Whether you have a watch or not, you know roughly what time it is. That is due to an almond sized beautiful piece of gray matter right in middle of your brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls many primary human functions such as temperature regulation, heart rate, blood pressure, hunger, thirst, learning, and memory. A small section in the back of the hypothalamus controls your internal body clock, known as your circadian rhythm.
The word circadian comes from two Latin words, circa, meaning around, and diem, day. The circadian rhythm takes your body on its journey through 24-hour periods, ramping up the production of your natural melatonin at night so that you sleep restfully, and making sure you feel rested and alert in the morning by withholding melatonin production.
Most of the information input for the circadian rhythm comes through the photoreceptors in your eyes; your brain keeps track of when it is light and when it is dark and helps you adjust your sleep accordingly. The hypothalamus creates a map of what a day should look like, and starts preparing your melatonin doses in advance. Knowing roughly when you go to bed (lights out), it starts slowly increasing your melatonin in advance so that you climb into bed with just the right amount to wind down and fall asleep in a few minutes. And knowing when you should wake up (lights on), it starts tapering down melatonin production so that when you wake up you don’t feel drowsy and sluggish.
This all leads us to a phenomenon known as jet lag. When you suddenly skip any more than two time zones, your body’s rhythm is thrown off, because you continue to produce and withhold melatonin at the times your body is used to, making you feel sluggish when you should be awake, and alert when you should be asleep. For example, if you fly to Israel, which is 7 hours ahead of the East Coast, at 5pm your body thinks its midnight and starts increasing your melatonin levels to help you sleep, and suddenly in middle of the day you feel tired and lethargic. Conversely, at 1am, when you are hoping for a peaceful night of sleep, your body still thinks it’s 8am, and shuts down melatonin production, making you feel wide-awake, and taking away your natural sleeping aid, so you toss and turn in bed wondering why you can’t fall asleep.
I’m not a big fan of jet lag, and over the years have developed my own bag of psychological tricks to combat it, some scientific, some less so. I try to get lots of sunlight during the day, which scientifically is the best way to beat jet lag, as it forces your circadian rhythm to start readjusting. But I also never talk about what time it is back home, and I never use the J word, as if the mere mention of it, will summon it. And generally, I do pretty well with travel across time zones, experiencing minimal jet lag. But not on my most recent trip to Israel where jet lag seemed to be attacking me with full force.
Recently, I went on a family mission with Partners Detroit to Israel. The trip was absolutely amazing; we had eighty participants, coming from close to twenty families, and great bonding happened among all age groups. The teens, a group that often has trouble quickly bonding with strangers, naturally coalesced and by the first dinner, the teens themselves had created two “teen tables,” so that they could spend more time with one another. The younger children created fast friendships, and within a day were chatting like old friends with other children they had only met a few hours prior. The moms felt an instant connection, the dads were bonding, the trip felt less like a guided tour, and more like a big family reunion.
Of course, the itinerary played a big role. Every day was chock filled with exciting activities, from visiting the tank museum at Latrun, where major battles played out in the Independence War of 1948, and climbing all over the vast collection of tanks, to laser tag competitions taught by ex-IDF soldiers, to tours of the Old City, visits to the Western Wall, delicious breakfast buffets, experiential museums helping people feel what it’s like to be blind, deaf, or elderly, one-on-one learning sessions, winery tours, jeeping, amazing lecturers, camel rides, Mediterranean drum circles, hikes in the desert, Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony on top of Masada, and the list goes on… it just seemed like every day was crammed with more excitement and activity than humanly possible! But we did it all, and under the enthusiastic leadership of Rabbi Chaim Fink, we did it all on time or early!
But I was exhausted. Simply exhausted. It didn’t stop me from participating in anything, it just made each footstep heavier, similar to the experience we had at the Museum of Time, where to understand how it feels for the elderly to walk, we strapped weights to our feet and slogged around. On bus rides, I’d often fall asleep. On hikes, I wasn’t at the head of the pack where I normally find myself. It was just something I couldn’t shake. I was surprised by this, because jet lag doesn’t normally affect me so much, I employ all my tricks, and jet lag doesn’t rear its ugly head. On most trips to Israel, I’m bursting with energy and feel amplified, but here I was feeling laggard and diminished.
It wasn’t until Friday morning that I figured it out. Each morning, when we came down to the massive Israeli breakfast buffet, I’d head straight to the coffee table. I’m not good for much without my morning coffee, and on a regular day, I drink between two to four cups of coffee. (Four cups is the optimal amount of daily coffee intake according to a recent study by a team of German molecular biologists, contrary to popular mythology, coffee has a host of health benefits.) The shakshuka, olives, Bulgarian cheese and grapefruit slices could wait, the coffee not so much. The breakfast buffet had a whole table dedicated to coffee and tea selections, with fancy machines making espressos, macchiatos, and lattes from freshly ground beans, but it usually had a line of waiting people, so I went straight to the instant coffee table. I’m not a coffee snob, I just need my caffeine fix. I selected a packet of coffee that looked like the coffee I used to drink when I lived in Israel, made myself two cups (Israelis haven’t discovered the 20oz cup yet), and moved on.
But on Friday, I decided to look at the difference between all the instant coffee choices, and to my horror discovered that the whole week, I had been drinking decaf! Boom! In one moment, a week of unexplained lethargy became perfectly clear; I wasn’t putting the fuel in the tank, just colored water!
The Jewish world today is facing a great challenge of youth disengagement. Based on the results of the Pew Survey from 2013, we know that 32% of Jews born after 1980 say that they have no religion whatsoever, while for the entire age spectrum that number is still a shocking 22%. Two thirds of the group that identify as having no religion are not raising their children as Jewish at all. And this is not a national phenomenon, Jews are significantly more disengaged than the general US populace. In the non-Jewish US population, 56% of people state that religion is very important in their lives, among Jews the number drops to 26%.
Institutions across the Jewish spectrum are working energetically to keep their youth engaged, but see little fruits for their efforts once their youth finish their Bar/Bat Mitzva studies or confirmations. Walking into hundreds of synagogues and temples across the US during Shabbat services when there is no simcha taking place can be a depressing experience, with large percentages of the pews left empty. The difference between High Holiday attendance and regular Shabbat attendance for most houses of worship in the US is stark. Where is everyone going? Why are we disengaging as a people?
The answer may be that we are drinking decaf.
Judaism has a rich heritage, spanning more than 3,000 years ago. And like most religions, the history and timeline of our people takes many twists and turns, no doubt exacerbated by millennia of persecution and Anti-Semitism. But Judaism has always been closely linked to the Torah, the guide we received from G-d at Sinai. It is the “Tree of Life to those who hold to it,” but when we leave our Torah behind, there is nothing else that can fill the gap. No amount of social activism, tikkun olam, Yiddish theater, or social events can make up for the fuel that the Torah provides. If we try to divorce Judaism from Torah study and Torah practice, we can fill our need for our “Jewish fix” with other things, but we may find that we are Jewishly exhausted and not sure why.
In the Pew report, a question was asked “What does it mean to be Jewish?” and people responded by saying what they felt was essential to being Jewish. Seventy three percent said remembering the Holocaust, 43% said caring about Israel, 42% said having a good sense of humor, 56% said working for justice/equality, but only 19% said observing Jewish law, and studying Jewish texts wasn’t even on the response list.
In Tractate Shabbos 127a, the Talmud lists the mitzvos whose “fruits a person enjoys This World, but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come.” This list includes many familiar mitzvos like honoring parent, acts of kindness, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, etc. But it concludes that the study of Torah is equivalent to all of them. The greatest fruit we can see in This World is our children growing up to be proud engaged Jews, living the Jewish lives we hope to see them live, and for that the Talmud tells us we need Torah study above all.
If we want to reinvigorate the US Jewish population, we need to bring back the caffeine, we need to open up our Torahs and Talmuds, we need to study the words ourselves and teach them to our children. Let’s shrug off Jewish lethargy, let’s grab onto the Torah, the “Tree of Life,” and bring our Jewish world into a new era of excitement, energy, and engagement!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha continues the story of the Ten Plagues that started in last week’s parsha. After we learn about Moshe warning Pharaoh about the last plague, the Death of the Firstborn, there is a peculiar break in the narrative. Suddenly, the story of the redemption from Egypt is broken by 28 verses that bear very little relation to the actual storyline. Instead, these verses contain the first Mitzvos the Jews were commanded to observe as a nation.
We know that the Torah was given by G-d, and is therefore perfect by its very nature. Nothing is superfluous; everything is calculated down to the very vowels of the letters. Why, then, would G-d choose to interrupt one of the most important narratives to speak about a few mitzvot? If anything, the story was just beginning to peak, it was reaching its climax. We spent the last few weeks reading about the rise of Moshe from an infant cast into the Nile to the redeemer of the Jewish people. We learn how G-d sent him back into Egypt with a message of hope for the enslaved Jews. Ha-shem told him to challenge Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Jews. The dialogue continued with Pharaoh’s refusals, which are met with miraculous plagues that bring tremendous punishment onto the Egyptians. And all of these events were for the single cause of freeing the Jews. Now, we are about to reach the last plague, freedom is near, and G-d decides to interrupt this riveting story with a few commandments! Why?
The answer to this question holds a tremendous lesson for us. The Jews were at a pivotal moment in their national history. Until now, they were slaves; physically, they were a oppressed and broken people. As bad as things were from a physical perspective, their spiritual state was even worse. They were totally unaffiliated with their heritage, disconnected from the legacy of their great predecessors. But, now they were about to leave Egypt and venture into the desert to begin a journey of spiritual growth. G-d wanted to give us the first commandments specifically before the journey began.
In doing so, G-d taught us that you don’t have to be far into a spiritual journey to begin observing some of the mitzvos. In fact, you can be at the very beginning of your spiritual enlightenment, and still begin practicing those mitzvos that are within your power to keep. Sometimes we feel like we are not “on the level” to do a particular mitzvah, or that due to a past that was deprived of spirituality that we can’t possibly be worthy of performing a specific mitzvah. The truth is that you don’t have to be worthy to perform a mitzvah; the mitzvah itself gives you worth.
In Egypt, when the Jews were in a deep spiritual slump, G-d gave them a few mitzvos which provided the merit needed to get the Jews out of Egypt. G-d clearly showed us that mitzvos are relevant to everyone, and every single person is worthy and capable of performing a mitzvah. And once we tap into that opportunity, we are on the pathway to our own personal and spiritual redemption.
I once heard a beautiful story that illustrates this point. In the seventies, a young man who grew up without any Jewish identity, somehow stumbled on some Jewish classes, and began to study. He was enthused by what he learned, but soon he was drafted into the army, and was prepared to go fight in Vietnam. On his last leave of absence before being shipped out, he visited his rabbi back home. His rabbi encouraged him to begin doing one mitzvah, but he was reluctant, as he had never really done any before. In the end, they agreed that he would try to do the mitzvah of netilat yadayim, ritually washing ones hands before eating bread.
One day, after a long day of fighting, his platoon settled down for chow. While everyone ravenously attacked their food, this soldier went to a nearby stream to wash his hands. While he was washing his hands, he heard a series of explosion and came running back. Somehow, his platoon had been ambushed, and by the time he got back, he was the only survivor. Like our forefathers in Egypt, this man took upon himself a mitzvah even though he was not sure he was ready for it, and it proved to be his redemption.
In the merit of our increased mitzvah observance, may we all merit the Final Redemption!
This week’s portion starts with the final three plagues. After Moshe warns Pharaoh of the locust that will be the worst Egypt has ever or will ever see, Pharaoh backs down and says he will let the Jews go. But, in typical Pharaoh fashion, he then reneges on the deal and claims that he only meant that the men could go. So G-d sends the locust. Lots of them. They eat everything that is not stored away. Pharaoh, in a panic, calls for Moshe and tells him to pray to G-d to take away the locust, and he will let the Jews go. Moshe prays, a wind comes and removes every last locust from Egypt (even the ones that were pickled and tucked away in Egyptian basements in Mason jars), and Pharaoh reneges.
G-d commands Moshe to stretch his hand out to the sky and, when he does so, darkness falls upon Egypt. After three days, the darkness gets stronger, to the point that it is so thick that people can not move. Meanwhile, the Jews have total reign to do as they please, and they scope out the Egyptians hiding places to find where they keep their treasures.
Finally, Pharaoh calls Moshe and tells him yet again that the people can go. Of course, there is one huge string attached, namely, that they have to leave the livestock behind. Moshe says, “We are going to bring sacrifices and you want us to leave the livestock behind? You will see that by the time we leave, you will be giving us livestock to get us out quicker.” Pharaoh tells Moshe to get away, and warns him that if he comes back, he will have him killed. Before Moshe leaves, he gets a prophecy, and he turns and warns Pharaoh of the death of the firstborns, the final plague. He tells Pharaoh that by the time the plague is over, the Jews will be driven out of Egypt, and with that, he leaves Pharaoh stewing.
G-d tells Moshe to tell the Jews to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians who miraculously are willing to “lend” it to them. (The amount they “borrowed” was still not enough to compensate for all the years of free labor that the Jews had given the Egyptians.)
Then G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jews about the first mitzvah they received as a nation, namely following the lunar months to determine Jewish holiday. G-d calls out the first month, Nissan, and tells Moshe to inform the Jews that on the tenth of the month they should set aside a lamb for a Pascal offering. This was no easy task, as the Egyptians worshipped the lamb, and were certainly less than pleased to see their gods being prepared for slaughter by their former slaves. G-d told Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring the lamb as a Pesach offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. They were to put blood on their doorposts on the night of the 15th and this would ensure that G-d would skip over their houses when He struck all the Egyptian firstborns.
The Jews brought the first Pascal offering, put the blood on the doors, and that night G-d went through Egypt slaying every firstborn. While doing so, He skipped over the Jewish houses, thus giving the holiday the name Pesach, which means skipped over. The entire Egypt was consumed with wailing and mourning, and finally even Pharaoh caved in. He went through the streets calling out for Moshe, telling him to get the Jews out of Egypt.
As morning broke, the Egyptians pushed the Jews to leave so quickly that they didn’t even have enough time to let their breads leaven. They quickly baked the dough as matzah, and left Egypt. About 1.2 million adult Jews left Egypt along with millions more children. Besides for the Jews, a large group of people called the eirev rav, or the great multitude, left Egypt with them. They were so impressed by the miracles G-d had show in Egypt that they decided to stick with the winning team.
As the Jews left Egypt, G-d told Moshe to teach the people the laws of Pesach which would be a holiday for eternity to relive our miraculous exodus from Egypt. G-d also tells Moshe that from now on, the firstborn of both Jews and kosher animals are holy, since G-d saved them by not striking them when He struck the Egyptians firstborn children and animals. This is the source for the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming one’s firstborn from the Kohen. It is also the source for the mitzvah to give most firstborn animals to the Kohen (with the exception of donkeys that get redeemed for sheep). Additionally, G-d tells Moshe about the mitzvah of teffilin which are worn to remind us of G-d’s great miracles. The parsha concludes with G-d’s commandment that the Jewish people transmit the story of our exodus from generation to generation, as it has been transmitted for 3,314 years!
Quote of the Week: The test of enjoyment is the remembrance it leaves behind. – M. Falsim
Random Fact of the Week: It is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open
Funny Line of the Week: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
Have a Chipper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham