Failure is Part of the Plan

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, May 19

The two Parshios that comprise this week’s double Parsha, Behar-Bechukosai, seem to comprise a single thematic and literary unit. The mitzvah of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, during which ordinary agricultural activity was prohibited, figures prominently in both Parshas Behar and Parshat Bechukosai. Parshas Behar opens by introducing the mitzvah of Shemitah. In Parshas Bechukosai, while chronicling the punishments we should expect should we fail to obey God’s commandments, God mentions that should we be exiled for our sins, the land of Israel will make up for the Sabbatical years we failed to observe while living there.

This is, in fact, what would later come to pass. The first exile in Babylonia lasted 70 years, which we are told, correspond to the number of Sabbatical years we had failed to observe in Eretz Yisrael.

This warning means that God knew already when He commanded us to observe Shemitah that we might find this mitzvah challenging to fulfill. This is further evidenced by the fact that the Torah anticipates the hesitation people might have about keeping Shemitah, suggesting that one might ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” (Vayikra 25:20).

What does it mean for God to command something that He knows we will struggle and likely fail to fulfill? Perhaps it means that sometimes failure is part of the plan. Sometimes God sets expectations for us knowing we won’t get it right on the first try. We should do the same for ourselves. Let us dare to hold ourselves to high standards, even if it means that we might fail to meet those standards.

At the same time, knowing that failure can be part of the process, that it might be built into the system, we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves when we do fail. We must remember that it is worthwhile to aim high and risk much, even if we fail, even if the consequences of failure may be great; so long as in the long run, our failures help us grow and come closer to becoming who we were meant to be, to becoming who God wants us to be.

 

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Emo, Pesach Sheni

May 12th

It is hard to believe that it has been a month since Pesach. Wednesday was Pesach Sheni, which falls exactly one month after Pesach. Pesach Sheni may be the first Jewish holiday to originate not with God, but with the Jewish people themselves.

In Parshat B’ha`alos’kha (Numbers 9:6-12), we read about a group of Jews who were unable to participate in the Pesach sacrifice because they were in a state of ritual impurity. Instead of simply accepting their exclusion from this most central of Jewish rites, they complained to Moshe and said, “why should we be deprived of offering the sacrifice of Hashem?!” In response to their complaint, God commanded Moshe to institute Pesach Sheni, literally “the Second Passover,” as a second chance for those who had been unable to participate in the holiday the first time around.

The manner in which the holiday came about is essential to understanding its the meaning. This holiday is not merely about “second chances,” it is a recognition that sometimes people find themselves excluded from full participation in the religious life of the community through no fault of their own. Pesach Sheni reminds us that the proper response when we find ourselves unable to participate in the religious life of our community is not to simply put up with it, and accept our fate. The proper response is to go to our religious leaders and demand to be included. If the complaints are leshem shamayim, coming from a place of piety and love of God and not from a place of ego or rebelliousness, our leaders should follow the model presented by HaShem and Moshe and find a way to include those who have been excluded in a manner which does not undermine or destroy our existing religious institutions and traditions.

May God bless each of us with courage and strength to be our own advocates and not to let external obstacles stand in the way of a full and deep religious engagement. May He bless our religious and communal leaders with the vision and compassion to continue seeking ways to open the doors of our religious observance to as many Jews as possible.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Acharei Mot Kedoshim

May 5

This week we celebrated Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha`atzma’ut. In Israel unlike in America, Memorial day is intrinsically connected to Independence day, one following immediately upon the heels of the other, the mourning and remembrance ceremonies of Yom Hazikaron flowing directly into the celebrations of Yom Ha`Atzma’ut.

In a drasha from this past week, Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, notes the fact that atzma’ut, the Hebrew word for independence comes from the word etzem, meaning bone.  Among other allusions, the Chief Rabbi points out the famous prophesy of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which the prophet Yechezkel sees a valley full of dry bones rise up, transform into living, breathing people and begin marching towards the land of Israel.  This prophecy would seem to describe the experience of world Jewry in the 1940’s when, in the space of a few short years we emerged from the graves of Europe to achieve the dream of centuries—a sovereign, independent Jewish state. This is a journey from atzamot, to atzmaut, from death and destruction to independence and sovereignty.

R’ Mervis’ read of Yechezkel would seem to argue in favor of the close proximity of Yom HaSho’ah to Yom Ha’atzma’ut. But what of the even closer proximity of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha`azma’ut?  This too is about the connection between atzamot and atzma’ut. The independence, the ability to stand on our own to feet, which we celebrate on Yom Ha`atzma’ut, was not won bloodlessly.  People fought and died in order that our people might live free in our homeland for the first time in two millennia.  Just as no human being can stand up without bones, without a skeleton, no nation can stand, without the sacrifices of those who have been willing to fight for and defend it.  This is a painful fact of history, which for too many families is not just an abstract idea but a tragic reality they live with every day, not just on Yom Hazikaron.

Though we live here in the diaspora, we must be grateful for those who continue to put their lives on the line to defend Israel; they are the skeleton without which our nation could not stand.  Though most of us are not planning to make Aliyah any time soon, or are too old to serve in the army if we did, I invite us, to ask ourselves, what would I sacrifice for Israel?  What would I sacrifice for the Jewish people?  Maybe I’m not in a position to lay down my life, and maybe I’m not that kind of hero, but perhaps there are other kinds of sacrifices, other kinds of risks (emotional, spiritual risks) that I could take sake of my Jewish brothers and sisters, for my people here, in Israel and around the world.  Are there unmet needs in my local community that I could help meet if only I was willing to make the sacrifices? Our willingness to give of ourselves is the foundation (the skeleton, if you will) that holds up the Jewish community—our ability to survive and thrive physically and spiritually as a people depends on the sacrifices and contributions made by every Jew.  Sacrifice is not fashionable; it’s not part of the standard outreach curriculum, but it is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish.

May each of us have the courage to make sacrifices in the service of Hashem and the Jewish people that surprise us, that go beyond what we thought we were capable of, and may our sacrifices find favor before Hashem.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

P.S.–to read the Rabbi Mervis’ drasha in full, visit http://chiefrabbi.org/article/dvar-torah-parshat-tazriah-metzorah-yom-haatzmaut/

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

April 28th

This week we will read about the case of the metzora, the person struck with a divinely inflicted skin disease called tzora’as. The Torah tells us that this person is Tame’, ritually impure, and that, moreover, they must walk around announcing their impure status crying out “Impure! Impure!” This might seem a little harsh to us, that someone suffering already from what is probably a very uncomfortable and embarrassing physical condition, should be made to walk around announcing their status. The Sages explain that tzora`at is the physical result of the sin of spreading gossip. Thus, the fact that the metzora must announce his impure status to the world is an example of midah k’neged midah, a punishment that fits the crime—the person who spread derogatory information about others now must spread the same kind of derogatory information about themselves. Perhaps even more than punishment, this experience is meant to help the metzora experience what it is like to be on the receiving end of their own defamatory speech so that they might realize how much pain a little gossip can inflict and hopefully be moved to change their behavior.

What of the fact that we read that the metzora is to announce “Impure! Impure!.” The Torah doesn’t waste words, so why does it repeat the word “impure” twice? The Talmud in Moed Katan (5a) provides a solution—it says we learn from the repetition of the word impure, to stay away, meaning that we must mark graves and other places of impurity so that they will metaphorically speaking call out and warn those who need to maintain a state of ritual purity to stay away. Not only does this interpretation allow us to learn a separate halakha related to the impurity of graves, it also suggests that the metzora calls out “impure! Impure!” not as a punishment, but as a public service.

However, there is yet another way in which we can understand the phrase, “And he shall cry out ‘Impure! Impure!’” The Hebrew phrase “v’tame’ tame’ yikra” could just as easily be parsed, “And the impure one shall cry out ‘Impure!’” meaning that those who are “impure,” who have a fault in themselves, are the ones who go around pointing out the “impurities” or faults of others. There are three practical ways this understanding can help us. The first is so that when people go around pointing out the faults of others, we can remember to take it with a grain of salt. They are telling us much more about themselves than they are about those they are deriding. The second is that when people go around pointing out our faults in a way that we feel is unfair, instead of getting mad, we can try to have compassion on them since they are clearly struggling with some great “impurity” inside themselves.

The third, and most important lesson to take from this is that when we, as happens to all of us, find ourselves tempted to “cry out ‘Impure!’” about others, to criticize others publicly and broadcast their faults, instead of giving into that impulse, we should turn our attention inward and ask “what is it inside of me is reacting to this person this way? Why is it that I feel the need to “call them out?” What is my emotional state when I want to disparage them? Where are those emotions coming from? Are they at their heart about this person or about something else? Can I learn to simply live with this emotion instead of attacking someone else?

May God give us the discipline and the wisdom to engage in this kind of honest self-examination instead of speaking negatively about others, and may we soon be cleansed of the temptation to speak Lashon Hara, to gossip about others.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein