by Motzen | Dec 27, 2020 | Sermons
I read an amazing story this week (shared by @ankithharathi) about a janitor named Richard Montanez. Born in Cucamonga, California, sharing a one room cinder-block hut with 14 family members. He dropped out of school in 4th grade and took odd jobs at farms and factories. In 1976, he became a janitor at a local Frito-Lay (the chip company) plant. He couldn’t read or write and so his wife filled out the application form. The pay? $4 an hour, which was more than he ever made before.
Richard was no simple janitor. He spent his off-time learning about the company’s products, marketing, and more. He would follow salesmen around to better understand the business. In the mid-1980’s Frito-Lay started to struggle, but Richard had an idea. He called the CEO’s office. And this is how the conversation went:
“Mr. Enrico’s office. Who is this?”
“Richard Montanez, in California.”
“You’re the VP overseeing California?”
“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”
“Oh, so you’re the VP of operations?”
“No, I work inside the plant.”
“You’re the manager?”
“No, I’m the janitor.”
The CEO got on the line. Amused and intrigued by this janitor’s initiative, he gave him an opportunity to present to the board in two weeks time. Two weeks later, he walked into the Frito-Lay boardroom and shared all that he learned on the job. He pointed out that the company wasn’t catering to the Latino market, a market, he suggested, that was about to explode. He then pulled out 100 bags of Frito-Lay chips that he spiced himself, Mexican style.
After a few minutes of silence, punctured by crunching, the CEO turned to Richard and said, “Put away the mop. You’re coming with us.”
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is one of the most successful launches in Frito-Lay history. Richard became a VP and amassed a twenty-million-dollar fortune. Not bad for a janitor.
Truly, one of the most amazing rags-to-riches stories I have heard. But not the most. As I read this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about someone else who started out even lower than Richard and ended up even higher. Richard lived in the land of the free, the land of opportunities. Yosef, the protagonist of our parshiyos lived in a land of slavery, a land of a caste system that did not allow for and certainly did not celebrate these types of stories.
And yet, Yosef, very much like Richard, did not accept the position given to him. He, like Richard took initiative. When he was called in to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he didn’t just do as he was told. He pulled out the equivalent of a PowerPoint and explained to Pharaoh exactly how the Egyptian economy would survive the years of famine. It was so well-developed and demonstrated such energetic initiative that Pharaoh told Yosef to, “Put away the chains. You’re coming with us.”
Yosef was not only a master strategist, with boundless energy and crystal-clear vision, he was also a paragon of morality. Every time I read the story of Yosef and the wife of Potiphar, I hear Paul Simon playing in the background, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Potiphar…” A young, lonely 18-year-old, seduced by the beautiful wife of Potiphar, and overcomes it. He is called Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous, for all of time because of his restraint.
And yet, despite all this greatness…
Yosef is a failure. Is he not?
He interprets the dreams of the butler and baker down to the detail, securing his freedom. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams accurately, attaining the second-to-highest position in the region. But his own dreams, the dreams which were the source of his brother’s hatred and caused him to be sold into slavery, the dreams which, according to the Ramban, were the reason Yosef never reached out to his father for all those years, plotting and planning so that the whole family would come and bow in complete submission to Yosef – something that could only work if they did not know his true identity – those dreams were never fulfilled.
(The first dream, the brothers all bowing to him took place but the second dream, involving Yaakov as the sun and his mother, or someone else, as the moon, that never happened.)
Before the charade was over, Yosef was forced to remove his mask. But it was too late, the damage was done. He went from being the brother who everyone was jealous of to the brother everyone feared. And in the final act, we find Yosef crying, not tears of longing, happiness, or sadness, but tears of loneliness (R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l). The family never reconciled. Yosef had spent his entire life chasing his dreams, they were never fulfilled, and all he had for it was an abundance of external success but an empty and shallow relationship with all the important people in his life. Yosef’s dreams were a nightmare.
What Yosef’s dreams really meant are a matter of debate, but what is clear is that Yosef, the man who had a crystal-clear understanding of other people’s dreams, could not interpret his own.
Our Sages say, ein adam ro’eh nig’ei atzmo, a person cannot see their own flaws. We’re very good at seeing each other’s flaws, at understanding exactly what you are doing wrong and what you need to do. But self-discovery? To know what I need to do? What I am doing wrong? What path I should follow?
Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the great strategist, Yosef the dream interpreter could not interpret his own dreams!
It’s not only our shortcoming that we cannot see. Quite often we also cannot see our own qualities. I’m always amazed at the people who are so loving of others, genuinely. The people who see good all around them, but then beat themselves up endlessly. They can see the world in brilliant, nuanced color, and forgive all their wrongdoings, but for themselves, they only see in black and white.
There is no greater joy than clarity; who we really are, what we really need to do. But it’s hard to attain and we cannot do so one our own.
Some are blessed with friends who can tell them the truth, even when it hurts, and some are blessed with family members who can compliment genuinely and can criticize without causing defensiveness. Others may need a therapist, someone who they can talk to openly and who is trained to reflect their impressions compassionately. But none of us can do it on our own.
Last week, I mentioned that the true focus of these parshiyos is who will assume the leadership of B’nei Yisrael. Reuven is eliminated, and Yosef, though a great manger, is not the leader the Jewish People need. It is Yehuda who climbs from the bottom to the top. There are many differences between the characters of Yosef, Reuven and Yehuda, some of which we discussed last week. But one feature which is often overlooked is that Yehuda had a friend. He is the only figure in the five books of Moshe who has a friend. Perhaps, just maybe, that is the secret to his success. The feedback, the give and take, the compassionate criticism and the genuine compliments gave Yehuda the wherewithal to grow.
It took Yosef his entire life to realize that his dream was a nightmare. There’s no need to wait that long. We don’t have the tools to interpret our dreams on our own, but there is a friend, a family member, a rabbi, or therapist out there who can help us.
by Motzen | Dec 18, 2020 | Sermons
Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw a post that made me chuckle: “It seems like the most common side effect of getting the COVID vaccine is inability to shut up about getting the vaccine.”
Just when we finished getting bombarded with Menorah pictures, our collective social feeds were getting plugged up with images of front-line workers getting pricked with needles. I laughed because I was also starting to get a little cynical about these posts. But then, after saying Hallel for the final time this Chanukah, a counterpoint emerged:
A few days ago, I was talking to a number of teenagers and in the course of the conversation one of them said that their lives are filled with endless tragedy and constant suffering. I looked around and was shocked to see his friends all nod in agreement. These are kids who are living comfortably, receiving a stellar education that will enable them to get into the best colleges, who are mostly healthy, and when they are not, receive the best medical care available in the world, and yet, they’re telling me how bad the world is. What is going on here?!
In truth, it’s not their fault that they see their world in such a negative light. They are a product of our news-cycle that highlights every societal ill and ignores any positive progress made. They are the children of a society of kvetchers who at dinner parties (remember those?) complain about their many ‘first-world problems.’ And most importantly, they are human. We are programmed to focus on all that is wring and to ignore what is right.
there’s a story told of a professor who gave an assignment to his students. He gave them each a piece of white paper with a small black dot in the center and asked them to write what the picture represents. Some students wrote of the infinite darkness found in a black hole, others spoke of the negative emotions that the blackness represented, and still others wrote of the black dot symbolizing their darkest secrets.
The next day they received their papers back and were shocked at their grade. They all got F’s. The professor explained, “I asked you to write about what you saw on this page. The black dot took up a fraction of a fraction of the page. You all chose to focus on the dot and ignored the 99% of the paper that represented warmth, clarity, and beauty.”
It is human nature to focus on what stands out and not the norms of life. Illness is so distressing because we are so accustomed to being healthy. Untimely death is so jarring because we live such long lives. And similarly, bad news is news because most of the time things are good. Not only are things good, but as Steven Pinker compellingly argues, things are getting progressively better.
Today is the final day of Chanukah. Chanukah, as we’ve discussed so many times, is a strange holiday in that the victory was not long-lasting. The Hasmonean dynasty crumbled due to in-fighting and Jewish sovereignty that was so valiantly fought for was quickly lost to the Romans. Our sages debated the centrality of the Maccabean victory for years and it took time until they decided to add Chanukah to our calendar of holidays.
Their decision to include a small and short-lived victory into our lives is a powerful message: Not all good lasts forever, there is pain and there is suffering. But an even greater tragedy would be if we lose sight of the good as fleeting as it may be. This is the message of Chanukah; l’hodot ul’halel, to give thanks even when the gift will be gone tomorrow.
Saying thank you and appreciating the good is not an easy task. Human nature directs our attention to what is broken. But we are Yehudim, from the word hoda’ah, thankfulness; we pride ourselves in being able to see and celebrate the good even in the darkness. So share those pictures of your rolled-up sleeves; what a miracle that we have a vaccine! Let me know when that person on the cholim list is feeling better; “blessed is the healer of all flesh!” Tell your kids and tell yourself that for all the frustrations, today was a good day, that you woke up this morning to the most precious gift there is, life itself; “Modeh ani… she’hechazarta bi nishmasi!” And may we only share in good news.
by Motzen | Dec 7, 2020 | Sermons
Contrary to how Chanukah is taught in school, Chanukah does not represent freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the power of the few over the many. The real Chanukah story involved two groups of Jews fighting over the soul of the Jewish People. There were the traditionalists, holding on for their dear life to the ways of their parents, arguing that the Jewish People must never change their ways, and the Hellenists, who sought to merge the wisdom of Aristotle to that of Moses, and wanted to part ways with the laws that seemed outdated. Antiochus and his Greek army were supporting actors at best in this epic drama.
What made this battle so fierce was not the great divide between Athens and Jerusalem, but their many similarities. Yes, there were barbaric fights taking place in the coliseums, the Greek focus on aesthetics, and a certain amount of hedonism. But at the same time, there was no other culture that shared so much with the Torah. In the Hellenized states, the great Greek thinkers were pondering the meaning of existence and promoting an ethical life. It was the Greeks who put the word civil into civilization; they were creating an international community, not out of oppression and terror, but out of tolerance and the mixing of old and new. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet” (Bereishis, 9:27) – There is a reason the Torah describes Greece as beautiful, that the Talmud (Megillah, 8b) allows for a Torah scroll to be written in Greek, and that the Zohar (Shemos, 237a) proclaims that “Yavan/ Greece is close to the path of true faith.”
Despite the great joy that surrounds this holiday – with eight days of fried food and family fun it’s hard to complain – in truth, I struggle mightily with enjoying this holiday. The Greeks we defeated were the forefathers of Western civilization and all that it has to offer; public education, equality, civil responsibility, the arts; all the many positive features of our society can be traced back to those ancient Greeks. Yes, there are elements of this Greek beauty that conflict with my religious value system, but there is also so much I adore. What exactly am I celebrating? More importantly, is the war even over? As far as I’m concerned this ancient battle is alive and well, raging inside of me. And that’s because –
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that has no tolerance for any divisions made on racial or religious lines. And yet, there is a part of me that is Jewish – a part of me that believes that as Jews, we are a special people with a special role to play in this world.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that every country should be totally democratic and not have any religious flavor. And yet, there is a part of me that is Jewish – a part of me that believes that God gave the Jewish People the land of Israel and I take great pride in a state that is distinctly Jewish.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that quality of life is paramount, and a person should have full autonomy over his/her own body. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that believes that our bodies are a gift from God, not ours, and that every moment of life, as painfully challenging as it may be, is priceless.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that there should be absolute equality for both men and women. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that sees in the Torah a dual role played by women; that of an Ishah, Eve’s primary name; a name that connotes equality with man, and Eve’s secondary name, Chavah, a name that represents motherhood (Akeidas Yitzchak, Parshas Vayeitzei). And perhaps, the differentiated obligations of the Torah reflect the emphasis that Judaism places on family.
And lastly, there is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that if I were to be totally honest, at times is troubled with miracles I did not witness, in authorship I cannot verify, and in a future that seems so distant and foreign. And yes, in the darkest of times, even struggles with the existence of a Being I have not heard from. And at the very same time, there is a part of me that is so powerfully Jewish – a part of me that is over-awed by the majesty of the world, the profundity of the Torah, the arc of history, and even if it cannot be articulated, just knows that there must be an Author. A part of me that is awakened during prayer and feels a presence that shatters those doubts into millions and millions of pieces.
No, this battle is not over. All night long we wrestle. It’s not easy celebrating Chanukah when you’re both Jewish and Greek.
Nonetheless, I do celebrate Chanukah. Into this dark confusion, I light a candle.
To me, that small flame represents the march of history. It reminds me that this is not the first time that Jewish values were viewed as archaic or backward. In Abraham’s times, child sacrifice was fashionable. Aristotle, the most enlightened Greek of all, endorsed pederasty, intimate relationships between adult men and young boys, because it was a wonderful form of population control. It wasn’t always easy or fashionable to be Jewish and to live by its laws, but that ner tamid, that ever-lasting flame represents a history which has shown us time and time again that today’s morality is tomorrow’s backwardness.
To me, that small flame reminds me how Jewish values, such as the emphasis on the family, are needed today more than ever; that although there has been incredible progression in regards to equality in the workforce, progression which I embrace, there has also been a steady decline in family life that has gone along with it. In the 60’s, 71% of Americans were married. Today, the number has dropped by over 20%. In the 60’s the average household in America had 3.5 children, today it has dropped by almost half. That fire of my candle warms my heart, calling my attention to the beauty and necessity of family life.
To me, that small flame reminds me of another small flame, one I do not see but believe in; my soul, a Godly gift that is imbued with holiness and thirsts for meaning. She is a powerful rebuke and rebuttal to the aimlessness and hedonism that is rampant in society. As believers in a soul, we do not need to create meaning; our neshama represents a purpose and calling that is intrinsic to our existence.
“A little bit of light,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “can banish a lot of darkness.”
“Vayizrach lo hashemesh” (Bereishis, 32:32), the sun will one day rise, this battle will be over. However, the struggle will not end with one side defeating the other. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet, v’yishkon b’oholei Shem – God will give beauty to Yefet (the ancestor of the Greeks), and he will reside in the tents of Shem (the ancestor of the Jewish People).” The struggle will end when we properly integrate the beauty of Greece into the tents of Torah.
This is the great paradox of the Chanukah candle. On the one hand, it can be used to strengthen our resolve, our faith, and our confidence in the Torah; the light overpowers the darkness. And all the same, our candle can guide us through the darkness, in the delicate art of nikkur hagid (removing the sciatic nerve), giving us strength to rescue the sparks, and the wisdom to properly merge the world of Yefet with that of Sheim.
by Motzen | Dec 3, 2020 | Sermons
One of the most enigmatic passages in the Torah is the famous struggle between Yaakov and the angel; Yaakov, on the night before his fateful encounter with his brother is seemingly attacked by an angel. This nocturnal struggle has been painted through the ages, mostly by Christian artists, all depicting a wrestling match between Yaakov and a winged-being. However, Rembrandt, the famous 17th century Dutch painter, depicts the angel, not as fighting, but in an almost loving embrace. The angel seems to be supporting a failing Yaakov, not trying to overcome him.
This imagery is very much in line with a number of our classical commentators. The most well-known interpretation of this encounter, suggested by Rashi, has the angel representing Eisav and the battle is a foreshadowing of their encounter. However, Ibn Ezra suggests that the purpose of the encounter was to reassure Yaakov, to give him strength, to comfort him. Rembrandt’s depiction of the angel captures Ibn Ezra’s reading perfectly.
The implication of this approach is that Yaakov was in need of comforting. So scared, in fact, that Rashbam suggests that he had awoken that night not to continue marching towards Eisav, but to run away! Despite having come so far in his personal growth, despite the ability to face his father-in-law and rebuke him, despite his excellent three-pronged strategy to overcome Eisav, at this final moment, Yaakov was overwhelmed with fear and decided to flee! Ultimately, the angel’s reassurance works, and Yaakov turns around and confronts his greatest challenge (yet), reconciling with his estranged brother.
Before parting the angel gives Yaakov a new name, Yisrael, and he explains why: “Ki sarita (because you struggled) im Elohim v’adam (with angels and man) vatuchal (and you prevailed).” Interestingly, the final part of the sentence, Yaakov’s prevailing, is not reflected in his new name. Yisrael, is made up of only the first idea; sarita im Elohim – you struggled with great powers. Strangely, there is no mention of his ability to overcome.
It would seem that struggling is the essence of Yaakov’s new name and in turn the essence of our national identity as Am Yisrael. We are a nation that knows how to struggle. From our inception, we have struggled against external foes, sometimes prevailing but also sometimes losing. The victory of the Maccabees, which we will be celebrating this week, was far from decisive. The Maccabees won the battle, but they ultimately lost the war, as the Maccabean kingdom crumbled a few years after it was established.
Despite these setbacks, we still celebrate, not victory, but the strength it takes to struggle. Sometimes the struggle is with angels, sometimes the struggle is with powerful nations like the Greeks. For most of us, the struggle is with ourselves. With our own weaknesses, with our own vices, with the flaws and fear we grapple with that no one else can see. Chanukah is a celebration in winning battles even when we do not immediately win the war.
When we find ourselves in such a battle, in the dark, without hope, without strength, let’s use the imagery of Rembrandt and imagine that angel, calm and reassuring, to remind us that although you and I may not see it, God, through His angels, is sending us the strength we need to continue with this battle. After all, our name is Yisrael; our greatness lies, not in victory, but in being willing to confront and to struggle.
by Rabbi Motzen | Dec 3, 2020 | Halacha
The Menorah that is used on Chanukkah should have branches that are of equal height and should be arranged in a straight row. Like all mitzvos, there is significance in making the mitzvah beautiful and one should therefore endeavor to have a beautiful Menorah. If no Menorah is available one can still fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukkah candles by placing candles/ cups of oil in a row.
It is ideal to use oil for lighting the Menorah. One can fulfill the mitzvah using candles. One cannot fulfill the mitzvah using an electric Menorah. If one is using oil there is an argument about using previously used wicks. Some prefer to use new wicks every night as it is more respectful while others maintain that a used wick actually burns better and is therefore preferable. Used wicks should not be disposed of in the regular fashion that one disposes waste. Because it was used for a mitzvah they should be disposed of with care. One can either burn the wicks or put them in a bag and then place the bag in the trash.
Once the time of lighting arrives, one should not have a meal.
The prevalent custom outside of Israel is to light the Menorah indoors. The Menorah should be lit by the window that can be seen by the most people possible (this is not always the most convenient window). When lighting at one’s window one should light on the right side of the window (right side from the perspective of the one lighting the Menorah). If there is more than one person lighting the Menorah then it is best to place a space between each Menorah so that those outside can see clearly which night of Chanukkah is being celebrated.
One should light by their window even if they live in a high rise apartment. The assumption is that people from the street or people in other tall buildings will see the Menorah. When staying at a hotel on Chanukkah one’s lighting options become limited. To light at the window would be pointless because [most] hotels have blacked out windows. To light inside near the doorway, which is the next best place, is usually very difficult as most hotel rooms open up to a narrow hallway with a bathroom on one side (can’t light there) and a closet on the other (safety hazard to light there). The best place to put the Menorah is in the area where the hall opens into the main room on the right side. If that is not feasible then lighting the Menorah anywhere in the room is fine.
If one is traveling on Chanukkah but some members of the family stay at home, one technically fulfills their obligation by having those at home light. The widespread custom is that even in such a scenario, one lights wherever they are staying. In such a case, one must light before the members of one’s home are lighting. If one lights afterward one does not say the regular blessings on lighting.
A husband and wife are considered one unit and only one Menorah is lit for both. That being the case, if one of the spouses will be arriving at a later time in the evening, there are two options. 1) The spouse can wait up for the other and light together. 2) The spouse who is at home can light at the appropriate time, thus fulfilling the obligation of both spouses. (In such a case, the spouse who is not at home should attempt, if possible, to hear someone else make the blessings over their own lighting.)
The appropriate time to light the Menorah is a matter of dispute. Some state that is should be lit at sunset, others argue that it should be lit at nightfall, and others suggest that a compromise be made and the candles should be lit in between, approximately 25 minutes after sunset. The most prevalent custom outside of Israel is to light at nightfall. The latest time to light the Menorah is at dawn. One may say a Bracha when lighting as long as it not yet dawn (even if no one in the home is awake). If one missed a night of lighting, one can light the next night with a Bracha.
If one wants to join others for a Chanukah celebration not at one’s home, they should light at home at sunset with enough oil/ wax for the candle to last for a half hour after nightfall. They should not light at their host’s home as it is not their residence. Not lighting until later in the evening poses a challenge as one is not supposed to eat a meal until after lighting. However, if one is afraid to leave their home with candles burning, there is what to rely upon to light when they return from the festivities provided that an alarm is put on to remind them to light when they return home.
Even after the candles have burned for a half hour one should not extinguish them. However, if one is in a situation where there is a concern for a possible fire etc. they are allowed to extinguish the lights after 30 minutes.
The lights of the Menorah must burn for at least a half hour after nightfall. This is especially important to keep in mind on Friday afternoon when one lights the candles before candle lighting. Thus for example, in Baltimore on Friday, December 3rd, 2021, Shabbos candle lighting time is 4:25 and nightfall is 5:28 PM, so one’s candles should be able to last for a little over an hour and a half (from before 4:25 PM through 5:58 PM).