Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Get Off the Sidelines and Into the Game

I am looking forward to attending this year’s AIPAC Policy conference, beginning on Sunday through Tuesday in Washington DC. I am proud that I will be sharing this experience with over 50 members of our shul, making us the largest synagogue delegation in Broward County. I hope to learn about and be inspired by the State of Israel, the US-Israel relationship, and the citizen activists who work hard to ensure the continued strength of that relationship.

 Bi-partisan support of Israel remains strong within Congress. It is a support that emerges from shared values and shared interests between the United States and Israel. But this bipartisan support is something that cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be constantly nurtured and strengthened. That’s where each of us has a role. Many Americans are in favor of a strong US-Israel relationship. But only the pro-Israel, Zionist community cares enough to bring the issue to the forefront and lobby on its behalf. Over the course of modern Israeli history there have been Presidents with closer and more strained relationships with the State of Israel and her leaders. But the US Congress, as representatives of the American people, has served as the buffer within our system of government, and has kept support for Israel consistently strong. It is our job to make sure that continues to be the case in the future.

“Call or write your Congressman.” People think it doesn’t matters, especially today when it takes almost no effort to send an e-mail to your elected officials. But it does make a difference. Members of Congress keep track of the issues that are trending among their constituents. One way they do so is based on the correspondence that they receive. We need to stay in contact with our elected officials: encouraging them to vote for pro-Israel legislation, and thanking them when they do so. Contacting our elected officials may seem like a small thing. But by doing so we are transformed from Zionists who are bystanders, standing on the sidelines, to pro-Israel activists who are doing our part.

Parshat Ki Tisa warns us of the perils of sitting on the sidelines. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, Moshe punishes the People by smashing the Luchot which he had just received from Hashem. Asks Rav Shaul Yisraeli (Siach Shaul p 288): Moshe punishes the perpetrators of the Golden Calf a few verses later. We read how Moshe galvanizes the Leviim to wage battle and kill the 3,000 men most directly responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf. So why must the entire Jewish nation be punished because of a crime committed by less than one half of a percent of the population? Rav Yisraeli answers that the entire nation is punished due to their indifference. No one spoke up. No one took action, great or small, to stop the sin from occurring. The Luchot are broken as a collective punishment for the sin of sitting on the sidelines.

 One of the many questions being asked in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting is: Why didn’t anyone do anything sooner? There were many warning signs, many cries for help. Even those who were aware of the problems did not know where to go for help, and they did not feel knowledgeable or empowered or confident enough to intervene in a helpful way.

Let us utilize Parshat Ki Tisa to appreciate the power within each of us to get up from the sidelines and do our part to make the world a better place.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Don't Wait: Lessons from a Shiva

The nation continues to express shock and grief over last Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. On Monday I visited three of the shiva homes, where I offered my condolences on behalf of myself and the Young Israel of Hollywood community. I was glad to see and hear that other shul members similarly made shiva visits.

In Israel, when a family loses a loved one to terror it is common for the shiva house to be visited by strangers who may not have known the victim, nor even the family. They come because they want to show that the Jewish People are one big family. A loss experienced by one is felt by all. This is especially true when the death occurred due to a terrorist act. Those not personally impacted by the tragedy know that “it could have just as easily been me”. It reminds them of the frailty of the human condition. Though they can’t feel that pain nor take it away from the grieving family, they want to visit the shiva house- to at least envelop the family with love and to show solidarity. I think that strangers in Israel also show up at these shivas as an act of defiance. Terrorist acts in Israel are meant to scare Jews out of living our lives, and dissuade Jews from living in Israel. By visiting the shiva house, Israelis are showing their defiance in the face of terror and their will to continue living and developing the Land of Israel in the face of challenges and heartbreak.

Visiting the shiva of a stranger is less common in the United States. But I am glad that these families were willing to open their homes (at least for a day or two) to us strangers, who wanted to offer condolences, show our solidarity, appreciate how precious life is, and demonstrate our resolve to live meaningful lives in memory of those whose lives were cut short.
When we went to the shiva for teacher Scott Beigel, I had the opportunity to speak with Scott’s mother, father and sister. Scott, aged 35, was shot and killed while shutting a classroom door, which he opened to let more students take shelter. Scott was a geography teacher as well as a cross country coach.

At the shiva, Scott’s father told me that this was his first year teaching at MSD. Scott would complain to his father that he didn’t think the students liked him, he wasn’t sure that he was making an impact. After his death many students shared how much Scott meant to them; and not just on the day of the shooting. Upon hearing this from Scott’s dad (this sentiment was also reported in the media) I couldn’t help but feel that the enormous tragedy was somehow exacerbated by the fact that Scott didn’t know the positive impact he had made- while he was alive. Too often we wait until someone is gone before we process the impact someone has had on us, or express the appreciation that is really due.

This week we read Parshat Tetzaveh. Once Moshe is born in Shemot, this Parsha is the only one that does not mention Moshe Rabbeinu’s name. Many note that this Parsha usually falls out around Moshe’s yahrtzeit- 7th of Adar. Wherever we find Moshe’s name we often find complaining and grievances by the Jewish People directed at him. Only when Moshe is absent do we ask about him. In his absence we are meant to appreciate all that he does and means to us.
Let us not wait for Tetzaveh to appreciate Moshe. And let us not wait for a tragedy, a eulogy or an obituary to tell people how much they mean to us and how much we appreciate them.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Voluntary vs Obligatory: the Need for Both

The word “Terumah” appears three times in the first three pesukim of our Parsha. Rashi quotes a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Megila 29b) that the three times Terumah correspond to three collections that were taken up for the Mishkan’s building and operating fund: The first collection was a mandatory half shekel per adult that went to cover the cost of the adanim, the bases of the beams. The second collection was also compulsory and a fixed amount: A half shekel per person to cover the costs of the communal sacrifices. The third collection was voluntary: people could give as much as they wanted from the list of items needed for the Mishkan’s construction.

The Maharal asks a very basic question on Rashi’s interpretation: If there were indeed three collections, why does the Torah at the beginning of Parshat Terumah only speak of the voluntary type, the one that was collected, as the pasuk says,
“Me’eit Kol Ish Asher Yidvenu Libo”.

Only from people who volunteered and whose hearts motivated them. What about the mandatory collections? Why are they not mentioned here, even though the obligatory donations are listed first by Rashi (and the Talmud)?

The Maharal answers that although not explicitly mentioned here, the compulsory terumah must precede the voluntary collection. Had the first collection been on a voluntary basis, the Jews would have generously answered the call, as is described later in Parshat Vayakhel (36:4-5). The people were so generous that Moshe had to tell them to stop. However had that happened prior to the half shekel collections, there would have been a key component missing in the construction of the Mishkan: Obligation. Submission. Commitment. A generous spirit, nedivut lev, is a wonderful trait to possess, so long as it is predicated on a sense of commitment. It might go against our 21st century modern sensibilities, but we need to embrace commitment - in our personal lives and in our religious lives.

The notion that the first donations to the Mishkan were obligatory and used to build the Mishkan’s foundational support gives us an opportunity to appreciate commitments – where we make them and how we should be keeping them. Our volunteer spirit should flow from, not precede or even compete with, our sense of commitment.

Utilizing the Maharal’s approach helps me understand what can be a confusing series of events at Har Sinai. There is a Midrash that tells the story of how God offered the Torah to other nations, and they were not interested. Then God offered the Torah to the Jews who immediately replied “Na’aseh V’Nishma,” “we will do and we will listen”.

Another Midrash tells us that at the time of Matan Torah, God held the mountain over the people’s heads, and “forced” the Jews to accept the Torah. From these Midrashim it seems that the “Naaseh V’Nishma” event occurred first, and the coercion occurred afterwards.

HOWEVER, in the Torah, the actual pesukim utilized by these Midrashim are in the opposite order: i.e. first we encounter the pasuk that alludes to coercion (in Parshat Yitro 19:17), while the pasuk that hints at the Jews’ voluntary acceptance of the Torah is found later (in Parshat Mishpatim 24:7).

Here too the lesson is clear: while voluntary acts of kindness and philanthropy are often applauded the loudest, we believe in the critical importance of service and benevolence emanating from a sense of responsibility, even coercion. Our goal should be to feel obligated to engage in activities that others might view as voluntary - and feel good about that.

Friday, February 9, 2018

"Having It All": Lessons from An Eved Ivri

In a fascinating piece entitled, “Why the Modern Orthodox Family Model Works- and What We Can Learn From It” Professor Sylvia Barak Fishman describes the many virtues of today’s typical Modern Orthodox household and lessons that can be learned for the broader Jewish community. She quotes an idea from Rachel Bernstein, that Modern Orthodox Jews are able to manage and excel in all “three shifts” of adult life.

The “first shift” in adulthood comes during the training for and attaining of employment. Studies show that Modern Orthodox Jews achieve higher rates of college graduates than other Jewish denominations (64% among Modern Orthodox) Younger Modern Orthodox families have the highest average household incomes among all denominations. These statistics indicate that a traditional lifestyle is no impediment to high educational and professional achievements.

The “second shift” occurs at marriage, and during child bearing and raising; when housework is added to an adult’s list of responsibilities. A greater percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews ages 25-54 are married than any other Jewish denomination. Orthodox families average 4 children, almost double the number in Conservative and Reform families.

The “third shift” according to Bernstein, occurs when adults seek meaning in their lives through tradition and religious observance. Here too Modern Orthodox women and men thrive. According to a recent Nishma study, “community” and “Shabbat” are primary sources of satisfaction and pleasure in the lives of most Modern Orthodox Jews. The Jewish calendar, whether Shabbat and Yom Tov, or Purim and Yom Haatzmaut, create opportunities for family time, to disconnect from the hustle of work, and reconnect with community, with oneself and with God.

Let me quote from Professor Barack Fishman’s conclusion:
“The Modern Orthodox family model of high education, high occupational status, high income- and high fertility- may have implications for all of us diverse American Jews across the denominational spectrum…. Perhaps it is possible to have it “all- education, career, family and tradition? It’s stressful, but attainable for many of those who want it, as our findings show- and certainly worth a shot.”

The first mitzvah mentioned in Parshat Mishpatim is the rules governing a Jewish slave. If a Jew steals and is unable to pay it back, s/he must work off the debt. The maximum length of mandated service is 6 years, after which the Jewish slave goes free. The Torah mentions a scenario in which the slave chooses to remain (Exodus 21:5):
“If the bondsman shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children- I shall not go free.”

In such a case the Torah says that the slave’s ear should be pierced, after which he remains a slave.
The Talmud in Kiddushin (22b) understands this ceremony to be a punishment. God is frustrated with a person who chooses to remain a servant, when really mankind is meant to only be servants to God.

In this episode the Torah describes a person who is committed to his current occupation (the “first shift”) and his family (the “second shift”). Sounds like a responsible and praiseworthy individual. Yet the Torah critiques this person for remaining within the first “two shifts” of life and not working towards “having it all.” The servant allows his spiritual growth to be stunted by remaining in the employ of his master, instead of going out on his own to develop his “third shift” through tradition, religious observance religious meaning.

Juggling work, family and religion is similar to balancing the needs of our mind, body and soul. It is challenging, but doable. Let us pray and work hard to ensure that we glean the benefits of excelling in all three shifts in our life.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Some "Super" Thoughts on the Parsha

Lessons from the Super Bowl

Leading up to the Ten Commandments, Hashem told Moshe:
Lech El Ha’Am Vekidashtam
Go to the people V’kidashtem, and sanctify them”
Rashi explains that in this context “V’Kidashtam” means ‘Vzeemantam” Moshe should prepare Bnei Yisrael. Preparation is a necessary component in achieving one’s goal. The choice of the word Kidashtam for preparation teaches us something more: preparation towards a goal is valuable, even kadosh, holy, in its own right.

This Sunday is the Super Bowl. Both the Patriots and the Eagles played 18 games this season and each game consists of one hour of play. But how many cumulative hours go into a season for each professional football team, from recruiting and marketing to coaching and training? A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article that gave an estimate:  514,000 hours per team. That’s about 8 times the hours that it took to develop, build and market the Apple iPod.

If you divide a teams’ total hours of preparation by the number of offensive yards gained over a season- it works out to approximately 32 hours per foot. Talk about hard gained yardage! Every accomplishment requires preparation. Significant accomplishments, whether by a team or by an individual, require significant preparation.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, the game will feature Tom Brady starting his record setting 8th football championship game for the New England Patriots. Yet Tom Brady almost didn’t get a chance to play professional football. In 2000, 198 players were picked in the draft before him. Brady was not picked until the sixth round. This was the scouting report on Tom Brady before the draft: "Poor build, very skinny and narrow, lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush, lacks a really strong arm.”
So how did he become one of the best quarterbacks in the league? His teammates will tell you that it is his desire to win- whether at football or even backgammon. Brady himself has said that the key ingredient to achievement is the desire to succeed. As he has put it:

“A lot of times I find that people who are blessed with the most talent don't ever develop that attitude, and the ones who aren't blessed in that way are the most competitive and have the biggest heart.”
This sentiment may be what the Talmud in Sanhedrin means when it tells us that Rachmana liba ba’I, “G-d wants the heart: Hashem requires that we really desire our goals in order to succeed. To achieve anything in life, you have to really want it.

As we watch the Super Bowl on Sunday (or just the commercials) let us be reminded of these Super Lessons: preparation, hard work and a desire to achieve your goal are the traits necessary to win; whether on the gridiron or in life.