Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Asking Questions or Making Statements?

Today everyone is an expert. You go to the doctor with an ailment, and you are already telling the doctor what to prescribe. Not only because you did your research on Google, but because the advertisements tell you to go to your doctor and tell them what you need.


It’s the same in many areas in our life. 


However, on deeper reflection we should question this behavior.


Researching so that you are educated, so that when you go to a professional for advice, you can understand what they are talking about, that is a good idea. But to think that we are the professional who has all the answers? Is that the right attitude?


In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of the spies. This event had a major impact on the Jewish people. In short, this is the story of 12 leaders of the Jewish people who were sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel to see how best to capture the land. Not if to enter, but how to enter. Ten of the twelve came back and gave advice.  Instead of reporting on the how, they mixed in their own perspective on the if and the why and the consequences of entering Israel. They placed themselves into positions of authority.


The lesson that the Torah teaches us is that it is OK to raise a question. It is a whole different story when you think that you also know the answer.


When you visit your doctor it is important to let them know that something is hurting you – how can they know your problem if you don’t let them know where you are hurting? However, you also must allow them to figure out how to best treat it. Of course, you don’t only want to have a friendly doctor but a doctor who is a friend so that you are guaranteed to get the best treatment and feel confident that your needs are being met.


In the desert the Jews were in good hands. Moses was a leader who cared about each and every Jew. There was no question that he was looking out for their best interest. The moment the spies stepped over the line and started giving advice instead of just reporting, was the moment they tainted their report with their own opinions. No longer were they asking questions; now they were making statements. That is a big difference.


If we want to make change, ask good and hard questions. 

Finding Happiness in New Times

 This week we had a most beautiful and different kind of preschool graduation. These times call for innovation. On the surface, one may say that it is sad, that you cannot experience the life that we are used to. The children want to play with their friends. People want to see each other’s smiles – without the mask that hides them. Social distancing clearly is getting to people. As I watched and listened to the teachers read the graduates’ “report” of the closing of the year, what the children were missing the most was the time that they spend with their friends.


Putting a smile on our faces is important. A meaningful smile is even more important. Celebrating milestones in our lives, in a fun way, is even more important.


Wait a second. …. Why?


From a spiritual perspective, why celebrate? Shouldn’t we just focus on “holy” things? Why get caught up on mundane matters? What is the big deal about being secluded? Don’t ”holy” people do that? Lock themselves up in some building and close off the world and just pray to G-d day and night? Why the need to celebrate life?


This week’s Torah portion teaches us about the extra sacrifices on the holidays (vs. on Shabbat) and this was cause for celebration. After the destruction of the Temple, when offerings were no longer brought, the happiness continued because there is more to the holiday than just the offerings. The holiday itself is cause for celebration.


Times get tough. When the Temple was destroyed the Jews hoped and prayed that it would be rebuilt. We still pray, 2,000 years later, that it will be rebuilt! Yet, they had to look at the times and live in the present moment and ask, Are we happy only because of an offering or is it because of the holiday itself? They came to recognize two points—that they had to find the joy within the holiday itself, and that Judaism recognizes our bodily needs. We are not G-dly bodies, but human beings. We enjoy a good meal, a fun time, and a good celebration. That is why we celebrate holidays even after the Temple’s destruction.


Same applies to our times. Are things different today? Absolutely. Is that a reason not to celebrate? No.  We have to find alternate ways to make a meaningful graduation for little children, and for high school and college graduates.   


In our own family, we just celebrated our son Zalman’s Bar Mitzvah and we will be celebrating our son Mendel’s wedding. The celebrations are of different kinds of joy, but the happiness that will go along with the celebrations, will know no bounds.

Being Privileged

In these past two weeks America has been turned upside down. Some demonstrations have been peaceful, bringing our attention to the plight of the Blacks in our communities. (Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy  is a great book, if you want to educate yourself on this subject). Other demonstrations have turned into riots where people have taken a cause and sadly shamed themselves and our country.


People are asking: Are the police to blame? Is White Privilege the problem? Is it because Black lives don’t matter? Heaven forbid, I hope not!


Then what is the problem? More importantly, how do we find a solution? Clearly, burning and looting other peoples’ property is definitely not the answer.


Let us look into the Torah for some guidance. Specifically, this week’s Torah portion. 


The story starts out telling us how the family of Kehot carried the ark that the Torah and the tablets were held in, and for this merit they are always mentioned first. Yes, they had privileges. And with those privileges came responsibilities.


This did not make them better. What it did make them is responsible for being keepers of the Torah. They had to learn the Torah so that they knew what it said inside. They had to teach it and guard it. However, and this is very important, in order for them to do so successfully, they had to do so with humility! If they had allowed this honor to get to their heads and become egotistical, then they would stop teaching and sharing and start preaching. They would be a friend no longer but a person who looks down at their neighbors and no longer an example unto others.


The Torah is teaching us that the teacher and the student need to have a dose of humility, to be able to teach as well as to be able to learn. This way the teacher becomes a student and the student becomes a teacher. There is a relationship between the two.  It no longer matters who is who. 


There is a story about a mother whose son wanted to marry a women of color, and although the mother liked the girl, she was uncomfortable with the color of her skin, and wasn’t sure how to deal with her emotions. Should she just accept her son’s desire to marry whomever he wished to? Or should she let her bias be known? She turned to the Lubavitch Rebbe for advice. The Rebbe responded, “Do you know why the Torah is written with black letters on white parchment?” he rhetorically asked her, and he right away gave the answer: “Because G-d is colorblind.” With that one-line, all her doubts were removed.    


We too, should be colorblind; we should look at a person based on their actions. Get to know people. Become their friends. The better we get to know someone, the more we can learn from them and them from us. 


Pointing fingers will do no one good, unless we are pointing at ourselves.


The Kehot family said yes, we are privileged to carry the ark, therefore we are going to share its teachings with others. If we hold it for ourselves, then what does the privilege mean?


If we want to change the world, let us start by making a new friend

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