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.