Thursday, June 14, 2018

Strong, Influential Women: Then and Now

The verse in Mishlei states:

חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ וְאִוֶּלֶת בְּיָדֶיהָ תֶהֶרְסֶנּוּ:

The wisest of women-each one built her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her hands.

    The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110) explains that this verse alludes to two women who play critical roles behind the scenes in Parshat Korach.

    “The wisest of women” refers to the wife of Ohn ben Pelet. At the beginning of the Parsha (16:1) we read how Ohn is one of the named members in the band of Korach’s rebels. However when the story ends with punishment for all of those who rebelled against Moshe, Ohn’s name is noticeably absent. The Talmud in Sanhedrin explains that Ohn is not mentioned at the end of the story because he was saved due to his wife’s intervention. Ohn’s wife convinced her husband that he had nothing to gain from getting involved in the rebellion, and everything to lose. Ohn agreed with his wife but felt trapped because he had sworn allegiance to Korach. So Ohn’s wife did what she had to in order to save her husband: she got him drunk and put him to bed. Then she blocked the doorway so that no-one could bring him to the rebellion.

    “A foolish one tears it down with her hands”: the Talmud explains that this refers to Korach’s wife. According to this tradition, she was the instigator of the entire rebellion. She goaded her husband into rebelling by suggesting that Moshe had overstepped his bounds, and he was taking honor and privileges that rightfully belonged to Korach.

    The Talmud is teaching us that, oftentimes, the most influential person in the story/ in the family is the one who may be behind the scenes, yet is directing all of the events.  And like the story behind the scenes in our Parsha, oftentimes this is a role taken by women. As Nia Vardalos said in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding “The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”

    In the past few decades, the role of wife has changed dramatically, more so than the role of husband. More married women are working outside of the home than ever before. This fact is just one of many that make a woman’s role in today’s world complicated and challenging. Other factors that complicate everyone’s family life (for both women and men) include: technology, raising children in the 21st century, and seeking a balance between work and life, as well as a healthy synergy between one’s mind, body and soul.

    Seeing a need for synagogues to engage and service the female half of our Orthodox communities, the Orthodox Union created its Women’s Initiative. The OU Women’s Initiative aims to create and promote women’s programming in the areas of Torah study, community leadership, spiritual, personal and professional growth, health and social well-being for women of all ages. One of its first programs was a competitive challenge grant to support innovative women’s programming concepts proposed by synagogues.

    Close to 100 applications were submitted. I am proud to share with you that our shul was one of 16 synagogues to receive the grant. Our proposal, Eishet Chayil Initiative, was created and submitted by Mrs. Sara Frieberg, our Coordinator of Women’s Engagement. The idea is to convene a monthly forum for women to learn about necessary ingredients for being N’shei Chayi (“Women of Valor”): spiritual inspiration, mental health, physical health, leadership skills, and more. Some of the potential areas of focus include: spirituality, mindfulness and meditation, nutrition and fitness, management skills, time management, communication skills, parenting, conflict resolution, building self-confidence, and financial literacy. We hope that through this initiative women will feel encouraged and empowered to excel in all of their roles, thereby benefitting themselves, their families, and our community.

    Mrs. Ohn and Mrs. Korach are two examples of many that we have within Jewish tradition of strong, talented, powerful women who have shaped our history. This remains as true today as it was back then. I hope that our Eishet Chayil Initiative is just the beginning of a conversation on this topic, and of opportunities we create to acknowledge and address the ways in which our shul can better serve women, and the ways in which women can provide their unique and indispensable contributions to our shul.  

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Believing is Seeing

Parshat Shelach begins and ends on the topic of sight. The Parsha opens with the episode of the spies. Moshe sends ten distinguished Jewish leaders to tour the Land of Israel (perhaps the first Jewish leadership mission to Israel):

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אֹתָם֙ משֶׁ֔ה לָת֖וּר אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן
Moses sent them to scout the Land of Canaan
The mandate was clear: go and see the land firsthand and report back to the people 1) the beauty/bounty of the land and 2) strategies for victory in the anticipated wars with the current inhabitants.

וּרְאִיתֶ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ מַה־הִ֑וא וְאֶת־הָעָם֙ הַיּשֵׁ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ הֶֽחָזָ֥ק הוּא֙ הֲרָפֶ֔ה הַמְעַ֥ט ה֖וּא אִם־רָֽב:
You shall see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many?

The plan here is in line with the expression “seeing is believing”. Moshe’s hope was that by seeing the land, the spies, and subsequently the entire nation, would believe in the goodness of God’s plan. The power of seeing something is well documented within Jewish tradition. At Har Sinai the nation saw a manifestation of God unlike anything in history. Right after the Ten Commandments, Hashem says:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם כִּ֚י מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי עִמָּכֶֽם:
You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you.
According to the Talmud, only eyewitness testimony can be accepted by a Beit Din. As to why hearsay cannot be accepted by a court, the Talmud explains: “Eino Domeh Shemiya L’Re’iya”, seeing is much better than hearing. My family and I will, please God, be going to Israel this summer on family vacation. This is the first time my children will be in Israel. I am making our itinerary, and my goal is to foster a Chibat HaAretz, a love for the Land of Israel, through the sites that they see. They’ve read and learned about Israel, but nothing beats being there and seeing the Land up close.
And yet we all know that our eyes can deceive us. Obi-Wan Kenobi was right when he told young Luke Skywalker, “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” Neuroscientific research has shown that “People rely on their eyes for most tasks – yet the information provided by our visual sensing system is often distorted, unreliable and subject to illusion.”

This is what actually happened with the spies. Because of their fears/ low self-esteem/ ulterior agendas, the spies twisted what they saw into an evil report- leading to catastrophic results.
Which brings us to the very end of the Parsha; a selection that we read as the third paragraph of our daily Shema. In it we are warned:

ולֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם
and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.
Rashi notes that the same word is used here and by the spies, hinting at the fact that the sin of the spies, or other sins, can occur when we allow our eyes to deceive us.
While our Parsha rejects the notion that seeing is always believing, I think that the inverse is true much more often: believing is indeed seeing. What we believe, our assumptions, perspectives and disposition, will greatly impact how we see/ perceive people and events around us.
Barry Neil Kaufman in his book Happiness is a Choice tells the story of a young girl named Katie. Katie had severe disabilities, and after years of medical testing had been brought by her parents to Kaufman’s institute in a last-ditch effort for help.  Instead of discussing Katie’s history with his staff or showing them her thick file, Kaufman told the staff to make their own assessment and recommendation, basing themselves primarily on their first-hand interactions with Katie.
At the end of the day, one of the staff members was reviewing her notes with Katie’s parents. She mentioned that she had held one of Katie’s favorite puppets at arm’s length, and encouraged the child to come and get it.

“She took almost five steps to reach me,” the staff member said. “She’s a real plugger.”
Katie’s father leaned forward aghast and said, “But my daughter doesn’t walk.”
“Oh,” the staff member said respectfully, “I didn’t know.”

While we should never judge someone until we’ve been in their shoes, it appears that this man viewed his daughter’s limitations as an unalterable fact. Whatever the cause, the father’s pessimistic attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and did not reflect reality. Katie had the ability to walk, but her father would have difficulty seeing it on his own, because he was unable to perceive that possibility.

Believing is indeed seeing. Let us develop the necessary attitudes that will enable us to see the great blessings and potential in our lives, and in our community.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Hard - And Worth It

Hard - And Worth It

In this morning’s parsha we read about two objects that were impressively made from one single piece of metal.

                At the beginning of the Parsha, the Torah provides a one-pasuk description of the Menorah’s construction.

“This is the workmanship of the Menorah: hammered out of one piece of gold; from its base to its flowers it is hammered out.”

The fact that the Menorah was sculpted out of one piece of gold was a feat so impressive that (according to some commentators) even Moshe was stumped as to how the Menorah was to be built.

                Later in the Parsha, we read about the Chatzotzrot. Moshe was commanded to make two silver trumpets. Here again the Torah specifies that the trumpets must be “Miksha”, shaped out of a single piece of silver.

                Though not mentioned in our Parsha, there is one additional ritual object that had to be shaped from one piece. The Keruvim, which sat on top of the Holy Ark had to also be Miksha. (Terumah: 25:18)

                The word Miksha comes from the word Kasha, which means hard or difficult. To sculpt these elaborate objects can certainly be considered difficult. But why were these three items singled out for Miksha treatment? Is there any common thread between the Menorah, the trumpets and the Keruvim that can help shed light on this shared construction requirement?

                The key to understanding the Miksha factor is by seeking the symbolism inherent in each of the aforementioned items.

                The Menorah symbolizes Torah knowledge. The Talmud in Baba Batra learns from the position of the Menorah in the Mishkan (on the southern wall) that Harotzeh Sheyachkim Yadrim: one who wants to become wise must go south. Similarly the Midrash recounts how Moshe would meditate by the light of the Menorah when he was trying to figure out a particularly difficult lesson from Hashem.

                Keruvim represent children. Rashi in Parshat Teruma (25:18) quotes the Gemara in Sukah (5b) which states that the Keruvim looked like children.

                The Chatzotzrot symbolize happiness. In this morning’s Torah reading, the last pasuk relating to the trumpets sums up the instances in which they were to be blown (10: 10). The sound of the Chatztzrot was supposed to both foster and express our feelings of joy.

                Torah, children and happiness: three of the most fundamental and essential aspects of our lives. Each stands on its own as an important pursuit, and yet they are inextricably entwined one with the other. One might think that as fundamentals, success in these areas should be easy. Comes the Torah and tells us in each instance: “Miksha Hi.” They’re hard to accomplish and maintain. These three goals seem to pull us in three different directions. Spending time learning Torah versus time spent on maintaining the family. The financial stress of paying for a Jewish education for our children, and how much happier we imagine we could be without that expense.

                Some people believe that such tensions and questions are symptoms of a lack of faith and that the Torah has a clear answer for every situation.

                By examining the Menorah, the Chatzotzrot and the Keruvim, we are better equipped to appreciate that at times the Torah’s lesson is to embrace the challenge and the tension. By specifying these three objects the Torah teaches us that even with goals as essential as Torah, family and joy, it’s okay to say “Miksha Hi.” These things are hard. But these things are worth it. If we prioritize them and work towards these goals, then Hashem will help us enjoy the blessings of our successes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Interpersonal Lessons from the Sotah Episode

Interpersonal Lessons from the Sotah Episode

                Parshat Nasso contains the Sota procedure. If a woman is suspected of engaging in an extra-marital affair, she may be brought to the Beit Hamikdash and forced to drink from the bitter waters prepared by the Kohen. In the water, the Kohen dissolves a piece of scroll that includes a curse that is written in our Torah portion and includes the Shem Hashem. Under normal circumstances, we are not allowed to erase God’s name. And yet in this case Hashem allows His name to be erased. Says Rabbi Meir, “I certainly cannot be more concerned with my honor than Hashem.”

                It’s a beautiful idea- Hashem is willing to have His name erased for Shalom Bayit, to promote domestic harmony (Makkot 11a). But it doesn’t fully answer the question: why does Hashem emphasize the importance of Shalom Bayit by allowing us to do something that is usually forbidden? The process of clarifying the Sotah’s status is miraculous enough: if she is innocent she is visibly blessed, and if she is guilty she is noticeably cursed. In a situation that is already devoid of the expected levels of G-dliness, why exacerbate the situation by physically erasing G-d’s name as part of the ceremony?

                Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that by allowing His name to be erased, Hashem demonstrates His willingness to take initiative and extend Himself in ways He normally would not in order to improve the relationship between husband and wife. In so doing the Torah is teaching us an important lesson: When it comes to chesed, when it comes to promoting and enhancing our relationships, we must not take a wait and see attitude or merely be reactive. We must be proactive.

                When people ask me for marriage advice, I tell them I’m still (and always will be) in the learning phase, but that there is one lesson I have already learned: never take your marriage for granted. Never take any interpersonal relationship for granted. Relationships must constantly be nurtured and reevaluated. We must always be ready and willing to extend ourselves and take initiative on behalf of others- as Hashem teaches us by the Sotah waters.

                But extending oneself for the sake of peace sometimes is not enough. The second lesson we can learn is the need to be flexible. Under normal circumstances it is absolutely forbidden to erase the name of God. But to promote Shalom Bayit the Torah allows it. In so doing the Torah is encouraging us to also exhibit flexibility for the sake of peace.

                Former Illinois Sentator Everett Dirksen used to say:  “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”

                Isn’t that how our Halachik system works for the most part? There is a rule, and then there are the exceptions to the rule, when the rule does not apply, when we ignore that rule for some greater rule or some greater good. By erasing G-d’s name for the Sotah, the Torah is reminding us of the importance of flexibility within any interpersonal relationship.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah

Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah
It was a historic week in Jerusalem as the United States officially opened its embassy in Jerusalem. This is not the first time that Jerusalem and Shavuot coincided to make headlines.

Shavuot 1967: Grand Reopening of the Kotel for Jewish Prayer – a week after the end of the 6 Day War. NY Times covered the event with a special report in its June 14, 1967 issue.

The Times was not aware of just how appropriate it was for Shavuot to be celebrated in connection with the Kotel and Temple Mount. For Har Sinai (central to the Shavuot story) and Har Hamoriah (location of Temple Mount) are the two mountains most central to Jewish history and Jewish identity. Our Rabbis teach us just how interconnected the two locations are.

                On one hand: Har Sinai is the model/ inspiration for the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah:
1. Chazal teach us that the fire that constantly burned on the Mizbeach on Har Hamoriah had originally been lit from the fire that burned during Matan Torah on Har Sinai.
2. Vayikra Rabba: the sprinkling of blood that Moshe does at Har Sinai- marks the origins of sprinkling blood, so important in the Temple Service on Har Hamoriah
3. Ramban’s opinion that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be a mobile Sinai unit- to have an ongoing Revelation, similar to what occurred at Har Sinai- as the Jews make their way to Israel, and ultimately on Har Hamoriah in the Beit Hamikdash.

On the other hand: Mt. Sinai resembles what occurred earlier at Mt Moriah- at Akeidat Yitzchak. Rabbanit Shani Taragin notes the similarities:
1. At Har Sinai- the Jews prepared for 3 days before Revelation could occur- just like Avraham journeyed for 3 days prior to the Akeida
2. At Har Sinai: Moshe tells his colleagues to wait at the base of the mountain while he journeys upward- just like at Har Hamoriah, Avraham tells his escorts to wait for him at the foot of the Mountain while he journeys upward.
3. At Har Sinai- Bnai Yisrael saw God- just like at Har Hamoriah, Avraham declares “Behar Hashem Yeraeh”.

The relationship between Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah is symbiotic and synergistic. Each mountain teaches us lessons that can be derived from, and enhanced by, the other mountain.

It was personal sacrifice, journeying down the lonely road of submission to God and the countercultural beliefs demonstrated by Avraham at the Akeida on Har Hamoriah that set the paradigm for Bnai Yisrael. Avraham’s declaration of Hineni at Har HaMoriah inspired the nation’s declaration of Na’aseh V’Nishma (ie we submit to God even if we don’t understand) at Har Sinai.

It was a commitment to Jewish unity and collective responsibility exhibited by Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai that was crucial for the nation’s development as they prepared to live a normal yet noble life in Eretz Yisrael, where their spiritual focal point was the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah.

                From Har Hamoriah we learn the value of personal identity and blazing one’s own trail. From Har Sinai we learn national identity, unity and appreciating the values of community and tradition. Though seemingly conflicting, these lessons must reside within one person, one spot, as the Midrash Tanchuma teaches us:  Sinai Meheichan Bah? MeHar Hamoriah Nitlash K’Challah Me’Isa.

                Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah come from the same location.  Har Hamoriah informs the Har Sinai experience, which then influences the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah. There is a tension between Har Hamoriah (personal identity) and Har Sinai (collective responsibility). Yet these two great mountains of Jewish history encourage us to understand how together they form a rich tapestry, critical to Jewish life.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Loving People When It’s Not So Easy

There are a number of customs associated with the Sefira period: restrictions on weddings, hair-cutting, and music to name a few. All of these practices are utilized in Jewish tradition to foster a feeling of mourning and loss in our lives. For instance, these are some of the same restrictions we find during the Three Weeks when we mourn the Beit Hamikdash’s destruction. They are also practices we associate with mourning over the death of a close relative.

                One of the reasons offered as to why we observe a period of quasi-mourning during Sefira is the tradition that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during this period. It remains a mystery what was the physical cause of death: was it some form of plague? Were they killed in battle during the Bar Kochba revolt (we know how supportuive Rabbi Akiva was of Bar Kochba.) Whatever the physical cause of death was, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) suggests the spiritual reason for this tragedy and the lesson we are supposed to learn from the episode: “They did not treat each other with respect.”

                This suggestion is difficult in light of the fact that we know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was considered by Rabbi Akiva to be a fundamental principle of the Torah. How could his students have learned from Rabbi Akiva and yet not learn this lesson?

                 One possibility is that perhaps the students took their Rebbe’s lesson a bit too literally. The verse in the Torah is “Ve’Ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha” which means “love your neighbor as yourself”. There is much discussion as to what the word “Kamocha” means in this context. Perhaps the students of Rabbi Akiva took it to mean that you must be willing to get along with people that are Kamocha: ie with whom you share similarities. It’s easy to like people that are similar to us; people that share our worldview, our values, and our priorities. But how do we treat people with whom we disagree? How do we treat people with whom we normally agree but strongly disagree on a particular topic that is very important to both parties? How do we treat people that are different than us? This is when “Love your neighbor” becomes a challenge and much more important. It’s like the parent who is disappointed in the behavior or actions of their child and says to them, “I love you right now, I just don’t like you very much at this moment.”

                The goal of our shul is to encourage religious growth and a culture of caring. In so doing we hope to also be a beacon of Judaism to the broader world. Sefira is an appropriate time to remember our mission and begin working on this. The period between Pesach and Shavuot was a time of great spiritual growth for our ancestors who left Mitzrayim. And it can serve that purpose for us as well. When we contemplate religious growth it’s important to remember that how we treat our fellow Jew is as religiously significant as our prayer, Torah study, and observance of Shabbat and Kashrut. Both must be present in order to develop a well-rounded religious persona. During this Sefira period, let us commit to working on our interpersonal relationships and interactions.  Let us appreciate the importance of loving our fellow Jews who may be different than us and with whom we may disagree, and not just when loving our neighbor is easy.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Value of Every Human Being

The Value of Every Human Being

This week we read about the importance of justice. In 19:15 the Torah warns judges to act with scrupulous honesty and integrity:

You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness.

טו לֹא־תַֽעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֨וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹֽא־תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי־דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ:
            Twenty verses later the Torah uses the same phrase:
You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures.

לֹא־תַֽעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֖וֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט בַּמִּדָּ֕ה בַּמִּשְׁקָ֖ל וּבַמְּשׂוּרָֽה:
The same phrase is used again, only this time it is addressed to every merchant, storekeeper and peddler: maintain honest weights and measures.

Dr. Michal Tikochinsky writes that the usage of the same phrase used in both instances  is meant to be a powerful statement by the Torah of the value of every person: whether they are a formal judge or a simple fruit vendor- both are called upon to not corrupt justice. Both are informed that there is potential sanctity in their respective fields of work. Both are considered judges with all of the responsibilities and accolades attached therein: ie just as a judge on a Beit Din/ Sanhedrin/ that takes his job seriously is considered as if he has partnered with God Himself, so too a salesman or vendor that acts appropriately is on similar spiritual footing.

The Sanhedrin judge and the fruit vendor may occupy different socio-economic strata. Yet both of them deserve our dignity and earn our respect through their honest conduct.

Our responsibility as Jews is to see every human being and the value contained within, so that no one feels invisible or marginalized. The word respect in Hebrew- Kavod is related to the word Kaved- which means heavy. We show respect for someone by treating them and their concerns in a heavy manner- ie with attention and seriousness.

The opposite of heavy is light- Kal. Kal is the root of the word Kilel- which means to curse and is also found in Parshat Kedoshim: Lo Tekalel Cheresh, do not curse the deaf (19:14).
The problem with cursing the deaf is that behaving in such a way shows how lightly that person is taken- how that person is treated without respect and is marginalized. It’s not surprising that the prohibition in the Torah is formulated in regards to a deaf person- because those who are different- learning differences, a disability, or mental health challenges- are often marginalized and taken lightly.

Let us learn from this week’s Parsha to appreciate the importance of Kavod Habriyot: of treating every single person with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Let us also apply that lesson and extend kavod to all whom we come into contact regardless of their social or financial status: whether they be a distinguished judge or a hard working fruit peddler.

Our rabbis promise that it is through honoring others that we ourselves are truly honored:
Avot 4:1: Eizehu Mechubad? Hamechabeid Et Habriyot:
Who is truly honored? One who is careful to honor all other humans.