Friday, February 17, 2017

Contacting God is Always A Local Call

After the Ten Commandments , Hashem speaks to The Jewish People again and says:
“You have seen that I have spoken to you from Heaven.” “Lo Taasun Iti, gods of gold and silver you shall not make for yourselves.”
Rashi explains the phrase to mean that one should not create images of celestial beings that reside in Heaven. I would like to suggest a different interpretation.
 During the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, G-d  spoke to the people from Heaven, a most unique and awe inspiring event. There was a danger that the People would view this event as the preferred method of communication with G-d going forward, instead of a once in history event. Perhaps the Jews would attempt to communicate back to G-d “from Heaven”; that is divorced from the realities and ambiguities of this world. They may have gotten the mistaken impression that an ascetic life, at the top of the mountain and detached from reality, was the only to communicate with Hashem

Sensing this possible mistake, God notes: "I may have spoken to you from Heaven, but Lo Taasun Iti: please do not return the favor. No need to climb the mountain in order to speak with Me. I want you to communicate with Me and serve Me from the trenches; from the messiness of real life. I am as close as you allow Me to be," 

This reminds me of the joke: The US President is invited to the Vatican to meet with the pope. On the Pope’s desk are three phones: a black phone, a red phone and a white phone. The President asks the Pope: what’s with the three phones? The pope explains: the black phone is for calls inside Vatican City, the red phone is for calls to foreign leaders and the white phone is a direct line to God. The President is impressed and asks if he can use the white phone to seek guidance from God in his quest for Middle East peace. The pope agrees but tells the Preident that he has to pay the charges associated with such a call- $25,000. The President feels it’s worth the price, pays the money and uses the phone.
The next month the President is invited to Israel by the Prime Minister. Here too the President notices three phones: black, red and white. This time the President doesn’t ask for an explanation. Rather, he immediately asks the PM if he can use the white phone for a quick chat with God. When the PM agrees, the President has his Secret Service guard pull out a wad of hundred dollar bills to pay the charge. The PM stops him in his tracks and tells the President the fee is only 25 cents. The President asks: but at the Vatican, the Pope charged me $25,000. To which the PM replies: Mr. President, from Jerusalem the call to God is always a local one.

Prophecy is when God speaks to man- that only occurred for a person who was worthy of prophecy and it does not occur today. Prayer is when man talks to God, and that line of communication is available to anyone at any time, so long as we approach the endeavor with kavanah, sincerity and intention. And it's always a local call. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Like a Tree, A Student of Life Should Always Be Growing

There is a Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:9) that is difficult to understand, especially in light of our celebration earlier this Shabbat of Tu B’Shevat:
“Rabbi Yaakov said, ‘One who is walking on his way and is learning Torah and breaks off his study to exclaim, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ or ‘How fine is that field!’ is regarded as if he has sinned against his soul.”

We all know that Bitul Torah, wasting time from learning Torah, is a sin that should be avoided. But what’s so wrong with “stopping to smell the roses”? What is the big problem with appreciating G-d’s natural world?
An answer is suggested in the name of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The mistake that R’ Yaakov is speaking about is that the person feels that in order to appreciate nature, he must break from his studies. He does not realize that appreciating the world around him is a fulfillment of getting to know G-d, just like learning Torah is. According to this approach it wasn’t what the person did that was so terrible, rather it was his attitude. He did not realize that “stopping to smell the roses” and appreciating nature, can- and must- be part of our religious identity and our relationship with Hashem.
Rabbi Yaakov is teaching us that no matter what we are doing, we must never consider it as a ‘break” from our Torah study/ Avodat Hashem (service to G-d). Everything that we do should be viewed as spiritually uplifting and an element of our religious life.

Let us emulate trees. Just as the tree is constantly growing, let us resolve to find opportunities for growth in everything that we do and every situation in which we find ourselves.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Moshe Rabbeinu, Tom Brady and The Role of Desire in Attaining Our Goals

Next week’s Super Bowl will feature Tom Brady starting his record setting 7th football championship game for the New England Patriots. Yet Tom Brady almost didn’t get a chance to play professional football. In 2000, 198 players were picked in the draft before him. Brady was not picked until the sixth round. This was the scouting report on Tom Brady before the draft: "Poor build, very skinny and narrow, lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush, lacks a really strong arm.”

So how did he become one of the best quarterbacks in the league? His teammates will tell you that it is his desire to win- whether at football or even backgammon. Brady himself has said that the key ingredient to achievement is the desire to succeed. As he has said,
“A lot of times I find that people who are blessed with the most talent don't ever develop that attitude, and the ones who aren't blessed in that way are the most competitive and have the biggest heart.”

This sentiment may be what the Talmud in Sanhedrin means when it tells us that Rachmana liba ba’I, “G-d wants the heart: Hashem requires that we really desire our goals in order to succeed. To achieve anything in life, you have to really want it.
In Parshat V’eyra, Moshe once again expresses his reluctance to God about leading the Jewish People:

But Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, "Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?"

יבוַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם:

The Ramban asks an interesting question. If Moshe is worried about fulfilling his Divine task due to his speech impediment, then why didn’t Hashem just cure him? The Ramban poignantly answers that Moshe was never healed- because Moshe never asked for it. 

It’s not enough to complain about something, wish for something to happen or mention the need in passing. To attain achievements, whether a pure gift from G-d or in conjunction with our hard work; whether eloquence in Egypt or greatness on the gridiron we need to want it in order for it to happen. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

What's In A Name?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash. Our Rabbis refer to it as Sefer Hageulah, The Book of Redemption. This name aptly describes the main topics and themes contained within: The redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is only fully realized with the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book.
However most of us are more familiar with the second book of the Chumash as Sefer Shemot, literally “The Book of Names”.  Besides being one of the first words of the first Parsha in the book, are there any further lessons we can derive from the name “Shemot”?
The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba) writes that one of the merits that the Jewish People accumulated throughout their years of slavery is the fact that they never changed their names. They kept their Jewish names as a way of reminding themselves that they were not part of the majority, dominant culture of Egypt.  Their Jewish names reinforced the idea that The Jewish People came from a different culture and from ancestors that had a unique relationship with G-d. Names have the power to remind us of who we are and from where we come. It is no accident that there is a widespread Jewish custom to name babies after ancestors, whether deceased or still living.
But names have a future orientation as well. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names. Rashi (on 15:5) introduces the concept of “Shem Gorem”: that a person’s name can have an impact on their destiny. Avram and Sarai would never have children. But with new names Hashem informs Avraham and Sarah that they were now ready to be parents. Names can identify a person with a unique mission and destiny.

This future oriented aspect of names needs to be reinforced. A person or institution can attain a “name”, or reputation in one of two ways: based on past performance or as a hope and challenge for future achievement. Too often we hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past experiences. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past may be branded with a certain negative name, but that student may improve dramatically if given positive reinforcement and labeled in a good way (ie given a new name). The same is true of adults and institutions. As we begin the book of Shemot, let us realize that names not only connect us to our past, but they can help shape our future.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Should We Love Our Children All The Same?

Why doesn’t Yaakov learn his lesson? The trouble between Yosef and his brothers can be traced back, at least in part, to Yaakov’s favoring one brother over the other. Now in Parshat Vayechi, on his deathbed Yaakov does it again- not once, but twice.

First he gives Yosef an extra portion in the land of Israel, above and beyond what each tribe will get when they enter the land.
Later in the Parsha, Yaakov favors Yosef’s younger son Efraim over Menashe by placing his dominant hand on Efraim. Why doesn’t Yaakov learn that “playing favorites” can lead to problems?

One answer is that Yaakov doesn’t learn from his mistake, because Yaakov does not see it as a mistake. The problem was never with what Yaakov did; the problem lay with how the brothers reacted to this perceived favoritism.

Every person is different. We each have our unique talents and potential, strengths and weaknesses. It is therefore impossible for each person to be treated in an identical fashion. Just as we are different, so too each of us needs different things in order to realize our potential. Why did Yaakov treat Yosef differently? Maybe he saw leadership qualities in Yosef that none of the other brothers demonstrated. Maybe it’s because Yosef had lost his mother at a young age, unlike any of the other siblings. The problem was not that Yaakov treated Yosef differently. The problem was in hoe the brothers responded to the different treatment that Yaakov accorded to Yosef. They incorrectly perceived that difference as being qualitative, ie that Yaakov loved Yposef more than the other brothers..

To highlight this point, Yaakov “favors” Efraim in Parshat Vayechi. It is as if Yaakov wants us to understand that he has no regrets over how he treated Yosef. If anything, his regrets lie in his not recognizing the brothers’ mistaken attitudes towards this perceived favoritism.

This is a tough, but important, lesson for us all to learn; especially parents. We must love each of our children unconditionally and to the maximum degree. But that does not mean that we should love them each in the same identical manner. Each child is an individual and therefore a parent’s approach must be individualized. Differential treatment/ love is not the same as preferential treatment.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Quality Time Should Inspire Us Long After The Interaction

          In Parshat Vayigash we read about the reunion between Yosef and his family. After reuniting with his brothers, Yosef sent the brothers to bring back Yaakov and the rest of the family. The Torah tells us that at first Yaakov does not believe them that Yosef is alive. He is only convinced when:
וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ
and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him
and only then:
וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
the spirit of their father Jacob was revived
What was it about the wagons? Rashi explains that the wagons were a code that Yaakov understood could have only come from Yosef. The word for wagon- Agalah- is very similar to the word Eglah- as in Eglah Arufah, the ceremony undertaken when there is unsolved murder situated between two inhabited locations. Part of that ceremony entails the elders declaring their innocence from any culpability in that murder, and breaking the neck of an ox (eglah)..
          Is it really plausible that Yaakov, at over 100 years old and after 22 years would pick up on this slight hint that Yosef was dropping?
I say yes- for two reasons.
          First: This one-on-one Torah study time between Yaakov and Yosef was quality time- treasured by both father and son. That time together may not have been a lot, and it may not have been consistent.  But it is these moments between loved ones that stick in our memories and shape how we view ourselves and our relationships. The wagons reminded Yosef and Yaakov of quality time spent together, something that they would always remember and recognize.
          Secondly- let us take a moment to consider Rashi’s comments. The Agalah, wagon, reminded Yaakov of the Eglah Arufah. If we are correct that this study session symbolized quality time spent between Yaakov and Yosef, then the lesson of Eglah Arufah is most appropriate to be interjected into this episode. When a murder occurs between cities, leaders from both communities meet and declare that they did not neglect this victim. Had they been aware of his presence, they would have provided him provisions and accompany him at least partially along his way.
          Even if this traveler had not been accompanied the entire journey, his interaction with kind-hearted strangers would have allowed him to never feel alone, even as he took leave of his benefactors and undertook the solitary portion of his journey.

          By sending these wagons, Yosef is telling his father: “the quality time we spent together enabled me to feel your presence and your love even when we were separated and I was alone in Egypt.”  One of my most fervent prayers for my children is that they should always feel safe, loved and cared for- when I am around and even when I am not. In order for our spouses, friends and especially our children to feel safe, loved and cared for- when we are around and even when we are not- we must learn from Yosef’s wagons and invest in quality time with our loved ones. Just as quality time enabled Yaakov’s spirit to be revived at the end of the story upon his reunion with Yosef, so too may our efforts to invest in quality time nurture and revive our relationships with others.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Yosef, Jerusalem and Inconvenient Truths

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

Another speaker of truth is Yehuda. There’s a Tosefta in Brachot in which Rabbi Akiva asks: By what merit did Yehuda become the tribe of the monarchy, Jewish leadership? One answer suggested is “Mipnei Shehodeh B’Tamar.” He admitted the truth of his mistake even though such an admission could have been very costly. Telling the truth can be impressive; and even ameliorate mistakes. The United States Congress has impeached two Presidents in our country’s history. And according to many historians, neither one would have been impeached had there been the courage to speak the truth, even after the mistake.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. Sometimes the truth is depressing. Nevertheless we must learn from the model of our forefathers, especially from Yosef and Yehuda- and be willing to speak the truth- in our homes, our communities, and to the world. Today the cause that requires truth is the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. 

As I write this there is discussion about the possible passage of a lopsided, unhelpful, a-historic and dangerous resolution at the UN concerning Jerusalem. American Zionists need to speak the truth about Jerusalem: it is Judaism’s holiest city, the Jewish claim to Jerusalem begins over 3000 years ago- way before 1967, and Jerusalem under the sovereignty of the State of Israel is the most open, tolerant and accessible that the city has ever been in recent history.  

It may challenge the conventional wisdom and may upset those who who continue to believe in the dogmas of the (failed) peace process as has been implemented thus far. But let us learn from Yosef and speak the truth: Jerusalem has and will always be at the heart and soul of the Jewish people.