Friday, January 15, 2021

Finding Our Voice

The story of our people forming into a nation comes into sharp focus in this week’s Parsha. G-d told Moshe to communicate a message of hope, optimism, and redemption. G-d communicates the loftiest message of what would be known later as the four expressions of redemption. The Exodus of Egypt would be followed by G-d formally taking us as his nation and the Jewish People entering the Holy Land as its eternal homeland. Just reading this thousand of years later sometimes gives me goosebumps. Moshe arrives to tell his oppressed flock this uplifting message. The reaction he received was terribly disappointing. The Torah teaches us that the people didn’t listen to Moshe from shortness of breath and from hard labor. The response to this overwhelming positive message is nothing short of astounding. A nation that had been slaves for so long and suffered much oppression was finally turning the corner, and they were unable to hear the message of redemption! The condition of shortness of breath is the result of a person living in a hyper stressed environment. A person suffers not only in an emotional manner but also spiritually and physically. This high level of stress and anxiety can become so overwhelming that we lose our ability to listen and process positive news in our daily lives. I believe there is a parallel in our current lives of the condition referred to as shortness of breath. America is a nation under stress. The real-time images of Capitol Hill are nothing short of traumatic. We are witnessing armed troops displaying a very heavy presence in our nation’s capital. All this is to ensure a peaceful transition of power as a new administration comes into office. It was not too long ago if someone saw the images, they might conclude this was in Afghanistan or Iraq. No, this is the United States of America in 2021. No matter which side of the political fence one is on, this turn of events should be saddening for all. Another image coming out of Washington is that all lawmakers go are wearing masks as they conduct their legislative business. That’s another grim reminder of the pandemic and the toll it’s taking on our lives. The accumulative effect of armed troops and masked Members of Congress contributes to our collective state of shortness of breath. Our ancestors ultimately prevailed, and their state shortness of breath proved to be a bump in the road that they overcame. Their journey to redemption was uneven and messy. Their prayers and faith helped them be resilient in their struggles as they overcame their shortness of breath. Let us continue to pray for America's welfare that it be resilient in its state of shortness of breath.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Unthinkable Occurs in America

The unthinkable has occurred in America. The United States of America, long revered as the beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy, has a moral stain that will not easily go away. A hallmark feature of democracy is a peaceful transition of power, and our great sadness is that it did not occur this week. As our adversaries around the globe have pointed out, it will be unacceptable for America to lecture any country about the need to have a peaceful transition in their government. The millions of people worldwide who have always looked to America for inspiration in their own quest for liberty and freedom are dispirited and saddened. That is only one consequence of many that may be felt for years into the future. It was traumatic for us to see the citadel of liberty-- the United States Capitol run over by a violent mob that intended to disrupt the legislative proceedings of certifying the presidential election results. It is not just enough to condemn the violence or the individuals that ransacked the Capitol. Moments like these do not occur in a vacuum and require some reflection as to how we got here. We must all undergo a national exercise of soul searching and reflect on what areas of improvement we can all focus on to move forward in a positive way. These are some areas of inflection for me that I would like to share. Two wrongs do not make a right: I found it distressing to hear from people that while this violence may be inappropriate, there is a double standard in acts of rioting or violence by other groups that are tolerated. It's important to acknowledge and take responsibility for any situation in life without equivocating or making any qualifying statements. The first King of Israel, Shaul, was not removed from his position simply because he erred in the battle with Amaleik. It was because he was reticent to take responsibility. His successor, King David, committed multiple infractions and remained King for forty years because he was able to take responsibility for his actions. The Death of Nuance: Over the last several years, as we have slipped more into a caustic polarized environment, the art of nuance has been a casualty. Many issues have become binary choices. One is forced to choose between unlimited gun rights with no limitations or a mandatory confiscation of firearms. One is forced to choose between not allowing any immigrants into the country or complete open borders. As a student of Halacha, I have learned the importance of nuance, even in the most sacred Jewish obligations. One is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur or keep the Shabbos but some situations would exempt one from these Mitzvahs. A casualty of the rhetoric and charged discourse has been thoughtful and a nuanced approach to complex issues, and we must work on improving the nature of the discourse. Losing with Dignity: Nobody likes to lose or be associated with the losing side but the reality in life is that we don't always get everything we desire. The Orthodox Jewish community overwhelmingly voted for President Trump. There was considerable disappointment in many of our circles when he did not prevail at the ballot box. I have heard many voices in our community of despair as if somehow our republic has entered a death spiral with no hope of redemption. At a moment like this, I recall the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who at the throes of the destruction of our Second Temple in Jerusalem, had a climactic meeting with the Roman general Vespasian. During the meeting, Vespasian was informed about the Roman Emperor's death and the authorities in Rome nominated him to become the new emperor. Vespasian was impressed with Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and asked him if there was anything that he can do for him. The Rabbi responded with three seemingly unimportant requests to which Vespasian agreed to. For about two thousand years, a nagging question has been why didn't the Rabbi ask the new emperor to call off the siege of Jerusalem and spare the Temple ?? I once heard a powerful insight from Rabbi Yisroel Reisman to this question. The Rabbi was teaching us a powerful lesson that is hard to internalize. He was teaching us how to lose with dignity. Rabbi Yochanan realized that Jerusalem was already doomed to its fate, and there was no way to reverse that catastrophic event. He also felt it was imperative at that moment to be pragmatic and gracious in defeat. My favorite part of NFL games is what occurs immediately after the game. The losing coach congratulates the winning coach and they usually offer each other warm words of encouragement for a good game played. In my opinion, the post-game ritual should be modeled by all of us in all areas of life. A silver lining to this traumatic season can be if we use this as an inflection point. It is not by looking outwards and pointing fingers at different people or groups but by looking inward and reflecting on what we can all do to engage in healing and reconciliation.

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.

Finding Our Voice

The story of our people forming into a nation comes into sharp focus in this week’s Parsha. G-d told Moshe to communicate a message of hope,...