Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Subduing the Ego

Perhaps the greatest obstacle standing in the way of improved interpersonal conduct is ego. People tend to believe that their method of raising children, their educational philosophy, and their political views are better than those of anyone else. It's understandable. From the time we are infants, we are quite selfish - if for no other reason than self-preservation. Babies constantly need food, care and attention, or they will make their parents' lives miserable. However, as people grow older, the task is to figure out how to use one's natural inclinations for good and steer clear of harming others.

Everything was created in such a way that whatever can be used for good can also be used for evil. Fire and water are great examples; they can either sustain or destroy life. The individual ego is no different, where we just have to utilize it for good and beware of its negative effects when taken to an extreme. As it states in Pirkei Avot, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself, what am I?" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14). Egos are there for a reason: so that we make something of ourselves. But we must keep our egos in check. Otherwise, we make ourselves the be all and end all, and everyone around us suffers.

Subduing the ego is quite the task, but one that is absolutely achievable. A good place to start is by realizing Who is above us: God. It's difficult to fully comprehend God because He is not human in any way. Yet, that shouldn't be a problem because we are inclined to simply emulate His characteristics. Just as God is kind, merciful and compassionate, so should we display these traits. If we're busy trying to build our own character in comparison to God, we'll become focused on goodness instead of self-aggrandizing. There's a reason why Moses was considered the humblest person who ever lived (Numbers 12:3). Since he was in constant contact with God, Moses understood how meek humans are in comparison.

Another step can be taken by considering the ramifications of our actions. As we make our way through life, we're not just representing ourselves. For better or for worse, we are a reflection of our families, friends and the Jewish people as a whole. Keeping this in mind will help guide our future behavior. Whenever the opportunity arises to do a specific action, it's important to quickly consider all the factors that will be affected besides our personal reputation. We don't live in a vacuum; our actions can adversely affect someone else.

Overall, thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe is easy to quell by simply following current events. The economy is a wreck, there are natural disasters all around us, and the Middle East is in turmoil. We are each an important piece in the puzzle of life, but simply a piece - not the whole puzzle. There is something going on that is much bigger than any one of us individually. While there are some people who think that they can take advantage of others during these times of crisis, they are actually digging themselves into a hole. When all is said and done, "the humble shall inherit the earth" (Psalms 37:11) - not those with big egos.

Ultimately, the answer of how to keep an ego in check is simple, but not easy: follow the Golden Rule. Consider how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior. This has the power of improving one's character as well as making a person more considerate of those around them. It's the single most practical piece of advice on how to solve this problem.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Chosen People

From the dawn of Jewish existence, we have been referred to as the Chosen People. It's an inescapable fact (Deuteronomy 7:6). Yet, this concept isn't mentioned all that much in Jewish life - and for good reason. For one, it has caused a great deal of agony, persecution and hostility. But secondly, and most importantly, it's very easy to misinterpret what it actually means. It has absolutely nothing to do with racial or ethnic superiority. It simply means we have a unique mission to make the world aware of God and His ethical demands. That's it. These demands are basic values of decency that everyone can understand and abide by, regardless of who they are or where they came from.

We are not worthy of this title on our own merits. God only chose us because we are the descendants of the first ethical monotheist, Abraham (Genesis 18:19). That's the sole reason. In fact, to prevent ourselves from any arrogance that might be compelled by this title, one has to look no further than episodes throughout Tanach, where we have often failed to live up to God's standards. This is hardly a tradition based on inherent superiority. Instead, goodness is always based upon a person's overall behavior.

Two of the clearest examples which demonstrate that chosenness has nothing to do with innate superiority are the stories of Noah and Ruth. Noah was not Jewish, but was saved from annihilation because "he was the most righteous person in his generation" (Genesis 6:9). Similarly, Ruth was not born a Jew, but due to her righteousness was rewarded with having the Messiah himself, Mashiach Ben David, descend from her. Once again, good deeds are more important than who your parents happened to be.

While we have the responsibility of being "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), we first have to be a light unto each other. As the saying goes, "charity begins at home." Still, we can't let this task overwhelm us to the point where we are either only good to Jews or only good to non-Jews. The more consistently we try treat other people well, the easier it will become to achieve both outcomes. Whether we're in shul on Friday night or out shopping during the week, we must always strive for top-notch behavior. Because of who we are, the world scrutinizes everything we do. At times, this can be frustrating, but it isn't always a bad thing. It can also be a great opportunity to show people the kind of character God truly desires.

Other peoples and religions have tried to strip us of the Chosen People role, but it's doubtful they actually realize what such a label entails. It's not all it's cracked up to be, and it's not something that can be transferred. As a prominent non-Jew, the Reverend Edward H. Flannery, put it: "It was Judaism that brought the concept of a God-given universal moral law into the world . . . the Jew carries the burden of God in history [and] for this has never been forgiven."

Due to the antagonism and responsibility this title brings, there's an old joke that most Jews would have preferred if God had chosen someone else. Nevertheless, spreading ethical monotheism to the world rests on our shoulders. The Chosen People idea is not dogma but historical fact. It's a powerful concept, but nothing to brag about. It's simply a calling we must try to live up to.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Rejection of Egypt

In light of the current protests and violence in modern-day Egypt, I thought it would be interesting to recall the Jewish view toward ancient Egypt. One of the most important events in human history was the Exodus from that country. As miraculous and memorable as it was, this whole episode was about more than just a group of people leaving a foreign place to go to the Promised Land. It was about God freeing us from a culture of slavery and death, and showing the world that what He truly desires is a culture based upon life and goodness. In other words, Judaism is a rejection of ancient Egypt.

Here are a few examples of the contrasts between ancient Egypt and Judaism:

- unethical polytheism vs. ethical monotheism

- a culture obsessed with death vs. a culture obsessed with life

- slavery vs. freedom

(As a side note, those who claim that the Torah defends slavery are being disingenuous. In general, the Torah's concept of "slavery" refers to indentured servitude to pay off a debt. It was not about people owning human beings and doing whatever they wanted with them. In fact, brutal treatment of any slave - Jewish or non-Jewish - resulted in their immediate freedom. After all, a fundamental tenet of Judaism is remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt.)

Aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, such as art and technology, were indeed magnificent, but there was a huge problem: it was not coupled with universal God-based ethics. As a result, these things easily turned into false gods and led to poor treatment of other people. For example, the pyramids - for all their artistic and technological greatness - were nothing more than fancy tombs for dead rulers. Their whole religion was focused on death and the deification of human beings. The Torah represents the polar opposite, wanting people to be preoccupied with life and good deeds based on faith in one God. This is also a major reason why the Torah is virtually silent on the afterlife; God wants us to focus on this life.

As mentioned above, a prevalent theme in ancient Egypt was an obsession with death. Sound familiar? Radical Islamists, who have their sights set on overtaking more Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, have a similar obsession. There is yet another similarity. Back then, the target was the Jewish people. This time, the target is the Jewish state (a hat tip goes to Devorah for this video):

Although Egypt is now Islamic in nature, it's still death-filled and obsessed with hurting Jews and destroying Israel. Of course, not every Egyptian wants this. After all, Egypt did sign a peace treaty with Israel, albeit a very tenuous one. But just look at Egyptian state television, which often incites Muslims against Jews, including airing a forty-one-part series based on the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In addition, the Egyptian army conducts annual military exercises in the Sinai for preparation against their "primary enemy" of Israel. This attitude is all too common in the Islamic world. Hopefully, the more secular and democratic voices in this conflict prevail, but it could easily turn into another radical state.

Overall, it's difficult to remain optimistic in a part of the world where the historical precedent is persecution and destruction. Yet, instead of worrying about events that are out of our hands, all we can do is control how we react and find solace in the fact that God has a purpose for everything. In the meantime, it will be beneficial to hearken back to the values upon which Judaism was founded. In short, we are to reject a culture of death and embrace life; reject slavery and pursue freedom; and reject false gods, along with their unethical practices, and instead follow in God's ethical ways - chief among them, caring for people in general, and for fellow Jews in particular.

Acting decently toward Jews . . . now that's truly a rejection of Egypt!