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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Be Careful What You Wish For: It May Come True

In a commencement address a few years ago, Conan O’brien shared this message with the graduates:
There is no greater cliché in a commencement address than "follow your dream." Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's okay.

More important than being stuck with a specific dream and on a specific path is that we develop a set of guiding principles and values upon which we live our lives. Along that path we may need to deviate from the original plan, but not only might that be OK, it might end up being better than what we had expected.

A corollary to Conan’s point is that we should be careful about what we wish for, because sometimes we get what we ask for. Circumstances and perspectives can change and we may end up unhappy when what wished for comes true.  We see this in the story of the spies in Parshat Shelach. Since the Exodus, segments of Bnei Yisrael have complained about leaving Egypt and not wanting to enter the Land of Israel. Finally, after their embrace of the majority opinion among the spies, Hashem punishes them that they will not enter Eretz Yisrael. Their response is to cry, even though not entering the land is precisely what they had talked about wanting.

It was a tough pill for Bnei Yisrael to swallow but it teaches us a powerful lesson: be careful what you wish for, because one day it may come true. Here’s an example: When we hold a newborn we think that they are so cute. After a few months, they get heavy and we wish that they would start crawling by themselves. But the crawling stage brings with it different and sometimes more challenging issues- like chasing the child, the child falling down, etc.  This is a typical phenomenon among parents and applies to every stage of life. For instance, “I wish my kid could drive”- and then they get a license and parents can’t stop worrying about their driving.

Let’s learn from the mistake of the Jews in the Midbar. We should be careful what we wish for. And instead of being stuck on a specific outcome, we should be flexible and open-minded, while remaining true to our core values.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Miriam and the Power of Labeling to Shape Our Perspective

Parshat Behaalotecha contains the story of Miriam’s gossip about her brother Moshe and her subsequent punishment. This event is so important that it is included in the Shesh Zechirot, 6 events that the Torah commands us to remember and that some have the custom to recite every day after Shacharit.

Commentators explain that the gravity of Miriam’s sin was her challenge to Moshe’s unique status as a prophet. Whatever the complaint was, part of it was that Miriam equated Moshe to all other prophets, herself included. A principle of our faith is that Moshe was a once in history prophet This must be the case- otherwise there is the possibility of a future prophet abrogating the Torah, by claiming that he is more qualified than Moshe. 

Certainly Miriam did not mean to offend or hurt Moshe; she was his older sister, who risked her life to save Moshe when he was a baby. Nevertheless, how she talked about him impacted how she related to Moshe- and herein lies the real problem. For if Miriam began thinking less of Moshe because of what she said about him, then Bnai Yisraekl very well might follow suit- with disastrous repercussions.

What we call something has implications in Halacha. The Shulchan Aruch writes that it is forbidden to pray inside a bathroom (that contains a toilet) as well as a bathhouse (room with a bath/ shower). However there is a difference between the two. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 83:2) teaches that prayer is forbidden even in a bathroom that has never been used. On the other hand, (OC 84:1) the Shulchan Aruch teaches that although one is forbidden to pray in a bathhouse, if the bathhouse has never been used- then one is allowed to pray inside it. Why should there be a difference between a new bathroom and a new bathhouse, especially since once they have been used they are treated the same way?
The Mishna Berura (84:2) answers that a bathroom is “more disgusting.” But if neither has ever been used we must carefully consider what the Chofetz Chayim (author of the Mishna Berura) is really trying to convey to us with this comment.
I believe that the Mishna Berura is alerting us to the fact that we relate to things based on what we call them, and how we relate to them. In our case, because the room is called a bathroom- it can no longer be used for prayer. This is a lesson worthy of our consideration: how we refer to something or someone can make all the difference in the world. We must be careful with how we label people and institutions, as it can have bigger repercussions than we ever imagined.

In the summer of 1976, the IDF sponsored a trip for disabled veterans to the United States. They arranged to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here is part of an account from one of the soldiers present at that meeting:

He spoke about our 'disability,' saying that he objected to the use of the term. 'If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty,' he told, 'this itself indicates that G‑d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people. You are not "disabled" or "handicapped," but special and unique, as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not.
" 'I therefore suggest,' he continued, adding with a smile '-of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them-that you should no longer be called nechei Yisrael ("the disabled of Israel," our designation in the Zahal bureaucracy) but metzuyanei Yisrael ("the special of Israel").' 

When a teacher has an impulsive student, is that student labelled “problematic” or “energetic”? When you find yourself in a challenging situation does it “stink” or does it “present you with new opportunities”? Does our shul/ school/ community have problems and need work, or are we great and looking to be even greater? The facts may be objective, but the way we talk about someone or something can make all the difference in the world.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Thriving in a Desert: Life Lessons

The Book of Bamidbar is about survival in the desert.  Are there any keys to surviving in a real desert that can help us in our spiritual quests as Jews?
I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about desert survival before yesterday. But in the post-Google age, you can become acquainted with almost any topic in mere minutes. What I’ve learned is that the first mistake people who die in the desert make is that they consider the desert a hostile environment that is conspiring against human life. The key to desert survival is learning to be part of the desert’s ecosystem. A practical example of this is extracting water from the desert cactus. To survive the desert, a person must learn to become part of the desert’s ecosystem and not view is as antagonistic.
This is such an important lesson for all of us. Not every tension, not every disagreement is necessarily antagonism. Friends can agree to disagree. Family members can have different perspectives on even important issues without it leading to an all-out war. Difficult situations can be the breeding grounds for very positive outcomes.

As important as this rule is for our interpersonal relationships, it is just as important in our religious outlook.  When we see the title of a shiur comparing a modern, contemporary idea with Halacha (Abortion and Halacha, Global Warming in the View of the Torah) what is our gut reaction? Do we assume that there is irresolvable tension between the two ideas? Do we believe that the Torah is by definition hostile to the world in which we live? Do we think that the Torah conspires against us living our lives as we want to? Or do we view the Torah as an ecosystem in which we can not only survive, but thrive and grow? 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Don't Just Talk About Doing- Actually Do It

The seventh aliyah (Chapter 24) in Emor begins with the command to light the Menorah in the Mishkan:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

אוַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
2Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

בצַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
3Outside the dividing curtain of the testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning continually. [This shall be] an eternal statute for your generations.

גמִחוּץ לְפָרֹכֶת הָעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן מֵעֶרֶב עַד בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם:
4Upon the pure menorah, he shall set up the lamps, before the Lord, continually.

דעַל הַמְּנֹרָה הַטְּהֹרָה יַעֲרֹךְ אֶת הַנֵּרוֹת לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד:

Rashi notes that these pesukim sound very similar to the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh:
And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

כוְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה | אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
21In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel.

כאבְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָעֵדֻת יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו מֵעֶרֶב עַד בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
This is how Rashi explains the difference between the two sections:
Command the children of Israel [and they shall take to you pure olive oil… to kindle the lamps continually]: This is the passage of the commandment of the lamps, and the passage [that begins with] “And you will command…” (Exod. 27:20-21) was stated only in context of describing the construction of the Mishkan, i.e., stating the necessity of the menorah. And the meaning [of that passage] is: “You will eventually command the children of Israel regarding this” [namely, here in our passage].

I understand Rashi as distinguishing between talking about doing something versus actually doing it. In Tetzaveh the Torah talks about the need for the Menorah, while in Emor it’s time to actually light and maintain the Menorah.

Jamie Farrell wrote an article titled “Stop Talking. Start Doing” In her conclusion she writes:
I wonder when this movement of talking about oneself will end.  I wonder if it will end.  People naturally think they’re interesting; and they inherently want to be liked, to be noticed.  But most importantly – I wonder what would happen if we all just stopped talking about what we are doing, or did, or going to do – and just started doing.

One of my favorite all time online videos comes from Temple Shalom in Cincinnati and is titled “Be Someone Else.” When we talk about how someone else needs to do something- for our family, or shul, or our community, we talking about doing. We need to commit to going the next step and be that someone else; not just talk about doing but actually begin doing.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Yearning For Israel on Yom Haatzmaut

There is a pasuk in Tehillim, Chapter 87:5 that states:
And to Zion it will be said, "Man and man was born in her," and He will establish it on high.

וּלְצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:

The Talmud in Ketuvot explains as follows:

Echad Hanolad Bah, V’echad Hametzapeh Lirotah

Two times Ish in the verse refer to both those actually born in Israel as well as those “Who yearn to see her”.

Some of us here tonight were actually born in Israel. Other people remember a time when there was no State of Israel and understand from living that history what it means to yearn to see Israel.

But there are many others today, including our youth, who don’t know of a world without Medinat Yisrael. I would go even further: there are many today that only know Israel as a developed country, as strong and advanced. The notion of Israel as a struggling developing fragile country is not part of their/ our experience.

And all of these groups celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in order to strengthen our commitment as Metzapim Lirotah, to count ourselves among those who proudly yearn for Israel and appreciate the significance of the State of Israel.
We do so in 2 ways:

First through our Yom Hazikaron commemoration we remember the sacrifices that were involved in Hakamat Hamedinah. In so doing we remember the significance of a State of Israel and why people were- and are- willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of that state.

And second, we shift gears and celebrate on Yom Haatzmaut the technologically and spiritually rich country that Israel has developed into in 69 short years.

If we take advantage of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut to fortify ourselves as Metzapim Lirotah, those that yearn for and appreciate Eretz Yisrael, then may Hashem fulfill the end of that pasuk in Tehillim:
וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:
and He will establish it on high.

May Hashem establish Medinat Yisrael above all other lands, as a light for all nations and a source of inspiration for us all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shemini and Yom Hashoah: Honoring Our Past

Parshat Shemini tells the story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is clear from the Torah that their deaths were a form of punishment; what is not clear is what was their sin.

Rashi suggests that their sin was showing disrespect towards Moshe by deciding Halachot in his presence. The Talmud in Sanhdrin picks up on this theme and elaborates:
Moses and Aaron were walking along, as Nadav and Avihu were behind them, and all of Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, "When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation." God said to them "Let's see who buries whom." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a).

According to the Talmud the fatal flaw of Nadav and Avihu was their disrespect and disregard of the previous generation. They believed that they represented the future of Klal Yisrael- and as the “next generation” they were better and smarter than their father and uncle. Instead of showing humility and learning from their elders, they demonstrate hubris and ignore, if not scorn, their forbearers.

It is very appropriate that we read Parshat Shemini this year right before we commemorate Yom Hashoah. Yom Hashoah is a day for us to remember and honor Holocaust victims and survivors. I am proud that every year the young Israel of Hollywood – Ft Lauderdale hosts a Yom Hashoah commemoration. This year’s event will take place Sunday evening at 8:15 PM. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of Dr. Lenny Hoenig, the program will once again include a dramatic presentation performed by the youth of our congregation. Our Guest speaker will be Mr. William Bernheim, an artist and survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Buchenwald concentration camp.

I urge you to join me Sunday night. Let us learn from the tragic mistake of Nadav and Avihu and be sure to honor and remember our past.