Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Shavuot 5774 day 1 - We are the Chariots of Torah

A young woman brings home her fiance to meet her parents. After dinner, her mother tells her father to find out about the young man. The father invites the fiance to his study for a drink.
"So what are your plans?" the father asks the young man.
"I am a Torah scholar." he replies.
"A Torah scholar? Hmmm," the father says. "Admirable, but what will you do to provide a nice house for my daughter to live in, as she's accustomed to?"
"I will study," the young man replies, "and God will provide for us." "And how will you buy her a beautiful engagement ring, such as she deserves?" asks the father.
"I will concentrate on my studies," the young man replies, "God will provide for us."
"And children?" asks the father. "How will you support children?" "Don't worry, sir, God will provide," replies the fiance. The conversation proceeds like this, and each time the father questions him, the young idealist insists that God will provide.
Later, the mother asks, "How did it go, honey?"
The father answers, I like him, he thinks I’m God. 

As we celebrate our reception of the Torah on Har Sinai, I’d like to speak about learning Torah.
There is a Mishna in kiddushin where Rav Meir said: One is obligated to teach nhis son and easy and clean occupation and pray to the One from whom one’s livelihood and truth emanates.  Rav Nehorai said: I forego all occupations and teach my son only Torah. 
This Mishna is teaching two seemingly diametrically opposed perspectives on being Jewish.  Rav Meir perspective was that he wants to teach his son to make a living and to Honor God.  Rav Nehorai said that he will forgo teaching his son to make a living and just learn Torah all day. 
Which is the correct approach??  The verdict is still out on that one.  Part of the Jewish world feels strongly that working is a necessary way of life, while another part of the Jewish world values learning all day above all else. 
The brisker Rav, quotes another gemara in trying to make sense of this mishna.  
The gemara in berachot 35b shows a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on this same question.  Rabbi Yishmael teaches,  “because there are verses like the torah shall not depart out of your mouth, and you shall study it night and day, I might have thought that it is to be taken literally. That the ideal way to be Jewish is to study Torah all of the time.”   But since there is another verse which says, “and you shall gather in your corn.” Which implies that one needs to combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation. 
But R’ Shimon Bar Yochai takes issue with this perspective.  He argues that, “if a man ploughs in the ploughing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, threshes in the threshing season, winnows in the winnowing season…what is to become of the Torah!?!?!?  Therefore, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai teaches, that the ideal way of life for a Jew is to study all the time, and if we’re doing God’s will, our work will be done by others.  God will provide. 
The gemara points out that lots of people have lived according to Rabbi Yishmael and been successful, both in Torah study and in making a livelihood.  While lots of people who have tried to live according to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai have not had the same luck. 
The Brisker Rav explains that both are valid ways of life, but it depends on who you are.  If you are as a great as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, then God will provide if you dedicate yourself to studying Torah.  But for the rest of us, we need to make a living and find the time to study Torah. 
But if we adopt the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael it seems like we’re are totally ignoring the verses that teach us how one should study torah all day, and that the words of Torah should never leave your mouth. 
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schachter teaches that when people are living their daily lives, raising children, earning a livelihood, it’s not possible to be learning Torah night and day.  But we can fulfill the requirement of being involved w/Torah all day when our goals in our daily tasks are for the sake of the Torah.  When we raise our children to be good Jews and when we work so that we can live a life filled with Torah and Mitzvot, than the times that we’re resting and even the times we’re relaxing are considered to be a chariot for Torah.  Because we are focused on fulfilling our obligations, and everything else we do is helping us get there!

The lesson is, we need to make sure that our eye is always on the prize.  We don’t work in order to rest and be able to retire, we work for the sake of Torah.  The best way to keep this kind of focus, is to be קובע עיתים לתורה, to set aside a specific amount of time, every day, to participate in some sort of Jewish learning.  Even if it’s just 5 minutes a day, will help keep our focus on the meaning of Jewish life.  And that is living a life based on the lessons of the Torah, and dedicated to spreading the light of Torah.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beha'alotcha 5774

Abe, an elderly Jew, was being treated in NY presbyterian hospital in the upper east side, it’s one of the world’s best hospitals.  After some time, he requested to be transfered, to tiny little dinky jewish hospital in the lower east side. 
When he meets his new doctor at the new hospital the doctor says, “I see that you’ve asked to here from one of the best hospitals in the world...I don’t get it, did you have a problem with your doctor?
Abe responds, “My doctor was the best in his field and on top of that, he had a bedside manner that couldn’t be beat, about my doctor I couldn’t complain.”
So, the doctor says, “Was it the nursing staff, did the nurses not treat you right?”
- “my Nurses were beautiful both inside and out, they took such good care of me, I couldn’t complain.”
Maybe, the food wasn’t good, did you have a problem with the food they served you?
- “my food was prepared to order by a 5 star chef whenever I wanted, about the food I couldn’t complain.”
Perplexed, the doctor says, “Abe, tell me, if you had such a good experience at that hospital, why did you ask to be switched here?”
With a smile, Abe looked at his doctor and said, “Because here I can complain.”

Everyone loves to complain, it’s a part of life.  Some people do it more, some people do it less, but pretty much everyone complains.
So what’s wrong with a complaining, a little complaining never hurt anyone, did it?

It does.  Negative thoughts are patterns of thought which impact the rest of our thinking and those around us.  We all know from experience how being around someone who complains constantly and is overly negative impacts our own moods and thoughts.  But the effects are not just emotional, negativity has a negative physical impact on us as well. 
According to an experiment done in 2012 by Professor Murray J. Munro, of Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver.  Chronic complaining and negativity can even have strong physical repercussions on the complainers themselves, and on the people around them.
In the experiment, the test subjects were exposed to controlled amounts of complaining from various people who volleyed their complaints in pre-planned ways (in meetings, email messages, social media, etc.) at pre-determined intervals. The impact of exposure to complaints was assessed by taking periodic blood pressure readings and cortisol measurements from each subject at the beginning and end of each day.
Analysis of the data from the daily complaint inventories revealed a significant positive correlation between overall “negativity” and blood pressure levels.
What was most striking about the results of the study, however, was the finding that second-hand complaining was even more harmful to the test subjects than their own self-generated whining. Hearing people complain during staff meetings and reading negative e-mails resulted in significantly higher blood pressure and abnormally elevated cortisol levels. We all know the dangers of high blood pressure. But elevated cortisol levels are equally as bad. Over time, these have been shown to have numerous negative effects, such as:
     Impaired cognitive performance
     Suppressed thyroid function
     Blood sugar imbalances
     Decreased bone density
     Decrease in muscle tissue
     Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body,
     and many other health consequences

So science shows that the more complaining we do, the more problems we cause ourselves and others, giving you and everyone around more reasons to complain.  It’s a vicious cycle. 

There’s a good deal of complaining in the Parsha this week, Parshat Beha’alotcha.  The first verse in chapter 11 of this week’s parsha says, “ויהי העם כמתאננים רע באזני השם,” the meaning of this phrase is not clear, I’ve seen it translated as:
     the people were looking to complain to God
     or that the people were as murmers speaking evil in the ears of God
     or that the people were as though in mourning over themselves, they were bad in the ears of God. 
No matter how you translate it, it’s clear that there infected with negativity.  The result of this negativity was a fire from God broke out and was devouring the edge of the camp.  In addition to the literal meaning of God punishing the people, this can also be describing a metaphorical sense, in which they were being consumed by their negativity.  At first it was only on the outskirts of the camp, or their consciousness, and this incident ended.  But 3 verses later, the negativity rears it head again. 

A few complainers started to complain about the lack of variety in their diet, only once they started complaining did the rest of the people also pick up the complaint and called out, it was better for us as slaves in Egypt, if only someone would serve us some meat! 
The negativity was infectious. 
It was so infectious, it impacted Moshe as well.  After Moshe heard their complaints, he complained.  The first response of Moshe in this episode is: למה הרעת לעבדך - why have you done such evil for me, to place the burden of this people on me...I can’t do this, it’s too much for me.  He ends his complaint by saying, I’d rather you kill me than I have to continue to deal with this. 
The people seem to be in a rut.  How did they deal with the culture of negativity that was spreding their midst, from the rabble all the way up to Moshe? 
God’s response is to command Moshe to gather 70 elders from amongst the people, people who are respected and who have influence, and I will speak with you there and put some of the רוח or spirit from you and spread it to them, and then you won’t be so alone.

What I see in this story is advice on how get out of a rut.  Moshe and the people were stuck in a negative state of mind.  God told Moshe to gather a community of positivity around him, and share some of the positive forces in his life with that community.  After he’s successfully gotten himself out of a rut by actively sharing positivity with other influential people, then God turns his message to the wider community.  Saying, there is hope, all is not as bad as it seems. Get ready, because tomorrow there will be meat. 
But meat wasn’t going to just appear, they had to get ready. 
Negativity doesn’t just go away, it needs to be willed away. 

From Moses, to the elders, to the people, the cycle needed to be reversed.  God said, Moses you need to snap out of it, instead of wallowing in complaints and self-pity, be proactive.  Gather people who have the potential to be a positive force, share the burden with them, spread a positive message to them, and then let that positivity continue radiate outward.  Finally, in order for the people to feel a resolution to the negative situation, they needed to Get ready themsleves.  התקדשו the Pasuk says, get ready, and then the meat will come. 
If we are stuck in a rut, we have to choose to see things differently, we need to create an environment for positivity to take root and grow.

To drive this message home , in the very next episode of the Parsha, we see another complaint and we see how to handle the situation in a positive manner.  There are two men who are prophesying in the camp without sanction, concerned about the impact on Moshe’s authority, Joshua runs to complain about this to Moshe. 
Instead of being caught in the complaining trap and causing a domino effect of negativity, Moshe spins the situation with a positive outlook, saying, “are you jealous for me, if only all of God’s people could prophets.” 
It would’ve been easy for Moses to get upset, most people would have and then reacted negatively and spread the negativity around some more.  Moshe identifies the beginning of a negative thought pattern and changes it around.  Lesson learned.

Can we learn the lesson as easily?

I believe our sages alluded to the difficulty of creating positive thought patterns and the destructive cycle of negativity in a gemara from Masechet Yoma.  The Gemara says “צדיק מעצמו, the righteous are alone, ורשע מחבירו.The wicked person is with his friends.  What does this mean?  צדיק מעצמו דכתיב: “זכר צדיק לברכה, The impact of a righteous person is only on himself because the verse says a tzadik is remembered for blessing; ורשע מחבירו דכתיב ושם רשעים ירקב.”
while impact of a wicked person is with his friends, as the verse says “the name of the wicked [plural form], shall rot.”
Read this as saying, negativity will spread to others on its own, the wicked person is with his friends.  It is more difficult for positivity to spread, the righteous are alone.
Therefore, we have to be the catalyst for the spread of positivity.

Some suggestions for doing this might be:
     identify triggers for negative thought patterns before they lead us down a negative road, once down that road it’s harder to turn around.
     make a point to surround ourselves with positive influences.
     actively look to do positive things in order to start positive thought patterns. 

Negativity and complaining are a part of life, everyone has ups and downs.  But left unchecked they can have real repercussions on ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities both physically and emotionally. 

For some of us, this advice will hopefully add positivity in our lives and minimize unnecessary complaining.  It’s important to note, that extreme negative feelings can also be a symptom of clinical depression caused by chemicals in our brain, not just by negative thought patterns.  In the case of depression, a person will not be able to remove themselves from the negative thought patterns.  It is very important that we seek external help from experts when they see a constant pattern of negativity in their lives that they are not able to remove themselves from.

Left unchecked, negativity festers it begets more negativity, and it hurts us.  We owe it to ourselves and the people around us, to do whatever it takes to inject more positivity in our lives. 

May we all be blessed to live a life of happiness, see our cups not just half full, but overflowing with blessing, and may we share this positivity with everyone we come in contact with.  

Bamidbar 5774

Jewish Wisdom is vast and universally valuable.  Rabbi Irwin Kula,the President of CLAL, once said to me, “Judaism is an ancient wisdom tradition with as much (if not more) to offer than any other wisdom tradition on the international marketplace of ideas.”   If this is true, why isn't Jewish wisdom more celebrated and studied worldwide?  According to Rabbi Kula, the problem is that most of Jewish wisdom is inaccessible to the average person.  The Jewish religion has not adequately evolved the language to communicate these ideas to a wider public.  Even when in English, Jewish wisdom is cloaked in ancient styles making the true wisdom of ancient Jewish texts too obscure for the uninitiated to appreciate.  

The Jewish community is not adequately translating these ideas and lessons in a way that is open and accesible to all.  The Orthodox world has the closest relationship with ancient Jewish wisdom and the most proficiency in reading and understanding our ancient texts, but we do not have proficiency or desire to share the gifts of Torah with the world. 

Why not? There's no easy answer to a question like this, but I believe that a lot of it has to do with the culture of survival that has evolved in the Orthodox community.  

If you take a close look at the larger Orthodox world, we seem to be motivated by a fear of annihilation, both physically and spiritually.  These fears are prevalent in all parts of the Orthodox world, from the Chareidi side on the right to much of the Modern Orthodox community on the left.  In February, Naomi and I were fortunate enough to staff a shabbaton for Orthodox college students with Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  After Shabbos dinner, Naomi and I got the opportunity to escort the Rabbi Sacks and his lady wife back to their apartment.  On our walk, Rabbi Sacks remarked to me, how he felt that Orthodox world is inwardly focused to an unhealthy degree, it’s bad for our neshamot, he’s bad for our souls.  
Most of the Orthodox world is obsessed with itself.  We are obsessed with questions about who is really orthodox, who is in/who is out, who can we associate with, who has anything of value to offer our spiritual and intellectual perspectives, who do we deem important enough to try to influence and inspire w/o being patronizing.  Most of the world is oblivious to the genius of Jewish wisdom, because most of Klal Yisrael is alienated from Orthodox Judaism.  

In the parsha we read about the physical numbers of the the Jewish people, in connection to this census, the Haftorah begins with the following verse, “והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר - And the number of the people of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted.”  There is a logical inconsistency in this verse.  The gemara (Yoma 22b) points out that, although the sand may be numerous, it is not immeasurable; it might take a while to count it all, but there is a finite number.  The second part of the verse which says that they cannot be measured or counted is describing an infinite measure.  These two descriptions, being as numerous as sand, and being immeasurable are not talking about the same thing!  So which is it?  Is the measure of the Jewish people finite or infinite?

The gemara explains that the first part of the pasuk, the finite measurement, is describing when the Jewish people are not doing רצון השם - the will of God; while the second part of the pasuk, the infinite measurement, is describing when the Jewish people are doing רצון השם - the will of God.  This explanation is still lacking.  Although being compared to the sand of the sea may not be as Grand as being immeasurable, it is not the description we would expect to be used when discussing the Jewish people as not doing God's will.

To get a better understanding of this Gemara, we need to understand what is meant by the infinite measurement of the Jewish people, and we need discuss the concept of רצון השם.Last shabbos, I was again privileged to hear Rabbi Sacks speak.  He was the scholar in residence at the Riverdale Jewish Center.  Since we were in Riverdale, I went to hear him speak at a special seduah shlishit question and answer session.  One of the questions asked was, after his first extended stay in the US, what are some of his critiques of the American Jewish community. He pointed out that the American Jewish community is the best in the world at defending Jews.  We have built institutions better than any in the world at protecting the the Jewish people, defending Jewish interests, and fighting anti-semitism.  Yet, with all of that, we have totally failed as a community to create leaders who are purposely and effectively transmitting Jewish wisdom to the broader population.  The Jewish community has failed, so far, to inspire anyone beyond its own borders, and if you look at the recent Pew survey, it's failing to even do that.

The point that the gemara is making about the immeasurable potential of the Jewish people is that our influence can be so much greater than our mere numbers. When the Jewish people are inspiring others, when Jewish wisdom is being adopted by average people to make their own lives more meaningful, there is a little piece of the Jewish people spread all around.  You can’t measure this kind of influence.  

How does this relate to fulfillment of God's will discussed in the Gemara?  In a sermon from 1966, Rabbi Norman Lamm connects the Gemara's commentary on the verse from our haftorah to a teaching of the Chassidic Rabbi, Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin. 

Rav Tzadok distinguishes between two terms: רצונו של מקום and מצוותו של מקום, the will of God and the commandments of God.  These are two different ways of being Jewish, similar, but not the same.  Rabbi Lamm attaches these concepts to the Gemara.  When we fulfill the commandments of God, we are many, but measureable; when we are serving God in the way that not only fulfills commandments but also fulfills the will of God, then we are immeasurable.

When we approach Judaism as a list of laws, when halacha is  the ceiling without any potential of going above and beyond in our fulfillment of the mitzvot, when our focus is only on fulfilling God’s commandments; then we fulfill those commandments, but that does not mean that we are fulfilling the will of God.  This kind of approach to religion is primarily focused on simply checking things off of a checklist, sometimes at the cost of other people or the big picture according to Judaism.  It is an observant lifestyle, but not a spiritual lifestyle.  It isn’t the fulfillment of God’s will in this world.  

Fulfilling the will of God is bigger than just robotically performing commandments.  When halachah is the floor and not the ceiling, when Judaism is a spiritual discipline, when the Mitzvot purify us and encourage us to reach above and beyond in our moral behavior, when doing mitzvot helps us grow, not just as a Jew but as a human being; Then we are fulfilling God's will. Doing the will of God means we do mitzvot in a way that is inspired by the Torah values of doing what is right and just, pursuing justice, being holy and many more Torah Values.  

Jewish life is so beautiful, Judaism is such a complex intellectual system.  The Torah isn't just a list of laws, its wisdom is universally valuable for navigating the big questions of humanity.  Doing the will of God means sharing that wisdom, creating a world influenced by Torah, fulfilling the call to be a light unto the nations. 

When all we think about is doing mitzvot, and mitzvot alone, then we’re measurable.  We have clear boundaries and clear numbers.  You want to know how many Jews there are in the world, do a survey and count, you get pretty close to an exact number and that's all we are is tiny number that is barely perceivable in the world.  We have little to no impact on anyone beyond ourselves.  That's not the fulfillment of God's will.When we are fulfilling the God's will, you can't look at our numbers to understand our presence in the world.  

Although, in this week’s parsha we read about a time when the Jewish people were counted, we know that the Torah forbids us from counting Jews.  To get an accurate census of the Jewish people we counted each person's donated half shekel, and not the person.  One of the reasons for this method of counting is so that we aren't led to believe that our strength lies in our numbers. Ideally we should be much stronger than our actual numbers would tell.  We make this true by spreading beyond our borders and inspiring the world.

Too much of the Orthodox Jewish community today is defined by fear.  The fear of anti-semitism and fear of assimilation is rampant in our community, it is often the dominant motivation to our approach to Jewish life.  To many, Jewish identity is a negative identity.  Meaning, a person feels I have to be jewish because of anti-semitism.  Or every big question that arises from our confrontation with a modern world is stifled because of a fear of assimilation.  We justify dismissing or shaming the big questions by labeling those who struggle and lacking fear of God or we even call them the enemies of Torah.  We deprive our children, our communities and the rest of the world of seeing the true beauty and complexity of a Torah that is intellectually at least as complex, rigorous and inspiring as any other intellectual system, if not more so.  We teach our community that Judaism can't deal with the difficult questions of life.  We send a message to those not comfortable with this approach that they have no place in the Orthodox community.  We do Judaism and the world a disservice by this cowardly approach.

How many are lost as a result? how many people are led to believe that Torah is only for the closed and small minded?  Too many people choose to dissociate as a result and end up assimilating because of our fear of assimilation. Many of my friends, people I grew up with, went to yeshiva day schools and orthodox Jewish camps with, have rejected the Judaism they grew up with, because they were never taught how to struggle with life's questions and see the wisdom of the Torah.  They feel that they outgrew Judaism. 

How many opportunities will we miss to keep our children inspired?  How many others are we, as a community, failing to inspire to see the beauty and complexity of the Torah?

Is this perspective on the state of the Orthodox world correct?  If you look at the recent Pew report, the orthodox community seems to be doing much better than any other branch of Judaism in terms of retaining numbers and growth.  For many orthodox Jews, this simple fact about numbers is a point of pride.  When Rabbi Steve Weil, the outgoing Executive vice-President of the OU, was discussing the Pew survey at a professional conference Naomi and I attended, he said what worries him most about the Pew report is Orthodox triumphalism.  He’s worried that the part of the Jewish community most concerned with doing mitzvot and connected to Torah will see the numbers and think “we’ve won,” by doing this, they’ll miss the most important lesson from the Pew report.  That lesson is that the Orthodox haven’t won, rather, the entire Jewish community has lost.  

Around 60% of Jews identify with Judaism as a culture and not as a religion and around 70% of Jews are intermarrying.  Bagels and lox and, matzah balls have a greater influence on the identity of Jews than Torah!  No one has won when that many Jews want nothing to do with the Torah.  The Torah is the birthright of all the Jewish people, whether they are religious or not.  The system of Torah has value and teaches meaning, even if a person chooses not to see it's divine nature.  And yet, most Jews want nothing to do with the Torah.

When Jews are ignorant of Jewish wisdom, when learned Jews are more concerned with protecting themselves than inspiring others, Judaism’s influence on the world is limited because God’s will is not being done.  So what do we do? It's so easy to lose our appreciation of mitzvot and their greater meaning when we do them habitually over and over again. 

I'd like to suggest some simple recommendations to help inspire ourselves and others:
do we simply do mitzvot like items on a checklist?  Let me start with one mitzvah and think about how to make it more inspiring to me.  Or, let me think about how I can share my shabbos experience with people who haven't experienced the beauty of shabbos before. 

Do Jewish values - which aren't codified in halacha so there's not defineable action -  do they inspire us to action and impact our Jewish identity?  If I'm not sure, let me try discuss with my family and practice articulating, what Jewish values are most important to us.  Or, pick a book about Jewish values and then pick a family member, a friend, or a colleague once a week get together in person or on skype to read and discuss.  Don't wait for someone else to get started, if you ask, I guarantee someone will love the opportunity to do this with you.

When is my way of being jewish motivated by fear?  Sometimes there is a need for that fear, anti-semitism and assimilation are real, but we err on the side of caution too often, do we ever evaluate when we are making decisions based on fear?  If we find that we don’t, we should try removing ourselves from our comfort zone and trying one of these suggestions with someone who we wouldn't normally associate with on that level, a non-orthodox family member, friend or colleague, or even a a non-Jewish acquiantance.  And try doing it in a way that doesn't assume your way is right for the other person, but in a way where you both have something unique and valuable to offer the other.  

Let the Torah speak for itself, share that torah with others, you will inspire and be inspired!

The haftorah echoes the bracha given to Avraham that his offspring will be as numberous as the sand, but they also have the potential to be immeasurable.  When we fulfill this bracha, we can fulfill another of God's promises to Avraham, ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה - all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.  We do this by living a life of Torah that is inspiring and inspirational.  The Torah is often compared to a flame, because sharing it doesn’t diminish the original flame in anyway, it simply spreads more light.  That light needs us to spread it around.

May we all be blessd to live an inspired and inspiring Jewish life.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Parshat Pinchas

Pinchas: Loving God, too much of a good thing?
            I can remember clearly, one Friday afternoon a few years ago, as I was in the sanctuary of the synagogue practicing my sermon for the upcoming shabbos, a man walked in looking for the rabbi.  It’s not so uncommon for people from all different backgrounds and faiths to walk into Sherith Israel looking for help.  This was one of the more interesting parts of being the assistant Rabbi there for 2 years.  The man seemed excited or agitated, and since I was the only Rabbi around at the time, I sat and talked to him.   The beginning of our conversation jumped all over the place, at first I didn’t know where he was going; he spoke to me about how wonderful he thinks the Jewish people are, and how much respect he has for the children of God, but eventually it became clear that he was working his way up to telling me about certain passages in, what he refers to as the old testament, which maybe I wasn’t aware of, that proved that his candidate for the Messiah was the real one.  He didn’t work for any missionary organizations or anything like that, It was very clear that what motivated him to walk into the local synagogue was an extreme love for his religious beliefs.  He was truly concerned that I was missing out, he couldn’t help himself.  He was overcome with an absolute feeling of certainty and love, he needed to share it, but he was oblivious to the disrespect he was showing my beliefs and way of thinking. 
            In Judaism, nothing is black and white.  Zealotry has its place as we see in the namesake of this week’s Parsha, Pinchas..  But throughout the corpus of Jewish literature and ideas, the topic of Zealotry is broached with great caution.  Extreme zeal is not something to emulate. 
            There is a midrash that says Pinchas is Eliyahu.  The man in last week’s Parsha who took the law into his own hands and slew a prince of Israel and Midianite princess for their immorality and idol worship is the prophet who defeated and slew the prophets of Ba’al after the famous showdown on Mt. Carmel.  This is quite shocking because these two biblical characters lived hundreds of years apart.  What causes our sages to make such a startling claim?  The early 16th century Italian scholar known as the Seforno quotes an earlier translation and commentary which explains how Pinchas and Eliyahu are literally the same person.  Seforno puts forth the idea that the Torah brit shalom, covenant of peace, Given to Pinchas by God as reward for his act of zealotry is a gift of immortality.  But others are uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of the Midrash.  They understand the Midrash as teaching us about a symbolic parallel between the personalities of Pinchas and Eliyahu.  Both Pinchas and Eliyahu were zealots, and they both committed egregious sins in the service of God.  In their defense of God and Judaism, both Pinchas and Eliyahu violated commandments which would normally make them liable to receive the death penalty according to Jewish law. 
            Killing Zimri was not a clear cut case of right and wrong.  Our sages are clearly uncomfortable with Pinchas’ actions as they teach us in Masechet Sanhedrin that had Zimri, the victim, turned around and killed Pinchas first in self defense, he would be innocent of any crime; that had Pinchas killed him at any moment other than the exact moment that he was involved in the sin, Pinchas would be a murderer; and that if Pinchas had asked permission from a beit din, he would have been denied. In the end, God tells us that Pinchas was right in doing what he did, but we needed God to tell us that, it wasn’t obvious.  Eliyahu, in his showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on the mountaintop, built his own altar and brought a sacrifice on it.  During this period of time, it was categorically forbidden for a Jewish person to build a private altar and bring a sacrifice on it.Despite the fact that both Eliyahu and Pinchas are considered religious heroes, they were heroes in times of need, but not role models.
            The evidence for this is although Pinchas was given a brit shalom, he would never be a normal cohen.  As a result of his violence, he would never be permitted to participate in the usual Priestly duties of the tabernacle.  To be valid for the Priestly service, a person must never have shed blood, regardless of whether the circumstances were accidental or if the violence was justified. 
Pinchas acted on God’s behalf, ending a plague of idolatry amongst the Jewish people in the desert, but the manner in which he did it led him to lose his Job.  Similarly, Eliyahu’s theatrical showdown with the priests of Ba’al may have been successful in stamping out the rampant idolatry of the time, but in doing so he violated a commandment not to bring sacrifices on an altar outside of the Temple.  Shortly following this incident Eliyahu is instructed by God to command his disciple to continue his work after him and he is whisked away to heaven in a fiery chariot.  Eliyahu did a great service for God, but shortly after he also lost his job. 
            What motivated Pinchas and Eliyahu, what led them to violate commandments in the name of Heaven?  It was their love of and devotion to God.  In our Parsha, God describes the actions and motivation of Pinchas using the words בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם, while he was zealous for my sake.  The same language is used by Eliyahu in the way he describes his own motivations.  Eliyahu says, קנא קנאתי לה, I am very zealous for God.  Their love was of a clear and absolute truth; to them it was so black and white that when they saw something wrong, they acted.  Their actions were the extreme manifestation of this certainty.  We can see a similar experience to a lesser extent in aspects of our own lives. 
            We all have moments when we feel something powerful; something we know to be right.  It’s hard to control ourselves when we are overcome with this feeling.  We are so excited that we want to scream from the rooftops and let everyone know!  To a much lesser extent, but still the same drive, when we discover an amazing tv show, movie, or book, most of us can’t help but at least recommend them to all of our friends and family or even try to force them to enjoy the same thing we did.  We want to share the beauty that we find.  Though these things are trivial matters, we often have a hard time listening to someone talk negatively about one of these things that we have enjoyed. 
            If this is true with our favorite pastimes, think about how much more true it is with regard to decisions about our lifestyles and our religious practices.  When it comes to the matters of deep seated belief, this need to share can sometimes be at best, offensive, and at worst, rather dangerous.  There are manifestations of other religions who happily adopt this need to share, to spread the good word.  But many times in history it has led to great crimes and violence against the Jewish people as well as many others.  With our own religion, although Pinchas and Eliyahu are the rare examples of when this type of behavior was justified, there are some dark, little known, periods in Jewish history when Jewish armies were converting people by the sword.  It is human nature to feel the certainty of our convictions and act upon them, but doing so in a way that causes harm to other people or violates the Torah is not the Jewish way.
            Judaism treads very lightly with regard to the way in which we influence others and show them truth.  A Mishna in Masechet Eduyoth records certain arguments of Hillel and Shamai.  We often hear about the schools of Hillel and Shamai having famous disputes.  But the arguments listed in this Mishna are different, they are the ones where they initially disagreed on the interpretation of a law, but in the end one of the great sages changed his mind and adopted the law according to the other.  The Mishna asks, if in the end they agreed on the interpretation of the law, why bother recording that they once disagreed.  The Mishna responds it is to teach us that even our greatest fathers were never so confident and certain in their own words that they were unable to see the truth of another approach.
            The real lesson here is to be humble.  No one is always right, our greatest sages were willing and able to face the possibility that they might be wrong, and it led them to be able to respect and see truth in opposing perspectives.  To go through life allowing for the possibility of being wrong requires great humility, but it is the model that our tradition wants us to learn from and emulate.  Zeal, on the other hand, is the negation of this humility.  It leads us to act, or more often than not, react with absolute confidence in ourselves and devalue the perspective of other people.  It is hard to really make a positive impact on another person when everything we do shows a lack of respect of who they are and where they are coming from. 
It is difficult shame someone into truly agreeing with you, it is rare to successfully convince someone of anything by beating them up. 
            How do we make a lasting positive impression on another human being?  Our tradition uses Aaron as the archetype of this character trait.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches, “Hillel would say, be of the disciples of Aaron - a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all creations and draws them close to Torah.” First you have to love and respect people before you can bring them close to your way of thinking.  In the midrashic work, Avot d’Rebbe Natan, we are shown more clearly how Aaron would achieve his lasting impact on others.  It says, “If Aaron would see someone acting improperly, he would not go over and rebuke or criticize the fellow directly. He would rather *befriend* him, pretending not to be aware of his faults. The person would eventually grow ashamed and think to themselves: "Aaron is such an amazing person and role model and he wants to be my friend.  What would my friend Aaron think if he knew I acted this way? How can I act in a way that is more deserving of his friendship?" Sooner or later the person would repent his or her ways.
            This lesson goes further back; in fact God teaches us something very similar in something he says to Eliyahu.  Following the showdown on Mt. Carmel where Eliyahu successfully defeats the prophets of Ba’al, he runs from the evil Queen Jezebel.  While on the run he is led by an angel of God to a cave in the wilderness.  While he’s in the cave, God comes to him and says, “What are you doing here Eliyahu?”  This question isn’t just, what are you doing in the cave?  God knows what he’s doing in the cave, he led him there.  God is asking Elijah an existential question; what are you doing here on Earth?  What is your purpose?  What drives you?  It is at this point that Eliyahu says, “I have been very Zealous, קנא קנאתי for you God.  The children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets, I’m the only one left who sees the truth and they are after me.”
            God tells Eliyahu to go out and stand on the mountain, and God will pass by him.  Immediately a strong wind which tore the mountians and broke apart rocks passed by Eliyahu, This was followed by an earthquake, then a great fire.  After each of these cataclysmic events, the text reminds us that God is not in these awe inspiring displays of force.  In the end God was in a קול דממה דקה, a small still voice which followed all the noise. 
            It is human nature to beat our chest and to try to get our way by use of force.  Godliness is more subtle.  Aaron got it, he embodied this behavior, which is why he is the partriarch of the Priest caste in Judaism.  The role of the priests, is to enrich and deepen the people’s relationship with God.  It has to be done in a Godly way.  This is symbolized in the law that a priest who has shed blood is disqualified from being able to serve in the temple.  Violence, even when it happens by accident or with perfect justification, still has an impact on the person who did it. In our lives, violence, whether it is the physical kind or the emotional kind - as an attempt to force our will on others - is rarely effective, it harms us in the process and it should only be used as a last resort in times of great need. 
            Pinchas did not act priestly, what he did may have been necessary, but as a result he would never participate in the Priestly rituals.  God protected him from the people in Israel who wanted to harm him for his actions by telling us in our Parsha that he is protected by a brit shalom, covenant of peace.  The covenant of peace is very fitting; the following verse tells us that it was for him and for his offspring after him.  Meaning, for the future Pinchas life should be about peace, his offspring shouldn’t learn from and emulate his violent behavior.  Pinchas, we are told, often accompanied the Israelites into battle.  Because in the macho lead up to war and in the heat of battle men often lose some of their humanity, Pinchas was a safeguard to remind them that our ways are of peace and pleasantness, we don’t put violence on a pedestal, in war sometimes violence is necesary, but it is only a necessary evil.  Pinchas learnt his lesson.
            After hearing the small still voice which is symbolic of God, Eliyahu was again asked the same question that he was asked before, what are you doing here Eliyahu?  Word for word, Eliyahu says the same thing he answered before, קנא קנאתי, I am zealous for you.  Immediately following this, he is commanded to anoint his successor and that is almost the last we hear about Eliyahu for the rest of the book of kings until he is taken away on a fiery chariot.  It doesn’t seem like Eliyahu got the point.  His way of doing things, fire and brimstone has a very limiting effect and it is usually not God’s ways.
            The Torah describes the Jewish people as a Mamlechet Kohanim, a kingdom of priests.  To deserve this title, we need to act like the model priest, Aaron.  Who, first and foremost loved humanity and peace. So often we are tested in this regard.  We are faced with people close to us and just in passing who live vastly different lives than us and make extemely different choices than we would make or approve of.  Or world events challenge our sense of right and wrong, there are extremely divided opinions out there, and I’m sure in here, on issues varying from Peace in the Middle East, abortion, or the ethics of same sex civil marriage.  To be students of Aaron we need to disagree on all matters in a way that is not disagreeable. 
            During this time period between the fasts of שבעה עשר בתמוז and תשע באב, we are called upon to fix the sins which led to the spiritual decay and subsequent destruction of the Temple, the sin of hatred of one another.  We learn to hate when we demonize the things we are uncomfortable with and disagree with.  May we all be blessed to live like Aaron to love and pursue peace by being lovers of humanity. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Parshat Balak: Making the right choices.

God says to Moshe: don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk.  Moshe responds: Ohhhhhh! So you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together.   God says: No, what I said was, never cook a calf in its mother's milk.  Moshe responds: Oh, Lord forgive my ignorance, What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk.  God responds: No, what I'm saying is, don't cook a calf in its mother's milk!!!   Moshe says: Ok I get it, what you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat .  God says: Oy! Moshe, do whatever you want....
            It’s funny, but this joke almost parallels a back and forth between Balaam and God from this week’s Parsha.  The Parsha begins with King Balak of the nation Moab observing the oncoming Jewish nation and fearing them.  Balak sends messages to the local magician and prophet, Balaam, asking Balaam to use his sorcery to curse the Jewish nation in the hopes that this would grant him some protection.    
            Balak’s messengers beseech Balaam and offer him ample reward for coming with them to curse the Jews.  Balaam says to them, “let me sleep on it and I’ll tell you if God will allow me to go or not.”  That night, God comes to Balaam and says, “Don’t go with these Moabite messengers to curse the Jewish people, because they, as a nation, are blessed.  In the morning, Balaam sends the messengers away. 
            But Balak persists, and he sends Balaam more messengers of higher stature with larger bribes to entice him.  Balaam tells them that it just won’t work no matter how much they pay him.  Nevertheless, despite already being commanded by God not to go, he tells the messengers to stay with him for the night and they will see if God will speak to him again on this matter.  And that night, God came to him and said, "If these people have come to call on you, you can go with them, but you may only speak the words that I will tell you."Early the next morning, immediately upon arising, Balaam gets up to go with these messengers and the Torah tells us that God is angry at Balaam for going.
            First God says no, then it seems like God gives permission, and then God is angry at Balaam for going.  At first glance this is all seems very strange, but if we look deeper, we will see that we are not so different than Balaam was in this situation.  Clearly Balaam wanted to curse the Jews.  The only thing holding him back at first was the word of God.    But, Balaam kept asking and eventually, he got an answer which led him to believe that God was on board with his plan. 
            Our sages are disturbed by the inconsistencies they perceived in God's behavior.  They draw from this episode a life lesson, in tractate Makkos (10b) the Talmud says, "A person is guided down the path that he or she chooses," citing this incident as a proof-text.  The Talmud uses this as an example of free will, and it even seems to suggest God's tacit permission or even assistance for the choices we make, whether those choices are good or bad.  Therefore, it is strange that God was angry with Balaam for going with the messengers. 
            If God guides us down the path that we choose, and in the case of Balaam, God even seems to give permission for him to go, then why is God angry at him for his decision to go?  This inconsistency in the text is something which Bible commentators have struggled with for generations.  In his book, Meshech chochma, the late 19th-early20th century sage, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk describes the difference between the two conflicting messages that Balaam received from God. He explains, that the first message from God was very clear, "don't go."  While the second prophecy he received from God was much more convoluted:  "If these people have come to see you...then you can go...but only say what I tell you to."  When choosing between something clear and something less clear, Rabbi Meir Simcha tells us, a rational person should always prefer clarity.  Yet Balaam chose to ignore the earlier, clear, message of God not to go, in favor of the more convoluted message which supported his own desires.  It is for this reason that God is angry at him.
            Balaam is considered to be one of the wisest people and greatest prophets to ever live, he wasn't an irrational person.  So what led him to prefer the unclear and begrudging permission of God over the explicit command, not to go?I would like to suggest that it is at this point that the lesson of the sages from makkot takes becomes more significant for us.  The statement, "A person is guided down the path that he or she chooses," is not a description of the nature of God; it is not saying that God is the one who guides us down the path we choose.  Rather, it is a description of human nature.  Our minds have an extremely powerful ability to lead us down any path that we choose; we can convince ourselves of anything, regardless of what evidence is available to the contrary.
            Psychologists often refer to this phenomenon as confirmation bias, which is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs.  People display this bias in the way they subconsciously gather and remember information selectively, or when they interpret information in a biased way. Think of it as a scientific term for selective hearing.  The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.  Which means, that the more we want to need to see something a certain way, the more likely it is that we will find reasons to support our belief.  Confirmation bias manifests itself in every aspect of life. 
            Our brains have the spectacular ability to convince ourselves that we’re right.  Did you ever wonder how there could be so many scientists, both religious and atheist, whose understanding of science either confirms their own faith that there is or isn’t a God?  How can the same facts prove opposing point of views?  The answer is that all people interpret the world around them to support their own points of view.  This is what happened with Balaam.  He so badly wanted to hear that he could go, that he placed more significance in God’s reluctant and limited permission, than in the earlier explicit command not to go.  
            We all do it. We do it to support our religious beliefs, our political opinions, and most importantly in our arguments with our friends and relatives.  Just to give a silly but true example.  Sometimes, our son Yonah, who’s almost 3, will ask to play outside when it's raining. I’ll say, "Yonah you can’t go outside, it’s raining."  And Yonah will respond with conviction, “No, it’s not raining.”  This is an extreme example, but I’m sure each and every one of us can think of someone that we’ve spoken to, or have had a heated discussion with, where we just can’t understand how this normally rational person can be so irrational.  And you know what?  The other person was most likely thinking the same thing about you. 
            It is a unique person who can always see both sides of any argument; it takes a special gift to be able to consistently overcome our need to be right.  Most of the time, it doesn't really impact us in a negative way.  We disagree with someone, but we don't let it bother us, we go through our day secure in the knowledge that we're right.  Or we make a significant decision without a second thought, comfortable in the wisdom of that choice. But the greater the emotional investment, the more this effect comes into play.  The more we care about a given issue, the harder it is for us to see the faults with our own way of thinking.  Or the more we care about the person we are in disagreement with, the more difficult it can be to really listen to and understand their perspective.  When we really want our spouse or our child to see our way of thinking, it’s harder for us to listen to what they’re saying and respond to their needs. 
            The choices we make when there is the highest likelihood of negative fallout are the ones that require the most humility, introspection and reconsideration, but they are so often the ones that are the most likely for us not to give further thought to, because of our own over-confidence.
            Balaam reinterpreted the data that he was receiving to reinforce his desire to do what he wanted.  He was so blind to an alternative reality that his donkey needed to wake him up.  There was angel blocking Balaam’s path with a drawn sword, the donkey that he was riding on immediately swerved to the side, scraping Balaam’s knee to avoid it, and Balaam is so oblivious that he hits the donkey for scraping his knee rather than noticing the dangerous path he is going down.  The miraculous needed to occur, Balaam’s donkey needed to speak to him, for Balaam to see the error of his ways.  Ultimately, Balaam’s bad decisions didn't cause the harm he was intending.  The only negative impact his self serving obliviousness had was on his own reputation and his scraped knee.    
            The reality is, that we have ability to interpret and justify and really see as clear as day whatever we want.  But being blind to reality, oblivious to the counter-point, hurts us at least as much as it hurts the people around us.  Confirmation bias isn't inevitable.  The simplest way to correct for it is to be aware of it. Once we are aware of it we can ask ourselves if we’re truly doing what’s best or are we simply choosing what’s easiest for us.  Any time that we find ourselves dug in deeply on one side of an issue or an argument, all it takes is for us to take a step back look at where we might be experiencing this bias, then we can grow, we can listen more sensitively to the other side, and then we can make better, more informed decisions. 

May we all learn the ability to go beyond ourselves in order to be better friends, spouses, parents, siblings and children, and ultimately learn to be searchers of truth and pursuers of peace in all of our relationships and interactions.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Parshat Lech Lecha

I think that most of us take it for granted that we have free will, without ever thinking about what free will really means.  There are so many factors that influence our thinking and decision making that its hard to identify where, exactly, we exercise our total free will.  We are influenced by our families, friends, upbringing, schooling, work, society, culture, commercials, celebrities, etc. When you consider all of the factors that influence us, it seems pretty clear that to make a true act of free will would require a great deal of exertion on our part.  Without proper introspection in order to identify the factors that influencing the way we act and make decisions, then we just float through life without truly acting out of free will.

In this week's Parsha, God tells Avraham that he needs to remove himself from all the things that influence him, for his own sake.  The verse says, "Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house..." If we dissect the parts of this verse we will learn an important lesson about free will.  God didn't have to spell out all the places from where Avraham was supposed to leave, the verse could have just said, "go to where I'm going to show you."  By adding those superfluous words, it is indicating to us that there is a lesson to be learned.  The three places mentioned, your land, your birthplace, your father's house, are all places with a great deal of influence upon a person's identity.  People often identify with their country, their community, and their father/parent's home.  Having these identities are not inherently bad, but it's sometimes difficult to identify where the person ends and where the identity based on that external factor begins.

God is telling Avraham, that sometimes, in order to have a spiritual awakening we have to remove ourselves from the influence of external factors.  That is the nature of the words in the verse saying, "go for yourself."  The statement for yourself is also unnecessary.  But when we consider all the seemingly unnecessary parts of the verse, the idea emerges that acting in one's own best interest with true free will sometimes requires a reconstruction of our own identity separate from external influences.  Once we know where we stand on certain issues at our core, we can begin to think with our own free will, then we can go back and consider the potential impact our decisions will have for good or bad on our family, communities and larger society.

The beginning of the Parsha deals with a lesson to Avraham about removing oneself from external influences in order to make decisions based on our own free will.  If that were the end of the story, then we would be forced to conclude that the ideal way of life, would be to live in a cave away from all of society's influences and only think about ourselves.  But thankfully that is not the end of the story.  Avraham is the model of consideration for others and the champion of social justice in the ancient world.  He does go back to his family and homeland in order to find a spouse for his son.  The lesson is that in order to fully engage in the world as an individual acting on our own free will, it is necessary that we identify who we are and what we believe in, and then re-insert that image back in to society.

Shabbat Shalom!