Olympic Judaism

February 23, 2014

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

I know we’ve moved on to Pikudei, but I hope you enjoy my Drasha from this past Shabbat.

A bit of Olympic history for you:

When the modern olympic games were founded in 1894, only amateurs were allowed to compete. It was forbidden to play for any monetary gain. In fact, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics.

Over the course of the 20th century, this idea slowly eroded, on mostly practical grounds. Athletes obviously needed to be funded in order to spend the time practicing and competing. They would avoid breaking the rules by having money deposited into trust funds rather than being paid directly. But slowly through the 1970s and 80s the rules were relaxed. In 1988, professional athletes were formally permitted.

It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball players on million-dollar salaries, or your favorite hockey player being paid to appear on a box of cereal. But in the beginning, there was a sense that the ideal athlete was an amateur, not a professional.

Why this fixation with the amateur player?

The word athlete comes from the ancient greek for “one who competes for a prize”. Ancient Greek athletes did, in fact, play for prize money. The word amateur, however, comes from Latin “amator”, or love. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of the game.

Our culture values the idea of the amateur, the person who acts out of love or commitment. Even when someone does something nice for me, I don’t feel as appreciative it if I think they did it out of a sense of obligation. We prefer good deeds that are done by choice. We consider it more noble to do the right thing because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

It’s this tension between “have to” and “want to” that emerges from within our parsha.

We read about the beautiful and luxurious materials that were donated for the building of the Mishkan.

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper.”

The verses refer over and over to nediv libam – the people gave whatever they saw fit, out of the generosity of their heart; there was no prescribed amount. And in fact, they were so moved to give that Moshe had to do something that has never happened in any Jewish fundraising campaign ever since. Moshe had to ask them to stop donating! They had given too MUCH. (Devarim 36:6)

Rashi, however, reminds us that not all these materials were voluntary donations. Here, he refers back to a comment he made in Parshat Terumah, when we are first commanded with regards to the building of the Mishkan:

“[The materials]  were all given voluntarily; each person [gave] what his heart inspired him to give, except [for] the silver, which they gave equally, a half-shekel for each individual.”  (24:3)

The only material that came through obligatory collection was the silver. A tax of one half-shekel coin was levied from each person, and these coins provided the silver for the Mishkan.

What does Judaism more greatly value – a voluntary act of commitment, or one that is done out of a sense of obligation?

Our Sages assert Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh m’asher eino metzuveh v’oseh – It is greater to be commanded to perform mitzvot and to do them, rather than to do mitzvah out of choice or religious fervor.

This concept famously plays a central role when discussing the many mitzvot from which women are exempted. A woman is not obligated in a host of mitzvot – sitting in the sukkah, hearing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit to name a few. But a woman may choose to do these out of her own volition, and we know that Jewish women en masse have taken upon themselves some of these very central mitzvot – hearing the shofar is the most widespread example. And, of course, there is a very interesting discussion happening right now in the Orthodox community with regards to women who might choose to don tefillin. (Another conversation for another time; find me at Kiddush – or on a future blog post…)

We do admire people who go the extra mile, who do a mitzvah out of nedivut generosity of spirit. My husband Avi and I named our second daughter Nedivah as a nod to this concept – Nedivah means generous, or giving. Avi and I deeply value this characteristic of nedivut, and we wanted to impart it to our daughter.

But ultimately, Judaism places a greater value on the idea of obligation, commandedness – Metzuveh v’oseh. This is symbolized by the fact that although most of the Mishkan was built using materials that were given from a deep and overwhelming sense of zeal and generosity, it also contained in it the machatzit ha’shekel, the obligatory donation that each person was required to give.

The voluntary donations clearly provided all the materials needed, even more than enough. Why was it important to also utilize the half-shekel coins in the building of the Mishkan?

For this, we return to our Olympic athletes.

We may admire amateurs. Their sheer love and passion is what drives them. But ultimately, that is not sustainable en masse. The Olympics had to recognize the need for the professional athlete.

A pro athlete may feel exhilarated during his time on the rink, or on the ski slopes. But if he wakes up one day and doesn’t feel like getting on the ice, he still has to do it. He has committed himself to this, and he must rise to meet that commitment.

Ideally, we should all be amateur Jews. We should live the values of the Torah out of sheer joy and love for it. We hope that our fire of religious fervor is lit constantly.

But we also recognize that sometimes we may lose our motivation, or the challenges of a Jewish life may be too great. We may not always be internally motivated to make the decision to do what is moral and right. It is then that we might become “professional” Jews. We might recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute that half-shekel to the world. We are obligated to uphold Jewish values and to participate in Jewish life, even when our internal drive is not as strong.

It is that sense of obligation that is gadol – that is greatness. Metzuveh v’oseh, it is our commandedness that keeps us active and committed, that keeps our community going.

Ideally, even when we act out of a sense of obligation, this will lead us to rekindle the fire, so that we can become Jewish amateurs, and do it simply because we love it.


Making sense of our world –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 12, 2013

We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves.  One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why?  Why are all these terrible things happening?  Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage. 

 

We, the readers, see both sides of the story.   We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation.  But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another.   They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us?  They blame themselves.  Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.

 

With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus:  “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”   This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.  

 

The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness.  Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.

 

This all feels a lot like our world.   We are Yosef’s brothers too.  We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable.  Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense.  And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth.   If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place.  Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”

 

 


What’s in a beracha (blessing)- by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 8, 2012

In this past Shabbat’s parsha Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings.  We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses.  What kind of blessing is this?

 

Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential.  To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.

 

Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic.  As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.”  All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness.   A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.

 

This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.

 

Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)?  Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are.  Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.

 

The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them.  The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.

 

What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God.  In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not.  Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical.  This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God.  Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.

 

This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.

 

It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.  -Berachot 7a

 

God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people.  This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.

 

In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot.  He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly.  He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”


A Hanukkah irony -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 14, 2011

Hanukkah today is a holiday of great irony. Though not a Biblical holiday, and certainly not Judaism’s most essential holiday, Hanukkah has taken on an exaggerated importance in America, due I think, to its calandrical proximity with one of Christianity’s most important festivals.

Hanukkah commemorates the war in the year 166 B.C.E. between the Jews in Israel and the Greek empire within which Israel of that era found itself. No two cultures could be more different than that of the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were polytheistic and emphasized the esthetic, as their statues that we visit in our museums illustrate. Their perfect physical body chiseled in the Olympics and cultivated in Greek art and writing is iconic. In contrast the Jewish people were monotheists and a nation not known for their esthetic accomplishments, but rather their theological, judicial, and ethical ones. The Jewish people fought a war against the Greeks to retain their unique religion and not assimilate into Hellenistic culture and beliefs.

We light candles on Hanukkah because Hanukkah is about bringing the light of ethical monotheism into the world, about bringing the light of spirituality into a time of deified physicality, epitomized by the pervasive Greek culture of physicality and its worship. Hanukkah is indeed a battle of light and dark, polytheism and monotheism, the physical and the spiritual, the outside culture against the small Jewish nation trying to withstand assimilation and disappearance.

How ironic that Hanukkah, an anti-assimilationist holiday, has become the holiday of Jewish assimilationism, with the giving of gifts to imitate the Christmas tradition and the extravagant spending on parties which recall their non-Jewish counterparts.

For the previous generation of American Jews the opportunity of the American melting pot was Judaism’s undoing. Jewish people in alarming numbers from that generation assimilated into American culture, and feeling they could not be both Jews and Americans, exchanged their Jewish identity for the promise of American prosperity.

Though we live in a new era, one whose watchword is multiculturalism and not assimilation, it alas has come too late for the high percentage of American Jews whose grandparents were Jewish but whose grandchildren are not. At this time of year, when we might be tempted to use Hanukkah as a way of feeling part and parcel of the outside culture, of having our winter holiday also, let us resist this temptation to fit in, and instead take back our winter holidays for what they should be. A time of learning what it means to resist the American melting pot, a time for all of us, Jew, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, to celebrate our difference and separateness; -to see each of our uniqueness as more valuable than fitting in.

The culmination of Hanukkah’s successful military campaign two millennia ago was the rededication of the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The symbol of this rededication was the lighting of the oil lamps, the menorah, with pure olive oil. This act, the bringing of light into the darkness, symbolizes the true Jewish take on Hanukkah. This Hanukkah let us celebrate, not presents and fanfare, but a single small light, adding one additional light on each subsequent night of Hanukkah and taking in the message that bringing light into the darkness is really what Hanukkah is about.


Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – 5772 – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 7, 2011

This guide will be placed in each Machzor at my shul. Feel free to print it out and use it on Yom Kippur. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – 5772

The Yom Kippur davening is challenging in that it is very busy ,full of choreography and very long.

Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.

The Yom Kippur Mussaf is an amalgam of prayers with High Holiday themes as well as recreations of the Temple service, mourning dirges and the account of the Ten Martyrs.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes. 

Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.

Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers.

What Life Teaches about Judaism        (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

  • Never compromise your principles because of others. Don’t compromise on kashrut or any other Jewish practice because you happen to find yourself among non-Jews or non-religious Jews. Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. They are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

Ask Yourself: How can I strengthen my Jewish commitments?

  • Never look down on others. Never think that being Jewish means looking down on gentiles. It doesn’t. Never think that being a religious Jew entitles you to look down on non- religious Jews. It doesn’t. The greatest Jew, Moses, was also, according to the Torah, “the humblest person on the face of the earth”. Humility does not mean self-abasement. True humility is the ability to see good in others without worrying about yourself.

Ask Yourself: How can I exhibit Jewish and personal pride without crossing the line of haughtiness?

  • Never stop learning. I once met a woman who was 103 and yet who still seemed youthful. What, I asked her, was her secret? She replied, “Never be afraid to learn something new”. Then I realized that learning is the true test of age. If you are willing to learn, you can be 103 and still young. If you aren’t, you can be 23 and already old.

Ask Yourself: Do I learn enough? Is my Judaism young? If not, how can I fix it? (Hint: Ask Rabbi Gelman)

  • Never be impatient with the details of Jewish life. God lives in the details. Judaism is about the poetry of the ordinary, the things we would otherwise take for granted. Jewish law is the sacred choreography of everyday life.

Ask Yourself: Do I make every Jewish moment count? Do I reflect when I pray? Am I mindful when I perform a Mitzvah? If the answer to any of these is no, seek ways to slow down so as not to let Judaism get erased in the hustle and bustle of life

 

How To Pray when one is not suffering – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man’s Quest For God)

 

But there is a wider voluntary entrance to prayer than sorrow and despair – the opening of our thoughts to God. We cannot make Him visible to us, but we can make ourselves visible to Him…The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting, the flowers like signposts of His goodness – only we have failed to be testimonies to His presence…How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it?  To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

 

Faith In The Jewish People – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

 

“Let me confess; sometimes, in bed at night, when I cannot sleep, and my mind wonders, I am assailed by sober thoughts and overtaken by worry concerning the Jews in Eretz Yisrael (Israel) and the fate of Diaspora Jewry. As far as the Diaspora is concerned, it seems to us that despite all of our great efforts, despite the growth of the yeshivas and the flowering of a wonderful religious youth, we are a very small portion of the Jewish population of America….And doubt gnaws away : will we be swept away by these strong waves of assimilation which rage around us in America….Such a view, in my opinion, strikes a blow and wounds our faith in Knesset Yisrael (the Assembly of Israel) which we are commanded to keep….[Regarding] the spiritually estranged Jew, [to] Jews who have deserted, assimilated and have become extremely alienated from other Jews and Judaism. Even regarding these, we have a standing assurance  that “if any of you be driven out unto the outmost ends of the horizon, from thence will the Lord thy God gather you.” Every prediction of “spiritual extinction” and complete assimilation” is contrary to faith in Knesset Yisrael, which s the same faith in the advent of the Messiah, a foundation stone of Judaism…” A Jew who has lost faith in Knessset Yisrael, even though he may personally sanctify and purify himself by being strict in his observance of the precepts…such a Jews is incorrigible and totally unfit to join in the Day of Atonement which encompasses the whole of Knesset Yisrael, in all its components and all its generations.”

Ask Yourself:

  • Do I identify with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s initial concern for the spiritual fate of the Jewish people? If so, what bothers me about the current situation and how can I make it better? If not, what are the positive elements of the current state of Jewish religiosity that are encouraging? How can I make them even better?
  • What is the best recipe for Jewish spiritual survival? Name three elements of a Jewish life that are indispensable to achieve that goal.
  • Rabbi Solovetichik ultimately “regains” his faith in the survival of the Jewish people. Ask yourself: Who do I think will ultimately be those who will survive and remain part of Knesset Yisrael? Am I part of that group?

 

Don’t Let A Good Sin Go To Waste   Rabbi Barry Gelman

 

Sounds like strange advice. Let me explain. According to Rabbi Solovetichik there are two kinds of Teshuva (return). One type of Teshuva calls for a complete obliteration of the past. “Certain situations leave no choice but the annihilation of evil and for completely uprooting it. If one takes pity and lets evil remain, one inexorably pays at a later date an awesome price…Repentance of the individual can also be the kind that requires a clean break, with all of man’s sins and evil deeds falling away into an abyss, fulfilling the prophecy, “An thou will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Many have experienced this feeling or the desire to erase parts of our life. We feel nothing good can come out of those particular experiences or memories. We may be so successful at this that we really cannot remember the event even if asked about it or reminded of it. This type of Teshuva is useful and necessary in certain situations.

There is another type of Teshuva. says Rabbi Soloveitchik: “…there is another way – not by annihilating evil but by rectifying and elevating it. This repentance does not entail making a clean break with the past or obliterating memories. It allows man, at one and the same time, to continue to identify with the past and still to return to God in repentance.”

Rabbi Chaim Navon, in his book Ne’echaz B’Svach, offers an analogy of two people who were in a car accident. One of them may decide never to get back on the road, while the other becomes a driving teacher in order to rain a new generation of careful drivers. They had the same experience – but the affect of that experience differed greatly between them.

The person who swore off driving had a dead past – a past that set up the future.

The person who became a driving instructor has a live past – a past that is defined by the future. This person’s past is defined by decisions of the present.

 

Ask Yourself:

  • What past sins can I use to make myself a better person?
  • What are some strategies I can use to avoid compounding sin by making sure I use past mistakes to create better future?
    • Talking it over with my spouse/friend / rabbi
    • Studying more about this idea of repentance (ask Rabbi Gelman for further reading)
    • Spend time after a sin to think about how to redirect it

A Way To Faith – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 21, 2011

This is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat (Erev Purim) in my Shul in Houston. Although Purim has passed, I think that the message of the sermon is still reevennt and I hope that it can offer a way to faith for those who struggle with faith while facing difficult circumstances.

A Way To Faith

I am finding it particularly difficult to get into the Purim spirit this year. Like many of you, my thoughts this week have been consumed by the reports and the images of the brutal murder by Palestinian terrorists of the 5 members of the Fogel family in Itamar, Israel as well as by the death of 10’s of thousands of people brought on by the earthquake and Tsunamis that rocked and flooded Japan.

If I may relate my personal state of mind, each of these tragedies has affected me differently. The Japan tragedy is a terrible human tragedy, not to be considered as 10’s of thousands, but as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – families – just like ours – shattered – never to be the same. That tragedy, savagely created by nature, forces us to confront difficult questions about God and the natural order.

The brutal murders in Itamar conjures up different challenges. That was not just a murder of a family – it was the murder of our family. Here, for most of us, we are talking about 2 or 3 degrees of separation. Of course, this type of despicable deed raises questions, not about faith in God, but about faith in humanity.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Yehuda Amital in an interview he gave to Yad Vashem where he commented on having faith after the Holocaust. In referencing a conversation with  Abba Kovner a leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, and a kibbutz leader and poet in Israel, Rabbi Amital recalls: “Once we were both participants in a TV panel about the meaning of the Holocaust. He asked me, “Did you have problems with your faith?” I answered him, “I had problems? Your problems are even more serious. I believed in God; now, I don’t understand His ways. But you believed in man; now, do you continue to believe in man, after what you saw in the Holocaust? Truly, we both have a problem.”
[1]

I would like to suggest a way into Purim in light of the recent events. I believe that this approach is important not just for this year, but that it also offers a way to faith that may be helpful.

I will start with a basic question on Purim.

Why do we not recite Hallel on Purim? This question is asked in the Talmud in tractate Megilla and 3 answers are given. For our purposes, I wish to focus on the third answer. According to the Gemara, we do not say Hallel on Purim because even after the great salvation and military victory, we are still “servants of Achashveirosh.”

What the Talmud is trying to get across here is that Purim does not reflect a total victory or salvation. Despite the fact that we declare “Layehudim Hayta Ora…”, there was still much leftover darkness once all the dust settled.

If that is the case, then we must ask ourselves another question. Why celebrate? What is the purpose of celebration if the same sword that dangled over our necks before the Purim saga unfolded, continues to dangle there.

Here the words of Rabbi Zadok HaKoheinm of Lublin are helpful.

Say’s Rav Tzadok[2] – Pesach represents total salvation – we left Egypt and we went and received the Torah. Pesach represents leaving the darkness of exile.

Purim on the other hand, with the left over danger and darkness, represents the ability to cope with remaining in the darkness. That too is a gift from God.[3]

This will be my approach to Purim this year. The murders in Itamar especially, remind us that there are still great challenges and that there is great hatred among our enemies. The murders remind us that even with the establishment of the State of Israel, there is still much darkness to overcome.

But I will also recall this Purim that the Fogel family in Itamar and all those suffering in Japan, have the ability to cope with the darkness and to build new lives on the ruins.

I will also remember that despite the human evil displayed in Itamar and in the Palestinian street as they celebrated the murders, that there are many many good people in our world.

There are 50 or so firefighters who are facing certain death as they try to contain the fires and radiation leaks at the Japanese nuclear power plants.

I will remember the amazing story of Rami Levy, owner of a chain of supermarkets in Israel. If you have not heard the story, it is worth hearing.

According to a number of Israeli news outlets, Rami Levy has gone to the Fogel’s house every day of the Shiva and fills up their refrigerator and cupboard with food.

Someone at the house noticed and expressed their appreciation to him for doing this. He responded that they will be seeing him for a while as he plans to supply them with food and supplies every week until the youngest orphan turn 18.

Who among us does not live with some darkness?

Who among us has not woken up in the morning wondering how to go on living?

This is part of life, but, yet, somehow we manage to cope – and sometimes even thrive under difficult conditions.

That ability, that great power is worth celebrating for it too is a gift from God.

“Even a Holiday that does not merit Hallel, remains worthy of celebration. It behooves us to remember this, because instances of complete salvation are few and far between. We must take joy and show gratitude for the ability to make it through the difficult times, even when our problems do not depart entirely.”[4]

I conclude with a teffilla

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael…

As for our brothers of the whole house of Israel who are in distress or captivity, on sea or land, may the All-Present have compassion on them and lead them from distress to relief, fro darkness to light, and from oppression to freedom, now, swiftly and soon – and let us say: Amen


[2] Divrei Soferim 32

[3] Cited in Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine – Yitzchak Blau, pg. 41

[4] Ibid


The 10th Plague and the Sanctification of the First Born –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 19, 2011

In the past few Torah portions we have been reading of the Jewish People’s Exodus from Egypt.  The 10th plague, the smiting of the firstborn, seems to be the final catalyst which precipitates Pharos’ freeing of the slaves.  Curiously, just after the firstborn in Egypt are killed the Jewish people are told, “…therefore you shall sanctify the firstborn of the Jewish people.”  But why should the killing of Egypt’s first born result in the sanctification of the Jewish people’s first born animals and humans?

Several answers are given to this question by the classical commentaries.   The most basic is that the sanctification of the Jewish firstborn is an act of thanks for sparing them.  This seems strange though, for to give thanks to God, one should bring a thanksgiving offering, not offer up precisely that which was saved.

I would like to suggest the following answer along more physiological lines.   When individuals are together in a life-threatening circumstance in which some people survives and others do not, the survivors often ask themselves why they survived.  They were often not more worthy than their neighbor, not smarter, or more careful.  What can result from this is not just guilt on the part of the survivors but, especially given the seemingly often random nature of who survives and who does not, a sense of hitchayvut or obligation.  A sense that they were saved ‘for a reason’ and thus a feeling of need to make their lives more meaningful, deeper, and perhaps more spiritual than they would have been otherwise.

I think this may be why the Jewish people are not commanded to sanctify their firstborn.  Had this act been one of thanksgiving the Jewish people would be required to sanctify the firstborn as a kind of sacrifice.  But instead the firstborn are not offered by people but naturally and of necessity rendered in a state of sanctity which, as the Torah states, results directly from the act of the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt.

The Israelite who is saved while their Egyptian neighbor is killed, is, as a result of the seemingly random, non-merit based nature of the universe, propelled to make greater sense of their survival and their life, to sanctify their life and to come closer to the Source of all the grand complexity.

Many years ago I was in an accident which I survived and my friend did not.  Later I expressed my sense of survivor guilt to a rabbi I knew.  “Why me?” I asked.  “I was no more righteous than my friend who died.”

I have never forgotten the rabbi’s response: “We, all the living, feel guilty, for we all are the survivors.”  Indeed he was right.  The very fact that we are alive should, in this existential sense, propel us to see ourselves as survivors and to make greater meaning of our lives, to become closer to the Divine and to feel in this way, sanctified –obligated in special work, bearing an extra-ordinary sense of obligation.   We, the living, are all the survivors and must own up to our sense of sanctity and obligation.