Thank You (Even Though You Messed Up)

This year, tens of millions of Americans will celebrate a Thanksgiving that will feel like anything but the familiar holiday that so many cherish and love.  Rather than enjoying traditional family reunions and football gatherings, families and friends will unite virtually, using all of the devices and tools with which we have become so accustomed over the past nine months. While this modified version of Thanksgiving may feel inauthentic in every way, it need not distract us from the principle theme of the day.

The sacred obligation to recognize and express one’s gratitude is a defining characteristic of every Jew. Indeed, every day begins with the words “modeh ani” (“thank you…”) and our daily liturgy, rituals, and obligations serve to constantly reflect the preeminent requirement to be grateful and appreciative.  It is axiomatic that the obligation to express one’s gratitude applies whenever one is the beneficiary of another’s thoughtfulness, kindness, and generosity.  As Jews however, we are encouraged to consider the virtue of expressing gratitude more generally, even when we fail to experience any benefit due to the actions of another. Perhaps, for the purpose of defining הכרת הטוב in its purest sense, intentions are, in fact, “good enough.”

Please take a moment to enjoy this short film, which I believe so powerfully and aptly captures this idea.

In Shemos 22:30, the Torah teaches, וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ.  “You are to be my holy people, so do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts, rather throw it to the dogs.”  The Torah is teaching that an animal that is killed in a manner other than through a proper ritual slaughter is forbidden for consumption, but may be fed to one’s dog.   At first glance, the Torah is not directing us to offer this prize to any dog in particular. To the contrary, the point simply seems to be that while this sheep is forbidden for human consumption, it is permissible to derive benefit by feeding it to one’s dogs.

The דעת זקנים however suggest that the Torah is directing one to offer this carcass to the sheepdog. The very dog that was responsible to guard and protect this sheep from dangerous predators is to be offered this sheep as a reward. Why would the Torah instruct one to reward the dog in these circumstances? After all, were it not for the dog’s incompetence and failure, this very sheep would still be alive.  What did the dog do to “deserve” receiving this generous bonus?  The דעת זקנים explains that in all likelihood, this dog regularly carries out its responsibilities with devotion and loyalty, but is hardly, if ever, recognized for its achievements. Day in and day out, the dog serves as an effective guardian and protector of the sheep but does not receive any positive words of encouragement, nor expressions of appreciation from its owner. And so, at the very moment at which one’s natural inclination is to express disappointment and outrage at the failure of another, the Torah redirects this instinct and suggests that this would be a perfect time to step back and merely say “thank you.”

Needless to say, this particular prescription would not necessarily meet the satisfaction of animal trainers, nor would it necessarily yield the results one would anticipate from a regulated animal conditioning program. It seems clear however that the Torah is showcasing this example as a display of what we can and should strive to achieve in our interactions and dealings with other people. The Torah is calling upon us to resist the inclination and challenge the instinct to express words of rebuke and disdain when disappointed by the actions or inactions of another. Rather, the Torah reminds us to stop and ask ourselves whether this might be the perfect opportunity to simply say “thank you.”  “Thank you for your efforts, thank you for your thoughtfulness and, most importantly, thank you for all of those other times you got it right.”

Is Your Head in the Clouds? Well, On Sukkos, It Should Be

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When told one’s “head is in the clouds,” an automatic defensive response often follows.  We naturally expect awareness and focus, from ourselves and from others.  After all, when preoccupied with a task, or engaged in a conversation, we are more productive and effective when we are mentally present.

Yet, according to Rebbi Eliezer, having one’s “head in the clouds” is precisely the mindset that one is to maintain while seeking to achieve optimal fulfillment of the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah.  The Torah, while instructing us to sit in a sukkah for seven days, uncharacteristically embellishes this directive, by way of an explicit revelation of the underlying reason for this mitzvah. In Vayikra chapter 23, the Torah states:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם

“You shall dwell in temporary shelters for seven days.  All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters.  So your descendants will know that I had the children of Israel live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d.”

On the surface, the Torah’s precise intent in this context does not seem even slightly ambiguous, nor is there any apparent need for commentary.  Quite to the contrary, the Torah’s message seems abundantly clear; we sit in a sukkah in order that we should come to remember the sukkah.  Quite simple.  Surprisingly however, the rabbis of the Mishna debate the true meaning and consequence of this pasuk.  The Talmud in Maseches Sukkah 11a records the following braisa:

תניא: (ויקרא כג) כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו, דברי רבי אליעזר. רבי עקיבא אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם

“It was taught in a braisa: ‘that I had the children of Israel live in temporary shelters’, these were the clouds of glory, so are the words of Rebbi Eliezer. Rebbi Akiva says, literal huts were made for them.”

Rebbi Akiva is of the opinion that the Torah means exactly what it says; we sit in the sukkah to commemorate the huts that protected us from the sweltering heat and the harmful elements, as we wandered aimlessly through the desert. Yet remarkably, Rebbi Eliezer offers a dramatically different perspective. Sitting in the sukkah represents something far more profound, even transcendent.  According to his opinion, sitting in the sukkah serves to commemorate the special protection that we received from the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory, whose hovering presence provided unceasing divine protection throughout our sojourns in the desert.

While reflecting upon these two opinions of the tannaim, a striking question comes to the surface.  According to Rebbi Akiva, it is quite understandable how sitting in a sukkah can effectively remind one of the experience of sitting in a sukkah. One need not be imaginative, nor creative in any way. Simply being in the moment and connecting with one’s surroundings, should be more than sufficient to enable a person to generate the requisite awareness for fulfilling the mitzvah.  According to Rebbi Eliezer, on the other hand, it is quite perplexing to understand how sitting in a sukkah is similar or reminiscent of the experience of being shielded by a protective cloud.  The structure of a sukkah bears no apparent resemblance to a cloud and provides no natural outlet for such a mindset.

Rav Nissim Alpert z”l concedes that there is, in fact, nothing that we can possibly construct on this earth which can adequately simulate the experience of being protected by a cloud. Clouds are practically invisible, forever elusive and, if anything, generate feelings of instability, exposure and vulnerability.  Neither brick and mortar, nor fiberglass, canvas or wood, can serve to create a space which resembles the delicate features of a cloud.  Perhaps, argues Rav Alpert, that is precisely the point. The notion that we were protected by the ananei hakvod in the desert is, at its core, synonymous with the concept of hashgacha pratis.  In order to successfully connect with the memory of protection and shelter provided by clouds of glory, we must necessarily envision transcendence, rather than succumb to distractions of mere illusions of earthly spaces of shelter.  On Sukkos we are called upon to remember that our every need, without exception, is provided for by the One above.

If this is indeed the case, then why are we instructed to leave our homes? Could we not (simply) engage in focused meditation and deep introspection, enabling us to achieve an inspired awareness of divine protection, all from the familiar comforts of our own homes?  Explains Rav Alpert z”l, herein lies the dilemma.  Ironically, it is precisely from within the familiar confines of our permanent structures, where our vision suddenly becomes clouded. Because our natural shelters and our homes create a façade of genuine safety and protection, our ability to perceive hashgacha pratis often becomes considerably obstructed.  When surrounded by four walls and a roof, it is much easier to lose sight of our true and complete dependency upon G-d, and succumb to the self-generated myths of independence and dominance.

Therefore, the Torah instructs us to temporarily extricate ourselves from our permanent structures, to break away from our comfortable and familiar settings, and take a seat directly beneath the stars. Rather than obstruct our view, the schach widens our perspective and sharpens our focus.  The immediate instinctual feelings of exposure and defenselessness are soon replaced with feelings of security and protection. It is precisely within the temporary and frail structure of the sukkah, that one can begin to achieve a true and genuine sense of divine shelter and safety.

It would seem that the message of the sukkah has never been more relevant than it is today, as its message speaks directly to an early 21st century generation bombarded with unprecedented challenges and temptations. Technology has enabled us to create virtual walls and structures, providing us with a continuous sense of safety and protection.  Whether it is the security provided to us by digital firewalls or our grossly exaggerated confidence in unlimited access to knowledge and information, we are living at a time where many of us have ever-inflating illusions of omnipotence and immortality.  Anyone with a smartphone in his hand wields access, potential and power, all of which could only have been imagined a generation ago – if even that!  One would naturally expect that such extraordinary scientific advancements would yield measurable improvements in the emotional stability and mental health of our generation. Having the world at our fingertips should be more than enough to bring calm and reassurance to those who would otherwise be anxious, and restore faith and stability to society’s most emotionally compromised and spiritually vulnerable. Remarkably however, research and studies have shown the opposite to be true.  Recent advancements in technology seem to be triggering an unprecedented surge in anxiety and depression.  At first glance, such developments seem counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t our generation, blessed with unlimited access and control, feel greater safety and security than previous generations?  Should we not be observing a marked decrease in anxiety and social withdrawal?

Once again, the mitzvos of the Torah, which are both immutable and eternally relevant, provide us with the necessary insight, we would otherwise be lacking. Permanent structures, while providing us with protection from the elements, do not ultimately satisfy our innate need for feelings of purpose and transcendence. Access to information and the capacity to digitally monitor and control one’s home and finances, while convenient in many respects, are grossly inadequate substitutes for genuine feelings of emunah and bitachon.  Being connected to a worldwide network, while affording us the opportunity to instantaneously communicate with millions of people at the click of a button, often creates feelings of existential loneliness, rather than genuine comradery and connection.  The Torah provides us with a solution, which is both simple and profound; “אמרה תורה כל שבעת הימים צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי” (Sukkah 2b) “The Torah says that for seven days one should leave his permanent dwelling and live in a temporary dwelling.”
We must designate times in our life, during which we extricate ourselves, albeit temporarily, from the façades of safety and security, and seek shelter in the warm protective cover of the clouds of glory. These clouds can be accessed when, and only when, we walk away from our desktops, turn off our smartphones and disconnect from our familiar “reality”, which is truly virtual (at best).  The imperative to seek shelter in the ananei hakavod is more essential today than ever before. The more technologically advanced our world becomes, the more urgent and indispensable the need for spiritual cultivation and emotional reinforcement.  These engagements cannot be initiated by downloading and accessing a particular app. These processes are not the products of a carefully scripted digital code, nor facilitated through an online service.  They occur in the very spaces and places where they have been successfully conducted for centuries. We become more spiritually attuned in houses of worship and study. We become more emotionally adapted and fortified through meaningful connections with friends and family. We become more spiritually stable and secure by strengthening our connection to G-d, through prayer and study. We offset feelings of worthlessness and helplessness by recognizing the constant hashgacha pratis that we have in our lives.  We can mitigate and even overcome invading thoughts of worry and doubt by pulling ourselves away from our digital devices and strengthening our connection to our Father in heaven.

Herein lies the timeless message of the sukkah. Ultimately, the sukkah offers each and every one us an opportunity for spiritual rejuvenation and growth. May we be inspired to truly escape our permanent dwellings and seek shelter in the secure and sustaining walls of the sukkah, thereby deepening and strengthening our connection to Avinu shebashamayim.

Forever Young

Last week, a dear friend and close neighbor passed away. Our family has been fortunate to live directly across the street from Bernice Greenberg a”h and her beloved husband Mishel a”h for over 15 years.   Like so many others who have departed this world over the past six months, many friends and admirers who would have surely attended her funeral were unable to do so, under the current circumstances. While no words could adequately capture a life of 96 years, I feel the need to share personal thoughts of tribute.

Mrs. Greenberg was an incredibly unique individual. She was an accomplished artist who displayed profound creativity in every context and through her insightful lens was able to reflect a fresh perspective in virtually every conversation.  She was relatable to so many individuals, regardless of their ethnicity, background, or age. She had a wonderful and charming wit and a simple, yet pronounced, sense of humor.

There is one particular characteristic though that I would like to highlight in this tribute to her. During the almost 20 years that I had the fortune of knowing Mrs. Greenberg, she did not age at all. If anything, as time went on, she seemed to get younger, rather than older. While she may have not had the physical vigor at the age of 95 that she did at 75, her spirit was always young, her outlook always fresh, and she was forever playful and engaging.  While aging is a fact of life and the physical toll it takes is not subject to one’s personal initiative nor input, Mrs. Greenberg made the conscious choice to remain, always and forever, young at heart. She sought opportunities that enabled her to experience life in a way that she had never before. She cherished moments in which she was able to be inspired and enlightened, even, if not especially, by individuals far less experienced than she.  She took great delight when experiencing new discoveries about herself, her family, her community, and her heritage.  Rather than feeling confused or frustrated, disgruntled or disappointed, her eyes and heart lit up with wonder and amazement whenever she was able to discover something she had never noticed before.

Yet, what inspired me most about Mrs. Greenberg was her insatiable desire to learn and to grow.  On countless occasions, she shared with me how fortunate and blessed she felt to have been offered the opportunity to access many new outlets and channels for Torah study later in life. At times she would exclaim how proud she was to have become a serious student of Torah around the time of her 80th birthday.  There was hardly a text that did not inspire her, nor a Torah subject that did not fascinate her. She had a genuine thirst to grow through Torah and to learn more about the universe and its Creator.

There is one particular moment that I will never forget. Our shul, like many others, offers programming for parents and children to come together and study Torah. “Parent-child learning” programs (on temporary hiatus, given the current state of global affairs) are typically populated by young children, escorted by one or both of their parents. While there is no official cutoff age, I do not recall seeing many kids post bar/bat mitzvah age, regularly participate in this program.

But, one particular chilly Motzei Shabbat last January, Mrs. Greenberg escorted her daughter Ellen and the two of them joined the crowd of other parents and children at our parent-child learning event.   With a pirkei avot in hand, Mrs. Greenberg immersed herself in an ancient text, while surrounded by parents and children, several generations younger. Her presence that evening was a powerful testament and memorable lesson to everyone in the room. During that sacred moment, suffused by a powerful quest to connect with Torah, there was no generation gap to be seen. Mrs. Greenberg’s face radiated with the innocent curiosity of a young girl, excited to experience something transcendent, as if for the very first time.

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In Shemot (33:11), the Torah describes Yehoshua as a “נער” (lad) even though he was 56 years old at the time.  Rav Avrohom Sorotzkin z”l explains that this is an apt description for Yehoshua, for although he was an experienced mature adult, he possessed the curiosity for wisdom and the desire to grow as if he were still a child. It is for this reason why he was selected to become the successor to Moshe Rabbeinu.  This unique characteristic should be one of the defining qualities of each and every Jew. In fact, the Ba’al Haturim explains that it is for this reason that the keruvim, whose powerful images rest on top of the Aron, possess the faces of children. This image is to remind each and every one of us how essential it is to always strive to grow and mature regardless of our age.

Mrs. Greenberg lived 96 years on this earth. That is four years shy of a century. Yet I hope to always remember her as the one who taught me that regardless of the date on one’s birth certificate, we can always choose to remain forever young.

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Take the First Step

“You go first.” “No, you go first.” Does it really matter who goes first? It depends, I suppose, on the context, circumstances, and personalities.  At times, granting another the right-of-way or, in other situations, offering to take the lead, are gestures which reflect both thoughtfulness and grace. At other times, showing initiative and taking the first step may be the most effective way of facilitating an end to the gridlock that often disrupts and frustrates our interpersonal relationships.

As Elul begins, it may be worthwhile to consider the value of taking the first step and showing initiative. It is well known that our rabbis have sought to capture the special quality of the month of Elul, by noting its association to the pasuk, “אני לדודי ודודי לי”, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.”[1]  On the surface, this formulation highlights the special relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people, reflecting an important feature of the month of Elul. As we make our way closer to the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we remind ourselves of this special relationship, in an attempt to motivate and incentivize greater effort and attention in the weeks ahead.

The Sfas Emes[2] suggests a much deeper message contained within this verse.  On Rosh Hashanah, God makes His annual “appearance” to the world.  On the day in which we coronate God as King of all kings, He emerges and appears, availing Himself to each and every one of us.  By visiting the world in this way, Hashem demonstrates his commitment to mankind, as well as His love for the Jewish people.  The date of his arrival is scheduled and the precise time is predetermined.  On the first of the month of Tishrei, we experience the fulfillment of “ודודי לי”, my Beloved is to me. But rather than wait for Tishrei to begin in order for God to first reestablish our weakened connection, we deliberately choose to initiate that process; to preempt, as it were, God’s imminent arrival. Throughout the month of Elul, it is we who take the first steps towards repairing that which has been broken and restoring our fractured relationship.  We do not wait for the moment of God’s revelation, for the remarkable display of “ודודי לי”.  Rather, we inaugurate this glorious season by showing initiative; by demonstrating “אני לדודי”, first and foremost – I am to my Beloved.  After taking the first step and after displaying our initiative – then “ודודי לי”, my Beloved is to me.

If demonstrating initiative within the realm of one’s relationship with God is indeed beneficial, it would seem as if much could also be gained by similarly applying ourselves in our interpersonal relationships. There is a common tendency that many of us have to procrastinate and postpone uncomfortable conversations that must take place.  We continuously defer such encounters, in the hopes that they will be initiated by the other. This proclivity reflects a natural aversion to awkward moments and difficult discussions.  While this tendency may be natural, it is appropriate for us to challenge ourselves and acknowledge that we can do better. It behooves us to recognize that to initiate a conversation which leaves one feeling vulnerable and exposed is, in and of itself, of great spiritual value, particularly during the season of repentance.  Taking the first step towards reconciliation is often awkward, painful, and, at times, even humiliating.  These feelings, while understandably uncomfortable, better enable us to achieve the proper state of mind during the days of awe.

In one month, we will all be paid a very special visit. Thankfully, our Visitor generously informs us of His itinerary prior to His arrival.  Rather than show up unexpectedly, He provides us with an incredibly generous opportunity to prepare and ready ourselves for this extraordinary experience. The month of Elul is a gift with profound potential. But, like most gifts, it is up to the recipient to choose if and how it is to be properly utilized. The gift of Elul has been delivered.  It is now for us to decide whether to take full advantage of this opportunity and initiate the process that is scheduled to begin.

“You go first.” “No, you go first.” Does it really matter who goes first? Sometimes actually, it does.

 

 

[1] Shir Hashirim 6:3

[2] Elul, 5661

10 Lessons Learned: A Daughter’s Perspective

This past Shabbos, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Yudin celebrated the completion of their 50th year as the spiritual leaders of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, NJ.  Hundreds gathered to participate in a very memorable and historic Shabbos.  On Friday night, my wife Chaviva shared these personal words of tribute in honor of her parents.

 

There are certain moments in life which are so surreal that it is difficult to know if what is happening is real or just a dream. I feel like this is such a moment.  While my parents must remember what life was like before they came to Fair Lawn 50 years ago, this is the only life that I have ever known. I was born into this community, raised in this community and, most importantly, shaped by this community.

Growing up in “19-09” was the greatest privilege in the world. It is true, as you have all heard, and many, if not most of you, have witnessed firsthand, it had its drawbacks as well. Now is not the time to reflect on the chaos and dysfunction, the constant traffic and never-ending noise. Because at the end of the day, each and every one of us only gets to live one life. And I consider myself profoundly fortunate and I am forever grateful that I had the privilege to live in a home which served as the control center for a universe of Torah and chesed. My parents built an empire and their impact upon this community, and the entire world is truly and absolutely immeasurable.

So, what am I to say at this time? What words am I supposed to string together to capture the awesomeness of this moment? How can one possibly summarize 50 years, without inevitably diminishing something so unfathomable and cheapening something so truly profound?  How can I start if I won’t be able to finish? How can I begin something which has no end? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to these questions.  And I don’t know that anyone else does either.

But I need to say something. I want to say something. So, here is what I am going to do. I am going to single out 10 lessons that I have learned from my parents; lessons that I hope to continue to cherish and hold onto every day of my life. I am selecting 10 because 10 is a round number and because it enables me to start something and allows me to finish. Otherwise, I would go on and on and on because there truly are countless lessons that I have learned from my parents.

Lesson #1: Torah must always be the foundation of our lives. Torah gives us direction and focus and provides meaning and purpose in every moment of life. Every moment of every day can be enriched through Torah study, Torah observance, and Torah living.

Lesson #2: Always talk to Hashem. Davening is so powerful and so meaningful. Whether it is formal prayer in shul or grasping onto a sefer tehillim at the kitchen table. We are so fortunate to have a connection to Hashem and it is our responsibility to cultivate and nurture that relationship through tefillah.

Lesson #3: Never turn anyone away. When you see someone in need, extend your hand. Even if you have nothing to give them.  A cheerful word or a smile can go such a long way. My parents have modeled for us on literally countless occasions the power of a smile and a good word.

Lesson #4: If you’re going to do something, put your all into it. Whether you’re sitting down with a bar mitzvah boy or preparing a sheva brachos meal, don’t cut corners. Put yourself into it entirely. Don’t just do an act of kindness for someone, do it with elegance and with class.  Go all in.  Or, as my father loves to say, אם כבר אז כבר.

Lesson #5: Always be forgiving. People are people. Sometimes they will be unfair. Sometimes they may even be cruel. But life is too short, so don’t hold a grudge. My parents, like each and every one of us, have been hurt on occasions. But they always, and I mean always, forgive. Life is too short and it’s always best to forgive and move on.

Lesson #6: Be hopeful and optimistic. It is true that there are times in life where it seems as if all is lost. We find ourselves in situations in which there seems to be no way out. Often, we experience moments like these with pessimism and fear. My parents have taught me to always believe that things will get better. As they sometimes like to say, גם זה יעבור.  Right now, where you are at the moment, it’s tough. But hold on and you will see it will get better.  גם זה יעבור.

Lesson #7: Don’t procrastinate, don’t delay, don’t push off.  If you have an opportunity before you, take it now. Some people may think that my parents’ greatest accomplishments are the mountains that they moved and the oceans that they crossed. What impresses me, even more, is the way that they plow through every inch in front of them. They wake up early, they go to sleep late, and they never, ever stop in between. They are the ultimate champions of זריזות.

Lesson #8: Anything is possible. Most of us look at problems, big and small, and conclude that there are no solutions. Most of us look at challenges that we face with fear and anxiety and say there is no way to overcome this. My parents never say that something is impossible.  When everyone is running in one direction, they are running in the other. They firmly believe that with סיעתא דשמיא anything is possible. They have lived their lives with this firm belief and it has enabled them to achieve and to accomplish in ways that almost anyone else would have thought to be truly impossible.

Lesson #9: We are never too old to grow. Whether we have been in the rabbinate for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years or 50 years, we can always learn more, grow more, and improve more. My parents have never and will never say the words “we are done.” Their life’s mission is to constantly grow and assist the people around them.

And finally,  lesson #10: Cherish family. Love your family, care for your family, protect your family, provide for your family, give to your family, fight for your family, pray for your family and never stop believing in your family. To all of us, my parents are Rabbi and Rebbetzin, teacher and friend. But to some of us in this room, my parents are our family. They have always made it abundantly clear to each and every one of us that while we need to figure out how to share them with thousands of other people at any point during the day, they are always and will always be here for each and every one of us.

So, I guess now I stop. I stop because I told you I would share 10 lessons and 10 only.

Before I close, I want to thank the entire Shomrei Torah community for all that you have done for us over the years. You have been there, in good times and in challenging times, for my parents, for my siblings, and for our extended family.  We can never adequately thank you for making your homes part of our homes, your lives part of our lives, and your families part of our family.

Ima and Abba, this may be a major point of transition in your lives. This may be the end of a chapter in the history of Shomrei Torah.  This may, in fact, be the end of an era. But it is not only an end. It is also a beginning.  It is the beginning of a new chapter. It is the beginning of a new era. And I firmly believe that there are many more chapters to be written in the incredible book that the two of you began writing together many decades ago.

May Hashem grant the both of you continued health, happiness, and fulfillment for many years to come.

 

Surviving and Thriving Without Screens

Camp Morasha’s new technology policy, which was introduced during this past summer season, was crafted with considerable uncertainty and hesitation. Having participated in numerous planning discussions, I will be the first to confess my own initial reluctance and doubt.  To be clear, I fully recognize and appreciate the benefits of creating opportunities that allow us to disconnect from the myriad of technological outlets to which we have become attached. Nonetheless, the plan that we thoughtfully deliberated and ultimately executed, seemed overly ambitious and bold.  Let’s be honest; electronic devices, in all of their forms, have become set fixtures in all of our spaces and places. From our homes to the workplace, from schools to the playground, and from shul to the streets, screens are everywhere. Can one reasonably assume that a complete ban on all screened devices would be met with success? 

Children of all ages spend many of their waking hours interacting with screens.  Indeed, many parents are thoughtful and deliberate in their setting appropriate limits and controls and seek to regulate the use of technology by the children under their care.  Parental supervision and oversight notwithstanding, it has become increasingly challenging to adequately and effectively enforce limits and guidelines. The reality is that many of the challenges we face today are unique and without precedent.   For many parents and educators, it often feels as if we are chasing a moving target.

A sleep-away camp setting can accommodate technology regulation and control, in a manner that would likely seem impossible in other settings.  And so, during this summer season, we conducted a critical experiment; one which would ultimately provide us with greater insight into our social and behavioral state of health.  For seven weeks, our beautiful scenic campus functioned as a laboratory; our campers and staff, as the participating subjects. Truthfully, in recent years, we had already observed that our campers and staff could successfully manage without devices that would allow them to connect wirelessly with each other and with the world around them.  And, despite the predictable mild symptoms of technology withdrawal, our staff and campers successfully rose to the challenge.

But this year, we dared to dream of taking it to the next level.  What if we eliminated screens altogether? What unforeseeable consequences would we face upon disarming 1300+ campers and staff members, of any and all handheld assistants?  Granted, we knew they would survive without the convenience of a calculator and the benefits of being able to access the weather, anytime and anywhere. But there were some genuine concerns. After a long day of intense physical activity, won’t many, if not at least some, of our campers need the assistance of a device to help them relax?  Would they be able to comfortably rest and fall asleep without being able to unwind with a game, watch a video, or simply look at some pictures? And what about those long rainy days, or when a sudden change in the weather forced them from the fields and courts into their bunks? How would they manage to stay focused and remain calm? What would they do when forced to confront those inevitable moments of boredom?  And then, of course, there are the fast days. Despite the late wakeups and the creative and inspiring programming, the mid-summer fast days are long and challenging for kids, under all circumstances.  Would our campers display the fortitude and possess the skills that would enable them to manage under these unfamiliar conditions?

On Monday, July 1, as our campers arrived at camp, all screened devices were collected. We prepared ourselves for the initial fallout, especially when the lights went out that first night. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Almost instantaneously, something remarkable occurred and continued throughout the weeks that followed. The participants in this grand experiment seemed to display a genuine sense of freedom.  Rather than rebel, they seemed noticeably at ease, as they were suddenly released from the digital shackles that often hold us captive. They celebrated their newfound freedom by interacting with each other in ways that, not all that long ago, were considered normal human behaviors. They sat around, at times for long periods at end, and looked up and forward, rather than down and away. We even witnessed the resurrection of “initial baseball,” a timeless classic, all but lost in today’s world.  But most importantly, they looked at each other. Not a passing glance here and there; they really looked at each other. They spoke with one another and interacted with nature and with the world around them, without the constant distraction of chirps, buzzes, beeps, and the powerful allure of those glaring screens that so often hijack our attention.

Were there moments throughout the summer when they longed for their devices?  Of course there were. Were there occasional requests to grant them temporary access to their screens?  Most definitely. And that should come as a shock to no one. But what did surprise many was the ease and the degree to which this initiative succeeded.  Yesterday, as our children boarded the buses and prepared to go back home, we returned their devices to them. For now, this experiment has come to an end.  But for a fleeting moment, our campers have given us reason to pause and consider, with greater reflection, the world in which they are being raised and the choices that we, as their parents, are constantly making. If I have learned anything over the past seven weeks it is that our children crave so deeply for direct contact and for genuine connection with each other, with the world around them, and with themselves.      

 

Mental Illness, Stigma, & the Jewish Community: Achieving Lasting Change

Do you or someone you know suffer from mental illness? If you answered yes, you are correct.  If you answered no, guess again. Tens of millions of Americans suffer from a mental disorder and, just as with cancer or diabetes, the Orthodox Jewish community carries no immunity.  Studies show that the incidence of mental illness within our community mirrors that of the general population. While the management and treatment of mental illness varies from person to person and depends upon the nature and intensity of the disorder, we are all directly connected to individuals with mental illness, whether we realize it or not.

Unfortunately, unlike most physiological disorders, those who struggle with mental health disorders are forced to confront a separate set of challenges. Although not a symptom per se, the social stigma which often accompanies mental illness, imposes additional pain and hardship upon sufferers and their families.  The consequences of this stigma, albeit unintended, are numerous and far-reaching. In addition to the shame and isolation experienced by individuals, mental illness’ powerful stigma can often obstruct one’s path towards social acceptance, gainful employment, and fair consideration for long-term relationships.  As if these social barriers were not painful enough, this stigmatization often compromises treatment and hinders recovery. Sadly, individuals are less likely to seek the help they need or commit to a prescribed treatment plan if they perceive that these measures will cause them to be further stigmatized.

It is quite unfortunate, yet deeply ironic, that members of the Orthodox Jewish community are so susceptible to the harmful effects of stigmatization. As a community, we take great pride, as we rightfully should, in our collective ability to provide resources, support, and services to individuals in need and distress.  We value charity and kindness, in all of its forms, and we are particularly attentive to the needs of those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged. It is therefore profoundly disappointing that we have, all too often, tolerated, and, at times, even enabled, the proliferation of this stigma by failing to truly understand mental health disorders and embrace those that struggle with mental illness and their families.

To a large extent, the pervasive stigmatization of mental illness has been generated and sustained by the widespread belief and acceptance of a host of myths and misconceptions.  While there are too many to list them all, what follows is a sample of myths that are all too common in our community. Frequently, individuals who suffer from mental illness are mischaracterized as unmotivated, moody, or needy of attention. Rather than objectively acknowledge the impact of an involuntary chemical imbalance upon one’s brain, we are often misguided in our assessments and conclusions, due to our prejudice and blind acceptance of false or misleading information. Mental illness is often perceived as a mark of personal weakness or excessive sensitivity.  In this regard, the Orthodox Jewish community is particularly at risk because we place great value upon personal effort and individual achievement. When we choose to interpret specific patterns of behavior as a departure from those sets of values, we are inclined to become harshly judgmental. Finally, many fail to appreciate how truly taxing and debilitating mental illness (which, in many cases, is chronic) can be upon individuals and their families. For example, at times we wonder why one who is suffering from depression won’t simply “snap out of it.” The fact is, however, that most mental disorders, like any other illness, cannot be conquered by willpower alone. Suggesting that someone with a mental illness should just “get over it,” would be no different than suggesting to someone with a broken leg to “pull yourself together and just walk normally.”

Successfully combating the stigmatization of mental illness is much easier said than done.  Over the past number of years, we have witnessed an increase in community funding and programming aimed at raising awareness and sensitivity towards individuals with mental health disorders. It has been profoundly reassuring and genuinely heartwarming to witness the continued willingness of individuals, on both sides of the discussion, to share their personal experiences, in an effort to inspire greater awareness and sensitivity.  By doing so, they inspire and encourage those that struggle with mental illness and their families to come forward and receive the communal support they deserve and the assistance they need. As significant as these developments are, it is clear that to effectively reduce the level of stigma that exists in our community, a systematic and sustained effort is needed. An occasional Shabbos morning drasha, an inspiring film, or a community-wide symposium are all great steps forward, but to achieve true and lasting progress, an informed, ongoing, and relentless communal campaign is what is ultimately needed. Let us work together to ensure that our community continues to lead this critical discussion, raising awareness and sensitivity, seeking to eliminate the pervasive and painful stigma from our midst.

Are We Ready to Admit? A Plea on Behalf of Our Children

I have lived in Bergen County for much of the past 35 years and have had the personal privilege of witnessing my beloved community flourish and grow.  Our community’s incredible growth has enabled the transformational development of our social and religious infrastructure.

One of our community’s greatest achievements is the founding and continued growth of our many academic institutions; each of them – without exception – reputable and renowned. I am genuinely proud that our local yeshivot represent a wide spectrum of institutional styles, educational philosophies, and religious hashkafot.  That our community is blessed with such a wide variety of educational options, both on elementary and high school levels, is not to be taken for granted and serves as a model for other communities.

There is one particular feature that sets our community apart from other communities of similar size and composition. Currently, there is no Bergen County yeshiva which follows a ‘K-12’ model.  Thus, upon graduating from eighth grade, our local students continue their education by selecting and then entering a new institutional setting. This model presents our community with a unique set of opportunities and challenges.

Without a K-12 model, high schools are compelled to actively engage in student recruitment, which has created an exceptionally intense competitive environment.  All of our local yeshiva high schools, in addition to high schools located outside of Bergen County, invest substantial resources to attract, engage, and recruit students.  It must be noted that our school leaders, despite the institutional competition, frequently collaborate and coordinate, often serving the community collectively, rather than individually.

The yeshiva high school application and admissions process is multifaceted and complex.  It is therefore quite remarkable that historically well over 90% of Bergen County children are accepted to at least one of their first schools of choice. (Given the limited capacity of any given school, eighth graders are expected to apply to at least two separate schools and, at times, students are strongly advised to apply to at least three schools.)

Each and every year, on a pre-specified date in the middle of February (this year February 12), high schools inform all of their applicants if they have been accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.  In recent years, many local eighth graders are accepted to more than one school, some are accepted to only one school, and a small, but not insignificant, number of children are informed that they have not been accepted into any yeshiva.  Ultimately, virtually all of these children gain admittance, but only at the conclusion of a grueling process that can take many weeks, if not months. The emotional impact of feeling rejected by one’s community, even if only temporarily, can be devastating.  I have witnessed firsthand the extraordinary pain experienced by these children and their families, all of whom feel marginalized, isolated, and helpless. There are of course situations where children have special learning or behavioral needs which cannot be accommodated in one of our mainstream yeshiva settings.  Such cases are not the subject of my remarks. My focus at this time is to address what has repeatedly occurred to students whose educational and behavioral needs can certainly be met within our yeshiva system, but do not gain admittance to any school, until the time that their peers have finalized their own decisions.      

It goes without saying that each of our schools must strive to achieve excellence on every level; academic, religious, and social.  In doing so, schools must work diligently to assemble a student body that will facilitate the successful achievement of their unique institutional goals.  Understandably, this level of success can only be achieved by establishing a quantitative and qualitative balance in the classrooms and hallways. With over 20 years of professional classroom experience, I can personally attest to the impact that even one student can have on many others.  This phenomenon is neither imagined nor exaggerated. Be that as it may, we must confront the following reality: for the past several years, 2-3% of the graduating eighth graders of Bergen County face rejection and uncertainty, with the knowledge that over 97% of their peers have been accepted to yeshiva.  

To be clear, I have no doubt that our school leaders act with the purest of intentions and face extraordinary challenges, as they earnestly strive to preserve and promote the success and integrity of the schools that they lead.  Furthermore, there are numerous complexities and systemic realities which have made it exceedingly challenging to fully resolve this issue in the past.

These challenges notwithstanding, I issue this public appeal on behalf of the children of our community who may otherwise suffer humiliation and pain.  Over the next several weeks, school leaders, together with their admission committees, will finalize their decisions as to how to process the applications that they have received.  As a community, we must commit at the outset to offer every one of our children the dignity of acceptance.  I therefore propose that until a placement is secured for every one of our children, all letters of acceptance be withheld from every Bergen County student.  I respect the right of our school leaders to build institutions of excellence and genuinely admire their sense of responsibility in doing so.  Collectively, however, we must do so in a manner which allows us, as a community, to simultaneously offer a space and a place for each and every one of our children.

Critics of my proposal will accuse me of presenting an oversimplification of this issue in public.  Some may argue that Bergen County does not yet offer an appropriate and suitable educational setting for each of our children; an argument that I personally believe has merit.  As I have already acknowledged, this issue is profoundly complex and solutions that will satisfy all parties will require an unprecedented level of communication and compromise, involving elementary, high school, and communal leadership. I firmly believe that as a community we are capable of achieving that goal. Until that time, however, let us please commit to sparing any child the extraordinary pain and anguish of rejection.  

 

                            

 

Holy Halls & Holey Walls

Among the many wonders of human physiology is the following reality:  The human body is not self-sufficient.  In order to survive it requires the intake of various vital matter, from oxygen to the proteins contained in the food we eat.  At the same time, however, most of these acts of consumption, although essential to our survival, have what it takes to kill us.  Kidney or liver failure or repository illnesses that alter the balance between O and CO2 are as potentially dangerous as any other bodily malfunction.  When the body consumes without a filter, it is more than likely going to break down.

Over the course of Chanukah we have the opportunity to light and enjoy the transcendent candles of the Menorah.  Those who lit in a doorway were surely made familiar with the Gemara’s recommendation, after some debate, to place them Menorah on the left side of the doorway, opposite the Mezuzah which hangs on the right.  Many explain that this configuration of mitzvos is to create an environment where one is surrounded with mitzvos.  At first glance, this seems like a persuasive rationale.  However, the Meiri, in his commentary on the gemara, seems to emphasize a different aspect of the placement.  He is dealing with the obvious reality of most doorways; they have no right or left because it always depends on your own orientation.  As a result, the Meiri stresses that the Gemara’s recommendation leaves us with a Mezuzah and a Menorah on the “right.”  The Mezuzah is on the right a one enters, and the Menorah is on the right as one exits.

His suggestion is particularly exciting because it would seem to properly reflect the very specific natures of these two Mitzvos.  The doorway is a very significant place in the home.  It is the area of interaction between the house and the world outside.  It is no wonder then, that it figures prominently in the laws of Chanukah.  The obligation of Pisrumei Nisa is not limited to an announcement of a single miraculous act but is part of a greater mission of Or LaGoyim.  Chanukah is the most public of religious acts and is a prime example of the effect we can have on the common street and in the greater world.  Of course, the doorway runs two ways.  It is also the point of entry into the house, and this is where the Mezuzah takes the stage.  A home is defined by its boundaries; a house without walls is no house at all.  These boundaries have breaches, places where the walls must allow the passage of people, possessions, and ideas.  The Mezuzah reminds us that not everything from the outside can be brought home.  There is a need to filter, and to be especially selective.

So when we exit, it is the Menorah on our side of strength, and it is the Menorah that guides us through our encounter with the world, its culture, and its beauty.  And when we return, enlightened and exhausted from that encounter, it is the Mezuzah that greets us at the door.  Rav Wosner once explained that the Mezuzah was only intended to cover the breaches in our walls.  That is, no home can be perfect in creating an atmosphere of safety and Kedusah.  There will always be areas of vulnerability.  This is where the Mezuzah promises to help.  However, if the walls themselves do not exist, then even the Mezuzah is not enough.  The doorway may be covered, but the home itself is overrun.

The physical safety of our homes and families are guaranteed at an unprecedented level.  Sadly, they are being bombarded by influences that are of grave danger to the soul.  Never before have our homes so closely resembled buildings without walls.  Through the wonders of high-speed internet and cable connections, we are attached to our surroundings to an incredible degree.  There is no longer even the need for an outlet or wire for us to have the entire world at our fingertips.  It is irresponsible to expect the Mezuza alone to serve as our filter.  We must make sure that there are walls, not to shut everything out, but to help preserve the sanctity of our homes.

We must not be naive about the stakes of this battle, nor can we afford to be so blind to the fact that we have already suffered considerable casualties.  What our children are being exposed to in our own basements, family rooms, and at times, in their own bedrooms often runs contrary to the values and identity we hope to pass on to them.

To crush Yavan and Greek culture is only one step harder than to submit to them.  The ultimate challenge lies in integrating the best of their innovations and initiatives and filtering out the good from the dangerous.  As we confront the world, we will carry the Menorah in our hand of strength, and present a Judaism of great vibrancy and relevance.  And we will work preserve our unique identity and with the help of our Mezuzot and man-made walls.

 

Chanukah Flyer- 2018

Do You Want to Talk in Shul?

If you are like me, you must have quite a lot on your mind. Our fast-paced lives, in our ever-changing world, provide us with constant fodder for thought. From personal experiences to thought-provoking articles, to the constant buzz of social media, we are continually inundated with endless flashes of information, the sum of which is way too much to possibly process. From time to time, we are blessed with moments of reflection, which enable us to pause, breathe, think and process. When granted such opportunities, which are, unfortunately, few and far between, we can more easily construct opinions which are informed. We find it less challenging to respect opposing views and appreciate their wisdom and merit. Through the process of thoughtful deliberation and interpersonal dialogue, our perspectives and views become enriched, ultimately reflecting greater nuance and sophistication.

In an effort to create more such opportunities for our community, last fall I introduced a new initiative called “Talking in Shul.” From time to time, the community was invited join in a dialogue – not a monologue – regarding issues that are on my mind. I selected topics for discussion that are, by definition, complex and multifaceted, and, at times even controversial. Those who participated in these forums found the discussions thought-provoking, emotionally stimulating and spiritually enriching.

I’m happy to announce that we will be kicking off the second season of “Talking in Shul” next Friday night, November 23 at 7:30 p.m. for the first event in a new series of “Talking in Shul.” The topic of this year’s first discussion will be “Do We Have a Drinking Problem? An Honest Discussion About Alcohol Consumption in the Orthodox Community.”

Hoping you can join next Friday night and I look forward to the opportunity to talk with you in shul.

 

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