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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Responding to the Challenge of Technology-Operational Dinner Speech 2016

The columnist, David Brooks, recently published an editorial entitled, “Intimacy for the Avoidant”.  In the piece, the author discusses friendship and deep social connection in this generation of pervasive social media and compares our generation to the previous one in this regard.  One of the studies that he cites compares relative numbers of high-quality friendships. 

Let me start by asking you.  How many confidants – people with whom you can share everything – do you have?  Do you want to guess how many confidants most Americans told pollsters in 1985 that they had?  The answer is three.  Today, the majority of people say they have about two.  Furthermore, in 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to fully confide in, but by the start of this century 25 percent of Americans said that.

Mr. Brooks reports that according to the best evidence, the existence of social media is not necessarily the cause of the phenomenon – instead, research shows that social media is creating a divergence between socially engaged people who harness social media to further engage and lonely people use social media to mask their loneliness.  But for whatever reason or reasons, deep friendship and social connectivity is in decline. 

Apparently technology has had another impact on deep social relationships – prompting us to tend towards distraction. A recent British study reported that we check our smartphones on average 221 times per day – about every 4.3 minutes.  The average American spends five-and-a-half hours per day with digital media and the young spend far more time.  A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours per day on their phones.

These studies encapsulate the challenge of this generation in the social-emotional sphere.  Our children tend towards a shallow sense of empathy, a diminished feeling of belonging and a higher incidence of despondency.

Even more relevant to us, this study underlines an existential challenge for this generation of Jewish children.  How are we to teach our children to truly love their fellow if our children only have a primitive sense of empathy?  How are we to prepare them to build meaningful relationships with a spouse and with children?  How do we connect our children to our community and to the mesora community when they feel a diminished sense of belonging?  How do we inspire our children to lead Jewishly-rich and engaged lives when they feel despondent?

As in every generation, the burden of addressing this challenge falls on our children’s parents, educators and communities.

I strongly believe that Margolin Hebrew Academy, in partnership with our community’s institutions, is in a unique position to help this generation of children cope with this existential challenge.  We are inheritors of a blueprint to address this challenge and our school community has the experience and the knowledge to confront this issue head-on. 

First and foremost – our chachamim say, barati yetzer hara u’barati lo Torah Tavlin – Hashem says, I created the evil inclination and I created Torah as its spice – Torah is the element that helps us to improve and overcome our challenges.  At MHA, we teach our students to perform mitzvot and to incorporate them into their daily practice.  Mitzvot such as tefila, tefilin, berachot and Torah learning, train our students to focus on their interaction with the world.  Through intensive Torah learning, our students practice thinking deeply about ideas and values.  We encourage our students to perform chesed and to be kind to one another – they learn to be empathetic.   

Second, MHA has assembled an unbelievably strong cadre of role models – both Judaic and General.  Our faculty members form deep learning relationships with our students and model consideration and empathy. 

Finally, we are blessed with a ubiquitous community – in addition to interacting with our shul rabbis and members, our students see their own rabbis and teachers at shul on Shabbat and at many other times outside of school.  This community offers our students a deep sense of belonging.

But, my friends, as you well know, there is no way around it – providing all of this for our students is a costly endeavor.  We have a true dual curriculum - excellent General Studies and excellent Judaic Studies.  We have a low teacher to student ratio.  These essential features are expensive.

I want to conclude with a lesson from the mitzvah of hakhel which is presented in this past week’s parasha

Every seven years, the Jewish People gathered at the Beit HaMikdash to hear the Jewish king read publicly from the Torah.  The verse states: “Congregate the nation – the men and the women and the young – in order that they will hear and learn.”  Our Rabbis explain why the Torah commands us to include the very young in this gathering – in order to give merit to those who bring them. 

Rabbi Nasson Adler, zatzal, makes a very practical observation – the presence of the young will distract their parents from concentrating on the proceedings of hakhel.  Think about your own experience when you bring your young children to shul!  Rabbi Adler makes a simple deduction – the value of teaching children through exposing them first-hand to the gathering outweighs the value of the personal growth that the parent would have through listening to the teaching of Torah.  From this deduction, Rabbi Adler explains that it is worth sacrificing a bit of your own spiritual perfection for the Jewish education of our children.  Is it not certainly all the more true that it is better to sacrifice a bit of one’s material perfection in order to educate our children in the spirit of Torah!

The Margolin Hebrew Academy community understands the unmatchable gift that a Jewish education provides – particularly to the children of this generation – and understands, well, the sacrifice that it takes to secure this gift for our community’s children. 

Thank you for your support of our students and for your continued contribution to MHA.   

Justice and the Perception of Justice- Parashat Vayera 5777-November 18th, 2016

This week’s parasha, Vayera, presents the destruction of Sedom and its sister cities. Prior to the destruction, Hashem declares to Avraham that He wants him to understand His decision to destroy Sedom.  After all, Avraham’s offspring will be the guardians of the path of righteousness – they should properly understand the message of the event.

After Hashem tells Avraham that he plans to destroy Sodom and Amora and after Hashem sends His two messengers to Sedom to save Lot and his family, Avraham remains in Hashem’s presence to pray.  Avraham asks the Almighty, “Is it appropriate for Hashem’s anger אף - to destroy the tzadik with the rasha?”  Avraham argues that G-d’s Providence should protect the righteous and the city along with them.  Avraham says, “chalila lecha – it would be a disgrace to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked.”  Avraham further questions the appropriateness of Hashem – the Judge of the world - doing this act of destroying righteous and wicked together.  He says, “chalila lecha – it would be a disgrace to You! Should the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

What is the difference between the two questions?  They sound identical.  In both questions, Avraham seems to question the appropriateness of the destruction of Sedom.

In reality, the quality that makes the two questions sound identical is the inclusion of the uncommon word, chalila, disgrace. Chalia comes from the root chalal – to profane – as in, chilul Hashem.  Avraham argues to Hashem that through His destruction of Sedom, He would be creating a chilul Hashem, a desecration of Hashem’s Name. Through his initial argument, Avraham raises the point that by destroying tzadikim together with the evil people, Hashem is conveying that His justice is only universal and not particularistic.  Through his second argument, Avraham suggests that there will be another secondary effect of this punishment on the world stage – the world will misinterpret the Judge Himself as being evil.  They will say that Hashem, the Judge and Protector of the world, does not discriminate between good and evil.  Each of these misunderstandings will pervert the knowledge that the world has of Hashem.  Through His destruction of Sedom, Hashem pronounces His decision that the destruction of Sedom was worth the misunderstanding that the world might have about Hashem and His justice.

This incident is troubling.  It seems that the Almighty is bound by two choices – each with adverse consequences.  Either destroy Sedom and compromise the understanding that the world has of Hashem or leave Sedom alone and allow wickedness to continue.  Hashem is all-powerful!  He seems constrained!
In creating mankind and in creating a covenant with Noach, Hashem commits to ensuring its survival.  Apparently, Hashem also commits to working within the system of the world that He created.  One of the fundamental elements of the world in man’s ability to use free will – to be the source of his own decision-making.  Avraham argues that in addition to Divine justice there is the perception of Divine justice - Hashem’s actions are always viewed through the lens of man’s perception.  Avraham’s argument teaches that, while in this case, Hashem decided to destroy Sedom, He is also concerned about our perception of His justice.

Blessings Require Preparation- Parashat Lech Lecha 5777-November 11th, 2016

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, the Torah recounts the Avram’s return from an improbable victory in a war against the four kings. On the way, he encounters MalkiTzedek, the King of Shalem.

The Torah describes the meeting: “MalkiTzedek, king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of G-d, the Most High.  He (MalkiTzedek) blessed him saying, “Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be G-d, the Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush, asks why MalkiTzedek blessed Avram before blessing G-d. Although the Midrash, in fact, criticizes MalkiTzedek for prioritizing the blessings in this way, Malbim explains that MalkiTzedek’s decision to bless Avram before G-d is to MalkiTzedek’s credit.

To understand what justifies MalkiTzedek’s prioritization, we first need to ask another question – how can a human being bless G-d?  To say that a human being is blessed is understandable – MalkiTzedek saw in Avram an individual who was successful materially and spiritually.  Such a person is blessed.  However, what does “blessed” mean in reference to the Almighty?

Malbim and others explain that the term “blessed” in reference to G-d means that G-d is the Source of all blessing in the world. When we make a blessing like we do on wine – Baruch Ata Hashem Elokenu Melech HaOlam Bore Peri HaGefen – Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine – we are declaring that G-d is the source of this food and by extension that He is the source of all blessing. All berachot that we make are declarations that G-d is the source of all blessing.

Returning to MalkiTzedek’s blessing Avram and G-d, MalkiTzedek is using Avram’s success as an opportunity to declare three fundamental ideas about G-d and His relationship with the world. In his blessing of Avram, MalkiTzedek says, “Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth”.  According to Malbim’s explanation, MalkiTzedek is declaring that G-d is the ultimate and fundamental cause of the world and that He manages the world, sustains it and continually wills it to exist.  Avram is blessed because G-d, who created and manages the world, performed miracles that supersede nature on Avram’s behalf.

However, MalkiTzedek does not stop here.  He then blesses the Almighty.  What further idea is MalkiTzedek declaring?

Malbim explains that MalkiTzedek was teaching a profoundly deep and important idea about G-d’s relationship with the world.  By blessing Avram and subsequently blessing G-d, MalkiTzedek is teaching us that there is an order for G-d’s blessings in the world – G-d’s blessing flow to those who have prepared themselves for His blessing.  Blessings flow to those unique individuals who – through their righteousness – become vessels for G-d’s blessing to flow to the world.  When blessings flow to a righteous person, the whole world benefits – he or she gives tzedaka, teaches justice and righteousness to others and does good for society.  MalkiTzedek is declaring that when blessings flow to a righteous person like Avram, the world also recognizes that G-d is the source of all blessing.

Thus, MalkiTzedek used Avram’s improbable victory as an opportunity to declare three concepts about G-d’s relationship to the world – G-d is the ultimate cause of the universe, G-d constantly wills and sustains the existence of the world and G-d’s blessings flow to the world through uniquely righteous individuals who have prepared themselves to be vessels for G-d’s blessing.

Let us seize upon the examples of MalkiTzedek and Avram to understand G-d’s relationship to the world to become the vehicles for its perfection.

A Community Supports the Perfection of the Individual- Parashat Noach 5777 - November 4th, 2016

In this week’s parasha, the Torah presents the story of the dor haflaga – the Generation of the Division – what is known colloquially as the story of the Tower of Bavel.

Approximately 400 years after the flood, families began to settle in one locale. These families shared a common language, culture and outlook and decided to become more industrially advanced. The Torah tells us, “they then decided to build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and to make for themselves a name lest they become dispersed across the whole earth.” The Torah continues and tells us that Hashem descended to see the city and the tower.  Upon seeing that they had one culture and had decided to construct this tower, Hashem confuses their language and causes them to become spread across the whole earth.

Apparently, Hashem punished this generation. At first glance, however, it is unclear what the people did wrong. On the contrary, this generation seems to have acted quite rationally.  Upon settling in a new land, they quickly created industry instead of complete relying on the natural world and they built a strong city with a tower. Furthermore, the Torah implies that part of their sin was that they had one shared outlook – one community.  It is difficult to understand the problem with this outlook. Indeed, the Torah supports the idea of shared perspective at the expense of individuality.  One of the 613 mitzvot is the mitzvah of lo titgodedu – communities are enjoined from dividing into agudot agudot – several sub-communities.  Specifically, a community may not have two courts – this one deciding halacha one way for the community and another one deciding halacha differently for the same community.  Based on these considerations, it is difficult to understand what this generation did improperly.

One approach taken by our rabbis to these questions is that of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. When reading this passage, we are struck by the fact that the Torah says that Hashem descended to see the city and the tower that the people had built.  Hashem knows all – he has no need to “descend”. According to Rabbi Hirsch, this phrase indicates that there was nothing inherently wrong with industrialization and cities and towers - the sin of this generation lay in their motives and not in their actions.

Dor haflaga created and strengthened their community for an arrogant purpose – an exercise in self-aggrandizement.  The Torah expressly indicates the motivation of this generation – na’aseh lanu shem – to make a name for their community. The Torah further reveals their motive in telling us that the generation said, “lest we become dispersed over the entire earth.”  A community that is concerned with the welfare of its members would say, “Lest we become weak and hurt the potential of our members to become more perfected.”  Instead the generation of the Tower of Babel was only concerned with ceasing to be a community – they prioritized the welfare of the community over and above all else.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, the Torah teaches us here that a community is a vehicle to support the pursuit of perfection, justice and morality of each of the community’s individual members. The fundamental purpose of a community is to help each individual member positively shape his or her relationship with the Almighty. The sin and punishment of the generation of the flood teaches us that a community must center itself around the guiding principle of lifting up the individuals who make up the community – or it is better off not existing. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Teaching our Children to Forge a Relationship with Hashem - Parashat Beresheit 5777- October 28, 2016

At the end of this week’s parasha, Beresheit, the Torah describes the generations that descended from Adam; naming his descendants and their children. The list concludes with Noach and his three children Shem, Cham and Yefet. In the beginning of next week’s parasha, Noach, the Torah reintroduces us to Noach – a tzaddik, a perfect individual and a man who walks with Hashem. The Torah then repeats that Noach fathered three sons – Shem, Cham and Yefet. We already know that Noach has three sons! Why does the Torah find it necessary to repeat itself?

The commentator Radak addresses this question. Noach merited to be saved from the flood because he walked with Hashem – in the face of the wicked people of his generation, Noach was only involved with serving Hashem. Just as Noach walked with Hashem, he taught his children to turn away from their wicked generation and to only serve Hashem and to cleave only to Him.

Based on a verse in the book of Yechezkel, Radak explains that if Noach’s children had not served Hashem exclusively, they would have perished in the flood like the rest of the generation. Noach knew that to save his children it would be insufficient for his children to simply grow up in his house. He had to teach his children to walk with Hashem on their own. He had to instill in them the values and the tools to avoid the trappings of their generation. To convey this idea, the Torah repeats the names of Noach’s children at this time to say that they, in their own merit, were saved from the flood and not in the merit of their father, Noach.

To further develop this idea that parents must teach their children to walk with Hasem on their own, let us consider a question regarding the text of the amidah – the shemoneh esreh. The first blessing of the amidah begins as follows: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers; the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Yaakov …” Why does the Amidah say, “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Ya’akov”? It would be more economical to say, “the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov”!

One of the more well-known commentators on the siddur, Etz Yosef, explains that this wording of the amidah tips us off to fact that Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov each forged his own individual relationship with Hashem through his own investigation of Hashem and His relationship with the world. Avraham knew that he had to teach his son Yitzchak to be righteous. When Avraham began teaching Yitzchak, he began by teaching him ideas. As Yitzchak developed, Avraham taught him to investigate for himself the veracity of these ideas. Avraham expected Yitzchak to become righteous not only out of imitation, but out of a sincere investigation of the truth. Yitzchak did the same for his son Ya’akov. The Etz Yosef explains that would the amidah only say, “the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov,” one might think that Yitzchak accepted G-d because his father told him to and Ya’akov accepted G-d because his father told him to. Instead, the amidah says, “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Ya’akov” to indicate that each one of our forefathers conducted his own investigation but each came to the same conclusion – an acceptance of the existence of One G-d Who is Master of the world.

From the analysis of the Etz Yosef and Radak, we learn two core principles in the education of children:
  1. As parents, we cannot assume that our children will share our values because they are our children. Children do not become moral individuals who share our deeply rooted esteem for morality, justice, community, the synagogue, Jewish education and a relationship with Hashem simply because we value these things. We must teach our children to value these things for themselves.
  2. Indoctrination alone is usually an ineffective means of transmitting to our children a commitment to values. Effective transmission of commitment to our values requires two steps. First, a child must first be introduced to the value. Second, the child must led to independently investigate the truth of this value. Only then can we be reasonably sure that the child will adopt this value for him or herself.
Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov serve as models for us not only in their own righteousness but in fact that they taught righteousness to their children.

A King Must Remain Humble - Parashat VaYelech 5777 - October 7, 2016

In this week’s parasha, VaYelech, Moshe gives words of encouragement to his disciple, Yehoshua – the next leader of the Jewish People. “And Moshe called to Yehoshua and he said to him before the eyes of all of Israel be strong and courageous…” (Devarim 31:7)

There is some ambiguity in the translation above. Is the Torah telling us that Moshe spoke these words of encouragement to Yehoshua in front of the Jewish People (“before their eyes”) or did Moshe privately tell Yehoshua to be strong and courageous before the Jewish People.

A king (or Jewish leaders, like Yehoshua) must straddle the line between arrogance and public displays of confidence while remaining humble internally. For these leaders, the lure of egotism is so great that there are special mitzvot for kings to dissuade kings from becoming haughty (le’vilti room levavo). On the other hand, kings must project honor and dignity. The Talmud, in Masechet Makkot, cites King Yehoshafat as a paragon of humility. When he would see a Torah scholar, King Yehoshafat would stand up from his throne and hug and kiss him and call him “my father, my father, my teacher, my teacher”. The gemara contextualizes King Yehoshafat’s practice and explains that he would only act this way in private. A king is not never authorized to publicly abrogate his honor. Indeed, King Shaul was punished for abrogating his honor.

The author of the Meshech Chochma, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, understands our verse to mean that Moshe told Yehoshua privately to project strength and courage to the Jewish People. Apparently, Yehoshua was humble even to the point of feeling somewhat constrained. Moshe instructs Yehoshua to exhibit and project strength and courage to the nation. Moshe tells Yehoshua to remain humble but show steely resolve. Through this demonstration, Yehoshua will win over the people while remaining humble.

The Meaning of the Shofar - Parashat Netzavim 5776 - September 30, 2016

In allusion to George Orwell: all of the passages in the Rambam’s magnum opus – the Mishne Torah – are meaningful; but some are more meaningful than others.

One such passage in The Laws of Repentance (3:4) fits this description. Maimonides writes:

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar's call] is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts. Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. [On the other hand,] if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by, "A righteous man is the foundation of the world," (Proverbs 10:25) i.e., he who acted righteously, tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it.

For these reasons, it is customary for all of Israel to give profusely to charity, perform many good deeds, and be occupied with mitzvot from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur to a greater extent than during the remainder of the year.

During these ten days, the custom is for everyone to rise [while it is still] night and pray in the synagogues with heart-rending words of supplication until daybreak.
What a truly amazing passage! It contains so many important ideas that speak to our hearts – particularly during this time of the year.

In this passage, the Rambam teaches that the shofar is an “alarm clock” – a signal to do teshuva – repentance. How does the sound of the shofar convey this message? The Rambam addresses the meaning of the sound of the shofar in a passage in The Laws of Shofar (3:2).

Over the passage of the years and throughout the many exiles, doubt has been raised concerning the teru'ah which the Torah mentions, to the extent that we do not know what it is: Does it resemble the wailing with which the women cry when they moan, or the sighs which a person who is distressed about a major matter will release repeatedly? Perhaps a combination of the two - sighing and the crying which will follow it - is called teru'ah, because a distressed person will sigh and then cry? Therefore, we fulfill all [these possibilities].

In this passage, the Rambam explains the meaning of the two sounds that we call shevarim and teru’ah – the broken and staccato sounds that are blown between the long sounds that we call teki’ah. Each of these sounds represents a human response to his or her own suffering. The shevarim sound is akin to a sighing in response to distress. The teru’ah sound is akin to crying. The shevarim-teru’ah sound is akin to sighing followed by crying.

It is interesting that the Rambam describes the sounds of the shofar in terms of human experience. Other chachamim do not describe the shofar sounds in these terms (see Tur and Mishnah Berurah). According to the Rambam, the shofar is a reflection of the state of the individual on Rosh HaShana. Three human states of mind are described – trepidation, broken-heartedness and the continuum of trepidation to broken-heartedness.

Returning to our question: how does the sound of the shofar signal a person to wake up and repent? Synthesizing these two passages, the Rambam apparently maintains that by hearing the pronouncement of these human states of mind, a person crystallizes his or her own outlook on the powerful day of Rosh HaShana. This person realizes the consequence of sin and the enormity of the Day of Judgement. He wakes up from his slumber and attends to repentance.

May we all respond self-reflectively to the powerful message of the shofar and be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy year.