Thursday, August 22, 2019

Greatness is Found in Small Gestures

My favorite article this week was on, the news wire for Major League Baseball. The article by Mandy Bell began as follows:

“Yasiel Puig said Monday’s off-day changed his life. The Indians outfielder took advantage of his first free day in three weeks to rent a helicopter that would fly him to visit Camp Simcha in New York’s Catskill Mountains….. “

The writer goes on to describe how Puig joined the kids on the dance floor, crowd surfed throughout the room, received a tour of the campgrounds, made candles, played catch and paid a visit to the infirmary to sit with a child who was too sick to participate in the group activities. The trip was very impactful; for the kids, but more so for Yasiel Puig himself.

“The Tribe slugger spent four hours at the campsite, struggling to convince himself to get back to the city to prepare for Tuesday’s game. He entered the day expecting to give kids advice on how to stay strong through difficult times, but it was Puig who left feeling inspired.
“[A boy] started talking about baseball, saying, ‘I love the way you play. Keep going, fight,’” Puig said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m the one coming here to tell you to keep fighting and everything will be fine, and you’re the one telling me to keep going, fight and work hard' -- and that made my day.”

The minute that he left, Puig began asking how soon they could return to visit with the kids. He wanted to make an impact, moving others to take advantage of their free time to visit with children in need. Although he may not know whether he’s influenced others to follow in his footsteps, he now knows his actions have been noticed throughout the world.”

You don’t have to be a sports superstar to make an impact on others. And it doesn’t require big actions to create huge impact. Our Parsha is named Ekev. The word “ekev” is difficult to translate. In many translations it is difficult to pinpoint the exact translation of the word. Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that translates the word as a heel, the bottom of your foot. Here Moshe is saying that we should be careful with seemingly insignificant mitzvot that we might discard and kick aside with our heel. Even such light mitzvot can have enormous impact. 

It is often those actions that are performed away from the limelight and with little fanfare that can be so meaningful and important. It is not surprising that Moshe teaches this lesson at the end of his life. The most humble of all Jewish leaders was also the most impactful. This lesson is evoked again later in Parshat Ekev, through the juxtaposition of these two verses (10: 17-18)

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. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.

Rabbi Yochanan notes that God’s greatness is evoked alongside His “humility” ie concern for those who are often overlooked in society: widow, orphan, stranger. The lesson is that greatness is most evident in humble actions. To enjoy big and bold success we ought to practice the art of humility and appreciate the value of small deeds.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Right and Wrong Is Not Determined By Majority

Towards the end of Parshat V’Etchanan, Moshe says (7:7):

“Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.”

Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk, and how it reconciles with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand and the stars.

Rabbeinu Bechaye reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been, Hashem would have chosen them as His People.

Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combined populations of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.

Rashi explains that “me’at” in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and its leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise. (Proofs: Avraham – who says Anochi Afar V’Efer, and Moshe: the greatest spiritual leader ever, and yet the most humble as well.)

There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of”… In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.
I believe that there is another lesson to be learned from our dual status as chosen and few in number: Truth and righteousness are not determined by a majority. It is determined by objective morals and values informed by the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Amiel notes that in kosher laws we have a concept of Bitul B’rov- that if a small amount of non-kosher food falls into a much larger pot of kosher food- the non-kosher may be nullified, and we say majority rules. So, why do we not assume that the majority of public opinion, the majority world religion, the majority ethos of morality should rule, even when it contradicts Judaism? Rav Amiel answered that in Halacha we also have the concept of a davar hamaamid. If an ingredient maintains a presence, even if it comprises only a minute amount, it cannot be nullified and the entire dish remains impacted by that ingredient. Torah, objective morality, the Jewish perspective, are all examples of devaraim hamaamadim: principles that must continue to influence and impact the broader world, no matter how much of a minority the Jewish People might be.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Children Are A Gift

In an interview for the September issue of British Vogue magazine, Prince Harry interviewed noted primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall (who famously studied chimpanzees for 55 years) and the conversation turned to the need to preserve our planet for the next generation. Harry noted that his travels have allowed him to connect with and appreciate nature, “even before having a child, and hoping to have children.”

“Not too many!” Dr. Goodall said with a laugh. Harry responded: “Two, maximum!”

There is an idea that has gained increased traction in society that 1) The best thing we can do for our planet is have less children and 2) It is wrong/ selfish/ foolish to bring children into the world as it currently exists. This attitude is often associated with those who espouse a commitment to the environment. Earth is over populated. Too many people are fighting over scarce resources. More humans means more pollution and more damage to the planet. A number of celebrities, with millions of “followers” have subscribed to this way of thinking; either questioning whether it is proper to bring children into this world, or declaring that they have no intention of having children until there are major improvements in the environment. In the European Union today, the birth rate is 1.6 children per woman, well below the 2.1 “replacement rate” that is necessary to maintain populations.
But as Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe, points out, if they want to make the world better, the way to do so is not by depriving it of more children. He wrote in his column this week:

It is an inescapable fact of life that to be born is to suffer, to struggle, and to stumble. There has never been an age in which that wasn’t true, and people in most ages have contended with far more daunting fates than a warmer climate: war, famine, slavery, poverty, plague. Not having children may spare theoretical offspring from inheriting a world with terrible problems. But it also denies the world the ultimate resource for fixing those problems — human intelligence, imagination, and grit… Every time parents bring children into a world where things have gone badly wrong, they improve the odds that there will someone to help set things right.

Jacoby quotes the story of the birth of Moshe. At that time most Israelites had stopped having babies: saying why should we have more children subjected to this Egyptian cruelty and oppression? This was Amram’s thinking too, until his daughter Miriam convinced him otherwise. As a result Moshe was born, leader of the Jewish People who facilitated their redemption from Egypt.

On Tisha B’Av some of the most tragic stories are those involving the suffering of children: The tragedy of the children on the ship at sea (Kinah 16 “Zechor Ashar Asah”), the depressing tale of the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol (Kinah 23 “v’et Navi”), the gruesome story of Doeg Ben Yosef (see Eicha 2:20 and Talmud Yoma 38b). After such destruction and tragedy it might be understandable why some respond by vowing not to bring any more children into a world that is so broken and full of so much pain. And yet our Rabbis (Talmud Yevamot 62a) teach the exact opposite:

אין בן דוד בא עד שיכלו כל נשמות שבגוף

Moshiach will only come once all souls that have been destined to inhabit physical bodies will do so.
Every child can be viewed as one step closer to the ultimate Redemption. In Israel today the birth rate is 3.1 children per woman, significantly higher than all other comparable developed countries (Mexico is second with a rate of 2.15).  The birth rate in Israel is comparable to the "baby boom" in the United States after World War II.
We live in complicated times. Let us respond to these times by valuing the importance of children, for the Jewish People and for all of humanity.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Tapping into the Magic of Jewish Summer Camps

This week marked the midway point for many Jewish summer camps. A number of our youth returned from camp, while others embarked on their Jewish summer camp experience. Jewish camping as we know it began in the late 1890s as a way to provide children with a brief respite from industrialization. “By the late 1920s, Jewish summer camps had gotten explicitly ideological: socialist, communist, anarchist, Zionist, Yiddish,” writes Dan Nosowitz in his article The Evolving Ideologies of American Jewish Summer Camp.

“Zionist summer camps prepared kids to move to Palestine … [while] a socialist summer camp would have no individual money, and any packages a camper received from home would be divided equally to the rest of the camp. Labor was highly valued; a punishment for bad behavior would never be, say, cleaning the bathrooms, because bathroom duty was a noble and important role in the camp society.”

A 2011 report crunched the numbers and looked at the long-term influence of camps based on evidence from 26 studies on Jewish engagement. Among its findings:
Adults who are former campers are 55 per cent more likely to feel emotionally attached to Israel.
As adults, campers are 45 per cent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month and 37 per cent more likely to light candles regularly for Shabbat.
And as adults, they are 30 per cent more likely to donate to a Jewish Federation.

From the study’s conclusion, “The impact of camp on Jewish community awareness should not come as a surprise. … The bonding experience of camp not only builds a long-lasting taste and yearning for community, it also creates habits of Jewish practice. It makes Judaism part and parcel of life’s most joyous moments. Moreover, those moments are experienced as integral parts of life in a beloved community.”

What is it about Jewish camps that make them so successful at instilling in children Jewish identities so deep that they last a lifetime? “Each camp has a very strong and intentional culture, camp by camp. Camp’s power to socialize young Jews — How do I be a Jew? How do I be a member of the Jewish community? — depends on this culture,” said Amy L. Sales, co-author with Leonard Saxe of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (Brandeis University Press, 2003). Culture encompasses everything, from how the Sabbath is observed to never deviating from grilled cheese on Mondays.

Why is camp so much more impactful in the lives of young people than most of the other activities in which they partake? Benjamin Kramarz suggested that camp effectively harnesses what anthropologists call “liminality,” the state of being in transition, the middle stage between one place and the next. While mainstream society mostly marginalizes and even suppresses liminality, pressuring us to “figure it out” and to decide who we are and what we stand for as quickly as possible, summer camp embraces and celebrates the in-between state, encouraging young people to openly explore themselves and the world around them.

Camp creates a whole new reality for young people, an alternate version of their lives that only exists between the months of June and August. In this space, everybody is between one grade and the next; everybody is in transition. This time, when children briefly lose their regularly assigned societal identity, is perfect for personal and communal transformation.
I think that the success of Jewish summer camps can serve as a model for other Jewish institutions, including shuls. By fostering a culture of ongoing religious growth, we can all tap into the liminality of our Jewish lives. Emphasizing community, valuing positive peer pressure, and valuing Jewish practice as both a part of our routine and yet something personally meaningful are just some of the ways we can seek to continue the positive impact of summer camp- once camp is over and once we age out of attending.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Message of the Mussaf

As technology and society has progressed in the 21st century there seems to be an ever growing sense that every situation and every moment can be replicated, recreated or made up for.  First it was the introduction of Dolly the cloned sheep. This technology opened up a new niche market: cloning your pets. The idea behind cloning is that biological material can be replicated. A few years ago, scientists claimed that with the help of a state of the art particle accelerator they were able to replicate the moment immediately after the Big Bang. If that very early moment of the universe’s existence can be recreated, then presumably everything else can be replicated as well. Science has taken us on a journey that indicates that no moment is so unique that it cannot be replicated in a laboratory.
This attitude has spilled over into society and popular culture. Miss a test or forget to do your homework? Don’t worry, there will be a makeup. Lost sleep last night? Don’t worry, you can always make it up. Deadlines are constantly being extended because people just cannot fathom that something can actually pass by without being made up later.  
A rejection of this attitude can be found in the Torah’s description of the special Musaf sacrifice offered on Shabbat. The Torah tells us:

Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato:

The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. The Midrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same. If I miss bringing the sacrifice this week, then I’ll just bring two next week. Comes the verse to tell us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there are no makeups. As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. It may seem like we are doing 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 in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite every 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 (ie if you miss Shacharit, you can say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the concept 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: for instance, the example of teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to the belief of some, there are things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. This is especially true with the moments of our lives. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to make better time.) We can’t go back in time. (alas, we have yet to discover the flux capacitor that enables at  1.21 gigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  Let us recall the message of the Mussaf: some things in life cannot be replicated; they must be appreciated and savored while we have the opportunity.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

2.2 million dollars. 4 days. 23,000 donors. One little girl. The story of two year old Eliana Cohen has gone viral. She was born with SMA Type 2, a rare genetic condition that prevents her from being able to stand or walk. A gene therapy was recently developed, called Zolgensma, which creates a gene that ensures she is able to breathe, eat and sit up on her own. At 2.2 million dollars for a single dose, it is the most expensive drug in the world. It was approved by the FDA only for babies under the age of 2 years. Due to a misdiagnosis at an early age, Eliana’s SMA Type 2 was only detected a month ago. Eliana was five days away from her second birthday when a crowdfunding campaign began.

                Within four days, 23,000 people had donated to the cause on the fundraising platform The Chesed Fund. At noon this past Monday, the goal was reached and the campaign was closed. In their thank you letter, her parents wrote, “Please continue to pray for Chana bat Shani (her name has been changed), as we still have a long way to go!”

This story reminds us of the very best elements of Jewish community. Many of those who donated did not know this little girl. They heard about this cause through “a friend of a friend” and the tight-knit nature of the Jewish community provided incredible results. This inspiring episode caused me to reevaluate one of Bilaam’s blessing in this morning’s Parsha.

In our Parsha, King Balak hired the great sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. As hard as he tries, Hashem does not allow this to happen. Not only is Bilaam unable to curse them, but Hashem forces Bilaam to utter blessings about Bnei Yisrael- three times. In his first set of blessings Bilaam refers to the Jewish People as (23:9) “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” Dwelling alone can seem lonely at times. But it has been the secret of our success and our continuity. The Jewish People have been unwilling to change our morals and values based on the current era or location. We turn to the Torah as our guide, even when it makes us unpopular or counter-cultural. We are a Light onto the Nations by wearing our distinctions as a badge of pride. As the nation who dwells alone we realize that we cannot rely on others for our survival. Rather we must rely on Hashem – and each other. This is why there are no “degrees of separation” between Jews. We are all family, whether we know each other or not.

I was recently learning with someone about the restriction of charging interest. I asked why interest should be forbidden: If we are allowed to rent our car for money and rent our house for money, then why can’t we rent our money for money? The answer we came to is that fundamentally I’m right. One should be able to rent their money for a profit. And in fact, you are allowed to charge a non-Jew interest (if charging interest was immoral we would not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews.) But that’s not how you treat family. And all of Klal Yisrael is family. Let us remember this reality, as we begin the Three Weeks period on the Jewish calendar, and as we constantly work on fostering a culture of caring within our community.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

“Talking to a Rock: More Productive Than You Might Think”

Our Parsha contains the mysterious events that transpired at Mei Meriva. After Miriam dies, the people are complaining again- this time because there is no water. Hashem tells Moshe to take the staff – and speak to the rock. Instead Moshe hits the rock, and water miraculously flows forth. While the people are happy- Hashem is angry; angry because Moshe did not do as he was told (and Aharon is faulted too- for not stopping Moshe?) Moshe and Aharon are punished harshly- they are denied entry into the Promised Land. One of the mysteries surrounding this episode is the initial Divine command: What’s the deal with talking to a rock? Of all possible manners to miraculously provide water at this juncture, why does God decide that it should come about as a result of speaking to a stone?
                Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that this Divine command was meant to convey an important lesson for us all: Sometimes it feels like we’re talking to a rock. That our message is falling on deaf ears. Nonetheless we should appreciate the value in speaking up in these situations, for even when we speak to a rock water may flow forth- ie there may be some beneficial outcome.

                You see, even when we’re talking to a rock, our words can still strengthen our own resolve. A UCLA psychology study suggests that labeling one’s emotions at the precise moment one is confronting a fear, can make you less afraid and less anxious. 88 people who have a fear of spiders were divided into 4 groups and exposed to spiders- with the following instructions:

One group was told to express their feelings of anxiety and fear before touching the spider. A second group was told to use words that helped to make the situation less threatening, such as “this little spider can’t harm me”- the typical approach used for de-sensitization. A third group was told to say something irrelevant to the spider situation and the fourth group was instructed to say nothing. The group that had the most significant decrease in their fear of spiders was the group that put into words what it was they were feeling- to say it as they felt it, not as they wished they would see things.   
                The verb to pray in Hebrew, L’hitpallel, is a reflexive verb. It means that the impact of the action is felt by the person doing the action. Just like L’hitlabesh means to get oneself dressed. Tefillah is an important exercise in self-reflection: When we verbalize words of prayer we are confronted with questions such as, “Do I believe what I am saying?”  “Are my values consistent with those I am expressing in my tefilot- and if not, how do I feel about that?”

                The same thing occurs when we speak to others. When we talk to/ yell at our kids to be more attentive or respectful- even if they are not listening to what we are saying, we need to be listening to what we are saying and be asking ourselves, “Are we modeling the behaviors and values that we’d like to see in our children, or friends, or co-workers?” Or are we in some way contributing to the behaviors and attitudes that we are verbally protesting against?

                Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock and it will flow forth water. From this story we learn that Hashem challenges us to speak up, even if it feels like we’re talking to a rock. For even if the rock cannot hear us, we need to hear ourselves. If we appreciate the importance of speaking up, even to a rock, may Hashem in turn hear our voices and bless our efforts.