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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

As many of you know, I almost never write up my sermons. This week a number of people asked for my remarks, so this is an attempt at reconstruction:

It is forbidden to weep on Shabbos. I told myself I wouldn’t cry this morning while speaking. But the Rama teaches that there is an exception:

וכן מי שיש לו עונג אם יבכה כדי שילך הצער מלבו מותר לבכות בשבת (או"ח רפח:ב)

If the only way to experience the joy of Shabbos is to cry, to release the pain in one’s heart, then it is in fact permitted to weep on Shabbos. So if I find myself crying, certainly this Shabbos we can rely on the Rama.

A few minutes ago we blessed the coming month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah. And this morning, how much we all desperately need Chanukah, those holy lights shining against the darkness, the season of נִּפְלָאוֹת וְנֶּחָמוֹת, wonders and consolation. It is fascinating to note that while Chanukah is the first Yom Tov established after the closing of Tanach, in a mysterious way the roots of its miracle lie centuries beforehand, in a story we read in the haftorah just a week ago, not knowing yet about the carnage transpiring less than a mile away as we were reading the words of the Navi, words that the wonderful Jews gathered in the congregations at Tree of Life would never hear.

וְאִשָּׁ֣ה אַחַ֣ת מִנְּשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־הַ֠נְּבִיאִים צָֽעֲקָ֨ה אֶל־אֱלִישָׁ֜ע

There was a widow who found herself in desperate straits, the noose of poverty and debt closing around her neck, creditors circling to take her children away. She runs and cries to the prophet Elisha, and the navi tells her that God will save her, that she will be miraculously provided with a Divine flow of olive oil, that great commodity of antiquity, that she can use to pay off her debts and support her family going forward. And yet, a strange limitation to the miracle manifests itself:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כִּמְלֹ֣את הַכֵּלִ֗ים וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶל־בְּנָהּ֙ הַגִּ֨ישָׁה אֵלַ֥י עוֹד֙ כֶּ֔לִי וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד כֶּ֑לִי וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֖ד הַשָּֽׁמֶן

When the woman fills the last kli, the last vessel in the home, the flow ends, the wonder is over.

So we ask ourselves why this had to be, why the bracha couldn’t last forever, why circumscribe the blessing with vessels?

I would submit that the Navi is teaching us a fundamental principle about the world that Hashem put us in: while there is a constant שפע ברכה, a flow of Divine blessing and grace, that we can access, without the keilim, the vessels, we cannot experience it.

Let me explain what I mean. We all remember last Motzei Shabbos, emerging from davening under lockdown, and the tension as rumors slowly began to concretize the details of a reality beyond our wildest nightmares, and then making Havdalah and turning on our devices to encounter the crushing reality of what happened, and the calls and emails and texts from our loved ones around the world checking in to see if we were OK. So at some point that Motzei Shabbos, Anna—who has been my rock and strength this week, as well as being a support for so many others in our community—sat down to write down some of the conversations she had with my children on that terrible night, conversations that I am sure paralleled ones in many of our homes and families over this past week.

Never before have I as viscerally understood the words of Tehillim, מִפִּי עוֹלְלִים וְיֹנְקִים יִסַּדְתָּ עֹז לְמַעַן צוֹרְרֶיךָ לְהַשְׁבִּית אוֹיֵב וּמִתְנַקֵּם, from the mouths of children You have given us strength. In the Talmud and Midrash we often encounter a practice where at significant moments our Sages would stop children to ask them פסוק לי פסוקך, to inquire what texts they were learning at school, and thereby, perhaps mystically, gain insight and wisdom. Here are our children’s pesukim:

Mommy, will we ever feel normal again?

This was not how I thought today was going to go. I thought it would just be a regular Shabbos.

Can we make a Meal Train for the families from Tree of Life and the police?

My friends were scared so we decided to say Tehillim.

I just don’t understand why this happened.

Everything Hashem does is for a reason, right? There must be a reason...

Can we please only talk about cupcakes and rainbows for a while?

Was there anything good about the man who did this? Isn’t there usually something good about everyone?

Can you stay with me while I fall asleep tonight?

Today, there were worlds created and worlds destroyed, because the Gemara says that when we save a life it creates a whole world, and when a life is lost a world is destroyed. Also, Hashem has a robe with the name of every person who was killed al Kiddush Hashem. Today His robe has 11 new names.

It was this final observation that took me most by surprise, as I strained to remember the source of this stunning image of the names of the kedoshim on Hashem’s robe. And then I remembered: it was a Midrash Tehillim that I quoted during Kinos this past Tisha b’Av and forgot—but that my child remembered.

And that is exactly what I mean by keilim, the need for vessels. When we need Hashem’s comfort most intensely, we can find it—but our ability to access it depends on being able to find the right keilim, a way in which each of us, in a highly individual way, is able to capture that shefa, that Divine flow. And watching my children use the keilim that their lives have already provided them, so as to be able to find meaning in a moment of vertigo, where order seems to collapse in evil in chaos, is immeasurably inspiring.

So what are our keilim?

Chesed is a kli. This week we have been inundated with the most profound chesed, from Jews and gentiles, from neighbors and from people across the world who want in the worst way to find some meaningful way to give to the victims, their families, to our communities. The chesed that I have seen displayed by members of our PZ community so humbles me, that I have zechus to be part of such an amazing community. On a deep level, part of this need to do chesed is the recognition that chesed is a powerful kli for meaning, for us to be able to find Divine nechama in this moment. My kids already know that when someone is in need, you make a Meal Train. Chesed is a kli.

Kevod hameis is a kli. It’s the way we stubbornly assert that when a monster turns a shul into a slaughterhouse, we can with awe and love find the tzelem Elokim, the Divine, even in the shattered vessels that once held neshamos. People in this room today have found such meaning in the work they have done as part of our chevra kadisha, and I would just add that while for those of us in Pittsburgh, we have long known that Rabbi Wasserman is our rebbe in kevod hameis, today he is the world’s rebbe in kevod hameis.

Torah is a kli. At a time like this, all the Torah we have ever learned is a receptacle for infusing meaning into our questions. When a child remembers a midrash about Hashem’s love for kedoshim, how their deaths have a cosmic significance that defies mortal comprehension, that kli is suddenly filled with oil that sheds light in darkness.

Tefilla and Tehillim are a kli. Before Selichos I shared with you the story of David Raab, hijacked by Palestinian terrorists to Jordan in September 1970:

“Every morning, I got up very early—actually I never really slept. I was usually up all night and then I slept afterward for a few hours. So around 4:30, 5 o’clock I would put on my tefillin and say the Shema and its blessings, as well as the Shemoneh Esrei [the silent meditation]. I davened [prayed] as quickly as I could and then I took off my tefillin. I didn’t want them to see what I was doing. I wore my yarmulke only when I ate, and I ate only when there were no guerrillas around because I didn’t want them to see me wearing a yarmulke. It was the month of Elul, when we recite Psalm 27, ‘For David: The Lord is my light,’ twice a day. Every time I said it, it seemed very, very appropriate. It seemed very coincidental that we had been hijacked just at the time when you say this particular chapter in Psalms. For example, one verse is, “Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should be waged upon me, in God’s succor I put my faith.” Now, you can’t really ask for a better verse than that. It fit the situation completely. It seemed to express my feelings. It was very reassuring, like God was telling me: Don’t be afraid, because in these types of situations I come through. The last sentence of the chapter seemed to have the strongest influence on me. It says, ‘Await the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, await the Lord.’ It was all very comforting to me, especially since the psalm began ‘For David.’”

To read the rest of this drasha, visit https://tinyurl.com/ycnrs8px.

By Rabbi Daniel Yolkut

(Reprinted with permission)


Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh, where he has served since 2010.