From Adversity to Celebration

BLOG POST: Rabbi Jonathan Feldman

March 29, 2018

Life has its ups and downs.  We have some good months, and we have some not so good months.   At one moment we get a promotion, and then we lose a job, we have a good relationship, and then we get heartbroken. But there are times in our lives when we are in a bad way, and then things take a turn for the better, and at those moments we feel gratitude to the Almighty for helping our lives move in the right direction.

The Rabbis (Talmud Pesachim 116a) tell us that when we fulfill the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus, we begin talking about our denigrated state and we conclude with praise for our being saved.  According to Shmuel, the denigrated state was the slavery in Egypt, and the praise is for G-d freeing us.  In the Seder we have symbols and stories that remind us of both these states. I would like to focus on the symbolic elements of the Seder, and trace these two themes of denigration and suffering, and freedom and joy.  Parts of the seder remind us of our freedom, like eating and drinking in a position of leisure and comfort, which is why we lean, and parts remind us of our suffering, like eating the bitter herbs (which is why I take a bite of actual horseradish, to feel the burn).

The Matzah embodies both of these messagages, it represents both slavery and freedom.  At the beginning of the Haggadah we start by holding up the matza and saying.  This is ‘lachma anya’, which can mean either the bread of poverty or the bread of suffering.  This is the unadorned, dried, unflavored bread like the bread which our ancestors had to eat in Egypt when they were slaves.  When you read books about the Holocaust you read about the dry hard bread they survived on.  You also read about how they would not eat the whole morsel at once, but would squirrel away part of it for later or for the next day because you did not know when you would next be getting any food.  This is one of the explanations of why we break the matza and put the larger half aside as the afikomen, like a poor person who keeps food for later.  All of this is meant to allow us to experience what it is like to be a poor person who is suffering.

By contrast, when we get to the end of Magid, the telling of the story of the Exodus in the Haggadah, how do we describe the matza?  Rabban Gamliel says. Why do we eat this Matzah?  We eat it because the bread that our ancestors had baked did not have time to rise because G-d took us out so quickly.  It is the bread of freedom, the bread that represents the quickness with which G-d saved us. So the bread that reminds us of suffering and pain can also be the bread that reminds of how quickly G-d saved us in Egypt.  The message is that sometimes we are in the darkness and nothing seems to go our way, and we feel like there is no way out.  And things change, a medical treatment works, we get a job lead, and the circumstances that brought about our anguish and pain turn into the vehicle through which we feel joy and appreciation of the blessings.  May this Passover be a time when our pain and adversity turns into joy and celebration.


Chag Sameyach!

AIPAC 2018: Israel Stands Strong

BLOG POST: Rabbi Jonathan Feldman

March 7, 2018

Most years at AIPAC there is a crisis issue swirling around in the air:  The Iran Nuclear Deal, Israel-Palestinian Peace Negotiation, a UN condemnation of Israel…  This year there was no one issue that dominated the agenda.  Yes, all of these issue are still swirling around, and will not go away soon, but there was a feeling this year that we could be at AIPAC celebrating the great story that is Israel.  And AIPAC has been doing that for the past few years, highlighting the convergence of Israeli technology, humanitarianism and innovation:  devices that draw water from the air to fight drought, breakthroughs in medicine and science discovered in Israeli research facilities, innovations in technology such as driverless technology, and Israeli humanitarian relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Texas and many other places across the globe..   There was also giddiness over having a US administration that is unabashedly pro-Israel.  It is as if we were pinching ourselves saying, yes it is real, they are really moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.  Or hearing Nikki Hayley say ‘There will be no more business as usual of bullying Israel in the UN’, or saying ‘Why shouldn’t we go out of our way to support our ally, Israel. That is not bias, it is loyalty.’

Hearing Bibi was definitely one of the highlights of the conference.  They do not announce beforehand that he will be speaking for security reasons, but people knew he was in town to ‘meet with President Trump’ so we imagined he would make an appearance as well. Being in the room with over 15 000 people all on their feet cheering the Prime Minister of Israel is in itself an amazing moment.  Just for that feeling it is worth coming to AIPAC next year.

While last year Niki Hayley rocked the house, and she was amazing this year as well (and got the most applause of anyone other than Bibi), Chuk Schumer blew it away this year.  After his usual corny joke, he sobered up and told the story of his great grandmother who was told by the Nazis in Galicia to bring her family to the front porch of the house.  They were then told to leave their house, and when she refused all 17 were gunned down.  Schumer said that the Jewish people and Israel will no longer allow the world stand by silently to enable the killing of Jews.  The Taylor Force Act, which he said he is actively pushing to be passed in the senate,  calls for the US to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority commensurate with the sums of money that they pay terrorists in jail or the families of killed terrorists.  Bibi also highlighted this important legislation, noting that the terrorist that killed the Fogel family 2 years ago will receive 2 million dollars from the PA over his lifetime, and that the PA spends 10% of their budget on subsidies to terrorists.  Strangely AIPAC did not place the Taylor Force Act on the lobbying agenda.   Why is not clear, I suspect that there is a concern that if the PA’s funding is cut that dramatically it will fall apart.  If that happens then Israel will have to run the Palestinian controlled areas, and will have to keep security themselves without help from a PA.  My personal view is that there are always good reasons of why one thing or another is not politically viable, but it is about time we hold the Palestinians accountable for their incitement to terror. They must learn to live with the consequences of their evil action.  The Western allies have enabled them for too long, always finding excuses for not doing so, and it must stop.  There were also justifications of why the US could not move the embassy to Jerusalem, and for 20 years the presidents from Clinton to Obama put a stop on a law passed by congress to move it.  Sometimes you just have to do what is right.  Vice-president Mike Pence got a rousing ovation when he announced the embassy would be moved on Israel Independence day, this May.   Which brings up back to Chuck Schumer.  He talked the talk, but unfortunately he does not always walk the walk.  I remember going to a demonstration on 40th and 7th next to Times square near his NY office to put pressure on him to vote against the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In the end he did, but he only made it known he would do so at a very late point, and did not encourage other democrats to do so.

The shadow of Iran continues to loom over the middle east and Israel, and VP Mike Pence also promised the crowd that the US would not let Iran acquire nuclear weapons and would not let Iran establish a presence in Syria.  President Trump’s plan is to put requirements on Iran to stop promoting terror and stop developing ballistic missiles, and if they do not stop then he will not sign the waiver to continue the nuclear deal.  Sanctions will then be imposed.  Will all this stop Iran?  Probably not, but one of the Israeli representatives proudly said that Israel has never and will never ask the US to fight our wars for us.  No US boots on the ground.  We receive aid from the US, joint projects to develop defenses systems, but the IDF will always fight its own wars.  I encourage you to join me at AIPAC next year, AIPAC does amazing work getting the message out to our representative in the US government about the importance of the Israel-US alliance.  You can be part of that message, just by being there and showing our representatives how much Israel means to us as US citizens.  You can also then lobby our representative on Capitol Hill and make the case directly for the important of Israel as a strategic partner.  As their tag line this year read:  Choose To Lead.   I guarantee you it is an experience of a lifetime.

Yom Kippur 2017: Neilah –Streching Our Jewish Lives

I recently came across the last words of Steve Jobs that I would like to share with you.

I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.

In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.

However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.

At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death.

In the dark, when I look at green lights, of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me.

Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for the rest of your life, you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth.

It should be something more important:

For example, stories of love, art, dreams of my childhood.

No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me.

God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me.

I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love.

This is the true wealth that will follow you; will accompany you, he will give strength and light to go ahead.

Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits. Move to where you want to go. Strive to reach the goals you want to achieve. Everything is in your heart and in your hands.

What is the world’s most expensive bed? The hospital bed.

You, if you have money, you can hire someone to drive your car, but you cannot hire someone to take your illness that is killing you.

Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose: life.

Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls.

Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends…

Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbours.

These words are incredibly powerful.  Jobs says it’s all about love, and yes love and love of family are central in Judaism, however I would say that he is on the right path, but there is more. I would add that we need to stay focused on meaningful acts of service, serving the Almighty and fixing the world, these are also the main things that we will look back upon as having been meaningful in our lives.  Bill Gates can be used as example of someone who did what Jobs did not do, he quit at the peak of his career and wealth, and is devoting the rest of his life to giving away his wealth and helping others.  As we enter into the final stretch of Yom Kippur, let’s think about the things we do not want to look back upon and regret not having done.  Let’s look forward to the coming year as a year when we do not lose sight of the spiritual values in our lives.   Let’s think about how we can make changes and how we can stretch ourselves to encompass the things that we know will live on as important in our lives.

The first scene in the Torah of the first Jew in history was an act of personal stretching.  Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather was asked to leave his home, his birthplace and even his family to follow G-d to an unknown land.’  The Torah is giving us a profound message about spiritual growth.  It is telling us that in order to grow spiritually we strive to go beyond the limitations of what we know.  We strive to expand ourselves, our Jewish lives into areas that we may not have been before.   Most American Jews view their Judaism as a side hobby that they visit occasionally.  The High Holidays, a demonstration on behalf of Israel, a .  And if we look at it that way, then the satisfaction we derive from our Jewish lives will be the type of satisfaction we derive from a hobby.  It is nice, but it is not going to touch me or my world deeply.  If we want our Judaism and our relationship to G-d to touch us deeply, then we need to allow it to infiltrate into the fabric of our lives.  And that involves change, and change is not always comfortable.  In fact, change is usually not comfortable.

Interestingly, there is one day of the Jewish year when many Jews allow Judaism to lead them to a place beyond their comfort zone, and that day is Yom Kippur.  One of the most basic ideas of fasting is that we stretch ourselves to nullify our physical drives, to show ourselves that we are not subject to our physical urges, but that we are master of our physical wants and desires.  Now fasting is not something we would normally do, although I did once have a student who used to love fasting, would go on three day cleansings and talked about the spiritual high he would attain.  When I first started fasting, it was excruciatingly difficult, I had never fasted before in my life, I would count the hours, and I could not really get into the prayer. But as the years went on, I started to get into the swing of it, and now I find it fasting to be a vehicle to feel cleansed and elevated.  I must admit that when I sat in a service it was more challenging; I was more likely to count the hours.  When I run the service I am totally engrossed, and even though it is extremely exhausting, I am able to absorb myself completely.

So let’s think about what areas of our Jewish lives we want to stretch ourselves.  It can be making a commitment to Shabbat.  Keeping Shabbat, whether it is by lighting candles, doing Friday night dinner each week, and here at MJE we have weekly opportunities to do so, not shopping and using money, or not using electricity at all, is stretching ourselves into a mode that can bring us a day of peace and harmony, a day of freedom from our weekday pressures and harried lifestyles.  It can be a commitment to a Torah study once a week.  After work we are tired and just want to go home and veg out in front of the TV, but we know we will derive so much more satisfaction and growth by motivating ourselves to learn.  It can be getting involved in Israel advocacy and putting ourselves out for the Jewish people, lobbying in Washington, or getting informed so we can be spokespeople on behalf of Israel.  Or it can be volunteering to visit an elderly person through Dorot, going on hospital visits on Shabbat afternoon, or giving blood at a blood drive.

The more I invest, the more I put in to my Jewish and spiritual life, the more satisfaction I will derive, and the more I will feel that my life is one that I will not look back upon and feel like Steve Jobs, that I missed what was truly important.

Yom Kippur 2017: Yizkor –You Mean Sometimes I Really Am Wrong?

In ‘The Crime I Did Not Commit’, author Sarah Rigler relates the experience of her cousin Circuit Court judge Alice Gilbert, and her innovative idea.  She required every criminal convicted in her courtroom to write a 2000 word essay answering the questions

How did my crime affect me? How did it affect my family?  How did it affect my community? And what can be done to prevent such crimes in the future?

You would think that the essays would elicit an ode to regret and remorse.  But the reality is far from it.  Let’s take the case of a drunk driver, Frank, who killed a teenage girl.  Frank did start off by saying it was sad that ‘this young girl who should be alive, isn’t’, -note he could not even say the word dead- but proceeded to say he sees no reason why her friends and family should be harassing him with telephone calls at home and at work.  Furthermore he blamed her because she was trying to help a dog on the road who was hit, and her boyfriend was doing a lousy job of redirecting traffic.

Why do people have such a hard time owning up to the wrongs they have done.

By the way this is not the first time that this phenomenon of placing blame on others has been noticed.  You only have to turn to the story in the Torah of the beginning of mankind.  In Genesis 3:13 when G-d calls Adam and Eve to task for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the only thing He asked them not to do, what do they answer?  Adam says to G-d the woman who you matched me with gave it to me.  Not only does he try to absolve himself of responsibility for what he did, but he implicitly blames G-d to for placing him with Eve, when G-d did it to alleviate his loneliness.  And when the Almighty turns to Eve and asks her what she did, her reaction is the same, she said the snake tricked me and that is why I ate it.’

I think there are a number of different reasons why this is so, why it is so difficult for us to admit we are wrong and to be accountable for our actions.  The first reason is simply that we want to be right.  If we get into an argument with our friend/bf/sibling, admitting we are wrong means we lose, and that it’s our fault, and many people do not like to be wrong.  We are competitive by nature (or at least I sometimes am, especially when I am playing monopoly with the kids), and we want to come out on top, we want to be right.  But now the kids do not want to play monopoly with me because I am too competitive.  If we do not admit we are wrong we do not come out on top in the long run.  We will just push people away.

The second reason we do not want to be wrong is that owning up to our bad behavior means I now owe them one.  They have one over me.  I will have to be nice to them next time, to let them choose which restaurant to go to next time we go out, or to let them have the last word on some future disagreement.

But I believe the third reason is the greatest block to owning up to our errors, and it has to do with how we feel about ourselves.  If I admit to my sins, then I am guilty, and being guilty means I am a bad person.  I am rotten and bad and our egos cannot sustain that kind of beating.   With all the heart beating we are doing on Yom Kippur, this is a pitfall we have to avoid in our lives, and especially on Yom Kippur.  So how do we admit that we are wrong, to others, To G-d and to ourselves on Yom Kippur without feeling like garbage?

This feeling that we are bad is based on an outlook which is not a Jewish one, and which I believe is not the correct one about the true nature of us as human beings.  I think this feeling is so prevalent because of the Christian belief is that humans are born with original sin permeates the consciousness of our society.  The Christian belief  is that the human being is bad by nature, and  without belief which brings redemption, we will remain in our sinful state.  You may have noticed that I specifically avoid using the word sin over Yom Kippur because it carries with it this association of my being intrinsically bad.  So many people feel that by owning up to our wrongs we are just reinforcing what we really know deep down, that we let ourselves and others down, and that we are a rotten.  While is true we may have done something bad, and gave in to our selfishness, our anger, or our desire to take a moral short-cut does not make us into a bad person.

The Jewish outlook is presented in a famous story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, where two people are taunting Rabbi Meir.  It does not say what they did but in one of the other incidents when a Rabbi was taunted, every time he went to the bathhouse, they stole his towel and his clothes.  This must have been worse, because R Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Bruria asked him how he could wish such a thing.  She pointed out that in the verse ‘May the sins be wiped out from the land’  (Psalms 104:35) it says the sins and not the sinner.  So you should pray not they they be wiped out, but that their sins be wiped out. And if you look at the end of the verse it says ‘and may the wicked be no more’, it does not say that they should die. Instead, says Bruria (the wife is right again), it must mean that they are ‘no more’ because they changed.  So she tells her husband you should pray to G-d that they repent, and that is how they would be no more.

The Torah outlook is that when someone does something wrong they do a bad act, they are not a bad person, but they have done a bad actions.  (There are unfortunately, exceptions, there are people who are truly evil, your Hitlers, Addas, ISIS)  Bay the way this important distinction between the person and their actions is also crucial for parenting 101, to make sure this is communicated to one’s children when they misbehave.  We believe that within us is a Diving soul that want to do good, and wants to be giving, sensitive, understanding and spiritual, but we give in to our lower voice that is selfish, indifferent and pleasure seeking.  The Torah views man in a state of struggle, which means that we will necessarily make mistakes and mess us, that is the human condition.  And if we accept that in ourselves, then we will probably see that others will accept it in us and it will be easier to say ‘I am sorry’.

A truly sincere apology will usually receive forgiveness.  It will allow us to not be defensive when someone gives us criticism.  And if we are a person that is not defensive, then others will tell us when they are hurt because they know it will elicit an apology rather than making us defensive.  I recently came across a story that beautifully shows how on can be open to criticism, and also offer explanations without being aggressive.  This true story is related by Shlomo Horowitz.  He needed some guitar supplies for a kumzitz, and he found a local music store.  Before going here he looked at the reviews online.  This is what Suzanne wrote online about Mike’s Music Store: TC 3 reviews a year ago-

It is all about greed and money. They have a very unfair makeup/cancelation policy. So if class falls on a holiday ( Ex. July 4th) and the center is closed, they still charge you for the class, They do not pay the teachers for that day either, so free money for them. According to their policy it is up to the costumer to schedule a make up. However, the teachers are all always fully booked. It is almost impossible to schedule a make up class. Their solution: They offer substitutes. But they are missing the point, after working with a teacher for many years, I don’t need a stranger who has never met my child nor know anything about his progress hanging out with him for 30 minutes. I don’t call that a “make up ” class. That is just a waste of time and money. Also their parking stinks.

Bottom line: I don’t recommend them, Mike and his wife are greedy people.

Shlomo said ‘I finished reading the review and had my doubts about going. I didn’t want to give my business to a greedy, inconsiderate person. But then I noticed that the owner, Mike, had responded. I read further,’

Hi Suzanne,

Wow, where do I start?

How about, “Mike and his wife are greedy people.”? Congratulations, you’ve ruined my day. This is so untrue and hurtful. You don’t know me or my wife. You have no idea how much of our time and money we donate to our community, to those in need, to veterans, to schools every year. I may be a lot of things, but greedy isn’t one of them.

“They have a very unfair makeup/cancellation policy.” Actually, I believe our makeup policy to be just about the most fair I’ve seen in the music lesson business. If your lesson falls on a holiday that we are closed (Ex. July 4th) we PRORATE that month and you actually do not pay for that lesson. If you need to cancel a lesson, we only ask to be notified by the night before. If you do need to cancel on the same day of your lesson we pay our teacher for the lesson, so you would not be able to make it up.

“The teachers are always fully booked.” This is not exactly true, but we do our best to keep their schedules pretty full. Perhaps if our teachers weren’t so amazing they may have more openings?

“They offer substitutes.” This is true. If your teacher is sick or on vacation we will have a substitute. When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I would show up once in a while and there would be a substitute. I would actually be excited to learn something brand new and different from a new instructor. I realize that some kids and parents prefer not to have substitutes. Not a problem. All you need to do is let us know you don’t want a sub and we will always let you know if/when your teacher is unavailable and we will reschedule your lesson.

“Parking stinks.” I can’t really dispute this one. The parking lot is a bit small for our growing business. We’re working on possible solutions and will let everyone know when we find an answer.


Shlomo says: I was touched by his vulnerability, his admission that he wasn’t perfect, and the dignified way in which he explained himself and addressed the complaints. I want to meet this guy, I thought to myself.  He didn’t respond and claim he’s perfect and he’s a gem of a human being, and that his store and policies, parking, etc were all fantastic. He admitted that he wasn’t flawless and that certain things need fixing. But he also elegantly explained that certain perceptions the reviewer had were mistaken.  Mike was vulnerable and honest, and I found that so rare and refreshing.

I share this true story with you because it shows how someone can be honest and admit their imperfections without becoming defensive and disingenuous.   The word Jew comes from the name Yehuda, one of the sons of Jacob.  This name has its roots in the word Hodaah which means to admit.  To be a Jew is to give recognition where it is due and to be able to admit when we are wrong.

This Yom Kippur let’s all strive to be able to admit and own up to our mistakes because it is only by doing so that we can begin to mend the damage we may have done, to ourselves, to others and to our relationship with others.  And in doing so we say ‘I am sorry’  and we take responsibility for our wrongful actions but know they are not the deepest representation of who we are.  For we believe that ultimately our true selves is our Divine soul, which strives to do good and to make the world better.    This is who we strive to become on Yom Kippur, to purify ourselves and  to get in touch with that Divine essence within each of us.





Yom Kippur 2017: Kol Nidrei – Stretching Our Giving

This story is told my Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Two hundred years ago in Koretz, all the Jews were G-d fearing except Avramele the Schneider, the tailor.  He never went to synagogue, or to the kosher butcher for that matter.  The only place people saw him was at the local pub at night, drunk.  People only went to him to get their clothers  fixed, otherwise they did not care about him at all.   One day Avramele passed away, and R. Pinchas Shapiro, one of the three students of the Baal Shem Tov saw a crowd of people gathered in the corner of the schule.  What’s going on he asked?  Nothing?  No tell me.  Well one of the most disgusting Jews in the city just died, and no one wants to go to his funeral.  I did not know there were disgusting Jews in Koretz, R. Pinchas said.  Oh, it’s Avramele the Schneider.

  1. Pinchas turned pale. The people were afraid he might faint. He started crying ‘Gevalt, gevalt, my dearest friend the tailor has left this world?  What time is the funeral, I for one will certainly be there.

When word got out the R. Pinchas would be there, there was much speculation.  When R. Pinchas went to a funeral, it was only for a tzaddik, a holy person.  Was the scheider a lamed vav, one of the 36 hidden righteous people in the world?  All the Jews turned out of the funeral, people were crying out ‘r. Avramele, please forgive us. They were asking him to intercede on their behalf.

One of R. Pinchas’ colleagues, R. Yaivah was in town and also went to the funeral.  After the funeral he said to R. Pinchas:

  1. Pinchas, my dear friend, you can fool the whole city into thinking the tailor was holy. But you and I know better, we was really just what he seemed, a simple Jew, maybe even a bit sinful. So tell me the truth, why did you mourn him so much?

Ah, Rebbe, we know so little about other people.

Do you remember the orphan girl Feigele who grew up in our house?  my wife and I adopted her as a baby.  Six months ago she got married to an orphan boy, a very nice boy. We borrowed the money to make the wedding.  Just a few hours before the wedding Feigele’s groom came up to me and said that we did not buy him a new talis, a new prayer shawl which the groom customarily wears under the chupah.

I told him that I borrowed from every last person, and I did now know who I would get another 10 rubles from for a talis.  in a few weeks I would be able to find a source for the funds for the talis.

The boy was crying, Rebbe, Rebbe, everyone will laugh at me if I do not have a new chupah.

I know he was right, but there was no one else to go to for money.  ‘okay, I’ll do my best.  Wait here, maybe G-d will open up the gates for me.

I walked down the street and tried to think of who I could go to for money, but there was no one.  So I decided I would go up to the first house with a light on, and that was the house of Avramele the tailor.

When he opened up the door and saw me, he said, rebbe, it’s such an honor; I never dreamed you would visit me.  What can I do for you?

Sweet tailor, you know the orphan Sarah is getting married tonight, and I need 10 rubles for a talis.

Oy, you know how poor I am, I could help you with one ruble.

Schneider, thank you so much, may the Almighty bless you.

I did not know where I would get the rest of the money from, but somehow getting that one ruble made me feel lighter and hopeful.  As I was walking away, I hear someone running after me.  It was the taylor, and I saw he was crying.

He said to me’ I am poor, but I have managed to save some money. I have nine rubles left, my whole life savings.  Rebbe, I would like to give you the money, but do you think I could have a place in the world to come?

I put my hands on his head and said, ‘Avramele, if you do this great mitzvah it is because of you that the wedding is taking place, and I promise you a place in the world to come.

And so, I went to Avramele’s funeral, and I cried walking behind the coffin because I could see that his soul was wrapped in the talis he bought with his last ten ruble for the groom of Sarah the orphan girl.


We learn many things from this story.  Who are we to judge a person, for who are we to say the nature of the acts they do.  Maybe we cannot judge others, but we can judge ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we give to others when it is easy and convenient, or whether we give of ourselves by putting aside our own desires and responding to the needs of another.  Sure, we try to be helpful to our family and friends, to help a friend move on a Sunday afternoon, bring someone chicken soup when they are sick, help someone with their resume or network to help find them a job.  But how often do we really extend ourselves, how often do we really stretch, how often do we get out of our comfort zone for others?

Would we give up theater tickets because someone is having a personal crisis and really needs us that evening, or would we give up our Saturday night fun because a friend is lonely.  How often do we go out of our way to help a co-worker when we know they are struggling with their project, even though we have our own deadline, but our job is not in jeopardy?

A person who is truly giving gives when it is not easy and convenient, when it is a real stretch.  And it is when we stretch ourselves that we really grow.  We become greater people for it.  Avramele’s act was an act of greatness and made him into a great person.  Have we ever given as selflessly as Avramele did?  I am not telling everyone to give away their life savings, but Jewish law prescribes tithing, giving 10% of our net income to charity and Jewish causes.  10% is not just nice, it hits us in the gut, it requires a readjustment of our disposable income.  No this is not a High Holiday appeal, it is an example of how we can stretch, and become greater people for it in the process.

We all understand that when I am working out, if I push when it hurts, if I give the extra umph at the end, that is how I really get in shape.  If I shoot for that extra measure when I am stretching then I will truly be limber.  So this coming year, when we have the opportunity to help someone, or someone asks us to get involved, and our first reaction is to say ‘no’, let’s stop and reconsider.  Is this an opportunity for a spiritual workout?  This Yom Kippur as we think about how we can become better and improve ourselves, as we think about how we can grow as human beings, as Jews and as spiritual beings, let’s specifically embrace the opportunities to do a mitzvah, to go a good deed when my inclination is to shy away, the retreat, to pull away.  And through this, may we merit to learn what it means to be a giver.  We are enjoined in the Torah to follow in G-d’s ways, and one of the greatest ways it to emulate G-d quality of giving.



The Value of Discretion: No I Do Not Need to Post It On Facebook

In December 1939 Nicholas Winton was getting ready to set off on a ski trip from England to Switzerland. Before leaving he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake.  Blake told him “I have an interesting assignment and I need your help.  Don’t bother to bring your skis.”  Germany had just taken over the Czechoslovakia, and thousands of refugees were dislocated, many with no food or shelter.  Winton found that the needs of the refugees were not being looked after, and he felt that he had to do something for them, or at least for their children.  So he petitioned the English government to find out what was needed for the children to be brought to England.  They told him he would have to find a family willing to take them in, and have a 50 pound deposit per child, a significant sum of money at the time.  Winton left the relief work in the hands of others and went back to England to organize the efforts to save the children.  The British people opened their homes, their hearts and their wallets, and this was after already taking in 10 000 Jewish children from Austria and Germany, one of which was my mother.  Over the next 9 months he would organize one flight and 7 trains, saving 669 children from death.  These children would never see their families again.  In 1988 Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic, with photos of the children, a list of names and letters from the parents.  After pushing her husband to come clean, she found out about his relief efforts.

This story is extraordinary on many counts.  It shows us that one person can make a difference, and that just because no one else is doing something does not mean that it cannot be done.  He did the impossible, which people said could not be done and saved hundreds of children,  whose descendants now number in the thousands.    But what I would like to focus on in the story of this incredible individual is something that we might at first think is a peculiar side point.  Winton  kept his heroic deeds a quiet for 50 years.  Imagine having saving 669 lives, and the world not knowing about it.

In today’s world you go out to dinner, on a cruise or raise charity money by doing a triathalon and the whole world knows about it.  In an article entitled “You Will Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay”  Emily Smith writes in the NY Times that thanks to social media, purpose and meaning have become conflated with glamour.’  In the age of Shark Tank, celebrity chefs, American idol, everything is in the public arena.  Living a meaningful life becomes equated with doing something attention-grabbing, becoming an Instagram celebrity, having over 1000 followers or becoming a reality TV star.    And then when you accomplish that, you figure out how to monetize on it.

This outlook on the world is totally antithetical to Jewish values.  The book of Micha which is one of the books of the Jewish prophets lays out the Jewish outlook on publicizing one’s actions. (Most of you think you do not know the Book of Micah but in fact if you have every done Tashlich before you have read from the book of Micha, the verse which begins Tashlich is taken from there).  The book of Micha 6:8 tell us ‘what does G-d require of us: to do justice and love mercy and walk discretely before G-d.  The Talmud in Sukka 22b asks: ‘to what does this refer? This refers to doing a mitzvah quietly for which we get public recognition like accompanying an orphan bride to the wedding canopy (one who does so would probably be given this role because they have paid for her wedding).’  This means we should not seek out acknowledgment for a good deed we have done.  The Talmud then says all the more so mitzvoth that are done privately, such as Torah study or giving charity.  These also should be done discretely and quietly without feeling the need to tell other people about it.

Why is it important to be discreet about our good deeds?  The Talmud tells us elsewhere in Taanit 31 b that blessing is only found on something that is hidden from the eye.  Why should that be, why should there be a deeper spiritual impact of an action that is done secretly?

I believe that there are two important ideas behind this.   The first is the idea of what is called in Hebrew ‘ayin hara’, or the evil eye.  Poo poo – the idea is that if we publicly display either our material wealth, our prosperity, driving around in the mazerati, wearing high high end designer labels (and making sure they are on the outside), building an enormous home, that other people will put the evil eye on us.  And from what we see this can also be true if we put on display our righteous or spiritual accomplishments. Why is this damaging?   One way to understand it is that if my blessing or my accomplishment becomes the vehicle through which other people’s jealousy becomes provoked, and they resent me because of it, or it makes them feel unhappy with their own lives, then this is not a blessing but something that is causing negativity in the world.  And if it evokes negativity then the Almighty might take away the blessing.

The second point, and this is the one that is most relevant to us on an internal level, is that publicizing our acts erodes the quality of the experience.  When I am doing actions that I know will be observed by others, or that I know I will be putting on display, then the experience becomes not truly mine, but it becomes one that is projected onto others.  In doing so, I am diluting the meaning of the experience for myself.  How many times have you worn something that you really did not like or think is nice, or was uncomfortable but it was the new hot thing so of course you had to wear it.  Knowing we will be on display skews our sense of ourselves.  We become a product of what people think of us,  and doing this undermines our sense of self, our self-confidence and our ability to be our own unique selves.

Always having to show something to others or experience it with others is like pulling a seed out of the ground every day to look at how it is growing.  By doing so I am stunting its growth.  I will be distracted by knowing that I am publicizing it.  It is like when you go to an event and you take pictures.  You cannot really experience it, you cannot really be in the present because you are distanced from it by having to capture, or in this case publicize it.   We are losing the fabric of our internal selves to the constant distraction and interruption of digital stimuli.  As a result we do not know what it is to be in touch with ourselves, to let ourselves feel something or be in the moment, and we become it is not enough to just be in the experience without capturing or publicizing it.

Third, in the Torah we see that the encounter with the Divine is to be found in the moments of quiet and solitude, in moments of privacy. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, Joshua went up the mountain with him part of the way.  But when Moshe asked the Almighty to show him His ways, to allow Moshe to experience him, G-d says find this place in the rock that I have prepared, and be that place as I pass by.  The experience of the Divine is in solitude.  It is in the recesses of our soul which we need internal focus and self-isolation in order to access.  The prophet (I Kings 19-12) calls this the ‘small still voice’ of the experience of the Divine.  In the case of doing a mitzvah, keeping it to ourselves makes it more likely that we motivated to do the mitzvah for its own sake rather than for ulterior motives like getting recognition.  This is called doing a mitzvah l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven and for its own sake.  It should be said that sometimes doing a mitzvah publicly can have the value of serving as an example to motivate other to do it as well, but we should make sure that our primary motive is not seeking the recognition.

The irony and post script to Nicholas Winston’s story turns our point on its head.    After his story came out, Nicholas Winston was knighted and became Sir Nicholas Winston. In a 1988 filming of the show ‘That’s Life’, Winton’s wife brought him to the studio to see the show. Little did he know that he was a focus of the show, and that over two dozen of his ‘children’ were at there.   Winton was 79 years old at the time.  He passed away in 2015 at the age of 104, living another 25 years.  it seems that the blessing continued to rest upon him even after his deeds were so widely publicized.  Maybe that was because he had lived with it privately for so long, a demonstration that his actions were truly L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of the good deed and not for the recognition he would receive.  May we all merit to have the strength of character to live with the humility of not seeking recognition, and to do good deeds and live our lives for their true value, and not for what we think other people will see them.  And in the process may we merit to be blessed with the blessing of that which is kept private.



The Message of the Hurricanes Before Rosh Hashanah

These past two weeks have seen unprecedented destruction sweeping across the United States.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey an estimated 30,000 people will need temporary shelter, 14 000 national guards were activated to help save people and 450 000 will need disaster assistance from FEMA.  Losses due to destruction are estimated at $75 billion.  70 people died directly from or events related to the hurricane. In Florida as a result of hurricane Irma, 7 million people fled the state, and more than 6.7 million people were without power in Florida.  This accounts for 2/3 of the population of the state.  The carribean Islands of St Marten, Anguila and Barbuda were had damage to 75-90% of their buildings.   34 people died in events related to hurricane Irma in the Carribean, 26 in Florida.  And now Maria has devastated Dominica, and has swept across the US Virgin Islands and across Puerto Rico, and an extremely powerful earthquake has hit Mexico City killing over 200 people.

All of this devastation and suffering is happening right before Rosh Hashanah, and so we must ask ourselves what message are we to take from this?  It seems like over the years, this has been the pattern before Rosh Hashanah, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans before RH in  2005, hurricane Sandy decimated the NY coastline in 2012. The most obvious message would seem to be that the hurricane season is in the late summer, which corresponds to the time right before the High Holidays.  But why is that so, why did the Almighty make it so that hurricane season and the Jewish High Holidays converge?

When we see this tragedy unfolding in front of us across the United States and the Caribbean, we are being given a powerful message before Rosh Hashanah, which is that is that life is not something we can take for granted.  Life is precarious, the stability of our lives is precarious, having those we love around us be there for us is not something we should take for granted.  We think the status quo is something that we can take as a given.  But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tell us otherwise.  We are told in the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, that on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the next year is determined by the Almighty.  In a few moments we say ‘on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed’, and we will be praying for another year of life, another year of health, and another year of livelihood.   The hurricanes teach us that we cannot take these things for granted and that we need to turn to the Almighty in prayer and we need to improve ourselves  so that we be worthy to receive His blessings for the coming year.

But even after having seen these images in front of us in the media, and seeing and hearing of so many people whose lives and well-being are in the balance, we still do not really feel it. It is still not real to us.  We do not really feel like the inhabitants of Puerto Rico who have hurricane Maria bearing down on them.  We are not bawling out our prayers and tears to the Almighty asking for Him to help us, and that the fate of our lives is in the balance like the people in the Caribbean, or asking Him for help in rebuilding like the people of Texas and Florida undoubtedly are.  Why is that?  Should we be more distressed and distraught over this impending ‘verdict’ for the coming year as the prayerbook calls it?  I think there are several reasons that we are not feeling the reality that our fate is being determined on this day.

The first reason is that we have not experienced firsthand what it means to have our life in the balance.  Some of us might have struggled with health issues, or have close family members who have struggled with these issues, or some of us may be from Florida or New Orleans and have lived through what it means to have our homes decimated, but most of us have not.  Here are some pictures of what it is like.  It is hard for us to imagine this, to be standing in 3 feet of water in your living room, having your belongings drenched, not being able to live in your house for weeks or months.  Or even to not have electricity and air conditioning for a week like people I know in Florida.  And since we have not had everything taken away, or have never really lived through these hardships, we do not know what it is really like to beseech the Almighty for our lives and wellbeing.  My grandmother, who by the way was a refugee during the Holocaust, used to talk more about living through World War One in Austria when there were food quotas and they lived on the brink of starvation.  It was etched into her consciousness.  A person who has been through such life experiences knows what it means to really pray for their lives.  We do not really know what this kind means of vulnerability means. We live in an era of the greatest prosperity in the history of mankind.  We have luxuries, air conditioning, unlimited clean water, unlimited selection of food whenever we want it, which the majority of people in the world do not have, and that wealthy people in past did not even have.  And so we tend to take it all for granted.  When we see the decimation the hurricanes are causing, one message we can take away from it is to feel the reality of the transience of life, and to internalize the idea of our reliance upon the Almighty for our well-being for the coming year, and to open up our hearts in prayer in a real way.

The second reason that we do not feel the reality of Rosh Hashanah is a good one.  It is that we believe that even though we are being judged on Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty is not out to ‘get us’.  G-d is not looking to nab us on our wrongs.  -Okay time for a little comic interlude.   Joe is lonely, so he goes out and buys a parrot for some company.  The parrot talks to him alright, but it is outright abusive. Joe is stupid, joe is a jerk, I hate Joe.  Joe asks the parrot to stop, he will not stop.  Joe warns the parrot, but it ignores him.  Finally Joe can’t take it anymore, and he grabs the parrot and sticks him in the freezer.  He hears the parrot cratching around, and then all goes silent.  Joe gets scared, he wanted to scare the parrot but he did not want to kill it.  So opens up the freezer and there is the parrot, looking all contrite.  The parrot says Joe, I feel really bad, I should not have been so mean, do you forgive me?  Joe says yes, sure I do.  The parrot then says ‘but I just have one question’, and pointing to the frozen chickens in the freezer asks ‘what did they do?.’

We believe that the Almighty is like a loving parent.  In the central prayer we will be saying on Yom Kippur, we say ‘Avinu Malknu’, our Father our King. The Father comes before King, and we know the Almighty relates to us as a parent would to their child.   A parent sometimes has to teach a child a lesson, if a young child runs out into the street the parent will have to speak to them sternly so they know what they have done is very serious, they may even need to ground them.  But they will look for the minimum punishment that will convey the message.  And if the parent sees that the child really gets the message, then they do not even need to punish them at all.  So too we believe, as the sages say ‘that the Almighty inclines to the side of mercy.’   The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 17b says that there are three people, the righteous, the wicked and the average person, the beinoni.  Even though the beinoni might have made many mistakes over the past year, Beis Hillel teaches that G-d’s quality of Rav Chesed, Great Goodness, one of the 13 qualities of G-d’s mercy, means that G-d inclines to the side of mercy. If our count is balanced 50/50 the Almighty will give us a good verdict, and overlook the negative.

Yet even though we believe the Almighty is merciful, we still need to feel the urgency of prayer.  The sages tell us that when the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were closed, but the gates of tears were not closed.  When we pray to invoke G-d’s mercy, what we are telling the Almighty is that we got the message and do not need the consequence.  That is why we are told that prayer can change a negative decree. G-d does not need us to grovel before Him (or Her), to beg and bow.  We do it so we can feel our own contrition, and so we are motivated to try and change ourselves and our actions.

This is the three pronged action plan laid down in the Netanah Tokef, the prayer that says that on Rosh Hashanah our fate will be inscribed. It continues and says even though our lives for the next year has been written down, Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka, Changing our actions, Prayer and Charity can change our fate and our outcome.  Prayer is beseeching the Almighty, and it is self-transformation, but it is also a vehicle to bring about change in our actions.  This is the Teshuvah.  RH is also a time to envision new goals for ourselves, new possibilities in our lives.  Yes I can make that career change, yes I can repair that frayed relationship (or end the over-frayed relationship), yes I can break the destructive habit, yes I can be more focused on my spiritual and Jewish life.

And the best way to change my actions is through charity, by being a more giving person.  I can give charity through financial support, and I can give charity through personal support.  I can be a listening ear to someone who is down, I can visit someone in the hospital, I can network to try to help someone get a job.  We are told that the time of year going from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is a time to intensify our efforts in these areas of our lives.  All of these efforts, teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer and charity become all the more real when we listen to the messages that have been sent to us through the recent events in the world around us. So, unfortunately, this year on Rosh Hashanah, we can take the message of the devastation of Harvey, Irma and now Maria to drive home the reality that life is precarious, and that we can merit the Almighty’s blessings by turning towards Him in prayer and by improving ourselves for the coming year.




Remembering Mayer Offman obm (of blessed memory)

Mayer: You had a heart of gold and so many people loved you. Shifra and I were privileged to be your partner in outreach at Manhattan Jewish Experience for 16 years, and we thought we had many more years of working together.

In Pirkei Avoth, the Ethics of the Fathers 4:17, the Rabbis speak about the Jewish concept of the afterlife:

(R. Yaakov) would say: One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all the time in the world to come. And one hour of pleasure in the world to come is better than all the time in this world.

Mayer you had many many thousands of hours of good deeds in this world, in fact a whole lifetime of good deeds. You loved people, and loved helping people and doing for others.

Mayer loved making shiduchim, was very proud in the fact that he had brought people together. Now maybe Mayer you will be able to let us know if it is true what they say when you make three shiduchim you get a special place in the world to come. The irony is that he was not married, but as his very dear and loyal friend Mark Isaacson pointed out to me he did for others even what he could not do for himself, even though he did not marry he tried to make sure others did.

Mark talked about how Mayer made sure he and his single friends always had a place to go to for Shabbos, he would make meals with Mark and David Fishoff, and others, and when they got married he was so happy for them, and shared in their simchas and their families. Mayer had many close friends, and that was an extension of his love of people.

People would come to Mayer with a need, someone who was sick, funds needed for an organization, an individual, a cause, Mayer would give. Some of it I knew about, an Isachar/Zevulun relationship with a Torah scholar in Israel, someone who needed a job, and there was so so much more that we did not know about of people and organizations Mayer helped.

Mayer’s love of outreach, kiruv, reaching out to Jews how were not as connected to Torah and Judaism as he was a natural extension of his love of fellow Jews and his giving nature. He was connected to so many organizations, NJOP, Gateways, MJE and many others.

Mayer was key in developing MJE East, he gave us the seed money for our first year in the city which allowed Shifra and I to move into the city and dedicate our loves to outreach, and for that we will be eternally grateful. Mayer played a crucial role in facilitating MJE East programs being hosted by Fifth Avenue Synagogue, a partnership which continues until today. Mayer also played an important role as a member of the MJE Board of Directors and had an enormous impact on the whole organization.

At the beginning we ran Shabbat services, dinners and desserts out of his apartment in the Solow building. His living room would be set up as a synagogue, then he would host dinner, often his mother Hilda would arrange the dinner, and then sometimes Mayer on his own, especially after he no longer wanted her to exert herself. Then sometimes as many as 80-100 people would show up for dessert. Mayer schlepped people in from everywhere and anywhere, someone he met at the gym, a young Jewish trader from his or someone else’s office, someone he met on the street. And he would take an interested in them, and when people saw he cared he would invite them back, and they would come back because the felt his caring.

Mayer was part of our family, Uncle Mayer. Last night our ten year old daughter said what stood out for her about Mayer is that he would also find the ices for her in synagogue. Even when there were none served, Mayer would ask Noa if she had her ices, and if not would find them. And the two of them would be there at the Kiddush eating ices together.

Mayer Loved to give over Torah to beginners. He was an ordained Rabbi who loved learning, however his love came out most when he was teaching others, giving over his Torah to those who did not have the knowledge. His message was always very practical, how keeping shabbos could improve the quality of your life, how studying Jewish wisdom could enrich your life. He would give the dvar torah at our MJE East beginner’s service, then at Shabbat dinners at the synagogue, and dozens at Shabbat dinners at our home as well. He would say: just try it, what do you have to lose, Shabbat is great, you can relax, meet nice people. What else do you have to do? Mayer accepted every person where they were at, never pressured and always encouraged out of love. I received an email from one of our MJE beginners who is now married with a daughter to a woman with a day school background, living in Teaneck. He talked about how Mayer always took an interest in what was going on in his life, always wanted to know how he was doing.

Mayer, the thousands of people whose lives have been touched, and hundreds whose lives have been transformed through MJE East are all to your merit, you were the angel investor who opened up your home, shared your goodness and your Torah. Mayer we all wish you had taken a bit more care of yourself, and not just take care of others.

Mayer, with all the mitzvos you did you will now have that pleasure of the world to come which is greater than all the life in this world. But even then, I know you will continue to do for others and to advocate for them from on high before the Almighty.

There are no words for such a momentous loss. He was truly a mensch. May we merit continue to carry on his good deeds and his works.


Light in the Darkness: Remembering Leonard Cohen

Manhattan Jewish Experience | Shabbat December 9, 2016

I would like to share with you a stanza from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Who By Fire’ which he recorded in 1972:

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry-merry month of may

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen passed away on Nov. 7. Leonard Cohen was a man of paradoxes. He was Zen Buddist monk who said I am first and foremost a Jew, he was a person who sang about G-d yet was constantly confronting G-d.   He was a hedonist who was deeply religious (When his biographer went up to his hotel room and Cohen opened up his suitcase a bottle of Jack Daniels and a tefilin fell out). Yet his religiosity was very complex.

What does the stanza above remind us of? The Yom Kippur prayer of Netanah Tokef.   Yet we see for Leonard Cohen this is not just about whether I will live for the coming year. What does he mean in the last line: “ Who shall I say is calling?” The way understand it, he is asking G-d, how should I identify you, how should I relate to you? As the angel of death, as the tough judge, or just as the creator of a natural world where old age and death is part of the human experience?

But the next stanza turns this question on its head –btw please bear with me, I know we are more used to sound bites or MJE classes than poetry, but as Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi, Rabbi Mordecai Finley said, he was able to say more in one line than I could in a half hour class.

And who in her lonely slip?

Who by barbiturate?

Who in these realms of love?

Who by something blunt?

Who by avalanche?

Who by powder?

Who for his greed?

Who for his hunger?

And who shall I say is calling?

All of a sudden death is not just an act of G-d, it is something that man or woman brings upon him/or herself, or upon others. In this shift he is putting G-d on the spot, but is putting man on the spot, speaking to the human responsibility for our own self-destructivity.

So why am I speaking about Leonard Cohen after his passing, beside the fact that I have been a long-time fan? I think there are two powerful messages we can take away from his life. The first is that he was a proud Jew who put himself on the line for the Jewish People and for Israel in moments when we were in danger and when under attack. The second message we can learn from Leonard Cohen is the overcoming of adversity on a personal level, the finding of light in the darkness.

In 1973 when the Yom Kippur war broke out he put his life in danger and flew from Greece where he was living at the time into the battle zone to volunteer. He was spotted by an Israel folk singer in a Tel Aviv café who asked him to join him to go to the front and play for soldiers. In a song he composed while there ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ he sings about the soldiers: “And may the spirit of this song, / may it rise up pure and free. / May it be a shield for you, / a shield against the enemy.”

A number of decades later there was another incident that showed his willingness to put himself on the line for his people. Cohen had a concert tour planned for Israel and he was targeted by anti-Israel activists insisting that boycott the Jewish state. When he refused they picketed his concerts. So he called on the demonstrators to work together for peace. He arranged a concert for the Palestinians in Ramallah and even though he was in need of funds himself, asked Amnesty International to help him donate the proceeds of his Tel Aviv concert to peace groups. Instead of welcoming these gestures, Cohen’s would-be partners rejected them outright. Amnesty International refused to work with Cohen. The Ramallah Cultural Palace, which was to host Cohen’s concert cancelled, saying that Cohen would not be welcome in Ramallah if he performed in Israel, too. In the midst of the controversy, Cohen, by then in his 70s, collapsed onstage during a performance in Valencia Spain. Undaunted, Cohen refused to give up. His September 24, 2009 concert near Tel Aviv sold out within hours and he played to a packed audience of about 55,000 Israelis. He was proud of his yichus, his lineage as a cohen and blessed the crowd: “May your life be as sweet as apples dipped in honey.”  Even though he was in desperate need of funds because his manager had co-opted most of his profits, he donated the million dollars to charity. Since Amnesty International refused to work with him, Cohen set up a fund of his own, calling it the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace. One program Cohen funded was an Israeli charity that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in terror attacks and war.

Leonard Cohen’s music has Jewish and spiritual themes woven into many of his songs, such as Who by Fire, The Story of Isaac, If It Be Your Will, The Law, Whither Thou Goest, and more where he sings about Torah, G-d’s will, the holocaust and other Jewish themes. He was brought up in an orthodox household in Montreal, and his two grandfathers were learned Rabbis. He talks about how the atmosphere of the synagogue touched him as a young boy even though as felt himself an outsider to organized religious life.   The most famous Jewish themed song is Halleluyah, which is appropriate because it talks about the poet and musician King David:   “I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ That David played, and it pleased the Lord…” Leonard Cohen used music and poetry to express religious themes, but in a very different way than King David. If Torah is the teaching and Divine service through which we strive to elevate ourselves and come close the Almighty, literature and poetry expresses the human experience, and all of its suffering and pain. It starts with the human dimension of experience, into which Leonard Cohen incorporates the struggles of his relationship with G-d. His songs express a human dimension of the complexity and stark realism about our relationship with G-d which is often not touched upon in classic religious writings. Leonard Cohen longed for light yet seemed to be stuck in a dark world. It is not surprising that he has been called the Bard of Doom and Gloom. The title to his final album, You Want It Darker, attests to this. Let’s look at the first stanza:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

How are we supposed to understand the line ‘you want it darker’? Is he condemning G-d, you want it darker? Or is it a reflection of man’s demons? At first glance it seems to be a rejection of the world that G-d has dealt him. But once again he turns the onus on man as well by saying ‘We kill the flame.’

Back to the song:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the help that never came

You want it darker


Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord


You Want it Darker came out just weeks before his death, and it appears LC was preparing for this final journey. In the line ‘magnified and sanctified is the Holy name’, which comes from the kaddish, is he reciting the mourner’s kaddish for himself. There is even a background hymn at the beginning of the song which sound like synagogue prayer, and it is. It was recorded in his synagogue in Montreal with the cantor and the choir. The last two lines ‘hineni, hineni, I am ready my Lord’ is a quote lifted from the story of the binding of Isaac, where G-d calls out to Abraham to ask him to offer his son. Abraham answers Hineni, which means I am here ready to do for you whatever you ask of me. It seems that Leonard Cohen is finally making peace with G-d, and with his own death.

Leonard Cohan did not have an easy life, his manager appropriated much of his money in the late ‘90’s when he was in his middle age, he struggled with depression apparently his whole life, and in the last years his bones were brittle and his vertebras cracked. He made much of the album in bed, and had the other artists record the parallel tracks.

We see how this creative genius struggled with suffering and with life’s struggles, by expressing the pain, by confronting G-d. How does the Torah address it our response to suffering? There is much to say of this topic, from the Book of Job and the Book of Lamentations to Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, however I would like to share with you a debate found in the Talmud which is not so far off from Leonard Cohen’s dirges on life. In the Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13a it says


For two-and-a-half years the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued. These said: Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. And these said: Better for man to have been created that not to have been created. They counted and decided: Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should strive through his actions.

ת”ר שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו מתני׳

The Talmud seems to conclude that now that we are here, make the best of it. This is how I see Leonard Cohen’s outlook, he struggled with and expressed the darker side of life, all the while fighting for something good and struggling to keep his connection to G-d. This is from Halleluyah:

There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which are heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

For Leonard Cohen the light can still blaze, and the broken and the holy are not opposites, but are both part of the human experience. As we approach Chanukah, Leonard Cohen’s message is all the more relevant. It is in the darkest times that the light can come in and bring us strength. It was in the lowest moments of assimilation and religious oppression that the strength of the Jewish people and of the Maccabees was awoken. It was during the Yom Kippur war that Leonard Cohen demonstrated his dedication to his people. I leave you with a final quote from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

From Adversity to Improvement

Rosh Hashanah 2016 | MJE East

It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be wiped out financially, to lose everything you have, including your home. This is what happened recently to someone I know, let’s call him Jim. Jim spent three years and his life savings building up an IT company. The company was based in another city, and Jim did not want to move and ran it from out of town. The employees who were on site stole from the company, and then sabotaged it so they could surreptitiously stage someone they knew to buy out the company. All of Jim’s savings were gone and he was wiped out.

He was crushed, he felt that life had no more meaning, and he wanted to give up on life. He even had suicidal thoughts.

How do you deal with such a blow?   Most people get depressed, are devastated, and feel that the stars have turned against them, that they got the raw end of the deal of random luck.

Yet the Torah teaches us to look at dark times and our struggles in completely different terms.

We have the ability to turn our perspective around, and to ask ourselves: Why am I being put through such a test? What is the Almighty’s plan for me? If we believe there is a G-d, and that G-d is involved in our lives, then the misfortune has to be more than random luck. And if we manage to understand why we are meant to go through the trying situation, then we will come out stronger and perhaps learning the right lesson. Maybe Jim’s sense of self was too invested in his wealth and in his possessions, and he allowed these things to define him. Without them he did not know who he was, and this was the only way of him learning to find that sense of true self, even if it was very painful.

In order to understand how to see adversity from a different perspective, we look to the Torah for guidance and insight, and we turn to the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham and Sarah were given many struggles in their lives in their lives: G-d instructed Abraham to leave everything behind, and to start over in the middle of his life. He gets to the land and there is a famine and he has to leave, putting his family in danger. They were not able to have children, and when they did, there was conflict between their children and grandchildren. But the Torah tells us that these tests were not random. The Almighty purposefully put them through these tests: ‘G-d tested Abraham’ we are told right before Abraham is given his hardest test when he is asked to bind his son Isaac and bring him as an offering. In fact, our sages tell us Abraham was put through ten tests.

Why would a good, loving and benevolent G-d put Avraham and Sarah who has a special purpose and destiny through so much difficulty in their lives?

We want our lives to be a life of leisure and comfort, we want to glide through life with ease and serenity, and if G-d loves us why wouldn’t he give us that? But people who are given the life of leisure, like people who hit it big and win the lottery and have ‘their dream life’ are often miserable. This past January Time magazine had an article about people who win the lottery and they found that 70% of the people wound up going broke a few years later. Jack Whittaker, who owned a construction company before winning the lotter wound up going broke in 4 years, and losing his daughter and granddaughter to drug overdoses. So many people when offered a life of leisure cannot handle it. Why? Because they do not feel productive, they are not challenged, they are not given opportunities to actualize their potential.

The Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in the beginning of “The Path of Hashem’ tells us that each person is born with certain deficiencies, and the purpose life is to ‘fix’ those deficiencies. And the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist who lived two hundred years before the Ramchal teaches us that G-d gives us the circumstances and the challenges in our lives which will give us the opportunity to fix those deficiencies. When we go through challenges we grow as a human being. We are put in trying situations we might not choose ourselves, but that allow us to attain our true potential. Each challenge we face is customized specifically for us for the sole purpose

When I was studying in Jerusalem there was a teacher of mine, a young warm, charismatic and beloved Rabbi who was diagnosed with cancer. We were all shocked because he was in his early 30’s, and we could not believe it. He was away for a number of months in the States to get treatment. Finally we got word that he was in remission everyone was so grateful and relieved. He came back to the school and got up in front of the entire student body and said something shocking. He said that through his illness he learned to truly live for each day and to live life to its fullest. And then he said that he would not have traded this experience for a million dollars. We could not believe what we were hearing, because we did not at first understand this idea that life’s tests are there to teach us a lesson. Rabbi Zechariah was at such a high level of spiritual consciousness that he came not just to a place of total acceptance of his illness, but he even embraced it and valued the experience as one he would not have wanted to forgo.

This process of self-completion is one which is difficult and requires effort and work, and most of us would not choose to do the work, or would not necessarily know what work needs to be done.   And so our life tests are not just opportunities to use these challenges to grow, the Ari tells us that they are customized for the specific purpose of bringing us to actualize our potential. And so the Almighty gives us life situations which are opportunities to actualize those potentials. Each of the patriarchs was given a challenge which made them go against their nature. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his writings points out that each of the patriarchs was challenged with a test in their lives that went precisely against their nature. Avraham who embodies lovingkindness was asked to do the most cruel act of brining his son as an offering. Isaac who embodied justice and accountability walked away three times when the neighboring tribes took his wells. And Yaakov who embodied truthfulness had to deal with scoundrels like his brother Esav and his uncle Lavan, and had to use cunning and deceit to outmaneuver them. Each one of them was given a test that made them develop qualities that were counterintuitive for them. It is easier for us to build on our strengths, and we should do so. However a complete person must be able to do things which go against their nature. Sometimes the loving person has to offer touch love, and the disciplined person has to learn to chill and relax. The test are there to teach us to develop in ways we otherwise might not. Some people take these tests and use the lessons they learned to transform their lives in a new directions that they might never have taken otherwise.

I would like to share this message that a mother gave to her daughter when the daughter was going through hard times. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up; she was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans.. She let them sit and boil without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, ‘ Tell me what you see.’

‘Carrots, eggs, and coffee,’ she replied.

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.   Here is the story of someone who changed the water.

In 2003, Kris Karr was a 32-year-old New Yorker just enjoying life. But then, a regular checkup at her doctor’s office resulted in a diagnosis of a rare and incurable Stage IV cancer called epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, existing in her liver and lungs. Instead of succumbing to the disease, Carr decided to challenge her diagnosis head on. She attacked her cancer with a brand new nutritional lifestyle, and turned her experience into a series of successful self-help books and documentaries. Eventually, she launched her own wellness website which is followed by over 40,000 people. Today, Karr is celebrating a decade of ‘thriving with cancer’ and is now revered as one of the most prominent experts on healthy living.

So what can we learn from the idea of seeing life’s tests as opportunities, since we hope that we never have to go through the life-altering events that we have been talking about. Life’s tests can be upheavals in our life, a professional setback, a breakup in a relationship, a personal loss, a health challenge, but they can also be smaller events that happen to us. When a person says something mean to us, our first reaction is to lash back. This is problematic because the Torah tells us that we cannot take revenge. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that a way to get us to avoid lashing back it is to ask ourselves why G-d is putting us through this upsetting moment. I once had an experience where someone was very impatient with me, and was becoming very unpleasant. I was getting very ticked off and was about to tell them, in not so nice a tone, to leave me alone. I then remembered that the day before I had been impatient with them. Who was I to expect them to be super patient with me? This test was a lesson to me not to dish out that which I did not want to have dished on me, and to strive to be more patient. The test can also be not to get upset at the computer that crashed, the bookcase that was broken in the delivery or even the bus I missed. Those annoyances that make our day to day life frustrating and upsetting can be turned around to be seen as another test to see whether I can keep my cool, continue to be patient or just simply accept that I am not in control.

Think of this: Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hardened heart?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.

When we view our lives through a spiritual lens and see the role of the Almighty in the events in our lives we are able to turn adversity and anguish into acceptance and improvement, and that is a lot better way to live. Rosh Hashanah is a time of year when we reflect back on our lives, and when we look at our attitudes toward life.   This year we can strive to change our attitude, and when life throws us curveballs, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, or getting upset at life, others or G-d, let’s strive to look at those moments as experiences that were put in our lives to teach us something. With this outlook we can learn to accept life’s challenges, and use them to grow into better human beings and to become the best me I can be. Shanah Tovah