There Are No Words

couldn’t stop myself from crying today. There are no words to express the sadness and anger we all feel right now. This morning’s terrorist attack in Jerusalem is nothing short of horrific. The fact that it took place in a synagogue in the middle of the morning prayers only intensifies the tragedy. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims whose pain is not even imaginable.
The attack hits us very close to home. One of those killed was Rabbi Moshe Twersky z”l, distinguished head of Yeshivat Torat Moshe and grandson of the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick tz”l. Another victim, Avraham Goldberg z”l was the father of a close colleague of our own Brian Schneider, MJE’s new Executive Director.
All of us, Jews from all over the world stand united in our grief and wish the families our deepest love and consolation. Please know that we are crying with you and for you. May God comfort you all among all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
Here are three things you can do:
1. Recite the following Psalms in memory of those slain. Click here for the prayers:
2. Donate towards One Family Fund who provide long term assistance to victims of terror and their families:
3. Join MJE tomorrow evening Wednesday, November 19 for One on One Learning (7 pm) and My Next Level Class (8 pm) both of which will be dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives. 


THE REAL HEROES: (Yom Kippur Day)
Years ago, my family and I went to visit a place which, to me, symbolizes the greatness of Israel and its people. The bullet factory, located in Rechovot not far from Tel Aviv, was where the Haganah secretly produced all the bullets needed to fight the English during the British Mandate and the Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence. 

What’s unbelievable about the Bullet factory is that for all the years it was in operation, it was kept a secret from the British who controlled Palestine at the time. The entire factory is underground, below a functioning kibbutz which was being watched and patrolled by the British who made it illegal for Jews to create munitions. And so the Haganah commissioned a small group of volunteers, consisting of both men and women, who would appear to be Kibbutznicks working in the fields above. While ostensibly, they were simple commune workers, they would descend into this hidden factory below and work in rotations with huge bullet manufacturing machines to produce tens of thousands of bullets each day.  

They took us into the laundry room for the kibbutz and our tour guide moved this huge washing machine which covered this large hole in the ground. We then climbed down a ladder about 25 feet into the ground to get to this surreptitious factory. They showed us the tanning machine the volunteers in the factory would use, because after spending so much time down below, their skin grew pale. In the interest of maintaining appearances, that is to say, appearing as Kibbutzniks working the fields, they would tan themselves below. They thought of every contingency, and ultimately produced 40,000 bullets a day, bullets being the only munitions that the Haganah didn’t run out of during the war to create the Jewish State.
I was quite impressed, but the one thing I just couldn’t wrap my mind around was how they somehow got these huge and sophisticated bullet making machines in the first place. They couldn’t have manufactured them in Palestine, and they certainly could not have gotten them from their Arab neighbors. I asked our tour guide and he said that there was a group of Polish Jews who purchased these machines in 1938 and spent the next 4 years between the years of 1942-1946 smuggling in all the machine parts from Poland.
Who were these people capable of successfully pulling this off? While Jews were being put into ghettos, these people were somehow able to smuggle machine parts through Nazi occupied Europe, into the Middle East, pastBritish security? Were they some kind of spies? 007? War heroes? Who were they?
Well, the answer is a lot less glamorous than any of those. They were simple Polish Jews. They weren’t spies, they weren’t soldiers. They were ordinary men and women who did something extraordinary. They were true heroes precisely because they were regular people who did what needed to be done when it was most necessary.
There was a fascinating article in the Science section of the New York Times entitled: “Free Will, Now You Have It, Now You Don’t.” The article dealt with the ongoing debate within the world of science and philosophy as to whether there truly exists free will; whether we as human beings can truly transcend the deterministic and causal world in which we live–to break out of what, many times, feels like controlling elements from our own socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds–and act in a completely independent way.

While many people treat it as such, this is NOT just an academic issue. It’s not just a quandary for dusty philosophers, it’s a real one for us today on Yom Kippur, as we make our resolutions for the New Year. Should we even try to live in a way that is different from our cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds? If your whole family consists of accomplished professionals; your Mom is a lawyer, your Dad is a doctor, your brother and sister are Wall Street analysts (that’s a fun family) and your grandparents and all your cousins and friends are the same, do you have free will to become a photographer or an artist of some sort? 
Do we really have the power and ability to make autonomous decisions that are not in line with our backgrounds? The general consensus these days is that, essentially, we are products of our environment and genetics and therefore cannot be expected to live in a manner that goes beyond the community, culture and environment in which we are raised. Except when it comes to making money. Hence, the American mentality of “rags to riches” is very much felt, but ostensibly exclusively within the financial arena. When it comes to virtually everything else, the world teaches us that the decisions we make are ultimately determined by our socioeconomic and family background, and by the natural tendencies and dispositions we possess from birth. As a result, simple people from ordinary places cannot be expected to live extraordinary lives, and individuals not raised with religion may not even think about becoming more religious, because that’s just not the kind of family or background they have. The Torah vehemently disagrees with this and strongly believes that each of us is capable of things way beyond what our backgrounds and natural dispositions would dictate.
Over 800 years ago, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote about Judaism’s strong belief in Free Will. He wrote that what distinguishes human beings from the animal kingdom is our ability to rise above instinct, make independent choices and to exert our own free will over the decisions we make in our lives. Maimonides went as far as to say: “kol adam rauy lo lehiyot t’zadik kemoshe rabbeinu” – any person can be as great as Moses our teacher, “o rasha keyeravam” -or as evil as Yeravem, who was an evil tyrant in the times of the prophets.
If we don’t believe we can rise above our circumstances and natural dispositions, then why, asks the Rambam, did God send prophets in Biblical times to speak to the people to attempt to improve their ways? If everything was determined and we have no free will, then improving our behavior is an impossible task. In fact, what purpose would there be for the whole giving of the Torah? Ultimately, the Torah is an agent for change, a catalyst for us to improve and refine ourselves. If each of us is hard wired to behave in a certain prearranged way, if or our backgrounds and dispositions dictate everything, then self-improvement is impossible and the whole Torah becomes meaningless!
God gave us a Torah because He believes we are capable of evolving, of becoming different and better. God gave us His Torah because He believes in our capacity to grow. The question is do we believe in ourselves and in our ability to accomplish great things, or do we sell ourselves short because of where we come from or who we think we are? If we sell ourselves short, then why are we here on Yom Kippur? Why beat ourselves up for not doing everything we should have in the past year and why strive to be better in the coming year? We come on Yom Kippur because we sense that notwithstanding our backgrounds and dispositions, we are capable of more and we can do better. We just have to believe in ourselves.

An elementary school teacher in Israel told a story at a conference. She said, “I work as a resource room teacher with children who have learning disabilities. A few years ago a young boy began taking lessons in my resource room. I couldn’t figure out what had brought him to seek my help; he clearly had no difficulty with his lessons, and he did well on all his tests. Yet, time after time he consistently came to my resource room for his lessons. I was determined to find his area of weakness but, as hard as I tried, I could not find any type of learning disability or difficulty.

“Finally, out of frustration, I took him aside and told him I could not continue giving him lessons. It was a waste of his time and his parents’ hard earned money and he clearly did not need any sort of remedial help. The boy turned to me and said, ‘I will tell you why I am here but I’m asking you not to tell anyone else. I have a friend with a learning disability. Our teacher told him that he needed remedial classes in the resource room. He was so embarrassed to be singled out as having to go to your classes. I told him that it was no big deal and that I also take remedial classes. That is why I come to you- so that my friend will not be embarrassed.'”
Heroes are regular people who do amazing things. Whether it’s making bullets for the Haganah or just being sensitive to a friend, these are all acts of heroism. It’s just that some are a little quieter than others. Being more careful of what we say about others in a world that loves to gossip can be heroic because it might require great restraint. But maybe not for some people, which is why heroism varies from person to person.  
For some, dating only Jewish people is a heroic act. I’ll never forget sitting in Logan airport waiting for my flight back to NY from a rabbinic conference in Boston when a guy dressed in a full pilot uniform comes running over to me saying, “Rabbi Wildes, what are you doing here?” I looked beyond his hat and replied, “David, is that you?” “Rabbi, you know I fly for American Airlines. Gotta go fly your plane but I just want you to know that because of my involvement with MJE I only date Jewish girls now.’ For David, that was heroic. For someone else, dressing more modestly in a world where “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” is an all-too-prevalent maxim is an expression of heroism.
When making our New Year’s resolutions, let’s not limit ourselves by what we were not given as children, but rather use the blessings each of us was given, by our parents and our families, to grow even further. To pray with greater conviction, to study even more about our heritage and traditions, to excel as much as possible in all parts of our lives (be it in our professions or in our most intimate relationships). And let’s do all this because we believe that we, ordinary people, can do extraordinary things.
Shana Tova.


A Visit From Angels (Kol Nidrei Night) 

In the mid-1990s, Rabbi Berkowitz–a Chabad Rabbi–and a friend traveled to some of the very remote parts of Alaska in search of Jews. Like all Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Berkowitz was inspired by the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message: to bring Judaism to all Jews, no matter where they live. Through a pilot friend, Rabbi Berkowitz and his friend secured a five day “buddy pass” on Alaskan Airlines and traveled to Nome, KotZebue, Bethel and Fairbanks. Everywhere they went, they checked the local newspapers, went to the town halls, and spoke with the locals in an effort to find other Jews.  One day they arrived in a small town in Northwestern Alaska. The mayor told them that there were no Jews in the town, but invited them to give a talk at the local elementary school about Judaism and Jewish customs. The two men went and addressed the fourth through eighth grade students and shared some basic Jewish teachings. The students performed a few Eskimo dances for them, and the Chabadniks performed a Chasidic dance.
Choshen Mishpat deals with torts, commercial and property law.
Keeping Shabbos when your family and your friends aren’t is an act of heroism.
Whenever we do something which stretches us, which pushes us out of our comfort zone we demonstrate our ability to go beyond our background and culture, whatever everyone else is saying and doing and in doing so we become heroes. “Eizeho gibor?” “Who is a strong person?” ask the Sages in the Ethics of our Fathers. “Hakovesh es yitzro”: he who conquers his inclinations. That’s a hero and it dosen’t have to be extreme: You want to be a hero for Israel? You don’t have to join the IDF (although it’d be great if you did) but you can be a hero just by going to Israel. By deciding to spend your hard-earned money on a trip to Israel or by getting involved w/ AIPAC, Camera or other groups that strengthen Israel’s standing in the world.
But before they left the hall, figuring he had nothing to lose, Rabbi Berkowitz asked the students one final question: “Did any of you ever meet a Jew?” One little girl raised her hand.
“Who did you meet?” asked the rabbi.
“My mother,” the girl answered. “She’s right there,” and she pointed to the school’s fifth grade teacher. After the assembly, the mother, who was visibly moved by the presentation, came over to thank the rabbi for coming. She explained how she loved nature, and so she moved to Alaska many years before, where she was fortunate to fall in love with a Native American, with whom she had a little girl. She said to Rabbi Berkowitz, “I must tell you that, living here, I don’t know if my daughter will ever meet another Jew, let alone a rabbi, again. Can you give my daughter a message so that she will always be proud of her Jewish identity?”
The rabbi began to speak to the girl about the holiness of Shabbat. He told her that it is the Jewish mothers and daughters who usher in the Shabbat every week by lighting the candles.  “They are the ones to bring peace and light into the world.” he said. And then the rabbi asked the girl: “Do you know the first place in the world where the sun sets?” Knowing her geography, she answered, “Probably New Zealand or Australia.” “That’s right”, said the Rabbi. “Jewish mothers in New Zealand and Australia are the first ones to usher in Shabbat every week. And then Shabbat is ushered in with candles in Asia, then in Israel, in Europe, and then New York, Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage. And even then, there is still one part of the world where the sun has not yet set. Right here in the Yupik territory of Alaska where you live. And so when mothers and daughters around the globe have welcomed the Shabbat, God and the Jewish people are still waiting for you, the last Jewish girl in the world, to light the Shabbat candles.” And he encouraged her to light the Shabbat candles every Friday before the sun sets.

Shabbat is a gift. Tonight is Yom Kippur, but it’s also Shabbat. We won’t be sitting down to a meal, making Kiddush, or having Challah but it’s still Shabbat and so I thought it appropriate to share a passage in the Talmud about the most famous song we sing on Shabbat: Shalom Aleichem.
The Talmud tells us: Two ministering angels accompany one home from synagogue on Friday night, one who is good and one who is evil. And when they come to his home and find the candle is lit, the table is set and his bed is made, the good angel says: ‘may it be the will of God that that it should be this way next Shabbat’ and the good angel, against his will, is forced to answer Amen. But if the angel comes home and doesn’t find the home looking like this then the evil angel says: ‘may it be the will of God that it should be this way next Shabbat and the good angel, against his will, is forced to answer Amen. (Shabbat 119b)

A number of questions present themselves: First, why are the angels looking for these particular items as a sign of our readiness for Shabbat? There are other ways to tell if Shabbat is ready; for example, are people dressed in their nice Shabbat clothes? Is there food prepared? And what does the Talmud mean when it says that the evil angel is forced to second the blessing of the good one, and the good one to second the blessing of the bad?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky suggests an approach that can teach us something powerful, not only about Shabbat, but for today: Yom Kippur. Each of the items the angels looks for is critical for our introspection.
1. The first item the angel looks for is a ner daluk, a lit candle. In Torah thought, a candle represents the soul. “Ki Ner Elokim nishmat ha’adam;” for the candle of the Almighty is the soul of man, it says in the book of Proverbs. Why is a candle or a flame the symbol for the soul, and why are the angels looking to see that our candles are lit? 
Because the angels representing Hashem want to know if our ner, our soul, is on fire. They want to know whether our passion for Judaism has been ignited in some way. Rabbi Berkowitz was trying to kindle this littles girl’s excitement for a mitzvah about which she never heard to make her feel a part of the Jewish cosmic role in bringing light to the world. 
What is something we’re passionate about in Judaism? What is something new that we can become more passionate about in the coming year? Last year, our very own Heather Conn decided to champion the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the ill). She regularly visits those in the hospital or in people’s homes and helps us at MJE in organizing people to go every Shabbat afternoon. 
Maybe it’s being more careful or honest in our financial dealings. Maybe it’s Shabbat. If you’re new to it, start with candles or Kiddush on Friday night. If those are part of your routine already, then maybe move on to being cognizant of the melachot, the 39 labors from which we refrain on the Sabbath. Take advantage of what MJE offers every Shabbat: the incredible community, the Shabbat Dinners, inspirational services, our awesome Kiddush and the wonderful families who open their homes to host Shabbat meals. And so that’s one thing the angels are looking for: that our souls are ignited and alive with Judaism. 

2. The second item the angel looks for is a set table. Lighting candles may help get us started on the weekends, but we also need a set table. We need the right tools to instill meaning and purpose in our daily existence. It’s no accident that the great Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Code of Jewish law, called his work the “Shulchan Aruch” (the “set table”). He wrote this four volume treatise in the 1500’s so we could know the relevant laws and practices for all aspects of our existence. 
Yoreh Deah deals with our diet and all laws of Kashrut.
Even Ha’ezer deals with marriage and laws of sexual intimacy.
Ohr Hachayim deals with laws of Shabbat, Prayer, and the Holidays

As the noted author and philosopher Dayan Grunfeld pointed out, three out of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch deal with the three basic cravings or instincts we have in life: Food, Sex, and Power. Only one of the four sections deals with what we’d consider the “religious” component to Judaism, because Torah exists to infuse meaning and inspiration into every aspect of who we are and what we do.   

How knowledgeable are we in these areas? Has our Judaism been reduced to a mere collection of ceremonies and rituals incapable of educating or informing us when it comes to real life issues? Is it because we don’t really know what Judaism has to say about things like sexuality, or ethics in the workplace, about the best way to date, or how to stay in a committed relationship? Maybe we didn’t even know the Torah had anything to say about these real life issues. (It does. Come on Monday or Wednesday nights and study with us.)

3. Finally, the angels look for a made bed. In the language of our sages, the bed is often a metaphor for a person’s death, and more specifically, for a person’s legacy. Our forefather Jacob was the only one of the Patriarchs who is described as having a Mitaso sheleimah, a complete bed, because all of his children followed in his way after he passed. Will our children follow our ways after we are gone? Will we have left the next generation with anything powerful enough that they’d continue it on their own? Will they value Judaism and come to synagogue on the High Holidays services?  Will they light Shabbat candles or support the State of Israel? Will our children and grandchildren remain Jewish at all? Much depends on what we do and the kind of decisions we make.

My teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin said that when he became a rabbi, at his Ordination Dinner, his teacher, the late and great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick spoke of the concept of smicha: ordination. He said the word smicha literally means “laying of the hands” – it’s when the rabbi places his hands on the head or the shoulders of his student like the first rabbi, Moses, did to his disciple Joshua, in this way conferring upon his student the authority to give rabbinic direction and halachic guidance to others. The word “lismoch” means to lean but the question is: who really leans on whom? You’d think the student who is receiving ordination is leaning on his teacher, on past generations of teachers whose tradition is being passed down to him all the way from Sinai but the Rav said: “if you ever see an older man with his hands [upon] a younger man, who is leaning on whom? Generally it’s the older man leaning on the younger man!” The Rav looked at his students and he said: “you’re not leaning on me; I am the one who is leaning on you. Whatever I’ve learned and expounded, whatever new approach, insight or interpretation I have formulated, will die with me unless it lives through you”.

You hold the key to the future of the Jewish people. The power of Jewish continuity does not lay with us rabbis. It will die with us, or it will live through you. I can talk about how beautiful and compelling a life of Torah is, but ultimately you must decide what you want to do with it. You must decide whether your home will be lit with Shabbat candles and whether your soul will be excited about something Jewish. You must decide whether you’ll have a set table- whether you will study and apply Jewish philosophy to your everyday life. It’s for you to decide. And if you do, I can assure you will create a mitaso sheleimah – a complete bed, a legacy and a way of life that will live beyond you; a spiritual path and a perspective on life that you can bequeath to your children and they to theirs. Tonight, as we begin the greatest day of soul searching, as we pray for a good year to come, let us embrace our Judaism and ensure that the light of Torah burns brightly for many years to come. In that merit, may we all be blessed with a year of good health, sweetness, meaning and peace. 
Shana Tova.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanah Tova. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRY AND TRY AGAIN: (Second day)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For our last day of the trip we visited wounded soldiers at the Tel Hashomer hospital. Our group met with about a dozen soldiers (we were told not to take pictures so this blog will remain picture-less) all of whom had sustained serious injuries in Gaza and all of whom could be characterized as young, gracious, sweet and humble. One young man with whom we met was sitting with his mother and when I asked in what part of the army he served he humbly answered: “Golani”. His mother then chimed in: “a commander in Golani” and the young soldier smiled sheepishly.

Another soldier with whom we met, a tank commander, sustained an injury when his tank in Gaza was hit by a mortar. When I asked how long his rehab would take he responded in a very matter of fact manner: “two years”. He of course wasn’t happy about this but his joy and gratitude for simply being alive seemed to trump. Another soldier remarked that he and his comrades stay up late and crack jokes because they thankfully still have what to laugh about, ie-life.

The upbeat nature of the soldiers not only put our group at ease, but also demonstrated the pride each of them have to serve and the gratitude so many of them expressed to God for protecting them.

Larry, one of our participants, met with a civilian who was injured in a rocket attack. He was an older gentleman who had fought in the 1973 Yom Kipper War. At the end of the meeting Larry reached over to say goodbye and shake the injured man’s hand. However since his hand was completely covered with a bandage Larry switched to a fist bump. The man reciprocated with his fist and with a big smile told Larry: “Am Yisrael Chai”.

Am Yisrael Chai is right: the Jewish people live and will continue to live because of the bravery of our soldiers who carry the God’s blessing. May Hashem continue to bless them and may they all have a a refuah shleimah, a speedy recovery


Today we had the merit of waking up to a beautiful morning in Jerusalem, praying at the Kotel and hearing from two members of Knesset. But our visit to Mt. Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, and seeing the freshly buried graves of soldiers who fell in Gaza, made the greatest impression upon our group.  We visited the grave of Max Steinberg z’l and that really hit home. Max was the young man from California who came to Israel on a Birthright trip in 2012 and just a few months later decided to join the army. It was Max’s tragic death that truly brought the sacrifices of the IDF to the Jewish American public. American Jews were feeling that “one of ours” had given his life for the people of Israel. 

But the reality is there really is no “one of ours”. There’s just the Jewish people and nothing confirms this more than walking along the many rows of graves of soldiers who gave their lives in Israel’s wars. The tombstones show soldiers from Ethiopia, Russia and virtually every country on the globe. Israel is a country of immigrants and the idea of a pure or native “Israeli” is a bit of a misnomer. Israel is a country for and by the Jewish people and so Max’s passing may cause the war to resonate with us American Jews a bit more, but he was no less of a soldier of Israel than someone born in Kfar Saba or Jerusalem. 

It’s these moments and Max’s great sacrifice which remind us that the Jewish people, no mater where we are from, are truly one people, and the land of Israel belongs to us all.


Today’s MJE activities included a hike in the Golan,  a class on “The Chosen People” and arriving in Jerusalem with our first visit to the Kotel and the famous Tunnel Tours. For me, on a personnel level, the highlight of my day was seeing my son Yosef who has been in Israel for the last six weeks on a program called NCSY Kollel. Sponsored by the Orthodox Union,  NCSY Kollel is a great program for Jewish teens combining Torah study with competitive sports, all in the heart of Jerusalem. 

This year the program drew 167 participants, mostly Jewish day school students, from all across North America. Almost immediately after the group arrived in Israel the sirens started going off in Jerusalem and  so the entire group was moved up North where they remained until about a week ago when they finally returned to Jerusalem. What is most impressive is that not one student left or decided not to come because of the rocket attacks. The students were all trained as to where to go in the event of an attack and they dealt with the situation as best as possible, but they all stayed and spent the summer learning Torah and playing ball.

This evening I traveled to Beit Meir, where the group is based, to see my son. I walked into a packed Beit Midrash (study hall) and joined for some Torah study and the praying of Maariv, the Evening Service. The energy was just amazing. The teens and their advisers and teachers filled the room with song and prayer and the sweet sounds of Torah study. Immediately following the service the head rabbi got up to tell everyone that the cease fire had just ended and that they needed to be prepared to head for safe rooms and bomb shelters if the sirens go off. For a moment a tension and seriousness fell upon the room but after the Rabbi finished his announcement, the students continued with their studies and the program moved on to the next class. The announcement made an impact but ultimately it was a mere pause in the regular schedule, so symbolic of how the general Israeli populace has been dealing with the situation. Please do not misunderstand: This is a serious situation. Israel has enemies and there is a war which has taken the lives of too many of our precious soldiers, but the people of Israel have adapted and life in Israel is moving on. 

On the MJE hike in the Golan earlier on in the day, we passed two Birthright groups, one from France and one from Chicago. As our groups passed each other on the mountain we shared how despite the war we were all still here enjoying Israel’s beautiful nature. What a great lesson for these Jewish teens and professionals: Israel will do what it needs to do to defend itself but it will not stop living and nor should we, Jews of the Diaspora, stop visiting. Israel and the Jewish people will continue to move on. In doing so we will not only persevere against our enemies but teach our children, the next generation, the secret to our survival. 


    Today’s itinerary included a tour of the mystical city of Tzfat, praying at the burial site of the great Sage Yonatan ben Uziel and a visit to Ben Tal for a firsthand view of where Israel recaptured the Golan Heights in 1967. As incredible as all these places are, the most heartwarming and inspiring moment was our visit to an IDF army base in Ramat Ha-Golan. There we were greeted by approximately 60 smiling soldiers who looked so happy to see us. We handed out cans of cold soda, sweets,  and I very proudly presented a watermelon to a few of the soldiers.  

    What struck me was the innocence and sweetness of these soldiers. They were all just so young and full of gratitude that we took the time to visit . After we all had some time to shmooze, I quieted the group and told the soldiers that back in New York all we did was watch TV and check the internet to see how they, the soldiers of Israel, were doing. “But here” I said, “here we can at least tell you in person how proud we are of you, how awesome we think each of you is and how your dedication to the Jewish people inspires us and gives us hope for the future”. I told them that “you are not only defending the Jews of Israel but Jews throughout the world, that we are one people, with one army and all we can say is thank you and kol hakavod.” I then recited the prayer for chayalei Tzahal- for the IDF, which was responded to with a loud and powerful AMEN!
One soldier after the next came over to me to say thank you, to shake my hand and to hug me. I was overcome with emotion. I just couldn’t believe that these guys who put their lives on the line for us could be so sweet and grateful to us. It is we who need to say thank you, I kept saying.
    Before I got on the bus to leave one soldier with blonde hair came over to me to say goodbye. His name was Alex Katz and he told me his was from New Rochelle. What a sweet kid. I asked him what his story was and he said that he had gone to Yeshivat Hakotel and decided to stay and do the army. I told him that was the same Yeshiva I attended many years back. I couldn’t help think of how that could have been me.  How all these boys could have been us. They are us and maybe that’s why this all feels so close to home. We are truly one people and with these boys defending our people and our country we’ve got a lot to be proud of. 

God bless our holy soldiers.