It is no secret that the incoming president of the United States is highly unpopular among significant segments of the country. At least 60 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, representing over 10 percent of Congress, do not plan to attend the inauguration. I personally disagree with their intended actions, as I disagree with those who did not attend President Obama’s inaugurations for partisan reasons. The installation of our new president is as much about respecting the office, appreciating the smooth transition of government, and celebrating democracy as it is about honoring the person who will fill the chair in the oval office.
I also vehemently disagree with Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, who publicly proclaimed that when President-Elect Trump takes office he will no longer say the standard prayer for the government. “Because of my commitment to the integrity of prayer, starting this week, I can no longer recite or say amen to the Shabbat prayer for the success of the U.S. President,” he wrote. To paraphrase others, an American citizen not praying for the success of the U.S. President is like a passenger on an airplane not praying for the pilot’s success because they have differences. I think it was a serious mistake and dangerous example that some omitted or altered the text of the standard prayer for the president while President Obama was in office and the same holds true now.
In an age and at a time that many struggle to find meaning in prayer, I am concerned with the precedent of altering davening as a form of activism. Would we be satisfied with people making alterations to other parts of davening that they are offended by or that aren’t compatible with their world view? I understand the authorship of different prayers matters as does the varying versions available, but it is the precedent and spirit of change that worries me. Additionally, in an age of partisanship and division, with each administration, some will not want to pray for him (or her). Will we continue to go back and forth over these prayers as a tug of war rope to determine if a particular president is good or bad for the Jews? When we have concerns over a leader, it is exactly the time to daven hardest for him and his wisdom, guidance and success. We have many avenues for political activism, our prayers shouldn’t be one of them.
While I disagree with the protesting members of Congress, those who challenge the legitimacy of our democratically elected incoming president, and with people who will not pray for his success, I am extraordinarily grateful that they can freely articulate and practice as they wish. In fact, their liberty and freedom of speech is exactly what this inaugural weekend is all about.
Earlier this week, I participated in a small, one-day humanitarian mission to Cuba. We visited the country’s three existing synagogues and met with the president and vice president of the Jewish community of Cuba which once numbered 15,000 and is down to a conservatively estimated 1,200. Sadly, over 99% have intermarried. We brought them prescription medications such as antibiotics and cholesterol medicine, and basic supplies like toothbrushes and bulbs that are simply unavailable in Cuba.
If you want to experience time travel, visit Havana, Cuba. The cars, styles, and above all the mentality are a throwback to another era, one which most of us today are unfamiliar with. There is no internet access other than in Wi-Fi parks where it is monitored and filtered. It is illegal to kill a cow in Cuba and meat is unavailable for purchase. In fact, conditions are so poor, that our guide told us he has been trying to buy deodorant for two months unsuccessfully and his father shared that he has gone to three stores to purchase toilet paper but none is available.
Each synagogue has a pharmacy and functions more to provide social services than religious ones. The large former sanctuary of the Sephardic shul has been converted into a dance studio and theater and they have moved into a much smaller space with an emphasis on caring for seniors. The small orthodox shul continues to meet, though the majority of its attendees do not live in walking distance. Cuba has no rabbi, no mohel, and no shochet. When enough lifecycle events pile up, a rabbi flies in from Chile to officiate combined weddings, bar mitzvahs and brises.
Most of the children have moved to Israel or Miami. Ask those who remain why they are there and they answer something that stunned me. Despite the limitations, dying Jewish community, and lack of what we consider basic freedoms, they feel pride in Cuba and in their history and heritage. Even more surprising, when we asked what they think of Fidel Castro those we met with said it was a love-hate relationship. We are used to hearing Cuban-American elected officials describe the horrific human rights violations, the oppressive dictatorship, but for many Cubans, Castro and his revolution brought egalitarianism, equality, free college education, and some form of health coverage. They concede Castro did some terrible things but, they explain, “nobody is perfect.” In their opinion, those who left and those that have only disdain for Castro came from wealthier families and those in private businesses that Castro dissolved. But those who came from poorer backgrounds and struggled to be employed are grateful for the social equality they now enjoy. They point to the absence of crime and anti-Semitism in Cuba evidenced by the lack of security at any synagogue or destination we visited.
Yes, it is possible that those who shard those sentiments simply lacked the ability to speak freely with us and tell us how they really feel. However, while I don’t presuppose to challenge the authenticity of their feelings, my own suspicion is that the reason they feel as they do has to do with the power of indoctrination. The socialist, communist forces, influences, values, and ideas have been hammered home for multiple generations and seem to have successfully brainwashed many of the Cubans.
When God recruits Moshe to shepherd the Jewish people out of Egypt, He describes the mission as taking them “MiYad Mitzrayim, from the hand of Egypt.” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that there were two exoduses that needed to occur. First, the Jewish people needed to be liberated from the physical persecution of Egypt. But additionally, they needed to be freed from the culture, ideas, influences, and indoctrination they were subjected to. Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easier part. Taking Egypt out of the Jews would prove much harder.
Listening to our newfound friends in Cuba, I couldn’t help but wonder in what ways are we back home indoctrinated with ideas, values, and pursuits that are obviously foolish to others, but we are too blinded to see. How have we been molded and shaped by the culture and milieu in which we live and operate in such a way that we fail to see or realize how much better we could have it in some ways?
When we asked how they felt about the renewed relations between the U.S. and Cuba and the recent change in the immigration law, they sounded very hopeful and optimistic. We watched American Airlines, Delta, Jetblue and Spirit all land planes in our short time in the airport (while we waited for airport personnel to take some of our humanitarian goods for themselves before they would let us through). Cubans see the cruise ships coming in daily and witness the burst of the tourist industry. The government and Raúl Castro are the only beneficiaries right now of the influx, but the Cubans see what could be if only things would change. With the reversal of the wet foot, dry foot policy that had granted residency to Cuban refugees who made it to America, Cubans now know they have nowhere to escape to and they will be motivated to demand changes. Those we spoke to feel change is coming and it is going to be good. Let us hope and pray they are right.
Over a cup of Cuban rum and a fine Cuban cigar we asked one last question. What would happen if you would stand in the street with a sign or a megaphone criticizing Castro or the Cuban government? The answer – “I would immediately be arrested and imprisoned for a minimum of five years.”
Whether you love Trump or hate him, whether you agree or disagree with the boycotters and those changing our prayers, this weekend, take a moment to offer thanks for how fortunate and blessed we are to live in a country that allows us to express our opinions, in which we citizens choose our leaders and shape our policies and destiny.
The National Association for Chevra Kadisha (NASCK) has dedicated this Shabbos, Parshas Vayechi, to generating awareness and educating the Jewish community about end-of-life decisions. Boca Raton Synagogue is proudly participating along with hundreds of Shuls in North America. It is towards that goal that I share this article from a few years ago with you.
Cremation in the Jewish community is growing at disturbing rates, with advertisements appearing in Jewish newspapers promoting it as a legitimate post-death option, including in some cases, shockingly, endorsements by rabbis. The prohibitive cost of traditional burial is often given as a reason for this trend, but it undoubtedly is the result of ignorance as well.
It is not just the secular and unaffiliated that are uneducated about the Jewish approach to death and dying. Most people don’t learn about death until they encounter it with the loss of a family member or good friend. Questions like what happens at death, where does the soul go, how do we prepare the body, and what is the afterlife like remain mysterious and unknown. Historically the Chevra Kadisha has always been a modest society who does its work without attention, fanfare or even credit. Those that serve on it do so privately and quietly. But that doesn’t mean that the work it does or the why and how it does it should remain a secret.
Educating about the Jewish view of death doesn’t only prepare people and bring comfort and solace in a painful time that everyone will inevitably face, but in my experience, it also inspires living a more meaningful and rich life.
This week, to the great credit of Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, Head of School, senior girls at Katz Yeshiva High School began an eight-session course titled “The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Passage.” This pioneering project, a brainchild of Rochel Berman, author of “Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial,” is designed to expose students to both the philosophy of what happens at death as well as the practical procedures of the Chevra Kadisha. The course includes a field trip to a funeral home to see the tahara room, tachrichin, and a halachikly appropriate casket.
I had the privilege of teaching the introductory class, in which I attempted to put death in the context of life. At the core of every answer to the myriad of questions revolving around death is the following critical statement: We don’t have a soul; we are a soul. A lifetime of caring for our bodies, pampering ourselves, and seeking physical pleasure often leaves us confused and with the mistaken notion that we are a body and we have a soul. Judaism teaches that in fact, it is the opposite.
Our soul has existed since creation itself and as an extension and expression of the Almighty, it will continue to exist eternally. Our soul is housed in a vessel called the body for what in the span of eternity is a very short period of time: seventy, eighty, or even one hundred and twenty years. Our rabbis don’t refer to what happens at the end of life as death. They call it yetzias ha’neshama, the extraction of the soul from the body because in truth people don’t die, bodies die and people aren’t buried, bodies are buried.
How does the soul experience its transition from the body? Is it painful or pleasurable? The answer is it depends on how that soul lived life when it was housed in the body. The righteous person who throughout his or her life always identified themselves as a soul that had a body and while caring about the body truly invested in nourishing and nurturing the soul, experiences its extraction as a moment of bliss and great joy. The righteous see the body as a burden, a source of temptation and distraction that holds back the soul. Of course, they recognize that only with the body can the soul express free will and therefore shape and mold it. They, therefore, don’t pray for death or welcome it.
However, when it happens, our greatest leaders are described as experiencing a kiss of death, a moment of bliss, when their soul was liberated from the shackles of the body. Rav Nachman of Breslov wrote (Sichos Ha’Ran #179), “I can’t wait to divest myself of this garment that is my body…” To the righteous, removing the body from the soul is as painless and indeed pleasurable as taking off ones suit and tie at the end of a difficult day.
The average person who identified with his or her body throughout life and who invested in nurturing and nourishing the body while neglecting the soul, experiences its extraction very differently. Our tradition teaches that the soul hovers over the body when it is first removed, pained by the startling realization that the body they looked at in the mirror and saw as themselves all those years was only a vessel, a vehicle for the soul. The soul is confused and anxious by the sudden awareness that in fact, we are a soul and only had a body, not the other way around.
The primary responsibility of the Chevra Kadisha is to comfort that soul through its journey and transition. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 33) tells us that it is forbidden to leave a dying person alone. The least we can do is provide that soul with companionship and love during its difficult time. We have a shomer with that soul all the way until the body is buried at which time the soul can begin to ascend on high.
If the body is just a temporary vessel, a source of ephemeral pleasure, why do we treat it with such respect, dignity and affection before placing it in the ground? If what matters is the soul, why not discard the body by any means? The soul of the average person which sees itself as inextricably connected to the body endures pain by the separation. After all, they lived together for a lifetime, engaged the world as one, made choices and experienced events, people and places together.
Shlomo Ha’Melech taught (Kohelles 12:7) “The dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God Who gave it.” The soul finds solace and returns to God only after seeing its body return to the earth with dignity and respect. Everything about the tahara, the burial preparation, is designed to allow the soul to observe us treat its formal body with great respect. We carefully wash the body from head to toe, we clean under the fingernails, in the ears, and we remove all tubes, lines and catheters. We purify the body by immersing it in a mikvah or pouring 9 kabim of water of it. And then we dress the body in shrouds that are both simple and majestic. We don’t talk about extraneous things in the tahara room, we have a candle lit to represent the neshama, and we don’t pass things over the body treating it like an object or piece of furniture.
When performing a tahara there is an acute awareness that the neshama of the individual is palpably present in the room, watching, observing and grieving. I have walked away from every tahara I have been privileged to participate in with a greater consciousness of my soul, a greater drive to nourish it, and a renewed mindfulness that in fact, I don’t have a soul; I am a soul that has a body.
Imagine the pain of the soul that, rather than witness its body treated with love, affection and dignity, sees it incinerated and cremated into a pile of ash. From our perspective cremation may not seem that different than placing a body in the ground, but from the perspective of the soul in the world of truth, it can be the difference between comfort and grief, consolation or profound pain.
I would like to believe that Hashem Has a way of providing comfort for those that choose cremation or a mausoleum rather than traditional burial out of a lack of Jewish education or experience. However, it is our responsibility to educate as widely as possible on the beauty and deep meaning of the authentic Jewish view of death and mourning.
I concluded my class by encouraging the students to get involved in the holy work of the Chevra Kadisha. There are few things more satisfying and fulfilling than participating in chesed shel emes, lovingness that cannot be repaid. Contact with death inspires greater meaning in life and provides contact with our souls in a way few other things can. There are so many ways to get involved not only in the tahara room, but serving as shomrim, setting up shiva homes, helping make shiva minyanim, stocking supplies, making meals and more.
I am grateful to Rochel Berman and Katz Yeshiva High School for piloting this program and I hope it will be emulated all over, not only for students but adults as well.
To see a greater discussion with further sources on this subject, please see here.
What was supposed to be a Chanukah week of joy and happiness has in fact been challenging and difficult. On the very holiday celebrating our liberation from the Syrian Greeks occupying our most sacred space, Har HaBayis, the Temple Mount, the UN Security Council passed a resolution declaring that we are in fact illegally occupying the very location of our miracle. Acutely painful was the abstention from the vote by Israel’s closest ally in the world, who participated in—if not outright orchestrated—the ambush and betrayal. That pain was compounded by the lopsided, unfair, historically inaccurate rebuke of Israel by the Secretary of State before the entire world.
I think these events have been particularly agonizing because they represent a harsh wake-up call to the reality that as much as things have changed over time, they have by and large stayed the same. Israel may contribute to global medical and technological advances, may be the first to arrive at humanitarian disasters, may be a beacon of democracy and human rights in a region devoid of either, but at the end of the day, the prophecy of, “hein am levadad yishkon, they are a nation that will dwell alone,” remains true. The vote was 14-0, with our greatest ally abstaining. That is the epitome of levadad yishkon, isolation and solitude.
As excruciating as these developments have been, they were predicted and prophesized. While we should never stop fighting anti-Israel activism, standing up for truth, justice, and our beloved Israel, we should stop allowing ourselves to be lulled into the fantasy that Israel or the Jewish people will be treated more fairly now that we have a modern state, than we have as a people throughout our long and mostly lonely history.
The Torah predicted our adversaries and opponents from without. What has made this Chanukah particularly challenging has been our adversaries and antagonists from within. The last few weeks have seen prominent scandals and arrests involving observant Jews, including the second largest hedge fund fraud in history. In the week in which we light our Menorahs to dispel the darkness and illuminate the world, our light and our sacred mission have been dimmed by these heinous alleged crimes and the great desecration of God’s name that has resulted.
We cannot control the enemies that rise from without, but we can and must stop being our own worst enemies from within. We have a mission and mandate to model for the world a life of values, guided by ethical principles and lived with kindness, dignity, integrity, and sanctity. Following each headline featuring a scandal, we must redouble our efforts to offset the damage by making positive impressions and conducting ourselves in ways that will bring all with whom we interact to appreciate the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, and to jump on board to perfect His world.
Opportunities for Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, are all around us. Just this week, Mr. Hershel Waldner, a Chassidic employee of B&H in Manhattan added great light to the world and helped offset the darkness with a generous act of lovingkindness. He was walking in Manhattan when he found a wallet with a driver’s license, credit cards, and cash, but no contact information other than a business card with a handwritten phone number on the back. Mr. Waldner called it and the man who answered was the boss of the wallet’s owner, who was in New York for a few days of vacation. The boss put them in touch and the stranger came to B&H Photo to retrieve his wallet with great gratitude and appreciation.
We don’t all discover wallets and aren’t presented with prospects for acts of Kiddush Hashem that will make it to the newspapers, but we do have daily opportunities to advance the mission. Here are a few to consider, particularly during this season of the year:
- I have not formally studied the subject, but it stands to reason that, on average, there is more garbage picked up after the weekend outside Observant Jewish homes than from our neighbors. We have all seen the multiple garbage cans plus overflow bags following each Yom Tov, let alone a three-day holiday. Wouldn’t it be amazing if every observant Jewish family tipped their sanitation workers once a year and communicated gratitude for literally handling our garbage? The same goes for the people who deliver our mail. True, they are paid, but so are many of us who still appreciate gestures of appreciation.
- When we go out to eat, we are served and waited on by people who work hard and are not retiring on the salary the job provides. At the end of the meal, we have an option. We can be stingy, exacting, and look to reduce the tip because of flaws in the service. Or, we can be generous, magnanimous, appreciative and overlook what might not have been perfect. If we choose the latter, coupled with common courtesy like please and thank you, we can advance the mission more than we think. The few extra dollars between a generous or miserly tip will unlikely affect our lifestyle or savings but they are a great investment in making a Kiddush Hashem.
- Some people have part-time or full-time help at home. Often, these individuals clean our messes, scrub our toilets, do our laundry, and much more. They add great value and service to our family and while they are paid for their work, they are too often mistreated, dealt with disrespectfully, or taken advantage of. Be fair and transparent about whether they will be partially paid when you are on vacation. Consider giving a gift or tip this time of year to say thank you. Treat them as you would want your family members treated in the same position.
- Next time you are standing on line in a store or supermarket, watch as people approach the cashier and notice how many are talking on their cell phone and never look at or engage the person helping them. Cashiers stand on their feet all day providing a service. They deserve not to feel invisible or insignificant. When you get to the front of the line, hang up the phone, look your cashier in the eye, ask him or her about their day and say thank you. Consider using their name when addressing them. You wouldn’t believe the positive impression you can make just by using someone’s name.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l once commented that every generation possesses a mitzvah that is especially significant for its time. Previous generations were challenged with the mitzvah of dying al Kiddush Hashem. Rav Elyashiv said the mitzvah for our day is to “let the Name of Heaven become beloved through you.” Our mitzvah is living al Kiddus Hashem.
We cannot easily impact the way the UN votes on Israel or how fair or friendly the administration will be. However, it is entirely in our hands to not God forbid hurt our people by setting back the mission, and instead always act like a mensch and thereby bring greater light into the world.