Rabbi Mark Wildes: MJE, Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: First day


One of the issues I struggle with is my need for approval. I have spent, and continue to spend, much time and energy trying to get people to like me, be they friends, colleagues, students, donors, my kids, my wife.… I have a very strong need to be liked. Of course it would be hard to be successful as a rabbi, or as a fundraiser, or as a father or husband if people didn’t like me, but it goes deeper. And in the last year, I have found a friend who has made it even easier for me to be “liked.” And that friend is, of course, Facebook. I arrived a little late to the Facebook party, but in a pretty short period of time I accumulated 2700 “friends,” and if I post something really awesome, I can get hundreds of people to ‘like” me!

But Facebook to me is like drugs to an addict, because although it feels good to be liked, ultimately it doesn’t make me any happier. My feelings were confirmed by a study conducted by the University of Michigan which concluded that increased Facebook use actually drives people’s levels of happiness down and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. But like any addiction, we get a quick high which keeps us coming back for more liking and more approval from other people.
Why do we seek approval from others? And today on Rosh Hashanah when we’re being judged and seeking God’s approval, why does it mean so mean so much to us what others think? 

This past summer I had the merit of leading the MJE Trip to Israel, pretty much in the middle of the war in Gaza. The trip was awesome, and besides being inspired by Israel’s incredible resistance, I came away with the following conclusion: Israelis don’t care nearly as much as we do as to what people say or think. I’m not saying they don’t care at all; no-one likes to always be criticized, but from the many soldiers and others we met, and that I have met over the years, Israelis seem to draw their attitude not from what other people think but from what they think is right.

This idea is reflected in a very powerful teaching of the Torah: The book of Genesis tells us that after the flood, which God sent to destroy the world, Noah planted a vineyard and became intoxicated. The Torah describes a very unflattering scene where Noah is found drunk and disrobed in his tent. The reaction of Noah’s 3 sons, Shem, Cham and Yefet, to their father in this state was very different and according to our Sages laid the groundwork for future generations.

Cham, the Torah tells us, gazed at his father. The commentaries explain that he took advantage of his father’s compromised state and violated him. However, Shem and Yefet took a garment, walked backwards so as not to show any disrespect, and covered their father’s nakedness with the cloth.

But in describing this act of respect, the Torah says: “Vayikach Shem Vayefet”: and Shem and Yefet took, but the word Vayikach is in the singular. It means “and he took”, even though it was both Shem and Yefet who took the garment and covered Noah.  Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, tells us that Shem initiated the action and Yefet followed him. Therefore continues Rashi: Shem merited the mitzvah of tzitzit and Yefet merited the mitzvah of burial.  Just a few verses later (Genesis 9:27), the Torah tells us that Noah blesses his son, Yefet by saying: “yaft elokim leyeft” – that God should grant beauty to Yefet. We have a tradition that whereas the Jewish people come from Shem, the Greek civilization are descendants of Yefet. 
What does this all mean?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick tz”l speaks about two different motivating factors in human behavior: Etiquette and Ethics. In the words of the Rav: “Ethics obligates a person to do what is right and just, even if he is by himself and there are no other people around who will see him to praise his actions.  To the contrary, even if there are other people there who will mock him for his desire to do what is right, he will do what is right because of his strong sense of ethics. Etiquette on the other hand, is a matter of beauty which is dependent upon the input and the approval of other people.  Etiquette changes from time to time and from country to country.  Etiquette is something that emerges from the way in which something will appear in the eyes of other people.”
Shem, says the Rav, had the courage to be the first one to cover the nakedness of his father, even though no one was telling him do so, because he understood from his sense of ethics that covering his father was the right thing to do. And that’s why we the Jewish people, the descendants of Shem, merited the mitzvah of tzitzit.  Tzitzit are worn beneath ones clothing, and so they reflect an inner sense of right and wrong irrespective of what appears on the outside or what others may say. 
Yefet on the other hand did not act because it was the right thing to do. He covered his father only after Shem did. And he did so, says the Rav “only so that Shem would look upon him with a good eye…It was only then that he helped, because at this point it was not only a matter of ‘ethics,’ it was a matter of “etiquette”.  

Therefore the reward for Yefet is kevurah or burial because the whole idea of burying someone after they have passed stems from the honor we give to the deceased; it just doesn’t look right to casually discard the remains of a person after their soul has departed. It would be the highest disregard of etiquette which is the blessing Noah gave to, that God give him a sense of beauty, of aesthetics…of etiquette.

But ultimately the Divine Presence rests in the tents of Shem and not Yefet because for God to be with us, to dwell in our midst, our actions need to be motivated more by ethics than etiquette. We have to make decisions in life which are based on what’s right and not simply what will bring us greater approval. And in some situations, as in Israel’s case this past summer, were forced to choose: Would Israel act in a way that was morally defensible, or simply in a manner that would gain the world’s approval? Because getting the world’s blessing during this war in Gaza would have meant Israel giving up its moral right to self-defense and keeping its own people in harm’s way. On the intellectual level, everyone knew Israel was justified in doing whatever was necessary to stop the rocket attacks, but Israel still looked bad because innocent children were being killed. Yes, people were aware this was a tactic employed by Hamas – to launch rockets from hospitals, homes and mosques so that when Israel would retaliate, it would look like a monster. But deciding not to take out those rocket installations, not to bomb the tunnels, not to aggressively continue its retaliation simply because it was bringing world condemnation, that would have been choosing etiquette over ethics.

Israelis in general are not as concerned with the way things appear as we are in America, where we are tend to be more self-conscious and immersed in the media. Living among our non-Jewish friends and neighbors with whom we thankfully have good relations, we become overly concerned with the way things appear, and sometimes not enough about what is truly right or wrong. I think we can learn from our Israeli brethren who may not have the same etiquette, but are more focused on the ethics. You probably will never hear an Israeli says “excuse me” when he or she bumps into you on the bus, but only in Israel will you see the bus driver, putting the bus in park, getting up and helping a mother with her carriage onto the bus. He may look gruff and uncaring, but ultimately he does the right thing. 

We need to stop caring so much about what others are thinking and be more concerned with what’s right. And as with Israel, sometimes the right thing isn’t always the popular thing. Saying no to a night out with friends when you have a family obligation certainly won’t make you more popular with your friends, but it’s the right thing to do. Not participating in some gossip about a co-worker may cost you some status points in the office, but it’s also the right thing to do. 

Asking one’s colleagues to hold a lunch meeting at one of the fine upscale Kosher restaurants in Manhattan may not earn you more popularity, but it’s the Jewish thing to do. There’s a great story, a true one, of a luncheon with prominent lawyers in London who had as their guest speaker, none other than Prince Charles of Wales. One of the lawyers who attended the luncheon was an observant Jew who ordered a kosher meal. Those of you who have done this know that the kosher meal comes double-wrapped in plastic with cutlery that usually breaks when you use it.  It can sometimes look a bit messy. As the lawyer was eating his meal another attorney walks by and asks him, “Why do you have to make such a spectacle of yourself? I’m also Jewish you know, why not just eat whatever everyone else is eating?” Later, after Prince Charles finished his presentation and was making his way out of the room, he passed by the table of the observant Jew and took notice of all the plastic. He stopped at the table and asked the Kosher eating Jew why he was eating something different from the rest. The lawyer explained that he observes the Jewish laws of Kashrut.  Prince Charles then started to tell him how, as part of his University studies, he attended a theological seminary where they studied the Jewish dietary laws, and the two got into a whole conversation about diet and spirituality. When the other Jewish man overheard the conversation, he walked over and chimed in, “You know, I’m also Jewish.” Prince Charles turned to the man and asked, “So where is your Kosher meal?”

The Kosher man chose Ethics over Etiquette. He put up with a little plastic and flimsy cutlery to follow something in the Torah.  To gain other people’s approval, etiquette may win the day, but to gain respect, you need ethics. Having other people approve our actions may make us feel better in the short term, but real happiness can only be attained when we know we’re doing the right thing.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to ask ourselves what motivates our actions and behavior. Are we acting out of true ethics, or are we simply copying what other people do so we can please our family, friends and colleagues? All good people may have our best interests at heart, but since they too are only human, how do we know their way reflects a true ethic and not simply etiquette? Only God can know what the proper path is in any situation, which is why we consult the Torah when making decisions. Because then we can know we’re making a decision, not simply because it’s what everyone else is doing, but because it’s the right thing.

And so this Rosh Hashanah, let’s stop looking around and start looking up when we’re making important decisions. Those choices and resolutions may not always make us more popular with other people, but if they are informed by something above, by a force greater and wiser than ourselves, then they will no doubt bring us greater meaning and fulfillment. May those choices serve as a merit for us and for our brothers and sisters in Israel, and may Hashem bless us all with a new year of good health, sweetness, and peace.

Shanah Tova. 

Rabbi Mark Wildes: MJE, Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: First Night


A young man was learning to be a paratrooper. Before his first jump, he was given the following instructions: “Jump when you’re told. Count to ten and pull the rip cord. In the unlikely event your parachute doesn’t open, pull the emergency rip cord. When you get down, a truck will be there to take you back to the airport.”

The young man memorizes the instructions and climbs aboard the plane. The plane climbs to ten thousand feet, and the paratroopers begin to jump. When the young man was told to jump, he jumps, he counts to ten, and he pulls the rip cord. Nothing happens. His chute fails to open! So he pulls the emergency rip cord. Still, nothing happens. No parachute. “Oh great,” said the young man. “And I suppose the truck won’t be there when I get down either!”

I thought this was an appropriate story with which to open our Rosh Hashanah services, because Rosh Hashanah is a time to determine what’s really important in life, and what’s not as important. Compared to what was happening to the paratrooper in the sky, whether the truck would be there at the airport or not was probably not very significant. We get too hung up on things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter very much. And on the other hand, we sometimes fail to pay attention to things that are truly deserving of our time. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to take stock and to evaluate what is truly important in our lives; to think about how we are spending our precious time and what areas could stand some improvement.

As I say each year, Rosh Hashanah is the time to make up our own personal mission statement. If we do this for our businesses and our careers, then why not for the parts of our lives which are even more important? What are my goals and objectives for the coming year? What do I hope to achieve in terms of the relationships in my life or in terms of moral and spiritual growth? Am I moving forward in these areas or I am stagnating?

The Talmud tells us:”shuv yom echad lifnei mitatcha”- “repent one day before you die”. Since we obviously don’t know when that day is, teshuva, repentance (or really, the process of returning to God) is something we are encouraged to do every day of our lives. So what’s so special about the High Holidays? If teshuva is an all-year-round mitzvah, then what’s different about the teshuva we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

One of the greatest rabbinic minds of our generation, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, explains the difference in the following way: teshuva is something we are encouraged to do every day of our lives but the teshuva we do every day is designed to keep us in line with our goals and aspirations. When we veer off from pursuing those goals, we have the everyday teshuva as a tool to keep us on the right path. But what is that path? What are the goals and aspirations that we set our sights on?  That, says Rav Lichtenstein, is the teshuva of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the time to choose the path, to create the goals and the objectives for the coming year, to plot out a spiritual and moral direction to which we will aspire in the future year. “What do I want to accomplish in the coming year?” “How far do I wish to take my Judaism and relationships with other people?” These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah.
And we ask ourselves these questions within the context of our prayers, because the prayers we say all year, and particularly the ones we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are designed to help us focus on our purpose in this world. This gives us the proper context with which we can map out the direction we choose to follow in the coming year. Take advantage of this opportunity to create your own mission statement. Use the prayers we will say together to help inspire you; we will say some of the prayers in English and recite or sing some of them in Hebrew. If your Hebrew is a little rusty, feel free to use the transliteration, and if you don’t know a song, just hum along anyway. Humming is also considered a form of prayer.
It is a great honor and pleasure to welcome our Chazzan, Rabbi Arnie Singer, and our Educational Directors, Rabbi Avi and Shira Heller, and thank Miriam, our West Side Director, for all their hard work in helping us plan and carry out our High Holiday programs.

May our prayers uplift and inspire us, may they be received favorably before Hashem, and in that merit may each of us be inscribed in the book of long life, happiness and peace.
Shanah Tova   

Rabbi Mark Wildes: MJE, Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: Second day

TRY AND TRY AGAIN: (Second day)

In 1960, while they were still an unknown high school rock band, four young lads from Liverpool, England went to Hamburg, Germany to play in some of the local pubs.

The band was underpaid, the acoustics were awful, and the audience unappreciative. So what did the Beatles get out of the Hamburg experience? Hours and hours of playing time with each other, something that ultimately forced them to get better.
As they grew in skill, audiences wanted more and more, and by 1962, the Beatles were playing eight hours a night, seven nights a week. By 1964, the year the Beatles came to America and Beatlemania was a reality, they had played over 1,200 concerts together.  Most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career. The Beatles quite literally practiced their way to stardom.
We often think of people or groups who make it big as having gotten a major break or lots of luck, but studies show that virtually all success stories develop from endless hours of practice and hard work. Famous author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” writes that research shows that most people who have achieved mastery in their field have put in roughly 10,000 hours of practice!
And so the old adages “practice makes perfect” or “try and try again” are no joke.
Today is Rosh Hashanah. It’s the beginning of a new year, the day we commemorate the very beginning of creation, and it’s when we declare God as Sovereign and Master of the Universe. The main theme or purpose of Rosh Hashanah is not to ask God for forgiveness (we’ll get to that on Yom Kippur), which is why there are virtually no prayers asking for forgiveness in the liturgy. Instead, today we say over and over again: “Hayom Harat Olam”, today is the birthday of the world. Today, the Almighty brought mankind into creation, and therefore today we coronate God as King and Master of the world. If this is so, then why don’t our Torah readings revolve around themes of creation? Why do we not read from the stories in the book of Genesis, like the story of creation or the Garden of Eden?  Instead we read about Sarah, Rachel and Chana and their challenges with having children!

Yesterday, on the first day of Rosh Hoshanah, we read about Sarah giving birth to Yitzchak after so many years of infertility. In the Haftarah (portion of the prophets), we read about Chana, who was in agony over her childless state until her prayers were answered and she gave birth to Shmuel. Finally, today in the Haftarah, we read about Rachel crying over her children – the descendants of the children she so longed for – on the way into exile. What is the relationship between these great women and Rosh Hashanah’s theme of Kingship?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky suggested that all three women shared a common circumstance, namely all were initially childless and all had to contend with another woman who was having children. Abraham’s wife Sarah’s inability to have a child led her to encourage Avraham to have a child with their maidservant Hagar, and then when Hagar gave birth, she taunted Sarah, who felt threatened. Chana was the favorite wife of the wealthy Elkanah, but his other wife Penina had many children and seized every opportunity to make Chanah feel badly about her infertility. Finally when Rachel, Jacob’s true love, was unable to have a child, and her sister Leah (who Jacob had also married) was having child after child, Rachel felt unloved and threatened.

In reality, each of these women were cherished and truly beloved by their husbands, yet they all FELT unwanted and unloved. Each of these women, despite their feelings of worthlessness, was the favorite wife. How is it possible that there was such a discrepancy between their self-perception and the reality; between the actual feelings of their beloved and what they were feeling?

Rabbi Rackovsky suggests they all viewed their self-worth not in terms of what they did, not according to their noble efforts, but according to what they produced. Did they or did they not make children for their husbands? If they failed to “produce,” then they imagined themselves as failures.

An important study done on 400 New York City fifth graders showed that students who were praised for accomplishment and intelligence were far less likely to take risks or expend effort in school, because they felt their innate abilities excused them from putting in effort, and that failure (which could result from trying something new) was just not an option. In fact, among these children, effort was actually frowned upon as something for people of lesser intelligence. But the study showed that children who were praised for their efforts were far more likely to take risks and invest, get higher test scores, and live up to their potential. Studies also showed that children who were praised for their accomplishments and intelligence and NOT effort were more likely to cheat when placed in more rigorous environments with greater pressure.

Effort, the studies show, is far more important.
That’s what the Beatles taught as they continued to practice again and again in a basement pub in Germany, but unfortunately it’s not a lesson we learn in our world because, let’s face it, our world rewards results. Our world is often uncaring and unsympathetic to our efforts, to how hard we try, if those efforts do not somehow result in a tangible, concrete end product. It could be a law firm that needs to win cases, a pharmaceutical company that has to sell drugs, or a football team that’s cares only about winning games. But as much as this is the reality of our physical and material world it is NOT the ideal and it is certainly NOT what Judaism values.

Torah values effort above all. “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor,” (No one said you had to finish the task), the Sages said in the Mishna (Ethics of our Fathers). No-one said you had to have perfect results… “velo ata ben chorim lehibatel mimena” – but you’re still not exempt from trying.

The Mishna continues: “Im lamadeta Torah harbey” – if you studied much Torah, “notnim lecha sachar harbay” –you will receive great reward. We don’t receive reward for the knowledge that is acquired but rather for the effort. As another Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers explicitly states: “lefum tz’ara agra” – the reward is according to the effort . The level of scholarship is not what serves as our greatest merit, but rather the effort we put into it.

At the end of Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus, when the Torah lists the materials that the Jewish people gave towards the building of the Tabernacle, it mentions gold, silver, brass, blue and purple and scarlet yarn, fine linen, goats hair… and at the very end, the avnei shoham, the onyx stones which set in the ephod, the breastplate of the High priest.

QUESTION: The Ohr Hachaim, a great mystical commentator on the Torah, says that presumably the Torah lists these items in the order of their importance beginning with gold and then afterwards silver… but why then are the avnei shoham, the onyx stones listed at the end? They should have been listed first because they were more precious than gold and silver due to their rarity.

ANSWER: Because the items for the Mishkan are not listed in order of their importance but rather in order of their effort, namely, how much toil and effort went into procuring and donating each of these items. All the materials that were used for Mishkan required work. The gold needed to be refined, the silver needed to be molded, and all the other materials required some form of toil except for the avnei shoham which, according to the Talmud, were miraculously found without any effort on the part of the people.

As far as the Torah is concerned, what’s most precious is not that which is more rare, but rather that which requires personal involvement and work.

The Talmud (Brachos 28b) says that when one exits the Beis Medrash, the study hall, after learning Torah, one should recite the following short prayer: ”I toil and they toil”, referring to artisans and other laborers, “I toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward.”  The Chafetz Chaim asks: Is it really true that artisans or other types of laborers do not receive reward? He answers that when a laborer works, he gets paid for the item he created but not necessarily for the effort he put in. If one creates a beautiful vase and spends all of his effort on that vase, the worker gets paid the market value and no more.  And so even if he worked and sweated over that vase for weeks, if the market says it’s worth 5 bucks, that’s all he makes. On the other hand, the reward for Torah study goes for the effort, not only what one accomplishes.

Our society may reward only results, but when it comes to the deeper things in life, our relationship with God and with our fellow man, effort should mean at least as much, if not more.

There’s a beautiful true story told of a gentleman from Europe who was never taught much about Judaism as a child. He came to the Unites States and one of his children, despite being raised with virtually no Judaism, began to gravitate to Jewish life and Torah study. He eventually became a ba’al-teshuva and was quite knowledgeable. As his son’s connection to Torah developed, the father’s curiosity was aroused and would ask his son to study with him on occasion. He was particularly fascinated by Talmud and so on one occasion, the father asked his son to teach him Talmud. The son was at first reluctant. He said to his father: “look Dad, the ideas can be very complicated and the language in which in which the Talmud is written, Aramaic, is very difficult”. But the father was persistent and eventually got his son to sit down and study with him. They began to study and they learned Talmud each and every day and eventually after an entire year they managed to finish one page. The father was very proud of this accomplishment and was wondering whether he could have a siyum which is a religious celebration. The son said: “Dad, you can’t make a siyum over one page of Talmud, a siyum is for completing an entire Tractate!”  And so the father called a rabbi, but not just any rabbi.  He phoned the late and great Rav Moshe Feinstein tz”l who was a leading Talmudic and Halachic master and a saintly figure. When Rav Moshe heard the question and the whole story he was very inspired. Rav Moshe said to the father: “You may certainly make a siyum on one page of the Talmud, but I just have one question for you: ‘Can I come and join in the celebration? This is an extraordinary accomplishment and I want to be a part of it.’ The father threw a very festive siyum and the great Rav Moshe Feinstein attended.

A party for one page of Talmud… Why? Because it’s not just about the result, it’s the effort and investment you make.

How much of an effort did we make in the last year, and what kind of effort will we make in the coming one? Will we stretch ourselves more in the coming year than we did in the past?

–To make it to services earlier on Shabbat takes effort. So does doing some praying during the week, to start our day with Tefilah (prayer), even for just for a few moments.
–To increase our level of observance, be in the realm of Shabbat, Kashrut or in any part of our religious lives where we could be extending greater effort. Even if we fail, remember that in Judaism, we get credit for trying.

And it should be the same way with interpersonal relationships. If someone makes a mistake, do we give him/her another chance, assuming they are truly sorry and trying to do better? I was recently counseling a couple and one person in the relationship was really getting fed up with their partner so I asked her: “is he trying?” and she answered: “Yes of course he’s trying, but he often fails”. Trying, I said, is what it’s all about. It shows he cares, that he wants to make it work. It’s not always about the results.

I went to Parent-Teacher conferences a few weeks ago and my son’s high school history teacher said “I’m giving 15 percent of the grade for HW and 15 percent for class participation-basically I’m giving your children 30 percent for trying!” Of course the other 70 percent is about results on the tests. Because that’s the physical/material world in which we live. Just imagine today on Rosh Hashanna we are evaluated 100 percent on trying. We can get 100 on the test just by participating and doing our homework. No tests!!!!

In a few moments, we will hear the sounds of the Shofar which, according to some, is intended to sound like a mother crying for her child to come home. The image of a mother crying for her child evokes the image of a loving God calling for us, His children, to return to Him and to His ways. But perhaps the image of a mother is used because who more than a mother knows the potential of their child? Who more than a mother knows what their child is capable of, if they’re really trying? There’s only one Being who knows more and that’s the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe who created us and knows exactly what each of us is capable of and how high each of us can soar if we only try. May this year be the year we truly strive and in doing so bring great joy and blessing to ourselves, to our families and to all mankind.
Shana Tova