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The Greatness that Lies Within

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At the age of 57, Rachamim Cohen seemed to have a great life.  He was the father of six beautiful children and a proud grandfather, held a Ph.D. in Special Education, worked in a senior position in the Israeli Ministry of Education and published two critically acclaimed books.  One day he began to feel some weakness in his left shoulder and when he made Kiddush on Shabbat evening, the Kiddush cup shook, and the wine spilled.  Dr. Cohen and his wife Elisheva began to visit numerous specialists before one doctor told him he had Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  The doctor outlined the relentless and fatal course of the disease – that he would become paralyzed and in the final stage, his lungs would stop working. “You will become dependent on other people for everything”, the doctor said, “and you have three to five years to live.”

That was 22 years ago.  Since that time, although Rachamim Cohen has become completely paralyzed and can only communicate through a program which tracks his eye movement, this same man begins his day by praying and studying Torah.  He continues to go to work where he is consulted by people throughout the world on a myriad of educational issues.  He has mastered Photoshop, which allows him to paint with his eyes, and has publicly debated Israeli advocates of euthanasia. Perhaps most incredibly, since his illness, Rachamim Cohen has authored eight new books, with subjects ranging from Education to Jewish subjects, personal anecdotes to poetry and a book of advice to people suffering from chronic or terminal illness.

How does he do it? How does a someone whose life is so profoundly compromised, manage to function on such a high level? Did Dr. Cohen somehow, after the illness, develop a new capacity to cope with his failed body or did he already possess some quality that he could tap into to confront this new situation?

There is a versefrom the Torahwhich we recite in our daily prayers, in the Az Yashir, the Song at the Sea: U’veruach apecha n’ermu mayim – “And the breath of your nostrils caused the water to pile up” (Exodus, 15: 8).  This verse refers to the famous splitting of the Red Sea, when the Jewish people fled Egypt and the sea miraculously split, saving the Jews and drowning their Egyptians pursuers.  The great 19th century Chasidic master, the Ruzhiner – Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn (Ukraine), interprets the word “apecha”, not as nostrils but as anger, so the verse according to this interpretation reads: “God split the sea out of anger”. To what does this refer?  The Ruzhinerquotes the Midrash which says that in the very beginning of time, when God first created the world, He made a deal with the Yam Suf, the Red Sea.  God told the sea: “in a number of generations a people will arrive at the banks of your river and when you see them, I will need you to split so they can be saved’.  The Red Sea, of course, agreed but asked: ‘how will I know who these people are?’ And so God showed the Red Sea an image, a picture of the Children of Israel who would be there.

Fast forward a few hundred years, the Jewish people are freed from Egyptian slavery, they arrive at the Red Sea, but it does not split on their behalf.  God reminds the sea of its promise to split for the Jewish people but the sea responds: ‘You showed me an image of tzadikim, of a righteous people who were pure and holy.  I don’t see such a people.  These people are fighting and arguing.  These people are carrying objects of idol worship and complaining to Moshe, saying ‘let’s go back to Egypt’.  These are not the people you showed me in the picture’.  God became angry with the sea and said to it: ‘if you will not split for these people then I’ll do it myself’. Hence “God split the sea out of anger”.

What are the sages of the Midrash teaching with this whole argument between God and the Red Sea?

The Ruzhiner suggests that the sea only saw what was on the outside,the externalities.  The sea saw a people complaining, afraid of starting a new life.  God however was able to look deeper, past all the complaining and fear to see the potential within this newly freed people.  For God, the creator of all, knows more than anyone the potential of each person.  God sees us for what lies within and not simply the way we act on the outside.  We tend to view ourselves based on the actual, but God also sees the potential.  We look in the mirror and see a reflection of a lifetime of mistakes.  God sees something deeper, something more.

Every morning we say in our prayers: elokai neshama shenatata bi, tehorah hi – “the soul you placed within me is pure”.  We acknowledge the existence of something pure and holy within.  In the Modeh Ani prayer, when we thank God for returning that soul to us as we arise in the morning, we conclude the prayer with the words: rabbah u’munatecha – “great is your faithfulness”.  We don’t say “great is our faith in you, O God” but rather “great is your faith in us’.  We start our day by acknowledging the faith Hashem has in us to fulfill our purpose and realize our mission in this world.

God knows of the greatness that exists within us.  That is why the Hebrew word describing the High Holiday process of getting closer to God is teshuva, which means “return”.  Some mistranslate the word as “repentance”, but teshuva really means coming back, implying we are returning to some place we once were.  I always thought that was just a more politically correct translation or an encouraging idea meant to keep us in the game, but the Kabbalah teaches that naturally, we are metaphysically connected to Hashem and it is only sin that creates distance.

Teshuva means we are returning to our natural state of spiritual closeness, to our pure souls within.  As the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew (16th century, Prague) taught, teshuva is the process by which we remove that which stands in the way of who we truly are. And who are we? We are beings closely connected with Hashem who ultimately want to do the right thing.  This can be seen in a very strange Halacha (Jewish law): Maimonides ruled that it is permitted to hit a man who refuses to give his wife a get (a Jewish divorce writ).  How is this?  We know that a contract which is coerced becomes null and void!  However, deep down, within the recesses of one’s pure soul, we believe everyone wants to do the right thing and it’s only the evil inclination which gets in the way. Hitting a person who, like this man, is behaving inappropriately, helps align one’s outward behavior with their deeper inner will, which desires to do the right thing.

And so the goal of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not to become someone else, or someone new but rather to tap into the deepest part of who we already are.  There are sculptors who say that when they sculpt, they’re not creating anything new.  The image, they say is immanent within the stone – they just need to remove the blockages to express what’s already there.  Auguste Roden, the great French sculptor said he could see the figure within the block of clay he wassculpting, even before he would begin his work and would sometimes leave some clay to make that point.

This is why we call someone who converts to Judaism a ger shenitgayer, “a convert who has converted”? Of course, someone who converts to Judaism has converted; why not just call the person a ger, a convert? Because someone who converts to Judaism always had within them the spiritual interest to be a Jew.  He or she was always a ger, even before they converted.  The conversion was just the process of revealing that which was concealed.  That is ultimately our task and the mission of the Jewish people – to reveal that which is hidden.  It’s also the job of any parent or a teacher.  A good teacher isn’t someone who tries to mold their students but as one of my teachers, Rabbi Riskin said, to extract, to reveal that which already exists within their student. One of the goals of Rosh Hashanah is to align our inner being with our outward, our actual with our potential. This is one of the reasons why on Rosh Hashanah we read the episode of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac.  Right before Abraham is about to slaughter his beloved son, God sends an angel who calls out: Avraham, Avraham al tishlach yadcha el hanar. “Abraham, Abraham: do not raise your hand against the lad”. Why does the angel repeat Abraham’s name? The Yalkut Shimoni (Midrashic source) explains that there are two images every human being possesses – our worldly image and our heavenly image. The worldly image is the actual, what we reveal to the world, what everyone sees, whereas the heavenly image represents our inner self, and the potential – what we could become if we reached within to the depths of our souls.  Avraham, after he passed this last of his ten tests, the Binding of Isaac, reached his complete potentialand so the angel called out his name twice because Abraham’s two images, the worldly and the heavenly, the actual and the potential were now one and the same.

This is why we cannot afford to sell ourselves short when making our new year’s resolutions.  Its why, even if we were not raised in Shabbat observance, we should still ask ourselves: what will we do in the coming year to celebrate Shabbat? Because, even if we aren’t accustomed to observing, we all have some Shabbos within us.

It is why, even if we didn’t grow up in a particularly Zionist home, we can still ask ourselves what will we do in the coming year to be more connected to Israel?  The great mystic and first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote that deep down, within the soul of every Jew is a love and yearning for Zion and Israel. Some great Sages also wrote this about God: that even a professed atheist has within him or her a love for Hashem.  On the surface, there may be issues – philosophical, cultural, all sorts of factors that get in the way – what the Kabbalists call klipot, blockages that keep us from being in touch with that deeper part of ourselves.  But it’s there. We just have to tap into it which we can do by observing any one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.  The mitzvot of the Torah were specifically designed to engage the deepest part of who we are, allowing our soul to be revealed in the physical world.  Prayer, giving charity, performing acts of chesed (kindness), Torah study and all the other mitzvot enable us to access the purity and holiness of our souls so we can align our actual with our potential.

Rachamim Cohen, who somehow managed to accomplish so much after contracting Lou Gehrig’s disease, had that capacity within him.  He’s a hero, not because he became someone else, but because he learned how to access the holiness and strength that lies within.

The sounds of the Shofar we listen to on Rosh Hoshana are meant to inspire us to look within.  To search our deeper selves so we can live our outside lives according to the holiness of our soul within.  Let us not define ourselves simply based on the way we live externally.  As you listen to the sounds of the shofar, close your eyes and envision your inner self, your potential self and then imagine that potential becoming your actual reality in the coming weeks and months of the New Year.  Focus on a mitzvah that you can bring into your new year which will you help you align your actual with your potential.  In the merit of that inner vision may Hashem bless us all with a new year of good health, an end to the epidemic, sweetness, meaning, and purpose.

Cancel the Cancel Culture

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Most Hebrew months have one character or theme. The character of the month of Adar, for example is one of happiness during which the joyous holiday of Purim falls out. The upcoming month of Elul carries the theme of spiritual closeness as we begin approaching the High Holiday season. However, the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) wrote that the month of Av, the Hebrew month in which we now find ourselves, has two characters – one sad and one happy.

The first part of the month, containing the Nine Days of mourning leading up to the ninth of the month, namely Tisha B’av – commemorating the destruction of the Temple – is sad.  The character though of the second part of the month, beginning with the 15th day – called Tu B’av – is happy. Tu B’av is a minor festival celebrating a number of happy incidents in Jewish history and was celebrated as a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day in which young Jewish men and women gathered to meet. There is a tradition that on Tu B’av the single women of Jerusalem, dressed in white garments, went out to dance in the vineyards. As the Talmud relates: “there were no holy days as happy for the Jews as Tu B’av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 30b).

This distinction between the first part of the month of Av and the second, suggests Rabbi Levi, is hinted in the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph and Bet.  The first letter Aleph which stands for the Hebrew word Arur – cursed – refers to the first and sad part of the month and the second letter Bet stands for bracha or blessing, referring to the second and joyous part of the month. This distinction is also hinted by the gematria – the numerical equivalent of these two Hebrew letters. The gematria of Aleph is one and Bet is two. The first part of the month is cursed as it represents us being one or alone. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah, when lamenting the destruction of the Temple (commemorated in the first part of the month) describes the Jewish people as abandoned and alone. The numerical equivalent of the letter Bet, representing blessing (characterizing the latter part of the month) is two. Two are better off than one (Ecclesiastes, 4:9) said the wise Solomon. Two is always better because two only happens when a one and another one come together. Indeed, Tu Ba’v, the beginning of the second part of the month, was a time when young people came together, a time of matchmaking, union and joy.

Among other things, the pandemic has kept many people living as one.  We must remember this is not the ideal spiritual state in which Judaism envisions us living. We are meant to live as two.  As long as the pandemic prevails, we must therefore endeavor to make as many of those who are alone, feel as though they are not.  I often end my Facebook Live lunch and learn sessions by encouraging my students to not let the day go by without calling someone who is alone.  Be it a parent, grandparent, colleague at work or another single friend, that phone call and those few minutes of caring can mean the world of a difference.  In those moments, we transform someone from being a one to a two, from an Aleph to a Bet, from sadness to joy and blessing.

Cancel the Cancel Culture

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For many years, actress Felicity Huffman played a “Desperate Housewife” on TV. But it was for something she did in real life that made her even more famous. Last year, Huffman was charged in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal. Among other things, she paid for someone else to take her daughter’s SAT test. Huffman eventually pleaded guilty, spent some time in jail and is serving 250 hours of community service.

Like many celebrities who engage in misconduct, her career came to a screeching halt. She was, for all intents and purposes, “cancelled.”

Indeed, there are plenty of celebrities who engage in long-standing patterns of misbehavior who probably deserve to be cancelled. But along comes a person like Huffman, a devoted mother and wife – an otherwise decent person – who makes one very bad moral mistake, and her career is over. Nothing could be further from Jewish values which emphasize second chances and believes deeply in the concept of “teshuva” or repentance.

The period of time on the Jewish calendar in which we now find ourselves, is devoted to this very kind of self-reflection and rectification of our past misdeeds. The Jewish Sages established the Three Weeks and Nine Day period leading up to Tisha Bav – the day both Jewish Temples were destroyed – as a time to look back and ask ourselves: where did we go wrong? What mistakes have we made that we can improve upon? What transgressions did our ancestor’s make, which brought about the Temple’s destruction, that we still commit today? We disengage from certain joyous activities such as live music and weddings and we fast – all so we can learn from our past mistakes but not be buried or cancelled by them.

The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred – a breakdown in the respect and love we were meant to have for one another. This is why, at this time on the Jewish calendar, many take upon themselves to act in a kinder and more sensitive manner to others. As such, MJE has launched a Rebuilding Together Challenge to help restore and rebuild that love and unity. I urge you to join us at: https://forms.gle/SaG1LPVbX99ptrcN6

As Jews we believe in second chances. Individually, we are given a second chance every year on every Yom Kippur and nationally we have this time every summer to reflect upon and fix our past misdeeds. God didn’t give up on us after one mistake and we should expect no less from each other. We have become so unforgiving as a society. We need to stop cancelling otherwise good people if they sincerely feel remorse and try to do better.

The Jewish belief in second chances was much better seen in the example of Jimmy Fallon. The late-night talk show host is beloved by many and one of my personal favorites. Earlier this year, people started sharing a 20-year-old “Saturday Night Live” skit he had done in blackface and there was an immediate knee-jerk reaction that his career should be canceled. But eventually, cooler heads prevailed. Fallon admitted he had made a mistake, expressing remorse and telling his audience: “There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.” It was a one-time mistake, he apologized, and there’s nothing in his history to suggest that his actions were part of a larger pattern.

To err is human. To immediately cancel someone who commits a wrongdoing is to deny that humanity. Ultimately, it is the growth that comes from our mistakes that helps us become the best version of ourselves, both individually and nationally. So, rather than cancelling one another, let’s encourage each other to right the wrong and move on. In doing so, may we merit to see the Temple rebuilt.

A Grasshopper Among Men

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On May 29, 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. What is incredible to me though, is that since that time over 4,000 people have successfully climbed Everest, including an 81-year-old man from Nepal! Similarly, within weeks of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, others also followed suit.

Simply knowing something is possible can help make the improbable possible. Conversely, not believing in one’s own abilities can prevent important things from happening. No story illustrates this lesson better than the incident of the spies recorded in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Shlach:

Moshe sends in the spies to scout out the land of Israel and they return with a negative report.

The spies report back that the cities they visited were powerfully fortified. They share that they encountered the offspring of giants and that the fierce nation of Amalek dwells together with the other Canaanite nations. Despite Caleb’s efforts to calm the people, the ten scouts declare: “We cannot ascend to that people for they are too strong for us…the land through which we have passed to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants…”(Numbers 13:31,32).

Where is the people’s faith?  Are they not the same people who witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea? Did they not stand at Sinai and hear God revealing the Torah? Why then did the people not believe they could handle the nations who inhabited the land of Israel?!

I believe the answer lies in the famous line with which the spies ended their negative report:
Vnehi b’aineinu kachgavim – “and in our own eyes we were grasshoppers”, v’chain hayinu b’aineihem” “and so we were in their eyes”. (Numbers 13:33)

What the spies were saying was that because “in our own eyes we are like grasshoppers” – because we see ourselves in this way, others see us in that way too. Perhaps without even realizing, the spies were able to explain why their enemies looked upon them as small and insignificant, as grasshoppers. The spies, distinguished princes from each Jewish tribe, were men of great stature but they lacked self-esteem.  They saw themselves as weak and impotent and therefore were unable to inspire the people to go forward.  Despite all miracles they had witnessed, they deemed themselves unworthy of God’s intervention. Perhaps, as my teacher Rabbi Buchwald suggests, their self-esteem had been beaten out of them by the many years of slavery or perhaps they had become so reliant on God’s intervention that they saw themselves as helpless. Either way, since they had a low self-opinion, so would everyone else.

So much of what others think of us comes from the way we think of ourselves. Our self-perception so often determines our behavior and how others perceive us. If we are small in our own eyes, we will be small in others.

In our professional lives, if we question our own skills and abilities – if we doubt how much value we bring to the table – then the people with whom we work will do the same.

The same applies in our social and romantic lives. If we are unhappy with ourselves, if we are lacking in our own self-esteem, then when we present ourselves to other people that, that too will, no doubt, present itself. This is perhaps why the Torah famously tells us: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). If we don’t sufficiently love ourselves it will be very hard to love someone else.

In our religious lives, perhaps without a formal Jewish day school education, many feel unable to go further in their Jewish knowledge and observance. However, as many of my students at MJE have demonstrated, being Jewish is about showing up.  Living as a Jew means exerting oneself to learn more, attending an online Torah class, improving one’s Hebrew or gaining a mastery over a part of Judaism we didn’t even know existed. One MJE participant, who had virtually no Jewish educational background, went on-line every day to study a page of Talmud. After seven years, he completed the entire Talmud and just a few months ago, we celebrated together at the Siyum Hashas event at Met Life Stadium. He saw himself as able and capable and so he was able to do it.

So much of what we accomplish comes down to the way we look at ourselves. Are we takers or are we givers? Are we giants or are we grasshoppers? As the Jewish people, do we look at ourselves as a proud nation entrusted with a Divine mission or are we apologetic for our very existence? Are we sinners or people with great potential who sometimes fail?

The answer to these questions will, no doubt, determine how our friends and our enemies perceive us, but it all starts inside. If we can get the inside right, the outside will fall into place and the extraordinary and uplifting person we know we can be, will become a reality.

Memories of a Giant: Rabbi Dr. Lamm zt”l

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As I sat with my family and listened to the memorial service for Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l, I was overcome with emotion. I must have cried at least three or four times throughout the two-hour service. The rush of feelings came, not only because of my deep admiration for this giant of a scholar, but because I was reminded of the moments and personal experiences with which I was privileged to share with Rabbi Lamm. Forgive me, if the stories do not connect neatly but each one profoundly influenced who I am today.

For those you unfamiliar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the only one to ever receive both ordination and a Ph.D from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. For almost 25 years Rabbi Lamm served as a pulpit rabbi including 17 years as the rabbi of The Jewish Center on the upper-West Side, where MJE is based. He was appointed the third President of Yeshiva University (YU), saving it from bankruptcy and raising the institution’s stature in both the academic and rabbinic realms. He was a brilliant author and orator and was consulted by world leaders on a myriad of topics and issues. Rabbi Lamm’s many extraordinary books, articles and lectures made him the intellectual spokesperson for modern orthodoxy. As such, I consider the following personal stories nothing less than a rare privilege.

In the first years of MJE, when our High Holiday numbers were more modest, we would join The Jewish Center for the concluding Neilah service every Yom Kippur. It was a nice way of expressing unity on the holiest day of year and also exposing our participants to the modern orthodox community. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, my mentor and the rabbi of The Jewish Center, asked the congregation to sit closer together in order to accommodate the 150 or so MJE participants who would be filling the pews. After a few minutes of shifting seats, everyone managed to find a seat and we were ready to start the service. There was, however, one young man from MJE still walking through the aisles searching for a seat. He was easy to notice because he was about 6 foot 4, had long hair and a ponytail and tattoos up and down his arms. Rabbi Lamm, who was sitting in one of the pews, walked over to the young man and invited him to sit next to him. The young man’s face lit up as he settled into his seat. He had no idea who Rabbi Lamm was, but I watched as the rabbi warmly welcomed the newcomer, showed him the page in the machzor (prayer book) and helped him follow along throughout the entire Neilah service. The sight of the two standing and praying together remains with me until this day.

I remember a comment Rabbi Lamm made to me after I delivered a talk at The Jewish Center on the topic of “Halacha and Extradition”. During the lecture, I shared my research on Israel’s current policy of Extradition and how it pertained to the Jewish prohibition of turning a fellow Jew over to a foreign sovereign. After my presentation, Rabbi Lamm came over to me to give me a yasher koach and strongly encouraged me to keep speaking on topics other than Jewish outreach. “It is important”, he said, “for you to remain versatile and that others not only see you as a Kiruv rabbi”. I have tried to follow that suggestion ever since.

On another occasion, my father and I came to visit Rabbi Lamm in his home to see if he would consider accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award at our Annual Dinner. When I asked him if he would be open to accepting the award, he smiled and said: “I must tell you Mark, I am so relieved. When you called to say you’d like to come over with your father to discuss something important, I thought you were having a family problem, a shalom bayis issue with each other, and that I would have to mediate and help reconcile. I’m very happy not to have to do that”. “Me too!” I responded, “but what about accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award?”. I’ll never forget his answer: “Mark, I’m not sure how honoring me can be of any help but I will do whatever you think is necessary to be of assistance since MJE’s work is absolutely vital”.

I had the honor of having Rabbi Lamm’s grandson, Ari Lamm, as my student in the outreach class I teach at RIETS (Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic School). When I mentioned to Rabbi Lamm how brilliant I thought his grandson was, he smiled and said: “More importantly he’s a mensch, a really good boy”. That mensch, I’m proud to say is one of the rising rabbinic stars in the Jewish community today.

Much has been said about Rabbi’s Lamm’s oratory skill and in particular, his extraordinary vocabulary. I used to listen to his lectures and sometimes hear words I had no idea existed in the English vocabulary. My favorite YU Purim shpiel was a skit in which terrorists (played by a few YU students) captured Rabbi Lamm (also played by a student). The terrorists had Rabbi Lamm tied up in ropes and a bright light shining on his face as they pretended to beat him for information. However, every time Rabbi Lamm divulged something none of the terrorists could understand his elaborate and complicated vocabulary. Frustrated, the terrorists had to keep leafing through dictionary’s but to no avail. Rabbi Lamm’s vocabulary was impenetrable!

My favorite experience though was visiting Rabbi Lamm each year after the MJE Fellowship brochure was published. We named our most important learning program in honor of the rabbi and so I would visit him at his home (usually with one of my children), to show him the MJE Lamm Fellowship brochure and describe the new recruits accepted into the program for that year. I would point to a picture of a student in the brochure and tell him about their life and their interest in learning more about their Jewish heritage. I so enjoyed those visits because I loved watching Rabbi Lamm kvell – he took much joy in hearing stories of young people returning to their roots and devoting hours each week to learning Torah, many for the first time. Rabbi Lamm’s life was all Torah, completely devoted to elucidating and explaining the ideas and ideals of Torah Judaism on the highest level and in the most sophisticated manner. I can’t think of anyone more deserving to bear the name of a program that facilitates and cultivates serious Torah study for young and previously unaffiliated Jews.

May we and all future Lamm Fellows follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, tz”l and in doing so, bring great honor to his memory.

 After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.

Give Zoom Dating a Chance

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Corona has challenged many critical parts of our lives but for the large singles population of NYC, the pandemic has put a hold on dating and courtship.  For an organization and community (which I am privileged to direct) dedicated to bringing young people together – one which boasts 364 marriages in the last 20 years- this is quite distressing. In the last two months I’ve had conversations with dozens of my students who have basically given up on dating – for now. While I certainly understand why some have chosen to push off dating until they can date in person, I am disappointed so many people’s marriage prospects are now on hold for so long.

But must it be that way? Dating app usage has actually increased since the pandemic began and dating sites are reporting longer conversations on the sites than ever before. So why can’t we figure out a way to convert more of those dating app meet ups into actual on-line “dates”? The Bible’s famous comment on Adam’s life before Eve’s creation, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) applies more now than ever before. It’s just unhealthy to be alone for this long and so why put off meeting that special person?

 Whether two people can actually fall in love on-line remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: zoom and other such platforms enable two people to get to know each other and even develop a relationship. One of my students said to me that his zoom dates have helped create what he feels is a deep connection with someone he now calls his girlfriend.

 Consider some of the advantages of a zoom date: First, it is free! Compare that to how expensive dinner or even drinks used to be, an important factor for young people who may now be unemployed.

Second, zoom dating, while allowing the couple to determine whether they are physically attracted to one another, removes the pressure and distraction that comes with physical or sexual intimacy. The fact that physical contact is not an option can actually help the couple focus on the deeper aspects of their personalities and assist in maintaining clarity on their true feelings for one another. In Jewish tradition, physical attraction is an important ingredient for marriage, but physical intimacy is reserved for after the marriage as a way of deepening the bond after a commitment has been made. Corona and Zoom are just putting into action what Jewish tradition has been teaching for years.

Finally, even if the zoom date does not materialize, spending that hour or so getting to know another person is definitely a productive and healthy way of spending time. It takes us out of ourselves for a brief moment to open our hearts and become more sensitive empathic beings.

One important suggestion for your next zoom date: Take the date seriously by preparing for the encounter: set a time, shower, comb your hair and put on something nice. As Jewish tradition teaches, the more one prepares and invests for something in advance, the more the experience will mean to us. Another one of my students, a young woman was sent take out dinner in advance of their zoom date so the couple could enjoy dinner as they met on zoom (there goes advantage #1). Another planned a Netflix film and yet another sent an interesting article to discuss. Both took the time to arrange it in advance – that’s the key.

 After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.

Celebrating Israel in Isolation: Finding Opportunity in the Crisis

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After recently helping dozens of members of the Manhattan Jewish Experience community prepare for their Seders alone, and a month into a new world of isolation and social distancing, we received an email with the subject line: “The Mayor Cancels Israel Day Parade.” I felt a pit in my stomach, as the reality of not joining together to celebrate Israel began to sink in. For decades, amidst all the divide and controversy surrounding the Jewish State, the parade has been one of the most positive expressions of Jewish solidarity for Israel in the United States.  Since our inception in 1998, MJE has proudly marched every year with hundreds of young Jewish professionals dancing down 5th Avenue signing Am Yisrael Chai. This event has served as a rallying cry for MJE’s unwavering love and support for Israel and an expression of our religious Zionistic orientation.

We are told there will be a “virtual” parade, but assuredly it will lack the energy and inspired emotion of being face-to-face and hand-in-hand with our Jewish brothers and sisters on the streets of Manhattan. So what can we do? How can we recapture that special love for Israel in a socially distanced diaspora?

Israel has already given us the answer. In the last two months, while the world has been on a standstill, something mundane but quite extraordinary has been happening in Israel: roadwork is booming as construction crews take advantage of empty roads and railways during the coronavirus to upgrade Israel’s most congested highways. The Israeli government has injected over one billion shekels into the impromptu campaign and for nearly two months companies have been cramming in the work while the rest of the country is stuck at home. One recruitment campaign is referred to as “Opportunity in the Crisis.” The push to finish projects quickly is hoped to have an immense, long-term positive impact on the economy. In addition, some of the biggest and most crucial projects, like the final stretch of a new fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or the expansion of a highway in central Israel, will be finished six months to a year ahead of schedule because building has been accelerated during this time of crisis.

Israel’s accelerated road work at this time demonstrates a fundamental Jewish teaching: to find opportunity in life’s challenges and to transform oneself from an object into a subject where one can assert some level of control, particularly in challenging times. For the late and great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, this was the impetus behind the modern-day Zionist movement.

On Yom Ha-atzma’ut 1956, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered his famous treatise on religious Zionism, Kol Dodi Dofek, in which he spoke of God’s tangible presence in modern history, specifically the creation of the State of Israel. In the essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined two experiences of the Jewish people: a national covenant of FATE and a religious covenant of DESTINY. What is the difference between a life of fate versus one of destiny? Fate is uncontrollable, destiny can be directed.

To paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik: Destiny in the life of a people, as in the life of an individual, signifies a deliberate and conscious existence that the people has chosen out of its own free will. Slaves merely exist; they anticipate no change in their reality. Free men, on the other hand, expect movement and change in their lives; they aspire to forward and upward movement. The Torah calls upon each Jew to make a choice: To sanctify the Sabbath or desecrate it; to honor one’s parents or disregard them. When the slaves stood at Mount Sinai and said “We shall do and we shall understand” they were making the Jewish vision their national mission, defining themselves as a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation,” and turning their fate into destiny. More succinctly put, the covenant of fate is imposed; the covenant of faith is chosen. To be born into a particular nation is our fate; to choose an ideal and ideology as our life’s mission is our destiny. The Rav continues and says, The infant about to be circumcised is an object upon whom a ritual is to be imposed (fate); the Bar/Bat Mitzvah and bride/groom and the hundreds and thousands of ba’alei teshuvah in our community who have chosen a life dedicated to the ideals of Torah are transforming from object to subject and actualizing their deepest aspirations (destiny).

So, while it is our FATE that we cannot march in honor of Israel, and we are prevented from traveling to Israel at this time, we can be a people of DESTINY by choosing to connect and contribute to Israel in other ways.  Consider spending some time this week learning more about Israel and the founding of the Jewish State. In doing so, we can better appreciate Israel and understand its complexities. To this end, MJE has launched a series of classes and seminars on Israel – including an interview with Israel journalist and New York Times best-selling author Yossi Klein Halevi. Like other organizations, MJE’s Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration on Tuesday night will be online, as will be a special Yom Ha’atzmaut prayer service on Wednesday morning (see www.jewishexperience.org) so we can become more soulfully connected to our precious homeland. Being stuck at home affords us the extra time to deepen our understanding and appreciation for what Israel means to us. Take advantage of that extra time this week to get more connected to Israel.

Transforming a life of fate into one of destiny is fundamental to being Jewish. This week the world celebrates Zionism’s transformation of Jewish life after the Holocaust from one of object to subject, from a life of fate to a life of destiny. Let’s follow Israel’s example of building roads by not allowing the coronavirus dampen our celebration of Israel’s birthday. In doing so, we will change our own life of fate into one of destiny.

Special thanks to Rabbi Ezra Cohen of the Manhattan Jewish Experience for his help with this article.

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.