Archive | Rabbi Yogi

What our love for superheroes can tell us about ourselves

Posted on 15 June 2017 by admin

It’s turning into another summer of superhero domination, with Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman strongly leading the fearless pack out of the gates. With superheroes on the brain, I find myself returning to a question I have long pondered: Why do superhero movies outperform almost all other film genres, and on a consistent basis too? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is rooted in one of mankind’s most elemental desires.
“I’ve been feeling this underlying sense of anxiety for a couple of weeks now,” I shared with my wife, Shifra, one recent evening. “And, I think I just realized what it is.”
“I’ve realized that… I can’t change the world.”
As a person who entered into the rabbinate, and specifically the world of Jewish outreach, with the express purpose and hope of changing the world for the better, this newfound but long-brewing recognition of my limitations was incredibly painful and left me with an uneasy sense of hopelessness and underlying feelings of disquiet.
You should know that I am at my core a hopeful and optimistic person. I often find myself drawing inspiration from those individuals in human history, both Jewish and Gentile, who impacted the world in positive ways, forced society to reckon with its demons and, if so blessed, even changed the moral trajectory of the world.
That being said, I don’t know of anyone who fundamentally changed the world.
Here’s what I mean:
When I think of what a changed world might look like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the Messianic Age, that future time in which the messiah will reign and bring universal peace and brotherhood, without crime, war and poverty. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. And here’s the kicker — it remains that way forever.
Although I enthusiastically believe that we can all make this world a better place, each in our own way, I also reckon with the reality that even when our hopes are realized they are almost always a muted version of our dreams — smaller in their impactful scope, limited to specific geographic areas or demographic groups, and, most painful of all, confined to a singular window in time.
Even the president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, often finds his signature legislative achievements rolled back or modified by the next man who fills his seat.
At our core, we wrestle with the painful realities that we are limited, we are mortal and, yes, we are human.
This, I believe, is where our deeper fascination with superheroes comes from. With their superhuman powers, superheroes do what we all wish we could do in real life — actually change the world! In the world of Batman, Superman and the Incredible Hulk the good guys always win in the end and the world is always safe from harm. Their impact is globally felt and because they do not age or are virtually impossible to kill, they ensure that the winds of time will not roll back what they have put in place. In other words, we live vicariously through them.
So, what are we non-superheroes to do with our very real inclinations to change the world?
After a week of mulling over this question, an answer came to me as I prayed the afternoon Mincha service of Shabbat. My thoughts were of a Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin (4:5) that details the scare tactics of the Jewish court in capital cases. Warning the witnesses of the disastrous impact of false testimony, the court proclaims these words (among others):
“It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
Up until this point in time I had never considered the significant ramifications of this mishna’s teaching outside of the extreme and rarely encountered scenarios mentioned within it: Destroy a life, destroy the world. Save a life, save the world. The underlying message, however, is much more expansive in its instruction. Every person is an olam katan, a “small world”; therefore, every impact felt upon an individual is an impact made upon an entire world!
It is worth noting that our Mishna takes it one crucial step further:
“Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake ‘the world was created.’ ”
We cannot forget that we too are micro-worlds that need fixing and fine-tuning. Our personal development is no less valuable than the impact we may make on others. In fact, it is often through the process of self-betterment that we become the kinds of people who can impact others around us.
I came to realize that in reality there is no “world” that needs changing. It’s the numerous individuals, each one a single unit, who make up our planet and need our help and guidance.
And it is specifically through this enterprise of caring for the individual that we find expression for our let’s-go-save-the-world superhero yearnings.
Perhaps this is the lesson we are meant to learn from the life of Moses, the closest thing to a superhero this world has ever seen. If even he couldn’t bring the Jews into the promised land and herald in what would have been a Messianic Age, we too should worry less about the construction of a new world order and instead focus our gaze on the needs of the people around us.
We can change their worlds. We can be their superheroes, too!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

Are you sensitive to Judaism’s moral notes?

Posted on 02 June 2017 by admin

I find Shabbos dinner to be the perfect setting for those deep philosophical conversations that happen so rarely these days. We’re all so busy with work, family, technology and never-ending errands that finding the time or space to have meaningful conversations is becoming more and more difficult.
For all of our modern distractions, Shabbos has the answer with its spirit of calm and quiet. The candle-lit, technology-free Shabbos dinner provides the perfect setting for people to come together and discuss issues of the day as well as matters of the spirit.
It was one such Friday night and the conversation at our Shabbos table turned toward the benefits of halacha, Jewish law.
“The Shabbos, with its many rejuvenating benefits to self, family and community might possibly be my favorite mitzvah of the Torah,” I shared with my guests.
“That being said, and this might come as a surprise to you, but If not for the fact that halacha obligates me to keep the Shabbos, I don’t know that I would chose to keep it each and every week.”
“There are times when I’m exhausted by the end of the week and, if given the choice, might take the weekend off instead of prepping and readying for Shabbos.”
“There are Shabbosim when my favorite sports team is playing in a pivotal playoff game and all I want to do is follow the action.”
“Essentially, it is the binding nature of halacha that compels me to always put the observance of Shabbos above everything else, and ultimately reap its rewards.”
My guests looked stunned.
Most were stunned by my admission that my personal will might not always echo halachic jurisprudence.
(It’s worth noting that the convergence of human and divine wills is considered a high spiritual plane that we should all aspire to. See Pirkei Avos 2:4: “Make His will your will.)
But one particular guest looked less stunned than genuinely confused.
“How can you say that you are not “choosing” to keep Shabbat?” my bewildered guest inquired with more than a hint of disbelief in his voice. “No one is compelling you to keep it! You are choosing to keep it even as we sit here at this very moment!”
His question was so simple on the one hand and yet so complex on the other that I found myself at a sudden loss for words (something we rabbis aren’t used to!). You see, inasmuch as he’s technically right that I choose to observe the Shabbos, this choice didn’t and doesn’t feel like other life choices.
Schnitzel or hamburger from the lunch menu certainly feels like a personal choice, as does electing to go with Cupcake Blue as the paint color for the living room. Embracing Shabbos observance, on the other hand, seems more like opting into a value system than anything else, and therefore functions as a choice of a wholly different sort.
To the halachicaly observant Jew, Shabbos observance is understood as part of G-d’s moral code. Do I choose, then, to observe the Shabbos, or do I more affirm its moral character and therefore feel myself compelled to its observance?  It seems to me to be the latter, and the word “choose,” then, just seems out of place.
I found myself contemplating my guest’s question throughout the following week and troubled with why I had found it so difficult to piece together a cogent response at the Shabbos table.
Enter professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his revelatory The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt had discovered in his time in university that the modern Western student perceived morality almost entirely through the limited prisms of two principles, one relating to harming others and another relating to fairness. The outgrowth of this kind of thinking: if something is fair and does no harm it is morally permissible.
Haidt points out that there are at least three other dimensions of the moral life as understood in non-Western cultures. One is loyalty and its opposite, betrayal. Another is respect for authority and its opposite, subversion. The third is the need to establish protective walls around certain nonnegotiable values. These are things we call sacred.
This, I came to understand, is why I had such difficulty explaining my thoughts to my guest. We truly come from two very different moral universes and speak two very different moral languages.
Through my friend’s Western eyes, Shabbos observance was a choice because it had nothing to do with fairness or harm. No one would be harmed if I took the Shabbos off, nor would it negatively tilt the scales of fairness. It therefore had nothing to do with morality per se. It was, rather, a choice, perhaps a good one at that, to practice Jewish ritual.
But in my moral universe, the Torah as my guide, the observance of the Shabbos was most certainly a moral commitment, rooted in my sense of loyalty and submission to God, and in the belief that I ought not profane that which is hallowed.
If I wanted to ever explain my point of view to my Shabbos guest, I would have to do much more than speak words. I would have to introduce my friend to a whole new way of thinking about morality.
I write all the above not to denigrate those who don’t observe the Shabbos fastidiously, nor to raise those who keep the Shabbos on high. We are all, hopefully, on our own paths up the holy mountain.
Rather, I feel it’s time, as we re-accept the Torah on Shavuot, that we re-examine our moral palates and make sure we’re sensitive to all of Judaism’s moral notes. We need those notes of fairness and harm, so esteemed in our times, and we need to take a second look at loyalty, respect for authority and the world of the sacred so revered in our time-honored tradition. If we do so we will surely be worthy of receiving the Torah once again.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

Made in image of God, how can men kill?

Posted on 18 May 2017 by admin

This wasn’t the first time I had been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I went many years earlier as a day school student on a school trip to our nation’s capital and keenly remember the powerful effect that exposure to the museum’s many exhibits had upon me.
The pictures lining the walls were difficult to take in. Black-and-white photographs of human skeletons, barely alive, peering with hollow eyes at the Allied soldiers who had come to free them from the hellish camps. Stacks of naked corpses piled high like firewood. A painful burning sensation filled my insides just thinking about the tortured, the murdered and the maimed. My young heart was broken over lives forever separated from loved ones and the great masses permanently scarred by ordeals human beings should never endure.
I couldn’t help but contrast the feelings I experienced then to the feelings I was experiencing now as I returned to those very same exhibit halls, this time as a grown man. It was to be expected that the shock factor would not be the same. After all, since that time I had read books on the Holocaust and seen Schindler’s List and movies like it. I knew, so to speak, how the story ended.
What came as an utter surprise, though, was the nagging sense that I wasn’t contemplating the same Holocaust narrative that I had exposure to as a schoolboy. If my first visit was a personal call to sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, my second visit was more a philosophical inquiry into the minds of the evil Nazi perpetrators.
It was one particularly disturbing placard on the wall that caught my attention and sent my mind racing. The picture was of a Nazi soldier aiming his gun at the back of a Jewish man’s head. The victim’s eyes were blank, his knees bent on the earth, perched at the edge of a freshly dug pit quickly filling with the newly butchered. The blurb on the bottom of the placard noted that one-quarter of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were shot by mobile killing squads.
Besides the sheer eeriness of a photo that kept frozen in time the last moment of a person’s life, it was the frightening statistic about the killing squads that most stood out to me.
As heinous as the gas chambers were, there is something about the way they were operated, the fact that the murderer and the victim were not face-to-face, that helped me comprehend how a human being could compel himself to the gas chamber’s usage.
But shooting someone face-to-face? Seeing the raw human emotions of a mother grasping onto her child, the tears rolling down her cheeks, and still mustering the wherewithal to shoot? Incomprehensible! And to think that this was not a small percentage of the murders of the Holocaust, but a full fourth! My mind was spinning, searching for answers.
Dehumanization may be the most powerful tool in the war against a people, and this was most certainly not lost on the Nazi propagandists during the lead-up to the Final Solution. The Jews were proclaimed a scourge upon Germany, as the lowliest of all nations and as a Poisonous Mushroom, as the title of the German children’s book about the Jews implied.
This was the real secret behind the success of the Nazis in implementing their evil plans. If the Jews were a plague upon Germany, the killing squads were merely taking out the trash.
It is with all of this in mind that in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial Museum I found myself returning to one of the most important teachings of the Torah, one with profound, everlasting moral implications: “For in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
It is this singular, most powerful belief in the divinely inspired nature of man that beckons us to treat each other, all people, with love, respect and dignity. It is also this belief that spurred our Founding Fathers to write those most cherished of words — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For when you see the divinity in one another, you cannot dehumanize. When you come to recognize that God is a Father to us all, you cannot pick out or pick on any of His children.
The Holocaust museum reminded me that “Never Again” and “for in the image of God He created man” are inextricably linked. They were connected back then, and they will be connected forever.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

Peril found in ‘us-and-them’ thinking

Posted on 04 May 2017 by admin

It was the most disturbing experience I had during my almost two years studying in yeshiva in Israel. My friend who studied in a small yeshiva on the outskirts of one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem had invited me to spend Shabbos with him.
I looked forward to every Shabbos spent in Jerusalem, but this neighborhood, in particular, held a special place in my heart. I regularly made memorable trips to this shtetl-like neighborhood on Friday afternoons, taking in the smells of simmering overnight cholent and potato kugel from the local homestyle eateries and perusing the Jewish bookstores.
Walking through the labyrinth-like alleyways, I would find my way to the basement of a local yeshiva for an afternoon class on ethics and piety that still inspires me to this day. My trips to this area of town always left me spiritually invigorated and yearning for a return visit.
The entire Shabbos spent with my friend was beautiful and magical, just as I had expected, but a short incident late Saturday afternoon would forever mar the memory of this otherwise idyllic Shabbos.
A Filipino woman was walking down the sidewalk and into the neighborhood. Two boys from the area, maybe 10 or 11 years old, dressed in Shabbos garb, yelled out toward her, “Shiksa! Shiksa! Get out of here!” Although no Yiddish scholar myself, I knew what a “shiksa” was and I was incensed that they would fling these hurtful words at a woman simply trying to make her way down the block.
In my broken Hebrew I yelled at the boys. “What a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name)! You are violating halachah (Jewish law)! How can you speak like that?”
If I expected my words to hit their mark, I was sadly mistaken.
“Then you are a goy, too!” one of them yelled back at me. Just like that, I had become an outsider too.
Although this experience was the only negative one I had witnessed in my many visits there, and as much I’m tempted to chalk this incident up to a few impetuous and unruly unsupervised boys, I must consider the possibility that this behavior, anecdotal as it may be, is indicative of a larger issue that plagues groups in general and religious groups in particular.
The findings in the study of psychology of religion are noteworthy. Religious practitioners exhibit stronger than average care and concern for coreligionists than you would find amongst fellow citizens in the general public. This “love your neighbor as yourself” sensibility is termed “in-group favoritism” by academics, and demonstrates religion’s ability to widen the family circle of care to others who would otherwise be perceived as complete strangers if not for their shared religion. All who ascribe to the same faith become part of “us.”
There is, however, a danger that lurks in the otherwise virtuous waters of this kind of thinking. Anytime there is an “us” there is always a “them.” And as natural as it may be to go the extra mile for one of “us” it is just as natural to consciously or unconsciously develop an empathetic blind spot toward one of “them.”
This is what scholars in the field call “out-group derogation,” in which religious individuals show disfavor toward out-group members. The fact that positive relationships between religiousness and increased prejudiced attitudes toward others have been documented and supported in numerous studies (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010) should alert the religious individual to carefully examine the biases they have formed toward others.
Aware of this potential moral pitfall, the Torah warns us of this dangerous kind of groupthink. And in an unexpected place, the laws of kashrut.
In a long list of forbidden fowl lies the stork, the chasidah, whose translated name means “the righteous one.” Rashi, commenting on this noteworthy name, quotes the Talmud’s explanation that the stork displays kindness (chesed) toward others of its species by sharing food with them.
If, as our tradition suggests, the Torah forbids the consumption of animals who exhibit distinct negative character traits, why should the stork be forbidden? The Rizhiner Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi in 19th-century Ukraine and Austria, smartly responded that the stork is forbidden because it directs its kindness exclusively toward its fellows, but will not help other species. This, he said, is not kosher behavior!
It is understandable to develop a fondness for, and a unique relationship with, other members of one’s religious group. After all, you enjoy shared moral perspectives and religious commitments. The stork teaches us that we must nevertheless remain vigilant to never lose sight of the empathy and care we must have for “others.” Anything less than that is indeed treif.
I hope the boys I came across that day in Jerusalem end up studying this lesson of the stork one day and find a way to exhibit what we know must be true — a strong “us” does not need to lead to a demonized “them.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

Shabbat’s importance easily forgotten among ‘moral commandments’

Posted on 20 April 2017 by admin

The man sitting across from me at the pizza shop was a religiously liberal individual for sure, but also very much a person who wore his Judaism on his sleeve and whose life was dedicated to promoting Jewish values as he understood them. We were meeting to get to know each other and to share our personal stories and communal goals with each other.
In between bites of pizza he shared with me his philosophy on Jewish practice, one he knew I stood in strong opposition to. “I follow the moral commandments of the Torah,” was the way he put it. It was code for, “only part of the Torah remains relevant in this day and age.” “Thou shalt not kill” and “love your neighbor as yourself” still led the moral way, but the dietary laws of kashrut or the command to don tefillin daily had long ago lost their spiritual value and resonance in daily Jewish practice.
“What about Shabbat?” I asked him. “Do you consider Shabbat a moral commandment?”
I knew he did not keep the laws of Shabbat and was curious as to what he would say about the place of this most central of commandments.
“Hmm… I can’t say I’ve thought about that one,” he replied, “but, I don’t think that I would categorize Shabbat as a moral commandment.”
It was hard for me to fathom, but in but one short statement, uttered after a short moment of consideration, Shabbat, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, had been wiped clean from my friend’s Jewish hard drive, and so, he believed, should it be discarded from the rest of the Jewish people’s national consciousness.
I couldn’t help but wonder if my pizza-mate recognized the ramification of his philosophy. He was surely aware of what the great Hebrew essayist Achad Ha’am (1856-1927) had to say on the subject: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” And as Judith Shulevitz writes so beautifully in The Forward (“Remember the Sabbath,” 2010), “What he (Achad Ha’am) meant goes well beyond Jewish survivalism. He meant that the regulation of time through the laws of the Sabbath gave the Jews the chance to regroup in communities at the end of every week, and that regrouping sustained their Jewish identity.”
Even if Shabbat were to be categorized as a ritual commandment alone, does the Shabbat not act, then, as a sort of Jewish preservative, ensuring that the totality of the Jewish world-vision remain intact?
What did he think would become of a Jewish people for whom the Shabbat had become nothing more than a piece of national nostalgia, something a modern Jew could read about in history books or glimpse in old broadcasts of Fiddler on the Roof?
More than that, it felt important at that moment to illustrate the fruitlessness of an endeavor to categorize the Torah’s commands into those that had moral bearing and those that did not. For as much as the Torah itself groups certain commandments as “chukim” (commandments whose rationale is hidden) and certain commandments as “mishpatim” (commandments whose rationale is obvious), the Torah never suggests that any of its commandments are free of moral constitution.
It would be the mitzvah of the Shabbat, then, that would serve as the example for my lunch date that robust moral DNA lies in every one of the Torah’s commandments, both the “chukim” and the “mishpatim.”
“Imagine the newly freed slave-nation that was the early Israelites,” I implored my lunch-mate to consider.
“They had been long been indoctrinated by their Egyptian taskmasters that their sole worth lied in their economic contributions to society. A man who worked long hard hours building storehouses for the Pharaoh had worth, but a sick or elderly individual confined to their bed was not worthy of the sustenance it took to keep them alive.
“The command to rest on the seventh day of the week, was not only an invitation to dedicate a day of the week to the more important things in life, like faith, family and self, it was a national re-education of sorts. The Sabbath was God’s way of letting His people know that their worth was not tied to their workload or any other metric of personal productivity. The fact that they were endowed with a divine soul, created in the image of the Almighty Himself, was reason enough for every person to be treated with respect and worthy of honor.”
“If that’s not a mitzvah laced with great moral instruction for mankind,” I said, “I don’t know what is.”
My friend shrugged. “I had never thought of it that way,” he said.
I don’t know if the lesson I shared that day changed my friend’s mind or perspective on Judaism’s place in the modern world, but it’s a point that needed to be said and must continue to be shared in a world increasingly adrift from the commandments.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

We need little less ‘freedom,’ lot more Seder

Posted on 06 April 2017 by admin

It’s that special time of the year again when supermarkets in heavily Jewish neighborhoods advertise their Passover wares, all conveniently stocked under one roof. And inevitably, some clichéd tagline along the lines of, “helping you celebrate freedom!” will grace those holiday ads.
The advertising executives, with their catchy phrases, harken us back to the times when God redeemed His people from the bonds of Egypt that we may lighten our pockets at our local grocery stores.
It may sound unusual, but every year when I encounter these advertising slogans it brings about a particularly painful and prolonged visceral reaction inside of me. It bothers me. Do these chain stores think they understand the freedom that I am celebrating?  And for that matter, I’m not sure my fellow Jews understand either.
I imagine families around their Seder tables, struggling in their attempt to connect to a story of slavery and redemption thousands of years old. More recent examples of slavery and freedom from bondage will become topics of conversation. The slavery and liberation of Black slaves in the south will surely be referenced, and perhaps a somber contemplation of the current plight of Yazidi women in the hands of ISIS. The value of freedom will be extolled and most likely an acknowledgment of the blessings of life in America, “the land of the free.”
The modern conception of freedom, however, lies far in its connotation from the Biblical freedom that we commemorate in the yearly Seder. After all, for all of the blessings that modern freedom affords us, it has been nothing if not a mixed blessing for the Jews. For inasmuch as there has never been a time in our history with as much religious freedom, economic opportunity or physical security as we have now in America, there has also never been a time such as this of such great internal defection, with nearly 6 in 10 Jews intermarrying, 1 in 5 Jews describing themselves as having no religion, just 19 percent of Jewish adults who feel that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish and just 26 percent of U.S. Jews who describe their religion as being very important in their lives (A Portrait of Jewish Americans — Pew Research Center, 2013).
It’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah has overtaken Passover as the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Tim Newcomb, in an article in Time (“Why Hanukkah Is the Most Celebrated Jewish Holiday In America,” 2011), notes, “The lack of strict rules makes the holiday easy — and fun — to celebrate, which may be why research now shows Hanukkah is more celebrated — whether through the lighting of candles, gift giving, attending a party or a full celebration of the festival in Jewish practice — than even Passover.” In other words, Hanukkah, unlike Passover with its myriad rituals and requirements, is the quintessential holiday for the modern, “free” American Jew — fewer rules and more fun.
What, then, is this freedom that the Torah asks us to commemorate for all generations?  If you read the Biblical text carefully you will notice that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is not so much a freedom from bondage but a transfer of ownership from one slave master to another. As Moses stresses over and over in the Biblical narrative, it is only for the purpose of serving the one and only God at the Holy Mountain that the Hebrews were to leave the confines of Egypt.
“And afterwards, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord God of Israel, “Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.” ’ ” (Exodus 5:1)
The Jews were to leave the tyrannical rule of a human despot for the loving service of their Maker on high.
The sages of the Talmud hint to the Torah’s unique vision of freedom by stating that the same letters that make up the word cheirut, “freedom,” also comprise the word charut, “engraved,” a reference to the engraved lettering of the Ten Commandments of stone. The lesson is that true freedom is only to be found in adherence to divine law.
Here lies the paradox of the Passover celebration. The night of the celebration of our national freedom is commemorated in highly legalized pageantry. The name of the night’s proceedings, the Seder, meaning “order,” is taken from the detailed laws that dominate the night.
The freedom that we commemorate on Passover is a liberty laced with great personal and national responsibility. If we exercise our freedom to fulfill our obligations and spiritual calling, then freedom becomes a vehicle for good; but if we approach freedom as carte blanche to do and act as we please, then freedom takes more away from us than it offers in return.
The great freedoms of our country have given a broken people reeling from the horrors of Nazi Europe a fresh chance at life and they have also, unmistakably, taken a toll on our people’s spiritual core. As we celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage together with our freedoms of today, let us remember the costs of freedom and ensure that we are celebrating and utilizing the honorable brand of freedom and not the indulgent variety that has become popular of late.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Comments (0)

View or Subscribe to the
Texas Jewish Post

Advertise Here

Photos from our Flickr stream

See all photos

Advertise Here