Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bad Masks and Good Masks

Parshat Ki Tisa contains the episode of the golden calf. The Torah refers to the golden calf as (32:4) “Egel Masecha.” The Stone Chumash translates this as “a molten calf”.  “Masecha” could be a type of metal, and if so, the “Egel Masecha” would be a metal calf, or more precisely, a calf that had undergone the process of melting, since it was made out of many pieces of gold that needed to be fused together. “Masecha” can also be interpreted as deriving from the word “Masach”, an object used to conceal other objects. This is also the meaning of the “Masecha” we wear on Purim, which covers our faces.

                This is not the only appearance of a mask in our Parsha. After Moshe prays and Hashem forgives the Jews for the golden calf, Moshe is called upon to receive the second set of tablets. When Moshe comes down from the mountain, the Torah describes how Moshe’s face glowed as a result of his exposure to an intense Divine manifestation. Moshe resorted to wearing a “Masveh” (34:33) which is a veil or mask.

                In two episodes in Ki Tisa Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai to receive luchot from Hashem. In both cases, this act causes the need for a mask of some sort. The mask of the golden calf is one of the greatest mistakes in Jewish history. The mask that Moshe wears after descending with the second luchot is viewed as having a positive purpose. How do we understand the vast difference between these two masks?

                Our world is full of masks, hiding our appreciation for God’s role in our lives. The Hebrew word for world “Olam” is related to the word “hidden” (He’elem) because nature is a force that masks God’s handiwork. Political history is another mask that obstructs our appreciation for God’s role in unfolding events. We will celebrate Purim in less than a month. The story of Purim (like the story of the 6 Day War) can be read as a fascinating tale of political (or military) intrigue. But really those events are masking the Prime Cause of it all - Hashem. Idolatry can also be understood as a mask. It hides inconvenient truths, such as reward and punishment, and the need to submit to a Higher Being. This type of mask leads to destruction.

                Sometimes a mask hides the truth. But sometimes a mask is needed to allow the truth to come forth. Rav Saadiah Gaon explains that the Masveh was intended to make disputants less afraid to approach Moshe for assistance. Others suggest that Moshe wore the Masveh as a sign of modesty. In effect the Masveh allowed Moshe to express his true self, and not hide in any way.

                There’s a difference of opinion as to when exactly Moshe wore the Masveh. Everyone agrees that Moshe did not wear it when he was communicating with Hashem. Everyone also agrees that he did wear the Masveh when he was in the Israelite camp not engaged in teaching Torah. There’s a difference of opinion whether Moshe wore the mask when he was teaching Torah to the people. It would seem based on the pesukim at the end of Ki Tisa that Moshe would not wear the Masveh while he was engaged in teaching Torah. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, however, suggests that Moshe wore the Masveh even while teaching Torah to the people. Rabbi Eiger explains that Moshe wore the Masveh to hide his humility. As teacher and prophet, Moshe had to “hide” this innate quality of humility, for the benefit of his role as leader.

                 In sum, when a mask is used to hide God’s role in our lives, then it’s a bad mask. When a mask is used to bring out our true selves or to hide some of our innate qualities that can interfere with maximizing our potential, then it’s a good mask. As we think about our options for Purim costumes, let us make sure to avoid bad masks and get comfortable with good masks.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Mind Over Matter: Lessons from My Half Marathon Training

I wanted to share with you a quick update on my training for the Jerusalem Half Marathon, which will be held on Friday March 15th.

Last Sunday I ran 9.25 miles, my longest run yet. This past Sunday I ran 10.5 miles. One of the great things about the program in which I am participating, Rabbi Can Run, is that I am a part of a group of 13 Rabbis who are all working on pushing their limits and achieving a goal that seemed improbably just a few months ago. This has provided me with a lot of chizuk, inspiration. Such is the power of positive peer pressure. We often think of peer pressure as a negative force, but it can be a tremendous source of strength and positivity as well.

On our last conference call we heard from Owen Anderson, PhD. Coach Anderson is the founder of Lansing Sports Management, which coaches elite athletes from Kenya and manages their international competitions. He has enjoyed a successful career coaching runners of all levels. Coach Anderson provided a number of practical suggestions and recommendations for our training regimen. But the most impactful thing he said on the call related to fatigue. He noted that it is natural for runners to feel fatigue by the 10 mile mark. And there are some things that can be done to address the physiological symptoms of fatigue, specifically in regards to hydration and nutrition intake. But 

Coach Anderson pointed out that during a race, feelings of fatigue are primarily psychological. The thoughts and feelings may be triggered by something physical, but the overall sensation of fatigue can often be addressed psychologically. Specifically, when we feel fatigued during a run Coach Anderson suggested that we focus on the positive and engage in “positive self-talk”. By talking to ourselves in a positive manner, we can convince ourselves that we can accomplish this goal. It really is a case of mind over matter. I think we can all benefit from this life lesson: feelings of fatigue or pessimism very often are not based on reality, but rather they are the result of our minds playing tricks on us. We can change things for the better and accomplish our goals through “positive self-talk”: reminding ourselves how strong and capable we really are.  

Thank you to those who have generously contributed to the charitable cause for which my run is supporting: Olami. If you would like to make a donation you can click here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Golden Alter and Our Unique Jewish Identity

The last Aliyah of Parshat Tetzaveh introduces us to the Mizbeach Hazahav, the golden alter upon which the ketoret, the aromatic spices, were offered. All of the other vessels of the Mishkan were introduced and described 4 chapters ago, in Parshat Terumah. Why is the Mizbeiach Hazahav introduced separately, so much later?

The Meshech Chochma explains (based on a Talmudic passage in Zevachim) that unlike the other keilim in the mishkan, the golden altar was not critical for the Temple service. You don’t technically require the golden altar in order to offer incense. In the absence of the Mizbeiach, the spices could be offered on the floor in the location of where the golden altar should have been.  This insight of the Meshech Chochma just sharpens the question: Why is the ketoret alter different than all other vessels in the Mishkan?

A pasuk by King David in Tehillim can help us: In Chapter 141 it says:
תִּכּוֹן תְּפִלָּתִי קְטֹרֶת לְפָנֶיךָ מַשְׂאַת כַּפַּי מִנְחַת עָרֶב:
My prayer shall be established like incense before You, the lifting of my hands as the evening offering.              
Ketoret symbolizes the personal relationship that man has with God. Like burning spices, one’s Jewish identity can be ethereal- we may not be able to see it or put our finger on it, but we cannot deny its presence and its impact. 
The major goal of the Mishkan and its vessels is to create a national focal point and to foster a national Jewish identity. The Mizbeiach Haketoret is mentioned separately because it serves as a reminder of the need we each have to also create a personal Jewish identity; our unique relationship with Hashem.
Last week I joined together with over 800 people for the Broward Federation’s Community Campaign Celebration. I had the opportunity to hear from a number of Jews who found meaningful ways to contribute to the local and global Jewish community. Speakers repeatedly noted how their involvement in helping others strengthened their personal Jewish identity.

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed wrote that the purpose of the ketoret was to create a beautiful fragrance for people to enjoy as they visited the Mishkan and, later, the Beit Hamikdash. Rabbi Moshe Schick, 19th century Hungarian Rabbi, explains that ketoret teaches us that our Jewish identities must be associated with pleasantness, meaning and inspiration. 

Although it is written in last week’s Parsha, the blessing of V’Shachanti B’Tocham that God will dwell amongst us can only come to fruition when all of the keilim, including the Golden altar are constructed and appreciated. We are truly blessed when we carve out a personally meaningful Jewish identity while remaining a part of the collective that is Am Yisrael.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

When Everyone is Included We Are All Winners

Though they have been big news in Israel for a while now, their story became widely known this week in the US: The Shalva Band.

The Shalva Band is comprised of 8 talented musicians with disabilities and performs to the highest musical standards by invitation at cultural venues and dignitary events throughout the year. Their musical talents were discovered and developed through Shalva’s music therapy program. Inspiring crowds with its musical repertoire and charm, the band is one of Shalva’s most celebrated inclusion programs.

The Shalva band was a contestant on the Israeli TV show “HaKochav Habah” (“The Next Star). The winner of the show becomes Israel’s entry into Eurovision, being held this year in Tel Aviv. The band was a crowd favorite, stealing the hearts of both judges and the audience. So much so, that the band had advanced to the final round of the show.

On Tuesday the news reported that the Shalva Band would be dropping out of the competition. Several members of the band are Shabbat observant and Eurovision holds its final dress rehearsals on Friday night and Saturday, complete with recording and filming. Band members said they were aware of the rules but had not expected to advance so far in the competition. Eurovision said the final rehearsals are vital because the performances are filmed and sent to international judges for use in scoring, and so the contest has a backup in case technical issues arise during the live performances on Saturday night.

It’s unfortunate that Eurovision was unwilling to find a way to be inclusive of the Shabbat observance of some members of a group that teaches and embodies inclusion in their every performance.
But in many ways The Shalva Band has already won. First, the band will be appearing at the international song contest after all – in a special appearance during the second semi-final.
A spokeswoman for KAN, Israel’s public broadcaster, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that it invited the band to appear as an interval act during the show, which will be held live on May 16 in Tel Aviv.

But beyond Eurovision, the band is a winner because of how beloved they became and the attention that they helped focus on disabilities awareness and inclusion. February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. We are excited to host Richard Bernstein at the conclusion of the 9 AM minyan in the Sanctuary and hear his inspirational story of overcoming obstacles and reaching one’s potential. Thank you to Mimi Jankovits, Teach Florida and GIL for helping to bring this opportunity to our community. I will also be giving a shiur Shabbat afternoon (at 5 PM) on Halachic views on disabilities and inclusion.

Inclusion is not only about allowing people that are not typical to feel more “normal” by including them in “normal” activities. Inclusion also means declaring that all Jews, regardless of their physical and mental differences, not only have a place in the Jewish community, but have something to contribute. Everyone has his/her unique ability. As a community we must be committed to bringing out the best in each and every person. Sometimes people may need support or accommodations in order to participate and contribute to our community. We should view these accommodations as opportunities to bring out the best in each person and the best in our community.

If you have ideas on how we can make our shul more inclusive, please let me or Sara Frieberg know. There is a tradition that the word “Yisrael” is an acronym for “Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiyot LaTorah” (“there are 600,000 letters in a Torah”) In truth there are far fewer than 600,000 letters in a Torah. However the number 600,000 is symbolic of the totality of the Jewish People (hence the tradition that there were 600,000 Jews who left Egypt and stood at Sinai). The lesson of the Yisrael acronym is two-fold. First every Jew has a unique connection to the Torah, and we should do our best to nurture and accommodate each person’s unique Jewish identity. Second, as a Torah scroll missing even one letter is not kosher, so too a Jewish community that is not accessible to all of its constituents is lacking in a fundamental manner. Let us do our best to ensure that our Torah – and our community- is complete.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Names Can Be Worse Than Sticks and Stones

Parshat Mishpatim contains two laws related to the child-parent relationship (21:15, 17)

וּמַכֵּ֥ה אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת
And one who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.

וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:

And one who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.

The Torah here prescribes the same punishment for verbal abuse at it does for physical abuse. Moreover although both crimes are punishable by death, the type of death is different for each. The punishment for striking a parent is chenek, strangulation. The punishment for verbal abuse is sekilah, stoning, which is the most severe form of death penalty of the four types found in the Torah.

                The Torah is teaching us that verbal abuse is worse in some ways than physical abuse. Whereas violence is an attack on a person’s body, verbal abuse always impacts the victim’s heart, mind, and soul. As the Vilna Gaon puts it in his commentary to Mishlei, verbal insults can “penetrate into the innermost recesses”. Emotions do not heal as quickly as the body can. The old adage is therefore wrong. Not only can names indeed hurt us, but they can even hurt us worse than the physical damage wrought by sticks and stones.

                This past week I was a guest at the Kolot luncheon, a project of the Jewish Family Service of Broward County’s domestic abuse program. At that event I learned that 1 in 3 women and 1 of 4 men have been a victim of physical violence by an intimate partner. Close to half of all women and men experience at least one type of psychologically aggressive behavior, often in the form of verbal abuse, in the course of their relationships.

                People often don’t appreciate the power of their words nor the potential pain that can be caused by hurtful words. We are also often less careful with our words when directed at those with whom we are the closest (spouses, children, family, friends). The combination of these factors can lead to our words being used as weapons against others, instead of a powerful vehicle to express positive feelings, encouragement, and healing.

                Some of our worst memories do not involve what someone has done to us, but rather what has been said. There are certain words and certain phrases that are almost impossible to take back. You can say “I love you” thousands of times. But it only takes one “I hate you” to make one question if the love was ever there.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) said there are two ways to be better than the next person. One way is to grow, to toil and work hard to bring out your own potential. If the other person does not follow a similar course of action, then you will surge ahead in comparison to someone else. The other way is to dig a hole and push the other person down. Automatically, you feel better and taller. Obviously we should follow the first way.

                We must be careful with our words. Think before you speak, instead of having to apologize after the wrong words come out. Our words are powerful. They can be used as weapons and hurt others worse than sticks and stones. We must never use words in hurtful ways, especially towards those with whom we are closest. Think about how your words will be received by the other person, and not just how you intend your words to be received or how you think you would react to the same words. Since words can be a source of much hurt, then it must be that words can also be a great source (and an even greater source) of positivity.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Feeling For Others

The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha:

וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

Yitro was moved by all the goodness that God did for the Jewish People.

Rashi offers two possible explanations: Either Yitro got goosebumps because he felt the pain of the Egyptians. Alternatively Yitro may have shared in the joy that the Jews felt over their deliverance from slavery. In response to these feelings Yitro declares (18:10) “Baruch Hashem!”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94) infers that Yitro was the first to say “Baruch Hashem”, criticizing the Jewish People for never having utilized that phrase. The criticism is difficult to understand. After all, we read last week of the elaborate and heartfelt song that the people sang at the Red Sea. They may not have said the precise words “Baruch Hashem”, but Shirat HaYam is certainly an expression of gratitude. What is the Talmud trying to teach us?

The Ketav Sofer offers two answers. First, whereas the Jewish People’s joy at the Red Sea was whole-hearted and unadulterated, Yitro (as an outsider) empathized with the Egyptian suffering and was pained by their downfall. It is correct and wonderful to sing Shira when you are absolutely elated, like the Jews at the sea. But it is harder work, and therefore more of a teachable moment, when you can say “Baruch Hashem” when you have mixed emotions or when you realize that the good has come with a cost. The Talmud is hinting at the fact that ideally the Jewish People would have sung some Shira over the Egyptian slavery itself, and not exclusively over the salvation.

Second, Yitro never experienced oppression first hand. Yitro’s expression of “Baruch Hashem” was not in response to personal salvation. Rather Yitro shared in the joy of the Jewish People. He felt happiness because they were happy, and not for any self-serving reason. Yitro is exceptional in his ability to praise God for the miracles performed for others. Here as well, the Talmud’s praise of Yitro is a criticism of the Jewish People; for although they sang Shira for their own redemption, they did not think to say Shira for the redemption of their fellow Jews.

The Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 219) that one is allowed to recite the Birkat HaGomel on behalf of his/her friend. The Rema explains that even though Birkat HaGomel was instituted as an expression of praise for personal salvation, nonetheless if someone else feels true joy over the other’s salvation, then they too are eligible to recite the bracha. The Brisker Rav explains that this is the connection between Yitro’s goosebumps and his declaration of “Baruch Hashem”. Yitro felt personal joy for the reversal of fortune of the Jews. According to the Shulchan Aruch, Yitro was therefore eligible to say “Baruch Hashem”.

These two answers from the Ketav Sofer provide us with much to consider as we attempt to live lives of gratitude. It’s usually easy to feel grateful when something 100% good happens. Yitro teaches us the need to be grateful for everything, even when it is not 100% good, and even when there is much to be desired. Second, we need to exercise our empathy skills. It may be too emotionally challenging to fully mourn with someone who is mourning. But we can extend ourselves on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Let us try to be genuinely happy for others when they have reason to celebrate. It costs us nothing. It can help us remove jealousy and envy from our hearts. It allows us to connect more deeply with others. It affords us many more opportunities to bring joy and gratitude into our lives.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Silence: At Times Divisive, At Times Destigmatizing

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states (1:17)

“(Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said) All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.”

This statement parallels the expression: “silence is golden”. The Talmud conveys this very notion when it says, “a good word is worth one shekel but silence itself is worth two shekels.”

How can we think that silence is optimal, when our tradition teaches us that sophisticated and abstract speech is what distinguishes humans from all other life forms. We use our speech to pray, learn Torah and help out our friend. How can we possibly prefer silence over speech?

There are two very different types of silence. One type of silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence leads to discord, division and dysfunction. One example of this is when someone gives a loved one “the silent treatment”. Another example would be when a parent is reluctant/ afraid to discipline a child, and instead they say nothing.

The good type of silence is the type we utilize when we think before we speak. Silence is golden when we use it to choose our words carefully. Silence is appropriate when there is nothing to say that can help or change the situation- like the silence of Aharon after the death of his two sons. Better for Aharon to be silent than to ask questions that have no answers or to get angry at Hashem when he realizes that his understanding of God’s ways is limited.

Silence is also necessary to allow space to demonstrate our care for others. Our silence can show that we are ready to listen to someone else. It validates the other person’s existence and shows a genuine concern for them - no matter what that person will say, or whether we are in a position to fix or even help the situation.  Our silence is golden, especially when it enables someone else in need to be heard.
This Shabbat has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat at our shul. I thank Shanee Markovitz for speaking Shabbat morning. Shanee exhibits incredible strength and commitment by speaking back home in Hollywood. Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft Lauderdale members have suffered/ do suffer with mental health challenges. And many of these people’s families have suffered alongside them. Some of that suffering is due to the challenges in treating mental health issues, the lack of access to quality care, cost of care, insurance challenges, etc. But a large factor in that suffering is due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Whereas there is little or no stigma attached to a diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease, there is often a high degree of stigma attached to mental illness. That needs to change. We hope that this weekend will foster some conversations and spread awareness and information about mental illness: how to get help if you are dealing with mental health challenges, and how to help if you know someone in that situation.

I believe that the process of removing stigma and facing the challenge of mental illness begins with the good type of silence; silence that exhibits a willingness to hear about the issues and learn what we can do. A silence that emerges from our community’s culture of caring that conveys to others that we value them, we want to hear from them, and we are here to help.

In this week’s Parsha, Moshe tells the Jewish People, as they fear that they are trapped at the Red Sea:

“Hashem will prevail for you, and you shall remain silent.

If we utilize the good type of silence, then Hashem will assist in our efforts at destigmatizing mental illness and creating a more caring community.