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The Price of Acceptance

Four men were introducing themselves to each other at a cocktail party. “Name is Cole.” Second guy says “Kane.” The next one says “Kean.” “The fourth guy smiles at them and says, “Also Cohen.”

What is it about Jews that makes them so desperate to try to fit in and gain acceptance into the societies around them? What price are they willing to pay in the loss of dignity, identity and meaningful religious experience in order to obtain this acceptance?

Let’s examine this issue through the lens of the Purim story. The book of Esther opens up with King Achashverosh throwing a big feast that lasted for 180 days. What was the reason for the feast? The Talmud explains that he was celebrating the establishment and security of his kingship and the end of the 70 years.

Jeremiah’s prophecy foretold that the Jews would be in exile for 70 years following the Babylonian conquest of the Jewish kingdom and the destruction of the first Holy Temple. There was some confusion as to when this 70 year period began. Achashverosh erred (as did King Belshazzar of Babylon several years earlier) and concluded that the 70 years had passed and that the G-d of the Jews had abandoned His promise to bring them back to Israel for the rebuilding of the Temple. To celebrate the notion that the Jews would be his forever, he held a party.

The Talmud further relates, that he became so emboldened by the end of the 70 years, that he decided to use the Temple’s golden utensils at the party and he came dressed in the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (high-priest). To make a greater mockery out of the situation, he invited the Jews to attend the party.

Sadly, the Talmud informs us, many Jews went happily to the party. They sense of self-respect and dignity was so low and their desire for acceptance was so high, that they tripped over themselves as they hurried to attend the party that celebrated their exile and eternal subjugation. They were so honored to be included by the gentile society, that they stood by as the Temple vessels and priestly garments were desecrated.

Though Mordechai protested and pointed out this irony, the allure of acceptance was so great for some of the Jews that they refused to see the situation for what it was. They allowed themselves to be used for the purpose of their own disgrace.

Did it help? Did it alleviate the Jew hating and persecution? Not in the least. On the heels of this party, one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival took place. Haman came out with a plan, a “final solution” to kill all Jews, from young to old, women and children, in one day.”

Fast forward to our times. It is said, “Those who did not learn from history are destined to repeat the same mistakes.” We continue to observe many Jews engaging in the same attempt to assimilate and become a part of society around them. They change their names. They change their lifestyles. They change anything that will make them look different. They are so happy to be invited to join Country Clubs and Mardi Gras Krewes. Does it help? Does it alleviate the Jew hating and persecution? Not in the least. Anti-Semitism is alive and well. Blatant discrimination against Jews is quite common in many circles. Whether we call ourselves Cole or Cohen it makes no difference. (On the contrary, a Jew is most respected when he or she displays a loyalty to the Jewish faith and heritage.)

Anti-Semitism aside, why is it worth the high price of loss of dignity, identity and meaningful religious experience in order to obtain this acceptance? We are giving up the biggest treasures available to a human being for the fleeting feeling of acceptance. Let us learn this lesson from the Purim story and start embracing our identity, our dignity and our precious relationship with G-d rather than throwing it away for a cheap and momentary thrill.

Mazal Tov to Aline and Gary Connelly upon the birth of their daughter Mila and Mazal Tov to the grandparents, Linda and Simon Waknin.

Mazal Tov to Lily Shapiro and her family upon her Bat Mitzvah this weekend.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Judaism, not just for kids

For too many, Judaism is something in which children are involved. So after Bar or Bat Mitzvah (for some a few years after that) they kind drop out of or downgrade their religious participation. They often resume upon having a child of their own. Consider how we think about holidays like Chanukah and Purim. It is most often framed as a children’s celebration. This is a cycle that repeats itself over and over – from generation to generation. Wash, rinse, repeat.

While keeping the children’s attention is paramount, as we can learn from our worst enemies’ attempts to restrict Jewish education, nevertheless, this should not translate into reducing Judaism into a juvenile experience. Recent polling data suggests that college students and young adults (pre-parenthood) are simply not being engaged Jewishly at the same level that other demographics are.

If I may humbly suggest, there are two key points that need to be addressed. The short term need is to create religious (not just social and social action) programming that will capture the attention of pre-parenthood adults. The long term need is to drive home the absolute imperative of continuing one’s Jewish learning beyond Bar Mitzvah or the early teenage years.

For many their perspective of Judaism is through a childish lens. Their knowledge of holidays and Biblical narratives is from Hebrew school. Taking that into account, it is not hard to see why Judaism is not taken any more seriously than Disney characters. Abraham and Moses are as real as the tooth fairy and the big red fella in December. They have never been exposed to Jewish philosophy or serious ethics. They have never been taught about the great wisdom that Judaism, the Talmud and Halacha have contributed to the development of civilized societies. Mitzvahs are seen as child’s play. Holidays are there to keep the kids busy. Torah stories are Aesop’s fables. No wonder there is no interest.

How many people would allow themselves to stop learning math or science at sixth grade and still consider themselves knowledgeable enough to render an opinion? Why is that when it comes to Judaism we are satisfied with an elementary level education and that is enough data for us to assume that we can do without the whole deal?

Bottom line is – we must become more learned and that will foster an interest in remaining engaged all throughout our lives. The word Halacha is defined as Jewish law. But it actually comes from the root Halicha – to walk or go. One cannot know how to go or proceed as a Jew without studying Halacha. One cannot know how to think as a Jew without becoming aware of Hashkafa or Jewish thought. Singing David Melech Yisrael with the hand motions is just not going to cut it. There needs to be a serious pursuit of Jewish learning for us to take ourselves and our Judaism seriously.

Purim is a good time to start. It is not just a kids’ holiday. Let see the adults in our community get as enthusiastic about Purim as they were about the celebrations last weekend.

Mazel Tov to David and Nechama Kaufmann upon the birth of a grandson, Yosef Mordechai, to Saadya and Chaya Sarah. Mazel Tov to the other grandparents, Reuven and Chana Liba Nathanson.

Wishing you a happy Adar and a good Shabbos!
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

No Opting Out

This Shabbat we bless the month of Adar. In the Purim story, when Haman threatens to kill all of the Jewish people, there is an interesting twist pointed out by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Any Jew could have saved himself or herself by severing ties with the Jewish people. A simple opting out declaration would have been sufficient for an individual to no longer be subject to the decree of destruction against the Jewish nation. Yet, amazingly, not a single Jew in the entire Persian empire of 127 provinces stepped forward to utilize that opportunity. This demonstration of dedication to the Jewish identity was one of the things that brought about the merit of salvation.

Earlier this week I was invited by my friend Igor Cherny to attend an “open mic” event for the Spoken Word Club at Edna Karr Charter High School on the Westbank. Igor is a teacher at the school and the force behind the club. The theme was Black History Month and many students displayed significant talent in their presentations about their life experience as African Americans. Igor shared his family’s “black moment” by relating the story of Jewish persecution in the former Soviet Union. His grandmother was given a chance to circumvent the discriminations experienced by Jews in the USSR by changing her identity from Jewish to Ukrainian. This would have opened up some doors for her and her future descendants. Despite the urging of so many around her, this 16 year old girl opted to continue to identify with the Jewish nation at any cost.

Hearing this story recalled for me the above teaching about Purim and got me thinking how amazingly powerful the Jewish identity is. We are so hard wired down to the depths of our very beings that no matter what, we retain the connection to our Jewishness, to our G-d and to whatever we know about our Jewish identity.

Mazel Tov to the Nemes family upon the engagement of Libby Nemes to Zalman Groner.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

Saying thank you

In the daily Amidah we recite a passage that begins with the words Modim Anachnu Lach, “We thankfully acknowledge that You are the L-rd our G‑d… We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, evening, morning and noon, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences.”

The idea of expressing gratitude to Hashem is one of themes of prayer. We must constantly hammer into our consciousness that we owe G-d thanks for everything that we experience in life.

There are times when it is easier to remember that than others. There are the major miraculous events where we are able to overcome overwhelming difficulties. Then there are the “daily miracles and continual wonders” for which we must work harder to ingrain within ourselves that feeling of gratitude.

This week I had the privilege of observing a man expressing gratitude for a miracle that he experienced. A person I know underwent a very complex surgical procedure. The medical team had projected all kinds of difficulties and obstacles that they would likely encounter. In the end the surgery went very well and, thank G-d, it has been a wonderful road to recovery, and with His help it will continue so. Leading up to and during the surgery many people were praying for his welfare. He and his family were very grateful for those prayers.

Two days after the surgery he asked me to come to the hospital to help him lay his Tefillin. We put on the Tefillin and he recited Shema with great fervor. One could see that this was a very powerful moment. After he finished reciting the Shema he covered his eyes to emotionally express his thanks to Hashem in his own words. We finished by reciting the Psalm of Thanksgiving (Psalm 100) together. Here was a person who really felt the truth of the words in the prayer - Modim Anachnu Lach. He felt the hand of Hashem in his life and wished to convey his gratitude for that. Needless to say it was very moving for me. I hope that I can retain some of that feeling as time passes.

On a more somber note, it is with profound sadness that we convey our heartfelt condolences to Jared Sichel and the entire Sichel family for the untimely passing of Aaron Sichel. May the prayers that so many have been offering on his behalf and the Mitzvos that were undertaken in his merit serve to smooth the path of his journey into the world of truth. May the Sichel family take comfort in knowing that so many people care and support them in this difficult time. Finally, May Hashem comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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