Friday, December 23, 2016

Yosef, Jerusalem and Inconvenient Truths

A hallmark of greatness is the willingness to speak the truth- even when it is unpopular, even when it is dangerous. Yosef provides us with a model. At the beginning of the parsha he speaks the truth of his dreams even though it is met with scorn by both his brothers and his father. He speaks the truth to the Wife of Potiphar even as it causes him to lose everything he had and end up in jail, Finally at the end of the Parsha, Yosef’s truth speaking is recognized by his fellow prisoners and declared to be Tov, good: not just now, but all along.

Another speaker of truth is Yehuda. There’s a Tosefta in Brachot in which Rabbi Akiva asks: By what merit did Yehuda become the tribe of the monarchy, Jewish leadership? One answer suggested is “Mipnei Shehodeh B’Tamar.” He admitted the truth of his mistake even though such an admission could have been very costly. Telling the truth can be impressive; and even ameliorate mistakes. The United States Congress has impeached two Presidents in our country’s history. And according to many historians, neither one would have been impeached had there been the courage to speak the truth, even after the mistake.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. Sometimes the truth is depressing. Nevertheless we must learn from the model of our forefathers, especially from Yosef and Yehuda- and be willing to speak the truth- in our homes, our communities, and to the world. Today the cause that requires truth is the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. 

As I write this there is discussion about the possible passage of a lopsided, unhelpful, a-historic and dangerous resolution at the UN concerning Jerusalem. American Zionists need to speak the truth about Jerusalem: it is Judaism’s holiest city, the Jewish claim to Jerusalem begins over 3000 years ago- way before 1967, and Jerusalem under the sovereignty of the State of Israel is the most open, tolerant and accessible that the city has ever been in recent history.  

It may challenge the conventional wisdom and may upset those who who continue to believe in the dogmas of the (failed) peace process as has been implemented thus far. But let us learn from Yosef and speak the truth: Jerusalem has and will always be at the heart and soul of the Jewish people. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Leah's Lesson: Look Within for Happiness

I am fascinated by the Torah’s description of the birth of Leah’s first four sons:

And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

לאוַיַּרְא יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה:
32And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me."

לבוַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רְאוּבֵן כִּי אָמְרָה כִּי רָאָה יְהֹוָה בְּעָנְיִי כִּי עַתָּה יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי:
33And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.

לגוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי שָׁמַע יְהֹוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה אָנֹכִי וַיִּתֶּן לִי גַּם אֶת זֶה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ שִׁמְעוֹן:
34And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore, He named him Levi.

לדוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר עַתָּה הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלשָׁה בָנִים עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ לֵוִי:
35And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.

להוַתַּהַר עוֹד וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת יְהֹוָה עַל כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה וַתַּעֲמֹד מִלֶּדֶת:

Each of Leah’s first 3 children are named as a prayer that Yaakov should begin to love her. It is sad, even painful, to read how unloved Leah feels, even after bearing Yaakov children. We think of the birth of a child as a most joyous event, and yet from the names Leah offers her first 3 sons all she can think about is how “God saw my afflication” (Reuven), “God heard that I was hated” (Shimon), and “hopefully, finally, now my husband will be close to me” (Levi).

What caught my attention this year is the description of the birth of Yehuda. For the first time, Leah picks a name that makes no mention of her wounded, unloved status. With Yehuda, Leah offers a name that only expresses gratitude. But then the Torah states that upon naming her fourth son Yehuda, Leah stopped bearing children. How are we to understand the juxtaposition in verse 35? One might argue that ceasing to bear children is some sort of punishment. But that begs the question: why should Leah be punished at this juncture, when she seems to finally be recovering from the wounds of her early married years and finally able to thank Hashem for what He has provided for her?

I believe that the Torah is teaching us something completely different. At first Leah feels hurt and alienated, and she seeks to quell those feelings through other people and their relationship to her. She hopes that a child, or children, or a change in attitude on Yaakov’s part will usher in the bliss and joy that she has always hoped for. This attitude accompanies Leah during the birth of her first three sons. But what she hoped to happen never transpires. She has three sons (her rightful share of the tribes) but her husband has not changed and she still feels miserable.

Upon the birth of her fourth son she decides to change her approach and change her attitude. She realizes that she cannot depend on external factors to determine her happiness. She realizes that she cannot control the events swirling around her. All that she has the ability to control is her attitude towards those events.

Leah names her fourth son Yehuda, and in so doing she closes the book on depending on external events or people to bring her happiness. Instead, Leah looks within and realizes that she has much to be grateful for. She resolves that from this point forward her happiness will not be determined by others. She will be control her attitude and he perspective on life. And from this point forward she resolves to approach life from the perspective of gratitude.

Once she does that, the Torah tells us that she ceases to bear children. The truth is that Leah will have two more sons and another daughter. But what the Torah means here is that no longer will her children be born in an attempt to make Leah happy. Leah realizes that the key to her happiness is entrusted exclusively in her own hands. 

There is much in life that is outside of our control, but how we respond to what life brings our way is completely up to us. So let us learn the lesson from Leah and respond first and foremost to life with gratitude. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

How Do You Handle Your "Lamah Zeh" Questions?

At the beginning of Parshat Toldot, we read about the difficulties Rivka experienced during her pregnancy. After wanting a child for so long, Rivkah is confused by her experiences, and in desperation cries out, “Lama Zeh Anochi?” Why is this happening to me? Why is it that what I anticipated to be the greatest joy of my life (childbearing) is causing me such great pain and anxiety?
In the very same aliyah we read how Rivka’s son Eisav similarly asks a “Lama Zeh” type of question. The Torah tells us how Eisav came back from hunting and is “dying of hunger”. Yaakov has food available but will only sell it to Eisav in exchange for the special blessing that are due to Eisav for being the firstborn. Eisav realizes that these blessing are spiritual in nature while he is a hunter, a “man of the field”, a person most concerned with the material world. Eisav therefore asks himself, Here I am about to die of hunger, V’Lama Zeh Li Bechora?”, “of what use do I have for these birthright blessings?”
The real divergence emerges not in the form of the question but what mother and son do with their questions. The Torah tells us that in response to her question, “Rivkah went to inquire of Hashem.” She understood that there must be a reason why this was happening and she sought religious guidance as to ways in which she could interpret her condition as having meaning and purpose. And upon consultation, she receives the answer that assuages her fears and allows her to go on with her life with strength and determination.
The Torah tells us that in response to Eisav’s question, that “Eisav disgraced the birthright.” Instead of trying to understand the significance of his status as a firstborn and instead of seeking guidance as to how to proceed in a relevant and significant way, Eisav takes the easy way out and gives up on what he does not understand (ie the birthright) for something that he can easily understand (ie the pot of porridge).
Judaism welcomes questions. We all have them. Some are easier than others to answer. The issue is not having questions. The issue is what you do once you have identified those questions. Do we seek answers, even if they may be elusive or impossible- with the knowledge that the very quest for answers can be therapeutic and religiously significant? Or do we deny the question and move onto things easier to resolve- like the hunger in our bellies.

The real Question is: what do we do with our questions? Answering that is perhaps the most important part of solving the problem in a constructive way.

Friday, November 18, 2016

What Angels Can Teach Us About Multitasking

Parshat Vayera begins with three mysterious men meeting with Avraham. Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains that these men were actually angels. Each of the three angels had a specific task: One was charged with healing Avraham after his circumcision, one was to inform Sarah of her impending pregnancy, and one would go on to destroy Sodom. The Medrash concludes with a rule: “She’ayn Malach echad oseh shtei shlichiyot”, one angel is not able to perform two tasks.
I believe that this Medrash has particular relevance in an age of multitasking. Though it seems to be the norm to do more than one thing at once, multitasking has been shown to be an inefficient way of accomplishing tasks. We are most efficient when we focus all of our talents and energies into one enterprise, and then move onto something else after the first task is completed. It is usually not in the interest of the person nor of the task to bounce from one activity to the next. Perhaps this is what the Medrash is conveying: If angels are tasked with only one job, then humans should not try to do more. Focus on one thing until completion or until you have done all that you can. And only then move on to something else.
Rashi does quote another source that offers somewhat of a qualifier to this critique on multitasking. The Gemara in Baba Metziah explains that the angel that healed Avraham went on to save Lot. The idea is that both tasks involved saving people, so it was really two chores on the same list. This too can teach us a lesson. It may be important at times to try new things and broaden our horizons. But it is also important to find something that you are good at and develop those skills and their impact. In this way we can emulate the angels and similarly find ourselves in optimal service to Hashem

Friday, November 11, 2016

Combating Our Sense of Entitlement

At the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham takes his nephew Lot with him as he leaves Charan. By the middle of the Parsha, Avraham and Lot are parting ways. The Torah tells us that this parting of ways was caused by a disagreement between the shepherds of Lot and the shepherds of Avraham. Rashi explains that the shepherds of Lot believed that they were entitled to graze their sheep on land that technically still belonged to others. Their logic was that the land was to be given to Avraham and his descendants, and Lot was currently Avraham’s closest blood relative. The shepherds of Avraham disagreed, claiming that this promise had not yet been enacted and therefore the land still belonged to others; grazing on that land was theft. From this dispute, we see that Lot characterized a sense of entitlement. Even without working, without effort, and without following in the ways of Avraham, Lot felt that he was entitled to the blessings promised to Avraham.

This sense of entitlement may explain Lot’s choice of hometown. The Torah tells us that Lot chose to live in Sodom. We are also told that the people of Sodom were (13:14) “were exceedingly sinful and wicked.” Even if Lot did not want to live as committed and observant a life as his Uncle Avraham, why would he move to a place full of wicked people? Perhaps the answer lies in the other descriptive we are told about Sodom (13:10) “it was well watered everywhere.” Sodom was irrigated by underground springs, and therefore it was always very fertile for agriculture. Lot moved to Sodom because wealth and agricultural success were assured. There was no doubt, and no need for effort. This fits with Lot’s sense of entitlement. It is not surprising that a city that fosters a sense of entitlement also fosters wickedness and callousness. Entitled people are too self-centered to worry about others, and take care of themselves even at the expense of their neighbor- both characteristics that are ascribed to Sodom.

We can contrast Sodom with Eretz Yisrael, a land that is entirely dependant on rain. Rain comes from Hashem. If inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael want rain, then they have to turn to Hashem in prayer. While in Sodom one was encouraged to feel entitled, in Eretz Yisrael one is encouraged to recognize Hashem’s role and work to be deserving of Hashem’s blessings.

In Israel, they begin to request rain (V’tein Tal Umatar L’vracha) starting on the 7th of Cheshvan. This event coupled with the mistakes of Lot/ Sodom are good opportunities to remind ourselves of the dangers of feeling entitled, and the need to always be grateful and humble, no matter how many blessings we are blessed with.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Fearing Diversity: the Mistake At the Tower of Bavel

Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.

The Netziv, has a unique understanding of the Tower of Babel story, as described in Parshat Noach. The mistake made by the builders of Migdal Bavel is expressed in the very first pasuk of the narrative (11:1):
Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words.

אוַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:

The Netziv sees within this uniform language and common purpose a problem in and of itself. As the Netziv puts it, the problem with the builders of Migdal Bavel was not the specifics of what they said: (such as blasphemy or ego or heresy as Rashi suggests). Rather the problem was that at Migdal Bavel, there was only one voice, a singular way to think and to express oneself. This, explains the Netziv is dangerous, even sinful.

The people at Migdal Bavel feared diversity. After the Flood God’s plan entailed diversity: different families/ nations with different languages living in their own lands. It is through diversity that God’s plan is able to come to fruition: ie people serving God in different ways and people learning from one another while maintaining their individuality and uniqueness.
Though Rashi doesn’t quote it in his commentary, there is one Midrash that does support the Netziv’s view. “Rabbi Eliezer said,”devarim achadim” is related to the word chadim- ie sharp words.” For the people at Migdal Bavel spoke sharply against God- and against Avraham. We have explained how and why they spoke out against God, but what did Avraham do to them? According to this Midrash they mocked Avraham, calling him “an old mule”- ie sterile and without a future. Why did they expresse such vehemence against Avraham, who at this time was 48 years old and had not even begun his divinely mandated journey?

The people of Migdal Bavel rejected and mocked Avraham because he stood for three ideas which they despised. And it is this attitude that highlights the problem of “one language, one purpose.”

Avraham stood for unity, not uniformity. Avraham preaches a message of monotheism to all who would listen, and even to those who were just interested in his hospitality. Yet Avraham’s goal was not to make everyone exactly like him. In fact, when Avraham begins his journey next week he leaves with Hanefesh Asher Asu B’Charan- those whom he had influenced while in Charan. And that’s the last time we hear of them. They went on to live their lives very different than Avraham- there was no uniformity. But Avraham had accomplished his goal- a unity of disparate people that all acknowledge and respect Hashem.

Avraham celebrated commonality. Not conformity. Hashem promises Avraham that he will be an Av Hamon Goyim- the father of a multitude of nations- NOT the father of one huge single nation. He had two sons that he loved even though they were quite different. He is referred to as the Av Hamon Goyim. He is promised that through him all the families of the land will be blessed- they will maintain their uniqueness yet identify with one land, just like it was Avraham’s hope that they would identify with one God.

Avraham valued belonging, but he was not interested in necessarily fitting in. He feels tremendous responsibility towards all other human beings; that’s why he prays so hard for Sedom, that’s why he fights so hard on behalf of the 5 kings. He belongs to the human race and takes that role seriously and with responsibility. Yet Avraham remains HaIvri- the other, different and unlike anyone else in his generation. He does not feel the need to fit in to the rest of society, even as he takes the responsibility of belonging very seriously.

The lesson of Migdal Bavel are lessons that we need to keep in mind as a society, and especially as a Jewish community. Diversity is a natural part of Hashem’s world order; we should embrace it and never try to fight against it. Our goal should be unity – unity of goals, unity of values – But not uniformity. We strive to find common ground but never demand conformity. We must learn to appreciate the value of belonging to a group, while not requiring that one has to “fit in all ways” in order to belong.

A society/ community built upon these values is not a Tower of Babel, destined to be dismantled, but a shining example of what Hashem hopes for from a community.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Preparations are Never in Vain

This is why I want to be a meteorologist. If the predictions concerning Hurricane Matthew were correct, the meteorologists would have been commended for properly warning the residents of South Florida, ensuring that they were properly prepared and safe from the storm. And if the predictions were wrong- all they need to do is explain that the storm changed course- and people will be happy that they were not more negatively impacted by the storm.

Of course there will always be some cynics and skeptics, those who are generally disgruntled. They will complain that Thursday was a waste. they will argue that we could have been much more productive if the storm's course was more accurate. (Although many people I've spoken to have noted how productive they were yesterday getting chores accomplished in the house.) This disgruntled sentiment is expressed in this meme (borrowed, I believe, from a previous storm that was a true miss):

This sentiment is wrong for at least three reasons:

1) Instead of being disgruntled we should feel thankful. As we are aware, it could have been a lot worse for us. We will be much happier if we look for reasons to be grateful instead of reasons to be annoyed.

2) Others have been severely impacted by the storm, and our thoughts and prayers should be with them. We should also be considering ways to help those who have been impacted..

3) These preparations are not for naught. Life is all about being prepared (and showing up). No experience can be fully appreciated if one has not prepared in advance. Preparation helps us become better people- whether we need to utilize those preparations in real life or not. And you never know when an earlier preparation will benefit us later on in life.

Yom Kippur is a perfect example of the need for preparation. The Day of Atonement is jam packed with prayer and fasting. It is meant to serve as the culmination of a process of reflection, introspection, and repentance that begin with Rosh Chodesh Elul, was intensified over Rosh Hashanah and progresses through the 10 Days of Repentance.

Let us appreciate the value of preparation- those we make in the realm of Hurricane prep, as well as those who  make in the realm of spiritual prep.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Young and Senior, New and Old: We Need to Focus on Both

Parshat Ki Tavo contains within it the curses that Moshe foretells will fall upon the nation should they not live up to the expectations thrust upon them by the Torah. Part of this dynamic is understanding the metaphysical rules of cause and effect; ie sin brings punishment. The verses in Ki Tavo go into some details as to the particulars of such punishment. One element of the punishment is exile. The Torah goes into some detail about this exile, and by whom will it be perpetrated (28:49-50):
Hashem will carry against you a nation from afar…a nation whose language you will not understand. A brazen nation that will not be respectful to the old nor gracious to the young.”

 Many of the Meforshim understand this to be an allusion to Rome under Vespasian and Titus. I understand this characterization to be just as important for us to understand for ourselves as it is a description of our enemies. A brazen nation is described as one that does not respect its elders. We are living in an age that generally considers “newer” to be “better”. We must not fall into that trap set for us by society. We must appreciate the wisdom of our elders and the debt of gratitude that we owe previous generations.

A brazen nation is also one that does not show extra care and concern for the young. Many people today look towards the future in a very pessimistic fashion. They focus on the problems that they feel lay ahead, and wonder whether humanity even has a future. They choose not to have children, for why should new life be brought into such a scary, sad world? We reject such a view outright and attribute it to a selfish and egotistical attitude. We believe that it is within our reach to better the world, and part of our legacy is to leave the next generation better off in some fashion.

A brazen nation neither respects its old nor its young. Many groups have been able to accomplish one of these two tasks, but at the expense of the other. For instance those who revere the old are often wary of the young, while those who concentrate on the young often ignore the old. Our challenge as Jews is to simultaneously be concerned with our pasts and our futures, to be respectful of our old and gracious towards our young. In this way we can avoid becoming brazen and avoid the curses while receiving the blessings promised to us by the Torah for doing the right thing.

We must never view situations in a myopic or "zero sum" fashion.
Our focus on the young and the new need not and must not come at the expense of our commitments to that/ those who are more senior or more established.
The goal is to elevate our communities and our service to all segments of the population, to the benefit of everyone.

Friday, September 9, 2016

If You See Something, Say Something

In our post 9/11 world, we are all familiar with the security-conscious slogan: “If you see something, say something.” Our vigilance is the first line of defense. Being aware of your surroundings can keep you safe and help save the lives of others. Seeing something is not only the first line of defense though; it also obligates us. Utilizing our sight perception thrusts upon us a responsibility to process what we have seen and then act in the best way as the situation dictates. If we see something but don’t “say something” ie we remain bystanders and do not act on what we see- then we become complicit, even responsible, for what transpires due to our inaction.

This is one of the lessons of the Eglah Arufah: the enigmatic ceremony  surrounding an unsolved murder, described at the end of Parshat Shoftim.  If a corpse is found outside of town, the Torah describes how the leaders of the closest population center must engage in a procedure during which they declare their innocence. As part of that procedure they leaders state (21:7):

And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]."

זוְעָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ (כתיב שפכה) אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ:

No one really suspects the elders of actually shedding this victim’s blood. However it is possible that they saw something that if they were being more vigilant could have led them to intercede in a manner that could have prevented this loss of life.

We live in interesting times. On the one hand, we have never had more opportunities to connect with each other (texting, social media). And yet at the same time there is more distance and alienation that people are feeling from each other. It may originate from the value we place on privacy. It is exacerbated by the long geographical distances that separate friends and family. The anonymity of the internet cannot be discounted. These factors (and more) contribute to people feeling disconnected and invisible.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  Research has shown that many suicides can be prevented if family and friends who see something have the courage to say something.

Let us learn the lesson from the Eglah Arufah and commit to being astute observers of the world around us - especially family and friends. Let us never turn a blind eye. Let us appreciate the opportunities we have to connect with others, and try our best to ensure that those in our social orbit do not feel invisible or disconnected. And let us commit to saying/ acting based on what we see. 

Doing so is a fulfillment of what the Torah describes as the end result of the Eglah Arufah ceremony:
כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהֹוָה:

for you shall do what is proper in the eyes of God.           

Friday, September 2, 2016

Don't Remove God from Your Picture

In Parshat Re’eh Moshe criticizes the pagan worship of other nations and then states (12:4)

You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.

דלֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Moshe here warns us to avoid the temptation of foreign worship and stick to serving God as delineated in the Torah through the commandments.

Many commentators address the question from this verse: What in particular does Moshe want the people to avoid?
Rashi quotes the idea that in this pasuk we are being warned against erasing God’s name.
אזהרה למוחק את השם

I could not help but wonder: Of all the practices we associate with paganism, why is erasing the name of God singled out and why are we warned especially to avoid that behavior? (and furthermore, is it really so that pagan service entails erasing names of gods?)

To answer this question let us consider the underlying philosophy of paganism: self worship. Avodah zarah is an expression of the ego to the extreme. Adherents of idol worship do so because they think that they are in total control of their life and their destiny; not directly, but they can intercede on behalf of whatever future result they seek. It is an attitude that sees no role for God. It is an attitude based on achieving certainty in one’s life, by believing in the formulaic approach to worship that believes that if you want this outcome, all you have to do is serve this god. And if that happens to you, just brings gifts to this other god to fix the situation. In this model man is helpless to better his own lot. He is totally dependent on the whims of the gods.

The first step in adopting a pagan attitude is to erase God from areas of our lives. This can come from a place of helplessness (ie “even God can’t help me now”) or from a place of misplaced humility (ie “Who am I that God should intercede on my behalf?”)

 Moshe is adamant that we not erase God’s name. Judaism rejects paganism and affirms the Presence of Hashem in every facet of our lives. Let’s do our best to never removeGod from the beautiful and complex picture of our lives.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Greatness in Humility

In January 2011, during an exclusive dinner held in Washington DC, presidential advisor Valerie Jarret was sitting at the head table with some important politicians and high ranking military officials. A man walked behind her, dressed in a uniform. Jarret asked him for a glass of wine. Only one problem: the uniformed man was not a waiter. He was 4-star Army General Peter Chiarelli. (What would you have done in that situation? Chewed Jarret out, military style, for her offense? Politely introduced yourself and let her realize her colossal blunder?) The general did none of the above. Instead he went over and poured her a glass of wine. When Jarret realized her mistake, she was mortified. So the general diffused the awkwardness by inviting Jarret to his home for a dinner sometime (where it’d be fine for him to serve her wine). As General Chiarelli put it in an e-mail:
“It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made. She was sitting, I was standing and walking behind her, and all she saw were the two stripes on my pants, which were almost identical to the waiters’ pants.”

General Chiarelli is not alone. Former basketball great Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz was once at the baggage claim area in Salt Lake City when a woman mistook him for a skycap and asked him to carry her bags to the car. So Karl Malone carried her bags to the car. Only when she reached in her purse to give him a tip did he explain that that was not necessary and introduced himself in a friendly manner.
Journalist and author Bob Greene quoted this story as a lesson that graciousness can pay priceless dividends, and it doesn’t cost a thing. Jewish tradition is full of stories of our greatest leaders willing to involve themselves in the most menial of tasks- on behalf of a fellow human being or an important cause.

Here’s one of my favorite stories of that genre, about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, whose yahrtzeit was yesterday, the 21st of Av:
Once Reb Chaim came out of his house and found a group of children waiting for him. “What do you want?” He asked the youngsters.
“We would like to play horses,” the children replied.
“So nu, go play.” Said the Rav of Brisk.
They responded that no one wanted to be the horse., everyone wanted to be the driver or the passengers.
Reb Chaim immediately volunteered to be the horse. He was roped by the children and they forced him to move along. 
One time when they were playing horse in this fashion, the children got tired and hungry. They told reb Chaim that they would tie him to a tree and then go home to have a snack. Reb Chaim said OK, and the children tied him to the tree with a few strong sailors’ knots. The children went home and forgot about their game, which left their horse, Reb Chaim tied to the tree. It happened to be that the tree was directly in front of Reb Chaim’s shul, and the gabbai saw this strange sight: their Rabbi tied to a tree. He srung into action and told Reb Chaim that he would cut the knots with a  knife to free him. Reb Chaim refused because he did not want to disappoint the children. He insisted that the gabbai go and round up the children so that they could return and finish their game.

At the end of Gemara Megila Rabbi Yochanan said: “Wherever you find the greatness of Hashem described, there you will find His humility.”
The source of this teaching: Parshat Eikev:
For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe.

יזכִּי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד:
18He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.

יחעֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה:

Hashem may be “the G-d of heavenly forces and the Master of all masters, great mighty and awesome.” But He is also described as “performing justice for the orphan and widow, and loving the stranger.”

Greatness is manifested through humility. Through our willingness to get our hands dirty, through living our lives with the attitude that nothing is beneath us if it’s for another human being or for a good cause. We need to walk in God’s ways in this way as well, and understand that our real prominence manifests itself the most when we are great enough to be humble.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Unique Shabbat

Parshat Pinchas describes the sacrifices offered on special days. Concerning the special Mussaf korban on Shabbat, the Torah tells us:
Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato
The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. 

The Medrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same, and if I miss bringing the sacrifice this week then I’ll just bring it next week. The verse comes to teach us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there is no make up. 

As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. We may seem to do the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. 

Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression today in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite each Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (miss Shacharit, say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the "make-up" possibility that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: sometimes referred to as teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to popular belief, there are some things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. 

This is especially relevant with the moments of our life. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to "make up the time".) We can’t go back in time. (we have yet to discover the flux capacter or generate 1.21 jigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  With the help of the lessons of Korban Mussaf – Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato- let us better appreciate those things in life that cannot be replicated.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Challenge of Changing Course

Remember when you were a child, and you were involved in something that was wrong or detrimental? It was pretty easy for someone to tell you to change course. You might not have listened to that person (usually an adult authority figure.) But the message was clear and the changes needed were made explicit. But then we grow up. As adults we are expected to be responsible for our own actions. Telling an adult that s/he is doing something wrong is generally frowned upon as infringing on others. People don’t want to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong. And most adults are not interested in hearing about our faults or shortcomings. We are all too often defensive, and it often sounds like the person offering advice is doing so in a smug and condescending manner (whether that is the case or not). The result is that many adults continue down the road of bad choices and bad behavior as if compelled to do so.

This is how I understand the story of Bilam, as described at the beginning of our Parsha. King Balak seeks Bilam’s help in cursing the Jewish people. Bilam agrees to do so. The Torah makes clear that God thinks this is ill advised for Bilam to do. And God makes this clear to Bilam, but it is done in a way that maintains Bilam’s free will, which creates some ambiguity and resistance on Bilam’s part. The first way that God hints at His critique of Bilam’s behavior is by asking a rhetorical question:
God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?"

טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיֹּאמֶר מִי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה עִמָּךְ:
God knows all, so why is He asking this question? It seems to be God’s way of alerting a person to his/her bad decision while providing them with the space to make amends.  I can think of two instances in Bereishit where we find this technique. First in the aftermath of the sin of Adam and Eve:
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you?"

טוַיִּקְרָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָאָדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶּכָּה:
10And he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid."

יוַיֹּאמֶר אֶת קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן וָאִירָא כִּי עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי וָאֵחָבֵא:
11And He said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

יאוַיֹּאמֶר מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה הֲמִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכָל מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ:
(Adam squanders this opportunity by blaming everything on Eve)
A similar technique is utilized by God in the aftermath of Hevel’s murder at the hands of Kayin:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

טוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי:
Again, God is asking Kayin a question, even though He knows the answer. Here, too, God’s question is an opportunity for the person to change course, fix the situation, repent.
God asking humans these types of questions is like when a friend tries to warn you about something by saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Or when a spouse says, “Are you sure you want to wear that? / have that second piece of cake?”

Even when God gets angry at Bilam for ignoring his “questioning” He does not force Bilam to change course:
God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

כבוַיִּחַר אַף אֱלֹהִים כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ לְשָׂטָן לוֹ וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל אֲתֹנוֹ וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ:
Yet even now, not only does Bilam ignore the warning signs- he does not even see them (the donkey sees what Bilam cannot/ will not.)
Bilam is blinded by his bad choices (see 24:3, and Rashi there: Bilam has vision problems). As a result, Bilam gets trapped:
The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.

כווַיּוֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲמֹד בְּמָקוֹם צָר אֲשֶׁר אֵין דֶּרֶךְ לִנְטוֹת יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול:
The story of Bilam is a cautionary tale of the challenges that adults face in changing course. Who will tell us that we need to change? Who are we willing to listen to? How will we get the message? Let us learn from Bilam’s mistakes, and realize that even though it may seem as if our decisions have caused our options to become limited, it is never too late to change course in some way.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Being Something Vs Doing Something: A Response to Korach

Parshat Korach opens with a complaint that Korach and his crew raise against Moshe and Aharon. Rashi quotes the Midrash as to how the complaint was formulated for public consumption: Korach asked Moshe if a completely blue tallit requires a string of blue on one of the tzitzit. Moshe answered yes. The Midrash goes on with a second challenge: Korach asked whether a room full of Sifrei Torah required a mezuzah, which contains a small parchment with a few lines from the Torah. Here again Moshe answered in the affirmative. Korach jumped on Moshe’s answers and declared that they make no sense, and Moshe must have made up these laws.

There are many different interpretations as to what exactly Korach’s challenge and problem were. I would like to focus on Moshe’s response. I think that the Halachot that Moshe quoted speak to the difference between “being something” and “doing something”. A completely blue tallit and a room full of Torahs represents “being something”. They are impressive visuals, yet they may have come about without any effort on my part. By requiring us to nonetheless place a blue string on the tallit/ a mezuzah on the door, the Torah is reminding us of the importance of “doing something.” That action may seem less impressive and less significant. But the fact that it comes about through our own initiative and effort, and done purely in the service of Hashem- make such actions meaningful and powerful.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Being Apart of Vs Apart From: No Easy Answers from the Nazir

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 critical conversation for 21st century Orthodox Jews.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Davening Early AND Early To Davening – in Honor of Shavuot

There is a widespread custom on Shavuot to learn all night of the first night of the holiday. Some suggest that the Ibn Ezra is alluding to this custom in his commentary on Parshat Yitro. When the Jews are told to prepare for receiving the Torah (Shemot 19:11), Ibn Ezra suggests that this preparation may refer to staying up all night before Matan Torah:
והיו נכונים אולי לא יישן אדם בהם בלילה, שישמעו קול ה' בבקר, כדרך כהן גדול ביום הכיפורים:

The Magen Avraham (OC 494) suggests that the custom to stay up all night serves as a “Tikkun”, repair/ repentance, for the Midrashic story that the Jews slept late the morning of Matan Torah and God had to wake the people up in order to receive the Torah (an idea worthy of its own blog post).  Hence we call All Night Learning on Shavuot – Tikkun.
איתא בזוהר שחסידים הראשונים היו נעורים כל הלילה ועוסקים בתור' וכבר נהגו רוב הלומדים לעשות כן ואפשר לתת טעם ע"פ פשוטו לפי שישראל היו ישנים כל הלילה והוצרך הקב"ה להעיר אותם כדאיתא במדרש לכן אנו צריכים לתקן זה

If the point of the Midrash is to point out the Jews’ lack of excitement and anticipation of receiving the Torah- then the appropriate Tikkun is to stay up all night studying Torah and anticipating our re-acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot morning.

But perhaps there is another point that the Midrash is making: Had God not woken the Jews up, then they may have not been on time for Matan Torah.
Some people are always on time. And some people are chronically late: for business meetings, social engagements - and shul.

I was recently at a meeting with a group of fellow pulpit Rabbis. One of the topics that came up was attendance at shul- and how people are showing up to shul Shabbat morning later and later. There are a number of reasons why people may come late: from childcare coverage to attention deficit challenges to underlying issues with organized religion and God. Without judging any particular person and any particular circumstance I would ask: If you had an important job interview with a boss, or a potential business venture meeting, would you do your best to get to the appointment on time? Every Shabbat morning we have an appointment with Hashem, The Boss of bosses- showing up on time is a way of demonstrating that we care about that appointment.

This Shabbat we begin Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. One of the lessons we learn from the census is that the count is precise because every person is precious. Time is also a precious commodity. To demonstrate that something is important to us we should strive to be precise and on time with our appointments, especially our appointment with prayer in shul.

Even if showing up on time every week is not something we can commit to right now on an ongoing basis, let us consider utilizing the first day of Shavuot to demonstrate that this is a value that we hope to increasingly instill into our lives. While some of us will daven early on Shavuot morning, I invite the rest of us to come early (or at least on time) to shul in honor of Shavuot.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Shavuot at the Kotel 1967: Mt. Moriah and Mt. Sinai

“Mt. Sinai and Mt. Moriah”

Shavuot 1967: Grand Reopening of the Kotel for Jewish Prayer – a week after the end of the 6 Day War. The NY Times covered the event with a special report in its June 14, 1967 issue.
The Times was not aware of just how appropriate it was for Shavuot to be celebrated in connection with the Kotel and Temple Mount. For Har Sinai (central to the Shavuot story) and Har Hamoriah (location of Temple Mount) are the two mountains most central to Jewish history and Jewish identity.

Our Rabbis teach us just how interconnected the two locations are.
Har Sinai is the model/ inspiration for the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah:

1.      Chazal teach us that the fire that constantly burned on the Mizbeach on Har Hamoriah had originally been lit from the fire that burned during Matan Torah on Har Sinai.

2.      Vayikra Rabba: the sprinkling of blood that Moshe does at Har Sinai- marks the origins of sprinkling blood, so important in the temple Service on Har Hamoriah

3.      Ramban’s opinion is that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be a mobile Sinai unit- to have an ongoing Revelation, similar to what occurred at Har Sinai- as the Jews make their way to Israel, and ultimately on Har Hamoriah in the Beit Hamikdash.

It emerges that the relationship between Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah is symbiotic and synergistic. Each Mountain teaches us lessons that are informed and enhanced by the other.
It was the personal sacrifice, the lonely road of submission to God and the countercultural beliefs demonstrated by Avraham at the Akeida on Har Hamoriah that set the paradigm for Bnai Yisrael. Avraham’s declaration of Hineni at Har HaMoriah inspired the nation’s declaration of Na’aseh V’Nishma (ie we submit to God even if we don’t understand) at Har Sinai.
And it was the commitment to Jewish unity and national identity exhibited by Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai that was crucial for the nation to develop as they prepared to live a normal yet noble life in Eretz Yisrael, with their spiritual focal point being the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah.
From Har Hamoriah we learn the value of Personal Identity, Diversity and Blazing our own trail. From Har Sinai we learn national Identity, Unity. and appreciating the value of community and tradition.    These lessons must reside within one person, one spot, as the Midrash Tanchuma teaches us:

“Sinai Meheichan Bah? MeHar Hamoriah Nitlash K’Challah Me’Isa.
Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah come from the same location.  Har Hamoriah informs the Har Sinai experience which then influences the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah. There is a tension with which we live as we navigate between Har Hamoriah (personal identity) and Har Sinai (collective responsibility). And yet these two great mountains of Jewish history encourage us to understand how together they form a rich tapestry, critical to Jewish life. 

As we prepare to celebrate both Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot, let us recommit ourselves to the lessons of Mt Moriah and Mt. Sinai.


Friday, May 27, 2016

It's Not Only What You Say, But What You Mean

In Parshat Behar (25:30) we find the phenomenon of Keri Uketiv, a word that is written one way and read a different way. The verse in English reads:

But if it is not redeemed by the end of a complete year, then that house which is in the city that has a wall, shall remain permanently [the property] of the one who purchased it throughout his generations. It will not leave [his possession] in the Jubilee. לוְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר לוֹ (כתיב אשר לא)חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ לְדֹרֹתָיו לֹא יֵצֵא בַּיֹּבֵל:

The word Lo in the phrase Asher Lo Choma is written with the letter Aleph. Therefore according to the text it means “A city that is not walled.” However the tradition is that the word is read as if it was spelled with a vav instead of an Aleph and therefore actually means “a city with a wall.” The Talmud in Arachin (32a) explains that the Keri Uktiv phenomenon here teaches us that the determination as to whether a city is considered walled or unwalled depends on its status at the time of Joshua’s conquering of the Land of Israel. Our pasuk teaches us that if the city was walled at the time of Joshua it is to be considered walled for this law, even if it currently has no wall surrounding it.
Keri Uktiv is a phenomenon that occurs with some frequency in the Prophets, but is rare to find in the Chumash

Another unique aspect to this Keri Uketiv is that the two words are homonyms, they are pronounced exactly the same: “Lo”. And yet they mean completely opposite things.  The Halacha is that the person who is reading the Torah should have in mind “Lo” with a Vav even though he reads “Lo” with an aleph.
Perhaps there is an additional lesson we can learn from this unique Keri Uketiv. We can say the exact same words and they can mean completely different things depending on our tone and the circumstances. For example if I tell someone while playing softball “nice job!” it means one thing if the person just made a great play while something else completely if he just dropped the ball.

We must be careful not only with what we say, but how we say it and how the words will be perceived and taken by the listener.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Prepping for Finals and all of Life's Tests

Students go to school 9 months a year, but it is this time of year when they really think about how to grasp information, if for no other reason than to spit it back on final exams, standardized tests, achievement tests, etc. There are other reasons in life that we might need to gain information, or impart that information onto others. Not just for tests in school but for the tests that we come across in life: the right way to act, how to respond to injustice or mistakes- made by us or others. The very beginning of Parshat Emor gives us suggestions on how lessons can be learned:
And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people אוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו:
Emor--- veAmarata
On the most basic level, Hashem tells Moshe to convey these rules to the Kohanim- twice. Lessons are rarely learned on the first try, Learn it- and learn it again, and probably a few more times. Our Rabbis have said that to truly know a piece of Gemara you need to review it 4 times- or 100 times, and “the person who reviews it 101 times is even better.” As students of life we must be willing to accept that we won’t learn it the first time. As educators we can’t say that we’ve done our job by mentioning the lesson once, or even teaching it thoroughly once- we need to constantly review and reinforce.

Midrash: Emor- VeAmarta: Teaches us that angels with no yetzer hara can be told things once, while humans who have a yetzer hara need to hear things at least twice.
The Midrash is not discussing our ability to absorb information but rather our willingness / interest inundertaking a course of study. Before a person will learn something, s/he must be ready and willing to undertake the learning process. This can only be accomplished when students understand the importance of that lesson and therefore commit to learning it, such as: it’s important for my grade or if I learn it I will get an incentive. This step of appreciating the value of the lesson is critically important for those lessons that do not have a clear and immediate payoff- the lessons of modesty, honesty, faith in Hashem, commitment to Halacha- the lessons that don’t appear on one’s final grade (from school at least).

          Every student needs to make appreciate the value of the lesson and commit to it, as the step before any lesson can be learned. This is an often ignored but critically important role that a teacher fills. we can't just learn Hilchot shabbat or the Talmud in Baba Metziah; we must also explain why Shabbat and the holidays are so important to Jewish identity, and what an ox goring another ox has to do with 21st century Jewish living.
Let us commit to teaching and learning in the spirit and with the strategies that we learn from Emor - VeAmarta.