January 28, 2020 |

One Shul: What It Really Means

This week the New York Times published an article about web based bar mitzvah lessons. The article points out that increasingly people are turning away from the traditional American route of normal bar or bat mitzvah lessons under the rubric of a community synagogue. Instead they are finding their own personal rabbi who might even be hundreds of miles away but can conduct the lessons and teachings over the web.

Now, I have nothing against technology and there is nothing wrong with studying a bar mitzvah lesson over skype. In fact, our shul just arranged for a girl in our shul to study with a great teacher over skype.

But the article also spoke to an overall trend in the Jewish community that concerns me and works against the vision that I have for our shul and our community.

The article talks about a group that calls itself oneshul.org and bills itself as “the world’s first community-run online synagogue.” This group “imagines Web-only bar mitzvahs, with an e-minyan, or group of 10, gathered via Skype.” In their words, they are pushing “homeshulin.”

In contrast, the article quoted a Rabbi Levitt who offered this critique of the new group: “It will accomplish the specific need of a specific parent to get a bar mitzvah…But from the standpoint of a robust Jewish life that will hold a community and its values into the next generation, we’re not going to get there through Skype.”

I find myself agreeing strongly with Rabbi Levitt. It is possible for these people to celebrate a bar mitzvah in this manner and completely miss the point of a bar mitzvah.

Let me explain through the context of this week’s portion.

This portion focuses on the fact that Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery. After he is sold the brothers realize that they need an alibi so they slaughter a he-goat—or in Hebrew a, seir izim—and they dip Joseph’s coat into its blood. They then trick their father. They take Joseph’s bloody coat over to their father and they say (37:32): “Haker nah.” Lehakir means to recognize or to know. So they are saying to their father: Do you know whose coat this is? Is this your son Joseph’s coat?

But the words of haker nah can also be reversed onto Joseph’s brothers. (See Genesis 42:8!) We can imagine ourselves demanding of Joseph’s brothers: Haker nah, please recognize! Did you know who Joseph was when you sold him into slavery? Did you know what he was capable of becoming? How could you ever do something like this to somebody who you really know?

For this sin of haker nah, of not recognizing who Joseph was, we the Jewish people are still repenting. We are still repenting for the sin of selling our own brother into slavery and for the sin of not recognizing Joseph’s greatness.

Rashi explains that the brothers specifically dipped the coat of Joseph into the blood of a goat, because a goat’s blood is similar to human blood, “damo domeh leshel adam.”

Since the sin happened via the blood of a he-goat, therefore the repentance must also happen in this manner.

When do we atone for the sin of haker nah with the blood of a he-goat? On Yom Kippur.

The brothers deceived their father with a goat and so too on Yom Kippur we must do teshuvah for this sin.

The Torah tells us on Yom Kippur that we are to take two identical he-goats as an atonement offering. One goat is sent off into the wilderness, azazel, in order to achieve atonement for our sins. And we slaughter the other goat and take its blood and sprinkle it in the Temple.

This ritual act served as an atonement for the horrible sin of Joseph’s brothers. The actual act was both an animal sacrifice and also very symbolic of something even deeper.

Here is the symbolism: the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph’s greatness and so we take two goats for which there is no clear difference and offer them both. It is as though we are saying that we must really look at people and recognize their greatness and dedication to Hashem, otherwise we are no better than the brothers of Joseph.

So to a large degree this Temple rite demonstrates how years later the Jews are still being punished for the sin of selling Joseph.

In the time of the Temple, Hashem had mercy upon us and gave us a clear path to repentance. But now we no longer have a Temple, so how are we to repent for this terrible sin.

First, we need to recognize that what we are talking about of course goes beyond the actual sin of selling of Joseph. That act happened once many years ago. The reason we still need to repent for it is because that act represents another action that we as a community do all the time, on a daily basis.

We should understand this sin of selling Joseph to encompass the larger sin of our community of regularly and in a mundane manner turning our backs on our fellow Jews and “metaphorically” selling them; i.e. not feeling enough pain when our fellow brothers are in distress.

How often do we not notice the poverty or the pain amongst us? How often do we not recognize the people in our own community who are in great need and are crying themselves to sleep at night? This callous indifference to the needs of our own family is akin to selling our brothers into slavery and it is this sin that we repented for every year with a he-goat in the Temple on Yom Kippur.

But now that we no longer have a Temple and two he-goats, we turn to the text of the Torah where we see a hint and a path as to how we can repent today.

The Torah itself offers an antidote to the sin of haker nah.

Right after Joseph’s brothers utter the words haker nah, the Torah shifts to a different story, the story of what Judah does after the sale of Joseph. Judah was the mastermind of Joseph’s sale. It is Judah who sins by suggesting to his brothers that Joseph be sold—and so he bears the responsibility for the sin of Haker Nah.

After Joseph is sold the Torah tells us that Judah sins by having a physical, intimate encounter with Tamar. Tamar is his widowed daughter-in-law, who Judah was supposed to redeem through Levirate marriage. But he had refused to do so. So she took matters into her own hands and disguised herself as a harlot. When Judah meets Tamar on the cross-roads, he doesn’t recognize her as his daughter-in-law and so he desires to be intimate with her. She tells him that her price is a gedi-izim, a kid goat. Alas, Judah doesn’t have his credit card on him and so instead he gives her his staff, his garment, and his seal as an eiravon, a guarantee.

After their encounter, Tamar gets pregnant. Judah suspects her of adultery and arranges for her to be executed. So Tamar sends the eiravon, the guarantee to Judah and says haker nah, look closely do you recognize whose guarantee this is.

Tamar is saying to Judah, haker nah, look closely, and understand the situation. Don’t just kill me; look at me and think about who I am. And when Judah looks more closely he recognizes that it is his eiravon or in other words, it is his responsibility to speak up on behalf of his daughter-in-law. From the union of Judah and Tamar the torah tells us that Peretz is born from whom ultimately the messiah will come.

That moment--where Tamar says haker nah, and where Judah listens to her—is the blueprint as to how we can repent for the sin of Joseph’s brothers. The answer lies in the words haker nah, we must look closely at the person near us and recognize their greatness.

Too often, we look at a person and see nothing. We are too busy with our own lives to get involved in another person’s.

So the Torah tells us with this story that the path to redemption for our community comes from being able to look at a person – and say haker nah—you are our responsibility. We will be your eiravon, your guarantee.

How is one moved on a continual basis to feel this idea? It is my belief that the best way to be inspired to feel and live this message on a consistent basis is by gathering for a communal prayer service.

This is one reason why I keep stressing the importance of attendance at daily prayer services, not just Shabbat. When one prays on a daily basis with a mourner and sees their broken heart, then one can truly say haker nah. When one sees a person crying as they are praying for health for their relative, then one can say haker nah. Coming together and praying for each other’s needs is vital to being able to truly recognize the greatness of another.

This is why I am proud that our synagogue is bucking the trend of other synagogues to have multiple services. In some synagogues, the congregants or the rabbi tell me how proud they are to have multiple minyanim on a Shabbat morning. In our synagogue, I tell them how proud I am that we have one minyan.

In some synagogues, we see a fractioning of Judaism…a shtiebelization of Judaism…a further subdivision…each little subgroup forms their own minyan.

But I believe such a trend is a cop out and takes us away from the essence of what a prayer service can and should be. While this might be personally very difficult and inconvenient for some people, it has a much loftier goal of making the entire community stronger. A prayer service should be about haker nah, recognizing the people with whom we are praying and holding each other’s hands as we walk towards Hashem.

The Rambam says that one who doesn’t pray with the community and instead prays on their own is a shachen rah, a bad neighbor. Why does he use this harsh terminology?

There is a beautiful Midrash Rabbah which explains this Rambam:

A few weeks ago, we read in Parshat Toldot that Isaac’s wife Rebecca was barren and unable to have children. So the Torah tells us that Isaac prayed to Hashem, lenochach ishto, on behalf of his wife. The Midrash tells us what this unusual expression means (Toldot 3): Isaac and Rebecca prayed in the same location at the same time for by praying in this manner even if only one of their prayers would be accepted the other one would also be accepted. Also, seeing the person for whom one is praying greatly increases the petitioner’s concentration and focus thereby enhancing the quality of his prayer.

This is the essence of haker nah. We as a community will be stronger when we are able to daven together and not only pray for our own needs but also recognize and pray for the needs of everyone around us.

Last week in our shul I saw beautiful images that are ordinary images in our shul, but increasingly becoming rarer and rarer in shuls around the country. I saw a recent father who needed help for a moment hand off his son to a much older friend, a Holocaust survivor. And there they sat together, the righteous and holy survivor holding the baby of his neighbor with tears of joy in his eyes, so that his neighbor could finish his prayers. And I also saw a young girl, come in to shul and hug a grandmother. Not her grandmother, but a grandmother in the community who she looks up to with great respect and love.

Those scenes are the essence of haker nah. We need to see beyond our own niche and embrace the larger community.

When we pray as a community our prayers are more expansive and more beautiful and they have a better chance of being heard by the Holy One Blessed Be He.

This is I believe one of the strengths of our shul and so may it be for many years to come.


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...

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