Tuesday, April 17, 2018

New Jews with an Old Song


Only in Israel could there be an organization like Koolulam which organizes large sing alongs with people from every ideology and religious background. It describes itself as a “social-musical initiative aimed at bringing together people from all corners of the diverse, multi-cultural Israeli society. Our idea is to stop everything for a few hours and just sing – together...”. Only in Israel could hundreds of people come to sing together, precisely because they know they are different from each other, yet at the same time, very much the same. And by singing together, they bring about inspiration and unity.

For Yom HaShoah, Koolulam produced an unique sing along (see video below). Partnering with Beit Avi Chai and Zikaron BaSalon, a group of 600 Holocaust survivors and their families sang Ofra Hazah’s hit song “Chai”, which has the following chorus:

..חי, חי, חי
כן, אני עוד חי.
זה השיר שסבא
שר אתמול לאבא
והיום אני.

אני עוד חי, חי, חי,
עם ישראל חי….


“Alive, alive, alive - Yes, I'm still alive!
This is the song which grandfather
Sang yesterday to father
And today I [sing]
I'm still alive, alive, alive
The people of Israel live”


The video of this sing along was highlighted in Jewish media across the world. But the media accounts left out  a significant point: “Chai” was originally composed in response to the Holocaust. It was written by Ehud Manor, the famed Israeli composer, when he heard that the Eurovision contest was going to be in Munich, Germany in 1983. He wanted to tell the German nation that we, the Jewish people, were still alive. When the song was performed, the back up singers all wore yellow, the color of the hated yellow star. Manor recounts how he was emotionally overwhelmed when the singers sang the words “Am Yisrael Chai” on the German stage.

However, this song forces us to wrestle with a mystery: How is is it that “Am Yisrael chai”? How did the weaklings of exile find their way to redemption after 1,900 years? What happened 70 years ago was unparalleled; a wandering people rebuilt their state after 1,900 years in exile, and a people that had sustained a Holocaust found the strength and courage to defeat powerful adversaries with far larger armies.

How did this happen?

This question was actually posed well before the State was established, by the founders of the Zionist movement. They wondered how the Jew of exile would ever manage to build an independent state. To this, they offered two answers: a “New Jew”, and an old song.

The New Jew answer is actually an old one. According the medieval thinkers Avraham ibn Ezra[1] and Maimonides[2], the generation that left Egypt was not capable of going to Israel because their character was weak; only their children, raised in the desolation of the desert, would be courageous enough to conquer Israel. The Jews needed to wait for a new generation of Jews before entering the land of Israel.

Early Zionist thinkers also saw the need for a “New Jew”. Max Nordau in a letter in 1903, said that his motto was: "We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles." He explained that “the fear of constant persecution.. turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face            of their executioners. But now… ..let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”[3]

For some, New Jew theory was an attack on established religious and communal norms; and it was seen this way by many in the Orthodox community. Remarkably enough, this theory was adopted by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook. In a highly controversial passage, he wrote that exercise for the sake of making one stronger to build the land of Israel was so holy, that “when young people engage in sport to strengthen the power and spirit for the sake of the might of the entire nation, that holy service raises God’s Presence higher and higher, equal to (reciting) the songs and praises that David, King of Israel, expressed in the book of Psalms.”[4] To Rav Kook, a secular soldier’s pushups are equal to a pious man’s prayers.

But many felt that the heart and soul of Zionism came from an “old song”, a dogged refusal by Jews to forget the land of Israel. In 1902, the founding manifesto of the Mizrachi movement declared that “We have always been united by that ancient hope, by the promise which lies at the very roots of our religion, namely, that only out of Zion will the Lord bring redemption to the people of Israel.”[5]  In Psalm 137, the Jews, upon reaching the Babylonian exile, promise never to forget Jerusalem:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.”

While these words are familiar, their context is forgotten. This chapter comes right after 16 straight chapters of Psalms recited in the Temple. The worry in exile is that the songs of the Temple will be reduced to nostalgia, sentimental tokens of a forgotten past. Psalm 137 proclaims clearly, from the first moments of exile, that the Temple Psalms are not going to be a relic of the past, but a blueprint for the future. Jews vowed they would eventually leave exile and return to Jerusalem and once again sing these songs. “If I forget you O Jerusalem” is “the song which grandfather sang yesterday to father”, the song which declared that Israel is not just part of the Jewish past, but also the Jewish future.

This old song, composed on the river banks of Babylon, gave us hope throughout exile. Eliezer Ayalon (Lazar Hirschenfeis) was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in Treblinka. He came to Israel in 1945, and fought in the War of Independence (as did thousands of other survivors). In an interview in 2008[6], Ayalon recalled “The love of this country that was imbued in me by my parents from early childhood made me decide that I am going to Eretz Yisrael.” He concluded by saying that “here I am right now, I have two married children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world.” Such is the power of an old song.

In the end, both answers were correct. The miracle that occurred 70 years ago was the product of New Jews singing an old song. It took the courage and daring of a new generation combined with the hopes of 2,000 years to bring us back to our homeland. And that spirit still lives, 70 years later.

Danny Gordis recounts a story that exemplifies this attitude[7].  In 2004, The Pelech School dedicated a Sefer Torah. This Torah had been brought to Israel by a group of 12th grade students who went on a heritage trip to Poland in 1990. (It was restored by another class, 14 years later). The students had gone to the Krakow market, and noticed someone selling “Jew Dolls”, crude caricatures of Hasidic Jews studying from a book. They took a closer look at the “books” the dolls were holding, and realized they had been cut out of a Sefer Torah. So they asked the seller where these parchment fragments came from, and he explained that his uncle had gotten the Torah scroll from a synagogue in Luminova. Immediately, they began negotiations to buy what remained of the Torah, and the girls pooled their pocket money to buy the damaged Torah scroll. But then they had a dilemma: what should they do with it? It was illegal to take the Torah out of Communist Poland; it was considered to be the property of the state. Gordis explains what happened next:

“They talked it over, and after a while, …."ha-lev gavar al ha-sechel" -- "the heart trumped reason." They decided to smuggle the Torah out of Poland and to bring it home to Jerusalem.

At the airport, however, each of them was required to put all their bags onto the x-ray machine. The first girl in the line, when she was told to put her bags on the belt, passed the Torah to the next girl in line. When that girl was told to do the same thing, she surreptitiously passed it to the girl behind her. And so forth. For the next few minutes, the Torah silently made its way back the line, until it seemed that they were not going to get it out.

And then, the belt broke. The machine just quit. The Polish authorities, too concerned with fixing the belt to inspect all the bags being brought through, just ushered the remaining girls by and the Torah made it out.”

The belt broke!! And the Torah was carried by these courageous teenage girls back to Israel. Gordis then wonders how the girls knew to do this:

How did they know that this Torah simply had to come home? Why, in a world in which last year's news is ancient history, did they know that the story of the Jews of Leminova, whoever they were, is their story, too?

How did they know? The answer is: because they are new Jews, but singing an old song. That is why these girls smuggled the Torah from Leminova to Israel; and that is why their parents and grandparents smuggled and struggled their way into Israel as well. Even 1,900 years after being exiled, successive generations continued to sing the songs of their grandfathers and grandmothers. They might live in a new world, with new technologies and perspectives, and thankfully they have a toughness that perhaps was lacking in previous generations; but inside their heart echoes the words of an old song: Am Yisrael Chai!!

Happy 70th, Israel!










[1] Exodus 14:13
[2] Guide for the Perplexed 3:32
[3] “Jewry of Muscle”, Max Nordau in The Jew in the Modern World, Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, Jehuda Reinharz, pages 547-548
[4] Orot HaTechiyah 34
[5] The Jew in the Modern World, page 549
[6] http://www.yadvashem.org/articles/interviews/ayalon.html
[7] Daniel Gordis, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, pages 20-23

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz Delivers Invocation in NYS Assembly Chamber - Marc...

I am proud of the work of Teach NYS, and to have joined in on their lobbying mission in Albany.





Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Subversive Conclusion to Avodah Zarah: Some Siyum Thoughts



The Tractate of Avodah Zarah ends with a fascinating story:
“….that incident involving Mar Yehuda, an important personage of the house of the Exilarch, and Bati bar Tuvi, a wealthy man, who were sitting before King Shapur, the king of Persia. The king’s servants brought an etrog before them. The king cut a slice and ate it, and then he cut a slice and gave it to Bati bar Tuvi. He then stuck the knife ten times in the ground, cut a slice, and gave it to Mar Yehuda. Bati bar Tuvi said to him: And is that man,referring to himself, not Jewish? King Shapur said to him: I am certain of that master, Mar Yehuda, that he is meticulous about halakha; but I am not certain of that master, referring to Bati bar Tuvi, that he is meticulous in this regard. There are those who say that King Shapur said to him: Remember what you did last night. The Persian practice was to present a woman to each guest, with whom he would engage in intercourse. Mar Yehuda did not accept the woman who was sent to him, but Bati bar Tuvi did, and therefore he was not assumed to be meticulous with regard to eating kosher food.”
A non-Jewish king, Shapur, is serving an etrog to two Jews, one who is pious, and one who is not. King Shapur "sharply" distinguishes between the two, and only meticulously koshers the knife before serving one, and not the other. He explains he knows which Jew has acted according to Jewish values, and which has not.

The symbolism of this story is powerful. First of all, the etrog is a biblical symbol of beauty, yet within this etrog are divisions, and not all of the etrog is the same. The lesson is that even a people of goodness will not be uniformly good, they are not one undivided “etrog” so to speak. If Judaism aspires to bring a vision of morality and spiritual beauty to the world, a Jew must make himself worthy of this status. It is not automatically bestowed by birth.

Most importantly, like in many other tractates, the final passage Avodah Zarah comments on the theme of the tractate; in this case the message is subversive in the best sense of the word, an attempt in a few lines to balance the message of the tractate. So after an entire tractate of judging the practices of non-Jews, distinguishing between what is idolatrous and what is not, the tables are turned: now it is the non-Jewish King who is judging the Jews.

This final passage sends off the tractate with lessons that balance an otherwise endless critique of non-Jewish paganism. It reminds us that Jews are only considered worthy if they embrace Jewish values, and it cautions us not to descend into stereotypes, to recognize there are both wise and discerning non-Jewish Kings, and Jewish rascals. Even when critiquing the vapidity and corruption of surrounding cultures, don’t be intolerant; and of course, you must never become triumphalistic, forgetting that how to engage in self criticism.

Hadran Alach Mesechet Avodah Zarah.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Remembering, Forgetting, and Transcending Slavery



Are nightmares worth remembering? Should we block out traumatic events? This question was a constant debate among Holocaust survivors. In my own family, my aunt talked extensively about her experiences during the Holocaust, while my mother rarely spoke about those events. When I got older I asked my mother why, and she explained that she wanted to protect us from the horrors that had ravaged her young life.

This debate is a very old one. The Rabbis of the Talmud already wondered if we should try to supress anguished thoughts, or speak about them with others[1]. Some philosophers have felt that suppressing negative memories is the path to happiness. Nietzsche, in Genealogy of Morals, writes that: “... we can immediately see how there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness. The person in whom this apparatus of suppression is damaged, so that it stops working, can be compared (and not just compared –) to a dyspeptic; he cannot ‘cope’ with anything…”[2] In Psychology, a very different view of trauma took hold. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud treated their patients by making them recall repressed memories of traumatic events. As they put it: “The repressed idea takes its revenge, however, by becoming pathogenic[3].” We might intuitively think that forgetting trauma is helpful; but Freud takes the view that repressed memories can cause more pain while forgotten than when remembered.

Remembering and forgetting is not just an issue for philosophers and psychologists; it is a political issue. Revolutionaries would rather forget the past. One example is the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960’s. In 1966, a concerted campaign was made against “The Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Objects of veneration, traditional literature, and ancient cultural artifacts were all eliminated. In Mao Zedong’s view, you need to forget the past in order to embrace the future.

The same revolutionary spirit can be found among many early Zionists. They wanted to “negate the exile”, and begin a new society with a new identity, because the past was a weight holding Jews back from sovereignty. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his Eulogy for Herzl that “our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent…..The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"”. Revolution occurs by turning your back on the past.

The Zionist ideal of “negating exile” made it imperative for many to forget the Holocaust. In general, there was a feeling in the air that people wanted to move on. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral”, because these events were then only attended by survivors. Native North americans often times made survivors uncomfortable. A friend of mine who is a survivor told me that when she emigrated to Canada after the war, she found that if she tried to talk about her experiences, people would say to her “well in Canada, we also had butter rationing”. She quickly learned to keep her mouth shut. In Israel, there was an even harsher attitude. There are multiple anecdotes about young Israelis demonizing the survivors themselves, as if they were responsible for being victims. Aharon Appelfeld, in his autobiography, tells of survivors visiting Israeli schools and being questioned accusingly about why they didn’t resist and were led like sheep to the slaughter.

But this attitude changed in the 1960’s. The Eichmann trial in 1961 reopened conversations that had pushed aside; and the Six Day War in 1967, when so many were worried about Israel’s annihilation, enabled many in the “new generation” to recognize that they had more in common with the old generation than they had previously realized. By the late 1960’s, the Jewish community understood that it could no longer cut it self off from the traumas of the Holocaust.

This change in attitude is welcome. Yes, focusing on past tragedies can reinforce a negative self image as a victim and increase pessimism; but it also can teach critical lessons on the road to freedom.

The Talmud tells us that the format of the Haggadah is that one “begins with (the Jewish people’s) disgrace (slavery) and concludes with their glory (freedom)”[4]. One might think that the importance of mentioning the disgrace of slavery is merely a narrative device, the background to the triumph of redemption. But actually, the Talmud elsewhere remarks that the narrative of disgrace needs to spoken in a loud voice[5], to ensure that slavery is remembered as well.

What is the point to revisiting the trauma of slavery? Because it can strengthen our sense of freedom. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being durable; it is being able to adapt to every threat, and overcome them. He uses the example of Hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of a poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system, and readies it to fight off future threats.

On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling one’s family history. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have  found that the most resilient children are deeply familiar with own their family's history, and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges, but then overcome challenges. Knowing how their own family overcame adversity in the past made children psychologically stronger. This is psychological hormesis, where children learn how transcend their own challenges by remembering past challenges.

Psychological hormesis is why we recite the full Exodus story from the beginnings of slavery at the Seder. We recall the traumas of exile to teach an important lesson to our children: if we have transcended slavery in the past, we can do so again in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance[6].” We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us, and helps us transcend future challenges.

Each year, I feel like I need to explain anew the importance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which follows Pesach by just a few days. People wonder why we would want to remember such horror, and there is a yearly flurry of op-eds about why we emphasize too much on the greatest tragedy in Jewish history[7]. But in actuality, the question isn’t much of a question. The Holocaust is part of  a oscillating story of exile and redemption; retelling it, along with the heroic stories of survival, actually build resilience.

In 2002 I read an article that encapsulated the importance of always telling our moments of slavery in a loud voice. After 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Passover Seder in a hotel in Netanya, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. During the campaign, n May 2002, the following newspaper account was written about one of the Israeli Generals[8]:

“During the fierce fighting in Jenin, Israel's Commander in Chief, General Shaul Mofaz, came to inspect the fighting forces in the area. He gathered the commanders and officers for a briefing. He suddenly noticed that one of his Major Generals, Avraham Gutman, had a long rip on his army shirt. He immediately asked him about the tear;  Gutman told him that his mother had passed away the day before and that he had just come from the funeral. (One of the customs of mourning is the tearing of one's garment.)
General Mofaz immediately ordered him to leave the command post and return home to sit Shiva for his mother.  Avraham refused his Commander in Chief, and told Mofaz the following story.
He had volunteered to join his unit when he heard that they had been called up for Operation Defensive Shield. Within days his unit began preparations around the terrorist enclave in Jenin. It was not too long before he and his unit began the painstaking mopping up operation in the city.
In the midst of the second day of battle, as he was speaking to the Regional Commander, Eyal Shlein , his cell phone rang. He saw that the caller was his 92 year old mother. All of his family knew not to call him while he was in the army, so the call itself was a mystery. His commander said to him " Your Imma (mother) is more important than anything else... answer the call."
His mother said "I have two things to tell you. The first is that as a commander in the field you have a responsibility to bring your soldiers back home, safe and sound."
Then she said: “Remember Avraham, You are my revenge against the Nazis." With that she hung up.
Several hours later Avraham Guttman’s mother passed away, and he went to her funeral. So why did he return to his troops?  Guttman explained to Mofaz: "I have no choice. I am returning to battle.  This was my mother's last request!"
Avraham Guttman’s story is our story. From our very beginnings in Egypt, the Jews have never forgotten past traumas; but we haven’t been defeated by them either. Instead, we have used memories of slavery to transcend slavery, because the lesson we have learned is that if a people can be redeemed from exile once, they can be redeemed from any exile. And by remembering slavery this way, we have found a way to turn tragedy into strength. Just ask Avraham Guttman.



[1] Yoma 75a
[2] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay two, Section one
[3] On Hysteria, by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, The Case of Miss Lucy R.
[4] Pesachim 116a
[5] Sotah 32b
[6] Exodus and Revolution, page 4
[7] I have offered other responses in “WhyVisiting Auschwitz Still Matters”, Jewish Week, February 27, 2018
[8] Avraham Guttman:A Soldier of the Jewish People, Hatsofeh, May 3, 2002


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters

Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters: Salo Baron, perhaps the greatest 20th-century Jewish historian, argued vociferously against the “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history. In 1928,......

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Call Your Mother


Late in his career, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked the University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. Bryant was to speak about how he instructed his young football recruits to call home. The script called for Coach Bryant to end the commercial in his tough, gruff voice and say: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, Coach Bryant ad-libbed the ending, and with a emotional voice said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.”.  

While I don’t make it a habit of quoting football coaches, “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine” is actually a very profound message. Yes, we all know we should call our mothers; but we don’t call, at least not as often as we should. Why?

In Chassidut, there is a mystical concept called “gadlut hamochin v’katnut hamochin” or “great mindedness and small mindedness”. The Bnei Yissaschar, Rav Elimelech of Dinov, explains this is about seeing the big picture without fixating mindlessly on the small picture.

Katnut hamochin is about the small picture, about getting the little things done. One must get the little things done; laundry needs to be washed and checkbooks need to be balanced. Everyday minutiae are inescapable; even the most spiritual man needs to eat a nourishing lunch.

But katnut hamochin becomes a problem when it monopolizes your consciousness. It’s easy to fixate on the details and lose sight of the big picture. Minding the mundane can rapidly devolve into small mindedness.

A classic example is the instinctive response to hurry.

On April 10, 1971, The New York Times reported about two academics at Princeton:
 
“Prof. John M. Darley, who teaches psychology at the university, and C. Daniel Batson, a doctor of theology doing graduate work in psychology there while teaching at the Princeton Theological Seminary, ...recruited 40 volunteers from the seminary. Explaining that they were studying the vocational placement of seminarians, Dr. Batson and  Professor Darley asked each to record a brief talk on a given text. To half the volunteers they presented a text on job opportunities; the other half got a text of the Good Samaritan parable. (Which talks about people refusing to help a an injured man on the side of the road - C.S.)......

One by one the volunteers were then told to proceed from Green Hall to record their talk in the Annex….The volunteers were dispatched at 15
minute intervals….and there—lying in a doorway in the alley—was a young man coughing and groaning and possibly in pain. The “victim” had been put there by Dr. Batson and Professor Darley to see if the seminarians would play the role of the Good Samaritan — or pass him by……

Of the 40, a total of 16 stopped to help. Twentyfour did not swerve from their path. One even stepped over the “victim” to get through the doorway he had mistaken for the one he wanted.

What determined whether a man stopped to help—or passed by? The simple answer turned out to be not the personality or character of the seminarian, but simply whether he was in a hurry.

Of those in the “low hurry” condition, 63 per cent stopped to help. In the “intermediate hurry” condition, 45 per cent stopped. In “high hurry,” 10 per cent stopped to offer help.”

This response would be shocking, except that it’s not. The seminary students know better, but forget everything in pursuit of arriving on time; and so does everyone. When we are stuck in traffic we lose our temper, unwilling to accept the unchangeable; and when we get a small opening to move forward, we frequently drive recklessly, throwing caution to the wind. Being in a hurry is a moment of fixation on katnut when we often forget the big picture.

Small mindedness is far more common today. Our smartphones are designed to make us constantly focus on the immediate, and social media is calibrated to get us to focus on trivialities like selfies and tweets. At the same time, an overabundance of choice has us fixating on insignificant details. Everything we want can be customized in endless ways; and these choices offer more confusion than comfort. There are times where both options are excellent, and yet we get so absorbed in the details that we are upset if we don’t get exactly what we want. I have been at weddings where the bride was upset about the tablecloths, because they weren’t what she ordered; and so on the happiest day of her life, instead of celebrating her new marriage, she is lamenting the mismatched linens.

While we wade through an endless stream of appointments, emails, and tablecloth choices, we are so bombarded with details we forget…. to call our mothers. That is the wisdom of this saying: we forget to call our mothers because we get caught up in the urgent but unimportant details of our lives.

So how do we evade fixation, the small minded katnut of the soul? With the second lesson: “I wish I could”.

This lesson is the foundation of all practical wisdom: one day we will die. Mortality demands that we live life thoughtfully; as Marcus Aurelius put it: “Live each day as if it were your last”. Or, as Rabbi Tarphon put it in an earlier statement: “The day is short and the work is great”.

Here too, the advice sounds simple, but is not. The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) explains that our mortality is hidden from us. In other words, we don’t believe every day is our last.  We have a psychological blind spot, and instinctively repress any thoughts of our own mortality. Sigmund Freud, in  Reflections on War and Death, notes that:

We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators….. in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

No person can imagine his own death, because in our imagination, we are always a spectator to the scene, very much alive while observing our funeral! This is why we don’t live each day as if it were our last: because we really don’t believe it to be true.

But what does one do when they really know it is their last day?  Peggy Noonan wrote a powerful column in 2006 about the final messages people left during the 9/11 tragedy, when they were aware of what was going to happen. She noted that:

People said what counted, what mattered. It has been noted that there is no record of anyone calling to say, "I never liked you," or, "You hurt my feelings." No one negotiated past grievances or said, "Vote for Smith." Amazingly -- or not -- there is no record of anyone damning the terrorists or saying "I hate them."

Noonan explains: “Crisis is a great editor”. 

The messages from those in their last moments of life on 9/11 are moving, because they are true examples of what it means to live each day as your last.

       Flight 93 flight attendant Ceecee Lyles, 33 years old, left an answering-machine message to her husband: "Please tell my children that I love them very much. I'm sorry, baby. I wish I could see your face again."

       Capt. Walter Hynes from Ladder 13 (down the street from KJ),  dialed home that morning as his rig left the firehouse and said: "I don't know if we'll make it out. I want to tell you that I love you and I love the kids”.

       Shimmy Beigeleisen on the 97th floor of the south tower, spoke to his family and his friends. In his last moments on the phone, in a voice hoarse with smoke, he recited the 24th Psalm (in Hebrew) with them, beginning with the words: "Of David a Psalm. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it ..."

These heroes demonstrate what really is meant by “living every day as your last”: to focus exclusively on love, meaning, and spirituality.

Years ago, I officiated at a funeral where one of the children mentioned in his eulogy that even though he lived out of town, he had called his mother every day. After the funeral I got into my car, and  thought to myself: I never do that. I was living in Montreal, and I called my mother in Monsey perhaps once a week. And so I started, right there in the car, to call my mother every day, and to put my kids on the phone so they could say hello, and did so until the end of my mother’s life. I was lucky to learn that lesson before it was too late.

A final lesson from this quote is about something simpler: why do we call our mothers?

Because they make a difference. Sometimes parents are called upon to be heroes. Think of Hadar Goldin’s parents, who have put their own lives on hold to find a way to get their son’s body back from Hamas.

But most parents have smaller, but no less significant tasks to fulfill. They listen, drive carpools, hug away tears, buy ice cream, and make dinner.

Small deeds may seem small, but often make a big difference, because no good deed is small. Maimonides contends we should always see the world as evenly balanced between good and evil, and see each good deed we do as the one that might tip the world from the side of evil to the side of good; the size of the deed doesn’t matter, because even the small ones will tip the world to the side of good. It is parents who excel as those small, world changing good deeds. As one Rabbi once put it: “I learned more from my mother’s chicken soup than I did in all my years in Rabbinical school.”

Yes, even a favorite food recipe can make a big difference.  Barbara Sofer, tells of one such story (The Human Spirit: Brit In Beersheba, Jerusalem Post, November 8, 2007 ).

She writes about Pvt. Shimon Ohana, who on his first combat assignment, leapt forward to protect a child and took a bullet in the chest. When he arrived at Hadassah-University Hospital he was initially declared dead. After surgery and treatments, the medical team was able to revive Pvt. Ohana. But his recovery stalled because Shimon refused to eat. They spoke to his mother Rahel, and found out that Shimon was a picky eater. So the surgeon asked her: what does your son like to eat? Only her homemade meatballs. So Mrs. Ohana was sent home to Beersheba to cook her son spicy Moroccan meatballs.

The next morning she returned with the meatballs, and they began to feed her son. As Sofer describes it: “When Shimon finished his first meatball, he made awful gulping sounds. At first Rahel thought she'd injured her son, but then she realized he simply wanted more. His doctor nodded. Shimon swallowed another meatball and made the same scary sounds. Four meatballs later he was calm and quiet.

Before long he left the hospital on his own two feet.”

The story continues with Shimon recovering, getting married, and having children.

Perhaps this is the first time a mother’s meatballs saved a life. Or maybe it’s not; the little things mothers do are much larger than they appear at the time.

With this, we have completed our exploration of Bear Bryant’s simple yet profound lesson:

       Remember not to get tangled up in life and forget to do the important things.
       Remember that we don’t have a lifetime to get those important things done.
       And sometimes the most important things to do are little things, like the little things mothers do for us.

So call your mother. I sure wish I could call mine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?



My mother was sixteen when she was sent to the Kolozsvár Ghetto. There, as she and her family were stripped of their remaining possessions, she experienced her first taste of the torture the Nazis would inflict on her. Men were taken out at night by Hungarian guards and members of the Gestapo, and a flame was held to their feet to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the any gems or gold they might have hidden. From that point on, things only got worse. She was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz, then sent to a labor camp a few weeks later, and finally, towards the end of the war, escaped while on a death march.

Those first moments of freedom must have been frightening for my mother. How does a 17 year old girl look forward to life without a home, a country, a single possession? What do you have when you have nothing?

As my children were entering their teens, I would emphasize to them the contrast between their childhood and my mother’s. I used to think of this contrast only in one direction, as in how much more my children have than their grandmother did at their age: freedom, security, and material comfort.

Now, I think there is another contrast: my children’s generation, with all of its material advantages, still struggles with resilience and character. The generation of survivors, the people who had nothing, who had every reason to emotionally collapse, exhibited remarkable character. If you asked these survivors the question: what do you have when you have nothing? The answer would be, you have a lot.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote: “Omnia mea mecum porto” - “I am carrying all my things with me”.  Rav Azriel Hildesheimer,  at opening of Berlin Rabbinical Seminary in 1873, related this quote from Cicero to a Talmudic passage that says “Blessing rests only on a thing which is hidden from sight[1]. Rav Hildesheimer explains “that the only blessing is that which is invisible, that is, of the spirit and the idea.”, and that the lesson of Jewish history is that “the scorned, sold and mortgaged Jewish servant, who has been driven out at the whim of others, was continuously reminded, again and again, that his only true belonging was that which he carried with him constantly, which no one could separate him from[2].”

This lesson is what I learned from my mother’s example: the greatest gifts are the ones you carry in your heart.  These survivors, these penniless, unfortunate, persecuted refugees possessed something invaluable: their heart. And that is all that mattered.

But what do you carry in your heart? First of all, you carry your education with you; nothing could be more practical. Kohelet (4:13) writes: “Better to be a wise and poor youth, than a foolish and well established elder statesman.” In the end, wisdom is the most valuable commodity, and education has always been a Jewish priority.

A perfect example is the Jewish interest in medicine, a field Jews still dominate today. Dr. Avram Mark Clarfield offers an anecdote that underlines how unusual the Jewish dominance of medicine is:

“Several years ago, while talking to a group of physicians in an Edinburgh hospital, we got to discussing which nation had the monopoly on first-class medical research.


"It's clearly the Germans," offered a Scottish physician.


"Why?" I asked.

"Because the authors of most of the articles in the most prestigious American journals all have names like Levine, Glickman, Berliner and Feinstein--obviously all of German origin."

I smiled to myself.[3]


This keen interest in medicine goes back to the Middle Ages. Joseph Shatzmiller in Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society, tells of countries where less than 1 percent of the population was Jewish, yet Jews were over 50% of the doctors. Clearly, education was important to Jews, and in particular, medical education. Some have speculated that this is because that “by providing Jewish practitioners with a craft they could “carry” with them whenever they had to leave their homes and establish themselves in a new place, the practice of medicine also eased the harsh circumstances that stemmed from imposed migration (evictions and expulsions)[4].”

The wandering Jews of Europe needed an asset they could monetize anywhere; and so they relied on their education to support themselves whenever they had to find a new home.

But the lesson of Omnia mea mecum porto refers to more than education. It reminds us that the mindset we carry determines our happiness. This lesson, one that was stressed by the Stoics, finds expression in the Mishnah[5] that says “Who is the mighty one? He who conquers his impulse...Who is the rich one? He who is happy with his lot”. Strength and wealth are primarily a matter of mindset. When facing challenges courage is more important than strength; in everyday living, contentment is more important than wealth.

All of us would nod our heads in agreement when hearing these lessons. However, this is not the way we actually live. An abundance of material comfort doesn’t diminish material desires, but on the contrary, makes us more materialistic. The Talmud[6] sees the wealth the Jews took out of Egypt as a corrupting influence, and the motivating cause behind the Golden Calf.  Similarly, material success has reoriented the way Americans think. Tim Kasser notes that contemporary Americans think that the “goods life” is the path to the “good life”[7].  This mistake leads to a great deal of unhappiness. Kasser notes multiple studies that show that the more materialistic someone is, the less happy they are likely to be.

That is why the lesson of the Mishna is so significant: How many people actually are happy with their lot?

The experience of having nothing teaches us how to be grateful for everything. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “hunger is the best cook”. She said that the food she ate right after being liberated was the best meal she ever ate in her life, because the overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland food she ate. With the right outlook, any piece of food is exceptional; and the mindset of one who has nothing sees life as a gift, not a given.

Beyond education  and mindset, the final (and most important) item to carry is: values. (Before discussing this further, it needs to be noted that for a Jew, faith in God is a given, a spiritual oxygen that sustains us every day. And faith is an all encompassing value, and all other values are just a commentary on faith. But what are those other values?)

David Brooks, (based on The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik), coined two types of virtues a person can have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”[8].

Some virtues are about work: can you compete? Are you pragmatic? A good leader? A financial wizard? Other virtues are about the types of accomplishments people speak about at a funeral: Did you volunteer? What type of father were you? Were you idealistic? I would point out this contrast between the domains of “resume” and “eulogy” is not just about virtues; it is about priorities and values, about the content and purpose of life.

This lesson is found in Jeremiah (9:22-23), who inspires the Mishnah in its’ comments on the worthiness of strength, wisdom and wealth:

Thus says the Lord:


“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,

Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.


Jeremiah offers a harsh appraisal of human success. Do the resume virtues of wisdom, strength, or wealth matter? No, they are not important. What matters are the values love, justice and righteousness; what matters are eulogy virtues, which are a blueprint to the meaning of life. For this reason, Maimonides at the end of his great philosophical work, the Guide to the Perplexed[9], offers an exposition of this verse in Jeremiah, because he sees these values are the very purpose of our lives. 

Love, justice and righteousness are most compelling when you experience them directly. These eulogy virtues matter because we intuitively understand that they endow our lives with meaning. Dr. David Pelcovitz told me a powerful story about a 9 year old girl that illustrates how inspiring eulogy virtues are.

A 9 year old girl, encouraged by her mother, started to volunteer by visiting an elderly woman who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the woman explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.



The next day, the girl went to school and began to raise money. She went from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and ran off to her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local Ophthalmologist’s office.


The doctor examined the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps up and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.

The doctor does the operation.

The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother continues to talk, the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He told the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than any amount of money, because this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity and why he became a doctor in the first place.


This is a story about values: the values of a mother, a daughter and a doctor. They all understand the lesson of “Omnia mea mecum porto”, that it is what you carry in your heart that matters; and if your heart is filled with love, justice and righteousness you have everything you need. And if there is one lesson I want my own children to remember it is this: what you need most in life cannot be put in a suitcase. Just carry your education, carry your character, and carry your values;  then you will have everything you need.






[1] Baba Metzia 42a
[2] Marc Shapiro, “Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer’s Program of Torah u-Madda”, The Torah u-Madda Journal 9 (2000), page 80
[3] Clarfield, A. M. (2003). Jews and Medicine. Medical Post, 39(6), page 27
[4] Carmen Caballero Navas, “Medicine among Medieval Jews: The Science, the Art, and the Practice”, in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) page 339
[5] Pirkei Avot 4:1
[6] Berachot 43a
[7] Kasser, Tim (2006). Materialism and Its Alternatives. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (pp. 200-214).
[8] https://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy
[9] III:54