This was supposed to be the week of nechama, of comfort and consolation. We just got up off the ground where we were mourning the tragedies and atrocities of the last 2,000 years and reflecting on the root cause of our suffering, specifically baseless hatred. In the very week in which we were to learn the results and consequences of infighting, intolerance, and conflict among our people, a Jew in the holy city of Jerusalem stabbed six fellow Jews simply because he objects to their lifestyle. Compounding the severity of the chillul Hashem caused by his actions is the fact that the individual identifies as Orthodox and as Torah observant.
The Orthodox community does not deserve to be measured or judged by the repulsive, abhorrent, and detestable actions of a sick and crazy man. We do, however, deserve to be measured and judged by how loudly and clearly we proclaim how intolerable and repugnant such behavior is.
Loyalty and devotion to Torah values and laws are absolutely never license for aggression, abuse, harassment, or violence. Truly observant Jews don’t raise their voice, their pen or their fists aggressively against those with whom they disagree. Authentically observant Jews must pursue God’s path of deracheha darchei noam, inspiring, motivating, and persuading others to embrace Torah values with pleasantness and peacefulness. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and all traumatized by this horrific event.
How can we in fact find comfort on the Shabbos of comfort in the wake of this latest horrific incident?
“Nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Elokeichem.” This Shabbos we read the first of the seven haftorahs of comfort and consolation that bring us to Rosh Hashana. Yeshayahu seeks to ease our pain by relaying Hashem’s promise of comfort. The question begs itself: What is different this coming Shabbos from this past one? Just one week ago on Shabbos Chazon and continuing into Tisha B’av we cried and lamented the horrific slaughter of our people throughout the ages. We relived the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of our Talmud, the Holocaust and the threats Israel faces yet today. Nothing has changed and nothing is any different now, one week later. So where is this comfort the prophet promises?
Perhaps the answer can be found in an ancient and mysterious text called Perek Shira. Many believe that it was written by Dovid HaMelech after he completed the book of Tehillim. Perek Shira is referred to by many of our greatest sages including the Ramban. It lists 84 elements of the natural world including the sky, the earth and all kinds of animals and shows how the natural world sings God’s praises by attributing a Biblical verse to each one. The message of this magnificent work is that the whole world is a symphony and we can learn from what each aspect of the world contributes to God’s song.
Perek Shira states: “Retzifi omeir: nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Elokeichem.” The Retzifi is a certain type of bird and through its life we learn about nachamu nachamu ami. What does this cryptic statement mean? What does the Retzifi do and what did Dovid HaMelech mean to suggest about what we can learn from it?
The Knaf Renanim, written by the great 17th-century Moroccan Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azulai, explains that this bird lives in the North and does not like the cold. Other species of birds fly south for the summer, but the Retzifi stays behind because he does not want to miss the beginning of the spring. So how does this species of bird survive the cold and harsh winter? Rav Azulai explains that they descend into a bottom of a ditch and they form a tight circle there. Each bird puts its head under the feathers of the one next to it. The Retzifi survives the winter and stays warm only by connecting with his fellow birds. Remarkably coordinated, these birds take care of themselves by finding cover and simultaneously provide cover for the one next to them under their wing. It is from this behavior that we learn the meaning of Nachamu Nachamu Ami.
According to this interpretation, Dovid HaMelech was suggesting that if we want to know how to weather the cold, survive the darkness, and endure through the harsh exile we must follow the model of the Retzifi. Survival and comfort are all about practicing achdus – unity and togetherness. If we confront our challenges with empathy, kindness and a desire to draw closer together, we will not only survive, but we will thrive.
True, nothing is different one week later than it was on Tisha B’av. Nothing has changed about our circumstances or our standing in the world. And yet, there is one thing different. Through sitting on the floor together, through crying on one another’s shoulder and through feeling each other’s pain we have become closer, more cohesive and more of a people. That is the comfort that Yeshayahu promised. Nachamu, nachamu ami…if you feel a sense of ami, my united people, if this hardship brings you closer instead of driving you farther apart, then indeed, nachamu nachamu you have found comfort despite the difficulty.
Nachamu nachamu ami. When we come together as a people with a sense of togetherness and unity, when we feel the pain of one another and genuinely empathize with our brothers and sisters no matter what differences we may have, we find nechama. We cannot necessarily control the harshness of the exile, but we can make sure that it never drives a wedge between us.
There are legitimate issues that divide us from one another. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to uphold and defend our immutable Torah and its timeless values. But we must never confuse our efforts to inspire and teach ideas and principles with a justification or excuse to be harsh or cruel to people.
Rav Aryeh Levin, the great tzadik of Yerushalayim, was once walking when he sensed that a boy from his neighborhood was trying to avoid him. Rav Aryeh caught up with the boy and asked about his wellbeing. The boy admitted that he was avoiding the Rabbi because though he was raised religious he had taken off his kippa and was no longer observant. He was embarrassed and afraid to be engaged by the Rabbi so he tried to avoid him. When he heard this, Rav Aryeh turned to the boy and said, you know, I am a short man. I cannot see what is on your head. I can only see what is in your heart.
Iran’s leaders have consistently called for the destruction of Israel and the genocide of the Jews. Like so many of our past enemies, they have never distinguished between religious and secular, between orientation, political affiliation, or denomination. In their desire to bring about our extermination, all Jews are equal and the same. They see us as one, it is time for us to see ourselves as one, united and undivided.
The Talmud states, “ilmalei meshamrim yisroel shtei shabbasos mi’yad hayu nigalin. If only the Jewish people would observe two Shabbosos they would immediately be redeemed.” Why only two Shabbosos and why does Shabbos specifically have the power to reverse the lot of the Jewish people and usher in the era of redemption?
I once saw a beautiful explanation. The Gemara doesn’t mean just any two Shabbosos. Rather, it means if the Jewish people would observe Shabbos Chazon the week before Tisha B’av and Shabbos Nachamu the week after it, Moshiach would come. If we used the week of Chazon to feel the pain, mourn the loss, and acknowledge our shortcomings, and we then observe Shabbos Nachamu to repair ourselves by uniting together as one, redemption would finally arrive.
In the merit of a speedy recovery for the stabbing victims and all of those who are ill, let us all be more cautious and vigilant with our rhetoric towards one another. We don’t have to agree with one another, but we must be kind, respectful and pleasant towards one another if we are to find the strength to endure until Moshiach arrives.
Despite suffering the catastrophic calamities and tragedies of the last two thousands years, we nevertheless remain an eternally optimistic people always wanting to believe that somehow regardless of the most recent enemy declaring his intent of wiping our people and our homeland off the map, everything is going to be alright. Optimism has served our people well, giving us the strength, courage and faith to endure in the face of relentless attempts to annihilate and exterminate us. And yet, unbridled optimism is extremely dangerous when it breeds apathy, complacency and indifference.
Despite the countless warnings and portents of the impending disaster, the generation that experienced the destruction of the Temple refused to see it coming. The first word of the first Kinnah we recite on Tisha B’av morning is shavas, which means to cease. Our Rabbis emphasized that shavas doesn’t just mean everything stopped, it means it ceased suddenly or unexpectedly.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained:
Although the people were told that the Churban (destruction) would occur, they did not really believe the warnings and did not expect that it would ever happen. But when the people arose in the morning, lo and behold, contrary to everyone’s expectations, the Temple, the Beis Ha’Midash, was gone, Jerusalem was in ruin and the people were in captivity. The realization that the Churban had occurred struck suddenly. It had the emotional and psychological impact of a sudden disaster.
For those who trust neither Iran nor the effectiveness of this deal to curb their nuclear ambition, the warnings and portents of potential devastation for our people are once again here. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared the deal a historic mistake. Less expected has been the reaction of political leaders on the left who are consistently dovish. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog denounced the Iran deal as a “bad agreement that endangers our security interests” and pledged to lobby Congress to vote against it. Fellow opposition leader, Yair Lapid, condemned the Iran deal, declaring it a “bad day for the Jews.” Normally bi-partisan pro-Israel groups and consistently apolitical Jewish organizations have uncharacteristically come forward, publicly condemning the deal and pledging to mobilize their constituents to fight it.
And yet, like at the time of the Churban, too many people do not believe the warnings and do not expect that a nuclear Iran attacking Israel will ever happen. I was heartened by the ten thousand people in attendance at the rally in Times Square this week and was uplifted to be part of a community of people raising our voices in an effort to encourage elected officials to oppose this deal. This is not a Jewish or Israel issue alone, however it should hit close to home for the Jewish community, given the countless calls from Iran for genocide against our people. It is therefore incredibly disheartening to think that though New York is home to over two million Jews, only ten thousand took time and made the effort to participate. Assuming the accuracy of a recent poll that states that the 49% of American Jews are in favor of the deal, the questions remains, are the other million opposed enough to make a phone call, send an email or attend a rally?
A recent article by William Kristol, “Fait Non-Accompli” asks, “Is it really possible that over a dozen Senate Democrats and almost 50 House Democrats will defect from the president and vote both to disapprove and then to override his veto? Yes. It’s possible, if not yet likely. And the possibility will grow if opponents energetically press their case.”
Influencing the outcome of a deal with a sworn enemy of Israel is possible, but it rests on us energetically pressing our case. Are we up to the challenge? Are we prepared to mix a healthy dose of realism into our eternal optimism and to heed the warnings and predictions of our day? Will we be troubled enough to mobilize, lobby, advocate and do all we can to effectively persuade our representatives? If you choose to be indifferent, apathetic or hopelessly fatalistic, look back at two thousand years of Jewish suffering and know that for those who refuse to accept the warnings, the unimaginable becomes imaginable and the unthinkable becomes thinkable in shavas, suddenly, in an instant.
Al tivtechu b’nedivim, said King David. Don’t place your faith in princes and diplomats. As believing Jews, we recognize that ultimately it is the Master of the Universe who is the arbiter of our destiny and who alone will determine if Iran is successful in their stated goals. Prayer, in Judaism, takes two forms, with words and with deeds.
When we stood opposite the sea with the Egyptians in pursuit and no place to go, we instinctively turned to prayer, a laudable reaction, one would think. And yet, God is critical and through Moshe declares, “mah titz’ak eili, daber el b’nei Yisroel v’yisa’u.” God sought to teach a developing nation that to truly be a faith community, you must in addition to prayer take initiative and action. A nation must never be passive, complacent and or act as spectators to their own destiny. Trust in God is not displayed by praying and doing nothing more. It is exhibited by coupling our heartfelt prayers with enthusiastic and energized action. It is recognizing that He measures the sincerity of that which we ask for by our willingness and eagerness to take initiative and do our part to achieve it. As we lobby our elected officials, we must know that God Almighty is in the audience collecting our efforts as prayers to Him.
Towards that end, we are working on an initiative called StopIran535, coordinated rallies outside the home offices of all 535 members of Congress, Senators and Representatives, at 5:35pm on August 29, shortly before they vote on the deal. Some rallies will thank those that have pledged to oppose the deal and others will seek to encourage and persuade those that have pledged to support the deal to change their minds. Our goal is for every elected official and even more importantly for God Almighty, who as always is listening closely, to know that this monumental issue matters to us and that we are doing everything we can to impact it. To learn more about it or to get involved, please see the website http://www.stopiran535.com
Stepping up and answering the call to protect our people at this time may just have Messianic implications. Though far be it from me to fully understand or apply this statement in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Yeshayahu 499), compiled in the 13th century, it is hard to ignore it:
א”ר יצחק שנה שמלך המשיח נגלה בו כל מלכי אומות העולם מתגרים זה בזה, מלך פרס מתגרה במלך ערבי והולך מלך ערבי לארם ליטול עצה מהם וחוזר מלך פרס ומחריב את כל העולם וכל אומות העולם מתרעשים ומתבהלים ונופלים על פניהם ויאחוז אותם צירים כצירי יולדה, וישראל מתרעשים ומתבהלים ואומר להיכן נבוא ונלך להיכן נבוא ונלך, ואומר להם בני אל תתיראו כל מה שעשיתי לא עשיתי אלא בשבילכם מפני מה אתם מתיראים אל תיראו הגיע זמן גאולתכם, ולא כגאולה ראשונה גאולה אחרונה כי גאולה ראשונה היה לכם צער ושעבוד מלכיות אחריה אבל גאולה אחרונה אין לכם צער ושעבוד מלכיות אחריה שנו רבותינו בשעה שמלך המשיח בא עומד על גג בית המקדש והוא משמיע להם לישראל ואומר ענוים הגיע זמן גאולתכם. ואם אין אתם מאמינים ראו באורי שזרח עליכם שנאמר קומי אורי כי בא אורך וכבוד ה’ עליך זרח
R’ Yitzchak states, in the year that Moshiach will be revealed, the leaders of the nations of the world will provoke one another. The king of Persia (Iran) will provoke an Arabian king and the Arabian king will go to Aram to seek counsel from them. The leader of Persia (Iran) will seek to destroy the entire world and all the nations of the world will frighten and scatter and fall on their faces. The Jewish people too will frighten and says where can we turn, where can we go. God will say, my children, don’t fear. All that I have done, I have done for you. Why are you afraid? Now is the time of your redemption.
May we indeed rise to be the catalysts of redemption and merit to usher in Moshiach, speedily in our days.
When I was a kid, the most difficult and awkward conversation between parents and children was the talk about “the birds and the bees.” Due to the Internet, increasingly graphic pop culture and explicit billboards and ads, today’s children can be considered precocious in this area and likely know a great deal about the topic before “the talk” ever even occurs.
Instead, the most difficult talk today between parents and children is one that is unfortunately not taking place enough. While the world is generally a safe place and the people our children are exposed to are almost always appropriate and safe, sadly the threat of abuse is real. Research has consistently shown that the most important and effective tool to protect our children is education. As loving and trusted parents, we have the capacity to safeguard our children, but it means having a difficult and uncomfortable conversation.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a respected voice on the topic of child safety education, identifies four points to communicate to our children in order to empower them to protect themselves and to transform them into difficult targets for predators.
- No secrets from parents – In a non-anxious, calm conversation we must remind our children that we love them beyond words and that they can feel confident confiding in us about absolutely anything. We must make them recognize that we take them seriously, we will honor their concerns and fears, and we will always do everything in our power to serve their best interests.
- Your body belongs to you – It is crucial for children to understand the concept of personal space and that our bodies belong to us, and us alone. Our private parts are ours and absolutely nobody, not a friend, family member, or person in any position of authority can have access to them.
- Good touch/bad touch – Not every touch is bad and qualifies as abuse. However, there is touch that is categorically wrong and should set off an alarm for our children. They must understand the difference so that they can be aware and respond appropriately.
- No one should make you feel uncomfortable – Lastly, we must communicate to our children that no one should make them feel uncomfortable. If they do, they have a right to walk away and tell someone they trust.
Too many parents are avoiding this talk because they think they will introduce their children to a topic that will make them fear adults and worry excessively. However, the experts explain that rather than fear adults, children will feel safer knowing they can trust their parents and they will feel empowered to protect themselves going forward. While it is never comfortable to broach this subject, good opportunities for bringing it up can be bath times for young children, clothes shopping for older children, or at the time of a doctor’s appointment.
Should God forbid an issue arise, the best way to respond to our children is to tell them that we believe them and that we will react swiftly and appropriately. Halacha (Jewish law) is clear that safety concerns must be reported to the appropriate authorities and all mandated reporting laws must be observed. Remaining silent, covering up, or excusing inexcusable behavior leaves other children vulnerable to abuse and trauma that will haunt them their entire lives and do what can be irreparable damage.
With our children off from school, many of them heading off to camp and others having more leisure time roaming the neighborhood, there is no better time to rededicate ourselves to best practices for safety for our family and community in general.
Review stranger danger. Have proper and working smoke detectors & carbon monoxide detectors in appropriate locations (If anyone cannot afford them, please contact me). Lock the doors to your car and home, no matter how safe you feel. Make sure your pool fence is sturdy and closed. Don’t let children swim unsupervised or alone. Be vigilant with reviewing with your children where they are going, what they are doing, who is driving them, who else will be there, what movie they are seeing, etc.
May our children remain safe and may Hashem grant us the courage and strength to be vigilant in protecting them.
Five years ago, I was in a store when an eight-year-old boy from our community saw me, came over, and said one word: “Rabbi.” The encounter not seeming all that unusual, I didn’t think anything of it until later that evening when the boy’s mother texted me to say that I had witnessed a miracle. I honestly didn’t know what she was referring to until she explained. She had heard about her son coming over to me and saying “rabbi” and she wanted me to appreciate that in fact, while that simple gesture would be unremarkable and ordinary for almost every boy his age, the fact that her son recognized me and called me rabbi was nothing short of miraculous.
That boy was Joe Greenbaum and he is autistic. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often includes social impairment, challenges with communication, and repetitive patterns of behavior. On top of that, Joe also has a form of apraxia, an uncommon speech disorder in which the brain struggles to develop plans for speech and as a result has difficulty making accurate movements when speaking.
The combination of autism and a form of apraxia meant that for Joe, learning to speak and communicate would be nearly impossible. And yet, through incredible tenacity on his part, and with the boundless love, encouragement, and support of his family, at eight years old, Joe successfully learned how to speak. When he said the word “Rabbi” that day, what would have been for almost anyone else utterly unmemorable and insignificant, was in fact for Joe and his family an absolute miracle.
Interacting with Joe, it is clear that he understands that there is a world around him that he is connected to, but yet not fully part of. He desperately wants full access and full interaction, but his primitive receptive language skills simply hold him back and deny him that full access.
While at times it can be hard to fully know what Joe is thinking or feeling, there are times when it is clear what he loves and cherishes. At the top of that list are his beloved family members, who have shown incredible devotion, dedication, patience, love, and care to him and his siblings, including two others with autism, throughout his life. In a close second place is Joe’s love for Judaism. Since his early childhood he has been drawn to the sound of the Shofar, enjoys listening to Jewish music (Shlock Rock in particular), loves coming to Shul and kissing the Torah, and most recently puts on his Tefillin with more enthusiasm and excitement than most Bar Mitzvah boys.
This coming Shabbos is Joe’s Bar Mitzvah. While other parents struggle to choose a venue for the party, select a caterer, narrow down the invite list, and finalize a menu, for the last few years, Joe’s parents were struggling with the question of if—and how—he would have a Bar Mitzvah altogether. It is hard enough for an autistic child with apraxia to learn one language, but to read and speak a second is practically unthinkable and unimaginable.
And yet, rather than be fatalistic or resigned to their son not being a candidate for a public Bar Mitzvah, Joe’s parents chose to imagine, to envision, to dream, and ultimately to make the impossible possible. With the help of Dr. Harold Landa as a Bar Mitzvah teacher, and Joe’s Aunt Nina, who worked tirelessly to help him learn Hebrew, they set a goal of Joe receiving an aliyah on the Shabbos of his Bar Mitzvah. Almost everyone around this devoted group told them it was impossible, unattainable, and an unrealistic and perhaps even unfair expectation to set, as receiving an aliyah involves the recitation of two berachos on the Torah. Nevertheless, with the support of Joe’s team, which includes his amazing grandparents, incredible therapists, as well as Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger and Rabbi Matan Wexler, Joe’s parents defiantly shut out the voices of negativity and of defeatism and tenaciously persisted towards the goal of Joe learning how to receive an aliyah and recite the berachos on the Torah.
The next piece of the puzzle was Joe’s cooperation. An autistic young man will typically not do something that he doesn’t want to do. Over the last few months, Joe not only cooperated in the pursuit of his parents’ goal, but he has far surpassed it. With God’s help, this young man, who did not learn to speak until he was eight years old, will not only receive an aliyah this coming Shabbos, but will lain the maftir aliya as well. Having had the opportunity to watch Joe practice, kiss the Torah, say the first beracha, recite the laining, and articulate the second beracha like any other Bar Mitzvah boy was to literally witness a miracle before our very eyes.
There is so much for us to learn from this extraordinary family and their outstanding son. Firstly, as the Chida famously taught, “Ein davar ha’omeid bifnei haratzon — nothing stands in the way of will.” Joe has worked relentlessly overcoming all odds to be able to achieve what almost all of us take absolutely for granted. He has taught us that if we dedicate ourselves to achieving a dream, we can make the impossible a reality.
Assuming he performs smoothly on Shabbos morning—and even if he doesn’t—this accomplishment for Joe far surpasses almost anything any of us have done far beyond the age of thirteen. The Chazon Ish and the Steipler Gaon stood up in honor of special children as they entered a room. While others saw children with special needs labeled by society as disabled or even handicapped, these Torah giants saw only special souls capable of extraordinary things whose lives brought out the best of those around them.
Joe’s team has taught us to never stop believing in every single child, no matter his or her limitations. They have modeled how to never stop dreaming or setting the bar high, even when others tell you it is impossible, unrealistic, and unachievable. They have taught us how to persevere, despite being physically and spiritually tired, how to keep going, even when at times you desperately want to give up. They regularly remind us how to be grateful for the things that almost all others take for granted.
And now, this coming Shabbos, there is one last piece of the puzzle necessary to complete the picture for Joe and his family: the role played by us, his community and Shul. Enabling Joe and anyone like him to experience his Bar Mitzvah is not only the responsibility of his family, but is a duty of our entire community. Facilitating a Bar Mitzvah for an autistic young man requires patience, flexibility, and cooperation. We adults can learn from Joe’s classmates who just completed 7th grade at Hillel Day School. They, too, are part of his loving team and regularly make accommodations to enable his participation.
While I have highlighted Joe’s story here, it should not be lost on us that Joe is not the only one in our community with special needs. Every special needs child and their families deserve our unwavering support, love, patience, inclusiveness, and, when necessary, accommodations. Raising special children requires superhuman strength and sacrifices that are beyond our imagination. Lessening their challenges, being supportive and encouraging, are not extra acts of chessed. It is our responsibility, duty, and obligation to fill in our piece of the puzzle.
If you don’t believe in miracles, I implore you to come to BRS this Shabbos and please God see one for yourself.