Few and Hard

How do you want the years of your life to be viewed? Someone wise told me that each and every day we write part of our eulogy. What part are you working on today?

At the end of his life, Jacob met with Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh asked him “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Jacob’s reply might take us aback at first. He stated, “The days of the years of my sojourn on earth have been 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, and the do not reach the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”

Is this Jacob being Hutzpahdik again? I’m sure many of us would love to live 130 years-or have our loved ones have lived 130 years. Why is Jacob comparing his own life to that of his father’s and grandfather’s? Why isn’t he looking back on his life and saying “I have had a life well-lived?”

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, wondered about why Jacob brought his forefathers into his reply to Pharaoh. He asserted that Jacob did not mean that his life did not attain Isaac’s and Abraham’s in terms of goodness. After all, Jacob lived most of his adult life thinking his youngest, beloved son, Joseph, was dead. He also lived through years of famine, as a refugee fleeing his brother Esau, and of being deceived by family members. At this stage, Jacob recognizes that he had a much harder life than those before him. We know that stress can age people (just look at how President Obama looks now compared to seven years ago), and through his trials and tribulations Jacob has greatly aged.

Nachmanides (Ramban), from 13th century Spain and Israel, was interested in why Pharaoh asked Jacob the question about his age in the first place. He comments that Pharaoh had seen very few people who had reached Jacob’s age and wanted to know what his secret was. Perhaps Jacob had an elixir or a “fountain of youth,” just like some are now looking the reason why people in Okinawa, Japan tend to live such long lives. Jacob threw a difficult answer back at Pharaoh, retorting that not only is there no secret but he actually has lived a shorter amount of time than those who preceded him-that it is just from his hard life that he looks older than he is.

Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, went a step further in discussing Jacob’s hardships. He asserted that the years in which one goes through hardships are not considered “the years of one’s life.” Of course they are considered years in which Jacob has sojourned on earth, so they count towards his 130 years. However, for Seforno, living through toil and tribulation is not life in its fullest and richest sense, making Jacob’s years of calm and comfort “few and hard.” While Jacob was blessed to live many years, unfortunately he was not blessed with an easy life in which he could live to the fullest.

What lessons do we take from Jacob’s reply to Pharaoh? Perhaps it is that Jacob finally understands that life is about more than how many years one lives; it’s about what one does with the years that s/he is given. Jacob was privileged to live 17 years after his encounter with Pharaoh, to a ripe-old age of 147, yet I doubt many of us would have traded our lives for his and for what he went through. The birthright and the blessing he had achieved did not appear to be so valuable anymore after being manipulated by his children into thinking his son was dead and almost going through the same heartbreak when he entrusted Benjamin to the brothers’ care so that they would not starve during the famine. What we learn from Jacob is the well-known statement, “a person of wisdom makes every day count,” that while we may not have the blessing of living 147 years, we can enjoy and make the most out of each day of each month of each year that we do have. In so doing, while our days might not add up to those of our forefathers, instead of viewing them as “few and hard” we can see them as “full and wonderful.” We are fortunate to live in nice suburban homes with food and clothing so readily accessible to us at a time when we have economic opportunities greater than those of our ancestors. Let us do what we can to appreciate the blessings of our life each and every day to always view things with the best outlook. Shabbat Shalom.

Over 200 Muslims Marching

Over 200 American Muslims marched on Saturday with signs saying “America Is Our Home” and “Islam strictly prohibits terrorism” and condemning terrorism is the name of religion, proclaiming “Islam means peace.” It was heartening to learn that Muslims condemned the actions of other Muslims, just as Jews do when one of our commits an atrocity. At the same time, I’m sure some will say “Where are the other hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live in New York?” I wish there were more Muslims who spoke out, but I do not believe that 200 is an insignificant number. We need to reach out to our local organizations, like the Islamic Center of Long Island, an applaud them when they speak out against terrorists. We also need to partner with them on initiatives rather than shying away from them. If the moderate Muslims voices condemning terrorism are few or just not getting the attention of the media, we are still obligated to start with those that we know about, standing in solidarity with them. It’s not easy to speak out against co-coreligionists, and when one rightly does so (after the San Bernardino massacre), they need to be shown appreciation rather than skepticism or indifference.

Stuck on the Train

Last night Karina, her uncle Mike and I were heading back on the Long Island Rail Road after a fun night in the city of dinner and comedy. As we exited the subway at Penn Station and saw the train right across the platform, I had an inkling that something was not right. We got on the train and proceeded past Jamaica towards Merillon Avenue when all of a sudden we heard a thump. The train stopped, and we all waited, not knowing what happened. The conductor came on and said we struck someone on the tracks and that we would need to wait for a police investigation before exiting the train.

Many of the passengers’ first reactions was to be upset about being inconvenienced. However, at the same time I thought about this individual who for whatever reason got on the tracks and had his/her life ended instantly by the train. I realized the fleeting nature of our lives and of our own mortality. Someone who probably had a full future ahead of him/her gone in one second.

The train powered down, including the A/C, and it was boiling the entire half hour we were stuck on the train. I was worried about my wife’s boiling because of her pregnancy. We were told that the last two cars had platformed at the New Hyde Park station, and that we should exit the train. There would be buses picking us up and taking us to the Hicksville Station, but who know how long the buses would take. We got up to exit but stood for at least 10 minutes before anyone was let off. Finally we exited on the south side of the train station, on which there were no cabs. We called an Uber but noticed the premium on the wait time and cost. I knew Mark Wilkow, our former congregational President and good friend, would be up and he generously offered to get us from the New Hyde Park Station.

This experience made me realize that a relatively brief inconvenience (an hour and a half delay in getting home, being stuck in a warm train car) pales in importance to the individual who was struck by the train. Ultimately I made it home and though tired, I can continue life’s adventures today. That is not true for the other. I hope that next time we are stuck in a situation beyond our control we will take a moment to appreciate what we do have and recognize that inconveniences can be overcome.

What’s In a Name

It is very fitting that this Shabbat Daphne is being given her Hebrew name Aviva for two reasons. First, there are two babies who are named in this week’s Torah portion: Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Both names have to do with Joseph’s state of life. Manasseh means to forget, and is so named כי נשני אלקים את כל עמלי ואת כל-בית אבי, for God has made me forget my hardship and my father’s home. At first glance it seems like a horrible name to give a child-we name our children after people we want to remember, not events that we want to forget. However, Joseph is pointing out how much his life has changed and that he is grateful for those changes. He is no longer the boy hated by his brothers, who was thrown into a pit and later into jail, but rather he is second-in-command in all of Egypt! Joseph recognizes the goodness of his life now, and he demonstrates his appreciation through Manasseh’s name.

Joseph next names his son Ephraim כי הפרני אלקים בארץ עניי, for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction. This is an even more bizarre etymology for a name. Joseph has it better than anyone else except Pharaoh, so why would he refer to Egypt as “the land of his affliction?” Is he referring to the fact that he was imprisoned for 13 years in Egypt, is he foreshadowing his people’s captivity in Egypt, or is something else going on?

I would argue that while Joseph has an exalted position and a great standard of living, especially considering the famine all around him, he recognizes that “there is no place like home.” He asks for his brother Benjamin, who he has not met, to come down to Egypt. He misses his father Jacob, as evidenced by the fact that he says העוד אבי חי, “is my father still alive” when he reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph cannot escape his past-his upbringing with 12 brothers and a sister in Canaan. He received an Egyptian name צפנת פענח, Tzapnath Pa’aneach meaning “God speaks-he lives.” He also marries and Egyptian, Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. However, Joseph will always be bound to the Hebrew people, to his family and their way of life.

This message comes to light as we celebrate Daphne’s Hebrew name, Aviva, which means spring. As mentioned by her parents, Jennifer and Daniel, Aviva is named after a number of grandmothers and great-grandmothers named Anna and Amelia. Our tradition in Ashkenazi Judaism is to name a child after relatives who have passed on, so that their attributes, their traditions and the values that they taught us continue on directly into the newborn. It also means that each child has a responsibility and the opportunity to live in accordance with to the example of those who came before.

While we generally no longer name people after events that occur in our lives, the example of Ephraim and Manasseh shed light on the name we gave Daphne today. The name Aviva binds Daphne to those who came before her, linking her to her heritage and to those who worked hard to enable her to be before us this very day. We recognize that though Daphne will grow up to be her own, independent person, she will forever be linked to the chain of tradition comprised by her parents, Jen and Daniel and her grandparents, Dave, Christine, Caren and Kenneth. In naming Daphne today, we know that she will continue to be raised with love, tenderness and caring and that she will live in accordance with the values that her family bestows upon her today. Mazal Tov to the entire family on reaching this joyous occasion!

Shameful Trumpist Xenophobia

I heard Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States “until our representatives can figure out what is going on” as a shameful overreaction, collectively punishing the many for the sins of the few. Trump should know that we’re aware of what is going on. There are terrorist attacks from people with a radically different worldview than we have, a desire to create a new Islamic Caliphate. Unfortunately, knowing that there are radical Muslims who seek to harm non-Muslims and those with western values will not make us able to stop each and every attack. We can work on doing a better job of monitoring those with suspicious loyalties but this is different than barring an entire religion from entering a country.

What disturbs me is how many people I have encountered who share Trump’s sentiments, believing that all Muslims are radical and that American Muslims in an ideal world would overthrow our western democracy and institute a country governed by Sharia law. The belief that all Muslims desire the creation of an Islamic Caliphate is simply not true. I have met so many moderate Muslims while working at the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, at the 92nd Street Mosque in Manhattan and through being in dialogue with the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. These organizations have issued statements decrying Muslim terrorist attacks, stating that radical Muslims are “friends of Satan,” that they radically take Jihad, a struggle against oneself, out of context as a holy war. They have marched against ISIS, condemned 9/11 and the Paris massacres. The reply I get is “there are not enough of them speaking out, which means they sympathize with the radicals.” We have a mosque in our backyard which has spoken out repeatedly against terrorism and yet we choose to ignore it. It is far too easy to play into Trump’s hand, seeing all Muslims as terrorists.

I wrote in a previous post that I believe we are at war with radical Islam, and I continue to believe that. However, to say that all of Islam is radical, that every Muslim believes we should “kill the infidel,” that a fundamental tenet of Islam is to be anti-Israel or that “the only good Arab is a dead one” is so vehemently wrong and deeply troubling. In seeing the world in such a black-and-white frame we let fear drive our every move, and we generalize an entire people over the deeds of a minority of the population.

Last night we had a debate on the Syrian Refugee situation, and the most popular opinion (or at least the one which got the most applause) was not to let in any refugees, not even a 5 year old orphan. “Let them move to Saudi Arabia” was what was suggested; “They’ll take over our country and we’ll become just like France.” Where is our responsibility in making a difference, in “being the change we want to see in the world”? Do we want to live in fear over the “what ifs,” locked away in our suburban palaces, or do we actually want to do something small albeit significant to support those in need? If we do the former, then the Trumpist attitude will prevail, and we will be back in the isolationist, “me first” attitude that our relatives found themselves in in 1930s America. Let’s not let our degree of comfort blind us from what it took to get there in the first place. For Trump first we’ll start with the Muslims, but the Jews are not far behind.

VaYishlach: Meeting People with Different Needs

This week we have the conclusion of the Jacob and Esau family feud, one which has spanned three Torah portions. Let’s examine how this conflict came to be in the first place. We have seen Jacob and Esau bifurcated in a number of ways, beginning with Rebecca’s pregnancy struggles, with her two fetuses literally fighting in the womb, and her imploring God “If this is the case, why am I alive?” God replies that she has two nations in her womb, that one shall be mightier than the other and that the older shall serve the younger. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the trope indicates a different message: the pause is after the word “older,” indicating “The older, the younger shall serve,” and perhaps this is why Jacob bows to Esau in this week’s portion. Nevertheless, a conflict is set up in utero.

Both brothers quickly emerged from the womb in a struggle to be firstborn. The first is covered with red hair and appropriately named Esau, “the mantled one.” The second holds onto the heel of the first, as he wants to come out first in an attempt to supersede him[1] and is named Yaakov, a name derived from the word “heel.” The brothers are described as different as night and day, with Esau being a great hunter and Jacob sitting in tents. Rashi equates Jacob with a yeshiva bochur, stating that he sat in the tents of his ancestors Shem and Ever studying Torah.[2]

One day, Esau returns from the field ravished one day and asked that his brother give him a bowl of stew. Jacob makes Esau swear his birthright away before giving him the stew. The story is further complicated by the fact that each parent favors a different child: Isaac the strong hunter and Rebecca the quiet homeboy. Isaac intended to give Esau a blessing after he went on a hunt and returned with game. Thwarting his plan, Rebecca disguised Jacob in the clothing of Esau and cooked a meal that Jacob served his father in order to acquire the blessing. When Esau found out about the ruse, he broke down saying “Have you but one blessing father? Bless me too father!”[3] and Isaac gave him a blessing to serve his brother but when he grows restive to break the yoke from his neck! Rebecca sent Jacob away under the guise of needing to find an appropriate marriage partner and he fled the wrath of his brother. Eventually Esau pursues Jacob who after splitting his family in half (so that one half could survive), bowed seven times in submission to Esau. The two appear to reconcile (though Midrash tells a different story) and all is happily ever after.

What bothers me about this narrative is threefold: first is that sibling conflict appears to be divinely ordained, from the moment the two brothers struggle in the womb. There will be a winner and a loser, a master and a servant. Secondly, both parents favor a different child and a wife acts behind her husband’s back to ensure that her favored child will receive the firstborn blessing. Thirdly, Jacob is rewarded for his trickery in “stealing” the blessing from his brother. This is so much the case that one of the meaning of the word יעקב is trickery, as we see in the Haftorah for Tisha B’Av, כי כל אח עקב יעקב, for every brother is a deceitful supplanter.[4]

How can we reconcile the problematic nature of the brothers? The process shall begin through an appreciation of what each of the brothers brings to the table. Esau was a hunter, a provider of food for his family. We should value those who, like Esau, are active, provider types. We also should value those like Jacob, who sit quietly in the tents learning. There is no need to pick favorites in such a case: rather we should see the gifts of both brothers as being of value.

Through the same logic, we can value all types of people. When I was growing up, I was the “ideal student,” the one who listened quietly to the teacher, asked questions and showed respect to my peers. Some of my more active and outspoken classmates were not “favorited” to the degree I was in the classroom. Neither were those who had learning difficulties, at least in the traditional style of reading the textbook and “spitting back” the content on a test. The irony was that I almost was not allowed to attend Jewish day school because I was taking OT, PT and Speech, and the day school did not want anyone with supplemental services. When they saw my test scores, however, they said “Oh, he’ll do fine,” and I was accepted into day school.

When I attended college and later the Davidson School of Education at JTS, I studied Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, understanding that students learn best in different ways. We created projects and portfolios that featured lessons focusing on different intelligences, whether music, art, intrapersonal reflection, interpersonal discussions or spatial activities. These lessons were designed to meet the needs of multiple types of learners, rather than solely the traditional “model student” or “teacher’s pet.” It made me truly understand that smart did not only refer to book learning, and that each person has both strengths and challenges.

In our interactions with people, we have a natural proclivity to favor some and not others, to appreciate the gifts of some while not noticing or being impressed by those of others. Too often we turn away from those who struggle with similar challenges to the ones we had, perhaps because it is too painful to see them. The story of Jacob and Esau teaches us about the dangers of this approach and of the importance of seeing the value inside every person. Esau was one who focused on actively doing, on providing for his family with hard days work in the field, while Jacob stayed indoors and learned home skills from those in his family. May we honor both of these personalities, as well as all others that we encounter in life. On a weekend when we express appreciation for all we have, let us learn to value the strengths that are our own and always see the positive in each person we encounter. In doing so, may our story always end with a hug and a kiss, just like Jacob and Esau’s did.

[1] A congregant’s interpretation was that Jacob clung to Esau’s heel so that he didn’t have to separate from him, demonstrating the closeness of the brothers.

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:27

[3] Genesis 27:38

[4]Jeremiah 8:3

The Paris Attacks: World War III

When I went to a the Bar Mitzvah of a family friend in Efrat in the summer of 2005, I was given a ride from Jerusalem by the father of the Bar Mitzvah boy. We engaged in conversation, which he began by saying “we are in World War III.” At first I thought he was crazy. Ten years later, however, it appears that he is correct.

We are at war, whether we admit it or not, against the forces of terror and radicalism. People who would murder 130 innocents in Paris without a second thought. Why? Because they are opposed to the values that we believe in: democracy, pluralism, western thought, justice. These barbarians are going after people like you and me who seek to enjoy an evening at a concert or theater. They are purposefully creating as much damage and tumult as possible in doing so, trying to bring about a continuous reign of terror.

We’re now over 15 years since the atrocities committed on September 11, 2001, and I think some of us were sleeping, dare I say even suppressing the terror that day instilled in us. Now we are woken up once again to the slaughter of innocents, the instilling of fear into our lives with the goal of disrupting our daily rhythm of living. Schools on Long Island have cancelled their trips into Manhattan and people are contemplating changing their Thanksgiving weekend plans as a result of the terror attack.

Let us also know forget the multiple stabbings and shootings of innocents that have occurred in Israel: in the secular, “western” area of Tel Aviv, in the religious community of Gush Etzion, in the city of Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev and throughout Israel’s capital Jerusalem. These are part of a series of terror actions based on the lie that Israel is going to demolish the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Having been in Israel for 2 weeks, I can assert that I felt completely safe and that I was proud our congregation came to support Israel in its time of need. At the same time, I noticed how dead Jerusalem was, seeing hardly anyone on Ben Yehuda Street or Mamila Mall and actually being able to walk in the Mahane Yehduah market on Friday afternoon. It seems that people are doing exactly what the terrorists want and avoiding Jerusalem.

As much as I’d like not to believe it, these signs point more and more towards us being ensconced in World War III. Unlike the previous two world wars, this one is not a war against countries but rather a war of values. It is those who believe in democracy, equality and western thought against those who would like to see the entire world dominated by Sharia law. This is not a war against Islam, and many Muslims (including my friends at the Islamic Cultural Center down the road) are very much pro-western and condemn the terrorist behavior. However, it is very much a war against those radicals and militants who believe we are infidels and heathens and who seek our destruction.

What should we do? We should continue to live our regular lives, not letting those who seek to cause fear and pandemonium actually do so. We should continue to live our lives in accordance with the values that we hold dear. We should outwardly condemn the behavior of those who seek to do us harm while at the same time working towards a world where terrorists and those who hate one for their religion will be uprooted. Let us never forget the Paris attacks just as we will never forget 9/11 and fight for a better world, a better future for us and for our children.

Our Journey Through Israel

How do we give justice to our congregation’s incredible eleven day journey through Israel? Certainly not through one sermon! However, I believe we can get a sense of our experience through the baby naming we had this morning.

Sydney Mila Roth was given the Hebrew names Shoshana Moriah. Shoshana means rose, and the people of Israel are described in the Song of Songs as Shoshana bein HaHohim,[1] like a rose amongst the thorns. Every daughter is a rose to her parents, just like every Jew is a rose amongst the people of the world. Israel itself is described as a Shoshana and upon visiting it becomes clear why that is the case. Being on top of Mount Zion and looking out across the Old City, being surrounded by buildings comprised of Jerusalem stone, going under the Kotel (Western Wall) tunnels, being in Mahtesh Ramon and looking at all the natural rock formations; seeing the majesty of the Tower of David, hiking the waterfalls at Banias and Ein Gedi and walking in the majesty and grandeur of the Caesarean Aqueducts-these are a few of the many wonders of the rose that is The State of Israel. Judah HaLevi, a Spanish poet who longed to make Aliyah to Israel, described Israel as Yefeh Nof, a landscape of beauty,[2] and there certainly are plenty of those in Israel. One of them, which Karina and I went to, was the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, located on Yefeh Nof Street.

We had our breath taken away by the physical beauty of Israel but we also experienced a spiritual beauty, which is harder to describe but which we know when it is there. Walking through the quiet streets of Jerusalem after Shabbat morning services, standing before the Kotel (Western Wall) to pray, climbing the fortress of Masada, being inspired by the joyful Carlebach Kabbalah Shabbat services in Tzfat, taking a Shabbat walk through the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe right outside the Old City-these are some of the spiritual encounters we had while in Israel. They inspired us, giving us the added spark we needed when we were tired or facing a grueling downhill walk to our next stop. We also went to the synagogue Migdal Hashoshanim, tower of roses, for morning minyan.

Like the beautiful country of Israel, a person is comprised of both physical and spiritual beauty, and through proper use of these gifts, s/he stands out from the crowd. We know that Sidney will live up to her name Shoshana, being a source of beauty and inspiration for her parents, her grandparents and all who she encounters.

Sidney’s middle name, Moriah, is also of great significance; in Hebrew it is Moreeah, the mountain on which Abraham brought Isaac upon G-d’s command.   It is also the site of the even shtiah, the foundational stone at which the world was created.[3] Our tradition teaches that Moreeah is the place at which the Temple, our holiest site, was built. It is the site to which our Messiah will come.[4] Our group had a privilege unlike many others in that we got to ascend the Temple Mount and see the Dome of the Rock up close. Unfortunately, we cannot pray up there nor can we go up dressed looking like observant Jews, as my wife and I found out. I yearn for the day that we will all be able to pray at our holiest site, Mount Moreeah.

Moreeah, however, does not only stand for the Temple Mount but also for continuity with our history and traditions. In order to fully be immersed as a member of the Jewish people, one needs to know our people’s story. During our Israel mission we went to the City of David, the first site of Jewish civilization in Jerusalem, in 1000 CE. We experienced the First Temple Period by seeing a burial site for Kohanim and Leviim at which the priestly blessing, the oldest biblical text of which we have a copy, was found. We experienced the Second Temple Period by walking through Herod the Great and Herod Phillipi’s great fortresses, Caesarea in the West, Masada in the South and Banias in the east. We journeyed through the Middle Ages, seeing the Tower of David and Nimrod’s Fortress, both of which date back to the 1200s, the time of the Mamelukes. We experienced the renaissance of the Kabbalists in Tzfat, hearing the music that they created as well as seeing their magnificent synagogues. We learned about the Zionist struggle for Israel and their winning miraculous battles, using Davidkas to scare off the Arabs in Tzfat despite being outnumbered tenfold. We learned the stories of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin through visiting museums which were dedicated to them. We were on an army base, meeting Israeli soldiers, learning their stories and seeing the high price they pay in defending our country. Finally we experienced modern Israel, seeing the high rises of Tel Aviv and learning about Israel’s hi-tech developments in Rosh Pina.

To be a lover of Israel requires learning about its multilayered history, seeing its sites in context and discovering what it means to live in Israel today. It all comes back to Moreeah, where we got our start. We know that Shoshana Moriah will become a lover of the Jewish people and of the richness of our heritage. She will join her parents and grandparents in becoming a true Hovavah Tzion, a lover of the Jewish people and of Israel.

There is one final layer that can be applied to the name Shoshana Moriah-knowing that life is not always as beautiful as the Shoshana nor do we always have the rich history of Mount Moriah at our fingertips. The key lesson is that regardless of what happens, we need to make the best out of every situation. The quintessential example of this on our trip was being hosted by Rena and Rabbi Emmanuel Quint for Friday night dinner in Jerusalem through a program called “Shabbat of a Lifetime,” which pairs visitors to Israel with Israeli families. The most incredible part of the Shabbat dinner was hearing Rena’s story.

Rena is known as the “Child of Many Mothers,” having had six mothers by age ten. She was a Holocaust survivor, first at age five being gathered in a synagogue with most of Jews of Piotrkow. A man who she thinks might have been her uncle, motioned for her to run away, and she dropped the hand of her mother and ran. The Jews in the synagogue were sent to Treblinka, and the vast majority were killed. Rena ran back to her father in the ghetto, who hid her until no longer able, and then disguised her as a boy. He claimed that she was 10 years old, of working age, even though she was younger. Rena remained in the ghetto disguised as a boy with a “mother” to watch over her-and when that “mother” was taken, a different “mother” stepped in. In 1943, the Piotrkow Ghetto was liquidated, and Rena was transported to a labor camp and then to Bergen-Belsen on a death march. She was liberated in April 1945. Rena came to Sweden and then to the United States with an adoptive mother and the papers of her daughter who had died during the war. She made Aliyah with her husband in 1984.

Somehow Rena made it through this horror and came out as someone who wanted to make a difference. She regularly volunteers at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and regularly hosts 30 people at her home for Friday night dinner, not to mention the other Shabbat meals. Rena asserts that “As a Holocaust survivor, I feel impelled to live my life to the fullest.”  She was genuinely interested in each of the guests, asking us questions and catering to our interests. What motivates a Rena, someone who suffered too much, to give so generously of herself? Some of it is certainly to make the most of every moment of life, taking nothing for granted. Rena certainly is an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor, demonstrating the power of hard work and of genuine interest in people.

We know that Shoshana Moriah, Sydney Mila, will live in accordance with this example, living each moment to the fullest and giving nachas to her family and to all who she encounters. Today we give her a blessing, a small token of the blessing that she bestows upon others and will continue to give to her family. Cantor Black will join me in the recitation of this special blessing, the oldest blessing in our tradition, upon Sydney.

[1] Song of Songs 2:2

[2] Judah HaLevi, “Yefeh Nof.”

[3] Mishnah Yoma 5:2

[4] See 2 Chronicles 3:1. See also Rabbi Robert Harris, JTS Torah Commentary, November 11, 2006. https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5767/vayera.shtml

Sarah as Our Model

On the high holidays I criticized Sarah for banishing Hagar and Ishmael from her and Abraham’s home.  Today, I want to show a redeeming side of Sarah, praising her by demonstrating her righteousness and good character.

Three verses before the one where Sarah calls for Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion; there is an interesting verse מי מלל לאברהם היניקה בנים שרה כי ילדתי בן לזקוניו “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”[1]  According to the Torah, Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham one hundred when they had Isaac, hence the reference to old age.  While this is biologically impossible from a physical standpoint, perhaps it means that Sarah “mothered” Isaac spiritually, providing him with the moral teaching, the knowledge and the experiences that she had gained from her life.

It is the earlier part of the verse, however, in which I am interested: the notion of Sarah suckling children.  Sarah only had one son, so it should have read “that Sarah would suckle a child.”  Why instead does it say children?

Rashi, the biblical commentator par excellence, was also bothered by the use of the word “children”.  He referenced the following story in the Talmud: “Rabbi Levi said: On the day that Abraham weaned his son Isaac, he made a great banquet, and all the peoples of the world derided him, saying, ‘Have you seen that old man and woman, who brought a foundling from the street, and now claim him as their son! And what is more, they make a great banquet to establish their claim!’ What did our father Abraham do? — He went and invited all the great men of the age, and our mother Sarah invited their wives. Each one brought her child with her, but not her wet-nurse, and a miracle happened unto our mother Sarah, her breasts opened like two fountains, and she suckled them all.”[2]  Even though this is impractical from a physical standpoint, perhaps it is being used to indicate that Sarah was able to spiritually nourish and grow people in the world.

This Midrashic teaching in the Talmud is an explanation for why Sarah is considered the mother of all nations.  As Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University asserts, “The noblewomen suckle their sons from the same milk as Isaac, thus becoming like sons of one mother.”[3]  It would be quite natural for other women to laugh at Sarah giving birth to a child at ninety, claiming that it was either Hagar’s child, or as in the case of our Talmudic text “a foundling from the street.”  Even Sarah questioned the possibility of having a child, stating אחרי בלותי היתה לי עדנה “Now that I am withered am I to have enjoyment?” [4]  In the end, however, Sarah has the last laugh, nursing the sons of all the other nations. This caused others to stop laughing at her and start believing or supporting her. Sarah named her son Yitzhak, laughter, stating כל השומע יצחק לי “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me,”[5] as opposed to laugh at me.

          It must have taken a special woman for God to provide two powerful miracles: giving birth at age ninety and nursing many nations, especially without the use of anesthetics.  What is most remarkable is that Sarah did not believe that she merited such miracles, feeling that she was past her prime.  God demonstrated that this was not the case and not only could Sarah “give birth” but she could also be a powerful symbol of femininity and an example for all the nations of the world.  This teaches that one is never too old to be a respected leader-on the contrary, one’s age gives her the life experience and wisdom to lead and sustain the community.  Bringing this wisdom to the younger generations, like the wisdom my grandmother brings to me every week with her beautiful insights and poetry, is what nurtures the world and is a miracle in and of itself.

I challenge each of us to follow the example of Sarah, embracing every challenge that comes our way. Even if the task at hand appears to be impossible, or we are having a lot of questions about a decision that we are about to make, I urge us to proceed forward with a “can-do” attitude. For those of us going to Israel during this difficult time, may we look for opportunities for which we can make an impact, be it helping Israelis we encounter who are in need, actively getting to know and build relationships with the other members of our group and bringing what we learn and experience back to New York to strengthen our community. For those not joining us, let us think about what we can do to recharge our batteries and increase our active presence in the Jericho Jewish Center, knowing that our involvement DOES make a difference. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 21:7

[2] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 87a

[3] Joshua Levenson, Current Trends in the Study of Midrash (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), p. 214.

[4] Genesis 18:12

[5] Genesis 21:6

The Beauty of Israel

It is now one week before the Jericho Jewish Center trip to Israel, and Karina and I are very excited. We want to thank all the participants for making the trip possible. In a few short days, 24 of us will be travelling to Israel, some spending one and a half weeks, and others spending two full weeks.

I hope from our trip to Israel, we will explore the land of so much richness to our ancestors of so many generations, from the oasis of Ein Gedi, where King David fled from King Saul to the City of David, the original centerpiece of Jerusalem, to the Kotel, the retaining wall from our holy Temple in Jerusalem, to the Kabbalists of Tsfat to Independence Hall where the State of Israel was called into being. We will also get to see a natural wonder, the Ramon Crater in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev, and the gorgeous waterfall at Banias Nature Reserve, and reflect on the beauty of G-d’s creations. Masada, the Dead Sea and an evening in a Bedouin tent are highlights of the trip as well. In addition, we will do community service projects, helping out the underprivileged kids at the Neve Michael Youth Village and packing food for Israel’s poorest families. We will also get to learn about the perspective of soldiers on an army base as we share dinner with them, as well as hosting lone soldiers (who have no family in Israel) for lunch.

Why are we going to Israel? Three reasons. We are going to reconnect with the land of our ancestors and of our people today and to find our own personal meaning in its history, its culture and its beauty. It is one thing to intellectually learn about Israel or to read about it in the papers-quite another to actually experience it. We will be experiencing Israel in all its wonder and in all its complexity, strengthening our connection to this beautiful and inspiring country which produces major technological advances, engages in worldwide humanitarian efforts and strives to always act in the most ethical manner possible. In so doing, we will increase our appreciation of the Land of Milk and Honey and become armed with more knowledge and understanding to bring back to our local communities.

We are also going to appreciate that Israel is not something to be taken for granted through meeting with soldiers and going to the military cemetery at Mount Herzl. We will learn about many individuals, including David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin who made great sacrifices in order to create a homeland for their children and grandchildren…and for generations yet to come. In the words of the poet Natan Alterman, they are the “silver platter” on which Israel has been given to us. At the same time, we have a responsibility to deepen our connection with both the land of Israel and with Israelis. Through deepening our engagement with the land and the people, we become ambassadors for Israel and we “make it our own.”

Perhaps most importantly, we have an opportunity to show solidarity with our brethren in Israel at a time when they need our support. The news about violence in Israel has not been comforting, and we pray for an end to terrorism. At the same time, I believe that this is precisely why we must go-to show our solidarity with our brethren, that they are not alone, that we will not let terrorism scare us into staying back. Support for Israel when it is under attack is paramount, and we will give that support by meeting with Israelis from multiple walks of life, learning their stories and yes, supporting the Israeli economy through shopping. These are ways that Israel will become very real in our lives, and we will bring that richness back to Jericho.

I will try to blog from Israel on a daily basis so that everyone can keep informed on our trip’s progress. I look forward to sharing some insights from the Israel trip on Shabbat morning November 21 and in the weeks to come. L’shana Hazot B’yirushalayim-THIS year in Jerusalem!