Monday, September 13, 2021

A Need for Honesty


      In Pirkei Avot we learn:  “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three principles: Judgement, Truth and Peace.” In his classic Chasidic work, Shem Mishmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the Rebbe of Sochatchov explains that each of these principles correspond to one of the major Tishrei holidays: Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, as we refer to it as Yom Hadin. Sukkot corresponds to Shalom (as we refer to a Sukkat Shalom in many of our prayers). And Yom Kippur is the holiday of Emet, honesty.  As Rabbi Borenstein explains it, Emet is something essential, substantial and everlasting. Yom Kippur is that opportunity to utilize the principle of Emet in order to tap into our essential beings. The role of Emet is crucial on Yom Kippur, yet being honest is easier said than done.

      In his book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Prof. Dan Ariely argues that people are far less honest than they’d like to believe. He sums up the book’s hypothesis with what he calls the fudge factor theory: Our behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest and honorable people. On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and dishonesty as much as possible. The way we navigate these two contradictory drives is by lying and cheating- but only a little bit. We lie enough to benefit ourselves but not so much that it negatively impacts our self-image.

      On Yom Kippur the stakes are high and the need for honesty is great. How do we ensure that we are up for the challenge and ready to take that first step: being honest?

      Three keys emerge from the pasuk that is found in the Torah reading, and serves as a mantra throughout our Yom Kippur tefillot (Vayikra 16:30): כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ:

      L’taher etchem- Yom Kippur is the opportunity to rejuvenate ourselves spiritually. Such rejuvenation is necessary, for we are more likely to be dishonest when we feel depleted. If we feel that being Jewish is a constant struggle, if Judaism causes us to experience ego depletion, then we are more likely to cut ourselves some slack and be less honest with ourselves. Yom Kippur is a mikvah in time, our opportunity to rejuvenate ourselves. It is through this rejuvenation that our egos can be restored and we can be more honest with ourselves.

      Mikol Chatoteichem- We can only be forgiven for sins if we are willing to admit that we’ve made mistakes. And we all make mistakes: directed against our fellow human beings; our friends, our neighbors our spouse and children- and against God. Many times it was by accident. Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves as demanded from us on Yom Kippur, we will have to admit that some of our sins are not really accidental. We know better, or we should have known better or we should have done a better job anticipating the situation. In all these scenarios, we must be willing to be honest and admit our mistakes.

      Lifnei Hashem. Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to be “before God”. This is not only a gift, but it is also an effective strategy for staying honest. A study showed that people asked to recall the Ten Commandments were less likely to cheat. In another experiment, people cheated less when they were asked to swear on the Bible, even when those people were self-declared atheists. Appreciating our special opportunity of being Lifnei Hashem on Yom Kippur is the third key to being honest today.

      These three keys to being honest on Yom Kippur can and should be used all year long. We must avoid ego depletion, but when it happens we must seek ways to rejuvenate ourselves. We must avoid making excuses. And we must strive to develop a sense of Shiviti Hashem l’negdi Tamid, constantly being in the presence of the Almighty. Approaching God today with sincerity and honesty is an important step in making the most- and getting the most- out of Yom Kippur.

 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Beware of Turning Blessings Into Curses


The end of the Jewish year means that many people are in search of a new Jewish calendar for the new year 5782. For some reason, Publix provided us with double the usual number of Jewish calendars. So if you, your relatives, your friends- or any of their neighbors- need a Jewish calendar, there’s a stack of them available on the bookshelf opposite the shul offices.

        While each calendar year is slightly different, there are some features that are common among them. Many calendars begin with the Hebrew words “Tachel Shana Uvirchoteha”, “May the New Year begin, along with its blessing.” And most of those calendars that begin that way will end with the words, “Tichleh Shana V’Kileloteha”, “May the current year end, along with its curses”. I understand why we mention our hope for blessings to usher in the New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the time of new beginnings and fresh starts. It is an opportunity to be optimistic and hopeful. But why do we assume, already before the year begins, that by the end of the year we will have experienced curses? It is true that this past year of 5781 has been a difficult year, with much illness and challenges due to the pandemic. And it may also be true that every human being experiences some type of difficulty over the course of a year, let alone a lifetime. But why are we talking about the possibility of curses even before we have experienced any of the blessings of the new year?

        Rav Yaakov Galinsky explained that the phrase “May the year end, along with its curses” is more of a warning than a prediction. It is human nature to take for granted that which we already possess. Moreover, it is not uncommon for people over time to get accustomed to the blessings in their lives and desire more and bigger blessings. The problem creeps in when we stop expressing gratitude for those blessings and start expressing disdain. What was initially viewed as a blessing can over time begin to be viewed as a curse. We need to look no further than the story of the manna that the Jews ate in the desert. When it first began to fall, it was viewed as a great miracle. After some time the people begin to refer to the manna as “that cursed bread”.

        There’s nothing wrong with wanting more blessings in our life- so long as we never lose sight of our obligation to be grateful for the blessings that we already receive. On Rosh Hashanah before we ask Hashem to increase our blessings, let us make sure to count those blessings we already have. Let us make sure to acknowledge and give thanks to those blessings that we already possess. In the story of creation we read (2:5) after vegetation was created, it did not immediately begin to grow because it did not rain. And it did not rain because man was not yet around to pray for that rain. The Maharal learns an important lesson from this episode: “It is forbidden to bestow blessings on someone who won’t appreciate it.” Let’s make sure that we appreciate all of the blessings in our life.

        On Rosh Hashana we dip the apple in the honey. Even though apples are already a sweet fruit, we dip it in honey to express our desire for even more sweetness in our lives. Rav Galinsky points out that even though we seek to add sweetness, we make the blessing over the apple. This teaches the same lesson: It’s okay to desire more sweetness and to pray for it- so long as we continue to bless the apple, and we don’t lose sight of the blessings that Hashem already provides for us.

 

Friday, August 20, 2021

YOLO and FOMO in Elul

 

A few years ago the Oxford English dictionary added the words YOLO and FOMO. YOLO is an acronym for “you only live once.”  YOLO can be understood as the basis of the mitzvah of ma’akeh, ie to build a fence around one’s roof. You only live once- so be sure to be careful.

Two examples of FOMO in this week’s Parsha

Chapter 24: If a man divorces his wife and she remarries, he cannot remarry her again. A couple may do this because they wonder if there is a spouse better out there, a classic repercussion of FOMO. The Torah frowns on such attitudes and thereof prohibits this behavior.

Also in this week’s parsha we find the command to remember what happened to Miriam. She contracted tzaraat because of what she said about Moshe. She wondered why Moshe lived a life different than hers. While there are many interpretations, it seems that part of Miriam’s downfall was her FOMO- fear of missing out on what Moshe had, instead of realizing that every person and situation is unique, and the important thing is to try and be the best you can be and not worry so much about others.

Both attitudes have potential negative outcomes. An attitude that You Only Live Once can be related to self-destructive behavior. It has become a very popular term on social media and often refers to doing something foolish or risky because after all, you only live once.

FOMO can lead to social angst. Those who are addicted to checking their internet or social media on a constant basis- may be suffering from FOMO. FOMO can lead to a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, profitable investment or other satisfying event. It can make people obsess about what they’ve missed out on in the past and paralyze them as they worry about what they’ll be missing out when they make any decision or choose any path.

But there can be some positive applications for YOLO and FOMO. YOLO- you only live once, so make sure to use your time most efficiently and effectively. You only live once- so don’t push things off until tomorrow, because no one really knows how many tomorrows you actually have. YOLO- so make sure your impact on the world is a positive one.

Fear of Missing Out can be a powerful ingredient for change. We need not be afraid of missing out compared to other people’s lives, but rather a fear of missing out on our best life. If we consider the possibility that things can be better than they are today, then perhaps the fear of FOMO will help us to implement the changes we know we need to make.

It is not surprising that in a Parsha we always read in the month of Elul we find references to YOLO and FOMO. In preparation for the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Judgment, we are reminded once again (if we needed reminding) that you only live once, so make the most of it. Pirkei Avot states: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come.

And the impetus for changing and improving can come from a healthy dose of FOMO- fear of missing out on living life to the max- in our relationships with each other and in our relationship with Hashem. Let us challenge ourselves to utilize YOLO and FOMO in a manner that leads to spiritual growth in this month of Elul and sets us on the right course as we head into Yomim Noraim.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Effort Needed to Build Relationships

 This week I returned from our family vacation. We travelled through the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. We had a lot of family fun together, but a highlight of our trip was that we had a chance to reconnect and spend time with all of my children’s aunts and uncles, as well as most of their cousins. Many had not seen each other in close to two years.

        The Torah depicts sibling relationships as fraught with challenges, misunderstandings, even animus. The first siblings we meet are Kayin and Hevel; also the first instance of fratricide. Other times in the Torah, siblings don’t end up killing each other, but not due to lack of murderous intent and effort. The story of Yosef and his brothers is such a relationship. And even when the Torah depicts a sibling relationship that is by and large stable, there is inevitably some tensions, some sore spot that arises. One such example is the Torah’s depiction of Moshe’s relationship with his siblings.

        Beyond the Bible, too often family is taken for granted, especially when family members live in a different state and are not part of your daily or weekly life. Relationships require investment, and family relationships are no different. When we are young and the siblings all live together under one roof, we sometimes yearn for a day (or even a moment) when we are alone and our siblings are “out of our hair”. But sooner or later we grow up, and then the challenge is to find ways to maintain those sibling relationships that were just assumed and expected (maybe even resented) while we were growing up.

        Relationships don’t just happen. They require effort and initiative. They require thought and planning. They require both will and willingness. In Parshat Shoftim the Torah hints at these ingredients necessary to cultivate and maintain relationships. Just as sibling relationships are important, so too is fostering and maintaining relationships with Torah mentors and teachers. In Chapter 17, the Torah instructs us what to do when we have a question of Jewish law or Jewish practice (17:8)

כִּ֣י יִפָּלֵא֩ מִמְּךָ֨ דָבָ֜ר לַמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט בֵּֽין־דָּ֨ם | לְדָ֜ם בֵּֽין־דִּ֣ין לְדִ֗ין וּבֵ֥ין נֶ֨גַע֙ לָנֶ֔גַע דִּבְרֵ֥י רִיבֹ֖ת בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ וְקַמְתָּ֣ וְעָלִ֔יתָ אֶל־הַ֨מָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּֽוֹ:

        If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between lesion and lesion, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to the place the Lord, your God, chooses.

        Rashi notes that the words “go up” allude to the Temple Mount and the fact that the location of the Beit Hamikdash is elevated from a topography and spirituality perspective. Rashi, however, does not explain why the Torah must also command us to “rise up”. It seems that the Torah wants to emphasize that when it comes to cultivating and developing relationships, a key ingredient is “rising up” ie taking the risk and the initiative to approach the person in order to develop or strengthen the relationship.

        Chodesh Elul is an auspicious time to take the initiative and cultivate our relationship with Hashem. As the Torah suggests in Shoftim, I encourage you to do so. I, along with the rest of our Rabbis and Sara Frieberg, are eager to assist in your journey. I encourage you to “rise up”, contact one of us by phone or email and let us know how we can helpful to you on your journey.  Chodesh Elul is also a good time to remember how powerful it is to “rise up” by taking the initiative to strengthen our relationships with others, including family and friends.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The Observance of Shemitah Today

 

Parshat Reeh contains the mitzvah of Shemitah. Every seventh year, farmers in Israel are instructed to leave their fields fallow as a reminder that God is the true owner of all of the land. For close to 2,000 years this mitzvah remained unfulfilled, as there were no farmers tilling the land among the small remnant of Jews that remained in Israel. It was not until 1889 that this mitzvah became relevant once more, and the Jewish community in Israel had to navigate the fulfillment of this mitzvah with the need to cultivate and develop the Jewish presence in Israel at that time. The upcoming Jewish year of 5782 is a Shemittah year. Over the course of the year I look forward to teaching the laws and lessons of Shemitah in our day. Below is an excerpt from an article in the OU’s Jewish Action by Peter Abelow that tells the story of Mazkeret Batya. (Full article available here: https://jewishaction.com/jewish-world/israel/on_and_off_the_beaten_track_in_mazkeret_batya/)

Mazkeret Batya, came into being during the First Aliyah. Of the many generous individuals who made the First Aliyah possible, there is probably no one whose name is more recognized than Baron Edmond (Binyamin) de Rothschild. The Baron was instrumental in funding many of the twenty-eight new moshavot (settlements) built during the First Aliyah, including Zichron Yaakov, Binyamina, Bat Shlomo and Mazkeret Batya, all named in honor or in memory of members of his family. Many of the new immigrants who arrived during this aliyah were Religious Zionists, members of the Chovevei Tzion (“Lovers of Zion”) and BILU (“Beit Ya’akov Lechu Venelchah”) movements, inspired by the goal of working the land. During this period, 90,000 acres of land were purchased, thereby launching Israel’s future as an agricultural society.

One of the leaders of Chovevei Tzion was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever. Born into a rabbinic family in Vilna in 1824, he was ordained in the famous yeshivah of Volozhin and became the rabbi in Bialystok, Poland, in 1883, a position he held until his death in 1898.

In September of 1882, Rabbi Mohilever met with Baron de Rothschild in Paris, where they laid plans for the establishment of a new settlement to be named Ekron. He returned to Poland and on October 19 recruited ten pioneering families, each of whom signed a letter indicating their readiness to move and their willingness to refund the money provided to cover the costs of travel and of reestablishing themselves. The ten heads of the families were to leave within four weeks, with their families to follow at a later date. Once in Palestine, they underwent training in farming for a year, sponsored by the Baron, and began to work the land the following November. The Baron himself visited Ekron in 1886, and renamed the moshavah “Mazkeret Batya” in memory of his mother, who had recently died.

During the two-thousand years of living in the Diaspora, the Jewish people had yearned to be able to fulfill the mitzvot that were dependent upon being in the Land of Israel. In 1889, with the arrival of the first shemittah year since the First Aliyah, the religious pioneers were presented with a long-awaited opportunity. The mitzvah of shemittah requires letting the land lie fallow for a year, and the moshavot—whose agricultural enterprises were barely getting off the ground—were confronted with a halachic dilemma. Many aligned themselves with the opinion of the Rabbanut of Jerusalem, which insisted that shemittah be strictly observed with all of its stringencies. The Baron and his representatives, on the other hand, felt strongly that economic considerations mandated the more lenient approach advocated by other Torah authorities (including Rabbi Mohilever) authorizing the sale of the land to a non-Jew (“heter mechirah”). In the end, Mazkeret Batya, in defiance of the Baron, became one of the few moshavot that strictly observed the shemittah that year; its farmers refused to work the land, choosing to endure the economic consequences of that decision.

 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Privilege as a Test


 

   In this morning’s Parsha, Moshe describes the provision of manna as a test. In what way was eating manna from Heaven a test? Many commentators such as Rashi and Ramban focus on how the manna experience tested our faith in G-d. There were specific restrictions on how to collect the manna that tested our faith in Hashem: only a certain amount, double on Fridays, no collecting on Shabbat. Furthermore no manna could be left over for the next day- meaning that the Jews went to bed each night in the desert with their cupboards bare, totally dependent on G-d, with no natural way to provide for themselves the next day.

        The Seforno explains differently, in a very brief yet powerful comment he writes:

        “The test is in whether you will do G-d’s will when he provides food and clothing for you without pain, without effort.”

        According to Seforno, the test of manna was the test of privilege. How would Bnai Yisrael handle a situation in which they were provided for without having to exert themselves in conventional ways? In general, the Torah advocates for success built upon hard work. For example, later in the Parsha we read the second paragraph of the Shema. In it the Torah promises that if we do what is right then “Veasafta Deganech” as reward we will have the opportunity to reap abundant harvests. Surely those things that we work for we are able to value and appreciate. But what about the manna? We didn’t do anything to get it; G-d provided, it was literally bread from Heaven. How would Bnai Yisrael relate to such privilege? This was the test of the manna according to Seforno. And this test of privelege is as much a test today as it was in the desert.

        Economists and researchers tell us that we are in the midst of the biggest inheritance boom in history. Within the next 40 years, a staggering amount of money will be transferred between generations as inheritance. Depending on the study, estimates range from 40 to over 100 trillion dollars. Many heirs are looking forward to the day that wealth literally falls into their laps (even though it occurs as a result of the death of a loved one). Wealth obtained effortlessly carries its own set of challenges.

        Studies at Columbia University have shown that the wealthiest children are at equal risk for substance abuse, anxiety and depression as low-income children.

        Douglas Freeman is co-founder of a national consulting firm that works with wealthy families. In an article in USA Today he said, "The level of wealth has grown enormously in this country and we've seen the adverse effects. Parents have seen real examples in their families and in those around them of indolent, lethargic, slothful, over-indulged and under-motivated children."

        It is therefore not surprising that a few years ago Warren Buffet pledged the bulk of his estate, at that time worth $31 billion dollars, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buffet has often said that wealthy parents should leave their children with enough money to do anything they want but not so much that they are doomed to do nothing at all.

        Privilege is a blessing. Those who feel privileged should be grateful and not take it for granted. Compared to previous centuries and other parts of the world, we all live privileged lives, some of us more so than others. The episode of the manna reminds us that privilege brings with it some tests and challenges. Adversity will more often than not lead us to G-d in some way or another. We may turn to G-d in prayer or we may turn to G-d in anger when things are not going our way. But where does G-d fit in the picture when things are going our way? Privilege tests us not to forget G-d’s role in the world and in our lives. It tests us to maintain proper priorities, and to continue to strive for great things. It tests us to live lives of spiritual wealth, on par with our material wealth.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Chosen Nation vs “Like All the Nations”

 Dr. Nahum Goldmann was a founder of the World Jewish Congress and its president from 1951 to 1978, and was also president of the World Zionist Organization from 1956 to 1968. In 1967 he delivered a speech in Basel, Switzerland to mark the 70th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. Here is an excerpt from that speech that I found relevant to our parsha and to our current events:

      Zionism has never had a clear-cut position on this question of the character of the State. Zionism was always based on two contradictory ideals. The one ideal was a normalized Jewish life, to create a state like all others, to have a land like all others, a language like all others, a majority like all others, an economy of its own like all others. Its foremost representative was Herzl, an assimilated Jew who did not have a proper knowledge of what Judaism was. What moved him was concern for the Jews: he saw Jewish distress and said that the solution was a land of our own, a life like all other nations. The other ideology, whose classic representative was Ahad Ha’Am, said that the State was only an instrument and that the main aim was to set up a spiritual center that would guarantee the existence and uniqueness of the Jews all over the world. This was not even a purely Zionist dichotomy. In the Hebrew Haskalah literature, we already find this conflict. There was one group that said: Lo kechol hagoyim beth Yisrael, the people of Israel are unlike other peoples and the other replied: Nihye kechol hagoyim, let us be like all other nations. These two contradictory trends have always developed side by side inside Zionism. We wanted to be a normal people, and at the same time to preserve the abnormal, the unique.

      It's interesting how this tension plays itself out in surprising ways. Those who subscribe to Religious Zionism firmly believe that Israel is not meant to be like every other country, but rather a unique country inspired by Torah values that strives to be a light onto the nations. And yet, on my recent trip to Israel I visited the Knesset and met with a Member of Knesset from the Religious Zionist camp. This Member of Knesset was among those in the opposition who heckled Prime Minister Naftali Bennet while he was speaking while Knesset was in session. When we asked him about his behavior, as well as that of other religious MK’s, he explained it as political theatre, similar to what you might find in British Parliament. While political theatre may be a justification for rude behavior in some political settings, I wonder if government officials inspired by Jewish values should perhaps hold themselves to a different standard.

      While the Jewish State may strive to hold itself to unique standards based on Jewish tradition and Jewish values, we cannot allow others to treat Israel differently than all other countries. This week Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Company announced that it would stop selling products in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Singling out Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in this way is a form of modern anti-Semitism. As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l explained in an important and insightful (and short) video, throughout history Jew haters have sought to demonize the medium through which Jews collectively identify. For most of history that meant attacks against the Torah. After the Enlightenment and Emancipation attacks were also directed against Jewish culture. Today these attacks are also launched against the State of Israel, a modern facet of collective Jewish identity.

      Moshe warned us about this at the end of Parshat Vaetchanan, when he said (7:6-7): “For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth. Not because you are more numerous than any people did the Lord delight in you and choose you, for you are the least of all the peoples.”

      Let us embrace the unique role of the Jewish People and the Jewish State, yet not let anyone get away with anti-Semitism under the guise of holding us to a different set of standards.