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.