Friday, October 23, 2020

Builders of Babel Vs Avraham

The Netziv explains that the sin of Migdal Bavel was not the specifics of what they said: (such as blasphemy or ego or heresy as Rashi suggests). Rather the problem was that at Migdal Bavel, there was only one voice, a singular way to think and to express oneself. The people at Migdal Bavel feared diversity. Yet it is through diversity that God’s plan is able to come to fruition: people serving God in different ways and people learning from one another while maintaining their individuality and uniqueness.

There is one Midrash that support the Netziv’s view. “Rabbi Eliezer said,’devarim achadim is related to the word chadim- ie sharp words.” For the people at Migdal Bavel spoke sharply against God- and against Avraham. According to the Midrash they mocked Avraham, calling him “an old mule”- ie sterile and without a future. Why such vehemence against Avraham, who at this time was 48 years old and had not even begun his formal spiritual journey?

The people of Migdal Bavel rejected and mocked Avraham because he stood for three ideas which they despised. And it is these attitudes that highlight the problem of “one language, one purpose.”

Avraham stood for unity, not uniformity. Avraham preaches a message of monotheism to all who would listen, and even to those who were just interested in his hospitality. Yet Avraham’s goal was not to make everyone exactly like him. In fact, when Avraham begins his journey next week he leaves with Hanefesh Asher Asu B’Charan- those whom he had influenced while in Charan. And that’s the last time we hear of them. They went on to live their lives very different than Avraham; there was no uniformity. But Avraham had accomplished his goal: a unity of disparate people that all acknowledge and respect monotheism.

Avraham celebrated commonality, not conformity. Hashem promises Avraham that he will be an Av Hamon Goyim, the father of a multitude of nations; NOT the father of one huge single nation. He had two sons that he loved even though they were quite different. He is promised that through him all the families of the land will be blessed. They will maintain their uniqueness yet identify with one land, just like it was Avraham’s hope that they would identify with one God.

Avraham valued belonging, but he was not interested in necessarily fitting in. He feels tremendous responsibility towards all other human beings. That’s why he prays so hard for Sodom, and that’s why he fights so hard on behalf of the five kings. Avraham belongs to the human race and takes that role seriously and with a sense of responsibility. Yet Avraham remains HaIvri: the other, different and unlike anyone else in his generation. He does not feel the need to fit in to the rest of society, even as he takes the responsibility of belonging very seriously.

The lessons of Migdal Bavel are lessons that we need to keep in mind as a society, and especially as a synagogue community. Diversity is a natural part of Hashem’s world order; we should embrace it and never try to fight against it. Our goal should be unity; unity of goals, unity of values, but not uniformity. We strive to find common ground but never demand conformity. We must learn to appreciate the value of belonging to a group, while not requiring that one has to “fit in in all ways” in order to belong.

A society/ community built upon these values is not a Tower of Babel, destined to be dismantled, but a shining example of what Hashem hopes for us.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Starting Anew- from Bet

The Torah begins with the letter bet. Many have asked: why not begin the Torah with an alef, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet? One popular answer is that starting with the letter bet is an expression of humility; there are certain things about God that are beyond our human comprehension. Just as the letter bet is closed on three sides and only open facing towards the left (the direction that Hebrew is written), so too we approach the Creation story with an awareness that we cannot comprehend what came “before the bet” ie before Bereishit.

A second explanation as to why the Torah begins with a bet is as a reminder that we should always be building our Torah knowledge and understanding upon some precedent, and never from absolute aleph. Our understanding of Torah should be built upon what we learn from our teachers and from earlier commentators and traditional sources. While it is appropriate and commendable to seek out new and personal relevance in the Torah, these efforts cannot be an approach that starts from scratch/ starts from aleph. Our new understandings must start from bet, ie remain loyal to the traditional understandings of Torah, as have been incorporated into our Mesorah.  

Lastly, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 1:10) suggests that the Torah begins with the letter bet because the word bracha (blessing) begins with a bet. Torah is a blessing in our lives and to the world, so we begin the Torah with the letter bet. The letter aleph starts the word “arur” (cursed) so bet is a better letter to begin with. The Ibn Ezra asks: we find many negative words that begin with a bet! What exactly is the Midrash trying to tell us?

The Maharal explained that the Midrash is teaching us that the letter bet symbolizes blessing; not because it begins the word “bracha” but because of the nature of the letter. Bet is the second letter in the alef-bet. Its gematria (numerical value) is 2. Whereas the alef is singular, the bet is plural. When you add to a single entity, you create the blessing of multiplicity. The three letters that comprise the root of the word bracha are all letters whose gematriyas each note a multiplicity:

Bet- 2 (double one)

Reish- 200 (double 100)

Chof- 20 (double 10)

Throughout Parshat Bereishit we read how blessing can be found in multiplicity. For example, Hashem says that it is not good for man to be alone. So woman is created so that the blessing of multiplicity can be found in the husband-wife relationship. In each generation, blessings are manifested through a multiplicity of children: “Peru Urevu”. 

Parshat Bereishit is read this year in the midst of a very important and very contentious election season. I encourage you to exercise your democratic right to vote. I also encourage you to learn about the issues and the candidates in order to make an educated decision. I believe that the lesson of the bet can be helpful as we prepare to vote. Hearing from and considering a multiplicity of opinions is not only helpful in making educated choices, but it can also be the source of blessing in our lives.

Friday, September 4, 2020

How To Deal With Curses


The story is told about the members of a certain Shul who were all terrified of being called up for the Aliya of the Tochacha, the curses described in the 6th Aliyah of Parshat Ki Tavo.  They called a special Board Meeting, and decided to hire someone to take the aliyah of the Tochecha.  It wasn’t easy, but finally a willing candidate was found and hired.

Parshat Ki Tavo arrived and the Gabbai looked around for the contracted individual to call him for shishi.  But, he was nowhere to be found in the Shul. “Perhaps he’s running late,” suggested one of the Ba’alei Batim, “let’s wait a few minutes for him.” They sat for about a quarter of an hour, getting more and more impatient by the minute.  After all, this was not proper.  An agreement had been made.  Money had been paid.  Where was he?

Right before `things got out of hand, the contracted man entered the Shul.  The Board members ran to him and demanded to know his reason for being late. The individual calmly turned to the angry group, and replied, “I was davening in the shul down the block.  Do you really think that a person can make a living from only one Tochacha?”

Rav Chayim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, relates in his Sefer Ha-chayim that this “fear” of the tokhecha in Parashat Ki-Tavo led to some serious disruptions and lack of honor for the Torah.  He describes that in some synagogues, the Torah would remain open, in the middle of the reading, for several hours, as no congregants were willing to come and recite the berakhot over this aliya.  The Biur Halacha records that there were synagogues in which they actually cancelled Torah reading on the Shabbatot during which the curses should have been read (ie Bechukotai and Ki Tavo).

 The Biur Halacha (428) is strongly disagrees with these approaches to the Tochacha and writes:

V’Kamah Ra’ot Osin- they are doing multiple things wrong:

First, they are not fulfilling the ancient obligation to read the Torah on Shabbat, established by Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Second: They are ignoring the advice given to us by Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei (3:11), “Musar Hashem beni al tim’as”: “My son, do not loathe the criticism, rebuke of Hashem” Third, Their premise is mistaken. Do they actually believe that by not hearing or seeing the words of these curses they can spare themselves and avoid that which is laid out in those verses?! The Chofetz Chaim ends with three powerful words: V’Aderabba, Chas V’Shalom”, unfortunately, the opposite is more likely. If we avoid confronting the lessons of the Tochacha we are more likely to suffer from their ill effects.

Not reading the Tochecha to avoid its impact is juvenile behavior. It’s like when a young child plays hide and seek- by covering his own eyes. He assumes that if he can’t see you, then you can’t see him. It’s also what I call the Emperor’s new Clothes Syndrome: that if the truth of the matter is left unsaid then somehow it has not really happened. We know that this is not the case. The emperor was not wearing any clothes even before the young child said anything.

These last 6 months have made clear that there are some curses that no one can avoid. Some may suffer from them more than others, but everyone is impacted. In these situations I would suggest that our best recourse is to stand up and get the Aliyah. Standing up as an expression of resolve and optimism. And getting the Aliyah entails firmly grasping the Atzei Chayim (“the trees of life”) of the Torah. The more firmly we grasp the Torah, the more capable we will be of dealing with the curses and finding the blessings of our lives.




Friday, August 14, 2020

Staying on the Path of Yashar

As a summation to various rules that were just mentioned, Moshe says: 12:28:

“ Ki Taaseh Hatov V’Hayashar b’eynei Hashem.”-

“When you do what is good and right in the eyes of Hashem your G-d.”

            Noting the dual terminology of Tov and Yashar, Rashi quotes the opinion of Rabbi Akiva in the Midrash:

“Hatov- beinay Shamayim. V’hayashar- Beinay Adam.”

            In our lives we must be cognizant of two barometers on which we must test our actions: One of those barometers is expected to be stated in the Torah: how does it look in the eyes of G-d? What is more surprising is that Rabbi Akiva suggests that we concern ourselves with how our actions our perceived by others. This may lead to some very valid questions. Such as does this statement of Rabbi Akiva recognize the possibility that what is right according to G-d may not be in consonance with popular culture or conventional wisdom? And in such a scenario, which value wins out?

            As we strive to do what the Torah demands of us, we must strive to do so in a manner that is Yashar b’einay Adam, pleasing and attractive and inspiring to those who are watching us. It may not always be possible, but it is a value that we must always consider.

            And we must be harder on ourselves than we are on others. When considering what is Tov B’einay Hashem we must factor in how this will be perceived by others. But such is not the case when dealing with ourselves. Even if we take seriously other people’s perspectives we must always remember that our eyes may be deceived. It is possible for self-interests to lead us to self-righteousness. If there is tension between what is Tov B’einey Hashem and Yashar B’eineinu, when we are confronted with the possibility that our actions or values may not be consistent with what the Torah expects of us, then we must be willing to think deeply and seriously and consider reevaluating our position. Perhaps this is why the last time “yashar” is mentioned in our Parsha (13:9), Moshe charges us to do simply do that which is Yashar B’einay Hashem. For our actions must be in consonance with the objective values and morals that the Torah has taught us are the correct way to live.

            When it comes to doing what is Yashar, I wish it was as easy as the Israeli direction-giver’s advice- Yashar Yashar Yashar ad Hasof. But seeking spiritual direction is not that easy.

            Our Pasuk in Re’eh exhorts us to do the Tov and Yashar. A couple weeks ago in Vaetchanan we were told to do Hayashar V’Hatov. And in that context Ramban points out what that the Torah can’t give us exact directions for every situation in life. We have to think seriously and do our best and pray that by going yashar Hashem will help us reach our sought-after destination.     


Monday, August 10, 2020

Yirat Shamayim: Just Open Our Eyes

Have you ever had the experience of a friend or family member asking you to do them just one favor, and that just one favor turned into a second favor?  Pretty soon, you were doing a whole lot of favors that you never expected to be doing and definitely did not agree to at the outset.

     I am reminded of that situation in this morning’s Parsha when Moshe says to Bnai Yisrael:

            VAta Yisrael mah Hashem Elokecha Shoel Me’imach

            Now, Israel, what does G-d want from you?

            Ki Im L’Yirah et Hashem Elokecha- ONLY to have Yirat Hashem

            AND To Go in all His ways

            And to Love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and your soul

            AND to observe all the commandments of Hashem and His decrees

      A pretty extensive list- what happened to the just one thing that Hashem was asking of us, namely Yirat Hashem?

   The Gemara in Brachot understood that Yirat Hashem is the primary request that G-d has for us, while the rest of the list contains details that come from (or that lead to) the ultimate goal of Yirat Hashem. But this understanding forces the Gemara to ask a different question: Atu Yirat Shamayim Milta Zutrata Hi? Is Yirat Shamayim a minor achievement whereby Moshe can downplay it as no big deal (KI IM)? The Talmud answers: Iyn, L’Gabbai Moshe- Milta Zutrata Hi. That for Moshe having Yirat Shamayim is in fact a minor achievement.

      Some commentators have suggested that the humility of Moshe was so natural and so ingrained that he honestly felt that if he could do it, anyone could. However, such an approach leaves many of us uneasy, as it causes one to wonder whether part of Moshe’s character was a detachment from reality or an inability to appreciate the differences between the leader and the masses.

      What we need is not a different interpretation of Moshe’s thought processes, but rather a different understanding of Yirat Shamayim. The word Yirah is derived from the word that means to “flow from the gut”- perceive or recognize that one is in the presence of greatness. However, Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan in his essay “B’Ikvot Hayirah” suggests that Yirat Hashem is related in concept to the word Re’iyah: to see.          This is evident from the verse in Beshalach that we recite daily as part of the Az Yashir prayer: Vayar Yisrael, Vayiru Haam et Hashem.

  (Just a few pesukim later in our Parsha, Moshe reminds the People of their responsibilities utilizing the word in both ways: First: Et Hashem Elokecha Tira- fear G-d. Then in the next verse, Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael: All of the miracles and wonders “Asher Ra’u Einecha”- that your eyes saw.)

      Yirat Hashem is obtained by seeing G-d. Everywhere. And in everything. By appreciating that no aspect of our lives is devoid of the Divine. Although fear and reverence may be a desired outcome, the process by which that is achieved is through Re’iyah, developing a clearer vision of how G-d operates in the world and in every facet of our lives. That is how we should understand the Talmud in Berachot when it says that Hakol Biydei Shamayim Chutz Miyirat Shamayim. Hashem can inject Himself in all facets of our life, but it is entirely up to us to perceive Him.

     Once we begin to see how G-d is operating in our lives on a daily ongoing basis, we are called upon to foster an appreciation of this reality. That is why the Talmud learns from our pasuk in Ekev the imperative of reciting 100 blessings every day. One concrete way to foster this clear vision of G-dliness in our lives is to recognize Hashem’s role throughout our day by reciting brachot.

     And once we train ourselves to see how G-d operates in the world we must then emulate His ways, Lalechet B’chol Derachav, as Moshe seems to be saying is a natural outgrowth of Yirat Hashem. We are called upon to see beyond ourselves and to act with alacrity and compassion when others are in need. Just as G-d takes no bribes (judges with integrity and honesty) and is particularly concerned with protecting the most vulnerable of society (the stranger, widow and orphan) so too must we in our quest to achieve Yirat Hashem.

     When the Talmud says that Yirat Shamayim is a Milta Zutrata, a small matter, we need not explain that this description applies only to someone of Moshe’s stature. For Yirat Shamayim flows from an appreciation of G-d’s presence in our lives; and a mandate to know His ways to emulate them, then the path towards Yirat Hashem is indeed a small, yet critically important step- we need to open our eyes.


Friday, July 31, 2020

Few Yet Influential: Be Proud of Your Me’at Status

The seventh aliya of Parshat Vaetchanan, the beginning of Chapter 7 in Devarim, is a reminder by Moshe of Hashem’s promise to Bnai Yisrael to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, and the responsibilities and obligations that they will have upon entry and possession of the Land. In this context Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael of their special relationship with Hashem 7:6:

“For you are a holy people to Hashem; He has chosen you to be for Him a treasured nation above all the peoples on the face of the Earth.”

Moshe continues in 7:7:

לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּֽים

Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.

Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk. These commentators were troubled by how this pasuk jibes with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham but then subsequently repeated to others, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand or the stars.

Rabbeinu Bechaye reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been Hashem would have chosen them as His People.

Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combine populations of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.

Rashi explains that “me’at”, in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and their leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise. (Proofs: Avraham – who says Anochi Afar V’Efer, and Moshe: the greatest spiritual leader ever, and yet the most humble ever as well.)

There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of”… In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.

Monday, July 27, 2020

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Or “Out of sight, out of mind”?

We find ourselves in the midst of the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, the day that we commemorate the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The story is told of Napoleon walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B’Av. As his passed a synagogue he heard the sounds of mourning and crying. “What’s this all about?” Napoleon asked. An aide explained that the Jews were in mourning the loss of their Temple. “When did this happen?” Napoleon asked. The aide replied, “About 1700 years ago.” Napoleon said, “Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long, will merit to see it rebuilt!”

Every year as I prepare for Tisha B’Av I ask myself, “Does my yearning for the Beit Hamikdash increase as time goes on? Or do I get more used to the idea of my life without a Beit Hamikdash?” Does absence, in fact, make the heart grow fonder? Or is there a point that we adapt to a new normal, due to the fact that once something is out of sight it slowly becomes out of mind?

This question is more poignant this year than any in my lifetime, as this is the very same question I am asking about our shul, more than 4 months after we initially closed our doors and with no end to the pandemic in sight. As time goes on, how do our shul members relate to our institution? Has absence made the heart grow fonder? Are people itching to get back to shul (when they feel it is safe to do so)? Or have people begun to get used to a new normal that does not include shul as part of it. I asked this question to anyone willing to answer it: When CoVID is over (may it be speedily and very soon) will you jump at the opportunity to go back to minyan, to shul programs, to the community in which the shul serves as the center? Or are you comfortable and satisfied with your new normal, one in which shul does not play a role in your life?

I believe that the vast majority of shul members (who participated in the past) will jump at the opportunity to reengage and reconnect when there is no longer a health concern. I base this belief on my conversations with many people over the past few months, as well as my firm belief that our shul is the center of Jewish life for Hollywood and plays a critical role in the sense of community and spiritual satisfaction that people seek by moving within walking distance of our shul.

There is much to learn about the challenges and opportunities that absence of loved ones present that can inform and help us navigate this absence from the robust shul experience that we have come to love. The following are excerpts form an article on this topic.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "out of sight, out of mind" are two common sayings people associate with a romance that has been forced apart by distance. But does absence really make the heart grow fonder? “Humans are designed to continually be seeking, striving, and in the process of acquisition,” says Susan Winter, a New York City based relationship expert and bestselling author. She explains that it translates into one’s romantic life is via a heightened sense of “longing and appreciation” when your partner is absent.

As humans, when something is not new or novel or different, it commands less of our attention. It’s everything from partners to food,” Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, agrees. He compares being around a partner all the time to eating your favorite food over and over — no matter how much you love it, after a while, you may start getting a little tired of it. Separation can be a nice palate cleanser to remind yourself why you like your partner in the first place.

“When we’re separated from somebody, then all of the qualities that we’ve become habituated to —” qualities like how someone looks, smells, or talks — “we are reminded of how much we enjoy that,” Klapow says. “So separation is basically a reminder to us that we get reinforcement or reward out of our partners. And you can’t know that until you’re separated.”

Winter agrees that in the case of a long break, you need to really consider how you’re going to maintain a connection with your partner. She says that in the case of breaks that go months to years, “our 'new normal' is to NOT have this partner in our life.” “When our lover has been gone too long, we adapt and move forward. We begin to seek new connections to fill the void.”

Experts agrees that there are things you can do to keep your bond strong. Klapow recommends actively scheduling communication and time for each other, even if you can’t be there in person — and then sticking to that schedule. Winter suggests much the same thing. “Keep the connection by text, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, and in person,” she advises. “And have an end-goal to reunite. Without an end-goal to finally be together, the relationship will dissolve.”

As we approach Tisha B’Av I urge you to use this time to consider the impact that the absence of shul has had on your life. Think about the important role our shul played in creating a community pre-COVID that provides so much. Unlike the Beit Hamikdash, even during this absence there are ways for us to connect and engage with our shul. We know that there will be a time soon when we will be able to return to regular- and even better- shul life. In order for us to be ready for that return, let us acknowledge the shul’s absence in our lives as a perhaps a source of pain in the present, but fondness and optimism in the future.