A Moment of Thanks

With the presidential race now so prominent in the collective American consciousness, the following story is especially apropos. In the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, there was an elderly native of the city who prayed with the Yeshiva each morning. On the morning following the presidential election in the United States, before prayers began, he went to one of the American boys and asked him who had won.

I don’t know if the young student knew the answer, but he was struck by the question. Why would an old man from Jerusalem care about the elections, so much so that he would go out of his way to ask about the results before prayers? Doesn’t G-d come first?

Asked for an explanation, the man replied that he was about to say a blessing thanking G-d for giving him the opportunity to be part of the Jewish People. Although everyone is created in the image of G-d and every righteous person has a share in the World to Come, to be called to serve G-d through all His Commandments is unique privilege. And when making that blessing, he wanted to think about the greatest and most powerful non-Jew in the world!

To give the story a bit of deeper insight, consider that this elderly gentleman lived in poverty in a small Jerusalem apartment. If I’m not mistaken, the protagonist used to sit in the back of the Bais Medrash (study hall), tying Tzitzis (fringes on the corners of garments) for a living while he reviewed the Babylonian Talmud by heart. He was quite poor, yet considered himself blessed beyond the most powerful man in the world.

Every one of us has our own individual set of challenges and opportunities placed before us. Our Sages tell us that we must say, “the entire world was created for me.” Whatever our situation, we have incredible blessings which we often take for granted. Most of us have legs to walk on, are able to breathe the air around us, and are able to marvel at a sunset. But even those who are not able to do all those things have many others for which to be thankful.

Rabbi Asher Z Rubenstein of Jerusalem offers another parable, related to the Commandment of Bikurim, bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem. After bringing Bikurim, we are told: “and you shall rejoice in all the good which HaShem your G-d has given to you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger among you” [Deut 26:11].

Imagine a farmer who owns a few acres of land, works that land for a year, sees it produce enough food to feed his family, and happily packs a portion of his small crop to bring up to Jerusalem. But when he reaches the main road to Jerusalem, it is blocked by one carriage after another — each carriage laden with a different item, each offering as large as the farmer’s entire crop. And in the middle of it all sits one wealthy man in a gleaming carriage, the owner of all this bounty, produced off his land by hired help while he sat in the lap of luxury.

Suddenly, the farmer isn’t so happy anymore. Nothing has changed — except his heart. He feels inadequate, even jealous. That is the moment where the farmer must remind himself to “rejoice in all the good which HaShem your G-d has given to you and your house.”

Today, our world is filled with opportunities for us to feel that inadequacy. In the middle of an economy in which so many are unemployed or underemployed, we can now explore the lifestyles of billionaires as never before. There’s even a website for the “rich kids of instagram,” which features photos of wealthy young men and women (apparently taken from the Instagram photo-sharing site) enjoying their mansions, fancy cars and 12-course meals prepared by their private chef.

Your world was created for you, and no other. Hashem wants you to appreciate the blessings that you have, even among the challenges unique to your situation. That is the message of our reading. We should be thankful for what we have, and ask G-d to fulfill our needs — not those of our current or next president, nor those of a young man overwhelmed by wealth. We have something much more valuable, if we only recognize it — a world tailor-made just for us!

Sign of a True Leader

In this week’s reading, G-d explains to Moshe how his successors will be chosen. Hashem Himself will choose the leader, “who will go out in front of them, and who will come in before them, and they will go out and come in, and the congregation of G-d will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

If you ask most people what they think is the ideal form of government, they will probably choose democracy. When compared to communism, dictatorships, monarchies and oligarchies, we see their point. But is it really such a great choice? In the United States, tens of millions of dollars will be wasted this year to convince millions of people, most of them woefully ignorant of the candidates, issues, and policy choices, to pull one lever versus another — based entirely upon advertisements which willfully distort the opponent’s record and glorify the candidate’s own, and “news” reports whose partiality is obvious. If that is insufficient to give you second thoughts, one word: Egypt. That’s the country that just selected the Muslim Brotherhood, a “suspected” supporter of terrorism according to the US, to lead it. Gaza similarly elected Hamas, a murderous gang unquestionably in the same category. And for that matter, Hitler ysv”z was elected democratically as well.

Interestingly enough, the Mishnah [Sotah 9:15] says that one of the signs of the “footsteps of the Messiah” is that “the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.” There are many explanations as to what this means, but one of them is that the leadership will lead in the manner that a dog leads its owner. The dog bounds ahead, but is limited, leashed by the owner. When they come to a street corner, the dog may choose to go in one direction, only to find the owner choosing a different one. Moments later, where is the dog? Out in front of its owner once again, “leading” in the new direction. That’s what democracy looks like!

The Avnei Azel explains that in order to be a true leader one must lead, rather than being driven by polls. The Jewish Nation must be a meritocracy, with a leader capable of uplifting the people, rather than being dragged down by them. He must “go before them” and lead the congregation, rather than looking over his shoulder to see which way people want to go, and then fulfilling their desires. Look how much abuse Moshe had to put up with because he wouldn’t do whatever the congregation wanted! And that’s what made him, although he was “the most humble of men,” also an unparalleled leader.

Bucking the Trend

This week, we read about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an, who came back with a bad report — the land is filled with giants, they said, and even if we were to somehow beat them, the land consumes its inhabitants! Only two of the spies came back ready to talk about the “very, very good… land flowing with milk and honey.” Those two were Yehoshua (Joshua) from the tribe of Ephraim, and Kalev ben Yefuneh from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah).

The Torah tells us that Yehoshua’s name was really Hoshea, but Moshe added a letter Yud at the beginning of his name. He knew prophetically what was to happen, and prayed that “‘Y-h’ (G-d) should ‘yoshea’ (save) you from the plan of the spies.”
But what about Kalev? Who prayed for him?

The Talmud (Sotah 11b) points out that Kalev’s real name was, just like Hoshea’s, not the one given to us in the Torah. In I Chronicles 2 the descendants of Judah are recorded. He had five sons, the fourth of whom was Perez. Perez had two sons, Chetzron and Chamul. [Chetzron’s son Ram was the grandfather of Nachshon ben Amminadav, who “triggered” the parting of the Sea by entering the water — and Nachshon’s great-great-grandson was King David ben Yishai.]

Chetzron also had another son… named Kalev. This, the Talmud tells us, is the same person identified in the Torah as Kalev ben Yefuneh.

So if Kalev’s father’s name was Chetzron, why was he identified as Kalev ben Yefuneh in the Torah? The Talmud explains: because he was the son who “Panah” (turned away) from the plan of the spies.

Kalev had both the wisdom and fortitude to recognize when those around him were turning off the path, and to avoid following them “off the cliff.” There are times when “everyone” in society around us is doing and/or advocating for something very wrong, and it isn’t so easy to be in the minority, blindly following the old Sage (in this case, Moshe himself) who is surely leading us to destruction. May we all find the strength of Kalev to “buck the trend!”

A Moderate Life

Prior to Shavuos, our family went to a Sunday brunch celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of a cousin. At some point, I found myself in conversation with the uncle of the honoree, also a cousin and, of course, of my own generation. One of us got a text message, I believe, which turned the conversation to smartphones and the next technologies on the way. Although we’ve known each other essentially all his life (I have about five years on him), he eventually commented that he had to adjust mentally to the idea of talking about high-tech with someone looking like a yeshiva (traditional Rabbinic school) alumnus.

To those not familiar, I suppose it’s rather easy to confuse Orthodox Jews with the Amish, or the ascetics of other communities who shun technology, marriage, and other pleasures. But that is not what the Torah asks of us. As Maimonides advises us, the Torah looks for moderation in most every area.

In our reading this week, the head of each Jewish tribe brings an inaugural offering upon the completion of the Tabernacle. Each of those offerings was precisely the same. Yet the Torah, concerning which we are taught that every letter is holy and none is wasted, describes each offering in full detail, allocating the same six verses to repeat, practically word for word, what each Nasi brought on each day. Achira ben Einan of Naftali’s offering on day twelve is described with all the details of Nachshon ben Amminadav of Yehudah’s on day one. What’s the point of all that repetition?

Rabbi Shmuel Greinemann explains that it was no accident that Nesanel ben Tzuar of Yissachar chose, on the second day, to bring precisely what Nachshon ben Amminadav brought the day earlier. He knew that each of the tribes could engage in one-upmanship, compensating for and taking advantage of going later in line to bring something greater than the other Nesi’im had brought so far. Instead, Nesanel ben Tzuar chose a path designed to avoid any hint of jealousy, and to generate feelings of love and brotherhood. And every Nasi followed suit. That was what was so precious about each and every offering, warranting that it, too, be described with the same level of detail in the Torah itself as all the others.

We live at a time where keeping up with (and outdoing) our neighbors is a fine American (and even global) pastime. That is what the Torah asks us to avoid: to engage in moderation, live within our means, and encourage brotherhood rather than jealousy. And if we want to know how precious that is to G-d, we merely need to contemplate how much space He allocated in His Torah to ensuring that each Nasi was recognized for his personal contribution in this area.

I look forward to reading your comments!

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

Life Beyond Internet

On Monday, Paul Miller, a Senior Editor at a “technology-focused news publication” called The Verge, announced that he was quitting the Internet for a year. He’s switched to a “dumb” phone, and has pledged to neither use the Internet nor ask others to use it for him, if he can.

His reasons for this drastic move are informative. He hopes that “leaving the internet will make me better with my time, vastly more creative, a better friend, a better son and brother… a better Paul.” He said that he was spending an average of over twelve hours each day using some sort of device with an Internet connection, not even including his smartphone.

By separating myself from the constant connectivity, I can see which aspects are truly valuable, which are distractions for me, and which parts are corrupting my very soul. What I worry is that I’m so “adept” at the internet that I’ve found ways to fill every crevice of my life with it, and I’m pretty sure the internet has invaded some places where it doesn’t belong.

This is a profound statement for a person who makes his living as a technology writer, a job that will be far more difficult without the ability to research new devices online, see what others have written, and even exchange e-mail to share ideas. His previous weekly column was entitled “The Verge at work: sync your text everywhere, never lose an idea again” — which, of course, requires the Internet.

Yet after his first day, he described the experience in glowing terms. “The moment I reached down and unplugged the ethernet cable from my computer, I felt like school was out for the summer, and the simultaneous relief and boredom that last bell brings. I stood up, and I realized that I’d been anticipating this moment for ages.” The rest of his day was relaxing — including hours spent playing local multiplayer video games with colleagues.

At home I listened to records with my roommate and the peaceful boredom continued. I found myself really engaging in the moment, asking questions and listening closely, even more than if I’d just closed my computer or locked my phone, because I knew neither of those things could demand anything of me.

What I suspect he will discover is that Day 31 isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Day 1, especially given his career. But he has clearly recognized that it takes a complete disconnect in order to avoid distractions, and that other areas of our lives suffer when buried under a flurry of text messages, interesting articles and more.

It is possible, though, to take a less extreme approach and enjoy the same benefits: a weekly disconnect. It is as if the Laws of the Sabbath, which G-d called a special gift thousands of years ago, were expressly designed for our era. Now, more than ever, we need to turn off these devices in order to tune in to what really matters.

In our world, that doesn’t mean spending hours playing video games with colleagues, but devoting that time to family, friends, and spiritual growth. You, too, can experience Day One of “Life without the Internet” — each and every week.

Published as the Project Genesis Lifeline.

The Powers That Be

This week, I cannot refer to “this week’s reading” and be universally accurate. The Torah portion read this week in Israel is “out of sync” with the rest of the world, a phenomenon that will continue for another month. This is because while Israel celebrates the holy days of the three festivals on one day each, those living outside Israel celebrate them for two. Since the last day of Passover was on Friday this year, in Israel they read Parshas Shemini on Shabbos, while outside Israel, we read the special reading for the eighth day of Passover, and will read Shemini this week.

This causes a minor inconvenience for many people. Many apps and webpages written in Israel, for instance, refer to a different Torah reading than those written outside it. This week, many who are about to travel to Israel will walk to places where they can listen to Israel’s reading in order to “catch up.”

Now of course, you can find some people today who say that we really should only have one Passover Seder. This usually comes from the same sources that claim that Ashkenazic Jews shouldn’t care about eating kitniyos (legumes, rice, etc.) on Passover anymore — and that oh, by the way, the traditionalists are so monolithic! As I have written before, we should celebrate the diversity of customs that have developed over thousands of years of Jewish history, all surrounding a common core of Torah and Rabbinic legislation designed to encourage us to come closer to G-d.

For the record, I recently saw a webpage which explained accurately that the reason why Jews outside Israel observed two days of the holidays was because the community in Babylon could not receive timely word from Jerusalem concerning which of two possible days was consecrated as the new month, because this was done only based upon eyewitness testimony before the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious court. The same page, however, also asserts that this practice “continued even after mathematical models made it possible to calculate the date of the new moon.”

This latter statement is inaccurate: the mathematical models were in Jewish hands from the time that the Torah was given, to a degree of accuracy that required NASA to replicate. That is why we can still rely upon the calendar established by Hillel Sheni (the second Rabbi Hillel), although it is nearing two millenia since his lifetime. He created a set calendar not because he had developed a mathematical model, but because he recognized that there would soon not be a Sanhedrin to receive witnesses! The festivals still carry with them the message that the Jewish people has the ability to affect the entire world, spiritually, by affecting the time when the spiritual powers encapsulated within the festivals come into the world once again.

One day soon, we should hope to see the day when everyone returns to Israel, observes one day of all holidays, and a cloudy evening might affect when they are!