Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Message of the Mussaf

As technology and society has progressed in the 21st century there seems to be an ever growing sense that every situation and every moment can be replicated, recreated or made up for.  First it was the introduction of Dolly the cloned sheep. This technology opened up a new niche market: cloning your pets. The idea behind cloning is that biological material can be replicated. A few years ago, scientists claimed that with the help of a state of the art particle accelerator they were able to replicate the moment immediately after the Big Bang. If that very early moment of the universe’s existence can be recreated, then presumably everything else can be replicated as well. Science has taken us on a journey that indicates that no moment is so unique that it cannot be replicated in a laboratory.
This attitude has spilled over into society and popular culture. Miss a test or forget to do your homework? Don’t worry, there will be a makeup. Lost sleep last night? Don’t worry, you can always make it up. Deadlines are constantly being extended because people just cannot fathom that something can actually pass by without being made up later.  
A rejection of this attitude can be found in the Torah’s description of the special Musaf sacrifice offered on Shabbat. The Torah tells us:

Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato:

The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. The Midrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same. If I miss bringing the sacrifice this week, then I’ll just bring two next week. Comes the verse to tell us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there are no makeups. As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. It may seem like we are doing the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite every Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (ie if you miss Shacharit, you can say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the concept that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: for instance, the example of teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to the belief of some, there are things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. This is especially true with the moments of our lives. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to make better time.) We can’t go back in time. (alas, we have yet to discover the flux capacitor that enables at  1.21 gigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  Let us recall the message of the Mussaf: some things in life cannot be replicated; they must be appreciated and savored while we have the opportunity.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

2.2 million dollars. 4 days. 23,000 donors. One little girl. The story of two year old Eliana Cohen has gone viral. She was born with SMA Type 2, a rare genetic condition that prevents her from being able to stand or walk. A gene therapy was recently developed, called Zolgensma, which creates a gene that ensures she is able to breathe, eat and sit up on her own. At 2.2 million dollars for a single dose, it is the most expensive drug in the world. It was approved by the FDA only for babies under the age of 2 years. Due to a misdiagnosis at an early age, Eliana’s SMA Type 2 was only detected a month ago. Eliana was five days away from her second birthday when a crowdfunding campaign began.

                Within four days, 23,000 people had donated to the cause on the fundraising platform The Chesed Fund. At noon this past Monday, the goal was reached and the campaign was closed. In their thank you letter, her parents wrote, “Please continue to pray for Chana bat Shani (her name has been changed), as we still have a long way to go!”

This story reminds us of the very best elements of Jewish community. Many of those who donated did not know this little girl. They heard about this cause through “a friend of a friend” and the tight-knit nature of the Jewish community provided incredible results. This inspiring episode caused me to reevaluate one of Bilaam’s blessing in this morning’s Parsha.

In our Parsha, King Balak hired the great sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. As hard as he tries, Hashem does not allow this to happen. Not only is Bilaam unable to curse them, but Hashem forces Bilaam to utter blessings about Bnei Yisrael- three times. In his first set of blessings Bilaam refers to the Jewish People as (23:9) “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” Dwelling alone can seem lonely at times. But it has been the secret of our success and our continuity. The Jewish People have been unwilling to change our morals and values based on the current era or location. We turn to the Torah as our guide, even when it makes us unpopular or counter-cultural. We are a Light onto the Nations by wearing our distinctions as a badge of pride. As the nation who dwells alone we realize that we cannot rely on others for our survival. Rather we must rely on Hashem – and each other. This is why there are no “degrees of separation” between Jews. We are all family, whether we know each other or not.

I was recently learning with someone about the restriction of charging interest. I asked why interest should be forbidden: If we are allowed to rent our car for money and rent our house for money, then why can’t we rent our money for money? The answer we came to is that fundamentally I’m right. One should be able to rent their money for a profit. And in fact, you are allowed to charge a non-Jew interest (if charging interest was immoral we would not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews.) But that’s not how you treat family. And all of Klal Yisrael is family. Let us remember this reality, as we begin the Three Weeks period on the Jewish calendar, and as we constantly work on fostering a culture of caring within our community.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

“Talking to a Rock: More Productive Than You Might Think”

Our Parsha contains the mysterious events that transpired at Mei Meriva. After Miriam dies, the people are complaining again- this time because there is no water. Hashem tells Moshe to take the staff – and speak to the rock. Instead Moshe hits the rock, and water miraculously flows forth. While the people are happy- Hashem is angry; angry because Moshe did not do as he was told (and Aharon is faulted too- for not stopping Moshe?) Moshe and Aharon are punished harshly- they are denied entry into the Promised Land. One of the mysteries surrounding this episode is the initial Divine command: What’s the deal with talking to a rock? Of all possible manners to miraculously provide water at this juncture, why does God decide that it should come about as a result of speaking to a stone?
                Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that this Divine command was meant to convey an important lesson for us all: Sometimes it feels like we’re talking to a rock. That our message is falling on deaf ears. Nonetheless we should appreciate the value in speaking up in these situations, for even when we speak to a rock water may flow forth- ie there may be some beneficial outcome.

                You see, even when we’re talking to a rock, our words can still strengthen our own resolve. A UCLA psychology study suggests that labeling one’s emotions at the precise moment one is confronting a fear, can make you less afraid and less anxious. 88 people who have a fear of spiders were divided into 4 groups and exposed to spiders- with the following instructions:

One group was told to express their feelings of anxiety and fear before touching the spider. A second group was told to use words that helped to make the situation less threatening, such as “this little spider can’t harm me”- the typical approach used for de-sensitization. A third group was told to say something irrelevant to the spider situation and the fourth group was instructed to say nothing. The group that had the most significant decrease in their fear of spiders was the group that put into words what it was they were feeling- to say it as they felt it, not as they wished they would see things.   
                The verb to pray in Hebrew, L’hitpallel, is a reflexive verb. It means that the impact of the action is felt by the person doing the action. Just like L’hitlabesh means to get oneself dressed. Tefillah is an important exercise in self-reflection: When we verbalize words of prayer we are confronted with questions such as, “Do I believe what I am saying?”  “Are my values consistent with those I am expressing in my tefilot- and if not, how do I feel about that?”

                The same thing occurs when we speak to others. When we talk to/ yell at our kids to be more attentive or respectful- even if they are not listening to what we are saying, we need to be listening to what we are saying and be asking ourselves, “Are we modeling the behaviors and values that we’d like to see in our children, or friends, or co-workers?” Or are we in some way contributing to the behaviors and attitudes that we are verbally protesting against?

                Hashem told Moshe to speak to the rock and it will flow forth water. From this story we learn that Hashem challenges us to speak up, even if it feels like we’re talking to a rock. For even if the rock cannot hear us, we need to hear ourselves. If we appreciate the importance of speaking up, even to a rock, may Hashem in turn hear our voices and bless our efforts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Inspiring Others, Inspiring Ourselves

One of the perplexing questions that emerges from this morning’s Parsha is: In what way was Korach mistaken? We read how Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon with the following statement:

"You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"

Korach’s specific complaint was regarding Aharon’s elevation as Kohen Gadol, a position of which he was envious. Korach’s larger complaint was the very notion of Jewish leadership: For if every Jew is holy, then why are there any positions of leadership within the Jewish community?

In some important ways, Korach is correct. It is fundamental to Jewish thought that all Jews are holy; we each possess a Divine spark in our souls. If that is the case, then one can legitimately question the need for leadership within the Jewish People.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that Korach’s challenge is predicated on a mistaken understanding of the role of a Jewish leader. The primary role of a leader is help people get more in touch with their Divine spark. In short, the job of a leader is to inspire people to inspire themselves. It’s true that every individual has the potential for holiness. But many of those same people cannot get in touch with that holy potential. Even those who are spiritually sensitive enough to bring holiness into their lives, still may need help to optimize that experience and maximize that potential for kedusha. It is the job of leaders to actualize that potential and to bring out the best in others.

And although not all of us can be leaders on the scale of Moshe or Aharon, each of us has the ability to be a Jewish leader within his/her realm of impact and sphere of influence. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (who passed away 25 years ago today, the 3rd of Tammuz) was fond of retelling the Chasidic saying “if you only know aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) - then teach aleph!” We all have something to teach others, and we can serve in a leadership role, for some people in some setting. Whether it is within our family, our neighborhood, our office or our shul, let us learn from the mistake of Korach and proudly wear the mantle of leaders. Let us do so by serving as positive peer pressure for others and by encouraging and validating their efforts at inspiring themselves.

This past week, I convened our annual meeting with Rabbi and Sara Frieberg to review the previous programming year and begin planning for 5780. As part of these meetings we focus on both concrete plans as well as questions that are meant to be thought-provoking (even if we cannot definitively answer them). One of the questions I posed was: How can we inspire more people; how can we inspire people more? Our conclusions were that 1) different people are inspired by different things, 2) while big events and gestures can be memorable, long-lasting inspiration comes from the accumulation of small gestures, interactions and experiences that have a cumulative inspirational effect, and 3) one of the most important things Rabbis and community leaders can do is inspire people to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for inspiration.

Let us learn from Korach’s mistake by both stepping up and being leaders when we can inspire others, while also doing the hard work of inspiring ourselves.