Friday, August 11, 2017

The Challenge of Privilege

In Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the mahn (miraculous manna from heaven) as a test.
זָֽכַרְתָּ֣ אֶת־כָּל־הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹלִֽיכְךָ֜ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ זֶ֛ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּלְבָֽבְךָ֛ הֲתִשְׁמֹ֥ר מִצְו‍ֹתָ֖יו (כתיב מצותו) אִם־לֹֽא:
And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not

In what way was eating manna from Heaven a test? Many commentators such as Rashi and Ramban, focus on how the manna experience tested our faith in G-d. There were specific restrictions on how to collect the manna that tested our faith in Hashem: only a certain amount, double on Fridays, no collecting on Shabbat. Furthermore no manna could be left over for the next day- meaning that the Jews went to bed each night in the desert with their cupboards completely bare; and they were totally dependent on G-d, with no natural way to provide for themselves the next day.
                
The Seforno explains the test of manna differently, in a very brief yet powerful comment he writes:
אם תעשה רצונו בהשיגך לחם ושמלה שלא בצער:
                “The test is in whether you will do G-d’s will when He provides food and clothing for you without pain, without effort.”

According to Seforno, the test of manna was the challenge of privilege. How would Bnai Yisrael handle a situation in which they had everything they needed without doing anything? In general, the Torah advocates for success built upon hard work. For example, later in the Parsha we read the second paragraph of the Shema. In it, the Torah promises that if we do what is right then “Veasafta Deganech” as reward we will have the opportunity to reap abundant harvests. Surely we value and appreciate those things for which we work hard. What about their response to the manna? The people didn’t do anything to get it. G-d provided, literally, bread from heaven. How would Bnai Yisrael relate to such a privilege? This was the test of the manna according to Seforno. This is as much a test today as it was in the desert.


Thank G-d, compared to previous centuries and other parts of the world, we all live privileged lives, some of us more so than others. The episode of the manna reminds us that privilege brings with it certain challenges. Adversity will often lead one to G-d, either in prayer or in accusation. Privilege challenges us not to forget G-d’s role in the world and in our lives. Privilege challenges us to maintain proper priorities and to continue to strive for greater things. Privilege challenges us to live lives of spiritual wealth, on par with our material blessings.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Asking Big Questions

I was a hard working and conscientious student in school. My one weakness was in the area of class participation. I would not participate in class discussions as often as I had ideas to contribute. And I would not raise my hand to ask questions as often as I might have had something to ask. Sometimes I would wait and hope someone else from the class would ask the questions. Other times I would ask the teacher after class. And sometimes, unfortunately, I would never get an answer because I never asked. This tendency may have been due in part to an inherent shyness. But mostly it was due to a fear of embarrassment. Too often, the possibility of feeling embarrassed by asking a “dumb question” (whatever that means) was greater than my desire to find out the answer. Often before opening my mouth in class I would spend a good amount of time confirming with myself that my question or comment was good enough for me to ask. By the time that process concluded, the class was often on the next topic or the bell may have rung, ending the class.

David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard once said “Take risks. Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough.”

In this week’s Parsha, Vaetchanan, Moshe prays to God to be allowed entry into the Land of Israel. And God denies his request. There is an amazing Midrash Rabba on this episode:
אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יִצְחָק, כֵּיוָן שֶׁנָּטָה משֶׁה לָמוּת וְלֹא בִּקְּשׁוּ עָלָיו רַחֲמִים שֶׁיִּכָּנֵס לָאֶרֶץ, כִּנֵּס אוֹתָן וְהִתְחִיל מוֹכִיחָן, אָמַר לָהֶם אֶחָד פָּדָה שִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא בְּעֵגֶל, וְשִׁשִּׁים רִבּוֹא לֹא הָיוּ יְכוֹלִין לִפְדוֹת אָדָם אֶחָד, הֲרֵי וְלֹא נָתַן ה' לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת,
After the decree was sealed that Moshe would die, and the people did not pray for him, Moshe gathered the nation and rebuked them. He said to them, “one man was able to save 600,000 people, and yet 600,000 people were unable to save one man.”

According to tradition, Moshe prayed 515 times to God to enter the Land of Israel, without success. Yet this Midrash teaches that had the people prayed for Moshe, God would have relented- changing the course of not only Moshe’s life, but the destiny of the Jewish People. For we are taught that had Moshe led the people into Israel, the Messianic era would have immediately begun.
So why didn’t Bnei Yisrael pray for Moshe? The Sefas Emes explains that they rationalized: if Moshe’s prayers were not effective, then certainly our prayers will not be effective.
The people didn’t appreciate the power of their prayers. Put another way, they were too timid or too scared to go big and make a big request. History could have been much different had the nation taken a risk and asked big.

I wish that as a student I had taken more risks and asked more big questions. Then again, it’s never too late.
On my computer screen is a Post It Note. On it is a challenge that I hope to live up to and one that I hope becomes part of our synagogue culture:
“A culture of greatness; not one of complaining or sitting on the sidelines waiting to point out mistakes. A culture that encourages risk taking and progress, working from consensus and staying mission driven.”


As we transition from the mourning of the Three Weeks to the Hope of Shabbat Nachamu, let us commit to asking big questions and taking risks that spur growth and achievement. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

The Parsha opens with a list of all of the 42 stops that Bnei Yisrael made during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us the original starting point and the eventual destination? We don't even know what happened at each place that is enumerated, so why specify each one?

Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma who explains by means of a parable. A king had a son who was sick, and the king took him to a distant place to receive the cure. On their way back, the king recounted to his son all of their journeys together. “This is where we slept. Here it was cold. Over there you had a headache.” The king wanted his son to appreciate that not only was the final result- the son’s recovery- important. But the process had significance as well. So too in Parshat Masei, the Torah recounts each stop in the desert as a reminder that there is significance not only in the destination, but in the process as well.

This is a critical lesson to learn as we find ourselves in the weeks and days leading up to Tisha B’Av. Certainly the main focus of this period is mourning for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and praying for its rebuilding with the Messianic Age- the destination (if you will) of human history. But can we find meaning in the process? Is there a way to be positively impacted by the Three Weeks even as we still wait for the final destination of Yemot Hamashiach?

The Three Weeks are an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that even before we arrive at our hoped-for destination, we must find meaning and purpose in all of our experiences along the journey.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Shleimut (Self-Fulfillment) and Shalom (Interpersonal Peace): You Can't Have One Without the Other

Parshat Pinchas begins with Pinchas' act of zealotry followed by God's endorsement and reward for that act. 

Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace. יבלָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם:

In the Torah scroll, the letter vav of the word “Shalom” is cracked. Rav Zevin explains that the cracked vav allows us to think about the similarities and differences between the words “Shalom”, peace, and Shalem, whole. 

Both indicate a fulfilled state of being. However Shalem refers to an individual whereas Shalom refers to the relationship between two or more objects or people. 

The broken Vav highlights the difficulties that can exist in trying to get along with others and achieve Shalom, peace. It is often easier to achieve self-fulfillment for oneself than it is to achieve peace in our interpersonal relationships. Yet we cannot take the easy way out. For true personal fulfillment must include peace among all of our relationships: family, friends, and neighbors. 

There can be no real Sheleimut (self fulfillment) without Shalom (interpersonal peace). And the broken Vav in Shalom reminds us just how elusive, yet essential, peace is.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Art of Saying No and Importance of Taking No for an Answer

At the beginning of the Parsha, there is an exchange between Hashem and Bilam that is difficult to understand.
First Hashem tells Bilam that he cannot go with Balak’s emissaries. So Bilam turns them away.
But then a second more dignified entourage comes to ask Bilam to reconsider. This time when Bilam asks Hashem says OK.
As Bilam is on his way, an angel stops him and informs Bilam that Hashem is angry, because he decided to go to Balak.
Two questions jump out:
1) Why does Hashem change His tune- first telling Bilam he can’t go and then saying that he can go?
2)Once Hashem tells Bilam that he can go, why does he get angry with Bilam for going?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the entirety of the Divine Will is expressed the first night when Bilam presents the request: G-d unequivocally answers: Lo Telech Imahem.” Period. End of Discussion.

Then Bilam, due to greed and ego, comes back the next night and asks Hashem again. The answer is the same: Hashem does not want Bilam to go. Nevertheless it is clear Bilam wants to go. And we have a fundamental belief, expressed by the Rabbis and quoted by Rashi:
“Bderech SheAdam Rotzeh Leylech Bah Molichin Oto.”
G-d’s not going to stop you from doing something that you want to do- even when He’s against it. 

So Hashem is consistent. He doesn’t want Bilam to go. But G-d only speaks once. Bilam chooses not to listen, so when Hashem is approached again He tells Bilam, “Go- ie do what you want.” And when Bilam indeed does what he wants, Hashem stops him by means of the angel to make sure Bilam understands G-d’s displeasure at the situation.

In this light I can understand the importance of this episode. We can learn a great deal about the importance of saying no, as well as taking no for an answer.
For many our tendency is to always say yes. It’s usually more fun and always easier to just say yes. But there are times when we must say no. We must say no to others in order that we don’t overextend ourselves. Saying no can help strengthen our values, strengthen our identity, and strengthen our confidence.

We must sometimes say no to our children in order to create limits and impress upon them boundaries and proper living- in society and within our religion.

And at times we must be willing to take no for an answer. When we pray to Hashem and we don’t get the results we had hoped for, it is an opportunity to practice taking no for an answer, to reorient ourselves, and to consider how changes in our plans might actually be for the best.

Let us utilize Parshat Balak to remember that “No” is not always a mean or negative word. In order to live well adjusted lives within a growth mindset, it is important for us to sometimes say no, and to be able to take no for an answer.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Tell Your Story- and Make It Compelling

Immediately after Hashem criticized and punished Moshe and Aharon for hitting the rock, the scene turns to The Jewish People’s request to pass through land under Edomite control on their way to Israel. Moshe first appealed to Edom based on family ties. But then Moshe shifts gears and launches into what seems to be off topic: a brief history lesson of the People in Egypt and the Exodus from Egypt which emerged as a result of Bnai Yisrael’s prayers.

Why does Moshe meander during his second attemt at asking Edom? How is any of this history relevant to the request for safe passage?
           
Moshe’s approach is worth considering and emulating. Oftentimes, the best way to convince someone of your cause is to present them with a compelling story. The perseverance of the Jewish People in Egypt, and G-d’s salvation makes for a good story (I think even a few movies have been produced using that script). If anything could convince Edom to allow Bnai Yisrael to pass through, it would be their compelling national story. The fact that Edom still refuses Moshe's request speaks to the animosity that Edom had, not to the weakness of the argument.
           
This is why this episode occurs right after the sin of Moshe/ Aharon. Whatever happened at Mei Meriva, it seems clear that had Moshe seen the bigger picture, and viewed the scene with more perspective, within context, things might have been different.
           

Storytelling is an important facet of being strong in one’s beliefs, as well as explaining one'sposition to others. As Orthodox Jews and Religious Zionists, we need to know our compelling story well, and not be afraid to share it with others. Whether it is our family's story, or community's story or our People's story, it behooves us to confront today's challenges by knowing our story well and telling it to others in a way that is compelling and inspires people to become part of the story in their own way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Finding Our Voice

Finding Our Voice

In this week’s Parsha we read about the Korach episode, which ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his followers. This punishment also affected all those who saw it:

All Israel who were around them fled from their voice, for they said, "Lest the earth swallow us up [too]!"

לדוְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם נָסוּ לְקֹלָם כִּי אָמְרוּ פֶּן תִּבְלָעֵנוּ הָאָרֶץ:

Most commentators understand this verse  to mean that the people ran away from the sound of the earth buckling and the rebels crying out as they were swallowed alive. However if we look closely we notice that the prefix does not fit with the translation I offered- Nasu L’kolam” really means to run “Towards the voice” not away from the voice.”

The Korach Rebellion was a traumatic experience and a crisis of faith for many of the Jewish People- beyond the 250 directly implicated in the rebellion. Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel explains that as a result of these events the people “nasu L’Kolam” they found their voice and proclaimed:

ואמרין זכאי הוא יי וקושטא היך דינוי וקושטא הינון פתגמי משה עבדיה ואנן רשיעיא דמרדנא ביה
Hashem is righteous and the words of Moshe, His servant, are true. We are wrong!
The Jews experienced something profound. They processed what happened; and by doing so they found their voice to express a re-invigorated faith in and commitment to God.


When we experience something traumatic, something profound, something meaningful - large or small- it is an opportunity for us to flee towards our voice, ie to find our voice that will lead us to growth and positive change.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Be Careful What You Wish For: It May Come True

In a commencement address a few years ago, Conan O’brien shared this message with the graduates:
There is no greater cliché in a commencement address than "follow your dream." Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's okay.

More important than being stuck with a specific dream and on a specific path is that we develop a set of guiding principles and values upon which we live our lives. Along that path we may need to deviate from the original plan, but not only might that be OK, it might end up being better than what we had expected.

A corollary to Conan’s point is that we should be careful about what we wish for, because sometimes we get what we ask for. Circumstances and perspectives can change and we may end up unhappy when what wished for comes true.  We see this in the story of the spies in Parshat Shelach. Since the Exodus, segments of Bnei Yisrael have complained about leaving Egypt and not wanting to enter the Land of Israel. Finally, after their embrace of the majority opinion among the spies, Hashem punishes them that they will not enter Eretz Yisrael. Their response is to cry, even though not entering the land is precisely what they had talked about wanting.

It was a tough pill for Bnei Yisrael to swallow but it teaches us a powerful lesson: be careful what you wish for, because one day it may come true. Here’s an example: When we hold a newborn we think that they are so cute. After a few months, they get heavy and we wish that they would start crawling by themselves. But the crawling stage brings with it different and sometimes more challenging issues- like chasing the child, the child falling down, etc.  This is a typical phenomenon among parents and applies to every stage of life. For instance, “I wish my kid could drive”- and then they get a license and parents can’t stop worrying about their driving.


Let’s learn from the mistake of the Jews in the Midbar. We should be careful what we wish for. And instead of being stuck on a specific outcome, we should be flexible and open-minded, while remaining true to our core values.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Miriam and the Power of Labeling to Shape Our Perspective

Parshat Behaalotecha contains the story of Miriam’s gossip about her brother Moshe and her subsequent punishment. This event is so important that it is included in the Shesh Zechirot, 6 events that the Torah commands us to remember and that some have the custom to recite every day after Shacharit.

Commentators explain that the gravity of Miriam’s sin was her challenge to Moshe’s unique status as a prophet. Whatever the complaint was, part of it was that Miriam equated Moshe to all other prophets, herself included. A principle of our faith is that Moshe was a once in history prophet This must be the case- otherwise there is the possibility of a future prophet abrogating the Torah, by claiming that he is more qualified than Moshe. 

Certainly Miriam did not mean to offend or hurt Moshe; she was his older sister, who risked her life to save Moshe when he was a baby. Nevertheless, how she talked about him impacted how she related to Moshe- and herein lies the real problem. For if Miriam began thinking less of Moshe because of what she said about him, then Bnai Yisraekl very well might follow suit- with disastrous repercussions.

What we call something has implications in Halacha. The Shulchan Aruch writes that it is forbidden to pray inside a bathroom (that contains a toilet) as well as a bathhouse (room with a bath/ shower). However there is a difference between the two. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 83:2) teaches that prayer is forbidden even in a bathroom that has never been used. On the other hand, (OC 84:1) the Shulchan Aruch teaches that although one is forbidden to pray in a bathhouse, if the bathhouse has never been used- then one is allowed to pray inside it. Why should there be a difference between a new bathroom and a new bathhouse, especially since once they have been used they are treated the same way?
                
The Mishna Berura (84:2) answers that a bathroom is “more disgusting.” But if neither has ever been used we must carefully consider what the Chofetz Chayim (author of the Mishna Berura) is really trying to convey to us with this comment.
                
I believe that the Mishna Berura is alerting us to the fact that we relate to things based on what we call them, and how we relate to them. In our case, because the room is called a bathroom- it can no longer be used for prayer. This is a lesson worthy of our consideration: how we refer to something or someone can make all the difference in the world. We must be careful with how we label people and institutions, as it can have bigger repercussions than we ever imagined.

In the summer of 1976, the IDF sponsored a trip for disabled veterans to the United States. They arranged to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Here is part of an account from one of the soldiers present at that meeting:

He spoke about our 'disability,' saying that he objected to the use of the term. 'If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty,' he told, 'this itself indicates that G‑d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people. You are not "disabled" or "handicapped," but special and unique, as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not.
" 'I therefore suggest,' he continued, adding with a smile '-of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them-that you should no longer be called nechei Yisrael ("the disabled of Israel," our designation in the Zahal bureaucracy) but metzuyanei Yisrael ("the special of Israel").' 

When a teacher has an impulsive student, is that student labelled “problematic” or “energetic”? When you find yourself in a challenging situation does it “stink” or does it “present you with new opportunities”? Does our shul/ school/ community have problems and need work, or are we great and looking to be even greater? The facts may be objective, but the way we talk about someone or something can make all the difference in the world.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Thriving in a Desert: Life Lessons

The Book of Bamidbar is about survival in the desert.  Are there any keys to surviving in a real desert that can help us in our spiritual quests as Jews?
                
I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about desert survival before yesterday. But in the post-Google age, you can become acquainted with almost any topic in mere minutes. What I’ve learned is that the first mistake people who die in the desert make is that they consider the desert a hostile environment that is conspiring against human life. The key to desert survival is learning to be part of the desert’s ecosystem. A practical example of this is extracting water from the desert cactus. To survive the desert, a person must learn to become part of the desert’s ecosystem and not view is as antagonistic.
                
This is such an important lesson for all of us. Not every tension, not every disagreement is necessarily antagonism. Friends can agree to disagree. Family members can have different perspectives on even important issues without it leading to an all-out war. Difficult situations can be the breeding grounds for very positive outcomes.


As important as this rule is for our interpersonal relationships, it is just as important in our religious outlook.  When we see the title of a shiur comparing a modern, contemporary idea with Halacha (Abortion and Halacha, Global Warming in the View of the Torah) what is our gut reaction? Do we assume that there is irresolvable tension between the two ideas? Do we believe that the Torah is by definition hostile to the world in which we live? Do we think that the Torah conspires against us living our lives as we want to? Or do we view the Torah as an ecosystem in which we can not only survive, but thrive and grow? 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Don't Just Talk About Doing- Actually Do It

The seventh aliyah (Chapter 24) in Emor begins with the command to light the Menorah in the Mishkan:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

אוַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
2Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

בצַו אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
3Outside the dividing curtain of the testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning continually. [This shall be] an eternal statute for your generations.

גמִחוּץ לְפָרֹכֶת הָעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן מֵעֶרֶב עַד בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם:
4Upon the pure menorah, he shall set up the lamps, before the Lord, continually.

דעַל הַמְּנֹרָה הַטְּהֹרָה יַעֲרֹךְ אֶת הַנֵּרוֹת לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה תָּמִיד:

Rashi notes that these pesukim sound very similar to the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh:
And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

כוְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה | אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
21In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel.

כאבְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָעֵדֻת יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו מֵעֶרֶב עַד בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
This is how Rashi explains the difference between the two sections:
Command the children of Israel [and they shall take to you pure olive oil… to kindle the lamps continually]: This is the passage of the commandment of the lamps, and the passage [that begins with] “And you will command…” (Exod. 27:20-21) was stated only in context of describing the construction of the Mishkan, i.e., stating the necessity of the menorah. And the meaning [of that passage] is: “You will eventually command the children of Israel regarding this” [namely, here in our passage].

I understand Rashi as distinguishing between talking about doing something versus actually doing it. In Tetzaveh the Torah talks about the need for the Menorah, while in Emor it’s time to actually light and maintain the Menorah.

Jamie Farrell wrote an article titled “Stop Talking. Start Doing” In her conclusion she writes:
I wonder when this movement of talking about oneself will end.  I wonder if it will end.  People naturally think they’re interesting; and they inherently want to be liked, to be noticed.  But most importantly – I wonder what would happen if we all just stopped talking about what we are doing, or did, or going to do – and just started doing.

One of my favorite all time online videos comes from Temple Shalom in Cincinnati and is titled “Be Someone Else.” When we talk about how someone else needs to do something- for our family, or shul, or our community, we talking about doing. We need to commit to going the next step and be that someone else; not just talk about doing but actually begin doing.



Friday, April 28, 2017

Yearning For Israel on Yom Haatzmaut

There is a pasuk in Tehillim, Chapter 87:5 that states:
And to Zion it will be said, "Man and man was born in her," and He will establish it on high.

וּלְצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:

The Talmud in Ketuvot explains as follows:

Echad Hanolad Bah, V’echad Hametzapeh Lirotah

Two times Ish in the verse refer to both those actually born in Israel as well as those “Who yearn to see her”.

Some of us here tonight were actually born in Israel. Other people remember a time when there was no State of Israel and understand from living that history what it means to yearn to see Israel.

But there are many others today, including our youth, who don’t know of a world without Medinat Yisrael. I would go even further: there are many today that only know Israel as a developed country, as strong and advanced. The notion of Israel as a struggling developing fragile country is not part of their/ our experience.

And all of these groups celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in order to strengthen our commitment as Metzapim Lirotah, to count ourselves among those who proudly yearn for Israel and appreciate the significance of the State of Israel.
We do so in 2 ways:

First through our Yom Hazikaron commemoration we remember the sacrifices that were involved in Hakamat Hamedinah. In so doing we remember the significance of a State of Israel and why people were- and are- willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of that state.

And second, we shift gears and celebrate on Yom Haatzmaut the technologically and spiritually rich country that Israel has developed into in 69 short years.

If we take advantage of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut to fortify ourselves as Metzapim Lirotah, those that yearn for and appreciate Eretz Yisrael, then may Hashem fulfill the end of that pasuk in Tehillim:
וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:
and He will establish it on high.

May Hashem establish Medinat Yisrael above all other lands, as a light for all nations and a source of inspiration for us all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shemini and Yom Hashoah: Honoring Our Past

Parshat Shemini tells the story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is clear from the Torah that their deaths were a form of punishment; what is not clear is what was their sin.

Rashi suggests that their sin was showing disrespect towards Moshe by deciding Halachot in his presence. The Talmud in Sanhdrin picks up on this theme and elaborates:
Moses and Aaron were walking along, as Nadav and Avihu were behind them, and all of Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, "When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation." God said to them "Let's see who buries whom." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a).

According to the Talmud the fatal flaw of Nadav and Avihu was their disrespect and disregard of the previous generation. They believed that they represented the future of Klal Yisrael- and as the “next generation” they were better and smarter than their father and uncle. Instead of showing humility and learning from their elders, they demonstrate hubris and ignore, if not scorn, their forbearers.

It is very appropriate that we read Parshat Shemini this year right before we commemorate Yom Hashoah. Yom Hashoah is a day for us to remember and honor Holocaust victims and survivors. I am proud that every year the young Israel of Hollywood – Ft Lauderdale hosts a Yom Hashoah commemoration. This year’s event will take place Sunday evening at 8:15 PM. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of Dr. Lenny Hoenig, the program will once again include a dramatic presentation performed by the youth of our congregation. Our Guest speaker will be Mr. William Bernheim, an artist and survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Buchenwald concentration camp.


I urge you to join me Sunday night. Let us learn from the tragic mistake of Nadav and Avihu and be sure to honor and remember our past.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Personal Expression Within the Fixed Commandments

According to Rashi (1:2) the second verse of Parshat Vayikra refers to a “voluntary offering” (Korban Nedava). The Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Kanievsky explores the notion of a voluntary Mitzvah. There are many Mitzvot in the Torah that are either completely or totally optional. Although everyone was obligated to bring a half-shekel for the Mishkan, all donations above that level were optional. Becoming a Nazir, with its associated restrictions and commandments, is completely optional.
           
Rav Kanievsky asks an intriguing question: What’s the point of voluntary Mitzvot? If these actions are necessary and integral to our service to G-d, then they should not be optional. And if they are not necessary for us as Jews, then why should anyone do them?
           
The Steipler explains that optional Mitzvot are an important way to develop our love of G-d, and of our Judaism. The purpose of optional Mitzvot is to give people choices and opportunities to excel in one area of religious life. Some will excel in Torah learning. Others will excel in Tzedakah. Still other will excel in their interpersonal relationships. It is impossible to obligate this type of connection to Mitzvot. It must be developed on each person’s own terms and at their own pace. “Optional mitzvot” exist as an outlet.
           
The Steipler then quotes one of my favorite statements from Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato: Just as an inward feeling can develop and inspire one to act, so too can outward actions lead to the development of that feeling. Going above and beyond what we are required to do is not only for those people who already love G-d and Judaism-. Rather it is also a means of developing that inner feeling.

As I told my students this week in Parsha class, most people assume that a person gives charity as a result of feeling generous. What Rav Luzzato reminds us is that in addition to working “inside out” we can also work “outside in.” In other words, not only ca you give out of a feeling of generosity, but it is also praiseworthy to give in order to create/ nurture your inward feelings of generosity. The shoe company NIKE said it best: Just Do It.
           

Real love and commitment is nurtured and demonstrated by doing things we have to do as well as things that are voluntary. This is a crucial, though often overlooked ingredient in successful relationships- with our spouses, our children, our friends, and Hashem.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Be Proud of Your "A For Effort"

The Midrash tells us that after all the pieces of the Mishkan had been completed the people were ready for assembly- but they couldn’t figure out how to do so. They went to Moshe; and as much as he tried, the pieces were too heavy and he too was unable to assemble the Mishkan. Hashem said to Moshe, "Put in the effort- make it look like you are working on the assembly, and I will do the rest." And that’s how the Mishkan was assembled. What is the Midrash trying to teach us?

When you hear someone say “you get an A for Effort”- what’s the first thing that goes through your mind? I know what goes through my mind: that person must not have found much success. That sports player is not so good. That student must not have scored very high on his/her test.

Is that really the way things should be?  Our world is very goals-oriented and obsessed. Success is measured only in terms of achievement. Complimenting effort is generally only done when more obvious and popular types of achievement are lacking.

This is not the Jewish way. As we read in Tehillim “Rabot Machshavot Blev Ish, V’Atzat Hashem Hi Takum.” We as humans make plans and work to implement those plans. But there is no guarantee in life that there is a direct correlation between effort and success. Some people work very hard and yet find their success elusive. Others might find certain types of success without putting a whole lot of effort into their endeavors.

Judaism believes that while effort is purely up to us, achievement is the result of both effort and Divine blessing. We must therefore seek ways to validate and celebrate the honest engagement and effort in pursuit of noble goals, without immediately measuring whether those efforts have met our hoped-for success.

A person or community can celebrate effort through their willingness to take risks and implement new ideas. If we are interested primarily in outcomes, then we become risk averse over time. Often people would rather continue doing what they know "works", rather than try something that could bring about growth but has the potential to fall short of expectations.

As we say in the Hadran recited at the siyum celebration on completing a tractate of Gemara: Anu Ameilim umekablim sechar (“we toil and receive reward”). Our spiritual growth should be predicated on receiving satisfaction not only when goals are met but when we are in sincere and meaningful pursuit of those goals.


Friday, March 17, 2017

You Needs Smarts To Become Smart

In Parshat Ki Tisa, at the beginning of Chapter 31, Hashem designates Betzalel to spearhead the Building Campaign for the Mishkan. Hashem informs us that He has endowed Betzalel with the intelligence and ability to perform this task.

Hashem goes on to say that it is not only Betzalel that Hashem has endowed with special abilities (31: 6):
Uvlev Kol Chacham Lev natati Chochma
"I have endowed the heart of every wise-hearted person with wisdom."

The language is a bit confusing. What comes first? G-d's endowing the wisdom, or the person's identification as being wise-hearted? Put a different way, if the person is already wise hearted, with what exactly is G-d endowing them?

I imagine that there are a number of ways of explaining this verse. But I would suggest that the Torah is teaching us here that you need to be wise in order to become wise(r).

A person has to make wise decisions, listen to the right voices, choose the proper teachers and educational settings and decide to put in the work- all prudent, proper and wise choices- in order to optimize the God given potential s/he has to become wise.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Blessings Cannot Be Created in A Vacuum

Parshat Teruma is the first of four parshiyot focused on the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In describing the Shulchan, the table that held the 12 loaves of bread, we are informed that it is made of wood and covered in gold. We are also told to make “a gold crown all around” (25:24). 

Commentators try to understand the purpose of this crown. Rashi explains that the crown on the Shulchan is a “symbol of the crown of royalty.” A table is representative of wealth and greatness, attributes which are appropriate for a king. We therefore adorn the table with images of royalty. (think of the expression “a table fit for a king”). 

The Ramban quotes Rashi and then adds his own insight. He writes that the Sod, the deeper message, of the Shulchan is that “from the time that the world came into being, God’s blessing is never created in a vacuum”. Rather, blessing always comes as an extension of something that already exists. As an example, Ramban points to the story in Kings II where the prophet Elisha provides in a miraculous fashion an abundance of olive oil for a poor widow, but only after the widow gave Elisha a small bottle of actual olive oil, to which the miraculous blessing could attach itself.

I am reminded of two lessons based on this Ramban. The first is the partnership that must exist between human endeavor and Divine assistance. Outcomes are in in God’s hands, but input is up to us. Hashem cannot give us the blessing of success unless we have made the necessary preparations through our own efforts. The Shulchan reminds us that God provides for our material needs, but in order for blessing to be bestowed upon us from Above, we need to roll up our sleeves and build a table down here.


The second lesson I am reminded of from the words, “blessing is never created in a vacuum”, is that we need to realize the blessings that are all around us, all the time. There may be moments in which we need something, there may be moments in which we feel sad or scared or lonely. In those moments we beseech God and seek his blessings. But just because we need something does not mean we have nothing, it does not mean that there is nothing good in our lives. The lesson of the crown on the Shulchan is that we must never view ourselves as bereft of blessing. We must appreciate the good in our lives- and only then is it possible for Hashem to add to that blessing and provide for us all that we need and all that we want.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Contacting God is Always A Local Call

After the Ten Commandments , Hashem speaks to The Jewish People again and says:
“You have seen that I have spoken to you from Heaven.” “Lo Taasun Iti, gods of gold and silver you shall not make for yourselves.”
            
Rashi explains the phrase to mean that one should not create images of celestial beings that reside in Heaven. I would like to suggest a different interpretation.
           
 During the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, G-d  spoke to the people from Heaven, a most unique and awe inspiring event. There was a danger that the People would view this event as the preferred method of communication with G-d going forward, instead of a once in history event. Perhaps the Jews would attempt to communicate back to G-d “from Heaven”; that is divorced from the realities and ambiguities of this world. They may have gotten the mistaken impression that an ascetic life, at the top of the mountain and detached from reality, was the only to communicate with Hashem

Sensing this possible mistake, God notes: "I may have spoken to you from Heaven, but Lo Taasun Iti: please do not return the favor. No need to climb the mountain in order to speak with Me. I want you to communicate with Me and serve Me from the trenches; from the messiness of real life. I am as close as you allow Me to be," 

This reminds me of the joke: The US President is invited to the Vatican to meet with the pope. On the Pope’s desk are three phones: a black phone, a red phone and a white phone. The President asks the Pope: what’s with the three phones? The pope explains: the black phone is for calls inside Vatican City, the red phone is for calls to foreign leaders and the white phone is a direct line to God. The President is impressed and asks if he can use the white phone to seek guidance from God in his quest for Middle East peace. The pope agrees but tells the Preident that he has to pay the charges associated with such a call- $25,000. The President feels it’s worth the price, pays the money and uses the phone.
                
The next month the President is invited to Israel by the Prime Minister. Here too the President notices three phones: black, red and white. This time the President doesn’t ask for an explanation. Rather, he immediately asks the PM if he can use the white phone for a quick chat with God. When the PM agrees, the President has his Secret Service guard pull out a wad of hundred dollar bills to pay the charge. The PM stops him in his tracks and tells the President the fee is only 25 cents. The President asks: but at the Vatican, the Pope charged me $25,000. To which the PM replies: Mr. President, from Jerusalem the call to God is always a local one.


Prophecy is when God speaks to man- that only occurred for a person who was worthy of prophecy and it does not occur today. Prayer is when man talks to God, and that line of communication is available to anyone at any time, so long as we approach the endeavor with kavanah, sincerity and intention. And it's always a local call. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Like a Tree, A Student of Life Should Always Be Growing

There is a Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:9) that is difficult to understand, especially in light of our celebration earlier this Shabbat of Tu B’Shevat:
“Rabbi Yaakov said, ‘One who is walking on his way and is learning Torah and breaks off his study to exclaim, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ or ‘How fine is that field!’ is regarded as if he has sinned against his soul.”

We all know that Bitul Torah, wasting time from learning Torah, is a sin that should be avoided. But what’s so wrong with “stopping to smell the roses”? What is the big problem with appreciating G-d’s natural world?
            
An answer is suggested in the name of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The mistake that R’ Yaakov is speaking about is that the person feels that in order to appreciate nature, he must break from his studies. He does not realize that appreciating the world around him is a fulfillment of getting to know G-d, just like learning Torah is. According to this approach it wasn’t what the person did that was so terrible, rather it was his attitude. He did not realize that “stopping to smell the roses” and appreciating nature, can- and must- be part of our religious identity and our relationship with Hashem.
            
Rabbi Yaakov is teaching us that no matter what we are doing, we must never consider it as a ‘break” from our Torah study/ Avodat Hashem (service to G-d). Everything that we do should be viewed as spiritually uplifting and an element of our religious life.

Let us emulate trees. Just as the tree is constantly growing, let us resolve to find opportunities for growth in everything that we do and every situation in which we find ourselves.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Moshe Rabbeinu, Tom Brady and The Role of Desire in Attaining Our Goals

Next week’s Super Bowl will feature Tom Brady starting his record setting 7th football championship game for the New England Patriots. Yet Tom Brady almost didn’t get a chance to play professional football. In 2000, 198 players were picked in the draft before him. Brady was not picked until the sixth round. This was the scouting report on Tom Brady before the draft: "Poor build, very skinny and narrow, lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush, lacks a really strong arm.”

So how did he become one of the best quarterbacks in the league? His teammates will tell you that it is his desire to win- whether at football or even backgammon. Brady himself has said that the key ingredient to achievement is the desire to succeed. As he has said,
“A lot of times I find that people who are blessed with the most talent don't ever develop that attitude, and the ones who aren't blessed in that way are the most competitive and have the biggest heart.”

This sentiment may be what the Talmud in Sanhedrin means when it tells us that Rachmana liba ba’I, “G-d wants the heart: Hashem requires that we really desire our goals in order to succeed. To achieve anything in life, you have to really want it.
In Parshat V’eyra, Moshe once again expresses his reluctance to God about leading the Jewish People:

But Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, "Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?"

יבוַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם:

The Ramban asks an interesting question. If Moshe is worried about fulfilling his Divine task due to his speech impediment, then why didn’t Hashem just cure him? The Ramban poignantly answers that Moshe was never healed- because Moshe never asked for it. 

It’s not enough to complain about something, wish for something to happen or mention the need in passing. To attain achievements, whether a pure gift from G-d or in conjunction with our hard work; whether eloquence in Egypt or greatness on the gridiron we need to want it in order for it to happen. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

What's In A Name?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash. Our Rabbis refer to it as Sefer Hageulah, The Book of Redemption. This name aptly describes the main topics and themes contained within: The redemption from Egyptian slavery, which is only fully realized with the construction of the Tabernacle at the end of the book.
            
However most of us are more familiar with the second book of the Chumash as Sefer Shemot, literally “The Book of Names”.  Besides being one of the first words of the first Parsha in the book, are there any further lessons we can derive from the name “Shemot”?
            
The Medrash (Vayikra Rabba) writes that one of the merits that the Jewish People accumulated throughout their years of slavery is the fact that they never changed their names. They kept their Jewish names as a way of reminding themselves that they were not part of the majority, dominant culture of Egypt.  Their Jewish names reinforced the idea that The Jewish People came from a different culture and from ancestors that had a unique relationship with G-d. Names have the power to remind us of who we are and from where we come. It is no accident that there is a widespread Jewish custom to name babies after ancestors, whether deceased or still living.
            
But names have a future orientation as well. In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names. Rashi (on 15:5) introduces the concept of “Shem Gorem”: that a person’s name can have an impact on their destiny. Avram and Sarai would never have children. But with new names Hashem informs Avraham and Sarah that they were now ready to be parents. Names can identify a person with a unique mission and destiny.

            
This future oriented aspect of names needs to be reinforced. A person or institution can attain a “name”, or reputation in one of two ways: based on past performance or as a hope and challenge for future achievement. Too often we hastily attach negative names to people or institutions based on past experiences. For example, a student that has performed poorly in the past may be branded with a certain negative name, but that student may improve dramatically if given positive reinforcement and labeled in a good way (ie given a new name). The same is true of adults and institutions. As we begin the book of Shemot, let us realize that names not only connect us to our past, but they can help shape our future.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Should We Love Our Children All The Same?

Why doesn’t Yaakov learn his lesson? The trouble between Yosef and his brothers can be traced back, at least in part, to Yaakov’s favoring one brother over the other. Now in Parshat Vayechi, on his deathbed Yaakov does it again- not once, but twice.

First he gives Yosef an extra portion in the land of Israel, above and beyond what each tribe will get when they enter the land.
Later in the Parsha, Yaakov favors Yosef’s younger son Efraim over Menashe by placing his dominant hand on Efraim. Why doesn’t Yaakov learn that “playing favorites” can lead to problems?

One answer is that Yaakov doesn’t learn from his mistake, because Yaakov does not see it as a mistake. The problem was never with what Yaakov did; the problem lay with how the brothers reacted to this perceived favoritism.

Every person is different. We each have our unique talents and potential, strengths and weaknesses. It is therefore impossible for each person to be treated in an identical fashion. Just as we are different, so too each of us needs different things in order to realize our potential. Why did Yaakov treat Yosef differently? Maybe he saw leadership qualities in Yosef that none of the other brothers demonstrated. Maybe it’s because Yosef had lost his mother at a young age, unlike any of the other siblings. The problem was not that Yaakov treated Yosef differently. The problem was in hoe the brothers responded to the different treatment that Yaakov accorded to Yosef. They incorrectly perceived that difference as being qualitative, ie that Yaakov loved Yposef more than the other brothers..

To highlight this point, Yaakov “favors” Efraim in Parshat Vayechi. It is as if Yaakov wants us to understand that he has no regrets over how he treated Yosef. If anything, his regrets lie in his not recognizing the brothers’ mistaken attitudes towards this perceived favoritism.


This is a tough, but important, lesson for us all to learn; especially parents. We must love each of our children unconditionally and to the maximum degree. But that does not mean that we should love them each in the same identical manner. Each child is an individual and therefore a parent’s approach must be individualized. Differential treatment/ love is not the same as preferential treatment.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Quality Time Should Inspire Us Long After The Interaction

          In Parshat Vayigash we read about the reunion between Yosef and his family. After reuniting with his brothers, Yosef sent the brothers to bring back Yaakov and the rest of the family. The Torah tells us that at first Yaakov does not believe them that Yosef is alive. He is only convinced when:
וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ
and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him
and only then:
וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
the spirit of their father Jacob was revived
What was it about the wagons? Rashi explains that the wagons were a code that Yaakov understood could have only come from Yosef. The word for wagon- Agalah- is very similar to the word Eglah- as in Eglah Arufah, the ceremony undertaken when there is unsolved murder situated between two inhabited locations. Part of that ceremony entails the elders declaring their innocence from any culpability in that murder, and breaking the neck of an ox (eglah)..
          Is it really plausible that Yaakov, at over 100 years old and after 22 years would pick up on this slight hint that Yosef was dropping?
I say yes- for two reasons.
          First: This one-on-one Torah study time between Yaakov and Yosef was quality time- treasured by both father and son. That time together may not have been a lot, and it may not have been consistent.  But it is these moments between loved ones that stick in our memories and shape how we view ourselves and our relationships. The wagons reminded Yosef and Yaakov of quality time spent together, something that they would always remember and recognize.
          Secondly- let us take a moment to consider Rashi’s comments. The Agalah, wagon, reminded Yaakov of the Eglah Arufah. If we are correct that this study session symbolized quality time spent between Yaakov and Yosef, then the lesson of Eglah Arufah is most appropriate to be interjected into this episode. When a murder occurs between cities, leaders from both communities meet and declare that they did not neglect this victim. Had they been aware of his presence, they would have provided him provisions and accompany him at least partially along his way.
          Even if this traveler had not been accompanied the entire journey, his interaction with kind-hearted strangers would have allowed him to never feel alone, even as he took leave of his benefactors and undertook the solitary portion of his journey.

          By sending these wagons, Yosef is telling his father: “the quality time we spent together enabled me to feel your presence and your love even when we were separated and I was alone in Egypt.”  One of my most fervent prayers for my children is that they should always feel safe, loved and cared for- when I am around and even when I am not. In order for our spouses, friends and especially our children to feel safe, loved and cared for- when we are around and even when we are not- we must learn from Yosef’s wagons and invest in quality time with our loved ones. Just as quality time enabled Yaakov’s spirit to be revived at the end of the story upon his reunion with Yosef, so too may our efforts to invest in quality time nurture and revive our relationships with others.