Thursday, February 22, 2018

Don't Wait: Lessons from a Shiva

The nation continues to express shock and grief over last Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. On Monday I visited three of the shiva homes, where I offered my condolences on behalf of myself and the Young Israel of Hollywood community. I was glad to see and hear that other shul members similarly made shiva visits.

In Israel, when a family loses a loved one to terror it is common for the shiva house to be visited by strangers who may not have known the victim, nor even the family. They come because they want to show that the Jewish People are one big family. A loss experienced by one is felt by all. This is especially true when the death occurred due to a terrorist act. Those not personally impacted by the tragedy know that “it could have just as easily been me”. It reminds them of the frailty of the human condition. Though they can’t feel that pain nor take it away from the grieving family, they want to visit the shiva house- to at least envelop the family with love and to show solidarity. I think that strangers in Israel also show up at these shivas as an act of defiance. Terrorist acts in Israel are meant to scare Jews out of living our lives, and dissuade Jews from living in Israel. By visiting the shiva house, Israelis are showing their defiance in the face of terror and their will to continue living and developing the Land of Israel in the face of challenges and heartbreak.

Visiting the shiva of a stranger is less common in the United States. But I am glad that these families were willing to open their homes (at least for a day or two) to us strangers, who wanted to offer condolences, show our solidarity, appreciate how precious life is, and demonstrate our resolve to live meaningful lives in memory of those whose lives were cut short.
When we went to the shiva for teacher Scott Beigel, I had the opportunity to speak with Scott’s mother, father and sister. Scott, aged 35, was shot and killed while shutting a classroom door, which he opened to let more students take shelter. Scott was a geography teacher as well as a cross country coach.

At the shiva, Scott’s father told me that this was his first year teaching at MSD. Scott would complain to his father that he didn’t think the students liked him, he wasn’t sure that he was making an impact. After his death many students shared how much Scott meant to them; and not just on the day of the shooting. Upon hearing this from Scott’s dad (this sentiment was also reported in the media) I couldn’t help but feel that the enormous tragedy was somehow exacerbated by the fact that Scott didn’t know the positive impact he had made- while he was alive. Too often we wait until someone is gone before we process the impact someone has had on us, or express the appreciation that is really due.

This week we read Parshat Tetzaveh. Once Moshe is born in Shemot, this Parsha is the only one that does not mention Moshe Rabbeinu’s name. Many note that this Parsha usually falls out around Moshe’s yahrtzeit- 7th of Adar. Wherever we find Moshe’s name we often find complaining and grievances by the Jewish People directed at him. Only when Moshe is absent do we ask about him. In his absence we are meant to appreciate all that he does and means to us.
Let us not wait for Tetzaveh to appreciate Moshe. And let us not wait for a tragedy, a eulogy or an obituary to tell people how much they mean to us and how much we appreciate them.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Voluntary vs Obligatory: the Need for Both

The word “Terumah” appears three times in the first three pesukim of our Parsha. Rashi quotes a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Megila 29b) that the three times Terumah correspond to three collections that were taken up for the Mishkan’s building and operating fund: The first collection was a mandatory half shekel per adult that went to cover the cost of the adanim, the bases of the beams. The second collection was also compulsory and a fixed amount: A half shekel per person to cover the costs of the communal sacrifices. The third collection was voluntary: people could give as much as they wanted from the list of items needed for the Mishkan’s construction.

The Maharal asks a very basic question on Rashi’s interpretation: If there were indeed three collections, why does the Torah at the beginning of Parshat Terumah only speak of the voluntary type, the one that was collected, as the pasuk says,
“Me’eit Kol Ish Asher Yidvenu Libo”.

Only from people who volunteered and whose hearts motivated them. What about the mandatory collections? Why are they not mentioned here, even though the obligatory donations are listed first by Rashi (and the Talmud)?

The Maharal answers that although not explicitly mentioned here, the compulsory terumah must precede the voluntary collection. Had the first collection been on a voluntary basis, the Jews would have generously answered the call, as is described later in Parshat Vayakhel (36:4-5). The people were so generous that Moshe had to tell them to stop. However had that happened prior to the half shekel collections, there would have been a key component missing in the construction of the Mishkan: Obligation. Submission. Commitment. A generous spirit, nedivut lev, is a wonderful trait to possess, so long as it is predicated on a sense of commitment. It might go against our 21st century modern sensibilities, but we need to embrace commitment - in our personal lives and in our religious lives.

The notion that the first donations to the Mishkan were obligatory and used to build the Mishkan’s foundational support gives us an opportunity to appreciate commitments – where we make them and how we should be keeping them. Our volunteer spirit should flow from, not precede or even compete with, our sense of commitment.

Utilizing the Maharal’s approach helps me understand what can be a confusing series of events at Har Sinai. There is a Midrash that tells the story of how God offered the Torah to other nations, and they were not interested. Then God offered the Torah to the Jews who immediately replied “Na’aseh V’Nishma,” “we will do and we will listen”.

Another Midrash tells us that at the time of Matan Torah, God held the mountain over the people’s heads, and “forced” the Jews to accept the Torah. From these Midrashim it seems that the “Naaseh V’Nishma” event occurred first, and the coercion occurred afterwards.

HOWEVER, in the Torah, the actual pesukim utilized by these Midrashim are in the opposite order: i.e. first we encounter the pasuk that alludes to coercion (in Parshat Yitro 19:17), while the pasuk that hints at the Jews’ voluntary acceptance of the Torah is found later (in Parshat Mishpatim 24:7).

Here too the lesson is clear: while voluntary acts of kindness and philanthropy are often applauded the loudest, we believe in the critical importance of service and benevolence emanating from a sense of responsibility, even coercion. Our goal should be to feel obligated to engage in activities that others might view as voluntary - and feel good about that.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"Having It All": Lessons from An Eved Ivri

In a fascinating piece entitled, “Why the Modern Orthodox Family Model Works- and What We Can Learn From It” Professor Sylvia Barak Fishman describes the many virtues of today’s typical Modern Orthodox household and lessons that can be learned for the broader Jewish community. She quotes an idea from Rachel Bernstein, that Modern Orthodox Jews are able to manage and excel in all “three shifts” of adult life.

The “first shift” in adulthood comes during the training for and attaining of employment. Studies show that Modern Orthodox Jews achieve higher rates of college graduates than other Jewish denominations (64% among Modern Orthodox) Younger Modern Orthodox families have the highest average household incomes among all denominations. These statistics indicate that a traditional lifestyle is no impediment to high educational and professional achievements.

The “second shift” occurs at marriage, and during child bearing and raising; when housework is added to an adult’s list of responsibilities. A greater percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews ages 25-54 are married than any other Jewish denomination. Orthodox families average 4 children, almost double the number in Conservative and Reform families.

The “third shift” according to Bernstein, occurs when adults seek meaning in their lives through tradition and religious observance. Here too Modern Orthodox women and men thrive. According to a recent Nishma study, “community” and “Shabbat” are primary sources of satisfaction and pleasure in the lives of most Modern Orthodox Jews. The Jewish calendar, whether Shabbat and Yom Tov, or Purim and Yom Haatzmaut, create opportunities for family time, to disconnect from the hustle of work, and reconnect with community, with oneself and with God.

Let me quote from Professor Barack Fishman’s conclusion:
“The Modern Orthodox family model of high education, high occupational status, high income- and high fertility- may have implications for all of us diverse American Jews across the denominational spectrum…. Perhaps it is possible to have it “all- education, career, family and tradition? It’s stressful, but attainable for many of those who want it, as our findings show- and certainly worth a shot.”

The first mitzvah mentioned in Parshat Mishpatim is the rules governing a Jewish slave. If a Jew steals and is unable to pay it back, s/he must work off the debt. The maximum length of mandated service is 6 years, after which the Jewish slave goes free. The Torah mentions a scenario in which the slave chooses to remain (Exodus 21:5):
“If the bondsman shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children- I shall not go free.”

In such a case the Torah says that the slave’s ear should be pierced, after which he remains a slave.
The Talmud in Kiddushin (22b) understands this ceremony to be a punishment. God is frustrated with a person who chooses to remain a servant, when really mankind is meant to only be servants to God.

In this episode the Torah describes a person who is committed to his current occupation (the “first shift”) and his family (the “second shift”). Sounds like a responsible and praiseworthy individual. Yet the Torah critiques this person for remaining within the first “two shifts” of life and not working towards “having it all.” The servant allows his spiritual growth to be stunted by remaining in the employ of his master, instead of going out on his own to develop his “third shift” through tradition, religious observance religious meaning.

Juggling work, family and religion is similar to balancing the needs of our mind, body and soul. It is challenging, but doable. Let us pray and work hard to ensure that we glean the benefits of excelling in all three shifts in our life.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Some "Super" Thoughts on the Parsha

Lessons from the Super Bowl

Leading up to the Ten Commandments, Hashem told Moshe:
Lech El Ha’Am Vekidashtam
Go to the people V’kidashtem, and sanctify them”
Rashi explains that in this context “V’Kidashtam” means ‘Vzeemantam” Moshe should prepare Bnei Yisrael. Preparation is a necessary component in achieving one’s goal. The choice of the word Kidashtam for preparation teaches us something more: preparation towards a goal is valuable, even kadosh, holy, in its own right.

This Sunday is the Super Bowl. Both the Patriots and the Eagles played 18 games this season and each game consists of one hour of play. But how many cumulative hours go into a season for each professional football team, from recruiting and marketing to coaching and training? A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article that gave an estimate:  514,000 hours per team. That’s about 8 times the hours that it took to develop, build and market the Apple iPod.

If you divide a teams’ total hours of preparation by the number of offensive yards gained over a season- it works out to approximately 32 hours per foot. Talk about hard gained yardage! Every accomplishment requires preparation. Significant accomplishments, whether by a team or by an individual, require significant preparation.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, the game will feature Tom Brady starting his record setting 8th 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 put it:

“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.

As we watch the Super Bowl on Sunday (or just the commercials) let us be reminded of these Super Lessons: preparation, hard work and a desire to achieve your goal are the traits necessary to win; whether on the gridiron or in life.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Recreating the Joy at the Red Sea

To no parent’s surprise, too much smartphone use makes teens unhappy.

So says a new study from San Diego State University, which pulled data from over one million 8th, 10th, and 12th-graders in the U.S. showing teens who spent more time on social media, gaming, texting and video-chatting on their phones were not as happy as those who played sports, went outside and interacted with real human beings.

But is it the screen time bringing them down or are sadder teens more likely to insulate themselves in a virtual world? Lead author of the study and professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge believes it’s the phone that contributes to making them unhappy, not the other way around.
“Although this study can’t show causation, several other studies have shown that more social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to more social media use,” Twenge said.

The Song of the Sea, which is read as part of Parshat Beshalach, has been incorporated into our daily prayers in the Pesukei Dzimra section, often referred to as “Az Yashir”. In Siman 51, the Mishnah Berura quotes a passage from the Zohar: “that when Shirat Hayam is recited daily, it should be recited B’Simcha, with joy, and one should imagine as if s/he is actually crossing the Yam Suf at that moment.” For this Zohar we learn that we are supposed to be happy when we recite Shirat Hayam- BC THE JEWS WERE HAPPY WHEN THEY ORIGINALLY RECITED IT.
Research has shown that three of the most important qualities that happy people possess are: a feeling of control over one’s life, a sense of optimism, and faith/ religion- a sense of purpose bigger than ourselves. At the Splitting of the Yam Suf the Pasuk tells us:
                “Vayar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al sefat Hayam.”

For the first time in over two centuries, Bnai Yisrael were not slaves to a human master. At the moment that they saw the Egyptians drown, they realized that they were now in control of their own destiny. Though this may seem a little scary at first, being in control is a key ingredient in happiness.
Vayaaminu BaShem ubemoshe Avdo”: In addition to feeling in control, the Jews had Emunah, faith. Faith in Hashem- a commitment to a higher purpose and to religion, Faith in themselves that with the help of G-d they could overcome any obstacles in their way.
Another contributor to happiness is being active: challenging ourselves to try new things and to do things that we love. Happiness is often a pleasant side effect to pursuing other activities: whether it is a job, a hobby or a volunteer opportunity. Inactivity and too much leisure can be impediments to happiness.

This seems to be Hashem’a advice to Bnei Yisrael before they even get to Yam Suf:
Ma Tizak Elai- Daber El Bnei Ysirael Vayisau-“ G-d tells Moshe to convey to the people that inactivity will bring anxiety and a feeling of hopelessness. But getting up and going, doing something – in tandem with a feeling of control, optimism and faith in G-d- will lead to success.

A fifth and final factor in achieving happiness is relationships. The more quality relationships a person has, the more likely h/she is to be happy. At the Sea, Bnai Yisrael began to appreciate these relationships. They respond with Shira- song. Song only works when people are relating to one another: singing their parts, and playing their instruments together to create beautiful music.

When we put all of these factors together, we begin to map out the components of happiness: a sense of control, optimism, faith, initiative and relationships. At the Red Sea we learned the key ingredients to happiness- then and now.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Living with Both Idealism and Realism

As the ten plagues culminate and the exodus is immanent, Bnai Yisrael are commanded to institute a uniquely Jewish calendar. It is the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish People. And this mitzvah is dependent on the moon. On the words “Hachodesh Hazeh” the Medrash writes that Hashem showed Moshe exactly what the moon looks like at the beginning of the month. Why does the moon occupy such a prominent role?
The Sefer Hachinuch describes the challenges that exist within this Mitzvah. the Jewish calendar must exist within two systems. On the one hand, a month is defined by the amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the Earth once. On the other hand, Jewish holidays such as Pesach, Shavuot and Succot commemorate agricultural milestones. The Agricultural cycle is tied to the seasons, and seasons are dependent on the sun. The Sefer Hachinuch reminds us that a lunar year is 354 days while a solar year has 365 days. In order to keep holidays in their seasons, an extra month must sometimes be added. This is done in order to synchronize the solar and lunar cycles.

In Chasidic thought, the sun and the moon represent the ideal and the reality. The sun represents the ideal. It is the source of light, but it is distant and unapproachable. We cannot look directly at the sun without hurting our eyes. Similarly, the ideal should be viewed as a goal towards which we strive, yet never actually attained. The moon represents reality. The moon reflects light from the sun. The moon’s light resembles the sun’s rays; however the light is not as bright. We are comfortable with the moon; we can stare at it. Our reality is like the moon: it is a reflection of the ideal. Real life will never exactly match with what we hope it to be. Yet we must try to make the reflection in reality as close as possible to the ideal.
 The sun is always full. It remains constant. We experience the moon in a completely different manner. The moon waxes and wanes, varying from our perspective from completely full to barely visible. The moon mirrors our religious experience, not as we might ideally want it to be but rather how it exists in reality. There are times during which we feel inspired, when all the dots in our life seem to connect. Our faith and religious conviction at those times are strong, and can illuminate our lives like a full moon.

Whether we focus on their lives of horrific subjugation, their slave mentality, or their position on the 49th and worst level of spiritual impurity- the plight of B’nai Yisrael could only get better. The Jewish People had been promised a brighter future, which they were anxiously anticipating.  Perhaps some Jews at that time contemplated the possibility that their struggles and difficulties would be over for good. Perhaps the rest of history from this point forward would just keep getting better. At precisely that moment Hashem points to the moon. He reminds us that there will continue to be momentary lapses and reversals of fortune, in addition to the triumphs and achievements.

In an ideal world, we would constantly be on an upward trajectory of spiritual growth. However, in reality we know that is not the case. There is no assurance that any of us will become better people tomorrow than we are today. It is not inevitable. Growth must be sought out and pursued. We must be on the look-out for avenues of inspiration. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the new moon is a phenomenon which provides us with encouragement. He writes: “The Jewish consecration of the new moon is an institution for the periodic fresh spiritual and moral rejuvenation of Israel by finding itself again in conjunction with G-d.”

Friday, January 12, 2018

Agents of God, Agents of Change

On Monday, we will commemorate the 89th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recently, I had the chance to hear a recording of a sermon that Dr. King delivered to a Jewish audience at Temple Israel of Hollywood in February of 1965. What I found so interesting in that sermon was that the message was much more than an appeal against segregation, although that was part of it. His message was universal and very much in line with Jewish thinking. For example at one point Dr. King said, “We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology.… We've made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood... What does it profit a man to gain the whole world of means -- airplanes, television, electric lights -- and lose the end, the soul?"

As members of the Jewish community, it is appropriate to acknowledge Dr. King’s concern for and support of worldwide Jewry. Dr. King felt a connection with the Jewish People and drew historical parallels between our experience in Egypt and the African American experience in America. Long before the plight of Soviet Jewry made headlines, Dr. King stated:
“I cannot stand idly by, even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned.”

On Israel’s right to exist, Dr King said:
"peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."

Finally, Dr. King appreciated the fact that Anti-Semitism will often try to disguise itself as opposition to Zionism. During an appearance at Harvard University shortly before his death, a student stood up and asked King to address himself to the issue of Zionism. The question was clearly hostile. Dr. King responded, "When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism."
 This last idea has gained increased visibility, and was prominently featured in the PBS documentary that aired this week on Anti-Semitism in the 21st century. 

Dr. King believed that he was involved in a holy endeavor and that his efforts were a fulfillment of G-d’s will. The very notion that a human being can serve as G-d’s messenger on Earth is introduced to us by Moshe Rabbeinu. As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “Moses introduces a new motif into the God-man fellowship, namely that of Shelichut-agency. He becomes the divine angel who acts on behalf of God and represents Him.” It is not just Moshe or a Dr. King that serves this role. Each and every one of us serves as an agent of God. On the most basic level, we have all been enlisted to bring God’s Presence into this world through the performance of Chesed and Mitzvot.