Thursday, January 31, 2019

Names Can Be Worse Than Sticks and Stones

Parshat Mishpatim contains two laws related to the child-parent relationship (21:15, 17)

וּמַכֵּ֥ה אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת
And one who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.

וּמְקַלֵּ֥ל אָבִ֛יו וְאִמּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:

And one who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.

The Torah here prescribes the same punishment for verbal abuse at it does for physical abuse. Moreover although both crimes are punishable by death, the type of death is different for each. The punishment for striking a parent is chenek, strangulation. The punishment for verbal abuse is sekilah, stoning, which is the most severe form of death penalty of the four types found in the Torah.

                The Torah is teaching us that verbal abuse is worse in some ways than physical abuse. Whereas violence is an attack on a person’s body, verbal abuse always impacts the victim’s heart, mind, and soul. As the Vilna Gaon puts it in his commentary to Mishlei, verbal insults can “penetrate into the innermost recesses”. Emotions do not heal as quickly as the body can. The old adage is therefore wrong. Not only can names indeed hurt us, but they can even hurt us worse than the physical damage wrought by sticks and stones.

                This past week I was a guest at the Kolot luncheon, a project of the Jewish Family Service of Broward County’s domestic abuse program. At that event I learned that 1 in 3 women and 1 of 4 men have been a victim of physical violence by an intimate partner. Close to half of all women and men experience at least one type of psychologically aggressive behavior, often in the form of verbal abuse, in the course of their relationships.

                People often don’t appreciate the power of their words nor the potential pain that can be caused by hurtful words. We are also often less careful with our words when directed at those with whom we are the closest (spouses, children, family, friends). The combination of these factors can lead to our words being used as weapons against others, instead of a powerful vehicle to express positive feelings, encouragement, and healing.

                Some of our worst memories do not involve what someone has done to us, but rather what has been said. There are certain words and certain phrases that are almost impossible to take back. You can say “I love you” thousands of times. But it only takes one “I hate you” to make one question if the love was ever there.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) said there are two ways to be better than the next person. One way is to grow, to toil and work hard to bring out your own potential. If the other person does not follow a similar course of action, then you will surge ahead in comparison to someone else. The other way is to dig a hole and push the other person down. Automatically, you feel better and taller. Obviously we should follow the first way.

                We must be careful with our words. Think before you speak, instead of having to apologize after the wrong words come out. Our words are powerful. They can be used as weapons and hurt others worse than sticks and stones. We must never use words in hurtful ways, especially towards those with whom we are closest. Think about how your words will be received by the other person, and not just how you intend your words to be received or how you think you would react to the same words. Since words can be a source of much hurt, then it must be that words can also be a great source (and an even greater source) of positivity.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Feeling For Others

The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha:

וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כָּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

Yitro was moved by all the goodness that God did for the Jewish People.

Rashi offers two possible explanations: Either Yitro got goosebumps because he felt the pain of the Egyptians. Alternatively Yitro may have shared in the joy that the Jews felt over their deliverance from slavery. In response to these feelings Yitro declares (18:10) “Baruch Hashem!”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94) infers that Yitro was the first to say “Baruch Hashem”, criticizing the Jewish People for never having utilized that phrase. The criticism is difficult to understand. After all, we read last week of the elaborate and heartfelt song that the people sang at the Red Sea. They may not have said the precise words “Baruch Hashem”, but Shirat HaYam is certainly an expression of gratitude. What is the Talmud trying to teach us?

The Ketav Sofer offers two answers. First, whereas the Jewish People’s joy at the Red Sea was whole-hearted and unadulterated, Yitro (as an outsider) empathized with the Egyptian suffering and was pained by their downfall. It is correct and wonderful to sing Shira when you are absolutely elated, like the Jews at the sea. But it is harder work, and therefore more of a teachable moment, when you can say “Baruch Hashem” when you have mixed emotions or when you realize that the good has come with a cost. The Talmud is hinting at the fact that ideally the Jewish People would have sung some Shira over the Egyptian slavery itself, and not exclusively over the salvation.

Second, Yitro never experienced oppression first hand. Yitro’s expression of “Baruch Hashem” was not in response to personal salvation. Rather Yitro shared in the joy of the Jewish People. He felt happiness because they were happy, and not for any self-serving reason. Yitro is exceptional in his ability to praise God for the miracles performed for others. Here as well, the Talmud’s praise of Yitro is a criticism of the Jewish People; for although they sang Shira for their own redemption, they did not think to say Shira for the redemption of their fellow Jews.

The Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 219) that one is allowed to recite the Birkat HaGomel on behalf of his/her friend. The Rema explains that even though Birkat HaGomel was instituted as an expression of praise for personal salvation, nonetheless if someone else feels true joy over the other’s salvation, then they too are eligible to recite the bracha. The Brisker Rav explains that this is the connection between Yitro’s goosebumps and his declaration of “Baruch Hashem”. Yitro felt personal joy for the reversal of fortune of the Jews. According to the Shulchan Aruch, Yitro was therefore eligible to say “Baruch Hashem”.

These two answers from the Ketav Sofer provide us with much to consider as we attempt to live lives of gratitude. It’s usually easy to feel grateful when something 100% good happens. Yitro teaches us the need to be grateful for everything, even when it is not 100% good, and even when there is much to be desired. Second, we need to exercise our empathy skills. It may be too emotionally challenging to fully mourn with someone who is mourning. But we can extend ourselves on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Let us try to be genuinely happy for others when they have reason to celebrate. It costs us nothing. It can help us remove jealousy and envy from our hearts. It allows us to connect more deeply with others. It affords us many more opportunities to bring joy and gratitude into our lives.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Silence: At Times Divisive, At Times Destigmatizing

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states (1:17)

“(Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said) All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.”

This statement parallels the expression: “silence is golden”. The Talmud conveys this very notion when it says, “a good word is worth one shekel but silence itself is worth two shekels.”

How can we think that silence is optimal, when our tradition teaches us that sophisticated and abstract speech is what distinguishes humans from all other life forms. We use our speech to pray, learn Torah and help out our friend. How can we possibly prefer silence over speech?

There are two very different types of silence. One type of silence is a negative trait that stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate effectively. This silence leads to discord, division and dysfunction. One example of this is when someone gives a loved one “the silent treatment”. Another example would be when a parent is reluctant/ afraid to discipline a child, and instead they say nothing.

The good type of silence is the type we utilize when we think before we speak. Silence is golden when we use it to choose our words carefully. Silence is appropriate when there is nothing to say that can help or change the situation- like the silence of Aharon after the death of his two sons. Better for Aharon to be silent than to ask questions that have no answers or to get angry at Hashem when he realizes that his understanding of God’s ways is limited.

Silence is also necessary to allow space to demonstrate our care for others. Our silence can show that we are ready to listen to someone else. It validates the other person’s existence and shows a genuine concern for them - no matter what that person will say, or whether we are in a position to fix or even help the situation.  Our silence is golden, especially when it enables someone else in need to be heard.
This Shabbat has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat at our shul. I thank Shanee Markovitz for speaking Shabbat morning. Shanee exhibits incredible strength and commitment by speaking back home in Hollywood. Young Israel of Hollywood-Ft Lauderdale members have suffered/ do suffer with mental health challenges. And many of these people’s families have suffered alongside them. Some of that suffering is due to the challenges in treating mental health issues, the lack of access to quality care, cost of care, insurance challenges, etc. But a large factor in that suffering is due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Whereas there is little or no stigma attached to a diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease, there is often a high degree of stigma attached to mental illness. That needs to change. We hope that this weekend will foster some conversations and spread awareness and information about mental illness: how to get help if you are dealing with mental health challenges, and how to help if you know someone in that situation.

I believe that the process of removing stigma and facing the challenge of mental illness begins with the good type of silence; silence that exhibits a willingness to hear about the issues and learn what we can do. A silence that emerges from our community’s culture of caring that conveys to others that we value them, we want to hear from them, and we are here to help.

In this week’s Parsha, Moshe tells the Jewish People, as they fear that they are trapped at the Red Sea:

“Hashem will prevail for you, and you shall remain silent.

If we utilize the good type of silence, then Hashem will assist in our efforts at destigmatizing mental illness and creating a more caring community.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Of Prayer Breakfasts and a Chag Hasiddur

I was invited to attend the inauguration of our new Governor, Ron Desantis. (Thank you Teach Florida for scoring me a ticket.) The inauguration festivities kicked off with a Prayer Breakfast, at which faith leaders from across Florida and from a range of religions gathered together to offer prayers on behalf of the State of Florida and our new Governor.

There is a long tradition of incorporating prayer into political figures’ inauguration festivities. It is based on the Judeo-Christian foundations of our country. Our founding fathers were careful to separate church and state, and that is why America has no state religion. But separation between religion and state is not the same thing as a divorce or barrier between the two. America has always been a country that values religion. And prayer is an integral part of religion. In the 1960’s, the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer violates the First Amendment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was very concerned with this decision. He preferred that the school day begin with a non-denominational prayer. The Rebbe felt that children need to be aware of a Divine Being, who cares about them, watches their actions, and to whom they are accountable. In the absence of a prayer, the Rebbe advocated for public school days to begin with a moment of silence, where each child could reflect, meditate, or pray in accordance with his/her values and faith tradition.

Though I would have liked to attend the inauguration festivities, I had a more important prayer event to attend. On Wednesday I sat in the audience as a proud Abba at Brauser Maimonides Academy to watch our son Eitan’s Chag HaSiddur. Eitan and his first grade classmates have been learning tefilot since early childhood. They have learned the Hebrew alphabet and how to read words in Hebrew. Now they are the proud owners of their very first siddur, from which they will daven every day in school. It was a pleasure to see so many smiling first graders. Eitan was one of those smiling faces, and the way he tightly clutched his siddur with so much pride and love is an image I hope to never forget.

Adults could also use a Chag Hasiddur. Many of us have complicated relationships with prayer. Perhaps our childhood experiences with prayer were not the loving nor nurturing types that 1st graders enjoy in our local Jewish day schools today. For Torah to stick, there needs to be a mastery of knowledge coupled with a sense of joy and love. While the first step is to appreciate the power of prayer, the more important step is to apply that knowledge to our own lives.
In Parshat Bo, Hashem brings the plague of locusts. Pharaoh quickly finds Moshe and Aharon and asks that the plague be removed (10:17):

“entreat the Lord your God, and let Him remove from me just this death.”
Pharaoh appreciated the power of prayer. That is why he asked Moshe to pray on his behalf. But since he was not the one actually praying, these prayers never impacted him for the better. That’s why soon after Moshe prays for the locusts to leave, we read:

“But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out.”
Prayer has the potential to be an important source of comfort, strength and identity in our lives, if only we lovingly and proudly clutch our siddur tightly and appreciate the power that prayer can have on us.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

To Whom Are you Accountable?

This week we begin to read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Although each plague is unique, there is a common script to all of them: God tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh of the upcoming plague. Pharaoh is unmoved by the threat. The plague comes. Egypt is severely impacted, discomforted or wounded by the plague. Finally Pharaoh submits to Moshe and agrees to free the Jews. Moshe in turn prays to Hashem to remove the plague. As soon as Hashem hears Moshe’s prayers and removes the plague, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to free the Jews.

The repetition of this script highlights Pharaoh’s intransigence. Even when it appears as if Pharaoh will be flexible, he does not follow through on those plans. One of the reasons Pharaoh acts this way is because he is not used to accountability. As the king (and deity) in Egypt, Pharaoh never had to report or answer to anyone. One of the reasons Hashem gives for bringing the plagues is so that Pharaoh and Egypt will know that Hashem is the only true God. When Pharaoh is forced to free the Jews, and especially when he sees his army drown in the sea (in next week’s Parsha), Pharaoh is forced to come to terms with the fact that he is accountable to Hashem, and Hashem has found him liable for punishment.

Judaism emphasizes accountability. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches:

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting.

A by-product of our free will is accountability. We are responsible for our actions and will be held accountable for what we do (and don’t do). Though Pirkei Avot is clear about our accountability at the conclusion of our lives in this world, what is sometimes more abstract, and sometimes more difficult to find, is accountability during our lifetime. The Talmud records that upon the death of the great sage Rav, Mar Shmuel lamented that “the person whom I feared (ie and to whom I felt accountable) is no longer with us.”

We all have responsibilities. In regards to certain responsibilities it is clear to whom we might be accountable. We are accountable to our spouses and to our children. We are accountable to our friends and to society. We may be accountable to our employers or employees. And of course we are accountable to Hashem.

But in other ways we can avoid accountability. Modern society celebrates freedom. Part of that freedom is the freedom to avoid accountability. Accountability is often absent when we are looking to grow or push ourselves beyond our current limits. In these cases, there may not be any external expectations. No one is expecting or dependent on this growth, and so no one will ask you where it is if it’s absent. 

This is the genius of having a chavrutah. When you are on a journey with someone else, you are now accountable to that other person. I urge everyone to find a chavrutah to whom you are accountable when it comes to Torah study. If you are looking for a chavrutah, please contact Rabbi Frieberg, Rabbi Laredo or me and we will try to pair you up.

The same is true regarding exercise. It is easier to stick to a regimen when you have a partner, with whom you share the experience and to whom you are accountable to follow through. Almost two years ago I talked about running a(nother) half marathon. Thus far it never came to be, mostly because I made up excuses and never held myself accountable. That is about to change. I have signed up to run the Jerusalem Half Marathon as part of a program called Rabbis Can Run. I am part of a group of a dozen North American Rabbis who are training together to run. This commitment has just been made much more real now that I have shared it in a public forum. I decided to be a part of this program because it is important for me to spend time on my health, to set goals and achieve them, and to be held accountable. I hope that my journey helps others appreciate the importance of these values too.