Being Happy with What You Have

          I have often stated that the 10th commandment is the hardest commandment-that is until I reflected on how difficult it is to avoid lashon hara (bad speech). Still, it feels like human nature to long for what you lack and to covet what others’ have. Noom taught me that 99.9% of humanity negatively filter-that means that they choose to see the negative, or what is lacking, rather than what they have.

          The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us איזהו עשיר: השמח בחלקו “Who is rich? One who is happy with what s/he has.”[1] People who truly rejoice in their lot don’t care if they have the latest iPhone, a Maserati car or a trip to Hawaii: they appreciate all the blessings and privileges that they have in life. They recognize that things could always be worse and are able to count their blessings.

          It is my hope as we read the 10 Commandments and Parshat Yitro that we rejoice in our lot, developing a Dayenu mentality. In other words, if God had only done some things for us but not others, it would have been enough. Now that God has done so much for us, all the more so should we be happy with what we have. If on the other hand, we feel our lives would be better with another thing, another spouse, or another job, we wind up in an insatiable pit where it will never be enough; as soon as we achieve that desire, we will long for something else. Instead, it is my hope and prayer that we find ways to rejoice with the bounty of all that we have.

[1] Pirkei Avot 5:1

Strike the Rock or Speak to It?

          It’s strange how in Exodus 17 when Israel complains about a lack of water God tells Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water, whereas in Number 20 God tells him to talk to the rock. Why not have Moses strike the rock again (as he does)?

          The best way I’ve to understand this is that between Exodus and Numbers the children of Israel were supposed to undergo an evolutionary approach. In Exodus they had just left Egypt and still had a slave mentality. They needed time to believe that God, through His servant Moses, was the authority figure. That is why Moses striking the rock there and water gushing out directly gets their attention. By Numbers, however, the Children of Israel are supposed to have evolved to such a degree that they believe that God, with Moses as His conduit, can do things supernaturally. God can merely have Moses speak to a rock and water will gush forth, quenching Israel’s thirst.

          We know that we do not say the same things to a toddler that we do to a teenager. Furthermore, we would not give a lecture in Anatomy 101 the same way we would to a medical resident. As people evolve, the content they learn and the way they are taught must also evolve. By Numbers the Children of Israel were supposed to already believe in a God who could provide water in the midst of the desert. Unfortunately that was not the case.

          As we prepare to read Parshat BeShellach tomorrow, may we examine how our faith is evolving day by day and where it is at in this particular moment. Hopefully our relationship with God is not in the same place that it was when we were in 5th grade but has evolved through our life experiences in the same way that our intellectual acumen has. If we look hard enough for them, we will always find opportunities to grow and to evolve into the people we are meant to be.

God Becoming Known to Us: The Insurrection of the US Capitol Using the Methodology from Mahloket Matters

         The events at the Capitol last week have been shocking to many of us. Takeover of the building, Congressmen fleeing for their lives, property looted and destroyed, 5 people murdered. In responding to it, I want to utilize the teachings I have learned through teaching the Mahloket Matters program of the PARDES Institute over the past 5 weeks.

The core principle of Mahloket Matters is that Torah is not cut and dry but rather can be interpreted in multiple ways. As it teaches in Midrash Tehilim:

 Rabbi Yanai said: The Torah was not given in a clear-cut manner, rather on every statement that G-d said to Moses, He would say forty-nine reasons (panim, lit. faces) the matter could be pure, and forty-nine reasons why the matter could be impure. He (Moses) said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, when will we know the truth (or clarification) of the matter?’ He said to him (Moses): ‘Go according to the majority’ (Exodus 23:2). If the majority rules it is impure – it is impure, if the majority rules it is pure – it is pure.[1]

The goal is to “have a 49-49 conversation” where we understand our point of view and the 49 reasons, we feel that way while concurrently acknowledging that another might feel the opposite on account of 49 different reasons. For the rabbis, 50 is the number of completion, so acknowledging that we are having a 49-49 conversation means neither side believes they have the absolute truth. They need to believe in their narrative while being curious about the other side’s.

We begin with Torah. At the start of Parshat VaEra, we come across a strange statement. God tells Moses “I became known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but was not made known to them by the name Adonai.”[2] What does the word נודעתי mean? Turning back to Genesis we see God say to Abraham “I am Adonai who brought you out of Ur Kasdim.”[3] We also know that God said to Jacob, “I am Adonai the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”[4]

         There is a rabbinic מחלוקת, or argument, made over this verse. First let us look at Rashi from 11th Century France:

ושמי ה׳ לא נודעתי להם BUT BY MY NAME THE LORD WAS I NOT KNOWN TO THEM — It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name Adonai] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, Adonai], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognized by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]… I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply, … the land which I gave [Abraham and Isaac to thee I will give it] etc.” So you see that I made certain vows to them and I have not yet fulfilled them.[5]

Rashi argues that Moses is justified in having grievances. After all, God has not fulfilled the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why should Moses believe that God will fulfill the promise made to him that he will lead Israel out of slavery? God responds that unlike the patriarchs, this promise will be fulfilled in Moses’ lifetime. Therefore, he will know God fully as Adonai — with all the power of that name.

         In contrast we have the view of Rabbenu Bahya of 14th century Spain. He writes:

“The point God is making here is that although He had not bothered to add the assurance that He would recompense the patriarchs for observing His commandments again and again, they nevertheless had not seen fit to question His manner of running the universe every time they were mystified by something which appeared to affront their sense of justice. Moses, who had been the recipient of such assurances, seeing he had become privy to the fact that God upsets the laws of nature (to help His people) had seen fit to question Him and His methods.”[6]

         Bahya’s Moses is a defiant Moses, not believing that God will redeem Israel from Pharaoh. Moses’ words at the end of Parshat Shemot למה הרעות לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני, “Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you send me?”[7] How can Moses respond this way, seeing that he had already witnessed God’s signs, both in turning his rod into a snake and in encrusting his hand with צרעת.[8]  Because Moses doubts God, he receives this message as words of rebuke. Further proof is deduced by the first verse of the portion, where the root דבר conveys harshness as does the word אלהים meaning God as a judge.[9]

         On the other hand, we find Rashi’s sympathetic Moses, through his reply to God. Moses says, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!”[10] He is asking, ‘Who am I to speak?’ In a polarizing situation, where both the Children of Israel and Pharaoh are against him, Moses has doubt that he can convince Pharaoh to let Israel go. Pharaoh has already impeded Israel’s work, having them make bricks without straw. If Moses goes to Pharaoh again, who knows what Pharaoh will do?

In preparing for the final week of the Mahloket Matters course, “Fake News or Uncovering the Truth?” we find a fitting topic for the insurrection at the US Capitol last Wednesday. First, I examine my own position, my own “49.” The Capitol insurrection is an event which shook me to the core. Seeing a man with a shirt that said Camp Auschwitz, seditionists parade a Confederate flag through Congress and terrorists wearing sweatshirts proclaiming 6 million killed in the Holocaust was not enough took me back to Charlottesville in August 2017. The most sacrosanct building in our nation, the US Capitol, was violated. The Vice President of the United States along with other members of Congress were being hunted down. A man sat in Nancy Pelosi’s chair, her podium was taken away, laptops were stolen, windows were broken, a shrine to John Lewis, the fighter of racism, was destroyed. Five people were murdered that day, including a woman in the capitol. A truck of explosives was parked just outside the capitol. Congresspeople running for their lives. Just a few of the many deplorable things that occurred last Wednesday which must be strongly condemned. There is fear of armed protests outside the US and State Capitols ahead of this week’s inauguration and talk about another violent demonstration on right wing social media platforms.

Now to follow the teaching from Midrash Tehilim and the model of PARDES I need to look at the other 49. There is frustration that no condemnatory statements were made over the summer when there were riots in cities throughout the United States, including here in Miami. Police stations were taken over and businesses were looted and burned, fire was set to buildings and streets in Portland, and a section of Seattle was taken over by an anarchist mob. Over 32 people were killed in those riots, including policemen. I watched on television people coming out of Nordstrom’s with handfuls of jewelry 5 minutes away from where my uncle lives.  There were attempts to breach the White House fence day after day. These actions also need to be condemned.

Condemning all violent rioters and acknowledging that both sides have a point does not mean equating via moral relativism. In one case the words of a President incited a mob to take over the capitol based on false accusations of electoral fraud and attempting to overturn a democratic election. It is a false equivalence to compare this with anger against the murder of an unarmed African American man. There is no equivalence between protest, even violent protest against injustice and an attempt to overthrow democracy. Concurrently, one must acknowledge that in both cases property was destroyed, people died, and lives were threatened, and this must be condemned in the strongest of all terms. This is what the 49 vs. 49 is all about: I can maintain the courage of my convictions, condemning the Capitol Riots in its highest form as a distinct act of terror and sedition while learning from those who see things differently.

         There is no absolute truth. We read an article and react to it from our personal perspective. Facebook and Twitter have further made this difficult, with smart ads giving you exactly what you ask for.  

Just look at these two articles. We have a firsthand accounting from Fox News on President Trump acknowledging that he bears some responsibility for the attack on the capitol in a conversation with Kevin McCarthy.[11] It is an article about moving forward from the insurrection to a peaceful transition of power. On the other hand, we have MSNBC indicating that there remains a real, significant threat, especially regarding Wednesday’s inauguration.[12] The article cites Trump’s allies, including Vice President Mike Pence and outgoing majority leader Mitch McConnell having to flee from a mob and find a place to shelter. Depending on whether you read FOX or MSNBC, you would get a completely different outlook, just as if you chose Rashi or Rabbenu Bahya as your primary commentator on Exodus 6:3.

         In our Torah portion, we can choose to see Moses either as a defiant doubter of God bringing forth the Exodus or as a sympathetic figure with an impossible task: getting Pharaoh to release Israel from bondage. Rather than see this as an “either-or” we should examine it as a “both-and” looking for the kernel of truth in each position. In so doing, we will get one step closer to knowing God.

[1] Midrash Tehilim 12 מדרש תהלים יב אמר רבי ינאי לא ניתנו דברי תורה חתוכים אלא על כל דיבור שהיה אומר הקב״ה למשה היה אומר מ״ט פנים טהור ומ״ט פנים טמא. אמר לפניו: רבונו של עולם, עד מתי נעמוד על בירורו של דבר? אמר לו: ״אחרי רבים להטות.״ רבו המטמאין טמא, רבו המטהרין טהור.

[2] Exodus 6:3 וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

[3] Genesis 15:7 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הוֹצֵאתִ֙יךָ֙ מֵא֣וּר כַּשְׂדִּ֔ים לָ֧תֶת לְךָ֛ אֶת־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּ֖את לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

[4] Genesis 28:13 וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

[5] Rashi on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה לא נודעתי

[6] Rabbenu Bahya Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי, ושמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם.

[7] Exodus 5:22 וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי׃

[8] A scale disease which turns the afflicted limb white as snow. See Exodus 4:6

[9] Exodus 6:2 וידבר אלהים.

[10] Exodus 6:12 ַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹֽא־שָׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם׃ (פ)



Making You God to Pharaoh

One of the least understood lines in the Torah comes from this week’s portion. God tells Moses “I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”[1] A person can be God to another?! What sense does that make?

          Of course, the term אלהים does not need to mean God; it can mean judge. It can also mean in the role of God, for through Moses will God perform the 10 plagues. The point here is that Pharaoh, who thought he himself is God, is going to be disproven by a mere mortal bringing plagues which wreak havoc upon Egypt. He will show Pharaoh that there is only one true God and what that God says goes. It will be a humbling lesson for Pharaoh to learn, and he never seems to learn it.

          The greatness of Judaism is that there is no such thing as absolute monarchy; rather, every person has equal rights. We do not answer to another master, only to God. While there was slavery in the Bible for those who ran into financial trouble, it was far from the ideal system with the goal being for each slave to become free. Moses illustrates that it is unacceptable for Pharaoh to impose corvee labor.

          In life we sometimes find that people are there to serve in the role of “judge” to us, or if you prefer as God’s messengers, helping us see the error of our ways and when we need to change course. May we not castigate those individuals but rather thank them for the important role they play in helping us make changes to become the best versions of ourselves.

[1] Exodus 7:1

Bravely Risking it All: the Hebrew Midwives

          What are the things in life for which you would risk it all? Shifra and Pua, the Hebrew midwives, risked their lives by saving the Hebrew boys. They answered to a Higher Authority, fearing God rather than the one who claimed he was God (Pharaoh).

          Sometimes in the moments of greatest trepidation we need to see what it is we truly value and act in accordance with it. The midwives were in a tight spot and yet they went with their ultimate value: the safeguarding of life. At times when the chips are on the line, we need to look at what is our ultimate value and how can we safeguard it.

          As a result of their devotion to God, He established houses for them. What are these houses? My Hevruta, Rabbi Mitch Chefitz, suggests in a modern Midrash that it refers to two houses of medicine: Beit Shifra and Beit Pua. Perhaps one of them was more natural (homeopathic, chiropractic) and the other a MD. Like Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the two medical schools had different philosophies, yet they worked extremely well together.

          These are not easy times in which we are living. They require great courage and care for how to best move forward. Thankfully, most decisions are not life and death matters. They do not require us to disobey a ruler and then make up an excuse as to why we did so. Nevertheless, there are times we need to take risks for what is important to us-safeguarding of life being on the top of that list. To those taking those great risks, our health care first responders, we thank you. You are heroes, the wind beneath our wings.

Storming the Capitol

I am shocked and ashamed. A mob storming the capitol after our President encouraged them to do so? A woman being treated for a gunshot would on the capitol steps? People climbing up walls and marching through the rotundas, with signs saying “Keep America Safe” as violence is being incited? Broken windows? Guns being drawn in the House of Representatives? Members of Congress told to shelter in place?

This is supposed to be America, the land of democracy. We have elections, there are winners and losers and people move on. Instead we have a president who refused to accept the election results, still claiming the election was “stolen,” asking elected officials in Georgia and Pennsylvania to overturn the state’s results as well as his Vice President, and unsubstantiated accusations of widespread voter fraud. Should we be surprised that this would lead to an attempted coup? I was but perhaps the stage was already set.

The president’s tweet “stay peaceful” makes no sense. The capitol has been stormed, people’s lives are in danger. It is one of the saddest days in our country’s history. People who cannot accept democratic results, who instead will threaten violence and death. I’m afraid this might be the lynchpin that pushes our democracy beyond the point of no return.

In Judaism we are taught “incline after the majority” (Exodus 23:2). The Talmud always keeps the minority opinion yet the majority declares the day. Protesting and persuasion are Jewish values; rioting and terrorizing because you don’t get your way are not. It is very upsetting to me that this is where our country is at today. What we need in 2021 is an opportunity for healing our country’s divide and working together. I hope that can become a reality and the horror show of today can become a vestige of the past.