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Are You Kind Enough to Cut Others Slack and Give the Benefit of the Doubt?

on Friday, April 14 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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Burt Reynolds describes an incident that occurred with him before he was a famous actor. He is in a bar minding his own business sipping on a beer. Two stools over sits a man with humongous upper body strength and broad shoulders. Out of nowhere, the guy starts harassing a man and a woman seated at a table nearby. Reynolds tells him to watch his language. That’s when the guy with the huge shoulders turns on Reynolds.

Reynolds describes: “I remember looking down and planting my right foot on this brass rail for leverage, and then I came around and caught him with a tremendous right to the side of the head. The punch made a ghastly sound and he just flew off the stool and landed on his back in the doorway, about 15 feet away. And it was while he was in mid-air that I saw . . . that he had no legs.” Only later, as Reynolds left the bar, did he notice the man’s wheelchair, which had been folded up and tucked next to the doorway.

Even though Reynolds was looking right at the man he hit, he didn’t see all that he needed to see.

Upon experiencing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people joyously sang, “Nachisa b’chasdecha am zu ga’alta. With Your kindness, You guided this people that You redeemed.” Nachisa, you led them with kindness, is in the past tense. Which kindness is it referring to? The simple understanding would be that Hashem performed the great miracles of the eser makos, the ten plagues and krias yam suf.

The Midrash (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) gives an altogether different understanding. When the Jewish People were enslaved in Egypt, notes the Midrash, they felt the bleakness and hopelessness of the situation, so they assembled together as a group. During this meeting they made a commitment towards one another. They pledged that with whatever else was going on around them, no matter how bad it would get, they would practice gemillus chassadim, kindness and generosity with one another.

What precipitated this commitment? Why now? The Chafetz Chaim explains that when the people realized that they could not come up with a strategy to end the persecution and that the suffering under Pharaoh was only going to increase with each ensuing day, they decided among themselves that the only way to make things a bit better and hopefully to earn redemption from above would be to be kinder to one another. Writes the Chafetz Chaim definitively, “ha’davar ha’zeh hayah siba l’geulasam.” This kindness that they showed one another was the catalyst and cause for their salvation.

The Chafetz Chaim concludes, this is the meaning of our pasuk that we say every day: Nachisa b’chasdecha, you led us out with chesed. It was our performance of and predisposition towards chesed that caused You to lead us out. When we do chesed with one another, Hashem does chesed with us. This is the meaning of the pasuk from Yirmiyahu that we say on the yamim noraim: “Zacharti lach chesed n’urayich.” Hashem, you remember the chesed of our youth? What chesed did we do in our infancy? Says the Chafetz Chaim, this refers to chesed we did in Egypt, even in the harshest of circumstances when we had every reason to be self-centered and self-absorbed.

Forty-five years ago, social psychologists Ned Jones and Victor Harris coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias” to describe the phenomenon of people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.

In other words, when we see someone behave in a certain way, we reach conclusions about their internal personality rather than ascribe the behavior to outside factors. When someone runs through a red light we assume they are reckless instead of considering that they are driving someone to the hospital in an emergency. If we see someone kick a vending machine we assume they have anger problems whereas if we kick the machine it is because our snack got stuck. If someone is impatient in the line at the drug store we label her nasty instead of realizing she is a considerate person rushing to get home with the medicine for her sick, miserable child. When other people’s cell phones ring during davening, it’s because they are inconsiderate boors. If my cell phone rings, it’s because I’m a conscientious person who needs to be able to get a call from those who rely on me.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explained it this way, “…in everyday life people seem all too willing to take each other at face value and all too reluctant to search for alternative explanations for each other’s behavior.”

To put it most simply, we fail to cut each other slack. We tend to look for the worst in others, to be easy to anger or to be insulted, rather than give people the benefit of the doubt and to recognize that there may be something else going on that we don’t know.

Ian Maclaren, the 19th-century Scottish author once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Cutting slack, giving the benefit of the doubt, is a chesed, is kindness that absolutely every one of us can do.

Someone didn’t invite you back, or respond to your text, or say hello when passing you in the supermarket. Don’t assume the worst. With friends, co-workers, and even family members—make an effort to remind yourself that almost everyone is fighting a battle you likely know nothing about.

If we want Hashem to interact with us with chesed, to give us the benefit of the doubt, and to cut us some slack, we need to do the same for others. Don’t ever even metaphorically punch someone because even when you are looking him or her in the eye, there is likely much you don’t see.

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Suggestions for a More Meaningful Seder This Year

on Thursday, April 6 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
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If your Seder looks anything like the typical one, you likely have young kids fighting over giving every single Dvar Torah they prepared in school, adults offering technical and complicated vortelach (Torah thoughts), someone napping on the couch due to drinking the four cups too zealously, and more than one person complaining that they spent most of the Seder in the kitchen and missed the whole thing.

Is this an authentic picture of what the Rabbis really had in mind when they instituted an evening with family and friends designed to nostalgically recall the miracle of leaving Egypt and our journey to freedom? I think not!

It is abundantly clear from countless sources that the purpose of the evening is not simply to ramble through the text of the Haggadah, or to compete for who has the most to say. The entire format of the Seder supports the goal of the evening, which is, at its core, to simply have a conversation.

Indeed, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik suggests that this format is what differentiates the mitzvah to speak about Yetzias Mitzrayim (the exodus) on Seder night, from the mitzvah to remember it every single day. The rest of the year we lecture, teach, and tell Divrei Torah about leaving Egypt. Seder night, we have a conversation about the experience in the form of questions and answers, give and take, dialogue and discussion. Indeed, so many of the peculiar practices of the evening are done just so that the children will be curious, ask and ignite a conversation.

I would like to offer a bold suggestion – consider asking your children to put away their Haggadahs for part of the Seder. The teachers of our community do an extraordinary job in preparing our students. The creativity, ingenuity and hard work that goes into designing the beautiful, personalized Haggadahs, and filling them with Torah thoughts is a testament to the dedication of our outstanding Rebbeim, Morahs, and teachers. We should welcome their incredible Haggadahs at our Seder table, but in moderation. If not, these Haggadahs can become a source of distraction and even worse, a source of friction when each of our children feel an obligation to read every single thought on every single page of their Haggadah at the Seder.

Of course, we should spend time sitting with each child, looking through their Haggadah, listening to their Divrei Torah, and appreciating their enthusiasm. Perhaps we can dedicate time on Erev Pesach or on Yom Tov afternoon to look at their Haggadahs more in depth and to hear the thoughts that didn’t make it into the Seder itself. But, if we want our children to get the most out of our Seder experience, it can’t just be a presentation of what they learned in school.

The Seder must be a time to have conversations that matter and discussions that can be transformative and provide inspiration that lasts the entire year. These conversations can happen with children and adults of all ages. Young kids should be engaged in storytelling in a real and personal way.

We must turn to our children and grandchildren and tell them the riveting story of how we used to be slaves, do backbreaking labor, and then we were freed through miracles. With older children and adults, the conversations should be more sophisticated. I would like to suggest a few examples of how the Seder can be a platform for great conversations.

Here are some thought-provoking questions that you can share Seder night to generate the kind of rigorous and robust discussions that our Rabbis imagined us having:

  1. Ha Lachma Anya: Why do we begin the Seder specifically by inviting the underprivileged to join us? Is there a connection between freedom and sharing with others?
  2. Avadim Hayinu: What is slavery and what is freedom? Though we are physically free, are there things and behaviors we are enslaved to? Does technology give us greater freedom or enslave us?
  3. Four sons: Which child do you identify with? Is the Rasha really so wicked if at least he comes to the Seder? What about the hypothetical 5th son who doesn’t even show? Are the eino yodei’ah lish’ol (don’t know how to ask) the unaffiliated of our generation, and how do we engage them?
  4. V’hi she’amdah: Who are the enemies of our generation that seek to destroy us, and can we identify miracles Hashem does to protect us? What is the root of Anti-Semitism and why have we always had enemies that seek our destruction?
  5. Arami Oveid Ami: We became a nation when living among the Egyptians. Is living in a land of freedom good or bad for Judaism? Has the freedom of this great country, America, contributed positively or negatively to the continuity of Torah Judaism?
  6. Ten Plagues: Can you think of a situation where you felt stuck and Hashem bailed you out? Are there miracles in your life in which you saw the guiding hand of Hashem?
  7. Dayenu: What does it mean to have the capacity to say enough? Are we ever satisfied or do we always crave more?
  8. Hallel: What are you thankful for and why? Tell stories of personal freedom and liberation.

These are just a few examples, but there are countless more conversations to be had on Seder night. Even if you disregard my earlier suggestion and insist on listening to every single Dvar Torah your child brings home, I urge you to be sure to make time to tell stories, ask questions and have critical conversations.

When all is said and done, the Seder is intended to be an exercise in emunah (faith). If we walk away from the Seder and we have not grown in seeing Hashem in our lives and feeling a connection and closeness to Him, we have failed in our mission. Make sure to have the kind of Seder that will leave friends and family wanting to come back for more of your good food and great company, but most of all for your incredible and inspiring conversations.

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When You Dip the Karpas, Think of AIPAC and What We Could Accomplish With Our Many Voices if We Had One Mission

on Wednesday, March 29 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Last March, I tore my Achilles tendon and needed surgery.  The tear, surgery, and rehab were uncomfortable, but having to miss the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington was painful.  I lay in bed on painkillers, security pass and credentials around my neck, watching the conference live on my laptop.  Not only did I miss the exhilarating two and a half days of the conference itself, but something felt missing from my entire year, though I couldn’t put my finger on it until this week when I once again was able to attend Policy Conference in person.

With its hundreds of breakout sessions, one can learn an incredible amount about a diverse range of topics.  But that is not why I go.  Sitting in the conference center and the Verizon arena with over 18,000 pro-Israel advocates is nothing short of a religious experience.  The diversity in that room crosses religion, ethnicity, race, political affiliation, Jewish denomination, age, and more.

And yet, this large group of people who agree on little and in many cases have little in common, choose to put all of their differences aside and focus exclusively on what they have in common, a love and devotion to the Jewish State of Israel.  I spend the conference swelling with Jewish pride and pride for what our people have accomplished in the short time we have returned to our homeland.  The conference each year features Israeli innovation and technology that are changing the world.  It highlights Israel’s leadership in humanitarian efforts around the world.  It celebrates Israel’s values that are so closely aligned with America’s, including democracy and human rights.

I measure the conference by how many “goose bump moments” occur.  Who could not be moved by Hatikvah being played by virtuoso Hagai Shaham on a repaired violin that the Nazis had forced Jews to play as they witnessed their fellow Jews march to their deaths in gas chambers. Who could not rise to their feet for the endless applause for UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as she pledged “The days of Israel-bashing are over,” adding, “We don’t have a greater friend than Israel.”

The theme for this year’s conference captured the secret to AIPAC’s effectiveness: “Many voices, one mission.”  The idea of “many voices” is nothing new, but having one mission, being singularly focused on one goal, is something we don’t see often and is what makes AIPAC both special and successful.  For two and a half days, nobody discusses what divides us, what makes us different, or what we can’t begin to understand about one another.  AIPAC has one goal, bi-partisan support for the US-Israel relationship and for Israel’s security and military advantage, and it will not be distracted, deterred, or sidetracked from it.  By focusing exclusively on one goal and creating a culture and atmosphere that won’t tolerate anyone hijacking the agenda or changing the conversation, over 18,000 very different people can feel united not only for the two and a half days, but throughout the year.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we follow this model in other areas.  What if the whole Orthodox community found its common ground and we dedicated ourselves towards seeing it through, despite our differences.  Imagine what could be possible if the many denominations within Judaism worked together on matters that we all agree on, without allowing our differences to deter us. Think what we could achieve.

Soon, we will all sit down at our sedarim and dip the karpas in salt water, an odd opening to a night of freedom.  In his commentary on the Rambam, Rabbeinu Manoach suggests that the word karpas is closely related to pasim, the coat of many colors given to Yosef by his father Yaakov.  When the enmity between Yosef and his brothers grew and they sold him into slavery, the dipped his coat in animal’s blood and presented it their father as if Yosef had been killed.

Yosef’s brothers didn’t just hate him. “V’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom,” they couldn’t even speak to him.  R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra explains, “afilu l’shalom.” It isn’t just that they couldn’t talk about the issues they disagreed about. It isn’t that they didn’t want to be close, loving brothers. And it’s not that they couldn’t debate respectfully. “Afilu l’shalom” — The issue with Yosef and his brothers was they couldn’t even give each other a Shalom Aleichem. The hatred and intolerance had grown so deep that they couldn’t stand to even extend greetings to one another or to be in a room together.  This expression describes a disgraceful and shameful state of affairs. They couldn’t even say “good morning,” “how are you,” or “good Shabbos” to one another, let alone attend a conference and work for a common cause together.

Rav Yehonasan Eibschitz in his Tiferes Yonasan has an additional insight on the verse in question. Translated literally, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” means “they could not speak to him to peace.” What could that mean? Rav Eibshitz suggests that when we disagree with people, we withdraw from them and stop speaking to them. We see them as “the other,” different from us and apart from us. As our communication breaks down, the dividers rise and grow stronger and stronger.

We can never resolve conflict, find common ground, or maintain a relationship despite our differences, if we can’t even have conversation between us. Had Yosef and his brothers been talking, he might have communicated how he felt isolated and alone, and they might have explained how his tattle-telling and the favoritism their father displayed toward him were very painful to them. However, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom.” They weren’t talking at all, so they couldn’t use speech to achieve peace, or even just civility, between them.

We begin our seder, our night of freedom and liberation from bondage, by remembering what started it all, how we found ourselves in Egypt to begin with and the source of our slavery and suffering.  Sinas chinam, baseless hatred, intolerance, and animosity landed us in Egypt and, if we don’t want to find ourselves metaphorically back there again, we best learn the lesson of the dipping of the karpas and kesones pasim.

To be clear, there are important things we disagree about and there are times, places, and platforms to explore those differences and debate them.  However, if we spew venom and rhetoric at one another, look to find fault, pursue our agenda in a militant fashion without respect for other views, if we try to marginalize those we don’t like or agree with, we can never come together on the things we do have in common.  AIPAC proves that when we want to, we can maintain our many voices, but still pursue one mission, but everything begins with being able to communicate b’shalom, peacefully and civilly.

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If it Takes You More Than a Day to Clean for Pesach, You are Doing Spring Cleaning, Not Pesach Preparations

on Thursday, March 23 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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Now that Purim is behind us, the countdown to Pesach has officially begun, complete with its angst, anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Sadly, many people associate Pesach with backbreaking work, exorbitant expenses, endless preparation, and bread deprivation. It is not unusual to hear moans, groans, and krechts coming from both men and women when mentioning the upcoming holiday. Many describe themselves as rolling into Pesach ‘like a shmatta,’ unable to enjoy the festive atmosphere, meaningful Sedarim, or even quality time with friends and family.  The consequences of this attitude, don’t just impact us, they negatively influence our children and those around us.

The Haggadah quotes the rasha, the wicked son who challenges – what is all of this work to you?   Why does he specifically choose the seder as the time to question and challenge?  The seder is filled with good wine, good food and good conversation.  Wouldn’t it make more sense for the rasha to issue his challenge on Yom Kippur, when we are fasting and abstaining from pleasure?  In his new Hagaddah, Rav Avraham Elimelech Biderman answers (thank you R’ Naftali Lavenda for pointing it out to me) that the work the turned off child is referring to, is not the seder, it is all of the preparation and lead up to Pesach.  After hearing his parents complain about the cleaning and hard work, after being yelled at neurotically not to bring chametz anywhere in the house, after overhearing the moaning about the cost of making Pesach, he comes to the table and challenges, why would I want all of this avodah, this work that YOU do and don’t stop complaining about?

This is not the way the Torah or our Rabbis intended it. I believe that the bulk of the stress, aches, and pains that result from Pesach preparation is self-induced and utterly unnecessary. True, there is a high cost of matzah, wine, and Kosher-for-Pesach groceries that cannot be avoided and are challenging particularly during these difficult economic times. However, the overly labor-intensive house preparations and extensive,arguably overly complicated menus and recipes can all be avoided.

For some reason, Pesach has gotten away from us with the purely voluntary now becoming mandated standards and what should be the primary goals becoming almost entirely neglected and dismissed. Undoubtedly, halacha demands that we seek and destroy all chametz in our possession. Definitions of “chametz,” “seek,” and “in our possession” are all very clear and require a preparation of a home that should take only a few hours total. Areas and places where chametz is never brought don’t need to be cleaned or checked (Shulchan Aruch o.c. 433:3). Appliances that will not be accessed or used need not be cleaned or checked; they simply need to be put away and sealed. Any food that is not categorized as edible (a dog would not eat it) is not considered chametz (Shulchan Aruch 442:2). There is no need to check for crumbs that are less than a k’zias if they are dirty or soiled and wouldn’t be edible by a human (Mishna Berura 442:33).

Practically speaking, any cabinet, closet or room that will not be entered on Pesach, can simply be closed with a piece of tape across the door and any chametz contents in it sold. Any kitchen cabinet, drawer, or cupboard that will not be used on Pesach need not be cleaned at all; it just needs to be taped shut. Any appliance, food processor, sandwich maker, mixer, bread machine, etc. that will not be used, need not be cleaned whatsoever. They just need to be put away for Pesach in a sealed space.

Nevertheless, at some point in recent Jewish history, Pesach preparation was substituted with spring-cleaning. If one is moving a refrigerator, oven, or any other heavy appliance, he is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach. If one is climbing on a ladder to clean a ceiling fan, taking a toothpick to a toaster or food processor, scrubbing grout with a toothbrush, emptying and wiping all dressers, closets, linen pantries, crawl spaces, or shaking out books that haven’t been opened in years, she is spring cleaning, not preparing for Pesach.

Halacha demands that we go room to room confirming there is no chametz that is larger than 30 grams and edible. That can realistically be accomplished in a few hours at most in almost all of our homes. If you are spending days, weeks, or over a month cleaning, if you are worn down, exhausted and your back aches, blame your proclivity for spring cleaning, don’t dare blame God or His wonderful holiday of Pesach.

Make no mistake, this substitution of spring-cleaning instead of Pesach preparation comes at a great cost and it will likely hurt our community’s attitude towards Pesach in the future. Rather than enter Pesach excited, enthusiastic, and energized to spend time with family and share divrei Torah at our Sedarim, we are increasingly becoming resentful and negative about being observant and burdened by Pesach. Rather than happy people eating bitter herbs to celebrate freedom, we are becoming bitter people exchanging our freedom for unnecessary burdens in anticipation of Pesach.

Pesach, more than any other holiday or time of year, is designed to communicate our values, priorities and lifestyles to the next generation. Pesach, and the days leading up to it, should leave our children with sights, smells, flavors, traditions, and experiences they will draw from and seek to emulate in their own homes for the rest of their lives. It should provide memories and recollections that will inspire and charge the next generation in their Judaism and commitment to the beauty of a Torah lifestyle.

Bedikas chametz, complete with its hide-and-seek nature, should be fun, exciting, and adventurous. Instead, for many it has become a chore that we unburden ourselves from as quickly as possible. Burning chametz, rolling matzah balls by hand, chopping charoses, grinding marror, setting the regal seder table, reenacting the Pesach story at our seders, welcoming visiting family, are among the activities that can be carried out with joy, enthusiasm, nostalgia, and meaning.

Depleting ourselves of energy and joy by engaging in spring cleaning rather than Pesach preparation is not only depriving us of the simcha, joy, we are capable of feeling, but it is indelibly impressing on our children negative memories and associations that will likely haunt them and shape their own attitude toward Pesach preparation and observance.

By exerting all of our energy into that which is unnecessary, we have little left to do the things that make Pesach preparation fun and create the memories that our children and grandchildren will draw from throughout their lives. Today, you can buy bedikas chametz kits complete with numbered pieces of bread, packaged finely chopped charoses and even a jar of kosher for Pesach salt water.

With all respect to the companies that have commercialized those mitzvos, I implore you, don’t cave. I vividly remember how we prepared and hid the bread for bedikas chametz and that is how I taught my children to do it. I can easily picture my siblings and me competing over who got to chop the charoses and how my mother and grandmother lovingly added all the ingredients in their special recipe and it is that experience we try to create for our children today. Is adding salt to water so laborious that we can’t put in even that effort to prepare for our seder table?

As we enter the final countdown to Pesach this year, I beg you to ask yourself the question – which sounds will ring in your children’s ears in the future when they think back to Pesach in their home? Will it be moans, groans, bitterness and complaints or will they remember the joyous sounds of an energized family eagerly preparing for a meaningful Yom Tov?

The Shulchan Aruch (529:2) tells us, “Chayav adom liheyos sameach v’tov leiv b’moed. A person is obligated to be joyous and happy on the holiday.” The Mishna Berura is quick to add that being happy on the holiday is a Biblical mandate and applies equally to men and women.

Let’s not allow spring cleaning or unnecessary stringencies to get in the way of fulfilling our duty to God, our children and ourselves of being happy, joyous, energetic, and enthusiastic.

Over the next few weeks as we prepare for Pesach, let’s remember what is essential and what is unnecessary, what is an obligation and what isn’t even a mitzvah and most importantly, what will make our children love Pesach and what will cause them to resent it.

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