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.