Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

In the final week of Halacha Shiur this year, I asked my talmidim for some feedback on which topics they enjoyed, what they felt they learned and what we could've done better.

One of the guys, with perhaps a little too much honesty, told me that he loved all of our discussions. He enjoyed our philosophical conversations, our side tangents and debates. But learning Halacha itself? “Rebbe, it's just a lot of rules. That's so boring.”

It's not a very Rabbinic thing to say, but I empathize with his sentiment. The truth is, there are many parts of Torah and Yiddishkeit that are boring. Though, we should note, boring is a relative emotion. We feel most bored when there is a more exciting alternative activity. The obligation to Daven the same text multiple times daily is boring; and it's made more so by the ever present draw of our screens. Yom Tov is boring, when compared flashy cruises and vacations, and learning Chumash is boring when compared with reading Harry Potter.

Rabbis, Teachers and parents are well aware of this truth: It's getting harder and harder to motivate people to do anything important, meaningful or productive in a world where sitting on a couch doing nothing is designed and engineered to be more exciting.

Our natural instinct here is to attempt to compete, and by all standards we are doing pretty well, all things considered. We prepare and produce exciting Torah programs and classes, leibedik musical Tefillah, and themed shiurim paired with food and drink. We'll try almost anything to enable a temporary escape from the reverie of an entertainment induced semi-coma.

All of this has worked with a modicum of success; a series of incentives that (hopefully) works its way up to more serious commitments.

But it's getting harder. Our attention spans are steadily shrinking as we doom-scroll through social media, and content creators and online algorithms are becoming ever more adept at tailoring our experience to ensure that we stay hooked on their platforms.

Long term, it's hard to imagine that learning Halacha will continue to compete – or even rank as exciting in the coming days and years.

Is there a way to solve the issue? I believe so. But it doesn't involve upping the ante of Torah excitement. Nor does it require draconian measures to withhold technology.

The simplest solution is to realize that to some extent, we've been going about this a little backwards. Sure, there is a purpose in learning and teaching in an enjoyable and engaging manner. Were it not for the love, attention, and excitement of our own teachers and Rabbeim, none of us would want to engage in Torah any further. But perhaps the greatest lesson that we've been failing to educate and practice is that boring is not bad. In many ways, “boring” is the point.

Our culture spends a lot of time promoting excellence, creativity and excitement; but in any endeavor, it's simple, boring competency that is far more accessible, useful and compelling.

In some ways, the single most valuable skill for living a meaningful life is the ability to stick with “boring”, rather than giving up. Consider the road to success in business, art, music, marriage or raising children. The vast majority of the things that we do to create the lives we wish to enjoy, are not exciting. Professional musicians play thousands of hours of chords and scales long before fame and fortune. Athletes drill repetitive skills for years, and Talmidei Chachamim study Halacha.

Rather than viewing boredom as something to cure, perhaps we should be teaching it, encouraging it and practicing it as a skill-set to learn. This is not simply to force people into embracing suffering – far from it. When we focus all of our attention on ensuring that Torah is interesting and exciting, we miss out on developing the skills necessary for competency. There are many teens and adults caught in this trap: Their enjoyment and excitement has resulted in a deep love of Torah, but they cannot make sense of a text independently. Many people love davening, but struggle to navigate through the siddur or the machzor unaided. It's a profoundly frustrating place to be.

But it's not all about dry skills. Sure, embracing the boring is the only way to gain competency and expertise, but paradoxically, it's also the surest way to achieve creativity and meaning.

This point is made clear in the our parsha in the most unambiguous manner: Almost without parallel, parshas Naso is the most repetitive and “boring” parsha in Chumash. On each of the days of the inauguration of the Mishkan, a different Nasi, a Prince, from a different tribe brought their contribution. Each one literally identical to the day before. But rather than listing the gifts of the Nesi'im as “this is what they each brought,” the Torah copies-and-pastes the same paragraph twelve times. Aside from the names of the Nasi and tribe, there is no difference at all in the text.

This seemingly unnecessary repetition is discussed by the Medrashim and Rishonim. The Ramban explains:

כי לכל אחד מהנשיאים עלה במחשבה להביא חנוכה למזבח ושתהיה בזה השיעור Each of the Nesiim brought their offering with a different thought and idea.

Each of them brought exactly the same thing – but their thoughts were quite different.

The Medrash Rabba offers an incredible array of intentions for each part of the gifts. Consider the pasuk: כַּף אַחַת עֲשָׂרָה זָהָב – “one gold ladle of ten golden shekelim.”

Yehuda, the lineage of royalty, brought this gift to symbolize the ten generations from Peretz until David, who were all tzadikim: Ten people in one category. Yissachar who championed the study of Torah thought of the כף (which also means a “hand”) as the “Hand” of Hashem writing the Ten Commandments. Zevulun, the sea-faring tradesmen imbued their gift with thoughts of נהרות ימחאו כף – the rivers clapping their hands (תהילים צ״ח:ח) in awesome celebration of the Presence of Hashem. Reuven's כף harkened back to his moment of bravery; when he saved Yosef's life by telling his brothers “Don't lay a hand on him.”

The Medrash continues in this fashion, and explains each and every detail of each of the gifts.

Rav Simcha Zissel Broide (שם דרך נשא, הביורים יא) writes that the fundamental, underlying principle of the Medrash and the Ramban is that the same act, with a different intention is, in fact, a completely different action: “כל המעשה נחשב מעשה אחר, והמעשים הם כשתי מצוות נפרדות”.

In other words, when the action is identical and boring, the meaning and significance is generated by the person, and not the action alone. Perhaps the highest forms of creativity are found within the limitations rather than by attempting to escape them.

To the casual reader of the Pesukim, the Parsha seems exceedingly repetitive. But to the Nasi and tribe that was actually there, bringing that offering to the Mishkan on their designated day; nothing could be more elevated, exciting or creative. It's the feeling of creating a brand new dish from the same ingredients.

This is the secret sauce to a meaningful existence: Most of life is as boring and as limiting as a blank canvas. But it is specifically from within the boring confines of a blank canvas that the greatest creativity, beauty and purpose arises.

Halacha might well be boring from the outside. But learning it, practicing it, and embracing it is effectively building the foundation upon which we move from being consumers of Jewish life to being producers. Within the confines of rules, restrictions and laws we are obligated to achieve competency, and invited to experience and enjoy creativity.

This is out great Tefillah for the Shabbos after Kabblas HaTorah: ותן חלקנו בתורתך – that Hashem should help each one of us to find our unique place in His Torah.

A number of years ago, there was a boy in Bnei Brak, who unfortunately, left Yiddishkeit and moved in with an irreligious cousin somewhere else in Israel.

As he drifted, his relationship with Torah strained further, and he became engaged to a non-Jewish girl. His irreligious cousin was quite upset, but was unable to convince him to break up the engagement. However, he did convince him that knowing intermarriage would be cutting ties with the Jewish people and with his family, he should at least go home, and tell his parents face to face. He agreed and invited himself home for a Shabbos on “his terms.” His broken hearted parents agreed.

Friday night was spent smoking on the porch and on Shabbos day he left the table to smoke, scrolling on his phone. That Shabbos afternoon his father approached him wistfully, and invited him to join a shiur he was going to, given by Rav Aron Leib Shteinman zt”l.

Much to his father's surprise, the son agreed to go. After the shiur, his father brought him over to Rav Shteinman to say good Shabbos and informed the gadol that unfortunately his son is no longer shomer shabbos. Rav Shteinman looked at him and asked, “How long are you not keeping Shabbos?” The boy answered “Two years”. “And during that time did you ever have a thought of Teshuva? A hirhur teshuva?” “Yes, about four times.” “And how long did the hihur teshuva last each time?” “Approximately 10 minutes.” “Oh, so it comes out that for 40 minutes during the last two years you were in the category of of מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין – In the place where Baalei Teshuva stand, even the tzadkim do not stand.

Rav Shteinman looked into the eyes of the young man and said: “For that kind of Teshuva, I am jealous. Gut Shabbos.”

The boy went home and returned to his cousins house. Rav Shteinman's words left him no peace. Slowly, he began to reconsider his life and decisions. Weeks later, the engagement was broken and from there, his life turned around, finally retuning to Torah, Mitzvos and his family.

Months later, his father asked him: I understand your journey back came from Rav Shteinman's incredible insight and sensitivity. But I still don't understand; you spend all Shabbos refusing to do anything. Why did you agree to come to the Shiur?

He replied that when he was in kitah daled in cheder, his class went to be tested by Rav Aron Leib Shteinman. The rebbi had obviously requested an easy test and the boys were asked very simple questions. Each boy, upon answering a question received a candy from Rav Aron Leib.

When this boy's turn came he did not know the answer to the question. So Rav Aron Leib asked him an easier question. Again he did not know. So the Gadol asked him an even easier question which again he did not know. When the quiz was over, everyone had a candy besides him.

As the boys were respectfully filing out, Rav Aron Leib motioned for him to come over. He told the boy, “In Torah and Yiddishkeit we reward for effort, not results. All the other boys put in an effort for one question so I gave them one candy; you put in the effort for three questions so you are getting three candies.” And with a smile, he handed him three.

“I might've rejected Yiddishkeit, but how could I reject Rav Shteinman?”

It appears that there are different relationships that we can have with Torah. Sometimes, when our education fails, we can find the most profound connection to Torah in the personalities that convey it.

To this end, there are two Brachos that we make on learning Torah each morning:

The first is addressing Hashem as the Melamed: המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל – He who teaches Torah to the Jewish people. Hashem is the ultimate Rebbe and Teacher of the Jewish people. We are fortunate to be granted the greatest education, from the greatest Educator.

But there is another Bracha, which has nothing to do with education: נותן התורה – He who gives us the Torah.

Aside from the learning of Torah, which is vital and essential to life as a Jew, apparently, the mere having of the Torah is a gift for which we should be grateful.

But what exactly do we have, if we haven't even cracked open the book? What is the value of a נותן התורה without a מלמד תורה?

To explain this, we should examine a devastating Gemara in Nedarim, which asks a tragic question:

וּמִפְּנֵי מָה אֵין מְצוּיִין תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים לָצֵאת תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים מִבְּנֵיהֶן? ...רָבִינָא אוֹמֵר: שֶׁאֵין מְבָרְכִין בַּתּוֹרָה תְּחִלָּה

For what reason is it not common for Talmidei Chachamim have children who are Talmidei Chachamim? Ravina says: They are punished because they do not first recite a bracha over the Torah before commencing their studies.

The answer seems bizarre. Why would Talmidei Chachamim not make a Birkas haTorah? The Maharal (הקדמה לתפארת ישראל) explains the intention of the Gemara:

כי אף אם היו מברכין בפה, מכל מקום דבר הזה – שהוא נתינת התורה – צריך לברך השם יתברך בכל לבו, ובזה יש לו האהבה הגמורה אל השם יתברך. ואף אם הוא תלמיד חכם והוא צדיק גמור, רחוק הדבר הזה שיברך השם יתברך בכל לבו על נתינת התורה כפי הראוי.

Even if they are making the Bracha physically, that is not the purpose of the Bracha. Rather, the purpose is to bless Hashem, the Giver of the Torah with a full heart, and in this way one feels overwhelming love to Hashem. And even for those who are Talmidei Chachamim and those who are complete Tzadidim, it is rare that they bless Hashem with a full heart for giving us the Torah.

Addressing Hashem as the Giver of Torah recognizes that, Hashem is not simply trying to convey a lesson, but a relationship. When Hashem came down to Har Sinai and gave us the Torah, He began with the word אנכי. Chazal (שבת קה א׳) tell us that אנכי is an acronym for אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית – I wrote and gave Myself.

Rav Shlomo Zalman was once asked how he could allow bachurim to dance in the Beis Medrash on Shavuos: “Doesn't the Shulchan Aruch say that dancing on Yom Tov is assur?!” “Yes”, the Gadol replied “Of course it's assur; but this is not the dancing that the Shulchan speaks of. But more importantly, do you want people to dance at your wedding one day?” “Yes,” the young man replied. “Well then, maybe you should dance at Hashem's wedding as well?”

The purpose of our Avoda on Shavuos is not to learn as much as we possibly can. It's not a Yom Tov of cramming in or catching up on Torah. Quite the opposite; we stay up to learn because it's a gift, and we're excited to receive it. This Yom Tov is זמן מתן תורתינו – the time of the Giving of the Torah. Our goal is not simply to learn it, but to receive it. And along with the Torah, we receive a deeper, greater relationship with the Giver.

That's the point. That Hashem should open our minds, hearts and souls to receive Him. That when He comes to wake us up this year, He finds us ready and waiting.

A few months ago I had the privilege of visiting Eretz Yisrael to celebrate my nieces Bas Mitzvah. Aside from the pleasure of being back in Eretz Yisrael and the simcha of seeing family and reconnecting with friends, there was another detail which made trip so meaningful. Aliza and I decided that I would take our daughter Ayelet along for a week of Abba-daughter time.

The last time that Ayelet had been in Israel was almost nine years ago, so we were both excited to share the joy and wonder of experiencing Eretz Yisrael as if for the first time.

Naturally, we set aside a full day to visit the Old City and the Kotel.

As we walked through Shaar Yafo, I pointed out the bullet holes from 1967. We discussed the centrality and eternal importance of this place to our nation. We spoke about Yerushalayim from the days of David and Shlomo, and the tragedies of the First and Second Destructions at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans.

We walked through the Rova, discussing the slow return of our people in the past thousand years. The yearnings and returning of our greatest teachers and leaders: The stories of the Rambam and the Ramban, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the Shelah HaKadosh, the talmidim of the Vilna Gaon and the Chassidim of the Maggid of Mezritch.

We spoke about the miracles of Yom Yerushalayim, and our need to be grateful to Hashem that we are alive today see the rebirth of our ancient capital city, and the fulfillment of the words of the Nevi'im.

Truth be told, I probably over did it. (I guess that at this stage of my life I'm a bigger nerd than Ayelet is. Then again, she's only eleven. I still have high hopes that all my kids will join me in my nerdy interests.)

Despite her father's ramblings, Ayelet was taken by the sights, sounds and smells of Yerushalayim. (And of course, Golda's Ice Cream makes every experience amazing.)

As we got closer to the stairs leading down to the Kotel, we took out our Kriyah shirts. It's such a stark contrast – the hustle and bustle of the Old City, contrasted with tearing Kriyah. The duality of these emotions are new to Klal Yisrael. The Rishonim who visited Eretz Yisrael only saw destruction. We have merited resurrection as well.

We rounded the corner and took in the magnificent view of the Kotel and Har HaBayis; and made sure to FaceTime Aliza so we could both be part of Ayelet's excitement.

Slowly we made our way down the stairs. (Abba, there's a lot of stairs here... We're not coming back up this way right? Right?!)

We walked through security, and entered the Kotel plaza.

Then something happened, which I never expected to happen to me.

Suddenly, I very much wished that there was a place next to the Wall where I could stand next to my daughter. I didn't want her to be alone having her first experience at the Kotel.

In that moment, I realized that the debates and fights about the Kotel are far deeper and more complex than I had ever imagined.

I began to wonder about the single mothers who might not be able to see their sons putting on Tefillin, and the young couples who cannot stand together when coming to beg Hashem to bless them with children.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, it important to understand that the Kotel has the Kedusha of a Beis Knesses – at minimum. As Jews who understand the value, importance and eternal nature of Halacha, there is no valid halachik argument in favor of removing the Mechitza at the Kotel. The Kedusha of that space demands that we set our own wants and needs aside and recognize that we approach the Palace of the King with trepidation; abiding by His rules.

This had never been a problem for me before. But that day I realized that if I wanted to speak to Hashem in that place of great connection, I would have to overcome my own emotional needs as well as those of my daughter. For the first time, my coming to the Kotel demanded a Korban – a sacrifice of my own needs and agendas.

I don't have a solution to the intractable problems of observing Halacha while also making the Kotel accessible to all forms of Jewish services. But I do have a renewed appreciation for the challenge.

Perhaps, beneath the anger, rhetoric and resentment, we could stand to appreciate how even those Jews who are so distant from observing Torah and Mitzvos are still inexplicably drawn to the Makom HaMikdash. Is it so hard to imagine that somewhere, far beyond the sectarianism and political chess, every Jew just wants to feel at home in the presence of Hashem?

Seeing the world through this lens might make our next visit to the Kotel a little different.

On Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan, many have the custom of saying the Tefillah of the Shelah for our children. But the Shelah HaKadosh (עשרת הדברות, מסכת יומא, דרך חיים) tells us that in addition to davening for ourselves and our children there is another group of Jews which we need to daven for:

וכשם שחייב האדם להתפלל על עצמו, כך חייב להתפלל על פושעי ישראל, כדאיתא בסוף פ”ק דסוטה (יד, א) ולפושעים יפגיע (ישעיה נג, יב), מלמד שהיה משה רבינו מבקש רחמים על פושעי ישראל שישובו בתשובה, ושבו.

The same way that each person is obligated to daven for themselves, so too, they are obligated to daven for the sinners amongst the Jewish people... that Hashem should be merciful to them that they should return in Teshuva.

This Yom Yerushalayim, the fights for control over Yerushalayim continue. And of course, we should still continue to fight for Halacha. But with a little empathy we might merit to shift our goals. Rather than hoping and davening for Frum Jews to win, we might begin to daven for Hashem to help all of His people return to Him.

Perhaps that's the piece that we're still missing; the reason we are still tearing Kriyah. Perhaps by committing to see each other with a new set of eyes, Hashem will bless us to see His complete return to Yerushalayim as well.

No, this title is not click bait. It might seems strange, but in a few moments, I'm going to present you with the Torah's step-by-step guide to abandoning Torah and Mitzvos and denying the existence of Hashem.

If this appears bizarre, rest assured that I'm not trying to convince you to go off the Derech. However, understanding the process might give us some insight into how to strengthen ourselves and our families, and how to help those who are struggling with their connection to Yiddishkeit.

Before we begin, it's worth examining our intuitions and experiences.

How does the journey away from Hashem begin? If we ask people who are “off the Derech” what drove them there, we might hear a wide array of responses. Anything and everything – from tragic stories of loss or abuse as children, to series of bullying and negative experiences in school. From teens we might hear about social pressures or the yetzer hara that just couldn't be overcome. Perhaps an insincere or hurtful encounter in Yeshiva? Adults might share the challenges of earning a living or stories of heartbreak and failed relationships.

In many of these cases, the road to coming back often begins with an honest, nonjudgmental invitation. Many of those who have left observant Judaism are not antagonistic, and they are open to reengagement. It might be a long process, but with time, love, empathy and validation, the doors to return are certainly still open.

But what about those who are hardened and bitter; those who are angry with Hashem and His Torah? How does one become so intolerant of Yiddishkeit?

If we were to ask them this question, invariably, these Jews will explain that they have qualms of a more painful and philosophical nature. We might hear a litany of questions about the nature of Hashem, divine (in)justice, morality and corrupt rabbinic authority.

These are the Jews who are not open to sharing a Shabbos meal, discussing the Parsha or supporting Torah causes, because they view all of Torah as inherently broken, fault or manipulative.

As the debates and demonstrations in the past few weeks in Israel indicate, there are Jews who not simply irreligious, they are decidedly anti-religious.

But despite all of the complex reasoning that a Jew might offer to explain their personal hostility towards Yiddishkeit, there is a far simpler story: They have followed the step-by-step guide to going off the Derech. It's explicit in the Pesukim of our Parsha.

How to Leave Yiddishkeit

This Shabbos, the Torah describes the actions and processes that Klal Yisrael will need to adhere to in order to achieve lives of happiness, success and Avodas Hashem:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

The pesukim continue to enumerate the blessings of healthy families, a secure homeland and meaningful relationships with Hashem.

But the Torah (ויקרא כו:יא) also describes the opposite:

And if you do not listen to Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant...

The ramifications of such a life are details in a series of curses and punishment.

But this description of transgressions is far lengthier and far more detailed than the positive pesukim above, prompting Chazal to analyze each of these steps. Rashi (כו:טו), quoting the Sifra notes that there are seven steps here. (Rashi's comments are italicized.)

  1. ואם לא תשמעו לי – And if you do not listen to Me : to study the Torah diligently...

  2. ולא תעשו – and do not observe all these commandments – Because you will not learn you will not practice the commandments.

  3. אם בחקתי תמאסו – מואס באחרים העושים. – if you reject My laws: mocking those who practice them.

  4. משפטיי תגעל נפשכם – שונא החכמים. – and despise My rules: This hating the Sages.

  5. לבלתי עשות – מונע את אחרים מעשות. – so that you do not observe: preventing others from practicing them.

  6. את כל מצותי – כופר שלא צויתים, לכך נאמר: את כל מצותי, ולא נאמר: את כל המצות. – all My commandments: Denying the Divine origin of the commandments, asserting that Hashem has not commanded them.

  7. להפרכם את בריתי – כופר בעיקר. – and you break My covenant: denying the great principle of the existence of God.

Rashi then concludes by explaining the connections between each of these stages:

Heresy begins humbly, with a lack of education. If you don't know your way around Jewish life, you can't and don't participate. You feel left out, unable to enjoy the social, cultural and spiritual connection that Torah offer. This pain invites questions to those around you: “Why do you do these ridiculous, archaic things?” You will then question the motives and authority of the Rabbis who promote and enable this system. Slowly, as an outsider, you see it as your mission to prevent others from falling prey to this “religious nonsense”, ultimately resolving that none of it can by true.

By presenting this “curriculum” Chazal are essentially teaching us that denial of Hashem does not cause non-observance. Quite the opposite: Atheism is an intellectual justification for a life devoid of Torah, Mitzvos, community and relationships.

But it is equally important to understand that along the way there are powerful and painful emotions of worthlessness, loneliness, confusion, hostility, animosity and scorn. It is this set of negative experiences and emotions which coalesce together, driving a person to the intellectual conclusions of heresy.

How to Come Back

The Medrash (ויקרא רבה ל״ה:ב) notes that in order to merit the Brachos of the Torah, we need to be in fulfillment of all of the requirements of the Parsha – לִכְשֶׁתְּקַיְּמוּ כָּל הַתְּנָאִים הַלָּלוּ שֶׁהִתְנֵיתִי עִמָּכֶם.

Rabbi Raphael Moshe Boleh in his Sefer Chayei Olam (ע׳ פח) writes that the same must be true of the punishments and curses as well. Only a person who is in fulfillment of such total hostility to everything Jewish is liable for the curses of the Parsha. This is to say, even a Jew who is totally non-observant, but respects Talmidei Chachamim (thus missing stage four, for example) will not suffer the pain of foreign conquest and exile.

It's an incredible insight: Every Jew is redeemable so long as they learn something or do something, however small. Every Jew can be rescued by breaking out from even a minuscule part of this cycle.

This truth presents an opportunity for all who are able to help. Can we find a cause in Torah and Mitzvos to which this Jew might feel drawn? Can we find a way to connect them to a Talmid Chacham or to a Tzaddik? Can we find the space inside our own hearts and minds to love even this Jew, so that they are inspired by our mitzvos?

Quite literally, any tiny point of connection qualifies.

Our Most Effective Defense

This week, yet again, Eretz Yisrael is facing the deadly threat of rockets from murderous terrorists who are trying to destroy our lives, our country and our homeland. Tragically, this is no surprise.

But there is something we can do to help. Thousands of years of Jewish history has shown us that national unity is our greatest weapon of defense. This too is a Pasuk in our Parsha:

וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ ... וְחֶרֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹר בְּאַרְצְכֶם I will grant peace in the land... and no sword shall cross your land.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh defines “peace” as:

שלא יהיה להם פירוד הלבבות – that our hearts should not be divided.

Such unity is the precursor to וְחֶרֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹר בְּאַרְצְכֶם – no sword shall cross your land.

In the past few weeks and months, many of us have witnessed and even participated in some of the hateful rhetoric and vitriol sweeping across observant and non-observant communities in the fierce battles for judicial and political power. The debates are important, but the hatred is poison.

As Bnei Torah, it is our obligation is to act with Ahavas Yisrael, even to those who are far from Torah and Mitzvos. Or perhaps, especially to those who appear most distant. The Torah gave us the tools to notice people going off the Derech so that we might be able to step in and help each other.

As we enter the final weeks of Sefiras HaOmer, Hashem should help us to fix the failures of the students of Rebbe Akiva. He should help us to cultivate the capacity of treating each other with respect and dignity, so that we can all merit receiving the Torah this Shavuos.

Participation Trophies are amongst the things that the internet loves to hate the most. A quick search reveals masses of people with a deep loathing of these tacky plastic awards that have been cluttering up bedroom shelves and mantelpieces for decades.

Perusing op-eds, blogs and memes, I have learned that there is no greater symbol of narcissism. In the hive-mind of the internet, these trophies are an over-hyped, misguided attempt at inflating self importance, all of which has slowly engineered a generation of entitled, whiny millennials. Reading all of this, I must concur – these things are so terrible, one wonders how anyone ever thought it was a good idea. What's not to hate?

I must confess, however, that I don't have much first hand experience. Growing up, I did not get many participation trophies. This is not because my team always won, or because South African sports leagues were so well grounded and down-to-earth.

The reason that I didn't get participation trophies is because I didn't participate. I was an overweight kid and I struggled athletically. My friends would get together to play, and I didn't want to because I wasn't good at it.

Sure, there was that one season of soccer in second grade when my mom begged me to play, hoping (praying?) that somehow I would start to enjoy it. Spoiler alert: I still hated it. But I did get a participation trophy, which I knew I did not deserve. I hated looking at it, and it was quickly shoved to the back of the closet.

In recent years, however, I have some experience from my kids, who are blessedly more athletic than I was. Conclusion: Anyone who has even been given a participation award will know that the entire discussion, all the loathing and rhetoric is silly, for one simple reason:

There's a tiny window of time in which a child is naive enough to appreciate a participation trophy. But the moment they know how to compete, the participation trophy quickly becomes, as one writer called it, “an exquisite shame.” Kids aren't idiots. They know the difference between winning and losing, and we're not fooling anyone.

We might try to trick our kids; telling them “it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” But they all know, only losers say that. Winners know it's all about winning, and losers know that their parents are being disingenuous. As my kids have clearly told me “Abba, everyone knows that winning and losing are not the same, and I wanted to win...”

Critics often note that awarding mere participation is encouraging mediocrity and complacency. They make the leap from little league to academics and from academics to professional careers. I don't buy it. No one has ever met a kid who said “I'm not going to try to win because we're all getting a trophy anyway...”

The opposite, however, is far more common and far more destructive. I have met many children and teens who have given up on a sport, a musical instrument or an academic interest because they didn't feel like their achievements would be meaningful or successful enough.

Even more concerning, I have listened to countless talmidim (and adults) telling me how their history of religious failure has demotivated them into disinterest and disengagement. I've had students tell me that they put on Tefillin everyday since their bar-mitzvah, only to miss one day on vacation, and since then they've missed dozens. “Rebbe, once you break the streak, it's over.”

Let's hone in to an acute example which happened in my Halacha shiur this week. We were reviewing the halachos of Sefiras Ha'Omer; specifically, what to do when you've missed a day of counting. The Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים תפ״ט) writes that on the subsequent days of Sefira, you should continuing counting, but without a bracha.

All of my students knew that you are no longer able to count with a bracha. None of them, however, knew that they are still obligated to continue counting. We then proceeded to learn that the rationale of the Shulchan Aruch centers around an understanding that all the days of Sefiras HaOmer might be one big mitzvah, in which case, missing a single day means that we've missed out on the whole mitzvah. That's the reason not make a bracha.

But there is another paradigm to consider. Perhaps the Omer is 49 separate mitzvos, and each day has its own independent obligation. In such a case, we should absolutely still be counting the subsequent days.

This second understanding (that every day is a separate mitzvah) is the majority opinion of the Geonim and Rishonim. At the very least, all of the Poskim agree that we should be all counting every day – all be it without a bracha if we missed a day.

I paused the shiur for that thought to sink in. One of the kids raised his hand and said, “So, what you're saying is that everyone agrees that just because I missed a day, it does not mean that I should miss every other day.” “Exactly.”

At this point, one of the guys threw his hands in the air and said “Rebbe! I missed the 5th day and I thought I was out! Now you tell me that I should still be counting?! It's not fair! How come no one ever told this to us before?”

It's a good question, and it's an inditement against our parental and educational systems. Not this specific Halacha, but the general sentiment. We are excellent at conveying the ideal, but we struggle to give appropriate meaning to anything other than total success. Our schools and communities have great programs for smart, successful and motivated kids. What do we offer for children whose skills are just average? How do we ensure that they continue to strive when first place is not a reasonable expectation?

Our problem is not that we award participation trophies. Quite the opposite; we all know that they are shameful and insufficient, and our kids quickly mature to understand that they are meaningless. The real issue that we have no system to appropriately educate the importance of continued participation and engagement when we fall short of the ideal.

This problem is wide reaching. Consider the Yeshiva bochur who loves learning and who can learn a great morning seder, but doesn't have the zitsfleysh to sit for more than those four hours a day. Rather than wasting his time in the Beis Medrash, he skips afternoon and night seder, spending his time on his side hustles, making money and volunteering for a local chessed organization. Is there any value to his being able to sit and learn for four hours? Absolutely. As an adult, learning four hours a day makes you a tzadik, and a schedule of learning, working and volunteering makes you an enviably serious and dedicated Baal HaBayis. But in Yeshivas across the world, that kid is a bum, and will be labeled as such.

We exhibit the same broken mindset when we dismiss opportunities to give tzedaka. We tell ourselves “I'm not the guy. I'm simply not wealthy enough make any real difference”. Of course, $18 is not going to solve anyone's financial crisis. It's not going to build a shul or support a Kollel. But it absolutely makes a difference to the individual who is learning the habit of giving, and it makes a difference to Hashem. Moreover, even tiny contributions from many people will add up over time.

The truth is that an action can be both small and meaningful. But the Yetzer Hara pervades our thoughts at every turn, convincing us to quit unless we're sure that we'll win.

The voices echo in our heads: “I'm not so close to them, they probably won't even notice if I don't pay a shiva call.” “They already got a minyan, no need for me to rush to shul.” “I'm not a doctor, Bikur Cholim is not my thing...” “I've never really been into learning Gemara...” “There's no ways we're ever going to be friends again, no use trying...”

We've noted before, that in order to fight this Yetzer Hara during Sefira, Rabbi Eizikel Safrin (חומש היכל הברכה ג עמ׳ רכ) writes that the custom of Komarna was to continue counting with a bracha even after missing a day. He explains: The drive to give up when you've missed a day is so strong, that we should rule like the majority opinion (against the Shulchan Aruch) and keep counting with a bracha. Recently, I discovered that this was also the opinion of the Divrei Chaim of Tzanz, and possibly the Beis HaLevi as well! (ע׳ מודעים וזמנים ס׳ רפט בשם בעל התורה תמיתה)

It's clear that these Tzadikim were far more concerned with the dangers of non-performance than mediocrity.

All of this is to say that perhaps our paradigm is skewed. We have already successfully created a culture of excellence. We know how to celebrate the winners in sports and in schools, and the kids who have surpassed their are recognized and are motivated to continuing acheieving. We now need to rethink how to encourage those who do not excel. How do we keep ourselves and our kids in the game when we know we are not going to win?

I'd like to suggest that we take a lesson from another sport – one that seems to get it right, at least for me. In the past few years, I have amassed a respectable collection of road running medals. I have never won a race, not even close, but I am proud of each and every one. But those medals are not for participation, they are for perseverance and completion. You only get it if you keep trying. Regardless of your speed, stamina or level of fitness, irrespective of whether you are sprinting or walking, every finisher is awarded a medal, because everyone crossing the finish line has fought their own battle and won. No one is ever ashamed of that victory.

These are kinds of trophies that Hashem awards. The ones that say “This was my struggle, this is where I succeeded.”

As we finished the week of Sefira dedicated to Netzach (victory), Hashem should help us to continue the fight; to win whenever we can, but more importantly, to find the motivation to continue even when we've failed.

No doubt you've seen this story somewhere:

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, in the middle of the morning rush hour. A youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap emerged from the Metro L’Enfant Plaza in Washington. From a small case, he removed a violin; placing the open case at his feet. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces while 1,097 people passed by.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. It costs around $3.5 million.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

This story has been around the internet for the past two decades. You have probably heard it before. People have utilized it to highlight the importance of being present, aware, and learning to see the beauty all around us. But what most do not know, is that there is a sequel:

In 2014, seven years later, Bell returned to that same station, only this time, people were informed ahead of time.

This time, more than 1,000 fans and curious onlookers packed half of the station's cavernous main hall for the free 30-minute concert, which included selections by Bach and Mendelssohn.

It was the same virtuoso, the same violin, similar music, and yet this time, people paid attention. This time, it was precious. This time it was meaningful, this time it was beautiful.

What Changed?

This phenomenon exists in our own lives. Sometimes, we come to shul, come home from work, call our mothers, and we feel as if we are gaining nothing from it. It’s routine, rote, required. By all standards, it’s meaningless.

Yet from time to time, those same activities are transformative and transcendent. And I’d like to know why. What differentiates these two experiences, the two concerts, these two lifestyles?

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Drash Moshe (ד״ה בזאת) explains that it this question that the Torah is addressing in our parsha. The Torah details the process by which Aharon HaKohen would prepare to enter the Kodesh Kodashim – once a year, on Yom Kippur. But strangely, a full 29 pesukim go by before telling us that the day upon which all of this occurs is Yom Kippur!

Rav Moshe explains: the secret to entry into all Kedusha, meaning and purpose is in the preparation. Without the 28 pesukim explaining why this is important, it can never be experienced as such. Once Aharon is prepared, only then can his enter be meaningful.

The idea is echoed by the Seforno (16:12):

כִּי תֵּיכֶף שֶׁנִּשְׁחַט חַטָּאת וְהִתְוַדָּה וְסָר עֲוֹנוֹ, נַעֲשָׂה מוּכָן לֵיאוֹר בְּאוֹר פְּנֵי מֶלֶךְ. וְהִנֵּה הַמֶּלֶךְ יֵרָאֶה לַכֹּל מוּכָן לְאוֹרוֹ

As soon as the sin offering had been slaughtered and he had previously recited his confession so that his sins had been removed, he was now ready to face the “King,” who would look upon him with favor.

The difference between Joshua Bell’s first concert, and his second, was not his skill, or the inherent value of the music, it was whether or not people were ready to hear it.

Preparations and Priorities

The Chofetz Chaim teaches that the one can discern how important something is from how much time and effort one spends preparing for it. Something unimportant requires little serious preparation. If one wants to make a cup of tea, this takes very little effort because a cup of tea is not that important in the big scheme of things. Planning a vacation, a simcha, a wedding takes a lot longer because these are important events.

But preparing for a moment or event is not part of our daily routine. We “fall into” moments, rushing between netflix, work and obligations. We go through the motions, but we are not prepared for them. Our lives seem to be a constant stream of events, that we scroll through like a social media feed – with little time to prepare, connect or reflect.

My Rebbe, Rav Blachman told us once of a young man who called to say he had just had a son, and wanted parenting advice. Rav Blachman later told me, if that’s when you’re asking, you’re at least nine months too late.

Couples sometime complain that a few years after getting married, it feels like the spark is gone. What changed? We stop planning. We stop anticipating. We stop preparing, so the time we spend together feels just like a virtuoso playing masterpieces for harried commuters. She’s the same girl; he’s the same guy, but without the effort of preparation, we demonstrate a lack of importance.

The same is true in our Avodas Hashem. Are we ready for shul? Are we ready for Shabbos? Or do we arrive as if by accident?

Ready for Something...

Shavuos, more than any other Chag is characterized by this Hachana, this preparation. By applying the Chafetz Chaim’s idea: if the preparations for Shavuos and our acceptance of the Torah are more extensive than they are for any other holiday, it demonstrates that Shavuos has a unique importance not shared by any other day of the year. If Hashem commands us to count toward and long for the arrival of Shavuos for forty-nine days, it shows that we should value the Torah more than anything else. This preparation and the value we place on the Torah is therefore part and parcel of how we receive the Torah.

There is a profound depth to Minhagei Yisrael – the customs of our people. Somehow, despite omitting this text from the performance of most mitzvos, the official nussach of counting the Omer includes הנני מוכן ומזומן – I’m ready, I’m prepared. During Sefirah, more than any other time, we're trying to live lives that are not scrolling by.

The Beis Yaakov of Izbitz writes that the definition of Kedusha is ההפך של מה בכך – the opposite of 'whatever'. That's the goal for these weeks – living lives of planned importance.

Hashem should help us become מוכן ומזומן people – ready, prepared, anticipating that we too can achieve Kedusha.

Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine getting an email from a Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist shul this week, with the following message.

“As our shul continues to expand, we are proud to offer more ways for Jews of all backgrounds to connect to Hashem. A number of our members have reached out to us noting that on 5 Iyar, Yom Ha'Atzmaut, our Shul's custom is to say Hallel.

Many of these members grew up in families and communities that do not celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. In the interest of inclusivity, we are adding a Non-Hallel minyan to our Yom Ha'atzmaut schedule.”

How would such a message make you feel? Proud? Happy? Disappointed? Indifferent?

For those who would be incensed by such an email, I imagine it has something to do with your firm belief that Yom Ha'atzmaut is more than a celebration of independence. Part of our religious philosophy includes an understanding that the State of Israel is not simply a political invention of the 20th century, but that it is a clear indication of Hashem's Hand guiding us through history.

But herein lies the problem, and I am hesitant to write this... I fear that there are many more people who believe in the importance of a Shul saying Hallel, than the number that will actually be coming to shul to say it. And of those who are coming to say Hallel, how much of it will be a heartfelt experience of gratitude and praise?

(To be clear, the recitation of Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut is not the litmus test for ascertaining one's level of commitment to zionist ideology. Rav Solovietchik noted (Yahrzeit Shiur, February 1, 1968) that he, himself, was not so enthusiastic about saying Hallel for Halachik and lomdishe reasons. Instead, he recommended deepening our Kavanah in the many parts of davening that relate to Eretz Yisrael and redemption.)

Hallel aside, Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations outside of Israel are often rushed affairs, paying homage to an idea. Or, they are designed as kids' events, designed to give our children a taste of celebrating Israel. We seem to have failed in capturing the excitement and joy of an authentic Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel.

Of course, many of my friends, relatives and colleagues who have merited to make Aliyah will be quick to diagnose the problem: We're not really zionist at all. Real Zionism means living in Israel. The reason that people are so “parev” about Yom Haatzmaut in Chutz La'aretz is because our Zionism is inherently insincere.

But this is a gross oversimplification. There are many Jews throughout the Diaspora who are deeply involved in the State of Israel. Jews in Chutz La'Aretz contribute billions of dollars to Israeli causes, supporting both secular and Torah institutions. Many Jews from around the world support Israeli businesses, visit Israel as frequently as possible, and send their children to learn in Yeshivos and seminaries. We teach our children to love Israel, to support Israel online and on campus. Many of the children of our community have served in Tzahal, fighting for and defending our homeland.

Despite the fact that we are (still) living outside of Israel, we can still clearly love the Land; in the words of the Sefer HaCharedim:

וצריך כל איש ישראל לחבב את ארץ ישראל ולבא אליה מאפסי ארץ בתשוקה גדולה כבן אל חיק אמו Each person must Love the Land of Israel and come to it from the ends of the earth with great desire, like a child to the embrace of his mother.

Many people returning from Israel have described feeling the depth of this love of Eretz HaKodesh.

All taken into account, I do not believe that our community is lacking in Zionism. We are educationally, emotionally, intellectually and financially invested in the State of Israel. What is lacking, however, is our interest and involvement in Religious Zionism. Our “Zionism” is great. It's the “religious” part that needs works.

We do not enter Yom Ha'atzmaut with feelings of spiritual excitement, elation, and closeness to Hashem. We are not taking time during the day to talk to and thank the Master of the World for bringing us home after millennia of exile. For many of us, doing so might feel weird, forced and contrived.

But the truth is that this disconnect is not unique to our expressions of Zionism.

It seems to me that the spiritual, religious and Godly parts of our Zionism are suffering from exactly the same laxity and disconnect as the rest of our religious experience.

People are not showing up to sing and dance during Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut for the same reason that we fail to do so on Chol HaMoed, or Rosh Chodesh, or most of the days of Yom Tov. We're just not that into it.

Sure, we all believe in the importance of Pesach, but we're more than happy to outsource Divrei Torah at the Seder to our wonderful schools and teachers. How many of us are truly working on ourselves to feel like Hashem took us, personally, out of Mitzrayim? We love Channukah and Purim, but we rush through Al HaNissim all the same. Shavuos is about staying up and eating cheese cake. When exactly is the feeling of Kabbalas HaTorah? Where is Hashem in that experience?

Despite all of the miraculous success of our generation, we seem to fall short in one key area: Connecting it all to Hashem in a personal and intimate conversation.

I am not writing all of this to point fingers or give mussar. Chas V'Shalom. Indeed, I think it's quite the opposite. Our generation has finally arrived at the moment for which Chazal has been training us; we have been practicing for this moment for over two thousand years. It's a well known Halacha (שו”ע או”ח קי״א:א):

צריך לסמוך גאולה לתפלה ולא יפסיק ביניהם One needs to juxtapose “redemption” [i.e. the last blessing of the Sh'ma – “Ga-al Yisrael”] to “prayer” [i.e. the Amidah].

Every morning (and evening) of our lives, when we reflect on Geulah, we are obligated to capitalize on that experience and catapult ourselves into speaking with Hashem.

Rabbeinu Yonah (ברכות ב ב) explains that the moment we realize the magnitude of Hashem's kindness in choosing us, saving us and caring for us, we should want to speak to Him and ask Him for our needs.

We have no trouble screaming out to Hashem in times of pain or distress. It is when things are looking up that we have a tendency to ignore Him.

Apparently, Chazal understood that waiting even for a moment between Geulah and Tefillah means that we have already taken Geulah for granted; we are not longer able to or interested in speaking to Hashem. For over two thousand years we have practiced closing the gap between Geulah and Tefillah.

I dare say, but it seems to me that our generation is standing in that gap. Hashem has given us our Land; our own sovreign State. He has showered us with prosperity, success and comfort beyond the wildest expectations of our ancestors. They would be singing from the rooftops! But the Great Yetzer Hara before Mashiach comes is the desire to be unimpressed; to widen the gap between a good life and a Godly life. We are blinded by the light of Geulah, and Hashem is asking us to find Him here as well.

He has gifted us the great bracha of Zionisim, now it's up to us to make it religious.

Here's an easy template to begin. You can change it up and edit as you see fit.

Step One – Praise: Take a moment, this Yom Ha'atzmaut to speak to Hashem. Stand in awe of His Hand in history, and the miracles that we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. Step Two – Ask: Talk to Him about your hopes of Aliyah, your dreams and fears. Ask Him for help. Daven for the safety of our brothers and sisters and plead with Him to heal us from the pain of loosing so many to the horrors of terrorism. Step Three – Gratitude: Thank Him for the incredible gift of the State of Israel, and for bringing us to this moment.

Hashem should help us to find the means and the strength to leave this Galus and settle permanently in our Land. But until that day – and especially afterwards – He should help us to stitch together Geulah and Tefillah. That's Religious Zionism.

Rav Shmuel Aharon Yudelewitz, the son-in-law of Reb Aryeh Levin, was exceedingly careful in baking matzos.

Every year, a day before Erev Pesach, he would take a few students to a spring outside Yerushalayim to draw water for baking the matzah. This water would be cool and clear, and left over night as Mayim Shelanu.

In preparation, he would wake up early, go to the home of a local potter and purchase a large barrel that was brand new. To the top he would fasten new ropes from the shuk. The ropes would be used for carrying the water back to the bus – cabs were too expensive.

And so it happened one year that Rav Shmuel Aharon had woken up early, bought his new pot, affixed the ropes, drawn the water, shlepped it up the hill and onto the bus. From there he carried it to the bakery, where it would remain overnight.

The next morning, the rabbi arrived with his students to begin baking the matzos. But when they picked up the pot, to their great horror, it was empty.

The cleaning lady, the night before, had seen a new pot of water and without giving it much of a thought, had used the water to wash the floor.

The students were in shock. An entire day of effort in obtaining the water was wasted. There was no time to get more! How would their Rabbi have matzos to eat. The tension in the room was palpable as they looked to their teacher for his reaction.

Rav Shmuel turned to them and said: “You think that the reason I am so careful to bake my own matzos is because you think mine are the most kosher and everyone else's are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every Jew has kosher matzos, but I bake my own matzos because to be a Jew means to put in your best effort – that's all Hashem asks of us.”

He continued to explain to his students: “If it doesn't work out, that too is what Hashem wanted. I'll get matzos from someone else. There is no reason to get upset.”

It's an important message to keep in mind this Yom Tov. I am not a prophet, but I'm guessing that something in your home hasn't gone perfectly well this Yom Tov. A order that didn't arrive, an invite that didn't work out? Perhaps a recipe that flopped or a dish that didn't taste quite right?

It's never perfect, but Hashem isn't looking for perfection, He's looking for me and you.

The Bnei Yissaschar, explains that the primary difference between chametz and matzah is action. Matzah is never allowed to be left without someone working it. From the time the flour and water are combined, the dough is kneaded, promptly rolled out, perforated, and baked. Nothing happens to the matzah that is not the direct effect of someone handling it. Not so with chametz, where the ingredients are mixed and then set aside for a period of time to rise. Chametz is spontaneous, occurring without anyone's doing anything to make it rise.

Matzah and chametz, therefore, represent two opposing perspectives. Chametz represents the idea that things can happen by themselves, while matzah symbolizes that nothing happens unless someone makes it happen.

Reb Leibele Eiger would explain that this is the same reason we eat an egg at the seder. An egg represents that which cannot come to fruition without working at it. Without incubation, an egg is just an egg. But with incubation, with warmth, with time, with commitment, it'll hatch, it'll grow.

Likewise, Rav Kook paskened that one who uses horseradish for Marror should grate it before Yom Tov, allowing the majority of the sharpness to dissipate. So long as it still tastes a little bitter, he argues, you have eaten Marror. But if there's a way to reduce the bitterness through out actions, we are well within our rights to do so.

Let's ask a silly question: Which moments of sitting on the egg are the ones that make it hatch? Which foldings, rollings and kneading are the ones that prevent the matzah from becoming Chametz? At what point in grating the Marror does it lose its bite?

The absurdity of the question becomes apparent immediately. There is no one single moment, no one action that achieves the end result. There is no secret recipe, no magic moment.

Rav Pinchas of Koretz explained that on Pesach, when we renew our membership as Avdei Hashem, Hashem decides what our Avoda is going to be for the year ahead. It's an annual interview that we aught to pay attention to. Some are set up for a year learning, others for davening. Some are given the means to give tzedaka, and others with time to do whatever Hashem needs in His world. But Hashem is not looking to “get things done”, He is looking for people who are dedicated to His cause; people that care about the process.

This is the secret that Rav Shmuel Aharon understood: the process is far more important than a specific event or activity. Avodas Hashem is about the effort and process of drawing water for matzah, not the success of the result.

Pesach asks us: What do you want you Avoda to be this year? Hashem should help us to grow into the Jews we dream to be, that He needs us to become.

It's just one of those things that you learn in pre-school. The words are prepackaged, repeated from one generation to the next:

“Why is this Shabbos called Shabbos HaGadol? Because of the great miracle. When the Jews in Egypt took a sheep, which was the Egyptian god, they tied it to their bedposts and the Egyptians didn't kill them.”

That was the story that Temima told me, pretty much verbatim. Sounds good. Until I asked her “Temima, what's a bedpost?” “I don't know Abba. What's a bedpost?”

It seems like a silly detail to harp on, but everyone says it. So I got curious. Where does this whole bedpost story come from? Does it have a source? Why does every kid know that sheep were tied to bedposts, when none of have used the word before or even seen a bedpost?

It turns out that we don't need to dig too far. The source is a a Medrash (מכילתא דרשב״י יב):

ר' יוסי הגלילי אומר שיהיו קשורין בכרעי המטה Rabbi Yossi HaGalili says: They tied the Korban Pesach to their bedposts.

Ok. That solves the origin story, but it opens up another world of questions. When telling us about Korban Pesach, the pesukim in the Torah do not mention any bedposts. Neverthelss, Rabbi Yossi HaGalili is telling us that's this is what happened. Did they have to do it? Could they tie it up outside? Was this simply pragmatic or was there some deeper meaning?

Moreover, this seemingly innocuous detail makes it into the Tur (או״ח ס׳ תל), in his introduction to Shabbos Hagadol!

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 “Shabbat 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 Paschal offering and tied it to their bedposts. And the Egyptians asked them “Why is this so [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 Shabbat HaGadol.

To further complicate matters, it doesn't stop at Yetzias Mitzraim. The Bartenura, in his commentary to the Mishna (כלים י״ט ב) explains that when Jews came to Yerushalayim for Pesach, they would tie their Korban Pesach to their bedposts! Seemingly, as a commemoration of the custom of our ancestors in Egypt.

Clearly, it seems, this bedpost business is not just a trivial detail.

To understand this, we need to consider that our ancestors in Egypt also worshipped sheep. They didn't tie up and slaughter the Egyptian gods. They did this to the deities which they had been worshipping as well.

The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, מצה עשירה ב׳) questions: How could the Jews in Mitzraim offer these sheep as a Korban? The Halacha in Korbanos is that an animal which was worshipped as Avoda Zara cannot be used as a Korban? To this, he answers:

אלא הענין הוא דאסור נעבד היינו לקרבן אחר, אבל להקריבו על ענין זה בעצמו, דהיינו להראות שעבודה זרה זו היא בטילה ואין בה ממש שרי... על כן פסח מצרים מקחו היה בו ולקשור בכרעי המטה, כדי לבזות אלהיהן...

An animal which was used as Avoda Zara cannot be offered as a Korban, but to offer in order to demonstrate that it is now worthless in our eyes, is certainly permissible... For this reason, they tied it to their beds, in order to denigrate their gods.

The purpose of Korban Pesach wasn't simply a rebellion against the Egyptian overlords. It was designed to help us reject Egyptian philosophy.

But why the bedpost specifically? The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, תורה אור טו) explains:

The word “bed” in Hebrew is מטה, which is also the word for “below”. There is a world of things that are למעלה – above us, and a world a things that are למטה – below us. For the duration of our slavery, the gods, priorities and ideals of Egypt were “above.” In order to escape Egypt, we needed to recognize that these things were beneath us. On Shabbos, we recognize that Hashem created the world, and thus, it was through our appreciation for Shabbos, that we were finally able to relegate our idol worship to the place it belongs, and declare: This is beneath me.

The way in which Klal Yisrael weaned themselves off of this Avoda Zara was both brilliant and frightening. In my minds eye, I can see tens of thousands of Jews shlepping sheep into their homes. Sheep which were previously untouched, venerated and worshipped.

Imagine the scene; four days living with a sheep in your bedroom. Eating with it, cleaning its mess, trying to sleep with its four legs traipsing all over you. That's all it'll take to stop thinking that a sheep is holy. It didn't take long to see that a beheima is simply a beheima.

It's easy to revere something from afar, but the moment we live with it, the truth comes our pretty quickly.

This experience was not a one time affair. Every year, on Shabbos Hagaol we have the obligation and opportunity to challenge the idols and ideologies we have adopted. The Torah invites us, once again, to examining them close up. To ask ourselves: these politicians and celebrities which we so revere, would we really want to live with them? How long would it take to stop holding them in such esteem. Perhaps it's time we leave them למטה – below, and raise ourselves above them. Perhaps the spaces that we make in our homes and in our minds could be reserved for family, friends and Hashem.

May Hashem help us this Shabbos HaGadol to realize and recognize what is truly Gadol, to live lives of purpose and meaning anticipating the Geulah that Pesach brings.

I have no doubt that this conversation occurs in every high school shiur. At some point in the year, a discussion about “Shomer Negiah” arrises.

Naturally, the talmidim and talmidos begin timidly; not wanting to reveal to their rebbe or morah the extent of their exposure or familiarity with the topic. Quickly, however, the conversation shifts as kids look around the room, exchanging knowing looks and making veiled remarks about each other.

When it happened this year, I waited for a moment of quiet, and stated as honestly as I could: “Despite what you think you have or haven't done, every one of you guys in this shiur is Shomer Negiah.”

That got a reaction. “Come on Rebbe!” One talmid exclaimed incredulously. “You can't possibly be that naive?”

“Far from it,” I explained, “however, to the best of my understanding, this classroom is single gender, and none of you are currently engaging in any activity prohibited by the Torah. Which means that all of you are – right now – shomer negiah.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. Right now no one is doing anything wrong. “But Rebbe, that's crazy. Right now we're not doing anything other than sitting here!”

That's the point. What ever we might've done, or will do later, is irrelevant to the moment. Right now, you are who you are, and you're doing whatever you're doing. This is you, nothing more, and nothing less. Most importantly, Hashem doesn't have a label for you. “I'm not Shomer Negiah” is not a heter.

The argument can, of course, be applied to every area of Halacha. “I don't keep kosher” is a nonsensical statement. Are you eating treif right now? Most likely not.

But even if the answer is “yes, I'm eating a cheeseburger right now,” that doesn't mean that you don't “keep kosher”. It simply means that in this moment, you're in violation a mitzvah of the Torah. There is nothing that can be gleaned or stated about your “keeping” or “breaking” of the Torah. There is nothing holding you back from eating kosher food for your next meal, and every meal afterwards.

Likewise, I'd argue, most Jews keep most of Shabbos, most of the time. Sure, driving a car is violating Shabbos. But sitting on the couch is not. And if we calculate the minutes of violation of Halacha as a percentage of the total time we spend on this planet, the statement of Reish Lakish (חגיגה כז א׳) becomes even more apparent:

פּוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁמְּלֵאִין מִצְוֹת כְּרִמּוֹן, דִּכְתִיב: ״כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ״, אַל תִּקְרֵי ״רַקָּתֵךְ״, אֶלָּא: רֵקָנִין שֶׁבָּךְ

The sinners of Israel are filled with good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds, as it is written: “Your temples [rakatekh] are like a pomegranate split open” (Song of Songs 4:3), which is to be expounded as follows: Do not read this word as rakatekh, rather read it as reikanin shebakh, meaning the empty, worthless people among you; even these people are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds.

Of course, none of this is to whitewash the nature or severity of Aveiros. Violating the mitzvos of the Torah and the Will of the Ribono Shel Olam is not trivial; the Torah is quite clear on this point. In every recitation of Keriyas Shema we acknowledge the reality of Schar V'Onesh (Reward and Punishment).

But what would you tell someone who was once unable to overcome their desire to eat Chametz on Pesach? It seems ludicrous to suggest that we would label them a “chametz eater” and expect them to spend the rest of the Yom Tov eating pizza.

What would you tell someone who “broke Yom Kippur?” That they shouldn't continue fasting? Of course they should! But why should they fast once they've “broken” Yom Kippur? Why should one decline a slice of pizza once they've “broken” Pesach?

Because we all know that at its core, the Torah cannot be broken. The Torah is, and will always remain whole and intact. Pesach is still Pesach. Yom Kippur is still Yom Kippur. Torah is absolute and true, as true as the laws of nature. We cannot “break” the laws of gravity; we can only hurt ourselves trying. Likewise, we cannot break Halacha. We can only break ourselves against it.

To understand this breaking, and how to fix it, we need to know that each and every one of us, in the deepest recesses of our souls and identities, is trying to connect to Hashem. The Rambam paskens this truth L'Halacha (גירושין ב:כ), and Rashi learns it from a Pasuk in our parsha. When the Torah instructs us to bring a Korban – יַקְרִיב אֹתוֹ לִרְצֹנוֹ – “He shall bring it willingly,” Rashi comments:

מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ, יָכוֹל בְּעַל כָּרְחוֹ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר “לִרְצוֹנוֹ”, הָא כֵּיצַד? כּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ עַד שֶׁיֹּאמַר רוֹצֶה אֲנִי: The Beis Din must put pressure upon him to bring it if he is remiss in bringing the sacrifice he had promised. One might think that this means that they shall force him against his will! The Pasuk, however, states, לרצונו “he must bring it willingly”. How is this possible? They press him until he says, “I wish to do it”.

The Divrei Yechezkel explains simply: When we are pressured into doing a mitzvah, we are revealing the part of ourselves that always wanted to do it.

All this is to say that inside of each of us, there are conflicting desires and priorities. We have a “higher self”; one that identifies with Ratzon Hashem, the purpose of our existence and the interests of Klal Yisrael. And then we have all the stuff. We want to live our best and most meaningful lives, but we don't always succeed in making the best choices when faced with conflicting desires.

When we fail at living up to our higher selves we experience that breaking. We feel shame, frustration, weakness and vulnerability.

We don't break the Torah. Instead, we break the value and importance of Torah inside of ourselves. We break our self confidence to observe Ratzon Hashem.

When the Beis HaMikdash stood in Yerushalayim, there was direct path for a person to fix themselves. They would bring a Korban. The Rikanti (פ׳ נח) explains how this activity would help:

ודע כי הקרבן מקרב רצון השפל ומייחדו ומקרבו ברצון העליון. Know, that the Korban raises up our “lower will”, and unifies it will the “Upper Will” of Hashem.

In a visible, visceral and physical sense the Korban took the “animal” inside of us, and raised it up to Shamayim. Jews would leave the Mikdash with a renewed sense of connection to the higher parts of themselves, and to their mission in life.

Chazal tell us that in the absence of Korbanos, we achieve similar results by learning the Parshiyos of the Korbanos. But how could that possibly help?

The Beis Yaakov of Izhbitz (אחרי מות מו) explains:

שעיקר החטא הוא רק לפי תפיסת אדם, שמצד תפיסתו נראה לו שנתרחק מהשי”ת, כי מצד השי”ת הוא כעניין שנאמר (איוב ל״ה:ו׳) אם חטאת מה תפעל בו Sin is a problem that arises from human perspective, in that we experience that we are now further from Hashem. From Hashem's perspective, however, no sin affects Him.

When we learn the about Korbanos, we realize that Hashem desperately wants us to experience the reunification of ourselves. That's the whole point of the Korban experience; and knowing that Hashem wants us to un-break ourselves is the purpose of the Limmud.

Sefer Vayikra is often glossed over in schools and shuls. We are far more excited about the stories of the Avos and Yetzias Mitzraim than we are about the details of the Mizbeach. But the Medrash (ויקרא רבה ז׳) disagrees without methodology:

אָמַר רַבִּי אַסֵּי מִפְּנֵי מָה מַתְחִילִין לַתִּינוֹקוֹת בְּתוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים וְאֵין מַתְחִילִין בִּבְרֵאשִׁית, אֶלָּא שֶׁהַתִּינוֹקוֹת טְהוֹרִין וְהַקָּרְבָּנוֹת טְהוֹרִין יָבוֹאוּ טְהוֹרִין וְיִתְעַסְּקוּ בִּטְהוֹרִים. Rabbi Asi says: Why do we begin our educational curriculum from Sefer Vayikra rather than Bereishis? Children are pure, and Korbanos are pure. Let those who are pure engage in that which is pure.

Imagine an education that began with “You are perfect and wonderful... and even when you mess up, you can always return to this state of purity. Jews have been failing for centuries, but Hashem already gave us a way to fix it. Come, let's learn how you can take the animal side of you, and raise it up to be a part of the learning and growing process...”

This is what Sefer Vayikra has to offer: A world of connection and closeness. A world of redemption and repair. A world where right now I'm not doing anything wrong, and there is no need to label myself or identify with my past Aveiros.

Hashem should help us to delve into this Sefer and the purity it provides; that we should live it in our own lives, teach it to our children and arrive at the festival of freedom with a renewed desire to be free.

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