Healing the Former Believer

Avraham (still called Avram in this section of the Torah) had a nephew by the name of Lot. Lot was the one family member who accompanied Avram on his pilgrimage to follow God's word and go the "Land that I will show you." He stayed with Avram and Sarah (called Sarai at this point) as they fled to Egypt during a famine and returned with them to the Land of Canaan.

So far, so good. A faithful, in-the-fold nephew.

But things turn sour after they return from Egypt laden with new wealth. They have large flocks, lots of servants. Lot's began to act unethically, grazing their animals in other people's fields. This, claimed Avram's people, was theft! And the servants began to fight. It seemed that "This town ain't big enough for the two of us." They had too much wealth and too many livestock to be able to share the same pastures.

Avram senses a crisis, and preempts it. "Let there not be a fight between us, for we are brothers. Separate from me. If you go left, I will go right. If you go right, I will go left." And so it was, Lot goes and settles in the fertile plain of Sodom - which would remain fertile only a short while longer.

This seemingly simple episode provides deep psychological insight into mind of Avram and of Lot. We can see the source of Lot's corruption: wealth. We can see the evidence of it: he moves to Sodom, a city of sin if ever there was one. And we can see Avram's deep concern for his nephew: He does everything to avoid a fight. Let's look at each in turn.

Sodom, say the sages, was a place where everyone said "What's mine is mine, and what's your is yours." On the surface, that seems ok, except that one thing is missing: charity. Sodom is the ultimate selfish society, the gated community to the extreme. A social contract protects the rights of all to keep their wealth, but they must never share that wealth. I protect your riches, so that you will protect mine. Together we keep the outsider out, and live our lives of luxury in the fertile plain.

Lot was corrupted by wealth. It started with him tacitly accepting his servants acts of theft by grazing in other people's fields. It grew more extreme by him moving to, and becoming a leader in, the ultimate sin city of Sodom. In the next section, when the people of Sodom wish to "sodomize" the angels who came to rescue Lot, he offers the wild mob his own daughters instead! How far he had fallen!

But what about Avram? Did he just let this happen? Why did he avoid that fight, if his nephew really needed a talking to? Maybe he could have prevented Lot's descent.

Or maybe not. I believe that Avram knew quite well what was happening to Lot, and he knew that if he did put up a fight, Lot would probably never return. Now Avram was to be the deed holder to the Land, and yet when he separates from Lot, he let's Lot do all the choosing as to where they will go. Lot was quite the junior partner here, yet Avram gave him that choice. Add that to the seemingly odd fear Avram has of ruffling Lot's feathers and we can gain a glimpse into his thinking, and an answer for the tough situations we described above.

You see, Avram understood that Lot's rebellion had nothing to do with God or theology. It had to do with interpersonal relationships. Indeed, almost all cases of people leaving the faith involve an emotional scarring from a person or people involved with religion. In the case of Lot, it was Avram, and Avram knew that.

How was it Avram? I will venture a guess that Lot felt that Avram was holding him back. Perhaps he was at the stage when he needed the freedom to expand, to "Eat, drink and be merry." Perhaps he had developed such greed that he resented any limits put on him. Avram's servants had done just that, and Avram saw that the fight with the servants would quickly spread to the masters.

Thus, Avram did not discuss the grazing, not did he discuss any hot-button topics. No fight. He put full emphasis on his relationship with his nephew, and did the only thing he could to avoid the fatal poison of an interpersonal break. Yes, without any opposition, he sent Lot on his way. But was he abandoning Lot to destruction?

Not at all. He was making sure that Lot never lost his phone number. He was making sure that some bond, invisible and stretched, but still there, existed. When the time would come for Lot to realize what he had done, he should never feel embarassed, or worse, resentful, towards Avram. Avram, in Lot's mind, was religion, was the representative of God. Sooner or later, as long as that relationship was intact, Lot could return.

So to all parents, spiritual leaders, teachers and influencers, there is a clear message. It is not as much what you teach, as how you teach and care. It is not as much when you discipline as it is how you discipline. If someone has made a choice to leave religion, no amount of screaming will help. The opposite, it will probably hurt. Telling your son or daughter that your Shabbat table is always open to them will keep the potential for return alive. You are the representative of God, of Judaism or whatever spiritual heritage you have. Therefore, you must balance teaching and guiding with love and caring.

Great People Make Mistakes

I believe there are two important lessons here. First of all, truth must be central to all of our communications. The fact that Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph, going so far as to make a special coat for him, was a reflection of Jacob making his truth clear for all to see. If that was how he felt, then that must be how he presents his feelings.

The rabbis are displeased with this, and urge every parent to never show favoritism to one child over another. The great commentary of the Or Hachaim shows how Jacob's clear communication of his special relationship with Joseph prevented another communication: that of the brothers themselves.

The Rabbi explains how, had the brothers felt free to talk things out with Joseph, even to complain to him, they might of gotten past their feelings of resentment. When we get things off our chest, we can move forward. But once their father was clearly on Joseph's side, "they could not speak peace with him." The brothers' complaint would be against their father, and that far they were not willing to go. Hence the communication was broken, and the brotherly relationship was about to be as well.

The Talmud tells how some of the prophets didn't want to use words of praise that Moses had written in the Torah, because they had seen the destruction of the Temple and the exile. Later, The Rabbis of the Great Assembly reinstituted those words of praise. Why, then, asks the Talmud, did the prophets not utter them? "Because they knew that God is truthful, they did not deceive Him."

In other words, they were so committed to truthful communication, that they even limited their praise of God!

Parents are often guilty of inaccurate communication. When a child misbehaves, a parent will often threaten some form of punishment. To encourage good behavior, a parent may offer a bribe. What does the child learn? Not that the behavior is either good or bad, but that their self-interest in the moment requires a change in their behavior.

Threats of punishment or promises of reward, while effective in the moment, are not truthful communication. Yes, I think every parent in the world has used and sometimes needs to use these techniques, but they are not ideal. Truthful communication would be to have the child understand why the desired behavior is correct, on its own merits.

Dr. Robert Cialdini tells of an experiment where children were told to avoid playing with a certain toy either because, "something bad will happen," or without any reason being given. In both cases, most of the children refrain from playing with that toy. When given the same choice of toys a few weeks later, without any warning this time, the children who were originally told to avoid the toy with no explanation were much more likely to continue avoiding that toy. The ones who had been told that playing with the toy would bring a bad consequence, however, overwhelmingly chose that toy the second time around.

The difference being, the first one involved a consequence, and the children refrain from playing with the toy because of self-interest. When no consequence was threatened, the children understood that there was something inherently wrong or bad about the toy, and continued to avoid it even weeks later.

Thus, as parents, when making behavior requests, it is crucial to emphasize the truthful reason for the good behavior, and not some external consequence.

Another aspect of Jacob's truthfulness comes in the ways he made decisions. After all, it's difficult to call Jacob a man of truth when he told one of the clearest lies in the book of Genesis, "I am your son Esav."

But truth does not require perfection, nor does it prevent mistakes. What it does provide is authenticity. We have lots of inauthentic ways of making decisions. People are influenced by what other people do or say, and often delegate their thinking to whatever the crowd is thinking. Most of the time this is okay, but sometimes, especially when it comes to values in modern society, it is dangerous.

I believe that this is the greatness of Jacob. He never looked for the easy way out. He struggled, he doubted, he took two steps forward and one step back, but he never delegated his thinking to anyone else. He sought the truth in every situation, and made his best call.

Again, Hillel's famous saying is brought to mind: "if I am not for myself, who will be for me?" We must make our own decisions, based on our own and best understanding. Then we are authentic, then we have embraced truth. It is the pursuit of truth, not perfection, that made Jacob and his people the force that will change the world.

Shifting the Blame

Let's face it, failure is no fun. At least not usually. What if there would be a way to completely turn off the self-flagellation that comes with failure? What if there would be a way of looking at things that actually could turn failure into opportunity?

The well-known coach of entrepreneurs, Dan Sullivan, likes to refer to previous business failures as "research and development." I love that approach, because it sees life as one big learning process. That is a powerful Torah perspective as well! A great sage, Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, zt"l, told an innocent story of a walk-through Jerusalem to straight this point. He passed a couple of elderly people sitting at a bus stop, counting the number of #21 buses that passed. Then, he arrived at the Torah study hall, and saw a couple of elderly people discussing the nuances of the Talmud. There you have it.

But Sullivan's approach, with all of its brilliance, still requires you to deal with transforming failure into opportunity. The Torah approach I will share will do that without any mental effort whatsoever. It's hidden in a couple of verses in the latter part of Deuteronomy.

"You, all, stand this day before the Lord your God." The Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berditchev, focuses on the word "before." Within that Hebrew word "lifne," is the word for "face," "pne." When we face God, God faces us. What, exactly, does that mean?

Rabbi Levi Yitschak explains. God deeply wants to do kindness with humanity. He does not relish or enjoy bringing punishment. When one wishes to do something, they turn their face to it. Distasteful tasks, however, are done while looking somewhat away.

Therefore, says the Rabbi, when we stand before, or in the face of, God, we are in the ideal position to receive endless blessing! When does one person look to another? Why, when the other looks to them. All we need to be doing is looking heavenward, all the days of our lives. God then looks to us, and bestows His endless blessings.

On the last day of Moses's life, he walks to the Israelites in order to speak with them. Rabbi Levy Yitschak notices the unusualness of this, for one would expect the Israelites to walk to Moses. Further, Moses's last prophecy is uncharacteristically cryptic. Until this point, whenever Moses spoke, it was crystal clear. The section beginning "Listen, O heavens, and I shall speak…" is more characteristic of the later prophets, who spoke in highly sophisticated poetic terms.

The Rabbi explains that, on this last day of his life, the level of Moses's prophecy went down. He was no longer the master of prophecy, who could speak to God on his own terms and whenever he wished. Now, he was dependent on God to bestow His prophecy, just as the latter prophets would be.

With this, the Rabbi explains two ways of describing the task of leading the congregation at prayer. The Talmud uses two phrases: 1. to pass before the ark, or 2. to descend before the ark. What is the difference? Ark, in Hebrew, can also mean "word. The greater righteous person is master of the word, while the lower level righteous person is not. The former has access to God's word at any time, so he "passes before the ark-word." The latter is the passive recipient at the time of God's choosing, so he "descends beneath the ark-word".

Moses, on this day, was no longer the master of the word. Nonetheless, at every moment his face was to the Lord. He was not embittered by his sudden descent, he was not personally hurt by his inability to enter into the Holy Land. Instead, he walked to the people in order to encourage them to accept Joshua's leadership, and follow his successor into the Land. He could have blamed the Israelites for causing him to sin by provoking him to smite the rock (instead of speaking to it, which caused him to be punished by not entering the land).

He didn't. Whether he was passing before the word, or descending before the word, his gaze and attention were completely focused on God. And, so, any earthly failure fades into insignificance. When God bestows His manifold blessings, nothing else matters. Everything is not only forgiven, but transformed!

The path to true success in life, to endless blessing, is to never take one's gaze off of The Holy One, Blessed Be He. When we do that, earthly failures lose their power over us. Instead of using our energies to assign blame for them, we use them to connect to God and thus lift ourselves far above them.

The Magical Menorah in June

In the section of the Torah we read this week, Aaron is reminded of his responsibility to light the Temple Menorah. The Torah continues to mention that the Menorah was "mikshah," or "from one piece." The rabbis comment that this Hebrew word also implies "difficult." They tell us a story that Moses was unable to fully grasp how to make the Menorah, and so God had to create one out of the fire, to demonstrate.

Of all of the complicated vessels made for the Tabernacle, why was this the only one that Moses had trouble with?

This commandment, for Aaron to take care of lighting the Menorah, follows right after the sacrifices brought by the princes of the tribes in honoring the dedication of the Tabernacle. Rashi tells us a story:

Aaron saw the wonderful sacrifices brought by those princes, and felt a bit inadequate. What would be his contribution? And so, God explained that Aaron, indeed, as a greater portion, for he will light and improve the candles of the Menorah!

Now, we would never diminish the importance of the Menorah, but why is this the consolation? After all, there are many ceremonies that Aaron will be responsible for, especially Yom Kippur! He is the only one who goes into the Holy of Holies! Why not cheer him up with that?

The rabbis, in telling us this story, may be giving their stamp of approval to something that happened far in the future. We are more familiar with the Menorah from the Chanuka story than we may be from the tabernacle. There are two elements about the Menorah, if we include the Chanuka one, that differ from the sacrifices of the princes.

First of all, the Menorah with its Chanuka extension, is the only Temple vessel that has lasted throughout the generations. The sacrifices of the princes, as wonderful as they were, were a one-shot deal.

Secondly, and most significantly, the Menorah symbolizes victory over assimilation. This was the essence of the Chanuka story, the stopping of the Hellenistic influence over the Jews and the restoration of Judaism as our source of values.

Chanuka, in the hierarchy of Jewish holidays, is towards the bottom in importance. It is not even biblical in origin. Nonetheless, statistically it is at the very top of the charts when it comes to observance percentage. Most Jews observe Chanuka. One could explain it on the basis of its proximity to the Christian holidays, but that would be an injustice to Chanuka. It is not a "me, too," holiday!

I believe that this is a spiritually miraculous statistic. For most Jews, Chanuka is when they remember their Jewish identity. It is the final cord that connects them to their people, and will continue to do so forever, until the Messiah comes.

The miracle of Chanukah was brought about by the descendents of Aaron, the priestly Macabbees. This was Aaron's consolation, that his actions would inspire Jewish connection in the face of assimilation throughout time. Not bad!

I believe it was this element that was difficult for Moses to understand. It could not be the physical requirements of the Menorah that were difficult, for Moses was the wisest man. It was the spiritual essence, the question of how to transmit Torah and wisdom in such a way that they would withstand the spiritual assault of a non-believing or alternative-believing world.

The Menorah symbolizes wisdom. The seven branches are the seven disciplines of wisdom, with the central branch being the wisdom of the Torah. How to combine them? Do not science and Judaism conflict? When the world says that up is down and light is dark, and wants to believe that, how can we show them otherwise?

All of this is what concerned Moses. And God answered him! He showed him a Menorah made of fire, and told him to make that.

I believe that fire, in this story, symbolizes a burning sincerity and devotion to spreading God's word. God is telling Moses that the most influencing factor is his own heart. If the fire burns there, and he presents Torah, the light of Torah, in the most beautiful way he can, it will continue to burn throughout the generations. Sooner or later, that light will illuminate every Jewish heart.

On Jealousy and the Sabbatical Year

Sometimes, we can be very clever. We can figure out ways to avoid the straightforward observance of a commandment. At times, this can be critical, such as the sale of chometz to a non-Jew before Passover. It is legitimate, utilizing a real loophole to save people for whom Passover could be financially ruinous (eg. a supermarket owner).

On such loophole relates to the prohibition of working the fields in the 7th year. The Rabbinate instituted a similar sale of the land for that year, enabling the Jewish "previous" owner to continue to till the fields. In the early years of the state, this measure may have saved some settlements from ruin.

But now, I believe, it is time to stop it. It is time to observe the shemita-sabbatical literally. This is because we are losing out on the most important perspective of our nationhood by using a loophole. We are missing the point, and I don't believe Hashem wants us to miss this point!

Example. This year, my family did not sell chometz. We got rid of it all, and it was an uplifting experience. We felt truly the pressure to clean and the sense of accomplishment when we fulfilled the mitzva in its purest sense. We can only wish the same for the farmers in the Sabbatical! There is a message of true happiness hidden in the Shemita.

You see, the Shemita tells us that the Earth is God's and that all of our accomplishments are with His help. We should never say "It is my actions that have brought me this wealth." By stopping to work the fields, we acknowledge God's ownership of the land, and we state, by our passivity, that we believe it is Him who has given us the blessings of the Earth.

Why is this crucial? What if I really did work super hard? Maybe it WAS my efforts?

No! Once we believe it was our efforts, we fall into the pit of possessiveness. We develop a sense of entitlement, and when others are more successful than us, we become jealous. God is reminding us of a basic truth: Our success is because of the gifts He gave us, including health, talent, land and creativity. Yes, we USED those gifts successfully, but He gave them to us in the first case.

Therefore, there is no need to look at others who succeed and feel jealous. After all, that came from God as well, so why be bitter? Rather, if you feel you have underachieved, look upwards and try harder, or smarter.

By eliminating the sense of possessiveness which leads to entitlement, we inoculate ourselves from jealousy, the most destructive emotion. That is the true message of the Sabbatical year, and a lesson that can only be learned viscerally by observing it properly.

Hashem's Family

The medrash relates a conversation of two great rabbis, Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael. They were about to be executed by the Romans. Rabbi Simon was disturbed, because he did not know for what sin he was being punished so severely. Rabbi Yishmael asked him if he ever waited to finish drinking his cup or put on his cloak before hearing a court case involving a widow or orphan. "Yishmael, you have comforted me!" Now, it seemed, Rabbi Simon knew that there was, indeed, Divine justice.

Now, with all due respect, isn't the punishment a little bit extreme? The medrash teaches us that even the slightest amount of oppression of a widow or an orphan can bring about the consequences quoted in the verse above. It's teaching us that even so slight an offense as causing small delay before hearing their plight, long enough to finish drinking a cup or donning a garment, is very serious in Hashem's eyes.

Why is this so? The sages explain that the tears of an orphan and widow are always just below the surface. "Their tears are found," which could mean they are close to Hashem, or they are waiting to be cried at any given moment.

What if, however, a widow is fantastically wealthy? What if her life is going beautifully? What if the orphans are happy? Further, widows and orphans are not the only people that can be depressed! Why are they singled out for special protection?

Rashi explains that widows and orphans do not have anyone to protect them. Therefore, they are easy prey for people with a cruel or insensitive nature. While that is certainly true, I think there must be more to it. I don't believe that the death penalty would apply for causing them even small suffering if there were not more to this story.

In Talmudic law, there is a principle called "It is subsumed in the larger punishment." If a person, in one action, became obligated to pay damages and, at the same time, suffer the death penalty, he is exempt from paying the damages. We say that the larger punishment, in this case death, subsumes and includes the smaller punishment of monetary damages.

Based on this rule, some ask about the story of David after the Bathsheba episode. The prophet Nathan rebuked him with a hypothetical, although David didn't know it, story: "In a town, there was a rich man with many cattle, at a poor man with just one calf. When a guest came to the rich man, he took the poor man's single animal, instead of one of his own plentiful cattle, and fed it to the guest."

King David responded in anger that the man shall pay four times for the calf that he stole, and then shall be put to death. What about the Talmudic rule we learned above? If he was going to put the man to death, why did the man have to pay?

A widow and orphan have a special problem that other depressed people do not. They have no one to take care of them, perhaps physically, certainly emotionally. A woman's husband, or a child's parents, are there security in this world. If they do not have them, who do they have?

They have Hashem. He becomes their immediate family. Just as a husband calms and comforts his wife, and parents calm and comfort their children, Hashem comforts the widow and the orphan. By causing them even the slightest distress, the insensitive person is unwittingly, or willingly, attacking – as it were – Hashem and his family. Hashem responds to this by fighting back in the war, "You (the one who oppresses the widow or orphan) shall be killed by the sword…"

In the case of King David, the man had to pay for having stolen the calf. The man had to be killed, because he had waged war against Hashem by attacking Hashem's family, as it were. Being killed in war is not a legal consequence of a transgression, it is a simple fact of life. Therefore, the rule of the lesser punishment being subsumed by the greater one does not apply, because the greater one is not a punishment. It is the result of belligerency.

So we learn an important lesson! Those among us to have no one to turn to our Hashem's family. We must treat them the greatest respect and sensitivity. Hashem's kindness is always stronger, so if the punishment for oppressing the widow and orphan is so severe, the reward for helping and comforting them is all the more great!

Living in the Past, Living in the Future

As the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt, God tells Moses that they should request gifts from the Egyptians before they depart. A small Hebrew word is inserted in this request, "na", or, "please." The rabbis are puzzled by this. Why should Moses have to ask, or even beg, the people to take gifts from the Egyptians? It almost seems as if they wouldn't want to!

The rabbis make this even more puzzling in their explanation as to why: So that "that righteous man," or the patriarch Abraham, should not have any complaints. God had promised him that his descendents would leave the nation that had oppressed them "with great wealth." If the Israelites do not request the wealth of Egypt, Abraham might say that God fulfilled His promise of the slavery, but did not fulfill His promise that they would leave with that great wealth.

Some things about this puzzle me. First of all, why should Abraham mind if his descendents decide to forgo the wealth? Isn't the fact that they are being liberated what matters? If they don't want all of that wealth, why should they be forced to take it?

Secondly, why is he referred to as "that righteous man," instead of by his name, Abraham?

Thirdly, why indeed would the Israelites be reluctant to take these gifts from the Egyptians? Didn't they earn at least that during decades of slavery? It would seem the least they could do!

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin gives an impassioned explanation as to why the Israelites might refuse to take the Egyptian wealth. He tells of how there were two opinions on the issue of German reparations after the Holocaust. Some Jews felt we should not accept such payments. It might be seen as the Germans whitewashing the magnitude of their crimes by paying off the victims. It would be putting a price tag on something which is beyond all earthly measurement, the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust.

Others believed we should accept the money, if, for no other reason, than to avoid a situation of "Have you killed and also inherited?" True, they will argue, the money is completely inadequate to compensate the Jewish people for what they suffered. Instead, it is a symbolic statement of guilt, no more. We should accept and encourage that.

Thus, says Rabbi Sorotzkin, the debate in Egypt was much the same. The Egyptian slavery included unspeakable cruelty, the throwing of the baby boys into the river. Other crimes also were committed. Some felt we should not let the Egyptians feel that they can pay their way out of this one. Others felt we should accept the gifts as an acknowledgment of Egyptian guilt.

We have explained, with Rabbi Sorotzkin's words, the third puzzling feature. The first two questions still remain: why should Abraham mind if his descendents decide to forgive the debt, and why is Abraham called "that righteous one", and not by his name?

I believe that this incident is far more significant than a simple detail of the finale of the Egyptian sojourn. I believe that the rabbis are teaching us that, had Israel not accepted these gifts from the Egyptians, they would not have completely left Egypt behind. A deep psychological insight into dealing with past trauma is being provided here. It is the need for some form of closure.

I think this is hinted at in the explanation of the rabbis as to Abraham's objection. "God fulfilled His promise of enslaving them, but did not fulfill His promise of them leaving with great wealth." But why should that be so significant? God is, after all, bringing them out of Egypt with great wonders! If the wealth is just a small detail, it shouldn't bother Abraham that much.

But it does. It does, because without the Israelites gaining this little bit of justice, the Egyptian slavery remains an open, festering wound. We remain unable to close that chapter, and move on with our lives. The rabbis feel that, had we not allowed Egyptians to put a Band-Aid, as it were, on the wound that they opened, our physically leaving their land would've been almost without significance. Israel is a nation that does not live in the past, it is a nation of lives for the future. Our past must not enslave us.

Abraham is called "that righteous man (Tsaddik)," to stress the need for justice, albeit imperfect. The word "Tsaddik" comes from the same root as justice. A righteous man is one who lives a life of justice. Of course the Egyptians could never compensate the lives that were lost by their evil deeds. But when Israel allows them to do some small justice, to give them some compensation for the labor they performed, to try to make it a little right, they allow closure to happen. They allow us all to move on, and to do better in the future. This is unlike some societies who are still fighting battles from hundreds and thousands of years ago. In contrast, the ancient people of Israel are alive, vibrant, and focused on the future! We even have good diplomatic relations with Germany.

If so, however, why must we always remember the Exodus from Egypt, "all the days of our lives?" Isn't that allowing our past to enslave us?

Absolutely not! By forgetting, we allow the past to enslave us. First of all, we lose all of the lessons of the past if we forget. Second of all, if the forgetting is intentional, it is an admission that the past possesses so much power over us that we dare not remember it!

This dichotomy is at the heart of the festival of Purim. We must celebrate and mock Haman, even as we remember and never forget that which the Amalekites sought to do to us. The problem is not the traumas of the past, the problem is only when you empower them to keep you there. As Dan Sullivan said, "In the past there are no failures. There is only research and development." Once you see your past traumas and failures as learning and growing experiences, you are empowered to look forward and build a glorious future.

That's what the people of Israel have done, partly because they asked for and received the gifts of the Egyptians. That enabled them to be truly set free.