Friday, December 28, 2012

There Are No Sure Things

At the end of his life, Yaakov wanted to leave his children with a message of hope and consolation. Chapter 49 begins with Yaakov calling together his sons at which point he says, “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days.” However Yaakov does not live up to this promise. He blesses his children but we see no further explicit mention of the End of Days anywhere else in Yaakov’s last words. Rashi quotes the midrash that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children when Moshiach would come, but just then his Divine inspiration departed and he no longer had access to that information.

We can all understand Yaakov’s desire to take leave of his children on a note of comfort. His family was now in Egypt and the years of slavery were yet to begin. As Yaakov lay dying, his sons probably were feeling vulnerable and dejected. It is only natural that Yaakov wanted to tell his children that “everything will be OK- and I can prove it to you by telling you when Moshiach will come.”
However Yaakov was not allowed to convey that message. In this way the Torah is teaching us an important lesson: there are no sure things in life. We have to try our best every day, even when the results are not guaranteed. We cannot give up on doing the right thing, even when it appears that nice guys finish last.
It would have been great had Yaakov been allowed to assure us that everything would work out OK in the end. By God not allowing him to do so, we are given the greater challenge – living a righteous life under an air of uncertainty.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

We are All Stakeholders

One of the “hot topics” during the recent presidential election was the discussion centered on notions of entitlement and responsibility. Many conservatives claim that the federal government is too big, people rely too heavily on government programs and we are creating an unhealthy “culture of entitlement”. Many liberals argue with this suggestion and emphasize the importance of government providing safety nets for the most vulnerable and underprivileged among the population.

While the proper size/role of government is a debatable issue, what is not debatable is the importance of encouraging people, especially our children, to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Of course we want what’s best for our biological children and, more generally, the next generation. In this age of affluence we are able to provide for everything that our children need and many things that they want. But even as we shower gifts upon our children we must allow space for them to become contributing members of society, to do good deeds, and to develop a sense of responsibility. Every human being is a stakeholder in society in some way.

This is the lesson that emerges from the Garden of Eden. On the one hand God tells Adam and Eve that they had free reign over the garden. Except for one or two trees, they were free to take and eat anything in the garden. At the same time God gives them a charge: “to work and protect” the garden. Optimal enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction for Adam and Eve could not be attained until they were made stakeholders in the garden and given responsibilities.

This is also the lesson that emerges from the end of Parshat Vayigash. After the seven years of plenty, the famine descends upon Egypt. The Egyptian people use all of their money and livestock in order to buy grain from Pharaoh, as planned by Yosef. After a year the people are left without any assets. They turn to Yosef and say (47:19): “Acquire us and our land for bread.” In the next verse we see that Yosef agrees, but only in part: “Thus Yosef acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh.” Yosef refuses to enslave the Egyptian people. Instead he makes them sharecroppers; they would work the land that was now owned by Pharaoh, they would keep 80% of the produce and pay 20% as tax.

Yosef understood that keeping the Egyptians as stakeholders in the land and in its ongoing cultivation was a good idea- for both the Egyptians and for Pharaoh. It was good for the Egyptians because it allowed them to maintain their self-identity and self-worth. It was good for Pharaoh because citizens that are no longer stakeholders in society have no reason to positively contribute. They get bored, disillusioned and are more likely to revolt against the powers that b

 If we want our children to become responsible, productive and contributing members of society, then we must learn from our ancestor Yosef.  We must empower the next generation and remind them of their responsibilities. We must teach them that they are important stakeholders: in their family, in their school, and in their community, in their world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Few - and Proud

This morning in my Tefilah class I studied the Al Hanisim paragraph with 6th grade boys. I focused on the phrase in the prayer where we thank Hashem for the Jewish victory over the Greeks where it is described as “the many in the hands of the few.”  I reminded the class that the Greeks were not primarily interested in killing Jews, as Haman and the Nazis were. Rather, their interest was in extinguishing Judaism. A Jew would be left alone if s/he gave up unique Jewish beliefs and rituals and lived life as a Greek. Persecution would only occur if Jews refused this offer. Many Jews accepted the Greek offer and lived comfortable lives as Mityavnim. However there was a small cadre of people, led by the Maccabees who refused to give in, or give up.

As I emphasized in today’s class, they understood that there were some ideas or beliefs that are worth fighting for, even worth dying for. I compared the Maccabees to the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. By and large, citizens of the 13 colonies could have gone on living comfortable lives as subjects of the British. They may have been taxed unfairly, but they would have been left alive. Yet they understood what the Maccabees understood: that there are some rights and ideas worth fighting for.

Chanukah also reminds us that being right does not always put you in the majority. As we read in Al Hanisim, the miracle was that “the many were given over to the few.” In a sense, this is the ongoing miracle of the Jewish People and the Jewish State: the few continue to persevere. Against all odds, against lopsided UN votes, we are still here and we are not going anywhere

Parshat Mikeitz begins with the story of Pharaoh’s dreams. Rabbi Moshe Amiel asks: In Egypt, they don’t talk about this Pharaoh anymore. Egyptian history books barely mention his name, and definitely do not describe his dreams. Yet in Judaism, Pharaoh’s dreams are part of our holy Bible. We read and study Pharaoh’s dream to a much greater degree than they do in Egypt. Why is this so?

Rabbi Amiel suggests that although Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as relevant for that particular point in history, there was a much larger significance to this dream that is relevant throughout Jewish history. The narrative of the healthy cows being swallowed by the skinny cows and the healthy stalks being devoured by the skinny stalks is the ongoing lesson of “the many in the hands of the few….the strong in the hands of the weak.” It is a Jewish theme and promise throughout history, not just on Chanukah.

The convergence of Parshat Mikeitz with Chanukah is the right time to remind ourselves of the lessons of “rabim biyad me’atim.” There are beliefs worth fighting for. Even when we are right, we may be in the minority. And just because we are in the minority does not mean we are destined to be lost to history.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Learning from Yosef Ha'Ivri

The story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar and his interaction with Potiphar’s wife can teach us a great deal about how we should strive to live our lives as Jews. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Yosef, and Yosef responds that he will not succumb to temptation on two accounts: “1)there is no one greater in this house than I, and Potiphar has denied me nothing but you (since you are his wife); how then can I perpetrate this great evil. 2)And I would have sinned against God.”

I admit that my punctuation of the last few words is debatable. One could argue that Yosef’s mail concern was that committing adultery is a sin against God. However I see within Yosef’s words the appropriate approach to gauging the correctness of our actions. First of all, Yosef considers the human impact of his actions and understands that committing adultery would be a sin against Potiphar, not only because she is his wife, but also because of the trust that Potiphar had placed in Yosef and adultery would be a supreme violation of that trust. Secondly, and just as important, even if Yosef had no feelings of respect and gratitude towards Potiphar, and even if he resented Potiphar and really wanted to hurt him, Yosef would not succumb to temptation because it would be a sin against God.

Yosef models for us the considerations that we are supposed to have. If our actions would hurt someone else, then even if we could rationalize those actions as not being a technical violation of halacha, it would still be wrong. And even if an action does not hurt anyone, we still must evaluate whether that activity is allowed according to Halacha, the code by which we are supposed to live our lives.

I believe that this is what sets Yosef apart and the reason why he is called “Ivri” on multiple occasions in Parshat Vayeshev. Yosef sets himself apart by holding himself to two high standards: one is the Halacha test, the other is the “mensch test”. Even if something could be construed as permissible based on the Halacha test, if we are to emulate Yosef Hatzaddik then we will avoid any activity that doesn’t pass the mensch tes

Let us learn the lessons of Yosef HaIvri well. Torah is distorted when it is used to justify improper behavior towards others, Jew or non-Jew.  A person who claims to be Torah observant yet hurts others is a liar. Let us never allow there to be daylight between being Torah observant and being a mensch.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tomorrow Is Another Day- To Sing Shira

In the second aliyah of Parshat Vayishlach we find the famous story of Yaakov's encounter with "a man" (32:25). There are differences of opinion as to who exactly this man was, with whom Yaakov wrestled. Some suggest it was Eisav's Gaurdian Angel. Others suggest the Torah is describing an internal struggle that Yaakov had with himself. Proof to this second approach is the fact that Yaakov is referred to in many instances as "the man." The story ends with Yaakov being injured but ultimately prevailing in his struggle.

Right before Yaakov receives a blessing and a name change to Yisrael, "the man" tells Yaakov, "Let me go for dawn has broken." Why must "the man" leave at dawn? Is he a vampire? Rashi quotes the Midrashic tradition that "the man" was Eisav's guardian angel, and angels must recite Shira, praise to God, at dawn. I find this idea most fascinating and worthy of our attention.

Working with Rashi's assumption, the lesson here is that even Yaakov's arch enemy must pay his respects to the God of Jacob at dawn. There will be a future in which all of humanity, even those who are currently enemies of the Jewish People will acknowledge God and the Jewish People's status as God's PR and Marketing in this world. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow- but we believe that the dawn will ultimately arrive at which point the Angel of Eisav will sing Shira.

And if we work with the interpretation that Yaakov as struggling with himself, then another insight emerges. As Socrates said, "the un-examined life is not worth living." Refection and introspection are not just for the High Holidays, but for all year long. As Jews we are called upon to take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror all the time. sometimes we struggle with ourselves. Sometimes we are struggling with God. The Torah here is telling us: it's OK to struggle, and you may even get hurt a little in the process. But realize that at the end of this struggle comes the dawn at which point you sing Shira to God. Whether you resolve the struggle or not, you don't leave without acknowledging that God is with us, even in the struggles.

The notion that Jacob's confrontation ends at dawn with Song to God reminds me of a quote by Elie Wiesel:
"You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude: A Reminder that We Can’t Go It Alone

I find it to be a most interested coincidence that Thanksgiving weekend in the US very often falls during the week that we read Parshat Vayeitzei, the Torah portion that teaches us much about gratitude. We read how Leah has the first four of Yaakov’s sons; the fourth son she names Yehudah, from the word Hoda’ah, to give thanks. As Leah puts it, upon having a fourth son for Yaakov, “at this time, let me gratefully praise Hashem.” There is much that we can learn from Leah’s naming of Yehuda and her expression of gratitude at this point. For instance, Rashi quotes the Midrash that Leah foresaw that Yaakov’s family would consist of 4 wives and 12 sons. If each wife would merit to have an equal share in the tribes of Israel, then each woman would bear Yaakov three sons. Upon having a fourth son Leah realized that she had been blessed with more than her “fair share” of sons. She therefore chose that moment to express gratitude.
                I would like to suggest an alternate interpretation, supported in part by the name of Leah’s third son, Levi. He is named such because Leah hopes, “this time my husband will be attached to me.” Even though Leah knew that she was not the favorite wife, she was sure that she could make Yaakov love her. She was convinced that by the time she bore Yaakov his third son (fulfilling her share of the tribes), Yaakov would have no choice but to love her. After the birth of Levi, Leah is forced to admit that nothing in life is a sure thing. Furthermore she realizes that even the best laid plans require help from God. She demonstrates that she has learned these lessons by naming her fourth son Yehuda, a name that indicates Leah’s newfound understandings. No person is an island. We all need help- be it from god or our fellow human being.
                Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner points out that the word in Hebrew for “gratitude” is related to the word for “admission.” When we express gratitude we are in effect saying that someone helped us and we could not have made it to this point without their help. Perhaps that is why it is difficult for some people to say “thank you”: for it can make them feel insecure at knowing that they could not do it alone or go it alone. On this Shabbat Vayeitzei/ Thanksgiving let us get more comfortable with expressing gratitude. Let us realize that having what to be grateful for is a source of strength for each of us and a reason to feel blessed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Something Else We Can Do for Israel - And For Ourselves

I commend the OU, the RCA and the National Council of Young Israel for coming together so quickly and issuing a joint statement recommending that we engage in extra Torah study on Wednesday and Thursday (11/21 and 11/22) to create extra merit for the safety of Israel and its citizens. It's wonderful to see National Orthodox organizations coming together in a constructive manner on behalf of an important cause, and hopefully such cooperation can continue even after this crisis is over and Israel is safe.

I recommend that we all follow this suggestion and find ways to add additional Torah study to our daily schedule on Wednesday and Thursday - go to an additional shiur, listen to a class online, learn a sefer- a little bit more than what we normally do. The beneficiaries of such activities are not only those in Israel, but everyone that takes the time to commit to do something religiously meaningful on behalf of others.

Participating in this initiative is an opportunity to re-calibrate our relationship with Torah study. It also affords us the chance to confront our feelings about the relationship between religiously meaningful actions and their impact on the "real world" around us. It is an opportune time for each of to explore our own feelings on how we understand how Torah study and mitzvah performance in America can positively impact the situation in Israel.

I'm thinking that in addition to prayer and Torah study and charity (especially charity to support those impacted by the current situations - in Israel and post-Superstorm Sandy) we should consider committing to engaging in activities, specific to the situation at hand, that can create additional merit.
I propose that we start at our Shabbat tables this week.

In many communities Shabbat meals are shared with friends- both old ones and those whom we might have just met. Oftentimes the conversations turn to topics that people care about deeply. For some, it's politics. For others, it is often Jewish institutions, whether local, national, or international. Among parents of school aged children, the topic of conversation often turns to their experiences with the day schools that their children attend (or once attended, or plan to attend, or will never attend.)

Often times due to our passion and zeal for these institutions and and the investments that we make into these organizations, the conversations harp on our disappointments, even anger; sometimes the discourse turns to slander and rumor mongering.

This Shabbat (and from here on out) let uschange our attitudes and the discourse. We can do so in a way that stands in direct contrast to how our enemies in Gaza conduct themselves, thereby also creating merit for our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Hamas has no regard or use for the truth. They spew utter falsehoods and half truths as if there is no such thing as objective truth and everyone is entitled to their own facts.
In response let us avoid promulgating or perpetuating lies or rumors within our own communities. Let us remember the old adage that something that is 99% true is really 100% false. Let us remember how damaging rumors can be and that the prohibition of Lashon Hara applies even to those causes and institutions that we care deeply about. And the prohibition of Lashon Hara even applies if what we are saying is true.

Hamas, seeks to de-legitimize Israel and reject Israel's right to exist. 
In response, let us resolve not to de-legitimize our fellow Jews, even when we passionately disagree. Let us state our positions with respect and love, and listen to others (much harder for some of us) with similar respect and love. Let's remember that those who disagree with us may be seeking the same goals as us, but have different views on how to achieve them.

Hamas has utter disregard for human life. 
In response let us commit to valuing our fellow Jews, even those with whom we disagree. Let us never lose sight of the Tzelem Elokim in each of us, a perspective that is fundamental to our interactions with our fellow Jews, and the institutions within our Jewish community that we care about so deeply.

May these efforts transform our lives and communities for the better. And may the merit of that transformation serve as protection for Israel and her citizens.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sometimes there is no "Other Hand"

As thinking, serious Jews we are willing to hear both sides of a story. We are comfortable with the idea that there are a multiplicity of possible opinions, solutions or approaches to any given situation or problem. We embrace the notions of "Eilu V'Eilu Divrei Elokim Chayim" ("this and that are both the words of a living God") and "Shivim Panim L'Torah" ("there are seventy faces to the Torah"). We are taught to be wary of positions that are myopic or unyielding. We remind ourselves often that no matter how convinced we are of our opinion, we should leave room for an alternate view (even if we think that view is flawed).

But then there are situations, problems and events in which there simply is no room for a multiplicity of  approaches to the situation.  My thoughts are on the unfolding situation in Israel: the rockets raining down on heavily populated civilian areas, already killing three innocents and injuring many more. The media coverage might make some believe that there are two legitimate sides to the story, but there's not. The facts are simple and straightforward. Israel has been under missile attack from the Gaza Strip for years. Israel would not be carrying out airstrikes and other defensive operations in Gaza if there were no missile batteries in Gaza aimed at innocent Israeli citizens.Israel has been and is under attack. Israel has been unbelievably patient and willing to bear rocket fire on its citizens for far too long. It's time for Israel to remove the threat to its citizens lives and welfare.  It really is that simple. There is no "other hand" or other side to the story. There is no competing narrative that deserves our attention or our consideration.

And so today we prayer for the safety of the citizens and soldiers of Israel with a greater degree of intensity. And as we do, we must also do what we can to support Israel- specifically do all that we can to correct the gross suggestion that there is somehow two sides to this story.There isn't: All thinking, peace loving people of good will should see this- without any "other hand". Those that espouse the notion that there is another side to the story are exposing their true feelings: that Israeli blood is cheap, that Israeli citizens do not have a right to live in peace, and that Israel has no right to exist.

Now is a great time to remind ourselves that sometimes there is no "other hand". Sometimes there is only one truth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Live your life- and take some risks

There is a Medrash towards the end of Parshat Chayei Sarah that at first seems peculiar, but I believe it can teach us an important lesson.
                After Avraham’s death we read (25:11) “And it was after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzchak his son.” Rashi quotes two interpretations. The first interpretation emphasizes the timing of God’s blessing Yitzchak: ie after the death of Avraham. According to this explanation, God “made a shiva visit” to Yitzcah and offered him consolation over the loss of his father Avraham. This is the source in Chumash that God engaged in comforting mourners and from where we learn that we must act similarly and comfort mourners as well.
                In the second interpretation the focus is on who is blessing of Yitzchak: ie God, and not Avraham. We would have expected Avraham to bless his son before his death, just as Yitzchak and Yaakov do at the end of their lives. Rashi explains that Avraham considered blessing Yitzchak but refrained from doing so, after foreseeing that Yitzchak was destined to have a wicked son, Eisav. In light of this defect, Avraham was not comfortable offering Yitzchak a blessing and instead left the decision whether to bless Yitzchak up to God. The Torah clearly states that while Avraham may have had qualms about blessing Yitzchak, God did not.
                Perhaps the Torah here is teaching us the value of taking risks. Sure, there was a definite risk in spiritually fortifying Yitzchak, for that meant that Eisav would also be blessed by extension. This was a risk that Avraham was not willing to take. However Hashem “overrules” Avraham and blessed Yitzchak anyway. Hashem is teaching us that we sometimes need to take risks in order to create the big opportunities and huge accomplishments. Eisav may have been blessed by extension, but more importantly Yitzchak and Yaakov and all of their descendant were blessed, thereby changing the course of Jewish history. It may be that God’s decisions are less risky because He knows the outcome. Nevertheless I view Rashi’s second explanation here as a reminder and encouragement for us to take risks at times in order to maximize our success in life.