Thursday, December 30, 2010

Unity - Not Uniformity

As 2010 comes to an end and 2011 begins, there is an important question that continues to linger for Jews all around the world. Yet, the people who have the answer to this question remain the same - you and me. Here is how Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International, articulates the question:



As mentioned in the video, is it possible for Jews to be unified without being uniform? With all the different denominations of Judaism that have developed, and with all the inevitable changes that go along with modernity, can we remain a unified people without having the more uniform ways of generations past? If the posts on this blog reflect anything, it is that my answer is a definitive yes. But more Jews need to embrace this dilemma and work on a practical solution.

One way or another, I believe we are the generation that will ultimately solve this problem. As deep as some of our differences are, we will either muster up the moral courage to recognize all Jews as equal members of the same tribe, or circumstances will develop in which we will be forced to come to that conclusion. We are a unique blend of people unlike any other that has ever existed. If we don't remind ourselves of this, someone outside of Jewish circles will.

Although ritual observance is extremely significant, one's level of observance does not determine Jewishness.

Although political affiliation is extremely significant, one's political ideology does not determine Jewishness.

Although clothing is extremely significant, one's way of dress does not determine Jewishness.

These are just a sampling of differences often used to cause division among our people. The beauty of Judaism is that we can have different takes on the important issues of life and not be disbanded. It is our common past, present and future that unite us as much as anything. We have it within our power to display the significance of this common bond through decent behavior and good deeds.

Remember, it was an interpersonal dilemma that exiled us; it will be an interpersonal fix that redeems us. With God's help and sincere human efforts, we can succeed. To paraphrase former President John F. Kennedy: "We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." It should go without saying that improving intra-Jewish relations will be difficult, but that is precisely why succeeding in this venture will be so rewarding.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Statement on Civility

An American Jewish organization recently decided to form a statement on civility. It was designed to combat the vileness often found during political and religious dialogue within the Jewish community. While you may not agree with other positions the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) has taken on certain issues, it should still be refreshing to see that fellow Jews are making a sincere attempt to address this unfortunate problem. Here is the JCPA statement (if you or your organization wish to sign the petition, click here):

"In American society, especially in our diverse Jewish community, we value robust and vigorous debate about pressing issues. Such debate is one of the greatest features of our democracy and one of the hallmarks of our people. We revel in our tradition of debate: A frank and civil exchange of ideas helps to inform our decisions, provoke new ways of thinking, and sometimes even change our minds.

And yet today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges. Such incivility serves no purpose but to cheapen our democracy. When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened. People holding diverse views cease to listen to each other. Lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.

Therefore we as a community and as individuals, must pledge to uphold the basic norms of civil discussion and debate at our public events. We do this not to stifle free expression of views, but rather to protect it.

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

This pursuit has deep roots in Torah and in our community’s traditions. Our Sages saw the fruit of arguments that were conducted l’shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven." They fervently believed that great minds, engaged in earnest search and questioning, could find better and richer solutions to the problems they faced. They refrained from insisting on uniformity. They sought to preserve and thereby honor the views of the minority as well as the majority. They did so through their understanding of the great teaching of Eilu v’elu divrei Elokim chayim, "both these words and those are the words of the living God."

As a community, we must commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people.

We therefore agree to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.

We commit ourselves to this course to preserve an essential element of a community – the ability to meet and talk as brothers and sisters."

In addition to this pledge, there was a conference held to discuss the issue (to view a video of the conference, click here). As some of the contributors mentioned, a single statement, conference or educational program is not actually going to solve the problem. However, the fact that many Jews are willing to admit that they have either engaged in or been the victim of incivility when expressing their personal views is a great start. More importantly, these same people have shown a willingness to do something about it.

In my opinion, the main reason a lack of civility continues to proliferate among the Jewish community is because of a lack of prioritized values. Consequently, I think the answer to this problem is simple to understand, just not easy to achieve: be clear but courteous. In other words, stand by your convictions while following the Golden Rule. It's called "golden" for a reason; it's of value to both the person who follows it and the person on the receiving end. In this way, those who engage in ad hominem attacks will naturally become marginalized over time, while those who engage in respectful disagreement will naturally become admired over time.

Exchanging views with someone opposite us on the ideological spectrum doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience - unless we want it to be. As Jews, we have a long list of priorities. But if our tradition and common sense tell us anything, it is that civility must be right at the top.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jacob's Message for the Future

As Jacob's life was coming to an end, he wished to confer divine blessings for success unto each of his twelve sons. This episode is recorded in Genesis 49:1-2, where it states:

"And Jacob called unto his sons and said, 'Gather yourselves together, and I will tell you that which will befall you in the End of Days. Assemble yourselves, and hear, O sons of Jacob, and hearken to Israel your father.'"

Notice how Jacob emphasizes two things: there is a need for everyone to gather together, and they should listen closely to what he has to say. All of this precedes the actual giving of the blessings. In other words, Jacob was hinting to the fact that the prerequisite for receiving the blessings was unity. First they had to come together as a family, and only then could he give each individual a blessing tailored to their place among the Jewish people. What followed were descriptions of how each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel assumed a unique role. 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.

We must do our best to overcome the inclination to force others into living their lives exactly as we'd like them to. Whether we think that all Jews should pursue postgraduate study and enter a medical or law career, or pursue religious study and enter the rabbinate, or any other path - one way of life does not fit all, and Jacob was alluding to this. In addition, we can derive from his words that while each one of us serves as a unique individual among the Jewish people, we must conduct ourselves as a larger family. We should never disregard others just because of their different approaches to life. In fact, it is precisely because of our differences that this formula works.

This brings to mind a related lesson. The chelbonah (galbanum) was a spice with a foul odor that was included in the Temple's incense service. In the absence of this spice, the entire mixture was rendered invalid. Although one would think that only pleasant-smelling spices would create the best mixture, when the chelbonah was mixed together with all the other fragrances, it produced a beautiful aroma. Our Sages note that this is to teach us that even Jews who do not engage in righteous behavior are an integral part of the Jewish people. Every single Jew - no matter how great or how lacking in deeds - is important in the eyes of God.

From an historic perspective, it appears as though we are living in the End of Days, a time in which the world will eventually change for the better. The only way to get to the desired destination of a better world is by heeding Jacob's call. The message behind his blessings is as relevant today as it ever was. We are each individually unique by design and are asked to use our God-given talents for good. But when all is said and done, it must go along with good treatment of fellow Jews. Whether we like it or not, we're one family charged with bringing God-based goodness to the world. In a veiled way, Jacob was letting us know how to succeed in our divine mission.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Don't Miss the Forest for the Trees

The recent forest fire in northern Israel brought to mind a saying that can provide perspective to many different areas of life: "Don't miss the forest for the trees." In other words, don't get so caught up in the details of something that you miss the big picture. Just to be clear, this blog post has nothing to do with trying to figure out why God allowed the fire to occur; it just happens to be that it reminded me of this saying. In fact, this adage might bode well for those searching for answers. While it's understandable to desire divine explanations for tragedies, there are more pressing matters at the moment. For the sake of those who were killed (including Rabbi Uriel Malka, who had strong ties to Denver) or otherwise affected by the fire, our primary concern should be with helping them and their families.

Unfortunately, what often happens in religious life is that ritual observance can go awry. To counter such a phenomenon, Hillel provides probably the most succinct analysis of what Judaism is all about when he said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study" (Shabbat 31a). This was not merely a sweet line to divert attention away from the more difficult aspects of Judaism. He was expressing that Judaism's ethical laws are actually foremost in significance. Ethical behavior is not an extracurricular activity; it is God's primary demand. Obviously, this is not to say that we shouldn't be holy as well. It simply means that unless we're good to other people first, our holy activities (i.e. ritual observance) will lack the proper perspective.

Of course, we are supposed to do mitzvot simply because God commanded us to do so - regardless of any human understanding for why. But this shouldn't undermine an ethical mindset. For example, take one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah: kashrut. Aside from its intrinsic spiritual value, kashrut is designed to keep us together. For instance, if someone happens to be traveling to a city where there is a small Jewish community and is looking for a kosher place to eat, they are compelled to contact fellow Jews who might be able to accommodate their visit. This should foster a sense of goodwill and brotherhood. Instead, what sometimes occurs is an intense inquiry into every technical detail of the host's level of kashrut, which can completely humiliate the people trying to meet the needs of the visitor. Sadly, there are those who are more concerned with the food that goes into their mouths than the words that come out of their mouths.

Whenever something becomes an end in itself rather than a means to goodness, unfortunate consequences can arise. Hopefully, Jews who are ritually observant understand that these prescribed laws exist to enhance the lives of those who follow them. However, there are times when it's easy to get caught up in all the details of living a religious life that one's concern for other people takes a back seat. That is why it is so beneficial to hearken back to the Golden Rule articulated by Hillel. As long as we maintain a keen awareness of the highest ethical standard God wants from us, we can still each follow our own ritual customs and not have them adversely affect our interpersonal conduct.

To maintain this perspective, whenever there is a conflict between technical differences and overall goodness, it might help to remember seven simple words: "Don't miss the forest for the trees."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's a Blessing to Have Flaws

One of the blessings made after eating certain foods or drinks is Borei Nefashot. Here's an English translation of the blessing:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of numerous living things with their deficiencies, for all that You have created to sustain every living being. Blessed is He, the life of the universe.

Why is it that we bless God for creating us with deficiencies? The Chofetz Chaim provides an instructive answer. He explains that God intentionally created us with certain strengths - as well as certain weaknesses - because we are supposed to be interdependent. Otherwise, we'd be automatons and have no need for other people. In such a scenario, life would be virtually meaningless. Therefore, we bless God that we aren't perfect. Furthermore, by helping other people with the talents God gave us, and by allowing others to help us with the talents God gave them, we sustain the world.

Although the Torah speaks of the greatness of its most famous figures, it also goes out of its way to note their flaws. Why? Our Sages explain that it is to teach us that we too can be good without being perfect. From Rachel's jealousy of her sister who had children to Moses' moment of anger at striking the rock, instances of flaws in character are often mentioned so that we can learn how to control our own jealousy and anger, for example. Obviously, the flaws of our biblical heroes were minor compared to our negative character traits, but such things are mentioned for our benefit.

The Torah wants us to be able to take away practical advice on how we can improve ourselves. If the Torah and its commentaries were only records of how perfect our ancestors were, we wouldn't be able to learn anything tangible from it. As a side note, this lends credence to the authenticity of the Torah. It often speaks of its most beloved people with all their weaknesses. You would think that it would go out of its way to overlook such flaws. But if the Torah did so, it would not serve as an instruction manual for life, and its lessons would be totally unrelateable.

This brings to mind a good sports analogy. While there are many fans who like to see their teams' most talented players return as coaches, this can often be counterproductive. Some of the best coaches weren't great stars during their playing days, and this is precisely why they can be so helpful to struggling players. If they had too much natural talent, they couldn't relate to a player who was struggling in a certain aspect of their game; they would simply expect too much from them. Therefore, coaches who were average players are usually better for younger athletes who need guidance, because they had to overcome similar obstacles.

There's a Talmudic dictum which states, "if you try to grasp everything, you will grasp nothing" (Rosh Hashanah 4b). In other words, if you aim for perfection, you will be disappointed. None of us can be perfect, but all of us can be good. Luckily, goodness is what God desires. So, despite all your imperfections, be the best you that you can possibly be. Don't get overwhelmed when you inevitably do something wrong, because you can overcome the error and still achieve greatness. Who knows - maybe one day you'll be able to help someone else correct a flaw in their character because you had to deal with the same problem.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Never Forget

It has now been two years since radical Islamists committed a senseless massacre in Mumbai, India. In addition to the locations where they wounded and killed hundreds of innocent people, these terrorists made it a point to attack a nearby Chabad house. Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Rivka Holtzberg (who was pregnant at the time), Rabbi Bentzion Kruman, Yocheved Orpaz, Norma Shvartzblat Rabinovich and Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum were all murdered. The reason? Because they were Jewish. The terrorists were told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times more than those of regular "infidels." Whether it's Nazi persecution from 1938 or Islamic terrorism from 2008, we must never forget what happened.

At full disclosure, I'm not Lubavitch and have some serious problems with the messianic elements of the movement. However, when I saw news of the attacks two Thanksgivings ago, my thoughts focused on how the victims were my (and all our) brothers and sisters - not on my personal disagreements with Lubavitchers. The people of that Chabad house were kind individuals who sought to help fellow Jews in a troubled part of the world. While my philosophical differences would continue, I realized that those differences weren't all that important in the scheme of things. I don't think it had to take such a horrific event to come to this realization, but it inevitably had that effect.

Luckily, not everything that happened during the attacks was evil. In the midst of the hell that had been created by the terrorists, a hero emerged in the form of a nanny named Sandra Samuel. She went out of her way to save Moshe Holtzberg, the orphaned son of Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg. In interviews that followed, Samuel expressed how it bothered her that she couldn't have saved more of the victims. An amazing woman like this demonstrates how important it is to judge people by their actions - not whether they are religious or secular, or even Jewish, for that matter. It also shows that even in the darkest hours we can find amazing light. Recently, Samuel received great news: she was awarded permanent resident status and honorary Israeli citizenship.

Whether it's Daniel Pearl or Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg or any other Jewish victim in recent memory, they were all targeted based on their Jewishness - regardless of any description that came before the word "Jew" (e.g. liberal, conservative, orthodox, reform, or any other term you wish to insert). If our enemies can figure this out, it's about time we all recognize the significance of our fellow Jews, no matter our personal disagreements. Although it's difficult to swallow our denominational and political pride from time to time, it's better that we do so in life than be forced to admit our lack of priorities in death. We can still rigorously debate issues that are important to us; we just can't allow our differences in thought or lifestyle to lead to indecent treatment of those with whom we disagree.

In the merit of preventing ourselves from harming fellow Jews, may God prevent attacks from those who wish to harm us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rachel - Gracious in Life and Death

When we think of famous biblical figures, the people who typically come to mind are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, to name a few. While all of these men are incredibly important to the Jewish people (and the rest of the world, for that matter), there is one person whose significance is often overlooked: Rachel. This Jewish matriarch rivals even the most important biblical figures because of the graciousness with which she treated other people - even when it came at great personal cost.

Rachel was loved by Jacob, who devoted seven years of physical labor in order to gain her hand in marriage. But her father, Laban, had a plan that would deceive him into marrying her older sister, Leah. Figuring that Laban would do this, Jacob and Rachel developed a secret signal before the wedding. On the night of the ceremony, the bride was veiled and Jacob didn't realize that Leah had been substituted for Rachel. In a moment that would change the course of the rest of her life, Rachel decided to give over the signal in order not to humiliate her sister. This meant that she would basically be forfeiting her own destiny in the process.

The lessons we can learn from Rachel are invaluable. Among them, we should always show concern for family members (i.e. fellow Jews), as well as be careful not to embarrass another person. While we are never required to do that which is beyond our abilities, we must always make a sincere effort to protect the dignity of other people. For example, if we accidentally fail to greet someone at a gathering - and they take it as a deliberate embarrassment - the onus is on them to give us the benefit of the doubt. However, if we go out of our way to defame someone in public, the onus is on us to ask them for forgiveness and cease engaging in such behavior.

Even in death, Rachel's graciousness continued. There is a famous Midrash on Jeremiah 31:14-16 that speaks of her high stature. Upon seeing the Jews' suffering after the destruction of the First Holy Temple, all the major biblical heroes came before God and pleaded for it to stop - but to no avail. Then, Rachel approached God and cried out that He show mercy to His people on account of her interpersonal behavior. God was moved by her plea and went on to promise that the exile would eventually end and the Jews would return to their land. For this reason, Rachel was buried at a location that Jews would pass during their travels into exile; they could let out their cries, and she would be able to pray to God on their behalf.

Incidentally, a United Nations cultural organization recently declared Rachel's Tomb a mosque. Although it is commonplace for anti-Semitic groups to claim that Jews have no ties to Israel, historical evidence prevents them from gaining any serious credibility. Therefore, they often resort to revisionism, which much of the world is all too willing to accept. During these trying times, let's treat one another in a manner of which Rachel would be proud, and perhaps she will intercede with God once again. In particular, make sure never to intentionally humiliate another human being. Rachel gave up her entire destiny to avoid embarrassing someone else. All we have to do is give up some of our ego.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Greatest Among Us

In honor of Veterans Day, I would like to express my gratitude to all the brave men and women who have served in the American armed forces. From the mandatory military service of years ago to the volunteer army of today, extraordinary heroes have been produced. It is only because of these people who are willing to put their lives on the line that the rest of us are able to enjoy all the freedoms this country has to offer.

Since it can be difficult to express true appreciation through words alone, I recently came across a touching song that might do a little better. It's called Note to the Unknown Soldier by Five For Fighting:


Along this theme, there is a great story told of Rabbi Aryeh Levine. A man named Elazar Cohen was the commander in charge of the Israeli army's helicopter squad. During wartime, his job was to fly directly into hostile enemy fire in order to rescue wounded soldiers. Cohen once came to the greatest sage of the time, Rabbi Levine, and asked for a blessing. To Cohen's shock, Rabbi Levine refused. He then asked, "But why?" Rabbi Levine responded, "Who am I to bless you? I truly believe that your merit in Heaven is greater than mine."

We should always keep in mind that the very term for Jew in Hebrew, Yehudi, is derived from the word meaning "one who thanks." So, as both a proud American and Jew, it's only fitting to be grateful for all our veterans and their families. Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You are truly the greatest among us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Middle East Problem

With all the evil going on in the world today, it's truly amazing to witness the inordinate amount of scrutiny placed upon a tiny, decent and democratic state called Israel. From graduate programs and think tanks to media reports and biased resolutions at the United Nations, major efforts are dedicated to analyzing the lack of peace in the Middle East. This might lead one to believe that the conflict between Israel and her neighbors is difficult to explain. But this is not so. Here's a great video that clarifies the root of the problem:



As mentioned in the video, it's actually quite easy to describe the Middle East problem. It's only difficult to solve it. A similar case can be made when it comes to the most significant problem going on within the Jewish world today: intramural hatred. Once again, it's pretty easy to describe the problem. It's just difficult to solve it.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) provides explanations for why both the First and Second Temple eras resulted in destruction. The first exile was due to widespread idol worship, sexual immorality and murder. However, the second exile (which continues to this day) came as a result of sinat chinam. For a more detailed discussion of this vice, click here. As mentioned in that previous post, sinat chinam is much deeper than some generic dislike of other people. It has to do with hating fellow Jews for who they are.

There could actually be Middle East peace if Israel's enemies would simply recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Similarly, there could actually be peace between Jews if we would simply recognize the legitimacy of each other's place among the Jewish people. Obviously, it's difficult to envision either of these scenarios coming to fruition. However, there's an important difference: in the first scenario, the onus is on our enemies; in the second scenario, the onus is on us. In other words, good interpersonal conduct is always within our power. The rest, of course, is in the hands of God.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Professor Calls for Israel's Destruction

Kaukab Siddique believes the Holocaust was a hoax and that Muslims must rise up to destroy Israel. If this sounds familiar, it's because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has echoed the same sentiment (i.e. deny the first Holocaust while preparing a second). This kind of rhetoric reflects much of what is heard in radical Islamic circles, but what makes this case particularly troubling is that Siddique is a tenured professor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While the university is trying to distance itself from his comments, school administrators claim that they can't do anything about it because he has tenure. They also claim that he has every right to say such things outside of campus. I don't know about them, but controversial speech is one thing and the outright advocation of violence is another. Judge for yourself by watching the full video of his speech during the "Al Quds Day" rally in Washington, DC:



Among other things, he calls on Muslims to fight against Zionism (i.e. Jews, and anyone else who supports Israel). He also talks about sending Israelis back to where they came from. But they mostly came from countries that either persecuted or killed them! In other words, he's calling for the Final Solution. At least towards the end of the video, he kind of gets one thing right: unity is important. However, our unity cannot consist of forcing other Jews to live exactly as we'd like them to; it must always begin by treating one another with dignity. If you ever have the inclination to label Jews with whom you disagree as "enemies," it might help to remember people like this professor. We must focus our efforts on fighting real enemies instead of easily labeling our ideological opponents as such.

This can serve as yet another reminder that if we don't improve intra-Jewish relations under our own volition, circumstances will inevitably develop in which we are forced to recognize that even Jews with whom we don't get along are still our fellow Jews. History keeps repeating itself - the Holocaust, Israel's wars of survival, the recent barrage of radical Islamic terrorist attacks - in every instance, our enemies did not discriminate between different types of Jews, so why on earth do we go out of our way to separate each other (unless the rift is based on objective ethical grounds)? Furthermore, why should we wait for some horrific event to occur before acting upon this message? If we had the same amount of fervor caring for all types of Jews as our enemies have for exterminating us, we would be in much better shape.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Faith, Unity, and Survival

People often use faith and unity as inspirational slogans, but in the case of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, faith and unity actually sustained them. For 69 difficult days, these men not only had to find a source of hope but also a way to deal with one another. They soon figured out that all they had was God and each other, and they made the best of it. Although all the facts of how they survived have yet to be revealed, the youngest of the trapped miners, Jimmy Sanchez, provided an insight into their mindset. In a letter sent up through one of the narrow tubes that served as lifelines before they were rescued, he wrote: "There are actually 34 of us, because God has never left us down here."

As an interesting side note, the gematria (numerical equivalent in Hebrew) of ‘לב א (one heart) is 33 - the same as the number of men who were trapped in the mine. Perhaps this can serve as a subtle reminder that when a group of people are able to achieve unity, miraculous events can happen. By working together from deep beneath the earth's surface and having faith in God that they would eventually get out, they beat the odds and survived. Of course, there have been other mining accidents that did not have a happy ending, but that only makes this story even more exceptional. It was an "uplifting" event in every sense of the word:



We, as Jews, are not literally stuck in a hole, but we often put ourselves in a metaphorical one when we don't treat fellow Jews decently. Yet, we can dig ourselves out of it by following a similar approach. Firstly, we'll only improve our predicament when we're able to deal with each other's differences on a consistent basis. Secondly, since good interpersonal conduct is almost impossible to fully master, it will be of infinite benefit to believe that God will help us along the way. By having unconditional faith in God (which can be difficult) and working together as a unique blend of individuals (which is arguably even more difficult), greatness is possible. Once these criteria are met, we will become a people of one heart - just like the Chilean miners.

In other words: trust in God, be good to others, and amazing things will happen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Are You a Political or Religious Ideologue?

With midterm elections approaching in the United States, it's a good time to address one of the biggest impediments to improved interpersonal conduct: the belief that someone's political affiliation and/or religious denomination determines whether they are good or bad.

The majority of Jews are liberal, but a distinct minority are conservative. By the same token, the majority of Jews are secular, but a distinct minority are religious (and for some people, their political affiliation has become their religion). These facts are welcomed by some and considered unfortunate by others. Nevertheless, the most significant question is: do we generally judge each other by our actions or ideology? The answer to this question will determine whether we are rigid ideologues or just regular people with a certain political and religious bent. There are good and bad people of all mainstream political parties, and there are good and bad people of all denominations of Judaism. The moment we judge others solely on whether they have a (D) or (R) next to their name, or if they follow Jewish rituals the same way we do, we have allowed ideology to trump behavior.

If you happen to be engaged in a discussion with someone opposite you on the political or religious spectrum, limit your energy to the topic and never engage in personal attacks (which usually reveals a lack of sound arguments anyway). While all good people should be aggressively fighting objective evil, it's quite possible for two equally decent people to fight for different philosophies on the battlefield of ideas. There is nothing wrong with each of us having our own political opinions and ritual customs, as long as they don't lead us to abandon our most fundamental ethical concern: good interpersonal conduct.

An ugly manifestation of both politics and religion occurs when people start judging motives instead of actions. We can't come to the point where if my "team" does something, it's well-intentioned and good, and if your "team" does something, it's ill-intentioned and bad. The results of such an outlook are awful. And this leads to another important point: if we demean our ideological opponents, they will naturally want to defend themselves personally, but if we give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are just as pure as our own, they are forced to confront their views. So if you believe that a fellow Jew's political or religious ideas are out of whack, engage in a courteous discussion of the issues - not a demeaning back-and-forth of personal attacks. Otherwise, the debate is meaningless and it's best to avoid confrontation altogether.

Concerning political ideologues, there is an important lesson taught in Pirkei Avot (2:3) about those who run government: "Beware of rulers (i.e. politicians), for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need." If we place too much trust in politicians - even if we happen to agree with them on certain issues - we will ultimately be disappointed. As the famous saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Politicians typically have only one thing in mind: getting re-elected. Therefore, most of them will do whatever it takes to be on the side of what is most popular (or what sounds good in theory, but ends up being disastrous in practice) just so that they can remain in power.

Concerning religious ideologues, there is an instructive story told of the Baal Shem Tov. He was once traveling on the road when he went into a wooden area to recite the afternoon prayer. His disciples were shocked to see him hitting his head against a tree, screaming and crying. Afterwards, they asked him what had happened. He explained that he had seen, with Divine Inspiration, that in the time before the Final Redemption, there would be a multitude of rabbis - and that they would be the ones who would impede the redemption. How is this possible? When rabbis stop following basic ethical guidelines and instead become technical ritualistic adherents. In other words, don't become like those who believe that everyone has to think and live the exact same way. Rise above such an inclination and allow for differences in thought and lifestyle, all while following the basic ethical precepts outlined by the Torah.

It's too bad that we can't determine whether someone is good or bad solely by how liberal or conservative they are, or by how religious or secular they are. It would make life so much easier. But people are much more complex than that. As a result, the only true measure of a person's goodness is overall behavior (something that is often very difficult to know). Vote how you wish and follow a denomination of Judaism that makes sense to you, but never assume that those who vote and observe Judaism differently have bad intentions. Human beings can judge actions, but motives are known to God alone.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Corruption = Destruction

Unfortunately, corruption is everywhere. It seems like almost every day there is some politician or religious leader facing such charges. But why exactly is this caliber of crime so evil?

The generation of Noah was filled with what the Torah calls (ironically) Chamas, which is generally translated as violence or corruption. Rashi comments that it specifically refers to theft. This was the straw that broke the camel's back for Noah's generation and why the destructive flood ensued. Nevertheless, it's easy to overlook all the different forms of stealing. For example, the prohibition against theft in the Ten Commandments actually refers to kidnapping. Other forms of robbery include stealing someone's money or property or trust or time - the list goes on - until the ramifications of thievery lead to the worst form of stealing: murder (i.e. robbing another person of their life). In other words, theft is always the final vice that undoes a society because it leads to a lack of respect for other human beings - something that neither God nor civilization can tolerate for very long.

When someone steals from another person, they have taken more than just some physical item - they have also deprived that person of dignity. Just recall your emotions if you have ever been robbed; you probably felt violated and humiliated. Beyond the material damage the criminal has inflicted, they have also caused humiliation to another human being, which Judaism regards as an extremely serious offense comparable to murder. Thus, it becomes easier to understand why the root of a society's downfall is always corruption. Once people have no regard for others and that which belongs to others, society ceases to function.

Another case in point is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People falsely attribute their sexual practices as the primary cause of their destruction, but what actually put them over the edge was greed. God is willing to put up with a lot of human frailty, but once people show absolutely no concern for those around them, a civilization forfeits its right to exist. While it's true that we see a lot of corruption in the world today, it doesn't automatically mean the world is going to be destroyed. The ultimate test for a society is not the evil that is done within it (there are always going to be bad apples), but rather how society reacts to that evil. If it's not considered a big deal, we're in big trouble. But as long as it's regarded as ethically wrong, we'll be alright.

Typically, the first Talmudic lesson taught to Jewish children is from tractate Nezikin, which deals with damages, because we want them to understand the importance of preserving other people's property and, in effect, dignity. Still, the best lessons come from our earliest leaders. For example, Abraham attained rightful ownership of a burying place for Sarah by paying an enormous sum, and Moses kept a detailed record of everything that was donated for the Tabernacle. Contrary to the anti-Semitic stereotype, being dishonest with money is antithetical to Jewish values. Furthermore, if someone has engaged in theft, they must return the stolen item (or pay its monetary value) in order to achieve full repentance. In a larger sense, by restoring the material item, the thief is also restoring honor to the victim, and ultimately restoring God-based ethics to society.

One last piece of information should put this all into perspective. According to the Sages, the first question asked of a person after they die is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" The answer to this question reveals more about a person's character than perhaps anything else. If someone is honest in how they make a living, is generous with what God has given them, and does not take that which God has given to someone else, they are operating their lives along the most fundamental ethical principle: treating others how they would like to be treated. Since this value is the foundation of our existence, staying far away from corruption will also keep us far away from destruction.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hillel - 2,000 Years Later

If you could choose only one Jewish figure - past or present - to articulate our values for both the Jewish people and the rest of the world, who would it be? While there are many great choices, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better person than Hillel the Elder. And there is a very compelling reason why: his perspective was second to none.

In perhaps the most famous story in all of Jewish literature, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates an incident that occurred between a non-Jew and the two great sages of the time, Hillel and Shammai. The man first approached Shammai with a strange request, saying, "Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you will teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot." Shammai forced the man away with a building rod. The man then approached Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study." The man accepted Hillel's response and converted.

Notice the stark contrast between how we generally regard conversion today and what Hillel did back then. Also notice which aspect of Judaism he chose as the foundation of our existence. Hillel focused on bein adam la'chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) - not bein adam la'makom (the relationship between man and God). In other words, he was explaining that everything in life is predicated upon the ethical - not the ritual. Remember, this is coming from the wisest man of his generation, a man who was deeply concerned about Judaism's ritual laws, a man who had enormous faith in God, a man in whose merit a bat kol (heavenly voice) would even come down to proclaim his teachings as correct! Nevertheless, Hillel's underlying philosophy was neither based upon strict faith nor technical legalisms.

To take this one step further, the Talmud states, "One should always be humble like Hillel and not a formalist like Shammai" (Shabbat 30b). Unfortunately, this does not appear to have taken hold. Although we are supposed to follow the more inclusive, ethical ways of Hillel, why is it that we so often give in to the more exclusive, legalistic ways of Shammai? For example, there are often religious Jews who have trouble dealing with a family member who went off the derech (stopped being religious). At times, some think it is prudent to completely disassociate with that person. This could only occur as a result of a more Shammai-like approach, because I don't believe Hillel would ever consider doing such a thing. Although it is incredibly difficult for an Orthodox family to deal with a child or sibling who is no longer observant, it's not the end of the world. As long as that person remains ethical, they're still connected to the faith.

Unfortunately, the term "religious" has come to denote only one's level of ritual observance. But this is terribly misleading. As important as it is to keep laws such as Shabbat and kashrut, it is even more important to act ethically and decently towards other people. Perhaps it was Hillel's personal experiences prior to becoming a Torah scholar that made him understand the significance of interpersonal behavior. Or maybe it was his keen knowledge of the spirit of halacha rather than the letter of the law that compelled him to form unique ideas. Whatever the case, his actions resulted in increasing goodness in the world - something that cannot be said of those for whom ritual observance is the be all and end all.

It is believed that Hillel passed away in 10 CE (3771 on the Jewish calendar). Thus, this year would be his 2,000th yahrzeit, and a good time to recall his philosophical approach to Judaism and life. Unlike many of today's leaders, Hillel did not merely engage in clever sound bites - he actually lived according to his statements. Not only did he have a profound influence on those who sought his counsel, he also showed others how to improve their character by practically applying the values he espoused into everyday life. While there is so much to learn from a sage like Hillel, it's best to start with his most basic piece of advice: the Golden Rule. As long as our highest value is treating other people decently, we're on the right track.

The world needed Hillel's wisdom in the 1st century.

We need his wisdom even more in the 21st century.

(For more on this topic, there is a great new book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin titled, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is There Any Hope for Humanity?

Reading the daily news headlines can easily lead a person to hopelessness. The economy remains in shambles, a large segment of the world is at war with the West, and there is a genocidal regime on the precipice of becoming a nuclear power. It is almost as if the entire world is upside down. Just take the recent cover of Time Magazine, for example. As their leading story, they invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes in claiming that Israelis don't care about peace. To add insult to injury, world leaders have decided yet again to impose the "peace process" on Israel (i.e. guaranteed outbursts of violence by those who will never recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state). So what exactly is there left to hope for? Well, in both the macro and micro realms of life, there actually are better days ahead - as long as we rely on God and not world leaders.

First, let's deal with a macro example. We just commemorated the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While 9/11 served as a tragic wake up call for the United States to be more proactive when it comes to radical Islamic terrorism, Osama bin Laden has yet to be killed or captured. This might lead one to believe that there may never be justice served for the thousands of innocent people whose blood he has on his hands. But this will not be so. There was a Torah Code found about 9/11 that might be letting us know that there is indeed hope for the future. In it, bin Laden is named as the agent of destruction and Mashiach (Messiah) as the one who will take revenge. Exactly what this revenge entails, who Mashiach is, and when this will take place is not yet known. However, these two men are more than just individuals - they represent life vs. death and good vs. evil. Perhaps God is providing us with a preview of coming attractions, hinting that evil will have its comeuppance and goodness will reign on earth.

Now, let's consider a micro example. All of us have to deal with people in our day to day lives. Some of these individuals are friendly, while others drive us nuts. Yet, even if you get along with someone, you will eventually be disappointed if you overly trust in them. Unfortunately, human nature is fickle and unreliable. However, you will always have peace-of-mind if you trust in God. As two very instructive verses state: "Cursed is the man that trusts in man" (Jeremiah 17:5); "Blessed is the man that trusts in God" (Jeremiah 17:7). Especially during the High Holidays, it's important to remember that God is the ultimate just and merciful being, and He judges us the way we judge other people. If we generally give others the benefit of the doubt, God will do the same for us. Thus, while it's extremely important to be kind toward other people, our hope and trust should only be in God.

Properly-placed hope is a key element in becoming a good person, as well as a way of producing more optimism in a world that easily creates pessimism:


Being more optimistic will also help in the goal of Jewish unity. If we simply write this off as a dream that can't be realized, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we each focus on improving our own interpersonal conduct, it might just happen after all.

And with regard to combating hopelessness due to all of today's problems, take solace from four of the greatest words in the English language:

This too shall pass.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Honoring Jewish Victims of Terrorism

Unfortunately, it often takes death to clarify what is most important in life. All the terrorist attacks committed against Jews in recent years, particularly in the past decade, have bore witness to this statement. From Israel to virtually every other country where Jews live, radical Islamists can't stand our existence and target us. It's peculiar that the Muslim-dominated countries of the world hate one another until they focus on their common enemy of Israel. By the same token, it's also strange that we can't seem to get our act together until we realize there are genocidal regimes that wish to destroy us. While it should never take some extreme predicament to unify us, this appears to be the only way for the message to get across.

Every time I hear about the most recent attack against Jews, such as the Hamas murder of four Israelis last week, I'm extremely saddened and angry. But I'm sick and tired of feeling that way. It's time to act. Aside from obviously supporting those who can militarily stop this evil, any one of us can do something: improve how we treat other Jews. Most of us didn't know these victims well enough to uncover all the different disagreements we would have had with them, but that doesn't amount to a hill of beans. They were our brothers and sisters who died Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of God's name). In their memory, we owe them something. This was nicely articulated by Devorah in a comment on an earlier post. When spelled in Hebrew, the word Hamas forms an acronym of the following words:

Chasidim
Mitnagdim
Ashkenazim
Sephardim

As she mentioned, if Jewish unity existed, there wouldn't be a need for groups like Hamas. Do we get it yet? We failed to achieve a greater degree of interpersonal decency while the victims of these terrorist attacks were still alive; we owe it to them to achieve some semblance of unity in their death. Obviously, this is extremely difficult because we all have significant disagreements with each other, whether they be personal, political, theological, or about anything else. However, we can overcome our inclination to act indecently toward those with whom we disagree - if we want to. Every time you have a serious problem with a fellow Jew, keep one of our Jewish martyrs in mind. It will put things into stark perspective.

Sadly, it appears as though God is using these terrorists as vehicles through which to create a stronger sense of brotherhood among the Jewish people. As we approach the High Holidays, a time during which we recite Avinu Malkeinu, we express that God is both our Father and King. However, God is only a proud "parent" when His "children" are good to one another. Maybe it will help to remember just how small and unique we really are:


While the video talks about love, what is actually necessary is figuring out a way to tolerate Jews who differ from us. Perhaps love will come naturally over time, but if it doesn't, don't worry. It's more important to act lovingly toward fellow Jews than to feel love toward fellow Jews. From the left-wing Jew living a completely secular life in Los Angeles to the right-wing Jew living a completely religious life in Jerusalem, we are one - whether we like it or not (and quite often, we do not). With all the evil that has been perpetrated against us in recent history, we must understand that we are all part of the same family in the eyes of God. If we fail to receive this message, there is a horrific reminder waiting for us in Iran.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Goes to Heaven?

According to Jewish tradition, who is guaranteed a place in Heaven?

The Orthodox?

No.

The Modern Orthodox?

No.

The Conservative?

No.

The Reform?

No.

How about those on the political Right or Left?

No.

So who exactly will go to Heaven?

Good Jews, and good non-Jews.

Heaven does not know of people based upon denomination or political party - it knows only of God's people, and goodness.

The opening to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states, "Kol Yisrael Yesh Lahem Cheilek La'olam Haba" - all Israel has a share in the World to Come. They base this teaching on the verse from Isaiah 60:21, which references the righteousness of the Jewish people. This is not because we are inherently better than non-Jews; it's only because of God's kindness. God judges all people by their actions, but has graced us with the assurance that we will be rewarded for being His representatives here on earth (as long as we don't engage in one of the extreme sins that causes us to lose that distinction). In addition, all decent and ethical non-Jews will go to Heaven. Our understanding of God is that He is a just and merciful Creator, who will rightly reward anyone for the good deeds they have accumulated during their lifetime.

Unfortunately, the Jewish concept of the afterlife is often misunderstood. In fact, there are many who actually think that Jews don't even believe in an afterlife. However, this is only because we do not overly concern ourselves with it. The next world is not our primary focus because we have so much to accomplish while still in this world. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that the ultimate test for human beings is ethical - not theological. To the best of my knowledge, Judaism is the only major religion which has always maintained that actions determine one's eternal destiny - not theology. It's all about behavior.

However, if all Jews are guaranteed a place in Heaven, what incentive is there to perform any good deeds? The Chofetz Chaim answers this by way of a parable. There was once a wealthy businessman in Russia named Yisrael Brodsky, who employed hundreds of people. He was also a philanthropist who supported many Torah institutions, as well as relatives and community members whose finances had taken a turn for the worse. All the people he supported received a monthly check. One day, Mr. Brodsky came to visit one of his factories. The managers showed him around and introduced him to many of the workers. When Mr. Brodsky approached one of the people (who happened to be a non-working relative) and asked what he did there, the man replied, "I take a check." Everyone broke into laughter. The Chofetz Chaim concluded that such will be the case in the World to Come. Any Jew who claims their share solely because they happened to be Jewish will suffer an eternal embarrassment.

While all Jews have a spot in Heaven, the level of that share is dependent upon what we achieve during our lifetimes. The greater the actions, the greater the reward. The primary message for all of us is to simply do what is right, and God can be trusted to reward us with exactly what we deserve when our time on earth is done. Another lesson is that if Heaven's standards find it unnecessary to distinguish between Jews, then why is it that we so easily separate each other based upon anything other than objective ethical concerns?

Ironically, we can rectify our mistreatment of fellow Jews by more closely following Heaven's guidelines here on earth.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Common Sense

There is a great story attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. A young man once came to him in order to receive semicha (rabbinical ordination). Since semicha is typically given after the applicant is tested on their knowledge of the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Rabbi Soloveitchik began by asking the student to name its five volumes. Figuring this was a trick question, the young man answered, "But there are only four volumes." The rabbi responded, "No. There is a fifth, unwritten volume. It's called seichel (common sense), and unless you know this volume, the other four volumes will not help you at all." The lesson he was teaching this young man can also be applied to anyone engaged in any other area of life: without common sense, a person can have a great deal of knowledge and still be a fool.

The Talmud (Tamid 32a) echoes this sentiment when it states, "Who is wise? One who foresees the consequences of his actions." This is not some sort of mystical explanation; it's actually quite logical. If we desire to become wise, we must understand the effects our actions will have on other people. Consequently, we should not follow the letter of the law if it will lead to the opposite of its intent. For example, the Torah states that it is forbidden to strike one's parents (Exodus 21:15), and it becomes a serious offense if blood is drawn. This might lead someone without common sense to believe that a child can never draw blood from a parent - even to save their life. However, Jewish law permits a child to cause a parent to bleed during a surgical procedure, for example. The Sages base their provision on the verse, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Just as you would want your parent to improve your health even though it involves drawing blood, you must do the same for them if the circumstances ever arise.

A different but related example comes by way of the controversial mosque and Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero. Obviously, the planners have the constitutional right to do so, but just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Or to put another way, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Often, the only way of deciding whether or not to engage in a specific action is by utilizing common sense. In this case, it would be best if those defending the site (many of whom may even have good intentions) would actually practice what they preach. They claim this proposed mosque is all about reconciliation and tolerance, but all they have caused is division among the American public and intolerance toward those who pose legitimate concerns. Thus, common sense would dictate that they back away from a plan that has already led to the opposite of its stated intent.

It's unfortunate that people tend to overlook the importance of common sense. Human beings desperately need it for their own sake as well as for the sake of others. As the term itself implies, if this character trait would be more common in people, there would be more sense in the world.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Cure Precedes the Sickness

Something big is on the horizon. At some point in the near future, someone with moral courage (presumably Israel or the United States) will have to do something. It might happen tomorrow or two years from now, but with every day that passes it becomes even more inevitable. A brutal, hostile and apocalyptically-led country is on the precipice of attaining a nuclear weapon. Iran has made it abundantly clear that they plan to attack Israel first, and then go after America and the rest of the world. While we should obviously support all those who are sincerely trying to stop Iran, there is another issue with which to concern ourselves.

In a prophetic but unclear message from our Sages, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) states that there will be a confrontation between Persia and Rome/Edom, which is understood in modern times as Iran and the West. There is disagreement as to how this confrontation will play out, but that is not what I want to focus on. The most striking thing about this prediction is that it is stated directly opposite Yoma 9b - where the Sages articulate that God allowed the Beit Hamikdash to be destroyed because of sinat chinam (for further analysis, click here). In my opinion, these two passages are connected, just like the pages on which they are written.

Iran's development of a nuclear bomb is an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. Similarly, sinat chinam has proven to be an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. From the end of the Temple era until this very day, intramural hatred has proven to be a problem so serious that it rivals even the destructiveness of anti-Semitic regimes.

Just as we have to pursue every possible means through which to stop Iran's nuclear threat, we also have to pursue every possible means through which to stop fellow Jews from engaging in unnecessary hatred and division. And just as we are taught that Iran will become a worldwide problem at the End of Days, so too will the Beit Hamikdash be rebuilt at the End of Days. (Just for clarification, this term does not mean the world is going to end; it simply means the world will enter a period of goodness, peace and knowledge of God.)

Perhaps if we correct our age-old problem of sinat chinam, God will take care of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons Himself. In other words, if we go out of our way to be good to one another, God will go out of His way to be good to us. In this instance, He could very well eliminate the Iranian nuclear plants via an earthquake or some other seemingly natural occurrence. In any event, what becomes clear is that God desires His children to act decently toward one another. In a strange but beautiful way, a situation seems to be developing in which we can only turn to God and each other. Take everything else away, and this is all we have left.

As the rabbinic dictum goes, the cure always precedes the sickness. However, it's up to us to discover the cure. In this case, I believe the problem is alluded to on Yoma 10a and the answer is alluded to on Yoma 9b. Of course, this is just a theory, but it appears to be a call to our generation: Take care of problems that are within your control (i.e. treat all fellow Jews decently) and God will take care of problems that are beyond your control (i.e. destroy all evil on earth).

If this is indeed the cure, it's time to implement it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are Humility and Self-Esteem Contradictory?

The Chofetz Chaim was once traveling by train to a Jewish community to give a lecture. A man sat down next to him during the trip and started a conversation. When the Chofetz Chaim asked where he was heading, the man replied, "I'm going into town to hear the Chofetz Chaim speak. He's the greatest tzaddik (righteous person) in the Jewish world today." Embarrassed by what he was hearing, the Chofetz Chaim told the man, "People exaggerate about his greatness. I know him very well and he's not that great." The man became infuriated by what he was hearing and slapped the Chofetz Chaim in the face. That night, the man was horrified when he came to the lecture and realized that the person he hit was actually the Chofetz Chaim. As soon as the lecture was over, the man pleaded for forgiveness. The Chofetz Chaim smiled and said, "There's no need for forgiveness - you were defending me. In fact, you taught me a great lesson: my whole life I've been teaching people not to defame others; now I've learned that it's also wrong to defame yourself."

Humility isn't just about acknowledging that which you are not, it's also about recognizing that which you are. Thus, Moses is described as the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3). Yet, he could have also been referred to as the most courageous or the most compassionate human being of all time. Why does the Torah go out of its way to only mention this characteristic? Given the above definition of humility, it becomes clear as to why this was the case. Moses was quite aware of his weaknesses (including having a speech impediment), but at the same time also understood that his strengths put him in the position to lead the Jewish people. A lesser person would have either failed to acknowledge their weaknesses, or worse yet, would have downplayed the strengths they did possess in order to avoid greater responsibility.

Here's a clip that sums up this issue very well:



As mentioned in the video, humility should never be confused with low self-esteem. Low self-esteem demoralizes people, while humility inspires people to better themselves. Therefore, the true opposite of humility isn't self-esteem but arrogance. Arrogance is the terrible character trait that convinces people they are God's gift to mankind, have all the answers, and don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. On the other extreme, humility is the character trait that allows us to recognize our weaknesses - as well as our strengths - and cultivates the realization that God created us with a certain set of skills for a reason. For some people, the simple acknowledgment of what they can't do humbles them. For others, knowing what they can do humbles them even more.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Comparing Yourself to Others

There is a famous story told about the great Chasidic leader, Rabbi Zusia. One day, he was all pale and fearful. "Rav Zusia, what's the matter? You look frightened!," his followers asked. "The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that will one day be asked about my life." His followers were puzzled. "Rav Zusia, you are so pious, scholarly and humble. What question would you possibly be afraid to answer?" Rabbi Zusia turned his gaze toward heaven and said, "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'" His followers persisted, "So what will they ask you?" Rabbi Zusia sighed, "And I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people to the Promised Land?'" Finally, one of the followers demanded, "So what will they ask you?" He replied, "They will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming' - they will ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you Zusia?'"

The moral of the story is obvious: God wants us to be ourselves. If we were supposed to be more like someone else, God would have created us with their personal qualities. Instead, He gave each of us a specific type of personality, along with a certain set of talents, that would enable us to fulfill our individual mission in life. Each one of us has everything we need to succeed in that particular mission, and whatever we don't have yet can be attained through hard work and dedication. Nobody is good at everything, but everybody is good at something. We should simply develop whatever skills we do have to the best of our ability, and not worry about what someone else is doing. If we truly inculcate this value, jealousy will slowly cease to exist.

Unfortunately, human nature makes us believe that the grass is greener on the other side. Perhaps we think that another person's marriage is better, or their physical appearance is more attractive, or they have a better financial situation, or are smarter than us - the list is endless! To ponder such things is a waste of time, not to mention a complete exercise in futility. There is another famous Chasidic tale which states that if everyone put their troubles into a hat - and had to choose between their own and those of others - everyone would choose the ones they already have. It's important to remember that all people have problems, whether physical, financial, interpersonal or otherwise. Consequently, if you think someone else's life is perfect, that only shows you don't really know them.

So how can we stop comparing ourselves to other people? Rashi's commentary on the words "U'vo Tidbakun" - "And to Him shall you cleave" (Deuteronomy 13:5) provides us with a possible answer. Rashi states that the only way a human being can cleave to God is by emulating His characteristics. Just as He performs kind deeds, so should we; just as He buries the dead (as in the case of Moses), so should we; and just as He visits the sick (as in the case of Abraham), so should we. In other words, our actions should only be compared to those of God - not other people. Because, ultimately, God only wants you to be [insert your name here].

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This Law Can Change Your Life

There are certain laws we all have to follow - such as paying taxes - that will not necessarily make us better people. However, there are other laws - when properly understood and implemented - that can change our lives. One of those laws is expressed in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b), which unfortunately is known by few and practiced by even fewer. It states:

"One is not allowed to ask a storekeeper the price of an item if he knows he will not purchase it."

I put the last part in bold to emphasize the point of this law. While there is nothing wrong with comparison shopping, there is everything wrong with stealing someone's time. In addition, we cannot falsely raise a person's hopes (in this particular case, those of a storekeeper or an employee working at a store). Keeping these two approaches in mind, there are many different ways to apply this law in everyday life. Here is a video that sums it up very well:



As mentioned in the video, beholding to the spirit of this law keeps a person ethical and honest. But above everything else, it builds character in an individual as well as goodwill between individuals. In a world filled with people who are unethical and dishonest, we need this law to be observed now more than ever. Contrary to those who like to rationalize that the ends always justify the means, our Sages teach us that the means matter significantly. Whether we are dealing with a clerk at a gas station or someone in our personal lives, we must always remember that they are human beings created in the image of God who deserve the same kind of courtesy we desire for ourselves.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Actions Matter More Than Thoughts

In our day and age, there is an underlying philosophy that feeling good is more important than actually doing good. In a similar vein, there are those who believe that thoughts and actions are equally significant. This couldn't be further from the truth. I recently stumbled upon a touching documentary called The Way We Get By, which beautifully illustrates why actions are much more important. Here's the trailer:



The film is about the Maine troop greeters - a group of senior citizens who gather every day at a local airport to thank American soldiers departing and returning from war. Even though some of these people had personal problems or doubts about the wars in which these soldiers were fighting, they still did the right thing by being there when the troops came home. These individuals understood that doing good (i.e. actions) must override personal objections (i.e. thoughts). If only more people would follow their example.

A passage we recite all the time illustrates this point in a different way. We say in the daily Shema, "v'lo taturu acharei l'vavchem v'acharei einechem" - "and you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch provides a very insightful understanding of this phrase. The cantillation mark on the words v'lo taturu is an azla geiresh, which literally means "to go and drive away." This teaches us that when evil thoughts "arrive," don't allow them to resonate, but rather "drive them away." In other words, we're not responsible for all the random thoughts going through our minds, but we are responsible for any bad behavior that comes as a result of dwelling on those thoughts.

A different but related lesson is taught by the nineteenth-century Chasidic rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. Given that Judaism is a monotheistic faith that frowns upon atheism, he was once asked why God would create human beings with the capacity to deny His existence. Rabbi Moshe Leib responded that people who have absolute faith might ignore a person in need of help and think, "God will surely take care of them, so I don't have to do anything." Therefore, it's important to have some people who instead think, "maybe there is no God, and only I can help them." Believing that God will help everyone with their problems is terrific, but not if we rely on such a thought to free ourselves from action.

As human beings in general, and as Jews in particular (after all, we're a very opinionated people), there are inevitably going to be times when bad thoughts about other people pass through our minds. As long as we quell those thoughts at the source and do not allow them to negatively influence our behavior, our interpersonal relationships can still thrive. When all is said and done, actions are what ultimately matter. Your private thoughts are between you and God, but your public actions are between you, God and everyone else.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How to Deal with People You Don't Like

If you don't particularly get along with a fellow Jew, you know what that shows? You're human.

But if you then feel entitled to treat that person like dirt, you know what that shows? You're indecent.

That's what we need to correct right now more than ever. You don't have to change your denomination of Judaism or your political affiliation in order to be a more decent Jew. You only need to engage in good behavior toward all the people in your life (this could obviously extend to non-Jews as well). It's not the end of the world if we disagree with one another, but if we therefore don't regard each other as equal human beings, it is the end of the world. In order for society to function, individuals have to maintain a certain decorum around those with whom they do not get along.

We don't necessarily have to go out of our way to hang around people we don't like. In fact, depending on the situation, it could exacerbate the problem. We just have to treat those people as decently as possible when we are around them (e.g. on the street, at a wedding, bar mitzvah, etc.). Prepare yourself for these situations and you will react much better. For instance, see to it that you acknowledge their existence and say hello - or if they say hello first, politely respond. If you happen to have an unresolved problem with them, you don't have to pretend like everything has been magically fixed - but if the issue comes up in conversation, simply state your case in a kind manner. Be clear but courteous.

Another possible situation that we may encounter is when our personal enemies need help. For example, if you are walking out of the grocery store and see two people who dropped their groceries - one person you get along with and the other person you do not - our Sages (Bava Metzia 32b) derive from Exodus 23:5 to help the person you don't like first. Notice how the Torah understands human nature - certain people will inevitably have trouble getting along with others. However, the Torah also teaches us how to deal with it - we must demonstrate that God-based goodness means more to us than personal vendettas.

The bottom line is this: while it may be natural to harbor less than pleasant feelings toward fellow Jews every once in a while, we cannot allow ourselves to act upon those feelings. Just because we personally don't get along with someone does not mean that they deserve to be treated poorly - or worse yet, embarrassed and humiliated. As long as we do our best to follow the Torah's basic code of interpersonal conduct, we'll be alright. God doesn't expect us to be perfect angels, but He does expect us to be good people.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Transforming Sadness Into Joy

It's enough already. We have experienced way too much sadness throughout our existence. It's time to truly transform Tisha B'Av from a day of mourning to a day of joy. And there's only one way to achieve such a lofty goal. We must learn from our troubled past in order to merit a promising future. That means hearkening back to the original incident that began our precipitous downfall, the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), and our current exile. As seems to be the case quite often in Judaism, it all began with food.

The Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) states that there were two men in Jerusalem, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. When a prestigious man made a great feast and invited all the leaders of Jerusalem, among them was his good friend Kamtza. However, the messenger made a mistake and inadvertently invited Bar Kamtza, who happened to be the host's enemy. When the host came and saw Bar Kamtza sitting there, he asked him why he was present. Bar Kamtza replied that he was invited, and since he was already there, he wished to remain so as not to be embarrassed. He even offered to pay for anything he ate or drank. The host refused. Then Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half the feast. The host refused again. Then Bar Kamtza offered to pay for the entire feast. And yet again, the host refused and ordered Bar Kamtza to be physically thrown out of the banquet hall.

Bar Kamtza thought to himself that since there were many Torah scholars present who remained quiet, they must have agreed with what had transpired. In disgust, he sent a message to the king that the Jews were rebelling against him. To show that he was telling the truth, Bar Kamtza told the king to send a sacrifice to the Beit Hamikdash (which was allowed) and see if they sacrifice it. So he sent a sacrifice through Bar Kamtza, but along the way Bar Kamtza made a small cut on the animal (which would disqualify it). When Bar Kamtza brought the sacrifice to the Sages, they said that even though the animal was blemished, it should nevertheless be sacrificed for the sake of peace with the Roman empire.

However, one Torah scholar named Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas dissented by arguing that people would think it was acceptable to offer a blemished sacrifice. Therefore, the Sages ruled that Bar Kamtza would have to be killed so that he could not report back to the government that the sacrifice was refused. But Rabbi Zechariah again dissented by arguing that people would think that anyone making a blemish on a sacrifice would be killed. After caving in to these misguided priorities, Roman attacks ensued. The rest is history. Many years later, Rabbi Yochanan said that because of the zealousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and we were exiled from our land.

In summary, what all started with one instance of indecent treatment toward a fellow Jew led to that person denouncing his people to the Roman emperor, which then led to poor rabbinic decisions (i.e. favoring technical legal details above common sense), which finally led to the destruction and exile. In order to undo this, we have to correct the problem at its source. The only way we can possibly merit the Final Redemption is by redeeming ourselves first. In other words, just as Jewish history reached its lowest point when hatred and dissension became ubiquitous, we will witness our greatest days when good behavior and common sense become ubiquitous.

Our Sages taught us that every generation in which the Beit Hamikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed. However, they are actually giving us a bit of motivation. Every time you have the opportunity to act indecently toward a fellow Jew and don't, you're literally contributing to the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash. God wants to redeem the world, but He needs us to do one thing, and it really isn't all that much to ask: become better people. Simply heed the words of Micah 6:8 - do what's right, be kind, and remain humble. Really, that's it. Let's get back to basics and correct this problem once and for all. When we succeed, Tisha B'av will be transformed from a day of commemorating our greatest tragedies to a day of celebrating our greatest triumphs.