Wednesday, August 29, 2012


After much contemplation, I have decided to end this blog. Without getting into personal details, it is simply time to move on. Perhaps the day will come when I can transition the idea behind this blog into something else, but that is beside the point. Jewish unity will indeed occur, and it will be orchestrated by God - not man.

Look through the history of the Jewish people (especially Israel) and there is a simple conclusion that can be drawn: God is orchestrating events. Even when it's difficult to understand certain events, we can still control our reaction to them. In fact, Jewish tradition has it that the Final Redemption will occur when we realize that we can only rely on God. If we but take our incredible history to heart, it shouldn't be all that difficult to come to that conclusion.

I would like to thank all of my readers, Facebook followers and those who have linked to the blog. I sincerely appreciate your readership and feedback over the years. I learned a lot from you. And if you got anything from my posts, I hope it was this: in the end, it's all about God and goodness. Everything else is commentary - even those areas that some Jews tend to place above all others, such as politics or ritual observance. God cares about the way we treat one another more than anything else. Sooner or later, we'll figure that out.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Key to Life

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to mend;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace." - (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

This passage is one of the most famous and poetic in all of Tanach. Yet, there is an obvious inference that needs to be more closely followed: don't take anything to an extreme; there is a place for different types of behavior depending upon the circumstances. If we were meant to engage only in certain character traits all of the time, this passage wouldn't have been written. Hence, it's letting us know that there needs to be a balance. Given the appropriate time and place, even dreaded aspects of life such as hatred and war can be necessary.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the key to life is moderation. In all sorts of areas, striving for the middle road is usually the way to go. From health to politics to character, staying away from extremes can help improve not only an individual's life but also civilization as a whole. Despite the fact that most people acknowledge the indispensability of moderation, few people seem to focus on actually achieving it. Instead, there is a tendency for people to simply label those with whom they disagree as "extremist," even when the person making the charge is guilty of having taken some action too far.

The Rambam teaches that we should strive for shvil hazahav, a golden mean. He states, "The right way is the mean in every one of a person's character traits" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development 1:4). However, there is one exception: correcting a bad trait. In such an instance, a person should temporarily go to the opposite extreme. For example, if someone gossips habitually, they should not say a bad word about anyone for a sustained period of time. By engaging in this process, they should be able to make their way back to the mean. The logic of the Rambam's approach has been explained by commentators with an analogy: if a bamboo cane is bent in one direction and needs to be straightened, simply holding the cane straight will not help; it must be bent in the opposite direction until it bounces back to the middle.

Take any concept - even something generally regarded as good - to an unthinkable extreme and the result can be quite problematic. Giving too much of one's income to charity is as unreasonable as giving too little of it to charity; refusing to engage in necessary war is as irresponsible as seeking out unnecessary war; loving everyone (including evil people) all of the time is as absurd as never loving anyone any of the time; the list goes on and on. This conclusion can be drawn by simply using logic and common sense. Yet, there's a reason why people tend to drift to one extreme or another: it's easier than having to think through issues and act accordingly.

Whether religious or secular, liberal or conservative, man or woman, people have a tendency to feel a sense of purity above others by drifting to an extreme. However, this will neither lead to more interpersonal decency nor a better world. Ironically, the way to combat extremes isn't by maintaining the opposite extreme, but by striving for moderation. Even the Rambam's advice for correcting a bad trait is only meant to be done temporarily. Just as people seek to alleviate themselves from excessive temperatures, we should seek to alleviate ourselves from behavioral excesses. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, there is no substitute for moderation.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

Regardless of our current circumstances, we can always choose to be happy. However, it is much easier to fall into unhappiness. Human nature compels us to focus on all that we lack instead of all that we have. This can become a very significant problem - especially when it starts to consume a person's thoughts. So what is one to do? Dennis Prager addresses this issue through the use of a simple equation:

This idea can also be applied to the way we each envision Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people. Perhaps there are some Jews who are too religious or secular for our taste, but they have raised good families. Or perhaps there are some Jews who are too politically active for our taste, but they are charitable within the community. Fellow Jews - and other aspects of Jewish life - aren't always going to live up to our personal expectations. The question is whether we focus on the unrealistic image we have created or celebrate all the good that exists within the current reality.

Trying to maintain a positive attitude will help us not only become better people but also make it easier to deal with each other. Think about it for a moment; is it fair for others to have to deal with a miserable person? Interpersonal behavior is much simpler when the individual on the other end isn't busy complaining about all the things missing in their life. A good attitude goes a long way. Someone can seemingly have everything and be terribly unhappy, while someone else can seemingly have nothing and be quite happy. As the truism goes:

"The city of happiness is in the state of mind."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Standards vs. Compassion

In life, there is often a conflict between upholding standards and showing compassion. As a result, there are those who almost always side with the societal standard and those who almost always side with compassion for the individual. This begs the question: what does Judaism believe? Oddly enough, the answer is both. As will be explained below, these two values are not mutually exclusive.

One of the hot-button topics in our culture today are GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) issues, such as same-sex marriage. Jews who support these causes often point to the fact that Judaism teaches compassion. However, Judaism also teaches that sexuality should be channeled into heterosexual marriage. The Torah wants to preserve male-female distinctions and the traditional family unit. Nevertheless, this does not mean that sexual minorities should be treated indecently. Nowhere in the Torah are homosexuals called "an abomination" - only the act of male-male intercourse is labeled as such. These individuals are created in the image of God and should be treated well.

Another area of difficulty for many Jews is faith in God and ritual observance. As much as monotheism is at the heart of Judaism, not every Jew has an easy time with it. Perhaps they lived through the horrors of the Holocaust or simply have philosophical problems with the concept. Similarly, many Jews have trouble with ritual observance. Does this mean that we should either disregard our rituals or force others into observing them? Of course not. There is a famous story told of a man who approached the Baal Shem Tov with a dilemma: "My son has drifted far away from Judaism. He leads an utterly dissolute life. What should I do?" The sage simply responded: "Love him more."

It can be easy to misunderstand the verse about rebuking a fellow Jew: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and do not bear a sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17). One might think that this verse implies rebuking someone whenever they do something wrong. However, the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) teaches that a person should only do so if the rebuke will be accepted. Furthermore, a person must not do so if their instruction will not be accepted. Our Sages teach that this is why the last part of the verse states "and do not bear a sin because of him." We must never publicly humiliate the individual and/or alienate them even further from Judaism.

Whether it be same-sex marriage, ritual observance or other areas of contention, just because individual Jews may hold a certain view, it doesn't necessarily reflect the Jewish view. Nevertheless, we have to be compassionate toward those who have trouble living up to the Torah's standards. After all, virtually everyone struggles with some aspect of these ideals. Standards are extremely important, but they must always be coupled with compassion for the individual.

As Jews, we have to constantly weigh our personal feelings against our time-tested values. It's not always easy - especially during these modern times in which we live. However, Judaism is not as harsh as some people make it out to be. All one has to do is look up what Hillel or Rabbi Akiva articulated as the primary principle of the Torah (i.e. the Golden Rule). Although intra-Jewish disputes over controversial issues threaten to tear us apart, we can always stick together through good interpersonal behavior.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

We Are One

Jews have never found it easy to accept each other. Whether Ashkenaz or Sephard, religious or secular, liberal or conservative, Jews of all stripes have had a difficult time tolerating those with whom they differ. Of course, this isn't unique to Jews. Human nature compels members of any group to focus on all the differences that exist between one another. Nevertheless, a Jew is a Jew - regardless of the additional descriptive words. Although it sounds oxymoronic, the Jewish people are not a monolithic group and yet we are one. Go figure.

Given all the denominations of Judaism, political ideologies and ways of life that have developed over the years, intra-Jewish divisiveness has become rather easy. It's common for some Jews to engage in hateful depictions of Jewish groups with which they disagree: Reform and Conservative Jews against Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Jews against those who are more theologically liberal, Jews from certain countries against those of others, and so on. Obviously, there are substantive disagreements among the Jewish population, but those arguments must be disciplined and not turn into personal attacks.

There is an even greater degree of difficulty to control intra-Jewish divisiveness in Israel, where the differences are more striking and the problem is exacerbated. As Israel enters its 64th year of modern existence, one might think that the current condition of the country is drastically different from the Holy Land of long ago. However, not much has changed. As Herman Wouk eloquently points out in This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 263):

"A wholly religious state in ancient Israel did not exist. There were religious kings and irreligious kings; generals hostile to the faithful and generals kind to them; a part of the populace that held to the Mosaic law and a part that did not. . . . Visitors to Israel who profess deep shock because they see people smoking on the Sabbath have not been reading their Bible or their Jewish history. Israel is the place where, as we believe, the light of the Lord will someday blaze forth to fill not only the little land but the whole earth. It does not offer itself, at least in Jewish thought, as the place where the event has already occurred."

But just as the religious must be understanding of their non-observant brothers and sisters, the secular must also recognize that if not for our religious roots, there would be no Israel (or Jewish people, for that matter). Whether in Israel or the Diaspora, living among fellow Jews with whom we disagree may be among the most difficult tasks in life. Perhaps it will help to know that all of those seemingly irreconcilable differences are there for a reason.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides an important explanation of the verse "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Even parts of existence that appear to be bad are only viewed as such in isolation. In the grand scheme of things, not only are those parts good - they can even be very good. If we could only appreciate God's mastery of events, we would agree. This same principle can be applied to the Jewish people. Despite the fact that we may view certain Jews as either beneficial or detrimental to our people as a whole, they each play an important role in the total context of our existence.

As the adage goes, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." If we divide ourselves into different pieces, we aren't all that great. After all, every individual Jew - as well as every Jewish group - has strengths and weaknesses. However, when we put all the different pieces together, the result is quite impressive. There is an extraordinary synergy among the Jewish people, if we could just look beyond the separate fragments. In Judaism, oneness is a common theme: one God, one Land, one Torah, one People. Although there are legitimate disagreements over how we understand God, govern the Land, interpret the Torah, and view ourselves as a People, in the end, we are one.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Living Like the Angels

There is an interesting phrase recited every day during Shacharit which describes how the angels conduct their praise of God: "Notenim Reshut Zeh La'Zeh" - they grant permission to one another to serve God in their own unique way. During the angels' heavenly service, there is no room for conflict just because individual angels serve God differently. In fact, in order for the Heavens to function properly, each angel must be themselves. Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu contrasts this kind of behavior with that of human beings. Whereas people strive to outdo each other for selfish reasons, the angels encourage each other to utilize their abilities to serve God. As a result, there is peace and harmony.

Despite the fact that human beings have free will and angels do not, we can still learn a great deal from their behavior. Like the angels, it's important to acknowledge that there is more than one way to serve God. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, teacher or rabbi, businessman or stay-at-home mom, there is a place for all of us among the Jewish people. For example, each one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel carried out different tasks. Some engaged in commerce or working the fields, others in religious study, and yet others in military or temple service - and all were essential to the survival of the nation as a whole. Quite frankly, we're not all supposed to be doing the same kind of work or serving God the exact same way.

The Chofetz Chaim was once approached by a successful businessman who decided to scale down his business so that he could dedicate himself to Torah study. The Chofetz Chaim explained why his decision was wrong by way of a parable. During wartime, if a soldier unilaterally decides to leave his current post to fight in a different capacity, he will be court-martialed. A soldier must obey orders and man the position to which he was assigned. The Chofetz Chaim went on to say that this businessman's responsibility was to support Jewish institutions and the poor. If he decided to go through with ending his business success, he would be jeopardizing the position God gave him within the Jewish community.

We have to give fellow Jews the space to become the individuals God intended them to be. Otherwise, we will be contributing to unnecessary tension and divisiveness. Our mission in life can't be to turn everyone into replicas of ourselves. Trying to influence others through the battlefield of ideas is one thing; forcing others to abide by our personal ways is another. If you want to be something, go for it - just don't force it upon someone else. Remember, those differences ultimately constitute the entirety of our people. Our strength can be found via our uniqueness as individuals.

In the final analysis, interpersonal conduct is a two-way street. We always want others to be understanding of us, but that same courtesy must be granted to others. As long as someone is not objectively evil (i.e. their actions deliberately harm other people), we must do our best to let them be. Obviously, it's difficult to tolerate all the differences that exist between Jews and fulfill the concept of "Notenim Reshut Zeh La'Zeh," but there's a compelling reason to do so. When we act a bit more like the angels, we create a slice of Heaven here on Earth.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Iran vs. Israel (and the World)

Well, we were told this was going to happen. In Rashi's opening comments on the first verse of the Torah, he quotes Rabbi Yitzchak, who asks a simple question: since the Torah is primarily a book of laws for the Jewish people, why does it begin with the creation of the world instead of the first commandment given to the Jews? He answers that the Torah opens with the narrative of creation to establish God as the ultimate authority of the universe. In the future, when the nations of the world accuse Israel of stealing their land from other nations, they can respond that the entire universe belongs to God and He can grant it to whomever He deems fit.

Interestingly, the same Rabbi Yitzchak comments on the year of the Messianic revelation (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah #499). He states that Persia (i.e. present-day Iran) will become the fear of the entire world. There will be provocations and deliberations back and forth between the threatened nations. Then, the King of Persia (i.e. the leader of Iran) will destroy the entire world. (Exactly what this means is not yet known.) Everyone - including Israel - will not know what to do. However, we are told that there is nothing to fear because this will all culminate with the Final Redemption. And this time around, the redemption will be followed by eternal peace.

It appears as though Rabbi Yitzchak's most famous passages were letting us know that there would come a time in which the prevailing themes would be of delegitimizing Israel and a worldwide threat from Iran. Sound familiar? If that's not happening now, it sure seems like it. Given the seriousness of such a prophecy, some Jews might get caught up in the fact that we aren't as righteous as previous generations. How can we possibly overcome our weaknesses and have God save us from these troubling times? There is a powerful scene from Moneyball - a baseball movie based on a true story - which provides an important lesson:

The "secret home run" metaphor is quite compelling. Sometimes people get so caught up in failure that they aren't able to recognize success. In this instance, if we simply show concern for fellow Jews (whether through prayer, moral support, or just overall good behavior), we're going to be fine. Focusing on all the things we lack will thwart our perspective. In other words, we might hit a home run and not even realize it. Still, some people might wonder: is Jewish unity really considered significant on the Heavenly scales?

Our Sages explain a troubling difference between the reigns of King David and King Ahab. While David is generally regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, Ahab is described in very harsh terms because of his rogue monarch. Yet, when these two kings ever went to war, David's army would suffer significant casualties, while Ahab's army was always victorious with very few casualties. What reason could possibly be given for such a distinction? Although Ahab's reign was marred with condemnation, the people were still united and cooperative. And despite the fact that David's reign was largely praiseworthy, the people were nevertheless filled with hatred and division.

The lesson to be drawn from this is obvious. As long as unity and cooperation are the exception rather than the rule, we are vulnerable. But when we are united with fellow Jews, nothing can harm us. Especially in perilous times, never underestimate the power of unity. During each of Israel's wars of survival, individual Jews figured out a way to overcome their differences for the sake of the Jewish people. Whether it was the War of Independence, Six-Day War or Yom Kippur War, we came together purely for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Religious and political differences were irrelevant. Personal gripes and grudges were cast aside. We can do it again.

The details of how Rabbi Yitzchak's predictions will play out are unknown at this time. As with all prophetic passages, we'll only understand what the author meant after the events have occurred. However, we are assured that God does everything for a reason, and that in the end, it will all make sense. Thus, whatever happens - and whenever it happens - it will be good.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ethical Monotheism

The Torah portion that directly follows the reading of the Ten Commandments is Mishpatim, which deals primarily with civil and tort law. This juxtaposition of divine revelation with ethics is very significant. While some people regard religion as merely a matter of faith and ritual, the Torah tells us otherwise. In Judaism, ethical behavior is not some sort of extracurricular activity - it is an essential element of who we are (the other element being faith in the one God who decides right and wrong). Respecting another's person, property and reputation are more than just nice things to do - they are central to living a Godly life. In other words, Judaism is not just about monotheism - it is about ethical monotheism.

This idea is best articulated by Hillel in a famous Talmudic passage. Responding to a potential convert, Hillel declares: "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." (Shabbat 31a). Not only does Hillel mention a basic ethical principle as a summary of the whole Torah, he goes further to state that the rest is merely a commentary on how to lead a Jewish life. This doesn't mean that spiritual matters aren't significant; it simply means that everything starts with basic ethics. Belief in God is important, but equally important is understanding that God's main concern is good interpersonal conduct.

A little further down the same page of the Talmud, there is another interesting piece of information. The Sages articulate the questions asked by the Heavenly Court after someone dies. Not coincidentally, the first question is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" Once again, God's most desired aspect of human activity is revealed: ethical behavior. Confining God to spiritual matters does both He and religion a great disservice. In fact, one rabbinic source puts it this way: "One who deals honestly in business, and whose fellow men are pleased with his conduct, is considered as if he fulfilled the entire Torah" (Mechilta on Exodus 15:26).

The Prophets echo the same line of thought. Isaiah states that "Zion will be redeemed through justice" (Isaiah 1:27) - not through faith or ritual or any other quality generally associated with God. Doing what is right, especially with regard to interpersonal matters, is what will eventually lead us to the Final Redemption and peace on earth. The rebuke of the Prophets is almost exclusively limited to ethical offenses. From Amos to Jeremiah to Micah, the common theme is that God is most concerned with how His children treat each other.

If we take this focus on God-based ethics to heart, Jewish unity will become more realistic. It's no wonder that when we start drifting away from God's primary demand of interpersonal decency, we also start drifting away from each other. After all, each individual will start deciding for themselves what is most important in life, and the answers will all be different. For some, it may be faith or ritual observance; for others, it may be politics or the arts. However, if we simply hearken back to our roots, there is a foundation upon which we can rely to fix our national problems. It dates all the way back to Abraham and can be summed up in just two words: ethical monotheism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who is Wise?

"Who is wise? One who learns from every person."
- Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)

Throughout the existence of the Jewish people, we have long been enamored with intelligence. Just look at the disproportionate amount of Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. However, intelligence by itself is not a supreme value; it can be used for either good or evil. Thus, the Talmud tells us, "The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds" (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we're not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn't amount to much at all. Furthermore, Ben Zoma's excerpt from Pirkei Avot alludes to the fact that while a person's intellectual capacity is innately limited, wisdom can be attained by anyone. A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.

A person who genuinely values wisdom will seek to attain it wherever it can be found, regardless of the source. Although some people go out of their way to avoid learning from someone with whom they disagree, this will not lead to wisdom. Notice how Ben Zoma states, "One who learns from every person"; he does not mention any particular type of person. Even when dealing with people who are wrong or evil, at the very least, we can always learn what not to do. We should never limit our pursuit of knowledge to only those who are liberal or conservative, or religious or secular, or even only fellow Jews, but rather we should aim to learn from all kinds of people.

A recent example can be found in none other than Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. It seems as though everyone has been talking about this guy, for better or for worse. Even has published an article about what we can learn from Tebow. Regardless of whether one happens to be a sports fan, there is much to learn from this public figure, such as humility, decency and gratitude to God. And we can do so in spite of his flawed theology. Opportunities abound to gain knowledge from people of all walks of life, famous or not. We can take advantage of those opportunities by trying to implement their positive character traits into our own lives.

Perhaps this simple principle of learning from all types of people can remind us that there is infinite value in every human being. Each individual is uniquely created by God and possesses some type of quality from which we can learn. If this is the case for everyone, including non-Jews, how much more so should we learn from - and be good to - each other. Nitpicking all the personal differences we have with fellow Jews is not wise and can easily lead to indecent treatment of those individuals. As the verse from Tehillim states, "Reishit Chochmah Yirat Hashem" - wisdom begins with the fear of God (Psalms 111:10). And what is the primary demand of this all-powerful God (as articulated by Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, among others)? To act decently toward one another.