Friday, February 26, 2010

When Hatred is Good

As a general rule, hatred is a terrible character trait. A person who hates someone else usually ends up doing more harm to themselves than to the object of their hatred. However, there is one notable exception: hating evil. On the Shabbat before Purim, we read Parshat Zachor, the Torah portion dealing with Amalek's sneak attack against the Jews during the Exodus from Egypt. We are commanded to remember their ambush, blot out their memory, and thus inspire hatred of them.

While hatred and destruction are usually the antithesis of Jewish values, a quick synopsis helps explain why it is imperative in this instance. Firstly, the Jews leaving Egypt posed no threat, since Amalekite land was not part of Israel. Secondly, they initiated their attack from behind, against the weakest, most vulnerable Jews. Thirdly, while Amalek feared people, they did not fear God - by virtue of not pursuing a frontal attack. Put all of this together and you have the epitome of evil. The civilized world will cease to exist if such people are tolerated.

From Amalek and Haman to Hitler and Ahmadinejad, we must do everything within our power to fight against their brutality, until there is God-given peace on earth. Although every terrorist may not be genealogically related to Amalek, their method of operation - sneak attacks targeting innocent civilians - represents the same spirit of evil. This is why we are commanded to remember such actions. Those who don't heed this historic implication are doomed to suffer from similar events.

Today's calls for Jewish annihilation should unite us as never before. While Jewish unity is difficult, it becomes easier when there is a common threat that does not discriminate between Right and Left, religious and secular. A comment on an earlier post brought up a great point: during the Six Day War in 1967, Jews worldwide worked together for the sake of Israel. This reminded me of the unity we had here in the United States for a short time following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, both in America and Israel, that kind of unity seems to be a distant memory. Will we have to wait for the next horrific event before we get our act together, or will we "remember what Amalek did to us" and work as one?

So as not to end on a sad note - after all, it's Adar and we're supposed to increase our happiness - I'll leave you with a great video. It's an advertisement by a beer company (quite apropos for Purim). It suggests one way to show our appreciation for American soldiers, members of the Israel Defense Forces, and anyone else fighting evil today:

God bless them all.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Judging Other People

One of the easiest things to do is pass judgment on other people. Especially in this day and age of advanced technology, with a quick snapshot or article here and there, it's very easy to judge others without knowing the whole story. Accurately judging a person is one of the most difficult things to do. It takes a great deal of time and research to objectively analyze another person's overall behavior. That's why most people take the easy way out and only judge what they see; too much effort is involved in doing otherwise. However, the only way to really know another person is to judge them by the totality of their actions.

There is a misnomer that we aren't allowed to judge people, but that isn't the case. As Jews, we are allowed to make moral judgments of behavior; we just aren't allowed to knit-pick at every little thing other people do. For example, if you know a fellow Jew who lies, cheats, steals, or hurts others in some way, you can - and should - call them out on it. However, if you simply disagree with how they dress, their denomination, outlook on life, or political affiliation, it doesn't necessarily mean they have bad character. We can disagree all we want on the issues of the day, but we must always uphold a high level of interpersonal decency.

A good thing to keep in mind is the principle stressed by Rabbi Akiva, Hillel, and many others - to treat others in a manner that reflects the way you would want to be treated. Before making a character judgment of another person, first think of whether or not it's a fair analysis and if you would want to be judged in the same way. As it says in Pirkei Avot (1:6), "havei dan et kal ha'adam l'kaf zechut" - judge everyone favorably (i.e. give them the benefit of the doubt). "Et kal ha'adam" literally means the whole person. We are only able to accurately judge someone when we know the totality of their character. We may only see the negative, when in reality, they do a lot of good deeds in private without our knowledge.

Nevertheless, we don't have to know every detail about each other's lives. In fact, unless you're dealing with your spouse or young children, it's usually best not to know every detail about someone else. As Chazal (our ancient sages) teach, we are judged in the Heavenly Court according to the way we judge other people here on earth. It's another instance of neged k'neged midah, measure for measure; it applies for good just as it does for bad. When we do our best to judge others favorably, we are actually helping ourselves in the process.

God is often depicted as a father who cares for His children. For example, we say on different occasions throughout the year, "Avinu Malkeinu" - God is both our father and king. Just as a parent doesn't take kindly to their kids being harassed, neither does God like it when we demean each other. As mentioned in a previous post, there is a tremendous lesson to be learned from the symbolism of Keruvim (Cherubim), which were mounted upon the Aron HaBrit, the Ark of the Covenant:

While each figure had its wings rising toward heaven - representing our relationship with God, the faces on each figure were looking at one another - representing our relationship with other people. The message is that while each one of us engages in our unique service of God, we must always remember to act decently toward others while they do the same. In addition, the Shechinah (God's presence) rested upon the Keruvim. If this doesn't show how important God regards our treatment of other people, I'm not sure what does. If we are ever to merit the return of the Shechinah, we must be good to each other. The two are inextricably linked.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

You Have to Love Yourself First

The commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" is generally - and correctly - understood as an injunction to act decently toward others. However, there is an implied command that is often overlooked: you have to love yourself. If someone suffers from low self-esteem, it's going to be virtually impossible for them to fulfill the "as yourself" part in a loving way. As a result, if positive self-image does not come naturally, we are obligated to cultivate a sense of personal likability. Just as God has a deep concern for how we treat other people, He also cares about how we treat ourselves.

It's not difficult to figure out why it is so imperative to love yourself first. For instance, are you more likely to exhibit positive character traits, such as patience and generosity, when you are feeling good or bad about yourself? The answer to this question concerns both you and those around you, because a better attitude toward ourselves generally translates into a better attitude toward others. On the flip side, when we are overly critical of ourselves, it becomes much easier to be overly critical of those around us. As Hillel states in Pirkei Avot, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" Before we can help others, we first have to help ourselves.

As Jews, we are called upon to be a "light unto the nations." The most effective way of illuminating the world is through good interpersonal behavior. Even with this high calling, we should be keenly aware that we're only human and can falter from time to time. How others treat us can affect how we view ourselves, which can then affect how we treat others; it's all interconnected. So in case your self-image has been adversely affected by certain people at home, work, or school, I found a few inspirational quotes that might lift your spirits. As mentioned above, when we love ourselves, our chances greatly improve at acting lovingly toward others.

On faith in God and self-image:

"It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels he is worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him."
- Abraham Lincoln

On being yourself despite what certain people think:

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
- Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss)

And on those inevitable comments that rub you the wrong way:

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
- Eleanor Roosevelt

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What the World Needs Now

If you were to ask different Jews what the world needs now more than anything else, you would probably get many different responses. The more religious will likely answer with something that relates to faith, religious study, or ritual observance. The more secular will likely answer with something having to do with love, college education, or concern for the environment. Although all of the above have their place, what I believe the world needs now more than anything else is good people. What is a good person, or more specifically, what does God want from us? The prophet Michah (Micah 6:8) sums it up concisely in one of the most instructive passages in Tanach:

"It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Here are the three requirements mentioned above, with some elaboration:

1) Justice - Michah focuses on doing what is right in terms of justice, but the letter of the law alone is not enough; there must also be mercy.

2) Kindness - ahavat chesed means more than being merciful by doing kind deeds; we must train ourselves to love doing acts of kindness.

3) Humility - if we are certain that God is always on our side, we can easily become arrogant and cruel; the lesson is not to look down upon others while striving to live righteously.

Life becomes complex when people confuse what is most important. However, Michah sums up God's demands in three basic attributes. These characteristics are simple, but not simplistic. They're said in such a way that anyone can understand, but not so narrowly as to diminish their meaning. In reality, we are being taught nothing new - these ideas are stressed throughout the Torah and other Jewish holy books. Michah just had the ability to hearken people back to the authentic qualities desired by God.

Notice how the verse states "Only" these three qualities. The prophets consistently affirm that while bein adam lamakom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, it is not as important as bein adam lachaveiro (the relationship between man and other people). In depicting the human ideal, Michah stresses the significance of interpersonal goodness - not faith, keeping kosher, or even observing the Sabbath. This doesn't mean we should drop any of those ritual practices; it simply means we need to get our ethical priorities straight.

We must stop considering peripheral qualities, such as wearing a black hat or keeping a strict level of kashrut, as proof of a Jew's religious commitment. If someone is devoid of justice, kindness, and humility, it is proof in and of itself they aren't truly religious. The irony, of course, is that if we focus on the ideal ethical qualities (how we treat one another), we will merit the opportunity to do the ideal ritual acts (at a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash). It's amazing how a single verse can provide us with unparalleled clarity and purpose. The prophets are Judaism's most direct messengers of God, and their messages are timeless. We would be wise to listen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

As One Person with One Heart

When the Torah describes the Jewish people's travels during the Exodus from Egypt, it uses terms such as "they journeyed" and "they arrived." However, something striking occurs once the Jews encamp at Mount Sinai. Shemot/Exodus 19:2 states, "Vayichan Sham Yisrael Neged HaHar" - "and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain," in the singular. In a famous passage, Rashi comments "K'Ish Echad B'Lev Echad" - "as one person (lit. man) with one heart." Unlike all the other encampments, which were filled with resentment and dissension, in this instance there was unity. Hence the name of this blog, Lev Echad. In order to achieve our national potential, we must be cooperative. Unity was not simply a prerequisite for receiving the Torah, it was the prerequisite. The Jewish people proved their worthiness of meriting this historic event by coming to Mount Sinai as a single unit.

In a play on words, Rabbi Nosson Adler takes this idea a step further. One of the epithets for the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is a mountain. For example, the Talmud states that when righteous people are judged in the future, the yetzer hara will appear as a mountain they overcame through hard work and self-restraint. The primary goal of the yetzer hara is to bring strife among the Jewish people. But at the time of the Revelation at Sinai, Jews stood in direct opposition to this inclination of interpersonal indecency; as the verse states, they were "opposite the mountain." Jews were united in purpose and spirit as never before - and arguably, we have never been that way since.

If we are ever to regain the kind of cohesiveness achieved thousands of years ago, we first have to understand what needs to be accomplished. Unity does not mean sameness. We don't have to be exactly alike in terms of dress, ritual observance or political ideology. While civilization is dependent upon the objective ethical principles of the Torah, we can't be self-centered and think that others must be exactly like us in the more subjective areas of life. Unity means togetherness despite differences. It denotes a harmony of related parts where there would usually be discord. In other words, everyone is able to maintain their uniqueness, and at the same time recognize the important roles other people play in God's grand scheme of events.

Just as the human body has different organs that serve specific functions, so too the Jewish people have different individuals who each serve a particular purpose to the nation as a whole. Some Jews spend their days studying religious texts and engaging in ritual observance, while others pursue science, law, math, art or business-related studies and professions. Despite these significant differences in lifestyle, never forget that without a single, beating heart (representing how we treat one another), the body cannot survive. So the next time you have trouble with a fellow Jew or group of Jews, keep this in mind. Our future literally depends on it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Please, Don't Complain

In Parshat Beshalach (last week's Torah portion), an unfortunate but instructive episode occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors started to complain to Moshe (Moses) over growing fears of a lack of food and water. Even after all the miracles God performed for the Jewish people during the process of redemption, they had the gall to complain to their leaders about something which would be provided. In response, Moshe and Aaron excoriated the people for their behavior and explained that the object of their impertinence was not them - mere human beings, but God - their Provider and Redeemer.

This episode reveals a behavioral tendency that occurs when there is a lack of faith. The people's complaints in the wilderness would have been understandable for anyone else traveling through similar conditions, but this was neither a regular group of people nor natural circumstances. As a result, the complaints were unfounded. Furthermore, the Torah is providing us with a blueprint on how to lead lives of goodness. In this instance, the lesson is to overcome our inclination to complain, even when we think we are justified in doing so.

Nobody likes to be around someone who complains. It's among the most annoying qualities an individual can have. We all have problems, but simply complaining about them won't fix anything. In fact, if people took the time to work on those problems instead of complaining, they might actually be able to implement solutions. It's unfair to both the complainer and the listener; the complainer gets nothing accomplished, and the listener has to suffer through their diatribe. However, there are times when people need to vent. It's important to clarify what you intend to get out of a given conversation: advice or relief. Seeking advice means conversing with the goal of solving a problem. Focus on a specific dilemma and see whether or not the listener can help advise some sort of solution. On the other hand, venting is when we become overwhelmed by events in our lives and just need to let it all out. In this case, the goal is one of relieving stress. This differentiation is important because it can reduce complaining. If you need to vent, do so privately. Just be clear to the listener that you're not engaging in a problem-solving session.

All of this brings up an interesting question: do we spend our time complaining or trusting in God? When it comes to our micro lives as well as macro events, the answer is usually some sort of combination. Most of us want to believe that better days are ahead, but we still bemoan the issues at hand. Whether it's dealing with a bad economy or worrying about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, one would think that complaining is perfectly reasonable. However, the Torah teaches us otherwise. While it's not always easy, try your best to decrease complaints and increase faith in God.

Here's how Patrick Overton eloquently expresses faith:

"When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,
you must believe that one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly."