(Sermon delivered on Parshas Chayei Sarah/Thanksgiving Weekend 2016)
Everybody knows that the day after Thanksgiving is known as “Black Friday,” but fewer know how it got its name. The earliest use has been traced back to 1951, referencing the practice of workers calling in sick on the day after Thanksgiving in order to enjoy a four-day weekend. Around the same time, the term caught on among the Philadelphia police department to describe the traffic congestion caused by shoppers. More recently, some use the term to describe the period of the year that retailers go “in the black,” making profits from all the holiday shopping.
Whatever the origin of the name, it struck me this year, that while we in America were enjoying the great deals of Black Friday and deciding what new possessions we can accumulate and bring into our homes, our brothers and sisters in Israel were experiencing an altogether different Black Friday, deciding which possessions to save from their homes as they fled through the black smoke that was threatening their communities.
“V’Avraham zakein bah bayamim, va’Hashem beirach es Avraham bakol – now Avraham was old, well on in years and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” Could there be a more ambiguous statement or phrase than baKOL, blessed with everything? With what exactly was Avraham blessed? Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that indeed, Avraham was blessed with everything – b’orech yamim, v’osher, v’chavod u’banim, v’zu KOL chemdas ha’adom.
And yet, something doesn’t sit right with that explanation. At this point, Sarah, his life partner has passed away. He had just lost his “everything.” Additionally, Avraham is known for his unprecedented and perhaps unparalleled spiritual contribution to the world. It is difficult to accept that the Torah would describe Avraham as being blessed with material and physical wealth, as having “it all,” particularly at this stage of his life.
Moreover, the narrative itself seems to contradict this suggestion. Immediately after supposedly being blessed with absolutely everything, Avraham summons his loyal servant Eliezer and says, “you know, there is something I desperately need: a wife for my son Yitzchak. This is so important to me that you need to swear you will fulfill your promise and provide that which is lacking, a daughter-in-law.” If Avraham was blessed with everything, why is the very next statement a description of that which he lacks? What is this mysterious bakol that Avraham enjoyed?
In his Oros HaTeshuva, Rav Kook explains that in a healthy person, there is an inseparable relationship between the individual and the totality of existence and creation. The person who cares about other people and things around him or her will observe and sense the good in the universe. In contrast, a self-absorbed person who is obsessed with his or her own happiness and interests is misaligned with creation and everything around them. He or she simply cannot see the harmony, beauty, integration, and unity of the universe.
In Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam speaks of a person who mistakenly believes that there is more evil and suffering than goodness and joy in the world. He describes that this belief results from a person seeing himself as the center of the world and therefore measuring the whole world by his own narrow, limited experiences. Such a person has separated himself or herself from the cosmos.
Rav Kook explains that when Hashem blessed Avraham “bakol” it means that Hashem empowered Avraham with a panoramic view of all reality and a broad perspective of the universe. Rav Kook explains that being blessed bakol, seeing synthesis in the world, is not only to intellectually believe that, statistically speaking, there is there more good than bad in the world, but it means even seeing the “painful” as part of the meaning, order and purpose of the universe. It means seeing the hard and dark moments and experiences as part of kol, the bigger picture.
Avraham lived with, and experienced the world through, a wide-angle lens and therefore, despite whatever particular challenge he was enduring, he was able to see and appreciate how much good there was all around him and even all the good he had.
Living with a sense of kol – seeing the whole picture and not just focusing on a small part – provides the faith, courage, and tenacity to endure that which is painful and recognize that even that is not without meaning and purpose. Having a kol attitude brings calm, an optimistic spirit, and a deep sense of appreciation.
Conversely, not embracing a kol attitude, choosing to focus on pain, suffering, and darkness, with no vision or perspective, leaves a person, according to Rav Kook, chronically complaining and persistently unhappy.
Fires are raging around Israel. Just when you think they have tried everything, our enemies invent a new form of terror, arson. Over 200 separate fires have raged, tens of thousands have been evacuated from their homes, forests have burned, people have been injured, buildings, and homes have burned to the ground. Among them is OJ, Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim where many of our members learned for their year or years in Israel and home to NCSY Kollel each summer, which was partially destroyed by a fire set to Beit Meir.
While the fire of evil rages around Israel, Hashem “beirach es Avraham bakol,” fire rages within the Jewish spirit as amazing displays of chesed have emerged. I saw several websites with spreadsheets of volunteers offering anyone evacuated from their home, complete strangers, to come stay with them. I don’t recall seeing that among the general population when Hurricane Matthew was headed our way. Nobody in Tampa invited strangers from Ft. Lauderdale to stay with them. AirBnB in Israel waived all service fees and invited people to offer their homes to others for free. There is good and beauty even within the dark and ugly.
In contrast, our enemies don’t see synthesis. While we choose to see good, they choose to practice evil. While we transform terror into opportunities for chesed, they take chesed and use it to advance terror. It is not a coincidence that when Yishmael is born, the Torah warns us, he is “yado bakol” – his hand will be upon that sense of kol. He wants to destroy goodness, optimism, hope, and synthesis.
Yishmael is yado bakol, but yad kol bo, we stubbornly hold on to our attitude of kol which will triumph over him. Avraham passed this capacity to see the big picture with hope and graititude on to Yitzchak before he died. The end of our parsha states, “Vayitein Avraham es KOL asher lo l’Yitzchak, and Avraham gave the kol, the everything he had, to Yitzchak.” Elsewhere we are told that Yitchak gave it to Yaakov and so on.
Even if a person is experiencing challenges, hardship or pain, he or she can employ their sense of kol and nevertheless choose to see the good in family, friends, and the world around them.
There is a 12-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl from our community currently undergoing very difficult and painful treatments and in need of our heartfelt Tefillos. Please daven each day for Eliyahu Dovid Yehuda ben Nechama Rut and Chaya Yocheved Alexandra bas Chaviva Tova. I visited the pediatric floor of Sloan Kettering this week for a few hours and I must tell you I was overwhelmed by the pain and suffering all around. My heart broke from hearing a little girl across the hall wailing to her mother and begging to “get them off of me, leave me alone, just stop.” If you need a little perspective about what is important in life, what real problems look like, and what real pain feels and sounds like, spend some time in a pediatric oncology ward.
The suffering is startling, but the chesed is truly astonishing. The kindness, sensitivity, and love from the staff and volunteers, who can only be described as angels, is beyond belief. The faith, resolve, and perspective of the two families going through this is incredibly inspiring. Neither is wallowing, questioning, angry, resentful, or turning inwards. Neither is under a cloud of darkness.
As progeny and disciples of Avraham Avinu, as inheritors of an attitude of bakol, both families constantly express appreciation for all those around them and for the extraordinary acts of kindness and goodness they have seen and received. Both have asked that we take on extra acts of kindness, mitzvos, and personal growth so that their children’s pain will be the catalyst and inspiration for bringing greater good into the world and give it some meaning, instead of it just being random.
I took an Uber from the hospital and the driver overheard me on the phone with Yocheved describing my visit and my observations about the hospital. When we arrived, my Pakistani driver asked me if he could give me his email address so that I can send him the name of the child so he could pray for her.
The capacity to see the good that results from your pain is what it means to be blessed bakol, with a positive perspective and a panoramic, broad vision.
My friends, on this Thanksgiving weekend, let us give thanks for being part of such a magnificent people and beneficiaries of such a special legacy. Avraham was blessed bakol, and we, too, can be if we choose to live our lives with vision, perspective, optimism, and gratitude no matter what is happening. At havdallah tonight, we will thank Hashem for distinguishing bein ohr l’choseh, between light and darkness. We don’t have Black Friday or Black Sunday or Monday or Tuesday. As Jews, our mandate and our mission is to illuminate each day and dispel the darkness.
May the dangerous fires in Israel be extinguished and a state of calm and safety return. May Eliyahu Dovid Yehuda ben Nechama Rut and Chaya Yocheved Alexandra bas Chaviva Tova and all those who are ill have complete, speedy and painless refuah shelaymas.
And as we say in benching – “ha’rachaman hu yevareich osanu v’es KOL asher lanu, May God bless us and the KOL that we have, kmo she’nisbarchu avoseinu Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Yaakov baKOL, miKOL, KOL, as he blessed our forefathers with a perspective of KOL, kein yevareich osanu kulanu yachad bivracha shleima,” v’nomar amen.
 See R’ Moshe Weinberger’s “A Song of Teshuva” on Oros HaTeshuva for an expanded explanation and additional insights regarding this idea.
A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of davening Mincha with unusually-focused kavana, when I suddenly heard a bas kol, a heavenly voice proclaim, “Message received.” I was reveling in the news that the combination of my heartfelt expressions of praise, personal requests, and gratitude had in fact been received by the Almighty, when suddenly I heard it again, “Message received.” At that point I realized it was no heavenly voice; it was someone’s cell phone with an alert set for each text message received. I must admit that for the rest of that Amidah, I struggled to overcome my resentment and frustration and return to the level of focus and concentration I had previously achieved.
A few days before this incident, a friend shared with me an experience at a tragic funeral he had attended. A young man passed away and throngs came out to pay him kavod acharon, final respect. As the crowd became silent and the officiating rabbi was about to begin, the chilling words “You’ve arrived at your destination,” were proclaimed. The person sitting next to my friend immediately commented, “final destination.” Someone had used a GPS app to direct them to the funeral and had failed to silence his phone, rudely disrupting the beginning of a tragic funeral.
Technology has enhanced our lives in countless ways, but it has also compromised and challenged the very foundation of existence, a sense of mindfulness and consciousness in all that we do. A recent study shows that the average person checks his or her phone every six and a half minutes. Half of teens say they are addicted to their smartphones. Other research shows that smartphones are actually making us stupid, not smart. Indeed, for super successful people like Warren Buffett, the “flip phone” is making a comeback.
In his essay, “Menuchas Ha’Nefesh,” Rav Chaim Friedlander writes, “The truth is, menuchas ha’nefesh, peace of the soul, is a fundamental and critical attribute upon which all success in every aspect of life rests…A person who is scattered, distracted and fragmented cannot achieve anything fully or in fullness.”
We all see the difference between the quality of our conversations, interactions, and experiences on Shabbos when we are liberated from and free of technology, from those that take place during the week, when whatever we are doing is competing with the alerts, notifications, vibrations and sounds that are relentlessly bombarding us. The Zohar (3, 29a) says, “a scholar is called Shabbos.” R’ Chaim Friedlander explains that it is because the scholar and righteous are able to experience the entire week with the menuchas ha’nefesh, the peacefulness of the mind and soul, that Shabbos provides.
I recently spent time in Israel and unlike in the past, I intentionally did not rent a SIM card to power my smartphone. As a result, I only had access to the usual barrage of emails and texts when I was near Wi-Fi. That meant every time I davened on the trip, I was entirely disconnected from technology and exclusively connected to my conversation with Hashem. When I was out with my family, I was entirely immersed in whatever activity or conversation we were having, and utterly inaccessible and disconnected from all others.
The experience was enlightening. My davening, conversations, and experiences were energized and experienced more fully than ever. When I returned, I was depressed by the thought that I had left my mindfulness and menuchas ha’nefesh behind. But then it dawned on me: I didn’t have to leave it behind at all. Each time we fly, we have to put our phones in airplane mode which disables the ability to receive calls or messages or be connected online. (Although it seems the era of being disconnected while flying is coming to an end, too.) It dawned on me that airplane mode works, even while on the ground.
Even if we are unable to switch to a flip-phone, or to turn our phones off, we can disconnect at will. When we walk into davening or begin a conversation we want to be fully present for, we can form the habit and ritual of switching to airplane mode. We can have Shabbos during the week and experience menuchas ha’nefesh by simply adjusting one setting when we want to connect to what we are doing.
The Chovos H’Levavos writes that he knew a righteous man who used to pray “Ha’Makom yatzileini mipizur ha’nefesh, May God spare me from the scattering of the soul.” Let us pray that we maximize our use of technology without scattering our souls and that we successfully maintain a sense of mindfulness in a world of mindlessness.
For some time, the cost of Jewish education has been labeled a crisis. While it feels like this issue has been addressed ad nauseam, believe it or, it is still being debated. Our own Rabbi Adam Englander penned an article describing how KHDS was able to freeze tuition and even lower it. Gershon Distenfeld, Chairman of Yeshivat He’Atid in NJ wrote an article in response entitled, “Is There Still a Tuition Crisis?” He writes, “Today, what I (and others) are hearing is totally different. Many (day school administrators and board members chief among them) are expressing skepticism that we have any sort of “tuition crisis” for a very simple reason. Parents, and especially the younger generation, are demonstrating time and again that price just doesn’t factor much (if at all) into their decision-making process.”
It is true, that for those who can easily afford Jewish education there is no crisis, and frankly, for many of those receiving the largest scholarships it can be argued, there is no crisis in the sense that their children can remain in a Jewish school without question. My experience has shown me, however, that there remains a crisis for a significant number of families who fall in between. There is a population that is receiving a generous tuition reduction and yet they simply cannot afford to meet that reduced tuition contract.
None of us should know the crisis of having to consider the question of removing a child or children from a warm, nurturing, positive Jewish educational environment and put them in Public School for financial reasons alone. There are legitimate reasons to leave Jewish day schools, but money cannot and should not be one of them. I strongly believe that a Jewish education is a necessity, not a luxury, and every Jewish child deserves a chance at one.
To put it simply, these families, these children, need our help. Our local Boca day schools are extraordinarily generous. Combined, they provide more than 6 million dollars of tuition assistance a year. They, and those paying full tuition that helps subsidize others are doing your part. But to relieve the crisis for the children on the brink of leaving Jewish Day School, the rest of the community needs to step up and do their part.
In 2009, we created the BRS Jewish Education Scholarship Fund to provide modest support to struggling families and help close the small gap and keep their kids in Jewish schools. Since then, the generous donors to this fund have helped literally dozens of Jewish children stay in Jewish schools. The fund does not support the operating budget of schools or make donations to their fundraisers. The fund exclusively provides money on behalf of specific children in specific circumstances to ensure that they can remain in a Jewish school. The fund has zero overhead or administrative costs. Every penny that is donated goes directly towards the tuition of a particular child and helps them remain in 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.
You may be thinking, this fund is a fantastic idea and my neighbors should most definitely give, but I am exempt. Here is why you are wrong:
MYTH #1 – “This is important, but it is someone else’s responsibility, not mine. I have been there and done that. I have built my children and grandchildren’s schools and now it is time for the next generation.” This is a myth and a fallacy. In the year 64 C.E., R. Yehoshua ben Gamla introduced an idea that would revolutionize the educational world. He identified a crisis in which Jewish children, particularly orphans, were not being educated by their parents at home as they had been traditionally until that time. He left his prominent position and started the first Jewish public school. He mandated each community to provide the funds to enable a Jewish education to all. The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) credits his vision and initiative with saving our people.
Indeed, his approach is quoted in Shulchan Aruch and remaining an obligation on Jewish communities until today. The Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles writes, “In a place in which the residents of a city establish among them a teacher, and the fathers of the children cannot afford tuition, and the community will have to pay, the tax is levied based on financial means.” Living in a community means contributing to a fund that ensures every Jewish child can get the Jewish education they deserve. One never graduates from this obligation, even if their children and grandchildren have graduated the schools they once supported.
MYTH #2 is “My children or grandchildren are struggling and I am helping them with their tuition.” That is fantastic, meritorious, and noble. However, it does not exempt you from giving locally as well. Poskim are clear that local schools have the status of aniyei ircha, local indigent, and there is a halachic imperative and priority to give to them before giving to every envelope that comes in the mail and every knock that comes to the door. If for years we send at least something to every yeshiva, kollel and charity that contacts us, how could we not participate in our local communal obligation?
We need the community, especially those who are not otherwise giving to our schools right now, to participate in this fund. Whether you are single, married, young, old, an octogenarian or newlyweds, these are OUR children and OUR collective responsibility. This fund is not helping anonymous, unfamiliar children in faraway 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.
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. We need your help, please answer the call.
Go to http://www.brsonline.org/donate and generously enter an amount or drop off a check at Shul
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 tournament on November 29th)
$1800 – $3600 – Sponsor of Jewish Education
$3600 – $5000 – Pillar of Jewish Education
$5000 and up – Patron of Jewish Education
On the morning after this week’s historic upset in the election, the chazzan at the minyan I attended finished the repetition of the Amidah and something unusual occurred. One person called out “Hallel,” indicating that for him it was a miraculous day in which we should sing out to the Almighty in appreciation. Immediately, another person called out “Tachanun,” proclaiming the day as one of sobriety and sadness. Both reactions were terrible and inappropriate disruptions to davening, but they reflect the deep divide across this nation.
On Wednesday, many people were euphoric, celebrating what they consider a miraculous victory that will herald in a new era for America. Many others were despondent, grieving and mourning for what they consider a national calamity and tragedy. Indeed, universities across the country considered canceling classes to allow students to absorb the results and many professors postponed exams.
On the one hand, thousands have taken to the streets protesting the election results and the president-elect. A group is attempting to form a movement to convince Californians to secede if Trump is president. A letter has been circulating entitled, “Open Letter From American Jews” that is addressed to “everyone who is threatened by the president-elect and his administration,” and asking people to sign. And perhaps the most extreme response, as reported in Ha’aretz: “U.S. Synagogues Invite Grieving Jews to Sit Shiva Together After Trump Victory.”
On the other hand is a group that is triumphant and jubilant, proclaiming with absolute confidence and certainty that the economy will improve, the US-Israel relationship will thrive, and that indeed, America will be “great again.”
The same pundits and pollsters who grossly miscalculated the election have not hesitated to offer their opinions on how and why the upset occurred and what the future will now hold for every aspect of American domestic and foreign policy.
Both those that are grieving excessively and those that are celebrating jubilantly are making the same critical mistake. With unintended hubris, both groups presume to know exactly what the outcome of this election means and what the future holds. While an elected official’s campaign speeches and promises certainly give an indication of what they hope to accomplish and what policies they will pursue, never forget that the future is not entirely up to them.
As observant Jews and people of deep faith, we must not fall prey to the mistake of the both the haters and the lovers of our president-elect. Long ago King Shlomo (Mishlei 21:1) taught us, “Palgei mayim lev melech b’yad Hashem, al kol asher yachpotz yatenu, the heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of Hashem, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.”
It is only natural and expected that when losing a loved one or suffering a painful setback one mourns and grieves. However, the Rambam writes (Hilchos Aveilus 13:11) that while it is acceptable and even encouraged to mourn, it is prohibited to mourn excessively. On the prohibition to cut one’s skin in reaction to suffering the death of a family member, the Ramban writes, grieving excessively suggests that one doesn’t believe in God, the afterlife, the world to come, or the reunion of souls.
When one mourns and laments hopelessly he has erased God from the equation and fail to trust in His presence and His divine plan. Similarly, Chazal tell us not to experience unrestrained celebration or laughter. Only when redemption comes, “az yemalei sechok pinu, our mouths will be filled with unbridled laughter and happiness.” Until then, we must be cautious with our joy and careful with our delight.
Both excessive mourning and extreme celebration presume to fully understand the meaning and implications of a particular event or experience.
We say every single day in our davening, “Al tivtechu b’nedivim, don’t place your faith and trust in princes and diplomats.” As believing Jews, we recognize that ultimately it is the Master of the Universe who orchestrates domestic, foreign and all policies and their consequences. To be a student of Torah and of Jewish history is to see the Almighty’s guiding hand. His Hand guided our history and ultimately it is His hand that will guide our destiny.
It is not only as observant Jews and people of faith that we believe it is God who guides the world. On every bill in our currency and adorning the House of Representatives is the phrase “In God We Trust.”
So yes, we campaign, lobby, and advocate for our candidate and on behalf of the policies that we think are best. But when the election is over, when the dust settles, it is with deep humility and profound modesty that we place our trust in God.
None of us, the haters, lovers, or those in between, know with true confidence what this election means for America or for Israel. It is understandable to be disappointed or to be jubilant, but don’t be arrogant. Let the pundits pontificate. As Torah Jews, we pray. Whether you are desperately worried about the future or tremendously hopeful, channel that feeling into heartfelt prayer to the One who holds not only the key states, but the keys to everything, Hashem.