Thursday, June 30, 2011

Questions of the Matchmaker

There is a story told of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, the legendary head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. One day a Jew from Jerusalem traveled to Bnei Brak to inquire about a student in the yeshiva as a potential mate for his daughter. The man proceeded to ask Rabbi Rozovsky some questions about the young man: "How many hours a day does he study? Does he follow the yeshiva's study schedule and participate during classes? Does he arrive to prayer services on time? How well does he understand the Talmudic discourses?"

After receiving favorable responses to these questions, he thanked Rabbi Rozovsky and began to leave. Rabbi Rozovsky politely stopped the man and said, "Please allow me to ask you a few questions as well. I see that you are content with the answers you have received because you apparently believe this is all your daughter needs to know. However, I think that your daughter would be very interested in knowing if this student is a decent human being."

Rabbi Rozovsky continued, "It would have been fitting if you had asked me: Are his clothes clean? Is it pleasant to sit next to him? How does he behave in the dining room? Does he thank the kitchen staff for preparing the meals? You've reached the conclusion that he is a great student, but you should ask how he behaves when he enters the dormitory while others are asleep. Does he enter quietly so as not to wake up his roommates? And in the morning, does he make his bed or leave the room a mess?"

"I think," said Rabbi Rozovsky, "that these things would very much interest your daughter. He could turn out to be a spoiled person who doesn't care about his surroundings. What will happen when he comes home in the evening and scoffs at the meal your daughter had worked all afternoon preparing? Will she be consoled by my words in praise of how well he understands the complexities of a Talmudic tractate?"

The matchmaking approach of Rabbi Rozovsky can be utilized in other walks of Jewish life as well. Simply substitute whatever is considered "most desirable" in different Jewish circles, and the same problem arises. For example, some regard a Harvard graduate degree or being a partner in a law firm with the utmost significance. When people start looking for potential spouses based solely on external factors - instead of the person's overall character - something is seriously wrong. While things such as money, looks and success can play a role in the decision, it shouldn't be the primary consideration.

A woman is certainly free to marry a man for his technical knowledge, just as a man can marry a woman for her bank account. But it would be best if they prioritized their values first. So before going out on a date or setting up someone else, it might be worthwhile to ask a simple question:

Is he/she a good person?

Or, more specifically:

How does he/she treat other people?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Perfect Game

With all the problems facing the world today, it seems like a good time for an inspirational story that might just help us realize what is most important in life. Namely, it's a reminder of being more cognizant of God's primary demand to act decently toward one another. I recently came across a video that illustrates this point, where a group of boys playing baseball truly had the perfect ending to a game.

Although it's not mentioned in the video below, this story is attributed to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who personally knows the boy's father and verified the details for accuracy. As a side note, this is not an endorsement of Dr. Wayne Dyer (also, don't mind his mispronunciation of the name of the school). He just happens to be the one retelling the story.

This was a simple act of kindness by a group of boys playing baseball. We should strive to emulate such behavior when we encounter a similar situation. It doesn't always have to involve a learning-disabled child or a baseball game. It can be in any instance where we overcome our personal wants in order to fulfill another person's needs.

Amidst the chaos that is the daily news, people of all walks of life are looking for God. While some think that He cannot be found, they just don't know where to look. God is always present; He's just hidden. It's up to each one of us to act in such a kind and dignified manner that God is invariably revealed to others (and perhaps to ourselves as well).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Silence is Golden

There is a poignant story told of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. He was once attending prayer services alongside members of the Neturei Karta (a religious anti-Zionist group). When one of those followers noticed Rabbi Levin (who was an admirer and confidant of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, an ideological opponent of the Neturei Karta), the man tore the tefillin off Rabbi Levin's head and told him to leave. Rabbi Levin humbly gathered his belongings and left - without saying a word. One of the people who witnessed the event ran after Rabbi Levin and told him how impressed everyone was at how he handled such a public humiliation. He told the man to go back and tell the congregants that he learned how to respond like that from Rabbi Kook.

The Chofetz Chaim quotes a midrash which states that every time a person refrains from engaging in forbidden speech, they merit a hidden light that no angel can fathom. And that midrash is talking about a single moment; one can only imagine what lies in store for a person who can hold back from speaking ill of others on a consistent basis. Obviously, we should strive for good behavior simply because it's the right thing to do. But if you need a little incentive, that's a pretty good one.

Remaining silent has divine origins. The Talmud (Gittin 56b) evokes the praise of God following the Second Temple's destruction as "mi kamocha ba'ilmim Hashem" - "Who is like You among the mute ones O God" (this is a play on words of the phrase "mi kamocha ba'eilim Hashem" - "Who is like You among the mighty ones, O God"). It is referencing how God remained silent in the face of the profane conduct of Titus. This is the Creator of the Universe we're talking about - and it's concerning the destruction of His home on earth - and yet He's willing to exercise restraint! All we have to do is let go of our egos a little bit and try in our own small way to emulate God's characteristics when someone happens to say or do something that personally offends us.

Making our displeasure known with those with whom we disagree is often not worth it. Do we really have to get in our two cents every time we come across some subjective difference with a fellow Jew? Even when someone has objectively hurt us in some way, we have to make sure that our subsequent behavior is constructive. Unless we're fairly certain that rebuking them would have a positive effect, it's best to maintain our composure and simply keep quiet. All we can do is make the best decision based on the information we have at the time. Sometimes we'll still make a poor choice despite thinking before speaking, but at least we'll be more cognizant of our behavior and less likely to hurt someone else.

We have to pick our fights in life. There are times when speaking up is extremely important. For example, when it comes to fighting evil - especially something as serious as radical Islamic terrorism - good people of all stripes must speak out and act. But in the micro realm of life, keeping quiet is usually the best way to go. For example, when it comes to relationships between individuals - especially people we see day in and day out - letting things go is often a wise choice. Routinely following this mode of behavior is a great way to keep the peace. We don't have to be passive; we just have to use some self-restraint.

Our generation greatly values people who speak their minds. In many respects, this has been a positive development. However, a better world will only be achieved when silence is valued just as much - if not more. As the proverbial saying goes, "speech is silver; silence is golden."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In the Service of Others

Shortly before his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University. Stiles had asked this founding father of the United States about his personal views on religion. Franklin graciously responded:

"Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them."

The origin of these ideas date back to Abraham, the original monotheist, as well as Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, who elucidated that the primary principle of the Torah is to be good to other people. His words form the essence of what we are on earth to do. Namely, to act decently toward one another. Although Benjamin Franklin was not Jewish, the guiding principles of his life were rooted in Jewish wisdom. Similarly, the founding of the United States is often described as Judeo-Christian. While there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian theology (e.g. Jews don't believe in the divinity of human beings and Christians don't keep kosher), there is such a thing as Judeo-Christian values (i.e. Jewish ideas that have been spread predominately by Christians).

Ironically, Franklin's image is used on the one hundred-dollar bill and often symbolizes our materialistic culture. However, if people were to more closely follow Franklin's creed, there would be far less greed. While there's nothing wrong with pursuing a good economic life (as long as it's done ethically), it can easily be taken to an extreme and destroy us. This is one of the difficult lessons the world in general, and America in particular, is learning during the current economic crisis. We were not created solely to amass wealth; we are here to emulate God's characteristics of bestowal. And each person according to their abilities can do so.

Earlier this week, America celebrated Memorial Day, and Israel recently observed Yom Hazikaron. The service of the men and women in the American and Israeli armed forces has helped spread freedom to millions of people, Jew and non-Jew alike. Those who put their lives on the line - and especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice - represent the epitome of service to others. I am humbled to know that some readers of this blog are actively serving overseas or have served in the American or Israeli military. Whether fellow Jews or fellow Americans (or both), thank you for your service.

It's truly inspirational to know people whose lifestyle is modeled to help others, from the soldier abroad to the caring neighbor at home. While it's only human to think of ourselves first, self-centeredness will not lead to a fulfilling life. There's a reason why it feels good to come through for someone else - because that's what God wants from us. At the very least, we must not hurt one another. And at best, we must try to actively help each other. As Albert Einstein put it: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."