Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Lesson of Moshe’s Name

The Yalkut Shimoni quotes a tradition that Moshe had ten additional names.
He was called Levi- because he was a member of that tribe.
He was called Tuviyah, because there was goodness that was visible from the time of his birth.
Miriam called her brother Yered, because she went down to the Nile to see what would happen to her baby brother. 
Aharon called his brother (Avi) Zanuach “master of rejection” because Moshe’s father left his mother, but he came back to her after the birth of Moshe.
Along the same lines he was called Chever (to join) because he caused his parents to reunite.
His grandfather Kehat called him Avigdor, literally “master of the fence”- Avi G’dor, because after Moshe’s birth, Pharaoh was fenced in and gave up on his decree to drown all Jewish baby boys.
His mother called him Yekutiel, related to the word for hope- as a prayer that she hoped to one day be reunited with her son.
He was also called (Avi) Socho- Master of Prophecy - because he would grow up to become the greatest Jewish prophet of all time.

                In this week’s Daf Hashavua (Megilah 13, which meets weekly in the library on Tuesdays after the 8:00 a.m. Minyan) we learned different reasons for these names (based on a verse in Divrei Hayamim I:4:18):

Yered: because Moshe facilitated the Manna to fall in the wilderness.
(Avi)gdor: because Moshe helped mend the breach between God and the Jewish People after the sin of the golden calf.
Chever: because Moshe connected the Jewish People to their Father in Heaven.
Socho: because Moshe was able to provide protection to the Jewish People, through Hashem, like a sukkah.
Yekutiel: because Moshe encouraged the Jewish People to trust in Hashem.
(Avi) Zanuach: because Moshe was able to push aside the people’s sins.

                And then there is the name Moshe. In Parshat Shemot we are told how and why Moshe got this name. After being placed in a basket in the Nile River, the daughter of Pharaoh finds the boy and saves him. After the boy grows up we are told that (2:10): “she called him Moshe, as she said, for I drew him from the water”. Although he had all these names, God and the Torah only refer to him as Moshe. The Midrash at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra is emphatic on this point. Vayikra el Moshe: It states that Hashem said to Moshe, “By your life! Of all your names, I will only call you by the name given to you by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh.”  What is it about the name Moshe, given by the Egyptian princess, that is worthy of being the only name by which God calls him?

                Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski suggests that the most formative experience of Moshe’s life was the fact that his adoptive mother was willing to sacrifice everything in order to save the young boy. Although he probably didn’t remember the incident, Moshe surely knew the story of how he got his name. This story of self-sacrifice accompanied Moshe his entire life, shaped his attitude towards others, and provided him with the strength to similarly sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish People.

                More important than the lessons we try to inculcate into our children with our words, are the lessons that we teach through our actions. Do the right thing, as much as possible and as often as possible, when your children are watching you- even if they don’t intellectually understand what they’re seeing. By doing so you will leave a legacy not only on the beneficiaries of your good deeds, but on the beneficiaries of the good deeds performed by your children inspired by your model.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dying Responsibly

Parshat Vayechi opens by telling us that “as Yaakov’s death approached” (47:29) he requested that Yosef swear to bury him in Me’arat Hamachpela in Chevron. Later in the Parsha (49:29) after he blesses each of his sons, Yaakov once again commands his children to bury him in Chevron, this time providing a bit more detail. Why does Yaakov make the request twice?

Death is a part of life. Just as we should live responsibly, so too must we die responsibly. Yaakov was demonstrating a key component to dying responsibly: planning in advance.

It should not come as a surprise that Yaakov makes his burial request on his deathbed. In the final moments of life, a person is likely to express his/her deepest desires and most important thoughts. For Yaakov these were thoughts symbolized by Chevron, ie Mesorah: being a link in the chain of Jewish tradition and the critical importance of the Land of Israel. Of course Yaakov wanted to “go home” and “be with his parents and grandparents”, themes that are commonly heard from people at the end of their lives. But Yaakov emphasized his burial location because of the lessons it contained for his children and future descendants. The Talmud (Gittin 36) writes “it is a mitzvah to fulfill the last wishes of a gravely ill person”, thereby codifying the seriousness that we are required to take deathbed requests.

What is more surprising is that Yaakov had the soundness of mind to make this request earlier- towards the end of his life, perhaps, but not on his deathbed. Not everyone dies after a protracted illness. Not everyone is lucid enough during their final days to convey their last requests in a meaningful fashion. Yaakov knew this and therefore engages in “pre-need planning”.
It is human nature to ignore our mortality. But ignoring this fact does not make it any less true, nor inevitable. Parents want to take care of their children- no matter how old our children are. Part of taking care of our children is to make plans for our ultimate passing, and to share those plans with our loved ones. I am proud that are shul once again is a partner in TEAM Shabbat: a weekend of awareness and education surrounding end-of-life issues. These issues run the gamut: from buying life insurance and writing your will (or making sure that your will is updated), to making decisions concerning graves and funeral arrangements. On Sukkot I presented a lecture on Jewish ethical wills. In addition to preparing a document that divides one’s financial estate, Jewish tradition encourages us to leave a document (or audio/video recording) that imparts lessons and values by which you want your family and friends to remember you.

We would think that planning for the end of our life would make us sad and depressed. Yet according to a 2007 study published in Psychological Science, the opposite is true. When asked to contemplate the occasion of their own demise, people become happier than usual, instead of sadder. Researchers say it's a kind of psychological immune response — faced with thoughts of our own death, our brains automatically cope with the conscious feelings of distress by non-consciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism that scientists theorize helps protect us from permanent depression or paralyzing despair.

When we pre-plan our end-of-life needs we are taking back a degree of control in a situation that is the ultimate symbol of man’s helplessness. We are also providing a final expression of care and love for our family. One of the most challenging and stressful situations that I have witnessed is the trauma of arranging for the funeral of a loved one who had no plans in place. Planning for these eventualities in advance is a way that we can take care of our family.  Perhaps this is what our tradition is trying to convey by teaching that planning for our final arrangements in advance is a segula for arichat yamim, long life. If we utilize this Shabbat as a springboard to begin to think about these ideas, and to open up conversations with our families, then the outcome will be a more fulfilling, satisfying life with less stress.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Years of Our Life, The Life in Our Years

In Parshat Vayigash, Yaakov and Yosef are reunited and Yosef brings his father to meet Pharaoh. Their meeting begins with Yaakov blessing Pharaoh, and then Pharaoh asks a question in response:

And Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?"

חוַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יַעֲקֹב כַּמָּה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ
I view this question as an equivalent to a “How are you?” The socially correct answer in this situation would be a short factual response- which is what Yaakov initially provides:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה

“The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years.”

But then Yaakov goes off the rails and things quickly get uncomfortable, as Yaakov continues:

מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי

“The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable”

This is a classic case of TMI- too much information. Pharaoh was merely trying to make chit chat with his viceroy’s father, and Yaakov has to go ahead and ruin it by making things all awkward.

So one lesson we can learn from this exchange in our Parsha is: let’s make sure our words are meaningful. Let’s consider a greeting other than “How are you?” and save that question for people and situations when we are really interested in the answer.

Let’s return to Yaakov’s response: It’s pretty shocking. Yaakov kvetches that his days have been “few” and miserable. Both claims can be challenged. The Ramban notes that by this time, a long life span was down to 70-80 years. So 130 years is nothing to complain about!

Second, things may not have always worked out in an easy or straightforward way for Yaakov. But for the most part, in the end, things work out for him. Yaakov must flee from Eisav - but ultimately reconciles with him. Yaakov is persecuted by his father in law - but ultimately he is able to leave as a rich man.  Sure, Yaakov had tzuris. But we would not expect our Patriarch to describe this life as “miserable.”

The Malbim (19th century Russian commentator) encourages us to look at the text carefully:
When he first answers the question, Yaakov states that his “Yemei Shnei Megurai” is 130 years. However Yaakov uses a slightly different language “Yemei Shnai Chayei” – when referring to his life as short and miserable.

Explains the Malbim: The term “Shnay Megurei” refers to the years that Yaakov had lived on this planet: which solicits a factual answer: 130 years. What was few and miserable for Yaakov was his “Shnay Chayei”- the time Yaakov felt he was able to really live. To engage in meaningful activities. To help others, to learn Torah, to connect with family and with Hashem.

Yaakov’s response to Pharaoh challenges us to consider what ways we are really living during the years that God gives us in this life. And how we can increase our Shnot Chayim during our sojourn on this planet.

As Abraham Lincoln put it: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On Chanukah, Let’s Be Thankful – Even for the Flawed

There are a lot of important lessons to learn from the story of Chanukah: Heroism. Moral fortitude. Light over darkness. The role of miracles, both natural and supernatural, in our lives. The one that I’d like for us to focus on for a moment is the lesson to be thankful, even for the less-than-ideal.

Our appreciation of the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks can be colored by what we know to be a muted endorsement of the Maccabees by our Rabbis. After the Maccabees defeated the Greeks they installed themselves as monarchs.  The Ramban notes that this is a direct violation of the pasuk from Parshat Vayechi that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah.” Jewish kings were supposed to emerge only from the tribe of Yehuda. The Hasmoneans were Kohanim (priests, from the tribe of Levi). The Ramban explains that the reason why the Hasmonean family ultimately disappeared is because they violated this rule.

Although it is legitimate to note and learn from the “mistake” of the Hasmoneans, I prefer to focus on the approach taken by the Rambam. In the Laws of Chanukah (3:1), Maimonides recounts the Chanukah story:

The Jews suffered great difficulties from the Greeks, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand.
They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

In the last line, the Rambam notes the critique of the Ramban: the Hasmoneans overstepped their role by appointing themselves kings. However, in the very same breath/line, Rambam makes sure to note that due to the Hasmoneans, Jewish sovereignty was returned to the Land of Israel for over 200 years. There were a lot of problems in the Land of Israel under the Hasmonean kings for those two centuries. And still, Rambam urges us to see the gift of Jewish sovereignty, even when that sovereignty is far from perfect, even when that Jewish state has real flaws and problems. We sing Hallel every day of Chanukah in appreciation for an imperfect situation, but one from which we benefitted and need to acknowledge with thanks.

There are sometimes complaints and criticism directed towards our shul:  about things that should happen that don’t; or about things that should have happened in a different/ better way.  Many times the comments are legitimate and the ideas are good. We need to hear feedback in order to improve. But we also need to remember not to allow “the perfect” be the enemy of the “great.” We should appreciate what is great in our lives and in our shul, even when there is room for improvement. The Hasmonean Kingdom after the Chanukah story was far from perfect. And yet it was a point of pride and reason to celebrate. This Chanukah, let us celebrate all that is great in our lives, even when it is far from perfect. Let this be our perspective, which will enable us to improve as an expression of pride and optimism.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Being Observant and Being a Mensch: No Daylight Between the Two

The story of Yosef in the house of Potiphar and his interaction with Potiphar’s wife can teach us a great deal about how we should strive to live our lives as Jews. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Yosef, and Yosef responds that he will not succumb to temptation on two accounts: “there is no one greater in this house than I, and Potiphar has denied me nothing but you (since you are his wife); how then can I perpetrate this great evil. And I would have sinned against God.”

                I admit that my punctuation of the last few words is debatable. One could argue that Yosef’s main concern was that committing adultery is a sin against God. However I see within Yosef’s words the appropriate approach to gauging the correctness of our actions. First of all, Yosef considers the human impact of his actions and understands that committing adultery would be a sin against Potiphar, not only because she is his wife, but also because of the trust that Potiphar had placed in Yosef. Adultery would be a supreme violation of that trust. Secondly, and just as important, even if Yosef had no feelings of respect and gratitude towards Potiphar, and even if he resented Potiphar and really wanted to hurt him, Yosef would not succumb to temptation because it would be a sin against God.

                Yosef models for us the considerations that we are supposed to have when considering our course of action. If our actions would hurt someone else, then even if we could rationalize those actions as not being a technical violation of halacha, it would still be wrong. And even if an action does not hurt anyone, we still must evaluate whether that activity is allowed according to Halacha, the code by which we are supposed to live our lives.

                I believe that this is what sets Yosef apart and the reason why he is called “Ivri” on multiple occasions in Parshat Vayeshev. Yosef sets himself apart by holding himself to two high standards: one standard is the Halacha test. The other standard is the “mensch test”. Even if something could be construed as permissible based on the Halacha test, if we are to emulate Yosef Hatzaddik then we will avoid any activity that doesn’t pass the mensch test

                Let us learn the lessons of Yosef HaIvri well. Torah is distorted when it is used to justify improper behavior towards others, Jew or non-Jew.  A person who claims to be Torah observant yet hurts others is a hypocrite. Let us never allow there to be daylight between being Torah observant and being a mensch.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The UN, Airbnb and Parshat Vayishlach

Life is full of ups and downs, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Israel’s status in the community of nations. What is unique is that Israel find herself on a high and a low - at the same time.

                The annual United Nations resolution entitled “The Occupied Syrian Golan” was scheduled for a vote on Friday, November 16. In previous years, the United States has abstained from voting on this resolution. However, given the resolution’s anti-Israel bias, as well as the militarization of the Syrian Golan border, and a worsening humanitarian crisis, this year the United States has decided to vote no on the resolution.

                UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “The United States will no longer abstain when the United Nations engages in its useless annual vote on the Golan Heights. If this resolution ever made sense, it surely does not today. The resolution is plainly biased against Israel. Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone. The destructive influence of the Iranian regime inside Syria presents major threats to international security. ISIS and other terrorist groups remain in Syria. And this resolution does nothing to bring any parties closer to a peace agreement. The United States will vote no.”

                It is encouraging that Israel has found support and partnerships with a growing number of nations to a greater degree than ever before. And yet, at the same time, Israel continues to be singled out by countries and companies, in ways unlike any other country.  Just this week Airbnb, the online rental marketplace, announced that it will be removing 200 listings of homes in Judea and Samaria. Though admitting that “We are most certainly not the experts when it comes to the historical disputes in this region”, this did not prevent the company from concluding that “we should remove listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank that are at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians." Israel’s long standing position is that the territory in the West Bank is disputed, not occupied. And the fate of the settlements should be resolved in direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

                Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum and a professor at George Mason University, suggested that Airbnb was on weak ground. “This is not about disputed territories, as Airbnb has listings in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, Turkish-occupied Cyprus, and more,” he said in a statement. “So it is only Jewish properties in the Jewish homeland that are banned. Airbnb’s approach of singling out Jews from all the disputes in the world will put it at odds with U.S. state B.D.S. laws and principles of discrimination.”

                At the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov prepares to reunite with his brother Eisav. One way that Yaakov prepares is by praying to God. (Genesis 32:12) “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav…” 

Tradition typecasts the struggle between Yaakov and Esav as the ongoing struggle between the Jewish People and her enemies. Sometimes these antagonists present themselves as full-blown enemies (like Eisav). But sometimes these antagonists present themselves as “brothers”: ie justifying their singling out of the Jewish People/ Jewish State on grounds of “human rights” or “peace-seeking”.  However, we know that the singling out of Jews (or Israel: the Jewish State) is one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of anti-Semitism. We must be ready to identify and call out both types of anti-Israel activity, thereby doing our part to protect the State of Israel and the Jewish People.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Yehuda: Attitude of Gratitude

In Parshat Vayeitzei, Leah gives birth to four sons in a row. Each of the first three sons are given names by Leah that speak of her “less-loved status” compared to Rachel and her hopes that the child will increase Yaakov’s love for her:

Reuven: G-d has seen my humiliation, for now my husband will love me.
Shimon: God has heard that I am unloved.
Levi: This time my husband will become attached to me, for I bore him three sons.
Her fourth son she names Yehuda, because Hapaam Odeh Et Hashem- this time let me gratefully praise Hashem.

            We might say better late than never- at least Leah finally expresses gratitude to G-d, if not at the first child, then at least at the birth of Yehuda.

However the Ibn Ezra writes that Leah was punished for not expressing gratitude earlier. As the pasuk tells us immediately after Yehuda is named, “Va’ta’amod miledet,” Leah stopped giving birth. What was Leah’s mistake?

            Number 1: Habituation and routine are impediments to gratitude. Leah got used to having children, expecting it to happen without complication. So much so that by the third son, she leaves G-d out of the picture. Once something is expected, we no longer feel grateful for its presence; if anything we are annoyed by its absence. We must remember that the most important blessings are those that are consistent.

As a parent I struggle with this. I want to do special things for and with my children. And the first few times I do so, I will hear expressions of gratitude, even without my wife having to say, “What do you say now that Abba took you on this fun trip?

But all too soon the novelty wears off, the expressions of thanks are fewer and farther between, and it comes to the point where such treatment is expected.

            Number 2: Feelings of entitlement impede gratitude. Rashi quotes the Medrash Tanchuma that Leah knew through Divine inspiration that there would be twelve tribes and 4 wives. The assumption was that each wife would have three sons. So Leah only expressed gratitude upon the birth of her fourth son, when she had more sons than she felt entitled to. The message from G-d was only that there would be 4 wives and 12 tribes, not necessarily that the tribes would be split evenly (that ended up not happening). It’s entirely plausible that one of the wives would have no children. When we walk around with a sense of entitlement, it makes it more difficult to express gratitude- because we feel as if we deserve what we get- we are owed it. Such a perspective makes gratitude very difficult.

            Number 3: Our ability to be grateful is impeded when we compare our lot in life with those whom we consider to be more fortunate. The problem with that is two-fold. First of all, as explained above- this perspective rarely takes into account how much worse off we could be. Second, you can’t judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. I may think that someone else has a better life than I do. However if I saw the full picture or knew the entire story- I would be grateful for what I have. The Rabbis explain that compared to Rachel, Leah felt unloved, even hated. When stuck in that frame of mind it is difficult for a person to count their blessings and feel grateful for what they have.

            Psychologists have studied the importance of gratitude to the individual and society. Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.

            Jews are called Yehudim, those who descend from Yehuda but also those who are grateful. On this weekend before Thanksgiving / Shabbat Vayeitzei let us resolve to cultivate our attitude of gratitude.     

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Combatting Cynicism

 “And these are the offspring of Isaac the son of Avraham- Avraham begot Isaac.”
The first verse in this week’s Parsha seems redundant.

Why repeat the fact that Avraham was the father of Yitzchak- twice in one Pasuk?! Rashi quotes the Midrash that there were “Leitzanei Hador”, scoffers, who cast aspersions about Avraham’s paternity. They noted that Sarah and Avraham were married for many years without children. And Sarah had a child after being taken by Avimelech, King of the Plishtim.

            The Midrash continues that to ensure no one would believe such lies, Hashem made sure that the family resemblance between Avraham and Yitzchak was uncanny. The question is: Does it matter to G-d what the Leitzanei Hador were saying? Let the scoffers think and say whatever they want. We know the truth. So why did G-d intercede in order to silence the nay-sayers?

            Rabbi Mordechai Gifter explained that this Midrash highlights the destructive power of cynicism. Once expressed, it has the power to infect everything around it. The genetic relationship between each of our forefathers is integral to our tradition. To allow cynics to question this truth would have been a devastating blow to Judaism. The Midrash is teaching us that cynicism is so sinister that G-d intervenes to curtail its effects.

Historically, there was a school of ancient philosophy called Cynicism. It believed that there is neither absolute truth nor intrinsic goodness in this universe. Although such an outlook seems to be depressing, one of the most famous Cynics, Diogenes, reacted to this realization with humor. He described the human conditions as being like a dog trying to catch its own tail. After adopting Cynicism, Diogenes spent his life aimlessly wandering the beaches of Greece enjoying the warm weather. Thousands of disciples followed him, and he would stop along the beach and give lectures full of sarcastic remarks about society.

            Today, cynicism is defined as an attitude of jaded negativity. People are not born cynical. Children are generally optimistic and trusting. But at some point, we all experience a challenge to this worldview. Somebody may disappoint us. Or something that we expect to happen does not. In a May 2005 article, researchers from Yale University found that children begin to demonstrate cynical tendencies in the second grade.

            Cynicism is rampant in today’s society. People are cynical about politics and politicians. People are cynical about society.

            Skepticism is not the same as cynicism. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch praised the skepticism that Bnei Yisrael exhibited towards every one of Moshe’s accomplishments. Rav Hirsch explains that had the Jews been completely enamored, later generations would have suspected that their ancestors were intellectual pushovers who had been impressed by some charismatic leader. It was precisely because of their initial skepticism that allowed for their later enthusiastic embrace of Torah.   
            In the first Aliyah we also read how Eisav traded his birthright for a bowl of lentils:
“Eisav ate and drank, got up and left, and Eisav despised the birthright.”

Like the Leitzanei HaDor, the verse tells us that Eisav acted cynically. Eisav’s wickedness is shown here through this cynicism.

Parshat Toldot teaches us that cynicism can be a destructive force within our lives.  Judaism vehemently objects to the philosophy of the ancient Cynics. We can question, we can even be disappointed by people and events- but we should never lose faith. In the aftermath of a punishing campaign season and some very close elections in Florida, it’s important for all of us to put aside any cynicism and look to the future with optimism.

Friday, November 2, 2018

No Answers, But We Must Respond

Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

In Parshat Shemot we read how God convinced Moshe to go back to Egypt to lead the Jews out of slavery. Moshe embarks on this journey from Midyan with his wife and two sons, one a newborn. The verse then states:

וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ ה וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ:
Now he was on the way, in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.
With help from the next verse, commentators piece together the narrative. Moshe’s newborn son was eight days old; it was time for his circumcision. Moshe, for whatever reason (discussed in the commentaries) did not circumcise his son at the first available opportunity. For this sin in this instance, Moshe was deserving of a severe punishment: death. Just in the nick of time, Moshe’s wife Tziporah performs the circumcision and Moshe is saved. 

The Ohr Hachayim notes the peculiar usage of the word “sought to”. If God can do whatever He wants, then why did he merely “seek” Moshe’s death and not make it happen? The Ohr Hachayim notes that Moshe was travelling due to a Divine command. He was a “shaliach mitzvah”, an emissary of Hashem. And we have a principle brought down in the Talmud in a few places (such as Pesachim 8b and Chulim 142a) that “shluchei mitzvah einan nizakin” that those on a mission to perform a mitzvah will not be harmed.

The idea that those performing a mitzvah will not be harmed is the reason why people stuff dollar bills into someone’s hand when they hear that s/he is travelling (more common when the person is travelling to Israel, but practiced by some when any amount of travel is undertaken.) The dollars are meant to be given to tzedaka when the person arrives at their destination. And the belief is that by transporting these funds, the traveler has been transformed into a Shaliach Mitzvah, one on a mission to fulfill a mitzvah, whom we are told will not be harmed.

The events of the last couple of weeks have seriously challenged our belief in this concept that those on the way to do a mitzvah will not be harmed.
Last Shabbat, eleven Jews were killed in Pittsburgh. These Jews were killed in a synagogue. These Jews were murdered while taking part in Shabbat morning services. These Jews were murdered because they showed up to shul on time. There are no words to express the heartache of this tragedy, just as there are no words to answer the question that many of us have: Weren’t these Jews “Shluchei Mitzvah”? Shouldn’t they have been protected from harm?

In our own community, this question has been on many people’s mind since last Tuesday, when our own Mr. Stanley Friederwitzer z’l tragically died, when he was hit by a car as he was crossing the street, on his way to Shacharit services to help make a minyan. Many of us ask: But wasn’t he a Shaliach Mitzvah? How can something so terrible happen to someone on his way to do a mitzvah?
There are no answers to these questions. Just like Aharon was silent in the face of the death of his two sons (Vayidom Aharon, Vayikra 10:3) so too we must not offer answers to these weighty questions that often sell us, or God, short. The best answer is no answer. In that silence we should contemplate how limited mortal human’s understanding is, and how we can never understand the full picture of God’s plan. In Parshat Chayei Sarah we read of the death of our first matriarch. One Midrash suggests that Satan caused Sara’s death by telling her about the Binding of Isaaac- and leaving out the ending (how Yitzchak was spared at the last moment). According to this Midrash Sarah died of either a heart attack or a broken heart. 

Asks Rav Chaim Kanievsky: Avraham was fulfilling a Divine command. He was a Shaliach Mitzvah. If so, how could the death of Sarah occur as a result of this Mitzvah endeavor? Rav Kanievsky answers that doing a mitzvah will never be bad for a person. Nothing can take away the good that is created through a mitzvah. But God has His calculations. These calculations are incomprehensible to mortals, and include when a person’s time on this Earth is up. And when that time comes, God’s plan will come to fruition, regardless of what a person is involved in at that moment. The mitzvah will not protect from the fate that is destined to befall. But when a person expires while performing a mitzvah, then their death is elevated and now considered to be sanctifying God’s name through their death, also known as “dying Al Kiddush Hashem”.
Though there may be no answers to these tragedies, there are most definitely proper responses.
Mourn for the loss of life, comfort the bereaved, pray for the injured. Show solidarity with those who were most impacted by the tragic events.

Appreciate how precious every moment of life is and live it to the fullest. Love deeply. Hug your family a little tighter. Be a little bit nicer to friends. Smile more. Be more civil.

We have an obligation to vanquish evil and to not allow evil to prevail. We must double down on everything that the Pittsburgh shooter tried to destroy: things such as the sanctity of the synagogue, the crucial role that synagogue plays in building and maintaining community; shul attendance, decency, tolerance, unconditional love and respect, civility.

Rav Soloveitchik taught that in response to tragedy, we should not ask the question, “Why?” Rather let us ask the question “What now?” Let each one of us commit to answering that question with concrete action; now and tomorrow, to alleviate the pain of today and to help create a better tomorrow.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikur Cholim: An Important and Meaningful Mitzvah

Bikur Cholim: An Important and Meaningful Mitzvah

At the beginning of Parshat Vayerah, we read that Hashem appeared to Avraham. Rashi explains that G-d was performing the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), as Avraham was recuperating from his recent circumcision. When we visit the sick, we are not only doing kindness for our fellow human being. We are emulating Hashem. 

One of the main purposes of Bikur Cholim is to pray for the sick person; it is like giving him life. Accordingly, one could visit a total stranger, or someone who is unaware of the visit. The same is true for visiting a young baby. In addition, one should see to it that the sick person has all his/her needs taken care of and make sure he has all the necessary medical supplies. This might include shopping for the person. Making the sick person happy is also included in the mitzvah. Hashem visited Avraham after his circumcision, but we do not find that He said anything to him. Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l shows from here that one does not have to say anything to the sick person. Just one’s presence can be sufficient.
According to our Sages, illness is a time of increased Divine Providence. This status has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, such Providence may include an extra degree of scrutiny of the ill person’s merits. As the Talmud (Shabbat 32b) states, “A person should always pray that he should not get sick; for if he does, he is told ‘Bring a merit and free yourself.”  On the other hand, Hashem’s enhanced scrutiny of an ill person can be viewed as a privilege. Earlier in Masechet Shabbat (12b) it states that the Divine Presence supports ill people and resides over their beds. This fact is reflected in the Halacha, mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, that when visiting a sick person one should not sit higher than the patient, because that is the height-level of the Divine Presence as well.
The Talmud states that one who performs the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim merits four blessing: s/he is saved from the Yetzer Harah, and from suffering; s/he will be honored, and blessed with faithful friends. The Maharal explains that these blessings are chosen because they correspond to the experience of a sick person. Ill people are generally not bothered by the Evil Inclination. And as a direct result of a visit, a person’s suffering is alleviated. Patients will feel honored by a visitor, and be comforted by the thought that there are people who are thinking of them.
This explanation of the Maharal emphasizes one of the unique characteristics of Chesed activities in general, and Bikur Cholim in particular. The more we give of ourselves, the more we are enriched and gain from the experience.
Bikur cholim is one of the mitzvot which merits a reward in this world and retains the main reward for Olam Habah (Artscroll Siddur pg. 16). I urge all of us to find ways to be involved in this incredibly important and fulfilling mitzvah.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Feeling Good About Judaism

“Bind them as a sign upon your arm”

We recite this verse daily as part of the Shema. We generally assume that this means that men wearing tefillin on their arms serves as a sign of committing one’s actions to serving God. Now it might also mean that wearing tefillin is a sign of improved cardiac health.

        A pilot study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that regular users of tefillin, or phylacteries, may receive cardiovascular health benefits though remote ischemic preconditioning — that is, briefly restricting blood flow and oxygen to the heart and then restoring it. The results of the study were published last month online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

        The study involved 20 Jewish men from the Greater Cincinnati area including nine who wore tefillin daily and 11 who did not. A leather strap is wrapped tightly around either the right or left arm for about half an hour during morning prayers six days a week, often tight enough to leave grooves in the skin for a few minutes after they are removed. They are not worn on Shabbat.

        The researchers measured participants’ vital signs, drew blood for analysis of circulating cytokines and monocyte function and also measured blood flow in the dominant arm which is not wrapped with the tefillin. Blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study.

        Here again we have evidence that religion can be good for the body, as well as the soul. But what do we do with statements in our tradition that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (Kiddushin 39b)?

        “Feel good religion” is a term used disparagingly to refer to religion that emphasizes its benefits to adherents, over the commitments and responsibilities contained therein. If there are observable physical, emotional, social and psychological benefits to Judaism, does that make us a “feel good religion”? I believe that “feel good religion” is a problem if the focus is exclusively on the ego, and feeling good is viewed as the ultimate goal of the religion. It’s a problem when religion is used to validate one’s lifestyle, regardless of one’s contributions and efforts at personal improvement and bettering the world. When the message one takes from religion is “everything you’re doing is fine” or “you don’t need to change a thing” – then that person is practicing a dangerous form of “feel good religion”; one that will not lead to goodness, let alone greatness.

        However we are allowed- even encouraged- to feel good when we are pushing ourselves to do mitzvot. We are allowed to feel proud when we have extended ourselves beyond our comfort zone to learn and to grow. It makes sense that a man who is motivated to put on tefillin daily could glean heart healthy benefits from this effort. This is especially true when it comes to Torah study. Rabbi Yosef Rosen (The Rogatchover Gaon) points out that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is only fully realized when the one who studies benefits from the experience- not just intellectually but on a social-emotional level as well. This is reflected in Tehillim Chapter 19 (Artscroll Siddur pg 374) “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul……The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.”

        This is how I understand Rashi’s first comment on Parshat Lech Lecha (12:1):
Go forth: לֶךְ לְךָ, go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation”

        Avram would have answered God’s call to leave his homeland purely out of obedience. The Torah here is telling Avram, and us, that we are allowed to derive benefit and pleasure as a result of the effort expended on Mitzvot.  In the World to Come we will benefit from reward/ pleasure that is absent any feelings of motivation and concern for what else needs to be done. But this world is for work, and through the effort we can, should, and will derive both spiritual and material benefits.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Urge to Destroy, The Urge To Create

(Washington Post October 6, 2018) Anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy has pulled off another stunt that seized the attention of the art world — this time at the expense of his own work.

On Friday, a Banksy painting titled “Girl with Red Balloon” was being auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The spray-painted and acrylic piece depicted a little girl extending her arm out for a heart-shaped balloon, floating far beyond reach.

            The bidding climbed to $1.4 million, an amount that tied the artist’s own auction record from 2008. Finally, a hammer pounded to signify the end of the auction.

Right then, the painting’s canvas began scrolling downward, seeming to pass through its elaborate gilded frame — and reappearing below in neat, vertical strips. Later, Sotheby’s would explain that a shredder was hidden inside the frame.

The crowd began murmuring as they realized what was happening: The painting was “self-destructing” before their very eyes.

            "It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik said in a statement that described the incident as “the first time in auction history that a work of art automatically shredded itself after coming under the hammer.” 

Banksy on Saturday posted a video to Instagram that showed footage of a shredding mechanism being built into a frame for, presumably, “Girl with Red Balloon.”

“A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” he stated in the video text, “in case it was ever put up for auction ...”

The video then jumped to clips of Friday’s auction at Sotheby’s, indicating that Banksy — or someone who works with him — was there when it happened.

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Banksy captioned the Instagram post.

            My favorite part of this story is that according to the Evening Standard, the partially shredded artwork has doubled in value. The painting’s iconic place in art history may see the price only increase further in the coming months.

            Although the above quote is attributed to a 19th century Russian anarchist and atheist, I think Judaism agrees that the urge to destroy can be a creative urge. This finds expression in the Halachot of the 39 Melachot (categories of forbidden activity on Shabbat). One of the requirements for an activity to be forbidden is that it must be “constructive”. For instance, carrying a 50 pound sack of potatoes around your house may work up a sweat and be tiring, but it is not a Melacha because you have not transformed or acted constructively towards the potatoes. Two categories of Melacha seem to break this rule: Korei’ah, tearing and Soteir, demolishing. Our tradition explains that these activities are only Biblically prohibited if they are done with the intent to subsequently mend or rebuild. Here we see in Halacha examples of destruction being a creative urge.

            We also find this idea in Parshat Noach. We read how God brings a flood to destroy the world. Yet He also saves Noach and his family. The lesson is clear: God destroys the world in order to create a world that is less corrupt. This destruction was a type of creative urge. (This may also help explain the Midrash that says that God created and destroyed many worlds before the creation of our world. The lesson there too might be that destruction can at times be a creative expression.)

            There is a lesson here for us as well. Sometimes we need to alter our plans. Sometimes we need to adjust our perspective, our goals, or our expectations. And sometimes we need to destroy them; start from scratch and rethink the entire matter. As scary as this may be, we should remember at those moments that the urge to destroy can also be a creative urge, and a harbinger of great things ahead.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

V'Chol Asher Yikra Lo HaAdam Nefesh Chaya Hu Shimo" (Bereishit 2:19).

The Midrash says that the angels complained about the creation of man. Hashem, to prove man's greatness, brought all the animals before the angels and asked them what they are each called. The angels were unable to name them. Then He brought them to Adam who named each animal.
The simple understanding is that Adam correctly understood each animal's characteristic and its purpose in this world and gave them a name that captured their essence. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, however, says that what transpired was actually much deeper than merely a test of Adam HaRishonim's wisdom. It was proof of man's greatness and mastery over the entire creation. By naming the animal, Adam declared what the animal would be. Because Adam called it a certain name that became its destiny and its future for all time.

The Midrash is reminding us that human beings are unique among creatures in that we are not bound by fate and the laws of nature. Through God-given abilities like free will we can overcome the natural course of events to do better and be better.

Furthermore, continues the Midrash, Hashem asked Adam what Hashem's name should be and Adam said the Shem of Adnut, i.e. Master, for Hashem is our Master and the Master of the Universe. It is man who determines even Hashem's role in this world. Hashem acts with us in accordance with the way we relate to Him, with the name we give Him. If we relate to Hashem as our Omnipotent Merciful Father, that is how He will treat us. If we don't relate to Hashem as the all-powerful ruler of every detail in our lives but choose to relate to the laws of nature, then Hashem will leave us to the whims of the world and allow nature to run its course.

We generally assume that the name Adam comes from the fact that man was created from the earth, Adamah. However, says Rav Yehonoson Eibushitz, the name Adam is actually related to the phrase "Adameh L'Elyon", I am compared to the Elevated (i.e. God)”.  A person is created B'Tzelem Elokim and is compared to Hashem Himself. Even our comparison to Adama, the earth, can be understood with a positive spin.  Just like the earth never disintegrates and remains forever, similarly a person's neshama, soul, is eternal. The Maharal offers another positive spin on the name Adam:

“However, man’s character is especially comparable to the earth since the earth’s special characteristic is that of potential; through it, all that comes from it springs into reality, such as plants, trees, and everything else. Earth has the potential for all this. This, too, is the characteristic of man. He is a potential whose perfection [exists only when that potential] comes into reality. Therefore his name is fitting for him as he is a partner to the earth whose uniqueness is to transform potentiality to reality…”

As we read about the creation of humankind, let us wear the title of “Adam” with pride, and live up to its potential.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

You Can Take It (Tishrei) With You

I must admit that as we celebrate Shemni Atzeret and Simchat Torah I am tinged with sadness at the conclusion of the Tishrei holidays season. It is an emotion that I remember feeling even when I was a child. The end of Pesach is also a let-down, after the preparations and the celebration of the 8-day holiday. But Pesach leads straight into the Omer, which takes us through the subsequent 7 weeks until Shavuot, stopping along the way for Yom Hashoah, Yom Haatzmaut, Lag B’Omer and Yom Yerushalayim. Shavuot means the end of the school year, an exciting time for kids and parents as summer vacation plans take shape. After Simchat Torah, we have to wait close to 6 months before the next Chag, and two months before Chanukah. I’m sure this melancholy I recall from childhood was partly a reflection of the meteorological realities. The end of Sukkot in New England meant the onset of colder and shorter days. In Florida we get more sunlight and more sunshine (and almost no change in seasons). And yet I still feel that tinge of sadness, especially as I daven Mincha on Simchat Torah (the last Festival Amidah until Spring).

But then I remember one teaching and one story. First the teaching:  Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel in Parashat Pinchas explains the significance of Shmini Atzeret as follows: "On the eighth day you shall gather in joy as you leave your sukka and return to your home." The month of Tishrei is non-stop avenues of inspiration. From Rosh Hashanah to Aseret Ymei Teshuva to preparing for Sukkot to Sukkot, Shemini Atzret and Simchat Torah. It’s exhilarating. It’s inspirational. It can be exhausting and fun and meaningful all at the same time. It’s also not “real life” in the sense that we are not meant to live lives of 12 Tishrei’s per year. After the holidays we must go back to full weeks of work and school. But we must be sure to take the inspiration of Tishrei with us into the New Year. That’s the goal of Shemini Atzeret. Take a day (or two) to absorb the season and consider ways in which that growth can stay with us into the upcoming month of Cheshvan and beyond. We celebrate Simchat Torah as part of this reflection. If we want to live Tishrei lives even as we return to our homes, then Torah learning, Torah values and Torah living must be made a priority. Here are some practical ways to do so for your consideration:

Attend minyan more regularly: Communal prayer can completely change your relationship with prayer for the better. Whether this means attending more often on Sundays, Friday nights, Shabbat afternoons, weekday mornings and evening- be a part of our Minyan Campaign. You’ll be glad you did.

Make Torah study a part of your daily routine. Whether it’s attending a shiur in person, or listening / watching a shiur online or signing up for Torah E-mails/ WhatsApp groups. Torah has never been more accessible. And it is a crucial element in nurturing our souls.

Find ways to help people/ make life better for others: Volunteer for Bikur Cholim. Attend a Feed the Homeless program on a Sunday. Help a neighbor or friend. Contribute to the Young Israel Charity Fund. Be nicer to your friends and family. Smile more.

The common theme among all of these suggestions is that our shul can help facilitate these opportunities. And so my last suggestion is: Get More Involved in Our Shul. Attend a program. Join a Committee. Chair or Sponsor or Host an event. It will be a mutually beneficial experience for both the shul and you.

And now the story. It was common for Chasidim to spend Tishrei with their Rebbe. One year on Simchat Torah afternoon the Rebbe noticed that his Chasidim were sad. He understood it was because the holidays were coming to a close and they were sad to take leave of their teacher. After Mincha the Rebbe banged on his podium and announced for all to hear: “The God of Ata Bechartanu (“You have chosen us” – a phrase from the festival Amida – Artscroll pg 662) is the same God as Ata Chanantanu (“You have graced us with intelligence”) a phrase from the Havdalah paragraph, indicating the conclusion of Shabbat/ Yom Tov that we recite in the first weekday– Artscroll pg 268). Let us utilize Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in a constructive fashion so that the spirituality and growth that we experienced during Tishrei remains with us in the days and months ahead.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Beauty of Aravah

In his book “Like Dreamers” Yossi Klein Halevy tells the stories of IDF paratroopers who were involved in reuniting Jerusalem during the 6 Day War. One of those soldiers was Yoel bin Nun. Rabbi bin Nun was a founder of the settlement movement in Israel, including Alon Shvut and Ofra. He led a generation of religious Zionists to study Tanach as a way of understanding contemporary Israel.  Yoel was learning at Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, founded by Rav Kook and led at that time by his son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. One day Yoel was accompanying Rav Tzvi Yehuda through the streets of Geulah, when they came across a campaign rally for a Chareidi political party. An activist was addressing a crowd of black-hatted men, whom he kept addressing as “the community of holy etrogim”. 

        There is a well-known Midrash that compares the 4 species that we take on Sukkot to 4 types of Jews. The Etrog, having both taste and fragrance is compared to the righteous Jews who possess both Torah knowledge and good deeds. The speaker was praising the assembled as “the community of holy etrogim.” Upon hearing this Rav Tzvi Yehuda tightened his grip on Rav Yoel’s arm and said emphatically, “The mizbeiach was not wrapped in etrogim.”

        Rav Yoel did not hear his Rebbe at first. Rav Tzvi Yehuda began pulling Yoel away from the area as if he wanted to get away. “The altar was not wrapped in etrogim,” Rav Tzvi Yehuda repeated. “The altar was wrapped in aravot.”

        Rav Kook was referencing another way that aravot were used, as described in the Talmud Sukkah 45a: “There was a place below Jerusalem, and it was called Motza. They would go down and gather branches of aravot, and come and put them on the sides of the altar, and their tops would be bent over the altar. As Sukkot came to a close and people left the Temple, they would turn to the altar, adorned with the arava for the last time, and proclaim, yofi lach mizbeach, yofi lach mizbeach, how beautiful the altar is, how beautiful the aravot were.”

        In what way is the aravah beautiful? By itself there is nothing eye-catching about it. It’s the beauty of hadar that goes on display when it is put together with the lulav and hadassim. The simple green leaves create an aesthetic that is on display, in context with the other minim. The aravot help create a pleasing and striking overall effect.

        Similarly, when adorning the mizbeaich there is no need to use objects that are beautiful or impressive in their own right. The altar itself was a work of art. What are needed are some accents to create an overall pleasing effect. The aravot must not draw attention away from mizbeach, but rather add a splash of green to the picture.

        The beauty of the aravah is found in the way it complements others through its dependence on and interaction with them. The aravah is the neediest of the 4 minim. It is the most water dependent. Its dependence is manifest not only in its appearance, but also its biology. This helps to explain why the aravah plays a major role in our prayers for rain, as our water needs are a good example of our dependence on Hashem.

        The word aravah is related to the Hebrew word for “mixture”. Due to its own simplicity, the willow must constantly mix with others- other minim, the mizbeaich, in order to fully contribute and be fully appreciated.

        An aravah is also a geographic location: a plateau; difficult to access and not useful in its own right, but useful as an artery connecting different places.

        What is beautiful about aravah is that it benefits others without needing to be in the limelight. Its combination of humility and benevolence- contributing to others without being the focus of attention- is truly beautiful. The aravah is our Jewish symbol of the beauty of servant leadership.

        Traditional leadership often involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to the best of their abilities. Making others look good while worrying less about oneself. This is servant leadership and this is the lesson of the aravah.

        How beautiful is the aravah, indeed!