Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reacting to False Perceptions

Have you ever been confronted with a perception of a situation that is off the mark or even completely false? I find this to be very upsetting and frustrating. For example, whenI see news report of soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces portrayed in various propaganda outlets in a negative light, it is very upsetting.
The question though is, do we just dismiss this perception as foolish and basically do nothing or do we have to be proactive in combating these false perceptions ?


I think we see a fascinating lesson from this weeks parsha regarding this. The Torah emphasizes in the first verse of the parsha not once but twice that Isaac was the son of Abraham. Rashi explains the necessity for this. It so happens to be that for many decades that Abraham and Sarah were married and they were unable to have kids. Once Sarah was kidnapped by a tribal king named Avimelech and spent the night in his palace. Avimelech was afflicted with an illness and decided to release Sarah. Shortly after, Sarah was starting to show signs of pregnancy. All the tabloids and late night TV shows started whispering rather loudly that Avimelech had fathered the child that Sarah was carrying. G-d made this special miracle that their son Isaac looked identical to Abraham.
I have often wondered, why did God go to such great lengths to prove the tabloids wrong? Who cares what was being written in the gossip columns or in the monologue of the late night TV shows? Why respond to such pathetic allegations?
I think we learn from here a very important thing about how to deal with a false perception. We must be proactive in combating these perceptions before they take a life of their own. We must articulate why they are false and then make the case for what is the correct version of the events. As King Solomon wrote we must find grace in the eyes of God and Man. Of course, Man cannot be compared to God. Yet, there is a mandate for us to demonstrate that all of our actions are ethical in the eyes of Man and if there is a false perception – we must take the pains of correcting this.
If God felt this was important with the allegation about the identity of Isaac’s father – what can we say?
Please share your thoughts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Losing with Dignity

There is no question about it. We all want to win and win big. It’s a great feeling coming out on top after a hard fought competition. The reality in life is that losing is inevitable. No baseball team ever went 162-0 in a season. The 1972 Miami Dolphins are unique in the world of sports precisely because they were the only team even to go unbeaten in one season in the NFL.

I won’t address the issue of how a defeat or setback can be transformed into a learning opportunity. That will be the subject of a future post on this blog. I want to focus on how we can learn how to accept defeat with grace. This is definitely not an easy thing, but it’s one of those things that separate the men from the boys.

There is a fascinating story in the Talmud that reflects this idea. Prior to the destruction of the Beis Hamkidash (Temple) in Jerusalem, the Romans imposed a siege around the Holy City. The leading rabbi of that generation, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was smuggled out in a coffin after faking his death to the other side of the city walls. Over the objection of a local Jewish militia he wanted to negotiate with the Romans. He met the Roman general and addressed him with great respect. The general was very impressed with the rabbi and asked him what I can do for you!

Let’s stop for a moment there. If you had the opportunity to speak to the military leader of the invading army and he is willing to grant your request, I think it is a no brainer – call off the siege and spare the Holy City and all of its residents of the coming onslaught. Yet, that is not what the rabbi asked for. He asked for three modest requests including that the rabbinic court in Yavneh called the Sanhedrin be spared from the attack. A short time later the Romans invaded Jerusalem destroyed the Temple, killed many of its citizens and exiled the others.

Did Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai miss a golden opportunity? Why didn't he just ask for Jerusalem to be spared? Why not capitalize on the moment?

We learn a powerful lesson from here. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was teaching us how to lose with dignity. He knew that the Romans had decided that they were going into destroy Jerusalem. He figured he should salvage whatever he could. He asked for the Sanhedrin in Yavneh to be spared. In retrospect, this turned out to be a brilliant move. The fact that the Sanhedrin survived guaranteed the survival of the Jewish people through Jewish Education.

One of the best parts of watching a football game is watching the losing coach congratulate the winning coach with a handshake or hug after the game.
It is not fun to lose, but losing with dignity and grace can be more meaningful than  a win.

Please share your thoughts.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Are you willing to settle for the status quo ?

We are faced with challenges of all kind throughout our lives. Sometimes we are faced with personal challenges that can cause us to do much reflecting and soul searching. Yet there are times that as a nation we must pause and reflect if the direction we are going in is viable or do the challenges that surround us threaten that.
I am not referring to the U.S Government shutdown that due to the intransigence of various elected officials left much of the federal government closed for nearly two weeks. That is probably worth exploring a different time. I would entitle that post – Are The Founding Fathers Rolling in their Graves?

I am referring to the much debated survey of American Jews that was released by the Pew Institute.
The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.

Other notable findings were :
Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.

* Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, and the survey finds they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. Broken down by age, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927.
* Emotional attachment to Israel has held steady over the last decade, with 69 percent of respondents saying they feel attached or very attached to Israel. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel.
* Far more respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity than observing Jewish law — 42 percent compared to 19 percent.
* Approximately one-quarter of Jews said religion is very important in their lives, compared to 56 percent among Americans generally.
* Less than one-third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue. Twenty-three percent of U.S. Jews say they attend synagogue at least once or twice a month, compared with 62 percent of U.S. Christians.
So my question is do we just accept this or can we actually do something about this? I am firmly believe this is the test of our generation. Those of us that are fortunate to appreciate the richness and beauty of Judaism should think long and hard about how we can make a positive difference in the lives of Jews who have not experienced the beauty of our heritage.
It all can begin with the action of an individual. If you have the opportunity to invite someone for a Shabbos meal – seize the moment. You never know how the dormant spark of another Jewish soul can be ignited when it is exposed to the beauty of a Shabbos table.
I think about this even more as we learn about Avraham in the weekly portion. If there was a Pew survey in his lifetime on this issue, it would have been even more depressing. After all there were less G-d fearing people in his generation than ours. Yet, he refused to surrender to the status quo and declared – I will make a meaningful difference in the world today  by reaching out to my fellow man and touching them with kindness and G-d’s values.
We have a choice to make. We can either just ignore the reality of our generation or we can declare ourselves to be aligned with Avraham and his legacy. In the battle between assimilation of U.S. Jewry and the will of the descendants of Avraham --- I am putting my money on the latter.

Please share your thoughts.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reflections on a Tragedy

This past Yom Kippur our community was afflicted with a horrible tragedy. During Kol Nidre services, I was giving my sermon to our Sephardic Minyan. (A couple of years ago we started a this service for all Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent and their service is steeped in their rich Sephardic Heritage). Someone had come into the minyan and informed us that there had been a major accident on San Jose Blvd and that one of our congregants en route to services at the Sephardic Minyan had been fatally struck. We learned that Esther Ohayon a beloved member of our community was killed in this horrific tragedy and her daughter Orly was taken to the hospital and was in critical condition.
Our Yom Kippur quickly turned into a day in intense grief. We still continued with services until the end of Yom Kippur but we were in this dark cloud that seemed to be suffocating.
How it is that such sweet, loving and righteous people could have that inflicted upon them on the way to synagogue? Weren’t they on their way to offer prayers to G-d and connect with Him on the holiest day of the year?  

It is not inappropriate to question G-d and ask questions of this nature. Indeed, we learn about Gideon in the Book of Judges, who questioned G-d after all the suffering that the Jews of his generation had to endure at the hands of the Midianites. He said “Where are all your wonders and miracles that accompanied the Jews when they left Egypt?
I do not pretend to know the answer to the age old question of how good people can suffer and evil people can prosper.  I do know what the Torah teaches us on this difficult issue. It is written in the end Deuteronomy that from the time the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from our homeland, G-d has concealed His face from us. This is referred in Hebrew as Hester Panim. The state of Hester Panim allows a world in which acts of terrorism, natural disasters and devastating tragedies to occur without understanding the reason for all of this. This state of concealment causes us to be confused and despondent when confronted with events of this nature.  Had the presence of G-d been less concealed, we would not be struggling to understand His will.
However, we continue to pray for this era of Hester Panim  to be over and done with. Indeed, that is a central theme of the High Holiday liturgy. We plead with G-d for Him to come closer to us and be less concealed.
Life is full of joyous and sad moments. In a moment like this we have to reflect on how fragile life is and how we must take advantage of each and every day. We have to be cognizant of all the blessings that we do have in life. Let us show appreciation to those closest to us. We should not take anything for granted including our families. It is important to tell your spouse “I Love You “or hug your child. If there is an opportunity to help someone in need, it is important to take advantage of those opportunities and not put them off.
I would also like to point out about how much goodness and kindness this tragedy has generated. People all over the world have come together for prayer and tzedaka in a very meaningful way. There was a prayer session at the Kotel in Jerusalem attended by dozens of Orly’s friends in Israel. Individuals from all over the world have contributed funds for the benefit of Orly. Locally, there has been an outpouring of generosity from all synagogues and agencies in our Jewish Community. My phone did not stop ringing for days with people offering how they can be of some help. It is nothing short of inspiring.
I think it is a very fitting tribute to Esther. She attended Chabad and Etz Chaim and taught at the pre school of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. She was a person that transcended the differences we sometimes have and connected in a very meaningful way with all Jews regardless of their denomination or observance. Even in her death she continues to unite the Jewish people in a way that is meaningful and inspiring.

May her memory always be a blessing.

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