Thursday, July 26, 2018

Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Towards the end of Parshat Va’etchanan Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael of their special relationship with Hashem 7:6:

“For you are a holy people to Hashem; He has chosen you to be for Him a treasured nation above all the peoples on the face of the Earth.”

Moshe continues in 7:7:

לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּֽים

Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.

Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk. These commentators were troubled by how this pasuk jibes with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham but then subsequently repeated to others, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand or the stars.

Rabbeinu Bachya reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been Hashem would have chosen them as His People.

Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combined population of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.

Rashi explains that “Me’at” in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and its leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise.

There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing to Avraham must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation, Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of…” In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.

Rabbi Moshe Amiel noted that in kosher laws we have a concept of Bitul B’rov- that if a small amount of non-kosher falls into a much larger pot of kosher food, then the non-kosher may be nullified and we say majority rules. So why do we not assume that the majority of public opinion, the majority world religion, the majority ethos of morality, in fact rules? Rav Amiel answered that in Halacha we also have the concept of a davar hamaamid. If an ingredient has a presence in the finished dish, even if it is only a minute amount and by right should be nullified- it cannot be nullified and the entire dish continues to be impacted by that ingredient. Torah and the Jewish contributions to society are examples of devaraim hamaamadim: principles that continue to influence and impact the broader world, no matter how much of a minority we might be in terms of numbers.

Instead of lamenting our numbers, let us remember that Hashem chose us not in spite of our small size, but because of it. Let us leverage our Me’at status to improve ourselves and better the world around us.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Vision

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Vision

Shlomo Hamelech wrote in Mishlei (29:18):

בְּאֵ֣ין חָ֖זוֹן יִפָּ֣רַֽע עָ֑ם

“without vision, the people will perish.”

                Vision is an idea of the future. But more than that, it is the ability to see the present as it is and formulate a future that grows out of and improves upon the present. People with vision are able to see into the future without being far-sighted and remain rooted in the present without being near-sighted. The list of sins alluded to by Moshe at the beginning of this morning’s Parsha can all be attributed to one basic failing: Bnai Yisrael lacked vision.

                If we are looking for a role model for having vision, then Rabbi Akiva is our man. The Talmud (Makkot 24) recounts how Rabbi Akiva and his Rabbinic colleagues were touring the Temple Mount in the aftermath of the Destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Suddenly, they saw a fox emerging from what once was the Kodesh Hakodashim. While his colleagues wept, Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They asked him: Why are you laughing?

He asked them: Why are you crying?

                They responded: It’s obvious. A place that at one time was so holy that even the High Priest could only enter into once a year, and now a fox roams through: isn’t that enough reason to cry?!
In response Rabbi Akiva explained that the prophecies of Zecharya foretelling the Messianic age could only be fulfilled once the prophecy of Uriah which deal with the Temple Mount being plowed over, had been realized.

                Rabbi Akiva was a man who saw the bigger picture. He had vision. Instead of dwelling in the tragedy of the moment, he took solace in knowing that the Messianic prophecies were now sure to be fulfilled.

                We should not be surprised by this quality of Rabbi Akiva’s. One of the earliest stories we know of him is how at age 40 he was inspired to begin learning Torah. What was his inspiration? A rock that over time was being worn away by dripping water. Only a person with vision could be inspired by such a sight. Rabbi Akiva understood that real change is the type that takes years, if not decades, to occur.

                Rabbi Akiva’s ability to have vision continued even at the time of his death. We read of his martyrdom on Tisha B’Av. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that as Rabbi Akiva was being executed, he was engrossed in his prayers. The executioner asked him how it is possible that he not feel the pain. Rabbi Akiva responded that he rejoiced now at the opportunity to Love G-d with bechol Nafshecha- with his life, and not just with his heart and his possessions. By having vision, and focusing on the bigger picture, namely his love of G-d, Rabbi Akiva was able to transcend a fleeting moment of unimaginable pain.

                It is not by coincidence that we explore the importance of having vision on Shabbat Chazon, named for the first words of this morning’s Haftarah. In it, the prophet Isaiah has a chazon, a prophetic vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and its causes. Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, The Piasetzner Rav, was Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. His sermons and teachings were collected in the book Aish Kodesh. The last entry in that book is from Shabbat Chazon 1944. In that drasha, Rav Shapira explains that Yeshaya received a chazon, a vision, because The Jewish People had lost their vision.

“We lost the vision of our true goals in life, and we lost our sight of the truth.”

                Disappointment, frustration and stagnation, as well as a lack of spiritual growth can all be attributed to one root cause: a lack of vision. It’s not enough to make a To Do list for the day and post it on our refrigerators, or even to make goals for the week. We need to ask ourselves: What do we want to achieve, who do we want to be in 5, 10 or even 20 years from now?

                On this Shabbat Chazon, let us learn from the example set forth by Rabbi Akiva: Real change and significant goals can only be achieved if we never lose sight of our vision.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Counting Our Words, and Making Our Words Count

Counting Our Words, and Making Our Words Count

The Chofetz Chaim warned his students that each person is allotted a certain number of steps during our lifetime- so we must be careful to utilize our steps for the purposes of Mitzvot and not evil-doing. Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim said that each individual is allotted a certain number of words by Heaven. Therefore, we must think before we speak, for once our words are spent, we can’t get a refund.

        The Torah’s focus on our speech relates more to the quality of our words than the quantity. There are ways to elevate our speech, through study, prayer, blessings and other declarations of our faith and identity. There are also types of speech that we are commanded to avoid: Ona’at Devarim- hurtful speech, Nibul Peh, crass speech, and Loshon Harah are a few such examples.

        And then there is untruthful speech. We all know that lying is wrong. Emet, truth, is a characteristic that we attribute to Hashem and one that we are supposed to emulate.

        A study was conducted at the University of Massachusetts in which 121 pairs of students were told that the purpose of the study was to examine how people interact when they meet someone new. Each participant had a 10 minute conversation with another person. The participants did not know that these sessions were being videotaped by a hidden camera.

        Afterwards the students were asked to watch the videos of themselves and identify any inaccuracies in what they said during the conversation. Upon watching themselves on video, participants in the study were surprised at how much they had lied. The lies varied: some were relatively minor, such as agreeing with a person when they really did not agree. Other lies were more extreme, like falsely claiming to be the star of a rock band.

        In case you were wondering, the number of lies told by men and women in this study were similar. However, what emerged was that men and women lied in different ways. Women were more likely to lie to make the person to whom they were speaking feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better.

        Towards the end of Parshat Matot, we read about Gad and Reuven’s request to settle the eastern bank of the Jordan. Moshe finally acquiesces, and does so by expressing this agreement in both the positive and the negative. Moshe specifically says,

“If you fulfill the condition of fighting with the other tribes in the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, then you will inherit this land which you requested. HOWEVER if you do not fulfill this condition, then you will not receive the land which you seek.”

        From here we learn the format to which all Halachically-valid conditions must conform. It’s not enough to declare “If A then B”. One must say, “If A- then B and if not A- then not B.” One reason for this is because people don’t always mean what they say. We therefore need to make our words as clear as possible, for the benefit of both parties.

        The sincerity of our words is an issue that goes beyond business transactions. How often do we say things that we really don’t mean? Perhaps the statement most often expressed insincerely is the question: “How are you?” A lot of times we ask this question to inquire as to the welfare of our friend. But sometimes people ask, but they really don’t care. Other statements that may not always be said with sincerity are: “Thanks for everything” or “Call me if you need anything”.
        At the beginning of Parshat Matot, we learn the laws of Nedarim, vows. The essential lesson of this mitzvah is found in the second pasuk of the Parsha:

“If a man will take a vow or swear an oath, he shall not desecrate his word, according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”

        The power of speech is holy. Vivid and heartfelt speech distinguishes humans from all other life forms. Our words are precious. They can be incredibly impactful. Let us count our words and make sure that our words count.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Emulation and Contrast: Both Ways to Learn from Others

In Parshat Pinchas we read about the daughters of Tzelafchad. These righteous women approach Moshe asking for the inheritance of land in Israel that was due to their father. They make it clear that their father Tzelafchad did not die as part of the Korach rebellion, Rather,

“He died of his own sin.”

            Tzelafchad was a man who died due to sin. And yet he had remarkable daughters. The Medrash lists them among the 23 most righteous women in Jewish history. These women merited to have a law in the Torah linked to their names. Rashi makes the point to call them “Chachmaniyot”, they were bright, and they knew Torah. How is it that Tzelafchad’s daughters turned out so well, better than what would have been expected? 

            The Rabbis in Masechet Shabbat dispute what exactly Tzelafchad’s sin was. Rabbi Akiva says that he was the “M’koshesh Eitzim” the person who gathered wood on Shabbat and was stoned for this transgression. Rabbi Shimon holds that Tzelafchad was a member of the Ma’apilim- the group described in Parshat Shelach, who, in response to the Sin of the Spies decide to continue to Eretz Yisrael against the decree of Hashem, with fatal results.

            Whatever the precise sin was, we see that Tzelafchad’s daughters were able to “redeem their father” ie learn/ teach a positive lesson from their father’s action. If Tzelafchad was a member of the Ma’apilim, those who tried to enter Israel too soon, then we see his daughters taking after their father. They too demonstrate a Chibat Tzion, a love and zeal for Eretz Yisrael that they inherited from their father– only this time it was channeled in an appropriate fashion.

            And if Tzelafchad was the Mekoshesh Eitzim, the wood-gatherer, here, too, we can find a positive aspect that his daughters emulated. According to some opinions, the wood-gatherer desecrated Shabbat “L’shem Shamayim”. He martyred himself as an example so that people would take the Torah, Mitzvot, and punishments seriously. Although his intentions may have been noble, his actions were nonetheless sinful and therefore punished with death. However, this desire to serve as a model and demonstrate to Bnei Yisrael  the validity of the Torah was harnessed by Tzelafchad’s daughters and utilized appropriately, so much so that the Halacha of Yerushah is associated with their names for all time.

            The daughters of Tzelafchad were able to redeem their father’s place in history, in spite of his sin. They are an example of the power of bi-directional influences. Tzelafchad influenced his daughters who ultimately were able to positively influence their father’s legacy. This is a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Malachi:

“He shall restore the heart of fathers to children and the heart of children to their fathers.”

            There’s another lesson to glean from this episode. There are two ways that we learn from other’s examples: emulation and contrast. The typical way we think of learning from others is by emulating their positive traits and good deeds. However, just as important is to learn from others through contrast. We can learn from people what NOT to do. We can also learn from people how to do things in ways that are different, better, more effective, more impactful. This is what the daughters of Tzelafchad do so effectively: Emulating aspects of their father, while contrasting in other ways.