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.