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.