A man once approached the Klausenberger Rebbe, R’ Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam zt’l and asked him the following question: “Tell me, how is it that so many of the survivors found the courage and the strength not only to survive but to rebuild, to start families, to remain positive and to have faith in society and humanity?” The Rebbe was the correct person to ask, for he had lost his wife and eleven children in the gas chambers and went on to rebuild a chassidic dynasty of thousands.
The Rebbe answered with two words: b’damayich chayi. The young man was startled, but thought he understood. These two words that come from the prophet Yechezkel mean “in your blood, live.” The full verse, which is recited at every bris of a Jewish baby boy, is an allusion to the time in Egypt just prior to the Exodus when Israel was commanded to circumcise its males and to bring the Pesach offering. In the merit of these two commandments, both involving blood, the nation would earn redemption and eternal life as God’s chosen people. “B’damayich Chayi. Through your blood of these commandments, live.”
So the young man commented out loud, thinking he understood that the Rebbe was hinting to the ability to move on after the mesiras nefesh, the incredible sacrifice and efforts they made. Literally they had bled, they had lost their flesh and blood, and that mesiras nefesh earned them the ability to go on.
But the Rebbe corrected the young man. That is not at all what he had meant when he said b’damayich chayi. The secret, the formula to the courage of the survivors, came from someone else, said the Rebbe.
In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we read of the tragic, seemingly premature death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Moshe, feeling the profound pain of his brother, tried to comfort: “vayomer Moshe el Aharon hu asher dibeir Hashem leimor bikrovei ekadeish v’al p’nei chol ha’am ekaveid, this is what God meant when He said, with those closest to Me will I be sanctified.” Rashi comments that Moshe was telling Aharon, I knew that this Mishkan was going to be sanctified by those closest to Hashem and I thought it would be me or you. Now I see that they, your sons are greater than both of us.”
Moshe tries to give some meaning, some context. He attempts to provide an answer or explanation to this profound tragedy and loss.
And what was Aharon’s response? The pasuk concludes, “Va’yidom Aharon, and Aharon was silent.” Moshe’s words were met with silence—complete, utter, and total silence.
We don’t know the source or root of the silence. Perhaps, Aharon was so devastated he had nothing to say. Perhaps, he had such deep faith that he felt no need for answers. We don’t know.
But, said the Klausenberger Rebbe, we do know that Aharon’s silence allowed him to continue to function, to be positive and to do good. He turned to the man and said you asked how we rebuilt our lives – it is simple. B’damayich chayi, with damayich, with the va’yidom of Aharon, with silence we continued to have a life. There are no answers or solutions to devastation and unthinkable tragedy, but the silence allows us to be positive, to be upbeat, to have faith in the world and to go on. For some of us it is a silence of submission. For others a silence of doubt. And for yet others a silence of protest.
Elie Wiesel was once asked, “Is there a tradition of silence in Judaism?” “Yes,” he answered. ”But we don’t talk about it.”
When we recall the horrors of the Holocaust, when we face tragedies in the world today, let us find strength in the beautiful words of the Klausenberger Rebbe, b’damayich chayi, let us find life, and let us find the courage to move forward, with silence.
On Yom Ha’Atzmaut 1956, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered a lecture in Yiddish at Yeshiva University in which he sought to put the extraordinary events that had occurred less than a decade earlier into a context and perspective. In his opinion, the remarkably close proximity of the worst atrocity and darkest period in Jewish history to the unimaginable blessing and bright light of the Jewish return to our homeland simply could not be dismissed as coincidental or random.
In his address that day, later translated and published as Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav compared the condition and mood of the Jewish people to the unfolding of the love story in Shir Ha’Shirim: “What is the essence of the story of the Song of Songs, if not the description of a paradoxical and tragic hesitation on the part of the love-intoxicated, anxiety-stricken Lover, when the opportunity, couched in majestic awe, presented itself?”
In this majestic love story, Shlomo Ha’Melech describes the longing and desire of the Ra’aya (the Lover) for her beloved Dod. She chases Him, pursues Him and yearns for Him, but alas, He is elusive and inaccessible. Finally, the Dod comes knocking on the Ra’aya’s front door in search of her, but she is exhausted, has undressed and has retired for the night. The moment she had been waiting and hoping for has arrived. The Dod wants to recount to her His mighty love and His longing for her. Yet for some inexplicable reason, at that moment, she becomes lazy and stubborn; she is too tired and spent to respond. The Rav summarizes, “The Lover did not respond to the voice of the Beloved. The door to her tent was locked shut. The opportunity was lost and the vision of an exalted life died.”
The Rav suggested that on the heels of the Holocaust, in the shadow of incomprehensible loss and devastation, just when the Jewish people were tired and spent, Kol Dodi Dofek, our Beloved came knocking on our door. He called for us, and the echoes of His voice reverberated through history. The Rav enumerated six “knocks” that he discerned in the events that surrounded the founding of the State of Israel:
- Political: “First, the knock of opportunity was heard in the political arena. No one can deny that from the standpoint of international relations, the establishment of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence.”
- Military: “Second, the knocking of the Beloved could be heard on the battlefield. The small Israeli Defense Forces defeated the mighty armies of the Arab countries. The miracle of “the many in the hands of the few” took place before our very eyes.”
- Theological: “Third, the Beloved began to knock as well on the door of the theological tent, and it may very well be that this is the strongest knock of all…All the claims of Christian theologians that God deprived the Jewish people of its rights in the land of Israel, and that all the biblical promises regarding Zion and Jerusalem refer, in an allegorical sense, to Christianity and the Christian Church, have been publicly refuted by the establishment of the State of Israel and have been exposed as falsehoods, lacking all validity.”
- Assimilation: “Fourth, the Beloved is knocking in the hearts of the perplexed and assimilated youths. The era of self-concealment (hastarat panim) at the beginning of the 1940’s resulted in great confusion among the Jewish masses and, in particular, among the Jewish youth…once a Jew begins to think and contemplate, once his sleep is disturbed—who knows where his thoughts will take him, what form of expression his doubts and queries will assume?”
- Self-defense: “The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker!”
- Refuge: “The sixth knock, which we must not ignore, was heard when the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from a hostile country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors…Now that the era of divine self-concealment (hester panim) is over, Jews who have been uprooted from their homes can find lodging in the Holy Land.”
Each of these ‘knocks’ was nothing short of a miraculous aspect of the founding of the State of Israel. One shudders to speculate what the outcome would be today if the United Nations were asked to vote on awarding the Jewish people a sovereign state in the Middle East.
In 1948 and many times since, Heaven has indeed been knocking on our door. In Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Soloveitchik challenged us to ask ourselves: Are we answering? As we prepare to read Shir HaShirim shortly and celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut in just a few weeks, now is a good time to remind ourselves of this question. Are we going to be like the Ra’aya, too tired and exhausted, too beaten down from the long exile and the seemingly endless persecution to be able to get up and answer the door? Or, will we embrace the moment and recognize the opportunity that we have been longing and yearning for?
Obviously, making Aliyah, picking up and moving to Israel, is the ultimate answer to the knock. For Jews living in the Diaspora, the question of Aliyah should not be if, but when. As has been said, there are legitimate reasons not to make Aliyah, but there are no legitimate reasons not to struggle with making Aliyah. However, for a variety of reasons, the reality is that not everyone can or will move to Israel. But make no mistake. There are many ways to both hear and answer God’s knock, wherever one may be.
Hungarian born R’ Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal Hy”d was staunchly anti-Zionist. When running and hiding from the Nazis, everything changed for him and he saw a return to Israel as Hashem’s true plan for His people. In his incredible book Eim Ha’Banim Semeicha, written by memory and while in hiding, he shares these prescient words:
“Now, even though all of Israel will not return right away, it seems to me that the Land will become a universal center for the entire Jewish nation, by the very fact that there will be an assembly of Jews in Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael. Even those who remain in the Diaspora will keep their eyes and hearts on the Land. They will be bound and connected with all their souls to the universal center, which will be established in Eretz Yisrael. It will unite them even in the Diaspora, and they will not be considered dispersed at all…”
Kibutz Galiyos, the ingathering of the exiles, is certainly a physical phenomenon. But according to R’ Teichtal, it is a meta-physical one as well. When we dedicate our attention, our efforts and our resources towards Israel, the Jewish people unite as one, no matter where they may be found on the globe.
World-wide Jewry is in the midst of elections for the World Zionist Congress which controls the funding of the World Zionist Organization and decides how millions of dollars are allocated. Decisions on distributions of funds are based on the size of each Zionist group represented in the Congress.
Every Jewish resident of the United States who registers to vote has a chance for his/her voice to be heard. Many of the Religious Zionist organizations in America including OU, National Council of Young Israel, Yeshiva University, Touro College, AMIT, Bnei Akiva and more have joined together under the banner of VOTE TORAH.
By voting for the Religious Zionist Slate, you will seat delegates who will focus on:
- Building bridges and increasing unity within Am Israel;
- Preserving and enriching Torah values and Jewish life in Israel and around the world;
- Securing a significant amount of the billion dollar programming budget for informal education and outreach programs worldwide that exemplify true Torah values;
- Ensuring the future of Religious Zionist ideals.
Please, do what you can to answer the ‘knock’ and take 5 minutes RIGHT NOW to cast your vote for the Religious Zionist Slate (SLATE #10) – www.VoteTorah.org.
The holiday of Pesach in general and the Seder in particular are not just about recounting a seminal event in Jewish history. Each year, Pesach is a time designated to focus on that which enslaves us and holds us in bondage today and to seek in our own lives the freedom and liberty that our ancestors achieved. For example: Selfishness enslaves, and selflessness liberates. Unregulated use of technology enslaves; the capacity to disconnect liberates. Addiction enslaves, and sovereignty liberates. Stinginess enslaves, and generosity liberates. Chaos and disorder enslave; rules and boundaries liberate.
This year, a new form of captivity and freedom occurred to me as a result of a very unfortunate development in Boca Raton. Prejudice and hate enslave, but love and broadmindedness liberate.
My good friend and colleague Rabbi Ruvi New, together with his shul, is seeking to build a new Chabad center in East Boca at 770 Palmetto Park Rd. Their application is fully compliant with city codes, recommended for approval by city staff, and has been unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The new location is zoned as a commercial property and doesn’t interfere with any residences in the area. Rabbi New is an outstanding leader with impeccable integrity. He and his shul members are kind, considerate, respectful, welcoming, and very committed to both the greater Jewish community and to the greater Boca community at large.
Despite the shul’s receiving unanimous approval following an open hearing, there continues to be a voice of opposition (hopefully small) that is rooted in nothing other than prejudice, bias, and bigotry.
According to a website called www.bocawatch.org, “a group of concerned citizens established Boca Watch to provide Boca’s citizens with information to increase the voice of citizen in City Government.” A post this week begins by stating that it wants to “discuss the elephant in the room.” The author, who chooses to remain anonymous other than identifying himself or herself as a Reform Jew, goes on to state, “I have lived through and witnessed what happens when an Orthodox Jewish synagogue comes to an otherwise diverse town filled with all religions. This is not a slow progression. It is swift and pervasive. The beach town that you know now will not look or feel at all the same.”
He or she continues by explaining exactly how: “It will be located within walking distance to several upscale neighborhoods that will undoubtedly become predominantly more Orthodox in nature… The Orthodoxy practice modesty, meaning, there is a strict conservative dress code for both the women and men. Remember, this is a beach community with half clothed people walking up and down the street.”
The author describes the impact to housing and says, “Certain ritualistic practices, such as taking ‘mikvah’ will need to be available, housed in close proximity to the Shul, perhaps even in a private home that will be converted for that specific use. Essentially, mikvah is a cleansing bath-house for women.” He or she continues, “Large families with many young children, carriages and the like will be walking through the neighborhoods to get to temple. The neighborhoods which do not have sidewalks will soon have large groups of walkers on the already narrow streets, getting to and from temple. Walking to temple will require an ‘eruv’ around the community and one will need to be installed.”
Whether or not the post accurately depicts demographic trends in the growth of Orthodox Jewish communities is entirely irrelevant. What matters is that Chabad of East Boca has both a legal and moral right to pursue its dream of a new home, and posts like this are nothing short of bigoted, prejudiced, and intolerable.
Can you imagine if an African American Church submitted an application to build, and a blog post described what would happen to the neighborhood if all these African Americans moved in and how because of their culture and practices, “The beach town that you know now will not look or feel at all the same.” There would rightly be outrage and indignation. This post is no less deserving of the same reaction and response.
We are blessed to live in a country that provides religious freedom and invites diverse religious practice, as long as it is consistent with American law. Building an Orthodox synagogue, purchasing homes in its vicinity, dressing modestly, walking with children to services, constructing a mikvah and building an eruv are all lawful and legitimate. Efforts to stifle or thwart the growth of an Orthodox Jewish community should be unconscionable and intolerable to all who believe in America’s foundational beliefs and principles.
Boca is remarkable for its cross-denominational sense of Jewish community and for the genuine friendships shared by its rabbis. This sentiment, so disturbingly expressed by a fellow Jew, is truly an aberration and disruption of the unity we work so hard to achieve. To be clear, the author absolutely represents only themselves and not all Reform Jews just like when an Orthodox person says or does something reprehensible they don’t speak for all Orthodox Jews. I am confident that my rabbinic colleagues of all denominations will show their support to Rabbi New and reject the sentiments in this post that run counter to our shared values and contribute to division and conflict among our people. Commenting on V’hi she’amda in the Haggadah, the Sfas Emes says, “She’lo echad bilvad amad aleynu l’chaloseinu“—when the Jewish people are not echad (one), when we are divided, that alone stands to destroy us.
This unfortunate episode provides not only an opportunity to fight bigotry, but a reminder of how it is incumbent on observant Jews to carry ourselves with dignity, love, openness, respect, and honesty in a way that would make people feel fortunate to have Orthodox Jews live among them and not the opposite.
In the Pesach spirit of seeking freedom, I urge you to take a moment and contact Mayor Susan Haynie at firstname.lastname@example.org and members of the City Council to communicate our tremendous disappointment with the rhetoric being used against Chabad and to call on them to both reject that rhetoric and support the unanimous decision of the Planning and Zoning Commission.
This Pesach, may we all be liberated and freed from that which holds us in bondage!
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the newly formed United States of America convened a committee to design what would become our Great seal, our emblem and the symbol of our sovereignty.
The committee was comprised of three of the five men who had drafted the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Adams chose a painting known as the “Judgment of Hercules,” to adorn the seal. Jefferson suggested a depiction of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for seal.
Benjamin Franklin also chose a design based on the Jewish story that he would describe as, “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand.” Franklin in fact suggested the motto for this new country: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
As in most cases of committees, it took six years, three committees, and the contributions of 14 men before the Congress finally accepted a design in 1782 and it wasn’t any of the original three suggestions. However, Thomas Jefferson liked the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” so much, he used it on his personal seal.
Why Matzah before Marror?
The story of our Exodus has universal appeal; it has been embraced by countless groups to inspire their own journey towards freedom including the founding fathers and later the civil rights movement. But the truth is that while the story can inspire others, it is uniquely ours and describes a history that belongs to us alone, it is our family’s narrative.
While others have written about it, drawn emblems based on it and composed songs and poems around it, we alone relive it, and we alone invoke the memory of having experienced it directly with sensory experiences. Others tell the story, but we are the only ones who taste the story.
We retell the story of our journey from bondage to freedom specifically with matzah and marror before us. In the Haggadah we read, “Rabban Gamliel said that one who has not said Pesach, matzah and marror has not fulfilled his obligation.” After reminding ourselves of the centrality of matzah and marror, we soon proceed with fulfilling these mitzvos, first eating matzah and only then consuming the requisite measure of marror.
Every time we invoke the themes of matzah and marror, we seem to do so in the wrong order. Matzah represents our freedom and liberty, the culmination and climax of the story. Marror is because the Egyptians made the lives of our forefathers in Egypt bitter.
The marror, the memory of bitterness, servitude, suffering, oppression should come first and only then should we taste the matzah and remember our journey towards freedom and prosperity? Why do we consistently address matzah and marror in the wrong order?
Many illustrious rabbis have addressed this question, however I would like to humbly offer you my own understanding.
Stories that Bind Us
For years researchers have sought to understand, what holds families together? What are the ingredients that make some families united, strong, resilient, and happy, while others are in disarray, fractured, broken, and fragile? Why are some families functional and others utterly dysfunctional?
As it turns out, the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. Two years ago, the New York Times had a fascinating article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us.” It provides the background for how this conclusion was reached.
In the mid-1990s Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University was doing research into the dissipation of the family. His wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities noticed something about her students. She told her husband, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”
Duke decided to test the hypothesis by developing a measure called “Do You Know,” a test for children with questions about their family. Examples of questions were: Do you know where you grandparents grew up? Do you know where your Mom and Dad went to high school? Do you know an illness or something terrible that happened in your family
Duke took the answers he received and compared them to a battery of psychological tests that the same children had taken and he reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative and they take one of three shapes. The ascending family narrative is exclusively positive: Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. We worked hard, opened a store, your grandfather went to high school, your father went to college and now you…”
The second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all, then, we lost everything.” Dr. Duke explains that the third narrative, the oscillating family narrative is the most healthful one. “Let me tell you we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a strong business, your grandfather was charitable, but we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. Your father lost a job. No matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
Duke and his colleagues concluded that the children who have the most self-confidence and resilience have a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves. Dr. Duke recommends parents pursue opportunities to convey a sense of history to their children. Use holidays, vacations, family get-togethers, or even a ride to the mall to tell your family stories and personal anecdotes. He recommends adopting rituals and traditions that can get handed down from one generation to another. The hokier the family’s tradition, he says, the more likely it is to be passed down.
Duke’s bottom line is this: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your collective ability to bounce back from difficult ones.
Passing Over Our Family’s Story
When I saw this article and read about Duke’s research, all I could think of is the Pesach Seder and the wisdom our sacred tradition. This new research simply affirms what we knew and have practiced for millennia. When we sit at the Seder and tell the story of our people, our children feel part of something larger than themselves. When they hear our personal stories of ups and downs, bitterness and sweetness, they feel part of something larger and greater than themselves. They don’t see their own circumstance in a vacuum or feel the need to face their challenges alone. When they see themselves as part of our collective history and our family’s personal narrative, they are encouraged, strengthened and uplifted.
Perhaps this research explains why we eat the matzah and marror out of order. You see, we don’t just eat the marror at the seder as a prop in order to tell the story chronologically. It isn’t just a function of reminding our children we were once slaves, but now we are free.
Rather, we eat the marror to remind our children that our narrative is an oscillating one with ups and down, sweetness and bitterness, successes and yes, even failures. We become stronger, more resilient, more effective, more functional and more united when we don’t hide the marror part of our past but instead, we embrace the marror as part of our oscillating narrative. We don’t have marror and then once we have matzah everything is smooth sailing from there. No, we have matzah and then marror and then matzah and then marror and thus is life.
Knowing our narrative is an oscillating one gives us each courage and strength and empowers us to confront the marrors we may face today. The Passover Seder teaches us to be honest, direct and truthful in our conversations with our family. The more we share about both the matzah and marror moments, the stronger we will be, the more united we will feel and the greater our capacity to overcome whatever may come our way.