Mazel tov Meir & Sara!

IMG_7520.JPGThis past weekend was one filled with happiness, as we celebrated the wedding of my wife’s twin brother, Meir, and his new wife, Sara. A few people asked for a copy of my remarks from the Aufruf at the end of davening on Shabbat morning. Below is the Dvar Torah.

I wanted to speak today about the koach of listening. There’s a lot written in Sefer Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu’s final mussar shmooze to Klal Yisrael, about how important it is to hear, to listen to the words of Hashem. The crescendo of this message was read last week with the Shema, but it continues into our parsha, Parshas Eikev. You don’t have to go far into the sedrah to see it: The first pasuk, vehaya eikev tishme’un es hamishpatim ha’eileh ushmartem veasisem osam, that because you listen to the words and laws of Hashem, you will be blessed. It’s set out so clearly for us, if we hear God’s message and take it to heart, we will be privy to all sorts of bracha that was afforded to our ancestors. Children, good crops, flocks of livestock, health, dominion over all who pursue to destroy you, etc. It seems like a pretty good deal, no? We follow Hashem’s mitzvot, and we’ll see all these great things happen to us. Now the Jewish people have been no stranger to suffering, yet at the end of the day, the word of God is something you can take to the bank. We hear the messages over and over again: listen to God, and everything would be good. Why the reiteration? Chazal make a point of telling us that the Torah is so succinct and calculated, that there’s nothing extra included! What’s the reason we’re hearing this message on repeat? I think the answer is, that simply, we need to be reminded. It’s not an extra reminder, but every juncture where this comes us is an opportunity for us to put this mandate into action. We know what we’re supposed to do, but we don’t always do it, and we need a glaring alarm every so often to keep us focused. There are times when it takes an even greater level of understanding. Let’s travel back to Parshas Yisro. The parsha begins Vayishma Yisro, and Yisro heard. Rashi immediately asks, what, pray tell, was it that Yisro heard? He answers that Yisro heard about Yetzias Mitzrayim and the war with Amalek. The only problem is, that Yisro wasn’t the only one who heard about these events: the entire world did! We recount in Az Yashir that the inhabitants of Philistia were gripped with terror, the chiefs of Edom were confounded, and those who dwelled in Cnaan had melted in fear. Amalek heard what happened and wanted to knock Klal Yisrael down a peg or two, and still attacked them! What was so special about Yisro? Yisro took action. It wasn’t enough that he heard about what Hashem did for Bnai Yisrael, he stood up and said “this is where I need to be” and cast his lot with the Jewish people. We’re standing now on the cusp of Rosh Chodesh Elul, and the sefarim hakedoshim tell us that on Shabbos mevarchim for Elul that the world starts to tremble. We can take this message of Yisro and apply it to our everyday lives. Starting next week, we begin to sound the shofar at the end of davening, as we do all Elul long. It’s done to remind us that Yom Hadin is approaching. Not to serve as a reminder that we need to clean the houses for our out of town guests, or plan our menus, or remember to get the apples and honey hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but to remind us to take stock of the past year, and do teshuvah. We say “Ashrei HaAm Yodei Seruah, blessed is the nation who knows what the shofar means”, who knows what it causes us to do. Ideally, we should live in a world where when we hear the shofar, we can’t think about anything other than repentance. We hear, and we internalize. The Jewish people don’t have Naaseh or Nishmah, it’s the two together that make it work. This is the exact message I’d like to leave my brother-in-law with as he embarks on his journey into marriage to our future sister in law, Sara. Listening to each other, and acting upon what you hear won’t necessarily ensure a 100% smooth marriage, but I can’t think of a better word of advice. As Rabbi Lamm said to his children, Sara (of blessed memory) and Rabbi Mark Dratch, under the chuppah, from Sefer Bereishis, “Kol asher tomar eilecha Sara, shma bekolah, that whatever Sara tells you to do, listen to hear voice.”


Liver Day

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.01.06 PM.png

Right now, I’m on vacation with my family and its very fitting that we’re all together. You see, August 16th a very special and auspicious day for the Balk family, not only because it was my grandmother’s birthday. My mother had been placed on the transplant list on June 29, 2005, after years of living with a damaged liver now forced her to need a new one. My sister and I were at camp, away from my parents during this trying time for our family. I don’t know what it was like for them back in Cleveland, but for me, up in the rural cottage-country of Ontario, every day brought a sense of anxiety, excitement, and disappointment. Anxiety because I was a 16 year old who researched organ transplants for months and who knew the list was long and that some patients die while waiting. Excitement for the possibility of my mother getting a new lease on life. Disappointment because I waited every single day of camp for that phone call or email or message from the camp office or fax (remember those?) and it never came. The summer of 2005 was my last as a camper, as I was in the oldest age unit, which typically adds an extra emotional bent to the two sessions at camp (on top of everything else that I was going through!).  On the final morning of camp, after staying up all night and saying my goodbyes, I boarded the bus and bid farewell to my summer home. We passed through the US-Canada border without any hiccups and pulled into a rest stop in Angola, NY, one that the bus stopped at on the way to and from camp each summer. I had finally stopped crying after thinking back to my previous years as a camper and how they were now over, in what seemed like a mere instant. I went into the rest stop and picked up a pay phone (again, remember those?) and called my house, as I always did on the way back from camp, to let my mom know our ETA. I found it strange that there was no answer. Usually, my mother was home preparing our post-camp feast. I found it even more peculiar that neither one of my parents had answered their cell phones. I wasn’t concerned, just found it odd. I got back on the bus and began eating my newly procured snacks  when Deborah Kaufman ran to the back of the bus where I was seated and handed me a cell phone. “It’s your dad.” I assumed he saw the missed call on his cell phone from a random New York number and figured we were trying to tell him we’d be another few hours. But I couldn’t believe what he told me. “Mom got a liver! She’s in surgery now and By the time you get home, we can go see her.” I don’t know what I did next other than begin bawling. The rest of the ride was an absolute blur. We got home and eventually made it over to the ICU where my mother was recovering. She was on the transplant waiting list for less that 2 months, and had still been working the entire time, two incredible facts. August 16th brings about memories of an entire community of caring, a community that still amazes me with how incredible they were, and still are.

I don’t know how many people have gotten calls that changed their lives forever. Sometimes, the news on the other end brings sorrow and pain.

I’ve been a staunch supporter of of organ donation in the Jewish community, and it’s amazing to see the work that organizations such as Renewal and HODS have been doing. I know that not everyone is comfortable with signing on to be an organ donor. I implore you to make an informed decision. Do your research. Speak to your doctor and/or your rabbi. I know it’s something that many would rather not think about, but you can’t fathom what it feels like for those on the other side. That little box on your driver’s license goes a long way. (Just to reiterate, be informed!)

I’d be lying if I said the next 8 years were the easiest ones for Sheila Radman Balk, but I shudder to think about how different this story would’ve been had she not received a phone call from the Cleveland Clinic at 11:00 pm the night before her transplant.

Hodu L’Hashem Ki Tov.

The Last Tisha B’Av Ever (5776-2016): Almost Complete, Yet Significantly Incomplete

Okay. Maybe the title is a little bit of a stretch, but you never know, right?

For me, the most meaningful Tisha B’Av experiences came when I commemorated this somber day while in Israel. We read Eicha at the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem (The Tayelet). It was so incredible the first time I experienced it on a summer trip in high school that when I staffed a summer trip years later, we brought our entire group there. We weren’t the only ones there, with good reason. The Tayelet provides a breathtaking view of Jerusalem. At night, it’s wonderfully illuminated. Yet, as beautiful as it is, it is glaringly incomplete without the most glorious of structures: our Beit Hamikdash. On my second Tisha B’Av night at the Tayelet, I told the program participants to look out at the city in front of them, and to take in the beauty and imagine that landscape as a massive jigsaw puzzle. Then, I asked the participants how it would look if the final piece of the puzzle was missing, rendering the project unfinished. How would they feel? What would they do?Some answered the picture would look complete enough. Some responded they’d make do without the final piece, and revel in the rest of their near perfect accomplishment. Yet, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was one of frustration. Knowing there was so much of the work completed was nice, but without the final piece, the puzzle wasn’t nearly the same. Almost complete, yet significantly incomplete. The situation posed to the program participants was not one made up on the spot, nor one made up at all. The Israel that we have today is truly amazing, but without the Temple, it’s not a finished product. Any slew of buildings can be constructed, but without the Beit Hamikdash, Jerusalem, Israel, and all of us are lacking. 

But in reality, there are powerful questions are on my mind, ones that I have a hard time myself answering:

Do I care about the Beit Hamikdash being rebuilt?

Do I mean it when we say I want it to be rebuilt?

Do I daven for it on my own, outside the framework of our fixed, set prayers?

Am I ready for Mashiach and the new Beit Hamikdash?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. I think I genuinely care about the Temple being rebuilt. Although there are times when my kavanna wanes from where I want it to be, I do mean it when I recite portions of our sacred liturgy where this inyan is discussed. Other than Mincha on Tisha B’Av and being inspired and comforted by the Nachem prayer in the Shmoneh Esrei, I can probably count how many times I’ve singled out the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash among the other pleas contained in my individual bakashot. Finally, I, along with many of my peers, aren’t ready for Mashiach to be here, but need this redeemer more than ever. The world is ready for the suffering to cease and have answers to the most jarring, painful questions. Yet, when it comes to living our lives as they were when the Temples first stood, that may be an area where we are not as well-prepared at the moment. But we still want. We still mourn. We still cry out. We take solace in the fact that we have the State of Israel, even without a Beit Hamikdash at the moment. Nevertheless, even with the modern-day splendor of our Holy Land, we still yearn, now more than ever, whether we’re ready or not. If the building of the Beit Hamikdash will bring an end to our communal tzar, whenever it comes, we will be ready.

Baruch Menachem Tzion U’Bonei Yerushalaim!


Akiva Nechamtanu – The Explanation

Akiva Nechamtanu.

People have asked me what the meaning is behind the name of this blog. It stems from a tale at the very end of Masechet Makkot. The story goes that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking together in Jerusalem. When the group made it to Temple Mount, they saw a fox scurry out of the exact location of where the Kodesh HaKodashim once stood. Three of the rabbis began to cry, while Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. The teary triumvirate looked at Rabbi Akiva and asked what it was that he found to be funny about a fox running through the ruins of the holiest site in our tradition! Rabbi Akiva turned the tables and asked his three companions why they were crying, and they responded that their sadness stemmed from the verse in the Torah which states that any “Zar” or outsider who enters this holy place will be put to death (Bamidbar 1:51). Now, not only is the building no longer standing, but there are animals living there! Rabbi Akiva responded that for this exact reason did he laugh, and supports this claim with a plethora of evidence from the Neviim. He brings the verse from Yeshayahu (8:2) which connects the testimony of two prophets, one from Uriyah and one from Zechariah. Uriyah states (found in Michah 3:12) that Jerusalem will be plowed as a field and desolate, while the nevuah of Zechariah 8:4 says that old men and women will yet sit in Jerusalem. Rabbi Akiva mentions that the prophecy of Uriah was from the time of the first Temple, while Zechariah’s was from the second Temple, and the latter would only be fulfilled after the former took place. Now that this first prophecy had come true, with Har Habit reduced to rubble, Rabbi Akiva knew that, one day, the grandeur would be restored, and all would be right in the world. His colleagues respond “Akiva Nechamtanu, Akiva Nechamtanu”, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.”

There are two reasons why the above account is my favorite story found in the Talmud to date. The first reason is because it shows me the immense strength of Rabbi Akiva. These four Torah giants are walking together and see the ruins of the Beit Hamikdash. Imagine the trauma, the memories, the raw emotion. It renders three of them to break down crying. Only Rabbi Akiva had the foresight to muster up the ability to laugh, to realize that yes, it may be painful at this moment, but we will yet have our day. There will be a time when this place is once again hallowed with a holy temple, where Jews of all stripes will come together. To keep that in mind in such a dark time is truly remarkable.

The second reason may be a little more obvious. My Hebrew name is Akiva. Rabbi Akiva has served as a sort of personal hero to me since the time I first learned of him. I am named for my maternal grandfather, William Radman z”l (Akiva ben Yehoshua), whose 31st yahrzeit happens to be today. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of him over the last few years. He is someone who I never merited to meet, yet heard so much about from my mother (A”H) and my aunt (tibadel lechaim tom ve’aruchim). I cherish the pictures I have of him, and the remarks he gave at my parents’ wedding which were recorded on video. It’s hard to miss someone who you’ve never met before, someone you never got to know first hand.

I find it very appropriate that his yahrzeit falls in the time period leading up to Tisha B’av, a time when world Jewry is thrust into mourning. We grieve for the losses of our two holy Temples, among a myriad of other heinous events that historically occurred on this day, and every year we come up with the same quandary. The churban happened so long ago: how is it possible to properly feel this sense of loss when we never knew what we had in the first place? It’s the feeling that grips me when I think about the 9th of Av and when I think about my grandfather. I feel the sense of loss, even though I don’t know exactly what I’m missing out on.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

May we merit to see Tisha B’Av become a day of celebration, complete with the building of the Third Temple bimheira beyameinu.