2014 Year in Review

“It’s not a pretty world, Papa.”
“I’ve noticed,” my father said softly.
— Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

As Jews, we say goodbye to 2014 with some nostalgia and a lot of good-riddance. Chaim Potok warned us. It’s not a pretty world. It’s true. We did not win any Nobel Prizes, a rarity, but if you’re feeling sad about this, you can go to the Israeli city Rishon Letzion and visit Tayelet Hatnei Pras Nobel, a street honoring all past Jewish Nobel prize winners with a plaque to each. But nine new tiny Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a post-doctoral researcher at Hebrew University, Dr. Yonatan Adler in 2013 and in 2014 the news was made public. They are now being analyzed for the significance they may yield on Second Temple Judaism.

It’s not a pretty world when three precious Israeli teenagers were kidnapped then murdered in those desperate months of May and June while we collectively held our breathes across the globe. It was the summer of Gaza tunnels, a closure of Ben Gurion airport, civilian casualties, the death of so many soldiers and a war no one seemed to win.

The tensions were not limited to Israel. On April 15th, a man with a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric shot a boy and his grandfather in a Jewish Community Center in Kansas City and then hit an elderly woman in an assisted living facility.  Four people were killed in a Jewish museum in Brussels on May 29th. This was a year of escalated anti-Semitism around the world; from France to Crimea, Jews were victims once again of irrational hatred. This propelled an escalation in aliya this year. Over 5,000 Jews from the Ukraine made their permanent home in Israel in 2014. A full one percent of French Jews were expected to move to Israel in 2014. By August 31st, the number was 4,566. Fighting back, more than 400,000 young Jews from 66 countries have visited Israel on a Taglit Birthright trip as of the close of this year.

We all love the positive energy of start-up nation thinking so here are 3 Israeli inventions that are hitting the market just about now to make you qvell: ReWalk Robotics, an exoskeleton system that helps people who are paralyzed learn to walk again. Then there’s the Opgal/Lumus night vision system, an app that mounts a low-cost night-vision camera on an Android phone for security purposes and Stratasys/Objet, a joint Israeli-US company that is one of the top producers of advanced 3D printing equipment that may change food production and has been used in medical advances. Israeli scientists have also developed an early MRI test for trauma from brain damage. Israelis now even have an app for dog-lovers called Dogiz, a social network for dog owners.

Notable deaths in 2014 include that of Robin Williams who called himself an “honorary Jew” and Ben Ammi Ben Israel, an American born religious leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Of course, the military leader and legendary political figure Ariel Sharon died on January 11, 2014 after having a stroke that incapacitated him in 2006. Founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, fled the Nazis and became a Lubavitch Hasid and joined with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to do outreach to a generation of Jews, many more interested in weed than creed. He died on July 3, 2014 having been a spiritual force for a generation of American Jews. We lost another 3 rabbis in the Har Nof Massacre on November 17, including Rabbi Moshe Twersky of the Soloveitchik family. It’s not a pretty world.

On a more positive note, that same family celebrated the receipt of the Israel Prize in the field of Jewish religious literature by scholar Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein on the occasion of Israel’s 66thbirthday. No prize, however, can ever make up for the loss.

In September, with the onset of Rosh Hashana, Jews in Israel welcomed the seven year shmita or sabbatical cycle from the biblical chapter of Leviticus 25. This mandates that land lie fallow for an entire annual cycle and is said to increase abundance during the other years of the cycle.

Yossi Klein Halevi’s book Like Dreamers won the Sophie Brody Medal in 2014. Matti Friedman won the Sammy Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature for The Aleppo Codex and Sarah Bunin Benor was runner-up for Becoming Frum. The year’s end also saw the walk-outs of The New Republic’s executive and literary editors Frank Foer and Leon Weiseltier over a disagreement about the magazine’s direction. This year PJ Library gave out its 5 millionth book to a young Jewish reader.

Our year ended with the release of Alan Gross on December 17th  in exchange for 3 Cuban prisoners serving in US jails. Communities worldwide protested his arrest and the five years he spent in a Cuban jail. Gross, now 65, joined his family as the best Hanuka present they could have asked for.

So here are three “Jewish” resolutions for 2015:

  • Fight any and all anti-Semitism. It’s back, it’s ugly and it cannot be tolerated.
  • So much good is coming out of Israel. Make 2015 the year to strengthen your relationship to Israel.
  • Win a Nobel Prize. It makes our people happy.

God, please let 2015 be a prettier year for us all. We need it.

Shabbat Shalom

Rededicating Ourselves

One of the most important challenges today is to educate towards commitment: commitment to the nation, to the family, to society, to the state and to Judaism’s world of values.
— Rabbi Yehuda Amital

The brutal attacks against police officers and the raging protests around the country contesting police authority and its boundaries have made me re-think public service. I wonder what it must be like to be afraid of a police officer. I also wonder what it must be like to be a police officer in this country who entered the police force to bring together his patriotic impulse with a chance to serve the country and now finds himself a target of hatred and suspicion. Deuteronomy commands that as soon as we enter the Land of Israel, we put in place offices of justice - "You shall appoint judges and police officers for your tribes in all the places that the Lord, your God, is giving you...(16:18) - but I wonder who is rushing today to become a police officer in this charged and potentially lethal climate?

This led me to consider what it means to dedicate oneself and then re-dedicate oneself to public service in light of the these tensions. As we say goodbye to another Hanuka, it's a good time to think about what commitment means and what we want to recommit ourselves to moving forward. Hanuka means "dedication," and the holiday is named for the rededication of the Temple of old. Rededication is an interesting concept; it demands a statement of beliefs and priorities that we should, on occasion, re-affirm in word and deed. After all, how often do we re-commit ourselves to our values? What would that look like? People do have re-commitment or renewal ceremonies when they re-affirm marriage vows or re-commit themselves to their faith, but this is not standard practice.         

Maybe we don't talk enough today about public service. In the quote above, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, in his book Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval, challenges us to consider what it means to educate towards commitment. For many people, commitment is a foreign language. We like to educate today for choice rather than commitment. Put a plethora of options before people and let them decide. It takes us longer to make decisions because there are so many possible choices. Commitment seems to diminish our hard-won freedoms. If commitment feels far away then re-commitment is even further away.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) was a leading Jewish scholar in Israel and a member of the Israeli cabinet. He moved to Israel in 1944 after serving in a Nazi labor camp; his entire family was killed in Auschwitz. He rebuilt his life in what was then Palestine, was ordained as a rabbi, served in multiple wars and then founded the elite yeshivat hesder, Yeshivat Har-Etzion, an academic center that combines high-level Talmud study with army service. Rabbi Amital understood something about personal commitment and educating others for service. It is not an easy business: "The very notion of commitment to a cause or an object runs contrary to the concept of freedom. Therefore any commitment - whether to the nation, the state, society, or to one's spouse and family - has no place in an era of freedom of the individual." 

 In the critical conversation we are having as a country about the role of the police so many issues are being thrown into this explosive cocktail: race, violence, security and power. One of the conversations that we have yet to have is about the nature of public service. How can we make sure that the best and the brightest strengthen their commitment to public service - either as professionals or volunteers? It's almost too easy to protest and too difficult to sit around the table together and talk about justice, humility and patriotism. Rabbi Amital warned us: "Simplistic thinking must be avoided. A person must fight against superficiality and understand the complexity of the world..."

At this season of dedication, what are your doing to serve the public? What are you doing to thank someone who does?

Shabbat Shalom

Channukah and Every Day Heroism

What will I answer when called to account?
— Job 31:14

Michael Jordan once said, “Not every flying hero has a cape.” Few of us can fly like he can, but he makes an important point about heroes. As we celebrate the heroism of the Maccabees and think about miracles of old this Hanuka, we should take a moment to ponder our own modern notions of heroism. Who are today’s heroes?

Arguably, today we don’t have heroes. We have celebrities, glittering personalities with brand name attraction. Once you introduce a cape and tights into the hero persona, you lose the sense of ordinary, every day heroism that is lauded in Jewish life. The poet and artist Brian Andreas perhaps said it best:“Anyone can slay a dragon...but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”

In Hebrew, the word for hero is “gever.” As an infinitive, we would say that a hero is someone who overcomes difficulties with resolvem - “le-hitgaber.” In the Hebrew Bible, we use the term “chayil” and attach it to a man or woman of nobility or valor. We find this portrait of quiet heroism in two places in Scriptures: the book of Proverbs and the book of Job. In the spirit of Maya Angelou’s distinction between heroes and she-roes, Proverbs 3:10-31 offers us the woman of valor. Take a few minutes one day to read this passage in English, and you will find a woman who is hyper-productive, who opens her arms to the poor and needy, who clothes her family, who speaks pearls of wisdom, who knows the difference between beauty and integrity.

Take a look at Job 31 and you will find the male version of this kind of heroism. As if in a court of law, Job argues in his own defense that he spent a lifetime cultivating his moral strength and humanity. He kept his eyes to himself and resisted temptation. He did not “walk in falsehood” nor “deny justice” to his household and those who worked for him. He did not keep his bread to himself “nor let the eyes of the widow grow weary” with suffering. In his protestations he says, “...no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler.” He did not rejoice over his wealth nor keep his money to himself. He did not gloat over his enemies nor wish them trouble. He made sure that all who worked with him had their fill of his meat, the most expensive part of the meal.

Job creates a picture of a life of purpose and generosity. He, like the unnamed woman of valor, was a person who opened his eyes to the anguish of others. His life was a conduit for service. Job felt confidant that he could make a case for his goodness, asking the question that all of us must ask when we have an opportunity to do right: “What will I answer when called to account?” That is the question the hero asks.

Funnily enough, Florence Nightengale used an appropriate image to blend quiet heroism with our holiday: “I am of certainly convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.” Drop the cape. Not everyone can leap buildings. Who has to? We need to be every day heroes who can elevate ourselves through goodness and service.

 What will you answer this Hanuka and beyond when called to account?

 Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanuka!

Take Heed

Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, is it a mitzva for a person not to say what will not be heeded,
— BT Yevamot 65b

The word "heed" is an unusual word; it's formal and heavy and wouldn't be used in casual conversation. Maybe it needs to be re-introduced into common parlance because it means more than simply listening. A careful sort of attention or notice must be given to meet its demands, the kind of attention that in these days of distraction is harder to come by. We heed warnings or ignore them at our own peril. We think of Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman: "Attention must be paid,"and wonder what kind of focused attention that is.

But what happens when we give feedback that no one pays heed to? This becomes an ongoing dilemma in parenting and partnering, in business and in education. Any time we are trying to grow someone else, there will be resistance, push-back, defensiveness and even heartbreak. One of my favorite verses on mentoring comes from Proverbs: "Correct a wise person, and he will love you. Correct a fool, and he will hate you" (9:8). We understand the sentiment well. If we give feedback to people who are responsive - who heed what we have to say, know that it comes from a place of love and concern and know that it's not so easy to say - then our words can take root. But if we correct fools, we might not know who the fool really is - that person for ignoring us or ourselves for the wasted breath.

 But it's not so simple, as any supervisor or spouse can attest. Sometimes we speak out and the response we get is initially defensive, pained or angry but over time, the words we say seep in, and we notice change. Sometimes a "wise" person nods a head in agreement, hears feedback, expresses concern and then continues doing whatever it is he or she was doing wrong in the first place. In other words, determining who is wise and who is not is more complicated than it looks. 

 Maimonides in the seventh chapter of his "Laws of Character Development" expounds upon this conundrum and begins by writing that, "It is natural that a person's personality and actions are influenced by friends and colleagues and adheres to the expected norms of behavior. Knowing this, he should surround himself by those who are pious and wise to learn from their behaviors. He should also, subsequently, keep a distance from the wicked who follow darkness, and not learn from their behaviors." Then Maimonides quotes another verse from Proverbs about who we should associate with as a prooftext: "One who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will become foolish" (13:20). All good advice. If you want to be a better person, be around good people and then you will grow even without the admonition. You will improve simply by virtue of good role-models and high expectations of personal goodness.

 In the event that this is not enough at times, Maimonides continues in law #7 and suggests that, following from Leviticus 19:17, we admonish those who are doing wrong. He advises us to help those in need of correction by telling such an individual that he is causing himself harm, rather than merely irritating others. He suggests an atmosphere of respect and privacy, the use of gentle language and communicating again the abiding sense that the correction is for his own welfare. Maimonides concludes with a plea to responsibility, which I will translate loosely: "Whoever has the possibility of correcting a sinner and fails to do so is responsible for that sin since he had the opportunity to do something about it."

These are all helpful recommendations, but they don't resolve the feedback dilemma for us. How do we know who is wise and who is a fool when it comes to issuing criticism? How do we hear it? Think of a piece of feedback or criticism that you have hear about yourself for years - especially if it has come from more than one person - that you have not "heeded" - paid any special attention to. Write it down.

What is it about this issue that is making you so "hard of heeding"?

 Shabbat Shalom

The Tongue as Sword

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
— Proverbs 12:18

This week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about the use of threatening language. The case revolves around Anthony Elonis, who is estranged from his wife and posted threats on his Facebook page using the form of rap lyrics after she left him and took their two children. He said he would kill her, shoot up a school and slit the throat of an FBI agent. One biblical verse kept coming to mind for me as I learned more about the case: "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing."

The language Elonis used was graphic and violent: "There's one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya..." and then the language gets more painful until Elonis concludes that "Revenge is a dish that is best served cold with a delicious side dish of psychological torture." His estranged wife received a restraining order but this did not stop him. A week later, he posted this message, among others: "Fold up your protective order and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?"

Lawyers defending Elonis say that he was merely venting his hurt and frustration over the split up and had no intent to act on any of these threats. The language he used is not different from the lyrics of many rap singers today and the language content of many violent video-games, raising a question with huge implications. What constitutes free speech and what constitutes an illegal threat in the age of Cyberspace? The government is arguing that it does not matter what Elonis intended if his language would feel threatening to a "reasonable" person, the way the federal court generally determines if a verbal threat is violent. What's under question is what constitutes a standard because free speech is a First Amendment right. You may not like what someone says, but it does not mean that he or she is not free to say it in this country.

This argument gets to the heart of language itself. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the momentous question of the bench: "How does one prove what's in somebody else's mind?" You can only really judge people by what they say. Yet in an age where we exaggerate and use expressions of violence in non-violent ways all of the time, it is increasingly difficult to determine the veracity of language: "I could kill for that hamburger right now." "Slay me." "If I say that again, shoot me."

It will be fascinating to see how the court rules this summer on this case. In the meantime, the case should make us all a little more sensitive to language and its intentions. Words can heal. They can also pierce like a sword. Even when the sword is removed, the scar remains. I find at moments like this, a tour of some other verses in Proverbs provides solace:

  • "A soft answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath" (Proverbs 15:1)
  • "The tongue of the wise speaks knowledge, but the mouth of fools pour out folly" (Proverbs 15:2)
  • "Whoever keeps his mouth shut and his tongue silent keeps himself out of trouble" (Proverbs 21:23)
  •  "Whoever guards his mouth preserves life; one who one who opens his lips wide comes to ruin" (Proverbs 13:3)
  • "Do you see a man who is hasty with his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Proverbs 29:20

If you could carry around one of these verse in your wallet to remind you of the responsibilities and perils that come with language, which would it be? Perhaps it would be this verse from Psalms, the one that is uttered before we begin the Amida, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and Redeemer" (19:14). The mouth represents speech. The heart represents intention. When words and intention are well-aligned in goodness, the words that come out of us bring more healing and beauty to the world. We shouldn't be satisfied with anything less.

Shabbat Shalom

The Story of a Life

I will fulfill the number of your days...
— Exodus 23:26

Remember Harry Chapin, that great and sad musician whose life was cut short? He wrote a beautiful, melancholy song, "The Story of a Life" where a young man, presumably himself, starts his days conjuring images of all the dreams he will one day fulfill: "Great tales of love and strife, and somewhere on your path to glory, you will write your story of a life." No surprise, in the song he reaches mid-life and his dreams crumble and the story that he writes is suburban and small, not at all descriptive of the real life of Harry Chapin. The story of a life should be told not in years but in mystery and majesty: "Where's the magic story of a life?"

I thought of this song given the recent coalescence of a piece of Talmud in the daily cycle with the death of former mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry. The Talmud debates the meaning of the biblical verse: "I will fulfill the number of your days..." [BT Yevamot 50a]. The Sages of the Talmud were puzzled by this expression from Exodus. Does it mean that God pre-ordains the number of days of each human life, in which case we could never "earn" additional days or lose them based on our behavior? This would seem to contradict other biblical verses that indicate that we can extend our days through our goodness and selflessness. One Sage argues: "If he is deserving, God completes his allotted lifespan. If he is not deserving, God reduces his lifespan." In other words, our lifespan is predetermined; if we use our days well, we get to live it to the very end and if we don't then years are cut off. This approach punishes those who are not deserving, but does not reward those who are genuinely worthy. 

 Some Sages did not love this answer for that reason and offered, instead, a baseline approach. God determines the lifespan for each person and if found unworthy, years are taken away but if he or she is particularly exemplary, then years are added. It seems only fair in this math equation that there is addition as well as subtraction. Other commentaries on the Talmud state that this verse applies to generations instead of individuals. 

Marion Barry died this week at the age of 78. He was DCs mayor for four colorful terms, colorful being perhaps the nicest way to say it. He had been charged with sexual assault, arrested for drug use and did jail time - and was then re-elected on the slogan "I may not be perfect, but I am perfect for DC." A whole book on leadership could be written on this slogan alone. He was literally a case study in intemperance in Barbara Kellerman's Bad Leadership while he was still alive. Barry had Chapin's magic story of a life nailed; obituaries of him read like a work of fiction. But his contributions are likely not what the Talmud had in mind when it asked us to earn our years.

One commentator on the Exodus life calculus interprets the verse to mean that each day offers the opportunity for us to fulfill our unique goals. If we fail to fulfill them, we will be accountable. If we use each day well, we will deserve additional days in order to complete the lofty goals we have, as if each individual lifespan adjusts to accommodate what we want to squeeze out of it. This need not be taken literally. It offers us the challenge of fulfilling our daily potential, understanding that each day is another opportunity to add an exceptional page to the story of our lives.

If every day could be an entire chapter in the story of a life, then how exciting is your autobiography? Toss this conversation starter around with the turkey at your table this Thanksgiving: describe a great ordinary day of your life.

So where's the magic story of your life?

Shabbat Shalom

On Resolve

Do not be afraid. Do not lose resolve
— Deuteronomy 1:21

These have been such difficult days. It seems that virtually everyone I speak to is despondent or confused or both. People wonder if the violence and despair in Israel will ever end and how to make it to the end of the day without hope. Loss is everywhere. A few weeks ago, people were afraid to go to a mikve. Now there's fear about stepping into a shul to pray in the morning. Both fears are very different but very real in different ways. Sacred institutions which felt safe are now under question.  But should they be?

We all have to be careful and vigilant. But we can't let rare, extreme and unusual circumstances tarnish the holy, loving and healthy Jewish spaces that we have come to call our own. And most importantly, we cannot lose hope. We cannot lose faith, and we cannot lose trust because when we lose those three precious spiritual commodities - hope, faith and trust - we lose Judaism.

When Moses begins his farewell speech at the beginning of Deuteronomy, he points out a dream and then he points to the problems on the way to the realization of all dreams. He looks out at his nation - our nation - and says, "The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as many as the stars in the sky" (1:10). Finally, after so many generations have passed, the impossible dream given to Abraham had been realized. He looked out on a sea of people and affirmed that we had indeed become those sparkling, numerous stars that no one could have imagined in the early chapters of Genesis.

And then Moses reminds the people of an attitude that got in the way of the realization of this dream. People on the journey lost hope. Some traded in the big picture because of small material complaints along the way. Some wanted out of this immense spiritual adventure because they were terribly afraid of enemies, harking us back to the days when scouts gave a bad report of the land: "You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged" (1:20-21) God tried to put fear into perspective but to no avail. Many people would not continue. They took their own route and perished at the hand of unexpected enemies.

There are several different translations of "Do not be afraid; do not get discouraged." I like the translation "do not lose resolve." Fear and discouragement are different. You can be afraid to start a new venture or be scared to confront a problem. But then you take a leap of faith and jump into the unknown. The trick at that point is to not lose resolve, to keep going because new fears and anxieties will surface and present their challenges. You have to keep renewing your sense of resolve that inspired courage in the first place, not despite the dangers and risks but because of them. Risky, impossible challenges are often the only ones worth making.

Anne Lamott in her latest book Stitches:A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair asked how we can find coherence in a world where children are massacred in their schools and friends are dying of illness. She imagines all of these incoherent pieces of sadness and tragedy lying everywhere, making no sense. And then she creates a metaphor for responding to pain: "We live stitch by stitch, when we're lucky." We live in the moments between, focusing on the way that we stitch, the way we put together into a pattern of meaning that which seems puzzling and vexing. "You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next," Lamott advises: "Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags."

We are strong. We cannot be doubled over in so much pain that we forget to stitch together joy with our unhappiness and purpose with our pain. Persecution is not our only or most important legacy. We gave the world hope, faith and trust. We are still here. We are still thriving and actualizing a beautiful future. The price, however, is horrendous and impossible at times But the cost of losing hope is greater. Be strong and of good courage, we read in the Bible. And when that fails us, then at the very least, do not be afraid and do not lose resolve.

Shabbat Shalom

Grown Old with Me

In our current Torah cycle it's hard to miss the theme of mortality. Sarah dies and needs to be buried. By the end of the Torah reading, Abraham too, will breath his last. While Sarah's death takes us by surprise, we are ready and primed for Abraham's. Throughout these narratives, Abraham's age has been mentioned repeatedly after large milestone events in his story: his departure for Canaan (75), the birth of his first son (86), entering the covenant (99), the birth of his second (100), and then finally his death (175). He begins his new life at 75, and what a life it is: full of surprises, challenges and personal growth.

Healing Waters

In the past few weeks, the mikve, a space of sacred purity and privacy, has become a subject of scrutiny and suspicion. For those who perform this mitzva regularly, an obligation of holiness suddenly provokes worry. Is someone watching me? For those who have never immersed in a ritual bath, the chances of ever going to the mikve have just gotten slimmer. It's not hard to understand the anxiety. This mitzva has been sheltered both in the placement of the building and the secrecy of the practice. Open conversations about mikve use are rare. 

Noah's Support Animals

A task which is too great for one person, must be divided...
— Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Genesis 2:18

If you haven't read Patricia Marx' article "Pets Allowed," and you need a good laugh - and who doesn't? - pick it up. I'll make it even easier for you. Click here.  

Marx is skeptical about people who bring pets everywhere under the rubric of being emotional support animals [ESAs], as distinct from service dogs, which are legally allowed in restaurants, stores and planes. Marx wrote to an online therapist and, for less than two hundred dollars, was awarded a letter that she had a mental health disorder that enabled her to travel with an ESA. With a letter in hand, she then borrowed five animals - a turtle, a snake, an alpaca, a turkey and a pig - and tried to take them to various places to gauge the reaction. For example, she leashed a seven-year old turtle and brought it to the Frick collection, to a high-end shoe store and then to get a pedicure for a bar mitzva. She brought the pig to the Four Seasons for high tea. Guards were confused but the letter looked very official. She wonders: "Why didn't anybody do the sensible thing, and tell me and my turtle to get lost?"

 It's a great question that speaks to the role of animals in our society today and, in many ways, takes us back to the very purpose of animals as they were conceived of in Genesis and later in the story of Noah, this week's Torah reading. In Genesis 1, God tasked humans with ruling over the animals: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth" (1:26). Humans were to be stewards of the garden and the animals in it. They were to control animals, creating a hierarchical relationship that twinned responsibility with dominance. 

 This relationship, however, is complicated because of the retelling of creation in Genesis 2, when God observed that it was not good for man to be alone and created animals to comfort human begins and alleviate their solitude. "I will make a fitting helper for him," God says, and then creates the animal kingdom and brings each animal to Adam to see if any of them will provide solace: "And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name" (2:19). This process was terrific for taxonomy but not for dating. When Eve was created from Adam and then brought to him, he made an anatomical observation rather than a romantic one: "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh..." (2:23). The giraffe was too tall for me. The hippo too wide. But she looks like me. We can make a life together. 

 Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses God's observations on the world God created. God repeatedly felt that the pristine creation of the universe was good and said so repeatedly. But not all in the world was good because the human being God created needed a partner: "...as long as Man stands alone it is altogether not yet good, [sic] the goal of perfection, which the world is to attain through him will never be reached as long as he stands alone."

Animals were the first solution to human loneliness. In other words, God created emotional support animals. It's not clear if they were meant to be taken into restaurants, but they were there for a profound rather than a practical reason. And although Adam was given an alternative help-mate, animals return to the Genesis narrative in Noah. When humans disappointed God, God turned to the animal kingdom and replenished it. It was noisy in the ark and probably did not smell great, but the animals did not talk back to Noah. They kept him and his family company in days of rain and moral darkness, and it was the animals who first populated the world anew. They did not serve as man's ultimate company, but they still provided practical assistance and emotional support.

Tell that to Patricia Marx.

Shabbat Shalom

The Freedom to Linger

the eighth day should be a convocation of holiness to you...there is a gathering
— Leviticus 23:26

We are entering the last 3-day block of holidays for the season, and it's not unusual to hear a complaint or two from our people. "More cooking?" "More days out of the office when I can barely say 'Shmini Atzeret' let alone explain it?" It's the Bernstein Bears "Too Much Yom Tov" for many people. 

 And yet in the famous biblical chapter that outlines our holiday calendar year - Leviticus 23 - we find that the last day of this season is added as a bonus day, not a punishment. The pilgrimage time in the ancient word was so joyous and momentous that we needed another day to savor the presence of family and friends in Jerusalem at the Temple: the holiness, the feeling of community, the intimacy with God, the sense of belonging. 

 Atzeret translated above as "sacred gathering" literally means a stoppage. We are unclear what the verse is demanding of us. Rashi's comments on Leviticus 23:36 are among the most well-known explanations of this extra day. "The word is derived from the root A-TZ-R 'to hold back' and suggests 'I keep you back with Me one day more.' It is similar to the case of a king who invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for their departure, he said 'Children, I beg of you to stay one more day with me. It is so hard for me to part with you.'" Rashi derives his reading from the Talmud [BT Sukka 55b].

This is among the earliest Rashi's that I ever learned but only now in my adult years do I fully appreciate its meaning. I've heard parents lament that the wedding they made their children went by too quickly. They just wish everyone could have stayed a bit longer, danced a bit more, prolonged the moment before the happy couple left the ballroom. We've all looked at family photographs of a wonderful vacation and wished we could have stayed a few more days. We look at pictures of children at a particular stage and wonder how they grew up so quickly and wish - once again - we could stop the clocks. There is even, as W.H. Auden captured so well, the desire to stop time at a funeral. There is the awkward leave-taking from the cemetery when we know we have to go yet it feels so final and so hard that we'd like to stay a few more minutes. Those minutes will not change anything but signal to the person we loved and lost that we just don't want to part.

On Sukkot, grown children return for the holidays. Parents visit. There are special meals with friends. Good food. Good conversation. And then there is the slight sting of taking the sukka down, of sending everyone back home, of waving from the driveway at grandchildren who live a few hours away and wondering when we will next read them a story.

And one infinitive remains at the end of the season: to linger. To linger is to stay somewhere just a bit longer than expected, to express a reluctance to go, to know that you have to leave  - and you will - but that it hurts a little to do so. Rashi is pointing to this very sentiment that gets lost as we move from thing to thing with speed and an air of busy-ness. We realize that lingering is a gift, a sign of freedom, a way we luxuriate in time. 

 Let's say a better goodbye to the holiday season than the kvetchy "goodbye and good riddance relief" that we too often hear around now. Let's instead make a commitment not to complain about these last days but to linger consciously. We can give ourselves the present of staying just a littlewhile longer in a tender moment, in a surprise burst of intentional prayer, in a deep conversation with a friend. Linger and enjoy it.

Happy Holidays and Shabbat Shalom

Is Your Table an Altar?

When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now it is a person’s table that atones for him.

— Talmud Hagiga 27a

This busy holiday season is full of references to the Temple and the way that these days were celebrated there. In the absence of sacrifices, there is prayer today. In the absence of an altar, there is a table today - our tables. This notion that we repent through our tables suggests that the table not only be a place to eat and gather with friends and family but a place where repair is performed. We think about where we have fallen short and how we can make up for it by the way we treat others who we bring close to us, close enough to speak to across a table.

The connection between the table and the altar of old is discussed in the Talmud and made through a rabbinic literary referencing system employed by our sages. They took a biblical verse, in this case one from Ezekiel, and connected two words in it: "The altar, three cubits high, and its length two cubits, was of wood, and so its corners, its length and its walls were also of wood, and he said to me: This is the table that is before the Lord" (41:22). If an altar is like God's table then when there is no altar our tables must serve in its place. "The verse began with 'altar' and ended with 'table,'" taught both Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. These were noted sparring partners, but there was something that the two agreed upon: this teaching. 

 The medieval French commentator Rashi says that we achieve atonement through our generosity at the table. Rabbi Samuel Edels, or the Maharsha, of the sixteenth century interprets this differently. Because the term atonement is used, he believes we treat our table as an altar when we limit what we eat in memory of what was offered in the Temple: wine, meat and bread. We might want to extrapolate that a good way to atone for sins of excess is to engage in greater restraint in what we eat and how we speak with those at our tables. Still others believe the altar and table come together when we teach Torah at a meal, as we learn in the third chapter of Ethics of the Fathers:

"Rabbi Simon would say: 'Three who eat together at a table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten sacrifices to idols, as it states: 'All tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of God' (Isaiah 28:8). But when three people eat at a table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at God's table, as it states, 'This is the table that is before God' (Ezekiel 41:22)."

 Every time we eat, we can sanctify it through blessings, holy conversation and intentional eating or we can profane the moment. Seeking atonement means using each food opportunity as a chance for improvement generally. The table is the place where most families gather daily. It's a time when we can engage our hearts and minds or merely engage our mouths. Since many nutritionists believe that we have about 20 "food encounters" a day, we have multiple opportunities all of the time to do this better.

 This reminds me of a Miss Manners column where a woman complained about being a dinner guest at a home with her husband and son where the host complimented what she was wearing, saying "it accentuates the right places." This was most embarrassing for her and she was not sure how to respond to this inappropriate remark. The situation was made worse when the hostess - who was herself upset about the comment - was short with the guest instead of being short with her husband. What, Miss Manners, should she do if such a situation arises again?

 "Considering that the husband was lewd and the wife snippy" Miss Manners doubted that the situation would happen again since they should be crossed off the visiting list. She did, however, make this recommendation: "Should you encounter such a remark again, you could exclaim, 'I didn't know that you used to be a tailor!'"

The table is an altar for atonement when we can use it to change a dynamic that is not healthy or happy to one that engages everyone in a spirit of mutual respect and curiosity. And it's a great way to take Yom Kippur into Sukkot. The table we use to greet our many guests becomes a way for us to improve our manners, heighten our generosity to strangers and elevate the conversation.

 How can we all make our tables altars of atonement?

 What will you do to enhance your dining experience spiritually this Sukkot?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!

The Metrics of Repentance

Throughout the entire year a person should always view himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and view the world as equally balanced between merit and sin.
— Maimonides

The cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden makes a skin cream called Visible Difference. I don't know if it works, but it's a great marketing ploy. It suggests that you will see a noticeable difference after use. It's also a great tagline for this season of repentance. When you say you're going to change, when you beat your chest in contrition, when you forgive someone else, will there be a visible difference? If repentance is done right, you should be able to see the change in yourself and so should others. If you have truly forgiven another person, there should not be residual discomfort in his or her presence but a return to a warm and loving intimacy. When it comes to Yom Kippur, it's all about the returning, the recovery of relationships between ourselves and God, ourselves and others, ourselves and the person we diminished when we were too hard on ourselves.

How can we make a visible difference in ourselves this coming year?

We turn to the medieval philosopher Maimonides. He collected the laws of teshuva, repentance, and wove them into a masterful ten chapter compilation. Many have the custom of studying one chapter per day for the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This year, I keep thinking about chapter three and the expression "visible difference." Maimonides writes clearly and succinctly that "every person has merits and sins. If his merits exceed his sins, he is righteous. If his sins exceed his merits, he is wicked, and if they are half and half, he is an 'in-between'"[a benoni in Hebrew]. Maimonides believed that just as this is true for an individual, is it true for a country and for the entire world.

This formula for repentance is simple. All we have to do is make sure that our merits exceed our wrongdoings, and we are good. We are actually righteous. But here's the problem that Maimonides introduces. It's a game of numbers, but we have no idea how the point system works. Some transgressions are so terrible that they are equivalent to many good deeds. And some of the good we do is so good that it knocks off many sin points. When put on a scale, not every demerit and merit is equal. Later in the chapter, Maimonides says that God also gives us a slight handicap for goodness, even though we are still unsure of how to measure ourselves. To add to this dilemma, Maimonides says that the only one who knows how this grading system works is God, and God is not talking.

And that is the point. Maimonides wants us to view ourselves as if we are in the in-between category all of the time. We cannot write ourselves off for the wrongs that we do because our goodness may exculpate us. We cannot rest confident in our goodness because our wrongdoings get the better of us sometimes. But if we walk in the world constantly wondering how to accrue more goodness points and ask ourselves if we have counterbalanced an act of cruelty, carelessness, slander or neglect with a double dose of kindness, mercy, sensitivity or selflessness, chances are we will lead a noble life indeed.

Maimonides adds one more critical detail to this perspective on change based on a passage of Talmud: "Since the world is judged by the majority [of its merits and sins] and the individual is similarly judged by the majority, if one does a mitzva, good be upon him. He has pulled himself and the entire world to the side of merit. But if he commits even one sin, he pulls himself and the entire world to the side of demerit" [BT Kiddushin 40b]. In other words, when we measure our deeds we are not acting as independent agents. With each act of goodness we do, we tip the scales for ourselves and the entire world. Maimonides understood something that we often dismiss: the power of one small act of goodness to change the world.

It is time to ask ourselves what are the metrics we will use this year to assess a visible difference in ourselves, our own point system. Instead of your BMI (body mass index), think of a SMI (soul mass index). What are the numbers that I need to change in my spiritual world to tip the scales for myself and others? More minutes in prayer, more blessings, more hours of study, more time devoted to children or friends more time visiting the sick, less time speaking or thinking ill of others? If we don't measure goodness in any way, how will we make a visible difference in 5774?

We are moments away from the Day of Judgment. Take a few minutes of quiet today to write a brief list of a five arenas where you need to make a visible difference. Write down where you are now and where you'd like to be. And remember that when you do even one act of goodness, you pull yourself further on the scale of merit  - and the entire world comes with you.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!

The Shofar's Power

With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, call out in the presence of the King, Almighty.
— Psalm 45:6

I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, "I play weird instruments." I wondered if the driver happens to blow shofar. It's hard to say if we would call it an instrument at all since the shofar really doesn't play music in the conventional sense. It plays tears - the primal screams, sobs and whimpers of the human heart when it encounters the soul at its most vulnerable. It is no coincidence that the shofar comes from an animal since its sounds are not sophisticated but more animal-like in their range and treble. We might call it instead the Jewish alarm clock that rings only in this season.

Our associations with the shofar on Rosh Hashana are very old and straight from Numbers 29:1: "It shall be a day of sounding [the ram's horn] for you." Many holidays are associated with tastes, some with smells and many with sights. Rosh Hashana is about sounds. The sounds are of a dual nature, as reflected in the verse from Psalms above. On the one hand, there is the sound of the trumpet, the shrill and majestic announcement that the King of Kings is approaching. It is the sound of joy, royalty and coronation. To demonstrate this, before we blow the shofar we recite psalm 47 seven times. It is a psalm of rejoicing in front of God. The King is in our presence, and we are deeply honored: "All peoples, clap hands and shout to God with the voice of joyous song." 

Every Rosh Hashana we acknowledge God as an authority figure over us and assume once again the posture of the humble servant in God's presence. Unlike human royalty, when it comes to God, we re-affirm God's rule over us annually. This explains why so many verses of prayer on Rosh Hashana mention God as King again and again. A friend recently said to me that she loves Rosh Hashana but doesn't like to refer to God as King again and again. It makes her feel that she is relinquishing her own authority. I told her I felt relief. I know how little I control in this life. Accepting the presence of a Higher Authority over me helps me appreciate the human condition and let go of the ambition of mastery and abide instead in mystery. It certainly makes life more interesting.

But we don't only welcome God with the sounds of formality and royalty represented by the trumpet. We also and primarily blow the shofar.

Maimonides writes that in the Temple on Rosh Hashana, "There was one shofar and two trumpets. The sounding of the shofar was extended, while that of the trumpets was shortened because the mitzvah of the day is the shofar" [Mishne Torah, "Laws of Shofar 1:2]. And while the trumpets likely played out a recognizable tune in the Temple, the shofar made and continues to make an unpredictable sound. Here, too, Maimonides mentions that this is permissible: "Regardless of whether the sound is heavy, thin or raspy, it is kosher, because all the sounds produced by the shofar are kosher" [1:7]. All crying is kosher. There is no correct sound when it comes to tears. They are as different as the people who cry them.  

And with the shofar we recognize the other dimension of God on these Days of Awe. One of our oldest and most central prayers this season is Avinu Malkenu, "Our Father, Our king." We beseech God as both our parent and our authority figure. The trumpets acknowledge one aspect of this relationship: God as King. But the shofar acknowledges the most important role of God as our parent - our Abba with a capital "A" - as one theologian put it. God is the Father who loves us, who weeps over us, who hears the range of our pain and suffering and wants to heal and to help us. The trumpets are formal. The shofar is intimate. Its sound begs us to close our eyes and feel God's loving presence.

A friend of mine recently shared some of her beautiful words. "Love what is broken. Rejoice in what's whole." The trumpets help us rejoice in what is whole this year. The shofar allows us a holy release of what is broken. As we review the year past and hope the year ahead will be filled with meaning and sweetness, we offer up what is whole and what is broken to God. It is the dual sound of our humanity.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!

Say No to Snark

A fool’s lips bring strife...A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are the snare of his soul.
— Proverbs 18:6-7

We've all been in the unhappy presence of snark. We know people who make critical, cutting, biting or snide comments when they could have easily said the same thing in a more pleasant way. The problem with snarkiness is that people find it entertaining. There is always an audience for gratuitous meanness wrapped in a thin slice of humor. The Urban Dictionary coined a term for it - snarcastic - that cynical voice that makes us laugh at someone else's expense and then, hopefully, regret it.

I don't remember growing up with the word "snarky" and was trying to find out how long it's been in our lexicon of nasty behavior. The Grammarphobia blog notes this about the word's history: "The earliest published reference for the verb 'snark,' meaning to snore or snort, is from 1866, according to the Oxford English Dictionary." Apparently by 1882 it also meant to find fault with or to nag. In adjective form as a way to refer to someone as irritable, it's been around since about1906. Lewis Carroll used it in his poem "The Hunting of the Snark" as an imaginary figure.

So snark has been around a lot longer than most of us realize. In fact, why date it to 1882 when we can go all the way back to the biblical book of Proverbs to find evidence for it everywhere - even if it is not mentioned by name? Language that hurts, damages and dismisses others is referenced in virtually every chapter of Proverbs as bringing harm to the one who uses it and to its victims. Here are a few choice selections:

    "Death and life are in the power of the tongue..." (18:21)

    "An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips. But the righteous will escape from trouble." (12:13)

    "The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly." (12:15)

    "Wise men store up knowledge, but with the mouth of the foolish, ruin is at hand." (10:14)

    "The one who guards his mouth preserves his life. The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin." (13:3)

    "In the mouth of the foolish is a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will protect them." (14:3)

    "He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles." (21:23)

We all know that speech has this immense power, but we don't always harness that power responsibly. We love sarcasm. It's the foundation of the T-shirt and bumper sticker industry (Here's this week's bumper sticker winner: "I'm not speeding. I'm qualifying.") What we don't realize is how diminishing sarcasm can be for the growth and esteem of those on the receiving end.

But, wait, there's good news. A new paper published in Science and reported in The New York Times testing morality in everyday behaviors found that while there was no difference in the survey between behaviors of religious and nonreligious participants, it did find that good deeds are "contagious." In their words: "People on the receiving end of an act of kindness were about 10 percent more likely than the average person to do something nice themselves later in the day." The only down side of this research is that those who did acts of kindness were slightly more likely to commit a small act of rudeness "as if drawing on moral credit from their previous act."

This new study should give us renewed energy to help goodness go viral and be ever more careful about language that is mean, snarky, sarcastic or cynical. As Proverbs warns, we don't want our lips to be "the snare of the soul."

So please add these two questions to your Elul challenge:

    What can I not say right now because I am concerned about someone else's feelings and because it will reflect poorly on my moral choices? 

    What can I make a point of saying right now that will make someone else feel safe, open, special, holy and happy?

Shabbat Shalom

Vanquishing the Angel of Death

In the next world, who is important? Who is honorable? Who is complete?
— Rabbi Nahman, BT Moed Katan 28a

Articles reporting on Joan Rivers' funeral this week said that she did not want a rabbi droning a eulogy but asked for Meryl Streep "crying in five different accents" and also wanted a wind machine so that even in the casket her hair would be "blowing like Beyonce's." She said that she had so much plastic surgery that when she died she was donating her body to Tupperware.

This funny first lady of New York will be missed but she might have taken a page out of the Talmud's playbook on death. At the end of a particular tractate, a group of sages each encounter the Angel of Death and try to dissuade him from his duties. Much like the Angel of Death narrator in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief  - the one who hates his job - the Talmud's Angel of Death seems more flexible than we'd suspect. 

One sage, Rava, sat beside the deathbed of Rabbi Nahman. Rabbi Nahman had a favor to ask of his friend and colleague: "Master, tell the Angel of death not to torment me," as if a human being could give this scary figure advice. Rava did not feel the conversation was necessary: "Are you not an important person?" The Angel of Death should respect Rabbi Nahman's scholarship and piety and leave him alone. That's when Rabbi Nahman quipped, "Who is important?" When the Angel of Death knocks, it matters little the pedigree or accomplishments of the human being who stands before him.

But Rabbi Nahman did grant Rava something. Rava wanted to know - as we all do - what the next world would be like. He asked his teacher to return to him in a dream and let him know. "Master, did you have pain in death?" With the gentle guidance of a sage, Rabbi Nahman assured Rava that death was not painful at all: "Like the removal of hair from milk." It was painless. But, Rabbi Nahman added, if God told him to go back down to earth and die again, he would refuse because his fear of the Angel of Death was so great.

Others seemed less afraid. Rabbi Elazar was eating holy food - food that was sanctified for special use - when the Angel of Death knocked for him. Rabbi Elazar told him that he was busy partaking of what was sacred and the Angel of Death should, therefore, pick a different time. The moment passed. "It kills me sometimes how humans die," says the Angel of Death in The Book Thief.

The Angel of Death moved on to Rabbi Sheshet in the marketplace and with our people's signature hutzpa, he told his prosecutor that he did not want to die like an animal in the market. The Angel of Death should instead come to his house and take him with greater dignity. The Angel complied. "Even death has a heart," it is said of the Angel of Death in The Book Thief.

The marketplace must have been a hangout for the Angel of Death because he appeared to Rabbi Ashi in the same place.  Rabbi Ashi encountered him and said, "Give me thirty days to review my studies, for you say fortunate is the one who comes here [to Heaven] with his learning in his hand." Rabbi Ashi wanted to be better prepared for the day of judgment. Thirty days later, the Angel of Death checked his schedule and showed up to take Rabbi Ashi. Rabbi Ashi challenged him again, "What's the rush?" This time the Angel of Death was better prepared and told him that another scholar was ready to succeed him in his leadership, and he was actually being pushed from this world.

Rabbi Hisda, on the other hand, never stopped studying for a moment so the Angel of Death could not take him until he devised a plan. He sat on a column that was holding up the roof of the study hall causing some shift in the weight and balance of the structure, and when Rabbi Hisda was startled by the momentary sound of the cracking and picked his head up from his studies, the Angel of Death had his chance.

"I am haunted by humans" says the Angel of Death in The Book Thief. Sometimes our goodness makes the Angel of Death stop in his tracks. 

Joan Rivers had more than enough hutzpa to speak back to the Angel of Death. Maybe she told him some jokes and he did not like them. But if we could argue our merit to the very same Angel of Death, tell him [or her] that we deserve to stay here longer because we have important business to attend, what would you say?

If you can give a compelling self-defense of your purpose here, then mean it, mine it and celebrate it now because we don't know when that knock will come. These thoughts on our mortality dominate us as we approach our Days of Awe. "Repent the day before you die," we learn in Ethics of the Fathers. We don't know when that last day will be so our job is to make this day worthy.

Shabbat Shalom

Rumor Has It

Local gossip lasts for a day and a half.
— BT Moed Katan 18b

First things first. How's your 30-day Elul challenge going? Let's put another challenge out there: 30 days gossip-free.
 

The English singer Adele has a great song called "Rumor Has It." It's an expression we recognize that takes out the human element. We're not spreading rumors. Rumors do their own work, as Adele's lyrics suggest:

 All of these words whispered in my ear,

Tell a story that I cannot bear to hear,

Just 'cause I said it, don't mean that I meant it,

Just 'cause you heard it...

 Words whispered in her ear remind me of one of my oft-quoted saying from Proverbs. It captures the danger of rumors best: "Words of gossip are like delicious morsels; they go down to the inmost parts." (18:8). Gossip is delicious but a moment on the lips is forever on the hips in a different way. That piece of malicious or maligning information goes "down to the inmost parts." We cannot erase what we know. We will think of that gossip virtually every time we look at or encounter a person when we know his or her secret failing or weakness. 

Another problem with gossip is that the person spreading the rumor does not take accountability for it; he or she may just be passing it along. What's the harm in that? Just because someone said it or you heard it, does not give the statement authenticity. Then what does a rumor accomplish if it may not be true?

A rumor is like a dab of glue that joins people together in secret knowledge that bestows false power over its "victims." Rumors travel quickly and spread so far that they may become impossible to stop or contain. Thus are we warned in Leviticus about not being a talebearer, which literally in the Hebrew is rendered as someone who travels with gossip. Some people love to be in the know; it's a form of control. They love passing on news about people. "Did you hear...?" They don't want to know that you already heard. They want to be the one to tell you. In Jewish law, gossip does not need to be false to be gossip. It can be true and still be mean-spirited and thoughtless.

The Talmud considers what stops rumors and what spreads rumors and concludes that rumors stop if they are disproven. They gain fuel if no one puts an end to them. When I came across the Talmudic statement above - "Local gossip lasts for a day and a half" - I laughed out loud. The sages actually thought about how long rumors circulate.They concluded that a day and a half is "referring to a rumor that stopped." In their observation of group dynamics, some kind of community self-monitoring takes place that quells a rumor and kills it. 

How seriously should you take a rumor, therefore? "A rumor that does not stop must be taken seriously only if a person has no enemies. But if he has enemies, then it was the enemies who disseminated the rumor." In other words, the Talmudic conclusion is that we do pay attention to rumors that do not stop because at heart we assume that good and honest people who live in community with each other will behave with decency and stop unwarranted gossip. If it persists, we need to investigate the truth of the matter. But if the person who is the subject of the rumor has enemies, we dismiss the rumor altogether. Why be part of someone else's negative agenda?

While it would be wonderful to believe that we are high-minded enough to focus on ideas and not on people, we know the powerful draw of rumors, the delicious morsel that is fed into our ears and goes down to our inmost parts and lodges there. That morsel can quickly turn into indigestion. To avoid what we'll call "irritable scowl syndrome" - a general bad feeling about humanity that lives in the gut - we need to make sure that we don't take joy in passing on rumors and certainly think twice before spreading them without investigating their accuracy, as the Bible reminds us: "Do what is just and right."

Shabbat Shalom

Take the 30 day Challenge

May it be Your will, God, our God and the God of our ancestors, to renew this month for us for goodness and blessing.
— Blessing for the New Month

Let me introduce you to a new calendar. In the United States, there is National Mentoring Month (January), Black History Month (February), National Nutrition Month March, and Jazz Appreciation Month (April) and - don't feel left out - Jewish American Heritage Month (May). Towards the end of the year in November there is National Bully Prevention Month (November) and in between, every month is "decorated" with ways to create and sustain an interest in history, arts and medicine.         

A month is long enough to deepen a commitment and tweak a habit but not so long that it feels impossible. This might explain the unbelievable popularity of National Novel Writing Month (November), where writers and aspiring authors try to write an entire novel in a month and have chat rooms, get-togethers and coffee house challenges to inspire themselves and get support from each other. The idea is to immerse oneself long enough to create discipline and order through the formation of a supportive community.

 Does this work? It certainly does for many people because of what we are learning about the nature of habit. A number of books have come out in the past few years on habits and how to change them and have described habit as a muscle that must be activated, challenged and not overworked within a framework of time. "Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped." These are the words of Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.He writes that, "Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things." If you are careful, you can engineer new habits and rid yourselves of bad habits as long as you recognize that this requires a lot of stamina and determination and you can't change too much at one time or you will weaken the good habit muscle.

In Jewish law, when people make a commitment to do something or take a vow but do not specify a time, the timeframe is assumed to be thirty days. We appreciate that people make commitments to force themselves to be what they want to be but need that extra push. We also acknowledge that when people want to better themselves, they should not be paralyzed or imprisoned by that challenge. We ask them to take it one day at a time and assume that a month may be just long enough to actualize this better self.         

Perhaps that explains why each month, when we say the blessing over the new month the Shabbat before the Hebrew month begins, there is almost always a sense of anticipation and newness in any congregation. You can hear a ripple of enthusiasm and hopefulness. The prayer itself was composed by Rav, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, close to two thousand years ago. It is mentioned in the Talmud [BT Brakhot 16b]. Rav actually said it every day, perhaps believing, - like our modern writers on habit - that daily affirmations of what you really want to accomplish spiritually are the best way to get you there.          

In the prayer we ask God for long life, peace, goodness, blessing, sustenance, bodily strength, a fear of heaven and sin, a life without shame or disgrace, one of prosperity and honor, one graced by a love of Torah and where our most heartfelt wishes are fulfilled. The entire congregation sings loudly of its desires for "life and peace, happiness and rejoicing, deliverance and consolation." And then we say a rousing "Amen" and hope that the month ahead delivers on these great expectations.

This past week, we celebrated the new month of Elul, the time leading up to our Days of Awe and personal transformation. Let's make it easier to improve ourselves by committing to a 30-day habit change in this sacred month: the Elul Challenge. Make it small. Make it do-able. Make it stick. As Duhigg says of his research, "Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything." Showing yourself you can change in one area gave people the motivation and inspiration to change other bad habits into good habits.

 And if it helps you to articulate what it is you want to change, drop me a line and let me know how you'll be challenging yourself and we'll support each other through the month. Take the Elul Challenge. There's no better time on the Jewish calendar than now. May the Force be with you.

Shabbat Shalom

Live Long and Prosper

“In the merit of which virtues were you blessed with longevity?
— BT Megilla 28a

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy - the biblical book in which we are currently immersed - we find mitzvot framed as ways to lengthen our lives or the quality of our lives. It reminds me of an old TV ad for yogurt featuring seniors with the wrinkled face of walnuts all eating yogurt as the secret to longevity. Health scams often attract people with the promises of youthful aging or stopping the clock - a skin cream that is the elixir of life, a vitamin or an exercise that is the key to getting older and getting better.

 The Talmud sage Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKana [not to be confused with Hakuna Matata] was once asked the question above by his disciples. They rightfully wanted to know from their master teacher what he did to live to such a ripe old age. This begins a larger Talmudic discussion where the sages spill their longevity secrets. Free of cost, I will be sharing many of them with you. Combine them with yogurt eating and you just may live forever!

Rabbi Nehunya: "In all my days, I never attained veneration at the expense of someone's degradation. Nor did my fellow's curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was always openhanded with money." When asked later, by others, he added: "In all my days I never accepted gifts. Nor was I ever inflexible by exacting a measure of retribution against those who wronged me. And I was always openhanded with my money." This rabbi was able to live with an inner security that came from giving: giving people goodwill, granting them forgiveness, and sharing his material wealth (a fact he stresses twice when asked).

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha: "In all my days I never gazed at the likeness of a wicked man." This rabbi achieved old age by surrounding himself with good people who generated positive influences that kept him young at heart and in mind.

Rabbi Zeira: "In all my days I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was a greater Torah scholar than me. Nor did I ever walk four cubits without words of Torah nor without wearing tefillin. Nor did I ever sleep in a study hall, neither a deep sleep nor a brief nap. Nor did I ever rejoice when my fellow stumbled. Nor did I ever call my fellow by a derogatory nickname." This rabbi lived a long time because he abided in humility and sensitivity to others. He was also able to make the most of a meaningful moment by staying fully awake in his own life.

What fascinates me, in addition to the answers, is the sheer premise made by these ancient rabbis more than two thousand years ago. They believed that with great reflection and wisdom, they could hazard a guess about their longevity. Instead of berating themselves for all that they did wrong in the past and might repeat in the future, they were able to look back with pride at the lives of virtue that they crafted. They could identify behaviors and tendencies that made the quality of life deep and worthwhile.

You don't have to be old to do that. You do have to take some time to ask why God blessed you with the very particular life you lead. You do have to believe that you were created in the divine image at this specific point in time and history to make certain contributions. In what merit are you here right now? What have you done to deserve this life, in the most positive sense? 

This Shabbat - as we begin to cap the summer and welcome the High Holidays - perhaps we can each take some time to reflect as individuals and as families about our larger question of purpose the way that the sages did and to pat ourselves on the back for the good that we do.

 What acts of virtue or acts of restraint have you done to receive the gift of life today?

 Shabbat Shalom

Stealing Minds

It is forbidden to steal anyone’s mind...”
— BT Hullin 94b

Yesterday's Washington Post had a shocking column about a Virginia school principal whose resume was full of lies about his educational background. He presented himself as having college degrees he never had from institutions he never attended. He obtained his teaching license fraudulently and falsified three university transcripts. Three days after this discovery, he resigned. It seems that he had been employed for 14 years before anyone made this discovery. Ironically, his last name is Toogood. Too bad. 

I scanned the next page of the Metro section to discover that a dermatologist practicing in Mclean, Virginia intentionally "misdiagnosed patients with skin cancer" to perform unnecessary surgeries. He employed unlicensed and unqualified medical assistants to suture and close wounds and conduct other procedures and billed for surgeries that he assigned to his nurses, sometimes billing at three different locations at the same time. Washingtonian magazine recently named him one of the region's top dermatologists. Oy. If this is the one of the best, what does the worst look like?

Reading on the same day how the public was duped is painful, but it raises, in many ways, a different question. How did each of these men get away with this fraudulent behavior for so long? Both of these professions - education and medicine - are regarded in Jewish tradition as sacred. They are mitzvot, commanded occupations, perhaps because they involve and assume a level of trust. Perhaps precisely because of that trust, no one bothered to do a proper background check or an investigation into business practices. We assume that there is a certain unspoken covenant we make with people who lead us and take care of us. Unfortunately that agreement is too often broken.

In Jewish law, there is a category of theft called genevat da'at, literally stealing knowledge, based on a biblical prohibition found in Leviticus 19:11. Some call it stealing the mind. It is a subtle robbery; you likely won't know it's happening until long after it has happened. It's not like getting pickpocketed. You may never know that something was stolen from you. Professor Hershey Friedman describes the term genevat da'at as "fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression and acquiring undeserved goodwill." This is a prohibition of biblical order so if you weren't going to break any of the big ten, you might want to add this as an unexpected eleven on your Jewish dignity laundry list of commandments.

The example I often use of genevat da'at is buying someone a gift at Walmart and putting it in a Nordstrom box. You never said you bought it there. You let the packaging speak for you. It did not tell the truth. You get undeserved friendship points as a big spender when, in fact, Jewish law calls you a subtle liar. Because we take knowledge so seriously, we take deception seriously as well, the breakdown in knowledge that plays on false trust, ignorance or naiveté. Other examples of this include inviting someone to an event when you know they cannot attend so you get bonus credit with them (unless you are doing so specifically to show respect and honor) or any financial misrepresentation when you are selling or buying something.

You might claim that there is a universe of difference between faking a transcript and faking how much you paid for a gift because you took the clearance tag off and left on the "real" price. But in Jewish law, these are matters of scale and degree. The willingness to misrepresent yourself to look richer, stronger, smarter, more generous than you really are - may one day take you to someplace you really don't want to be: the land of deception, where integrity cannot live.

Alternatively, you can take the view of George Burns, "Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made."

Shabbat Shalom