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Rosh Hashana Gameplan from Moscow!
Rosh Hashana 5780

Moskva, Moskva… The 900 year old city sitting astride the Moskva River, with its torturous and at times glorious history, is now the second most populated city in Europe (after Istanbul). The capital of the largest country in the world, it is the cultural, scientific, political, and economic center of not only Russia, but of all Eastern Europe.

It is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, but the vast majority of its twelve million denizens don’t make more than $1,000 a month, and seem to have no qualms about it, despite living in the second most expensive city in the world. It is also one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, and that is where I come into the picture; a tourist short on time, but big on ambition. I was in Moscow recently for just 43 hours, but in that time I hoped to see most of what makes Moscow, well… Moscow.

Besides being a tourist short on time, I also have to feed my outsized wanderlust on a shoestring budget. Whenever I go to Israel, I try to book my flight with an airline that can give me a free stopover in a city I’ve never been to, which is why I flew to Israel for a Partners Detroit mission on Russia’s official airline Aeroflot. On the return, I’d be able to get a free stopover in Moscow for close to two days. I was resigned to flying on rusty Soviet-era Tupolev jets; but was pleasantly surprised to find Aeroflot to be one of the best airlines I’ve ever flown. I landed on Monday, July 7th at 8:20PM, and took off on Wed at 3:20PM, so if you subtract the three hours I spent in Sheremetyevo International Airport (try saying that for some fun), I had only 40 hours left.

I was picked up by Mendy Wilansky, a wonderful Chabad Shaliach who is sort of my counterpart in Moscow, doing Jewish outreach with a diverse population group, but focusing strongly on young professionals. We compared programming and best practices as we drove through the city’s labyrinth roadways, eerily light at 10PM. (Moscow is the world’s northernmost megapolis, evening services in the summer take place at 11:30PM!) We stopped at Chabad’s massive JCC in the Marina Roscha neighborhood to catch evening services and during that time, Mendy gave me a tour of the super impressive building. Housing a massive and gorgeous synagogue, the JCC also has two restaurants, a wedding hall, health club, Judaica store, theatre, preschool, library, summer camp, and young adult center.

The building also houses an industrial kitchen in the basement that makes thousands of meals daily, some which go to the elderly and infirm, some to other Jewish institutions, but many of which go to provide Kosher food to all international flights leaving Sheremetyevo (say it again, it’s still just as fun!). I visited the kitchen on my last morning, and it was actually one of the most enjoyable parts of my trip to Moscow! There’s nothing like watching a kitchen churn out literally tons of chicken, meat, fish, bread, salads, and sides. And as a reward, I got to eat a meal made in that kitchen on my flight out that afternoon.

Overnight, I stayed in the Azimut Moscow Olympic Hotel, a massive five hundred room hotel right across from one of the stadiums used in the 1980 Olympics (which has been since converted into a mall). Luckily, it was recently bought and renovated, or it would still feel like 1980. With the renovations, it felt like 2020 in the lobby, 1980 in the rooms. The next morning I got up early and walked about 2 kilometers to the JCC for Shachris, gleefully drinking in Moscow’s unique architecture (a combination of monotonous Soviet bloc buildings, pastel colored ornate pre-Soviet buildings, and ubiquitous Russian Orthodox churches). After davening, I bought provisions for the day at the well-stocked Jewish supermarket, and headed toward the Metro to get my only real tourist day. Monday was arrival day, Wednesday was departure day, Tuesday was when I had to plow through all of Moscow, a man on a mission.

After much internet research, I decided to go with Moscow Free Tour as my tour guides for the day. It is an entrepreneurial company that offers the first tour of the day for free (with strong suggestions that you tip the tour guide), and then charges for all the other walking tours of the day. Being that I wanted to see EVERYTHING in one day, I signed up for the All Tours Pass, which for €90, gives you the Free Tour, Kremlin Tour, Metro Tour, Communist Tour, and Mystical Tour. The Free Tour starts at 10:45AM and the Mystical Tour ends at 11PM, but I felt I was up for the challenge.

I wasn’t.

The Free Tour was good, taking us from a drab neighborhood near the Red Square that contained fortress walls built 800 years ago to a palace that housed the notorious Romanov family, to the Red Square, the GUM Department store (where all I could afford was a Coke), Lenin’s Mausoleum, and the outside of the Kremlin.

The Kremlin, which simply means fortress, has been around in different variations since the 1100’s, first serving as a fortress to guard the city of Moscow, but eventually becoming the seat of the Tsar’s sovereignty, the Soviet Union’s tyrannical regime, and now finally the home of Comrade Putin and his government-of-one.

The GUM department store was the one place you could always buy anything even in Soviet years if you were lucky enough to be able to shop there. Today, you still have to be lucky to shop there, not because the KGB screens the shoppers carefully, but because all you can buy there is overpriced luxury goods from Hermes, Van Cleef & Arpels, Gucci, Prada, and all the other companies not usually obtainable by the 99%.

Lenin’s Mausoleum is an imposing brick structure standing in front of the Kremlin, where people line up all day to see an embalmed Vladimir Lenin lying serenely, just as he lay in 1924 soon after he died. Directly next to Lenin’s massive mausoleum is a modest headstone over the body of Joseph Stalin. It is scary to look at the simple headstone and realize that beneath it is the body of a man responsible for the death and agony of many tens of millions. At the end of the day, even the supremely powerful Stalin lies in the same 6” by 2” space we all get.

After the Free Tour, I had a few minutes to explore Arbat Street, the Bohemian artists-quarter that still thrives today. Then, it was off to the inside of the Kremlin, the 70 acre imposing fortress that for centuries was the seat of power for some of the world’s most feared kings and governments. In it, I saw the world’s largest bell (433,356 lbs) which was never rung and the world’s largest cannon (86,643 lbs) which was never fired in war. They are actually reminiscent of the Kremlin they lie in, a place that has so much potential, but also a place that never seemed to do the job it was supposed to do. Much of the tour was in the many churches in the Kremlin complex, and I don’t go into churches, so I spent my time eating lunch in the beautiful gardens, and examining the hundreds of cannons lying in pyramids outside the Armory, the war building of the Kremlin.

By the time the Kremlin Tour was over, my feet were killing me, I had already walked about a half-marathon. But the relentless touring must go on, I was a man on a mission. Next was the Metro Tour, where we explored the amazing Moscow Metro, probably the most elaborate and gorgeous subway system in the world. Each of the 195 stations has a different architecture, ranging from super-modern to medieval. The Metro Tour stops at about fourteen of them, and they were mind-bogglingly beautiful. One had hundreds of bronze statues, depicting the many diverse Russian peoples, one had ornate mosaics on the ceiling depicting Russian military victories going back a millennia, some had modernist aluminum arches, and others looked like ballrooms from the 1800’s with elaborate chandeliers and marble walls. Unfortunately, to see these beautiful metro stations, I often had to walk the length of them, and did I mention that my feet were killing me?

As soon as we started the Communist Tour, a walking tour of the most famous buildings from the communist era, every step I took was marked with a wince. We walked up to the world famous Bolshoi Theatre where many early communist leaders met in secret, and Stalin often spoke to crowds of “adoring fans.” We walked to the infamous KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Street where tens of thousands were tortured and shot (including many Jews). And we saw lots of statues. Lots of statues. (Interestingly, you cannot find a statue of Josef Stalin almost anywhere in Moscow! After his death, Krushchev eviscerated him and his policies, and almost every public depiction of Stalin was removed). We walked from statue to statue, me begging the tour guide to stop for a rest (I was the only person on this tour), but the tour guide forging ahead with Soviet determination.

By the time the Communist Tour was over, I was thinking that when I get home, I can put the 26.2 sticker on my car, because I had already walked more than a full marathon. I should totally have gone home, but I wanted to see all of Moscow, and I only had one full day of touring, so I went to the Mystical Tour. I can barely remember the tour, I just remember going to places and the tour guide telling me, “This is where the thieves used to live, this is where people used to make killer moonshine (literally), this is where a priest stole all the iconography from his church, etc…”

After a while I tuned out, putting one foot before the other was all I could focus on. The shooting pain from my feet all the way to my head was thunderous. When I finally got out of the Metro station at 11:30PM, I was literally shaking and shivering from exhaustion and pain. I was even willing to get into a purple-fur lined gypsy cab that was a basically a mobile psychedelic trance club complete with club grade sub-woofers and disco ball, just to get back to my hotel quicker.

So what did I learn from Moscow?

This one Talmudic phrase ran through my mind again and again over the last few hours of my torture-tourism “Tafasta Meruba Lo Tafasta.” This phrase basically translates as “If you try to grab too much, you get nothing.” Had I simply stopped my walking tours after the Free Tour, Kremlin Tour and Metro Tour, it would have been a great day. I would have seen many amazing things, and I would have left with a very positive taste in my mouth.

Instead, I tried to get it all in at once, and my entire Moscow experience was soured by it. Even after a very sound night of sleep, I woke up feeling an overwhelming sense of “Moscow is just a bunch of buildings and statues. I’m never coming back here.” To this day, years later, I feel like Moscow is overrated, and a waste of time, despite generally loving foreign metropolises. I tried to grab too much, and I ended up getting nothing.

Rosh Hashanah is now upon us. Sunday night will begin Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment where our coming year will be decided. Many of us want to take upon ourselves extra commitments either because we are inspired to be better people, or to simply show G-d that we are seriously planning on being better in the coming year in the hope that He give us a good year in that merit. That is a good thing. We should all take on a new commitment; that is how we actually have a New Year, by making it different than the previous year!

But when making these commitments we have to learn the lesson I learned in Moscow, tafusta meruba lo tafasta, if we try to grab too much, we get nothing. The rearview mirror of most people’s lives is filled with a wasteland of ambitious goals, resolutions and projects rusting quietly in the sun. When in moments of inspiration, we load up our plates; but quickly get full, then nauseous, and soon everything on the plate gets scraped into the wastebin.

The best thought I’ve ever heard on Rosh Hashanah resolutions comes from Rabbi Leib Keleman, Shlita. He said, “Take whatever resolution you are planning on taking upon yourself for the coming year and cut it in half. Then cut it in half again. What is left is what your resolution should be.”

The aforementioned phrase in the Talmud actually has another part; the full phrase is:

“Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, tafasta mewut tafasta!”

‘If you try to grab too much, you get nothing, if you try to grab a little, you get it!”

This year, may G-d give us all the wisdom to pick the right resolutions, and give us the strength to carry them out. This way, one day at a time, one brick at time, we will build a true Shana Tova Umetuka!

Shana Tova,

R’ Leiby Burnham

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

“For this mitzvah that I am commanding you today; it is not abstruse to you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say, “Who will travel overseas for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)

Many of the early commentators tell us that this verse is referring to the mitzvah of repentance, which is discussed in the paragraph preceding this one. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein zt’l asks, why does the Torah say “in your mouth and your heart to do it”? Shouldn’t the order be your heart and then your mouth?

Usually, a person thinks or feels something, then they begin to verbalize it, and only after talking about it for a while do they actually carry it out. (For example, for years now I have had an idea of a really cool invention. At first I thought about if for a long time. Then I started discussing it with people who knew the industry, and they liked it. In about four or five years I may actually get around to doing something about it!)

Contrary to what most people think, the reverse of the above idea works as well. One can verbalize an idea so much that it starts to get solidified in his heart. I’ll give you an example. When I stub my toe, I start to sing a little song with the following words “yisurim mechaprim avonosov shel adam!” This is a phrase from the Rabbis that means that when one gets afflicted in any way, major or minor, it serves to atone for some of his sins. I sing it to remind myself that the pain I am feeling from my stubbed toe, is actually serving a great purpose. Within second of singing my little ditty, I usually start smiling.

That is the power of words. Most people in that situation would be saying things which wouldn’t reflect too well on them as a person, and I am actually happy! The words we utter can affect real changes in our heart.

This is the message that Moshe is imparting to the Jewish people. Repentance is a very daunting task. It forces us to come face to face with our shortcomings and reminds us that we will need to undergo significant lifestyle change. Sometimes we feel in our hearts that we simply can’t do it. However, we must verbalize (out loud, not just in thought) how much we want to change, how negative our behavior is to our life, and that WE CAN DO IT. If we do that, the words will enter our hearts, and we will be capable of instigating changes we had previously thought impossible.

I’m sure some of you are skeptical, and you may even be thinking that my social work background is making me too touchy-feely and new age, so I will give you the following exercise. Next time you are angry at someone for something that you know deep down does not really deserve that anger, say, “I’m not angry, it’s not worth it,” ten times, and I guarantee that you will cool off significantly. If it doesn’t work, email me, and we will have to work out an alternative anger-management strategy, but I am quite confident that it will work.

This concept is the underlying idea behind Viduy, the verbal confession on Yom Kippur. G-d knows what we did wrong, why do we need to verbalize it? For the answer please read this dvar Torha once again and you will have your answer. As a matter of fact, read it out loud, verbalize it, and you will begin to feel its truth!

 

Parsha Summary

This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai, but with one key difference.

The new covenant included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.

If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being.

Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!

Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than that, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove my protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.

Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way he rejoiced with out forefathers.

Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.

The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be leared from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, they fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.

Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point.

Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I happen to be a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!

Quote of the Week: Procrastination is opportunity’s assassin. ~ Victor Kiam

Random Fact of the Week: A woodchuck, while hibernating breathes 10 times an hour. While it’s awake, it breathes 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Quip of the Week: Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Have a Celebratory Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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