Proving Our Worth: Be Rudy, Not Korach

Our culture lauds the crazy ones, the misfits, those who stare down social norms and rise above their limitations. Nowadays, you don’t have to be born into a certain kind of family or social class to rise to the top. This is a revolutionary and freeing facet of our reality. A revolutionary and freeing facet of our reality is, if each you can prove your brains, bronze, talent, and tenacity then there’s nothing and no one that can hold you back.

But like all innovation, there are good parts and ugly parts, and if there is any Parsha that demonstrates the ugly side of the proactive destiny-shaper, it’s Parshat Korach.

Korach wasn’t underprivileged, but he believed he could be so much more than society let him be. He felt if he and his followers would just prove themselves, it would even out a nepotistic playing field. Yet his attempt ends in tragedy, fear, and despair.

When you read his words, he’s not saying something that we don’t all believe:

All of the community, all of them are holy (Bamidbar 16:2).

In the 21st Century, it’s hard to wrap our heads around how someone who seemed to champion ambition and upward mobility could be the wrong one. Where is the balance? Where is the line between striving to give our best and going too far?

I found an excellent model for this in the movie, Rudy.

Rudy is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruetigger, who makes his way from a blue collar Illinois family to Indiana’s University of Notre Dame football team. He isn’t athletically or academically gifted. By all measurements, he’s very ordinary, aside from his extraordinary will and desire to make his dream come true.

And he does. Step by step, he makes it to Indiana, then to Notre Dame, then to the football team’s practice team, then to the team itself. Nothing breaks his stride. He gets close to being played during a game, but when it looks like that will never be a reality, Rudy is ready to quit…and that’s when his mentor steps in and gives him another perspective:

 

Spoiler – Rudy doesn’t quit. He makes the dress list and gets to run out on the field once. He gets as far as a “five foot nothing, a hundred and nothing” college kid is going to get…and he’s happy with that. He caps his need to prove his worth to others, and instead, starts focusing on proving his worth to himself.

And that’s something I think that we – as we’re bombarded with messages that push to be “greater” – can really use. Tune in to your ambition and pay attention to what is driving it. Are you trying to prove someone or something wrong? What unique talents and dispositions do you have, what do you bring to the table in the here and now, with who you are right now? Instead of trying to build ourselves into what the world deems as valuable, let’s focus on being valuable with what we inherently have, let it take us to places we may never have even dreamed of, and let that bring us joy.

Shabbat shalom!

 

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Being a 20-percenter

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A few years ago, I came across a pre-Passover Charlie Harary video. In it, he shared that of the thousands of Jews living in Egypt at the time of the exodus, only 20% decided to seize the opportunity to walk out of slavery and into freedom.

Really? Only 20%?

I mean, when your reality is one of back-breaking physical labor, humiliation, and absolutely no time to focus on individual and communal well-being…why stick around?Why did 80% of Jewry at that time say, no I’m not up for freedom. I’m staying here.

I never fully understood Charlie’s answer until I read Parashat Beshalach last Shabbat, as a new Israeli immigrant.

As Charlie says. “Freedom isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility. It’s not a privilege, it’s a purpose. It’s not a gift, it’s a choice. You don’t get freedom. You earn it.”

Why did I make aliyah? Because I want a deeply immersive Jewish life. I see this incredible, unique opportunity – to be able to practice Judaism in its totality in the Jewish Land – to fulfill something that was only a dream for generations. At a certain point, I couldn’t imagine not being involved in this chapter of Jewish history.

Flash forward seven months post-Aliyah flight. The dream is no longer a dream. The realities of making a life in Israel – a life with employment, meaningful relationships, and sense of purpose – involve way more than walking the land, and marveling over Shabbat-conscious messages on city buses. Actually, it takes a lot of every day, every moment effort to turn the life you hope for into the life you are living.

Having a meaningful life here isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility.

It’s not just a privilege. It’s a purpose.

It’s not just a gift. It’s a choice. A choice that needs to be made every single day.

At least, that’s how it feels when you are at the banks of the sea, with your old life not far behind you, and the new one ahead is a nebulous haze of uncertainty.

So, I understand why only 20% chose freedom. Freedom comes with a lot of unknowns… and the known, whether you like it or not, has a soothing familiarity to it.

I understand why those who chose freedom were complaining not long after, yearning for the pots of meat and plentiful bread they left behind. Freedom is downright scary, even when you know it was the best possible choice.

So, 20-percenters, what to do?

Take it one day at a time. Own your choices. Give them time to blossom. Nurture them. Nurture yourself. Know that though you’ve let go of many comforts, you’ll never have to wonder ‘what if.’

What if I tried to make it to the Promised Land?

What if I allowed myself to step outside my comfort zone?

What if I did, instead of dreamed?

Those aren’t questions you’ll have to ask yourself. See the solace in that.

You are the 20 percent.  That’s pretty amazing.

Living Our Tefillot

Ever wondered what Tefillah is really about? Not prayer.

This week’s parsha brings us the intended definition for communicating with G-d.

It’s not about convincing G-d to change His mind.

It’s not about inflicting emotional pain as a means of changing His mind.

Tefillah is meant to connect us to our most beloved dreams and aspirations. The ones we are too afraid to admit, to even whisper. Because those deeply meaningful dreams, they seem impossible when we don’t know how they’ll ever be possible.

Yet when we allow ourselves to dream those dreams, we step outside the realm of human capability and that which we never could have imagined becomes reality, with G-d’s help.

Here’s what Rabbi David Aaron, Dean of Yeshivat Orayta (definitely worth visiting if you have the chance) explains how in this week’s parsha, Jacob demonstrates what tefillah really means:

(watch until 15:53 to get the gist).

In a sentence, what we call prayer is impossible without connecting to our most cherished dreams. That can be scary at times – downright petrifying – but where would we be without dreamers?

Whenever we rejoice at a meal – be it Shabbat, a holiday, a wedding – we sing a song of ascents, and remember that when G-d returns the returnees of Zion, we were like dreamers.

It’s scary to be a dreamer. Much more so than a realist. But perhaps, we can use more dreams for Klal Yisrael and what we can be and achieve. Perhaps we can dream together, and merit to see more than we could have ever imagined possible for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

 

The Question: Do You Have a Father?

This story is an a favorite of mine. It goes along really well with the whole genealogy slash appreciation-for-your-roots theme.

And, it’s a great example of a successful, hit-you-in-the-heart Hassidic/Litvish philosophical fusion. Yes, they do exist.

And its inspiration derives from this week’s parsha. I first heard it from my rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, a student of Rabbi Joeph Dov Soloveitchik z”l.

On a cold, dark, Russian day, not long after Chanukah, the young Joseph Dov found himself at cheder (a Jewish school) with a bevvy of sleepy, unengaged peers. The teacher, hearing how monotonously his students were reading the words of that weekly Torah reading, brought them to a halt with a seemingly simple question. What resulted was a life-changing moment for Joseph Dov:

What kind of question did Joseph ask his brothers, Ha-yesh lachem av? Do you have a father? Of course they had a father, everybody has a father! The only person who had no father was the first man of creation, Adam…Joseph asked the brothers,  [are you] rooted in your father? Do you look upon him the way the branches, or the blossoms, look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the feeder, as the foundation of your existence?…Are you modest and humble? Do you admit that the old father represents an old tradition?

Do you believe that the father is capable of telling you something new, something exciting? Something challenging? Something you did not know before? Or are you insolent, arrogant, and vain, and deny your dependence upon your father, upon your source?

All in all, as Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet said when he told over the story:

do you have a father

Lots of good questions, and sometimes, it’s good to sit with those questions rather than answer them. But please feel free to share your thoughts and answers below.

 

 

 

 

 

Going, Then Going Back

There’s a lot of fanfare around the words lech lecha – go for yourself. With resolute trust in G-d, Abraham leaves his land, his hometown, and his father’s house for a place which he will be shown; a place in which, G-d promises, Abraham will have what he’s so earnestly yearning for – future generations. Though my only experience is from the 20th/21st century, I imagine that Jewish educators throughout history praised Abraham, marking this moment as the archetype for all Jews to absorb and model. This is what a Faithful Jew does! G-d speaks to him and then, he goes and does what G-d says. It’s as simple as that.

When Abraham finally arrives in Canaan, and G-d once again speaks with him, I can only imagine the immense gratitude he feels as G-d says what he has been hoping to hear, not only that he’ll be a great nation, but that he will have children. With this newfound vigor, he builds an altar to G-d, noting this place as a special place; a place that will forever hold the energy and spirit of this moment.

According to all logic, since the Faithful servant has done exactly as the Faithful Master has asked, children should follow. The days of heart-wrenching barenness should be over, and from this, all generations to come should know that even if you don’t understand why G-d asks you to do certain things, it will pay off in the end.

But that’s not what happens next. Instead, Abraham keeps going South. He keeps building his community, cultivating a culture that recognizes there is One G-d, and before you know it, there’s a famine in Canaan. No mention of children, and now, there’s no food either. G-d is silent. Abraham makes the next decision on his own.

And from there, a web of seemingly un-forefatherly events unfold.  Abraham lies about his relationship with Sarah in order to attempt to save their lives, eventually ending her up in Pharaoh’s palace as a potential royal harem dweller. Meanwhile, Pharaoh throws wealth and riches at Abraham, hoping this will persuade him to become mishpacha. This continues until finally, G-d steps in and plagues Pharaoh’s house. Long story short, Abraham and Sarah are escorted out of Egypt safely and wealthier than when they had gone in. In a sense, it’s as if the Egypt episode was just a dream – they’re back in Canaan, but richer.

Now, imagine being back in this place where you were originally told that you’d finally get the only thing you really wanted. It’s been a few months, or years, and that thing still hasn’t come. After a while, most people feel burned. They lose hope, optimism, faith, and with it the gentility to lean into those moments that require them to be hopeful and optimistic. Visiting the place where the hope started, where you finally felt like this seemingly unanswered desire is about to end, and returning with that desire still unfulfilled can be painful. Was I a fool for being so hopeful, so sure that my life was about to change?

Instead of avoiding that place, Abraham goes to the “place where he first pitched his tent” and “to the site of the altar which he had erected there at first.” It would have been all too easy for him to say, “look I tried, G-d. I left everything behind and came here, but, I’m not cut out for this.” He had the wealth, he had his following. He could let the dream die. Let someone else go through the ringer of shattered dreams. I don’t know how Abraham felt – his hope and faith was surely stronger than mine – but I can understand why he went to that first altar.

It’s places like that first altar that remind us who we are, who we really are and really want to be. Sometimes we get off track, we go south, we look out for the instruction of G-d, and it’s not apparent to us. We struggle with being the person we really want to be, and slowly lose sight of how to get there. B’ezrat Hashem, we get up from that confusion, and once we do, the question becomes, where do we go next? Do we avoid the dreams and aspirations we had before struggling with hardship and disappointment, or do we pick them up, and seek them out again?

There were more tests to come for Abraham, and for Am Yisrael, but even so, there’s always been a place to go and remember who we are and who we want to be. This first altar later became the site of golden and copper altars, where Jews would go to remind themselves of the qualities, characteristics, and commitments that define us as Jews at our essence. The goal of lech lecha, isn’t only to go once, but to go back again and again; to continuously return to ourselves by returning to the place that revivifies the humility and  confidence needed to stay true to who we really can be.

 

 

 

Parshat Shlach: A Different Way of Looking at Things

pablo

If there’s any parsha that elicits my facepalm reflex, it’s this one. After being stuffed with endless amounts of poultry, you’d think the people would catch onto the fact that what G-d actually asks of them is what is indeed what’s best for them. Please people, say it with me, “the Egyptians enslaved us. Egypt was bad place to be…”

Understandably, change can be challenging to move with full steam ahead  – even the good, highly anticipated kind. And as the Jewish people proved in last week’s parsha, looking on the bright side isn’t something the majority of people are willing to do.

Thankfully though, Moshe is not alone on the “bright side” train this time around; now he has the likes of Joshua and Caleb on his side, two of the ten spies who went to inspect the Land of Canaan before bringing in the nation. With a huge interest in the Tribe of Ephraim, I’m going to leave a rendering of Joshua’s character for another time (there’s much to say!). This week, I’d like to bring a thought on Caleb:

After the majority of the spies advised against moving forward into Canaan, Caleb is praised for his voicing an unwavering “can do” attitude, despite the negative talk around him. The text states that “there was another spirit with him” (14:24). What is this “other spirit?” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, it was “a different way of looking at things and a different will that saved him from the sin of his comrades.” He had the determination and desire to look beyond the present moment and see the tremendous possibilities for the Jewish people’s future as the G-d’s Chosen people, in G-d’s Chosen land. Though he understood the road to this future would be challenging and trying, he didn’t consider it a dead end sign, and he refused to say or see otherwise.

This kind of trait, is not meant to be deluding. Yes, when something is wrong, address it, but don’t address it with a nostalgic sigh or cry: “life was so much better before this! Life was so much easier, so much more predictable, and practical!” That kind of attitude does not lead to the continuity, progress, and life Bnei Yisrael was really asking for under all those layers of complaints. The only reason we exist, is because there were people before us who chose to envision life in a different way, and followed through with that vision, full steam ahead. Seeing the good doesn’t happen on it own – we must take responsibility for what we perceive, and when called for, look at things a different way from our colleagues. Life doesn’t get better for us unless we want to see that it can be. Many times, that takes a different, less popular way of looking at things…but isn’t it worth it?

Parshat Beha’alotcha: Determination and Faith

R' Lichtenstein Shloshim Quote1

Parshat Beha’alotcha has had a special place in my heart for several years. It was the last parsha I heard in Israel before heading back to America from my gap year in Israel. Finally, the reality sunk in: everything I had learned that year, all of it was meant to be preparation for the next stage of life. The immersive environment of paired study sessions, long nights of studying Torah for its own sake, and continuous guidance from dedicated, dextrous teachers, was soon going to be a memory. What did one of my teachers, Rabbi Reuven Taragin, have to say on the day that he knew that we were each about to go our own way?

He brought the story of the two nuns (as in the letter nun). Toward the end of the parsha, two verses are sectioned off by an upright and upside down nun. The question is – why? Rashi says that the nuns are there to show that these verses are not in their proper place. Then why have the verses there to begin with? To separate between one punishment and the next..

Why these verses in particular? There are many answers, however, this is the one that Rabbi Targin shared with us:

The Jewish people were complaining for a very understandable,  human reason: they were about to face tremendous change. The routines and realities of Egypt would now officially be behind them – everything ahead was new and unknown. With change comes transition, and with transition comes transformation. Transformation takes hard work, and the willingness to accept that we as people will be different from the people we were or are. Instead of positively anticipating changes, Bnei Yisrael relieved their concerns in the easiest way possible – they complained.

The verses between the nuns are the ideal way in which Bnei Yisrael would have responded; it is the way they should have responded if they were looking forward. Instead, they chose to look backward on all that they had before – the fish and the meat of Egypt. The elements of the known and the certain were much easier to grapple with than the newness ahead. These verses are here because Moshe believed and knew there would be many reasons to be optimistic. The past was the past and the present, though very different and sure to come with its own challenges, held a higher quality of life. He was the lone optimist, the only one who was ready to put one foot in front of the next without comparing the present to the past.

Thousands of years have passed since that moment, but human nature has not. Rabbi Taragin explained that once we left seminary, and as we got older, change would present itself over and over again. Oftentimes, change isn’t simple, and presents more than one path to take. This uncertainty can be paralyzing, so, people don’t want to move forward. Instead, they find reasons to complain. Unfortunately, this is how many people behave, and aside for making life less pleasant for those around them, they overpower the voices like Moshe’s, who believe that Hashem will guide us toward that which is best for us. It is those people who will have the determination and faith to move forward, and move Klal Yisrael forward, despite the unavoidable difficulties.

Though I never had the privilege of meeting R’ Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, he deeply impacted the lives of many of my role models, teachers, and colleagues. As a fellow (much less learned) student of English literature, I admired the breadth and depth of his literary knowledge and appreciation, and how he seamlessly infused its best with Torah. Above all, R’ Lichtenstein embodied that a Jew can be devout and unwaveringly committed outside of a ghetto, and, that the Diaspora Jew can plant seeds of Torah in the Holy Land, and build a thriving threshold of Torah study for natives and immigrants alike. He moved forward with determination and faith. As we move into this new era, without R’ Lichtenstein, let us continue his forward-facing attitude, and live up to the ideal of the verses between the nuns.

The audio version of Rabbi Reuven Taragin’s shiur (Hebrew): http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/794800/Rabbi_Reuven_Taragin/Beha’alotcha_