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Lego of Despair
Rabbi Yosef Koval | Parshat Behar | May 20, 2022

Certain sounds trigger an immediate emotional response in my brain. One of those is the sound of Lego being spilled onto the floor. More specifically, the sound of a large bucket, filled with approximately 10,000 little pieces of Lego, being spilled onto the floor.

My son, Chaim, loves to play with Lego. He can play for hours on end, building and constructing all types of creations and it is a great activity for both him and us as it keeps him busy and entertained. Over the years we have amassed a tremendous collection of Lego (much of it from elaborate sets that were built, taken apart and then tossed into the ever-growing collection of other random pieces) so that by now the large container in which we store it contains literally several thousands of small pieces of assorted Lego. But while he is fantastic at building the Lego, he is not all that great at cleaning it up when he is done. Hence, it is not unusual for him to empty the ENTIRE box of Lego onto the floor, oftentimes shortly after I had just cleaned up from the last spillage, leaving me the job of cleaning up after him. (For all of you parenting experts, yes, I know that I should not be cleaning up for him. It’s just sometimes not worth the fight.) So, anytime I am sitting and minding my own business when out of the back of my head I hear the sound of thousands of pieces of Lego cascading onto the floor, I tense up and my inner voice (which sometimes mysteriously makes its way into an outer voice, a veeerrry outer voice), goes “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

Recently, in addition to the usual Lego cleanup, my basement was in shambles. An assortment of toys and games littered the floor (Heaven forbid any of my cherubic kids would have picked up after themselves), including the mountain of Lego pieces. I decided to tackle the basement over the course of a few days, setting aside some time each day to do a bit of cleaning. It was a cleanup task that made the Exxon Valdez spill look like it needed a few paper towels to clean. But, with determination and persistence, I managed to get the basement (eventually) sparkling clean.

I pulled Chaim over and in very deliberate and clear terms explained to him how long I had worked on cleaning the basement and how I wanted him to keep it clean and to clean up after himself etc. At least that’s what I THOUGHT I told him. Apparently, he heard me say “Chaim, I know I just spent the better part of a week cleaning the basement for you, but I think it’s just too clean and I would really appreciate it if you quickly made it all a huge mess again.” Obviously a very simple case of misunderstanding.

As if on cue, the next day I heard the dreaded sound of Lego spilling onto the floor. I came downstairs to discover the Lego, and many other things, strewn about the floor, undoing most of my hard work.

My initial reaction was a deflated sigh (ok, maybe that was my second reaction. I won’t divulge my initial reaction in this setting.) I was ready to throw in the towel and resolve to not bother cleaning the basement ever again. But alas, I have a house to maintain and some dignity and self-respect to preserve, so I set to the task of cleaning up once again.

I am certain this, or a variation of this, is a familiar occurrence with many of you who have or had the privilege of raising young children. While your children might be better at keeping neat or taking care of their belongings, most parents have had to deal with some situation of having invested a lot of energy and time into something, only to have it quickly undone by their angelic little darling.

This scenario, while a nuisance to be sure, is still something small in the big scheme of life and I use it only to draw a parallel to a bigger picture. Many people can think of much greater examples in their lives where they set out to do something and poured in a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears into a project or endeavor only to have it collapse for one reason or another. Perhaps it involved an investment of time or money. Maybe it was energy and emotion. Whatever the case, it was a mission or project that came at a great cost. And now it fell apart. The natural human reaction is to give up and throw in the towel. It is for such instances that we should lean on gaining inspiration from the great Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest figures in Jewish history. A scholar whose knowledge was second only to Moses and who goes down as one of the preeminent sages of all time. But Rabbi Akiva did not start learning at a young age. Only at the advanced age of 40 years old did he decide to turn his life around and dedicate his life to Torah study. His story (and even greater, the story of his incredible wife Rachel) is one of the most amazing stories of sacrifice and dedication ever to be told but which this article’s space constraints do not allow for at the moment. The point I would like to focus on is that in a span of 24 years this rabbi went from not knowing the Hebrew alphabet to becoming the teacher of 24,000 students! You read that correctly, I did not add a zero by accident. These 24,000 students were to be the bearers of the Holy Tradition and the transmitters of Torah study and knowledge to the future generations of the Jewish people. Tragically, in a 33-day period, all 24,000 of his students perished in a plague. For that reason, this time on the calendar has been designated as a time for communal mourning.

On Thursday of this week is a day on the calendar known as “Lag Baomer”, a day which is celebrated as a minor holiday. The reason for the joyous feelings is because, as the Talmud tells us, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased to die. The obvious question asked by many commentaries is - why is that a reason to celebrate? A massive calamity occurred and because it now stopped it’s a cause to be joyful? We can understand putting a halt to the mourning observances, but it seems incongruous to suggest making it a day of celebration for that reason.

One answer given is that we do not celebrate the cessation of the death of the students but rather the reaction of their rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, upon witnessing this tragedy. The Talmud tells us that after his devastating loss, when his entire student body was wiped out, he went and found five more students and began to teach them his Torah. And from these five students we now have, some 1500 years later, the majority of the Torah which we study.

From all the mind-boggling anecdotes of the life of Rabbi Akiva, what I find most inspiring is this resiliency he displayed. Consider, he gave up everything in this world in order to completely change his life and serve G-d. With self-sacrifice that we can’t even begin to fathom he reached the zenith of his mission after 2 ½ decades by forming a yeshiva with a population that would fill Madison Square Garden. And then, in just a month’s time, it all vanished. Nothing left. Zero. Anyone else in his shoes would have likely folded up their tents and retired to Florida. After all, by this time Rabbi Akiva was 70 years old. He gave it all he had, he tried hard and now he was done. But he didn’t do that. He picked himself up off the mat and went and found 5 new students and started over. And from that second effort we have all of our Torah today. All because Rabbi Akiva refused to throw in the towel.

This is what we celebrate on Lag Baomer. The resiliency and fortitude of Rabbi Akiva and the inspiration we as a nation have drawn from him in having that same determination and perseverance.

Think of how a short time ago our nation lost 6 million souls. We came to these shores completely decimated and downtrodden. Judaism in this country was at an all-time low. Yet these survivors of the Holocaust, much like Rabbi Akiva, drew from their inner strength and began to rebuild. And rebuild they did, to the tune of the flourishing and successful Jewish community that we have today which seemed inconceivable just 75 years ago.

So, the next time you feel defeated, whether from something minor (relatively speaking) like a container of Lego spilling for the umpteenth time, or from major setbacks in your personal life or spiritual growth, think of Rabbi Akiva and start again. It’s never too late.

And the next time you want to play with Lego you are welcome to stop on by. Just do me a favor and clean up afterwards!

A Gift Horse
Rabbi Mo Koval | Parshat Emor | May 13, 2022

Allow me to give you a little dissertation on horse racing. No, I’m not an expert on horses, although I distinctly remember watching the summer Olympics as a child and thinking the word “equestrian” has got to be the coolest word in the English language. So maybe that counts for something.

Regardless, I don’t know how many of you pay attention to horse racing (I most definitely do not) but last week was the 148th running of the premier event in the sport, the Kentucky Derby. And it was one for the ages!

Of the 20 horses in the race, Rich Strike (yes, horses have some interesting names - I think “Potato Kugel” might have been a Triple Crown winner, once upon a time) was the longest of long shots. Entering the race as a last minute replacement for a horse that was hurt, Rich Strike had the lowest odds to actually win the Derby at 80-1! People around the world wager nearly $200,000,000 on the race every year (!) but nobody with a working cerebrum was putting any significant money on Rich Strike to win.

And sure enough, as the horses came around the final turn, Rich Strike, unsurprisingly, was in 17th place. Then the next 45 seconds shocked the world. The jockey riding Rich Strike pulled some jaw-dropping magic out of a hat! With an astounding display of deft maneuverability, somehow, someway, he managed to coax the horse into another gear. Incredibly, Rich Strike and his jockey weaved their way through traffic, and outran the 16 horses in front of them, pulling away as a most unlikely winner!

A few things struck me as I was watching a video replay of the race the other day with a friend of mine. First, I thought of the 200 million dollars wagered that was now down the proverbial drain. Such a shame! With that kind of money, I could have filled up my minivan with a full tank of gas for at least a month!

Then I thought of how one can take inspiration from seeing proof positive that it’s never too late to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. Despite the odds, never, ever give up. Never stop believing. In truth, there are so many lessons to be learned from this story! But then my friend jokingly pointed out something (ok, maybe only half-jokingly), which really struck a chord with me.

“Isn’t it interesting,” he mused, “that the media are all gathered around interviewing the jockey and nobody is interviewing the horse?! After all, the horse was the one that did all the actual, you know, racing!”

This set off a heated philosophical debate between us. Indeed, who did deserve the credit here? The horse or the jockey? After all, the horse was the one actually running the race. But without the jockey “pulling the strings” and guiding from above, that horse really stood no chance of securing a victory. We went back-and-forth for a while on this and we realized just how much this relates to everyday life and our own relationship with God.

Every single one of those horses, all 20 of them, from the odds on favorite all the way down to Rich Strike himself, are incredibly gifted. They have been blessed with amazing talent and abilities. And while we know that, aside of Mr. Ed of course (I loved watching reruns of that show growing up), a horse probably isn’t doing too much deep thinking or self introspection, but if it COULD think, it might be tempted to take all the credit for itself.

“Look at me! I am among the biggest and fastest horses in the world!”

“Nobody can outrun me!”

“I’m cooler than the word 'equestrian!'”

And so on and so forth...

One could understand if these horses would be tempted to feel haughty and proud, if they might put their blinders on and hold their heads high as they look on with disdain at the world around them. And yet, as thinking human beings, we know that these horses don’t deserve any “credit” whatsoever for being fast or strong or agile. They were endowed with a gift from God. And they have trainers and jockeys and stable hands who work on them day and night to turn them into incredible race horses.

Truthfully though, we are no different than horses; running in the derby of life. Hashem has blessed us all with tremendous talents and abilities. Each of us are unique with a different tool box of special skills and qualities, custom designed and tailor made for each individual by none other than God himself! And these gifts are wonderful. And we need to thank God every single day for them! But we mustn’t forget Who not only gave us those talents but Who is also guiding us and enabling us to use those talents to shine like a champion!

Given this analogy, yes, it made perfect sense to be interviewing the jockey as opposed to the horse. Not only because you might get a more intelligent soundbite from the jockey, but also because the jockey is the one who took all that talent, strength, might, speed and agility, pulled it all together and turned out a Kentucky Derby winner! Interviewing the horse would be akin to interviewing the golf ball after a professional golfer hit a hole-in-one to win the Masters. We recognize the one behind the golf ball as opposed to the golf ball itself!

So whether your name is Rich Strike, Secretariat or just “Plain Simple Jew”; whether we are talking about “race horses” or “resources,” we must never forget about the master jockey, the One Above. Come to think of it, if I ever own a racehorse, I think I’m calling him Plain Simple Jew. It has a nice ring to it!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Does a Mitzvah
Ruchi Koval | Parshat Kedoshim | May 6, 2022

Our household consists of two cars and three drivers. What this means is that we often have the mitzvah of sharing cars and even, occasionally, walking (gasp!) to our destination if someone else has the car. 

On Tuesday I told our daughter Miriam that she could borrow my car the next day at 9:30 am, and that Sruly and I would share his car till she was done. Patting myself on my back for my extreme flexibility and general loveliness, I went to bed serenely on Tuesday night. 

Then I woke up on Wednesday and saw the following text from my husband (who wakes up at the crack of dawn and is long gone by the time I begin to stir). It said:

Are you available to pick me up from Masterworks at around 9-9:15? I have to drop my car off there. 

My first reaction was panic. If we’re down to one car, and then the one car needs to go to Masterworks (our mechanic), well, even an elementary school kid can do this word problem. One car minus one car equals zero cars. 

Then I said to myself, Self, wait to worry. Stay calm and channel mussar. Practice your patience, be flexible and work it out. 

So I deleted the text that I was going to write—which I shan’t share here—and wrote this instead:

Good am!!! (Note the joyous, non-panicky use of three exclamation points.) We’re both sharing your car today bc we told mir should could borrow mine. And I have a meeting at 9:30 that I need to get to. Call me when you can Plse. (Note the calm and measured use of the word “Plse.”)

So my husband called me and he came up with an ingenious way for us to pile in one car, drop off the other car, have Miriam drop us each off where we needed to be and then drive off into the sunset. I wasn’t quite sure if this little arrangement would work out with my needing to be at my meeting at 9:30, but I nevertheless agreed.

Then, at Masterworks, my husband said, “Hey can we do a mitzvah and drop someone off on our way home?” Amid frantic calculations of our timetable and whether this mitzvah would make me even later to my meeting, I smiled benevolently and said, “Of course!” 

(I do admit to suffering from an irrational phobia of being late. I’m getting help.)

As we drove along with all four of us in my car, I couldn’t help thinking that this whole shebang was a mitzvah. My car just went from a convenience to an instrument of holiness in the world! All because I tried to put my own concerns and comfort aside to do good for others. I decided that even if I came late to the meeting, it would be worth it and that I wouldn’t get uptight. This is a huge accomplishment for someone like me! I was terribly proud of myself. 

And guess what time I got to my meeting? 9:31 am. Early enough to be calm, late enough to feel that I had sacrificed for a mitzvah. A perfect combination.

The Monsey Message
Rabbi Sruly Koval | Parshat Achrei Mot | April 29, 2022

Last week our family was privileged to spend the final days of the holiday in Monsey, New York with our siblings and their families. As we are so blessed to be part of a special extended family, it is always uplifting for me to spend quality time in their orbit, observing their conduct, the way they treat and interact with other people, as well as being inspired by each of their unique spiritual journeys. Admittedly, part of that is also simply due to leaving my home environment and seeing things from a fresh vantage point, as well as the incredible Jewish resources that are available in the Monsey community.

A real holiday highlight for me was being able to pray the Passover holiday services in a Chassidic synagogue that truly uplifted my soul. The 4-hour long service went by quickly, filled with devotion, song and dance. All told, it was an enriching and enjoyable holiday for me and for our family! 

The Jewish lifecycle and calendar cycle are meant to provide us with nuggets and opportunities of personal improvement, with each Jewish holiday providing its unique jumping off point for spiritual growth. A mystical birds-eye view of the Jewish calendar presents an elaborate roadmap for character refinement. A major component of the Passover experience, specifically, is meant to help free us from our own personal Egypts, from the emotional and spiritual forces that enslave us and hold us back from becoming better versions of ourselves. 

At our JFX pre-Passover men's event, I quoted the late Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski who lists resentment as a classic example of a negative character trait that enslaves so many people. When we allow other people to live in our brain rent-free, we end up hurting nobody but ourselves. I too struggle with this enslavement, and often my mussar radar is looking to break free from this particular form of enslavement.  

It's extremely difficult to change a middah, improve a negative character trait. In fact, the great 18th century mystic and scholar, the Vilna Gaon, says that it is easier to master the entire Talmud than it is to change one negative middah! But sometimes we are presented with bite-size divine opportunities to work on a particular trait. Last week in Monsey I had my chance.

Wednesday morning, my first morning in Monsey, I joined my father, brother and nephews at a local synagogue. After the service ended, someone came over and asked me if I was Sruly Koval. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place his face. As soon as he told me his name, I immediately felt a pit in my stomach. He was an old high school nemesis of mine. I would not call him a bully, nor would I say that he made my life miserable, but he sure did have a knack for making me feel inadequate. He knew just how to get under my skin, and he did so frequently. When he told me his name, and I recognized his former 18-year old face a lot of those buried, negative emotions came rushing forward. 

He must have remembered how he treated me as well, because when he said his name, and I slowly repeated it, he seemed to be visibly uncomfortable. Our conversation was extremely curt, and I left hoping that I wouldn't see him again. But of course, he was there again the next morning, giving me yet a second chance to try and let go of a 30+ year grudge. In fact, we received back-to-back aliyahs! But again, I avoided eye contact with him, keeping the flames of that decades-old grudge burning strongly.

When the prayer service ended, I had a real internal struggle. I recognized that Hashem possibly put him in my path after so many years in order for me to take advantage of this opportunity and bury the hatchet. "Who knows if you will ever even see him again?" my Yetzer Tov argued. "Go over to him and make nice." 

"But he was so meanspiritied and made your life complicated!" my Yetzer Hara immediately responded.  It was literally a ping-pong volley between my Yetzer Tov and my Yetzer Hara, my positive and negative internal forces. Finally, in the spirit of letting go, I compromised. I went over to him, smiled, and wished him a wonderful rest of the holiday. He seemed relieved, smiled back, and rode off into the sunset. 

That's a fringe benefit of being a teacher -- it puts a bit of pressure on you to practice what you preach. The fact that I shared this teaching from Rabbi Twerski the previous week made it SO much easier to act upon it. But the truth is, we are all teachers. As Jews, we are all meant to dig deep and exercise our mussar muscles when the opportunity arises. Go us!

Wed, May 25 2022 24 Iyyar 5782