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.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

A Sacred Time

With the ongoing effect that the virus has on all of us collectively, it has been a humbling experience for every sector across society. One of the primary lessons we have learned has been to appreciate the time in our lives. Indeed, our time is finite, and we as people are finite beings. In the past, we may have been so caught up in the daily grind and may have not utilized our time most productively. I believe as we reassess the most fundamental aspect of our lives, it is essential to ask ourselves, is our time in this world infused with goodness and Godliness?

There is a lengthy section in this week’s Parsha about the gift that we received to infuse our time in this manner. The Parsha teaches us about the various sacred times in Jewish life and begins with the Shabbos. It is folly to believe that the purpose of Shabbos is simply to rest because G-d rested. After all, G-d doesn’t need to rest since He is an infinite being! Rather, the Rabbis have taught us that the Rest that is related to G-d is a far different concept. It means that after six days of creation, the world was complete in a materialistic way. There were mountains and valleys, oceans and rivers and even lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). There was also the creation of Adam and Eve. Yet, the world was an empty shell as there was a limited manifestation of G-d’s presence. With the arrival of Shabbos, there was a manifestation of G-d’s presence in the world. This manifestation of Godliness was not limited to the first Shabbos in history. Rather, every single Shabbos, there is another opportunity to tap into this sacred space in time. One cannot overstate the incredible gift of Shabbos as we have the chance every week to elevate and infuse the precious time in our lives with meaning and purpose. Let us pay attention to this gift and realize how fortunate we are to have the Shabbos in our lives.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Preserving the Sacred Space

As society is itching to return to a normal life, it is worth asking what, if any, lessons we have learned from the pandemic. Everybody will draw their conclusions and expect the fingerpointing in the political arena to descend to a new low. From a spiritual perspective, it behooves us to ask ourselves what we have learned from this most unusual period. Indeed, there is no one correct answer to this, but I would like to share one angle in light of a startling passage in this weeks Parsha.

The Parsha begins by G-d instructing Moshe that one may not come to the holiest area of the Temple at any time. In fact, not only would the entrance to the Holy of Holies be permitted once a year, it was only sanctioned for the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) to enter this sacred space. For everyone else, it was forever off-limits. The notion of the holiest area in Judaism being off-limits to everyone besides the Kohein Gadol on one day a year sounds counter-intuitive. One would like to think, the more sacred the location, the more times we should frequent the area. In contemporary times, I like to think of the Kotel and how we are encouraged to visit as frequently as possible and yet in ancient times in the era of the Beis Hamikdash (Temple), the entrance tot he holiest area was prohibited!

The Rabbis teach us a compelling lesson, and that is the danger of losing one’s sensitivity to the sacredness of the area that may occur with one feeling too comfortable by frequenting the sanctuary. That is why the holiest place in Judaism was off-limits to everyone but the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This lesson is something that has been gnawing at me since we were compelled to shut the doors of our shul in the face of COVID-19. The gift of individuals coming together to connect as a community in prayer has been temporarily removed from us. G-d willing, we will be able to resume our prayers in shul in the not too distant future. At that point, will we have internalized the preciousness of the Beis Haknesses/Sanctuary? Will our attitude be one of seriousness, or will a nonchalant, casual attitude reappear? If there is one thing that this uncertain period has taught us, it is to take nothing for granted. Let us remember the unique gift of praying in shul, and let is never treat it with anything than the highest respect it deserves.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Utilizing a Period of Reflection

The narrative of an individual that is diagnosed and sent into quarantine to engage in a period of healing before he can reenter society is the message of this week's Parsha. The person was diagnosed with Tzaaras, an affliction of the skin. The Torah teaches us that there are spiritual underpinnings for this physical condition. As part of the healing process, he must engage in solitude confinement. The purpose of this is not for the isolation to be punitive but rather for it to be an opportunity for reflection. The mandatory confinement for a period of reflection is an opportunity for growth as it allows a person to rethink their priorities in life and examine the choices that he regularly makes.

The current period has an uncanny resemblance to this Biblical message. In the year 2020, there are billions of people around the world who are in mandatory confinement and this is proven to be quite a challenge. However, as in our weekly Parsha, there is an excellent opportunity for growth as well. Like it or not, we have been thrown off-kilter and allows us to reflect. Such thoughts can include some uncomfortable internal questions about the things that matter the most to us. That should not be a deterrent to this self-scrutiny. Let us hope and pray that after this period of mandatory isolation, we rejoin society having utilized this period of reflection.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

I had been hoping to write my message this week on some reflections of a Purim holiday that was joyous in many different ways. This week is somewhat surreal as significant changes were occurring on an almost hourly basis due to the Coronavirus that is wreaking havoc on every corner in the world. Its impact is being felt on every aspect of society from the financial markets to the airline industry and much in between. This is a time that years from now, history will mark as remarkable as a global event. There are many different angles and perspectives on this virus, and I would like to share one here.
This crisis is upending many underlying assumptions that we have as a society. One of them is how much control we have in life. One of the sober realities that we are being confronted with is how vulnerable we are. The myth of Man in the twenty-first century who is all-powerful and has built up a robust economy, unparalleled technological advances with cutting edge in modern medicine have all come been seriously questioned. It just took a few microscopic pathogens to turn this world upside down. The truth is, although we may be shocked by the unraveling norms that we have come to expect as a society, this is not the first time this has occurred. Although it’s not a perfect analogy, the plagues that ancient Egypt suffered that are described in the Torah offer a compelling lesson. It tells us of a society that was a superpower of its time that went unchallenged by all and refused to recognize the hand of G-d in life. Indeed, G-d told Moses that the primary purpose of the plagues was not only to reinforce that there is a G-d who is a Creator but a G-d who manages daily affairs in the global arena as well. The Egyptians refused to believe how vulnerable they were until it was too late for them. The days ahead will be undoubtedly challenging and difficult. Instead of obsessively checking the news every few minutes, it may be worthwhile to spend a few extra moments on reflection and prayer. This hard reality about our vulnerabilities being exposed should hopefully cause us to turn to G-d in these difficult times.

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 bin...