Friday, October 24, 2008

Keeping the Boss Updated - Table Talk for Bereishit 5769

In the rabbinate, I always had the blessing of a great deal of self-motivation. It's a requirement for the job. Sure, there's a board and president and officers, but they really have neither the time, desire or inclination to oversee the rabbis daily activities. As long as the complains remain at a manageable level, they're busy enough with the business ends of the shul. Usually, boards have to reign in the rabbi, because every good idea, program and initiative costs money.
At the same time, the position also gave me a great deal of autonomy. No one really asked how I spent my time, and no one checked to make sure that I was doing programs or classes.
So, with that it mind, my new job has been a real learning experience. My new boss emailed me this week asking about my progress. It wasn't that he thought that I wasn't working or was unhappy with my progress. I just hadn't updated him at all about what I'm doing. Truth be told, it never occurred to me to do so. I figured that as long as I was doing my job (which I think I am), all was well. He - rather reasonably, I think - expects regular updates. So, we've decided to meet regularly to keep communication open, so that he has an idea of what I'm doing.
All of this got me thinking about another kind of updating as well. We think of God as a boss We call God an אדון - a Master. But אדון can also mean "Boss." In fact, my son is now reading a very popular Jewish book called "All For the Boss" about Rabbi Ya'akov Yosef Herman, who lived in New York during the early to mid-twentieth century. (The book is so named due to the fact that its protagonist constantly referred to God as "the Boss.")
In light of my recent experience, I started to wonder: Am I supposed to keep the Boss updated as well? After all, I had always assumed that He knows what I'm doing. After all, He is God. Of course he knows. But then, in the parshah, we see two examples where God clearly knows what people have done, but He wants them to give Him an update.
First, following the Original Sin - when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, instead of immediately confronting Adam and Eve with their sin, He asks them, "Where are you?" Only when Adam explains his desire to hide because of his nakedness, God asks him, "Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree?" (3:12)
Later, when Cain kills his brother Abel, again God does not immediately confront Cain with his crimes. He first asks Cain, איה הבל אחיך - "where is your brother Abel?" Only when Cain denies any knowledge and culpability does God throw the book at him.
In each case, God looks first for an update: What have you been doing? Is everything OK? Of course He knows the answer. But he wants us to come to Him. He needs us to approach.
And, if we must approach God and admit our mistakes when things go wrong, should we not also approach God with an update when things are well?
He is, after all, the Boss.

Traveling, with a Little Different Perspective

This coming Monday, I leave Israel for a long (three and a half week) trip to England and the United States to recruit for Orot. I'm excited about the program that we're developing and the trip itself, but neither Rena nor I are looking forward to the length of the trip and my separation from the family. It's a long time, no matter how you slice it, by far the longest I've ever been away.
Yet, talking to a neighbor gave us a little different perspective. Rena was speaking with our next door neighbor about my trip and its length. Our neighbor, while sympathizing with her said, "At least he's not going for a month to miluim, where you'd have to worry about the dangerous things he might be doing as well."
Good point. We hadn't really thought about it that way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sleeping in the Sukkah and Living with Less Stuff

I'll be honest. I've never slept in the sukkah, at least before this year. I always told myself that it was too cold, too wet (in Michigan both were true) - too whatever to sleep in the sukkah. I admit it; I'm not really the out-doorsy type. My idea of camping involves a good mattress, soft pillows and air conditioning. But sleeping in a sukkah isn't really about camping. Or maybe it is. And this year, the sukkah took on a little extra meaning for me.

Moving to Israel was a large-scale excercise in downsizing. You have no idea how much stuff you've managed to accumulate until you have to move all of it. And then imagine moving to a place that you know is about half as big as your old house. Then you truly start getting rid of stuff.

The process went in stages:
1. Selling relatively valuable stuff on Ebay. Very slow with limited success.
2. The garage sale. Craigslist. Etc. Selling one car.
3. Giving stuff away - that included some furniture, and also food.
4. Deciding what we were going to keep, and sending it off to Israel on the lift.
5. Packing up whatever would possibly fit into the minivan.
6. Selling the minivan.
6. Sending our stuff onto the bottom of the plane.
It occurred to me that at each stage, the stuff that we were directly connected to grew smaller and smaller. When we finally got on the plane with just our carry-on luggage, it was at that point that I realized that I had the least amount of "stuff" that I probably have for the rest of my life. My house was stuck on a boat somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. My luggage was on the bottom of the plane. If someone took all of your stuff away, and left you only with a carry-on piece of luggage, what would you take? It's an interesting question.

In any case, Sukkot itself prompts us to ask precisely this question: how much stuff do I need? On sukkot, we're supposed to move out of our homes into the Sukkah. While we normally make-do with lawn furniture, that's not really how we're supposed to do it. We're supposed to take our nicest things - our best furniture into the sukkah, and live with only that stuff for the week of sukkot. We're not supposed to just eat in the sukkah. We're supposed to live in it; eat and sleep, hang out and chat in it. Interestingly, you're not supposed to take regular things into the sukkah either. You don't bring in your pots or garbage - that stuff stays out.

So what would you - if it wouldn't rain in the sukkah - take with you? If we truly lived in a Sukkah for a week, how much of your stuff would you really need?

I guess what we learned most this year is that we really didn't need as much stuff as we thought. Instead of four couches we do fine with one. We left our breakfront and sideboard (which I really, really loved) and all the things (read here - junk) that we had crammed into them. Instead, we have a simple curio cabinet from Ikea with our kiddush cups and other assorted items. Instead of four separate rooms not including a basement, we have only one big room (with a kitchen) downstairs, but we all seem to get along - at least most of the time. The whole downsizing process made me realize just how much stuff I thought I needed, but don't really, and how much that "need" motivated many of my actions.

Which brings me back to sleeping in the sukkah. As I lay in the sukkah the first night, it made me think back to the nights we slept on mattresses on the floor - both in Oak Park and here in Israel, because our real beds were in transit. No, it wasn't fun to sleep on the floor, but we survived. Actually, we were fine, and that lesson has stayed with me. I looked up at the sky, and gave thanks to God for the fact that this Sukkot, my things meant just a little less to me than in years past.

I could sleep in the sukkah without the creature comforts, but feel more blessed nonetheless.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Change of Place and Identity - Thoughts After Yom Kippur

About a year after we arrived in Michigan, Rena and I went out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. We took in a late dinner at Milk and Honey (ob"m), and then decided to head to a movie. I wanted to see the new Spiderman movie and the movie had already been out about two months, so we figured that the theater would be pretty empty.
It was. As we walked in, it was clear that not many people were out to see Spiderman on a Sunday evening eight weeks after its release. Not many - other than the two families from the Young Israel of Southfield (the other Young Israel in Michigan) that were sitting five rows behind us.
"Hey Rabbi! How's it going?" they asked good-naturedly. While I was somewhat taken aback, they didn't seem perturbed that I was in a movie theater.
"Should we call you the Spider-rabbi?" I didn't get it, but I think it was a half-hearted attempt at humor. Looking back, perhaps they themselves didn't expect to end up in a movie with a rabbi, and it was they who were uncomfortable, and not me.
At that moment, I turned to Rena and said, "You know what I just realized? That I can never do anything at all anywhere in this community, and not expect the entire communty to know about it."
And I was right - that's just the way it is for shul rabbis.

The frightening imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer prominentls highlights the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: "Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by water and who by fire?" And yet, at the conclusion of the prayer, we find some consolation in the crescendo,

ותשובה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה

And repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree

(Parenthetically, we should note an important aspect of this phrase: first of all, it does not mean that these three acts remove the evil decree, as many mistakenly believe. If so, the prayer would have said, מעבירין את הגזרה הרעה. Rather, they remove the harshness - the evil of the decree. For a fascinating lecture on this issue and much more about Unetaneh Tokef, listen to this lecture by my teacher Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter at
Most authorities agree that the author of this prayer derived the highlight from a well-known gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16b):

ואמר רבי יצחק: ארבעה דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, אלו הן: צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם, ושינוי מעשה. צדקה - דכתיב +משלי י+ וצדקה תציל ממות, צעקה - דכתיב +תהלים קז+ ויצעקו אל ה' בצר להם וממצקותיהם יוציאם, שינוי השם - דכתיב +בראשית יז+ שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה, וכתיב וברכתי אתה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן, שינוי מעשה - דכתיב +יונה ג+ וירא האלהים את מעשיהם, וכתיב +יונה ג+ וינחם האלהים על הרעה אשר דבר לעשות להם ולא עשה. ויש אומרים: אף שינוי מקום, דכתיב +בראשית יב+ ויאמר ה' אל אברם לך לך מארצך, והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך - ההוא זכותא דארץ ישראל הוא דאהניא ליה.

Said Rabbi Yitzchak: four things rend apart a man's decree, and they are: charity, crying out, changing of one's name, and changing of one's actions. Charity - as it is written, "and charity shall save [one] from death." (Proverbs 10) Crying out - as it is written, "and they cried out to God in their anguish, and from their desperation he removed them." (Psalms 107) Changing of the name - as it is written, "Your wife Sarai, her name shall no longer be Sarai, rather her name shall be Sarah," (Genesis 17) and it is written, "And I shall bless her and I will also grant her a son." Changing of one's actions - as it is written, "And the Lord saw their actions," (Jonah 3) and it is written, "and the Lord regretted the evil that He had spoken to do to them and he did not do it." Some also say, even changing one's place, as it is written, "And God said to Avram go forth from your land," (Genesis 12) and then, "and I will make you into a great nation." And the other opinion says, that is the merit of the Land of Israel that helped him.

We readily recognize three out of the four from the prayer: charity and crying clearly refer to charity and prayer from Unetaneh Tokef. Moreover, changing of one's actions seem to signify a sense of repentance - the teshuvah from the prayer. Yet, aside from the fact that the the final two (or one and a half) - change of place and change of name - never appear in the text of Unetaneh Tokef (a subject Rabbi Schacter addresses wonderfully), they seem to challenge our sense of what Teshuvah is all about.
I'd like to focus on one of the two - the change of locations, and ask a simple question; why should the fact that I relocate from one place to another have any bearing on my spiritual standing before God? What difference does it make whether I reside in Oak Park, Michigan, or Silver Spring, Maryland or Yad Binyamin, Israel, if I'm still the same person?
While intellectually the question makes a great deal of sense and I truly had difficulty answering these questions, this year I came to an appreciation for the teshuvah of "changing of one's place." This year I think I understand. I came to realize that teshuvah is much more than an intellectual process. It can encompass a great deal of emaotion turmoil, and probably should.

To what degree do we evaluate and justify ourselves by the way that those around us relate to us? After all, I've lived in a community for a number of years; I've been active and involved, made friends and business relationships. Not only do others know who I am - I know who and what I am by the way that they relate to me. When I walk into shul, or a friend's home or a business, they recognize me, acknowlege me and in a very real sense establish who I am in my own mind. I don't need to search for my place. I have a place both physically but metaphysically as well: I'm the philanthropist (or the tightwad); I'm the shul talker (or the guy who never talks in shul); I never listen to the rabbi's speech (or never miss a word). Everyone expects me to be who they recognize, and I don't disappoint. It's that very sameness - the expectations of those who surround us that keep us constant and steady.
But what if one day you woke up in your own community and no one recognized you. The lady at Starbucks didn't give you your regular cup, because she doesn't know what you want. Would you buy soemthing different, or just the same cup of coffee that you do every day? Probably get the same. But then your secretary didn't know how to handle your emails. And your coworkers didn't know what to expect from you. And your kids didn't know what set you off or made you happy. Would you still act and react the same way you always did? We'd be thrown for a loop, because we'd need to reevaulate our actions, interactions and reactions - because you could no longer take anything for granted.
And what if you had a position in your community, and woke up one day and it was gone. You were just a regular Joe like everyone else. Would you still act the same? Would you still have the same expectations of yourself, and everyone else around you?

That's what happened to me this year.

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of serving as a communal rabbi is the "fishbowl" phenomenon. Everyone's watching you. They're looking at what you do, what you buy, who you greet, who you don't. They see you even when you don't see them, and care not only about what classes you give and hospitals you visit, but what movies you watch - or whether you watch them at all. And while it's really hard to maintain that constant sense of vigilance and attentiveness at all times in public, there's another side to it as well.

You get used to the fact that people know who you are. When you walk into shul, they subtely acknowledge your presence; they're (usually) comforted that you're there. When you walk into a shiva house or hospital, they visibly relax. They wait for you to finish davening in shul, and for you to make kiddush before anyone starts eating. When you visit them for a meal, it's a big deal - an honor.

I don't kid myself. I'm quite aware that it's not me personally - but my position as their rabbi. (Although I do think I'm a good guy also.) But that status - those reactions - become part of your psyche. You assimilate them, not necessarily in an egocentric way, but as a matter of identification. Being a rabbi wasn't just my job - it became in a sense a very real part of my identity, not just for others, but more importantly, for myself.

And then I moved to Isreal, left the rabbinate, and moved to another country. To be honest, people here know that I was a rabbi; I've spoken in shul here, give a regular gemara shiur, given a few classes and answered questions. But even to those people, while I'm a rabbi, I'm not their rabbi. And to most people here and all the Israelis, I'm just a regular person. A nice guy - somewhat knowledgable - but nothing special.

Which is just fine. I like my anonymity. I enjoy dressing casually in shul and around the community. I love not having to look around at the supermarket to make sure that I didn't miss saying hello (and inadvertantly insulting) someone.

But it's also very, very painful. If I'm not "Rabbi Spolter" - if I'm just Reuven Spolter, then while I know who I am, I've lost a very real part of "what" I am. I have to reassess: do I learn enough? What's my place supposed to be in my new community? What is it reasonable to expect of myself?

These are all questions that I never asked myself as a rabbi, because they more or less answered themselves. And they don't anymore. This last Yom Kippur - during davening actually - I finally became aware of the extent of this loss of self-identity and how much it was affecting me. And that's when the questions truly came to the forefront. I think this is part of what the Gemara means when it refers to "change of place." It's that sense of confusion, self-awareness and reevaluation from losing the surroundings you took for granted. It's about asking questions you never thought to ask.

Answering these very questions are the essence of what teshuva is all about. And they don't stop at Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is just the beginnning.