Uncertainty: Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

We are creatures of habit. We get used to patterns and ways of life. Yet sometimes something occurs which pushes us out of our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s a “burning bush moment” where we’re hit in the face with what we are supposed to do. At other times it’s more subtle.

At breakfast after Monday morning minyan, we discussed predestination versus free will. In a world which is predestined, everything is certain: we can be like Joseph and believe that everything occurred because of Divine Providence. In a world centered on free will, however, nothing is certain: we are like Moses, questioning everything. That is where we find ourselves in this week’s reading.

At the burning bush, Moses questioned G-d not once, not twice, not even three times but four. He began with מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בנ”י ממצרים?, “Who am I to go before Pharaoh and lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”[1] This is often showcased as Moses’ humility. Rashi says, “How am I important enough to speak with kings?”[2] Ibn Ezra comments, “Who am I to free such a great people?”[3] Rashbam sees it differently, that Moses is assessing the futility of the situation: “Even if I were worthy of entering Pharaoh’s presence for other matters, as far as freeing the Israelites goes, what could I say to Pharaoh that he would accept? Is Pharaoh foolish enough to listen to me and send a huge people, who are his slaves, away free from the land.”[4]

I wonder what would have happened if Moses had gotten his way-instead of going to Pharaoh, he would have stayed and continued shepherding his father-in-law Yitro’s flock. Certainly it would have been a simpler life and put fewer gray hairs on his head. Yet Moses would not have been fulfilling his purpose in life. Part of what it means to be a “man of faith” is to step outside one’s comfort zone and go in the way one is pulled. The key is to remember G-d’s reply to Moses: כי אהיה עמך, “For I will be with you.”[5] When we feel vulnerable and alone, let us remember that G-d is with us. Similarly, when we feel that what we’ve set to do was futile or a waste of time, let us remember that G-d is present in the moment. Going yesterday to The Bristal Assisted Living to lead Shabbat services for 2 Jewish residents who had just moved in was far from a waste of time for me. I remembered my rabbi who taught me Amos in high school who said ‘I will teach you even if it’s just you and me,’ and look at the impact he made.

There are infinite possibilities in store for us in 2019. What we need to do is to be open to each of them as they arrive and accept them as they are. Rather than engage in the whirlwind of negative thoughts and emotions, in which I include “false humility” (undervaluing your strengths and thinking you are not the right person for a task when you are), let us strive to ascend to greater heights rather than staying within our comfort zone or resting on our laurels. Most importantly, when we feel uncertain or we second guess, let us remember that just like with Moses, אהיה, the Divine Presence, is in our midst, and may this give us the courage to do what we must. כן יהי רצון-may it be our will to do so.

[1] Exodus 3:11

[2] Rashi on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה מי אנכי

[3] Ibn Ezra on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה מי אנכי

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 3:11 ד”ה וכי אוציא את בנ”י ממצרים

[5] Genesis 3:12

What Is Your Spiritual Legacy?

Have you ever heard a song which brings tears to your eyes? For me that was a Jewish song learned at an NCSY retreat called המלאך הגואל אותי, “The angel which redeems me,” based off a verse in this week’s Torah portion. Many synagogues sing this when they call up the children for their Aliyah on Simhat Torah-and we do when we have kids present at our morning service.

These beautiful words come from this week’s Torah portion. Jacob blesses his grandsons with them, stating “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm-bless the youths. In them may my name be recalled, and in the names of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac. May they multiply on the earth as fish do (in the sea).”[1] Jacob’s blessing presupposes a number of things. First, as Rashi indicates, there is a guardian angel sent to us when we are in trouble.[2] God’s actions on earth are performed by intermediaries-it might be a chance encounter or feel like a coincidence but each of us has guardian angels or messengers (מלאכים).[3]

We also learn from Jacob’s teaching that we should be called by the name of Jacob-Israel. Israel is Jacob’s spiritual name, and Jacob is bequeathing unto Ephraim and Menasseh his spiritual legacy, going back to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. He is saying, as emphasized by Rashbam, that their offspring and the offspring of their offspring will live on.[4] Third-that we will multiply in number, and while that might not be true in physical terms, just look at the contributions of Jews to so many aspects of the world in which we live, whether in terms of the sciences, the arts/culture or literacy.

Often in life we focus on our physical legacy. We act philanthropically, endowing departments at universities or giving to organizations whose work we value. We also focus on the financial resources we will leave to our children. Here, however, Jacob is imparting on his grandchildren his spiritual legacy-that they will truly be בני ישראל, guided by the example that he as Israel has set. Similarly we should take the time to think about our spiritual legacies: how we will encourage our children and grandchildren to follow in our footsteps, valuing Judaism in all its beauty. We have the opportunity to write an ethical will in addition to a physical will, thinking about what is are the values and teachings we want to leave for our descendants. We should model for them what is important to us through taking them to shul or fun holiday events. Most children and teens who I’ve spoken to say their best Jewish memories are when they make haroset or matzah ball soup or were home for the Passover Seder led by a parent or grandparent.

Let us strive to be like Israel, valuing what we have to contribute spiritually. When things don’t go our way, let us not take this a sign of failure of “G-d frowning on us” but rather as a message either to try again or to try to learn from the experience. Similarly, when unexpected positive developments occur, let us not take all the credit but give some of it to G-d working through us. May we always strive to think about our spiritual legacy and how we can strengthen it through the example we make in this world.

[1] Genesis 48:16

[2] Rashi on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[3] Radak on genesis 49:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[4] Rashbam on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה ויקרא בהם שמי

Fake News

How do we know what to believe? What’s truth and what’s fiction? In our age of “alternative facts” and “fake news” that is a commonly asked question.

If you are stumped do not worry-this is not a recent conundrum but rather has been an issue for the ages. When Joseph’s brothers tell their father Jacob that Joseph is alive, Jacob could not believe them. ויפג לבו כי לא-האמין בהם, “his heart went numb for he could believe them.”[1] Why at this moment could Jacob not believe his sons? Rashi comments, נחלף לבו והלך מלהאמין, לא היה לו פונה אל הדברים, “His heart changed and he ceased believing-his heart was not swayed by their words.”[2] Because the brothers were deceptive, pretending that a wild beast devoured Joseph, at their “moment of revelation” their father will not believe them. He thinks it is fake news.

What causes Jacob to change his mind? The following verse reads וידברו אליו את כל דברי יוסף, “They (the brothers) spoke to him (Jacob) regarding all of Joseph’s words.[3] However, Jacob is not swayed by words. He does not believe Joseph is alive until וירא את-העגלות אשר-שלח יוסף לשאת אותו, “he saw the wagons that Joseph sent.”[4] At that point,ותחי ,רוח יעקב אביהם Jacob’s spirit revived.[5]

As the adage goes, “seeing is believing.” Jacob needed to see physical proof that Joseph sent something in order to know that he was alive and well. We all know that “talk is cheap”-that is the problem with fake news. I can say anything I want to and you have no way whatsoever of verifying its veracity until you see it for yourself. The brothers also “cried wolf” and you can only do that so many times and still be believed.

A rabbi who I worked with told me a story related to this. He went to a USCJ rabbis and presidents conference in New York City. His congregational president wanted to buy a gift for his wife in the Diamond District and wanted a discount. The Israeli would have given a rabbinic discount but he did not believe that the president was accompanied by a rabbi. The rabbi answered all sorts of halachic questions but the Israeli was undeterred. Finally the rabbi pulled out his rabbinic credit card, and the Israeli finally said “Now I know you’re a rabbi” and gave him the discount.

It is difficult to know when something is “The Truth” versus a tall tale, fabrication or stretch. That is why “fake news” is such a common thing. Jacob did not believe his flesh and blood until he saw a mark of physical proof. Can we expect anything less from us?

When we see something on the news or get told a story, let us take the time to verify that it is true before jumping to conclusions. We know how easy it is to start rumors and get the ball rolling to such an extent that we cannot stop it. It is often better to be skeptical rather than gullible, although not always showing it. It is too bad that we need to question things but whether we watch FOX, CNN or SHALOM TV, let us take the time to get things right before we jump in to believing hook, line and sinker. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Genesis 45:26

[2] Rashi on Genesis 45:26 ד”ה ויפג לבו

[3] Genesis 47:27

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid