Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rejection Redefined

“I’m not interested”. “Leave me alone”. “Stop bothering me”. These are among the rejections I’ve received in the last few weeks. I have been canvassing on behalf of the Montreal Federation/CJA, and with canvassing comes rejection. Yes, most people have been polite, some even quite generous, but there were a few people who treated me with contempt. And I must say, those rejections really hurt.

In fact, it is human nature to avoid rejection. Instinctually, we avoid being left out of the group; we try our hardest to fit in. We quickly learn that any behaviour that courts disapproval from others can make us unpopular in general. As a consequence, we train ourselves to avoid anything that invites rejection. This is the basis of the fear of rejection.

This fear of rejection prevents us from doing some things we truly desire. We avoid asking for raises, asking people out on dates, even asking for directions, because we don’t want to be rejected. Indeed, most salesman have to be trained to turn off this deeply rooted instinct so they can do their jobs. It is often important for us to forget our fear of rejection.

But it is not only our fear of rejection that matters. Our understanding of rejection can determine the course of our lives. Rejection is often viewed as the end of a narrative, as in “I applied to Oxford, I was rejected, and therefore I was doomed to a second tier school”. I tried, I was rejected, end of story. Rejection can mean only one thing: the end of our hopes and dreams.

This need not be the way rejection is viewed. One can see failures as temporary setbacks, or even valuable lessons. As Winston Churchill put it “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”.

No question, it is difficult to recover from the great rejections in life. A firing, divorce, or bankruptcy are crushing rejections. It is hard to pick yourself up and start again from the bottom, particularly if you have already tasted success. However, the only way to prevent rejection from being the final chapter is if we are willing to write a new one.

Indeed, the most inspiring success stories are the ones in which the protagonist carries on after enduring a crushing defeat, and succeeds. Like the inventor who tries thousands of experiments before realizing a major breakthrough. Or the best selling author who was single mother on welfare. Or the previously failed politician who rallies his country to victory in a world war. Or the lonely, penniless holocaust survivor who, years later, leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy and a loving family. Or for that matter, the nation that was exiled for nearly 2,000 years until it finally returned home. These are all examples of people who saw rejection as a mere obstacle on the road to success.

Rejections are crushing. However, their impact depends a great deal on our perspective. It is up to us to redefine rejection, and struggle to start again. Because a failure is only final when we give up hope.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Thanksgiving Eyes

I rarely feel like a foreigner. As an American, I don’t feel out of place in Canada (meme Montreal!). But on Thanksgiving, I get homesick. Yes, Canada has a Thanksgiving too, but it’s a pretty tepid affair, basically an October rerun of Labour Day.

To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pretty banal: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it feels like a national holiday. It may sound corny, but most Americans appreciate their country as a divine gift, and that’s what we celebrate on Thanksgiving.

But you don’t have to be an American to understand thanksgiving. Gratitude is a moral imperative. Reciprocity is one of the foundations of decency: if you receive something, you are obliged to show appreciation. Gratitude is also an important character trait.

But gratitude is not only an ethical obligation; it is also a perspective on life. When we take life for granted, many things upset us. How often do we start the day, annoyed by the fact that the kids/the dog/the neighbour woke us up early? And then we search for that one missing thing: the important file, the homework, the car keys. By the time we leave the house, our blood is at a full boil, and then we remember that stressful meeting at 10:00 o’clock. And it’s only 7:30 A.M.!

When you see the world with thanksgiving eyes, none of these problems matter. Thanksgiving eyes see the world from the perspective of gratitude. They notice all the things we take for granted, like eating and friendship, and see them for what they truly are, divine blessings.

For this reason, in the morning prayers, we thank God individually for all the little blessings. For opening our eyes. For clothes. For the strength to sit up. For the strength to stand up. For the ability to walk. Actually, these are not little blessings; they are overlooked blessings. That’s why you need thanksgiving eyes, to remember how large these “little” blessings really are. And when you can truly count your blessings, the “stressful” things in our agenda melt into insignificance.

A woman I knew kept a diary while battling cancer. In each entry she made sure to count her blessings, despite her difficulties. She would take note of the “little” things, like family members, fine food, and a few moments of laughter. She did this until the end, remembering the blessings that she still had in her grasp even as her life was slipping away. She saw life from the perspective of gratitude. In doing so, she made the end of her life count by focussing on the things in life that count the most.

Thanksgiving eyes are there to remind us that the ordinary is actually extraordinary, and the mundane is actually miraculous. With this outlook, every day is Thanksgiving day, no matter where you might live.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Living Life on Tippy Toes

Life is short. This old cliche became a cliche because it is so true. Nevertheless, we ignore this piece of wisdom, and live our daily lives as if we’re immortal. That is, until we confront a tragedy. Then, we are shocked by how absurdly fragile life really is, and realize that time flies by ridiculously fast. All of a sudden, we’re no longer immortal, and life is much too short. And we’re left wondering how to deal with our lilliputian lifespans.

Well, if you observe some of the shortest people, children, you’ll see they have a fascinating way of coping with shortness: they stand on tippy toes. If they have to look over a taller person, they stand on tippy toes. If they have to reach something up high, they stand on tippy toes. They seem to be forever standing on tippy toes, trying to be just a few inches taller.

Perhaps what we need to do is live life on tippy toes. Yes, life might be short, but we can always find ways to stretch it a bit further.

One way to live life on tippy toes is by grabbing hold of peak moments. To a clock, all time is absolutely equal: each second has a uniform length. However, for humans, all minutes are not created equal. There are many mediocre minutes and some sensational seconds. For us, a minute spent standing under the chuppah waiting to get married is far more important than a minute spent standing in line at the grocery. One experience is forgettable; the other is a peak moment. Life stretches just a bit longer when we seek out and savour our peak moments.

Exceptional events like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs are clearly peak moments. But there are other peak moments, less obvious but no less remarkable. Like volunteering at a soup kitchen. Tucking a child into bed. Taking your mom out for lunch. Going for coffee with your spouse. Having Friday night dinner with friends. We overlook the little peak moments, and often do more "important" things, like work. But no one ever sat on their deathbed wondering why they didn’t spend more time working. But I can attest, people do sit on their deathbeds wondering where the pitter patter of little feet have gone, and why they let their loving spouses slip away. They wonder why their lives seem so short, having neglected to live on tippy toes.

The Midrash says at the end of holiday season, God asked the Jews to stay for one more day of rejoicing. After a wonderful week of festivities, God simply can’t let go of a peak moment, and needs one more day of celebration. I believe this is meant as a model for all of us; we must try to hang on to our peak moments, stretching time a bit further. We do this because life is short, and we must live on tippy toes.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Wounded Healer

We all remember the nicks and scratches of childhood.I vividly remember an incident in the third grade. It was after a schoolyard fight, and two friends ignored me all through recess. As we were walking back into school, one of them pointed to me and said “we aren’t talking to Chaim; he’s not normal, you know. He doesn’t have a father, and anyone who doesn’t have a father must be crazy.” The remark really hurt; it’s never enjoyable to be an orphan; but the cruel schoolyard teasing poured salt into an open wound.

What is remarkable is how the pain of childhood misfortunes persists. Absent or abusive parents, deprivations, sibling rivalries, and a host of other issues remain a part of us dozens of years later. And we spend a lifetime searching for relief from lingering wounds.The search for relief takes us in many directions. The self help section of the bookstore. Comfort food. Scotch. Shopping “therapy”. Psychologists. Kabbalah water. Prozac. We open up. We let it out. We bear down. We move on. And in fact, some of the legitimate techniques (and even some of the phony ones) actually help.

But what’s fascinating is that some of the emotionally wounded are drawn to help others, reaching beyond their own pain to extend a helping hand. They become what Henri Nouwen, the French theologian, calls a “wounded healer”.

The wounded healer uses his own suffering as a source of healing. He realizes certain scars are permanent, and even the best therapies leave a residue of pain. So he searches for a positive response to suffering, and finds it in kindness and altruism. His own pain is now a guide for healing others. And in helping others overcome broken hearts, the wounded healer finds some redemption from his own suffering as well.

Jews have always been wounded healers, using the negative experiences in our history to repair the world. Abraham the nomad becomes exceptional at hospitality. The nation that suffered as outsiders in Egypt take the stranger as their special responsibility. And the wandering exile searches constantly for the redemption of the entire world.

Immediately after the August suicide bombings in Beersheva, I visited Siroka hospital in Beersheva. The emergency room ambulance, the very same one that had carried injured victims of the previous day’s bombing, bore the following inscription:“Given by the wife and children of Benzion Rosenswajg, of Melbourne, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, 6 August, 2004. And in memory of his wife Sarah Chana, children Yechiel Shlomo and Yitzchak Meir and siblings, Nathan Moshe and Feige, who perished in the Holocaust.”

I know nothing about Mr. Rosenwajg. But when I saw that ambulance, I realized he is a wounded healer, transforming tragic memories into the gift of life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Carrying Your Own Weight

It was a heartbreaking trip. A pair of bus bombings in Beersheva had killed 16 and wounded 107. I was one of four representatives from Montreal that went to visit our sister city, Beersheva, immediately following the bombings.

The horrors related to us were overwhelming. A reporter who was at the scene told me about bodies strewn all over the place, and the awful smell of burnt flesh and blood. Members of ZAKA, a volunteer organization that recovers body parts, related to us the gruesome details involved in gathering 12 large sacks of body fragments for burial.

We went to funerals, visited shivas and the hospital. What can you say to the woman in the burn unit who just lost a three year old son? What words of comfort are there for parents sitting shiva for their 23 year old daughter? It was an extremely depressing trip.

But I did salvage something from the trip. I learned the Jewish definition of carrying your own weight.

Teddy Roosevelt, who coined the phrase “carry your own weight”, used this phrase to describe a philosophy of self reliance. But for Jews, self reliance is simply not enough. To us, “carrying your own weight” means to carry your family, your community, and even the world with you.

I learned this insight from Olga, a 15 year old Russian immigrant who was on the bus with her 12 year old brother Boris. A ball bearing from the bomb pierced Boris’ midsection, and he was bleeding profusely. Olga took Boris and carried him on her back a quarter mile to the emergency room. Boris was operated on and stabilized, and now he’s doing well.

Olga understood the Jewish definition of carrying your own weight. It requires taking the less fortunate along with you, and if necessary, to even carry them on your back.

This story gave me a new perspective on a Midrash. The Midrash relates that one day Moses was watching his sheep, and a young lamb ran away. Moses finally caught up to the lamb when it stopped at a stream to drink. Moses said to the lamb: “ I’m sorry; had I known you were thirsty, I would have given you to drink myself. Now, after this long run, you must be tired, so I will bring you back myself.” And Moses lifted the lamb on his back, and carried it back to the herd. God, upon seeing Moses’ compassion, said “he is the one to lead my people”.

Now I understand this Midrash. It is teaching us is that before being called to lead the Jewish people, Moses had to demonstrate that he knew the true definition of “carrying your own weight.” If he understood this principle, he could inspire the Jews to transform the world.

Moses taught us well. 15 year old Olga already knows what “carrying your own weight” means. It means you carry your brother on your back when he needs it, no questions asked.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Defining Moments

The most difficult decisions in life aren’t between right and wrong. Ethical decisions are easy. Yes, we often fail and make the wrong choice. But even in moments of moral weakness, we at least know what was supposed to be the right choice.

The truly difficult choices in life are between right and right. There are times when there are too many good options for us to pursue. The Supermom, running from demanding job to carpool to the gym to volunteer work, has to reconsider her priorities on a daily basis: should she take out clients for dinner, take her kids swimming, or go to a charitable function? These “all good choices” decisions are difficult to make, because whatever you end up doing, you feel guilty for having overlooked something important.

Because the “all good choices” decisions leave us feeling guilty, we try to avoid them; we’ll run ourselves ragged doing everything so we don’t have to choose. Then, when we’re finally exhausted, we’ll choose in an impulsive fashion . If we’re feeling insecure about work, we’ll work late; insecure about family, we’ll run home early; insecure about our contributions to society, we’ll go to more community meetings than we can handle. But we are so uncomfortable with these decisions we rarely think about them in a comprehensive fashion. And that’s a shame, because these choices offer us an opportunity to truly define ourselves.

Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., in his book Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right, notes that the decisions between right and right are our truly defining moments. We have many deeply rooted values; how we prioritize them defines who we are. That is why the “all good choices” decisions are so important. We cannot simply decide to be “good people”; we must also follow choices that reflect our own personal mission.

There is a wonderful anecdote about the Chassidic Rabbi Zushe. He explained to his students that after one dies and appears before God for judgement, God doesn’t ask you why you weren’t like Moses or Abraham; Rather, God asks you “why weren’t you Zushe?”.

Reb Zushe is teaching us the importance of having an authentic identity. God didn’t make us to be like everyone else. Each of us is supposed to be our own “Zushe” (or “Chaim”, or whatever your name may be). Our job is not to imitate the success of others, but rather to to discover our own unique mission on this world.

It is during defining moments that we can best discover ourselves. We have to choose not only what is right, but what is right for ourselves. Instead of trying to be everything to everybody, these moments allow us to pursue our own destiny, to find out who “Zushe” really is.

Friday, July 30, 2004

The Art of Mourning

Tragedies don’t have silver linings; they are black holes of sadness filled with pure pain. There is nothing good about death and destruction. Considering this, it would make sense for us to push tragedies out of our minds. So why do Jews focus on catastrophes?

Indeed, year after year, we have days of mourning for the various traumas of our history: exile, the destruction of the Temples, internecine strife and the Holocaust. Even on the holidays, we say Yizkor, a memorial prayer for family members who have died. We continually pick away at old wounds, repeatedly reviewing and remembering our saddest moments.

Why not forget? Some selective amnesia could make our lives, and our history, a lot more palatable. We could “move on”, and stop paying attention to dead relatives. We could consider the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and all the exiles and expulsions to be the irrelevant past, events that could only interest professional historians. And in so doing, the uncomfortable burden of Jewish history would finally be lifted off our shoulders. Perhaps we might even be happier.

Yet we make a point of revisiting our national and personal traumas. We do so because mourning is not merely a form of suffering; it can be a supremely creative act as well. There is a Jewish art of mourning. This remarkable art is actually a form of alchemy; it allows us to take the emptiness of suffering and transform it into redemption.

How does this happen? Well, first of all, we have to realize that discomfort is not such a bad thing. Who will change the world? The complacent, happy with their suburban homes and pensions? Serious change always begins with righteous anger. We revisit these dark moments to remind us that complacency in the presence of evil is the same as complicity to evil.

Even sadness can spur a positive response. Excess sadness can be extremely dangerous, and lead to debilitating depression. Yet the art of mourning can find a positive use for sadness as well. This is best expressed by the verse “and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The newly freed slave may not become a master; he must become an abolitionist. The Torah is teaching us that the response to tragedy may not be depression or cynicism or hatred; the only correct response is compassion. Rather than feeding an endless cycle of violence, the suffering stranger is commanded to transform his anguish into love.

Tragedy and suffering in and of themselves are empty, meaningless events. But it is still possible to offer a meaningful response to suffering. The art of mourning is to use tragic memories as a roadmap for fixing the world. And in this way, the art of mourning becomes the first step on the road to redemption.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

An old piece I forgot to blog......

Maximizing your 15 minutes

You can’t summarize a life in 15 minutes” is an oft-repeated platitude. While it’s true that you can’t recite a person’s biography in 15 minutes, you can summarize a life in 15 minutes. I know this, because I summarize lives all the time. I give eulogies.

Eulogies are more than mere summaries. When I perform a funeral for someone I didn’t know, often when I meet the families, they are (understandably) quite nervous. “You must mention this,” a family member will admonish me, as they recite critical information. Certain phrases are repeated compulsively, trying to make certain that I, an outsider, get the story right. It’s important to the family, because the eulogy is no mere summary. Rather, it is a public statement of legacy and memory. And legacies matter.

No one wants to live a forgettable life. This is not due to vanity. It is an essential, existential need. Man’s most powerful quest is the search for meaning. We hope that we’ve made a genuine contribution, that the sum total of our labours will have made this world a better place. And after all is said and done, we hope that’s how everyone else remembers us as well.

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on 40, or maybe it’s because I attend too many funerals, but I’ve started to think about my own legacy. Perhaps it’s odd, but at funerals, when I listen to the family pay tribute, I wonder what the 15-minute summary of my life will sound like. I suspect I’m not alone in doing this, and that many of you think about your legacies as well.

My experience at funerals has taught me what a real legacy sounds like. First off, (for those of you in the market for sports cars), in the nearly 300 funerals I have been to, not once has the deceased’s car been mentioned. Nor have the person’s children spoken about how large his house was or which caterer he used for simchahs.These may be biographical facts, but they aren’t a part of a legacy.

The eulogies that I remember years later are about mothers who worked full time to support their family, and woke up at 3 a.m. to cook dinner; about teenagers who volunteered to fight in the Israeli army during the War of Independence; about grandmothers who lovingly baked cookies; about Holocaust survivors who had the courage to survive and rebuild; about restaurant owners who regularly fed hoboes.Genuine legacies are made of love and courage, determination and devotion.

Biographies can takes hours to recite, only to be forgotten immediately. Legacies can be summarized in a few short minutes, but they’re always unforgettable. For my 15-minute summary, I’m striving for an authentic legacy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

“The Point of it All”

““It’s all pointless; who cares what I do?”.

It was the first crisis of my young rabbinic career. I was 22 years old, and a summer intern at a California synagogue. I was on the phone with J.K., a young man who had attended several of my classes, when he started to tell me that his life was awful, his finances disastrous and his family bitterly dysfunctional. He was planning on solving all his problems by swallowing a bottle of aspirin. And he was confiding in me, (an extremely inexperienced Rabbi to-be), his grisly plan. (A call to the psychiatric hotline prevented J.K.’s suicide).

To this day, these words ring in my ears. I felt that I dropped the ball when I spoke to J.K.. With all my Rabbinic training, I wasn't able to answer a basic question: Why not commit suicide?

So let me try again.

Indeed, a long philosophical tradition endorses suicide for the distressed. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes: “Above all, remember that the door stands open. Do not be more fearful than children. But, just as when they are tired of the game they cry, "I will play no more," so too when you are in a similar situation, cry, "I will play no more" and depart”. Voltaire, Hume and Schopenhauer are all advocates of suicide. Today, Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the leader of those who believe in a “right to die”.

Philosophy aside, I get the gut feeling that a cavalier attitude towards suicide is often based on the nihilistic belief that “it’s all pointless”. If there’s no point to it all, there’s no reason to bother with a difficult life.

That’s why in Judaism there is no right to die. Life is a sacred gift, and we must survive, even in hellish conditions. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, the Rabbi of the Kovno ghetto, was asked if it was permitted for someone to commit suicide rather than watch his family be murdered. Oshry’s response, (while filled with compassion), was absolutely not. Indeed, Oshry takes pride in the fact that there were few suicides in the Kovno ghetto, despite the enormous suffering.

Now life in the Kovno ghetto was pure torture. So why is Oshry so fanatical about suicide? Because he realized the value of life. The economics of suicide ordain that life is less valuable than suffering. And that is simply not true. If there is one lesson of Jewish history, it is that a life filled with ideals is worthwhile, even at the cost of suffering. That is why we still have Jews today, despite generations of persecution.

So, this is my belated response to J.K.

Rabbi Oshry and his compatriots suffered more than anyone else in history. Yet, despite their suffering, they persevered because they knew that the future of humanity depends on people who follow their ideals, no matter what the cost.

J.K., that’s the point of it all: idealism. Because life in the service of ideals is worthwhile, despite the suffering.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Free Hugs, and the Road to Redemption

It was probably meant to fill the editorial quota of quirky human-interest stories.

On May 10th, the New York Times had an article about two young men, Jayson Littman and Sipai Klein, who spend their Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park in Manhattan giving out free hugs.

As you can imagine, giving out free hugs to New Yorkers can be difficult. They get rejected - a lot. The article describes some of their struggles:

“"How about a free hug?" he hollered at a man, woman and small boy dressed all in black. "How about not?" the boy shot back.

"I'm trying to cut down," said a banker from Kenya.

"Nothing's free," said another man, as he brushed past with his golden retriever.”

But these two quixotic huggers soldier on, hoping to start a worldwide hugging movement.

At this point you’re supposed to laugh, and dismiss this story as the comic antics of two guys with too much time on their hands. But I couldn’t dismiss this story. I felt these two guys might be on to something, and that there is a deeper truth to hugging that we often overlook. So I took out my Tanach (Hebrew Bible) to investigate the phenomena of hugging.

In fact, only one character in the Tanach ever hugs: Jacob. And he actually ends up being a bit of a hugger, hugging on three different occasions.

The first time Jacob hugs is when he runs away from his brother Esau to his mother’s ancestral home. There he meets his uncle Laban, who greets him with open arms.

The second time Jacob hugs is when he returns home, and his brother Esau, who has long promised to kill him, is coming with 400 men to “greet” him. After some skillful diplomacy on Jacob’s part, a disaster is averted, and the brothers reunite with a hug.

The third time Jacob hugs is at the end of his life. His two grandchildren that were born in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh, are presented to him for blessings. Before he blesses them, he gives them a hug.

Each of Jacob’s hugs has a different purpose.

The first hug is a hug of reunion: Jacob hasn’t seen his uncle Laban in a very long time.

The second hug is a hug of reconciliation: Jacob and Esau have had bad blood for some time, and are once again true brothers.

The third hug is a hug of bonding: a foreign born grandfather, Jacob, tries to cross generational and culture gaps, and explain to his Egyptian born grandchildren what his family’s legacy is really about.

In each of these hugs, a barrier to relationships is shattered. Obstacles of distance, age and hatred are overcome, and love now finds a way. Jacob transcends distance to reunite with Laban, he transcends hatred to reconcile with Esau, and transcends cultures to bond with his grandchildren. The hug transcends all obstacles in its path.

Hugs best express this sentiment, because in it’s own primal way, a hug expresses friendship without reservations. Hugs are not for those with stiff upper lips or complicated hierarchies; rather, they are for any two people who want to bond because they share God’s divine image. It is a simple gesture of openess and acceptance.

So, the Tanach’s message is this: hugs redeem lost relationships. And that fits very well with Jacob’s general image as the patriarch of exile, the refugee who leads the Jews into their first exile in Egypt. As the patriarch of exile, Jacob has to look for the little pieces of a future redemption. And hugs are one of those little pieces.

Now, I’m not going on a hugging campaign. But Jacob teaches us that the road to redemption is found wherever two people manage to bridge social gaps and find a way to express friendship. So, say hello to someone new in the synagogue; smile at a stranger; and if you have to…….. give someone a hug.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

D-Day and the Little Guy

It is too easy to forget 60 year old heroism.

On June 6th, 1944, D-Day, 175,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy. There, they encountered tripwires, land mines, flamethrowers and fortifications; by the end of D-Day, 2,500 soldiers were dead. But their sacrifice was not in vain. 11 months later, Europe, (and it’s concentration camps), was liberated from the Nazis.

The Allied soldiers were unlikely victors, a mixed multitude of (mostly)18 to 20 year olds. The army took everyone, from squirrel shooting rural boys to bookish big city scholars. Inexperience made no difference. Peter Masters, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was in the British Army’s 10th Commando Brigade. When he enlisted, he was asked whether he could shoot a gun, handle a boat, or work a radio. He replied that he had once shot a bb gun, occasionally rowed a boat, and never used a radio. The army took him anyway! Remarkably, these amateur warriors developed into a courageous and powerful fighting force. And these average Joes are the true heros of World War II.

The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle advanced the “great man theory of history”. According to this view, it is the exceptional people who decide the fate of humanity. The teeming masses are mindless followers, moulded by the great man in his image. Indeed, there is ample Biblical evidence for this theory. Abraham, Moses, Joshua and David seem to singlehandedly start religions, win battles and even stop the sun.

However, it’s usually the small, anonymous heros who save the day. The Book of Judges is filled with marginal characters who suddenly find themselves thrust to the forefront. Gideon, Jepthah, Deborah are everyman heros, the little guy filling a void in leadership. In Hasidic lore, God listens closely to the peasant woman’s sigh and the ignorant shepherd’s flute, and saves the world because of their simple petitions. The grandiose prayers of the great man cannot compare to the sincere words of the little guy.

D-Day was a triumph of the little guy. It was they who risked their lives, fought courageously and liberated Europe. General Dwight D. Eisenhower reported how he went to see the 101st Airborne division before they took off for D-Day. He says on the runway, he saw a short private, “more equipment than soldier” who turned to him and saluted. Then the private turned in the direction of Germany and said: “look out Hitler, here we come”.

It is because of privates like these that Europe was liberated.

Great men arrive all too infrequently; the rest of the time, it’s up to everyone else to rescue the world. As we find ourselves increasingly embroiled in an international war against terror, it’s time once again for the little guy to come to the rescue.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A Letter From Montreal: Tears at the Seder

A lot of people cry at Seders. Some cry for innocuous reasons, because they opened a jar of horseradish a bit too quickly, and the fumes have caused an outburst of tears. Others cry because they have lost a loved one in the previous year, and the empty seat at the seder is too overwhelming. I know of a holocaust survivor who cries bittersweet tears at her seder, unable to believe that she has lived to see her children and grandchildren surrounding her at the holiday feast.

This year, the Jews of Montreal had reason to cry at their seders as well. One of the community’s elementary schools, United Talmud Torah (UTT), was firebombed on the night before Passover. The resulting fire gutted the children’s library, burning nearly 5,000 books. As I arrived at the school the following day, I found the staff in tears, overwhelmed by this hate crime.

I cried as well; the sight was too overwhelming. Burnt books of course, are a frightening reminder of the old Anti-Semitism of Europe. Even worse was the sight of a children’s library in ashes. What sort of twisted hatred motivates someone to venture out at 2 in the morning and burn The Amazing Octopus, Curious George, and a teddy bear?

With the tears come fears. Even though this is considered a relatively “unsophisticated” attack, the fact that the bombers left a note signed “Les Brigades de Sheikh Yassin” is bound to raise Jewish anxiety in a city with a substantial Arab and Muslim population. (The note’s promise to escalate future attacks doesn’t help either). The perception that Canadian immigration policy prior to 9/11 was far too lax is also a cause for concern. And it was another reminder that all too often anti-Semitism masquerades as “mere” anti-Zionism.

But with tears of sadness, come a few tears of joy. On the following day a news conference was held at the school. It included the Mayor of Montreal, Montreal’s police chief, and three ministers from the Quebec and Canadian governments. All of them vigorously condemned the attacks. The Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin, plans on visiting the school in the near future. Clearly, this is no replay of Germany in the 1930’s.

In addition, our community can take personal pride in some of the ministers at the press conference. Lawrence Bergman, a fixture in the Montreal Jewish community (and a former synagogue President), is the Quebec Minister of Revenue. Irwin Cotler, the Canadian Minister of Justice (and a member of our synagogue), is an internationally renowned Jewish leader. Cotler, in particular, was able to speak very movingly about the attack because he is a UTT alumnus. This press conference was eloquent testimony to how well Jews have integrated into the Canadian mainstream.

There was also ample evidence of a community energized to respond. An impromptu rally held that day at the school brought out several hundred people at a moment’s notice. Everyone I meet is ready to help in the rebuilding. At issue is Jewish pride, and there seems to plenty to go around. A sign at the impromptu rally best expresses the community’s feelings: "You can burn our books, but you can't burn our spirits."

Yes, this year, the Jews of Montreal had tears in their eyes at the seder. But they were bittersweet tears, tears that expressed a mixture of pain and pride. Irwin Cotler put it best in a television interview. He said that at the seder, we say that “in every generation they rise up against us”. This, he said, is testimony to the enduring hatred of anti-Semitism. But he pointed out that this section is something more positive as well: it is eloquent testimony to the enduring nature of the Jew.

I entered the building with tears of sadness, overwhelmed by this awful hate crime. I left with tears of joy, with the realization that despite all, “am yisrael chai”, the Jewish people continue to endure and thrive.

Friday, March 26, 2004

The Interview

I’m used to asking personal questions, not answering them. As a Rabbi, I prepare for weddings and funerals with personal questions about the couple’s aspirations and the deceased’s character. So I probe personal lives, obliviously doing my job, searching for speechworthy material. But I must admit that it was unsettling when I finally found myself on the receiving end of personal questions.

It was a school project; Two high school students were interviewing me. They wanted to know about my heroes, my interests, and what inspired me to become a Rabbi. And I found it difficult to give answers. It’s always awkward to open up about personal matters, even if they’re trivial. But remarkably, I didn’t have immediate answers; I had never thought much about these questions before.

We don’t ask ourselves serious questions, and that’s a shame. Good questions are the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Indeed, the right question can be revolutionary. Theodore Herzl asks: “Can we wait in pious resignation till the princes and peoples of this earth are more mercifully disposed towards us?”. Because of this question we now have a State of Israel. Martin Luther King asks: “Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or the extension of justice?”. Because of this question the civil rights movement grows, and racism slowly begins to crumble. Simple, sincere questions can start revolutions.

What makes questions so powerful is the way they strip away the veneer of falsehood. Incessant logic has a way of exposing the corrupt realities hidden beneath phony explanations. Good questions persist until they finally get a genuine answer.

Unfortunately, our predisposition is to ignore and accept. Anyone who has fallen victim to fraud (as I have) knows that you always look back and wonder: “why didn’t I ask any questions?”. Just a little more scrutiny and you would have figured it out. But we’re simply not in the habit of asking questions, even of relative strangers, and blindly accept the status quo.

And the last person we’d ever ask questions of is ....ourselves. We have “excuses” (lies, actually) to explain why we are lazy and disengaged . Our true priorities get submerged under self deceptions like “I’ll do it when I have a chance” and “it’s not my responsibility”. We unquestioningly smother our souls in phony excuses, and as a result remain mediocrities.

The Talmud says that after we die, we are interviewed by an angel who asks us whether we lived a life focussed on family, ethics, spirituality and hope. Truth is, we need to ask these questions while we’re still alive. And that’s the exactly the point of the Talmud: it’s a terrible shame to wait until you’re interviewed, whether by angels or teenagers, before thinking seriously about life.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Chicken Cordon Bleu

This is a true story.

Once upon a time, there was a kosher caterer who made a wonderful dish: chicken and pastrami. He would skilfully stuff pastrami into a chicken breast, fry it in breadcrumbs, and cover it with sauce. Alas, no one wanted to buy this tasty entree, for mere chicken and pastrami was far too humble for his customer’s sophisticated palates. Disappointed, the caterer searched for a solution. He decided to give his beleaguered entree a more glamourous name: chicken cordon bleu. (Luckily, his clientele were unaware that chicken cordon bleu is usually stuffed with ham and cheese.) And now it began to sell!! All wanted a taste of that gourmet delicacy, chicken cordon bleu!! With a stroke of the pen, this chicken was no longer a Yiddish accented immigrant from Brooklyn, but rather an charming French arrival.

There’s a simple lesson to this story (to quote the Mishna): “don’t judge a wine by it’s bottle”. It’s easy to be enticed by slick packaging; the shiny veneer, the classy bottle, and the exotic name can beguile us into rash decisions. Indeed, this classic moral relates well to our story. However, it has a uniquely contemporary dimension as well.

We are an image driven society. Frankly, no one cares what the wine tastes like anymore; we’re only interested in the bottle. Our identities are now based on the external and superficial. That’s why what your shoes do for your image is more important than what they do for your feet (hence, the invention of stiletto heels). And it’s why people go to tanning salons, why people who drive 100 kmh buy sportscars, and it’s why people who would never eat “Jewish” food will serve that famous French entree, chicken cordon bleu. Today, image is more important than reality.

Our infatuation with image is destructive. It is a form of stupidity, which, (to paraphrase Maimonides) is the petri dish of evil. This obsession turns us into superstitious consumers, buying only items that have the blessings of the fashion Gods. Because of it, we forget about the comfort of loose sweatshirts and sensible shoes, we ignore our health in search of the perfect tan, and refuse to try great, but untrendy, food. We fail to truly experience life while we’re chasing an illusion. In the end, we’re left clutching an empty bottle, never having enjoyed the wine inside.

We ate some chicken cordon bleu the other night, and it was quite enjoyable. Not because it conjured images of French chef , but simply because it tasted good. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, “chicken and pastrami by any other name, still tastes as sweet as chicken and pastrami”.

Monday, February 09, 2004

My New Hero

I’m turning 40 this week; I guess that means I’m middle aged. Truth is, I don’t feel all that different, nor have I gotten a sudden urge to buy a sports car. But I do have a new hero, or to bemore precise, I’ve rediscovered an old hero: Rabbi Akiva.

Akiva was an uneducated shepherd who commenced his Torah studies at age forty. Completely illiterate, he had to go back to first grade and study the Aleph Bet. Through sheer determination, he quickly overcame his lack of knowledge, and became the greatest Rabbi of all time.

As an elementary school student, I understood the Akiva story as a parable about persistence. Its message was that even Akiva, the illiterate one who thinks he’s “dumb”, is able to succeed if he is willing to work hard. It taught me that diligence is just as critical as high intelligence.

Today, I’ve reclaimed the Akiva story for a new lesson. At middle age, coasting becomes a serious temptation. Seniority often bring success; and success makes it easy to lose your edge. You become risk averse, you refuse to accept new challenges, and avoid difficult situations. You “settle down”, and consider it a blessing that you no longer need to struggle. In short, for many of us forty is an age for status quo.

I too am tempted by the pleasant inertia of the status quo. Why not? The status quo keeps your blood pressure down, and reduces stress. But whenever inertia sets in, I remember Akiva. Akiva now teaches me that forty need not be “middle age”, an era intended exclusively for continuity, conservatism, and conformity. Yes, Akiva could have played it safe and sated his hunger for knowledge with a few Hebrew lessons. But then he would have lived out his life in anonymity as just another forgotten shepherd. Instead, Akiva started over, went back to first grade, and transformed his entire life. And that’s exactly why he’s my new hero; because he reminds me that forty is an excellent age for new beginnings.

First graders are used to new beginnings. For them, every day is a tour de force, filled with new exploits. Unfortunately, as we age, we teach ourselves to resist the unfamiliar, and we drain away our natural enthusiasm. But if he chooses to, a forty year old man can be as adventuresome as a first grader. And that is exactly what Akiva did; he went back to first grade and rediscovered his sense of wonder. I believe that ultimately it was Rabbi Akiva’s “grade one” skills that enabled him to become a great man.

So, now I’m middle aged man. But that doesn’t really matter; like my new hero, Akiva, I’m still a first grader at heart.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Finding Your Inner Nudnik

Every so often people call me with the following request: “I’m giving a speech tomorrow; can you help me find something to say?”. Often they’re nervous, perhaps with pre-speech jitters. But I also imagine that like me, they find the notion of “saying something” to be intimidating.

I know it’s difficult to believe that any Rabbi could be at a loss for words. Yet each time I speak, I’m apprehensive. I worry that the jokes won’t be funny, the stories won’t inspire, the speech will flop. Much of sermonizing, no matter how high minded the topic, is entertainment. And like any entertainer, I’m never sure the crowd will like my performance.

My anxieties aside, the truth is that public speaking is easy. We all have something to say, we’re just too polite to say it. It’s our inner Canadian, the part of us too timid to offend, that stops our most impassioned thoughts from taking flight. We worry if we talk too often about our enthusiasms people might mistake us for fanatics. So we suppress deeply felt beliefs because we’re afraid of being nudniks.

Unlike entertainers, nudniks are often unpopular. Jeremiah and Moses nearly lose their lives for repeating their message over and over again. The few who challenge the consensus usually end up as social outcasts. But at the least, nudniks have something to say, a genuine, heartfelt message.

Over the years, I’ve seen previously mild mannered people transform into nudniks. One Rabbi, because of the Rabin assassination, now works tirelessly on inter-Jewish dialogue. A mother of a disabled girl now crusades on behalf of disabled children. In response to the intifada, a housewife now orchestrates a powerful grassroots lobby for Israel. These previously respectable people met a moment of rage, and found their inner nudnik.

There are entertaining speeches, and nudnik speeches. Entertaining speeches include poetic language, wonderful jokes and interesting anecdotes. Nudniks need none of that; because the heart speaks a language all its own, a passionate speech doesn’t require entertaining asides.

A rabbinic mentor once told me that every sermon should have a moment of outrage when you feel like saying “damn it” and banging the table. I now realize he wasn’t just telling me how to get an audience’s attention; he was telling me I have an obligation to speak about issues I’m passionate about. A Rabbi is no mere entertainer; he must be a bit of a nudnik as well.

So you’re making a speech, and need something to say? Here’s my advice: find your inner nudnik. Get excited, bang on the table, and speak from the heart. Your inner nudnik will help you make a better speech; and you never know, it may also make you a better person.