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.