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.