You know you must sound like ‘a broken record’ to your kids when you yourself have grown tired of repeating the same mantra to them!
My little one has been attending a summer day-camp all week, and all week long he only deigns to speak with me to complain about how bad everything is: what is lacking or dysfunctional or boring or disliked; what is not tasty or too much of or not enough of or which is somehow else dissatisfying; what is wrong, outdated, or not-as-good-as….or (it feels like) he grants a vast silence if he can’t find anything negative to say. In assessing how something was, I’ve learned that a shrug can feel like a resounding endorsement when compared to silence or bitter condemnation! Who knew?!
Focus on the positive, I tell him again and again, not the negative.
In last week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we saw the disastrous results of the spies’ focus on the negative rather than on the positive. This week’s Torah portion, Korach, seems to repeat the message, showing us again the consequences of how Korach put a negative spin on everything about the leadership of the Israelites in the desert to foment a rebellion that led nowhere but down.
Famously, Pirke Avot [Avot 5:17] finds the great positive message that the Rabbis take from this otherwise negative story…perhaps the lowest point of the entire 40 years our ancestors spent in the desert:
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.
What’s so positive?
First, we can learn from Korach’s example what NOT to do. Second, we have the example of Hillel and Shammai of what TO do, and we can learn from that example as well. Third, the power of positive thinking comes not from living an illusion, but from acknowledging reality as it is and building from it towards where we want to go:
Perhaps it would be better if everyone agreed on everything, if Hillel and Shammai saw eye-to-eye about how the world works, about what is important, and about what God wants us to do. But they don’t agree. Indeed, there are different perspectives which brook no compromise on how the world works, on what our priorities need to be, on what God wants us to do. Not only that, but truthfully and honestly…none of us really know whose understanding is the ultimately correct understanding!
Later Jewish tradition establishes that we rule according to Beit Hillel, at least until the Messiah comes and lets us know the ultimate answers. Why Hillel and not Shammai? The Rabbis did not do “eeny-meeny-mynee-mo”, nor did they flip a coin.
They said we go with Hillel in the meantime because Hillel focused on the positive, not the negative. Hillel acknowledged Shammai’s viewpoints, and courteously and reliably presented those views before they presented their own perspectives. Hillel’s views were the most inclusive of the community as a whole and they valued kindness. They thus inclined toward leniency when possible.
Today marks the first anniversary of my arrival to Temple Sinai. I am grateful to be part of a community that is very focused on the positive rather than the negative! Our leadership functions as the Rabbis idealized, with different perspectives shared and acknowledged through courteous yet impassioned debate, with kindness and consideration, valuing inclusivity by leaning toward leniency and practicality…
I’m grateful for the amazing level of dedication and commitment so many of you have for this community, the care you show and give to this community and to one another, your attending services, classes, and other programs, and your stepping up to volunteer and do what needs to be done. Many of you. A lot. Often!
I’m grateful for our amazing staff at Temple Sinai! Susan Weiner’s diligence and round-the-clock concern and hard work are just off-the-charts! Georgette and Bob, Cheryl, and Marla, along with Susan, are a pleasure to work with and are all so professional and reliable, patient, dedicated, and helpful! We spent an entire weekend last weekend singing the praises of our Cantor Emeritus, David Aronson, and it was still not enough. His guidance this year has been essential and beautiful, and his love for this community inspiring and a model for me and for all of us.
I want to especially thank our President, Alan Barnett for all his time, guidance, wisdom, dedication and help through this first year, and to all the Committee Chairs and Board members for the same. It is SUCH a pleasure to work with all of you!
It has been wonderful to get to know so many of you in our community this year, and to experience how you all – each of you – show such a profound connection to, value of, and love for Jewish community. I look forward to getting to know all of you, and all of you even better, in the year to come.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz