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When G-d says, Get Out! Parshas Shlach

Have you ever noticed the logo of the Israeli tourist ministry?

It is two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes.

You know, the spies from this week’s parsha who carry the fruit back to the Jewish People, then share a slanderous report about the land of Israel, using those fruit as props, then end up dying by plague, and causing the Jewish People to delay entering the land by 40 years. THAT’s the symbol they chose to use as the symbol of the tourist industry. What were they thinking?!

I’ve gotten over the many English signs in Israel with terrible grammar. Okay, they didn’t check in with one of the, I don’t know, two million English-speaking Israelis, fine. But this?! How could the State of Israel go ahead and choose, out of all the Biblical stories, the one story that represents such failure?! The one story that represents Jewish leaders sabotaging their opportunity to govern the land of Israel, the one story that represents a complete breakdown in leadership – how these spies could not rally around the leadership of Moshe, the one story that represents a group of leaders who for their own gain caused the Jewish People so much suffering…

Until I realized, wait a second, I cannot think of a story that represents the State of Israel better than the story of the spies! You know, the country that’s about to go into its fifth set of elections in three years, fifth! because none of the leaders seem to be able to get their act together. The country where the teachers are striking and not showing up to teach their classes. The country that just issued an unofficial suggestion to tourists to not bring luggage because there is so much chaos in their airports. Maybe spies carrying some grapes is not such a bad symbol for the State of Israel, after all.

Obviously, I’m being a little cynical, but it does beg the question – at what point in this experiment called the reborn state of Israel, would we say, maybe this was a mistake?

Let me explain what I mean: Over the past hundred years, there has been pushback in some Jewish circles about the legitimacy and appropriateness of creating a Jewish State. There is a Talmudic passage that, in its simple interpretation, indicates that it is forbidden for the Jewish People to reclaim the land of Israel until the times of Mashiach. Further, some Jewish leaders argued that there was a spiritual danger in living in a country that is Jewish, but not religious in nature. And lastly, some argued that it was a disgrace to have the holy land of Israel led by politicians who were not sensitive to the spiritual nature of the land.

The most famous and vocal opponent of the establishment State of Israel was the first Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel of Satmar. He dedicated a book to this topic; filled with argument after argument as to why the state of Israel was a terrible idea and a sin. He wrote this book in 1958.

However, in 1967, he felt compelled to write a follow-up book. Why? Because the six-day war, the miraculous success of the six-day war, seemed to be the nail in his ideological coffin. The fact that the IDF was able to defeat Jordan, Syria, in Egypt in such a short amount of time, the fact that Israel was able to more than double her land mass, and the fact that Har Habayit b’yadeinu; Yerushalayim and the Temple Mount were once again in Jewish hands, indicated to all that clearly, clearly, the State of Israel was no mistake. It seemed that G-d, through this victory was making it abundantly clear to all that the State of Israel was His will, not a sin! How else could one explain the miraculous nature of those six days? G-d was so clearly speaking to us and telling us, “You made the right choice!” G-d was screaming through the IDF, through the march of history, that He was happy to have us back in the land.

And so, Rav Yoel of Satmar felt the need to defend his thesis. He wrote another book, explaining how the six-day war was not the act of G-d. His book explained how people were misinterpreting these events, and instead, G-d was sending us a very different message.

Let’s perform a thought experiment, a very dark thought experiment – let’s say the six-day war did not go as it did. Let’s say the six-day war went ahead like some thought it would, with mass casualties and huge losses. The Satmar Rebbe may have written a very different book. This book would have been much easier for him to write. It would have pointed to the defeat, Heaven forbid, of the IDF, as a proof; as a message from G-d that we made mistake, that we should pack our bags and leave.

This argument, for and against the establishment of the State of Israel is based on a principle – G-d speaks to us through history. It’s certainly not as clear as the classical prophetic voice. But it is a communication and we’re obligated to listen to, to attempt to interpret, and to internalize. When things go well for the Jewish People, what does that mean, what is G-d trying to say to us? And when things do not go well, Heaven forbid, we also have to ask ourselves, what is G-d trying to say.   

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik reported that during the Holocaust, he used to be confronted by Christians who would say, “See! Clearly, G-d has forsaken the Jewish People. Clearly, you all made a mistake. How else could He be allowing this Holocaust to take place?!” It’s that same principle. 

Thank G-d, Israel is doing just fine. Chaos in the Knesset, yes. Bureaucratic dysfunction, yes. Splintering of society, yes. Fine. But there is also so much good. The tech boom in Tel Aviv continues to flourish. Official ties with Saudi Arabia seem to be around the corner. And for all the societal disunity, there is more and more overlap between the different segments of the country taking place away from the media and outside of the limelight of the political sphere. Baruch Hashem, the State of Israel is alive and well. Very well. But I return to my original question: what if it was not doing well? What if… and I rather not even say, but what if things were really not going well, how would we interpret that message? Would the Satmar Rebbe be vindicated after all?

After G-d informs the Jewish People that they would not be entering the land of Israel and that they would be spending the next forty years in the desert, a large group, recognizing that they had sinned, decided to right the wrong. They acknowledge that they should have believed in Hashem, they arm themselves and start marching towards the Holy Land. “וַיַּשְׁכִּ֣מוּ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וַיַּֽעֲל֥וּ אֶל־רֹאשׁ־הָהָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר הִנֶּ֗נּוּ וְעָלִ֛ינוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה כִּ֥י חָטָֽאנוּ׃ In the morning, they went to the top of the mountain and proclaimed, behold, we will go to the place that G-d had told us about, because we have sinned.”

 Moshe tells them, “Don’t do it! G-d does not want you to do it.” And then Moshe says,

וְהִ֖וא לֹ֥א תִצְלָֽח

“And THIS will not be successful.”

 That’s weird. This, as opposed to what?

Says Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Tzidkas HaTzadik, 46) – Moshe was telling them, “Defying G-d by entering the land of Israel will not be successful THIS time. But there will be a time in the future that it will be successful; a time in which even if G-d says, no, you shouldn’t stop. Go anyway and you will be successful!” Meaning, even if the dreams of our enemies come true, Heaven forbid, we should not see that as a sign of G-d pushing us away from our land. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how much it may seem that G-d is telling us that this experiment is a failure, persevere, don’t give up, don’t allow those messages to deter you from staying in G-d’s home.

***

Rav Tzadok does not limit this idea to the land of Israel, he interprets this section to be relevant to the everyday life of every Jew. There is a passage in the Talmud that goes like this: Whatever your host tells you to do, you should. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh. Chutz, mi”tzei!” With the exception of the host kicking you out of the house. If he tells you to leave, tzei, you can ignore him.

What kind of strange etiquette did they have in the ancient world? Please don’t try that at my house. If I ask you to leave, I really need you to leave. What in the world does this passage mean?!

Rav Tzadok explains that the Gemara is not talking about social etiquette, how to be a guest. It is describing our relationship with G-d. G-d is the host (not the ghost). G-d is in control of the world. Whatever he tells us to do, we need to listen. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh”

But there’s one exception. Sometimes G-d seems to be pushing us away, sometimes, we feel like we’re trying so hard, but everything is going wrong. We’re working on ourselves endlessly, but we keep on falling short. We want to connect to Hashem every time we come to shul, but we feel like He’s ignoring us. Sometimes, the messages we are receiving from Hashem seem to be telling us, “Tzei! Go away. I don’t need you here.”

And to that Talmud responds. Yes, we must listen to G-d. Not only must we listen to the explicit messages of the Torah, but we must also listen to the implicit messages, the messages of our life, asking ourselves constantly, what is G-d trying to tell me? And then live our lives accordingly. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh.”

But there’s one exception. There is one message we have every right to ignore. “Chutz, mi”tzei!” When we feel down, when we feel distant, when we feel turned off, don’t take that to heart. Push on. Forge forward. Use that beautiful Jewish characteristic called chutzpah. No matter how many times Hashem says no or He says go, we have a right and an obligation to refuse, to stay put, and to say G-d, I am not going anywhere. I am staying with You.

Those two people carrying that huge cluster of grapes, they remind us that G-d does want us in His home. Yes, there was a time when He said, no, when He said, leave. But now, in this pre-Messianic era, even if He tells us to leave, even if, Heaven forbid, all goes bad in our precious homeland or in our own spiritual lives, even if it feels like He wants nothing to do with us, we will push forward, we will not listen. V’hi sitzlach. And we will be successful.

 

Lessons from Moshe’s Burnout Parshas Beha’alos’cha

Burnout is defined as, ‘Physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.’ Who here has ever experienced burnout?

 

In the past 24 hours, the following news items have been published; an article in the Economic Times describing parental burnout, a widely-published study showing that the profession with the highest rate of burnout is… teachers! And (and this is for you Shoshi) the super-popular K-Pop band, BTS, is taking a break because of… you guessed it, burnout. (If you don’t know what K-pop is, ask Shoshi.)

The APA, the American Psychological Association, is reporting all-time highs of burnout across all professions. And while it may be on the rise, burnout is nothing new. It’s part of the human condition; the feeling of being alive and energized goes hand-in-hand with the inevitable feeling of being turned off and deflated. Burnout is something we may never solve, but it’s something we can learn to live with. It’s something we can learn to minimize, and not only minimize but to utilize – in living an even more energetic and turned-on kind of life.

Today, I’d like to share with you a story within a story within a story within a story. Like the Russian Babushka, only that the deeper you go, the larger the story gets.

Story #1 – Moshe’s Burnout:

The Jewish People complain, which is nothing new. They’re unhappy with the mann falling from the sky. The mann that tastes, according to our tradition, like anything you want. The mann that allows them to not work because food rains down on them every day. Moshe can’t take it. It’s not the first time the Jewish People complain, but this time it gets to him, and he lets G-d know. In the words of Moshe: “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant… that You have laid the burden of all these people upon me? Did I produce all these people… that You should say to me, ‘Carry them … as a caregiver carries an infant,’ … I cannot carry all these people by myself… it’s too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”

It does not get more burned out than that.

However, a few verses later, we find a completely transformed Moshe. His own brother and sister question his choices. They criticize him. The Moshe we heard from a moment before, would certainly lose it at this point. This is an ‘Et tu, Brute’ moment like no other! His own brother and sister have turned on him as well!! And yet – Moshe is as calm as a Buddhist monk. He doesn’t flinch. Not only is he calm, he has the wherewithal to pray on behalf of his sister, begging G-d to forgive and heal her for her sins – which she committed against him!!

What happened? How did Moshe transform from throwing in the towel, being sick and tired of dealing with the pettiness of the Jewish People and all the personal accusations it came with, to someone who can so graciously deal with such a personal attack?

To answer that questions, we move on to story #2 – Eldad and Meidad Share a Prophecy:

When Moshe tries to resign, G-d instructs him to gather 70 elders. Many commentators explain that these 70 elders were appointed to help Moshe. Moshe was saying the job is too tough, so G-d says, no problem, I’ll find you an assistant rabbi. 70 assistant rabbis to be exact.

The problem with this approach is that we don’t find these elders doing anything. He appoints them and then they exit stage left.

I believe the real solution lies with two enigmatic people, a little glossed over detail in the narrative that goes like this: These70 people were instructed to join Moshe, but two people held out, their names were Eldad and Meidad. 68 people are gathering around Moshe in front of all of the Jewish, and Eldad and Meidad choose not to. And then, suddenly, Eldad and Meidad, who are still in their own tents, start to experience prophecy. Moshe is informed that these two are not joining the rest of the elders and the story continues. Why is this little sidebar important?

The answer is story #3 – Eldad and Meidad’s lineage.

Who are these two people, Eldad and Meidad? (Are you all still with me?)  

Yonasan ben Uziel, one of the oldest commentaries on the Chumash, tells us that Eldad and Meidad were half-brothers to Moshe. Listen to this wild story, and hold on tight: Before Moshe is conceived, Pharaoh decrees that all boys born to the Jews should be thrown into the river. The Gemara tells us that Amram, Moshe’s father, who was also the leader of the Jewish People, divorces his wife, Yocheved. “Why would anyone bring children into a world where they would be killed?” reasoned Amram. And so, he thought it would be better not be married at all. Being that Amram was the leader of the Jewish People, the rest of the Jewish People followed suit. Every Jew divorced their spouse.

Everyone, except for Yocheved, his own wife. That’s right. Yocheved thought her husband’s idea was a really bad one. And so, she went ahead and married someone else, and Yocheved and this man had two sons, Eldad and Meidad.

Imagine this – the entirety of the Jewish People are getting divorced, and this woman says no, it’s wrong, and she goes ahead and finds a new spouse and brings two boys into the world. This defiant, brave, individualistic, woman, is the mother of Eldad and Meidad. There is no doubt as to where their independence, their ability to decide what is right and wrong for them, where all that comes from; how 68 other people dutifully follow Moshe’s instructions, but these two individuals decline.  

I imagine as Moshe heard that these two were not following others, he remembered the story that his mother told him, how she stood apart and was true to her beliefs. I imagine that caused Moshe to do the same. To ask himself, who am I? What are my talents, my skills? Am I true to my beliefs? To what I’m here for?

Both the mystics and psychologists, though they use different language, understand that burnout can be caused when we’re not listening to ourselves, when we’re living on autopilot, or even worse, when we’re living someone else’s life, someone else’s dreams or expectations. No matter how successful we may be, if we’re not living our life, a life that is true to ourselves, it doesn’t feel good. It actually feels physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting.

It takes courage and independence to listen to oneself. Sometimes listening to oneself takes us on a wild journey, far, far away from where we are right now. And sometimes, as in the case of Moshe, it opens our eyes to what we’re already doing, letting us know that we’ve chosen the right path, and it pushes us to continue on that path but for the right reason, because it’s our calling, it’s who we are.

What snaps Moshe out of his burnout is listening to himself, by being himself, like his half-brothers and like his mother before him.  

One story to go: Where does Yocheved attain this strength of character? This ability to defy the leader of the Jewish People because she knows what’s right. How does she have so much self-confidence and awareness?

Story # 4 is the story of Yocheved’s Lineage. Yocheved is the granddaughter of Yaakov and the daughter of Levi. What do we know about Levi?

There is only one Biblical story about this man. His sister Dinah is violated, and Levi risks his life for her sake. He puts it all on the line for the sake of someone else. It’s no coincidence that his descendants are chosen to be the priests in the Bais Hamikdash; their great-grandfather lived his life for others and this becomes a trait in the family; a life lived in the service of others.

And here we find the great paradox. How does one learn about themselves? I googled it. Here’s one of many similar-sounding lists that popped up: 1) List your strengths. 2) Identify your core values. 3) Identify your beliefs? 4) Meditate. 5) Practice mindfulness and awareness. 6)Accept who you are…

You know what Judaism says about this approach? It’s all wrong. Or more accurately, it’s not the full picture. You know how you really learn who you are? Instead of focusing so much on yourself, serve others. Give to others. Live with and for others. In that space between you and others, that’s where you learn who you are. Let me tell you, I thought I knew who I was before I got married. Ha! Then I thought I knew who I was until I had children. Double ha.

Yocheved had the confidence to be her own person because she came from a family that served others. And that’s the great paradox of self-discovery: You don’t learn who you are by turning inward, you learn who you are by focusing on others.

A story within a story with a story. Moshe was burned out. Big time. But he was reminded of his mother. He was reminded of the importance of self-awareness and self-discovery. Burnout, if we want to take advantage of it, asks us if our life is aligned with our dreams, with who we are. And perhaps even more importantly, like his grandfather before him, Moshe was reminded to stop thinking about himself and instead to focus on others.

Many people will tell you that the response to burnout is self-care. That’s partially true. An even better antidote to burnout is the exact opposite. To stop obsessing about oneself and to give and give to others.  

Shoshi, you too are a story within a story within a story. Your grandparents on your father’s side were pillars of their community in Randallstown. I just met your mother’s parents, and they seem to be the loveliest people. Your parents are both givers, an educator, a nurse; it’s a life of service. And you, like your parents and grandparents, are remarkably independent, you think for yourself, you do what you believe in, and you’re a giver, you’re a phenomenal friend and sensitive to every person and even animal around you. Those are not just antidotes to burnout, they are the ingredients of an exceptional, meaningful, and joy-filled life.

I’ll conclude with a final story. Someone once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “I would like the Rebbe’s help,” he wrote. “I wake up each day sad and anxious. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray.
 I feel that life has lost its joy. I need help.”
The Rebbe wrote a profound reply without using a single word. Somehow, he knew that this was not a case of clinical depression, but someone who was down. The Rebbe didn’t write anything. He circled the first word of every sentence in red and sent the letter back. Every sentence began with the letter I. You know why you’re feeling this way? I, I, I, I. That was the Rebbe’s response.

Shoshi, never forget where you come from, never lose sight of who you are. And remember, the key to self-discovery and a key to happiness is to focus less on ‘I’ and more on everyone else.

No Strings Attached Shavuos Yizkor

A few weeks ago, a couple in New Delhi, India, sued their own son and daughter-in-law. The reason? These parents had spent their life savings to have their son trained as a pilot in the United States, they financed his lavish wedding in India, they paid for his luxury car and exotic honeymoon, and yet, after six years of marriage, their son and daughter-in-law do not have any intentions of having a child. And so, they are suing their son and daughter-in-law for “mental harassment,” to the tune of $650,000 in damages.

What do you think?

I think the children should counter-sue. I do.

As parents, we spend a lot of money on our children; clothing, food, Jewish education, college… And of course, we have a dream of how our children will end up. It would be irresponsible to not care, and just throw our hands up in the air, and say whatever happens is okay. However, if our “investment” into our children’s lives is contingent on how they “perform” then we have failed them as parents. We may not plan on suing our children, but if we feel “ripped off” because of our child’s grades, their career choice, their choice of spouse, or their level of religiosity, if we say or even think, “I don’t understand, I have invested so much time and energy, why are they acting this way?!” then we have abdicated the most basic responsibility of parenting, and that is to love our children unconditionally. In the words of our Sages, Ahava she’eino teluyah b’davar, love with no strings attached.

So no, I do not think the children should actually sue their parents. But if anyone has fallen short in their responsibilities in this story it would seem to be the parents who loved their child like an investor loves his stock portfolio.

There is an organization based out of New York that helps parents who are dealing with one of the saddest possible realities, parental alienation – when a child chooses to shut their parents out of their life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to hear about a child who just simply refuses to speak to his or her parent. Often this happens in the case of a divorce; a child gets sucked into the parents’ dispute, picks a side, and distances themself from their other parent. But sometimes, the parent has no idea why this is happening. And I would hate to oversimplify, but sometimes I wonder out loud –  

When your child came home with a C on a report card, how did you react? Disappointed, sure that’s okay. But how did you convey your feelings?

Did you shower attention – positive attention – on your child all the time or only when they accomplished things that made you proud? At other times, they were not sure you even knew they existed.

How did you react to decisions your child made that you did not approve of? Did you yell and scream or did you try to understand?

In short, was your love for your child tied to and limited to specific expectations? Was it a love that was contingent, transactional? Or was it a love with no strings attached?

We read today the Book of Rus. It is a book, our Sages explain, that is meant to teach us how to perform chesed, kindness. There are many stories that could have been chosen to accomplish this. There is no shortage of tales in Jewish history that involve people doing remarkable acts for one another. But there is something unique about the chesed performed in this book. When Boaz describes the kindness performed by Rus for her mother-in-law, he describes it as chesed shel emes, literally, true kindness.

What does true kindness mean? Our Sages explain that often when we are kind to others, friends, spouses, and even children, our kindness is incomplete, there is a part of us that is expecting reciprocation. If we are honest with ourselves, it’s hard to avoid. And this is why Rus is chosen as the model of kindness. Her kindness was not regular kindness that is somewhat transactional. It was chesed shel emes, it was true kindness, absolute kindness. There was zero expectation on Rus’s part to receive anything in return. If anything, she was losing so much by following her mother-in-law to the land of Israel. It was an investment she knew – or at least she thought – would have a negative return. But Rus forged forward, she gave and gave and gave, never looking over her shoulder, never accusing her mother-in-law, explicitly or implicitly, of not doing enough in return. Chesed shel Emes. A kindness with no strings attached.

You know why we read this book on Shavuos? There are many reasons, but the reason that speaks to me more than any other is as follows. Today we celebrate the beginning of our relationship with G-d. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors stood at Har Sinai, G-d lifted the mountain over their head, to symbolize a Chuppah, a wedding canopy. What’s the nature of this relationship? How do we characterize this bond that each of us have with Hashem? 

One could justifiably assume that it is a contingent relationship, that it is only if we fulfill the Mitzvos that we will receive G-d’s love. But we’d be making a mistake. Yisrael, af al pi shchata, Yisrael hu. Our Sages teach us that even if a Jew sins, even if a Jew commits the most horrible crimes, the bond, the connection, the relationship, the love is never severed. Yes, G-d has expectations of us, 613 of them to be exact. Expectations are healthy, they reflect a belief in one’s abilities. But even when we fall short, the bond, the connection, the love is still there.

I think I’ve shared with you before the letter that Amy Krouse Rosenthal published in the New York Times, titled, You May Want to Marry My Husband. She wrote as follows:

“I have been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers (what has it been now, five weeks without real food?) have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains. Additionally, the intermittent micronaps that keep whisking me away midsentence are clearly not propelling my work forward as quickly as I would like. But they are, admittedly, a bit of trippy fun. Still, I have to stick with it, because I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.”

She continues: “I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years. I was planning on at least another 26 together.

Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer.

So many plans instantly went poof.

No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta. No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.

 

This is when we entered what I came to think of as Plan “Be,” existing only in the present. As for the future, allow me to introduce you to the gentleman of this article, Jason Brian Rosenthal.”

 

She goes on to describe in great detail how wonderful her husband is; how he’s a sharp dresser, the most thoughtful person she’s ever met, a great father, an even greater spouse.

And then she concludes: “I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet. So why I am doing this?

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

 

 

Ten days after this letter was published, Amy died in bed, surrounded by her children and husband.

 

Chesed shel emes. No strings attached. This is pure love, as Amy knew that she would never receive anything in return. She just wanted to give to her husband.

 

We need not wait until someone is no longer with us, or is almost no longer with us, to perform chesed shel emes. Like Rus, and like G-d, we too can give unconditionally today. We can stop keeping score with our spouse now. We can stop second-guessing our friends every time we interact with them. We can stop tying down our relationship with our children to our dreams. We can do this immediately. We can. We can all love, if we so choose, with no strings attached.