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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Know Your Rating? I Was Shocked When I Discovered Mine

on Wednesday, August 15 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for uber ratingI took an Uber a few months ago and noticed something that disturbed me greatly.  It wasn’t anything I found in the car, but rather something I happened to notice on the app.  I was well aware that Uber drivers carry a rating based on the score their passengers give them.  But I never knew that Uber passengers are also rated.

It turns out on a scale of 1 – 5, my Uber drivers had left me with an average of 4.77.  I was mortified.  Why not a perfect 5 stars?  What did I ever do to offend a driver?  I was always punctual, courteous, and clean.

With the proliferation of technology, rating others has become easy and accordingly common.  There are websites to rate your doctor or lawyer and even your kallah teacher.  There are apps to review all of your experiences from eating in restaurants to staying in hotels.  Nevertheless, rating others, especially if it will affect their income and reputation, is not necessarily the correct thing to do.

A college student recently asked me about the halachic permissibility of contributing to the website http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/.  She had a negative experience with a professor and wanted to know if it violates the laws of lashon ha’rah, gossip, to give the professor a poor rating on the website and to warn others not to take her.

Rating others may be fraught with halachic questions and we need to weigh them carefully before indulging in the rating game. That choice is ours.  Being rated, however, whether on Uber or elsewhere, is usually out of our control.  Though we may not ask to be evaluated by others, perhaps we can embrace our ratings and use them to be motivated and inspired to improve.

When I saw my less-than-perfect Uber rating, I immediately consulted Uber’s website and, as if they were writing to me, it says:

Very few people have a perfect rating, so don’t despair if your average isn’t 5.0.  Things that seem small to you can matter to your driver – it’s easy to accidentally slam a door if you’re not thinking about it.  Knowing a little more about the things that affect a driver’s happiness can help you be a 5-star rider.

I felt a little better, but I also became determined to raise my rating.  Each subsequent Uber ride since noticing my rating, I have waited for the driver on the curb to ensure he or she doesn’t wait, I have consciously closed the door gently, and I have made a concerted effort not to talk loudly on the phone.

I don’t know if my rating will improve, but I do know that my behavior and sensitivity improved simply as a result of the acute realization that I was being evaluated and scored by others.

In May, a couple in Portland, Oregon had a nightmare experience when the Amazon Echo in their home recorded their private conversation and sent it to one of the people in their contact list that they were talking about. The company acknowledged the glitch and said it happened because of an unlikely string of events and they were looking into it.

We each have something infinitely more powerful than an Amazon Echo recording us, not only in our homes, but everywhere we go.  The Mishna in Avos (2:1) says:

הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה, דַּע מַה לְּמַעְלָה מִמְּךָ, עַיִן רוֹאָה וְאֹזֶן שׁוֹמַעַת, וְכָל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין

“Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: An eye that sees, and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

If you wouldn’t want what you are saying recorded, simply don’t say it, because it is being recorded and it is contributing to the rating of the kind of person you are.

Accessing your Divine rating is not as easy as finding your Uber rating, but just knowing that He is watching, listening and scoring all that we do should motivate us to want to constantly improve and strive for a 5 out of 5.

Although the theme of Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is judgment, which connotes harshness and strictness, in truth these days contain great mercy and Heavenly favor.  The Tur quotes the Midrash that it was on Rosh Chodesh Elul that Moshe ascended to receive the second set of luchos, tablets, after the first ones were broken following the debacle of the Golden Calf.  Moshe came back down on Yom Kippur with new luchos in hand, signifying Hashem’s forgiveness.  Therefore, these days from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur are a time of pardon and appeasement each year.

Hashem reaches out to us and invites us to confront what we have done throughout the year to lower our rating.  We take stock of the insensitivities, hurts, failures and shortcomings and we take responsibility for them and commit not to repeat them.

When He senses our sincerity, Hashem resets our rating and lets us start off the year with a perfect score, challenging us to maintain it.  That is a gift Uber doesn’t offer.  Let’s take advantage of it.

From Montana to New Square: What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

on Wednesday, August 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Countless stars filled the heavens, the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye and Jupiter was as noticeable as the moon.  A star shot through the sky.  As we stood there, 6,000 feet above sea level in Glacier National Park in Montana, it occurred to me that the magnificent view we couldn’t tear ourselves away from is actually present each and every night.  I had never seen it before—not because it isn’t available, but simply because I had never been in a place without artificial light and from which this magnificent, wondrous view could be seen. I went to sleep that night feeling closer to Hashem, more aware of the vastness of His cosmos and with the nagging thought of how incomplete my life would have been if I never got to see that, at least once.

What was true for the experience of stargazing was true about the entire trip to Montana.  Yocheved and I are grateful to Rustic Elegance, the wonderful tour company that invited us to participate as a scholar in residence on the extraordinary trip earlier this summer. Glacier National Park is 1.2 million acres of Hashem’s artistry. It is filled with snowcapped mountains, rushing waterfalls, stunning views, running rivers.  An encounter with moose, mountain goats, chipmunks, exotic birds and even bears is not unusual.

The sights, sounds and experiences in Glacier are breathtaking, but what enables the full enjoyment of them is the absence of any cell tower from the entire area.  From the time you enter the park until the time you exit you are in a place with absolutely no cell phone coverage. This means the time spent hiking, fishing, kayaking, or just plain sitting and contemplating, is done without distraction, interruption or competition for attention.

The Gemara (Berachos 10b) quotes the pasuk, אין צור כאלקינו, there is no rock like our God, and tells us to creatively read it as אין צייר כאלוקינו, there is no artist like Hashem.  The Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, is the ultimate artist and the world is His canvas.  We come to know Hashem through the Torah, His word, but we also know Him through His creation, His world.

Image may contain: cloud, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

We tend to live in a bubble, feeling that our experience is the sum total or the be-all and end-all of the world.  This trip was a stark reminder to me that Hashem’s world doesn’t end at Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, Cedar Lane in Teaneck, or Central Avenue in the Five Towns.  There are magnificent views, sites and places in the world filled with beauty, splendor and communicating the greatness of Hashem. We are more complete people when we add those places and experiences to our portfolio of life.

Not everyone is able to travel and explore freely, but we can all do more to break through our personal comfort zone, investigate the canvas and become closer with the Artist as a result.  Technology has become ubiquitous.  It has enriched our lives in countless ways, but it has also caused us to forget that sometimes the greatest beauty is in the natural, the simple, the unaffected by human intervention or interference.

The Mishna in Avos (3:9) says: “One who walks on the road while reviewing his learning but interrupts and says ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this field!’ The Torah considers it as if he is worthy of death.”

The simple understanding is that Torah learning is so sacred, so central to who we are, that we must never interrupt its study, particularly for something as insignificant or fleeting as noticing a nice tree.  However, R’ Menachem Benzion Sacks (Menachem Tzion on Pirkei Avos) explains that the problem is not admiring nature, it is that the person was mafsik, interrupted their Torah learning.  Admiring the tree or field can be – and ideally should be – the continuation, a complement to Torah learning, not an interruption from it.  After all, he says, the Gemara (Berachos 55) provides specific berachos we make when admiring natural phenomena, which means that clearly there is merit in doing so.

Shutting it down, disconnecting from technology and convening with nature should be a religious experience, a rendezvous with the great Artist. Shlomo HaMelech taught (Mishlei 3:6), “B’chol derachecha da’eihu,” which is usually translated as know “Hashem through all of your ways,” but can also be understood to mean, on every derech, on each path you walk and with all you see and experience, see and know Hashem.

What is true for getting out of our geographical bubble is equally if not more true for breaking through our religious bubble.  We tend to limit our religious exposure to those who think, practice and observe just like us.  We live under artificial labels: modern, yeshivish, chassidish, right wing, left wing, etc.  When we pigeonhole ourselves we deprive ourselves from taking the best of what different Torah groups and cultures have to offer. We are smaller, less well-rounded, and more limited as a result.

The Shabbos following our Montana trip, Yocheved went back to Boca and I went to New Square, a village outside Monsey comprised exclusively of Skverer chassidim.  I had gone several times for Shabbos and simchas Torah when I was younger and craved the energy, passion and inspiration of a Shabbos there.  A Shabbos in Skver is like taking a time machine back to a shtetl in Europe.  For many born and raised there, English is the second or third language.  There is one Beis Medrash where thousands daven together and yet you can hear a pin drop and feel the walls reverberate as Amen and Kaddish are responded to in deafening unison.

The highlight of Shabbos was participating in the Rebbe’s tisch. Friday night it began at 12:30 am and concluded close to 3:00 am.  Thousands of chassidim packed bleachers while the Rebbe sat at the dais surrounded by his sons and sons-in-law.  At the table below were his grandsons and great grandsons, strategically arranged.  I was honored to be invited to sit next to them and was even more honored and caught off guard when during the tisch, the Rebbe (through his gabbai) invited me to start a niggun, a tune. The coordinated singing, and choreographed dancing in the bleachers create an electric atmosphere.

The Rebbe’s shalosh seudos tisch began at 9:15 pm, when most near New Square were already making havdallah.  The first forty-five minutes of singing took place in pitch black, an unforgettable experience.  The lights eventually came on, and the Rebbe shared the shirayim, the leftovers around the room.  Ma’ariv and Havdallah took place around 11:00 pm and around 1:00 am I had the great opportunity to spend some time with the Rebbe, who is warm, personable, wise and inquisitive.

To be clear, I don’t want to move to Montana and I am not prepared to live in New Square.  But my visit to both made me more complete; looking back I can’t imagine being deprived of the inspiration I drew from both.

It is often quoted that Elul is the gematria of chaim, life.  This is the time of year to come alive, to explore and find Hashem in His Torah and through His world.  Wake up from the momentum and monotony of the whole year.  Break through your bubble, broaden your experiences, and you will come alive by discovering so much about Hashem and about yourself.