Monday, August 20, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 2

Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part II

In the last edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I was privileged to have my undelivered speech to the Siyum Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I” published.   Given that at least a few of the evening’s esteemed speakers went on quite a bit beyond their originally allotted time, I feel justified in writing some additional thoughts here in “Part 2”, in the time-honored tradition of “Az mir redt shoyn . . .” (or “while I am on the topic”, for you non-Yiddish speakers).

In essence, my original point was that the MetLife venue might be used as more than just a self-congratulatory and condescending “we are superior to them” attitude.  That it was possible to think about an NFL stadium as representing some positives as well, in that we there are athletic values that are analogous to what it takes to finish Shas –determination, consistency, mental toughness, absolute commitment to reaching goals, and so on – and one need not dismiss it all with a simple rendering of the standard Siyum text “We strive and they strive”, etc.

However, aside from a general discussion of the value of sports when kept in the proper perspective, I believe that there is one particular story happening at MetLife Stadium that, strange as it may sound, merits some attention from serious people in the Torah world.  This is particularly so as we celebrate the achievement of those who sincerely dedicate themselves to serving the Almighty.  It revolves around a rising star member of the NY Jets who is deservedly making quite a bit of news, the Jets new backup quarterback, Tim Tebow.[1]

In all likelihood there are very few among the 90,000 here tonight who have heard of Tim Tebow, but I will quickly bring you up to speed. Tebow was one of the hottest stories of last year’s NFL season. He took over midseason as the starting quarterback for the 1-4 Denver Broncos, generating unprecedented excitement as the team completely turned around and began winning, and even made it into the second round of the playoffs.  While his abilities were constantly questioned due to his “unorthodox” (I find that an interesting term) style of play and mixed results, he appeared (to some) to have some special assistance, as evidenced by his uncanny ability to win seemingly hopeless games at the very last minute.  This happened so often that the final two minutes of the game were referred to as “Tebow Time”, when “miracles” seemed to happen regularly.

Moreover, and of particular interest to us, Tebow was constantly in the news due to his steadfast, very public, declarations of faith.  A deeply religious Christian, Tim regularly made a point of attributing his success to G-d’s help.  He spawned a new word as his signature bow to G-d after scoring a touchdown became known as “Tebowing”.  In his statements to the press he always took pains to thank G-d for his success, and movingly declared his allegiance to him.  Of course, given the overwhelmingly non-religious, and even anti-religious nature of the media, Tebow was widely mocked, belittled, and deeply criticized for his “over the top” declarations of faith, but this did not stop him from asserting it to whomever would listen.

Furthermore, while both admired by his many (mostly religious Christian) fans, or mocked by an even greater number of detractors annoyed by his constant public display of faith, Tebow was unfailingly kind, gracious, polite, thoughtful and decent to teammate, opponent, and all others, as he generously gave of his time to a multitude of causes and unfailingly modeled exemplary behavior.  Passionate as he is about winning, he often would shrug off a mean or hard hit by the other team as being within the bounds of acceptable play, and refused to criticize or bad mouth anyone.

In between seasons, Tebow demonstrated an extraordinary depth of character in his handling of being summarily dumped by the Broncos, after doing so much for them this past year, when superstar quarterback Peyton Manning became available.  He was shipped off to the Jets, where he will now have to serve as a backup quarterback, after being “the man” who was constantly in the spotlight.  Without a word of bitterness or complaint, Tebow sunnily accepted this as a business decision that the teams had made, and let his faith tell him that G-d would place him where He wanted Tebow to be.

Most surprising to many was the fact this 25 year old handsome and popular young man claims to still be a virgin, who is “saving himself for marriage”, despite the hordes of women who have thrown themselves at him.  He goes about his business, works extremely hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible (he is just as adept as a running back as he is a quarterback), serves G-d and lives clean.

Now why would Mr. Tebow be of any interest to us tonight? Surely, despite his impressive physical accomplishments, and even granted his deep faith, a Christian NFL jock would be of little or no interest to Torah Jews who are passionate about learning?!

I believe that there are several reasons.  First of all, given that his name will surely be plastered on the front pages of local NY/NJ newspapers this year, many Jewish youngsters will be formulating opinions about him.  As there is much that is positive that can be said about him, it is an important teaching moment in that we can teach them to admire the qualities of a person of faith who unabashedly stands for goodness and decency in the spiritual morass that is modern society.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that Tebow is, providing a model for all of us of how a G-d fearing person can earn grudging respect in our very secular society.  I know, he is a Christian, not a Jew.  I know, he does sometimes go a bit over the top in his declarations of faith.  However, none of that takes away from the fact that he provides a beautiful model of how his faith has caused him to become a remarkable human being, brimming over with civility, decency, integrity and a deep commitment to serving others, all of which are values that Christianity borrowed from our Torah. Indeed, Tebow challenges us to be no less kind, decent, thoughtful to others and respectful as he is.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this is not the message that we will be hearing from Jewish organizations, especially the Non-Orthodox in the months ahead.   It has been a source of consternation to me that Jewish parents and spokesmen are often perfectly willing to expose their children to all manner of depraved music, culture, movies, celebrities, etc., and have no fear of this might affect their Jewish soul.  But, “G-d forbid”, they are absolutely terrified of anything that shows non-Jewish religious people in a positive light, particularly Christians.  They get apoplectic in their fierce fight against any public display by non-Jews of their religious symbols, and any positive Christian message that their children might be exposed to.   Surely we have less to fear from respecting the faith of a G-d fearing Christian, than from the incessant depravity, emptiness, and corruption that is evident in so much of what the prevailing culture so admires.

I say this being fully aware of the danger that is inherent in admiration of Christians.   Certainly our long and painful history of the relationship between Jews and Christians sends out grave danger signals.  We must be very careful to protect our children and the gullible from being influenced by missionaries who seek to promote Christianity to Jews.  Nevertheless, with safeguards in place, it is proper to respect and defend the rights of all who practice Monotheism to hold their beliefs, while at the same time avoiding pluralistic notions of granting legitimacy to those same beliefs for ourselves.

In closing, then, I am not suggesting that anyone take time away from learning the Daf to watch Tebow in action at a football game.  However, while the question of whether there is ever a good reason to watch a professional game is debated by Poskim, with a predominantly negative view, it is well known that, unofficially, many frum Jews do have more than a passing interest in sports.  Perhaps at this visit of ours to MetLife Stadium we might, in addition to all the other positive Torah inspiration, pick up a few pointers from Tim Tebow as to how to live in a way that brings honor to our faith, and let us go beyond, striving to live as a Kiddush Hashem.

[1] I am aware of the general prohibition in Shulchan Aruch YD 151:14 in which there is a prohibition against admiring non-Jews.  However there are many exceptions to this Halacha, and many places in the Talmud, where lessons were learned from exemplary non-Jews.  In particular, Rav Kook zt”l wrote in Tov Roi on Berachos 8b that it is permissible if we are using them to learn a positive lesson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 1

Crossing G-D’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I

I was only mildly miffed that somehow they forgot to include me in the illustrious list of speakers at the Siyum HaShas.  In retrospect, given my 3:45 AM return home, I see that it might have been difficult to fit me in. Nevertheless, despite all the wonderful words of inspiration that were imparted, there is a neglected aspect that I might have touched upon had I been able to impart my wisdom to the magnificent gathering.  That aspect has to do with the momentous venue that we gathered in – the huge 90,000 seat Met-Life Stadium, home of the NY Giants and NY Jets of the National Football League.

Several of the speakers made the fairly obvious point regarding the famous prayer of Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah that is recited at every Siyum:

מודים אנחנו לפניך ה' אלקינו ששמת חלקנו מיושבי בית המדרש, ולא שמת חלקנו מיושבי קרנות. שאנו משכימים והם משכימים, אנו משכימים לדברי תורה, והם משכימים לדברים בטלים. אנו עמלים והם עמלים, אנו עמלים ומקבלים שכר, והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר. אנו רצים והם רצים, אנו רצים לחיי העולם הבא, והם רצים לבאר שחת . . .

We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners [idle shopkeepers who waste their time in frivolous conversation] [1]... We arise early and toil in Torah, while they rise early for worthless items. .. We labor... and receive a reward, while they labor and will not be rewarded.  We run . . . towards eternal life, while they run to the grave...

Although not stated explicitly, clearly they were reflecting on the differences between the typical beer-drinking, tailgate-partying NFL crowd – ready to cheer on their muscle-bound heroes as they try to move a small pigskin ball while avoiding intimidating 300 pound mountains of muscle intent on pummeling them to the ground – and those who were there to honor the scholarly, spiritual, intellectually inclined thousands who are heroes of another kind. 

And heroes, they truly are.  The celebrated thousands are mostly ordinary folk who face the same stresses of life as all of us, while relentlessly engaging in an often difficult and complex daily intellectual pursuit – no matter how busy or tired or stressed out – for a long period of time.  Anyone who has either tried to “do the Daf” or has a close relative or friend who does, can attest to the sheer determination and will that is required to make it through any medium size mesechta, let alone the entire Talmud.  Certainly it is true, for the most part, that the contrast between the siyum and events that normally take place at MetLife Stadium could not be starker.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there was more to learn about the MetLife venue than merely to congratulate ourselves on our higher calling.  In fact, a Daf Yomi finalist has more than a little in common with the elite athletes that make it to the NFL.  It might behoove us to examine the aspects of championship sports that might be helpful to us, before quickly throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  If for no other reason than my sneaky suspicion that more than a few of us in the stadium shared a secret propensity to occasionally watch an NFL game, and found it exciting to be sitting in the cathedral that was built to house our local teams, I pondered what could we garner from this experience.

But first, it is instructive to reflect on what positive role, if any, organized sport plays in our society.  Our country is currently reeling in the aftermath of the Sandusky trial, in which one of college football’s greatest coaches and programs have been exposed as complicit in the terrible abuse of students they claimed to help.  Many are questioning the propriety of the incredible amounts of money and effort that go into college athletic programs, that all too often produce uneducated jocks who have little or nothing to show for their four years in college.  As for professional sports, in some ways they can be summed up by the proverbial statement of a sportscaster that “My job is to create the illusion that it matters”.[2]  It is of constant amazement to – say learners of Daf Yomi – that millions of people get crazed in their passion over which group of overpaid jocks won a ball game, and can discuss the statistics and odds for hours, while their eyes glaze over at even the most non-trivial Torah thought.  Truly, We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners …”

Nevertheless, although not in vogue in the Yeshiva world [3], it is well known among educators worldwide that so long as it is kept in proper perspective, sports play a very important part in training youngsters to strive for excellence and push themselves beyond preconceived limits in the pursuit of a goal.  Whether it is in garnering the physical and mental toughness to keep practicing a skill until it is mastered, or the pushing of one’s mind and body towards ever increasing levels of strength and endurance, or the importance of strategy and delaying short term pleasure to accomplish a long term goal, or in learning the importance of teamwork and appreciating the role that everyone has in the mutual success, to balancing the different demands on one’s time, attention, energy and passion, organized sports can provide excellent training in the development of a mature, responsible adult who is ready to take on the challenges of life. 

Furthermore, the level of dedication that it takes for anyone to reach the pinnacle of their chosen avocation, as represented by making it to the roster of an NFL team, is worthy of respect and admiration.   Anyone who finds success on a major league team did not get there by innate talent alone, but by combining G-d given gifts with the expending of countless hours of blood, sweat and tears to achieve that station in life.  It is perhaps that pursuit of excellence, and the toughness of mind and spirit, in addition to body, that is required to win, that attracts the attention of many famous intellectuals who are know to be rabid sports fans, and that attracts so many to watch the talent and skill on display at the Olympics.[4]

If that is the case, then what might be the deeper p’shat in Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah’s words?  I might suggest that it is encapsulated primarily in the last stitch of his comments.   One might correctly appreciate the training of an athlete as time well spent, but only if the final goal is truly a worthy one.  If the goal is merely to improve one’s mental and physical capabilities so that one can excel in this-worldly activities, it is ultimately for naught.  In the words of Kohelet, anything that is purely for תחת השמש, under the sun – for improving a temporal life of here today and gone tomorrow – is ultimately valueless, or  הבל הבלים.  But if the goal is to bring us to the World to Come, and to get there with the maximum of accomplishment in this world, then perhaps more than grudging admiration might be granted for those who rise early and work and run to prepare themselves for a Higher calling – so that they have the maximum of energy and abilities to serve Hashem in this world.

Surely our heroes are those who sacrifice all for a Torah way of life and achieve greatness, be it through the daily commitment to Daf Yomi or the much greater commitment that it takes to become a Gadol.  But perhaps there is room, along with that pursuit, to gain inspiration from those who have showed what hard work, determination, and sheer will can accomplish in turning their bodies into a strong and finely tuned instrument.

The relationship between the ethic of spiritual, intellectual striving and that of beauty, grace, physical excellence is a tension that has always been there, most famously during the Hasmonean period tension between Judaism & Hellenism and much earlier between the sons of Noah.  Pure energy, as represented by Ham was to be made subservient to the spiritual Shem, and the esthetic Yaphet.  The ideal is expressed as
 יַפְתְּ אֱלֹקים לְיֶפֶת, וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם, to be able to appreciate the beauty of Yaphet, and make it subservient within the Tents of Shem/Israel, by bringing an appreciation of the good aspects of sport, art and beauty under the influence of Torah.   As we sat in a great tent of Ham & Yaphet, in order to appreciate the great achievements of Shem, may we look forward to the time that we are able to fully actualize the blessing of harmonizing all of the these in the proper way as in Hashem's eternal plan.

[1]               For an excellent and informative analysis of this somewhat harsh characterization, followed by the request that they be lowered into the pit for eternal damnation,  see
[2]               Although this is a well known quote, I could not find the source.
[3]               Note to self: And you were wondering why they did not ask you to speak . . .
[4]           Clearly there are many professional athletes who are embarrassing boors and who give sports a bad name.   There are many reasons for that, including the obscene amounts of money and idolization thrust upon them at a young age, that go beyond the scope of this essay.  But the potential for greatness in sports is undeniably there, and ought not be cavalierly dismissed as we contemplated MetLife stadium.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tisha B'Av

I really have not been keeping this up to date.....Hopefully teshuva is in the air...

This piece was published on and the Queens Jewish Link

            Tisha B’Av – Festival of Sadness

Unless things change a whole lot in the next few weeks, we will one again be going through the days leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.   Year after year, we take time to reflect on our condition in the Diaspora, and what this long, seemingly endless exile is supposed to teach us, while awaiting the long sought for Geula (Redemption).   

There is an interesting anecdote recorded regarding a meeting between the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Greek philosopher, Plato.  Jeremiah was mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, and Plato engaged him in conversation.  Impressed with Jeremiah’s great wisdom, Plato asked him “I do not understand how a sage of your stature can weep so bitterly over something that is over and done with.   Surely, what is past is finished with, and your concern now ought to be solely with the future, and how you can influence it.   What possible use can there be in all of this weeping?  Jeremiah answered, “I cannot give you a proper answer to your logical question, for you will not understand it.”

Was Plato not right?   And surely now, 2500 years later, is it not time to focus on the present and the future, and to let bygones be bygones?   Can we never forget?  Can we never forgive?   How can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fast and sadness after all this time?

In fact, one of the great blessings that Hashem grants us is the ability to forget painful memories.  “Hashem has decreed about a deceased person that they should be forgotten from the heart” (Sofrim 21).  If it was not possible to forget, if the pain of losing a close relative or friend remained always as immediate as when the loss first occurs, we would be immobilized, unable to cope with life.  It is a blessing that while we always carry a memory of a departed loved one, we are able to remove the pain of the loss from the forefront of our consciousness.  Nevertheless, this general rule does not hold here, as expressed by the famous verse in Psalms, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten!”  We are bidden never to forget!  The sages, by instituting all of the Halachot surrounding these three weeks, made sure that at least during one long period of the year, and several other fast days year-round, not to mention the requests in our thrice-daily prayers, that we would constantly remember and never forget to mourn for Jerusalem. 

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Barzovsky, zt”l, wrote a fascinating essay on this subject, in which he noted that central to Tisha B’Av is the idea that we are not to make our peace, ever, with the fact that the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple) was destroyed.  To never allow ourselves the thought that we accept the post-Bais Hamikdosh world as the new, normal; as the permanent reality for us as Jews.  The Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed for many reasons, some more well known than others.  But that was never meant to be its final disposition.   The day that we stop hoping that the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt is the day that its destruction will really be irreversible. 

This basic thought ought to permeate all of our concerns in life.   We struggle with our problems, with our kid’s education, with our personal growth, with financial problems, existential problems; we look at the contemporary scene both here in Israel.  We look to the pundits and “wise men” who have this or that solution to intractable problems or who point to this or that occurrence to explain the crux of our quandaries, and forget that the main problem is none of the above, but rather it is the fact of Golus – our distance from Hashem and his Holy Temple in Jerusalem.   For it is surely true that no matter how many problems we solve here in America and regardless of how much we grow in our spiritual lives as Jews, we will have a huge gaping hole in our spiritual lives as long as “we have been exiled from our land, and we cannot fulfill our obligations in your great & holy House  . . . ”

Why are so many Jews distant from their spiritual roots?   Why are there so many terrible, endless problems between groups of Jews?  How are we ever going to be able to resolve the great issues that divide us, when those matters are based on such fundamentally different outlooks on what the Torah is, what it means to be Jewish, the nature of our Jewish obligations, and how flexible can we be about adapting them for modern times?  What will it take to allow myriads of Jews who have no idea of the beauty of Shabbos, Kashrus, Torah learning, and Jewish living to even have a real glimmer of what they are missing?  How will the great problems surrounding the Land of Israel, and the mutually exclusive claim to is territory, ever be resolved? 

And most of all, how will all of us ever be able to finally arrive at a place of closeness with Hashem; when we will be able to always feel the indescribable joy of His closeness without the inner contradictions and pain and difficulty, and existential loneliness, that we so often feel in our spiritual quest?   To quote the timeless words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his ode to the Jew in Golus that we say on Tisha B’Av:

 “Zion! When will you ask about the welfare of those who were taken from you? ...Those who long to cling to your mountainsides . . .  Your atmosphere is food for souls, Your dust is spice and your Rivers’ floes of flagrance, I would treasure going even barefoot and bare through your former castles and ruins, at the place of your hidden Ark, with the Cherubs in your Sanctuary.  I cast off the pride of my accomplishments  . . .  for how can I enjoy my eating and drinking  . . . How can I enjoy the sunlight . . . when I remember fallen Israel, and recall Judea captured . . . Beautiful Zion, you excite Love & Joy, bound to you are the lives of your friends, those who glory in your successes, who hurt in your pain, and who weep over your destruction . . . from prison dungeons they reach out to you, bowing from distances toward your gates . . . ” Translated by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in Jewish Action

In this most beautiful elegy, (beautifully re-translated), where the aching longing for a reunion with Hashem in Jerusalem is expressed without equal, we begin to sense just how much we are really missing in this long Golus, comfortable as we may be.

These longings for that rebuilding are the building blocks of the eventual edifice.  Although in many ways, Judaism teaches that what one does (actions) are more important than what one thinks or believes, it is nevertheless true that “The longing to perform a mitzvah, or to engage in a spiritual pleasure, is even greater than the pleasure itself.”  The active awaiting of its rebuilding, the tears shed over its absence; the effort to not assimilate into the surrounding culture and its alien values, but rather to strive to retain our uniquely Jewish selves, these are what will eventually bring it back.   Every tear shed and every sigh over its absence, and what it means to us today, is another element in the building.

Thus, says the Slonimer Rebbe, the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are a period of crying, but a positive period: a crying that is part of the rebuilding process.  A cry of hope, of longing for a better future – an expression from the depths of the soul that we will never be satisfied and complacent in our spiritual quest until we have achieved total Teshuva, back to the closeness with Hashem that once was and is still potentially possible.  “Hashiveinu Hashem Aylecho VeNashuva  - Bring us back to you Hashem and we WILL return, renew our days as of old! ”

This longing is something that is so very precious to Hashem, as the Zohar states, “A person that raises their voice to cry about the destruction of Hashem’s house, merits to have it said ‘together we shall sing’.”   As Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev said regarding the verse in Eichah, “You will surely cry in the night, and her tear will be on her cheek, not receiving comfort from all those who come to console her,” the tear remains on the cheek because they make a great impact in the heavens if a person truly cries regarding the Churban - destruction.  The tears are not for naught, they are the lubricant that allows one to move higher and higher in one’s spiritual quest.

For each of us then, we certainly must face life with a happy confident attitude.  We must take time to enjoy our growth, to celebrate our Jewishness, and to sing with the joy of being fortunate to be engaged in building our spiritual lives inwardly, as well as in our families and communities.   But we must also take the time to mourn a little inwardly; about all the potential that is there, that is not yet being fulfilled.  Only thus will we continue to grow, and look forward to the day that our inner sanctuary will be fully built, heralding the time of Moshiach, speedily in our days.