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The Rabbi on the Beach @ The Shul on the Beach

Outliers: Section 1 (and my grandfather)

So I began reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell this weekend. I finished the first section and have an opinion about it. The book’s basic premise is that success is a conglomeration of a lot of factors. Some factors are innate, some factors and communal and some factors are just plain luck.

I think a lot of what he says is compelling, in fact I made such an observation a few years ago. In the wake of my grandfather’s death (whose name was Sidney Greenwald) a few years ago much was said about his impact on the world. He touched so many people in so many different ways. He was a builder for so many Jewish institutions and causes. He accomplished so much and anyone who knew him would tell you this.

I always felt that his success was due to his great skill and ability but had a lot to do with the time and place in which he found himself. At that time, mid-20th century, Orthodox Judaism was beginning its renaissance and resurgence in America. It was a time that was perfect for someone with his abilities to shine. He certainly took advantage of his opportunities and made the most of them. But those opportunities do not present themselves to anyone and everyone.

I think people are able to accomplish a great deal with their talents and abilities. The opportunities need to present themselves to make it happen. Sometimes we can create the opportunities and other times we can look opportunities. But many times we just have to wait for the opportunities and be ready to pounce those opportunities when they present themselves.

So I guess I must agree with Gladwell on that point. Timing does make a big difference. The part that I had a harder time digesting was the suggestion that we are all victims of early tracking with no hope to escape the reputation we build for ourselves. Education in this country is suffering but the opportunities for a student who wants to succeed are endless. We suffer more from lack of caring and effort than the tracking in our education system. There are some victims of the tracking but most are victims of their own lack of interest in learning and bad teaching than anything else. The danger of Gladwell’s idea is that it gives excuses to people who are not productive. People don’t need more excuses to do nothing…

I am looking forward to finishing the book soon.

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Messilas Yesharim 12/21

Ramchal continues his chapter on the role of man in this universe. Ramchal argues that no sensible person could really believe that the purpose of creation is for our existence in this world. If you think about it, an intelligent creator would not possibly crate the world that we live in as the primary place of existence. People suffer much of their lives and no one dies with their desires and dreams completely fulfilled. The system is constantly in break down mode! No one actually gets what they want. Further argues Ramchal there would no point in creating a soul which does not get any pleasure from our physical world. It seems like cruel joke on the soul! The soul was happy to stay in a spiritual place – why burden the soul with being created in to a physical world?! The only explanation that is sensible is that the soul and all of creation is truly created for its existence in the post physical eternal spiritual world. There the soul can enjoy the benefits of all it accomplished in this world. The soul is thus willing to go through the travails of this physical world in order to gain the pleasure of the next world. The way that the soul earns that pleasure is by perfecting the physical imperfect body that it inhabits. The way we achieve that perfection is by the performance of Mitzvahs. Practicing mitzvahs gives our souls the key it needs for entry into the next world where it can enjoy its place in the spiritual realms.

This soul talk prompted some lively discussion regarding the nature of the soul. The soul has a mission and while it is here it is our body’s job to assist the soul in accomplishing that mission. When the mission is accomplished the soul remains in its eternal home for eternity. If the mission is incomplete then the part of the soul that has not achieved what it was meant to do returns to the physical world. The cycle continues until the soul has done its job to completion. The current souls are all fragments of the original souls which appeared at Sinai for the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people and the rest of the world. The Jewish soul was infused with its mission at that time and therefore the Jewish soul originated at the point which that mission was delivered.

To us humans the soul is an enigma but if we are confident in the existence of the soul then Ramchal makes a strong argument that our ultimate purpose it greater than just the physical life in which we find ourselves.

Click below to listen to the entire class (45 minutes)


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A Good Man Never Rests – Drasha Vayeshev

Thank you to community member Milton Simon for editing these Shabbos speeches given at the Pacific Jewish Center from my notes into these articles.

The Torah tells us in this week’s parsha, “Vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz megurei aviv b’eretz Canaan” Yaakov and his entire family returned to the land of his parents – the land of Canaan. Yaakov has successfully survived the life-threatening conflict with Eisav after preserving his integrity after his father-in-law Lavan has tried to cheat and swindle him during his 20 years of labor. Amazingly, Yaakov developed tremendous wealth despite all of Lavan’s best efforts.

One can imagine a very successful retiree going back to his roots to ride off into the sunset. Yaakov raised 13 children, he had 2 wives plus 2 quasi wives to keep happy. Yaakov has worked very hard to be able to now enjoy his last days basking in the glory of his life’s work. If it were us that is what we would do.

In fact Rashi brings the Medrash Rabba which states that when a Tzaddik has earned a lion’s share of riches in the “world to come” and they ALSO desire to live out their wealthy retirement days in peace and quiet before they die, the Satan (he is the prosecuting angel) complains. He says – “Is it not enough that the Tzaddik will live out his eternal life in Olam haba (afterlife) but he also wants to enjoy a tranquil existence in this world?” The Satan’s complaint “forced” G-d to prove Satan’s complaint unfounded, and this is what happened with Yaakov – just as he is ready to relax the entire incident of Yosef’s kidnapping and sale into slavery occurs. Now Yaakov sits for many years in pain and anguish over his lost son.

Rav Schwab asks the obvious question on this Midrash. What power (why should G-d listen to him?) does the Satan have to stop a Tzaddik from living out his days in peace and tranquility? Leave the poor man alone! Especially when the man is a Yaakov Avinu and his plan is learn Torah day and night!

Avraham, Yaakov’s grandfather took it upon himself to spread the goodness of the Creator to the masses. Avraham made it his life’s mission to inform anyone and everyone that the world has a Master and He has an opinion about how we are to live our lives. Everything Avraham did reflected this mission. His “guest service” was a tool to introduce people to the idea of a single living and loving G-d, and he was rather successful in this endeavor.

As the possuk in Lech Lecha says: Avraham built a mizbeyach (alter) and called out to G-d. Onkelos translates this calling out to G-d as prayer. Ramban disagrees. Ramban learns that the words mean what they say. Avraham literally called out the name G-d to the world. When he was in Ur Kasdim, Avraham was unable to influence anyone due to the prevailing idol worship culture and a dictator in Nimrod who killed all non-idol worshipers. But now Avraham was blessed with “V’avarech Avarechecha” he proclaimed G-d’s existence to the masses and his voice was heard. Ramban continues and says that G-d promised Avroham’s son, Yitzchak that He would be with him and Yitzchak also built a mizbeyach and called out to G-d. Yitzchak was keeping the family tradition alive by proclaiming G-d’s glory to all. Ramban says that we don’t find this anywhere for Yaakov.

Yaakov took a subtler route. Yaakov had children. Yaakov produced a large family which he trained in the ways of G-d. By default they transmitted the message of their grandfather Yitzchak and their great grandfather Avraham to the world. And we continue this mission to this very day.

Rav Schwab adds that Yaakov did actually build mizbeyach but his calling out was personal. He named places with names that reflected a recognition of G-d but (what are you trying to say here?) his influence was certainly palpable. Yaakov wanted to influence the world through his family and this is what is meant by Yaakov seeking peace and tranquility at the end of his days.

On this there is a legitimate complaint the Satan could make. Yaakov should be spreading the word to everyone not just his family. He has limited his exposure to the masses and thereby limited the influence that he could have. This was unacceptable. Yaakov had the responsibility to carry on the tradition of his father and grandfather and bring the masses of people closer to G-d. This was the flaw in Yaakov’s plan.

And it is for this that Yaakov suffered at the hand of the sale of Yosef to Egypt. Yosef goes down to Mitzrayim (Egypt) and affects the masses of mankind, and the “old” Yaakov eventually follows and with 70 family members in tow. They as a group are could have carried out a tremendous influence on the masses, but it was Yosef alone who took the lead.

Yaakov would no longer be able to sit back and raise his family in isolation and avoid the outside world. It fell to Yosef (and eventually his brothers) to influence the world around them. The message of the “fathers” was very clear, be a light to the world, do good and spread Torah and the ways of G-d.

When my great-grandfather Reb Elyah Lopian retired from his post in England as a Torah leader where he served as the Rosh Yeshiva in Etz Chaim he wished to emigrate to the land of Israel. He was 76 years old at the time. He was an accomplished Torah scholar. He had been Rosh Yeshiva at a number of yeshivas already. He had a very large family and desired to live out his days in Eretz Yisrael. He wanted to learn from the Torah of the great scholars of Israel and he looked forward to taking a secondary, less public role to focus on personal growth and Torah study. Reb Elyah was very reluctant to take public speaking roles as his goal was to remain out of the public eye while in the land of Israel.

Reb Elyah had an audience with the Chazon Ish who was the Gadol Hador (the leader of the Jewish religious world, d. 1954). The Chazon Ish asked him what he planned on doing in Israel, Reb Elyah explained that his desire was to learn and imbibe of the Torah of the gedolim (great sages) who were living there. He was convinced that at his age it would not be realistic to seek a position such as a mashgiach or spiritual mentor for teenagers. The Chazon Ish responded with a blessing from Tehillim in our Shir Shel Yom for Shabbos. Od yenuvun bseiva dsheinim veraananim yihyu, which means “they shall yield fruit in a ripe old age.

The mishna in Avos explains that seiva refers to the stage of life where man is in his seventies. The Chazon Ish then added, lehagid ki yashar Hashem, “to proclaim the righteousness of G-d” – yes, he said, at your age you are to be a teacher. Reb Elyah heeded the advice of the Chazon Ish and became the mashgiach in Kfar Chassidim for the next 22 years! His hundreds of Talmidim are ever grateful to the Chazon Ish.

The story echoes of our parsha’s story. There is no rest for the Tzaddik. We can always make a difference.

I know that our community has already accomplished great things in outreach. I know of the many religious families that exist today only due to our influence. You can say confidently – “I did my fair share, it is time for me to take it easy.” To that I say no! You are too great to take it easy. There are people in your neighborhood who are waiting to be invited by you, waiting for you to reach out to them. Bring them to our events. Bring them Monday night to the Chanuka party, bring them every Monday night, bring them to shul on Friday night, bring them to shul on Shabbos morning. Bring them over to me. Let me make a connection with them and give them another reason to come back in all senses of the word.

Together we can do it. We have done it in the past and it is time to get back in the game. We have a variety of opportunities for our neighbors to learn more – let’s reach out to them and give them those opportunities. There is so much energy here ready to be unleashed. We have the infrastructure in place what we need now is the raw material. Don’t ride off into the sunset. Bring Torah to your community by bringing them to the Torah and love for Torah and love for our fellow Jews that we offer at the Pacific Jewish Center.

We can make lay claim to the title Pacific Jewish CENTER – the center for Jewish life in Venice. But only if we make it into a “center” by doing the outreach we are capable of doing.

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