Friday, December 9, 2016

Leah's Lesson: Look Within for Happiness

I am fascinated by the Torah’s description of the birth of Leah’s first four sons:

And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

לאוַיַּרְא יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה:
32And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me."

לבוַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רְאוּבֵן כִּי אָמְרָה כִּי רָאָה יְהֹוָה בְּעָנְיִי כִּי עַתָּה יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי:
33And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.

לגוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי שָׁמַע יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה אָנֹכִי וַיִּתֶּן לִי גַּם אֶת זֶה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ שִׁמְעוֹן:
34And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore, He named him Levi.

לדוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר עַתָּה הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלשָׁה בָנִים עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ לֵוִי:
35And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.

להוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת יְהֹוָה עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת:

Each of Leah’s first 3 children are named as a prayer that Yaakov should begin to love her. It is sad, even painful, to read how unloved Leah feels, even after bearing Yaakov children. We think of the birth of a child as a most joyous event, and yet from the names Leah offers her first 3 sons all she can think about is how “God saw my afflication” (Reuven), “God heard that I was hated” (Shimon), and “hopefully, finally, now my husband will be close to me” (Levi).

What caught my attention this year is the description of the birth of Yehuda. For the first time, Leah picks a name that makes no mention of her wounded, unloved status. With Yehuda, Leah offers a name that only expresses gratitude. But then the Torah states that upon naming her fourth son Yehuda, Leah stopped bearing children. How are we to understand the juxtaposition in verse 35? One might argue that ceasing to bear children is some sort of punishment. But that begs the question: why should Leah be punished at this juncture, when she seems to finally be recovering from the wounds of her early married years and finally able to thank Hashem for what He has provided for her?

I believe that the Torah is teaching us something completely different. At first Leah feels hurt and alienated, and she seeks to quell those feelings through other people and their relationship to her. She hopes that a child, or children, or a change in attitude on Yaakov’s part will usher in the bliss and joy that she has always hoped for. This attitude accompanies Leah during the birth of her first three sons. But what she hoped to happen never transpires. She has three sons (her rightful share of the tribes) but her husband has not changed and she still feels miserable.

Upon the birth of her fourth son she decides to change her approach and change her attitude. She realizes that she cannot depend on external factors to determine her happiness. She realizes that she cannot control the events swirling around her. All that she has the ability to control is her attitude towards those events.

Leah names her fourth son Yehuda, and in so doing she closes the book on depending on external events or people to bring her happiness. Instead, Leah looks within and realizes that she has much to be grateful for. She resolves that from this point forward her happiness will not be determined by others. She will be control her attitude and he perspective on life. And from this point forward she resolves to approach life from the perspective of gratitude.


Once she does that, the Torah tells us that she ceases to bear children. The truth is that Leah will have two more sons and another daughter. But what the Torah means here is that no longer will her children be born in an attempt to make Leah happy. Leah realizes that the key to her happiness is entrusted exclusively in her own hands. 

There is much in life that is outside of our control, but how we respond to what life brings our way is completely up to us. So let us learn the lesson from Leah and respond first and foremost to life with gratitude. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

How Do You Handle Your "Lamah Zeh" Questions?

At the beginning of Parshat Toldot, we read about the difficulties Rivka experienced during her pregnancy. After wanting a child for so long, Rivkah is confused by her experiences, and in desperation cries out, “Lama Zeh Anochi?” Why is this happening to me? Why is it that what I anticipated to be the greatest joy of my life (childbearing) is causing me such great pain and anxiety?
            
In the very same aliyah we read how Rivka’s son Eisav similarly asks a “Lama Zeh” type of question. The Torah tells us how Eisav came back from hunting and is “dying of hunger”. Yaakov has food available but will only sell it to Eisav in exchange for the special blessing that are due to Eisav for being the firstborn. Eisav realizes that these blessing are spiritual in nature while he is a hunter, a “man of the field”, a person most concerned with the material world. Eisav therefore asks himself, Here I am about to die of hunger, V’Lama Zeh Li Bechora?”, “of what use do I have for these birthright blessings?”
            
The real divergence emerges not in the form of the question but what mother and son do with their questions. The Torah tells us that in response to her question, “Rivkah went to inquire of Hashem.” She understood that there must be a reason why this was happening and she sought religious guidance as to ways in which she could interpret her condition as having meaning and purpose. And upon consultation, she receives the answer that assuages her fears and allows her to go on with her life with strength and determination.
            
The Torah tells us that in response to Eisav’s question, that “Eisav disgraced the birthright.” Instead of trying to understand the significance of his status as a firstborn and instead of seeking guidance as to how to proceed in a relevant and significant way, Eisav takes the easy way out and gives up on what he does not understand (ie the birthright) for something that he can easily understand (ie the pot of porridge).
            
Judaism welcomes questions. We all have them. Some are easier than others to answer. The issue is not having questions. The issue is what you do once you have identified those questions. Do we seek answers, even if they may be elusive or impossible- with the knowledge that the very quest for answers can be therapeutic and religiously significant? Or do we deny the question and move onto things easier to resolve- like the hunger in our bellies.

            
The real Question is: what do we do with our questions? Answering that is perhaps the most important part of solving the problem in a constructive way.

Friday, November 18, 2016

What Angels Can Teach Us About Multitasking

Parshat Vayera begins with three mysterious men meeting with Avraham. Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains that these men were actually angels. Each of the three angels had a specific task: One was charged with healing Avraham after his circumcision, one was to inform Sarah of her impending pregnancy, and one would go on to destroy Sodom. The Medrash concludes with a rule: “She’ayn Malach echad oseh shtei shlichiyot”, one angel is not able to perform two tasks.
            
I believe that this Medrash has particular relevance in an age of multitasking. Though it seems to be the norm to do more than one thing at once, multitasking has been shown to be an inefficient way of accomplishing tasks. We are most efficient when we focus all of our talents and energies into one enterprise, and then move onto something else after the first task is completed. It is usually not in the interest of the person nor of the task to bounce from one activity to the next. Perhaps this is what the Medrash is conveying: If angels are tasked with only one job, then humans should not try to do more. Focus on one thing until completion or until you have done all that you can. And only then move on to something else.
            
Rashi does quote another source that offers somewhat of a qualifier to this critique on multitasking. The Gemara in Baba Metziah explains that the angel that healed Avraham went on to save Lot. The idea is that both tasks involved saving people, so it was really two chores on the same list. This too can teach us a lesson. It may be important at times to try new things and broaden our horizons. But it is also important to find something that you are good at and develop those skills and their impact. In this way we can emulate the angels and similarly find ourselves in optimal service to Hashem

Friday, November 11, 2016

Combating Our Sense of Entitlement

At the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham takes his nephew Lot with him as he leaves Charan. By the middle of the Parsha, Avraham and Lot are parting ways. The Torah tells us that this parting of ways was caused by 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 was to be given 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 enacted and therefore the land still belonged to others; 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.

This sense of entitlement may explain Lot’s choice of hometown. The Torah tells us that Lot chose to live in Sodom. We are also told that the people of Sodom were (13:14) “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? Perhaps the answer lies in the other descriptive we are told about Sodom (13:10) “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 dependant on rain. Rain comes from Hashem. If inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael 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 recognize Hashem’s role and work to be deserving of Hashem’s blessings.


In Israel, they begin to request rain (V’tein Tal Umatar L’vracha) starting on 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 and humble, no matter how many blessings we are blessed with.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Fearing Diversity: the Mistake At the Tower of Bavel

Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.

The Netziv, has a unique understanding of the Tower of Babel story, as described in Parshat Noach. The mistake made by the builders of Migdal Bavel is expressed in the very first pasuk of the narrative (11:1):
Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words.

אוַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:

The Netziv sees within this uniform language and common purpose a problem in and of itself. As the Netziv puts it, the problem with the builders 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. This, explains the Netziv is dangerous, even sinful.

The people at Migdal Bavel feared diversity. After the Flood God’s plan entailed diversity: different families/ nations with different languages living in their own lands. It is through diversity that God’s plan is able to come to fruition: ie people serving God in different ways and people learning from one another while maintaining their individuality and uniqueness.
                
Though Rashi doesn’t quote it in his commentary, there is one Midrash that does 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. We have explained how and why they spoke out against God, but what did Avraham do to them? According to this Midrash they mocked Avraham, calling him “an old mule”- ie sterile and without a future. Why did they expresse such vehemence against Avraham, who at this time was 48 years old and had not even begun his divinely mandated journey?

The people of Migdal Bavel rejected and mocked Avraham because he stood for three ideas which they despised. And it is this attitude that highlights 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 Hashem.

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 referred to as the Av Hamon Goyim. 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 Sedom, that’s why he fights so hard on behalf of the 5 kings. He belongs to the human race and takes that role seriously and with 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 lesson of Migdal Bavel are lessons that we need to keep in mind as a society, and especially as a Jewish 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 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 from a community.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Preparations are Never in Vain

This is why I want to be a meteorologist. If the predictions concerning Hurricane Matthew were correct, the meteorologists would have been commended for properly warning the residents of South Florida, ensuring that they were properly prepared and safe from the storm. And if the predictions were wrong- all they need to do is explain that the storm changed course- and people will be happy that they were not more negatively impacted by the storm.

Of course there will always be some cynics and skeptics, those who are generally disgruntled. They will complain that Thursday was a waste. they will argue that we could have been much more productive if the storm's course was more accurate. (Although many people I've spoken to have noted how productive they were yesterday getting chores accomplished in the house.) This disgruntled sentiment is expressed in this meme (borrowed, I believe, from a previous storm that was a true miss):


This sentiment is wrong for at least three reasons:

1) Instead of being disgruntled we should feel thankful. As we are aware, it could have been a lot worse for us. We will be much happier if we look for reasons to be grateful instead of reasons to be annoyed.

2) Others have been severely impacted by the storm, and our thoughts and prayers should be with them. We should also be considering ways to help those who have been impacted..

3) These preparations are not for naught. Life is all about being prepared (and showing up). No experience can be fully appreciated if one has not prepared in advance. Preparation helps us become better people- whether we need to utilize those preparations in real life or not. And you never know when an earlier preparation will benefit us later on in life.

Yom Kippur is a perfect example of the need for preparation. The Day of Atonement is jam packed with prayer and fasting. It is meant to serve as the culmination of a process of reflection, introspection, and repentance that begin with Rosh Chodesh Elul, was intensified over Rosh Hashanah and progresses through the 10 Days of Repentance.

Let us appreciate the value of preparation- those we make in the realm of Hurricane prep, as well as those who  make in the realm of spiritual prep.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Young and Senior, New and Old: We Need to Focus on Both

Parshat Ki Tavo contains within it the curses that Moshe foretells will fall upon the nation should they not live up to the expectations thrust upon them by the Torah. Part of this dynamic is understanding the metaphysical rules of cause and effect; ie sin brings punishment. The verses in Ki Tavo go into some details as to the particulars of such punishment. One element of the punishment is exile. The Torah goes into some detail about this exile, and by whom will it be perpetrated (28:49-50):
Hashem will carry against you a nation from afar…a nation whose language you will not understand. A brazen nation that will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.”

 Many of the Meforshim understand this to be an allusion to Rome under Vespasian and Titus. I understand this characterization to be just as important for us to understand for ourselves as it is a description of our enemies. A brazen nation is described as one that does not respect its elders. We are living in an age that generally considers “newer” to be “better”. We must not fall into that trap set for us by society. We must appreciate the wisdom of our elders and the debt of gratitude that we owe previous generations.

A brazen nation is also one that does not show extra care and concern for the young. Many people today look towards the future in a very pessimistic fashion. They focus on the problems that they feel lay ahead, and wonder whether humanity even has a future. They choose not to have children, for why should new life be brought into such a scary, sad world? We reject such a view outright and attribute it to a selfish and egotistical attitude. We believe that it is within our reach to better the world, and part of our legacy is to leave the next generation better off in some fashion.


A brazen nation neither respects its old nor its young. Many groups have been able to accomplish one of these two tasks, but at the expense of the other. For instance those who revere the old are often wary of the young, while those who concentrate on the young often ignore the old. Our challenge as Jews is to simultaneously be concerned with our pasts and our futures, to be respectful of our old and gracious towards our young. In this way we can avoid becoming brazen and avoid the curses while receiving the blessings promised to us by the Torah for doing the right thing.

We must never view situations in a myopic or "zero sum" fashion.
Our focus on the young and the new need not and must not come at the expense of our commitments to that/ those who are more senior or more established.
The goal is to elevate our communities and our service to all segments of the population, to the benefit of everyone.