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On Being Positive

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 27, 2013

Parshas B’haaloscha

This Wednesday was rough day; I got a call early in the morning informing me of one person who recently became ill, I got a message from someone else who was having a hard time at home, I spoke to another person about a tragedy in their family. And then I got a message from Mark Schwartzman, “please call.” And I thought to myself, “Oh boy, another problem! I hope no one’s sick. Maybe he’s calling to complain about something going on in the shul….” Who knows. So I called Mark. We discussed the Sisterhood event and after the small talk, I was waiting for the axe to fall. Instead, Mark proceeded to tell me a joke. All the while, I was thinking to myself, “Wow! He must be calling to tell me something really terrible if he’s first telling me a joke!” By the time he got to the punch-line I was really sweating. Then he said, “Ok Rabbi, nice chatting, Have a great day!” And I just sat there for a minute looking at my phone wondering what just happened.
You see, rabbis get calls when people have passed away, when people are ill, when people are experiencing financial or marital issues. Rabbis are bombarded with bad news. And the truth is, we’re all bombarded with bad news. And I’m not just talking about the O’s. You read the paper and find out that the IRS who wants to you to be ethical aren’t so ethical themselves, you read about mounting death tolls in Syria, and crazy murderers in the UK. Your friend calls you to tell you that this person is sick, this person died. And then you come to shul and I tell you all the terrible things you may have missed. Enough! We are bombarded by all this negative news and it’s simply too much!
It’s too much because it’s not healthy. There are numerous studies that draw a connection between hearing bad news and higher levels of anxiety, higher levels of dissatisfaction with life, and a greater level of insensitivity to others.
But it’s not just a health issue. It’s also not true. The world is not a terrible place. For example, every minute 267 people are born, and 108 die. People tell me all the time how the world has gotten so much worse. They don’t remember people doing all the terrible things they do now; sixty-five years ago there were no movie theater shooters, no terrible kidnappings that took place in Cleveland. That may be true. But 65 years ago there was no vaccine for Polio. 65 years ago the infant mortality rate had 30 out of every 1000 children dying in infancy. As of 2011, the rate dropped to 6 out of 1000 children! It’s a good world! It’s a great world! So thank you Mark, for reminding me not to focus on all the tragedies and to take a step back and enjoy the beautiful world we live in.
Last week I was speaking to a friend of mine and he told me that some of his family members got ear infections. So I asked him if he got one as well. He said, “Nope, G-d healed me before I got sick!” Now I’m going to be honest I rolled my eyes when he told me this; it’s a little too cutesy for me. But you know what, that guy was right! We need to appreciate the things that we have. G-d doesn’t have to take our health away from us for us to appreciate the health that we have. G-d doesn’t have to make us suffer to enjoy the subtle joys of life.
Today after davening we will be joining Moshe and Esther Topas in the bris of their son, their first son. And I want to address what I am about to say to you. You’re parents for the first time and I’m sure you’re already trying to figure out how you’re going to function on a few hours of sleep every night. I’m sure in the back of your mind you’re already crunching numbers for the tuition costs. Do yourself a favor and focus on the incredible miracle that you were a part of; that a live human being was just brought into the world. Think about that when you wake up at 3 AM. Think about the incredible role you’ve been empowered with when you worry about tuition costs. Be positive. It’ll help you get through it if you train yourself to focus on the good. Be positive because it’s healthier. Be positive because it’s more true to the situation. But there’s one more reason that being positive will help you in your role as parents which I would like to share with you.
This week’s Toarh Portion is a pretty depressing one. We find the Jews complaining about just about everything. First we read how they complained, or wanted to complain and we’re not even told what they were complaining about. Then they complain about the miraculousmann, stating that they miss Egypt! Our Sages comment that if one reads between the lines one finds them complaining about the entire spiritual life style that they felt to be encroaching on their existence. Next week’s Torah portion, really a continuation of this one, is the culmination of the Jewish People’s cynicism and negativity; the Jewish People are critical of the Land of Israel, complaining to G-d for taking them out of Egypt, ultimately prompting G-d to not allow that generation to enter the Holy Land.
But let me ask you a question – this whole complaining epidemic, it’s pretty terrible, I agree. But there’s another infamous incident that takes place with these same people and that is the sin of the Golden Calf. Now if you had to decide which one is worse; the complaining epidemic or the Sin of the Golden Calf? There’s no prohibition in the Torah to complain. The golden Calf on the other hand, that’s idolatry. Commandment #2 on the Top Ten list! That’s a big deal. So which one is worse?
And yet, as we all know, after the Jewish People sin with the Golden Calf – nothing. While it is very clear that on some level the entire nation was guilty for allowing the Golden Calf to be served, but aside from those intimately involved with the Golden calf there is no punishment mentioned explicitly in the Torah. And yet after they complain, after they cry about their difficult life, G-d says, you can’t enter the Land of Israel. Does that sound fair?
Two months ago we had a scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Steven Burg, visit our shul. Over the weekend, he gave a small talk to a group of parents, the topic, How to Raise Spiritual Kids in a World Devoid of Spirituality. He explained in his talk that at one point in his career in NCSY, he realized a very strange phenomenon. That was that children seem to be more spiritual in summer camp than they are at home and in school. In camp, you have boys and girls jumping on tables singing Shabbos zemiros and at home they wouldn’t be caught dead sitting in shul. What’s so special about camp that brings out this more spiritual side of children and teenagers?
So he decided to spend the summer going from Jewish camp to Jewish camp. Not just NCSY camps but all types of camps and conduct an investigative study, do some informal research, and figure out the magic behind sleep away camp.
This was his conclusion – the environment in sleep away camp is super positive. You can do the silliest thing in the world in sleep away camp and everyone will cheer you on. That’s what sleep away camp is all about, you can wear silly clothes, say silly things but it’s okay, because it’s sleep away camp and it’s all about the positive atmosphere that cannot be affected. In that positive environment, explained Rabbi Berg, these young children feel confident to do something they would otherwise be ashamed to do, they feel comfortable to grow, to try something new, to explore a deeper part of themselves. And that he believes is the secret to the success of summer camps.
It’s unfortunate that children have to wait until summer camp to explore new things. It’s unfortunate that children feel that if they were to try something new at home they would be scorned. If your children live in an atmosphere of criticism and negativity; whether it’s criticism of each other, whether it’s criticism of institutions, or it’s criticism of the government – how can a child feel confident to grow if they’re afraid their own parents will shoot them down? The soil for a child’s development is a positive environment. It’s an environment where things are not criticized or put down. It’s only then that a child can feel confident to spread his/her wings and fly.
Perhaps that’s why the Jewish People were not allowed into Israel when they complained as opposed to the sin of the golden calf. Because sinning is one thing, you can repent. But when the Jewish People displayed an attitude, a character flaw of being critical and cynical, they had no chance to withstand the challenges that Israel would present to them. Entering the Land of Israel would necessitate challenging battles; not only physical ones but spiritual ones. There were countless pagan influences that they would be tempted by. Without a positive attitude they stood no chance. Who would dare take a stand against the immorality of the time without being fearful of being shot down by the cynical people of the generation? How would anyone step above the rest and lead if he/she would be immediately ripped to shreds in public and behind closed doors? So yes, idolatry is a biblical prohibition, but we can sin and we can repent. A negative and cynical environment leaves no room for growth.
So Moshe, Esther, as you begin this very exciting chapter of your life – the most important thing that you can give your new child is an environment that he can grow in; an environment where people focus on what’s positive in life, an environment where people and ideas are not criticized and put down. And in such an environment I am confident that you will merit that he will grow to be a source of nachas for you, your families, and all of the Jewish People.
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Shmiras HaLashon #28

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 27, 2013

Although Judaism sees a husband and wife as one unit, speaking lashon hara to one’s spouse is still forbidden. Sometimes a spouse can find themselves in a sticky situation – If, for example, one does not want to go to someone’s house for a reason that would constitute lashon hara, they cannot tell their spouse the real reason and must make up another reason. However, if the spouse does not accept the reason and is upset at the other spouse for not being honest then one may tell the truth.

Tip of the Week

Something to think about – A person who is always complaining about how other people do not treat them properly causes their stature to go down in the eyes of those that they complain to. Sometimes it’s worth biting one’s tongue. Furthermore, if one’s relationship with their spouse is built upon conversations that are constantly disparaging others, it may be time to reconsider what builds a healthy and loving relationship…

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Shmiras HaLashon #27

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 23, 2013

It is forbidden to speak lashon hara about anyone; men, women, friends, family, or enemies. It is even forbidden to speak lashon hara about one who has passed on from this world. However, it is permitted to speak negatively about someone who is deemed arahsa, an evil person (this is based on the implication of the verses that relate to lashon hara). Before assuming that person x is indeed a rasha, check in with your rabbi – it is not an easy criteria to fulfill.

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Leadership

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

Parshas Nasso

It isn’t easy being a leader. And no, I will not be talking about the President and the IRS today. I am referring to being a leader of the Jewish People. I think Moshe said it best when he said, “Od m’at uskaluni, a little more and they’ll stone me.” I am sure some of the current and past presidents and board members can identify with that sentiment. This week’s Torah portion is all about leadership. It begins by stating, “count the leaders of the Jewish People” and concludes with the sacrifices brought by the leaders of the Jewish People.

I want to share with you a list of seven leadership qualities compiled by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a man who knows what it takes to be a leader. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has served as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom since 1991. He will be concluding his term this September. He is a man who has inspired countless people, and of course being a leader he has ruffled the feathers of many people as well. Not too long ago he wrote a list of what he believed to be the seven golden rules of leadership which I’d like to share with you:

Leadership Principle #1 – Leadership requires responsibility. The contrast between the opening stories of Bereishis and the book of Shemos are striking. Adam, Cain, Noach, all said, either explicitly, or implicitly through their actions, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Moshe on the other hand, our most successful leader is introduced to us through three stories demonstrating his concern for others. First he protects a fellow Jew, then he looks out for Yisro’s daughters who at the time were total strangers, and finally we are taught in Medrashic literature that he cares for each and every sheep to which he attended. That is the most basic and fundamental requirement of leadership. Caring and taking responsibility for others.

Leadership Principle #2 – One cannot lead alone. Again, we are reminded of Moshe. While Moshe is certainly the undisputed leader of the Jewish People, Aharon and Miriam stand with him, helping him along the way. In this week’s Torah Portion again, we are reminded that there are twelve princes, the nesiim, to ensure that Moshe has with whom to confer and with whom to lead.

Leadership Principle #3 – Vision. While Moshe was remembered for great miracles, his greatest impact on the people was his final speech. A speech which is known to us as the Book of Devarim, where Moshe lays out a vision for the future of the nation; it’s a vision that includes many pitfalls but also many dreams and aspirations. If a leader has no idea where he/she is going, then for what purpose and towards what goal, are they leading?

Leadership Principle #4 – Leaders learn. While all Jews are commanded to learn the Torah, the Jewish King was commanded to have a Torah scroll at his side at all times. Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor was commanded by G-d, and I quote, “to not allow the Torah depart his lips.” This isn’t limited to Jewish leaders. I recently read a Harvard Business Review article titled For those who Want to Lead, Read. The author makes the observation that so many great leaders were well read, from Winston Churchill to Steve Jobs; to be current and relevant, one must be very well aware of the past.

Leadership Principle #5 – Believe in the people that you lead. The first dialogue between G-d and Moshe has Moshe refusing to assume the mantle of leadership. You would expect G-d to take him to task for refusing his Divine mission. However, G-d does not get angry at Moshe until he says, “Heim lo yaaminu bi, they won’t believe me.” It is only then that G-d responds, according to the Medrash, “The Jewish People are believers, it’s you Moshe who will be recorded in the annals of history as lacking in belief.” There are two ways to lead. You can lead with power and force or you could lead with belief in the other and inspiration. The Jewish model of leadership is one of deep belief in the people.

Leadership Principle #6 – Timing. A leader must on the one hand push and at the same time, be patient. Moshe, as great as he was, was not able to propel the people he led into the land of Israel. A new generation had to be born before they could enter the Holy Land. As the mishna in Avot states, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.” A leader who pushes too hard has no one left following. A leader who doesn’t push enough encourages complacency.

The seventh, and final principle that Rabbi Sacks lists is that leadership is stressful and emotionally challenging. Moshe, Eliyahu, Yirmiyahu, all voiced frustrations during their incredible careers as leaders of the Jewish People. Despite the frustrations, despite the setbacks, despite the criticisms leveled against them, they prevailed. They, and all other great leaders, saw the problems of their people, their community, the world, and did something about it. And that’s what made them the great people that they were.

There you have it, the seven principles of leadership according to a modern Jewish leader. Responsibility, team work, vision, constantly learning, belief in who you lead, timing, and an acknowledgment of the stress that such a job includes.

I bring this up today because here in Ner Tamid we usually have a changing of the guard every two years on Shavuos and at that time we thank the outgoing leadership, be it a president, members of the board, etc. for all their hard work. And usually it’s the first time in their entire term that anyone says thank you to them for all their hard work! We stand now at the end of the Synagogue season. After Shavuos, the next big event is the High Holidays, and while so many of us are thinking about our summer plans, our dedicated leadership has already started planning and working to make sure that next year will be even greater than this one. So I want to take this opportunity on behalf of everyone here to thank you, our president, Barry, David, Max, Suzanne, Neil, the entire Executive Board and the Board of Directors. You know, for me, this is a job. It’s a job that I truly love but at the end of the day I get paid to be doing what I do. You, our lay leaders, do not get paid. And as we all heard from Rabbi Sacks, it takes a lot more than just showing up to meetings to be a great leader. So take a moment, as we stand at the end of this Synagogue season and reflect on what you’ve accomplished, on what you’ve done. We wouldn’t be where we are today without each and every one of you; without your input and without your involvement. So thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’d like to conclude with a prayer we said just a few moments ago. We usually say it in Hebrew, but today I will translate it: V’chol mi she’oskim b’tzorchei tzibbur be’emunah, All those who are involved faithfully in the needs of the community – may the Holy One, Blessed be He, pay their reward and remove from them every affliction, heal their entire body and forgive their every iniquity, and send blessing and success to all their deeds, along with all Israel their brethren. And let us say: Amen.

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Dimensions of Time

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

Yizkor Shavuos

Last week was an exciting week for me. After years of paperwork, class-time, and assignments, I finally graduated. Now I just want to clarify, since I know there are some people here who are still a little unsure of my age. I graduated from college, not high school.

I learned a lot of wonderful things over the years, but there is one thing that I learned over this past year, specifically this past week, which is possibly the most significant thing of all. This past year has been a tad busy. Aside from all the amazing things going on in my life with the shul and a new addition to my family, I had a few hundred hours that I had to dedicate towards my internship. I only had to actually counsel for a few hours every week but there were still many more hours that I had to log doing things that related to counseling. One of the things that did count towards my hours was listening to lectures that related to issues that my clients were dealing with. So for example, if I had a client that was dealing with anxiety and I listened to a lecture that taught me about anxiety – that would count as time towards my internship. So I went and downloaded every lecture that I could get my hands on and every time I would get in a car I would turn it on, and try my best to stay awake as some professor droned on about some psychology-related topic. No, I am not as disciplined as I would like to be, I did not do this every single time I got in the car. But I did do this enough times that over the past year I was able to log a rather substantial amount of hours and use them towards my degree.

Last Monday I was driving home from my last class and for the first time in a very long time, I did not have to listen to a class in counseling on the way home, so I put on the radio, 91.5, classical music. And then it dawned upon me – over the past few months I was able to accumulate hundreds of hours-worth of knowledge while driving. And now for the rest of my life, now that I don’t have the same pressure, I’m going to spend that time that I could be becoming more knowledgeable, time I could be using more constructively, and listen to Mozart?! No way.

And the lesson that I perhaps knew but never experienced was that finding time to do things is not a matter of having or not having the time; it’s really all about our attitude. When I had to clock hours towards my internship, I was able to find the time to listen to lecture after lecture. But when I didn’t have that same pressure, I went back to being a busy man with no time to do things. Finding time in our lives is not about time management per say, it’s not about having the right personality. There is time in our lives – what we are missing and what we need is goals; what we are missing is a desire to accomplish, to achieve, and to grow. When we have goals in our lives, when there are things that we are driven to do, time suddenly pops up in places you least expect it. When driving to work, when going to bed, during a lunch break. Time is there and it’s waiting. It’s us who have to step up and do something with it.

There is a man, a Torah scholar who lived in Israel who used to finish the entire Talmud every three years. It’s pretty impressive. The Daf Yomi cycle takes seven years and this man finished the entire Talmud in three years. He used to make a party every three years when he would finish his cycle. One year, a few months after he made his regular party, he called his friends and family in for another party to celebrate the completion of the Talmud. And his guests were shocked – he had just made a party upon his completion of the Talmud a few months ago, and now he’s doing it again?! He shared with his guests the following explanation. The regular party he makes every three years – that is for the Talmud that he studies for a few hours every day to study. This party is a celebration of the fact that in his spare time – when he waiting for someone to meet up with him, when he came early to a meeting, whenever he had an extra minute or two, he would take out a section of the Talmud, and in that spare time, over however many years, he managed to complete the entire Talmud! We have time, we all have time – we need objectives, and we need goals, in order to use it constructively.

But there’s another idea, a much deeper idea that I thought about this week, and that is Judaism’s unique perspective of time. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘time is money.’ Obviously, this phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Time is not actually money. Rather, the idea is, that time is precious because one can use the time they have to generate something else, in this case money. Time is valuable insofar as it can be used to achieve or accumulate something of significance. That is the way the world perceives time, namely, as a means to an end. However, Judaism sees time in a radically different way.

Last night, during Kiddush we said the blessing of Shehechiyanu – Shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, That You, G-d gave us life, You sustained us, and You brought us lazman hazeh, to this time. Why don’t we just say, thank You G-d for giving us life and sustaining us. What is the meaning of the last line: “For bringing us to this time”?

The significance is that in Judaism time is not a means to an end. Time is a precious commodity onto its own. Time carries within it a certain sanctity. And so we thank G-d not only for keeping us alive, but we thank Him for bringing us to now, to today, because even without doing anything, the time itself is special. We experience the exact same thing on Shabbos. Whether we do something or not, whether we light candles and come to shul or whether we stay home all day, the time of Shabbos is different, it carries something in it.

And it’s not just limited to Shabbos or Yom Tov. Every day carries its own uniqueness. Every day, explain the Jewish philosophers, in our worldview, a worldview that has a starting point at Creation and an end point called Olam Haba, by definition every moment is one that is accomplishing something by bringing us closer to our final destination. And because of that, every moment of time – on its own – is precious. Every moment has a unique role, a unique place in history. We indeed say, thank You G-d for bringing us to this time, to this very special moment.

In short, in Judaism, we do not say there are important things to do – so don’t waste time. Rather, we say, time itself is important and therefore, find important things to do to fill it.

One of the great Torah revolutionaries in the 20th century was Sarah Shneirer. We take it for granted that Jewish girls get a Jewish education just like Jewish boys do. But in the early 1900’s that was not the case. Despite the great emphasis on Torah study and education in Judaism, there was no formal system of study for young Jewish girls. In 1917, Sarah Schneirer formed the first Beis Yaakov school. She succeeded in overcoming initial resistance against this new type of school and saw rapid development of about 300 schools in pre Holocaust Europe. By the time she died in 1935, more than 200 Beis Yaakov schools were teaching approximately 35,000 girls. There is much to say about this creative and industrious women, but I’d like to focus on but one feature, and that was her motto. It was a verse from Tehillim that was constantly on her lips and posted in every wall in the Beis Yaakov building. Limnos Yamenu ken Hoda – Teach us to count our days. Time is the most precious gift that Hashem grants us, he gives every person the same 24 hours a day and every person uses it as they please. “Children,” she would say, “please use it wisely! Count your days! Count your hours! Use the precious gift of time.”

People like Sarah Shneirer, who are conscientious of the great gift of time, it’s people like that who know how to use it. Because it’s people like that who recognize that even if we don’t have something to do, a goal to accomplish, an objective to reach, we still have time, and it would be a tragic waste to let it go.

I’d like to conclude by reading to you an article by Lauren Slater, noted psychologist and writer:

The patient was depressed. He was a wet rag. He was suicidal. The psychiatrist had tried every pill and combination of pills he could conceive of, you name it. And still the man was depressed. He underwent a series of six shock treatments, lying bound on a bed while they juiced his brain, waking up in a fog, his eyes burning. And still the man was depressed. He tried to hang himself, to slash his wrists, to overdose on pills; he even tried to shoot himself but missed and survived without so much as a scar. And now the psychiatrist had grown bored with him. Three times a week, the man came in and either said nothing or talked about his failures. The clock ticked away. The man began to complain of headaches. He felt physically ill. The psychiatrist suspected it was psychosomatic. He paid little attention to the man. Still, his complaints grew louder. At last the psychiatrist referred the man to a neurologist, who could see inside his skull using instruments. Three days later, the neurologist called the psychiatrist. “There is nothing wrong with him,” the neurologist said. And the psychiatrist sighed, almost disappointed.

When the man came in for his next appointment, he asked, “Did you speak to the neurologist?” The psychiatrist nodded gravely and said, “Yes, I did.”

The man leaned forward in his seat. His dull eyes flickered — with terror. “And?” he said. “Well,” said the psychiatrist, drawing it out, with no plan or premeditation. “I’m sorry, but the neurologist says you have only three months to live.” The man shot back in his seat, stared for a long time at the ceiling, and then left abruptly.

The man was now in a rush. He booked a flight to Greece, and travelled to Crete, and saw dazzling white sand, he ate from a big buffet in the Caribbean. He sent his psychiatrist postcards from countries all around the world. Here I am in Russia, he wrote. I was in a bar all night, he wrote. I am taking cooking classes in Taiwan. I swam in the Dead Sea. Eventually, though, the months passed and the man did not die. Nor did he seem to be dying.

The man, of course, doesn’t die. He keeps burning brightly. Eventually he goes back to the psychiatrist who tells him his disease is in remission. And a year later he goes back again, only to find the office door open and the psychiatrist away. He takes the opportunity to open the filing cabinet and read his own file.
He flipped to the end of his chart and read: Tried to inject some existential urgency into the Man’s condition. Ethically questionable. Radical intervention. Told patient he was dying. Three months to live. Patient’s affect changed considerably. And the next note said: Postcard from patient. Depression in complete remission. Will continue with intervention. Benefits outweigh risks.

The man slowly closed his folder. On the doctor’s desk, he saw the American Journal of Psychiatry. Next to an advertisement for Effexor was an article written by his doctor. He looked at its title: “Mortality Therapy: A Case Study.” ***

That’s what Yizkor is; mortality therapy. It’s not only a day when those who have lost a loved one reflect on beautiful memories. But it’s a day that all of us remember that we do not live forever. Judaism is not morbid and death-centered. On the contrary, it deliberately takes the happiest days of the year, the holidays, and dampens the mood ever so slightly to remind us, we are here today and gone tomorrow.

So let’s use this Yizkor day as a wake-up call. Let’s all take advantage of this great gift that G-d has blessed us with and recognize the preciousness of a day, of an hour, of a second, and cherish it. Let’s fill those extra minutes and seconds with meaningful things; on car rides to and from work, we could become more knowledgeable and connected to the Torah which we’re celebrating today on Shavuot, we could use that time to call old friends who could use a call to cheer them up. We could find time on the way home from work to visit Levindale’s or the home of an older member who can no longer make it to shul. We could spend the last two minutes of our day, talking to G-d, praying, as we drift off to sleep. There’s no shortage to the things we can do, but there is a shortage to the time that we have.

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Why We Study Torah

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

 Shavuos Day One

I’d like to begin by reading to you from an article from Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news source:
“Reports of the Talmud being a national classic in South Korea have been floating around for several years, but it’s now official: The country’s ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, told the “Culture Today” TV show that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum. 
In addition, it is said, almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud, and mothers commonly teach it to their children, who call it the “Light of Knowledge.”
Why? “We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews,” Young-Sam explained, according to a Ynet report. “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics. This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.”
“I, for example, have two sets of the Talmud,” the ambassador said. “The one my wife bought me, and the second was a gift from my mother.”
I’m glad my mother’s here today to hear this, I could really use a second set of Talmud…
I think this article really touches upon the confusion surrounding the studying of Torah. The confusion exists both outside of the Jewish community and within it. I remember not that long ago discussing with some fellow students at Hopkins how although I am studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, 85% of the people studying there and not going to become rabbis. This usually followed with a blank stare and a polite smile. Why would anyone spend their day studying Torah; be it Chumash, Mishna, Medrash or Talmud if they have no interest in becoming a rabbi? It makes no sense!
And, it is not only people beyond our community that struggle with this. We all do. We read every morning in the morning prayers that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah is k’neged kulam, the most significant mitzvah of all. And yet, when we think of personal growth, of spiritual development, study of Torah usually doesn’t make the cut. Typically, when people discuss growth, they think of prayer, of giving more tzedakah, of Shabbat. Torah study doesn’t strike us as a form of growth.
So let’s try to understand, why is Torah study put on such a pedestal?
I grew up being taught what is known as the ‘instruction manual’ explanation. Now being a stereotypical male made anything that had to do with manuals not very appealing. The other day we bought a new wireless printer and I simply could not figure out how to get the printer to work so I finally pulled out the instruction manual. I looked up to see Hindy standing over me with a camera, taking a picture of, and I quote, “the first time I ever saw you with an instruction manual.”
So what exactly is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study? It goes something like this. You buy a new phone and it comes with an instruction manual. Do you read it? Yes, no, depends. Let’s say you buy a new car. Do you read the manual? Most of us only open it up if the car is broken. But let’s say I give you a brand new airplane! Would you read the manual before taking it for a test drive? You sure betcha! There are people’s lives at stake here, not to mention my own! Flying an airplane is a huge responsibility. There is no way that I would fly an airplane without reading a manual, and probably a lot more than one! I would read every book I could get my hands on before taking the plane up in the air.
Well, goes the ‘instruction manual explanation’, if we read instruction manuals when lives are at stake, wouldn’t our whole life, from beginning to end, be included in that? How do we know how to live our lives? How do we know how to use our precious lives in a spiritual way? How should we eat? How should we interact with people? How do we interact with G-d?! How do we know how to do all these things?
And that’s where the Torah comes in. G-d not only created us but He gave us an instruction manual as well. It’s called the Torah. It teaches us how to live. It teaches us how to relate and interact with our spouse, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, G-d, and last but certainly not least, it teaches us how to relate to ourselves. That is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study. Of course Torah study is important – because without it we wouldn’t know what to do and how to live.
But the truth is Torah study is much, much deeper than that. Last night we had approximately 70 people stay up the entire night studying Torah. We took a little break for some ice cream, another break a little while later for a BBQ, but overall from 10:30 last night until 5 AM we were studying Torah. Earlier in the week I was discussing with some people when was the last time that they stayed up all night. Some said they stayed up all night to study for exams or finals. Others, in the corporate world, stayed up all night working on major projects that were due to be presented the next day. And I thought to myself that the people who stayed up last night didn’t really fit those categories. They weren’t staying up because of a deadline, they weren’t trying to finish anything; they were just studying Torah. But then it dawned upon me that there is one more situation that people stay up all night for. And no, it’s not staying up all night with a newborn baby. I am talking about deciding to stay up; a situation where that is what you truly want to do. It’s a circumstance that I hope you once experienced in your life. Maybe you were in high school, maybe you were in college, and maybe it was at a later time in your life, and you met someone that you were crazy about. You fell in love with an individual who you just could not bear to part from. And even after you said good night, you would call each other and talk and talk and talk until the birds were chirping and the sun started to break through the sky.
That’s what we were doing last night. There were no deadlines; there were no tests or exams the next day. It was the talk of lovers who couldn’t bear hanging up the phone and parting their ways; just one more word, one more story. And that’s what Torah study is all about. Torah study is a dialogue. We open a Chumash, a Talmud, Maimonides, whatever, and we have G-d speaking to us from the pages. And we, in return, ask questions, we attempt to clarify, and gain a deeper understanding. King David, whose grandmother is the hero of Shavuot, writes in Tehillim, mah ahavti Toratecha kol hayom hi sichati. How I love Your Torah,” says King David, “I speak in Torah all day.” That’s what Torah study is – it’s love. It’s the only forum that we have for a dialogue between us and G-d. Yes, chesed is important, yes prayer is important, but Torah study is where G-d talks to us and we talk back. It’s the dialogue of lovers; it is the most profound way for us to connect to G-d. And that’s why we stayed up all night. We didn’t want to go to sleep. We wanted to hear from G-d and we wanted to talk to Him.
That’s Torah study. And it’s so much deeper and more beautiful than an instruction manual. The Torah is a love letter from G-d. And when we study Torah, we’re writing back. We’re engaging in the most mind-blowing conversation known to mankind; a dialogue of love between the Creator of the Universe and His beloved people.
So what we are celebrating today on Shavuot is not a book that makes us smart. Who knows, maybe Talmud study does make you smarter, maybe it doesn’t. We are not only celebrating the fact that G-d gave us an instruction manual to life. But what we are celebrating the relationship that exists between G-d and His People. We are celebrating a relationship of love. And on this day, on Shavuot, when the dialogue began, is the anniversary of the loving relationship between us and G-d. It’s a time to renew our vows, it’s a time to recommit ourselves to G-d and to His Torah, and it’s a time to celebrate our relationship and to live up to the beautiful statement that King David said, mah ahavti Torahtecha, kol hayom his sichati, that we should live a life where the Torah truly becomes beloved to us and that it’s precious words never leave our lips.

 

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Shmiras HaLashon #25

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

We have discussed in the past that there are times that sharing negative information may be allowed for a constructive purpose. Even then, it is forbidden to actually believe the information. One may only act cautiously based on the information. There are instances where it is permitted to believe the information which we will discuss in the coming days. Aside from those circumstances it is always forbidden to believe lashon hara even if it seems like the information is true. For example, a situation where it is spoken in the presence of the subject and he is silent. It is possible that the subject decided it wasn’t worth responding. It is also forbidden to believe lashon hara even if the information was heard from more than one source.

As challenging as this is one must strive to learn how not accept what they see/ hear as fact.. We all know if instances where we have jumped to conclusions based on something we have seen/ heard only to find out we misunderstood the situation.

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Learning to Disagree

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 20, 2013

Bamidbar

Ok, I have to ask a favor from all of you – if at any point in your life you want to do something big, and I mean big, you know, something that will grab headlines – whether it’s discovering the cure for the common cold, or you plan on getting arrested for doing something. Do me and every pulpit rabbi in the country a favor – make sure it happens on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thursday latest! There is nothing worse than writing a sermon earlier in the week, only to read a headline you just can’t ignore on Friday morning!

This Friday morning in Israel there was a mass protest against the Women of the Wall. The Women of the Wall are a group of women who would like to conduct services at the Western Wall, at the Kotel. This group has attempted to have services there in the past, which at the time was illegal. Recently, the Jerusalem District Court ruled in their favor, and it is now legal for them to come pray at the Kotel, wearing talis and tefilin and conducting services. This Friday, this group was greeted by thousands of Orthodox women protesting their arrival at the Kotel.

I don’t plan on discussing the details of this dispute. There have been many wonderful and intelligent articles written on the matter and I don’t feel like I have anything to add. If you are so curious and would like to read one local opinion on the matter, Rabbi Wohlberg delivered a very powerful sermon on the topic of the Women of the Wall a short while ago and you can find it on the Beth Tfilloh web-site.

What I would like to discuss is how, in a more general sense, do we respond to those that we do not agree with. What is our approach to arguments and divisions that exist within the Jewish community? We read in this week’s Torah portion about the twelve tribes and how they each had their own colors and flags. We will always have different viewpoints. The question is how we deal with differing views. I believe that there are two approaches that can be taken.

The first approach is to truly understand the other. Now you may tell me I do attempt to understand the other side, I just don’t get it. They’re crazy, they’re fanatics or they’re evil or… How do we attempt to understand the other? Let me ask you a question – how many liberals in this room listen to Rush Limbaugh or read the Wall Street Journal? How many conservatives listen to NPR or read the New York Times?

The Mishna in Avos states, “Don’t judge your friend until you stand in his/her place.” This is not limited to understanding their life story, or their background. What this Mishna means is that we must really understand their position. Do yourself a favor – if you are a conservative start reading the Times. If you are a liberal, start reading the Journal. If you listen to talk radio – stop! It’s just a big waste of time… We have to learn how to really understand the other side. Not by formulating our own opinions by reading comments on news sites. Explore, investigate, understand and then come to a conclusion. Before we understand why people are so emotionally invested in women davening by the wall in a minyan, and why people are so opposed to it, how can we possibly have an opinion on the matter? A rabbi of mine in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, used to always tell us, “You think you’re a Zionist? You’re not a Zionist until you read all the literature of Rabbi Yoel of Satmar, the greatest anti-Zionist. After you’ve digested his works then you can call yourself a Zionist!”

Understand the other side. Do it for yourself – do it so you will have a greater understanding of your own position. But more importantly, the more we understand where people are coming from, the more we understand why they maintain their point of view, the less emotional the conflict will be. If we can appreciate that those who we oppose, or see things differently than, have a legitimate basis for their view, it’s only that we disagree as to what value is more important, or how much to emphasize a certain value, the more we can see eye to eye.

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that as Orthodox Jews it is very challenging to be open to other people’s point of view. If being Orthodox means that one accepts the thirteen principles of faith and lives their life by the Jewish Code of Law, then a pluralistic philosophy, which by definition means that every opinion is equally right, is very hard to live by. At the most, as an Orthodox Jew, I attempt to live my life by what I call ‘Pluro-doxy’, pluralistic Orthodoxy, the ability to see more than one view as correct, but in the parameters of what it means to be Orthodox. It’s not a philosophy that sits so well with the way much of society thinks, but if one believes in G-d and a G-d that communicates with humankind then there are objective rights and wrongs.

So where do we go from here? How do we, as people who embrace a perspective of objective right and wrong, we who do not embrace pluralism, promote peace and togetherness?
I believe that it’s us who believe in the Torah are not only capable of embracing others regardless of their belief, but we are by far the most capable.

The other day, I bumped into a rabbi from another denomination of Judaism. I told him who I am and he said, “Oh, you’re to the right.” And I was taken aback. Now I wasn’t insulted, I’ve been called worse things in my life – but I was taken aback by this man’s way of looking at the world. Imagine if I were African American and I would introduce myself and he would say, “Oh, you’re black.” How would that sound? It would sound racist! Saying hello to someone and the first thing that comes out of your mouth is “Oh, you’re to the right” is what I would like to call ‘denominationalist.’ If racism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on race then denominationalism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on denomination.

We need to start a new movement. We, who believe in the Divine word of the Torah, we who accept what the Torah says that all people are created in the image of G-d, must start a new movement. There is an idea of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d that was the fuel behind the civil rights movement, and while it wasn’t verbalized it was also the same principal behind the movement for equal treatment of women. We, as believing Jews, believe that everyone, regardless of race and gender are worthy of respect.

Our sages take this idea of tzelem Elokim and show us its incredible implications. The term is mentioned only once in the Torah but our Sages teach us that it is alluded to in a place where you would least expect it. In Israel during the times of the Temple, capital punishment was the rule of the land. The Torah tells us that if someone is hung their body must be removed and buried by the end of the day. Why? Ki b’tzelem Elokim asah es haadam, because humankind was made in G-d’s image! We are talking about a man who was sentenced to death by a Jewish court! It’s not easy to be sentenced to death by a Jewish court. The crime had to be witnessed by two witnesses and not only that but the individual had to be warned before committing the crime. He had to be told that if he commits this sin he will be killed. This person went ahead and committed the sin. Clearly this is not a man that we would see eye to eye with. And yet, we are told, treat him with respect – he was created in the image of G-d. Every man, every women, of every race, and of every philosophy, whether we agree with their worldview or think it is absolutely wrong, is deserving of dignity. That’s the implications of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin. Well I dream of a day when Jews won’t judge each other by the philosophies that we live by. We are all guilty. This factionalism exists on both sides of the fence. And it’s up to us, we who sincerely believe that we are all created by G-d, in His image, to break that terrible cycle.

You know, I’m very excited for davening to end today. I know you don’t hear that from a rabbi too often… I’m excited because there’s a Kiddush hall rental that will be taking place while we have our Kiddush. The people renting the hall are of the opinion that it is appropriate to have a mechitzah down the middle of the room during a Kiddush. So on their side of the room there will be a mechitzah separating the men and women. Personally, I am of the opinion that that’s unnecessary. Many men in this group will be dressed in Chassidic garb; a fur hat, a long coat. And many of the men of our shul will be wearing khaki pants, maybe even a tie. These people identify with a Chassidic world-view and we identify with a Modern orthodox view… I can’t wait! I can’t wait for us all to be in the same room; them doing their thing, us doing our thing. No stones will be thrown, no one will yell at one another. And that’s really great. But the truth is, we could do better than that. We can be more than just be tolerant. We have to understand; why do they dress a certain way, why do they live a certain lifestyle? But more importantly let’s not let the thin partition stand between us. Let’s not allow our modes of dress stand between us. Let’s not allow our interpretation of the law, or even our deeply held convictions and beliefs stand between us. Because all of us, every single one of us were created in the image of G-d.

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Shmiras HaLashon #24

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 20, 2013

There are other instances where listening to lashon hara may not only be allowed but it may be a mitzvah. One example is a situation where one knows that if they allow the individual to say lashon hara they could immediately follow up the gossip with a defense of the individual spoken of.

* In such a case it is the right thing to do to listen to the individual say lashon hara. Another example is if one understands that by allowing an individual to vent, one knows that they can listen and then ensure that the speaker of lashon hara will cease to share the story with others. In such a case it is also a mitzvah since by listening one is ultimately increasing peace. In either case, one is forbidden to believe the lashon hara as fact.

* One can use this tool to retroactively fix lashon hara that was mistakenly listened to. Meaning, if one slips and listens to lashon hara they could erase the sin by trying to find any way possible to excuse the individual being spoken of by suggesting alternate understandings of what happened or arguing on the facts.

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Shmiras HaLashon #23

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 19, 2013

Although we discussed earlier that listening to lashon hara is forbidden, the Chafeitz Chaim qualifies that principle. It is only forbidden to join others who are speaking lashon hara. If however one joins a conversation and in mid-conversation the topic changes to lashon hara, one has a few options before them. Ideally, one should get up and leave or cover one’s ears. The Chafeitz Chaim acknowledges that this is not always so simple to do; whether due to practical concerns or because leaving will make one to be the object of scorn. In such a case, one must follow three rules. 1) Do not accept anything that is being spoken as fact. 2) Do not enjoy the conversation. 3) Do not encourage the speaker, whether verbally or through body language, to continue speaking.

Tip of the Week #3

As this last law so clearly demonstrates, one of the challenges of lashon hara is being true to oneself and not being swept up by peer pressure. Everyone else may be participating in lashon hara and to stay out of it requires a great deal of self knowledge, self control and self confidence. This week’s tip is to not lose sight of the fact that situations where other people are speaking lashon hara are incredible opportunities to work on building one’s strength of character. Don’t look at such a situation as an obstacle course to get around transgressing these cumbersome laws, but rather a great opportunity to build one’s self.

Public Service Announcement

Two weeks ago, I encouraged you, the readers of this blog me to abstain from speaking/listening to lashon hara one hour a day as a team effort. I will be designating hours in the next two weeks. If you haven’t signed up – it’s not too late!

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