Friday, December 25, 2015

There Are No Guarantees

At the end of his life, Yaakov wanted to leave his children with a message of hope and consolation. Chapter 49 begins with Yaakov calling together his sons at which point he says, 

Jacob called for his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days. אוַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים:
However if we look further in the Parsha we will see that Yaakov does not live up to this particular promise. He blesses his children but we see no further explicit mention of the End of Days anywhere else in Yaakov’s last words. Rashi quotes the Midrash that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children when Moshiach would come, but just then his Divine inspiration departed and he no longer had access to that information.
We can understand Yaakov’s desire to take leave of his children on a note of optimism abd comfort. His family was now in Egypt and the years of slavery were yet to begin. As Yaakov lay on his deathbed, his sons were feeling vulnerable and dejected. It is only natural that Yaakov wanted to tell his children that “everything will be OK- and I can prove it to you by telling you when Moshiach will come.”
However Yaakov was not allowed to convey that message. In this way the Torah is teaching us that there are no sure things in life. We have to try our best every day, even when the results are not guaranteed. We cannot give up on doing the right thing, even when if we do not understand where it is all leading; even when it appears that “nice guys finish last”.

It would have been great had Yaakov been allowed to assure us that everything would work out OK in the end. By God not allowing him to do so, we are given the greater challenge – living a righteous life without any guarantees.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Standard Bearers for the Past and the Future

When Yaakov is introduced to Pharaoh in Egypt he is asked his age. Yaakov responds in a surprising manner:

And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings."

טוַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם:

There are a number of questions that immediately came to my mind (this time I read this verse):
Why does Yaakov call his years “few and bad” at this juncture- especially since he has just been reunited with his long lost son Yosef? Granted, he has just been forced to relocate- which is never easy and certainly not so for a man of Yaakov’s age- over 100 years old. But even within that difficult transition- God has just spoken directly to him and assured Yaakov that things will be OK- that God will continue to be with him and his family with transition from a family clan into the nation that was promised to Avraham.

What does Yaakov mean when he says that his years have not reached the life span of his father or grandfather? Yaakov is still alive!

Perhaps we can better understand Yaakov’s declaration in light of a Rabbinic teaching: A person should always be asking him/herself:  When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?" (Tanna deBei Eliyahu 25)

At this crossroads in Yaakov’s life he reflects and wonders whether he has lived up to his family name. He wonders whether his father and grandfather would be proud of the choices he’s made and the direction his life- and that of his children and grandchildren- has gone. No amount of Divine assurance is sufficient for a person to stop asking him/herself that question.

As we read this episode- the very beginning of the pivotal Jewish experience that was Egyptian slavery- we should accustom ourselves to think in a similar way. As parents and transmitters of a rich Jewish tradition we should ask ourselves: Are we doing our part to project a rich and meaningful Jewish life that can be a model for the next generation. As receivers of this tradition we must ask ourselves: How are we doing at safeguarding And nurturing that gift of Jewish values that was safeguarded by our ancestors and then entrusted to us?

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Universal Lesson of Chanukah

The Halacha states that the most appropriate time to light Chanukah candles is at sunset. However if for whatever reason it is not done at sunset,  one can light Chanukah candles “until there are no more pedestrians coming back from market.” The Talmud goes on to explain that that the very last people to go home from the market were the Tarmoda’i merchants who sold small twigs to other merchants as firewood. After all of the customers went home for the day, the shopkeepers had to close up shop before making their way home. Oftentimes, after arriving home they would be informed that the house needed firewood to stay warm through the night. The shopkeepers would then have to trek back to the market, where the Tarmoda’i would be waiting to make their last sales of the day. One is allowed to light Chanukah candles so long as these Tarmoda’i have not made it home yet.

            According to Rashi, these Tarmoda’i were not Jewish. It emerges that the criteria for lighting Chanukah candles is not necessarily that Jews should see the Chanukah lights. So long as even non-Jews, such as these Tarmoda’i,  have seen the Chanukah candles, one has dispensed of his obligation to publicize the miracle of Chanukah. The question is why does it help to publicize this Jewish miracle to non-Jews?

            Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the struggle and victory of Chanukah is one that deserves the attention of the non-Jewish world as well. As opposed to other celebrations of victory and salvation (for example- Purim) on Chanukah there is no indication that the physical lives of the Jewish people were at risk. Rather the threat that the Maccabees encountered was an existential spiritual threat.

            To fight for one’s life is something that all people do- in fact even animal instincts dictate that an animal defends its physical existence. However in the story of Chanukah the Jews fought with similar vigor to defend their right to live Jewish lives. That is something that not everyone understands. Non-Jewish religions may not have ingrained the idea that some religious values are worth fighting for, even worth dying for. It is this aspect of the story and victory that is appropriate to publicize to all- even non-Jews.

            The notion that there are"ideals worth fighting for," or even worth dying for, has become a problematic topic, tarnished due to terrorists who justify not just dying, but killing for their ideals. As we celebrate Shabbat Chanukah let us ask ourselves: Are there values and causes for which we are willing to fight? What are they? How do we remain firm in our convictions and teach others to do so as well, while  encouraging a culture of tolerance at the same time?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The problem with asking for some peace

ועוד נדרש בו וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף.
When Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him

Rashi quotes this Midrash at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev that seems critical of Yaakov’s desire for some peace and respite after many years of challenges and turmoil. The question that must be asked is: Why? What’s wrong with seeking some peace? Isn’t peace a great blessing that we seek for ourselves from Hashem?

I’d like to suggest an answer based on explanations that I recently read on the bleassing of “Birkat Hashanim” in our Amidah. This is a timely blessing to review since we will begin to say “V’tein Tal Umatar” beginning Saturday night with Maariv.
In that bracha we ask Hashem to bless “Et Hashana Hazot” THIS year, with prosperity. The problem is that we believe that one’s prosperity is set at Rosh Hashanah. So what are we asking for all year long?

The son of the Vilna Gaon explains that blessings can materialize in many different ways; some easier and some with more challenges. For instance, even if we have been decreed to receive the blessing of rain for the year- that blessing can manifest in a way that is easier- ie it rains at convenient times in proper amounts in the right locations. Or that blessing can materialize in more challenging ways. The lesson is that no blessing is unequivocal.

The Midrash is critiquing Yaakov for imagining that the blessing of “shalva” was unequivocally positive. It’s understandable that Yaakov thought so- after all he had experienced no peace and quiet for close to a quarter century. But even “Shalva” is only sometimes a bracha. I am reminded of what some of my “empty nester” friends will tell me when I appear haggard by the noise and mess that comes with the blessing of 4 energetic children. They will tell me that when the house empties and there is peace and quiet- I will miss the noise. (I try to keep that perspective in mind, instead of buying earplugs.)

Later in the bracha of Birkat Hashanim  we ask that God bless this year “Kashanim Hatovot” , “Like the good years”. The Siach Yitzchak explains this is meant to highlight for us the challenges that can accompany any blessing; specifically the challenge of ignoring God and thinking that our success is a result of our own efforts and cutting the Divine out of the picture. “Good Years” means a time in which we are the recipient of God’s blessings- and still remember where it all came from.

With this in mind, we can suggest a second aspect of the Midrash’s critique of Yaakov’s request for “shalva”. Shalva, like many blessings in life, cannot be viewed as an end onto itself. Peace and tranquility are blessings that enable us to accomplish and enjoy. Yaakov asked for “shalva” but viewed it merely as a respite from all of the challenges he had thus far experienced, instead of considering what he would be able to accomplish going forward with the gift of “shalva”
The Midrash is teaching us the contours of a proper request for blessing. First, we must request with the understanding that no blessing is unequivocal. “Be careful what you pray for, for you might get it” is something we need to consider carefully. Second, we must view blessings not as a response/ reward for the past but as an opportunity and a means to propel us forward.

Friday, November 27, 2015

From Tragedy to Triumph

From Tragedy to Triumph

The Jewish world was captivated this week by the wedding in Jerusalem on Thursday of Sara Litman and Ariel Beigel. The wedding was postponed due to the murder of Sara’s father and brother, Rabbi Yaakov and Netanel Litman, on November 13. During shiva the young couple announced that the wedding had been rescheduled and all of world Jewry was invited to attend. Thousands of Jews, including many from overseas who flew in just for the occasion, waited for hours on line outside Jerusalem’s convention Center in order to dance at the wedding. 
What a tremendous demonstration of perseverance and the Jewish resolve to transform tragedy into triumph and life-affirming joy.

In Parshat Vayishlach we read of the birth of the youngest tribe and the death of Rachel:

And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni, but his father called him Benjamin.

יחוַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בֶּן אוֹנִי וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין:
All other 11 tribes- the mother named the child. Why should this child be different?
Ramban explains it is NO different than all of the other sons. Rachel called the child Ben Oni- and Yaakov called the child Ben Oni.
Rachel meant Ben Oni “son of my pain and mourning”
Yaakov meant ben Oni “son of my strength”- like the word Oni is used in Parshat Vayechi in Yaakov’s blessing to Reuven:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might. [You should have been] superior in rank and superior in power.

גרְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז:

The word Oni can mean sadness and it can mean also strength. Yaakov says to Rachel, “you are right, his name is Ben Oni. But it means he is a son of strength” Binyamin is not a different name for the boy- His Name was Ben Oni. Binyamin is Yaakov’s interpretation of the name that Rachel initially gave him.
Ramban puts it beautifully:
“V’Aviv Asah Min Oni- Kochi”
Yaakov translated and transformed  Ben Oni as Binyamin, sadness and challenge - into strength.
Yaakov may have learned this attitude from Hashem, in an episode earlier in the Parsha: Before his reunion with Eisav we are told that Yaakov found himself alone and separated from his family. There he struggled with an Ish. There are different interpretations as to who was the Ish- was it Eisav’s Guardian Angel, was it an internal battle within Yaakov. In either case, Yaakov was confronted with a crisis. We read that Yaakov survives the crisis- but is permanently injured. But it is only in response to the struggle that Hashem gives him a new, more lofty name – Yisrael.

And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."

כטוַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל:

You, Yaakov have struggled, experienced pain and suffering yet you have persevered. Not only have you persevered, but you have grown as a result of the challenge. Hashem here teaches Yaakov- and us his descendants – the lesson that the greatest growth may result from the greatest crises.
The Vilna Gaon once said that if you want to know what your purpose in life is- don’t focus on what you’re good at, or on what comes easy to you. Think about your greatest challenges; for it is in confronting and growing from your biggest challenges that you will find why you were put in this world.
Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write about the Crucibles of Leadership; one common trait found in all leaders is their ability to learn and grow from adverse situations and difficulties. It can be a major crisis or a moment in which they felt challenged- externally or from within.
All of us descendants of Yisrael are leaders. As Hashem declares when he confirms Yaakov’s name change later in this week’s Parsha (35:11)

And God said to him, "I am the Almighty God; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins.

יאוַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ וּמְלָכִים מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ:

Let us learn the lesson of the name Yisrael, the lesson that Yaakov conveyed in his explanation of Ben Oni. Let us each in our own way Asah Min Oni- Kochi: appreciate the potential for renewed and expanded strength that exists in every challenge.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Be a Yehudi: Maximize Your Attitude of Gratitude

In Parshat Vayeitzei we read about the birth of Yaakov’s children. Leah gives birth to his first four sons, and the Torah gives us the reason for each 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 cannot help but note that it was only upon the birth of her fourth son that Leah expressed 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 things 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 also teach them the importance of saying thank you.  
One concrete step we can 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).
These may seem like small gestures, but they add up to create an entirely overhauled perspective- for ourselves and those around 

Friday, November 13, 2015

On the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holzberg hy"d

The following sermon was delivered on Parshat Toldot 5769, the day after the murder of the Chabad Shluchim to Mumbai, India by Islamic terrorists.

After Yaakov gets the blessings that his brother wanted, Eisav plots to murder Yaakov. Rivkah is informed of Eisav’s plan and sends Yaakov to her brother Lavan’s house so that Eisav has time to cool down. Once Eisav forgets a little, Rivkah promises that she will send for Yaakov. The purpose of this plan is as Rivkah puts it.
לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד:
 “Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?”

Rashi explains the utilization of the word “Eshkal” and writes:

Why should I be bereft: Heb. אֶשְׁכַּל. I will be bereft of both of you. [This teaches that] one who buries his children is called שָׁכוּל, bereft. And so, concerning Jacob, it is said (below 43:14):“As I am bereft (שָׁכֹלְתִּי), I shall be bereft (שָׁכָלְתּי).”למה אשכל: אהיה שכולה משניכם. הקובר את בניו קרוי שכול. וכן ביעקב אמר (להלן מג יד) כאשר שכלתי שכלתי:
“One who buries his children is called bereaved.

Today we note with sorrow the bereaved parents of those Jews murdered by terrorists in the Chabad House in Mumbai India. Among the dead are the Chabad shalichim to Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, age 30 and his wife Rivkah, age 28 whom we mentioned earlier in the Kel Malei prayer. In 2003, Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife left New York to run the Chabad center known as the Nariman House in Mumbai, where they managed a synagogue and led religious classes and other social and outreach activities at the center.

Things like this are not supposed to happen. A couple sacrifices the familiarity and comforts of their homes to serve the Jewish community in a far flung location and share their passion – only to become sacrifices themselves, dying Al Kiddush Hashem. In the early hours of the attack, the news reported that this was an attack on the financial infrastructure and neighborhood of Mumbai. In the aftermath, it has become very clear that Jews and Israelis and the Chabad House were specifically targeted in this attack.

The Hotzberg’s two year old son Moishy, was also inside the Chabad Center when the terrorists attacked. He was miraculously saved by the center’s cook who was able to escape from the Chabad House during the siege. Moishy is now in the custody of his grandparents from Israel, his second birthday is tomorrow. The news sources are reporting that the young boy keeps asking for his mother. We too have some questions that we just can’t shake and yet we know we won’t find satisfying answers.

At the beginning of the Parsha, we read that the precipitating event that leads to the sale of the birthright was that Yaakov was cooking lentils. The Medrash explains that Avraham had just died and Yakaov was preparing the first meal for his father who was now an Avel.  And why are lentils an appropriate food for mourners? Rashi quotes two answers.
 ולמה עדשים, שדומות לגלגל שהאבלות גלגל החוזר בעולם
“For they resemble a sphere- and mourning is a sphere that makes a circuit in the world.”

Although technical mourning practices are only customary for specific close relatives, the impact of a death reverberates among a much wider audience, including those who personally knew the deceased or those who were affected by that person either directly or indirectly. When people are killed because they are Jewish, the mourning and its effects are felt by all Jews across the entire world.

On Friday I officiated at a funeral at which the burial took place in a different location than the chapel service. I rode with the family to the cemetery and when we arrived we had to wait a few minutes while some paperwork was being filled out in the office. As we were all standing in the small business office a woman approached the entrance, in need of directions to a plot. Among our group for the burial were three Rabbis. The woman looked at the Rabbis and then walked back to her car. At that point I overheard her say, “it looks like it’s busy in there. I don’t know with what, but maybe it has something to do with what happened today. Let’s wait a few minutes, or maybe there’s someone else we can ask.

It was then that I received my first update of the Mumbai situation since the night before. It was also at that point that I realized that it is a natural reaction for Jews in the worst of times to feel as if “we’re all in it together.” That woman may have never learned the Talmudic statement of “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh B’Zeh” All Jews are responsible for one another. She may have never come across the Midrashic statement that Bnei Yisrael act “K’Ish echad B’Lev echad”. But she did something more important- she lived this reality. If there is tragedy within the Jewish community it affects all of us in a profound way.

The second reason suggested by Rashi as to why lentils are offered to mourners is because:
 ועוד מה עדשים אין להם פה כך האבל אין לו פה שאסור לדבר. ולפיכך המנהג להברות את האבל בתחלת מאכלו ביצים שהם עגולים ואין להם פה, כך אבל אין לו פה
“Just as lentils are round and have no mouth, so too the mourner has no mouth for he is forbidden to speak.”

We suggest that mourners exercise a degree of verbal restraint and silence in the face of their personal tragedy, lest they think or say or do something that they will regret later. The response of silence is especially necessary in the face of a collective tragedy. Our words must be directed towards remembering and comforting and not in trying to get the answers to why did this happen or how could this happen.

(Those who come to comfort mourners as well, need to exercise verbal restraint, as described by Erica Brown in her essay in this week's Jewish Week)

In addition to the therapeutic effects of silence in the face of tragedy, our Parsha also describes three situations in which people had to deal with difficult questions.

Towards the beginning of the Parsha, when Eisav is contemplating whether to sell his birthright to Yaakov he says,
וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה:
 “What profit shall the birthright be to me?
When Eisav cannot think of any positive answer to this question right away, not only does he sell his birthright but the Torah goes further to say,
 וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה:
“Eisav spurned the birthright.”

The question Eisav asked was a legitimate one – as well as complicated. After all the birthright as Eisav understood it, entailed many responsibilities, some of which if not performed correctly could make a person liable for punishments- even death! Instead of getting himself entangled in a complicated question with no quick answer, he decides to divest himself from the entire issue- he sells the birthright to Yaakov.
The Torah tells us clearly its opinion of a person who looks for a quick escape when confronted with a theologically difficult situation “Vayivez eisav et Habechora”- because he was unwilling to take the time to think about and explore the issue involved it is considered that Eisav spurned the birthright.
Eisav teaches us the wrong way to respond to difficult questions, namely by avoiding them. His mother Rivkah teaches us the right way to deal with such questions, in two places in this morning’s Parsha.
At the very beginning of the Parsha Rivkah is experiencing a difficult pregnancy to which Rivkah reacts,
הּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי  
“If so, why am I thus? 
Notice the usage of the same words "Lama Zeh" by both Eisav and Rivkah
Rivkah asks: What’s the point if things are going to be so difficult? I do not see how this situation can end up with a happy ending, or even anything positive emerging. Instead of avoiding the question or getting rid of the problem the Torah tells us. 
“She went to inquire of Hashem.”

In times of tragedy, silence should not be discounted. But when the question is urgent, we must make sure that we address the question in the proper fashion. Asking Hashem is an admission that G-d is still involved. Asking Hashem is also an implicit recognition that we don’t have all the answers, G-d does and He may not be divulging those answers to us.
At the end of the Parsha, as mentioned earlier, Rivkah sends Yaakov away to save him from the murderous intentions of Eisav. Her rationale as the Torah describes it is in the form of a question
לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד
“Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?”
The context of this question is one of conflicted feelings and moral ambiguity. Rivkah loved Eisav, and yet she just helped Yaakov deceive Yitzchak for the blessings. Rivkah’s responds to this question in a different yet similarly positive and admirable way: with constructive action. She sends Yaakov away thereby saving Yaakov’s life and Eisav’s soul. 

Sometimes the only answer to a question is to table the question and just do something that will positively affect the overall situation even if it is not a direct answer to the specific issue.
In May of 1957 fedayeen terrorists entered the village of Kfar Chabad in Israel. They made their way to the synagogue of the local agricultural school, where the school's young students were in the midst of the evening maariv prayers, and raked the room with fire from their rifles. Five children and one teacher were killed and another ten children wounded. Despair and dejection pervaded the village, and began to eat away at its foundations. There were some who saw what happened as a sign that their dream of a peaceful life in Israel was premature. The idea of disbanding the community was raised. The village was slowly dying. The Chasidim sent a telegram to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York and eagerly awaited a response.
Finally, five days later, a response came from the Rebbe. The response via telegram had just three words: Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu. By your continued building will you be comforted.
There is no doubt that with its indomitable spirit, Chabad will rebuild. But the words of the Rebbe can help all of us that have questions today or in the future. Bhemshech Habinyan Tinachamu. Through building ourselves, we will be comforted. We must not deal with questions the way Eisav did, by ignoring them. Sometimes silence is the only constructive response. And if something more is needed, then we must look to constructive actions, in the hopes that ultimately Hashem will provide comfort, if not answers.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Be A Part of the Triple P (Positive Peer Pressure) Revolution

In the past few days I have had a number of conversations with parents in our community. A common theme among these conversations was how challenging certain aspects of parenting can be. One of those challenges is getting kids to meaningfully engage and participate in Shabbat programming at shul- whether at the youth minyan, teen minyan, or Shabbat morning groups. The parents expressed frustration that many other children do not participate in any program and this creates a “negative peer pressure” that encourages kids to avoid meaningful youth programs available to them; and instead they hang out with their friends outside of any program or minyan.

Peer pressure is a powerful force. We learn this from Rivka, whom we are introduced in this week’s Parsha as the wife of Yitzchak. At the beginning of next week’s Parsha, Toldot, we summarize the events that are described in Chayei Sara:
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife.

כוַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה:

Rashi quotes the Midrash concerning the description of Rivka in this verse:
the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister of Laban:Was it not already written that she was the daughter of Bethuel and the sister of Laban and from Padan-Aram? But this is to tell her praise, that she was the daughter of a wicked man and the sister of a wicked man and her place was [inhabited by] wicked people, but she did not learn from their deeds. [From Gen. Rabbah 63:4]

בת בתואל מפדן ארם אחות לבן: וכי עדיין לא נכתב שהיא בת בתואל ואחות לבן ומפדן ארם, אלא להגיד שבחה שהיתה בת רשע ואחות רשע ומקומה אנשי רשע, ולא למדה ממעשיהם:

Not only was Rivka kind and modest and strong, but she did so in the face of tremendous familial pressure to act in a contrary fashion. Jews in America, as a minority religion, must overcome peer pressure from society. Observant Jews confront even greater degrees of peer pressure as we are challenged on a number of facets of our lives that are influenced by our commitment to our religion (“do you really need to eat kosher?” or “Simchat Torah- you’re making up that holiday to get an extra day of work off!”)

It is unfortunate that even within our shul, there are children and adults that feel a negative peer pressure that leads them to behaviors that are not spiritually enriching or not as meaningful as other activities that are offered on our synagogue campus.

But here’s the secret that I want to share with you. Many of you who worry about the negative peer pressure that you sense may feel as if you are alone or part of a very small minority who care. The truth is that you are not alone, and there are many others like you. I know, because although you may not talk to each other about this, you talk to me. And I have spoken to a lot of like-minded parents who are seeking to create positive peer pressure, among children and adults, to provide meaningful outlets for themselves and their families at our shul.

The first step in effecting change in this realm is to acknowledge the issue. The second step is to talk to your peers- your friends and the parents of your children’s friends, and engage them in conversation around this topic. It only takes a few families to resolve to improvement; and working together they can create a “snowball effect” that creates a force of positive peer pressure and, hopefully, a more successful and meaningful shul experience. 

I am happy to help connect like-minded parents together and facilitate such conversations.

Friday, October 30, 2015

When It Comes to Helping Others- Just Do It!

The first two verses in this week’s Parsha make mention of two encounters that Avraham has. In the first verse, Hashem appears to Avraham. In the second verse Avraham encounters three “people”. In light of the fact that these three strangers are identified by the Medrash as angles, the Rashbam understands these two verses as referring to a single encounter. Angels are Celestial beings that appear for the purposes of a Divine mission. According to Rashbam, Verse two explains that G-d’s appearance to Avraham was in the format of a visit by three angels.
However all other commentaries explain the verses as referring to two separate episodes.  In doing so, they are able to learn that Avraham encountered G-d, and then put G-d on hold as he tended to what he thought were three guests in need. The lesson learned from viewing these verses as two separate encounters is that we see how Avraham valued his work with guests more than having a private audience with the Almighty.
Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (Hegyonot El Ami) explained that from Avraham’s actions we can see a fundamental difference between Mitzvot Bein Adam l’Makom (between man and G-d) and Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro (between man and his friend). Mitzvot between man and G-d require kavanah, proper intent and preparation. Avraham, who was feeling ill, may not have felt ready or worthy to engage in ritual activity, strictly focused on his relationship with the Divine. However when it comes to interpersonal obligations and mitzvot, no preparation is necessary: Just Do It (in the words of Nike). By interpersonal actions there need not have a separate kavanah: the intention is made clear by the action alone.

Along the same lines, Rabbi Amiel suggests that the notion that we get credit for planning to do a Mitzvah, even if it does not come to fruition may only apply to Mitzvot bein Adam L’Makom. However when it comes to interpersonal mitzvot, we must get the job done. It’s not enough to have a plan to help our fellow human being- that plan must be put into action. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Tower of Bavel on "Ground Zero" of the Flood

In explaining the word “Mabul” "flood", Rashi suggests three  etymologies:
1)      related to the word Bila- destroy
2)      related to word Bilbel- confusion
3)      related to word Hovil- to bring down, because the waters swept everything down to the lowest point possible. As proof of this third etymology, Rashi quotes the Talmud in Shabbat 113b  that Babylonia was also called Shinar, because Shinar is related to the word “Naar” which means to shake. Since Babylonia is in a valley, and the Talmud explains that all of those who died in the Flood ultimately landed in Babylonia.

All of the death and destruction from the Flood was swept to one spot called Shinar, identified by the Talmud as Bavel.

Later in the Sedra, in Chapter 11, we read about the Tower of Bavel. The Torah tells us that the location of this story is Shinar (11:2).

            It is no coincidence that the Tower of Bavel was built in Shinar. The commentaries explain that this tower building effort  was a response to the Flood. They thought that the tower could be a line of defense in case of a future flood. This helps to explain the decision to build the Tower on “Ground Zero”: the spot where all of the destruction from the flood was most apparent.
Though it may be true that “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, not everyone who has been in a foxhole remains devout after they are out and safe. In some cases,people who have experienced war have a difficult time remaining religious afterwards. They  wonder how a kind G-d could allow so much suffering in the world. After seeing such pain and hardship they may come to the conclusion that there is no one to rely upon, but themselves.

The fact that the Tower of Bavel was built on the collection site of all of the debris from the Flood gives us pause to consider the various responses that people have to tragedy and difficulty. Some are constructive and add comfort and meaning to the situation. Others, like those involved in the Tower of Bavel, unfortunately perpetuate the destruction, and add another layer of tragedy to the story.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Prayer of the Selfish Child, The Tree of Knowledge, and Eating Broccoli in Spite

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University conducted the following experiment. A child, who had a dislike for broccoli, was instructed to look into another room where there was a child behaving badly. Then the observing child is informed that this badly behaving child will be getting his favorite food- broccoli. But before the plate of broccoli is brought to the badly behaved child, the observing child is given the option of eating some of the broccoli (which he doesn’t like) with the knowledge that only his leftovers will reach the badly behaved child. Bloom reports that some children would literally be in tears as they scarfed down broccoli- even though they don’t like it- just to make sure that the other child was not rewarded.

This is an example of spite. It reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem, “Prayer of the Selfish Child”:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use ’em. . . .

 This seems to me what Rashi is getting at in Parshat Bereishit 3:6
And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.

ווַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּתֵּן גַּם לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ וַיֹּאכַל:

Rashi comments:
and she gave also to her husband: lest she die and he live and marry someone else. — [from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 13]

ותתן גם לאשה עמה: שלא תמות היא ויחיה הוא, וישא אשה אחרת:

Eve gave Adam from the Tree of Knowledge to ensure that Adam would not be in a position to marry someone else (Ed note: who else was there to marry?) after she died.
Through this comment of Rashi I better understand why the Etz Ha’Daat is referred to as (2:17) “The Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”

Knowledge can be both a force of good and evil in the world. If we utilize knowledge to appreciate the many blessings in our lives, then our awareness is a force for good. If our knowledge causes us to overthink things and forces us to consider how our blessings compare to the blessings of others, then knowledge can be a burden and a source of aggravation, pain and stress.
By eating from the Etz HaDaat, all of Adam and Eve’s descendants have both types of awareness available to us. Children often focus a lot of time and energy on thinking about what others have.  It leads them to eat broccoli even if they hate it, and pray that no one else will be able to play with their toys. As adults we must reflect on how we utilize the power of knowledge in our lives.  Have we grown up as much as we should, or are we still “eating broccoli in spite”?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tune In to The Song of the Torah

Parshat Haazinu is referred to as a “Shira”, a song.  We see the Torah refers to itself as a shira as well. Why is Torah called “Shirah”?

Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, once gave the following explanation: With virtually all fields of study in the world, one uninitiated in that discipline gets no pleasure from hearing a theory or an insight concerning that field of study. For example -- physics. If one tells a physicist a novel insight in his field of expertise, he will get great pleasure from it. However, if one shares this same insight with someone who has never studied and has never been interested in physics, he will be totally unmoved by it. The same applies to most other disciplines of study.

However, this is not the case with music. When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is played -- regardless of whether one is a concert master or a plain simple person – one will enjoy what s/he hears. Music is something that everyone can enjoy on their own level. Everyone can have a relationship with music, whether it’s sophisticated or less so.

That's why Torah is called "Shirah". One can be a great Torah scholar and learn The Genesis story and see great wisdom therein. And one can be a five year old child, just beginning to read, and also gain something from Breishit. Every person, on their own level, can have a connection and appreciation for Torah. In this way Torah is like song.

Towards the end of last week’s Parsha, Hashem tells Moshe:
And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths,.

יטוְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם

When we want our children to eat, we can make the food, plate it and even put the food into their mouth. But in the end it is up to them to chew the food and digest it. Torah can be placed into our mouths, but ultimately it is up to us to swallow (absorb and internalize) its lessons.

Our shul will be offering a number of learning opportunities over Sukkot and in the New Year. I urge you to take advantage of these opportunities (and speak to me if there is something you’d be interested in that you don’t see on the schedule.) 

May the song of Torah reverberate in our lives, well after Simchat Torah and all year long.

Friday, September 18, 2015

the foreign gods of today

Today the notion of idolatry is very foreign to us. Organized religion in many parts of society is viewed with scorn, and pagan worship would be viewed today as antiquated, if not worse. Yet the Torah repeats over and over the prohibition of Avodah Zarah, foreign worship, and warns the Jewish People against engaging in such practices. For instance in Parshat Vayelech we read:

When I bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forefathers [to give them], a land flowing with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied, and live on the fat [of the land]. Then, they will turn to other deities and serve them, provoking Me and violating My covenant.

כ כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה | אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי:

It is clear that back in the day, paganism was popular in the broader culture and a tremendous challenge for the Jewish People to avoid in their own spiritual yearnings.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin (64) notes that foreign worship was such a great challenge to the future of the Jewish People, that the Men of the Great Assembly prayed that the inclination towards such activity be removed from among the Jewish People- and their prayers were answered! This leaves us with the question: Do the verses, such as the one quoted above, that refer to foreign worship continue to have relevance today? And if so, how are we to understand it’s lessons for 21st century Jews?

I came across a beautiful idea, quoted in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Reb Shlomo suggested that foreign gods need not refer to idols or pagan practice. It could refer to Hashem, our one and only true God, when treated by us as “foreign”. If we view God as being detached from our lives, as a Being that does not care about what we do or what happens to us, then we have turned our relationship with Hashem into a foreign form of worship.

This idea is especially meaningful for me during this time of year. The reason why we take the Yomim Noraim so seriously is because Hashem is interested in us, cares for us and wants what’s best for us. Hashem is not merely our acquaintance, He’s our parent. He knows everything about us and cares what happens to us. This should not make us feel paranoid, but rather loved and inspired to live up to that degree of earned Divine love.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What's Your Religion Worth To You?

In Parshat Nitzavim Moshe encourages the Jewish People to engage in “the mitzvah.” Some suggest that it refers to the entire Torah. Others suggest that Moshe refers to the mitzvah of teshuva, repentance.

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.

יאכִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא:
12It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יבלֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
13Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יגוְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:

The implication is that although the mitzvah may seem daunting, it is in fact available and accessible to all to embrace.
On this notion, Rashi makes an interesting comment:

It is not in heaven: for if it were in heaven, you would have to climb up after it [in order] to learn it. - [Eruvin 55a]

לא בשמים היא: שאלו היתה בשמים היית צריך לעלות אחריה וללומדה:

Whereas the text assures us of the Torah’s accessibility, the Talmud interjects how Torah/ Teshuva is worth the sacrifice, if/when need be.

I wonder why the Talmud adds this perspective. Is it to give strength and encouragement to Jews who lived through difficult times, oppression, poverty, Anti-Semitism?  Or is it speaking to a time when people live in relative ease and comfort. Might the Talmud be challenging such people to think about what the Torah is really worth and what they should be willing to do in order to follow it.
There’s a saying “if you have nothing worth dying for, then you have nothing worth living for either.”

I’m not suggesting that we rue the fact that God has blessed American Jewry with safety and freedom to practice our religion. I’m not suggesting that religious practice or faith needs to be challenging in order to be meaningful. I am just pointing out that our religious freedoms in America are unprecedented in Jewish history- as are our rates of intermarriage and “dropping out” of Judaism.
Are people opting out because they don’t view Judaism as demanding enough? Would we have more passionate Jews if we required them to go to the heavens to retrieve their heritage?

I am reminded of an idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Book Future Tense. In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most observed. In fact, surveys come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

Even those who remain within the fold of Jewish tradition, especially our youth, may not be sure whether Torah is worth storming the heavens in order to retrieve. And if that’s the case, and we don’t have anything worth sacrificing for, do we know what we are living for? The upcoming High Holidays is the right time to think about this.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Curses: Unpleasant, but also Empowering

On a regular Shabbat, there is a difference of opinion as to which aliyah is the most honorable: shlishi or shishi. This week, there’s no debate. Everyone would rather have shlishi. Shishi consists of the Tochecha, a set of curses directed at the Jewish People individually by Moshe for failure to live up to their potential and the expectations of the Torah. Noone wants to get an aliyah that is full of curses, especially when those curses are written in the singular as they are in Ki Tavo. So who should get the Aliyah?

The story is told about the members of a certain Shul who were all terrified of being called up for the Aliya of the Tochacha.  They called a special Board Meeting, and decided to hire someone to take the aliyah of the Tochecha.  It wasn’t easy, but finally a willing candidate was found and hired.
Parshat Ki Tavo arrived and the Gabbai looked around for the contracted individual to call him for shishi.  But, he was nowhere to be found in the Shul. “Perhaps he’s running late,” suggested one of the Ba’alei Batim, “let’s wait a few minutes for him.” They sat for about a quarter of an hour, getting more and more impatient by the minute.  After all, this was not proper.  An agreement had been made.  Money had been paid.  Where was he?

 Right then, the contracted man entered the Shul.  The Board members ran to him and demanded to know his reason for being late. The individual calmly turned to the angry group, and replied, “I was davening in the shul down the block.  Do you really think that a person can make a living from only one Tochacha?”

This story may be a joke, but the Maharil, in his classic book of Ashkenzaic customs (Hilchot Kriat Hatorah) writes that in Magence the custom was to stipulate with the Shamash that part of his job (what he was getting paid to do) was to take the Tochacha aliyah when no one else wanted it. 

In other communities, there was a serious concern that the Gabbai might call a person up for the sixth aliyah today, and that person due to his fear of the curses, would just not come forward. This led to the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Isserliss that the aliyah be given to “anyone that is willing.” Understood to mean either that the Gabbais have to find someone ahead of time willing to take this aliyah, or that the Gabbai is supposed to simply call out “Ya’amod mi sheyirtza” for today’s sixth aliyah.

Rav Chayim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, relates in his Sefer Ha-chayim that this “fear” of the tokhecha in Parashat Ki-Tavo led to some serious disruptions and lack of honor for the Torah.  He describes that in some synagogues, the Torah would remain open, in the middle of the reading, for several hours, as no congregants were willing to come and recite the berakhot over this aliya.  The Biur Halacha records that there were synagogues in which they actually cancelled Torah reading on the Shabbatot during which the curses should have been read (ie Bechukotai and Ki Tavo).

It is understandable why the Tochecha (selection of curses) is not the most popular Aliya. It contains a number of scary predictions of what can occur to the Jewish People. There are some fundamental messages that emerge from the tochecha:

1      One of the greatest curses is to fear the unknown:
7In the morning, you will say, "If only it were evening! " and in the evening, you will say, "If only it were morning!" because of the fear in your heart which you will experience and because of the sights that you will behold.

סזבַּבֹּקֶר תֹּאמַר מִי יִתֵּן עֶרֶב וּבָעֶרֶב תֹּאמַר מִי יִתֵּן בֹּקֶר מִפַּחַד לְבָבְךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּפְחָד וּמִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה:

2 Curses come from the absence of joy in our lives, not the absence of material wealth:
because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.

מזתַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל

And happiness is a choice. Just ask students of Positive Psychology.

It emerges that many of the curses are up to us to avoid: by constantly learning and thinking we can avoid the unknown. My choosing to live life through a prism of happiness we can avoid those curses that emerge from the absence of joy.

The depiction of the curses is unpleasant. But upon further consideration I found their underlying message to be empowering. This enhances my understanding of the calendric insistence to read this portion before Rosh Hashanah. We want to start the New Year past the curses. And we also want to enter the New Year empowered, knowing that avoiding many of the curses is up to us.