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Rav Elyashiv Said That This is Our Generation’s Most Important Mitzvah…

on Friday, May 4 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

When we think about Kiddush Hashem, we tend to think of martyrdom.  Tragically, Jews throughout our history have been forced to give up their lives and have died al Kiddush Hashem.  But the simple meaning of the pasuk regarding Kiddush Hashem in our parsha does not describe how to die as a Jew, but rather directs us how to live as one.

The Rambam includes the mitzvah of making a Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, in Hichos Yesodei HaTorah, whose early chapters deal with emunah, faith and yiras Hashem, fear of Heaven.  He writes: “kol beis yisroel metzuvin al kidush Hashem ha’gadol ha’zeh. All of the Jewish people are commanded to sanctify God’s great name.”

Why does the Rambam say “metzuvin” regarding Kiddush Hashem, a word he doesn’t use to introduce other mitzvos? Aren’t we metzuvin, obligated, in all mitzvos? Moreover, why does he include this mitzvah among the foundational principles of the Torah such as belief in God and the divinity of the Torah?

The Slonimer Rebbe explains that Kiddush Hashem is not just another mitzvah.  It is essential to who we are and how we see ourselves. Being a living, breathing, walking Kiddush Hashem is fundamental to our mission, foundational to our identity and an axiom of our faith.  One can never put a check next to Kiddush Hashem as if they have fulfilled the mitzvah and are done.  How I talk, eat, walk, relate, do business, what I watch, say, where I go, all are platforms and opportunities for Kiddush Hashem.

The Slonimer Rebbe notes that the Rambam emphasizes kol beis yisroel metzuvin, this command is not for the holy, the righteous or those that give up their lives.  It is on kol beis yisroel, every Jew.  It is not just a mitzvah, but our mission statement.  It is our calling.  It is why we exist.

Each decision, spoken word and action must be preceded with the question – what impression am I about to make?  Will I reflect positively on the Jewish people and on the Almighty or will I leave a negative impression?  Will God be proud and feel I have advanced His cause, or will I set back the mission for which I have been chosen?

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l once commented that every generation possesses a mitzvah that is especially significant for its time. Previous generations were challenged with the mitzvah of dying al Kiddush Hashem.  Rav Elyashiv believed the mitzvah for our day is to “let the Name of Heaven become beloved through you,” to live al Kiddush Hashem.

The form of the verb the Torah uses when instructing us to sanctify Hashem’s name is instructive.  The passuk doesn’t say kiddashti, sanctify Hashem’s name, but it says v’nikdashti, in the nif’al, the simple, passive form of the verb. Rav Nissan Alpert, a student of Rav Moshe Feinstein and a Rosh Yeshiva of YU, explains that the Torah specifically uses this form of the verb to communicate the essence of Kiddush Hashem and to capture what should be the mission of every person.  Had the Torah said to actively sanctify God’s name, I would have thought one must seek out major, public opportunities with fanfare, pomp and circumstance.  Instead, the Torah uses the simple passive nif’al, v’nikdashti to remind us that most Kiddush Hashem opportunities are not on a grand scale, they are not premeditated and they don’t require us to give our lives.  The essence of sanctifying Hashem’s name is contained in the small, every day, mundane and casual aspects of life.

A high school principal shared that a student once exclaimed, “I wish I would have been alive during the Holocaust – I could have been a hero and someone would have written a book about me.”  We need to teach our children that to be a Jewish hero you don’t need to sacrifice your life and die to sanctify Hashem’s name, you need to direct your life and live to positively represent it and Him.

Rabbi Berel Wein was once invited to a meeting with the editor of the Detroit Free Press. After introductions had been made, the editor told him the following story:

His mother, Mary, had immigrated to America from Ireland as an uneducated, 18-year-old peasant girl. She was hired as a domestic maid by an observant family. The head of the house was the president of the neighboring Orthodox shul.

Mary knew nothing about Judaism and had probably never met a Jew before arriving in America. The family went on vacation Mary’s first December in America, leaving Mary alone in the house. They were scheduled to return on the night of December 24, and Mary realized that there would be no Christmas tree to greet them when they did. This bothered her greatly, and using the money the family had left her, she went out and purchased not only a Christmas tree but all kinds of festive decorations to hang on the front of the house.

When the family returned from vacation, they saw the Christmas tree through the living room window and the rest of the house festooned with holiday lights. They assumed that they had somehow pulled into the wrong driveway and drove around the block. But alas, it was their address.

The head of the family entered the house contemplating how to explain the Christmas tree and lights to the members of the shul, most of whom walked right past his house on their way to shul. Meanwhile, Mary was eagerly anticipating the family’s excitement when they realized that they would not be without a Christmas tree.

After entering the house, the head of the family called Mary into his study. He told her, “In my whole life no one has ever done such a beautiful thing for me as you did.” Then he took out a $100 bill — a very large sum in the middle of the Depression — and gave it to her. Only after that did he explain that Jews do not have Christmas trees.

When he had finished telling the story, the editor told Rabbi Wein, “And that is why, there has never been an editorial critical of Israel in the Detroit Free Press since I became editor, and never will be as long as I am the editor.”

The shul president’s reaction to Mary’s mistake – sympathy and kindness instead of anger — was not because he dreamed that one day her son would be the editor of a major metropolitan paper, and thus in a position to aid Israel. He acted as he did because it was the right thing to do. (Story shared by Jonathan Ronseblum)

Each day in Kedusha we affirm our mission statement – nekadeish es shimcha ba’olam – we are here to sanctify Your name in this world, to live Your values, model the lifestyle You want us to live, pursue justice and righteousness, and bring Your presence ever more into a world that seems to be driving it away.

Our mission is to be marbeh k’vod shomayim, increase honor and admiration of God, to have the people who work with us, shop next to us, work out near us, do business with us walk away and say wow – that’s what it means to be a Torah Jew.  That person was honest, kind, sensitive, had integrity, was thoughtful, moral, and humble.  Webster’s dictionary still includes a definition of “to Jew” as “to bargain sharply with; beat down in price.”  Our mission is for dictionaries to list “to Jew” as to be kind, gracious, honest, good, just, giving, to be humble and righteous.

Tip the valet or show appreciation to your waiter – you have made a Kiddush Hashem.  Be stingy or unappreciative and you’ve made a chillul Hashem.  Hold the door for the person behind you or say good morning to the security guard, you have made a Kiddush Hashem.  Walk right by them or let the door hit the person in the face, you have set back the mission.  Be honest, trustworthy and reliable, you have sanctified God’s name.  Bend the truth, cut corners and be unprofessional, and nobody will want to learn about your God.  Share a racist or lewd joke or discriminate and you have made a chillul Hashem—a vacuum where God cannot reside.  Fight for justice and see all people as containing a tzelem Elokim and you have given a huge boost to the mission.

Our parsha reminds us that we have a mission to fulfill, a mandate to achieve.

May we never again be forced to die al Kiddush Hashem, but may we find the strength, resolve and courage to make choices each and every day that will result in Kiddush Hashem.

Am Yisrael Chai – A Slogan or a Prayer?

on Friday, April 20 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Upon capturing Yerushalayim fifty years ago, Motta Gur uttered the now iconic words, “Har Ha’bayit b’yadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands.”  Those who ascend the holiest place on earth, might disagree.  Since taking the Old City in 1967, Israeli law has barred Jews from praying on Har HaBayis, or even from bringing a religious item like a siddur, tehillim, or tefillin there.

In September 2015, Itamar Ben Gvir was touring the holy site when a Muslim woman shouted, “Allahu Akbar” at them. He responded by shouting back, “Am Yisrael chai.” After being held for breaking the law, Itamar sued for wrongful detention.

This week an Israeli court ruled in his favor and permitted visitors to the Temple Mount to call out, “Am Yisrael chai” because it is a patriotic slogan, and not a prayer.

It is unclear who first introduced the phrase Am Yisrael Chai.  There is a recording of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp singing Hatikvah on April 20th 1945. When the anthem ends, there is a brief silence and then a single voice, that of British Army Chaplain Rabbi Leslie Hardman, cries out, “Am Yisroel Chai!”

When Golda Meir visited the Great Synagogue in Moscow as the Israeli Ambassador in 1948 the crowd of 50,000 ecstatically welcomed her with shouts of “Am Yisrael Chai”.

In 1965, Jacob Birnbaum was looking for songs to energize the Soviet Jewry movement.  He asked Shlomo Carlebach to compose something, and Shlomo wrote the famous Am Yisrael Chai that climaxes with the pasuk, Od Avinu Chai, our Father is still alive.

In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Wannsee Villa in Berlin, where the “Final Solution” for the destruction of Europe’s Jews was planned in 1942 by Hitler and leaders of the Third Reich. In the visitors’ book he wrote just three words in Hebrew and then translated them into English: “Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel live.”

As a slogan, Am Yisrael Chai affirms that despite the systematic attempts to exterminate and annihilate the Jewish people, thanks to Hashem’s guiding hand and our tenacity and resilience, we stubbornly persevere.

While I am happy with the outcome of the Israeli court’s decision, I humbly disagree with its reasoning.  Am Yisrael Chai must not remain a patriotic slogan alone.  It needs to simultaneously be a prayer, a longing for a united Jewish people living together in safety, security and with unity and harmony.

On the words, “V’lakachti eschem li l’am, I will take you to Me as a people,” (Shemos 6:7), Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

The political-historical unity as a nation is based on the conclusion of the covenant in Egypt, which occurred even prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  This covenant forced upon us all one uniform historical fate.  The Hebrew word עם, nation, is identical to the Hebrew word עם, with. Our fate of unity manifests itself through a historical indispensable union…No Jew can renounce his part of the unity…Religious Jews or irreligious Jews, all are included in one nation, which stands lonesome and in misery in a large and often antagonistic world…

In the ashes of the crematoria, the ashes of the chasidim and pious Jews were put together with the ashes of the radicals and the atheists.  And we all must fight the enemy, who does not differentiate between those who believe in God and those who reject Him.

This past week we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, marking the miracle of Israel’s independence. While it should be a day that unites us in gratitude and appreciation, unfortunately, for too many it is a day that divides.  For some, it is the annual opportunity, both online and offline, to sit in judgement of those who observe it differently or choose not to observe it at all.

Full Hallel, half Hallel, with a bracha, no bracha, no Hallel?  Shave, haircut and music or music, no shaving or haircut, or no music or shaving or haircut?  Every combination of observance exists and so do the eye rolls, sarcasm and judgment from each camp of those doing it differently.

These are all halachic issues and don’t necessarily reflect a worldview or a lack of recognition of the religious significance of the founding of the State of Israel. Could anyone really believe that because Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t recite Hallel with a beracha, he wasn’t a great Zionist?  Would someone have the audacity to argue that because the Rabbanut endorses Hallel with a bracha, they are less committed to halacha?  We must learn to live and pursue our convictions without having to expect them from, or force them on, others.

The secret to a strong Am Yisrael is a sense of Im Yisrael, being in it together, united, loyal, giving one another the benefit of the doubt and judging each other favorably.

Am Yisrael Chai cannot be a slogan alone, it must also a prayer, because we still have a long way to go to fully be an Am, a united family.  Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the March of the Living several years ago said, “We always knew how to die together. The time has come for us to know also how to live together.”

Am Yisrael Chai! May the people of Israel learn to live with one another in harmony and unity!

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.