Friday, August 11, 2017

The Challenge of Privilege

In Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the mahn (miraculous manna from heaven) as a test.
זָֽכַרְתָּ֣ אֶת־כָּל־הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹלִֽיכְךָ֜ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ זֶ֛ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּלְבָֽבְךָ֛ הֲתִשְׁמֹ֥ר מִצְו‍ֹתָ֖יו (כתיב מצותו) אִם־לֹֽא:
And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not

In what way was eating manna from Heaven a test? Many commentators such as Rashi and Ramban, focus on how the manna experience tested our faith in G-d. There were specific restrictions on how to collect the manna that tested our faith in Hashem: only a certain amount, double on Fridays, no collecting on Shabbat. Furthermore no manna could be left over for the next day- meaning that the Jews went to bed each night in the desert with their cupboards completely bare; and they were totally dependent on G-d, with no natural way to provide for themselves the next day.
                
The Seforno explains the test of manna differently, in a very brief yet powerful comment he writes:
אם תעשה רצונו בהשיגך לחם ושמלה שלא בצער:
                “The test is in whether you will do G-d’s will when He provides food and clothing for you without pain, without effort.”

According to Seforno, the test of manna was the challenge of privilege. How would Bnai Yisrael handle a situation in which they had everything they needed without doing anything? In general, the Torah advocates for success built upon hard work. For example, later in the Parsha we read the second paragraph of the Shema. In it, the Torah promises that if we do what is right then “Veasafta Deganech” as reward we will have the opportunity to reap abundant harvests. Surely we value and appreciate those things for which we work hard. What about their response to the manna? The people didn’t do anything to get it. G-d provided, literally, bread from heaven. How would Bnai Yisrael relate to such a privilege? This was the test of the manna according to Seforno. This is as much a test today as it was in the desert.


Thank G-d, compared to previous centuries and other parts of the world, we all live privileged lives, some of us more so than others. The episode of the manna reminds us that privilege brings with it certain challenges. Adversity will often lead one to G-d, either in prayer or in accusation. Privilege challenges us not to forget G-d’s role in the world and in our lives. Privilege challenges us to maintain proper priorities and to continue to strive for greater things. Privilege challenges us to live lives of spiritual wealth, on par with our material blessings.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Asking Big Questions

I was a hard working and conscientious student in school. My one weakness was in the area of class participation. I would not participate in class discussions as often as I had ideas to contribute. And I would not raise my hand to ask questions as often as I might have had something to ask. Sometimes I would wait and hope someone else from the class would ask the questions. Other times I would ask the teacher after class. And sometimes, unfortunately, I would never get an answer because I never asked. This tendency may have been due in part to an inherent shyness. But mostly it was due to a fear of embarrassment. Too often, the possibility of feeling embarrassed by asking a “dumb question” (whatever that means) was greater than my desire to find out the answer. Often before opening my mouth in class I would spend a good amount of time confirming with myself that my question or comment was good enough for me to ask. By the time that process concluded, the class was often on the next topic or the bell may have rung, ending the class.

David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard once said “Take risks. Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough.”

In this week’s Parsha, Vaetchanan, Moshe prays to God to be allowed entry into the Land of Israel. And God denies his request. There is an amazing Midrash Rabba on this episode:
אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יִצְחָק, כֵּיוָן שֶׁנָּטָה משֶׁה לָמוּת וְלֹא בִּקְּשׁוּ עָלָיו רַחֲמִים שֶׁיִּכָּנֵס לָאֶרֶץ, כִּנֵּס אוֹתָן וְהִתְחִיל מוֹכִיחָן, אָמַר לָהֶם אֶחָד פָּדָה שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא בְּעֵגֶל, וְשִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא לֹא הָיוּ יְכוֹלִין לִפְדוֹת אָדָם אֶחָד, הֲרֵי וְלֹא נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת,
After the decree was sealed that Moshe would die, and the people did not pray for him, Moshe gathered the nation and rebuked them. He said to them, “one man was able to save 600,000 people, and yet 600,000 people were unable to save one man.”

According to tradition, Moshe prayed 515 times to God to enter the Land of Israel, without success. Yet this Midrash teaches that had the people prayed for Moshe, God would have relented- changing the course of not only Moshe’s life, but the destiny of the Jewish People. For we are taught that had Moshe led the people into Israel, the Messianic era would have immediately begun.
So why didn’t Bnei Yisrael pray for Moshe? The Sefas Emes explains that they rationalized: if Moshe’s prayers were not effective, then certainly our prayers will not be effective.
The people didn’t appreciate the power of their prayers. Put another way, they were too timid or too scared to go big and make a big request. History could have been much different had the nation taken a risk and asked big.

I wish that as a student I had taken more risks and asked more big questions. Then again, it’s never too late.
On my computer screen is a Post It Note. On it is a challenge that I hope to live up to and one that I hope becomes part of our synagogue culture:
“A culture of greatness; not one of complaining or sitting on the sidelines waiting to point out mistakes. A culture that encourages risk taking and progress, working from consensus and staying mission driven.”


As we transition from the mourning of the Three Weeks to the Hope of Shabbat Nachamu, let us commit to asking big questions and taking risks that spur growth and achievement. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

The Parsha opens with a list of all of the 42 stops that Bnei Yisrael made during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us the original starting point and the eventual destination? We don't even know what happened at each place that is enumerated, so why specify each one?

Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma who explains by means of a parable. A king had a son who was sick, and the king took him to a distant place to receive the cure. On their way back, the king recounted to his son all of their journeys together. “This is where we slept. Here it was cold. Over there you had a headache.” The king wanted his son to appreciate that not only was the final result- the son’s recovery- important. But the process had significance as well. So too in Parshat Masei, the Torah recounts each stop in the desert as a reminder that there is significance not only in the destination, but in the process as well.

This is a critical lesson to learn as we find ourselves in the weeks and days leading up to Tisha B’Av. Certainly the main focus of this period is mourning for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and praying for its rebuilding with the Messianic Age- the destination (if you will) of human history. But can we find meaning in the process? Is there a way to be positively impacted by the Three Weeks even as we still wait for the final destination of Yemot Hamashiach?

The Three Weeks are an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that even before we arrive at our hoped-for destination, we must find meaning and purpose in all of our experiences along the journey.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Shleimut (Self-Fulfillment) and Shalom (Interpersonal Peace): You Can't Have One Without the Other

Parshat Pinchas begins with Pinchas' act of zealotry followed by God's endorsement and reward for that act. 

Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace. יבלָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם:

In the Torah scroll, the letter vav of the word “Shalom” is cracked. Rav Zevin explains that the cracked vav allows us to think about the similarities and differences between the words “Shalom”, peace, and Shalem, whole. 

Both indicate a fulfilled state of being. However Shalem refers to an individual whereas Shalom refers to the relationship between two or more objects or people. 

The broken Vav highlights the difficulties that can exist in trying to get along with others and achieve Shalom, peace. It is often easier to achieve self-fulfillment for oneself than it is to achieve peace in our interpersonal relationships. Yet we cannot take the easy way out. For true personal fulfillment must include peace among all of our relationships: family, friends, and neighbors. 

There can be no real Sheleimut (self fulfillment) without Shalom (interpersonal peace). And the broken Vav in Shalom reminds us just how elusive, yet essential, peace is.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Art of Saying No and Importance of Taking No for an Answer

At the beginning of the Parsha, there is an exchange between Hashem and Bilam that is difficult to understand.
First Hashem tells Bilam that he cannot go with Balak’s emissaries. So Bilam turns them away.
But then a second more dignified entourage comes to ask Bilam to reconsider. This time when Bilam asks Hashem says OK.
As Bilam is on his way, an angel stops him and informs Bilam that Hashem is angry, because he decided to go to Balak.
Two questions jump out:
1) Why does Hashem change His tune- first telling Bilam he can’t go and then saying that he can go?
2)Once Hashem tells Bilam that he can go, why does he get angry with Bilam for going?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the entirety of the Divine Will is expressed the first night when Bilam presents the request: G-d unequivocally answers: Lo Telech Imahem.” Period. End of Discussion.

Then Bilam, due to greed and ego, comes back the next night and asks Hashem again. The answer is the same: Hashem does not want Bilam to go. Nevertheless it is clear Bilam wants to go. And we have a fundamental belief, expressed by the Rabbis and quoted by Rashi:
“Bderech SheAdam Rotzeh Leylech Bah Molichin Oto.”
G-d’s not going to stop you from doing something that you want to do- even when He’s against it. 

So Hashem is consistent. He doesn’t want Bilam to go. But G-d only speaks once. Bilam chooses not to listen, so when Hashem is approached again He tells Bilam, “Go- ie do what you want.” And when Bilam indeed does what he wants, Hashem stops him by means of the angel to make sure Bilam understands G-d’s displeasure at the situation.

In this light I can understand the importance of this episode. We can learn a great deal about the importance of saying no, as well as taking no for an answer.
For many our tendency is to always say yes. It’s usually more fun and always easier to just say yes. But there are times when we must say no. We must say no to others in order that we don’t overextend ourselves. Saying no can help strengthen our values, strengthen our identity, and strengthen our confidence.

We must sometimes say no to our children in order to create limits and impress upon them boundaries and proper living- in society and within our religion.

And at times we must be willing to take no for an answer. When we pray to Hashem and we don’t get the results we had hoped for, it is an opportunity to practice taking no for an answer, to reorient ourselves, and to consider how changes in our plans might actually be for the best.

Let us utilize Parshat Balak to remember that “No” is not always a mean or negative word. In order to live well adjusted lives within a growth mindset, it is important for us to sometimes say no, and to be able to take no for an answer.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Tell Your Story- and Make It Compelling

Immediately after Hashem criticized and punished Moshe and Aharon for hitting the rock, the scene turns to The Jewish People’s request to pass through land under Edomite control on their way to Israel. Moshe first appealed to Edom based on family ties. But then Moshe shifts gears and launches into what seems to be off topic: a brief history lesson of the People in Egypt and the Exodus from Egypt which emerged as a result of Bnai Yisrael’s prayers.

Why does Moshe meander during his second attemt at asking Edom? How is any of this history relevant to the request for safe passage?
           
Moshe’s approach is worth considering and emulating. Oftentimes, the best way to convince someone of your cause is to present them with a compelling story. The perseverance of the Jewish People in Egypt, and G-d’s salvation makes for a good story (I think even a few movies have been produced using that script). If anything could convince Edom to allow Bnai Yisrael to pass through, it would be their compelling national story. The fact that Edom still refuses Moshe's request speaks to the animosity that Edom had, not to the weakness of the argument.
           
This is why this episode occurs right after the sin of Moshe/ Aharon. Whatever happened at Mei Meriva, it seems clear that had Moshe seen the bigger picture, and viewed the scene with more perspective, within context, things might have been different.
           

Storytelling is an important facet of being strong in one’s beliefs, as well as explaining one'sposition to others. As Orthodox Jews and Religious Zionists, we need to know our compelling story well, and not be afraid to share it with others. Whether it is our family's story, or community's story or our People's story, it behooves us to confront today's challenges by knowing our story well and telling it to others in a way that is compelling and inspires people to become part of the story in their own way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Finding Our Voice

Finding Our Voice

In this week’s Parsha we read about the Korach episode, which ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his followers. This punishment also affected all those who saw it:

All Israel who were around them fled from their voice, for they said, "Lest the earth swallow us up [too]!"

לדוְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם נָסוּ לְקֹלָם כִּי אָמְרוּ פֶּן תִּבְלָעֵנוּ הָאָרֶץ:

Most commentators understand this verse  to mean that the people ran away from the sound of the earth buckling and the rebels crying out as they were swallowed alive. However if we look closely we notice that the prefix does not fit with the translation I offered- Nasu L’kolam” really means to run “Towards the voice” not away from the voice.”

The Korach Rebellion was a traumatic experience and a crisis of faith for many of the Jewish People- beyond the 250 directly implicated in the rebellion. Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel explains that as a result of these events the people “nasu L’Kolam” they found their voice and proclaimed:

ואמרין זכאי הוא יי וקושטא היך דינוי וקושטא הינון פתגמי משה עבדיה ואנן רשיעיא דמרדנא ביה
Hashem is righteous and the words of Moshe, His servant, are true. We are wrong!
The Jews experienced something profound. They processed what happened; and by doing so they found their voice to express a re-invigorated faith in and commitment to God.


When we experience something traumatic, something profound, something meaningful - large or small- it is an opportunity for us to flee towards our voice, ie to find our voice that will lead us to growth and positive change.