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A Great Community's Moment

15/03/2021 09:31:50 PM


We exist to serve Hashem. Hashem’s Torah is the ultimate and eternal source of meaning. Community is a force multiplier for living and spreading Torah. Relationships are the bricks with which community is built. To live and serve within a beautiful community like this one is a zechut and a mitchayev – a right and an obligation. Community affords us the opportunity to write great Jewish stories.

Nora Ephron z”l liked to tell the following story:

Her high school journalism teacher was teaching how to write a lead – the first sentence of a newspaper story. He dictated the following facts for an article in the school paper: See if you can get it: “The principal announced today that the faculty will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a course in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead.” The students sat and wrote a lead, most inverting the facts, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a program on new teaching methods, the principal announced today.” The students turned in their leads. The teacher looked at what they’d done and tossed everything into the trash. He said: “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school Thursday.'”

As Modern Orthodox Jews, we are writing amazing stories. These stories include wonderful families, beautiful cultures of kindness, hard work which often leads to material success, life long Torah learning, and also - we must admit - serious crises that we must work to resolve. Nevertheless, taken all together, our stories are good stories.

Yet, my message to you is, “We are missing the lead.” Allow me to explain: We will soon celebrate the holiday of Pesach. The climax of the Exodus story takes place upon the far bank of the Red Sea, as the Jewish people witness their oppressors overcome by its waves. The Torah describes the close of the episode with the following two pesukim in succession:

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַה֙' כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ (ס) וַיַּסַּ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מִיַּם־ס֔וּף וַיֵּצְא֖וּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁ֑וּר וַיֵּלְכ֧וּ שְׁלֹֽשֶׁת־יָמִ֛ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֖ר וְלֹא־מָ֥צְאוּ מָֽיִם׃

Miriam called out to [the women], Sing to Hashem… Moshe caused Israel to journey from Yam Suf…

The space between these verses would have been the perfect place to end an Aliyah, to conclude a perek, or just to have a petucha and not a setuma. In fact, it could have been the point – as the Ramban hints - to end the whole book of Shemot. Yet, we don’t. The story does not end! We are not allowed to take a breath. Why?

I ask this question – this year – because we are all in the midst of a COVID story, that we wish WE could END. We have each composed our unique versions of this story with its silver linings, ups and downs, happy and sad moments. Yet, the narrative refuses to end – it goes ON and ON. Why can’t these stories end?

We are not the only ones frustrated by the Torah’s unwillingness to take a break at this moment. Rashi quotes the Mekhilta:

ויסע משה. הִסִּיעָן בְּעַל כָּרְחָם, שֶׁעִטְּרוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת סוּסֵיהֶם בְּתַכְשִׁיטֵי זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וַאֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת, וְהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מוֹצְאִין אוֹתָן בַּיָּם – וּגְדוֹלָה הָיְתָה בִזַּת הַיָּם מִבִּזַּת מִצְרַיִם  …לְפִיכָךְ הֻצְרַךְ לְהַסִּיעָן בְּעַל כָּרְחָם:

ויסע משה  AND MOSES CAUSED [ISRAEL] TO JOURNEY — He made them journey against their own will, because the Egyptians had adorned their horses with ornaments of gold and silver and with precious stones, and the Israelites were finding these in the sea… On this account he was compelled to make them journey on against their will. 

As we sit at our Seder tables this year, I imagine that many of us may want to take a moment to allow hallel to soak in – especially this year. We might wish to breathe deliverance in the context of its sweet tune – to savour the end of Yetziat Mitzrayim – to just get a moment’s rest from all the stress and struggle. Our ancestors wanted to take a similar pause. Yet, they could not. Moshe would not let them. Question #1 - Why?

Question #2: Avital and I teach brides and grooms – not just hilchot niddah – but philosophy of relationships. We discuss communication, family dynamics, money, habit formation, and how to make a wedding day more spiritually meaningful. During these conversations, I ask each bride and groom, the second question that I have for you today: How do you get someone to fall in love with you?

Two questions: Why can’t Moshe give us a break? What can you do to create love in someone else’s heart? These two questions are connected.

Sefer Shemot’s refusal to stop has something to teach us about our lives. Whereas stories all must come to an end, life does not. Jewish life does not. An individual organism may be born, live and die - but the species does not. A generation may pass. But our people is eternal. Hashem decides where our story begins and ends – we do not. The Ramban in his introduction to Sefer Shemot makes this point.

והנה הגלות איננו נשלם עד יום שובם אל מקומם ואל מעלת אבותם ישובו.

The exile is not completed until the people return to their place and to the level of their forefathers.

וכשיצאו ממצרים אע"פ שיצאו מבית עבדים עדיין יחשבו גולים כי היו בארץ לא להם נבוכים במדבר.

When they left Egypt, even though they had left servitude, they were still in exile, because they were in a land not of their own – bewildered in the wilderness.

וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב"ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם והם הם המרכבה ואז נחשבו גאולים. ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה' מלא אותו תמיד.

It was only when they came to Har Sinai, built the mishkan, and God returned His presence among them, that they returned to the levels of their ancestors…

We each impose an interpretive frame on our lives. Judaism creates a bigger frame. The life-frame - the “lead” - of the average Jew at Yam Suf might have read – “WE ARE FREE” or “No School Thursday.” He or she would have gladly tarried at Yam Suf – enjoying victory. Yet, argues the Ramban, that would have been wrong. Yetziat Mitzrayim is not about bondage and freedom. It is about spiritual purpose and Torah. Yetziat Mitzrayim is not about one moment in history. It is about creating an ongoing loving relationship with Hashem in which we re-inhabit the spiritual achievements of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. How do we create that connection?

Two months ago, we lost one of the greatest Torah teachers of our generation. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski was a beloved part of Rinat for many years. Rav Twerski told the following story about what he called Fish Love:

The Kotzker rebbi came across a young man who was clearly enjoying a dish of fish. The rebbi said, “Young man, why are you eating that fish?” The young man says “Because I love fish.” The rebbi said “Oh, you love the fish. That’s why you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it. Don’t tell me you love the fish, you love yourself. And because the fish tastes good to you – you took it out of the water, killed it and boiled it.”

So much of what is love is fish love. A young man and a young woman fall in love, what does that mean? That means that he saw in her someone whom he felt could provide him with all of his physical and emotional needs. And she saw in him [the same]… It’s not love for the other. The other becomes a vehicle for my gratification.

Too much of what is called love is fish love. Eternal love is not what I’m going to get but what I’m going to give. Rav Eliyahu Dessler said “People make a serious mistake in thinking that you give to those whom you love, when the real answer is you love those to whom you give.”

When I share this idea with couples, I emphasize the importance of being needy – of allowing your spouse to give to you – and thereby to love you. Likewise, if you want to feel love within your own heart for someone – then give to them. Answer to Question #2: How do you get someone to fall in love? You teach them to give. But it is more than this. Rav Dessler’s idea can help us ask the right questions of life. If I ask, “Am I getting enough from life? Am I getting enough from this relationship?” – I will never have enough. I am saying that I am an empty vessel, which needs to be filled by something outside myself. If - instead - I ask, “Am I giving enough to life? Am I giving enough to this relationship?” – I will find meaning and happiness. By virtue of the question, I am a full vessel able to overflow and help others. How do you make someone fall in love with you? You allow them to give to you. How do you find happiness? You ask the right questions – “Am I giving enough?”

When the Jewish people sat at the Yam Suf – they had received God’s love. God loved us, but we did not yet love God. More than we needed to rest at the Yam Suf, we needed to give back. The newly freed slaves likely could not have articulated it, but that was what their souls craved. Answer to Question #1: Why wouldn’t Moshe allow us to rest? Because we needed to give.

This is what Yermeyahu meant when describing our relationship with Hashem.

Yermeyahu writes (2:2)

הָלֹ֡ךְ וְקָֽרָאתָ֩ בְאָזְנֵ֨י יְרוּשָׁלִַ֜ם לֵאמֹ֗ר כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה' זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה׃

Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown.

Ahavat Kelulotayich… what was our love? We needed to do something for God. We needed to leave the Yam Suf and go off into the desert. We needed to build a mishkan. We needed to reach for the level of the avot.

This lesson applies in every generation of our people’s history. We do not seek freedom, alone. We seek to give. We need to give. How do we give to God? We create places of holiness. We build a mikdash – and by doing so we bring Hashem’s shekhina into this world. We do this on two levels.

1. We do so as individuals, by bringing Hashem into our lives. Rabbi Elazar Azkari, the author of Yedid Nefesh wrote in one of his poems:

"בתוך לבי משכן אבנה לזיוו, קרבן תקריב לו נפשי היחידה".

Within my heart, I will build a tabernacle for His glory. I will sacrifice to Him my one self.

Our words and actions create kedusha every time we take three steps forward in prayer. Over the course of a lifetime, we work to build our inner spiritual worlds. A great shul is a b’toch libi laboratory, where young and old can practice this.

2. We do this on a global level. The mishkan parallels creation. We learn the 39 melachot of Shabbat from the steps by which we created a home for Hashem. In building and resting, we partner in creation.

Building a home for Hashem – internally and globally – is our story.

We tell our story best - through the means of community. A tzibur allows us to do together that which we cannot do alone. Through community, we come together transcending our individual selves. We give of ourselves for the good of the whole. This is what a great shul like Shaarei Shomayim enables us to do.

Now – we need to be honest. We are tired. COVID-19 has exacted a real price. We are overwhelmed by the sadness of this past year. We have lost dear family and friends. We have lost jobs. We are weak. There’s a voice inside our heads that says, let’s stay here at the banks of the Yam Suf. Let’s just get by.

We can permit ourselves to breathe – but we must not stop. If we were to do so, we would miss our moment - we would bury our story’s lead.

We have something to teach the world. Our moment is teaching all Jews that Shabbat and Halacha do not limit or encumber us - but that they empower and free us. Our moment is teaching modern nation states that family and community are the critical defenders of our individual liberty against the encroachment of bureaucracy and technology. Our moment is cultivating a new North American Zionism that battles anti-Semitism and aligns with our deepest commitment to tzedek and mishpat. Our moment is showing the world that real limmud Torah integrates science and the best that humanity has thought and spoken. Our moment is using our enviable social capital to heal that which divides us. Our moment is cultivating the next generation of great Canadian Jewish leadership, professional and lay. We build mishkanot. We think in centuries and millennia. We reach for the level of the avot. We have what to give. We have to give.

So… what then is our story’s lead? The lead to the story is, “We must lead.”


Avital and I wish you a Chag Kasher VeSameach.


Wed, 28 July 2021 19 Av 5781