Friday, December 29, 2017

"Say Little and Do Much"- But We Need To Say Something

After all challenges that Yosef experienced, Parshat Vayechi ends off on a note that seems to add insult to all of the previous injuries.

On their way home from Yaakov’s funeral the brothers once again conspire against Yosef:
“They said, ‘perhaps Joseph will nurse hatred against us and then he will surely repay us all of the evil that we did to him.” To protect against that possibility they inform Yosef of a message their father Yaakov wanted him to know: Forgive your brothers.

Yosef responds by crying. Yosef cries at being unfairly suspected of wrong doing.
The brothers are not unique in their suspicion of Yosef, even at this late juncture in the story. The Talmud in Masechet Kallah (3a) develops an approach that views Yaakov as also being suspicious of Yosef’s righteousness.

Before blessing his grandchildren Yaakov asks Yosef “Mi Eleh?” “Who are these boys?” The Talmud explains that Yaakov suspected Yosef of intermarriage, or of having his children out of wedlock. That is why Yosef responds to his father (48:9):
 “They are my sons, that G-d has given me BAZEH
Yosef showed his father his ketubah to prove that these children were born in wedlock into a Jewish family.

Yaakov’s suspicion of Yosef began earlier, at their reunion after decades of separation.
In last week’s Torah portion, (46:29) we read how during that reunion,
“He fell on his neck, and he cried on his neck.”
The verse is ambiguous, and the commentators try to make sense of what happened.  Masechet Kallah explains that Yosef fell on his father’s neck and wanted to kiss Yaakov. However Yaakov refused, for he suspected Yosef of impropriety. Upon seeing that his display of affection was rebuffed, Yosef also cries in frustration at his father’s suspicion.

Since their reunion Yosef was nothing but nice to his family. He made sure that his family was taken care of. Yosef even arranged for special housing and professional accommodations for his family. After all he did for them, why do they still suspect him of wrongdoing?

Although Yosef treated his brothers in a way that appeared to show his feelings, he never once said the three words that could have cleared everything up, “I forgive you.” Sure, he says to his brothers, “It was all part of G-d’s plan, don’t worry about it.” But we all know that if a person responds to an apology by saying “don’t worry about it” – then we definitely have something to worry about.

It appears that Yosef never sat down with his father to talk things through. If they had, Yaakov would have realized the extent of Yosef’s righteousness and would not have suspected him of any wrongdoing. Yosef attempted to show his feelings through his actions, but had difficulty expressing himself. Yosef, the man who had been called Tzafnat Paneach, “revealer of secrets”- could only reveal other people’s secrets through dream interpretation. But he had a much more difficult time revealing his own feelings to others.

There is an old adage that talk is cheap, and that what really counts is our actions. Nonetheless our words must be used to frame our actions. Actions can be misunderstood, words are much more difficult to misconstrue. Pirkei Avot says “Emor Me’at Vasey Harbei”, say little and do much. Your words should be less than your actions- but you still need to say something! Yosef may have done all the right things, but he failed to say the right things, to verbalize those feelings in a way that would have cleared the air and created a happier ending to this story.

As we think about the challenges that we face in our homes, communities and beyond, let us be ready to not only do what needs to be done, but to say what needs to be said.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Years of Our Living Vs The Years of Our Life

Check out my Dvar Torah for Parshat Vayigash, featured on the website of Mizrachi: Religious Zionists of America
Click here to view

Friday, December 15, 2017

Thankful for the Struggles

Over Chanukah (and Purim) we expand our Thanksgiving portion of Shemonah Esrei by adding the “Al Hanisim” prayer. The introduction to the holiday-specific portion of the prayer states: (remember that this is an addendum to that which we began with – Modim Anachnu Lach – we thank You Hashem)
“For the miracles, for the deliverances, for the mighty acts for the victories and for the battles which You performed for our fathers in those days at this season.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wonders why we thank Hashem for the Milchamot, for the battles. It doesn’t mean only for the victories- because that is covered by the word “teshu’ot.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that it is through the battles that we had to fight that we have come to truly appreciate that which we had to fight for.
As the Talmud (Shabbat 130) puts it, “every Mitzvah that Jews had to die for in order to fulfill, have become firmly entrenched within the hearts of the Jewish People.
Sometimes we don’t realize how important something is until we are forced to fight for it. In the case of the Chanukah story, the Jews were forced to fight for their right to live Jewish lives. Through that war, their commitment to Jewish life was reinforced.

Our hope is to live peaceful lives- without any need for war. But at the same time we should ask ourselves: If we were every called upon to fight for our rights to maintain our lives as Jews (either in the broad sense or in a very limited and narrow way) would we be willing to do so? Perhaps just by asking the hypothetical question we can reinforce our ties to the Torah.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Joseph the Dreamer and Freedom Sunday

This past Wednesday marked the 30th Anniversary of Freedom Sunday, a rally in Washington D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry. An estimated 250,000 people demonstrated on the National Mall in an unprecedented display of solidarity with Soviet Jews. Organized by a broad based coalition, activists from across the country came to demand that Gorbachev put an end to the forced assimilation of Soviet Jews and allow them to emigrate from the USSR.

In his book, When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, Gal Beckerman points out that the Soviet Jewry movement was unique in the annals of American Jewish history in three ways.
1 The movement was grassroots. It was not initiated by established Jewish communal organizations or professionals. it was led by students and housewives and synagogue members who became activists in order to help solve the problem.

2 The movement was when American Jews found their voice. The Soviet Jewry Movement demonstrated that American Jewry had learned its lesson from the Holocaust. When Jews far away were in danger, they would not be silent this time.

3 The movement was a rare moment of unity in American Jewish history. Jews put aside their differences and worked together on a cause that they all agreed was important enough to present a united front.

Soon after Freedom Sunday 1987, the fruits of those efforts began to be seen in earnest. 30 years later there are 1 million Soviet Jews in Israel and a half million in the United States.
What is the activist cause for the Jewish community in the 21st century? What can be or should be today’s equivalent of the Soviet Jewry Movement?

One obvious contender for our activist efforts is the State of Israel. As the world turns its back on her, we need to learn from the tactics of the Soviet Jewry movement and apply them to pro-Israel activism. I recall vividly my participation in the Israel Solidarity Rally on April 15, 2002. Standing with tens of thousands of pro-Israel supporters on that day was a memory that will stay with me forever.

Another cause gaining attention and activism on its behalf is the affordability of Jewish education. One of the ways that this issue is being addressed is through involvement in political action and lobbying on behalf of government funding for elements of day school education.
What’s critical is that we choose to be active about something.

At the beginning of the Parsha we read about the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. They hate him, and conventional wisdom explains that they hate him because he thinks he’s better than the rest of them. However when we look carefully at the pesukim we see that the brother begin to hate Yosef before he tells them the details of his dreams. Knowing that Yosef is a dreamer is enough for the brothers to hate him. It would seem that the brothers embraced Yaakov’s attitude on life: Bikesh Yaakov Leisheiv B’Shalva- they want to live in peace, to live and let live, without making waves. That is not how life works. Life is to find issues that we are passionate about, and then work hard on behalf of those causes.

Yosef is the dreamer. Perhaps that is why he is called a Tzaddik; a man that understood that we must always have a cause that we are working on. Let us learn the lessons from 30 years ago, as well as our forefather Yosef and commit to finding causes that speak to our souls and then advocating on their behalf.      

Friday, December 1, 2017

Making Tough Decisions: Potentially Painful, Yet Enriching

Yaakov is about to meet his brother Eisav for the first time after twenty years. The night before this meeting, Yaakov finds himself alone and has a personal encounter of his own:
Vayevater Yaakov Levado Vayeavek Ish Imo.
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

From the text it is not at all clear what exactly happened or who was involved. What is clear is that the story ends with Yaakov being blessed, but also being injured in his hip.
                The Torah therefore lays out the prohibition:
“Al Keyn LoYochlu Bnei yisrael et Gid Hanasheh Asher Al Kaf Hayareich At Hayom HAzeh.”
                Due to this mysterious episode, Jews are forbidden from consuming the sciatic nerve throughout history.  This nerve is found in the hindquarter.

In explaining this prohibition the Sefer Hachinuch relies on the Midrashic interpretation that Yaakov was wrestling with Saro shel Eisav, the Guardian Angel of Eisav. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this struggle is symbolic of the ongoing struggle that Jews are subject to by other nations, especially descendants of Eisav. When we refrain from eating the Gid Hansheh we should remember that at times we may be antagonized or persecuted by the nations of the world, but we’re never out for the count. The Jewish People, as symbolized by our patriarch Yaakov, may get injured at times, but we will always persevere.

Some Rabbis suggest that Yaakov was not wrestling another entity, but rather he was wrestling with himself. Yaakov’s antagonist in this battle is left unnamed. All we know is that he was an Ish. In Parshat Vayeitzei, Yaakov himself is called the Ish. After twenty years in Lavan’s house, the Torah said:
“Vayifrotz Ha’Ish Meod Meod”
The man, Yaakov became very wealthy.

The man of the Yeshiva went out to the world of business (with his crafty father in law) and became very successful. Success brought with it new challenges; challenges that forced Yaakov to make decisions about who he was and what he stood for. These were not easy decisions: yet Yaakov was forced to confront and grapple with. They were decisions with no easy answers. And when the dust settles, Yaakov survives. He is elevated, as indicated by his name change to Yisrael representing that his essence was more connected to the spiritual than the material. Nonetheless, he was left injured by the consequences of his decisions.

Understood in this way, Gid Hanasheh teaches us the necessity of confronting and ultimately making difficult decisions. These decisions can cause pain, to others and even to ourselves. Not only are these decisions necessary, but they can also be edifying and enriching in the long run. It is only through exercising our free will that we grow from our decisions and value our choices in life. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Putting "Anochi" Back In Our Lives

Two of life’s major challenges are 1) to seek out our unique mission in the world, and 2) to seek Hashem’s Presence and guiding influence during our journey.

This challenge is alluded to at the beginning of our Parsha. Vayetzei opens up with Yaakov fleeing from Eisav; sent by his mother to find a wife in Charan. On his way he stops “Bamakom” at an unidentified spot that tradition identifies as Har Hamoriah. There he has a spiritual dream in which God assures Yaakov of ongoing Divine protection.

When he wakes up from this incredible dream Yaakov declares:
“And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know”

In response to this pivotal moment, Yaakov declares “Anochi Lo Yadati”. “It is time for me to explore the Anochi- to personalize these experiences and figure out what this all means specifically to me.
According to tradition, Yaakov saw angels ascending to God’s Kisei Hakavod, Throne of Glory, and then descending back to earth.  One of the images engraved on the Kisei Hakavod is that of Yaakov. Yaakov was unaware that his likeness adorned God’s Throne. Upon seeing his image in the Heavenly sphere Yaakov realizes that God must have important things planned for him. He starts thinking about his unique mission, and what his path towards greatness will entail. It is at this point that Yaakov admits that until now- “Anochi Lo Yadati” - I had never given much thought to Anochi- finding my unique mission and pursuing it.

Anochi means I; and it is the first word of the Ten Commandments. It is used as a reference to the Ultimate I that is Hashem. Anochi Lo Yadati also means that now Yaakov appreciates the importance of God’s presence at every stage of life and in every situation. Until now, Yaakov had been so busy with his own efforts to trick his father, receive the birthright and get out of town that he had forgotten to take a moment to look for and appreciate God’s role in his life.

Let us look to our patriarch Yaakov as a model for how to persevere in the face of challenges: To view every situation as an opportunity to seek out our unique path in life, as well as an opportunity to seek out God along that path.

Let us boldly assert an awareness of Anochi in our lives, and in so doing may we be comforted in knowing (paraphrasing Yaakov) Achein Yesh Hashem Bamakom Hazeh, that God (referred to as Hamakom) is with us at every makom along our journeys.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Yitzchak, Yaakov and the Shidduch Situation

In Parshat Chayei Sarah, many miracles took place to help Yitzchak get married. When Eliezer set out on his way, he experienced a miracle and he arrived in Charan in one day (see Rashi, 24:42). And as Yitzchak was still praying, Rivkah arrived. Betuel, who wanted to sabotage the shidduch, died (see Rashi 24:55). Hashem's hand was obvious in this shidduch.

However, when Yaakov Avinu sought to get married, miracles did not happen for him. When Yaakov was traveling to Charan for his shidduch, he met up with Esav's son, Elifaz, who took all of his money. Yaakov worked seven years for his shidduch, then was tricked, and had to work another seven years. He went through very hard times, until he was finally able to marry and establish his family. Why did Yitzchak's shidduch come about so easily, while Yaakov's shidduch confronted so many hardships?

Perhaps the explanation is that when Avraham sent Eliezer to find a shidduch for Yitzchak, he didn't know whom to choose, and therefore he prayed and placed his trust in Hashem. Yaakov, however, knew whom he would marry. He went to Lavan's house with the intention to marry Rachel. As everyone said, "The older one [Esav] to the older one [Leah] and the younger one [Yaakov] to the younger one [Rachel].' Yaakov didn’t feel the need to pray for his shidduch so intently, nor the need to put his trust in Hashem. He thought it was obvious whom he would marry. This is the reason why he endured so many hardships, because he lacked this total reliance on God. On the other hand, Eliezer prayed and he completely placed his trust in Hashem, and therefore he found Yitzchak’s shidduch easily.

Parshat Chayei Sara is an opportune time to bring attention to the current State of Shidduchim. Some people call it a crisis, but I do not believe that such alarmist terminology is necessarily helpful. We do need to be aware of the rising number of single Jewish men and women of marriageable age. We should teach our children from a young age what characteristics are most important when seeking a spouse. We should model proper marital behavior and demonstrate to them how a successful marriage takes hard work, commitment and dedication. We need to dispel the myth of a perfect spouse or a perfect marriage.

Second, we need to ensure that single individuals (including single parent families) feel welcome and supported in our community. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, such as Shabbat/ Yom Tov meal invitations, neighbors checking in on neighbors, etc.

We also need to do what we can to facilitate introductions between men and women that could lead to marriage. Whether in the form of formal Shidduch groups and databases, or more informal settings such as mentioning a few names of singles around the Shabbat table or other social setting there are many ways to demonstrate our interest in helping others find their match.

Shedding light on the Shidduch Situation and resolving to find ways to do our part is a step forward in our efforts to create a culture of caring in our synagogue community and beyond.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Lot, Sodom, and the Challenge of Feeling Entitled

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb suggests that one of the biggest factors that inhibits our sense of gratitude is a sense of entitlement. We try to raise our children so that they have all that they need and more. This is a noble goal. However the downside can be that these children grown into adults who don’t realize that they need to exert effort in order to achieve the luxuries, and even the necessities, of life. No one can appreciate the benefits of a life to which s/he feels entitled. The dangers of this sense of entitlement are alluded to in our Parsha this morning.

In the middle of Lech Lecha, Avraham and Lot part ways. The cause of this separation was 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 belonged 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 fulfilled. The land still belonged to others, and 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.

A sense of entitlement may explain Lot’s choice of neighborhood. The Torah tells us that Lot chose to live in Sodom. The people of Sodom were (13:14) Ra’im V’chataim LaHashem Meod: “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? The answer lays in the Torah’s descriptive for Sodom (13:10): “Kulah Mashkeh” “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 dependent on rain. Rain comes from Hashem. If inhabitants of Israel 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 feel dependent, to recognize Hashem’s role in our lives, and work hard to be deserving of Hashem’s blessings. And when we receive those blessings- we are expected to be grateful.

In Israel, they began to request rain (V’tein Tal Umatar L’vracha) starting yesterday, 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 , no matter how many (or few) blessings we recognize in our lives.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Jews, Halloween and Noah's Tzohar

One of the challenges that Jewish parents confront this time of year is explaining to their children why we don’t celebrate Halloween. Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. It has pagan origins. Though today most people view it as a secular holiday, its religious origins are still known to some. That is why it is inappropriate for Jewish families to celebrate Halloween in any fashion. (For an interesting treatment of this topic from a Jewish lens, see here )

I like to point out the major difference between October 31st and the 14th of Adar- Purim. On October 31st people dress up and children knock on people’s doors, asking for candy. On Purim the mitzvah is to knock on people’s doors and GIVE OTHERS mishloach manot. Looking at the bigger picture, we should encourage opportunities for our children to act in selfless and giving ways; and we should be careful to avoid situations that increase our children’s sense of entitlement. 

An interesting question is raised whether it is appropriate to distribute candy to those who come to your door on October 31st? On this issue, I suggest we follow the examples of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky and Rabbi Avrohom Pam. 
In Artscroll’s biography about Rav Kamintesky, (Reb Yaakov, pg 243) it notes:
Someone was visiting Reb Yaakov, shortly after he moved to Monsey, when someone Halloween trick-or-treating rang the bell. (Monsey was not yet the largely Jewish town that it is today.) The man assumed that Reb Yaakov would not be familiar with such a non-Jewish custom from his years living in Williamsburg and hastened to explain to him what the children wanted. But Reb Yaakov was not only familiar with Halloween, the Rebbetzin had already prepared bags of sweets for any child that might ring.
The following story was recorded a few years ago by Rabbi Akiva Males:
My father-in-law studied in Rav Pam’s shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaas for several years back in the 1960s.
“When my wife’s older sister became engaged in the 1990s, my in-laws took my (future) sister-in-law and my (future) brother-in-law over to meet Rav and Rebbitzen Pam and receive their bracha and good wishes. It was October 31st. In contrast to the many Jewish homes around the Pams who had turned off their lights to discourage trick-or-treaters, the Pams left their front light on. While they all chatted with Rav Pam in the dining room, his Rebbitzen was in the kitchen working the hot-air popcorn popper and preparing plastic baggies of popcorn to give out with a smile to all the local non-Jewish kids who knocked at their door.”

In its description of the ark in Parshat Noach, the Torah tells us about the Tzohar (6:16). The Tzohar was a window. Generally, windows serve two functions: let the light in from outside and keep the outside conditions from getting in. Rashi quotes an idea that the Tzohar was a gem that illuminated the ark. This makes sense, as during the flood there was no light from outside. The Tzohar was both protective and illuminating. As Jews we must learn these lessons from the Tzohar. We need to create boundaries between ourselves and other religions/ secular culture. At the same time, we must be on the lookout for ways in which we can be an Ohr Lagoyim, a light onto the nations by living our Jewish values in ways that are noteworthy to the world at large.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Steve Bartman, Eglah Arufah and Collective Responsibility

It was October 14, 2003, Game 6 of Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series. The Chicago Cubs were playing the (then) Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field. The Cubs led the series 3-2. With one out in the top of the 8th inning, the Cubs were 5 outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo was at bat, and he hit a foul ball to the left side. Left fielder Moises Alou seemed poised to catch the ball in foul territory, but a man wearing headphones and a Cubs hat reached up to grab the foul ball. 

That man’s name is Steve Bartman. As a result, Alou was unable to make the play. Cubs fans fed off of Alou’s response and began showering Bartman with abuse. Ultimately, Steve Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field that night by security, for his own safety. . The Cubs ended up blowing their three-run lead and losing Game 6. When the Cubs went on to lose Game 7, people began to point to that fan’s interference as the turning point that led to the Cubs meltdown.  

People continued to threaten Steve Bartman until very recently. Alex Gibney, writer and producer of an ESPN film about the Bartman episode, notes that things did not have to be that way. Fans could have let the episode go. They could have turned their attention to cheering on their home team, instead of focusing on the foul ball. Instead, the irony was that Cubs fans went to a really dark place at the stadium known as “The Friendly Confines.”

Last month, the Cubs gave Steve Bartman a 2016 World Series Championship ring. In explaining the gift, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said:
We hope this provides closure on an unfortunate chapter of the story that has perpetuated throughout our quest to win a long-awaited World Series. While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization. After all he has sacrificed, we are proud to recognize Steve Bartman with this gift today.”

In accepting the ring, Steve Bartman issued a statement, which read in part:
I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over. I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today's society.”

In this week’s Parsha we read about the mysterious mitzvah of Eglah Arufah. There is an unsolved murder outside the city limits. The elders of the closest cities come together for a ceremony in which they declare that (21:7) “our hands did not spill this blood.” Do we really think that these distinguished leaders had anything to do with the murder?

From this mitzvah we learn the importance of collective responsibility. The elders do not say, “we didn’t do it, it’s not our problem.” Rather they declare that an unsolved murder is a problem for everyone, and everyone must do their part to address the problem.

For a long time Cubs fans scapegoated Steve Bartman. They engaged in magical thinking, fooling themselves that Bartman’s alleged interference caused them to lose, instead of assigning the blame to where it rightfully belonged (or not assigning any blame and just moving on with life.) I am glad that when the Cubs won a championship, team officials took responsibility for the behavior of their fans, and tried in some small way to make amends.

As a community we need to live the lesson of Eglah Arufah and collective responsibility. Even if we are not personally impacted by a problem, we must be sensitive, aware and prepared to address these challenge to the best of our abilities. 

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.


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.