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What Do Lag Ba’Omer and Mother’s Day Have in Common?

on Thursday, May 11 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

A number of years ago, someone, who I guess felt I could use some motivation, gave me a CD of Tony Robbins to listen to.  I was excited to hear what one of the most inspirational people of modern times would have to say and how it could change my life for the better.  He started his talk by saying that he has the secret to both happiness and success.  If you follow his advice and begin each and every day of your life exactly as he prescribes, he can all but guarantee you will find yourself both happier, and achieving your goals and dreams.  I, like everyone else, want to be happy and I try to be successful in everything I do.  I was therefore, very eager to hear, what would he say next, what is the secret?

What Tony Robbins said is exactly correct, but for me, and for you, and for Jewish 3-year-olds around the world, it was nothing new.  The secret to happiness and to achieving success, he said, is to start every day of your life by expressing gratitude.  As soon as you wake up, before doing anything else, say thank you.  Be grateful and appreciative for being alive, having a roof over your head, having your health if you are lucky, your family, etc.  He continued that it isn’t enough to think appreciatively, but you need to start your day by verbalizing and actually saying thank you out loud.  If you do, the rest of your day is guaranteed to be successful and happy.

What Tony Robbins is teaching in the 21st century, Judaism has taught since its inception thousands of years ago.  From an early age, we teach our children to wake up saying modeh ani lefanecha, I am grateful to you God for the fact that I woke up, that I am alive to see another day, for the wonderful blessings in my life and for my relationship with You.   It has been inculcated within us from our youth that we don’t wake up feeling entitled, deserving and demanding.  Rather, we wake up with a deep and profound sense of gratitude, appreciation and thanks.

In my experience, Tony Robbins is absolutely correct.  How we start our day has an incredible impact on how the rest of it will go.  This coming Sunday, we will celebrate Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer.  Each day of the omer is characterized by another kabbalistic attribute.   Lag Ba’Omer is hod she’b’hod, the glory of glory, reflecting our appreciation of God’s greatness and glory.  Alternatively, though, hod can be understood as coming from the same word as hodu, or modeh, meaning thanks.  Lag Ba’Omer is a day characterized as thankfulness within thankfulness, or a day to celebrate gratitude.

The Chassam Sofer, Rav Moshe Sofer says that the miraculous manna that fell from Heaven began to descend on Lag Ba’omer.  On the first day, the manna was undoubtedly greeted with great enthusiasm and appreciation, but as time went on and there was an increasing expectation the heavenly bread would descend, it became much easier to take it for granted and to forget to be appreciative for it at all.  Lag Ba’omer therefore, is a time that we identify and say thank you for all of the blessings that regularly descend into our lives, but unfortunately, like the manna, that we take for granted.

It is so easy to fall into a sense of entitlement and to forget to be grateful.   Why should I thank my children’s teachers, they are just doing their job.  Why should I be so appreciative to the waiter, or the custodian, or the flight attendant, isn’t that what they are supposed to do?  When is the last time we said thank you to whoever cleans our dirty laundry?  Do we express gratitude regularly to our spouse who shops, cooks dinner, or who worked all day to pay for dinner, or in some cases did both?

One person without whom we would literally not be here, but who often goes unappreciated is our mother.  Lag Ba’Omer this year overlaps wtih Mother’s Day. On Sunday, over 135 million cards will be given, millions of bouquets of flowers sold, brunches eaten, and an estimated $20 billion will be spent on gifts. With all the attention and fanfare paid to what has become among America’s most popular holidays, it is critical to remain mindful and sensitive to those who aspire to be mothers, but have not yet been blessed with the opportunity.  However, ultimately, Mother’s Day is not about celebrating the institution of motherhood, taking pride in one’s maternal instinct or even about applauding all mothers. According to its founder, Anna Jarvis, Mother’s Day is entirely about our own personal mother and recognizing her unique role and contributions to our life. Jarvis, who did not have children of her own, specifically did not call it Mothers’ Day in the plural, but Mother’s Day, the day dedicated to our singular, one and only mother.

When Jarvis introduce Mother’s Day, it didn’t take long for Hallmark and other greeting card companies to capitalize on this new holiday by selling printed cards with messages of appreciation to Moms. Jarvis was so disappointed and disturbed by the commercialization and exploitation of what she intended to be a genuinely sentimental day that she worked to rescind the very holiday that she had introduced. Mother’s Day was supposed to be about hand written, personal letters of appreciation, she felt, not about mass produced, impersonal cards that generate profit for big companies instead of engendering love and gratitude. Despite her organized boycotts, it was too late. The greeting card industry was too strong and Mother’s Day was here to stay. Over a hundred years after being introduced, I wonder what Jarvis would think of Mother’s Day today when many gush about their mother or wife on social media for the world to see, but don’t necessarily match that enthusiasm and affection offline, when nobody is watching.

On Sunday, as we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and l’havidil Mother’s Day, let’s not just say modeh ani in the morning and then quickly transition to feelings of entitlement.   Let’s remember to say thank you to the people who do extraordinary things in our lives.  But even more importantly, let’s especially express gratitude to the people who do the ordinary things that make our lives so filled with blessing.

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I Couldn’t Believe This Guest Was Invited to the White House Celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut

on Wednesday, May 3 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Vice President Mike Pence hosted a historic celebration at the White House on Tuesday in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.  He made headlines for remarking that President Trump is giving serious consideration to moving the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  I had the great privilege of attending the event and while I am very excited about the prospect of an embassy move, these were not the comments that gave me goose bumps.

I was incredibly moved when Vice President Pence said:

Thank you for being here today at the White House to celebrate this day, the anniversary of a moment that will be remembered for eternity…You’re all here, all of you, regardless of your home, your creed, because on this day, the fifth day in the month of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar in 1948, nothing short of a miracle occurred.  On that day, in the ancient and eternal homeland of the Jewish people, the state of Israel was reborn.

On that day, the Jewish people’s 2000-year exile, the longest exile of any people anywhere, ended.  And on that day, a prophecy literally came to pass.  And I believe in my heart that God Himself fulfilled his promise to His people.  The Lord God tells us… “Behold, I will cause breath to enter into and ye shall live.”  And Israel lives today…

Today and every day, the state of Israel and her people bear witness to God’s faithfulness as well as their own.  How unlikely was Israel’s birth?  How much more unlikely has been her survival?  And how confounding against all odds, both past and present, has been her thriving…

For my part, my Christian faith compels me to cherish Israel as well as our deep alliance and historical ties…On this day, so many years ago, only three years after the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel was given life by a people who had looked into the eye of the angel of death.  The Jewish people have persevered through history’s darkest hour, for in that darkness shine the light of faith, of hope, and of love…

And so today we celebrate and we marvel at all that Israel and her people have accomplished…Israel is an eternal testament to the undying fortitude of the Jewish people, to the unfathomable power of human freedom, and to the unending faithfulness of God.  Indeed, though Israel was built by human hands, it’s impossible not to sense that just beneath their history lies the hand of heaven [emphasis mine].  For as God tells us in his word, speaking to his people so long ago, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Standing in the most powerful building in the world, listening to arguably the second most powerful man in the world talk about the US-Israel relationship, I couldn’t help but look at the vice president and wonder why we ourselves can’t speak more like him.  When describing the meaning of Israel’s Independence Day, Vice President Pence didn’t just make the standard, albeit important, reference to our countries’ shared values such as liberal democracy, he didn’t just banally talk about a strategic alliance, he spoke about God.  It felt as though among the guests invited to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at the White House, was God Himself.

Do you feel self-conscious putting on a Tallis and Tefillin in an airport terminal? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Many observant Jews are uncomfortable wearing a yarmulka at work or make great efforts to avoid having to make a beracha on food or be seen davening or benching when among non-Jews or non-observant Jews. Yet, many of our Christian or Muslim counterparts aren’t shy or reluctant at all to mention God or to pray in public.

In working with a pastor who is a great supporter of Israel I have noticed something amazing.  On numerous occasions, when confounded about a situation and trying to decide what action to take, he has said to me, “Let’s take a moment and pray on it.”  When describing how he came to a certain position, idea, or plan, or what he credits for a particular achievement or success he has said, “I was looking for inspiration and so I prayed.”  While obviously the style, content, and destination of his prayers are not in consonance with Judaism or Torah, there is something inspiring about his lack of inhibition to reference faith in his everyday conversation.

It is not just pastors or the vice president that are comfortable talking freely about God in casual conversation.  In an interview about his retirement, Mariano Rivera, the greatest closing pitcher of all time, reflected on his successful Yankee carrer and said:  “Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through him I have accomplished everything.  Not because of my strength. Only by his love, his mercy, and his strength.”  How many of us if interviewed would as explicitly and overtly attribute all that we have accomplished to God?

To his credit, when David Friedman, the US Ambassador to Israel, spoke at the event, he proudly quoted the words from Hallel, “Zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagila v’nismecha vo, this day was created by God, let us rejoice in it.”  Elsewhere in Hallel we say, he’emanti ki adabeir, ani anisi m’od, which is normally translated to mean, I trust in God, out of great suffering I spoke.  The Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Shalom Noach Berzovsky, offers an alternative understanding.  He explains, he’emanti, I grow in emunah.  How? Ki adabeir, because I choose to speak about God.  When we reference and credit Hashem, when we talk to Him, express gratitude to Him and rely on Him, we grow closer to Him.  Hashem is not theoretical, He doesn’t live only in the four walls of the Shul.  Hashem should be part of our lives, referenced in our conversations and instinctively prayed to when we need to make a difficult decision or seek guidance and support.

To be clear, this is not about Vice President Pence’s politics.  I admire his faith and I respect his lack of defensiveness or discomfort with his strong religious values and convictions.  Though he is uncompromising in them, they have not held him back from achieving the second highest office in the land.  Recently, the Vice President was quoted in an interview saying that he never dines with a woman alone and he doesn’t attend functions without his wife “if there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose.”

The explosion from the vice president’s bombshell disclosure was loud and the response was quick and harsh.  Pence drew criticism and scorn that ranged from mocking him, to questioning his character, and mostly accusing him of objectifying women.  Some wondered if he had just landed from a previous century.

I found the criticism remarkable, particularly since it came mostly from people who were more outraged by Pence’s behavior to safeguard his marriage, than they were towards certain elected officials who defiled theirs.  Instead of deriding the Vice President, they—and we—would do well to admire his commitment to what he once called, “building a zone around his marriage.”

A few years ago, I asked Dr. Ruth Westheimer what she thought were the most important ingredients for a healthy and strong marriage.  I was very surprised when among her answers was a steadfast commitment to observing the laws of yichud.  She explained that especially in our world of enticement and access, it is so important to remove temptation and opportunity before they ever arrive by pledging to never be alone with a non-family member of the opposite gender.  Being vigilant in the laws of yichud is not something to be mocked for, it is something to admire and for which we should be unabashedly proud.

Yet, how many of us, Torah Jews who observe the laws of yichud, would be comfortable invoking these practices in a public interview?  How many of us would so unapologetically promote what is in our time bizarre to many behavior?

This week’s parsha enjoins us “Kedoshim tiheyu,” be holy and be sacred.  Rashi explains that holiness is achieved by excelling in the area of arayos, being cautious and vigilant in not being promiscuous.  The natural tendency towards giving in to temptation and desire in areas of intimacy is as old as the world itself.  The Torah wasn’t written for a utopian society or perfect people.  It legislates and regulates how imperfect, fallible people can and should live the most meaningful and values driven lives.  Be kadosh, create healthy separations and boundaries to ensure modest relationships and interactions.  Eliminate the opportunities for devastating mistakes by practicing safeguards like the laws of yichud and not being alone with a member of the opposite gender.

While there is nothing wrong with being inspired by others such as the vice president of the United States, we are the ones charged with being role models for the world, proud examples of virtuous lifestyles and faithful living.  May we fulfill our mission as a mamleches kohanim, a kingdom of priests, by not hesitating to talk about God.  And may we realize our responsibility to be an am kadosh, a holy people, by excelling and setting the standard in safeguarding our marriages and relationship, by practicing modesty.

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What Could Be More Important Than Showing Honor to our Survivors?

on Friday, April 21 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

How many people do you know who fast on the 20th of Sivan?  The likely answer is zero.  It is not one of the minor fast days, and obviously not Tisha B’av or Yom Kippur, so why would anyone fast?

Twice in our history, the 20th of Sivan was designated as a permanent fast day to commemorate massacres against our people.  The first time was by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson in 1171, after 31 Torah scholars were executed as a result of a blood libel in France.  Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a day of fasting “greater than Tzom Gedalya, like Yom Kippur,” and instituted special selichos to be recited.  Shortly after, the Crusades expanded and for the next 150 years would bring great devastation of Jewish communities.  It overshadowed the incident of the blood libel and the fast ceased being observed.

Almost 500 years later, from 1648-1649, Polish Anti-Semite Chmielnicki launched a series of pogroms that led do the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the loss of hundreds of Jewish communities.  The Shach, Rav Shabbsai Ha’Kohen, instituted the 20th of Sivan as a private fast day for his family to commemorate their great loss.  Soon after, the Council of the Four Lands, the rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, adopted the fast for all Polish Jewry in commemoration of the tragedies of what became known as Tach V’Tat.

Twice the 20th of Sivan was designated as a day commemorating Jewish tragedies, and twice the observance faded until it is now entirely obsolete.

Learning about the 20th of Sivan, one can’t help but wonder – what will become of Yom Ha’Shoah?  Will it continue to be observed 20 years from now?  Will gatherings, commemorations, ceremonies, and school assemblies be held, or as time passes will Holocaust Remembrance Day fade into oblivion?

Sadly, the likelihood is that Yom Ha’Shoah will go the way of the 20th of Sivan.   While the Holocaust was a defining event and experience for the last two generations, evidence shows that young people today want to “move on,” put it “behind us,” and come “out from under its shadow.”   The younger generation is rapidly seeing the Holocaust in the context of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain: events that are part of our past, rather than as something that happened to our parents and grandparents, a very real piece of our personal lives.

I don’t know what will happen with Yom Ha’Shoah in the future.  What I do know, is that as long as we are blessed to have our precious and holy survivors, Yom Ha’Shoah is not just about commemorating an event of Jewish history and memorializing the kedoshim, the 6 million who were murdered in our past.  For who knows how much longer, Yom Ha’Shoah is about the present and the opportunity to honor and express our awe at the extraordinary survivors in our midst.

Our survivors have lived through the greatest atrocities and most horrific circumstances in the history of the world.  They endured unimaginable suffering, inconceivable loss, and profound pain.  They rebuilt their lives with deep faith, amazing and inspiring optimism, and in most cases little to no expectation that the world owes them anything in return for what they have been through.

With the Holocaust survivors whom I have been privileged to know, I have found that there is one request they have of us, one wish and hope: they are desperate for us not to forget what they went through.  They reawaken their darkest memories and become traumatized each time they share their horrendous stories.  More than one survivor has told me that for days after telling their story, they cannot sleep, eat, or find a peaceful moment.    Nevertheless, they open themselves up to great pain continue to tell their story with the hope and expectation that we are listening, that we will remember, and that we will continue to tell it long after they are gone.

In his Hagaddah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as part. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory, there can be no identity.

Our survivors tell their story and give personal testimony because more than anything they don’t want the Holocaust to be relegated to history; they desperately want it to remain part of our collective memory.

In his article, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom Ha-Sho’a” published in Tradition 41:2, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter traces the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah and examines the great debate surrounding its observance.   Whether you feel Yom Ha’Shoah should have been established or you believe Holocaust remembrance should be incorporated into our day of national mourning, Tisha B’av, is academic at this point.  The reality is that the Jewish calendar marks Yom Ha’Shoah and failure to participate in remembering is essentially a slap in the face of our beloved survivors who yearn to know that we have not forgotten their loss and suffering.

Our Yom Ha’Shoah program this year will take place on Sunday evening beginning with a live presentation via phone from Rabbi Broide and our students participating on March of the Living at 6:00 pm.  The formal program begins at 7:00 pm and features a conversation with our very own Martin Judovits who will share his story of survival and renewal.  Martin’s new memoir, Holocaust and Rebirth, will be available for purchase following the program.

If you have children of a suitable age, I implore you to bring them.  Older people and adults have lived with and met Holocaust survivors.  It is specifically children who are running out of time and opportunities to meet these extraordinary people whom they will look back at later in life and only wish they could have known better.  Babysitting is available at no charge by registering with Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger at rge@brsonline.org

With all the pressures on our time and the endless list of things that we must get done, I simply can’t imagine a more important place to be on Sunday evening than with your children at your side honoring the survivors of our community.

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Are You Kind Enough to Cut Others Slack and Give the Benefit of the Doubt?

on Friday, April 14 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for splitting sea

Burt Reynolds describes an incident that occurred with him before he was a famous actor. He is in a bar minding his own business sipping on a beer. Two stools over sits a man with humongous upper body strength and broad shoulders. Out of nowhere, the guy starts harassing a man and a woman seated at a table nearby. Reynolds tells him to watch his language. That’s when the guy with the huge shoulders turns on Reynolds.

Reynolds describes: “I remember looking down and planting my right foot on this brass rail for leverage, and then I came around and caught him with a tremendous right to the side of the head. The punch made a ghastly sound and he just flew off the stool and landed on his back in the doorway, about 15 feet away. And it was while he was in mid-air that I saw . . . that he had no legs.” Only later, as Reynolds left the bar, did he notice the man’s wheelchair, which had been folded up and tucked next to the doorway.

Even though Reynolds was looking right at the man he hit, he didn’t see all that he needed to see.

Upon experiencing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people joyously sang, “Nachisa b’chasdecha am zu ga’alta. With Your kindness, You guided this people that You redeemed.” Nachisa, you led them with kindness, is in the past tense. Which kindness is it referring to? The simple understanding would be that Hashem performed the great miracles of the eser makos, the ten plagues and krias yam suf.

The Midrash (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) gives an altogether different understanding. When the Jewish People were enslaved in Egypt, notes the Midrash, they felt the bleakness and hopelessness of the situation, so they assembled together as a group. During this meeting they made a commitment towards one another. They pledged that with whatever else was going on around them, no matter how bad it would get, they would practice gemillus chassadim, kindness and generosity with one another.

What precipitated this commitment? Why now? The Chafetz Chaim explains that when the people realized that they could not come up with a strategy to end the persecution and that the suffering under Pharaoh was only going to increase with each ensuing day, they decided among themselves that the only way to make things a bit better and hopefully to earn redemption from above would be to be kinder to one another. Writes the Chafetz Chaim definitively, “ha’davar ha’zeh hayah siba l’geulasam.” This kindness that they showed one another was the catalyst and cause for their salvation.

The Chafetz Chaim concludes, this is the meaning of our pasuk that we say every day: Nachisa b’chasdecha, you led us out with chesed. It was our performance of and predisposition towards chesed that caused You to lead us out. When we do chesed with one another, Hashem does chesed with us. This is the meaning of the pasuk from Yirmiyahu that we say on the yamim noraim: “Zacharti lach chesed n’urayich.” Hashem, you remember the chesed of our youth? What chesed did we do in our infancy? Says the Chafetz Chaim, this refers to chesed we did in Egypt, even in the harshest of circumstances when we had every reason to be self-centered and self-absorbed.

Forty-five years ago, social psychologists Ned Jones and Victor Harris coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias” to describe the phenomenon of people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.

In other words, when we see someone behave in a certain way, we reach conclusions about their internal personality rather than ascribe the behavior to outside factors. When someone runs through a red light we assume they are reckless instead of considering that they are driving someone to the hospital in an emergency. If we see someone kick a vending machine we assume they have anger problems whereas if we kick the machine it is because our snack got stuck. If someone is impatient in the line at the drug store we label her nasty instead of realizing she is a considerate person rushing to get home with the medicine for her sick, miserable child. When other people’s cell phones ring during davening, it’s because they are inconsiderate boors. If my cell phone rings, it’s because I’m a conscientious person who needs to be able to get a call from those who rely on me.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explained it this way, “…in everyday life people seem all too willing to take each other at face value and all too reluctant to search for alternative explanations for each other’s behavior.”

To put it most simply, we fail to cut each other slack. We tend to look for the worst in others, to be easy to anger or to be insulted, rather than give people the benefit of the doubt and to recognize that there may be something else going on that we don’t know.

Ian Maclaren, the 19th-century Scottish author once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Cutting slack, giving the benefit of the doubt, is a chesed, is kindness that absolutely every one of us can do.

Someone didn’t invite you back, or respond to your text, or say hello when passing you in the supermarket. Don’t assume the worst. With friends, co-workers, and even family members—make an effort to remind yourself that almost everyone is fighting a battle you likely know nothing about.

If we want Hashem to interact with us with chesed, to give us the benefit of the doubt, and to cut us some slack, we need to do the same for others. Don’t ever even metaphorically punch someone because even when you are looking him or her in the eye, there is likely much you don’t see.

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