Category Archives: Holidays

All The Days of Your Life

I often feel terribly pampered. Especially when I think of my parents’ generation.

At the age when my father, z”l, and several others from the Novardok Yeshiva in Vilna were captured for being Polish bnei yeshivah and banished by the Soviets to Siberia, I was being captured by a teacher for some prank and banished to the principal’s office. When he was trying to avoid working on Shabbos as his taskmasters demanded, I was busy trying to avoid the homework my teachers demanded.

When he was moser nefesh finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga, my mesirus nefesh consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning for davening. Where he struggled to survive, my only struggle was with the mundane challenges of adolescence. Pondering our respective age-tagged challenges has lent me perspective.

And so, while I help prepare the house for Pesach, pausing to rest each year a bit more frequently than the previous one, thoughts of my father’s first Pesach in Siberia arrive in my head.

In his slim memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air,” he describes how Pesach was on the minds of the young men and their Rebbi, Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. While laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had needs, after all, like matzah shemurah.

Toward the end of the frigid winter, they retrieved their stash and ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzos to ensure their thorough baking. In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which they fired up for two hours to make it kosher l’Pesach before baking their matzos.

And on Pesach night they fulfilled, to the extent they could, the mitzvah of achilas matzah.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Pesach experience of, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, my wife’s father, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Pesach he could. In the dark of the barracks on the leil shimurim, he suggested to a friend that they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted Mah Nishtanah, other inmates protested. “What are you crazy Chassidim doing?” they asked. “Do you have matzos, do you have wine and food for a Seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My shver responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a mitzvah d’Oraysa – and that no one could know if their “Seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

We in such places can glean much from the Pesachim of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A passuk cited in the Haggadah elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Mitzrayim all the days of your life.”

Commented the Slonimer Rebbe: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

Those who, baruch Hashem, emerged from the Holocaust and merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But the rest of us, too, have experienced our own “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and chassadim with which we were blessed. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the Seder, when we recount Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the personal gifts we’ve been given.

And should that prove a challenge, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2019 Hamodia

Still, Small, Defiant Lights

I’m always struck by the contrast this time of year between, on the one hand, the garish multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. I think there may be cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major non-Jewish holiday season.

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed by some Jewish clergy on radio programs and in newspapers as nothing but a celebration of religious freedom (or even, bizarrely, as some sort of salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the neiros Chanukah is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Gemara to the sifrei Kabbalah to the works of Chassidus. The celebration is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabim was less the Seleucid empire as a military power than what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of our mesorah, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that the Torah considers unacceptable. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” overbearing secular philosophy. And so, the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabim succeeded in preserving the mesorah, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when the larger Jewish world, l’daavoneinu, is so assimilated, and intermarriage so rampant, nothing could be more important for American Jews than Chanukah’s message.

Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating “converts” – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish, or Jewish-style, children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by people who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be happening on its own. Where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

Poignant meaning shines forth from the Bais Hamikdash’s menorah’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, of course, is Torah, the preserver of Klal Yisrael.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of that symbol of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids, it is related, had forbidden not only various fundamental mitzvos and hanhagos, they also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood, consciously or otherwise, is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidels and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling that menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of Klal Yisrael over the millennia. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It doesn’t just recall the Bais Hamikdash that was rededicated bayamim hahem, but calls on us to rededicate ourselves baz’man hazeh.

We do that by keeping ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and resisting the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put the dreidels away and open the sefarim.

And with our determination, our mitzvos and our limud haTorah, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

The great and powerful empires of history flared mightily but then disappeared without a trace. Their lights were bright but artificial.

Ours, small as they may be, are eternal.

Look Up!

We regard the enclosures where we spend Sukkos as, well, sukkos. And they are, of course; the walls comprise a necessary part of a sukkah. But it’s their roofs – the bamboo poles or mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material, or branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats – that give the structures their name.

The roofs, that is, made from vegetation once-alive but now detached from the earth it needs to grow: s’chach.

That word is from the Hebrew socheh, meaning to “cover” or “hover over.”

But there is another meaning to that Loshon HaKodesh word, as various sefarim note, namely “to see” or “to perceive.” That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some special perspective. And, of course, it does.

On even the most mundane plane, living in a small rudimentary hut for a week, within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home, does afford a different point of view.

Like about our vulnerability, and reliance on Hashem’s everlasting rachamim. While our sturdy houses may be nearby, and if it rains hard enough we can – indeed should – return to surer shelter, our exposure to the elements in the sukkah, if we only care to ponder it, just magnifies our exposure to all sorts of threats, even in our “secure” abodes.

Not only are those abodes subject to other natural disasters – which we may not often think about, but should all the same, even if we don’t live in earthquake or flood zones – but there are dangers lurking wherever we are. Bad drivers and bad people, obstacles to trip over and germs with the potential to lay waste to our good health… That is part of the perspective granted the thoughtful sukkah-dweller.

But there is more. What the sukkah allows us to perceive, if we try, is that our homes and their contents are not us. That is to say, our possessions don’t really matter. The mindless man in a fancy car with the bumper sticker reading “The one who dies with the most toys wins” reflects a mainstream conviction, but it’s as far from Jewish belief as east is from west. Sitting in our primitive week-house, we come to know that what we have accumulated is simply not essential. In fact, no matter how much it may have cost us, in the end, it’s meaningless fluff.

Which is why Sukkos is zman simchaseinu.

No, I’m not being facetious. The happiness that is the theme of Sukkos and to which we make much reference in our tefillos on the holiday not only is not antithetical to our “deprivation”; it is born of it.

That’s because attaining true happiness begins with realizing what, despite its promise, doesn’t really make us happy. The “high” afforded by a new possessions dissipates quickly. The moment one first drives a new car, it becomes a used one.

What’s more, possessions only beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same, a truth that has come to be called the “hedonic treadmill” – “hedonic” meaning “pertaining to pleasure.” The treadmill mashal conveys the fact that the pursuit of happiness is like a person on a platform moving in the opposite direction, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place. A person may achieve wealth, in other words, but his expectations and longings only rise in tandem. There’s no permanent net gain in happiness.

Chazal, of course, said it pithily: “He who has a hundred wants two hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

And, as Chazal also said in many instances, pok chazi – “go out and look around.” At all the possession-endowed, that is, here: the entertainers, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and the lottery-winners. They may zip around in Lamborghinis and check the time on Rolexes, but is their happiness quotient necessarily greater than that of those who take the bus and keep time with a $5 watch? Are their grand estates more of a home than the simplest, cozy cottage? A cogent case could be made that the precise opposite is true.

In the end, dependency on having stuff is what keeps us from being truly happy. Because authentic joy comes from things unavailable from Amazon.com. Like our relationships with our parents and children and friends, and with our community. And, ultimately, with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

So the sukkah is indeed a source of “sight,” or, perhaps better, insight. It opens our eyes, letting us better see that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are.

And, fully comprehended, that is the true path to simchah.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Arvus Factor

A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.

But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.

The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.

But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.

When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.

The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).

So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.

Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”

That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.

On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.

May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.

Gmar chasimah tovah!

© 2018 Hamodia

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia

No “Enough” Here

Have you ever noticed the FedEx arrow? The next time you see one of the company’s trucks, look closely at the “Ex” part of it. In particular, at the white space between the two letters. Believe it or not, the logo’s designer didn’t plan it to look that way, and only noticed it after creating the iconic emblem.

L’havdil, the letter beis hidden inside of the letter pei in ksav Beis Yosef and ksav Arizal, is no happenstance, but rather an indication of a mystical reality.

As both very different examples indicate, though, sometimes it is easy to miss something that is, in fact, right before our eyes.

Like the one event recounted in Dayeinu that is not followed by the word dayeinu – “it would have been enough for us.”

Whenever I make the assertion that there is indeed such an event in the Seder pizmon, I am greeted with blank stares or furrowed brows. But it’s there, in full view, just easily missed.

And it’s there, I believe, by design, that of the Baal Haggadah who composed Dayeinu.

Go grab a Haggadah and see if you can find it. I’ll wait.

Okay, that’s long enough. Find it? No? But it’s right there!

All right, I’ll tell you, but not before remarking first that, while much of our Seder-night message to our children is forthright and clear, some of it is subtle and stealthy.

And some of it quite puzzling, like Dayeinu. As commentaries and Jewish children alike ask, would it really have been “enough for us” had Hashem not, say, split the Yam Suf, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some have suggested that what the pizmon means is that another nes could have taken place to save Klal Yisrael, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: “Had [Hashem] not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us? “Had He not given us the Torah.” Enough? What are we saying?

The simple approach is that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” literally when we say it, but rather only intend to declare how undeserving of all Hashem’s kindnesses we are.

But I think there might be a different way to see Dayeinu, one that doesn’t require depriving the refrain of its actual meaning. And it has to do with that event in the pizmon not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Oh, I’m sorry. We haven’t identified it yet. Okay, it’s time.

It’s the very first phrase in the poem, “Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim” – Had He taken us out of Mitzrayim…”

That phrase – and it alone among all the stanzas – is not introduced with a “had He not” and qualified with a “dayeinu.”  We never sing “Had He not taken us out of Mitzrayim, it would have been enough for us.” Because it wouldn’t have been. Yetzias Mitzrayim is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable” in a way that nothing else is.

It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when what was until then an extended family became a nation, Klal Yisroel. Had Jewish history ended, chalilah, with starvation in the desert, or even in battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people. Klal Yisroel, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Yisrael,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, Hashem created the universe), would still have existed, if only briefly.

And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Pesach.

And so, the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that: the sheer indispensability of Yetzias Mitzrayim – its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the nissim that came to follow.

If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subliminally accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it. And the fact that the Seder persists among Jews who are far from observance and even devoid of other markers of Jewish identity or affiliation, may be born of their unconscious recognition of the ultimate importance of Jewish peoplehood.

In any event, it’s an idea worth pondering.

There’s more to say on the subject, maybe, with Hashem’s help, next year.

For now, though, dayeinu.

© 2018 Hamodia