Friday, October 18, 2013

Parshat Vayera: A View from Without and Within

This Parsha is very applicable to Jews in Poland. It contains within it destruction, ultimate sacrifice, loneliness of restarting, but also kindness, hospitality and even revelation. Destruction of a population comes with no divine warning (as opposed to the story of Noach and Jonah). Destruction comes not without a philosophical fight as Abraham uses very strong words to defend mankind (something Noah and Jonah did not do!) חלילה לך מעשות דבר כזה—it is ‘sacrilegious’ of You to do something like this…God here does not condemn Abraham for his choice of words but enters into dialogue.

Abraham as an outsider fighting for humanity despite its flaws brings with it strength and weakness. On the one hand he has no selfish interest; he is not looking out for his nephew, his family, or anyone which will help him. He simply acts based on justice! השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט will the judge of all lands not mete judgment? He, from afar, can call out God for destroying righteous with evil להמית צדיק עם רשע to kill righteous with evil. In this way Abraham conducts a negotiation with God on behalf of the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Here is where the ‘outsider’ perspective limits Abraham’s ability to finish the job. He stops at ten righteous men. Less than that it is hard for Abraham to justify that judgment is being perverted. Yet, one who lives in the city, one who struggles and experiences the complexity of life in a city where evil pervades, he would fight until the last one! The fact that the angels come to Lot to remove him from the city teaches us that even one ‘righteous’ soul is worthy of salvation. An ‘insider’ fights for his home, his family, his history, his community without giving up! He knows exactly what is transpiring and he is aware of the complexity of a situation.

This week I visited the Schindler factory Museum. For anyone who saw the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ they might expect the museum to be about one man and his heroic story of saving over 1000 Jews from the inferno of the holocaust. Actually the Schindler part is perhaps 20% of the exhibition which is more about the history of Krakow prewar and during the occupation of the Nazis up until the invasion of the Red Army. Jews and Poles were subjugated, abused and killed.
Clearly the singling out of Jews for ghetto and eventually for murder makes our story uniquely horrifying and singular; yet for Krakow it is part of a bigger story of the ugliness of war, the oppression of a ruthless enemy, and the forcible constriction of rights, terrorizing of innocent citizens, turning them very inwards and insulated. At the end of the exhibit there is a room which defines the polarity and complexity of the Polish experience in Krakow. There were two books side by side with names of Non Jewish Poles living in Krakow during the war. One book was filled with 3000 names of Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save their own humanity, to save their neighbors and friends. Alongside that book is another one with the title ‘hatred’. It tells of a list of 4000 names of collaborating Poles who helped plunder Jews, abuse them even kill them.

I looked at these two lists and shook my head. For most of the Jews the narrative is straightforward—terror, dehumanization, concentration in ghettos, liquidation. For Poles it is more complex filled with some good, some evil, much chaos, fright, and the lesson learned of ‘keep your head down and perhaps you will be okay’.

Just as Schindler himself was a controversial figure and a reluctant savior, Poles themselves were embroiled in a complex web of selfishness, fear, and some with a desire to do the right thing. I emerged recognizing that my views as an ‘outsider’ from the US or Israel were quite different from how it appears to me here in Krakow. Krakow was an example of anywhere in Poland undergoing a terrible destruction and dealing with it in a complex and muddled way. And just as the war concluded another regime took over preventing these individuals from considering what just transpired.

Abraham and Lot both saw the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. One from the outside who fought for the salvation of a city; one from the inside who lived through the complexity of this city and somehow managed to just survive though not un-singed, both are presented in our parsha dealing with imminent destruction of a world and being forced to reckon with the consequences of that horrible event.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Avraham's Pre-Revelation

Avraham's Pre-Revelation

Avraham had many revelations throughout his life; the Torah mentions just a few. The parsha begins with God speaking to Avraham and telling him to go somewhere, yet at the end of Noach we read the following verses:

לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

This is quite strange since we would expect Avraham to start his journey to Eretz Canaan only AFTER the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha when God tells him to go!
Much has been written about this.

One way to understand this is to consider the centripetal force of ‘Eretz Canaan’ even without the divine command. Teaches us about the magnetism of Eretz Yisrael even void of specific ‘Jewish religious’ significance. Israel is simply magnetic!

I would like to explore a different message one can glean from this ‘pre-journey’. Avraham had a revelation, not of the magnitude of parshat Lech Lecha, but perhaps a ‘mini’ prophecy descended upon him, one he would realize only after the more intensive, overt, revelation. Avraham ‘in parshat Lech Lecha’ started to piece together earlier experiences, inclinations, ‘inner voices’ which led him, his father, his family to go towards Eretz Canaan.

Indeed, Avram heard the word of God before Parshat lech Lecha but didn’t fully comprehend it. Only later did the blurry picture become clear.

Consider Avram’s ‘pre-revelations’ as our greatest spiritual experiences. We feel something special, we are inclined towards a more righteous lifestyle, we sense kedusha which leads us to go to Israel, become more involved, find the right guy to marry, revere our previous generations, try to make people’s lives better.

Perhaps the greatest of our generation are able to have clarity and piece together all their mini-revelations to some sublime whole. We however, should appreciate that for 75 years of Avraham’s life he sensed but could not put his finger on the exact nature of that energy. It nevertheless brought him closer to this magical land, gave him and his wife a mission, gave them the drive to ‘make souls’ and helped them create a family which would become the progenitors of this great nation.

We learn from the actions of Avraham and Sara, we attempt to emulate their experiences; yet at the same time we learn from their unknowns, the mysteriousness of their initial encounters with God, their triumphs as well as their failures, their closeness to God as well as their intangible connections and unanswered calls.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Greatest Return

Words spoken at my first Shabbat Dinner at the JCC Krakow, Shabbat Shuva 5774

This Shabbat is special in that its title reminds us of the unique theme of the month—Teshuva. The prophet exhorts the nation, “return!” We generally translate the word Teshuva as repentance, though an additional interpretation is widespread—return. Rav Soloveitchik made it popular when quoting the Biblical source of Samuel who would travel throughout the kingdom but always find his way home—ותשובתו הרמתה, he would return to the Rama.

Many types of returns abound in the application to Teshuva: From sin, from a wayward path, from ‘not being me’… I believe that the truest form of the word applies to us here at this vital moment in the history of Jewish Poland.

Yesterday a man who watched his family persecuted in the Krakow Ghetto came to Tashlich for the first time in over seventy years; a young woman told me about how she found out she was Jewish a few years ago and has been pursuing her Jewish roots ever since; a young man struggling with his Jewish roots comes to hear the Shofar and learn about the Jewish New Year—this is the true definition of RETURN!

This re-emergence is, in my mind, one of the most exciting things going on in the Jewish world today. Helping facilitate these ‘individual returns’ and this communal revitalization is a privilege and a great responsibility which I know will bring with it complex issues and necessitate creative approaches.

Let us pray that this year brings us great fortune, new friendships, much knowledge and the fulfillment of our quest to return to ourselves, each other, and to God’s grand path.
Shana Tova!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

From Krakow with Love

שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה. “God gave me life, gave it meaning and brought me on this journey to this moment”.

Everybody has a journey. The journey is part of the threefold blessing of physical life and spiritual meaning. Often for that journey to be meaningful it requires sacrifices along the way. Sometimes after we sacrifice we realize what we thought was a necessity was simply a luxury. Other times, we understand that while our sacrifice is great and makes our life more complicated, we ultimately reach a higher meaningful sense of ourselves and are able to serve God in a greater capacity.

May it be His will that our journeys are safe, physically and spiritually and that we truly find a way to fulfill the essence of this special blessing.

Shana tova.

Rav Avi Baumol

Friday, August 30, 2013

Why I am Going to be a Rabbi in Krakow, Poland

Rabbinic representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland in Krakow

1. A New Position for A New Reality
Next week I begin teaching Torah and catering to the old and new Jewish community in Krakow. My first reaction when hearing about the position was a typical Jewish North American one —“Why would anyone want to go back to that graveyard? There is only one thing for a Jewish Pole to do—move! Poland is still anti-Semitic and there is no place for a renewed Jewish community there”. Then I did some reading, met some people who live there and learned about how things are a bit more complex than some would present. Indeed burying Poland in a seventy year old sarcophagus is historically wrong and morally objectionable.

I was unaware of the strides taken both by the dormant Jewish community of survivors and by the official government policy over the last several decades. I learned of the remarkable resurgence of Judaism in Poland in general and Krakow in particular. In Krakow the Gminy Wyznaniowej has maintained the Jewish Synagogues, services and connection to the past while at the same time the new Jewish Community Center has reinvigorated Jewish life paving the way for a stronger Jewish future. Old and new are gathering daily and weekly and are re-introducing themselves to Judaism!

To be sure, the numbers are paltry compared to the glorious past but any movement after what they suffered seems to me Herculean! This change is taking place despite the fact that while the Nazis eviscerated 90% of the Polish Jewish population, Communism which lasted for 40 years beyond the Holocaust drove another nail into the remaining Jewish consciousness. Jews who survived did so by assimilating, hiding their Jewish identities and never speaking of their Jewish roots during their lives.

Until the end of their lives.

In the past twenty years thousands of Poles are being confronted with new information about their roots. Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who has been serving the Jewish community in Poland since 1992 and has been its Chief Rabbi since 2004 describes just a few of the stories of revelation (in a TED lecture
“After my grandmother’s death I was searching through her papers and found out that her name was actually Goldberg! When I confronted my mother about it she said it was untrue but then my aunt corroborated the story. I went back to my mother and she confessed, ‘but don’t tell your father he still doesn’t know’…

A woman in her early forties said, I recall grandma made these special pancakes and then one day I bumped into an Israeli tour group which was carrying a box of the same pancakes—matza! She said as a child she remembered her grandmother would not give us milk after meat but never divulged the true secret of her identity…

Children given away during the war to Non-Jews to be saved. One man came to the Rabbi and said at my mother’s funeral I found out that she wasn’t my actual mother. If I was born to a Jewish mother, I want to know what it means to be Jewish…

A young couple in their thirties met in high school and fell in love and get married. Ten years later the wife is told by a relative that she is in fact Jewish. She goes to the Jewish Historical Institute and finds out that both she and her husband are in fact Jewish. She waits for her husband to come home from work and says, Hi honey, dinner is ready and by the way I’m Jewish and you’re Jewish! Now both of them are very active members of the Jewish community of Warsaw…”

Karolina found out she was a Jew just a few years ago. She heard that her grandfather might have been Jewish and employed a genealogist to confirm if he indeed was Jewish. The research was conclusive as there were documents found such as a birth certificate and an original circumcision certificate among other proofs. When she spoke with her mother about the facts she didn’t deny it saying that the prevalent belief was that it would be less dangerous if Jewish identity was covered up. The grandfather survived Auschwitz but vowed to never let his Judaism endanger the lives of his children. These days the mother feels more confident about her Jewish identity but still fears reprisals.

Teens, College students, young families and middle aged—all types of Poles, all walks of life. What is binding them together is a secret revealed and a strong desire to find their roots, and for some to pursue that Jewish identity and integrate it to their lives as Poles.

2. A Government Introspects

These stories and countless like them reflect not just on the individuals whose reaction more often than not is one of shock yet understanding, confusion yet a desire to know more and sometimes do more to come to terms with their Jewishness. They reflect a maturing country which is trying to come to terms with its past and making sometimes courageous steps towards its own identity regarding its Jewish past and present.

As far back as Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Auschwitz in 1979 to Lech Wałęsa’s visit to Israeli parliament to speak at a special session in the Israeli Knesset in 1991, these and many more scenarios speak of the beginnings of change which would traverse several decades and all the subsequent presidents of Poland until today. Here is just a sampling of some official speeches and quotes by the country’s leaders:

A speech by then president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, at Yad Vashem underscores the official position Poland has taken in recognizing its difficult near past and attempting to build avenues for reconciliation and Jewish-Polish rapprochement:

Efforts are currently being made in Poland to preserve the material heritage of the vibrant world of Polish Jews for future generations, and to commemorate their history for the benefit of all visitors to our country. A Museum of the History of Polish Jews testifying to over eight hundred years of Jewish presence in Poland is being built with the support of public and private funding on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. We can rest assured that it will be a unique world–class institution, a remarkable site of remembrance and meditation, like the memorial opened a year ago on the site of the former Nazi death camp at Belzec.

As President of the Republic of Poland, and a friend of Israel, I am pleased with the very favorable development of relations between our two countries. Dialogue, better understanding and closer ties between Poles and Jews are bearing the desired fruit. Thanks to the multitude of projects involving Polish–Jewish history (such as the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow or the activities of the Shalom Foundation), we in Poland are now happy to witness a growing interest in Jewish culture, especially among the younger generation. This allows us to look to the future with optimism. I am therefore convinced that meetings of Polish and Israeli youth have a great part to play in overcoming the unfounded stereotypes which have not yet been eradicated in our societies.

The late President Lech Kaczynski who died tragically in 2010 was grieved by Israel and Jews in Poland at having been a great friend to the Jews and a strong supporter of rebuilding relations between Jews and Poles. He was courageous in official steps taken to honor Polish Jewish heritage. According to a news report, he was the first Polish president to attend a service at a Polish synagogue, the first to celebrate Chanukah at the presidential palace and the first Polish leader to provide support for a Jewish history museum on Polish soil (

Current President Bronisław Komorowski has continued the official position of visiting Auschwitz, has cultivated warm relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently meeting with him in Warsaw and attending Auschwitz museum together. He wrote in the book of inscriptions there the following quote:

“The enclosure of the former camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau has been designated a place on Earth where those who visit should say out loud: ‘This shall not be repeated!’ Our common goal is to make this symbol to the fall of humanity a warning for all time, a sign of opposition against evil, crime and the destruction of human dignity. At the same time, it would be a cry to take care of the most important values and human rights”.(

3. The Job at Hand

To be sure, anti-Semitism still exists in Poland, though on a much smaller scale than years past and certainly on a smaller scale than some Western European countries. For some to speak of the end of European Jewry seems quite far-fetched; moreover, to claim there is no reason to grieve over the loss of ANY Jewish community seems un-Jewish! Don't get me wrong, I would love it if Jews all over the world heeded to the ancient Biblical and prophetic call to come home and rebuild their lives in God's chosen land. But it doesn't look like it's happening so fast, so why single out Eastern Europe?

For some writers to imply that Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, is worse than the west is tenuous at best. Barring a mass-exodus to Israel our mission as Jewish leaders is to cater to any Jews searching for their past, their identity. Krakow is just one shining example of a Jewish community re-emerging, a city acknowledging its Jewish roots, a University (Jagiellonian) dedicating a department to Jewish studies, Polish children learning about their Jewish neighbors in museums like the Galicia History, a thriving annual Jewish festival and much more. It is our duty and privilege to serve any Jewish community in the world, how much more so in the home of the Rema, Tosfot Yomtov, the Bach and so many more Jewish personalities who have graced the city with their presence.

There is work to be done. Building bridges and combatting anti-Semitism is a slow process but it can be done when both parties show they are interested in working towards these goals. We clearly have seen gestures from the Polish government, should we not play our part as well?
I will be serving the Jews in Krakow, old and young, traditional and modern, those who maintained their Jewish identity for the generations of turmoil and those who have just uncovered their hidden identity. I will pray in the Synagogues of old, visit the museums and cemeteries and then enter the new JCC and teach Torah, sing songs, talk about Israel, share Friday night dinners and ultimately join the team of leaders who are facilitating the re-emergence of a vibrant Krakow Jewish community.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Love and Marriage

“And you will be happy with all the good God has bestowed upon you” Devarim 27:11.
The end of the Torah depicts an idyllic time when a man will stand before the high priest with his first fruits and declare his joy and fortune which God has given him, his wife, their children and community.

This individual is a composite of many Israelites: the escapee from Egypt, the bewildered at Sinai, the sufferer at violating God’s will, the wanderer in the desert, the survivor, the conqueror of Canaan, the builder and settler of the land. Ultimately, he is a husband, father and family man looking back on his journey and asking himself the one question which the Torah expects of him matter-of-factly— genuinely be ‘happy’ with all the good God has bestowed upon you.

Happiness. How is it measured? How does one reflect on one’s life and determine “yes I have been happy with all the good God has bestowed upon me”?

This week my wife Hadley and I celebrated our twenty year anniversary. It gave us some time to pause and reflect on our lives, our marriage and the journey we traversed. What question should we ask to aptly assess our twenty years?

Can we say to each other and to ourselves “And you will be happy with all the good God has bestowed upon you”?
Thank God, through living in different continents, with different roles and many challenges and changes in our lives one constant remains—And I am happy with all the good God has bestowed upon me…with my beautiful wife. I truly feel blessed and fortunate and happy that we share our lives together, with happiness, spirit and love.
Mazal tov!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Summer and Spirit

I read a facebook post this week which stated that Elul and August are contradictory months. He went on to explain that August in Israel is about vacations, beaches, everything material, while Elul is about teshuva, repentance, everything spiritual, hence a contradiction!

I beg to differ.

I believe that not only is vacation time a necessity for your mind and body, but also for your soul. Let me illustrate with a story which just took place.

I was driving with my wife in Hadera last night on our way home from dinner. She decided to put on the Waze (GPS navigations system) to direct us through streets foreign to us, though she had an intuition to make a right. At the last moment Waze told us to go straight and we got terribly lost because the GPS signal got lost. After ten minutes of driving in circles we decided to go back to the original street and start over. From there we were home in no time!

Moral of the story—sometimes listen to your gut and even fancy positioning systems are a distraction from your inner compass, and when you find yourself lost, even due to seemingly advanced information, go back to the roots, recharge and go with your gut!

Sometimes we get stuck in the spiritual mire. Business, distractions, guilt-ridden actions, numbness, or a combination of all these feelings leave us spiritually dysfunctional. Even when we were being led by seemingly advanced ideas and theories, sometimes we just get stuck.
We need a reboot. Take some time off, spend it hiking, breathing the fresh air, swimming in the sea or simply dedicating yourself to family, a good book, some choice Ice cream and without realizing it your body, mind and soul are recharging and recalibrating—ready to focus on the future.

Elul is not a month about teshuva (repentance), every month should be about repentance. Instead Elul is about refocusing, removing distractions which the year’s end might have brought and preparing oneself for the new year.

Every day in our shemoneh esreh (daily amidah prayer) we recite a blessing on repentance—teshuva. Here is the Hebrew followed by the English translation:

השיבנו אבינו לתורתך וקרבנו מלכנו לעבודתך
והחזירנו בתשובה שלמה לפניך
ברוך אתה ה' הרוצה בתשובה

Return us our father to Your Torah and bring us closer, our king to Your service
And return us on a complete path of repentance before you
Blessed are you God, He who desires repentance.

The most intriguing word in the paragraph is שלמה, complete. What does it mean a complete path? Is there an incomplete path? Perhaps the rabbis were trying to teach us that repentance is not an end but a constant recalibrating of values, ideals and reality. Our job is to make sure we are on the path of teshuva in our lives, we leave it to God to get us to that perfect place—תשובה שלמה!

May we continue to enjoy our vacations, recharging our bodies, recalibrating our minds and rejuvenating our souls.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Egla Arufa and the power of a Hello

I once had a case of an Egla Arufa (the beheaded heifer symbolizing an unidentified and mysterious death in the community).

As rabbi in Vancouver we heard of a dead Jewish body on the outskirts of the town, lying in a freezer in a city morgue. True it was not exactly as the Torah dictated, "A body lying on the ground and it is unknown who had smitten him", but it was close enough--it was OUR city and this homeless, downtrodden Jew died alone and waited for weeks until we were informed and quickly rustled up a quorum to bury him respectfully.

"The elders and judges of the city went out [to investigate the nature of this tragedy]. Our hands have not shed this blood, our eyes have not seen."

Didn't they? Were we truly vindicated? Yes, we were busy tending to our communities and spreading Torah and Judaism throughout; and yes, we knew of many non-members in hospitals and at city centers and tried our best to cater to them as well.

But this time, we blew it.

"We did not go out to the streets of downtown Vancouver ans scream Shema Yisrael, nor did we grab our guitar in the spirit of Reb Shlomo and sing Am Yisrael Chai, hoping for a response. We inadvertently, unintentionally, spilled this blood".

Those were the words I used when I gave the hesped (eulogy) on a rainy winter day in Vancouver in front of the Shamash and the two other Orthodox rabbis in the city.

That sad, lonely funeral affected us in the city, sensitized us a bit more to the suffering of the silent, attuned our ears to the sorrow of the unknown, disconnected Jews in Vancouver. That incident heightened our awareness of any visitor in our city and our great responsibility to welcome them, host them and ultimately "escort them out of our city in good spirits".

Every Jewish community must bear the sign of the beheaded heifer on their conscience. Every Synagogue, JCC, and private home should silently pray--

"Our hands have not shed blood, our eyes have not seen, YET, forgive your people Israel and let not innocent blood be spilled among Your nation." Hopefully we will be able to do our part in fulfilling this Biblical command "You shall eradicate innocent blood from your midst when you act justly in the eyes of God".

Friday, August 2, 2013

Krakover's Choice


We all have it, take it for granted. It is our innate right to choose a course to live our lives. We can choose to love or to hate; to educate ourselves or to be ignorant and foolish. We can choose to live in fear and hide from ourselves or to boldly affirm our roots, our heritage, our past and our future. It's up to us!

Not my words, Moshe's.

"Behold I have placed today before you blessing and curse".

Moshe conveys God's fundamental condition for existence--before you is good and evil and within you is the capacity to choose. This basic philosophic principle has caused volumes to be written trying to balance God's omniscience, Divine providence and free will. One thing we know for sure--we choose.

This week I visited the Jewish community in Krakow and witnessed this exact phenomenon--they are choosing to (Once Again) be Jewish! Nazi occupied Poland meant physical destruction; Communist occupied Poland for 40 years afterwards meant spiritual desolation. Who would survive the fear of perpetuating their Jewish roots? Who would dare publicly avow their Jewish lineage to the 900 year old Jewish Krakow? for many decades the answer was a hush.

Today in the JCC Krakow they are choosing life! They are beholding blessing! They are emerging from anonymity and inquiring about what it means to be Jewish. They are making a choice and that choice is about building a Jewish future in Krakow. I am honored to be part of a team led by Jonathan Ornstein in Krakow and Rabbi Michael Schudrich in all of Poland who are attempting to help facilitate that choice of blessing, choice of life!

May it be God's will that the Jews of Krakow continue to choose life, education, blessing, Jewish heritage and brotherly love.

shabbat shalom.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


How did our parents discipline us? Or rather, how did we view ‘being punished’ in those days? (I don’t think we had the terms discipline or parental psychology catch phrases like syndromes, disorders, etc. etc.).

When we were children, life was never fair. We subjectively ruled out any just actions towards us; we were very quick to compare our situation to our siblings (who were receiving better treatment) and found any punishment or ‘consequence’ too harsh, unwilling to introspect and analyze our actions.

Then we became parents.

We realized immediately that when dealing with our children ‘fair’ could never enter into the equation. Each child is a world. Yes, we put them together in a house or even a room, but each one is wired differently, how can we lump them together and treat them the same way?

We as parents realize the naiveté of children and their simplistic expectation of the answers for why they did not get their way. Our children, however, are incapable of comprehending all the complexity which goes in (and should go in) to any disciplinary action we take. Sometimes we want to teach our children a lesson; other times we want them to overcome the obstacle to reach higher self-actualization. Sometimes we share with our child the benefits of this challenge, other times we keep it to ourselves in hope that they will arrive at the revelation on their own.

The only time I gained some insight as to the parenting philosophy of my mother was after thirty years passed and I was in the parental driver’s seat, navigating a course for my five children.

One day I called my mom and simply said, thank you.

It was that perspective which afforded me the insight about my youth, it gave me the ability to look back and share a moment of gratitude with my mom who gave me the latitude to figure it out on my own.

Why am I waxing philosophical about parenting and discipline?

ה וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ. 5 And you shall consider in your heart, that, as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.

Moshe, at the end of 40 years, after the trials and travails, turns to this new generation and says, “You have always been God’s children. Recognize the merits of that status and shoulder the responsibility of it. When it looks like an unfair burden, consider, how would you discipline your child?”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bouncing Back: A lesson from Moshe on How to React to Calamity (And an announcement on my new position)

Bouncing Back

Chazal orchestrated the calendar so that Parshat Devarim always comes out before Tisha Bav. They did this in order to prepare us mentally for the devastation of the churban we will encounter by reminding us that much of the calamity we bring on ourselves, “בעונותינו הרבים—due to our great number of sins”. In a verse filled with pathos we read of how Moshe, their great defender before God, breaks down and expresses his inability to go on alone. איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ומשאכם וריבכם. In that bleakest spirit and upon reciting the Haftara of Jeremiah, we prepare ourselves to mourn our own demise.

Chazal orchestrated the calendar so that parshat Vaetchanan always comes out after Tisha Bav. They did this in order to teach us how Moshe and the children of Israel reacted to adversity and even calamity with perseverance. Yes, there will be a reckoning for our sins, and yes even exile, but parshat Vaetchanan presents the antidote: “And now Israel, שמע, listen and comply with the mitzvot, the regulations of Jewish life that Moshe has taught you and will continue to teach. Listen to them in order that you shall live, return and inherit the land God has promised you”.

Three vital parshiot appear in the parsha: the first is the mitzvah/promise of teshuva, ושבת עד ה' אלוקיך, and you will repent and return to God… The second is the Ten Commandments and the third Shma. They represent a formula for living in a post churban world. Tragedy has struck? Recognize that you are still part of the covenant, find your way back, adhere to the foundational elements of God’s relationship with His nation, do so and you will not be lost forever.
Jews throughout history have been forced to reckon with adversity, react to calamity. While some nations may become dejected, withdrawn from society and ultimately submerge, Jews has always found a way to bounce back. Persecuted? Yes. Wandering for thousands of years? Yes. But always coming back, always realizing that we can rebuild our emotional lives, religious personalities and even our lost beloved country.

Parshat Vaetchanan comforts us and charges us to bounce back and return to ourselves, our Torah, our nation and our Promised Land.

My New Position

For over 700 years the city of Krakow was a thriving social and religious center for Jews. The towering personalities of Rav Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, Rav Yoel Sirkes, and most of all Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema) reflected the centrality of Torah the city represented for generations. It was a beacon of the Polish Jewish world.

Then came the Nazis.

Their destruction of Polish Jewry was almost absolute. Ninety percent of the three million Jews were murdered, while the remaining few had almost entirely submerged into anonymity and assimilation over the past eighty years.

Almost. Over the past decade the Jewish communities in Poland have awakened. Jews have come knocking on the doors of the synagogues, schools and Jewish community centers searching for identity, thirsting for Jewish knowledge. Whether they found out they were Jewish just a few days earlier or they knew all along and covered it up, today a rebirth of the Polish Jewish community is taking place.

The Chief Rabbi of Poland, R. Michael Schudrich, has been indefatigably leading this revival for the past twenty years and has hired rabbis in cities throughout the country to join him in being part of this miraculous recovery. In September I will be going to Krakow to serve the developing Jewish community using my experience and knowledge as a rabbi.

In the heart of Jewish Krakow stands the Jewish Community Center. In the last five years under the tireless leadership of Executive Director Jonathan Ornstein, Judaism has come alive. Hundreds and hundreds of members participate in all things Jewish with fun and flare. I look forward to working with Jonathan in continuing the process of Jewish resurgence and regenerating Krakow Jewish life. I will be spending several weeks a month living in Krakow; teaching and building the community and attending to the needs of Jews throughout the city.

I would like to thank Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum and the Amiel institute for making this shidduch and for guiding hundreds of Israeli rabbis to serve Jewish communities throughout the world.

With God’s help I will partake in an age old Jewish experience—bouncing back from adversity and forging ahead in reawakening Jewish identity, reconnecting to roots, to Torah and to the Jewish people.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Ninth of Av--The Beginning...of Darkness

The Beginning…of Darkness

דאר"י אלמלא הייתי באותו הדור לא קבעתיו אלא בעשירי מפני שרובו של היכל בו נשרף ורבנן ס"ל אתחלתא דפרענותא עדיפא-בבלי תענית כט

"Rav Yochanan said had I been there at the time I would have established the fast on the tenth of Av because most the of Temple burned on that day. The Rabbis believed that the beginning of the calamity is harsher".

Rav Yochanan’s perspective is clear; commemorate the 10th day when the bulk of the destruction took place. What of the Rabbanan? What is it about the beginning of the terror that establishes the ninth of Av as the national day of mourning?

אתחלתא (nascent) usually has a positive connotation. Beginning, budding, promising…Much has been said with regard to the burgeoning of redemption, but today we must consider the inverse.
אתחלתא דפורענותא frightens us for two psychological reasons:

1. The constant refrain of the Jewish masses during the first Temple, especially after Assyria failed to conquer Jerusalem in 701 is היכל ה' היכל ה' היכל ה' המה—“It is the Temple of God, Temple of God, Temple of God” (how can anyone penetrate its holy shell?). When Nevuchadnetzer laid Jerusalem in siege the Israelites said, “it can never happen”. When Nevuchadnetzer broke through the outer walls the Israelites said “it can never happen”. Then, when the walls of the Bet Hamikdash were torn apart and the Babylonians entered the holy of holies…their world shattered. That shattering of a dreamlike state, of constant protection despite sin, of being forced to deal with a new harsh and ugly reality—that is churban, destruction.

2. When we speak of אתחלתא דגאולה we acknowledge that we are still far from an ideal state, but at the same time we see a spark, we see potential! Sitting in exile for two thousand years we were unable to entertain the idea of ‘geula’ simply because the notion of Jews returning en masse and setting up their own state in Palestine was inconceivable. After 1948, we saw the potential—אתחלתא דגאולה!

The exact opposite experience engulfed our ancestors on the first and second Tisha Bav. At the initial stage of attack, when the building was not in flames, the priests hadn’t been killed and the feeling of utter destruction was not yet a reality, they still felt the uneasiness of potential end. That was frightening. They began to picture in their minds what Jerusalem might be like in flames. That is terror.

Every year hence when we are forced to commemorate Tisha Bav, we acknowledge that sickening unease of the potential for total destruction.
Today, especially in our current heyday of אתחלתא דגאולה which should be a harbinger of the greatest potential turned into fulfillment, today we reckon with the inverse potential—----אתחלתא דפורענותאtoday we must consider the precariousness of our condition, a nation working towards גאולה but still having the potential of חורבן.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

“The Exact Moment”

Pinchas the grandson of Aharon knew just what to do. How? In a situation where anarchy reigned, sexual deviance and idolatry fused together in a Dionysian orgy, and a plague mysteriously killed in the tens of thousands, how is it that Pinchas knew what was needed to save the day?

I believe that the juxtaposition of personalities—Bilaam and Pinchas--points to a common trait they shared but then utilized in very divergent ways. Chazal wondered how it was that Bilaam received prophecy. Such a rasha and worthy of prophecy? Chazal explained the verse יודע דעת עליון in terms of his ability to know the one moment of God’s anger. Apparently, according to Chazal when God gets angry He is (as if to say) most vulnerable. At that infinitesimal instant Bilaam was able to use and perhaps abuse God’s will and power.

Pinchas perhaps was capable of the same divination. He also was a aware of God’s moment of wrath and understood that there was an opportunity to be grasped at that moment. Yet, in an heroic display, Pinchas used that knowledge to return, assuage God’s anger, to cool down the wrath of God.

This selfless action, the exact opposite of Bilaam’s, is worthy of distinction—הנני נותן לו את בריתי שלום, here is my covenant of peace. “Pinchas, you contaminated yourself and rendered yourself seemingly unworthy of serving God on high, know that your service in theTemple will be eternal, your covenant of peace ageless.

I can’t imagine what it means to know the moment of God’s anger but I know the moment of my wife’s anger! I know when my close friend is most vulnerable. At that moment I have one of two responses—Bilaam’s or Balak’s.

I can either find ‘just the right time’ to get what I want, ‘just the right moment’ to prey on their vulnerability for my own benefit. Or I can take the high Pinchas road and use that knowledge to ‘return their wrath’, assuage their anger and try to make peace.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

We are Kaporet!

Rabbi Avi Baumol

Every vessel has one purpose; the menorah to light up, the Mizbeach for korbanot, the Shulchan for lechem, the Aron to house the luchot and the Kruvim to be the symbol around where the shechina speaks.

One vessel is a mystery: the Kaporet. What is its purpose? On the one hand it seems clear that it is a covering for the Aron; on the other hand it seems to be a base for the Kruvim. It is possible that it has two purposes? Which one takes preference?

Naftali Bennet has been courted by two distinct political parties; each one representing a segment of society, each one aiming to convince Bayit Yehudi that its natural home is with them. Shas and Yahadut Hatorah say, you are shomer mitzvot like us, believe in the supremacy of Torah, halakha, come join us and we will be strong. Yesh Atid says, you are Zionist, believe in the army, all encompassing to Jews, tolerant, women’s rights, economic policy and unity. Come join us and we will be strong.

What should Naftali Bennet do? As I am his constituent, I feel I may weigh in on his thought process.

The Rogotchover answers that while Kaporet may be seduced by the Aron into thinking that its purpose is to cover and protect the Aron which encases the Luchot (Torah existence) and it may be seduced by the more all-encompassing Kruvim who see God in all areas (Zionist existence), it is not an fifth wheel of either vessel; instead the Kaporet is its own unique entity. A vessel entirely of pure unadulterated gold which has it own unique purpose in the Mishkan.

What is that purpose? I propose it is a bridge. To at once be a cover for Torah and at the same time be a base for Israel. To function as a vital link between two worlds and to teach there is no contradiction between the two. One can cover and protect the Aron while acting as a base for the Kruvim. That is the essence of being in the middle. But not as a compromise to that which is beneath and that which is above; rather as a strong, confident proud vessel in the Mishkan, serving God in its unique capacity.

Mr. Bennet, be the Kaporet, teach the country about the beautiful synthesis that is a religious Zionist Jew in Israel. Stand firm in your ideals of preserving Torah and shining a light of responsibility to the land and people of Israel. Be the bridge letting both worlds access you and each other. And ultimately, teach the world what it means to embody the synthesis which is authentically Jewish, ‘tzu Gott un Tzu leit” to God and to the people, Torah and nation, land and Mitzvot, open and committed, lover of peace and protector of Zion!