Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ki Tissah 76 - Lessons from the Sin of the Golden Calf

The sin of the Golden Calf – חטא העגל    is said to be the source and root of all sins between God and Man. After the ' high' of receiving the Torah and God's revelation   on Mount Sinai, came the ' fall ' and the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses had ascended to heaven to learn the Torah with God and promised to return after 40 days. The people miscalculated the date of his return by including the first day, the day of his ascent in their count of the 40 days. Because the first day was not a full day, it was not included in Moses' calculation. Moses' delay created a state of anxiety amongst the people which was made worse by Satan displaying Moses' coffin hanging between heaven and earth.  Moses had left Aaron and Miriam's son Chur in the charge of the nation. The people, led by the Airav Rav - the multitude of converts who came out of Egypt with the Israelites-, demanded a new leader, not a man who was mortal and had now failed them, but an image on which the divine presence- she'chinah would dwell. Aaron knew that he could not confront them as they had already killed Chur who had criticized them and opposed their wishes. He decided to play for time, telling people to donate gold and that tomorrow would be a ' chag la'hashem ' a festival to God. The Egyptian sorcerers helped create a golden calf. The following day, a small part of the nation started dancing and reveling around the golden calf. They also began to worship the calf, committing the grave sin of idolatry. 

The golden calf was problematic, but only became an object of idolatry after people began to worship it. Initially it would be like the cherubs- כרובים, the child like statuettes in the Tabernacle which would show God's love or anger with his people by turning and facing each other or turning away from each other or like the bronze snake – נחש הנחושת that people would look up to, as a means of focusing on God in heaven. People needed to first connect and attach to a physical embodiment of God's values and spirituality and then go on to focus on God. It would also replace Moses who was considered not only an intermediary between God and his people, but the medium and channel for God's goodness and miracles to his people. The people understood that all the miracles, goodness and divine favor that was showered on the people was because of Moses and now the golden calf would be that channel, medium and intermediary between God and his people. Although only 3,000 people actually worshipped the golden calf and engaged in idolatry, the nation transgressed by firstly (1) contributing on mass and eagerly to the construction of the golden calf, (2) they did not protest when people began worshipping the Golden calf and (3) in fact in their hearts hoped that the Golden calf would be a source of goodness for them – thus engaging in idolatry with their hearts.

 Aaron seems to have come out of the episode 'unscathed' as he and his sons were given the priesthood instead of the firstborn who lost the privilege to offer sacrifices because of their part in the sin of the Golden calf. However, when recalling the sin of the Golden calf before his death, Moses says that God was angry with Aaron's role in the sin of the Golden calf and he had to intercede to save his life.  So what was Aaron's wrong doing in the whole episode?  And what lessons can be learned from the episode of the Golden calf?

The first thing we learn is that after a ' high' and here it is the high of God's revelation at Mount Sinai, there is for sure going to be a feeling of emptiness and a fall. We need to capitalize on the highs and have a plan or a program which commits us on a daily basis to more learning, good deeds and a commitment to others. The festivals provide us opportunities to have 'jumps' in faith and commitment and escape from the monotony of routine. But what is as  just important,  is what follows a Yom Kippur or a Succoth.

The golden calf initially served as a means for  achieving spirituality and identifying with God. But too often the means becomes the end, the focus and center of our attention and object of our worship. Instead of focusing on the ideals, values and symbolism underlying a religious edifice or monument, the focus is on the monument itself which begins to acquire powers of its own.  And that is especially true when we are the creators of the monument, that we then focus on what we created and don't use it as a means to connect or associate with higher spiritual things. That is how idolatry began, initially people saw the heavenly bodies as doing God's will and then saw them as Gods because of their power and infallibility. Today's idols are money, military and political power and we tend to flatter the people who have power and influence etc so we tend to have many Gods.  Seeing great people or religious edifices as intermediaries or a medium by which God channels His goodness and does miracles distorts the God – Man relationship. Great people have the power to contribute because their source of power is a commitment to the community and nation. It is the actions of people, their good deeds and caring communities which are able to attract God's goodness and channel them into the world. We don't connect to God through great people, but great people expose us to spirituality and greatness which helps us connect directly and intimately with God.  When it comes to ideas, education, religious and moral development we confuse the means and the end. We focus on the ' lo lishmah ', getting people and kids to do things, even   for the wrong reasons in the hope that they will come to do things for the right reasons. We confuse short-term goals of compliance and doing mitzvoth with long term goals  of becoming more spiritual people , doing what is right and straight in the eyes of  God , serving God and being of service of people , having a love for learning, doing chesed - kindness and building relationships.( R' SRH)

The reason why Aaron was criticized was that he failed to see the consequences of his actions and decisions. There was a justification for the way he acted, but he failed to see that there would be some, who would see the golden calf as having Godly powers, worship the golden calf and transgress the prohibition of idolatry. Not only do we do things and don't take into account the implications and consequences of our actions, especially how people view what we say and do. We  often think that we have taught people or kids a lesson , but  the reality is that they take home a completely different message. (R' Y.I  Sher )

The mistake in calculating Moses' return date teaches us that we can never be a 100% sure of anything and need to explore alternative and various explanations or perceptions of any situation. It is often misguided beliefs and conclusions that lead to sin and failure.

The most important lesson is that sin maybe very much part of life, the falling provides the opportunity for  dealing with situations and reaching new heights - ירידה לצורך עליה The fall – the sin of the golden calf after the high of the revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai created the opportunity for repentance and doing Teshuva.   It was God's commandment that the mishkan and tabernacle became the places and edifices for worship rather than man creating his own monuments to help him attach to spirituality. In this way Aaron and the people would atone for the sin of the golden calf and   be totally committed to keep God's command and not changing anything. The second tablets of the 10 commandments which Moses made were in a sense greater than the first tablets because they were also a result of man's effort to improve, change and repent. Also God gave the nation of Israel more than the 10 commandments, the 5 books of Moses and the book of Joshua which were given with the first tablets – He gave the laws, aggadah and Midrashim. Moses face became radiant and shone with rays of light. The result of the sin of the golden calf provided new opportunities for teshuva - repentance ,  growth and the renewal and strengthening of the covenant between man and God. (Lubavitcher Rebbe)

The message especially to students and children is that everyone can have an intimate and direct relationship with God and that the purpose of life is to do good deeds and Teshuva – repent so each person can realize his God given potential

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tetzaveh 76 - Successful Partnerships

Parashat – Portion of Tetzaveh is a continuation of God's  commandment  to Moses concerning the tabernacle- Mishkan  and deals with the preparation  of the oil for the Menorah lamp, the designation of the priests-Kohanim and their priestly clothes and the selection of wise and talented people  to make the clothing and the features- components of the Mishkan. In this regard the Torah changes the style of the language – And Now you will command …….'ואתה תצוה. The Or Hachaim asks why was it necessary to introduce these commandments in this way, if God was already busy communicating His instructions concerning the Mishkan to Moshe.  He answers – that the words ' ואתה תצוה ' and Now you ( Moses)  will command' informs   Moses that he will be the one who commands others, the commander-in-chief and  the king. Aaron and his sons will be the priests but Moses' children will not inherit his position, they will remain as Levites.

 The partnership between Moses and Aaron, Moses – the king and prophet and Aaron, the priest proved to be one of the most successful partnerships of all time.  King David in Psalm 133 describes a brotherly love between Moshe and Aaron – 'Behold, how good and pleasant that brothers dwell in unity'   הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים ביחד The primary reason for this, was that each of them was totally committed to ensuring the success of the other and completely identified with his brother, rejoicing in his success as if it was his own success. Aaron had absolutely no feeling of jealously when his younger brother Moses was chosen above him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It also meant giving up on ' prophecy' as Moses now became the prophet of the nation. Moses did not want his gaining the leadership to be at his brother's expense,  so he kept on refusing to take on the position until God explained to him that ' Aaron is on his way to meet with you and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart ' - because of his brother's promotion to be the redeemer of the Israelites. Aaron's noble and generous response was rewarded that as the high Priest he would wear the Breast Plate with the Urim ve Tumim, a parchment with the name of God written on it. The high priest would be the one to ask God answers to questions of national importance. The  Urim ve Tumin in a prophetic way caused the individual letters of the tribal names on the Breastplate to light up and provide a hidden  answer. Only a heart that was large enough to include all the people of Israel, an understanding  , empathic, caring and compassionate heart that  helped share and carry other people's  burdens  and rejoice with them in happy times could wear the Breast plate and interpret the letters correctly using innate  divine spirit and prophecy.  Aaron had generously given up being the prophet of the nation and for this he was rewarded with being the one to use the Urim ve Tumin. 

  Moses' reluctance to take on the leadership showed a slight lack of respect and appreciation of God's decision that he was the man for the job. For this, he and his sons lost the privilege of becoming priests and instead Aaron and his sons would become priests. Moshe did not see this as punishment. He identified with Aaron's recognition and promotion as if he was being anointed as high priest. Verse2  in Psalms 133  says – it is like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down upon the beard , even Aaron's beard, that went down to the skirts of his garments.  כשמן טוב על הראש יורד על הזקן , זקן אהרון שיורד על פי מידותיו  Why is the verse referring to 2 beards? Moshe felt that the oil with which he anointed Aaron and was dripping down Aaron's beard was actually also dripping on his beard itself, as if he was being anointed as the high priest.  So were his total identification, joy and happiness when Aaron was designated as high priest. And after the sin of the Golden calf, the privilege of the first born to offer sacrifices was revoked and Moses had to intervene on behalf of Aaron and save him.  For not one moment did Moses think that because of Aaron's involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf, the Kehunah- priesthood would be given back to him and his sons. Moses also related to Aarons sons as if they were his own. Moshe and Aaron supportive relationship must be seen in the context of their vision and mission to serve God and be of service to their people.( R' Chaim Smulevitz, Drashot Ha'ran 3 )

In an article   on how to create successful and effective partnerships Carl Robinson says that a company must be more than a money –making enterprise if it wishes to survive. The company must have a vision and purpose to be of service to the public, be clear on its values when it comes to business development, delivery of services, giving value to customers above product quality and price and how the members of the company treat each other. It is important to nurture relationships within the partnership because people work together for more than making money. There should be a clear decision making process where problems are solved in a collaborative way, all concerns and perspectives are heard, consensus and mutually satisfying solutions are the goals. The compensation plan should not only reward 'rainmaking' but team work. While each person should have a role in the company, they should also be in sales and marketing business, helping to bring in new business each person according to his own talents and personality. When it is only the sales people who are bringing in the business and new clients, other people in the company get marginalized.

When it comes to religious institutions, especially schools and Yeshivot, internal problems, conflict and the breaking up of partnerships can be traced to a lack of commitment to the values of Moses and Aaron and principles supporting partnership success. Problems include seeing the institution as more of a money making enterprise  and a  job provider for family members, a  lack of a vision and  message, not everyone having a vital role, competition,  focus on being the chief  rather than on teamwork, not working for the success of every staff member and not supporting the autonomy of staff members. Often there are power struggles to gain control between different families or between the staff and the controlling a'mu'tah – association. The worst possible scenario is when students are brought into the fray in order to support the quarreling parties.

As parents and teachers we should be promoting collaboration and cooperation, rather than competition which teaches kids to see others as obstacles to their success. We should teach them that life is about forming partnerships and alliances, whether it is in business, learning or socially and the success of others is something which we rejoice in. Life is about lessening the burdens of others by participating in their  struggles, supporting them and also rejoicing in their successes and happy moments, so many more people get a taste and a share in happiness. If businesses need to focus more on a vision and their contribution to society , how much more so do organizations and schools that are non-profit and should be focused on chesed and making a contribution. The family and school are good places to start where not only staff collaborate, but students, staff and parents collaborate and cooperate for the greater good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Terumah 76 - Connection and the Shecinah= Divine Presence

Our Parasha-portion begins the instructions for the building of the Mishkan – Tabernacle and Sanctuary in the desert . The Mishkan was  a resting place for God's presence= שכינה. The  Mishkan was the climax of nation  building  and a symbol of a complete redemption from Egypt. The Mishkan was the  place where  God's revelation to his people at Mount  Sinai was to be reconstructed on a daily basis and it would be a place where people would come to be spiritually uplifted and feel the shechinah ,  God's presence- שכינה.  Although God is everywhere, because of the sin of the Golden calf, the nation lost in spiritual stature, so a special place was needed where people could feel God's presence  rest upon them. The temples in Jerusalem replaced the Mishkan – tabernacle in the desert. After the destruction of the temples, the houses of worship and learning became the ' מקדש מעט,' – miniature sanctuaries,  and a resting place for God's presence.

The resting place for the divine presence – השכינה  is not really a building or a tent, the temple or a mishkan.  The verse says – ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – בתוכו לא נאמר אלא בתוכם'  and you (plural) shall make a Sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them. The commentators note that it is not written I will dwell in it, but the divine presence will dwell among them, it will rest upon each and every individual. In Psalm 78:60 - תהילים עח: סמשכן שלו אהל שכן באדם - 'The tabernacle of Shiloh where He-God dwelled among men ' expresses the same idea that God has no desire to rest his divine spirit on an inanimate construction. The tabernacle is merely a means to channel God's spirit and presence into the midst of human life. It is people who give value and kedusha- holiness to the mishkan – tabernacle and invite God into the mishkan, by their holy thoughts, prayers, learning  and the way they conduct themselves - intrinsically motivated to be of service to man and the community and to serve God. And it is man's sins and immoral behavior that drives the divine presence – שכינה   from the temple or sanctuary.

The Talmud teaches that one does not need a particular building for the divine presence to rest. If a man and a woman, relate to each other as true Torah  husbands and wives should relate, they merit that the Shechinah – divine presence will rest upon them. True love is not dependent on something external and it is an expression of giving and connection between the inner souls and divine sparks of the couple. When people connect to each other on a deep level of the soul, being  totally involved in giving and not concerned about the ' self', God becomes a partner in their endeavors. 

The Talmud speaks of the divine presence being with people who study the Torah and Talmud together in a collaborative way. When one has a love of learning and is enjoying learning together with others , one becomes totally involved in the process of learning and loses oneself ,being  totally connected to the Divine Torah and connected on the most deep level , to one's   inner being  and the  souls of  one's learning partners. Once there is connection between the divine elements of each person, God joins in and rests his presence upon them.

The verse –' you shall make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them ' can also be read as God dwelling among the people while they are in the process of contributing  to the building of the mishkan .  People gave in an altruistic way and totally lost themselves in the process of collaborating with others in their  national and religious duty of building the mishkan.  They operated in a way that they were able to  connect  to their inner-beings and the souls of others , thus making space for God's presence to rest upon them.

As parents and teachers we want to interact , bond and connect with children on a deeper level , on the level of the soul.  We can achieve this if the child feels self-determined, endorsing his actions at the highest level of reflection. He feels self-directed, autonomous, and competent in what he does. He feels a sense of belonging and connection  to his family, school and  community ,  and being supported by caregivers and friends. It is important that we are not judgmental and help the child focus on what he is doing or  learning and not how he is doing and learning. The child should also have a sense of purpose , feel part of a bigger mission to serve God and be of service to man , and  that they are making a contribution and impact on the lives of others. When we learn Torah with our children in a non-judgmental way , we can truly connect with them on this deep level of the soul and engage in authentic learning. When we relate to our kids on this deep level , we are dealing with an authentic child. In this way we get to really know the real child and help him access all his strengths and connect with his inner core values.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mishpatim 76 – Questioning Authority

A teacher walked around a school wearing a T-shirt   with ' Question Authority ' written on it. A kid approached the teacher and asked ' Who is Authority '. It is difficult to imagine a teacher wearing such a shirt in a religious school, but it is the same message we see in the Talmud, Shevuot 31. In court, a   student thinks  that a poor person is in the right and innocent and the rich person is liable and in the wrong, but his Rabbi, the judge holds differently. He  is  told to voice his disagreement with the judge, and not remain silent.  When, according to his opinion he thinks that his Rabbi, the judge  is making a mistake he should not wait but intervene and express his opinion and of course in a respectable way.  He does not have to be concerned about his Rabbi's possible loss of esteem and respect and he should not fear any reprisals or retaliation by the rich man. He should  speak out for the sake of coming to the truth and distancing himself from dishonesty. The Talmud here is not speaking about a disagreement in learning, but in actual p'sak, how a case in a beit din, a  law court  should be judged. And it obvious that the student should question his rabbi, the authority figure when it comes socio-moral learning,   as to how the rabbi conducts himself in the world. This  is especially true where corruption and a lack of honesty is involved. 

The Talmud learns this from the verse - מדבר שקר תרחק - Distance yourself from dishonesty and untruths.  A person has to take steps to live his life in a way that he is not forced to lie or be dishonest.  Being financially independent goes a long way in helping a person's be honest and have integrity. In this area religious institutions are challenged and pressure can be brought that can make one compromise one's integrity and adhering to God's will. When one is involved in mitzvoth, good deeds, expressing gratitude , providing a livelihood for teachers and support for students learning in a Yeshiva ,  people can feel a sense of self- righteousness – נגיעה הצדקות  and justify ' cutting corners' and permitting one to be dishonest for the sake of a greater cause.  And when the cause involves a woman who is  ' perceived as an agunah', a woman who is ' chained' because he husband refuses to free her by giving her a divorce- get, and the husband is being called an evil person, a rasha, the eyes of people are totally blinded. They then  believe and act in a way that' the means justify the end. '

 In fact, after the Torah encourages one to distance oneself from dishonesty, it warns people not to take bribes. The Alter from Slabodka explains that we might expect people of lesser greatness to take bribes and certainly justify it for the sake of a greater cause, but the great people, ' gedolim', would never do such a thing. So when the Torah talks about bribery and great people --do not take a bribe, because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous -   it is not about money. The Alter from Slabodka explains that the word for a bribe – sho' chad implies that because of a favor being done to them or for some other reason, there is an oneness, a total identification with that person. This oneness and identification  prevents a person from seeing the other in a bad light and being the guilty partner.  So to identify with a woman who is having problems getting a get- a religious divorce is Ok , but this identification blinds one, and one cannot act as a judge in the dispute between the husband and wife. Each case is different, sometimes the woman is getting the worst end of the deal and it can even be a majority of cases, but sometimes the man is the more innocent party. And of course a final decision has to take into account the children and how the couple will co-parent after the divorce, so identification with either party is problematic.

Questioning and challenging authority is encouraged because it is for the sake of truth and establishing God's authority in the world and personal growth in Torah. And this process means that people have to see ' mistakes as our friends ' in the knowledge that אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אא"כ נכשל בהם - one only really understands the words of the Torah until one stumbles, makes a mistake in them. Mistakes are also  not the problem, because the focus is on Teshuva, repenting and improving, not the falling, but getting up. People who are constantly involved in Teshuva are ready to admit mistakes and see them as a learning opportunity. In fact, it is acknowledged that great leaders are the ones who have to courage to expose their vulnerability and admit their mistakes or lack of knowledge or competence in certain areas.  The lesson - being willing and have the courage to expose one's vulnerability is learned  from Yehuda and King David.  Exposing vulnerability promotes connection and trust, the cornerstones of leadership. Great leaders welcome those who question their authority, because as the sages tell us – we learn a lot from our teachers, but the most from our students and this is not only in the intellectual and academic area but also in the area of socio-moral learning.

  Encouraging students to be more challenging also fosters connection and more respect between teachers and their students.We want students to question not only out of a desire to find out what is true but to care  and  do what is right. They should acquire the insight needed to recognize injustices and the courage needed to oppose them and be willing to take a stand.