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The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes


March 23, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

You stand in the center of a large Roman arena. Ancient stone benches rise steeply all around you. Thousands of rowdy spectators crush together. Directly in front of you are two massive doors constructed of thick oak planks overlaid with huge iron fittings. Behind one door is life, freedom and bliss; behind the other is a pack of hungry lions and certain death.

Up in the grandstand, the princess catches your eye. For some inexplicable reason, you the lowly slave have touched her tender heart. So she makes a decision; deny the crowd its bloodthirsty appetite, indicate the door to life and save yours. Suddenly, the court philosopher appears at her elbow. 

 “Stop!” he hisses into her ear. “Don’t you want your heart’s beloved to be free?”                           

“Of course I do. That’s why I am going to help him...”                                            

“But if you tell him, you’ll deprive him of his freedom! Right now, he’s free to choose whichever door. But if you tell him which one to open, he’ll cease to have any choice in the matter. He will have to open that door...”

 Freedom of choice is one of the most precious gifts granted to man. It is also one of the most misunderstood. As it is commonly perceived, it means an uncompelled choice between two (or more) options. But should the choice be influenced by anything outside of the chooser, it’s not truly free.

According to this line of thinking, anyone telling you what to do is impinging on your freedom. And if the person telling you is doing so from a position of authority (as a parent, teacher, government official, etc.), your acceptance of such authority means relinquishing your ability to freely choose.            

So here’s the dilemma. A truly equal choice between two possibilities requires absolute ignorance. For the moment you know what lies behind those two doors/possibilities, your choice is going to be influenced by that knowledge.

Ignorance, however, is not freedom - it’s the very opposite. Placing a person in front of two blank doors while depriving him of the knowledge of what lies behind them does not make the person free - it enslaves him to the cruel caprice of chance.                    

By granting the slave in the arena knowledge, we grant him the ultimate freedom to choose: not to choose between two outside possibilities (we’ve just deprived him of that choice), but to choose the one possibility which is most consistent with his deepest, truest desire.                                      

This in fact is true freedom. A lion may be fed, housed and looked after but it is not free if all of the above is taking place in a cage in the zoo. Freedom is the ability to express who you are. In the case of the creature of the wild, it’s the freedom to be a lion, and not a pussycat.                       

Israel’s Exodus from Egypt has come to represent humanity’s inextinguishable striving for freedom. The image of Moses standing before Pharaoh demanding, “Let my people go!” has inspired freedom seekers since

Look up that scene in your Bible, however, and you’ll discover an interesting detail. Moses does not merely say, “Let my people go;” he demands in the name of G-d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me.” G-d at the burning bush, does not say, “Get them out of totalitarian Egypt and bring them to Athens to found the world’s first democracy.” He says: “Bring the Jews to Sinai, where I’m going to give them lots of commandments.”    

So why is that consistent with freedom? Because it was when we left the external pressure of Pharaoh that we became free to be ourselves. We were granted knowledge, told which pathways lead to our soul’s most intrinsic identity and which roads are contrary.

Having glimpsed these truths first at the Exodus and then more fully at Sinai, we are definitely more inclined toward the right door. Hence, we may have fewer choices, but far more freedom.

 You stand in the center of a kitchen. Piles of chometz utensils rise all around you. Thousands of wayward crumbs are ready to do battle. Up in Heaven, G-d above catches your eye. For some inexplicable reason, you the lowly Jew have touched His heart. So He makes a decision. He will show you the road to freedom and celebrate Pesach with us once again. All we have to do is open the right door and invite Him in.


March 19, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg


Across the country, Student Mobs continue to march, walkout, and shut down not just classes, but also opposing opinions. I confess: I love their energy; not their methodology.  But empathy is essential. So let’s try to understand them, not just condemn them.

 “I will begin,” says Rabbi Yossie Denburg, Dean of Hebrew Academy Community School, “by acknowledging that I grew up in one era, they in another.” I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s and was brought up with the assumption that our country was basically trying to do the right thing, though it often failed. That assumption applied, I believed, to most people as well. Not perfect, but trying.  And that most of our troubles were not inherent to the system, but were caused by error and incompetence, not by evil intent.

 But along the way something happened. We stopped understanding, or even trying to understand each other. Now the only thing that counts is putting down the other and dissing the values I don’t agree with.

 How did this change come about? Part of the blame is our current educational ideology. Students today are taught that my perspective reigns supreme. Period. My perspective as a black man, a Latino, a gay person, a gun-toting Conservative, an undocumented immigrant, a religious fundamentalist, a high school student, a Liberal, etc. We call this identity politics.

 Suddenly, community or country is less important than group identity. So if you were born after 1990, it is not shocking that you would see public life and politics as an inevitable war of one group facing off against another.

 In this worldview, public policy can only be settled with winners versus losers. From this perspective, those few in power keep everyone else down. Hence, their solution to injustice is obvious: Defeat the powerful, mobilize the masses and storm the gates. What about reasoned debate? It’s counterproductive because it dilutes passion and allows confusion.  

 Can we persuade today’s young that most people are good and want everyone to have a better life?  I am an optimist!  But where shall we begin? Every middle and high school student should have access - on school grounds - to a member of the clergy to ask about life’s purpose and to hear the radical idea that we were all created in G-d’s image and that every life is sacred. As such, we are inherently good. Do some forget or smother their goodness? Of course. But perhaps it happened because they were only taught the theory of winners versus losers.

 Imagine a world where our young were shown that life can be beautiful, especially a life shared with others, rather than against others.  That is what Jewish schools do! That is certainly what we do at HACS ( Jewish educational institutions are living proof that our young can rise above the current conversation. Check one out!

To LIVE Beyond Self

March 16, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg defines ‘sacrifice’ as 1: the offering of some possession (animal, plant, or human life) to a deity, 2: the surrender of something prized for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. The Torah which mandates Temple sacrifices concurs.

Unfortunately, ‘sacrifice’ is currently a dirty word, conjuring up images of religious dogma and repression. And yet, the message of sacrifice remains timeless. This is especially true in light of the Chassidic insight that deconstructs the Biblical sentence that reads:  A man who will sacrifice from among you a sacrifice to G-d.” (Lev. 1:2)

At first glance the verse should have stated, “A man from among you, who will sacrifice.” But what Torah is attempting to teach us via this grammatically “flawed” sentence is that the primary sacrifice was not an animal or grain, but came from the person himself.

Modern society is at odds with sacrifice which is regarded as the arch enemy of the virtues emblematic of our times, self-expression and self-assertion. Sacrifice, we are told, is a crutch, allowing others power of our lives. This is so pervasive that an individual relinquishing something he wants for an ideal outside of self-interest is an endangered species. 

Obviously, any sacrifice that erodes rather than affirms the basic qualities of one’s life should not be tolerated. Sacrifice that empowers abuse is not a virtue. A beaten spouse or an exploited employee dare not allow themselves to be sacrificed. Yet in our hypersensitivity toward the pursuit of individual liberty we have deprived ourselves and our children of the vital awareness that to live means to sacrifice something of ourselves for truth, G-d, marriage, or country.

Nothing in our contemporary secular conversation calls on us to sacrifice for someone else. We have been taught to be cordial, respectful, sensitive to other people's feelings and even to march and stage walkouts.  But even these are all done with self-interest for causes close to one’s heart. Real sacrifices, however, that challenge our desires, our comfort zones and require profound commitments are simply not in vogue. 

When you look at high school and college campuses you will see emotional hot button issues paraded; issues that are very real, but also personal. But who still fights for others’ values? Torah’s demand for sacrifice is Judaism's declaration that to live means to live for something beyond self.

No area of society has been so profoundly affected by this absence of sacrifice as the family unit. While in the not-so-distant past the family bond was considered something worthy to sacrifice for, today it is easily discarded when in conflict with one's personal comforts. Couples do not feel that the marital union is so great an ideal and so sacred an institution that they ought to make real sacrifices for it to work. The Talmudic volume dealing with divorce concludes with this sentiment: “Whenever anyone divorces his first wife, even the Temple Altar sheds tears.”

The Temple had many vessels; a Menorah, Showbread Table, and of course the Holy Ark. So why did they not shed a tear? Why only the Altar?

The Altar was where the daily offerings were sacrificed. Thus the Altar represented the profound truth that relationships demand commitment and sacrifice. When the Altar observes the consequence of a marriage in which the man and the woman did not muster the courage to make sacrifices for each other, it weeps for this forgotten truth that to find your own soul you must embrace another soul.

There are exceptions. When a marriage is irredeemably toxic a divorce becomes a tragic necessity. But in today’s age, many marriages dissolve not because of an impossible situation, but because of an unwillingness to transcend selfishness and ego. For this, the Altar weeps.  

We are scared of making sacrifices, lest they deprive us of personal happiness. It seems that our self-esteem is so fragile that we desperately need to protect it against any outside intrusion, lest it fade into oblivion. But happiness is an altar. The more you give, the more you receive. The soul is most at peace when it shares itself with another. So once in a while, surrender and sacrifice. The result might surprise you.

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