Elie

About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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So far Rabbi Elie Mischel has created 63 entries.

The Holy Struggle of Marriage

A Relationship Under Pressure[1]

Along with all the awe-inspiring and history-altering moments of Avraham and Sarah’s life, there is another, parallel story – the story of their relationship.  It’s a more subtle story, certainly, and easy to miss.  But it’s a story, I believe, that we were meant to notice.
 A little bit of context that is all too easy to forget: Avraham and Sarah lived a hard life.  Torn away from their families, Hashem promised blessing and abundance – but there was plenty of hunger, hardship and stress along the way.  And all too often, these hardships placed a tremendous strain upon their marriage.
 In Parshat Lech Lecha, when Avraham and Sarah traveled to Egypt during a famine, Avraham makes a strange comment to Sarah:
 “הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ”
Now, I just realized what a beautiful woman you are.
On a simple level, this is beautiful – our zeide Avraham is telling our Bubbe Sarah how beautiful she is (a good reminder for all of us!)!  But what does Avraham mean when he says “I just now realized that you are beautiful”?
Rashi explains, astoundingly, that Avraham and Sarah were so modest that Avraham never realized Sarah was so physically beautiful!  But it seems there is a formality, a distance between Avraham and Sarah.
Now, because Sarah was so beautiful, Avraham was afraid the immoral Egyptians would kill him and take Sarah as their own.  And so he asks Sarah to present herself to the Egyptians as Avraham’s sister instead.  Predictably, Sarah was taken by Pharaoh to be a part of his harem.  Now it’s true that, in the end, God saved Sarah and returned her to Avraham.  But the stress must have been terrible!
Years later, when […]

By |November 22, 2017|

Celebrating Loneliness: A People not Counted Among the Nations

In the 1930s, as Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and the “Jewish problem” was a hotly debated issue all over the world, the great Baltimorean journalist, HL Mencken, weighed in on the issue:

 Getting rid of Hitler will not solve the Jewish question, whether in Germany or elsewhere.  [The Jewish problem will continue] until the Jews learn to go from Saturday to Friday without recalling once that they are Jews, just as the rest of us put in whole weeks without recalling that we are Aryans, or Chinamen, or members of Blood Group number 4, or what not… The sharp, unyielding separateness of the Jews, marks them off as strangers everywhere…  The average Jew is Jewish before he is a man, and presses the fact home with relentless lack of tact.  This habit, I suspect, is one of the chief causes of Jewish unpopularity, even among those who are not rationally to be called anti-Semitic.

Mencken’s “insight” – that Jews bring antisemitism upon themselves by being too Jewish – isn’t worthy of discussion.  But he does touch upon an eternal truth; there is something different about the Jewish people.  We don’t “fit in,” we’re not fully comfortable, with the other peoples of the world.  We are, in other words, a people that dwells alone.

When Bilaam the evil prophet rose, ready to curse the people of Israel, he found himself unable to do so.  “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord has not defied? From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations.”

Instead of cursing the […]

By |July 9, 2017|

Beyond Words – The 50th Yom Yerushalayim

What a joy, and a tremendous merit, to be in Israel for the 50th Yom Yerushalayim!  As Rabbi Riskin said, “You have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the miracles of our generation!”  Redemption is on it’s way, much faster than I ever realized before…

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By |June 2, 2017|

Parshat Vayeira: Jerusalem and the Holiness of Sacrifice

“Take now your son… and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Bereishit 22:2)

The great Rav Chaim of Tzanz, author of the Divrei Chaim, points out that God chose two mountains to play a significant role in Jewish history: Mount Sinai, where the Torah was given to the people of Israel, and Mount Moriah, where Avraham bound his son Yitzchak, and upon which the Beit Hamikdash was eventually built.  Both of these mountains were made holy, but it was specifically Mount Moriah, and not Mount Sinai, that was chosen to be the site of God’s house in this earth.  But why did God choose Mount Moriah?  One can certainly argue that Mount Sinai, where God revealed Himself to the people of Israel and gave them the Torah, is a more appropriate location for the Beit Hamikdash!

Rav Chaim answers this question with an extraordinary statement.  “A place where a Jew once stretched forth his neck to be slaughtered, as Yitzchak so willingly did at Mount Moriah, is holier in God’s eyes than a place where God’s presence was revealed to the world and where the holy Torah itself was given!” (Otzar HaMachshavah shel Hachassidus)

In only a few months from now, on Yom Yerushalayim, Jews all over the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Yerushalayim, and the six miraculous days that changed the course of history.  With God’s help, many of us will join the Mizrachi World Movement’s Yom Yerushalayim mission, where together with hundreds of thousands of our fellow Jews, we will march through the streets of the Holy City, our eyes and hearts directed […]

By |November 18, 2016|

Faithful Hidden Lives: A Rosh Hashana Message

Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, grew up as a normal American Jewish boy in Chicago; he went to Arie Crown day school.  He eventually became a revered Rosh Yeshiva at the Mir in Jerusalem, and taught many thousands of students over the years; one of the great Rabbis of the generation.  When Rav Finkel died in 2011, the executive director of Yeshiva, Rabbi Grunwald, gave a eulogy for him at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Teaneck, and told the following story:

About 20 years ago, one of Rav Finkel’s students in New York died suddenly and very young, leaving behind a wife and 5 children.  Rav Finkel, who had been very close to this student, felt a personal responsibility to the family.  He told the children to stay in touch with him through letters, and that they could ask him any question on their minds or write to him about any issue that might come up. Rav Finkel kept photos of these orphans in his pocket as a constant reminder of his “other” family, and he developed a real connection with the children.  The kids would write to him about everything, even inconsequential, small things – a sign of real comfort and closeness.  And Rav Finkel, with great difficulty due to his Parkinsons disease, would always write a letter in response.  This went on for many years until the boys grew up and came to Israel to learn in Yeshiva, where every Friday night, the boys would have dinner with Rav Finkel and his family.

After Rabbi Grunwald completed the eulogy, he was approached by one of the young married men in the Teaneck yeshiva. The man said: “The story about the orphans is an unbelievable one, […]

By |October 10, 2016|

Exodus and Light from Narrow Windows: In Commemoration of the 12th Yahrzeit of Leon Uris (21 Sivan)

 

Parshat Behaalotecha, 5775

The Book that Changed the World

In 1958, Leon Uris published a book that transformed the Jewish world and changed the course of Jewish history.  Exodus!  Exodus is an odd book – a blend of Jewish history, emotional Zionism and soap opera fiction.  But this book, this 600 page novel, spoke to the hearts of millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world; it eventually equaled the sales of Gone With the Wind, and was translated into 50 languages.

For the handful of secret underground Zionists in Soviet Russia – the founding members of the Refusenik movement – Exodus was pure sustenance.  People who could barely speak English spent countless hours, slowly translating the book into Russian, and then secretly distributed copies to their friends and relatives.  The book spread like wildfire – copies proliferated everywhere, even among the Jewish political prisoners in the Soviet prison camps.  Thousands of Russian Jews wept over Exodus, late at night, under the cover of darkness.  And for so many of these Jews, Exodus was their gateway not only to Zionism, but to Judaism as well.

In America, Exodus was a phenomenon. In the late 50s and early 60s, it was nearly as common to find a copy of Exodus in American-Jewish households as it was to find the Bible – and there were plenty of Jewish homes that only had Exodus.  For many American Jews, Exodus was the source of their Jewish pride, at a time when Jews were still very uncertain of their place in American life.

A few years ago, I saw a one man off-Broadway show called Circumcise Me, by Yisrael Campbell.  Campbell, as you might have guessed, is a convert.  And how did his journey to […]

By |June 7, 2015|

Living on Borrowed Time & the Hell of Social Obligation

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s greatest founders and presidents, were, at different points in their lives, bitter rivals and the closest of friends.  Though they differed radically in personality and temperament, they were drawn together by a shared idealism, common interests, and perhaps most of all, extremely lengthy retirements.  Adams completed his only term as President in 1800, while Jefferson capped his presidency and active political life in 1809.  Fortunately – both for their own sake and for the sake of posterity – the two men enjoyed a long retirement and correspondence that lasted until July 4th, 1826, when both men passed away on the same day.
How did these extraordinary men spend their golden years of retirement?  In a fascinating letter to Adams, Jefferson laments that much of his day is occupied with responding to mail:  “From sunrise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burden of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)

Jefferson’s frustration is understandable; a thoughtful man advanced in years, he was well aware that his time on this earth was limited.  Why, then, did he take the time to answer letters that did not interest him, from people he did not know?  Jefferson’s explanation – “it is hard to refuse them civil answers” – boils down to two […]

By |April 23, 2015|

A Community of Believers – Perversion or Sanctification?

William James, in his classic work on the psychology of religion, drills down to the fundamental aspects of authentic religious experience.  For James, much of what we normally label as “religion” does not qualify as authentic religious experience:

“In critically judging the value of religious phenomena, it is very important to insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate or tribal product… The word ‘religion,’ as ordinarily used, is equivocal.  A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers.  When these groups get strong enough to organize themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own.  The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word ‘religion’ nowadays, we think inevitably of some ‘church’ or other… [which] suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature)

The history of communal religion, in James’ perspective, is essentially the same in all cases. What begins as an authentic religious encounter in the heart of the individual religious genius becomes ossified as inflexible dogma in the minds of his followers, who themselves experience religion only “second hand.”  Once a community forms, the politics and corruption that are endemic in institutions pervert the original religious experience even further.

Given this dark history of institutional religion, James defines true religion as that “which lives itself out within the private breast.” “Religion,” properly defined, refers only to the lonely experience of the individual believer. “Naked comes it into the world […]

By |April 15, 2015|

A Taste of the Next World – But No More

As the early Christians worked zealously and methodically to convert the peoples of the Roman Empire to their faith, they were animated by a powerful belief in the immortality of the soul.  Christian missionaries promised eternal happiness and everlasting life – on the condition of adopting the faith in their savior.  In our times, the belief in the existence of heaven and the eternal life of the soul is taken as a given by most religious believers.  But for pagans living through the long and slow decline of Rome, the prospect of immortality was both exhilarating and deeply comforting, and it prompted multitudes of peoples to convert to Christianity.

By contrast, the belief in heaven, or Olam Haba, plays a muted role in Jewish belief: “We might naturally expect that a principle so essential to religion would have been revealed in the clearest terms to the chosen people of Palestine… It is incumbent upon us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses; it is darkly insinuated by the prophets; and during the long period which elapsed between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life.”  (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XV)  C.S. Lewis, another Christian writer, makes a similar point: “[God] revealed Himself [to the Jews] centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)

Gibbon, in spite of his virulent anti-Semitism, is correct in his assessment; […]

By |March 12, 2015|

Personal Thoughts on the AIPAC Policy Conference

Participating in the annual AIPAC policy conference is always a powerful experience.  But the intensity of this year’s conference was especially palpable, taking place only a day before Netanyahu’s historic speech to Congress.  The crowds were both electric and unified; I felt connected to my fellow Jews at the conference – and to Am Yisrael as a whole – in a way that I rarely have the opportunity to feel.

On Monday morning, I waited on a security line, together with thousands of other Jews, in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech.  At one point, hundreds of us stood crushed together in a very tight space; it was like being on the subway during a particularly busy rush hour.  Uncomfortable as it was, I felt a profound sense of connection – as if I was immersing myself in a Mikvah of Jews!  Standing there, I thought of a teaching from Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov (1763 – 1831), the founder of the Zidichov Chassidic dynasty.  The Ziditchover taught: “Mikvah Yisrael Hashem” (Jeremiah 17:13) means, simply, “The hope of Israel is God.”  But the Ziditchover translated this verse differently; “Mikvah Yisrael Hashem” can be read as “The people of Israel are God’s Mikvah (ritual bath)”!  And so every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbos, the Ziditchover would gather a group of Jews and ask them to stand in a circle, while he would lie down on the ground in the middle of the circle – literally surrounded on all sides by the people of Israel.  And he would say: “I am immersing myself in the Mikvah of God!!”

Another unforgettable moment took place during National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s speech on Monday evening.  Only a few days before the […]

By |March 6, 2015|