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Monday, October 2, 2017

MHA Operational Dinner Speech, September 2017

A tension exists at the heart of Judaism and, for that matter, any human encounter with authority - when is it appropriate to question and when is it appropriate to accept?
Parents of younger children often confront this tension – a parent gives a directive – let’s say, “Go to bed.” The child asks, “Why?” The parent responds with an explanation. The child asks again, “Why?” Ultimately, the parent attempts to close the line of inquiry with, “Because I said so!”
In our Western milieu, with its focus on the rights of the individual, this tension is particularly acute. The tendency of our American society is to open everything to questioning and to possible rejection – the ethical standing of our leaders, the morality of our institutions and patriarchs and the validity of those branches of government that have a monopoly on violence.
We are living through an incredible age in which knowledge itself is seemingly under attack – the authority of journalists, bloggers and other purveyors of information to transmit a fact, let alone an idea, is constantly called into question.
I suggest a critical question: Is anything rightfully beyond the reach of questioning? 
Having just experienced Rosh HaShana, we reading about the Akeda – the Binding of Isaac – certainly one of the most perplexing and philosophically challenging story in the corpus of Torah.
We are all familiar with this story. Having reassured Avraham that his name would be perpetuated through Isaac, Hashem commands Avraham to take his son, Isaac, and offer him as an olah sacrifice.  Avraham proceeds to heed Hashem’s command. However, just before dutifully slaughtering Isaac, Avraham is commanded to refrain and to not harm his child, Isaac. 
The Midrash, as quoted by Rashi, explains that after receiving this third command to not harm his child, Avraham turned to Hashem in bewilderment. How is he, Avraham, to understand these three conflicting Divine pronouncements – your name will be perpetuated through Isaac, followed by a command to offer Isaac as a sacrifice and followed again by a command to do Isaac no harm?
The great sage of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Rabbi Chayim Soloveitchik, asks what my students would call a “bomb kashya” – a very powerful and incisive question.
Why did Avraham wait to express his bewilderment until the third pronouncement – Hashem’s command to spare his son? Avraham should have been perplexed after the second command! The second command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was a seeming negation of Hashem’s first pronouncement – to perpetuate Avraham’s name in his son, Isaac! Why did Avraham wait to ask a question?
To answer this question, Rav Chayim makes recourse to an encounter that he had one time had with a certain chossid. As is known, in the time of Rav Chayim, there was a divergence of philosophy between the chassidim and the misnagdim. Speaking in generalities, the chassidim – followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov – focused on the power of each Jew – irrelevant of his or her intellectual capacity – to connect with the Almighty. The misnagdim like Rav Chayim were spiritual descendants of the Gaon MiVilna who highlighted the primacy of intellectual inquiry – particularly as applied to the Talmud.   
This chossid asked Rav Chayim, “Why are the misnagdim always struggling with kashyas – questions? Against whom are they asking questions – Hashem? When the Torah says something – that is how it is! What is there to inquire about?
Rav Chayim responded that in one way the chossid was correct. However, explained Rav Chayim, it is important to define when it is permitted to ask questions and when it is not.
Rav Chayim explained that our Talmud teaches that when two verses in the Torah contradict each other, interpretation is permitted only when a third passage comes to reconcile them. Without the existence of a third, reconciling, passage, it is forbidden to investigate and reconcile the contradiction. One would simply be left to conclude that in one passage the Torah says this and in the other passage the Torah says something different.
Returning to our question – why did Avraham wait until Hashem’s third command to inquire. Why did Avraham not challenge Hashem after the Almighty made two seemingly contradictory statements – Isaac is your heir and sacrifice Isaac?
Rav Chayim teaches that Avraham understood the Talmudic teaching explained above. We do not always understand the will of Hashem. Sometimes, from our perspective, two manifestations of Hashem’s Will seem to contradict each other.  
Avraham understood that Isaac was his heir. However, when Hashem commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, Avraham followed the command unflinchingly – he said nothing. The Torah empowers us to question and interpret only with the existence of the third command which we can use to reconcile and give context to the first two commandments. Only when Hashem issued a third command – for Avraham to spare Isaac – only then did Avraham inquire of Hashem and seek to reconcile the first two commandments. To this inquiry Hashem explained that He will not violate his covenant to make Isaac Avraham’s heir and that Hashem does not change His dictates. Rather, when Hashem commanded Avraham to take Isaac as a sacrifice, He meant only that Isaac should be completely dedicated to the service of Hashem.    
All learning begins with a question. Questions are not only important, they are the basis of education. The lesson of this powerful story is that to be an inquirer into philosophy – a genuine thinker – a person must also be grounded in fundamentals. To be capable of inquiring into Hashem’s Will, Avraham had to be rooted deeply in the Torah and in Torah thought and be committed to performing Hashem’s will. This commitment allowed Avraham to conduct a proper investigation of Hashem.
As our children grow up and enter the ambient culture, they are bombarded with questions – some that attack our most closely held beliefs. These questions will attack Israel and Zionism, the Torah’s attitude towards sexuality, social justice and women and even the existence of G-d. Some of these questions are real. Some are not. To be able to filter real questions from fake ones and to have the capacity to deal with real questions, our children must be grounded in our Jewish fundamentals.
One of our school’s greatest strengths is its proven track-record of producing students who are simultaneously grounded in these fundamentals and intellectually curious about the world and about Torah.
Our dual curriculum fosters this harmony. In General Studies, our students develop their intellect, curiosity, knowledge of history and thought and skills for operating in the professional and academic worlds. In Judaic Studies, our students connect to our mesora and learn how to study it. At MHA-FYOS, we prepare our students for Jewish adulthood by rooting them in our fundamentals while simultaneously equipping them to meaningfully analyze and inquire about our beliefs and about the world in which we live. This is one of the reasons that I am so proud of our school and of our students.

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

The Sukkah - Learning to Love Mitzvot - Yom Kippur - September 28, 2017

There is a very interesting gemara at the beginning of Masechet Avodah Zara concerning the end of days that concludes with a presentation of two totally different attitudes towards the mitzvah of Sukkah:
In times to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will take a scroll of the Law in His embrace and proclaim, “Let him who has occupied himself with this, come and take his reward.” All of the nations will crowd together in confusion. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “Do not come before Me in confusion, but let each nation come in with its scribes.”

The Kingdom of Edom (or Rome) will enter first before Him. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “With what have you occupied yourselves?” They will reply, “O Lord of the Universe, we have established many market-places, we have erected many baths, we have accumulated much gold and silver, and all this we did only for the sake of Israel, that they might [have leisure] for occupying themselves with the study of the Torah.” The Holy One, Blessed be He, will say in reply, “You foolish ones among peoples, all that which you have done, you have only done to satisfy your own desires. You have established marketplaces in which to place courtesans; baths, to revel in them; [as to the distribution of] silver and gold, that is mine. They will then depart crushed in spirit.”
On the departure of the Kingdom of Rome, Persia will step forward. The Holy One, blessed be He, will ask of them, “With what have you occupied yourselves?” They will reply, “Sovereign of the Universe, we have built many bridges, we have captured many cities, we have waged many wars, and all this for the sake of Israel, that they might engage in the study of the Torah. Then the Holy One, Blessed be He, will say to them, “You foolish ones among peoples, you have built bridges in order to extract toll, you have subdued cities, so as to impose forced labor; as to waging war, I am the Lord of battles.” They, too will then depart crushed in spirit.  And so will every nation fare in turn.
Following this, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will say to them, “Let us then consider the past; as there are seven commandments which you did accept.  Did you observe them?” The nations will then say, “Sovereign of the Universe, has Israel, who accepted the Torah, observed it?” The Holy One, blessed be He, will reply, 'I can give evidence that they observed the Torah.'” The nations will then plead, “Offer us the Torah again and we will obey it.” But the Holy One, Blessed be He, will say to them, “You foolish ones among peoples, he who took trouble [to prepare] on the eve of the Shabbat can eat on the Shabbat, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Shabbat, what shall he eat on the Sabbath? Nevertheless, I have an easy command which is called Sukkah, go and carry it out.”
Straightaway will every one of them go and make a booth on the top of his roof; but the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause the sun to blaze forth over them as at the Summer Solstice, and every one of them will kick and trample down his booth and go away. 

The gemara continues:
But does not Raba say, “He who is pained by environmental factors is exempt from dwelling in the Sukkah?” The gemara answers:  Granted, they would, in such circumstances be exempt, but would Israelites contemptuously trample it down? For this reason, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will laugh at them.

There are many easy mitzvot.  Why will Hashem test the other nations with the Sukkah?
Furthermore, the nations fail the test by kicking the Sukkah. Why would someone kick a Sukkah? How does this act represent failure?

This gemara is teaching us about the importance of loving the opportunity to perform mitzvot. We are to exhibit chibuv mitzva – love of the commandments – and to appreciate that Jewish law and items of halachic importance are precious to us because halacha helps us develop a proper perspective about the world and to engage the world as a tool in serving Hashem.

In one important way, the mitzvah of sukkah counteracts the incorrect view of the world. The sukkah is an abstract mitzvah that requires a person to look beyond his five senses and to look at the world through the lens of halacha.  Porous material that must be comprised of more shade than sun is defined by halacha as a roof.  Walls that are at least ten handbreadths high are considered by the halacha to reach the s’chach even if they don’t touch.  Walls that are as high as the s’chach but don’t quite touch the s’chach to the side are considered by halacha to bend and meet the s’chach
A person who cannot escape the power of the physical world that he sees with his five senses simply does not understand the sukkah.  They leave the sukkah and kick it on the way out. However, a person who learns to understand the sukkah reorients himself to seeing the physical world as tool in learning about and serving Hashem.

The mitzvah of sukkah teaches us an attitude that we should demonstrate towards Hashem’s commandments – chibuv mitzvah – love of the opportunity to perform Hashem’s Will.
May it be Hashem’s will that we dwell in our sukkot this year and in years to come.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Destiny of the Jewish People is Guided by Hashem's Providence - Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelech - September 15, 2017

We read a double parasha this week – Nitzavim-VaYelech. Parashat VaYelech records some of the final words that Moshe conveyed to The Jewish People prior to his demise. At the end of these comments, Hashem shares a prophecy with Moshe in the presence of his successor, Yehoshua.

Hashem said, “Behold, you will lie with your fathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land, in the midst of which the nation is entering. And the nation will leave Me and annul My covenant that I have sealed with it. My anger will flare against the nation on that day and I will leave them; and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey and many evils and distresses will encounter it. (The nation) will say on that day, ‘It is not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?’ But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that it did, for it had turned to gods of others.”

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno discusses this passage. He explains that when Hashem hides His face from The Jewish People, He does so primarily because they do not turn to Hashem with prayers and repentance at once in times of trouble. Instead, they attribute their trouble to natural, political or economic causes and, as a consequence, they look to natural or man-devised remedies for their deliverance. They “turn to other gods,” to means of deliverance other than those which would bring them Divine assistance. “Had they turned to Me to begin with,” says Hashem, “I would never have hidden My face from them.” (Translation by A. Friedman)

In this explanation, Seforno is outlining a very important perspective – one that is incumbent upon us to impart to our children. It is a perspective to which, as children born of children raised in the galut, we are less sensitive. The destiny of The Jewish People is guided by Hashem’s Providence. Blessings that are bestowed upon our nation or calamities, chas veshalom, that befall our people are a consequence of this Providence. The fate of other nations and peoples are tied up primarily with natural, political and economic forces. The fate of The Jewish People is different – it is tied to the closeness of our relationship with the Almighty. Through prayer, we ask Hashem to intervene and ensure beneficial outcomes. Through repentance, we look introspectively as individuals and as a nation and restore our commitment to proper actions and attitudes.

For the Jewish People, natural, political and economic problems are symptoms of moral, ethical and halachic shortcomings. The solution to these problems is to renew our relationship with Hashem.

Happiness from Kindness - Parasht Ki Tavo -September 8, 2017

The beginning of this week’s parasha, Parashat Ki Tavo, describes the mitzva of bikkurim – the obligation to bring the first of one’s fruit to Yerushalayim to be given as a gift to the kohen. The Torah enumerates an additional aspect of this commandment – an obligation to be performed immediately after this gift is given – to recite four specific verses that describe the sojourn of our forefather, Jacob, in Egypt and Hashem’s subsequent salvation of the Jewish People. Incidentally, these four verses – and their explication – also serve as the backbone of the maggid section of the Passover seder.

In his explanation of this mitzva, the author of the Sefer HaChinuch writes that by making this declaration about Hashem’s kindness to the Jewish People at this time – when he has reaped the produce of his land and Hashem has blessed him with the means to give this gift to the kohen – the farmer reinforces the idea in his own mind that his blessing is the result of Hashem’s handiwork and kindness.

The Torah concludes the description of this mitzva with the following statement: You will rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household – you and the Levite and the convert who is in your midst.

The Torah describes a four-part process for the farmer – harvest one’s produce, give the first fruits as a gift to the kohen, declare the four-verse statement acknowledging Hashem’s kindness and rejoice. Writing in a similar vein, the Rabbis in Pirke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, teach, “Who is rich; one who is happy in his lot.” In addition to the power of the idea that this teaching conveys, the statement has tremendous rhetorical power. One’s inclination is to believe that happiness emerges from being rich. On the contrary, say the Rabbis, richness emerges from happiness in whatever one has.

Rejoicing – or happiness – emerges from feeling that one has whatever he needs. If this is the case, why does the Torah reserve the requirement to rejoice until after the farmer has given a gift and acknowledged receiving a gift? Why does the Torah not directly link the farmer’s happiness to his harvesting his produce?

Apparently, the two intervening steps – giving a gift to the kohen and acknowledging the receipt of a kindness from Hashem – are critical to the farmer’s rejoicing. I believe that the Torah is teaching us that giving and receiving kindnesses are connected to happiness. When one feels that he has enough to share, he feels happy. When one feels that others are ensuring that he has what he needs, he feels happy. Rejoicing – simcha – takes place only after these intervening kindness-related steps because they enhance the happiness that one feels in his lot. In short, giving and receiving kindness improves happiness.

What an important lesson for each of us! Be kind and reflect on the kindnesses that are done to you – you will be more happy.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Teaching Empathy - Parashat Ki Tetze - September 1, 2017

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, presents a summary of many of the mitzvot.

In the last section of the parasha, the Torah recounts two sets of commandments.

The first set discusses the just treatment of the downtrodden. The Torah writes, “You shall not pervert the judgment of a convert or orphan and you shall not take the garment of a widow as a pledge. You will remember that you were a slave in Egypt and Hashem, your G-d, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.”

The second set discusses the obligations of a harvester to the downtrodden. The Torah writes, “When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it; it will be for the convert, the orphan and the widow, so that Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do. When you beat the olive tree, do not remove all the splendor behind you; it will be for the convert, the orphan and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard, you will not glean behind you; it will be for the convert, the orphan and the widow. You will remember that you were a slave in Egypt, therefore I command you to do this thing.”

In these two sets of verses, the Torah connects the treatment of the downtrodden to the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. However, upon closer examination, the connection being made in each set of mitzvot is different.

Regarding the first set, the just treatment of the downtrodden, the Torah focuses on one aspect of the experience in Egypt – that Hashem redeemed us. Commenting on this focus, Seforno explains that Hashem took note of the Jewish People’s desperate situation and dealt with us over and beyond the requirements of justice in order to be able to redeem us. In other words, we should emulate Hashem. Just as Hashem responded to our people’s plight by treating us with mercy, beyond the strictures of justice, we must treat the downtrodden with mercy, beyond what strict justice demands. There is a specific law to not pervert justice to the less fortunate. We may not make life more difficult for the downtrodden by taking a needed garment as a pledge for a loan.

Regarding the second set of commandments, the obligations of a harvester to the less fortunate, the Torah focuses on the fact that we suffered in Egypt. Commenting on this focus, Seforno explains that in Egypt, our people were in need of even unripe grapes. In this comment, Seforno is highlighting that the Jewish People were desperate in Egypt and were in need of any type of support. Similarly, we must treat the downtrodden with support when we are collecting our harvest and earning a living.

In summary, the message of these two sets of mitzvot are identical – be sensitive to the plight of the needy. However, in teaching these sets of commandments, the Torah emphasizes two different aspects of our experience in Egypt – our nation’s suffering and Hashem’s merciful redemption of the Jewish People.

Apparently, it is insufficient to create a loose connection between our history and the plight of the downtrodden – a stronger and more precise identification is necessary. By connecting these sets of mitzvot to our people’s experience with our suffering in Egypt, the Torah is employing a very important educational methodology – inspiring empathy. Empathy stems from the recognition of the experience of the other. By pinpointing aspects of our history that connect to the plight of those who are suffering, the Torah arouses in us the inspiration and empathy to help the one in need.

Teaching our children to be empathetic is an imperative. Empathy is highly correlated with sensitivity and compassion. In these passages, the Torah conveys an important technique in teaching empathy – help our children reflect on their own experiences and feelings and use them as a touch-point in determining how to best relate to others.

The Importance of Practice - Parashat Shoftim - August 25, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Shoftim, begins with the mitzvah to appoint judges and officers upon the entry of the Jewish People into the Land of Israel. The Torah instructs us to institute courts of varying sizes in different locales. In Yerushalayim, we are to appoint a Sanhedrin – a court of seventy judges and a head of the court – the av beit din. In big cities, we are to appoint courts of twenty-three judges, and in smaller cities, courts of three.

The Sefer HaChinuch discusses the root or benefit of this commandment. He explains that these courts, and the officers who support the courts, help acclimate the people to follow the law by instilling a fear of punishment or consequences. Building on this foundation of being accustomed to do that which is good, the people will “teach their natures to do justice and righteousness out of love and out of recognition of the true path”. In other words, promoting society to keep the law is a two-step process: first, the people must adhere to the law, by force if necessary, and then the people will learn to do that which is correct out of their own commitment to doing what is just and right.

Building on this idea, the Sefer HaChinuch quotes a statement from our chachamim: Habituation is what is behind nature. The author explains this statement to mean that just like nature constrains a man to what it wants, so does a strong habit repeat itself, like a persistent nature that constrains him to always go in the way of the habit.

Habituation is an extremely important tool in education. There is a famous study cited by Malcolm Gladwell that claims that expertise in any area requires 10,000 hours of practice. Practice is critical in every area of a student’s life: mathematics, reading, athletics, kindness and in Torah learning and observance. At MHA-FYOS, our teachers have been studying how to build a growth mindset within our school culture – a mindset of resilience, grit, optimism and development in the face of mistakes. Habituation is an important tool in building this mindset. Practice instills in a student the confidence to try again even after failure and the love of study for its own sake. Habituation helps develop a growth mindset.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Welcome Back! - Parashat Re'eh - August 18, 2017

Last week, we welcomed our teachers back to school and, this week, we welcomed our students back to school. A fresh beginning, new teachers, new classmates, new ideas. The first day back is so exciting!

This year, there was even more excitement than usual as we began using our newly remodeled and transformed Cooper Yeshiva High School Beis Midrash. The sefarim waiting to be opened. The intricate stone-work. The magnificent wooden shelving and furniture. The bright lighting. The warmth conveyed by the new windows. The tile floor and welcoming arch – reminiscent of Yerushalayim. In a word, the beis midrash is stunning. It is the product of a vision to create a showcase for Torah and to project to our students and families the high value that our community places on Torah learning and davening. This project is even more special because it is the result of a cooperative effort between multiple donors and multiple volunteers – each contributing to this holy endeavor.

At the end of this week’s parasha, Parashat Re’eh, the Torah describes the mitzvah of aliyah l’regel – visiting the Temple in Yerushalayim – on the Jewish holidays. The Torah says, “(the one who is visiting the Temple) will not appear before Hashem empty-handed; each person according to his gift, according to the blessing that Hashem, your G-d, gives you.” This passage contains two phrases that seemingly express the same concept – “everyone according to what he can give” and “according to the blessing that Hashem, your G-d, gives you”.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that each of these phrases refers to a different aspect of how a person is measured. Rav Hirsch explains that a person is not measured by his wealth or fortune. Rather, one way that a person is measured is “according to his gift” – based on where he or she gives his or her gift. Specifically, does the person prioritize tzedakah and other holy endeavors. There is a second measure of an individual – “according to the blessing that Hashem, your G-d, gives you”. Giving to one’s capacity – this is another measure of an individual. According to Rav Hirsch, the Torah in this passage outlines the standard of Jewish giving – prioritizing support for Jewish values to one’s capacity.

On many levels and in many dimensions, this project exemplifies this ideal – of prioritizing support for Jewish values to one’s capacity. For the donors and volunteers who conceived of this project, the remodeling of the beis midrash was first and foremost to be a kiddush Hashem – a glorification of Hashem’s name. Everyone who has seen the beis midrash understands that this standard has been achieved. Furthermore, these donors and volunteers stretched themselves to give to the maximum – expending money, time, energy, creativity and sleep – to realize the vision. No project of this magnitude just happens – it requires cooperative and sustained effort of individuals at the highest level. These acts of giving themselves are also a kiddush Hashem.

We welcome you to visit the school to see our new gem!