Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lessons from Keruvim

In describing the construction of the Keruvim, the Torah notes that, “el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim.”  The Keruvim were looking down, towards the Kaporet and the Aron. In explaining this position, Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes the Talmud (Baba Batra 89) that this posture is like a student who lowers his eyes before his teacher, as an expression of reverence. When we have questions, comments or complaints concerning Jewish law or Jewish values we need to do so with humility and reverence towards a faith tradition that has been   important to the moral development of humanity and that (hopefully) provides our lives with many outlets for meaning and satisfaction.

But that’s not all the Torah tells us about the position of the Keruvim. The full pasuk reads: (25:20):

1)            Vehayu Hakruvim porsei kenafayim L’maalah: these figures had wings that stretched upward
2)            Upneihem Ish El Achiv: we are also told that the Keruvim were facing each other
3)            Lastly, el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim: they were looking down
Explains the Abravanel so beautifully: The position of the Keruvim teaches us three important lessons: Just as the Keruvim’s wings stretched upward, so too should our thoughts be directed towards Heaven. We must consider our relationship with Hashem and how to enhance it, especially through the ritual Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Makom. And Just as the Keruvim faced each other, so too must we take notice of our fellow Jew and all fellow human beings. We must foster our empathy, our sympathy and our sense of responsibility towards others, especially through the enhancement of our interpersonal Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro. And just as the Keruvim were looking downward towards the Aron, so too must we keep our eye on the Torah as a guide for how to fulfill the mitzvot and how to navigate life.

According to the Abravanel, the keruvim looking down don’t teach us to be humble; rather, they teach us to keep our eye on the Torah! When we have questions, comments or issues with our Torah or with Jewish life, our approach should be one of humility and reverence. But humility is not enough. We then need to empower ourselves by looking to our Torah. We must commit to learning and understanding so that we are better equipped to address our questions. Sometimes by keeping our eye on the Aron we may be able to resolve our own questions. Sometimes keeping our eye on the Torah, coupled with a healthy dose of humility, allows us to admit that we can’t figure this out on our own and that we need to seek advice or guidance from someone more knowledgeable.  And sometimes it means having the humility to bear the question without an answer.

The synthesis of Rabbeinu Bachaye and the Abravanel resonates with me. The posture of the Keruvim is both a call for humility and an appeal for Jewish literacy. May Hashem give us the strength to emulate the Keruvim: by being a conduit to bring Hashem’s Presence into our lives and into our world. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Parshat Mishpatim

The end of Parshat Mishpatim tells the rest of the story of what happened at Mount Sinai. In Chapter 24, we learn that Moshe wrote down the words of Hashem and he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, along with twelve pillars corresponding to the twelve tribes. In the next verses (5-7) we read:

And he sent the youths of the children of Israel, and they offered up burnt offerings, and they slaughtered peace offerings to the Lord, bulls. And Moses took half the blood and put it into the basins, and half the blood he cast onto the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, "All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear."

Rashi explains that these youth were the firstborn, who served in the role as priests prior to the sin of the golden calf. Ramban explains that these youth were not necessarily firstborn, but rather young Jews who were passionate and excited about the Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. Moshe provides them with a special role, because this youthful enthusiasm and idealism was an important ingredient in the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah at this juncture. It is after the youth of Israel come on the scene that the entire nation is inspired to say the famous formula of “We will do and we will hear.”

On Wednesday I returned from a 6 day trip to Israel. During my trip I engaged in a number of learning opportunities with some great institutions such as National Library of Israel, Machon PUAH, Eretz Chemdah Institute and Ateret Kohanim. I look forward to sharing with you more about these experiences. But the highlight of my trip was the opportunity to meet with close to 20 of our Young Israel of Hollywood youth who are currently studying in Yeshivot and Seminaries in Israel. It was inspiring to hear about their studies, their plans and their aspirations. These young adults are passionate and idealistic. They have their whole lives ahead of them and I am excited to see how they develop and find their unique paths.

I am a firm believer that we should embrace the times in which we are living; we should not dwell too much on the past nor on the future.  Yet, the one time that I look back on with great nostalgia, the one stage of life that I would consider doing over again, is my time learning in Israel post-high school. The challenge for us adults is to remember those feelings of idealism and zeal and find ways to incorporate them into our lives today.  This week I had a great reminder of what can be for all of us at every stage of life, by looking at and listening to the optimism, idealism and passion of the young adults of our community.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Yitro’s Important Parenting Lesson

At the beginning of the Parsha we read how Yitro came to Bnei Yisrael along with Moshe’s wife and two children. Not only are we informed of the names of Moshe’s sons, Gershom and Eliezer, but also the meaning behind each of their names. We have already been told about the birth of these boys - back in Parshat Shemot. (Gershom’s birth and name are explained and Eliezer’s birth is alluded to in the episode towards the end of Parshat Shemot when Tziporah circumcises her son in order to save Moshe’s life.) Since we have already been told the reason for Gershom’s name, why is that information repeated again here in Parshat Yitro?

        If Yitro is bringing Moshe’s children with him, then the Torah is telling us that they, like Yitro, only heard about the events and miracles that occurred to Bnei Yisrael but they did not experience them firsthand.  It is not clear from the Torah when exactly Moshe’s family left him and moved in with Yitro in Midyan, or why. We know that they are all together as Moshe makes his way back to Egypt to reunite with his brother Aharon and begin the process of redemption by initially approaching Pharaoh. But at some point Tziporah takes her sons and goes to live with her family.

        Did Tziporah demand that her children not be subjected to the fear and uncertainty of the redemption process, especially since she had a home in Midyan where she could take refuge? Was Moshe, overwhelmed/ busy with the needs of the Jews that had to be in Egypt, amendable to the idea of not having to worry about his wife and sons during the most intense periods of Yetziat Mitzrayim and its aftermath?

        It is only now, after the splitting of the sea, the miracle at Mara and the defeat of Amalek that Moshe’s sons finally come back to their nation. It was Yitro who made sure the reunion occurs at this time. Yitro is teaching Moshe, and all of us, a lesson by bringing the boys back, and this lessons is hinted at by repeating the reason behind Gershom’s name.

        Moshe’s older son is Gershom because “Ger Hayiti B’eretz Nochriya” “I was a stranger in a foreign land”. Yitro is teaching Moshe: it is understandable and even commendable that you want to protect your sons from experiencing trauma and challenge and fear. But at some point you must stop protecting them and let them experience challenges. You named Gershom at a time in your life that you felt alone and distant and confused. Out of that difficult time you were able to persevere and become the greatest Jewish leader.

        Now’s the time to allow your children to experience similar challenges.  You can’t protect them forever, we can’t live in a bubble our whole lives. Sooner or later Moshe’s sons must join the Jewish People- and experience all of the challenges and hardships along with their brethren. Additionally, Yitro recalls Gershom’s name which reminds Moshe that real life entails an amalgam of joy and sadness- ie remembering that he was a stranger, while celebrating the birth of a child. By recalling the reason for Gershom’s name, Yitro is telling Moshe life contains an amalgam of joy and sadness, Hashem is with us through it all, and it was now time for Moshe’s sons to experience this along with the rest of Am Yisrael.

        We want what’s best for our children, and we don’t like to see them experience any negative feelings or situations. And yet Yitro is reminding us that part of raising strong and resilient children is allowing them to be exposed to challenges, and encouraging them to grow from those experiences.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Challenge of Privilege

Perchik: Money is the world's curse.
Tevye: May the Lord smite me with it! And may I never recover!
Fiddler on the Roof

In Parshat Beshalach we are introduced to the manna from heaven that sustained the Jewish People during their 40 year sojourn in the desert.

The manna is a fascinating topic, full of mystery and intrigue. For example, what did this miraculous substance actually taste like? In this week’s Parsha the taste is described as “like a wafer made with honey.” However elsewhere (Parshat Behaalotcha) the manna’s taste is described as “like bread kneaded with oil.” The rabbis of the Talmud famously solve this apparent contradiction by claiming that the manna tasted like anything you wanted. If you wanted it to taste like cheese- it tasted like cheese. If you wanted it to taste like a hamburger- it tasted like a hamburger. If you wanted it to taste like a cheeseburger….. it tasted like a cheeseburger that was either made with pareve cheese or pareve meat.

Another interesting discussion concerning the manna is: what bracha did one recite over manna? On the one hand, the fact that manna is not identifiable as requiring one of the specialized blessings would lead us to say that the proper blessing is “Sheakol”, the most generic and catch-all blessing. On the other hand, the manna was a miraculous substance, seemingly deserving of a more prominent blessing. According to one opinion, the blessing made before eating manna was unique: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Hashamayim”, Blessing G-d as “He who brings bread from the Heaven” (as opposed to the text of the blessing we recite on normal bread: “He who brings bread from the earth”).

In this week’s Parsha the manna is described by Hashem as a test. The commentators offer different explanations as to what the test was. Ramban explains that the manna was a test in our belief in G-d. There was no natural food in the desert. Each day G-d would provide enough manna for that day alone. Each day the Jews went to sleep at night with their pantries bare, no food in the refrigerator and no natural way of attaining their food the next day- neither for themselves nor for their children. From a natural perspective, it was a pretty hopeless situation. Bnai Yisrael were forced to depend on Divine intervention each and every day. The manna was a means of helping the Jewish People realize that their fate is really in G-d’s hands.

The Seforno offers a different understanding of the test. In a very succinct yet powerful comment he writes:
“The test was in whether the Jews would do G-d’s will when He provides food and clothing without pain, without effort
According to Seforno, the test of the manna was the challenge of privilege. How would the Jews respond to their every need taken care of, without even having to ask? Would it create a greater appreciation for G-d, allowing them to focus on more lofty goals? Or would they begin to develop a sense of entitlement, and become dissatisfied and spoiled?
From the story in the Torah it appears that the Jewish people did not pass the test of the manna with flying colors. Instead of appreciating the manna, they began to complain about it and claim that they needed more variety in their diets. The challenge of the manna continues to be a challenge that we face today. Studies have indicated that greater wealth does not correspond to greater levels of happiness. We must recognize that all that we have (and all that we don’t have) comes from G-d. What we have, and what we don’t, can be both a blessing and a challenge. We must utilize all of our experiences to develop a sense of appreciation and a connection with the Divine.