Friday, July 31, 2020

Few Yet Influential: Be Proud of Your Me’at Status

The seventh aliya of Parshat Vaetchanan, the beginning of Chapter 7 in Devarim, is a reminder by Moshe of Hashem’s promise to Bnai Yisrael to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, and the responsibilities and obligations that they will have upon entry and possession of the Land. In this context Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael of their special relationship with Hashem 7:6:

“For you are a holy people to Hashem; He has chosen you to be for Him a treasured nation above all the peoples on the face of the Earth.”

Moshe continues in 7:7:

לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּֽים

Not because you are the most numerous nation did Hashem choose you, for you are the fewest of all the nations.

Commentators throughout the ages have tried to understand the meaning of this pasuk. These commentators were troubled by how this pasuk jibes with the Divine promise, first delivered to Avraham but then subsequently repeated to others, that Bnai Yisrael would be a numerous nation, like the sand or the stars.

Rabbeinu Bechaye reinterprets this pasuk to mean that although Bnai Yisrael is numerous, even had they not been Hashem would have chosen them as His People.

Rashbam explained that the Jews were great in number, but few compared to the combine populations of all seven nations that inhabited Canaan at the time.

Rashi explains that “me’at”, in this pasuk does not refer to a number but refers to the meritorious attitude of humility. The greatness of the Jewish People and their leaders is their incredible demonstrations of humility, even when they had every reason in the world to act otherwise. (Proofs: Avraham – who says Anochi Afar V’Efer, and Moshe: the greatest spiritual leader ever, and yet the most humble ever as well.)

There are other commentators, such as Seforno, who take this pasuk at face value. In fact the Jewish People would not be great in size. The Divine blessing must be reinterpreted to refer to a quality that the descendants of Avraham possess, and not an impressive quantity. According to Seforno, the end of the verse is not merely an elaboration of what was expressed at the beginning of the verse (ie, Bnai Yisrael is not a large nation Ki, but rather a small nation). Instead Seforno understands the word Ki here to mean “because of, as a result of”… In other words, the reason why Hashem desired us and chose us is, “Ki Atem Ha’meat mikol Ha’Amim”: because of our status as a small nation, not in spite of it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained that Hashem’s choice of a nation few in number is God’s way of teaching the lesson that one need not be numerous in order to be great. Nations are not judged by their size but by their contributions to civilization. Our focus should not be on numbers but the power and potential impact that each individual possesses to transform the world for the better.

Monday, July 27, 2020

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Or “Out of sight, out of mind”?

We find ourselves in the midst of the Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, the day that we commemorate the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The story is told of Napoleon walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B’Av. As his passed a synagogue he heard the sounds of mourning and crying. “What’s this all about?” Napoleon asked. An aide explained that the Jews were in mourning the loss of their Temple. “When did this happen?” Napoleon asked. The aide replied, “About 1700 years ago.” Napoleon said, “Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long, will merit to see it rebuilt!”

Every year as I prepare for Tisha B’Av I ask myself, “Does my yearning for the Beit Hamikdash increase as time goes on? Or do I get more used to the idea of my life without a Beit Hamikdash?” Does absence, in fact, make the heart grow fonder? Or is there a point that we adapt to a new normal, due to the fact that once something is out of sight it slowly becomes out of mind?

This question is more poignant this year than any in my lifetime, as this is the very same question I am asking about our shul, more than 4 months after we initially closed our doors and with no end to the pandemic in sight. As time goes on, how do our shul members relate to our institution? Has absence made the heart grow fonder? Are people itching to get back to shul (when they feel it is safe to do so)? Or have people begun to get used to a new normal that does not include shul as part of it. I asked this question to anyone willing to answer it: When CoVID is over (may it be speedily and very soon) will you jump at the opportunity to go back to minyan, to shul programs, to the community in which the shul serves as the center? Or are you comfortable and satisfied with your new normal, one in which shul does not play a role in your life?

I believe that the vast majority of shul members (who participated in the past) will jump at the opportunity to reengage and reconnect when there is no longer a health concern. I base this belief on my conversations with many people over the past few months, as well as my firm belief that our shul is the center of Jewish life for Hollywood and plays a critical role in the sense of community and spiritual satisfaction that people seek by moving within walking distance of our shul.

There is much to learn about the challenges and opportunities that absence of loved ones present that can inform and help us navigate this absence from the robust shul experience that we have come to love. The following are excerpts form an article on this topic.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "out of sight, out of mind" are two common sayings people associate with a romance that has been forced apart by distance. But does absence really make the heart grow fonder? “Humans are designed to continually be seeking, striving, and in the process of acquisition,” says Susan Winter, a New York City based relationship expert and bestselling author. She explains that it translates into one’s romantic life is via a heightened sense of “longing and appreciation” when your partner is absent.

As humans, when something is not new or novel or different, it commands less of our attention. It’s everything from partners to food,” Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, agrees. He compares being around a partner all the time to eating your favorite food over and over — no matter how much you love it, after a while, you may start getting a little tired of it. Separation can be a nice palate cleanser to remind yourself why you like your partner in the first place.

“When we’re separated from somebody, then all of the qualities that we’ve become habituated to —” qualities like how someone looks, smells, or talks — “we are reminded of how much we enjoy that,” Klapow says. “So separation is basically a reminder to us that we get reinforcement or reward out of our partners. And you can’t know that until you’re separated.”

Winter agrees that in the case of a long break, you need to really consider how you’re going to maintain a connection with your partner. She says that in the case of breaks that go months to years, “our 'new normal' is to NOT have this partner in our life.” “When our lover has been gone too long, we adapt and move forward. We begin to seek new connections to fill the void.”

Experts agrees that there are things you can do to keep your bond strong. Klapow recommends actively scheduling communication and time for each other, even if you can’t be there in person — and then sticking to that schedule. Winter suggests much the same thing. “Keep the connection by text, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, and in person,” she advises. “And have an end-goal to reunite. Without an end-goal to finally be together, the relationship will dissolve.”

As we approach Tisha B’Av I urge you to use this time to consider the impact that the absence of shul has had on your life. Think about the important role our shul played in creating a community pre-COVID that provides so much. Unlike the Beit Hamikdash, even during this absence there are ways for us to connect and engage with our shul. We know that there will be a time soon when we will be able to return to regular- and even better- shul life. In order for us to be ready for that return, let us acknowledge the shul’s absence in our lives as a perhaps a source of pain in the present, but fondness and optimism in the future.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Journey of Our Lives

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” I heard this expression, liked it and searched to find its author. Online I saw it attributed to people as diverse as writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and Steven Tyler, lead singer for the rock band Aerosmith. So I guess no one really knows who said it. But after learning this week’s Parsha I think I know who inspired this idea. It is the lesson that Rabbi Tanchuma learns from the beginning of Parshat Masei. The Parsha opens with a list of all of the 42 stops that Bnei Yisrael made during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us the original starting point and the eventual destination? We don't even know what happened at each place that is enumerated, so why specify each one?
          Rashi quotes Rabbi Tanchuma who explains by means of a parable. A king had a son who was sick, and the king took him to a distant place to receive the cure. On their way back, the king recounted to his son all of their journeys together. “This is where we slept. Here it was cold. Over there you had a headache.” The king wanted his son to appreciate that not only was the final result- the son’s recovery- important. But the process had significance as well. So too in Parshat Masei, the Torah recounts each stop in the desert as a reminder that there is significance not only in the destination, but in the process as well.
          Today our journey is impacted by the CoVID pandemic. It’s on our minds all the time. Everything we do and everything we plan must take the current health crisis into account. We do not know for sure what the future trajectory of this virus will look like. We do not know when we will get back to a sense of normalcy, nor even what that new normal will look like. While the journey is fraught with uncertainty and the destination is unknown, we can still appreciate and find meaning in each day, ie each stop along this wild ride. Just as each stop along the journey in the Midbar was an exercise in Emunah and Bitachon (faith and trust in God) and an opportunity to learn life lessons, so too is it for us during this “Summer of CoVID”.
          In many ways this is also the story of the Jewish People in exile, since the destruction of the Temple. We don’t know for sure where the road is taking us. We don’t know the exact time of arrival, or even the precise destination. But we know that God has been with us and He will continue to be with us. Each moment along that journey has the potential for meaning. When we maximize enough moments along this uncertain journey, then we will reach our destination: Redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ketoret Standoff

The showdown between Korach and Moshe reaches its climax with the “ketoret standoff.” Moshe suggests that the disagreement be settled by everyone offering incense to Hashem. So Aharon, Korach and 250 Korach-followers offer incense on fire pans. In response, Hashem shows His displeasure with the 250 men by sending a fire to consume them (16:35). 

The next chapter opens with God commanding Moshe to tell his nephew Elazar HaKohen to collect the firepans that were utilized by those 250 men and fashion them into a covering for the altar, “because they have become holy.” (17:2) These pans were used in a rebellion against Aharon and Moshe- why should they be considered holy and worthy of being kept? 

Rashi suggests that the pans became holy when the 250 men used them to offer incense to Hashem. Ramban questions this theory: after all, this was not a sanctioned offering – this was done as an expression of rebellion against Moshe! Instead, the Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because they were utilized as a vehicle through which G-d was ultimately sanctified. They became a symbol of the Divine choice of Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. From the Ramban we learn that sometimes people or situations can be used as messengers of Kiddush Hashem even if they have no idea or don’t mean to.

The fact that these firepans were fashioned into a cover for the altar is significant. It was on the mizbeach that a person would offer a sacrifice, a ritual that demonstrates humility, perhaps even a negation of self before the will of God. The cover on the altar is a cautionary note that warns people of how easily we can fool ourselves into believing in the righteousness of our cause. These 250 men were willing to die for the cause that they allowed themselves to believe whole-heartedly. 

It’s easy to allow ego, ulterior motives or even laziness to get in the way of what’s really important. The fire pans protecting the mizbeach served as that warning – then as well as now.