Thursday, August 30, 2018

Tochecha: Face It and Embrace It

The story is told about the members of a certain Shul who were all terrified of being called up for the Aliya of the Tochecha (the rebuke and curses found in Parshat Ki Tavo).  They called a special Board Meeting, and decided to hire someone to take the aliyah of the Tochecha.  It wasn’t easy, but finally a willing candidate was found and hired.

Parshat Ki Tavo arrived and the Gabbai looked around for the contracted individual to call him for shishi.  But he was nowhere to be found in the Shul. “Perhaps he’s running late,” suggested one of the Ba’alei Batim, “let’s wait a few minutes for him.” They sat for about a quarter of an hour, getting more and more impatient by the minute.  After all, this was not proper.  An agreement had been made.  Money had been paid.  Where was he?

Right when things were about to get out of hand, the contracted man entered the Shul.  The Board members ran to him and demanded to know his reason for being late. The individual calmly turned to the angry group, and replied, “I was davening in the shul down the block.  Do you really think that a person can make a living from only one Tochecha?”

Rav Chayim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, relates in his Sefer Ha-chayim that this “fear” of the Tochecha in Parashat Ki Tavo led to some serious disruptions and lack of honor for the Torah.  He describes that in some synagogues, the Torah would remain open, in the middle of the reading, for several hours, as no congregants were willing to come and recite the berakhot over this aliya.  The Biur Halacha records that there were synagogues in which they actually cancelled Torah reading on the Shabbatot during which the curses should have been read (i.e. Bechukotai and Ki Tavo).

In regards to the custom of some communities skipping Torah reading this week to avoid the curses, the Biur Halacha 428 writes:

V’Kamah Ra’ot Osin- they are doing multiple things wrong:

First, they are not fulfilling the ancient obligation to read the Torah on Shabbat, established by Moshe Rabbeinu himself.

Second: They are ignoring the advice given to us by Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei (3:11): “My son, do not loathe the criticism, rebuke of Hashem.”

Third: Their premise is mistaken. Do they actually believe that by not hearing or seeing the words of these curses they can spare themselves and avoid that which is laid out in those verses?!
He ends with three powerful words: V’Aderabba, Chas V’Shalom- it would seem to be, unfortunately, that the opposite is more likely.

Not reading the Tochecha to avoid confronting the notions of rebuke and punishment is juvenile behavior. It’s like when a young child plays hide and seek- by covering his eyes. He assumes that if he can’t see you, then you can’t see him. It’s also what I call the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome: that if the truth of the matter is left unsaid then somehow it has not really happened. We know that this is not the case. The emperor was not wearing any clothes even before the young child said anything.

Nobody likes to hear difficult truths. Nobody wants to be criticized. Nobody likes to hear about their failings. But we must remember the sage advice of the Biur Halacha: Does not hearing about it do us any good? If we think the situation through, we will realize that not listening to our shortcoming or the negative consequences of our actions is a recipe for disaster.

If we are willing to hear the Tochecha, to face the truth that at times must come across as criticism and rebuke, if we are willing to recognize and admit our mistakes- then indeed we have nothing to be afraid of. And in response may Hashem decide that the time has come to bring us blessings in the New Year- individually and as a community.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Resolving The Paradox of Power

                Why is it that many people in positions of power end up being accused of mistakes that cause them to lose those positions? Psychologists suggest an answer lies in what they call the paradox of power. The very traits that help leaders attain positions of power in the first place, all but disappear once they rise to power. The good news is that Machiavelli was wrong. Nice guys (and gals) do not finish last. Studies have consistently shown that people give authority to those whom they genuinely like.  And the reverse has been shown as well: People that are not well-liked are usually never given a chance to become powerful.

                The bad news shows up when these nice people actually attain power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive reckless and rude. “It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” explained Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools.” Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a diminished capacity for empathy and decision making.

                Parshat Ki Teitzei addresses this paradox of power. Our Parsha contains many mitzvot that deal with situations in which there is an imbalance of power: debtor and lender, employee and employer, widows and orphans and those in a more secure socioeconomic status. How do we ensure that powerful people treat more vulnerable in the proper way, as the Torah requires?  Three ways:

                One way is through transparency. The worst abuses of power can be prevented if people knew that they’re being monitored. When describing the laws associated with each of these imbalances of power, the Torah interjects Hashem into what seemingly is purely an issue between human beings. For instance when it comes to the obligation to treat the debtor with dignity, the Torah adds, “Ulecha Tihyeh Tzedaka Lifnei Hashem Elokecha”- “it will be an act of righteousness- before Hashem your God.” The Torah similarly includes mention of Hashem when it comes to the timely payment of employees and the treatment of widows and orphans (in the seventh aliyah). The Torah is reminding powerful people that God is always watching, and this realization should provide the transparency necessary to combat the paradox of power.

                A second way is to foster a sense of sympathy and identification with the other party. The Torah calls the debtor “Reyacha”, your fellow, your friend. Even if the two do not normally hang out in the same social circles, the lender must realize that lack of capital does not lower the debtor’s standing in the eyes of God, nor should it do so in the eyes of the lender.

                The third strategy for avoiding the pitfalls of power is by addressing any delusions of grandeur. The Torah reminds us, “Vezacharta ki eved hayita B’Mitzrayim.” This is not only a reminder of our shared humble begnnings, but also a reminder of our shared history and shared identity. The debtor and lender, the employer and employee, the widow and orphan we are all equal in our collective experience of the Exodus from Egypt, the moment that transformed us not only into a Nation but into a caring community.

                We are in the midst of Elul, crunch time for High Holidays preparation. The same tactics utilized to avoid the paradox of power are those strategies that can empower us for the High Holidays: appreciate the transparency in our lives, reject any delusions of grandeur, and foster a heightened sense of sympathy. In this way Parshat Ki Teitzei can help us realize that power need not be a paradox. By following the Torah’s advice, it is not only plausible but probable that power can be harnessed as a force for good, to better ourselves and the world around us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How We Do Mitzvot Shows How Much We Love Them

How We Do Mitzvot Shows How Much We Love Them

At the end of Parshat Shoftim we learn about the Eglah Arufah (“axed heifer”) ritual. If a body is found outside of town and the murder remains unsolved, then the elders of the closest two cities gather for a ceremony, part of which includes the following declaration:

And they shall announce and say, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]."

זוְעָנ֖וּ וְאָֽמְר֑וּ יָדֵ֗ינוּ לֹ֤א שָֽׁפְכוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵינֵ֖ינוּ לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ:

The Talmud in Sotah (45b) wonders: do we really think that these leaders were somehow involved in this murder?! And if not, why must they deny any involvement utilizing such stark terminology? The Talmud explains that the leaders are denying having any knowledge of this individual visiting their town. For had they been aware of this visitor, they would have been sure to provide him with accommodations, food for the trip and “levaya”, an escort for part of the way upon leaving the city. Our tradition emphasizes the importance of this escort: “Anyone who escorts his fellow four cubits – he does not suffer harm.” “One who hosts guests but does not escort them is considered as though he kills them.” Maimonides (Laws of Mourning) writes:

“This practice was instituted by Avraham Avinu, who would invite guests, feed them, and then escort them…. The value of hosting guests exceeds that of greeting the Divine Presence, and escorting guests is even greater than hosting them.

Through the mitzvah of escorting guests, the Torah is teaching us that how we do mitzvot is just as important as fulfilling the mitzvah in the first place. When we escort our guests, we demonstrate that our concern for them doesn’t end when they leave our home. The way we complete the mitzvah sheds light on the entire interaction. By going the extra mile (or at least 4 cubits) by escorting our guests we exhibit a sincere love for the mitzvah and a sincere affection for our guest.

The mitzvah of “levaya” can inform our understanding of many mitzvot and challenge us to pay more attention to the “how” and not just the “what”. When we give charity to a poor person or organization, do we do so begrudgingly? Or do we do so with empathy and a smile? The way we give tzedaka sheds light on our essential attitude towards the mitzvah. At the end of Shabbat minyan, do we leave early or start talking in shul before the service is over? Or do we maintain our respect for our Sanctuary, our tefilah and our fellow prayer participant until after Adon Olam? The way we end our davening reflects on our overall attitude towards prayer. In the same vein, I am a fan of “keeping the song going”. When there is congregational singing (ie for Kedusha and Hallel) if the tune and the context allows for it, I encourage us to continue the niggun just a little bit beyond the words. In this way we show our true feelings, and our affection for enhanced prayer in shul.

Elul is the last month of the year. Tradition has it that if utilized correctly, Elul can make up for and repair the mistakes we’ve made during the previous 11 months. As one focus, let us commit to ensuring that we not only fulfill the technical details of mitzvot but do so with the right attitude. Like escorting guests, let’s make sure to end mitzvot on a high note, thereby showing our true feelings of love and appreciation for our religious and spiritual lives.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Two Ears, One Mouth

                Our Parsha is named Re’eh which means to see. Yet the focus of Moshe’s message to the people at that time- and to us today- in this week’s Torah reading is the importance of listening:

The blessing, that you will listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.

                Just as it is important to listen to God, it is also important to listen to other human beings, who were created B’Tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. Humans who are endowed with the most sophisticated capacity for speech are called upon to be the most intensive listeners. Listening to others is a validation of their existence. It can also be a tacit admission of humility; that I don’t know everything and that someone else may be able to teach me something, if only I listen. Our task is to listen to others, especially to those with whom we disagree and especially to the smaller weaker voices of those who are often marginalized.

                A famous Jewish saying teaches that God endowed us with two ears and one mouth so that we would listen more than we would speak.  High school and colleges have classes in public speaking, but perhaps we need more focus on developing our listening skills.

                The pesukim I quoted earlier introduce us to the choice we have between blessing and curse. What is unusual is that nowhere in this Parsha does Moshe actually describe for us what the blessings or the curses will look like. How will we be blessed? How will we experience the curses?

                The Torah is teaching us that the origins of Bracha is Asher Tishme’u; blessing comes to those who are willing to listen to others. While the road towards curses begins Im Lo Tishme’u: when we are unwilling to listen to others, whether it be God or other people.

                One of the first skills taught in Social Work graduate schools is how to listen to others. Sometimes people want you to solve their problems. Sometimes people want you to give them advice. Sometimes people just want to be heard; they want to be validated. Oftentimes just listening to someone with one’s full attention and compassion helps the person; either by helping them figure out the solution or at least feel better that someone else cares about them.

              This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul. Elul is a month for preparation, for reflection and for resolutions. One of the famous teachings on the name of the month is that Elul is an acronym for Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li (“I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me”). The only way we can succeed in creating and sustaining loving relationships, whether that be with Hashem or others, is if we are willing to listen.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Our Piece of the Third Temple

Our Piece of the Third Temple

In the second paragraph of the Shema (Artscroll Siddur page 416), found in Parshat Ekev, we read (11:21):
“In order that your days may increase and the days of your children, on the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers to give them.”

Our Rabbis learn from here that living in Israel is a segulah for long life. The Talmud (Brachot 8a) records that the students of Rabbi Yochanan asked their teacher how there could be elderly people in the Diaspora- as long life is tied to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yochanan was perplexed until his students told him that these elderly individuals regularly attended synagogue in the Diaspora, both morning and night (#MinyanCampaign #StrengthenOurCore).

The Maharsha (17th century Polish Talmudist) asks: How does the student’s explanation answer the question? The verse still seems to make the blessing of longevity dependent on living in Israel! The Maharsha answers based on the Talmud in Megilah 29a:
“The synagogues and houses of learning in Babylon will in the time to come be planted in Eretz Israel.”
The Maharsha further explains that Diaspora synagogues will be incorporated not only into Jerusalem, but as part of the enlarged third Beit Hamikdash. It emerges that even today our shul has a taste, a spark, of the sanctity that will saturate the Third Temple; which we long for especially this time of year, between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.
Modern science has confirmed what Rabbi Yochanan and his students understood two thousand years ago: Going to shul is good for your health. About a decade ago, a research team led by Eliezer Schnall, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University, analyzed the religious practices of 92,395 women aged 50 to79, participating in the Women’s Health Initiative. After examining the prospective association of religious affiliation, religious service attendance, and strength and comfort derived from religion with subsequent cardiovascular events and overall rates of mortality, the researchers found that those attending religious services showed a 20% decrease in death risk.
From the Talmud we see that our shul contains a spark of the sanctity of the Third Beit Hamikdash. The Temple was (and will be) a source of inspiration, knowledge, friendship and caring for all Jews who passed through its doors. Our shul aims to do the same. We understand the benefits that people experience when they connect with a shul. And so we provide many different ways that community members can participate, volunteer and donate. It’s good for your health- and good for your neshama.
The Beit Hamikdash was supported by the entire nation in two ways. First was the half shekel: a fixed amount that everyone donated annually. Everyone gave to this collection equally. Then there was a second collection in which each person was called upon to give to his/her ability. Some gave more, some gave less. But everyone gave based on an appreciation of the central role that the Beit Hamikdash played in Jewish life.
Our shul follows a similar funding model. Synagogue dues are set so that everyone contributes to the basic upkeep and maintenance of our shul. But like the half shekels, membership dues do not cover the full operating budget of our synagogue. This is because we offer much more than the bare necessities, and also because membership is never refused due to an individual’s inability to pay.
That is why we turn to you and ask that you contribute a voluntary donation, according to your ability and the financial blessings that Hashem has provided you. As we launch our Kol Nidrei Appeal, please take a moment to appreciate the role your shul plays, has played and will play in your life, and the life of our community. Make our shul a priority for your giving and contribute to the Kol Nidrei Appeal. (Please note that pledges can be satisfied through monthly installments over the course of the year).
A great way to find comfort after Tisha B’Av is by doing your part to ensure that our shul, our piece of the Third Beit Hamikdash, continues to thrive and grow.