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Whether You Come to Talk to God, to Your Friends or to Both, Shul is a Place For You: A Measured Call Regarding Talking in Shul

on Thursday, December 13 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

There is an old joke about an atheist who goes to shul every Shabbos and sits next to his friend Ginsburg. One day, someone asks the atheist why he keeps coming to services if he doesn’t believe in God. He replies, “Ginsburg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Ginsburg.”

The truth is there are many believers who come to shul to talk both to God and to their friends, most of whom they haven’t seen the entire week.  This is understandable, and it is why most campaigns to stop the talking in shul either fail to launch or fail to succeed long term, even if they do have an impact for a short time.

So what can be done to improve this epidemic?  Some wish for a massive crackdown, a zero-tolerance policy.  Others cynically dismiss the issue altogether and react with great indignation to the suggestion that anyone has a right to call for them to stop talking or to institute policies towards that end.  But, like most topics, the issue of talking in shul needs to be addressed with nuance and realism and at the same time with resolve and optimism.

The place we come to daven is called a בית כנסת, a hall to assemble and congregate.  We draw energy from one another, we come to connect with one another and it is an unreasonable expectation that we would do so without exchanging a greeting or being drawn to engage in at least a brief conversation.

Halacha recognizes that when people see each other, even if one is in the middle of davening, a greeting is not only tolerable or acceptable, it is permissible.  Though the Mishna Berura (66:3) is clear that we don’t follow this practice today, the Mishna in Berachos 13a states that when transitioning between paragraphs of Shema, one can not only interrupt and respond out of fear (for example, to respond to the greeting of a king who could sentence him to death should the greeting go unanswered), but one can even initiate a greeting out of respect.  (The Rambam understands out of respect as referring to one’s parents, but Rashi understands adam nichbad more broadly.)

And so any effort to address the epidemic of excessive and disrupting talking in shul must begin with the recognition that people come to shul for many different reasons and that while most come to talk to God, they also show up to connect with their friends.

Moreover, a shul that encourages and promotes outreach and aspires to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere for newcomers and the uninitiated simply cannot have a zero-tolerance talking policy which will be perceived as cold, heartless and off-putting.

So what can be done?  Do we simply accept that people will talk in shul and during davening as they have since davening was first instituted?

We cannot!  There is too much at stake, too many things to daven for, too many people relying on us for our heartfelt prayers, too many children who are watching us and learning from us. I promise you, in your section, perhaps even in your row, is someone desperately davening for a child, someone struggling with a serious diagnosis, someone feeling lonely, someone whose marriage or finances are in crisis, someone struggling with anxiety or depression, or a family member of one of these individuals pouring their heart out to Hashem to intervene and intercede.

The saying goes, if you come to shul to talk, where do you go to daven?  However, it could be emended to read, if you come to shul to talk, where should your friends and neighbors go to daven?

The Chasam Sofer (Derashos 2:309) writes that only Shuls that are homes of prayer, not conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel in the Messianic era.  The Tzlach, R’ Yechezkel Landau writes, “There is no greater rebellion against the King of the world than to speak in His sanctuary, in His presence.  Speaking during davening is like placing an idol in the Temple.”

The Chafetz Chaim (Mishna Berura 124:27) quotes the Kol Bo: “Woe to the people who speak during davening.  We saw several Shuls destroyed because of this sin.  There should be people appointed to work on this issue.”

We cannot and must not concede that talking is a given and that is why this Shabbos we are launching a campaign to minimize talking in davening.   Following the advice of the Chafetz Chaim, a diverse committee under the leadership of its chair, Dr. Jonathan Winograd, has been working on a nuanced, measured campaign to identify segments of davening that we can collectively agree to make an effort not to disrupt with talking, while being open and tolerant that people may exchange greetings at other times.

We have identified two parts of davening in which we are appealing to refrain from talking altogether:

  • The Shulchan Aruch writes that one who talks during Chazaras HaShatz, the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah, will suffer a consequence “too great to bear.” We can all commit not to talk from Borchu until the end of the chazzan’s repetition at Shacharis and from the beginning of the silent Amidah through the repetition at both Mussaf and Mincha.
  • Kaddish is among our holiest prayers. It can only be said in the presence of a minyan and is so significant that if given the choice between answering Kedusha or Kaddish, the Mishna Berura (56:6) says one should choose to answer Kaddish.  The Talmud (Berachos 57a) teaches that one who replies “Yehei shmei rabbah…” can rest assured that he has a place in the Next World.

Not talking during these parts of davening is mandated by Jewish law.  But, even for those who don’t connect to davening, don’t feel they are in the presence of the Almighty or don’t feel bound by these particular laws, not talking during these parts of davening is simply what any decent person would do.

Talking during these parts of davening is not only disrespectful to God, it is also unkind, insensitive, and cruel to those trying to offer heartfelt and focused prayers. It is a gross violation of bein adom l’chaveiro.  If you wouldn’t talk during a show, the opera or a movie, no matter how bored or distracted you might be, how could you entertain talking when people around you are in the middle of a conversation with Hashem, even if you are done?  It is hard enough to connect with our prayers, to concentrate on the words and to feel we have experienced an intimate rendezvous with our Creator in the best of circumstances.  To do it while people in our vicinity are chatting away is nearly impossible.

Not talking until the conclusion of Chazaras HaShatz, including the time between when we finish our silent Amidah and we are waiting for the chazzan, is doable, it is realistic, it is a fair expectation of those attending and it is the minimum to be respectful of our friends and neighbors.

When mourners recite Kaddish, they are paying tribute to their lost loved one.  When others around them are talking, it is not only rude and unkind, it is an affront to the memory of their family member. We can and must all make an effort to listen quietly and answer enthusiastically when Kaddish is being recited.

To help us be mindful of these efforts, we have produced bookmarks that will be on each seat and will be placed in our siddurim going forward.  When Kaddish is being recited, volunteers around the minyan will be holding up signs reminding us that if we wouldn’t talk during someone’s backswing or during a tennis point, we must not talk when our friend is honoring their loved one and affirming their love of Hashem.

Two and a half hours in a room full of friends is a very long time to refrain from talking.  Sometimes we see someone and we have a message to deliver, something important to share, maybe even some love or support to offer.  We invite anyone who is driven to talk, to step into the lobby, socialize and shmooze.  One who steps out to have a conversation shouldn’t be judged, they should be admired.

But someone who engages in conversation when their neighbor is communing with Hashem or talks while our community’s mourners are saying Kaddish in memory of their loved ones, deserves judgment, not for their lack of religious commitment, but for their lack of caring for his or her fellow community member.

The bottom line is this – our community needs your help.  Please join the movement and commit to not talk minimally during these points of davening.  In that merit, may all our prayers be answered for good and may we merit only Hashem’s greatest blessings.

Your Only Habit Should Be Not Doing Anything By Habit

on Thursday, December 6 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for chanuka candles

According to management gurus, routine not only helps efficiency and productivity but also creativity. Many successful creative people swear by the routines they formed: author Stephen King famously sits down to write at the same time every morning. Routine is also a hallmark of many big thinkers: Geniuses like Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein liked to wear the same thing every day in order to not expend mental energy on wardrobe decisions.

The truth is that while there are benefits to routines, when people are too settled in their routines, complacency and contentment result.  Complacency breeds apathy, one of the biggest obstacles to growth and progress.  It also leads to poor decision-making and being blind to new choices and possibilities that could benefit us.

On Feb. 5, 2014, London Underground workers went on a 48-hour strike, forcing the closings of several tube stops. The affected commuters had to find alternate routes. When the strike ended, most people reverted to their old patterns. But roughly one in 20 stuck with the new route, shaving 6.7 minutes from what had been an average 32-minute commute. The closings imposed by the strike forced experimentation with alternate routes, yielding valuable results. And if the strike had been longer, even more improvements would probably have been discovered.

Researchers have long studied why people purchase name brand items when the equivalent generic is available with a significant cost savings which could compound to real money.  This phenomenon is noteworthy for drugs, when generics and branded options are chemically equivalent. Why continue to buy a name-brand aspirin when the same chemical compound sits nearby at a cheaper price? Scientists have already verified that the two forms of aspirin are identical. The only difference is the label and the price.  And yet, most buy the name brand.  Why?  Habit, ritual, and thoughtless routine.

So on the one hand, habits are powerful, they can help promote creativity and efficiency.  But on the other hand, habits and routines can deny us the openness and flexibility to learn, to see new things, to grow, experiment, adjust and make changes that will improve us and improve our lives.

One study estimated that 47 percent of all our behaviors are the result of habits we have formed.  That can be leveraged in a positive way.  Just think about it – if we form the right habits—being on time, showing patience, being generous—we have half our day preprogrammed in a way we can be proud of.  However, the downside is that nearly half our lives is not the result of thoughtful consideration, mindful choices, but simply having settled into habits and routines mindlessly.  That is no way to live.

The mitzvah to light the Chanuka candles begins after sunset and the Gemara (Shabbos 21a) tells us, it extends עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק, until people are no longer walking around in the marketplace.  The goal and purpose of the menorah is פרסומי ניסא to publicize God’s great miracles and so once there are no longer people present to see the lights, the mitzvah is no longer applicable.  In the time of the gemara, and even the Shulchan Aruch, this time was somewhere relatively shortly after nightfall when people couldn’t function outside without natural light.  Today, with artificial light, the time is significantly later.

The Sefas Emes quotes his grandfather, the Chiddushei Ha’Rim, who offers a homiletical interpretation of this measure, one that gives great insight into the essence of the holiday.  עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק, says the Sefas Emes is not describing how long in time the candles must be lit, but how deep the light of the candles must penetrate into our hearts and our habits.  He suggested don’t read it רגל, foot, but rather עד שתכלה הֶרְגֵל מן השוק, we must experience the light of the candles and the richness of these 8 days until it breaks our habits, jolts us from our routine and enables us to take a step back and look at our lives.

So many of us are caught on the hamster wheel of life.  We wake up, go to work, exercise, brainlessly relax, go to sleep, wake up and start again. Or we wake up, make lunches, drive carpool, shop, cook, do homework, serve dinner, collapse, wake up and start again.  Or we do some combination of the two.  What they all have in common is being carried by inertia and momentum, moving at such a fast pace that there is no time or space, no margin or room to ever stop, look, assess, evaluate and mindfully determine if we are allocating our time, energy and resources in the maximum way, or if we are just creatures of routines, products of habits that were somehow formed at some time and have become our default, our normal, our assumed.

There is a beautiful campaign for Chanuka called Savor the Moment.  It calls for Jews across the world to go screen-free for 30 minutes after candle lighting, the minimum necessary time for the candles to burn.  For too many of us, being chained to our smartphone, tablet, laptop or TV has become routine. The average American touches his or her phone 2,617 times a day. That is a habit that needs to be broken.

The Gemara tells us הרגיל בנר הויין בנים תלמידי חכמים, one who habitually lights the candles has righteous children.  The Shem MiShmuel explains that the flame of the candle looks like it is glowing constantly and consistently.  Yet, the fuel that drives it is constantly changing, it is fresh and new.  What our rabbis are telling us is that the only thing we should ever do by rote is never doing anything by rote and the only habit we should form is never doing things by habit.  We should accustom ourselves to be like a candle, on the outside doing the same mitzvos and practices regularly, but constantly renewing and refreshing that which fuels our actions.

This Shabbos, we introduce a new siddur at BRS.  Change is difficult and even uncomfortable, but change is also healthy and can revitalize, refresh and renew.  The new font, layout, page numbers, paper and size of the siddur will take getting used to.  Until then, embrace the newness by allowing it to inspire a renewed attitude, understanding, and performance of our prayers.

Chanuka provides us the courage and will to תכלה הרגל, to break the habits.  When we do, we will truly see the light, both of the candles and of our lives.

Being Single Should Not Have to Mean Being Alone

on Thursday, November 29 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for aloneImagine not being invited for Shabbos dinner and going home from shul to eat all alone.  You eat, you read, you read some more and when you look at the clock, it’s not even 8:00 pm.

For some that sounds like a dream come true, and maybe it is for one week. But what if that was your experience each and every Friday night.  While others spend their week looking forward to laughing, singing, talking, and playing games, you experience each week the anxiety of waiting and wondering if an invitation will come, and, if so, from whom and who else will be there.

At what point during the week do you stop waiting and start dropping hints in the hope that someone will give you the dignity of at least acting as if they thought to invite you, rather than your having to invite yourself.  You don’t want to feel like a chesed case or be assigned to people to host you, so when the invitation doesn’t come, you just go home and eat the backup minimal spread you put together in case nobody at shul asked you to come home with them.

If the above depiction seems harsh, it is a paraphrase of what has been described to me by those who experience it directly.  If we understood that this was the alternative, we wouldn’t trade our full Shabbos tables, busy Friday nights, cooking, cleaning, serving and clearing for anything in the world.

We, the greater Jewish community, excel in times of crisis.  We show up, we volunteer, we coordinate, pitch in, take over and do whatever is necessary to help those going through illness or loss to make sure that they don’t feel alone, isolated or abandoned, even for a moment.  But what about those who are chronically alone, either after the crisis passes or without a crisis ever having arisen?

I was recently talking to a couple of people from our shul about the experience of being single in an observant, family-centric community.  They answered by sharing a letter with me to pass on to you.  These are their words:

Dear BRS Member,

I’m your neighbor. I live on your street. We wave to each other during the week as we get out of our cars, as we come home from work, or collect our mail. We smile and act as if we know each other. We say “Good Shabbos” to each other as we pass each other on our way to shul. But as friendly as we are to each other, you may not know this – I sit by myself eating Shabbat meals week after week.

While you sing zmirot and share words of Torah, I thumb through the weekly while I sip my soup alone. I’ve tried to fill my own table by inviting guests. It’s wonderful to host others, but as a single person it is difficult to sustain these activities week after week.

As I watch you invite your many friends into your home, I think to myself. “Isn’t there room at their table for just one more?” I’m happy to bring a delicious dish or a D’var Torah, or participate in a lively discussion. I’d be happy to contribute to your Shabbat table. I love living in the BRS community, but often, my Shabbats and Yom Tovim are long and lonely.

Perhaps the next time that you are planning your menu and guest list for Shabbat, you could please consider your single neighbor and add just one more chair to your table.

Our conversation and their letter got me thinking. Here are a few thoughts:

To those who are married:

  • Regularly ask yourself, whom do you know who might be alone and would greatly appreciate your invitation. Don’t make it look as if you are doing them a favor by saying things like, “do you have your meals covered” or “do you have a place to go,” but invite them like you would anyone else – in advance, with class, and with happiness that your guest can put it on their calendar.
  • Being single doesn’t define a person; it is one facet of his or her life. Don’t invite singles as a group, as if it is your weekend to offer them  Invite and engage your neighbors based on their personalities, professions, interests and views.
  • Don’t just think about Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. There are other times during the year when it is painful to be alone. Invite someone to come over to join you for Chanuka candle lighting (though each person needs to light in their own home), exchanging gifts and making latkes.  Make room at your Thanksgiving table, at the meal before the Yom Kippur fast and other such times.

To singles:

  • Don’t feel or act entitled to invitations. Show up with wine, flowers or a gift, offer to make something, or make a donation to Tomchei Shabbos to say thank you, but don’t take the hospitality for granted.
  • You may not be able to offer home hospitality in return, but you can offer to take someone who has hosted you several times out for dinner to say thank you.
  • Don’t only rely on invitations; take initiative. Arrange pot luck dinners, coordinate singles events and meals, and network with friends, so you are on their radar and in their thoughts.

As a result of an event in the parsha last week, we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve, the gid ha’nashe.  Why?  Before going to meet Esav, Ya’akov Avinu went back to retrieve “forgotten items” and he ended up wrestling the Angel of Esav the entire night.  We commemorate the injury Ya’akov sustained by abstaining from eating from the place where he was wounded.  Normally, when our people triumph over an enemy, we commemorate the event by eating, not by abstaining, so why the prohibition of gid ha’nashe?

The Chizkuni explains that this mitzvah doesn’t correspond to our triumph, but rather reminds us how Ya’akov got injured in the first place.  Vayivaser Ya’akov levado, Ya’akov was all alone and as a result he was vulnerable and exposed and ultimately attacked.  The mitzvah not to eat the gid ha’nashe reminds us of our obligation to make sure a Jew is never alone again.

So, the next time you are planning to host, set an extra seat or two for your neighbors and ensure that nobody ever has to wrestle with being alone.

Thanksgiving & Being a Jew

on Wednesday, November 21 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Was it President Lincoln in 1863, President Washington in 1789, or the Pilgrims themselves in 1622? While historians may debate when the holiday of Thanksgiving was first instituted, the practice of giving thanks began much earlier.

We read in last week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, that Leah names her fourth son Yehudah from the root hoda’ah out of gratitude to Hashem. Indeed, the Talmud (Berachos 7b) quotes Rav Shimon bar Yochai as teaching that, in fact, Leah was the first person in history to say “thank you” to Hashem.

How could that be? Did Adom Ha’Rishon upon being exiled from Gan Eden and learning about second chances not say “tov l’hodos laShem, it is good to thank the Almighty?” Did Noach and Malki Tzedek not express their gratitude to the Master of the Universe? Did Eliezer not communicate appreciation for divine assistance in fulfilling his mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak? And the list could go on. How could the Talmud make such a bold assertion when it seems from the Torah itself not to be true?

Rav Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg offers a beautiful suggestion. Yes, there were individuals prior to Leah who had expressed gratitude. However, their gratitude was always in response to a supernatural phenomenon, to the revealed hand of God in their life. Leah, in contrast, was the first to say thank you for something which others considered completely natural. Her thank you wasn’t the result of being miraculously saved or being given a second chance. Leah expressed deep gratitude to Hashem for the natural, biological experience of having a baby. Her thank you was an implicit acknowledgment that even that which appears natural, regular or ordinary is also the result of the extraordinary hand of the Divine.

As we mark the holiday of Thanksgiving this weekend, it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the most authentic thanks is for that which we are tempted to take for granted and not even recognize at all. If you woke up this morning and you have all your faculties, you should give thanks. If you have a roof over your head and food to eat, you should give thanks. If you are blessed with a spouse and children, you should give thanks.

And as our brothers and sisters in Israel have tragically learned too often of late, if when you go to sleep at night, everyone in your family and in your home is as healthy and well as they were when you and they woke up, you should give tremendous thanks.

The great Rav Yeruchem Levovitz offers another answer to our question. He explains that most people say thank you in order to pay off their debt of gratitude. Someone does something nice for us and in a quid pro quo, we say thank you to them to settle the score. Indeed, in each of the incidents that preceded Leah saying thank you, the speaker offered a one-time expression of appreciation and moved on.

Leah did something categorically different. She named her son Yehudah. She named him, “I am grateful.” Every time she called out his name – “Yehudah come for supper, Yehudah did you do your homework, Yehudah – what time will you be home tonight,” she reawakened her sense of appreciation. Unlike the others who said thank you and paid off their debt of gratitude, Leah formulated a feeling of thanks that was sustained, perpetual, and that was felt each and every day on a consistent basis.

Rav Yeruchem explains that this is what Leah meant when she gave him his name. “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem?” Should I only thank Hashem this one time and move on? No! I will continue to thank him over and over again.

The United States may officially celebrate Thanksgiving one day a year, but to be a Jew, to be the progeny of our Matriarch Leah, is to be overflowing with thanks each and every day. The Chiddushei Ha’Rim of Ger, Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, points out that we are called Yehudim after Yehudah specifically because we as a nation are to be characterized by an ever-present sense of gratitude.

Though we read of Leah naming Yehudah last week, her message continues to resonate into this week as we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Let us live up to our name as Yehudim, and rather than be consumed by only worry and concern, feel deep and profound gratitude for all of the blessings in our lives, particularly those that we too often take for granted and fail to appreciate.