Monday, January 14, 2019

Zeh Keli V'anVayhu - This is my Vessel? Or my God?

Parshat Beshalach 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

On a whim I checked out the website of a renowned Judaica store to see what’s available these days. Leaving aside that the only Judaica I really buy these days are books, I felt a little out of touch when I clicked on the garment section of the website.

Of course size (the amount of fabric) will change the price a little. But after going through the “Talis Wizard,” I found that buying a basic tallis with no trimmings was to cost $160. Once you start throwing in hand-tied strings (especially techeiles – blue strings), and even a remotely ornate atarah (not sure how to translate… it’s a head-band for the tallis), the tallis gets into the realm of $300-$400. Throw in a silver or crystal atarah, and the price has gone up anywhere from an additional $250 to $1000.

And the decisions! Do I want a weekday tallis? A Shabbos tallis? Cashmere? Texture? Summer wool? Winter wool? Non-slip? Traditional/classical slippery?

Then I moved onto kittels. And while the cheap ones were $60, the elegant and ornate kittels cost as much as $250.

Challah boards – the low end ones cost $20. The highest? $460! More decisions! Wood, glass, tempered glass, artistic, metal, silver? With a salt dip, with a place for the knife, with a built in challah cover?

Candlesticks? $13 to $690!

Please do not misunderstand. I do not begrudge the store for giving people options. I do not begrudge those who can afford the higher end items, who would like to beautify their Shabbos table. Similarly, those who believe a beautiful tallis and kittel will enhance their davening and connection with God, more power to you. Thank God, gartels are affordable!

However, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the only reason we spend this kind of money on “things” is to glorify God.

The second verse in “Az Yashir” (15:2) includes the phrase “Zeh Keli V’anvayhu” – This is my God, and I will glorify Him.

It is Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah who asked “Is it possible for a person to glorify God? Rather, glorify Him through the performance of mitzvos. Have a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzizis, beautiful tefillin.” (Pesikta) The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) adds a few more items: a beautiful shofar, a beautiful Torah (written with beautiful ink, a beautiful quill, etc.)]

The Talmud (Shabbat 25b) has the following comments about wealth: Who is wealthy? Anyone who takes pleasure in his wealth. These are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon says, Anyone who has a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and hundred servants. Rabbi Akiva says, Anyone who has a wife beautiful in deeds, Rabbi Yose says, Anyone who has a bathroom close to his table.

Maharsha explains Rabbi Yose’s opinion to mean that one’s ability to live longer (equating wealth with health) is enhanced by having convenient access to good hygiene behaviors.

All of this simply indicates that wealth priorities are in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the teaching of Rabbi Yishmael is that the people at the sea essentially pointed to God and said, “Zeh Keli!” This is my God! “V’anvayhu” and I will glorify Him!

Today, it seems that many people forget that the word “Keli”  (ק-לי) (my God) is actually modified from its correct pronunciation, because we do not want to say God’s name in vain. As a result, it sounds like we are saying “Zeh keli” (כלי) – this is my vessel (a “klee” is a vessel) and I will glorify it! 

When men come hours late to davening on Shabbos, then pull out their tallis with the 7 inch deep silver-atarah, throw it over their heads in a fitting display of “Do you see how fancy my tallis is?,” then sit engrossed (Don’t disturb me!) in catching up to the davening, the focus is on the klee (the vessel) (כלי), and not on God (ק-לי).

The people at the sea were so enamored by their God that all they could do is point and say “I want to glorify HIM.” Because it’s not about me. It’s about how I can use the gifts He has given me to enhance my relationship with Him!

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Tarfon remind us that those who are blessed with financial wealth are only truly “wealthy” when they can use the money to glorify God, whether through charitable or philanthropic work. Rabbi Akiva reminds us that true wealth can be found at home, if we only let the best of others bring out the best in ourselves. Rabbi Yose reminds us that wealth can be described as making good choices for one’s health, mostly in hygiene decisions and opportunities.

Rabbi Yishmael’s view focuses on physical items. But he never recommends that the items become the goal. They are the means for better serving God, and not for showing off.

Buy the fancy tallis, the fancy kittel! But be the most humble and inspiring “mispallel” (one who prays) in the synagogue! Have the fancy candlesticks, the fancy challah board, esrog box, sukkah, etc. But make sure that the observance of these mitzvos is elevated. That the Shabbos table is elevated. That the mitzvah-experience becomes a source of inspiration to others. All rounded by the humility that should accompany a person who is serving the Almighty.

When one uses wealth to properly glorify God, without glorifying the wealth itself or the vessels it buys, one is truly reaching the heights of the service of God.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I will be Running in the Jerusalem Marathon - with your help!

To my Dear Family, Shul Members & Friends:

On March 15th 2019 I will, God willing, be running my first half marathon (13.1 miles) in Jerusalem for the benefit of Kav L’Noar through the help of the RabbisCanRun (RCR) program.  Kav L’Noar is a special family center in Israel that provides subsidized behavioral and emotional rehabilitative services to adolescents at risk and their families. The RCR initiative was developed to help raise much needed funds while also helping Rabbis improve their health and get more active. This year 13 Rabbis will be training and running together in Yerushalyim.

I have already started my training and will slowly be building my endurance in order to reach my training goal. I know training for the race will not be easy and will require time, commitment and consistent running. However I am ready for the challenge and believe that youth at risk and good health are matters worth the effort.

Please join me now in supporting Kav L’Noar to help me reach my individual goal of raising $6,000 and our collective goal of $90,000.  Funds raised will be managed by Olami but distributed to Kav L’Noar. Donations for any amount will be accepted and greatly appreciated.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Independent Thought: A Hallmark of Judaism that is Disappearing

Parshat Bo 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

There is a tremendous quality that defined the Jewish people forever: Being receptive to opposing ideas and innovative thought, and coming to conclusions through processing as much readily available information as we can.

One of the early challenges to Moshe takes place in Bamidbar 11, when Eldad and Meidad prophesy in the camp. Yehoshua, ever the protector of his master Moshe, declared “My Master, Moshe, imprison them!” And Moshe’s response is, “Are you jealous for my sake? I only wish that all of God's people would have the gift of prophecy! Let God grant His spirit to them [all]!” (Bamidbar 11:26-29)

What a refreshing thing for a leader to say! Dissent is good! Disagreement is powerful! Sharing a platform of prophesy is good for the Jewish people. Hearing different voices is a strength for our community!

Demographics of communities often reflect this. In towns where there is always one shul, and the rabbi rules with an iron fist, shutting down any attempts at a new shul opening, one of two things happen.

The first possibility is that the rabbi lives and dies by the sword. The shul/community doesn’t grow, and when the rabbi retires or dies, the community falls apart.

The other result is that people eventually ignore the rabbi, and the community grows despite the rabbi’s objection, and the rabbi loses support from people who disagreed with his “my shul or bust” approach.

The most successful rabbis and leaders are comfortable in their skin, are cognizant of how a community grows, appreciate and understand how demographics move, adjust, and change, and they respond to the needs of evolving times.

One of the most revealing moments in the beginning of Parshat Bo comes when Pharaoh’s officials say to him, in advance of the pending plague of locusts, “How long will this [man Moshe] continue to be a menace to us? Let the men go, and let them serve God their Lord. Don't you yet realize that Egypt is being destroyed?” (10:7)

Imagine if Pharaoh had listened to another opinion! Imagine if he took their collective voice into consideration! Not only would he have avoided the last three plagues, and saved all the first borns of his nation, but there is a good chance the Israelites would have left for the 3-day journey they had been asking for, to worship God in the wilderness, and they would have returned to Egypt!

It is incredible to consider what the consequences are when the attitude is “my way, or the highway.”

Two of the greatest scholars of the Talmudic era were very rigid in their approaches to Torah study. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the great students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, was described by his teacher as “a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop, like a flask covered with pitch which retains its wine.” Using more modern imagery we might say his mind was like a steel trap. But his creativity in thought (certainly as compared to Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, the absolute favored student of Rabbi Yochanan) was unimpressive. (See Sukkah 28a) In time, due in part to his inability to bend to see other views, he was excommunicated (Bava Metzia 59b).

Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh (aka Gamliel II) conducted himself in a manner which essentially silenced voices of dissent. After Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai petitioned Vespasian to save the family of Rabban Gamliel the Elder and the Torah academy in Yavneh (in addition to a doctor for Rav Tzadok), Rabbi Yochanan instituted new practices that would adjust to the new reality of a Temple-less Judaism. He was creative.

Not so Rabban Gamliel! Without going into too much detail, Rabban Gamliel aimed to destroy Rabbi Yehoshua on a number of different occasions, due to Rabbi Yehoshua’s having a different view (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 2:8-9; Talmud Brachot 27b-28a). Rabban Gamliel even played a significant role in deposing his own brother-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (see above), who in one significant case ruled differently than everyone else! And, in time, Rabban Gamliel himself was deposed and replaced as Head of the Academy by 18-year-old Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.

The result of the change in leadership was that 400 or 700 benches were added to the Academy, and Torah study became accessible to many more students than ever before.

It took time, and perhaps several doses of humility, before Rabban Gamliel reconciled with Rabbi Yehoshua, realizing that there is room for different voices and different understandings of law. He was subsequently reinstated.

Indeed, any practice relating to the human experience may have different opinions and voices. Until recently, that kind of dissent was welcomed under what many people refer to as the “big tent.”

Now, more than ever, some of us are so rigid, our attitude is no different than Pharaoh or the stubborn rabbi: “My way or the highway.” This applies not just in halakha, but in other areas of how some people define "being part of a Jewish community."

Moshe Rabbenu taught us that even previous “nobodies,” Eldad and Meidad, are allowed to become prophets. Yehoshua had no more right to silence their voices than he had to silence Moshe’s voice. 

Silencing voices of opposition is contrary to Judaism. In fact, the opposite is true. When we open our ears and our minds to different opinions, and have the opportunity to process new information for ourselves, we only grow from the exposure to ideas we had never heard before, even and especially as we draw our own conclusions. All of us benefit from our newfound knowledge when, unlike Rabbi Eliezer and Rabban Gamliel, we are able to listen to dissenting voices and bend our own thinking in response to our newly acquired knowledge.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Follow up to the Cry

Please note this has been slightly edited from the original post. 

Last week I wrote a Dvar Torah that was seen by a much larger number of people than usually visit this site.

Since then I've had a few conversations with colleagues (they approached me). They disagree with my sentiment.

Which sentiment? A sentiment that says all Jews are welcome in the Jewish community.

Their argument: People who make a choice to be different are not welcome in the community. We as a community have a right to kick you out.

I understand that there are different ways of looking at a topic. And one thing I have learned as a rabbi is that while I may not always agree with both sides presented to me in a dispute, I must nevertheless first HEAR both sides. And even if I need to decide one way (or guide people to a settlement), I cannot ignore the feelings attached to the two sides.

Souls are being tormented over a decision they do not take lightly, and have spent many hours, and honestly YEARS mulling over, on account of information they have, which you (their rabbi) choose to not acknowledge as being true.

Saying "I'm not interested in hearing the other side" is a cop out. Character assassinating people as crazies and conspiracy theorists is unconscionable, and is behavior unbecoming of a rabbi.

Here is a leader, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ZT"L, who spoke about the need for leaders to weep before making decisions.

When I speak to a rabbi who...

a. does not take congregants seriously in this matter
b. does not demonstrate empathy
c. does not acknowledge there may be another position
d. has done no research into the information congregants have presented
e. relies on experts who all agree, without seeking experts who hold a different view
f. relies on rabbis (who should not be chiming into this philosophical debate about health) whose information has been gotten only from the same experts who agree, without researching the other side
f. claims "the debate is settled," when in truth most debates are never settled
g. does not care about the people in the minority camp
h. is essentially following a new religion where the doctor is God and the CDC is Halakha L'Moshe MiSinai (When did that shift happen? I missed it, for sure)
i. certainly did not and does not weep over this decision

...I cry even more.

What happened to the concept of getting to the core of an issue? To studying different sides and perspectives before issuing a ruling? To learning how to debate for the side you personally don't agree with?

Final thought:
The verse which charges us to take care of ourselves is ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם. But what does that mean? Literally, "(The plural) You should be very guarding of your souls."
It does not say "You should be very guarding of your bodies."

The verse comes in the context of avoiding idols and turning to the ways of idolatry. So, being most honest, first and foremost the Torah is telling us that the souls of the Jews (the command is in plural!) is our collective concern! That was my point!

Of course we need to take care of ourselves, our bodies, our health, etc. But there are many ways to do that.

Medicine can certainly debate as to what is the best preventative to illness and disease. Basic hygiene is something everyone agrees on (all the amenities that come with indoor plumbing, soap, etc).

Everything else IS DEBATABLE.

Until now, the debate or discussion is not being had. Experts on one side are shunned and defamed. That is not a respectable dialogue. The public has a right to hear both sides. If the medical community refuses to engage in a conversation that should be, by all rights, a slam dunk win, it must be there is a fear of losing. Or a fear of information being shared that is frightening for the public to find out. A forfeit is never a win. Not showing up to the conversation is not a victory.

I am a rabbi who is not an expert in this field. But I know there are people who are, who are willing to have the conversation. Until that public conversation takes place, I will continue to cry for the souls of my brothers and sisters and their children, who are being thrown out of their communities and schools without being heard.

That is a shameful disgrace. The Jewish people will have a lot to answer for the souls of those they are throwing out.

Moshe's Difficulty Speaking

Parshat Va'Era

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Twice in Shmot Chapter 6 Moshe issues the claim that “Ani Aral S’fatayim.” I have an uncircumcised lip.

Strange language, for sure. Uncircumcised usually means there is something covering that which we want to reveal so its goodness can be utilized. That is certainly one of the subtexts of the mitzvah of Bris Milah. It is also the clear metaphorical meaning of the removal of the “foreskin of the heart” (Devarim 10:16).

This is not the first time Moshe has talked about his mouth. He made a claim of having a “kvad peh ukhvad lashon” in 4:10, which we could translate to mean “a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue.”

Of course, Chizkuni explains that deficiency as Moshe’s attempt at claiming he has forgotten how to speak Egyptian. Other commentaries try to explain exactly what Moshe’s speech impediment was. 

Suffice it to say, the fact that the Torah has very significant doses of Moshe speaking to God, to Pharaoh, and to all of Israel, it is hard to argue that he had a deformity and speech impediment.

This is why I have long been of the belief that Moshe’s speech impediment was in his mind. Ibn Ezra says he couldn’t get the words out. Does this mean a physical deficiency? Or could it be he had no confidence to speak publicly?

While Rashi suggests Moshe’s repetition of “Ani Aral S’fatayim” is in fact a repeat, the context of the verses paints a very different picture.

After having been assured by God that Aharon would be Moshe’s spokesperson to the people (4:16), it seems Moshe and Aharon carry out their duties (4:28-31). Then when they come before Pharaoh, Aharon’s role is expanded as the verse tells us “They spoke before Pharaoh.” (5:1,3) Originally only Moshe was to speak to Pharaoh! But he needed support, so the plan changed. But did it? Or HaChaim notes that only Moshe spoke in chapter 5, but the verse says “they” spoke because when the guy next to the spokesman is nodding his approval the whole time, it’s as if both of them are speaking.

Which brings us to our verses.

6:9 – Moshe tells over God’s instructions [from the beginning of chapter 6], and the people do not listen from shortness of breath and hard labor.

Next verse: “Speak to Pharaoh that he shall send Israel out of his land.” Moshe’s response: “Israel did not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I, uncircumcised lips.” (6:12)

Moshe’s argument, first and foremost, is that if Israel is not convinced to listen, certainly Pharaoh will not be interested. The Israelites need to want to leave! If they’re too focused on work to want to go, Pharaoh needs no convincing to let the slaves leave. They don’t want to go! And my lips situation, Or HaChaim says that’s another knock in my leadership with respect to Pharaoh. If Pharaoh sees I have a difficulty speaking (and here we can branch off and say it doesn’t matter if he has a speech impediment or a mental block in getting words out), he’ll further say “If your God is so powerful, why doesn’t He help you speak?”

God’s response to this is twofold. First, He commands both Moshe and Aharon to the Israelites and to Pharaoh. Or HaChaim suggests the word “commands” is the word used to describe how the prophet Shmuel “appointed” Shaul to be a leader over Israel. In other words, God was anointing both of them to be rulers over Pharaoh and over Egypt. It is quite clear that their clout everywhere is quickly lifted, even though it will take Pharaoh a long time to finally let Israel leave.

Second, we are told the lineage of the families of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, with Levi expanded down to Moshe and Aharon’s family. This helps us understand why Israel should be more tolerant and accepting of Moshe, understanding he is one of them. This point is emphasized in 6:26-27 when they are listed first as Aharon and Moshe, then as Moshe and Aharon – putting them on equal footing and billing – that they are the men in charge of both Israel and Pharaoh.

Again Moshe is told to speak to Pharaoh (6:29) and his response is “I am of uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me/ listen to me?”

In case Moshe’s appointment as king over Pharaoh hadn’t been made clear, God tells him (7:1) “See that I have placed as you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother will be your prophet. You will say all that I command you, and Aharon your brother will speak to Pharaoh…” (7:2)

Was Moshe asking for his own status to be elevated above his brother? Wasn’t Moshe the humblest of people? Why did Moshe recall his lips situation after God said it would be addressed through the presence of Aharon?

I think it’s because Moshe knew and understood Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s initial response to Moshe indicated that he did not care about the One God. If Moshe and Aharon show up as co-kings, Pharaoh will say “I see you like the idea of multiple kings. Maybe you like the idea of multiple gods!”

Moshe’s feeling was that if God’s message – which no one else can hear - comes through me, a human intermediary, Pharaoh needs to see how such a thing can work in a manner he could relate to and understand.

If I have a speaking problem (again I think it’s a mind game, building confidence), and can’t be understood, if my prophet can speak on my behalf as I slowly build up confidence, my adversary is seeing how the system I believe in works. There’s a god, a prophet, and a recipient of the message. With a little creativity Pharaoh can put the pieces together and get the message.

But Moshe is most certainly not repeating himself. His concerns are global, in terms of what impact his inability to speak will have on the people. And that is why he expresses his concern, seemingly repeating himself, but in fact addressing the repercussions of the reality he’s facing, needing a slow build up of confidence until he’s ready to become the great leader and speaker, Moshe, our Master Teacher.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

For These I Cry - Moshe Rabbenu's Existence and Leadership Came From Not Giving Up on the Underdog

Please be sure to read the entire blog post before responding. As I have learned, there are pros and cons to both sides. And too much "unknown." The larger issue I am raising and addressing is a solution for the neshamas of those who will likely be lost in the longer-term.
(A week after writing this I wrote a follow-up, on account of some sad conversations I had)

Parshat Shemot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When one reads through Parshat Shemot, one can easily become enamored by the background story that produced Moshe. Whether it’s the defiance of the Pharaoh’s decree in his being placed in a basket, rather than thrown in the water; whether it’s all the anonymous women in 2:1-10 who save him; whether it’s the fact that he ends up growing up being nursed by his own mother (with Pharaoh paying her to do so!) and then in the palace of the king, the story is incredible. And the sacrifice everyone around him is giving so that he can survive is inspiring.

Then, when we go into his stories in his early experience in Egypt and Midian, we find him standing up for a Jew being beaten by an Egyptian, then for a Jew being beaten by a Jew, then for women who were being harassed by shepherds. All victims were underdogs. According to the Midrash, what brought him to the Burning Bush was his looking out for one lost sheep! Even a sheep who can’t fend for himself is an underdog.

The Talmudic tale that claims how Moshe came to be born is even more enamoring. After Pharaoh made his decree that all boys were to be thrown in the Nile, Moshe’s parents separated, in order to prevent the birth of boys. And Miriam, their daughter, effectively said, “In preventing boys from being killed, you’re preventing girls from being born. And who knows? Maybe a boy will be born, he will survive, and be the leader to take our people out of Egypt.” So Amram and Yocheved reunited, they had a boy named Moshe, and that boy saved the Jewish people.

All those who did not give up on Moshe allowed for him to become who he became, and he in turn did not give up on those who were abandoned by those around them.

I am a rabbi of a shul. In the last few weeks I’ve been on the receiving end of a grave concern, which is facing the future of our communities. While I certainly will not take sides, as my training is not in science, as a rabbi, my job is to listen.

I have heard two sides in the discussions about vaccination. One side – the mainstream position – is that vaccinations have eradicated some illnesses, put other diseases at bay, and keep everyone safer. The other side is that some vaccinations are unnecessary to give to little children and others have a track record of causing what are called "vaccine injuries" in many documented cases, as proven by drug company payouts from lawsuits.

The mainstream view is well-known and needs no defense. The other view is certainly not mainstream, but I have discovered that it is much larger than “fringe.” People are genuinely afraid of vaccines and the possibility of life-altering injury. Of course all parents are obligated to do research (one need not be a doctor to do research) and make what they feel is the most informed decisions for their families. It has been made clear to me that no amount of policy-making will get those in the smaller camp to change their view, as their homework has put them in this path of believing vaccines are not the best choice for their family. (In other words, "the debate is settled" is not a good answer.)

I will not weigh in on that debate, except to say that the character assassination done against those in the non-mainstream camp is disgraceful. While there are extremists on both sides, not everyone is “extreme.” But the majority shuns the minority in a way Beit Hillel never did to Beit Shammai. This happens in very emotional issues - sometimes we forget our "middot." 

What concerns me is the immediate result, which is real and before us, as opposed to what might be a possibility, depending on the season. And what I am asking for is solutions to the following problem. 

Those who are non-conformists in this issue are faced with the reality that their healthy children are being kicked out of schools and yeshivas.

And this should be a concern for all of us.

Because here is what has happened in the aftermath of these full-sweep policy decisions.
  • Hundreds of children have been thrown out of schools. 
  • Families are not inviting unvaccinated children to birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs. 
  • I heard a story of a rabbi who would not convert a couple, because a condition of conversion is that their children will go to day school. Since they choose not to vaccinate, and their children will not be allowed into day school, they can’t convert. 
  • One colleague told me of people in his shul who normally cook food for families with a new baby, who spoke of not cooking for a family that just had a baby, who also do not vaccinate their children. 
Where will this end? Will we be asking potential suitors if they are in the not-vaccinate camp? Will potential shidduchim be called off or never introduced over this? Will families stop talking with each other, and cousins no longer be able to play or hang out together?

We are a community who has moved to the ends of the earth for drug addicts, those with alcohol addiction, people who are “Off the Derech,” Baalei Teshuva and converts (many of whom are feeling isolated and marginalized on account of their own vaccination stance), children with special needs, resource rooms for the academically challenged, making schools nut free for the child with an allergy, and many other support groups for the widows, divorcees, singles and needy.

Assuming that the reasonable people I have met are not crazy, and don't want their personal stance to become the standard for all (they are not "anti-vax," they just want free-choice in this issue), most arguments against them start with absolute character assassination, including the label in the quotes in the parentheses in this sentence. “They are murderers!” “They want my children to die!” “They brought it on themselves!” “Let them start their own schools and shuls.” “Let one of their children get sick and die so they’ll learn the lesson.” “Let them send their children to public school!”

Seriously? There is a significant difference many of us may have in so many areas in philosophy of community, fitting in, and doing what everyone else does. Now, some people think differently, and they are thrown out completely?

That was Amram’s attitude. In kowtowing to Pharaoh's decree he was destroying the potential lives of all the unborn - including females not subject to the decree and males who might avoid it through subterfuge. Not to mention that every now and then some full-sweep decrees are overturned when reconsidered on account of the wrong nature of the policy (Pharaoh had said "Every male child is to be thrown in the River" which included Egyptian male babies!)

Had it not been for Miriam, Moshe never would have been born. 

Those who are militant about this (in both directions) are demonstrating a “sinat yisrael” (hatred of one's fellow Jew) I have not seen in my lifetime. And the neshamas of many precious children are being sacrificed as a result. Who’s to say which one might become a great scholar, rabbi, leader, or otherwise, and now will not because they will not be given the education their parents were hoping for them to receive in the place they felt was best for their children?

While I do not profess to touch Moshe Rabbeinu’s radius by thousands of feet, I can learn from him to look out for the underdog. We, as a community, can not justify throwing hundreds of Jewish families out. We must find a better solution.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Death with Dignity - the Frum Jewish Way

Parshat Vaychi

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When Yaakov dies at age 147, his sons range in age from 62 (Reuven) to 56 (Yosef and Zevulun and possibly Asher), to the youngest, Binyamin, who was around 48.

As we know how old Yosef is at his death, 110, and since Yosef is the one who is credited with being the first of the brothers to die, this means that the brothers all lived together in Egypt without their father for another 54 years.

And while we can argue whether Yaakov ever knew about the sale of Yosef and whether the brothers told the truth to Yosef in 50:16, we can also say with near certainty that since being reunited, Yosef has been only gracious, has shown only love, has expressed only the desire for his brothers to not feel guilt for having him sold, and that he would continue to provide for them for the rest of Yosef's days, if not the rest of their days as well.

And then over the next 54 years of his life, beyond personal achievements of which we know very little, Yosef clearly puts his house in order.
1. He makes a clear and final peace with his brothers (50:21)
2. They lived together and made a life in Egypt (50:22)
3. Yosef is blessed to LIVE (like his father, he too experiences “Vaychi,” to live a meaningful life, in Egypt) (50:22)
4. Yosef lived to be a great grandfather – this too is acknowledged as an accomplishment. And not only that, but he was close to them (50:23)
5. When Yosef is about to die, he leaves a last will and testament which becomes the living legacy that the Bnei Yisrael turn to as a reminder that their time in Egypt is limited. They WILL leave one day. (50:25)
6. He also makes a dying wish that he be reinterred in the Promised Land, that when they leave Egypt they are to take his bones with them for reburial in Eretz Canaan. (50:24)
7. And finally, after dying and being embalmed, his body is placed in a box in Egypt.

Seforno says about the box: “They put him in the same box where the embalming took place – that’s where his bones were. They did not bury him in the ground. This way his coffin[‘s whereabouts] was known for generations as it says, ‘And Moshe took Yosef’s bones…’”

In other words, the box will serve as a reminder for people for the next 139 years, until the moment of the Exodus, that there was a promise made that we’d be leaving one day. And it was made by that man, who is now in that box, that box that we’ll be taking out of Egypt with us when we leave.

What an incredible gift of hope and optimism that Yosef utilized in preparing for his death!

There is a natural concern people have, when they sense their life is going to end soon, about dying with dignity. I’m not going to go into the secular definition of it – of people who choose to end their lives to end the pain and the suffering, for people to only know them as they know themselves, before a diagnosed illness takes its toll on the body (and on life savings!). It’s not the halakhic way, but I’ll leave other ethicists to discuss it.

In Jewish terminology, one can argue that achieving Death with Dignity comes from living Life with Dignity. It means setting goals. It means having no regrets when life is over. The Yosef way.

It means I live a life in which I make peace with family members. Sometimes it’s a strain to get there. But imagine the regret, or regrettable nature of an estranged relationship, when children don’t care about their parents who have died, when siblings – either those sitting shiva together, or those who should be sitting in mourning for one another – don’t really see the point of having those feelings of loss, because they didn’t care about the deceased at all?

Here are a few take home lessons from Yosef.

1. Yosef makes peace with his brothers. They are ALL at his deathbed. And they ALL make the promise that his bones will be taken out of Egypt. For us this means that even if we don’t live close by, we can still be in touch, to not lose that connection. Even if it takes a lot of work and effort
2. A dignified life is one defined by meaningful choices. Whether it’s an elevated life of Torah and Mitzvos, a thoughtful life of constantly growing, having and sharing new experiences, a life of learning, or a life of a consistent schedule which gives a person a sense of purpose. This is what it means to live a life of dignity.
 3. Yosef lived to see generations. Perhaps not everyone merits that. Some die young, some don’t have children. These are realities. But those realities don’t mean people can’t have good relationships in the time they are allotted.
 4. Yosef leaves a will and testament to his family, in which he talks about God, and what he believes God has in store for his family in the future. That they should never forget that God is there.
 5. And Yosef knows he is in exile, but in the end, he wants to be buried in the Holy Land. With that thought, he taught his children to be mindful to look forward to a future redemption.

Many who lived with dignity died with the ultimate dignity, having made all the necessary plans and arrangements for their families, so they too left no regrets, except the only we always feel: “I wish we had more time to spend together.”