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.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Jews: The Underdogs of History

Last week, the Colorado Rockies were losing to the St. Louis Cardinals 9-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning. For those of you who may not know much about baseball, it's almost unheard of to overcome that kind of deficit before recording the final three outs. Yet, the Rockies cut the lead to 9-4, then 9-7, then tied the game 9-9. And with two men on base with two outs, they hit a walk-off three-run home run to win the game 12-9. Going into the inning, it looked so bleak that most of the hometown fans, and perhaps even some of the players, thought the game was basically over. But before the night was done, they beat the odds and won the game, in one of the greatest one-inning comebacks in Major League Baseball history.

This got me thinking about what other remarkable events could occur when an underdog works together to get a job done - even when almost nobody else believes it could actually happen. Given all the terrible events that have transpired throughout the generations of Jewish existence, I think it's appropriate to label ourselves as the preeminent underdogs of history. Although we have experienced some of the most horrific evils, we're still here. Any other group who had to go through anything comparable would have ceased to exist - but we have always survived. We owe that to God, as well as to the Jewish values of faith, education and perseverance. In some mysterious way, and for reasons beyond the scope of human intellect, God is orchestrating a fantastic finish to the "game" known as history.

Teamwork is a crucial component for the success of any group. All players on a given team don't necessarily have to love each other in order to win. They just need to be respectful of their teammates, fulfill their roles to the best of their ability, and not interfere with the positions played by others. The most successful teams are the ones who are able to put their petty differences aside for the sake of winning a game. In our case, it's more than just a game - it's about working together for the future of our people, and indeed, the world. Every single Jew has been "drafted" by God, as it were. Thus, hurting fellow teammates would make absolutely no sense because we'd be hurting our own chances for success as well. For the sake of God - and each other - we need to work as a team. Then, we'll be able to prove everybody wrong one more time.

During this period around Tisha B'Av, when we are in the midst of mourning the loss of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), we must focus on improving our interpersonal relationships. Even in the darkest hours of Jewish history, we have always maintained that God will ultimately redeem the world and bless us with peace. In addition, our tradition tells us that the Final Redemption will happen suddenly, perhaps miraculously, and somehow make sense of all the suffering throughout history. This culminating event will be of benefit not only to Jews, but to all humanity. Unlike underdogs in sports, we have an additional piece of information to keep us motivated: it's not a matter of if - it's only a matter of when. And if we work as a team, it will happen sooner than you think.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Anonymity of the Internet

The Internet is simply amazing. It can be used to spread useful information, connect with family and friends, or even for shopping. However, as with everything else in life, it can also be used for bad. Instead of getting into a never-ending discussion about the vices and virtues of the Internet, I wanted to focus on a very specific aspect: anonymity. All you have to do is peruse some of the anonymous comments on YouTube, certain political blogs or news sites to understand the extent of the vitriol some people feel compelled to write. As civilized people in general, and as Jews in particular, we should never engage in such indecent behavior. Even while remaining anonymous online, we are accountable for all of our actions.

This is not to say that Internet anonymity is a bad thing - it is simply meant to say that using anonymity as a way to hurt another person is wrong. Interactive media (including blogs) are a great means through which to express an opinion and get feedback. They're also great because people tend to be more direct when writing a comment or stating a position when it can't be traced back to them. However, we must be cautious - not only with the spoken word, but also with the written word. We shouldn't stop being decent human beings just because we're behind a computer screen or cell phone. Even when you are passionate about a certain issue, you can state your position without resorting to viciousness. Never forget - when people begin personal attacks, it's simply an acknowledgement that their arguments lack merit.

I'm always impressed when people courteously disagree. To do so takes some sincere effort and practice from both parties involved. Getting courteous feedback from people who agree on a given issue is fine, but that's easy. We don't usually have to work on the way we act toward close friends or ideological allies. However, we usually do have to work on the way we act toward people we don't particularly like or who hold political or religious positions that differ from our own. Hopefully, we will overcome our inclination to act out against those individuals. But during those instances when we are thinking about giving in to our lower natures, a specific excerpt from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1) might help put things into perspective:

"Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you - a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear and all your deeds are recorded in a Book."

This quote provides many lessons, such as developing an awareness that even when people are not looking, all of our actions matter. It also teaches us that there is ultimate reward and punishment. Sometimes justice is seen in this world and sometimes it is not. However, either in this world or the next, every evil deed will be punished (unless there is repentance) and every good deed will be rewarded. Whether we are interacting with people face-to-face or posting something online or talking or texting on a cell phone, a basic code of ethical conduct must always be followed. Although we might be able to hide our true identities from human beings, we're never anonymous to God.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Spiritual" Leadership

Once Moses came to terms with the fact that he would not enter the Land, he placed his primary concern on the future of the Jewish people. Therefore, Moses asks God to appoint the next leader, in which he addresses Him as "God of the spirits of all flesh." And after God responds that He has already decided that Joshua would be that man, God refers to Joshua as "a man in whom there is spirit." Of all the different ways Moses could have addressed God, and of all the different ways God could have addressed Joshua, why is there so much talk about "spirits"? Rashi's explanation for these references provides us with important insights that are just as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago.

Firstly, no two people are exactly alike. Everyone has an individual "spirit" - i.e., unique approaches to different issues. Even if we personally disagree with them, it's important to allow others the freedom to express these perspectives. Part of why we are so unique as a people is because we are not a monolithic group. As David Ben-Gurion correctly observed, where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. So when Moses was making reference to the "God of the spirits of all flesh," he was talking about God's knowledge of the intricacies of each person's unique views and personality.

Consequently, a leader is needed who understands how to treat each person according to their own "spirit." A true leader is not someone who engages in nepotism or disregards those who disagree with him. While it would have been completely understandable for Moses to incessantly push for his own son to be the next leader, he cared more about the right man leading the Jewish people. Joshua was chosen because God knew that he was a man who had the ability to tolerate - and therefore lead - a diverse group of twelve tribes.

Unfortunately, many of the religious and political leaders of today do not meet the above criteria. They often go out of their way to quiet others. They often engage in appointing people to positions of authority because they are friends or relatives - not because they are the most qualified. And perhaps more than anything else, they often have trouble putting their egos aside for the sake of successfully leading those around them.

In other words, the Torah's approach to leadership brings to light what many of today's leaders would rather keep in the dark.