Skip to content

Freedom is Speech: On Pesach We Care About What Comes Out of Our Mouth, Not Just What Goes In It

on Monday, March 26 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Pesach is all about talking. The Talmud tells us that matzah is called lechem oni, the bread of answering, since it is the bread upon which we declare many things. There is a specific mitzvah to tell the story of Exodus.   We are encouraged not to be succinct, but rather, “It is praiseworthy to dwell on the story and tell it as fully as possible.”

Yet our sages teach, “Say little and do much,” and “one who is verbose and loquacious brings mistakes.” Why on Pesach do we have an entirely different attitude towards speech?

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl describes what happened after they were liberated:

The body has fewer inhibitions than the mind.  It made good use of the new freedom from the first moment on.  It began to eat ravenously, for hours and days even half the night.  It is amazing what quantities one can eat.  And when one of the prisoners was invited out by a friendly farmer in the neighborhood, he ate and ate and then drank coffee, which loosened his tongue, and he then began to talk, often for hours.  The pressure which had been on his mind for years was released at last.  Hearing him talk, one got the impression that he had to talk, that his desire to speak was irresistible.  I have known people who have been under heavy pressure only for a short time to have similar reactions.  Many days passed, until not only the tongue was loosened, but something within oneself as well; then feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, zt”l, writes in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, “Upon delivery from the Egyptian bondage, the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage, their self-expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus, the Israelites regained their speech. Slaves cannot express or assert themselves properly. They cannot realize their potential. Only the free man is capable of doing so.”

The Arizal saw the connection between speech and freedom in the very name of the holiday.  Pesach, he explained, comes from “Peh – sach” – “a mouth converses.”  Part of affirming our freedom on Pesach is affirming the awesome responsibility that comes with freedom of speech.

Part of what makes America an exceptional country and a true democracy is the first amendment promises of free speech. Free speech means we can protest, advocate, object, speak our minds, etc.  However, even free speech has restrictions.  One may not use their words to incite or to libel another.  One may not freely share obscenity or plagiarize someone else’s words.

Judaism also believes in freedom of speech and indeed sees the capacity to speak as one of the greatest expressions of freedom.  American law tolerates speech, which is negative, insensitive and tactless.  When Justice Louis Brandeis affirmed the freedom of speech in a Supreme Court decision in 1927, he acknowledged that such liberty made possible the “dissemination of noxious doctrine.”

Torah has no tolerance for noxious doctrine. Not only are we prohibited from speaking gossip, whether true or untrue, we are enjoined to be mindful of our choice of words.   In contrast to noxious, we measure the acceptability of speech by whether or not it is lashon nekiya, clean, proper, concise and elevating.  Lashon harah is prohibited as it hurts others, and profanity is forbidden because it degrades and hurts ourselves.

Pesach and Tisha B’Av are always the same day of the week and share a close association.  Some suggest that on Pesach we are acutely aware of the loss of the Temple and remember how the evening is not entirely complete without the Pascal Offering.  This is why we eat an egg, the symbol of mourning and we remember how Hillel used to eat his sandwich when the Temple stood.

However, the Vilna Gaon was opposed to seeing mourning as having any part of the regal Seder night.  What then is the connection between Pesach and Tisha B’Av?

Rabbi Avraham Schorr suggests that we open the Haggadah by reciting kol dichfin yeisei v’yeichol, whoever is hungry come and eat as a way of expressing our love for every Jew.  Kol, anybody and everybody are invited to join us for our Seder.  Those to the right of me and to the left of me, those more religious and those less religious, those that agree with me and those who couldn’t disagree more, those who like my candidate and those who support another one.

On Seder night, everyone is invited to break matzah with me. My friends are invited, the stranger is invited and even my so-called enemies are invited.  Everybody. On Pesach we seek to fix the damage of Tisha B’Av.  Destruction results from my abusing my power of speech.  Redemption only occurs when I use my speech to build bridges, create connections and repair he world.

Celebrating freedom elevates us to a higher consciousness.  Rav Kook, (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 285) wrote: “As the soul is elevated, we become acutely aware of the tremendous power that lies in our faculty of speech. We recognize clearly the tremendous significance of each utterance; the value of our prayers and blessings, the value of our Torah study and of all of our discourse. We learn to perceive the overall impact of speech. We sense the change and great stirring of the world that comes about through speech.”

On Seder night, the night of peh-sach, of talking mouths, we renew that promise to use the speech that comes with our newfound freedom to be kind to one another, to be thoughtful and considerate not only in what we say, but how we say it. The Torah doesn’t seek to stifle opinions or suppress perspectives.  The Pesach celebration of freedom of speech is a celebration of our ability to think differently, speak different and write our different opinions freely.  What it doesn’t allow us to do is to ignore the impact of what we write and say on others and how they feel, how our message and messaging triggers hurt or pain in others.

On Pesach we are not only concerned with what goes into our mouth, but we are ever aware of what comes out of it.

Why You Should Go to the Shabbos Ha’Gadol Derasha This Year and Every Year

on Friday, March 23 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Every year, on the first two nights of Pesach, I look out in Shul and have the same thought: This is not what the Rabbis meant when they instructed us to re-live the Exodus.   Halacha dictates that Kiddush at the Seder cannot begin until after nightfall, leaving a significant gap in between the conclusion of Mincha and the start of Ma’ariv.  In most Shuls, the time is designated for a short shiur on a contemporary topic or insights into the Hagaddah.

As a child, I was always taught, it is one thing to not actively go to a shiur, but it is an altogether different thing to get up and choose to walk out of one.  Those words ring in my ears as we conclude Mincha on Pesach night and I observe those re-living the Exodus through the back door.  Many concede the opportunity to hear Divrei Torah, choosing instead to stand in the lobby and shoot the breeze, share the latest gossip, or simply pass the time.  Others, however, make an exit for what they consider a noble reason.  They are heading to the Beis Midrash for “real” learning.

This phenomenon is not unique to Pesach night.  Go into any Shul on any evening and you will see that when the Rabbi gets up to share Divrei Torah in between Mincha and Ma’ariv there are people who walk out.  Some will be davening at a later Ma’ariv minyan and see no reason to remain for the Dvar Torah before leaving.  Others go to the Beis Midrash for a few minutes of “serious” learning.  Yet others remain in the Shul and brazenly open a sefer to study, oblivious to the impression it leaves and the message it sends.

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, in his fantastic sefer Chashukei Chemed, records the following question he received: “On Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos HaGadol the Rabbis stand up and deliver sermons before their Congregations.  Asked a Torah scholar – What should I do if I feel it would be much more productive to remain in the Beis Midrash and continue my independent study rather than attend the Derasha?  Is it appropriate for me to do so?

Rav Zilberstein is himself an outstanding Talmud Chacham and Posek.  He serves as the Av Beis Din of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood of Bnei Brak, the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Bais David in Cholon, and the Posek of Mayanei HaYeshua Hospital in Bnei Brak.  He has authored many seforim and addresses inquiries in Halacha from around the world.  One might have anticipated that he would encourage the questioner to pursue the highest level and most productive form of Torah study and therefore to remain diligent in his personal learning rather than attend the Shiur designed for a popular audience.

Instead, however, he writes as follows: “The value of communal Torah study is tremendous, as the Gemara (Berachos 6a) says learning Torah in a group of ten or more is similar to Tefillah B’Tzibbur, communal prayer, and God Himself comes to join… We see from here that even if the quality of one’s learning will be better alone, the value of communal learning takes precedence and supersedes.  Therefore, one should stop his learning and attend the derasha.”

It is sad and admittedly shamelessly self-serving that I, a pulpit Rabbi, feel compelled to share this insight.  However, I fear that unfortunately the Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva who should be emphasizing this message, in most cases, are not.  One great Rosh Yeshiva who did was R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l.

Rav Zilberstein continues his teshuva by telling the following story:

A student approached Rav Moshe on the eve of Bein Ha’Zemanim, intercession, and asked, ‘What hanhaga tova, what virtuous practice should I accept upon myself during this upcoming yeshiva break?’  Rav Moshe responded, ‘There is a Shul in your community which undoubtedly has a short shiur between Mincha and Ma’ariv each day for the Ba’al Ha’Batim.  As a yeshiva student, you have likely completed many tractates of Shas and see yourself as superior in learning to the intended audience of the shiur.   You will prefer to step out and take a Gemara from the shelf and learn privately.  Know,’ said Rav Moshe, ‘that to do so would be egregious and a horrendous example.  When the community members see you, a Yeshiva student, take out a Gemara and learn on the side, they will conclude that the shiur is unimportant and they will step outside for frivolous conversation.

Whenever Rabbi Rabinovici is in town, I notice that even though he davens at the late Ma’ariv, he remains after Mincha to hear the Dvar Halacha and only walks out afterwards.  To be clear, he has forgotten more Torah than I will ever know in my lifetime.  He is not only familiar with whatever the Dvar Halacha is that day, he is familiar with more nuances and sources on the topic than me or whoever is presenting that day.  Yet he remains and listens attentively and in so doing teaches a greater lesson with his example than he could with his words.

Rav Zilberstein’s wonderful insight, that Torah study is like prayer and it takes on a greater significance and value when done in a community rather than alone, transforms the Shabbos HaGadol Derasha from a regular shiur to a community experience.  Historically, community Rabbis only gave full-length sermons twice a year, on Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos HaGadol.  The modern practice of having a sermon every week is a relatively recent innovation having been introduced in England and the United States in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries.

Though some may long for the practice of old, the sermon looks to be a fixture on a weekly basis in most Shuls.  Nevertheless, there remains something categorically different about Shabbos Shuva and Shabbos Ha’gadol.  The custom is for the Rabbi to wear his Tallis when delivering these two talks and to choose topics that are specifically relevant and important for his particular community and its spiritual needs.

Whatever your personal practice regarding attending classes and shiurim throughout the year or if you learn on your own or with a chavrusa, I invite you to join us for the Shabbos HaGadol Derasha this Shabbos and to be a part of our communal learning experience.  Presenting to an incredibly diverse representation of all of our minyanim and segments of our community is both challenging and incredibly invigorating, and something I consider among the greatest highlights of my year.

This year, we will discuss a fascinating and timely topic.  We are living in a time of identity theft, identity crisis and identity confusion.  Identity politics has swept the nation and the influence of intersectionality has become a topic of discussion.

You can’t have a strong identity without being able to answer these questions:

Who are you?

Why you are here?

Where are you going?

This Shabbos, I greatly look forward to exploring these questions together and using Pesach and the Seder to recover our collective and individual identities.

The derasha is dedicated in memory of our beloved member, someone who had a great influence on me and our whole community, Rabbi Simcha Freedman z”l.

I have prepared an extensive source book with the knowledge that we will not have time to study them all together, but with the hope that you will read and analyze these texts and articles before and/or after the derasha.  I gained a great deal from their wisdom and I am confident that you will too.

Thank you for being part of Talmud Torah B’Tzibbur, a community of people looking to learn and grow together.





Beyond #MeToo – Continuing the Conversation

on Wednesday, March 14 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year was “the silence breakers, the voices that launched a movement.”  That movement, well known by its hashtag, #metoo, continues to hold accountable violators of abuse and exploitation.  The movement is several months old and shows no signs of slowing. Just last week, a South Korean politician once considered a presidential contender resigned after his secretary publicly accused him of repeatedly raping her.  Victims, particularly of the powerful and influential have become empowered to speak up with confidence that they will be supported, not derided, for calling out those that have abused their power and acted grossly inappropriately or criminally. This sea change is welcome and represents a major step forward for society.

But is it enough?

It seems to me that despite real progress with respect to supporting and believing victims and punishing wrongdoers, the #metoo movement has almost exclusively focused on litigating past indiscretions. Discussion of best ways to prevent future problems seems limited to changing workplace harassment policies and making sure young men are taught what should be obvious lessons in how to interact with and treat women.  There has been little to no conversation about changes and policies we as a society can employ going forward that address the underlying issues surrounding the protection of people from unwanted advances and abusive interactions.

Creating a no-tolerance environment and a culture of listening are excellent steps towards prevention.  But it isn’t sufficient to protect victims of aggressive behavior.  Ascribing blame to only the perpetrators ignores the fact that this crisis is also the result of decades of fundamental, societal issues that remain largely unresolved. The few voices who have called for us, in the wake of this movement, to reexamine some of our society’s norms and mores and to improve our general sense of modesty have been heavily criticized, ridiculed and even demonized.  If one dares suggest that we consider the broader culture and its impact on these issues, he or she is unfairly accused of blaming the victims and summarily labeled as defending the perpetrators.

Dismissing voices that call for a return to modesty and even worse, painting them as somehow part of the problem and not the solution, amount to nothing more than a deflection and a way to avoid taking a good, hard look in our collective mirror.  Ignoring our increasingly licentious culture means living with a blind spot. To be absolutely clear: We should and we must hold accountable men and women who exploit their positions of power to take advantage. At the same time, if we truly care about improving our society and protecting its vulnerable, we must hold ourselves accountable to better and higher standards.

The many celebrities who have been outspoken on this issue have made an important contribution.  But as Torah Jews, should we really concede our standards and practices to, and take direction from, an industry that has profited and thrived off of objectifying women and selling sexuality, and continues to do so despite the rise of #metoo?  Of course, there is absolutely no behavior that ever excuses or justifies harassment, abuse or exploitation. But, that doesn’t mean adjusting our collective practices and choices going forward can’t be part of a solution.

Commitment to a more modest lifestyle should not be labeled prudish or fanatical.  While the world struggles for solutions, we are blessed that our sacred Torah and holy tradition provide timeless guidance and wisdom in this area, as in every other.  Long before Freud, the Torah knew that this impulse is uniquely strong, and that nobody is immune from its impact and influence.  The laws in the area of interpersonal relationships are guided by the principle that אין אפוטרופוס לעריות, there is nobody fully trustworthy when it comes to sexuality (Chullin 11b).

How many brilliant, accomplished men and women have we seen fall because of horrifically poor judgment in this area that proved to be self-destructive. Our greatest, most righteous and respected leaders in Judaism expressed their humanity and vulnerability in this area.  Indeed, the only person in Tanach whom we refer to as “haTzadik,” Yosef, earned that appellation because he exhibited superhuman restraint and discipline against a most formidable seduction.

Consider the impact if the world would embrace the principles behind the laws of yichud and negiah alone, let alone many others.  A few years ago, I asked Dr. Ruth Westheimer what she thought were the most important ingredients for a healthy and strong marriage.  I was very surprised when among her answers she said a steadfast commitment to observe the laws of yichud.  She explained that especially in our world of enticement and access, it is so important to remove temptation and opportunity before they ever arrive by pledging to never be alone with a non-family member of the opposite gender.

Considering a peck on the cheek, a hug, or an arm on the shoulder as casual contact with no other significance diminishes the meaning of those acts when undertaken with those with whom they should carry great meaning and pleasure.  Furthermore, we have come to learn that they aren’t always casual, and we don’t always know the intent of all parties.  If someone abstained from these social gestures because they had a germ phobia or a health sensitivity, we would honor their boundaries with respect and sensitivity.  Why should anyone look those who are strict in this area because Jewish law prohibits it with judgment or disdain?  In a world that has become sensitized to the issue of uninvited and unwanted touch, wouldn’t observing the practice of having no physical contact with the opposite gender create more personal space and a greater sense of security and comfort?

Shortly, we will mark Pesach and with it celebrate the exodus from Egypt.  God promises to extract us, to take us out from sivlos mitzrayim, classically translated as from under the burdens of Egypt.  However, the Imrei Chaim, Rav Chaim Meir of Vizhnitz explains, that tachas sivlos mitzrayim means, I will redeem you from “sivlos” as in “savlanut,” from being patient and from a willingness to endure the culture of Egypt.  The redemption comes through reaching a place of being disgusted and repulsed by the degradation and defilement of Egypt.  When you no longer have sivlos, savlanut for the culture of mitzrayim, that is when you are on your way to redemption and to kedusha, to holiness.

There are many things we must maintain patience for, but let part of our response to this new movement be to feel fed up with allowing ourselves and our standards to be defined by pop culture, the fashion industry, advertising agencies, and Hollywood writers.  The western world in which we live, a world that has blessed us with extraordinary gifts and opportunities, has also introduced standards and values that should be foreign to us and even repulsive to us.  We believe that God not only created the world, but with His infinite wisdom, He prescribed laws and a system that are designed to create the most moral, safe and holy society.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha’Kohen Kook writes (Orot Ha’Kodesh 3:296) of a time when the world will look with admiration at the Jewish people’s quest for sexual purity.  We have given the world great technological advances and medical breakthroughs.  The time has come to lead by example of what it means to participate in and contribute to the world around us, without compromising or conceding our standards.  Doing so will shape the world to not only be holier, but safer as well.

The Danger in Anger – How to Avoid this Most Self-Destructive Trait

on Thursday, March 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Though things have generally gotten back to normal and life for most of us has gone on, the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is still very much on our minds, both here in South Florida and in the greater country. As is the case with most events that attract this much media coverage, recent weeks have seen several “national conversations.” Gun control, mental health, and school safety and security have all been the subjects of endless debate and analysis, much of it important and worthwhile. But, one underreported aspect of the shooting that still haunts me is rage. How could a person be filled with so much anger, so much uncontrolled rage, that he is able to devise and execute a sickening, murderous rampage?

The beginning of this week’s Parsha commands us, Lo seva’aru eish b’chol moshvoseichem b’yom ha’shabbos, do not kindle a fire in any of your residences.  Of course, this pasuk is the source of the the prohibition to literally light a fire on Shabbos. The Shelah Ha’Kadosh, R’ Yeshaya Ha’Levi Horowitz, offers a homiletical interpretation. He suggests that eish, fire, is an allusion to anger and rage and the passuk is telling us that a person must never, ever let anger or machlokes burn on erev shabbos or shabbos.  The Zohar says that moshvoseichem, the Torah’s directive to guard your house from fire, refers to your heart and guarding it from being filled with fire: anger, bitterness, or negativity.

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.  The Rambam (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 fulfillment.  There is no room for even the appearance of anger, impatience or controversy. Erev Shabbos is particularly predisposed to anger as everyone is rushing and hurrying with much to do. We are faced with children who are not cooperating or adults who are not meeting our expectations of what needs to be done.  On 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.  This is why, the Shelah explains, the Torah specifically warns us: Lo seva’aru eish, abstain from anger on Shabbos.

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.  After all, kindling a fire is prohibited on Shabbos because it is meleches machsheves, constructive work, it includes an act of creation.  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.

Rav Asher of Stalin wonders why the pasuk in last week’s parsha—Elohei Maseicha Lo Sa’Aseh Lach, don’t create/worship a foreign deity—is immediately followed with es chag haMatzos tishmor, observe Pesach?  He explains that the lead-up to Pesach is a stressful time where one can very easily become angry.  We get angry with the prices of Pesach food, angry with our spouse or children for bringing chametz out of the kitchen, angry that we aren’t going away for Pesach, angry that our family members are coming to town.  Allowing ourselves to get angry is giving in to self-worship, to thinking we are in charge, we can control, or things have to go our way.  Part of getting ready for Pesach and getting rid of chametz is getting rid of our anger.  Don’t give in to the urge, don’t create anger.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand what kind of anger can cause someone to violently take others’ lives, especially children. But it’s no secret that anger is something every one of us struggles with on some level and can always find ways to improve. Especially now as we prepare for Pesach, we should all strive to fulfill Lo s’vaaru eish b’chol moshvoseichem – let’s try to go into Pesach without giving in to the urge to be angry, to yell, to be negative.  Imagine the freedom we can feel at the seder if we arrive having been liberated from the prison of anger and the negative consequences that come with it.