Friday, January 26, 2018

Recreating the Joy at the Red Sea

To no parent’s surprise, too much smartphone use makes teens unhappy.

So says a new study from San Diego State University, which pulled data from over one million 8th, 10th, and 12th-graders in the U.S. showing teens who spent more time on social media, gaming, texting and video-chatting on their phones were not as happy as those who played sports, went outside and interacted with real human beings.

But is it the screen time bringing them down or are sadder teens more likely to insulate themselves in a virtual world? Lead author of the study and professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge believes it’s the phone that contributes to making them unhappy, not the other way around.
“Although this study can’t show causation, several other studies have shown that more social media use leads to unhappiness, but unhappiness does not lead to more social media use,” Twenge said.

The Song of the Sea, which is read as part of Parshat Beshalach, has been incorporated into our daily prayers in the Pesukei Dzimra section, often referred to as “Az Yashir”. In Siman 51, the Mishnah Berura quotes a passage from the Zohar: “that when Shirat Hayam is recited daily, it should be recited B’Simcha, with joy, and one should imagine as if s/he is actually crossing the Yam Suf at that moment.” For this Zohar we learn that we are supposed to be happy when we recite Shirat Hayam- BC THE JEWS WERE HAPPY WHEN THEY ORIGINALLY RECITED IT.
Research has shown that three of the most important qualities that happy people possess are: a feeling of control over one’s life, a sense of optimism, and faith/ religion- a sense of purpose bigger than ourselves. At the Splitting of the Yam Suf the Pasuk tells us:
                “Vayar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al sefat Hayam.”

For the first time in over two centuries, Bnai Yisrael were not slaves to a human master. At the moment that they saw the Egyptians drown, they realized that they were now in control of their own destiny. Though this may seem a little scary at first, being in control is a key ingredient in happiness.
Vayaaminu BaShem ubemoshe Avdo”: In addition to feeling in control, the Jews had Emunah, faith. Faith in Hashem- a commitment to a higher purpose and to religion, Faith in themselves that with the help of G-d they could overcome any obstacles in their way.
Another contributor to happiness is being active: challenging ourselves to try new things and to do things that we love. Happiness is often a pleasant side effect to pursuing other activities: whether it is a job, a hobby or a volunteer opportunity. Inactivity and too much leisure can be impediments to happiness.

This seems to be Hashem’a advice to Bnei Yisrael before they even get to Yam Suf:
Ma Tizak Elai- Daber El Bnei Ysirael Vayisau-“ G-d tells Moshe to convey to the people that inactivity will bring anxiety and a feeling of hopelessness. But getting up and going, doing something – in tandem with a feeling of control, optimism and faith in G-d- will lead to success.

A fifth and final factor in achieving happiness is relationships. The more quality relationships a person has, the more likely h/she is to be happy. At the Sea, Bnai Yisrael began to appreciate these relationships. They respond with Shira- song. Song only works when people are relating to one another: singing their parts, and playing their instruments together to create beautiful music.

When we put all of these factors together, we begin to map out the components of happiness: a sense of control, optimism, faith, initiative and relationships. At the Red Sea we learned the key ingredients to happiness- then and now.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Living with Both Idealism and Realism

As the ten plagues culminate and the exodus is immanent, Bnai Yisrael are commanded to institute a uniquely Jewish calendar. It is the first Mitzvah given to the Jewish People. And this mitzvah is dependent on the moon. On the words “Hachodesh Hazeh” the Medrash writes that Hashem showed Moshe exactly what the moon looks like at the beginning of the month. Why does the moon occupy such a prominent role?
The Sefer Hachinuch describes the challenges that exist within this Mitzvah. the Jewish calendar must exist within two systems. On the one hand, a month is defined by the amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the Earth once. On the other hand, Jewish holidays such as Pesach, Shavuot and Succot commemorate agricultural milestones. The Agricultural cycle is tied to the seasons, and seasons are dependent on the sun. The Sefer Hachinuch reminds us that a lunar year is 354 days while a solar year has 365 days. In order to keep holidays in their seasons, an extra month must sometimes be added. This is done in order to synchronize the solar and lunar cycles.

In Chasidic thought, the sun and the moon represent the ideal and the reality. The sun represents the ideal. It is the source of light, but it is distant and unapproachable. We cannot look directly at the sun without hurting our eyes. Similarly, the ideal should be viewed as a goal towards which we strive, yet never actually attained. The moon represents reality. The moon reflects light from the sun. The moon’s light resembles the sun’s rays; however the light is not as bright. We are comfortable with the moon; we can stare at it. Our reality is like the moon: it is a reflection of the ideal. Real life will never exactly match with what we hope it to be. Yet we must try to make the reflection in reality as close as possible to the ideal.
 The sun is always full. It remains constant. We experience the moon in a completely different manner. The moon waxes and wanes, varying from our perspective from completely full to barely visible. The moon mirrors our religious experience, not as we might ideally want it to be but rather how it exists in reality. There are times during which we feel inspired, when all the dots in our life seem to connect. Our faith and religious conviction at those times are strong, and can illuminate our lives like a full moon.

Whether we focus on their lives of horrific subjugation, their slave mentality, or their position on the 49th and worst level of spiritual impurity- the plight of B’nai Yisrael could only get better. The Jewish People had been promised a brighter future, which they were anxiously anticipating.  Perhaps some Jews at that time contemplated the possibility that their struggles and difficulties would be over for good. Perhaps the rest of history from this point forward would just keep getting better. At precisely that moment Hashem points to the moon. He reminds us that there will continue to be momentary lapses and reversals of fortune, in addition to the triumphs and achievements.

In an ideal world, we would constantly be on an upward trajectory of spiritual growth. However, in reality we know that is not the case. There is no assurance that any of us will become better people tomorrow than we are today. It is not inevitable. Growth must be sought out and pursued. We must be on the look-out for avenues of inspiration. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the new moon is a phenomenon which provides us with encouragement. He writes: “The Jewish consecration of the new moon is an institution for the periodic fresh spiritual and moral rejuvenation of Israel by finding itself again in conjunction with G-d.”

Friday, January 12, 2018

Agents of God, Agents of Change

On Monday, we will commemorate the 89th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recently, I had the chance to hear a recording of a sermon that Dr. King delivered to a Jewish audience at Temple Israel of Hollywood in February of 1965. What I found so interesting in that sermon was that the message was much more than an appeal against segregation, although that was part of it. His message was universal and very much in line with Jewish thinking. For example at one point Dr. King said, “We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology.… We've made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood... What does it profit a man to gain the whole world of means -- airplanes, television, electric lights -- and lose the end, the soul?"

As members of the Jewish community, it is appropriate to acknowledge Dr. King’s concern for and support of worldwide Jewry. Dr. King felt a connection with the Jewish People and drew historical parallels between our experience in Egypt and the African American experience in America. Long before the plight of Soviet Jewry made headlines, Dr. King stated:
“I cannot stand idly by, even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned.”

On Israel’s right to exist, Dr King said:
"peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."

Finally, Dr. King appreciated the fact that Anti-Semitism will often try to disguise itself as opposition to Zionism. During an appearance at Harvard University shortly before his death, a student stood up and asked King to address himself to the issue of Zionism. The question was clearly hostile. Dr. King responded, "When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism."
 This last idea has gained increased visibility, and was prominently featured in the PBS documentary that aired this week on Anti-Semitism in the 21st century. 

Dr. King believed that he was involved in a holy endeavor and that his efforts were a fulfillment of G-d’s will. The very notion that a human being can serve as G-d’s messenger on Earth is introduced to us by Moshe Rabbeinu. As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “Moses introduces a new motif into the God-man fellowship, namely that of Shelichut-agency. He becomes the divine angel who acts on behalf of God and represents Him.” It is not just Moshe or a Dr. King that serves this role. Each and every one of us serves as an agent of God. On the most basic level, we have all been enlisted to bring God’s Presence into this world through the performance of Chesed and Mitzvot.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Uniqueness of Moshe

The Yalkut Shimoni quotes a tradition that Moshe had 10 names, in addition to Moshe.
What was it about the name Moshe that made it his primary identity? There are at least three answers that speak to the essential character of Moshe and lessons we can learn from Moshe- the name and the man.
One, Moshe was a non-conformist. Rabbi Yehuda Amital pointed out that water, being a liquid, takes on the shape of the container into which it is poured. Having no shape of its own, water is constantly adjusting to its surroundings. Water represents the ultimate in conformity. Moshe was drawn out of the water. In a sense, he is the anti-water. Moshe did not conform to Egyptian society, nor to the norms of Jewish behavior in Egypt. He riles against the status quo- and when he is at first successful, he does not give up- rather he runs away to fight another day. The name Moshe alludes to the nonconformist behavior that our rabbis identify as the merit and reason Bnai Yisrael were able to maintain a unique identity even during the bondage of Egypt.

Two, Moshe was exceedingly humble. The Torah testifies that Moshe was the most humble of all human beings. It was this humility that allowed him to be so great- for God would have never allowed a person with ego to be the greatest prophet in history. Such concentrated power combined with ego would have been too dangerous of a mixture. What were the origins of this humble quality? There may have been a genetic predisposition, but it was surely his early life experience of being saved from the Nile River that solidified his emphasis on humility. Moshe lived his life with the acute awareness that he might not be alive at all had it not been for the grace of God and the kindness of the daughter of Pharaoh. When a person thinks that his very existence is a kindness afforded to him or her by others- it changes one’s whole outlook on life. No longer are we preoccupied with our rights- what we deserve and what we feel is coming to us. Rather everything that we get in life is now viewed as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted, and everything is appreciated.
Third, Moshe felt that the response to his gift of life must go beyond gratitude- and extend to responsibility. Many commentators have difficulty understanding the relationship between the name Moshe and the reason offered by the Torah for that name. The Daughter of Pharaoh claims that she named him Moshe because she drew him from the water. If that was the case, then his name should have been Mashuy, the passive form of the verb, one who was drawn from the water. Moshe is the active form- ie one who draws / saves others. Seforno explains Batya’s rationale. She said, “the reason why I named him Moshe is to indicate that he will rescue others.” Batya wanted Moshe to remember that he was saved from the waters, and that created a responsibility for him to go out and attempt to save others. Moshe’s name here was a call to action in the future. He was to realize that his blessings were meant to be used to create more accomplishments and more blessings for others.

We can learn much from Moshe the person, but Parshat Shemot introduces us to the man by teachings us lessons from his main name. One, we must not worry so much about conforming to society and realize that the greatest achievements are often found through non conformity. Two, we must approach life with a large dose of humility and realize just how many gifts we are blessed with. Lastly it is not enough to be grateful for the gifts in our lives, but we must think about how we will utilize those blessings in order to better the world.