Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Lesson of Moshe’s Name

The Yalkut Shimoni quotes a tradition that Moshe had ten additional names.
He was called Levi- because he was a member of that tribe.
He was called Tuviyah, because there was goodness that was visible from the time of his birth.
Miriam called her brother Yered, because she went down to the Nile to see what would happen to her baby brother. 
Aharon called his brother (Avi) Zanuach “master of rejection” because Moshe’s father left his mother, but he came back to her after the birth of Moshe.
Along the same lines he was called Chever (to join) because he caused his parents to reunite.
His grandfather Kehat called him Avigdor, literally “master of the fence”- Avi G’dor, because after Moshe’s birth, Pharaoh was fenced in and gave up on his decree to drown all Jewish baby boys.
His mother called him Yekutiel, related to the word for hope- as a prayer that she hoped to one day be reunited with her son.
He was also called (Avi) Socho- Master of Prophecy - because he would grow up to become the greatest Jewish prophet of all time.

                In this week’s Daf Hashavua (Megilah 13, which meets weekly in the library on Tuesdays after the 8:00 a.m. Minyan) we learned different reasons for these names (based on a verse in Divrei Hayamim I:4:18):

Yered: because Moshe facilitated the Manna to fall in the wilderness.
(Avi)gdor: because Moshe helped mend the breach between God and the Jewish People after the sin of the golden calf.
Chever: because Moshe connected the Jewish People to their Father in Heaven.
Socho: because Moshe was able to provide protection to the Jewish People, through Hashem, like a sukkah.
Yekutiel: because Moshe encouraged the Jewish People to trust in Hashem.
(Avi) Zanuach: because Moshe was able to push aside the people’s sins.

                And then there is the name Moshe. In Parshat Shemot we are told how and why Moshe got this name. After being placed in a basket in the Nile River, the daughter of Pharaoh finds the boy and saves him. After the boy grows up we are told that (2:10): “she called him Moshe, as she said, for I drew him from the water”. Although he had all these names, God and the Torah only refer to him as Moshe. The Midrash at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra is emphatic on this point. Vayikra el Moshe: It states that Hashem said to Moshe, “By your life! Of all your names, I will only call you by the name given to you by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh.”  What is it about the name Moshe, given by the Egyptian princess, that is worthy of being the only name by which God calls him?

                Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski suggests that the most formative experience of Moshe’s life was the fact that his adoptive mother was willing to sacrifice everything in order to save the young boy. Although he probably didn’t remember the incident, Moshe surely knew the story of how he got his name. This story of self-sacrifice accompanied Moshe his entire life, shaped his attitude towards others, and provided him with the strength to similarly sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish People.

                More important than the lessons we try to inculcate into our children with our words, are the lessons that we teach through our actions. Do the right thing, as much as possible and as often as possible, when your children are watching you- even if they don’t intellectually understand what they’re seeing. By doing so you will leave a legacy not only on the beneficiaries of your good deeds, but on the beneficiaries of the good deeds performed by your children inspired by your model.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dying Responsibly

Parshat Vayechi opens by telling us that “as Yaakov’s death approached” (47:29) he requested that Yosef swear to bury him in Me’arat Hamachpela in Chevron. Later in the Parsha (49:29) after he blesses each of his sons, Yaakov once again commands his children to bury him in Chevron, this time providing a bit more detail. Why does Yaakov make the request twice?

Death is a part of life. Just as we should live responsibly, so too must we die responsibly. Yaakov was demonstrating a key component to dying responsibly: planning in advance.

It should not come as a surprise that Yaakov makes his burial request on his deathbed. In the final moments of life, a person is likely to express his/her deepest desires and most important thoughts. For Yaakov these were thoughts symbolized by Chevron, ie Mesorah: being a link in the chain of Jewish tradition and the critical importance of the Land of Israel. Of course Yaakov wanted to “go home” and “be with his parents and grandparents”, themes that are commonly heard from people at the end of their lives. But Yaakov emphasized his burial location because of the lessons it contained for his children and future descendants. The Talmud (Gittin 36) writes “it is a mitzvah to fulfill the last wishes of a gravely ill person”, thereby codifying the seriousness that we are required to take deathbed requests.

What is more surprising is that Yaakov had the soundness of mind to make this request earlier- towards the end of his life, perhaps, but not on his deathbed. Not everyone dies after a protracted illness. Not everyone is lucid enough during their final days to convey their last requests in a meaningful fashion. Yaakov knew this and therefore engages in “pre-need planning”.
It is human nature to ignore our mortality. But ignoring this fact does not make it any less true, nor inevitable. Parents want to take care of their children- no matter how old our children are. Part of taking care of our children is to make plans for our ultimate passing, and to share those plans with our loved ones. I am proud that are shul once again is a partner in TEAM Shabbat: a weekend of awareness and education surrounding end-of-life issues. These issues run the gamut: from buying life insurance and writing your will (or making sure that your will is updated), to making decisions concerning graves and funeral arrangements. On Sukkot I presented a lecture on Jewish ethical wills. In addition to preparing a document that divides one’s financial estate, Jewish tradition encourages us to leave a document (or audio/video recording) that imparts lessons and values by which you want your family and friends to remember you.

We would think that planning for the end of our life would make us sad and depressed. Yet according to a 2007 study published in Psychological Science, the opposite is true. When asked to contemplate the occasion of their own demise, people become happier than usual, instead of sadder. Researchers say it's a kind of psychological immune response — faced with thoughts of our own death, our brains automatically cope with the conscious feelings of distress by non-consciously seeking out and triggering happy feelings, a mechanism that scientists theorize helps protect us from permanent depression or paralyzing despair.

When we pre-plan our end-of-life needs we are taking back a degree of control in a situation that is the ultimate symbol of man’s helplessness. We are also providing a final expression of care and love for our family. One of the most challenging and stressful situations that I have witnessed is the trauma of arranging for the funeral of a loved one who had no plans in place. Planning for these eventualities in advance is a way that we can take care of our family.  Perhaps this is what our tradition is trying to convey by teaching that planning for our final arrangements in advance is a segula for arichat yamim, long life. If we utilize this Shabbat as a springboard to begin to think about these ideas, and to open up conversations with our families, then the outcome will be a more fulfilling, satisfying life with less stress.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Years of Our Life, The Life in Our Years

In Parshat Vayigash, Yaakov and Yosef are reunited and Yosef brings his father to meet Pharaoh. Their meeting begins with Yaakov blessing Pharaoh, and then Pharaoh asks a question in response:

And Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?"

חוַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יַעֲקֹב כַּמָּה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ
I view this question as an equivalent to a “How are you?” The socially correct answer in this situation would be a short factual response- which is what Yaakov initially provides:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל פַּרְעֹה יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי שְׁלשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה

“The days of the years of my sojourning are one hundred thirty years.”

But then Yaakov goes off the rails and things quickly get uncomfortable, as Yaakov continues:

מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי

“The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable”

This is a classic case of TMI- too much information. Pharaoh was merely trying to make chit chat with his viceroy’s father, and Yaakov has to go ahead and ruin it by making things all awkward.

So one lesson we can learn from this exchange in our Parsha is: let’s make sure our words are meaningful. Let’s consider a greeting other than “How are you?” and save that question for people and situations when we are really interested in the answer.

Let’s return to Yaakov’s response: It’s pretty shocking. Yaakov kvetches that his days have been “few” and miserable. Both claims can be challenged. The Ramban notes that by this time, a long life span was down to 70-80 years. So 130 years is nothing to complain about!

Second, things may not have always worked out in an easy or straightforward way for Yaakov. But for the most part, in the end, things work out for him. Yaakov must flee from Eisav - but ultimately reconciles with him. Yaakov is persecuted by his father in law - but ultimately he is able to leave as a rich man.  Sure, Yaakov had tzuris. But we would not expect our Patriarch to describe this life as “miserable.”

The Malbim (19th century Russian commentator) encourages us to look at the text carefully:
When he first answers the question, Yaakov states that his “Yemei Shnei Megurai” is 130 years. However Yaakov uses a slightly different language “Yemei Shnai Chayei” – when referring to his life as short and miserable.

Explains the Malbim: The term “Shnay Megurei” refers to the years that Yaakov had lived on this planet: which solicits a factual answer: 130 years. What was few and miserable for Yaakov was his “Shnay Chayei”- the time Yaakov felt he was able to really live. To engage in meaningful activities. To help others, to learn Torah, to connect with family and with Hashem.

Yaakov’s response to Pharaoh challenges us to consider what ways we are really living during the years that God gives us in this life. And how we can increase our Shnot Chayim during our sojourn on this planet.

As Abraham Lincoln put it: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On Chanukah, Let’s Be Thankful – Even for the Flawed

There are a lot of important lessons to learn from the story of Chanukah: Heroism. Moral fortitude. Light over darkness. The role of miracles, both natural and supernatural, in our lives. The one that I’d like for us to focus on for a moment is the lesson to be thankful, even for the less-than-ideal.

Our appreciation of the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks can be colored by what we know to be a muted endorsement of the Maccabees by our Rabbis. After the Maccabees defeated the Greeks they installed themselves as monarchs.  The Ramban notes that this is a direct violation of the pasuk from Parshat Vayechi that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah.” Jewish kings were supposed to emerge only from the tribe of Yehuda. The Hasmoneans were Kohanim (priests, from the tribe of Levi). The Ramban explains that the reason why the Hasmonean family ultimately disappeared is because they violated this rule.

Although it is legitimate to note and learn from the “mistake” of the Hasmoneans, I prefer to focus on the approach taken by the Rambam. In the Laws of Chanukah (3:1), Maimonides recounts the Chanukah story:

The Jews suffered great difficulties from the Greeks, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame [them], slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand.
They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

In the last line, the Rambam notes the critique of the Ramban: the Hasmoneans overstepped their role by appointing themselves kings. However, in the very same breath/line, Rambam makes sure to note that due to the Hasmoneans, Jewish sovereignty was returned to the Land of Israel for over 200 years. There were a lot of problems in the Land of Israel under the Hasmonean kings for those two centuries. And still, Rambam urges us to see the gift of Jewish sovereignty, even when that sovereignty is far from perfect, even when that Jewish state has real flaws and problems. We sing Hallel every day of Chanukah in appreciation for an imperfect situation, but one from which we benefitted and need to acknowledge with thanks.

There are sometimes complaints and criticism directed towards our shul:  about things that should happen that don’t; or about things that should have happened in a different/ better way.  Many times the comments are legitimate and the ideas are good. We need to hear feedback in order to improve. But we also need to remember not to allow “the perfect” be the enemy of the “great.” We should appreciate what is great in our lives and in our shul, even when there is room for improvement. The Hasmonean Kingdom after the Chanukah story was far from perfect. And yet it was a point of pride and reason to celebrate. This Chanukah, let us celebrate all that is great in our lives, even when it is far from perfect. Let this be our perspective, which will enable us to improve as an expression of pride and optimism.