Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflection -- it's not just what's in the mirror

Rosh Hashanah

1-2 Tishrei 5772 / Sep. 28-30, 2011

Parashat Ha’azinu

D’varim 32:1 – 52
3 Tishrei 5772 / Sep. 30 - Oct. 1, 2011

The Rock – his deeds are perfect” – Deuteronomy 32:4

Referencing neither Dwayne Johnson, nor the Nicholas Cage / Sean Connery movie, “The Rock” is one of the many names used in the Jewish tradition for God. In Haazinu, the next to last portion of the Torah, we find Moses using poetry to describe to the Children of Israel the consequences that await them should they betray God. Moses specifically refers to God as being perfect. But what constitutes perfection?

More than anything else, beginning with the Hebrew month of Elul, which is about to conclude, the time period leading up to Yom Kippur is when we as Jews are meant to do some hardcore introspection – to self-reflect. This time of year, we are given the opportunity to take a long, hard look at our lives, and to determine areas for improvement.

We often don't allow ourselves proper time for reflection – taking the time to really think about who you are and how you function. Being humble enough to recognize your shortcomings, and strong enough to resolve to work at improving them. Unlike Moses’s description of God, we are not perfect – even the most righteous among us makes mistakes. Once we recognize that as humans we are inherently flawed, we open the door and our eyes to areas of ourselves where we can improve.

You might ask: if perfection is unattainable, then why strive to be better at all?

The answer is that because to be better is a struggle, and Jewish life is all about struggling with our imperfections. Look at some of our biblical heroes:

Abraham allowed Hagar, his second wife, and Ishmael, his son, to be cast out of his house.

Jacob favored Joseph and loved him more than his other sons.

Moses allowed his anger to get the best of him and he smashed the first set of tablets.

King David saw a pretty woman he desired, sent her husband to the front lines of battle so he would die, and once he was dead, took the woman as his own wife.

All of these figures, our biblical heroes, were imperfect. All of them struggled to deal with their human inclinations. As Jews, we don’t look for perfection in our leaders – we recognize their imperfections as they are human beings, study those imperfections, and seek to learn from them. To struggle with what we perceive as our imperfections and working towards improving upon them is the true essence of Judaism, and the accompanying introspection is what has given our people the ability to outlast empires, kingdoms, and the development of new faiths, throughout history.

Our High Holiday liturgy also makes it clear that we are not alone in dealing with our imperfections. We very much are meant to approach our own shortcomings in the context of community. For example, the “Al Chet” prayer that we say is written in the plural. “Al chet shechatanu lefanecha” – loosely translated as: “for the wrong we did before You.” It is absolutely possible that of the long list we recite, there are some wrongs that as an individual you did not commit. And yet, you still say them, knowing that the wrongs of your community are your own wrongs, and your wrongs are theirs.

While the names said to be inscribed in the Book of Life or Book of Death are individual names, we as a community come together and recognize that the transgressions of one are the transgressions of all, and in taking such a stand, make it clear that our fate is a collective one, and that we should be judged as a single unit. As a result, like it or not, we each, individually, are in some way responsible for the actions of our brethren.

As we begin this Rosh Hashanah holiday, I ask the following:

What concrete steps have we each taken towards self improvement?

To become a better person? To be a better friend; family member; significant other?

Take the time to reflect.

Have the humility to realize you’re not perfect.

Always strive to grow -- to be the best person you can be -- and be willing to work hard to make the necessary changes in your life to allow that to happen.

May the coming year bring nothing but happiness, health and joy to us all.

L'shanah tovah!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Transitions of Power

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

25 Elul 5771 / September 23-24

“Moses commanded Joshua son of Nun, and said to him: be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the Children of Israel to the Land that I have sworn to them, and I shall be with you.” -- Deuteronomy 31:23

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, we see Moses transfer leadership of the Children of Israel over to Joshua. Moses, who was initially a reluctant leader, led the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, saw them to the foot of Mt. Sinai where they received the Torah, and then served as the leader of the community through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. This same Moses, whom the Torah specifically refers to as our ultimate prophet (Deuteronomy 34:10), would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, and would have to relinquish his position of stature just as the community was about to achieve its long-anticipated goal.

Talk about a tough time to lose your job.

Despite losing the opportunity to enter the Promised Land, and despite having the ability to rally the Children of Israel to his cause in order to defy God’s instructions (the Children of Israel haven’t known any primary leaders other than Moses after all, and the Torah makes it pretty clear they don’t have a problem going off of God’s preferred path on a pretty regular basis), Moses goes along with God’s instructions, and passes the proverbial torch to Joshua.

The peaceful transition of power is something Americans often take for granted. When a Democrat wins an election, the Democrat takes office. When a Republican wins an election, the Republican takes office. When a third party candidate or an independent wins an election, he or she takes office. Is this relinquishment of power by the incumbents a reasonable expectation? Take a quick look around the world. The Arab Spring, the stolen election and squelched uprising in Iran in 2009, dictatorships in Africa, and the permanent governing regimes in many Asian countries all serve as prime examples of how much of the world handles leadership transitions, and how different those transitions are from those we’ve come to expect at home.

Moses serves as an incredible example of how a leader (and a long-term one at that) can and should gracefully relinquish his or her power. By empowering his successor and letting him know that he would be there for him (in this case, in a spiritual sense, as Moses was preparing to die), Moses once again showed his complete humility, which we first encountered when he was initially asked to lead the people (“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Exodus 3:11).

The Jewish community needs leaders, and it needs leaders who are like Moses. Should you be tempted to say “Who am I that I should lead these people” as a result of your youth, hearken to the words of JFK, who as a Senator in 1960 said: “[T]he Jewish people - ever since David slew Goliath - have never considered youth as a barrier to leadership, or measured experience and maturity by mere length of days.”

With Rosh Hashanah almost upon us, this is a perfect time to make some New Year resolutions. I encourage you to resolve to find a meaningful way to serve as a leader in your local Jewish community. I further encourage you to resolve to constantly keep the following questions in mind as you lead, and to do everything in your power to make sure your answer to each question is “yes”:

· When in a leadership role, can I be selfless for the benefit of the community?

· Can I recognize the proper time to step aside and allow new leadership to take over, and have the humility to do so?

· Can I be willing to say to my successor, as Moses did to Joshua, “I shall be with you,” and mean it?

As we move into the New Year, may we all be blessed to have the opportunity to lead, to empower others to lead, to support those in leadership roles, and to have complete humility.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Protecting the Blind

Parshat Ki Tavo
D’varim 26:1 – 29:8
18 Elul 5771 / September 16-17

“Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person on his way.”
Devarim 27:18

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Children of Israel learn of the various blessings and curses that await them (depending on their commitment to God) as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. One of these curses, shared above, involves taking advantage of the blind. The Torah often goes out of its way to mention the blind when listing those peoples potentially oppressed by the greater community. For example, in Leviticus 19:14, in the portion of Kedoshim, we learn that one shall not “place a stumbling block before the blind.”

How do we treat those in our society who are blind? Are we taking adequate steps to ensure that those who are unable to see are capable of functioning as fully autonomous individuals? My travels to Australia made me question some of the institutional stumbling blocks we take for granted. In America, all of our bills are the same size – whether they are worth $1 or $100. There is no way for those who happen to be blind to distinguish between the bills they are carrying. In Australia, the bills are sized differently based on their value, allowing those who are blind to more comfortably navigate financial transactions, without fear of being taken advantage of. This is but one example of a small change that would make a world of difference for our blind brethren. Can you think of others? Can you spare a few minutes and share them with your friends, family, Congressperson?

Given the Torah’s demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), such commandments to not misdirect or place a stumbling block in front of the blind might at first glance seem a bit superfluous. However, the ancient rabbis interpreted blindness as not only literal blindness, but figurative blindness as well. For example, for the ancient rabbis, knowingly giving someone who has asked you for directions a wrong answer would be an example of the “misdirecting” the Torah warns about. So too would knowingly offering a beer to an alcoholic, or smoking a cigarette in front of someone trying to quit. As we approach the High Holidays, take a moment and reflect on those in your life you might have led astray by virtue of their figurative blindness, how you can best go about apologizing to them, and how you can resolve to be more conscious of such actions in the future and seek to avoid them (because believe me, we have all slipped up in this way).

Our tradition teaches us that as human beings, we all possess a divine spark, regardless of any disabilities we may face. We have the power to create a community, country and world in which the dignity of all human beings is respected, and we must strive to do so. Small changes in the way we approach those who are literally and/or figuratively blind are an essential first step.