Archive | Rabbi Yogi

The trials of golden calf syndrome

Posted on 23 March 2017 by admin

My experience with rabbinic smicha testing is certainly one to which any rabbi can relate.
Months of intense study followed by weeks of intense preparation culminated in a fateful, exhilarating day when an elderly Jewish sage, sitting at arm’s length, posed query after detailed query in the minutiae of Jewish law to a then-young yeshiva student shaking nervously in his chair.
I remember the anticipation I felt waiting to hear my results, and the wave of euphoria and feelings of accomplishment that washed over me upon hearing that I had passed the examination with distinction. And then, almost as quickly as that blissful day came to a close, a new emotion crept in to fill euphoria’s place. It was the “comedown” that often follows the “high.”
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, past executive vice president of the Orthodox Union and a practicing psychotherapist, describes this phenomenon beautifully in his recently published collection of essays, The Person in the Parasha (see essay on Ki Tisa).
“It is as if, now that the goal with which one had been long preoccupied has been reached, life has become meaningless. There is nothing further to do, no ongoing purpose. A pervasive sense of emptiness ensues.”
And as to our response to this new emotional reality, R’ Weinreb adds, “The struggle to fill that emptiness is fraught with danger. In my own case, the emptiness thankfully passed in relatively short order, with no harm done and no unusual ‘acting out’ on my part. But others in similar predicaments frequently attempt to fill that emptiness in ways that result in great, and sometimes tragic, difficulties.”
It is the keen understanding of this psychological mechanism that Rabbi Weinreb utilizes to explain the seemingly incomprehensible sin that is the golden calf.
After all, how does a people who had just received the Torah and heard the voice of the Almighty at Sinai amid thunder, lightning and fire reduce themselves to the worship of a golden heifer mere weeks later? Can it be that a nation steeped in the rarefied air of authentic holiness and standing on the summit of spirituality can so quickly descend into the depths of idolatry?
Rabbi Weinreb argues that as inconceivable as it may sound, this follows the patterns of normal human phenomena:
“People are capable of attaining greatness, but they are not capable of sustaining greatness. They can achieve ‘highs’ of all kinds, but they cannot maintain those ‘highs.’ There is an inevitable ‘comedown.’”
So, what is the solution to this natural human dilemma? Is there a way to ward off the “comedown” that follows the “high”?
R’ Weinreb seems to take comfort in the knowledge that these changes are normal, noting that “almost all human experiences are transitory and are followed by feelings of hollowness.” He encourages us to “humbly accept our descent, our frustrating failures and limitations, and persist in climbing the mountain.”
I must admit, though, that as much as I found Rabbi Weinreb’s approach to the sin of the golden calf revelatory and insightful, I couldn’t help but feel let down by this “surrender” to fate. Might there be a way to escape this maddening cycle of inevitable “lows” that supplant our ambitious “highs”? Is acceptance of the natural roller-coaster-like nature of life the best we can hope for?
Beyond that, how are we to make sense of those extraordinary individuals who seem impervious to the “lows” that plague most of us? Examine the many great rabbis and sages who, having already accomplished many lifetimes’ worth of scholarly understanding and accomplishment, persisted without pause, toiling in the study hall all of the days of their lives.
Consider the Kobe Bryants of the athletic world who win championship after championship and remain as hungry and motivated as they were at the beginning of their careers.
And what of the giants of the business world who remain insatiable in their hunger for “new” and “improved,” never gratified by their past accomplishments or tired of the race?
If we are to trust our eyes it would seem that these exceptional figures had discovered some magical elixir, some immunization against the “lows” that plague common man. What, then, do they have that we do not, and how can we too share in their life-altering secret?
I believe the answer to this question lies in the unique way these individuals perceive goals. Instead of considering each realized goal as an endpoint in its own right, a “high” attached to an inevitable “low,” they valued each accomplishment as a large step toward a more significant goal, one of virtual perfection that they would likely never realize. Each accomplishment was worthy of celebration, but with so much left to be done, the feelings of emptiness or aimlessness were kept permanently at bay.
We need to approach our achievements less like winning the battle and more like taking the yellow jersey in a stage of the Tour De France. We are certainly justified in celebrating the day’s victory, but unless we keep our eye on the prize ahead of us and muster the strength to ride with a similar sense of urgency the very next day, we cannot hope to take home the ultimate crown.
With an approach like this our “highs” remain “high,” but our emotional pendulum holds steady.

To contact Rabbi Yogi email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Whether hippie, punk or other, God returns Jewish souls home 1 at time

Posted on 09 March 2017 by admin

My student Efraim asked me if I would meet with his buddy and try to get him interested in his Jewish heritage.
“I’m just letting you know that he’s a really big hippie and a Jew by birth and nothing else,” Efraim warned me. “I’d be happy to sit down with him,” I told Efraim.
It was around a week later when I met up with Efraim and his hippie friend in the beis midrash (study hall) of DATA. We spent an interesting hour or so talking together about the roots and nature of Judaism and its relevance for modern man and, shortly afterward, Efraim and his beatnik buddy left.
“Can you meet with my friend’s brother?” Ephraim asked me a short while later. “Sure,” I answered. “I have to warn you though,” Ephraim continued. “This guy is a real punk from the UK. OK?”
“It’s no problem,” I assured him. This was turning out to be quite the counterculture family! Either way, the date was set, and we were to all meet at a Starbucks shortly after his brother got in town from England.
A rabbi, a hippie and a punk walk into a Starbucks. It sounds like the beginning of a corny joke, but this was real life and we certainly made for an eclectic entourage walking into the coffee shop that day.
“I know this might sound crazy to you,” I told the brother, “with me in my strict-looking garb and you in your ‘I-don’t-care-what-you-think’ punk-wear, but I’m the free one here and you, my dear friend, are enslaved!”
“What are you talking about?” he asked with an incredulous look matted on his face.
“You see … the Ten Commandments that were given to the Jewish people at Sinai were engraved in stone. The word for ‘engraved’ in Hebrew is charut, but the Talmud says that the same letters make up another word — cheirut, which means ‘freedom.’ In other words, the Talmud is teaching us that it is the strict adherence to the Ten Commandments, the representation of the entirety of the Torah, which ultimately sets a person free! I know it sounds counterintuitive to suggest that binding oneself to a set of God-given laws would grant you true freedom but that is in fact the case.
“You see … as human beings we are susceptible to myriad addictions, vices and negative behaviors when left to our own devices and unfettered free will. It is only when we submit ourselves to a higher power and a set of laws given to us for our own good that we are able to overcome our natural instincts and ironically find ourselves in a place of unique, true human freedom.”
He admitted that I was onto something and his interest was certainly piqued. We exchanged email addresses and departed.
I had to pick my jaw up from the floor as I read an email I received from the punk around a year later. He had become an observant Jew and even his non-Jewish punk girlfriend had undergone a halachic conversion before their wedding!
His external transformation (from piercings to peyos and black leather jacket to black hat) had not begun immediately following our talk at Starbucks, but I do hope that the internal stirrings of positive change might have been birthed then.
I can’t help but think about this story as the holiday of Purim approaches. It is the holiday and the miracle that most keenly resembles our modern lives — no open miracles in sight, but hidden miracles to be found in abundance for those wearing spiritual lenses.
The miracle of Jewish continuity is highlighted in the Megillah, and Mordechai is so sure of the coming deliverance of the Jewish people that he declares to his niece Esther that even if she were to refrain from playing her potentially instrumental role in Jewish history the Jews would be saved nevertheless: “For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source.” (4:14)
The miracle of Jewish continuity would happen with or without Esther’s assistance. In our times as well, the Jewish people are under attack, but more than any external threat to our existence it is the internal threat of intermarriage, ignorance and apathy that is most quickly decimating our ranks.
As to the question of who will remain a part of our eternal people and who will depart from its holy confines, only history will tell. What I can tell you, though, is that it is up to us to decide if we want to be a part of this ongoing miracle that is the preservation of the Jewish people.
We can take a stand and play roles of great importance like Mordechai and Esther or we can sit on the sidelines and watch the miracles happen without our input. The only thing I know I AM sure of is that I want to be a part of this miracle.
I want to step into the batter’s box of Jewish history just like our Jewish heroes of old, swing for the fences just as they did and let God work His ever-present wonders, returning one Jewish soul home at a time.

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Morally outraged? Public shame last resort

Posted on 23 February 2017 by admin

Jan. 28 was a typical day at Joe’s Coffee Shop in East Atlanta, Georgia. The smells of distinct Intelligentsia Coffee were wafting through the air, and the usual mix of coffee patrons were busy mulling about the roomy space and sitting at tables.
Asma Elhuni, a Georgia State University graduate student and hijab-wearing Muslim, was sitting at a table by herself, working on her computer, when she first noticed Rob and his camera pointed right at her. Asma claims to have tried to ignore him at first, but soon engaged Rob in a conversation that she would videotape herself on her phone.
“You like taking pictures of Muslim women?” Asma asked Rob. Rob initially laughed off her question, claiming that he wasn’t taking a picture of her but of something in the shop’s background, but soon became defensive and abrasive. Seating himself at Asma’s table, Rob leaned in and called her a dirty name only to follow that up by asking Asma if she had a green card (Asma is an American citizen). Rob was in for a surprise if he imagined that this would be the last that he heard of this short encounter. Asma posted her video to her Facebook page with the caption, “Fight back with your cameras y’all,” and encouraged everyone to “spread widely.”
Within only two days Asma’s video went viral, having been viewed by 1.6 million people and shared 17,500 times.
This, in fact, is how this story came to my attention. A Facebook friend of mine had heeded Asma’s charge and shared the video with all of her friends. She was morally outraged and wanted the social media stratosphere to know it. Writing in the style of the Dick and Jane children’s books of the 1930s she added her thoughts on the matter:
“See Rob!
Rob is a bully!
Shame Robert K. … (last name withheld by the author)!
Rob is Islamaphobic!!!!
Shame Robert K. … (last name withheld by the author)!”
The interesting thing is that both Asma and my Facebook friend posted the video to share the kind of discrimination that Muslim women encounter in America, and I’m sure they imagined that by doing so they were helping to further their moral cause. But what of the fact that in this very process a man, however nasty he may have been in that coffee shop, was publicly tarred and feathered?
It wasn’t long before Rob’s identity and Facebook page were discovered and he was soon inundated with death threats and nasty comments. Rob was clearly concerned that this new notoriety could impact his livelihood as well and posted an apology to all of his business partners for his less than stellar behavior.
As a student of Jewish law, the irony of this story is glaring. To maliciously hurt someone’s feelings with mean words in private is no doubt an egregious sin of onaas devarim (“words that hurt”) and one of the negative commandments of the Torah (Vayikra 25:17), but to publicly shame someone is far more egregious!
The Talmud famously notes, “He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood (Bava Matzia 58b).” It hurts to be insulted and demeaned in private, but to suffer the fate of public shaming is something else entirely. Unfortunately in our day and age we hear too often of teenagers ending their lives rather than having to face another day of public humiliation due to leaked pictures or videos that had been spread online by their peers.
The Talmud’s words are all too poignant. And although it is true that there are cases in Jewish law when public shaming is allowed, and even meritorious, this device of destruction is kept under strict lock and key, only to be utilized in cases when all other methods of rebuke toward a sinner have been attempted and fallen flat. Public shaming is not meant for your everyday conflict, however painful that conflict might be.
Recently a congregant of mine shared with me that she had come to the conclusion that she had no interest in being ritually observant and would be satisfied by just being a good person. “Well,” I told her to her utter surprise, “you’ve got to learn a lot of Torah to accomplish that!”
You see, as much as our tradition shines its light on the kosher status of different food items, and the permissibility or lack thereof of different actions performed on Shabbos, it equally teaches us how to behave toward others, how to act ethically in the workplace and how to engage with social media. Had Asma or my Facebook friend asked my advice on the matter I would have encouraged them to post the video online, encourage everyone to share the video, but first and foremost to hire a video editor to blur out Rob’s face. The message of the video would come out just as clearly but with the moral clarity to know that no one has to suffer public shaming on the crucible of moral advancement.

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Torah, vision, hope are weapons against terrorism

Posted on 09 February 2017 by admin

Editor’s note: Rabbi Yogi Robkin will be writing regular columns for the TJP.

The news was a strong punch to the worldwide Jewish gut — four young Israeli soldiers killed when an Israeli Arab from a nearby Jerusalem village turned his truck into a human battering ram last month and ran over a group of soldiers who had just exited a bus on their way to an educational field trip.
I could barely catch my breath when I read the news online and the pain became too much too bear when the papers published pictures of the young faces of the newest victims in the long and tortured journey that is Jewish history in the exile — and yes, even in modern day Israel we remain in the pre-Messianic age of exile.
For those of us who can’t get the haunting video images of the attack out of our minds, or for those of us who vicariously feel the searing pain of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors mourning over beautiful lives snuffed out way too soon, we are left with the sinking feeling that the hateful ideology that lead to this brutal attack will continue to spur on more and more senseless acts in the future with no end in sight.
What do we do with this feeling of helplessness, this sense that we are trapped and powerless against a national fate that we wish we could change but lack the tools to do so?
Of all of our patriarchs, none could relate to our modern concerns like Yaakov, our forefather Jacob. While it is true that Abraham had to leave his homeland, fight in wars he did not start, and yes, was commanded by the Almighty to sacrifice his firstborn, in each of these tests Abraham realized almost immediate success. He left his homeland but was blessed with the blessings of wealth, fame and children. He fought a war and was victorious! He offered his son as a sacrifice but was stopped at the last moment and was told that he had found favor from on high. Yitzchak too had his fair share of life challenges (it ain’t easy almost becoming barbecue!) but lived a life of overall wealth and comfort in the Holy Land.
But Yaakov, poor Yaakov, suffered from one challenge to the next with almost no break in between. He had to run away from his own terror, a brother by the name of Eisav, who was out for his own brother’s blood. He worked for his sneaky uncle Lavan only to be tricked out of his hard-earned wages time and time again. When things were finally looking up and a marriage to his beloved Rachel was finally at hand, another sleight of hand was in the works and it was Leah, not Rachel, who ended up under the chuppah.
It would require another seven years of hard labor to earn Rachel’s hand! When Yaakov finally left his uncle’s home with his wives and children in tow, it seemed that peace and tranquility was around the corner. Unfortunately, peace was as elusive as ever and the saga of his beloved Yosef’s sale as a slave and decades-long disappearance began.
And yet, it is this very man who dreams of a world connected by the hip to its creator, a ladder making its way from the earth to the heavens. This is the man who refused to give up in the face of terrorism, deeply painful life circumstances and heartbreaking personal loss. What was his secret? What kept him going in the face of devastating realities?
To this question I believe there are two answers which are one. The Sages teach us that Yaakov was the man of Torah, the “dweller of tents,” the allusion to the world of the study hall. Yaakov was imbued with the Torah’s vision for a better world, a world of spirituality and virtue, a world far removed from the world that Yaakov inhabited. The knowledge alone that the salve to the world’s ailments was in his hands and that this messy world could perfect itself if only it would heed its holy words was surely a comfort to Yaakov. It would be the job of Yaakov and his descendants to make this knowledge available to all and spread the knowledge of God and the light of righteousness and goodness to every home that would let its light in.
Slowly but surely, generation after generation, the message and vision of the Torah would penetrate hearts and minds and slowly push the needle of moral advancement over time.
The Sages also teach us that Yaakov was given a prophecy foretelling the Messianic age, an age of peace and tranquility, an age when “the lion would lie down with the lamb” and an age where they would “beat their swords into plowshares.” Yaakov would not have to hope for a better day to come. His prophetic insight informed him that one day the ladder from heaven to earth would be built!
We too, the children of Yaakov, need more than ever to grasp onto and spread our world-changing ideology and take comfort in the knowledge that we will see a world transformed by its message. We cannot give up hope. Not now, not ever.
One of the great leaders of the last hundred years, Martin Luther King Jr., a man also living in a time of great travail, moral confusion and terror, took refuge in the Biblical promise of a better, more moral day when he poignantly spoke these words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But make no mistake, this “bending toward justice” is not a natural by-product of the universe. It bends because we bend it. It takes shape because we help it take shape.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, past chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, related in an article in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 2, 2015) this very point when he wrote, “wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace.” We have the “idea” needed to change this world and it is called the Torah. The hope of Yaakov lives within his children, and just as we mourn the lives lost in this most recent terror attack, we continue progressing forward, speaking a message of hope, peace and moral clarity that will no doubt change the world.
May we know of a world where terror attacks are but a memory, speedily in our days.

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