Thursday, February 25, 2021

Faith Behind the Mask

As Jews worldwide celebrate Purim this year, we roughly mark the one-year anniversary of COVID making its mark here in the United States. In somewhat of a sad irony, we have been wearing masks all year and not just in observance of Purim. There is a powerful message that we learn from the Megillah that I believe has a special meaning this year in light of the challenges that we are experiencing. There are so many layers of challenges. I would like to focus on the challenge on our faith. We struggle to reconcile how a just and benevolent G-d can allow such pain and suffering to run unabated during a global pandemic. In one way or another, we have cried out and said -- “Almighty G-d, where are you”? The Rabbis make teach us a powerful lesson about Megilas Esther as it’s unique among all the Books of Tanach. There is not one mention of G-d’s name in the Megila. That sounds pretty strange. One might think that as one of the volumes of the Bible, it would have the name of G-d referenced in it even it was a mild reference. This omission was intentional. The lesson the Rabbis teach us is that the Purim miracle was done in a covert fashion yet it was still the hand of G-d that instrumental in orchestrating certain key events. For example, how likely that a young Jewish woman would end up being selected as the new queen? In fact, the Talmud, address this by stating, אסתר מן התורה מנין ואנכי הסתר אסתיר. The translation is, where there is a reference to Esther in the Torah. The response is a verse in the Book of Devarim which states that G-d says that I will conceal My face on that day. The larger message here is that miracle of Purim was unlike earlier miracles in Jewish history. The story with Mordechai and Esther could have read as a novel with a villain and the heroine coming through at the right time for her people. A bunch of coincidences that just happen to add up. The Rabbis teach us it is precisely for that reason the name of G-d is not mentioned in the Megilah. To teach us this supremely important fundamental tenet of Judaism: the presence of G-d may be concealed but His salvation may always be at a moment’s notice. There have been many long days and nights over the past year in which the tragic news piled up, yet we are a people of faith and believe in better days ahead. As we say in our prayers, מי שענה למרדכי ואסתר בשושן הבירה הוא יעננו, May the One who answered Mordechai and Esther in Shushan, answer us as well!!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Donor Fatigue

One of the fixtures of modern Jewish life that has caused us fatigue is fundraisers. Every Jewish not-for-profit organization is inherently operating at a deficit, so the solution seems to be a fundraiser. There are so many worthy causes both locally and abroad and we get solicited all the time and that it results in donor fatigue. Someone commented that one of the benefits of COVID was that he and his spouse didn’t feel compelled to go to so many charity events. Those comments particularly saddened me. With the advent of the matching campaigns that are now quite popular, several of these campaigns reach out to me several times a month, and I understand the challenge of trying to stay motivated and financially afloat to participate in all these mitzvah opportunities. The truth is that we can learn an important lesson from the first fundraising campaign in Jewish history, and that is the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. G-d in communicating the directive to Moshe says וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְרוּמָה This is literally translated as you shall take for Me a donation. This sounds like a strange way of articulating a solicitation. Wouldn’t it be much more straight forward to say ויתנו לי or you shall give Me? The Rabbis throughout the millennia, have suggested a simple yet profound message. When we are presented with an opportunity to share our material resources for a good cause we ultimately are the beneficiary. Although it may appear that we are the benefactors, the opposite is true. The truth is that all the material wealth that we possess in this world is not truly ours, we are merely the stewards over that. Every once in a while there is an economic crisis in which we are rudely reminded of this truth (Can anyone say COVID?). G-d in His infinite wisdom gives us many opportunities to be givers and share our material resources with others. The Talmud in the Tractate of Bava Basra states that someone challenged Rabbi Akiva and asked him if G-d really loves the poor, why does He not directly provide them sustenance? His response was to allow us to do this Mitzvah. I think of this question in the modern language. If G-d loved the shuls, yeshivas, day schools, Bais Yaakovs, Mikvaos, etc., why is there always such a dearth of funds available? Why are there so many fundraising campaigns? The answer in 2021 is just the same as it was during the time of the Mishkan and during the time of Rabbi Akiva -- to allow us the opportunity to give.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Lesson In Gratitude

There have been a handful of books that have made a significant impact on me in the journey of life. One of those is Let There Be Rain by Rabbis Finkelman and Wallerstein on the topic of gratitude. For several months last year, we studied a daily lesson after morning minyan and I was immeasurably enriched by it. Just waking up every morning and realizing everything is a privilege that we have to be appreciative and thankful for is invigorating. Not only that but a person that is feeling grateful is full of happiness as he appreciates the blessings in life and anticipates that life will not always deliver perfection. The opposite viewpoint would be to view life through the lens of entitlement. A person that wakes up with that perspective and views everything as a right and something that he is entitled to leads to being ungrateful when things inevitably will not be perfect. Furthermore, this leads to unhappiness and disillusionment with others as he expects everyone in his life to always deliver perfection with no margin of error. We find a great lesson on gratitude in this week’s Parsha. The Torah teaches that the Treif Meat is prohibited for consumption. Surprisingly, the Torah does not just advise as to the prohibited status of treif meat but also in the manner in which one should dispose of the forbidden food. “ To the dog, you must throw it” instructs the verse in Parshas Mishpatim. It seems rather odd that the Torah takes pains of how to dispose of this forbidden food, especially considering that such advice is not dispensed with other forbidden foods. Rashi provides some necessary commentary on this rather bizarre passage. When the Jewish people had left Egypt, it was such a powerful moment that even the dogs did not bark. That is quite unusual since dogs normally react and bark to the slightest unusual occurrence and there were several million people leaving in one night. Yet, this miracle occurred that even the dogs stood to attention and didn’t utter a peep. In recognition of this, dogs were rewarded that are the beneficiaries of treif meat since it is prohibited for consumption by Jews. It still seems a bit of a stretch to somehow give a dog a piece of meat in 2019 in recognition and gratitude of what another dog may have accomplished over 3,300 years ago! I believe the exercise in practicing gratitude with the gesture to the dog is primarily for ourselves. We become more cognizant of what others are doing for our benefit when we practice gratitude towards others. The Torah teaches that even when those practices are directed towards our four-legged friends they are nonetheless valuable in making us more aware of the need to be grateful.

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Life of Day One

It's been some time since the word Amazon is no longer immediately associated with being the largest rainforest in the world. It's been just about 25 years since Jeff Bezos started selling books online from his garage. Today, the word Amazon reflects dominance in the marketplace that arguably no other company in the world can claim. There is practically no industry or area of life in that Amazon does not have a significant role. Mr. Bezos also has a net worth of nearly cool 200 billion dollars. For these reasons and more, it was more than newsworthy this week when Bezos announced his retirement from the position of CEO. He is now transitioning to the role of Executive Chairman. In the letter released to his employees informing them of this big news, he concluded his statement with the following words. "It remains Day 1." That seems like a bizarre way to conclude a special announcement. What kind of code word was that? Day 1 is a fundamental philosophy that has guided Amazon from a small garage to becoming one of the world's most dominant companies. Day 1 is about keeping the same passion and enthusiasm that a startup has. Day 1 means that Amazon will always act like a startup. Bezos has argued to his team that the opposite of Day 1 is Day 2. That is not just a cute statement. He wrote, "Day 2 means stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day One at Amazon." The notion of always maintaining a Day One approach in life easier said than done. That is so challenging, as we know from any area of life that complacency has a corrosive effect on the things we cherish most in life. From the state of our marriages to our relationship with G-d and His Torah, the initial Day One experience wears off rather quickly, and we struggle to find meaning in these essential areas. Inspiration and passion fade to mindlessly performing rituals out of habit or mouthing the words of prayer. The Day 2 experience has taken hold of our lives in many ways and we walk around feeling empty and unfulfilled. This week we once again read about the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The most extraordinary event in human history occurred when an entire nation heard the Divine word and accepted to be His ambassadors for the mission of spreading Godliness and holiness in the world. That was our Day 1 moment. In the Shema, we read the following words אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. This is translated as "that I command you today." Wasn't the giving of the Torah thousands of years ago? (The giving of the Torah occurred 3,333 years ago). The meaning of the word הַיּוֹם/today is very simple. It means that we should always work on a Day 1 philosophy in our Judaism. The mountain of a Day 1 life is not an easy one to climb. It's important to remember that just as with Amazon, the alternative to Day 1 in our relationships and commitment to faith is Day 2, and that's a life of indefinite unfulfillment.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Reminder of the Obvious

Certain fundamental values often get overlooked or don't get enough attention. That is not necessarily because people don't believe in the matter or disagree with it but because it may be so evident that it gets overlooked. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746), in his magnum opus, the Mesilas Yesharim, wrote the following words in his introduction. "I have written this work not to teach people what they don't know but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand. However, to the degree that these rules are well known and their truth self evident, they are routinely overlooked or people forget about them altogether." One area that falls into this category, in my opinion, is gratitude. There are so many people in our lives that contribute to our well being that frequently get overlooked. We need to open our eyes and be more cognizant of all the people that make all sorts of contributions. One group of people we tend to overlook, I believe, are the maintenance personnel of our organizations. These men and women work hard to keep our facilities clean and neat, so we can come to shul and have a pleasant davening experience. They wash our floors and clean our toilets without any fanfare or bringing any attention to themselves. Yet, they provide an essential service for our benefit, and they deserve to be recognized and appreciated. The fact they get paid and compensated for their work is not a reason for us not to appreciate them. For this reason, I was very glad that we had the opportunity this week to publicly acknowledge and recognize Ariadna and Maribel, who are responsible for cleaning the shul and school. During COVID, there has been an increased workload on these two women, and they have been working hard to get our campus not only clean but safe. I once commented to Ariadna that we don't view her job as merely cleaning the building but rather as someone who brings joy into our campus with her work. Rabbi Horowitz made a public presentation in the presence of all the students of Torah Academy about the importance of appreciating and recognizing these women for all their hard work. As I was listening to him, I thought that this was a most valuable lesson to pass along to our children and students. It's important for us to reflect on how many people in our lives enhance our quality of life even in a small way and for us to make a more concerted effort to recognize and appreciate those individuals. Gratitude is not just a nice thing to practice. As Rabbi Luzzato wrote, sometimes we need a reminder of the most important values in Judaism.

People Love Dead Jews

People Love Dead Jews. Dara Horn authored this book with this provocative title. Society is fascinated with the death of Jews but cares lit...