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Don’t Suffer From Spiritual Dehydration – Water Your Soul

on Thursday, September 20 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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The Mishna in Sukkah (29b) teaches that a stolen lulav and a dried out lulav are disqualified from fulfilling the mitzvah.  The problem with a stolen lulav is evident: how could one possibly fulfill a mitzvah through an inherently corrupt and unethical action?  The invalidity of a dry lulav, however, requires closer analysis. After all, once a lulav is cut from the tree, it is going to dry out eventually.  What difference does it make if I shake a lulav that has lost its green color?

Rashi explains – When performing a mitzvah we seek something which is beautiful and will best glorify Hashem.  A dry lulav is unattractive and unpleasant, and therefore, is invalid.  The Yerushalmi, however, gives an altogether different reason, suggesting that a dry lulav is not valid because ‘lo ha’meisim y’halelu kah – the dead cannot praise God.’  A dry lulav is dead and therefore cannot be used as an instrument or vehicle for praise.  Indeed, the Ba’al Ha’Turim notes that the Gematria of lulav is 68, which is the same as chayim, life.

The Yerushalmi’s insight has broader applications. If a dead, wilted, lifeless lulav cannot be used as an instrument of praise to Hashem, than certainly a wilted, lifeless, dried out, burnt out person cannot connect to the Almighty. Generally speaking, too many of us are spiritually dehydrated.  We are living but we are not alive..  Lo ha’meisim y’halelu kah – we cannot expect to connect with Hashem, family members or others if we have no simchas ha’chayim, no joy in our lives.  Some of us are a lulav ha’yaveish, a wilted lulav, because of the stresses, pressures, and responsibilities of life.  Others are simply burnt out from this intense holiday period filled with long davening, arduous introspection, and painful self-reflection.

But now is not the time to burn out, to dry out or to lose the joy in life.  We worked hard to get sealed in the Sefer HaChayim and now is the time to add simcha so we are living with true simchas ha’chayim.  Now is the holiday of v’samachta b’chagecha. We deserve happiness, joy, good food, good friends, a good shluf, a good conversation, and most importantly a good laugh or smile.  We worked hard over the Yamim Noraim and we earned this Yom Tov that is zman simchaseinu, the time of joy and happiness.

The following story was related some years ago by a college student:

The first day of school our professor introduced himself and challenged us to get to know someone we didn’t already know. I stood up to look around when a gentle hand touched my shoulder. I turned around to find a wrinkled, little old lady beaming up at me with a smile that lit up her entire being. She said, “Hi, my name is Rose. I’m eighty-seven years old. Can I give you a hug?”  I laughed and enthusiastically responded, “Of course you may!” and she gave me a giant squeeze. “Why are you in college at such a young, innocent age?” I asked.  She jokingly replied, “I’m here to meet a rich husband, get married, have a couple of children, and then retire and travel.”  “No seriously,” I asked. I was curious what may have motivated her to be taking on this challenge at her age.

“I always dreamed of having a college education and now I’m getting one!” she told me. We became instant friends.  Every day for the next three months we would leave class together and talk nonstop. I was always mesmerized listening as she shared her wisdom and experience with me. Over the course of the year, Rose became a campus icon and she easily made friends wherever she went.

At the end of the semester we invited Rose to speak at our football banquet. I’ll never forget what she taught us.  She began: “We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing. There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy, and achieving success: 1) You have to laugh and find humor every day. 2) You’ve got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die. We have so many people walking around who are dead and don’t even know it! 3) There is a huge difference between growing older and growing up. If you are nineteen years old and lie in bed for one full year and don’t do one productive thing, you will turn twenty years old. If I am eighty-seven years old and stay in bed for a year and never do anything I will turn eighty-eight. Anybody can grow older. Growing older is mandatory, growing up is optional.  4) Have no regrets. The elderly usually don’t have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do.”

At the years end Rose finished the college degree she had begun all those years ago. One week after graduation Rose died peacefully in her sleep. Over two thousand college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by example that it’s never too late to be all you can possibly be.

Lo ha’meisim y’halelu kah, the dead cannot praise God. Let’s stop being a lulav hayaveish.  Stop walking around with a farbissina face, a depressed disposition and a down attitude.  Don’t be negative.  It’s hot in the sukkah – so what?  Spiritually hydrate with a positive attitude, a smile, a joy for life and a simchas ha’chayim.

Rav Yisroel Salanter said that our faces are also a reshus ha’rabim they are public domain.  The decision to be b’simcha doesn’t only affect us, but is contagious and can positively influence the whole environment around us.  If we are generous with our smiles and if as Rose taught, we choose to be alive, we can truly have a chag sameach.

Digest of Divrei Torah on Growing During the Yamim Noraim

on Saturday, September 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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At our daughter’s Vort, we gave out a collection of 12 essays on growing during Yamim Noraim. I hope they enhance your Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Growing Larger and Smaller at the Same Time

on Thursday, August 30 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Earlier this week, the employee helping me in a store used my name.  I was taken aback and asked how he knew my name.  He smiled and told me he remembered it from the last time I was there.  I don’t go to that store very often and hadn’t been there for a while. I was impressed that he remembered my name, but what made an even stronger impression on me was the power of the feeling that was generated just by his using my name.  It created an instant connection and made me feel like a person, not just a generic customer.  He doesn’t even know it, but his smile and use of my name brightened my day and energized me more than the cup of coffee he handed me.

Rav Elimelech Biderman relates that someone once asked Rav Avigdor Miller how he should prepare for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rav Miller replied, “Smile.” He then explained: “How does smiling grant someone a good judgment? I will explain with a mashal: Someone owns a chain of stores. At the end of each year he takes inventory, and decides what changes have to be made for the upcoming year. Some stores will need more advertising, some employees will be laid off, and so on. The proprietor’s advisor said, ‘Even if you let go of some employees, don’t fire this one. He always has a smile on his face, which gives the consumers a good feeling. There are people who come to the store just to see him and be greeted by his smile.  We need him around.’

Similarly, at the end of the year Hashem takes inventory of His world to make determinations for the year ahead.  If someone always has a smile on his or her face, bringing joy to others, he or she has positioned themselves as an indispensable asset to the world, and Hashem will take that into consideration when making a determination for the year ahead.”

We are blessed to live in a large, vibrant community.  Our greater BRS family is comprised of more than 830 families, which translates into thousands of people.  On the one hand, that affords us countless opportunities like diverse friendships, multiple minyanim, extensive programming, and more.  At the same time, however, the larger our community gets, the harder it is to know others and to feel you matter.

In advising large religious institutions Rick Warren, describes our mission as growing larger and smaller at the same time.  We grow larger by attracting more people and families who share our vision, our values and our mission, but we must simultaneously grow smaller by providing programs, opportunities and experiences in which people know each other, feel they belong, and connect with others.

Towards that end, we are very excited to present two brand new initiatives this Shabbos.  First, based on an idea by Rabbi Moskowitz, our Young Leadership Committee is coordinating our first annual Name Tag Shabbaton.  As people attending any of our eight minyanim enter BRS this Shabbos morning, they will be given a name tag to wear around their neck, making it easy for all of us to learn and use one another’s names.

Additionally, on Shabbos afternoon, instead of coming to a class at BRS before Mincha, each development on Montoya Circle will host a dessert reception for their neighborhood, which will include a dvar Torah delivered by one of their neighbors.  (Those living off the circle are invited and encouraged to attend any of the receptions.)

In the Kelm yeshiva, a sign would hang during the month of Elul:

In theory, we should have to recite Birchas HaGomel, the blessing on surviving a life-threatening situation, after the Yamim Noraim, since traversing this time of the year is no less dangerous than crossing the desert.  However, we cannot know with certainty that in fact we have made it through and so we cannot recite the bracha.  What is the strategy to come out on the other side healthy, safe and secure?  The strategy is the same as necessary to survive a trek across the desert.  People who cross a dangerous area need to travel in groups, rely on one another, and support one another.  Similarly, to triumph in these days of awe, we need to recommit to togetherness, unity and mutual support and love.

A parent is especially flexible and forgiving towards a child when they see that child show devotion to his or her siblings.  The same is true with Avinu Shebashomayim, our Father in Heaven. We will soon stand before Him, imperfect with shortcomings, failures and disappointments.  We will ask forgiveness and pledge to do better to be attentive to His needs and more compliant with what He wants from us.  Like a father, He will be quicker to forgive and more generous with His love and affection if we show our dedication and devotion to His other children, namely, our neighbors and friends.

You can’t spell community without unity and you can’t have a thriving community without the people who comprise it committed to unity with one another. Please make an effort every Shabbos, but especially this week, to greet everyone on your way to and from shul, to say good Shabbos, offer a smile and even use someone’s name when talking to them. If you see a new face or you are sitting next to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself.  Your warmth and effort will have an enormous impact, not just on the other person, but on you and Hashem’s determination for you for the coming year.

Moreover, we should take the lessons we develop and practice this Shabbos and incorporate them into our interactions with the world. When you say thank you to the person bagging your groceries at Publix, look at name tag and thank him by name. Learn and use the name of your office building’s custodian or security guard.

Smile at your co-workers and your family members. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician at Harvard Medical School, authored a study that concludes that happiness is contagious.  The same way when one person yawns it affects others, when one person smiles or is happy it leads to others’ happiness and smiling as well. Be the person who sets off the chain reaction of smiles and make yourself indispensable to Hashem this Yamim Noraim season.

As we grow larger, we cannot also grow smaller without everyone’s help.

Sorry We’re Not Sorry: We Need to Stop Apologizing for Jewish Values

on Wednesday, August 22 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Related imageIn the climactic scene of Erich Segal’s classic 1970 novel “Love Story,” the protagonist Oliver says what have become iconic words: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” Though Segal was the son and grandson of rabbis and went to yeshiva himself, this approach to love is in fact very far from our tradition.

The Mishna (Yoma 8:9) teaches that if one hurts another person, he or she can’t achieve atonement, even if compensation is made, without requesting forgiveness from the injured party.  Caring about others, showing love, means that you are willing to say you are sorry.

Too many people are unwilling to say they are sorry.  They lack the humility, self-awareness and remorse to take responsibility and to make amends.  But lately, on the opposite end, it feels as if it is becoming popular to say sorry and ask for forgiveness for things that one has nothing to apologize for.

The New York Times had a question posed to their advice columnists last week that I genuinely am struggling to determine if it is real or just satire:

I’m riddled with shame. White shame. This isn’t helpful to me or to anyone, especially people of color. I feel like there is no “me” outside of my white/upper middle class/cisgender identity. I feel like my literal existence hurts people, like I’m always taking up space that should belong to someone else…I donated to Black Lives Matter. Yet I fear that nothing is enough. Part of my fear comes from the fact that privilege is invisible to itself. What if I’m doing or saying insensitive things without realizing it?

Does one now have to apologize for being white, or simply for being and taking up space? I cite this as an extreme example, but the trend calling for apologies has infiltrated our own heritage. In a recent column in the Forward, a mother writes:

As parents of young Jewish children, we’re taught to pray on Shabbat that our daughters be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s never occurred to me to question how literal we’re meant to be. I can’t say I’d wish the fate of any of our Matriarchs on the young women in my life, much less on my own little girl… I give the blessing as a tribute to the Matriarchs’ faith and forbearance, not to the lives they led or the choices they made, which feature plenty we find morally repugnant today.

The author is embarrassed by our tradition and uncomfortable with the idea that we bless our daughters to emulate our sacred Matriarchs.  Maybe we should offer a collective apology to our daughters throughout the millennia for holding out the wrong role models for them, ones who made “morally repugnant” choices?

Yet in other news, the Israeli Reform movement has decided to expunge Aleinu, a central prayer of our Siddur that has been recited by Jews for thousands of years, over concerns that it is offensive.  Throughout history, our adversaries censored the siddur from language they found disparaging, including editing parts of Aleinu.  For maybe the first time in history, we Jews are censoring ourselves, ironically in a siddur being produced to be used in the Jewish homeland.

According to a Reform leader who teaches at their Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus, “This is a historic procedure for the movement, we tend to replace the prayer that is formulated with negative language to a prayer that is formulated with positive language.”

And lastly, some reactions to Israel’s recent Nation State Bill, which reflect a certain sense of shame and embarrassment that Israel would be defined as the “national home of the Jewish people,” are quite troubling to me.  It is perfectly understandable to be concerned with the impact of some of the language and the law on minority populations in Israel. One can respectfully debate the timing and value of the bill as well.

However, I shudder imagining what God thinks when, after 2,000 years of exile and our longing to come home, He sees many of our own people apologetic and defensive about calling Israel a Jewish state. A mere seventy years after miraculously transitioning from living with absolutely no place in the world to find safe haven, to having a land and state of our own, could there be a greater act of ingratitude to God than proclaiming that His gift to us, His people, isn’t really ours?

The very first Rashi on Chumash tells us that Hashem begins the Torah with the story of creation so that if anyone challenges the Jewish right to Israel, they will be reminded that God Who created the world also designated that special land to the Jews.  Would those who deny the Jewish right to the land really care how the Torah begins?  Sadly, we see that Rashi’s insight is not directed necessarily at our external adversaries.  Rather, the Jewish people from within need to be reminded that this is our land.  We need never apologize or be defensive for proudly proclaiming and even legislating that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people.”

It seems to me, in this season of forgiveness, the one deserving some of these apologies is the Almighty, for how, in the interest of political correctness, we sometimes put His agenda second and our eagerness to be loved and to integrate first.  If He created us a certain race or ethnicity, we aren’t taking up anyone else’s space, and while we must always carry ourselves with sensitivity and concern for others, we must not apologize for our existence or for being ourselves.

Aleinu was composed by Yehoshua thousands of years ago upon our entry to the Land that God promised us.  When he encountered pagan religions and idolatrous practices, he reacted with a sense of gratitude of being “chosen” to model an authentic, mission-driven religious life.  To edit the siddur to conform to our contemporary sense of comfort is an affront to our ancestors who said those words throughout the millennia and to God who transmitted its themes to us in the first place.

Neither you nor I would let anyone dishonor our grandmothers by describing them as people who made morally repugnant decisions, and we shouldn’t tolerate someone disparaging our great Matriarchs that way.  They, like our Patriarchs, were not perfect.  But even with the ideologies and “isms” of our time redefining gender roles and opportunities, we can still only dream that our daughters have the righteousness, kindness, faith and tenacity of our holy Matriarchs, whom we continue to draw from for inspiration and hold up as role models.

Indeed, there are plenty of apologies we should be offering this time of year.  There are affronts, hurts and injuries for which we must make recompense.  But perhaps among them we need to apologize for being so apologetic about our Jewish values, practices, and beliefs.

The very first law in the Shulchan Aruch, our code of Jewish practice states: “One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator…And one should not be ashamed because of people who mock him in his service of God.”

Our measure and metric for whether or not to hold a belief, pursue an action, recite certain words or have specific role models is not contemporary culture, the latest fashion or fad, or the ideology of our day.  It is what does Hashem want from us, what has He dictated to us and what does He expect from us.  Instead of the passing notions and beliefs, we would serve ourselves and our existential purpose best by being proud and unashamed of our Jewish values, beliefs and practices.

The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) states: “Rava said: When a soul appears before the Heavenly tribunal to be judged, he will be asked: ‘kavata itim la’Torah,’” literally translated as, “Did you set aside time for the study of Torah?”  Rav Soloveitchik encouraged us to read it differently: kavata itim l’Torah or kavata Torah l’itim?  Did you interpret the times through the prism of Torah or did you try to make Torah conform with the interests of the times?

We are positively informed and inspired by the world in which we live, but we must measure its value and influence by its compatibility with Torah, not the other way around.  We have not survived and thrived against all odds through an ever-changing world by adapting to, and adopting from, values and visions that are in conflict with our own.

In this season of apologies, let’s be careful not only for what we apologize for, but what we need not be apologetic about.  Jewish continuity will be served by pride in who we are and what we represent.

When it comes to our loyalty to Hashem, love means never having to say we are sorry for our Jewish values.