Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The World Financial Crisis: An Educational Perspective

by Rav Yona Goodman
Director, Institute for Contemporary Education and Religion, Orot College of Education

At first glace, education is a topic (only) for educators, and has absolutely nothing to do with the financial crisis. On second thought, however, everyone needs to engage in education: of our children, but primarily of ourselves. Educational insights can be learned from everything, even the stock market.
Part of the economic crisis stems from a culture that encourages one to develop a lifestyle beyond his means. A lifestyle that is (too) expensive can be built using several tools, including loans and mortgages. Sometimes, people can be seduced into purchasing something expensive under a payment plan that they have no chance of keeping up with. Others are not satisfied with stable investment in the stock market, and instead look for get-rich-quick schemes. However, things that can lead to fast wealth are also liable to lead to bankruptcy. We are now witnessing the cumulative effects of such a lifestyle.
It goes without saying that not everyone who was hurt or lost a job was trying to get rich quick or overemphasize wealth. Many upstanding people were swallowed by the tide as well. Others received bad advice from the reason for the crisis stems from a culture which encourages people to live beyond their real means. Thus, this global crisis constitutes a worthwhile opportunity to deepen our own education in the basic values of hard work and simplicity, contentedness with small amounts, and happiness with one’s lot. One who is prepared to obtain his livelihood from real work and live solely within his means increases his chances of not getting buried under the collapse of stocks when crisis arrives. These basic values were once an integral part of Modern Orthodox education. Not for naught did Our Sages establish that the beginning of the verse “Six days shall you work” constitutes a mitzva (See Mekhilta Yitro 20)! For many, these values were part and parcel of what was called the “Torah ve-Avoda” (Torah and Labor) philosophy. Unfortunately, for many today, this pair of words, “Torah ve-Avodah”, is only the title of a song. Real work and labor are sometimes replaced by attempts to rake in easy profits riding a stock bubble.
The need for everyone to choose his own lifestyle also arises in the story of Abraham that we are reading about in the last weeks. Two went to Egypt: Avraham and Lot. They returned together as well, having reached opposite conclusions from their exposure to the land of plenty on the banks of the Nile. Avrhaham renewed his commitment to spreading the Name of God, and immediately returned to the place he had been to continue spreading light (Bereishit 13:3-4). Lot, on the other hand, was blinded by the bounty and chose to replace Avraham with the place that most reminded him of Egypt: the Jordan plains (Ibid. 13:10). When we read the parsha, we must decide whose heirs we are: Lot’s or Avraham’s. Make no mistake – Avraham also had wealth (13:2). There is nothing wrong with that. However, his central focus was on the world of the spirit, whereas property remained a means for advancing his values.

In sum, the global crisis stems from the abandonment of basic life values such as work and simplicity, and from a predilection for getting rich fast. Such a reality must inspire all of us to examine our own hierarchy of values, including the place that money and property should occupy in the lifestyle that we strive to implement, with God’s help. This examination is demanded not only so that we do not suffer another crash in the future, but primarily so that we live ethical lives, by God’s light.

Making the Hard Choices - Dvar Torah for Vayigash

Why is it that at times, the thing that we want is probably not very good for us? Like that pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Or Facebook? (After all, do we really need to know what every person we know is doing at every moment of the day? When do “friends” become a distraction?) Yaakov’s fears in Vayigash remind us that sometimes the path towards growth involves traveling the road that we fear the most.

After Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he insists that they return to Canaan to collect Ya’akov and move the family down to Egypt. Ya’akov, while excited about his reunion with Yosef, reacts with fear. What will happen to him and his family and to the promise of Eretz Yisrael? If you think about it, his fears make sense. He knows what’s available to his grandchildren in Egypt: the Internet, that crazy Egyptian music, and the clothing and culture. Sound familiar? (OK – maybe they didn’t have email back then.)

His fears are so well-founded that Hashem must address them, telling Ya’akov:

אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם
“Don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there.” (Bereishit 46:3)

Yet, Yaakov’s questions make sense. Why should he bring his entire family down to Egypt? Couldn’t Yosef send them food and let them stay in the Promised Land? Why does Hashem want the entire family to move to Egypt?

S’forno explains that staying in Canaan would have actually been more dangerous and detrimental than moving to Egypt. He says that Hashem tells Ya’akov, “If your children stay here, they would marry the nations of the land and become intermingled with them. But in Egypt that won’t happen, ‘because the Egyptians will not eat bread with the Hebrews (43:32). In this way, they will become a great nation.” S’forno says that Hashem wanted Ya’akov to move his family to Egypt precisely because life would be harder for them there. They would be rejected as outsiders, never accepted or integrated into Egyptian society. But in that way they would grow to be a great nation – and a Jewish nation.

Sure, it would have been easier to stay in Canaan. But taking the easier path would have undoubtedly led to assimilation, intermarriage, and the slow but definitely decline of Yaakov’s family and legacy.

Thank God, none of us (I hope) face this challenge of intermarriage and assimilation directly. We understand the importance of maintaining a sense of identity and individuality as Jews, no matter where we may live. But we do face the larger question each and every day: do we take the easy path which we want or the harder path that we need? Do we sit down to the computer to check our email (yet again), or use that half-hour to learn about the parshah? Do we choose the ice cream (easy and good) or make that salad (hard, but also good in a different way?

These choices are really up to us.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lying Liars and Parashat Vayeshev

Fraud and theft have been at the top of the news these past few weeks. Sadly, Orthodox Jews committed these crimes, causing unimaginable chillul hashem and unthinkable monetary losses. Every one of us either has or will be personally affected by the money that was acknowledged to have been stolen this past week. We all benefit from Jewish organizations: from Orot to your local Jewish Day School to the Jewish Federation in your city. No – Orot didn’t have money in the Madoff fund (not even close), but the trickle-down effect of a loss so massive will eventually affect the entire Jewish world.
We need to start to talk about honesty. And integrity. And we need to start reminding ourselves regularly that Orthodoxy isn’t only about מצוות בין אדם למקום – but equally about מצוות בין אדם לחברו – being honest in business, truthful with our friends and customers, and ethical in our daily lives.

Dishonesty rears its ugly head in many ways in Vayeshev. The brothers steal Yosef’s coat and sell him into slavery. Bad enough. But then, instead of owning up to their crime before their father, they lie to him and pretend that Yosef had been killed, causing him decades of anguish. Yosef isn’t entirely innocent either. The Torah tells that Yosef would bring דבתם רעה – “evil tales” about his brothers to Ya’akov. While Rashi says that Yosef reported every negative thing he could find about his brothers to Ya’akov, Ramban disagrees, saying, אבל מוציא דבה כסיל האומר שקר – “one who brings out dibbah is the fool who says falsehoods.” Put simply, according to Ramban Yosef lied too. He made up evil stories about his brothers to denigrate them in Ya’akov’s eyes.

Fraud finds its way into Yehudah’s life as well. In the famous story with Tamar, following the tragic deaths of his first two sons Er and Onan, Yehudah sends Tamar home telling her, “Go home to your father’s house and wait for Shelah to grow up. But don’t call me. I’ll call you.” Rashi (38:11) tells us clearly that Yehudah has no intention of calling her. In other words, he lies to her. Not to be outdone, Tamar gets back at him by dressing as a prostitute and seducing him by the side of the road. When the world discovers her pregnancy and they sentence her to death for violating her marriage, she doesn’t rat him out. Rather, she leaves everything up to him. “Do you recognize this seal? Do you know whose ring this is? That’s the father of my child.”

Yehudah can easily say nothing. It’s the very best option, and all of his problems will disappear. Tamar will be dead; his son Shelah would be free from marry the black widow, and no one would know about his little dalliance at the roadside inn a few months back. What could be simpler than simply saying nothing? But it’s not so simple. Yehudah finally admits his lie in two words: צדקה ממני – “she is more righteous than I.”
What does he mean? Why doesn’t he just say צדקה – “she’s right”? How is she more right than he? Sforno explains that they both lied. But Yehudah realized that her lie wasn’t for her own benefit. Rather, she masqueraded as a prostitute in order to bring a child into the world. But he lied for his own personal benefit – to increase his own honor and achieve greater personal leverage. That’s why he said צדקה ממני. Her lie is better than mine. At least she didn’t lie for herself.
But even more importantly, Yehudah finally realizes that the lying must end. The deceit and fraud that had become hallmarks of his family now threatened to destroy him – and all of them as well. The time had come to own up to his behavior – to tell the truth and accept the consequences. From this point forward Yehudah can becomes the de-facto leader of the family and takes his place in leading the family through the dangers of Egypt.

Fraud, lying, theft – sometimes they seem so easy. If you forgot to study for an important test, it’s so much easier to copy your neighbor’s paper than own up to the failing grade. Apparently, it’s much easier to take people’s money and give it to new investors as dividends, than it is to actually find ways to make real money. But sooner or later it all catches up to us. Someone catches on. The cheating becomes obvious. Your investors ask for their money back. And then cleaning up the mess, dealing with the consequences, saying צדקה ממני – becomes that much harder to do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Year in Seminary (at Orot of course)

by Danielle Oster

Sem (that's British for "seminary") is supposed to be a year full of learning. spiritual growth and finding your inner strengths. I think in order to fulfill these goals, it is very important to be in the right environment. But you have to find the right environment for you. Do you want to be in Jerusalem where all your friends are and you have that temptation to go out EVERY night for 'fear of missing out'? Or do you want to get the most out of your year and maximize your potential by being in Orot, where you're constantly in a learning environment (the college) but at the same time, you'll make great friendships with the rest of the girls on the program.

For me, I saw it like this: from Sunday morning until Thursday afternoon we had an amazing schedule offering lots of different shiurim as well as other activities. Then from Thursday evening until Motzei Shabbat/Sunday morning, I was free to go wherever I wanted, spend time with friends from other sems, and go to different places for Shabbat.

This way I truly gained as much as i possibly could from my year in Israel.
Of course, Orot isn't for everyone. If you need to be in Jerusalem (don't forget there's a free hasaah to and from Jerusalem), then Orot isn't the place for you. But you have to ask yourself: what do I want from my year in sem, because I know that from being in Orot, I experienced a year full of Torah on a buzzing, friendly campus while also being able to enjoy the rest of Eretz Yisrael.

Good luck!!

What's In a Name? Everything.

The Jewish people are called the B’nei Yisrael – the Children of Israel. Where did we get this name from? From this week’s parshah.

After Ya’akov spends an entire night wrestling with the angel of Eisav, the angel decides that it’s time to go. Only Ya’akov doesn’t want to let him: “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” he tells the angel.

“What’s your name,” the angel asks him.

“What’s my name? You don’t even know who I am? Don’t you think you should have asked me that before we had this whole fight?”

“What’s your name?”

Sigh. “Ya’akov.”

The angel replied: “No it’s not – at least not anymore. From now on, your name will be Yisrael, ki sarita im elokim v’im anashim va’tuchal, “for you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed.” The word sarita is the root of the word Yisrael that identifies us as a people. What does it really mean? What does the word say about us?

Let’s look at two interpretations and see what we can learn from them. Rashi teaches that the word sarita comes from the word serarah, ruling and leading. Ya’akov’s old name implied sense of weakness, shame and deceit. Yisrael implies a sense of power, strength and pride. Radak explains the word in terms of struggle. Yisrael is a person who is willing to struggle – to work hard to overcome obstacles to accomplish his goals.

Both of these explanations tell us a great deal about the Jewish people and especially the State of Israel. We are a people who are willing to work hard and overcome challenges to build a land and recreate the Jewish people. At the same time, we stand before the world with a sense of pride. Israel has made tremendous strides during the past sixty years, and for all our faults, we have a lot to be proud of.

This asks a lot of each of us as members of the Children of Israel. Do you face challenges or run away from them? Do you stand up as a Jew with a sense of pride and accomplishment? Or do you hide your Jewish identity from the people around you?

Only you can answer those questions.