A husband and wife are getting ready to go to sleep. The wife is ready to close her eyes and her husband stands staring at himself in the full-length mirror. “What’s the matter with you?” she says. Come to sleep already.” He turns to her and says, “Look at this, I am so depressed. All I see is a receding hairline, a growing gut, and wrinkles under my eyes and what hair I have left is grey. Tell me something positive, something uplifting so I can go to sleep.” She thinks for a moment and says, “Well the good news is your vision is still 20/20.”
There is a very high association between Chanuka and the sense of sight. “HaNeiros halalu kodesh heim, v’ein lanu reshus l’hishtameish bahem elah lirosam bilvad.” As we will begin to sing next week on each night of Chanuka, the candles are sacred, we don’t have permission to benefit from their light but their purpose is simply to be looked at. Moreover, we have a unique halacha on Chanuka. The Talmud tells us and the Shulchan Aruch records – ha’roeh mevareich, one who can’t light for himself or herself and sees the candles of someone else – nevertheless makes the second beracha, she’asah nissim la’avosainu. When I see someone put on tefillin, take a lulav, or blow shofar, I don’t make a beracha. Only on Chanuka do I make a beracha on seeing someone else do the mitzvah.
The Kedushas Levi, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, tells us that Chanuka is the holiday of seeing. The different moadim correspond with our different senses. On Purim our hearing is heightened as we listen to the megilla. On Pesach our sense of taste is sharpened when we eat matzah and marror and on Chanuka, he says, we evaluate our sense of sight, how well do we see.
What kind of seeing are we honing? It is not our physical sense of sight. Indeed, in a sort of paradoxical way, our eyes are a liability. You see, we often feel that “seeing is believing.” If I can perceive and observe it, it is true. If I can’t, it is not real. Following this rule, we have dismissed and disregarded many of the most precious truths and realities in our lives. There are ideas, feelings, thoughts and dreams that are authentic and genuine, despite the fact that they can’t be seen or observed.
Our Rabbis describe the Greek empire and Hellenist influence as choshech, darkness. In expounding on the opening verses of the creation story, the Midrash Rabbah says choshech al p’nei sehom – zu galus yavan, darkness on the vastness, that is the exile of Greece. Moreover, our Rabbis taught that darkening our eyes was the goal of our Greek oppressors – shehechshichu einehem shel yisroel.
What is the difference between a room that is filled with darkness or with light? Is there any actual change to the room itself? Whether the light is on or off in the room, the furniture remains the same, the layout of the room, the placement of the door and the height of the ceiling are a constant. What, then, is the difference whether the light in my room is on or off? The answer is just my perception. The only difference is my ability to identify and see the reality, the truth and that which was right before me all along. Chanuka is about seeing things, people, ideas, and miracles that are really right in front of me, even though I may not be able to visibly see them.
George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” One can live with his eyes open, perfect vision, and the light on and still be cloaked in darkness. On the other hand it can be pitch black all around and yet a person can see absolutely clearly. The Chashmonaim didn’t see their few numbers, weak army, and impossible task. They saw the mighty hand of Hashem, they saw the obligation to fight, and they saw Divine protection that would accompany them.
Chanuka is about lighting the candles and using them to harness our sight, not opthalmologically speaking, but our deep vision of what is true, precious, and dear. When we look at our spouses and children, do we see the amazing blessing of their presence in our lives or do we hear lots of noise, see rooms that need to be cleaned up, and a messy house? When we face a challenge do we see no way out or an opportunity to further lean on our Creator? There are truths all around us; it is up to us to decide what to look at and how to see.
In her “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” Professor Yaffa Eliach shared the incredible story of Chanuka in Bergen Belsen:
It was time to kindle the Chanuka lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight, and a Chanukia belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a Chanukia, strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick, and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil.
Not far from the heaps of bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of the Chanuka lights. The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.
But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: “Blessed are Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
Among the people present at the kindling of the light was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever, sincere person with a passion for discussing matters of religion, faith and truth. As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, Zamiechkowski elbowed his way to the Rabbi and said, “Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Chanuka candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, “Who wrought miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season.” But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season”? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Chanuka lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call “keeping us alive?”
“Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right,” answered the Rabbi. “When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished Rabbis who were standing near me if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and deliberation as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Chanuka lights.
I said to myself, if G-d has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Chanuka lights they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that, they stand in throngs and with devotion listening to the Chanuka blessing “Who performed miracles for our Fathers in days of old, at this season”; indeed I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”
You see, that night in Bergen Belson, Mr. Zamietchkowski only saw what lay before him, dead bodies and terrible suffering. The Rebbe also looked, but he saw another layer of truth that was equally accurate – that there was a gathering of people who maintained incredible faith despite the most horrific circumstances.
As we celebrate Chanuka next week, let us remember that there are truths all around us not visible to the naked eye. Let us use the light of the Chanuka candles to inspire us to see the truth with clarity and 20/20 vision.
Earlier, this week, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addressed an assembly of the high schools of our community. He was introduced beautifully by ninth grader Jonah Tripp who said, “To me, Rabbi Sacks is known as a permanent fixture in my home. His books line our shelves and our family so often quotes him at our table; his perspectives, Divrei Torah and thoughts are so pervasive throughout my home that it seems as though Rabbi Sacks spends every Shabbos meal with us.” Jonah went on to articulate the excitement and enthusiasm that not only he, but also his classmates and friends, felt in anticipation of hearing Rabbi Sacks. “I want to thank my Bubbies and my Zaidies and my parents for showing me that it is not a sports star nor a political leader, but rather the meeting of a Torah scholar of our generation that ignites such excitement.”
Last year I spoke with a young man who proudly identifies as a Jew and a staunch Zionist but has abandoned most of an observant lifestyle, despite having completed twelve years of Jewish education and having been raised in an observant home. During our fascinating exchange I asked him what, if anything, would change his mind about the direction of his life. He answered, “The only person in the universe who I think could inspire me to keep Shabbos once again is Rabbi Sacks. After a meeting with him, I would likely return to an observant life.”
There is no question that Rabbi Sacks is brilliant. He has written twenty-five books, holds sixteen honorary degrees, has a seat in the House of Lords, was knighted by the Queen, is a regular on the BBC, and his thoughts on the Parsha are quoted at Shabbos tables and from pulpits in shuls around the world every single Shabbos. Rabbi Sacks is not only revered in the Jewish world, he is highly acclaimed and admired in the United Kingdom and around the world.
At a gala dinner marking his retirement from serving as Chief Rabbi, Tony Blair described him as “an intellectual giant … He is somebody who … has made an extraordinary, outstanding contribution, not just to British and International Jewry, but to British and International public life.” Gordon Brown asked, “How do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know, the greatest philosopher, the greatest writer you know, one of the greatest thinkers in the world?”
What is so special about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that inspires incredible excitement from a ninth grader and his classmates? What is it about the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom that makes a young man confident that after one interaction he would be motivated to transform his lifestyle and to grow spiritually? Why do so many in the Jewish and non-Jewish world alike find him so intriguing, compelling, and inspiring?
In September of 1991, at his Installation address as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks called for a decade of renewal based on five central values: “love of every Jew, love of learning, love of God, a profound contribution to British society, and an unequivocal attachment to Israel. Indeed, looking back over twenty years later, these are exactly the themes that have permeated Rabbi Sacks’s writings and have attracted so many to follow him.
I submit to you that Rabbi Sacks’s great impact and influence are not the result of his profundity, perspicacity and scholarship alone, but as or more importantly, result from his consistently positive messaging, optimistic outlook, and highly attractive vision.
Our rabbis have taught, divrei Chachamim, b’nachas nishma’im, the words of the scholars are embraced when delivered softly and gently. Additionally, they taught, Chachamim hizharu b’divreichem, scholars must be exceedingly measured with their words. Rabbi Sacks is an outstanding role model in heeding this wise advice and as a result, his messages are consistently heard.
Chazal understood that people are never motivated to change their minds or behaviors because of rhetoric, name-calling, vitriol, condemnations, or sweeping generalizations. When that language is employed, nobody is swayed. Those who were previously in agreement with the position being presented are already on board. Those that don’t agree, upon hearing the manner in which the idea is presented, simply disengage and stop listening, thereby precluding any possibility of being persuaded.
Communicating effectively and meaningfully requires dignity, nuance, refinement and words that are both measured and delicately scripted. Rabbi Sacks has mastered this style and the results are astounding. When we have the privilege of hearing him speak in our Shul this Shabbos, I urge you to not only listen to the content of his talks, but to pay close attention to the manner in which he delivers them..
Each week brings with it unfolding events that draw strong feelings and thoughts from us all. Who doesn’t have opinions about issues ranging from the announcement of executive action on immigration, the recent horrific terrorist attack in Israel, the events in Ferguson, the failed negotiations with Iran, to the setting of the thermostat in Shul.
If we want to not only talk, but to be persuasive and have our words considered in shaping others opinions, we would do well to follow the advice of chazal and the example of Rabbi Sacks and be thoughtful, careful, measured, and dignified when sharing all of our opinions.
Many of our young men and women of marriageable age assume that when a couple decides it is time to start a family, it is simple to conceive and bring a healthy baby into the world. In fairness, they have good reason for making that assumption. Growing up they often hear “mazel tov”s and see birth announcements, they attend brises and baby namings and they witness the growing families around them. Children are a central focus of Jewish life and living, and our young people understandably assume that having them is fairly easy and straightforward.
But they are wrong. What they don’t hear about, because we don’t talk about it, are those suffering and struggling in silence and privacy, desperate to bring a baby into the world and eager to become a mother and father for the first time, or once again. There are more than seven million people of childbearing age in the United States currently struggling with infertility. Up to twenty percent of those who do become pregnant experience a miscarriage. Eighty percent of those miscarriages occur within the first trimester, when the couple is unlikely to have told anyone they were expecting and before the woman begins to show.
Infertility and the pain associated with it are unfortunately nothing new. The Gemara (Yevamos 64a) teaches that our matriarchs and patriarchs struggled with barrenness. The Seforno on our parsha points out that Yitzchak was forty when he got married and the Torah says he was sixty when Yaakov and Esav were born. Together, Yitchak and Rivkah suffered with infertility for twenty long years, praying, longing, and waiting to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to build a nation.
Rachel, too, knew the pain of childlessness. She screamed out in pain, “im ayin, meisa anochi, if I don’t have a child I am already dead,” from which the Gemara (Nedarim 64b) teaches that to live without children is to experience a form of death.
Resolve, the National Infertility Association, writes on its website:
Infertility can feel like a death, like a prolonged mourning process as dreams die and hopes are dashed… The pain is similar to the grief over losing a loved one, but it is unique because it is a recurring grief. When a loved one dies, he isn’t coming back. There is no hope that he will come back from the dead. You must work through the stages of grief, accept that you will never see this person again, and move on with your life.
The grief of infertility is not so cut and dry. Infertile people grieve the loss of the baby that they may never know. They grieve the loss of that baby who would have had mommy’s nose and daddy’s eyes. But, each month, there is the hope that maybe that baby will be conceived after all. No matter how hard they try to prepare themselves for bad news, they still hope that this month will be different. Then, the bad news comes again, and the grief washes over the infertile couple anew. This process happens month after month, year after year. It is like having a deep cut that keeps getting opened right when it starts to heal.
This week, I met with three women whom I don’t know and who themselves only know each other from attending an infertility support group in Boynton Beach. They came with difficult and complex halachic questions about IVF, surrogacy, the use of gestational hosts, and Jewish status. I explained to them that I am far from an expert in these areas, but I am absolutely committed to researching their questions and helping them in every way that I can.
We then got into a discussion of the challenges of struggling with infertility and the acute pain, financial hardship, and intense loneliness that they have each felt. The women shared the often-prohibitive cost of treatments, with one of them having spent over half a million dollars and the others depleting their savings to cover bills totaling a quarter of a million dollars. Two of the women have babies as a result and I pray that the third will have her dreams of being a mother realized in the near future.
A common theme of the agony they described was the loneliness of going through this hardship without the explicit knowledge, awareness, support, love, or assistance of others. Those with infertility or who have suffered a miscarriage are grieving without anyone even knowing. They are forced to spend their days interacting with others as if all is well, when in fact it isn’t.
Worse than the indifference of friends and acquaintances, these women described, is the unintentional insensitivity of so many who have been blessed with healthy children and who make comments, tell stories, share pictures, or complain about their kids.
I walked away from the conversation pledging to myself and committed to encourage others to be better, more sensitive, and more aware of the comments and passing remarks we make at Shabbos tables, in shul, and on Facebook. If it were our son or daughter, or our brother or sister suffering with infertility, we would measure our words, think carefully about what we say, and anticipate the potential impact of all we do. When planning our simcha we would think about how we could be sensitive to our loved one who may never be in a position to make a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding.
Well, those suffering are our loved ones. They are our brothers and sisters and we must bring that level of vigilance and mindfulness to our behavior to ensure that we don’t even unintentionally contribute or compound their already unbearable pain. When hosting a simcha or sharing about our children or grandchildren, minimally, we should always reference how fortunate and blessed we feel, that we don’t take it for granted and that we pray for those who don’t have children. We should mention the challenges of infertility in Chassan and Kallah classes, not to God forbid scare the young bride and groom, but to responsibly manage their expectations.
Resolve has a helpful page on its website called infertility etiquette in which they remind us not to be nosy, ask inappropriate questions, make assumptions, gossip, or minimize someone’s challenge. Instead, they say “The best thing you can do is let your infertile friends know that you care. Send them cards. Let them cry on your shoulder. If they are religious, let them know you are praying for them. Offer the same support you would offer a friend who has lost a loved one. Just knowing they can count on you to be there for them lightens the load and lets them know that they aren’t going through this alone.”
In the near future, we hope to start a support group for infertility and a support group for miscarriage and stillbirth. For more information or to share ideas of how we can be promote more sensitivity or be helpful, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our matriarchs and patriarchs ultimately saw their dreams fulfilled and we are here today as a result. May all those yearning for healthy children see their hopes and aspirations come true and may we all get only yiddishe nachas from the children whom we are so blessed and fortunate to have.
Guest Post by Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg
In the wake of the recent horrific rabbinic scandal there has been a loud call for the inclusion of more women’s voices in the administration of the Mikvah, involvement in conversion protocols, oversight of the rabbi, and leadership of the Jewish community. There is no doubt that women have a distinct perspective, great wisdom, and much to offer in these areas and many others, and their continued participation should be encouraged.
However, it should not go unsaid that in almost every single Jewish community, there already is a woman in a position of great leadership who helps shape the vision and agenda of the community, who has full access to the rabbi and is uninhibited to speak with him freely: the Rebbetzin. I recognize that not every rabbi’s wife has an interest in serving in the traditional role of rebbetzin, nor is she required to. However, the position of rebbetzin, while unofficial and unpaid, affords tremendous opportunity to impact the community with a woman’s perspective and priorities.
As rebbetzins, we learn with bat mitzvah girls, kallahs, and conversion candidates, we are often involved in the supervision and maintenance of the mikvah, we teach classes, field questions, host people at our Shabbos and Yom Tov tables and partner with our husbands in leading the community. Additionally, rebbetzins are charged with keeping their husbands humble, reminding them that at home they are not rabbi, but father and husband.
Rebbetzin is a role that I cherish and feel blessed to fill. It is not an easy job, and I’m sure there are times when I don’t do it well, but it is deeply rewarding and extremely meaningful. It impacts my children in a positive way and I feel enriched from my involvement in the community and from my interaction with its members.
Although there is no formal schooling or graduate program for this unique position, we are so fortunate that Yeshiva University, and Rebbetzin Meira Davis who runs the program each year, deeply value the role of the rebbetzin and find it necessary to nurture our growth and inspire us in our roles. It is for this reason that for the last number of years, they have organized a two-day conference for rebbetzins, the Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yarchei Kallah. Every year, I look forward with great anticipation to gathering with other rebbetzins from all over the world to study together, hear thought-provoking presentations, and enjoy the camaraderie of mentors, peers, and friends.
This year’s conference, which was held earlier this week, focused on the goal of “Nurturing Our Strengths and the Appreciation of our Role as Rebbetzin.” The themes and ideas that were presented were vast and touched upon many different aspects of our rebbetzin role. We started out with a session about how we can best attempt to inspire today’s youth and bring them closer to spirituality and a love of Hashem. We had a frank discussion with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski on addiction and substance abuse in our communities. We learned from tremendous role models about resiliency and how to stay strong during the most difficult times.
Dr. David Pelcovitz taught us about the Jewish and psychological approach to happiness. He explained how there are three techniques to bring us Simcha. First, we need to count our blessings, because when you start to count them you realize that there are many. Second, we must set real and attainable goals for ourselves. Lastly, we should always attempt to savor every moment of our lives. He reminded us not to waste time on the phone and to always rush through our days, but to slow down and enjoy the little things in life and all that Hashem has given us. We were coached on how to help couples who are having a difficult time communicating with each other, and advised about the best methods for resolving conflicts in relationships.
One of the most important qualities of a successful rebbetzin is empathy and the capacity to feel the pain of others. Towards that end, we heard from a single woman about her experience in the singles scene. She explained in great detail about the hurtful things people said to her and the way she was treated and judged, and she gave us advice on how we can best help the singles in our communities. A very courageous and special woman who struggled with infertility explained her ordeal and the challenges she faced living in the Jewish community without children. In a timely session we had an open and frank discussion with a well-known therapist on what to do when confronted with crisis or scandal in general and we focused in particular on how we can best respond to the most recent scandals that have rocked the Jewish world. There were many other shiurim and sessions that were presented and each one gave me tremendous insight into who I am as a person first and foremost, and what I can accomplish as a leader within the community.
Each year I leave the conference with so much to think about and to incorporate into my life and role as rebbetzin. I return home with renewed excitement and enthusiasm to do more, be better, and serve you as best as I can.
Unfortunately, we have seen a crisis of faith in the rabbinate in the last few weeks and though the reason is understandable, the sweeping suspicion of all rabbis is unjust and undeserved. In fact, I left this conference feeling a strengthening of faith in our rabbis because I met and got to know many of their rebbetzins. The close to one hundred women who gathered together this past week are selfless, educated, spiritual, wise, nurturing, caring, remarkable people who voluntarily fill a role that is demanding, stressful, and often underappreciated. This conference reminded me that Jewish communities around the world are so fortunate to have exceptional women in the highly influential leadership position of rebbetzin and their husbands are lucky to have them at their sides, guiding them, advising them, and helping them reach their greatest potentials.
These outstanding women inspired me and spending time with them reminded me how fortunate and blessed my family and I are to be part of the Boca Raton Synagogue family. Being rebbetzin of a community filled with warmth, love, unity, gratitude and opportunity is something I will never take for granted. Though it is not always easy to balance communal responsibilities with family obligations, and I recognize that I cannot be both rebbetzin and mommy 24/7, I hope to continue to learn, grown and develop in this sacred role for years to come.
Women can be and should be in leadership positions. Thank God we are fortunate to have strong and committed women working hard for our communities each and every day, to insure a bright future for the Jewish people.