Hide and Seek – Parshat Ha’Azinu 5779

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I have a very vivid memory from when I was a teenager of my father questioning how I could be so kind one day and so moody or rude the next. I believe his exact words were, “How come everyone else is always telling us what a kind and polite young woman you are, but at home all you do is rant and act out?” It was like an adolescent game of hide and seek. I could turn on the charm for others, act gracefully and politely most of the time when in public, but at home, where I felt most comfortable, I often let down my guard and had my teenage angst in full flare-up mode. I got called out for the poor behavior, but the good behavior, which was merely the expectation, didn’t get praise. Of course now as a parent, it sounds like I’m describing Shiri’s behavior, so I guess what goes around comes around!

We often compare the relationship of God and the Israelite people to that of parent and child, so naturally this includes the teenage years. This week we read the Torah portion that is the final parshah of the year that is read on a Shabbat morning, Parshat Ha’Azinu. Parshat Ha’Azinu is a poem which warns of the consequences of the negative behavior of the Israelites and informs them of the blessings that will result from good behavior. The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

In the midst of this poetry, God sets up the ultimate game of hide and seek. Chapter 32, verse 20 reads, “And I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end.” God is literally saying, “I am going to hide myself from the Israelites. I will not come out and be active or present in their world until I see how their behavior will be. Game on!”

If God is hiding from humankind until they show themselves as worthy, the question is what is worthy? At a basic level, we know it means following the mitzvot and being kind to one another. It means demonstrating the behavior that is encapsulated in the text of the Torah. That is what brings God back into a world in which God is hidden.

As we embrace a new year and a new cycle of Torah, the challenge is on once again. We can choose behavior that is self-centered and reckless, or we can seek to bring justice, mercy, compassion, joy, and love into the world. Then, perhaps only then, will parent and child be reunited.  

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The Marshmallow Test – Rosh Hashanah 5779

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This is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 10, 2018. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

Marshmallows are my secret weapon. The only surefire way to get both of my kids to do something they aren’t particularly fond of doing is with the promise of a marshmallow. I know it goes against a lot of sound parenting advice to use food as a motivator, but I’m pretty sure there’s an exception for marshmallows. You can look it up.

The problem is Shiri and Matan are at two very different stages. Only Shiri can really grasp what it means to get different types of rewards for different actions. But they both understand marshmallows. There’s something about the way the cloudlike sweetness melts in their mouths that can get them to do just about anything we ask. And for parents, marshmallows are great too. They don’t get gooey until they’re super hot, and the ones from Trader Joe’s are kosher and vegan. I give marshmallows all the credit for saving our tushes several times on a recent long trip. Kids getting too rowdy at shul? Pass a marshmallow. It may not be long-lasting peace, but we take what we can get.  

I know what you’re thinking. You want a marshmallow now, don’t you? Or maybe you’re thinking about a famous experiment about delayed gratification, the marshmallow test. If you’re not familiar with the marshmallow test, it was a series of studies done in the 60s and 70s at Stanford in which a marshmallow or other treat would be placed in front of a child. The child could choose to eat the marshmallow right then, or if the child could delay gratification and wait 15 minutes, the child would be given two marshmallows.

Here’s what they found with this original test. Demonstrating the willpower not to eat the sugary treat seemed to be a predictor of the kid’s scholastic ability, specifically their future SAT scores. In other words, this test seemed to show a correlation between the ability of a child to delay gratification and how well he would succeed later in life.

First of all, if I were to run this test on my children, I’m pretty sure they would fail. But how can you blame them when our entire world is instant gratification? As society and technology evolve together, we have more and more opportunities to get anything we want as fast as we want it. Craving a favorite food and don’t want to leave the house or office? You’re not limited to restaurants that offer delivery anymore. Use DoorDash or Uber Eats and get practically anything delivered.

Want to watch a TV show, but forget to DVR it? No problem, you can stream it online. What the heck, just binge the entire series on Netflix. And forget about stressing over taking perfect photos on your camera or waiting for a roll of film to be developed.

We’ve gotten so used to the instant life that even fast things seem slow. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences the excruciating pain of awaiting an important email response by checking my phone every 30 seconds to see if it came through.

It seems like technology itself will never catch up to the level of our expectations for it. Our world is becoming one where we have limited patience to wait and see what happens next. With the ease of email, text messaging, and Twitter, we share our thoughts instantaneously, and we seek feedback immediately. But with this quick-to-share, quick-to-respond mentality, we seem to forget the whole point of communication in the first place. We forget to actually read what others are writing. That means our search for instant gratification can lead us to miss really important human cues, sometimes cries for help or connection.

When the Israelites are in the process of accepting the commandments of Torah and Jewish life from God, they respond to Moses by saying, “Kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishmah.” All that God has said, we will do and we will listen. The mandate of Judaism isn’t merely to “do this, don’t do that.” Our mandate is to do good in our world and listen to those around us as well as to God. The mitzvot we observe have an active component that we accomplish by doing, and a reactive component that we accomplish by listening, by actually opening our ears to calls for help.  

Where do the marshmallows come in? Well, if you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous to claim that eating a marshmallow or waiting in order to eat two marshmallows can have an impact on your SAT score, you’re not alone. Researchers from NYU and UC Irvine thought so too, and they decided to redo the experiment, but with ten times the number of participants and taking into account factors like the social and economic background of these kids. You know what they found? Delayed gratification wasn’t the determiner of success. Success was the determiner of delayed gratification.

When they accounted for things like household income, the kids who came from families who were better off or better educated were, on average, the ones who performed better. For example, among the kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for the second marshmallow did no better in the long run than those who ate the first marshmallow right away. By the same token, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited also did no better than those who ate right away.

How do we give our children and ourselves the best chance at success? It’s not by teaching them to delay gratification. It’s by teaching them to consider consequences and ask “Why”. Think about what happens if you eat this dessert. Will it mean no dessert later? Will it mean a greater risk of cavities? If you’ve considered the options and still want to eat the marshmallow, for goodness sakes, eat the marshmallow.

And when it comes to communication, if there’s something on your mind that you think needs to be said, sleep on it first. Talk it over with someone else. Roll it around in your mind, and if you still think it’s worth saying, then say it. Where we run into trouble is when we speak first, and then consider the consequences after it’s too late.

Na’aseh v’nishma – do, and listen. Yes, have an opinion and get things done, but also have compassion and get to know people. Who says that your opinion is more valid than someone else’s? It’s easy to be passionate about a topic, and when we’re passionate and have something to say, we want to push it out into the world in a fury of keyboard strokes. We want to be the first one to comment.

As we enter this new year, I have a challenge for all of us. Why not be the first one to listen? Instead of rushing to comment, how about if we rush to understand? How about if we rush to consider? Instead of talking louder and louder in order to be heard, what if we spoke less and less in order for someone else to be heard? In this new year, what if we could ask how someone is doing, and not be on to the next thought in our heads before they have a chance to say, “Great, thanks” or “Actually, not so well, and I could really use a friend right about now.”

To me, the updated marshmallow test is much less about who’s right when it comes to delayed gratification, and much more about having enough information to create an accurate study in the first place. It’s not a test of the children. It’s a test of us. Can we see that some people are struggling to put food on the table? Can we see how much where we come from is affecting where we have the ability to go?

In this new year, let’s slow down the assumptions and the immediate feedback. Instead, let’s rush to accept and acknowledge. Let us stumble over each other being the first to listen.

Shanah tova.

Renewing Ourselves – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech 5778

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*Next week I’ll be posting my Rosh Hashanah sermon, so this week I’ve included d’vrei Torah for the portions covering the next two weeks.

About a year after Matan was born, Duncan turned to me and said, “You know I love you now more than ever, but do you ever get the feeling these days that we’re more like roommates than husband and wife?” Never before were truer words spoken. It is so easy to get lost in the single-minded focus of the first year of a child’s life. Add to that one three-year-old, two crazy work schedules, and so much more, and we often ended up like two ships passing in the night. As we learned, unfortunately intimacy sometimes takes a backseat to necessary sleep, and a romantic anniversary lunch date can quickly turn into swapping calendars and talking about the kids instead of focusing on our relationship. A marriage, or any partnership that involves an intimate human connection and closeness, requires reaffirming the commitment. Commitment is not a one-time thing; it’s an active, ongoing process.

This applies not just to personal relationships, but to Torah and even to religion in general. Judaism as a faith is based on the relationships we maintain with one another, with text, and with God. Over the next two weeks we will read Parshat Nitzavim and Vayelech. These are the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us of our free will in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and in general to be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process of transferring leadership to Joshua and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation.  

The text begins in Parshat Nitzavim that we should “enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day with its sanctions.” This is interesting timing. Didn’t the Israelite nation already affirm their commitment to God’s mitzvot and to God when they stood at Sinai and agreed “na’aseh v’nishma”? “All that God has said we will do and we will understand.” Why are we now asked to enter into the covenant once more?

Shneur Zalman, the 18th century rabbi of Liyadi, views this relationship as an intimate marriage. He teaches, “Just as a husband and wife need to reaffirm their commitment to each other when the early days of romantic attraction have given way to the day-to-day struggle to overcome accumulated disappointments, so too God and the people Israel need to reaffirm the covenant at this later date.”  

Like new parents trying to maintain intimacy when daily life takes over, our relationship with God and with our faith community requires attention and intentionality in order to be maintained. These two parshiyot at the end of the Torah remind us that we are in need of constant work and engagement in order to find fulfillment in Judaism. What a perfect reminder in the new year that the text is there, the community is ready, and all it takes is intention.

How I Learned to Pray Again – Parshat Ki Tavo 5778

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In the year after my father died, I lost my ability to speak to God. I couldn’t open the siddur, the words which I had read my entire life fell meaningless on my lips. My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t share a prayer of a loving God when I felt so unloved, and I couldn’t praise the creator of the world when I felt like my world had been so deeply crushed. My prayers were more filled with silence or rage than calm and compassion.

There are clearly times when the words on the page of the siddur, the formatted, clear-cut, and poetic verse, simply does not fit the moment, the experience, or the mood of prayer that day. I often find myself questioning, “What words truly speak to my heart today?” I know this experience is far from unique to me. As an educator I often hear profound prayers and thoughts about God from the tiniest human beings. A laugh at the silent Amidah in shul is a beautiful way for a baby to lighten my soul, and a request for God’s “presents” instead of “presence” in prayer is in a way a beautiful misunderstanding of a really important concept. But, what would God think about all these outside-the-box prayers?

Luckily, we have our portion this week, Parshat Ki Tavo to shed some light. This is the section of the Torah that reminds us again of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically, we learn of the requirement to make an offering of “first fruits” for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily activity). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

Within the text is the commandment to build the altar using “unhewn stones.” These stones are not perfect. They are not cleanly and evenly quarried; they are not polished or shiny. The altar on which we are to offer up our sacrifice, and with it our prayers, to God is not perfect or pristine. It is made up of whole, natural, imperfect stones. Martin Buber, the great philosopher, is quoted as saying, “Eloquent polished prayer is like hewn, polished stone. Here the ‘unhewn’ (lit. whole) stones represent the inarticulate yearning of a sincere heart – which God prefers.”

Perfection is not prayer. Prayer is made up of the words of our heart in raw, unfiltered form. While the words in the siddur are beautiful and polished and a great jumping off point for prayer, the words in our hearts are those that are offered up as a sacrifice to God. As we approach our sacred time of repentance and teshuvah (returning), Parshat Ki Tavo reminds us that perfection is unnecessary in our relationship with God. Anger, rage, understanding, sadness, and joy are all real human emotions, and when those emotions are shared in prayer, that is when we are truly offering up ourselves in prayer to God.

Till Death Do Us Part – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5778

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As I’ve written about before, I love the way that Judaism tackles death. From the laws of mourning, to the laws of memorializing, there are so many beautiful ways in which we are bound by law and practice to celebrate and honor the memory of our loved ones. But those rituals are largely focused on what we do as mourners for people we cared for. What about people who we didn’t love, or who led less than upstanding lives?

While it’s somewhat easier to acknowledge that we are all created in the image of God, and thus we start out as equals at birth, it’s much more complicated to apply that same equality all the way through until death. However, the Torah has an answer for this too. Parshat Ki Teitzei, which we read this week, gives us a sense of how we should treat one another as human beings in a variety of situations. This portion of Torah contains in it more laws than any other single portion of Torah. In it we have laws that govern the fields, interactions with others, how we treat ourselves, returning lost items, signs of purity, merits involved in various acts, and a whole lot more.  

Part of the text is based on the notion that we are all equal from birth through death, in war and in peace. Every human being has a value and a purpose. Even those who may not live their lives in the most honest and upstanding way are required, according to this week’s Torah portion, to have a quick and proper burial. Chapter 21, verse 23 states that even “A man who is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God.”  

It’s gruesome, but even a murderer is due a proper burial and is to be treated with the same regard in death as any other body. (Not “anybody,” but literally “any body.”) That’s not to say there isn’t punishment in the living world for crimes committed, but in death we are to think always of the life lost, and the gift of life comes from God.  

Our parshah is a subtle reminder that the universal equality that awaits us should be paralleled by a universal equality we afford others while we’re alive. Human life is valuable, and our bodies, divinely designed, are deserving of care and respect in their final moments on the earth. Even more so are they deserving of those things in life.