Pirkei Avos 2:20 – The Master Is Waiting

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This Shabbos we will continue our learning into the second perek of Pirkei Avos. The Mishnah I would like to explore is the second to last one in the chapter, Mishnah 20 (in some editions Mishnah 15).

רבי טרפון אומר היום קצר והמלאכה מרובה, והפועלים עצלים, והשכר הרבה, ובעל הבית דוחק

Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is insistent.

There is a great amount of wisdom to unpack from this short statement of Rabbi Tarfon.

The day is short – The day here refers to our lives (Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura). The Chida points out that the text states that the day is short, not that the amount of time is short. This is an important inyan. It should be well engrained into our minds that our time on this earth is finite. If the Mishnah stated that we have a short amount of time to complete our Divine mission in this world, it may cross our mind that we can postpone this “work” to a later date. The following Mishnah tells us succinctly “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, velo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah”, that while it’s not our job to complete every iota of work on the Heavenly to-do list, this does not yield us creative license to desist from anything at all.

Yet, the work is much. Torah is vast, and there is no shortage of mitzvos for us to complete. Our task in the world should be so dear to us that we should feel as if we only have a day to complete it.

The workers are lazy. It’s not entirely our fault. Sometimes, when we’re engaged in learning, it gets tough and we become disenfranchised. An acquaintance told me of how they began the new Daf Yomi cycle with gusto, and coasted through Maseches Brachos. Maseches Shabbos saw them constantly behind 10-15 dapim. By Eruvin, they were done. We say to ourselves “I’m not a talmid chacham. Why am I doing this? I can’t do this.” Even when we think we’re overcoming this laziness, we are not always immune to it seeping into our holy work.

Additionally, we’re human beings who have human needs and desires. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that when Moshe Rabbeinu was on Har Sinai, he didn’t sleep for the entire 40 days while he was with Hashem. When you are privy to such an audience, how can you think of your own needs? We need to sleep, to eat, to drink. Our needs don’t just dissipate if we do not give into them. In additon, the world trains us to work toward these deadlines. When one is under the gun, they can either steadily work toward their goal or cram everything in until the final stroke of the clock. Klal Yisrael have a far off deadline. Why put off until 120 what we continue doing today? The word of God takes no vacations.

The reward is great. We know of the immense treasures of Olam Haba as a direct response to our action in Olam Hazeh. It’s hard for us to fathom the true reality of this reward. Olam Haba is packed with more amazing amenities than the fanciest Pesach program, but we don’t get a list of what’s there. The reward is indeed great, but it’s not always easy to connect to something so great that we have no information about.

Finally, the Master is insisting. Our Master has high expectations of us. He has a lot invested in us. He gives us life and sustains the entire world. We are His treasured nation, a nation of tzaddikim as it says in Yeshayahu and quoted in the hakdamah to Pirkei Avos. Every morning as we wake, the first thing we do, before wiping the sleep from our eyes or checking our phones, is recite Modeh Ani. The prayer ends rabah emunasecha, great is your Emunah. YOUR emunah? In what? WE believe in God – what does God believe in?

All of us.

Every morning he returns our souls to us so we can continue the plans that He set out for us. There’s a lot going on in our lives, but among the cacophony and clutter, we cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal. We were brought into the world in order to engage in Torah and mitzvos, to serve the Creator with diligence. We cannot drop the ball. After all, the Master is waiting.

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Yom HaShoah 5777 – What Were You Doing At 7 Years Old?

On the eve of Yom HaShoah this year, I had the opportunity to preside over the minyan at a shiva house in my community. Our discussion turned to the departed, a woman that emigrated to Israel in her youth, and helped work to transform a village of tents into what would be one of the most prominent cities in the state of Israel. The group assembled at the shiva house marveled at such a feat, how someone in their youth would be able to do something as incredible as building up the land of Israel. We spoke of her courage, and how the youth of today can’t imagine doing something akin to this. The conversation then shifted to inyana d’yoma, Yom HaShoah. One of the women at the house remarked how she just finished a memoir of a child survivor, who at the age of 7, had been instructed by their parents to run. We fixated on that point for a little while. What were each of us doing at the age of 7? How do the 7 year old children we know now – children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins – spend their days? The idea to need to muster up such incredible courage and unthinkable strength weighed heavily on us for a few minutes, only dissipating once it was time to daven Mincha shortly after.

That account is just one of the copious of other children given similar instructions. Run. One of the most widely circulated of testimonies was about Rabbi Herschel Schacter z”l (father of my teacher, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter), the first Jewish army chaplain to enter the stern gates of Buchenwald after liberation.  In Rabbi Schacter’s obituary, the story is written:

In Buchenwald that April day, Rabbi Schacter said afterward, it seemed as though there was no one left alive. In the camp, he encountered a young American lieutenant who knew his way around.

“Are there any Jews alive here?” the rabbi asked him.

He was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.

“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.

As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.

“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”

With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.

“Lulek,” the child replied.

“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.

“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”

“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?

Lulek is better known today as former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
In the recently published Memory and Meaning of fascinating Yizkor drashos of Rabbi Norman Lamm, he wrote in more than one address of the need for the younger generation to show more of a sensitivity and understanding of those who came before. Those words were penned decades ago, yet they ring just as true today. On the other hand, how can we truly understand the plight? There will be a day when there are no more survivors or children of survivors. That once unthinkable day is looming closer and closer. What will become of the memory of the Shoah when it’s rendered as a far off event in the annals of history, like the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or the destruction of the Temples?

While Lulek, his brother, and European Jewry were fighting for their lives, my grandparents and other relatives were alive and well in America. Rabbi Lau was just 7 years old when he remarked that he wasn’t even a child. He didn’t laugh anymore. His parents and other relatives had been taken away, never to be seen again. He didn’t cry. When I was 7, I was a precocious boy in a Jewish school who loved Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and waving to my parents from my shul’s bima when the children were invited up for “Ein K’Elokeinu.” How would I even begin to understand what it was like? I can’t. None of us can. But, if we fail to conjure up a meaningful way to continue the legacy of six million of our people being ruthlessly butchered by the Nazi death regime, our charge to “never forget” will have meant nothing.

Hashem Yinkom Damam. Yehi Zichram Baruch.

Pirkei Avos 1:2 – The Three Pillars

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It’s customary that during the Shabbos afternoons between Pesach and Shavuos, we engage in the study of Pirkei Avos. To me, this Masechet happens to be one of the most significant  works in all of the various texts that we as a people have. Whether you enjoy learning mishnah or mussar, there’s something for everyone.  Rather than venture to try and explain every Mishnah in the entire tractate, I’m hoping to offer insight over one Mishnah per Perek over the next 6 weeks. The first Mishnah I’d like to discuss is the second Mishnah of Chapter 1.

שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלושה דברים העולם עומד, על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and acts of loving-kindness.

There is plenty to unpack in this Mishnah. Just to give context, Shimon HaTzaddik served for 40 years as the Kohen Gadol after Ezra. It’s important to note that he is a given a moniker, Shimon HaTzaddik, rather than being referred to simply as Shimon, unlike many of the other commentators mentioned in Avos.

He posits that the world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chasadim.

The Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and serves as our manual for how we conduct our lives. Its transmission to the future generations is fundamental. Service of God is also vital in the life of a Jew. Our connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu through prayer has sustained us for generations. Acts of kindness increase the Presence of the Almighty in the world.

These three things quoted by Shimon HaTzaddik are intrinsically connected as well.

Maharal writes that these three correspond to the Avos. Gemilus Chasadim refers to Avraham Avinu, because of the acts of chesed he perpetrated, especially in the aftermath of his own bris milah. Avodah refers to Yitzchak Avinu because literally about to be offered as a korban to Hashem. He not only excelled in avodas Hashem, he WAS avodas Hashem! Yaakov Avinu embodies Torah as he’s described as an “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim.”

The Gra explains how each of these relate to humankind: Torah is bein adam leatzmo, Avodah is bein adam leMakom, Gemilus Chasadim is bein adam lechaveiro.

Rabbi Shalom MiBaranovich describes this Mishnah as a whole body experience. Torah is connected to the brain because it’s an intellectual pursuit. Avodah is connected to the heart because tefilah is referred to as avodah shebalev. Gemilus Chasadim is connected to the limbs of the body because the arms and legs are running and carrying out the various acts of chesed.

Finally,  Rav Avraham Schorr quotes Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3) that a person is called an Olam Katan, a miniature world. Similarly, only when a person is heavily engrossed in torah, tefilah, and chesed, will they be truly standing. Only through those three things is a person even alive! 

May we always strive to foster meaning in our lives through limud haTorah, tefillah, and chesed.

Pesach 5777: The Search For Chametz – In Our Homes and in Ourselves.

Tonight, throngs of Jews, from Bangor to Boca, Brooklyn to Berkeley, will engage in the search for chametz. We’ll put out 10 pieces of bread in our homes, some immaculately 617efdd49c62f7f4c912eac6620a56ee.jpgcleaned in anticipation of Pesach, while others still lag behind (This year, we are blessed to be among the former!). We are commanded to remove the chametz from our houses and we recite a passage after completion of this task declaring any other forms of chametz in our midst, aside from items that we may have arranged to sell to a non-Jew, ownerless. For many families, this activity is merely symbolic, taking very little time at all to complete. We know that any unaccounted chametz being found in our quarantined home is highly unlikely. There are those, however, who are engrossed in bedikas chametz for over an hour, scouring every possible landing spot for crumbs. No matter how long your search takes, we place ten pieces of bread around rooms where we would most likely encounter this nefarious 8-day foe, collect them all, and dispose of them the following morning. This is the best case scenario, as there have been accounts of those searching for the afikoman on Seder night discovering, to some horror and humor, pieces of bread from bedikas chametz which had been left behind. Nevertheless, despite the great care that must be taken to ensure that all chametz placed is found, the ritual stands, and the hunt is on.

Many sages have connected the commandment to eliminate the chametz from our houses with a charge of removing our spiritual chametz. Although this bedika is done with far less pomp and circumstance, it’s often a harder search to conduct. To cleanse our souls of chametz is to overcome our cynicism, doubt, and negativity and channel our energy back into positively serving Hashem.

I get the email every week like clockwork. I see it in my Gmail inbox and I fight every urge to not delete it right away. It’s not the worst email I’ve ever received: I’ve been chastised, ripped apart, and even told horribly sad news by email, both much worse than the message I’m currently glancing at. This message comes from the Tomchei Shabbos organization in my area, and it says succinctly “Can I count on you this week?” Some weeks I can swing it, while others weeks I am busy during the schedule of delivering food to those who need it weekly. Yet, for some reason, it would bug me. I agreed to take a route one week for Tomchei Shabbos. After having a hard time deciphering the exact location to unload my delivery, I arrived at my destination and exited my car with two heavy boxes. I held the handles on the side of the bottom box for no longer than three seconds before it ripped, and I scrambled to regain my hold as to not send both boxes tumbling to the ground. I ring the doorbell with trepidation as I wait for someone to answer. Nothing. I ring it again 30 seconds later, and I’m met with the same response, so I leave the boxes on the doorstep. I walk back to my car with a great sense of frustration. The GPS had no idea where to take me and I got lost, the box handles rip once I finally get to where I need to be, and then nobody even answers the door to get the precious package I shlepped?! I suddenly stopped in my tracks as I reached for the handle on the driver’s side door of my car. As much as it pained me to go through that ordeal, to take time out of my day and get home later than usual, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

You know what’s even more frustrating than this? Having to be on the inside of that door waiting for that package to come every single week.  

What was I thinking? What was wrong with me? Since then, my attitude changed toward this holy endeavor, even though I cannot commit every week.

Rabbi Chaim Ezra HaCohen Fatchia, a mekubal in Israel known as the Chalban, has a poignant comment on the wicked son referenced in the Haggadah, as mentioned in his book on Pesach. The question posed by the rasha is, on the surface, not significantly egregious. “What does this labor mean to you?” Although the Hebrew “avodah” is used here regarding the work pertaining to the Korban Pesach, the Chalban writes that the hang-up expressed by the wicked son is the sheer work involved. What does this work mean to you? Why do you go through this year after year after year? When we consider the avodah to be laborious, to be painstakingly long, and nothing else, that is where we encounter a problem in our own “avodah.” But is this question so foreign to us? Do we ask of ourselves or of God what exactly is it that we’re doing and does it even make a difference? Hashem, what does this work that I’m doing even mean to You?!  The behavior of the rasha can seep into our way of life, and permeate the very underpinnings of our spiritual aspirations. It’s our duty to erase this type of chametz just as we do with the leavened products in our home in anticipation of Pesach. It’s my hope that this type of chametz does not make its way back into our homes and into our souls after Pesach as the chametz we sell does.

“Not Since I Left Dagda…” UPDATE

IMG_9261.JPGMy first post on this medium was in commemoration of Yom HaShoah last year. After uncovering information about family members being killed in the Holocaust, I didn’t quite know how to process that information. My great-grandparents had come to America before the outbreak of World War II, and three of my four grandparents were born in this country. It’s not that it didn’t occur to me that it could have happened, but I don’t know why I was so shocked at this discovery. I needed an outlet for my feelings, and so I began this blog.

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The encounter of facing this information was the impetus behind me taking a course in my schedule of graduate classes titled Teaching the Holocaust, which was taught by one of the foremost experts in the subject (and Holocaust studies in general). Although it was only a 4 day intensive course, I gained more from those 4 meaningful days than in any other class I’ve taken in my life. The professor, Dr. Shawn, oversees an interdisciplinary journal for Holocaust educators, that is put out annually by Azrieli. I submitted this post for print in the forthcoming volume, and, after many edits and additions, it was accepted!

When editing this piece for publication, my emotions ran high once more. I again pored over my great-grandfather’s autobiographical work that was penned along with my great-Aunt Audrey. I was again struck with a sense of awe, turning each new page faster than the last. It caused me to comb through the internet database of Yad Vashem in an effort to trace any family members of mine listed there that I may have missed. If I’m not too sheepish, I may even try and reach out to family members that I discovered through this personal initiative.

Nevertheless, below you will find both pieces, the original and the newly published. Enjoy!

Click here to see the published piece.

Click here to see the original blog post.