About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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So far Rabbi Elie Mischel has created 65 entries.

The Shabbat of Greatness

A “Great” Shabbat?

Every year on the Shabbat before Pesach, I give a Shabbat HaGadol drasha on (what I hope is) a compelling topic relating to the holiday of Pesach.  Over the last several years, we’ve studied the ‘four sons’ in depth, as well as other Mitzvot and customs of the Seder.  But often overlooked, in both my own speeches and others, is the status of this Shabbat itself – the “Great Shabbat”, Shabbat HaGadol.  Why, exactly, is this Shabbat so great?

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, in his classic Halachic work, the Tur, explains:

The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat.  The reason for this is that on this Shabbat, a great miracle occurred.  On that first Pesach celebrated in Egypt, there was a special commandment to set aside a lamb for the Passover sacrifice on the tenth day of Nissan (four days before the sacrifice was actually brought), as the verse states: ‘In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.’  The people of Israel left Egypt on Thursday (the 15th of Nissan), and so the tenth day of Nissan fell on Shabbat.  On that Shabbat, each Israelite family took a lamb and tied it to the legs of their bed.  When the Egyptians asked them why they were doing this, the Israelites answered: ‘These lambs will be slaughtered as a Passover offering according to G-d’s command.’  Hearing this, the Egyptians ground their teeth (in anger), for the Israelites were planning to slaughter lambs, which they considered to be gods.  But the Egyptians were not able to protest.  Because of this great miracle (that the […]

By |April 2, 2020|

The Lulav Jews: Rediscovering Pride in Modern Orthodoxy

Orthodox Lite?

For as long as I can remember, anxious leaders and thinkers in our community have been asking the same question: can our community – the Modern Orthodoxy community of America – survive?  But in recent years, as the broader American population has become increasingly polarized in its political and cultural views, “centrist” orthodoxy seems, more than ever, to have lost its luster.

Numerically, the Modern Orthodox make up only 3% of American Jewry – perhaps 175,000 Jews altogether – a number which has remained static for some time, and which is far smaller than the growing Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.  Some of our children leave Orthodoxy altogether – an all too common, and painful, phenomenon – while others join the Yeshivish community, which also weakens the community they leave behind.  Finally, many of our most dedicated young people make Aliyah, a source of great pride for our community, but one which deprives American Modern Orthodoxy of its most passionate and idealistic future leaders.

But beyond numbers, the more significant question is whether there is a compelling reason to remain a part of this community altogether.  Why, exactly, would one choose to live their life as a Modern Orthodox Jew?

The financial pressures that go hand in hand with Modern Orthodoxy, with yeshiva day school tuition at the top of the list, are enough to make many people think twice before joining the community.  Compared to public school, or even right wing yeshivas, the costs are astronomical.

And in return, what do we get?  Though we enjoy schmoozing with our friends at Shul, the Tefillah experience itself isn’t exactly inspiring, to put it kindly.  Lacking the passion and joy found in many Chassidic communities, many adults join their […]

By |October 16, 2019|

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…


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|