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Coalition or Opposition: Lessons From My Week in Israel with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Rabbinical Students

on Wednesday, January 3 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

There is a large, flat monitor mounted in the lobby of Israel’s Knesset that displays headshots of all the current members of Knesset.  Interestingly, in an effort towards transparency, the screen indicates which members are present in the building at any given time.  As I looked over the pictures, it occurred to me what a diverse group assembles and works together.  Among the members are Chareidim and secular, Jews and Arabs, men and women, left wing and right wing.  Many of these individuals are unlikely to interact socially or belong to the same community.  And yet, here they appear as part of one united entity.  Why? What brings them together?  Whether in the coalition or in the opposition, these MK’s who in many ways couldn’t disagree more, all participate in the same body because they have a simple choice to make.  They can sit on the sidelines as critics and antagonists, passive spectators to their own destiny, or they can work to have a seat at the table and collaborate alongside people with extremely different interests and lifestyles, so that they can contribute to shaping the future of their community and all of Israel.

I have been to Israel countless times, but on the extraordinary trip I just returned from, I saw, heard and experienced things I had never before.  My dear friends, R’ Kirshner, R’ Eger and I went on a journey with thirty students from reform, conservative and orthodox rabbinical schools as part of The Leffell Israel Fellows program.  This AIPAC two-year fellowship, made possible by the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, trains rabbinical students on Israel education and advocacy.

For some, participating in an AIPAC mission was politically uncomfortable because of the perception that it leans politically to the right.  For others, joining a group with rabbinical students from other denominations was complicated.  Almost all the participants, though, shared the experience of leaving their comfort zone to be exposed to, and connect with, people with extraordinarily different religious and political views than their own.

Together, through the people we met with and places we visited, we were reminded that as much as we all love and are devoted to Israel and focus on her beauty, there are complicated and difficult issues she faces going forward.  Mohammad Darawshe challenged us on the rights of Israeli Arabs. A visit to south Tel Aviv forced us to confront the issue of migrants and refugees from other countries seeking asylum in Israel.  A review of the IDF’s code of ethics with one of its authors made us consider the ethical dilemmas our soldiers face daily.  Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion briefed us on the state of Israel’s security and Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin shared with us the nuances of Israeli politics.

When we visited Kibbutz Nahal Oz and heard from Oshrit what life is like under the threat of rocket fire, we never imagined a mortar would land and explode the next day in the very spot that we stood.  Aryeh Lightstone, senior advisor to Ambassador David Friedman, offered an inside look at the US-Israel relationship and Col. Gilad Eisin shared his perspectives on the future of Gaza.  A panel discussion on the challenges of religion and state included diverse perspectives; a session with activists from the Ethiopian, Chareidi, LGBT and women’s rights communities opened our eyes to their efforts and the obstacles they face.  An early morning visit to a Palestinian crossing followed by a meeting with a high-level PLO official and a Palestinian survey researcher brought perspectives we rarely, if ever, are exposed to. A session with Ambassador Daniel Taub, a member of Israel’s negotiating team, provided a behind-the-scenes look at negotiations.

A panel comprised of Oded Revivi, the Mayor of Efrat and a leader of Yesha, and Yariv Oppenheimer, former CEO of Peace Now, modeled how two people with diametrically opposed views could debate rigorously and vociferously, while maintaining genuine warmth and friendship.  We were briefed by an expert on Iran and better understood not only the JCPOA, but the real time protests happening in the streets.  We toured the northern border with Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi, who helped us understand the threat of Hezbollah and we learned about Israel’s multi-layer missile defense from one of Iron Dome’s engineers, Ari Sacher.  We visited Syrians being treated in Ziv Hospital in Tzefat, and heard from Dr. Einat Wilf about different definitions of Zionism.  In one week, we covered enormous ground and had the privilege of meeting with David Horovitz, Rabbi Dr. Danny Gordis, Yossi Klein Ha’Levi, and Dr. Gil Troy as well.

As one of the rabbis in residence of the trip, I spent time getting to know almost every student. I was specifically interested in their reactions to what we were seeing and experience.  It was easy to shmooze with those who share similar positions to my own, but it was particularly eye-opening and startling to hear positions and perspectives I had never been exposed to and in some cases, didn’t even know existed.  Whether it was the students who described being embarrassed by Israel’s egregious moral sin of the continued “occupation,” or the student who explained to me that intermarriage is not losing Jews, it is expanding the boundaries of Judaism, I found myself listening to positions and perspectives I never understood or considered before, and would usually simply dismiss.

To be clear, none of my religious or political positions shifted or changed.  My commitment to Torah, halacha, and mesorah are unshakeable.  My conviction in our ancient ties to our homeland and my understanding of modern Israeli history and its implications on Israel’s security needs are firmly held.  These are my truths.  They come from my teachers, my tradition, my family, and my own exploration and experience.  Nevertheless, this trip forced me to confront, in ways I never have, the question of how to relate to other people’s truths, even when to me they ring false.  It was very clear to me that both in religion and politics, the students with whom I disagreed believe in their truths with similar conviction and confidence.

We cannot simply will or wish other people’s positions away.  When we fail to respectfully persuade them, we cannot resort to trying to stifle or silence them.  So what can we do?

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes another Knesset, not the parliament of the modern State of Israel, but Knesset Yisrael, the Jewish people (“Community,” Tradition XVII, Spring, 1978):

The community in Judaism is not a functional-utilitarian, but an ontological one. The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality: I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own. We, for instance, lay claim to Eretz Israel. God granted the land to us as a gift. To whom did He pledge the land? Neither to an individual, nor to a partnership consisting of millions of people. He gave it to the Knesset Israel, to the community as an independent unity, as a distinct juridic metaphysical person. He did not promise the land to me, to you, to them; nor did He promise the land to all of us together. Abraham did not receive the land as an individual, but as the father of a future nation. The owner of the Promised Land is the Knesset Israel, which is a community persona.

Imagine if Knesset Yisrael, the Jewish people, followed the model of the Knesset and found a way to work together, despite our diversity and strongly held opposing views.  Being a Member of Knesset doesn’t demand uniformity or embracing someone else’s truth as your own.  There are separate parties, and while some maintain their differences from within a coalition, others express their disagreement by being in the opposition.  With the rhetoric and passionate debate Knesset is famous for, ultimately its members are bound by one shared destiny that is far stronger than the differences that separate them.

The day we visited Israel’s parliament, the members of Knesset we were meant to meet with had to cancel as they were attending the funeral of the wife of their colleague, Rabbi Yehuda Glick.  It wasn’t just members of Glick’s Likud party that weren’t available, but it was also members of Meretz, Israel’s far left, and others who went to be with their friend in his time of grief.

Several years ago, research showed that 65% of Israeli high school students expressed racist views against Arabs and 57% of Arab high school students held similar views of Israelis.  In 1999, an effort was made to bring Israeli teachers into Arab schools and vice versa.  While complicated, it is now being done in 840 schools with more than 100,000 students being exposed to a teacher from the “other side.”  A more recent survey showed that racism dropped from 65% to 10% for Israeli kids and from 57% to 8% for their Arab counterparts.

A similar phenomenon has occurred within the chareidi and secular segments of Israel.  The more segregated, the greater the judgment and hostility.  The more integration and exposure, the greater the affinity and affection.  Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l explains that someone is an achzar, cruel, when they see the other as ach zar, just a stranger, the other.

The lesson is clear – the less we engage with one another, the easier it is to draw hostile conclusions and take adversarial positions.  By simply interacting professionally and socially, barriers are broken down and relationships are formed.  Relationships don’t deny the other person’s truths, they enable us to transcend them, even while we debate them.

I will forever cherish the week with my new friends and family from across the denominations. These students, including the ones I fervently disagree with, are smart, thoughtful and passionate. Amazingly, we never felt the need to be apologetic in our debates, but always felt responsible to be respectful. I think the most important factor in our incredible time together was that our conversations centered on policies and positions, never on people or personalities. On many topics I could not disagree with them more, but at the same time, on the whole, I could not be more excited about the relationships we formed and how they have enriched my thinking, perspective and ahavas yisroel.

Like the screen in the lobby of Knesset, the tapestry of the Jewish people is a mosaic of very diverse faces from different backgrounds and embracing incredibly different practices, lifestyles and views.  When it comes to the crucial need to work together for the good of the Jewish people, only some will show as present, while far too many will be absent.  Which will you be?

Don’t Live the Same Year 75 Times and Call it a Life

on Tuesday, December 26 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer, once said, “Everybody wants to change this world; nobody wants to change themselves.” I disagree. I think we do want to change. We want to become the people we were meant to be, the people we are capable of being. Many of us just don’t know how.

Every year, data shows that the biggest spike in gym memberships occurs in the second week of January. With the (Gregorian) New Year comes resolutions and by far the most popular is to get in shape. However, statistics show that by the second week of February, almost 80% of new gym members stop coming.

It isn’t just weight loss or exercise. While 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only 10% are successful at keeping them and meeting their goals.

Rabbi Yehudah Halevi writes in one of his poems: “The world at large is a prison and every man is a prisoner.” We often feel trapped, confined by the self-imposed limitations we set on ourselves or by the habits, practices and behaviors that we think we cannot break out of or change. According to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as many as 40% of our daily activities are driven by habit.

Will we be late or on time, will we get angry or keep our cool, will we eat healthy or let ourselves go, will we be distracted by technology or disconnect, will we say a blessing with intention before we eat or when we come out of the bathroom, say it in a meaningless way, or not say it at all – all of these and many more have been programmed into our daily lives such that we are practically on autopilot. We feel imprisoned and trapped by the habits we have formed and the momentum that carries our lives forward.

Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, hy”d, also known as the Piaseczno Rebbe, was a Chassidic Rebbe in Poland who served as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and, after surviving the uprising, was later shot dead by the Nazis in the Trawniki labor camp. He had such incredible human insight and advice, you may have thought he was trained as a psychologist or motivational speaker.

In his spiritual diary called Tzav V’Ziruz he has the following entry:

If you want to know if you you’ve progressed on your spiritual path over the years, the way to judge is to look at your resolution – at your inner drive – and not at your wishes. Only the inner drive with which you work to attain your desired goal is called resolution. But if you don’t work but rather just want, this is not called resolution. It is just some wish that you wish for yourself to be blessed with that desired objective. For example, the pauper who works to sustain himself, this is a drive, because he is doing something constructive toward it. But the wish that he’ll find a million dollars is just a wish to be rich and not a resolution. Every Jew would like to be a tzadik (righteous person), but this is no more than a wish; he’d like to wake up in the morning and suddenly find himself a tzadik. Only the level and state of being that you seriously work toward can truly be called a resolution.

The secret to real change, says the Rebbe, is to be honest with ourselves and to distinguish between our wishes and actually making resolutions. There are countless things we claim to want to change about ourselves. We want to eat more healthy, be more patient, spend more time with our children, find time to volunteer, to learn Torah daily, go to shul more often, do acts of kindness, stop speaking gossip, and so on.

We claim to want to do them, but the truth is they are just wishes. We wish to wake up one morning, as the Rebbe said, and find ourselves suddenly doing those things or living that way. Stop wishing and to start making real resolutions. Personal growth is the result of making a plan, spelling it out and holding ourselves accountable to keeping to it.

When you make a resolution, when you formulate a plan, you need to know where the pitfalls lie and what is likely to try to knock you off your course. A plan, a resolution, has to be articulated to be serious. We can put it down on paper, set it as a reminder in our phone, or simply repeat it out loud to ourselves over and over but it isn’t real, it is just a wish, not a resolution, unless it is formally verbalized, articulated, or recorded in a way that will make us more likely to follow through.

I recommend an app called Strides that allows you to track your goals and habits in areas from reading, budget, sleep, exercise, or even flossing. You set your goal and the app sends regular alerts and reminders and tracks your progress, holding you accountable by having to confront real data and facts.

Leadership expert Robin Sharma once said, “Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.” Don’t articulate the same wishes year after year and call them resolutions. Make this your year, by articulating and implementing a plan.

Goodbye to Good Riddance

on Friday, December 22 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
This time of year, when most people think of Times Square, they picture the tremendous New Year’s Eve party attended by more than a million people filled with banners, streamers and the ball that drops at midnight.  Less well known, and with much poorer attendance, is an event in Times Square that takes place just a few days earlier. A few hundred people will gather this week to observe the 11th annual “Good Riddance Day.”  Visitors and residents of New York will gather to write down the problems and disappointments they experienced this year on a piece of paper, toss it in a dumpster or watch it get shredded and say good riddance to the aspects of the year they wished to leave behind.

Good Riddance Day is yet another reminder of the stark contrast between the way the secular New Year is observed and the way we observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. For many, January 1st is marked with a party, drinking and the ritual of the dropping of the ball. The anticipation of the New Year brings with it resolutions and promises, a fresh start and the opportunity to put that which we don’t like in our lives behind us, simply by saying good riddance.

For us, the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashana, is greeted with introspection, reflection and a sincere and earnest attempt to repair our mistakes and errors of the prior year. We, too, greet our New Year with joy, excitement and the promise of a fresh start. However, we understand that a new beginning only has meaning when we make amends and take stock of the year behind.

Good Riddance Day, in my opinion, is a reflection of the growing trend in our society of seeking simple, pain free solutions. Rather than confront our shortcomings, poor judgment and bad decisions and try to learn from them, we are led to believe that we can simply write them on a piece of paper and throw them in a dumpster. In truth, life is not that simple and pain free. A shredder cannot make our problems go away. To bring blessing in the year ahead one has to embrace what went wrong in the previous year with a sense of accountability and responsibility.

Indeed, Stephen Covey writes that the word responsibility is made up of the two words response and ability. Our sense of responsibility is a result of our ability to respond. Do we respond to failing relationships, unrealized dreams, and unachieved goals by saying good riddance, or do we extract the lessons and recommit our energies to become better versions of ourselves and fulfill our promise and potential.

When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in this week’s Parsha, they are forced to confront the reality and consequences of their actions.  The brothers don’t have the option or luxury of simply saying good riddance, let’s move on.  Our Rabbis describe the moment when Yosef reveals himself as stark and harsh rebuke, and cautions us that it portends what we will experience when we meet our maker.  Oy lanu l’yom ha’din, woe is us for our day of judgment.  Like the brothers, all of us will one day face the consequences and results of the poor choices we have made and the reality created by our failures and shortcomings.  We will be held accountable and won’t have the option of simply saying good riddance.

Rather than share a drink, blow a horn, make new resolutions, or say good riddance, let us use the secular New Year as a mid-year review to evaluate our Rosh Hashana promises and prepare to get back on track and make improvements for the remainder of the year ahead.

See More, Better and Farther with the Chanukah Candles

on Tuesday, December 12 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

“Don’t forget where you came from.”  It is often said at graduations, it’s the title of a country music song, and many successful people include it on their list of the most important things to remember.

And yet, when Yosef HaTzadik ascends to great heights and power in Egypt, he marries, has his first son and seems to violate this critical principle.  He names his oldest son Menashe – “ki nashani Elokim es kol amali v’eis kol beis avi, God has made me forget all my hardship and my father’s entire household.”

What? Yosef HaTzadik, this righteous individual who, when the wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him he triumphed only because he drew strength from the image of his father, is now saying he has forgotten them all?  And is grateful for it?  How is it possible to be so callous, so crass, so insensitive?  Was it a coping mechanism?  Was he simply hardened to his new reality and bitter?  How is it possible that Yosef, who was so close with his father – who grew up as his ben zekunim – could possibly rise to greatness and not only forget about his family but actually name his oldest son “I have forgotten my whole family?”

There are a number of suggestions offered.  First of all, it seems to me that if you name your kid “I have forgotten my family” it means one thing – you actually haven’t forgotten your family and don’t want to.  Furthermore, Rav Yitzchak Arama, author of the Sefer Akeida, suggests that Yosef doesn’t mean to say I have literally forgotten them.  What he meant was I have selective memory and have chosen to only look back on my childhood with nostalgia and good will.  I have forgotten the animosity, conflict, and enmity and remember only the good times.

Indebted to the Misfortunes as Opportunities

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch has an altogether different approach.  He says the suggestion that Yosef could forget his family is preposterous.  “Nashani” in this context doesn’t mean to forget.  Rather says Rav Hirsch, it means what noshe means when it comes to Shemita, to be a creditor.

In other words, Yosef celebrates the birth of his son as he enjoys a position of great prominence in the strongest empire in the world.  As he reflects back on what brought him there he says, ki nashani Elokim es kol amali v’eis kol beis avi, God has made my misfortunes and my family into creditors.  What had seemed until now to be terrible misfortune indeed brought me to this most joyous moment, to the point that I am now deeply indebted to my perceived misfortunes and my family who brought them on.

Yosef had suffered a string of challenges and hardships.  He had not only survived but astonishingly now found himself thriving.  He could have looked back on the events of his life that led him there in one of two ways.  He could have said, woe is me, I can’t believe I was thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, falsely accused, forgotten in prison, and abandoned for all these years by my family.  He could have been bitter, hurt, and resentful and concluded that his success and achievements were despite his hardships.  Instead, Yosef made the choice to look back at his life and say, I don’t fully understand why I had to endure what I did or why those bad things had to happen to me, but look at me now and the blessings I am privileged to enjoy.

We don’t all merit to ascend to power and wealth the way Yosef did.  For many, hardship continues and endures and the light at the end of the tunnel seems as distant as ever.  And yet, I believe the Torah’s message is that no matter the circumstance, if we approach life with humility and gratitude we can identify a blessing in our circumstance, something good that has come out and feel indebted for the positive we enjoy.

See More With One Eye Than With Two

In a great article, Sight to Behold, L. Jon Wertheim tells the story of Luis Salazar.  A longtime major-league infielder and minor-league coach Salazar had been out of baseball for a year, happily sitting at home in Boca Raton. But in August 2010 he got the itch to return so, with the blessing of Graciela, his wife of 33 years, Salazar sent out his résumé. The Atlanta Braves offered him a job managing their Class-A Carolina League team, the Lynchburg Hillcats.

Salazar joined the Braves for their spring training games in 2011 and was coaching third base one March afternoon. As Wetheim tell it:

Salazar was 55, a former third baseman whose reaction times were not what they once were. No matter. He had no chance. Not with slugger Brian McCann hitting from maybe 60 feet away and the foul ball traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. The projectile smacked Salazar in his left eye, making a hideous sound and knocking him backward down the dugout steps. He fractured his right arm in the fall, but that was the least of it. He was unconscious, concussed, and blood poured from his nose, mouth and eye, puddling around his head as he lay face down. As a helicopter transported Salazar to an Orlando trauma center, the players struggled to keep it together, not least McCann, who left the game.

Salazar regained consciousness in the hospital that night. He says he saw a white light—”very bright, so bright”—and fell back asleep. He woke up the next day after a surgery, the first of three. “What happened?” he asked his wife. She told him. He nodded. He went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Then the gravity set in. “It’s scary when you don’t recognize yourself,” he said. “That’s when I knew how bad it was.”

Doctors first told him the good news. He was alive. And, blessedly, he’d suffered no brain injury. Then, a few days later, the bad news: his left eye was so damaged it would need to be removed.

Six days after he was hit, Salazar’s left eye was surgically removed, his socket suddenly resembling a garage without a car. He conceded, that was “a tough day,” but he was more focused on thanking God that he had come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. The doctor told him that losing the eye meant only that he couldn’t be a fighter pilot. Otherwise there would be no restrictions. He put a bandage over the eye—beating others to it by making the obligatory Pittsburgh Pirates joke—and went about his business.

When Salazar was finally released from the hospital, he drove the three hours from Orlando to Boca Raton. “I needed to do that for myself,” he said. On April 15 he made his managerial debut in Lynchburg. By this point, his story had generated some media attention—particularly among Braves fans—and a capacity crowd turned out to welcome the new manager. Graciela was in the stands as well. “Just putting on the uniform, going to home plate and handing the lineup card to the umpire,” he said. “That was the best moment of my baseball career.”

During his season managing in Lynchburg, Salazar often spent the duration bus trips returning voicemails from friends. “In a way, I see more now than I did with two eyes,” he said. “I see friends, teammates I haven’t spoken to in 25 years. I notice more around the ballpark. It’s maybe crazy to say, but in some ways it’s been a blessing.”

Chanukah Candles Illuminate What Is Already All Around Us

We take as a given that the reason we light the Chanukah candles is to see the flames.  We tend to assume that the pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the miracle, is achieved by lighting oil and commemorating a miracle from many years ago.  But perhaps we are missing the point.  Maybe the real purpose is not to see the flame itself but to allow the flame to illuminate the darkness and reveal what is all around us.  Perhaps publicizing the miracle is not accomplished through the candle, but rather when we take a moment to consider the trials and tribulations we have been through and yet allow the light to illuminate for us how fortunate and blessed we are nonetheless. The Jewish people’s existence after all these years and systematic attempts to eliminate us… we are the miracles.  Each one of us has struggled, be it with illness, financial hardship, etc. and yet we are here, we are positive and we are grateful.  That is the miracle.

The mitzvah is ner ish ubeiso, and perhaps we can suggest homiletically, the mitzvah is to see the candle but more importantly to see ish, to see ourselves and how we are here, and to see beiso, how fortunate we are to have a spouse, children, a home.

Louis Salazar says he sees more with one eye than he ever saw with two.  When we light that menorah, like Yosef we must see beyond what our eyes can perceive and see and appreciate the blessings and the miracles that surround us all along.