Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Just Like A Deaf Man Dancin'; Like A Blind Man Shootin' Pool; Heaven Help The Fool (John Barlow & Bob Weir "Heaven Help The Fool")

          This past Saturday night, and for the 48 hours that followed on into Monday, I had the same sickening feeling in my stomach that I a little over fifteen years ago with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its immediate aftermath. While in the movie, my cellphone vibrated, a New York Times breaking news stated that a bomb had exploded in the Chelsea section of New York City. I watched and listened to the news all day on Sunday, and on Monday. No, thankfully this was not 9/11 all over again. Because this is an election year, as the investigation unfolded, the story became political and in a sense a political referendum on the Hilary Clinton’s candidacy and Donald Trump’s candidacy. Perhaps the most ridiculous, dangerous and saddest comment came from Donald Trump during a rally in Fort Meyers, Florida, “If you choose Donald Trump, these problems are going to go away, far far greater than anyone would think, believe me.”  Really? Is he serious or just speaking in Trump hyperbole? “If you choose Donald Trump, these problems are going away….” I get it. All I have to do is pull the lever for Trump and poof, no more threat of terrorism, no more fear of terrorism, no more anxiety caused by terrorism. Just pulling that little lever in the voting booth will make all the trouble in the world go away. As ridiculous as Trump’s comments were, something incredibly sad simultaneously took place there at that rally. It is something that takes place everywhere Trump speaks. Those in attendance clap, cheer, nod their heads and actually believe him and his words. They lap it up as someone who had been in a desert without water for days and days. They cheer and scream and look as if they have been shown some type of light even if that light is the darkness of hatred, fear and ignorance.
This week's Parsha, is Ki Tavoh. For the past several Parshiot, Moshe has been listing and explaining all the precepts and laws. Last week's Parsha, and the first part of Ki Tavoh explains the rewards. We will inherit the land; we will keep the land. Our enemies will be rendered weak. We will be fruitful and multiply. However the second half of the Parshah explains all the curses that would befall us if we neglect to observe these laws. Every curse, of course, is the diametric opposite the previous blessings. So if we were promised bountiful harvests and many children, then our curse will be drought, famine, and bareness. Traditionally, the Aliyot that contain the curses are read in a softer voice. However as horrible as these curses are, we must understand that it is up to us. We can either follow these laws or not, and as a result we will bear the consequences of our actions. This is not necessarily a bad lesson for us as well as our children to learn. We are responsible for our actions, and we must bear responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
            One of the curses is most poignant in light of listening to Trump.  Arur Mashgeh Iveir Ba'Derech, Va'Amar Kol Ha'Am Amen - Accursed is one who causes a blind person to go astray on the road. And the entire nation said 'Amen" (Deut 27:18). If we read this literally then we are talking about a guide or a seeing-eye dog that would lead the blind astray. However this curse is symbolic. We know that Torah is a light and the word Derech (way) is usually in combination with the Way of the Lord (God's Laws). On a metaphorical level, the curse is upon those leaders of a community that causes the less knowledgeable to go astray. If that knowledge causes those who are blind (re: those who are in the dark or without light) to go astray, then that leader should be cursed. Implicit to that statement is that the one who causes the blind to go astray sees the light, has knowledge and teaches or guides the community away from God.          
            Our Talmudic Sages offer an Agadah about the teachers/Rabbis who were the leaders of their communities. "If there are two teachers, one who covers much ground but is not exact, and one who does not cover much ground but is exact, Rav Dimi b. Nehardea maintained that the one who is exact and does not cover much ground is to be appointed. The reason? A mistake once implanted (in the mind or in behavior) remains [a mistake]. (Talmud Baba Batrah 21a-b). The Talmudic sages essentially understood the first rule in education. It is terribly difficult to undo that which has already been incorrectly taught.  It appears that the Talmudic Sages also understood quite a bit about Presidential campaign politics as well.

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Well My Mama Told Me, My Papa Told Me Too (Noah Lewis - "Big Railroad Blues")

Well, our sixteen year old just received her G1 Driver’s License or in America, she just received her Driver’s Permit. Of course on the day she passed her written test, her mother and I congratulated her. Her mom told her how proud she was of her. However, I was a bit more understated about praising and congratulating her. I knew that I was the one who would take her driving in between driving lessons with a certified driving instructor. As we drove home, I asked if she wanted to drive in a nearby empty parking lot. She enthusiastically said yes. We arrived at the parking lot, switched seats and she sat in the driver’s seat while tightly gripping the wheel. Then I gave her the talk, a talk that I am sure my father gave me. Driving is an enormous responsibility, it is a weapon that can kill people. I piled it on and explained that her behavior would demonstrate if she was ready to handle that kind of responsibility. As a parent, I had tremendous leverage. If she wanted me to take her driving, there wouldn’t be the typical teenage attitude and fresh mouth that drives me and my wife crazy. If she wanted to drive, would have to be more responsible regarding caring for her room, household chores and how she spoke to her parents and sibling. If she wanted me to take her driving, there would be minimal teenage rebelliousness. I am not quite sure my plan is working out the way I anticipated.
This Shabbat, we read Parsha Ki Teitzeh. Moshe teaches us the laws concerning war, creating an environment for soldiers to behave as honorably as possible. We learn that everyone, whether “loved” or “hated” has rights under the law as well as entitlements. We learn that every one of us is responsible for the other. If we see something that has been lost by our neighbor then we pick it up and return it. Moshe re-iterates that human relationships can either be holy, between a husband and wife, and between parents and children or unholy by crossing the boundaries of those relationships. Moshe reminds the people that children will not be punished for the sins of their parents, nor will parents be punished as a result of their children. In such a situation there would be no need to add punishment since the parents of the child or the children of the parent would be punished enough just having been touch by the situation. Essentially this morning’s Parsha is all about human relationships designed to maintain individual holiness as well as communal holiness.
            So it is troubling that we are confronted with one of the most controversial commandments of the Torah. Ki Yiheyeh L’Ish Bein Sorer U’Moreh Einenu Shomeiah B’kol Aviv U’vkol Imo, If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother V’Yisru Oto v’Lo Yishmah Aleihem and they discipline him, but he does not hearken to them, then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city and the gate of his place. They shall say to the elders of the city, B’Neinu zeh Sorer U MorehThis son of ours is wayward and rebellious, he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die; U’viarta HaRah Mikirbecha and you shall remove the evil from your midst (Deut. 21:18-21). The literal meaning of the verses suggests that in the extreme case of an evil child who is beyond help, continues to cling to evil the ways while  the rest of the community clings to holiness, such a child must be eliminated. However, we understand that somethings in the Torah are not to be understood literally. For the Talmudic sages, this was one of those cases.
The Talmud makes the point that “there never was nor will there ever be” a child to be put to death based upon this law. Rashi, the 11th century Northern French commentator, explains these verses in two ways. First, Rashi clarifies and quantifies the Zoleil v’Soveiglutton and guzzler as Yochal Tateimar Basar V’Yishteh Chatzi Log Yayin – as one who eats 8oz. of meat in one or two bites and drinks between 12-21 fluid ounces in a single gulp and Ad Yignov and will steal to support his habit. Second, Rashi explains that this rebellious son must be warned twice that his behavior is in opposition to Halacha (Jewish Law). Otherwise the Rebellious son is not liable for punishment. In his comment, Rashi implicitly suggests what the Talmud explicitly teaches. Neither Moshe, or the Talmudic sages could imagine a child purposefully ignoring his parents and begin thieving, drinking, doing drugs, or demonstrating gluttonous behavior, that is to say, doing too much of whatever they want without regard for anything or anyone. Moshe, in his re-iteration of the Torah, teaches that the parents are the responsible. It is their obligation to bring the child to the Bet Din (the court), and when the parents can no longer live up to that obligation, then society must take over. The question becomes how does a child become a Sorer U’Moreh? Children are not born wayward nor rebellious. Children are not born gluttonous and drunk. There may be a genetic disposition to obsessive compulsive behavior or addiction, but before a child becomes an adult and responsible for him/herself, the parents bear a responsibility for the social and emotional development of that child.
No, none of our children are like Ben Sorer U’Moreh- the gluttonous rebellious son. Although they strike me as a bit gluttonous when it comes to use of their phones and IPods. Yes, sometimes it feels like a never ending fight to make sure that we enforce our household rules, rules which are designed to prevent them from becoming Sorer U’Moreh. As we watch our daughter negotiate the landscape with this added leverage/desire to drive; she has started to see our wisdom and appreciate our methods. She has started to understand that our rules and our talks are a result of our concern with the type of person she might or might not become rather than what she is. As I sit in the passenger seat, and she adjusts the seat and mirrors, presses down on the break and begins to shift gears, she looks over at me and thanks me for all the rules, for the high expectations, for the instilling in her a sense of responsibility as well as consequences for her behavior. Then she turns to look straight ahead and begins to slowly drive as she has a look on her face that recognizes the fact that there is several tons of responsibility in her hands.
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

All The Years Combine, They Melt Into A Dream, A Broken Angel Sings (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Stella Blue")

Well Labour Day came and went and with it so did my birthday. Yep another year gone. More gray hair added. I have never been a big fan of birthdays. I always like to spend them quietly. While some in my family prefer some extraordinary family activity or party, I prefer a round of golf, sitting by a swimming pool reading a book while my kids swim and then grilling some steaks and eating dinner outside with my wife and children. Usually during golf while I am admiring the scenic beauty, or while I watch my children playing in the pool, or while I am grilling dinner; I have an opportunity for a bit of self-reflection. I think about successes and failures, I think about what my plans were after college and where I am in terms of those plans. Have I realized any of my goals? Am I on course, off course? With the right trajectory? Thirty years later, have I accomplished anything? On one level, the self- reflection exercise can be pretty brutal. There are times I feel like a complete failure save for my family.  There when I seriously wonder if I measure up to the standards that I set for myself way back when. For a moment this self- reflection on my Birthday can be really quite depressing. Sometimes there is a moment of contentment. Not only is this normal, but it is very healthy to examine the ideal of a person’s life, with the reality of that life.
            This week’s Parsha is Shoftim. Moshe has completed his lecture on the values of monotheism and covenant. Now he begins telling B'nai Yisroel all the nitty gritty details of living a Jewish life within this community. What a downer! B’nai Yisroel is inspired and ready to enter into Eretz Canaan and begin living the life in the land that God had promised their ancestors. They are now ready to begin fulfilling the dream that allowed them to survive centuries of slavery. So what does Moshe Rabeinu do? He brings them crashing back to reality. Now they will listen and understand laws concerning war, punishments for idolatry, choosing a king, jurisprudence, priestly entitlements and unsolved murders. Moshe gives B’nai Yisroel a healthy dose of reality by supplying all the details required to uphold the Covenant.
            One of these laws is rather curious yet serves as a reminder how important it is to maintain a balance between dreams and reality, between the idealism of our youth and the cynicism of age. V’Hayah Ch’shivto Al Kisei Mamlachto V’Chatav Lo Et Mishnei HaTorah HazotAnd it shall be when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a bookV’Haitah Imo V’Kara Vo Kol Yemei Chayav Lema’an Yilmad L’yirah et Adonai ElohavIt shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, Lishmor et Kol Divrei HaTorah Ha’Zot V’Et HaChukim Ha’Eilah La’Asotamto observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel (Deut. 18:18-20). The king must write and maintain two Sifrei Torah. The “personal” Torah must be carried with him wherever he goes: meetings, wars, benefit dinners etc. The Torah must always remain physically near his heart. However the second Sefer Torah sits in the treasure room as a pristine copy, as a benchmark. This “benchmark” Torah remains enclosed, protected, and untouched. The king may consult it, but this pristine copy never leaves the sanctuary. How brilliant! The “personal” Torah that is carried around eventually becomes worn, the letters fade, and the parchment may even tear. This would most likely occur unbeknownst to the king. Yearly, the king must lay his “personal” Torah beside the “benchmark” Torah. There, in the inner chamber, the two Torahs are checked against each other. Then if there are any discrepancies in the “Personal” Torah, the king must make the necessary corrections. The king’s “personal” Torah must reflect the purest and highest standard. Through daily wear and tear, through the compromises necessary to manage a kingdom, the king must regularly check to make sure that he has not gradually drifted away from the “Pristine” or “Benchmark” Torah.
            This is the ultimate form of personal “Checks and Balances”! Instead of waking up one morning twenty or twenty five years later wondering “What’s become of me”; Judaism understands that we all make compromises. Sometimes we may even, unfortunately, compromise our integrity our values and our own sense of propriety. Sometimes our drift from the ideal is not even that pernicious. Sometimes we just slowdown or get sidetracked. However Judaism is about behavior that expresses our relationship with each other and with God. Like a king that needs to periodically check his “personal Torah” against the “Benchmark Torah”, we also must check our “Personal Torah” against the “Benchmark Torah”. Certainly the process may be uncomfortable, and yes, there is the danger of becoming so self-absorbed that we become paralyzed from action. There is the very real danger that we can be hard on ourselves that we lose sight of the good. Thankfully, the process occurs on a regular enough basis that we don’t become too  paralyzed that we can’t enjoy a round of golf, watching the kids swim, eating a steak dinner with the family and appreciating the quiet blessings of another birthday.
Rav Yitz