On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Parsha Shoftim – The King is in the Field

In the Hebrew month of Elul, Chassidim have the custom of saying that “the King is in the Field.”  As the analogy goes, when wants to have a meeting with the King, they need to call the right people and go through background checks and a series of his subordinates before the King’s officials will even consider letting the person see the King.  However, once a year, the King leaves his palace and takes a tour of his kingdom.  As he’s going from town to town and field to field anyone can approach the king with any matter without going through all of the preparation and protocols as the rest of the year.

Normally, when we want to pray to G-d, we also need to go through a whole procedure.  We need to spiritually prepare ourselves, dress appropriately, go to the minyan on time, say all of the prayers, pronounce all the words correctly, enunciate them loud enough so we can hear ourselves, have the proper intention… the list goes on and on.  It’s no easy task.  In Elul, things are different.  G-d is somehow more accessible to us. 

There are two ways to look at this… 

One way is do what we’ve done all year.  After all, if G-d will hear our prayers without jumping through all the hoops, why jump through them?  We can just do our normal routine, which isn’t always so great, and G-d will hear us.  The main focus with this approach is to make sure that we’re praying to G-d sincerely.  In Elul, as long as we pray with proper intention, G-d will hear our prayers.  That being said, calling out to G-d sincerely is no so easy.

The second possibility is that if G-d is in the field and somehow closer to us, we need to step up our game.  When the boss is away, decent workers will work at a reasonable level, but when the boss is in the room, the worker steps up his game big time.  As we said before, there are a lot of rules that surround how to pray and conduct oneself properly as a Jew.  Using this approach, we should try to strengthen all aspects of our Judaism, particularly the ones surrounding prayer.

I’m going to focus on the second possibility.  Here’s where our parsha comes.  It starts out with the words Shofitm vshotrim teten l’cha (Judges and officers shall you appoint.)  The Middrash has many explanations for what this means.  As a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, it’s also been said about Elul that it’s the opportune time to take a spiritual accounting of one’s conduct over the past year and make resolutions for improvement next year.  The initial words of our parsha could mean that we’re to judge ourselves on our conduct and appoint officers or methods of guarding ourselves against any of last year’s pitfalls in the hopes of avoiding them in the future.  While this is a nice idea it can be both difficult and scary.  I may be an observant person, but I’m no tzadik.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even though I know that I can do better, I’m not sure if it’s good enough.  My yeitzer harah (evil inclination) is one tough cookie.

Chapter 20, verse 1 tells us that “When you go out to battle against your enemy… you shall not fear…”  It then tells us in verse 8 that on the battlefield, the priests announce “who is fearful and fainthearted?  Let him go return to his house…”  The verses seem to say that on one hand, G-d is commanding us not to be afraid.  On the other hand he’s giving us a way out if we are.  I would propose an alternative explanation that “the enemy” that the verse speaks of us is our own evil inclination.  Also, when the Torah says “return” to his house, the Hebrew word that is used is  V’Yashov which has the same root as teshuva.  

If we insert these explanations the verses can be read: When you go out to battle against your evil inclination, don’t be afraid.  But… if anyone is fearful, let him do teshuva and return to my house.

In the last lines of the HafTorah, Isaiah sums it up beautifully “Hashem shall go before you and the G-d of Israel shall be at your rear guard.”

It doesn’t matter so much how we strengthen our relationship with Hashem.  He’s with us when we’re strong.  He’s with us when we’re scared.  He’s with us when we pull it all together and do a good job serving him.  He’s even with us when we screw up.  Our job is to recognize that he’s with us every step of the way. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Mitzvah Can Change a Life

Sometime around 1980 or so there was Jew who worked in a financial company around Washington DC.  Let’s say his name was Naphtali.  He was Ba’al Teshuva through Chabad and through his work he befriended a non religious Jew.  Occasionally, Naphtali and his new friend got together at the park where his son Gedaliah played with his friend son Stephan.  Though he occasionally talked about Judaism to his friend, nothing really sank in with exception of one occasion. 

Naphtali remembers that one day, the day after Yom Kippur that year, something was different when his friend arrived to work.  His friend was wearing a kippah.  Naphtali’s friend wore it all day.  Wearing a kippah in public, for the first time, is truly one of the bravest things a Jew can ever do.  Unfortunately, this was the last time his friend wore a kippah to work and he remained uncommitted to Judaism.  Eventually, the friends got different jobs, moving to different cities.  Naphtali undoubtedly thought that his conversations about G-d and Judaism had no effect on his friend.

In 2004 or so I was a regular at an urban shul where wasn’t uncommon for non-religious Jews to start coming to try to explore their Judaism.  Some came every day.  Some came once and never again.  One day, a Jew walked in who looked and acted like he couldn’t be less religious.  He drove a taxi, went to community college and had no shortage of tattoos including the heart, spade, diamond & clover tattooed on his knuckles.  We were about the same age and became friends.  Simcha explained that he had been raised totally secular and neither he nor his family had any connection to Judaism.  As he grew older, he had a burning curiosity which inspired him to come to shul for the first time.  This guy started coming every Shabbas morning, but had to leave in the afternoon to go to class.  Eventually the semester ended, he started becoming more observant and even started going by his Hebrew name, Simcha.

It wasn’t that long after, the Simcha decided that he wanted to move to Israel to learn.  Those of us closest to him were very proud of his progress.  I remember the Shabbas before he was scheduled to leave.  Since he lived in a different part of the city, he would typically sleep over at the Rabbi’s house or sometimes at my house.  On the Shabbas before he left, the Rabbi was out of town and I already had guests.  I made some calls and the Chabad Rabbi in the a couple neighborhoods away agreed to host him.  He explained to me that his parents were staying with him as it was their last Shabbas in America and they were moving to Israel that week.  I thought that it was a great connection.  Now Simcha will at least know someone there.

The Shabbas was fairly normal until I arrived at Shul for Mincha on Shabbas afternoon.  Apparently at lunch at the Rabbi’s house, Simcha and the Rabbi’s father, Naphtali started talking.  They first realized that both Simcha and the Rabbi, Gedaliah were born in the same city.  Then they realized that Simcha’s father and Naphtali worked at the same company.  They then realized that it was Simcha’s father who was Naphtali’s old friend and Gedaliah and Simcha, called Stephan up until a year ago, had played together in the park has children.  I can only imagine the emotions when Naphtali told Simcha the story about his father wearing a kippah and that Simcha’s father, in fact, did have sparks of Judaism lying dormant within him.  I can only imagine how Naphtali must have felt that his efforts in trying to help his old friend were not in vein… it just took a generation before they sprouted forth.  As they told me this story before Mincha, still fresh in their memories, it was overwhelming. 

It was about a year later that I received an email from an address I didn’t recognize with the subject line reading “I’m engaged.”  I opened up the email and saw a frum looking couple that I didn’t recognize.  I assumed it was sent to me by accident, but just before I deleted it, I looked over it once last time.  I saw a man in a black suit, white shirt, black hat and a full untrimmed beard.  As I glanced down, I saw the man’s hand… and on his knuckles were tattoos of the heart, spade, diamond & clover.  It was my friend whose yiddeshkeit burned so brightly that I hardly recognized him. 

The lessons are clear.  Every single mitzvah or act of kindness has an affect that can change a life.  Most the time we don’t get the privileged of seeing the results of our actions, but once in a while, G-d gives us a glimpse.