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Impolite Things Otherwise Polite People Do in Shul – Improving Shul Etiquette

on Wednesday, October 10 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Related imageThe long Yom Tov season is over and our children are back in school.  But what did they learn while they were off?  There is no question that young people gain formal education and amass information from their teachers and schools, but the most powerful influence on their character is the model they see from those around them. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

We are blessed to live in an amazing community with kind, sensitive, courteous people.  I get regular feedback praising our members and our community as warm and welcoming.  I am always proud when people comment how refreshing it is to interact and engage with the people in our shul and not to experience some of the rude behavior that unfortunately is commonly associated with our brothers and sisters in other communities.

I still think, however, that there are areas in derech eretz, kindness and courtesy, which we as a community can work on. Having spent so much time in Shul over the last several weeks, I observed several patterns of behavior that, while not malicious or poorly intended or reflecting a rude attitude, nevertheless lack the consistent derech eretz we aspire to.  These are not particular to our community; indeed, in consultation with my colleagues from around the country, I can confidently say most are ubiquitous in shul life.  And I want to be very clear: while pointing some of these out may seem self-serving, I really don’t believe any of this is about me or protecting rabbis’ honor generally.  This is about all of us and the sometimes unintended consequences and messaging resulting from what feels like benign behavior.  If we make these minor adjustments and remain sensitive in these areas and others, we can raise the level of courteousness and consideration in shul and everywhere we go.

  • “If you come here to talk, where do you go to daven?” This sign discouraging talking during davening hangs in many shuls and appeals to our spiritual conscience and ambition not to talk.  But there is an even more basic reason to refrain from conversation during shul:  It is rude.  Even if we struggle to connect with prayer and are willing to exchange a conversation with the Almighty for a conversation with our neighbor, it is unkind to someone within earshot who isn’t undergoing that struggle.  People who talk aren’t bad people.  They are often outgoing, social, warm, and gregarious.  But without even being aware, they are acting unkind.  There are people all around shul davening who are utilizing a safe space to experience an intimate conversation with Hashem.  We wouldn’t talk while someone is trying to watch a movie or Broadway show, we wouldn’t talk while someone is swinging on the golf course or tennis court, and we shouldn’t talk and cause a distraction when people are trying to daven.  Talking in our shul generally is not bad, but that is not the standard we strive for in any other area and we shouldn’t be satisfied with it regarding this.  We can do better; we owe it to ourselves and to those around us.
  • When I was young, if a child walked across a room while someone was speaking to a crowd or congregation, the child’s parent would be mortified, grab the child to come sit until the talk was over, and would strongly instruct the child never to walk into a room while someone is speaking again. If not the parent, another adult would stop the child and direct them not to walk through the room at that time. Our sweet, precious children rely on us to place boundaries and condition proper behavior. Children who come into shul during a sermon or lecture to speak with a parent, or to collect candies, or deliver a message, should gently be instructed that this is not an appropriate time to do so. If we don’t teach them derech eretz, who will?
  • We have a wonderful community of learners who come each Shabbos for the class before mincha. Even many people coming for mincha arrive early to catch the end of the class.  If we aren’t there in time, the proper thing is to find the first available seat. If we are early for mincha, we should wait quietly in the back.  Arriving towards the end of class and walking through the room is discourteous to both the speaker and those attending the shiur.
  • We are fortunately blessed to enjoy the presence of many young children in shul. Shul should be a place children feel excited to come to and be part of. That said, parents must use judgment when bringing younger children into shul during davening. If the child begins to make noise, the “shushing” that follows is almost always ineffective and only serves to make the disruption worse. Parents—men and women—should be aware that the best solution to their child making noise is to immediately take the child out of shul. Even if one is in the middle of Shmoneh Esrei, it is Halachically preferable to pause, walk out of shul with the child, and continue the prayer outside, than to ineffectively shush the child or allow him or her to continue to disrupt others.
  • It is understandable that it isn’t always possible to be in shul on time, particularly for women. While catching up with davening, it is important to be thoughtful and considerate when saying the Shmoneh Esrei (Amida). If you are by your seat during the derasha, standing and swaying in davening blocks others from seeing the speaker and distracts the person speaking. Better to move to the side or back, or step into the hall to recite the Amida.
  • We are blessed to celebrate many simchas in our community. They are often marked with the throwing of or distribution of candy, which in turn generates lots of garbage. Often, wrappers can be found on the floor of the shul.  Children drop them or walk right past them without anyone saying anything.  We wouldn’t allow a child to leave garbage on the floor of our home and we shouldn’t let them walk past garbage on the floor of our sanctuary.  Stop a child and (kindheartedly) teach them to pick it up or pick it up yourself so they see it isn’t beneath adults to keep Hashem’s home as clean or cleaner than our own.
  • Each week, when shul is over, our wonderful custodians spend considerable time collecting siddurim and chumashim and returning them to the shelves with great care and respect. But why should they have to? Isn’t it basic derech eretz to put something back on the shelf when we finish using it?  “Being people of the book” means not only learning what is in it, but modeling what we literally do with it.
  • It is one thing to not go to a shiur, but it is an altogether different thing to get up and choose to walk out of one.  Over the holidays, and daily between Mincha and Maariv, someone gives a short Dvar Torah. Sometimes, a person may have an obligation or responsibility at home or elsewhere that necessitates their leaving shul. On the other hand, some people leave to stand in the lobby and shoot the breeze, share the latest gossip, or simply pass the time.  Others make an exit for what they consider a noble reason—to go to the Beis Midrash for “real” learning.  Some remain in shul and brazenly open a sefer to study, oblivious to the impression it leaves and the message it sends.  Whoever is speaking in the front of the room worked hard to prepare, is putting in effort, and is making themselves vulnerable by speaking.  Walking out, opening a sefer, or staring at or texting on the phone, isn’t menschlich and is unintentionally hurtful.

The Torah and its many laws and directives isn’t given until Sefer Shmos, the second book. Yet, we have an entire first book preceding it to teach us about proper character, respectful behavior, and fine qualities.  Indeed, the famous midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9) tells us “Derech eretz kadma laTorah,” derech eretz preceded Torah by 26 generations.

In his introduction to his commentary on Bereishis, the Netziv writes that the first book of the Torah was referred to by our rabbis as Sefer HaYashar, the book of the upright, because it tells the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived honest, respectful, kind lives.  One has to be a mensch in order to be a vessel to receive Torah, as the Mishna in Avos (3:17) teaches: im ein Torah, ein derech eretz v’im ein derech eretz, ein Torah, If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz and if there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.  On this Mishna, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, “One must first improve one’s own character traits and with that, the Torah can endure with him because it cannot endure with a person that doesn’t have good character traits. One cannot learn Torah first and then acquire good character traits because this is impossible.”

Shul is perhaps the most powerful classroom our children attend.  They are watching and learning what we do to see if it matches what they hear us say.  With a little more thoughtfulness and effort to be mindful of the unintended consequences of our innocent behavior, we can teach them to emulate our ancestors and to earn the label yashar, to be counted among the upright, honest and menschlich.

Why Was One Boy Admitted to Yeshiva and the Other Rejected?

on Thursday, September 27 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for dancing with torahMany years ago, two bachurim, students, came to the yeshivah of the Chasam Sofer, Rav Moshe Schreiber (1763-1839) in Pressburg, Hungary to take a farher, an entrance exam, to determine whether or not the boys qualified for admission as talmidim in his prestigious yeshivah.

It was right after Sukkos, just a few days before the new zman, the semester was to begin, and the bachurim were anxious to become part of the world-renowned yeshivah. One of the boys had the reputation of being an iluy, a genius, whose understanding and perception of sugyos was outstanding. The second boy also had the reputation of being an exemplary student for his age, but he was not known to possess as sharp a mind that the first boy had.

Both boys took the farher and afterwards the Chasam Sofer announced that he would be accepting only one of them: the second boy, the one with the fine reputation but not the outstanding iluy. Staff members who had observed and overheard the boys being tested were surprised.

Both had done well, and the iluy certainly had done better. “Why,” they asked the Chasam Sofer, “are you taking only the second bachur?” The Chasam Sofer peered at those who questioned him and answered sternly, “I was sitting near the window and noticed the two bachurim as they made their way from the street into this building. There was some schach on the sidewalk from one of the sukkos that had just been taken down after the yom tov. The first bachur did not make it a point to avoid the schach, but nonchalantly stepped on it as he was walking.

“The second boy, however, walked around the schach. I maintain,” continued the Chasam Sofer, “that a bachur who can step on schach just two days after Sukkos does not have the proper sensitivity to kedushas hamitzvos. He will find someplace else to learn.” (R. Paysach Krohn, Footsteps of Maggid, pg. 135)

The Gemara in Megilla 26b says explicitly that unlike a Sefer Torah, tefillin or mezuza, items used for the performance of a mitzvah don’t contain intrinsic sanctity and can be thrown out. In just a few days, we will all be taking down our sukkos and if we used palm fronds as schach, we will place them at the curb to be picked up by the sanitation department.

So why did the Chassam Sofer not admit this young man to his yeshiva? What did he do wrong? The answer can be found in the Gemara (Shabbos 22a) which tells us that while technically tashmishei mitzvah, items used for the performance of a mitzvah, can be discarded when the mitzvah is completed, nevertheless, we cannot treat them in an undignified or demeaning manner, lest we commit what is called tashmish shel bizayon.

For example, we are permitted to place our lulav and esrog in the garbage, but we first wrap it in its own garbage bag, and then place that in the garbage so as to continue to show deference to these objects that were recently used for mitzvos.

And so the Chassam Sofer understood that while the mind of this student might be very sharp, his memory was in fact impaired if the experience of sitting in the sukkah could be so easily forgotten and dismissed just a few days later evidenced by his trampling on the schach.

Yesterday’s experiences cannot so easily be discarded and cast off. We don’t step on and trample the memories and experiences, but instead we embrace them, carry them with us and continue to draw from them.

This is perhaps best expressed in an incredible insight and comment of Rav Sampson Raphael Hirsch on the mitzvah of terumas ha’deshen. At the beginning of parshas Tzav, the Torah instructs the Kohanim – “v’lavash ha’kohen mido vad u’michnesei vad yilbash al besaro v’heirim es ha’deshen ashar tochal ha’eish es ha’olah al ha’mizbeiach, v’samo eitzel ha’mizbai’ach.” The Kohen does something unusual. He gets dressed up to take out the garbage… literally! The Kohen who cleans the altar from the burnt ash of yesterday’s korbanos puts on his two of the four priestly garments and instead of taking the garbage all the way to the curb, outside the Temple, for some reason he places them down on the floor of the courtyard, east of the ramp that leads to the top of the Altar.

Why does he get dressed up and why does he leave yesterday’s garbage next to today’s sacrifices? Rav Hirsch writes:

The terumas ha’deshen is an avodah itself and may only be done by a kosher kohen in priestly vestments…He takes a handful of the ash and he places it deliberately, not scattered on the mizrach, the east side next to the altar… The ash has been laid down as a remembrance of the devotion represented by the sacrifices of the past day to God and to His holy Torah… It would give the idea as the introduction to the service of the day, that today brings no new mission, it has only to carry out, ever afresh, the mission that yesterday too was to accomplish. The very last Jewish grandchild stands there, before God, with the same mission of life that his first ancestors bore, and every day adds to all its solution of the task given to all generations of the House of Israel.

In other words, according to Rav Hirsch, the message is clear – before sacrifices can be made today, you must acknowledge and recognize the sacrifices of yesterday. We don’t trample on palm fronds that just yesterday served as our schach and we don’t discard yesterday’s ash and move on to today’s service. We place the memory of yesterday’s sacrifice next to today’s sacrifice and thereby celebrate the contiguity and continuity of the Jewish experience.

Shortly, we will complete six incredible weeks that began with Elul and end with Simchas Torah. We don’t conclude this journey without pausing to think about all it took to get here.

In 2003, Abe Foxman, the longtime National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a book called “Never Again?” In it, he recounts the experience of being hidden by a Catholic nanny for four years during the Holocaust, separated from his parents. He tells an incredible story that happened to him involving a Russian soldier in the fall of 1945 after liberation as a five-year-old boy.

Also in 2003, Jewish music songwriter Abie Rotenberg was on a flight sitting next to an old Jewish man, Rabbi Leo Goldman from Detroit, and the two struck up a conversation. The old man told him a story from after the war involving a young boy that Abie Rotenberg says, “changed my view of life.” He was so moved that he wrote lyrics to a song called “The Man from Vilna” telling over the story.

In 2010, a researcher from Yad Vashem heard Foxman tell his story and was moved to try to find the Russian soldier. He came across Abie Rotenberg’s song and put two and two together. It wasn’t long after that Abe Foxman took a flight to Oak Park, Michigan, and Rabbi Goldman and he were reunited 65 years after their incredible story occurred.  They hugged and cried and prayed together. Goldman’s children describe that their father told this story every single year and Foxman too often recounted the experience that shaped his life. Now they have all met one another and corroborated the story from both perspectives, giving the story even greater meaning and emotion. So, what is their incredible story?

The Catholic nanny saved Abe Foxman’s life but she also taught him to spit on the ground when a Jew walked by. In the middle of 1945, he was reunited with his parents who had miraculously survived. His father didn’t know what to do with his little boy who now had negative feelings for Judaism. He waited four months to take him to Shul until it would be the holiday of Simchas Torah since it is associated with fun and joy. Foxman remembers walking to Shul that evening and when passing a Church making the sign of the cross on himself, as he had been taught to do by the nanny.

Leo Goldman had lost his parents and many relatives to the Nazis before being enlisted to serve in the Russian army. By the fall of 1945, the concentration camps had been liberated and those who survived were reuniting with family across Europe. He had gone back to Vilna, of which only 3,000 of the 100,000 Jews survived.

This is the rest of the story from Leo Goldman’s perspective with Abie Rotenberg’s lyrics from his incredible song, the Man from Vilna, that you must listen to:

I remember liberation, joy and fear both intertwined.
Where to go, and what to do, and how to leave the pain behind.
My heart said “Go to Vilna”, dare I pray yet once again,
For the chance to find a loved one, or perhaps a childhood friend?

It took many months to get there, from the late spring to the fall
And as I, many others, close to four hundred in all.
And slowly there was healing, darkened souls now mixed with light
When someone proudly cried out, Simchas Torah is tonight.

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong.
From evening until morning, filling up with song.
Though we had no sifrei torah to clutch close to our hearts.
In their place, we held the future, of a past so torn apart.

We ran as one towards the shul, our spirits in a trance.
We tore apart the barricade, in defiance we would dance.
But the scene before our eyes shook us to the core.
Scraps of siddur, bullet holes, and bloodstains on the floor.
Turning to the eastern wall, we looked on in despair
There’d be no scrolls to dance with, the Holy Ark was bare.
Then we heard two children crying, a boy and girl who no one knew.
We realized no children were among us but those two.

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong.
From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song.
Though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms.
In their place, we held those children.
The Jewish people would live on.

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong.
From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song.
Though we had no sifrei torah to clutch and hold up high.
In their place, we held those children. Am Yisrael Chai.

Goldman described that he hadn’t seen a Jewish child in over a year. When he heard the voice of a little boy he bent down and asked if he was Jewish. When Foxman said yes, he couldn’t help but lift him and dance with him as the living Sefer Torah they longed for.

Foxman describes the soldier, a stranger, had embraced him in public, in a synagogue. He had carried him like a trophy around the Shul. Foxman said, “That was for me the first time anyone took pride in me. As a hidden child I didn’t know who or what I was. [After that simchas Torah] I came home and told my father that I wanted to be Jewish. It was the beginning of my life as a Jewish person.” Abe Foxman, as you know, went on to live a richly Jewish life filled with Jewish leadership, fighting anti-Semitism, and defending the future of the Jewish people.

We are heading into the final stretch of a long, amazing holiday season.  We are so blessed to live in a beautiful community, to have an incredible shul filled with Sifrei Torah, the written ones and the living ones, those that are here and those that worked so hard to build what we benefit from today.  Like the terumas ha’deshen, their sacrifices sit right next to our service and perpetually remind us that we are simply the continuity of what they began.

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.