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.