Thought on the Torah Portion
PURIM: HAVE WE FORGOTTEN HOW TO CONNECT WITH EACH OTHER?
Purim 2021 marks exactly one year on the Jewish calendar since we learned words like Coronavirus and COVID-19. Last Purim, we celebrated normally, though with a hint that an ominous future might beckon. Horror stories from Italy and elsewhere abroad were circulating, but we weren’t quite certain what that portended for us, presumably impervious Americans. Of course, we now know that we are not beyond the reach of an undiscriminating and vicious microbe. It has been a year of unmistakable tragedy – over half a million deceased in the United States alone. Although there still is so much we do not know about this disease, we certainly have far more understanding now of what we’re up against, and have adjusted our lives inestimably in response. At the same time, we recognize that vaccines have arrived, introducing concrete reprieve, as well as a more intangible, but no-less-important ingredient: hope. It is interesting to think about Purim in the context of where we stand today, sandwiched between terrible misfortune and optimistic horizons. After all, Purim is the only holiday that occurred, historically, between a moment of recent destruction and imminent rebuilding. In 586 BCE, after standing for 410 years, the First Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezar and his Babylonian armies. The Jews were exiled and scattered throughout what became the Persian kingdom. Yet the prophet Jeremiah assured them that their displacement would only be temporary, and that in 70 years’ time they would return to Israel and construct a Second Temple. Although Cyrus had actually begun repatriating the Jews and allowing the process to begin, his successor Achashverosh had halted the reconstruction. Miscalculating the end-time of the prophet’s 70 year warning, he believed he had conclusively defeated the Jewish People. In celebration, Achashverosh organized a drunken, orgiastic feast lasting 180 days. The debaucherous celebration featured holy vessels plundered by Nebuchadnezar from the First Temple, further humiliating the Jews and demonstrating that their relationship with G-d truly had been abrogated. Sadly, most of the Jews themselves participated in the event, succumbing to the despair for their nation that it embodied. Of course, our hero Mordechai decried this behavior, and ultimately his – and Esther’s – bravery staved off total genocide and eventuated the Temple’s rebuilding. What I find striking about this story is the Jews’ swift descent into moral despair. 900 years earlier, they had miscounted Moshe’s anticipated return from Mt. Sinai, leading them to construct a Golden Calf. And now, they again despaired due to a calendrical error, abandoning all hope for a redemptive future. A People that had served G-d in the Holy Temple, with its Holy Instruments, only decades prior was now imbibing libations of treachery from those very same vessels. A Nation that for centuries had been united in its sacred worship was now “scattered and dispersed among the other people in all the provinces.” Simply put, the Jews lost hope. And in the process, they forgot how to be a family. In preparing to share this year’s thoughts, I decided to revisit what I wrote at this time last year. On March 5th, 2020, I pondered: “Isn't it fascinating that amidst such a fractured and polarized society we are being reminded just how connected we really are? And not only has the spread of the disease demonstrated this truth, but combatting it also requires the shared vigilance and unified efforts of citizens worldwide.” I wrote those words before any thought of lockdowns, and just days before we were told “two weeks to flatten the curve.” We had no idea that soon we would be forcibly separated from those beyond our immediate confines, and that this social disruption would persist for a year and beyond. It was easier then to speak about unity. Even if we often fell short of the goal, at least we knew how to exist with others, if we wanted to make the effort. But now? One of my great fears is not that the health protocols will prevent us indefinitely from returning to our previous social realities, but that our own psychological blockages will do so. Over the past year we have been conditioned not only to avoid others but to fear them. The habits of mind that we have embraced for our safety might, unwittingly, deny us the embrace of our fellow humans for longer than necessary. And so, this year, these same messages of togetherness and hope as twin antidotes to exile, assume heightened urgency. Millions – myself included – have been vaccinated. We mourn the unspeakable toll of this disease but also recognize that it may soon be receding. Purim – this “sandwich holiday” – offers a splendid recipe to prepare us for the reentry we all desperately crave, but may have forgotten how to achieve. As she prepares to risk her life to save the Jewish People, Esther instructs Mordechai to “go and gather all the Jews.” Their solidarity out in the land, she knows, is integral to her success in the palace. Along those lines, on this special day, we send gifts (mishloach manot) to one other, and place a particular emphasis on giving charity to the needy (matanot la'evyonim). We read the Megillah in the most public gatherings we can manage – attenuated this year, but still as a congregation. And we eat a festive meal that includes intoxicating drink, erasing barriers between people and allowing pure love to emerge. All of this counteracts Haman's claim of our divisiveness. We are one People after all! This Purim we still must be prudent. But as we enter this awkward-yet-optimistic phase of the pandemic, we must prepare for that proverbial “day after.” We can begin by celebrating Purim – a time when we stand poised to rebuild, and a time when we remind ourselves just how vital the notion of “Jewish family” is to Jewish destiny. Purim Sameach & Shabbat Shalom!
RECLAIM YOUR YOUTHFUL ENTHUSIASM!
Will “snow days” disappear in the era of Zoom-school brought by COVID? Discerning children everywhere must be worried about this frightening prospect. Today, for example, we woke up to an ice storm; one of my children was off completely, another partially, and a third had a full, regular school day. Strange times. The truth is that adults generally resent the snow: it presents an imposition to smooth walking, requires us to spend time clearing our car, sidewalk and driveway and, during normal times, cancels various life events. Children, on the other hand, explode out of bed on a snow day with an uncanny exuberance. Many adults would love to reclaim the enthusiasm of their youth. I’ll never forget a Shabbat I spent a few years ago in Charleston, South Carolina as a scholar-in-residence. Founded in 1854, the synagogue hosting us was the oldest continuous-use Ashkenazi location in the country. On Shabbat afternoon we were walking the streets of downtown Charleston – the shul is located in the heart of the historic district – when we encountered a most bizarre scene: hundreds of students, presumably from the nearby College of Charleston, walking around in broad daylight fully clad in...onesies!! Yes, everything from Superman to Ninja Turtles to bunny rabbits was on display. According to a flyer I noticed, all this apparently was part of a "onesies bar crawl" event, if you can imagine back to such raucous occasions in the epoch known as, “Before Corona.” We read this week about the Keruvim – the two angelic, childlike statuettes posted above the Holy Ark. (The English word "cherubic," meaning innocent and angelic, is based on their presence.) Tradition tells us that the voice of G-d to Moses emanated from above the Ark and through these figurines, as they faced each other in an embracing pose. Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, a 20th century rabbi in the great Israeli Ponovezh yeshiva, explains that in receiving Torah we would benefit from emulating the youthfulness of the keruvim: we can only learn when we are filled with wonder, and devoid of cynicism, like children. Later in the Torah, while describing the daily commandment to light the menorah (candelabra) in the Tabernacle, we are told, "Aaron did as was commanded." But why would we assume that Aaron would not have done what he was told by G-d? The Chassidic thinker known as the Sfas Emes explains that the praise was justified because Aaron performed this very mundane task, every single day, with equal enthusiasm. The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) tells us that “the world is sustained by the breath from the mouths of children who study Torah.” The purity and zeal of these young charges infuses the world with a special energy, which we would be wise to emulate. Great performers and masters of their crafts have always grasped this value, intuitively. Legendary French painter Henri Matisse wrote that, “I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth, when the world is new to it.” And Sir Edmund Hillary, the first (non-native) man to scale Everest, once said, “The really good mountaineer (has) the technical ability of the professional and the enthusiasm and freshness of the amateur.” Life is challenging and complicated, and as we grow we tend to become more calloused, more wary and less idealistic. But we are the artists and explorers of our own lives, and the Torah asks us to remain fresh, to believe in its power to uplift. We are not naively denying the world's problems, but confidently confronting and resolving them, from a position of verve and vigor. I cannot say that I endorse traipsing the city streets in pajamas, much as it might help us recapture that youthful excitement. But certainly we can examine our Torah and, through it, embrace the fervor and yearning that children so beautifully express! Shabbat shalom.
A number of years ago I was sued by a disgruntled student-tenant. Well, not me personally, but the organization that I run and represent. Without diving too deeply into the details – though they actually made for a fascinating case study – we had rented a room to a student, suffered a flood, and his furniture had been ruined. We disagreed, to put it mildly, as to who was responsible under the terms of our lease agreement. The case was long-lasting, winding its way eventually into small claims court, where we were slapped with a $10,000 judgement. Earlier on in the process, we could have settled for 1/5th that amount, but had declined, since we firmly believed we were correct – both according to secular and Jewish law – though obviously the judge disagreed. Not to mention that, as a small nonprofit, we didn’t have the money on hand to cover even the lesser amount; we were relying on pro bono counsel and the hope that the case would be dismissed altogether. We ended up having to borrow the funds and then pay off this debt over a matter of years. It was a pretty traumatizing experience. The source of most Jewish civil law is found in this week’s Torah Portion, Mishpatim (lit., “judgements”). Rabbi Mordechai Rhine, a local rabbi in my Silver Spring community, points out in a recent essay how anomalous this body of law is, in contrast to all other areas of the Torah. Jewish legal codes are filled with thousands of pages regulating all aspects of civil law, torts and financial disputes. And yet, no less an authority than the Code of Jewish Law instructs jurists that: “It is a mitzvah to offer litigants to compromise and work things through together rather than be subjected to the Law. If they insist on a court case, the judges should proceed. But if the litigants are willing to switch to compromise at any time, they are encouraged to do so…even if the judges have already reached a conclusion of how the money will be awarded, so long as they have not actually issued the ruling.” (Choshen Mishpat 12:2) At first blush, this is an astonishing statement. Presumably, when a case has been litigated, and the judges are prepared to dispense their decision, they have already concluded that the disputed funds belong to Party A and not to Party B, according to Jewish legal standards. Wouldn’t a continued push for “compromise” (known in Hebrew as “p’shara”) in effect be promoting theft? After all, the money should rightfully belong to one and not the other! To underscore just how unusual an approach this is, the Satmar Rebbe quips that, of the four major volumes composing the Code of Jewish Law, the digest dealing with economic quarrels is placed last so that we won’t form a habit of “compromise” with respect to the balance of ritual law that precedes it. G-d has established rules, and we do our best – limited as we are by our human failings – to follow them. And yet, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 30b) tells us that, “Jerusalem was destroyed because people conducted themselves (in monetary matters) according to the strict letter of the law and did not act beyond what was strictly required!” Failure to compromise undermined the entire Jewish republic! Presumably, the Sages single out this sphere of activity because it relates to interpersonal conduct. While following the “letter of the law” exclusively would produce abstract “justice,” it would also engender a fractious society, filled with “winners” and “losers.” “Truth” (emet) would reign, but “Peace” (Shalom) would wither. In our social relationships, the Torah is privileging the latter over the former. In recent decades, society at large has been turning increasingly to mediation, an analog of the ancient Jewish notion of “p’shara.” Noting the massive cost, protracted time table, and needless acrimony generated by litigation, corporations and couples alike are opting for what is known as ADR – “Alternative Dispute Resolution.” Studies have shown it to be effective, too; the Office of Dispute Resolution of the Department of Justice found a 75% resolution rate in voluntary ADR proceedings, and only slightly lower when court-imposed. But in painfully too many circumstances, people still insist on “total victory” – whether in the courtroom or beyond, in the broader arena of interpersonal relationships. Moreover, it seems that people are no longer satisfied to compromise with others – or even to change them; the new order calls on people to destroy their adversaries. The odious practice of “doxing” – scouring the Web for any slight misstatement in a person’s past, and then leveraging it to sully his or her reputation – reflects an insistence on “perfect truth” over human solidarity. I certainly regret not having settled our tenant dispute those years ago, and not only because seeing it through left us $8,000 poorer. More dismayingly, it created a highly contentious, and permanently fractured, dynamic with our opponents. In seeking to win the “battle” of righteous indignation, I lost the “war” of human connection. Last week I called for a “culture of curiosity”; this week I plead for a “culture of compromise.” Cultivating one requires that we see others as essentially well-intentioned – even if we believe mistaken. Rather than a statement of weakness – of “giving in” – perhaps we can reframe compromise as the promotion of higher values, a prioritizing of people above principles. The medieval scholar “Ba’al Haturim,” known for his clever wordplays and deep Biblical allusions, presented the word “Mishpatim” – the name of our Portion – as an acronym for “Mitzvah She’ya’ase P’shara Terem Ya’ase Machloket”: it is a mitzvah to compromise, lest (a situation) lead to discord. He penned these words roughly 800 years ago, but they have never been more apropos. If we are to remain one People – whether as Jews or as Americans – then now, more than ever, we must rediscover this “culture of compromise.” Shabbat Shalom!
PARSHAT YITRO: STAY CURIOUS!
In Tribute to Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, zt”l In 2018, when I interviewed Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, who passed away this week, he made a striking assertion: gazing back at his life from his 88-year-old perch, he asked, reflectively, what he would do if given the chance to live his life over again. His answer: “I would do exactly what I did!” Dr. Twerski spoke and wrote often about the importance of healthy self-esteem, and its distinction from the character defect of hubris. Certainly he was not expressing any sense of arrogance in his response to me. What, then, rested behind his self-assured sentiment? More importantly, what quality or qualities did this great man possess that allowed him to live such a rich and full life? Not many Torah Portions are named for an individual person, much less a proselyte like Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. (Consider that not even Moshe himself enjoyed such a distinction!) What possibly could Yitro have done to earn this honor? Moreover, why did he, of all people, hasten to join the Jewish People as they prepared to receive the Torah? Surely many others had heard of the nation’s miraculous ascent from Egypt and should have considered joining! The Midrash clues us in. Commenting on Yitro’s statement that, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities,” it reveals the backstory: “Yitro was knowledgeable about every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he did not worship.” Yitro was a perpetual seeker. He hunted truth relentlessly until finally he was satisfied with the G-d and the People of Israel. Yitro was irrepressibly curious! I believe that today we suffer from an acute “curiosity crisis,” on two pols. Some people simply do not care enough about ideas to pursue them and follow them to their logical conclusions. I would term this “apathy.” In contrast, others care immensely, but are so convinced that they have already attained the answers that they cease searching. Worse yet, they condemn those who have arrived at alternate conclusions, breeding “antipathy.” This apathy-or-antipathy dichotomy has infected so many corners of our culture, at both extremes: people either tolerate shallowness, or they vilify their ideological adversaries. Imagine a world in which people were perpetually curious. My neighbor’s unfamiliar opinion would offer a springboard for conversation. In the final analysis, I might maintain my original position, but I also might replace, or at least refine, it. Minimally, I would preserve my basic respect for the “other.” As Dr. Twerski was wont to point out, those who are most secure with their convictions – those in possession of self-esteem – welcome challenges and reasonable discourse. They are also disposed to modifying their beliefs upon new or better information, more convincing arguments, or life experience. This humility is a result of healthy self-regard, and is the antithesis of the hostility endemic to our contemporary environment. In the Jewish arena, I often lament that so many parents experience Judaism only vicariously, through their children in Hebrew School or other such engagements. Invariably, this leaves many adults with a juvenile impression of our very substantive Faith. But a curious soul will not settle for a vicarious or subordinate connection to his or her spiritual inheritance. Dr. Twerski lived a remarkable life. At the time I interviewed him, he was 88 years old, and had authored 84 books! These included myriad works on popular psychology, in which he sought to destigmatize mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community; a trilogy in collaboration with Charles Schultz, analyzing the Peanuts comics; and a catalogue of religious works, harmonizing his Chassidic warmth and wit with brilliant scholarship and a hard-won worldliness. In his own Torah commentary, “Twerski on Chumash,” Dr. Twerski underscores the centrality of curiosity, relating it to our current Portion. Early in the reading, Yitro suggests that Moshe establish a court system, delegating out the torrent of routine cases, thereby freeing him to focus on the most intractable disputes. Moshe implements this suggestion, but we are left wondering: could he not have come up with this efficient solution himself? Dr. Twerski answers that, clearly Moshe could have conceived of this idea, but the Torah specifically wanted to demonstrate his readiness to learn from any person. “Regardless of how wise and learned a person may be,” he writes, “one should always be willing to learn from, and to consult with, someone of lesser stature…We should be…always teachable.” And, lest one worry that such a posture demeans one’s self-esteem, he adds, “People with a healthy ego have no problem asking anyone for advice.” As a psychiatrist for some-sixty years, and a consummate “student of the mind,” Dr. Twerski certainly was aware of the research connecting curiosity to achievement and longevity. For example, Trinity College psychology professor Ian Richardson writes that, “Intellectually curious people tend to achieve more in life. And more importantly they live longer.” But as a student of the Torah – and of his illustrious forebears – Dr. Twerski grasped this truth long before he set foot in the halls of academia. Given his disposition towards lifelong learning, it is no wonder that he reached into his tenth decade, profoundly productive till the end. Dr. Twerski bequeathed so many gifts to the Jewish community and to the world. Most of us would be hard-pressed to replicate his authorial output or even his other signature life achievements. But certainly we can emulate his inquisitiveness, his abiding love of learning and growing and working to change himself and the society he encountered. Yechi zichro baruch – may his memory be for a blessing. Listen to this as a Podcast here: https://www.meormarylandonline.org/.../torah-you-should...
TEACHING MY DAUGHTER TO DRIVE
Recently, I have been teaching my 16-year-old daughter to drive. Like for any parent who has enjoyed this unique pleasure – sarcasm intended – it can be harrowing, and forces me to summon the deepest reservoirs of trust and patience. In particular, merging on to the highway demands a unique level of courage, from both the parent/instructor and child/pupil. Which, as we will see, relates to our ancestors’ sojourn from Egypt. The Jewish People is marching inexorably towards the Red Sea, their Egyptian nemeses charging closely behind them. They reach an impasse: an un-crossable ocean. In the finest Jewish tradition, according to the Midrash (Mechilta 14:13), they begin to debate, forming four factions: the first, believing they are doomed, advocates throwing themselves into the sea, dying on their own terms; another promotes the opposite – a return to Egypt, back into the arms of their erstwhile oppressors; the third group, perhaps emboldened by the punishing plagues that they have so recently witnessed, is ready to fight; and the final group believes that prayer holds the key to their salvation. The Torah prescribes none of these. Instead, G-d tells Moshe to prompt the People forward, where the sea will split before them. They are not to despair, retreat, battle, or plead, but rather to march with confidence into a literal sea of uncertainty. This simple lesson of the Midrash is profound; to be sure, there must be times that each of the four alternate suggested responses is warranted. But at key moments, when hope seems lost, forward action is our most faithful recourse. As a new driver, the process of merging onto a highway can seem counterintuitive: one might imagine that it is preferable to slow down, waiting for a broad opening before entering the hurtling traffic. Yet, as any driver understands, the correct way to merge is to quicken up to highway speed and enter with confidence. But the drama – and the lesson – does not conclude with that first step into the unknown. We can imagine the Jews marching through the waters, solid walls on each side, suspended in a gravity-defying position. At any moment, these walls could still come crashing down on them, as in fact they did on the Egyptians just moments later! We tend to think, wishfully perhaps, that once we take an initial difficult step, we will be freed of all further doubt and worry. In reality, while faith-induced decisions can reveal “dry ground,” confusion and risk might persist; we must maintain our trust throughout the process, until we are finally across to the other side of our trial. The driver who has entered the highway might have successfully navigated the most challenging phase, but she must remain vigilant and steadfast – maintaining her “pace” throughout her travel on these busy roads. The Jews’ desert saga demonstrates just how fragile the human condition is, with respect to belief and confidence in the Almighty. Soon after crossing the Sea, and singing glorious praises for their deliverance, people begin to complain, hankering for meat and other delicacies, somehow romanticizing their centuries of slavery. Towards the end of the Parsha, they reach “Refidim,” a geographic location whose name is a cognate of “rifyon” – loosening – alerting us that the Jews have “loosened their grip from the Torah.” They continue to complain, this time pining for water, their faith slipping, to the point that they wish to stone Moshe, their heroic savior! Just then, the nation of Amalek, henceforth our mortal enemies, attacks. Amalek is characterized by its cynical approach to existence, an insistence on happenstance and coincidence rather than purpose and providence. The numerical value of the word “Amalek” – 140 – and “safek” (doubt) are equivalent. This nation represents an antithetical mindset, sowing seeds of doubt among committed believers. But they cannot succeed alone. Only when the Jews themselves have already allowed skepticism to creep in, can Amalek find any purchase. In a separate but analogous context, the Talmud explains that our enemies only were able to destroy the Holy Temple physically once we had relinquished our rights to it spiritually. Likewise here, Amalek did not and could not strike until we had aligned ourselves to some degree with their mistrustful mindset. We always rot from within before we are chastened from without. Being human means to be vulnerable and uncertain on an ongoing basis; being Jewish means that our very existence dangles always, at some level, in the balance. Our belief is challenged constantly from the broader culture, with its empiricist lens and dismissive leanings. But if we have fortified our own faith – through our great texts, through our life experiences, and through our unimpeachable tradition – we can remain sturdy and courageous as we “split the seas” and “cross the deserts” of our own lives. Shabbat shalom!!
I am writing these words while on a plane, returning from a family vacation in Florida. Time on vacation feels different – in some ways life seems to slow down. This past year during COVID, many have noticed that time also has assumed a unique quality, in some ways both slower and faster, and certainly blurring together. We can all imagine other scenarios in which time appears to decelerate: sitting in a traffic jam can feel interminable; or accelerate: when we are immersed in a great book or conversation, hours can pass without our even noticing. The seven additional years that Yaakov (Jacob) worked to “earn” marriage to his preferred bride Rachel were described as “yamim achadim” – days that passed quickly, uniformly, in his dogged pursuit of a singular goal. A seven-year wait under other circumstances might have felt unbearable. While we all experience this variation, however, it is a rather bizarre perception: objectively speaking, every second, minute and hour is precisely equivalent to every other! Time is the most democratic of institutions: every moment is precisely equivalent for every person. (Though, to be fair, it is equally undemocratic, when considering that each person is granted a specific amount of life-time in total.) With this enigma in mind, we can begin to appreciate the Torah’s first commandment to the Jewish People: to sanctify the new moon, setting the cycle for the holidays, and in a sense establishing Jewish time itself. Famously, Rashi at the very beginning of the Torah already suggests that this mitzvah should have been the starting point for the entire Written Law, and was only displaced in order to emphasize our connection to the Land of Israel. In the registry of the Torah’s behavioral legislation, this particular statute appears designed to set the stage for all those that follow. Many commentators explain the primacy of the “new moon” mitzvah as a contrast – and corrective – to the slavery from which the Jewish Nation is now emerging. At some level, all people must work for their sustenance, and encounter obligations throughout the day. The most overt distinction between a free person and slave, then, is their disparate relationship to time; the slave is deprived of any choice to determine how he utilizes this precious commodity. But the dichotomy runs deeper. As we noted, time inherently is an objective measure; but to each of us it assumes a particular quality based on the goal to which we have dedicated it at any given point. Being free – as a nation and as individuals – means we can employ our autonomy to shape our own experience of time. And so, it emerges that time actually reflects meaning. We understand intuitively that by observing how we spend our time we can assess our values. But we don’t often think about the corollary: that consciously investing our time with meaning can actually transform the experience of that time itself. When we do this well, time can feel different to us, because it is different in its content. The irony of this approach to time is that it carries a danger not shared by the more scripted state of being. The entrepreneur can fill her day with self-actualization, but can just as easily fritter it away on Netflix, or sleep, or any other diversion she might choose; the bureaucrat, though his job is redundant and tedious, at least will accomplish something. This, explain some of the great ethical (mussar) masters, is why the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon pertains to setting the holiday calendar. The Torah is not only telling us to sanctify time, but also to organize it. By establishing the holidays, we are actually circumscribing ourselves to perform certain mitzvot at certain times. The Torah’s exhaustive menu of 613 mitzvah offerings can be paralyzing; maybe we will infuse every instant with one of its dictates, or maybe we will ignore them all and just take a nap. The Jewish story from the start was one of “voluntary coercion.” We stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and declared, “We will do and we will listen,” yet once we did so, the mountain was held over us “like a giant barrel,” and our continued existence depended on accepting G-d’s Law. We elected to become servants, chose a path of obligation, because in so doing we were assured that always, forever, our time would be consecrated. Only we can lift the “brush” of meaning-infused self-determination and begin to “paint.” But the “canvas” – the Torah’s framework for living – has been arrayed before us, awaiting our personal masterpiece, one “stroke” – one moment – at a time.