Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Operation Nachshon

Do miracles require faith or action? Well, the answer may surprise you. According to Jewish wisdom, both elements are necessary. Obviously, miracles require faith - a recognition that God is not bound by the laws of nature. But they also require action - some sort of tangible demonstration on our part. This idea can better be understood through one of the greatest miracles in history, the Splitting of the Red Sea, which we recounted over Passover.

There is a famous midrash on the Torah's account of the Splitting of the Red Sea that gives us an insight into how God operates. During the Exodus, the Jewish people found themselves in a seemingly insurmountable predicament; they were stuck between a pursuing Egyptian army and a vast body of water. The Jewish people cried out to Moses for God to save them, so Moses in turn prays to God. But there is no response. Then, suddenly, God exclaims, "ma titzak eilai" - "why are you crying out to me?" (Exodus 14:15) - and instructs Moses to stretch his staff to split the sea. That's the general narrative. However, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Our Sages explain that while most people were worrying, complaining, and even praying, there was one man who took action. His name was Nachshon Ben Aminadav. He took the initiative by plunging directly into the Red Sea with complete faith that God - after performing the plethora of miracles in Egypt - would surely not allow the nascent Jewish people to be wiped out. And as Nachshon put himself in harm's way, God caused the sea to split. However, the rabbis ask, if God was ready to split the sea because Nachshon had showed faith by jumping in, then why was Moses required to carry out the task of using his staff to cause the miracle? They answer that God told Moses to do so in order to save Nachshon from drowning. Obviously, God could perform miracles without any human cooperation, but Jewish tradition has it that God wants us to play a role as well, and not merely sit around waiting for divine intervention.

Unfortunately, this midrash is not well-known among most contemporary Jews, but its significance is better known in Israel. Prior to the War of Independence in 1948, Arabs blockaded Jerusalem so that its Jewish residents could not receive food, water or supplies. Somehow, it had to be overcome. It was a difficult mission for the Jewish armies to carry out, and they knew that they needed to plunge into their own "Red Sea" in order to make something happen. The name of the operation to break this blockade was called Operation Nachshon. In this instance, and many others, brave people took the first step and God did the rest.

Never be afraid to take action while others are just waiting for a miracle. In both the macro and micro realms of life, we can be such people. For example, the brave men and women who serve in the Israel Defense Forces fulfill the Nachshonian philosophy every time they have to overcome an incredible obstacle to achieve their objectives. However, you don't have to be an Israeli commando in order to act like Nachshon. For example, if you happen to be at a simcha and a scenario develops in which someone is about to be embarrassed during a conversation - and you are in the position to jump into your own "Red Sea" and save that person from embarrassment - you can fulfill the Nachshonian idea as well. You don't have to know exactly what you're doing or what the results will be. Because here's the kicker . . .

Nachshon couldn't swim.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cleaning Up More Than Chametz

It's that time of year again. Time to get out the cleaning supplies and turn over the kitchen for Passover - the original "spring cleaning." Hopefully, you've finished most of your Passover preparations. If not, it's important not to get overwhelmed by the task at hand. In this case, the challenge is to get our vacuum cleaners into every nook and cranny around the house in order to eradicate possible crumbs of chametz. However, there's no need to worry about doing so with absolute perfection. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon puts us a bit more at ease when he states, "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21).

In many areas of life, it's virtually impossible to do a perfect job, but that should not discourage us. The main thing is that we do a good job. God does not expect perfection from human beings. However, each one of us was given a unique set of abilities, and we are required to do as much as we can with them. Whether it's cleaning for Passover or cleaning up our character, there is a lot of work to be done, but we must maintain the proper perspective.

When trying to develop good character, it's easy to get frustrated at all the stumbling blocks which can lead to lapses in decency, but it's all part of growing as an individual. By maintaining a good attitude and giving a valiant effort, we will become better people than we could have ever imagined. Just have a little faith and the will to try. Everything else is in the hands of God.

There is a deeply meaningful concept known as Hakol Bidei Shamayim Chutz Miyirat Shamayim (Berachot 33b and Megillah 25a) - "everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven." Without getting into an extensive philosophical discussion, there is a basic understanding we can draw from this. Human beings are not capable of controlling every event in their lives, but we do have the ability to control our responses to those events. In other words, we should place more emphasis on our attitude and effort, and be less concerned with utopian results.

Reinhold Niebuhr (who just happened to be a strong supporter of Israel and an opponent of Christians trying to convert Jews) put it eloquently in a mere twenty-seven words:

"God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference."

No human being has all the answers, but God does, so beckon Him. Furthermore, try to cooperate with the inevitability of human failure on the one hand, and our capacity to overcome obstacles on the other. In the meantime, let's clean up our attitude and effort, which we do have the ability to control. Let's make this Passover as much about avoiding the chametz of bad character traits as avoiding physical chametz. Perhaps we haven't improved ourselves in the past, but now is a great time to change. After all, Passover is the holiday of redemption.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Receiving People Cheerfully

In Pirkei Avot, Shammai states, "Receive every person with a cheerful expression" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:15). In other words, our demeanor should always be as friendly as possible. Obviously, this takes a considerable amount of effort to consistently achieve, but there is a practical reason for doing so.

Rabbi Israel Salanter once confronted a fellow scholar who had a worrisome look on his face. He asked why he was displaying such an unfriendly demeanor. It happened to be Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and the man told him that he was concerned about the upcoming days of judgment. Rabbi Salanter replied, "But other people will not realize what is bothering you. They might well think you are upset with them. If you want to feel worry in your heart, that's your concern. Your heart is a reshut hayachid (private domain), and what you feel there is known to you alone. But your face is a reshut harabim (public domain), and nobody has the right to cause damage to public property."

As a general rule, behavior follows attitude. If you're in a good mood, you are more likely to engage in good behavior. If you're in a bad mood, you are more likely to engage in bad behavior. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But is it possible that our behavior can influence our attitude? According to Jewish wisdom, the answer is yes.

There is a principle known as mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma - something initially done without sincerity can ultimately lead to sincere performance. In this case, acting pleasantly for a considerable amount of time can indeed lead to that kind of behavior. Is it fair to be rude to others until our feelings are willing to cooperate? Of course not. So until they are, act happier even though it might be done insincerely. In the end, we'll be the better for it.

People tend to have the ability to act as though everything is fine when dealing with perfect strangers despite the fact they are in a foul mood. For example, if someone happens to be answering the door or a phone call, they can usually reverse their mood on a moment's notice. Yet, we often won't extend that same courtesy to those closest to us. Once again, consistently engaging in this kind of conduct takes a lot of effort, but it illustrates the power of behavior to influence attitude.

If you find it hard to smile often, at least try to present a friendly demeanor. If you find it hard to present a friendly demeanor, then at least explain to the other person that your foul mood has nothing to do with them. For a better understanding of this whole topic, simply put the shoe on the other foot. When do you feel most welcome around other people: when they have a serious look on their face or when they smile?

It's not easy taking the high road, but as Jews, that's the only road we should take.