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Nothing Grows in a Vacuum, Guest Post by Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

on Friday, May 13 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

rrb*This week, Rabbi Rael Blumenthal, rabbi of our satellite BRS West will be joining us at BRSand sharing divrei Torah.  Please enjoy his guest post.

 

It’s been just about a year since Aliza and I decided to move our family from Bergenfield to Boca. Aside from conclusively missing winter, and waking up to palm trees every morning, the clear highlight of moving has been the warmth and engagement of the BRS West and BRS communities.

The notion of community is a strange thing. On the one hand, it’s a collective of people bound by common interests. In our case, our community is bound by a passion for Jewish life and learning, and love for Israel and the Jewish Nation.

But on the other hand, a strong community inevitably becomes far more meaningful to the members than simply their shared interests. A community becomes a forum for advice, a platform for friendship, and a place of trust, comfort and safety.

But all of this is true of all communities around the world. That which makes a Jewish community unique is hinted at by Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim. The mitzvos of the parsha, he says, were spoken to the entirety of the nation b’hakhel – as a community.

The Chasam Sofer explains the need for this gathering. It is to educate that by removing oneself from the community one can never achieve holiness, despite the temptation to do so. We might think that other people are distractions, and that kedusha involves seclusion and separation from society.
“On the contrary, we are to live as a community and still live lives of kedusha.”

The Sfas Emes explains further that: It is impossible to achieve holiness without seeing oneself as a part of the Jewish people… For this reason, most of the laws of this parsha are between man and his fellow.

This does not, of course, negate the need for personal time, mediation or reflection. But I do think this concept introduces a radical and nuanced perspective to personal growth – that it is not an individual pursuit, but a collective one. Moreover, every Jew is a life coach for every other.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes that he knew of brilliant young men who were destined for greatness, yet as soon as they rose to the tops of the respective schools, they ceased to grow. With no-one that could challenge or relate to them, they rapidly reached their ceiling.

Through my experience this year, I can truly relate. Aliza and I have grown as people by engaging with our community. We are honed by our friends, and challenged by our colleagues. And each new addition to a community multiplies the power and effect of everyone they encounter.

This year at BRS West, we’ve been fortunate to welcome 18 new families and each new addition enhances the community exponentially. We are also so fortunate to davening in the Katz Hillel Day School, where so many of our kids are students. But most importantly, we are part of the greater BRS community.

We’ve also introduced an array of shiurim, from the weekly Rashi shiur, to our Contemporary Halacha Chabura, the newly introduced Pre-Shabbos Chassidus Chabura and of course our seasonal shiurim on Kashrus and the Yamim Tovim. Our members have planned and run community BBQ’s, Purim and Channuka parties, and have hosted dozens of guest families, for simchas and to check out our amazing community.

In many ways, the program I’m most proud of is our weekly Parsha in the Park. It’s a special opportunity for parents to learn the parsha with their children, and spend a part of Shabbat afternoon simply getting nachas, while hanging out with other parents at the Katz Hillel playground. BRS West provides our families with a warm, close community, and we’re so excited to see the homes in the neighborhood filling up with passionate and engaged families.

As a Rabbi, the ability to learn from and with Rabbi Goldberg, Rabbi Moskowitz and the rest of the team has propelled my own growth forward in immeasurable ways. For every member of the BRS and BRS West community, the opportunities for connections and relationships are so readily available, and thus the chances to achieve kedusha are that much greater. I’m looking forward to many years of growth, learning and building together.

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Their Job is to Look After Israel, our Job is to Look After Them

on Friday, May 6 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

The emotionally charged expression “Sharing the Burden” means different things in different contexts.  In the context of the Jewish Day School tuition crisis conversation, sharing the burden means helping families find relief from the debilitating levels of tuition. In the presidential election season, sharing the burden is code for raising taxes. When it comes to serving in the IDF, sharing the burden refers to every segment of Israeli society participating in the army.  But sharing the burden when it comes to the IDF means something more and is not just about Israelis.

Israel is not the Israeli homeland; it is the Jewish homeland. The law of return states that all Jews have the right to return to, to live in, and to be a citizen of Israel. Most remarkably, Israel feels a responsibility not only to its citizens and residents, but has exhibited extraordinary steps to help protect and rescue Jews everywhere including Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, and Argentina. Do we doubt for a moment that if, God forbid, a Jewish community were in danger or at risk anywhere in the world, Israel would step up and do whatever necessary to protect them or us?

Israel belongs to all Jews, not only all Israelis, and all Jews, not only all Israelis, must share the burden of protecting her. The question, then, is what are diaspora Jews doing to share the burden? I am not naïve or foolish. I understand that there are different rights and different obligations for those who live in the land and are legal citizens of it than for those who live outside. Our share in the rights is not as great: we cannot vote, for example. And our share in the burden is obviously not as great, as we in the diaspora are not conscripted into the IDF. However, what is not debatable or deniable, it seems to me, is that we have at least some share of the burden.

The obligation of Jews outside of Israel to share the burden of protecting her is not only a philosophical or ideological statement, it is a halachic one. The Talmud tells us that in the circumstances of milchemes mitzvah, a mandated war, all must participate, even a bride and groom who were standing under their chupa. The Rambam defines a milchemes mitzvah as “war against the Seven Nations, war against Amalek, and assisting Israel in defending herself from the enemy who descends upon them.” (Hilchos Melachim 5:1) His last definition certainly seems like an apt description of Israel’s condition today. The halacha doesn’t differentiate between those that live in Israel or outside her boundaries. Rather, in the circumstance of defending Israel from her enemies, halacha demands that all Jews, wherever they may live, must share the burden and participate in protecting the people. Technically, we should all be drafted into service, no matter where we may live.

And so, while in Israel they debate the question of Yeshiva students exemptions from army service, I propose that we in the diaspora ask ourselves how can we do more towards fulfilling our share of the burden?

The first and foremost suggestion is to consider aliyah. There are legitimate and valid reasons not to make aliyah right now. But, there are no excuses not to consider, struggle with, and plan for a time that we can move to Israel, the Jewish homeland and be part of the Jewish destiny.

Secondly, though we lack a legal obligation to serve in the IDF, we don’t lack a moral obligation to support the members of the IDF in every possible way that we can. I hear regularly from those serving in the IDF whose units have needs that cannot be met by the Army itself. Partaking in a small share of the burden means generously supporting organizations like Friends of the IDF (www.fidf.org) whose motto is “Their job is to look after Israel, our job is to look after them.”

This weekend is our annual Shabbat Ha’Chayal in partnership with Friends of the IDF.  Please consider supporting them directly, or through the Boca Raton based Helping Israel Fund who supports FIDF.  Additionally, while we don’t protect soldiers in the field, we can seek to protect them with our heartfelt prayers by always thinking of them, each and every time we pray.

Thirdly, sharing the burden means advocating for Israel and seeking to influence America’s policy towards Israel on a regular basis and in meaningful ways. Minimally, being a member of AIPAC, (www.aipac.org) and hopefully being active and involved, positions AIPAC to successfully lobby on behalf of Israel’s interests and to be the strongest voice influencing the policies of the US-Israel relationship in the world.

There are countless other ways we can share the burden even from the diaspora, such as by investing in Israel through Israel Bonds (www.Israelbonds.org), supporting organizations that care for IDF veterans (www.zdvo.org), and much more.

As we mark Yom Ha’Zikaron and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut this week, let us neither forget nor neglect our obligation to share the burden and let us pledge to do more for Israel this year than ever before.

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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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