ma·chine: noun, often attributive \mə-ˈshēn\
A: a constructed thing whether material or immaterial
B : an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner (2) : an instrument designed to transmit or modify the application of power, force, or motion – (Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Machines come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. They can be wonderfully simple, stupendously complex, and anywhere in between. The lever, a simple bar resting on a fulcrum, is a machine, and the space shuttle, a conglomeration of dozens of complex systems is also a machine. The sad fate of machines is that even those that strike us with their novelty when first introduced, soon become commonplace and lose their luster.
When man first used a long branch to dislodge a stone in the ground, he probably didn’t even acknowledge that he was using a lever, one of the first machines ever. And when we take a call on our cell phones, we don’t pause to give much thought to the machine we are using either. Ironically, machines catch our attention most when they don’t work as planned.
However, that moment of machine failure is where simple machines and complex machines diverge. While a simple machine can be fixed by anyone with a warm noodle, fixing complex machines requires learned skills. It probably wouldn’t take you a very long time to realize that the wheel and axle works better when the wheel is round and not square, but when your smartphone breaks down, you’re basically done. You can open it up and make sure the battery is in place, you can turn it off and on a few times, but when all is said and done, you’re probably going to have to ship it back to India for refurbishing by some trained technician, who has learned the skills necessary to fix that particular complex machine.
Today, I experienced failure with two complex machines. The second one was the CD player in our minivan. (Yes, we still have a CD player.) This beautiful machine can hold six different flat discs, and when I simply press a few buttons, it dutifully switches their order around, and produces all kinds of music for my entertainment pleasure.
We’ve owned this minivan for three years, and I never really thought much about the CD player. But today, halfway through a five hour drive, something got caught in a cog in that anonymous place behind my dashboard, and suddenly I was without music. I tried turning it on and off, I pressed eject at least a dozen times, but it just kept telling me “CD Jam – Error”. There was nothing else for me to do, which meant no more music for me until that machine gets examined by a skilled technician who will charge an obscene amount of money for his expertise.
This made me think of the other complex machine I experienced failure with today, my daughter. She is actually one of the most complex machines I ever deal with. She definitely meets the criteria for being a machine, after all she is “an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner,” but she is super complex in that the predetermined manner in which those forces are transmitted through her is often a mystery to me.
My wife and I were more than a bit stressed out after packing all day for our summer vacation and shlepping heavy suitcases down the steps and into the aforementioned minivan. My daughter was enjoying some musical entertainment on my wife’s iPod and was walking around the kitchen – the epicenter of our packing chaos- singing and dancing. I made some sort of comment to her about listening to the music in a different room, and I witnessed machine failure. She did go into the other room to listen to her music, but she went out sulking and pouting (who teaches these eight year olds to sulk so well?), and I was left feeling like a bad dad, who just experienced a “Communication Jam – Error.”
What made her feel hurt? Was it the way I said it? Was it the volume of my voice? The tenor of my tone? The implication of my imposition? I definitely didn’t want to hurt her, as she is the apple of my eye, yet somehow I had touched a raw nerve, and now both of us were hurting.
All human beings are complex machines and we can’t expect simple remedies to make them work more efficiently. We all need to learn the skills of effective communication and then apply them carefully if we want those machines to work at maximum efficiency. And just like that technician in India focuses intently on the inner workings of any complex machine he works on, we need to focus carefully on the interactions we have with other human beings and think not just about what result we are looking for, but also on the inner workings of that person, of what we say to them, and the nature of our relationship with them.
This ability to focus on the inner workings of our interactions with others is called Binah, which our Sages tell us refers to the ability to “Li’havin davar mitoch davar,” to understand things within things, the ability to understand the mechanics of that which goes on beneath the surface. What does our tone convey? What affect will our words have on the person who is hearing them? Is there a way we can say the same message in a way that will produce less “communications errors?”
We only have one spouse, a small number of children, two parents, and a smattering of friends, and each one of them is a very complex machine with a totally different set of cogs, pulleys, and levers. When we say or do hurtful things to them and create machine failure, there is no technician in India we can pay to fix those relationships. It is entirely up to us to master the skills necessary for working with each individual machine. When we do that, we build strong supportive relationships, and bring out the maximum efficacy in ourselves and others.
“Communication Bliss – No errors detected.”
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion we find the most Jewish of statements; “Shema Yisrael Ha-shem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.” We are supposed to teach our toddlers to say this as their first statement, and it is the last declaration a Jew should make before he returns his soul to its Maker. Jews have used this verse as a code to identify each other in times of oppression, and as a inspiration in times of peace. What exactly does it mean? “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Ha-shem is one!” is the literal translation, but there must be some depth to this seemingly simple testimonial.
One could probably write a book devoted exclusively to discussing this one verse in the Torah, but I just called some publishers and they all said they are too busy, so I will suffice with writing just one of the explanations here in this email, and you will have to search for additional answers on your own time. G-d has many names. He is called Hashem, Elo-him, Sha-dai, Shechina, and Tzvaot among many other names. The reason G-d has different names is because each one represents a different aspect of His Being. The name Hashem represents the attribute of Chesed- Kindness, while the name Elo-him represents the attribute of Din – Justice.
Theodicy is one of the most perplexing issues facing the thinking man. (Theodicy is the attempts of philosophy to reconcile a purely good G-d with evil in the world.) Numerous books have been written, and millions of hours of discussion have been spent, grappling with this issue. Within Judaism alone, we have numerous approaches to explain theodicy with many commentators giving different angles with which to understand the issue. The task of explaining it fell upon me, personally, in the following manner.
Last summer, while my wife was working as a nurse in a unique camp called Camp Simcha Special. It serviced children with a wide range of chronic illnesses, many of them terminal. One of the most common illnesses found there was familial dysautonomia, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system, which makes life extremely difficult and painful. I was asked to lead the learning session for the teenage campers, and happily obliged. At the end of one of the sessions, I asked if there was any topic the boys wanted me to discuss during the following session. One boy who had FD said, “I want you to tell us why G-d created FD.” That is the epitome of theodicy.
The next class, I discussed a few different approaches to understanding this issue (I knew that different slants would help the diverse crowd understand something that has no single right answer). I prefaced with what is known as the Tapestry Theory, which is really the most valid answer. If one would look at the back of a beautiful tapestry, all they would see is chaos – thousands of pieces of string crossing over each other with no apparent system or order. No one would be able to understand why in the world someone would make something so crazy (then again, today many people wouldn’t blink, they would just think it is modern art). But if they were to simply walk around and see the tapestry from the front, they would suddenly find their breath taken away by the intricate beauty.
The same is true with theodicy. While we are here on this side of the tapestry, we look at all the pain and suffering in the world, we look at all the chaos, and say “how can there be a G-d?” But when we are above the tapestry (i.e. when we pass into the World of Truth), we can suddenly see that everything had a reason, that every single strand and loop was necessary to bring out the gorgeous tapestry of this world. (Another example of the Tapestry Theory is a child’s bewilderment at being punished by a parent. He can’t understand why a parent who loves him would punish them, until he too becomes a parent and realizes that the “cruelty” was fueled by love.)
One of the most fundamental beliefs of a Jew is that G-d is purely good, and even if we can’t see it right now, one day we will. This explains the Shema statement. “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” can be read as follows “Hear O Israel, Ha-shem (the name relating to apparent Kindness) Elo-heinu (the name relating to apparent justice and discipline) Hashem Echad (there is really only one G-d, the Hashem, the G-d of Kindness)!
This week, we wept for the destruction of the Temple, seemingly such a terrible thing. But, on the other hand, that shocking event galvanized us to return to our Father in Heaven, and prevented our nation from being lost, as was the fate of every other ancient nation. G-d took out his anger on the stick and stones, but not on the people. It seems to be such an act of punishment, but the root of it is Hashem Echad- the one kind and loving G-d!
This week’s portion begins with Moshe begging G-d to allow him into the land Israel. The Talmud asks, “Why did Moshe want to enter the land? Did he need to eat of its fruit or satiate himself with its bounty? Rather, this is what Moshe said to himself, ‘There are many mitzvos that one can only performed in Israel . I will enter the land so that all those mitzvos will be performed through me!’” (Sotah 14a) Moshe’s yearning was for the intense spirituality locked up in Israel. After many prayers from Moshe (515 to be exact, the numerical equivalence of Ve’eschanan), G-d tells Moshe to stop asking, so that there shouldn’t be a situation in which the student is begging so much and it looks as if the Master is being mean. (This is an important lesson in marriage. If there is an issue that keeps coming up where one spouse is constantly being forced to deny the other’s request, it is a good idea to sit down and talk it out. If they agree that the denier’s actions are valid, it is important for the other spouse to stop asking. It is very unfair to cause one spouse to always be the “bad guy.”)
Moshe then continues to teach the Jews some very important precepts, including, “You shall not add to the word of G-d, nor shall you detract from it,” (Deut. 4:2) which tells us that we can’t add or detract from the mitzvos, for example by having three tzitzit instead of four, or two days of Shabbos. The idea here is that we should never think “G-d knew what was good, but I can make it even better.” Such a mindset has two fundamental flaws. Firstly, it presumes that G-d doesn’t have it all perfectly set already and, even worse, it shows incredible arrogance in thinking you can do a better job than Him.
Then Moshe reminds the Jews of the respect they gain from the world when the nations see the Jews fulfilling the Torah, as they are amazed at the Torah and its wisdom. This does more for world opinion than our accomplishments in any other sector.
Next, Moshe recounted some of the details of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, such as seeing the mountain engulfed in flames leaping into the heavens, being able to see the words of G-d (a big miracle, as normally humans can’t see sounds unless they are on LSD), and how G-d commanded us to never serve anything but Him.
At this point, Moshe digresses from the story of the revelation to tell the Jews that if they or their progeny do serve other gods, G-d will force them into exile. Moshe uses the heavens and earth as his witnesses, as they are eternal. Interestingly, this is the portion we read on Tisha B’av, because it talks of the Jew’s actions being the cause of their exile, but also talks of our return to G-d. This return will bring about the ingathering of the exiles, an event which, especially on Tisha B’Av, must have paramount importance in our consciousness.
Moshe then points out the love G-d has for the Jews, as He revealed Himself to the entire nation, men, women, and children, an event which has never happened in all of history before or after! Here, Moshe repeats the Decalogue to the Jews. (We don’t call them the Ten Commandments, because there are actually much more than ten Mitzvot mentioned here. Rather we call the Aseret Hadibrot or the Ten Statements, hence the Greek term Decalogue- deca = ten, logos = words.) The Torah here inserts the most famous of all Jewish statement, Shema Yisrael Ha-shem Elokeinu Ha-shem Echad. After that, the Torah writes the first chapter of the Shema i.e. Ve’ahavta.
The Torah then enjoins us not to forget G-d in times of prosperity. It is all too easy, when things are good, to get lulled into a sense of self-accomplishment and to forget that G-d is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. History has tragically taught us that when this happens we are given a rude awakening, and suddenly it is clear that there is a G-d running this world.
At the close of the parsha, the Torah makes two demands that may seem unrelated, but are actually strongly connected. The Torah commands us to pass our tradition on to our children, and to ensure that they receive a proper Jewish education so they know who we are as a people, where we came from, and what are our goals. Immediately following is the commandment not to intermarry, as that will not only decimate our numbers, but also cause us to lose our religion.
Although these two ideas don’t necessarily seem related, upon further reflection there is a clear reason for the juxtaposition. The Torah is telling us that if we educate our children properly, and give them a sense of who we are as a people, truly “one nation under G-d,” then we won’t have the problem of intermarriage. This is a message that rings true today more than ever, with the Jewish people facing an over 50% intermarriage rate, and with all the studies showing that a solid Jewish education as the biggest deterrent to intermarriage available. So, head on down to the closest pharmacy and pick up some prescription strength Torah education, give your children two tablets each, and invite me to the nice Yiddishe wedding in the morning. That’s all Folks!!
Quote of the Week: Do not cut your conscience to meet this year’s fashions. – Lillian Hellman
Random Fact of the Week: A raindrop falls at 600ft. per minute or 7 mph.
Funny Line of the Week: Two antennas met on a roof, fell in love and got married. The ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.
Have a Soothing Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham