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The Greatness that Lies Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cancel the Cancel Culture

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

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

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

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

Cancel the Cancel Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Grasshopper Among Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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