Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Downfall of Rabbi Akiva's Students

Sefirat Ha'omer, the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, is supposed to be a happy and spiritually uplifting time. It demonstrates our anticipation for the date in which we received the Torah from Mount Sinai. However, it is also customary to mourn during part of Sefirat Ha'omer because the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period (for 33 or 34 consecutive days, depending on custom). Given the rabbinic explanation for why these thousands of Torah scholars perished, the juxtaposition of these events is no coincidence.

According to the Talmud, the reason for the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students was "shelo nahagu kavod zeh la'zeh" (Yevamot 62b) - they did not treat each other with respect. This may seem rather trivial at first glance, but a further analysis explains why a lack of respect for other people has the power to destroy. We all cherish our own opinions. Whether we believe in a certain approach to religion or politics, we love to have our voices heard. But if we are to remain a civilized people who value the truth, we cannot simply demonize our opponents. While there is nothing wrong with standing up for a strongly held belief, there is a great deal wrong with being disrespectful to ideological adversaries. Instead of a vigorous intellectual debate, our differences will turn into a game of whose ego prevails. And instead of a war of ideas, it will become a war of personal attacks.

A good example of how we can benefit from being tolerant comes from the many debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the Schools of Hillel and Shammai). The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) explains that we follow the opinions of Beit Hillel because they always studied their own rulings along with those of Beit Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of Beit Shammai before their own. On the other hand, Beit Shammai was so certain they had the whole truth that they didn't bother to study the teachings of others. Since Beit Hillel showed tremendous humility and tolerance, they were not only ethically worthy of being chosen over Beit Shammai, but also more likely to reach accurate conclusions in their studies. Beit Hillel always had to defend and refine their own views.

There is a concept brought down in Pirkei Avot (3:17) by Rabbi Akiva that states "syag la'chachma shtikah" - a protective fence for wisdom is silence. This phrase doesn't mean that we have to remain quiet in every conversation or that we cannot object to someone's ideas in an argument. It simply means that if we constantly speak over others during a debate, we will never have the chance to gain wisdom. We learn the most when we listen - not when we talk. Therefore, we will neither grow interpersonally nor intellectually when we are readily dismissive of other people.

During this period of semi-mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, are we just going through the motions or actually trying to solve the problem that led to their downfall? Perhaps it was after this tragedy befell his students that Rabbi Akiva made his famous declaration, "to love your neighbor as yourself is the major principle of the Torah." Of course, becoming a better person is always easier said than done. But if we get in the habit of politely listening and calmly responding when we disagree with someone - instead of rudely interrupting and lashing out against them - we will not only become more respectful, but also wiser in the process.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"I am God"

The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is directly followed by the words "I am God." What is the reason for this juxtaposition? One explanation given by Chazal is that God is telling us, "the way in which you treat other people is the way that I, God, will treat you." This goes for both the micro and the macro. In the micro realm, if we are knit-picky over what our neighbors do privately, God will be more judgmental of what we do in our personal lives as well. In the macro realm, if we do not publicly treat each other with dignity and respect, God will bring about circumstances in which we, as Jews, are not treated well in public either. Unfortunately, history has proven this time and again.

In addition to the "I am God" phrase mentioned above, there are three consecutive verses at the beginning of the same chapter which end with the words "I am Hashem your God." Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin elucidates a very meaningful interpretation of these verses. He states that the reason for the apparent phrase redundancy is a reflection of the three different categories commonly found among the Jewish people:

1) Righteous

2) Average

3) Borderline

The first category addressed by the Torah are God-fearing people who meticulously observe every commandment, no matter how big or small. These Jews are regarded as holy and are told by the Torah to continue to live their saintly lives and attain even more closeness to God. The verse ends with "I am Hashem your God" - i.e. of the righteous Jew.

The second category includes Jews who properly observe the major commandments, such as honoring one's parents and observing the Sabbath. The Torah tells these Jews that although everyone should keep these commandments, you will be enveloped by the Divine Presence as a reward. The verse ends with "I am Hashem your God" - i.e. of the average Jew.

The third category addresses Jews whose attachment to Judaism is tenuous. The Torah beckons this group of people not to worship false gods. Although you may have abandoned ritual observance, do not renounce the faith of your fathers and you will remain a part of the Chosen People. The verse ends with "I am Hashem your God" - i.e. of the borderline Jew.

Rabbi Chaim provides us with a tremendous lesson. No matter how religious, middle-of-the-road, or secular we may be at a given time in our lives, God treats every single one of us with love and respect. Since we are taught to emulate the characteristics of God, the message is obvious. Just as God regards all of us as a part of the same inseparable unit, we must also train ourselves to recognize the importance of fellow Jews. Even if we are troubled by one's level of observance - whether they are "too religious" or "too secular" for us - nevertheless, treat them as decently as possible.

God does.

Do we?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Roi Klein, Hero of Israel

In honor of Yom Ha'Atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron (Israel Independence Day and Memorial Day), I wanted to highlight the story of one particular soldier: Roi Klein, deputy commander of the Golani Brigade 51st Battalion. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel's highest award. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Klein was killed when he jumped onto a grenade in order to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Before sacrificing his body, this quiet, gentle man cried out: "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad" - Hear O Israel, The Lord is Our God, The Lord is One:


Roi Klein's ahavat yisrael was literal; he loved the land of Israel and he loved the Jewish people. While he was fighting the very worst of humanity, he represented the very best of humanity. And while the enemy he was fighting routinely used their bodies to kill innocent people, he used his body to save innocent people.

Roi Klein died in a selfless act for fellow Jews. Although we may never reach his level of heroism, let's live our lives by doing selfless acts for fellow Jews in his memory. Let's also not forget his wife, Sarah, and two children, Gilad and Yoav, who were left behind. May they - and we - live to see the day when there is true, God-given peace in Israel.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sleep On It

Before going to bed, it is customary to recite Kriat Shema Al Hamitah, the bedtime Shema (which can be found here in Hebrew and here in English). Before reciting the primary blessing and subsequent prayers, there is a very meaningful, short paragraph in which we express our forgiveness of others and hope that God will forgive us for our transgressions:

"Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me - whether against my body, my property, my honor or against anything of mine; whether they did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration - I forgive every Jew. May no man be punished because of me. May it will be Your will, Hashem, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer."

From a practical standpoint, this is a very important statement because we are making a conscious effort to let go of all the minor things others have done to us throughout the day. In order to get a good night's rest, it's crucial to be at peace with yourself and free from anger and stress. From a spiritual perspective, this paragraph is also extremely significant because we are acknowledging our connection to fellow Jews. Although there are times when we separate ourselves based upon petty differences, at the end of every day we reaffirm to God that we are ultimately all part of the Jewish people. And since we are all one family, we wish no ill upon a fellow member because it would also hurt us.

Getting in the habit of saying this short paragraph before going to bed can really improve our character. It helps develop unselfishness as well as a sincere concern for others. Just as we all hope that others will overlook anything wrong we may have done to them, we also try our best to overlook all the wrongs others may have done to us (as long as what occurred isn't truly evil). When we get in the habit of being more easy-going and less brazen, this will become a natural response. Whatever your personal case may be, I'll leave you with that famous Edward R. Murrow quote:

"Good night, and good luck."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

First They Came for the Jews

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a famous poem attributed to an anti-Nazi pastor named Martin Niemoller. There are different variations of the poem, but the original version goes like this:

"They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was Protestant.

Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up."

It's ironic that the first group he mentions are Communists, because millions of innocent people were subjugated and murdered under Communism, just as millions of innocent people were subjugated and murdered under Nazism. Be that as it may, the underlying theme of the poem is still very instructive. In fact, if we put our minds to it, any one of us can come up with a similar poem related to our times. Simply fill in the blanks and create your own version. One variation might go something like this:

They came first for religious Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I was secular.

Then they came for the IDF,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't an Israeli soldier.

Then they came for Jewish conservatives,
and I didn't speak up because I was liberal.

Then they came for European Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I was American.

Then they came for me,
and by that time no Jews were left to speak up.

Unfortunately, the "they" of today are all sorts of groups: Islamic terrorists, anti-Semitic leaders, and the United Nations, to name a few. Perhaps for the first time since the Holocaust, there seems to be only two types of leaders: those who want to exterminate the Jews and those who would stand by and let it happen. The message for Jews is to be there for one another, even though we have our differences. The message for non-Jews is to maintain a strong moral compass, even though most people will look the other way. Unless the world allows the Jews (i.e. Israel) to fight their existential enemies, whatever evil befalls us will end up befalling everyone else. Islamic terrorism is only the most recent example.

The one thing our enemies can teach us is that we are all Jews just the same. Religious and secular, liberal and conservative, men, women and children - we are all "infidels" in the eyes of our enemies. If the Hitlers and Ahmadinejads of the world don't discriminate between different kinds of Jews, why do we? It's very easy to get caught up in our day-to-day disagreements and falsely label fellow Jews with whom we disagree as enemies rather than ideological opponents. But we must always remember to stay on topic and only call out fellow Jews if they actually engage in objectively evil behavior - not if they happen to be of a different religious denomination or political party.

Because when we forget that we are all Jews, our enemies will be more than willing to remind us.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another Reason to Smile

Those of us who are sports fans have a big reason to smile this week: Major League Baseball is back! It's the beginning of a new season, a time when every fan still has hope that their favorite team can win the World Series. But there is yet another, more significant reason to smile (which has a connection to baseball as well): it might lengthen your lifespan.

"People who smile a lot are usually happier, have more stable personalities, more stable marriages, better cognitive skills and better interpersonal skills, according to research. Science has just uncovered another benefit of a happy face. People who have big smiles live longer.

"Researchers at Wayne State University used information from the Baseball Register to look at photos of 230 players who debuted in professional baseball before 1950. The players' photos were enlarged and a rating of their smile intensity was made (big smile, no smile, partial smile). The players' smile ratings were compared with data from deaths between 2006 and 2009.

"For those players who had died, the researchers found longevity ranged from an average of 72.9 years for players with no smiles (63 players), to 75 years for players with partial smiles (64 players) to 79.9 years for players with big smiles (23 players).

"This isn't a bunch of psycho- hooey, the authors said. Smiles reflect positive emotion, which has been linked to both physical and mental well-being."

At full disclosure, I'm not someone who puts much stock in university studies. For every study that claims to prove one thing, another usually comes out that disproves the original finding. I once heard someone say that there are only two kinds of studies: those that prove the obvious and those that are wrong. Nevertheless, this one seems to make sense. Just as smiling can improve a person's quality of life, it can also increase a person's quantity of life.

Ultimately, whether or not this study is accurate is beside the point. The most significant thing about this is the recognition of how important it is to act in a positive, happier fashion. One of the kindest things we can do - both for ourselves and those around us - is smile. Just think of the last time you visited someone who displayed a sincere smile upon your arrival. It can really lift your spirits. While the actual length of a person's life is up to God, how we act during our lives is up to us.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Lesson from Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston was once asked whether or not playing Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments had a significant influence on him outside of his acting career. His answer was that it invariably did. Although Heston was far from being anywhere close to the caliber of Moses (as would anyone else, for that matter), simply playing this biblical hero in a movie affected the way he behaved off the set.

Here are some famous scenes from that role, which are quite apropos for Passover:



The lesson we can take from Heston's experience is that acting a certain way can - and often will - influence a person's overall behavior. If we train ourselves to act happy, we will become happier over time; if we consistently act dejected, we will become miserable over time. We don't have to be Moses - we just have to be ourselves and in control of our emotions to the greatest extent possible. While it's only human for emotions to get in the way of more civilized behavior from time to time, we can almost always overcome those feelings by acting in a different manner. In other words, our behavior should dictate our feelings more than our feelings should dictate our behavior.

Here is one question that might provide some clarity: is it fair to be rude to others until our feelings are willing to cooperate? Of course not. In this light, there is a principle known as mitoch shelo lishma bah lishma - something initially done without sincerity can ultimately lead to sincere performance. For example, getting in the habit of smiling for other people - even when we don't particularly feel like it - can lead to smiling on a regular basis with more sincerity. As Andy Rooney once said, "If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it."