October 27, 2020 |

A Reinvigorated Evangelical Jew

Rosh Hashanah 5770 -- Day 2

Recently there was an article about me in an online magazine. It was a very nice article. By that I mean it said very nice things about me, but it had at least one mistake. It said I was the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, located in Dupont Circle.

Now this is an honest mistake since I do spend some time on the streets of Downtown DC. Before every holiday I try to spend a few hours and be a physical presence on the street of the city. I have been doing this for a few years now so I kind of have a special relationship with the people there. I know the homeless guy who asks for extra honey at Rosh Hashanah, and extra chocolate at Chanukah, but doesn’t like the taste of Matzah at Pesach.

But I don’t go to Dupont Circle. Instead I go to the corner of Connecticut and K since advertisers know that that is the busiest intersection of the city. And what I am doing is advertising our religion.

The article also called me an evangelist. This, I’ll admit, is true. I am an evangelical rabbi.

There are two main reasons why I evangelize and try to bring Jews closer to Judaism.

First, I love Hashem so much that I want to share the love I feel with others. And second, I learn so much from the people I encounter when I evangelize. The more I evangelize, the more inspired I become.

It is often the person who appears to be the farthest away from Judaism who can turn around in an instant and teach me a great deal about Torah. They will have an insight or a thought that blows me away and illuminates my own spirituality.

So I engage other Jews who are far away from traditional Orthodoxy in order to bring them closer to Torah, but also in order to learn at their feet. Just because these Jews don’t observe the Torah the way many of us do, does not mean that they cannot illuminate our Torah.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we discussed the story of Elisha ben Avuha, the rabbi from the Talmud who became a heretic. He was a very lonely and isolated man who was no longer called by his name, but instead was called, Acher or “the other.”

But there is a beautiful story about him in the Talmud in tractate Chagigah 15a. The Talmud tells us, “maaseh be-acher shehayah rochev al ha-sus be-shabbat ve-hayah rebbe meir mehalech acharav lilmod torah mi-piv, there was an incident where Acher was riding his horse on Shabbat and Rabbi Meir was following behind him on foot to learn Torah from his mouth.

This is a shocking story! Rabbi Meir was a great rabbi and he was following behind Acher on Shabbat—while Acher was literally violating Shabbat—in order to learn Torah from Acher.

And Acher wasn’t just “distant” from Hashem, he was perceived as the supreme heretic of his time; the Talmud doesn’t even call him by his name, it calls him “the other,” and the Talmud tells us that Hashem says every one’s name except for Acher’s; and yet here is Rabbi Meir following behind him, studying the Torah while Acher is publicly violating the Sabbath.

The message for me is simple. We must be ready and willing to study Torah from everyone, even from people who are heretics, and even from people who we perceive to be “off the path.” Just because Acher was a heretic does not mean that we can not learn at his feet.

The Talmud further tells us that when Acher died, there was a debate in heaven about whether or not he could enter into the next world. And so a great rabbi on this earth, Rabbi Yochanan, said when I die, “nakteih beyad, I will lead him by my hand.”

Rabbi Yochanan is teaching us that ultimately we are intertwined with Acher. We must learn from him and when we have nothing to learn from him, then we must lead him by the hand. One day when we get to the next world we will bear responsibility for him.

This reminds us all that we have a communal responsibility as it relates to the Acherim –the others -- of the world.

This can mean reaching out to the unengaged Jews of the world: bringing in those distant Jews who claim to be atheists, or who are still scarred by a bad Hebrew school experience that they once had. As Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Meir teach us they are all our responsibility.

But engaging Acher does not only mean reaching out. Sometimes there are acherim who live right next to us, daven right next to us and are somehow disengaged from the faith. They are often great Jews who are just in a spiritual slump. This too is part of our responsibility. It is to reach in—inside our community—as our community grows—and make sure that those who we pray and study with are spiritually engaged in a meaningful manner.

This concept of reaching out to Acher is so fundamental to our faith that it dominates our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah. The Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah has three special additional sections to the Amidah. The first additional section is called Malchiyot or Kingship.

In the section of Malchiyot what we are doing is praising God as King of the universe. In verse after verse we declare that God is King of the universe. But what we are really doing is not just declaring that God is the King, but rather praying for the entire world to recognize that God is King of the universe. As we declare in one of the most famous piyyutim of Rosh Hashnah: veyishmeu rechokim veyavou veyitnu lekhah keter meluchah, and all the distant people will hear and come close and place upon your head the crown of kingship. On Rosh Hashanah we pray for the distant people to recognize God as King.

So reaching out to the acherim of the world is axiomatic to our faith and fundamental to our prayers.

But now I want to tell you a secret. This is something I am not very proud of and it is something I have never shared with you. Some of you might even be shocked by this confession.

Sometimes I just don’t want to be an evangelist. Sometimes I don’t want to share the love of Hashem with others. Sometimes I just want to focus on my own spirituality.

But once you are an evangelist it is more difficult to do that.

Around a year ago, I was telling one of my younger children that I needed to go to shul. This child wanted me to stay home a little bit longer. But I insisted that I needed to go to shul. So the child asked me, “Why do you have to go?” I was about to say, “Because I need to daven to Hashem,” when he blurted out, “I know why you need to go. You need to call out the pages!”

I don’t mind calling out the pages, but sometimes I really want to daven and the evangelism gets in the way.

One time in the past year, I had the following experience. I woke up and was intent on really working on my davening that morning. I had a read an inspirational passage about prayer and I wanted to just immerse myself in the words of the liturgy. That morning, I washed my hands before prayers with special intensity. I put my talit and tefillin on with great kavvanah. And I began to recite the words of the davening. I was having a great spiritual moment. I felt really connected to the words and I was flying high.

But just then someone came and asked me if I had an extra pair of tefillin. “Of course,” I said, “let me get it for you. Let me show you how to put it on.” And then after I was able to help this person, another person arrived and they too sought help, and then I was distracted again.

Now on the one hand, I just love helping people put tefillin on. I love watching the intensity and excitement that people have for the mitzvah. On the other hand, that morning I just wanted to pray in my own space before Hashem.

There were some rabbis in the Talmud who were very upset with Rabbi Meir for following after Elisha ben Avuha. They felt that he made a big mistake.

And I understand that criticism. If we are always focusing on Acher and his ilk, then we are unable to absorb the Torah ourselves. Believe me I know this to be true as well. One of the great challenges of the rabbinate is finding time to remember who you are: to absorb your own Torah while you are in the middle of teaching others.

This idea of remembering who we once were is contained in the second additional section of the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf: Zichronot or Remembrances.

In this section we call upon Hashem to remember us not as we are now, but as we once were. Zacharti lakh chesed neuriyikh, I remember the kindness of your youth.

If Malchiyot is a challenge for us to engage the world, zichronot is a challenge to reengage ourselves; to return to the relationship we once had with Hashem.

If Malchiyot is a challenge for our community to engage the “other” zichronot is a reminder that we as individuals and as a community need to reengage ourselves. It is a reminder not to focus so much on the “acherim” that we forget who we are as well.

That is what this section of the service is telling us: “zacharti ani et briti otakh bimei neuraikh, I remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth.” Hashem is telling us and we are declaring back to him that while we are busy getting the whole world to remember that He is king, we must not forget that He has a special covenant with each of us.

Malchiyot and zichronot are teaching us two very different but important themes about where to focus our energy. We might wonder, well, which should we do first: Should we focus on engaging others or should we focus on reengaging ourselves?

The answer lies in the third additional section to the Mussaf: Shofarot. In shofarot we pray for the utopian world to come into existence; we pray for the messianic era.

The Shofar is a prayer that uniquely speaks to all Jews. It is a simple musical instrument; it is a prayer without words that is accessible to all. But it is a powerful prayer, perhaps the most powerful prayer of all.

When we are able to live and embrace the teachings of malchiyot and zichronot then we will be able to fully sound the shofar. We declare in shofarot, vehayah bayom hahu yitakah be shofar Gadol uvau havodim, on that day the great shofar will be blasted and the distant ones will come close and hear the shofar and bow down to Hashem on the Temple Mount.

What a scene that will be on the Temple Mount. All the distant Jews from around the world will gather together with the Jews already praying every day at the Temple Mount and they will hear the Shofar together.

The sound of that Shofar blast is the messianic shofar; this powerful energy of trying to get the whole world to crown the king and at the same time remember who we are is what creates the messianic era.

This is a challenge for each of us as individuals and for all of us a community. It is a difficult challenge, but it is one we must embrace.

For the Jews of the dessert the sound of the shofar was a unifying sound. It was a call to pick up their tents and start out on their journey. It was a call to march.

For us too, it must be a call to march and to invigorate ourselves and to bring about the conflicting visions of both engaging yourself and engaging the world.

And so I want to leave you with a vision of what that fulfillment might look like. Here is a letter I got from someone from our shul in response to their attendance at one of our programs:

“Without having attended a few of the “Developmentally Different” events such as the pizza dinner and such, I would still be scared of those with Down’s Syndrome and other situations….By being around, I have become a participant instead of an on-looker. I volunteered to sing songs during Chanukah at The Brown House, and then I took a resident of another home to Glen Echo for a puppet show….perhaps I have now found my niche….”

We can all find our niche. But to do so we must crown Hashem as King, reinvigorate ourselves, and then we can all march together on our journey!


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

Divrei Torah (30)


There are currently no divrei Torah about .




Joined: October 21, 2016


Divrei Torah (0)


Joined: November 10, 2017

085 7793440

Divrei Torah (0)


Joined: July 9, 2017


Divrei Torah (0)

More Faces