Friday, September 4, 2020

False Expectations

There was a story about two friends in the park, and one of them looked pretty glum. One friend inquired of the other, "why do you look so gloomy"? He replied that three weeks ago, he had a distant cousin that passed away who left him fifty thousand dollars. Then two weeks ago, another relative passed away and left me one hundred thousand dollars. And last week my grandmother died and left me a half-million dollars". The friend asked him, "If you had several relatives leave you so much money, why do you look so sad"?" He replied, "It's been almost a week since then, and no other relative has died"!!! I think of this as I contemplate why it is such a challenge for us to have gratitude in our daily life. We learn so much about the benefits of gratitude both in the Torah and secular culture. Gratitude has also been shown to have health benefits as well. Research has shown that it enhances one's mental health and physical health. If that is the case, why do we struggle many times to express out our gratitude? There are various reasons, but I believe that a primary reason is people having false expectations. We frequently have many expectations for the people in our lives. These expectations from our parents, spouses, children, friends, teachers, rabbis, etc. lead us many times to disappointment. It's essential to reassess if our expectations are realistic. Perhaps the expectation needs to be adjusted and recalibrated. (Obviously, every relationship requires a certain amount of commitment and dedication. It's just important to reflect if the expectations we have from others are aligned with reality.) More importantly, it would be valuable to pivot from expecting things to occur to be grateful for whatever we are blessed with in life. There is a compelling mitzvah of Bikkurim at the beginning of this week's Parsha. One was required to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Beis Hamikdash/Temple in Jerusalem and express his gratitude to G-d for the bounty. One did not have to bring up all the fruits, just a portion of them for this mitzvah. The is emphasizes that when the economy is going well, and there is produce in the field or cash in the register, let us be grateful for the blessing. As the year of 5780 draws to an end, let us reflect on the importance of not expecting the blessings that we have in life and once again recommit to expressing our gratitude to G-d and our fellow man.

A Justified Ban?

As we study this week’s Parsha that has the most mitzvahs of any Parsha in the Torah, we tend to dismiss the lesson of any mitzvah that does not seem to have practical relevance. It must be noted that beyond the narrow scope of the practical application to any mitzvah, there are compelling lessons for us to study. A telling example of this is the prohibition of any Moabite or Ammonite to convert to Judaism. The reality is that there is not any Moab or Ammon nation in our time, and we cannot identify them due to many wars and population transfers over the years. Nonetheless, it is worthy of taking a closer look at the reasons for this. The Torah states as one of the reasons for this conversion ban as the lack of willingness on behalf of the Ammonites and Moabites to greet the Jews traveling in the desert en route to the Land of Israel with bread and water. It would appear that the punishment is far disproportionate to the crime! The nations may not be paragons of practicing kindness, but why should there be a permanent ban on converting to Judaism? In his commentary, the Ramban writes that the nation of Ammonites and Moabites were descendants of the Ammon and Moab, two children fathered by Lot, the nephew of Avraham. The only reason that Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom was because of Abraham’s merit. Fast forward a few hundred years, and now it is the Jewish People the direct descendants of Abraham who are in distress and in need of assistance. The Ammonite and Moabites refused to extend their hand in our time of need. This reflects not just and lack of kindness but a profound deficiency in gratitude. One of the core values of Judaism is gratitude and a nation that is such lacking gratitude is not eligible to enter the Jewish faith. This message should always serve as a reminder about the importance of remembering our humble roots and of practicing gratitude to G-d and our fellow man.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Societal Institutions

It has been a tumultuous summer of epic proportions. There has been significant unrest after the senseless death of George Floyd. Many have advocated reforms in police departments while others some have even called to defund and abolish the police entirely. Emotions are running high and the fact that this is taking place in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t help. This week's Parsha of Shoftim addresses the various institutions vital in making our society function in a just and fair manner. The Torah teaches us about the judicial system, the political system, and the leadership of faith leaders. The Torah opens up with the words שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ or you shall place judges and officers in all of your gates. The responsibility of setting up a judicial system with officers and judges is a bedrock of civilization. This mitzvah is not just incumbent on the Jewish people but on society as a whole. This is one of the seven Noahide laws. The famous words etched on the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court of Equal Justice Under The Law have biblical roots in our Parsha. The Torah cautions the Judges to adjudicate in a fair manner and apply justice equally to all citizens. The role of political leadership in the Torah is addressed with the mitzvah to appoint a monarch as head of government. The Torah grants the king authority in many areas of life from collecting taxes, to conscripting soldiers and much in between. The monarch’s description is remarkable in the sense of how much restraint it places on the King for him to pursue materialism. It also emphasizes the responsibility for the monarch to have a Sefer Torah at his side. The purpose of this Mitzvah is for the King always to be reminded of the awesome task in front of him and not to be swayed by his power. Finally, we learn about the roles of religious leaders and how they play an important role in society. The Kohanim, Prophets, and Sages are all an integral part of ensuring that the population is educated and connected to G-d and the stewards of making sure that Jewish continuity is preserved from generation to generation. Here again, we learn not only of their role but also of their accountability. The Torah teaches us in Parshas Mishpatim that a Kohein may be removed from the altar in the middle of performing a service to be prosecuted for a crime that he committed. An important takeaway from studying these societal institutions is learning about the essential role they have in society. Indeed, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, teaches us about the importance of praying for the welfare for the government and its heads of state. It’s important to note that the importance of praying on their behalf is not only if your preferred candidate is elected. At the same time, the authority of these institutions and the people that oversee them can never be left unchecked. An appropriate balance of healthy and robust political, judicial, and religious institutions with accountability is the foundation of a good and just society.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Praying as a Community

לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל־הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו You shall not act at all as we act now, every man as he pleases. In the twilight of his life, Moshe delivered these searing words into the hearts and minds of his beloved flock. Rashi gives some context to this ambiguous text. Once the Jewish people are settled in their homeland with the building of the Beis Hamikdash/Temple in Jerusalem, an individual would be forbidden from having a private altar in his home or property. Only during the previous phase of the settlement of the Land with the Mishkan in Shilo, Nov and Givon were people permitted to have private altars. With the permanent communal structure of the Beis Hamikdash that was established, it would no longer be permitted to have private altars. I would imagine that in ancient times with the lack of modern transportation, it would be very inconvenient for someone to travel all the way from areas in Israel that were sometimes several hundred miles away. Wouldn’t it be more convenient for some people to have private altars in their backyards? Isn’t the presence of G-d everywhere and not just in the communal house of worship? Over the years, I have heard a variety of reasons why people are sometimes unhappy with community minyan at shul. It ranges from the davening is too fast, too slow, too much singing, not enough singing, etc. There may even be a feeling of my spiritual needs are not being met with attending and participating in a communal minyan. There may be some validity to these sentiments. So I wonder, why does the Torah frown upon private altars? Wouldn’t that person perhaps find it more fulfilling to have that spiritual connection in his backyard? Moshe taught us a compelling lesson to this very day. He teaches us about the important value of community coming together in the service of G-d in a communal house of tefillah/prayer. Yes, of course, it may be easier for some to have a private altar or private minyan in their backyards. The value of coming together in unity at a communal house of prayer is not only to further the cause of Bein Adam L’chaveiro/ interpersonal relationships but also to enhance our relationship with G-d. A community that expresses its tefila/prayer as a wholesome unit is far greater than a collection of fragmented individuals or even minyanim. Spiritual needs are not just about finding the perfect minyan that is meeting at the perfect hour and the perfect place, davening at the perfect pace, with the perfect group of like-minded friends. Spiritual needs are about sometimes leaving your personal preferences at the door and sacrificing that on behalf of the community. We have done that as people for thousands of years because we know that the Kehila as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think of a guy who lived in the area of Be’er Sheva in the times of the Beis Hamikdash/Temple. The distance to Jerusalem is about 100 kilometers. Traveling to Jerusalem either by foot or by on top of a donkey is not easy and is taking him a mighty long time to reach his destination. I can imagine that he wasn’t too happy to make the shlep. I would imagine he remembered Moshe's words that reminded him that the service to G-d was not about bringing that sacrifice or korban in the place that was most convenient, but rather about connecting with his people as a Kehila in Jerusalem. The premium that we place on Kehila/ community that Moshe taught in his dying days is timeless for the ages.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Life is Complicated

In an increasingly polarized world, there is an expectation in many forums and discussions to respond to complex and nuanced issues in a binary manner. Where in the past one could communicate a measured and nuanced response that seems like the distant past. A simple Yes or No is demanded to thorny issues like systemic racism, police reform, and many other controversial topics. In the Jewish World as well there is an expectation to embrace an attitude on which camp you must subscribe to.

The narrative of this weeks parsha reflects the fallacy of such a mindset. The spies that were sent by Moshe to scout out the Land of Israel returned with an incredibly negative report. They reported that the natives were exceptionally strong and the Jews would face a humiliating defeat. The spies not only soured on the land but were especially demoralizing as well. The masses were crushed and were ready to declare mutiny against the leadership of Moshe. Upon careful analysis, the spies did not technically lie but were nonetheless responsible and bore the devastating consequences. There has been much commentary about the actual sin of the spies. I believe it was their inability to view the shortcomings of the Land of Israel in the context of the entire picture. Sure, the Land was not perfect and had (and has) its share of challenges. However, they neglected to see the larger picture and that G-d was giving them a slice of land on this earth to be a platform for G-dliness. The people got stuck in the weeds and couldn’t see past the negative report.

The end of the Parsha teaches us precisely the opposite message. In the mitzvah to wear Tzitzis, it is mentioned that it must contain a thread of Techeilis or blue wool. The Talmud expounds on this that looking at techeilis should remind of us of the blue sea which should in turn trigger thoughts of the blue sky and eventually the Creator of the world. Initially, one is looking at a thread and one continues to expand his horizon and eventually sees G-d in the picture. If only the spies had this perspective, much pain and tragedy could have been avoided.

We live in complex times and a complex world. Things cannot be always viewed in absolute terms. It would be worth reflecting on the bookends of this weeks Parsha as a poignant reminder.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Connection or Restriction?

As we are still sorting out the many different realities of the COVID-19 era, there was a welcome bright spot amidst the chaos. The IRS is not usually an organization that is associated with delivering positive news. In the upside-down world of 2020, not only did the IRS delay the tax deadline by three months, but they also deposited money in the accounts of U.S. taxpayers with the stimulus funds. I began to think that hypothetically speaking, were we to find out that we are exempt from observing a mitzvah what kind of reaction would that elicit. Would we be disappointed that we have been deprived of fulfilling a mitzvah, or would we breathe a sigh of relief?

I would tend to think that this is a philosophical question as to how we view the Mitzvos in the Torah. One way is to view the mitzvos as a means of connection to an Al-Mighty G-d. The Torah gives a plan of how to transform a finite and temporary world into a place of relationship with an eternal G-d that wants an eternal connection with us. This approach would translate into a great disappointment for a person that cannot fulfill a mitzvah. Another way of looking at the mitzvos is that they are a bunch of restrictions. Thus, the Torah is filled with a restrictive lifestyle. If one ever were exempted from keeping a mitzvah, he would be relieved from his perceived burden.

There is a compelling narrative in this weeks parsha. There was a group of Jews that could not observe the Pesach sacrifice due to their status of ritual impurity. Yet, they approached Moshe and demanded that he somehow find a way for them to fulfill the mitzvah. They could have had a different approach. They could have reacted with relief for their Pesach exemption that year. They reacted with disappointment because they viewed the Mitzvo's opportunities of connection and couldn’t find peace with the notion with the exemption for Pesach that year. If we were ever unexpectedly expected from a mitzvah, would we react with disappointment or delight?

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Time to Listen

The searing images of America burning will be ingrained into the heart and souls of Americans for a long time. Pain and anger were seen and felt in many corners of the country after the tragic death of George Floyd. We need to send our deepest condolences and empathy to the African American Community. (I think this is obvious, but this does not in any way condone violence or looting as a reaction) One of the fundamental values in Judaism is that all people are created in the image of G-d. This value is the bedrock of the Torah as our Sages have taught us. Unfortunately, we have seen an increasingly polarized society that is increasingly fractured on many different levels. The divisiveness that is so raw is not limited to the events of this past week. Recently, there has been great discord on the appropriate response to the coronavirus on both the macro and micro levels in society. There are so many disagreements about how and when to reopen organizations that various governments, cultures, and communities have become fractured in this process. Not to mention the political divide in which people that support different candidates or political parties frequently view people of opposing views with disdain.

The first step towards reconciliation or unity is to listen to one another. If we can’t listen to each other, then we become further alienated from one another. The Vilna Gaon teaches that there are three levels of listening. The most basic level is simply to listen to what the other person is saying without interrupting. Not thinking of what your potential response is going to be, but rather listening intently to the individual speaking. The next level is understanding. This includes any follow-up questions that would enhance an understanding of the different viewpoints. Finally, it is important to accept what the person is saying. Acceptance does not mean to agree with the person, but instead, accepting the opinion that he is communicating is his reality. It would be most helpful to internalize the wisdom of the Vilna Gaon whenever having a conversation with a person that you disagree with on a controversial issue.

Arguably, the most important declaration of faith in Judaism is the Shema. The definition of Shema is to hear. It is translated is Hear O’ Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One. The underlying understanding is that Israel as a nation should hear this theology. There is another idea that before accepting G-d as the Almighty, we must listen to each other and come together. It is quite compelling to note that before declaring that G-d is One, we are called upon to listen and hear each other. In a world that is rocked by mistrust and division, the first step to reconciliation and healing is learning how to listen.

False Expectations

There was a story about two friends in the park, and one of them looked pretty glum. One friend inquired of the other, "why do you look...