Congregation Brothers of Israel, Long Branch, NJ
The Spiritual, the National & the Conversion Crisis in Israel
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771
There was a wonderful oped in the Jerusalem Post last week regarding the conversion crisis in the state of Israel today. It was written by Rabbi Seth Farber who is the head of an organization named ITIM which helps people navigate the Israeli rabbinate when dealing with conversion and lifecycle events.
He pointed out that nearly half of the recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union do not meet the rabbinate’s criteria for Jewishness. That includes people whose father is Jewish but not the mother or cases where there is simply not enough evidence to determine Jewish status definitively. The numbers are now in the hundreds of thousands. A few thousand convert a year but the rest cannot meet the demands of the rabbinate and do not, or are completely secular and do not. The question is – what do we do about it? Do we simply let throw up our hands and give up, or do we work to find a halachick solution to this dilemma? Continue reading
Quiet During Kaddish & Our Relationship With God
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773
Three weeks ago at the Kiddush someone came over to me and said: “I am glad that you finally got the decorum down for adon olam, how about getting the people quiet during kaddish. It is just wildly disrespectful.”
On one hand, I was glad that I am not the only one who feels that way, yet on the other hand, it was depressing that many others do not get it.
A large part of the problem is the nature of our relationship with God. That issue is highlighted by a problematic verse/declaration in this morning’s Parsha.
שמות פרשת שמות – וארא פרק ו
ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְיָ
ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְיָ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם
2. And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord; Continue reading
Jewish Attitudes Towards Cremation
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5777
About five years ago a woman called the shul to discuss her burial plans. She was an out of town member and her health was failing rapidly. Her husband had predeceased her and was buried in our cemetery.
She called because she wanted to be cremated. After a short discussion I asked her if she would like to be buried in our cemetery next to her husband. She replied in the affirmative. I proceeded as delicately as I could to explain to her that would not be possible if she chose cremation. She did not and she received a kosher burial on North Linden Ave. Continue reading
The Fear of Being in Galus
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5779
Every time I read this parsha I feel as if we gloss over a critical moment in Jewish history, one with critical lessons for us as Diaspora Jews in general and specifically regarding our relationship to the land of Israel.
We read the dramatic story of Yaakov finding out that Joseph is alive and we look forward to their reunion. We gloss over the fact that this reunion is in fact the beginning of Galus Mitzrayim, the beginning of our exodus which will include enslavement. That fact is now lost upon Yaakov. We read:
בראשית פרק מו
ג) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם
ד) אָנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ
3. And he said, I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation;
4. I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.
Yaakov appreciates the moment, is afraid and Hashem tries to console him.
What exactly is he afraid of? Formulated differently, what is the fear of being in galus?
Midrash Sechel Tov and the Ohr Hachaim suggest that Yaakov was afraid that he himself would be enslaved and persecuted.
That seems tough to accept as this is a personal fear, and not a national one. I think we assume that Yaakov would be more concerned with the people etc than with his own personal fate.
Rashi writes that Yaakov was pained at the thought of leaving the land of Israel. While that is certainly true, many note that this is probably not what the verse is referring to. Pain and fear are two very different emotions.
Even if you could get past those issues there is one major challenge in adopting either of these two answers. They ignore the rest of the text!
I saw two beautiful pieces of commentary who make this point, one authored by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli and the other by the first Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, the Beis Halevi.
Hashem tries to reassure Yaakov by promising him that they will be a great nation and that He will be with them in Egypt and bring them back up!
If Yaakov is afraid of leaving eretz Yisrael or of his enslavement, these promises will do little to allay his fears.
What then was the fear? What was Yaakov so concerned with?
I think that the text itself, Hashem’s promises tell you exactly what he was afraid of. He was nervous that the house if Israel would not grow, that it would shrink and he was afraid that they might not ever make it back to the land of Israel!
Why would cause that to happen?
Rav Yisraeli believes that we will have it too good there. He contrasts this fear of Yaakov with an earlier fear of Yaakov.
When Esav and his 400 men are approaching we read that Vayira Yaakov, that he was afraid. There the fear was clear. His brother is strapping and looking for revenge. Yaakov is a shepherd with his family. He is afraid of a physical attack.
In our chapter that is clearly not the fear. His son is the viceroy. That will afford them both protection and the best that Egypt has to offer.
And that argues RSY is exactly the problem; that is what Yaakov is afraid of. With all of Egypt and its culture open to them, won’t assimilation follow?! We know that challenge well!
I would add that an additional fear is that the more comfortable that we get in galus, the weaker our connection to the land of Israel is and our desire to return is not as strong as it should be.
The Beis Halevi is even more specific.
He suggests that Yaakov realizes that this is the beginning of the process of enslavement foretold to Avraham. He is afraid because he now learns that the galus and servitude will take place in Mitzrayim, in Egypt. That piece of information was not given to Avraham. He was told that
בראשית פרק טו
יג) וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה
13. And he said to Abram, Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
It is now clear that the place where this will happen is Egypt, the place that is rampant with idolatry and sexuality. And Yaakov is afraid!
בית הלוי בראשית פרשת ויגש פרק מו פסוק ג
נתיירא שמא לא יוכלו בניו להיות במצרים כל כך שנים בשיעבוד וישארו בקדושתן ואולי חלילה ישתקעו בטומאתן של מצריים עד ששוב לא יהיו ראוים להגאל כלל לעולם
He was afraid that his children would not be able to last the many years of exile while maintaining any state of holiness. God forbid, they might get mired in the impurity of Egypt and not be worthy of being redeemed.
We know this challenge as well!
To allay those fears Hashem promises Yaakov that the people will not dwindle, rather they will become a great nation and that he will take them out as well, Hashem will not let them descend to the point of no return. And He will bring them back to the land of Israel!
Rabbi Yisraeli and Soloveitzchik have captured the challenge of Galus Mitrayim and Galus America. The openness and wealth are not without their downsides and the assimilation rates in America testify to that! The pervasiveness of vulgarity, violence and sexuality has its effects as well.
Our connection to Israel while strong is not what it should be. We are still here in NJ!
To overcome those challenges we must:
Continually work on growing spiritually, avoid exposure to the vulgarity, violence and sexuality as best we can, and find ways to actively support the State of Israel!