To School or To Shul? That is the Question: Twenty-five Minutes in a Car with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks


Article published by ejewishphilanthropy:



Drunk with Purim!

wineOne of the most puzzling and seemingly out of character demands imposed by our Rabbis is the one regarding drinking on Purim:

אמר רבא חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rava said: One is obligated to be drunk on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. (Megilla 7b)

Most often we find in the Torah, Prophets, Writings, Talmud, and later writings, that drunkenness is condemned, forbidden, and admonished against.  How could intoxication, which can lead to loss of self-control, alcohol addiction, transgression, weakened morality, and crime, be mandated by our sages?

The follow up story to this Talmudic statement, which some interpret less literally than others, leaves us further bewildered:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They drank, whereupon Rabbah arose and killed [lit. slaughtered] Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for Divine mercy, and thereby brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. The next year, Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let’s make a Purim feast together.” Rabbi Zeira said, “Miracles do not happen all the time.” (Megilla 7b)

What are we to make of drinking on Purim?  How drunk is drunk?  There are many approaches and many opinions.

Some rule that based on their understanding of the previous story and the possible consequences of inebriation that it is forbidden altogether to get drunk, including on Purim.  While others permit and obligate a person to get drunk to a degree.  The degree ranges from drinking the regular amount for a meal at which wine is served, to drinking to the point of intoxication, to the Rambam’s creative ruling that one drink until you sleep.

The final ruling as stated by the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema is the following (Orach Chaim 695):

Shulchan Aruch – A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’ Rema – There are those that say that one does not have to get drunk. Rather, he should drink more than usual (Kol Bo), and fall asleep. By sleeping he will not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’ (Maharil). Both the one who [drinks] a lot and the one who [drinks] a little [is praiseworthy] as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven.

Now let’s look at this a little more deeply.

Perhaps one is to take this command literally, but not in the obvious way.  Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky,zt”l, in his Netivot Shalom (Purim 57-58), says that a person is obligated be drunk not “be’yayin” (wine), rather “be’puriah” with (PURIM)!  Meaning, a person must be so drunk with the ideas of Purim that he comes to the realization that somehow there is no difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.

Now, some people might need some help to get there, but one must never lose sight that the goal is not the wine.  Wine may be a tool, but it is certainly not the goal.

According to the Maharal of Prague, there are 3 relationships that a person must constantly work on to improve: 1. His relationship with God, 2. His relationship with his fellow man, and 3. His relationship with himself.  On Purim we are given the tools to work on these three areas in almost one fell swoop.

Sometimes a person feels a closer connection with God –the level of “blessed is Mordechai” – and sometimes a person feels more disconnected with God – the level of “cursed is Haman”.  Through the reading of the Megillah we are capable of reaching a level of ad de’lo yada that our connection with God, whether revealed or concealed, is ever-lasting and ever-present.  Whether in miraculous times or dark times, we are always connected with Hashem.  The Jewish people are constantly referred to as the children of God.  The son of the King remains so no matter how estranged he is from his father, so too the Jewish people, as difficult as life gets, are in constant connection with God.

We sometimes have friends who are on the level of “blessed is Mordechai”, and we, unfortunately, sometimes have friends who are on the level of “cursed is Haman”.  Through mishloah manot, we are able to rectify these different kinds of friends and bring the unity necessary of all Jews and humankind.  Under the most difficult of circumstances in the story of Purim, Esther commands Mordechai to go and gather ALL the Jewish people; “united we stand, divided we fall”.  Esther knew that the unity of the Jewish people was essential in order to prevail over Haman and his cohorts.  On Purim we can reach ad de’lo yada in this realm of life throughMishloach Manot.

Finally, Purim gives us the opportunity to work on our relationship with ourselves.  Purim is a time to focus on the “sur me’rah” (stay away from evil), through the mitzvah of erasing Amalek from our memories and from our midst and “aseh tov” (do good) through recommitting ourselves to Torah and service of God.  On Purim we can reach the level of ad de’lo yada where we can serve God while involved in purely spiritual matters and we can serve God while involved in the physical world.  There is no distinction.

On this Purim may we become, as Reb Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l, used to call, “Purim Jews”;  we reach the level of Ad de’lo yada, that we are so drunk with PURIM that we are at peace with ourselves, at peace with our friends and at peace with God.

L’chaim and Good Purim!

The Gift of One Year in Israel


(First published on

A primary role of the Jewish educator is to help his/her students to come home. Through engaging Jewish learning and meaningful Jewish experiences, students should be inspired to come home to who they are, connected to their past while looking forward to their future.  Each one discovering their uniqueness and how their will uniquely contribute to bettering this world.

One of the most fulfilling roles in my work as a Jewish educator is serving as the Israel Program Advisor at our school.  Part of my responsibilities is to open and guide the conversation with our seniors concerning spending their post-high school year studying in Israel. Together we discuss their hopes and their fears, their goals and their anxieties.  We discuss what a year in Israel could look like, what obstacles they would need to overcome, and what type of preparation they would need in order to succeed.

Their decision, made together with their family, is never an easy one. There are a number of important considerations including: academic, emotional, financial, cultural, and more.  For those who choose to go, their experience learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael, exploring the land, and interacting with its people proves to be a critical component to their day school education by solidifying, contexulalizing and completing it.

Every year I travel to visit with the students on their “turf” in their yeshiva, seminary or program.  There we discuss how they are doing, whether they were adequately prepared, whether they are overcoming their anticipated obstacles, and whether they are on route to achieving their goals.  We talk about their future plans and how they will reintegrate back in their home communities whether short term or long term.

I just came back from this year’s visit.  It was incredible to see the students flourishing each in their own way – learning, experiencing and bringing out the best in themselves.

In addition, it is no secret that this year’s security situation has brought a new dimension to their experience. I witnessed firsthand, an inspiring and professional group of program Rabbis, educators and staff.  Together with their students they have shown tremendous resilience and even more determination to make the most of their time in Israel, whether inside or outside the Beit Midrash.

I had the opportunity to visit Yeshivat Ashreinu, a wonderful and unique program, which sadly became more famous after the tragic murder of Ezra Schwartz, HY’D, earlier this year. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Gotch Yudin, is a model of principled leadership emanating from true Torah values. He has been guiding his students and staff valiantly through a most difficult of times.

Together with all the Montreal students, we went out to dinner for a mini reunion. There, in the heart of Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City gates, we ate, schmoozed, laughed and reminisced. They were curious to know how the school was doing without them and how they can help with next year’s crop coming to Israel.  A few of the students shared meaningful divrei Torah and were all so grateful for this opportunity, for this gift.

Every year, my belief in the significance and importance of spending a year in Israel becomes strengthened, seeing our students at home with themselves in our nation’s home.

The Sounds of Leadership

Be a MenschThis past month our Elementary School embarked on the “Be a Mensch” Project which aimed at recognizing carefully selected Middot Tovot (good character traits) in others.  What a wonderful sight it was to see students, faculty and staff literally wearing their good behaviour as badges of honour.  In Hebrew the word for clothing, madim, and for character traits, middot, are etymologically related.  The message: we wear our actions, good or bad, on our sleeves.

This week’s parsha is devoted almost exclusively to the bigdei kehunah (priestly garments) of the regular kohanim, who wore four garments and the Kohen Gadol, who wore eight.  Many commentators offer significant messages that are conveyed by the structure and form of the various items of clothing.  The ultimate purpose of these beautiful uniforms was “l’kavod u’l’tiferet” – for the honour and glory of the Ribbono Shel Olam (Shemot 28:2).

Bigdei_Kehuna(7)Among the special garments described in our parasha that were worn by the Kohen Gadol is the Me’il, the Robe – (Shemot 28:31-35). The Me’il was long enough to come down to the feet of the Kohen Gadol and along the bottom hem, it was decorated with a series of 72 pomegranates made of blue, purple and scarlet wool, and golden bells each with a ringer.  According to Rashi, the pomegranates and golden bells alternated all around the bottom of the Me’ilThese pomegranates and bells were both decorative and functional:

וְהָיָה עַל אַהֲרֹן לְשָׁרֵת וְנִשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ בְּבֹאוֹ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ לִפְנֵי ה’ וּבְצֵאתוֹ וְלֹא יָמוּת

“It must be on Aaron in order to minister, its sound shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary before Hashem, and when he leaves, so that he not die.” (Shemot 28:35)

There are a many interpretations on the significance and purpose of the bells, as well as many lessons to be learned.  Some suggest their sounding being intended for the people’s ears (Rashbam, Chizkuni), some suggest they were intended for Hashem Himself and/or the angels (Ramban) and others describe the bells along with all the priestly vestments as serving as a Kapara (atonement) for different sins of the Jewish people including unintentional murderers (Yerushalmi), or for lashon hara (Kli Yakar).

But, what if the bells’ message was also intended for the Kohen Gadol himself?  What was the lesson learned for the spiritual leader of the Jewish people as he heard the sounding of the bells while entering and exiting the Sanctuary?

Perhaps a message was that in order to successfully lead, to be heard and to be followed, he had to understand that his role was to be servant first.  Only when he would act in the best interest of his people – “l’sharet” – then they would follow him – “V’nishma Kolo”.

In an essay called The Servant as Leader, first published in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership”, which elaborates on this idea.  He writes:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Greenleaf continues: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

According to Greenleaf, a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Perhaps we can say that Moshe Rabbeinu models servant-leadership for his brother Aaron and all future leaders, by “recusing” himself from this week’s parasha altogether, which proves to be the only parasha since his birth that his name is not mentioned.  He steps aside temporarily into anonymity to bring out the autonomy and full service of Aaron.

The Me’il was an important reminder for the spiritual leader of the budding Jewish civilization in the desert, and an important lesson for community leaders, school leaders, classroom leaders, and parent leaders everywhere that to lead is to recognize the best in others and cultivating their talents first. Then, they will follow.

The Shul Candy Man

lollipops-466687_1280In tribute to Eddie Schachter, z”l, and shul Candy Men everywhere.

Every synagogue includes a supporting cast of unofficial, self-appointed characters that make shul a more colourful experience. They include, among others: “the knocker” who carefully reminds us of special prayers to insert on special days, the “shusher” (self-explanatory), the late morning nap taker who keeps the Rabbi’s ego in check, the Kiddush club enabler who clears the room during Haftorah, and the Hatzolah guy whose radio is just loud enough for everyone to hear.

But of all of them, the most beloved and arguably the most impactful person is the Candy Man.  He is the man in Shul who brings a smile to countless children’s faces with a simple piece of candy (or three) on Shabbat, and has them coming back week after week. For a kid in synagogue, he is the only person that matters.

The Candy Man is not elected, he is not represented on the institution’s letterhead.  He is often scorned by parents for the sugar high they will have to deal with, and conspiracy theorists have accused him of colluding with local dentists (never proven!).  But, if the survival of Judaism is dependent on the next generation, there is no doubt that he could be the most important person in the synagogue.

Many have tried and failed at the position perhaps due to poor merchandise choice or distribution policies that are too strict.  What many don’t understand is that being the Candy Man is about more than the candy.  It’s about ensuring that the next generation of Jews have a positive association with synagogue.

It takes special skill, sensitivity and patience to be the shul Candy Man, as the clientele is diverse, complex and sometimes tricky.

There is the tentative customer who approaches eyes shyly to the ground and then dashes instantly once the candy hits the palm of his hand.  There is the kind and gracious child who smiles and says: “thank you”, melting the Candy Man’s heart.  There is the child who is accompanied, almost forcefully, by his father who won’t let him leave until she says: “thank you”.  And there is the child who comes back moments later with a request for another candy for “his little sister”.

Each Candy Man has a style of his own.  Some give lollipops, others an assortment of packaged delights.  Some give hard candies, others chewy or jellied ones.  Some offer choice and others don’t.  Some give only one per Shabbat, some handfuls and others encourage coming back for more.  Some may require a “thank you”, or “Good Shabbos” in return, others are satisfied with a simple smile.

My father-in-law affectionately known to two generations of kids in Toronto as “Sabba Bazooka”, has a strict one Israeli Bazooka gum and a “Good Shabbos” in return before escaping policy.

Candy Men can be very territorial.  While they are not assigned a specific zone in the sanctuary to operate in, once they establish themselves, they often resent competition for customers.

At the end of the day, with nothing really expected in return, the Candy Man’s mission is that every Jewish child have the opportunity to have at least one sweet and warm moment in synagogue and hopefully have him come back for more of those moments.

Perhaps one of the earliest hints to Candy Men in Jewish life, is an interesting 12th century German custom described in Sefer Harokeah, written by R. Eleazar of Worms, of bringing a child to school for the first time on Shavuot, the day the Torah was given.

They would come wrapped in a cloak, and were put on the lap of the Rabbi who would bring a slate with written verses from the Torah and the Aleph-Beit.  He taught the child the verses and the letters and the child repeated them.  And then Rabbi put a little honey on the slate and the child licked the honey from the letters with his tongue.

The message was clear, namely that from an early age learning had to be enjoyable.  Torah, as well as all of Jewish life, can only be transmitted effectively if it is delivered in a sweet and gentle fashion.

The “World Series” in the life of the Candy Man has always been Simchat Torah, the day on which we celebrate the completion and restarting of the Torah cycle.  Showering children with sweets to no end, seeing kids dancing and singing with the Torahs, is the highlight of the year for every Candy Man as he sees his mission fulfilled to its fullest.

As we celebrate and begin the Torah anew, recommitting ourselves to its transmission to future generations, let us be reminded by the Candy Men everywhere to teach it with love, as its ways are ways of pleasantness and sweetness.

Eddie Schachter, z”l, was a Holocaust survivor and Montreal legend.  Eddie’s passion was caring for children as TBDJ’s legendary “Candy Man”, supporter of Jewish education and needy families.  Yehi Zichro Baruch.

A Divine Embrace

It was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, British athlete Derek Redmond took his mark as a favourite to medal in the 400 meter sprint.   The starter’s gun fires, and they’re off.  150 meters into the race Derek felt a searing pain in his leg.  In agony, he fell to the ground, he had torn his hamstring.

His dream of medaling turned into a nightmare. After laying on the ground for a brief moment, Derek, not willing to give up was determined to finish the race.  He got himself up and staggered forward.  Meter after meter hobbled in unbearable pain.

All of a sudden a man from the stands broke through security and rushed towards Derek, waving off officials as he approached.  He put his arm around him helping him keep his balance.  After a couple of meters, Derek looks up, it was his father.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told his son.

“Yes, I do,” he replied.

“Well then, we’re going to finish this together!”

Together father and son continued.

Just before Derek arrived at the finish line, his father let him go to complete the race receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of over 65,000.

From Tisha B’Av, through the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana, Aseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur, we have been immersed in self-reflection and contemplation.  Where have I been, where am I, and where do I want to be?  How have I acted, how am I acting, and how do I want to act in the future?  Who was I, who am I and who do I want to be?

Personal growth is a rewarding, yet painful process at times.  We’ve work so hard and may feel, right now, that we’ve falling to the ground with our own torn hamstring.

The race is not over yet.  We swiftly get up from pain and exhaustion, we set our sights on the finish line, the culmination of the holiday season, Sukkot.

We may struggle, hammer and nail in hand, limping to get all the Yom Tov preparations in order.  But then we sit together, friends and family in a Divine embrace.  Hashem telling us: “You’ve worked so hard, you’ve accomplished so much already.  I know you are in pain, I know it hurts.  Let me help you.  I want to give you a hug.”

According to our tradition, to be kosher the sukkah must have at least two walls and a tefach (a handbreadth) and a maximum of 4 walls. Rabbi J. H. Shmidman, zt”l, used to say that a hug is hidden in the very name of our temporary dwellings – ס כ ה.  The “two walls” and a “tefach” version, represented by the letter “Heh”, could appear like an arm wrapped over another’s shoulders.  The three walled version represented by the letter “Kaf”, could appear like a two armed embrace.  And the four walled option, represented by the letter “Samech”, could appear like a great big hug.

After going through the Days of Awe, isn’t that all we need?

As we enter our sukkah, it is traditional to offer the following beautiful tefila:

“…יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותיי שתשרה שכינתך בינינו ותפרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך”

“May it be your will, my God and God of my forefathers, that You cause Your Presence to reside amongst us and that You spread over us the sukkah of Your peace…”

We sit and look around at our beautifully decorated sukkot, we look around at our friends and our families.  And we pay attention to the brachot that surround our lives,  basking in Divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.

Two Shofars on Rosh Hashana:  Which is yours?

058Two people walk by a synagogue just as the shofar is being sounded on Rosh Hashana.  Shul windows open, the thunderous notes of the shofar fill the street.  

Upon hearing the sound, the first person thinks to himself: “Wow.  What am I doing outside here?  There is something special going on inside.  I wish to be included in this special moment.”  

The second person, head down, scanning through his emails, pays little attention thinking to himself: “Hmmm, maybe I’ll come back later, I have too much going on.”  The sound of the shofar quickly becomes drowned out with the noise in his mind and from the street.

Both people heard the same sound, but did neither, either, or both of them fulfill the mitzvah of shofar?  More significantly, what is the role of intention in our Jewish lives and in our religious commitments?

Yes, indeed, both did heard the sound of the shofar, but only one of them listened to it.  Intention is what distinguished the two friends’ experiences, and therefore only one fulfilled the mitzvah.

According to Maimonides (Hilchot Shofar 3:4):

“Although blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is a mandate of the Torah, there is a hint in it. As if to say, ‘wake up sleepy ones from your slumber and the dozing ones arise from your sleep and examine your deeds and return with teshuva and recall your Creator, those people who forget the truth with the silliness of the times and waste all their years on foolishness and emptiness that will not help and not save. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes and abandon each one of you his mistaken path and his intention that is not good.’”

The shofar’s purpose, while it must be musically in tune, is not meant only to be good entertainment.  The shofar’s purpose is to awaken us and to call us to action.  This can only be achieved with a level of intentionality of the listener, even if it’s just a little amount.

We each engage in our Jewish lives in different ways and at different levels of intensity.  Often determined by our upbringing, the circumstances of life, and even the day’s mood.  Some of us connect more intellectually, some more emotionally, some more socially, some more nationally and some more spiritually.

But, what is our intention, what is our purposefulness in those interactions?  Are we hearing or are we listening?  Are we just passing by or are we engaged?

Over this High Holiday season as we congregate together, we must ask ourselves these questions.  Why am I here as part of the collective? Why am I here as an individual? What is my intention? And subsequently, how do these answers influence my level of enthusiasm and my level of engagement?

Are the prayer services, the shofar blasts, the camaraderie, the sermons stirring up something meaningful in me, moving me to positive action?  Or am I pretty much the same coming out as I was coming in?

Of course, there is onus on the sweet sounding Chazzan, the powerful shofar blower, the devoted lay leadership and the passionate Rabbis to inspire, but to be truly inspired, to be transformed by Rosh Hashana and all of Jewish life it takes intentional listening to the prayers, intentional listening to the Torah reading, intentional listening to the shofar, intentional listening to the sermons, and most importantly intentional listening to ourselves.

Being genuinely moved is dependent on each and every one of us.  To listen we must quiet down the noise and be fully receptive to the powerful messages that are around us.

Blessings for a Shana Tova filled with health, happiness and meaning and most importantly, a good listening ear.