Thursday, June 25, 2015

38 years to Cross a Nine Inch stream

Towards the end of Parshat Chukat, after the incident with the copper snake, we read about a number of stops that the Jewish people made during their travels through the wilderness. The setting is after the sin of the spies and the corresponding Divine decree of 40 years of wandering.

The children of Israel journeyed on and camped in Oboth.

יוַיִּסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּאֹבֹת:
11They journeyed from Oboth and camped in Iyeh Ha’Avarim (the wasteland passes in the wilderness), which faced Moab, toward the rising sun.

יאוַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מוֹאָב מִמִּזְרַח הַשָּׁמֶשׁ:
12From there they journeyed, and they encamped along the stream of Zered.

יבמִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּנַחַל זָרֶד:
13From there they journeyed, and they encamped on the other side of the Arnon, which was in the desert, extending from the Amorite border, for Arnon was the Moabite border between Moab and the Amorites.

יגמִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבֻל הָאֱמֹרִי כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי:

We know nothing about what transpired in these location; only that “they camped” and “from there they journeyed”. Yet if their names are mentioned there must be something worth knowing and learning about these stops. Here the Midrash Rabba offers an approach to fill in the details:

ד [כא, י] ויסעו בני ישראל ויחנו באובות שנעשו אויבים למקום ויחנו בעיי העברים שהיו מלאים עבירה ויחנו בנחל זרד שלא היה הנחל אלא מלא זרת ולא יכלו לעוברו ל"ח שנה שנא' (דברים ב) עתה קומו ועברו את נחל זרד וכתיב (שם /דברים ב'/) והימים אשר הלכנו מקדש ברנע עד אשר עברנו את נחל זרד שלשים ושמונה שנה עד תם כל הדור משם נסעו ויחנו מעבר ארנון שנתרצה להם הקב"ה.

The Midrash suggests that these place names hint to the uneasy relationship between Israel and Hashem during their time in the wilderness:
Oboth: related to word “Oyev,” enemy- Israel and Hashem were enemies at that location.
Iyeh Ha’Avarim: related to word “aveira”, sin- Israel was full of sins in that location

Part of the problem in each of these locations is that the nation did not attempt to learn or gain in some way from their experiences in each place. They remained bitter and downtrodden- primarily from the sin of the spies and its aftermath, which was exacerbated by the Korach Rebellion and other complaints against Hashem. Instead of seeing the positive, the people acted in each location with enmity and sin.

Most interesting to me is the Midrash’s treatment of a third location:
Nachal (stream of) Zared: related to the word zeret, which is a Biblical measurement, approximately 9 inches. According to the Midrash, “the brook was only a zeret wide, and yet the nation was unable to cross it for 38 years.”

Why didn’t Bnei Yisrael just jump across Nachal Zared? Even I can jump that far!
The people were stuck. And when you think you can’t do something- you are right and it can’t be done.

38 years later when the Jews finally are ready to cross Nachal Zered they probably felt very silly. They must have asked themselves, “what took us so long to cross this tiny stream?”
The answer is that the challenge remained the same all along. But over the course of 38 years the nation changed, along with their attitudes towards that challenge.

Each of us confronts challenges in our lives. Oftentimes those challenges seem insurmountable. And yet with time, we are able to overcome these challenges. Once we do so, we sometimes wonder what took us so long? The answer is that the challenge did not change. We changed, along with our perspective on the challenge.

Summer is a time for travels- family vacations, changes of schools, changes of jobs. Let us make sure to gain something positive or learn something from each of our travels. And when presented with challenges let us internalize the lesson from Nachal Zered: what seems insurmountable at first can become achievable with a change of perspective or a change in attitude.


Friday, June 19, 2015

A Stroll Down Memory Lane: Yaakov Weinstock's First Marlins Game

The following sermon was delivered 8 years ago, Parshat Korach 2007. 

This past Thursday night, the Brotherhood organized a trip to the Marlins game. By the number of Young Israel families and the smiles on their faces, it was a great success. I was planning to go alone, but in the middle of the week decided that the time had come for my son Yaakov to go to his first Marlins game; as a matter of fact, his first baseball game. In the past we have taken Yaakov to public entertainment venues, sometimes with disastrous results. You see, he’s not a fan of loud noises, and sometimes in response to such noise he has demanded that we leave immediately, in no uncertain terms. But I figured the time was ripe. Besides, when asked if he wanted to go to the baseball game, he enthusiastically responded yes. So even though the thought of going on an outing of this magnitude with just Yaakov and no wife was a bit daunting, I was nonetheless excited at the prospect of taking my firstborn son to see America’s past time for his very first time. My expectations were high and I hoped that the memories of this evening would be priceless.

          Everything was going well. We parked at Dolphin Stadium. Yaakov was holding my hand as we walked through the parking lot, waving and saying hello to everyone we passed. I give him his ticket to hold. He handed it to the lady at the entrance gate. Upon reaching the gate I found out that tonight was a special promotion: The first 10,000 fans would receive a Marlins Replica 1997 Championship Ring. Luckily we got our rings before supplies ran out, and I thought to myself “this is the beginning of a great evening.” I started to plan out our schedule. We had an hour before Mincha. Should we go straight to our seats, or look around for the perfect souvenir- after all there’s no way Yaakov would come home from his first baseball game without a souvenir. I decided to first go to our seats.

          And then it happened. My wonderful son whom I love dearly heard the loud voices coming from the PA system coupled with the noise from the largest High-definition jumbo-tron in America, and refused to enter the stadium. My first response was to find a way to get Yaakov to acquiesce. But the more I cajoled and bribed the more adamant he became. My next response was to get angry. That of course just made things a lot worse. As my son was crying that he wanted to go home, after being at Dolphin Stadium for no more than 12 minutes- I had an epiphany:  This must be how Korach felt.

Korach had a lot going for him. He had a wife and children. According to the Talmud Korach was a very wealthy man. Masechet Sanhedrin teaches that three hundred white mules were necessary in order to carry just the keys of Korach's treasure stores. Where did Korach get this wealth? According to the Talmud (Pesachim) Yosef hid three treasures, and Korach found one of them. According to the Medrash (rabbah), Korach became wealthy in his capacity as Paroh’s Finance Minister.

Korach was also a member of an elite group of Leviim who had the privilege to carry the holy Ark during Bnei Yisrael’s travels. Rashi mentions that Korach was a “Pikei’ach”, an intelligent person. Moreover, it appears that Korach had a degree of Ruach Hakodesh, Divine inspiration, as he knew that he was the ancestor of the great prophet Shmuel.

With so much in his favor, why did Korach feel the need for more? Why did he pick a fight with Moshe, and in effect with G-d, leading to disastrous consequences for himself and those around him?

The story of Korach is full of ambiguity. For example, what was Korach’s actual complaint? In pasuk Gimmel, Korach argues:

“Why have you lifted yourselves above the assembly of G-d?”
The Medrash Tanchuma writes that Korach’s criticism was directed towards Aharon and his argument to Moshe went as follows:
“If you, Moshe, are the king of Israel, then you should not have selected your brother Aharon as the High Priest.”

          However, in providing background to Korach’s rebellion, the Medrash gives an altogether different cause for Korach’s rebellion:
“Korach was envious of the princeship of Eltzafan ben Uzziel, whom Moshe had appointed prince over the family of Kehat.”

          Medrash Tanchuma elaborates that Kehat, Korach’s grandfather, had four sons: Amram, Yitzhar, Chetzron and Uzziel. Kehat’s firstborn son was Amram, who was the father of Moshe and Aharon. As firstborn, Amram was entitled to “pi-shnayim” a double portion of land. As the tribe of levi would not inherit land in Israel, it therefore made sense to Korach that Amram should be bestowed with two positions of rank: namely, kingship- a role which was filled by Moshe, and the High Priesthood, filled by Aharon. However, there was another position of authority that had to be assigned, the prince of the Kehatite family. Korach expected to be appointed to this position. After all, he was the son of Kehat’s second oldest son, Yitzhar. As such he felt that he was next in line for a position. Korach was therefore shocked and thrown for a loop when Moshe appointed his cousin Eltzafan considering the fact that Eltzfan’s father, Uzziel, was the youngest of Kehat’s four children.

So which one really set Korach off? Was it Aharon’s position or Eltzafan’s?
          Korach had good reason to expect the position of family prince. There are specific expectations assigned in the Torah to members of a family depending on their birth order. For example, the bechor, the firstborn gets a double portion of the father’s estate. In Parshat Vayeitzei, when we are introduced to Leah and Rachel, we are told that Leah’s eyes were tender while Rachel was beautiful. Breishit Rabbah informs us that the expectation at the time was that since both Rivkah and her brother Lavan had two children, then it only made sense that the two older siblings (Leah and Eisav) should marry each other, as should the two younger siblings (Yaakov and Rachel).  Korach’s assumption seems reasonable and his logic seems sound.

          So we can understand and appreciate Korach’s expectations. But what happened when his expectations were not met? What happened when Korach was passed over and the position was given to his younger cousin? What happens when what we thought would happen or should happen does not actually pan out? What happens when your son wants to leave his first baseball game before your first bite of kosher hot dog?
          Here is where Korach errs. In such a situation, disappointment is to be expected. Even a little bit of jealousy, some frustration and anger, though not good things, could have been understood and respected. But the Medrash describes Korach’s reaction. Korach said:

“I will therefore rebel against Moshe and nullify his words.”
It is only at this point, that Korach attacks Aharon. Even if Korach is right, his expectations were not met, and he is not appointed prince. In response he lashes out against Aharon. His argument against Aharon is weak. In fact in the earlier Midrash we learn that at first Korach recognized Aharon’s claim to the position of Kohen Gadol.

Some commentators see within Korach’s response the power and danger of jealousy. I see within the story of Korach a failure to prepare for alternate outcomes. Even with everything that he had, Korach was unable to deal with the disappointment when his expectations were not met.

          The story of Korach teaches us the need to be flexible. We must be able to handle unmet expectations in a productive and healthy manner.

          Thursday night at the stadium my knee-jerk reaction was to refuse to admit that my expectations were going to go unmet. One option would be to go to our seats and watch the game, even if doing so would meant lots of kicking and screaming. Another option was to allow my sense of disappointment to express itself as anger. In that case, I would have immediately left the stadium, and dropped Yaakov off at home, vowing to never again take him anywhere.

          Instead I took a deep breath, thought about Korach’s mistake and resigned myself to the fact that tonight’s outing would not be at all as I envisioned. I would defer to what my son wanted to do. So for two hours, we wandered the recesses of Dolphin Stadium; everywhere except the inside of the actual stadium. We walked up and down the ramp. We walked back and forth from Section 125 to 145. We sat on the benches, ate dinner, and watched on the televisions the game that was taking place inside.

At the end of the evening, one of my original expectations was met: Yaakov left with a souvenir. As for me- I left with a better appreciation for Korach’s error. I left with an understanding how important it is to effectively handle disappointment. I left with the memory of an evening with my son at the ballpark that was indeed priceless.

2015 Update: Since then, I am happy to report that Yaakov and I have enjoyed many father-son baseball outings together- inside the stadium

Friday, June 12, 2015

40 Days, 40 Years and the Relativity of Time

Yesterday our son Eitan underwent an outpatient surgical procedure that, Baruch Hashem, went well. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of my children, I am a nervous person (as I think most parents are), often worrying about the “what ifs”. The two hours in the waiting room felt like much longer.

After surgery, our son had to undergo an x –ray. Suffice it to say, our three year old son was in no mood to be subjected to any more poking or prodding. So what could have been a 20 minute test ended up taking over an hour. And to me it felt a whole lot longer. After all, how is it possible for some of my hairs to turn from brown to grey within only a one hour timeframe?

With Eitan feeling a lot better today, it gives me the opportunity to reflect back and note how time is experienced so differently by different people in different circumstances. I don’t understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But I do understand when parents of newborns say that the night lasted forever when their baby is not sleeping; while the parents of high school and college graduates comment to me how kids grow up in the blink of an eye. We all know how at times school classes can go by too slow, while summer vacation goes by too fast. And we all have had the feeling of particular minutes and hours ticking by tediously, while days and weeks (even years) zoom by.

Intellectually we know that every standard measurement of time- the minute, hour, day, week- is precisely the same.  The feeling of time moving slowly or quickly is up to us and our perspective. In order to “slow down time” we must exercise our mindfulness, the kavanah that we invest into our experiences. Time goes by slowly in a bad way when we do not appreciate the current experience, or when we are not focused on something that interests us or excites us. Time goes by quickly when we don’t take a moment to appreciate the good times; when we don’t “stop to smell the roses.”

In Parshat Shelach we read about the spies sent to check out the Land of Israel. We read that the spies toured the land for 40 days (13:25). Rashi quotes the Tanchuma that the land was too large to be toured in only 40 days, but that Hashem enabled a miracle to occur. The Midrash offers one approach as to why the miracle occurred. But I’d like to suggest a different possibility, in terms of the relative experience of time.

An experience that should have taken much longer is described as taking 40 days because the spies were not focused on the task. They were not being mindful of the experiences they were having- so time just flew by.
Perhaps this is another way of understanding the punishment meted out to the people in the aftermath of the spies:
בְּמִסְפַּר הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵיכֶם אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וִידַעְתֶּם אֶת תְּנוּאָתִי
According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation.”

The punishment of “a day for each year” is appropriate for the sin of the spies. Their mistake was rushing through their tour of Israel, so as a punishment they must spend 40 years contemplating the mistakes of 40 days.

Sometimes a year flies by like a day. Sometimes a day can feel like an entire year. As we enter into those lazy days of summer, let us resolve to live life to the fullest, with mindfulness and intention. In so doing we will automatically be blessed with “long days.”  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Teacher and the Nurse: Models of Jewish Leadership

The Teacher and the Nurse: Two Models of Jewish Leadership

In Parshat Behaalotecha, Moshe expresses a level of frustration towards the Jewish People which we have yet to see during his leadership. He asks Hashem (11:12):
הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי אֵת כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה אִם אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ כִּי תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת הַיֹּנֵק עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו:
Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers?

Rav Soloveitchik noted the difference between a leader that is a “Rav” and a leader that is an “Omen”. Both types of leaders are called upon to teach, but the Omen (nurse) type of leader according to Rav Soloveitchik, “submerges his/her identity into that of the child.” A nurse considers his/her ambitions and needs to be secondary to those of the child.

A teacher retains his/her own identity, for he conveys specific knowledge. A nurse becomes one with the child.

In this pasuk, Moshe becomes aware of the fact that being a teacher does not suffice for Jewish leadership. They required a spiritual and emotional “nurse.”At this early stage of the people’s development as a nation, the Jews would be impulsive at times, and their complaints and concerns would not be able to be addressed rationally. Moshe was not sure he was capable of taking on all of these roles: not only to teach and command the people, but to guide, and inspire and transform them away from the tendencies that they acquired during their sojourn in Egypt.

To do this, it would not suffice for Moshe to give a good shiur, nor would it be enough to be bright and articulate. Moshe would have to nurture relationships with the People, by exhibiting patience, sympathy and empathy. It was this role as an Omen- type leader that Moshe knew was necessary, and yet he felt unqualified to take on. Hashem validates Moshe’s concern, evident from the fact that God does not criticize nor punish Moshe for his expressions of doubt and apprehension. Hashem concurs that the People would need more than just a teacher, they would need an Omen.

Today, the Jewish People need leaders that are more than just Rav’s; they must also be Omen’s.  As Rav Soloveitchik put it, today a demonstration of caring from a leader, is as important as a brilliant idea. Teachers must teach with feeling, as well as with clarity. Personal commitment, selflessness, empathy, and a willingness to submit one’s personal ego for the greater good are necessary in 21st century Jewish leadership.

All of us are leaders to some people in some capacity. Let us learn the lesson of compassionate leadership taught to us by Moshe in this week’s Parsha. In so doing, may we merit to lead and to be led in ways that are both effective and spiritually nourishing