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Instead of a Massacre, We Experienced a Miracle: What Does the Six Day War Mean to You?

on Sunday, May 21 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for six day war western wall

The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, R’ Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, lost his wife and eleven children in the Holocaust.  After the war, he gathered a small community of followers who had also survived, and from that small group eventually rebuilt a beautiful community.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin describes a visit to the Beis Medrash of the Klausenberger Rebbe in the summer of 1952 when he was just 12 years old:

Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word “hecher – louder,” came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the synagogue.

The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Chumash in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear; we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!” The rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat.

I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!” After the Additional Service ended, the rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and sisters,” he said, “Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move – hopefully the last one. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.”  And so Kiryat Sanz – Klausenberg was established in Netanya where the rebbe built a Torah Center as well as the Laniado Medical Center.

The tochecha in our parsha describes the devastating result of siluk ha’Shechina, when God removes and withdraws His countenance and providence from us.  While its graphic description is, thank God, unimaginable to us, the Klausenberger Rebbe felt the tochecha was an apt description of what he and so many others had actually endured.  But it isn’t just the Holocaust that appears to be the fulfillment of the terrible consequences foretold in the tochecha. In many ways, the Jewish condition during much of the last 2,000 years, punctuated by pogroms, crusades, the inquisition and countless expulsions, provides examples of the embodiment of the harsh and cruel description the tochecha.

In the middle of the tochecha that we read this morning, the Torah says:

וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִ֥י אֲנִ֖י אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָֽׁמְמ֤וּ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֔ם הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בָּֽהּ׃

“I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who dwell in it will be desolate upon it.”

Chazal see a silver lining, a ray of hope and optimism, even within this harsh promise.  The Sifra writes that when we are exiled from our land, it will remain desolate.  Despite being occupied by others, it will remain in ruins, and they will not succeed in making it bloom.  It is striking how accurate this promise of our parsha has been.  Over the last two millennia, despite countless efforts to make it blossom by crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, the Turks, the Arabs and the British, Eretz Yisroel was in a virtual state of ruin.

In the mid-1800’s, Mark Twain traveled the world and wrote a book recording his impressions and experiences called “The Innocents Abroad.”  Listen to what he writes about his experience in then Palestine and compare it to what you think of when you picture traveling around Israel today.  He writes:

Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.  The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are un-picturesque in shape.  The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation…It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land…Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.  Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.  Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its grandeur, and is become a pauper village.

Six hundred years before Twain, in his commentary on our parsha, the Ramban writes:

And your enemies will be desolate upon it is a good tiding.  It proclaims in every generation that our land does not accept or enemies.  This is a great proof and promise for us, for you will not find in the entire world another land that is so good and spacious and was always inhabited but is now in such a state of ruin.  Ever since we left it, it has not accepted any other nation; and they all try to settle it, but are unsuccessful.

Indeed, the gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) quotes Rebbe Abba who teaches –

ואמר רבי אבא אין לך קץ מגולה מזה

And Rabbi Abba says: You have no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than when produce will grow in abundance in Eretz Yisrael; it is an indication that the Messiah will be coming soon. (See more in R’ Moshe Lichtman’s “Eretz Yisroel in the Parsha”)

R’ Yoel Bin Nun, the great Tanach teacher in Israel today, was a member of the now famous 55th brigade of paratroopers who liberated Yerushalayim.  When his commander, a Shomer Ha’tzair kibbutznik, asked him how he felt after taking Har Ha’Bayis, he responded “alpayim shenot galut nigmeru, two thousand years of exile are now over.”

If for the Klausenberger Rebbe, the Holocaust represents the fulfillment of the tochecha, the consequences of siluk ha’Shechina, Divine withdrawal and hiddenness, then 1967, the miracle of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Yerushalayim, represent nothing short of giluy ha’Shechina, the intense presence and the powerful revelation of the hand of the Almighty.  If the Holocaust engenders all kinds of compelling questions, then the Six Day War provides all kinds of undeniable answers.

Those of us with no memory of May 1967 and earlier don’t know what it means to feel truly fragile and vulnerable as a people. Those of you who do remember will confirm that just over 20 years after losing 6 million of our people there was a collective panic and sense of urgency that there was going to be another Holocaust.  Rav Yehuda Amital recounted that before the Six Day War there were American Jewish leaders who pleaded with the Israeli government to evacuate the children from Israel, since the annihilation of Israel was expected. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel had designated public parks as burial sites and almost 100,000 graves had been dug in anticipation of the mass casualties.

But instead of a massacre, a miracle occurred.  On June 5, Israel launched a preemptive strike. In a single day, it destroyed almost the entire Egyptian air force. Jordan and Syria both declared war. In six days, Israel defeated all three armies, each larger than the size of its own. The Israelis retook Sinai, captured the old city of Jerusalem, Yehuda and the Shomron and the Golan Heights.

This sweeping military victory against all odds continues to defy explanation and leaves experts confounded.  R’ Berel Wein tells the story of a cadet at West Point who asked why the Six-Day War was not part of the curriculum.  The high-ranking teacher silenced the questioner and demanded he speak to him following the class.  The soldier approached the general and again wondered why Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War wasn’t studied.  The teacher explained that the Six-Day War is not studied because at West Point they study strategy and tactics, not miracles.

Yossi Klein Ha’Levi tells the powerful story of his father who was from a very religious chassidishe family and gave up on God and on religion after surviving the Holocaust.  Even after the founding of the State of Israel, he was still so traumatized from his devastating loss that he couldn’t find God.  In June of 1967, however, after witnessing with the world the miracle of Israel not only surviving, but thriving, he took his family to Israel and went directly to the Kotel.  After seeing the hand of God, he was ready to forgive Him and to have a relationship once again.  They moved to Israel and his father came back to religion.

Yossi Klein Ha’Levi explains that 1967 turned Israel from a secular to a sacred landscape.  Yes, in 1948 we gained sovereignty over our own country, but we still had no holy sites.  After the miracle of ’67, overnight, we returned not only to the Kotel and Har Ha’bayis, but to our Mama Rochel imeinu, to Chevron and Ma’aras Ha’Machpeila.

In our parsha, God promises us:

וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר׃

“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.”

God has indeed made good on that promise to remember our land, and with it, we have access again to our forefathers.  The first Jew to enter the Ma’arat Ha’Machpeila, the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in some 800 or 900 years, was General Moshe Dayan. When he entered, he did not know exactly what to do. But instinctively he straightened up, offered a snappy salute, and said “Shalom” to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.

Following the Six-Day War, Jews around the world felt as if they were 7 feet tall, confident, proud, almost invincible. Jews walked the streets of New York, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Melbourne, with their heads held high, the envy of their neighbors.  Everyone wanted a piece of this special nation, a connection to the Jewish people.  And the Jewish people felt a giluy ha’shechina, revelation of God Himself, and wanted a greater connection with Him.

In a sermon delivered one week after the Six-Day War, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm said:

Now this places a great burden upon us, greater than we realize. Even observant religious people usually possess an element of doubt within their faith. We use this doubt to excuse many of our transgressions, and we excuse the existence of this doubt by saying that had we lived in the age of the prophets or the age of miracles or the age of revelation, we would be sufficiently persuaded and convinced to be able to live according to the highest precepts of our faith, but that the absence of any such evidence justifies this seed of doubt. Were we exposed to the same wonders as was Israel of old, “and Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the shore of the sea,” then we too would react as they did: “and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses (Ex.14:31).

Such was the justification we offered ourselves for our doubt and our laxity heretofore. Now, we can no longer avail ourselves of that luxury. For we have seen, as did Jews in very special moments of history, ha-yad ha-gedolah, the “great Hand of the Almighty!

Through electronic eyes and ears, each of us has been a personal witness to the great miracle, the great revelation of 1967. How our parents and grandparents and theirs before them, through all the ages, would have thrilled to this singular experience — not only because of the victory that would have given them relief from the humiliation of exile, but because this liberation of Jerusalem in our times is a vindication of their faith throughout all times.   For indeed the giluy shekhinah of the past two weeks is a vindication of ancient promises, the fulfillment of hoary prophecies.

A few summers ago, I attended a Rabbinic conference in Israel where Rabbi Chaim Druckman, Rosh Yeshva of Ohr Etzion and the Rabbinic head of all Bnei Akiva.  He talked about the paragraph we say before benching, chapter 126 of TehillimShir Ha’Maalos b’shuv Hashem es shivas tziyon hayinu k’cholmim.  When Hashem will return the us to tziyon, we will be like dreamers.  What does it mean to be like a dreamer, he asked?  He quoted a number of interpretations of the classic commentators but then he gave his own and it touched me very deeply.

He said, picture a teacher at the front of the classroom who is teaching when he or she suddenly calls on a child in the classroom and asks a question.  The child is startled and is caught off guard because they weren’t paying attention to the teacher.  They were, what we would call “day dreaming.”   Day dreaming is when you are eyes are open, you are looking at the person talking, you see, hear and feel everything going on, but you are so checked out and distracted that you don’t really register what was said or what just happened.

Hayinu k’cholim, said Rav Druckman, means that after 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, Hashem will perform miracles and bring us back to our land.  After being the scorn of the world, we will be the envy.  It will be so surreal, that we may be like day dreamers who see and hear what is happening but are so distracted that it doesn’t truly register; it doesn’t move us the way it should.

Every time I visit Israel, I find a way to spend a few minutes sitting in the square in the Old City of Yerushalayim.  I don’t sit in the big square with all the pay phones that tourists all walk through.  There is another square where the residents hang out.   This square is no ordinary gathering place.  Etched in the stones on the side of the square are the ancient words of our prophet Zecharia.  Our ancestors read these words as depicting a fantasy, a fictional description.   We, the most blessed generation in 2,000 years, can read those words and witness their very fulfillment before our very eyes.  I love watching the older people walk by with their walkers and canes and listening to the sounds of the children running and playing and then reading:

כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת עֹ֤ד יֵֽשְׁבוּ֙ זְקֵנִ֣ים וּזְקֵנ֔וֹת בִּרְחֹב֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְאִ֧ישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּ֛וֹ בְּיָד֖וֹ מֵרֹ֥ב יָמִֽים׃

וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת מְשַׂחֲקִ֖ים בִּרְחֹֽבֹתֶֽיהָ׃

“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.”

My friends, if the Klausenberger Rebbe described living through the curses we just read about, then we are meriting to live through the fulfillment of the blessings.  This week when we mark a mere 50 years since that summer of Divine revelation and God’s miracles, we dare not day-dream through it.  We dare not sleepwalk through this milestone as if it is an ordinary everyday event.  We must awaken ourselves with a sense of hallel v’hodaah, profound gratitude and boundless appreciation.  We must once again tap into the feeling of having experienced yad Hashem, the guiding hand of the Almighty.  How could you not make it to minyan on Wednesday morning to sing Hallel b’rov am, together with a minyan and a community of those who refuse to day dream or sleep through it?!

V’ha’aretz ezkor – We are in the generation that after millennia of waiting has witnessed God’s remembering His people and His land. The question is, will you remember Him?

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Beyond Blue and White and Daglanut: What Does it Mean to be a Religious Zionist in America?

on Wednesday, May 17 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for israeli flag kotel

A few weeks ago, we marked Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, celebrating a return of Jewish sovereignty to our homeland after nearly 2,000 years of longing and praying for it.  Our community held a Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut program with approximately 250 people in attendance.  By most measures, that number indicates a successful event.  But, when one considers how many members we have and how many more regularly participate in other Shul programs, one would expect a much higher attendance, especially given our community’s strong connection to, and passion for, the State of Israel.  Unfortunately, low attendance at events such as the one held in Boca seems to be the norm in many other religious Zionist communities as well, with many rabbis reporting empty seats at similar events.

For many people, Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are the measure of whether someone is a religious Zionist.  There is a lot of discussion and emotion in the debate about Hallel with a beracha, without a beracha, during davening, or after davening.  Every rabbi interviewing for a job in a modern orthodox community is guaranteed to receive that question and in many communities, his answer can make or break his pruba.

And yet, the absence of those who identify as “religious Zionist” from both Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim programs as well as from the morning davening with Hallel has left me wondering exactly what it means to be a religious Zionist in America today.  If one’s Zionism isn’t expressed through participating in these opportunities, where and how does it show?  Sending your children to a school that serves blue and white cookies or choreographs daglanut does not alone make you a religious Zionist.  So what does?  While I have not arrived at a definitive answer, it seems to me that the following factors are key ingredients:

Belief in the centrality of Israel

The Torah is replete with references to the centrality of Israel in the realization of our national destiny and the fulfillment of our people’s purpose and mission in the world.  Hashem’s vision is for Am Yisroel, the Jewish people, to observe Toras Yisroel, His sacred Torah, in Eretz Yisroel, His singular land.  While we may feel comfortable or even have a sense of patriotism elsewhere, a Jew must always recognize and be mindful of the centrality of Israel to our religious lives, individually and collectively.

Gratitude

If one truly appreciates the singularity and centrality of Israel and connects with our national longing to return to our land, he or she will not only be overwhelmed with gratitude for the miracles of the modern State of Israel, but see this reality as religiously and theologically significant.

We are called “Yehudim” because we are characterized by the quality of hoda’ah, gratitude.  To be a Yid, a Yehudi, is to be filled with gratitude to Hashem for the blessings in our lives.  Meriting to live in the generation that can travel the width and breadth of Israel, daven at its holy sites, and visit its special places, is among the greatest blessings our ancestors could have only dreamt of, and certainly deserves our regular appreciation and gratitude.

Israel Consciousness

While we care about our fellow Jews around the world, our relationship with and connection to our brothers and sisters in Israel is qualitatively different.  In the laws of tzedaka, there is a hierarchy to our giving priorities that includes giving to the indigent in our community first.  Yet, wherever one lives in the world, one must prioritize giving to Israel because even though we may not live there yet, in a real way we are all potential residents of the country.

Feeling like a resident of Israel even while living in the diaspora means following the news from Israel closely, sharing in its successes, and being pained by its challenges.  It means advocating and lobbying on behalf of Israel.  It means contributing our resources in a meaningful way to Israel.  It means raising our children to think about Israel like their hometown, rather than like another foreign place they don’t live.  It means connecting regularly with family and friends who live in Israel and communicating our sense of identification with all that is happening in Israel.

Aliyah

At any given moment, there are many legitimate reasons not to make Aliyah, but there are no legitimate reasons not to struggle with it.  According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, living in Israel is not just an ideological and historical reality, it is the fulfillment of a mitzvah.  The Ramban writes that, in fact, all mitzvos are only truly fulfilled in Israel.  Mitzvah observance outside the land is obligatory, but serves only to habituate us and prepare us for when we will fulfill them in Israel.  This insight should generate a discomfort and sense of impermanence with living in America, even if our being here is warranted at the present time.

Community

You can subscribe to the centrality of Israel, feel gratitude for the gift of Israel, struggle with Aliyah, and be mindful of our brothers and sisters there, all without coming to Shul.  Nevertheless, there is one aspect of practicing a love of Israel that is lacking at home.  Shlomo HaMelech taught us that “B’rov am hadrat melech, In the multitude of people is the king’s glory.” (Mishlei 14:28)

The importance of community is axiomatic to Jewish life. For a mourner to say Kaddish and be comforted, there must be people who are present and can respond.  For a couple to be blessed with the recitation of sheva berachos at the meals that occur during the week following their wedding, there must be not only a minyan, but panim chadashos, new faces, guests who physically come to share in their joy.

Milestones and special moments, both happy and sad, cannot be adequately observed in an online community, even with the incredible help of Skype or FaceTime.  Imagine a wedding where the bride and groom stand all alone under the chuppah with all their friends and family Skyping in or “liking” the Livestream, or a funeral where the loved ones physically stand by themselves, even if people are watching it online.

Valuing, cherishing and loving Israel means participating in, and being counted among, a community of people who love Israel.  Many self-identify as religious Zionists even though they have no desire or intention to make Aliyah, are not connected to the news from Israel and don’t participate in Israel advocacy or philanthropy.  For such people, the only thing left to be practicing Zionists is to at least show up at and participate in Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim celebrations.  Can those who fail to put in this minimum effort, and instead abstain from the opportunity to join with a community who do, truly call themselves religious Zionists?

Yom Yerushalayim

We will imminently mark the 50th anniversary of the miraculous reunification of Yerushalayim, but it almost didn’t happen.  At 4:00 in the morning a few days into the Six-Day War, then-opposition leader Menachem Begin awoke with a premonition and turned on the radio. He heard on the BBC that a vote was occurring at the UN to pressure Israel into a cease fire with its enemies who had been swiftly decimated. In the middle of the night, he called Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and begged him to call a special cabinet meeting to approve going into the Old City and conquering the remainder of Jerusalem. The meeting was called and Begin argued this could be an unique moment that history would not provide again. They would have to reclaim Jerusalem from the Jordanians before the international community pressured Israel to a cease fire.  A unanimous vote approved the military operation and just three hours later, the now famous statement, “har ha’bayit b’yadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands” was uttered.

After visiting the Kotel for the first time under Jewish sovereignty, Begin was asked what went through his mind.  “When I touched the Wall today I cried.  I suppose everyone had tears in their eyes.  Nobody need be ashamed.  They are men’s tears.  For the momentous truth is that on this day we Jews, for the first time since the Roman conquest of 70 C.E., have regained ownership of the last remaining remnant of our Temple site, and have own for ourselves free and unfettered access to pray there.”

Next week, Jews from around the world will be traveling to Israel to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.  Will you travel to your Shul that morning to daven in a minyan?  Will you make your way to your Shul’s program and connect with the community of those who value the singularity and uniqueness of Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisroel?

I believe that for all of us who consider ourselves proud religious Zionists, these questions and considerations must remain front and center at all times, but especially on days of communal commemorations.  What a strong, powerful message of identification with, and appreciation of, the miracle of the State of Israel and a united Yerushalayim it would be if the upcoming programs across the country are standing room only with lines out the door to get in.

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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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