The Highs and the Lows of the Days of Awe

Please turn towards their suffering, not towards their sins.
— Selichot

Some call this period the High Holidays. Yet a lot of this period is spent in the lows, not the highs. We question the year behind us and the year ahead. We struggle with our frailty and our wrongdoing. We find ourselves at moments expected and unexpected gobsmacked by our inadequacies, open, vulnerable and broken. We reflect on relationships that have soured, ways in which we have not mustered the capacity to ask for forgiveness or truly accept it from others. The doldrums of repentance make us small and humble. There’s not a lot of height if the High Holidays are doing their work well.

My friend Rabbi Mark Biller sent me this Chasidic puzzle that beautifully captures our sense of high and low on the Days of Awe. “When is a person who is lower on the ladder higher than a person who is higher on the ladder? The answer...when the lower person is climbing up, and the higher person is descending.” If we are engaged in introspection, we must ask ourselves where we are on this spiritual ladder right now.

One of the ladders of the season is the long-held custom to read complex prose-poems called Selikhot(from the term for forgiveness) from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. In many Sephardic communities, these are recited from the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Some are repeated daily at this time. Others are added. A selection of these forms the liturgy of Ne’ila, the last service on Yom Kippur. Because the language is arcane, many people struggle with the recitation of these “bonus” prayers, and many communities have dropped their recitation altogether.

I’d like to share some lines in one of my favorite of these prayers that contains the refrain: “L’shmua el ha’rina v’el ha’tfila” - O listen to their song and their prayer. I’m partial to the way that this prayer frames what we are trying to do as communities: come together both in song and in prayer. Song is a group act; the root of song here is joy. Singing, no matter how somber, creates a sense of unison, comfort and transcendence when performed together. Melodies join us in time to those who came before us and to those in the pews beside us. Prayer puts us in touch with our most elemental needs and joins us to the pain of others. This dichotomy of joy and suffering articulated as a congregation connects us to each other and the human condition.

In song, we ask - as the line above petitions - that God turn towards our suffering and not towards our sin. And this might be a good mandate for us in judging others. We open our lips to criticize and then remind ourselves of Philo of Alexandria’s powerful words: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s hard to ask God to put our wrongdoing and failures in perspective if we cannot do the same for others.

This prayer also highlights the role of seekers. It calls God a seeker and refers to humans as seekers. If the search is coordinated, we find each other. Our hope is that prayer reaches a point of intimacy where this deep connection is fostered:

“Seek, please, those who seek You as they seek Your face.

Answer them from Your heavenly abode

Do not turn your ear away from their supplication’s cry.

O listen to their song and their prayer.”

This is a prayer for attentiveness, for relationship. Look at me, and I will look at You. Here me, and I will hear You.

These lines suggest something about the duality of atonement. On one level, we can isolate particular wrongs that need fine tuning. We can parse out what needs improvement and what we’ve done wrong to others. We’re especially proficient at identifying what wrongs others have done to us. But sometimes, there is a general sense that things are amiss within ourselves, with others or in our relationship to God, but we cannot articulate a specific cause or prognosis. In Lights of Repentance, Rabbi Abraham Kook called this the difference between specific and general repentance. It is in this latter instance that the words of selikhot here resonate. We seek out the face of the other in hope that the other seeks us out as well, that in the repair of the relationship, wholeness will emerge.

While wishing you all a delightful and meaningful year ahead, I’d also like to announce that this will be my last blog post for Weekly Jewish Wisdom. For the past 17 years, sharing Jewish teachings has been a remarkable platform for keeping in touch with former students and new friends. As I focus on other aspects of my writing and teaching, please know how blessed I feel to have heard from so many of you over the years. Please keep in touch. And as the Talmud says - "Go and learn."

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom! 

What if They Repent?

What if they repent?
— TB Sanhedrin 25b

How could you not love a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World? Its author, Cal Newport, describes a time of focus that many of us recognize, what I'll call B.C. or Before Cellphones.  Who could have imagined a time when we would carry a phone with us everywhere we went, at the constant beck-and-call of anyone who wants to reach us at their convenience? Screen pop-ups and e-mails produce constant mini-interruptions in our thought patterns, making it virtually impossible - unless we are titans of discipline - to immerse ourselves in distraction-free work. This is shallow work at its "best."

Newport defines shallow work as, "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate." Much of our daily lives are now spent in shallow work. Often it's the shallow work we confront right in the morning, framing much of the day in a state of mental passivity, always responsive, always bending in the direction of an answer to someone else's question and rarely with the kind of focused attention produced by our own strategic thinking and planning. When Newport writes that this produces little new value, he makes an assumption about what work should be: activities that produce original contributions.

In contrast, Newport defines deep work this way: "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate." He spends most of the book describing the conditions that need to be created to achieve this kind of state and reminds us that, "Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on." Deep work is the answer, he believes, to combat the illusion of multi-tasking: "...recognize a truth embraced by the most productive and important personalities of generations past: A deep life is a good life." 

Approaching Rosh Hashana is a good time to think about what it might mean to do deeper work and not only at work. I began to consider new categories of teshuva: shallow repentance and deep repentance. Shallow repentance is how so many of us run quickly through prayer, beat our chests at the appropriate moments, and give spiritual lip-service to how different we want to be and then not do much about it. The deep work of change is much more destabilizing, involves difficult self-questioning and makes us think about what it might look like to create "new value in the world."

I found a piece of Talmud that may help us understand what this kind of deep inner work might actually look like. There is a mishna that states: "One who plays with dice, one who lends money with interest, those who fly pigeons and merchants who trade during the sabbatical year are disqualified from being witnesses" (BT Sanhedrin 24b). These individuals engage in behaviors that are regarded as untrustworthy. Since integrity is essential to good judgment, we need all witnesses to be people who by profession and proclivity are upstanding citizens. But, the Talmud inquires, what if they repent? Could they then serve as witnesses?

The Talmud goes into detail about what would be considered repentance in each case - and in each case, shallow repentance will not do (BT Sanhedrin 25b). For deep repentance to take place, the individuals in question have to stop the behaviors that are inducing this lack of trust (paraphrased for ease of reading): "Once they break their dice and repent of them completely, for example they do not play even when no money is involved, even when they are not betting." What about our lender? "One who lends interest? - Once they tear their promissory notes and repent of them completely...Fly pigeons? Once they break the stands upon which competing birds perch, and they do not even fly the birds in the wilderness. Trading during the sabbatical year? Once another sabbatical year occurs, and they refrain from selling produce, they are considered as penitents." Another sage believes that this trader must actually return the money he was given to be considered a penitent. Since this may prove challenging for a vegetable seller, this sage permits him to gives gifts to the poor.

If you want to change in this Talmudic passage, you need to dismantle the objects and break behaviors that condition bad habits. Deep repentance involves serious behavior and attitudinal changes so that the temptation to revert to one's old ways will feel foreign and unattractive. That takes more than a few holy days on the calendar. That takes focus and commitment. It takes deep work.

Shabbat Shalom

Good Decisions, Good Neighbors

Woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor
— BT Sukkah 56b

A friend recently shared an article from the World Economic Forum website about good decision making: A Neuroscientist Who Studies Decision-making Reveals the Most Important Choice You Can Make. Dr. Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University, has been studying the subject and its relationship to happiness for over ten years. Turns out the best way to make a good decision is to have the right friends. The company you keep and seek out will be the best guarantors that future decisions will be good ones, if you have good friends, that is.

This happens for a very important reason. Decision-making is exhausting, especially when we have so many choices and so many decisions to make in the course of a day. Because of the psychic toll and the biases that cloud our judgment, we often defer to the decisions of those around us, so the company you keep matters. Pick your friends and pick your neighbors carefully.

I know what you're thinking. You can pick your friends. You can't pick your neighbors. But you can pick your neighborhood. Cerf's research demonstrates that when two people are in each other's presence, their brain waves look nearly identical. When I read this, I committed to standing near only very kind, very smart people. Seriously, Cerf stresses that because of this alignment, if you want to diminish stress in your life and enhance happiness, surround yourself with people you respect since your choices will likely come to resemble theirs. Spend less time making decisions and more time finding good friends and neighbors.

"Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; don't befriend a wicked person" warns Ethics of the Fathers (1:7) Because you cannot be Jewish alone, the Torah warns against behaviors that make people bad neighbors. For example, communities gossip. Gossip protects values by singling out those who flaunt or break rules or challenge norms. Thus Leviticus states: "You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord" (19:16-18). When we live in close proximity to people, we talk about them; we harbor bad feelings. We hold grudges. Try, the text prods, to love your neighbor as yourself. It's hard, but it's easier if we pick our neighborhoods thoughtfully.

The prophet Zechariah moves from the legal boundaries to sensible advice on how to be a good neighbor: "These are the things that you shall do: "Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace" (8:16). Proverbs recommends generosity of spirit if you want to be a good neighbor: "Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it,' when you have it with you" (3:28). Simply put, don't be nasty, vindictive or irritating as a neighbor. Jeremiah suggest that this kind of neighbor will come with costs: "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages" (22:3)

In his commentary to Genesis 9:2, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes an interesting linguistic connection between the Hebrew infinitive to dwell "SH-K-N" and the word for neighbor, which has the same root. It "means both to dwell, and also to be a neighbor. Therein lies the highest social ideal. In Jewish thought, to dwell means to be a neighbor. When a Jew takes a place on earth to be his dwelling place he must at the same time concede space and domain to his fellow men for a similar dwelling place."

We dwell together, and as neuroscience is now telling us, that closeness may be more important than we realize. People often move into neighborhoods because of the housing, but perhaps the choice of house is not as important as who lives in the houses nearby. That goes for your locker, your cubicle, and your office. Isaiah gets the final word, "My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places" (32:18).

Shabbat Shalom

The Imperfect Storm

He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed.
— Psalms 107:29

This week our learning honors Rivkah Goli, who passed away this week. She was a Jew by choice from the Ivory Coast and blessed many of our tables, always sending a greeting before and after Shabbat to those she loved. May her memory be for a blessing.

The pictures on the news are eerily familiar. Flood waters rising. People being evacuated. Pets moved from rooftops. We brace ourselves as a nation for another massive clean-up of a water-logged city, recognizing that some of the damage will never be fixed. Some broken hearts will never be healed. Those of us who do not live in Texas are cautioned to think of the words of the Buddha: “What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?” It’s a humble reminder that while we are not there, we are all holding on to shards of hope, aware of our existential smallness in facing the power and indifference of nature.

Water imagery fills the Hebrew Bible from its very first chapter. I invite you to look at a verse you may have seen dozens of times with new eyes: “Then God said: ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so. God called the dry land earth and the gathering of the water He called seas. And God saw that it was good,” (Genesis 1:9-10). Perhaps what was good was not the creation of water and dry land but the separation of the two. God blessed the two separate geographic formations, each to serve its own unique purpose. It is the blurring of the boundary line where havoc begins. It is that very blurring that happened six chapters later when floods took over the land, and the separation no longer existed.

If there’s any doubt about the sea’s prominence, we are reminded of this act of creation many times in Psalms: “The sea is His, for it was He who made it. And his hands formed the dry land” (95:5). By seeing a power behind nature, indifference turns to the harnessing of nature to bring humans to awe and fear: “Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them?” Psalm 146:6 asks, “who keeps faith forever?” This reverence is not because of the perfect storm but because of its very imperfect consequences: “Do you not tremble in my presence?” remarks Jeremiah, “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree so it cannot be crossed over. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it” (5:22). As a people, there are seas we have crossed over and those that are impossible to cross.

Job enhances the mystery of the sea by bluntly showing the limitations of human mastery. “Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (38:16). We stand in front of the waves seeing nothing of what happens beneath them and only a fraction of the total horizon. Because of these limitations, it’s not hard to understand the theological wrestling people do in the wake of natural disasters. For some, water is an awesome and majestic aspect of nature. For others, it has robbed them of their homes, their photo albums, their neighbors. And while it’s true that every natural disaster brings a flood of altruism, it is also true that most of us will turn away from the photos and the broadcasts and continue our lives as if this never happened.

I know that not all natural disasters happen right before our Days of Awe, but some years the line of prayer “who by fire and who by water?” seems all too resonant. I looked in my own archives for writing after Katrina and found an essay called “A Yom Kippur Cry for Katrina.” There I composed a few confessional prayers of my own that seem, sadly, all too relevant today:

Forgive us for the sin of indifference.

Forgive us for turning our eyes away from human suffering.

Forgive us for living comfortably in our own homes and not making homes for the displaced.

Forgive us for not sharing our daily bread with those who do not have bread to share.

Forgive us for not hearing the cry of the shofar.

Shabbat Shalom

The Voice

Rabbi Meir would say: One person is different from another in three ways: in voice, in appearance, and in thought.
— BT Sanhedrin 38a

After a recent class, a psychiatrist shared a study with me about the power of the voice in offering consolation. The study compared the voice of a parent over the phone with the voice of a parent face-to-face and then with texting or other non-audial forms of communication. A parent’s voice over the phone or in person had virtually the same calming impact, but the “voice” of a parent in a text did not. The voice is a powerful mechanism in communication, an often-overlooked tool in today’s technological advancement, where the quick text has replaced the distinctiveness of the human voice.

We know from the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir that the voice is one of the hallmarks of a person. We even have an interesting biblical prooftext to this effect in a complex and troubling story. In Genesis, Jacob dresses like his brother but does not succeed in totally fooling his father. He got close to Isaac only to hear these terrifying words: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” (Genesis 27:22). The brothers were non-identical twins who looked different and sounded different from each other.

In the journal Psychological Science, researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University attempted to show that a person’s voice can also affect his or her sense of confidence and authority. Ko was inspired to study this by Margaret Thatcher, who apparently had extensive voice coaching to make her sound more powerful and in control. As Ko said in an article about his research: “Our findings suggest that whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions.” In his study, students assigned to high-power roles were higher in pitch and more monotone than those assigned to less authoritative roles. Fascinating.

This brings us to a voice we welcome back this week in the Jewish calendar: the voice of the shofar that is blown each morning in the Hebrew month of Elul leading up to our Days of Awe. The sound connects us to millennia of spiritual noise and to our own unarticulated cries as we begin this season of repentance and introspection: “Then have the shofar sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land,” (Exodus 19:19). We affirm this one book later: “Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the shofar throughout your land,” (Lev. 25:9).

Interestingly, the text of the blessing we make as part of our formal liturgy is not to blow the shofar but to listen, and not just to listen to the shofar but “to listen to the voice of the shofar:” “Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who commands us to listen to the voice of the shofar.”  The text intimates that the instrument has a voice. So whose voice is it?

In the Abraham narratives where the first shofar appears after the binding of Isaac, we could imagine it being the voice of the weeping father, the frightened son or the grieving, shocked mother. Looking later, it may be the voice of God at Sinai, where another shofar was blown. A midrash links these two shofarot, suggesting that the voice of personal covenant in a Genesis story playfully morphs into the voice of collective covenant in Exodus. The sound of that covenant? It’s the shofar. It sounds human but is not human; it is a wail, a sharp cry, the repeated intakes of breathlessness that represents who we are when we confront our rawest selves.

There is an argument in the Talmud about the legal status of someone who hears a shofar that is blown in a pit or a cave (BT Rosh Hashana 27b). If a person hears the sound bouncing off the walls of an enclosed space, has he or she fulfilled the requirements of the mitzva on Rosh Hashana? Later, rabbinic conclusions codify the law: the reverberations of the shofar are not the shofar. They are the echo sounds, an imitation of the real thing but far from the real thing. It’s only if the listener hears the sound of the shofar directly and in an unmediated way that the mitzvah has been observed.

The shofar reminds us that the piercing, truly human voice is the only real voice. A text is not a voice. An e-mail is not a voice. An unfulfilled good intention is not a voice. Only a voice is a voice. Someone may need your voice right now. You may need the voice of someone else. Nothing less will do.

Shabbat Shalom

Hate Reading

You shall not hate your fellow in your heart. Reprove your fellow and incur no guilt because of him.
— Leviticus 19:17

An all too common photo appeared in many newspapers this week. A spit of sidewalk was littered with flowers and placards, photos and small gifts in honor of the newly dead to crime and injustice. This time it showed a photo of a young woman, Heath Heyer, killed in a hate crime in Charlottesville, VA. While the circumstances are not insignificant, the photo is one to which we’ve almost become immune. Drawn in marker and stuck with masking tape to the asphalt was a sign “No Place for Hate!” Don’t be fooled. This slogan is only emotional wallpaper covering up layers and layers of hate.

When I was a kid, I remember my father would often say, “Never say hate.” We could dislike someone or something, but we were advised not to have such strong negative emotions that we weren’t able to redeem our bad feelings. “I have decided to stick with love,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

The Talmud makes a fascinating assumption about hate. We can control it. A judge is not allowed to judge a case if he is too emotionally invested in a litigant: “One who loves or one who hates” cannot judge fairly, concludes the Talmud [BT Sanhedrin 27b]. But it’s unclear what constitutes hate until the passage continues: “One who hates is referring to anyone who, out of enmity, did not speak to the litigant for three days.” Hate is temporary. At most it lasts three days and then subsides. It would seem that perhaps a judge in an ancient Jewish court could technically preside over a case of someone he hated if three days had passed from the time he was most resentful and angry.

This is rather astonishing and is based on an assumption about the way Jews are supposed to interact as a community. “The Jewish people are not suspected” of hate. They will not bear false witness out of love or hate.  Therefore, in legal terms, we are allowed to be witnesses even in cases of high emotion since we are assumed to be emotionally neutral when it comes to judgment. The Maharshal, Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510-1573), says that if a person is really and truly an enemy, there is a concern that he will testify falsely out of revenge or vindictiveness so we prevent him from doing so. He defies the working assumption of fairness. This view is also held by Maimonides [Book of Judges, “Laws of Testimony,” 13:15].

Later the Talmud digs deeper and asks the reason that an enemy is disqualified from being a witness and concludes, “because he feels a sense of aversion” [BT Sanhedrin 29a]. He or she cannot be emotionally neutral. The same is true with love - “he feels a sense of affinity” - say the sages of old. Love also biases good judgment. Check your emotions at the courtroom door.

This concern about heated emotions extends to the judges themselves and not only the witnesses. Two scholars who hate each other, according to Rabbi Yossi, cannot sit in judgment as one. Their judgment is impaired. Perhaps they will care more about besting each other than doing what is fair and just for the litigant before them.

All of these laws are extensions of a biblical principle that ties hate and love together. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsmen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord your God,” we read in Leviticus. Take the hate out of your heart so that you can love fully and authentically. Hillel distilled it into one principle: “What is hateful to you do not do to your brother.” Rabbi Akiva distilled it into another: “Loving one’s fellow is a central principle in the Torah.”

When you feel the tentacles of hate, do what is right and noble. Discuss your issue with the person who is the subject of your strong negative feelings: “Confront a kinsman and admonish him fiercely, in this way avoiding grudges and vengeance that breeds hatred...a proper attitude promotes love for one’s neighbor,” says scholar Baruch Levine in his commentary on this verse.

We are living in hate-saturated times. The Jewish assumption of character is that hate, if we experience it at all, is something that does not last long because we do not let it last long, not longer than three days. Let it go. Festering hatred is fragmenting this country and the world around us. It’s time to stand up to hate with love.

Shabbat Shalom

Mid-Life Question

The glory of the young is their strength, and the honor of the old is their gray hair.
— Proverbs 20:9

Look carefully at the quote above. Notice something missing? We jump from young to old and seem to forget midlife. Youth is associated with strength. Old age is associated with wisdom. So what's midlife associated with? For too many it's a time of resignation and disappointment, regrets and unfulfilled dreams and the recurring premonition that it will always be that way. Ecclesiastes tells us that everything has its season: "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven," (3:1). So what time is mid-life for?

The young adult novelist, Laurie Halse Anderson observed that the problem is that midlife comes at an inconvenient time. "It's bad timing, but a lot of kids become teenagers just as their parents are hitting their midlife crisis. So everybody's miserable and confused and seeking that new sense of identity." My question is why the misery?

We've all heard of a mid-life crisis. Maybe we've even had one (or a few).  There seems to be a lot of writing about it - but maybe we should protest the term. Sure, for some people there's a real crisis of identity that age brings: questions of health, mortality, career choices and family dysfunction. But for a lot of people, it's more about the midlife question than the midlife crisis. What's next? What's my purpose? What's my contribution? My legacy? Pick the question. For some, it's all these questions and more. A question is not the same thing as a crisis. A question opens up possibilities; it can prompt the next chapter. A crisis shuts us down. It paralyzes.

In the past weeks, we've read quite a lot of Jeremiah in the annual Jewish calendar. He's associated with doom; it's easy to conclude that he's the perfect prophet of midlife. But then he offers us this: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope," (29:11). In context, this is a message to exiles about the future. One eighteenth century commentator translates the word "future" as the end, indicating not tomorrow but in a time far from the current moment. Resigned to loss of place and identity, the people might think that they will have no name, no legacy. But that's not the end. An popular expression which is in Israel is "If the end if good, all is good. If it's not good, it's not the end." Not everything in life ends well, but what if we mentally or emotionally end it before it's really over?

The same commentary observes that we want the future to be good, and God knows this. God, if you will, assumes positive intent. And then uses the thought to reframe our seventy years in exile. These seventy years which you thought were bad were really good; they have the potential to be transformed through repentance and change. Nothing is static. Stasis is a choice. Make a different choice, the prophet advises.

In an important way, the cycle of Israel's nascent growth, challenges, exile and redemption is a pattern for all of humankind. It's also the pattern that Jeremiah followed. He began his career in his youth, when everything was possible. He retreated into the difficulties and severe hardships of destruction and ill-fated leadership in midlife but, as Rabbi Binny Lau concludes in his study of Jeremiah, "The book concludes by showing how salvation sprouts from the unlikeliest of places, from machinations that even prophets cannot predict." Ironically it was in exile that his career flourished, and he was given "a new lease on life." Lau then projects this on to the State of Israel as the next phase of biblical redemption, with all its challenges.

What's your next redemptive chapter? 

What's your midlife question?

Shabbat Shalom

The Tree of Hope

…Plant vineyards and eat the food they produce.

— Jeremiah 29:5

This Shabbat is called the Sabbath of Consolation. After the three week period of mourning that intensified in its last nine days, we finally feel the grief lifting. It’s made me wonder about consolation generally and what constitutes consolation for people. What comforts people after suffering or disappointment? For some it’s friends. For some it’s food. For some it’s travel. For some it’s charity. Some people find comfort in religion; others in art. For Victor Hugo, it was reading, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” For Jews, it’s trees.

Trees have always been a sign of regeneration, of growth after decimation. Plant a tree, and the world feels better because the possibility of growth represents hope. We were born into a garden, and as its stewards were charged with the task of tending the garden. At the same time, the garden provided nourishment and beauty: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food...” (Genesis 2:9) Trees then and now represent that which is sturdy and reliable, aesthetically pleasing and materially satisfying. We are not allowed, Deuteronomy reminds us, to cut down a fruit tree in a time of war. The tree gives, and we receive, as we read later in Proverbs of the Torah, “It is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed [3:18].

A fan of Shel Silverstein, I personally never liked the book The Giving Tree and failed to understand why so many people bought it as a gift of the heart. It is a tree story where giving goes to such an extreme that the tree fails to teach what constitutes a relationship of meaning. The tree enables. Jewish trees give but as early as Genesis, we are told to care for them and be caretakers of the garden. They grow because we enable that growth. Their growth is supposed to mirror ours: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” [Psalms 1:3] Hope itself is tied into the image of the tree: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” [Proverbs 13:12]

Each part of the tree is a metaphor for human development: the roots, the trunk, the leaves, the fruit, the shade. We are to be all these things. And we are to be them most when life is at its lowest. Jeremiah in exile reminds us to build houses and marry off children and plant, as the quote above suggests. That investment invites us to nurture something that takes time to grow but provides rich dividends. Job sees the role model of the tree as something that will continue even when we think there’s no possibility left: “At least there is hope for a tree. If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant” (14:7-9).

This regenerative power led to the worship of trees. They were regarded in the ancient world as magical. Botanist Nogah Hareuveni, in his book Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, observes that: “Human awe at the seemingly immortal “Tree of Life” seen all around in field and forest brought numerous tribes and nations to worship trees, attributing to them supernatural powers.” Jews do not ascribe supernatural powers to trees but natural powers to them. In times of sadness, the idea of gardening creates seeds of hope. For this reason, during the nine days of mourning the Temples' destruction, we are forbidden to plant. Perhaps, we should end this period by planting a tree, signaling that the tree of life continues to grow.

We plant trees in Israel to mark special occasions. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It communicates that something good is on its way. Be patient. Watch it grow. Find consolation in a future you planted. There lies hope.

Shabbat Shalom

Long Suffering

Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren.”
Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear.
— Yiddish Expression

I learned the painful but true saying above from a collection of sayings called Yiddish Wisdom, produced by Chronicle Books. I also learned how to say, "You can't sit on two horses with one behind" and "If your grandmother had a beard, she's be your grandfather" in Yiddish but haven't figured out the right context in which to use them.

I turned to this small collection because Yiddish has a rich and creative vocabulary for expressing pain. There is something appealingly inelegant about it that feels authentic to the way real people live and think. This is in contrast to many biblical texts that we read this season in a liturgical context to mark the Three Weeks of mourning over the loss of the two holy Temples and other tragedies of Jewish history commemorated during these days of ancient heartbreak. The prophets offered us their literary prose, their complicated metaphors and their daring antics to get the attention of a misbehaving people. Yiddish gives us a simple "OY."

OY is also the last two letters of the word JOY, perhaps a linguistic wordplay that makes no sense other than to communicate that one cannot experience deep and true happiness without an active range of emotions. "Az men ken not iberhalten dos shlechteh, ken men dos guteh nit derleben." If you can't endure the bad, you'll not live to witness the good, says this Yiddish aphorism. No one wants bad news. No one opts for sadness, but it shows up as a constant friend anyway. And maybe, as the saying recommends, we must invite in that sadness and not push it away because it holds the key to emotional depth that will also allow us to experience joy more completely.

I've always been taken by several lines in Rumi's poem, "The Guesthouse" that majestically express this conundrum: that deep pain is related to deep joy.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all...

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Pain also inspires, which may explain why our prophets had so much to say about destruction and redemption. "A shver hartz redt a sach." A heavy heart talks a lot. The release of words unburdens us and frees up more space for other emotions, for slivers of positive thinking and optimism.

Sometimes, however, grieving does not easily let up its hold on us. "Altsding lozt zich oi smit a gevain." Everything ends in weeping. Our mortality is close by always, even if we create multiple mechanisms of distance. There are times when the veil that separates us from our mortality is perilously thin. The historic chronology of loss we experienced thousands of years ago which we encapsulate in the time frame of three weeks can feel long and onerous, but precisely because of that, we are put in a narrow tunnel that we need to walk through slowly to see the light. That mortality signals an urgency for meaning, for connection, for closeness and joy.

This relationship is not obvious to most...

The happiness expectation

That marks every summer vacation,

Leaves no room for mourning

For Jeremiah's scorning,

Or a day of thoughtful grieving

About our ancient disbelieving.

Our many infidelities

Were washed away with charities

In the hopes of consolation

At the failures of our nation.

Now so few really mark these days

In soulful or demanding ways.

Perhaps we can make room for sadness

Amidst the chaos and the madness,

Because our incapacity to welcome pain

Has become itself a human stain.

Yet when our hearts can court disaster,

They're wide enough to hold our laughter.

"Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren." Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear, says the saying above. Yet if you do and survive it, you just planted the seeds of resilience.

Shabbat Shalom

The Modern-Day Prophet

In wrath, remember mercy
— Habakuk 3:2

Who are today’s prophets? Some argue for public intellectuals who examine trends and are unafraid to speak their minds. According to Paul Simon, the prophets are graffiti artists: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.” For Yoko Ono, true artists are prophets. Joseph Addision believed it was the jester. Binny Lau, a contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar, believes that journalists today “take on the role of moral and social critics,” but adds that “more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.” In his book, Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet, Lau draws our attention to the word “jeremiad” that comes from the ethos of this prophet’s task: a work that mourns society and its imminent downfall. No wonder prophets were so unpopular.

Lau makes many important observations in his book about what a prophet does that have ramifications for us today. As we have entered the mourning period of the Three Weeks, when portions of Jeremiah’s writings - like his eponymous book and the book of Lamentations - are regularly read and studied, it seems an apt time to think about the nature of prophecy and who fulfills that role in today’s society. Lau writes that even though a prophet’s job is to chastise his people, it must always be criticism that emerges from deep love. “Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not stand aloof and condemn.”

David Ben Gurion, on the occasion of his 84th birthday called Jeremiah the greatest prophet who arose before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was also, according to Ben Gurion, “the most despised, downtrodden, and daring.” And yet, despite all of this, the first Israeli prime minister believed that what made him an enduring model of Jewish leadership was his abiding affection for the Israelites: “Jeremiah loved his people and had faith in its posterity - and his faith has proven true until this very day.

Prophets very often put their very lives on the line when balancing truth and love. Jeremiah almost lost his life more than once. This career is not for the faint-hearted. In an obscure story recorded both in the book of Kings and then again in Chronicles, a group of 400 prophets were brought before King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah to consult on whether the two should join forces and wage war. The prophets all spoke in unison with the same pandering message. Jehoshaphat then asked if there was any other prophet who had not yet been invited to offer an opinion. There was one: Micaiah. Ahab couldn’t stand the man. He was always a contrarian, saying evil rather than good. Nevertheless, he was brought before the two for his judgment. At first, he echoed the diplomatic words of his colleagues but when pressed, Micaiah shared the bad news ahead.

Not surprisingly, a courtier in the room approached the prophet and slapped the him in the face. Ahab ordered Michaiah to be taken to the ruler of his city with the following instructions: “Put this man in prison, and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.” (See I Kings 22 for the entire story). The kings were determined to go out to war. But the prophet got the last word, “If you ever return safely...” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people.”

That famous expression, “Mark my words,” the ancient version of “I told you so,” rings in our ears. The prophet is a verbal marksman, targeting with precision what he must say and to whom. The anger of the prophet is reflected in the anger of God, a different kind of anger than the one we usually associate with humans. Heschel has this to say about the kind of anger we see reflected in prophetic literature: “The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional...Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear.” This kind of anger is a tool of reformation, in Heschel's words, “anger includes a call to return and to be saved. The call of anger is a call to cancel anger.” If the prophets teach us anything about how to live today, let it be this: to use anger constructively to bring ourselves and others to a path of greater goodness. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

Who do you think are today’s prophets and what do their business cards say? Drop me a line and let me know.

Shabbat Shalom



A liar is careful about upholding his lies.
— BT Bava Batra 167b

Forgeries are incredibly interesting. For one reason or another, the printed word is manipulated to either make the forger into someone of scintillating brilliance or to misconstrue the real author and the real agenda of a work. Art works are forged to make money or to hide theft. Signatures are forged to create credibility or to get someone in trouble. Forgers are driven by the animating belief that they will never be found out. Novelist Jonathan Gash writes in his book, Jade Woman that, "Once a faker's found out, he dies. Truly. It always happens." This suggests that perhaps a forger's identity is so tied up in the lives of others that his or her own personal identity weakens. There is shame in one's own existence that can get covered by adopting the persona, if only temporarily, of someone else.

The sages of the Talmud were very concerned with forgeries, and in a lengthy discussion on the production of scribal documents, insist that a number of measures be taken to protect innocents from the corrupting, deceptive practices of forgers, understanding, as the quote above suggests, that liars are careful about upholding their lies. They will stoop to new lows simply to maintain deception. After all, what's another lie to a liar?

To circumvent forgeries, the sages insisted that many official documents be signed in the presence of witnesses, that documents that were clearly erased be held suspect and that no spaces be left in the writing that might encourage a forger to insert a letter or a word that might change the document's meaning. They were worried that people might falsely change their names or confuse others when signing documents if they had the same name as another in the town. They advised leaving the last two lines of an official document empty to make sure that no one cribbed in another sentence or two to change the subject or object of a document once it had already been signed.

They cite a story about a document allegedly signed in front of the scholars Rava and Rabbi Aha bar Adda (BT Bava Batra 167a). The person named on the document came forward and claimed that although the signature was indeed his, he had never come before these scholars to sign anything. Rava sensed a forgery and said that although his own name was easy to forge, Rabbi Aha bar Adda's was not. He had a shaky hand.  When they caught the forger and pressed him on the matter, he confessed that he wrote the signature with his hands on the rope of an unstable footbridge, thus he was able to duplicate the handwriting with accuracy.

Judaism has suffered from some famous forgeries, most notable of which is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text disseminated in multiple languages in the early part of the 20th century with immense anti-Semitic repercussions. It contents are allegedly the minutes of a meeting of Jewish statesmen with a global plan to take over the world's economy and subvert justice. This forgery, that still carries weight with anti-Semites even though it's been falsified, confirms a pre-existing agenda that feeds on falsehoods. The social philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism explains this curious fact: "...if a patent forgery like the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is believed by so many people that it can become the text of a whole political movement, the task of the historian is no longer to discover a forgery. Certainly it is not to invent explanations which dismiss the chief political and historical facts of the matter: that the forgery is being believed. This fact is more important than the (historically speaking, secondary) circumstance that it is a forgery." 

Why do we fall for fakes? We believe what we want to believe because it serves an important purpose for us. Take, for example, a famous forgery in Israel. In 1988, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, purchased a relic for $550,000. It was a small ivory pomegranate attributed to the era of the First Temple and the only evidence we have that dates from that period. I remember seeing the pomegranate myself and feeling overwhelmed. It was very small and well-lit and the fruit has always had symbolic significance for Jews. It is one of the seven species associated with Israel and mythically has 613 seeds, representing the number of mitzvot. We associate it with Rosh Hashana. I even went to the gift shop many years ago and bought a replica of it in sterling to wear as a pin. It didn't dawn on me that it could have been a fake. It felt like it was a small confirmation of truths I held dearly, now supported by archeology.

The Israel Antiquities Authority reveled that it was a very old relic but the First Temple inscription on it was fake. But that was not all. The Authority uncovered a sophisticated forgery ring in Israel that had produced a number of "important" artifacts dated from the Bible. One of them was an ossuary box reputed to hold the bones of James, Jesus' brother; another was an ancient tablet linked to King Joash during the days of Solomon's Temple.  Oy.

"You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another," say Leviticus (19:11). There are lots of ways we transgress this commandment. Maybe the ultimate transgression in a case of forgery is the failure to be our own authentic selves.

Shabbat Shalom

Praising Loudly

He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be a curse to him.
— Proverbs 27:14

“He’s amazing.”

“But I heard he’s abusive at home.”

“She looks great.”

“True, but I heard she takes diet pills and her kids are starving.”

We’ve all heard conversations like this, high praise followed by instant critique.

Imagine, for a moment, that someone stood on a rooftop and yelled out your praises. It would feel great. How validating it would be to hear accolades flying through the air, landing every which way, for friends and strangers to hear. But Proverbs warns that such behavior can be devastating and, ultimately, a curse. Because of the faulty or vague pronoun reference at the end of the verse, we are not exactly sure who will be cursed. Perhaps the person with a loud voice who wakes others early in the morning will be cursed by his neighbors. Few would appreciate an alarm clock that sing someone else’s praises, although it might be affirming to have an alarm clock that sings one’s own.

A more likely interpretation is that the object of another person’s praise will be cursed. The Talmud seeks to understand why [BT Bava Batra 164b-165a). Once, the Talmud scholar Rabbi Shimon was sitting in front of his father and reading chapters from the book of Psalms. Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, his father, saw the book and admired its calligraphy. Humbly, Rabbi Shimon said, “I didn’t write it,” and credited another person’s handiwork. His father then retorted: “Turn away from uttering this malicious speech.”

Malicious speech? This makes no sense. Rabbi Shimon was praising a scribe, not criticizing one. The Talmud continues, arguing that this, indeed, makes no sense. “What malicious speech is there?” the scholars ask. “A person should never speak the praises of another, as out of the praise about him someone may come to speak to his detriment.” Ouch.

We humans are insecure creatures. Working from a scarcity model, when we hear too much praise of someone else, we falsely believe that its diminishes our own positive sense of self. Our egos are bruised or maybe, because of our own narcissistic tendencies, we interpret the praise of someone else as an implicit criticism of ourselves. Why am I not better, worthier, more talented? Am I not as good as this guy, the object of someone else’s adoration? We’ve all heard compliments given to others, and our first instinct is to find fault. We need praise, and yet we minimize the praise of others. It’s this that the Talmud warns us of in our human interactions.

There are commentaries that suggest that loud praise is a form of false flattery. “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speaks proud things,” advises a verse in Psalms (12:4). Maybe the Talmud is suggesting that when someone screams another’s praises rather than sharing it person to person, they are doing so for their own personal gain. Again, we all know – and may be guilty of this ourselves – people who receive false praise because the one who compliments wants something from them: money, connections, support. This kind of praise is disingenuous and promotes a lack of authenticity in our relationships.

This prompts yet another rabbi to make the observation that there are three sins from which a person is not spared every day. In other words, try as we might, human beings are going to slip up in these arenas every single day: having sinful thoughts – the desire to do something wrong in one’s head, failing in prayer – engaging in the act of prayer but without proper intent, focus or concentration – and malicious speech. Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible to avoid speaking badly of others. To this, the Talmud also balks: “Can it enter your mind that someone cannot spend an entire day refraining from malicious speech?” Later, another rabbi concludes that, “Everyone sins with regard to malicious speech.” This, too, the rabbis question. The answer softens the blow; it’s a hint of malicious speech, something someone says that could be interpreted to be positive or negative or a backhanded compliment.

Reading these pages, it’s not hard to conclude that the best way to walk in the world is in silence. Why bother trying to work on refraining from gossip when even praise can be misinterpreted? Maybe the Talmud is actually suggesting that finding fault with others is a human addiction; it’s an everyday struggle tied into our own inadequacies and deep insecurities. And, like the advice given to other addicts, we need to take it one day at a time, one conversation at a time. Praising others helps us regulate our own ego needs, but that praise needs to be tempered in order to be heard and properly nurtured.

Praise, but praise quietly.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Yohanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, imparts wisdom only to those who already possess it.
— BT BRakhot 55a

Rabbi Yohanan's statement is deeply puzzling. If God imparts wisdom to those who already possess it, then what kind of gift is wisdom, and how do the rest of us get in on it? Do we show God our IQ or SAT scores or a solid GPA? Wisdom sounds a lot more expansive than these abbreviated, indexed and narrow measures of our intellectual abilities. I recently heard a talk on creativity that has made me mull over it in relation to Rabbi Yohanan's words.
We know much more today about how the creative mind works and what is needed to nourish creativity and what squelches it. Loosely defined, creativity is the use of imagination or the production of original, innovative ideas. We often associate creativity with the fashioning of artistic works that require a degree of inventiveness. But this, like our abbreviations above, is too narrow a way to think about creativity. There are creative problem-solvers and original thinkers in every arena of human endeavor. Steve Jobs once said that creativity is just connecting things. "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."
Creatives, those for whom creativity is more than the production of original work but a way of thinking and being in the world, have been described as "consistently original." This may mean that the way they act, think, work, dress or form relationships has elements of freshness and newness all the time. Creativity for them is not limited to one area; it spills over into everything. This description helped me understand Rabbi Yohanan's statement. The creative is constantly using wisdom to generate more wisdom, in the elastic sense of allowing the brain the freedom to take an idea and move it in many different directions, layer it and change it.
This characterization is reminiscent of a description of our chief biblical creative: Bezalel, who was tasked with the responsibilities of overseeing the creation of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, our portable sanctuary in the wilderness. God, the Hebrew Bible states, literally filled him "with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship..." [Exodus 31:3] A few chapters later, we have a repeat of these gifts and an extension of them to anyone with similar capabilities: "every wise-hearted person, in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding to know how to execute all the work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the Lord has commanded. And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every wise-hearted person, in whose heart the Lord put wisdom, and to everyone whose heart stirred him to come to do the work," (Exodus 36:1-2).
Talent here is twinned with volition. One could argue that you don't need a lot of creativity to execute the exact plans you are given, unless, of course,  you have ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture. You need a certain kind of creativity to put together something in an intelligent way that maximizes and encourages the creativity of others. Bezalel's creative genius lay not only in his capacity to carry through on God's word but also to bring others into the work with him and expand them in the process. 

And this is another thing I recently learned about creatives: they need nourishment and recognition. Nothing kills a creative impulse more than no one noticing creative output. Perhaps nothing grows creativity more than the recognition by others that stimulates a desire to do more. In love and parenting, at school, work and in our volunteer giving, our ability to note, pay attention and comment on the work of others is a feedback loop that offers encouragement to keep on going. When no one notices our creative output, we being to question ourselves and our own worthiness. Bezalel, it seems, was able to nurture the creative gifts of others.
Creativity is also highly personal, as the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp notes in her book on the subject: "In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it." Creating the right conditions for creativity helps bring out our own originality.
So where and when are you most creative?
Shabbat Shalom

You're Invited

All the days of the poor are terrible, and for the good-hearted it is always a feast.
— Proverbs 15:15

 I came across this verse on a page of Talmud, knowing that while it's meaning seemed obvious from a surface glance, that our ancient scholars would play with it and engage in their usual mental gymnastics [BT Bava Batra 145b-146a]. Poverty creates misery so it's not hard to understand that all the days of the poor would be terrible. And we all know that while we associate poverty with one's financial circumstances, there are, sadly, many manifestations of it, as Mother Teresa famously observed: "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." The second part of the verse is less self-evident since feasting is attached to being good-hearted instead of to wealth alone. This suggests that poverty and wealth, as understood here, are states of mind, attitudes about our lives through the prisms of scarcity and abundance.

At first, this verse in the Talmud is analogized to modalities of learning. Some methods and subjects of study are rich and energizing. Others may be routine or depleting. We all know the experience of being at a banquet of knowledge, where the presence of great minds at work helps ideas run fast and furious. This may happen in a wonderful class or course or while reading a stimulating book or because of an edifying conversation.

The exegesis of the verse then takes a quick and unexpected turn:

"This is referring to one who has a wicked wife. 'And for the good-hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who has a good wife." It seems that the rabbis focused on the terms "all" and "always." Poverty and bounty that are a daily and constant feature of life suggest other ways our lives are framed in the day-to-day. When core relationships, like marriage, are not working, every day is a struggle. When they are characterized by contentedness, they are enriching and hopeful.

Rabbi Yannai, however, treats this verse not as a statement of who is in your life but who you are; it's about personal identity: "'All the days of the poor are terrible;' this refers to one who is delicate. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who is pleasant." A delicate person in Jewish law is called an istinus; this individual is fastidious about cleanliness and order to a degree that can become an obstacle to personal happiness. In modern parlance, we might say that someone like this suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whether or not the rabbis believed that this worldview had reached the level of disease, they certainly understood that it could cramp one's joy and that a relaxed - chillaxed (as my children say) - approach to life and its many adventures will feel banquet-like in comparison.

This internal framing continues. Rabbi Yohanan says "'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this refers to an empathic person; and for the good hearted it is always a feast;" this refers to a cruel person. And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, 'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this is referring to a person who has an impatient nature. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' is referring to a person who is of a patient nature." It's not hard to understand why patience and impatience could lead a person to very different qualities of life. Rabbi Yohanan's interpretation is harder, more troubling and, ultimately, more profound. Too much empathy can create emotional poverty. I was recently speaking with a college student who beautifully described how taking on the burden of others was very important to her because it took them off someone else's shoulders. When I asked her if she was sure this transference took place, she said "Probably not. "When I asked her how this makes her feel, she shrugged and said, "It's exhausting."

Rabbi Yohanan is not suggesting that we be cruel and not compassionate. The Talmud famously says that if one is cruel then we question if that individual is indeed Jewish. Empathy should be part of the DNA of every one of us. But he does warn us about how compassion without boundaries can create deep unhappiness. Protecting oneself while still maintaining compassion is an art and an important skill so that we can keep on giving. Being drained or even exploited can lead to powerful resentment and anxiety.

Reading these various interpretations makes us wonder if we see life as a daily struggle or life as a delicious banquet, one we are invited to join. The banquet is not what makes us whole-hearted; because we are whole-hearted, we can see a banquet even when a simple meal is placed before us.

Shabbat Shalom

Does Charm Harm?

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”
— Proverbs 31:30

A recent Wall Street Journal Magazine article had six luminaries reflect on charm. An author and director associated the word with "a smile that's very disarming and inviting." The columnists, in turn, described charm as warmth and natural charisma or cleverness and confidence. A novelist observed that when she was growing up charm meant knowing the rules of polite society and playing by them. "Real charm," she believes, "is about authenticity." The most charming people she knows "have knowledge of self through cultural and spiritual authenticity." I realized that this surfeit of good feeling - this charm - was not something I had ever associated with the word. I was drawn to the words of the actor Sam Elliott in this column, "...the word charm has two faces. On one side, you have those really delightful people, the ones we all love to be around. But on the flip side there is a kind of charm that is less sincere, that's used to manipulate others." It's hard for me to trust a charmer, and I believe I have the Hebrew Bible to thank for this.  

Our first biblical charmer was the snake in Genesis, a snake charmer, if you will. "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" (3:1). He slithered with guile, a kind of deceit that is seductive because it appeals to some deep need to subvert authority and gain attention while having our more selfish needs satisfied. Eve had everything she could have wanted, but she also had a Boss. The snake lulled her into thinking that she has just as much power if not more. She did not have to listen. Without the snake, she would have spent the rest of her days in a bountiful garden.

In Proverbs, this sense of being manipulated by something or someone who leads one astray is confirmed in several other verses: "A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers," (17:8). "He who hates disguises it with his lips, but he lays up deceit in his heart. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him..." (26:24-25). His charm is shallow; his duplicitousness has been honed into a fine tool to cheat others with his smooth talk.

Narratively, we find this sense of charming in the story of the would-be king, Avshalom, third son of David. He was not an heir to the throne but wished to be. And we learn another, not insignificant, detail about this prince; he was handsome: "In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Avshalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot, there was no blemish in him," (II Samuel 14:25). His looks served him well when it came to manipulating people and drawing them into his campaign for the throne.

A chapter later, we learn that he woke up early and went to city gates, the place where law was adjudicated. He inquired after every person, asking what city he hailed from.  Whatever city that was, Avshalom claimed to be from there as well. Before making his request, he tried to ingratiate himself with others by creating a false sense of kinship. In other words, laying on the charm. Then he told the stranger exactly what he wanted to hear. "'See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.' Moreover, Avshalom would say, 'Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.' And when a man came near to prostrate himself before him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. In this manner, Avshalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Avshalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel." Charm worked its magic, one person at a time.

For charm to work, there must be a charmer and a charmee - one who indulges the manipulator and falls for the deceit. No wonder we conclude the Proverb's passage, "A Woman of Valor" with a verse that begs us to be careful: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." Charm, in this sense is the opposite of authenticity. Charm here is linked to the vanity of beauty. Good looks are a divine gift, not a tool with which to manipulate others.

Saul, our first king, also suffered from good looks and was ultimately undone. God even had to warn the prophet Samuel to be wary: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,"(I Samuel 16:7). 

And so should we. 

Shabbat Shalom


Why should you steal?
— BT. Bava Basra 133a

Credit is a fascinating intangible commodity. We don't get enough of it. We deny we want it. And we get resentful if we don't get it. But giving credit is a fundamental Jewish value, and the animus behind the above Talmudic statement. One scholar was indignant when another cited an opinion without proper attribution. He accused him of no less than stealing. Intellectual property lawyers take note. These opinions were delivered orally, and yet even so, they were regarded as treasured ideas that "belonged" to someone.

During a heated debate about the intricate rules of inheritance, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Nahman said to Rabbi Huna, "Why should you steal?" He was not accusing him of a taking an object that belonged to someone else but taking someone else's idea without giving the credit. He continued to remonstrate his colleague that if he sided with a particular sage then he must state his name. Naming the masoritic line - the link of scholars who hold a position down to its originator- is a standard feature of virtually every page of the Talmud. For those unacquainted with Talmud study who encounter these name lists, it may seem frustrating or extraneous, but, in reality, who you learn something from is a sacred aspect of the teaching.

Amy Gallo in her HBR article, "What to Do When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work?" (April 29, 2015), discusses the niggling problem of being forgotten when it comes to getting credit. Why should that matter, she asks? It matters very much: "That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments. And you can't assume that people will notice the time and effort you put in," she writes, quoting Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

She offers some advice to those who are sitting at their desks seething because someone took the pat on the back while they strained to make it happen. Take time to calm down, and don't call out a colleague in front of others. The goal is not humiliation. Assume positive intent. It's likely an oversight and not deliberate. What will you gain by outing this mistake? Instead ask the person why it happened rather than accuse. Talk about how to right the wrong if the person acknowledges it. If not, Gallo suggests a more focused conversation with a supervisor about good working partnerships, modeling giving credit and being proactive about articulating who has worked on what in a collaborative project so that the contributors are clearly identified.

Ethics of the Fathers shares many observations about credit - giving it and not creating the impression that your work is your own. For example, Rabban Yohanan, the son of Zakkai, who received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai said: "If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself; it is for this that you have been created." (2:8) Don't take credit even for your own accomplishments because this is what you were put in the world to do - to learn, to study, to grow. In a later chapter, we are adjured to treat with respect and recognition, anyone who has taught us anything: "One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect." (6:3). Later in the same chapter, in a lengthy mishna, we learn that Torah is acquired with 48 qualities. These include: study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, awe, fear, humility, joy, purity and "precision in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker."

This particular aspect of learning acquisition is the only one with a biblical proof-text: "One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world, as is stated: "And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai" (Esther 2:22). Mordechai discovered a plot against the king. When Esther relayed this message to the king, she did so in Mordechai's name. It would have been easy enough to take the credit and promote herself inside the palace. Mordechai would never have known. But she knew.

We can understand the powerful seduction of taking credit for someone else's brilliant idea to look brilliant ourselves. But stealing their shine to augment our own prizes making a good impression over being a person of impressive virtue. And that should be enough.

Shabbat Shalom

Going Grey

Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path of righteousness.
— Proverbs 16:31

Mark Twain famously said that wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been. It’s a nice thought but perhaps a bit naïve. I find Sonja Henie, the Norwegian athlete, a bit more convincing: “Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles.”

I’ve been thinking about wrinkles this week. This doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the mirror but rather pondering a rabbinic observation I came across a few days ago. A talmudic discussion of Moses’ mother, Yoheved, reveals her youthfulness, a word-play based on using the Hebrew word “daughter” to describe this elderly woman: “Her signs of youth re-emerged. The flesh became smooth, the wrinkles were straightened out, and beauty returned to its place” (BT Bava Batra 120a). Wow. What skin cream did that woman have, and how can I get some?

The gemara seems to affirm what both beauty counters world-over and NASA are working on: fighting gravity. The desire to go back in time and make the old young again is surprising given the general biblical and rabbinic praise of wisdom and old age. Getting old is not a guarantee that one gets wise, but we hope that the two will come together when looks takes a backseat in our lives.

In our ongoing study this season, this understanding seems to be at the heart of a statement in Ethics of the Fathers (6:8) that uses the quote above from Proverbs to praise the elderly. “R. Shimon b. Yehuda, in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai, says ‘Beauty and strength and riches and honor and wisdom and old age and grey hair and children, all beautify the world,’ as it says: ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path to righteousness;’ and it says: ‘The glory of young men is their strength, and the majesty of the elders is their grey hair;’(Proverbs 20:29) and it says: ‘Then crown of elders are children’s children and the glory of children is their parents’ (Proverbs 17:6).

This mishna lists multiple ways to bring greater beauty to the world, and two of them are old age and grey hair. Children are also included, offering the sense that a beautiful world stretches across the lifespan. As is typical in rabbinic literature, R. Shimon b. Yohai brings in biblical proof-texts to strengthen his point. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch believes that “the acquisition of long years of living marks the old man as a person to whom honor is due. But a hoary head as such is a mark of distinction only if the life of the man has been a good and righteous one.”

Pitting one rabbinic statement against another, we have to ask if getting old is seen as a positive or a negative in the Talmud.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in Sage Advice offers his interpretation of the mishna: “…there is strong theme in Talmudic literature – undoubtedly enhanced and made credible by the dualism of body and spirit endemic to Hellenistic culture – that pleasures of the body are unimportant because they are at best fleeting and marginal. At worst, they turn into indulgences and become the enemies of righteous living…” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yitz suggest that this mishna “suggests that a beautiful body is also a value. R. Shimon proclaims that worldly honor for the righteous and a vital, respected old age for the religious are desirable.”

In other words: the answer is both. There may have appropriate pushback in the ancient Jewish world to value age above Hellenic notions of youthful beauty and strength. But this messaging does not tell the whole story. What keeps someone youthful is not changing the way they look but keeping a youthful attitude into old age, one that values curiosity and newness, intelligence and adventure.

Wrinkles are an outward sign that the skin has matured and settled into a face with character, as the Italian actress Anna Magnani once said, “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”

Shabbat Shalom

How Much is Too Much?

The more possessions, the more anxiety.
— Ethics of the Fathers 2:8

Many years ago, I stepped into an elevator and saw the following sign: "If what you have isn't making you happy, why will more of it make you happier?" It was a sobering morning. And it was a gift and a reminder about the limitations of ownership. Wouldn't it be better to be an

inquiring mind than an acquiring one? Can we appreciate something without having to own it? After all, Ethics of the Fathers - our subject of study until Shavuot - reminds us that the more we own, the more worry we create for ourselves.


Vivek Shanbhag is the author of a new small gem of a novel, Ghachar Ghochar. Shanbag has been called an Indian Chekov, and it's not hard to see why when you read this story of a family unraveling. They were a small but close family, united in their poverty and an us-versus-them approach to the world. When they open a wholesale spice company on the brink of their ruin, they suddenly find themselves wealthy. Everything changes. They move out of the old neighborhood, convinced they will visit often and maintain the old relationships that they soon forget. Their close-knit bonds begin to fray under the pressures that ownership creates. The lassitude that sets in from not having to work hard or work at all is responsible for the destruction of not one marriage but two. The narrator makes a general observation about money: "It's true what they say - it's not we who control money, it's the money that controls us. When there's only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind."


I thought of Shanbhag's words in the context of our quote above. "Marbe nekhasim, marbe da'aga," bemoans Hillel in the Mishna. The more possessions, the more anxiety. When you have little, there's also little to worry about. The more you own, the more you have to maintain, care for and protect your assets. You become suspicious of anyone who might damage your portfolio or your status. You no longer own things. The things begin to own you. It's no wonder that the central protagonist of another novel, Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler, changes her life by reducing what she owns, thing by thing, until she lets go of it all. What may seem nightmarish to many becomes a source of liberation for her.

Hillel's saying expands far beyond this terse aphorism, as Hillel explores why more of what we have will not necessarily make us more whole. Hillel rejects too much sexuality, materialism, triviality, lewdness and theft - none of which can lead to any good. He also includes areas where more of something will be more beneficial to the human condition: "The more Torah the more life, the more schooling the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more righteousness the more peace. If a man has acquired a good name he has gained something which enriches himself; but if he has acquired words of the Torah he has attained afterlife."

There are certain things in life we cannot get enough of, primarily in the arena of wisdom and character. Get enough of those and you get something else that money can never buy: a good name, one that lives after you.

Central to Hillel's challenge is one two-part question: what do you need less of and what do you need more of in your life? I was recently asked an open-ended question as part of an ice-breaker: what would I want to get? The word "get" always confounds me. I often conflate it with greed. As usual in ice-breaker sessions, I panic. Someone else will obviously say something more true, more clever or more funny. Someone wanted a yacht or a bigger house, pretty standard answers. I have all that I need, so nothing material came to me, even as I racked my brain. Who doesn't like buying things? But if I could "get" something, it would definitely be more whimsical like world peace or piety.

Even as I said this, I realized what Hillel really means in his Mishna. You can buy lots of things and spend lots of time and energy with the wrong focus. What you are really trying to "get" is a handle on a life that matters, one that prioritizes goodness and knowledge. The more you invest in it, the more you will want to invest. And that "more" will never be satisfied nor should it. Investing in things is a pre-occupation that keeps taking. Investing in character and wisdom is a pre-occupation that keeps giving. We should want more of it.

Shabbat Shalom

A Jewish Option B

Do not comfort your friend in the hour when his dead lies unburied before him...”
— Ethics of the Fathers 4:18

In our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we come across several pieces of wisdom attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. Here, in 4:18, he helps us understand when, as a friend, we must hold back. "Do not try to pacify your friend in the hour when he is in a rage; and do not comfort him in the house when his dead lies unburied before him; and do not question him in the hour when he is making a vow; and do not make an effort to see him in the hour of his disgrace."

Every act of restraint mentioned here protects the emotional fragility of someone caught in the throes of anguish or humiliation.  In his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes that in the four cases cited, "the overt message of our words and actions" become "the contradictory subtext of the actual effects of our intervention with another. In other words, our good intentions are contradicted by the facts on the ground. We are saying the right things, but due to insensitivity to the other person's state, our actions are having the opposite effect." Communication works two ways. Words are given and received and sometimes, without paying careful attention, they are not received well. Timing is everything.

This mishna calls for two words: situational awareness. Friends shouldn't interfere when emotions are high and one's circumstance or one's dignity is low. This does not mean it is inappropriate to intervene when calm presides. We need our friends to question our anger or our judgment and to provide a guiding hand and a comforting soul when we have the capacity to hear what they have to say. As Dionne Warwick sang so well, "That's What Friends Are For."

My friend Adena recently bought me Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. We'd all like an Option A life but few of us will have one. Sandberg writes movingly of her pain. Her husband died in a hotel gym on vacation (yet another reason I don't go to the gym). She found him and shares the exquisite difficulty of sharing this news with her children. The woman who told us to lean in does not hold back. She makes herself very vulnerable in these pages, and I wonder what she might have about this teaching from Ethics of the Fathers.

In one of her most moving chapters, the authors tell us what it means to be a friend to one who has suffered immense loss. Sandberg was stuck by friends who restrained themselves so much it was as if they ignored this huge, seemingly unavoidable news in her life. "Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn't know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort being around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it stated acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn't ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn't care? Did they not see the giant muddy footprints and piles of manure?

Sandberg also points out that the when the person experiencing these losses remains silent, it can isolate friends, family and colleagues. It seems it's impossible to get it right. But this was not Sandberg's issue. She was very open about her grief. She writes about weeping openly at work, thus, the discomfort of others became all the more shocking and disappointing. "The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant, but I wasn't sure that anyone would get the hint."

Naturally, many people refrain from saying anything because they don't want to cause the sufferer more pain, not realizing, of course, that this itself was a cause of pain. She also shares some helpful advice. Avoid platitudes, especially this one: everything happens for a reason. Suffering does not benefit from competition so try not to one up someone else's suffering or focus on oneself at the expense of the person who needs to be comforted. They include a great card image: "When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my cousin's friend who died of lemons."

Instead of asking "How are you?" a question which seems inappropriate - how should I be given my suffering? - ask instead, 'How are you today?" Messages like "I'm thinking about you. It must be really hard for you right now" provided comfort. Letting someone know that he or she is not alone can also minimize the distance. I'll add, from a parenting perspective, help your kids lean in when it comes to addressing other kids and adults who are struggling. Teach your children not to be afraid of approaching the pain of others.

Shabbat Shalom

In Praise of Uncertainty

Certainty or doubt? Go with the certainty.
— Bav Metzia 97b

Last week, in our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we talked about precision, based on a statement of the Talmudic sage, Rabban Gamliel, who pre-empted his exhortation to be exact in giving charity with four resounding words: "Stay away from doubt." That seems, right now, to be the least of our problems. No one seems to doubt themselves enough. Just look at one Twitter feed if you don't believe me. Every day, we encounter the presumption of certainty as the unqualified assert their strident opinions on politics, current events and celebrity gossip. It's got me wondering about this intense need to be certain and what deep human insecurities it masks. It also reminds me of what the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt."

The Talmudic principle above appears in several places and serves as a decision-making, law-adjudicating principle. "Certainty or doubt - go with the certainty." Elsewhere the Talmud says, "One who has bread in his basket is not like one who does not have bread in his basket" [BT Yoma 74b]. This is the Aramaic equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that this means having food one day is no guarantee for tomorrow, offering a different reading than the literal sense of the expression. Both, however, involve certainty and doubt. If you have before you a doubt and a certainty, go with a reality you know and what you already have. This is a terrific way to walk in the world when you are risk-averse.

Elsewhere, the Talmud offers a similar view: "Doubt cannot negate certainty,"(BT Pesakhim 9a, BT Hullin 10a). When something you know is rock solid, it's near impossible to break through the armor. While this sounds reasonable and mimics much of human experience, we all know that doubt can creep in when it's least invited and make us question what we believe to be true. In the arena of love, parenting, and friendship, it is not hard to make someone feel insecure. One sharp question, nagging suspicion or morsel of gossip can do great injury.

In the introduction to Alan Mittleman's excellent new book Human Nature and Jewish Thought: Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter, he makes a persuasive case for uncertainty: "...certitude is not our birthright, nor does it come easily or cheaply. The desire for certitude arises from within our experience of perplexity, from within the interplay of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, that always attends our quest for knowledge. The desire for certitude wants to override that interplay. It signals impatience with the shifting balance between the two; it represents a panic for resolution. We need to get over the panic and live, fully and well, with a lack of resolution."

The desire to control, to dominate, to live with abiding confidence can obstruct our capacity to be truly open to change, creativity and personal development. "The lack of certainty does not stop us, Mittleman claims, "from advancing our needs and concerns. We make our way toward whatever certainties are possible for us from the middle, moving outward. The form of life that we lead is already saturated with norms, principles, beliefs and convictions. We don't need the certitude of an ultimate truth, speaking to us as if from the outside."

We know what we know. But we're greedy when we want to know everything that can be known and even what cannot be known. We want surety when it cannot be guaranteed. And perhaps the frustration that this will guarantee will never be ours morphs into the strange problem of sounding certain about everything. When we do that, we alienate people who are comfortable living with ambiguity and humility in a world of mystery. I don't know about you, but I would hate to live in a world without mystery. I'm not sure of many things, but, without a doubt, I am sure of that.

Shabbat Shalom