Archive | D’var Torah

Why we study Torah again and again

Posted on 16 October 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is a special Torah portion specifically for Hol HaMoed Sukkot — the intermediate days of Sukkot and we will soon be celebrating Simchat Torah. Now, when I am teaching Torah, I like to begin with asking the question of why we study Torah again and again and again, year after year after year. The answer, I assert, is that God is trying to speak to us through the text. Was it written word for word on Mount Sinai, dictated by God to Moses? Or did multiple authors write it, authors that we label J, E, P and D? I don’t know, I can’t tell you. But I do believe that whatever our Holy Scripture’s origins, God is trying to speak to us through the text and that’s why we continue to study it over and over and over. If God is speaking, we say, then we’re going to try to listen. As I read the text, suddenly it appeared, as if it were a diamond suddenly dusted off, catching the light, and glittering with a fiery sparkle. It felt like God was speaking to me out of the text. “See, see!” it said to me, “Moses tried to know Me too!”
Why would it be so hard for Moses to know God? Moses spoke to God peh el peh, mouth to mouth. Surely he knew God deeply and intimately, in exactly the way that we desire to know God. Yet Moses must ask, “let me know your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.” And Psalms 103:7-13 tells us that God did grant Moses’ request:
“He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel.
“The Eternal is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
“He will not contend forever, or nurse His anger for all time.
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has He requited us according to our iniquities.
“For as the heavens are high above the earth so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.
“As east is far from west, so far has He removed our sins from us.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Eternal has compassion for those who fear Him.”
What are God’s ways? God loves us, forgives us, and has compassion upon us. But Moses wants to know God even more intimately, more fully, more completely: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Yet God denies this request saying, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” We cannot know God as thoroughly as we want for we are merely mortal. We cannot know God fully and live. But God loves us and promises: “I will go in the lead and lighten your burden.” Perhaps we cannot know God fully. Perhaps we will never understand God to our satisfaction, but we can take comfort knowing that God loves us, will lead us, and will comfort us when our burdens are heavy.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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The Days of Awe and spiritual nourishment

Posted on 02 October 2019 by admin

Holidays provide quality time with God

Just as the body needs certain nutrients to function well, human beings have an emotional need for connection with others that must be fostered. Connecting involves awareness that someone special stands before you—each person has a rich interior world—and then trying to give more to that person, or to understand them better. Actively setting aside time for those we care about is crucial for creating strong relationships, and even more important when it comes to developing the bond between parent and child. Simply being available or physically present is not a substitute for spending quality time together.
There are some parents, for example, who are commendably devoted to ensuring their family lead a productive and enjoyable life. They spend hours each week driving their young children around town—to movies, friends’ houses, to sports matches, to get Slurpees and more. The parent places an abundance of exciting material things around the children, but little nourishment inside them.
In turn, the kids may end up using the parents, who they see mainly as providers. In this case, the relationship becomes more about a means to get things they want, than a way in which to better know each other.
Another imbalance is a relationship based on excess fear. In such a situation, the child is cautious of every action, dreading punishment by a dominant authority figure, and constantly trying to live up to all the expectations.
The Super-Parent
Unfortunately, people project these distorted parental images when relating to God. So, even when they succeed in recognizing and internalizing the Creator of the universe as omnipresent and all-powerful, the interaction mainly entails asking for what they lack and desire, or worrying about the repercussions for some transgression. The true bond, however, is never discovered, uncovered or nurtured.
So, as we enter the most foundational period in the Jewish year, the High Holy Days, we must also prepare mentally, revisiting what kind of mindset we adopt when stepping into the shul (synagogue) to pray. Congregational leaders invest time crafting and delivering their most stirring sermons (which are hopefully devoid of personal political views), but the bulk of the work in building a personal connection is up to the individual. This is your “quality time” with God.
10 Days of Repentance
Explaining Isaiah 55:6, “Seek G d when He is to be found, call out to Him when He is near,” the Talmud addresses and implicit question: isn’t God always near? One explanation is that during this upcoming period—the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, known as “The Ten Days of Repentance”—our spiritual efforts are particularly effective. The opportunity for personal transformation is ripe. And, while repentance and prayer are always appropriate, they are especially powerful during this special time, as they are immediately accepted.
But to “come nearer to God” first requires the person to overcome childish conceptions of the Creator as simply a provider or punisher. The superficial titles of Rosh Hashanah as “the day of Judgment” and the “Day of Atonement” for Yom Kippur don’t make this task easier; they may also create a narrow view of the High Holidays. But the deeper aspect of Rosh Hashanah — the “head” of the year — is rebirth, acceptance and rededication.
A new year brings new opportunity. In more mystical language, as the “soul” sustaining the previous year departs from existence, a new life enters, a loftier light than has ever entered this world. This renewal leads to a comprehensive assessment, or judgement, wherein we can tap into the source of all blessing and define our entire year. “For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You” (I Chronicles 29:14). As the brain guides and sends signals to the body, so the two days of Rosh Hashanah are the storehouse and control center of all the months that follow.
Closing Gates of Intimacy
The deeper aspect of Yom Kippur — atonement — is, as the Hebrew root word indicates, a type of “cleansing,” or, more than a pardon. The glue that binds these 10 days together is the potential of teshuvah, a “return” to the essence. Prayer is seen as a means to attach, not only to attain.
On a psychological level, Yom Kippur allows us to uncover a relationship with God that is not based on our performance, but on an essential bond that can never be tainted. On a spiritual level, we can travel beyond the usual boundaries of time and space, to erase all our undesirable deeds from existence and to polish our soul.
The introspection and toil during those 26 hours, the heartfelt prayer and fasting, the desire to grow and to be real with ourselves, washes away any moral grime. Like a dusty air conditioning unit that is replaced with a new filter allowing clean air to blow through the vents and into each room, so too the soul’s most essential energy can now penetrate our mind and limbs at full force, without obstructions. Our thoughts will be different. We become wiser and stronger inside.

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Before God as community, and as individuals

Posted on 25 September 2019 by admin

Gathering everyone into God’s covenant

I am always in awe of this week’s Torah Portion, Nitzavim, because in my mind’s eye, the sight must have been overwhelming: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God…”
Imagine all those people standing before God, entering into a covenant with God. But it wasn’t just the tribal heads, the elders and the officials, the so-called important people, who entered into the covenant. No, the covenant includes women, children, non-Jews who were attached to the community, the most menial of workers, everyone. Being Jewish in covenant with God wasn’t reserved for the privileged few, but for us all, no matter how learned or ignorant, wealthy or poor, powerful or vulnerable.
Yet, that inclusion extended even further: “I make this covenant with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with both those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
There are at least two ways to interpret these verses. The first is practical. Just because you were sick in bed and couldn’t stand before God at that moment, didn’t mean you weren’t included. The second interpretation is more profound: “Not with us this day” includes anyone who ever was Jewish, and also anyone who ever will be Jewish. All the Jews who ever lived, all the Jews alive today, all the Jews yet to be born or choosing to join the Jewish people in the future, we all stood at Sinai. Past, present and future, we all entered into the covenant with God both collectively as a Jewish people, and individually, uniquely.
In only a few days, we shall stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We shall confess our sins collectively: ashamnu, we have trespassed, bagadnu, we have betrayed, gazalnu, we have stolen, we have collectively committed an aleph-bet of sins. Yet even as we gather in the largest crowds of the year, even as we admit our collective guilt, each of us stands alone, individually, uniquely before God. Even in our multitudes, we, alone, bear our own individual failings and our own unique shortcomings. We are all called before God to answer as a community for the sins we have committed. Yet, each of us needs to contemplate and to resolve how to become a better person, individually and uniquely. We each of us stood at Sinai, and we will each of us stand to account before God.
I wish you all a sweet, happy and healthy New Year.

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Keeping it fresh: Appreciate the newness of every moment

Posted on 18 September 2019 by admin

Every day can be unique, with the correct mindset

This summer featured a fun dose of fresh and new for our family vacation. We went on an Alaskan Cruise with my extended family — (Wow, Alaska is stunningly beautiful!) — and spent time in Vancouver and Seattle, two other places we had not previously visited. One of summer’s special blessings is the opportunity to experience necessary moments of renewal by taking a break from our normal activities. But of course, before you know it, summer comes to a close and we are back to the grind again. In these first few weeks of September, we might already find ourselves sneaking peeks ahead to December, or February or June, thinking about our next opportunity for travel. Aside from going to the Southwest or American Airlines apps and booking flights, are there other ways to find renewal amid, rather than outside, our routine? 

A teaching from this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, offers some insight along these lines. On the doorstep of the land of Canaan, our ancestors are commanded to bring forward the bikkurim, their offerings of first fruits, when they ultimately get settled in the fertile land that God has given them and begin reaping its bounty. Each Israelite is instructed to go to the Kohen, the priest, and tell him: “I acknowledge today before God that I have entered the land that God swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deuteronomy 26:3). Later in the parashah, we also read hayom hazeh, this day, “the Lord commands you to observe these laws and rules, to observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in God’s ways…” (Deuteronomy 26:16-17). The repeated use of the word hayom in this chapter and the next chapter grounds the action in the immediate present. Reflecting on the one time the phrase hayom hazeh — this day — specifically appears in the text regarding the command to observe the mitzvot, commandments, the great medieval biblical commentator Rashi (11th-century France) quotes an earlier teaching saying that each day the mitzvot should be like new in your eyes. Said another way, an Israelite in that era was expected to relate to the commandments every day, in the same way, as that day when he was on the doorstep of Canaan, excited about reaching the end of the desert-wandering period, and in the same way as when he was offering his first fruits to God in the spirit of gratitude for being settled in the land and enjoying its fruits.

Even at the beginning of something exciting and completely new — entry into Israel, the promised land — our ancestors were reminded several times to be present in the day and moment at hand. Our experiences on a daily basis are not always going to be as awe-inspiring as seeing Israel for the first time, or as breathtaking as seeing the Alaskan glaciers for the first time. But the Torah reminds us that it is important for us to appreciate the uniqueness and newness of every moment and every day, even if those moments and days could just as easily be classified in the “ordinary” or “routine” category. Truly, is anything ever completely routine or the same? 

We may feel as though we are repeating patterns and cycles of life, but the third year on a job is not the same as the first year or the first day, the experience of 11th grade is different from first grade, and the 23rd year of marriage is different from the first, or the eighth or the 12th. There is something fresh and new to be found in even our longest cycles, if we only look for it.

May this coming New Year of 5780 bring each of us countless fresh, precious and blessed moments in our lives.

Rabbi Ari Sunshine in senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas.

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Thoughts on the month of Elul

Posted on 12 September 2019 by admin

Introspection is important to begin the New Year

In developing any business or refining a craft, it is essential to establish set periods for gathering information and assessing performance. Sometimes this process takes the form of setting goals, while other times it’s gaining an overview of activities to know where you stand. Financial calculations involve income and expenses. In other areas, it’s more about evaluating personnel.
The same type of thorough analysis applies to one’s spiritual performance and character traits. Each person is given a chelek be’olam, an area of the world (i.e., community and people) in which to make an impact. The process of intermittent self-review, to access performance, is called a cheshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of the soul. And this month, Elul, is known as the season of “accounting.”
Unlike Rosh Hashanah — the Day of Judgment — where we stand in awe and concentration in prayer, during Elul we take stock amid our busy schedules, through setting aside time for careful review and self-reflection. To be sure, there are already traditional slots for reflection installed throughout the year. Usually, five minutes of introspection and review at the end of each night is enough to determine what needs to be fixed. Before entering the Shabbat, one looks back and evaluates how the past week went. Then there’s an assessment — right before Rosh Chodesh — when the new month begins. But the accounting that takes place during Elul is different.
Throughout the year, the emphasis is on action. Reviewing our performance is helpful only as it leads to better decision making the following day. Elul, however, is a more comprehensive evaluation. How am I doing in general? Where do I stand in accomplishing my most important goals? How is my relationship with God, within my private time and space? What are my biggest weaknesses? In which areas am I doing particularly well and how can I further commit to cultivating those? The objective is to mentally scan every facet of life and find ways to improve.
Such an examination may appear to be essential for personal growth and beneficial to perform more often. Yet, too much reflection can reduce our productivity by taking time away from study or positive deeds. Our energy, therefore, should be spent not on reviewing past mistakes or making a general assessment, but on judging how best to move forward.
There is another danger when it comes to the more intense reflection: Honest analysis of one’s character and performance, if done in excess or at the wrong time, can be psychologically damaging. Choosing to take a closer look inside oneself is a particularly difficult task — you may not like what you see. Someone, for example, who realizes the extent to which he or she is falling short in crucial areas can naturally become despondent and decide to give up. So, what we don’t see about ourselves, in effect, shields us emotionally.
For this reason, some of the most successful people in the professional arena are also some of the least introspective individuals, seldom stopping to consider how they’re perceived by others around them. At the same time, this failure to reflect allows them to keep moving, to be highly efficient and confident.
If so, the commentaries ask, why should we focus so much attention on intense self-examination during the entire month of Elul? The surface answer is a preparation for the upcoming “Day of Judgment” (i.e., Rosh Hashanah). Change is already in the air. Or, from a more positive angle, there’s an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Knowing that each year brings new mazel — the time to reinvent oneself — adds hope to what otherwise may be a grim personal picture.
But on a deeper level, this type of introspection is placed in Elul because it’s the month of compassion and divine assistance. More specifically, the kabbalistic works relate that during Elul, the 13 Attributes of Mercy — “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth…forgiving of iniquity, willful sin and error, and cleansing…” (Exodus 34:6-7) — are predominant during this time, shining strong behind the scenes.
Explained more concretely, God interacts with creations through various channels or manifestations. The heavenly attribute of din, or, judgment, is designed to make a just, but sharp, assessment which often results in undesirable consequences for us. The attribute of rachamim, mercy, introduces another approach, a warmer relationship with God in which flaws are discounted, and a setting for growth is created. We receive a gust of inspiration rather than fear. This environment of compassion, in turn, allows us to perform an in-depth cheshbon hanefesh — an analysis of where we stand — where we can internalize what we discover without the usual risks or side effects.
So, in this sense, even without the upcoming holidays, Elul would still be designated as a refuge in time, a window of opportunity to evaluate oneself without any excess judgment or pain, to probe within and uncover more resources to accomplish our mission. If we use this month wisely, the stage will be set for a sweet new year.

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Parashat Shoftim and pursuit of justice

Posted on 04 September 2019 by admin

Torah and its focus on the rule of law

This week’s portion is called Shoftim, or “Judges” in English. The first three verses speak about appointing judges and how they should act. And, in these verses, is one of the most famous and often quoted phrases within the Bible:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.
The famous phrase is: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue. This is an interesting and unusual Hebrew construction that almost demands interpretation because it is so unusual. You see there is verb construction in Hebrew that intensifies the meaning of the verb. The absolute infinitive is paired with the conjugated verb to intensify the meaning. OK, forget the grammar lesson; let me just give you an example. In the Garden of Eden, God says to Eve eat from any tree in the garden, except for that one because if you do, mot tamut, you shall surely die. “You shall surely” verb, that’s the construction. But here, it’s a repetition of a noun and that’s kind of special, so it has to be interpreted.
Interpretation number one: Rabbi Ze’ev of Zbarzh believed “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as excessive righteousness, being holier than thou, you shall chase away. Just as we can sin by disregarding what is just, we can also sin by being overly scrupulous.
Interpretation number two: Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa interprets the phrase as “with justice you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.” That is, the ends don’t justify the means and we can’t have true justice if we lie or cheat to achieve it.
All of these instructions for setting up the rule of law are not some theoretical musings on the ideal justice system. Rather, we do all of this for the very practical purpose, as it says in our section, “that you may thrive.” We are blessed to live in the United States where we enjoy, however imperfect it may be, the rule of law. And we are prosperous in part because we live by the rule of law.
The counterexamples are all out there. If you don’t have judges with one set of laws, you end up with Somalia, where the strongest warlords impose their capricious rule. If judges are subject to bribery, influence, or patronage, you end up with Russia. In Russia, it’s not what you know as much as whom you know, that determines if you can get ahead. Or, once you’ve gotten ahead, whether you can keep your place.
We are blessed to live in the United States under the rule of law. Let us pursue and establish justice, that we may continue to thrive.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Understanding the spirit — and letter — of Jewish law

Posted on 28 August 2019 by admin

Deuteronomy 12:28 reads: “Safeguard and hearken to all these words that I command you…when you do what is good and right in the eyes of Hashem your God.”
A basic question we may pose is: Isn’t it sufficient to obey all the words of the Torah? What, in addition, is being asked of us by stating that we must also do “what is good and right?”
There is a need to state this to countermand a lifestyle that, while religiously observant, is empty in terms of inner beauty and spirit.
One could simply “go through the motions” of Jewish life, but not connect with one’s heart and soul. Rather, one must act with goodness and righteousness even when complying with mitzvot. The Torah is communicating to us an overview of both behavior and attitude to permeate a person’s approach to God’s commandments.
It is not possible or desirable for the Torah to list every possible human action or interaction. Rather, the Torah gave us representative laws and then their guiding principles, what we can call meta-halacha. This goes beyond the law, and addresses itself to the spirit of the laws that should never get lost in our compliance with the laws themselves.
There are two faces to the law: the outer one, called the letter of the law, and the inner one, called the spirit of the law. Nahmanides teaches us that we are to obey mitzvot, but also do them for the right reason. If one ignores the spirit of the mitzvah, you fulfill only one part of the Torah declaration: “Do what is good and right.”
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 83a) provides a powerful example: Rabbah bar Bar Chana was a scholar and wealthy individual. He hired porters to transport barrels of wine. The workers were negligent and broke the barrels. The rabbi wanted payment from the workers for the damages and lost wine. He took their clothing in lieu of payment.
The porters went to Rav to stake their claim. Rav ruled in their favor and their garments were returned. Bar Chana asked Rav, “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his ruling, citing a verse from Proverbs (2:20): “In order that you may walk in the road of good men.” Technically, the porters were at fault, but Rav dealt with them, according to a higher spirit of the law.
The porters were still unhappy. They had worked all day and wanted to be compensated for their labors (though they had damaged the barrels). They complained that they were hungry and needed their pay to purchase food for themselves and their families.
Again, Rav ruled in their favor. The astonished Bar Chana again asked: “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his decision quoting the end of that same verse from Proverbs: “And you shall guard the path of the righteous.”
Rav explained that based on strict law, he would have to rule in favor of Bar Chana, who hired the porters. But Rav took into account all the circumstances of the case: wealth, poverty, scholars and laborers.
Rav said the facts have to be tempered by the situation. Ethically, the porters were dependent on their daily wages for their very sustenance. So, Rav went lifnei me’shurat ha’din — beyond the letter of the law.
The Torah requires us to do what is both good and righteous, to keep both the letter and spirit of the law. If an individual concentrates only on one, it causes a shift in the delicate balance of things. One could end up dangling dangerously off the side. When we balance the two together, we reach physical and spiritual heights. We can then walk on a high wire without fear of falling.
We thereby formulate a religious balance and harmony.
That is precisely what we should seek, as we begin the month of Elul, one month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
Shabbat Shalom.
Chodesh Tov.
Rabbi Wolk is community chaplain of Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.

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Finding solace amid suffering and pain

Posted on 22 August 2019 by admin

This week’s Haftorah focuses on comfort during dark times

The depth of one’s character is tested during difficult times. Two people with similar values and intelligence can experience the same event, yet react completely differently. What propels one person to look with confidence instead of fear, with trust instead of despondency?
The Hebrew word nechama (comfort) connotes an internal change. When someone feels pain, a caring voice or redeeming thought can provide comfort. Nechama is more than expressing sympathy or condolences; it focuses on some truth or perspective that enables the person who is suffering to feel better. It’s often hard to find the right words, a succinct phrase, with enough power to uplift one’s spirits.
This week’s Haftorah, the second of the “Seven Weeks of Consolation (comfort),” for the destruction of the Temples, comprises the section from Isaiah which begins with: “And Zion said, the Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” The commentaries explain how this passage is a continuation of the theme from last week’s Haftorah, “Comfort, comfort my people,” wherein the prophet offers a double consolation to Israel. This week is Israel’s response: “The Lord hath forsaken me.”
In other words, they are not satisfied with the voice of the prophets — they seek a consolation that comes directly from G d.
Comfort during dark times
An expression of double consolation, in a similar context, is found in the Talmud (Makot 24b), which relates a famous story that occurred after the destruction of the Temple. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road, and heard the sound of Roman masses from Pelitus, 120 miles away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” they asked.
“Why are you crying?” he replied.
They said, “These heathens…dwell in security and tranquility, whereas…our house has been burned by fire. Should we not cry?”
He responded: “That’s why I laugh. For if this is the reward for those who violate His will, then all the more so [in the future] for those who fulfill His will.”
The Talmud continues: Again it happened that they went to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They said to him: “Why are you laughing?”
“Why are you crying?” he asked them.
“A place [so holy] that it is said of it, ‘The stranger that approaches it shall die,’ and now foxes run through it; should we not cry?”
He said to them: “That is why I laugh.”
Rabbi Akiva then quotes two prophecies, one predicting the destruction (“Zion shall be plowed as a field”) and another about the return to dwell peacefully in the streets Jerusalem. His conclusion: “The Torah makes Zechariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s…Now that Uriah’s prophecy [about destruction] has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy [of redemption] will be fulfilled.” With these words they replied to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”
Interpreting the story
The entire dialogue is curious. First, Rabbi Akiva’s question: “Why are you crying?” After all, he, too, tore his clothes in mourning. Was it a rhetorical or a genuine curiosity?
Upon further analysis, Rabbi Akiva was asking more about the timing. In other words, you were already aware of the destruction long before this point, so what did you just witness that provoked you to tears?
Their answer: We can accept that Jerusalem fell to the superpower of Rome — something that had long been prophesied — but why to such an extent? Does their glory and prosperity need to be so shameful for the Jewish people? In other words, it was the extreme nature, how the prophecy was fulfilled, that was more than they could bear.
The essence of Rabbi Akiva’s answer was that, to the extent you see them prospering, will we one day experience joy: In proportion to our fall, will be the subsequent rise.
In the second episode, on their way to Jerusalem, he responds with a similar, but more profound, outlook: Within the extremity of disgrace was the start of our positive fate. As he explained the link between the prophecies, he gave his friends comfort.
Dealing with the future
A vision of the future can infuse an individual with either positive or negative emotion. For example, just the thought of a potential threat or premonition can overwhelm the person with worry and keep him from enjoying the present moment. On the flip side, when someone is suffering, a clear vision of better times offers hope, and enables one to accept the current circumstances. The question is to what extent can we be in touch with this future image, while dealing with a difficult present.
In the story, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues were already aware of the principles he cited. But their emotions were tied to present sadness. For Rabbi Akiva, however, the eventual outcome was real in that moment. Furthermore, he could detect within the ruins how the process of repair was already underway.
This unique perspective comes specifically from a person who witnessed transformation within his own life. Rabbi Akiva, a descendant of converts, reinvented himself at 40 years old — progressing from an illiterate shepherd into one of the greatest scholars and leaders in Jewish history. The Talmud explains that, had he reckoned only with his present circumstances and status, he would never have moved forward and become the person we read about.
Levels of good
One type of comfort that comes directly from God is the ability to detect the purpose and benefit in a painful situation, whether during the struggle or in hindsight. But in this itself, there are varying degrees how much of the big picture is revealed. Classical Jewish works distinguish between subtle gradations of sadness and expressions of optimism:
The lowest level is yeush (despair), which involves complete darkness; there is no hope that things will improve, or any vision of a solution. That dreadful emotion — the opposite of confidence and trust in God — is regarded as a purely destructive force, something a person should try, with all their means, to break free from.
Then comes sadness with a tinge of hope. Along these lines, a typical phrase thrown around to offer comfort is the ancient aphorism gam zeh ya’avor (“this too shall pass”). This reminder of how the present difficulty, which seems overwhelming, is only temporary eases the burden. But the comfort is incomplete in that there is no vision of what will replace the pain.
Then there’s the saying that “everything happens for a [good] reason,” another phrase that tries to provide consolation. The Talmud’s version of this idea, expressed colloquially in Aramaic, is “whatever the Merciful One does is for good.” The good, however, may be yet unclear. And even when looking back, once the benefit becomes evident, the misfortune remains negative. It’s often a smaller loss that saved the person from a bigger loss. Yet the person may still be left wondering: Couldn’t I have gotten to the same place or result without having to go through that terrible event?
But then there are times when we reach a higher level of enlightenment, where you can recognize that gam zu letovah (“this too is good”). In such a case, a seeming misfortune is, in fact, fruitful — more beneficial than had it not occurred. (Like working for a company that one hates, which teaches a crucial skill that eventually opens the door for a successful career. Or a shocking event that prompts introspection and self-discovery.) In retrospect, the uncomfortable experience and the eventual outcome are seen not as two separate events, but as one process.
To find comfort in times of distress requires two main ingredients: faith that things will improve and a vision of a better future. The clearer that vision, the easier it is to find solace. When encountering difficulties, we must tap into these internal resources, internalizing the approach that “this too shall pass,” or “whatever the Merciful One does is for good.” To the extent that we experience pain, will we often find reward once we persevere.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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El Paso, Dayton tragedies overshadow Torah portion

Posted on 14 August 2019 by admin

I have been struggling all week with what to write for my column.
Note that I write my columns the week before they are published, so my struggles have been from Aug. 6 through 11 and the publisher is extraordinarily patient with how late I am, for which I am grateful.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchannan, is a gorgeous portion chockablock with possible topics for discussion:
Moses telling the people that he will die outside of the Land of Israel; a commandment to neither add to, nor take away from, the commandments as given; Moses blaming the people for his not getting to go into the Land of Israel; the second recounting of the 10 Commandments; the Shema and the first paragraph of the V’Ahavta.
This portion is so rich with possibility that you might think I’ve been indecisive and just couldn’t choose.
The truth is, though, that I have been consumed by the terror attacks in El Paso and Dayton and haven’t been able to concentrate. My thoughts are scattered. Or, perhaps, my thoughts have been like iron filings that no matter what direction they begin in, the attacks, like twin magnets, rearrange them within their magnetic field.
In any case, the only thing I’ve been able to write this week is the following, which I wrote to my own congregation on Sunday morning after I awoke to the news about Dayton following El Paso:
“Dear Friends,
“I no longer know how to feel. I feel sad and hopeless and frightened and overwhelmed. I am sad for those who were killed, those who were injured, their loved ones, for us all. I feel hopeless because I don’t see how to reduce, much less eliminate, these violent attacks. I feel frightened because I, too, could be among the next victims simply going about my daily life. I feel overwhelmed by Poway, Charlotte, Highlands Ranch, Virginia Beach, Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, all just since the end of April.
“I do find comfort in Psalm 13:
For the leader. A psalm of David.
How long, O Eternal One, will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Look at me, answer me, Eternal, my God!
Restore the luster to my eyes,
lest I sleep the sleep of death;
lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,”
my foes exult when I totter.
But I trust in Your faithfulness,
my heart will exult in Your deliverance.
I will sing to the Eternal, for God has been good to me.
“King David himself felt sad and hopeless and frightened and overwhelmed, but overcame all to again sing for joy. We, too, will overcome the evils that we face. We, too, will again sing for joy.
“The only way I know to oppose evil is to do good, to act justly, to be kind, to help others, to walk in God’s path. But know this: we will get past this time we find ourselves in.
“In faith and hope,
“Rabbi Ben”
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Look inward to gain insight into deeds and misdeeds

Posted on 07 August 2019 by admin

This Shabbat is named “Shabbat Chazon,” or “Sabbath of Vision.” It’s named for the Haftorah we read from Isaiah, envisioning the hope of reconciliation amidst a lot of evildoing on the part of the Israelites. For me, the only thing I’m envisioning is the 25-hour fast in 125-degree heat that directly follows Shabbat Chazon, marking the start of Tisha B’Av.
According to our rabbinic texts, God marked Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, as a day of sorrow. According to the Talmud, on that very day, the spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan came back with a sobering report. They doubted their ability to conquer the supposedly giant people who lived there. God reacted by saying, “You shed tears for nothing (this night). Hence, I will designate this night as the time for weeping for generations to come.” (BT Taanit 29a)
God decreed that the current generation (except Caleb and Joshua), who were unready for the responsibilities that accompanied true freedom, would therefore be condemned to 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness before they died. Their children would be destined to conquer the land without them.
Megillat Eicha, or Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah after the fall of the First Temple and read on Tisha B’Av, also makes the claim that the people’s suffering is punishment from God for sin, namely, idolatry, bloodshed and sexual misconduct.
(Lamentations 1:14-15): “The burden of my transgressions was accumulated in His hand; they were knit together and thrust upon my neck — He sapped my strength. The Lord has delivered me into the hands of those I cannot withstand. The Lord has trampled all my heroes in my midst; He proclaimed a set time against me to crush my young men… ”
And once again, according to the Talmud (Taanit 29a), this set time was none other than the ninth of Av. The Talmud further states that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam,” or “senseless hatred” among the different sects.
Other calamitous events have occurred on the ninth of Av, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the beginning of World War 1 and the roundup of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942. Clearly, tragedy has followed our people on this fateful day.
I must admit, I am in great theological turmoil when it comes to accepting the traditional concept of a God who punishes us for our sins, not only in our time, but throughout the generations. Whatever the supposed cause — the spies’ report, immorality, idol worship, hatefulness — the punishment certainly affected those who were guilty and those who were not.
Perhaps, in a strange way, this cause-and-effect notion of “We sin, we pay, we deserve the consequences” is a comfort of sorts. But not for me. And, thankfully, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone.
In her book, “Jewish Pastoral Care,” Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman cites several rabbis who share a similar discomfort with these traditional approaches to sin and punishment. One of them is Rabbi Edward Feld, who, she writes, “Rejects the classical Jewish notions of a God who causes suffering, whether to punish people for their sins or lovingly to give them opportunities for growth, as unacceptable and insulting to the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner asserts that since God created a world run by the laws of nature, we cannot always avoid the consequences of those laws. Similarly, God also has also given us the gift of free will, and we must also live with the consequences that arise from the choices that we make when it comes to taking care of ourselves, or dealing with the planet and each other.
God can guide us toward the good, and give us the strength and comfort to deal with the bad that we must, in the course of our lifetime, inevitably face.
Rabbi Friedman concludes, “(These rabbis) share a common understanding of a God who is found neither in explanations for suffering nor in the ability omnipotently to stop the suffering. Rather, God is found in the human being’s ability to respond to suffering by seeking qualities that empower that person to grow: to give, to forgive, to learn and to transform. In this context, God is the power that offers redemptive resiliency in the face of pain.”
These rabbis give us another way to envision God’s role in our lives, not, perhaps, as protector or punisher, but as co-sufferer. I imagine that this concept of God can be a bit unsettling for those whose embedded theology has offered a more traditional view.
But this contemporary interpretation resonates with me. The idea that God is a partner with us in all things, in tikkun olam as well as in suffering, is profoundly comforting. I do think that so much of the suffering in this world is due to “sinat chinam,” causeless hatred of one another, but I don’t believe that God is the one handing down punishment for it. I think that we are doing a fairly good job of that ourselves.
I also believe that we make things worse when we choose to isolate ourselves from the suffering of others, refuse to accept some sense of responsibility in that suffering, or, simply, choose not to see it at all.
Shabbat Chazon compels us to open our eyes, look inward and reflect on how we might’ve played a part in our own, as well as each other’s, suffering, and to envision God’s place beside us as we strive to ease that suffering. Perhaps that is the ultimate message and lesson to be learned on Tisha B’Av.
Rabbi Marc Wolf states, “…at the same time, with all the grief and tears, with all the mourning and affliction, the month of Av is identified not solely by its formal title, but with the description menachem — consolation. So despite these calamities, we anticipate solace. Despite the destruction, we seek comfort.”
May the upcoming observance of Tisha B’Av help us to remember that although suffering is part of the human condition, the way we respond to that suffering can lead us on a journey with God as we seek the light of redemption, comfort and hope.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.

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