Friday, October 7, 2016

Preparations are Never in Vain

This is why I want to be a meteorologist. If the predictions concerning Hurricane Matthew were correct, the meteorologists would have been commended for properly warning the residents of South Florida, ensuring that they were properly prepared and safe from the storm. And if the predictions were wrong- all they need to do is explain that the storm changed course- and people will be happy that they were not more negatively impacted by the storm.

Of course there will always be some cynics and skeptics, those who are generally disgruntled. They will complain that Thursday was a waste. they will argue that we could have been much more productive if the storm's course was more accurate. (Although many people I've spoken to have noted how productive they were yesterday getting chores accomplished in the house.) This disgruntled sentiment is expressed in this meme (borrowed, I believe, from a previous storm that was a true miss):

This sentiment is wrong for at least three reasons:

1) Instead of being disgruntled we should feel thankful. As we are aware, it could have been a lot worse for us. We will be much happier if we look for reasons to be grateful instead of reasons to be annoyed.

2) Others have been severely impacted by the storm, and our thoughts and prayers should be with them. We should also be considering ways to help those who have been impacted..

3) These preparations are not for naught. Life is all about being prepared (and showing up). No experience can be fully appreciated if one has not prepared in advance. Preparation helps us become better people- whether we need to utilize those preparations in real life or not. And you never know when an earlier preparation will benefit us later on in life.

Yom Kippur is a perfect example of the need for preparation. The Day of Atonement is jam packed with prayer and fasting. It is meant to serve as the culmination of a process of reflection, introspection, and repentance that begin with Rosh Chodesh Elul, was intensified over Rosh Hashanah and progresses through the 10 Days of Repentance.

Let us appreciate the value of preparation- those we make in the realm of Hurricane prep, as well as those who  make in the realm of spiritual prep.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Young and Senior, New and Old: We Need to Focus on Both

Parshat Ki Tavo contains within it the curses that Moshe foretells will fall upon the nation should they not live up to the expectations thrust upon them by the Torah. Part of this dynamic is understanding the metaphysical rules of cause and effect; ie sin brings punishment. The verses in Ki Tavo go into some details as to the particulars of such punishment. One element of the punishment is exile. The Torah goes into some detail about this exile, and by whom will it be perpetrated (28:49-50):
Hashem will carry against you a nation from afar…a nation whose language you will not understand. A brazen nation that will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.”

 Many of the Meforshim understand this to be an allusion to Rome under Vespasian and Titus. I understand this characterization to be just as important for us to understand for ourselves as it is a description of our enemies. A brazen nation is described as one that does not respect its elders. We are living in an age that generally considers “newer” to be “better”. We must not fall into that trap set for us by society. We must appreciate the wisdom of our elders and the debt of gratitude that we owe previous generations.

A brazen nation is also one that does not show extra care and concern for the young. Many people today look towards the future in a very pessimistic fashion. They focus on the problems that they feel lay ahead, and wonder whether humanity even has a future. They choose not to have children, for why should new life be brought into such a scary, sad world? We reject such a view outright and attribute it to a selfish and egotistical attitude. We believe that it is within our reach to better the world, and part of our legacy is to leave the next generation better off in some fashion.

A brazen nation neither respects its old nor its young. Many groups have been able to accomplish one of these two tasks, but at the expense of the other. For instance those who revere the old are often wary of the young, while those who concentrate on the young often ignore the old. Our challenge as Jews is to simultaneously be concerned with our pasts and our futures, to be respectful of our old and gracious towards our young. In this way we can avoid becoming brazen and avoid the curses while receiving the blessings promised to us by the Torah for doing the right thing.

We must never view situations in a myopic or "zero sum" fashion.
Our focus on the young and the new need not and must not come at the expense of our commitments to that/ those who are more senior or more established.
The goal is to elevate our communities and our service to all segments of the population, to the benefit of everyone.

Friday, September 9, 2016

If You See Something, Say Something

In our post 9/11 world, we are all familiar with the security-conscious slogan: “If you see something, say something.” Our vigilance is the first line of defense. Being aware of your surroundings can keep you safe and help save the lives of others. Seeing something is not only the first line of defense though; it also obligates us. Utilizing our sight perception thrusts upon us a responsibility to process what we have seen and then act in the best way as the situation dictates. If we see something but don’t “say something” ie we remain bystanders and do not act on what we see- then we become complicit, even responsible, for what transpires due to our inaction.

This is one of the lessons of the Eglah Arufah: the enigmatic ceremony  surrounding an unsolved murder, described at the end of Parshat Shoftim.  If a corpse is found outside of town, the Torah describes how the leaders of the closest population center must engage in a procedure during which they declare their innocence. As part of that procedure they leaders state (21:7):

And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]."

זוְעָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ (כתיב שפכה) אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ:

No one really suspects the elders of actually shedding this victim’s blood. However it is possible that they saw something that if they were being more vigilant could have led them to intercede in a manner that could have prevented this loss of life.

We live in interesting times. On the one hand, we have never had more opportunities to connect with each other (texting, social media). And yet at the same time there is more distance and alienation that people are feeling from each other. It may originate from the value we place on privacy. It is exacerbated by the long geographical distances that separate friends and family. The anonymity of the internet cannot be discounted. These factors (and more) contribute to people feeling disconnected and invisible.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  Research has shown that many suicides can be prevented if family and friends who see something have the courage to say something.

Let us learn the lesson from the Eglah Arufah and commit to being astute observers of the world around us - especially family and friends. Let us never turn a blind eye. Let us appreciate the opportunities we have to connect with others, and try our best to ensure that those in our social orbit do not feel invisible or disconnected. And let us commit to saying/ acting based on what we see. 

Doing so is a fulfillment of what the Torah describes as the end result of the Eglah Arufah ceremony:
כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהֹוָה:

for you shall do what is proper in the eyes of God.           

Friday, September 2, 2016

Don't Remove God from Your Picture

In Parshat Re’eh Moshe criticizes the pagan worship of other nations and then states (12:4)

You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.

דלֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Moshe here warns us to avoid the temptation of foreign worship and stick to serving God as delineated in the Torah through the commandments.

Many commentators address the question from this verse: What in particular does Moshe want the people to avoid?
Rashi quotes the idea that in this pasuk we are being warned against erasing God’s name.
אזהרה למוחק את השם

I could not help but wonder: Of all the practices we associate with paganism, why is erasing the name of God singled out and why are we warned especially to avoid that behavior? (and furthermore, is it really so that pagan service entails erasing names of gods?)

To answer this question let us consider the underlying philosophy of paganism: self worship. Avodah zarah is an expression of the ego to the extreme. Adherents of idol worship do so because they think that they are in total control of their life and their destiny; not directly, but they can intercede on behalf of whatever future result they seek. It is an attitude that sees no role for God. It is an attitude based on achieving certainty in one’s life, by believing in the formulaic approach to worship that believes that if you want this outcome, all you have to do is serve this god. And if that happens to you, just brings gifts to this other god to fix the situation. In this model man is helpless to better his own lot. He is totally dependent on the whims of the gods.

The first step in adopting a pagan attitude is to erase God from areas of our lives. This can come from a place of helplessness (ie “even God can’t help me now”) or from a place of misplaced humility (ie “Who am I that God should intercede on my behalf?”)

 Moshe is adamant that we not erase God’s name. Judaism rejects paganism and affirms the Presence of Hashem in every facet of our lives. Let’s do our best to never removeGod from the beautiful and complex picture of our lives.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Greatness in Humility

In January 2011, during an exclusive dinner held in Washington DC, presidential advisor Valerie Jarret was sitting at the head table with some important politicians and high ranking military officials. A man walked behind her, dressed in a uniform. Jarret asked him for a glass of wine. Only one problem: the uniformed man was not a waiter. He was 4-star Army General Peter Chiarelli. (What would you have done in that situation? Chewed Jarret out, military style, for her offense? Politely introduced yourself and let her realize her colossal blunder?) The general did none of the above. Instead he went over and poured her a glass of wine. When Jarret realized her mistake, she was mortified. So the general diffused the awkwardness by inviting Jarret to his home for a dinner sometime (where it’d be fine for him to serve her wine). As General Chiarelli put it in an e-mail:
“It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made. She was sitting, I was standing and walking behind her, and all she saw were the two stripes on my pants, which were almost identical to the waiters’ pants.”

General Chiarelli is not alone. Former basketball great Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz was once at the baggage claim area in Salt Lake City when a woman mistook him for a skycap and asked him to carry her bags to the car. So Karl Malone carried her bags to the car. Only when she reached in her purse to give him a tip did he explain that that was not necessary and introduced himself in a friendly manner.
Journalist and author Bob Greene quoted this story as a lesson that graciousness can pay priceless dividends, and it doesn’t cost a thing. Jewish tradition is full of stories of our greatest leaders willing to involve themselves in the most menial of tasks- on behalf of a fellow human being or an important cause.

Here’s one of my favorite stories of that genre, about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, whose yahrtzeit was yesterday, the 21st of Av:
Once Reb Chaim came out of his house and found a group of children waiting for him. “What do you want?” He asked the youngsters.
“We would like to play horses,” the children replied.
“So nu, go play.” Said the Rav of Brisk.
They responded that no one wanted to be the horse., everyone wanted to be the driver or the passengers.
Reb Chaim immediately volunteered to be the horse. He was roped by the children and they forced him to move along. 
One time when they were playing horse in this fashion, the children got tired and hungry. They told reb Chaim that they would tie him to a tree and then go home to have a snack. Reb Chaim said OK, and the children tied him to the tree with a few strong sailors’ knots. The children went home and forgot about their game, which left their horse, Reb Chaim tied to the tree. It happened to be that the tree was directly in front of Reb Chaim’s shul, and the gabbai saw this strange sight: their Rabbi tied to a tree. He srung into action and told Reb Chaim that he would cut the knots with a  knife to free him. Reb Chaim refused because he did not want to disappoint the children. He insisted that the gabbai go and round up the children so that they could return and finish their game.

At the end of Gemara Megila Rabbi Yochanan said: “Wherever you find the greatness of Hashem described, there you will find His humility.”
The source of this teaching: Parshat Eikev:
For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe.

יזכִּי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד:
18He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.

יחעֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה:

Hashem may be “the G-d of heavenly forces and the Master of all masters, great mighty and awesome.” But He is also described as “performing justice for the orphan and widow, and loving the stranger.”

Greatness is manifested through humility. Through our willingness to get our hands dirty, through living our lives with the attitude that nothing is beneath us if it’s for another human being or for a good cause. We need to walk in God’s ways in this way as well, and understand that our real prominence manifests itself the most when we are great enough to be humble.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Unique Shabbat

Parshat Pinchas describes the sacrifices offered on special days. Concerning the special Mussaf korban on Shabbat, the Torah tells us:
Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato
The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. 

The Medrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same, and if I miss bringing the sacrifice this week then I’ll just bring it next week. The verse comes to teach us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there is no make up. 

As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. We may seem to do the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. 

Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression today in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite each Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (miss Shacharit, say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the "make-up" possibility that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: sometimes referred to as teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to popular belief, there are some things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. 

This is especially relevant with the moments of our life. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to "make up the time".) We can’t go back in time. (we have yet to discover the flux capacter or generate 1.21 jigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  With the help of the lessons of Korban Mussaf – Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato- let us better appreciate those things in life that cannot be replicated.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Challenge of Changing Course

Remember when you were a child, and you were involved in something that was wrong or detrimental? It was pretty easy for someone to tell you to change course. You might not have listened to that person (usually an adult authority figure.) But the message was clear and the changes needed were made explicit. But then we grow up. As adults we are expected to be responsible for our own actions. Telling an adult that s/he is doing something wrong is generally frowned upon as infringing on others. People don’t want to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong. And most adults are not interested in hearing about our faults or shortcomings. We are all too often defensive, and it often sounds like the person offering advice is doing so in a smug and condescending manner (whether that is the case or not). The result is that many adults continue down the road of bad choices and bad behavior as if compelled to do so.

This is how I understand the story of Bilam, as described at the beginning of our Parsha. King Balak seeks Bilam’s help in cursing the Jewish people. Bilam agrees to do so. The Torah makes clear that God thinks this is ill advised for Bilam to do. And God makes this clear to Bilam, but it is done in a way that maintains Bilam’s free will, which creates some ambiguity and resistance on Bilam’s part. The first way that God hints at His critique of Bilam’s behavior is by asking a rhetorical question:
God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?"

טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיֹּאמֶר מִי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה עִמָּךְ:
God knows all, so why is He asking this question? It seems to be God’s way of alerting a person to his/her bad decision while providing them with the space to make amends.  I can think of two instances in Bereishit where we find this technique. First in the aftermath of the sin of Adam and Eve:
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you?"

טוַיִּקְרָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָאָדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶּכָּה:
10And he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid."

יוַיֹּאמֶר אֶת קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן וָאִירָא כִּי עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי וָאֵחָבֵא:
11And He said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

יאוַיֹּאמֶר מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה הֲמִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכָל מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ:
(Adam squanders this opportunity by blaming everything on Eve)
A similar technique is utilized by God in the aftermath of Hevel’s murder at the hands of Kayin:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

טוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי:
Again, God is asking Kayin a question, even though He knows the answer. Here, too, God’s question is an opportunity for the person to change course, fix the situation, repent.
God asking humans these types of questions is like when a friend tries to warn you about something by saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Or when a spouse says, “Are you sure you want to wear that? / have that second piece of cake?”

Even when God gets angry at Bilam for ignoring his “questioning” He does not force Bilam to change course:
God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

כבוַיִּחַר אַף אֱלֹהִים כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ לְשָׂטָן לוֹ וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל אֲתֹנוֹ וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ:
Yet even now, not only does Bilam ignore the warning signs- he does not even see them (the donkey sees what Bilam cannot/ will not.)
Bilam is blinded by his bad choices (see 24:3, and Rashi there: Bilam has vision problems). As a result, Bilam gets trapped:
The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.

כווַיּוֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲמֹד בְּמָקוֹם צָר אֲשֶׁר אֵין דֶּרֶךְ לִנְטוֹת יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול:
The story of Bilam is a cautionary tale of the challenges that adults face in changing course. Who will tell us that we need to change? Who are we willing to listen to? How will we get the message? Let us learn from Bilam’s mistakes, and realize that even though it may seem as if our decisions have caused our options to become limited, it is never too late to change course in some way.