Rabbi's Weekly Message

Obverse of Adverse - January 12

Dear Chaverim,

The Golden Globe Awards this week dealt very directly with the issue of sexual harassment and showcased even to the point of caricature how celebrity has been conflated with wisdom, insight, and moral leadership. It could easily be argued that the three institutions most rife with sexual misconduct today are politics, the media, and entertainment. Hollywood is the home of what has been called the culture industry. Culture industry is a term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheim in the 1940s to describe how popular culture is mass-produced to lull the public into a state of complacency. The chief danger of this is that people become distracted by movies, TV, and related merchandising instead of caring about the erosion of artistic culture, social justice, and democracy. In light of what we know in 2018, Hollywood's orchestrating itself as the agent of change may be both hugely ironic and a big case of too little, too late.

I am generally of the opinion that those who specialize in body image, acting (an art of deception), and self-promotion should not be looked to for wisdom and leadership. However, Perkei Avot teaches, "איזהוחכםהלומדמכלאדם - Who is wise? One who learns from all." Thus, I must put aside my cynicism every once in awhile, and ask myself what can be learned from even the creators of such cultural touchstones as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and Women Behind Bars (1975).

CBC Radio shared a story about Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman in which a troll (one who uses insulting and abusive language anonymously online when it would be untenable to use such language in the open) says something abusive to her on Twitter. Typically, the response to trolling is to block the abuser, or to react with abuse or indignation. Silverman took a different approach. She responded, "I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back [really hurts too]. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you."

What followed was a Twitter exchange in which the troll let down his guard, disclosed that he was in emotional pain and was also abusing painkillers. Silverman helped him get help with his abuse of pain medication.

The moral of the story is that often anger is about something different from what it appears to be about. The best response may be what psychologists call non-complementary behaviour. In other words, don't fight fire with fire. Meet anger with a different emotion. Sometimes it is best to ask what is behind the fire, address the fuel source, ask where the pain is.  

Not every adversary needs to be adversarial. They can be helpful. There is a very subtle way in which this message is announced in Parshat Vaera. Moshe has come to introduce Pharaoh to the notion of Gd's dominion over nature. He begins with the sign of the staff turning into a serpent and then returning to a staff. Pharaoh is unconvinced. He shows that his magicians can fool people into thinking that they can turn staffs into snakes. Moshe's staff then devours the staff of Pharaoh's magicians. Pharaoh is stubborn. In failing to heed Moshe, he willingly incurs the burden of the plague of blood.

     

הדגה אשר ביאר מתה ויבאש היאר ולא יכלו מצרים לשתות מים מן היאר ויהי הדם בכל ארץ מצרים . ויעשו כן חרטמי מצרים בלטיהם ויחזק לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם כאשר דבר יהוה. ויפן פרעה ויבא אל ביתו ולא שת לבו גם לזאת. ויחפרו כל מצרים סביבת 

היאר מים לשתות כי לא יכלו לשתת ממימי היאר 

 

And the fish in the river died, the river became putrid and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river and there was blood in all Egypt. The Egyptian magicians did similarly with their magic and the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened and he did not heed them as Gd had warned. And Pharaoh turned into his house and paid no heed to this. And all of Egypt dug [wells] around the river for drinking water, for they could not drink from the river.

The great 19th century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush says that this passage should be understood in terms of a binary choice. Pharaoh and Egypt could have recognized that Moshe was not the enemy. Moshe represented Gd and offered the keys to the water problem. Pharaoh knew his options, and knew Moshe could solve his problems. He also knew Moshe wanted to solve them. Pharaoh chose instead to pay no heed to Moshe and to literally dig everywhere else for a remedy. I believe that the Torah is mocking the 'strength' of Pharaoh at this moment as a sort of silly puffery that prefers the appearance of strength to progress and what is really best for the people of Egypt.  Moshe remains at the ready to assist Pharaoh. It is Pharaoh who chooses to play the adversary.

I think these two stories are concrete examples of how to reframe negative encounters. If we can take a moment and see past the anger that might be coming out, then we may be able to find the obverse of the adverse. We can channel expressions of anger into indications of a problem, and thus work to a solution.  

I have witnessed many angry exchanges between spouses, siblings, parents and children, even colleagues. I count myself among the offenders. Channelling our anger into curiosity may provide remarkable gifts to us.

For over a year now, the culture industry has been waging its version of a culture war. However, this is about more than Hollywood, sexual assault, or politics. The spirit of our time is rife with ad hominem political attacks, blaming, shaming, and vilification. Liberals and conservatives both are guilty of doing what the trolls do. They shout to please their own base, to win likes and points with those who are already converted. The problem with mass media warfare is that it is exactly the opposite of what Sarah Silverman did on a personal level.

Remember, Pharaoh refused to see Moshe as his advocate. He took the easy road framing Moshe as the enemy. The current culture is in danger of failing the same way Pharaoh did by escalating the blame game. Instead, we all need to listen to what is behind the anger, discover where the disconnect exists, and work to a solution.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Personality and Leadership - January 6

Dear Chaverim,
Contrary to the sabre-rattling rhetoric of certain national leaders, the size of the nuclear missile launch button is the least relevant thing about a potential nuclear engagement. Kim Jung Un is widely believed to promote the North Korean nuclear program as a pathway to legitimacy in the international community. I am genuinely puzzled by the idea that his tough talk would be a strategy to gain respect. To me it rings of narcissism and drips with insecurity. I would be more swayed by the philosophy of Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly and carry a big stick. 

On the other hand, contrary to my own distaste for it, narcissists seem to be a popular leadership choice in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, and North Korea to name a few. Even open democracies have freely chosen overpoweringly narcissistic leaders.

While the research is highly critical of narcissistic leadership in both business and political contexts, narcissism does seem to have an occasional advantage. Dr. Jerrold M Post, a professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University argues, "at moments of societal crisis, otherwise mature and psychologically healthy individuals may temporarily come to feel overwhelmed and in need of a strong and self-assured leader. But when the historical moment passes, so too does the need." (see Post, Jerrold M. "Narcissism and the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship." Political Psychology, vol. 7 1986).   

Post's prime example of the benefits of narcissistic leadership was Turkey in crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. Post considers Ataturk the ideal leader for his time because he was able to use his dominant personality to be "a force for healing." The founder of modern Turkey imparted on a fractured society a sense of wholeness by forging a "special relationship with his 'ideal-hungry' followers."


Could we say the same of the today's elected [or quasi-elected] narcissists? Is Putin the answer to a Russia struggling for progress and legitimacy after the fall of communism? Is Duterte the tonic for a Philippines beset by poverty and corruption? I think Post is onto something arguing that when people perceive themselves to be in crisis, anyone who seems ultra-sure of himself provides comfort and security regardless of how ill-informed or badly conceived his plan. However, the confidence that such men [always men] broadcast to the masses is merely 'fake news'.

Things were no better in ancient times. Pharaoh was a narcissist, projecting himself as a god. The Book of Ezekiel says that he described himself as the Great Crocodile that patrolled the river Nile. Like today's despots, he had to create a crisis from which to save his subjects. He created paranoia of extreme proportions by forecasting a future alliance between the growing Jewish population and a fictitious enemy. Worst of all, Pharaoh clung to his 'divine' authority and rejected the ever-clearer pattern of the "signs and wonders" of the Gd of Heaven and Earth. In the face of such evidence, people then were no more fooled than we are today by the bluster of our own dictators and autocrats. The Egyptians said to Pharaoh, "we will soon know that Egypt is lost."

Moshe represents the diametric opposite of Pharaoh. Moshe is the humble and self-critical leader. He refuses to believe in himself as the source of his power. He refuses to take all the credit. Moshe's selection as leader is based on his ability to feel the pain of others and to intervene on their behalf to his detriment. He gives up his palace career and status to save the oppressed. Moshe does not own the treasure taken out of Egypt. He must solicit gifts from the tribes, for he is beholden to them. Moshe will wear a tunic with no pockets, because he wishes to demonstrate that he has not taken for himself even a shekel. Pharaoh owned it all. Moshe owned nothing.  

Throughout the narratives of the Bible, Moshe is humble. He will reveal to the daughters of Tzelafchad that he does not know the answer to the question of their inheritance. He will reveal in the case of the wood-chopper who gathered wood on the Sabbath that he does not know how to proceed. He will also confess his ignorance to those prevented from taking part in the Passover offering because of impurity. In each case, he must ask Gd for an answer. He could have faked it - who would have known? The Torah tells us that the single most important leader in Jewish history is thus defined by humility not by arrogance.


In light of the stark differences between Pharaoh and Moshe, I stand by my gut instinct that humility trumps self-confidence in leadership. Moshe inherited a crisis that could match that of any leader. As Jerrold Post says about the virtue of narcissism in leaders "when the historical moment passes, so too does the need." Moshe's leadership needed to be enduring. Thus, there was no place for leadership based on "it's all about me" because that is just plain narcissism. Moshe is the opposite of the poor players of history who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. Those are the leaders full of sound and fury - full of themselves ­- who will ultimately signify nothing. That the leadership style exemplified by Moshe has preserved the Jewish people since the Exodus is proof that humility is Gd's archetype for enduring leadership.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Please note: The new Weekly Torah Primer will be sent on Mondays, going forward.

 

Vacation Primer #2 - December 29

Dear Chaverim,

Last week we published our first Vacation Torah Primer and we set a new record for Schara Tzedeck, the highest click through rate in our history!!  We learned a little about what people enjoyed and what they passed over.  We have tried to include a slightly more refined list for Parshat Shemot.  

We encourage you to take the opportunity to do some individual learning. To further this effort I have compiled some sources on the Torah reading of the following week, Shemot, Shabbat of January 6, 2018.

The Mitzvah of Torah study is a daily one, you might choose to pick one of these sources for each day of the week to build a steady diet of Torah study.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

Print

Rav Shimon Klein

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dr. Yael Shemesh


For Kids Torah Tots--a page for younger children

Parsha Pages for Youth (a multi page packet, with English, Hebrew, Sudoku and Cartoons on the Parsha)

Audio Torah From Yeshiva University

Parshat Shemot: From Elastigirl to Excalibur - Moshe's Origin Story

Canadian

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner: Mental Health in Jewish Law - Canadian

Dr. Yael Ziegler

Vancouver Torah Learning Centre

Rabbi Ari Federgrun's classes:

Why Bury? Different Perspectives on the Body After Death

Life After Death: Perspectives on the Soul


 

 

 

Vacation Torah Study Primer - December 23

Dear Chaverim,

The next couple weeks often offer some extra time off work and school with both statutory holidays, school holidays and a general slowdown in the pace of business in most professions.  We encourage you to take the opportunity to do some individual learning. To further this effort I have compiled some sources on the Torah reading of the following week, The Shabbat of December 30th, Parshat Vayechi.   This is really just a sample of the vast world of electronic Torah.  In this sampling you will find, video, audio and print sources, local, Israeli and North American content.  We have also included a special site for kids, Torah Tots.

The Mitzvah of Torah study is a daily one, you might choose to pick one of these sources for each day of the week to build a steady diet of Torah study.

Print

Rav Yoel Bin Nun

http://etzion.org.il/en/yaakov%E2%80%99s-blessings-menashe-and-efraim

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

http://rabbisacks.org/parsha/vayechi/

For Kids

Torah Tots--a page for younger children

http://www.torahtots.com/parsha.htm

Parsha Pages for Youth (a multi page packet, with English, Hebrew, Sudoku and Cartoons on the Parsha)

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/87a86f_27996fa5757d4d278b88ffbbb9a5fbde.pdf

Audio Torah From Yeshiva University

Did Joseph Forgive His Brothers?

http://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/891493/rabbi-yehuda-turetsky/machshava-on-the-parsha-did-yosef-ever-forgive-his-brothers-rabbeinu-bechayeh-ohr-hachaim-and-rav-shteinman/

On Wills and Estates

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/870733/rabbi-daniel-stein/wills-and-estate-planning/

Shani Taragin--Yosef and Yehuda the first Religious Zionists.

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/870855/mrs-shani-taragin/yosef-and-yehudah-the-first-religious-zionist-leaders/

Canadian

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner  

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/801766/rabbi-mordechai-torczyner-yu-torah-mitzion-toronto-kollel

 

Vancouver Torah Learning Centre


 

iBelieve?: The Age of the Universe by Rabbi Federgrun of the Vancouver Torah Learning Centre

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/891567/rabbi-ari-federgrun/ibelieve-the-age-of-the-universe/

The Housing Crisis and the Ethics of Rent Control by Rabbi Federgrun (VTLC)

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/891568/rabbi-ari-federgrun/the-housing-crisis-and-the-ethics-of-rent-control/

Video

Rav Shlomo Riskin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4DDEEbKy6o  

Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4xziGHkpaM  

Rav Benny Lau (Hebrew)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_PkWaYSyLY

Print (Hebrew / English toggle is available) Torah From the Bar Ilan Faculty

https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vayechi/vayechi.shtml

 

 

 

Chanukah Stories - December 15
 

Dear Chaverim,

The following is a modified version of the Yizkor Sermon of Yom Kippur 5778 - reproduced here for its connection to Chanukah.

There is a story told of many generations of the Hasidic masters:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer - and what he had set out to perform was done. A generation later, when the Maggid of Mezeritch was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the words and say, "we can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers - and what he wanted done became reality. Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. He too went into the woods and said, "we can no longer light a fire, no more do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs and that must be sufficient." And sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said, "we cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done."  And the storyteller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.  

I have told this before, but I need to tell it again. I find it sums up so much of what animates my own Judaism, my own life. There is something about the act of telling our stories that is powerfully animating.

There is some research that reflects the power of narrative as a tool for attaining resilience. Psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University found that people who feel they live meaningful lives and contribute to society share a narrative pattern. They tell stories that focus on redemption. The act of telling stories of redemption is itself redemptive. These stories are transformative because they teach us how to move from trouble to rescue, from adversity to strength, and from bad to good. Redemptive stories turn suffering into a positive emotional state. In our Canadian lexicon of heroes the best-known versions of these stories are of Terry Fox and Rick Hanson ­- both of whom turned a life-changing diagnosis into meaningful action.   

The Torah teaches the lesson of meaningful narrative in the negative example of the prophet Jonah. Jonah ends up in the belly of the great fish because he refuses to believe in transformation and change. He is disgusted by the idea that Gd would forgive the people of Nineveh, because in his estimation their transformation is only a veneer. Jonah paraphrases the covenant of forgiveness in which Gd is described as patient, slow to anger, merciful and truthful. However, Jonah cannot utter the word truthful in the context of Gd's judgement of Nineveh and swaps in the words, forgiving of evil in place of truthful.

As a Jewish community, we have been bequeathed millions of stories of redemption. They are the stories of immigrants from Nazi-occupied lands, Russia, the Soviet Union, Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt. They are the stories of people who fought Hitler and communism and who built the State of Israel and the institutions of our community.

The stories of our grandparents are redemptive. They are about bravery, perseverance, and faith. We are sometimes made jealous by their stories, because we know that we are not as tough as they were. We know that we live pampered and coddled lives compared to the adversity they overcame.  

When we begin our narratives with, "my bubbe used to, or my zeyde used to..."  we become bound to them through their stories. They connect us to something important. They help us understand our place of belonging in the broader world. They help us to make their story our own. They help us to be the continuation of their acts of redemption.

The declaration of this is how my grandparents did this is a transformative moment. It is when their action becomes mine. It is when the signature of a ritual, recipe, or act of charity becomes more than an instant. It becomes a signature of identity.

As we connect with a particular story from bubbe and zeyde, they connect us to the larger transformative narrative of the Jewish people. Passover, Chanukah, Shavuot, and the catalogue of Jewish holidays articulate our resonance with a transformative history.

A limitation of Jewish education in the classroom is that it does not completely connect the student to the transformative narrative of the Jewish people. When the stories are told only in the classroom they run the risk of just being academic exercises.

This is an unfortunate truth of Jewish supplementary schooling in North America. One of the prevailing themes of religious education in the baby boom era was that parents wanted to drop their children off to soak up Jewish content in their education. The most satisfied parents were those who felt that by sending their children to a Jewish school, they were free to do as they pleased at home, work, and in the community at large. This sentiment was summed up by a participant of a landmark study of the Chicago suburbs - the Lakeville Study - reported anonymously to shield the Chicago community from embarrassment. "I like [it]. It gives my boy a good Hebrew education. And they've left me alone - I've never been inside." Another acknowledged: "We joined for the kids. The kids like it. We are satisfied. We feel no need for religion." (Wertheimer, Jack. "Jewish Education in the United States: Recent Trends and Issues." The American Jewish Year Book, 1999,3-115).

The authors of the study said the following.

Parents who hold to a pattern of minimal ritualism appear to rely primarily, and in some cases, almost exclusively, on the religious school for the Jewish socialization of their children. This dependence on the Jewish school constitutes a radical departure from the traditional approach to the rearing of the Jewish child. In past eras, the effort of the school to transmit the culture to their children represented merely a continuation of efforts already initiated by the parents. In North America that changed and the function of socialization into Jewish life, knowledge and culture has been separated from its traditional moorings in the family.

Our job is to connect the future generations to an ongoing story to ensure that they know we are all connected to the great story of Jewish transformation.  

One more story that captures the idea.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz recounted that the first year after his zeyde died, he went to his bubbe to light Chanukah candles. He lit them and saw that his bubbe was sad. "Bubbe, I know why you are sad. You miss zeyde. I also miss zeyde." "No," said bubbe, "that's not why I'm sad." "Did I make a mistake in the lighting? Did I do anything wrong?" "No. What you did was fine." "So, bubbe, why are you sad?" "Because," said Rabbi Steinsaltz's bubbie, "zeyde would dance after he lit the candles. You lit the candles but you didn't dance."

I think what has been lost is best told by a story. Yeshivot and day schools are indispensable. They are a cornerstone of Jewish life. They are part of the future of the Jewish diaspora. We would be entirely hopeless without them. However, we must remember they are a supplement to - not a substitute for - the transmission of our Messorah, tradition, Torah, Jewish identity, and our story.

It is hard to imagine schools being able to deliver that kind of memory and transcendence of the moment when zeyde dances. Connection of that magnitude is nearly irreproducible in the school context.

We must make our Jewish education vertical and integrated. Jewish education cannot be the alternative to the family. Jewish education must be an extension of Jewish family and community.  

We feel a little sheepish. Who dances after lighting Chanukah candles? Do we even feel worthy or authentic dancing at the Chanukah candles? I am not sure we have a choice. We need to recapture those stories, those moments. We have to ensure that we sing the kiddush and dance at Friday night services. We have to get our hands messy together making challah. We have to cry together at Yom Hashoah and Tisha B'av. We have to sing together when we make the charoset and dine at the seder table. We have to tell the story of how our grandparents built the schools and saved Israel in '48 and '67. We have to tell the story of how they survived Lodz and Warsaw, how they sang Selichot on the chain gangs, and how they resettled refugees and gave immigrants jobs. We have to know we are all vehicles of Jewish education. We are all links in the chain and, yes, we do need to dance after lighting the Chanukah candles.

I have written many eulogies for bubbes and the zeydes - enough to know that we have the stories and the moments to keep the narrative going.  

We cannot light the fire - that generation has faded. We cannot speak the prayers - that generation has gone silent. We do not know the place - that generation has passed through. However, we can tell the story of how it all was done. Each generation's storytellers add to the story to the same effect as those who went before. In the telling, across the thread of time and place, we all dance around the light of the Menorah.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt 

Mon, 15 January 2018 28 Tevet 5778