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This Will Be My Final Blog Post…

on Wednesday, March 27 2019. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

…on this site because this blog is moving to www.rabbiefremgoldberg.org

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Thank you for learning and growing with me!

The Kotzker Rebbe is purported to have responded to the question of why he didn’t write a book with the following answer: “Why should I write a book?  The only time my chassidim would have time to read it is Friday night after the meal.  They would lie on the couch, exhausted, with a full belly and a few l’chaims.  They would open the book and within a few moments it would end up on the floor in a puddle of drool.  For that I should write a book?”

For a few years, I have wanted to write a book, but to be honest, I am haunted by the story told about the Kotzker Rebbe.  Would my book really be a meaningful contribution?  Would anyone buy it? If I gave it away, would anyone read it, or would it simply gather dust on a shelf?

And yet, for nearly twenty years, I have been giving classes, writing articles, delivering sermons, and trying to inspire others with the thoughts, ideas, and stories that inspire me.  While there are risks in publishing, there are also risks of sitting on the sideline when you feel you have meaningful things to share. 

The Sefer Chassidim (530) states, “Whoever has received a revelation from Hakadosh Baruch Hu in Torah and is able to record it but fails to do so is stealing from Hashem, because Hashem only revealed it to him to share.” 

Despite the hesitation of the Kotzer, I do hope to fulfill the charge of the Sefer Chassidim and write a book one day.  But before doing that, I have long wanted to compile and consolidate the writings, teachings and classes I have already given and share them in one place. 

It is with that goal in mind that I am very excited and proud to share a new website, www.rabbiefremgoldberg.org.  The site contains over 750 audio classes, all organized by series. In addition, there are over 300 articles, several sermon digests, dozens of videos, and hundreds of source sheets from past classes.  Everything is organized by category or theme and the whole site is searchable. 

The website is not an effort to develop an identity independent of my role at Boca Raton Synagogue; indeed, BRS is featured all over the site, including prominent representation on the home page.  Rather, it is an effort to host a growing body of content in an organized way something beyond the scope and capacity of the Shul’s website, www.brsonline.org.   The shul website is an indispensable resource for our members and visitors who want to know the times of our minyanim, details of our programs, how to contact our staff, etc.  This new website is for those who want to learn with me, whether they are a member of BRS or live halfway around the world. 

Concurrent with the launch of the new website, I am excited to start a weekly newsletter which will include my weekly article and links to classes I taught that week, as well as previous articles and classes about timely topics.  (For example a newsletter before Pesach will include past articles and classes on Pesach.)  The newsletter is an experiment in progress, and there are plans to incorporate other fun and interesting things in it. 

This website was a much bigger and more complicated project than I ever anticipated.  I am enormously indebted to Jonathan Hollander and Stephen Plotsker, who lent their expertise, and countless hours of their time, to quarterback the effort.  Shani and Binyamin Muschel put in tremendous work to organize, upload, and edit.  They brought much more than just technical knowledge and knowhow, but their wisdom, recommendations and insights were invaluable.  This website would not be possible without the generosity and support of my dear friend Saul N. Friedman, whose renowned public accounting firm has sponsored the introduction of the website.

My hope and prayer is that the Torah on this website will not only not end up in a puddle of drool, but that it will be marbeh kavod shomayim, and help inspire those looking for it, and those who search and stumble upon it, towards a more meaningful and mindful Jewish life.  If you enjoy and benefit from it, I would be grateful and honored if you share it with others, encourage them to subscribe to the newsletter, and invite them to be part of our growing community of learning. 

Extreme Immodesty and Modesty Extremism – Marching to the Beat of our Own Drums

on Thursday, March 7 2019. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Earlier this week, after much hesitation and deliberation about weighing in on a recent Jewish news story, I wrote the following:

My wife is one of the most modest people I know – humble, appropriate, under the radar and tzanua. And… she played the drums at our wedding.

Countless people have forwarded the articles about the bride in Bnei Brak who played the drums at her wedding and the hall and band were forced to apologize for the breach of modesty. Many have asked for my reaction to the story, given our wedding.

So here it is: There are parts of the Torah definition of modesty that are objective, regulated by Jewish law and there are parts that are subjective, standards created by each particular community. All would agree a woman playing an instrument is not objectively prohibited. Apparently, some communities would define it as a subjective breach of modesty, and we need to recognize that they are entitled to do so.

However, while adopting extreme and perhaps excessive standards of modesty might seem like the appropriate reaction and response to our culture which is increasingly becoming extremely immodest, it doesn’t come without a risk and a cost.

We are caught in a vicious cycle in which the extreme immodesty is breeding modesty extremism. The more society says there are no boundaries or limits, that nobody has a right to impose any definition of modesty on anyone else and all are entitled to dress, act, say and identify however they please and in whatever way makes them happy, the more those committed to modesty feel they need to become more restrictive and more narrow, even to the point of the absurd.

But the result is counterproductive as some who in principle are committed to modesty, see the extremism and are so turned off, they go in the opposite direction. Given the choice of living in one of the two worlds, they feel more comfortable with those who bend modesty that those who are excessively rigid with it.

But here is the thing – there aren’t only two options, we don’t have to choose between the extremes. There is a world of Torah observant Jews who are both committed to modesty in principle and in practice, who live with boundaries in speech, dress and conduct and who are turned off equally by extremism on both sides. We need to find a way to band together to preserve the attitude and community standards that are not only most true to Torah and our mesorah, but most likely to retain and attract others to a Torah way of life. We need to not feel apologetic or defensive to either side but we must articulate the values that inform our space, the “normal” place so those like us don’t feel so lonely, so frustrated and such despair from what they see in both directions.

So, if a community wants to adopt a standard of women not playing instruments in public, it is not only entitled to, there is something admirable about its conscious effort to enforce a sense of modesty. However, the goal posts of modesty for the rest of the Jewish community isn’t moved because of it and nobody should be measured or judged by it. We remain entitled, by halacha and by mesorah, to subscribe to the same objective standards of modesty while defining and preserving our own subjective ones which includes our brides playing the drums on a night unlike most others, where they are center stage by any measure.

My thoughts clearly struck a chord and resonated with many as the post quickly picked up steam and was shared widely.  But not surprisingly, not all agreed or were happy with it.  I am grateful for their feedback and for the opportunity to engage in this conversation. I think it is a critically important one, and I have a few further points I’d like to share.

First, those living in Israel and those living in America are addressing two different realities and describing two different phenomena which, though they overlap and are similar, are also very different.  In Israel, the more right-wing community often doesn’t only adopt standards for themselves, but its zealots and enthusiasts have been guilty of coercing those not from their community to adopt their standards.  In America, in my experience, the right-wing community establishes policies for their constituents and does not try to coerce or force it on others.  So while, for example, pictures of women have been torn down in non-charedi communities in Israel and innocent young women in Beit Shemesh have been treated nothing short of horrifically for wearing clothing that does not live up to charedi standards of modesty, nobody in America is forcing others to subscribe to magazines that don’t include women’s pictures.  This distinction is very important and I believe informs our different views on this issue.

Second, I referenced the recent incident with a bride playing drums in Bnei Brak to share thoughts on the broader issue but wasn’t focused on that particular story.  Of course, I agree that no individual should be shamed or embarrassed or the subject of gossip, not in the name of preserving modesty or for other reasons, noble or ignoble.

Third, I regret not being more clear in what I meant when I wrote, “there is something admirable about its conscious effort to enforce a sense of modesty.”  I don’t believe this specific policy or other extreme policies are admirable.  My admiration is not for the policy or how it was executed, it was more broadly for a community that is committed to preserving modesty in an increasingly immodest world.

To be clear, I share the frustration with the direction of modesty extremism.  That is why I originally wrote that I think these new restrictions are not only inconsistent with our mesorah, I fear they are counterproductive.  But now what?  There is extreme immodesty in one direction and modesty extremism in another.  Both concern me, but neither of those sides is concerned with what I think about their policies and practices.  So what is the best response?  I believe it is to work on our community, to create and protect a space for those who are unequivocally committed to halacha, who yield to Torah and mesorah, but who believe in moderation, normalcy and standards that are reasonable and arrived at with input from all the stakeholders.

I believe it is both more appropriate, and more fruitful, to channel my frustration into important conversations regarding our community’s policies and efforts regarding modesty, than it is to try to influence the standards of other communities who want to hear what we think, about as much as we want to hear their opinions about us.

While I disagree with them, I believe those communities who have adopted policies for themselves and are not imposing them on others (like in America), are entitled to come to their own conclusions.   I even presume they are doing so responsibly and thoughtfully.  I know some of them personally, they are not the Taliban, they aren’t misogynists or barbarians. They are struggling with navigating the input of gedolei yisrael, the “marketplace,” and how to implement what they think is morally correct.

I don’t want them telling me that I am not entitled to my conclusions and I am not prepared to tell them that their conclusions are categorically wrong.  Their positions are not appropriate for my community and that is why I will advocate in every way that I can that we not adopt them or imitate them, but I am not the arbiter, judge, or policeman of what is deemed modest in other communities.

But if our only conversations and articles protest what we reject, we have done a terrible disservice and have left a great vacuum.  The conversations in our community about moderate modesty or normal tznius seem to always focus on the “moderate” and the “normal” and not a lot on the “modesty” or the “tznius.”   Are we doing anything to address the modesty in our community, from ostentatiousness and flamboyancy to consuming pop culture indiscriminately?

Why do people in our community feel so comfortable sharing about television or movies they watch that would once qualify as soft pornography with no shame or embarrassment? Why do we ignore or brush aside issues with promiscuity within our community?  What are we doing about the objectification of women, not only by extreme rules of modesty, but by the marketing and celebration of increasingly immodest models and actresses? When and how will we protest society’s continually lowering the standards for publicly acceptable language and messages?

I can’t speak for what is happening in Israel and am heartbroken when I hear stories of people, mostly women, being physically coerced or bullied in their community by those from a community with different standards. But let’s change the conversation from what we are rejecting to what we want to adopt.  Let’s shift from that which is beyond our control to that which we can influence.  Let’s convene to analyze what is working and what isn’t, what is appropriate and what is counterproductive.  Let’s not only talk about what we shouldn’t look like, let’s dream and aspire to holiness that our community could model.

Instead of offering condemnation of others, let’s use this opportunity to ask questions of ourselves.  How can we inspire and improve our sense of modesty with normalcy and moderation? What can we do to preserve our sacred boundaries and to raise the level of holiness in our community?  Let’s not only talk about those who are getting it wrong, let’s have a conversation about how to get it right.  If we can successfully articulate a compelling vision, we will not only enthusiastically retain those from our community, we will become a place that attracts those who are turned off by others.

Anger is Contagious Like the Flu, How Can You Inoculate Yourself and Your Family?

on Thursday, February 28 2019. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Flu season is currently making itself known around the community, first among kids and now hitting adults.  But diseases and illnesses are not the only things that are contagious.  Without you even realizing it, how you are feeling today is likely influencing and impacting the feelings of people around you. According to Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, “If someone smiles at you, you smile back at them.  That’s a very fleeting contagion of emotion from one person to another.”  He found that if you are exhibiting happiness, a friend living nearby has a 25% higher chance of becoming happy too. 

But Dr. Christakis found that the opposite is also true. His research shows that if you display anger, those around you will fill with anger too. The contagiousness of happiness is welcome, but when anger spreads, it is toxic, destructive and can have devastating consequences.

Our parsha contains the admonition, Lo seva’aru eish b’chol moshvoseichem b’yom ha’Shabbos, do not kindle a fire in any of your residences on Shabbos.  In its literal sense, this pasuk is the source of the prohibition to light a fire on Shabbos. However, the Shelah HaKadosh, R’ Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz (1558-1630) offers a homiletical interpretation.

He suggests that eish, fire, is an allusion to anger and rage. The pasuk is instructing us that a person must never let anger or machlokes burn on erev shabbos or shabbos.  The Zohar says that moshvoseichem, guarding “your house” from fire, refers to your heart and guarding it from being filled with emotional fire: anger, bitterness, or negativity. 

The Rambam writes that real anger is never healthy, it is never warranted or productive.  At most, one may exhibit anger in order to communicate a message or accomplish a goal but one can never actually give in to the emotion of anger. 

An angry person loses judgment and vision, and often acts in a self-destructive fashion.  The Sefer Chareidim (Teshuvah, Ch. 4) writes:  If one lost a beautiful flower, it would be madness for him to react by breaking a precious object worth thousands of times more than the small flower. Similarly, the person who loses his temper shatters his peace of mind – a commodity far more precious than the relatively trivial loss which triggered his anger.

The word “rage” comes from the Latin rabies, meaning madness.  Giving in to rage is an act of madness because you give up so much and get nothing in return.  The Rambam in Hilchos Dei’os (2:3) writes that anger diminishes a person’s overall quality of life: “Those who frequently become angry have no quality of life; therefore, [the Sages] instructed us to distance ourselves from anger to the farthest degree, until a person acts as though he does not sense even those things that would justifiably anger a person.”

Shabbos is characterized by serenity, tranquility and contentment.  There is no room for even the appearance of anger, impatience, or controversy. Erev Shabbos is particularly predisposed to anger, with everyone rushing and hurrying, much to do, and often children who are not cooperating or adults who are not meeting our expectations of what needs to be done.  Shabbos, too, we can easily be tempted to be angry when the meals don’t go the way we want, our nap is disrupted, or the rabbi went on too long with his derasha. 

Shabbos is a particularly important time to conquer the urge for anger and maintain cool.  In the special Retzei paragraph in Shabbos benching, we ask – shelo sehei tzarah v’yagon v’anachah b’yom menuchaseinu, let there be no distress, grief or negativity on this day of our contentment.”

We often think of anger as an instinctive emotion, a reaction that we cannot help or control.  Clearly, the Zohar, the Shelah and others didn’t see it that way.  Kindling a fire is prohibited on Shabbos because it is meleches machsheves, a constructive, creative act.  Anger, too, is a creation, not simply a natural reaction.  When we get angry, we have made a decision, consciously or subconsciously, to create anger and to allow ourselves to be angry, but we don’t have to.  Lo seva’aru eish, don’t create anger.  Be in control and resist the urge which can in fact be overcome. 

In an article titled, “10 Things I Learned When I Stopped Yelling at My Kid,”  an anonymous mother describes the moment she decided to change.  She had lost it with her children in front of a handyman and was mortified.  She pledged to go one year, 365 straight days, without yelling.  When she wrote the article she was over 400 days without giving in to her urge to yell or scream or get angry and she shared the top 10 things she learned in the process. Here are a few of them:

1. Yelling isn’t the only thing I haven’t done in over a year.

I also haven’t gone to bed with a gut-wrenching pit in my stomach because I felt like the worst mom ever.

2. My kids are my most important audience.

When I had my “no more yelling epiphany,” I realized that I don’t yell in the presence of others because I want them to believe I am a loving and patient mom. The truth is, I already was that way… but rarely when I was alone, just always when I was in public with an audience to judge me. This is so backwards! I always have an audience — my four boys are always watching me and THEY are the audience that matters most; they are the ones I want to show just how loving, patient and “yell-free” I can be. I remember this whenever I am home and thinking I can’t keep it together; obviously I can… I do it out and about all the time!

7. Two words you should always remember are “at least.”

my new favorite words: “at least.” These two small words give me great perspective and remind me to chill out. I use them readily in any annoying but not yell worthy kid situation. “He just dropped an entire jug of milk on the floor… at least it wasn’t glass and at least he was trying to help!” I also use them readily when I want to give up: “Okay, this is hard but at least there are only three hours until bedtime, not 12.”

10. Not yelling feels phenomenal for everyone.

Now that I have stopped yelling, not only do I feel happier and calmer, I also feel lighter. I go to bed guilt-free and wake up more confident that I can parent with greater understanding of my kids, my needs, and how to be more loving and patient. And I am pretty sure my kids feel happier and calmer too.

Knowing how contagious they are, we take every precaution to avoid illnesses that can be transmitted from one person to another.  We must be just as cautious to not only avoid getting angry ourselves, but from contracting the propensity for anger that is contagious and can be transmitted from others.  Each and every Shabbos we experience the anger test challenging us not to light a fire in our dwelling, our home, or in our hearts.  When we pass, that sense of patience and tranquility not only fills our home for Shabbos, but carries over to the week. 

We would never light a fire or turn on a light on Shabbos, let’s not let the fire of anger or rage burn as well. 

You Won’t Believe What This Man Did for His Competitor

on Wednesday, February 13 2019. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Image result for Shea LangsamIn January, a fire destroyed the building that housed Yossi Heiman’s Fish Market in Borough Park, Brooklyn, leaving him with no place to operate his business and no ability to draw income. Shea Langsam owns a similar store, Fish to Dish, just a few blocks away.  One would have thought that as sympathetic as he may be for his competitor’s poor fortune, he would welcome this opportunity to acquire new customers and increase his business.

Instead, Shea did something truly remarkable.  When he learned of the fire, he picked up the phone and called his competitor.  “When he [Yossi] said that he needs a facility to process and deliver orders for his customers, I said, ‘Why not join me in my store?’ As fellow community members we all try to help each other as much as we can.”  Shea received an official citation from New York State Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein for his incredible kindness, welcoming his competitor to operate out of his space until the store could be rebuilt.

The story is extraordinary for many reasons.  It is an example of seeing fellow community members as part of one family, putting their needs ahead of our own aspiration to make more money or grow our business.  But the story is exceptional for another reason:  It is a truly genuine display of true faith, a great example of emunah and bitachon not existing in the form of empty lip service, but being put into practice in a very real way.

When I saw this story, I was immediately reminded of a powerful passage in the Chazon Ish’s Emunah U’Bitachon:

What we see in life is people like Reuven, who is a moral person, always speaking of trust in Hashem, condemning excessive efforts in life, and expressing his abhorrence of constant pursuit of financial means.  Indeed, he is a successful person: he lacks no customers in his store, and he does not need to expend efforts in that direction.  He loves the concept of trust in Hashem, because even that concept smiles upon him.

And suddenly, we are surprised to see Reuven, that great truster in Hashem, conferring secretly with his assistants and consultants as to how to stop a potential rival who plans to open a store just like his.  Reuven is very upset by this threat; at the beginning he keeps his feelings to himself, because he is embarrassed to reveal them to his acquaintances, fearing their derision.  But with time, he loses his sense of shame, and begins to act openly with the aim of preventing the rival from carrying out his plan.  Gradually he gravitates towards the crooked path, and his sense of shame evaporates:  he openly commits low and deplorable actions – in public.  The competition between him and his rival becomes widely known and is the talk of town – and still he feels no shame, but rather comes up with baseless and untrue reasons and explanations in order to justify his actions.

Over time he becomes even more sophisticated and adds new explanations, claiming that everything he is doing against this rival is for the sake of Heaven and is morally acceptable.  He actually fools himself into believing this, and fools others as well – simple people or those who love a good fight, and usually he attracts fight mongers, and gossip lovers; Satan creates peace between them all so that they can build a stable fortress of strife and arguments, speaking evil of others, lies, tale bearing and baseless hatred – all of which shorten men’s lives.

The Chazon Ish is describing a phenomenon of people who daven with great kavannah, talk about God and divine providence frequently, regularly employ expressions like “Baruch Hashem,” “Be’zras Hashem,” “Imirtza Hashem,” “Chasdei Hashem,” and yet when the rubber meets the road, they totally abandon faith and erase God from the picture.  One cannot talk about believing in God and then be ruthless in business, undercut competitors, take excessive initiative or be paralyzed with anxiety and worry about things beyond our control.

True faith in Hashem means catching ourselves before getting anxious about our competitors or feeling fear about our income and reminding ourselves that while we should take initiative, work hard, be creative, and have ambition, we must leave the rest to Hashem, our senior partner in any enterprise.

Minimally, emunah means we need not worry, but Shea Langsam has taught us that living with emunah can mean even more.  With faith in Hashem, we can even find the capacity to help a competitor, recognizing that Hashem can partner with both of us and bring us each great success and prosperity.

The pasuk in Tehilim (81:10) says Lo yiheyeh becha el zar, which is usually translated as don’t have among you a foreign god. The Kotzker Rebbe offers an alternative, fantastic homiletical interpretation.  He explains, don’t relate to God as a zar, someone who is foreign, distant and a stranger.  Don’t talk about God while failing to maintain a real, personal and intimate relationship with Him.

We talk about God a lot, we even claim to talk to God three times a day.  But many of us leave Him in shul, we say goodbye when we close the siddur.  Real emunah means taking Hashem to work with us and feeling not only His presence everywhere we go, but His partnership and investment in us and in our success.