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.

Most Destructive Word in the English Language

I have always been intrigued by the “word of the year.” This last year of 2023, Merriam Webster designated “authentic” as the WOTY (word of ...