From trouble child to favorite

What would it take for you to disown your child? I know that for most everyone this is a hypothetical question, but please indulge me: What dastardly behavior would your son or daughter have to stoop to in order for you to “sit shiva”? A generation or two ago, when a child married out of the faith, this was deemed reason enough to disown him or her and rend one’s garments in mourning. Today, it’s not so clear; we know that there are so many things in today’s world that are pulling our children away from Judaism and spirituality, so that even if they were to marry out of the faith we might wish to practice forbearance in the hope that one day they might return to their heritage.

But if not that, what would cross the line?

This is a very personal question and there’s no one correct answer; many factors go into deciding when to close the door on your child and when to keep it open despite his or her poor decisions. It’s especially difficult in religious homes on the Sabbath and holy days, when the “prodigal child” has no interest in rituals and disrupts the religious atmosphere of the home. But even then, many wise parents have figured out how to maintain an open door amid challenging and awkward situations.

So while I can’t answer this question for you, I can tell you that God has a policy of deciding when one of His children is no longer His child. We read a beautiful, frightening and cryptic song in parashat Ha’azinu that is subject to much interpretation. One such passage is: “How corrupted; they are not His children but rather it is their own blemish, this crooked and twisted generation!” (Deuteronomy 32:5). One commentary suggests that this verse indicates when God decides we’re no longer His children, which is when we become “crooked and twisted.” God is very tolerant and accepting, but even He has a limit. When Jews behave in a corrupt way to their fellow human beings, when they steal and cheat (“crooked”) and then rationalize and defend their behavior (“twisted”), that’s when God says, “You are not my children anymore.”

Many parents suffer in silent anguish if their child is hauled off to prison. It’s not so much the humiliation in front of friends and neighbors peeping through their curtains; what’s more painful is the thought that our children are reflections of their parents. They are supposed to mirror the manners, ethics and morals they were taught through their parents’ example. These parents feel like abysmal failures in the monumental task they were assigned as parents. I truly grieve for parents who have poured so much effort into modeling ethics and morals for their children, only to have them violently reject that virtuous path by choosing a path of corruption and crime.

To those parents: Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone; God himself has lamented many a generation of his children who took a wrong turn despite all the tutelage, love and painstaking education poured out by His prophets and rabbis to the people. If God can turn out rotten kids, then you shouldn’t blame yourself. God’s not a failure, and neither are you.

But what the rest of us need to remember is that we’ll always be God’s children, as long as we’re still trying to be honest and ethical. Religiosity is important, no doubt. But whether you’re Shabbat observant or not, you’ll always be God’s favorite child as long as you emulate God’s example of righteous and ethical behavior — being honest in the way you do business, feeding the poor, greeting the stranger, caring for the less privileged in our communities and society.

If we wish to merit a goodly judgment from God these High Holy Days, it would be good to remember this teaching from the Torah reading of Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. May you have a g’mar hatimah tovah, a wonderfully blessed inscription in the Book of Life.

‘The Adujustment Bureau’: Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers

Films that offer profound philosophical lessons are a rarity. I remember watching The Matrix several years ago, noting that the movie was really a sci-fi version of Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave,” which posits that most people are living in a false reality of shadows. More recently, Inception explored the similar epistemological concept of solipsism, that we’re really all just dreaming and physical reality is only a construct of the mind. Such films, which tickle one’s philosophical funny-bone, are slim pickings among a feast of mind-numbing cinematic banalities.

Even rarer are those films which tackle theological dilemmas, like the age-old apparent contradiction of free will vs. determinism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world. What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? Did I truly decide of my own free will to marry my wife, or did God orchestrate a complex set of circumstances which forced my hand and caused me to fall in love with this wonderful woman in order to fulfill His unknowable Divine plan?

This is precisely the theme of the new film, The Adjustment Bureau (Grace Films Media, now playing), and so when I received an invitation for a clergy-only screening of the film, I felt it was a worthwhile way to spend an evening with my son. One of the reasons I found it so exhilarating to watch was because this is the kind of film that can make a very important contribution to our society. Instead of movies that provide very little value to the world of ideas, The Adjustment Bureau provokes us to address this thorny theological issue with a new set of glasses. At the very least, it gets us thinking that maybe there is a God out there who has a larger plan for all of us.

Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and featuring a fast-paced script and lots of action, The Adjustment Bureau was smartly made for a general audience. The producers and directors clearly understood that in order for a movie to be successful, it can’t just appeal to rabbis and philosophers. There are plenty of chase scenes for the guys and a love story for the ladies. But the basic premise of the story is hardcore theology. It proposes that the leading man (Damon) has to be prevented from meeting his love interest (Blunt) so that these two highly motivated and gifted individuals can reach their respective professional goals (he, a senator, she, a dancer) independently of one another. An angel is put in charge of preventing the meeting, since if they fall in love, all of their passion will be funneled into their relationship instead of their careers, and as a result neither will realize his or her potential. When the angel botches the job and the two end up falling for each other, an entire corps of angels, comprising this “Adjustment Bureau,” has to clean up the mess to separate the couple. Of course, this is where the chase scenes come in, since Damon and Blunt have to flee the angels (depicted as dapper men in hats) who are trying to destroy their relationship.

In a very clever obfuscation of organized religion (which seems to be public enemy #1 in Hollywood) God is never mentioned by name. Instead, the angels work for “the Chairman,” who oversees the adjustment process.

The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”

The great Jewish medievalists, together with their Christian and Islamic counterparts, undertook the issue of free will with vigor. Yeshiva students are familiar with the dispute between 12th-century Maimonides and his often fiery opponent, Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud. Maimonides felt that the contradiction between free will and Divine foreknowledge was so difficult that the human mind could not fathom it properly, and thus one simply had to have faith that while for man there appears to be a contradiction, for God there is none. Ibn Daud felt that there was a coherent reconciliation, but his explanation is vague and continues to be debated to this day. More recently, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, the great Ishbitzer Rebbe, taught in the 19th century that indeed, free will is but an illusion; even when we think we’re doing something that is contra God’s will, it is we who are mistaken.

I won’t reveal how the film ends, but suffice it to say that the final message of the film lends itself to a number of different interpretations. One leaves the film never really knowing what the beliefs of the writer and director, George Nolfi, are about free will. This is one more victory for the film; it seeks not to preach religion but rather to provoke thought and conversation about life’s big issues.

This is a great movie for a synagogue group; see it and have a discussion over coffee afterwards. Your rabbi will be able to discuss with you the Jewish position on the free will vs. determinism issue, and your knowledge of Judaism will be all the better for it.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times. We have every luxury imaginable to modern man, but because of all the dizzying distractions of modern life we lack the ability to properly take stock of who we are and what our purpose is. As stand-up comedian Louis CK puts it, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” Back in the Middle Ages, religious philosophers like Boethius, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were able to grab a thinker’s attention because they weren’t competing with loud music, fast cars, high-speed Internet and text messaging. In our world, where deep, meditative thought about the meaning of life is so hard to achieve, a movie like The Adjustment Bureau is a welcome break from the distractions. It will leave you exercising brain muscles you’d forgotten you had.

In addition to his rabbinic duties at Yavneh in Hancock Park, Rabbi Korobkin is a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, where he studies medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy.

What It Takes to Be a Jewish Leader

Charlton Heston (alav haShalom) made a great Moses; on screen, he seemed perfect — tall, handsome, gravelly voice, and not even Anne Baxter could seduce him.

Thankfully, the biblical Moses was not as monochromatic as the theatrical Moses. Despite his near perfection as a human being, he was still complex and flawed. Instead of shying away from this fact, both the biblical text and the midrash revel in it.

We are told that only after seven days of Tabernacle consecration did Aaron, Moses’ brother, begin his job as the High Priest, taking over the work on the eighth day (“Shemini” means eighth, hence the name of the Torah portion). Who was working the Tabernacle for the first seven days? Moses himself.

The midrash explains that when God first appeared to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be the redeemer of Israel, Moses demurred for seven days. On the seventh day of their disputation, Moses put his foot down with an exasperated “Please send someone else!”(Exodus 4:13). While knowing full well that Moses would finally relent to His arguments, God was still disappointed in his initial obstinacy.

The rabbis debate how God punished Moses for his refusal: One rabbi says that it came at the end of 40 years, when, after Moses entreated God for seven days to be allowed entry into Israel (as recorded in Deuteronomy), God finally refused. The other rabbi suggests that the punishment came about here, when Moses was initially allowed to act as the High Priest, but only for seven days. On the eighth day, he was stripped of the priesthood and it was awarded instead to his brother and nephews.

What is the connection between Moses’ refusal to act as redeemer and these two events? To explain, we need to first understand why Moses was so adamantly against being a savior. It’s not that Moses didn’t view himself as a leader — he very much saw himself as someone capable of shepherding his people. But he viewed himself first and foremost as a spiritual leader, a lawgiver and teacher who would eventually present the Tablets to his people at Mount Sinai.

His mistake, however, was failing to see how the same person who was to be the people’s spiritual leader could also act as their physical liberator. He was unable to integrate the two and see how the two roles could be fulfilled by the same individual. While fully prepared to be the giver of the Torah, he felt that a person destined for such a spiritual calling was not qualified to also be the person who would engage in political wrangling with world leaders. He just couldn’t see himself standing in Pharaoh’s court, demanding the Jews’ release.

Moses’ petition to God to send someone else was not a refusal to be the spiritual leader of Israel, but rather a request to have God assign a second leader to act as their political and military commander-in-chief.

The connection to his punishment is now understandable. Both service in the Tabernacle and life in the Holy Land demand that one appreciate the duality of all that exists in this world. To be a good Kohen (priest), one must realize that the offering of an animal’s carcass on the altar is a form of spiritual worship, accomplished by a purely physical act. To be a proper dweller of Eretz Israel, one must appreciate that within every single fig and grape of the Holy Land is contained something transcendent and holy, which is manifested by the unique agricultural mitzvot of Israel. Without the ability to synthesize the spiritual and physical together, one can neither inherit the priesthood or Eretz Israel.

By the time the Tabernacle had been dedicated, and certainly by the time the Jewish people came to Israel’s borders, Moses had internalized this concept. But because he had failed this calling during his early stages of development, God denied him the opportunity to be that symbol of spiritual-physical fusion.

The Talmudic sages (T.B. Sotah 14a) ask why Moses so desperately wanted to enter the land of Israel. “Did he need to eat its fruits?” No, he simply wanted to fulfill those agricultural mitzvot that could only be fulfilled inside of Israel. And God’s refusal to Moses was the lesson: If you cannot amalgamate the spiritual and physical, you cannot properly live in Eretz Israel.

Sometimes in life we are called upon to perform a task or role that we do not envision is right for us. Sometimes the rabbi is called upon to be a general, and sometimes the general is called upon to be a rabbi. We should be ready to come to God’s call no matter what the task, and appreciate that the greatest service comes as a fusion of spirituality and physicality. May we hear the call when it comes!

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.

Get a Life, George

I’ve watched few “Seinfeld” episodes, but one stands out in my mind. During a double date, George inadvertently offends Jerry’s date, Jody. After George learns from Jerry that Jody doesn’t like him, George falls all over himself for a second chance to make a good impression.

After George does further damage to his reputation, he sits in Monk’s obsessing about Jody to his date Karen, who’s annoyed that George is focusing so much attention on another woman.

“Who cares if she doesn’t like you? Does everybody in the world have to like you?” Karen asks.

“Yes! Yes! Everybody has to like me. I must be liked!” George yells.

Sure, we laugh at George as that typical nebbish. But there’s a little bit of George in each and every one of us.

We are all a little too dependent on others’ approval and admiration. This is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also may show that one doesn’t feel close with God.

Consider that there are no less than three different views of oneself: The view that I have of myself, the view that others have of me and the view that God has of me.

Which view is most important? Most of us would probably place God’s view as highest priority, our own view as second priority and the view of others as lowest priority. But when it bothers us that another holds us in low esteem, aren’t we displaying that both our own view and God’s view take a back seat to our neighbor’s view?

A medieval rabbi by the name of Yaavatz gave an analogy: Say a person has two diamonds. One is a polished, flawless 7-karat masterpiece, valued at $1 million. The other is an unpolished, flawed, 1-karat diamond, valued at a few-hundred dollars. If I lose the 1-karat diamond, my grief will be short-lived, because I know that I’ve still got my $1 million diamond.

The way others perceive us, compared to the way God perceives us, is like the inexpensive diamond compared to the expensive diamond. This is why a spiritual person tends not to spend so much time checking his public approval rating. Instead, working on God’s approval is what really matters.

We can learn a lot from a guy named Haman about dependency upon others’ approval. According to the story that we read on Purim, when Haman would walk down the street, everyone was ordered to bow down in deference. Yet, the Megillah tells us, Mordechai would not prostrate or bow (Esther 3:2). This annoyed Haman to no end (I think his last name was Constanza). Because of Haman’s obsession with image, he decided that it wasn’t enough to just execute Mordechai; he had to wipe out the entire Jewish people.

The Haman story teaches us a very important lesson in human nature. Our obsession with image is a destructive trait, and it can lead perfectly decent people to completely lose their moral compass.

On the other hand, we can also learn a lot from Mordechai about healthy attitudes about self-image. Note that Mordechai did what he felt was right in his eyes and in God’s eyes. It simply wasn’t right to bow before this self-absorbed Haman, and so Mordechai refused to kowtow. He didn’t worry about the consequences to himself or the way people would judge him. He knew right was right no matter what anyone else thought.

Human frailty is something funny when we see people on TV like George on “Seinfeld” displaying it. But it’s disappointing when we see our close friends display this kind of insecurity. It’s even scarier when we look in the mirror and see the false facades we’ve created staring back at us. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why we wear masks on Purim: to remind ourselves that it’s what behind the mask that counts, not the way others see us.

In La-La Land, we are told that image is everything. People gauge success and self-worth by whether or not they are placed on the A-list of invited guests to the latest Hollywood party. Purim is a time to acknowledge the masquerade for what it is: a cheap mask that says nothing about the real me.

May we succeed in destroying all enemies of our people, both the external Haman’s and our own internal ones.

Happy Purim!

Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.