Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jews, Non-Jews and Ethics

Following the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem, I came across a predictably biased media report. Toward the end of an ITN news segment, the reporter says, "Israeli police called the bombing a 'terrorist attack' - their term for a Palestinian strike." Wow. Someone leaves a bomb near a bus station filled with innocent civilians, and that's merely a strike?! Just in case this reporter needs a refresher course, there's a huge difference between guerrilla warfare and terrorism: guerrillas strike military forces; terrorists target civilians. Apparently, Israeli civilians don't count. Listen closely at around 0:52 of the video:

It's incredibly frustrating to witness the constant double standard directed against Jews and Israel. While we have every right to call out such prejudice, we can't let it affect us to the point where we stop doing what is right. Despite the fact that virulent anti-Semites will always blame Jews no matter how ethically we behave, the same is not true for everyone else. Whether we're dealing with difficult people in our personal lives or the world-at-large, it's easy to fall into the trap of rationalizing that we only have to act ethically toward those with whom we agree. This might be emotionally satisfying, but Judaism demands more than that.

Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (152b) states that we cannot mislead anyone - Jew or non-Jew - in any matter. If we were to cheat other people, particularly in financial dealings, they will say that God chose a nation of thieves and deceivers. This kind of Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) is among the worst of sins. Furthermore, who would want to abide by the Seven Noahide Laws (which were transmitted through us), let alone convert to Judaism, if we act this way? On the other hand, when we conduct ourselves along the highest ethical standards, we create a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name).

The Chofetz Chaim provides a great example by way of a story told over by his son. There was once an incident involving workers at a Warsaw printing press where some of his books were being prepared for publication. Late in the afternoon on a Friday, one of the workers saw the Chofetz Chaim running down a small side street. It was an odd sight to see him at such an hour because it was almost time for Shabbat. It didn't take long before word spread about what had happened. The Chofetz Chaim discovered that one of the workers at the printing press left before being paid. In order not to violate the prohibition against not paying a worker's wages on time (Deuteronomy 24:14-15), the Chofetz Chaim found out the man's home address and rushed to pay him.

When God speaks to Jacob in Genesis 28:14, He says, "and through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed." This is quite a lofty calling, but one that we can fulfill on any given day by engaging in ethical behavior. If non-Jews have good encounters with Jews, they will feel blessed. However, if non-Jews feel unfairly treated, we inevitably create a terrible Chilul Hashem. From this idea, perhaps we can draw a kal vachomer (an inference from minor to major). If we're supposed to strive for impeccable behavior around non-Jews, how much more so should we act decently toward one another. Like charity, good behavior should start at home.

Related to this issue, Dennis Prager has an interesting observation. He suggests that one of the most important days in a religious person's life is when they meet a member of a different religion - or of a different denomination within their own religion - who is both a good and intelligent individual. Such an encounter forces a person to consider that the other group's followers are not all bad or unintelligent. We're perfectly free to believe that members of other religions - or of other denominations within Judaism - are theologically flawed. But does that mean they are bad people? Not necessarily. Whether or not they engage in ethical behavior determines the answer to that question.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Tables Will Turn

The story of Purim is more than just a tale of what happened to Jews generations ago. It also provides a narrative that is quite relevant to the times in which we live. There is unbelievable evil directed against Jews, and it seems as though God is nowhere to be found. The horrific murders of the Fogel family in Itamar were a terrible reminder of this predicament. A mother, father, 11-year-old, 4-year-old, and three-month-old baby were all brutally stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists. This act of barbarism shocked even some Jews, a people usually accustomed to tragedy.

During this month of Adar, and especially around this time of Purim, we're supposed to increase our happiness. As the motto goes, Meshenichnas Adar Marbim B'Simcha. But how is it possible to remain happy, or even maintain a degree of optimism, when there are so many people currently suffering from the effects of terrorism and other calamities? One particular line from Megillat Esther might help to improve our outlook: V'Nahafoch Hu - "and it was turned to the contrary" (Esther 9:1).

The Purim story provides an important historical precedent: when the enemies of the Jews plan great destruction, the Jewish people ultimately see great salvation. Keeping this in mind, one can only fathom how great the future must be, given the fact that so many people are either hostile toward Jews or actively seek the destruction of Israel. Although we live in an age in which God seems to be hidden, the same could be said during the days of Esther. And while everything appeared to be random and cruel, God was actually orchestrating events every step of the way.

In Megillat Esther, Haman goes to King Ahasuerus to present a false charge against Mordechai. He even prepares a gallows on which he plans to have Mordechai hanged. But before Haman can follow through with his plan, the plot he hatched against the Jews is exposed, and the king orders Haman to be hanged on those very gallows. While this was indeed miraculous, it was also a case of God carrying out the punishment for false witnesses ("do unto the perpetrator that which he wished to do to his fellow"). This kind of reversal in fortune can provide a lesson for both us and our enemies.

The lesson for us is not to scheme against one another. The next time you have a rift with a fellow Jew, seek to quickly resolve the conflict. It's better to swallow personal pride and maintain peace than to protect our egos and hurt someone else. It's just not worth it. Sooner or later, the tables will turn.

The lesson for our enemies is not to scheme against the Jewish people. Whether it's the United Nations issuing biased resolutions or the Iranian regime seeking to destroy Israel, they're overlooking this important historical precedent. For their own sake, it's not worth it. Once again, the tables will turn.

The state of current events may be dire, but it's only a matter of time until we witness the ultimate V'Nahafoch Hu - when good and evil will receive their just deserts. If for no other reason, that's worth increasing our happiness.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Are You Offended?

It's not quite Purim yet, but it seems as though everyday could be Purim by reading the news. Recently, Iran claimed that the logo for the 2012 Olympics in London was racist because it resembled the word "Zion." They even threatened to boycott the games altogether. This is on top of the fact that Iranian athletes refuse to compete against Israelis. How completely obsessed with Jews does a culture have to be to find everything in life somehow connected to a "Zionist conspiracy"? Obviously, Iran's contention has nothing to do with being offended and everything to do with Jew-hatred. Nevertheless, this whole episode brought to mind how ridiculous taking offense can be.

It seems as though the world is often handcuffed by political correctness and hypersensitivity. As a result, people end up being offended by some of the strangest things. There are times when it's perfectly reasonable to be offended, but such situations happen less often than today's popular culture would have you believe. This has caused an adverse effect on interpersonal conduct overall. It's difficult - if not impossible - to improve our treatment of other people if they - or we - are constantly offended. There's almost no way to predict what may hurt another person's ego or sensibilities. We have to find a delicate balance between remaining true to our values and not hurting someone else.

Interpersonal conduct is a two-way street. For example, there is a principle followed by Orthodox Jews to avoid any physical contact with a member of the opposite sex, except for a spouse or close relatives. As a result, a secular Jewish woman might be offended if a religious Jewish man doesn't shake her hand. On the other hand (no pun intended), a religious Jewish woman might be offended if a secular Jewish man does shake her hand. This could easily turn into another instance of intra-Jewish divisiveness, but it doesn't have to be that way. It's a great opportunity to be clear and courteous. Politely state what you believe regarding this particular issue, agree or disagree, and respectfully move on with your life.

Ironically, there is an antidote to the problem of being easily offended, and it's something that many Jews recite three times a day. In the last paragraph of Shemoneh Esrei, it states (the following is an English translation): "To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; and let my soul be like dust to everyone." This line compels us to become less concerned about personal insults and more concerned with God-based goodness. The less we care about our egos, the more we will be able to focus on improving our character. If we were to defend ourselves every time someone said or did something that bothered us, we wouldn't be able to do anything else.

Unfortunately, people tend to personalize things that were never meant to be taken personally. Therefore, it would be wise to give others the benefit of the doubt unless it's absolutely clear that something is being done out of malice. Being sensitive is perfectly understandable; being hypersensitive can drive a person insane. Life may be about the details, but it's also about not sweating the small stuff. We should train ourselves to be a little more desensitized about things that might offend us and a little more sensitive about that which may offend others. Or, to put it another way:

"We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it."
- Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Power of the Individual

A couple of months ago, a single person provided the impetus for the uprisings currently taking place throughout the Arab world - though nobody could have guessed it at the time. A Tunisian man who ran a small fruits and vegetables stand set himself on fire in front of a government building after local police confiscated the goods he was trying to sell without a permit. As a college graduate who was forced into bribing authorities to simply keep his stand open, he was making a statement against the lack of opportunities in his country. What began as one person setting themselves ablaze ultimately set the entire Middle East on fire.

Just to be clear, as Jews, we are forbidden from physically harming ourselves. Furthermore, it's yet to be determined whether this change in the Arab world will be for the better or for the worse. Nevertheless, this episode reveals how one person can literally change the world. Indeed, at every point throughout history, individual people have made a huge difference.

What would the world be like if not for someone like the Chofetz Chaim or Viktor Frankl? They each saw something that needed to be done, tapped into their inner strength, and improved the world. The Chofetz Chaim, a legal scholar and ethicist, recognized that too many Jews were lacking in shmirat halashon (guarding the tongue), so he wrote an extensive work on the importance of fair speech. Ever since, he has been referred to by the name of that work. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and Holocaust survivor, recognized the importance of a psychotherapeutic method that addressed finding meaning in life. He started logotherapy, which has helped spare countless people from despair and even suicide. These are but two examples. We can follow in their footsteps by heeding the important message of Pirkei Avot: "In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be the leader" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6).

Regarding one's spiritual development, the Netziv provides a terrific insight when commenting on the verse, "Follow the path of your heart" (Ecclesiastes 11:9). He states that each individual Jew must find their own way of serving God. Some people carry out their divine service through study or prayer, while others focus more on charity or acts of kindness. Of course, a person can engage in all of these at different times, but it's important to find a specific focus through which you can personally find meaning and fulfill your mission in life. Whichever particular path happens to attract you most, work on it. Every single one of us has the ability to cultivate the divine spark God has given us and achieve greatness.

This can be taken one step further when it comes to a person's career. Although it's terrific for any man or woman to pursue their professional dreams, if they decide to become a stay-at-home parent, for instance, they should also be proud of their work. It always bothers me when women say something like, "I'm just a housewife." In my opinion, that's the most important job on earth. You're raising a family, being gracious to guests, and maintaining a peaceful home, among other things. What's more important than that?! Great things tend to be accomplished by people who embrace what they do and give it everything they have - no matter who may denigrate them from the outside. Never let anyone undermine the passion you give to what you believe is your calling in life.

Enhancing the importance of the individual fits perfectly into the primary focus of this blog. The goal of improving intra-Jewish relations will only be achieved when individual Jews see it through. In other words, it's commonplace for people to say, "why can't everyone just get along?" But they are asking the wrong question. They should instead be asking, "what can I do to improve myself?" Goodness starts at the individual level. If every individual Jew focuses on refining their own character - thus treating even those with whom they strongly disagree with dignity and respect - achieving Jewish unity will be the easy part. Because that will be the result.