Friday, December 8, 2017

Joseph the Dreamer and Freedom Sunday

This past Wednesday marked the 30th Anniversary of Freedom Sunday, a rally in Washington D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry. An estimated 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in an unprecedented display of solidarity with Soviet Jews. Organized by a broad based coalition, activists from across the country came to demand that Gorbachev put an end to the forced assimilation of Soviet Jews and allow them to emigrate from the USSR.

In his book, When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, Gal Beckerman points out that the Soviet Jewry movement was unique in the annals of American Jewish history in three ways.
1 The movement was grassroots. It was not initiated by established Jewish communal organizations or professionals. it was led by students and housewives and synagogue members who became activists in order to help solve the problem.

2 The movement was when American Jews found their voice. The Soviet Jewry Movement demonstrated that American Jewry had learned its lesson from the Holocaust. When Jews far away were in danger, they would not be silent this time.

3 The movement was a rare moment of unity in American Jewish history. Jews put aside their differences and worked together on a cause that they all agreed was important enough to present a united front.

Soon after Freedom Sunday 1987, the fruits of those efforts began to be seen in earnest. 30 years later there are 1 million Soviet Jews in Israel and a half million in the United States.
What is the activist cause for the Jewish community in the 21st century? What can be or should be today’s equivalent of the Soviet Jewry Movement?

One obvious contender for our activist efforts is the State of Israel. As the world turns its back on her, we need to learn from the tactics of the Soviet Jewry movement and apply them to pro-Israel activism. I recall vividly my participation in the Israel Solidarity Rally on April 15, 2002. Standing with tens of thousands of pro-Israel supporters on that day was a memory that will stay with me forever.

Another cause gaining attention and activism on its behalf is the affordability of Jewish education. One of the ways that this issue is being addressed is through involvement in political action and lobbying on behalf of government funding for elements of day school education.
What’s critical is that we choose to be active about something.

At the beginning of the Parsha we read about the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. They hate him, and conventional wisdom explains that they hate him because he thinks he’s better than the rest of them. However when we look carefully at the pesukim we see that the brother begin to hate Yosef before he tells them the details of his dreams. Knowing that Yosef is a dreamer is enough for the brothers to hate him. It would seem that the brothers embraced Yaakov’s attitude on life: Bikesh Yaakov Leisheiv B’Shalva- they want to live in peace, to live and let live, without making waves. That is not how life works. Life is to find issues that we are passionate about, and then work hard on behalf of those causes.

Yosef is the dreamer. Perhaps that is why he is called a Tzaddik; a man that understood that we must always have a cause that we are working on. Let us learn the lessons from 30 years ago, as well as our forefather Yosef and commit to finding causes that speak to our souls and then advocating on their behalf.      

Friday, December 1, 2017

Making Tough Decisions: Potentially Painful, Yet Enriching

Yaakov is about to meet his brother Eisav for the first time after twenty years. The night before this meeting, Yaakov finds himself alone and has a personal encounter of his own:
Vayevater Yaakov Levado Vayeavek Ish Imo.
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

From the text it is not at all clear what exactly happened or who was involved. What is clear is that the story ends with Yaakov being blessed, but also being injured in his hip.
                The Torah therefore lays out the prohibition:
“Al Keyn LoYochlu Bnei yisrael et Gid Hanasheh Asher Al Kaf Hayareich At Hayom HAzeh.”
                Due to this mysterious episode, Jews are forbidden from consuming the sciatic nerve throughout history.  This nerve is found in the hindquarter.

In explaining this prohibition the Sefer Hachinuch relies on the Midrashic interpretation that Yaakov was wrestling with Saro shel Eisav, the Guardian Angel of Eisav. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this struggle is symbolic of the ongoing struggle that Jews are subject to by other nations, especially descendants of Eisav. When we refrain from eating the Gid Hansheh we should remember that at times we may be antagonized or persecuted by the nations of the world, but we’re never out for the count. The Jewish People, as symbolized by our patriarch Yaakov, may get injured at times, but we will always persevere.

Some Rabbis suggest that Yaakov was not wrestling another entity, but rather he was wrestling with himself. Yaakov’s antagonist in this battle is left unnamed. All we know is that he was an Ish. In Parshat Vayeitzei, Yaakov himself is called the Ish. After twenty years in Lavan’s house, the Torah said:
“Vayifrotz Ha’Ish Meod Meod”
The man, Yaakov became very wealthy.

The man of the Yeshiva went out to the world of business (with his crafty father in law) and became very successful. Success brought with it new challenges; challenges that forced Yaakov to make decisions about who he was and what he stood for. These were not easy decisions: yet Yaakov was forced to confront and grapple with. They were decisions with no easy answers. And when the dust settles, Yaakov survives. He is elevated, as indicated by his name change to Yisrael representing that his essence was more connected to the spiritual than the material. Nonetheless, he was left injured by the consequences of his decisions.

Understood in this way, Gid Hanasheh teaches us the necessity of confronting and ultimately making difficult decisions. These decisions can cause pain, to others and even to ourselves. Not only are these decisions necessary, but they can also be edifying and enriching in the long run. It is only through exercising our free will that we grow from our decisions and value our choices in life. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Putting "Anochi" Back In Our Lives

Two of life’s major challenges are 1) to seek out our unique mission in the world, and 2) to seek Hashem’s Presence and guiding influence during our journey.

This challenge is alluded to at the beginning of our Parsha. Vayetzei opens up with Yaakov fleeing from Eisav; sent by his mother to find a wife in Charan. On his way he stops “Bamakom” at an unidentified spot that tradition identifies as Har Hamoriah. There he has a spiritual dream in which God assures Yaakov of ongoing Divine protection.

When he wakes up from this incredible dream Yaakov declares:
“And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know”

In response to this pivotal moment, Yaakov declares “Anochi Lo Yadati”. “It is time for me to explore the Anochi- to personalize these experiences and figure out what this all means specifically to me.
According to tradition, Yaakov saw angels ascending to God’s Kisei Hakavod, Throne of Glory, and then descending back to earth.  One of the images engraved on the Kisei Hakavod is that of Yaakov. Yaakov was unaware that his likeness adorned God’s Throne. Upon seeing his image in the Heavenly sphere Yaakov realizes that God must have important things planned for him. He starts thinking about his unique mission, and what his path towards greatness will entail. It is at this point that Yaakov admits that until now- “Anochi Lo Yadati” - I had never given much thought to Anochi- finding my unique mission and pursuing it.

Anochi means I; and it is the first word of the Ten Commandments. It is used as a reference to the Ultimate I that is Hashem. Anochi Lo Yadati also means that now Yaakov appreciates the importance of God’s presence at every stage of life and in every situation. Until now, Yaakov had been so busy with his own efforts to trick his father, receive the birthright and get out of town that he had forgotten to take a moment to look for and appreciate God’s role in his life.

Let us look to our patriarch Yaakov as a model for how to persevere in the face of challenges: To view every situation as an opportunity to seek out our unique path in life, as well as an opportunity to seek out God along that path.

Let us boldly assert an awareness of Anochi in our lives, and in so doing may we be comforted in knowing (paraphrasing Yaakov) Achein Yesh Hashem Bamakom Hazeh, that God (referred to as Hamakom) is with us at every makom along our journeys.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Yitzchak, Yaakov and the Shidduch Situation

In Parshat Chayei Sarah, many miracles took place to help Yitzchak get married. When Eliezer set out on his way, he experienced a miracle and he arrived in Charan in one day (see Rashi, 24:42). And as Yitzchak was still praying, Rivkah arrived. Betuel, who wanted to sabotage the shidduch, died (see Rashi 24:55). Hashem's hand was obvious in this shidduch.

However, when Yaakov Avinu sought to get married, miracles did not happen for him. When Yaakov was traveling to Charan for his shidduch, he met up with Esav's son, Elifaz, who took all of his money. Yaakov worked seven years for his shidduch, then was tricked, and had to work another seven years. He went through very hard times, until he was finally able to marry and establish his family. Why did Yitzchak's shidduch come about so easily, while Yaakov's shidduch confronted so many hardships?

Perhaps the explanation is that when Avraham sent Eliezer to find a shidduch for Yitzchak, he didn't know whom to choose, and therefore he prayed and placed his trust in Hashem. Yaakov, however, knew whom he would marry. He went to Lavan's house with the intention to marry Rachel. As everyone said, "The older one [Esav] to the older one [Leah] and the younger one [Yaakov] to the younger one [Rachel].' Yaakov didn’t feel the need to pray for his shidduch so intently, nor the need to put his trust in Hashem. He thought it was obvious whom he would marry. This is the reason why he endured so many hardships, because he lacked this total reliance on God. On the other hand, Eliezer prayed and he completely placed his trust in Hashem, and therefore he found Yitzchak’s shidduch easily.

Parshat Chayei Sara is an opportune time to bring attention to the current State of Shidduchim. Some people call it a crisis, but I do not believe that such alarmist terminology is necessarily helpful. We do need to be aware of the rising number of single Jewish men and women of marriageable age. We should teach our children from a young age what characteristics are most important when seeking a spouse. We should model proper marital behavior and demonstrate to them how a successful marriage takes hard work, commitment and dedication. We need to dispel the myth of a perfect spouse or a perfect marriage.

Second, we need to ensure that single individuals (including single parent families) feel welcome and supported in our community. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, such as Shabbat/ Yom Tov meal invitations, neighbors checking in on neighbors, etc.

We also need to do what we can to facilitate introductions between men and women that could lead to marriage. Whether in the form of formal Shidduch groups and databases, or more informal settings such as mentioning a few names of singles around the Shabbat table or other social setting there are many ways to demonstrate our interest in helping others find their match.

Shedding light on the Shidduch Situation and resolving to find ways to do our part is a step forward in our efforts to create a culture of caring in our synagogue community and beyond.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Lot, Sodom, and the Challenge of Feeling Entitled

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb suggests that one of the biggest factors that inhibits our sense of gratitude is a sense of entitlement. We try to raise our children so that they have all that they need and more. This is a noble goal. However the downside can be that these children grown into adults who don’t realize that they need to exert effort in order to achieve the luxuries, and even the necessities, of life. No one can appreciate the benefits of a life to which s/he feels entitled. The dangers of this sense of entitlement are alluded to in our Parsha this morning.

In the middle of Lech Lecha, Avraham and Lot part ways. The cause of this separation was a disagreement between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Avraham. Rashi explains that the shepherds of Lot believed that they were entitled to graze their sheep on land that technically still belonged to others. Their logic was that the land belonged to Avraham and his descendants, and Lot was currently Avraham’s closest blood relative. The shepherds of Avraham disagreed, claiming that this promise had not yet been fulfilled. The land still belonged to others, and grazing on that land was theft. From this dispute, we see that Lot characterized a sense of entitlement. Even without working, without effort, and without following in the ways of Avraham, Lot felt that he was entitled to the blessings promised to Avraham.

A sense of entitlement may explain Lot’s choice of neighborhood. The Torah tells us that Lot chose to live in Sodom. The people of Sodom were (13:14) Ra’im V’chataim LaHashem Meod: “were exceedingly sinful and wicked.” Even if Lot did not want to live as committed and observant a life as his Uncle Avraham, why would he move to a place full of wicked people? The answer lays in the Torah’s descriptive for Sodom (13:10): “Kulah Mashkeh” “it was well watered everywhere.” Sodom was irrigated by underground springs, and therefore it was always very fertile for agriculture. Lot moved to Sodom because wealth and agricultural success were assured. There was no doubt, and no need for effort. This fits with Lot’s sense of entitlement. It is not surprising that a city that fosters a sense of entitlement also fosters wickedness and callousness. Entitled people are too self-centered to worry about others, and take care of themselves even at the expense of their neighbor- both characteristics that are ascribed to Sodom.

We can contrast Sodom with Eretz Yisrael, a land that is entirely dependent on rain. Rain comes from Hashem. If inhabitants of Israel want rain, then they have to turn to Hashem in prayer. While in Sodom one was encouraged to feel entitled, in Eretz Yisrael one is encouraged to feel dependent, to recognize Hashem’s role in our lives, and work hard to be deserving of Hashem’s blessings. And when we receive those blessings- we are expected to be grateful.

In Israel, they began to request rain (V’tein Tal Umatar L’vracha) starting yesterday, the 7th of Cheshvan. This event coupled with the mistakes of Lot/ Sodom are good opportunities to remind ourselves of the dangers of feeling entitled, and the need to always be grateful , no matter how many (or few) blessings we recognize in our lives.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Jews, Halloween and Noah's Tzohar

One of the challenges that Jewish parents confront this time of year is explaining to their children why we don’t celebrate Halloween. Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. It has pagan origins. Though today most people view it as a secular holiday, its religious origins are still known to some. That is why it is inappropriate for Jewish families to celebrate Halloween in any fashion. (For an interesting treatment of this topic from a Jewish lens, see here )

I like to point out the major difference between October 31st and the 14th of Adar- Purim. On October 31st people dress up and children knock on people’s doors, asking for candy. On Purim the mitzvah is to knock on people’s doors and GIVE OTHERS mishloach manot. Looking at the bigger picture, we should encourage opportunities for our children to act in selfless and giving ways; and we should be careful to avoid situations that increase our children’s sense of entitlement. 

An interesting question is raised whether it is appropriate to distribute candy to those who come to your door on October 31st? On this issue, I suggest we follow the examples of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky and Rabbi Avrohom Pam. 
In Artscroll’s biography about Rav Kamintesky, (Reb Yaakov, pg 243) it notes:
Someone was visiting Reb Yaakov, shortly after he moved to Monsey, when someone Halloween trick-or-treating rang the bell. (Monsey was not yet the largely Jewish town that it is today.) The man assumed that Reb Yaakov would not be familiar with such a non-Jewish custom from his years living in Williamsburg and hastened to explain to him what the children wanted. But Reb Yaakov was not only familiar with Halloween, the Rebbetzin had already prepared bags of sweets for any child that might ring.
The following story was recorded a few years ago by Rabbi Akiva Males, Rabbi at Young Israel of Memphis:
My father-in-law studied in Rav Pam’s shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaas for several years back in the 1960s.
“When my wife’s older sister became engaged in the 1990s, my in-laws took my (future) sister-in-law and my (future) brother-in-law over to meet Rav and Rebbitzen Pam and receive their bracha and good wishes. It was October 31st. In contrast to the many Jewish homes around the Pams who had turned off their lights to discourage trick-or-treaters, the Pams left their front light on. While they all chatted with Rav Pam in the dining room, his Rebbitzen was in the kitchen working the hot-air popcorn popper and preparing plastic baggies of popcorn to give out with a smile to all the local non-Jewish kids who knocked at their door.”

In its description of the ark in Parshat Noach, the Torah tells us about the Tzohar (6:16). The Tzohar was a window. Generally, windows serve two functions: let the light in from outside and keep the outside conditions from getting in. Rashi quotes an idea that the Tzohar was a gem that illuminated the ark. This makes sense, as during the flood there was no light from outside. The Tzohar was both protective and illuminating. As Jews we must learn these lessons from the Tzohar. We need to create boundaries between ourselves and other religions/ secular culture. At the same time, we must be on the lookout for ways in which we can be an Ohr Lagoyim, a light onto the nations by living our Jewish values in ways that are noteworthy to the world at large.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Steve Bartman, Eglah Arufah and Collective Responsibility

It was October 14, 2003, Game 6 of Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series. The Chicago Cubs were playing the (then) Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field. The Cubs led the series 3-2. With one out in the top of the 8th inning, the Cubs were 5 outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo was at bat, and he hit a foul ball to the left side. Left fielder Moises Alou seemed poised to catch the ball in foul territory, but a man wearing headphones and a Cubs hat reached up to grab the foul ball. 

That man’s name is Steve Bartman. As a result, Alou was unable to make the play. Cubs fans fed off of Alou’s response and began showering Bartman with abuse. Ultimately, Steve Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field that night by security, for his own safety. . The Cubs ended up blowing their three-run lead and losing Game 6. When the Cubs went on to lose Game 7, people began to point to that fan’s interference as the turning point that led to the Cubs meltdown.  

People continued to threaten Steve Bartman until very recently. Alex Gibney, writer and producer of an ESPN film about the Bartman episode, notes that things did not have to be that way. Fans could have let the episode go. They could have turned their attention to cheering on their home team, instead of focusing on the foul ball. Instead, the irony was that Cubs fans went to a really dark place at the stadium known as “The Friendly Confines.”

Last month, the Cubs gave Steve Bartman a 2016 World Series Championship ring. In explaining the gift, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said:
We hope this provides closure on an unfortunate chapter of the story that has perpetuated throughout our quest to win a long-awaited World Series. While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization. After all he has sacrificed, we are proud to recognize Steve Bartman with this gift today.”

In accepting the ring, Steve Bartman issued a statement, which read in part:
I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over. I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today's society.”

In this week’s Parsha we read about the mysterious mitzvah of Eglah Arufah. There is an unsolved murder outside the city limits. The elders of the closest cities come together for a ceremony in which they declare that (21:7) “our hands did not spill this blood.” Do we really think that these distinguished leaders had anything to do with the murder?

From this mitzvah we learn the importance of collective responsibility. The elders do not say, “we didn’t do it, it’s not our problem.” Rather they declare that an unsolved murder is a problem for everyone, and everyone must do their part to address the problem.

For a long time Cubs fans scapegoated Steve Bartman. They engaged in magical thinking, fooling themselves that Bartman’s alleged interference caused them to lose, instead of assigning the blame to where it rightfully belonged (or not assigning any blame and just moving on with life.) I am glad that when the Cubs won a championship, team officials took responsibility for the behavior of their fans, and tried in some small way to make amends.

As a community we need to live the lesson of Eglah Arufah and collective responsibility. Even if we are not personally impacted by a problem, we must be sensitive, aware and prepared to address these challenge to the best of our abilities.