Friday, December 27, 2013

Choosing To Lose Our Free Will

One of the challenging ideas to understand in the Exodus story is how to relate to the idea, repeated a number of times, that God “hardened Pharoh’s heart.” This idea seems to be in conflict with the notion of free will. If it was God who hardened Pharoh’s heart, why should he be blamed. Punished for his refusal to free the Israelites?

There are a number of approaches to this question. I’d like to mention the approach of Maimonides, as expressed in his Laws of Repentance:

“It is possible that a person may commit a grave transgression, such that the True Judge rules that the punishment is that repentance is withheld from him and he will not be allowed the right to turn from his evil.”

Though this quote can be understood from a theological perspective, I understand it from a psychological one. Free will does not mean that our past decisions play no part in our choices today. There are consequences to our past actions, and sometimes those consequences include fewer options in the present. Sometimes those consequences include an inability to choose from all of the theoretical choices for a given scenario. A person can get “locked in” by previous choices. In effect, such a person can at times lose their ability to exercise their free will.

In the past I have discussed the liberating characteristic of Free Will; that every day is a new beginning that allows us to change the course of our lives and make better decisions. However Maimonides’ interpretation of the hardening of Pharoh’s heart warns us that sometimes our choices cause us to lose our ability to choose in the future.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What's In A Name?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash. Our Rabbis refer to it as Sefer Hageulah, The Book of Redemption. This name aptly describes the main topics and themes contained within: The redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is only fully realized with the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book.

            However most of us are more familiar with the second book of the Chumash as Sefer Shemot, literally “The Book of Names”.  Besides being one of the first words of the first Parsha in the book, are there any further lessons we can derive from the name “Shemot”?

            The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba) writes that one of the merits that the Jewish People accumulated throughout their years of slavery is the fact that they never changed their names. They kept their Jewish names as a way of reminding themselves that they were not part of the majority, dominant culture of Egypt.  Their Jewish names reinforced the idea that The Jewish People came from a different culture and from ancestors that had a unique relationship with G-d. Names have the power to remind us of who we are and from where we come. It is no accident that there is a widespread Jewish custom to name babies after ancestors, whether deceased or still living.

            But names have a future oriented role as well. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names. Rashi (on 15:5) introduces the concept of “Shem Gorem”: that a person’s name can have an impact on their destiny. Avram and Sarai would never have children. But with new names Hashem informs Avraham and Sarah that they were now ready to be parents. Names can identify a person with a unique mission and destiny.

            This future oriented aspect of names needs to be reinforced. A person or institution can attain a “name”, or reputation in one of two ways: based on past performance or as a hope and challenge for future achievement. Too often we too hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past events. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past may improve dramatically if given positive reinforcement and labeled in a good way (ie given a new name). The same is true of adults and institutions. As we begin the book of Shemot, let us realize that names not only connect us to our past, but they can help shape our future.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Loving Children Equally and Differently

Why doesn’t Yaakov learn his lesson? The trouble between Yosef and his brotehrs can be traced back, at least in part, to Yaakov’s favoring one brother over the other. Now in Parshat Vayechi, on his deathbed Yaakov does it again- not once, but twice.

First he gives Yosef a extra portion in the land of Israel, above and beyond what each tribe will get when they enter the land.

Later in the Parsha, Yaakov favors Yosef’s younger son Efraim over Menashe by placing his dominant hand on Efraim. Why doesn't Yaakov learn that “playing favorites” can lead to problems?
One answer is that Yaakov doesn't learn from his mistake, because Yaakov does not see it as a mistake. The problem was never with what Yaakov did; the problem lay with how the brothers reacted to this perceived favoritism.

Every person is different. We each have our unique talents and potential. It is therefore impossible for each person to be treated in an identical fashion. Just as we are different so too each of us needs different things in order to realize our potential. Why did Yaakov treat Yosef differently? Maybe he saw leadership qualities in Yosef that none of the other brotehrs demonstrated. Maybe it’s because Yosef had lost his mother at a young age, unlike any of the other siblings. The problem was not that Yaakov treated Yosef differently. The problem was that the brothers perceived that difference as being qualitative.

To highlight this point, Yaakov “favors” Efraim in Parshat Vayechi. It is as if Yaakov wants us to understand that he has no regrets over how he treated Yosef. If anything, his regrets lie in his not recognizing the brothers’ mistaken attitudes towards this perceived favoritism.

This is a tough, but important, lesson for us all to learn; especially parents and children. We must love each of our children unconditionally and to the maximum degree. But that does not mean that we should love them each in the same identical manner. Each child is an individual and therefore a parent’s approach must be individualized.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forgiving and Forgetting

In Parshat Vayigash, Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers and the reunion continues, when Yaakov and the rest of the family move down to Egypt. From his words, Yosef seems gracious and forgiving. And yet the brothers remain concerned. Yosef assuages their fears numerous times. And yet we see that years later after Yaakov dies, the brothers are still worried that Yosef had not forgiven them. In Parshat Vayechi, the text itself indicates this fear, as the brothers make up a deathbed scene in which Yaakov commands the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive them. And this idea is pointed out in more subtle ways as well. For instance. 

In Parshat Vayechi, Yosef is called (from elsewhere) to be informed that Yaakov is on his deathbed. Some commentators utilize that expression to suggest that Yosef remained estranged from his brothers, even after the reunion. If Yosef says that he has forgiven his brothers, then why don’t we believe him?
There are two answers to this question. First, if we look carefully at Yosef’s words we can suggest a double meaning:
“(45:5) And now do not be grieved, nor angry at yourselves that you sold me HERE (HEYNA)….”

45:8): “It was not you who sent me HERE (HAYNA), but rather God…..”

Reading between the lines one could suggest that Yosef tells the brothers not to worry about the fact that he ended up in Egypt…. But he may not have let them off the hook for initially throwing him into a pit and selling him to the wandering caravan.


Second, one could suggest that the pesukim here are teaching an important lesson. Forgiveness is encouraged for the victim, but the perpetrators should never forget their mistake; so that they don’t repeat it, so that they can make amends, and so that they can improve into the future.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Keeping the Adrenaline Up: Even In The Absence of Crisis

Parshat Vayeishev begins that Yaakov was dwelling in the Land of Canaan. After the difficulties he encountered with Lavan and the tension involved in reuniting with his brother Eisav, the Medrash states that Yaakov was looking forward to a little peace and quiet. Instead, Yaakov is forced to deal with the discord between Yosef and the other brothers, followed by the disappearance of Yosef.

The Medrash notes that whenever the term "Vayeshev" is used, it means trouble for the Jewish People. For instance, prior to the sin of immorality with the daughters of Midyan we are told that "Vayeshev Yisrael B'Shittim." The Medrash states that righteous people seek peace and serenity in this world, but God does not allow it. Peace is reserved for tzadikim in the World To Come; this world is meant to be stressful and full of hard work. How are we to understand this statement of the Medrash? Does it mean we can't ever take a day off from work or go on vacation, or even stay-cation? Of course not. I believe that the Medrash here is teaching us a fundamental truth about human nature and how we must view the work of our lives.

In general people are at their best when responding to crises. The adrenaline kicks in, you begin to feel the endorphin rush and you are able to accomplish things that you never thought possible. When failure is not an option, the situation usually will meet with some degree of success.

But what happens when there is no great crisis? things are going along well enough? It is not human nature to keep up the momentum, when there is not glaring reason to do so. We begin to take our guards down, relax a little, be less careful and less vigilant. Can we get back that feeling of urgency in the absence of a crisis?

I would argue yes and no. On the one hand, we are much more efficient on the defense compared to the offense. It may very well be that without a crisis we are less effective and less efficient. But there are two ways to function within a system of "pretend crisis." One is to blow up every little problem into a crisis. In this way we can remain hysterical and hyper vigilant, even regarding those things in life that are really not all that important. This can create a "boy who cried wolf" crisis fatigue among all parties involved.

The second option is to channel these "flight or fight" energies into pre-empting the next crisis, or even improving things instead of only fixing things. This requires much more forethought and planning and prioritizing- but it is very fulfilling and allows people to grow instead of merely taking a defensive posture to remain in place.

That is why the Medrash has nothing nice to say about the desire to find peace. We need to constantly be on the move and doing. Often it's on the defensive. Often it's in response to crisis- something that needs to be addressed right now. But every once in a while we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to harness those crisis- management finesse and talents and channel them into crisis prevention and person / community building.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Confronting Assimilation By Leaving Eisav

Parshat Yayishlach tells the story of the reunion between Yaakov and Eisav. After years of separation and animosity, the two brothers meet. What occurs at that meeting can be described at the very least as momentary d├ętente, and from the text one might even see a real fraternal reconciliation taking place at this time.

As the brothers prepare to take leave from one another, Eisav offers to accompany Yaakov on the next leg of his trip (33:12). Yaakov declines, explaining that his children are young and his family is slow: much slower than Eisav and his entourage of grown men. Also Yaakov is traveling with all of his property, including flocks of sheep, which will slow him down even more. If he rushes his family they might just complain, but if he rushes the sheep, they may die.

Eisav persists and offers to assign a portion of his entourage to accompany/ bodyguard Yaakov and his family. Yaakov declines this offer, doing so once again in a gracious and magnanimous fashion.

The meeting between Yaakov and Eisav is confounding from beginning to end. Rashi quotes a number of Midrashim that help to make sense of this story: by both filling in factual gaps as well as providing symbolic meaning for some of the seemingly insignificant details. After doing so, Rashi notes (33:15) that there remain many more Midrashim that explain this story.

One lesson that I learn from the story of Yaakov and Eisav parting ways is how we as Jews should respond to assimilationist trends and a non-Jewish society that has begun to welcome Jews into their culture with open arms.

At this juncture Eisav represents both a friend and a threat. He is being friendly yet his values and lifestyle are not consistent with what Yaakov holds dear. In many ways this is the experience of the 21st century Jew, in his/her interactions with the rest of the world: friendly yet threatening. There are many ways in which Jews can benefit from the welcoming attitude of the other nations of the world. A symbiotic relationship can blossom concerning many issues. At the same time, such overtures may cause us to “let our guard down” and ignore the unique mission of the Jewish People and the fundamental differences that exist between Yaakov and Eisav.

We need to learn from Yaakov in Parshat Vayishlach: approach, interact, be gracious and grateful. Acknowledge Eisav’s contributions and even be humble; call him master if that’s what it takes. But at the end of the day, we must part ways. We must walk alone with God through our mission in life. Eisav goes his way and we go ours; working in cooperation with the rest of the world while never denying our unique purpose.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Yehuda, Entitlement and Gratitude

In Parshat Vayeitzei we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children. Leah gives birth to his first four children and each time the child is named, the Torah gives us the reason for his name:
Reuven: Hashem has seen my humiliation
Shimon: Hashem has heard that I am unloved
Levi: My husband will now become attached to me

Upon the birth of her fourth son, Leah names him Yehuda: “This time I will thank Hashem”
Many commentators throughout the ages have noted that Jews are referred to as Yehudim, due to Yehuda’s name. The lesson generally learned is that we are referred to by a name that indicates gratitude; for integral to being Jewish is a sense of gratitude- to others and to God.

However I can’t help but note that it was only upon the birth of her fourth son that leah expresses her gratitude. The oft-quoted Medrash explains that  through prophecy it was known that Yaakov would have four wives and 12 sons. If each wife shared equally in birthing the Tribes of Israel, then each woman would have 3 sons. It’s only upon leah’s receiving something above and beyond that which she expected/ that which she felt she was entitled to, that she expresses gratitude.

Perhaps this is the reason why we are referred to as Yehudim. To repair the expression of gratitude made by Leah and express gratitude for everything we receive- even those things that we feel are owed to us, even those thing to which we feel entitled.

Many psychologists note the incredible sense of entitlement that children express today.  Entitlement is connected with the pervasive ingratitude that has infected our society.

Perhaps we Jews are called Yehudim to teach ourselves and the world around us that entitlement and gratitude need not be at odds with each other. We can provide for our children and yet  teach them the importance of saying thank you- whether it’s for a new video game system (which contrary to some kids’ perception is not a necessity) or when someone does something for you as part of their job/ expectations.

One concrete step we could take to better the world is by taking our status as Yehudim seriously and thanking others for even the small things: Like a teacher when she hands back a test, or a mail carrier when the mail is dropped off, or a cashier when s/he checks you out of a store. Or thanking Hashem for the small things: like waking up in the morning (Modeh Ani), or for a drink of water (Shehakol).

Small expressions of gratitude can create an entirely different and positive perspective- for ourselves and those around us.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Questions of Rivkah and Eisav

At the beginning of Parshat Toldot, we read about the difficulties Rivka experienced during her pregnancy. After wanting a child for so long, Rivkah is confused by her experiences, and in desperation cries out, “Lama Zeh Anochi?” Why is this happening to me? Why is it that what I anticipated to be the greatest joy of my life (childbearing) is causing me such great pain and anxiety?
In the very same aliyah we read how Rivka’s son Eisav similarly asks a “Lama Zeh” type of question. The Torah tells us how Eisav came back from hunting and is “dying of hunger”. Yaakov has food available but will only sell it to Eisav in exchange for the special blessing that are due to Eisav for being the firstborn. Eisav realizes that these blessing are spiritual in nature while he is a hunter, a “man of the field”, a person most concerned with the material world. Eisav therefore asks himself, Here I am about to die of hunger, V’Lama Zeh Li Bechora?”, “of what use do I have for these birthright blessings?”
The real divergence emerges not in the form of the question but what mother and son do with their questions. The Torah tells us that in response to her question, “Rivkah went to inquire of Hashem.” She understood that there must be a reason why this was happening and she sought religious guidance as to ways in which she could interpret her condition as having meaning and purpose. And upon consultation, she receives the answer that assuages her fears and allows her to go on with her life with strength and determination.
The Torah tells us that in response to Eisav’s question, that “Eisav disgraced the birthright.” Instead of trying to understand the significance of his status as a firstborn and instead of seeking guidance as to how to proceed in a relevant and significant way, Eisav takes the easy way out and gives up on what he does not understand (ie the birthright) for something that he can easily understand (ie the pot of porridge).
Judaism welcomes questions. We all have them. Some are easier than others to answer. The issue is not having questions. The issue is what you do once you have identified those questions. Do we seek answers, even if they may be elusive or impossible- with the knowledge that the very quest for answers can be therapeutic and religiously significant? Or do we deny the question and move onto things easier to resolve- like the hunger in our bellies.

The Question is: what do we do with our questions once we formulate them? Answering that is perhaps the most important part of addressing the problem in a constructive fashion.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Do Little and Take All The Credit: The Efron Ethic

The Parsha begins with the death of Sarah and Avraham’s struggle to procure a burial plot for her in Hebron. He must deal with Efron in order to secure the purchase. Efron’s name is spelled differently in differet places. Sometimes it is spelled with a letter vav and sometimes without a vav

In 23:10 it states that “Efron sat (yoshev) in the midst of the children of Chet.” Here Efron’s name is spelled with a vav; however the word “Yoshev” is spelled without a vav. Rashi picks up on this peculiarity and comments that on that day Efron was appointed a ruler over Chet because of the connection he now had with Avraham. In other words, his “sitting” as a leader was incomplete as it was not in his own merit.

 A few pesukim later, 23:16, it says that “Avraham weighed money out to Efron.” Here the name Efron is written missing the vav. Again Rashi comments and says that Efron was lacking in that he talked a lot but did very little. He talked a lot about giving Avraham the burial plot free of charge, yet in the end he exacted an exorbitant price for it.

These two episodes, as explained by Rashi paint an unimpressive picture of who Efron was, and what we need to try and avoid. Efron was a man that took credit when he didn’t deserve it and did not live up to his responsibilities when called upon to do so.

That is the easy way through life: take credit for other people’s work; talk a lot about getting things done but then somehow get out of the work that is entailed. That’s what Efron did- we must learn from his example and do the exact opposite.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chipper Jones and Avraham Avinu

As reported here, future Hall of Famer and former Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones was honored with throwing out the first pitch for Game One of the NLDS against the Dodgers. However Jones was forced to pitch to the mascot, for the entire current Braves team boycotted Jones’ appearance. It seems that Jones previously predicted on Braves radio that Atlanta would lose to the Dodgers in 4 games. The current team did not appreciate that prediction so they boycotted his appearance. It ends up that Chipper Jones was right- the Braves lost to the Dodgers in 4 games. Which got me thinking: Was Chipper Jones wrong- or were the Braves? What was so bad about what he did?

                I think we can better understand the problem with Chipper by looking at an episode in this week’s Parsha God promises Avraham that he will become a great nation and He will give Avraham the land of Canaan. In response Avraham says, “God, how shall I know that I will inherit?” (15:8) The Medrash criticizes Avraham for questioning God. In fact according to rabbinic tradition the severity of the Jewish slavery in Egypt was due in part to Avraham’s questioning in this verse. Here too I ask: what did Avraham do that was so bad?

                I think that the answer to both questions is differentiating between the ways insiders and outsiders question and criticize. Chipper Jones is a former Braves player. As an insider he should have understood the sensitivity of predicting against his former team on Braves radio. So too, the question that Avraham asks is a legitimate one- but not for an insider. In this case, God had already demonstrated to Avraham that He considered him an insider. Avraham should have therefore trusted God instead of outright questioning Him.

                We need to keep in mind the difference between how we question, correct and criticize as insiders vs outsiders. When we are outsiders we criticize without restraint. As insiders, we question and critique gently and in the hopes of improvement. When it comes to our shuls, our schools, our neighborhoods and our families- let us resolve to learn the lesson from Avraham Avinu- and Chipper Jones- and act as insiders with the hopes of improving those institutions- and ourselves.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Let Our Words Take The Lead

Thought, speech and action. We normally understand that these three gifts as working in tandem with one another, and in a specific order and progression. First we think about things, mull them over and come to decisions. Then we concretize our decisions through our speech. Something that is thought remains ethereal and abstract. It also remains secret as no one else but the thinker knows about the idea. Once a person verbalizes the idea, s/he has committed to it in a greater fashion. The last step is the action: to act upon our ideals and to practice what we preach.

This order of operations is so ingrained in me that the verse towards the end of Parshat Nitzvaim is surprising. In talking about “the mitzvah” that Moshe claims is accessible to all Jews, he states:
“For the matter is very close to you; in your mouth and in your heart to perform it.”

The progression seems out of order. Why mention our mouths/speech first? Don’t we need to think before we speak? (it would seem that speaking before thinking is a problem that plagues all too many people in this day and age.)

I believe that the Torah here is reminding us of the power of speech. God created the world through speech.  We can build the world through our speech- and unfortunately destroy much through that same capacity.

The Torah is also telling us that sometimes the order of operations can be flipped. Even if we don’t believe something in that moment, we can be convinced if we talk as if we believe. Even if we have doubts, those doubts can be resolved if we speak with confidence, even when we are in truth unsure of ourselves. Our outward expression of speech can have tremendous impact on our internal thinking and decision making.

This is a corollary to the “Just Do It” idea, first made famous by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (not Nike). In Mesilat Yesharim Rabbi Luzzatto extolls the importance of concrete positive action, even when we don’t feel like doing it. Because by doing it, we can shift our perspective and come to love doing it as well.

The same can be said about our power of speech. Say “good morning” even when you don’t feel like it. Offer a compliment even if it’s not your nature. Praise someone or something that you normally overlook. It can transform our personalities and our lives for the better.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Respecting Your Elders - and Your Youngers

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 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.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Parenting Lessons from the Wayward Child

Parshat Ki Teitzei contains within it a discussion of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh the rebellious child. The Torah describes a tween-age child that is gluttonous and rebellious and does not listen to his/her parents. Exasperated, the parents together bring the rebellious child to the judges of that city. The Torah treats such a situation with the utmost of gravity, and such a young person is subject to capital punishment if found guilty.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71) is skeptical if such a scenario ever actually occurred. According to one opinion, the Ben Sorrer Umoreh never actually existed in reality, and the Torah was aware of the impossibility of such a scenario. According to a second opinion, there is the hypothetical possibility of a Ben Sorrer Umoreh existing, but the probability of it actually occurring in real life is slim to none. According to both of these opinions, the purpose of the Torah’s introducing us to this rebellious child is “Derosh v’Kabel Sechar”, analyze the case, learn its lessons, and be rewarded for your efforts. What are the lessons of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh, from which we can learn and gain insight?

The Maharsha suggests two important lessons. According to the opinion that the Ben Sorrer Umoreh never could really happen, the reason is because there is an emphasis in the Talmud on the parity between both parents (same voice, same appearance) in order for the rebellious child to be liable. The Maharsha writes that such consistency is impossible, and the child can claim that sometimes the father would warn him and sometimes the mother would warn him, but never both of them at the same time- which is a requirement to be labeled a Ben Sorrer Umoreh.

The Maharsha continues to explain the rationale for the opinion that a Ben Sorrer Umoreh is possible but improbable. Although it is possible for both parents and child to fulfill all of the criteria laid out by the Torah/ Talmud, it is highly unlikely, writes the Maharsha, that the parents would ever tell on their child and bring the child to be punished by the judges of the city. One of the requirements is that both parents bring the child to be disciplined. The Maharsha writes, based on his own observations, that it is more likely that the parents will have an abundance of compassion and tolerance towards their child, and not bring him/her to be disciplined. According to the Maharsha, the parents’ attitude constitutes misplaced compassion and tolerance that is detrimental to both the child and society at large.

As we begin a new school year it behooves us, as parents and educators, to heed well the lessons of the Ben Sorrer Umoreh as taught to us by the Maharsha. First, we must strive to present to our children a consistent message as far as our values and our expectations. To be most effective, the message should be consistent between each parent, as well as between parents and teachers. Children get confused and opportunities are missed when our lessons and messaging lack consistency.  Second, we must understand, as the Rambam teaches, that an abundance of almost anything is dangerous.  Gluttony is one type of overindulgence.  But as the Maharsha explains, there is such a thing as overindulging our children: too much compassion and tolerance for a child’s misbehavior. When we love our children, but do not set limits, we can be doing more harm than good.

If we strive for a consistent message, and love our children while instilling within them limits, then we will, B’Ezrat Hashem, be worthy of the reward that is promised to those who explore the meaning behind the Ben Sorrer Umoreh.

Friday, August 9, 2013

All Our Words are Offerings

The beginning of Chapter 17 in Parshat Shoftim states:
“You shall not slaughter for Hashem your G-d an ox or lamb or goat in which there will be a blemish, Kol Davar Ra because that is an abomination to Hashem your G-d.”

 Literally Kol Davar Ra means “any bad thing” and is a reiteration of the sentiment expressed right before, ie a reference to blemishes on animal sacrifices.
The Baal Haturim uses a play on the word Davar and comments on this verse that “anyone who speaks profanities (Nibul  Peh) is considered hated and an abomination.
One could ask on the Baal Haturim: it’s a nice idea, but why does the Baal Haturim learn the lesson of clean, vulgarity-free speech here, when the simple understanding of the verse speaks of sacrifices?
Perhaps we can understand the Baal Haturim’s rationale as an expansion on a statement of the Rabbis that since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash our words take the place of sacrifices, based on the verse in Hosea (14:3) “Let our lips pay in lieu of sacrifices.”

Most of us understand this to mean that the words of our prayers serve that function that animal sacrifices once did. The Baal Haturim understands that it is not just in the realm of prayer that our words are important. How we talk to our friends, our families, our neighbors, and even the driver who just cut you off on I-95 needs to be viewed as an offering to G-d, that reflects on us. All of the words that come out of our mouths need to be viewed as having the potential of being either an abomination or a “sweet-smelling offering to Hashem”.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Doing "What's Good In Your Eyes"

In the first aliyah of Parshat Re’eh, Moshe tells the nation that when they reach the Land of Israel, they will establish a central location at which they will offer sacrifices. In the midst of this discussion, Moshe says, “You shall not do like everything that we do here today, every man what is proper in his eyes.” (12:8). There is much discussion as to what exactly Moshe is trying to impress upon the nation. Based on the Medrash and the Talmud in Zevachim 117b, Rashi explains that Moshe is saying that initially upon entry into the Land of Israel, a central altar will be established for obligatory sacrifices. However those offerings that are voluntary, ie those which are brought merely because it is proper in one'seyes, can continue to be brought on personal altars until the Tabernacle is established in Shiloh. Once Mishkan Shiloh is set up, all sacrifices will have to be brought at that location.

The cryptic use of the phrase “every man what is proper in his eyes” and its juxtaposition with the warning, “you shall not do like everything that we do here today” got me thinking. Is doing what’s proper in one’s eyes a good thing or a bad thing? I guess it depends.

We often suffer from tunnel vision and don’t think things through fully before we act. In such a case doing that which is good in our eyes is not a good thing, for we should be willing to see things from other perspectives before we act.

On the other hand, if we look at the generation of Jews in the desert, there seems to have been times when the nation suffered due to “groupthink”.  Whether it was the complaints about food, the response to the spies’ bad report or even the golden calf, the Jews may have fared better had some of them been willing to trust their own thinking and expressed themselves, instead of going along with the loudest voices.

When it comes to “that which is good in our eyes” we need to think long and hard about what it is that is good in our eyes. We need to be willing to listen to other voices when it is helpful in developing the good, and be careful not to give in to peer pressure when other voices are diverting us away from that which we know ourselves to be good. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Importance of Follow-Through

Kol Hamitzvah” that I command you today you shall observe to perform…" (8:1). 

According to the normal reading of the first two words of this verse, Moshe is referring to a number of mitzvoth that have been mentioned and need to be taken seriously and fulfilled. However Rashi quotes the Midrash that in this instance, Kol does not mean “all the commandments”, but “the entire commandment.” The reason that such an interpretation is possible is because the word Mitzvah is in the singular. And therefore the phrase “all the mitzvah” begs for further explanation.

The Medrash explains that from here we learn the importance of finishing a mitzvah that you start. The Medrash goes on to teach that the credit for the mitzvah is given to s/he that completes it, and not to the person that initiated the act. The proof is the fact that the nation as a whole is given credit for bringing the bones of Yosef out of Egypt and facilitating their burial in Shechem. This is the case even though we know that it was Moshe who personally ensured that Yosef’s casket was taken out of Egypt. In fact in Sefer Shemot the Medrash notes that the people could not be bothered with Yosef’s bones as they were too busy looting Egypt of its valuables.

This Medrash seems unfair. First in its specific example- Moshe would have finished the task had he been allowed entry into the land of Israel.  And more broadly, this Medrash seems to completely ignore the role of those individuals with great ideas. Even if their idea does not make it to fulfillment, it has nonetheless been created and perhaps someone else will make it a reality. Does the innovator in such a case get no credit for that initial idea?

I think the Medrash means for us to learn two lessons. First, while the whole nations may get the credit for burying Yosef, that does not mean that they should not be sharing that credit with Moshe. It is incumbent upon each of us upon succeeding to give credit to all those that helped us make it to that point of success. 

Second, although ideas are important, if not crucial, we must not get overly enamored by the fame of innovation. We must similarly be impressed by the hard work and stick – to – it-tivness that goes into turning an idea into a success.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Body - Soul Synergy

In Parshat Vaetchanan we find the verse, “Venishmartem Meod Lenafshoteichem”, “and you shall exceedingly guard yourselves.” We are used to associating this verse with a Torah mandate to promote healthy living and to avoid unnecessary risk s of injury. This association is based on story told in the Gemara in Brachot 33: a man was praying on the road when a nobleman approached and greeted the man. Since the manw as in the middle of Shemonah Esrei he did not answer. The nobleman waited until the manw as done praying and then scolded the man, claiming that the man had done a foolish thing as the nobleman could have killed the man. In the midst of this scolding, the nobleman quotes what appears to be our verse in Vaetchanan, using it as a proof that a person needs to be very careful to protect his/her life. The point being that the nobleman is arguing that based on this verse, the man should have interrupted his prayers in order to respond to the nobleman’s greeting (the the Gemara for what the man answers as his counterargument- which wins the day.)

However if one looks at the rest of the verse and its context, it becomes clear that the pasuk is literally referring to spiritual health. Moshe is warning the people not to make the mistake and think that since God spoke to them at Sinai, then He must also have a bodily form. On this mistaken notion, Moshe is telling the people to be very careful and to “guard their souls”.  The question for us then is: what is the connection between the context of this verse, ie spiritual health, and the extension of this idea to physical health?
I believe that there are two approaches to this question. The first is to note very simply that one who lacks health is challenged in a number of ways, not the least of which is a challenge of religion. Whether that challenges is a theological one (“why me?”) or a physical one (getting to synagogue, attending and fully participating in prayer services), we must note the spiritual challenges that accompany physical challenges. The reverse is true as well. Thos who have their health have tremendous opportunities to access spiritual fulfillment in unlimited and unfettered fashion. Those who have their health must appreciate this and be grateful for this access and opportunity.

The second way to understand this relationship is to note the recent research that indicates that people who are soul-healthy- ie take their faith and religion seriously and commit to it, generally experience better health, compared to those who do not put religion at the center of their lives. (see for instance: Here)

We must appreciate that we humans are privileged to be given by God both a body and a soul. Though they may have been created separately, they work together in our lifetimes. As such we must be vigilant to understand the impact of the body on the soul- and the impact of the soul on the body.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Bemoaning Our Indifference to the Core Issues

In life it is often easier to deal with the symptoms of a problem than confronting the root of the issue. For instance, listening to the Weinstock children fight with each other has become a common occurrence in our home. We are blessed with four children and they get along/ don’t get along equally amongst themselves. This means that every day there may be a different match-up as far as disagreements are concerned. When fighting breaks out amongst them these days I try to make the peace by diffusing the situation at hand. So if they are arguing about who gets to play the Wii, I mediate an order. If there are arguments about who take a shower first (everyone wants to go last), we create a rotation of who gets to go last over the course of the week.

In each scenario even as I troubleshoot, I cannot help but feel like there is more that I could be/ should be teaching my children: The importance of family, of getting along with one another, of listening to parents, of sacrifice, of trying to be agreeable and not always fighting for your rights if it is an area that is not significant, of using humor to diffuse situations, of keeping perspective of the blessings in one’s life.

Hopefully some of these lessons are rubbing off, but in the moment I do whatever it takes to get the fighting to stop. I am willing to solve the immediate problem and leave the root issues for another day.

Towards the beginning of Parshat Devarim, Moshe recalls the creation of the Jewish judicial system. He states (1:12), “How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?” To alleviate the situation Moshe appoints lower court systems so that he does not have to adjudicate every single disagreement. However if we look closely, there are in fact two issues that Moshe mentions that need to be addressed: First, Moshe cannot possibly handle the entire caseload of the Jewish People. But there is a second concern: the people are just too quarrelsome. They don’t get along as well as they should. Although a court system alleviates the first concern, it does nothing to address the core issue of a contentious nation.  Dealing with too much controversy acrimony and discord is something much more difficult to solve and has no easy fix.

There is a custom to read this pasuk with the tune of Eicha. On one level that is because the word Eicha is found in this verse. But perhaps on another level we continue to bemoan the fact that even as troubleshooting continuously takes place within the Jewish community, we have been negligent in confronting the core issues that challenged us then and continue to challenge us now.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Precariousness Nature of Peace

Parshat Pinchas begins with Hashem rewarding Pinchas for his act of bravery. Pinchas is given a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace. Many meforshim note the conveyance of a covenant of peace being awarded to man who engaged in such a violent act. The lesson being that we sometimes have to overcome our natural inclinations in order to accomplish the task at hand, and then focus back on our values.

In the Torah scroll, the letter vav of the word “Shalom” is cracked. Rav Zevin explained that the cracked vav allows us to think about the similarities and differences between the words “Shalom”, peace, and Shalem, whole. Both indicate a fulfilled state of being. However Shalem refers to an individual whereas Shalom refers to the relationship between two or more objects or people. 

The broken Vav highlights the difficulties that can exist in trying to get along with others and achieve Shalom. It is often easier to achieve Shalemiut for oneself. But true personal fulfillment must include peace between ourselves and those around us: family, friends, and neighbors. There can be no real Sheleimut without Shalom. And the broken Vav in Shalom reminds us just how elusive, yet essential, peace can be.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Taking A Spear Is Just As Important As Using It

At the end of Parshat Balak we are introduced to Pinchas, the hero of the ugly incident that occurred at Shittim. We are told that "Pinchas saw, stood up from among the assembly and took a spear in his hand"(24:7). In the next verse we read that Pinchas used the spear to kill a Jewish man along with the Midianite woman with whom he was involved with.

While Pinchas gets most of the credit for using the spear, it seems to me that there is something else going on here that Pinchas needs to be credited for. What is it exactly that Pinchas saw? The previous verse, 24:6, ends by telling us that while the camp was rampant with immorality, the judges/ leaders of Israel “were crying at the entrance of the Ohel Moed.” They were frozen by the enormity of the problem, coupled with the enormity of the task at hand necessary to ameliorate the problem.

Pinchas saw this and responds at first by simply taking a spear in his hand. Just taking the spear was an important first step whose value we must not underestimate. While everyone else was frozen with fear and crying about the problem, Pinchas picks up a spear, thereby indicating his commitment to do something to help solve the problem. I’m sure Pinchas also cried about the great desecration of God’s name that was transpiring; but his response did not end with crying. He knew something needed to be done. Just by taking the spear, even before he used it, he demonstrated tremendous strength of character as well as a very important lesson to the rest of the Jewish leadership. When Pinchas uses his spear in a correct manner he cements his status as a Jewish leader that is deserving of special Divine recognition.

Our community is faced with a number of challenges. The first step is to identify these challenges. The second step is to cry about them, to appreciate the problem and realize that it is something that needs fixing. But our response cannot end with crying. It cannot end with articles or op-eds or blog posts about the problem. We need to do as Pinchas, and indicate our willingness to tackle the challenge with actions. We may not solve all the challenges and our solutions may not be complete fixes or work at all. But we must learn from Pinchas: not just cry about our plight: but to “takea spear”, thereby indicating our commitment to action and to help make things better. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Religious Value of Learning History

Twice in Parshat Chukat the Torah makes reference to outside sources and quotes them. In 21:14 the Torah refers to a book The Wars of Hashem, and in 21:27 the verse quotes “Moshlim”, poets. Ramban explains in both places that one reason for quoting these “outside sources” is to show that lands that may have originally belonged to Amon and Moav, (whom the Jews were commanded not to wage war with) had already been captured by Sichon. The Jews therefore were allowed to capture those lands when they defeated Sichon in war.

In explaining what the book The Wars of Hashem was all about, the Ramban explains that it was a history book, chronicling the wars of each generation. There were many such books written in those times, but the book The Wars of Hashem contained descriptions of those wars and victories that were wondrous and difficult to explain in logical terms. Those wars were attributed to Hashem.
I find the entire concept of the book The Wars of Hashem to be fascinating. First, it justifies to me (the history major) the value that there can be in studying and learning from history- not just on a political, historical and social plane, but on a religious and spiritual plane as well. If we look for Him, we can find God in history, just like we can find God in the physical and natural sciences.
The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 52) raises a question concerning our inclusion of Az Yashir in Pesukei D’Zimra. One explanation offered by Rabbi Donnin in his book on prayer is that after reciting verses of praise emphasizing Hashem’s ongoing involvement in Creation, we close Pesukei D’Zimra with Az Yashir, which demonstrates God’s ongoing involvement in history as well.

We study history- not only to avoid repeating it- but to find the Hand of Hashem that we believe is present throughout.      

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lessons from the "Ketoret Standoff"

The showdown between Korach and Moshe reaches its climax with the “ketoret standoff.” Moshe suggests that the disagreement be settled by everyone offering incense to Hashem. So Aharon, Korach and 250 Korach-followers offer incense on fire pans. In response, Hashem shows His displeasure with the 250 men by sending a fire to consume them (16:35). 

The next chapter opens with God commanding Moshe to tell his nephew Elazar HaKohen to collect the firepans that were utilized by those 250 men and fashion them into a covering for the altar, “because they have become holy.” (17:2) These pans were used in a rebellion against Aharon and Moshe- why should they be considered holy and worthy of being kept? 

Rashi suggests that the pans became holy when the 250 men used them to offer incense to Hashem. Ramban questions this theory: after all, this was not a sanctioned offering – this was done as an expression of rebellion against Moshe! Instead, the Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because they were utilized as a vehicle through which G-d was ultimately sanctified. They became a symbol of the Divine choice of Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. From the Ramban we learn that sometimes people or situations can be used as messengers of Kiddush Hashem even if they have no idea or don’t mean to.

The fact that these firepans were fashioned into a cover for the altar is significant. It was on the mizbeach that a person would offer a sacrifice, a ritual that demonstrates humility, perhaps even a negation of self before the will of God. The cover on the altar is a cautionary note that warns people of how easily we can fool ourselves into believing in the righteousness of our cause. These 250 men were willing to die for the cause that they allowed themselves to believe whole-heartedly. 

It’s easy to allow ego, ulterior motives or even laziness to get in the way of what’s really important. The fire pans protecting the mizbeach served as that warning – then as well as now. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

As the spies embark upon their mission Moshe gives them some advice about what to look for. He says to check and see if the inhabitants are strong or weak. Rashi quotes the Midrash that Moshe gave them a trick: if the people lived in open cities this means that they are strong and can rely on their strength alone to protect themselves. If the city is heavily fortified, then you can be sure that the inhabitants are weak and they need outside help to protect themselves.

It’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure that by merely looking at the situation one would come to those conclusions. I can imagine that spies would ordinarily make the reverse conclusion based on the evidence: ie open cities are easy prey whereas fortified cities are more difficult to conquer.
I believe that there are two lessons for us from this Midrashic understanding of Moshe’s advice. First lesson is that your eyes can deceive you and you need to interpret what you see carefully and logically, taking all factors into consideration. Perhaps Moshe was already nervous about the report that the spies would ultimately bring back, so he gave an example of how facts cannot be merely reported but need to be correctly interpreted.

The second lesson involves how we understand the relationship between something’s appearance and its essence. Moshe teaches here that very often appearances belie the essence. In this case that which looked strong is actually weak and vice-versa. That holds true for many other characteristics appearances. Those that appear happy can in fact be very sad. Those that appear rich can be very poor. Those that appear kind can in fact be very cruel. 

Moshe warns the spies that appearances can be deceiving- for better and for worse. In so doing we are challenged to improve our essence and ensure that our appearance is always a reflection of our essential good qualities.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Sacred Cows in This Parsha

Towards the end of Parshat Behaalotecha we read about the appearance of other prophets on the scene besides Moshe. Two of those prophets are identified as Eldad and Meidad, and their prophecy concerns Yehoshua enough that he reports them to Moshe and says, “Moshe, incarcerate them!”(11:27-28).  Though the Torah does not specify what was the contents of their prophecy,we would have assumed that it must have been pretty bad: perhaps Eldad and Meidad were violating the Torah by acting like a “Navi Sheker” (false prophet) or “Zaken Mamrei” (rebellious elder). Which makes the Medrash, as quoted by Rashi that much more intriguing. 

The prophecy of Eldad and Meidad according to one opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17) was “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the Land.” That must have been a rather upsetting prophecy at the time (even though we know it to be true.) According to the text, Moshe takes the news in stride and even expresses his wish that the entire Jewish people would also be prophets. How do we understand the difference in response between Moshe and Yehoshua to Eladad and Meidad? 

To me, this story is about our willingness to imagine change. From Yehoshua’s perspective, a prophecy that entertains the possibility of the Jews entering the land without Moshe is simply unfathomable and a threat to the stability of the nation. Moshe understood otherwise. He knew that change is inevitable and that no person is irreplaceable. 

In order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish People, we must be willing to entertain the possibility of changes- in leadership, in emphasis, in marketing- even as our values and Mitzvot remain eternally relevant and binding. Because Moshe was so humble and because he loved Am Yisrael so much, he not only embraced the message of Eldad and Meidad but he expresses his wish that the rest of the nation understand this as well. Though there are no longer prophets among us, we must remember the lesson of Eldad and Meidad, as confirmed by Moshe:  we must always be willing to entertain the possibility of change and prepare accordingly. 

Besides for maybe the Red Heifer, there are no sacred cows in Judaism.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Planning for the Day After

On Shavuot in my sermon I suggested that the most important element of the Sinai revelation was when Hashem told the people to “return to your tents”, indicating the Sinai was not a one-time event, but rather a source of inspiration and direction for how to live our lives in all places and for all times. 

A similar idea is quoted in the name of Rabbi Avraham Borenstein (more popularly referred to as the “Avnei Nezer”) on this week’s Parsha. Parshat Nasso contains the rules governing a Nazir: a man or woman who accepts additional restrictions for a set period of time. Those restrictions include drinking wine, cutting hair and becoming ritually impure. After the nazir period has elapsed, the nazir brings a sacrifice and then the Torah says (6:20) “And afterwards the Nazir may drink wine.” 

The Avnei Nezer asks: why does the Torah refer to this person as a Nazir? If s/he is drinking wine, then they are not acting like a Nazir. Their period of nezirut is over, so why refer to them as a Nazir? The Avnei Nezer answers that the lessons and inspiration that a Nazir gleans from his period of nezirut is supposed to impact him far beyond his formal period of nezirut. 

We need to take advantage of formative and inspirational events that occur in our lives, but then apply their lessons far into the future. We must not allow an event's impact end when the evnt is over, but make the necessary preparations to allow that event to continue to impact us far into the future.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Holy and Normal

The very end of Parshat Bamidbar warns the Leviim not to look at the vessels of the Mishkan as they are being prepared for transport. The Kohanim must first cover the vessels and only then are the Leviim permitted to carry out their assigned tasks related to transporting the vessels. In analyzing what the problem was for Leviim to gaze at the vessels, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz quotes two commentaries with opposing views on the issue. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the reason that the Leviim are not allowed to gaze at the vessels is that there is a danger that looking at them so much will make them ordinary in the eyes of the Leviim. A degree of mystique and reverence can be maintained more easily if the Leviim are not allowed to gaze at the vessels whenever they want. Too much staring may cause the Leviim to treat them as ordinary utensils, and forget about the deep spiritual symbolism that contains the real purpose of these vessels.

On the other hand, Abravanel suggests that the problem with staring is that it may lead the Leviim to “think too much” into the deeper significance of the vessels. Some understanding has been made available to us humans. But there are certain things – about the vessels of the Mishkan and about the mysteries of life- that remain hidden and beyond our capacity to grasp. Staring at the vessels may lead the Leviim down a path of contemplation that will never be satisfied and may in fact be dangerous to one’s mental and spiritual health.

These two perspectives represent two dangers that exist when we interact with that which is holy, which for us Jews is basically everything. Too much exposure to the concept of holy can make us cynical and treat everything in a cavalier and mundane fashion. Too much exclusive focus on holiness without putting that into the context of real life can also be hazardous to our health and make interaction with other people difficult, if not impossible.

The goal of life is to be holy and normal at the same time. As we see from the commentators at the end of Parshat Bamidbar, “holy and normal” is easier said than done.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Ani Hashem" and PGIO's

There was an administrator in my high school who was a very thorough, and strict, marker of papers. One of his favorite comments on an essay was “PGIO” which stands for “poignant glimpse into the obvious.” He would make that comment whenever I would write a sentence that was unnecessary and was merely put in to fill space. Examples of PGIOs are: “Shakespeare is perhaps one of the greatest writers of all time.” Or “There are many ways to examine this poem.”

In the double Parsha of Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim we have the refrain “Ani Hashem” “I am God” over and over in connection to various commandments, both ritual and interpersonal, that are described in our Torah portion. At first glance it would seem that “Ani Hashem” is the epitome of a PGIO. The entire Torah was given by Hashem. Belief in God is the precondition for reading the Torah- and taking it seriously. Yet we believe that every word in the Torah is holy and purposeful. So why is “Ani Hashem” not a PGIO?.

“Ani Hashem” is a reminder that Judaism believes in an objective morality- one that does not vacillate in the winds of the times. When the Torah uses the phrase “Ani Hashem” it reinforces that just as Hashem is eternal, so are the commandments in the Torah. They do not change just because modern society says that they should. It is not surprising then that “Ani Hashem” is found over and over again as it relates to sexual morality and interpersonal relationships. In these two areas, 21st century society is pushing an agenda that wants us all to believe that times have changed and that our Torah values are archaic and no longer moral.

21st century western culture and society is challenging traditional Torah values in a way not seen since the Enlightenment. We need to have the courage of our convictions to declare proudly and unequivocally the lesson of “Ani Hashem”.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Loving Your Neighbor: Sometimes Easier Said Than Done

One of the reasons offered as to why we observe a period of quasi-mourning during Sefira is the tradition that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during this period. Though it is far from clear exactly what transpired and how they died, the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) suggests the reason being “that they did not treat each other with respect.” This suggestion is difficult in light of the fact that we know that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was considered by Rabbi Akiva to be a fundamental principle of the Torah. How could his students have learned from Rabbi Akiva and yet not learn this lesson?
One possibility is that perhaps the students took their Rebbe’s lesson a bit too literally. The verse in the Torah is “Ve’Ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha” which means “love your neighbor as yourself”. There is much discussion as to what the word “Kamocha” means in this context. Perhaps the students of Rabbi Akiva took it to mean that you must be willing to get along with people that are Kamocha: ie with whom you share similarities. It’s easy to like people that are similar to us; people that share our worldview, our values, and our priorities. But how do we treat people with whom we disagree? How do we treat with whom we normally agree but strongly disagree on a particular topic that is very important to both parties? This is when “Love your neighbor” becomes a challenge and much more important.
  During this Sefira period, let us commit to working on our interpersonal relationships and interactions.  Let us appreciate the importance of loving our fellow Jews with whom we disagree, and not just when loving our neighbor is easy.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Smash and Fix: Two Approaches to Problem Solving

The end of Parshat Shemini discusses what happens to vessels that become ritually impure. It depends on the composition of the vessel. If the vessel is made of cloth or leather or wood, then it can be ritually purified by immersion in a mikvah and waiting until nightfall (11:32). If it’s made of clay, then there is no way to purify that vessel and remove its impurity; the only recourse is to smash the vessel (11:33). Rav Soloveitchik (quoted by Rav Schachter in Mipninei HaRav) suggests that these rules can guide us in our thinking of how to rectify mistakes that we make or character flaws that we have. Sometimes it is possible to rectify a situation by making slight changes or alterations. Sometimes if we make the adjustments and give it some time, then the desired change will emerge. That is the lesson we learn from wood, cloth and leather vessels. But there are other times when slight adjustments are not enough. We need to be willing to “cut our losses” smash what we have and start from scratch.

I think that both lessons must be reinforced, because we often get stuck in one type of thinking or the other. Sometimes we are hypercritical of ourselves and our actions. If we notice something lacking we immediately think that all is lost. We seek to throw the baby out with the bath water. In a knee-jerk fashion we tell ourselves that we must start over- yet again. The lesson of the wood, cloth and leather vessels is that sometimes only minor adjustments are needed, and in such cases we should be proud of the positive elements while committing to make the necessary changes.

 But sometimes we get overly invested in a certain perspective or way of doing things. When the flaws are pointed out, the most we can do is admit that slight adjustments are needed but overall things are fine. The lesson of the clay vessel is that we sometimes have to smash our past ways of thinking/ ways of doing things and start from scratch. We must be honest enough to sometimes say, “This is not working. I can’t make changes to fix it. I need to start over.”

Each of us is a vessel that needs to be optimally utilized to fulfill our potentials as God intended. We must learn the lesson of both types of vessels so that we are proud of our accomplishments yet willing to make adjustments, both great and small, when needed.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Impurity is much easier to achieve than Holiness

In Parshat Tzav we learn that if meat comes into contact with something tamei (ritually impure) then that sacrificial meat becomes impure and is rendered unfit and must be burned (7:19). Similarly, pure sacrificial meat that comes into contact with a vessel renders that vessel holy, and the vessel can no longer be used for mundane purposes (6:20). Rabbi Shenur Zalman of Liadi (The Baal HaTanya) notes that in both cases, the impure and the holy has an impact on other items. However he refers us to Rashi on 6:20 that explains that concerning the holy meat, there must actually be a transfer of flavor by means of heat in order for the vessel to be rendered holy.

From here we see the difference between holy and impure. When it comes to the impure, mere contact has a negative effect on others. However when it comes to holiness, it does not rub off and positively affect others so easily. Transfer of holiness requires more effort, it requires heat and drive. Bad habits and traits rub off much more easily and are transferable by osmosis. The same is not true of good habits and traits. Those we have to work harder to gain. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

More Wisdom from Ferris Bueller

The third book of the Torah begins with the word Vayikra. The word is written with a small letter aleph. The word Vayikra means that “Hashem called to Moshe.” Without an aleph at the end it is also a meaningful word, Vayikar, which would mean that “Hashem happened upon Moshe.” Rashi explains that whereas G-d happens upon wicked prophets such as Bilaam, He lovingly seeks and calls out to righteous prophets such as Moshe. There are many interpretations as to why the letter aleph is written small. For example the Baal Haturim explains that the small letter is meant to highlight Moshe’s humility.
 I think that the difference between the words Vayikra and Vayikar, affords us the opportunity to note the difference that exists between “having a calling” (Vayikra) and “letting things happen to you.” (Vayikar) We all have a calling in life and we hope to hear that calling and live it. But as Ferris Bueller so eloquently put it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
If we are not listening carefully we can end up not only missing our calling, but allowing life to just happen to us, instead of making things happen.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the little aleph. It’s a fine line between Vayikar and Vayikra, and we must be vigilant to pay attention and ask for help from the One Above in order to be successful in finding and fulfilling our calling.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shabbat and Mishkan: Forest and Trees

God’s command to Moshe to build the Mishkan and its vessels can be found in the Parshiyot of Teruma, Tetzaveh and Ki Tisa. Finally in Parshat Vayakhel, we read how Moshe conveys these commandments to the Jewish People. In both Hashem’s command to Moshe as well as Moshe’s command to the people there is mention of the importance of Shabbat.  One way to understand the relationship between the construction of the Mishkan and Shabbat is that building the Mishkan cannot be done on Shabbat.  Rav Soloveitchik (quoted by Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky) noted that mention of Shabbat is in very different points of the narrative. In God’s command to Moshe, Shabbat is the very last thing mentioned, after Hashem had described all of the work necessary to build the Mishkan. (Mention of Shabbat is found in Parshat Ki Tisa 31:13). When Moshe conveys these plans to the Jewish People, Shabbat is mentioned at the very beginning, before any specifics concerning the Mishkan project are explained.
Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the difference can be attributed to the monumental event that occurs in between the command to Moshe and the command to the people: The sin of the golden calf. Prior to that sin, the emphasis was on the building project at hand. There was an assumption that people understood and appreciated the theological and philosophical underpinnings that explain the need for and reason behind the Mishkan. Shabbat is a good symbol that summarizes the key points: the existence of one God, and that Hashem is both the God of creation and the God of History. Although God cannot be seen, He is everywhere and it is up to human beings to work in order to sense God’s presence in all that we do and wherever we are.  These philosophical truths were taken for granted, and therefore Shabbat is only mentioned at the very end of the command to Moshe- as a mere reminder.
The sin of the golden calf showed that no theological principle can be taken for granted. The people had sinned in a fundamental way;  a manner that would have been unconscionable and unimaginable  had their faith and commitment been firm. Moshe understands this, and before he mentions any details about the building project, he makes sure that everyone understands what this is all about. Moshe reminds the people of Shabbat and all that Shabbat symbolizes and means. Only then can he go into the specifics of Project Mishkan.
Moshe’s lesson to us is critically important in our generation. All too often we focus on the minutia to the detriment of our understanding the big picture. Halacha teaches us the meaning of every small act, but we also need an understanding and appreciation for what it all is supposed to mean and what it all can mean to each of us. We must learn the intricate laws of the 39 Melachot. And we also need to appreciate the spiritual meaning and importance of Shabbat. We must learn all that there is to learn about Pesach cleaning and Pesach Kashrut and Pesach Seder. And we must learn more about what Pesach should mean to us; what are the life lessons we are to glean from Pesach and from being Jewish, for that matter. We will be more proud and excited about the details of our tradition and observance, if we take the time to understand and appreciate the big picture of what our Jewish identity is all about 

Friday, March 1, 2013

What Was Aharon Thinking?

The question that jumps out at me as I read through the episode of the Golden Calf once again in Parshat Ki Tisa is: What was Aharon thinking/ trying to accomplish? According to the text the nation comes to Aharon for help and it appears that it is only through Aharon’s facilitating that the Golden Calf is created. Such behavior does not fit with our understanding of who Aharon was: older brother of Moshe, the first Kohen Gadol, a man committed to both God and his fellow human being. Was he trying to stall until Moshe got back? Was Aharon attempting to divert the nation’s attention? In his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses the various approaches offered by Midrash and Rabbinic sources, but concludes his piece on the following note:

“When all is said and done, the issue of Aharon’s involvement in chet ha’egel is one of those cases where the questions are better than the answers.” Being that we may never arrive at a completely satisfying answer, I’d like to share with you an idea that came to me this year as I was learning the Parsha.

I believe that the key to my approach is found in a word mentioned early on in the Jews’ plans: Vayikahel (32:1): the nation approached Aharon. The word is related to the word kehilla, which means a community. It may imply that the nation gathered in front of Aharon in a spirit of unity and cooperation. Granted, thye gathered for the wrong reasons in this case. It is fair to assume that Aaron had serious reservations about what was being asked of him. However, being a man who loved peace and always tried to foster peace between people, Aharon was enamored by the cohesiveness of the people at that moment.

Of course the Golden Calf was wrong and the Jewish People are punished (whether Aharon is ever punished for his role is a matter of dispute and depends on one’s understanding of what exactly transpired). But the lesson of the importance of community was one that remains true, even if learned under the dubious circumstances of the Chet Ha’Egel.            

Perhaps Aharon said to himself- "I’d rather not be involved in the golden calf.” He may have said, “I don’t have much of a choice, so let me try to mitigate the guilt of the people.”  But perhaps he also said, “with such a degree of cooperation and unity- it can't end up all bad." And one could argue that Aharon was right- because although the Egel was a mistake, it led to the 13 Midot Harachamim and the Second Luchot, and perhaps even the notion of a Mishkan/ Beit Hamikdash (depending on which commentary you hold like). If the foundation is one of unity and cooperation, then even mistakes can be utilized for some good outcome.