Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Attitude is Everything


One of the more famous ideas attributed to the great Rav Moshe Feinstein is his explanation for the phenomenon of observant parents whose children are not observant. Rabbi Feinstein was addressing this phenomenon in the middle of the 20th century, but his explanation remains relevant today. Rav Moshe said that often times the greatest predictor whether children will follow in the traditions and observance of their parents is the attitude that the parents conveyed about living an observant life. If the child would hear a constant refrain from the parents that “it’s hard to be a Jew”, then there was a greater risk that the child would be turned off and leave his/her parents’ ways. However if the child got the impression from his/her parents, through words and attitude, that “it’s great to be a Jew”, then the child would be proud and excited to follow in those footsteps. Rabbi Feinstein suggested that we learn this lesson from our Parsha, Nitzavim. The pasuk states: “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” The typical way to understand the underlined clause is that the Torah is explaining a cause and the effect. If you choose life, then we will receive the blessing that our offspring will live and thrive. Rabbi Feinstein wonders why the Torah promises us a blessing if we follow the Torah, when this sentiment (in the negative) was already stated in the previous pasukim (17-18): “But if your heart deviates and you do not listen, and you will be drawn astray, and you will prostrate yourself to other deities and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you will surely perish, and that you will not live long days on the land….”

Rav Moshe therefore suggests an alternate reading by taking out the comma in the phrase. “So that your children will live” is not the effect of our choosing life. Rather it is a description of the attitude we must bring to our choice of life. We must choose Jewish identity and Jewish observance in a way that attracts and entices and excites our offspring to do the same. For a parent, choosing a Torah lifestyle is an important and laudable step, but it is not enough. We must live that lifestyle in a way that is attractive and inspiring to our children. No one said parenting was easy. But it is worthwhile. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l said that his greatest achievement in life was raising his children to be committed Jews who contribute to the Jewish community. That outcome doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a lot of effort- and a lot of prayers to Hashem.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Blessings in Disguise


Parshat Ki Tavo contains the curses and blessings that Bnai Yisrael heard at Mt Gerizim and Mt Eival right before they entered the Land of Israel. Early on in the section describing the blessings, the Torah states (28:2) “All of these blessings will come upon you and overtake you…” The term “overtake: is generally used in regards to something bad. Why is it used here to describe the feeling of being blessed? Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski quotes an answer from the Degel Machaneh Efrayim, written by the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. (The Baal Shem Tov’s yahrtzeit was this week on the 18th of Elul.) He writes that sometimes God’s blessings can come in a form that we find distressful. Not all blessings are obviously good for us. Sometimes a blessing can come to us in disguise. If we don’t recognize the situation as a blessing we may become suspicious, anxious, and even frightened. Our response to a blessing in disguise may be to run away from it, instead of running towards the blessings. In such a situation the Torah promises us that even if we run away from a blessing in disguise, if we ar meant to receive that blessing Hashem will make sure the blessing chases after us and finally catches up to us. A similar idea is used to explain the phrase in Tehillim Chapter 23: “Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life…”

Rabbi Twerski concludes by noting that children cry when they go to the doctor and receive a painful shot. Many children probably wonder why is it that their parents bring them to the doctor to get poked and pricked. But we adults know that parents allow their children to endure momentary pain because it is really for their health and in their best interests. This is even truer when it comes to the situations in which Hashem puts us. Let us be on the lookout for the blessings in our lives. And when things really don’t seem like blessings, let us at least consider the possibility that what we are experiencing is actually a blessing in disguise.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Nostalgia Takes Us Back - and Propels Us Forward

Towards the end of the Parshat Ki Teitzei, there are a few Mitzvot in succession that instruct us to consider the plight of the Ger Yatom and Almanah: the stranger, orphan and widow. First the Torah tells us to be careful to treat these people with extra sensitivity when dealing with them in a court of law. Then the Torah instructs us that whatever gleanings are forgotten in the field, they should be given to the ger yatom and almanah:  people who were faced with challenges above and beyond what others had to surmount. In both cases the torah gives the same reason for these two mitzvot (and utilizes the same language:

Vezacharta kee eved hayita b’eretz Mitzrayim; al kein Anochi metzavecha laasot et hadavar hazeh.

Many commentators explain that since we were slaves in Egypt we know how it feels. And even though we are now free men and perhaps are even successful businessmen with slaves/ servants of our own, we must never forget where we come from and have empathy- for we know what it’s like to be in trying circumstances.

But if that is the case, why must the Torah specify a command to remember. Why not just say: “Treat these underprivileged people, for you too were underprivileged at one time” Why a specific command of Vezacharta to remember? Furthermore, the first time that this reason is suggested, the Torah adds another element: Vayifdecha Hashem Elokecha Misham.- We must remember not only that we were slaves, but that G-d redeemed us from Egypt. How does this aspect fit in to the lesson of empathy?

I believe that in addition to empathy the Torah is teaching us the positive power of nostalgia. Life can get hectic. Over time consistency can turn into rote which can turn into a humdrum existence. We begin to lose sight of what our passions and goals were, why we went into this profession or how smitten we were with our spouse when we were dating, or the pure joy and love we felt when we held our children for the first time as newborns. We forget what it’s all about. So the Torah gives us a suggestion: Remember from where you came; the joy and love that you felt when G-d redeemed you from Egypt. This nostalgia will help propel you to do the right thing as it relates to those less fortunate. And it will also make you a happier and more contented individual.

As we travel through the last month of the Hebrew calendar and prepare for the New Year let us remember the benefits of nostalgia. Let us tap into those memories of the past that can be comforting, heartwarming and inspire us to greater heights in the future.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Spite is Not a Good Reason


In one episode of the TV show Seinfeld (“the Wig Master” Episode 129) Jerry buys a crested blazer, but doesn’t like the salesperson that sold it to him. He goes back to the store and wants to return the jacket. When the sales associate asks why he wants to return the jacket, Jerry says “for spite”. The associate then confers with her manager who comes over and tells Jerry that store policy does not allow returns due to spite (and since he already said it was due to spite, they would not accept the return, even if Jerry offered another reason for the return).

Spite is a uniquely human phenomenon, evident in even young children. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University recently conducted the following experiment. A child, who had a dislike for broccoli, was instructed to look into another room where there was a child behaving badly. Then the observing child is informed that the badly behaving child will be getting his favorite food- broccoli. But before the plate of broccoli is brought to the badly behaved child, the observing child is given the option of eating some of the broccoli (which he doesn’t like) with the knowledge that only his leftovers will reach the badly behaved child. Bloom reports that some children would literally be in tears as they scarfed down broccoli- even though they don’t like it- just to make sure that the other child was not “unfairly” rewarded. Spite is the tendency that people show to be upset by the prospect of someone else benefiting, even if that benefit does not come at their expense in any way.

Being spiteful is not something we necessarily grow out of as adults. People will sometimes work to ensure that another person gain no benefit from a given situation, even though their personal position will not be enhanced as a result. While the Torah does not condone being spiteful, in Parshat Shoftim it acknowledges that spite is a powerful human emotion. The beginning of Chapter 20 outlines some laws of warfare and mentions 4 people who are exempt from military service. The first three of these exemptions are: One who built a new house but has not yet lived in it, one who planted a vineyard but has not yet enjoyed its fruits, and one who is engaged but has not yet gotten married. While these exemptions seem reasonable, the reason offered by the Torah is surprising: “lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate the house/ redeem the field, take his wife”. The loss of life in battle is always unfortunate/ tragic. Why are these specific circumstances – and especially the possibility of “another man”- worth noting? The Torah is aware of the power of spite. As we gear up for the High Holidays, let us recognize the power of spite in order that we avoid falling into that trap.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

We Are Not Trapped by Our Past Decisions


Parshat Reeh begins “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein notes the peculiarity of the word “today” in the verse. He suggests that the Torah here is reminding us that often people think that the life that they live today is based on the decisions that they made a long time ago. And now we are trapped by those previous decisions. While it is true that decisions have consequences, and sometimes it is impossible to totally undo a decision, every day is a new opportunity. Every day we have the choice: to either affirm our past decisions and continue down the path that we have been on or to choose to do things differently. While we may feel stuck due to past decisions, the Torah wants us to always remember that so long as we are alive we have the ability to make new choices, different choices. One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and yet expect different results. If we want to see changes in our life then we must make different choices and act in different ways. While this might be difficult, the word HaYom reminds us that every day is a new opportunity to make new choices. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

All Actions Have Consequences


By analyzing two interpretations of the word Ekev separately and together, we can suggest an important theme that emerges from Parshat Ekev.

Rashi does not treat the word literally, but rather homiletically. The word Ekev has the same letters as the word Akev, which means a heel. Rashi explains that Moshe here is warning the people not to discard those mitzvot which some would consider easy, or less important. Make sure not to step on them with your heel, says Rashi, and you will be rewarded for taking even ‘kalot’ light mitzvot seriously.

There really is no such thing as kallot, as small things. An attention to detail is necessary in all aspects of our life. As Larry Bell, 20th cen. industrialist (founder of Bell Helicopters) once said: Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I'll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things.” The greatest rabbis are those that have a keen attention to detail, people, and causes.

The Ramban explains that the word Ekev means Baavur, literally “because of” or “as a result of”. According to Ramban, the Parsha opens with Moshe reminding the Jewish People that there are consequences to our behavior. How we conduct ourselves will have a direct impact on how G-d relates to us, or more precisely to what degree we are able to benefit from G-d in our lives. This idea forms the backbone of the entire Parsha and is important enough that the Rabbis chose the end of our parsha as the second paragraph of the Shema b/c of its emphasis on Sechar V’onesh, that there are consequences to our actions.

If we allow Rashi’s comments to inform our understanding of Ramban’s interpretation, then the word Ekev reminds us that there are consequences to even seemingly small decisions and actions. And those consequences may be significantly different or more severe than anyone would have ever imagined.

Chazal were familiar with this idea. Take, for example, Shemitah. The idea that Shemitah cancels debts was to benefit the borrowers and allow them to get a leg up every seven years. Instead, it was worse for them as people stopped lending money, Hillel had to ameliorate the situation with the Prozbul. The pages of the Talmud and Midrash are replete with examples of seemingly minor acts of goodness or evil that had consequences far beyond what anyone could have imagined. One word, Ekev, has multiple interpretations. We must appreciate that our actions have consequences.  We must understand that nothing of substance can ever be classified as kallot. Even seemingly minor actions or events can have major impact. If we keep these lessons in mind then we can be assured that that we will be worthy of all the blessings that Hashem has promised us in Parshat Ekev.


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

True Nechama through Changing Our Perspective

 The Talmud in Makkot tells us that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking in Jerusalem. Upon reaching Mount Scopus, they saw a fox emerging from the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. The rabbis were crying while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Akiva! How can you laugh at a time like this? The Beit HaMikdash is in ruins!”

Rabbi Akiva replied, “How can I laugh?! How can you cry?”

They countered, “The Holy of Holies - that could never be entered except by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur - is now a fox’s den. How can we not weep?”

“That is exactly why I laugh,” answered Rabbi Akiva. “If Uriah’s prophecy of a destroyed and barren Jerusalem can be fulfilled, then I am confident that so, too, Zechariah’s vision of a restored Jerusalem will also be fulfilled.”

The rabbis then declared, “Akiva nichamtanu, Akiva nichamtanu – Akiva, you have comforted us.”

Rabbi Akiva laughed in the face of tragedy because he realizes that consolation will ultimately come. What is difficult to understand is why the rabbis are comforted. What kind of solace is there, when the pain is so intense and so deep, to know that there will be a redemption? For that matter, how does nechama work? We read this morning, “Nachamu, nachamu ami – be comforted, my people.” So begins the shiva d’n’chemta – the seven Haftorahs of consolation that we will read until Rosh Hashanah. They are eloquent and powerful words of encouragement, and they come to strengthen our belief in an ultimate redemption, but how is this supposed to provide comfort?

Nechama is an important concept for Jews. Nichum aveilim – comforting mourners – is a very important mitzvah. There is an organization called Nechama which is dedicated to sending volunteers to trouble spots to help those who are suffering. But what exactly is Nechama?

A look at the term throughout Tanach and in the story of Rabbi Akiva offers us guidance as to what a Jew can hope for in times of sadness, tragedy, or pain. The very first time it is used is in Parshat Bereishit (6:6):

וינחם ה' כי עשה את האדם בארץ, ויתעצב אל לבו.

If we were to translate this using the word comfort, it would read that God was consoled by the fact that He created man, and His heart was saddened. Rather, we should translate the verse as, “And God reconsidered having made man on earth, and He had heartfelt sadness.”

Nechama is not necessarily about feeling better. Even our usage of the traditional expression of consolation, “HaMakom yenachem eschem besoch she’ar avaylei Tzion vi’Yerishalayim,” which we often translate as, “May God comfort and console you among all of us who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem,” is not only about comfort.

Nechama is about a change in perspective. It represents reaching a place – mentally or emotionally – where the individual recognizes that the current reality cannot be the permanent one. God recognized that his initial creation of mankind required adjustment. We encourage the mourner that she or he should, and hopefully will, find perspective in theaftermath of the loss of their loved one. And Rabbi Akiva did not make the Sages feel jovial. He, instead, gave them a new perspective on their tragic situation. The Temple may be in ruins, but there is a next chapter still to come.