My Rebbi made me join Twitter Parshas Eikev

“How can people possibly have nuanced discussions on social media?!”

“All everyone wants to hear these days are soundbites!”

“Can you really summarize a position on national defense in a Tweet?!”

That’s me, quoting myself.

I have lost track of how many times I’ve lamented the decline of serious debate and discussion due to social media and our shrinking attention span. How can we possibly have a nuanced discussion in 280 characters or less? But I’ve come around. I recently joined Twitter and I want to tell you why.

When the pandemic started, I began to post on Facebook far more often than I had in the past. Communicating through Facebook was not as simple as taking a sermon and pasting it onto a Facebook post. To catch the eye of someone scrolling at the end of a long day or during a short break, you need to catch their attention with something short and snappy. To change my regular writing style was challenging, but there was something – something that I could not exactly put my finger on at the time – that just felt right about writing that way.

Then, a short while ago, a friend of mine who is a digital media manager reached out and encouraged me to join Twitter. Twitter?! I thought to myself. The place where you cannot write a full paragraph?! The place I’ve been mocking from the pulpit?!

“Sure,” I said, “that sounds like a great idea.”

I remembered something I had learned from a teacher of mine, or my Rebbi (not be confused with Rebbe – a chassidic rabbi – or Rabbi, a shul rabbi, but Rebbi – literally, my teacher) in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. When my Rebbi was a young student at the prestigious Chevron Yeshiva, he had a private study session with one of the Roshei Yeshiva of the institution. Once a week there would be a lecture given to the entire yeshiva by one of the other leading teachers in this institution. My Rebbi would attend this lecture and then would visit the Rosh Yeshiva to study. But before they would begin, the Rosh Yeshiva would ask him to summarize the entire, brilliant, complex lecture he just attended – in one sentence. Remember, this was a discourse in Talmud in one of the leading yeshivas in Israel. One sentence.

My teacher would explain to his students the rationale behind this strange request: “If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When studying Torah, it is so easy to get caught up in the trees and lose sight of the forest. Ask any young yeshiva student studying a page of Talmud what it is that he is learning, and you will likely get a blank stare. I know that for many years, I could not answer that question. The Talmud is (seemingly) so disorganized and jumps from topic to topic without any warning. What is true about Talmud in particular is true about Judaism in general. Ask a room full of Jews what Judaism is all about, there would be as many answers as there are people. Is it this Mitzvah or that one? Ten commandments or 13 principles of faith? Beliefs or actions? Ask the same group of people two weeks later and you will get a hundred new answers.

“If you can’t say it in one sentence then you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s what my teacher meant. That’s why his teacher asked him to summarize the entire class in one breath. And that’s why I joined Twitter.

What was appealing to me about these Facebook posts is that it was forcing me to be succinct. Twitter was an opportunity to go even further. To share on Twitter meant distilling an idea to its essence. That’s always important but especially now.

Our brains are currently overburdened with stress, anxiety, and fear like never before. Our schedules are haphazard – if you even have a schedule these days. Every time I sit down to work on an extended piece of writing, I run out of creative gas two paragraphs in. I cannot concentrate.

But now, when I start to prepare a thought for shul, I try to write it as a Tweet it and see how it sounds. (Sometimes I cheat and write a thread – a number of Tweets strung together, but I try not to!) To be clear, I don’t really have any followers – possibly because I’m using Twitter as a personal sounding board! Also, please be warned, Twitter can be a rabbit hole that you cannot escape from, so please do not see this as an encouragement to sign up for Twitter. But for me, Twitter is creating a tiny semblance of order in what is otherwise a rather messy mind during a really messy time.

It occurred to me that the very first individual to do this was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu.

In our Torah portion, he asks the following question – “Mah Hashem Elokecha doreish mimcha? What is it that G-d wants from you?”

For four and a half books of the Torah, we’ve read stories and laws, and more stories and more laws, but what’s it all about? What does G-d actually want from us? What IS Judaism?

Moshe tells us – “Only to fear Hashem your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve Hashem your G-d with all your heart and soul.”

Did you catch that? Moshe just summarized all of Judaism in less than 120 characters?!

A few centuries later, the great sage, Hillel, does the same thing: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do onto others. Everything else is commentary.’ Only 63 characters!

You try. Really.

Maybe not to summarize what Judaism is, but at least what Judaism is to you. Because without having a succinct idea of what it is we’re practicing and striving for, it’s very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s true for our spiritual life as it is for our family life as it is for our professional life. We need to have a clear vision of what it is we’re doing or trying to do or else we get distracted. Steven Covey once said, “Everyone is so busy climbing the ladder of success that they don’t stop to ensure that it’s leaning against the right building.”

Only Moshe can answer what G-d wants from us. But what do you want from yourself? For me, it is ‘To constantly feel the presence of G-d even in dark times and to constantly draw even closer to Him.’ That reorients me when I feel like I am lost. It guides me when I need to make difficult decisions. Without a clear spiritual vision, it’s so easy to lose sight of what we’re really after.   

Everyone wants to love their family, but what does that really mean? Love is too vague. Can we distill the essence of our vision? This is what I came up with: ‘To develop an ever-deepening connection with my family members and constantly build them up.’ What do you want to accomplish every time you step into your home or speak to a family member? Without a succinct vision, we can interact with our family constantly, we can even love them deeply, but never have the family life of our dreams.  

Clarity is hard time to come by these days. Our minds are racing, our emotions are raging, and that fog in our head seems to be getting thicker and thicker. Take a moment to create a little light and direction that could guide you now and always. Take a cue from Moshe, our greatest teacher, and crystalize your goals, and may that little light dispel this great darkness.

Oh, and if you do join Twitter, make sure to follow me 😉  

Facts and Faith

This past Shabbos, I spoke on the topic of racism. After shul and for the past few days I have received much feedback, and engaged in many passionate discussions. I learned a lot from those conversations. They also helped me crystalize the most salient point I had been trying to make: The dismal state of employment, education, health, and crime in the black community is undisputed. The impact this has on all Black people, the stereotypes they must all endure regardless of where in this country they live or how educated or wealthy they may be, is also something that most of us agree upon. These are the facts. Where there is less agreement is the question of cause; whose fault is it that this is the case? Politicians of a certain persuasion? The police? The black community? The white community? That’s where the disagreements begin.

So here’s the point I want to make – Ben is right, facts do not care about feelings. But faith does. Our faith cares deeply about feelings; the feelings of others and the emotional response from us.

What is so troubling to me is the detached tone to our conversations, as if we are discussing a theoretical question. There is a community of people who are suffering a few blocks away from us irrespective of who is to blame. It is the role of politicians and pundits to discuss, develop, and debate effective policies. It is the role of decent people to care.

I would argue that the appropriate emotional response is righteous indignation. I realize not everyone would agree with that assessment and I am not confident enough in my ability to interpret the statistics to say everyone should. At the very least, we must all feel compassion. Regardless of who is to blame, it must break our hearts that my child has to look both ways before crossing a street so that he won’t get hit by a car, and a little boy growing up a few blocks away has to look both ways so that he doesn’t get hit by a stray bullet. It must break our hearts that my neighbor, a tall, muscular Black man, must own a cute little puppy so people won’t call the police on him every time he walks down his own block. The sad state of the Black community and the never-ending prejudice they all must deal with should break our hearts. That’s all I’m suggesting, that we care.

If a man was executed in ancient Israel for committing a heinous crime, his wife and children, the widow and orphan, would still receive our compassion. We would still be prohibited from oppressing them in any way, and we would still be obligated in displaying the utmost sensitivity in dealing with them. Why? Because they are in pain and they feel vulnerable and G-d demands of us to feel and display compassion to those who are marginalized in our society irrespective of the cause.

Who is to blame, or rather what needs to change, is relevant and should be discussed, respectfully and without fear of being labeled in any way. Black Lives Matter is used at times to espouse antisemitism, and should be called out when they do. The fact that you were held up by a Black youth is scary, it impacts your worldview, and cannot be discounted. However, none of that should detract from the fact that our faith cares about feelings. And so should we.

Speak up for Israel: A Pre-Shabbos Message for Parshas Pinchas

Dear Friends,

This past Thursday, we began what is known as the Three Weeks of Mourning which culminate on Tisha B’av. It is a time to reflect upon the exile from Israel and the destruction of the Temple. Every year at this time, I am asked, the State of Israel was established over 70 years ago, Jerusalem has been in our hands for over 50 years, why are we still observing these days of mourning? The Three Weeks are passé! And every year I respond that we are not praying for sovereignty alone, but for the rebuilding of the Temple and all that it represents. The Bait Hamikdash is more than a building, it is an idea. It represents a return of Godliness into this world and all that His presence brings along; peace, justice, harmony, the love of kindness, and overflowing blessing. When we yearn for a rebuilding of the Temple, we are yearning for personal and universal redemption from a state of brokenness. In other words, I respond to their question by suggesting that the Three Weeks is not about Israel alone, its focus is on a far larger and more universal picture.

While my first inclination this year is to focus on the big picture – you do not need me to tell you how broken our world is today – I think we would be remiss if we do not take a moment to think about Israel. It is true that we have sovereignty, it is true that Israel’s military is mighty, it is true that the economy is strong, and it is true that Jerusalem is ours today more than it ever was before. However, there is a growing voice of dissent overtaking the Western world. Thinly veiled anti-Semitism seeking to delegitimize the State of Israel is rampant. It is being espoused by sports players, musicians, and intellectuals alike. It has muddied the waters of social justice movements and become the de facto viewpoint on many college campuses. Israel may be stronger than ever but those seeking to tear it down have grown frighteningly vocal and organized.

So as we reflect on our losses these Three Weeks – and there is much to reflect upon, let us also think about and speak up on behalf of our beloved ancestral land. The State of Israel is far from perfect, we are confident enough to admit our shortcomings. But we must also give voice to the fact that the State of Israel has tried and tried and tried to make peace but received violence in response. We must give voice to the fact that we have 3,000-year roots in the land. We must give voice to the fact that Israel has avowed enemies and it cannot afford be flippant about its security. We must give voice to the fact that though there is corruption, Israel is a beacon of democracy and a world leader in human rights and freedom.

May God hear our voice – of protest and of prayer – and may He wipe away the many tears that have been shed for our personal setbacks and losses, for the land of Israel and for our people, and for the world at large. May we merit to experience a true redemption speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos,

Yisrael Motzen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And like most things, a balance is needed:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Proactive Leadership Parshas Chukas

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

Good Shabbos, 

Yisrael Motzen

When attitude is all we have Parshas Shelach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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