Toras Anshe Sholem

Parshas Toldos, November 2, 2013:

This Shabbos morning I walked to Anshe Sholem because I needed the walk and the beautiful davening at Anshe Sholem.

1)   David, a member whose family goes back over 50 years at Anshei Sholem, and I were walking to the Kiddush.  We passed the area for strollers, which had close to 30 strollers, and I said to David, isn’t is great to see all of these strollers   David told me that when Rabbi Lopatin first came to Anshei Sholem, there were more funerals than Bar Mitzvahs.  Rabbi Asher Lopatin built up the Shul, and now they have far more Bar Mitzvahs than funerals.  This does not include Bat Mitzvah’s, numerous Brisim, and naming of girls at the Shul.  Rabbi Lopatin has moved on to run Yeshiva Chovevi Torah, and has turned over leadership to Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, a worthy successor.

Many institutions can learn from Rabbi Asher Lopatin.  May Rabbi Asher Lopatin continued success in his new position and continue to teach Torah.

2)  Rabbi Wolkenfeld said a beautiful insight on this Passuk.

21. And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived.  

כא. וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהֹוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְהֹוָה וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ:

The word       לְנֹכַח      according to the Rashbam is  “for” so the Passuk is saying that Yitzchok prayed for his wife, because she was barren.   Yitzchok did not pray for himself, he prayed for his wife.  His needs were not important; he prayed that his wife’s needs should be taken care of by God. Rashi adds another dimension.  Rashi used the common translation of       לְנֹכַח        “opposite” saying that Yitzchok prayed in one corner and Rivka in another corner.  

 The following is from Rabbi Wolkenfeld’s speech.

“And Yitzhak pleaded with Hashem because of his wife, for she was barren.”  Rivka’s infertility is a reason for Yitzhak himself to approach God. It’s relevant to him!  He doesn’t take a second wife or a concubine – he’s the only one of our patriarchs who was able to successfully remain monogamous – instead he understands that Rivka’s infertility is his problem too. The significance and relevance of Yitzhak’s behavior should be obvious. When a spouse is suffering, that isn’t his or her problem – it’s my problem. And the same is true for a sister or a brother or a parent or a child. Indeed, each member of a sanctified community, a Kehila Kedosha, a shul community, has a covenantal responsibility to each other. The problems of the other are my problems too.

But there’s a further level of significance and further level of relevance. Yitzhak is described as praying, “l’nokhah,” his wife. This word, “l’nokhah,” is most commonly understood to mean “on behalf” or “for” – Yitzhak prayed for Rivka. But it can also mean, and indeed its most literal meaning is, “in the presence of” and this meaning was picked up by the Midrash and later quoted by Rashi. Yitzhak prayed in the presence of Rivka. In Rashi’s words, “Yitzhak stood in one corner, and Rivka in another corner, and they prayed.”

We are very often praying “l’nokhah” someone who isn’t actually right next to us. They are in our mind’s eye and at the forefront of our consciousness when we pray, even though we are in one corner, and they are someplace else. Sometimes we pray l’nokhah a close relative suffering from a serious illness. Sometimes we are praying l’nokhah a friend who is unemployed or facing financial challenges. Sometimes we pray “l’nokhah a parent or grandparent who has been dead for many years, yet whose memory inspires and infuses our relationship with God.

 Nobody else can possibly know with whom or for whom one is praying in this internal way.

Rabbi Hershel Cohen a’h was the associate rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York when I first began attending shul regularly in high school. He taught the five-minute Halakhah lesson between Mincha and Maariv each day and the seriousness with which he prayed and the care with which he cultivated a life of careful observance of mitzvot remain inspiring. He once told us about being approached by a mourner during shivah with the following question: Last week, when my parent was alive, fighting for life, I came to shul to pray on behalf of my parent, to plead with God for more time – and specific individual– who sits near me in shul – talked throughout the Misheberakh for Holim, distracting me from my prayers and demonstrating absolutely no sensitivity to my intense need to pray at that moment.  Now my parent is dead and this person wants to visit my home and offer condolences and I don’t want to see that person!

 Yitzhak teaches us that when we pray, we can have the intense existential distress of someone else, or of ourselves, in mind, and so we need to have the highest possible level of sensitivity when in the presence of someone at prayer. They could be struggling with a heavy burden.

Yitzhak taught us something else by praying “l’nokhah” – in the presence of Rivka. The Midrash and Rashi explain that Rivka and Yitzhak both prayed, and prayed with an awareness of each other, but did so in their own space. Prayer requires cultivating a sense of inwardness, interiority, and personal authenticity. Even when we are together as a congregation, we need to be able to generate the privacy that can enable true prayer – the encounter between an individual and God.  That isn’t easy to accomplish.

 3)  The scholar in residence was Sargent Benjamin Anthony.   Sargent Benjamin Anthony founded Our Solders Speak,  He was excellent.  He was articulate, confident, and clearly stated why he fights, to protect Jews.   I wish I could capture the emotion in his speech, the Ahavas Yisroel.   Sargent Anthony is a combat reservist for the IDF and is from Leeds, England.  Our Soldiers Speak brings front line Israeli troops to speak on college campuses and to high school kids in 5+ countries.    He emphasized that kids in college defending Israeli are also front line troops.  We have to educate our kids to be able to speak up for Israel on college campuses.    His toughest campus was Brandeis University, a Jewish oriented university.   Unfortunately, many Jewish kids support the Palestinian cause.  In high school they love Israel emotionally, and are never taught the underlying reasons for the State of Israel on an intellectual basis, to refute the distortions from the left and the Palestinians.   Our kids have to be taught before college why Israel is the Jewish homeland, why we are entitled to Israel.   He said that in 2006 while he was in the second Lebanon war and in an open troop carrier, heading to an Arab Village that was full of Hezbollah troops, he focused on two things.  The deserted town of Kiryat Shimonah and the 23rd Psalm,   “Thou I walk in the valley of death, I will not fear because God is with me.”   While the truck was moving, they passed between houses and were in the valley of death.   A barrage of fire opened up on them.  A bullet passed between Sargent Benjamin Anthony and his fellow soldier sitting inches apart.  He can still recall the whirling sound of that bullet going past his ear.   Three soldiers sitting across from him, told him to get down.  He couldn’t because he was loaded with gear.  They sprang up, exposing themselves, and laid down a barrage of fire to protect him.  This is why he fights for the IDF and there is no distinction between secular and religious soldiers.  

4)  Introducing Sargent Benjamin Anthony was Jack Berger.  Jack Berger is a pleasure to listen to and takes no prisoners.  When he speaks about Israel, he is like Hart Hasten, and others, who are not embarrassed to call out anyone speaking who says a distortion about Israel.  Sargent Anthony is a young Jack Berger and a Hart Hasten.

5)  At Kiddush, I met my cousin Amy’s neighbor from New Rochelle, NJ.  He and his family had driven into Chicago for his brother-in-law’s son’s Bris.  His wife is from Teaneck, NJ ground zero for Modern Orthodoxy.  His older Bocher in Yeshiva was Rabbi Sholem Baum, Rabbi at Keter Torah in Tenack, NJ,   I had the privilege of sitting next to Rabbi Baum at my cousin’s wedding in Philadelphia.

 He has a cousin in Boca Raton Synagogue (It seems that everyone at Boca Raton Synagogue has a relative in Teaneck, NJ) who is a doctor.  This doctor has a brother-in-law from Chicago and this brother-in-law’s father was my classmate at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in the 1960’s and is still a friend.  I bounce my Chiddushi Torah off this friend for comments.  He has a very Litvish approach to Pshat in Chumash, taking the plain meaning of the Torah, and if you deviate from the plain meaning you better justify your reasoning.