Tag Archives: Moshe Rabbeinu

Anger Is Not a Strategy – Huqqat 5778

Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher Moses, loses his temper at least three times in the Torah. One happens in parashat Huqqat following the death of his sister Miriam, who (the midrash tells us) always had access to water in the desert:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!” Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces.  The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.  Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

Moses took the rod from the Lord, as He had commanded him.  Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.  Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 20:2-12)

While commentators propose a range of theories about why Moshe is punished, the prevailing opinion is that it was due to his anger.

anger

We are in a particularly angry moment here in America, and all the more so in Pittsburgh, given recent events. But anger is not a strategy for change; it is a strong motivator, but not an effective path forward. The 15th-century mussar (ethical) text Orhot Tzaddiqim, whose author’s name is unknown, tell us the following:

Orhot Tzaddiqim (15th century German mussar / ethical text) 12:13-14

(13) Anger leads to mistakes. Who is a greater man than Moses, our teacher? Moses, upon him be peace, was angry in three places, and he made what would generally be termed “mistakes.” … And so, you can understand that if these things happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, when he was angry, what can happen to fools who are angry! And therefore Solomon said, “Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry” (Eccl. 7:9).

אורחות צדיקים י״ב:י״ג

הכעס מביא לידי טעות; מי לנו גדול ממשה רבינו עליו השלום, שכעס בשלושה מקומות ובא לכלל טעות:… מלמד שנשתכחה הלכה ממשה (ויקרא רבה יג א). ועתה הבן: אם כך הגיע למשה רבינו עליו השלום, מה יגיע לכסילים הכועסים? ולכך אמר שלמה (קהלת ז ט): “אל תבהל ברוחך לכעוס”.

 

(14) And you must be very careful not to do damage in your anger, for our Rabbis said : “He who rends his garments, breaks his utensils in his wrath and scatters his money should be in your eyes like one who worships idols” (Bab. Talmud, Shabbat 105b). For this is the artful craft of the Evil Desire. Today he says to a man, “Do thus.” And on the morrow he says to him, “Go ahead and serve idols.” And the man goes and serves.

 והיזהר בה מאוד, שלא תעשה שום קלקול מתוך כעסך. כי אמרו רבותינו (שבת קה ב): המקרע בגדיו, והמפזר מעותיו, והמשבר כלים בחמתו – יהא בעיניך כאילו עובד עבודה זרה. שכך אומנותו של יצר הרע: היום אומר לו “עשה כך”, ולמחר אומר לו “עשה כך”, עד שאומר לו “עבוד עבודה”זרה” והולך ועושה.

It is Moshe’s anger that leads him astray; acting on our anger, suggests the author of Orhot Tzaddiqim, ultimately leads us to avodah zarah / idolatry, one of the greatest prohibitions of the Torah and of Judaism.

The Conflict Dynamics Profile* (conflictdynamics.org) lists a series of behaviors to which we often resort in times of conflict. These are the destructive behaviors, a few of which Moshe is guilty in this episode:

 

  • Winning at All Costs – Arguing vigorously for your own position and trying to win at all costs.
  • Displaying Anger – Expressing anger, raising your voice, and using harsh, angry words.
  • Demeaning Others – Laughing at the other person, ridiculing the other’s ideas, and using sarcasm.
  • Retaliating – Obstructing the other person, retaliating against the other, and trying to get revenge.
  • Avoiding – Avoiding or ignoring the other person, and acting distant and aloof.
  • Yielding – Giving in to the other person in order to avoid further conflict.
  • Hiding Emotions – Concealing your true emotions even though feeling upset.
  • Self-Criticizing – Replaying the incident over in your mind, and criticizing yourself for not handling it better.

 

So how do we respond constructively to conflict? Here are some suggested strategies:

 

  • Perspective Taking – Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand that person’s point of view.
  • Creating Solutions – Brainstorming with the other person, asking questions, and trying to create solutions to the problem.
  • Expressing Emotions – Talking honestly with the other person and expressing your thoughts and feelings.
  • Reaching Out – Reaching out to the other person, making the first move, and trying to make amends.
  • Reflective Thinking – Analyzing the situation, weighing the pros and cons, and thinking about the best response.
  • Delay Responding – Waiting things out, letting matters settle down, or taking a “time out” when emotions are running high.
  • Adapting – Staying flexible, and trying to make the best of the situation.

 

Had Moshe been able to manage his own anger, and channel it into one of the constructive strategies above, his outcome might have been different. And so too with us.

Here’s an idea: print out the destructive and constructive responses above, and post them on your refrigerator or bulletin board. You can use these to help improve your own personal relationships, and even society as a whole.

If we are to get past this angry moment, we will have to think constructively, and not merely act out of anger.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Based on a discussion at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/23/18.)

*Thanks to Bob Leventhal of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Sulam for Emerging Leaders program for bringing the Conflict Dynamics Profile to my attention.

 

 

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Authenticity and the “Blacklist” – Devarim 5777

A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.

tefillin-hands-jjep

Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”

What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)

The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)

It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:

“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”

So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.

There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):

Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”

God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”

Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”

God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.

**

Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.

With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.

And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.

We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.

We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.

A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:

Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.

The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.

What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.

But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?

“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.

And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:

  1. PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
  2. The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
  3. The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)

I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.

On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:

To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.

To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.

To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.

To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.

To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.

To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.

Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)

* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.

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