reluctantly making a concession or compromise. However, if, in Covey’s language, you always begin with the end in mind, you will be mindful to do everything to achieve the desired end.
While Covey’s and my father’s advice may seem obvious for achieving success, occasionally people seem to put a greater premium on “being right” than on “being effective.” They seem more focused on taking a stand, making a statement, lodging a protest, or articulating an objection than they are on using the power of persuasion to change minds and behavior, or influence policy and practice.
The difference between “being right” and “being effective” has been glaringly evident of late in some of the debates raging in the Jewish community. For example, regarding Israel advocacy, some believe in the importance of issuing strong public statements and condemnations without regard for the continued need for the future support and votes of the very elected officials being targeted. In contrast, others, while equally disappointed in the votes of certain elected officials, recognize that Israel continues to require the support of these same individuals who will almost certainly remain in office and whose future votes matter. Remaining focused on the ends of achieving that long-term support for Israel, they take a much more nuanced and moderate approach to reacting and interacting with those in elected office.
Similarly, when it comes to the question of the boundaries of Orthodoxy and the limits of religious innovation, much effort has been made of late to “be right” using rhetoric, statements, and resolutions. Those advancing such efforts may feel they have won the argument, but have they won the hearts and minds of the silent majority who are still formulating their feelings towards these issues and see non – nuanced declarations as unconvincing and often offensive?
I sympathize with those who feel compelled to take a stand or make a statement objecting to what they perceive as non-halachic and corrosive behavior and practices. After all, we have a biblical obligation of tochecha (Vayikra 19:19), a mandate to rebuke and constructively criticize others when they have gone astray or are misbehaving. The Rambam (Hilchos Deios 6:7) says, “If someone sees his friend sinning or following an undesirable path, it is a mitzvah to return him to the proper path.” The Talmud (Shabbos 54b) tells us, “Whoever could have protested and prevented a violation and made no protest will be punished for that violation.”
These halachic injunctions would seem to encourage making a mecha’ah, lodging a protest when necessary. And yet, our rabbis did not encourage unconditional tochecha, rebuke. They added the following important caveat (Yevamos 65b): “Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say something that will be listened to, so to is it a mitzvah for a person to refrain from saying that which will not be listened to.” In essence, our rabbis felt that it was not enough to be right; one also has to be effective.
It seems to me that if you look around, just “being right” is not compelling enough to necessarily be listened to. Not only is much of the rhetoric not swaying opinions, moving the needle, or persuading anyone to change their mind, it seems it is being counterproductive. Our rabbis insist that divrei chachamim b’nachas nishma’in. The words of the wise are most likely to be heard when communicated pleasantly.
Wherever we stand on any particular issue, whether in marriage, at work, on behalf of Israel, or in communal life, we need to begin with the end in mind. We must fashion a strategy that includes an effort to persuade, rather than to just protest; to educate, rather than to indoctrinate; and to always remain civil, not just to be correct.
Granted, “being effective” is much more difficult and challenging than just “being right.” However, if one is truly confident that they are right, they should be willing and able to develop a strategy to also be effective.
The Fall 2015 issue of Klal Perspectives addresses Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community. The following is my article in the journal.
There is no denying that technology has significantly improved our lives. The proliferation and increasing sophistication of appliances, gadgets, electronics, devices and software provide ever-greater convenience, comfort and enjoyment. And technology has enriched our spiritual lives, as well. Torah learning opportunities have exponentially increased, and access and exposure to Torah personalities have blossomed. Technology has enabled immeasurable advances in the coordination of chesed activities and tzedaka projects, as well as facilitated global prayer efforts. Through technology, friends have been reunited, and family members living across the globe can share and participate not only in each other’s lifecycle events but in daily life, as well.
With all of its benefits, however, technology is also replete with dangers, risks and challenges. It is seductive, intoxicating and, for some, addictive. Ideas that are both spiritually and socially destructive are now readily available. Similarly, without much effort and often without even trying, we find lewd images flashing before our eyes, compromising our holiness, as well as the health and integrity of our relationships and our attitudes towards intimacy.
The dangers of technology have been well documented. While internet filters and connectivity time regulators are both imperative and invaluable, internet access poses threats in content and risks of excessive use that no filter or program can eliminate. In fact, even the most noble and virtuous use of technology often presents unintended adverse consequences.
Rejecting technology entirely, however, is no longer a viable strategy. Such rejection would be as practical as eliminating telephone use because it can be the conduit of gossip or vulgar speech, or swearing off cars and buses because they often transport passengers to inappropriate places. While communal calls for the wholesale rejection of technology may be effective in messaging its dangers, these calls surely cannot be undertaken with an authentic aspiration for success. Moreover, if successful, elimination of the use of technology would deprive the Jewish community of enormous advances in Torah, avodah and gemillus chasadim.
The community, thus, confronts a conundrum. The benefits of technology are enormous, but tolerating unbridled and unregulated access by oneself or one’s family is reckless and irresponsible. Car travel is invaluable, but it would be inconceivable for a responsible society to allow everyone, regardless of age or training, to drive anywhere, at any time and in any manner or speed. Non-regulation would be grossly negligent and most certainly result in injuries and worse.
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