Selected Sermon/Article
2000-06-24 B'Haalothcha by Rabbi Ze'ev Smason
Extended Family
It doesn't seem fair. The very famous Medrash tells us that the opportunity for Kabbalat HaTorah was not just for the Jewish people. As the Pasuk in Devarim 33:2 tells us, Hashem came to Har Sinai only after having first appeared to the decendants of Esav and Yishmael. There He first offered the Torah to them. Before being willing to accept, they asked, what does this Torah of Yours contain?

Amazingly, Hashem chooses an example for each nation that was the exact opposite of their nature and heredity. To Yishmael's children He said Lo Tignof, when their progenitor was told that he will live from stealing and pillaging. To bnai Esav Hashem responded, My Torah says Lo tirtzach knowing full well that their ancestor's blessing was to live by the sword. And to Amon and Moav, whose whole existence resulted from incest, He said Lo tinaf.

In fact the Midrash says that Hashem knocked on the door of every nation before He came to Bnai Yisrael.

While it is true that we said 'na'ashe v'nishma' - we will do and we will hear - when WE were offered the Torah - where was the tailor made challenge to our nature and heredity through the way that the Torah was presented to us?

The truth is that at Har Sinai we in fact did overcome our greatest yetzer hara and we did meet the challenge that remains until this day our greatest stumbling block...In preparation for Kabbalat haTorah we are told at Har Sinai it says Vayichan - and he camped (in the singular form). Rashi quotes the Mechilta which comments they camped "k'ish echad, b"lev echad." They were at this moment like one person with one heart.

What in fact seems to always be our greatest challenge and, unfortunately, our greatest stumbling block - the one ideal which has been for us the most difficult to achieve? It is to act and to be as one. We were able at that moment to be "k'ish echad, b"lev echad," to change our character and to overcome our desires and in that zechut we were able to receive Hashem's treasure and become His people.

In that light I'd like to share with you my feelings on the Partitions that, by the decison of the Shul board, have been set up in the back of shul, and the request that has been made of the congregants to sit in front of the partitions.

As rabbi of NHBZ, I'm a lightening rod for comments regarding our shul: when people have things that they like about our Shul, they tell me, and when people have criticisms, they direct them to me, as well.

I could stand here through mincha telling you all the positive things the 'velt' is saying about NHBZ. We're accepting. We're comfortable. We have friendly congregants.

We have a beautiful sanctuary. We have dedicated leadership that works hard for the Shul, and a professional staff that provides services at the highest level of competency. We're activists in the community at large, with a very wide range of programs and classes available for anyone who wants to learn, daven, or engage in social action activities. We've attracted a large number of new, younger members.

Someone even complimented the shul by saying that we have a terrific rabbi - though since that person was my mother, I don't know if that counts!!

Ladies and gentlemen: there is an awful lot of wonderful things happening here at NHBZ, and the shul have a very bright future.

When it comes to areas requiring improvement, the largest number of complaints, suggestions....and yes....criticisms....that come to me, concern the area of the Shabbos davening experience. We've listened to what you, the members, as well as what guests and visitors have been telling us, and we now almost regularly conclude davening by 11:30. We've eliminated long mishabayrachs.

We offer brief Torah insights between aliyas, and a halacha relevant to davening before the reading of the Haftorah. People seem to thoroughly enjoy the interactive sermons that take place approximately every other week, and I believe that someone who comes to daven by us on Shabbos will see a lot of good things - and if they work hard at davening, will have an uplifting and enjoyable Shabbos Shul experience.

The number one complaint regarding our Shabbos morning services, though, concerns the of 'ruach', or spirit, in the shul. I believe this problem of 'ruach' can be divided into two components: One, things that should be taking place in shul, but aren't, and 2) things that are taking place in shul, that shouldn't. Many or most of you can remember a time when on average 150 people would regularly attend shul on Shabbos - but now, we have about half that number in attendance. In a 400 seat shul with 75 people scattered throughout the entire shul - one person in this row, 5 empty rows here, two people in the back of the shul over there - 'Achdus' - oneness, is compromised. People are less likely to sing together, to daven together, and to feel like a 'kehila' scattered throughout a big shul - and there's a loss to the 'ruach' that could be created, to go along with the magnificent layning and davening that we have. Sitting in the front half of the shul will go a long way to create a greater spirit of achdus and ruach. Last Shabbos, I received a number of comments mentioning how the singing and davening was more spirited as the result, people thought, of everyone sitting together. We know that the reason why we come to shul is to daven and hear krias HaTorah - the quality of our davening experience dramatically improves individually, and collectively, when we daven together, and closer.

I made reference a moment ago to something that takes place on Shabbos that should not: that is, of course, talking. The single most common complaint that I hear from visitors and guests to our shul, concerns the frequency and volume of talking during davening. "Ah", people say, "there's always been talking in shul, and there are plenty of other shuls where there's talking during davening" -- my response to that is: not only is talking during davening a terrible turn off to visitors and prospective members, but why should we allow past mistakes to remain uncorrected, and take any consolation from mistakes that might exist in other congregations?

Why do I bring this issue up at this time? Because, while sitting in the half front of the shul won't solve the problem of talking, it will make it much better. I certainly do not mean to suggest that everyone who sits in the back of a shul is a talker; or, that everyone who sits in the front half of the shul never talks: however people have told me that it's a lot easier to chat with your neighbor when you're out of earshot of the rabbi, then if you're sitting in the first few rows - and I believe that by sitting closer together, the problem of talking will improve.

I empathize with those of you who have sat in the same seats for years, and perhaps decades - who are now being asked to move. Change is hard for any of us to make. I eat Grape Nuts for breakfast every morning...and if I'm out of Grape Nuts -

I'm bothered!! There's a greater good that we as a congregation can achieve by sitting in the front half of the shul; and that good is, a greater spirit of unity, improved decorum, and a more uplifiting davening experience on Shabbos. If we're to grow as a shul, attract new members, and improve Shabbos davening - which is somethingthat I know each and every person here wants - there are some things we're going to have to fine tune, that will involve change.

In the spirit of unity of the shul, and in the spirit of our deepest collective desire to see NHBZ move ahead to become not just a good shul......but a great shul....I urge each of you to support our 'Partition Plan', and work together as the 'Extended Family' that we are to help improve our Shabbos Davening.