The Perfect Time to Break Some Bad Habits

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This past Shabbat there was knock at my door. It was one of my students, a 27-year old attorney who frequents Manhattan Jewish Experience and is an important part of our community of young professionals. He came over to share the news that he decided to quit vaping. He had this look of total pride and accomplishment on his face, having broken a habit with which he had been struggling for years.

What gave him the strength? How did he do it?

Although I couldn’t invite my student (he prefers to remain anonymous) into my home – social distancing and all – I gave him a chair in the hallway so we could speak. He told me he had just been for a walk in Central Park where he saw numerous other young people, smoking and vaping. New data released by the CDC warned that young people may be more impacted by COVID-19 than was initially thought. Up to 20% of people hospitalized with the virus have been between the ages of 20 and 44. In China, smokers were 14 times more likely to develop severe cases of the virus than those who do not smoke. When my student saw those stats, he went into his bedroom and did something he said he hasn’t been able to do for years: he threw out all his vaping materials. “Rabbi, I feel so free and if I get Corona, now I can fight it.”

I told my student that his decision to quit vaping, especially now, was in keeping with the highest of Jewish values and principles. As the Torah explicitly tells us: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: “Guard yourself’ means taking care of the body.” Bodily health is necessary for observing the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) since in most cases they require physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit or unhealthy, it detracts from our ability to the properly fulfill the mitzvot. In the words of the great Maimonides: “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore, one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 4:1).

Even more fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of life, a spiritual path that celebrates human life, virtually above everything else. Life trumps keeping kosher. Life trumps Shabbat and – as my student shared – it should also trump the mental discomfort that comes from quitting nicotine. I do not want to oversimplify the addictive nature of vaping and smoking. I know from friends and others it is not easy to stop. But maybe now, knowing the increased dangers these bad habits now pose to young people in defeating this deadly virus, we will have the fortitude to make some real and lasting changes.

In light of the above sentiment expressed by Maimonides, that good health is a means for greater spiritual perfection, we should endeavor to use this time to break other bad habits as well. Texting while driving, eating unhealthily and other substance abuses are the cause of much illness and death. Or what seems as a less harmful, but just as dangerous of a bad habit as speaking ill of our neighbors and colleagues. If our social distancing inspires us to now better appreciate our family and friends, we can express that newfound appreciation by trying to refrain from saying anything negative about them.

If the data shared above can freak out enough people to stop smoking or vaping, then at least COVID-19 will have served some positive function. Let us use our new awareness regarding the fragility and preciousness of human life to become stronger, wiser, and more prudent. Pressure can break a person, but it can also make diamonds. Maybe, just maybe, this terrible virus can help us end some bad habits once and for all.

Riding off the inspiration from his personal triumph, my student decided to create a page to inspire others to do the same. You can follow him on social media at daily_inspirational_wisdom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

MJE Connect in the News March 2020

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Check out MJE in the news and learn about our response to Coronavirus

CBS “Virtual Bris”

CBS “Pray at Home”

PBS Metrofocus:

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

A Spiritual Response to the Coronavirus

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In the 1960’s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would travel to the former Soviet Union to distribute Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items forbidden in Russia at the time. At the end of one of his trips, as Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room, he heard a knock at the door.

Reb Shlomo saw it was a little boy knocking and so he let him in.  The boy looks up at Reb Shlomo and asks: “Do you know where I can find Rabbi Carlebach?” “That’s me, I’m Rabbi Carlebach but please call me Shlomo – what can I do for you?” he asked. “I was told you have Tefilin,” the boy answers. Reb Shlomo sadly responds: “I’m so sorry, but I’m at the end of my trip and I gave away my last pair of Tefilin.”

The boy became very sad. He looked down at the ground and then looked back up to Reb Shlomo and with a tear in his eye asked: “In a few weeks I’m going to be a Bar-Mitzvah. How can I have a Bar-Mitzvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin which looked old and worn. He knelt down beside the boy and with the Tefilin in his hand told the boy: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather, a great Rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy smiled and promised he would wear them every day.

As the boy proceeded to leave, he turned around and asked: “Wait, Shlomo, do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left.” The boy looked up and asked: “How can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the child and the boy left.

What compels someone to part with something so important, so sentimental and valuable for a complete stranger?

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the very dramatic incident of Chayt Ha’aygel, the sin of the Golden Calf.  After the sin takes place and all those involved are punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish community, to the majority of the community who did not participate in the sin and says something strange: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah -“you have committed a great transgression,” v’atah e’eleh el Hashem – “and now I’ll go up to God,” ulai achpera b’ad chatatchem- “maybe He (Hashem) will forgive you for your sin.”

To what sin is Moshe referring? The Jews who committed the serious sin of worshipping the Golden Calf had already been punished! Moshe was addressing the rest of the community that had not sinned, so to what sin was Moshe referring?

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested it was for the sin of not doing anything. For the sin of remaining indifferent, of being idle. Sure, the majority of the Jews did not engage in the sin of the Golden Calf, but they also failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah challenges us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “don’t stand by idly by thy brother’s blood.” Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze– “all Jews are responsible one for the next” and so even though only a small percentage of the people actually engaged in the sin, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected.

Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we’re seen as one and we even feel as one. I remember years ago, before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Jewish community felt so proud that one of the astronauts aboard was a Jew. The Jewish community was even prouder when this Jewish astronaut, Colonel Ramon, decided to eat kosher food in space and bring up a Torah Scroll with him from a concentration camp. It made us all feel proud, not only because it reflected well on us as a people, but also because we are all interconnected. Similarly, how embarrassed did we feel, also years ago, when Bernie Madoff, another fellow Jew was taken off to prison for cheating so many people out of so much money? We felt that too because we have this connection.

The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual. He said that just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is affected, so too each Jew feels the pain or the joy of another Jew, because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, the great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, compared the Jewish people to the passengers of a huge ship that is beginning to sink. The passengers and crewman are scurrying about, desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship. They look everywhere until they come across one locked cabin with water gushing out from underneath the door. The crewman kicked open the door and lo and behold there’s this one guy digging away, drilling a huge hole in the floor of his cabin and the water is gushing through.  The passengers shout at the man: “What are you doing?” The man responds: “What’s the problem? I’m just drilling a hole in my cabin! It’s my cabin after all, I paid for it!”

We are all in the same boat. What affects one person affects us all. The coronavirus operates in the very same way. Acting responsibly, following the Health Department’s rules against congregating publicly (which is why we are not holding services this Shabbat), is not only necessary to keeping ourselves safe. It is imperative to help contain the virus for everyone. The Jewish teaching of areivus, the responsibility of one person to the next, demands such a response. Human life is paramount and it is only for this reason that MJE, for the first time in 21 years, would not host Shabbat services.

Areivus is fundamental to being Jewish and is expressed very powerfully through the following halacha in regard to reciting brachot (blessings). If one is eating with a fellow Jew not familiar with brachot, provided you are also eating, you can say the blessing for that other person and all your friend needs to do is have in mind to be yotze (satisfied) with your bracha, and if possible say Amen. However, you, the one saying the bracha, must be eating yourself.  However, this only applies to blessings recited over food. When it comes to blessings said before performing a mitzvah, the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation (for example, you’ve already donned your Tefilin or you have already recited the blessing over the Shabbat candles), you can recite the bracha again for a fellow Jew who may not know.

How is that allowed? You’ve already made your own blessing using Hashem’s name? How can you do it again? The Rabbeinu Nissim explains that when it comes to a birchot hamitzvah, a blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, because it is something in which we are all commanded and because all Jews are responsible for each other, you can say the blessing again – for as long as your fellow Jew has not fulfilled their mitzvah, your mitzvah is incomplete. What happens to someone else affects us. We cannot proceed with business as usual if someone else is lacking or is in trouble or in danger, be it after an attack in Israel or the Corona striking our next-door neighbor. Their concern is our concern.

Being a Jew means caring and feeling the pain of others. It means helping a friend who has lost their job, making some calls, helping them network to secure another position or just being there for them emotionally. I remember back in 2008 when the economy tanked and someone said to me: “Rabbi, don’t expect as many MJE participants to come to the Annual Dinner this year (we just postponed this year’s Dinner to June 9th) or to contribute, with the economy being as it is.”  And I remember responding to this person, that the day our participants stop giving back is the day this place shuts down. Not just because we need everyone’s support to continue our vital programming, but because when we stop being there for each other, ultimately, we stop being a community. A real community is comprised of members who care and who sacrifice for each other, who, in times of crisis, do not turn inward, but despite the challenge, rise to the occasion.

My friends, this is such a time. People are scared and uptight about the situation. Older people and those with preexisting conditions feel particularly vulnerable. We need to be there for them. If you have such a friend or family member or anyone else who is feeling isolated or fearful of the situation, call them. Reach out to them and call them often. If you cannot see them in person, use your iPhone so they can see you and feel the concern you have for them. Take advantage of the extra time you may have off from work to do some extra Torah studying. MJE is adding an on-line Zoom class every day from 12:30-1:00pm. And take some extra time to pray. Pray for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus (see list of names below) and pray that Hashem bless our efforts to contain the virus so we can see this ailment pass as soon as possible.

Our fate and destiny are bound with each other and so to beat the coronavirus we must look out for each other, like a family. The truth is, for a brother or a sister, we would do just about anything. We would give them whatever they needed, be it our grandfather’s pair of Tefilin or the shirt off our back. Stay connected, stay safe and keep looking out for each other. May the love and unity with which we approach this moment serve as zechut, as a spiritual merit for Hashem’s blessing of healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom

People I’ve been asked to pray for:
Avraham Shmuel Ben Rachel
Zev Melech Ben Bedina
(Rav) Zalman Dov ben Esther
Yosef ben Ester
Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra
Harav Reuven ben Fruma
Ivriyah Miriam bat Malkah Reizel
Daniel Shmuel ben Miriam
Tziporah Hadarah bat Rachel
Elana Devorah bat Freidel Nechama
Shami Aryeh ben Menucha Sarah
Yaakov ben Rochel Miriam
Shmuel Tzvi ben Roiza Frimet
Shoshana bat Sarah
Yonina Sarah bat Chana
Elchanan Yehonatan ben Chaya
Andre Abraham ben Berthe
Aviva Rachel bat Rivka
Ariella Malka bat Aviva
Yael Michal bat Ruth
Uri ben Priva Chaya
Aharon Shaul ben Rachel
Yosef Dov ben Rivkah Chaya
Leah bas Devorah Basha
Yosef Batsalel ben Ruth
Yaakov Eliezer ben Miriam Masha
Yaakov Yitzchok Moshe ben Devorah
Eta Leah bat Perel
Shaul Michael ben Eta Leah
Eliyahu ben Ahuva
Yisroel Zev ben Atara Karni Dal Beilah

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Seize the Moment! Purim 2020

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Irena Sendler of Warsaw Poland died on May 12, 2008 at the ripe age of 98. During the Second World War, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto as a plumbing and sewer specialist but she had an ulterior motive. Irena smuggled Jewish infants out of the ghetto in the bottom of her toolbox and in a burlap sack, which she kept in her truck, for larger children. Irena kept a dog in the back of her truck that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers wanted nothing to do with the dog and the barking covered the children’s noises.

Irena managed to smuggle out and save 2500 children and infants.

In the Purim story, after Haman’s edict to annihilate all the Jews in ancient Persia is announced, Mordecai goes to Queen Esther for help. He shows Esther a copy of Haman’s decree and asks Esther to go before King Achashverosh to plead the case of her brethren. Esther tells Mordecai she cannot simply appear before the King unsummoned and that she has not been called to the King’s chambers for 30 days. When Mordecai hears Esther’s hesitancy, he famously responds: If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place…and who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment (Megilat Esther 4:13).

Immediately upon hearing this Esther springs into action. She tells Mordecai to gather the Jews of Shushan to fast on her behalf and executes a plan which ultimately turns the tables in favor of the Jews.

What is it about Mordecai’s statement that motivates Esther to act? By saying “salvation will come from another place” he seems to be letting Esther off the hook. If Mordecai’s goal was to inspire Esther to act, why would he tell her that if she failed to do her part, God would save the Jewish people anyway?

Mordecai was a man of faith. He believed God would never allow the Jewish people to be destroyed but by telling Esther: who knows perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, he was informing her that by embracing her situation she could fulfill the purpose of her becoming Queen.

…who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment, is a phrase that should resonate with each of us. Even if we aren’t Kings or Queens, we are all placed within certain environments and situations and we all have a specific purpose and mission in this world. That mission is different for each of us and we are therefore placed within different circumstances to accomplish that purpose.

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746, Padua, Italy) wrote that every person’s life predicament is their challenge. A poor person is challenged to see if he can be satisfied with the little he possesses, and a rich person is tested to see if he becomes indifferent to the plight of the poor. Each of us comes into the world with certain abilities and deficiencies and the life situations in which we find ourselves provide us with the unique opportunities we need to perfect our area of deficiencies and develop our unique potential.

But we must act. Simply being in the situation isn’t enough. To develop ourselves into the people we were meant to be, we must seize the moment and take action. Mordecai was telling Esther: you’ve been elevated to the position of Queen but the spiritual perfection you can realize from this situation will only be realized if you act – if you go before the King and intercede on behalf of your people. Irena Sendler was just a plumber in Warsaw, but she seized upon the opportunity which her unique situation presented.  In doing so, she not only saved countless Jewish lives, but she may have also fulfilled her own Divine purpose and mission in life.

We may find ourselves stuck in some kind of dead-end job but maybe, just maybe, we were supposed to be there, at least for some time, to be challenged in some new way or perhaps to meet someone we otherwise would never have encountered. I have a classmate from law school who hated his first law job except for the opportunity it gave him to meet this new co-worker with whom he was assigned to work. My friend, who was Sabbath observant invited his co-worker to his home for a Shabbat meal. The co-worker, who had never experienced Shabbat, loved the experience and came back for more. The two became friends and began studying Torah together on a regular basis. Within a year, my friend left the firm but eventually his co-worker became Shabbat observant. That’s not why my friend originally took the job, but maybe, just maybe that’s why he was supposed to work there, at least for that period of time. As Mordecai told Esther: who knows, perhaps you became royalty for this very moment.

The lesson of Purim is that there are no coincidences in life. In fact, the root of the word Purim is pur which means lottery – Haman determined the day to annihilate the Jews by drawing from a lottery. Life may often feel like a lottery, things may appear coincidental or as though they are happening by simple chance, but the message of Purim is that everything happens for a reason. Our task is to realize the growth opportunities presented to us and like Esther, seize upon those opportunities to actualize our unique potential.

Happy Purim!

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Breaking Bad: A Spiritual Perspective on Sexual Harassment

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While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.

Before Moshe’s experience at the burning bush, when he has his first encounter with God, and before we see Moshe become Israel’s greatest prophet, through whom our Torah is given, we are introduced to the personality of Moshe through three dramatic stories.

In the first story, Moshe sees a fellow Jew being beaten mercilessly by an Egyptian officer. He stands up for the Jew and kills the Egyptian. In the second incident, Moshe sees two Jews fighting and says to the offending party: why do you strike your fellow? (Exodus 2:13). Finally, after he escapes to Midian, Moshe comes across the daughters of Yitro who are at the well drawing water for their father’s flock. A group of shepherds come and begin to harass them, driving them away. Moshe sees this injustice and rises to their defense, chasing the men away and watering the women’s flock.

In each situation, we see Moshe saving the victim from an oppressor, but as the great scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained, these incidents are not simply three random experiences but a progression: from intervening in a clash between a non-Jew and a Jew, to a conflict between two Jews and then to an incident between two non-Jews. Had we been only told of the first clash, we might have thought Moshe was motivated by solidarity with his own people rather than by justice, and had we been presented only with the second incident, we would still have our doubts since that incident was between two Jews. However, the third incident — where both the attacker and victim were not Jewish, shows how Moshe was motivated by a pure sense of justice for all victimized people.

The Torah is making a powerful point: even before Moshe could receive revelation from God at the burning bush and before he could become the prophet through whom the Torah would be given, he had to first have a sense of empathy for others. A sense of justice for the victim of oppression. This is the first thing the Torah wishes us to learn from Judaism’s greatest prophet: to cultivate a sensitivity for those in vulnerable positions, for those who are weaker and who are being taken advantage of by those in positions of power because of that weakness or vulnerability. Whether this abuse takes place in the workplace or on a date, the Torah wishes us to learn from Moshe and become sensitive to this kind of abuse.

We saw this just a few Torah portions ago, when Joseph was a young and handsome but vulnerable servant in the house of Potifar. Joseph becomes the object of Potifar’s wife relentless sexual advances. Although Yosef heroically refuses these advances, because of his weaker position, he is thrown into jail. As you can see, sexual harassment in the workplace has been going on for a long time, but in the last few years, we have seen a real pushback. People in more vulnerable positions have been speaking up, jeopardizing their status in order to protect themselves or others and ultimately to promote a greater sense of justice in the workplace and elsewhere.

MJE has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and we are leading by example. Like in most companies today, our entire staff has been through sexual harassment training and we are in the process of joining the SRE (Safety, Respect Equity) Coalition, a Jewish group which addresses sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But just as important is what happens here in our program space at MJE, the steps we take to create a safe environment here in our spiritual home. We have had a few instances in which participants have approached staff members and expressed they have been made to feel uncomfortable,
and in some cases unsafe. We have taken these complaints seriously, conducted thorough investigations and in some cases have had to exclude and ban some individuals from MJE.

While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.

The first line of our new code of conduct starts with the words: “MJE is committed to creating an environment that exemplifies Jewish values such a Kavod Habriyot (Human dignity) and the Talmud’s teaching of Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Bazeh – “All Israel is responsible for one another”. Those two Jewish concepts, along with the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, should inspire us to first ensure we all act in a manner consistent with these values. Second, if something happens to you or to someone else, please bring the matter to our attention. I would encourage you to do the same in other environments, even if it means calling out a colleague, which can often place you in a more difficult position. We see Moshe doing exactly this, also in this week’s Parsha. In each progressive situation, it actually gets harder for Moshe to intervene. When he kills the Egyptian, he is at least a citizen of that country. He has some standing, having grown up in the house of Pharoh and it is a clear a cut situation with a villain and a victim. The second situation is a bit more murky – you have two people fighting – who is right who is wrong? It is a “he said, she said” situation. And in the third instance, Moshe’s really out on a limb. He’s living in Midian as a refugee, having fled Egypt, and therefore has no standing when he confronts the shepherds harassing the Midianite women. There’s literally a bounty on his head, and so the last thing Moshe wants to do is get involved in a fight, but he does.

No one wants to be the whistleblower, but it is vital to say something when we see something, whether it is in the workplace or it’s right here on Shabbat at the kiddush following services. The very dignity and sanctity of our community is at stake and on the individual level it goes even deeper.

On the emotional and psychological level, I don’t have to tell you how detrimental these abuses of power can impact our basic sense of self – on how we look at ourselves. Victims of sexual abuse and even harassment can be scarred for life. On the existential and spiritual level, the damage is no less severe. We are all endowed with the tzelem Elokim – the divine spark which our Sages teach is extraordinarily sensitive to breaches in our tzniut, to our sense of modesty and sexual propriety.

This area gets very complicated when the breach in sexuality takes place between two consenting adults in a relationship or adults exploring a relationship. I have been called in on a number of such situations and have tried to help, first by ensuring that the complaining party is safe, and second, by impressing upon the other party that no means no, even if there’s a relationship.

I would be remiss as a rabbi though if I didn’t also share the Torah’s unique approach to dating, the kinds of boundaries the Torah sets up, which are not easy to observe in modernity, but can be helpful in avoiding some of these situations. There are two halachot (Jewish laws), both of which may sound archaic and outdated, but make a lot of sense practically and which on a spiritual level help maintain the holiness and integrity of our relationships. The first halacha is referred to as Yichud: the prohibition of an unmarried couple to be enclosed in a locked room. Some of us have heard of the “Yichud room”, the special room designated for the bride and groom immediately after the Chupah wedding ceremony. The couple spend their first few minutes of marriage alone in an enclosed room, to demonstrate they are now husband and wife since they can now finally be alone in an enclosed room. The second area of halacha, commonly referred to as being Shomer Negiah, proscribes physical contact between men and women before marriage. The main idea behind these two areas of halacha, to be followed by men and women alike, is to dial down the physical until a total commitment has been made through marriage. Physical attraction is an important element for marriage but abstaining from physical contact prior to marriage allows the courting couple to focus on the other’s personality. This helps the couple maintain clarity on whether the other is a suitable mate and also helps ensure they relates to each other in the most dignified manner.

To be sure, this sensitivity continues after the couple is married. The tendency we have as sexual beings to look at each other in purely physical terms, does not end when one gets married. This is why the Torah has a whole system of law called Taharat Hamishpacha (the laws of Family Purity), which are intended to elevate the sexual intimacy for the married couple. This again helps the couple relate to each other as more than just physical beings. Please do not misunderstand. Judaism does not deny the physical or sexual. Quite the contrary. Judaism, through these traditions, aims to elevate and sanctify the sexual urge, utilizing it to deepen the commitment between husband and wife.

I realize that in our society, as people remain single longer, the halchot of Yichud and Shomer Negiah seem less realistic to observe. However, they remain an integral part of Jewish tradition which I believe can serve as a preventative for some of the harassment situations arising today. Not all, but some. In addition, and as you’ve all heard me say many times, Judaism is not an all or nothing proposition. Even if one chooses not to follow these halachot, either because one finds them too difficult or unrealistic, one would be well advised to incorporate some of these laws and attitudes into ones dating life. To think twice before allowing the door to be locked; to be more careful about whom we choose to be with and how soon in the relationship we allow things to get physical. Also, to be mindful of how much alcohol gets consumed, because as I’ve seen, that often exacerbates some of these situations.

I want to be clear on two things. First, these traditions are not the responsibility of women alone, but equally binding and important for men and women alike. Second, this is not about blaming the victim, God forbid. I share these halachot because they are from our Torah and I strongly believe that to whatever degree we can incorporate them into our dating life, they will help us create healthy boundaries and a more positive and uplifting environment in which we can all operate more freely. Finally, the laws of Yichud and Negiah apply not just to people who date but to all of our interactions between men and women, for example to our work colleagues and friends. We must learn to relate to all members of the opposite sex with respect, dignity and sanctity.

In our prayers each morning we recite the famous line from the Torah: “How good are your tents O’Jacob, your dwelling place O’Israel” (Numbers 24:5). This beautiful verse was uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam as he stood over the Jewish camp in the wilderness, attempting to curse it. Our Sages teach that when Bilam noticed that the opening of each Jewish tent never faced the opening of another, he was impressed and inspired by the respect and modesty which he saw in the Jewish community. Let’s reclaim that sanctity for our community and follow the example of Moses our teacher, as we together confront harassment and the abuse of power by affirming the dignity and holiness of every individual.

Shabbat Shalom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Anti-Semitism: When Crisis Creates Opportunity

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A crisis can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. Within twenty-four hours of the horrific attack on the synagogue in Monsey, Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the rabbi of the shul, was back with his congregation celebrating the next night of Chanukah. I was also moved by how large of a gathering there was at the MetLife stadium Siyum Hashas, the event commemorating the completion of the seven-year Talmud study cycle. Given the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York and New Jersey area, it is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish community that no-one was actually deterred from going. One of the security officials remarked that he had never seen so many attendees at MetLife Stadium before, including the many football games he has covered! The head of security, charged with protecting the 95,000 Siyum attendees, shared that never before had his troopers been recipients of so much gratitude. The sheer number of people who approached individual officers to express their thanks was overwhelming.

I’m hopeful that the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks will have the positive effect of creating greater unity in the community – something I felt yesterday marching across the Brooklyn bridge with tens of thousands of Jews of all stripes, chanting Am Yisrael Chai! It reminded me of my High School and College years when we marched for Soviet Jewry. The different groups in the Jewish community were able to put their ideological differences aside and come together to help their brethren behind the iron curtain. We are again presented with the same opportunity today. The Jewish community has a long list of enemies, some of them are to the far right, some on the extreme left, some are domestic terrorists and some foreign, but they all have same thing in common: they don’t care about our particular ideology or outlook. The only reason why ultra-orthodox Jews have been targeted is because they look Jewish and are more easily identified as such, but make no mistake: these attacks are on all Jews – irrespective of our particular orientation or denomination.

Our primary focus must be to combat the rise in anti-Semitism, but we must also recognize the opportunity for Jewish unity that this crisis presents. It was this kind of unity that recently helped defeat Jeremy Corbyn of England’s Labor party. Corbyn’s extreme hatred of Jews reawakened many unaffiliated Jews in Great Britain who joined with others to help bring about a stunning defeat of England’s Labor party.

Anti-Semitism has long been an impetus for reawakening Jewish people towards their traditions as well as inspiring unity amongst different groups. One of the greatest biblical examples of this is the Purim story, the next Jewish holiday we will observe. Haman’s attempted genocidal campaign against Persian Jewry motivated assimilated Jews to heed Esther’s call for a spiritual return to Judaism and it also inspired an unprecedented level of Jewish unity. It is that unity we celebrate each year on the holiday of Purim by sending baskets of food to one another and offering gifts to the poor.

Our immediate attention must be turned to defending ourselves, on working with law enforcement to fortify our synagogues and protect our places of worship. Our sweetest revenge though will be found in something much deeper: in using these attacks, as much as we must work to prevent them, to unite and bind ourselves to one another and to Judaism itself. If we can bring about this kind of positive outcome from these otherwise awful attacks, we will not only defeat our enemies but become stronger than ever.

‘And God Created Woman’: Modern Day Matriarchs

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One of the most inspiring parts of studying Torah and in particular, the Book of Genesis is learning the very real challenges our matriarchs and patriarchs faced in their personnel lives.  One of those challenges was having children.  All of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, at one time, were unable to have children. In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze, we read about Rachel’s struggle and how she and her beloved Jacob dealt with this situation:

And Rachel saw that she was not bearing children for Jacob and she became jealous of her sister and she said to Jacob: ‘Give me children or I’ll die’. And Jacob becomes angry with Rachel and he says: ‘Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?’

We can understand Rachel’s distress, not being able to bear children, and having to watch her own sister Leah give birth to four sons. And so Rachel’s remark – Give me children or I’ll die – however dramatic,  is understandable.  However, how can we understand Jacob’s anger at Rachel and his response: Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?  What kind of reaction is this from a righteous person like Jacob to his distressed wife? Where’s the sympathy and compassion? Where’s the love?

The great Nachmanides (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) suggests that Jacob expressed anger because it seemed to Jacob that Rachel believed a righteous person somehow has the power to make anything happen – that all Jacob needed to do was snap his fingers and he could get whatever he wanted from God. it is inconceivable Jacob would not have prayed for Rachel to have a child and so ultimately Jacob’ s prayers had not been answered favorably and Rachel is criticizing him for doing nothing. That is why, suggests Nachmanides, why Jacob answered Rachel by saying that “he was not instead of God” and why he reacted angrily, because he felt Rachel held incorrect views as to the power of prayer of a righteous person.

The Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi of Narbonne, Provence (1160–1235) speaks along similar lines saying that Yaacov got angry with Rachel because Rachel seemed to be attributing powers to Jacob, rather to God.

The Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Isaac Arama, another great Spanish commentator (1420-1494), gave a totally different explanation, a quite progressive one for his time. There are two names mentioned in the Torah for woman “Isha” and “Chava”. “Isha”- which is simply the feminine form of ‘ish”, the Hebrew name for man, teaches us that woman was taken from man and therefore, just like a man must work to advance himself in the intellectual and moral fields, so too must a woman work to advance herself intellectually and morally. The second name given in the Torah for women, Chava, alludes to the power a woman has to bear children. As the verse in the Torah says: And Adam called his wife Chava for she was the mother of all living. Indeed, only a woman can give birth to life.

Jacob got angry, suggests the Akeidat Yitzchak, because by saying: Give me children or I’ll die Rachel was denying the isha aspect of her personality, the part of womanhood that is the same as man, implying that because she couldn’t have children there was no other value to her existence. As important as the Torah views having children, bearing children does not completely define the purpose of womanhood.  There is another dimension to womanhood, namely, to advance oneself intellectually, morally, spiritually as any man’s goal is in life.  This of course is not to negate the absolute significance and importance of having children, just to teach that it alone does not define womanhood.

Ruth B. Wildes  z”l (1939-1995) (Courtesy)

My mother, whose 24th Yahrtzeit I am now observing, viewed her role as a mother as central to her existence. She absolutely loved being a mother and took that role seriously and she held it with great pride. She was one of those mothers who couldn’t stop talking about her children, so much so, my brother and I used to call her our walking resumes. At the same time, she was actively involved in developing herself spiritually and in building up the community in which she lived.

My mother was a very religious and spiritual person. She loved to study and to learn, always running to Torah classes and always urging our father to learn with my brother and myself, which he always did and which we thankfully continue to this day.  She loved to pray regularly. She had a book of Tehilim (Psalms) by her bedside. I remember when she got sick and was having a hard time concentrating, I told her she was exempt from praying because of her medical condition. I realized quickly that advise was of no help to her because she needed to pray. She needed to feel that connection with God with whom she felt so close.

My mother was also a great leader in the community.  In the late 1970’s/80’s she helped resettle thousands of Soviet Jews who moved into Forest Hills, our neighborhood in Queens, NY.  She ran around collecting furniture, clothing and helping countless families settle into our community. And she was such a gracious host, opening her home on Shabbat to friends and strangers alike.  My first rabbi gig was in Forest Hills, at The Queens Jewish Center where I ran a Beginners Service every Shabbat. I was single, and so almost on a regular Shabbat basis, I’d bring people home to my family so they could see how my mother made Shabbos.  She had this winner combination of warmth and elegance which she brilliantly used to make people feel at home. She inspired many Jews to share her love for Shabbat and ultimately for Yiddishkeite, which is why we dedicated MJE in her memory  – to perpetuate the kindness she regularly practiced, the chesed she did for so many individuals in our community.

MJE has followed her model, opening its doors to tens of thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters,  and like our mother, sharing Shabbat and the power of the Jewish community with all, creating a venue in which 323 couples have met and married!  My mother would have been especially proud of that accomplishment.

She was both a “Chava” – an amazing mother but also an “Isha” – someone who advanced herself morally and spiritually and helped so many others do the same. In a day and age where woman are thankfully given great opportunities than ever before but also struggling to find the right balance, my mother serves as an example of successfully combining the different aspects of womanhood.  May her memory serve as blessing.

Failure At Work Isn’t Failure At Life

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While Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis was struggling through the longest hitless streak in Major League baseball, he received the following letter from a nine-year old boy: “Dear Mr. Davis, There are two things I want you to know. First, the way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are. Also, you are incredible. You’ve played in the MLB. You’ve done it for a long-time and everyone goes through a slump. Don’t give up. We’re rooting for you.”

It’s a sweet story and even more incredible considering the nine-year old, Henry Frasca, was a Boston Red Sox fan!

On a more serious note, can you imagine the pressure Chris Davis must have experienced trying to pull himself out of what probably felt like an endless slump? The baseball player went 62 at-bats without a single hit! Besides the possibility of being fired, I wonder what kind of identity crisis Davis may also have experienced. Professional success in our world today is no longer simply a means of attaining financial stability and it effects younger people in an even more serious way. Writer and activist Melanie Curtin polled 300 of her fellow millennials about self-perception and failure. 67 percent of them said they felt “extreme” pressure to succeed, compared to 40 percent of GenXers and 23 percent of Boomers. The recent spate of wealthy parents who bribed individuals to falsify college admission applications so their children could get into better schools, shows how far people will go to set their children up for professional success.

Success at what we do has become synonymous with success with who we are. Our careers and professional achievements have become a gauge of our self-worth and have come to define our very identity. As a result, there is an enormous pressure to succeed in our careers, lest we are seen by others or worse, we deem ourselves, failures not simply at our jobs, but in life.

This attitude is antithetical to everything Judaism cherishes. In Jewish tradition, our self-worth is formed by the ethical choices we make, the mitzvot we perform and the type of moral and spiritual beings we become. The Torah itself does not seem to have much interest in what we choose for a living or what we pursue as a career. What does interest the Torah is that whatever we do choose, we do with honesty and integrity. We are taught to avoid fraudulent commercial dealings, verbal deception and to have “accurate weights and measures” (Leviticus 19:36).  We must ensure our workers are treated with dignity, that they are paid on time, and that we pay our taxes. Those are the aspects of what we do that define who we are – not how far we go in achieving success.

I remember after the movie Ushpizin came out in 2005, we were fortunate to host the lead actors Michal and Shuli Rand. Someone from the audience asked the Chasidic couple whether their decision to not allow movie theaters in Israel to air their film on Shabbat, hurt their success. Shuli answered: “It all depends on what you mean by success. Our success as actors may have decreased but our success as Jews and as people devoted to holiness increased.”

To define who we are existentially by how close we come to reaching our career goals is to negate our true sense of self. The kind of son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, friend, Jew or human being you are – goes so much more to the heart of who we really are than any job or profession.

So, the next time you get frustrated with your job or your career is not progressing as you’d like, do what you can to move things forward but don’t confuse failure at work with failing at life. Just remember what nine-year old Henry Frasca told Chris Davis: “The way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are.”

Main Photo: Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles (Wikimedia)

The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part III

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Part Three: The Shema

In my last entry, we discussed the critical role prayer and blessings play in achieving mindfulness.  Whether it’s simply thanking God for being alive (by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer upon arising) or that our bodies are functioning properly (ie-the After-Bathroom blessing), Jewish prayer reminds us of our blessings while we have them. This enables us to become more grateful and take joy in what we have, instead of making our happiness depend on what we don’t have. 

Another fundamental Jewish practice which can bring about a deep sense of mindfulness, is the Shema. The Shema prayer enables one to contemplate and reflect upon the ultimate reality, God and His oneness. There is an interesting Jewish tradition for a Sofer, a Jewish scribe, when writing the words of the Shema in a Torah scroll, to enlarge two of the letters in the prayer: the Ayin, the last letter in the first word “Shema” (which means “hear”), and the Dalet, the last letter of the last word “Echad” (which means “One”).

The Jewish Sages offer a few explanations for the tradition to enlarge these two letters in the Shema. One explanation is that the letters ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ed or witness for by reciting the Shema we are testifying to the rest of humanity as to our faith in a one God. Another explanation is that the letter ayin is enlarged so it does not resemble or sound like Hebrew letter aleph which would spell shema meaning maybe or perhaps. That would make the Shema declaration sound something like: Perhaps God is one. The Hebrew letter dalit is enlarged so it does not look like its cousin letter, the reish which would spell the Hebrew word  acher or “another” (instead of echad, ie-one) implying another God. Ultimately, the ayin and dalet caution us to leave our doubts and hesitations for another time and place.

The Shema is our moment each day to totally envelope ourselves in a belief in something beyond the physical world, in God Himself.  As my teacher, the great contemporary scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote in his book on the Shema: “Our tradition makes room for the honest doubter, for without such doubt questions would never be asked, prejudices never challenged, and science would come to a halt. But when are we seriously engaged in prayer, endeavoring to experience the presence of God, it is not the time to entertain intellectual doubts. In prayer, taught R. Nahman of Bratzlav, we must cast aside all our “wisdom” and stand before our Maker as children; to be child-like in prayer is as appropriate as to be skeptical in thought. When seeking to wrest transcendent meaning out of existence and to pull ourselves out of the void, we should not cast ourselves into that very void. Rather, at that sacred moment, we can put our doubts aside and, in all integrity, proclaim the unity of God whole-heartedly.” (The Shema, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, page 17)

The Shema is that moment in our day when we fully commit ourselves to something greater than us; when we accept Hashem into our lives and the privilege of observing His commandments. That is what the Sages refer to as kabablat ol malchut shamayim  or receiving the yoke of God’s sovereignty. By saying the Shema we become mindful of God’s mastery over the world and of our responsibility to carry out the mitzvoth of the Torah.

The Shema, however, is also intended to reflect upon God’s oneness. What does that mean exactly and why is it so important to be mindful of God’s Oneness?

Life often seems random. One day we wake up and everything is going well – work is good, your social life is progressing and the next day something changes. You get fired from your job or your girlfriend dumps you.  Is it possible the same God, who allows for such goodness one day, can allows for so much to go wrong the next? And that’s just in my life. Multiply that sense of randomness throughout the world, millions of events which take place, both good and bad, that seem to have no rhyme or reason. 

Of course, this is how things look from our own limited human perspective.  Judaism teaches that in reality, every event which takes place, happens for a reason and is part of greater plan. Things may look random but in reality, everything is coming from one place and is happening for some greater good.  That is what we mean when we say God is one. We are not simply expressing our belief in a one God as opposed to multiple Gods, but that there is one source for all of reality and for everything we see in the world. 

One way of understanding God’s oneness is to imagine a light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they all emanate from one light. This is why some suggest we cover our eyes when saying the Shema. For when we look out at the world, things appear fragmented and disconnected and so we cover our eyes to block out what appears as random, so we can remember and become mindful there is one source for all reality, one God behind everything which happens in our world and in our lives.

It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of monotheism, the belief in a one God to the rest of the world.  It remains our mission to demonstrate that everything we experience, in our world and in our lives, is not accidental or random but an expression of well thought out plan by the one true reality.  God willed us into existence for a reason and as such, the events which take place in this world are necessary parts of a greater plan.  Saying the Shema everyday keep us mindful of this and allows us to bear testimony to Judaism’s core belief: life has purpose and meaning.

The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part II

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Part Two: The Power of Blessings

Read Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach