Friday, February 20, 2015

Be Cherubic When You Argue

In Parshat Terumah we are told about the construction of the Aron, including the Keruvim. We learn two seemingly contradictory things about the positioning of the Keruvim (25:20) One, that the Keruvim would be facing each other; and second, that the keruvim would be looking down towards the top of the Aron. Which one was it? Were the Keruvim looking at each other or were they looking down? Rabbi Nosson Adler explained that these two depictions are not contradictory: the Keruvim were facing towards each other, but both Keruvim were looking downwards. Rabbi Adler says that the posture of the Keruvim teaches us lessons on how two Jews should argue. First we must never turn our backs on each other, even when we profoundly disagree. The way to do that is by seeking the common ground. When we are talking about disagreements in Jewish life or in Jewish practice, our common ground is represented by the Torah. Both sides of the argument can be passionately be committed to the Jewish community and believe in the importance of Halacha/ Mesora/ (fill in the blank) and yet come to different conclusions. The same can be said concerning disagreements in American or Israeli politics. We can disagree with others without leveling ad hominem attacks, and while not being disagreeable. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Seeing Beyond The Ego in Our Tefilot

Mishpatim 5775
This week’s 3 Minute Shiur is dedicated in memory of Sally Abramovitz, 
a longtime family friend
May her family be comforted, and her memory be a blessing for her family and friends.

In his Hilchot Tefilah, the Rambam quotes two verses as the Torah sources for tefilah, prayer. The first verse he quotes comes from this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim. “You shall serve Hashem your Lord, and He will bless your bread and water; and I will remove illness from your midsts.” (23:25). 

From the text of the verse, our introduction to prayer focuses on its self-serving benefits. This is what I have called “the gunball machine model of prayer”. God owns the gumball machine, and it is filled with all of the things we need and want: health, prosperity, physical pleasures of This World. The way we access the contents of God’s gumball machine is by inserting the proper coins. Here in Mishpatim we are informed that the coins that can access God’s candy for us is tefilah.

However the context surrounding this mention of prayer teaches us something more. Parshat Mishpatim is full of mitzvoth, many which govern civil society and our interpersonal relationships. It is specifically within this context that we should appreciate another, more sophisticated, aspect of prayer. Although prayer can be viewed as an egotistical endeavor, it is really a most selfless activity. Our prayers are not only for us; they are also on behalf of our Jewish brethren and all of humanity. Our requests in the Amidah are phrased in the first person plural (ie “heal US”) to emphasize this point. Prayer is an opportunity to contemplate and appreciate our responsibilities towards others.

When studying Torah we must look at both the text and the context. In the case of Parshat Mishpatim and prayer, the actual text focuses on the benefits of prayer for the individual. While the context of that verse encourages us to utilize prayer as an opportunity to strengthen our empathy and concern for others.