Archive | D’var Torah

Prayer is, above all, a personal connection

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Prayer is a broad but tricky subject. Some may view prayer solely as an opportune time to ask for things — a more mature version of a kid going through the aisles of a grocery store, pulling attractive items off the shelf. Another unrefined conception is the prayer is like pleading with a grand judge, trying to change God’s initial plans. But Jewish prayer is not only requesting or beseeching. In fact, if one examines the bulk of the passages in the formal prayer book, only a small portion contain requests.
The opposite extreme — equally wide of the mark — is the mistaken notion of prayer as a passive means of communicating, whether intuitive meditation, opening oneself up to receive messages or guidance; submitting information and seeing what comes back. Jewish prayer is anything but passive.
So what purpose does prayer serve?
The simple answer is that although God does not need our prayers, there is a created system wherein our words, our effort, can have a powerful effect — “Call out and I will answer you! I long for your handiwork” (Job 14:15).
More notably, prayer is meant to affect ourselves, used more for internal growth and benefit than to achieve desired results. We pray to remind ourselves that ultimately our existence is dependent on God. We reflect; we listen to what’s going on inside us. In this sense, when we experience a renewal, a change, we also tap into the heavenly source, alter our path and cause an adjustment in the current situation.
Tracing the grammatical root of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a subject of discussion. Some trace it to pileil, which can mean praise. In psalms, this word means “to struggle” or “battle.” Other scholars link it to tofel, which means to glue together. And both of these translations come closer to the essential concept of prayer in Judaism.
More than any request, the purpose of Jewish prayer is about connection. Connection comes through change, and any significant change comes through struggle. This is not to say the struggle has to be bitter, burdensome or unpleasant, only that there is a goodness that is a gift and other blessings that we must earn.
We find ourselves stuck within a physical body and an ever-evolving external world. The goal is to connect. There are two general modes of connecting. One starts from “below” — our standpoint — and we work to elevate. The other seeks to draw light into the world, and within us. These are prayer and Torah study, respectively.
Prayer is referred to Jacob’s ladder, “set on the earth and its top reaching to heaven.” It has many rungs. Each step upward is a movement from the confines of physical existence toward the expanses of heavenly realm.
The set order of the daily prayers in the siddur (from the word order) with select scriptural and lyrical passages, was carefully designed to incorporate all spiritual and material needs, as well as progressive stages of meditation. The mystical commentaries further explain how, climbing the rungs of prayer, the layers of the soul are lifted until the essential soul becomes unified with the source within the infinite luminary from which it was hewn (during the pinnacle of prayer, the Amidah).
For this reason, kabalistic texts describe the time of tefillah as an intense communion — “a marital union,” where the “children” are the internal changes, the renewed appreciation and resulting emotions.
The Talmud (Taanis 2a), explaining a scriptural verse, refers to prayer as “service of the heart” (avodah shebalev). The Hebrew word “avodah” means more than “service” or “work” — it suggests exertion in refining our character and the world around us. “The heart” refers to emotions. The main effort during prayer is to arrive at the feeling of love. Love is the fuel that brings us to connection. One may wonder: Can someone really increase love? While love is in the heart, it is the focused reflection within the mind that stimulates the feelings. For this reason, the line of “Shema Yisroel” — contemplating God’s unity — comes directly before the command “you shall love…” And when you love something enough — “with all your might” — you will do whatever it takes to maintain that connection. This pathway includes removing all obstacles to connection, which leads to the second facet of prayer — to weaken the natural “animalistic energy and impulses,” or self-absorption, that builds a barrier to transcendence, ranging from muddled fears to excessive pride and ego.
There are moments when we are struck with a sense of being so small within something much larger. During the daily routine, however, it’s rare, unless we are able to get quiet. Prayer is the time to implant awareness in our heart, to sort through emotions and align feelings with knowledge.
The prerequisite to approach God in prayer is a basic consciousness and humility. As the Talmud puts it, a phrase that is displayed over the ark containing Torah scrolls in many synagogues, is “Know Before Whom You Stand.” Then, during prayer, as we gaze at the words, there’s the pervading attitude of sincerity — remaining pure and simple in our approach. If the heart is not involved, if it’s just rote recitation, then there is no real tefillah.
Outside of periods of intense inspiration, or desperation provoking profound pleas, the process of prayer rarely flows smoothly. Our minds are oriented toward fleshly needs and pleasures, pressing tasks or enticing distractions. Prayer — aligning the mind, awakening a dull heart — is comparable to a spiritual workout; just as daily physical exercise increases the blood flow and promotes our biological systems, prayer causes the divine spark inside us to surface and expand — boosting the soul’s circulation. Just as workouts are meant to be hard — an athlete embraces the struggle and pain — likewise, with focused prayer.
To get going in tefillah requires channeling the body’s vitality, pushing through laziness, pulling the drifting mind back, gathering strength — from the depth — to remove internal blockage and resistance, until “wringing out the soul.” It’s a battle, a test of character. How hard we try during these installed periods of refuge is often a measure of what we accomplish.
Because prayer is such a staple of our religious sustenance, most of us are well aware of the personal challenges we face in this area. For some individuals, it’s simply a strain to follow the prayer service, or the need to get acquainted with the Hebrew language, or the structure of each service. Others know what to do, but struggle with follow through — staying mindful during the recitation, trusting that what should be happening during prayer is actually taking place. It is sometimes difficult to believe that we are reorienting ourselves toward God and spirituality, polishing or refining our minds and emotions with the formula that the sages set down. Or sometimes people are so rushed or robotic, they forget to try.
So, the primary purpose of prayer is to change ourselves, the joining with God. Transitioning from the period of tefillah to meet the workday, a person has increased confidence, as the soul is sturdy, less vulnerable to the chaotic vibrations of the surrounding environment. As one closes the prayer book, the mindset should be: “I just had a private connection and conversation with the Master of the Universe — what could possibly go wrong?”


Balak was wrong: Changing places doesn’t change luck

Posted on 27 June 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, includes one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and it reminds me of the beginning of The Princess Bride. You know, the part where Peter Falk visits his sick grandson, Fred Savage:
Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles….
Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Well, the story of Balaam in Parashat Balak has fighting, bribery, treachery, curses, an angel with a sword, a seer who cannot see, blessings for the Israelites, and a talking donkey. You’d have to wait for Shrek to get a talking donkey. I love this story.
There is a particularly puzzling section of the portion, the one in which Balak hires Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Balaam warns Balak that he is only able to say that which God commands him, but Balak wants Balaam to try cursing the Jewish people anyway. When Balaam blesses the people instead of cursing them, Balak rebukes Balaam and says (Numbers 23:13), “Come with me to another place from which you can see them — you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them — and damn them for me from there.”
They move to another location, but Balaam blesses the Jewish people again, and again Balak rebukes him and says (Numbers 23:27), “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you damn them for me there.”
They move to a third location, but Balaam blesses them a third time (Numbers 24:5): “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” He blesses them with a blessing that we use to this day every morning, not that Balak appreciated it at all. “‘I called you,” Balak said to Balaam, “to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times. Back with you at once to your own place” (Numbers 24:10).
Place (makom in Hebrew) is important. Balak clearly believes that to change one’s place will change the outcome. In actual fact, there is a very old Jewish saying: meshane makom, meshane mazal, which means one who changes their place, changes their luck. The saying is based on a discussion in Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Daf 16b, in which they discuss four ways to change one’s fate. The discussion concludes: “And some say: a change of place.” That is, there are four agreed ways to change one’s fate, but some also claim that changing one’s place is a fifth way to change one’s fate. Thus the saying, meshane makom, meshane mazal.
Yet despite changing places twice, Balaam blesses the Jewish people all three times. Why doesn’t a change of place change the outcome, as Balak expects? One of the ways I reconcile this contradiction is to understand that God is merciful and forgiving, but not capricious.
It is not the literal and physical change of place that prompts God’s forgiveness, changing our fates. That would be capricious. Rather, God wants us to change the mental and spiritual places we find ourselves in, to prompt His forgiveness.
Sometimes, changing our physical location also changes our mental outlook leading to a change in our luck. But changing places without changing attitudes will never change our luck, contrary to everything that Balak would like to have believed.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano’s Reform congregation.


The Top 5 ingredients of a meaningful life

Posted on 20 June 2018 by admin

“Top 5 Lists” of virtually anything you can think of have become prevalent in American culture. We see more enticing headlines than we can digest, requiring us to become better at sifting through online clutter, discerning the informative and meaningful content from clickbait and trending material posing as educated opinions.
Whatever the subject, there’s never a true “Top 5” or “Best Of” list; there are usually overhyped items, and key components are left out of the discussion. Nevertheless, while we research or reflect, the mental exercise of evaluating and ranking can itself help us to clarify overlooked features or call attention to priorities.
Blending personal experience with Jewish sources, here’s my list of Top 5 ingredients for a meaningful and productive life .
Your attitude: There’s no such thing as an easy life without challenges; an easy life teaches nothing. It’s just a question of when you will face adversity, and how much. Evaluating where you stand, there’s always a mixed bag to sort through — beautiful blessings to acknowledge along with areas of ongoing struggle, sore memories with cherished moments, personal victories alongside regretful defeats.
Your approach can paint the mental picture of your life. There’s the importance of perspective, for example, when looking back, wherein possessing “good memory” becomes not so much the amount of information recalled as how you mentally manage thoughts — forgetting the bad while remembering the good.
A good attitude can flip a memory from painful to positive, change a challenge into a pleasure, redirect an adversary to become an aide. Or if something remains painful, a positive outlook can make it much less potent, more bearable.
Emphasizing the limits of control over circumstances, and the unique role of our character, the Talmud boldly declares: “Everything rests in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” Looking to the future with strong faith (emunah) and trust (bitachon) is the most vital ingredient for success and happiness. As the Yiddish aphorism goes: “Think good and (consequently) it will be good.”
Your spouse: Finding a soulmate is one of the most awe-inspiring supernatural events smuggled within nature. There’s an extra dose of divine intervention in bringing two people together, the process of finding and maintaining a partner in life. This intense interfusion is said to be as “difficult as splitting the Red Sea.”
(In classical Jewish literature, this term is employed whenever two opposites are joined by a force that’s higher than both, as well as increased significance or attention given to an event.)
On one hand, two parts of the same heavenly soul-root reunite in the physical realm. Yet such a sacred union — a meeting of souls, minds, heart and bodies — is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, “a couple.” And so is the powerful effect on the world, especially when spouses align their values, goals and focus, which results in “an everlasting edifice.”
Mystically, male without female and female without male, lack the completion of God’s name. But when two souls join in the right context, the half images of divinity, contained within each person, also unite. The passion that pulls husband and wife to each other has multiple layers, the most profound being a yearning to create new life and to recreate the full name of God among them.
The bond established through marriage, a love that continues to develop and deepen over time, knows no limits. Having a difficult partner versus a gem of a spouse can make all the difference in accomplishing your potential.
Health: The body takes the soul to places it could never visit alone, allowing it to accomplish a unique mission on earth. The relationship between body and soul can be likened to a horse and its rider. Ask a wild horse to let you ride it, it will buck. It wants to do its own thing. To ride it without worry, there is an option to “break” the horse in order to ensure cooperation. But in the end, there can be no true harmony.
There is another option — to build rapport so that the horse becomes an extension of the rider and those feet willingly travel anywhere the rider wishes.
You have one body. Treat it well. “A small hole in the body is a giant hole in the soul.” We need to be strong and energized in order to carry out the reason for which we were created and to add light to the lives of others around. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have the fuel to uplift your environment and endure a rich but rigorous life journey.
Children: They are your most tangible legacy and gift to the universe. There is a saying: “True Jewish wealth is not material — neither houses nor cars, but rather children who walk in the upright path, absorbing the wisdom in Torah and doing good deeds.” The goal is not simply to raise polite, well-mannered children who go to prestigious universities and proceed to have productive careers, yet make little impact on their community.
Treasure every moment with these precious souls you were entrusted with, those you brought into this world, to nurture and teach them well.
Finances: Financial stress can affect all the above areas. In the very first words of the verses with which the Kohanim bless the nation, the most famous and all-inclusive blessing around, the commentaries explain that the first phrase, “May God bless you,” imparts monetary prosperity. One reason is that physical well-being and financial stability is the platform for a person to grow spiritually and give in the fullest measure, without being weighed down or distracted.
Honorable mention
Guidance and friendship: “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Appoint for yourself a Rabbi (Rav), acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
As we become older and more accomplished, we may mistakenly think we are experienced enough in most areas of life that we don’t need advice. The main reason behind this instruction is not so much that we lack the discernment to make our own decisions — whether with marital issues, parenting, business ethics or other moral dilemmas — as much as we may be too close to the situation to see clearly. “Love conceals all blemishes” (Proverbs 10:12) and the greatest love is self-love.
Therefore, “appoint yourself a teacher” — even if you have not yet found the best fit. This person will not only ensure we continue to progress and learn, but protect from the trappings of self-reliance.
“Acquire for yourself a friend” carries a slightly different flavor. Unlike a mentor, a friend is not simply appointed whether or not the person is an ideal fit. With a friendship, details matter. There must be mutual appreciation and trust. A true friend is someone with whom one can act freely, offering a level of comfort and safety to share flaws without any worry of being judged.
In the end, both relationships save us from unnecessary mistakes, hold us accountable and encourage us to grow. We should always be aware and appreciate that wise mentor and good friend upon whom we can rely.


Moses’ greatest asset also his deepest tragedy

Posted on 06 June 2018 by admin

EFRAT, Israel — “‘ … And you shall strengthen yourselves, and you shall take from the fruits of the land.’ And the days were season of the first grapes.” (Numbers 13: 20)
Between the lines of the Bible, we glimpse the profound difficulties — and even tragedy — of Moses, the greatest prophet in history, as a leader who sees himself losing the fealty of the Hebrew nation. Moses feels that he is failing to direct the people he took out of Egyptian bondage toward the very goal of their Exodus: the conquest of and settlement of the land of Israel. Where has he gone wrong, and why?
From the very beginning of his ministry, when the Hebrews were at the lowest point of their Egyptian oppression, God instructs Moses to raise their depressed and despairing spirits with five Divine promises: “Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I will save you from their slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…, I will take you to Myself as a nation… and I will bring you to the land which I have sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I shall give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Now Moses has already succeeded — thanks to the Divine miracles — in fulfilling the first four Divine “redemptions.” Only the final one is lacking: the entry of God’s nation into His land. What causes the Israelites to delay and even demur in fulfilling this final stage of redemption? It cannot only be that the 10 scouts — each princes of their respective tribes — were frightened by the superior strength of the Canaanite residents (Numbers 13:31) “We cannot go forward against these people… they are too strong for us”), since a war against the Canaanites was no greater trial than standing up to the superior power and might of Egypt, or diving into the Reed Sea. If God (through Moses) had demonstrated His ability to deliver them from the hands of the Egyptians, why do they now balk at taking on the Canaanites?
Apparently, something has changed during the intervening year between the splitting of the Reed Sea and the proposed conquest of the Promised Land. As we have seen in last week’s commentary, the Hebrews have intensified their complaining, not only asking for water — an existential need — but now by lusting after a more varied menu, from meat to fish and from cucumbers, to garlic! (Numbers 11:4, 5)
Moses is at his wit’s end; can it be that the Hebrews — after all the trials that they have successfully overcome — are now whining for the stinking sardines which they used to gather at the foot of the Nile during the period of their persecution and enslavement? (Ibid. 11:5) He feels totally inadequate to deal with them, preferring death at God’s hands to responsibility for leading such an ungrateful people (Ibid. 11:11-15).
God commands Moses to assemble 70 elders in the Tent of Communion, appointing them as his assistants in leading the people. God will cause some of Moses’ spiritual energy to devolve upon them, enabling the greatest of prophets to share his awesome responsibility of leadership (11:16,17). At the same time, God will send quails to allay the people’s lust for meat.
But then, in this week’s Biblical portion, Moses seems to make a gross miscalculation by sending out a reconnaissance mission, either initiated by God as an initial foray in order to map out the Israelites’ route toward conquest (Numbers 13:1, 2), or instigated by the people who wanted a report about what kind of enemy awaits them on their way to Israel (Deuteronomy 1:22). Moses apparently felt that this “new” Israelite mentality of kvetching and lusting was indeed impelled, even inspired, by food. He therefore exhorts them as they survey the terrain of the land and of the nature of the enemy — to “strengthen themselves, and take from the fruits of the land” to show to the Hebrews (13:20). Hopefully, the nation will be so excited by the huge and luscious grapes that they will embark on their conquest with alacrity! Apparently, what is actually now grabbing their attention is a gourmet diet.
What Moses fails to appreciate, I believe, is that the real problem lies not with an Israelite drive for nutritional pleasure but with his own form of “distance” leadership — whether from the lofty heights of Mount Sinai or the inner sanctum of the “Tent of Communion.” You will remember that Moses had initially rejected God’s offer of leadership because “I am a man who is heavy of speech and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This cannot simply mean that he stuttered and stammered — because God immediately answers by saying, “Is it not I who gives (or takes away) speech?” Nevertheless, Moses continues to re-iterate his problem of being afflicted by “stopped-up lips” (aral sfatayim). I would maintain that Moses is actually saying that he is a man of heavy speech rather than friendly small talk, a prophet who is in almost constant contact with the Divine in issues of theology and law, morality and ethics. Moses is not a man of the people, a man of small talk and infinite patience who can “sell” God’s program to the Israelites by sugar-coating it. As the Bible itself testifies, “The Israelites did not listen to Moses because of his (Moses’!) lack of patience (kotzer ruah) and difficult Divine service” (Ralbag’s interpretation to Exodus 6:9). Moses, the “man (or husband) of God” (Deuteronomy 33:1) as well as the “servant of the Lord,” remains “distant” from the people; he is a prophet for all the generations more than a leader for his generation.
Indeed, Moses never walked among the people in the encampment; instead he dedicates his time to speaking to the Lord in the Tent of Communion, far removed from the encampment (Leviticus 1:1, Numbers 7:89). It is Eldad and Medad, the new generation of leader-prophets, who prophesy from within the encampment itself — and in the midst of the people (Numbers 11:26). Moses’ greatest asset — his closeness to God and his ability to “divine” the Divine will — is also his most profound tragedy, the cause of his distance from the people, his remoteness from the masses. A congregation needs to constantly be re-inspired and re-charged with new challenges and lofty goals if they are to be above petty squabbles and materialistic desires.
The kvetching is not because they really want the leeks and the onions; it is because they don’t know what they want. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, they actually need, as we all need, a mission, a purpose for being. This, however, will have to await a new leader, who may be less a man of God but more a man of the people.
Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat Israel.


On Shabbat, mind and soul attain menuchah

Posted on 31 May 2018 by admin

In Jewish life, each week as sunset approaches, a mental transition is required, which does not always go smoothly. As the mundane week closes, frenetic thoughts of work still left undone or running last-minute errands may flood our mind as we subconsciously resist entering the period of rest titled Shabbat.
A common identification with the theme of Shabbat is “unplugging.” A time for quiet reflection and disengagement has become especially relevant in the current digital age, an existence centered on entertainment and constant engagement with social media. Pulling away has never been harder.
But to understand the precise nature of the day, it’s not enough to simply disengage, to relax or seek refuge from the stress of material concerns. One must also experience an additional, more active pursuit of “plugging in” to the mood and sanctity of the day.
A new type of tranquility
In the scriptural verses we traditionally recite in order to sanctify the day — making Kiddush — recounting the original weekly cycle, the seventh day signifies the end of the original creative process: “Now the heavens and the earth were completed…And God completed on the seventh day…” Here, the commentaries provide a meaningful insight: “What was the world lacking? Menuchah. When the Sabbath arrived, so did menuchah.”
The premise behind this rich snippet is that although the seventh day spelled the cessation of inventive activity (unlike the preceding six days, no physical innovations occurred), there was a new quality introduced into the universe: menuchah. This Hebrew word appears throughout our Shabbat prayers. Roughly translated, menuchah is peaceful tranquility; the opposite is turmoil or tension. While “shalom” connotes the absence of conflict, menuchah is bound up with a pleasurable peace, a fulfillment deriving directly from an appreciation of how things mesh.
And since the seventh day introduced the feeling of menuchah, there must be an essential connection between the content of Shabbat and the unique feature it introduced: During the preceding six days, as each stage of creation unfolded, distinct elements — light, darkness, water, land, plants, animals, etc. — were introduced to the world. At the same time, there was no perceptible purpose driving the grand design; each new existence appeared to be a separate and unrelated accomplishment.
Nature involves constant movement and development, the very opposite of a state of stillness and menuchah. Life means being in a constant state of flux. Change applies to the movement of time — past, present and future — as well as to all creatures, which are constantly changing according to their specific composition.
Our bodies change. So does our perspective of the world; growth and learning need not stop at adulthood. Meanwhile, the external environment is also continuously shifting. Nothing is absolutely stable. Even inanimate material — mountains, rocks, beaches and stars — are subject to continual alteration over time.
But “when Shabbos came, so did peacefulness.” Not only was there a cessation of activity, but within this withdrawal and quiet, the intention behind all previous activity could be sensed — how the multitude of movement and changes came from a single source, with one purpose that penetrated all the details of creation.
In other words, within this universe characterized by continual flux, oneness was detected, an eternal force beyond any change or limitation of time and space. And this awareness automatically injected a special tranquility (menuchah) into the entire spectrum of creation. It is this same feeling that we target every Shabbat.
Life application
This description of menuchah has its parallel within the miniature world — the human soul: A person who is unable to connect the fragments in his or her life, failing to get in touch with the overall purpose, cannot experience true peace of mind and inner tranquility.
We are immersed in the sea of change, which naturally creates inner tension. But unlike other living things, we can recognize the inevitability of change, think about the changes we experience and wonder about them. The ability to perceive the ultimate goal driving all the details — something above the many movements and changes in life — leads to a harmony within the soul, which then manifests in mental and physical calmness.
The first step is identifying one’s purpose. The more universal conception — living a productive and meaningful life — may simply entail a personal mission statement, defining one’s talents and priorities, then staying loyal to them every day by “being the best version of yourself.” The more spiritual definition entails sensitivity to an ongoing relationship with G-d, identifying what you were put on earth to accomplish —“I was only created to serve my Maker.”
The next step, after pinpointing purpose, is staying aware of the big picture each moment. Maintaining this consciousness is challenging due to constant change — the need to juggle and balance competing priorities, shifting between daily demands. For example, we simultaneously aim to take good care of ourselves, give to our spouses, be the best role models for our children, attain career goals and fulfill the soul’s pursuits. With limited time and resources, it may appear impossible to advance smoothly and successfully in any of these vital areas without sacrificing accomplishment in another.
The basis of successful time management is considering all the priorities calling for your attention, knowing what to do in any given instant, then getting things done with maximum efficiency. Here, the additional layer is a mindfulness of the grand scheme.
To have peace of mind, each task must first be mentally linked to its ultimate end.
For example, the intention while exercising is improved health and increased energy to give more, rather than the more natural immediate goal of improving your body for appearance or feeling good. Likewise, eating is done to nourish the body, not simply to please the palate. During the heat of chasing career goals, one is able to be mindful that all this toil is only a means to aid in building a Jewish home, or provide for the family, to give more to others — rather than for self-definition and to acquiring some long-awaited luxuries. And all these various components are part of one spiritual goal: to shine light into and uplift your surroundings.
Detecting how each activity contributes to a higher goal, the general purpose, allows you to be more present and to focus more energy into that act.
The opportune time
Every week, the original theme of creation re-occurs as “all the days of the week are blessed by Shabbos.” During the six weekdays, we are busy dealing with an ever-changing world. Our focus is pointing downward, conquering all the material demands. On Shabbos, we shift focus — directing our attention above. It’s an elevation where we reunite with our overarching purpose.
As the sun sets, all internal and external chaos comes to a halt and a restful spirit begins to settle in. Entering the door of our homes, glancing at those transcendent flames flickering over a clean white tablecloth and absorbing the blend of pleasant aromas, brings comfort.
Then, when a person utilizes the day to reconnect to and internalize their general purpose, they can transfer this peace of mind into the following week, so that all its details are filled with more menuchah.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


God doesn’t want to be lost among distractions

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

We start the Book of Numbers this week, and the first verse states, “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”
What is it about the wilderness that God always appears there? Why not, say, in my den while I’m lying on the couch watching the ball game? My den: nice and comfy. The wilderness: less so. What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a great meeting place?
I am reminded of my teacher, Dr. Leonard Kravitz, who used to talk about the temptations of the world as you went out to seek knowledge. From where Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion used to be located, to get to the New York Public Library, that great repository of human knowledge and wisdom, you first had to walk past the distractions of Times Square. All of human knowledge is there at the New York Public Library, free for the taking, if only you can successfully make it past Times Square without being distracted.
Imagine that instead of walking past Times Square, you had to walk through the wilderness instead. You’d probably make it to the library without any incident. The wilderness is a place without distraction that lets you concentrate on the task at hand or to speak to God without interference.
Elijah, when he was pursued by Jezebel, fled into the wilderness and prayed for death. God passed by Elijah, and we are told, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still small voice.” Do you really think that if you were traveling through Times Square, you would be able to hear God’s still small voice?
Today we are bombarded with distractions. We work at our computers with music playing, an instant message conversation or three taking place on the side, while updating our Facebook status or Tweeting. We sit in meetings while texting and surfing the web to check up on something someone just mentioned. We’re driving in our cars while talking on our cell phones either legally, using a hands-free set, or illegally. We are becoming experts at multitasking.
But I don’t believe it. I love my friend, but she really scares me sometimes. She calls me when she’s in the car going from one appointment to another. We’ve got to fit in as much as we can into every second of our day, after all. But as she and I are talking on the phone, she’ll be in the middle of a sentence and she’ll say, “Oh, I wanted to turn there.” Or, when she says to me “I am totally listening to you,” I know that she was multitasking and suddenly realized she had missed a portion of our conversation. I don’t believe in multitasking. I believe we can learn to switch rapidly between tasks, but I don’t believe that we can actually concentrate on two things at the same time. We miss something when we divide our attention.
Why does God appear in the wilderness? Because God demands our full attention. God demands our complete being. We think we accomplish more by switching rapidly from task to task, but in reality, we actually miss vital elements when we divide our attention. How can you hear the still small voice, when your smartphone keeps dinging? There is a Zen proverb that shows us the way to encounter God and each other:
In walking, just walk.
In sitting, just sit.
Above all, don’t wobble.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


Love the imperfect

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

Over the last few weeks, we have been exploring the Holiness Code; those laws concerning the specific actions and behaviors that the Israelites are commanded to adopt in order to achieve a state of physical, moral and ethical purity. But before dissecting one particularly disturbing directive (at least to me), I’d like to share with you one of my favorite childhood stories, The Best Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill. I promise, there is a connection to Emor.
The story centers around a little girl named Betsy who has just received an invitation to a party at her friend Susan’s house, which will take place later that afternoon. Why Susan chooses to throw such an impromptu gig at the last minute and assume that everyone will show up isn’t addressed, but personally, I find it a bit thoughtless. The invitation states that everyone must bring a doll to the party, and prizes will be given to the oldest doll, the best-dressed doll and the doll who can do the most things. And wouldn’t you know it, Betsy has one of each.
There’s Belinda, the fashion maven; Melissa, the oldest doll who once belonged to Betsy’s great-great-grandmother; and Mary Jane, who actually sews on a sewing machine. But Betsy’s choice is complicated by the existence of a fourth doll, poor Jennifer, who looks like the dog has used her for a chew toy. Her dress is faded and rumpled, her cheeks are bandaged, her hair is askew, her nose cracked and only one eye opens and closes. The other dolls tease her mercilessly and yet, she wears a permanent, heart-warming smile.
Jennifer is not only chosen to be taken to the party — she wins a special prize created just for her: a medal that says “Best Loved Doll.” And in the spirit of true generosity, she shares the rest of her party favors with her other snarky doll roommates. The moral of the story — that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be the most precious and valued — seems to stand in contrast with Parashat Emor.
Leviticus 21:16 begins, “The Lord spoke further to Moses…. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes…. he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect.
“He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”
It seems not just unfair, but downright cruel, that only those lucky enough to be blessed with physical perfection were deemed qualified to serve in God’s holiest space. As if being physically disabled weren’t bad enough, this prohibition really seems to throw salt on the literal wound.
Rabbi Elliot Mayer draws on the Mishnah, which reframes this interpretation: “In the final G’ulah (redemption), the blind will be able to see, the lame will be able to walk and people will not suffer from physical disabilities. The Beit HaMikdash would have given every visitor inspiration and hope that there will be a time without physical suffering as prophesied by our Neviim (prophets). Therefore, a Kohen with a physical disability would detract from that vision.”
OK, so the disabled Kohen would not only detract the worshipper because of his bodily imperfections, he would also mar the worshipper’s vision of the perfect world yet to come? Talk about adding insult to injury.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too judgmental. After all, I’m looking at this through a modern lens. Back in the ancient world, this concept of “not judging a book by its cover” had yet to be embraced. So perhaps God, knowing how troubling and disappointing mankind’s behavior had been in the past, knew that changing the people’s perception of what true holiness looked like would take time. Indeed, Rabbi Alexander Kaye contends that the focus on external appearance gradually shifted, recalling a midrash from Sanhedrin 98a in which the messiah is depicted as a leper.
Perhaps the lesson that we can glean from this Parashah today isn’t so far off from that of The Best Loved Doll. It reminds us that we can choose to move beyond the physical. We can hold up as role models those who have struggled with disabilities, or adversity, as they have the most to teach us about what it really means to be whole. We can break down the barriers that keep us from understanding what it must be like to live with daily challenges by inviting those who do to be a part of our communities and synagogues, and making these places accessible and welcoming to every individual.
May we strive to see each and every soul B’Zelem Elokim (in God’s image) and appreciate the gifts that we all bring to our communal table.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor at Beth Shalom in Arlington.


Parashah calls us to lead moral, just lives

Posted on 26 April 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, as read in the Diaspora, is Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, and I find it to be one of the most inspiring of Torah portions.
Chapter 19 in the Book of Leviticus begins with a ringing call to action, a Divine inspiration that calls us to live our best lives: “You shall be holy for I the Eternal your God am holy.” We have a purpose in life: to lead lives that are elevated above the common, that are examples of proper behavior in front of the world.
Further, God does not leave us guessing how we are to live lives of holiness. “Be good” is a nice exhortation, but not terribly useful unless you’ve already been told what it means to be good or, in our case, what it means to be holy. More specificity is better, and we get it here in the Levitical holiness code.
Verses 9 and 10 command us not to harvest 100 percent of our fields and vineyards. Rather, we are to leave behind a portion of the crops for the poor and disadvantaged to harvest for themselves. It is a way of sharing the bounty God gives us while allowing the less fortunate to sustain themselves and maintain their own dignity. Today, when we no longer live in an agricultural society, we can still learn to create systems that sustain the poor in a dignified manner.
Verse 13 commands us to deal fairly with those whom we employ. We cannot short them or delay paying them or take advantage in general of the people who depend on us for their living. We may have economic power over those whom we employ, but we are forbidden to use that power unfairly.
I find Verse 14 to be inspiring because we are commanded not to insult the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. The rabbis expand the meaning significantly beyond the two examples listed to demonstrate that even if we won’t be caught, we are forbidden to wrong others, nor may we lead others astray with temptation. For example, if you know your guest is on a diet, don’t urge them to have dessert. If you know someone is an alcoholic, don’t offer them a drink.
We are commanded to establish a purely just society in Verse 15. We are called upon to create a society that favors neither the rich nor the poor. We might be tempted to favor the rich because of their power or the poor because they are up against deep pockets. Yet the society we create should be strictly, purely just.
Verses 33 and 34 are especially important in today’s society. We are commanded never to wrong the stranger, for once we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. We must have compassion for all human beings, remembering the suffering of our own people throughout history. We might be tempted to treat our own people well but others poorly, but we are commanded to fight against this temptation.
What I find most interesting is Verse 35, in which we are commanded to have strictly honest weights and measures. Honesty in business is a religious obligation and you shouldn’t say, “Oh, but rabbi, I deal in the real world.” No. Honesty is for all times and places.
Being holy isn’t reserved for special people or religious leaders. Acting in a way that is holy is for all of us, through our everyday actions. Through this week’s Torah portion, I feel God’s inspiration to live up to our highest ideals, creating a moral and just society.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano’s Reform congregation.


Iyar: an opportune month to heal your soul

Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

The current month of Iyar, the second month in the Jewish calendar, is commonly referred to as the month of healing. This idea is reflected in its name, whose letters form an acronym for “Ani Hashem Rofecha” — “I am God your Healer” (Exodus 15:26).
The above allusion in the title of this month implies not only that this period is opportune for healing, but that there is a special type of healing flowing directly from God. In other words, even though all blessings share a common source, they go through different channels, sometimes demanding investigation to find cures.
Healing, in general, is a rectification process applicable in many contexts. The common theme is to restore something damaged to its original state of health and functioning. In this sense, people speak metaphorically about repairing a relationship or healing a broken heart. Or when the mind becomes wounded, psychological healing involves changing one’s perceptions, shifting from a destructive outlook to provoke more positive thoughts and happiness. In Jewish literature, prescriptions for healing the soul relate to a deeper process called teshuva. But the health of all these elements — body, emotions, mind and soul — are intensely intertwined.
For this reason, when the Torah states in Deuteronomy chapter 4, “Guard yourself and guard your soul scrupulously,” it is interpreted as referring to the mitzvah of protecting one’s physical health. Likewise, “a small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul” is a statement emphasizing the necessity of maintaining a strong body, the physical receptacle for the soul’s energy to flow. At the same time, the relationship is bidirectional: Spiritual healing — when the soul is nourished and strong — opens the channel for mental and physical wellbeing.
Types of healing
The Talmud discusses various forms of healing. First, there is a preventive remedy, a healing that comes before any harm can be detected. Then there is healing in the form of recovery, where a remnant of the illness lingers to some degree. The highest form of healing not only removes the illness but brings additional strength to the body.
Stemming from the context of the verse, the unique type of healing in this month, coming directly from God, mainly takes the form of prevention — saving a person from illness in the first place. But in the event that some ailment exists, it brings potential for the highest healing — renewed vigor that retroactively removes all trace of illness. This means that even if a person’s conduct leads to poor health, healing from God comes in a completely novel manner, different than through a doctor — as if nothing had happened.
Healing the soul
Maimonides explains that just as the body has different sicknesses and remedies, so too does the soul. An ailing soul means that someone is “not in a good place.” More specifically, in one’s personal rapport with God, an accumulation of poor decisions can lead to feeling disconnected, or some spiritual insensitivity. The nature of this pain as well as the recovery process shares features of both a scarred relationship which needs mending and rehabbing from a physical injury.
There are two general approaches in healing bodily illness: to heal the particular organ that is sick or weakened, and to strengthen the healthy organs and faculties so that they can overcome and heal the sick one. The parallels in the soul are the two approaches in spiritual service — teshuva and good deeds.
Losing time
Even after someone has repaired mistakes, through feelings of regret and resolve, there is another common quest for healing, one that relates to lost time. As we develop in years and wisdom, the consciousness of life’s fragility becomes greater. In the end, there is often a discrepancy between aspirations and accomplishments. Along with this reflection, comes the pain of slip-ups or wasted opportunities. If only I hadn’t said that to her; if only I hadn’t worked such long hours, had spent more time with the family, etc. The famous gnawing dilemma is: Can we heal the past, make up for wasted time?
The first step in the rectification process, the simple formula for teshuva, is acknowledging what went wrong — healthy regret. The next movement is reshaping sadness over previous shortcomings by using that emotion to harness extra energy for the future — the ability to carry out your new vision with intense vigor and productivity. More specifically, one formula for healing the past is living with a present sense of urgency, the desire to do more mitzvahs, to maximize your remaining time on earth.
This sense of urgency may be confused with carpe diem or making the most of every day. But there is a distinct difference in flavor. In an attempt to soothe their tangled mind and a shaky conscience, a person whose motto is “seize the day” may attempt to remain joyful and energized. They may decide to travel places and take in as many serene sights and colorful experiences as possible. In contrast, someone who lives with a sense of urgency has a specific fire inside. They see a fragmented world in front of them, and rush to play a small role in mending it. Quality of living is tied to purpose and to the ability to give back.
And because this urgency and productivity is born from a bitterness which pushed the person to fight harder, those past mistakes are retroactively redeemed and sweetened.


Week of different Parshat, but one People

Posted on 05 April 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is…well…actually that’s not an easy thing to determine, because the true answer is: it depends. It depends on where you live and what branch of Judaism you belong to.
In Israel and in the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for seven days. Outside of Israel, other than the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for eight days, because of second day Yom Tov in the Diaspora. What does all that have to do with the Torah Portion? Well, if you observe seven days of Pesach, the Torah Portion is Shemini, but if you observe eight days, then the Torah Portion is for the last day of Pesach. This makes the Diaspora out of sync with Israel until Parashat Bamidbar, when the two communities once again align. If you were wondering, they do this in Israel by spreading the double portion Behar/Bechukotai over two weeks instead of one week, as in the Diaspora.
But wait. There’s more. There always is. Many in the Reform Movement don’t like being out of sync with the rest of the Diaspora and so they split the baby, or the portion in this case, and do the first half of Shemini this week and the second half of Shemini the following week. Within a week, they are back to the same Diaspora schedule as everyone else, though still out of sync with Israel. My own congregation observes the Israeli calendar, so for me, the portion is Shemini.
This is a problem. And it is more of a problem than simply which part of Torah should I write about for my column this week. It is a problem of the divisions we create between ourselves. We are in the middle of Pesach right now, putting aside whether Pesach ends on Friday night or Saturday night, and one huge division we create among ourselves is on the subject of kitniyot.
There are five grains biblically forbidden during Pesach, except in the form of matzoh: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Rice, millet and legumes are nowhere on that list, yet they became similarly forbidden in the category of kitniyot because they can be used like a forbidden grain, or a forbidden grain might be accidentally mixed in during storage. But only for Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat rice and other kitniyot during Pesach.
Which leads to my being gobsmacked when I went grocery shopping during Pesach when I lived in Israel. Above the rice was a sign that said: “For sale only to Sephardim.” “How would they know?” I thought to myself. Do people carry Sephardi Identity Cards? Yet the division exists.
You want to know what’s not important? It’s not important which part of the Torah we read this Shabbat. What is important is that all of us stood together at Sinai to receive Torah as one Jewish People. It isn’t important to focus on the differences in food customs we observe during Pesach, but rather to acknowledge that we are all observing Pesach together. It is too easy to focus on the myriad ways we can think of how to divide and separate us from each other. What we need to do, what can sometimes be harder, is to focus on what unites us as one Jewish People.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


View or Subscribe to the
Texas Jewish Post

Advertise Here

Photos from our Flickr stream

See all photos

Advertise Here