Archive | Ask the Rabbi

Even a short life fulfills its purpose

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
My brother, sadly, recently lost his 7-year-old son, the victim of a rare disease he contracted this past year. Needless to say, my brother and sister-in-law are inconsolably beside themselves with grief. Can you offer any words of wisdom that can be said to them at a time like this?
Jonathan K.
Dear Jonathan,
I’m so sorry for the loss of your nephew, a loss to yourself as well. As you are well aware, our tongues become feeble and our minds become weak to find words that can console the hearts of the victims of such an overwhelming, devastating loss.
The best I can do is to share with you a story. While studying in Kollel in Israel, one of my colleagues, an immigrant from France who studied at the same Kollel, lost his 5-year-old daughter. She, unbeknownst to her parents, went out of the house and got herself locked into their car on a hot summer day. She was gone before they could find her. A group of us from the Kollel made the trek to the outlying area where they lived to pay a shiva call. We sat down before my friend and his wife, and an uncomfortable, long silence ensued. The heavy mood in the room was very intense; the profound sorrow palatable in the air, and nobody really knew what to say. What could one say?
I began to tell the story of Avraham ben Avraham, the renowned Ger Tzedek (righteous convert) of Vilna, converted by the revered Talmudic sage R’ Eliyahu of Vilna in the 1700s.
Avraham began as Count Valentine, a Polish nobleman from the powerful Potocki family of Lithuania. Valentine and an educated friend, Zoremba, heard of the brilliance of R’ Eliyahu, known as the Gaon (genius) of Vilna. They received entry to the Gaon, and posed numerous philosophical and mathematical questions to him. Upon leaving, they were impressed beyond words, exclaiming they learned more in that hour than all their years of university.
The two decided to change their identities, leaving Poland and entering a Yeshiva in France to study Judaism. After a couple of years of intense study, they reappeared before the Gaon, with beards and sidelocks, ready to convert to Judaism. The Gaon, recognizing their greatness and sincerity, agreed to convert them. Zoremba soon married and moved to Israel.
Potocki, now Avraham, successfully evaded his family’s intense search for him. He began to shuttle around Europe, utilizing his political prowess to bring much peace between Jewish communities and rabbis in Europe. He became engaged to the daughter of a prominent Jew, evoking the jealousy of a man who wanted her hand, who slandered him to the authorities, telling them who he really is.
Avraham, after giving the ring, was seized by Polish authorities from under the chuppah, and put into prison for an extended period of time. His family and the Roman Catholic Church tried, with no success, to have him renounce his Judaism. Finally, he was burned at the stake on the second day of Shavuos, amid his cry of Shema Yisrael…
That night, his widow and her father snuck into the Polish side of Vilna. They gathered Avraham’s ashes and buried them in the Jewish cemetery of Vilna. At the site of his grave, a fruit tree suddenly began to grow in the otherwise barren cemetery. The Gaon commented that this was a sign from Heaven that Avraham’s very short Jewish life was completely fulfilled; he had fulfilled his mission and his short life is bearing fruit.
We learn from this story that even a short life can be meaningful and fulfill the purpose for which that individual was sent to this world.
I told my friend that his young daughter, as well, obviously had fulfilled her purpose and mission with her short life, and will bear eternal fruit. His wife began to weep, and my friend loudly exclaimed, “You have comforted me, you have comforted me.”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains a similar idea with regard to a miscarriage. At times there is a soul who, during its life in this world, nearly completed its purpose and it is nearly perfect and just needs to come back to this world for the shortest time to perfect itself, without the need to endure the trials and tribulations of this world. Even a short time in the mother’s womb was sufficient for that soul.
Rabbi Feinstein adds, however, that the final carriers of that baby or soul will be considered its spiritual parents, so, although they never got the opportunity to know that baby, in the next world they will be the parents of a perfect soul with all the joy that accompanies that.
The same would apply to your situation and your nephew. His short life fulfilled a purpose and he achieved his completion in this world, without the need to live out a full life. His life bore fruit, perhaps in ways we cannot fathom, and will be reunited with them in the next world with joy and nachas.
Perhaps you can share this thought with your brother and sister-in-law, and, like my friend, may it bring them some comfort as well.


Listen to the shofar fully and attentively

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
My favorite question after camp is, “What do you do the rest of the year?”
First of all, getting ready for 900 kids and 250-plus staff is a yearlong job. However, I do have many other wonderful jobs during the year. Being a Jewish educator is a year-round job or, rather, a wonderful calling.
The fall holidays are a busy time for rabbis and Jewish teachers, and with the holidays coming so early, this year has been particularly busy. Everything is new for our little ones in preschool, yet how to give something new to those who have been celebrating the holidays for their entire lives is always a challenge. So I read and study and think, and sometimes find that thought that is new to me. So I share.
I was a musician many, many years ago, before I became a Jewish educator, so it was easy to pick up a shofar and get a good sound. Jonathan Wittenberg in “The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year” wrote something that, as a musician, struck me:
“If one strikes the keyboard of a piano, it produces a note. But if one blows into the shofar – even though one has some skill and has blown successfully on a dozen previous occasions – there is always a doubt. Responding to the atmosphere in the synagogue, or the spirit of the service, or some hidden facet of the blower’s state of being, the shofar may simply refuse to produce any sound at all. There is always a mystery, always a question.”
What is the question beyond whether I will get a good sound? Do I question myself, my beliefs, my hopes, dreams and more? But making a good sound is not enough – there is so much to learn about the shofar. And, the mitzvah is not in the blowing but in the hearing.
Wittenberg continues, taking the command to hear the shofar another step:
“Just to overhear it is not enough. If one passes a building and happens to catch the sound of the notes, that is not considered proper listening. There has to be a partnership between blower and hearer, a shared attentiveness. For the shofar addresses each person individually. Its question cannot be heard by proxy or by the outer ear only; we have to listen to it in the fullness of our own being.”
Attentive…intention – what happens to me inside when I listen to the shofar? Why do we come to hear and wait for that moment in services? Those who may have slipped out for the sermon come back for the sound. Why?
So the challenge this year is to listen attentively and with intention. When the holiday is past, take that skill of “attentive and intentional listening” into your life for the important sounds in your world.


Rosh Hashanah goals 2018/5779

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
As the High Holidays are approaching, I have this feeling in my gut that it’s going to be like previous years that I’m not really sure what to be thinking about. I’m a very goal-oriented person, and my problem with the holidays is that I don’t really have any set goal to accomplish during this period, and all my training in business school didn’t teach me how to set goals for Rosh Hashana. Can you please help me?
Dear Flustered,
The truth is, without knowing you and what you need spiritually, it’s difficult to help you set your goals, since each person connects in a different way to these special days. However, I’ve been thinking about some ideas that would apply to everyone, and perhaps these thoughts will help guide you.
R’ Moses Maimonides, the classical Jewish scholar and philosopher, writes a powerful message for the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Every individual should view him- or herself as if they are in balance, with equal merits and demerits. Thus, one should view the city and country they live in, that it is a similar balance, exactly half and half. Similarly, he or she should view the entire world, that the scale measuring all the world’s merits and demerits is balanced in the middle. Therefore, writes R’ Maimonides, one action done by the individual can tip the scale for themselves, their city, country, and the entire world, for the good, or the opposite.
This is a very powerful message, one that should impress upon us the truly awesome significance of our every action, and how much each individual counts and can make a difference in the eyes of God. We are not insignificant specks of dust among billions of other inhabitants of earth, but any one of us could be the one that will tip the balance and affect God’s judgment of the world for the upcoming year.
A cursory glance at world events shows us how much the world, especially the Jewish world, is hanging in balance this coming year. Anti-Semitism runs rampant in Europe, which, in the words of Simon Wiesenthal, equals that of the days of Nazi Germany preceding the war. The United Nations and international courts spend their days passing judgments against the State of Israel, outlawing her basic right to defend herself from acts unprecedented in the history of man. We stand before a judgment, an election, which very well may affect the future of Israel and, consequently, all of world Jewry. Israel is surrounded by enemies, especially Iran, which is tightening the noose around us. This is a year in which we are in need of much Heavenly mercy to pass through safely.
The message of R’ Maimonides is that we can all make a difference and provides for all of us a goal to accomplish during the High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the days to make positive Jewish New Year’s resolutions, to take a step towards our relationships with God. What that resolution is, is very individual and depends where you personally stand in that relationship and what is needed to enhance it. To study more Torah is always in place; that will open doors to understanding what practices there are.
Whatever positive step you take, hopefully that will be the one which will evoke the mercy of Heaven to bless the Jewish people and the entire world with a sweet New Year. May it be a New Year of peace, tranquility, prosperity and Jewish growth for you and all the readers.


Conversion only for sake of marriage isn’t accepted

Posted on 29 August 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
In a recent column you wrote a very touching, sensitive and powerful argument to dissuade your questioner from marrying his Catholic girlfriend. A number of us wondered why you did not mention conversion to Judaism as an option?
Suzy & Marc

Dear Suzy and Marc,
Interestingly, quite a few people approached me with the same question, so I guess great minds think alike.
To tell you the truth, the reason I didn’t even mention conversion to that questioner was because from the tone of his question it was quite obvious that he was far from considering returning to Judaism; the whole reason he even reached out was to fulfill a promise to his parents to at least look into why, perhaps, not to marry out of the faith. I will explain briefly the concept of conversion in accordance with traditional Judaism.
There is a common misconception that one can simply convert to Judaism by doing a bit of learning and signing on the dotted line. Conversion isn’t something one “does,” like a course that ends with a degree. It’s about a complete transformation, a “Jewish makeover,” a totally different lifestyle and belief system from the common way of thinking and practicing for the average person.
The Talmud says that we do not accept a convert who is choosing Judaism for the sake of marriage (Tractate Yevamos 24b). This is because one is not considered a valid convert unless the person decides that they want to develop a relationship with Him the Jewish way, because they believe that is the best way for their soul to make that connection, and that the Truth of Judaism really speaks to them. This needs to be independent of the side benefit of attaining a Jewish spouse, a reason that doesn’t justify their acceptance into a conversion process. It needs to be for the sake of Heaven, not for the sake of another gain.
For that reason, the same Talmud tractate says we don’t accept a convert who is doing so for the sake of honor, glory, wealth or similar benefits. The Talmud even says that we don’t accept converts in the days of Messiah, because those converting will be doing so, ipso facto, once the Jews are recognized as the leading nation by all and they want to share in that glory, not doing so to better serve God.
This being said, we often have the spouse or significant other of a Jewish man or woman come before us to convert where we feel it truly is for the right reasons. This is because, commonly, the Jewish half served, often unwittingly, as a catalyst for the Gentile half of the couple to look into Judaism and discover its truth and beauty. Upon getting to know them, we often are struck by the fact that their quest for Judaism is now unrelated to their spouse or significant other, and they presently would pursue their journey into Judaism with, or without, the other. The Jew, for their part, would have continued the relationship even without the Gentile one converting. In such a case we accept them in the program since they have demonstrated their sincerity. This is provided the Jew is also willing to go along with the learning process and grow along with the Gentile partner, because since they are connected, that’s the only way we can assure longevity and staying power to the Gentile’s Jewish decision. (Usually it’s a much bigger challenge for the Jew to agree to go along than for the Gentile, who’s excited about it.)
In the case of the petitioner in the past column, since nothing of the sort was exhibited, conversion wasn’t mentioned as an option; although, if you’re out there and reading this and want to consider this odyssey, feel free to contact me and I’ll be glad to discuss it.


Read Rosh Hashanah prayers at your own pace

Posted on 23 August 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
I know we don’t confess to rabbis — but I have a confession. Even if I can read some of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah, I still don’t understand what I’m saying…to tell you the truth I’d rather take a quiet, reflective walk in the park this year on Rosh Hashanah than spend all those hours in synagogue saying a bunch of words that don’t mean a whole lot to me anyway. (I’m not a member anywhere anyway.) Do you have any suggestions?
Dear Marc,
I’m quite confident that your words echo the sentiments of many. The prayers are meant to be a powerful, relevant and meaningful experience. Sadly, our distance from the original Hebrew, coupled with a lengthy synagogue service, can be intimidating (to say the least) and often a tremendous letdown for individuals seeking a spiritual experience. As a matter of fact, according to many studies, some 80 percent of Jews don’t even enter a synagogue or temple over the course of the High Holidays.
I will offer a few words of advice that can perhaps alleviate your challenges and help get more from the service and the High Holidays.
Firstly, five minutes of prayer said with understanding, feeling and emotion means far more than hours of lip-service. Don’t look at the prayer book as an all-or-nothing proposition. Try looking at each page or each prayer as a self-contained opportunity for reflection and inspiration. If a particular prayer doesn’t speak to you, move on to the next one. Don’t expect to be moved by each and every prayer.
Read the prayers at your own pace, thinking about what you are saying, without being so concerned where the congregation is reading. You don’t need to always be “on the same page” with everyone else. If a particular sentence or paragraph touches you, linger there for a while, chew it over and digest it well, allowing the words to caress you and enter your soul. Apply that prayer to your own life and use it as a connection to God. If you’re really brave, close your eyes and meditate over those words for a while.
Don’t let your lack of proficiency in Hebrew get you down. God understands English. Like a loving parent, He can discern what is in your heart in the language you express yourself.
By sitting in the synagogue (as opposed to the park), you join millions of Jews in synagogues around the world. You are a Jew, and by joining hands with fellow Jews you are making a powerful statement about your commitment to Judaism and your place in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.
The theme of Rosh Hashana is our coronation of God as King. The Midrash teaches us that “There’s no king without a nation.” If someone rules over many disconnected individuals, he’s not a king. A kingdom exists when all the subjects bind together as one, with one beating heart, to accept the glorious rule of the king.
This applies to us as well. Only when we join together, as a congregation of Jews to coronate the King on Rosh Hashanah, do we create a Kingdom of God. When you join the congregation by attending synagogue, listening to the call of the shofar and praying with your fellow Jews, you become a subject of the King and a partner in the establishment of His Kingdom. This is true regardless of what pace you pray or what particular prayer you might be saying at any given time, or if you spend some time uttering your own prayer straight from your heart. The main thing is: you’re with your fellow subjects and you’re on the team.
And trust me, the team won’t be the same without you.
With blessings for a joyous and meaningful Rosh Hashanah which will be the foundation of much continued growth throughout the coming year.


Intermarriage breaks the chain of Judaism

Posted on 16 August 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi,

 I am in love with a Catholic girl and we want to get married, although we aren’t yet engaged. My parents say, “no way,” but can’t provide me with a rational reason why not. Just because “so many Jews died to stay Jewish” or that “my grandmother will turn over in her grave” just doesn’t speak to me. I’ll still be a proud Jew no matter who I marry, and my kids will decide themselves what they want to be. I still would like to hear what you have to say since I promised my parents to do this due diligence, so here I am.

 Rodney K.


Dear Rodney,

I appreciate your feeling that the “guilt arguments” of your parents are not sufficient motivation to bypass your feelings and leave the woman you love.

By the same token, in my experience, generally no argument under the sun will sway you from your desire once you’ve reached this point in the relationship. When one already has fallen in love, generally the only thing which may, perhaps, give one the strength to forgo the relationship is that one’s Jewish batteries are charged with many years of spiritual energy through Jewish education and observance. Your parents should have been concerned many years ago and provided you with that opportunity.

I therefore hesitate to answer your question, as it’s almost not fair to expect you to be able to detach yourself from your strong feelings and consider these ideas with clarity. However, since you asked, I will provide you with a few morsels of food for thought. I hope you will take them to heart.

For Jews, “marrying within the faith” isn’t simply a cultural preference or a prejudice; rather it is a commandment from God. “You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son and you shall not take his daughter for your son…” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

This prohibition is predicated on a core Jewish understanding that we are not the same as the other nations of the world. Our lineage through the patriarchs and matriarchs, coupled with our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, has elevated us and altered our spiritual makeup, making us different from the other nations forever.

Throughout our history, it was the profound, heartfelt and proud understanding that we are truly different, that prevented widespread intermarriage. Jews were always proud of our unique calling to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), our eternal mission to inspire the rest of the world to follow God’s purpose in life.

To see what an impact we have had upon the world despite our smallness in number, illustrating just how different we are, let us study the words of two famous Gentiles as they analyze the chosen nation.

Leo Tolstoy wrote in a 1908 edition of Jewish World: “The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty. The Jew is the pioneer of civilization. The Jew is the emblem of eternity.”

Mark Twain wrote in Harper’s in 1899: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but 1 percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

“He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

“The Jew saw them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other nations pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

We need to take heed of Twain’s powerful words — about us. The Gentile nations have not been successful in snuffing out the Jewish flame. Only we can snuff out our own flame — through assimilation and intermarriage.

You, Rodney, are being passed the torch to continue over 3,000 years of Jewish history into the next generation. By intermarrying, with one fell swoop, you detach yourself as a link in that holy chain and sever your future generations from being part of that timeless legacy.

In Jewish law the Judaism of children depends upon their mother. Your children, if you indeed marry a Gentile woman, will not be Jewish regardless of which practices they adopt, according to the Code of Jewish Law, Even Ha’ezer 8:5. Furthermore, many studies show that when children are expected to choose between Mom’s and Dad’s traditions, many deep psychological conflicts arise, often leaving them confused. Parents often choose to raise kids in what is called an “interfaith-less” marriage — with no identity or traditions to avoid the inevitable conflicts of intermarriage. Lastly, in today’s world, a terribly high percentage of all marriages end in divorce, although none of those divorcees expected to be part of those statistics when they wed. Studies show that intermarried couples divorce at significantly higher rates, due to a number of factors.

Let it suffice to say, putting all religious and cultural considerations aside, you are putting yourself at an extremely high risk of sacrificing your own happiness, as divorce can be one of the most devastating events ever experienced in one’s life.

Rodney, we are an eternal people and the Jewish people will live on — with or without you. The chain, however, will be much weaker if it will be missing your own vital and crucial link. Please consider staying on the train, and continue to ride with us all in our trek toward the fulfillment of the eternal goals of the Jewish people. They are your family, your people, your future and your eternal destiny.


The bris reminds men to exercise self-control

Posted on 01 August 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I have a non-Jewish co-worker who is active in his church and teaches a Bible study class. They have reached the verses where Avraham receives the commandment to circumcise himself and his household. My co-worker gets that they are forming a covenant and this is a sign of acceptance — sealing the deal, if you will. But, he is mystified about why God chose this particular sign to seal this covenant. He asked me, “Why not an earring or a tattoo or something?” He even told me that he looked up “rabbinic sources” online, but did not find a satisfying explanation. I was surprised to find myself at a loss to answer this simple question. What should I tell him that would help him and his class see the meaning of bris milah?

Steve B.

Dear Steve,

The answer to this question goes to the essence of our mission as the Jewish people.

We have mentioned in past columns that in the early days of the Catholic church, there raged a debate if it is possible to reconcile the physical and spiritual worlds. Is it possible for one to really enjoy the sweet offerings of this world and be a spiritual person at the same time? After decades of debate it was decided in the negative — to be holy one needs to separate themselves from physical pleasures and live an ascetic life. Hence, Catholic priests as well as nuns take a vow of celibacy, to ensure their holy mission in life. The holiest of all are the monks who refrain from all pleasures of life, some even from speech.

The result, of course, is what we constantly see in the headlines: scandals in the Catholic church worldwide; priests and bishops accused of improprieties of every kind with nuns, little boys…the list goes on.

Torah thought is diametrically opposed to that of the Catholic church. Not only is celibacy not a virtue, it is considered a sin. The righteous King Hizkiyahu was on his deathbed when the prophet Isaiah visited him and told him he was going to die. He wept and repented and was spared, gaining another 15 years (2 Kings Chapter 20). The Talmud explains that Isaiah castigated him and told him prophetically that he was going to die in this world and the next, because he had not fulfilled the first mitzvah of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. He hadn’t married and had children.

Hizkiyahu answered him that he refrained from this mitzvah because he received a prophetic vision that he was destined to have offspring who would sin and be wicked kings. The prophet retorted, that which he was obligated to do, having children, he had forsaken. What will be in future generations wasn’t in his hands, that is in the hands of God; he must do as he was commanded. Hizkiyahu wept and repented, vowing to have children if he was allowed to live, which he was, and he did sire offspring (Talmud Berachos 10a).

Similarly, we find that a Nazirite, one who takes a vow of holiness including refraining from the consumption of wine, upon completion of that vow period must bring, among other offerings, a sin offering. The question is obvious, what sin did the Nazirite commit by taking a vow of holiness? The Talmud explains that it was the “sin” of refraining from wine; “It’s enough the Torah already forbade upon you and you are adding more forbidden things?!” (Talmud Nedarim 10a).

The Torah wanted us to enjoy the pleasures of this world, in a controlled way. Certainly, one of the greatest pleasures in life is that of intimacy. God not only desired but even commanded us in the mitzvah of marriage and all that goes with it; it is incorporated into the ketubah document. Of all names, the Jewish marriage is called kiddushin, meaning holiness. Marital intimacy is the epitome of sanctity, when performed in accordance with the ensuing laws of family purity which elevate the profane to the holy.

This, the elevation of the profane to the holy, is the essence of Judaism. In this way we, indeed, fuse together the physical and spiritual worlds.

The area of life which most lends itself to misuse and lack of control is that of sexual relations. This is evident in so many ways in our culture that constantly inundate us with the messages of immorality. In order to put the sign of control in this most holy — and at the same time most potentially immoral — area of life, we were commanded to put upon ourselves a sign of control, the bris milah. Man, who needs much more control in this area than woman, was commanded to put the sign of holiness in the place that will teach control in all areas of life.

This is the sign of the covenant, the bris milah, which was given to Abraham to be the sign of his people for all time. This is the constant reminder, literally 24/7, that we are to enjoy this world — in the way the Creator deemed appropriate — thereby elevating ourselves and the physical world with us.

(A rabbi and a Catholic priest were having breakfast; the rabbi had scrambled eggs and the priest, bacon and eggs. The priest said to the rabbi, “This bacon is so delicious, Rabbi. God gave us the pleasures of the world to enjoy, not to refrain from them. When are you going to finally break down and taste this bacon?” Answered the rabbi, “At your wedding, Father.”)


Returning Jews are replanting seeds of Jacob

Posted on 25 July 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
You mentioned last week, as you often do, that we Jews in America are in the midst of a “spiritual holocaust.” If that is the case, how could you ever be in a state of comforting? (I.e., the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av is called the Shabbat of Comforting.) How could one be in a state of comfort in the midst of a holocaust?
Marna T.

Dear Marna,
I once approached one of the leading sages of the past generation, Rav Zelig Epstein ob’m, with a very similar question. I was discussing with him, over two decades ago, the phenomenon in our generation of Baalei Teshuva, or Jewish returnees to Judaism. He was in great wonderment over this occurrence since he, as a survivor of prewar Poland, only saw Jews leaving Judaism but not returning. The Baal Teshuva was virtually unheard of, and it gave him unbounding joy to hear about this movement and what was happening in Dallas at the time.
I asked the Rav, how can one truly be joyous over the disconnected, distant Jews becoming connected and more observant, when the numbers of those Jews pale greatly in comparison to the 100,000 Jews per year who become disconnected, often disclaiming their Judaism completely? For this reason, another sage of his generation, Rav Shimon Schwab ob’m, coined the oft-used term Spiritual Holocaust of America. Even if hundreds per year return, when you do the math, there doesn’t seem to be much to rejoice in.
Rav Zelig replied that, although we certainly need to be sad and mourn the enormous loss of so many of our brothers and sisters to assimilation, we still have good reason to rejoice in the return of those hundreds. This is because those being lost are the continuation of the European Holocaust during World War II; that physical holocaust hasn’t ended and is continuing in the spiritual realm. Just like we mourn the Holocaust of Auschwitz we mourn the spiritual holocaust of America.
On the other hand, the returnees, the Baalei Teshuva, exclaimed Rav Zelig, represent something else entirely; they are ushering in the Messianic era.
The venerable Rav said that this message is implicit in the prophecy of Isaiah (27:6, the Haftarah of Parshas Shemos), “Those coming will set down the roots of Jacob; Israel shall blossom, and the face of the earth will be filled with their fruit.” What roots of Jacob will “those coming” plant? All Jews grow out of the roots that Jacob already planted so long ago.
He answered that the roots planted by Jacob were severed by the European Jews’ forsaking the covenant of Jacob. That disconnect was rendered complete by the Holocaust, which almost completely broke the chain of transmission of our heritage from parents to their children. This is why Jacob lost his prophecy when, at the end of his life, he wanted to reveal to his sons, the tribes of Israel, the future of the Jewish people. (See Rashi to Genesis 49:1.)
When he looked forward prophetically at the overview of Jewish history and saw the unspeakable Holocaust, when nearly all that was built over thousands of years was destroyed and the tradition was uprooted, he became sad and lost his prophecy, which rests only with joy. He proceeded to bless his sons rather than reveal the future if it ended, in his vision, so bleakly.
What Isaiah was shown is where Jacob’s prophecy left off: that after the destruction there will yet be a new generation who will replant the uprooted roots of Jacob. These are the Baalei Teshuva: those who don’t have an unbroken chain of tradition from their homes but will, with the inner strength of their Jewish souls, pick up the broken pieces, replant the saplings of those uprooted roots and bring the Jewish people back to healthy growth. Their fruit will fill the land, meaning that, as the Sages teach, that in the merit of these Baalei Teshuva we will merit the redemption.
So, ended Rav Zelig, although we truly must mourn every Jew lost to our people, we certainly have much to be joyous in these beautiful Baalei Teshuva. This is because when we see them, we are beholding the very Jews who, in their merit, are ushering in the era of Moshiach.
The meaning of “Nachamu” is not simply “comfort.” The deeper meaning is to look at things in a different way, a paradigm shift. (See Rashi to Genesis 6:6.) Although we have just emerged from a period of the remembrance of so much destruction and pain, we Jews have good reason for hope. We have the promise we will never be forsaken, and our redemption is not far off. In our times we have all the more reason to be ever so hopeful; we have the beautiful Baalei Teshuva raising the banner of Moshiach, leading us all in the glorious march to his arrival, may it be speedily in our days.


Focus on Diaspora history brings Tisha B’Av to light

Posted on 20 July 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I know the day of Tisha B’Av is coming up soon, but I have never really succeeded in observing it properly because I have a lot of trouble trying to mourn over a temple I never saw or experienced and don’t feel its loss. Is there anything you can give me to hold on to which would add some meaning to someone like me?
Carlie S.
Dear Carlie,
You are referring to the upcoming fast day known as Tisha B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. This year the fast will be observed from Saturday night, July 21, and Sunday, the 22nd, until nightfall.
This is the Hebrew date on which numerous calamities have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history, most notably the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Each of these destructions opened a period of harsh exile for the Jewish people. The first destruction kicked off the 70-year Babylonian exile; the second began the bitter Roman exile, which continues until today.
The difficulty you are experiencing is, unfortunately, even felt by most observant Jews who, although they may outwardly observe the laws and customs of the day, have much difficulty in truly feeling the sadness and mourning mandated by the spirit of the day. Although there are Jews who are on a very high caliber of piety and scholarship and can truly appreciate the tremendous loss of the Temple and all it stood for, and mourn deeply over its loss, it’s difficult for most of us.
The very laws themselves, when observed properly, actually help a lot in getting into the spirit of the day. Fasting all day (starting Saturday night), sitting on the floor or a low stool until midday, reading from the Book of Lamentations and other dirges, and refraining from joyous activities and music all contribute to the feeling of mourning. The three-week preparation period before the actual fast, especially the minor-mourning customs during that time, serves as an important preparation to set the mood of the day.
The most important thing I find for myself is the focus on the entirety of Diaspora history. It’s not only the Temple itself we mourn over, but all the tragedies that have befallen our people subsequent to and as a result of the Temple destruction and the pursuant Diaspora of our people. The inquisitions, pogroms, blood libels, anti-Semitism at many levels, the unspeakable Holocaust and lately suicide bombings and more, which are all part and parcel with the loss of our lofty state and closeness to God, which we had with the Temple in Jerusalem.
Many of the dirges recited on Tisha B’Av refer to calamities that transpired during these later periods of Jewish history. Most notably two heart-rending dirges were composed by two leading sages of the last generation, reflecting the horrors of the Holocaust.
I, personally, spend much of my time on Tisha B’Av reflecting on and reading about the events and suffering of the Holocaust. I find this brings the day home to the heart in a way we can relate to it.
I also think about, on that day, the terrible “spiritual holocaust” we are presently witnessing before our eyes in America. We’ve lost 2 million Jews from our census charts in the past 20 years. This reflects a loss of 100,000 Jews a year, around 300 a day, for the last 20-30 years. Although this holocaust is happening with beautiful homes and cars rather than concentration camps and crematoria, the net result in loss of Jews to the Jewish people is no less catastrophic.
The more we can expose our fellow Jews in America to the beauty of our heritage and the Torah, we can turn back the present Tisha B’Av. In that merit, may it become a day of rejoicing with our final redemption and return to our Homeland.


‘Ghetto of two’ keeps our heritage alive

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
In the June 14 edition of the TJP, there appeared a dispute concerning the commencement speech by Jewish author Michael Chabon to graduates of the HUC in May, where he railed against in-marriage, calling it a “ghetto of two,” and urged the graduates to embrace intermarriage as an ideal. One article called his views abhorrent to Judaism and the respondent, although not against in-marriage like Chabon, was also not against intermarriage and called for its inclusion as a viable expression of Judaism. Obviously, I would expect you, as an Orthodox rabbi, to not welcome intermarriage as does Chabon, but is there a middle ground that you can accept within this debate?
Cherie Z.
Dear Cherie,
You struck a nerve with me on this one, as I have been profoundly pained by this discussion.
This, unfortunately, is not the first time in our history that Jews have suggested that the path to solve our problems would be to assimilate, essentially to disappear. It is, however the first time that such an opinion has been expressed under the banner of a mainstream movement of Judaism (at their graduation ceremony, without a condemnation by that movement but rather a defense that those views are worthy of being expressed at that hallowed forum).
Over the course of Jewish history, we have had two categories of those who would seek to annihilate our people. There have been those who attempted to destroy us physically and others who attempted to destroy us by erasing our spirituality and have us melt into their culture and cease to exist.
Our patriarch Jacob, fearful of the threat of his brother, Esau, who sought to kill him, prayed, “Save me from the hand of my brother, of Esau…” (Genesis 32:11). The commentators raise the question of the redundancy of adding “of Esau”; since Jacob had only one brother, obviously “my brother” meant Esau?
The answer is, Jacob was fearful of two dangers. The obvious peril was Esau’s plot to kill him outright. The more subtle danger, although no less sinister, was that he would seek to be together with Jacob as a loving brother, with all his wickedness, in order to water down Jacob’s holiness and slowly but surely assimilate his brother into his own camp, rendering him a spiritual non-entity. This is the meaning of Esau’s offer to “…let us travel together and I will travel adjacent to you” (ibid. 33:13). Jacob explained how that would not work and said he’d meet up with him at Mount Seir, hinting to their final showdown before Messianic times (see Rashi loc. cit. and Beis Haleivi, Parashas Vayishlach, for overall explanation).
Haman was one of the first to propose a physical “final solution” and kill every Jewish man, woman and child in one day. We celebrate his defeat in a physical way, by eating and drinking on Purim. The Greeks sought to destroy us spiritually with their decrees against Torah and its observance, forced intermarriage and rendering the holy Temple a museum. We celebrate our victory against that attempt in a spiritual way, by kindling candles on Chanukah.
The first proponent to annihilate us is not so well-known, Laban, who sought to kill Jacob and his camp, as we read each year in the Haggadah of Passover. Later Laban, with the nom de guerre of Balaam, sought to destroy us by curse, a spiritual way to wield the sword. When that didn’t work, he finally attempted to destroy them by enticing them with assimilation, sending the Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men. This caused a plague that cost us 24,000 Jews and could have even meant our end if not for Pinchas saving the day and putting an end to the plague caused that assimilation.
Chabon rallied for the cessation of all Jewish practice besides what he deems relevant in today’s world, namely thought processes related to critical thinking such as “learning, inquiry and skepticism.” In his world, any practices other than these create dangerous walls between us and the nations and prevent the assimilation of all peoples into one mass of humanity with no differences.
In fact, it is precisely that “ghetto of two” that preserves our identity, our holiness and our essence. Marriage is called Kiddushin, which means holiness and separateness, which are two sides of the same coin. This is the very essence of the Jewish people, who were commanded “kedoshim tihiyu,” be a holy, separate nation (Leviticus 19:2).
As we approach Tisha B’Av, we lament the many attempts at our destruction. The famous story tells of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues on Mount Scopus who burst our crying when they observed a fox exiting what was the Holy of Holies in the Temple after its destruction (Talmud, end of Tr. Makos). The fox, of all animals, epitomizes the utter obliteration of the Temple, as the fox represents the sly, sneaky attempt to wipe out the study of Torah and end the spiritual world of the Jews (see the story of Papus and R’ Akiva, Talmud Berachos 61b). That is why Balaam, on his way to curse the Jews, was caught in a mishol hakeramim, literally a tight place in an orchard, but hinting to a place of foxes attempting to destroy the Jews who are compared to a vineyard (see Midrash Rabah Balak 20:14 and Tanchuma Balak 8 to Numbers 22:24).
Chabon and those in his camp join the foxes — the Esaus, the Greeks and many others in our history who sought to destroy us through assimilation. We have to realize that the Chabons of the world mean nothing less than the annihilation of our people. This, today, is a lot of what Tisha B’Av is about; when we sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of our Temple, we mourn the assimilation of our people.
With the utmost respect to our neighbors with whom we work, befriend and appreciate, we only ensure our Jewish continuity by retaining our separation through the practices and beliefs which truly and eternally make us different.


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