Thursday, October 18, 2018

Feeling Good About Judaism

“Bind them as a sign upon your arm”

We recite this verse daily as part of the Shema. We generally assume that this means that men wearing tefillin on their arms serves as a sign of committing one’s actions to serving God. Now it might also mean that wearing tefillin is a sign of improved cardiac health.

        A pilot study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that regular users of tefillin, or phylacteries, may receive cardiovascular health benefits though remote ischemic preconditioning — that is, briefly restricting blood flow and oxygen to the heart and then restoring it. The results of the study were published last month online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

        The study involved 20 Jewish men from the Greater Cincinnati area including nine who wore tefillin daily and 11 who did not. A leather strap is wrapped tightly around either the right or left arm for about half an hour during morning prayers six days a week, often tight enough to leave grooves in the skin for a few minutes after they are removed. They are not worn on Shabbat.

        The researchers measured participants’ vital signs, drew blood for analysis of circulating cytokines and monocyte function and also measured blood flow in the dominant arm which is not wrapped with the tefillin. Blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study.

        Here again we have evidence that religion can be good for the body, as well as the soul. But what do we do with statements in our tradition that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (Kiddushin 39b)?

        “Feel good religion” is a term used disparagingly to refer to religion that emphasizes its benefits to adherents, over the commitments and responsibilities contained therein. If there are observable physical, emotional, social and psychological benefits to Judaism, does that make us a “feel good religion”? I believe that “feel good religion” is a problem if the focus is exclusively on the ego, and feeling good is viewed as the ultimate goal of the religion. It’s a problem when religion is used to validate one’s lifestyle, regardless of one’s contributions and efforts at personal improvement and bettering the world. When the message one takes from religion is “everything you’re doing is fine” or “you don’t need to change a thing” – then that person is practicing a dangerous form of “feel good religion”; one that will not lead to goodness, let alone greatness.

        However we are allowed- even encouraged- to feel good when we are pushing ourselves to do mitzvot. We are allowed to feel proud when we have extended ourselves beyond our comfort zone to learn and to grow. It makes sense that a man who is motivated to put on tefillin daily could glean heart healthy benefits from this effort. This is especially true when it comes to Torah study. Rabbi Yosef Rosen (The Rogatchover Gaon) points out that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is only fully realized when the one who studies benefits from the experience- not just intellectually but on a social-emotional level as well. This is reflected in Tehillim Chapter 19 (Artscroll Siddur pg 374) “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul……The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.”

        This is how I understand Rashi’s first comment on Parshat Lech Lecha (12:1):
Go forth: לֶךְ לְךָ, go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation”

        Avram would have answered God’s call to leave his homeland purely out of obedience. The Torah here is telling Avram, and us, that we are allowed to derive benefit and pleasure as a result of the effort expended on Mitzvot.  In the World to Come we will benefit from reward/ pleasure that is absent any feelings of motivation and concern for what else needs to be done. But this world is for work, and through the effort we can, should, and will derive both spiritual and material benefits.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Urge to Destroy, The Urge To Create

(Washington Post October 6, 2018) Anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy has pulled off another stunt that seized the attention of the art world — this time at the expense of his own work.

On Friday, a Banksy painting titled “Girl with Red Balloon” was being auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The spray-painted and acrylic piece depicted a little girl extending her arm out for a heart-shaped balloon, floating far beyond reach.

            The bidding climbed to $1.4 million, an amount that tied the artist’s own auction record from 2008. Finally, a hammer pounded to signify the end of the auction.

Right then, the painting’s canvas began scrolling downward, seeming to pass through its elaborate gilded frame — and reappearing below in neat, vertical strips. Later, Sotheby’s would explain that a shredder was hidden inside the frame.

The crowd began murmuring as they realized what was happening: The painting was “self-destructing” before their very eyes.

            "It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik said in a statement that described the incident as “the first time in auction history that a work of art automatically shredded itself after coming under the hammer.” 

Banksy on Saturday posted a video to Instagram that showed footage of a shredding mechanism being built into a frame for, presumably, “Girl with Red Balloon.”

“A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” he stated in the video text, “in case it was ever put up for auction ...”

The video then jumped to clips of Friday’s auction at Sotheby’s, indicating that Banksy — or someone who works with him — was there when it happened.

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Banksy captioned the Instagram post.

            My favorite part of this story is that according to the Evening Standard, the partially shredded artwork has doubled in value. The painting’s iconic place in art history may see the price only increase further in the coming months.

            Although the above quote is attributed to a 19th century Russian anarchist and atheist, I think Judaism agrees that the urge to destroy can be a creative urge. This finds expression in the Halachot of the 39 Melachot (categories of forbidden activity on Shabbat). One of the requirements for an activity to be forbidden is that it must be “constructive”. For instance, carrying a 50 pound sack of potatoes around your house may work up a sweat and be tiring, but it is not a Melacha because you have not transformed or acted constructively towards the potatoes. Two categories of Melacha seem to break this rule: Korei’ah, tearing and Soteir, demolishing. Our tradition explains that these activities are only Biblically prohibited if they are done with the intent to subsequently mend or rebuild. Here we see in Halacha examples of destruction being a creative urge.

            We also find this idea in Parshat Noach. We read how God brings a flood to destroy the world. Yet He also saves Noach and his family. The lesson is clear: God destroys the world in order to create a world that is less corrupt. This destruction was a type of creative urge. (This may also help explain the Midrash that says that God created and destroyed many worlds before the creation of our world. The lesson there too might be that destruction can at times be a creative expression.)

            There is a lesson here for us as well. Sometimes we need to alter our plans. Sometimes we need to adjust our perspective, our goals, or our expectations. And sometimes we need to destroy them; start from scratch and rethink the entire matter. As scary as this may be, we should remember at those moments that the urge to destroy can also be a creative urge, and a harbinger of great things ahead.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

V'Chol Asher Yikra Lo HaAdam Nefesh Chaya Hu Shimo" (Bereishit 2:19).

The Midrash says that the angels complained about the creation of man. Hashem, to prove man's greatness, brought all the animals before the angels and asked them what they are each called. The angels were unable to name them. Then He brought them to Adam who named each animal.
The simple understanding is that Adam correctly understood each animal's characteristic and its purpose in this world and gave them a name that captured their essence. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, however, says that what transpired was actually much deeper than merely a test of Adam HaRishonim's wisdom. It was proof of man's greatness and mastery over the entire creation. By naming the animal, Adam declared what the animal would be. Because Adam called it a certain name that became its destiny and its future for all time.

The Midrash is reminding us that human beings are unique among creatures in that we are not bound by fate and the laws of nature. Through God-given abilities like free will we can overcome the natural course of events to do better and be better.

Furthermore, continues the Midrash, Hashem asked Adam what Hashem's name should be and Adam said the Shem of Adnut, i.e. Master, for Hashem is our Master and the Master of the Universe. It is man who determines even Hashem's role in this world. Hashem acts with us in accordance with the way we relate to Him, with the name we give Him. If we relate to Hashem as our Omnipotent Merciful Father, that is how He will treat us. If we don't relate to Hashem as the all-powerful ruler of every detail in our lives but choose to relate to the laws of nature, then Hashem will leave us to the whims of the world and allow nature to run its course.

We generally assume that the name Adam comes from the fact that man was created from the earth, Adamah. However, says Rav Yehonoson Eibushitz, the name Adam is actually related to the phrase "Adameh L'Elyon", I am compared to the Elevated (i.e. God)”.  A person is created B'Tzelem Elokim and is compared to Hashem Himself. Even our comparison to Adama, the earth, can be understood with a positive spin.  Just like the earth never disintegrates and remains forever, similarly a person's neshama, soul, is eternal. The Maharal offers another positive spin on the name Adam:

“However, man’s character is especially comparable to the earth since the earth’s special characteristic is that of potential; through it, all that comes from it springs into reality, such as plants, trees, and everything else. Earth has the potential for all this. This, too, is the characteristic of man. He is a potential whose perfection [exists only when that potential] comes into reality. Therefore his name is fitting for him as he is a partner to the earth whose uniqueness is to transform potentiality to reality…”

As we read about the creation of humankind, let us wear the title of “Adam” with pride, and live up to its potential.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

You Can Take It (Tishrei) With You

I must admit that as we celebrate Shemni Atzeret and Simchat Torah I am tinged with sadness at the conclusion of the Tishrei holidays season. It is an emotion that I remember feeling even when I was a child. The end of Pesach is also a let-down, after the preparations and the celebration of the 8-day holiday. But Pesach leads straight into the Omer, which takes us through the subsequent 7 weeks until Shavuot, stopping along the way for Yom Hashoah, Yom Haatzmaut, Lag B’Omer and Yom Yerushalayim. Shavuot means the end of the school year, an exciting time for kids and parents as summer vacation plans take shape. After Simchat Torah, we have to wait close to 6 months before the next Chag, and two months before Chanukah. I’m sure this melancholy I recall from childhood was partly a reflection of the meteorological realities. The end of Sukkot in New England meant the onset of colder and shorter days. In Florida we get more sunlight and more sunshine (and almost no change in seasons). And yet I still feel that tinge of sadness, especially as I daven Mincha on Simchat Torah (the last Festival Amidah until Spring).

But then I remember one teaching and one story. First the teaching:  Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel in Parashat Pinchas explains the significance of Shmini Atzeret as follows: "On the eighth day you shall gather in joy as you leave your sukka and return to your home." The month of Tishrei is non-stop avenues of inspiration. From Rosh Hashanah to Aseret Ymei Teshuva to preparing for Sukkot to Sukkot, Shemini Atzret and Simchat Torah. It’s exhilarating. It’s inspirational. It can be exhausting and fun and meaningful all at the same time. It’s also not “real life” in the sense that we are not meant to live lives of 12 Tishrei’s per year. After the holidays we must go back to full weeks of work and school. But we must be sure to take the inspiration of Tishrei with us into the New Year. That’s the goal of Shemini Atzeret. Take a day (or two) to absorb the season and consider ways in which that growth can stay with us into the upcoming month of Cheshvan and beyond. We celebrate Simchat Torah as part of this reflection. If we want to live Tishrei lives even as we return to our homes, then Torah learning, Torah values and Torah living must be made a priority. Here are some practical ways to do so for your consideration:

Attend minyan more regularly: Communal prayer can completely change your relationship with prayer for the better. Whether this means attending more often on Sundays, Friday nights, Shabbat afternoons, weekday mornings and evening- be a part of our Minyan Campaign. You’ll be glad you did.

Make Torah study a part of your daily routine. Whether it’s attending a shiur in person, or listening / watching a shiur online or signing up for Torah E-mails/ WhatsApp groups. Torah has never been more accessible. And it is a crucial element in nurturing our souls.

Find ways to help people/ make life better for others: Volunteer for Bikur Cholim. Attend a Feed the Homeless program on a Sunday. Help a neighbor or friend. Contribute to the Young Israel Charity Fund. Be nicer to your friends and family. Smile more.

The common theme among all of these suggestions is that our shul can help facilitate these opportunities. And so my last suggestion is: Get More Involved in Our Shul. Attend a program. Join a Committee. Chair or Sponsor or Host an event. It will be a mutually beneficial experience for both the shul and you.

And now the story. It was common for Chasidim to spend Tishrei with their Rebbe. One year on Simchat Torah afternoon the Rebbe noticed that his Chasidim were sad. He understood it was because the holidays were coming to a close and they were sad to take leave of their teacher. After Mincha the Rebbe banged on his podium and announced for all to hear: “The God of Ata Bechartanu (“You have chosen us” – a phrase from the festival Amida – Artscroll pg 662) is the same God as Ata Chanantanu (“You have graced us with intelligence”) a phrase from the Havdalah paragraph, indicating the conclusion of Shabbat/ Yom Tov that we recite in the first weekday– Artscroll pg 268). Let us utilize Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in a constructive fashion so that the spirituality and growth that we experienced during Tishrei remains with us in the days and months ahead.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Beauty of Aravah

In his book “Like Dreamers” Yossi Klein Halevy tells the stories of IDF paratroopers who were involved in reuniting Jerusalem during the 6 Day War. One of those soldiers was Yoel bin Nun. Rabbi bin Nun was a founder of the settlement movement in Israel, including Alon Shvut and Ofra. He led a generation of religious Zionists to study Tanach as a way of understanding contemporary Israel.  Yoel was learning at Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, founded by Rav Kook and led at that time by his son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. One day Yoel was accompanying Rav Tzvi Yehuda through the streets of Geulah, when they came across a campaign rally for a Chareidi political party. An activist was addressing a crowd of black-hatted men, whom he kept addressing as “the community of holy etrogim”. 

        There is a well-known Midrash that compares the 4 species that we take on Sukkot to 4 types of Jews. The Etrog, having both taste and fragrance is compared to the righteous Jews who possess both Torah knowledge and good deeds. The speaker was praising the assembled as “the community of holy etrogim.” Upon hearing this Rav Tzvi Yehuda tightened his grip on Rav Yoel’s arm and said emphatically, “The mizbeiach was not wrapped in etrogim.”

        Rav Yoel did not hear his Rebbe at first. Rav Tzvi Yehuda began pulling Yoel away from the area as if he wanted to get away. “The altar was not wrapped in etrogim,” Rav Tzvi Yehuda repeated. “The altar was wrapped in aravot.”

        Rav Kook was referencing another way that aravot were used, as described in the Talmud Sukkah 45a: “There was a place below Jerusalem, and it was called Motza. They would go down and gather branches of aravot, and come and put them on the sides of the altar, and their tops would be bent over the altar. As Sukkot came to a close and people left the Temple, they would turn to the altar, adorned with the arava for the last time, and proclaim, yofi lach mizbeach, yofi lach mizbeach, how beautiful the altar is, how beautiful the aravot were.”

        In what way is the aravah beautiful? By itself there is nothing eye-catching about it. It’s the beauty of hadar that goes on display when it is put together with the lulav and hadassim. The simple green leaves create an aesthetic that is on display, in context with the other minim. The aravot help create a pleasing and striking overall effect.

        Similarly, when adorning the mizbeaich there is no need to use objects that are beautiful or impressive in their own right. The altar itself was a work of art. What are needed are some accents to create an overall pleasing effect. The aravot must not draw attention away from mizbeach, but rather add a splash of green to the picture.

        The beauty of the aravah is found in the way it complements others through its dependence on and interaction with them. The aravah is the neediest of the 4 minim. It is the most water dependent. Its dependence is manifest not only in its appearance, but also its biology. This helps to explain why the aravah plays a major role in our prayers for rain, as our water needs are a good example of our dependence on Hashem.

        The word aravah is related to the Hebrew word for “mixture”. Due to its own simplicity, the willow must constantly mix with others- other minim, the mizbeaich, in order to fully contribute and be fully appreciated.

        An aravah is also a geographic location: a plateau; difficult to access and not useful in its own right, but useful as an artery connecting different places.

        What is beautiful about aravah is that it benefits others without needing to be in the limelight. Its combination of humility and benevolence- contributing to others without being the focus of attention- is truly beautiful. The aravah is our Jewish symbol of the beauty of servant leadership.

        Traditional leadership often involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to the best of their abilities. Making others look good while worrying less about oneself. This is servant leadership and this is the lesson of the aravah.

        How beautiful is the aravah, indeed!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Happy Yom Kippur

At the beginning of Yom Kippur, we recite the blessing of Shehecheyanu in shul, thanking G-d “who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” The Talmud in Eruvin (40b) teaches that the basis for the blessing of Shehecheyanu on all holidays is the experience of joy. Yom Kippur is not your typical joyous occasion. There is no eating and drinking. We spend all day in shul. The mood is rather somber and serious. And yet we recite Shehecheyanu- just like every other Yom Tov. Moreover, the Talmud elsewhere (Taanit 26) teaches that not only is Yom Kippur a Holiday, it is the most joyous of them all:

“There are no happier days on the Jewish calendar than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.”
As we find ourselves now at the beginning of Yom Kippur, it is worthwhile to appreciate why Yom Kippur is a day of such immense joy.

Towards the beginning of the creation story in Breishit the verse says,

“It was morning and it was evening, one day”

The Midrash notes that to be consistent with subsequent days of creation, the term should have been “Yom Rishon”, the first day. The Midrash states “Yom Echad- Zeh Yom Hakippurim”. Echad refers to a unique day, unlike any other day. This is an appropriate designation for Yom Kippur. Why is it appropriate to identify Yom Kippur as Echad, singularly unique?

Today is unique from all other days because today the rules of time and causality are superseded. In addition to Yom Hakippurim, the Torah calls today Shabbat Shabaton, which can be translated as a day of complete rest. The Torah is hinting at a relationship between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that Yom Kippur symbolizes an idea that challenges the meaning of Shabbat. Shabbat is a testament to G-d’s creation of the physical world. The physical world is bound by rules. It is a world where cause and effect occur in a dependable way. It is also a world in which the progression of time cannot be stopped nor reversed.

In our world, if you break something, the best you can do is fix it. And if it’s something fragile, like a glass or a mirror, chances are you will not even be able to fix it. It is impossible to un-break something. Nevertheless, the idea of un-doing is the foundation of Teshuva. By exercising our free will and approaching G-d in sincere repentance we can transcend time and undo the spiritual blemish that had been caused by sin. The Gemara in Nedarim (39) states that Teshuva is one of the concepts that G-d created prior to the world’s creation. Hashem had to create the notion of repentance first, because it challenges the natural order. It doesn’t make sense- and yet it works. Yom Kippur is a day especially set aside for teshuva. And for that we are happy.         

And today is unique from all other days because G-d comes to us in order to encourage and facilitate our teshuva. The rest of the year, we must be the ones to seek out G-d in order to repent. On Yom Kippur there is no need to find G-d. As the pasuk says, “Lifnei Hashem- Titharu.” Today we are already Lifnei Hashem, before G-d. All that we need to do is reach out and call Him. Today it’s not even a long-distance call; on Yom Kippur all calls to Hashem are local. We should remember that G-d is close by, cheering us on. He wants us to succeed. At the beginning of Kol Nidrei we said, “Al Daat HaMakom”. We refered to G-d as Makom, the Omnipresent. It is a subtle reminder that even as we come to terms with our deficiencies and how distant we have made ourselves from Hashem, He is still HaMakom, always right by our sides.

Let us cherish this unique day that is Yom Kippur. Let us celebrate the opportunities that this day affords us and let us maximize the lasting impact that it can have on our lives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The King and I

                    The Karliner Rebbe would serve as Chazan on Rosh Hashana morning and lead the congregation for Shacharit. One year, he began the special tune that prefaces Shacharit. As he said the word “Hamelech” (Birnbaum Machzor page 169) he fainted. It took a while before he came to and was able to continue with the service. Afterwards, his Chasidim asked him what had happened.

                    The Rebbe replied by recounting the story from Tractate Gittin pg 56a.

    The story is set during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, and the situation was dire. The city’s food supply was severely compromised due to fires started by insurgents. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai snuck out of the city in a casket in an attempt to secure temporary relief for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. When he reached the Roman military camp, he went to see the general Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan prefaced his appeal by saying “Peace be Upon You oh King, Peace be Upon You oh King”.

    General Vespasian replied in anger, “Your speech has made you liable for death on two accounts. Firstly, I am not a king- and you are mocking me by calling me such. Secondly, if I am indeed the king, why have you not come to visit me sooner to plead on behalf of your people?”

                    Rabbi Yochanan responded to Vespasian’s first reprimand by explaining that the day would come soon when the general would indeed be king. Although Rabbi Yochanan attempted to counter the second critique, ultimately the Gemara tells us “Ishtik” – Rabbi Yochanan was silent. He had no persuasive reason to support his delay in approaching and beseeching the king.

                    “It was the thought of this story that made me faint”, explained the Karliner Rebbe. For if Rabbi Yochanan had to concede defeat, and could not offer a compelling reason for not approaching the human king sooner, certainly our guilt is much greater for not optimizing our opportunities to approach Hashem, the King of all kings.”

                    The central theme of Rosh Hashana is that G-d is King. He owns exclusive sovereignty over creation. I don’t know about you, but when I hear reference to a king, I assume that it is in regards to a far-off place or a far-off time.

                    It used to be that Jews lived in places that were ruled by kings. On Rosh Hashana they were able to relate to what it was like to stand before royalty. Perhaps they or a family member had once met or saw the king. There might have been a story that circulated throughout the village about a person who had an audience with the king. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains that this real life knowledge and experience of monarchy was a blessing.  It made appreciating G-d as King on Rosh Hashana familiar and more accessible. If people know what the position of king and royalty entail, then they can more readily imagine that Hashem is the King of all kings; with the respect, obedience and reverence due thereon. Today the world’s political state of affairs is such that we have limited knowledge of kings. Of those monarchs that remain today, most are mere figureheads without real power. Many exist in the context of a constitutional or democratic system.

                    Rabbi Wolbe suggests that the fact that we have no model of kingship exacerbates our difficulties in crowning Hashem as King. It highlights our current predicament in which we are experiencing Hester Panim. G-d’s kingship is neither readily evident nor apparent to us. At best, our point of reference for G-d’s Kingship is analogous to that of an exiled government. G-d often seems distant. And yet we know that He is involved in the details of our lives and in the activities of the entire world. On Rosh Hashana, our task is to bridge the distance that can exist between how we feel about God and what we know to be true; how we often feel about ourselves and what we know can/ should be the case.