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The Perry Committee and the Value of Torah Study

By: Rabbi Motzen | June 2, 2013

Parshas Sh’lach

I told myself I would never do this – but even a rabbi can change his mind. So here goes…

This week’s Torah Portion discusses the spies who were sent to Israel. The tragic conclusion to this episode is that the Jews were told that they won’t enter the land of Israel, and only their descendants will. There is a fascinating argument among the early commentators as to what exactly did the Jewish People do wrong. It’s clear they sinned, but how?

Rashi, the eleventh century sage, explains that their mistake was in sending the spies. Sending spies displayed a lack of faith in G-d. G-d promised them a land of milk and honey, and they don’t seem so certain if it’s really such a good land. And so, they send spies to see the land; “hatova hi im ra’ah, is the land good or is it bad.”

The Ramban, the great Spanish philosopher, argues and says that there was no mistake at all in sending the spies. On the contrary, he writes, it was the right thing to do. Granted, G-d promised them that the land was fruitful and granted that G-d informed them that He would lead the way as they conquer the land, but we must work al derech hateva, in a natural fashion. The way to conquer a land is to first scout it out; to see what cities are heavily fortified, which ones are not. Which path to take when they enter the land, how should they travel to give them the element of surprise. So yes, G-d promised the Jewish People a victory and therefore they will be victorious but at the same time the Jewish People had to do everything in their power to bring about the victory in a natural way as well. Therefore, concludes the Ramban, the Jews were not to be condemned for sending spies and their sin was something else entirely.

In Israel this past week, the Perry committee issued a proposal for enlistment in the army by the Ultra-Orthodox, the Hareidi population. The reform, if passed, will replace the Tal Law, which lapsed following the Supreme Court’s decision last August. The reform determines a gradual process ending with all the Israeli citizens serving the state under the conditions prescribed by the law of security service. There will be a small group of Yeshiva students who will be allowed to study without any service in the Army but the overall goal is to get the Chareidi population to, and here’s the catchphrase that is being used, “share the burden.”

I am confident that there are numerous rabbis around the country who are quoting this Ramban. They are talking about the need to deal with the threat of annihilation in a natural way, b’derech hateva. Is that not what the Ramban teaches us in this week’s Torah Portion? That the Jewish People were commended for sending spies! We win wars with military strategies not with gemaras! If there is a threat to our existence, we must respond in a natural way, al derech hateva! How could people study Torah instead of picking up arms and defending the land?!

And I could get up and say the same thing. And, I would be very comfortable saying it. My father served in the Israeli Defense Force, my uncle lost his life fighting for the State of Israel, all my brothers and I went to hesder yeshivas in Israel where going to the army was considered a privilege. I would be comfortable making that same statemnet because every time a man with a beard and a long coat comes to my home or office asking for money, I vacillate between sadness for the person standing before me and frustration at a system that doesn’t give these people the tools to make a decent living. So I would feel very comfortable saying that exact message; “Long live the Perry reform!”

But then again, I don’t think I would be a very good rabbi if I did that. How many of you, if I may ask, if you were forced to vote on this Perry committee that would force thousands of chareidim outside the study halls into the armed forces would vote in favor of this reform?

Exactly, I would be preaching to the choir. And I really don’t see any value in doing that. So today, I’d like to take you to the other side. A couple of weeks ago, we spoke about understanding and appreciating the other side of view – well, let’s put that into practice. Let’s try to appreciate the values that the chareidi sector are clinging on to.

But before I begin – If this is your first time in Ner Tamid – it will probably be your last. Thanks for stopping by. Do yourself a favor and stick around for the Kiddush. It’s a really great Kiddush.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way.

Everyone here appreciates the value of prayer. Maybe not on a daily basis, maybe not even on a weekly basis, but at least three times a year this places is jam-packed because people want to pray. They see a value in praying. When someone is sick, people send me the names of those who are sick and ask me or the shul to pray for them. We all accept that prayer is a powerful tool to bring us health and wealth and all the good things in the world. Well, the same sages who taught us that prayer is a powerful tool, the same sages who created for us the prayers as we know them, those same sages tell us that the study of Torah is the most potent, most powerful tool we have at our disposal to make the world a better place. Every day we recite in our morning prayers “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam, the study of Torah is the greatest mitzvah of all. And through it, all the great blessings – wealth, health, and peace, come in to the world.

Let me read to you a number of classic sources regarding Torah study. The first is a verse in Proverbs, King Solomon writes, “Yekara hi mipninim, the Torah is more precious than pearls.” The mishna in Pirkei Avot: Rabbi Meir said, when one studies Torah, the creation of the entire world is worthwhile for him alone, and he brings joy to G-d. The Talmud in Taanit, G-d weeps over one who could be studying Torah but neglects to do so. The Talmud in Eruvin states, Torah study is greater than the offerings brought in the Temple.
I could go on but I think you get the point. Torah study is priceless; it’s the purpose of creation, it brings joy to G-d, and it’s the greatest of the mitzvoth. So when we talk about cutting down the amount of people studying Torah from 6000 to 1800, let’s understand what we’re talking about. We’re talking about something more precious than pearls, we are talking about – from our perspective – what makes the world turn on its axis, we are talking about bringing immense joy to G-d.

Now I don’t expect Yair Lapid, or anyone else who does not buy in to the Torah, to appreciate the metaphysical effects of Torah study. How could they? They don’t believe these statements are divine; they don’t share a world-view where our spiritual actions have incredible ramifications. They don’t share a world-view where prayer has an effect on the cosmos, or flicking a light switch on Shabbat makes a difference to the Universe. So I don’t expect them to understand or buy into this. But we can appreciate this message. We, and by ‘we’ I mean all of us here, some of us may believe more some of us may believe less, but we are all here in an Orthodox synagogue praying. That means we do believe that our actions somehow affect the cosmos. Our words can change the world. So we can appreciate the value of Torah study. We, who believe in G-d are capable of appreciating that Torah study, on a spiritual plane, is a form of sharing the burden. We are going to say at the end of services today, “Talmidei chachamim marbim shalom ba’olam, Torah scholars [through their study of Torah] increase peace in the world.” That’s exactly what we’re after! We need peace! We want peace! And these people, by studying, are increasing peace in the world! Is that not sharing the burden? If bringing peace is not sharing the burden, then what is?! Those who study Torah are helping in their own way. And making arguments like “there will still be 1800 people studying Torah” is missing the point. We need many soldiers, many physical and many spiritual soldiers, to win a war.

Ok, so Torah study is very important. Perhaps we can agree about that point. But the question that still remains is why can’t you do both? Why can’t you study Torah and be a contributing member of society? Why can’t you be a Torah scholar and a doctor? Wasn’t Maimonides a world-class physician and a Torah scholar? Doesn’t the Talmud tell us that nearly all the great Sages were professionals?

Yes, history is instructive but the reality that we experience is far more useful. I cannot tell you how Maimonides was able to do it. I can tell you from personal experience that from the day that I left the Yeshiva my learning; and I don’t just mean the quantity but in quality, has greatly diminished. And I’m a RABBI! Learning Torah is in my job description! But don’t look at my life. Look around. With the exception of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who himself was a product of the Ultra-Orthodox system, the ultra-Orthodox community has been consistently producing bona-fide Torah scholars and the other Orthodox communities have been lagging very far behind. And that’s because a system that throws everyone in to the Yeshiva will on the one hand have people who will not succeed. There will be people who have no place in the study hall and would be much better off if they were an accountant, a social worker, or a doctor. But a system that throws everyone in to the Yeshiva will also ensure that our brightest and our finest will use their intellect to develop and broaden the spectrum of Torah knowledge. It will ensure that we will have people who through their uninterrupted study of Torah will develop a Torah-based weltanschauung. It ensures that we will have people who will use that worldview and be able to apply it to a changing world; to properly analyze the true definition of death, to teach us the Torah perspective on cloning, on morality, on ethics. Whether we like it or not, it is that segment of the Jewish People that is creating true Torah scholarship and it is only through true Torah scholarship that we are able to interpret and apply the age-old laws and traditions of Judaism to our ever changing world.

So, does it break my heart every time I walk through the streets of Jerusalem and see the abject poverty? Yes it does. Does it break my heart every time an individual who is trapped in this system comes to me here in Baltimore pouring out their heart about how they can’t make ends meet? Yes it does. Does it break my heart every time I hear a parent who lost a child fighting to protect the land of Israel, complain that it’s not fair that their son died protecting the land while there are people sitting in a study hall? It sure does. And if you were 18 and asking me personally what you should do; should you spend your day studying Torah for the next twenty years or should you go to college at least part-time and ultimately get a job, on average, I would undoubtedly tell you to go to a college and get a job. I would tell you that the Ramban in this week’s Torah Portion teaches us that we have to live our life al derech hateva, in a natural, normal way, and cannot depend on miracles. But as a believing Jew, I cannot dismiss out of hand the value of a single individual living a life engrossed in the study of Torah. I cannot fathom a world without the great thinkers that such a system has developed. I cannot imagine the spiritual darkness that we would find ourselves in if we lose our greatest Torah scholars.

I’d like to conclude with a quote. It’s a quote by none other than Yair Lapid, the chairman of the Yesh Atid Party, who is the force behind the Perry committee’s suggestions. And I quote,

“Israel cannot exist without Judaism and Judaism cannot exist without Haredi-ism.”

I don’t know what the solution is. I do know that either way there is a lot at stake. May G-d grant us the insight to understand one another and not dismiss each other’s worldview, and may G-d give the Israeli government the insight and strength to make a decision that is pleasing in the eyes of G-d and all of humankind.

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Shmiras HaLashon #31

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 30, 2013

Shmiras HaLashon #31

The Chafeitz Chaim introduces us to a new topic and that is Avak Lashon Hara, literally the dust of lashon haraAvak Lashon Hara is a category of forbidden speech which is rabbinic, instituted to ensure that we do not speak lashon hara.

The first set of examples listed are different forms of praises. Example #1) Praising someone by saying, “Look how far they’ve come.” This is forbidden even if the intent is to genuinely praise since the implication is that at one point the individual was not that great. Example #2) Praising someone in front of those who do not like the individual. This is forbidden because it will inevitably lead to one of the listeners criticizing the subject. Example #3) Praising someone excessively. This is forbidden because typically (and unfortunately) someone is bound to put the person down.

Sounds like too much safeguarding? That’s because speaking lashon hara is so destructive. Our Sages were very concerned of the toxicity of lashon hara and its terrible effects that it can have on one’s family, friendships, and community and therefore placed many safeguards to ensure that our conversations will be ones that build and not destroy.

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Shmiras HaLashon #30

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 29, 2013

In addition to not speaking or listening to lashon hara, one has an obligation, to the best of their ability, to inspire others to not involve themselves in lashon hara. This is especially true to the people in one’s household to whom we have the most influence over. I’m sure those of you with teens/ toddlers/ a stubborn spouse are scratching your head – Me? Have influence over my household? And the answer is yes, says the Chafeitz Chaim. The greatest influence is through our actions. If we do not speak about others then others will learn from our ways, whether it is verbalized or not.

*One word of reminder, if one plans on reprimanding members of one’s household regarding these laws, do not forget the Chafeitz Chaim’s golden rule – Use a soft tongue! Yelling, screaming, accusing or putting people down always does more harm than good. Use a soft tongue.

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Shmiras HaLashon #29

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 28, 2013

Speaking lashon hara to a non-Jew is even a greater sin than speaking to a Jew. This is true for two reasons. 1) The Jew you are speaking to may be aware of the laws of lashon hara and not believe the information, thereby minimizing the negative effect of the negative speech. 2) The role of the Jewish People is to bring glory to G-d’s Name through one’s actions. If one denigrates a fellow Jew in the eyes of a non-Jew they have caused the person spoken of to not be seen as an upstanding person thereby desecrating G-d’s Name.

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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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