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Tisha B’Av: Turning Mourning into Action

on Tuesday, July 25 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

This article first appeared on aish.com

On April 11, 1944, a young Anne Frank wrote in her diary:

Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly until now? It is God Who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows – it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason alone do we now suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English, or representatives of any other country for that matter. We will always remain Jews.

Anne Frank was on to something. The Talmud asks, from where did Mount Sinai derive its name? After offering a few alternatives, the Talmud suggests that Mount Sinai comes from Hebrew word “sinah” which means hatred, because the non-Jews’ hatred of the Jews descended upon that mountain when the Jewish people received the Torah there.

Torah demands a moral and ethical lifestyle, an attitude of giving rather than taking, a life of service rather than of privilege, that has revolutionized the world. The Jewish people have been charged to be the moral conscience of the world, a mission they have not always succeeded at, but that nevertheless drew the ire, anger and hatred of so many. For two thousand years the Jews were bullied and persecuted simply because of their Jewishness and all that stands for.

After the Holocaust, the world gave the Jews a reprieve from their hatred, becoming instead beneficiaries of their pity. But looking at events around the world, it is rapidly becoming clear that the last 70 years was an aberration. We are witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, as the world reverts back to its ageless pattern and habit.

The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1) teaches that three prophets used the term “eichah” – o how! In Devarim, Moshe asks: “Eichah, how can I alone bear your troubles, your burden and your strife?” (Deut. 1:12) In the Haftorah for Shabbos Chazon, the Prophet Yeshayahu asks: “Eichah, how has the faithful city become like a prostitute?” Lastly, Yirmiyahu begins the Book of Eichah: “Eichah, how is it that Jerusalem is sitting in solitude! The city that was filled with people has become like a widow…”

Eicha – How? How is it that anti-Semitism persists? Why must they rise up against us in every generation? On Tisha B’Av we will sit on the floor and wonder aloud, eicha? How could it be Jews in Eastern Europe have to fear for their lives yet again? Eicha – how could it be that today, with all the progress humanity has made, the ADL measures more than a quarter of the world as holding anti-Semitic views? Eicha – how could it be that terror persists, that three members of family gathering together on Shabbat to celebrate a shalom zachor could be murdered in cold blood?

Our job is to make sure we can answer the call of ayeka, where are you? Are you taking responsibility?

Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us that though the Midrash identifies three times the word eicha is used, in truth there is a fourth. When Adam and Eve fail to take responsibility, God calls out to them and says ayeka, where are you? Ayeka is spelled with the same letters as eicha, leading Rabbi Soloveitchik to say that when we don’t answer the call of ayeka, when we don’t take personal responsibility for our problems and blame others, we will ultimately find ourselves asking eicha, how could it be?

We can ask eicha, how could all of these terrible things be, but we may never have a definitive answer. Our job is to make sure we can answer the call of ayeka, where are you? Are you taking responsibility?

We may not be able to fully understand why anti-Semitism exists, but we can and must remain vigilant in fighting it. We must remain strong in standing up for Jews everywhere. We must confront evil and do all we can to defeat it. And, we must do all that we can to take personal responsibility to fulfill the Jewish mission to bring Godliness into the world.

If individual Jews were hated for being the conscious of the others, all the more so does a Jewish country generate hate for being the moral conscious of the whole world, held to higher moral standards than any other country or state.

Our job is not to be discouraged by asking eicha, but to ensure that we can answer the call of ayeka. Anti-Semitism will not come to an end by assimilating and retreating. It will come to an end when we can positively answer the question that the Talmud tells us each one of us will be asked when we meet our Maker: did you long for the redemption and did you personally take responsibility to do all that you can to bring the redemption? Did you truly feel the pain of exile and feel the anguish of the Jewish condition in the world? Do you truly and sincerely care? Did you anxiously await every day for Moshiach to herald in an era of peace and harmony, an end to anti-Semitism and suffering?

It is not enough to long for Moshiach, we must bring him. It is not enough to hope for redemption, we must be the catalyst for it. It is not enough to be tired of eicha, we must answer ayeka.

If we want to get up off the floor and end the mourning, if we want to finally end anti-Semitism, it is up to us to do what is necessary to heal our people, to repair the world, to love one another, and to earn the redemption from the Almighty.

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The Absolute Wrong Reaction to Israel’s Recent Controversial Decisions

on Tuesday, July 4 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Six million is an impossible number to fathom.  We can picture 60 or 600 people in a room, and maybe even identify with being among 6,000 or even 60,000 in a stadium, but beyond that, the number is simply beyond our experience and therefore our comprehension.  That is why, standing in Majdanek last week in the barrack filled with shoes, I suggested to the members on our BRS trip that they fix their eyes on one shoe.  Examine the size, color, design, and picture the person who wore that shoe. Try to imagine what went through their mind when they walked in that shoe into this horrific place.

In her testimony about arriving at Majdanek, Judith Becker talks specifically about shoes:

Shoes are the most important thing you owned, if you owned it, in the camps, because if you didn’t have shoes your feet got sore and once you had sores on your feet, they didn’t heal.  You couldn’t keep up the pace and you might as well have died.  You were finished… I am sure that every survivor’s story has something about shoes because they became a matter of life and death.  (Yad Vashem Archives)

The importance of shoes in the camps had extra resonance for me on our trip because just a few days before we left, I unexpectedly underwent minor surgery to remove a foreign body from my foot.  Baruch Hashem, I was able to wear a shoe just in time, but each step was painful and I wobbled around the sites we visited, moving slower and more gingerly than usual.

Standing in that barrack of shoes at Majdanek, and later in front of the display of shoes at Auschwitz, I couldn’t stop thinking about the prisoners who were denied decent footwear and the pain, suffering and degradation they endured from that alone.  What happened to someone who stepped on a foreign body in those places?  If Judith Becker is right, they were finished, they couldn’t keep up the pace and, they might as well have died.

Every morning we say the blessing, “she’asah li kol tzorchi,” blessed are you God who has provided my every need.  We follow it up by acknowledging God as the One who is, “ha’meichin mitzadei gaver,” who firms man’s footsteps.  Though we say these as part of the series of Birchos HaShachar, morning blessings, the Talmud (Berachos 60b) actually prescribes the recitation of these blessings in conjunction with putting on our shoes in the morning.  In proclaiming them, we acknowledge Hashem’s benevolence in allowing us to function independently and to be mobile so that we can accomplish, achieve, travel, and enjoy His world.

In one of the barracks of Birkenau, our trip’s remarkable educator, Dr. David Bernstein, held up two contrasting pictures to illustrate a poignant point.  The first is a 1942 scene of a helpless man wrapped in a tallis being cruelly taunted and tortured by the Nazis in the village of Lukow in central Poland. The man, whose yarmulka has been removed, is looking down, with his hands in the air, as if surrendering.  He was murdered a short time later.

(Yad Vashem)

The second picture is of that man’s grandson.  He is wearing a uniform.  It is not one of a prisoner in a concentration camp, but the uniform of the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces.  His name is Meir Dagan a”h and he rose to become a general in the Israeli army and then director of the Mossad.  Throughout his career, he kept the photograph of his grandfather on the wall of his office.  When eulogizing General Dagan, Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to the picture of his grandfather and said, “Meir was determined to ensure that the Jewish people would never be helpless and defenseless again and to this end he dedicated his life to building up the strength of the state of Israel.”

(Getty Images)

Our week in Poland was physically and emotionally grueling.  Visiting mass graves, former ghettos, and walking through death camps tore us apart and gave us a tiny glimpse into the suffering, torment, and devastation our people went through.  Traveling with many children of survivors enhanced the trip greatly, as the stories they told made the places we visited much more vivid and real.  Obviously, the Holocaust must be studied, mourned, and shared as a discrete part of our communal, collective history.

Nevertheless, the recognition of just how blessed we are to live in the time of the miraculous modern State of Israel is inescapable, even—or perhaps especially—on a trip like this.  Our ancestors had no place to run, no one to welcome them with open arms, no place to provide refuge and nobody to protect them.  While many lacked shoes literally, they were also metaphorically barefoot: immobile, vulnerable, and utterly dependent on others.

Israel and the IDF are the shoes of our people, providing us all with protection, independence and safety, not only in Israel, but around the world.  When Jews are held hostage in Entebbe, it is the IDF who pulls off a courageous and miraculous rescue.  When Jews are finally able to escape from behind the Iron curtain, it is Israel that absorbs them.  And when Jews need to be transported from Ethiopia, it is Israel who brings them home.

I was in Poland when I read about the escalation of controversy coming from Israel due to two recent decisions.  I am greatly sympathetic to the pain and anguish of so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters as a result of these policy decisions and from the reneging on the deal that was struck and agreed to.  No matter how complicated these issues, I understand their desire to be recognized and to have access.  I respect their right to advocacy and to pursue their agenda vigorously.

What I cannot possibly understand, however, and frankly find unconscionable, is any call for withdrawing support of Israel.  As American Jews are struggling with unprecedented levels of assimilation and intermarriage, threatening our very future in this country, is anyone in America really in a position to withdraw support of Israel?

These complicated issues deserve to be addressed more fully and to a better conclusion, but in the meantime, American Jews must never make the mistake of thinking that Israel needs us more than we need her.  If God forbid tides would turn and we in America would be in danger, it is Israel and her powerful military that we would rely on to come to our rescue.  If we needed to flee and find refuge, it is Israel that we would expect to open her arms, no matter our denomination.

Support for Israel must never be a negotiating tool or a point of leverage.  We don’t tolerate calls for boycotts of Israel from our enemies and we cannot, and must not accept them from our friends, no matter the reason or motivation.  A weaker or compromised Israel is a weaker and more vulnerable Jewish people globally.

Seventy-two years ago, the greatest atrocity in history was followed a short three years later by the greatest miracle in nearly 2,000 years. Pledging to never forget means not only preventing another Holocaust, but remembering how fortunate and blessed we are to have a strong State of Israel and therefore, doing all we can to support Israel, unconditionally.

With a strong Israel, never again will we walk without shoes.

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A New Study Shows That American Jewry is Disappearing. Patrilineal Descent and Intermarriage are the Problem, Not the Solution

on Thursday, June 15 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for american jewry

The startling findings of a recent Jewish People Policy Institute study drew an Ha’aretz headline of “Low Marriage Rates and Intermarriage Threaten Future of U.S. Jewry” and an Arutz Sheva’s headline asking, “Is there a future for non-Orthodox American Jewry?” The study found that outside of Orthodoxy, fewer Jews are getting married, those marrying are marrying later and having fewer children and intermarriage rates are increasing.  The combination of these three factors raises the daunting question of the future of American non-Orthodox Jews.

Shockingly, the study shows that among all non-Orthodox Jews in the 25-54 age group, just 15% are married to a Jewish spouse and have Jewish children.  An additional 8% have a Jewish spouse, but no children, 4% are single parents, 36% are single and have no children, 13% are intermarried and have Jewish children, 8% are intermarried and have non-Jewish children, and 17% are intermarried and have no children.

Intermarriage rates increase the younger the generation.  Among those aged 40-44, 60% are intermarried.  Among those aged 35-39, it is 73%, and 75% of those aged 30-34 have a non-Jewish spouse.

In contrast to the other denominations, studies show that the Orthodox community is on the rise and exhibit high levels of demographic stability.  While that conclusion is gratifying and validating, it is absolutely no cause for celebration or triumphalism.  Realize that the hemorrhaging of other denominations is not the result of Jews flocking to the Ocommunity.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l wrote (Tradition, Spring 1982):

Nor do I share the glee some feel over the prospective demise of the competition. Surely, we have many sharp differences with the Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed over or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured. Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects, but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether rather than drive to his temple?

If the muscles of the left arm atrophy or the arm needs to be amputated, it is hardly a comfort that the right arm is strong and has larger muscles than ever.  Sadly, rather than an honest review and return to tradition, ritual and halacha, there has been a doubling down of the policies and ideology that have brought these results to begin with.

Some have suggested an embrace of patrilineal descent as a solution.  Others argue it is time for rabbis to officiate at intermarriages. Aside from representing gross distortions of halacha, mesorah and the will of the Almighty, these suggestions don’t actual address the core issues. They simply attempt to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.  Indeed, they are the equivalent of cooking the books or manipulating earnings so that they appear to report profit instead of loss.  Recognizing patrilineal descent or accepting intermarriage just gives the illusion of addressing the problem; it doesn’t actually do anything to address the very real threat facing the future of American non-orthodox Jewry.

If one thinks the Orthodox community is unaffected by these suggested monumental shifts in policy, they are grossly mistaken. Individuals and families who will have grown up thinking they are Jewish will meet our children through NCSY or at their college Hillel and their Jewish status will come into question.  Children who apply to attend day schools or families that will seek membership in our shuls may have questionable statuses.  This potential shifts in policy and practice will not only fail to stem assimilation, but it will further divide our people.  This is not a hypothetical issue that may arise in the future.  This is happening now in our own institutions and among families in our own community.  I see these issues arise frequently – and tragically.

The antidote to these devastating demographic findings is not less adherence to halacha, but more.  When talking about the mitzvah of tzitizis, our rabbis (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6 and see Nesivos Shalom) provide the following metaphor.  A person was once cast into the sea and was drowning.  The Coast Guard threw the person a rope and said grab on. If you hold onto it, you will survive but if you let go, you will be swept away and disappear.  Wearing tzitzis reminds us of our commitment and responsibility to a life of Torah and mitzvos.  Grabbing on to those ropes and what they stand for gives us life.  Tzitizs themselves are not the solution, but they are symbol of a lifestyle of mitzvos.   Eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah, the Torah is the tree of life for those who grab onto it.  Let it go and you will be swept away.

The storms of change are raging around us.  The current is getting stronger and stronger and sweeping more and more people away.  The only way to stay safe, and remain true to our values, our traditions and our obligations, is to make a commitment to not only hold on to Torah, but to demonstrate a willingness to swim upstream at times, to go against the tide, to dare to be different and to be willing to stand out.  This is no easy task and takes great courage, but we have it within our very DNA because our great patriarch Avraham planted it there.  Avraham was called Avraham Ha’Ivri meaning mei’eiver, on the other side.  When the whole world took one position and stood on one side, he had the courage to stand out, remain true to the vision and will of the Almighty and to stand on the other side, even when it meant standing by himself.

The great Piacetzner Rebbe, R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira writes in his spiritual diary, Tzav V’Ziruz:

You cannot remain static in this torrent river just by standing firm in your place – you must actively swim against the flow.  You may not be successful in swimming upstream, but at least you will not be swept down by the flow.  So it is with spiritual life and the purity of spirit that you have attained.  You cannot retain them against the flow unless you continue to struggle for spiritual growth.  You must swim upstream without respite – upward, onward against the flow.  There may be a limit to how far you can go, but at least you will not be drawn down with the flow.

W.C. Fields once said, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”  Those who are spiritually dead, cut off from our timeless and time tested traditions, are floating away.  We, the community who are willing to swim upstream, must not only swim harder, but we must be willing to grab on to those around us and share our life preserver (the Torah).

The potential demise of other denominations is no cause for celebration.  It is an opportunity —  and an obligation  —  to reach out and share the beauty, majesty, meaning and joy of a Torah lifestyle.  These findings demand a mass movement of outreach.  The needle won’t move and the problem won’t be solved by kiruv professionals and rabbis alone.  A difference will only be made when every Torah shul, institution and individual sees as part of their core identity and personal mission to not only hold on to the sturdy tree of Torah (eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah) to prevent being swept down the river, but to reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.  We are proud that BRS has a dedicated outreach rabbi on our staff whose mission is not to service our members per se, but to run outreach programs, make contacts in the greater Jewish community and minister to those who are integrating into the community.

Milton Friedman, the great Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago, had a very simple suggestion for how to identify a person or institution’s priorities.  Many people eloquently describe their beliefs, values, and principles and talk about what is most important to them.  Friedman advised to ignore what they say.  If you want to truly know what someone’s priorities are, it is simple – Look at someone’s budget and you know what is important to him/her.  See how someone prioritizes their money and you will know their priorities.

We claim to care about outreach but do our institutions, shul and schools have an outreach budget?  Do we have dedicated people working on this cause?  Do we put our money where our mouth is?

This is our generation’s test; it is our challenge.  Many summers ago, I worked at Aish Ha’Torah in Jerusalem as an advisor in their Discovery program.  My friend and I were fresh out of yeshiva and when asked to recruit at a particular location that we didn’t feel was appropriate for “bnei Torah” to spend time, we resisted.  A meeting was scheduled with Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l, founder of Aish.  After some small talk, he asked us what the problem was.  We explained that we were yeshiva guys trying to work on ourselves and we didn’t feel that it would be good for our neshamos to hang out at an immodest location.  I will never forget what he answered.

He looked us in the eye and with the greatest sincerity said, “Let me ask you.  If you were in Eastern Europe and the train was leaving to Auschwitz and a woman extended her hand for you to pull her off, would you hesitate to take it because you are a yeshiva guy?!”  “Well,” he said, “the train is leaving and it is taking millions not to Auschwitz, but to assimilation and oblivion.  You need to go recruit and figuratively extend your hand to pull people off the train and redirect them from assimilation and into Discovery.”

It has been said that in Europe they killed us with hate and in America they are killing us with love.  These statistics bear out that truth and challenge us to ask ourselves, will we rise to our generations test and care enough to not only be willing to swim upstream ourselves when necessary, but to extend our hand to those around us who are being swept away.  If the answer is not a resounding “yes,” the consequences will be devastating.

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Tuning In to the Sinai Frequency – Was God’s Revelation a Thing of the Past or is it a Voice Speaking to Us Today?

on Thursday, May 25 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

“Mosquito tone” is a 17 KHz sine wave that teenagers use on their cell phone to alert them when they’ve got a text message so the teachers can’t hear it. Studies say that most adults can’t hear much above the 13-14KHz range, but teenagers can.  Our ability to hear high frequencies falls as we age.

I found the mosquito tone online and played it. I heard nothing but my kids in the other room started screaming, “What is that? Turn it off!”

Adults have now struck back using the teenagers’ technology against them.  Inventor Howard Stapleton has created the Mosquito teen repellent (I kid you not). He says only a few people over age 30 can hear the Mosquito’s sound.  Stores and parks in England and Japan have begun to use it to keep teenagers from loitering.  The repellent continually plays a high frequency.  Adults can’t hear it and teenagers can’t stand it.

The most seminal moment in human history occurred when God addressed millions of people at Mount Sinai in an act of supreme revelation. Indeed, this moment was unprecedented, unparalleled and unrepeated. The Torah says,   “These words that God spoke to all your assembly in the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, with a great voice which was not heard again… [v’lo yasaf]” (Deut. 5:19)

The simple meaning of the words, v’lo yasaf as explained by the Ibn Ezra and other commentaries, is that the voice and experience were “not to be repeated.”  This was a onetime only deal, an exceptional and transcendent moment in human history, never to be replicated.

On the one hand, the uniqueness of this event is significant and special.  We eternally reflect back and recognize that the moment is inimitable and unique, distinct and singular.  On the other hand, its uniqueness forces us to consider the fact that no matter how we live and whatever choices we may make we can never experience revelation like Mount Sinai again.  This generates a sense of disenfranchisement and deflates our spiritual ambition.  If God only spoke once and we missed it, how do we connect today?  How do we access the affirmation that only God’s voice can provide as to His existence and our charge in the world?

Commentators were troubled by this dilemma and offer another layer of interpretation of the phrase v’lo yasaf.  Onkelus, the famous convert who lived in the period of the Tannaim from 35 – 120, translates v’lo yasaf not as never repeated, but rather as v’lo p’sak, God’s voice never ended or ceased.  The Ramban brings a few sentences as evidence that the Hebrew root – yud, samech, fey – can mean ‘never stops.’  According to this interpretation, God spoke at Sinai thousands of years ago and his voice and message continue to carry until today and beyond.

So, which is it? Does v’lo yasaf mean God’s voice never repeated or does it mean God’s voice never ceased?

I believe the answer is up to each and every one of us.  We each have a critical choice to make.  Do we view the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as part of the past, a historical event and previous occurrence, or does God voice speak to us today?

Each year on Shavuos we recall the Sinai experience and challenge ourselves with the question of which interpretation best reflects our life.  Are we going to choose the reading that says the voice of God is no longer heard, or are we going to continue to listen carefully for the reverberation of God’s message in our lives? Are the events of Mount Sinai representative of an ongoing, developing relationship with God, or are they an isolated event?

In truth, God’s voice is all around us. Like the mosquito tone, a frequency is playing, the only question is if we can hear it.

Each time we open a book and challenge ourselves by learning Torah, expanding and broadening our wisdom, understanding and insight, God’s voice is reverberating. Each prayer in which we are not only physically present but spiritually invested, God’s voice is reverberating. Each magnificent sunrise or sunset that we pause to take in, God’s voice is reverberating.  Each act of kindness we share with others God’s voice is reverberating.

There is no doubt that God’s great and mighty voice is all around us.  Shavuos demands of us to consider: are we tuned into the Sinai frequency or do we simply go through the motions, and view God’s voice as something of the past?

The choice is yours to make.

(Published on Aish.com)

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