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From the Rabbi- Apr 11, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

This week's Torah portion, Tazria, and the coming Festival of Pesach, provide seemingly conflicting messages regarding what is proper behavior. Let's see if we can figure it out.

Rav Aaron Soloveitchik writes in his book, The Warmth and the Light, “Upon delivery from Egyptian bondage the Israelites regained their self-expression. As long as they were subjected to Egyptian bondage their self-expression was stifled and suppressed. But at the moment of Exodus the Israelites regained their speech. Slaves cannot express or assert themselves properly. They cannot realize their potential. Only the free man is capable of doing so. It can be added that slaves are not given the opportunity to raise questions or ponder ideas, that is reserved strictly to free people.”

The physical freedom we achieved at Pesach also allowed us the right to free speech, to say what we wanted to say. And in fact speech is very much a part of the Pesach observance – “And you shall tell it to your children,” and the one who increases telling the story of the exodus is to be praised.” So the lesson is obvious: raise your voice. It's a sign of being a free man.

But then we have this week's Torah portion of Tazria, which discusses, among other things the symptoms of a disease called tzaraat, often (mis)translated as leprosy. It was probably a bit closer to what we call psoriasis. Maimonides tells us that tzaraat was not a natural affliction, rather it was a miraculous affliction that infected only the Jewish People for the sin of lashon harah - of speaking slander and gossip. And so our speech is not free. We can't say everything we want to say. We have to be careful not to say lashon harah, not to speak slander or gossip. But what is considered lashon harah? The Torah, when it continues the discussion of lashon hara in next week’s parsha, Metzora, simply tells us: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people.”

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Hayim, devoted his life to studying and teaching the ins and outs of permissible and impermissible speech. The examples he discussed were practical and exhaustive. While one may debate his conclusions here and there, overall he seemed to hit the nail on the head. Based on his work, it seems that the laws governing speech are complicated and simple at the same time. The issues surrounding sharing information in professional or social settings, in letters of reference, or a phone call about a potential shidduch/match are certainly complex. At the same time, his advice was quite simple – avoid talking about people. Period. This was surely an effective way to avoid saying “the wrong things” about someone.

So, there's Pesach which gifts us the freedom of speech. And then there’s Tazria, which teaches that you get tzaraat for certain kinds of speech. Pesach and Tazria combined teach us an important lesson: You're free to say what you want … but you're smart to keep your mouth shut if you have nothing good to say.

Shabbat shalom.

This Friday evening we will welcome Shabbat at 6:30 in our chapel. Due to circumstance beyond our control it will be difficult for us to make the minyan. I ask that if you are able, please make every effort to attend the Friday service to be sure we have the numbers. 

From the Rabbi - Apr 4, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

What should have been a high point of spiritual achievement for the Israelites became a moment of trauma and tragedy. In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s two children, Nadav and Avihu, caught up in the desire to serve God as only priests could, fill their sacrificial censers with ketoret-incense and approach the altar. They light the incense, but the fire, referred to as a “strange” fire, incinerates the two priests, killing them instantly. It seems that their act was unauthorized by God. They acted on their own and things literally backfired as a result.

There is an even greater mystery in the parsha – and that is Aaron’s reaction. It says “vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent.” How are we to understand his silence? Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a world-renowned trauma expert was discussing with colleagues a picture of a man’s brain that was taken using an fMRI, a machine which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow in different brain regions. This particular image was taken while the man was having a flashback to a traumatic experience of being caught in the stairwell of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

At that moment, there was absolutely no brain activity in the part of the brain dedicated to language, known as Broca’s area. The memory of the trauma rendered him speechless. Only after therapy, where Dr. van der Kolk helped the man give words to the pain, did later images show brain activity in the language centers. Perhaps Aaron’s silence in our parsha was not a choice he consciously made but was a natural reaction to the overwhelming trauma of witnessing his two sons dying. Broca’s area in his brain was lifeless. He literally could not speak. There were no words.

Other commentators insist that Aaron consciously chose silence as a way to demonstrate that he accepted God’s decision and would not protest in any way. The Talmud praises Aaron for his “faithful” silence. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin agrees that Aaron chose silence, but adds a provocative twist. Moshe attempted to console Aaron by telling him that God is sanctified by those who are close to him, meaning that Nadav and Avihu were precious to God. It is then that the Torah tells us that Aaron was silent. Rabbi Goldin suggest that Aaron’s silence challenges Moshe’s words of comfort. “Moshe, there are times when words do not suffice, when they are, in fact, hurtful. I reject your attempt to explain the inexplicable. No words or comfort will assuage my heart’s deep pain. I am willing to accept God’s justice, but I know that I will never fully understand. For me, in the face of overwhelming loss there is only one meaningful response: silence.”

Different people will react differently to trauma. There is no one right way to cope. We cannot be sure what Aaron’s inner thoughts and emotions were. The possibilities suggested by our commentators model and validate various ways one can respond to tragedy. Rabbi Goldin cautions those reaching out to others to offer help to carefully weigh their words and actions. There are times when “silence is truly golden.”

Shabbat shalom…and as always, see you in shul!

Rabbi Chaitovky

ps – we hope you will make the extra effort to join us this shabbat to wish a very happy birthday to a very special lady, Eudice Lewkowitz.

From the Rabbi - Mar 28, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

This week we have a double header Torah portion – our regular reading, Tzav, and a special selection from the beginning of Chukat, referred to as Parashat Parah, the portion of the (Red) Cow. You will hear me speak of the Red Cow this Shabbat, but I wanted to share an insight growing out of the way Tzav describes a particular sacrifice, called the todah – thanksgiving offering.

The todah is one of a group of sacrifices called shelamim. As a general rule, these sacrifices could be eaten by the one who offered them on the day they were brought through the next day . The todah offering, which was brought in thanks to God after being saved from a dangerous situation, could be eaten ONLY on the day it was brought through that night. The leftovers were not allowed to be eaten the subsequent day. Also, unlike the other peace offerings, the thanksgiving offering was also different in that it was required to be accompanied by 40 loaves of bread.

Why the differences?

Torah commenatator Seforno suggests that the increased amount of food and decreased amount of time to eat it incentivized the inviting of guests. Unlike other sacrifices which may be more private in nature, the ideal thanksgiving offering is a public endeavor. The social setting allowed the benefactor of God’s graces to recall the details of God’s wonderous deeds to a larger audience, hence making “God’s name great” amongst the other invitees at the meal.

Studies have shown that people who demonstrate gratefulness and thanks when circumstances call for that will be more likely to “pay it forward” and make the effort to extend themselves to others in need. You can read about this more fully in Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, by Dr David DeSteno.

It is noteworthy that that the original Passover Offering – Korban Pesach, also needed to be consumed in an even more restricted time frame, at the seder meal that evening. Once again, sharing the meal with many guests was the only way to accomplish that. Even today, with no sacrifices being offered and no real time limits on the seder meal, their seems to be a natural desire to have family and friends gather together around the seder table to enjoy each other’s company, to retell the story of the Exodus and to enjoy delicious foods, all as a way to express our thanks to God for what was done then…and to express our confidence and faith that God continues to do things for our benefit.

On that note, if there is room at your seder table for a guest or two – or if you are looking for a seder to attend – please contact our office and make your wishes known. We will make every effort to match guests with hosts to spread the Pesach spirit and to encourage all to offer thanks – todah to God Above.

Shabbat shalom…and see you in shul!

From the Rabbi - Mar 21, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat on which we read about Amalek and his attack on the Israelites right after they crossed the Reed Sea. We always read about Amalek on the Shabbat preceding Purim because Haman, the guy we love to hate in the Book of Esther, traces his lineage to Amalek. Our victory over Haman is a victory over Amalek. Sadly, the spirit of Amalek, if not the DNA, lives on today. May we emerge victorious and whole from our never-ending battles with Amalekites all around us.

That said, Purim, which will start on Saturday night right after Shabbat, is undoubtedly the “happiest” celebration on our calendar. After all, the story is a celebration of our improbable, last minute, salvation from a relentless enemy. According to Rabbi Eitiel Goldwicht, there is more to the holiday. Done right, Purim helps us cultivate important “happiness habits” that reveal the true meaning of being happy. The secret, he says, is in the four special mitzvot of Purim.

1. Mishloach Manot – giving food to the friends. The recipient is not necessarily poor or needy, but more probably a friend or even a loved one. The first happiness habit is seeking to build relationships with others, connecting with and looking out for others, and having others care for us in return.

2. Matanot Le’evyonim – charity to those in need. Neuroscience research indicates that when we do things for others in need, the areas in the brain associated with pleasure and satisfaction light up. We all start out in life as receivers. Receiving makes every baby, toddler, child, and adult, happy. We must also develop in ourselves – and in our children – the habit of giving. It will provide a basis for a deeper happiness.

3. Reading Megillat Esther. The megillah can be seen as a long “gratitude journal” in which the miracles leading to our people’s survival are acknowledged. People who keep a “gratitude journal” often feel more optimistic and experience greater satisfaction in their lives. Making an attitude of gratitude a daily habit can have amazing impact.

4. The Festive Purim Meal – Seudah. The meal provides a moment in which we are truly mindful of who we are and what we have. People who practice mindfulness, the moment by moment awareness of thoughts, feelings and the circumstances around us, have stronger immune systems and are likely to feel greater happiness in life.
Four mitzvot + four special habits = one happy Purim and one, potentially happier life! Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach…and, as always. I’ll see you in shul!

From the Rabbi -  Mar 14, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

Studies have shown that people with a sense of humor have more positive moods, fewer negative moods, and an increased satisfaction with life in general. Laughter is beneficial for mental health and has physical health benefits as well - it can relax muscles, improve blood circulation, reduce blood pressure, and enhance respiration.

Dr. Rod Martin, who meticulously studied the psychology of humor for over three decades, distinguished between different categories of humor, some of which can be beneficial to the self or others, while others can be damaging. Affiliative humor, used to lighten the mood, to make the self or others feel better, is psychologically beneficial. But when it is used to put down the self or others, through sarcasm, teasing, derision, or ridicule, it can be psychologically damaging.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) relates a story about Rabbi Berokah Hoza’ah who was walking through the marketplace when he met Elijah the Prophet. Rabbi Berokah asked Elijah if there was anyone in the marketplace who merited a share in the World to Come. Elijah identified two average looking individuals.

Wondering what it was that earned them their share in the World to Come, Rabbi Berokah asked them their occupation. They replied that they were jesters and when they see people who are sad they cheer them up with a good joke. The Sages appreciated the healing power of humor and the potential reward one receives for using this power to heal others.

In stark contrast, a paradigm of aggressive humor is the scoffer (leitz). Our tradition offers many statements which caution against becoming a scoffer. The impulse of the scoffer is to be cynical and sarcastic, denigrating and dismissing anything of significance.

Parshat Pekudei provides a detailed—and what at first glance seems unnecessary—accounting of all of the material used to construct the Tabernacle in the desert. The Midrash offers a backstory, which suggests the context for this detailed account. Moshe overheard a conversation between two scoffers. One pointed to the robust size of Moshe’s neck and thighs, accusing Moshe of eating and drinking in excess, as he had more means and wealth than the rest of the nation. “Of course he is rich. He is responsible for all of the money collected for the Tabernacle and there is no oversight,” his friend responded. “What do you expect?”

It is remarkable that someone would accuse Moshe of stealing from the funds raised for the mishkan, the House of God, especially after having successful bargained Yet, this is the negative and debilitating power of cynicism and scoffing. This aggressive type of humor against others, may get a short-lived good laugh, but it damages relationships, and is corrosive to living a meaningful life.

Humor is clearly a double edged sword. It can be positive and it can be negative. Let us always seek to harness the power of affiliative humor to enhance our psychological and spiritual well-being.

Shabbat shalom…and see you in shul

From the Rabbi- Feb 29, 2024

Rabbi Chaitovsky

I remember being asked at my very first rabbinic interview – “Rabbi, what costume do you think you will wear on Purim?” I was surprised and caught a little off guard; I believe I came up with some kind of answer, but I cannot remember what it was. Truth be told, with Purim approaching soon, many of us might be thinking about what costume we will wear on Purim. Costumes and masks play an important role in Purim, to be sure. Costumes play a key role in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa. The Israelites had sinned with the Golden Calf and God was justifiably angry. In fact, God was angry enough to destroy the entire Jewish People right then and there. Moshe managed to talk God out of doing that by invoking the promise of a land and a future that was made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by God Himself. God relents, but then tells Moshe that in exchange for proffering forgiveness, God would take a step back from actively leading the people and instead would appoint an angel who would go before them and lead them. This is an example of hester panim, where God “hides His face” and shrinks His presence for one reason or another. This was developed more fully in sefer Devarim and became the hallmark theology of the Purim story as told in Megillat Esther. Moshe is horrified and tells God, essentially, that hiding behind a mask, even the mask of an angel, would not do at this particular moment. The Jewish People need God more than ever and this is not the time to put on a mask and become more “difficult to find.” Luckily for the Israelites, God listened to Moshe’s prayers. The Shechina – God’s mysterious but palpable presence, remained in place as the Israelites began the work to repair the damaged relationship with God. That said, ever since the Purim story, we sense that we are indeed living at a time of hester panim. We struggle mightily to sense God’s presence in the world and in our lives. I wonder if part of the difficulty is not only the mask that God might wear, but the masks that each of us wear. We ALL wear masks and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, I imagine the possibility that at least sometimes, they just get in the way of our reaching out to God. Something to think about this week. Shabbat shalom!

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784