Va-et’chanan: Masters of Nothing


Vaetchanan-image-POST-wrong-way-right-wayA few years ago, the author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a bestselling book called Outliers that profiled a few highly successful people and tried to analyze how they were able to achieve what they did.

What Gladwell concluded was that there was nothing magical about their success – no divine inspiration that enabled them to rise from nothing to the top of their field. What he found was that these highly successful people, these outliers, all shared some common elements that contributed to their success. One of the factors he identified was something he called “the 10,000-hour rule.” He called it “the magic number of greatness.”

According to Gladwell, if you devote 10,000 hours to learning a skill – any skill, be it bouncing a basketball, or playing the piano, or cooking, or arguing a case in a courtroom – by the time you reach 10,000 hours of practice, you’ll become highly proficient. That translates to 90 minutes of concerted effort each day for 20 years – or three hours a day for 10 years, if you have extra time to set aside. If you’re a very busy person, and have less time to devote to learning your skill, you’d be able to reach the 10,000-hour mark if you work at it for 45 minutes a day over 40 years. Now, that’s not a realistic possibility for every person, but it raises an interesting point that relates to our Torah portion.

At this point in our story – Va-et’chanan, in Deuteronomy – the Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and freedom is within view, on the other side of the river. They’ve had 40 years to learn God’s teachings and the importance of obeying them. Forty years to learn the skills necessary for living as a free people.

During that time, they’ve received some pretty clear indicators from God when they’ve strayed from the correct path, like the plague that befell the people after some Israelite men decided to carry on with Midianite women, to name just one example. They know that their own leader, Moses, won’t be entering the Promised Land as his punishment for disobeying God. In short, they’ve experienced God’s wrath. Let’s also remember that the only reason they were wandering the desert for 40 years at all is that God believed the first generation of Israelites wasn’t worthy of embracing freedom. You’d think they would’ve learned a few things by now, or at least learned to steer clear of the things they shouldn’t do.

But after 40 years, and ample opportunity to reach the 10,000-hour magic number of greatness, the Israelites have become masters of nothing. Of all the enemies they’ve encountered through their wanderings, the Israelites are their own worst enemy. The situation is so bleak that Moses pleads with God a second time to let him enter the land. He’s not asking for selfish reasons. He knows the mortal dangers that the Israelites will encounter once they cross the river, and their ability to lead hasn’t exactly inspired his confidence. There’s a midrash that has Moses pleading with God, “Let me go in as an animal, or even as a bird which can fly the length and breadth of the land.”

Moses knows the Israelites need protection. He wants to watch over them. God refuses his request, so Moses continues what he’s been doing throughout Deuteronomy. He repeats as a narrative everything the Israelites failed to learn over the course of 40 years, which in this Torah portion includes a slightly revised Ten Commandments. It’s not so different from a parent giving a recalcitrant kid the same piece of advice over and over again. You think that perhaps this time will be different. Maybe this time they’ll buckle down, focus, get serious and start doing what’s expected of them.

So we could reasonably ask ourselves: What kind of role models are the Israelites? They’ve had fewer distractions than the rest of us – no internet – and they’ve had plenty of feedback along the way. They’ve benefited from loads of repetition. Frankly, if they haven’t gotten it by now, when will they? Or, more accurately, will they ever get it?

We read the Book of Deuteronomy as we approach the High Holy Days — the time when we reflect on our own failings, and on those occasions when we might’ve unwisely ignored guidance or feedback. Maybe we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe we’ll even do better next time. That’s all we can hope for — and that’s the same hope that Moses has for the Israelites.

Most of us have a way of performing as we should when we have to. We do our work, we pay our bills, and we meet our obligations to our community and each other. We rise to the trivial and significant challenges that life presents us. It would be nice to think that it’s self-motivation that informs our actions, and often that’s the case. But we’re not always motivated. No one is. We need deadlines. Sometimes we need something stronger, like fear, frustration or even desperation. We need to imagine what might happen if we don’t take action. We need to see that land waiting across the Jordan. After 40 years it’s right there, not just within the realm of possibility but almost within our reach. We need only to take that next step. And we ask ourselves: if not now, when?

As we move toward the Days of Awe, we’re reminded that change is within reach for all of us. This is an incredibly comforting thought and also a deeply empowering one. Think about it: We’re handed this opportunity each year to set new goals and embrace life’s possibilities. On a personal level, we’re replicating the Israelites’ journey. Their goal was freedom; we seek to liberate ourselves from our bad habits or past mistakes.

In spite of God’s protection, the Israelites knew that living as a free people would be fraught with peril and uncertainty. We’re well aware that the future is uncertain too — sometimes in a good way and, sadly, sometimes not. But we’re compelled to move forward. The High Holy Days demand it of us and – whether we like it or not — so does life. We just have to do our best and count our blessings.

May we all continue to appreciate our strengths, to accept a degree of uncertainty in our lives, and to maintain our faith in those possibilities that we cannot see.

Have a good week, and Shabbat Shalom.

Pinchas: Nothing to Lose, So What’s Stopping You?

About midway through this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, God tells Moses to do the following: “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered.”

In other words, God tells Moses, go to the top of the mountain and look at the land you’re not going to be entering because you disobeyed me. And then, God tells Moses, it’s time for you to die.

Let’s think about what must’ve been going through Moses’ head at this moment. He’s old, he’s tired, and after leading his people through the desert for 40 years, he’s not going to enter the Promised Land. Even worse, he’s instructed by God to go look at the Promised Land….and to see the world that’s going to go on, but without him in it. For Moses, this must have been a heartbreaking realization. For someone who’s spent much of his life as a leader, and a gifted leader, truly there is nothing more demoralizing.

After Moses gazes upon the land, something amazing happens. In Chapter 27, Verse 15, Moses decides to speak to God and it’s introduced this way: “Vayedaber Moshe l’Adonai laymor.” Which means, Moses spoke to the Lord, saying….”

There’s something interesting about that line that’s not at all apparent in the English translation. In every other instance in the Torah where Moses addresses God, the word that’s used is “vayomer” Moshe, which means, “Moses said.” But this time it was “vayedaber” Moshe. Which can also be translated to mean “Moses said.” They’re synonyms, but not identical ones.

The rabbis have a lot to say about the difference between the two words. Most agree that vayedaber has a harsher tone than vayomer. The former also has an implied hierarchy and it’s not something you would typically use when speaking to someone whose status is more elevated than yours.

Rashi says that by using vayedaber, Moses is more than simply saying something to God. He’s demanding a response. These are the words of Moses: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

So what possesses Moses to speak to God this way — not only to tell God to appoint a new leader but also to dictate the kind of leader God should pick? We would be correct in assuming that Moses is deeply concerned about the quality of leader who will come after him, and in ensuring that his successor will be capable of carrying out the business of detailed, day-to-day governance that will be required in order to build a nation. It’s also natural that Moses is cognizant of the shape his legacy is going to take.

But I believe there’s a more compelling reason Moses addresses God so forcefully. He has absolutely nothing to lose. He doesn’t have to worry about disobeying God: he’s already done that, and the worst thing that could’ve happened to Moses has already come to pass. His leadership is ending, he’s not going to be entering the Promised Land, and he has already been told that he is going to die. So why not just say what’s on his mind? To borrow a saying by Hillel, if not now, when?

We can all relate to this sudden burst of fearlessness….when you don’t care what people think and you just speak or you just act. Think of all the videos on YouTube of sprightly 90-year-olds cutting loose on the dance floor. If you still have the agility — or at least the energy — hey, why not? Might as well grab at life with gusto while you still can.

Anyone can adopt this philosophy. A few years ago there was a viral video of a little girl dancing at her school’s ballet recital to the song “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. She was shimmying and shaking with abandon and clearly didn’t give a damn what anyone else in her group was doing. The video got about 60 million views, not just because the kid was hilarious (which she was) but because her behavior was admirable. Most of us would like to be like that little girl, but we harbor grownup-sized fears of what we’ll look like, and what people will think of us.

How often do we stop ourselves from taking chances? For many of us, the answer is too often. How often do our fears stop us from trying something new? Fear of embarrassment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of conflict. The truth is that maintaining the status quo is much easier than changing it. That’s true for people, governments and, yes, synagogues. Change can be a difficult and painful process, but it’s necessary for any kind of growth to take place.

Going back to Moses, he changed the status quo with his decision to be direct with God, and speaking to God in this manner turns out to be effective. In the end, Moses’ words carry real weight. God could’ve appointed Pinchas as Moses’ successor, but that wasn’t the kind of thoughtful leader that Moses envisioned carrying on his work. Instead, God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses.

Moses’ behavior sets an important example for all of us. We don’t have to wait until we have nothing to lose in order to speak freely or to take decisive action in our lives. We just need to pretend that we have nothing to lose. We need to remember that we have value and power. That our words matter. That our actions can lead to even greater actions. That although we’d prefer not to think about it, our time here may, in fact, not be infinite.

So, in the coming week, may we move ahead with purpose and intent. May we, as a community, always encourage each other to speak freely – because a healthy exchange of ideas is what inspires us to grow and to find fulfillment within ourselves and with each other.

Have a peaceful and safe week, and Shabbat Shalom.

D’var Torah: Pinchas….Of Superheroes and Defining Moments

What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life?

Before we get to those questions, let me tell you how one man, Pinchas, lived his life. When we meet Pinchas at the end of last week’s Torah portion, he had just saved the Israelites from their own worst enemy – themselves. The Israelites are once again ignoring the lessons of the past and engaging in idol worship and illicit affairs with foreign-born women. God is obviously displeased with this latest example of human transgression, so he sends down a clear and direct message in the form of a plague. Pinchas takes it upon himself to make things right. In one fell swoop, he uses his spear to kill an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were having an illicit relationship. We learn their names in this week’s Torah portion: Zimri and Cozbi. One strike of Pinchas’s spear and they’re both dead. Immediately after Pinchas slays the couple, God lifts the plague.   

It would be easy to think of Pinchas as the Torah’s first superhero. The Amazing Pinchas: mild-manner priest acts without divine intervention, comes out of the crowd and slays a lawbreaking couple in a single bound. There would be merit to this analogy. Mythology focuses on the superhuman. Humans and demigods with extraordinary abilities appear in many cultures, ancient or modern. Look at Gilgamesh. Or Spider-Man. These figures have a real purpose, and that’s to show us that if they can do the impossible, so can we. But there’s a deeper layer to the superhero story. What’s the difference between a superhero and the rest of us? What is it that makes us soar above the crowd if we have to? Is it something within us – something in our character that some of us have and others do not? Or do external events inspire us to rise to the challenge?

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing….What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

That’s Winston Churchill talking about the point when life hands us our defining moment. We don’t know when it’ll happen, or under what circumstances, but it happens to all of us. The first thing is to recognize it. That doesn’t always happen.  The second critical element is to act on it. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, recognizes his defining moment. He sees a crisis, assesses it, and decides in an instant that he’ll do what he can to restore God’s law to the Israelites. He acts at an important time for the Israelites. When Pinchas makes his move, freedom is close at hand for the Israelites. They’re in Canaan, just east of the Jordan River. The Promised Land is within sight. But the Israelites are still ill-equipped to handle the challenge of freedom. They forsake the Torah and worship idols, just as they did in the Golden Calf episode. Pinchas behaves better than his grandfather, Aaron, did. When he’s tapped on the shoulder, he acts.

Elsewhere in the same Torah portion there are other defining moments. The five daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (their names always appear together) – they see their defining moment and muster up the courage to act on it. They approach Moses, the chief priest, the leaders and the entire congregation and ask for something unheard of, something unprecedented. They ask for their father’s land inheritance since there are no male heirs. They ask boldly. They don’t beg. “Give us a holding,” they say. Their action initiates a change in Torah law. This is one of just three instances in the Torah where we witness the process by which Torah law is changed. It’s the only one set into motion by women.

Later in the Torah portion God instructs Moses to ascend the heights of Mount Abarim and view the land that he, Moses, will never inhabit. This, I believe, is Moses’ defining moment. Some might say Moses had other defining moments, like the exodus from Egypt, where he had the collective energy and forward momentum of the Israelites right behind him. Or the moment when he received the Ten Commandments, and then smashed them, because he knew the Israelites were not worthy of this gift from the Almighty.

It’s easier to be courageous and act with fortitude when you’re in battle mode, but much harder when the war is almost done, when your strength has worn down. Think of a marathon runner. During those last miles, you find yourself pulling out strength from reserves you never knew you had. Crossing the finish line becomes sheer agony. In this Torah portion, Moses is near the end of his marathon. He knows his days are numbered. He knows that although he fought the war, he’ll never celebrate the victory. Yet he climbs Mt. Abarim and looks at the Promised Land. He appoints Joshua to succeed him. Before the entire community he does what God commanded him to do – he lays his hands upon Joshua and makes possible a future that he will never experience, a new world of freedom that he will never explore. There’s a quiet elegance in Moses’ actions. Old, with the full knowledge that his dream has been dashed because he disobeyed God, he acts selflessly and bravely and fulfills God’s will. That is his defining moment.    

The truth is that most of us are not Pinchas. Most of us are like the Israelites, moving imperfectly, and sometimes gracefully, as we make our way through a world of unknowns, a world where turmoil ends up in our laps. We’re not Moses. We’re the huddled masses who entered New York at Ellis Island, people working hard to make our way in a land where those around us don’t understand the language we speak — or don’t bother listening to the words we say. Finding the courage to move forward or stand still, the courage to make a life or let the world control you — these are the types of choices at the heart of the defining moment.

Some of us are middle-aged men and women caring for our aging parents, giving their lives happiness and purpose when we know full well how the story will likely end. That is a defining moment. We cope with sickness – our own or our loved ones’— and with the reality that not all endings are happy endings. That’s a defining moment. We stand behind our friends in their time of need, even when most people walk away – in fact, especially when most people walk away. We pull each other up from despair. Loyalty and compassion inspire many a defining moment.

What kind of person do you want to be? How do you want to live your life? I asked these questions at the beginning of this d’var Torah.

Defining moments have the potential to make super-humans out of all of us. We’re not as impulsive as Pinchas, perhaps, and most of us have no desire to shoulder the kind of burden that Moses did. What we do want to be is the kind of person who moves ahead with courage, honesty and conviction — no matter what. We want to live our lives with decency and kindness, the way God intended us to, and with passion, empathy and intelligence.

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt delivered his famous “Citizen in a Republic” speech in Paris where he described what success really is:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”   

It’s often the ordinary, day-to-day struggles, not the extraordinary events and crises, which create our defining moments. Like Pinchas and Moses, let us not shy away from our struggles but embrace them. Let us learn from them. Let us all have the ability to recognize our defining moments for their potential value, which is to make us better people than we ever thought we could be.

Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

D’var Torah: Balak…..What We Can Learn From a Talking Horse

This week’s Torah portion could be entitled “The Jackass and the Donkey.”

The jackass is Balaam, the seer who’s hired by Balak to curse the Israelites. He takes his donkey and embarks on his mission. It’s a mission that God doesn’t think too highly of, for obvious reasons, so God places an angel right in Balaam’s path. But there’s a catch — only the donkey can see the angel. One thing leads to another and the poor donkey gets whacked not once, but three times, by Balaam when the angel blocks his path. If you didn’t like Balaam before, now you have even more reason to dislike him. He’s a false prophet and an animal beater.

Then something amazing happens. The donkey starts talking to Balaam, wanting to know, reasonably, why he was getting beaten up. Balaam doesn’t find anything unusual about his donkey talking to him, which says something about Balaam right there. He accuses the donkey of mocking him and tells the donkey he would’ve stabbed him with a sword if he’d had one. Even then Balaam doesn’t realize how dumb he sounds. He was ready to curse the Israelites off the face of the earth but he would need a sword to kill a poor donkey. Finally God opens Balaam’s eyes to the presence of the angel. Balaam sees that his ass was the true seer and that he, the false seer, was the true ass.

More than a few commentators have compared the talking donkey to another cultural icon – Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the 1960s TV show. Like Balaam’s donkey, Mr. Ed could only be heard by one person, Wilbur Post. Wilbur was a nice but bumbling guy who was always getting shown up by his horse, who was both intelligent and clever. We see a lot of talking animals in literature. Think of Aesop’s fables. The rabbits in “Watership Down.”  Or one of the best-loved children’s books of all time, “Charlotte’s Web,” where Charlotte the spider takes on a mission to save Wilbur the pig from the slaughterhouse. When children learn about this Torah portion, they probably think of another talking animal from the movies, the donkey in “Shrek” (with the voice of Eddie Murphy). It’s believed that this donkey was, in fact, based on Balaam’s talking ass.

It should be noted that there’s only one other instance in the Torah where an animal talks, and that’s the snake in the Garden of Eden. There’s no question that it’s a powerful device. But is it so far-fetched to be this unusual, really?

We attach human qualities to animals all the time. Everyone talks to their dog or cat. If you have a bird, they even answer back. We’re always amazed by the intelligence displayed by guide dogs and service dogs, dolphins and, of course, primates. There was a guide dog in the news this week that put itself in front of a car to prevent its owner from being struck. The dog was injured, but survived, and was hailed for its remarkable loyalty. And rightly so.

I don’t think most people would go to those lengths to save a life that’s not our own. We would do it instinctively for someone we love – a child, for instance – and there are exceptional people who rescue strangers from drowning or jump onto the subway tracks to save a person who fell. But as humans we tend to think too much – about our own personal safety, or how much our loved ones would suffer if we put ourselves needlessly in harm’s way. It’s hard to fault ourselves for a quality that’s innately human and even sensible. But the animals in our lives don’t over-think. They act, and they do it for the right reasons. They’re loyal. Kind. Generous of spirit. They give us a big greeting when we come home. Nora Ephron, whose passing I mentioned last week, had my favorite quote about that: “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

The rabbis regard the talking donkey as a miracle. But not just any ordinary miracle. In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, the rabbis list 10 supernatural events that were arranged by God at one very specific time — at twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation, right before the Sabbath. The list includes things like the rainbow that God left as a sign for Moses and his family. The mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers. The script of the original tablets with the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God. Balaam’s talking ass is given equal significance with these events.

Most Orthodox Jews believe the donkey actually gained the power of speech and talked to Balaam. As Reform Jews, we tend not to agree with this interpretation. We look for the symbolism and ask ourselves what message is being conveyed to us. What meaning can a talking donkey have in our lives? The answer is: quite a lot.

The donkey is everything Balaam isn’t. She — and it’s interesting to note that the donkey is a she – is honest, perceptive, and possessed with the trait we think of as horse sense. And, unlike Balaam, it’s the donkey’s natural inclination to do good. She doesn’t over-think whether or not to stop when she sees the angel. She doesn’t change her mind or worry about her own well-being. She acts out of loyalty to her owner. Simply put, she does God’s will.

The qualities that God wants us to display – decency, kindness toward others – have very little to do with the evolutionary ladder. In Genesis, God gave us dominion over animals. That meant stewardship, authority, even might and power. In Genesis 9:2, God says to Noach: “…let the awe and dread of you be upon all the land animals, and all the birds of the sky, and all that creep on the ground, and all the fish of the sea: they are given into your hands.” But nowhere does it say that dominion over God’s creatures is synonymous with superiority. Balaam’s donkey is a reminder of that. Who’s the finer animal here? The human? I don’t think so.

This talking donkey – and the significance our sages give this so-called “Shabbat miracle” – serves as a reminder that life can, and does, go topsy-turvy on us. This happens with alarming regularity and often when we least expect it. Our personal circumstances change. The world disappoints us. We’re reminded constantly on a global and individual scale that logic and human behavior often run in opposite directions. But sometimes the world needs to go topsy-turvy in order to wake us out of our reverie. It works for Balaam. He realizes the error of his ways and the potential dangers that his false prophecy presents. It works for us, too. Crisis and upheaval are painful, but also healthy. We hit our bumps and our brick walls, but we persevere.

“Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do — then do it with all your strength.” That quote is from someone who relied heavily on divine guidance to lead a people to freedom. His name was not Moses, but George Washington. On July 4th we celebrated his commitment to his cause: to show an oppressed people that, while they may hit obstacles, their potential to do God’s will is limitless.

As we go about our lives, may we all have the strength to realize our own potential. May we continue to respect and appreciate the gift of freedom and recognize the presence of miracles wherever and whenever they appear.

Amen…and Shabbat Shalom.