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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Learn Something From Everyone

Is there a person who you cannot stand so much that even mentioning their name makes you cringe? How about a building that evokes a feeling so harsh that you cannot even look at it? Do you feel guilty about those feelings? Perhaps you are onto something, and there’s a reason for those feelings.

What is interesting is that there is a law in the Torah that states one should not use an “idol” or an “idol-worshipper” as a reference or even as a landmark, lest someone think that your innocent reference to it can be interpreted as support. So, if this thing or person is so repugnant to you – for good reason – then there might be good reason not to mention it by name.
This makes us wonder, why is it that in our Torah portion when we have these shady characters of Balak and Billam, who try to curse the Jewish people, that not only does the Torah talk about them, the Torah portion of the week is even called by the name Balak! Shouldn’t we avoid him at any cost? Why is Balak the center of our story?
When G-d uses his name, we are confident that G-d is mentioning it, not in support of him, but to call him out. To let us know how not tobehave. What not to serve. Think about the campaign “don’t use drugs.” True, that slogan includes the word “drugs” but if that is all that you took from the slogan, then you missed its message. Clearly the message is: “Don’t use!”  
It’s the same with Balak. Because the Torah refers to him as an evil man, we will not think of following him; just the opposite, we will know how not to behave.

At times, it is just as important to teach ourselves and those around us how not to behave, as it is important to teach us how we should behave!
This week the Torah teaches us that we have to learn from everyone: From some we learn how to live our lives like them, and from others we learn how to live not like them.


Accepting Reality As-Is

In the world of business, it is well known that in order to have a cohesive workforce, it is important that everyone understands the fundamentals of the business’ mission statement. Not only what the company sells and does, but also why this company is a place where they should want to work. Especially in today’s competitive job market, it is imperative that company leadership creates an environment where everyone wants to “buy in,” and do so with enthusiasm. If a company cannot capture this fire within its staff, then the rate of employee retention goes down. People will come to work unhappy, or become less productive. That is why you see company after company invest in innovative ways to keep employees happy, engaged, and productive, lest they jump ship. 

This is a very rational approach to running a business. However, the moment a company falls on hard times and the perks start to disappear, frequently, so does the talent. Yet, how about the owners? Do they run for cover, or do they stick it out?  

You know the answer; they are here to stay and work through the difficult times.  Why is it that the owners must stay with the sinking ship? 

The answer is that the relationship an owner or founder has with his or her business is much deeper than just a rational relationship with the company where they work; They have a “super-rational” connection, a deep connection on a higher and deeper level. While on most days they run their company making rational decisions, something inside them allows them to accept the reality “as is.”

Every company owner wishes that their employees would endure the difficult times with the same commitment as they have, and not jump ship when things get tough. The owner is willing to stay committed, yet, we don’t see that happen as much with employees. Can this change? 

Let’s change the analogy from business and think about our Judaism for a moment. Yes, Judaism has much meaning, inspiring music, and customs. Judaism brings joy and fulfillment into our lives. On many days, we wake up in the morning and we declare proudly that we are Jews! However, what happens when we have a downer of a day? When we question G-d? Should we just throw in the towel and say good-bye to G-d? How do we maintain our connection to G-d in times of doubt? 

This is where this week’s Torah portion comes in to answer our questions.    

In Judaism we find that there are three categories of Mitzvot: Chukim/Super -Rational laws, Eidut/Testimonials, and Mishpatim/Common-Sense laws. 

Why the need for Chukim/Super-Rational laws? 

Super-Rational laws give us that opportunity to connect to G-d on a soul-to-soul level. This doesn’t limit us to just rational thinking. Going back to the business analogy, think of the difference between the owner and the worker when it comes to the company going through a rough time. At that point, the deeper the connection and the LESS rational thinking involved, the healthier the person. Not because they are not thinking rationally, but because they are being SUPER rational. There is a deep, a very deep, connection, that cannot be explained with words, to the point that it doesn’t need an explanation. Perhaps we can even say that an explanation will trivialize the relationship.   

This is the gift that G-d gave us: the ability to connect to Him, not as an employee, but as an owner. To claim ownership of our Judaism. To own our Judaism, we sometimes just have to accept it “as is.” 

Knowing this, we can, and should, hold onto G-d even during hard times. 

How Would You Act?

Here is the dilemma: You are asked to do something as part of a group but some members of the group corrupt the mission. If you go along with the group, it could be perceived that you agree with them so you don’t want to participate. Conversely, if you call it quits, then you are definitely not doing the requested job. Should you go along, knowing – in your heart - that you are doing the right thing, or should you not go along, since it could be perceived that you are doing the wrong thing?

We could pose the question another way: what is more important, the action or the intention? If all you had to do was get the “action” done: Then even though the action is performed by others, albeit in a corrupt way, and you don’t have anything to do with it (since its “intention” is corrupted), you are staying far away. However, if it is all about the “intention:” then is it possible for you to “think” good intentions, even while the wrong “action” is being perpetrated?
This was exactly the dilemma of Joshua and Calev when they went as spies to investigate the Land of Israel. Moses had asked them to “bring back fruit from the promised land.” Yet, when they saw that other spies where planning to come back and misuse the fruit (as a prop) to enter Israel, they didn’t want to have anything to do with that plan. However, if Moses asked them to bring back the fruit, shouldn’t they have listened? This was their dilemma. Should they have listened or not? We know that they didn’t bring anything back. But why?
In general, it is the action that counts so long as we have good intentions. However, in this specific case, when the spies’ emphasis was on teaching the Jews that we can serve G-d by thought and speech and putting less emphasis on action, Joshua and Calev wanted to emphasize the importance of action--to the point that it is all about the action, going so far as to defy Moses’s request to bring back the fruit, simply to teach the Jewish people the lesson that serving G-d comes from our actions. 
Yes, we need good intentions, but good intentions, without anchoring them in good actions, is not going to work. 

Mazel Tov!

Over the past few weeks we have celebrated many a graduation, from kindergarten to elementary school and from high school to college. In addition to the age difference between those graduating, there is a huge difference between graduating from college and graduating from lower level school. Going to college is optional, so when a young adult finishes their schooling, it is something to celebrate.  However, one must ask (purely from an intellectual perspective): What is the big deal of finishing kindergarten, 8th grade, or 12th grade? Doesn’t that happen on its own, automatically? What else was that kid going to do–drop out?

This question is deeper than you may think. It is actually addressed in this week’s Torah portion, which discusses the Menorah. The instruction to craft the Menorah is the same as all other components of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. G-d gives very detailed instructions as to exactly how He wants every item to look. However, when it comes to the Menorah, Moses is confounded about how to actually make it, since there is one detail that G-d throws in there that makes it improbable to do: that “it should be made from one piece of gold.” Now, we all know that a Menorah has six branches and a middle candle (the Shamash) in addition to the legs. Creating all the intrinsic details (flowers, cups, balls, etc.) is a challenge in its own right for a talented goldsmith to form. How in the world can someone make it out of one piece of gold? 
G-d tells Moses: No problem; throw the gold into the fire, and I will form it for you. Moses does as he is told and out comes a Menorah. 
Yet, until Aaron kindles the Menorah, the Menorah is not considered complete! One may ask, why?  What is Aaron contributing? The heavy lifting was done by G-d himself. Just adding some oil and a wick? Anyone can do that. Or to put it another way, it would “happen anyway.” What else happens with a Menorah once it is completed if not to be kindled? Why the big “celebration” once it was lit, a celebration so great that we are told it was Aaron’s act that brought G-d’s presence into the Tabernacle?  
From here we see that nothing “just happens;” even G-d’s act is related to our own. G-d didn’t just throw some gold into a fire, Moses did. G-d formed the gold that Moses threw in the fire. And Aaron kindled the Menorah. It was a partnership, Moses, Aaron, and G-d. 
It is the same with graduation. It may be true that a little child graduating from preschool is not the same as a young adult graduating from college, when you compare the “free choice” involved in the process. However, if you think about the great effort the child put into learning, the participation of the teachers and parents into the child’s intellectual growth, and the effort that the little kid put into themselves to turn into a little “mensch,” it is no small feat. The little kid also deserves a graduation.  Each level of success deserves a party according to its achievement—preschool, 8th grade, 12th grade, college, etc.   
Mazel Tov to all graduates!   

A Private Conversation

When do you take a public conversation private? On the one hand, if you want people to trust you, shouldn’t the conversation continue in the presence of others? Perhaps not. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to make the conversation private because there is more to gain in private.  

I am thinking about a topic that is discussed in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah tells us that when G-d wanted to talk to Moses, He would appear at the tent of meeting and His voice would be heard by Moses only – even Aaron could not hear His voice, if he were present. The commentators point out that this was in fact a miracle.  
The question that jumps right out at us is: Why the need for the miracle? Wouldn’t it have been better if “the voice of G-d” could have continued for all to hear? OK, maybe not for everyone to hear, as that might have been too much to handle, but at least for Aaron and the seventy elders. After all, wouldn’t that have helped support that all of the Torah came from G-d and that Moses didn’t “make it up?” The truth is that after the revelation at Sinai the Jews trusted Moses, so they were not concerned … but many years later, we Jews can be skeptical about the authorship of the Torah; after all, if G-d’s voice would have been heard by more people, wouldn’t it be more convincing? 
Let’s take a moment and think about what happened at Sinai. Did G-d’s voice stop there, or did it continue on and on, ad infinitum? In reality, it had to have been stopped—since G-d is infinite, so his voice has to be infinite, so it has to be limited to time and space. Hence, even at Mount Sinai, there was a miracle to “limit” the voice of G-d so that the voice could be heard.  
In essence, nothing new happened at the tent of meeting. The only thing that changed was who was able to hear the voice, but not that it was limited.  
So why didn’t G-d want anyone to hear His voice other than Moses? 
You may ask, if we all “hear” G-d's voice, would we have free choice to listen or not? No way!  Of course we would listen! We would have no free choice. G-d however, wants us to have free choice. This is one of the cardinal principles in Judaism. Nothing gets in the way of free choice, to the point that G-d would rather us question whether or not He spoke to Moses, showing us that we have free choice, than convince us that he did speak to Moses, and then we don’t have free choice. 
This principle has to come down to the simplest levels as well. We are curious people. We like to know what others are talking about, but is it good for us to know? Not always, because then we wouldn’t have free choice on how to act. 
In today’s world of social media, it is hard for us to fathom, but that doesn’t change the reality that in order to have free choice, it is better not to be influenced by outside forces – if they are too overwhelming. 
Learn, yes. Be inspired, of course! However, to have G-d reveal himself to us is a bit too much. 


Building Momentum

Back in the day when the Jews were in the desert, they were getting ready to receive the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai. They had no idea exactly what to expect. So, Moses prepared them by daily ascending the mountain, asking G-d for instructions and guiding the Jews in their preparations. However, on the day before the giving of the Torah, Moses did not climb up; instead he busied himself by setting up an altar made of twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  So one must ask the question: Since Mount Sinai was not that tall, couldn’t he find some time in the day to climb the mountain and see if there were any new instructions for the Jewish people? Why stay at the bottom of the mountain? 

Perhaps there is a hidden message here.  
Moses was teaching the Jewish people a lesson; he was taking concrete steps for us to learn what it means to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. What transpired at Sinai is that from that moment on, we, the people who are down here in this physical world, the ones who cannot just “climb the mountain,” can make a difference by our physical actions. Moses demonstrated this by building an altar out of stones, taking an animal (representing our physical pleasures) and bringing it as an offering (showing that we are willing to let it go) to illustrate that we can elevate this world to a higher, spiritual, plane. If he had gone up the mountain on that final day, then this message would have been lost. The people would have thought that the only way to get close to G-d is to leave this world behind. Moses wanted to be with the Jews, so that they could internalize this lesson. 
We too must know that it is in our hands to change this world, specifically from where we stand!  
It is in this spirit that we decided that for this year’s Tikun Leil Shavuot – late night learning – for Shavuot eve, on Saturday night, June 8, at 10:00 p.m., we will have community members talk about several “unsung heroes of the Torah,” people who have transformed their world, and made it a better place. See below for more information. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot! 

Cash Prize

It always fascinates me that Nobel Prize winners are awarded cash prizes along with the title “Nobel Prize Winner.” One would think that such intellectual people, those who have their “heads in the clouds” or are “altruistic people,” are more concerned with the good of humanity than with monetary prizes, so why demean their accomplishments with something so mundane as money?  To some extent it undermines the message of their success. We try to say how much they contributed to society by putting their needs to the side and doing good for the public, and then we go and reward them for it. How? By giving them something that they themselves shunned?! 


This would not be a question if their pursuit were money to begin with. But generally speaking, the more “spiritual” the object that we run after, the less meaningful a monetary reward will mean to us. Yet, it seems that we are always rewarded with gifts and fame. Why is that so? 
This question becomes even more perplexing when we look at this week’s Torah portion, where G-d tells us that He will reward us for doing Mitzvot not with some spiritual benefit but with physical pleasure! So it is not just us, corporeal beings, that live this life of contradiction, but it is seemingly G-d who feeds this same addiction to worldly pleasures. 
Therefore, we must presume that there is a deeper meaning here. 
Money and worldly pleasures are not bad when used for the right purpose. Actually, they can and should be elevated to become holy. More to the point, if we don’t recognize the advantage of bringing holiness and Mitzvot into the realm of money and the mundane, then we are missing the point of Tikun Olam, changing and repairing this world.  
In order to truly make a difference in this world, we have to be able to relate to the lowest elements of this world, even to the things that attempt to “pull us down” (not literally pull us down). 
That is why G-d rewards us with physical things for doing Mitzvot, and that is why, even when we do a Mitzvah for altruistic reasons, we still appreciate when we are rewarded with a “cash prize”—not because we want the cash, but because with the cash we can go on to do more Mitzvot, and keep on making this world a better place. 
The same is true with the Nobel Prize winner. The cash prize is not the point—it is the honor of the prize. The cash that accompanies the title is a tangible expression of the unique contribution this individual has given to society. 
We all contribute to society in our own ways, and we all do our little – or big – Mitzvot. May Hashem reward us in very tangible ways and may we succeed in Tikun Olam, repairing this world and making this world a “home for G-d.” 


Jewish Economics 1.01

Is charging interest moral? Is it economically sound? 

The Torah prohibits you as a Jew from charging a fellow Jew interest on a loan. However, if you do, the money is yours to keep. The point is that if you decide to return the interest, not only are you not obligated to do so, you cannot. You can “gift” it, but not “return” it. 
The obvious question is, why? Isn’t loaning money with interest good for business? (We are not talking about loan sharks.) With an interest-bearing loan, both parties agree to the terms – happily. So why does the Torah prohibit such an interaction?
Charging interest makes business sense. Since there is nothing wrong with doing so purely from a business perspective, we can extrapolate that the money actually belongs to the lender. 
However, from a spiritual perspective, everything that belongs to us, all that we accumulate, has come into our possession for a reason. Nothing happens by mistake and we have to be a good steward with our possessions. 
So although we are interested in making money with our money, there is a law that tells us not to charge interest. This law comes directly from G-d – which isn’t to say that the money does not belong to us, because it does - but for another reason: G-d wants us to be good stewards of the money entrusted to us. Are we willing to help those who are less fortunate than us? As a favor, and not as a business transaction?  If we turn a loan into a business transaction, that is our choice, and the profit is ours. But the opportunity to help our fellow Jew was missed.   

How to Have a Meaningful Day

Some days we jump out of bed with alacrity and on others we need a crane to pull us out of bed. This may be due to the fact that some days we are going to work, while others we are vacationing in the most exotic place on Earth. Perhaps our work is so fulfilling and we love it so much we jump out of bed every day, and while we are at work we have so much stamina that we don’t get tired, and may even forget to take a lunch break. The question is, how do we motivate ourselves on a regular day to give it all that we can to make it fulfilling?

Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion starts off with a double usage within the same sentence of the word “say” (something to the Priests). This double use of “say” regards the Priests who served in the Temple, telling them that they should know the laws of how to serve. Yet, Rashi (the famous commentator) interprets the double expression to mean that the elders should teach the youngsters not only how to serve, but to do so with alacrity. The question is then, why does Rashi conclude that it means the elders should teach the youngsters? Maybe it means that the elders themselves should be excited about their own work?

We know people whose nature is to always have a jump in their step, always excited to see what the day will bring, always looking for adventure. In general, this is how the Kohen, the Priest behaves (at least in the Temple). In order to guarantee that this kind of commitment and emotion is transferred to the next generation, it is incumbent on the older generation to teach the next. 
Children don’t learn on their own, they are taught. We are duty-bound to teach the next generation. When we teach others to put excitement into every step, to be committed to the job that they do, even if it seems to be ordinary, we, too, will gain from that and have a meaningful day.

Elijah’s Cup

At the Seder table we follow many traditions, several of which are steeped in biblical sources. Others are designed to pique the children’s interest so that they ask questions, which gives us, the adults, opportunities to teach them, as the Mitzvah of the evening is “to teach our children.” One such custom is to drink four cups of wine, representing the four expressions that are mentioned in the Torah, referring to the exodus from Egypt.  However, looking closely at the verses, we actually see five expressions! Why then don’t we drink five cups of wine? 

I can see the scholar within you scratching your head, thinking this must be a debate in the Talmud. You are correct! It is. The compromise of the Rabbis is to fill the fifth cup of wine and sing praises to G-d over the cup of wine, just as we do with the other cups. However, we are not to drink the wine, since the particular verse refers to the ultimate redemption in the future, (entering the Land of Israel), not to the immediate redemption that the Jews were experiencing at the time (leaving Egypt). 
That still leaves us with the question, where does the name “Elijah’s Cup” come from? 
There is a “traditional answer” and an “inspirational answer.”
We have a tradition that whenever there is a question in the Talmud for which we don’t know the answer, the question stands, and we just say “let’s wait until Elijah the Prophet comes with Moshiach, and he will answer all of our questions!” Hence the nickname, “Elijah’s Cup.”
However, this is a bit of a depressing take on the issue. A more inspirational way of looking at this is, let us fill a cup of wine for Elijah to come to our home to usher in the era of Moshiach. This is more exciting, and keeps the kids awake looking at the cup wondering, “can we see Elijah take a sip of wine?” Will this year be the final year that we have to say “Next year in Jerusalem!?” 
Elijah’s Cup changed over time from a question mark to an exclamation point. 
May you have a meaningful Passover. 
Shabbat Shalom 


Moral Intelligence

There was a big story in the news this week about how the rich were scheming in illegal ways to get their children admitted into the top universities by bribing sports coaches, administrators, SAT officials, etc. 

Let the legal authorities deal with the legalities of the case. My concern is with the kids. What is the message that they received from their parents? What was the “moral education” that they received? Any “higher” education that they will get at any of these top “VIP” schools has been undermined by their parents’ lack of moral behavior – that they were being taught, and definitely learned. Why bother to invest all this money in an education that will not produce a mensch?

This week we start a new book of the Torah, the third book, and many might say, the most boring of the Five Books of Moses, because it lacks the drama of creation, the turmoil of the Jews in Egypt, the challenges to Moses that occur in the Sinai desert, etc. What is discussed in the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, is sacrifices. Sacrifice is a difficult concept for many to relate to. Why did G-d want to have an animal burnt on the altar? What kind of barbaric behavior was that, let alone think that we will do that again one day with the coming of Moshiach? Why should we even spend time learning about it over and over again every year?  Let us just skip book number three. 

Well, my friends, we must answer this question with another question. What makes sacrifice even more interesting is that the Torah says the sacrifices produced a “pleasing” aroma for G-d!  Really? It is one thing to say that G-d gets pleasure from watching us do what he wants – even if it has no meaning to us, whatsoever. But to say that G-d enjoys animal sacrifices and that it is “pleasing” to G-d is ludicrous! What is that supposed to mean?! 

The answer is that we are missing the point; we are putting the emphasis in the wrong place.  G-d knows how uncomfortable we are bringing an animal as a sacrifice. No one wants to do it, including G-d. So why does He ask it of us? G-d wants to see if we can reach deep into ourselves, find that “animal” within us and make a mensch out of it. Can we “sacrifice” our ego on the altar? Can we put our need to send our children to a “VIP” school aside if they cannot earn admission on their own merits?  If we can, then even our “animal” is a pleasing smell to G-d. We don’t need to offer gold and silver. Being rich and famous is useless to G-d if each one of us is not a mensch. Better to be a pleasant-smelling “animal,” a humble mensch, than a stinky cheater.

When we teach our children moral intelligence, it is a pleasing aroma to G-d. The greatest university is right in our own home. That is, if we are not afraid to say the “G” word. When we talk about G-d, when we say blessings on our food, when we elevate the “animal within us” to a higher level and transform ourselves – and those around us – each to become a mensch, we create a pleasant aroma for G-d.    

Action vs. Intention

Often, I am asked what matters more, when I do a Mitzvah with all its details, even if I don’t have the right intention, or if I do it partially, but I have the right intention? 
To rephrase this question and put it in perspective: Which is more significant: if I buy a full bouquet of flowers even if I don’t care for half of them and my heart is not in it, knowing my wife would appreciate the whole bouquet, or if I buy just a few well-selected flowers, and though the bouquet is not as big, the few flowers that were chosen are meaningful to me? 
What carries more weight, the action or the intention? 
Let’s try to glean some insight from the Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses counts the silver and copper that was donated to the temple. The gold was not counted, however, because once Moses proved that he was trustworthy just by counting the silver and copper, G-d ordered Moses not to count the gold, and the Jews trusted him. 
There is more to say on this subject but not for now. 
The interesting thing about how the donations were counted was that it was done by weight, not by value. This is fascinating, since one might presume to pay more for a designer piece of jewelry than for a block of silver. So should a donation be considered more valuable if it is a designer piece of jewelry vs. a block of silver—even though they both will be melted down? From an accounting perspective, the bottom line, they are equal. So why did Moses take an accounting by weight and not by value? 
From here we learn a fascinating lesson: It is the action that counts, even more than the intention. It is the silver itself that matters, not the artwork, the design, or the intention – the kavanah – that went into the work. Yes, of course all that matters, as that is the icing on the cake. However, what really matters is the essence of it all, and that is the cake – the giving itself.   
Imagine you promise a child that you will give them a prize for learning well and getting a good mark on a test. Then when they succeed, you tell them that you “intended” to keep your promise, and you have all the right intentions, but you didn’t act on it. You failed the child. If however, you come through on the promise, even if you were not in the mood to go to the store to pick up the promised gift, the child is still in seventh heaven. Why? Because your actions speak louder than anything else. 
There is no question that when our actions mesh with our intention, we have the best of both worlds, and that is what we strive to achieve. However, we have to remember that it is the action that always is more important. 
In modern times this is called “behavior therapy.“ In the Torah it is called, “behaving like a Jew.” 

How to Educate a Child

When it comes to education, there are many theories on best practices, such as how to talk to children, what to say, and so on. Having a preschool at Chabad, I am privileged to witness on a daily basis our teachers talking gently to the children. Not just to the older children, who can talk back and clearly understand what the teachers are saying, but even to the little ones.   

One day I asked Devorah, why do the teachers talk to the little babies telling them what they are going to do, as if they understand every activity that is being done? Devorah explained the reason behind this behavior to me by saying that education is not just about the big things in life, but even about the little things. Focusing on the child as an individual, a world all their own and truly inherently good. An educator’s job is not to change the child but to help them channel their inherent dispositions and personality to be their best selves. It is about “anchoring” a child with a positive disposition and attitude. Immersing and surrounding them with love, kindness and respect which builds a foundation for the rest of their lives. When speaking to a child using a calm and gentle voice, explaining to them everything that is being done to them, the teacher is not talking down to them, but bringing them into the “tent” of learning and experience.
Although this made sense to me, it didn’t sink in fully until I learned in this week’s Torah portion about the courtyard walls surrounding the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Torah tells us that the beams were held up with strings tied to anchors, but it doesn’t say whether the anchors were weights that sat on the ground, or were posts sunken into the ground. Rashi infers that the anchors were sunken into the ground. The reason for this is to teach us that even the outermost part of the Mishkan has to be well grounded. There is no part of the Mishkan that can be overlooked.  
If we look at a person as a mini-temple, a mini-Mishkan, the lesson is clear. A baby has to be educated to its fullest capacity; there is no part of its education that should be left out, or just sit on the surface. All aspects of their education have to be tended to. Education should be anchored, so that the full benefit of the experience can be taken in.   
Such an education doesn’t stop with the young as a child matures. Attention has to be given to all of a child’s needs, even external ones, since every need is an important one. 

Being Connected

We are people who are moved by visuals. That is why one of the most effective teaching tools is show & tell, using such aids as handouts or books. In business we know that a face-to-face meeting is always better than a phone call, and even more so than just an email. That is why it makes a lot of sense to us that Moses would ask G-d – in this week’s Torah portion - if he can see Him. However, G-d responds with an emphatic, “no!” and goes on to explain why: “No one can see me and live.” However, G-d does show Moses his “back.” 

What does it mean that G-d shows Moses his back (does G-d really have a face and a back)? Rashi, the famous commentator, posits that this means that G-d showed Moses the knot for his Tefillin that sits on the back of G-d’s head. 

Wait a minute: If G-d doesn’t really have a head to begin with, how is He wearing the Tefillin with a knot that Rashi is referring to? 

What is a knot?
A knot, by definition, is something that causes two objects to become connected.  Although they might seem to be two independent objects, once they are knotted together they become one. 

Moses did not want to see “G-d’s face” just out of curiosity. Moses wanted to confirm the deep connection that the Jewish people have with G-d. Just like when we look someone in the eye we can see if there is a real connection or not as we are visual people, it is hard to feel this connection by just learning the Torah; we want to see “G-d’s face.” 

However, G-d responded to Moses, “You cannot see my face, but I want you to know that you are still connected to me. See, here is the ‘knot,’ that connection, that you are looking for.” 

There are times in our lives when we are looking, searching, to see G-d. Where is His face? We cannot find Him. We need that confirmation. Then G-d appears to tell us, and tells us, “You will find Me in the knot of the Tefillin.” In the actions that we do, in the Mitzvot that we do, we will find ourselves bound up with G-d. This is what really makes us connected. 

Stronger Together

This week we saw something very interesting in the news. The slogan “Stronger Together,” a unifying message from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was adapted/borrowed/stolen by President Donald Trump. 

A slogan that was meant to unify the nation, ended up pulling us apart. 

Regardless of your views on the matter, whether this is an infringement on trademark law, a compliment to Hillary, or a sign of true unity, is not for me to say. What I do find fascinating is that this week we also note the concept of “Stronger Together” mentioned – in a more important place than the media – in the Torah. 

This week’s Torah portion talks about the clothes of the High Priest: On his chest he wore a breastplate  made of twelve precious stones, each stone engraved with the name of one of the twelve tribes. The breastplate was held in place with strings. Another set of two stones that sat on each shoulder also had the names of the tribes engraved on them, six on each side.  

The question is: In what order were the 12 tribes listed? Jacob had four wives. Were they listed in the order of birth based on their mothers or based on their father? 

This is not a trivial question. The answer has a lot to do with how we are viewed. Are we made up based on our essence, our nature, which comes from our “father,” the seed? Or are we who we are based on how we developed, our nurture, which comes from our “mother,” the nine months in the mother’s womb? The role of the parents, nature and nurture, continue as a child grows up, but what is the stronger unifying factor? 

We are “Stronger Together” not when we choose the mother or the father, one or the other, but when we realize that we need both.  

That is why it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that looking for the answer as to the order of the names on the stones, we have two opinions because we need both orders, nurture and nature!  

How can we reconcile the two views? Perhaps the nurture order could be worn on the shoulders, and the nature order worn on the breastplate.  

We can be stronger together without arguing. 

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