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.