Who Moved Moshe’s Cheese?

Countless books, articles and sermons have been written about how difficult it is to engage in meaningful prayer. Learning to pray is not easy even if you are the son of a rabbi. In fact it may be especially difficult if you are the son of a rabbi, said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who, as the son of a rabbi, ought to know!  In recalling his problems praying earlier in his life, he sought the counsel of his own father.   His father’s advice: “If you cannot make your prayer meaningful, make it quick.”This week’s parasha opens with a prayer by Moses that is both quick and meaningful. Moses has been told that he will not be entering the Land of Israel with the people that he has led for forty years. The Torah records Moses’ prayer to G-d:

“O’ G-d Eternal!  You have begun to show me your greatness and power. What force is there in heaven or on earth that can perform deeds and mighty acts as You can? Please, let me cross over the Jordan River to see the good land…….”

Judging by the Torah’s account, it doesn’t seem like Moses spent hours upon hours in the synagogue imploring G-d to allow him to enter the land. But according to the midrash, Moses’ prayer as reported in the Torah was merely a summary of Moses’ actual prayer.  According to the Rabbis, upon hearing from that he will die before entering the Land of Israel, Moses begins to mourn. He dons sackcloth, strews ashes upon himself, and continues to implore G-d to allow him to enter the Promised Land. The Rabbis teach that Moses draws a circle around himself and vows not to move from that circle until G-d changes his mind.  G-d responds by ordering the celestial being to bolt tight all of the entrances of prayer so that Moses’ prayers, powerful as they may be, cannot breach the gates of heaven!  Moses, not to be outdone, tries another tactic. He asks the stars and the planets to pray for mercy on his behalf. He asks the mountains and the hills to petition G-d to allow him to live. He asks the rivers and the seas to implore G-d to relent. He asks the Holy Angels to make his case before the Blessed Holy One. But they all refuse to take up Moses’ case before G-d.  Finally, Moses is forced to accept the inevitable decree of G-d. He will not live long enough to enter the Land of Israel.

Has anybody here ever wanted something really bad in your life and realized that you were not going to get it? Was there a job that you thought would be the key to your future and you were not hired? Was there someone in your life who was ill and you wanted to see well, but they were not healed? Was there someone who you loved and you wanted them to love you back, but they couldn’t return your love? In 1999, Spencer Johnson wrote a slim volume entitled Who Moved My Cheese? The book, 94 pages of large type, sold 28 million copies worldwide. Who Moved My Cheese was a cautionary fable about how to deal with change. In the book, “Cheese” is a metaphor for what we want in life – money, status, love, security, or health, for example. The book has four characters, Sniff and Scurry, two mice, and Hem and Haw, two mice-size human beings. They all set out to find the cheese hidden in a section of a maze. They all succeed in finding the cheese. Day after day they eat the cheese and are satisfied. One day, however, the cheese disappears. Sniff and Scurry immediately set out to find more cheese. But the humans, Hem and Haw, complain and feel cheated. They waste a lot of time bewailing their fate and hoping that the cheese will somehow reappear. They are frightened to set out again in the maze to search for new cheese. They feel angry and entitled to the cheese because they had nothing to do with its disappearance. Finally, Haw, one of the humans, overcomes his fear and set out to find new cheese.

These four characters in the book represent parts of ourselves. We are “Sniff” when sniff out change early. We are “Scurry” when we take action. We are “Hem” when we resist change and fear it will lead to something worse. We are “Haw” when we adapt to change and understand that it can lead to something better in the future.

In our Torah portion G-d moves Moses’ cheese, as it were. The one thing he wants that will bring him happiness, the goal that he has worked toward for forty years, is denied him. Like most of us would do in this situation, and like Hem and Haw, the two humans in the book, he resists the change with all of his might and all of his resources. He feels cheated out of something he believes he deserves — entry into the Promised Land. He rails against his unwanted fate.  But just as it is often impossible to resist change, Moses cannot prevail against the will of G-d. Nor can we. We, like Moses, must accept and adapt to the new realities of our lives when they change, as they inevitably will someday.

Although Moses’ prayer did not achieve its desired effects, the Talmud sees it as a model to be followed whenever we pray. Moses’ prayer begins with praise, “O, G-d Eternal, you have begun to show me Your greatness’” and only then presents the request, “allow me to enter the land”. That format – we begin our prayers with praise and follow with our request, has been the classic pattern of Jewish prayer ever since. But we must ask, “Why do we begin with praise?” Is it simply a matter of flattering G-d before we ask for something? Is this the same as “buttering up” a powerful person before we make a request of them? Are we pandering to G-d’s “vanity” as it were?

Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Israel gives us one answer. He writes that prayer is not about changing G-d’s mind.  It is impossible for a human being to affect the will of G-d. Prayer will not make our “cheese” magically re-appear. Yet prayer is not a waste of our time. Prayer cannot get us the love we want, but prayer can mend a broken heart. Prayer cannot get us the job we desire, but it can reinforce our will to persist. Prayer cannot give us the health we wish for, but it could help us cope with our illness.  And praying together can offer us much needed comfort in a time of crisis. Prayer has the power to change us. As a result of that change, we will experience our lives differently, perhaps, even, find the courage to set out on a new course, to find our “cheese” once again.

When we introduce our prayers with praise of G-d, we remind ourselves of the true nature of G-d and the true power of prayer to effect change in our lives. May we all find a way to make our prayers quick….. AND meaningful.                                                                           Shabbat Shalom

Parasha Ekev : The Power to Change the WorldPosted: 17 Aug 2017 07:55 AM PDT

I want to start out this evening by giving you a quiz. Don’t be nervous, it is not a quiz that you needed to study for before you came to services!  You won’t be graded; it will not go on your life transcript.

Where does the saying, “A drop in the bucket” come from?

Where does the saying, “There is nothing new under the sun” come from?

Where does the saying, “Man does not live by bread alone” come from?

Where does the first saying, “a drop in the bucket” come from? It goes back to Prophet Isaiah in the 6thcentury BCE.   The Prophet Isaiah uses the term when reassuring the Jewish people of G-d’s power over Israel’s enemies: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of the bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance……”

The world weary author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally identified as the wise King Solomon, writes that “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The phrase, “Man does not live by bread alone”…. comes from this week’s Torah portion. Its meaning is that human beings certainly need food, clothing, and shelter to survive, but we need more than to satisfy our basic physical needs to truly be alive. We are social beings, so we need others for nurturing, for companionship, and for protection in order to thrive. But the Torah tells us that we need even more than that. “Man cannot live by bread alone,” states the Torah, but that is only the first part of the verse, the famous part. The verse continues, “But on all that comes forth from G-d’s mouth as well he will live.” The verse comes to teach us that there is a spiritual component to life without which a person is truly not “alive”.

This truth is contained in the very word for “Life” in Hebrew – Hayyim. The word consists of four letters. The middle two letters are “Yuds”, which spell the name of G-d. This teaches that if we put G-d at the center of our lives, we can better face challenges in our lives without despair, without feeling defeated, alone or overwhelmed. With G-d at the center of our lives we are better prepared to move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning, with the knowledge that although our lives are little more than a “drop in the bucket” in the grander scheme of things, our lives  matter  a great deal and have  profound significance.

Perhaps the most famous exponent of “Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone” in the 20th century was the psychiatrist Victor Frankl.  Frankl was deported from his home in Vienna to the Theriesenstadt Concentration camp in 1942. After two years there, he was sent to Auschwitz, and then to Dachau. He endured great suffering, but discovered that even under the most painful and dehumanizing conditions, life held the possibility of yielding meaning and purpose. He observed that those who were able to find meaning in their suffering had a greater chance of surviving the horrors of camp life. In his book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described a type of psychotherapy which he called Logotherapy. The therapy is based on Frankl’s belief that a person’s striving to find meaning is the single most powerful motivating force in their lives. It is more powerful than the “bread” in our lives – our chasing after power, after money, after status, after pleasure. He is thought to have coined the term “Sunday neurosis” which afflicts those who live without a sense of greater purpose. He describes the symptoms of this malady as a sense of boredom, apathy and depression that occurs when the workweek has concluded, when the pursuit of material gains must cease. It is then that a feeling of emptiness surfaces in the individual as they struggle to understand the purpose of life outside of acquiring things.

What does it mean to put G-d at the center of our lives? Does it mean to come to synagogue every week, or to pray every day, or to keep kosher, or to celebrate the Jewish holidays, or to light Shabbat candles or to don tallis and tefillin each morning?  All of these rituals are a means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. All of these practices reinforce important values and connect us to one another, and in this way they are important. But the essence putting G-d at the center of our lives is the place to where these rituals point – the love and connections that we have for one another. There is nothing new under the sun – we find meaning and purpose in life through those we love and those who love us, through those to whom we lend a helping hand, through those to whom our lives have made a difference because we have been here. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded.”

In his “Laws of Repentance” Maimonides writes that a person should view himself as if his or her deeds are perfectly balanced between those that are meritorious and those that are sinful. If a person has more positive deeds than negative ones, he is judged for the good. If the negative outweigh the positive, he is judged for the bad. Maimonides asks us to imagine that the entire world is similarly balanced. Should we sin one more time, we tip the balance to the negative and assure our destruction and the destruction of the world. Should we do a mitzvah, we tip the balance to the positive and assure our salvation and the salvation of the world. Thus, every deed we perform has cosmic significance. Each one of us has within us the power to change the world for the better – the world of our families and friends, our communities, our workplace.

Shabbat Shalom