Why you came (or didn’t come) to shul Sermon for Parshas Chukas-Balak

The great debate raging across America right now is do we or don’t we take down statues from our public squares? And if we do, which ones come down?

Some have been arguing for a removal of any Confederate heroes. After all they fought for slavery and committed treason against this country! Others take this even further and suggest that anyone who ever owned a slave should not have the honor of a statue and any such statue should be ripped down. Of course, this would include almost all the founding fathers, up to and including George Washington.

Sometimes this approach has strange ramification – like when protestors toppled the statue of General Grant who was instrumental in defeating the Confederacy and by extension, defeating slavery. All because he owned a single slave who he received from his father-in-law and who he ultimately freed.

And there are those arguing to leave them all up, the poet-philosopher, George Santayana famously said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Leaving the statues up is a way of reminding us of the past, in all its ugliness.

It’s an important question to grapple with on July 4th; what is this country? What does it represent? How do we understand its past? And how does that affect its future?

 

Reading about these debates I have gained new appreciation for the Torah’s ban on statues. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to create a statue of a person. Some go so far as to forbid dolls, and if you look closely in some Chassidic homes, the dolls in their homes are slightly mutilated for this reason. Most do not take it to this extreme, but full-fledged statues will not be seen in Jewish institutions. Israel, famously, has very few statues of its leaders. 

The simple rationale behind the prohibition is that a statue may come to be worshipped. But it’s a little deeper than that –

A statue conveys perfection – and our tradition goes out of its way to highlight the imperfections of our leaders, the greatest example of whihc is found in this week’s parsha: Moshe, the paragon of perfection – the individual who speaks to G-d face to face, like a man speaks to a friend, even he succumbs to failure, to mistakes, to poor judgment.

Whatever he did is immaterial to the broader point that the Torah makes over and over again – our leaders are imperfect. Our leaders are… human.

A statue is not only an affront to G-d but it misrepresents what it means to be human. A bronze statue, a stone bust – that’s not who we are. We are flesh and blood, pushed and pulled by our emotions and faulty thinking, trudging our way through life.

It’s a view with important ramifications. I am reminded of R. Berel Wein’s famous and somewhat cynical statement – don’t judge Judaism by the Jews. He’s often quoted when some great Jewish leader fails to represent the Torah and its values. There’s truth to his statement; no Jew is perfect, and some are downright evil. And for this reason, no one can be immortalized with a god-like statue. 

 

But I believe that this is an oversimplification or perhaps an incomplete picture – that simply focusing on the imperfection of leaders is not the Torah viewpoint either.  

This same parsha that tells us of Moshe’s failing begins with the laws of reclaiming ritual purity. Coming into contact with the dead brings about a change in a person; a change that necessitates a process of reintegration into the holy camp.

Reintegration does not happen on its own – you cannot get a DIY purity kit. The individual who is trying to break free from the chains of impurity NEEDS a kohein, a priest; a priest who is placed on a pedestal and given the title of leader, of spiritual guru.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that is an intrinsic part of the process. You know, you don’t need a rabbi to give a speech on Shabbos morning, you don’t need a rabbi to officiate at a funeral, and you don’t really even need a rabbi to perform a wedding. But here, when it comes to spiritual growth, to break free from evil, we need to have a role model, an individual who represents to us what is good and what is pure.

And so we are not anti-leader; Korach was wrong, wasn’t he? Kol ha’am kulam kedoshim, the entire nation is equally pure, was rejected. There are individuals who we look up to.

And like most things, a balance is needed:

 

In 1967, Dr. Gordon Allport, the father of personality psychology developed a model to better understand why people connect to religion. He described two extremes; intrinsic religious motivation and extrinsic religious motivation.

Some are drawn or stay connected to their faith for extrinsic reasons; the social element, the camaraderie, maybe the cholent or the kiddush.

And some, are drawn or connected to the beliefs of their faith, to the practices, independent of anything and anyone else.

All of us fall somewhere between these extremes, but it’s important to reflect upon where on this continuum we are.

Two weeks ago, we sent out a poll to our membership, asking people if they felt more or less connected to shul; a similar question would have been, do you feel more or less connected to Judaism right now.

I imagine that for those who have a more intrinsic connection to Judaism, these past few months did not affect as them deeply, maybe, away from everyone else, they even felt closer to G-d.

For those who have a more extrinsic orientation these past few months, apart from shul and Jewish social life, has been especially trying to their faith.

Parenthetically, as my colleague Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin has suggested, this model helps us better understand why some people leave their faith; some leave because they were bullied or mistreated or perhaps when they witness great people acting very small. Others leave because they have questions. Presumably this is all a reflection of where they fall on this continuum. An intrinsically motivated religious individual isn’t so deeply impacted by the failures of a leader, just like they’re not deeply impacted when there’s no kiddush after shul. Whereas an extrinsically motivated religious individual isn’t bothered to the same extent by a question, a challenge to their faith; they listen, they think, they discuss, but they’re comfortable moving on.

 

I see our parsha as preaching the value of both; of growing in our intrinsic connection to G-d; not being swayed by other people, be it the social elements or the role models. My religious persona must stand alone and independent of all influences. Because such a persona can weather so many storms; it could overcome scandals which leave us leaderless and it could overcome pandemics which leave us all alone. Moshe can fail and the Jewish People can live on.

And at the same time, there is value in the Kohein, in the priest, in the role model who inspires us, who connects to us, who teaches us. You could be fully Jewish living alone on an island filled with Jewish books and religious items, but something would be missing. So much of our faith comes about from THIS; what we are experiencing right here. And yes, from a give and take with role models, with teachers.

I’ll be personal – I am one of those people who would be very comfortable living my life on an island with those Jewish (and non-Jewish!) books, but I have started to appreciate now, more than ever, how much I would be missing.

Exposure to real, living people who are so much greater than me in so many way – that forces me to grow. The interaction with people of different viewpoints – that forces me to think. And the warmth of community allows me to breathe – it gives me comfort, knowing that I am part of something.

 

So ask yourself who you are; what’s your motivation to be here, or to be Jewish? Is it intrinsic or is it extrinsic?

And when we realize where we are on that continuum, to move just a little bit in the opposite direction. 

For those of us who are more intrinsically motivated – to check our arrogance and to find people who we can aspire to, who we can emulate. To lower our guard, to stop being so independent and instead recognize how good we feel in the embrace of others.

For those who are more extrinsically motivated – we may be going back to our Covid islands in just a little while, who knows. So what does my faith look like behind closed doors? How can I develop a more personal connection to God? 

 

There are no eternal statues in Judaism. The only things eternal in Judaism are G-d and the Jewish People – netzach Yisrael. Whatever your motivation, you’re here, you’re part of this people, and you’re beloved by G-d. May we all be motivated to deepening our relationship with G-d and with one another.

 

 

 

Proactive Leadership Parshas Chukas

Dear Friends,

This past week we concluded our Zoom-series, Ner Tamid Covid Heroes. It was an absolute joy and inspiration discussing the incredible work that our heroes accomplished during these most trying of times. The final segment consisted of an interview with our shuls president, Adam Klaff, vice-president, Aaron Polun, chair, Gabrielle Burger, vicechair, Deborah Hamburger, and treasurer, Avi Jandorf. We learned about the difficult decisions that were made to keep the shul afloat, the sleepless nights, and the never-ending issues that needed their full attention every day of the week. If you missed it you can still listen to it on iTunes by clicking here – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/nt-heroes-finale/id1202617507?i=1000480873333. I found our talk not only uplifting but also elucidating in that this group demonstrated to us all one of the key features of leadership.

In this week’s Parsha, the greatest leader in our history and possibly world history, was let go. God informed Moshe that he would not lead the Jewish People into the land of Israel because of what transpired at Mei Merivah. Mei Merivah was the site of the infamous episode where Moshe who was supposed to speak to the rock to bring forth its water, hits the rock instead. Many commentators are not content with this explanation; can it really be that Moshe loses his role because he hit instead of spoke? What difference does it really make? One way or another, through this act, Moshe demonstrated the wondrous capabilities of God.

Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Jewish scholar posits that Moshe’s mistake was not that he did not obey God’s instruction. Moshe’s mistake was that he waited for God to instruct him. Initiative, seeing a problem and working on a solution, is fundamental to transformative leadership and Moshe, by waiting for God to guide him, failed in that regard. To Moshe’s credit, through Egypt and in the desert, when regular miracles and Divine teachings teachings were their way of life, a humble and submissive servant, channeling God’s word and command through his selfless being, was precisely what was needed. But as they were preparing to enter the land of Israel, a world void of miracles, it was crucial that they had a leader who acted on their own. This failing, the lack of initiative, explains Ibn Ezra, is what prevented Moshe from being the leader of the Jewish People as they entered the Land of Israel. 

We usually have a chance to thank our leadership on Shavuos when we celebrate the changing of the shul guards. Sadly, this year, we were unable to do so. I want to take this opportunity to thank our leadership for weathering one of the wildest storms of the century. It took a lot of time, energy, and strength, but it also took and continues to take initiative; initiative to plan ahead for the unknown, initiative to anticipate endless possibilities, and initiative to ensure that we will not only survive but come out stronger.

In truth, we are all leaders. We lead those in our sphere of influence, and we lead ourselves. It is hard to be proactive in such a fluctuating world but being reactionary is far worse. Let us be inspired by the many great leaders in our midst to anticipate as best as possible what will be, and to proactively build for a better tomorrow. We will not be in this state forever, all things come to an end. But instead of waiting for a better day to happen, let us lead the way, in changing things for the better, one deed and one day at a time.      

Good Shabbos, 

Yisrael Motzen

When attitude is all we have Parshas Shelach

If you had to choose between the sin of the Golden Calf and that of the Spies in this week’s Torah portion, I think it’s safe to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was far more grievous. After all, it was a mere 6 weeks after receiving the Torah that the Jewish People were dancing around an idol! And yet, the sin of the Golden Calf is forgiven almost immediately whereas the sin of the Spies is not. Instead, the Jewish People are left to wander the desert for 40 years and all adult men are condemned to die in the desert. Why so severe a punishment?

There are many ways to dissect the sin of the spies, but perhaps the most telling statement is their final one – “We were like grasshoppers.” The spies conveyed to the Jewish People how insignificant they felt in the eyes of the Canaanites. Feeling so small and weak they did not believe they had the wherewithal to defeat the Canaanites in battle. The Jewish People accepted this report, they cried, and the next day God decreed that the male adults would never enter the land. In sum, their sin was a lack of belief. Not only did they not believe in God, but, “we were like grasshoppers,” they also did not believe in themselves.

Seen in this light, the Jewish People being barred from the land of Israel was not a punishment, it was a consequence. The Jewish People did not believe that they could conquer the land and that became their reality. Their negative attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Torah does not promote magical thinking; the notion that one can will something into being. Nor does the Torah suggest that attitude is everything. Actions are a critical part of Jewish life. But what the story of the spies does teach us is that our thinking, or more specifically, our attitude, plays a significant role in what we are able to accomplish.

One of the most inspiring thinkers of the 20th century was Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in a book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning. If you have not read it, now is the time to do so. And if you have, now is also a good time to review it. Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We are slowly clawing our way back to some level of normal, but it is exhausting. We are navigating a murky stage of unknowns in our battle against Covid, the political discourse is unrelenting, weighty questions of race need to be grappled with, and that is just on the macro level. Each person and each family is dealing with their own set of challenges during this time. It is exhausting and it is very easy to feel like a grasshopper; small, insignificant, and powerless.

However, to allow ourselves to feel that way would mean not learning the lessons of our past. We are free, as Dr. Frankl so eloquently put it, to choose our “attitude in any given set of circumstances.” We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can change our self-image and attitude. Positive thinking may not be everything, but the tragic story of the spies taught us, that it is a lot.

We can choose to beat ourselves up over our failures or to be hopeful for a better tomorrow. We can choose to feel powerless by what we read and see or to take charge and feel the power we possess. We can choose to be cynical or constructive. There are so many choices that are in our hands.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed, upset, and out of energy right now. The task at hand, both personal and national, feels like it is too much to bear. We feel, like our ancestors before us, trapped in a desert, uncertain of what lies ahead, and our natural instinct draws us to negativity, to recoil and to retreat. But perhaps if we could be inspired by the hero of our parsha, Calev, who pushed back on the pessimism of his fellow spies, if we could just start small with what is always in our hands, our attitudes, and allow the hopeful words of Calev, “we can overcome” to become our mantra, then perhaps those words can become our self-fulfilling prophecy.   

Parshas Yisro – Planning Ahead

Tucked into our action-packed Torah portion of Beha’alos’cha, we find Moshe pleading with his father-in-law, Yisro/ Jethro, to stay with the Jewish People. Aside from bucking the stereotypical father-in-law-son-in-law relationship, the even larger question is the significance of this short passage. To better understand why we need to know that Yisro left, we need to better understand who Yisro is. 

We are first introduced to Yisro when his daughters are saved by a mysterious Egyptian man (who is actually Moshe). The girls thank him and go back home, but Yisro sees some greater potential, invites Moshe into the house and eventually has Moshe marry one of his daughters. Later, Yisro hears about all the miracles that took place in Egypt and decides to join the Jewish People. The final episode involving Yisro, and perhaps the most telling one, is when he sees Moshe addressing all the questions the Jewish People have and suggests to his son-in-law that he needed a better system. Without a full-fledged judicial system of higher and lower courts, Moshe and the Jewish People would lose patience with the slow pace of judgment. 

The common thread in all these narratives is an individual with a proactive nature. Where others see a good deed, he sees a potential spouse. Where others hear great stories coming from Egypt, he draws conclusions for how that should affect his life. And whereas Moshe is reactionary in regards to the questions posed to him, Yisro is proactive and visionary in setting up a long-lasting judicial system. 

This is why Moshe is so intent on keeping Yisro with the Jewish People. He is, as Moshe puts it, “the eyes” of the congregation. He can “see” things that others cannot. Quite tellingly, immediately after Yisro leaves the Jewish People, everything seems to fall apart. The rest of the Torah portion describes setback after setback as the Jewish People fail and Moshe is helpless in leading them. 

We have all been in reactionary mode for the past three months – how could we not be? We were faced with an unprecedented crisis, groping along with conflicting information and ever-changing restrictions. It has been a challenging three months. 

There is now a light at the end of the tunnel. Baltimore County is already in phase two of reopening and Baltimore City is not far behind. As a shul we are starting to plan ahead for reopening our beloved shul. There are many new requirements and we are trying to be as prepared as possible for a smooth transition back indoors.  

Shul is not the only experience we need to be preparing for. There are many activities that we have been on hold, many relationships that have been altered due to this pandemic. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for what they could look like. Will we just go back to what was? Will we just be the same person we were before this all began? Will we just pick up where we left off? 

Yisro teaches us the great importance of being proactive and planful. There are times in life where having a vision is not possible because we are so overwhelmed by the circumstances. Now, as the fog of the coronavirus is lifting, we have the opportunity to develop a vision for what we want our future to look like. Our future could look different than our past but only if we have a vision to follow. 

What lessons can we take with us from these past three months? What activities do we want to continue to do in the future? What do we not want to go back to? In what way can we take advantage of this new and fresh beginning and reimagine who we are?

May God bless us with “eyes” to see the potential that exists within us and the courage to follow through. 

Imagine: A Jewish Perspective on Peace

Possibly one of the most famous protest songs is Imagine in which John Lennon, the former Beatle, describes a utopian world of absolute harmony. Personally, and I’ve shared this with you before, I really do not like the song. The tune is alright, it is the words that trouble me. Aside from the fact that he imagines a world with no religion, Lennon describes a world in which there are no differences at all; a world with no countries and nothing to die for.

Lennon’s “dream” shares a fundamental belief with many religions and ideologies, namely, that in their vision of an end of days, everyone will be the same. If you merit or survive until the end, everyone will either be of the same socioeconomic status (Marxism) or of the same beliefs (Christianity, Islam). While Judaism does believe in an end of days, this universal sameness is rejected. In Judaism’s vision of the Messianic Era, there will still be Jews and those who are not Jews. Even within the Jewish People, there will continue to exist a distinction between the varying tribes.

 To better understand the philosophy behind our unique vision, allow me to share with you a simple anecdote. Not too long after Hindy and I got married, a gentleman blessed us that we never get into any disagreements. A very wise rabbi standing nearby overhead this and stepped in to say that this was a terrible blessing. He explained that it is in disagreeing, when each party shares a view unnatural to the other, that the real growth takes place. One’s worldview can only expand when it comes not contact with another, and one is forced to grapple with that differing view. Disagreement is the friction that ignites a fire, in this case the fire of a passionate love and the light of self-development.

This week’s parsha speaks to the idea of peace in numerous places. The Talmud, commenting on the ceremony of the Sotah states, “Great is peace! For God allows His Name to be erased to maintain peace between two parties.” And further in the Parsha we have the priestly blessings that climax with the blessing of peace. It is important though to recognize that peace does not mean sameness. Sameness is a diminishment of our unique reflection of God’s image. Rather, peace is the harmony found in different voices clashing with one another with deep respect.

Earlier this week, I had sent you a personal reflection on the national protests which I had also posted to my personal Facebook page. Over the course of the week, as to be expected, strong questions were posed and different viewpoints were shared by members of our shul on my Facebook post. A friend of mine, not a member of our community, who was observing these online discussions reached out to me and said, “I have never seen something like this!” I had no idea what he was talking about. 

 

He explained: “As we speak, all around the world people are fighting vehemently over different ideals and values. Conversations escalate within a matter of seconds into personal attacks or worse. In the entire thread on your post, and there were many strong emotions expressed, nonetheless the members of Ner Tamid maintained respect for one another and engaged in serious and thoughtful dialogue.” 

 

Isn’t that amazing? I’m fairly confident that we are one of the most diverse shuls around. We consist of a wide variety of ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, and certainly the spectrum of political views. And yet, we all talk to one another. Yes, the arguments in the pews may get heated, but at the end of the day (or service), we all go out into the social hall and join one another for some hot kugel! It is not something to take for granted! 

It is a challenging time as individuals and a frightening time for our country. We need to grapple with questions of great magnitude. But for a quick moment, I hope you can join me in appreciating what we have here in our special community; a model of what peace should look like. I hope that we can serve as a model for others in healthy dialogue and in promoting the great value of peace. 

 

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbos and looking forward to when we could debate in person once again!  

 

Yisrael Motzen

 

Reflections on Race

I don’t fear the clamor, the chants, or the rallies,
Nor force, or clashes, (though I do fear fatalities.)
I don’t fear debate, fiercer than fire,
The cause is too noble to suggest it be quieter.
 
What I do fear is that racism (like anti-semitism) has no good solution.
That lives will be lost and still no revolution.
That storefronts will be rebuilt but bloody soil’s exposed,
Until it happens again and the anger explodes.
What I fear is not protests, and riots, and rage.
What I fear is when it’s over that the world will not change.
 
What I fear is (R)Tweets and likes that fill us with pride,
In the safety of our skin while others must fight –
Prejudice and platitudes equally painful,
Not recognizing our bias is in some ways most shameful.
 
But perhaps all my feelings are a seed **I** must sow,
On a field **I** must toil over for true change to grow,
If I open myself to your pain like the rain,
Then maybe just maybe I’ll harvest some change.