Finding Dawn

Did you ever have an experience where you up late in the darkness of night tossing and turning in anxiety? Perhaps about a financial problem or a conflict with your boss or co-worker? Then you wake up to the first rays of light.  Suddenly, your mind is fills with solutions. What seemed like an insurmountable problem is a call to change something about your life, and you feel rejuvenated.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

We can look at this as this “two sides of the same coin”. There is this one coin – a challenge in life. In the darkness of night, it can seem like an unsurmountable roadblock. Then, then the rays of dawn come, and we see it differently. Suddenly, it’s an invigorating challenge.

The two sides of the same coin are different as night and day, but they are close together as the end of night and beginning of day.

It feels so good when we can make that turn and “flip the coin”. The problem is that sometimes we feel stuck in the darkness. A problem in life persists. Negative and pessimistic thinking take over and lead to anxiety and depression. We need to be optimistic, but what do we do when we can’t find the dawn?

Two Mountains

Optimism and pessimism are two worlds that occupy much of Sefer Devarim. They are embodied in these two mountains, Har Eival and Har Gerizim. The Torah describes how we pronounce the blessing and curse upon these mountain tops. One mountain is barren and the other is flourishing with vegetation. These two vastly landscapes lie just across the street from one another.

There are two verses describing the two sides of the street. For the person who serves G-d with joy, the Torah tells us that, “HaShem will open up for you his good storehouse, the heavens, to give unto you the rains in their time and to bless all of the deeds of your hands” (Devarim 28, 12). This person has an unlimited storehouse.

On the other hand, for the person who is pessimistic and does not serve G-d, “the heavens above you will become copper and the earth below you will become iron” (28, 23). All of the curses will befall you “on account of the fact that you did not serve HaShem with joy and a good heart from abundance” (28, 47). These are two versions of the same heavens. One is an unlimited storehouse, and the other is a barren wasteland.

In modern terms, there is the idea of the abundance mindset and scarcity mindset. Abundance mindset means you see opportunities for blessing – the other guys success is not your failure. In the scarcity mindset, resources are very scarce – so you’d better be concerned when the other guy gets ahead!

A friend of mine was remarking that when he became president of a Jewish organization, he got a frantic call from a friend of his who is a president of a different organization. “Please don’t take our donors,” this friend begged him. Catch my drift?

Long before the modern articulation of the abundance and scarcity mindset, Judaism gave us the conceptual background for these ideas. G-d has deep pockets and an unlimited storehouse if we want to see it. The real challenge comes when our problems persist, and we don’t feel blessing on the horizon.

Choosing Joy

Simcha is not a common term in the Torah.  Yet, appears three times in Ki Tavo (in addition to the appearance of the word Sason, twice). We are commanded to be in a state of joy. The implication is that we can have joy if we only choose it.

Here is a key.

Joy and bitterness are feelings, but they grow from actions. The Torah commands us to separate our First Fruits from the crop and bring them to Jerusalem. We articulate our gratitude to G-d for all of Jewish history that has brought us unto this point.

And you shall rejoice in all of the goodness that HaShem your G-d has given you and your household.

(Devarim, 26, 11)

Celebrating the first fruits and articulating the thanksgiving are actions of joy. What are the actions of curse? The Torah describes twelve curses connected to specific prohibitions in the Torah. These twelve sins range from idolatry to moving the boundary of your neighbor to cursing your fellow Jew.

Sinning in Secret

The Rashbam writes that each of these twelve curses are sins that normally take place in private. Moving the boundary between you and your neighbor or causing the blind to be misled on his path are things you try to do when no one else is looking.

In fact, the Rashbam points out that two of the twelve sins – idolatry and striking your fellow – vary and are at times done privately, other times, publicly. In those two curses, the Torah goes out of its way and says, “accursed is the one who does this sin in secret”. Twelve curses for twelve secret sins. Sins done in secret need to be addressed by G-d, as a court cannot address them.

But when do we sin in private? When we feel that we have been robbed – we were cheated, and so we will cheat the system. When someone is blind, we will knock them off their course, or we will move the fence between our property and the property of the neighbor.

How Do We Get There From Here?

Think back to those verses about the heavens. Are they a good storehouse or a barren field of copper? The answer is ours. If we want the world of abundance, our view of the world grows from our actions.

The farmer who takes the physical steps of designating the first fruit, bringing it to Jerusalem, recalling all G-d’s praises, from the days of his ancestors through his own life. He has now created the fertile soil from which his or her abundance view can grow.

On the other hand, there is that bitter person who takes that fence and pushes it over a little bit to claim some of the land that you were denied. They feel that the world is just unfair – it’s all rigged against them. They take a bitter action and then their world just becomes more bitter.

The Torah helps us understand why abundance is possible. G-d has deep pockets, and the possibility for blessing is endless. But the Torah also gives us the framework for moving from curse to blessing. It starts with the Bikkurim, the declaration of thanksgiving. The way that we talk is so important. When the world seems dark, one of the things that we can do is think about how we talk.

I have a friend who is a CEO of an apparel company who visits Portland often. It seems like I am always meeting him in the darkness of an early morning before Shacharit here at the Shul to learn. Every time that I tell him about some challenge in the community, he always comes back with some idea about what a great opportunity that challenge is.

He is a successful person, but a key is that he talks abundance. We have to think about how we talk about our lives. The words that we utter have the potential to help us make that inner switch.

Gift of the Torah

Modern day researchers – Brene Brown for example – write about the importance of gratitude for mental health. Yet, Judaism gives us the parameters and structure to express thanksgiving and optimism in our lives.

Whether the Pesach Seder or the 100 blessings we make every day, as Jews our lives are filled with optimistic words. Our Brachos are a trickle of light into our lives. They are an opening of optimism.

The next time that you face a dark night challenge, consider the words of hope and optimism that you can utter – for your own sake or for others. When you do so, you will find that the light of dawn will rise.

Then you can see the good storehouse G-d has made for you.

An Elul Reflection

Ladies and gentlemen, we have hit the jackpot.  Whichever political party you love or hate – life here in the US is pretty amazing. There is economic bounty, political freedom and only four years until you get to vote your least favorite politician out of office. It is hard to think of the time and place we would rather be than 21st Century America.

Looking Backward

The problem is that Judaism is backwards looking. Every week, we utter the wish that G-d will bring us back “Y’mey Kedem” – the days of old. On a daily basis, we pray for the sprouting of Davidic rule when we will return to a theocratic monarchy. Hmmnnn, let’s try selling that idea in the 2020 election.

Do we really want to go back to Davidic rule and monarchy?  Plenty of evil came about in the world as a result of hereditary monarchy. How can we Daven for a return to the days of old?

Is Truth Self-Evident?

We are used to the idea that things change and progress, and that the change is a good thing. Yet, change is not always so great. There are plenty of problems in our wonderful free democracy, whether widespread loneliness or the proliferation of mass murder.

When Thomas Jefferson first wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable that all men are created equal.” Sound a little strange?

Well, Benjamin Franklin suggested a fateful edit of that phrase: instead of “sacred and undeniable”, he suggested, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”  While Jefferson’s original language was of a religious bent, Benjamin Franklin took a rational approach. In this edit, Franklin suggested that the foundational concepts of the US were based on human reason, not sacred belief.

Still, perhaps Jefferson was on to something with his first draft.  How much is really self-evident? When we look at American culture, we find that matters of moral bedrock can be washed away in a generation or less. What was self-evident in American society a decade or two ago, is morally reprehensible today.

There are so many eternal truths in the Torah. But these truths may be more “sacred” than “self-evident.” There are plenty of times that sophisticated societies reject important moral postulates. Democracy is a very good system, but any intelligent person can see an array of societal ills that may arise within a Democracy.

What do we Jews say? What is our solution to society’s ills? Get rid of Democracy and have a hereditary monarchy? Can we honestly relate to a desire to go back the day of old?

The Jewish King

The Torah presents the Mitzvah to appoint the king in a rather odd way. The Torah remarks that when we go to the land of Israel, we will say, “let us appoint a King like all of the nations that surround us.” This doesn’t sound like an overwhelming positively way to put that Mitzvah.

By the time we get to Sefer Shmuel, we see even more explicitly that kingship was not desired by G-d but rather tolerated. HaShem says that when the people asked Shmuel for a king, it was an implicit rejection of G-d. People are supposed to be subservient to the true sovereign of the universe, not overly powerful humans.

Yet, the Torah adapts to monarchy. We are given a version of kingship that aligns it with Torah values. There are checks and balances within the Jewish monarchal system. Perhaps the most important one is the prophet. The prophet and king are two different figures who work in tandem. The Rambam points out the king in Israel derives his power from the prophet. David was anointed by Shmuel, and so on.

Prophets and Kings

The prophet is the person who keeps the King in balance. This was true for all kings, tzaddikim or otherwise. When King David sinned with Batsheva, Natan chastised David. And Natan didn’t even get his head chopped off. Even Achav – the classic evil king – was chastised by Eliyahu. The King was only part of a total system and was not all powerful.

What’s more, the king was commanded to make his own internal balance.  He was required to have a Sefer Torah written so that “he will read from it all his days in order that he will learn to fear HaShem his G-d” and his heart will not become haughty above his brethren. Notice: it does not say that he shouldn’t become haughty over the masses, but over his brethren. The Jewish Melech is a first amongst equals.

The Rambam adds to this equation. When it came time to bring the Melech’s son into the kingship, the son must be the equal of his father in wisdom and fear of Heaven. If the son is lacking in wisdom, we teach him more wisdom. If he is lacking in fear of G-d, he doesn’t get to be the king.

Unlike the kings of Europe, a king of Israel was not justified by his family alone. His rulership was justified by the degree to which his kingship pointed to G-d, the sovereign of the universe. King David was the ultimate example of using his life to reflect the fact that G-d is the true king.

What Are We Praying For?

The prayer for “the sprouting of David” is not a desire for any non-Jewish system. Rather, it is a hope to return to a uniquely Jewish paradigm. We pray for a return to a system where G-d is recognized as the sovereign of the universe.

There are so many problems that we can see in the world. For example, in American society today, there is widespread anxiety amongst college students, which leads to an array of mental health issues including greater instance of suicide. We have spent so much time convincing kids that their self-worth comes from academic achievements, with catastrophic results.

Given the value that we place on prestige and academic achievement, it is little wonder that we find privileged people cheating the system to get their kids into a prestigious college. The “Varsity Blues” is but one indication of a systemic problem.

Where does this problem come from? It comes from the fact that G-d’s kingship is not fully realized. In a world where G-d’s kingship reigns, people will be able to see that their self-value is based not on academic achievement but on their growing connection to G-d, the sovereign of the universe.

Every day, we daven for a time when we our days will be renewed. During Elul, we prepare for Rosh Hashana, when we will coronate G-d as our king. We are not looking to a discarded past, but to a renewed future. A Jewish future that is utterly unique.

The Torah’s vision of HaShem as the Melech of the world is the greatest vision that can make our world a better place. Torah has the vision that our world needs. We bring about that vision by aligning our lives Judaism.

An Elul Reflection

But much like the Jewish king, each one of us needs to find an equilibrium. First, we need a prophet. We need someone outside of ourselves that we can talk with honestly about who we are and how we can improve. It could be a spouse, a close friend or a rabbi; we need an outside perspective to help us reach our potential.

Second, we need to write a Sefer Torah that we read from all of our days. Elul is a time that we get aligned with the Jewish vision. The only way that we can do that is through deep and consistent Torah study.

This Elul make sure that you take the time to get closer to someone that can help you in your Jewish journey. And make sure that you write your own Sefer Torah by making regular, daily Torah study times so you can meditate on what G-d wants from you in your life.

And as we Daven for the sprouting of David, remember the Torah’s vision of G-d as the sovereign of the universe. Our unique Jewish vision – expressed in our own lives – is the vision that the world needs to overcome every great challenge.