Featured on: TIMES OF ISRAEL
MK Michael Oren Speaks at MJEWATCH: Michael Oren gives a fascinating and entertaining lecture about the history and current status of the U.S./ Israel relationship.
For more on the evening, check out this The Times of Israel blog post by Rabbi Mark Wildes on what we can learn from Michael Oren and the U.S./ Israel Relationship:
Posted by Manhattan Jewish Experience on Sunday, November 22, 2015
Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach
Mindfulness and its positive impact on our lives is nothing new. Knowledge about meditation and its ability to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain, is centuries old. Becoming more aware and present as well as more appreciative of the simple blessings in our lives, can lead to a richer and more meaningful life. When we are mindful we don’t just gulp down our food, we savor the flavor. We don’t interrupt a friend while they’re speaking, we listen and internalize their underlying message. We don’t rush from place to place but attempt to appreciate our surroundings, aware of the sky above and the ground below. But again, none of this is new. Nevertheless the development of technology has made mindfulness not only attractive but an absolute necessity in our day to day lives.
While it has enabled us to accomplish much more in less time, technology has created new expectations and a pressured environment. This certainly applies to our lives at work, but even at play. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet one of my icons, Paul McCartney. While I should have simply enjoyed the few minutes I had with Sir Paul, I was consumed with how I would capture the moment for everyone else to see. Should it be a still picture or a video, Instagram or Facebook? As I was trying to enjoy my few moments with Paul, those distracting thoughts took away some of the genuine joy, in real time, of that special encounter (Paul, by the way, could not have been nicer). The internet and social media devices to which we are glued, often prevent us from being in the moment, robbing us of some of the simple pleasures of life.
What is the first thing you do in the morning? According to recent studies, 80% of people check their phones and the average person checks their phone 40-50 times a day, 2-3 times an hour (Study conducted by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania,). A Bank of America study found that many 18 to 34 year-olds admit to having a closer relationship with their smartphones than with the most important people in their life while another study discovered that teens average 1,000-1,500 texts a day. Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, placed a group of people in a quiet room for 6-15 minutes without their smartphones, where they were asked to simply think and reflect. The only other distraction was an electronic button, which if pushed, would deliver a severe shock to the person pressing the button. They were all told that pushing the button would deliver a painful jolt. The study found that a majority of people, especially men, pushed the button. This means that some people would prefer to inflict pain upon themselves rather than “just be”. Our addiction to stimulation has made our generation exceptionally distracted, making it harder and harder for us to be in the moment.
To deal with all this, many have turned to the modern-day mindfulness movement with its Zen Buddhist roots. The modern term “mindfulness” was popularized by Jon Kabat – Zinn, a scientist from MIT, whose goal was to promote a “Buddhist meditation without Buddhism.” In 1979, Zinn created something called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR for short) which combined Buddhism with Western medicine and which ultimately developed into a movement across America. Classical Judaism can also be described as a path to mindfulness, albeit with a different goal and methodology. The Near Eastern approach to mindfulness, which conjures up the image of a monk meditating on a mountain far away from civilization, is ultimately aimed at removing oneself from the physical world. There is, of course, a certain attraction to that approach, but the goal in Jewish mindfulness is not to remove oneself from the world, but rather to engage the physical through the mitzvot (all of which are physical activities), in order to achieve Judaism’s ultimate goal, which is not transcendentalism, but rather – holiness. Holiness in Judaism is attained, not by breaking free of the physical world, but rather by elevating the physical aspects of our existence. The physical activities, in which we are engaged on a regular basis, are not simply meant to be used to survive or gain pleasure from – their ultimate purpose is to keep us connected to our Divine source, and to achieve what the Kabbalists call dveikut or attachment with our Creator. We accomplish this by applying the mitzvot to virtually every human activity. The mindfulness and awareness the mitzvot help produce are therefore a means to something even greater, namely, closeness with Hashem.
In this series I will outline the uniquely Jewish practices which promote mindfulness including:
Kavanah: Achieving a certain emotional awareness through the performance of specific religious activities.
Prayer and Blessings: Reciting certain words and phrases, on a regular basis, in order to become mindful of one’s life mission (necessary for living a purposeful life) and of basic gifts such as the ability to see or walk, necessary to becoming a grateful person.
The Shema: A mantra which if done properly enables one to become mindful of certain spiritual realities, the basis for a purposeful and spiritually driven life.
The Sabbath: Disconnecting from both technology and manipulating the physical world in order to connect with one’s spiritual source and with other people.
Jewish Dietary Laws and Sexual Intimacy: Allows for the infusion of holiness into the most physical areas of life, ie-food and sex.
I will elaborate on each area in subsequent entries but let us begin with the practice of Kavanah, commonly understood as awareness or intention: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the great 20th century thinker, distinguished between two types of mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah: mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are one in the same as opposed to mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are different. The taking and shaking of the Lulav on the holiday of Sukkot for example, defines the way this mitzvah is both performed and fulfilled. Sefirat HaOmer, counting the days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, is another action which both performs and fulfill the mitzvah. This model characterizes most mitzvot. However, for some mitzvot, their performance is accomplished via certain actions or rituals, but their fulfillment is only achieved through attaining a certain spiritual awareness or mindfulness. For example, the mitzvah to be “happy on the holidays”, was performed in Temple times by bringing various sacrifices and today through drinking wine and eating meat, but unless one experiences a sense of joy, one may have performed the mitzvah, but one has not fulfilled it. To fulfill this commandment, some kind of joy or elation must be felt in the heart.
Another such example is the mitzvah to recite the Shema, performed by reciting certain words from the Torah. But the fulfillment of this mitzvah takes place through what is called: kabbalat ol malchut shamayim or accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. This involves acknowledging the existence of God and committing oneself to living in accordance with His commandments and ethical teachings. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a state of mindfulness as to one’s very existence and purpose in this world.
The Jewish laws of Aveilut, of mourning the loss of a loved one, serves as another example. The mitzvah is performed by refraining from certain physical activities. A mourner, for example, does not wash, anoint with oils, wear leather shoes, and more. These actions help the mourner appreciate his or her loss, but as the Talmud says “there is only mourning in the heart” – some kind of feeling of loss must be experienced in the heart and so again, the activities are designed to bring about a mental state and emotional experience.
Finally, when it comes to prayer, we perform that mitzvah through the recitation of the Shmone Esrei, or the Eighteen Blessings written some 2,500 years ago by the Jewish sages. However, in order to fulfill this mitzvah, something must be experienced in the heart, since prayer is defined in Jewish tradition as a “service of the heart”. Thus ones focus or intention, ie- “kavanah”, is indispensable for the fulfillment of this mitzvah.
Rabbi Shnier Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote that performing the actions associated with mitzvot only elevates the body and the animal soul, the part of the soul most connected with the body. Since praying involves the body (one’s throat, lips, palate, tongue and teeth), reciting prayers has the spiritual power to elevate the body and the lowest part of the soul. However, in order for the uppermost part of the soul to be impacted, ie-the neshama, one needs kavanah – mindful focus. To impact the upper realms and the world around us, a certain mental awareness is required. Aruch, Orach Chaim, 98:10).
I will come back to prayer later in this series, but the basic idea in all these religious practices, whether it’s moving one’s lips to recite prayers (as in the case of the Shema or Shmone Esrei), eating meat and drinking wine to rejoice in the holidays, or refraining from anointing oneself or wearing leather shoes in the case of the mourner, these physical activities are designed to bring about a certain sense of awareness and mindfulness of the ultimate reality. My next entry will focus on specific prayers and blessings Jewish tradition mandates we say in order to become more mindful of our purpose in life and of the many blessings we take for granted. We will then discuss how the Sabbath protects us from some of the damaging effects of technology, and how its restrictions on work teach us how to be present and learn how to simply ‘be”. Finally, we will learn how the Jewish laws governing diet and sex infuse those important parts of our lives with spirituality and God consciousness.
Ultimately, the Jewish practices of mindfulness, if practiced regularly, enables us to channel every aspect of our physical lives towards achieving dveikut or closeness with our Creator. In doing so we can become holier people since having a greater God and soul awareness can, over time and with regular practice, change our nature. We are, after all, where our mind and are thoughts are. If most of the day our thoughts consist of food, sports and sex, then our nature will be more in the realm of the physical. If, however we engage in any of the above-mentioned activities designed to produce mindfulness, then, as our thoughts are directed upwards to the spiritual realms, our nature and disposition will follow suit. Over time, we will become more spiritually sensitive and ethically refined and ultimately holier people.
Part Two: The Power of Blessings
In my last blog on Judaism and Mindfulness we discussed how today’s fast paced world has created a greater need for mindfulness and how Jewish tradition, through a focused performance of mitzvot, enables us to achieve that much-needed awareness. We reviewed how the mitzvot are physical activities, either positive actions or activities from which we refrain, designed to bring about a certain sense of inner mindfulness of the ultimate reality. In this entry, I’d like to focus on how prayers and blessings can, in a simple but powerful way, make us cognizant and grateful of the most important gifts in our lives.
Contrary to popular perception, when we recite a blessing we are not blessing God. God, Jewish tradition teaches, is the very definition of perfection and, as such, does not need our blessing. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the source of our bounty and good fortune. The Hebrew word for blessings, bracha is linguistically connected to the word breicha, or “spring”, the source of water. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the ultimate source for whatever life gift we are about to enjoy so we can become more aware and ultimately appreciative of the gifts we often take for granted. This explains why, for example, when saying a blessing before eating some fruit, we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree”. We do not say “bless you” God but rather, “blessed are you God” – for we are simply acknowledging God as the source of the fruit, which is critical to becoming a more grateful person. And as all the studies show, grateful people are happier people.
When we wake up each morning, Jewish tradition teaches us to recite the “Modeh Ani” prayer: “I thank you O everlasting King for returning my soul to me, great is your faith”. Again, we are not blessing God but acknowledging Him as the source of our blessing – in this case, for our very existence. The Sages, who composed this short prayer, purposely omitted God’s name so it could be recited immediately upon awakening, even before having to leave our beds to wash our hands. It was important to the Sages that our first words of the day should ones of gratitude and renewal, emphasizing that with each new day, God returns our souls to our bodies, allowing us to live another day. We become mindful that we are entering a new day, with new opportunities and not the same old drudge. We’re not the same as we were the day before, not spiritually and not even physically. Our cells keep changing. Scientists believe that 98% of all the cells and 1/7 of all the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. Saying the Modeh Ani prayer helps us connect to this theme of newness and renewal.
Another layer of insight is expressed in the last words of the prayer: “great is your faith”. We do not say, great is “our faith”, referring to our faith in God but rather “your faith” referring to God’s faith in us. We begin our day by acknowledging God’s belief in us, a daily encouragement that our Creator thinks us worthy of life. God believes we have the potential to reach our goals – that’s why he gave us another day to live. In a generation which struggles with self-esteem, starting our day with mindfulness of our self-worth is critical.
Just as critical though is being aware of our basic biological functions. Therefore, Judaism prescribes the Asher Yatzar blessing for when one emerges from the bathroom. On the surface, saying a blessing after discharging bodily waste, seems like a strange practice. Every so often I’ll see someone mumbling something to themselves outside of a bathroom and I smile. Although it may look a bit strange, saying a blessing after going to the bathroom enables us to appreciate an important physiological function while we still have. Our general tendency is to appreciate our health only after a medical scare – when a part of our bodily functions has been threatened. After undergoing hernia surgery, I was told I would be allowed to leave the hospital only after moving my bowels. After being able to do so I remember feeling so happy and grateful, though it was something I had done countless times before. Jewish mindfulness means becoming aware and grateful for what we have right now. This is particularly critical in affluent countries where our basic needs are already met and we often wait for the next great thing to happen to make us happy. Judaism teaches that we already have what it takes to be happy – we just don’t realize it. Blessings help us feel this.
The after-bathroom blessing concludes with these words: “Hashem heals all flesh and performs a wonder.” What’s the wonder? Among the different answers offered, the “wonder” refers to the soul which is connected to the body, namely, that the physical can live alongside the spiritual. Every time we thank God that our body’s plumbing is working, we are reminded of the soul within us – that while we are grateful for our bodies, ultimately it is the soul or the spiritual part of us that defines us. We are soul’s with bodies and not the reverse.
The Jewish sages instituted a number of other daily blessings corresponding to different aspects of our physical existence, again enabling us to become mindful and grateful of life’s gifts. For instance, every morning we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who gives sight to the blind”. In reciting this blessing, we become aware and hence more grateful for the important gift of sight. As the great religious Zionist thinker, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin comments, the blessing also generally ensure we do not become blind to the many blessings in our lives.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who clothes the naked” helps us appreciate the clothing we have. Other than appreciating the actual clothing we are blessed to have, on a deeper level, the Hebrew word to for clothing, “levush”, contains the same letters as the word “busha” meaning “shame.” Clothing provides a sense of modesty and preserves a healthy sense of shame. Not the kind of shame that demeans, but one which ensures we don’t give away too much of ourselves to others.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who releases the imprisoned” celebrates our ability to stretch and be mobile, to move from one place to the next. This can also refer to our ability to break free of any self-imposed negativity or restrictions with which we shackle ourselves. There are times when we imprison ourselves with limiting thoughts or negative self-image. This blessing reminds us that we can control the way we think of ourselves and adopt a positive attitude in any situation. The great 20th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Soloveitchik, taught that although we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control howwedeal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The prayer, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who spreads the earth upon the waters” reminds us of the deliberate and precise creation of everything in the physical universe. We know from science that if the earth were any closer to the sun, our world would incinerate and if it was too far, the earth would freeze. Everything is so precise, bespeaking a Creator that has thought out everything and left very little to chance. This blessing causes us to reflect upon the fundamental Jewish teaching that life is purposeful and worthy of taking seriously since nothing, including the world itself, is random.
Prayers and blessings are not only important for appreciating what we have, be it sight, clothing or good health. On a deeper spiritual level, prayer is also necessary to realize
what we don’t have – what we are lacking spiritually. The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of the Lubavitcher movement likens our spiritual existence after the Temple’s destruction, what we call galut (exile), to a person wandering in the dessert thirsty for water. The dessert is a place which forces one to feel a certain lacking. The very reason we were sent into this dessert, the Tzemach Tzedek teaches, is to feel a sense of what is missing in our lives, so we can long for something greater. Praying allows us to feel that lacking because when we pray, it helps us tune in to our souls – the more spiritual part of who we are – and we start to hear the deeper things we long for in life. The prayers refer us to the pain and suffering that exist in our world and to all the people who are in need of healing. When we recognize what’s deeper and we feel that sense of lack, we are drawn closer to Hashem for what we don’t have and for more depth in our often, superficial lives.
Thus, on one hand, prayer helps us realize our blessings but it also makes us aware of where we’re missing, in our closeness to our very source, our Creator. This is why sometimes when a person meets a tzadik – a truly righteous person, they start to cry. When we experience real holiness manifested in another person, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. We often become so focused on success in this world that we forget our ultimate purpose that we were journeying for in the first place. There is a story told of a man traveling to India who learned that his flight had to stopover in France for a few hours. As a result he spent the entire flight learning how to speak French. When the man landed in France he was able to speak, go shopping and have a wonderful experience during the few hour stopover. However, when he arrives in India, the original purpose of his trip, he is completely lost. Prayer help us keep our final destination in mind, so we don’t get too caught up building stopover skills and forget our ultimate purpose.
Thus, prayer and blessings are vital, not only in appreciating what we have today but in remembering why we’ve taken this journey in the first place.
Part Three: The Shema
In my last entry, we discussed the critical role prayer and blessings play in achieving mindfulness. Whether it’s simply thanking God for being alive (by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer upon arising) or that our bodies are functioning properly (ie-the After-Bathroom blessing), Jewish prayer reminds us of our blessings while we have them. This enables us to become more grateful and take joy in what we have, instead of making our happiness depend on what we don’t have.
Another fundamental Jewish practice which can bring about a deep sense of mindfulness, is the Shema. The Shema prayer enables one to contemplate and reflect upon the ultimate reality, God and His oneness. There is an interesting Jewish tradition for a Sofer, a Jewish scribe, when writing the words of the Shema in a Torah scroll, to enlarge two of the letters in the prayer: the Ayin, the last letter in the first word “Shema” (which means “hear”), and the Dalet, the last letter of the last word “Echad” (which means “One”).
The Jewish Sages offer a few explanations for the tradition to enlarge these two letters in the Shema. One explanation is that the letters ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ed or witness for by reciting the Shema we are testifying to the rest of humanity as to our faith in a one God. Another explanation is that the letter ayin is enlarged so it does not resemble or sound like Hebrew letter aleph which would spell shema meaning maybe or perhaps. That would make the Shema declaration sound something like: Perhaps God is one. The Hebrew letter dalit is enlarged so it does not look like its cousin letter, the reish which would spell the Hebrew word acher or “another” (instead of echad, ie-one) implying another God. Ultimately, the ayin and dalet caution us to leave our doubts and hesitations for another time and place.
The Shema is our moment each day to totally envelope ourselves in a belief in something beyond the physical world, in God Himself. As my teacher, the great contemporary scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote in his book on the Shema: “Our tradition makes room for the honest doubter, for without such doubt questions would never be asked, prejudices never challenged, and science would come to a halt. But when are we seriously engaged in prayer, endeavoring to experience the presence of God, it is not the time to entertain intellectual doubts. In prayer, taught R. Nahman of Bratzlav, we must cast aside all our “wisdom” and stand before our Maker as children; to be child-like in prayer is as appropriate as to be skeptical in thought. When seeking to wrest transcendent meaning out of existence and to pull ourselves out of the void, we should not cast ourselves into that very void. Rather, at that sacred moment, we can put our doubts aside and, in all integrity, proclaim the unity of God whole-heartedly.” (The Shema, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, page 17)
The Shema is that moment in our day when we fully commit ourselves to something greater than us; when we accept Hashem into our lives and the privilege of observing His commandments. That is what the Sages refer to as kabablat ol malchut shamayim or receiving the yoke of God’s sovereignty. By saying the Shema we become mindful of God’s mastery over the world and of our responsibility to carry out the mitzvoth of the Torah.
The Shema, however, is also intended to reflect upon God’s oneness. What does that mean exactly and why is it so important to be mindful of God’s Oneness?
Life often seems random. One day we wake up and everything is going well – work is good, your social life is progressing and the next day something changes. You get fired from your job or your girlfriend dumps you. Is it possible the same God, who allows for such goodness one day, can allows for so much to go wrong the next? And that’s just in my life. Multiply that sense of randomness throughout the world, millions of events which take place, both good and bad, that seem to have no rhyme or reason.
Of course, this is how things look from our own limited human perspective. Judaism teaches that in reality, every event which takes place, happens for a reason and is part of greater plan. Things may look random but in reality, everything is coming from one place and is happening for some greater good. That is what we mean when we say God is one. We are not simply expressing our belief in a one God as opposed to multiple Gods, but that there is one source for all of reality and for everything we see in the world.
One way of understanding God’s oneness is to imagine a light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they all emanate from one light. This is why some suggest we cover our eyes when saying the Shema. For when we look out at the world, things appear fragmented and disconnected and so we cover our eyes to block out what appears as random, so we can remember and become mindful there is one source for all reality, one God behind everything which happens in our world and in our lives.
It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of monotheism, the belief in a one God to the rest of the world. It remains our mission to demonstrate that everything we experience, in our world and in our lives, is not accidental or random but an expression of well thought out plan by the one true reality. God willed us into existence for a reason and as such, the events which take place in this world are necessary parts of a greater plan. Saying the Shema everyday keep us mindful of this and allows us to bear testimony to Judaism’s core belief: life has purpose and meaning.
While Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis was struggling through the longest hitless streak in Major League baseball, he received the following letter from a nine-year old boy: “Dear Mr. Davis, There are two things I want you to know. First, the way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are. Also, you are incredible. You’ve played in the MLB. You’ve done it for a long-time and everyone goes through a slump. Don’t give up. We’re rooting for you.”
It’s a sweet story and even more incredible considering the nine-year old, Henry Frasca, was a Boston Red Sox fan!
On a more serious note, can you imagine the pressure Chris Davis must have experienced trying to pull himself out of what probably felt like an endless slump? The baseball player went 62 at-bats without a single hit! Besides the possibility of being fired, I wonder what kind of identity crisis Davis may also have experienced. Professional success in our world today is no longer simply a means of attaining financial stability and it effects younger people in an even more serious way. Writer and activist Melanie Curtin polled 300 of her fellow millennials about self-perception and failure. 67 percent of them said they felt “extreme” pressure to succeed, compared to 40 percent of GenXers and 23 percent of Boomers. The recent spate of wealthy parents who bribed individuals to falsify college admission applications so their children could get into better schools, shows how far people will go to set their children up for professional success.
Success at what we do has become synonymous with success with who we are. Our careers and professional achievements have become a gauge of our self-worth and have come to define our very identity. As a result, there is an enormous pressure to succeed in our careers, lest we are seen by others or worse, we deem ourselves, failures not simply at our jobs, but in life.
This attitude is antithetical to everything Judaism cherishes. In Jewish tradition, our self-worth is formed by the ethical choices we make, the mitzvot we perform and the type of moral and spiritual beings we become. The Torah itself does not seem to have much interest in what we choose for a living or what we pursue as a career. What does interest the Torah is that whatever we do choose, we do with honesty and integrity. We are taught to avoid fraudulent commercial dealings, verbal deception and to have “accurate weights and measures” (Leviticus 19:36). We must ensure our workers are treated with dignity, that they are paid on time, and that we pay our taxes. Those are the aspects of what we do that define who we are – not how far we go in achieving success.
I remember after the movie Ushpizin came out in 2005, we were fortunate to host the lead actors Michal and Shuli Rand. Someone from the audience asked the Chasidic couple whether their decision to not allow movie theaters in Israel to air their film on Shabbat, hurt their success. Shuli answered: “It all depends on what you mean by success. Our success as actors may have decreased but our success as Jews and as people devoted to holiness increased.”
To define who we are existentially by how close we come to reaching our career goals is to negate our true sense of self. The kind of son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, friend, Jew or human being you are – goes so much more to the heart of who we really are than any job or profession.
So, the next time you get frustrated with your job or your career is not progressing as you’d like, do what you can to move things forward but don’t confuse failure at work with failing at life. Just remember what nine-year old Henry Frasca told Chris Davis: “The way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are.”
Main Photo: Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles (Wikimedia)
One of the most inspiring parts of studying Torah and in particular, the Book of Genesis is learning the very real challenges our matriarchs and patriarchs faced in their personnel lives. One of those challenges was having children. All of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, at one time, were unable to have children. In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze, we read about Rachel’s struggle and how she and her beloved Jacob dealt with this situation:
And Rachel saw that she was not bearing children for Jacob and she became jealous of her sister and she said to Jacob: ‘Give me children or I’ll die’. And Jacob becomes angry with Rachel and he says: ‘Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?’
We can understand Rachel’s distress, not being able to bear children, and having to watch her own sister Leah give birth to four sons. And so Rachel’s remark – Give me children or I’ll die – however dramatic, is understandable. However, how can we understand Jacob’s anger at Rachel and his response: Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb? What kind of reaction is this from a righteous person like Jacob to his distressed wife? Where’s the sympathy and compassion? Where’s the love?
The great Nachmanides (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) suggests that Jacob expressed anger because it seemed to Jacob that Rachel believed a righteous person somehow has the power to make anything happen – that all Jacob needed to do was snap his fingers and he could get whatever he wanted from God. it is inconceivable Jacob would not have prayed for Rachel to have a child and so ultimately Jacob’ s prayers had not been answered favorably and Rachel is criticizing him for doing nothing. That is why, suggests Nachmanides, why Jacob answered Rachel by saying that “he was not instead of God” and why he reacted angrily, because he felt Rachel held incorrect views as to the power of prayer of a righteous person.
The Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi of Narbonne, Provence (1160–1235) speaks along similar lines saying that Yaacov got angry with Rachel because Rachel seemed to be attributing powers to Jacob, rather to God.
The Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Isaac Arama, another great Spanish commentator (1420-1494), gave a totally different explanation, a quite progressive one for his time. There are two names mentioned in the Torah for woman “Isha” and “Chava”. “Isha”- which is simply the feminine form of ‘ish”, the Hebrew name for man, teaches us that woman was taken from man and therefore, just like a man must work to advance himself in the intellectual and moral fields, so too must a woman work to advance herself intellectually and morally. The second name given in the Torah for women, Chava, alludes to the power a woman has to bear children. As the verse in the Torah says: And Adam called his wife Chava for she was the mother of all living. Indeed, only a woman can give birth to life.
Jacob got angry, suggests the Akeidat Yitzchak, because by saying: Give me children or I’ll die Rachel was denying the isha aspect of her personality, the part of womanhood that is the same as man, implying that because she couldn’t have children there was no other value to her existence. As important as the Torah views having children, bearing children does not completely define the purpose of womanhood. There is another dimension to womanhood, namely, to advance oneself intellectually, morally, spiritually as any man’s goal is in life. This of course is not to negate the absolute significance and importance of having children, just to teach that it alone does not define womanhood.
Ruth B. Wildes z”l (1939-1995) (Courtesy)
My mother, whose 24th Yahrtzeit I am now observing, viewed her role as a mother as central to her existence. She absolutely loved being a mother and took that role seriously and she held it with great pride. She was one of those mothers who couldn’t stop talking about her children, so much so, my brother and I used to call her our walking resumes. At the same time, she was actively involved in developing herself spiritually and in building up the community in which she lived.
My mother was a very religious and spiritual person. She loved to study and to learn, always running to Torah classes and always urging our father to learn with my brother and myself, which he always did and which we thankfully continue to this day. She loved to pray regularly. She had a book of Tehilim (Psalms) by her bedside. I remember when she got sick and was having a hard time concentrating, I told her she was exempt from praying because of her medical condition. I realized quickly that advise was of no help to her because she needed to pray. She needed to feel that connection with God with whom she felt so close.
My mother was also a great leader in the community. In the late 1970’s/80’s she helped resettle thousands of Soviet Jews who moved into Forest Hills, our neighborhood in Queens, NY. She ran around collecting furniture, clothing and helping countless families settle into our community. And she was such a gracious host, opening her home on Shabbat to friends and strangers alike. My first rabbi gig was in Forest Hills, at The Queens Jewish Center where I ran a Beginners Service every Shabbat. I was single, and so almost on a regular Shabbat basis, I’d bring people home to my family so they could see how my mother made Shabbos. She had this winner combination of warmth and elegance which she brilliantly used to make people feel at home. She inspired many Jews to share her love for Shabbat and ultimately for Yiddishkeite, which is why we dedicated MJE in her memory – to perpetuate the kindness she regularly practiced, the chesed she did for so many individuals in our community.
MJE has followed her model, opening its doors to tens of thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and like our mother, sharing Shabbat and the power of the Jewish community with all, creating a venue in which 323 couples have met and married! My mother would have been especially proud of that accomplishment.
She was both a “Chava” – an amazing mother but also an “Isha” – someone who advanced herself morally and spiritually and helped so many others do the same. In a day and age where woman are thankfully given great opportunities than ever before but also struggling to find the right balance, my mother serves as an example of successfully combining the different aspects of womanhood. May her memory serve as blessing.
A crisis can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. Within twenty-four hours of the horrific attack on the synagogue in Monsey, Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the rabbi of the shul, was back with his congregation celebrating the next night of Chanukah. I was also moved by how large of a gathering there was at the MetLife stadium Siyum Hashas, the event commemorating the completion of the seven-year Talmud study cycle. Given the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York and New Jersey area, it is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish community that no-one was actually deterred from going. One of the security officials remarked that he had never seen so many attendees at MetLife Stadium before, including the many football games he has covered! The head of security, charged with protecting the 95,000 Siyum attendees, shared that never before had his troopers been recipients of so much gratitude. The sheer number of people who approached individual officers to express their thanks was overwhelming.
I’m hopeful that the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks will have the positive effect of creating greater unity in the community – something I felt yesterday marching across the Brooklyn bridge with tens of thousands of Jews of all stripes, chanting Am Yisrael Chai! It reminded me of my High School and College years when we marched for Soviet Jewry. The different groups in the Jewish community were able to put their ideological differences aside and come together to help their brethren behind the iron curtain. We are again presented with the same opportunity today. The Jewish community has a long list of enemies, some of them are to the far right, some on the extreme left, some are domestic terrorists and some foreign, but they all have same thing in common: they don’t care about our particular ideology or outlook. The only reason why ultra-orthodox Jews have been targeted is because they look Jewish and are more easily identified as such, but make no mistake: these attacks are on all Jews – irrespective of our particular orientation or denomination.
Our primary focus must be to combat the rise in anti-Semitism, but we must also recognize the opportunity for Jewish unity that this crisis presents. It was this kind of unity that recently helped defeat Jeremy Corbyn of England’s Labor party. Corbyn’s extreme hatred of Jews reawakened many unaffiliated Jews in Great Britain who joined with others to help bring about a stunning defeat of England’s Labor party.
Anti-Semitism has long been an impetus for reawakening Jewish people towards their traditions as well as inspiring unity amongst different groups. One of the greatest biblical examples of this is the Purim story, the next Jewish holiday we will observe. Haman’s attempted genocidal campaign against Persian Jewry motivated assimilated Jews to heed Esther’s call for a spiritual return to Judaism and it also inspired an unprecedented level of Jewish unity. It is that unity we celebrate each year on the holiday of Purim by sending baskets of food to one another and offering gifts to the poor.
Our immediate attention must be turned to defending ourselves, on working with law enforcement to fortify our synagogues and protect our places of worship. Our sweetest revenge though will be found in something much deeper: in using these attacks, as much as we must work to prevent them, to unite and bind ourselves to one another and to Judaism itself. If we can bring about this kind of positive outcome from these otherwise awful attacks, we will not only defeat our enemies but become stronger than ever.
While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.
Before Moshe’s experience at the burning bush, when he has his first encounter with God, and before we see Moshe become Israel’s greatest prophet, through whom our Torah is given, we are introduced to the personality of Moshe through three dramatic stories.
In the first story, Moshe sees a fellow Jew being beaten mercilessly by an Egyptian officer. He stands up for the Jew and kills the Egyptian. In the second incident, Moshe sees two Jews fighting and says to the offending party: why do you strike your fellow? (Exodus 2:13). Finally, after he escapes to Midian, Moshe comes across the daughters of Yitro who are at the well drawing water for their father’s flock. A group of shepherds come and begin to harass them, driving them away. Moshe sees this injustice and rises to their defense, chasing the men away and watering the women’s flock.
In each situation, we see Moshe saving the victim from an oppressor, but as the great scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained, these incidents are not simply three random experiences but a progression: from intervening in a clash between a non-Jew and a Jew, to a conflict between two Jews and then to an incident between two non-Jews. Had we been only told of the first clash, we might have thought Moshe was motivated by solidarity with his own people rather than by justice, and had we been presented only with the second incident, we would still have our doubts since that incident was between two Jews. However, the third incident — where both the attacker and victim were not Jewish, shows how Moshe was motivated by a pure sense of justice for all victimized people.
The Torah is making a powerful point: even before Moshe could receive revelation from God at the burning bush and before he could become the prophet through whom the Torah would be given, he had to first have a sense of empathy for others. A sense of justice for the victim of oppression. This is the first thing the Torah wishes us to learn from Judaism’s greatest prophet: to cultivate a sensitivity for those in vulnerable positions, for those who are weaker and who are being taken advantage of by those in positions of power because of that weakness or vulnerability. Whether this abuse takes place in the workplace or on a date, the Torah wishes us to learn from Moshe and become sensitive to this kind of abuse.
We saw this just a few Torah portions ago, when Joseph was a young and handsome but vulnerable servant in the house of Potifar. Joseph becomes the object of Potifar’s wife relentless sexual advances. Although Yosef heroically refuses these advances, because of his weaker position, he is thrown into jail. As you can see, sexual harassment in the workplace has been going on for a long time, but in the last few years, we have seen a real pushback. People in more vulnerable positions have been speaking up, jeopardizing their status in order to protect themselves or others and ultimately to promote a greater sense of justice in the workplace and elsewhere.
MJE has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and we are leading by example. Like in most companies today, our entire staff has been through sexual harassment training and we are in the process of joining the SRE (Safety, Respect Equity) Coalition, a Jewish group which addresses sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But just as important is what happens here in our program space at MJE, the steps we take to create a safe environment here in our spiritual home. We have had a few instances in which participants have approached staff members and expressed they have been made to feel uncomfortable,
and in some cases unsafe. We have taken these complaints seriously, conducted thorough investigations and in some cases have had to exclude and ban some individuals from MJE.
While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.
The first line of our new code of conduct starts with the words: “MJE is committed to creating an environment that exemplifies Jewish values such a Kavod Habriyot (Human dignity) and the Talmud’s teaching of Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Bazeh – “All Israel is responsible for one another”. Those two Jewish concepts, along with the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, should inspire us to first ensure we all act in a manner consistent with these values. Second, if something happens to you or to someone else, please bring the matter to our attention. I would encourage you to do the same in other environments, even if it means calling out a colleague, which can often place you in a more difficult position. We see Moshe doing exactly this, also in this week’s Parsha. In each progressive situation, it actually gets harder for Moshe to intervene. When he kills the Egyptian, he is at least a citizen of that country. He has some standing, having grown up in the house of Pharoh and it is a clear a cut situation with a villain and a victim. The second situation is a bit more murky – you have two people fighting – who is right who is wrong? It is a “he said, she said” situation. And in the third instance, Moshe’s really out on a limb. He’s living in Midian as a refugee, having fled Egypt, and therefore has no standing when he confronts the shepherds harassing the Midianite women. There’s literally a bounty on his head, and so the last thing Moshe wants to do is get involved in a fight, but he does.
No one wants to be the whistleblower, but it is vital to say something when we see something, whether it is in the workplace or it’s right here on Shabbat at the kiddush following services. The very dignity and sanctity of our community is at stake and on the individual level it goes even deeper.
On the emotional and psychological level, I don’t have to tell you how detrimental these abuses of power can impact our basic sense of self – on how we look at ourselves. Victims of sexual abuse and even harassment can be scarred for life. On the existential and spiritual level, the damage is no less severe. We are all endowed with the tzelem Elokim – the divine spark which our Sages teach is extraordinarily sensitive to breaches in our tzniut, to our sense of modesty and sexual propriety.
This area gets very complicated when the breach in sexuality takes place between two consenting adults in a relationship or adults exploring a relationship. I have been called in on a number of such situations and have tried to help, first by ensuring that the complaining party is safe, and second, by impressing upon the other party that no means no, even if there’s a relationship.
I would be remiss as a rabbi though if I didn’t also share the Torah’s unique approach to dating, the kinds of boundaries the Torah sets up, which are not easy to observe in modernity, but can be helpful in avoiding some of these situations. There are two halachot (Jewish laws), both of which may sound archaic and outdated, but make a lot of sense practically and which on a spiritual level help maintain the holiness and integrity of our relationships. The first halacha is referred to as Yichud: the prohibition of an unmarried couple to be enclosed in a locked room. Some of us have heard of the “Yichud room”, the special room designated for the bride and groom immediately after the Chupah wedding ceremony. The couple spend their first few minutes of marriage alone in an enclosed room, to demonstrate they are now husband and wife since they can now finally be alone in an enclosed room. The second area of halacha, commonly referred to as being Shomer Negiah, proscribes physical contact between men and women before marriage. The main idea behind these two areas of halacha, to be followed by men and women alike, is to dial down the physical until a total commitment has been made through marriage. Physical attraction is an important element for marriage but abstaining from physical contact prior to marriage allows the courting couple to focus on the other’s personality. This helps the couple maintain clarity on whether the other is a suitable mate and also helps ensure they relates to each other in the most dignified manner.
To be sure, this sensitivity continues after the couple is married. The tendency we have as sexual beings to look at each other in purely physical terms, does not end when one gets married. This is why the Torah has a whole system of law called Taharat Hamishpacha (the laws of Family Purity), which are intended to elevate the sexual intimacy for the married couple. This again helps the couple relate to each other as more than just physical beings. Please do not misunderstand. Judaism does not deny the physical or sexual. Quite the contrary. Judaism, through these traditions, aims to elevate and sanctify the sexual urge, utilizing it to deepen the commitment between husband and wife.
I realize that in our society, as people remain single longer, the halchot of Yichud and Shomer Negiah seem less realistic to observe. However, they remain an integral part of Jewish tradition which I believe can serve as a preventative for some of the harassment situations arising today. Not all, but some. In addition, and as you’ve all heard me say many times, Judaism is not an all or nothing proposition. Even if one chooses not to follow these halachot, either because one finds them too difficult or unrealistic, one would be well advised to incorporate some of these laws and attitudes into ones dating life. To think twice before allowing the door to be locked; to be more careful about whom we choose to be with and how soon in the relationship we allow things to get physical. Also, to be mindful of how much alcohol gets consumed, because as I’ve seen, that often exacerbates some of these situations.
I want to be clear on two things. First, these traditions are not the responsibility of women alone, but equally binding and important for men and women alike. Second, this is not about blaming the victim, God forbid. I share these halachot because they are from our Torah and I strongly believe that to whatever degree we can incorporate them into our dating life, they will help us create healthy boundaries and a more positive and uplifting environment in which we can all operate more freely. Finally, the laws of Yichud and Negiah apply not just to people who date but to all of our interactions between men and women, for example to our work colleagues and friends. We must learn to relate to all members of the opposite sex with respect, dignity and sanctity.
In our prayers each morning we recite the famous line from the Torah: “How good are your tents O’Jacob, your dwelling place O’Israel” (Numbers 24:5). This beautiful verse was uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam as he stood over the Jewish camp in the wilderness, attempting to curse it. Our Sages teach that when Bilam noticed that the opening of each Jewish tent never faced the opening of another, he was impressed and inspired by the respect and modesty which he saw in the Jewish community. Let’s reclaim that sanctity for our community and follow the example of Moses our teacher, as we together confront harassment and the abuse of power by affirming the dignity and holiness of every individual.
The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.
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