Soft Words

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, ‘A person should never utter an ugly word.’
— BT Pesakhim 3a

As the presidential elections advance, the use of  harsh and hostile language has intensified to an unbearable pitch, leading one viewer to tell a candidate that she would not allow her nine-year old to watch a presidential debate. Ouch. That hurts. Where have Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's wise words gone: "a person should never utter an ugly word"? We've had ugly words tossed about with such abandon that it has compromised the dignity of leadership itself.
 
I was struck by the contrast of this dilemma to something I saw in one of the most inspiring books I've read in years: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Shneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi of Modern History. Rabbi Shneerson (1902-1994), affectionately known as the Rebbe, was the seventh and last head of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Chasidic branch with roots in Russia. He created a network of outreach institutions that literally span the globe.
 
Researching the Rebbe's life for five years, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the book's author, realized that the Rebbe went to extreme lengths to avoid the use of negative words. Rabbi Telushkin examined 40 years of the Rebbe's public lectures and concluded that the Rebbe did not criticize people by name even when he questioned a behavior. He also never used the term "beit cholim" or hospital. House of the sick, as it is literally translated, is a discouraging expression. Instead he preferred "beit refuah," a house of healing. In a letter to Professor Mordechai Shani, director of the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, he once wrote, "Even though...this would seem to represent only a semantic change, the term beit refuah brings encouragement to the sick, it represents more accurately the goal of the institution...which is to bring about a complete healing. Therefore, why call it by a word that does not suit its intentions?"
 
The Rebbe understood and modeled something obvious and potent, namely words have connotations and denotations. The choices we make influence the way we regard what we are talking about. That being the case, why choose to say something negatively when you can communicate the same message in an elevated fashion?
 
As another illustration, the Rebbe also did not like the term used by the IDF [the Israeli Defense Forces] to refer to those wounded by their war service: "nechai Tzahal," literally, army handicapped. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe said, "If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that God has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievement of ordinary people." He preferred a different term that would reflect on their service rather its cost: "metzuyanim" - exceptional veterans.  In the 50s and 60s when terms like moron, retard and idiot (it hurts to write this) were still widely in use to describe the mentally disabled, the Rebbe used the word "special," decades before it became common parlance. 
 
The Rebbe also did not like to say evil and instead said, "hefech ha-tov," - the opposite of good. He did not even like the term "deadline" preferring instead the due date - using a term referencing birth rather than death. You could say this is a stretch, but perhaps the Rebbe had internalized the words of Genesis.  Words create and destroy worlds, real and emotional.
 
He often said, "Think good, and it will be good," years before the school of positive psychology was born. To a man who complained that his children were assimilating and regularly used the Yiddish expression, "It's hard to be a Jew," the Rebbe responded "Then that is the message your children hear and that is the impression of Judaism they have." The Rebbe challenged this father to use another Yiddish expression, "It's good to be a Jew."
 
All this positivity and feel-good language might be hard for the more cynical among us to stomach. Yet it's high time that we demand that politicians, celebrities and athletes stop throwing words around like bullies or hurling invectives at each other with little thought about how it shifts our general use of language. And while we're at it, maybe we can all release a little of our "inner Rebbe" and try a softer word, a more gentle tone, a more embracing and loving approach.
 
Today's challenge: Spend one entire day avoiding any negative speech. Shabbat is a great day to keep it holy.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Growing Wiser

Is there not wisdom in the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?
— Job 12:12

No doubt some of you saw this week’s front page Wall Street Journal about Brazilian seniors (those over 60), who are allowed by law to go to the front of lines and receive immediate attention. Those who prevent the elderly from this new privilege can receive a fine of about $750 per infraction. Many Brazilian supermarkets, banks and post offices have “caixas preferenciais” - preferential lines - for seniors and those who are pregnant, have young children or have a disability. Some protest that people who are otherwise sprightly are taking advantage, the “dyed hair and a pocket full of Viagra” syndrome, or exploiting this privilege to do jobs for younger family members and friends. Some seniors don’t want to use this privilege for fear that they will be looked at unkindly by people on the same line. Yet others recognize the importance that this communicates about aging in society generally. By the time one reaches these golden years, life should get a little easier. People should show a little more respect.
 
The article reminded me of being on an Israeli bus where it is common to see a verse from Leviticus on the bus wall near the front to encourage people to give up their seats: “Stand up in the presence of the aged and honor the face of the elderly” (19:32). It is a statement of pride; it is the application of one of our prized values. We treat the elderly with respect. The same word in Hebrew - zekanim - is used both to describe seniors and sages. “Grey hair,” states Proverbs, “is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (16:31). In antiquity, longevity was a sign of God’s blessing.
 
Yet, we also find another perspective on aging in Jewish texts, one of candor and pain. King David wanted to reward Barzillai, a wealthy gentleman from the Galilee who helped David at a difficult time, by granting him special privileges. “Now Barzillai was very old, eighty years of age...The king said to Barzillai, ‘Cross over with me and stay with me in Jerusalem, and I will provide for you.’ But Barzillai answered the king, ‘How many more years will I live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is enjoyable and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of male and female singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?’” (II Samuel 19: 32-35). In reflecting on his old age, Barzillai refuses to be a burden to the king and speaks of the despair of getting old and being unable to enjoy what he did when he was younger.
 
Ecclesiastes takes a more maudlin and lyrical approach:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them'- before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim; when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when people rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint; when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire no longer is stirred. Then people go to their eternal home and mourners go about the streets” (12:2-5)

Desire fades. The struggles of aging augment. Death knocks.
 
In one midrash, a woman who ages with weariness and despair becomes tired of her life. She visits a rabbi to ask for his advice since she no longer wants to live. He told her to stop attending synagogue every day. Three days later she passed away (Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 943).
 
This story contains a very important message about aging. What kept this woman alive was her synagogue - her faith community sustained her. The grieving over who she once was diminished in the presence of others. She had somewhere to go. She had people to see. She had prayers to say. God, too, was a companion to her in her old age, in the stunning words of the prophet: “Even to your old age I am He; and even to white hairs will I carry you” (Isaiah 46:4). God remains a constant and will carry us all through the last chapter, especially if we cannot count on others to carry us.
 
Synagogues, community centers and other gathering spots are places that offer us the opportunity to carry the elderly, to help manage the crumbling self-worth of someone who is struggling with getting old. So maybe Brazil has it right. Giving seniors a little advantage is a slim way we compensate for the many challenges of this time in the lifespan. And maybe we should not rely on God to do all the heavy lifting. We also need to carry our elders.
 
When is the last time, outside of your own relatives, that you dispelled the loneliness of a senior citizen with your company? Schedule a next time.
 
Shabbat Shalom

The Secret is Out

...Do not reveal another’s secrets.
— Proverbs 25:9

The current issue of The Wall Street Journal Magazine ran their feature "Columnists", about secrets. They asked six individuals from different fields to weigh in on the topic of secrets. Gossip columnist Kitty Kelley, who makes a profession of busting celebrity secrets, made this observation: "I truly believe that you are as sick as your secret - and I'd like to make everybody well." Kelly is prepared to lift off that weight for you by sharing your secret with the known world. Silly me. I never considered the humanitarian contribution of gossip columnists. I've always felt safer with the words of Ecclesiastes: "Do not belittle the king even in your thoughts or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say." [10:20] The walls have ears, and the ears have wings.
 
Once a secret is out, it's not coming back: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever..." [Deuteronomy 29:29]

Dr. Phil was more personal in his response. "The isolation that is involved in secret keeping can erode self-esteem and self-worth." He should know. He spoke of a childhood marked by the shame of his father's alcoholism that turned his whole life into a secret. No one knew in school that their utilities were turned off because his father did not pay the bills or that a window in their house was kicked out "because he came home in a drunken rage the night before." His secrets were a poison injected daily. Proverbs 12:13 states that an "Evil person is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble." [12:13] Our tongues become traps; sometimes we seal them. We may seal them so tightly that they damage us in the process.
 
I found comic relief in Susan Lucci's confession that her character on the soap opera All My Children had so many secrets. She felt lucky to play such a flawed character for decades. I wonder how the challenge of keeping up fake secrets impacted her understanding of secrets in the real world, minus the make-up and glamour of TV. She believed her character kept secrets out of the terror of how people would react, much the way that Micah warns us to be careful about who we tell our most treasured and frightening pieces of personal information: "Put no trust in a neighbor. Have no confidence in a friend. Guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your arms." [7:5]
 
The prophet helps us understand the seduction of revealing our secrets. We want to be understood. We want to unburden ourselves and experience the relief of being accepted warts and all. But be careful, very careful. Don't simply trust a neighbor, Micah warns, simply because of proximity. Even friends, good friends, may have a very different sense of confidentiality, one that can cause a permanent rift in an otherwise close relationship.
 
And think about work for a moment. To whom can you speak to in discretion? I am always wary of these few words in a professional interaction: "Please close the door..." Where is that conversation going? What is revealed may cause enduring damage to the reputation of an employee or a boss by making you change your previously held positive views. I have made the mistake more than once of revealing a confidence in order to help someone, and it has come back to bite me. I've learned the hard way. Helping can often mask arrogance. We think we know what's best for someone else. What's best for them is what they asked for: your trust.
 
When has covering a secret led to an emotional cover-up you can not live with, one that saps your heart and mind of precious energy? When you find a trustworthy friend or mentor, you can bask in the safety shared by the prophet Jeremiah: "Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things you  have not know." And if you take the risk of revealing yourself, let's hope that the one who listens values your relationship enough to keep the secret. 

Proverbs tells us, "Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered." [11:13] Honestly, how good are you at "keeping a thing covered"? It is an honor to have the complete trust of another human being. Respect and treasure it.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Losing It

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner.
— Deuteronomy 22:1

I don’t know about you, but when I lose something, I believe the object in question has just taken a temporary hiatus from my possession and will soon make its way back. In Jewish law, a person who loses an object can have “yai-ush” - relinquishment or despair of ever seeing it again. Once a person lets go mentally, it lessens or negates the obligation to return the object. I’m just letting you know that I’m never letting go. Things I lost in sixth grade are still coming back. The central thesis of A Place Called Here by Irish novelist Ceceli Ahern is that all our lost objects end up in a mysterious land, home to single socks, twenty dollar bills, and one earring.
 
In Jewish law, there is no such enigmatic place because we’re too busy returning lost objects. Even a thief cannot assume that the owner of a lost object has relinquished it [BT Gittin 55a]. The mitzva to return something lost appears in Deuteronomy: “If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it” [22:2-3]. This mitzva is the subject of much rabbinic discussion. We are not, according to Jewish law, allowed to leave the object where we find it, ignoring our responsibility to seek out its owner. This only applies if the item has minimum worth (the value of about two cents) and if the owner himself values the object. In other words, something that is of little financial value to the finder may have great sentimental worth to the loser.
 
If an object has been left in the same place for a very long time, it is assumed that the owner has let go of ever retrieving it, and you do not have to go to any length to find its owner. Yet, if the item has distinctive markings or is in a place with little foot traffic, then your obligation to return it remains. Interestingly, although you have to do everything within your power to publically document that you have found this object, you are not obligated to spend your own money to return it unless the original owner will compensate you.
 
The degree to which we obligate the finder has to do with our understanding of how deeply troubled the owner is to lose the object. No wonder prayers have been written to help find an object. There is something powerful, almost mystical about being reunited with something you’ve lost. A Jewish prayer cites a midrash based on a story in Genesis 21 that Hagar and Ishmael, her son, were dying of thirst: “Rabbi Benjamin said: ‘Everyone is presumed to be blind, until the Holy One, blessed be He, opens his eyes, as it is written, ‘God opened her eyes and she went and filled the skin.’” The finding of a lost object - the opening of the eyes to see what is really there - is spiritually very gratifying. Christians pray to Saint Anthony. One prayer I found contains these beautiful lines: “At least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss. To this favor I ask another of you: that I may always remain in possession of the true good that is God. Let me rather lose all things than lose God...”
 
I close with a true story, whose details I hope I do not muddle. Many years ago, I was teaching in several gap year programs in Israel and carpooled with another faculty member to one of the programs. Impressed with a student in one of my classes, I asked my colleague if he knew her. He told me she had a fascinating story. She was set on studying in an ashram in India. On the way, she stopped off to see family in Israel. Her relative took her to a class in the Old City of Jerusalem on the topic of ha-shava’at aveida, returning lost objects. The minutiae of Jewish law bored her to tears; she told her relative that this was precisely why she was going to India: to escape the legality of Judaism for the spirituality of an ashram. She studied for months with a guru. One day, she was walking and talking with her teacher, when they saw a lost wallet. He pocketed it and said the Indian equivalent of “finders, keepers, losers, weepers.” Suddenly, she recalled her Shabbat in Jerusalem. But this time, the class did not seem so boring. It seemed honest, authentic and ethical. She left India and went back to Jerusalem, where I had her as a student. And thus, returning lost objects helped her return to the tradition in which she was raised.
 
Shabbat Shalom

 

Be Jealous

The jealousy of scholars generates wisdom.
— BT Baba Batra 21b

Last week we read the Ten Commandments in the annual Torah cycle. The last one warns us not to have envy, to covet another's wife or house, servants, animals or anything else. This was at a time when we had just left slavery and had little to own, yet even so, it would not take much to believe that someone else has it better and has what should rightfully be ours.
 
By ending on this note, the commandments gives envy a special and particularly sordid status among biblical transgressions, perhaps because it's a foundational emotion that can trigger other destructive behaviors mentioned in the commandments. We need to keep our jealousy in check since such intense and passionate feelings of dissatisfaction with what one has can lead to any number of crimes: infidelity, thievery, and possibly murder. Even if such rash feelings don't lead to immoral behavior, they can certainly lead to insecurity, self-doubt and depression.
 
This explains why Ethics of the Fathers warns that "Jealousy, lust and honor drive a person from this world" (4:21). This is not meant literally but can have literal implications. Leaving this world implies living a life which is not living; eating oneself alive with harmful thoughts can prove tortuous and unhealthy. In the book of Isaiah, chapter 11, the prophet offers a picture of serenity predicated on siblings without rivalry. A world without envy would be a very great world indeed.
 
A day after standing in the synagogue having these commandments read out loud and hearing the repetitive beat of "Do not covet this and that and also this," I was surprised to find an article on jealousy in The New York Times' Sunday Book Review. Writer Sarah Manguso shared how difficult professional jealousy is for her as a writer. She might read a review and instantly turn the beauty of the writing into a criticism of herself: "Could I offer the world something so useful and beautiful?" She contends that writers experience many forms of jealousy:

Writers are known to suffer a few categories of envy. There is envy of money, of accolades, of publication in this or that place. There is envy of profligacy and of well-mannered scarcity. There is envy of accomplishment and of potential. There is envy of great writing and envy of those who, despite not being great, seem immune to self-doubt. And all of these envies are simply a feeling that is shorthand for one thought: 'He doesn't deserve that...but I might.

 
Well, we must let this author know that in Jewish law, her envy is actually allowed. Envy of wisdom is not only permitted, it is encouraged as a stimulant to greater creativity and discipline. The Talmudic phrase above teaches its readers that the jealousy of scholars for scholarship is legitimate and grows wisdom. This does not mean that it is a painless emotion, quite the opposite. Intellectual smallness and self-deprecation in the face of greatness can lead to intimidation and paralysis. But it can also be exceptionally motivating, in large part perhaps because it is abstract. I might look at a mansion and think I could never own it, but I might not limit knowledge because it is, in essence, limitless.
 
Manguso closes her essay with the recognition that admitting envy is humbling. "And a humble person, faced with the superior product of another, does not try to match it or best it out of spite. A humble person, is capable of praise, of allowing space in the world for the great work of others, and of working alongside it, trying to match it as an act of honor." In this admission, Manguso helps us understand why the jealousy of scholars is permitted. It creates in us three competing and important emotions: the humility to know we are witness to something extraordinary, the integrity and wonder to praise it and the drive to match it by working harder, better and smarter.
 
Jealousy in these instances goes outside the boundary of two individuals. When scientists or physicians compete to be the first and best for a solution or a cure, we all benefit. When teachers and scholars vie for academic recognition, they produce more. When businesses try to upstage each other, they often pass on the benefits to their customers.
 
Every profession and stage of life has its own boutique jealousies. What kind of jealousy do you commonly experience? This can make for interesting dinner table conversation and a good dose of self-reflection and an extra bit of humility. Ask yourself in a quiet hour: How can I translate the negative emotion of envy into the positive state of inspiration to be more and do more?

Stumbling Along

A person does not understand statements of Torah unless he stumbles in them.
— BT Gittin 43a

In the middle of this past weekend's snowstorm, I stood in front of the path to my house wondering how to navigate the many feet of snow that had been placed there by a snowplow. I decided to throw myself over and tumble, a move I should have left behind in sixth grade gymnastics. When I got to the other side, I had no idea how to get up. I had nothing but soft, fresh snow to put my hands on, making it impossible to push myself up. I had not worked through this strategy.
 
My lack of coordination prompted an internal conversation about falling that serendipitously made an appearance this week in the Talmud's daily study cycle, the statement above. You can never get to true understanding and wisdom unless you stumble. The Talmud hangs this statement on a biblical verse: "And let this stumbling block be under your hand" (Isaiah 3:6). In other words, you hold the key to your own stumbling by how you respond and react to your own mistakes.
 
Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains this Talmudic aphorism as a motivation to work harder. People need to suffer the humiliation of being wrong so that they will work twice as hard to achieve a correct understanding of what they are learning. The pain of error is often enough to trigger the difficult work to achieve understanding. But this is risky because if it really hard to achieve comprehension, the learner may just walk away from the endeavor altogether. Another common explanation of this statement is that if you don't make mistakes in your learning, you risk becoming arrogant and think you are above making mistakes - which will eventually lead to making mistakes.
 
In a twelfth century mystical text from Sefer ha-Bahir, translated by Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah, this Talmudic text is used in support of the study of mysticism, a natural locus of confusion. "Whoever delves into mysticism cannot help but stumble, as it is written: 'this stumbling block is in your hand.' You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them." Fall and fall again and maybe once more and then slowly you will learn something of transcendence.

You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them...


Speaking of falling, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus make an important distinction in their book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. When discussing approaches for what they call learning organizations, they identify two forms of learning: maintenance learning and innovative learning. "Maintenance learning is the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods, and rules for dealing with known and recurring situations. It enhances our problem-solving ability for problems that are given." This type of learning, they contend, helps maintain an existing system with the minimum amount of thought and work. Automating responses to problems creates consistency and a shared language. When you induct people into any culture, knowing the rules and rituals that help sustain that culture form a base-line of understanding.
 
But maintenance learning will not serve a community well when thrown a difficult, unprecedented situation. Relying on a default position will not work. Citing a book called No Limits to Learning, Bennis and Nanus contend that this is when innovative learning kicks in: "...for long-term survival, particularly in times of turbulence, change, or discontinuity, another type of learning is even more essential. It is the type of learning that can bring change, renewal, restructuring, and problem reformulation..."
 
Innovative learning is much more difficult because there are no familiar contexts in which to manage a problem. There are no precedents or trial-and-error histories to study. You make the errors along the way to understanding and the evolution of new ideas. Managers tend to handle maintenance learning. Leaders are required for innovative learning since they need the vision to see what others cannot see and the risk-taking to make and learn from large mistakes. 

I remember work I did with a non-profit organization where employees complained that they were expected to be innovative but also given the message that mistakes were not allowed. Pick one. You cannot have both approaches together. This type of inconsistency lives not only in organizations but in faith communities and in families.
 
Think of your last spectacular fall and be comforted by the Talmud's words: "A person does not understand statements of Torah unless he stumbles in them." The Talmud is advocating innovative learning. So fail well. Fail more than once. Then fail all the way to success.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Too Much Noise

...be still
— Exodus 14:14

In a lovely meditation on the virtues of silence, Mother Teresa said, "We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence...We need silence to touch souls."
 
Mother Teresa was clearly not Jewish. She valued silence. We seem to be an altogether noisy and clamorous people. Perhaps this stereotype alone gives the impression that we are not as spiritual as we need to be. Contemplative moments elude us if there is too much noise. We cannot hear a whisper or a breath.
 
One of the great dramas of the Bible features the problem of our noise at its center. We encounter this drama in our Torah cycle reading of the week in Exodus 14. The Israelite nation, recently released from their role as slave laborers in Egypt, find themselves in a place of primal terror. Pharaoh hardened his heart and pursued the very slaves he ostensibly freed. The Israelites saw him and his minions in chariots behind them and the expanse of the Reed Sea in front of them and no solution anywhere, as we read directly in the verses:
 
As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still." [Exodus 14:10-14]
 
In fear, the Israelites yelled and yelled. They screamed at God and at Moses with an almost indiscriminate urgency. Moses told them that the solution would not rest in their noise but in their stillness. God would fight on their behalf, as God had done in all of the previous chapters of the exodus story. Their job: be still.
 
It is not hard to hear in the complaints their ingratitude and short-sightedness, a problem that would trail them throughout the wilderness. But when we judge them, we do so at a comfortable remove.  I thought of our ancient sisters and brothers as I read Rabbi Daniel Feldman's comprehensive new book on speech in Jewish law: False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture. Lashon HaRa, negative speech about others, is a mighty transgression in Jewish law. Nevertheless, permission is granted in limited situations, by the Talmud, to speak badly against a cantankerous people; in Hebrew this is rendered as "baalei mahaloket," people who love to argue or, as R. Feldman terms them, troublemakers. But R. Feldman warns that this is not a blanket dispensation. "This negative speech is only allowed for the purposes of quieting the dispute." And if one criticizes an entire group, he or she must employ certain guidelines so that the criticism does not become an ad hominim attack. According to R. Feldman, "These conditions include [that] the speaker must know the information personally, and not be relying on another; the intent must be pure; there must be no other feasible method of bringing peace; and all of the above must be carefully evaluated."
 
Labeling an entire people is a dangerous business. It's the spiritual equivalent of racial profiling and it can generate much misunderstanding and limit the capacity for growth and change. One must be careful in engaging this leniency to describe and condemn the behavior instead of dismissing the group and have in mind that the end goal of such labeling is to identify a behavior rather than actively disparage it.
 
Moses called us a stiff-necked people, as did God. This was not to trap us in this behavior but to create the conditions for self-awareness and change. Be still, Moses cautioned here, so that the miracle that was about to take place - the splitting of the sea - would be the miracle it was. Too much noise prevents us from hearing and can also prevent us from seeing that which is wonder-full and awe-inspiring. And yet, although Moses told the people to be still, God got the last word. "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Israelites and go'" [14:15].
 
 Be quiet. Yes. Jump. Yes.

Moving Fast and Slow

...and you shall eat it in haste
— Exodus 12:11

The pace at which we run our lives presents interesting opportunities and challenges. There are seasons when we are overwhelmed by how quickly time slips through our fingers, and then there are meetings and presentations when time could not move slower. The clock seems to tick in reverse.
 
Often the Hebrew Bible commands characters to speed up rather than slow down. We are told to make haste in leaving a morally compromising situation. An individual should act with urgency to help someone, much the way Abraham rushed to cook for his guests lest they left his home to continue their travels. In the book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron often rushed to lobby their cause, and at times, Pharaoh and his minions made haste in summoning Moses to stop the spread of a ruinous plague.
 
This week, in our Torah cycle, we find a different use of haste, one that appears in its exact linguistic form only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible: “be-hipazon” - in haste.

The first use appears in Exodus 12:11 when God commandeered the Israelites to get out of Egypt as quickly as possible: “And thus will you eat it; with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.” The paschal sacrifice was offered by every household with a strange demand. This ancient slave people had to gird their loins - prepare for war - because once the Egyptians realized that their labor force was finally leaving, they would renege and take them back with violence.
 
A few books later, we find a similar usage in Deuteronomy 16:3: “You shall eat no leavened bread; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste. So you will remember the day when you came forth from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” We traditionally understand that they did not have time to cook the bread fully because they left in haste, thus we must make matzot in under 18 minutes or they have the status of leavened bread.
 
The haste in these verses is not accidental. The Israelites could have moved more slowly but were told in this instance to speed it up so that the speed itself would be an integral part of the memory. When recalling Egypt - remembering this day - what they would remember most was how quickly they left.
 
Why would someone be told to leave quickly and to remember the aspect of haste? A fast exit does not offer the luxury of nostalgia. There is no time to be sentimental, to change one’s mind, to look back wistfully. There are no goodbyes. Remember Lot’s wife? She was supposed to leave Shechem quickly, but she looked back. In so doing she turned into a statue of salt. 
She lived near the Dead Sea and in not being able to exit in haste, she became the place she was supposed to leave. She lacked the courage that haste often amplifies. It’s now or never.
 
Rabbi Haim Sabato, in Rest of the Dove, an anthology on the weekly Torah portion, now available in English (translated by Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt) makes a profound observation on our haste to leave Egypt. He attunes us to the problems of haste. Because our leave-taking was relatively quick and every action to leave was initiated by God, our speed caused problems later on: “This accelerated pace would become the cause of recurring crises during the forty years in the desert. The suddenness of the change, and the lack of preparation and of a gradual progression would lead to turmoil. One who leaps levels without adequate preparation cannot sustain the high level he has merited, especially if the change is made with no effort on his part.”
 
Leaving quickly helped us be brave enough to go but not thoughtful enough to enter the next chapter of our wilderness journey with equanimity. Rabbi Sabato suggests that because of the negative emotional cost of haste, any future redemption will take place slowly and incrementally, allowing us time to ready ourselves properly: “Thus, God promises us that future redemption will not take place in the same hasty manner, but gradually and with appropriate preparation, so that the level we merit will be permanent." This is the sentiment we find in the last biblical verse to use the expression “in haste” in Isaiah 52:12: “You will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”
 
Sometimes important days in our lives take months, even years to prepare for and then pass by in the blink of an eye. This is just as true in love and courtship as it is in death and dying. And our Torah portion this week leaves us with an enduring question as we go through life:
 
What do we need to do more quickly and what do we need to do more slowly?
 
Shabbat Shalom

Leave Them Laughing

We are jesters…
— BT Ta’anit 22a

“Oppressed people tend to be witty,” Saul Bellow once wrote. It seems counterintuitive but true. While many Jews today might struggle with identifying ten Jewish biblical figures outside those in movies, it would be effortless for most of us to come up with the name of ten Jewish comedians. Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning describes the way a group of his comrades tasked each other with making jokes about the food they were served in their concentration camp. If you can laugh about it, the pain cannot touch you as much. If you can laugh in misery, perhaps one day you will be able to laugh in freedom.

The Jewish appreciation and penchant for humor did not develop in the last century. For millennia, there have been funny men and women dotting the pages of the Bible and the Talmud. Clever witticisms and insults are a regular feature of rabbinic dialogue. But there is one Talmudic passage that stands out, however, for the value it places on laughter. In BT Ta’anit [22a], a tractate that discusses, of all things, the ritual of fasting, we find a remarkable story, cited here in the Koren English translation:

Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a was often found in the market of Bei Lefet, and Elijah the prophet would often appear to him. He said to him, “Is there anyone in this market worthy of the World-to-Come? He said to him: No. In the meantime, he [the rabbi] saw a man wearing black shoes who did not place the sky-blue thread on his garment [tzitzit]. He [Elijah] said to him: That man is worthy of the World-to-Come. He ran after him and said to him: “What is your occupation?” He said to him: “Go away now but come back tomorrow. The next day, he said to him, “What is your occupation?”

We take a pause from the Talmudic text for a moment of explanation. Bei Lefet was a large commercial center where much business was conducted. The man wearing black shoes and no ritual fringes was apparently not Jewish as Jews had the custom of wearing shoes with white straps (who knew?). The rabbi in our tale found it hard to believe that Elijah would identify such a one as worthy of the elusive World-to-Come. This is prime spiritual real estate and not every one is worthy. The man finally identified himself as a prison guard who placed himself between male and female prisoners so they would not come to sin, and he risked his life to save vulnerable women. He was indeed Jewish but dressed in this fashion so that he could find out information that may impact his people and report it. Obviously the rabbi was impressed that someone who looked one way on the outside could have the capacity for so much goodness on the inside. In the midst of this discussion, the Talmud continues…

In the meantime, two brothers came [to the market]. He [Elijah] said to him [the rabbi]: “These two also have a share in the World-to-Come.” He went over to the men and said to them: “What is your occupation?” They said to him: “We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace.”

Three people in the marketplace were deserving of life in the hereafter, and this designation was a result of what they did at work. One got in for caring about the dignity of those often discarded and ignored by society to the point of sacrificing his own life to achieve this protection. And the other two were far from this noble perch. Instead, they were jesters. They made people happy, so happy that in the midst of an argument, they created peace. It sounds so simple, but a whole-hearted devotion to making other people happy as a profession, as an occupation, is not easy at all.

I had studied this passage last year and had heard it before, but I never really understood it until I attended the funeral of Evan Levy, of blessed memory, last week. You see Evan was a special little boy of four who, in the past year-and-a-half, endured 7 surgeries, 5 of them on his brain. His father cited this piece of Talmud in describing Evan’s “evan”escence, his energy, his monkey-like pranks and the way he had of walking into a room and lighting up the space. Even at his young age, Evan had a gift for making people happy. His mother mentioned a pre-school teacher who said that if Evan was not in school, the day was boring. A close friend spoke and said that when the family announced that Evan died, she texted the fire department, police department, sanitation department and ice cream truck man. You see, these people were Evan’s close friends. He regularly rode up and down his neighborhood in the ice cream truck. In her eulogy, this devoted friend read the condolence note that the ice cream truck man wrote. He described Evan as an angel. Evan’s father closed his remarks by saying that now it’s God’s turn to play with Evan and how lucky God is to do so.

Evan’s loss is tragic. His funeral was profoundly painful. But it was also deeply uplifting. Gone is a pint-size hero, but the legacy he left is out-sized. He taught thousands of adults the lesson the Talmud tried to teach two thousand years ago. Be a jester. Bring cheer to those who are sad. Make peace in the face of a quarrel. 

We’re here for such a short time. Let’s spend more time laughing.

May Evan’s memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

2015: The Jewish Year in Review

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
— Psalms 90:12

Many of us will be happy to say goodbye to 2015, with its haunting terrorist attacks, strange presidential debates and wacky climate changes. And as a people, here's what we fought over in 2015: a divisive Iran nuclear deal, which GOP candidate Jewish Republicans can get behind and the release of Jonathan Pollard. The terrible attacks against Jews in Copenhagen and a Jewish supermarket in Paris had us talking about whether Jews should stay in Europe.

We stop our bickering to mourn the loss of some special Jews in 2015 like Theodore Bickel, who played Tevye the milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" more times than any other actor. That play is making a Broadway come-back to excellent reviews. We lost Leonard Nimoy, whom comedian Dave Barry said will be beamed up for the last time and the larger-than-life physician/writer Oliver Sacks. A professor called the Kierkegaard of Orthodox Jews, Michael Wyschogrod, passed away, as did theologian Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin. Turning eastward, we lost a towering rabbinic figure with the death of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, head of one of the most prestigious yeshivot in Israel and Yehuda Avner, who began his aliya digging the latrines at Kibbutz Lavi and went on to become a speechwriter and advisor for many Israel prime ministers. 

In July, Nicholas Winton (born Wertheimer) died. He organized a rescue operation to bring 669 children - most Jews - from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain before WWII. This miracle was not public knowledge until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook about it in the attic. That year, he was invited to be a member of the audience of a BBC television show "That's Life", where, unknown to him, his gift of life was described and that scrapbook was displayed. The show's hostess asked if anyone in the audience had been saved by Winton. More than two dozen people next to Winton stood up and clapped. He was knighted for his services to humanity.

In the non-celebrity, tragic category, we lost Rochelle Shoretz to cancer at 42. Rochelle was the founder of Shoresh, a support and educational network for Jewish women with breast cancer. Faigy and Sara Mayer, two young ex-Hasidic women unable to find rest and happiness, took their own lives, forcing introspection on what religious commitment looks like. Seven children in the Sasoon family died in a Shabbat fire in their home in Brooklyn, prompting another important conversation on fire safety in observant Jewish neighborhoods. As of this writing, there were 23 victims of terror in Israel, including the recent death of Ezra Schwartz from Boston on November 19th and the deaths of Eitam and Naama Henkin on October 1st.
 
Moving from argument to grief to pride, in the prize category, this past year's awardees for the Presidential Medal of Freedom is flush with our people: violinist and conductor Itzchak Perlman, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim and Barbara Streisand were acknowledged for their contributions to American arts and culture. It is the highest civilian award in the United States. It seems - and I hate to say it - that there were no Jews on the Nobel Prize roster, and we haven't won in the world peace category since 1995 so we are long overdo. Nation, go make some peace.
 
I consoled myself with this fun fact learned in 2015: The Israeli town of Rishon Le-Ziyon has a street named for the 160 plus Jewish Noble laureates: Tayelet Hatnei Pras Nobel or Nobel Laureates Boulevard/Promenade. Who gets to live there, I wonder? That's prime real estate. In 2015, the University of Salzburg announced that Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist who received the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology, was stripped of his honorary doctorate, 26 years after his death, for his embrace of Nazism. And I don't want to brag, but in August of 2015, Israel officially became 8th on the list of countries to host the most Nobel Prize winners, and Technion University in Haifa has been associated with more Nobel prize winners than either Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge (If you've heard of them). I'm just saying...
 
But before we get all full of ourselves, we also had some bad Jews this year. Ehud Olmert, former prime minister of Israel and its first prime minister to be incarcerated, was handed a reduced jail sentence this past week. Joining him behind bars is Jared Fogle, the Subway Guy, whose weight loss helped him become a spokesperson for the restaurant chain until he was arrested for child pornography. He won't be eating subs for at least 15 years. But enough of bad news or bad Jews...
 

  • In 2015, aliya hit a record high for the past twelve years with over 30,000 immigrants moving there from across the globe.
  • Those involved in daily Talmud study hit the 1,000th page and are inching towards the mid-point in the seven and a half year cycle.
  • And Adam Sandler has a new Chanuka song.

A number of exciting book titles were released either by Jews or about Jews, like Kerri Steinberg's Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience and Bewilderments by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Several anthologies came out about or including the writings of Saul Bellow, including The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 by Zachary Leader and Israel Zamir wrote a memoir called Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer. We closed the year with a remarkable achievement. Herman Wouk just published Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author to mark his 100th birthday. Mazal tov - 'til 120!
 
We close 2015 with this thought from Psalms: "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." Let's learn from some of the mistakes of 2015 and do better in the year ahead. We need that heart of wisdom, and the world needs it too.
 
Shana tova and Shabbat Shalom

The Hineni Moment

Here I am. Send me.
— Isaiah 6:8

Many of us know the old joke: Why is it when I talk to God it’s called prayer, but when God talks to me, it’s called schizophrenia? We are rightfully suspect when someone makes the claim that he or she has been spoken to by God. But as we close this secular year of 2015 at the same time we close the book of Genesis, we look back at the fifty chapters and can’t help noticing that God speaks to many of our biblical leaders at times of vulnerability and struggle. God tasks them with the job of transformation, both of self and nation, and God waits for a response. And the response is often Hineni: I am fully present in this moment in time and poised to take on my assignment.

The Hebrew word “hineni” is translated in many different ways. It suggests one’s presence in a situation, particularly one freighted with tension and responsibility. Abraham said it when God asked him to bind Isaac and once again in response to his son. Jacob answered the call of an angel after he had a dream about his livestock and God called him back to the land of Israel where he could dream of higher things. Joseph said it when Jacob asked him to see how his brothers were fairing. Moving beyond Genesis, Moses said it at the burning bush. Samuel said it when God stood over him, waiting for Samuel to eclipse his mentor in leadership. Isaiah said it when God was searching for a leader and volunteered himself with the beautiful words above: “Here I am. Send me.” It’s as if in that one word, Isaiah and those before him were saying, “I am ready to do great things.”

Hineni connotes a readiness and acceptance of a mission or task that often portends danger. It does not appear as often as one might suspect it would in the Hebrew Bible. It appears in three readings that frame the High Holiday liturgy, a time when being present is particularly consequential and important. Sometimes it’s a call that God gives to a human being when no one else is present, as in Genesis 22:1 or Exodus 3:4. But it doesn’t only have to be God calling. Sometimes it is the response of a human being to the call of an angel or messenger, as in Genesis 22:11or 31:11. Sometimes it’s said in response to a parent as in Genesis 27:1 or 37:18. Sometimes, as in the book of Esther, one human being - in this case Mordechai to Esther - calls out to another to grow in leadership and influence.

We tend to focus on the response to a call rather the request itself. But the Bible invites us to invite. In other words, if you want to get someone to do something, you have to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s also who you ask and how. When you recruit someone to a task, you want to use his or her name to make the argument for uniqueness. It is no coincidence that in several call texts, God or an angel doubles the name: Abraham, Abraham. Moses, Moses, Samuel, Samuel - as if to say, it’s you and only you. And the call needs to be specific to a task so that when the magic word Hineni is said, it is said with full recognition of the momentousness and consequences of what lies ahead. And a call has to be just that: a call. It’s the singling out of someone for something special, a selection. It’s the power of invitation. The act of calling itself is the message behind a powerful midrash:

The rabbis said: You find that when God gave the Torah to Moses, He gave it to him after ‘calling.’ How do we know this? Since it is said, "And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount; and Moses went up’" (Exodus 19:20). Also Moses our teacher, when he came to repeat the Torah to Israel, said to them: "Just as I received the Torah with ‘calling’ so too will I hand it over to God’s children with ‘calling.’ "From where do we know this? From what is written in the context: “And Moses called to all of Israel and said to them...” [Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy 7:8]

When you are called to a hineni moment, you begin to understand the importance of the invitation and then should be able to create those moments for others. Because God called Moses, Moses understood that when he gave our people the commandments, he also needed to call us. The formality of the invitation serves as a validation that a big and wide possibility has been put before us. We must choose our answer carefully.

As we say goodbye to the pages of Genesis for now, we are left with an enduring question. What is our hineni moment? What should we be doing of great purpose in this coming year, and how will we answer? Perhaps we too will have the courage and the spiritual audacity to say, as Isaiah did long ago: Here I am. Send me.

Shabbat Shalom

Losing a Leader

Upon whom is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in heaven.
— BT Sotah 49b.

As we put a close to 2015 and reflect on the year that has passed, we also create closure around iconic figures who died this year: Yogi Berra, Oliver Sacks, E.L. Doctorow, B.B. King, Robin Williams, John Nash, and Leonard Nemoy. In their respective fields, they each became known for a certain type of skill, intelligence, voice and idiosyncratic, beloved way of viewing the world. It's not hard to make a jump from the death of any of these figures to the closure, in some way, of the talent that each respectively represents. Will sports, literature, music, comedy, or medicine ever be the same? Yes and no.
 
Thinking about the loss of a leader and the loss of that leader's gifts, brings us to a fascinating passage of the Talmud. This past week we closed another tractate of Talmud [BT Sota 49b] and moved to a new volume. The last page closed with the sense of closure generally, recording what was lost when a number of famous sages died and a retrospective on what was lost when the Second Temple was destroyed.
 

When Rabbi Meir died, those who related parables ceased.

When Ben Azzai died, the diligent ones ceased.

When Ben Zoma died, interpreters ceased.

When Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased.

When Rabbi Yosi died, the pious were no more.

When Yohanan ben Zakai died, the glory of wisdom ceased.

When Raban Gamliel the Elder died, the honor of the Torah ceased as did purity and asceticism.

When Rabbi Yishmael ben Pazi died, the honor of the priesthood ceased.

When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

 
As the Talmudic text continues and discusses the destruction of the Second Temple, despair overtakes the language. It's not only that certain intellectual and spiritual losses were sustained when these individuals passed away, when they died it seemed that all they represented died with them. And when the text turns its focus on the Temple - the building at the heart of our ancient lives - and it lay in ruination, people bowed their heads down in shame, this passage tells us, and arrived at a conclusion: "Upon whom is there for us to rely?" the voice of the narrator asks, "Only upon our Father in heaven."
 
If we rely too heavily on mortals, we ignore our own mortality, the Talmud seems to suggest. People die, even famous people die. Even scholars, whose wisdom ages with them, die. Become too attached to them and you will experience a loss that is more intense than letting go of their person - you will have to let go of hope itself. If wisdom ceases, Torah ceases and interpretation ceases then the scholarly world itself dies. We understand these lines as the highest form of praise, and yet there seems to be something intensely un-Jewish about them.
 
It is then that two voices perk up and appear in our debate.
 
Rabbi Yosef challenged the despair: "Do not teach that humility ceased. There is one who is still humble: me." Rabbi Nahman challenged the one who taught this mishna: "Do not teach that fear of sin ceased. There is still one who feared sin: me."
 
When I first read this, I laughed. It sounded like a variation of the statement, "You won't find anyone more modest than I am," which undermines the very quality of humility. But in reading it again and thinking about its deeper meaning, it's not hard to understand why this is a perfect rebuttal of the pathos that can overtake us when we think we have lost the greatest generation. When that happens, we have to take stock of what the loss means and what the loss forces us to become.
 
We must each take responsibility to replace those who came before us and who represented something extraordinary to us and society at large. We can't foist that upon someone else. We have to stand up and recover from the pain and realize that all continues. We must evolve and replace that which we have lost. We can't bring back people who have died, but sometimes with their deaths, they become the most incredible teachers and mentors for the next generation. That generation is us.

Giving Tuesday

Anyone to whom a painful incident has happened must announce it publicly so that the public will pray for mercy on his behalf.
— BT Sotah 32b

Wait a minute, it's not Thursday. Why are you getting Weekly Jewish Wisdom today? Because it's Giving Tuesday, and we can't miss this opportunity to think about giving today in a Jewish way. We don't miss an opportunity to give because of an obscure statement in the Talmud that surfaced in last week's daily Talmud study cycle. If anyone has suffered, he or she has an obligation to announce it so that others can pray on his or her behalf.

This is an outgrowth of a law from Leviticus 13:45 that involves a leper announcing his presence among other people. We might think the leper tells others he is approaching with a clapper or a cry to keep people away because of contagion. This may be a medical reality, but the Talmud has an existential reality in mind. When someone announces pain, our responsibility is to come to his or her aid. There cannot be a pronouncement without a response. It is not the Jewish way.

Later on, the Talmud - in its discussion of prayers that can be recited in any language versus those that must be said in Hebrew - concludes that, "When it comes to praying for divine mercy, one may pray in any language one desires," [BT Sota 33a]. People need opportunities to pray for others and to pray for themselves. There is no shame in making oneself vulnerable. The recognition of others and the recognition of our own vulnerabilities is the key to our humanity.

In his seminal article, "The Community," Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asked, "How is the community formed? The answer is simple: two lonely individuals create a community in the manner that God created the world. What was God's instrument of creation? The word." For Rabbi Soloveitchik, words are the building blocks of community; they are the cement that holds us together. "To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him." Recognizing a person is taking that person in totally, hearing that person's needs, triumphs, pain. That is why Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that all prayer is in the plural; prayer is an act of recognition of the other.

"The prayer community, it is self-evident, must at the same time be a charity-community, as well. It is not enough to feel the pain of many, nor is it sufficient to pray...We give, we pray for all because we are sensitive to pain; we try to help..." The word is a recognition of the other; the word turns into prayer and prayer turns into action.

If the Talmud tells us to make a public announcement about pain or need to inspire help, then Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to respond publicly and collectively to that pain and share some amazing generosity to inspire us to turn words into action.

David Weissman has been working on behalf of this charity for decades. For hours a day he turns gasoline into love.

So here's something that inspired me. My husband and I were in an Uber this week and talked to the driver about his experience, his hours and the change in the industry that is happening as a result of Uber. He said he retired and started driving for a charity he really cares about. Twenty percent of his earnings goes to the company, 20% to gas and car maintenance and the remaining 60% goes to charity. What charity, we wondered, was the lucky beneficiary of all this driving time? The Israel Sports Center for the Disabled, a pioneer in sports rehabilitation. For over 50 years, the center has helped thousands: those born with disabilities and those who have been injured in military or terrorist incidents. David Weissman, our driver, has been working on behalf of this charity for decades. For hours a day he turns gasoline into love.

If you're thinking about where to give today - no matter the amount - think about David behind the wheel so that kids and adults in wheelchairs can feel empowered and make a donation to the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled in David's honor. Click here.

Today's the day. Turn someone else's cry into a prayer, a word into a deed, and a deed into an act of redemption.

An early Shabbat Shalom to you all.

White Friday

One who increase possessions increases worry
— Hillel

Last week I suggested to readers that to combat some of the baseless hatred of the Friday before - when the Paris terrorist attacks happened - they engage in random acts of kindness. Many reported back on acts small and large that helped lift them above the despair of what seems an ever intolerant and violent society. One tutored an Afghan war veteran in physics and calculus to help him complete his pre-med requirements. One made a bank teller feel good by wishing her well on her recent marriage. Some of you said that you were studying to honor the memory of Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year old American who was murdered last week while studying in Israel for his gap year.

Another 18 year old Israeli, Naftali Litman, and his father Yaakov, were also killed in a terrorist attack last week. The family was driving to a Shabbat celebration before the wedding of Naftali’s sister, Sara, to be held later that week. Despite the heavy and tragic losses, the Litman family went ahead with the wedding and invited the entire State of Israel to participate. Sara and Ariel, her fiancé, responded to tragedy by lifting everyone else up to share in their joy.  Last Friday, one reader contributed to a fund in their honor, which has currently raisedover $21,000 from complete strangers in what, could be argued, is a wedding gift registry held up by a thousand kindnesses.

That takes us to this coming Friday. What will you be doing tomorrow?

The Friday after Thanksgiving has been named Black Friday to put merchants in the black by pumping up pre-holiday sales. Some stores have started opening on Thanksgiving itself so that football game viewing ends with door-buster spending. Thank goodness, some chains have reacted to this consumer fever with a backlash. REI, the outdoor equipment supplier, will close all of its 143 stores not only on Thanksgiving but on the Friday afterward and is paying all of its 12,000 employees so that they can have a day outdoors with their families. Forty-nine state parks in Northern California are offering free admission to encourage people to spend the day in nature, not in the mall.

But not everyone will be so high-minded. Many will hunt outdoors for parking spaces and then hunt indoors for bargains. They will lose sleep to save a few bucks on new technology or new clothing. They will bring home their packages and have to find a place for them. They will buy gifts that may get returned. They will buy things they never needed in the first place and they will ignore the famous statement from Ethics of the Fathers 2:8: “One who increase possessions increases worry.”

Why, you may ask, will more material possessions generate more anxiety? Because, in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, these things seem "desirable to many but can have an adverse effect on those who possess them." The ancient Sage behind the quote, Hillel, pushed back by also enumerating “things” that, when increased, only bring more joy and wisdom: “The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding, the more devotion to duty, the more peace.” On this, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “The more the Torah will be acquired in theory and observed in practice, the more will human existence become life in the true, genuine sense of the word.”

If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?

If you want to acquire anything that brings about a better state of humanity, here is what Hillel recommends you buy at the mall: a good name and words of Torah. If you acquire a good name, Hillel states, that is the best acquisition you can own.

Many years ago, I saw a sign in the elevator at work, “If what you already have doesn’t make you happy, then how will having more of it make you happier?” Black Friday does not exist to help you. It’s there to help store owners and jolt the economy. Do something for yourself instead. Reconsider tomorrow from a Jewish point of view. You might join with REI and make it Green Friday and then, when you come back from your hike, you might want to turn Black Friday into White Friday, a day pure and free of consumerism, a day that ends with a white tablecloth and a Shabbat meal and the white light of candlesticks. And if you are going shopping, shop for some food that enables you to host a neighbor or a person in need of some company. If you can’t begin the day with rest, kindness and serenity, at least end it that way.

Shabbat Shalom

Everywhere

God is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
— Psalms 34:18

Last Shabbat morning, we woke to shattering news on the other side of the world. It was the kind of news that triggers instant denial. It can't be. Not again. Denial morphed into incredulity which morphed into pain and a sense of profound loss and then, at least for me, the pain turned to anger at the senselessness of it all. What happens when nowhere is safe anymore, when anyone you pass on the street may want your life in a place you've gone to relax and enjoy a night out? What happens to our shared commitment to humanity when it seems like the threads holding us together are unraveling?

Last Shabbat morning, a joyous bar mitzva celebration was punctured by the bad news. A board member stood up and thanked the congregation. He had arrived that morning sad and forlorn; he spoke of his heavy heart. At the end of the morning - through the joy of celebration and collective prayer - he said he was leaving a little lighter. It was not all better or even mostly better. Just a little better. The rabbi got up and recited a poem that traveled in cyberspace after the attacks in Paris. It was written by the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire and articulates the global tensions of the moment. My daughter sent it to me after Shabbat. The rabbi of her synagogue also read it to the congregation.

later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere

In our fragmented world, there are few experiences which transcend time and place. We never want fear and terror to be one of them. When we think of everywhere, we want to think of kindness, goodness, charity, God, humanity, compassion, and grace traveling everywhere on the atlas this one torn person holds on his lap. But there are too many terrible experiences that are on the map of everywhere: sorrow, suffering, grief, abuse, violence. And it makes me think of a verse from Psalms: "You keep count of my wanderings and put my tears in your bottle and into your book" (56:9).

Have you ever tried to capture your tears in a bottle? I think I must have in my more dramatic teenage years. When you experience angst, especially because of another person, it's hard to hold back the impulse to collect your tears and mail them off to the person responsible, as a warning or a criticism or a plea for help. In this verse we speak of God paying careful watch when we are lost and struggling. We don't have to put our tears in a bottle. God does that for us and keeps track in some metaphysical book of what happens to us. "God is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit," we read above. Near means close by in our heartache. It does not mean God saves us from pain but rather, stands by us in tragedy. Sometimes the tragedy is that we naively believe that life is all about happiness and not about negotiating suffering with dignity and fighting injustice constantly.

The God of the first psalm is not an Actor but an Observer and an Accountant, Watcher and Listener. The God of the second is a Partner and Friend. These are more passive roles because we must be the main actors on this world stage. We cannot afford to be observers and accountants. There is too much work to do. Where there is suffering, we must seek justice and extend kindness. Let's each commit to one small kindness this coming Friday to offset last Friday's cruelty. Please share yours with me. I need it. 

Where is suffering? Everywhere. 

Where is love? Everywhere.

Shabbat Shalom

The Truth Behind Lying

I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of the past week pondering Ben Carson's lies about his background. It's fascinating. Here is a very accomplished pediatric surgeon running for president -arguably the most public job in the world - who fudges the truth about his alleged acceptance to West Point. He was offered a scholarship even though they don't give out scholarships. He also described himself as a violent youth who attempted murder and wielded a hammer to his mother. What's this all about? If you were going to lie, as a Talmudic principle goes, you would have told a "better" lie. You wouldn't make yourself out to be worse than assumed. And if you were going to tell a lie, wouldn't you do it about an arena where fact-checking wouldn't be so easy and the lies so outlandish?

It seems I am not the only one who is intrigued by this conundrum. The New York Timesrecently carried an article - "Candidates Stick to the Script, If Not the Truth" - to show the recklessness of any number of Republican and Democratic candidates who lie about simple facts that can easily be researched. "Today," the article contended, "it seems, truth is in the eyes of the beholder - and any assertion can be elevated and amplified if yelled loudly enough."  Instead of sheepishly backing down when caught in a gotcha moment, candidates in the new normal attack media outlets and strongly deny discrepancies in stories. Oy.

I've always taken the direct and unambiguous Leviticus approach to the truth: "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another" (19:22). Lying is an act of stealing; you are literally stealing a reputation or creating an impression that does not belong to you. You are stealing the trust of someone else. Don't do it. The truth always seemed to me to be immutable; there is no wiggle room when a commandment is presented this way. But as I've aged, I've come to understand that this black and white way to think about the truth is grey matter for many. That's why I love the quote from Psalms above. If you hate lies then chances are you will love the law that prohibits them. You will not be a rule breaker because you see clear lines where others see a blur.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves helped me understand society in a better, more nuanced, if not more depressing way. He cites a locksmith who claims that one percent of people would never steal. One percent would always steal, "And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right - but if they are tempted enough, they'll be dishonest too. Locks won't protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock." Oy. Again.

Make conditions hard enough, and most of us will set goodness as our default position. But if you make wrongdoing easy enough, the temptation will get larger and may become insurmountable with time. As Ariely concludes later, "Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." 

If we cheat to the degree that we can get away with it while still protecting our self-image, then what are we to make of the lying going on in the presidential campaign? I take a page out of the Proverbs playbook: "Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool, how much worse are lying lips in a ruler!" (17:7) If you're not wise, then what do you have to boast about? And if you're a leader who lies, you're even worse than a fool.

"We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions," Ariely claims. "Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We're storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better." 

We will see how voters feel about liars. I know how I feel about them. Honesty should be a bi-partisan issue. God, Proverbs reminds us,  hates lying lips "but delights in those who are honest" (12:22). In the biggest campaign - namely, our lives - truth is a more compelling slogan.

Shabbat Shalom

The Eyes Have It

Anyone who places his eyes on that which is not his is not given what he desires, and that which he had is taken from him.
— Talmud Sotah 9b

Out of sight, out of mind. Within our sights, within our minds. Self-discipline isn’t that simple, but it may not be as hard as we think. If we remove the visual temptation that gets in the way of a personal goal, we may be liberating ourselves to do better and be better.

Mark Twain once said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Not only do we depend on our eyes, our eyes can mislead us by pulling us in directions we really don’t want to go. Perhaps this explains the Talmudic saying: “The evil inclination controls only that which a person’s eye sees” [BT Sota 8a]. The failure to focus or the failure to turn away our gaze can cause deep emotional scarring. And it can create discipline fatigue. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney claim in their book, Willpower, that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desire - at least four hours per day.” That’s exhausting. Just reading it makes me want to take a nap.

One way to free ourselves of this tiring mess is to remove temptations that are visual from our line of sight. When we put temptation within our visual realm or don’t avoid it, it changes our focus, releases our imagination and then may alter even the best of intentions.

Many Jewish sacred texts focus on the problem of focus, namely what we look at may easily become what we do. Sight leads to action or inaction, depending on the circumstance. We can watch something gruesome that creates fear within us and possibly paralysis. We can look at food that we shouldn’t be eating or any physical object of desire - including people - and then become overwhelmed with temptation. We can look away from suffering and become emotionally hardened to the plight of others. What we look at or fail to look shapes us.

This may explain why our central prayer, the Shema, suggests rituals that shape our visual path. Tefillin is to be worn between the eyes so that it serves as a moral visor and a mezuza is to grace our doorposts: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” Tzitzit are worn to give the wearer something to look at to avoidimmoral distraction,“...and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray - so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your God.”

Shaping our visual path helps us stick with good habits. Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit,describes habit as a three-step loop. “First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: The Habit Loop.” The habit loop starts with a cue, usually visual. Remove the visual temptation, change the habit.

In their book Switch - on creating and sustaining change -Dan and Chip Heath advise us not to view change as scaling a tall mountain ahead of us but by eliminating the obstacles so change looks more like a downhill slide. Part of that is removing the visual obstructions that provide temptations or push us off-course: “Tweaking the environment is about making the right behavior a little easier and the wrong behaviors a little harder. It’s that simple.” For anyone trying to make a change, it never feels that simple, but there is something wonderfully liberating about the clarity of forming better habits.  Make sure it’s hard to access what won’t be good for you and make good habits increasingly easier, not only through repetition, but through recognition and rewards.

This takes us back to the powerful quote above. When we set our eyes on what we cannot have, we endanger losing what we do have. Our jealousy or desire gets in the way of a sense of blessing for our own abundance.  Best to look only at what we have and be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom

Grit

Angela Duckworth is an American psychologist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. In a highly viewed TED talk, Duckworth defines grit as a combination of perseverance and passion for long-term goals. We might also think of it as a form of bravery or courage to face what is difficult: a difficult conversation, a difficult decision, a difficult challenge.

Grit has become a popular word that is foundational to success and has made its way into the language of education. You want a kid with grit in your classroom. You want to teach grit so that kids learn how to pick themselves up and develop the resilience to face a life that can be, at times, punctuated with disappointment. It's not about getting a bad grade that limits your love of subject or capacity to do well in a class. It's about getting that bad grade and then opening the book again and again. You may never develop subject mastery, but you will gain something more important: determination. It will serve you as one of your best life-skills.

"What matters most in a child's development," according to author Paul Tough in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, "is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence." Tough continues elsewhere, "Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood." 

There are many anecdotes about celebrities and writers and athletes who fail and fail again and then get up and get up again. They give us hope and inspiration, even though they may also frustrate us because they force us to question our own attitudes to failure. Do we have what it takes to fall down and stand up and will this attitude to rejection help us eventually reach success or just mire us in depression and a sense of personal failure?

Tucked in the book of Proverbs, a master text of wisdom, we find a small pearl. "A righteous person can fall down seven times but rises again..." The verse is speaking not about a star or a larger-than-life-personality but someone known for personal piety. In the arena of spirituality, people can also fall multiple times. Those who aspire to goodness, to righteousness, to kindness, to softness, to holiness, to intimacy with God may have the best of intentions and still fail and possibly fail spectacularly because they set the bar very high.

The modern Israeli compendium of interpretation, Olam Ha-Tanakh, sees this verse as following he generally optimistic strand in the book of Proverbs that supports the eventual rewarding of the righteous. Piety does not always provide immediate spiritual gratification. With ascent comes descent, often multiple times. But know that reward will come in the end, and God will be near, echoing a verse from Psalms: "If God delights in a person, he will make his steps firm. Even if he stumbles, he will not fall, for the Lord will hold him up by the hand" (37:23-24).

The text uses seven as the number of times this righteous person trips up. Seven is a number we usually think of in the framework of holiness. It is a number representing perfection and completion. Could this verse be suggesting that there is something almost holy about resilience and the willingness to fail and fail well? Faith involves grit. Mastery over the self involves grit. Doing good and doing right involves grit.

Maybe if we realize that the things that matter most require vigilance and resilience, we will come to see the act of falling as an educational blessing. Maybe we'll even come to love the fact that we can stumble and get up again. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis seems to feel that: "I like things that make you grit your teeth. I like tucking my chin in and sort of leading into the storm. I like that feeling. I like it a lot."

Shabbat Shalom

Race and Restlessness

What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.
— Rabbi A.J Heschel

It's hard to think of others when our own people are under siege and yet, there is a universe of struggle going on right now about which we cannot be willfully blind. Migrants and refugees wander across Europe seeking temporary homes and facing the bleak reality that a future of uncertainty may be their only certainty right now. And on top of it all, winter is coming, which makes all homelessness colder, harder and harsher.

When we look internally at the troubles in this country, it is easy to get distracted by presidential campaigns and debates and not look beyond to the deep problems of gun control, race and financial and social inequalities that have plagued this country in recent years. 

We have just opened the book of Genesis in the Torah cycle, and the first eleven chapters of the book that we covered this past two weeks signal a message that must be internalized. The story of humankind in its broadest sense dominates our sacred text. We were born into a much larger community than our own. Our universal story precedes our particularistic story. We must be the stewards of the planet, caring and nurturing the expansive garden we were put into in our primordial story. We are partners in a holy covenant but have perhaps forgotten our part of the deal.

Specifically, in the Torah reading of Noah, we encounter this boat-builder's descendants and a curious story that has been interpreted in ways that has been deforming and devastating. In these large stories of world-building and destruction, we find a small and intimate account of Noah falling asleep drunk and naked in his tent. His grandson Canaan finds him in the tent and reports it gleefully to his brothers. His brothers take the high road and cover their father, making sure not to turn in his direction when doing so. "When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.' He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave,'" [9:24-27].

The curse of Canaan was read in ancient midrashim as possibly referring to those of African descent. It was taken more literally in some Christian circles as a defense of slavery as a biblical mandate, suggesting that this brutal behavior was encoded into the way human hierarchies must always be. And we have not yet, thousands of years later, fully rid ourselves of this plague.

In 1963, at the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race, Rabbi A.J. Heschel told the audience that racism is "an eye disease, a cancer of the soul." Later, this essay was collected in an anthology called The Insecurity of Freedom: the essay is entitled "Religion and Race." Here are his words:

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God's beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a child: to torture his child? How can we hear the word "race" and feel no self-reproach?

Decades later, we encounter Ta-Nahisi Coates' heartbreaking letter to his 15-year old son about being black in America - Between the World and Me. It's painful reading. Coates tries to update the letter James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year old nephew. Following this "tradition," I have written a letter on being white and Jewish to my 14-year-old daughter on race in America and our Jewish responsibility for all of humanity straight from Genesis. It seems at times if for every step forward on matters of race in America, we take long steps back.

 It's time to restore a very delicate equilibrium that has gone awry. We may never get back to the Garden of Eden, but in a broken world, we still need to aspire to the wholeness we once had. 

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Blue and White Not Red

Great sages would kiss the borders of the land, kiss its stones and roll in its dust because it states in Psalms (102:15) : “Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.”
— Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:10

These past weeks have been ones of anxiety and terror in Israel. The phrase that seems to pop up most in newspaper accounts is that, once again, violence in Israel is "heating up," an understatement when it comes to the brutality of the details. Some people see the signs as a rehash of past Intifadas, and the war weary know only too well where this all may lead. But something significant has changed, and it's important to name it. Whereas in the past, American Jews could be counted on to defend Israel, particularly in a time of vulnerability, today the answer is more likely to be "It's complicated."

Loyalty is actually not that complicated.

You can be a loyal friend of Israel and still find Israel's politics or policies troubling. Like a friend in need, you sometimes must put aside differences when your friend is in pain because you understand that this is what is demanded of a friendship: intimacy and support in a time of crisis.

I was recently teaching a group of Israelis and Americans who serve on college campuses as Israel educators. Campuses today are often a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. These educators reported that some executive directors of Hillels don't want to do any Israel programs for fear of protests. I've spoken to rabbis who balk at defending Israel from the pulpit. Mostly they don't bring it up. Where the mention of Israel used to bring pride, now the very word in some circles is a source of embarrassment or discomfort.

The quote above from Maimonides expresses the unambiguous love that the sages of the Talmud had for Israel. Even the dirt felt special because it was Jewish dirt. And it raises a question for those who question their feelings about Israel. What if there were no Israel? While most of us cannot remember a world without Israel, some do. It is not a fact we can take for granted in a country that was recognized on the world stage only in 1948. It makes all of us ask ourselves: what would be the most serious consequence of not having the State of Israel in the future?

Before the State, Theodor Herzl predicted that the very presence of Israel would magnify and uplift the world: "The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind." It's a rosy and aspirational picture but not far from reality when you consider the technical, spiritual, medical and cultural gifts Israel has given the world.

And we need not turn to Herzl alone. John F. Kennedy said that, "Israel was not created in order to disappear. Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy, and it honors the sword of freedom." 

So what would the Middle East look like if there were no Israel? What would our Jewish Diaspora community do were there no refuge in times of despair? Think of the fate of Jews from Yemen and Syria, Russia and Ethiopia, France and the Ukraine - to name but a few. They found a friend in Israel when they could no longer live in comfort or safety where they were. Israel does not say to Jews in need worldwide, "It's complicated." Instead, the message is "Welcome Home."

It's time for us to think about what loyalty means, even a complicated loyalty - if that's what it must be for some. It must fundamentally involve our love, our allegiance, our pride, our support and our willingness to put aside differences when the country is in pain. Blue, white and red cannot forever be the colors of a flag stained in blood.

Shabbat Shalom