Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Saw Your First Ship Sink And Drown From Rocking Of The Boat (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Ship of Fools")

It’s been approximately six weeks since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. As of now, only 15% of the island has power. There is still a shortage of drinking water. Recently the President has stated that it was not his job to use the military to transport and distribute food, nor was it his job to make sure that power returns to the island. Simultaneously, tensions continue to rise with North Korea, I can’t help but think of the late President, Harry S. Truman, who was President when the Korean War was fought and the 38th Parallel became part of the Western lexicon. President Truman used to keep a paper weight on his desk with the saying “The Buck Stops Here”. In a sense it became indicative of President Truman’s view of leadership. The leader is ultimately responsible and therefore must assume that responsibility.

This week we read Parshat Noach. Noach’s should be familiar to all of us. God sends a flood as a means of dealing with the growing disappointment in mankind abysmal behavior. However one man, Noach, is deemed Ish Tzadik B’dorotava righteous man in his generation and God makes a covenant with him and his family.  As a result, Noach, his family, and the male and female of every species will be saved in order to re-create after the flood. God instructs Noach to build a Tevah, an Ark. Noach, his family, and each species of animal is saved. In a sense, a second creation ensues, and Noach and is family begin the narrative of re-creation. Generations pass, and eventually mankind becomes corrupt. This time, the corruption is the result of the mankind’s passivity by permitting, a certain kind of person to become the leader and never questioning or opposing his desire to build a Tower. A Tower is built, God views it as a violation of boundaries and rather than destroying the world, multiple languages come into being and people are unable to communicate. As a result, the leadership which lacked respect for boundaries scatters across the earth. The Parsha concludes ten generations later with the birth of Avraham Avinu, Abraham the Patriarch.

The narrative appears quite straightforward and simple. God is unhappy with the way people behave. He identifies Noach as a worthy partner and instructs him to build the Ark.  However one should keep in mind that Ark wasn’t built in a few days or weeks. According to the Midrash, the ark was built over the course of many decades. Even worse the flood didn’t come right away, that too, was decades in the making. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, it took Noach 120 years to build the Ark. Also, the Ark was built atop a mountain in order to give Noach the greatest amount of time to complete the project. This meant hauling all the materials up a mountain. Imagine spending roughly 1/8th of your life preparing for the future. Imagine spending roughly 1/8th of your life engaged in a single endeavor. Imagine putting off gratification for 1/8th of your life and then knowing your sense of accomplishment is predicated on the destruction of so much. Imagine spending 1/8th of your life hauling Gopher wood up a mountain. Every day Noach spent his time engaged in one activity, building the first aircraft carrier. Eventually the project would become the purpose of living. During this time, Noach’s life was not so easy. In fact, from a practical perspective, Noach’s life seems quite depressing. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Noach faced ridicule from others and he was threatened with death. Yet despite it all, he continued building even though the gratification from the project would not occur for many years. Even with the first raindrops and the first opportunity to enjoy the fruit of his life’s’ work and enter the Ark; he didn’t. Rather, he delayed his sense of accomplishment and gratification. Noach waited until the last possible second when there was no hope of saving anymore of God’s creation, and then he finally entered the Ark.

Being the leader can be a rather lonely job. Whether it’s the leader of a family, a tribe or a community it can be lonely. By no means was Noach a perfect leader. In fact one of the criticisms was that he really didn’t lead, instead his concern was limited to himself, his family and the animals that entered the Ark. That being said, Noach offers a valuable lesson in leadership.  Leaders cannot be concerned with immediate gratification. Rather, a leader takes the long view of history and destiny. A leader has the strength of his belief and convictions which allows him to worry about the long term and not be concerned with the short term. When undo attention is given to the short term, it seems that more people suffer as is the case in Puerto Rico. Hopefully those in a position to make a difference will remember President Truman’s paper weight that sat atop his desk: “The Buck Stops Here”.

Rav Yitz

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You Thought You Was The Cool Fool And Never Would Do No Wrong (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Sugaree"

While our family was celebrating Sukkot and Shabbat, we haven’t seen much news. We heard about the mass shootings in Las Vegas and our prayers go out to the victims and their families. Sadly mass shootings have become so common that we understand that there is evil in this world that I can’t stomach to write about it again.  There was another bit of news that occurred during the Sukkot holiday. What made it newsworthy is that in the history of politics, I cannot remember the last time a sitting senator offered such a negative assessment of a President from his own political party. Yet, Robert Corker is a Republican Senator for the Tennessee. He has recently announced that he will NOT seek re-election to the Senate. Since Senator Corker has no more races to run, and no more politics to worry about, he can afford to be brutally honest about everything. This past week he gave an interview in which he shared his feelings about President Trump. The comments were stunning in their assessment of a man who has “may be setting the U.S. on a path to WWIII.” Corker made this comment because, as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, he has been closely monitoring the President’s handling of North Korea and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. More than any other Senator, Corker understands the importance of brutal honesty, truth to power,  the vital importance of Knowledge, and speaking to those people that possess knowledge. In Senator Corker’s assessment of the Republican President, he believes that this president has a very minimal understanding of or no understanding of the world and the United States role in the world. Corker goes so far as to say that General Kelly, General Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the only three people preventing the President’s ignorance and incompetence from causing tragedy. Indeed, ignorance is a dangerous thing. A person who is proud of ignorance, who basks in the waters of ignorance and brags about his lack of knowledge and understanding could be considered criminal. Ironically, for a person who clearly is attracted to power and powerful people, it seems that the President forgot the age old adage: “Knowledge is Power”.
In B’reishit, we read the story of Creation, Adam and Chava’s banishment from Paradise (Gan Eden), and the fratricide of Cain and Abel. We begin however with God. God is the Creator, the ultimate power. If knowledge is power, then God is the ultimate source of knowledge. We accept this as part of our Jewish theology. God is all-knowing and all powerful. We read the words: V’Yivrah Elohim et Ha’Adam b’Tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim barah oto Zachar u’Nekeivah Barah Otam. “And God created man in His own image. In the image of God, He created him; male and female He created them. (1:27). The question therefore is: What is the image of God? Obviously part of that image is the power to create, the power to create life. We surmise this because in the next verse, God commands Adam and Chava to be fruitful and multiply, to create life just like God had created. The other image of God is Power. God’s purpose in creating humanity was in order that they “should have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” (1:26). In today’s vernacular “dominion” is Power. However the ability to create, and the ability to exercise power sagaciously, and judiciously, necessitates the attainment of knowledge. Perhaps that is our greatest gift. We have the ability to learn, to reason, to discern between right and wrong. To do so expresses our faith in God, re-affirms that, indeed, we are created in God’s image, and we possess an aspect of Holiness.
            In the Babylonian Talmudic tractate entitled Chagigah (14b), there is an Aggadah, a legend that illustrates the notion that attaining knowledge is a holy endeavor. Four of the leading sages of their generation entered PaRDes (Paradise). They were Ben Assai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben  Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. When they entered PaRDeS and came into contact with the pure power pure knowledge and complete perfection that is God, one sage died immediately. One sage went insane. Elisha ben Abuyah became a heretic, and became known as Acher (the other). Only Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed. The commentators of this Aggadah explain that PaRDeS is an acronym for four methods of Torah inquiry: P’shat, (simple literal understanding) Remez (deriving meaning from implicit hints and deep meaning), D’rash (explanation through application), and Sod (hidden meaning). Imagine that? Our tradition explains that Paradise, is achieved through Torah study. In a sense our sages are absolutely correct. 
We recognize that have within us both the Yetzer Hara, the Bad Inclination and the Yetzer HaTov, the Good Inclination. The attainment of knowledge and Truth is a Godly endeavor. The use of such knowledge judiciously and wisely for creative purposes represents the notion that we are indeed created in God’s image is a manifestation of the Yetzer HaTov. We know that a little bit of knowledge and partial truths can be used for destructive purposes and traditionally that has been a manifestation of the Yetzer HaRah, the Evil Inclination. However Senator Corker’s assessment of the President, his White House, and the pride that he takes in his ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity reveals a different type of Yetzer HaRah with no less dangerous and potentially deadly results. Hopefully, those three men whom Corker pointed out as informed and knowledgeable: General Kelly, General Mattis, and Secretary Tillerson will continue to have the ear of the president and guide him accordingly.
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Think This Through With Me, Let Me Know Your Mind; What I Want To Know Is, Are You Kind? (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "Uncle John's Band")

Our teen-age daughters, 17 and 15 will be going to the New York metropolitan area in order to spend the last days Shemini Atseret and Simchat Torah with their “camp friends”. For the past couple of weeks we have been searching for a way to get her to New Jersey: plane, train, bus, a car ride with friends who are heading to New York. We couldn’t find anything then satisfied our concern for time, cost, or safety. We managed to find a cheap flight from Buffalo to New York’s LaGuardia airport. They just had to find a way to get picked up at LaGuardia in order to get to their respective destinations: Teaneck, NJ and Cedarhurst Long Island. For the past few years, my parents would drive down to New York City and visit with my sister and her family, however this year my parents won’t be heading down until after Sukkot. In the past, I have relished the idea of our kids on a six hour car ride with my father and listening to the lectures that I had to listen to. I relished the idea of our kids on a six hour car ride with my father and listening to sage words of wisdom about life, relationships, and the future. Because the 17 year old is thinking about university, I was especially hopeful that Grandpa (my father) would offer advice and perspective to deal with the anxiety and the process of choosing and applying to universities. Needless to say, I think our daughters were relieved that they are flying to New York rather than driving six hours and listening to a lecture from Grandpa. For me, it is a lost opportunity for a grandfather to offer wisdom and advice to his grandchildren. Now, as I become more conscious of these diminished opportunities; I realize that it falls on me to transmit his wisdom and advice.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot. It is the Shabbat that falls during the 7 day Festival of Sukkot. As a result we do not read the regular Torah Reading. Instead, we read of the narrative when Moshe re- ascended the mountain a second time in order to receive the second set of Tablets. As part of the Festival, we recite Hallel which is a series of psalms praising God and state our joy in being part of the Brit, part of the covenant with God. Also, because it is a festival, we read one of Five Megillot taken from the Ketuvim – the Book of Writings. On Shabbat Chol Ha Moed Sukkot, we read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Jewish tradition ascribes the twelve chapter scroll to Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon.  This wisdom literature is written from the perspective of an elderly man who has seen it all, and experienced it all. – Ein Kol Chadash Tachat HaShemeshThere is nothing new under the sun! Kohelet – The Preacher speaks with brutal and harsh honesty.. In what is perhaps the most famous few verses, the Preacher tells us that life is full of ups and downs, good times and difficult times. L’Kol Zman V’Eit L’Chol Chafetz Tachat HaShamayimEverything has its season, and there is a time for everything under heaven: A time to be born and a time to die…..That may not sound so inspiring.  Yet our job is to live our lives according to a set of rules. The result may be good or it may be bad, but God will be the judge of that. All we can do is play according to the rules as we make our way through life and contend with the obstacles presented.

          I hope there will be other opportunities for our children to spend significant time with their grandparents receiving their wisdom. In the meantime I have to make time with my kids passing this Kohelet wisdom to them. After all it’s a seasonal thing: Sukkot, autumn, change of seasons, leaves changing colors. I will take them for a drive, we will talk, we will see the leaves changing, we will discuss univerisities. Words, advice and hopefully wisdom will come out of my mouth and I will realize that I sound like my father, who amazingly enough sounded a lot like his father. I hope I do as good a job transmitting these words, thoughts, and wisdom to them as my father and grandfather did. Like Kohelet concluded by reminding the younger generation that after all is said and done, Sof Davar HaKol Nishmah et HaElohim Yrah v’Et Mitzvotav SHmor ki Zeh Kol HaAdam- Fear God and keep his Commandments, for that is man’s whole duty, Ki et Kol Maaseh Ha’Elohim Yavoh V'MishpatFor God will judge every deed…; I am reminded of my father’s advice and need that I need to transmit to them: that if they follow their grandfather’s advice, they will be able to handle life’s obstacles and remain positive and happy.
Rav Yitz