Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Challenge the Status Quo- And then Improve It


Sefer Shemot tells the story of the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. At first they were prosperous and comfortable, but over time they became enslaved and oppressed. It is in the context of this oppression that we meet two of Amram’s children: Miriam and Moshe. These two prophets ultimately lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. They are the two featured “singers” of Shirat Hayam, the song sung at the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus. Our introduction to these two great Jewish leaders is in Parshat Shemot, and they exhibit a common important trait, necessary for all leaders. They both challenge the status quo in an effort to make it better.

The Midrash tells us of Miriam’s activism. When she was a young girl, Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male babies should be killed. In response, Jewish fathers, including Miriam’s, decided to cease having more children. Miriam challenged this status quo, and provocatively accused Jewish men of being worse than Pharaoh; for the Egyptian decree was directed at only Jewish boys, while the fathers’ decision negatively impacted the potential for both Jewish male and female children to be born. The Midrash concludes that Miriam’s argument was accepted, and her challenge to the status quo was vindicated. Among those who listened to Miriam was her father Amram, setting the stage for the birth of Moshe, who led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage.

Our introduction to Moshe in Parshat Shemot is also within the context of challenging the status quo. After being raised in Pharaoh’s home, Moshe “goes out to his brethren” and sees an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave. He acts heroically and kills the Egyptian. Instead of being congratulated or thanked, Moshe’s efforts are met with suspicion and scorn. At this point Moshe realizes that the Jewish People are stuck in their mindset and it will be very difficult to challenge their status quo. It takes some time but by the end of Parshat Shemot we read how Moshe is ready to challenge the status quo in Egypt and enhance the Jewish People’s condition; ultimately leading to their redemption.

President Ronald Reagan said it well: “Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in'.” It’s important on a personal and communal level to occasionally stop and ask ourselves why it is that we do what we are doing. Let us learn from these two great Jewish figures to effectively question the status quo’s of our lives in an attempt to better ourselves and our world.



Thursday, January 9, 2020

Choosing Between Right and Right


After Yosef and his brothers bury their father Yaakov in Chevron, on the way back the brothers are afraid that Yosef will now take his revenge. So they tell Yosef: “Before our father died, he told us to tell you to forgive us for selling you into slavery all those years ago.” In response Yosef cries. Yosef cried because he was sad that the brothers even suspected him of taking revenge.

Rashi notes that Yaakov never said this to the brothers. Rather the brothers made up this story and “Mutar L’shanot Mipnei HaShalom”: it is permissible to alter/ change the truth for the sake of peace.
This idea that Rashi quotes is found in the Talmud.  Lying for the sake of peace is an example of the real challenges that emerge when we have to make real life decisions. To decide to do good, or to avoid doing evil, is pretty straightforward. Much more difficult is determining the priorities of which good to do first. Or which good to do if you can only do one.

For example, the Talmud discusses what one should do if there is an opportunity to attend a funeral, but it is also time to say Shema. Both are good deeds. Which one is more important? Do you skip Shema to attend the funeral? Or skip the funeral to say Shema?

On the other side of the coin, it can be difficult deciding between two bad options.  For example, if someone says “I’ll kill you if you don’t kill your friend”- both options are very bad. What do you do? (Answer: allow yourself to be killed, and don’t actively take another’s life.)

Saving life is an important value. Keeping Shabbat is an important value. What happens when these values conflict: ie a person is in health danger and needs to drive to the emergency room? How do we decide which value is more important? It’s not so easy. It’s complicated. We must look to our tradition, to our teachers, to the Halacha to help guide us in these complicated situations.

Peace is an important value. It is one of God’s names (that’s really what we mean when say “Shalom Aleichem”). Truth is an important value. The Talmud says that God’s signature is “Emet”. Which value wins out? Can you lie for the sake of peace? Here we say yes, but it will depend: What kind of lie? And what kind of peace?

Determining these priorities, these values, what is most good and what is least bad, is a lifelong challenge. As children we are taught to differentiate between right and wrong. As adults we must grapple with prioritizing two rights or two wrongs. What makes life complicated but also exciting is our need to learn the Jewish perspectives in creating a hierarchy of values, and then applying this system in real life situations.


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Parshat Vayigash


In Parshat Vayigash, Yosef and his brothers are reunited. Yosef instructs his siblings to bring their father Yaakov down to Egypt, along with the rest of the family. He tells his brothers to tell Yaakov (45:9-11)

“And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me, you and your children and your grandchildren, and your flocks and your cattle and all that is yours.”

Later in the Parsha Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that their family business in shepherding. Yosef explains why he is so insistent that the brothers share this information (46: 34):
“You shall say, 'Your servants have been owners of livestock from our youth until now, both we and our ancestors,' so that you may dwell in the land of Goshen, because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians."

One of the effects of living in Goshen that Yosef anticipated would be that Yaakov’s family would be able to maintain their distance from the rest of Egyptian culture. They would be able to maintain their unique culture, practices and identity. As Robert Frost put it, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Goshen could serve as a Jewish enclave in Egypt where Yaakov’s clan could live their lives in peace, without antagonism from the majority Egyptian society.

Although this may have worked while Yosef was alive, this situation was short-lived. In Parshat Shemot we learn that the Egyptians began to oppress the Jewish People within Goshen itself. Ramses was a major city in Goshen and the Egyptians enslaved the Jews to work in that city. We also learn that the Jews began to leave the confines of Goshen as the community grew. This is alluded to in Shemot 1:7:

“The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with them.”

The Jewish community may have left the confines of Goshen out of necessity: Perhaps there was no more room for housing, perhaps housing prices made Goshen no longer affordable. Leaving Goshen for other parts of Egypt may have also been a way that Jews sought to avoid Egyptian persecution. It could be that some of the Jews in Goshen thought that they were targets because they were living a separate, cloistered life that raised the ire of other Egyptians. If only they would live across the country, then Egyptian-Jewish relations would improve. The Torah tells us that this did not happen.
“But as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength, and the Egyptians were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

When the Jews were isolated in Goshen, the Egyptians hated them. And when the Jews spread out across the land, the Egyptians also hated them.

I think about these lessons in light of this month’s two most horrific attacks against Jews. On December 10, three people were murdered in a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, NJ. The Mayor of Jersey City identified the attack as a hate crime against Jews, and said that there’s a high probability that the shooters intended to harm the Jewish day school next door to the grocery, which teaches more than 50 Jewish children. This past Saturday night, the 7th Day of Chanukah, a man entered the home of a Chasidic Rebbe in Monsey and stabbed multiple people with a machete, leaving two with critical injuries. Monsey is a town in Rockland County, where 31 percent of the total population is comprised of Orthodox Jews. In much of Monsey the percentage of Jews is even greater. Jersey City, NJ has a population of about 250,000. Over the last decade, about 100 Chasidic families have moved into Jersey City in search of more affordable housing and a better quality of life.  What these two anti-Semitic attacks remind us is that there is violent Jew-hatred today in America, both in locations comprised of predominantly Jewish enclaves, as well as in areas where Jews live as a small minority among our non-Jewish neighbors. The first step in addressing this latest wave of violent anti-Semitism is to recognize that this hatred exists due to the existence of Jews in the world, and is independent of where Jews live.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

20/20 Vision in 2020


In 1952, a young Florence Chadwick stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island, determined to swim to the shore of mainland California. She’d already been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways. The weather was foggy and chilly; she could hardly see the boats accompanying her. Still, she swam for fifteen hours. When she begged to be taken out of the water along the way, her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she was close and that she could make it. Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, she stopped swimming and was pulled out- quitting with less than a mile to go.

Afterwards she said, “All I could see was the fog… If I could have seen the shore, I could have made it.” It was not fatigue that defeated her, but the fog that blurred her vision and disoriented her.
As she put it, “Like doubt, confusion or discouragement, the fog alone had no power to stop me. But because I let it blind my heart and reason, as well as my eyes, then it really defeated me.”
Two months later, on September 20, 1952, Chadwick tried again. This time she was prepared to “see” the shore, even if the fog should hide it. Fog did in fact hide it, but in her mind’s eye the shore was there. The shore’s presence became a fact in which she found the courage and strength to persevere until her feet touched the California coast.  
              
Rabbi Simon Eckstein a’h, a cherished member of our community who was born in Jerusalem in 1919, made Aliyah at age 91 and passed away in 2016, utilized this story in a Chanukah sermon to explain the greatness of the Maccabees. He wrote that despite all indications that seemed to point to utter failure, the Maccabees were able to keep their eye on the goal even through the fog and maintain the hope and faith in Hashem that ultimately led to their victory. They may not have always been able to see clearly how a victory would be achieved, but they were always able to vividly imagine and visualize in detail what victory would look like and why it was so important.

Seeing the Chanukah lights is an important element of the mitzvah. As we say in Hanerot Halalu
V’eyn lanu reshut lihishtamesh lahem, ela lirotam bilvad:
We are only allowed to look at the Chanukah lights.
In an attempt to explain why a Menorah may not be placed higher than 20 cubits, Rashi explains:
“D’lo Shalta bei eina L’Maalah M’ Chof Amah, V’leika Pirsumei Nisa.”

A person (even with 20/20 vision) may not be able to see the Chankuah lights at a height above 20 Amot, and if the lights cannot be seen, then there is no publicity of the miracle, an integral aspect of the Mitzvah. The lesson of this halacha is that success can only be achieved if we see the goal/ light, whether with our physical eyes or in our mind’s eye.
The Talmud records (Shabbat 23):  “Rav Huna said: ‘If one is meticulously careful in lighting candles, he will merit to have children who are Torah scholars’.”
A colleague of mine asked: many people are meticulous in their lighting Chanukah candles, so why are there so few Torah scholars? He answered that Rav Huna’s promise is only fulfilled for those parents who sincerely desire that outcome for their children. The bracha will only be fulfilled in those families who include Torah study and spiritual achievement as important, something they see as valuable, a worthwhile and noteworthy achievement. If such ideals remain “Above 20 Amot”, ie outside of their frame of reference, then parents will look to other achievements as fulfilling their dreams for their children.

The battle encountered on Chanukah was a clash of cultures. The question that confronted the Jews at that time was: What is it that you see, what is it that you strive to see? Greek culture or Torah values? Bayamim Hahem ubizman Hazeh. The challenge continues in our day as well. Let us utilize the holiday of Chanukah and the mitzvah of Ner Chanukah to test our vision and adjust when necessary.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Power of Truth


At the end of Parshat Vayeshev Yosef shifts roles from dreamer to dream interpreter. After interpreting the Chief Butler’s dream, the Chief Baker decides to share his dream because: Vayar Sar Ha’Ofim ki TOV patar.” Rabbi Yaakov Mecklenburg, 19th century German Rabbi in his commentary HaKetav V’hakabalah explains that Tov here means “correct” or “true”, which begs the question: how could the baker know that Yosef’s interpretation was true, before it came into being?  Did Yosef have some inside information about the standing of these two prisoners? Did the dream of each one contain the interpretation for his friend’s dream? The Rashbam explains simply: Nikarin Divrei Emet- the truth speaks for itself.

We unfortunately live in an era where the self-evident nature of truth is no longer widely perceived. Perhaps it is due to the internet and the overwhelming amount of accessible, unverified (not fact-checked) information. Perhaps it is due to the overall pervasiveness of relativism. Perhaps it is our skepticism towards those who claim to “know the truth.” Whatever the cause, the result is that we live in an age in which Lo Nikarin Divrei Emet: the truth is not self-evident. It seems that in today’s world people are comfortable with the notion that everyone can have their own, equally-valid truth. This attitude can lead to moral relativism and a decline of society. 

A hallmark of greatness is the willingness to speak the truth- even when it is unpopular, even when it is dangerous. Yosef provides us with a model. At the beginning of the Parsha he speaks the truth of his dreams even though it is met with scorn by both his brothers and his father. He speaks the truth to the wife of Potiphar even as it causes him to lose everything he had and lands him in jail. Finally, at the end of the Parsha, Yosef’s truth speaking is recognized by his fellow prisoners and declared to be Tov, good: not just now, but all along and always.

Another speaker of truth is Yehuda. The Tosefta in Brachot quotes Rabbi Akiva’s question: By what merit did Yehuda become the tribe of the monarchy, Jewish leadership? One answer suggested is “Mipnei Shehodeh B’Tamar.” He admitted the truth of his mistake even though such an admission could have been very costly. Telling the truth can be impressive; and even ameliorate mistakes. According to many historians, neither of the two previously impeached US Presidents would have been impeached had they been courageous enough to speak the truth, even after the mistake. (Too soon to comment on this week’s events….)

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. Sometimes the truth is depressing. Nevertheless we must learn from the model of our forefathers, especially from Yosef and Yehuda, and be willing to speak the truth: in our homes, in our communities, and to the world.

According to the Kabbalists, this world is an Olma D’shikra, a realm of deceit. The Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states that Chotamo shel Hakadosh Baruch Hu Emet: God’s signature is truth. The task for us then becomes clear: to speak the truth, and replace the deceit in this world with the sanctity of God’s signature characteristic.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

It’s Ok to Not Know- Then Go and Find Out


Towards the end of the Parsha, Yaakov travels to Bet El and fulfills the commitment he made 22 years ago as he made his way to Lavan’s house - by building an Altar and thanking G-d for keeping him safe through all of his difficulties. In response, G-d blesses Yaakov and changes his name to Yisrael. Then the Torah states,

“G-d ascended from Yaakov, in the place where he had spoken with him.”
On this verse Rashi comments,

“I do not know what this verse comes to teach us.”

Rashi does not comment on every single Pasuk. He could have not commented on the verse at all, and no one would have been the wiser. Rashi informs his students that there is something peculiar about this verse, something that the verse is trying to tell us - but Rashi does not know what it is. It takes tremendous modesty and intellectual honesty to say that there is something to learn, but I do not know the answer.

This is not the only time that Rashi informs his readers that he does not know something. Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his Gilyon Hashas notes on Tractate Brachot (page 25b) lists over three dozen examples throughout the Talmud where Rashi admits that he does not know something.
Rashi is following Talmudic advice. In one of the first pages of the Talmud, Brachot 4a, it states:
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’.”

It has been hard for me at times throughout my life to admit that there are things that I don’t know. I think it may go back to the kids’ TV show “You Can’t Do That On Television”, a comedy skit show that starred child actors that aired during the 1980’s and early 90’s. One of the show’s trademarks was when actors got “Slimed”. Whenever an actor said “I don’t know” green slime, a gooey substance, would pour on him/her from above. In retrospect, my reluctance to say I don’t know was partly due to the fact that as a “smart kid” I thought I was supposed to know everything; and partly due to some subconscious fear that if I said “I don’t know” I too would get slimed - either actually or metaphorically.

Saying “I don’t know” can be courageous and admirable, but then we have to do something about that gap in our knowledge. Once we admit that we do not know it becomes incumbent upon us to go and learn. As the Talmud states in many places:

Zil - Krei Bay Rav”- go and learn the topic from someone who does know.
There is a story told of Reb Eisel Shapiro of Slonim, a renowned nineteenth century Lithuanian Rabbi. Reb Eisel went on a visit to Volozhin and set a halakhic problem to the students of the great Yeshiva. He declared that whoever solved it would be worthy to become his son-in-law. The most brilliant students came to his door with proposed solutions, but were dismissed one by one. Eventually, it seemed, the students gave up and Reb Eisel packed up and got ready to leave. Just as he was leaving the city, a student came running and called on the carriage to stop. “Ah,” said Reb Eisel, “you found the correct answer?” “No,” replied the student, “I have no idea, but please, Rebbe, before you leave, I beg you, tell me the solution.” At which point Reb Eisel smiled and replied, “You are the one.”
May Hashem give us the courage of Yaakov and Rashi to say “I don’t know” as well as the intellectual curiosity and passion to exert ourselves to always go and seek the answers.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

It was a Torah lesson on Track 13-W. And none of the “teachers” were Jewish.


Settling into my seat, I barely heard the two women, 20’ish, speaking across the aisle from each other, one row in front of me, on a southbound Amtrak train, in the second-last car from the rear, one recent afternoon. But a woman in a seat behind them did. “This is a Quiet Car," she said firmly but kindly, pointing to one of the ubiquitous signs in the Amtrak car that designated that venue as a respite from cellphone conversations or discussions between seatmates that can be overheard by other travelers. "You can't talk so loudly that other people can hear you,” she added, making her point clear – she had heard them.

In the ensuing silence, my mind drifted to synagogue -  to several synagogues where I have prayed.
How many times, I thought, have I witnessed people (primarily men, because that is the section of shul in which I always sit) talking loudly and disturbingly in violation of fellow worshipers' kavana and the shul's unwritten and often-written (posted in conspicuous Hebrew signs) warnings about the halachic impropriety and derech-eretz implications of talking during times of Shemoneh Esrei, leining of the Torah and other times when spoken interruptions are inappropriate. The signs don't work.

What's the difference between Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and our congregation? Why do
Amtrak passengers obey, literally without a peep (my experience aside, you rarely hear an out-of-line sound in the Quiet Car), especially when corrected?

Many explanations come to mind: A shul is the daveners’ home, they’re not guests, they determine what goes. The people shushing them are friends, who can be ignored, unlike the strangers sharing a train coach. The people doing the talking aren’t necessarily interested in the worship experience of the morning in shul, unlike the shushers. Away from work, the talkers aren’t about to take orders from anyone; they resent the challenge to their machismo. Davening is long, especially on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and maintaining one’s level of concentration for several hours can be a challenge. There’s no penalty for out-of-place talking – no one’s likely to be asked to leave. Basically, they talk because they don’t think about the wider ethical implications of illicit words, and they know they can get away with it.

Unlike the situation on Amtrak, where Quiet Car talking is not an assertion of one-upmanship.
Common courtesy dictates that one should be still when any noise distracts others. Halacha sets higher standards; our prayers should be audible to ourselves – and to G-d – but not to the person standing next to us. Besides being rude and contrary to Jewish law, talking when silence should prevail undoubtedly hinders one's kavana. How many of us have the power of concentration to focus fully on our tefillot when our neighbors in the pews are talking about the stock market, the previous night's ballgame, their kids, their upcoming trip to Eretz Yisroel or other sundry matters best left for Kiddush time, over a plate of kugel?

The problem is that minyanim frequented by talkers tend to be friendly, welcoming minyanim, where people feel at home. They’re the minyanim someone would want to join. On the other hand, the quieter minyanim are, I have found, largely cold and unwelcoming. In the former, a stranger is likely to be approached by the regulars, offered a tallit or an aliyah or a Shabbos meal invitation; in the latter, you’re more likely to be ignored. The friendliness, which is laudable, breeds the comfort to talk. The challenge is to combine the best of both worlds.
Amtrak has the right idea – there’s a time and place for friendly conversation, but a Quiet Car and a
minyan are not the place; a minyan certainly is not the time. Maybe we don't need rabbis to enforce decorum in shul. Maybe we should invite some Amtrak conductors and passengers to our minyanim.
All aboard?

(Excerpted from “How to End Talking in Shul: A New Training-ing Technique” by Steve Lipman.
Full article available at: https://www.jewishideas.org/node/2726/pdf)