Rav Alex Israel - "Life is complex but it's ordinary things that make the difference"
Rabbi Alex Israel teaches Tanakh at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, Midreshet Lindenbaum and is director of programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
Born and raised in the UK, Rabbi Israel moved to Israel in 1991 and received the S'micha (rabbinic ordination) of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate following several years of study at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Israel holds degrees from London School of Economics, the Institute of Education, London, and Bar Ilan University.
His books "I Kings - Torn in Two" and “II Kings – In a Whirlwind” have been received with great acclaim. Rabbi Israel has lectured widely at campuses and communities on five continents. His writings may be found at www.alexisrael.org.
1. What was a place, person or event that transformed your ideas, thinking, or perspective?
Broadly we should realize that we are influenced all the time by that which we see, read and experience. That is a wonderful thing, although it may also present a problem if one consumes problematic content or spends time in negative environments.
My first influence was of course my parents who remain role models in so many ways. Bnei Akiva was a critically positive influence in my Zionism, Judaism, sense of idealism, and my first taste of educational leadership.
But if I had to point to major transformational influences, I would point to Yeshivat Har Etzion, and in particular Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Amital zt”l whose passion, principle, belief in complexity of life and of Judaism, whose humility, deep spirituality, personal example and so more, really shaped my worldview at a formative period of my life. I spent 8 years at the Gush and it was incredibly influential in my life.
More recently, Pardes has shaped me and challenged me. Working in a non-denominational institute brings you in contact with people who feel, think, and live differently and who challenge your truths. It has made me far more tolerant, sensitive, and thoughtful.
2. What message does the world need to hear?
“Life is complex. Don’t believe in soundbites!”
[OK. Maybe if you forced me, I would say – “Be compassionate, Be kind, help someone out today.” But really, the first thing is the truth.]
3. How do you handle failure?
The binary of failure and success is not useful. I recently saw a movie (“The Dig”) where one of the characters says that he failed. His conversationalist responds: “We all fail; we fail every day!” The question is not failure; it is that we need to keep learning and growing. We need to keep working on our relationships; as children, as spouses, as parents, as “ovdei Hashem”. If we realize that we are all in need of improvement, we will be in a better place. Sometimes we need to look for help from friends or professionals; don’t be embarrassed to do that.
Also focus on your successes and strong points. We need confidence to use the things about which we are passionate, our personal talents, and put them to good use.
4. If you were to give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Ask people for advice (and then decide yourself), become a better listener. Getting angry always ruins things. Raising your children is precious, try to create special moments with each child.
5. What is one way that you spoil yourself a little?
Chocolate, Israeli wine, great coffee, music, the outdoors.
6. How do you get back on track if you have had an unproductive or distracted period?
Oh! you are speaking to a person who is an expert in time-wasting and procrastination. So really, for me, expectations and standards are really good. I managed to write my books because I had to submit an article on a weekly basis, and I had a deadlines. I go to shul because it is part of a daily routine and it is a halakhic value. I make a commitment to exercise and I keep to it. So build the “important” things into your routine and make them something you need to do, and then you will get them done, hopefully sooner.
7. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
I’m blanking here. Good advice? Speak to everyone with respect. Don’t eat with your mouth open. Walk people out when they visit. When you travel don’t forget your tefillin.
8. What do you consider as your biggest achievement in the last 5 years?
I have never won an award nor had my start-up bought-out by Google. It is the “ordinary” things that count. Everything in my life is a cause for celebration. Our family life – my marriage and children. Its an achievement and should be celebrated. It isn’t always simple. It needs effort. But it is a source of the deepest pleasure. I have parnassah. I am BH healthy. The reality that I am still excited by my teaching is a huge thing – I have always been worried that I would “burn out” but it is a constant and enduring source of joy. Living in Israel is a privilege and a constant pleasure. So these are the “achievements” that I celebrate every day.
9. What area do you see that people in your profession do not stress enough?
There are no quick fixes in education. Many people think they can “fix” someone by sending him or her to Yeshiva. It rarely works. Each person is complex. And we all have our own journey to travel. Sometimes Yeshiva really helps someone to find their way. But for many, that is not the place. In general, regarding our children and our students you cannot manipulate people. First – it is wrong, and second - it doesn’t work. We need allow people to grow and make mistakes. Every person has their own things that they are working through. You need to respect the student’s autonomy. I try to teach with passion and treat my students with respect and love, appreciating them for the wonderful talents they contribute to the world bringing them into contact with the wisdom of our tradition and its inspiration. You never know how they might absorb that teaching into their lives. After that לא עליך המלאכה לגמור.
10. What part of Jewish learning is your main focus or favourite? How would you recommend people to get more deeply into it?
Most of my work is in Tanakh. However, one of the projects I love and which has been part of my life for 25 years now is to learn Mishnayot daily. I am now on my 10th cycle of Shas Mishna. I really love it. It has given me a broad knowledge of Torah and makes learning any Gemara so much easier, and it is a text, unlike Gemara which is so complex and voluminous, that I could even see myself mastering. So that is a really good investment .
11. I have often thought that we in the modern orthodox community are walking a tightrope between different worlds both of which we want to belong to and be active in which may detract from our full attention to one or the other particularly to the Jewish side. Can you give some ideas or direction how to connect more deeply to the Torah and Hashem? (Books, ideas, programmes, activities)
I am not sure whether the modern
orthodox community suffer from this more than, say, the Haredi community. As
adults we all need to renew and replenish our Judaism. I frequently find
that specifically my involvement in the world enlivens my Judaism. That said, I
would respond 1. That the very question is half the solution. We need to look
to deepen our spiritual lives. If life isn’t just collapsing from work and
binging on Netflix but rather connecting to a world of meaning, then you will
find that meaning. 2. A Hevruta, a shiur, a podcast, a new teacher opening you
up to an area you haven’t previously engaged. There is so much in our reach
today. 3. For many, it is not study, but action, doing, giving and community
that are sources of connection. Please God we will return to our communities
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