Follow your heart. I Love you with all my heart. Have a heart. Wounded heart. Heartache. Heartbroken. Disheartened. It is clear that of all organs in the body, the heart is the accepted symbol of emotion.
But this metaphor is not only employed by our English vernacular. The Torah itself promotes this symbolism. “V’yadata ha’yom v’hashivosa el levavecha, v’ram levavecha,know today and place it in your heart, v’lo sasuru acharei levavchem, do not stray after your hearts.” This month we are saying in the tfilla of L’Dovid – “lo yirah libi, my heart will not fear, chazak v’yametz libecha, strengthen your heart.” Eleventh century Spanish philosopher, Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Paquda wrote his magnum opus, Chovos Ha’Levavos, Duties of the Heart. He didn’t call it Duties of the Brain or Duties of the Soul, but rather Duties of the Heart.
Why do we associate emotion with the heart? Why not the liver, the lungs, the kidneys or another organ? Why not the brain, the epicenter of our animated lives?
Understandably, the Greeks concluded that the heart was the center of emotion because they observed the heart rate; the pulse is directly affected by the way people feel. When people get excited their hearts race, when they are sad their hearts feel heavy, and when they are scared their hearts pound in their chests.
The truth is, though we have advanced scientifically and now know that emotion is produced in the brain, not the heart, the heart nevertheless is directly correlated with emotion, and emotion has a great impact on the heart. A cardiologist introduced me to the diagnostic term “stress cardiomyopathy.” A patient sometimes presents with the same symptoms of a heart attack in which the heart muscle can’t pump blood to the body strongly enough. They run every test under the sun and there is no indication of a heart attack. In those circumstances, the cause of the problem, one that is real and dangerous and could result in heart disease, is most often trauma, loss, grief or emotional pain. Hence, the other, literal name for stress cardiomyopathy – broken heart syndrome.
“Lo yavo amoni u’moavi bi’kehal Hashem.” We are instructed not to marry an Ammonite or Moabite even if they undergo conversion. Why not? Why specifically these two nations and, if they convert, aren’t they now Jewish, not Ammonite or Moabite? The Torah itself provides the answer. Moav cannot enter because they commissioned Bilam to curse us and therefore displayed great cruelty. Ammon, too, treated us callously and coldheartedly. “Al davar asher lo kidmu eschem ba’lechem u’vamayim ba’derech b’tzeischem mi’mitzrayim, because they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt.”
We were exhausted, spent, and in need. We were hungry and tired and worn down. What was the reaction of the people of Ammon? Nothing. Indifference. They refused to show us compassion and there were unmoved by our plight. The Torah therefore instructs us that we cannot risk absorbing this behavior, this insensitivity, and this cruelty into our nation.
In fact, we, the Jewish people, are to be distinguished for exactly the opposite characteristic. We are to be recognized for having the biggest, most generous, benevolent and kind hearts. The Gemara in Beitza 32b (“leiv” coincidentally) teaches that Jews are “rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, compassionate the children of compassionate.” Kindness, feeling, and heart are genetically programmed into our spiritual DNA. Consider for a moment – It isn’t a coincidence that when there is a human crisis or catastrophe anywhere in the world, it is often the State of Israel that is the first to respond and the earliest to arrive on the scene to help.
We are to be rachamanim b’nei rachamanim and that is the theme of our Parsha. In many mitzvos we see a goal of cultivating kindness, sensitivity, and heart. Our Parsha teaches the law of sending the mother bird away before taking the eggs she was guarding. The mitzvah of Shiluach Ha’Kein is to preserve our heart, to retain our sensitivity and compassion, even to a bird. Elsewhere, our Parsha introduces us to the mitzvah of hashavas aveida, returning a lost object. It ends with the mandate – “lo suchal l’hisaleim, you shall not be capable of ignoring it.” Be sensitive, have a heart, recognize that someone lost something and is likely anxious to get it back.
To have a healthy Jewish heart means to care, to notice, to feel, to be sensitive, to emote. Symptoms of Jewish heart disease are insensitivity, indifference, and callousness. There is a malady we are all vulnerable to and many are suffering from and in fact each one of us will apologize for it in just a short time from now. On Yom Kippur we will close the list of al cheits by saying al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha b’simhon leivav. Rashi explains that simhon leivav means otem haleiv, the clogging of the heart. Just as cholesterol clogs the physical arteries and contributes to heart disease, so too apathy, indifference, and callousness clog the spiritual arteries and contributes to hardheartedness.
I am truly worried that as life as become increasingly complicated and the demands for our time, energy and resources have increased, we have lost the space and focus necessary to pause and feel. We are suffering from simhon leivav, timtum ha’leiv, our hearts are clogged up. Life is moving so quickly, we are constantly on the move, running, driving, our phone is ringing, our texts are buzzing, our email is beeping, the news is blaring and we don’t have time or the ability to stop and process what we have seen, or read, or watched. We live at warp speed and that means we are increasingly losing the capacity to be moved and to feel.
The information age coupled with the social media age has made us practically numb. In the past, how often were we exposed to emotional articles? Yes, maybe a few times a year someone bothered to cut out an interesting article and send it to you. But today our inboxes are filled with links to articles we must read, videos we must watch, speeches we must hear, all before lunchtime. The overflow of emotional information leaves us numb and emotionless. We click through one article after another. We see images and maye videos of murdered news people while eating breakfast and sipping coffee. We read Facebook posts of someone dying from cancer over lunch and keep chewing. We see pictures of our friend’s newborn baby on Facebook minutes after she is born and we continue to do work or multitask instead of pausing to be excited by the miracle of childbirth. It all happens so fast and disappears so quickly we have become numb, timtum ha’leiv.
When is the last time you felt true sympathy and empathy for another? When did you last feel overwhelmed with joy for a friend? I don’t mean you liked their status update or sent a smiley face text. I mean real joy for another. Are you sensitive to the pain and suffering of others? A pervasive culture of sarcasm and cynicism has led to a sense that nothing impresses me, nothing surprises me, nothing saddens me, nothing excites me, and nothing moves me.
When is the last time you saw or read something so great you got goose bumps? When is the last time you saw or read something that literally moved you to tears?
In his religious diary Tzav V’ziruz, written in the 1930’s, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who died in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote so presciently of the importance of maintaining our ability to feel and stimulating our feelings in healthy ways:
The human soul relishes sensation, not only if it is a pleasant feeling but for the very experience of stimulation. Sooner sadness or some deep pain rather than the boredom of non-stimulation. People will watch distressing scenes and listen to heartrending stories just to get stimulation. Such is human nature and a need of the soul just like its other needs and natures. So he who is clever will fill this need with passionate prayer and Torah learning. But the soul whose divine service is without emotion will have to find its stimulation elsewhere. It will be either driven to cheap, even forbidden sensation or will become emotionally ill from a lack of stimulation.
The Piaseczner Rebbe identifies a very real human need – the need to feel, to be stimulated, to have a heart that is beating and pulsating. That is why some ride roller coasters and others watch sappy movies. It’s why we read and listen to people who anger us instead of ignoring them completely. We crave feeling and we have a choice. We can satisfy that craving with healthy, productive, meaningful feelings or we will be tempted to fill the appetite for feeling with dark, self-destructive, dangerous stimulation.
As we spend the month of Elul seeking to improve our spiritual health and to be shalem, let’s unclog our spiritual arteries by making space in our lives for our hearts to beat and pulsate. Let’s let the emotions and feelings run through our spiritual veins. Let’s take some time to work on our hearts. Let’s be moved by the suffering of others. Let’s find the time and space to be in awe of something impressive, to be moved by something that touches us, to get goose bumps from something that excites us, to be happy for good that happens to us and most importantly, to feel for those around us.
The Jewish community is undeniably split regarding the highly controversial Iran deal. Sadly, rather than focusing on advocating the merits or demerits of the deal, too many on both sides of the issue have resorted to ad-hominem attacks, name calling, questioning of motives and dismissing the positions of others as just politics.
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, contains the call of “tzedek tzedek tirdof, righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue.” Bothered by the redundancy, the Midrash suggests reading the verse as tzedek b’tzedek tirdof, pursue righteousness with righteousness. Even in, or especially in the effort to advocate for and advance a righteous cause, one must never act unrighteously or ignobly.
I oppose the Iran deal. I identify with the position of the mainstream political leadership of Israel, from the left to the right, as well as that of the bi-partisan organizations – AIPAC, ADL, AJC and numerous Jewish Federations that see the deal as dangerous and potentially catastrophic for America and Israel.
To be clear, I presume that those who support the deal love Israel as much as I do and are as loyal to America as I am. I believe that those who support the deal are entitled to their position, as I am to mine, and are well within their rights, and perhaps even duty, to advocate loudly for it. I don’t believe they support the deal because they are, God forbid, self-hating or anti-Semitic or are simply demonstrating partisan loyalty. I take for granted that they support the deal because after considering the issues, they genuinely believe it is the best option available to contain Iran and preserve peace.
I expect the same courtesy in return. I am not against the deal because I am a warmonger, because I have dual loyalty, because I am partisan, or because I am uninformed. I am well aware of the formidable challenges that arise from striking down the deal that the Administration has negotiated.
Yet, I oppose the deal because it fails to achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran while at the same time funding terrorist networks and their efforts to murder Americans and Jews around the world with billions of newly released dollars. Moreover, in addition to all the other weakness and consequences of the deal, it shockingly relies on the Iranians, wholly deceitful and untrustworthy actors, to police themselves.
Rabbis have been criticized for using their public platforms to advocate against the deal and for their efforts to rally their congregations to lobby to strike it down. I have been told that politics don’t belong in the pulpit and I could not agree more. Shuls must be non-partisan and provide safe spaces for people with diverse political positions to feel comfortable and welcome and to pursue spiritual inspiration without fear of intimidation, discomfort or exclusion. I am extremely proud that a few years ago, Boca Raton Synagogue adopted our civility statement that appears in our shul literature and on our website and calls on our members to be respectful of others’ views and always speak and act respectfully and civilly.
In my career in the rabbinate, I have never used the pulpit to publicly endorse a candidate or promote a particular political position. And yet, I do not hesitate in these critical days to use every opportunity to encourage our community to lobby our elected officials to vote against the Iran deal because to me, this issue is not one of politics, but one of possible pikuach nefesh (life and death), hatzalas Yisroel (saving the Jewish people) and the preservation of the Jewish state.
I recognize that one can manipulate an issue to have it appear as one of pikuach nefesh. Still, I feel that this issue is truly exceptional, as the stakes include weapons capable of conducting genocide against our people and the possibility of billions of dollars flowing to sworn enemies that surround Israel. These threats transcend politics and demand leadership from the pulpit even if those in the pews have diverse positions.
In reaction to rabbis weighing in on the Iran deal, Shmuel Rosner writes in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “One thing is quite certain: Rabbis have no advantage over plumbers when it comes to understanding and assessing the agreement with Iran. They have no better professional qualifications and no more relevant experience.”
Rosner is correct; rabbis are not categorically smarter, necessarily more qualified or more insightful. However, I believe that rabbis, unlike plumbers, do bear an awesome responsibility to be outspoken leaders on issues of historic significance to Israel’s security as well as to the well-being of the free world. Rabbis have been charged with being both students of Torah and of history and applying both our analytical skills and knowledge to try to guide our constituencies in an informed, educated manner.
While the Holocaust raged and millions of Jews were being slaughtered, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the American Jewish Congress rigorously debated the best course of action on behalf of the Jewish people. The former feared instigating anti-Semitism and therefore advocated for quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts, while the latter called for protests, rallies, and demonstrations.
The prominent and influential Rabbi Stephen Wise worried that American Jews would be accused of dual loyalty and worked to undermine the vocal efforts of Hillel Kook, who used the pseudonym Peter Bergson. Despite the opposition of the Jewish establishment, Bergson was successful in taking out over 200 newspaper advertisements and even produced a movie shown in cities across the country calling attention to the Nazi atrocities and on America to intervene.
When Bergson (Kook) called on the Jewish community to act, was that politics or pikuach nefesh? When two days before Yom Kippur in 1943, Bergson organized 400 rabbis to march to the White House and demand to meet with the president, was that politics or pikuach nefesh?
I would like to believe that Rabbi Wise and the leadership of AJC loved their fellow Jews in Europe and were staunchly committed to do all they could to put a stop to the genocide and rescue their brethren. They surely thought that the best way to achieve those goals was to work quietly with behind-the-scenes diplomacy that wouldn’t call attention to or raise suspicion of American Jews.
With the benefit of hindsight, would they now agree that they were mistaken in the strategic position they took? We can’t know, but we do know that Elie Wiesel has argued that Jews ought to have chained themselves to the White House until Roosevelt was willing to act.
Nobody would look back and dismiss the debate between Wise and Bergson regarding advocacy during the Holocaust as politics. Nobody would read a sermon of a rabbi from 1943 calling on his members to lobby their elected officials to intervene and say it had no place in the synagogue.
I am not suggesting that the current situation is perfectly analogous to the Holocaust or that those who support the deal are akin to Rabbi Wise and the AJC. I am simply saying that there are momentous points in history when the stakes are so high and the potential consequences so calamitous that they cannot be dismissed as politics. In moments like this, rabbis should not be censored or silenced, but should be supported in fiercely advocating whichever position they feel will best protect the interests of America and the safety of Israel.
340 rabbis garnered significant attention by signing a letter in support of the Iran deal. I admire their advocacy, even while I could not disagree more with their position.
I hope that every rabbi will show leadership on this issue, whichever side of this debate they find themselves on. In that spirit, I personally urge the hundreds or thousands of rabbis who oppose the deal to not remain silent.
Please encourage your rabbi to sign our letter in opposition of the Iran deal (here) today.
I have an investment opportunity for you with a guaranteed return. It will yield dividends for years to come and has absolutely no risk. Are you interested?
Someone once asked Baron Edmond de Rothschild about his net worth. He turned to his personal assistant to come up with a calculation. The assistant returned with a number based on his real estate holdings, investments, cash, etc. Rothschild turned to her and said, “That isn’t my worth. The markets could crash, the assets could be seized, and I could lose it all in an instant.” He then opened his desk drawer, removed his charity ledger and said, “This is my real worth. What I have given to charity nobody could ever take away from me.”
Just imagine if all the money that was lost in Ponzi schemes, crashing markets, upside down real estate holdings and poor investments over the last decade went into charitable causes instead. The owners would have been out the money either way, but if it went to charity, it would now and forever remain part of their true net worth.
Unlike playing the stock market or participating in risky investments, giving tzedaka to a worthy and credible cause carries no risk and guarantees a return to the generous investor. Indeed, the dividends accumulated from funding appropriate causes are felt not only in this world in the form of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose, but they continue to pay generously in the world to come.
We are all well familiar with the tuition crisis and it has been discussed ad nauseam at board meetings, conferences, and Shabbos tables. Important efforts to advocate for school choice are continuing and I encourage you to get involved in any way that you can.
However, until big picture projects are fully developed and achieved, there remains a very real and present need. Since returning to Boca, I have been contacted at least once a day by a family seeking to keep their children in Jewish schools but facing the very real possibility of having to enroll them in public schools. You see, our local Boca Raton Jewish day schools are certainly doing their part. They collectively give out over 6 million dollars of tuition assistance each year.
The schools and those that support them are doing their part. Yet nevertheless, there are families that still cannot meet the generously discounted tuition contract they have been offered and without the assistance of our BRS Scholarship Fund to bridge the remaining gap, their children will simply not be able to attend Jewish school and receive a formal Jewish education. There are legitimate reasons to have to leave a Jewish day school, but money should not be one of them. A Jewish education is a necessity, not a luxury, and every Jewish child deserves a chance at one.
Our BRS Jewish Education Scholarship Fund does not support the operating budget of schools or make donations to their fundraisers. The fund provides money on behalf of specific children in specific circumstances to make sure that they can remain in a Jewish school. Helping the youth of our community is not the job of schools alone or of other parents who happen to have their children in the same school. It is the job, responsibility, and halachic obligation of each and every one of us alike, whether we have young children at home or are empty nesters.
The fund has zero administration or overhead costs. Every single penny that is donated goes directly towards enabling our community’s children to remain in their school. We all receive countless envelopes in the mail, solicitation calls to our homes and knocks on our door asking us to give to causes, organizations, yeshivas and projects around the world. Many of them are worthwhile and deserving of our assistance. However, tzedaka begins at home. Halachily, we are mandated to take care of our local needs before we begin allocating elsewhere.
This fund is not helping anonymous, unfamiliar children in far away places. It is enabling your neighbor’s children, the children who sit next to you in shul or riding their bicycles down your street, to remain in Jewish schools.
Put simply, supporting the fund is an investment opportunity that is guaranteed to pay a return. The dividends are informed, inspired, passionate Jewish children who are committed to Torah, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel. With all of the challenges we are having inspiring our youth, the research and statistics don’t lie. One cannot compare the Jewish identity of a child that attended a Jewish day school with one who didn’t.
While analysts may be suggesting that the economy is coming back, the amount of scholarship our schools are giving out and the amount of desperate people who have been contacting me daily would suggest otherwise. I need your help more than ever.
In a few weeks, we will stand in Shul and emotionally proclaim – “U’Teshuva, u’tefilla u’tzedaka ma’avirin es ro’ah ha’gezeirah, repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree.” The Machzor is not suggesting that we bribe God with money in this High Holiday season. It is suggesting that we show that we understand the true definition of net worth with a commitment to generously invest in God’s children.
Don’t be a foolish investor. Please contribute whatever you can to our BRS Jewish Education Scholarship Fund and make an investment sure to give you an excellent and risk-free return.
Go to http://www.brsonline.org/cheseddonations and generously enter an amount.
Please consider one of the following levels:
$1-$1000 – Friend of Jewish Education
$1000 – $1800 – Supporter of Jewish Education (includes entry into the annual Poker/Blackjack tournament)
$1800 – $3600 – Sponsor of Jewish Education
$3600 – $5000 – Pillar of Jewish Education
$5000 and up – Patron of Jewish Education
A few years ago, I was leaving Shul after davening Shacharis one morning when an older gentleman in our community stopped me and asked if I had a minute to talk. The truth was, I was running late and barely had time to say hello let alone entertain an entire conversation. But, he seemed so happy to run into me in the parking lot that morning and so I couldn’t say no. He shared with me a most remarkable story that changed not only the way I see him as an individual, but also the way I relate to people in general.
A few days before this chance encounter, we had sat on the floor together with many others reading Kinnos, commemorating the tragic suffering of our people throughout the ages. In my introduction to the Kinah composed by Yirmiyahu Ha’Navi for Yoshiyahu, I shared an insight of Rav Soloveitchik. Why, asked the Rav, do we pause in our mourning for millions of Jewish martyrs throughout the millennia, to focus on the story of a particular individual? He explained that when we reflect on the magnitude of the loss of Jewish lives throughout our history, the sheer number is overwhelming and staggering. Indeed, paradoxically, the greater the quantity of individuals lost, the more challenging the quality of our sense of grief for them. The Rav felt that we dedicate an entire Kinnah to Yoshiyahu, a single individual, to remember that the loss of millions is really the loss of one plus one plus one plus one. Each person is unique and irreplaceable. Each loss equals the loss of an entire world.
I continued by relaying a personal experience from leading March of the Living, a tour for teenagers of Poland and Israel. One of the most powerful points of the trip is the visit to the death camp, Majdanek. From the intact barracks to the enormous pit of human ash, touring Majdanek is simply devastating. One of the most stirring images of the entire trip is a barrack in Majdanek filled with shoes that were confiscated from Jewish prisoners.
Before entering the barrack filled with shoes everywhere, we encouraged the students not look at the overwhelming scene of countless shoes that lay before them. Instead, we told them, pick out one shoe to focus on. Look at it and consider, who was its owner? How did they feel when they bought those shoes and when they slipped them on for the first time? Where did these shoes lead them? Recognize that each shoe was worn by a person who had a mother and father and perhaps a spouse and children. They had a personality, dreams, ambitions, and goals. All of it was tragically cut down and all that is left to commemorate them is the shoe that is before you.
Standing in the parking lot a few mornings later, the elderly man reminded me of my remarks Tisha B’av morning and told me that he must share a story. He proceeded to say that when he was a young child he was taken, together with his family, to Auschwitz. His brothers and father were taken one direction and he was ordered to go a different one. He found himself in a room with other children and elderly people. The Nazi’s instructed them to take off their shoes and undress. There was one older man who was wearing the most magnificent, fancy, expensive shoes. He went up to the guard and said, “I won’t leave my shoes here; they are my prize possession.” The guards laughed and said, “do you think where you are going you are going to need shoes” and commanded him to undress.
Our community member continued by telling me that even as a young child, when he heard the guard’s laugh and his unforgettable words, he thought to himself, dos iz nisht gut, this is not good, and instinctively ran, avoiding all of the guards, until he rejoined his brothers and father. Looking back all these years later, he confessed, he doesn’t know how he made it from one barrack to another without being caught or seen or how he was able to blend in with the grown up men as a young boy. But, he said, the only reason he survived is because of that man’s fancy pair of shoes and the fact that he wouldn’t part with them.
I walked away from the conversation that morning feeling so small, utterly insignificant, and frankly somewhat embarrassed. Until that morning, this man, whom I have always tried to be friendly towards, was nothing more than ordinary to me. True he had an accent and likely had a “story.” But, he modestly blends in and quietly goes about his business as if he has led the most mundane, uneventful life when in truth his life, was anything but.
If you look around you on a regular basis, there are seemingly ordinary people who in fact have led the most extraordinary lives. This shy, humble, quiet man had displayed unfathomable courage, tenacity and strength in his life. His attendance at davening every day of the week is in truth an enormous expression of faith and devotion to the Almighty, despite the hardships, tragedy and loss that he has confronted.
All too often, we only learn the background of a person when it is too late to ask them questions. We walk away from their funeral inspired, impressed, but also curious to learn more. With their loss goes their story as only they could tell it, the answers to our questions and the solutions to that which piques our curiosity.
The Torah (Devorim 32:7) tells us, “Sh’al avicha v’yagedcha z’keinecha v’yomru lach, Ask your fathers and they will tell you, your elders and they will explain to you.” Our fathers and mothers and our elders have so much wisdom, incredible life stories and extraordinary experiences to share with us. We stand to gain enormously by learning from them. However, “sh’al,” we need to first ask and show interest.
That day I learned that a man I had considered an “average Joe,” was indeed a mighty hero. Let’s not wait until it is too late to learn other people’s stories. Be inquisitive, ask questions, and most importantly recognize that behind most ordinary people are extraordinary experiences that we can all learn from, if only we take a moment to ask.