Friday, December 13, 2013

Outside Influence: Friend or Enemy?

Every friday night, after infusing the home with light and sanctifying the mundane, we rise in testimony to God's omnipotence and kingship, with a glass of wine. 
And then, in many Jewish homes around the world, parents give a blessing to their children. 
The blessing for the girls is, that they grow up to follow in the spiritual footsteps are our matriarchs, Sara, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel. 
The boys are blessed with this famous brachaYisimcha Elokim k´Ephraim uch´Menashe...God should sanction you to be like Ephraim and Menashe...  
Wait. Menashe? Ephraim? What's wrong with a blessing to be like Avraham, Yitzchok, Yaakov, or any of the other shvatim, whom we just learned so much about? I don´t even know Ephraim and Menashe. What's so extraordinary about them?

You know what would be nice?
To have the ability to raise our children in exactly the way we want them to be raised. Whatever they know would be just what we taught them, in the way that we taught it to them. That which we want to protect them from, they would never find out about.
Clearly, reality forces us out of our fantasy. We live life surrounded by people of all shapes, sizes and colors. We are exposed to more philosophies than we can integrate, and we are encircled by an array of theories and behaviors. Some appealing, some not.

No matter how hard we try to shelter ourselves and our kids from the foreign cultures around us, we can't fully escape it. We need to recognize it, accept it, and embrace it.

Menashe and Ephraim, as opposed to their grandparents, became who they were by growing up in Egypt, the home of immodesty, promiscuity, and everything spiritually ugly. 
And yet, they were able to reach a level of spiritual completion adequate enough to be the goal of our aspirations. 
How did they accomplish that?

Living within a foreign culture actually served as their friend, and not their enemy. They learned to distinguish between good and bad, and to differentiate between right and wrong. 
They mastered the skill of elevating the positive while rejecting evil. 
This is an art. 
In order to achieve this, we must be able to make a distinction between good and bad. It is critical that the line be crystal clear. It's not necessary to shelter ourselves completely; we do not need to live in caves, afraid to look out at the world. That creates weakness and inability to deal with differences. 
Standing up and facing reality while removing ourselves from its negativities, shows strength,  maturity, and stability.

But, the balance here is pretty tight. How do I know if I´m accepting too much of the influence of my environment? How can I integrate my surroundings in a spiritually healthy way?
Preceding the reform movement, Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish, German philosopher, took the Torah, and translated it into German. The Rabbis at the time completely rejected it and put him in cherem, excommunication.  
Years later, in the US, some people at Artscroll took the Torah and translated it into English. This time it was accepted and applauded.
What caused the difference in reaction? 
Is Rabbi Zlotowitz better looking than Mendelssohn? Wealthier? Smarter?
That´s not it.
The difference, was their motivation.

Mendelssohn's intentions were to make the German speaking Jew more German. 
Artscroll wanted to make the English speaking Jew more Jewish. 

The proof of the motives are in the results. Following the German translation was the start of the downfall of Judaism; the Reform movement.
Following the English translation was the start of the uprising of Baalei Tshuva all across the world.

The difference is apparent beyond doubt. Because, as long as we use foreign culture as a way to enhance our Judaism, we're able to grow from it. When priorities shift and the culture becomes the focus, that's where the problem begins.

Hashem should bless us all to be like Ephraim and Menashe. 
To embrace the world we live in, instead of fighting it. 
To elevate the good and reject the bad. 
And, while living our lives surrounded by outside influence, to be able to keep and follow the Torah as our numero uno priority, always.

My environment might decide who I am, but *I* decide who I´ll become.
Have a beautiful shabbos,