Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

As kids, they told us “it’s not about winning or losing, it’s how you play the game.”

But if we’re honest, beneath that shallow veneer of politeness and false humility, everyone plays to win. “How you play the game” is a sentiment reserved only for losers. For winners, it has always been about winning.

Emotionally, when there’s no chance that we’re gonna win, we don’t want to compete. And why should we? The humiliation of losing stings. Why risk the pain and the shame?

The unspoken secret of success, however, is that it winning is far more rare than we’d like to believe. We usually only know about the winners and their wins. There are few people who publicize their failures – unless, of course, it’s part of that great story explaining how they arrived at success.

But in the deepest recesses of our hearts, we fail far more often than we’d ever want to admit. We fail at living up to our commitments, our hopes and our dreams. We fail our families, our friends and ourselves. We forget, we get distracted and we run late. We miscalculate and misstep. We give up and give in to our impulses.

None of these failures will ever make it into the grand retelling of our life story. Even the most impressively successful people lie in bed from time to time ruminating on the failures that they’d never share in a TED talk.

Most often, we try to avoid those mental places of shame, humiliation and regret. When the memories arise, we run from them, we hide from them, we distract our minds from them. But if they exist, as they universally do, then this too must be part of Avodas Hashem.

The secret of this work is revealed this week of Sefiras Ha’Omer – the week of “Hod”.

Each week of the Omer is a chance to work on a particular character trait. (As evidenced by the words next to the count if the day in every Siddur.) Some of these ideas are well understood and well developed in contemporary society. We know how to work on Chessed. We give, volunteer, think of others and judge people favorably. Gevura is also discussed quite openly. Gevura is the world of structure, discipline and self-control.

But by this fifth week of Sefiras HaOmer, we have far fewer intuitions about how to work on “Hod”. On the one hand, Hod is beauty, radiance and illumination, as the pasuk (תהילים קד) tells us: הוֹד וְהָדָר לָבָשְׁתָּ – Hashem is clothed in glory and majesty.

On the other hand, Hod is also gratitude, acquiescence, admission and confession. (As in the words for מודים and ווידוי.)

Somehow, the same word simultaneously conveys radiance and defeat; and these two worlds and words collide on Lag Ba’Omer, the fifth day of the fifth week, the day of Hod She’B’Hod.

Hod She’B’Hod is the bottom of the barrel. It’s weakness within weakness, defeat within defeat. Abject failure. This Midah is the point in which humility gives in to humiliation, where the shame and pain and blame become unbearable. It’s the place of damaged lives and broken relationships. It’s the world of irreparable loss.

So where is the beauty? Where is the greatness?

Perhaps it is best understood by a Halacha in Parshas Behar – the laws of Yovel. The Torah tells us that every fifty years, land which has been sold is returned to the its original owners. Of course, the pesukim explain, this radically alters the real estate market, and “buying” property is little more than a temporary mandate to use it until the Yovel year.

But Reb Shlomke of Zhvill explains that this Halacha is transformative for every family and for society as a whole. Yovel means that even if you failed so miserably that you were forced to sell your ancestral homestead, this does not define your legacy. Even the most egregious mistakes in life and business can and will be undone. Your grandchildren will not need to suffer your failures.

Likewise, in the Yovel year, even slaves who willingly gave up their freedom re-enter the Jewish community as free men. Even someone who cowardly chose a life certainties and securities in subservience is reinstated as a self-determining citizen.

Rav Kook writes that Yovel offers restoration, return and restitution even for a person who hasn’t done Teshuva. It’s the promise of Hashem that one day, you will return.

Yovel is the world that transcends all failure; the place where it doesn’t exist any longer. At the core of our existence, being a loser is never systemic; it is always an accident.

Yovel teaches us that there is something about us, something inside of us that not even we can destroy. And given enough time, everything around it will heal; eventually that magnificent part of who we really are will shine. Everything else is simply incidental; it’s not who we are.

This is expressed by The Rama MiPano who teaches us that every prohibition in the Torah is written ambiguously. For example, when the Torah says לא תגנוב – “Do not steal”, it could also be saying “you wont steal.” In the deepest way, both are true. You are not allowed to steal, and the part of you that is really you will never steal. “Real You” couldn’t and wouldn’t; it’s simply not possible.

Sometime, this profound truth can only be understood when we arrive at our lowest points of failure. From that vantage cam we clearly see and state “this is me, and this is my failure; and they are not the same thing.”

Lag Ba’Omer, the day of Hod She’B’Hod is the day we celebrate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai; the one who taught and carried the tradition of the greatest secrets of the Torah. Where did he discover these secrets? In a cold, dark, lonely cave. In a world of starvation, poverty and persecution.

Indeed, in the Piyyut for Lag Ba’Omer we sing: בִּמְעָרַת צוּרִים שֶׁעָמַדְתָּ, שָׁם קָנִיתָ הוֹדְךָ וַהֲדָרֶךָ – In that rocky cave you stood, there did you acquire your “Hod” – your radiance and beauty.

Since October 7th, we have been living Lag Ba’Omer. In the places of pain and failure and loss and confusion, as we question Hashem, and try to find meaning and purpose and unity, there is a so much beauty to discover.

When the world falls apart, when nothing makes sense, when there are Jews chased and persecuted in caves once more, when friends become enemies, and we have failed ourselves and each other... Even then, Hashem is still here with us.

That’s what Rabbi Shimon discovered in that cave. For thirteen years Hashem was there with him.

May the lights of Lag BaOmer illuminate His presence for us and for all of Klal Yisrael as well.

I don’t know if this story is true, and I don’t remember who I heard it from, some thirty years ago. But the fear it captures was most definitely real, and even though I was not old enough to understand it, I remember those emotions palpably.

It happened in the first week of April, 1994 in Johannesburg. Just a few weeks before South Africa’s first ever democratic, multi-racial election.

Despite the international excitement surrounding this election, and the moral victory over the racism of apartheid, South African Jews were nervous. With Nelson Mandela’s presidency almost guaranteed, many white people in South Africa feared a violent uprising. And while most Jews in South Africa had little in common with the Afrikaans architects of Apartheid, they were still white enough to be afraid.

That year, more South African Jews made Aliyah than in any year since the seventies. But for those who stayed, painful questions arose. What could they do if tensions erupted into violence and civil war?

I remember overhearing some grown-ups talking about it. I remember the worried whispers. They had a backup plan. In the event that the Jewish community was under attack, a Johannesburg golf course had been leveled, in preparation for El-al planes to land to take us home.

Perhaps that was indeed what was planned. Perhaps it was imagination, inspired by the images of the miracles of Operation Solomon just three years earlier. Either way, as a kid, I grew up knowing that there would always be a place for us to run to.

It was almost instinctive.

I knew that if I was ever woken up in the middle of the night and told we needed to flee, there was only one place we would go.

***

The events of the past few weeks and months in the US, have brought me back to those childhood memories. The USA is quite literally two oceans and a hemisphere away from South Africa; yet the tensions feel disquietingly similar.

Of course, we have much to to grateful for. Our communities are booming. Jewish life is vibrant and exciting. But this has happened many times in our history; and to-date, there has never been a place that could claim immunity from the waves of hatred crashing down around us.

On the one hand, the ground beneath our feet is rock solid. But on the other hand, it seem to be moments away from crumbling under us.

I am not an alarmist. I don’t think it’ll come to this, but if the golf courses of Boca Raton are leveled for El-al planes to land, I doubt any of us would hesitate to leave everything behind and fly home.

***

Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps the swift demise of American Jewry is already set in stone. I don’t know. But there is one thing of which we can be certain: At some point in the future, there will be an end to the prominence and power of Jewish America. After all, we’ve seen this movie before; many, many times over. There has never been a country where our people have prospered in exile indefinitely.

The Meshech Chochma (בחקתי יא) summarizes our history in exile, writing that whenever we have gotten too comfortable in some host culture:

שם יבוא רוח סערה עוד יותר חזק, יזכיר אותו בקול סואן ברעש יהודי אתה ומי שמך לאיש, לך לך אל ארץ אשר לא ידעת

A stronger wind will begin to blow there, reminding us with storms and thunder: “You are a Jew! Do you not remember that Hashem has made you who your are today? Leave this place for a land you do not know...”

Perhaps that is where we are today, and hindsight can give us an understanding of the potential dangers ahead. But it cannot give us insight into this moment. Where are we right now? Is the best of US Jewry already behind us? Is this wave of antisemitism the beginning of the end?

Or perhaps, the terror and hatred we are facing today is the worst it will ever be. Perhaps this is the last stop on the road to Redemption.

***

As Jews with Emuna, we know that nothing is beyond the Ribono Shel Olam.

So rather than giving in to despair, let’s imagine a different world for a moment. The world where Hashem will yet answer all of our Tefillos for safety, security and serenity.

Let’s daven that in the coming days, our brave soldiers will finally destroy Hamas and rescue all of the hostages. Let’s daven that the world is finally awakened to bear witness to the horrors the hostages have faced. And that somehow, international opinions will swing as people realize the lies they have been told.

Let’s daven that the impeccable morality of Tzahal becomes so apparent that US politicians across the aisle denounce any connection to Hamas, Iran and radical Islam. That US support of Israel is once again an indisputable bi-partisan priority.

It is my greatest hope and prayer that all of this and so much more comes to pass. I’m sure you feel the same. Perhaps then we might not dread turning on our phones after Shabbos.

But in the deepest recesses of my soul, this return to normal is also my greatest fear.

***

On the day that our tefillos are answered, when we win the war, and our brothers and sisters return, what will happen to us? What will happen to you and me; the Jews of the diaspora?

My greatest fear is that nothing will happen at all.

When normal is restored, I worry that we will simply return to the default settings of our lives in Galus; the lives we have meticulously manicured over decades and generations.

Each one of us has invested our time, money, energy, tefillos and emotions to Klal Yisrael since October 7th. What will happen when Hashem grants us peace?

In place of anxiously scouring the internet for news about the hostages, will we simply fill that time with mindless entertainment and rage-filled politics? The funds we are giving to Israel, will they be diverted back into portfolios and vacations?

In place of tehillim, learning and davening in the merit of Klal Yisrael, will we return to splitting hairs and debating minutia? Will we resume the pursuit solving the ‘pressing questions’ of how best to permit our unquenchable materialism in an acceptable framework of Halacha?

The Ramban at the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim coins the expression נבל ברשות התורה – a degenerate with the permission of the Torah. Such a person might fulfill every dictate and directive of the Shulchan Aruch while living a meaningless, hedonistic life. I dare say, but in the minds of contemporary westerners, this is most likely the most palatable type of observant Jew. (After all, we’re all the same... right?) But the obligation of being Kadosh means that we are different. We are charged with developing and maintaining a real emotional and intellectual connection to Hashem, which inspires every facet our lives and actions.

When normal returns, I am terrified that we will “forget” the hatred and the complicity of this nation’s universities and their leaders. In our relentless pursuit of the American Dream will we proudly return to sending our children to the “prestigious” institutions responsible for cultivating a generation of antisemites? The same institutions who, for decades, have championed a perverse moral code which elevates personal pleasure and narcissistic gratification as their highest values.

The crisis of safety, security and identity that we have faced since October 7th has forced Jews of all stripes to rethink life in exile. And across the spectrum, the results have overwhelmingly deepened our connection to Hashem, Torah, Mitzvos, Eretz Yisral and Klal Yisrael.

Of course, as the weeks became months, some of that inspiration and fire has cooled. Our ideological and political rifts are still painfully present, but Jewish unity is at an all time high. All it takes is a moment of conversation with a Chayal, and we are ready to give everything and anything for another Jew. Perhaps the pain of our circumstance has coerced us into finally understanding that victory can never be achieved while we still harbor animosity and distain for each other.

But when Hashem answers our tefillos, and peace is restored to Israel and to Jews around the world, will we still be yearning for the planes coming to take us home? Or perhaps, when they land on the golf courses of Boca Raton, we might choose to stay behind...

***

This is a crucial moment in the history of our people, our community and ourselves. Hashem has promised us that Klal Yisrael is eternal. But there is no guarantee that you, or I, or our communities will not assimilate and disintegrate into the forgotten dust of human history.

In my humble opinion, there is only one solution: Aliyah.

In the most literal sense, we need to set our sights on building a life for ourselves in Eretz Yisrael. Tethering ourselves to the homeland of the Jewish people is a connection to our national enternal destiny.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But let’s be clear: for those of us who can reasonably transplant their families, doing so is obviously Ratzon Hashem.

L’halacha, the key word here is ’reasonably’.

Each person/family needs to engage in a serious Cheshbon HaNefesh to evaluate their reality, their needs and options. It should go without saying, but it is definitely not Ratzon Hashem to move to Israel if it will negatively impact chunich, shalom bayis, or mental/physical health. It is also not Ratzon Hashem to become a financial burden on others.

But even for those of us who cannot (yet) move our lives physically to Eretz HaKodesh, we are not exempt from living a life of Aliyah.

In its simplest definition, Aliyah means ascent. We are tasked with transforming ourselves, our families and our communities into Bnei Aliyah – people in the constant process of accent.

If our current, most honest assessment, is that Hashem wants us to be in Chutz La’aretz right now, then each of us must ask ourselves why.

Why does Hashem want me here? What is my mission, my tafkid, my shlichus? What is my unique contribution to Hashem’s world here and now in Galus? How can I be engaged in elevating myself and my world even when I am far from home?

Rashi (ישעיהו כ״ו:כ) writes that at the end of time, when Hashem will finally bring this Galus to an close, there will one primary role for you and me: התבונן על מעשיך בחדרי לבך – Consider your deeds, in the chambers of your heart.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut every year, Aliza and I look at each other and ask “is it time to make Aliyah?” I have no doubt that many of you are asking the same questions.

But there is a greater question equally relevant to all of us in the Diaspora as well as in Israel: “It is finally time to become Bnei Aliyah?”

The answer is obvious. There has been no greater moment of clarity in our lifetimes. It’s time to realign our lives, recommit to Ratzon Hashem, to become Bnei Aliyah. It is the only way to ensure that when our time comes, when our planes arrive, we will board without hesitation. הרחמן הוא יוליכנו קוממיות לארצנו – May Hashem bring us home, with our heads held high.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once told the story:

The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would became insane. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the not normal ones.

“Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”

The World of Galus

This perspective has, for the past two-thousand years, been the view of our nation in exile.

There was once a time when the world was sane, when the Jewish people lived securely in our own land, when we were cultural leaders of the world. There was a time that Yerushalayim was the center of morality, ethics and law for the world – כי מציון תצא תורה – from Tzion came for the wellsprings of wisdom.

But then the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, we were sent into exile and the world became insane. Instead of looking at Klal Yisrael as a source of divine wisdom, moral understanding and compassion in the world, we began to be viewed as vermin, the embodiment of evil, emissaries of the Devil. This insanity became our new reality. The grain of the world became tainted with the poison of exile, with the sickness of anti-semitism.

And we Jews had only one choice. We were forced to eat from that same crop. We too became insane. From being princes of the universe, we became scum of the earth. Dirty Jew, they called us, greedy Jew. And slowly but surely we started to look at ourselves and each other in the same light; desperate, lonely and sad.

As time went on, we longed for the embrace of the nations of the world. Some of us gave up, some of us gave in. Sometimes, we were consoled by their tolerance. We were grateful for the kindness of our saviors, the compassion of our protectors. All the while lamenting how it could be that we became so needy.

But every now and then, we turned to each other, and noticed there was a sign on our forehead, a “Yiddishe Kop”, that reminded us that this was not the way it was meant to be. And so, in secret, the majesty of the Jewish people continued. It was found in the “four amos of Halacha”, in the great writings of Mikra, Mishna, Talmud and Agados. As the Beis Yosef said: מאן מלכי, רבנן – The place of kingship is with the sages. The sign on our heads reminded us that the we were the only sane ones in a world that was growing increasingly more insane.

Every time a Jew was beat up or killed for being Jewish, every time a shul was desecrated, a city destroy, a cartload of books set aflame, we drew further inwards, trying desperately to hold onto sanity, remembering that the world is crazy. We looked to the signs on each others foreheads, and dreamed of a time that we could live beyond the insanity of a world where October 7th was an even an option.

The World of Geulah

But Rebbi Nachman also told a different version of this story (שיח שרפי קודש (ברסלב) א-רעא):

In this version, it was the star gazer who suggested that they would have to eat from the tainted grain, but the king vehemently rejected this. He explained that just because the whole world was crazy, they do not need to, and should not be crazy. And if they would appear to be crazy to the rest of the world, so what?! That is no reason to eat the grain that makes people crazy. Instead, they would prepare what meager grain that could manage for themselves.

This version of the story has had far fewer adherents throughout our history. But in every generation there have been Jews that never gave up on their own majesty, and have insisted on the majesty of the Jewish people. There have always been those who subsisted on tiny amounts of grain from the ancient fields of Yerushalayim rather than eating from the tainted grain of the world. They reached deep into the store houses of the Beis HaMikdash Shel Maalah, and ate meager, lonely meals of Jewish pride.

For these brave souls, every single Jew has always been and will always be a בן/בת מלך – princes and princesses of the King of the Universe. We have never stopped being an אור לגוים – a shining light to the nations of the world.

For those who have never tasted those tainted grains, when faced with the horror, shock and pain of blatant, violent anti-semitism, they did not give up, they did not give in. No excuses were ever accepted.

They gathered together, dreamed of and worked on building a world where Jews were not simply safe in our assimilation, but beacons of hope and light for the world.

In their eyes, “safety and security” were tropes from the world of Galus and equivocations, where we are ashamed of our nation, our Torah and our God.

In the world of majesty, safety and security are not granted by a benevolent host society, they are expected, assumed and obvious.

What Are We Eating?

The question then arrises: How do we know if we have eaten from the tainted grains and gone mad, or if we are still sane?

In this crazy world, I believe there is a simple test; a single question we need to ask ourselves:

Of the myriad opportunities and activities we are offered and engaged in, which ones get our our love, effort and attention? What gets us excited and energized?

A sane Jew is one who knows that Torah and Mitzvos are inherently beautiful, wonderful and amazing. A sane Jew sees themself as privileged to be an Eved Hashem, changing ourselves and the world with every word of Torah and Tefillah. A sane Jew lives with the knowledge that this dollar to tzedaka is meaningful beyond measure. That this perek of tehillim and this daf of gemara in this moment brings us a little closer to Yerushalayim.

The Shelah HaKadosh (תורה שבכתב, משפטים, דרך חיים) explains that the obligation in our Parsha – וחי בהם – “to live with the words of Torah”, means:

אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם, רצה לומר זריזות, ובכלל זה לעשות בשמחה. אלא הזירוז לעשות אף שאין בידו לגמור כולו

To perform mitzvos with life; with eagerness and joy even if one is fully aware that one will never be able to perform the מצוה in its entirety.

As Pesach ends and we rush for our favorite Chometz, our Avoda is to remember that Matan Torah, the festival of the new grain harvest is just a few weeks away...

Hashem should help us to hold on just a little longer. To escape the madness, abandon the cynicism, to turn away the smorgasbord of tainted grains around us.

He should help us to live as exited, passionate, sane Jews with the knowledge and confidence that the new harvest is just a few weeks away.

The world is still demanding answers. What will be the day after? When we finally defeat Hamas; when the hostages are safely home... What will happen afterwards?

The truth is that we don’t know. Or at least, I don’t know.

Perhaps there is some hidden file with a well thought out plan. Perhaps there are think tanks of the greatest military and political minds of our time who have already resolved all of these existential questions.

But here’s the great secret: We don’t need to know step two before we complete step one. This is true on a national level in Israel, as well as on a personal level in Avodas Hashem.

It is this lesson that captures the history and Avoda of Shabbos Hagadol and Pesach.

The Tur (אורח חיים ת״ל:א) explains:

שבת שלפני הפסח קורין אותו שבת הגדול והטעם לפי שנעשה בו נס גדול שפסח מצרים מקחו בעשור כדכתיב בעשור לחודש הזה ויקחו להם שה לבית אבות שה לבית ופסח שיצאו ישראל ממצרים היה ביום ה' כדאיתא בסדר עולם ונמצא שי' בחדש היה שבת ולקחו להם כל אחד שה לפסחו וקשר אותו בכרעי מטתו ושאלום המצריים למה זה לכם והשיבו לשחטו לשם פסח במצות השם עלינו והיו שיניהם קהות על ששוחטין את אלהיהן ולא היו רשאין לומר להם דבר ועל שם אותו הנס קורין אותו שבת הגדול:

The Shabbos before Pesach is called “Shabbos HaGadol” (The Great Shabbos). And the reason is because a miracle occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. On the 10th [they took a sheep] as it says: “On the tenth of this month you shall take for yourselves a sheep into your homes.” And the year that the Exodus took place was on a Thursday as we see in Seder Olam, and therefore the “10th of the month” was Shabbos, and on that Shabbos every Jew took a sheep as a Korban Pesach and tied it to their bedposts. And the Egyptians asked them “Why do you have a sheep – the Egyptian god – tied to your bed!?” And they responded: “To slaughter for a Pesach offering for HaShem.” And they got upset that they were going to slaughter their gods, but they could not say anything due to the miracle. And thus it is called Shabbos HaGadol.

The bravery of this moment cannot be overstated. By this point in the story, the only thing our ancestors knew was that the Korban Pesach was their ticket out. This was the way to prepare for leaving Egypt. They still did not know when exactly or how this might take place. But Moshe and Aharon were clear:

וְכָכָה תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ מׇתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם

This is how you shall eat the Pesach offering: your belts tied, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.

Imagine the trepidation, the fear, the concern. On the one hand, Moshe had told them that any home without a Korban Pesach would be subject to the same fate as the Egyptians. But on the other hand, taking a sheep – the god of their tormentors – and publicly displaying your plans to slaughter and eat it?! That’s ludicrous and dangerous.

We can still hear those concerns and conversations, two friends at the back of some underground Shtiebel in Mitzrayim.

“Ok, of course Hashem is real. We’ve all seen the previous nine plagues. But does this all knowing, loving God really want us to risk our lives like this?”

“How do we know that Moshe is right about all the details? It was one thing when he was bringing plagues to Pharaoh... But now he wants us to get involved?”

“Yeah. And I don’t even have a first born child. Do you think I still need to risk my life here?“

“And where will we go afterwards? You really think that millions of Jews are going to be able to walk out of Egypt to some promised land?! I can barely get my kids to school on time. There’s no way we’re all getting out of here before they kill us.”

*“Maybe some of us will leave and eventually become Hashem’s nation... But let’s be honest with ourselves; you and me definitely don’t deserve to leave. With everything I’ve done in my life there’s no way God wants me in His nation...”*

“And if that’s the case, then our best bet is not to aggravate the Egyptians.”

All of these concerns center around the the same question: What will happen on the day after? And if we don’t know step-two, is step-one still worth it? We didn’t know then, and we don’t know now.

The courage to still take that first step is the Avoda of Shabbos Hagadol, Pesach and of this moment in Jewish history, as Rav Shlomo Twerski (מלכות שלמה – שבת הגדול) explains:

When a person chooses a goal for themselves, the first step is to decide what not to be. As a person grows, their end goals will grow and develop as well. Of course, without aiming for something, nothing can ever occur, but the beginning of the journey is always a rejection. It’s a decision that “I don’t want this.” Likewise, the Exodus begins with a rejection of the gods of Egypt. We still had no idea what to do afterwards, or what we might become, but there was one thing we knew: We would no longer live in service of the gods and ideals of Egypt.

Shabbos Hagadol is the obligation and invitation to walk away from the illusions that have defined our lives for the past years, decades and centuries. We do so even as we still don’t know what will happen next. All we know is that we can’t continue like this. It will never lead to fulfillment, safety, happiness or freedom.

In a very visceral way, this is the experience in our kitchens during the week before Pesach. We actively engage in getting rid of Chametz, even though there’s no matzah to eat... yet.

For the few days my kids have been steadily eying the Pesach snacks. And as the Chametz pantry dwindles to empty, in this world of slim pickings, even the heimishe knock-off purim leftovers are finally getting eaten. In the days before Pesach we’re in limbo; destroying our Chametz, but not quite ready for Pesach.

This gastronomic no-mans land exists on all levels. We’re escaping the lies despite not having all the answers.

Since October 7th, we have awakened to the reality that our in fighting and politicking were always meaningless and destructive. We have learned that our real enemies are always planning our demise. They mean what they say; and we should take them seriously. Despite commentary to the contrary, we learned that we have great friends amongst the nations of the world. But we have also learned the limits of those friendships.

On a personal level, we have learned that anti-semitism is just as real and just as ugly as ever. We have seen the moral bankruptcy of the most elite academic institutions. Through the pain of hatred, Jews around the world have awakened to the truth that there is no way to escape our destiny of being Hashem’s people.

What will be on the day after? What’s the next step? What is the future of American Jewry? What will happen in Israel? We don’t know. But Shabbos Hagadol gives us the strength to abandon the lies that have defined our lives until now.

Redemption is coming. Hashem is coming for me and for you. Despite what we have done, or what we haven’t; regardless of whether we think we deserve it or not. At this critical juncture in our lives, Hashem is not asking us to get everything right. All He is asking is for us to stand up and declare that we know what is wrong.

We have entered the darkness between exile and redemption and our next steps are still shrouded in mystery. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but we can finally see the false gods for what they are. And that’s enough for now.

On Monday afternoon I stood with a group of talmidim staring up at the sky.

Of course, we in Florida only saw a partial eclipse. Millions of people travelled for hours to experience a few minutes of totality. From my conversations with colleagues and friends who made the trek, none of them thought it was a waste of time.

But even for us, there was something special about the event. One of the guys handed me his eclipse glasses and said “Rebbe, thats the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so small.”

There is something deeply inspiring in witnessing the cosmic dance of light and darkness. For just a moment we are able to experience the unfathomable magnitude of these celestial bodies. Seeing the moon pass in front of the sun is so enormous that one cannot help feel small.

This smallness, however, is not depressing. It’s not the result of the shrinking of ourselves, but instead, the expanding of our views.

In those minutes of humility and wonder, I distinctly felt how my own concerns and issues seemed petty. Many of my students felt the same, and I came away asking if there might be more ways to reengage with these feelings and perspectives without waiting for the next eclipse.

At the same time as the shadow of the moon was sweeping through North America, there was another event taking place. This event was not widely reported or discussed. But I would suggest that it was just as monumental.

In every location where people gathered to see the eclipse, there was 40% drop in internet usage. To the best of my understanding, this “internet time” was not caught up by peaks of usage before and after. Which means to say, that for a short window on Monday afternoon, large swaths of humanity replaced the urge to look down, with the desire to look up.

We are living in a generation where it is laughably impossible to keep up with everything going on. We simply have access to far too much information. As of two years ago, over 30000 hours of video content were uploaded to YouTube every hour.

By definition, every act of looking at a screen contains a choice of what to consume. Often enough, those choices are made for us by algorithms and advertisers. But there is another option.

At any moment, there are countless events occurring in the world around us. But the stories of my life and of your life are experienced as the narrative of events that we are looking at. The choice of whether to look at the sky and marvel at Hashem’s creations or to consume some digital content is choosing how to write the next page in the story of our own lives.

Our lives are nothing more and nothing less than where we place our attention and focus.

As we approach Pesach, we can understand the entire story of Yetzias Mitzraim as Hashem calling out to Klal Yisrael to stop looking down, and to start looking up.

The plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice addressed us while our necks were still bend in slavery. These Makos affected the water and ground.

When the wild animals, pestilence and boils arrived, they affected people and animals. Our heads were raised to eye level.

Hail, locusts and darkness all descended from the sky as Hashem invited us to look upwards.

Once we had learned how to look upwards, Makos Bechoros taught us to look even further; beyond the world of nature, beyond the world of human sight.

To choose where to look and focus is to choose how we experience our lives. Conversely, if we want to evaluate the kind of life we are living, we should investigate the things we are looking at.

This principle is derived from a Halacha in our parsha. The Mishna tells us: כָּל הַנְּגָעִים אָדָם רוֹאֶה, חוּץ מִנִּגְעֵי עַצְמוֹ – All negaim/tzara’as may be examined by a person, except his own. But the Baal Shem Tov explained further:

כל הנגעים אדם רואה חוץ מנגעי עצמו, ופירש הבעל שם טוב הקדוש, כל הנגעים שאדם רואה חוץ, זה נמשך מנגעי עצמו, כמאמר רבותינו ז”ל (קדושין ד”ע ע”א) כל הפוסל במומו פוסל:

We learned “a person sees all defects, except (chutz) their own defects.” The holy Ba'al Shem Tov explained that “a person only sees defects outside of themselves (chutz)” – if what they see is a continuation of that person's defects, as our sages say “he disqualifies others with his own flaw.”

If we choose to look at another person’s flaws, this informs us of the problems we have ourselves.

Perhaps this is the reason we begin Pesach with searching for Chametz. Hashem wants us to direct our vision. There is much to discuss regarding the values and ideas in the mitzvah of searching for chametz. It's a world of Teshuva and introspection; but it all begins with acknowledging that we are always choosing where to look.

This is the Avoda for this week, for this season and this generation. We can choose where to look. And since we can choose, Hashem is asking us to raise our sights and perspective, to look upwards, inwards and onwards.

We’re living through a strange time in Jewish history. So much is going on all at once, and yet, in the past few weeks it feels like things are slowing down. Everything is happening, nothing is changing. We’re still holding our breath, wondering when or if we’ll be able to come up for air.

Some days it seems as if the national pastime of the Jewish people is refreshing the news feeds. Hoping, waiting, yearning for something. Not a day goes by without wondering what’s happening to the hostages? Is there any news? Any progress?And what’s going on in the North? What does all of this mean? How long until we see something with any clarity?

We feel the tensions brewing, the news cycles spinning. We’re trying to continue life with conviction and positivity, without getting cynical, frustrated or desensitized. Is there anything we can do to feel a little less helpless? A little less burnt out?

The truth is, however, that in a way, we’ve all been here before. This is not the first time we have walked on that narrow bridge from exile to redemption in the darkness of night. I imagine this is exactly how our ancestors felt during their final months in Mitzraim.

It’s a funny thing to consider it because we’re often blinded by our familiarity with the story of the Exodus. But they didn’t know that there would be ten plagues. No one gave them a time line; no pre-prints of the Hagaddah in Egypt. Who knew what was going to transpire? Perhaps there might have been more plagues, or maybe less? Perhaps some of those world shattering events would indeed harm some Jews. Was every Jew worthy of being saved? No one knew. No one would dare to predict what might happen next.

As far as individual Jews were concerned, I imagine that the supernatural and systematic destruction of Mitzrayim was probably a cause for perpetual anxiety. Who knows when or if some Egyptians might retaliate? Sure, Hashem is taking care of things. But what about me and my family? What are our next steps? Even with the miracles of the plagues, Hashem’s plans were still concealed in the fog of the unknown future.

Chazal tell us that the ten plagues lasted for a full year, and throughout that time, and while Moshe, Aharon and the Zekeinim has a role to play, most of Klal Yisrael were observers.

Until Rosh Chodesh Nisan.

On that fateful day, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon to tell us: הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים – This month is the head of all months. Somehow, this single mitzvah holds within it the beginnings of freedom, autonomy, safety and the destiny of being Am Yisrael.

Many mitzvos would follow in due course; Korban Pesach, Matzah and Marror; the blood on the door posts. But it all begins with Rosh Chodesh. The obligation to count Jewish time from the first day of Nisan.

The P’shat of this mitzvah, as the Seforno (שמות יב ב) explains, is that freedom begins with control over our own time. Slaves are bound to use their time for the will of their masters, but liberation entails the ability to choose how to utilize this most precious of commodities.

But the Beis Avraham adds a level of understanding that might assist us in confronting the confusion of this moment in our lives:

“This month will give you a new Rosh – a new head. New thoughts, new perspectives and new understandings. Even if one’s head is filled with destruction, confusion, lowliness and heresy, in this month, one can become a new person.”

Redemption is introduced this month by inviting us to think differently about time, purpose and ourselves. Rosh Chodesh grants us the chance to acquire a “new head”, a new way of thinking.

This Avoda is not limited to the singular day of Rosh Chodesh Nisan alone; it continues throughout the month. The Shelah HaKadosh writes that הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה – this entire month should be רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים, days of Rosh Chodesh. Every day of Nisan is like a Rosh Chodesh. Every day is laying the foundation for the rest of the year. Each moment of Nisan is a chance to rethink and reconsider the way we live and act and think and feel.

In the midst of the fog, the frustration and confusion, Nisan charges us with the obligation to rethink our circumstances.

Nisan, like Tishrei is a time for reflection, introspection and reevaluation. Chazal tells us that Rosh Chodesh Nisan is also a Rosh Hashana; this too is a beginning.

The Berdichever explains Nisan is also a time when Hashem judges the world, but the points of evaluation are very different:

וכן הוא בתשרי השם יתברך דן את העולם אם הם אוהבים אותו ויראים ממנו, ובניסן השם יתברך דן את העולם אם הם אוהבים את בני ישראל. ולכך פרעה שעשה רעה לישראל לקה הקב”ה אותו בזה החודש.

On Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei, Hashem judges to see if the world loves Him and fears Him. In Nisan, however, Hashem judges each and every person to determine their love the Jewish people. For this reason, Paroah met his downfall in this month.

During Nisan, Hashem is looking at humanity and examining each person and each nation, asking how much do you love Klal Yisrael? This year in particular, it has not been difficult to see where nations and people are holding with regards to this question. The answers have broadcast on the news for the past six months.

But it’s important to know that this question is not only for the nations of the world. We need to address it as well. Hashem is also asking each one of us how much do we love, respect and value each and every member of Klal Yisrael. The answer to this question for this Nisan is also not hard to assess. But we still have work to do.

The greatest damage of Egyptian exile was the thought and feeling that we were slaves. The we deserved to be slaves. Chazal tells us that the extent of this psychological conditioning was so severe that no slave ever attempted to escape Egypt.

It’s hard to love yourself when you don’t believe your life is worthwhile. It’s hard to love others when you think of them in the same way. So Hashem challenged us then, and He is challenging us now, once again: How much do you love and value every Jew?

The Sfas Emes (שבת הגדול תרמ”ג) explains:

כמ”ש ואעבור עליך כו'. שראה שאין בידם זכות ונתן להם דם פסח כו'. כמו כן בכל שנה בימים אלו מחפשין זכותן של בנ”י.

When Hashem redeemed His people from Mitzraim, He searched for their merits, and found the merits of Bris Milah and Korban Pesach. Likewise, every year at this time, we need to seek out the merits of the Jewish people.

More than any Nisan in our lifetime, this Nisan is asking us to get a Rosh Chadash – A new head. To think differently about Hashem, His world and His Torah. If we’re feeling stuck, if we feel that the world is stalling, it’s time for a new head.

Hashem is asking us to learn how to seek out and find the merits of each and every Jew, beginning with ourselves. Redemption is ‘round the corner. May we merit to see it soon.

Which Megillah are you going to this year? Express? Family Megillah? This important decision rides on one central question: How many Hamans are you planning on “Klapping”?

Amazingly, even on a day when we have so many wonderful mitzvos of community and connection to fulfill, somehow, Klal Yisrael has still found controversy in Klapping Haman.

If you find yourself squarely on either side of the debate, know that you are in good company. We’ve been arguing the issue for over a millennia.

Rabbi Shem Tob Gaguine (כתר שם טוב ב ע’ תקמג) relates that on the Purim of 1783, a group of unruly youths came to the Spanish-Portuguese congregation in London with hammers and axes, banging on the chairs and tables during the Megillah; and their “foolish fathers” did nothing to stop them.

Following that Purim, the officers of the Shul ruled that anyone causing any Haman disturbances during future Megillah readings was to be evicted from the Shul.

But the debate goes back far further and it’s worth noting that the Rama codifies both the practice and its value in Shulchan Aruch (או”ח תרצ יז):

עוד כתבו שנהגו התינוקות לצור צורת המן על עצים ואבנים או לכתוב שם המן עליהם ולהכותן זה על זה כדי שימחה שמו על דרך מחה תמחה את זכר עמלק ושם רשעים ירקב ומזה נשתרבב המנהג שמכים המן כשקורים את המגילה בב”ה [אבודרהם] ואין לבטל שום מנהג או ללעוג עליו כי לא לחנם הוקבע [ב”י בשם א”ח]

It is also written that the young children are accustomed to draw pictures of Haman on trees or stones or to write the name of Haman on themselves and to strike one against the other in order to blot out his name according to “The name of Amalek shall surely be erased” ... We must not nullify any custom nor should we ridicule any custom since they were not established frivolously.

In the generations that followed, many Rabbanim and Gedolim attempted to abolish the minhag, for all the obvious reasons; halachik, hashkafic, political and social. Yet the custom prevailed.

Of course, for a minhag to survive this long with such opposition, there must be something hidden beneath the surface.

The Tikunei Zohar famously teaches that “Purim Ki-Purim”; there is a deep connection between Yom Kippur and Purim. Many Sefarim are replete with commentaries and explanations of this connection, and for our purposes, it is interesting to note that both of these days feature some type of “Klapping”.

On Yom Kippur, we hit our hearts with every mention of “Chatanu” and on Purim we stamp on the floor or beat sticks and stones at each mention of Haman.

The Magen Avraham (או”ח תרז ג) quotes the Medrash, explaining the reason for hitting our hearts on Yom Kippur: אַתָּה גָּרַמְתָּ לִי הַחֵטְא – You, heart, caused me to sin.

The Sefer HaChaim (written by the brother of the Maharal) adds further that when when hit our hearts, we are staging a one-person protest, telling our hearts that our hands will not act impulsively any longer.

The simple intention behind this minhag is the notion that we are fully responsible for our actions.

Taking responsibility for our problems is becoming far less popular in the world today. People enjoy passing the buck, ducking from owning our issues and our habits. We prefer to point fingers, blame others and shirk responsibility.

But Yom Kippur is a day that forces us to come to terms with the reality that אַתָּה גָּרַמְתָּ לִי הַחֵטְא – my own heart led me astray; each action driving my further and further from my purpose in life. Teshuva is the heavy process of realizing and verbalizing “I caused this, I did this.”

Truthfully, we observe this practice in every weekday Shmoneh Esrei; we beat our hearts as we admit “forgive us Hashem, we have failed.” We accept that our choices have created the reality of our lives, and we work to do better.

But there is one day of the year where the script is flipped. That day is Purim.

Regarding Purim (as we will hear this Shabbos leading up to it) the Torah commands us: זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק – Remember what Amalek did to you.

Amalek back then did not choose to hate us because of our sins and flaws. Likewise, the nations and groups that embody Amalek today hate us for who we are and what we represent.

This war was done to us, perpetrated against us. In other words, this one fight, the fight against Amalek is not our fault.

In the deepest sense, the hatred that Amalek harbors is rooted in the existence of evil itself. Chazal (חולין קלט ב) tell us that Haman is hinted to in the Torah in the Pasuk in the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:

המן מן התורה מנין (בראשית ג, יא) המן העץ

They also asked Rav Mattana: From where in the Torah can one find an allusion to Haman? He replied: The verse states after Adam ate from the tree of knowledge: “Have you eaten of [hamin] the tree, about which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11). (Hamin is spelled in the same manner as Haman: Heh, mem, nun.)

When we hear the name Haman, we do not beat our hearts, for our hearts did not cause the Hamans of the world. Instead, we blot out the name of Haman / Amalek. Here, and only here, we rightfully point fingers.

Perhaps this explains why it is that the minhag of Klapping Haman is primarily practiced by children. There is no clearer evidence of faultlessness than kids. If a nation hates Jewish children, that’s not because our kids sinned. Their hearts have not led them astray.

When children are attacked, kidnapped and targeted, we can clearly state: They did nothing to deserve it. And by extension, neither did any of us.

For one day a year, we can celebrate knowing that none of this is our fault. Ironically, anti-semitism has nothing to do with us. There is nothing that we did to cause it, and there is nothing we can to end it. The only thing to do is to destroy it.

Purim is a stark reminder to all those presenting their “As a Jew...” monologues.

Purim tells us that “as a Jew” we take full responsibility for our faults, flaws and failures. We own our mitzvos, aveiros and their consequences. But we take no responsibility for the hatred that others harbor against us.

Indeed, Hashem Himself takes the responsibility here, promising כִּי־מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם – “I, Hashem, will destroy Amelek from beneath the heavens.” Hashem declares that the war against Amalek is His war. He created the possibility of evil; so He will be the one to end it. All that He asks is that we join Him on that battle field; taking action rather than taking blame.

My feeling this year is that even if you’re not a fan of Klapping Haman, perhaps this Purim we should all Klap Haman a little louder (while remaining respectful).

Every Klap is a tefillah, asking Hashem to destroy His enemies. Every Klap is a message to the rest of our Klal Yisrael that we don’t hold them accountable for the hatred of Amalek either. Every Klap is a reminder to the hostages that we have not forgotten them.

With Hashem’s help, we should soon see the end of evil, and names of our enemies will finally be put to rest.

In the past few days, we have witnessed nothing short of an invasion of anti-semites into Jewish communities quite similar to our own here in Boca: Toronto, Teaneck and the Five Towns.

To speak broadly, Jews in these neighborhoods do not live insular lives. They are friendly with their non-Jewish neighbors and deeply engaged with their local community. They participate in the western world. For lack of a better term, these are largely “Modern Orthodox” places. Yet, as history has proven, no amount of blending-in will sway they hearts and minds of those who hate us.

I have no idea as to the plans of these antisemites, but I cant help wondering if perhaps protests in Boca are next on the list? And if they arrive in our neighborhoods, how should we react? How will we feel? Naturally, at the back of minds we are all asking what this might mean for our future?

Of course, mainstream news is reporting this as a “spill over” of the Middle Eastern conflict, but we, as a nation, have too much life experience to deny the reality of these events. Millenia of persecution has proven that Jew hatred is never simply about one issue or another. The truth is that there are people here in North America who are, to varying degrees, protesting the very existence and destiny of Klal Yisrael. Our enemies are not simply hoping that we leave Gaza and Jerusalem, but New York, Florida and Planet Earth as well.

In the history of our people, none of this is new. While this anti-Israel movement is only a few decades old, it is only the most recent iteration of the world oldest hate.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the very nature of anti-Semitism is its evasiveness. It is always shifting, morphing and changing. There is nothing we can do to convince the anti-semite to stop hating us because there is no reason for anti-semitism. There never has been.

The Rav writes: When Yaakov pins his angelic adversary to the ground, he asks “What is your name?”

...And the answer was, “What difference does it make who I am? Whoever I am, I have one mission, and that is to defy you. I am opposed to what you strive for: to come back to Eretz Yisrael and build and develop a people in that land.” (The Lord is Righteous, p. 222)

It is instructive to note that by this point in his life, Yaakov Avinu has been in the house of Lavan for over two decades. Neither Esav nor his Angelic representative cared to engage with Yaakov until he decided to return to Eretz Yisrael. It is not the existence “a Jew” per-se that disturbs the anti-semite. It’s our potential for Jewish self-actualization, autonomy and sovereignty.

Likewise, Rabbi Sacks wrote extensively on the mutating nature of anti-Semitism:

Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist as Jews with the same rights as everyone else. The form this takes today is anti-Zionism. Of course, there is a difference between Zionism and Judaism, and between Jews and Israelis, but this difference does not exist for the new antisemites themselves. It was Jews not Israelis who were murdered in terrorist attacks in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen. Anti-Zionism is the antisemitism of our time.

Those who hate us see the entire world through those hateful lenses and they feel entirely justified in their perspective. Consider the bizarre irony, that all the previously immutable values of the west have recently been amended to make exceptions for Jews and Israelis. Violating women’s bodies and children’s rights; indeed all the “-isms”, are now permissible in protest of the Jewish nation.

Living Beyond Compression

All of this leads to a fascinatingly difficult truth: Despite all the scholarship, brilliance and erudition of the Jewish people, even a rudimentary understanding anti-semitism escapes us. We certainly have no ability to comprehend the intensity of the hatred directed towards our people.

But if the hatred cannot be understood, can it ever be eradicated? Or are we doomed to suffer the cycles of persecution and exile until we are miraculously redeemed?

As Purim draws close, perhaps we might suggest that our sages were bothered by this conundrum as well. The Talmud (מגילה ז ב) tells us:

אָמַר רָבָא: מִיחַיַּיב אִינִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai”.

Drinking on Purim is more than an excuse for a party. There is a purpose and a goal that Chazal are addressing head-on. We are to blur our understandings of Haman and Mordechai. But to what end?

The “cursedness of Haman” has always been beyond our capacity to comprehend. We have never and will never understand the extent of depravity and hatred that fuels our enemies. It is irrational, illogical and incomprehensible.

But on Purim, we are obligated to realize that the same is true in the opposite direction. The blessedness of Mordechai – “Baruch Mordechai” – Our capacity for Kedusha, for greatness and goodness is likewise beyond all comprehension. Our potential for positivity is also unfathomably infinite. We have no idea how great we can become.

This is not simply Purim Torah. We are capable and obligated to bring this infinity into our daily lives; even (and especially) in the face of our constant internal and external setbacks.

Achieving the Impossible

Sefer Shemos concludes this Shabbos with the final construction of the Mishkan. Despite the various stages of donating and building over the past five weeks, Chazal (תנחמא פקודי יא) tell us that the completion of the Mishkan was beyond Moshe’s abilities.

אָמַר מֹשֶׁה, רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ לְהַעֲמִידוֹ. אָמַר לוֹ: עֲסֹק בְּיָדֶיךָ וְאַתָּה מַרְאֶה לְהַעֲמִידוֹ וְהוּא עוֹמֵד מֵאֵלָיו, וַאֲנִי כוֹתֵב עָלֶיךָ שֶׁאַתָּה הֲקֵמֹתוֹ.

Moshe said: Master of the Universe, I do not know how to build it. Hashem said to him: Try to do it yourself and you’ll see it will stand up by itself, and I will record in the Torah that you achieved it.

The Tiferes Yosef (פקודי ד”ה ותכל) questions:

The Torah does not lie and yet, Hashem is telling Moshe “if you try to build the Mishkan, I’ll make it happen and give you the credit!?” His point is as simple as it is profound:

כשהאדם עובד בכל כחו, אז חותם השי”ת על כל עבודתו ונקראת על שם האדם

When we do all we can to achieve the impossible, Hashem gives us the green light. He grants us success and give us the credit for achieving it.

If we are witnessing an explosion in irrational hatred, Hashem is inviting us to create an explosion of irrational love. If our enemies are trying to intimidate us, we are obligated to combat them with overwhelming Jewish pride. And if our enemies are denying the Kedusha of Klal Yisrael, it is time to upgrade our Kedusha, Torah and Tefillah.

Perhaps they are coming for us in Boca; perhaps they are coming where ever we may be. So perhaps it’s time that we rise above what we thought was possible and become greater than we ever imagined.

This is Hashem’s final promise of the Book of Exile and Redemption: If we attempt the impossible, He’ll make it happen.

Let’s be clear. The obligation to “increase our happiness” in Adar is counterintuitive. Not just this year, with the wounds of October 7th still so fresh; but every year.

In our national calendar, Adar is the end of the year. When Adar arrives, the end is near. A near year, a new season, a new opportunity, a new dawn – it’s all about to happen. Soon. But not yet. Not for another month.

Our sages (ר”ה יא א) teach us that בְּנִיסָן נִגְאֲלוּ בְּנִיסָן עֲתִידִין לִיגָּאֵל – In Nisan the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt; and in Nisan we will be redeemed. But Nisan is a month away, and this year in particular, redemption seems more distant than ever.

As this Adar enters, we increase our desperation. Our exasperation. Our exhaustion. Our frustration. Our disappointment with the nations of the world.

As Adar enters, we increase our concern for the hostages. We increase our horror at the complicity and complacency of “decent people.”

As we welcome Adar II this Shabbos, another month has gone by and more of our holy Chayalim have given their lives. Mothers, father, wives and children are still sitting Shiva. So many more are crying next to the beds of their wounded loved ones. Rockets are flying from Lebanon, and thousands of families have yet to return to their homes.

This week, we marked 150 days since our world changed forever and redemption has not yet arrived.

I dare say it, but as this Adar enters we cannot help but increase our sadness.

We are living in the generation before the dawn breaks. We are the Jews who haven’t yet left Egypt. The sea has not yet split. For us, Mordechai is still wearing sackcloth and Ester is still fasting, trembling before she meets the king. The ten sons of Hamas (not a typo) have not yet been hanged.

We are the Jews at the end of time, living through the “Adar” of Jewish history, still waiting for the spring to arrive. Or, in the words of our sages (סוטה מט ב), we are experiencing the עקבתא דמשיחא – the heels of Moshiach.

Perhaps then, it was davka to us that Chazal whispered and insisted, משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – when Adar enters, it is time to work on increasing our happiness. Not because it’s easy and not because it’s obvious. We need to increase our happiness because that is the greatest need of our generation.

In a world of rising anxiety, depression, instability and antisemitism, we need to increase our happiness.

But how?

Naturally, we turn to our sages to identify the correct methodology to fulfill this obligation. But curiously, Chazal do not define how we should become happier. Neither the Talmud nor the Poskim give us any instructions at all!

This startling absence is a clear giveaway that our understanding is deficient. We are looking at the instructions of Chazal with the self-centered lenses of our contemporary society. We are looking for directions to becoming happier. And why not? Who doesn’t want to experience greater happiness. But The words מרבין בשמחה do not mean “to become happier,” they mean “to increase happiness.”

This is a completely different aim. It is possible to increase another person’s happiness even if we are heartbroken, exhausted and confused.

The most pressing need of Chodesh Adar, of the end of the year, and the end of time is to becoming multipliers of Simcha.

After some searching, I finally found this exact explanation in a lesser known work of the Rishonim, the Sefer HaMichtam (Rabbi David ben Levi of Narbonne, late 13th century – ברוך שכוונתי):

ההרבות בשמחה האמור משנכנס אדר לא נאמר להרבות מאכלים ובמשתאות אבל לב העניים והאביונים ובכללה כל שמחת מצוה

The increase in happiness as Adar enters is not an instruction to eat and drink more. Instead, focus on the hearts of those impoverished and destitute, and in general, all the happiness of doing mitzvos.

Chazal are imploring us shift our center.

This refocusing is echoed in the Rambam’s description of the obligation of Simchas Yom Tov:

וכשהוא אוכל ושותה חייב להאכיל לגר ליתום ולאלמנה עם שאר העניים האמללים. אבל מי שנועל דלתות חצרו ואוכל ושותה הוא ובניו ואשתו ואינו מאכיל ומשקה לעניים ולמרי נפש אין זו שמחת מצוה אלא שמחת כריסו.

When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his stomach.

Of course, our own experiences reveal a great irony. Those who stop chasing their own happiness and invest their time, energy and money into making other people happy find themselves filled with inner contentment.

The pursuit of happiness might be epitomized by a white picket fence. But the actual attaining of such happiness is achieved by breaking the fences down; opening our hearts and homes to each other.

Likewise, when we dedicate ourselves to Avodas Hashem, to Torah, Mitzvos and Chessed we find wells of untapped energy and deep satisfaction. The Sfas Emes notes that when the Beis HaMikdash stood, Jews tasted this Simcha when they donated their half shekel coins. That simple act of investing in the continuity of Klal Yisrael, the Mikdash and Korbanos, of knowing that you are a part of something enormous and meaningful, was a catalyst for Simcha.

This is the deeper meaning of why we’re reading Parshas Shekalim this Shabbos. It’s the introduction to Chodesh Adar II.

It reminds us that in the midsts of brokenness and despair we can still make a difference. We don’t need to know all the answers. But when Adar arrives, we can still increase the net Simcha of the world. All it takes is a single shekel given to a person in need, dedicated to the Mikdash. Or rather, scratch that: Half a shekel will do.

Half a shekel is all it takes to cross over the darkness before the dawn. Perhaps that is why Hashem reveals the Machatzis HaShekel as a מַטְבֵּעַ שֶׁל אֵשׁ – coin of fire. A single coin gives us the light and heat needed to navigate the final moments before the Geulah of Nisan finally arrives.

With Hashem’s help, we should merit to see it soon.

In my Halacha shiur this week, we were discussing the bracha on tzitzis. One of my talmidim raised his hand:

“Rebbe, is it true that if you don’t make a bracha, you didn’t just miss out on a mitzvah, but you get a sin as well?”

It wasn’t really our topic, but I could see that this was bothering him.

“You’re sort of right. The Gemara says something along those lines regarding the brachos on food:

וְכׇל הַנֶּהֱנֶה מִן הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה בְּלֹא בְּרָכָה מָעַל – anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of stealing from the Beis HaMikdash.“

Being kinda correct wasn’t what this talmid was hoping for. He looked defeated and said “So you’re telling me that I’ve racked up thousands of sins for all this stuff already.”

It’s a complicated question to answer. On the one hand, we cannot downplay the importance of a mitzvah or a bracha. We certainly can’t denigrate words of Chazal. But one the other hand, drilling down is a recipe for despondence and depression.

Pausing for a moment, I told him “Yes, missing a bracha is a sin. That said, I think you care a little too much about your sins. Maybe more than Hashem does.”

That was intentionally inflammatory and the whole shiur was bothered by this idea, so we continued the conversation, noting that in the western world, we’ve all been conditioned by thoughts of sin and punishment from other cultures.

All too often we think of Hashem as some “overbearing headmaster” with a checklist of our flaws and failures. Or perhaps, when that image is too overwhelming, we flip to the other side completely, and imagine Hashem as our best friend; loyal, supportive and tolerant.

Neither of these tells the whole story.

In the deepest way, we should think of Hashem as a great coach who sees what we are truly capable of; often before we do. A great coach trains us to know that every practice, game or competition should be taken seriously. But never to the point where we dread it.

A great coach demands diligence, dedication and a drive for perfection. But a great coach also understands that actual perfection unattainable, and cautions us not to get caught up in our failures.

On the infinite journey towards growth and mastery, we all acknowledge that we will make mistakes. Some of them will be terrible. We will have bad days, and weak moments. Sometimes we’re going to push ourselves too hard and break. And sometimes, we’re going to get lazy and not push ourselves hard enough. Often, we’re going to have a difficult time figuring out the fine line between these two extremes.

Sometimes our emotions and desires will get the better of us, and sometimes we’ll fail to bring that passion into our life, learning and work. We will dig through demotivation and frustration. That’s all part of the process. We know it’s going to happen.

Of course, knowing that we are going to fail at some point does not make it excusable. All of it must be accounted for and corrected. We should not be irreverent about it; a fundamental truth is that nothing we do is ever irrelevant in Hashem’s grand calculus. Every Aveira will require teshuva; it will need to be addressed in this world or the next. But there’s a big difference between fixing our mistakes and beating ourselves up.

That difference manifests in one pivotal way: What happens the day after we fail? Great players know that the only thing worse than losing is quitting.

That’s what Hashem told Aharon in the tragic aftermath of his helping Klal Yisrael to build the Egel HaZahav (ויקרא רבה כא ה):

אם עשית חבילות של עבירות עשה כנגדן חבילות של מצות If you’ve transgressed a pile of Aveiros, counter that with a pile of Mitzvos.

It’s not an easy task and we don’t always live like this. We’re so tempted to give up; to accept defeat and allow our hopes, dreams and aspirations to wither.

But so many of the greatest moments in our history do not come from perfect scores. They come from overcoming fear and failure.

The Sefer Imrei Daas (עמ’ קעט) records the story:

In the winter of 1930, the construction of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was finally completed. The inauguration of the new building was set for the 28th of Sivan that year. The famed Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Meir Shapiro, made it his personal duty to ensure that the event was publicized and advertised to every Torah Community in Europe.

Weighing heavily on his mind, however, was a question posed by his Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Friedman, the Rebbe of Chortkov: It is wise to publicize this event so widely? Perhaps a more modest reception is in order?

This consideration was not simply a personal inclination. Rashi (שמות ל״ד ג), quoting the Medrash makes this point when contrasting the short-lived first set of Luchos to the second everlasting set:

הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת עַ”יְ שֶׁהָיוּ בִתְשׁוּאוֹת וְקוֹלוֹת וּקְהִלּוֹת, שָׁלְטָה בָהֶן עַיִן רָעָה – אֵין לְךָ יָפֶה מִן הַצְּנִיעוּת

Because the first tablets were given amidst great noises and publicity and a vast crowd the Evil Eye had power over them and they did not endure. (We see from here that) there is no finer quality than to be modest.

Rav Meir Shapiro responded to the challenge with a question of his own:

Surely Hashem Himself also knows this Rashi?! And yet, He broke the barrier between heaven and earth to present us with His Torah on Har Sinai with fanfare and publicity.

Moreover, we can ask: Why did Hashem give the Luchos to Moshe at all? Moshe was handed the Luchos at the very moment when Hashem told him that the Jewish people had built the Egel. They had violated the core principle of their relationship with God! Surely Hashem knew that those Tablets were not long for this world?!

Of course He knew. He knew all of it; but something greater was at stake.

Consider that as we came out of Mitzraim, the world was drowning in idolatry. Humanity was in desperate need of a shock to their system. The world needed to be shaken awake.

Knowing and understanding this, Hashem gave us the Torah. He handed Moshe the Luchos knowing that they would be shattered, but through this, Klal Yisrael would finally arise from slavery and obscurity. The world would know that there is a Creator of Heaven and Earth, even if they had no sustainable way of serving Him. Even if they built the Golden Calf.

The Rosh Yeshiva concluded: I agree with Hashem’s assessment. If it would be, Chas V’Shalom, that the publicity of my Yeshiva would bring my own downfall, then I am prepared to risk my life to make a Kiddush Hashem in the world.

The Chortkover Rebbe nodded his head, acquiescing to the selflessness of his student and Chassid. Perhaps in some way, he knew that Rav Meir Shapiro would indeed leave the world a few short years later, but that the legacy of his Torah would endure forever in the Daf Yomi which he pioneered.

The profundity of this approach is transformative. It’s the bold declaration that despite our fears of failure and evil, we cannot let anything get in the way of pursuing the ultimate purpose of our lives: Bringing Hashem into this world.

Incredibly, since October 7th this is happening throughout the Jewish world.

Jews who have lived much their lives imagining themselves mired in filth and failures are shaking themselves from that dirt. They’re putting on Tefillin and Tzitzis. They’re saying Tehillim, giving tzedaka and kashering their kitchens. They’re risking their lives in Gaza. They’re saving lives and securing our future.

Perhaps neither they nor we, have succeeded in overcoming the Golden Calfs of our lives. Perhaps we are still smashing the Luchos. But that doesn’t mean we stop showing up for practice. That’s what the coach is asking from us. He still sees something in us and our team that we’ve been struggling to see for generations.

The deepest lesson of the Egel HaZahav is that it wasn’t the end. There is no end to an eternal nation.

So why waste your eternity wallowing in the shots we missed?

It’s time to lace up your tzitzis. Open that Sefer. It’s time to stop chasing those foreign gods and goals. But if you did; if you missed your shot, now’s the time to get over it. As Rebbe Nachman teaches (ליקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא קי״ב):

אִם אַתָּה מַאֲמִין, שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְתַקֵּן

If you believe that, somehow, you were able to destroy, then it’s time to believe you can fix it as well.

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