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.