Precision Matters

...Stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
— Raban Gamliel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:16

In our transactional consumer culture, we have come to expect less and less from companies that are trying to sell us something, which seems to be just about everyone today. Online transactions can make anyone a clothing merchant or a taxi driver. We want to believe everyone is trustworthy, but it's become harder and harder. We use car mechanics, lawyers and doctors and anyone else with specialized knowledge hoping that they are straight with us about repairs, billable hours and the tests we need.

The Talmud spends pages and pages debating exacting standards with weights and measures, following the biblical dictum of Leviticus: "You shall do not wrong in judgment, in measurement of capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights..." (Leviticus 19: 35-36). Precision measuring makes for honest business, and nothing less will do. The Talmud lauds Rabbi Safra, saying that he fulfilled the verse in Psalms to "speak truth in his heart" (15:2) because he held himself accountable to what he thought but did not say during his negotiations. In the statement above, we want to make sure people are precise with their charitable giving as well.

In Deuteronomy, we read: "You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord, your God, gives you" (25:13-16). Market cheats had stones of differing weight in their pockets or bags that looked the same to deceive customers. It was a repugnant practice, and we have admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible against what must have been common practice:

  • "Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over, to that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger.' And to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?" (Amos 8:4-6)
  • "Thus says the Lord, God, 'Enough, you princes of Israel; put away violence and destruction, and practice justice and righteousness Stop your expropriations from My people,' declares the Lord God. "'You shall have just balances, a just ephah and a just bath.'" (Ezek 45:9-10)
  • "Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the Lord." (Prov. 20:10)
  • "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight." (Prov. 11:1)
  • "Is there yet a man in the wicked house, along with treasures of wickedness and a short measure that is cursed? Can I justify wicked scales and a bag of deceptive weights?" (Micah 6: 10-11)

The sages of the Talmud assess some of these verses for practical teachings and discuss the very minutiae of using weights accurately, like how often a measuring vessel should be cleaned to assure that residue does not add any additional weight or how to ensure that the small deposits in the scale's pan in a liquid measure be tipped appropriately in the buyer's favor since even this small amount was measured out for him. Market inspectors need to check regularly for accuracy of measures.

Most significantly, they wanted to demonstrate how important this commandment is to preserving the integrity of the land and the nation. Rabbi Levi suggests that falsifying weights and measures deserves a greater punishment than forbidden sexual relations. One reason provided is that regarding a breach with another human being, "there is repentance." When a person cheats strangers again and again, there is no way to achieve repentance because you cannot compensate or apologize to all your customers (BT Bava Batra 88b). Lastly, the Talmud states that it is worse to rob human beings than to rob God - like withholding a gift from the Temple.

The verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy stress both God and the land of Israel to demonstrate that a person may try to deceive another, but God's watchful eye is ever present. When the Israelites made their desert trek, God wanted them to know that the country they were inheriting needed to uphold a high moral standard or it would reject their residency. Precision in weights and measures is a small, everyday behavior to build a community of trust and a reputation as a place where ethics reigns. People who measure meticulously, especially when others don't, role model integrity, as we read in Proverbs 16:11: "A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights of the bag are His concern."

Shabbat Shalom


The embarrassed do not learn.
— Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6

 We've all been there. We need to ask someone what to do or how something works, but we're too embarrassed. Asking might humiliate us. People will think we don't know what we're doing; maybe we don't really know what we're doing. The indignity of asking will simply confirm it. The fact that Einstein told us that it is OK to ask questions does nothing to ameliorate this gnawing sense of inadequacy: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

For the next several weeks, between Passover and Shavout, we will be studying an aphorism from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, as is a customary practice in this season. Today's will focus on curiosity.

Asking questions is a manifestation of curiosity: the rapacious desire to know, the expansive capacity to stand in awe and wonder. It's fundamental to the holiday we just finished and to just about every aspect of a faith based on scholarship. It reveals our humanity and humility, and helps us be vigilant against the arrogance of certainty. Sa'adia Gaon, a great early medieval sage and communal leader, observed in his philosophical work, Emunot Ve'Daot (Beliefs and Opinions), that a person who fails to admit his or her own inabilities will "never fashion a ring." If you think you know everything, you will never learn anything.  It's for this reason that one of the sages of the Talmud names the anxiety and the problem. "The embarrassed do not learn." 

Learning involves vulnerability and letting go of the face-saving tendency to project mastery. Ask questions and stop worrying about the humiliation of not knowing, we are adjured. In one Talmudic passage, a student was ridiculed by other students for asking a question until the teacher scolded his disciples: "Even such an obvious question a person should submit to his teacher and not be content with silence" (BT Nidda 27a). The silent sit in confusion and misunderstanding. Those not embarrassed to ask will reap rich rewards in knowledge. Making fun of those who ask questions is not only the mark of the intellectual snob, it can also devolve into self-sustaining ignorance.

There is, however, a circumstance where asking a question that generates shame may be off-limits, as we find in yet another Talmudic case: "Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Shimon ben Elyakim, "Do you ask me publicly, in the study hall, about a matter for which earlier sages did not give a reason, in order to embarrass me?" (BT Bava Batra 81a). A student confronted a teacher in a public space. This question was asked in a beit midrash, a study hall, likely crammed with students. Perhaps all of them would have hushed their loud intellectual jousting to hear what Rabbi Shimon had to say. But that is not the way Rabbi Shimon heard the question. Since there is a textual tradition that the particular teaching in question was not accompanied by a reason, Rabbi Shimon regarded this as an inappropriate challenge to his authority. Perhaps these two scholars had a history together that made Rabbi Shimon wary.

A commentator on the Talmud, Menahem Meiri (1249-1306), learns from here that it is inappropriate for a student to ask his teacher a question if he knows that the matter was discussed by earlier authorities, and no answer was provided. Rabbi Shimon may have felt that he was not only protecting himself and his contemporaries from public humiliation but was also defending those who came before him.

The difference between these two Talmudic cases - namely the teacher who protects the student and the student who intimidates the teacher - surfaces the thin, invisible line between curiosity and hostility. Our tradition loves questions, but questioners should be careful to make sure that they are asking out of genuine curiosity and not to prove they are smarter than the teacher by belittling the person at the front of the room.

We've all been in enough classrooms to recognize this kind of student. We may even be this kind of student. We've been raised to question authority but not always to valorize it. Remember: once you cross the boundary of impropriety, it may be hard to recalibrate the relationship between teacher and student, even though we are all students.

I've always loved what Dorothy Parker wrote about curiosity: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." So go ahead. Ask. Please. Just ask nicely.

Shabbat Shalom

To a Master Teacher

It is a positive commandment to cleave to the wise and their disciples.
— Maimonides, “Laws of Character,” 6:2

Every once in a while, you get lucky enough to study with teachers who make subjects come alive, who bring passion and erudition to what you learn together, who serve as living role models. Rarer still is if you get all this in one person. Perhaps this is why Ethics of the Fathers recommends that when you find a true teacher, you must actively make that teacher into your teacher. “Sit at the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily” (1:4).

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has a beautiful essay on the role of the teacher and sage in a new collections of his writings: Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah. To fulfill the mandate to sit at the feet of scholars, he writes, a person must be willing to submit to the authority of the teacher. This, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, is not only within the intellectual realm but also in what he calls “a volitional-emotional gesture.” He also says that a student must “surrender to one’s teacher on an ontic level.” I know what you’re thinking. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Here, the Rav elaborates on a relationship that very few have with a master teacher: “To be in the presence of the master is a joy which borders on rhapsody. To be away from him is anguish. The pupil is always lonesome for his master and driven by an irresistible passion to him.” Reverence also creates a sense of distance, the separation we create out of respect.

Few have this relationship with a teacher because very few students invest in relationships with teachers. They may feel intimidated or not smart enough. Often, students think that the teacher should do the work of investment. But that is where the Rav challenges us: sit at their feet, and you will be changed because of this meaningful friendship. Don’t ask them to come to you. But know, that being a good teacher means waiting for students who seek this relationship and devoting yourself to them once they devote themselves to you.

I was thinking about this essay when I learned of the death of a beloved teacher the week before Passover, Rabbi Amnon Haramati. He taught in the Yeshivah of Flatbush for 45 years; a former head of the school estimated that upon his retirement, Rabbi Haramati likely taught 10,000 students. During his retirement, he taught hundreds of classes to adults and was constantly sought out as a resource. And, just as the teacher is a role model, Rabbi Haramti embodied the gifts of patience, tenacity, religious moderation and tolerance and a mission to make the world a better place through knowledge.

Before he arrived in the classroom as a teacher at the ripe age of 16, Rabbi Haramati's life was intertwined with the birth of the State of Israel. He was born in 1930 in Jerusalem, where he was buried. At 17, in 1948, he fought in the War of Independence, armed with a rifle, one hand grenade and four bullets. He was severely injured, declared dead and found alive in a morgue by a nurse. He then suffered blindness and regained his sight. His brain injuries were such that he was told he would never be able to retain information. This is all the more astounding to anyone who studied with him because of the vast and breathless mastery he had of so much Tanakh. His life was one miracle after another.

The afternoon before he was suddenly taken from our community, I saw him shopping with his wife of 64 years. I wished them both a joyous Passover, and they wished me the same. Imagine the shock of finding out that Rabbi Haramati collapsed the next morning on his way to synagogue. At his shiva, I was told to peek into his study. His books were open on his desk, that was covered with his Hebrew notes for a class he had given the night before on the theme of Passover. And there was his watch, between the notes, measuring time even though its owner could no longer.

In scores of places I've traveled, when asked where I live, I respond, “Silver Spring.” Someone would often follow-up with another question, "Oh, do you know Rabbi Haramati? He taught me." I would send Rabbi Haramati regards, and he would say "Hu haya ha-talmid sheli." He was my student, as if this relationship lasted long after graduation. This is what I wrote to his son when I heard the news. “Henry Adams said, 'A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ Your father's heart may have stopped beating, but his influence will never stop because he ushered generations of students into the depth and richness of our tradition.”

May his memory be for a blessing. May it stir us to find other great teachers and to sit at their feet.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Bitter and Sweet

The questions of the Haggada are designed to stimulate an exploration of our freedom. We are to relive history, and we do so through a series of symbolic foods. But some of the questions we ask seem to have obvious answers, so much so that the very questions appear trivial and hardly a trigger for study. Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we ask this question?

Maror is certainly the easiest food on the Seder table to explain. Here is how the Haggada answers the question:

Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers' lives in Egypt, as it is said: 'They made their lives bitter with hard service, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field; all their service which they made them serve with rigor.'

Based on a biblical verse from Exodus, the bitterness of the taste reflects the bitterness of our ancient lives as slaves.

It is no coincidence that our redemption is traced in food images. There are the foods associated with Egypt which we pine for but we cannot access. There is manna, the transitional food associated with the wilderness journey that will stop in Joshua 5, just as we were about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are the lush, sweet foods of the Land of Israel, described through the seven species: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land-a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing..." (Deut 8:7-9).The fruits trees and vines of Israel will yield and yield and yield. They will suggest a permanence and autonomy in their own land that our people could never achieve in Egypt with its bitter foods and bitter work.

This sour after-taste was not only related to the work, but also to the foods we ate in Egypt that we then hankered for in the midst of our long desert trek. In Numbers 11, we mourn the foods we could no longer have: the onions, the garlic, the leeks. And the list goes on. I have the occasional food craving, but it's never for any of these foods. The ancient historian Herodotus identifies these as slave foods, inexpensive foods that mirrored the suffering by being themselves bitter. We were consumed by our bitterness and then needed to consume it. When bitter tastes filled our mouths for so long, they became hard to get out of our heads.

Perhaps this explains the most enigmatic food of the Seder table: the Hillel sandwich. We mix the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of haroset and matza into a sandwich that always crumbles indelicately all over the tablecloth. This sandwich will never compete with a hot pastrami on rye or even the humble peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on white, but it wins as a symbolic food packed with meaning. The Hillel sandwich, with its combination of contradictory tastes and textures - the sharpness of horseradish combined with the nutty, fruity paste of apples, wine and walnuts and the texture and crisp of matzah- reflects the complexities of any traumatic experience that creates an epistemic transformation.

Redemption is confusing and messy. There was no finish line to suggest when our ancient slave lives ended and our new free lives began. There were events, to be sure, but in the realm of internal change, there was no set line to cross. Change is hard, even if what we are leaving is pain and anguish. There are the smells and the tastes of the past, the good memories that stay, the bad associations that wane over time. All of this we eat together. But perhaps something even deeper is going on with this sandwich.

The sandwich teaches us to make the bitter of the past sweet because otherwise we will become what we eat: bitter creatures whose only memories are of suffering and anguish. We all know kvetchers and people who have experienced genuine tragedies who turn all the past to pain and become sour and difficult. There is an art to blessing our pain because it becomes our teacher. It teaches us how to live. Jews have a mandate to make a blessing on the bad as well as the good, maybe because something bad can turn into something good, can turn into an unexpected blessing.

The Hillel Sandwich teaches us that when we ingest pain or review the pain of our past, we should dip a bit of it into haroset so that the last, sweet taste in our mouth lingers. Every part of the past, even a difficult one, is not pain. And every pain can become a tool for a future of blessing. Let the joy linger in our mouths...and in our minds...and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

A Tree Grows In Babylonia

“orrect yourself and, only then, correct others.
— BT Bava Batra 60b

Last week, in the daily Talmud cycle, we studied one of my favorite stories. I have to share it. The Talmudic discussions on these pages are steeped in questions about ownership of property and the nature of public and private domains and the responsibility individuals have for the safety of public and semi-private areas. So far, this is interesting mostly for lawyers and property developers. Maybe not even. It can run a bit dry.

Suddenly we stumble on a wonderful story with legal consequences, which I will paraphrase, adding to the translation only words that are missing from the elliptical nature of any Talmud text:

"Rabbi Yannai has a tree that was leaning into the public thoroughfare. There was another man who had a tree that was leaning into the public space. The people there demanded that he take care of it. He came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him "Go now and come back tomorrow. At night, Rabbi Yannai sent for a person to cut down his own tree. The next day, the man returned, and Rabbi Yannai said to him, 'Go cut down your tree.' He replied, 'But the Master also has such a tree.' 'Go and see. If mine is cut down, cut down yours. If mine is not cut down, you do not have to cut down yours.'"

Obviously, this man thought that asking a scholar with the same problem would allow him to keep his tree intact. He was not expecting this response. The scholars who discuss this story are troubled by what Rabbi Yannai's legal position was originally and why it changed. R. Yannai came to realize that the people who used this domain with its hanging trees felt comfortable telling a commoner to trim his tree but did not want to approach the rabbi out of respect. He, on the other hand, did not want to be treated any differently. Why, then they ask, did he not merely say to this man, "Cut down your tree and then I'll cut mine down?" That would have been a fair approach, but not the highest ethical approach to resolving this problem. They conclude that one must "Correct yourself, and only then, correct others." You can't require others to do what you are not first prepared to do yourself.

Here we might also make a fine distinction between role modeling and leading by example, even though these two descriptions are often used interchangeably. When someone serves as a role model, he or she often thinks about those watching and acts as an appropriate exemplar. There is, at least in my mind, a performative aspect to this, almost as if without an audience, the individual in question might let down his or her guard. When we lead by example, we are our best selves regardless of who is watching. We act the way we believe one should. If someone wants to learn from this example, they are welcome to, but we are not doing it to look better. We are doing it because it's the right thing to do, because it's the right way to be.

I believe Rabbi Yannai wanted to lead by example. Everyone can see his tree with its far-reaching limbs. Everyone was willing to give him a pass. He thought, as it states in the Talmud, that his tree was providing a service to others with its shade. It was not until this man approached him with his legal question that he realized his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, the proof that he led by example and not because people were watching is that he had the tree's limbs cut down at night, when no one was watching. He wasn't looking for a medal, for a community's approbation. He wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing. He wanted to be better. Only then could he ask more of someone else.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self," wrote Ernest Hemingway. Rabbi Yannai with the cut of a few tree limbs became a better version of himself. Only then could he ask the same of someone else.

Shabbat Shalom

Raising Kids to Give

You shall surely give to him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.
— Deuteronomy 15:9

Every Jewish holiday contains a mechanism for giving tzedaka. The happiness we typically associate with a holiday is dimmed if we cannot share it with others in need. Maimonides calls the joy of one who feasts at a holiday without providing for others "belly happiness." It's the narcissistic happiness of one who enjoys a full belly while others go with empty stomachs, envious of the food abundance of some and the inequity of their condition.
Passover is no exception. We are told explicitly in a Mishna that we are not allowed to give a poor person fewer than four cups of wine. We might easily delude ourselves into thinking that for a person who has nothing, one or two cups of wine would be plenty. But then we would be separating ourselves from them in the performance of this commandment. The Mishna does not tell us to provide four cups but rather that we not give less than four. Wealth can fool us into a sense of false generosity. In Zaide Smith's masterful new novel Swing Time, her central character ponders inequality and its cost: "No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless."
In an attempt to fight this thoughtless with the approaching holiday, I was cheered to see a Wall Street Journal article with this title, "How Can you Raise Your Child to Be a Philanthropist?" (March 20, 2017). I would have much preferred a more modest title, like how to raise a child to give, but if you've ever read the "Mansion" section of the WSJ, it can create the false impression that all its readers are senior wealth managers raising junior philanthropists. The article spoke of starting them early, of the importance of supporting a charity over time, about researching causes with children. It's important that kids see their parents volunteering or sitting on boards and using their skills to help others. "Focus on the emotional uplift the good work does for the people who are helped. And reflection. Teach your children to think about why they are charitable, what it means to them. And biographies of charitable/philanthropic 'heroes.'" This is all good advice ,but it seems to miss something more primal about giving.
To fill in the hole, we turn to the medieval Spanish scholar Rabbi Yona of Gerona, where he interprets the verse above from Deuteronomy:

"The Torah wants us to develop an attitude of kindness and remove stinginess from our hearts. 'You shall, rather, surely give him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.' This verse requires us to distance ourselves from the trait of miserliness, but rather, to be generous. It is therefore not sufficient to simply give money; one must implant within himself a spirit of generosity... 'Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your indigent brother' (Deut. 15:7). We are hereby instructed to remove from ourselves the negative trait of cruelty and to plant instead the seeds of compassion and kindness, as it says, 'and you shall go in His ways' (Deut. 28:9)" (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:35-36).

Giving charity is not primarily about the mechanics of researching and investing, volunteering and leading. These are all manifestations of charity but do not touch upon what it really is: an inclination to give that derives from a deep sense of blessing and abundance that results in wanting to level social and financial inequalities. That's why you can't give a poor person two cups of wine when you have four, even if it is more than he ever dreamed he would have at his Seder. If you are truly charitable, it's not a hand out but a hand up, bringing that person to where you are.
Charitable giving can come across to those on the receiving end as a way to assuage the guilt of the one who has more. Giving lessens the guilt. But that does not create any real spirit of generosity. If you want to teach your children to give, take the focus away from money and shine it on expansiveness and gratitude. Teach justice and fight for it. Talk about inequalities in what children see all around them. Talk to them about why you are an agent for change.
Ironically, I think the article could have been renamed "How Can You Raise Your Parents to Be Philanthropists?" I say that because I see in so many children a natural sense of fairness, indignation when they sense injustice and a desire to make things better that their parents may be too jaded to notice. The innocence of the child makes the giving so much sweeter.
Four cups of wine for everyone at the Seder may one day grow advocates for social justice. Let the Seder be the philanthropist's classroom. Let the children teach the grown-ups.
Shabbat Shalom

The Public

Any matter that is said in the presence of three is not subject to the prohibition of malicious speech.
— Bava Batra 39b

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead," quipped Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of the Talmudic aphorism above, otherwise stated as two's company; three's a crowd. Rabba bar Huna, who issued this statement is not granting permission for three people in each other's company to say something malicious. What he is saying is that when something malicious is said in the presence of three, it is assumed to have already gone public. What, one wonders, would Rabba bar Huna have thought of Facebook?

This assumes that when people speak lashon ha-ra - malicious gossip about others, even if it is true - that the prohibition is not only about content but also about crowd. Two people whisper; three can easily turn into dozens. As one can imagine, there was some rabbinic discomfort with this idea. A medieval Talmud commentator, Rabbeinu Yona, suggests that this is only the case where what one says can be understood in more than one way, with one interpretation that is positive and one negative. Being good-spirited, we assume that the speaker only meant it positively, while others may have heard it differently. Rabbeinu Yona also suggests that this refers to a conversation about someone who has sinned and will not hear rebuke as a way to figure out how to exert communal pressure to help him improve. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that this is less about the speaker and more about the listener. The listener should assume that what is being said in a group of three is public knowledge. In other words, be wary when you say something to more than one person. News like this will travel fast.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing challenges of social media is that those who use these platforms to diminish others rarely understand the impact of what they are communicating precisely because there is no public at the moment of writing. Alone with a laptop, the writer never comes face-to-face with the "victim" or even face-to-face with a bystander who might raise an eyebrow, shake a head or indicate that a boundary has been crossed. Cyber-bullying has caused no end of deep emotional pain. Alone without a public in which to receive the immediate feedback of body language, the writer can work his or her way into a frenzy of indignation with immense psychic costs to others. It is not only mean. It is cowardly.

Contrast this with a wonderful passage of the Talmud where two scholars debate the problem and parameters of slander (BT Erkhin 15b-16a):

Rabba said: Whatever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered lashon ha-ra.
 Abaye countered: All the more so; it is rude as well as lashon hara!
Rabba replied: I hold with Rabbi Yossi who asserted, "I never said anything about a person that would make me look back to see if that person were standing behind me.

How many of us can make Rabbi Yossi's assertion that we never said anything about a person that would cause us to look both ways to check if he or she was present. This is a high standard of ethical conduct, indeed. Personally, I am always in someone else's office when a colleague says, "Shut the door." Worse, I am aware of the times I have made the same request. When we request a shut-the-door conversation it is because we do not want the public to hear, but it is here when the public may actually save us from shaming or besmirching another. Think about this the next time you shut that door.

In Words that Help, Words that Heal, R. Joseph Telushkin writes:

Every year, tens of thousands of families are split asunder and close friendships are broken because contending parties refuse to fight fairly. In a dispute with someone, you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel about the subject at hand. But these are the only rights you have. You do not have the moral right to undercut your adversary's position by invalidating him or her personally...Words have consequences, and if you use them to hurt people, your victims will find ways to hurt you in return.

We stop this cycle not by refraining from gossip but by loving life more, as we read in Psalms 34:13-14: "Who is eager for life, who desires years of goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." If negative speech makes us negative, then positive speech helps us not only live our humanity, it also helps us love our own lives more. And that's the best kind of public.

Shabbat Shalom

Your H.Q

When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.
— BT Ta’anit 29a

How’s your happiness? There is a well-known expression in the Talmud applicable at this time of year: “When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.” During the Hebrew month of Av, the Talmud continues, when we mark the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of our holiest sanctuary, we are supposed to reduce our happiness (BT Ta’anit 29a), what I call a halakhic (legal) seasonal affective disorder. It sounds as if our emotions can be turned on and off like a light-switch.

Happiness is foundational to the religious mindset. The psalmist says: ‘Serve the Lord with happiness…” (100:2), and when we bring out first fruits to the Temple, we recite a prayer that reinforces the emotional state of joy that this moment should be for us: “And you should rejoice in all the good that the Lord has given you..” (Deut. 26:11). We are even warned and punished if we do not rejoice in what we are given because happiness is the desired ontological state of the religious human being: “Because you did not serve the Lord joyfully and gladly in a time of prosperity...” (Deut. 28:47). It is a curse to be unable to muster joy at a time of blessing.

Rebbe Nahman tells us it is a mitzva to be happy always, despite what Arthur Green documents about his deep depressive tendencies in Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav. And yet R. Nahman continually fought his melancholic impulse: “...For it is known that a man must be very careful to be always happy, and to distance sadness very, very much… The same applies to the way you look at yourself. You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that exist in you. This will strengthen you so you won't fall into despair (Likutei Moharan Kama, Torah 282).

But why Adar? Why not every month of the year? It seems that indeed one month, this month, did give us a boost and that there is something nuanced about happiness in this season that is particular to this month. Our text? The Megillah. In 9:22, we read, “The days when the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness…” became an occasion to share a feast together and give gifts to friends. We are joyful because as a community, we transformed ourselves emotionally from doom and despair to gladness. This is the happiness of justice prevailing. This is so intrinsic to Adar, as a just season for the Jews that a code of law recommends that if you have to go to court with a gentile (in periods where we had an adversarial relationship), you should set the trial date in Adar (based on BT Ta’anit 29a).

In Adar we are not supposed to be happy; we are supposed to increase our happiness. So it’s time to use Adar to amplify our H.Q. – our Happiness Quotient. What is your baseline? Where are you from 1-10 (with 1 being miserable and 10 being exuberant)? Now imagine adding just a point or two this month. Here are some questions to help:

  • Do you have a happy place and are you spending enough time there?
  • What people – family, friends and colleagues – make you feel happy and are you spending enough time with them?
  • Think of three areas of your life that have to go well in order for you to feel happy. •    What is one thing that you own that makes you happy?
  • Name one mitzva, holiday or Jewish ritual that makes you happy.
  • Do you make time to acknowledge or celebrate your accomplishments and the blessings in your life or are you too harsh on yourself?
  • Do you share or communicate your happiness with others?
  • Do you let other people rob you of your happiness?
  • What about work, school or retirement makes you feel happy?

Does giving tzedaka and/or volunteering contribute to your personal happiness? This month we’re asked to challenge our baseline happiness and enhance it. My guess is that if we all work hard on increasing our personal happiness in the month of Adar, it may not end when Adar ends but just may spill over into every other month of the year.

Shabbat Shalom

Last Minute Surprises

That night the king could not sleep...
— Esther 6:1

The past few months have brought a lot of high-profile, last-minute shake-ups. Pollsters were wrong about the presidential elections. If you left the room two minutes before the end of the Superbowl, you would have missed an astonishing and unexpected win. If you missed the very last award of the Oscars last week, you didn't see a group of people on stage with their jaws wide open when the right winner was announced and the retinue of the wrong ones had to get off the stage. Oy.
What makes each event so dramatic is that our expectations are upended very late in the game. We move mentally in the groove that's been set, but as it travels it may change rapidly and leave us all emotionally and physically unprepared. That's why I hate surprises. But many people love them for this very reason. They make life feel unpredictable. They give people who lost hope, a magical injection of hope on steroids, and they let us know that we need to pay more attention. Every once in a while, if we're paying careful attention, we will enjoy the reward. We all want, maybe even need, to believe that the impossible happens sometimes.

We just welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, which comes with its own holiday of surprises. Purim celebrates the impossible, and perhaps we have so many rituals connected to the holiday to immerse us in the belief that the impossible sometimes happens. Because it happened in an ancient walled city thousands of years ago, who's to say that it cannot happen again to us? The chapter that arguably surfaces the most surprises is chapter six, when through a series of "coincidences," King Ahashversoh finally sees two influential ministers for who they really are. We will read a swath of the megillah to see how this plays out.

"That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Ahashverosh. 'What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?' the king asked. 'Nothing has been done for him,' his attendants answered. The king said, 'Who is in the court?' Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. His attendants answered, 'Haman is standing in the court.' 'Bring him in," the king ordered. When Haman entered, the king asked him, 'What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?' Now Haman thought to himself, Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?'" (Esther 6:1-7)

The king's sleep is described in Hebrew as interrupted. He is unable to rest, Rashi says, because he suspects that Haman is up to no good with his new beautiful bride Esther. Historical chronicles are brought, as Rashi notes, to help him go back to sleep. Others are of the view that history is so interesting that once the king was awake, he should spend his time on something worthwhile: history. When reading his empire's chronicles, the king realizes that a loyal servant who blocked an assassination attempt had not been rewarded. Perhaps the assassination attempt itself had not reached the king's ears and reading it for the first time, he felt insecure. Insecurity coupled with suspicion helps explain the king's sudden and startling question, "Who is in the courtyard?"

Just as the king is thinking about rewarding Mordechai, Haman enters the scene readying the gallows for Mordechai's death. The king takes advantage of this moment to test Haman and see how close this minister wants to get to Ahashverosh's throne. The answer: very close.
This escalation of tension is built one surprise and a time. Each surprise leads to another that culminates in the biggest surprise, the gift the Jews are given to defend themselves when under attack. The underdog wins yet again because these surprises reveal something powerful about two antagonists. The king is finally able to see Mordechai for he is and Haman for who he is. Only after the acts of seeing in chapter six, does the plot truly thicken. One man's insomnia leads to the redemption of an entire people. Who would have thought?
Esther is a story that gives us hope, one surprise at a time. The oppression of its early beginnings, as the wheels of injustice are set in place, give way to a longer view that justice will eventually reign. We are only prepared for this big surprise through a series of small surprises strung together. It is this necklace of hope that leaves us with the scroll's most powerful teaching. Celebrate each small surprise, and the great surprises will eventually become a cause for great celebration. Hope thrives on the element of surprise.
When is the last time you were truly surprised?
Shabbat Shalom

An Eternal Home

Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.
— Genesis 23:4

Jewish cemeteries are often referred to as beitei kvarot, literally houses of graves. They are also known by many euphemistic names: a beit hayim, a house of life or a beit olam, a house of eternity. In Yiddish, a cemetery is called a heylige-ort, a holy place or a gute-ort, a good place. You might say we use these names to deny our mortality, to suggest that we will live forever. Alternatively, you might say that we speak of the plots that hold our dead as holy places of the living because their very existence reminds us to live a good life, a worthy life, a life of purpose. Those who are memorialized there help our families live on, anchored to our history and to our past.
There's something unsettlingly quiet and contemplative about these spaces that make us wonder what will one day be chiseled in stone about us. We might see the outstretched hands that signal that a priest was buried in this spot or a jug of water to indicate a Levite. There might be a crown to suggest a person of importance or candlesticks for a pious woman. A mohel's tombstone might have two chairs or a hand holding a lancet. A tzedaka box often graces the tombstone of the charitable, and books the grave of a scholar. A lion might mark someone of strength and leadership. Thus, we walk through a field of stones that represents the myriad individuals that make our communities rich, diverse and sacred. We walk through Jewish cemeteries and note long lives and short lives, recognizable last names and strange ones. Every once in a while, we catch our own last names on a stone and take a sharp breath in.
The mitzva to build cemeteries is very, very old, as old as the first Jew. When Sarah died, Abraham's first purchase of land in Canaan was a burial place for his wife that would one day be peopled by our most formidable ancestors. A careful look at the text is suggestive:

"Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, 'I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.' The Hittites replied to Abraham, 'Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.' Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, 'If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you'" (Genesis 23:3-10).

Abraham introduces his desire to buy a plot by saying that he has a vulnerable status. He is a stranger. He lives there but has no land there. Perhaps he becomes most aware of his difference when he loses his wife, his partner in building a new faith community. He knows what we have all come to know; where we bury our dead and where we choose to be buried ourselves tells us about the relationship we have to a place. It may also help us understand why it is important for a person to own his or her plot (BT Bava Batra 112a) and have a genuine claim to the land. According to Jewish law, even paupers are entitled to plots paid out of communal funds. Abraham did not want a hand-out. He wanted to know that this his wife was buried in a place that was his, that he could clean, nurture, care for and visit unobstructed.
This week, following the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, a Muslim student asked me if there was anything she could do, disgusted as she was by yet another hate crime. I was touched. After we spoke, I thought a lot about what all of us can do. Of course, people can try to repair the damage, clean up and send money. But then I realized that maybe something more expansive is called for. Maybe this is a good time to support the local hevre kadisha, a society of volunteers who prepare the dead for burial. Maybe this is a good time to clean up and restore to reverence the many non-desecrated Jewish cemeteries that need some love. And maybe, just maybe, this is a good time to buy your own plot and secure a more eternal home.
Shabbat Shalom

Shared Pot

A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold.
— BT Bava Batra 24b

Now that I have your attention...This is a classic case of bait-and-switch. You were probably misled by the title into thinking that we were going to discuss the sharing of cannabis (which would go nicely with The Forward's recent recipe for weed-infused matza balls, called affectionately, potza balls). But no. We are actually going to discuss a shared pot as in the kind that used to be the only kind of pot: a utensil or "a container, typically rounded or cylindrical and of ceramic ware or metal, used for storage or cooking."
But before that we are going to talk about e-mails. Ever put a lot of people on an email with a specific request and wonder why no one responds? In the psychological literature, this behavior has a name: the diffusion of responsibility. If it is not clear that one individual is singled out for a task, then the others automatically assume that someone else is doing it or, better yet, has already done it. This apparently grows stronger when the people included number three or more. If only one person is identified as responsible, chances are much higher that the reply button will be pressed and that the work will get done.
This can be irritating when you are assigning tasks as a boss, supervisor or parent. Sometimes we hide behind or within the masking of a group to avoid work. This has been called social loafing.
But diffusion of responsibility can also be more than annoying; it can present deeply moral problems when it explains the kind of group-think that allows bullying behavior to take place without comment or pushback or gives a certain license for inaction when standing on principle is more ethically appropriate. "Just following orders" is a way we disappear into the anonymity of the group and fight back more altruistic impulses.
This also may explain the significance of the well-known expression from Ethics of the Fathers: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" (2:5). Pushing aside the gender problem, the teaching is simple. Any human being should assess the behaviors of others, and when they are found morally lacking, step into the breach. Do not wait for someone else to do the right thing. You may be waiting for a very long time.
Many years ago, I was teaching a leadership class and asked people, as a way of getting to know them, to write a quick six-word biography. This is a fun but tough exercise. With only six words to choose from, it's hard to know if you should list characteristics, tell a very, very short story or describe what you care about. Each participant made different choices. Only one told the story of himself as a moral agent. "Always do the right thing, period." The rest of the group nodded in recognition, as if they each wished they had written the same thing. His answer stuck with me all these years later. I bet he wasn't waiting around for someone else to volunteer first.
Now back to our Talmudic adage: "A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold." The sages had their own understanding of the diffusion of responsibility two thousand years ago, even if they lacked the modern terminology. No one takes responsibility for something that belongs to many people. If people purchased a pot together, not one of the owners could tell you the temperature of its contents. The contents of the pot would surely have been hot or cold, but there was no one there to say either way. I only know one other expression with a pot - a watched pot never boils. Restated the rabbinic way: a pot owned by many is sadly never watched.
Shabbat Shalom

Across the Sea

Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.
— Ethics of the Fathers 5:5

Name the last miracle that happened to you.

Some of us may say, “This morning when I woke up.” Some people may list many relatively prosaic things that happen in the course of an ordinary day which to them are nothing short of miraculous: a beating heart, a child’s smile, a safe and loving home, a good job, a good friend.

Others may dismiss the question outright. “I don’t believe in miracles.” That’s that. With one curt phrase, the skeptic puts the matter to rest.

This week’s Torah reading leaves us high and dry, quite literally. We left Egypt, with a final and dramatic break: the splitting of the sea with all of its magnificent tension. The Egyptians on their chariots were in hot pursuit of us, realizing that their labor forces had just exited. The Jews looked forward to the sea and backwards to their captors and at once cried out to God over their ill-fated future. Moses tried to calm them by asking them to observe God’s might, using a set of passive verbs: “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 14:13-14]. They needed only to stand and watch their deliverance. After all, this was their role throughout the Exodus story. In Egypt, they were not agents of their present or their future.

God had different plans for them. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground,’” [Exodus 14:14-15]. This was not an occasion to stand on the sidelines. It was finally time for them to make history with two short words in English and one in Hebrew: “Ve-yisa-u,” Go forward. Jump into the uncertainty because only the leap of faith can change you. Moses, representing their complaints to God, was told to stop shouting and move forward. We can visualize the choking dust their wheels produced as they sped through the desert only to be met with the trouncing powers of water unabated.

It is this human agency that I believe explains two very odd teachings in Ethics of the Fathers, an ancient collection of adages. In 5:5, we read, “Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.” Not stopping there, the next mishna seems to reiterate the statement without adding anything new except that one statement was about the Israelite experience and one about the Egyptian experience: “Ten plagues did the Holy One, blessed be He, bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea.” There are a few tens we might not be so sure of. We are sure that there were ten plagues for the Egyptians but not so sure what constitutes ten miracles for the Israelites. We are also not sure in either statement, what ten miracles or ten plagues happened at the sea.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this expands the question: “We have but scant knowledge of these ten plagues which struck the Egyptians at the Reed Sea.” He seems equally unsure what miracles happened to us but concludes that we “remained untouched by the plagues with which the Egyptians were stricken.” This could be a reference to a midrashic reading that says that for every plague on the Egyptians, a miracle was performed for the Israelites. The problem is, of course, that none of this is contained in the biblical text.

But it may be a bi-product of a miracle mind. What’s a miracle mind, you ask? When a person has an experience of a particularly extraordinary nature, he or she may become aware not only of its large implications but also of its many smaller component parts. As a result, these, too, take on a miraculous character, expanding and amplifying the experience, as Walt Whitman wrote, “Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.”

Each miracle is not one miracle but many. Ten is a number suggesting abundance. Each Israelite experienced this momentous event within the lens of a myriad of breath-taking parts. That can happen to us when we take the time to note our blessings not with a big brush but in small, detailed and specific ways.

Do you have a miracle mind?

Shabbat Shalom


Anyone who gives a nominal amount to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words receives eleven...
— BT Bava Batra 9b
I heard the teaching that a person who gives charity to a poor person receives six blessings, and someone who offers consolation receives eleven blessings but had no idea how the Talmud arrived at these numbers. Nor did I understand why consolation almost doubles the blessings of charity itself. I also wasn't quite sure what consolation could be offered that would make someone of unfortunate circumstances feel whole again.
I found the answer to my first question in the Talmud itself. Basically, the rabbis took the bulk of chapter 58 of Isaiah and ran it through their somewhat unusual methods of exegesis and came up with this categorization. Let's take a look at the passages of Talmud where these texts appear:
"One who gives a peruta (a nominal amount) to a poor person receives six blessings, as it is written 'Is it not to share your bread with the hungry that you shall bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked that you cover him?' (Isaiah 58:7) 'Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your health shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry and He shall say, 'Here I am'" (Isaiah 58:8-9).

This is a stunning expression of causation. Isaiah understands the altruistic impulse as natural, as our human purpose. When we share bread and our homes and cloth those who lack means, as one verse suggests, the six blessings of the next two verses will ensue. These small acts will bring light and health, righteousness and glory. God will answer us in our time of need if we are attuned to the needs of others. God himself says "hineni," as it were, to us when we are present in the lives of those who need us most. It would seem that from the point of view of social justice and kindness, it doesn't get better than this. But it actually does.
This is how the Talmud continues:

"And whoever consoles a poor person with words receives eleven blessings, as it is stated: 'And if you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide you continually, and satisfy your thirst in drought...And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations,'" (Isaiah 58-10-12).

In this depiction, the giver is not offering bread but words to the afflicted soul, discovering what ails the person with these emotional needs and touching that person deeply.  There are many forms of poverty. In addition to the previous blessings, we add light, the continual presence of God, the redemption of ruins, and the gift of legacy. Generations that follow will be inspired by this example and follow it.
Maimonides and other medieval commentators on this page of Talmud believe that this teaches that even one who cannot give money, should offer words of consolation and not feel that this gift is less worthy. They also derive the way charity should be given. When a person gives a charitable gift, he or she should do so pleasantly. If one gives it with anger or begrudgingly, he loses the merit he gained, even if it is a large sum. This is codified in Jewish law (Maimonides, "Laws of Giving to the Poor" 10:4-5, Shulkhan Arukh Y.D. 249:3-4).
The capacity to go outside ourselves and sympathize, commiserate, and give solace to one who is suffering cannot be bought with money. Food and clothing take care of immediate needs, but the validation and compassion that comes with consolation can linger for decades. We hang our humanity on small kindnesses. These are days where consolation is necessary. Many of us are angry or confused or dejected. We need consolation, and we need to offer it to others, especially those who are not like us.
A few pages later in the Talmud, Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, was ill and fainted. His father asked him what he saw in his near-death state: "I saw an inverted world. Those above were below and those below were above." His father's response: "You have seen a clear world."
When our world order turns upside down, it is hard to find balance. But sometimes a word of consolation lifts us up above the fray and creates order out of chaos and deeper wisdom and understanding.
Shabbat Shalom

Happy Travels

The Lord himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will neither leave you nor forget you. Do not be afraid and do not worry.
— Deuteronomy 31:8

Have you recently taken a trip or a vacation? Read on.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we find verses that address the anxieties of travel. But before we have a look, we need to define travel anxiety. By worries, I don’t mean TSA delays, flight cancellations or bad airplane snacks. Those surface a host of inconveniences but don’t ever really amount to suffering. Ever notice that people’s airline/travel issues are terribly boring to listen to when someone else is in the passenger seat? We’ve all been there. Yet when we are the unhappy recipients of poor service, we love sharing our travel woes with anyone who will listen.
A recent New York Times article contends that airlines and hotels are finally acknowledging these stresses in their marketing campaigns. In “Travel is Stressful, but Do It with Us, Companies Say,” Martha White writes that companies are now incorporating the anxieties of travel as a way to show how their particular brand is ameliorating them. “Take Back What Seat 34E Took from You” is a new Westin campaign featuring a woman floating carelessly in the water. Instead of showing her in a cramped middle seat surrounded by people without good body hygiene, this woman is stretched out in the serene waters a Westin pool offers.
Last year, the Oregon Tourism Commission went with this slogan to address the pressure many people feel when they take a family vacation: “There are all kinds of things you can do in Oregon, but you don’t have to do any of them.” What a relief! Psychologist Dr. Jerry Kennard identifies three sources of vacation stress: money, people and situations. “Money relates to affordability and is involved in gift buying, travel, clothing, tips, transportation, etc. People are invariably relatives or even friends, but stress can also come from the loss of loved-ones who used to be part of your circle. Situations can range from unfamiliar houses, to hotels to different countries, customs and languages. Add to this disruption in routine, change of diet, possible sickness and the elements for a stressful experience are all in place.”
One would hardly think that religion features in such a discussion, but, in fact, just as a trip can offer the potential for a spiritual journey, it can also threaten our sense of spiritual stability. It is for this reason that our sacred texts confront issues of the insecurity and isolation of travel and the vulnerability that comes with going somewhere that is not familiar. In Psalm 91:11, God appears as the ultimate travel agent: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” That probably beats travel insurance.
Dangers on a trip can ruin a good time. That’s why Proverbs offers this assurance: “Then you will go safely on your way, and you will not hurt your foot. When you lie down, you will not be afraid. As you lie there, your sleep will be sweet,” [3:23-24]. So much for the Westin’s heavenly bed; if you have trouble sleeping when you’re away but you’re traveling with the Divine Spirit, your sleep will be sweet.
Another travel woe is getting lost. No worries. We’ve got a psalm for that: “For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory. The Lord says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you,’” [32:7-8]. The GPS on high will get you there. And if you’re worried that you’ll be the worse for wear upon your return, we’ve got this guarantee: “The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever,” [Psalm 121:7-8]. 
Sometimes people just need a vacation from the stress of planning a vacation. Now many packaged vacations include yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices just to overcome the anxiety of the trip. One way to make your next trip or vacation less tense is not to indulge yourself but to do some charitable work as an individual or a family wherever you land. A small service project won’t eliminate stress. It will, however, put it in perspective.
Shabbat Shalom.


A Leadership of Silence

I have never been eloquent...
— Exodus 4:10

This week, we will open up the book of Exodus in synagogues around the world a day after America's presidential inauguration. The time feels ripe to think about the relationship between speech and leadership. Words can communicate hope, or they can confirm hate. Words can lift the spirit or send listeners into a depressive tailspin. Words can be a tool of the arrogant or an obstacle to the humble.

Moses complained multiple times about his speaking inadequacies related to content, to the mechanics of speech and to his own unworthiness to represent his people. "'So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.' But Moses said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'" [Exodus 3:10-11].

Moses could not agree to a plan that he felt unworthy to represent. Moses countered again. "Moses answered, 'What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, 'The Lord did not appear to you?' Then the Lord said to him, 'What is that in your hand?' 'A staff,' he replied. The Lord said, 'Throw it on the ground.' Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it," [Exodus 4:1-3]

This would surely have moved Moses to action, but still he protested. "Moses said to the Lord, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.' The Lord said to him, 'Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.' But Moses said, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else,'" [Exodus 4:10-13]

Later, in 6:12 and 30, Moses added an additional, puzzling complaint: he has uncircumcised lips, a very odd expression that suggests some kind of blockage that prevents his words from achieving the mellifluous peak necessary to be an influential leader. Moses failed to understand why he specifically was chosen, why anyone would listen to him and where the source of speech would come from for a man of few words. Although we have classically understood Moses to be a stutterer or have a stammer, this reading may be too literal. Moses may have felt stymied by his lack of elegance rather than by any physical problem. Rashi observes that verse 4:10 should be read this way: "In heaviness, I speak." Words were neither light nor trivial to him. This he regarded as a political liability. In politics, words can become weapons of insurrection or popularity or insincerity. These were realms not familiar to the young man born in trepidation and suddenly transferred to a house of royalty.

Avivah Gottleib Zornberg in her new and excellent book, Moses: A Human Life, comments that Moses' "...destiny is yoked with his people's in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are 'his' only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own." Instead of curing Moses of a speech problem that plagued him, God wanted Moses because of his speech deficiencies: "Moses' mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration."

God used Moses mouth as a conduit until Moses developed his own gift for language. More importantly, Moses with his staff, his brother and his miracles showed his people that action is more important to leadership than words will ever be. Moses felt trapped by speech and would only be able to free himself and his people when he overcame this incapacity to let words inspire action. They need not be many words either. "Let my people go" may not constitute poetry, but as the language of freedom against oppression, these three Hebrew words and four English ones have been a clarion call to revolution for centuries.

Moses' humble objection to leadership set the standard for the rest of us. Even when we agree to a task, the question "who am I?" should be a whisper in our ears always. It helps us appreciate that great leadership is about influence rather than power, modesty rather than publicity, deeds rather than words.

Shabbat Shalom

The Things We Carry

...set it down before you pray.
— BT Bava Metzia 105b

What a strange and frightening week it's been. On Friday, a man gunned down five travelers in Fort Lauderdale's airport and hurt many others, sending the airport into a tailspin for days. On Sunday, in Jerusalem's Armon Ha-Natziv neighborhood, a terrorist plowed down four Israeli soldiers with a truck. On Monday, 16 JCCs up and down America's East Coast evacuated members because of bomb threats. Going on vacation or sending your child to a half day of organized play and learning has become freighted with existential angst. If someone is trying to scare us, it's working.
I flew in and out of the same Fort Lauderdale airport on Sunday and Monday and used the opportunity to look for ways that the newly dead were memorialized. I saw nothing. I am sure that there were signifiers of the tragedy somewhere, but what I saw instead were lots of news trucks and lots and lots of weary travelers. On Monday, I was teaching a class in Miami about the time that bomb threats were made at two JCCs in the area. I knew something was going wrong because a pulse of anxiety spread through the room, panicked moms were texting to find out about their pre-school age children or grandchildren, and those in charge of security were on high alert. Everyone wanted to know, "Is this real?"
When random acts and threats of danger happen in innocuous places, it makes us all more vigilant, more suspicious, more cautious and more anxious. It's not an anxiety that any of us want, but it's one that we are now forced to carry. I was thinking about this unwanted burden when I came across a fascinating passage in the daily study of Talmud this past Monday.
"With regard to one who carries a load on his shoulder, and the time for prayer arrives, if the load is less than four kav, he lowers it behind him while holding it and prays. If the load is four kav or more, he lowers it and then prays" [BT Bava Metzia 105b]. A kav is a talmudic measurement of about 24 egg bulks. Why the ancient scholars used eggs as a measurement of volume, I'll never know. They knew nothing about cholesterol then, but they did know that an egg bulk was a common enough feature of farm life. It was reasonable to assume that it represented a measurement all would be familiar with in their day.
If you are carrying less than the equivalent weight of 96 eggs, and the time comes for prayer, you are allowed to pray while holding your load. The assumption is that such a measurement is still manageable and would not distract you from having the proper intention in prayer. Why not put down your load anyway? If you were traveling, you might feel more secure holding on tightly to your belongings out of fear of loss or theft. But, the rabbis of old contend, if the burden is too great, then you must set it down before you pray. That load will irritate you and distract you. You will not be able to focus on the spiritual matter at hand. Maimonides [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 5:5] and the Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative 16th century code of law, concur [O.H. 97:5].

Prayer is a form of codified mindfulness. Prayer for Jews is not to be separated from labor but is meant to punctuate our ordinary routines. We break from travel, from plowing, from our desk jobs to say a few words of gratitude and praise, to remind us of our purpose and to shield us from threats to our values. And yet, if our prayers are encumbered by the weight of our work, we are told to lighten the load and then pray. We get weighed down and then the best of our thoughts cannot be properly articulated.
Reading Tim O'Brian's meditation on war and memory, The Things We Carried, was the first time I really thought about the pain that soldiers carry that has no real weight but is freighted by terrible trauma and the stresses of war. "They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity." He continues, "They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." The burden is immense and simply too heavy to bear at times.
In an age of hate crimes and global terrorism, we all somehow become soldiers on the front-lines, even against our will and the better angels of our nature. This has psychic costs too complex to measure. It is as if, like the farmer with a heavy load, we are carrying something extra all of the time. A burden of worry. We want to put it down to pray, to extend love, to reach out in compassion, but we can't. Not yet. Danger lurks, and we must be on guard.
In such circumstances, the only way to lighten the load is to carry it together.
Shabbat Shalom

Dropping Plan B

Last made, but first planned.
— From "Lecha Dodi"

In the 16th century, Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz of Salonika, composed a poem to greet the Sabbath queen that has become an iconic song of rest robed in beauty: Lekha Dodi - Let us go, my beloved.  As was common with Hebrew acrostic poetry, if you put together the first letter in each of its stanzas, you will come up with the author's name. In the song, we greet God or the Sabbath as the beloved and rise up to see her and invite her in, giving her presence the pride of place.
In the song, we acknowledge the Sabbath as a wellspring of blessing. We shake off the cares of the week - "Arise, leave the midst of your turmoil" - to touch a little piece of transcendence. "Dress in your garments of splendor, my people," says the song, mirroring our own change of clothing to acknowledge the majesty of the royal Sabbath. We prepare for redemption. We note that light is coming with an appeal to rise and shine.
One particular stanza always moves me:

To greet Shabbat, now let us go.
Source of blessing, it has ever been so.
Conceived before life on earth began.
Last made, but first planned.

This stanza suggests that although the Sabbath was the last work of God's creation, it was conceived of first, the crowning achievement of this intense spurt of divine creativity. All of creation moves towards this shared end of rest and introspection.
Today, we might call this strategy design thinking. Design thinking often starts with the end product - where you want to go - and then establishes the best strategy to achieve those ends. It's a methodology using logic, intuition and imagination to approach complex problems more systemically.  According to the business website Fast Company, there are four stages to design thinking: 1) Defining the problem, 2) Creating and considering many options, 3) Refining directions, 4) Repeating. There's a lot written on design theory, but in my mind, Lekha Dodi sums it up beautifully: last made, but first planned.
To throw some more interesting research into the mix, Dr. Jihae Shin from University of Wisconsin-Madison's business school and Katherine Milkman from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School demonstrate that the best plans we make should not include a plan B. "Simply contemplating backup plans makes you want to achieve the primary goals less, which makes you put less effort into it," claims Dr. Shin. This is true both for individuals and teams. They conclude that it's best for two teams to come up with two different plans to tackle a problem or create a new strategy than for one team to create a plan A and a plan B. It seems that the moment you conceive that your optimal plan might not work, you are, in some small way, resigning yourself to something less than your best.
Creating a plan B may make us feel appropriately thoughtful, cautious and prepared for every circumstance. What this new research suggests is that such thinking can also undermine the achievement of a bigger dream, preparing us mentally to succumb to something more mediocre than our first, best idea just simply by the act of acknowledging another way to get something done.
Reading the reports of this study made me consider about our own creation narrative. There was no plan B. Maybe it's easy to achieve plan A if you're God. Mortal beings don't stand a chance. Or perhaps a more subtle view of the first chapters of Genesis has God evaluating and re-thinking creation once the world is up and running. In other words, rather than create a plan B, God tweaked the universe after plan A, tinkering and tinkering up to and including today.
Perhaps we will sing Lekha Dodi with a little more introspection, allowing the beautiful lyrics and melody to pose the question: what is the design thinking that guides my life, the goal or goals to which all of my efforts are ultimately directed? If we identify that end goal - our plan A - we might work towards it differently.
Shabbat Shalom

Jewish Year in Review 2016

Guide me in Your truth and teach me…
— Psalms 25:5

It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. Telling is the Oxford English Dictionary’s pick for word of the year: post-truth. Until it was chosen, I had no idea that this was actually a word. Here’s how our smart friends on the other side of the pond defined it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oy, I say.
Of course, the United States presidential election dominated the news day after day in 2016. There were certainly many Jewish stories to emerge from this political whirlwind, but, if you’re feeling like me right now, you’d rather think about something else, something perhaps more interesting and inspiring than post-truth politics and nasty campaigning, something like this breaking 2016 fashion news from Women’s Wear Daily: Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, of Ovadia and Sons, spent two days scrutinizing the way both single and married men dress in a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem for their fall menswear collection. They sent models down the runway with black silk frocks with fabric buttons and tasseled belts. “The tonal looks and rich fabrics...lent a luxe feel to the collection.” Who knew?
And here’s what inspired me: the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of a number of remarkable MOTs (members of the tribe) who died in 2016 and who collectively helped shape the world as we know it. Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel died (July 2) leaving us the mandate to continue his voice of moral consciousness. Nobel Prize winner for literature, Hungarian author, Imre Kertesz died at the beginning of spring (March 31). Like Wiesel, he wrote powerfully about the Holocaust.
Speaking of Nobel Prizes, it’s been a good year for the Jews. Oliver Hart took the prize in economics and Michael Kosterlitz joined two others who were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on superconductors. Kosterlitz, whose major research is on endorphins at Aberdeen University, is the son of Hans Kosterlitz, a German-born biologist who left for Scotland in 1934 with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commended these winners for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter." Let me know if you have any idea what that means. This year’s controversial winner was musician and song-writer Bob Dylan or Shabtai Zisyl ben Avraham or Robert Allan Zimmerman. As we all know, he was too busy to get the prize. I just want the Noble Committee to know that if I get it, I will go to Oslo immediately.
Former president and prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, also died this year right before the High Holidays (September 28). An important link to Israel’s founding generation and the oldest person to serve as head of state, Peres was elected prime minister twice and served in twelve cabinets. Israel also lost Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad (March 17) who gave thirty years to military service.
On screen, we lost the beloved actor Gene Wilder (August 29) who entertained us as adults in “Blazing Saddles” and entertained us as kids in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Sitcom queen Doris Roberts also died (April 17). Called the Jewish Billy Graham, Esther Jungreis gave decades of her life to Jewish outreach before she died this past summer (August 23). This year, the oldest living Jewish woman died at 113. Goldie Steinberg, a Hadassah member and bubbie, died a month before turning 114 and said the secret of her longevity was a daily walk. Lesson learned. Let's put our sneakers on.
2016 was a banner year for another 113-year old. Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who was born in 1903, had to postpone his bar mitzvah for 100 years since, at thirteen, his mother had already been dead for three years and his father was serving in the Russian army at the beginning of WWI. Kristal was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. When Auschwitz was liberated, he weighed only 82 pounds. He had lost a wife and two children.  Kristal moved to Israel and began his life anew and now has 30 great-grandchildren. His daughter, Shulamith Kristal Kuperstoch told The New York Times: “My father is a religious man, and it was his dream his whole life to have a bar mitzvah. It was a miracle after everything he has been through in his life. What else can you call it?”  
Hanukah is a great time to think about miracles like this. Another miracle and aspiration for 2017 comes from our quote for the week: “Guide me in Your truth and teach me...” Sometimes we need to learn to tell the truth again so that next year’s word of the year will be “post-lies.”
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!


Books Everywhere

Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend and a book.
— Hai Gaon (939-1038)

You might not have caught this relatively short article tucked next to "Metropolitan Diary" in this week's New York Times. A woman named Barbara Rosten returned an overdue book to the Brooklyn Public Library. Ordinarily this would not make the papers except for this unusual fact: it was 57 years overdue. In 2013 a book was returned to the New York Public Library 36 years late, but Rosten may have the record. The book, you wonder? Gone with the Wind, a classic whose theme song in the movie version was the first dance at Rosten's wedding. The irony is that she kept the book longer than she kept the husband. She owed 5 cents a day for 20,842 days, but since she had the book long before computer cataloging, they didn't charge her. Instead, they are putting the book on display to remind others who use the library to bring back books on time.
The next book article of interest for this week appeared in The Wall Street Journal. At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, Dutch novelist Mano Bouzamour, a self-described book doctor, listened to life complaints in his pop-up clinic, pulled out a prescription pad and wrote down the name of a book he felt would ease his "patient's" suffering (naturally, he also recommends his own novel). Depressed or listless, this bibliotherapist can heal you with just the right book.
And then there was the book I finished this week: John Kaag's American Philosophy. It's really a memoir of his divorce and new life, an intellectual version of Wild or Eat, Pray, Love. Depressed and questioning the meaning of his life, he is saved by the discovery of a magnificent library belonging to the philosopher William Ernest Hocking on his New Hampshire estate, West Wind. The library contains rare classics in philosophy and poetry growing moldy and insect-ridden due to neglect. Kaag sets a goal of cataloging this library and preserving the rare books and, in saving them, he manages to rescue himself.
It's a shame the Hocking family had not read Judah ibn Tibbon's letter about books to his only son, Samuel. Books were extremely expensive in the medieval period, some worth as much as an expensive car or house, a rare book librarian once shared with me. In the 12th century, Ibn Tibbon had invested in a library for his son and wrote an ethical will about the care of this library: "Cover your bookcases with rugs and linens of fine quality," he recommends. "Preserve them from dampness and mice and injury, for it is your books that are your true treasure." He also gave a piece of advice that would have benefited the Brooklyn Public Library, "Never refuse to lend books to anyone who cannot afford to purchase them, but lend books only to those who can be trusted to return them."
We've all been there, Mr. ibn Tibbon.
Ibn Tibbon had professional reasons to give his son this advice. The ibn Tibbon family had two family businesses: medicine and translation. Books were critical reference tools and needed to stay in the family for their beauty and their utility. It's amazing then that Judah ibn Tibbon recommended great generosity in lending out books. Perhaps, in this way, he was like our Dutch novelist, the book doctor. Generally, when you love something, you don't want to share it. But when it comes to books, true book lovers cannot wait to share because they know the gift that a good book is. It offers escape, companionship, adventure, knowledge, new ideas and new landscapes. It allows us mental and emotional travels without asking us to pack our bags and go anywhere.  
Another medieval Jewish scholar, R. Judah of Regensburg and author of Sefer Hasidim, the Book of Piety, advises that if you have two children - one who likes books and the second who does not - leave your library to the second, even if he is the younger of the two. The first child who likes to read will always find books. He will seek them out. The challenge is to make a reader out of the second child, and gifting that child with an entire library may just help in that endeavor. To understand just how much R. Judah loved books, he advised that they should be placed in "stately array near the dead, so that the souls of the righteous may in death study, as they did on earth." Once a reader, always a reader.
Every year at this season, there is book news everywhere: lists of the past year's most notable books, books that make great presents and books to read on a cold winter's night in front of the fire with hot chocolate. For us, inheritors of a tradition of scholarship, every season is the right season for books. And now that we are nearing the close of 2016, we might take a little advice from current and old book news. Return books you owe. Catalog and preserve the books you have. And augment someone's library to grow their love of books.
Happy Reading, Happy Hanukah and Shabbat Shalom.


God, the Lord, made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
— Genesis 3:21

Forget about Brexit. The big news in the UK is that England’s prime minister, Theresa May gave an interview a few weeks ago in The Sunday Times Magazine in London wearing designer leather trousers that cost $1,250 dollars. Despite the fact that she spoke openly about her childhood and the difficult decisions facing her as a leader now, her constituents heard one thing: the price tag. Not surprisingly, the Twitter universe lit up with criticism. How dare she dress in such expensive clothes at a time of Britain’s austerity, warm in her leather trousers, while some have no money to heat their homes.

Never mind that many English male politicians dress in Saville Row suits that cost thousands of pounds or that America’s president-elect Trump favors Brioni suits, which I am told can sell for as much as $17,000. The focus on a woman’s leadership so often turns to looks. Criticisms flow about hair and clothing, weight and presence that seem to target female leaders much more often than their male counterparts. The storm in a British teacup has been called “Trousergate.” Personally, I’m getting tired of all these old and new gates: Monicagate, Camillagate, Riogate, Bloodgate and most recently, Pizzagate. It’s time for a new term.

On the other side of the pond, Ivanka Trump has been raked over the coals for selling a brand of soft feminism in her clothing line and then not saying a word when accusations flew about her father’s treatment of women. Again in the Twitter universe, there are opponents who started a campaign asking women not to support her brand. Yet clothing she wore in major political speeches on the campaign trial were then advertised on her website to instant success. She became her own billboard for advertising. The brand is growing by leaps and bounds. Not coincidentally, the leather trousers May wore are already sold out.

With all this clothing gossip, it’s not hard to understand why in Hebrew the word for clothing “beged” is the same root as the word for traitor “boged.” Clothing conceals and reveals, and therefore it involves a lot of decisions about how we present ourselves to the world. It gets to the heart of personal identity.

Our first clothes, according to the Hebrew Bible, were skins that God made for Adam and Eve. They grabbed leaves for covering the nakedness they suddenly experienced after eating from a mysterious tree that gave them knowledge. Many believe this story is a metaphor for the discovery of sexual knowledge that made them both self-conscious in the presence of each other. And this, too, reveals something about the ideal state of humanity and the real curse these primordial beings received. Virtually every time we get dressed, we engage in questions about who we are based on how we look. Who are we trying to impress? Have we dressed appropriately for the occasion or activity? Are we dressing to stand out or fade into the background? What psychic pleasure it must have been to have none of this nonsense upon which to perseverate.

Dr. Norman Cohen in Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing and Identity writes, “The symbolic power of clothing, both in terms of what it hides as well as what it reveals, has everything to do with identity and how we perceive it.” He goes on to cite a beautiful piece of the Zohar, a medieval kabbalistic commentary on the Pentateuch. The Torah itself is described as a bride with many layers of clothing that hide her innermost beauty. The Zohar warns about just seeing the external layer and believing that the outer garment is all there is. “Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When…fools see someone in a good-looking garment, they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! So it is with Torah…This body is clothed in garments: stories of this world.”

To impart its wisdom, the Torah is robed in beautiful stories. According to the Zohar, “All those words, all those stories are mere garments.” They draw us in with their curb appeal. The fool sees only this literary covering, the amusement or drama each story offers. The wise reader understands that such stories, like garments, conceal and reveal themselves to those who have deep curiosity. In the peeling away of meaning, life lessons emerge as our finest teachers.

Many of the current political discussions involving clothing actually mask prejudices, gender biases and profound anxieties about leadership in general and specific leaders in particular. Like the Torah that clothes itself in external layers that invite curiosity, should we be uncovering what these conversations are really about, hiding as they do behind petty barbs.

Instead, perhaps we can turn to Job who made virtue and justice his clothing: “I put on righteousness, and it clothes me. My justice was like a robe and a turban” [29:14]. Dress in piety and you’ll always be dressed for true success. 

Shabbat Shalom