Religious Violence

Do not envy a man of violence, and do not choose any of his ways.
— Proverbs 3:31

One recent morning, I opened up the newspaper and tried an experiment. I looked at the headlines trying to determine how many articles described violence in the name of religion. It was frightening. I imagine that were I to continue this practice each morning, every day would yield a fresh crop. That particular morning, a small piece in the middle of the A section caught my attention. A Baptist pastor in Bangladesh, who was leading a discussion about religion in his home, was stabbed by three men invited to the conversation. This was their second discussion about Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, and it ended in blood. The pastor's wife and daughter cried out "Save us. Save us," as the men fled on a motorcycle. The pastor survived. What pained me most was the mangled premise of the get-together: you can invite people to your home to discuss faith in an environment of safety, diversity and respect. Not in all parts of the world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has just published and eloquent treatise on how and why we must confront religious violence called Not in God's Name. He opens with a discussion of why religious ideologies have garnered so much strength of late in the shadow of the Enlightenment and rampant secularism:

"Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence...But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural. The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning."

Religion fills in the meaning gap, but this return has not been gentle or kind to the other in the minds of many. Rabbi Sacks continues: "Instead it is a religion at its most adversarial and aggressive, prepared to do battle with the enemies of the Lord, bring the apocalypse, end the reign of decadence and win the final victory for God, truth and submission to the divine will." It's a formula fueled by intolerant passion, and it is not going away.

Rabbi Sacks describes this fuel as "altruistic evil," evil committed for a sacred cause or in the name of high ideals. He spends the next chapters describing the rise of altruistic evil, how it does damage to the integrity of faith commitments and how we have to re-interpret sacred texts radically so that religion can be restored to its aim of peace, love and justice. It is not religion that is violent but misguided human beings who put an overlay of violence on religion and compromise its holiness and its capacity to bring meaning and community into the lives of ordinary human beings. I invite you to read the book yourself because a failure to frame this phenomenon leaves us unprepared for some of the most challenging and pernicious global problems of our time.

Let's turn to the verse from Proverbs above - "Do not envy a person of violence, and do not choose any of his ways" - is simple and unequivocal. Do not become a person who envies violence. Why would anyone envy violence? Yet we are drawn to passionate, charismatic people who shun ambivalence and seem to walk in the world with confidence and certainty. That is why the context in which this verse appears is particularly important. Proverbs 3 opens with a reminder to a child not to forget God's teachings that will bestow life and well-being. "Do not be wise in your own eyes," states verse seven. Instead, "fear the Lord and shun evil. It will be a cure for your body, a tonic for your bones." This is actually the same chapter where we find the famous verse in our liturgy: "Her ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peaceful. She is a tree of live to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy."

For religion to do its most meaningful work, all of its paths must lead to peace. It has to be a tree of life, not a sword that leads to untimely and useless deaths. All those who care passionately about faith have to re-commit to passionate moderation. "No soul was ever saved by hate," Rabbi Sacks argues. "We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God's love does not work that way."

Shabbat Shalom

A Fly in the Ointment

Dead flies turn the perfumer’s ointment fetid and putrid; a little folly outweighs great wisdom.
— Ecclesiastes 10:1

If it's Sukkot, it must be time for a little dip into Ecclesiastes, that great biblical book of wisdom and contradiction. On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read this book in synagogue, not sure if we should absorb its cynicism, feel undone by its doom or rejoice at its profundity. Maybe all three form our reaction.

Every year, I like to take a verse from the book and study it in depth. Today's verse opens chapter ten on the odd note of a perfumer's ointment. The verse has an important context. In the closing chapters of Ecclesiastes, we find a repeated contrast between intelligence and foolishness. The fool makes poor decisions. Even good decisions go south in the hands of a fool. And the fool is great at advertising his idiocy: "A fool's mind is also wanting when he travels, and he lets everybody know he is a fool" (10:3).

We understand why a fool is in particular danger when he or she travels. In a place where one may not know the language, the culture or the behaviors of the residents, the opportunities for mistake making - even for the wise - are heightened. The fool, because of an impetuous nature, never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity; the traveling fool is a walking billboard for errors of judgment. Later in the chapter, the fool's lack of preparation for the trip becomes his undoing: "A fool's exertions tire him out, for he doesn't know how to get to a town" (10:15). With no map, no GPS, no help from an information center or a person on the street, the fool spends hours trying to find where to go, but it's hopeless.

A fool isn't merely someone with a low IQ. We use the term fool to describe a person who is rash and thoughtless, a cretin, a dullard who says things he or she shouldn't or steps into situations to be avoided by anyone with wit and wisdom. This may explain why chapter ten elaborates on situations that prove perilous for the fool: "He who digs a pit will fall into it; he who breaches a stone fence will be bitten by a snake. He who quarries stones will be hurt by them; he who splits wood will be harmed by it" (10:8-9). In the course of manual labor, people need to dig holes and cut down trees but since this is dangerous work, the wise person will do as much as possible to create safe conditions. The fool won't.

"The fool's lips are his undoing" (10:12), we read. The fool is not careful with what he says and thus, brings trouble upon himself and others. "His talk begins as silliness and ends as disastrous madness. Yet the fool talks and talks!" (10:13-14). You watch the fool put his foot into his mouth and instead of taking it out, he pushes that foot further in until it seems permanently stuck.

What does this have to do with a perfumer's ointment? Perfume, particularly in the ancient world, was laborious to make and very costly to purchase. It was the time-consuming work of experts who concocted compounds, fixatives and solvents so that a wonderful smell available in nature could be bottled and then linger. We have perfumes from very ancient civilizations, dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The word perfume is from the Latin "to smoke through," indicating part of the process of transforming a smell into a salve.

Perfume, until relatively recently, was most commonly used to mask bad body odors since people bathed infrequently. If you have a dead fly in your perfume, your expensive oil will begin to smell bad - even if it's a very tiny dead fly, thus undermining the purpose for your perfume in the first place. You can't take away a bad smell with another bad smell and hope that a good smell will result. If you have something that could potentially help you, but you don't take very good care of it, it won't serve its purpose and may even act counter to its stated purpose. The writer Douglas Adams once said, "A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."

"A little folly outweighs great wisdom." In the shadow of Yom Kippur and this season of change, it's important to consider the silly, stupid and often small ways we get in the way of our own success. The good news is that if the problem is as small as a fly, we should be able to muster the wisdom to overcome our own foolishness.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot

Don't be Cheap

This is my God, and I will glorify him.
— Exodus 14:2

In a recent article, “Why We Don’t Like Cheap Things,” philosopher Alain de Botton argues that we overspend to satisfy deep urges for status and recognition. De Botton is one of the founders of the School of Life, and in this article he examines what he calls the “curious overlap between love and economics.” He begins with the rise and decline of pineapples. They were once considered a rare treasure, a fruit difficult to obtain even among the aristocracy. We find images of pineapples ornamenting homes and buildings, being gifted in oil paintings and served at elegant affairs. But then something happened. With more efficiency in production and transportation, the pineapple went way down in value and, therefore, in popularity. It’s strange because the taste of pineapple (ostensibly the reason that people like this fruit) stays the same no matter the price.

De Botton writes: “...when we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away. Naturally, if the object has no merit to begin with, a high price won’t be able to do anything for it; but if it has real virtue and yet a low price, then it is in severe danger of falling into grievous neglect.” The poor neglected pineapple.

One of my first thoughts on reading this article is wondering about his religious/ethnic identity. I figured he was not Jewish because, let’s face it, we love a bargain. Not only do we love cheap things, we love to tell you what we paid for them. Although de Botton is a self-proclaimed atheist, his mother is Jewish. Go figure.

Bargain seeking, however, is not only or always a behavior of the cheap. It is arguably a behavior of the smart. Why pay more for the same item or something similar. Retail versus wholesale? For us, wholesale trumps every time. Exception: spending money on rituals. The Talmud understands the verse above to be a statement about the importance of aesthetics in mitzva observance. What does it mean to glorify God? “I will be beautiful before Him in mitzvot” [BT Nazir 2b].

What is the decorative flourish that accessorizes a meaningful life? Good deeds. Intimacy with God. Treating other human beings with respect and dignity. It lies in taking the time and money to beautify the mitzvot we do. The Talmud continues: “I will make before Him a beautiful sukka, a beautiful lulav, beautiful ritual fringes. I will write before Him a beautiful Torah scroll, and I will wrap it in beautiful silk cloths.”

Maimonides takes this passage a step further and helps us understand what this means. A Torah scroll should be written correctly and elegantly, as should the text in tefillin. If you have a choice between etrogim - the citron taken on Sukkot - take the more beautiful one, as long as it does not exceed the other in cost by more than one-third [Shulkhan Arukh, OH 32:4, 656:1]. This ruling helps us understand how to prioritize when it comes to the value of the aesthetic in mitzvot. You don’t have to buy the cheapest ritual object or the most expensive but you should aim for your personal best and that best has a metric - add on one third of the cost of something you would normally spend on an item.

The Talmud understood that making what is called in the world of fund-raising “a quality gift” helps us value what we do. We value our spiritual lives when we make investments and braid beauty together with sanctity. We feel better about the world when we stand before God clothed in wisdom, justice and beauty.

This season, how beautiful are your mitzvot?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot

For the Sin of...

And for the sin which we have committed before You intentionally or unintentionally...
— Traditional Holiday Prayer Book

In advance of Yom Kippur, I was doing a quick skim of the prayer book to prepare myself mentally for the stress of confession. When you glance at the list you notice that many confessions involve speech, sight and intention. There are also many that capture the things we do wrong even when we are confused or don’t intend any hurt. We have to take responsibility for these wrongdoings as well because no matter the intention, there is also an action. Here are a few to illustrate:

For the sin which we have committed before You under duress or willingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.

For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.

And for the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.

At the end of this list, we also mention the sacrifices we would have brought for these offenses had we still had a Temple. “And for the sins for which we are obligated to bring a guilt-offering for a certain or doubtful wrongdoing.” One way we repented for intentional and unintentional sins in the days of old was through sacrifice. As we enter the sacred holiday season and reflect on ancient practices, we turn to the odd practice of the scapegoat, offered by the High Priest in the Temple, to rid ourselves collectively of sin. 

In traditional prayer books, we travel through the Yom Kippur rite almost as an omniscient narrator, tracing the priest’s steps and trying to imagine his trepidation as he offered this gift, hoped for our atonement, and was ready to pay the price with his life if his sacrifices on our behalf failed to achieve a clean slate.

The priest initially offered a bull on behalf of himself and his family. If he was not worthy, we did not want him acting as our messenger. We needed to know that he was spiritually pure and prepared when we sent him off on this holiest of days to represent us. The high priest then took two male goats. According to rabbinic elaboration of this ritual, the goats had to be exactly the same, virtually indistinguishable. In the wilderness, the priest brought them to the entrance of our portable sanctuary and cast lots. One goat would be offered as a sin offering on behalf of the entire community.

The other - the seir le’azazel - the scapegoat, was sent off into the wilderness. According to some Hebrew scholars, azazel means to remove entirely. It was to be accompanied by any human being out into the vast expanse of nowhere. In the Bible, it seems like it wanders off and away. In the Talmud, it must be led to a cliff and meet its death - not led by any escort but by another priest. As I wrote in my book Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, “Although in talmudic interpretations the goat met its death, in the biblical text the goat was merely shunted to an inaccessible region, a stunning metaphor for the abandonment of sin. We cannot kill the past; we can only hope that it travels to an inaccessible place where it no longer tempts, marks, or harms us.”

To me, the two goats symbolize fate, randomness and closure. The two goats were exactly the same. The two goats both died but in different ways. The two goats symbolically express different forms of contrition. Sometimes we make an offering, and sometimes we hope that what we’ve done wrong will just go away. Take away our sins that we may live and enjoy the freedom to become anew. The lot that is cast expresses the randomness of our fate on any given year. We intend many of our wrongdoings. Others we didn’t mean, but we hurt people and our intimacy with God suffers anyway. Some wrongs can be righted. Others - like the goat that wandered - leave a residual mess.

We use a lot of animals this season to take sin “away:” the fish in the ritual of tashlich, the chicken that is swung as a substitute for us, the goat that is offered on the altar, the goat that is sent off that carries our sins. All of it is not a substitute for repentance but serves instead as an inspiration and a mirror to self and community. Whether it actually accomplishes this is hard to say. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” We know that all too well.

In a few days we will stand with humility on Yom Kippur. We will face our wrongs and commit to right them. We will take responsibility for the intentional and unintentional ways we walk in the world and hope we can be as generous in granting true forgiveness as we are in asking for it. We will seek closure but understand that sometimes we have to wander in the wilderness for a while.

Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom

Puncture Your Heart

How’s your heart? I ask not as a cardiologist but as a seeker who always feels trepidation this season. In the Hafiz poem, “That Believe in Gravity,” Hafiz writes [translated by Daniel Ladinsky]:

The wind and I could come by and carry
you the last part of your journey, if you became light enough,
by just letting go of a few more things you
are clinging to…that still believe in

What are you holding on to you that you need to let go of so that this season of self-awareness and improvement can do its job? It’s OK if it gets a little ugly and messy inside because we believe that even when the gates of prayer are closing, the gate of tears is always open.

On Rosh Hashana we re-coronate God as the King of Kings and see ourselves as peons in the vast, wondrous landscape of the world. Humility creates vulnerability. On Yom Kippur, we face God with a mountain of personal and collective transgressions. We allow our inner demons to surface so that we can make a personal reckoning and commit to change. Repentance creates vulnerability. On Sukkot, we build small, impermanent houses and dwell there, casting aside our material comforts to live in the shadow of God’s protection. Impermanence creates vulnerability.

If you are having trouble getting to a vulnerable state this season, you need turn no further than Psalm 27, the one we are mandated to read in the morning and evening from Elul to Shmini Atzeret. King David models for us what it means to live in a state of constant vulnerability: “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (27:8-10). Nothing can make a person more vulnerable than being abandoned by one’s parents and yet, only from this place of complete loss and existential angst can King David achieve the intimacy with God he is seeking.

Our vulnerabilities bring us to faith because they wipe away the veneer of independence, self-reliance and confidence that we use to walk comfortably in a world that demands them. In a verse we read this season in the Torah cycle, we are reminded that we will only truly come to live intimately with God and others when we articulate our vulnerability: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Devarim 30:6). To circumcise the heart is to make a small hole in it, a hole big enough to let in the pain.

We reiterate this in a teaching of a Hasidic master: “After the shofar blowing was completed, the Baal Shem Tov said ‘In a king's palace there are hundreds of rooms, and on the door of each room there is a different lock that requires a special key to open it.  But there is a master key which can open all the locks.  That is a broken heart.  When a person sincerely breaks his heart before God, his prayers can enter through all the gates and into all the rooms of God's celestial palace’"  [Or Yesharim].

Native American writer and theologian Vine Deloria once wrote, “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.”  This season, don’t move away from your pain. Move through it. Use it to achieve closeness with God and others. Make a hole in your heart because that is where true blessing lies.

And if you can’t get yourself to a place of vulnerability now, don’t worry. The gate of tears never closes.

Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah

Stay, Don't Stray

“Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].”
— Maimonides, Laws of Character, 6:7.

"I wish I had never seen that list," was the way a woman shared a difficult moral dilemma with me. She was referring to a list of married people who had signed on to the website Ashley Madison searching for affairs. When the site was hacked, names spilled out into public view. Circulating among her peer group, was not the name of one but the name of two husbands of friends in her circle. What should she do?

Before I had the chance to respond, she wrote back saying that she could not sit quietly knowing that a close friend's husband was on the list. She had a troubling job in front of her, one that many of us might not approach with her bravery. "I grappled with reaching out to her directly but decided I would first let him know that our community was aware that he was on this list, and it was just a matter of time before his wife found out.  I just spoke with him, and it was very tough and awkward."

The husband sounded surprised that the list was making the rounds and shared that registering was more of a curiosity than anything else. Yet this courageous woman who outed him to himself concluded that he must have been very curious because he had registered repeatedly over a year. He did commit to speak to his wife. With a lot of people in the know, he could not escape the pressure of the goldfish bowl approach.

"I wish I had never seen that list" is an understandable response and yet had she not seen the list, she may not have taken the first big step in helping a couple salvage a marriage. Others perhaps saw the same list, experienced shock but held back. I have taught many people who confessed that a friend or colleague was involved in an extra-marital affair, and they did nothing.

The medieval scholar Maimonides writes cogently of the need to serve as a moral insurance policy for each other. "It is a mitzva for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to correct his behavior and to inform him that he is causing himself a loss by his evil deeds as [Leviticus 19:17] states: 'You shall surely admonish your friend.' He advises that this needs to take place privately and softly with the assurance that this needs to be done for his or her own good. Maimonides even advocates very harsh critique if the person refuses to listen. In situations of addiction, immorality and potentially life-threatening behavior, sometimes a harsh approach is the only one that will get through. Maimonides concludes this law with the quote above: "Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners]."

Many years ago at a retreat, I was teaching this law in an entirely different context, and a young woman asked to speak with me after class. She confided that a close friend had shared with her that she had begun an affair with a married man. This woman was married herself and had two young children. The woman who approached me was concerned that if she had a strained conversation with the friend about how wrong her behavior was, she would lose an old, close friend. I listened carefully, appreciating the emotional difficulty of her situation. I asked her one question, "What's more important, her marriage or your friendship?" She continued to discuss the friendship, and I asked her the same question again because we both knew the answer.

With all of the moralizing that goes on in our community, adultery is still the "quiet" transgression many are afraid to address outright. But it is the most fundamental breach and betrayal of the fabric of family, integrity and trust - the very foundations of our faith, as we read in Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in unfailing love and compassion." Our relationship with God and with the person we marry must be one of righteousness and justice, love and compassion.

Ashley Madison's motto is "Life is short. Have an affair." Our motto: "Life is short. Commit to a life of trust and meaning."

Life is too short to hurt the people we care about. Be brave. Protect the sanctity of the relationships that matter. Be a good friend. And if you are the one contemplating an affair or in the midst of a relationship that will break your partner's heart, it's the season of repentance and forgiveness. It may not be too late to save the most important relationship of your life.

Shabbat Shalom

Raise Your Right Hand

The Lord has sworn by his right hand.
— Isaiah 62:8

If you haven't been in a courtroom, you've watched the scene dozens of times on television and in the movies. A judge calls the court to order and says to the person on the stand: "Please raise your right hand to take the oath" as a symbolic way of assuring that the expert witness, defendant or plaintiff is telling the truth. It is a statement of personal integrity that should ideally heighten the reverence for the law. Jewish writing on the subject often stresses what book the left hand is resting on rather than the significance of the right hand being raised.

Fun fact: According to NW Sidebar, a website for Washington DC's lawyers and legal community, the raising of the right hand is attributed to 17th century London criminal courts. Judges could choose from a wide range of punishments when determining the fate of a criminal. The problem was that without a proper system of records to understand a criminal's background, assessing a punishment - certainly one as severe as the death penalty - was itself a possible blurring of justice. To resolve this dilemma, some judges created an alternate moral problem. They branded criminals. 

Sadly, it sounds just like what it is. As a leniency, a "T" may have been scorched onto a criminal's skin for theft, an "F" for a felony and an "M" for murder. In other words, if you weren't guilty of a capital crime, your body became your criminal record, specifically on the thumb of your right hand. Branding on the cheek, which used to be a practice, meant that a criminal's record was open for all to see, often preventing a rehabilitated criminal from getting work. The thumb was a more sheltered place on the body. The next time you appeared in court, you were asked to raise your right hand to see if you had committed any previous crimes when you took an oath and if you were granted a leniency in an earlier case.

Thank goodness for computers.

This thesis is entirely credible until you read that as early as the Talmud - about 2,000 years ago - people took oaths with their right hands because this practice was mentioned in the Bible. "Isn't 'right' an expression of an oath?" [BT Nazir 3b]. The Talmud then continues and asks what the connection is between the right hand and an oath and cites a verse from the book of Daniel: "When he lifted up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by Him that lives forever" [12:7]. The right hand is associated with taking an oath from this verse.

The Talmud then rejects this view and says that the right hand itself is an oath and cites yet a different proof-text from the book of Isaiah: "The Lord has sworn by His right hand" [62:8]. The Talmud also permits the use of the left hand for the taking of an oath. In other words, the critical act is the raising of the hand rather than the specific hand, according to a number of medieval commentators. 

Historically, however, the right hand was always associated in the Bible and in many ancient cultures with strength because it was usually the preferred arm for use in military maneuvers. God's strength is often referred to as coming from the right hand or arm. When Jacob places his right hand on his second grandson Ephraim (Genesis 48:14), he shows him preferential treatment as the strong one of Joseph's sons and the natural one to inherit leadership. The right side was also regarded as a position of honor; the High Priest in the Temple always turned to the right first when encircling the altar. 

This, no doubt, was a problem for lefties, who were often trained to become righties because left-handedness was associated with being weaker and even evil in some folkloric literature. My grandfather was left-handed but forced to write with his right hand to address this bias.

Perhaps the practice of swearing in court with the right hand predates 17th century England by more than a dozen centuries. If the right hand was associated with strength, leadership and honesty then swearing with the right hand was a way one announced personal commitment to the truth to those in the courtroom. And perhaps it was also a reminder to act justly before speaking to ensure that one's words matched the might of one's right hand.

Shabbat Shalom


Many seek favors from a ruler; everyone is the friend of a person who gives gifts.
— Proverbs 19:6

Get on line. Someone is giving out presents. The verse from Proverbs emphasizes gift-giving in the most superficial relationships. We ask for favors from people who are more powerful than we are. We wait for hand-outs from people who give gifts. We call these gift-givers friends, whether the gift is a physical object or a conferred status as a result of the friendship. But it's hardly a real friendship. 

French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote one of the early and influential books on gift-giving in 1924 and claims that gift economies are marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, to accept and to reciprocate. These obligations which drive the gift-giving cycle are typical in small, tight-knit groups like families and communities. Those intrigued by this topic might appreciate Lewis Hyde's more recent book, The Gift. In our verse from Proverbs, receiving alone will not create a bond. There has to be reciprocity for both sides to feel valued and equal partners.

Amanda Owen has a saying: "Receive everything." Owen wrote two books on the subject, The Power of Receiving and Born to Receive after observing how many clients in her counseling practice were giving a great deal but receiving much less in their relationships. She herself was victim of the same problem - a dilemma for which she blames herself: ". . . I also created relationships in which I gave much more than I got back and that left me feeling exhausted, resentful, and distressed. . . . The more I thought about receiving, the more I wondered why we are taught to denigrate 50 percent of every transaction." Our society praises giving but denigrates receiving because it seems selfish. But without healthy reciprocity we don't learn how to receive praise, gifts and favors with grace and maturity. 

When we are always giving and block ways for people to give back, we also minimize the capacity of others to give back. "Create a pathway for those you help to give back," she advised. Owen claims that this not only makes others feel like equals but also minimizes the stress we feel when giving-taking relationships are uneven: "Once you get used to people giving to you as much as you give to them and receive all of the benefits of a less stressful life, you will not consider putting yourself last."

This approach explains a remarkable Talmudic passage that appears in this past week's study cycle. A husband, in ancient Jewish law, has the right to nullify his wife's vows if she commits to something that would negatively impact him, herself or their marriage. He cannot, however, prevent her from doing an action that she perceives as suffering. A Talmudic sage then determines what suffering in this context means through an unusual interpretation of a biblical verse. "Rabbi Meir would say, what is the meaning of '...the living should take this to heart' (Ecclesiastes 7:2)? This means that one who eulogizes others when they die will in turn be eulogized when he himself dies; one who weeps for others will be wept for when he himself passes away; and one who buries others will himself be buried upon his passing," [BT Nedarim 83b].

The entire verse from Ecclesiastes is one we may recognize from the title of an Edith Wharton novel. "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of mirth, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." Visiting mourners puts life in perspective and helps us appreciate what we have. The Talmudic reading is that a man cannot prevent his wife from visiting mourners because it may cause her anxiety. She will fear that if she does not console mourners, no one will be there for her when she needs consolation. Being part of a community is recognizing that reciprocity matters. You can't expect the benefits of the community if you don't invest in it yourself.

A friend who volunteers in a Jewish home for seniors said that she goes weekly because one day she may be in the same position and wants to know that there will be people who will visit her. Initially, I thought this was odd, maybe even a selfish rather than selfless reason for volunteering. But then I came to understand that this friend deeply believes in the power of community and was - without guarantees - paying her moral down-payment on the future. 

As we approach the High Holiday season, it's a good time to think about volunteering for the new year and investing in a community that is invested in us.

Shabbat Shalom

Stand Tall

Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.
— Morning Blessings

We rarely get good news in the papers these days so when there is news to celebrate, it is often eclipsed by tragedy or tucked into a remote corner. This week we take note of a big piece of good news that’s worth a moment of reflection and appreciation. According to The New York Times, “ has been one full year since polio was detected anywhere in Africa, a significant milestone in global health..."

Doctors and health experts are celebrating what they consider a fragile success. When the global polio eradication campaign began in 1988, 350,000 children worldwide had polio. Last year that number dropped to 359. We are on the brink of eradicating all polio across the globe - something unimaginable is just on our horizon. This kind of accomplishment, only capable with the intervention of modern medicine, is worth a blessing. And I think I’ve found the perfect one, culled from our daily morning blessings: “Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.”

Polio is an infectious disease that usually causes a weakening of the muscles in the legs but can also spread to the head, neck and elsewhere. It is an ancient illness and can and still does have a crippling effect when not treated. Although Dr. Jonas Salk revolutionized the polio equation in the 1950s with his vaccine,  the World Health Organization still declared it a public health emergency as late as 2014 because pockets of the poorest populations in Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan and other countries had still not overcome its reach. Now that Africa has been polio-free for a year, medical experts hope that additional pressures will be put on other countries to make polio a disease of the past.

Because of the crippling nature of the disease, a blessing on polio’s eradication might focus on the fact that God helps those bent over stand tall. The Talmud offers us a string of morning blessings that still appear in traditional prayerbooks today that travel with us through the process of waking up, from the moment we open our eyes and through the acts of getting out of bed, washing and dressing. Performed slowly, this choreography of rising can frame the entire day with a posture of gratitude, figuratively and literally. To me, one of the most touching of these blessings is “zokef kefufim,” - to straighten the bent over, in which the very Hebrew letters seem to mimic in its design the word’s meaning - especially the first letter of each word.

In Torah Yoga, Diane Bloomfield writes about the power of body and spirit in alignment regarding the spine: “Because your spine is your infinite spirit clothed in nerves, bones and muscles, every time you straighten and strengthen your spine, you are revealing more of your underlying infinite spirit.” As we age, Bloomfield writes, the spine often compresses without conscious work to keep it straight and aligned and the ease with which children bend down and straighten is compromised as we get older. Making this blessing is a way that we heighten our awareness of the spine as the defining anchor of our skeletal structure and spiritualize the experience of standing straight.

We find an inherent contradiction in the book of Ecclesiastes: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is missing cannot be recovered” (1:15). It seems as if that which is crooked will forever stay that way until we read later in the same book: “Consider what God has done: who can straighten what He has made crooked?” (7:3). Within human realms, it is near impossible to straighten that which is bent over, but when we invite God to partner with us, it seems there is nothing beyond our capacity to heal, as we read in Psalms, “The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down” (145:14).

We are fortunate that this blessing helps us capture and sanctify this moment in time when divine intervention and medical innovation have brought us to a historic accomplishment. But the blessing should not be reserved for medical cases alone. All of us have the power to lift up the fallen, to act in God’s image and pick up those who are bowed low in suffering. We may not all be physicians, but we all have the ability to heal. In honor of this milestone, let today be a day that you use your friendship and love to bring the gift of healing to someone in need.

Shabbat Shalom

The Place

This week was exhausting existentially in our homeland. Ideology and fundamentalism became tools of violence in a land so desperate for peace. These were not external threats, but internal zealotry born of an arrogance and certitude that should make us pause, wonder, feel immense shame and anger and then take a painful look inside.

One of the names of God in Hebrew is Makom; God is a place, the ultimate place, so to speak. Makom is an odd way to refer to a Divine Being, but there is something about it that signals both grandeur and solace. When it comes to spiritual shelter, what matters is location, location, location. Many biblical verses refer to God as a refuge or place we hide to escape from our troubles when we feel ill at ease or afraid.

Stamped on many psalms is not the idea that God is a place as in a scenic vista or a magnificent sweep of landscape but a place we can go to when there is nowhere else to go. "Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies. I take refuge in You" (Psalms 143:9). Continuing the theme of protection, we read, "For You have been a refuge to me, a tower of strength against the enemy (61:3). God not only shields us. God is a tower when we are feeling small and powerless. "You are my hiding place. You preserve me from trouble. You surround me with songs of deliverance" (32:7). Not only do we hide in God, when we do so, we are surrounded by the loving cradle of song to sooth us. Sometimes we need to hide and do not know how. Then, too, the psalmist calls out to God, "Hide me in the shadow of your wings" (17:8).

Elsewhere, in the book of Isaiah, we have God as place using visual cues in nature: "Each will be like a refuge from the wing and a shelter from the storm. Like streams of water in a dry country, like a huge rock in a parched land" (32:2). God offers a place for us to hide when we are at our lowest and most fragile, and we suddenly grasp sight of a rich oasis. The problem is that we cannot always hide nor should we.

Turning to a more modern view of place, we study the living words of Israeli poet Tuvya Ruebner, who was awarded the Israel Prize for his poetry in 2008. Ruebner came to what was then Palestine from Czechoslovakia in 1941 during the British Mandate. He came alone. His family eventually perished in the Holocaust, but Ruebner's different path saved him. He became a member of Kibbutz Merhavia and a schoolteacher.

His poem, "When I arrived the place was," appears here in an English translation by Oded Manor.

When I arrived the place was
Filled with dust. No signature 
Of grass. Not
A single blade. A few grey trees
Stood here, there, shrouded
In sackcloth and dust. In my dream I saw
The rivers of my youth, the nights of my forests. Nowadays
Everything is green. In my dream I see
Filled with dust.

Sometimes we dream of a place that is lush and verdant but the reality turns out not to match the welcoming vision. Hardly anything is growing. Everything is covered in a film of dust that mars the deep green of nature. That happens to places when we have great expectations that are not met, when our disappointments become a storm cloud of reality.

When we speak of God as "Makom," we don't mean just any place. We mean a place of safety, of joy, of triumph, of home. Our homeland, too, has to feel like that makom, that place of vibrancy and shelter for all who live there if we take the mandate to live in God's image seriously. Because if it is not a makom - a safe and loving space - for all who live there now then it will cease to be that one day for any who live there. Let the repair and the healing begin.

Shabbat Shalom

Is Doubt Good for You?

A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty.
— BT Nedarim 61b

This past week in the daily Talmud study cycle, we find a statement related to vows that gets to the heart of personal dissonance. More than a statement, it's an argument. Rabbi Meir believed that, " A person puts himself in a position of uncertainty," knowing that with every commitment comes a degree of risk that we understand. We invite some degree of uncertainty into our lives. We cannot always reside in unwavering certainty; to move forward and advance in virtually all arenas in life, we need to anticipate that risk will live near us and with us. Rabbi Yosei takes a more conservative position designed to maximize self-protection: "A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty." No one willingly likes to lose control, thinks Rabbi Yossi, and puts himself or herself into a situation of doubt and ambivalence.

According to medieval interpreters of this passage of Talmud, the context of this debate is specifically targeted to a person who takes a vow - makes a commitment - and cannot remember exactly what he vowed. Alternatively, he may not have made his intention abundantly clear when making the commitment in the first place. In this case, we take his word literally because we have nothing more to go on other than what he said rather than what he may have meant. Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that people do put themselves in positions of uncertainty, meaning that when reflecting on a vow, the person who made it wants to avoid the most narrow understanding of his or her words.                         

In essence, the debate is about whether or not people opt for ambiguity as a desideratum or whether the fear of doubt is so great that human beings will go out of their way to avoid ambivalence. In fact, we have a rabbinic expression that cements Rabbi Yossi's understanding of human nature: "There is no happiness like the resolution of doubt." Living with uncertainty has many psychic costs. Relieving oneself of uncertainty is a source of comfort and, ultimately, of joy.

But sometimes we opt for certainty for all the wrong reasons. Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethics at NYU, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, contends that it's almost in our DNA to gravitate to groups that smother individuality and prize conformity. Living in relatively homogeneous clusters is a way that we validate our own decisions and choices. In many instances, we think we are making decisions, but in reality we are swept up in group think or group behaviors that are highly predictable. It makes life simpler, like that classic line from The Onion, "Stereotyping makes life easy."

In Haidt's words, "...when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say." Haidt challenges a fundamental assumption many of us make: human beings are mostly wired and driven by reason. "If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you'll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you." 

Haidt's solution to inviting greater subtlety and ambiguity into our lives? "...if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system." This, he believes, explains why it is so important to have "intellectual and ideological diversity" within groups.  It is this diversity that will ultimately produce good public policy.

Personally, I think the comedian Gilda Radner summed up what we're aiming for perfectly. "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity." As we get closer to our season of Jewish introspection, now is a good time to welcome and honor different understandings of the world that just might - if we're lucky - shake up our own.

Shabbat Shalom

To Plant or Not to Plant

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…
— Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is a time to plant and a time not to plant. Right now in the Jewish calendar year, we are not supposed to plant. During the nine days leading up to and including the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, we diminish activities of happiness and risk; this includes gardening for pleasure. The sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, writes: “As we enter the month of Av, we diminish joy...from the first of the month until the fast, we reduce business dealings, housing construction for the purpose of happiness [like a house a man might build for his son, the groom]...and refrain from planting for pleasure...” [O.H. 551:1-1].

This conclusion is a little surprising since Jeremiah, our prophet of doom and the “narrator” - if you will - of Tisha B’Av writes this in chapter 29 about Jews in exile.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’   

 The very same author who gave us the pathos of Lamentations, also advised us to conduct ourselves with dignity and practicality in exile. Marry, build homes, plant gardens and pray for your host country. In many ways, this attitude has served as a recipe for Jewish success in exile. We mourn our losses and do not believe that life in the Diaspora is our ultimate collective goal as a people yet while we are on foreign soil, it’s best not to cry. It’s best to plant.

And yet, even with this admonition, there are times when our pain is too acute for the pleasure of the garden and the sense of enduring presence that it offers. These nine days are that time.

You may wonder, if you’re not a gardener, how planting gives one pleasure. In fact, you may feel quite the opposite: that digging and plowing and sowing is a source of unnecessary physical exertion and, therefore, permitted and encouraged during this season of Jewish anguish. Freud, however, tells us that flowers “are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.” Plants are a source of calm; the feast of the eyes is a balm for the restless soul. Cicero believed, not so much in the aesthetic of gardens as the practical sense of security one might enjoy knowing that one’s food needs can be met at home. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

There is a spiritual side to planting and seeing the fruit of one’s labors quite literally that may also provide joy. Since so many human attempts at change and continuity fail, watching a seed ripen into a plant and then a fruit or vegetable provides a distinctive kind of happiness and sense of self-sufficiency and pride - all wrapped up in one exquisite tomato.

It is this joy that we avoid at times like this. The writer and food activist Michael Pollan, adds another dimension into our understanding of the seduction of gardening: “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.” Gardening sometimes provides us with the pleasure of believing that we have control of nature, even if it’s only a small patch, of forces that are so often intimidating and beyond human control. This, Pollen, hints, is only an illusion. We may think we control nature because our small corner of it is neatly manicured, but we are wrong in the ultimate sense.

These nine days, we reduce our happiness and minimize our risk and relinquish control to the Ultimate Gardner who gave us the very first garden to work and to watch.

Shabbat Shalom

Frailty, Thy Name is Woman

When Hamlet denounced his mother for her quick re-marriage, he made a sweeping statement about 50% of the population: “Frailty thy name is woman.” He considered his mother weak-willed and spineless, but for Hamlet this is apparently a condition of all women.  That women were regarded as pitiable and vulnerable was also an important literary conceit for the biblical prophet Jeremiah, prophet of doom and exile. For him frailty is more about compassion than about fickleness.

It was Jeremiah who saw the destruction of the first Temple and shared his torments in the anguished and lyrical five chapters of The Book of Lamentations. If it is hard to imagine such a task, picture someone the afternoon of 9/11, trying to describe the wreckage before him as an act of witness to those who would never see it. Today, our beautiful Jerusalem is once again filled with people and embellished in splendor. As the Sages once said, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine were given to Jerusalem.” But we no longer have a centralized place to pray as a community, a place to unburden ourselves and seek atonement or share our deepest spiritual yearnings and longings. What we do have is a first-hand recollection. Each year, we honor Jeremiah’s memory and the way that he tried to personalize this event and its scars.

Throughout the book, Jeremiah uses images of frail and disconsolate women to help readers after his death imagine what it was like to see Jerusalem and its holy Temple in ruins. With the coming approach of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of Av – when we recite this dirge as a community, we will do a close reading of the first chapter of Lamentations to see how Jeremiah evokes pathos through the image of a fallen woman.

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress [1:1-3].

Jerusalem is a widow lying in empty streets that were once full, mourning the full life that was once hers. Jerusalem is a queen whose crown has toppled and whose authority has been overturned. Jerusalem is not only a powerless royal; she is now a slave to others who once held her in high regard. Her royalty is gone. Jerusalem is humiliated. She has no friends. She has no rest. Like a woman facing her tormentors, she runs without direction, led into narrow straights that prevent escape.

The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe [1:4-5]

Even the streets of Jerusalem grieve. They, too, were once full of spiritual pilgrims, ascending to Jerusalem to gain atonement, to offer thanksgiving, to celebrate the holidays in the presence of community. Now there is no one at her once bustling gates. There is no cause for celebration or feasting. The Temple’s employees – its priests – have nothing to do but sigh. Jerusalem is both a young maiden mourning for a future she will never have and a mother whose children have been violently snatched from her. She will wait in desperation for her children to return from exile. In the ashes of her destroyed city, she realizes they may never return.

All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old…Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her [1: 6-9].

Like an old, wrinkled woman in front of a mirror, Zion sees that her splendor is gone – that her enemies made a grab for her treasures and left her in rags. But she has brought much of this upon herself. Like a woman who stains her garments with her own blood, she sits undignified in her filth, not thinking about the consequences of her actions until she can no longer run away from them.

This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed. Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her. The Lord has decreed for Jacob that his neighbors become his foes; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them [1:16-17].

Enemies mock her. They, too, see her filth and comment on her loss of pride in the world. In pain, she realizes that she has no one. She raises her hands for help and solace, but no one lifts her up. She is left simply to weep alone. Frailty, thy name is woman.

Shabbat Shalom

The Gift

A gift is not complete until the item goes from the possession of the one who gives it into the possession of the one who receives the gift...”
— BT Nedarim 43a

Remember O. Henry's short story The Gift of the Magi ? It's a wonderful tale about the significance behind the gifts we give. Are they a trifle we give little thought to or are they a genuine sacrifice in which we take deep pleasure? Della scrimps and saves and then cuts and sells her long and beautiful hair to buy Jim a watch-fob for Christmas, while Jim sells his gold watch to buy Della combs for her beautiful long hair. They end up with expensive gifts that they each rendered useless in the immediate present. But they were, no doubt, buoyed by the love behind the sacrifices each made.

" a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi." 

Gifts are an important way we show love, appreciation and interest in others. When someone pays particularly careful attention to our needs and this is reflected in a gift, we feel an emotional lift that may resurface every time we look at the gift or use it. The giver also experiences pleasure in seeking out the "perfect" gift and in the often altruistic motives behind the transaction. 

When we spend time picking out a present, we consider the needs and wants of someone else and journey outside the self. This alone can prove to be an existential relief and escape from too much self-absorption. There's the excitement we feel as we anticipate what the other person will think when he or she opens the wrapping and the satisfaction if we have done our job well. A thoughtful gift can cement and reinforce a relationship or connection between two people. In this way, the receiver gets when he gives.

These are all of the up-sides of giving. There are, however, many down-sides; gift-giving can become an emotional minefield. For the giver, there may be a lot of financial pressure when the gift one wants to buy or is expected to purchase is beyond one's means or the stress created at not getting the right gift. Sometimes a gift seems too generous and can create discomfort for the receiver. There may be "giver resentment" when the receiver does not express what we deem appropriate gratitude. The receiver may feel resentful or insulted when getting a gift that he or she feels is too skimpy or thoughtless. "I always wanted a sweater with one sleeve." "Thanks for the toaster. There's nothing I like better than a small appliance for our anniversary." "I really appreciate the gift card. It's so personal. Thanks for the errand" (Jim Gaffigan fans unite). 

In this week's Talmud study cycle, we come across the above statement, which seems odd at first glance. Of course, a gift is not a gift until it goes from the hands of the giver and into the hands of the receiver. And yet, the Talmud alerts us to the fact that this process of transmission may not always go smoothly. We may have every intention to give a gift and then life gets in the way. The receiver may be unable - for any number of reasons - to take ownership of the gift. There may be practical obstacles like time or distance or cost. And then there may be the emotional issues just mentioned. The giver may not be able to give freely and generously - like the person who gives you something and has to remind you repeatedly how much it costs or how hard it is to part with. And the receiver, for emotional reasons, may not be able to accept a gift with a full heart because he or she comes from a family or culture where gift giving is either more or less important than it is to the giver, like the aunt who hasn't forgiven you in twenty years because you didn't send a thank you note for a wedding present - even if it was a set of his and her matching pot holders. Sometimes, in making fun of an inappropriate or unwanted gift, we diminish the thought or person behind it.

There are so many hidden wants and insecurities around gift-giving that the Talmud, in its very simple language - stresses the importance of communication around a gift transaction on both sides. Think of the most special gift you ever got and the most special gift you ever gave. Focus, for a moment, not on the item but on the context and on all the other emotional factors that we may forget about when thick in the dance of giving and receiving. How can you become a more thoughtful giver and a more generous receiver?

Shabbat Shalom

Under the Sea

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

Early on in Genesis, God separated water and dry land creating what we know today to be earth and sea. God saw that it was good. Many of us will spend time this summer at the beach and make a similar declaration. It is good. It is more than good. Listening to water lap endlessly along the shore in calm and meditative movements that turn in high tide to the thunder of breaking waves cannot but help instill in us a sense of magic and mystery. Many of the forces at work in the ocean's patterns remind us physically of language we use in religion to capture the world spiritually: the highs and lows, the ebb and flows, the silence and majesty of water.

The Hebrew Bible contains many, many images of the sea for precisely this reason. God's presence is felt in its presence. We find the sea mentioned all over the book of Psalms: "The sea is His, for it was He who made it. And his hands formed the dry land" (95:5). Again the text reiterates the division of the world from Genesis. The sea, given its broad expanse and continuous, repetitive motion can only belong to God. "Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them?" Psalm 146:6 asks, "who keeps faith forever." Just as we cannot imagine the sea ever stopping its movement, can we never imagine God being absent from the world. 

Because God is Master over nature, God can control what happens to the sea: "He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed" (Psalms 107:29). We immediately think of Jonah and the storm that tossed his ship and the way the sea stilled when Jonah was thrown overboard. Storms often give the appearance of God's wrath just as a calm sea creates a sense of God's deep pleasure.

The sea also becomes a biblical metaphor for the depths of knowledge that human beings will never fully access because of our limitations. In Jeremiah, God asks, "Do you not tremble in my presence? 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). There are places that we dare not cross. We cannot. And yet a common biblical image of a leader's maturation is the crossing or parting of waters: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha. We as a people cross over the sea - the Reed Sea and the Jordon to actualize our future.

Late in the book of Job, Job inquires about his own fate and suffering. God tells him that he will never understand the universe's great enigmas, questioning Job's desire to know God's secrets: "Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?" (38:16). These are places you will never go or have intimate knowledge of. Keep the mystery. Keep the distance. It will create a sense of awe and holiness.

The mystery of the sea, unfathomable as it is, also helps humans bury their mistakes. We have the ritual of throwing our iniquities into the water and casting them far away from us, into the deep recesses that Job could never probe. Some have the custom of saying this verse from the book of Micah when they perform "tashlikh" - the symbolic casting of sins into the sea - on Yom Kippur: "He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (7:19).

The sea has been purposed and re-purposed for many different spiritual messages. When you are at the beach and have a moment to think beyond colorful towels, umbrellas and sunscreen, what moves you about the ocean? Does it connect you to anything transcendent?

At the very least, we might arrive at God's conclusion: It is good. It is very good.

Shabbat Shalom.

A Banner Year?

The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under this flag.
— Numbers 1:52

I must confess my ignorance. I never knew that a Confederate flag flew over the capitol building of South Carolina until the governor this week asked for it to be permanently removed. Having never been to South Carolina or visited its central government buildings, I couldn't believe that a state would permit such a thing when it has long been a symbol of white supremacy and a not-so subtle nod to a return to pre-Civil War segregation and slavery. I heard multiple comparisons to the flying of a Nazi flag after losing World War II but this comparison, though natural, seems somewhat fatuous and narrow. Symbols must always be contextualized and loose comparisons lead to sloppy thinking. 

Perhaps we focused so much on the Confederate flag this week because the much larger conversations on racism, serial killings and the easy accessibility of guns in this country are not resulting in enough change. The tragic shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stirred a lot of bad feelings about the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes to those who see it as an image of oppression and those who see in it an image of sentimental Southern patriotism. But the flag literally masks the more painful subjects that need banner attention right now.

In ancient Israelite history, when we marched through the wilderness on the way to our homeland, we were instructed to encamp in an orderly fashion: surrounding the Tabernacle, each person by tribe, each tribe in a particular location, each division with its own flag. The instructions above are reiterated only a few verses later: "The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of the Meeting at a distance" (2:2).

The flags they were instructed to display had to represent in some way, their ancestral homes, much the way that we might imagine a family crest would be replete with letters and symbols that represent a family's business and personal interests, geographic location and religion. A modern scholar associates the word for flag in Hebrew  - a degel - with the Akkadian dagalu which mean "to look" or a variation of it which means "sight." To serve its purpose correctly, a flag had to be visible. Without visibility, the flag was useless. In the ancient Near East, military units of a sizable number would group together with their families as an economic and legal unit that needed to be represented symbolically. 

A midrash on Numbers 2:7 posits that every tribe had a flag that corresponded in color to the stone it represented on the colorful breastplate of the High Priest, the kohen gadol. With this color alignment, you knew where you were located spiritually and physically in relation to a larger community. Flags are important ways that we demarcate space and stamp individuality on a location that may remain neutral without any mark. Noteworthy is that the first man on the moon placed a flag as if to suggest triumph and ownership of a space formerly uncharted.

We have flags of our towns, of our universities, of our states, of countries. A flag can be a highly moving symbol of belonging. Think of Francis Scott Key in 1814 seeing the stars and stripes of a flag that still waved high despite war that inspired him to write the American national anthem. Think of Israeli Olympic award medalists who wrapped themselves in Israeli flags as if to be totally embraced by a national symbol. Or consider the somber moments when the coffin of an American or Israeli soldier is laid to rest covered in a flag. The Veterans Association of America will provide a burial flag free of charge to honor the memory of a veteran that is then given to the next of kin. 

The history of the flag of Israel is itself fascinating. While the government settled on a rather striking and plain image that carries with it religious symbols like the Star of David and recalls the stripes of the tallit, a prayer shawl, the contest to design the flag suggested signs and colors associated with the number of work hours in a socialist day. Who we are or who we aspire to be often comes out in the flags we design.

Roman Mars did a fascinating TED talk on why we never notice city flags and how to design better flags, in case you were thinking of crafting something as a family. If you have an extra 20 minutes this week, listen and learn from an expert who has given this much thought.

It's not a bad idea to spend time this Shabbat thinking of what your family flag might look like or if you are part of a group like a workplace, school or camp, what symbols would mean the most to you that need to be included as a mark of identity in the small space that a flag takes up. One thing is clear: ancient Israelite flags were there to provide direction through high visibility to those who required shelter. They were never a source of offense or anguish. They accomplished the exact opposite - telling you where you belong rather than telling others where they do not belong.

Shabbat Shalom

Anger Management

Anger rests in the bosoms of fools
— Ecclesiastes 7:9

We use the expression “anger management” confidently, as if our most intemperate feelings were easy to manage, as if anger is something we can easily control. Yet people usually describe anger as something that feels beyond control, like a storm that sweeps us up in its toxic wake and drops us off in a foreign country. People often describe anger transporting them to new and unfriendly territory, a place that’s hard to find a way out of when you’re stuck there temporarily.

Anger becomes a subject of rabbinic contemplation in a page of Talmud studied in this week’s daily cycle this week [BT Nedarim 22a-b]. The Sages two thousand years ago brought together biblical verses on anger and interpreted their meaning and relevance to human interactions. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani specifically tells us what foreign country we’re in when we’re angry: hell. He said, “One who loses his temper is exposed to all the torments of Gehenna [purgatory].” If you can imagine hell as a place where you are your worst possible self, your anger becomes your passport into that unpleasant, threatening place. Therefore, Rabbi Nahmani concludes, “remove anger from your heart.” Move out of that country quickly.

Rabba adds to this discussion: “When a person loses his temper, even the Divine Presence becomes unimportant to him.” There is an underlying arrogance to anger, namely that I think my opinion or behavior is correct and yours is clearly not – that is what gives me license to release my inner venom on you. When I do that and spill out that anger on another person and make myself superior in the process, I remove the godliness of the other. God demanded that we act in God’s likeness. This means that all of our relationships should be colored by transcendence, not arrogance.

Rabbi Jeremiah said, “He [an angry person] forgets his learning and becomes more and more foolish, as it is written, “Anger rests in the bosoms of fools,” [Ecclesiastes 7:9] and it is written, “The fool is laid open to folly [Proverbs 13:26]” Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac said, ‘It is certain that his sins outnumber his merits, as it is written “A furious man abounds in transgressions” [Proverbs 29:22]. Because anger is a vehement and immersive emotion, it has the power to erase whatever was occupying the mind and heart beforehand: learning, commonsense, goodness, kindness. It all goes. We make foolish decisions in a state of anger.

The pastor and motivational speaker and writer Joel Olsteen discusses the myriad opportunities we have daily for anger and its many minions: offense, insult and stress, to name just a few. When you “indulge these negative emotions,” Olsteen says you give something outside yourself “power over your happiness.” Olsteen, like our Sages of old, emphasizes the way that anger takes over our psychic landscape and entraps us, making us into people we don’t want to be. We give anger power over us.

But when we describe anger as an animated almost extraterrestrial force, we also – perhaps unwittingly – attribute powers to it that it cannot have. We give it permission to live within us and dominate us as if we were victims.  All we did was offer this force entry into our souls and then it hijacked us without asking.

Aristotle is attributed with this perspective on anger: “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” This is not the view of the Sages of the Talmud. The Talmud wants us to acknowledge the power and destructiveness of anger while still owning the anger. We are not its victims but its ultimate master, each and every one of us. Managing anger is an aspect of human free will. If we regard it as anything more then we deny our ability to tame and calm it.

Think of a time when you were really angry.


How did it make you feel?

Did you control it or did it control you?

Shabbat Shalom

Curiosity Conversations

For 35 years, the movie producer Brian Grazer - who produced films like Apollo 13, Splash and A Beautiful Mind - has conducted what he calls curiosity conversations. Originally, he sought out people in the entertainment industry for one-hour conversations simply to learn the business from people who were different from him. Then he realized that in order to really grow, learn and enhance his understanding of the world, he needed to speak to people outside his industry. He wants to disrupt his point of view and get completely out of the world he lives in.

To that end, Grazer has spoken to Jonas Salk, Isaac Asimov, CIA directors, and the world’s richest person, simply to understand what life is like in someone else’s very different shoes. He often spent more than a year trying to arrange such meetings and then eventually hired someone called his cultural attaché whose only job was to set up these meetings. In A Curious Mind, he writes: “My strongest sense of curiosity is what I call emotional curiosity: I want to understand what makes people tick: I want to see if I can connect a person’s attitude and personality with their work, with their challenges and accomplishments.” 

There is something profoundly spiritual in Grazer’s quest - the desire to know the other. We all know people who haven’t the slightest curiosity about the other; other people are just a platform for getting back to oneself in a complete narcissistic sweep. If you’re frustrated by this dynamic, practice a few curiosity questions on strangers and relatives - moving the spotlight from you to the other:

Why did you...?

What interests you about...?

How did you come to...?

 In Hebrew, the word for curiosity - that natural inquisitiveness that mines, explores and discovers - is “sakranut.” We have some wonderful examples of curiosity conversations in the Hebrew Bible and in rabbinic literature. Moses turned during his work day as a shepherd to see a wondrous site: a burning bush whose flames did not consume it. He couldn’t stop looking. And when God saw Moses seeing, God realized that this was the leader he was looking for - a person who paused to wonder. Moses, in effect, had a curiosity conversation with God.

In the Talmud, we read a few wonderful stories of curiosity.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana stated: Once we were traveling on board a ship and saw a fish whose back was covered with sand out of which grew grass. Thinking it was dry land we went up and baked, and cooked, upon its back. When, however, its back was heated it turned, and had not the ship been nearby we should have been drowned...
Rabbah b. Bar Hana further stated: ‘I saw a frog the size of the Fort of Hagronia. (What is the size of the Fort of Hagronia? - Sixty houses.) There came a snake and swallowed the frog. Then came a raven and swallowed the snake, and perched on a tree. Imagine how strong was the tree. R. Papa b. Samuel said: Had I not been there I would not have believed it” [BT Bava Batra 73a-b].

Scholars whose heads were usually in books turned to the natural world in what Rabbi A. J. Heschel called, ‘radical amazement.”

Perhaps one of the great lyrical reflections on curiosity comes from a psalm of David in his marvel at the cosmos. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8).

Whether you are amazed by the complexity of another person or the intricacies of nature, the summer is a great time to amplify your curiosity. The pace is slower. We spend more time outdoors, exposed to the wonders of nature, and we often spend more time relaxing with friends. Try a curiosity conversation this Shabbat with people you know well: your kids, your parents, your closest friends. A few curiosity questions later, a new and improved person may very well emerge before you. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”

Shabbat Shalom

Get Motivated

It is permitted for a person to motivate himself...
— BT Nedarim 8a

In our new cycle of talmudic tractates, we encounter a volume on oaths and a fascinating question: can a person take an oath to fulfill a mitzva? I swear I am going to keep Shabbat, for example. The specific example the Talmud brings is taking an oath to study Torah. Can a person swear to get up early and study a chapter or text of choice. It seems the answer is yes: "It is permitted for a person to motivate himself."

This answer is shocking because taking an oath was regarded as a very serious matter in Jewish law. We know the solemnity and severity of oath-taking from the start of Yom Kippur prayers where we use a lot of legal jargon to ask that any oaths that we have taken be totally and utterly nullified so that we are not held spiritually captive by commitments we've made that we cannot keep. A mental debt is owed unless we can vitiate the oath altogether. Swearing that something is what it can never be or swearing that something is what it is is a serious misdemeanor in God's books. If I said that a circle is a square, for example, or that a circle is a circle, these are both foolish oaths that have no meaning. Swearing falsely is a transgression from the Ten Commandments since God's name was usually used in ancient oaths as another means of enforcing ourselves to do what we have committed to do.

The question is why you need to take an oath to motivate yourself. The likely reason is that you know you either don't like a particular mitzva or you care about it so much or it is so necessary that you want to take every precaution and measure to ensure its fulfillment. If you have a special deed in front of you that is hard for you to keep, the Talmud asks, should you take an oath to force you into its performance? The answer is debated but appears to be generally affirmative. Help yourself do that which is good for yourself or others. If an oath helps, then go for it.

I've always been interested in what motivates people to make a change they knew they should have made long ago or what inspires people to take on a new challenge. Motivation in general is a fascinating prompt. When in seminars I've asked people to think about the time in their lives when they've had weak motivation and peak motivation, the peak times almost always emerge from self-driven desires and the weak motivation is almost always due to external pressures that thin out quickly. There was the man who decided to run a marathon for charity and never felt more motivated in his life to train and cross that finish line. There was the graduate student who had a punishing professor who procrastinated on every paper because he just didn't care. He felt worn-down by the class culture.

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee in Primal Leadership write: "Motivation on the job too often is taken for granted; we assume people care about what they do. But the truth is more nuanced: Wherever people gravitate within their work role indicates where their real pleasure lies - and that pleasure is itself motivating." We can offer rewards and awards but, they conclude, " external motivators can get people to perform their absolute best." Only you can be the best driver of your best self.

Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us explains why external motivation rarely works or cannot be sustained long-term. He offers seven "deadly flaws" related to carrot and stick motivators:

  • They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  • They can diminish performance.
  • They can crush creativity.
  • They can crowd out good behavior.
  • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviors.
  • They can become addictive.
  • They can foster short-term thinking.

If we are too driven by external motivation, we may crush inner motivation and creativity. We may behave badly around or to other people in our competitive zeal to get something done better or more efficiently than someone else. This is something to think about in an age of entitlement when we are always passing out gold stickers and rewards.

It also helps us return to today's talmudic debate. Perhaps the argument against allowing people to take an oath to do a mitzva that they are obligated to do anyway is to encourage them to find internal drive to do it. It may be permitted simply because we care most about outcomes or believe that sometimes people who habituate themselves to perform mitzvot will eventually come to do them out of love, what we call "mitokh shelo lishma ba lishma." What we do not for its own sake, we will come to do for its own sake.

For what mitzva might a little external motivation help?

What mitzva do you have a lot of inner drive to fulfill?

Shabbat Shalom

The Upside of Stress?

Be still and know that I am God...
— Psalm 46:10

Stress can be beneficial to your health. I know what you’re thinking. Impossible. It’s not the Jewish way. Oy vey is the Jewish way.

Then came along Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford, with her new book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. Good at it? In the words of one of my children about ice-skating: “That’s a talent I don’t want to have.” No one wants to be good at stress. We just want to get rid of it quickly, like shaking off the rain when we come indoors or swatting pesky flies to get them to leave us alone.

The religious response to stress is to put one’s trust in God because that faith with minimize our own sense of looming crisis. If we just let go and let God, goes the expression, all will be OK. It’s not that we don’t have biblical figures who communicate the intensity of their anguish. Job is a prime example. “My inward parts are in turmoil and never still; days of affliction come to meet me” (30:27). It sounds like Job needs a really good gastroenterologist. Job here does not invite disaster. It finds him. It causes him acute pain. Job does not minimize stress - the tension, pressure and emotional strain- of his situation. He articulates it artfully.

This kind of articulation in the Bible is often followed immediately by a statement of God’s role in one’s life – as in the verse above from Psalms. Be still. If God is with you then you can quiet those shaking inner parts. The famous 23rd psalm reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd so that we will not want. When we know we are being led by forces of good and handled with care, we can release some of the pressures – the way that good company allows us to be at ease. We read in Psalms that God is “our stronghold in times of trouble” (9:9) as a way of suggesting that we can put down some of our own armor.

Many people have shared with me the way that this idea of being held by God helps them manage their own “catastrophizing” in the spirit of Isaiah’s words: “Fear not for I am with you; don’t be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (41:10). A more obscure biblical book, Habakuk, records the actual catastrophe and the reliance on God to minimize it: “Though the fig will not blossom and no fruit be on the vines, the olive tree fails and the field has no yield, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).

 This type of faith – to find joy even though one’s surroundings offer little or nothing – is very hard to achieve. Let’s imagine for a moment, a contemporary equivalent. “Though I cannot find a job, there is nothing in my fridge, I’ve gained ten pounds, my girlfriend dumped me and I lost my cellphone, I will still take joy in God.” Stated that way, we can appreciate that even though so much of daily life is not working, there is still reason for hope and happiness by rising above crisis and touching eternity.

 McGonigal’s approach to stress is not spiritual in this way. She says part of the problem is that we use the term stress to describe everything from a traffic jam to a death in the  family, thus making it an ineffective catch-all for any time we feel any tension. She finds that talking about the negative impacts of stress on one’s health just created more shame and stigma around stress. After researching stress, she concluded that the way that we think about stress impacts our capacity to manage it. View it positively as a way to learn and grow and develop resilience and you have recovered what she calls “the biology of courage.”

Stressed? You may be a click away from relief. Listen to McGonigal’s TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend”. Stress may never be your friend, but it doesn’t have to be a persistent enemy either. 

I used to say “Don’t be stressed be blessed.” After the book, my new line is “Be blessed because you’re stressed.”

 Shabbat Shalom