Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

#יתרו #תשפב

In 1957, Elie Wiesel visited Disneyland in California for the first time, and commented:

“If one wants to calm his nerves and forget the bitter realities of daily life, there is no better-suited place to do so than Disneyland. In Disneyland, the land of children’s dreams, everything is simple, beautiful, good. There, no one screams at his fellow, no one is exploited by his fellow, no one’s fortune derives from his fellow’s misfortune. If children had the right to vote, they would vote Disney their president. And the whole world would look different.”

In the coming days, thousands of Jews will be visiting Disney World in Florida. It's always fun to watch as Yidden arrive in the parks with shtick. How to maximize fun, minimize waiting, enjoy glatt kosher food and spend as little money as possible doing it. (Though, who are we kidding?)

After all of this, one thing is clear: Leaving Disney World is always accompanied by tired children with bitter tears, begging to stay in Disney World forever.

Everyone wants to live in Disney. Every moment there is living the fairy tale. The entire experience is designed to ensure that we leave with the feeling of happily-ever-after.

But one may wonder if such happy endings are educationally sound. As Yarei Shamayim and Ohavei Hashem, is the Disney vision of sailing off into the sunset, reflective of reality?

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#Beshalach #תשפב

I walked into Shiur one morning this week, to be greeted by a question, or rather, a statement from one of the guys: “Rebbe, I really don't wanna learn today, Hashem hates me.”

We certainly can't begin learning with that in the air, so I followed up. “What makes you feel that way?” He continued to explain: “Nothing seems to be going great for me in my life.”

I this point, I am trying to be cognizant that there are two distinct possibilities here. This could either be a revelation that something truly horrible is happening, or that I'm talking to an honest, if disaffected and lethargic teen.

Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter, as he continued to explain: “Nothing bad is happening, just nothing great. It feels like Hashem hates me.” A number of other students joined in to express similar sentiments.

But the jump in logic seemed unjustified. Life is normal, boring, unspectacular. COVID is annoying, Yeshiva break is so close; and yet so far. But why does that mean Hashem hates you?

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This past week, in the wake of the horrors that Chaim Walder wrought upon the Jewish world, many have taken to their keyboards to add their voices to the condemnation. More powerfully, there is a feeling that perhaps this will be the event that finally ushers in a new age of transparency for those power, and protection for victims of abuse.

From within those many voices, the one that resonated strongest with me were the words of Yael Leibowitz, who penned a masterful essay on the importance of nuance in education. After all, I am a Rabbi and teacher.

(If you have not read the article, I encourage you to do so. For those reading this in the weekly on Shabbos I will attempt to summarize the main tenet of her argument shortly.)

My goal in this article is to add to the conversation that Mrs. Leibowitz began, with the hopes that this will further honest inquiry into better and more sensitive teaching.

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This article was written together with my friend and chavrusa Rabbi Ya'akov Trump. I am deeply grateful for his help in developing these ideas, and for his partnership in writing and editing this piece.

It's been almost two years since we first shut down shuls and minyanim. And while most aspects of personal and communal life has recuperated, minyan has not. Many friends and colleagues (גדולים וטובים ממני) have written and spoken about this. Truthfully, non-attendance is not a new problem. Talking in shul is not a new problem. And by all standards, it's not getting better.

Many point fingers at the flakiness of our generation (especially millennials) when it comes to attendance. Others are quick to blame talking on the length of shul services, piyuttim and drashos. Everyone agrees, to some extent, that whatever we're doing, something is broken. Something needs to change. Perhaps because of COVID and the exacerbation of these issues, it is an appropriate time for self reflection as a community.

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#Shemos #תשפב

We all thought we were done with this. Finally, we had rounded the corner, COVID was in the rear view mirror. And then there is a new wave, a new variant, a new Greek letter to learn. Israel is once again closed to the Jews of the Diaspora, and the were it not for the pain, loneliness, loss and sickness, this whole saga would seem comical.

Perhaps most frustratingly, the plans we make are scuttled, and we feel as if control over our own lives is continuously snatched away.

At its core, this deep incongruity, so profoundly amplified in the past two years, is emblematic of our world and our place within it. We are constantly trying to find balance, harmony and predictability in a world that seems antagonistic towards any attempts of orderliness.

Understanding and contending with this schism between us and our world is a deep tradition in Chazal. The resolution of it is a closely guarded secret that our sages called it the סוד העיבור – the secret of the Leap Year.

This year, is a leap year; there will be two months of Adar, and a total of 13 months in our year. The reason we have this institution is to bring together the two cycles that given our natural world – the Solar Cycle, and the Lunar Cycle. These two cycles do not line up well. There are roughly 11 days difference between them, and this discrepancy is paradigmatic of our lives. Things just don't match up well, forcing us to constantly tweak and adjust our calendar: Seven times in every nineteen year cycle, we add an additional month.

The Shelah HaKadosh (הקדמה לספר שמות) explains that the period of time from now until Adar (שובבי״ם ת״ת) is a unique opportunity for personal and universal Teshuva. Indeed, being that this is a leap year, we are actively working on restoring balance and harmony in the world. Reb Tzadok (פרי צדיק ר״ח אדר י׳) explains that our collective realignment of time in a leap year is a window into a world that will finally make sense. The Torah reading of weeks are the story of our exile and redemption, and we have the opportunity – and challenge – to experience that story ourselves in our generation.

Hidden behind our constant tweaking of time is the conviction that meaning, balance, harmony and alignment, are possible. In the deepest way, it's a testament to our understanding that the world is not random, that Hashem is taking us somewhere; that beneath the noise and madness there is a latent unity and a destination for the universe. We simply have to adjust ourselves to make it work. Even in the confusion of this world, we can achieve small moments of clarity; windows that allow us to see what could and will be when Hashem heals the world of its inconsistencies and imperfections.

In different way, we have all felt these snippets of clarity. Sometimes they hit us in the face – other times we need to look carefully to spot them. Sometimes it takes months or years to finally understand the purpose of some seemingly random or adverse event. Sometimes, we never do. But our history has shown one indisputable truth: Nothing in Jewish history is truly random.

Perhaps the greatest moment of personal clarity in the Torah was when Yosef HaTzadik finally understands the reason for his life in Egypt. Despite every overwhelming and antagonistic adversary standing in his way, Yosef rose to become the savior of Mitzrayim and the provider for his family, the nascent Jewish people. All of this, of course, was the set up for an eventual fulfillment of the promise that Hashem made to Avraham: “Your children will be strangers... and then they will leave will immense wealth.”

Anyone who knows the story of Yosef, knows that there is nothing that stands in the way of Jewish destiny. Somehow, every single event is woven into the masterful tapestry of our past, present and future, and there are simply no coincidences. With this in mind, we might understand the fatal mistake of Paroah in his attempt to destroy us:

There arose a new king over Egypt – אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף – who didn’t know Yosef.

Obviously, as Chazal and all the Rishonim note, he did know Yosef. Perhaps then, what he didn't know was the story of Yosef. He didn't know how Yosef was the least likely person to ever assume leadership in Mitzrayim, and that against these awesome odds, Hashem's plans prevailed.

Were it to be the Paroah did know Yosef's story, he might have thought twice before challenging the One pulling the strings. A careful look into history would have revealed that Jewish destiny is outside of human hands.

Every now and then, if we're looking carefully, we too can see the strings being pulled as well. Sometimes in large ways, sometimes, quite small. For me, this insight of אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף is a perfect example in itself.

This understanding of the Pasuk is not my own chiddush. Late on Tuesday night I stumbled across this idea quoted in the name of the Sefer Zichron Aharon – a book with which I was not familiar. I liked the idea, and did some digging online to find the original Sefer, and some information about its author. The author, I discovered, was Rabbi Aharon HaKohen Kohn, who, as the title page displayed, came from a place called נאדי־מעדיער – or Nagymegyer, which I had never heard of. Some further research revealed that he was a Hungarian born Rabbi and businessman. A student of Rabbi Yehuda Aszod, and a contemporary of the Chasam Sofer.

What struck me as incredible was the dedication offered by his children. In place of a copyright, was the request to share the Sefer far and wide in honor of their father. But reading the inscription found in the introduction to the original printing of the Sefer was tiny window into Hashem's world behind the scenes:

“We are distributing this Sefer of our father and grandfather amongst those that knew our father, and those who love his Torah. And we request of all those who receive this Sefer to remember our father – Aharon ben Genendel – on the day of his Yahrzeit. The 18th Day of the month Teves. And to learn Mishnayos in his honor...”

Tuesday night, of course, was the 18th day of the month of Teves.

I don't know if there were any other Jews learning his Torah on his Yahrzeit, but clearly, Hashem has a plan. And if the Master of All World wants something to happen, then all of Jewish history tells us there nothing that could prevent it from occurring. I am grateful that I was zocheh to that moment.

So as the news of another variant surfaces, I cannot help thinking that Hashem is taking us somewhere. We may not know the road, but we certainly know the destination. Hashem should help us to arrive there soon, safely, together.

#Vayechi #תשפב

This past Sunday, together with some holy chevra from BRS West, I ran a half marathon. It was not my best race. Far from it. I knew this going in. The heat and humidity were far higher than I had anticipated. But far more impactful was my general lack of sleep in the past few weeks of having our new baby at home.

The first few weeks after having a baby are wonderful, exhilarating, exciting, and most of all, exhausting. Despite the fact that we've done this before, nothing fully prepares you.

Aliza and I joke that our inability to remember exactly what it was like the last time we had a baby is most likely due to absolute sleep deprivation that comes along with it. It seems that Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, made it impossible for new parents to form short term memories – or no one would have kids again.

And in all of that, the rest of life must continue. How is it even possible? It seems that together with the Bracha of a new baby in the family, comes the bracha of expanded capacities. All at once, we find ourselves pushing beyond what we thought could fit into our time, schedules and emotions. With the additional responsibilities, comes additional strength, creativity and mental resources.

Not everything works out perfectly, but there is a distinct feeling of becoming more.

This expansion lies at the root of the most counter-cultural productivity advice I have encountered:

Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz zt”l was without doubt, one of the most prolific teachers of Torah in the past century. Aside from his extensive works in print, he was the founder of multiple educational institutions and organizations. A number of years ago, he addressed the challenges of attempting the accomplishments he attained:

In my last letter to the Rebbe, I told him I was holding down three full time jobs: scholarly writing, outreach work in Russia, and a network of schools in Israel. Since it all seemed like too much for one person, I asked him what to focus on. His answer was typical of him, that I should “continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.”

Rabbi Steinzaltz commented that it's a strange thing to tell a person that feels overwhelmed – you should take on more. But that was always the Rebbe's orientation. Both for himself and his Chassidim.

This advice flies in the face of all modern thinking on productivity. We are supposed to take breaks, recharge and relax. Or we will suffer burnout. Everyone knows that our mental health depends on getting enough sleep, and creating down time and space for entertainment and enjoyment. All of this is demonstratively true. But how then do we explain the renewed ability to do more when there is more to do? Why is it that when you want something done, you ask a busy person?

I was reflecting on this idea a little while ago when trying to convince one of our children to do something they didn't want to do. I found myself falling into well worn parental tropes, telling them “You can either do this the easy way or the hard way.” It is understood that “easy way” means without fear or pain or punishment. “Hard way” means fear, pain and punishment.

And then it hit me. This is terrible Chinuch! We have, as parents, as teachers, as society, been training ourselves and our children for generations, that difficult is equivalent to negative. We are teaching them that they should aim for the easy way.

Of course, difficult is still difficult. It is unpleasant, challenging, uncomfortable, annoying and exhausting, but it's not negative. The opposite is true as well. Not everything that is enjoyable, comfortable and entertaining is necessarily good.

This is not a novel idea; it is, at least intellectually, quite palatable. But actually choosing to do difficult and worthwhile things, rather than easy and comfortable things, is a skill that needs to be honed through a life of work.

When we consider that learning to difficult things is an Avoda, we reach a disconcerting conclusion: When we are feeling overwhelmed, have we truly reached our limit, or are we just experiencing natural resistance to doing hard things?

There is only one way to find out: Try to do more. If it works, great! If not, then we have learned a little more about our limitations. That was the Rebbe's advice. If you're overwhelmed, take on more.

The goal is not burnout. It's not to sacrifice mental health for the rat race. It's about seeing difficulty and challenge as opportunities to grow, develop and expand. This as true in exercise as it is in Avodas Hashem, davening, learning, parenting, building a home, and deepening relationships. We are conditioned to look for the easy way. But we become better people when we push ourselves to do difficult and worthwhile things. This is where growth occurs.

Indeed, the Yismach Yisrael explains that this secret is hidden in our Parsha, when Rashi famously tells us:

למה פרשה זה סתומה... שבקש לגלות את הקץ לבניו ונסתם ממנו Why does this Parsha begin without a break in the Torah? Because Yaakov wished to reveal the redemption to his sons, but the it was concealed from him.

For most of our lives, and indeed, for most of the commentaries, this is understood as a surprise to Yaakov and tragedy for his children. Perhaps a necessary reality, but something upsetting, none the less. If only Hashem would have allowed Yaakov to tell us how and when Geulah would happen!

Not so, says the Yismach Yisrael:

Since Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children the world of Mashiach, of Geulah and of Redemption, by definition, he needed to demonstrate to them that light comes from darkness. If we want to experience redemption, we need to get comfortable with the darkness that precedes it.

It's interesting to note that Yaakov Avinu himself has only recently grown into this understanding. At the beginning of his time in Eretz Yisrael the Torah tells us that בקש לישב בשלוה – Yaakov desperately wanted to settle in tranquility.

But Hashem brings upon Yaakov challenge after challenge. Yosef and his brothers, Yehuda and Tamar, the abduction of Dina. The famine, and the threat of losing Binyamin. Throughout this time, Yaakov is desperate for a moment's reprieve.

How uncanny that in the final 17 years of his life, Yaakov achieves that which he never could ever before. Calm, serenity, a relationship with his children and grandchildren. Unity in the family, and the chance to enjoy his life – ויחי יעקב – Yaakov was finally alive.

What enabled Yaakov to experience life?

The Torah tells us that when Yaakov hears that Yosef is alive he prepares to move his life to Egypt. Consider how terrifying this must have been for Yaakov. Hashem has promised that the Jewish people would experience exile. And now, Yaakov was willing entering exile himself.

And in choosing to do this frightening, dark and terrifying thing is Yaakov's final message to his children. You can do this the easy way of the hard way. I beg you: Do it the hard way. Choose something difficult and enter into the challenge willingly. Don't look for the easy way out. Because ויחי is not the same as וישב – living and settling are opposites.

Some friends questioned that sanity in attempting the race at all. It's good question – one that I replayed about a billion times in the 13.1 challenging miles of the run. But by the end I discovered that life is not a sprint but it's not a marathon either. Both of these have a finish line as their goal. And life is not about getting to the end.

Yaakov is telling us that Life is Training. The goal is to engage and get better at it. Some days are fantastic. Most come with aches and pains. Fatigue and setbacks are normal parts of the growth process. The goal is to keep at it – that's how we become more.

#Vayigash #תשפב

This week we merited to bring our son into the Bris between Hashem and His people. For Aliza and I, this was a particularly emotional mitzvah – Our son is the first child born in the family since the passing of my father-in-law. As such, our boy will merit to carry (most of) his grandfather's name, as we named him Alter Yehuda Yudel. (Don't worry mom – We're calling him Yehuda.)

The night before the bris, in preparation for this mitzvah, I spend time thinking and learning while holding our new son. (Some of these ideas were shared at the Bris, some are written here for the first time.)

Bris Milah is a uniquely important mitzvah on many levels. From a cultural and historical perspective, the mitzvah of Milah was almost always outlawed by out enemies. And yet, it was almost always performed with great mesirus nefesh, even in the worst of circumstances. From a halachik perspective, Bris Milah is the only positive mitzvah that we fulfill today that would incurs kares for non-fulfillment. And from an emotional perspective, the Talmud tells us that the mitzvah of Milah is imbued with Simcha – joy – that enables this mitzvah to be performed joyfully throughout our generations.

The enduring commitment of Klal Yisrael to this mitzvah while awe-inspiring is noticeably peculiar. It is no secret that Bris Milah is an inherently painful and uncomfortable mitzvah. Despite the cries of babies and tears of mothers and fathers, the great mitzvah of Milah enjoys widespread observance – even amongst those who are not otherwise observant. Reasonably, none of us should enjoy it any more than taking our kids to the pediatrician to get their shots. The deepest desire of parents is to save our children from pain, and yet we willingly submit our infant sons to public surgery – and we celebrate it! What is it about this mitzvah that speak so deeply to the soul of our nation?

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#Chanukah #תשפב

Late on Tuesday night, I sat in the hospital room rocking chair holding our son. He's barely a few hours old. I looked at his calm, pure face and thought about the miracle of Jewish continuity, of the immense kindness of Hashem.

I thought about the overwhelming privilege and awesome responsibility that Hashem has bestowed upon us; to help this beautiful Neshama to become an Eved Hashem and Ohev Yisrael.

I thought about the countless neshamos that Hashem brought in this world in different and far more painful times. The souls that came to illuminate and elevate the darkness. I am filled with gratitude that our generation is so blessed. It seems to me that our we and our children have not been tasked with the worlds of darkness.

Despite the obvious and plentiful challenges of our generation, it is unquestionable that our lives are far, far better than any of our ancestors. This truth certainly makes for a more comfortable existence. But I won't deny that there have been times I have wondered if perhaps our lives might be a little more meaningful if we were living in more challenging times.

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#Vayeshev #תשפב

Thanksgiving is a strange day in the Blumenthal home. Despite the past fifteen years of living in the US, Thanksgiving remains foreign to me. Of course, I enjoy a deep-fried turducken as much as the next carnivorous patriot. (Though I still struggle with eating cranberry-apple pie as anything other than dessert.)

My wife, on the other hand, has deep emotions about the day. Thanksgiving for her, conjures warm feelings of family, belonging and nostalgia.

So this year, in this divisive climate, I took some time to think about my gratitude to the USA. I certainly feel a deep sense of gratitude to this wonderful country for all the opportunities it has given me. On a communal and national level, I am grateful to this country for providing the safety and freedom that has enabled our community to flourish and our children to grow.

But more than anything, I am grateful to the Master of the World that I still feel like a stranger.

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#Vayishlach #תשפב

The Rebbe, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa put down his cup one motzei shabbos and turned to his chassidim with worried eyes. “I see a time just before Moshiach will come that Jews will not be able to support themselves with a regular Parnassah. They will need to find work on the side to support their needs. I'm shivering at the thought of it...”

To the Chassidim of that generation, this vision most likely conjured images of extreme poverty and hardship. But perhaps the Rebbe was glimpsing at us – a generation of extreme consumerism and the side hustles needed to support it.

Our generation has witnessed the emergence of a new class of American holidays: Black Friday, Cyber Monday and even more recently, Prime Day. These Yamim Tovim are celebrated across the country with ever increasing participation and excitement.

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