Friday, December 26, 2014

"Do You Have a Father and Brother?": A Key To Finding Meaning in Tefilah

The Rokeiach writes that the source for our stepping three steps forward before beginning the Amida is in commemoration of the three times Tanach uses the word “Vayigash”: by Avraham as he pleads to Hashem on behalf of Sedom, by Eliyahu Hanavi as he pleads to Hashem on behalf of Kiddush Hashem, and by Yehuda, at the beginning of our Parsha, when he pleads to Yosef on behalf of Binyamin. 

Of the three “vayigash”s, the one that seems not to fit is the one that begins Parshat Vayigash. It is only here that the word seems to refer to approaching before a human leader, and not Hashem. It emerges yet from the Rokeiach that although Yehuda is literally pleading before the Viceroy of Egypt, his thoughts are directed towards the King of Kings. Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky in his Nesivos Shalom, develops the idea, based on Kaballah, that Yehuda’s approach before Yosef and the details therein is a paradigm of prayer for us all. In the past I have shared some of his approach. I’d like to share with you another idea.

In the dialogue, Yehuda recounts how the Viceroy had asked them: “Do you have an Av (father) or Ach (brother)? (44:19). Nesivos Shalom suggests from here we learn a way to expand our horizons and focus as it relates to prayer. Prayer can be viewed as basically a selfish endeavor. I ask for things from Hashem. And the efficacy of prayer can be measured by how much of those things I get. However, this would shortchange the meaning of tefilah, and leave most of us frustrated and unhappy- for rarely do we see “all of our prayers answered”- in the precise way that we had hoped.

Av” and “Ach” are two ways to broaden our vision about the impacts and benefits of tefilah:
“Father”: when we pray, it develops and strengthens our relationship with Hashem. Whether or not we get exactly what we ask for, just “Standing before the King” and developing that relationship is a worthwhile endeavor. In this sense, the process is the goal and therefore is beneficial in and of itself.

Brother”: when we pray, we don’t only ask for ourselves. Note how all of the requests in our Amidah are phrased in the plural. Tefilah is an exercise in strengthening our relationship wiith and responsibilities towards, or fellow Jews. That is one reason why we ask for all the things we ask for, even if at a particular moment in time we feel as if we are blessed enough in that way. There are others who are lacking and it is our responsibility to feel for them and to pray on their behalf.

The question posed to Yehuda is one that we must pose to ourselves: Do we have an Av and Ach? Do we realize that the goal of tefilah includes strengthening our relationships Bein Adam l’Makom (between man and God) as well as Bein Adam L’Chaveiro  (between man and his fellow man)?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Yosef's Dream Interpretation: A Lesson in Management

At the end of Parshat Vayeshev, we are introduced to Yosef, not as the dreamer but rather the dream interpreter. The Head Butler and Head Baker were in jail and they both had dreams that upset them (40:6). In reading the dreams in the seventh aliyah, it’s understandable why the Head Baker’s dream was disturbing: birds eating out of wicker baskets full of bread resting on his head. However when we read the Head Butler’s dream, there does not appear to be any reason to be disturbed: in the dream, the butler is serving Paroh once again. This is just one of the many questions that are asked concerning the two dreams, their similarities and differences.
The Netziv has an approach to the episode that suggests an understanding. The Head Butler and Head Baker were in jail, but they were not the ones who actually offended Paroh. They were the supervisors, and their employees made mistakes. Paroh directed his anger at the supervisors and had them incarcerated. The Director of Beverage Services accepted responsibility for the actions of his subordinate. His dream reflected his feelings: Although he was the supervisor, he felt directly responsible for the error, as if he himself had been serving. Yosef’s interpretation was that to make up for his mistake he would be demoted for three days. However since he took responsibility for the actions of his department, he would ultimately be reinstated in his executive position.
The Director of Baking Services did not take responsibility and felt that his incarceration was unjustified. That’s why even in his dream he does not actually bake the bread. He sees himself as the head, and that’s why the bread was on his head in the dream. Since he could not accept responsibility, he was dismissed by Paroh- from his job and from his life.

Many of the headlines from the corporate world involve CEO’s who are nimbly able to take all the credit but shift all the blame. A lesson from the Netziv’s interpretation is that the Jewish way is that whoever is in a position to get credit must be ready and willing to accept the consequences – whatever they may be.

Friday, November 28, 2014

If God Leaves Us - Then What?

At the beginning of Vayeitzei, Yaakov has this vision and hear directly from Hashem. One of things God tells him is that (28:15) “for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you.” I have always read this pasuk as comforting to Yaakov. Hashem is promising to be with him. However this year I read the pasuk and could was worried for Yaakov; for the pasuk implies that there is a possibility of Hashem forsaking Yaakov at some future point in history, once Hashem has done what He promised.
I think there are two ways to alleviate this concern. First, the Torah advises that we live in the present. On the pasuk in Parshat Shoftim “Tamim Tiheyeh Im Hashem Elokecha” Rabbi Samson Raphael  Hirsch explains this to be a mandate to live in the moment. Be fully aware of what is happening now, and do not let future considerations temper the feeling in that moment.

I recently taught the Mishna at the beginning of the 9th chapter of Berachot in a similar fashion: the Mishna explains the blessings of HaTov V’Hameitiv (on good tidings) as well as Dayan Haemet (on bad news).  The Mishna goes onto to explain the proper blessing for an event that is bad in the short term, but good in the long run; or vice- versa. For instance: what is the blessing on a catastrophic flood that decimates a field now (bad now), but will lead to that field becoming much more fertile and prosperous in the future (good later)? Or what is the blessing if a person finds a valuable object that he will be able to keep (good now), but the laws of that land mandate that a high tax be paid to the king on such finds, and this person does not have that much liquid assets and knows that finding this object will cause complications and problems (bad later)? In both cases the Mishna states that the proper blessing is based on the experience now: if it’s bad news in the present, say Dayan Ha’Emet. If it’s good news now, then say HaTov V’Hameitiv. Be  fully present in the moment and be mindful to fully experience what is going on NOW, and later you can process/ put into perspective.

Perhaps this is how we should understand Hashem’s promise. It’s true that the future may bring periods during which it appears as if Hashem has forsaken Yaakov or his descendants. But Yaakov should respond to the present situation of the Divine promise of protection and respond purely with gratitutde.

Alternatively, perhaps we are supposed to understand Yaakov’s follow-up declaration as a response to this inferred possibility of a future moment of Divine forsakenness.  Yaakov says, “If you God give me food to eat and clothes to wear….then I will tithe from all that I have” (28:22). Perhaps Yaakov is teaching us the secret to spiritual survival and maintaining a connection with Hashem during those times when it may appear as if He has forsaken us: 1) Say brachot- recognize that the food we have comes from Hashem and 2) Do Chesed- bring God into the world by being Godly and providing for others. If we seek Hashem out in all of our endeavors and strive to emulate His ways- then we stay close to Him and prevent Him from forsaking us.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Salt In A World of Conformity

Parshat Vayera contains within it the story of Sodom and its destruction. Lot and his family are saved, but Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt as they flee (19:26). Rashi quotes the Midrash that when lot invited the two mystery guests into his home, he asked his wife for some salt for their food. Lot’s wife responded, “You also want to introduce this evil custom?!” She had no salt in the house, and she went to her Sodomite neighbors asking for salt, and revealing that she had guests in her house. It was her fault that the neighbors surrounded Lot’s house looking to harm the mystery guests.

A couple of questions stand out: 1) to which “evil custom” is Lot’s wife referring? 2) Why didn’t Lot’s wife have salt? It’s safe to assume that if she had no salt, then no one else did (and this is implied by the continuation of Midrash that states that her asking others for salt was her scheme to inform on Lot’s guests.)
Salt is a key seasoning for food; not only because of its own flavor, but due to its ability to highlight other flavors. In this way salt “celebrates” the diversity of flavors that exist. And it is in this way that salt stands in contrast to the character of Sodomites. In Sodom conformity was required. Outsiders were shunned, and differecnes were neutralized. If an out-of-towner needed a place to stay and he was taller than the bed he was given, the Sodomites would cut off his legs. If he wa s a little short, the people of Sodom would torture him through stretching. All of this to highlight the premium that was placed on conformity in Sodom. That’s why no one in Sodom kept salt in their houses. And it is the practice of Salt, of accepting and even celebrating differences that Lot’s wife was so worried that her husband had brought home with his guests.

It is no surprise that Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt. It’s Hashem’s way of teaching her, and Sodom – and all of us- that salt is a key ingredient to life, not just physiologically (our bodies need to have the proper amount of salt in order to thrive) but also the message behind salt. Jewish life is about valuing differences, even as we focus on a common goal of Kiddush Hashem. 

Perhaps this is why every korban is required to be accompanied by salt. Perhaps this is why even today, every time we make Hamotzi we should be careful to make sure that salt is in the picture.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tikkun Olam- A New Year's Resolution

Rosh Hashanah 5775: Tikkun Olam: A New Year’s Resolution
          Did you hear the one about the guy on his first Federation mission to Israel. He turns to his Israeli tour guide and asks, “how do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew? Tikkun Olam is a term that is used a lot in the Jewish world to encourage support for a variety of social causes. The origin of the term is found in today’s Mussaf. In the Chazan’s repetition, the Malchuyot section opens with the paragraph Aleinu and, soon after, we read the paragraph of Al Kein Nekaveh Lecha. We recite these two paragraphs at the conclusion of every davening: three times a day. Its original spot though is here, front and center at the beginning of the most important section of the Mussaf Amidah.  According to tradition, both of these paragraphs date back over 3300 years. Yehoshua wrote the Aleynu paragraph.  Achan, a contemporary of Yehoshua, wrote Al Kein (in fact the first letters of the first three word- Al Kein Nekaveh- spell the author’s name Achan).
          The Aleinu paragraph is particularistic: it focuses on the unique role and mission of the Jewish People in contrast to the rest of humanity. The Al Kein paragraph has a more universal tone. It speaks of the future when the entire world will recognize Hashem as the one and only God. Towards the beginning of the paragraph we ask Hashem, “letaken olam” to repair the world.  We live in a fractured world, one full of hurt and confusion. One in which God’s presence and one’s ultimate purpose are deceptively hidden. We understand that repairing the world is a huge task that requires God’s assistance
          Yet we are not exempt from taking an active role in Tikkun Olam. This is one of the ways that we emulate Hashem and walk in His ways.  Many social action causes can legitimately be viewed through a Jewish lens. For instance action on behalf of the environment is not only rooted in Jewish values, but has a wonderful tie-in to Rosh Hashana. For Today, Hayom Harat Olam- is the day on which God finished creating the world. It is therefore also the anniversary of the day on which Hashem charged Adam and Eve l’avdah Ul’shamra, to protect and serve the environment.
          However Tikkun Olam is not a phrase that we hear so often within the Orthodox community This is due to a number of factors. Rav Ahron Lichtenstein points out that today’s causes in the name of Tikkun Olam must be weighed against other priorities. As he writes, “we cannot do everything concurrently, and, even as we internalize concern about the broader world, our primary responsibility, for the foreseeable future, is to our own.”
          For me, the real problem with Tikkun Olam as it is colloquially used is that it only quotes half of the phrase, and therefore is misleading. The full phrase is L’taken Olam- B’malchut Shadai. To repair the world under the Kingship of God.  Partnering with Hashem L’taken Olam b’malchut Shaddai is different than what we might generally associate with Tikkun Olam. It is an ideal that we as Orthodox Jews should embrace, and be in the forefront of its implementation.
          So what does Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai look like? Let me share with you three usages of the term Olam, corresponding to three subjects that we should resolve to repair in the new year:
          First, let us resolve in this New Year to repair God’s image and influence on society. God Himself is referred to as the Borei Olam and Adon Olam. Tikkun Olam b’malchut Shaddai means putting God, His Torah and Mitzvot front and center when it comes to our values, our decisions and our actions. Many of us would like to believe that Western ideals are consistent with Jewish tradition, when that is not always the case. After all, modernity is about individual rights and freedoms while Judaism is about obligations — collective and personal. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, noted author and ethicist, has written, “liberals and conservatives should ask themselves if there is anything in Judaism that challenges their political beliefs. If the answer is no,” he says, “then their real religion is liberalism or conservatism, not Judaism.” The great issues and debates of the 21st century would greatly benefit from exposure to pertinent ideas from Jewish law and philosophy that could enhance these conversations.
          Second, let us resolve in this New Year to repair ourselves. The Mishna tells us that each person should say to him/herself, “Bishvili nivra Ha’Olam- the world was created just for me. Each of us should view ourselves as an entire world. In this light, Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shaddai calls on each of us to repair ourselves in a manner that is consistent with recognizing God’s Kingship. This requires deep personal reflection and introspection. We must struggle to answer the questions: who am I? What are my unique talents? What is my mission in life?  This can be a rigorous if not uncomfortable endeavor.
          For many of us, it’s intolerable. A recent study conducted by a University of Virginia psychologist (published in Science Journal) showed that when people were placed in a room with no distractions (ie no music, no internet, no mobile devices) and tasked with just thinking for 15 minutes, 25% of women and 67% of men chose to shock themselves with a 9 volt battery for the momentary distraction (even though it meant hurting themselves) rather than be stuck alone with their thoughts the entire 15 minutes. We live in a world full of distractions that impede both our ability to reach our goals, and also our ability to think deeply about what those goals should be.
          Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai means repairing the world that is contained within each and every one of us. It means reflecting on the big life questions, to engage in what is called Cheshbon Hanefesh.  It may mean sitting down and drafting a personal mission statement: Putting pen to paper (or characters to the screen) answering the questions: What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of parent, spouse, child, neighbor, citizen, Jew? And what attitudes and actions am I willing to commit to in furtherance of my personal mission? Our commitments should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound.
          Lastly, in addition to repairing God’s image in the world and repairing the world encapsulated in each one of us, let us resolve to repair our Jewish community. Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai means repairing the Jewish community by sharing the beauty of our heritage with those less Jewishly affiliated. The Talmud states, “Kol haMekayem Nefesh Achat, Maaleh Alav haKatuv k'Ilu Kiyem Olam Male” Maintaining just one fellow Jew is like restoring the entire world. This is especially true when we find ways to spiritually restore other Jews.
          The Jewish community is at a cross roads. As a whole, we are becoming less affiliated and less engaged. It is sometimes difficult to remember this, as our synagogue grows by dozens of families each year. But the non-Orthodox Jewish community is shrinking. Those of us committed to both Torah and engagement with the broader world have a unique responsibility today to share with our neighbors and friends and relatives the joys of Jewish living. The days of Orthodoxy’s “circling the wagons” should be behind us. No longer should we fear the potential assimilating influence of other Jewish denominations. Rather, we need to think about the ways in which we can influence others and bring them closer to their heritage. It is time for us to make a more concerted effort to reach out to family members, co-workers and neighbors in Emerald Hills and beyond who are certainly familiar with Orthodox practices, but have not had enough chances to be exposed to the beauty of this lifestyle.
          This opportunity and responsibility we have towards non-affiliated Jewish brethren is perhaps the most important expression of Tikkun Olam B’malchut Shaddai today- because it in fact incorporates the other two Tikkun Olam tasks described earlier. By exposing other Jews to the beauty of Torah Judaism we will be repairing God’s image in this world and reinvigorating our own values in the process.
          This is the basis upon which the Shabbat Project is predicated. Inaugurated last year in South Africa, the idea is to leverage Shabbat as a platform for a grassroots movement that exposes all Jews to meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and Jewish living. Here’s an idea that I’d like each of us to consider adopting:  sometime between now and Chanukah, invite a non-observant neighbor or friend to your home for a Shabbat meal (or other Jewish experience). It can make a world of difference not only for your guest but for you as well. In the coming days you will receive information via e-mail about how you can sign up to participate in this project and I urge everyone to do so.
          Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shaddai is a critical component of our mission today as Jews who proudly carry the banner of Torah and Mitzvot in the 21st century. By partnering with Hashem in these three Tikkun Olam projects (repairing God’s image, repairing ourselves and repairing the Jewish community) may we merit to see the day promised at the end of the Al Kein paragraph:

Bayom Hahu Yihyeh Hashem Echad Ushmo Echad: when Hashem will be one and the world will be repaired.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Remarks at the Broward Federation Solidarity Rally

By attending this solidarity rally, we have fulfilled a mitzvah, a sacred act, a Divine commandment prescribed by our holy Torah. The specific Mitzvah that I believe we are fulfilling here is in Parshat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy Chapter 22. There it describes a situation in which a fellow Jew is in need of help. The Torah charges us: Hakeim Takim Imo. Help your fellow man. But help him or her in a comprehensive manner. Within these three short Hebrew words are two related yet distinct responsibilities. First Hakeim- alleviate their suffering, rectify the situation by providing material support and concrete steps to fix what is broken.
And also Takim Imo: stand up in solidarity with those who are in need, provide spiritual sustenance for those in trouble and their loved ones.
          One of the most important concrete steps we can undertake is to raise awareness and keep the attention of the world on the plight of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. The news cycle is very fast, and it’s already moving on to new stories. But we won’t move on, we can’t move on, until the boys are returned because this story is about our family. Our efforts here must be supplemented by letters to the editor, social media campaigns, reaching out to elected officials- whatever we can do to increase the awareness of this terribly unjust situation.
          But the we must Takim Imo: our provision of spiritual sustenance to the three boys and their families must not end with today’s rally. Jewish tradition teaches us that good deeds performed on behalf of someone in trouble is a way to alleviate their predicament. Therefore let us react to these kidnappings with an increase in kindness. Let us respond to this terrorism with enhanced Torah study. Let our response to these provocations find expression in our intensified prayers.  May our steps to stand – and act -in solidarity create the merit that Brings Our Boys home swiftly and Safely. And May our efforts create a better world, one from which we can continue to benefit, long after the Boys’ safe return. At my synagogue, the Young Israel of Hollywood – Ft. Lauderdale, these last 3 weeks since the boys were kidnapped, we have added Psalm 130 to our Shabbat evening prayers specifically on behalf of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. After the Pslam we recite the following short prayer, with which I’d like to conclude:
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַנְּתוּנִים בְּצָרָה וּבַשִּׁבְיָה, הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה, הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה, הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב.

“Our brothers, the entire family of Israel who are delivered into distress and captivity, whether they are on these shores or across the ocean- may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them, and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon and let us say Amen.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lend Your Voice, But Don't Give It To Others

In Parshat Shelach we read about the episode of the spies. Upon hearing the evil report from most of the spies, the Torah tells us the reaction of the nation:
Vatisa kol Ha’eidah Vayitnu et Kolam, vatyivku ha’am balayla hahu” (14:1)
“The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice, the people wept that night”

The bolded words above seem strange. What does it mean that the people literally “gave their voice”, and not just “raised their voice”?

Perhaps the Torah is alluding to one of the major mistakes perpetrated by the Jewish People in regards to the Meraglim affair. Instead of maintaining their own judgment, they “gave their voice” to the spies with the evil report. They chose not to think independently, but rather to blindly follow what the gang was saying.

We must be careful to never blindly give our voices to others. We must keep our voices so that our voices reflect who we are and what we believe.  

Our voice is too important and too powerful to give over to someone else. We can lend our voices to others and on behalf of others, but the story of the meraglim teaches us to be very wary about giving our voices to someone or something else.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Behaving AND Believing: Some Thoughts on "Social Orthodoxy"

Shavuot 5774
Behaving and Believing (Naaseh V’Nishma)
Some Thoughts on “Social Orthodoxy”
According to traditional Jewish thought, the Jewish People experienced a revelation on this day 3,326 years ago; during which Hashem revealed both the Written and Oral traditions that we continue to revere to this day. What if you don’t believe that- can you still be Orthodox?
          According to the recent Pew Survey of American Jews, 77% of Modern Orthodox Jews believe with certitude in the existence of God. What about the other 23%? Can you be Orthodox and be agnostic, or not think much about God’s existence or role in the world?
          The answer to both questions could be yes, according to Jay Lefkowitz, in a recent article in Commentary Magazine. In Lefkowitz’s words, “I root my identity much more in Jewish culture, history nationality than in faith and commandments. “ Mr. Lefkowitz admits to being Shomer Mitzvot (by and large) and living a life that from the outside would be considered Orthodox. He puts on tefillin every day, observes Shabbat and holidays and sends his children to Jewish day schools. But not because God commanded him to do so, but because he wants to connect with the Jewish, Halachik community: past, present and future. He calls this type of Judaism: Social Orthodoxy. The Social Orthodox may daven daily (perhaps even with a minyan) but question the efficacy of prayer, or even whether there is God listening. Social Orthodox will abide by the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat; but not because they are commanded by Hashem but rather because it is through these practices that one finds his/her place in the Orthodox community and assures its continuity. Social Orthodox will celebrate Shavuot, even as they question whether Matan Torah ever occurred.
          There is some merit to Mr. Lefkowitz argument. Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, is much more interested in what we do than in what we believe. For us it’s deed more so than creed. Jewish tradition also believes in the value of a mitzvah even when performed for the wrong reasons. The Rabbis of the Talmud firmly believed in the power of a mitzvah- and mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma.
The community factor of Judaism is an important element to the religious experience. For instance, our famous declaration of the unity of God begins with Shema Yisrael- turning to the community first- before continuing with Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. In Megillat Rut which we will read tomorrow, Ruth’s declaration of commitment begins Amech Ami- your people are my people” – and only then is there mention of Elokayich Elokai- your God is my God. The social bonds of Jewish community seem to preface/ be more important than the theological underpinnings. And even the expression Na’aseh V’Nishma is written in the first person plural. Acceptance of Torah and community are inextricably linked.
          Lefkowitz also defends Social Orthodoxy based on a famous verse related to Matan Torah. In Parshat Mishpatim we read that Bnei Yisrael responded to Moshe’s offer of the Torah with the phrase, “Na’aseh V’Nishma.” According to Mr. Lefkowitz, “There is a long tradition in Judaism of engaging first in religious practices and letting matters of faith come later……And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”   It may be that Social Orthodoxy keeps some Jews within the fold of tradition. And I certainly would not tell a person that s/he must believe all Jewish principles of faith in order to be part of the Halachik community. There is no thought police in our community.
          Nevertheless, I have my concerns. One concern is stated by Mr. Lefkowitz himself: sustainability. “Whether such a cultural tradition can be sufficiently transmitted to the next generation is a fair question.” Causes without religious underpinnings are difficult to transmit in the long term.
          Mr. Lefkowitz suggested that there can be a movement predicated on Naaseh that puts Nishma on the back burner indefinitely. I think that this is impossible, based on the Seforno
Seforno:  Naaseh L’Tachlit Shenishma B’Kolo K’avadim Hameshamshim et Harav Shelo Al Menat Lekabel Peras
Purpose of doing is to foster a love for God to the degree that your actions ultimately are an expression of that relationship with the Divine. When you love someone you do even before you understand. But even if you don’t understand exactly why you are doing what you’re doing, you at least recognize that these actions are done in the context of a relationship with Hashem.
          The story is told that Mrs. Albert Einstein was asked whether she understood the Theory of Relativity. To which she responded, “No, I do not understand Professor Einstein’s Theory of Relativity- but I understand Professor Einstein.” We may not understand the meaning of all of our mitzvah actions and we may not need to. But we need to have some semblance of a recognition that these actions are the way we demonstrate our relationship with A Metzaveh- God, the Commander in Chief.
          Social Orthodoxy presumes that community is enough of a reason to maintain a traditional lifestyle. However people and communities can disappoint us. If our religious observance depends on the response we receive from others within the community, then what happens when others in the community don’t care about the particulars of our observance? Or even worse- what happens if you  find yourself  in a situation where no one cares about you at all. Then what? To whom do we turn if we have not fostered a relationship with Hashem such that we can state with confidence ”Ezri Me’Im Hashem.”

          Of the three Regalim, Shavuot is most focused on the individual. On Pesach the korban Pesach was eaten in a large group- just as our seders are celebrated. On Sukkot, everyone eats together in a sukkah, and the four species symbolize the unity of all Jews. On Shavuot, the Biblical command is Bikurim- each individual farmer comes to the Beit Hamikdash to declare his gratitude to Hashem and his relationship with the Divine. Nowadays, there are no unique Shavuot mitzvoth to occupy our time. And therefore Shavuot is an appropriate time to consider our religious identities and the meaning of our personal observance. I think on some level we are all a little bit Social Orthodox. We want our religious observance to help us foster a sense of Jewish community, Jewish continuity and Jewish pride. The growth of Modern Orthodoxy in America testifies to how successful our community building efforts have been in the past 50 years. But let us not lose sight of the twofold declaration of our ancestors. Naaseh V’Nishma. To behave according to the Torah’s mandates, AND to Believe that God is an important piece of the picture: charging us, challenging us and cheering us on.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Circle The Wagons- Or Open The Circle?

In Parshat Naso we learn about the laws of the Nazir, a person who accepts upon himself extra restrictions relating to grapes/ wine, haircuts and contact with the dead. The Torah introduces this section with the phrase: “Ish Ki Yafli Lindor Neder” There is a difference of opinion among commentators as to how to understand the word Yafli. Rashi understands it to mean, “to separate.” The Nazir separates himself from certain permissible activities as an extreme response to the Sotah episode. The Ibn Ezra understands Yafli to be related to the word pele, which means wonder. The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is commending the Nazir for his asceticism, though he was never commanded to undertake such an endeavor.

From the dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra we can see the underpinnings of the dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to the status of the Nazir: did he do something good or something sinful? Ramban feels that the Nazir did something good, and he must bring a sin offering at the end of his Nazir-period because he is ending a period of heightened spirituality. This seems to jive with the opinion of the Ibn Ezra. The Rambam understands that what the Nazir did is less than ideal. We are not supposed to prohibit things on ourselves that the Torah did not prohibit. The Nazir felt that out of necessity, due to the times in which s/he lived and the things that s/he saw, that a vow of Nazirut was the appropriate response.

I think these approaches should give us food for thought in terms of how we must respond to the challenges that surround us in modern society. Do we circle the wagons and make even permissible ideas and practices off limits as a radical response to the permissiveness and moral relativism of general society? Or do we stay the course, fully engaged in society while attempting to be role models, based on the Torah?

There is no easy, across the board answer- but the Nazir- and how that status is viewed by our tradition, makes us aware of the dilemma and begins a conversation.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Jewish Guide to Desert Survival

That book will probably never be published..

And yet, the Book of Bamidbar is about survival in the desert.  Are there any keys to surviving in a real desert that can help us in our spiritual quests as Jews?
I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about desert survival before yesterday. But in the post-Google age, you can become acquainted with almost any topic in mere minutes. What I’ve learned is that the first mistake people who die in the desert make is that they consider the desert a hostile environment that is conspiring against human life. The key to desert survival is learning to be part of the desert’s ecosystem. A practical example of this is extracting water from the desert cactus. To survive the desert, a person must learn to become part of the desert’s ecosystem and not view is as antagonistic.

This is such an important lesson for all of us. Not every tension, not every disagreement is necessarily antagonism. Friends can agree to disagree. Family members can have different perspectives on even important issues without it leading to all out war. Difficult situations can be the breeding grounds for very positive outcomes.

As important as this rule is for our interpersonal relationships, it is just as important in our religious outlook as well.  When we see the title of a shiur comparing a modern, contemporary idea with Halacha (Abortion and Halacha, Global Warming in the View of the Torah) what is our gut reaction? Do we assume that there is unsolvable tension between the two ideas? Do we believe that the Torah is by definition hostile to the world in which we live? Do we think that the Torah conspires against us living our lives as we want to? 

Or do we view the Torah as an ecosystem in which we can not only survive, but excel? 

Friday, May 16, 2014

No One Is Interchangeable

Towards the end of Bechukotai we learn about the prohibition of Temurah. If I designate an animal for Temple use, I am not allowed to transfer that status to a different animal. this is the case even if I was planning on offering a better animal in place of the first one. If I were to attempt to transfer the sanctified status, then both animals become sanctified and must be dedicated for temple use.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that the lesson of Temurah is that no one is interchangeable. Even if it appears as if my role can be accomplish by someone else, in truth there is no one that can do what I do. If I try to exempt myself from my responsibilities, the role just expands to include me and now other people.

In this age when entire industries are becoming obsolete we run the risk of characterizing people in similar terms. The lesson of Temurah is that sanctity cannot be diminished, it will only spread. Since every human possesses a degree of sanctity and dignity we must remember that there is no such thing as an obsolete person. Every one of us is necessary, irreplaceable and never interchangeable.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Security and Faith

In Parshat Behar we read about the Mitzvah of Shemitah, the Sabbatical in the Land of Israel every seventh year. If observed correctly, we are taught that the reward is that we will dwell in the land l'vetach. Rashi explains that observing Shemitah leads to security and safety for the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. But not observing Shemitah leads to exile. In fact there is a tradition that the 70 years of exile after the destruction of the first Temple corresponds to the 70 shimtahs that were not observed correctly during the almost 500 years during which the first Temple stood.

The word vetach is related to both the words security and faith (both bitachon). The future of Jewish prosperity in the Land of Israel is tied to both appropriate security measures as well as appropriate demonstrations of faith in God.

As the memories of Yom Haatzmaut are still fresh in our minds, let us learn well the lesson of Shemitah: to recognize the limitations of human endeavor, and to pursue both security and faith as parallel yet complementary facets of Jewish existence.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Paradoxical Lessons In Counting Sefira

There are two ways to understand the Sefirat Haomer period. It can be viewed as a countdown to receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Or it can be viewed as a period of incremental growth- for the Jews as they left Egypt and for each of us as well. These two approaches can be used to understand the logic behind a number of Halachik arguments:

Is Sefirat Haomer today Torah-ordained or Rabbinic? If we are counting towards Receiving the Torah, then we count today as it has been done throughout history and can continue to be viewed as a Torah-obligation. However if Sefira is about personal/ national transformation, this was symbolized by the transition from Korban Haomer (barley) to Korban Shtei Halechem (bread on Shavuot). Since we no longer have Korbanot, our count is only a commemoration and would be considered Rabbinically obligated.

1)      Is Sefira one mitzvah or 49 separate mitzvot? If the Count is about reaching Matan Torah, then there is only one destination. Therefore one would view the entire period as one Mitzvah. However if Sefirat haomer is about personal/ national development, then it is possible to view each and every step of growth as important and a mitzvah in its own right.

2)      Whether one can fulfill their obligation to count by listening to someone else (ie does Shomei’ah K’oneh apply to Sefirat Haomer?) If Sefirah is about getting to Matan Torah, then each person must prepare for Matan Torah themselves. However if Sefira is about personal/ national development, part of that development is the notion of Areivut -that Jews are responsible for one another- which is demonstrated through Shomei’ah K’Oneh

In these ways Sefirat HaOmer teaches us important, yet dichotomous lessons: The importance of the individual as well as the community. The value of having a goal, while appreciating every step along that journey.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cursing The Deaf In A Fit Of Road Rage

Towards the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim we find the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind. Less famous is the beginning of that verse (19:14) “Do not curse the deaf.” There is a difference of opinion as to the meaning of this verse, and why the Torah singled out the deaf for mention in regards to this prohibition.

Ramban suggests that the Torah frames these interpersonal obligations in terms of when it is most likely to be violated. For instance, we are mandated not to oppress any fellow Jew, yet the Torah framed this prohibition in reference to widows, orphans and strangers because they are most vulnerable populations. Similarly, it is prohibited to curse any Jew, and the Torah framed this prohibition in connection with the deaf, because people are more likely to curse the deaf with a sense of impunity.

The Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvot explains otherwise. He explains that the real reason that cursing someone is prohibited is because of the negative impact that cursing has on the perpetrator. From his rational perspective the Rambam is most concerned about the damage that such behavior has on the person doing the cursing. Speaking is such a way is vile and base, it will turn that person into a coarse and insensitive human being.

We need to keep in mind both of these perspectives. We need to be careful how we treat all people, and be especially sensitive to those who are most vulnerable. At the same time let us remember the Rambam’s perspective the next time we feel like cursing out the driver in front of us in a fit of road rage. That person will not hear what we say, s/he will be deaf to our curse. But such speech and behavior will nonetheless have a negative impact on us- so is it really worth it?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The TWO Factors involved in getting to Carnegie Hall

The beginning of Parshat Acharei Mot describes in detail the intricate Yom Kippur service in the Temple. Part of that service involved two identical goats: one was slaughtered and offered in a normal manner; the other “scape” goat was sent into the wilderness and thrown off a cliff. The Torah states that the Kohen would send the scapegoat out with the “ish iti”.

Rashbam suggests that the word Iti is related to the word “eit”, time or more specifically frequency. The Ish Iti was a person that frequently traveled the wilderness. He knew his way around ad was therefore perfectly suited for the task of leading the goat into the wilderness. 

Rashi quotes the Medrash that the Ish iti was a person designated for this role from before Yom Kippur. The designation is so important that the Talmud (Yoma 66b) states that if the Ish Iti becomes ritually impure, he nonetheless enters the Temple Courtyard to perform his assigned duty.

Perhaps we can combine the two opinions to teach us a lesson that can apply to each of us. Achievement is a combination of preparation and frequent effort. Hashem may give us a certain talent, but it is up to each of us to identify that talent and then cultivate it to our maximum capacity.

Each of us must be an Ish Iti, finding our G-d given talents and then cultivating those talents to the best of our abilities. Just as the Talmud in Yoma seems to indicate, no one can replace us, and if we do not cultivate our talents then not only will we be missing out, but the entire world will be lacking as a result.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bloody Bird That Gets Away

Our Response to the Misfortune of Others Part 2 
The Bloody Bird That Gets Away

At the beginning of Parshat Metzora we learn about the purification process of the Metzora. One part of the process entails two birds: one is slaughtered and its blood is collected into an earthenware vessel. The second bird is dipped into the blood of the first bird (mixed with a few other ingredients) and then sent free. 

Rashi notes the appropriateness of using birds that chirp in the purification process for a Metzorah, who may have been afflicted due to his slanderous speech. But that is not the only unusual aspect of this ceremony. Why are two birds taken, only for one to be let free? And why is the freedom-bound bird first dipped in its peer’s blood?

To me, this teaches important lessons about how we react to the events around us. When we hear or see people dealing with difficulties, it may be that we can’t do anything to alleviate that suffering. But it nonetheless must impact us. Just like by this bird, seeing the blood of others must leave us bloodied. 

At the very least our flight away from the difficult situation must be combined with empathy. Just as the bloodied bird flees but not before being impacted by its surroundings, so too must we. As humans we are naturally protective of our lives. But our lives are only fully lived if we are not being protective of our humanity as well, which includes empathy for others.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Our Response To Knowing The Misfortune of Others

Parshat Tazria begins the description of the laws of the Metzorah. The Torah states that a person declared to be a metzorah must tear his clothes, let his hair grow out, wraps his head and “he shall call out ‘Contaminated! Contaminated!”

The Midrash (Sifra), as quoted by Rashi, explains that the Metzorah must call out his impure status so that other people know to stay away from him. A person who comes into physical contact with the Metzora would also become impure.

The Talmud (Shabbat 67) offers a different understanding. According to the Talmud, the Metzorah calls out “Tamei, Tamei” so that people are aware of his/her status and they can then pray on the Metzorah’s behalf.

I think that the two interpretations are very relevant to us in our interpersonal relationships. When we hear troubling or disturbing news- what are we supposed to do with it? For instance: a person tells me that he got into a car accident at a busy intersection and is now under medical treatment. What is my response? Do I ask him what intersection it was, so that I can be more careful when I am driving there? Do I ask him how his treatment is going so that I know whether to go to those doctors, or recommend them to my friends?
Or do I engage the person in conversation for his sake, not my own? Do I ask him if there is anything I can help him with? Do I ask him if he’d like his name added to the Mi Sheberach list?

There are definitely instances in which the information we hear about others needs to be used primarily for the benefit and protection of ourselves and our loved ones. I believe that is the message Rashi is conveying from the Sifra. However the Talmud in Shabbat reminds us that we must always ask ourselves if there are ways to utilize our knowledge of the misfortune of others to not only make our lives better- but their lives as well.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Purim Thought: Duress Comes in Many Forms

Towards the beginning of Megillat Esther, we read how King Achashverosh threw a big party. At that party we are told (1:8) The drinking was according to the law, without coercion.” I’d like to share a two brief commentaries on this verse. Feel free to utilize/ expand them at your Purim Seudah:

1)      Some commentators note that the word “coercion” (Ones) is written without the letter Vav. They see this as a hint to the fact that the party was not completely without coercion. Rather at the party an announcement went out: “The King desires that you eat of his food and drink of his wine…but you can do whatever you like.” The king’s wishes were made clear, even if it was also expressed that people had a choice. It’s like when a spouse or parent says, “I really want you do to X, but you can do whatever you want.”

2)      Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz claims that indeed the party was lacking any coercion whatsoever. And this was exactly the challenge. Freedom and liberty are a challenge for us Jews. History has shown that Judaism has experienced tremendous growth and strengthening in countries where we have been given freedom. At the same time, freedom and liberty has also contributed to unprecedented assimilation. When Napoleon was conquering Europe, there was a dispute among the rabbis in Russia whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Some felt that the Czar was a tyrant and dictator, and the Jews could only fare better under Napoleon. Others were afraid that if Napoleon was victorious, Jews would be granted freedom; and included in that freedom was the freedom to assimilate and turn one’s back on Torah and Mitzvot.

Achashverosh appreciated the challenge of freedom and hoped that the Jews would be spiritually caught in its trap. What was true in the times of Achashverosh and Napoleon, remains true today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Let Things Happen - Or MAKE Things Happen?

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 (the movie celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) 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, February 21, 2014

Before You Wash Your Hands - Look In The Mirror

Parshat Vayakhel describes the construction of the Mishkan by the Jewish People. Towards the end of the parsha, we read about the construction of the Kiyor, the laver from which the Kohanim would wash their hands and feet in preparation for their service in the Tabernacle. The Torah tells us that Betzalel “made the laver of copper and its base from copper, from the mirrors of the legions…”

Rashi explains that the laver was constructed entirely out of shined copper that was used by Jewish women as mirrors. The women took the lead in donating to the Mishkan cause and many copper mirrors were donated. Rashi explains that at first Moshe was heisitant to accept donations of tools of vanity for the Mishkan. However God informed Moshe that these women were righteous and they utilized these mirrors for noble purposes.

I believe that the use of mirrors for the kiyor contains an additional lesson. The kiyor was used to prepare oneself for public service. Before we contribute to society – we need to prepare ourselves. On the one hand we prepare by “purifying”- washing our hands and ensuring that our motivations are pure. But more fundamentally we need to first start by looking at a mirror – and in a mirror. When we catch our reflection in the mirror we should ask ourselves, “I am engaging in public service because I am unhappy with the current state of affairs in the world around me. What about my own personal current state of affairs? Am I satisfied with the person I am today, or are there things I want to improve on, and if so- how will I go about doing so?

Looking outward is important but the lesson of the kiyor is the critical importance of also looking into a mirror at times, and at ourselves.

Birthdays are perfect opportunities for such reflection in the mirror. In retrospect, perhaps the inspiration for this week's post is partly due to the fact that today my Hebrew birthday (the first of 2)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Life Does Not Always Operate According To My Schedule

While the underlying cause of the sin of the golden calf is left to conjecture, the immediate cause is described in the Torah: “The people saw that Moshe was delayed in coming down from Mount Sinai.” The word used here for delayed, “boshesh” is an unusual one and used to learn a number of lessons. One suggestion is that Boshesh is a contraction of the words “ba shesh” ie that Moshe told the people that he would be back at noon and the people panicked when he was late by their calculations. Another suggestion is that Boshesh is related to the Hebrew word busha which means shame. The source of the people’s concern stemmed from their lack of confidence in themselves and their worthiness for Moshe’s leadership and God’s protection.

 I think an important lesson for us to learn from the sin of the golden calf is that life does not always occur based on our schedule. Just because the people wanted/ needed/ expected Moshe to return at a certain time does not mean that it has to be. Humans are by nature self-centered and we easily forget that the world does not revolve around our time frames. The golden calf episode should serve as a reminder for us to work on our humility and our perspective to navigate and thrive during those times in life when things don’t happen according to our time table.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sorcery: Not A Life Worth Living

Among the many laws delineated in Parshat Mishpatim is the prohibition of sorcery. In this week’s Parsha the prohibition is expressed as (22:17): “Mechashefa Lo Techayeh,” generally translated as “you shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

When describing prohibitions that are liable for the death penalty, the Torah usually uses a language of “death” ie “Mot Tamut”, “you shall surely put them to death.” The phrase “Lo Techayeh” is unusual and caught my attention.

Though this may not be the literal interpretation, I think the usage of this phrase can teach us some important lessons about life.

Two of the characteristics of sorcery are that 1) it alleges that it can predict the future and 2) it alleges that it can control events that Judaism believes are within the exclusive purview of God.
When we recall these attributes about sorcery then I think the Torah may be teaching us something relevant for all of us, even in societies in which sorcery is not common:

A life in which we are fixated on the future and trying to predict what will happen next- Lo Techayeh, is not real living. We must never ignore the present, nor take the present for granted as we plan for the future. The present is a gift (that’s why the two words are synonyms) and if we forget this and focus only on the future- there is a distinct possibility that we will never be able to experience that future that we look forward to; for once it’s the present we again look ahead. As my quote in my high school yearbook goes, "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday."

Second, a life in which we believe we can and shall exclusively control our destiny, without making any room for God, is also Lo Techayeh, not a viable life plan. We must do our part, but then we must surrender and admit that we are not in total control. Though this may be difficult for us control freaks at first, in the long run it allows us some freedom, knowing that no matter how much we worry or perseverate over matters we still are not always in control.

In these ways, the prohibition of sorcery in Mishpatim helps us think about what it means to live and not to live and what is the path towards the life worth living.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Faith and Commitment

After the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, we are told that the Jewish People were afraid of the awesomeness of the experience and asked Moshe to cut it short. They could not handle the “voice of God” and asked that Moshe serve as intermediary. Moshe responds (20:17): “Don’t be afraid; for Hashem revealed Himself today to nasot you.

There is some debate as to what the word nasot means here. Rashi claims that it is the verb form of nes, miracle. Moshe tells the people that God revealed Himself as an indication of the unique status of the Jewish People and God’s love for them. The Sinai Revelation was a sign of God’s involvement, just like a miracle.
Ramban objects to Rashi’s interpretation. He notes that we rarely ever find the verb form of miracle in Tanach, if anywhere at all. Instead, the Ramban suggests that nasot is a verb form of nisayon, test. The Revelation at Sinai served as some sort of test for the people, as to whether or not they would keep Torah and mitvot in the future.

The question then becomes: in what way is revelation and test for the Jews? One would think the exact opposite: the revelation at Sinai put to rest any doubts that the people may have had as to the existence of God; from this point forward, commitment to God’s laws should be easy, now that they people know that Hashem is real.

In his notes on the Ramban Rabbi Chayim Chavel writes:
“In this comment, the Ramban fundamentally alters our understanding concerning the relationship between faith and commitment.”

Conventional wisdom teaches that the reason why Jewish observance is lacking is related directly to the degree of faith in God. If you believe in God, then you will of course follow His commandments.
According to the Ramban, the revelation at Sinai teaches us that our test of commitment BEGINS after our questions of faith have been answered. In other words, Hashem is saying at Sinai, “You now have proof of the existence of God. Realize that there is still a challenge to follow My laws.”

Experience shows that people will often act against what they know to be the truth, or that which is good for them. Health and food intake are just one example. A person can have multiple health problems due to their diet and still not change. What the Ramban is saying is that commitment to Torah is the same thing: Just because we know that God exists, doesn’t mean that we will commit to act in accordance with that knowledge. Our humanity can very well get in our way.

The challenge does not end with a resolution of our faith questions, it merely begins there.

The lesson of the Ramban is an important one for many areas of our lives: We must strive to ensure that our actions reflect our deeply held beliefs.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Now It's A Party

At the beginning of Parshat Bo, Pharoh asks Moshe who he envisions leaving Egypt for a few days of worship? Moshe responds “With our youngsters and our elders, with our sons and our daughters…..because it is a festival of Hashem for us.”

There is no better proof of the Torah’s inclusive vision for society than this verse. It is only a Chag when the young and old participate together; when the young look to their elders with reverence and when the elders look to the youngsters with hope and optimism. It can only be a Chag for Hashem when old and young learn from each other and share with each other their knowledge and experience and insights. It can only be a Chag for Hashem when men and women participate, and each contributes to the community in their unique and essential ways.

It is only a Chag for Hashem when everyone is not only invited, but everyone shows up, everyone participates and everyone celebrates together. Only then is it the type of party to which Moshe refers to and to which Hashem is proud to lend His Name.