A Prayer for Inauguration Day

As we stand under the chuppah, the pinnacle of joy, we break a glass as a sign of mourning, and as we bury our loved one, in the deepest state of despair we say Kaddish, a prayer of hope. We are not a confused people, we are clear-eyed and hopeful.
My social media feed is filled this morning with people euphorically celebrating today’s inauguration of President Biden or despondently mourning the end of Trump’s presidency. If there’s anything this past year should have taught us, it is to be humble and acknowledge that we have no idea what’s in store. We are joyful not confident, sad but not despondent.
There is much discussion these days about the prayer we say for the president, many seeing it as an endorsement of sorts. It is not. It is an expression of “seek(ing) out the welfare of the city to which I exiled you” (Yirmiyahu, 29:7). More specifically, it is a recognition that “the hearts of kings are in the hands of God,” (Mishlei, 21:1) and despite our confident political analyses, it is God who ultimately decides what will be.
הַנּוֹתֵן תְּשׁוּעָה לַמְּלָכִים…
He who grants salvation to kings…
may He grant this wonderful country health, prosperity, and peaceful healing.

Turning Inward: Personal Growth in Times of Upheaval Parshas Vaeira

This past week, Sheldon Adelson passed away at the age of 87. He was one of the top ten wealthiest people on the planet and used his wealth to support many causes. He donated 140 million dollars to Birthright, 25 million dollars to Yad Vashem, and completely funded a medical research foundation running out of Boston. During the pandemic, despite having to close his many casinos, he paid the wages for every one of his employees. Despite all these impressive acts of philanthropy, and this is truly just the tip of the iceberg, the organization, If Not Now, a Jewish American group opposed to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria issued the following statement upon news of his passing: “Adelson dedicated his life and wealth to empowering the far right in the US and in Israel… Yimakh shemo. May his legacy be erased. And may we do it together.”

It is true, Adelson was a tremendous supporter of Trump and Netanyahu, two people this group is very much opposed to – which is fine. But ignoring everything else this man did? By saying, yemakh shemo, a term we reserve the likes of Haman and Hitler?! That’s unconscionable.

It takes a lot to truly disturb me, but this behavior was deeply disturbing. I spent some time trying to understand why I was so disturbed by their comments and I was reminded of a famous teaching by the Baal Shem Tov. He would teach his followers that everything you see, and especially things you see that make an impression on you, were seen by you for a reason. They are meant to teach you something, not about others, but about yourself.

That’s a powerful message in it of itself. It’s very easy to pour righteous indignation on all the evil you see around you; on this person not caring about public safety, on this group being small-minded, on my spouse being selfish, on my friend for ignoring me… How often do we turn that same scrutiny and laser-criticism on ourselves?

The Baal Shem Tov is suggesting that if something wakes us up, if something roils our blood, it may just be an indication that you have the same issue. He’s speaking mystically, but this can be understood psychologically as well. It’s hard to judge oneself, it’s painful to acknowledge our flaws and so we project them everywhere we look.

So why did I get so worked up about this tweet from this fringe group of activists?

Obviously, their lack of Kavod Hameis, of respect for the dead, was appalling. Their statement lacked any decency. But there’s more.

***

One of the big philosophical questions that is asked about our parsha is how G-d could harden the heart of Pharaoh. It doesn’t seem very fair. There are many answers to this question but I recently learned a new one suggested by Rav Menachem ben Shlomo HaMeiri, a 13th century Catalonian scholar. He suggests that when the Torah says that G-d hardened Pharao’s heart it means that Pharaoh was born with a stubborn character. That’s it. There was no Divine intervention. So why then does the Torah say G-d hardened his heart?

Every once in a while, we’ll have the following conversation with our young children. We’ll ask them, who made the dinner you’re eating. And they’ll answer, Hashem. And they’re right, aren’t they? Hashem made dinner because He caused the natural ingredients to exist and the crops to grow and He gave the energy and the brain-power to the many people along the way who processed the cheese, harvested the wheat, etc etc, up to and including giving my wife the energy to boil some water and throw the noodles in the pot and add cheese. So they’re right and yet, it’s kinda weird to say Hashem made dinner. (The correct answer is, you, Mommy, and it was delicious.) And yet, when Chana became pregnant with Shmuel, it was appropriate for the Torah to say that G-d made Chana conceive. Not that it was not biology at play. But because she had not conceived for so many years, because it was so out of the ordinary, describing it as G-d making it happen is appropriate.  

Rav Menachem Meiri suggests that when something is out of the ordinary, it’s extreme, it’s unique, or it’s not what we expect then the Torah frames as if G-d did it. But it doesn’t mean it’s miraculous. It’s just strange and over-the-top. Pharaoh, he writes, was a very stubborn person. Nine vicious plagues and he still couldn’t change his mind. G-d didn’t intervene, he was just a very stubborn man, set in his ways, and couldn’t make lasting change.

Pretty relatable isn’t he? We’re all pretty stubborn, set in our ways, unable to change. We make the same mistakes over and over again. We know we’re doing things wrong, we know we’re hurting others and ourselves with our behavior, we feel bad and maybe even change for a little while, but then revert back to our old behaviors.

So yes, those If Not Now people acted disgustingly. In general, their movement is beyond the pale. That tweet was an expression of their Pharaoh-like stubbornness, unable to see anything differently, unwilling to change in any way. And that stubbornness, if I were to be completely honest, is something I could relate to. I imagine we can all relate to some degree.

***

Last week, an op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Congressman Chip Roy. In it he wrote how inspired he was by Jews who once a week turned off their phones. Roy, is a devout Christian, by the way. He concluded that social media does more hard than good in connecting people and he will be taking an indefinite break from Facebook, Twitter, and all other forms of social media. That’s a big deal. It’s very difficult to be a politician without using the available platforms on social media. But Chip Roy decided he needed to make a big change, so he will become, in his words, “a better husband, father, (and) citizen…”

Big changes are possible, they’re just not easy.

Amazingly, our Sages teach us that Pharaoh, that truly stubborn man, did eventually change. According to the Medrash of Tana d’vei Eliyahu, Pharaoh survived the splitting of the sea, became the king of Ninveh, and when Yonah rebukes the people for their behavior, it is Pharaoh, their king, who leads the way in their national repentance.

It took a lot to get him to that point. It took ten plagues, it took the splitting of the sea, and it took him almost drowning to say, “Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong.” But good for him for allowing those powerful moments to shake him out of his default existence and try something new.

Many people have asked me why are we suffering right now with the pandemic? Or, what is the message of the political crisis that we’re witnessing?

I’m no prophet, I don’t answer such questions. But what I could say is that we’re all feeling heightened levels of righteous indignation right now. It would be nice if we could use that righteous indignation to change the world around us, but at the very least, we should also learn the lesson of the Baal Shem Tov and turn that indignation on ourselves; In what way are we being stubborn and unwilling to change? Which behaviors or thinking patterns are we engaged in that need to go? In what way am I a carpenter and in what way do I see the whole world as a nail?

We are living through wild and scary times. Tragically, there is very little we can change. But perhaps if we can take advantage of these violent moments and turn inward instead of outward, we can change ourselves.

 

 

  

Our Golus Complex: A Wake-Up Call

In 1933, a letter was written by the Orthodox Jewish leadership in Germany. It was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The letter was a plea for safety and security, describing the terrible impact that the Nazi laws had caused the Jewish community, and the fear in which they lived. In pleading their case, the rabbinic leadership, the authors of this letter, attempted to find common ground with the ruling party, the Nazis:

“Marxist materialism,” they wrote, “and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition, as handed down through Orthodox teachings obligatory on the Jewish People. … We (too) have been at war against this religious attitude.”

They went on to say that they would accept restrictions and laws that would limit their autonomy and opportunities. What they wanted was clarity; are the Nazis truly intent on removing Jews from the land, in which case they would leave, or, are those just empty words, campaign slogans meant to curry votes that have no teeth to them, in which case they would happily reside in Germany as second-class citizens.

You could call the letter utterly naïve, or disgustingly reprehensible. With hindsight, our judgment is likely unfairly harsh. What I can say definitively is that this position of the Jewish leadership was an expression of what is called, a Golus (exile) mentality, or what I would call, a Golus complex.

Some may blame this way of thinking, their willingness to accept hateful rhetoric and discrimination, on two thousand years of exile. Living under Romans, and Christians, and Muslims, with no rights and regular pogroms, conditioned these leaders to think this way. But it goes back even further. Nachmanides, addressing the question of how it could be that the family of Yosef, the most powerful man in Egypt, how his family could become slaves, suggests that it was not an overnight transformation. Rather, the Egyptians first started describing the Jewish People as vermin. Then, without taking an official policy, the ruling class encouraged – with words – the populace to attack the Jews. Eventually, they introduced legislation that discriminated against the Jews. And then, they made them into slaves. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

What would have happened had the Jews stood up for themselves at that very first stage and said, we aren’t vermin, we’re human, just like you? What would have happened had they spoken up when the peasants were attacking them? What would have happened had they lobbied against the discriminatory laws?

Who knows.

What we do know is that the few words we find in the mouths of those Jews in Egypt are words of apathy, of indifference, of preferring the predictable life of a slave over the challenging life of a free person. When Moshe tries to rally the Jews to demand justice with his act of killing the Egyptian, they are apathetic to his cause and mock him (Rav Moshe Lichtenstein). When Moshe tries to secure their freedom, the Jews push back at every stage.

Our Golus complex goes back to before we were even a nation and it lives with us still.

How is this complex expressed?

Our Golus complex is expressed when we bicker over which form of anti-Semitism is worse, right-wing or left-wing, when no form of anti-Semitism should be acceptable to us.

Our Golus complex is expressed when we choose candidates based exclusively on their relationship with Israel or the Jews and nothing else, completely losing sight of our raison d’etre, of being a light unto others, forgetting that our survival is not an end to itself but a means for the betterment of the world.

Our Golus complex is expressed when we don’t allow for honest reporting of what goes on in our communities because we’re afraid of a shanda, of a scandal or embarrassment to the Jewish People.

Our Golus complex is expressed when we are so busy being defensive that we cannot extend ourselves to other “types” of Jews or to minorities who could use our support.

And like most pathologies, there are terrible inconsistencies.

On the one hand, we act like we are being endlessly persecuted, like we are complete strangers in this land, and at the very same time, we act like our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, and that there is no alternative to living in the USA.

On the one had we vote as if we are complete strangers in this land, and at the same time, we identify so deeply with our political party of choice that its leader becomes our prophet and its platform our creed. Yeshiva boys could quote Ben Shapiro but not Bava Basra, and Jewish Democrats would sooner criticize Moshe Rabbeinu than Barack Obama. Our political identity is such that rabbis are petrified to weigh in in any substantive way on the most pressing issues facing our nation because they’ll alienate people who put politics before faith. And when religious leaders do weigh in, after-the-fact, and make a little tiny peep, it’s heralded as heroic. That’s a golus mentality?!

On the one hand we pray to return to our land three times a day, and at the same time, we build beautiful, over-the-top houses, we live lavish lifestyles, we soak up the comforts of this country even when we can’t afford them because Western materialism is so much a part of our Jewish culture. (Don’t believe me? Read the ads in any Jewish publication, or just walk down the street.)

I sometimes wonder to myself – if the shofar of mashiach would blow right now, would we really be able to pull ourselves away from our homes and move to Israel? In a little two or three-bedroom apartment? Without a brand-new Honda Odyssey?!  

If we’re going to have a Golus complex, let’s at least be consistent! Living with a packed suitcase, stop rooting for the home team – they’re not our team, and live like we’re in exile.

***

Now it’s very easy to diagnose a problem, it’s far more difficult to suggest a solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, but perhaps we can gain some inspiration from the very first golus (exile) and geulah (redemption):

If we go back to the very first Pesach seder, we would notice something very strange; it was celebrated while the Jews were still living in Egypt. Pretty amazing isn’t it? They were living in their slave barracks in the land of their oppression, but they were celebrating z’man cheiruseinu, a holiday of freedom.

Freedom, it would seem, is not a location, it’s a state of mind. And that night the Jews lived in a free state of mind. The message that G-d had conveyed to them through Moshe in this week’s parsha, finally penetrated:

“Hashem Elokei avoseichem nirah eilai, that G-d, the G-d of our forefather appeared to Moshe,” – that they were the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. And, “A’aleh es’chem mei’ani Mitzrayim… el eretz zavas chalav ud’vash, I will lift you up from Egypt and take you to a land flowing with milk and honey,” – that they had a future. (Shemos, 3:16-17)

That night they were reminded of their legacy; how Yaakov refused to make concessions or political partnerships with the likes of Eisav and Lavan despite leaving himself vulnerable in the process. How Yitzchak was willing to give up everything, even his life, for the sake of G-d. And how Avraham cared not only for his own family, but for all the families of the world.

That night they were reminded of the future; how they did not belong in Egypt, how they had a calling, how they were to set up their own country, with their own set of laws, and from Jerusalem, a light – a light of ethics and morality would one day shine.

That night they were free. That night they broke off the shackles of that terrible complex.

***

You could live your whole life bound in chains but unless you try to move around, you may not feel them. I feel like I’ve been moved around a lot this past year. I imagine we all feel like we’ve been moved and shaken quite a lot this year, and especially this past week. This past week, many in our community changed their view of our President. The president has been adored by many in our community, and not only adored but idolized (you know, from the word, idol). We can have an honest discussion and debate about who we should have voted for, I truly believe that. But the idolization of such a person?! That’s unacceptable. And this past week, that adulation has subsided, and people have finally acknowledged that dangerous words can have dangerous consequences. Watching the capital of the country stormed caused many of us to feel a deep sense of fear, especially as Jews, with even a limited knowledge of history. “Brave” op-eds and hushed whispers, acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, we were mistaken, maybe he wasn’t our savior.

So right now, we are all awake to the fact that we are in chains. We suffer, as a people, in one way or another from a Golus complex. The truth is, until that great shofar is blown, we will all be slaves, in Baltimore and even in Jerusalem. But the process of freedom can begin, even here and especially now. By reminding ourselves of our legacy, of our values, and not pandering to whomever will hate us less. By reminding ourselves of our calling and extending ourselves to our neighbors. May G-d bless America, may He watch over this wonderful country which has treated us so well, and may WE act in a way that brings blessing to the world.

Ehyeh – I will be with you Parshas Shemos

I struggle for words, I bite my tongue, I sigh from the depth of my soul,
Your pain’s so deep, my words so weak, am I helping or hurting you more?
My mind can’t stop racing, ideas, solutions, I am trying to not waste your time.
My eloquence fails, my wisdom sails, all I muster is one more deep sigh.
To the sleepless parent whose child is lost to the world, to the orphan with nowhere to turn,
To the suffering in silence, calming minds that can’t stop, and fears that always return,
To those stuck in bed, with nothing to live for, fighting to go on for one more,
To those haunted by demons; by loved ones who hurt them, who robbed them of all youthful joy.

To those hiding in closets, living two lives, torn into pieces and shreds,
To the voices not heard, the people not seen, they walk among us, the living dead.
To the lonely soul yearning for connection and love, whose hope hardened into despair,
To those who read this and wept, their pain not expressed, truly, my greatest fear.

***
כֹּ֤ה תֹאַמר֙ ִלְבֵנ֣י יִשָׂרֵא֔ל ֶאְה ֖יֶה שָׁלַ֥חִני ֲאֵליכם
ְְֶ ֽֽ
The very first message that Hashem conveys to His enslaved people is not one of redemption or even of hope, but rather, it is one of presence; “I will be with you in your pain.” (Shemos, 3:14, Rashi)

***
So as I struggle for words, as I bite my tongue, as you wonder if I’m even still there,
I am trying my best to feel your pain, and to be there with you in that space.
I don’t have solutions, or words of wisdom, I don’t mean to waste your time.
I just want you to know that no matter the reason, ​imcha anochi b’tzarah (I am with you in your pain)
***

We may not always have the words, we may even be afraid to share that we do not have the words, but we are there with you in your pain 

 

Yosef’s Nightmare – The Need for Companionship

I read an amazing story this week (shared by @ankithharathi) about a janitor named Richard Montanez. Born in Cucamonga, California, sharing a one room cinder-block hut with 14 family members. He dropped out of school in 4th grade and took odd jobs at farms and factories. In 1976, he became a janitor at a local Frito-Lay (the chip company) plant. He couldn’t read or write and so his wife filled out the application form. The pay? $4 an hour, which was more than he ever made before.

Richard was no simple janitor. He spent his off-time learning about the company’s products, marketing, and more. He would follow salesmen around to better understand the business. In the mid-1980’s Frito-Lay started to struggle, but Richard had an idea. He called the CEO’s office. And this is how the conversation went:

“Mr. Enrico’s office. Who is this?”

“Richard Montanez, in California.”

“You’re the VP overseeing California?”

“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”

“Oh, so you’re the VP of operations?”

“No, I work inside the plant.”

“You’re the manager?”

“No, I’m the janitor.”

The CEO got on the line. Amused and intrigued by this janitor’s initiative, he gave him an opportunity to present to the board in two weeks time. Two weeks later, he walked into the Frito-Lay boardroom and shared all that he learned on the job. He pointed out that the company wasn’t catering to the Latino market, a market, he suggested, that was about to explode. He then pulled out 100 bags of Frito-Lay chips that he spiced himself, Mexican style.

After a few minutes of silence, punctured by crunching, the CEO turned to Richard and said, “Put away the mop. You’re coming with us.”

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is one of the most successful launches in Frito-Lay history. Richard became a VP and amassed a twenty-million-dollar fortune. Not bad for a janitor. 

Truly, one of the most amazing rags-to-riches stories I have heard. But not the most. As I read this story, I couldn’t stop thinking about someone else who started out even lower than Richard and ended up even higher. Richard lived in the land of the free, the land of opportunities. Yosef, the protagonist of our parshiyos lived in a land of slavery, a land of a caste system that did not allow for and certainly did not celebrate these types of stories.

And yet, Yosef, very much like Richard, did not accept the position given to him. He, like Richard took initiative. When he was called in to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he didn’t just do as he was told. He pulled out the equivalent of a PowerPoint and explained to Pharaoh exactly how the Egyptian economy would survive the years of famine. It was so well-developed and demonstrated such energetic initiative that Pharaoh told Yosef to, “Put away the chains. You’re coming with us.”

Yosef was not only a master strategist, with boundless energy and crystal-clear vision, he was also a paragon of morality. Every time I read the story of Yosef and the wife of Potiphar, I hear Paul Simon playing in the background, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Potiphar…” A young, lonely 18-year-old, seduced by the beautiful wife of Potiphar, and overcomes it. He is called Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous, for all of time because of his restraint.

And yet, despite all this greatness…

Yosef is a failure. Is he not?

He interprets the dreams of the butler and baker down to the detail, securing his freedom. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams accurately, attaining the second-to-highest position in the region. But his own dreams, the dreams which were the source of his brother’s hatred and caused him to be sold into slavery, the dreams which, according to the Ramban, were the reason Yosef never reached out to his father for all those years, plotting and planning so that the whole family would come and bow in complete submission to Yosef – something that could only work if they did not know his true identity – those dreams were never fulfilled.

(The first dream, the brothers all bowing to him took place but the second dream, involving Yaakov as the sun and his mother, or someone else, as the moon, that never happened.)

Before the charade was over, Yosef was forced to remove his mask. But it was too late, the damage was done. He went from being the brother who everyone was jealous of to the brother everyone feared. And in the final act, we find Yosef crying, not tears of longing, happiness, or sadness, but tears of loneliness (R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l). The family never reconciled. Yosef had spent his entire life chasing his dreams, they were never fulfilled, and all he had for it was an abundance of external success but an empty and shallow relationship with all the important people in his life. Yosef’s dreams were a nightmare.

What Yosef’s dreams really meant are a matter of debate, but what is clear is that Yosef, the man who had a crystal-clear understanding of other people’s dreams, could not interpret his own.

Our Sages say, ein adam ro’eh nig’ei atzmo, a person cannot see their own flaws. We’re very good at seeing each other’s flaws, at understanding exactly what you are doing wrong and what you need to do. But self-discovery? To know what I need to do? What I am doing wrong? What path I should follow?

Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the great strategist, Yosef the dream interpreter could not interpret his own dreams!

It’s not only our shortcoming that we cannot see. Quite often we also cannot see our own qualities. I’m always amazed at the people who are so loving of others, genuinely. The people who see good all around them, but then beat themselves up endlessly. They can see the world in brilliant, nuanced color, and forgive all their wrongdoings, but for themselves, they only see in black and white.

There is no greater joy than clarity; who we really are, what we really need to do. But it’s hard to attain and we cannot do so one our own.

Some are blessed with friends who can tell them the truth, even when it hurts, and some are blessed with family members who can compliment genuinely and can criticize without causing defensiveness. Others may need a therapist, someone who they can talk to openly and who is trained to reflect their impressions compassionately. But none of us can do it on our own.

Last week, I mentioned that the true focus of these parshiyos is who will assume the leadership of B’nei Yisrael. Reuven is eliminated, and Yosef, though a great manger, is not the leader the Jewish People need. It is Yehuda who climbs from the bottom to the top. There are many differences between the characters of Yosef, Reuven and Yehuda, some of which we discussed last week. But one feature which is often overlooked is that Yehuda had a friend. He is the only figure in the five books of Moshe who has a friend. Perhaps, just maybe, that is the secret to his success. The feedback, the give and take, the compassionate criticism and the genuine compliments gave Yehuda the wherewithal to grow.

It took Yosef his entire life to realize that his dream was a nightmare. There’s no need to wait that long. We don’t have the tools to interpret our dreams on our own, but there is a friend, a family member, a rabbi, or therapist out there who can help us.