Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Little Stranger, Don't Try To Hide Now You Look So Young And You're Afraid (John Barlow & Brent Mydland - "Easy To Love You"

For the past several weeks, there have been two images of Jews that have provided our family with valuable lessons in what it means to be Jewish, American and Canadian. The first image is a 31 year old Jewish man from Santa Monica, California, author of a Presidential Executive Order otherwise termed "The Muslim Travel Ban" that was blocked by the 9th Circuit Court. This Jewish White House advisor recently appeared on all those Sunday morning news shows telling us that immigrants are murderers and the promised a return to nativist glory days just so long as we never question the president and accept that the President determines truth. This image of stands in stark contrast to a Chicago Rabbi and his son marching at an airport demonstration against the Muslim travel ban. There is a picture that has gone viral of the Rabbi’s son (whose grandparents are part of the shul community) sitting atop his father's shoulders reaching out to a little Muslim girl sitting atop her father’s shoulders. The Rabbi and the son each hold signs that said: “We’ve Seen This Before. Never Again. Jews Against The Ban”, and “Hate Has No Home Here”.  In our home, as we watched the demonstrations at numerous airports, as we listened to words and watched the deeds of these two Jewish men, I asked our children which of these two Jewish men embody Torah, embody Jewish values either through deeds or words. Our children listened to the words, they saw the images, they read the signs, and they thought about Moses, the Exodus, and being slaves in Egypt. They thought about much more recent history: the Holocaust, the immigration quotas that prevented Jews from entering the United States immediately before the war, the internment of Japanese Americans during the War, and awareness that we are “immigrants” to Canada.
This week we read from Parsha Mishpatim. Moshe is still at Mt. Sinai. However the revelation that occurred with the giving of the Aseret Dibrot (Ten Commandments) is long gone. Instead, God has now started giving Moshe numerous laws that affect the day to day issues raised by human interaction. There is no shofar blowing, there is no anticipation of meeting God at the mountain. Rather there is only God telling Moshe how to decide various legal matters including the damages to be paid if my ox gores your ox; two men are fighting near a pregnant woman and she gets hurt,   and how to treat to a Jewish servant, observing festivals, the issues of liability for those who are asked to safeguard another’s property as well as manslaughter, to name just a few of the fifty three commandments (according to the Sefer HaChinuch).  Moshe tells these laws to B’nai Yisroel and they respond with the words Naaseh v’Nishmah – we will do and learn.  The Parsha concludes with glowing fire upon the Mountain that Moshe ascends once again.
Following the awe inspiring revelation at Sinai in Parsha Yitro, it might seem like a spiritual let down as we read of one law after another and the mundane rules that are established to govern human interaction. However buried beneath these rules and regulations God reminds Moshe of the foundations upon which these executive orders are based.  V’Ger Lo Toneh  V’Lo TilChatzenu Ki Geirim Heyitem B’Eretz Mitzrayim You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Talmudic Sages in Baba Metzia 59b reminds us that the Torah cautions us regarding our treatment of the stranger no less than thirty six times. No other “executive order”, no other commandment, loving God, Shabbat, circumcision, forbidden foods, uttering a falsehood occurs as frequently loving the stranger or refrain from oppressing the stranger.  The Talmudic sages understand this commandment in terms of the “stranger” (the idol worshipper turned proselyte). When the “stranger” ceases worshipping idols and begins the process of Torah study; no one oppress, mock or demean his origins. Later Medieval Commentators explain that the “stranger” is not only an idol worshipper turned proselyte, in other words, the spiritually defenseless. The “stranger” is the economically defenseless as well. RaShBam (11th Century French commentator and Rashi’s nephew) clarifies “Do not oppress him” to do your work since he has no champion. RaMBaM, the great Spanish commentator, adds a caveat to RaShBam. God defends the defenseless. God protects the widows and the orphans. In the previous Parsha, Yitro, God reminded Moshe to tell B’nai Yisroel that they were to be a Nation of Priests, that is to say, B’nai Yisroel is supposed embody Godliness here on earth. Caring for the stranger embodies Godliness. Failure to care for the stranger embodies the Egyptians. 

Underlying the mundane concern of human relations lies the most profound and awe-inspiring idea. A group of former slaves can either embody the holiness of God or it can embody the corruption and the evil of their former task masters.  A Chicago Rabbi and his son, demonstrating at O’Hare Airport, embody the fulfillment of the commandment. A Jewish White House Advisor who grew up in a non-observant Southern California home, forgot that his ancestors were once slaves in Egypt. He apparently forgot that his maternal grandparents were Eastern European immigrants that came before the War and settled in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. One understands his roots and his peoples’ roots and one doesn’t care or appreciate his roots or his people’s roots. Thankfully, our children can see this commandment and this Torah lesson play out in real time and learn the lesson of the Chicago Rabbi and the White House aid.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I Can Tell Your Future, Whoa Just Look What's In Your Hand (Robert Hunter, Bob Weir & Mickey Hart - "Playing In The Band")

Well it is a big holiday weekend for North America. In the United States it is President’s Day Weekend. This is the weekend that the United States celebrates the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the first and sixteenth Presidents respectively. Here in Toronto, we are celebrating Family Day Weekend.  Given the state of the U.S. Presidency; my family is more than happy to be celebrating Family Day Weekend. To enhance our Family Day Weekend, our eldest daughter decided to spend the long weekend with us. Besides the excitement of their oldest sister coming home to visit; there has been quite a bit of tumult in our house. Our high school age daughters had to pick their courses for the upcoming school year. One of the factors that our daughters needed to consider was their anticipated  college/university major. Their school guidance counselor suggested that they ought to think about what they might be interested in terms of academic study  as well as a career. As a result,  all week the anxiety and the concern about the future has been palpable. “What am I going to do with my life?” “I need to know now what I am doing for the rest of my life.”  Our daughters  grew more overwhelmed with the future, our son chimed in and reassured us that we didn’t have to worry about him. "I just wanted to be wealthy enough to afford a Porsche, and a mansion." That was a real load of my mind. For our daughters, however,  no simple advice or mantra diminished their anxiety. “Keep your options open”, “Choose your courses based on your interests", "Choose your courses based upon the instructor”, “Stop worrying, you will change your mind fifteen times between now and when you declare a major during your second year of college”. Of course our daughters greeted my advice with disdain.  "Dad, you don’t know what you are talking about", " Maybe that's what it was like a long time ago when you were a kid." "Well you grew up in the U.S., welcome to Canada, its very different here." To a certain extent my daughters are right. I am old; I grew up in a different educational system and from their perspective I probably am too stupid to help them. However as a parent, I look at my children, all my children sitting and talking and laughing and I wonder about their future, their impact upon all that they encounter, their neighborhood, their community, and the lives that they will eventually touch.
This week's Parsha is Yitro. Named after Moshe's father in-law, who happens to be a Midianite priest, the Parsha begins with Moshe leading B'nai Israel toward the wilderness of Midian. In this wilderness, Moshe meets up with his father in-law, his wife and his two sons. After spending some time with his son-in-law, Yitro sees Moshe working very long days as a judge and growing exhausted and worn down. Yitro suggests a legal bureaucracy whereby others adjudicate the small everyday legal issues. More difficult legal issues would be adjudicated by Moshe.  God commands Moshe to bring B'nai Israel to Mt. Sinai. For three days they will purify themselves, clean their clothes, not have marital relations, and purify their souls for a revelation. Smoke emanates from Mt. Sinai and thunder billows from the heavens, God begins to speak. Fear and awe grip B'nai Israel, and they beg Moshe to go up the mountain as their Shaliach (appointed messenger). Moshe ascends the mountain and receives the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments). Then Moshe descends from the mountain. Upon his descent he tells B'nai Israel the Aseret HaDibrot. The Parsha concludes with B'nai Israel readily accepting the Ten Commandments, Moshe re-assures the people not to fear the thunder and the flames, God attests to the fact that B'nai Israel accepted these commandments, and then commands Moshe to build and altar of earth.
                Prior to the actual Revelation and giving the Aseret HaDibrot, and prior to the instructions for B’nai Israel to prepare for the revelation at Sinai, God shares an incredibly intimate moment with Moshe. God shares his hopes for the new relationship and his hopes for the impact this revelation will have upon B’nai Israel and all humanity. V’Atah Im Shamoah Tishmu B’Koli Ushmartem et Britit Vi’HiYitem Li Segulah MiKol Ha’Amim Ki Li Kol Ha’Aretz. And now, if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for mine is the entire world.  V’Atem TiHeYu Li Mamlechet KoHanim V’Goy KadoshYou shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers (priests) and a holy nation. R’Ovadia Sforno, the Italian Renaissance Rabbi and biblical commentator, explains that a ‘nation of priests/ministers’ understands and teaches the entire human race that all shall acknowledge God. It appears that God looks to B’nai Israel and sees potential. God explains that Israel's “treasured nation” status is a function of its mission. B’nai Israel will bring The Aseret HaDibrot,  the words and the teachings that accompany these Ten Commandments to all of humanity. B'nai Israel behavior and observance will elevate the words and deeds to a higher degree of holiness. Sforno explains that as long as B’nai Israel adheres to the covenant and brings these teachings to the world, it will remain an Am Kadosh, a Holy Nation that will remain constant in this world. Even before the actual revelation, God empowers these former slaves. God establishes more than just a convenient with B’nai Israel. God links a sense of purpose a mission by instructing these spiritual “Children” to make a difference in the world, to impact the world for goodness and holiness.
                Yes, seeing all my children together, talking and laughing with each other gives me pause. One child isn't a child anymore; she is an adult. Two teenager daughters are in high school anxious about life's choices. Indeed, they have become aware that the world is full of possibilities,  and that they can have an impact on their community. Finally one prepares for Bar Mitzvah and afterward, I assume he will begin working towards that Porsche he talks about . As I watch them, I worry and I wonder how well they have learned the lessons that their mother and I have tried to imbue upon them. Will they be guided by a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, a desire to do “good” in the world? Will they be guided by a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, to make a difference, to elevate the world in holiness (or at least that part of the world that they touch)? I watch my children, I smile and I wonder about their future, their decisions and whether they will bring their light and their learning to all they encounter.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

We're Standing On The Beach, The Sea Will Part Before Me (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Estimated Prophet)

Shabbat has now entered the mainstream media and press. In numerous articles and a number of newscasts, the press has arrived at a fascinating and powerful realization.. Our children and their friends have been talking about Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and the fact that “Shabbat” has effected the Whitehouse and the world. The theory is fascinating and even made it to Saturday Night Live. All week Jared Kushner as at the side of his father – in- law.  However late Friday afternoon, Jared leaves his White House job as an advisor to the President and return home for Shabbat. He doesn’t deal with his Father-in-law until after Shabbat. Well, the chaos of the President’s controversial Executive Order regarding travel, immigration and vetting from seven Muslim countries was signed around 6 pm on a Friday evening, when Jared had left for Shabbat. The week after the Executive Order, on Shabbat, the President angrily tweeted about “so called judges” deciding issues of national security. The week before, on Shabbat, President angrily commented and tweeted that his inauguration was the most well attended, and anyone who had contradicting evidence was lying. It seems that when Jared leaves work for Shabbat, the President stops following appropriate channels and following the necessary protocols that allow a democratically elect leader to govern in a low maintenance minimally dramatic manner.  It seems that when Jared leaves for Shabbat, there is no one who can tamp down the President’s anger and frustration. 
This Shabbat we read form Parsha Beshallach This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Songs) because of the "songs" or poetry in both the Parsha, Beshallach, and in the Haftarah. In Parsha Beshallach, B'nai Yisroel finally leaves Egypt. Pharaoh sends them out and they hurriedly leave. Three days later, B'nai Yisroel arrives at the Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, which is along the Mediterranean coast. With Pharaoh's army behind them, and the Sea in front, B'nai Yisroel is trapped. Then the sea opens up, B'nai Yisroel crosses through and arrives safely on the other side. The Egyptian army gets caught in the sea - bed as the waters comes crashing down. Out of joy and relief, B'nai Yisroel composes Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. No sooner are they finished celebrating, then they begin complaining about the lack of water and food. God provides water and Manna. However, B'nai Yisroel is still not safe. Now they are attacked by the indigenous tribe, the Amalekites. B'nai Yisroel must put aside its hunger and thirst and fight for their lives. They do, and they are victorious. The Parsha ends with God commanding Moshe to blot out the very existence of the Amalekites.
As the tragic effects of the Tenth Plague wear off, the first born are buried and mourned, Pharaoh, his servants and his noble class, regret VaYehi B’Shallach Paro Et Ha’Amthat Pharoah sent the slaves out and they were now making their way towards freedom. So what did Pharaoh do? How did he respond? In a rather  innocuous statement, the Torah states: VaYesor et Richbo V’Et Amo Lakach ImoHe made ready his chariot and took his people with him   VaYikach Sheis Meiot Rechev Bachur V’CHol Rechev Mitzrayim V’SHalishim Al KuloHe took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt and captains over all of them.  However this very simple sentence ‘he made ready his chariot’ has far deeper implications that a many hitching his horses to his chariot.  Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator crytically states: Hu B’AtzmoHe himself readied his horses and hitched the royal horses to the royal chariot. Rashi’s cryptical comment is based upon a far more ancient comment dating back from the Talmudic Rabbis in Breishit Rabbah stating that hatred disrupts protocol. Pharaoh had servants to prepare the chariot, why didn’t they do their job? The Mechilta clarifies Breishit Rabbah’s concern. Kings usually stand by while others prepare their chariots and harness it. Pharoah was so angered, so wicked that he did so himself. Once the generals and the courtiers saw Pharaoh preparing his own chariot they did the same. They didn’t discuss strategy, they didn’t formulate a plan. Pharaoh’s anger burned so uncontrollably that he didn’t think; he just impulsively responded, and the results were disastrous.
Literally, Pharoah required a horse-whisperer; someone to calmly talk him down from his rage. However Pharaoh’s rule was absolute, and without a “horse whisperer” without a trusted advisor who could “talk him down” this absolute ruler, this most powerful man in the ancient world, arrogantly and mistakenly led his army into the Reed Sea and suffer an ignominious defeat at the hands of Hebrew slaves and God.  As our children continue to watch the news, hear newscasters and news commentators continue to mention “Shabbat” and as the “Shabbat” continues to become part of the mainstream cultural lexicon; we can only hope that Jared can figure out a way diminish his father in law’s anger, rage and frustration and follow process and protocol.

Rav Yitz