Adar 5777 – When “Marbin B’Simcha” Is Not So Simple

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 2.40.57 PM.png

Me learning with Rav Amos Luban when Netiv Aryeh traveled to Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav for night seder, only days after the terror attack.

Burned into my memory is Rosh Chodesh Adar II 5768. As we celebrated the new month in yeshiva, my mother frantically tried to reach me on my cell phone, like countless other mothers, fathers, and relatives who had loved ones in Jerusalem on that night. After what, to her, seemed like an eternity, I cheerfully answered the phone and the voice from the other end of the world was one of panic and worry. It was she, thousands of miles away, who informed me of the heinous attack that occurred about 2.5 miles from where I stood on the porch of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh overlooking the Kotel. What a way to begin the month of Adar, just a few weeks before Purim.

Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha. When the month of Adar comes, we are to increase our simcha. The mantra of the month is to be happier than usual. As Jews, we are charged to do our utmost to live with a sense of happiness every day, not only in Adar. Yet, I’ve struggled with this notion of simcha being increased in Adar. Our monthly motto alone – Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha – does not automatically afford us a life sans tragedy and sadness, in Adar.

The text reads “marbim b’simcha” not only “b’simcha” that we must increase what is already there. In fact, we know that living without simcha is detrimental. In the litany of curses in the tochacha, one klalah is meted out because we did not serve Hashem with happiness. Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh explains that a life without simcha is a significant deficiency. He compares this delusion that one can get by without happiness to someone who lives in a furnished house, yet doesn’t have any hangers for their clothes. Although it’s inconvenient, technically, one can get around this issue by leaving their clothes on chairs and tables rather than leaving them on the floor (there are plenty of people who do have hangers in their homes yet leave the clothes strewn about on tables and chairs nonetheless!). However, this logic is completely false. Lacking simcha would be congruent to lacking a dwelling place altogether! Simcha is the tachlis, the entire essence of an eved Hashem. There are many times throughout the year when we are to have simcha, yet Adar and Purim is the only time when simcha is the etzem of the entire time.

As Jews, we are charged to do our utmost to live with a sense of happiness every day, especially in Adar. Although there are external factors, things in our lives that can “shter” our happiness, somehow we must persevere. Yet, I’ve struggled with this notion of simcha being increased in Adar. Our monthly motto alone – Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha – does not automatically afford us a life sans tragedy and sadness, in Adar. Regular occurrences that evoke sadness aren’t barred from happening during Adar. More recent than the Mercaz HaRav massacre, Jews worldwide will not soon forget the Fogel family, who were attacked on Friday night on the 6th of Adar 5771. Ehud and Rut Fogel and three of their six children were mercilessly slaughtered as they slept. Their daughter who discovered the carnage happened to have not been home at the time of the attack. The two other Fogel children in the home were spared only due to the ruthless terrorists not knowing they were in fact inside the home at that time. The terrorists admitted that had they been privy to that information, those two children would’ve met the same fate.

Those two examples are significant extremes. But how is one to compose themselves b’simcha when they lose their job or a loved one? How do we augment our joy in a month where we may receive bad tidings?

In the letters and writings of the Nesivos Shalom, his wrote in a Purim drasha that on that particular Purim,  he was stuck in a hospital room battling an illness. Nevertheless, he wrote, if for some reason the Almighty saw fit that he needed to be holed up in Hadassah on this holiday, that he would be mekabel this yuntif b’simcha. The Rambam writes (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah) that a navi was able to receive a Divine prophecy if they were b’simcha. Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh asks a troubling question: If the above assertion of the Rambam is correct, how could it be that Yirmiyahu had nevuah while he wrote Megillas Eichah? In order to have written Eichah, Yirmiyahu had to have received prophecy, and somehow he was able to do so with joy as the Beis HaMikdash was being destroyed around him. Yet, according to the Rambam, it would seem that Yirmiyahu would have to had some microscopic amount of happiness (NOT over the destruction of the Temple, but possibly about something else).

An exercise that helps some people get through Adar with more simcha, even if only a miniscule amount more per day, is to take stock of what’s going on around them and write down something that they’re thankful for. Through our prayers and supplication to the Almighty we may try and sway a Divine decree, just as we do in Elul and Tishrei. We may not always receive the desired results of what we hope for, yet we can always alter the way we respond to these bumps in the road, and find kernels of happiness in all that we do.

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 2.38.36 PM.png

Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh night seder learning in the beit midrash at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, days after the terror attack.

 

 

 

Yisro 5777 – Leadership and Uncle Joel z”l

We find in Parshas Yisro a veiled charge to the Jewish people to be leaders. It is a missive that can be found or alluded to in other parts of the Torah, one that seems to be the entire backbone of Parshat Kedoshim. God tells Moshe to tell Bnai Yisrael that now that they’ve seen His wonders and how He brought them to this place where they were now standing, that if the Jewish people were to obey His laws, that they’d be God’s treasured nation. The next verse states that the Jews are to be a “mamleches Kohanim v’goy kadosh”, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. When we follow the laws that God set out for us, it states that we are holy, moreso than just being created in His image. This command is not simply a nice idea to try and cling to, but a decree. God is holy, and He demands we be holy as well. Being tasked with this sense of kedusha naturally makes us into leaders.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts this notion of being tapped with kedushah. He writes of being with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in August 2000 at the General Assembly at the United Nations along with two thousand other religious leaders of major faiths from across the globe. Rabbi Sacks pointed out to Rabbi Steinsaltz that even among such distinguished company, they were different as they were almost the only two religious leaders donned in suits. He writes “it is almost a universal phenomenon that priests and holy people wear distinctive garments to indicate that they are set apart (the core meaning of the word kadosh, “holy”). In post-biblical Judaism there were no robes of office because everyone was expected to be holy.” This final line hammers the point home. Holiness is our charge to leadership. It’s not one that we can shirk. Being holy causes us, at times, to live lives against the grain of society. It’s not always easy to take time from our busy schedules to daven three times a day. It doesn’t always seem prudent to give of our time and money if we want to be as successful as we can. Being a leader does not always breed holiness, but being holy can breed the traits of a strong leader. 

CEM47186062_128987647240.jpgThe 17th of Shvat this year is when we read Parshas Yisro, and it marks the yahrtzeit of my mother’s beloved brother, my uncle Joel Radman z”l. Our parsha teaches us that as a leader, we are to act as holy individuals ingrained with a mantra of kedushah. Uncle Joel established the Chevra Kadisha in Columbia, MO, where he and my Aunt Sheri raised their sons. As a first-born himself, and the father of a first-born boy, he also ensured that there would be a siyum for taanis bechorim before Pesach. If anyone has heard of Mexico, MO outside of the state, it’s most likely because Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue hails from there. Uncle Joel cleaned up the Jewish cemetery there. Additionally, he was also a leader in other areas as well. Joel Radman was a titan in Columbia’s real estate industry, who saw incredible success in his endeavors. After his passing, the Columbia Board of Realtors created the Joel Radman Award. The award application mentions that “Joel made a major contribution to the real estate industry in mid-Missouri and was particularly generous with his time and advice to the new REALTOR® members. It was his integrity, honesty, and caring attitude toward all people that made Joel unique.” These traits that are listed make it even more fitting when examined in the context of his Hebrew name, Moshe Yossel, two of the most dynamic leaders in Jewish history. Yossel (Yosef) pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and with the help of the Almighty, became the second most powerful governmental officer in the hierarchy of Egyptian leadership. Similarly, in regard to being the leader of Bnai Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu is recounted in the waning verses of the Torah as, (lehavdil elef havadalos) to quote Bret Hart, “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.”

Uncle Joel was taken from this world too soon, leaving behind a loving family and a sterling reputation. As Jews, when we collectively mourn the loss of seminal figures in our history or grieve for ancient catastrophic events, there is a contemporary struggle to truly feel the sense of loss for something that occurred so long ago. To me, what hurts almost more than the aforementioned struggle is the feeling of never having the chance to truly appreciate something or someone before they are gone. Sometimes, the onus is on us if we neglect to cherish individuals and things we hold dear, while other times there is not much we can do to alter the course of reality. I was still a toddler when my Uncle Joel passed away, as my family was moving to Cleveland from Chicago. My mother and aunt would tell me stories about him, and there are even pictures of him holding me as a baby. I have proof that there was interaction between the two of us. Unfortunately for me, although those memories are less than three decades old, they might as well be from centuries ago. May we merit to continue to lead in ways that make you and the entire heavenly Radman cheering section proud. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

 

Tu B’Shvat 5777 – The Song of the Olive

a3c97dacd675cbde74f39f331f1f2b56.jpgParshat Beshalach is known as Shabbos Shira, as it contains the passage recounting spontaneous praise levied to the Almighty by Moshe and Bnai Yisrael after witnessing the bifurcation of the Yam Suf. This year, it also happens to be Tu B’Shvat, the new year for the trees where we celebrate the trees, fruit, and plant life. The “shira” that I would like to reference in the coming essay is not found in the Torah itself per se, but is found in Perek Shira, a generations old text whose author remains unknown. The Gemara (Eruvin 100b) explains that had the Torah not been given to the Jewish people, the messages contained therein would’ve been able to have been gleaned by mankind from the animals such as the cat, dove, and other fowl. Perek Shira delineates 84 different creatures or things from which we can learn tremendous lessons about ethics, wisdom, and advice on seeing the hand of God. These items range in category from things in nature (sun, stars, moon, different types of clouds, dew, and others) to animals and insects, to plant life.

An interesting point in the middle of the various songs in the specific song of the “prolific creeping creatures”, as explained by Rabbi Natan Slifkin in his commentary. The praise which these crawlers offer is taken from Tehillim 128:3 “Your wife will be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table.” The part that intrigues me here is the latter half of the verse. There are many different forms of shir and shevach that can be heaped upon a person and their children. What precisely is the meaning behind the wish that one’s sons should be like olive branches?

One could argue that the olive branch is a signal of peace or tranquility, as exhibited in the story of Noach and the flood. The decoded message of this particular bracha could be that our children should follow the ways of Aharon HaKohen (Avot 1:12) that they be “ohev Shalom v’rodef Shalom.” It’s not enough that they love peace-who doesn’t love peace? The second step is the kicker. They must also run after peace, and pursue it with every fiber of their being.

Another explanation for this song of these Sheratzim is that of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 1:7), which explains that just as an olive branch cannot be grafted onto any other species of tree, so too the Jewish people cannot be “grafted” to any other nation other than ours. The worlds may share similarities, but they are separate. To merit generations of committed Jewish souls is indeed a wonderful blessing.

Another interesting note about the olive is that it’s not mentioned on its own as one of the items that gives praise to Hashem in Perek Shira. At first glance, that might not be such an egregious omission, until one reads through the rest of the work to learn that each and every other one of the seven special food items indigenous to Eretz Yisrael have their own shira. The above mentioned passage pertaining to the olive is one of two places where an olive is brought up, yet it does not muster up an original prayer like the other of the shiv’at haminim. Six out of seven ain’t bad, right?  

Rabbi Avraham Schorr (HaLekach VeHalibuv Chodesh Shvat/Shovevim) posits that perhaps this omission stems from the Gemara (Horayos 13b) where it’s written that olives are one of five items that make one forget their Torah learning. However, contained in the next passage is that olive oil is one of the antidotes to this problematic food. The Maharsha on this sugya alludes to the fact the olive is not worthy of praise on its own because it’s the oil that comes from grinding and squeezing the olive that makes it special.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The inside of the olive is the key to producing the olive oil that we desperately need both as food and for our ritual use. The olive is rendered essentially unrecognizable and only then can the oil be squeezed from it.

The missive elicited from the words of the Maharsha is poignant not only for the puny olive, but for the individual as well. The yuntif of Tu B’Shvat is not merely a day in which we contemplate about the various trees and plants that Hashem set on earth. It’s a Rosh Hashannah! It’s the dawning of a new era, where we can take the same ideas we apply in Elul and Tishrei and work to bring out the best in ourselves. The best way to ensure that one makes a strong commitment to become a better Jew is tapping deep into one’s potential. Olives are delicious, and when they’re on pizza, that’s some of the finest cuisine you’ll find. Yet, they’re lacking until they’re pulverized and pressed in order to extract their valuable oil. We need not go through the rigorous process they do, but that process is indeed a powerful mashal for us as well. Getting what we want or need in life may at times be a struggle. What we have inside, our heart, intellect,and spirit, will not deter us.

The message of the olive is that sometimes, the most important thing is hidden from the surface, and takes great, painstaking work to elicit.