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The Global Elite Playground…Yitro 5778

Davos means a lot of things to a lot of different people. If you are a Chassidic Jew living in Antwerp, Davos is the Swiss summer resort hundreds of European Chassidic families flock to, joined by Jews from all over the world. For a few weeks a year, there are dozens of pop-up synagogues as well as a few kosher hotels and restaurants. The streets and hiking trails are filled with Chassidim walking, pushing baby strollers, and idyllically schmoozing, often still dressed in their long jackets and felt hats, but definitely enjoying the cool crisp clean air of the highest altitude town in the Swiss Alps.

For me, Davos is an amazing ski/snowboarding resort, spreading across five magnificent peaks. My brother and I visited in April of 1999, and spent three glorious days riding as much of those mountains as we could get under our boards, from lift-open to lift-close. Especially notable was Jacobshorn, a mecca for snowboarders from all over Europe, with both great groomed runs, but more importantly, hundreds of acres of backcountry runs with snow so deep that you couldn’t see your board, where you could carve fresh tracks into a sea of untouched snow.

I remember tearing through Swiss highways and sleepy villages in the dead of night in a rented Opel Vectra station wagon with our snowboard gear loaded in the back, coming from Zurich and catching our first glimpse of the magnificent mountains as the sun began peeking over the peaks at sunrise. We stayed in a hostel called Palace Für Snowboarder. It used to be a palace for some nobleman back when Davos was a popular spa town for European nobility, and you could still see the fingerprints of its former gilded glory all over the rooms and hallways. But by the time we got there it wasn’t much of a palace anymore, just a place where you could get a room for eighty Swiss Francs a night, and as such it was filled with the grungy snowboarder types. Davos will always hold a warm place in my heart, a snowboarder’s paradise I hope to get back to.

But to most people, Davos is the host of the World Economic Forum, a gathering of roughly 2,500 global elites that takes place annually at the end of January. Political leaders, international business titans, leading economists, journalists and celebrities all gather for four days to discuss how they can further the forum’s motto: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” The program is filled with panels, speeches, discussions groups, presentations by heads of state, and gourmet meals where serious networking between the global elites take place.

This is a sampling of the program offerings in the most recent forum:

Opening Plenary with Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India

Actress Cate Blanchet shares her ideas on building world solidarity

A panel discussion by seven female power players from the Prime Minister of Norway to the CEO of IBM

Enabling eCommerce: Small Enterprises, Global Players with the Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba and Robert Azevedo, Director General of the World Trade Organization

Gender, Power, and Stemming Harassment by Microsoft’s Vice President and Canada’s Minister of Women

 

Future Shocks: Cyberwar without rules, a panel of the Chief Legal officer of Microsoft, a former US Secretary of Defense and a Carnegie Mellor professor of computer science, moderated by the Editor in Chief of Time Magazine

Special Addresses by the Prime Ministers of England and Canada, the Chancellor of Germany, the Presidents of France, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Argentina, and of course, the Donald.

I could list hundreds of other topics ranging from sustainable energy, to food security, world governance, global employment trends, medicine, pollution, and humanitarian crises, but I won’t bore you, and I think you get the picture from the sampling above. If you really want to learn more about what happens at Davos, over 120 events were recorded this year and are available online if you have nothing to do for a week or so.

There is plenty of criticism of the Davos conference. It’s been called “fat cats in the snow,” by many who believe that it is a lot of “pomp and platitudes,” and not a lot of real world results. Steven Krauss, a respected faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School pointed our that the World Economic Forum’s strategic partners (people or countries who finance the annual meeting) have great influence on the topics and agenda, and many of them are people or places with serious criminal, civil, or human rights violations. But we’ll let Davos be for right now, as I said, it means lots of different things to different people.

What I do want to focus on right now, is not what goes on in the meetings, but rather what goes on outside of the meetings, and that is the country houses. Many countries rent storefronts on the main promenade, move out all the merchandise and transform the space into a glowing advertisement for investment in their country. The interior is decorated in that country’s motif, and complimentary ethnic food and beverage flows freely. In the India Lounge you’ll eat samosas and candied ginger and drink chai, in the Ukraine House (which normally is a Timberland shop) you can pick up some fabulous borsht, in Indonesia House you will have succulent chicken soto soup, and in the Saudi Arabia House you can get some strong cardamom coffee.

People do come to sample the exotic and diverse foods, but while they are there, they get pitched to invest in those countries. The amount of corporate and personal wealth concentrated in the small town of Davos during the World Economic Forum is staggering, and every country that sponsors a house wants a piece of that pie. In India Lounge, the walls are covered in massive 1’s, telling you that India is the #1 Most Attractive Global Investment destination by many economists, #1 in online retail, #1 in university graduates by 2020 and so on. But if you go to the Ukraine House, they will tell you that they are #1 in most certified IT specialists in the world, #1 for lowest cost of doing business in Europe (the average annual salary is $2,877), #1 in engineering graduates in Europe, and so on. As you can imagine, if you to the Indonesian house they will tell you that they are the #1 largest economy in Southeast Asia, #1 largest growing GDP in the region, one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world, and in case you were worried, they will proudly tell you that corruption is rapidly dropping.

There is only one house that is different, and interestingly that is Saudi Arabia. What is normally a Benneton boutique was transformed into a high-tech Mecca (pun intended) with massive screens everywhere to display their data. And while they will proudly tell you that they are the #1 largest economy in the Middle East, #1 in access to electricity (almost free), #1 in GDP growth in the region, #1 in the world in secondary school participation, and #1 in costs of starting a business, they will also tell you what they are really bad at: environmental responsibility, Co2 emissions, female participation the workforce, percentage of migrant workers with no rights, food production, diabetes prevalence, workforce participation, and a deeply troubled land ownership system.

The Saudi Arabian government appointed a Hassam al-Madani, a Harvard educated native to build a massive platform collecting tens of thousands of of data points from publicly available information on over two hundred counties in the world (Israel is mysteriously missing). The platform ranks how each country is doing in two hundred Key Performance Indicators grouped into twelve pillars such as labor, education, health, justice, energy, economy, and technology. They presented this data to the world for the first time at Davos, and now made it available for free to anyone on the web, you can find it here.

The Saudi pitch was as follows; we know what we’re good at, but we also know what we’re not good at, and we have a lot of money that we are willing to put to use to help us better ourselves in those areas if we can find the right global partners. Do you want to partner with us, to make you money and make our country better?

While I find it hard to praise the country that spends billions of dollars supporting educational initiatives around the world that demonize Israel, a country that was home to fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 terrorists, a country that promoted the spread of violent Wahabi Islam across the globe, a country that publicly calls Israel apartheid and genocidal while secretly asking for its help in combatting the Iranian threat, I do have to say, they did Davos right.

As long as you put up the front that you are #1, #1, #1, #1, anyone with a brain knows they are not getting the full story. If you are so #1 why are you here begging for my investment dollars? Why are you stuffing anyone and everyone with samosas and chicken soto soup in the hope that it will lure investors your way, investors should be flocking to you Mr. #1! But when a country is willing to humbly say, we know we are far from perfect in many ways, we recognize that if we don’t start diversifying our economy we will be a lost economy in thirty years, we see that we have disastrous health and labor participation as a result of a social welfare system that has kept the people fat and bored for too long, and we need your help changing that, and are willing to invest alongside you in bettering our country, that sounds like a pitch I want to hear more about.  Infallibility is suspicious, humble yearnings seem authentic.

It’s fascinating to look at how various religions treat their leaders. Talk to a Muslim and see if he can name any flaws Mohammed had. Ask a Buddhist about the mistakes the Buddha made. You’ll get nowhere. The Christians not only cannot name a single failing of JC’s, they even have a dogma called Papal Infallibility, which basically means that the Pope can do no wrong. Something is really suspicious here. Perfection is not a human trait, not even in great people.

Jews on the other hand, have a very different picture. Ask any schoolchild about mistakes made by our greatest leaders, and they can give you a long list. Moses got angry, Jacob didn’t respond to his barren wife in the most sensitive of ways, Abraham and Sara each doubted a promise G-d made to them, King David struggled with his urges, and King Solomon married too many wives. We Jews don’t believe in infallibility, we believe in humble yearning for betterment. For everyone, from the greatest leaders down to the simplest Jews.

Recently, I was on a retreat with a large group of unaffiliated Jews, and one of them asked me if I believe that agnostics are bad Jews. This is one version of something I hear quite often, people are very touchy about the subject of bad Jews. “What are you saying Rabbi, you think I’m a bad Jew?” It’s so interesting to me, because I know that often I’m not the best Jew, and that doesn’t bother me, that is why I’m in this world, to struggle to become a better Jew.

Usually in these situations, the best way to diffuse the tension is to ask people what makes a good Jew and what makes a bad Jew. Judaism doesn’t simply look at what you do, but rather at what you could be doing. What makes a good Jew? A good Jew is someone who is actualizing his potential to the max in Jewish study and Jewish action. That is not a very easy thing to achieve, and often I fall short of that, as do most Jews. It’s OK to not be a #1 Jew. If you’re a #1 Jew, what are you doing here? Why are you on this planet? No, it’s much better to look at multiple Key Performance Indicators in our life and say, I’m doing pretty good at that, I’m really struggling with this, maybe I haven’t been the best Jew I possibly could be. Maybe there are a bunch of areas in my life that need help, and if I’m willing to invest my resources in them and reach out to partners who can help me with them, I can really get to where I should be!

Infallibility is not the goal, being the #1 Jew is not the goal, if you are already a completely good Jew then there is no reason to invest in yourself, or for anyone to invest in you. Humble yearnings are where life really starts to get better. Humble yearnings are where we become ready to make the ultimate investment, the investment in ourselves.  

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s Parsha starts with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law. When Moshe came to Egypt he sent back his wife and children to Midian so as not to bring more people into a land committing atrocities against the Jews. Now, after the Jews were freed, Moshe’s father-in-law came to meet the Jews in the desert bringing with him Moshe’s wife and children. When he got there, he converted and joined the Jewish people.

The events leading up to Yisro’s arrival are described in the first verse of the parsha. Now Moses’ father in law, Yisro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1) Rashi asks what exactly Yisro heard which prompted him to come to the desert and join the Jews, instead of just sending his daughter and grandchildren. He answers that he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war that the Jews had fought with Amalek.

One part of this answer makes perfect sense, while the other seems troubling. G-d splitting a sea and allowing the Jews to walk through on dry land is something spectacular, and a good reason for someone to come and join the nation. But the fact that they had fought a war with Amalek and won doesn’t seem to be such a great reason for a person to uproot themselves from a land where he is well respected and come out to the desert and join a new nation! If Rashi told us that Yisro heard about the splitting sea and the 10 plagues or the splitting sea and the exodus from Egypt, I would understand, but what is so significant about the war with Amalek that Rashi tells us that this caused Yisro to radically change his life?

One answer I heard last night from my wonderful wife is that it was not the fact that the Jews defeated the Amaleky attack that inspired Yisro, but the fact that there was such an attack in the first place. Yisro wondered how could it be that after the splitting of the sea, a miracle of gargantuan proportions that rocked the entire world (the Sages tell us that every body of water in the world split on a smaller scale to show the world the miracle), someone dared and come attack the Jews? Egypt, the superpower of the world, was brought to its knees by ten terrible plagues, and still didn’t stop pestering the Jews. Then they followed them to the sea, and were thoroughly vanquished by the raging waters that tumbled back upon them. Wouldn’t that be enough to keep everyone away from the Jews?

But somehow, shortly after the splitting of the sea, Amalek came with an army to attack the Jews. Yisro realized that when someone sees a huge miracle, it doesn’t necessarily change them; it just provides an impetus for change. And if one doesn’t seize the moment, it gets lost and loses all its power. This is how the nation of Amalek was able to attack. They let the miracles they saw slide right off their backs, and blithely continued with their evil plans. Yisro realized that he didn’t want this to happen to him, so he seized the moment and came to the desert to join the Jews.

Many times we experience powerful moments in our life, and we are left with a feeling of inspiration. What Amalek and Yisro teach us is that if we don’t capitalize on that moment, we can lose it forever. Let us try to be Yisros’ and not Amalekites! Carpe’ Diem!

 

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha starts with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law. When Moshe came to Egypt he sent back his wife and children to Midian, so as not to bring more people into a land committing atrocities against the Jews. Now, after the Jews were freed, Moshe’s father-in-law came to meet the Jews in the desert bringing with him Moshe’s wife and children. When he got there, he converted and joined the Jewish people.

Yisro’s biggest contribution to the Jewish people was the judging system that he instituted. He noticed that Moshe would sit all day judging people, while the line to see him grew and grew. Yisro told Moshe that this system would burn out both Moshe and the people. He suggested that Moshe create a hierarchy of judges, with the most minor only responsible for 10 people, the next over 50, 100, and finally 1,000 people. The big questions and cases that couldn’t be dealt with by those judges would come to Moshe.

Moshe asked G-d, and with G-d’s permission, he appointed judges who met the following criteria; G-d fearing, accomplished, despises money, and men of integrity. He appointed them according to the positions mentioned above, and the new judicial system ran as smoothly as butter on a hot skillet!

The next part of the Parsha deals with the Jews’ arrival at Mount Sinai, and the revelation they experiences there. I will break the events down by days.

Day 1: The Jews arrive at Mount Sinai with a unity that is unmatched in their entire 40 years in the desert.

Day 2: Moshe goes up the mountain to talk to G-d. G-d tells him to tell the Jews that they have seen G-d’s miracles and His affection for them, but now He is making them an offer. If they want, they can accept the Torah and become a “Treasured Nation,” but they have to remember that it comes with a lot of responsibilities. Moshe comes down and tell the people who respond with a unanimous, “Whatever G-d says we will do!”

Day 3: Moshe goes back up, and delivers the Jews’ answer (G-d already knew it, but this teaches us that when one is sent to deliver a message they should always bring back the reply). G-d tells Moshe that He will speak from within a dark cloud to Moshe, but all the people would hear Him talking, and this would be a way for the people to know that Moshe was a true prophet. Moshe goes down and tells the people.

Day 4: Moshe ascends the mountain again and tells G-d that the people want to hear G-d talking directly to them. They said that hearing from an emissary doesn’t compare to hearing from a king! G-d tells Moshe to go back and tell the people to prepare for two days (by purifying themselves), and that on the third G-d would talk to them. He also warns them not to touch the mountain or try to climb it, as it has a special holiness. Moshe gives the message but, according to one view in the Talmud, he adds a third day of purification (this is the topic of some very deep insights, but it’s not within the scope of our Parsha Summary).

Day 5: Moshe builds an altar at the bottom of the mountain, as well as twelve pillar monuments. He brings sacrifices on the altar and eats with the people.

Day 6: On this day, according to some, the revelation took place. According to others this was the extra day of preparation that Moshe added.

Day 7: G-d reveals himself in all His glory to the people, as they hear Him talking directly to them and speaking out the first two of the Ten Commandments (which would be more appropriately translated as the Ten Statements). The event is too powerful for the mortal humans to handle, and the people ask that Moshe tell them the last 8 instead of having G-d directly speaking to them. This is the only time in all of recorded history where G-d spoke to a mass assembly. Never, ever, has any other religion even claimed this. (This is one of proofs of Judaism’s validity over all other faiths in which individuals such as J.C., Mohammed, the Buddha, or Joseph Smith claim to have had personal revelations.)

Right now, before continuing, name all ten of the Ten Commandments! Yes that’s an order!

Not sure? OK I will help you out.

1.     I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt (belief in one G-d).

2.     You may not serve any other gods.

3.     You may not take the name of G-d in vain.

4.     Keep Shabbos.

5.     Honor your mother and father.

6.     Don’t kill.

7.     Don’t commit adultery.

8.     Don’t steal.

9.     Don’t testify falsely.

10.  Don’t covet that which belongs to others.

After this momentous event, G-d commanded Moshe to tell the people that they had seen and heard G-d speak to them (one of the miracles of the revelation was that people saw sounds), and they had better not make or worship any other deities. He also commanded them to make an alter, but not to use stones hewn with iron. Iron is the material used to fashion weapons, and an altar needs to be a paradigm of peace. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. – Mahatma Gandhi

Random Fact of the Week: If you’re over 100 years old, there’s an 80% chance you’re a woman.

Have a Resplendent Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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