Friday, May 28, 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to express gratitude to all the men and women - including many fellow Jews - who have died in service of the United States. If not for the ultimate sacrifices of these brave people, evil would reign on earth. As Tehilim eloquently puts it (Psalms 97:10), "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" - those who love God must hate evil. The only reason we are able to enjoy freedom is because of those who heeded this call and risked their lives on behalf of total strangers.

While it's easy to forget all the good that the American military does around the globe, just imagine what the world would look like if not for America's involvement in fighting everything from Nazism to radical Islam. It's also easy to forget all the service members currently deployed overseas, but we should do our best to keep them close to our hearts and in our prayers. Here is a touching video honoring the American armed forces (and if you pay close attention, there are a couple snapshots of the IDF as well):

Sometimes, few words are necessary. Just music and pictures.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Importance of Jewish Differences

Every individual Jew plays an important role. Whether you are a teacher or rabbi, doctor or lawyer, businessman or stay-at-home mom, there is a place for all of us among the Jewish people. It's important to acknowledge that there is more than one way to serve God. Sadly, many people scoff at those who differ with them instead of recognizing their positive contributions to Jews and the world. When we get caught up in our ritual or lifestyle differences, tension and divisiveness becomes inevitable. But when we focus on our common code of ethics (i.e. how we treat one another), our chances greatly improve at overcoming our different philosophical approaches to Judaism and life.

Quite frankly, we're not all supposed to be doing the same kind of work or serving God the exact same way. The Chofetz Chaim was once approached by a successful businessman who decided to scale down his business so that he could dedicate himself to Torah study. The Chofetz Chaim explained why his decision was wrong by way of a parable: During wartime, if a soldier unilaterally decides to leave his current post to fight in a different capacity, he will be court-martialed. A soldier must obey orders and man the position to which he was assigned. The Chofetz Chaim went on to say that this businessman's responsibility was to support Jewish institutions and the poor. If he decided to go through with ending his business success, he would be jeopardizing the position God gave him within the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, some religious Jews believe that doing nothing other than Torah study is the only noble thing anyone can do. This couldn't be further from the truth. While religious study is extremely important, it cannot be the primary task of every person. And people should not feel less than noble just because they engage in a different form of work. In fact, this was also the case thousands of years ago. Every one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel carried out different jobs. Some engaged in commerce or working the fields, others in religious study, and yet others in military or temple service - and all were essential to the survival of the nation as a whole. Today, as well, we must train ourselves to recognize the importance of every Jew - no matter what they do for a living (as long as they're ethical while doing so).

The twelve tribes were our ancestors who stood unified at Mount Sinai. While it's obviously difficult to replicate their unity in purpose, it is possible to replicate their unity via our behavior. Throughout the generations of exile, we might have lost some of our authentic traditions (and therefore developed different customs), but we must never forget our calling as God's representatives for ethical monotheism. We recently celebrated Shavuot, the time during which we received the Torah from Mount Sinai. Let's recall the togetherness our ancestors were able to achieve back then and prove our sincerity to God once again by treating fellow Jews with respect. If Jewish unity could merit the divine gift of the Torah, just imagine what we could achieve if we were to unite once again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Vivid Anti-Semitism

It might say 2010 on our calendars, but after watching the woman in this video you could swear it was 1938 (just substitute Nazism with radical Islam):

Unfortunately, these kinds of anti-Semitic sentiments are all too common on college campuses today. Nevertheless, the clarity this woman provided is invaluable. When our enemies talk about their grievances with Israel, they're not necessarily talking about the land itself or those who currently reside within it as citizens. They're talking about Jews. The underlying message for all of us - whether we live in America, Israel or elsewhere - is that when we decide to separate ourselves based upon petty differences, our enemies will proudly step in to remind us that we are all "infidels" in their eyes.

Why is it so easy for them to act indecently toward us, and yet it is so hard for us to act decently toward each other? Here is an example of what I'm talking about: Charedim Riot in Jerusalem. What on earth is going on? Once people resort to vandalism, their cause is delegitimized. It's not the end of the world to disagree on a particular issue, but it's terribly destructive to mimic our enemies by responding with violent outbursts. We have plenty of people who wish to destroy us; we don't need to destroy ourselves.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

George Washington's 110 Rules

I recently stumbled upon a list of 110 rules of civility followed by the first President of the United States, George Washington. The entire list can be found here: George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. The original document was written in an older version of English, so it may sound a bit odd. Many of the rules seem trivial or even silly, but I wanted to share some of them because the overall idea is extraordinarily important. Just try to take in the general message, since it's impossible to incorporate all these at once. Here are some of the highlights (note: many of these guidelines for interpersonal conduct are rooted in the Torah):

- Treat everyone with respect

- Be considerate of others; never embarrass another person

- Don't draw attention to yourself

- When you speak, be concise

- Do not argue with your superiors; submit your ideas with humility

- When a person does their best and fails, don't criticize them

- When you must give advice or criticism, make sure the time, place and manner are appropriate

- If someone corrects you, let it go; if you were wrongly judged, correct it later

- Do not make fun of anything important to others

- If you criticize someone or something, make sure you are not guilty of it yourself; actions speak louder than words

- Do not be quick to believe bad reports about others

- Associate with good people; it's better to be alone than in bad company

- Always allow reason to govern your actions

- Never break the rules in front of your subordinates

- Some things are better kept secret

- A person should not overly value their own accomplishments

- Neither detract from others nor be overbearing in giving orders

- Do not go where you are not wanted; do not give unsolicited advice

- When two people disagree, do not take one side or the other; be flexible in your own opinions

- Do not correct others when it is not your place to do so

- Do not compare yourself to others

- Be careful when talking about something until you have all the facts

- Do not pry into the private affairs of others

- Do not start what you cannot finish; keep your promises

- Do not speak badly of those who are not present

- Show interest during a conversation

- Don't allow yourself to become cynical

George Washington was obviously meant to be the father of the greatest country ever devised by man. As someone who placed paramount importance on how he treated others, he was quite worthy of establishing and leading a place where all people would be treated with respect. If only we could heed his call for true civility, there would be less divisiveness - even when we disagree on significant issues. It's too bad the city bearing his name (i.e. Washington, D.C.) has become a pejorative, because I have a feeling George Washington would not approve of what passes for political and social discourse these days.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Personal and Financial Hurt

When the Torah expresses the prohibition to not hurt other people financially, the verse begins with the statement, "When you make a sale to your not aggrieve one another" (Leviticus 25:14). In addition to the plain meaning that it is forbidden to cheat anyone in business, the opening words imply that when we do business, we should try to be a patron of a fellow Jew. This is not a form of ethnocentrism - it's just more practical to help those closest to us first. The greatest form of charity is not fulfilled by simply giving money to someone struggling financially, but rather by enabling them to make an honorable living (i.e. giving them business). As the famous Chinese proverb goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Thus, if you need to shop for groceries and have the choice of either going to a supermarket or a local store owned by a member of your community, go to the latter. Even if you have to pay a little more, it will be considered a charitable act by God.

A few verses after prohibiting financial hurt against others, there is an apparent redundancy when the Torah mentions, "Each of you shall not aggrieve" (Leviticus 25:17). A similar phrase is used with regard to business conduct, but this prohibition refers to not verbally hurting others in our personal relationships. More specifically, this is a reference to avoiding lashon hara (evil speech), which includes gossip and slander. It is forbidden to remind people of troubling times in their past (especially when they have done their best to overcome those obstacles) or to give people bad advice. Although an individual might think that they can get away with committing one of the above infractions and hide their malicious intentions, the verse continues with "and you shall fear your God." Human beings might have the ability to judge behavior, but God has the power to judge a person's motives.

Both of these ethical precepts seem equally significant in our day-to-day lives. The Sages teach, however, that as bad as it is to hurt someone financially, it is even worse to hurt someone personally. While money can be repaid, the embarrassment experienced by someone who has been hurt is much more difficult to undo. This is also the case from another perspective. While financial success can easily come and go, the acts of kindness we do for others will always remain. These days, since virtually everyone around the world has been affected by the failing economy, it provides us with a great opportunity to realize what is most important in life. Of course, it's only natural for "making a good living" to be high on our list of priorities, but it should pale in comparison to the importance we place upon doing good deeds for others:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Worst Sin of All

One of the great burdens of being Jewish - as well as one of the great privileges - is that we are humanity's most direct representatives of God. As a result, our behavior has to match the loftiness of our calling. When we act according to the highest standards of ethical conduct, we create a Kiddush Hashem - a sanctification of God's name. However, when we engage in unethical behavior (especially in public), we have committed the most serious of sins: Chilul Hashem - a desecration of God's name.

The clearest way of explaining the seriousness of this vice is through current events. While all terrorism is evil, terrorist acts committed in the name of God are particularly evil. This is why Islamic terrorism is so vile; they claim that God condones their behavior. On a related note, the leader of the Neturei Karta, Moshe Hirsch, recently passed away. A telling analysis of this anti-Semitic Jew's life comes from none other than an anti-Semitic Palestinian official: "We consider Rabbi Hirsch a part of the Palestinian people." Hirsch's life was a constant Chilul Hashem. Both he and his followers went well beyond legitimate philosophical disagreements and into the realm of endorsing evil in the name of God.

Although I have no respect for how Hirsch lived his life, it's important not to be overly indecent when condemning him. The reason I bring this up is because there was an obituary written about him (the theme of which is quite Orwellian), but the comments following the piece were also troubling. We must always remember that the way in which we talk about others often reflects more on us than on the people we are talking about. We can - and should - speak out against those who harm the Jewish people, but we must do so in as respectful a manner as possible. Because when we don't, it doesn't reflect well upon those of us who truly stand for God-based goodness. And worst of all, it can turn into a Chilul Hashem - the exact infraction we're trying to avoid.

When people see kind, considerate, and honest Jews, it brings great credit to our Jewishness. In addition, when we create a Kiddush Hashem, God Himself says, "You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I take pride" (Isaiah 49:3). I witnessed this first-hand for many years while working as a waiter at a kosher restaurant. Whenever there was a recognizably Jewish family who was well-behaved, it created a tremendous Kiddush Hashem to everyone else present - whether Jew or non-Jew. However, whenever recognizably Jewish families were poorly-behaved and interfering with other people trying to enjoy their meals, it created a terrible Chilul Hashem.

This whole topic can be summed up concisely: for better or for worse, our behavior defines us.