Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Person of the Year and the Media’s Failure in Darfur

They are crowd pleasing choices for Persons of the Year. Irish Rocker Bono, and the world’s richest couple, Bill and Melinda Gates, are not only famous and fabulously wealthy, they are also compassionate people who dedicate an enormous amount of time to philanthropy and social action. These are good people deserving of genuine respect and honor.

However, I have a problem with Time’s choices for Persons of the Year. While Bono and the Gateses will leave their marks on history, there is no question that their choice as Persons of the Year is due more to their celebrity than to their accomplishments. And that alone is reason enough to consider them poor choices. The media has forgotten how to distinguish between a celebrity and a statesman, and so have we.

Indeed, the confusion between celebrity and statesman teaches us a lot about what is wrong with the media. Television news now dominates what is on the media’s agenda. And due to fierce competition, Television news is all about what makes good video. Even the print media is increasingly image driven; if it’s not on the T.V. news, the print media ignores it as well.

A video driven media follows the cameraman. Supporters of Israel have always wondered: Why do the smallest events in Israel get a disproportionate amount of coverage? Amotz Asa-El, a senior columnist for the Jerusalem Post, contends that Israel receives exceptional attention in the media because it is a place where television reporters can cover terrorism and military actions with ease, from comfy hotels in Tel Aviv, unlike the conflicts in Congo, Kashmir and Chechnya.

Consider the virtual media blackout about Darfur. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the villain of Darfur, should be considered a serious candidate for “Person of the Year” (in the negative sense). Yet, despite the fact that the Darfur genocide is a catastrophe that has claimed 400,000 lives, and displaced nearly 3 million people, no one notices. The same media that lavished attention on the tsunami and Katrina continues to ignore Sudan. Why? Because the Sudanese government has succeeded in keeping television cameras away from Darfur. As a consequence, Darfur is ignored because there is no video footage for the evening news.

An image driven media not only omits critical stories, it distorts our perception of events. Images are inherently superficial, and distort our judgment. The Sefat Emet explains that the Hannukah story is about the struggle of the Macabees against a Hellenistic culture that valued beauty too much. The dazzling and entertaining became paramount. These Hellenists had allowed the superficial, the aesthetic, to supplant the spiritual and moral as the primary purpose in life. As result, they lost sight of life’s deeper values.

A similar process is taking hold in contemporary news coverage. Compelling images are more influential than sober analysis. Indeed, news with a powerful video and a good story line will be snapped up, even if the story is far from true. The death of Mohamed Al-Dura, a 12 year old boy killed in a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, quickly became a cause celebre. Because of a heartwrenching video of his death, it was immediately assumed that this young Palestinian boy was shot by heartless Israeli troops. Only years later, after intense investigation, we now know that he was probably shot by Palestinians. Why was it so easy to assume the Israelis had killed Al-Dura? Because, inflamed by a painful sight, it is much easier to look for the convenient scapegoat rather than search for the truth. Dramatic video can distort our judgment.

The power of video is why covering celebrities is now news. www.beawitness.org notes that in June, TV news spent 50 times more coverage on the Michael Jackson molestation trial than it did on the Darfur tragedy, and it devoted 12 times the coverage to the tomfoolery of Tom Cruise than it did to Sudanese oppression. For similar reasons Americans have heard more “news” about the breakup of Nick and Jessica than they have about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and his push for nuclear weapons.

This would not have shocked the Sefat Emet; the inherently superficial nature of television has turned the news into an extension of entertainment. News is now news in name only. Which is why in June, the major networks devoted no less than 183 “news” segments about “the runaway bride”. News programs are now about entertainment.

Choosing a couple of celebrities as Persons of the Year seems innocuous. Yet to me, it is a reminder of the forgotten story, Darfur. Unfortunately, Darfur fails in the media because it is not a TV ready story. It is a victim of of an entertainment driven media that relies too much on the superficial and too little on the truth. And sadly, because of this failure, people will continue to die, and no one will notice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Truth About Tests

It is an important subject, yet spoken about with half-truths and superficial clichés. A “test”, an ordeal which puts our character to the test, is an unavoidable part of life. They are often turning points, moments in which greatness can be achieved. In a religious context, these tests are important because they are an opportunity to demonstrate genuine faith. Because of this, in many a sermon, tests are spoken about in reverential tones, as if it were a joy to be tested.

Unfortunately, it is dishonest to praise tests. Humans absolutely hate suffering. The Talmud includes a section extolling the rewards due to the righteous man who suffers. Immediately following, it cites three stories of Rabbis who are suffering, and each one, when given the choice, says “I want neither the suffering, nor the reward”. In a rare reversal, the Talmud’s romantic portrayal of the noble, pious man who accepts his suffering is immediately brought down to earth, when noble, pious men refuse to accept suffering. In fact, the very idea of a test means that the ordeal is horrible; if suffering were something people would freely choose, the test wouldn’t be very much of a test after all.

Even more superficial is the way tests are spoken about in contemporary society. Today, we are firm believers in psychobabble, the shallow clichés of afternoon talk shows and the self-help aisle in the bookstore. After any ordeal, one is meant to seek “closure”. Somehow, if they participate in a few miraculous rituals, they will be able to “move on” and forget their pain. Indeed, today only one test matters: whether or not a person is able to “move on” after a trauma.

This view ignores human reality. I find it upsetting when people visit shivas and try to dispense advice to the mourners how they can “get over” things. This type of advice adds insult to injury; not only is the mourner in pain because of his loss, but it’s also his fault that he hasn’t figured out how to “get over it”. And the reason why the mourner can’t “get over it” is that traumas are not mere inconveniences; they are critical life experiences.

This is why there is a custom to treat a Yartziet, the yearly anniversary of death of a relative, as if it were a day of partial mourning. This is an eloquent way of saying that the person is still sorely missed, and that a part of us will always mourn. By refusing closure, we show genuine respect for the experience of love and for those we have lost.

A true test is too painful to romanticize, too difficult to “get over”. Yes, tests are extremely painful. Yet, despite the pain, one can transcend one’s circumstances, and even utilize their pain to achieve remarkable heights.

Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the Hebrew word for test, “nissah” is related to the Hebrew word to raise up, “nasso”. This is because a test is not meant to merely be endured, but rather to raise one up to a higher plane.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic about Abraham Lincoln. The article described Lincoln’s lifelong depression, at times profound enough to give him suicidal impulses. Remarkably, his depression drove him to find a deeper sense of purpose, and to approach life with greater clarity and creativity. His chronic depression drove him to engage life more deeply, and to find a transcendent sense of meaning.

This is a genuine paradigm of how we should engage the tests we will meet in the road of life. There is no true closure after a trauma; the pain remains, no matter what one does. However, even though this is a horrible ordeal, our best choice is to reach for transcendence by suffering meaningfully, and enlisting our pain in the service of higher ideals.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's in JPost

The Thanksgiving piece (below) made it into JPost

Most of the responses on the website (aside from the occasional snide response about Jews in chutz Laaretz giving advice to Israelis) centered around the Sukkot question. I had it in the original, and pulled it due to some comments I got, as well as the fact that it would make the article longer than the optimal 800 words for an op-ed piece. Actually, I'm somewhat ambivalent. Sukkot is the Jewish Thanksgiving, no question. But will it's powerful and ancient religious message obscure any new messages we want to associate with the contemporary State of Israel? On the other hand, Sukkot will have less resistance from the Charedim. So, I'm not sure.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Why Israel Needs a Thanksgiving

As an American living in Canada, I get pretty homesick on Thanksgiving. Yes, Canada has a Thanksgiving too, but it’s a pretty tepid affair, basically an October rerun of Labor Day.

To Americans, Thanksgiving is serious business. Yes, the rituals are pretty simple: turkey, cranberry sauce and football. But it feels like a national holiday. In fact, Thanksgiving has a unique message that makes it the most popular national holiday in the U.S., even more popular than America’s Independence Day, the fourth of July.

The genius of Thanksgiving is that it bases patriotism on gratitude. Other national holidays around the world are grandiose, flag waving affairs, intended to glorify the country and inspire loyalty in the citizenry. These holidays feature public events, military parades and fireworks displays. Thanksgiving is a far simpler affair: it is always celebrated at home. It is about gratitude for a home, a happy family, a harvest, and at the same time, gratitude for a safe country. This minimalist approach to patriotism resonates with everyone, because countries don’t have to be great to be appreciated; they just have to be a place we can call home. The Rabbis of the Mishnah understood this, and said one must even pray on behalf of inferior governments, because without them “one person would devour the other alive”. Patriotism rooted in simple gratitude will have the widest appeal.

Gratitude is more than a popular argument for patriotism. It is the very foundation of any society. The Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century work, sees gratitude as the foundation of all relationships, including belief in God. This view is adopted by many of the great thinkers of the Mussar movement. Indeed, in a gratitude free world, pessimism reigns. And pessimism is a harsh corrosive, with negativity about life in general infiltrating into, and undermining, all relationships. A marriage, a family or a community devoid of gratitude will certainly fall apart. Of course, this is true of a country as well.

Perhaps the one thing that ideologues of the right and left in Israel agree upon is pessimism. Both believe the country is falling apart; they simply quibble over who is to blame. The left invokes the assassination of the Yitzchak Rabin to demonstrate that the right are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists who hate democracy. The right invokes the disengagement from Gaza to demonstrate that the left are a bunch of appeasing, heartless people who throw their fellow Jews out of their homes. However, if you remove the political particulars, all of these arguments are essentially the same: “The country is falling apart. And you, you (leftist idiot/rightist fanatic/religious dinosaur/soulless secularist) are the traitor who is to blame”.
Ironically, this pessimism is self fulfilling. The greatest danger to Israel is not the right or the left or the religious or the secular, but rather the way all segments of society relate to each other. These nasty divides are the product of sincere, but pessimistic ideologues, who are doing their best to prevent the destruction of Israel. But their pessimism adds a dangerously bitter edge to their rhetoric, transforming political opponents into personal enemies, and democratically elected Prime Ministers into dangerous pursuers of innocent blood.

Yes, as an American expatriate in Canada, I should not be giving sermons to people who have invested their lives in the Jewish homeland (and yes, if you must know, I do feel guilty about not having made aliyah). But any casual observer of the Israeli scene is aware that in political and public discourse, pessimism prevails over gratitude.

This is why Israel needs a Thanksgiving. A day to remember all the blessings we can be grateful for: For freedom and prosperity. For being able to live in the country of our ancestors. For a democracy, which, with all of its flaws, is still a true democracy. (Anyone who’s forgotten what a dictatorship looks like should visit one of Israel’s neighbors). And most importantly, to thank God for the miracle of the State of Israel. One hundred and fifty years ago, the probability of a state of Israel existing was less likely than a Martian invasion. Our ghetto dwelling ancestors, had they been able to see movies of contemporary Israel, would have assumed the Messiah had arrived. An Israeli Thanksgiving would allow to reclaim the sense of wonder previous generations had about the State of Israel.

Perhaps, if we get intoxicated with gratitude, we may begin to appreciate our brothers and sisters. Maybe the supporters of the left will show gratitude for the right’s intense love for this country. And supporters of the right will show gratitude for left’s intense concern for social justice. Maybe the Haredim will appreciate how secular Jews have built a safe and prosperous country; maybe the secularists will appreciate the profound Jewish spirituality the Haredim bring this country. Maybe we’ll learn to appreciate each other.

On Israeli Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish people.

Actually, there is a Thanksgiving on the Jewish calendar: the holiday of Sukkot. We thank God for our harvest, and for watching over us and preserving us through our long history. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if on Sukkot, the entire country could sit down for a meal, in which thanks are given for the blessings of food, shelter, security and family? Wouldn’t it be nice if in the holiday tradition of Ushpizin, one could invite a guest with an opposing ideology?

On Sukkot-Thanksgiving, we could thank God for nourishing food and loving families, for our homeland and our country. And we could thank God for each other, for making us part of the wild and wonderful family known as the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Addiction and the Road of Life

I usually don’t shill for TV programs. However, I must tell you about a fascinating program: A & E’s Intervention .

Intervention is a controversial program; it is a documentary that follows people with various addictions as they indulge in reckless, self abusive behavior. At the same time, their friends and families organize an intervention to prod them to go to a rehabilitation clinic. For some critics, watching people at their vulnerable worst is an invasion of privacy. While this may be true, it’s also compelling television. It is a rare program which gives the viewer an insight into real life.

What fascinated me the most was how easy it is to identify with the addicts on the show. They were successful stockbrokers, White House interns, talented artists. They’re simply good people who allowed their lives to get untracked.

While I’m no psychologist, I get the sense that people who lose their way, like the addicts on Intervention, get untracked because they have missed one of the three important stages on the road of life.

The first stage is unconditional self love. For most of us, our parents oversee this stage; they fuss and fret and care for us as babies, even though we’re completely vulnerable, selfish and demanding. They teach us that we are loved, and deserving of love, simply because we are alive.

Of course, there are many who have parents who don’t teach this lesson well, or don’t teach it at all (there’s a big difference between the two, by the way). These unloved children must learn about love elsewhere: from mentors, friends, and even from books and movies.

It is easy to forget the importance of this stage. After all, isn’t self-love selfish? There is a lovely Midrash which makes the point that if you must love your neighbor as yourself, that implies that you must actually love yourself as well!

Without self love, we’re lost. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski often asks addicts who come to his office where they put the garbage in their house. “In the garbage can”, they reply. “Well then”, he ask says, “why are putting this garbage into yourself?....you’re not a garbage can, are you?” .

That’s exactly the point: If we don’t respect ourselves, we might as well treat our bodies like garbage cans. You need to respect and love yourself.

The second stage is self discipline. This stage comes a bit later in life, and for the most part our teachers look after this stage. Starting in nursery, you learn basic discipline. You may not bite. You must share. You have to work with the group. You have to respect your teachers.

Discipline is a challenge nowadays. The reason why is because we live in an era of unprecedented comfort. Unfortunately, with this comfort, we’ve become increasingly whiny and self indulgent. We’re outraged if we have to wait too long in line, or if the food in the restaurant is a bit cold.

Our comfortable lives lie in stark contrast with those of the previous generation. I recently did a funeral for someone who had escaped from Dachau, got smuggled into Palestine, fought in the British army against the Nazis, and then fought in Israel’s War of Independence. His eventful life was emblematic of the sacrifices that his generation had to make.

Ironically, our generation’s comfortable lives have made us weaker. Because we are sheltered, we find it difficult to cope with crises. And in a world where people are available to cater to our every wish, the values of personal sacrifice and self discipline are often forgotten. Without self discipline, we open our lives to all sorts of dangerous whims, because we are so unaccustomed to any self denial.

The third stage is meaning. We usually begin this stage in our teens, and it is God who ultimately leads us to find our true purpose.

What is meaning? There’s no need for a philosophy seminar on this. It simply is a life lived beyond the selfish. There is a story about a Chassid of Rav Schneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. As is the Chassidic custom, the chasid brought him a kvittl, a lengthy list of personal requests that he asked the Rebbe to pray for on his behalf. Surveying the lengthy list, the Rebbe looked at his chasid and sent him away, saying: “you’ve given a great deal of thought to your needs; have you thought at all about why you are needed?”. Remarkably, the chasid was overjoyed with this sharp riposte: his Rebbe had reminded him that he is needed!

Each day we draw up lists, for shopping: more and new food, clothing, electronics, cars, vacations. We know what we need. But on a daily basis, yesterday’s desires simply aren’t enough. So we search for newer and more exciting thrills; eventually, drugs and other self destructive thrills are far from unthinkable.

God reminds us that He put us here for a purpose. To find our way on the road of life, we must find a response to the ultimate question:

Why are we needed?

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Truly Magical Wedding

It was a moment of Hollywood magic. Film stars Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore got married in a Kabbalah ceremony which (according to the Kabbalah Centre) is “full of understanding, wisdom, and connections that essentially sew the two soul-halves together, creating one new whole soul”. What is more magical than a wedding filled with celebrity and Kabbalah?

We all love magic. We dream of a wedding ceremony, which, with a few quotes from the mystical book Zohar, makes the marriage indestructible. We love rituals that purport to offer protection and blessing. Isn’t it wonderful when you can transform your life by drinking a l’chaim at holy man’s grave or tying a red band around your hand! And if the source of these charms is a respected tradition, how bad can it be?

Actually, very bad. Our relationship with God should be wholesome and straightforward, based on spirituality and ethics; these “holy” superstitions turn God into a heavenly slot machine. They try to “manipulate” God; you drink special water or carry an obscure but expensive Aramaic book in order to get God to bless you.

Of course, we chase these superstitions because we love miracles; they give us hope and optimism. The problem is we chase the wrong miracles.

The Kotzker Rebbe has a wonderful interpretation of the selection of Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. Eliezer, Isaac’s servant, stands by the well in search of a wife for Isaac. He decides the right wife would be any young woman who will show him, a stranger, kindness, by offering him water. The Midrash adds that while Eliezer is watching Rebecca at the well, miraculously, the water of the well jumps into Rebecca’s jug. Yet even though this occurs, the Eliezer continues to wait, to see if she will treat him with kindness. The Kotzker wonders: shouldn’t a miracle be evidence enough that she is a worthy wife? Why isn’t Rebecca selected right then and there?

The Kotzker gives a sharp and illuminating response: “because one act of kindness is worth a thousand miracles”.

Indeed, the greatest miracles in life are the ones where people open their hearts and act with generosity. True love is magical. At a wedding, when two people vow to love each other forever, the greatest miracle, the magic of true love, is in the air.

So, with my apologies to Ashton and Demi, I’d like to tell you about a truly magical wedding. Jennifer Pollack and Andrew Friedberg were to be married on September 4th in New Orleans. Unfortunately, because of Hurricane Katrina, they had to flee New Orleans and relocate to Houston. They left everything behind; their Ketubah, her gown, his tuxedo, their rings. In Houston, the community came to their rescue, and outfitted them with everything they needed. And on September 4, Jennifer and Andrew got married in Houston. To complete the circle of giving, the young couple asked that instead of making a wedding gift, guests make a donation to the Katrina relief effort instead.

This was a truly magical wedding. No, there was no blessed water or passages from Zohar.

What made it magical was the greatest miracle of all: human love and compassion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What I’m Praying for This Rosh Hashanah

“May the year, and its curses, come to an end.” This terse Talmudic statement (meant to explain why the Torah readings of rebuke are read before Rosh Hashanah), represents a sentiment we all feel about the coming New Year. We hope to put last year’s calamities behind us, and look forward to a better future.

One of the curses of the past year was homelessness. In addition to Hurricane Katrina’s terrible death toll, there is also a continuing crisis of nearly a million people who are homeless. In Darfur, hundreds of thousand of refugees have fled an ongoing genocide. And, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, perhaps as many as 5 million people were left homeless. These horrific events require serious action from each and every one of us. We must figure out how to remedy last year’s curses.

In particular, homelessness is a curse Jews are familiar with. We call it exile. Exile is not an archaic historical occurrence; it is part of our current events. In the last half century alone Jews have had to take flight multiple times. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors, my mother left Europe to a start a new life in a safe place, the United States. More recently, Jews have fled the Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia as well as other locales. (I recently met a Jew who had to leave Venezuela to flee the Chavez regime). Exile is a large part of Jewish history.

There is a debate among theologians and historians about meaning of exile. To some, exile is a black hole in history: it is an unwholesome state, and the years spent in exile are historically meaningless. Redemption is the only part of Jewish history that really matters.

Others thinkers take a different view. To them, exile is the iron furnace in which Jewish identity has been forged. They understand that exile is a crisis; but they recognize that the challenges of exile have helped Jews cultivate a gritty resilience as well as a profound sense of social justice. Their understanding of exile is based on the belief that every crisis contains the potential for renewal and transformation.

The connection between crisis and renewal is one of the messages of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Immediately after the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we are told about the birth of Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife. The Midrash explains that this reference indicates that the Akeidah crisis provoked a serious personal transformation. Isaac had nearly died at the Akeidah. While Isaac stood under the knife, he became aware that he was a thirty seven year old man who had neglected marriage and family. He resolved to immediately find a bride, who later turns out to be Rebecca. The crisis of the Akeidah reminds Isaac that he must grab a hold of life, and that he can no longer be the diffident bachelor, slowly awaiting the right woman.

The message of these last few verses of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading is this: the New Year is not merely a fresh beginning, a time to forget the past year’s curses and crises. Rather, it is a time to reflect on how to use past crises to teach us the lessons of future renewal. Indeed, the Chassidic Rebbe Sefat Emet compares all suffering to birthpangs; within the very suffering, there is the possibility of rebirth and renewal.

While an awareness of the productive side of crisis is extremely useful, my message is not directed at the people of Asia or Darfur or New Orleans. For these victims, right now is the time for action, not reflection; and what they need are homes, not sermons. Rather, my message is directed at another homeless crisis, one that specifically affects the Jewish people: the disengagement from Gaza.

Politics aside, the disengagement was traumatic. The withdrawal included negative images most frequently associated with exile; families were forced out of their homes, and the synagogues left behind were defaced and destroyed. It is impossible not to feel a profound sense of sadness for the 9,000 newly homeless people.

These emotional scenes, mixed together with nasty political debates and the ever increasing divide between secular and religious, is potentially disastrous. This is Israel's “homeless” crisis, for in the aftermath of the Gaza evacuations, we now have a country divided between orange and blue, religious and secular.

The question the Jewish world has to ask itself is this: Will we use the Gaza crisis as a springboard to renewal? Or is Gaza the first stage of a Jewish civil war?

One of the great lessons of exile is the importance of Jewish unity. In exile, Jews recognized that were best off pulling together despite their differences. What the Gaza crisis has taught us is that this lesson becomes even more important now, when we are back home in Israel. A country without a sense of unity is bound to fall apart.

This Rosh Hashanah, I’m praying that we will be able to move past last year’ s curses and crises. In particular, I am praying that we, the Jewish people, will remember the importance of unity. And after the traumas of the past year, all of us, orange and blue, left and right, religious and secular, will find a way to renew our bonds.

Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What God Wants Us to Learn From Katrina

The images of suffering are overwhelming. Watching TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you can feel the anguish of the victims of this awful disaster. An unpredictable confluence of circumstances brought about a “perfect storm” that killed thousands, injured scores of others, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. It is a true human catastrophe.

As unpredictable as this hurricane may have been, the human reactions to it are all too predictable. Immediately, there is finger pointing. On the political front, President Bush is blamed for a variety of failures ranging from a slow response to the disaster to having caused the global warming which lead to the hurricane. Religious authorities with agendas of their own come to speak in God’s name and blame the catastrophe on their opponents. A group called Repentance America said it was God’s retribution for New Orleans being a “sin city”. Repentance America did not issue any explanation why somehow, the hurricane managed to miss Las Vegas. On the internet, a popular Israeli Rabbi is sure that this catastrophe is retribution for American support for the disengagement from Gaza. As proof, he notes that the hurricane hit Condoleeza Rice's home state of Louisiana. (Actually, she's from Alabama; but why let facts cloud the issue!) I found this opinion curious; the sobbing woman I watched on CNN who lost her daughter and was searching for her missing sons didn’t strike me as a supporter of the disengagement. An of course, radical Islam couldn’t miss this opportunity to dump on America either. A high-ranking Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, who is director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment's research center, said: “It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire.” This confident explanation was issued by Al-Mlaifi a day after hundreds of Muslims in a religious procession were stampeded to death in Iraq.

These finger pointing explanations are not only deeply flawed, they are also deeply insensitive. The Talmud says that anyone who gives a grieving person an “interpretation” explaining that the victim’s sins caused his own suffering has violated the prohibition of verbal abuse. Many Jewish philosophers wrestle with the question of theodicy (why bad things happen to good people), and some explanations consider man’s culpability. However, what is misunderstood is that their explorations are meant to defend God’s goodness, not to torment victims of suffering by blaming them for the crime.

In fact, even the entire project of defending God’s goodness is suspect. First of all, God does not need a defense attorney; He can make a case for himself. And God continues to make a case for himself in every sunrise, every leaf, every breath we take. Furthermore, any explanation we can offer will seem meaningless to sufferers. Those who are suffering feel their pain on a personal, existential level, and fancy, abstract explanations will in no way alleviate their pain.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a very different view of a Jewish response to suffering. He says the “why” question, why bad things happen to good people, is unfathomable. It’s like trying to appreciate the beauty of a tapestry from the reverse side; you simply cannot make out an intelligible design. Any exploration of the “why” question is simply a dead end. Even worse, any answer offered will imply that we should passively accept our fate and assume that God did everything for the best. Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Halacha requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes. This is because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy.

To Solovietchik, the real question that has to be asked is the “how” question: How do I respond to tragedy? We do not know why the world contains unexplained evil; however, we can endeavor to make the world a better place. Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human ingenuity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is tikkun olam, rebuilding the world.

The tikkun olam response to this tragedy is to join hands rather than point fingers. The most important lesson of any large scale disaster is the commonality of all human beings; we have all have the same vulnerabilities and the same aspirations. Most importantly, we are all created in the same image of God. It is up to us to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters, and help each other with their burdens.

I am hopeful that besides the noisy figerpointers, most people will respond properly to this catastrophe. In the past, I have witnessed how disasters have the unique ability to unite anyone, even antagonists, in a common cause. Last January, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists gathered together in my Montreal synagogue for a service on behalf of the victims of the Asian tsunami. Representatives of the warring Sinhalese and Tamil communities both attended, and a representative of the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, thanked the Jewish community for their efforts on behalf of the disaster victims. People who normally do not talk to each other joined together in common cause. And just today, students at Montreal’s Hebrew Academy, moved by the news reports they have heard, have began mobilizing fundraising and letter writing campaigns for people they have never met, the victims of Katrina.

I am too uncomfortable to issue prophetic statements. But if I have to guess what God wants in the wake of Katrina, it is a recognition that every human being shares God’s image, and that every person, whether they live in Indonesia or New Orleans or Kuwait or Israel, should learn how to join hands rather than point fingers.


here's a link to it in JPost:

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1125831261300&p=1006953079865

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Rosh Hashanah: Rage Against the Status Quo

Right now, even as you read this article, you are asleep. You are not unique; most of us are lulled to sleep by a constant barrage of daily drudgery. We become thoughtless creatures of habit and allow the status quo to muffle our aspirations. Even idealists can lose focus, and become fixated on chasing mindless trivialities. We need to wake up.

According to Maimonides, the shofar’s call on Rosh Hashanah is a sacred alarm clock, a call to stop slipping into the status quo. The shofar wakes us up, and demands that we reexamine our routines. It reminds us to battle against the status quo.

Considering how stifling the status quo can be, it’s no surprise that greatness is found in those who can break away from their past. Jewish literature is filled with examples of great men who defy the status quo. Abraham walks away from his country, his birthplace, and his family’s home, in order to follow his destiny. His journey leads him to become the father of the Jewish people. Ruth, a Moabite woman, leaves home out of love and loyalty to her mother in law Naomi. Her grace and kindness find her a new home among the Jewish people, and her story is included in the Bible as the paradigm of true compassion. Rabbi Akiva, an ignorant, middle aged farmer, decides that with enough diligence, even he can succeed at Torah studies. This bold decision will lead him to become the greatest Rabbi of his time. These heroes achieve greatness by breaking away from the status quo.

Most of us will not become heroes like Abraham or Ruth or Akiva. But, we need not live in unending mediocrity. We too can rise up against the status quo.

Any new challenge that you undertake is a rebellion against status quo. Any time you stand up for your ideals is a rebellion against the status quo. Any time you give more, volunteer more, care more, you have rebelled against the status quo. Any personal transformation is a rebellion against the status quo.

I know someone who quit smoking. Why? Because one day, observing his kids playing, he realized he probably wouldn’t have the same joy watching his grandchildren playing. He immediately quit cold turkey. Something woke him up, and he could no longer stomach the status quo.

Dylan Thomas, in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, insists that we refuse to accept the infirmities of old age, and demands that we “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Truth be told, all of us, (of any age), begin to decline the moment we become prisoners of habit. Too many of us fail to consider new perspectives and new beginnings. That is why, as the shofar sounds, we must wake up, and rage against the status quo.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Extreme Makeover, Soul Edition

I haven’t had plastic surgery…yet. I have managed to hold out, despite a barrage of television shows promising salvation by the scalpel.

Actually, I have no difficulty with plastic surgery. An improved physical appearance can improve one’s job prospects and possibility of marriage. Cosmetic surgery is simply another example of human ingenuity enhancing quality of life.

However, society’s fascination with plastic surgery is exaggerated. The aforementioned TV programs breathlessly tout plastic surgery as a vehicle for personal redemption. Attractiveness is seen as being next to Godliness. Aspirations of the soul, such as identity and meaning, are now accomplished with liposuction. Unfortunately, this is absurd: plastic surgery is by definition skin deep.

Now I’m not naïve: I realize you won’t see a TV show that features Rabbis performing advanced Torah implants or prayer lifts or charity peels anytime soon. But that’s a shame, because our souls can get just as torn and worn as our bodies. Harsh years in the dog eat dog workplace, coupled with excess consumption, can erode the most spirited youthful idealism. Cynicism and the pursuit of comfort can transform former idealists into sarcastic, brandy sipping, golf playing sellouts.

So how do former idealists get their souls back? With an extreme makeover for the soul.

Soul makeovers come in many different varieties. Sometimes you need to go on the road. Comfortable environments can lead to spiritual decay; you need to leave home in order to challenge your soul again. Find an appropriate spiritual retreat, and break away from the daily grind.

Sometimes you need to just do it. We all say we want to spend more time with family, volunteer more, and study more. But, on any given night, it’s too hard because we’re tired/had a rough day at work/need to take care of some errands. And all of our great goals end up sliding away, one night at a time. So just do it!

Sometimes, you need to go home. There is an amazing amount of spiritual insight in our own backyard. Yet we ignore own treasures, simply to search for fool’s gold. It is at times astonishing to me that some Jews, with the oldest and most influential religious tradition in the world, still run after every bizarre new fad. The best place for a soul makeover is right at home.

A member of our synagogue, Larry, traveled with me on a trip to Israel. It was his first visit, and he was overwhelmed by what he experienced. The history, religion and culture transformed his entire outlook on life. At the end of the trip, he said:

“Before coming to Israel, I was of the Jewish faith. Now, I’ve become a Jew” .

This is what a spiritual makeover is all about. You just do it, break away from the old grind, and return home. At the end, you finish with your life transformed, and even.....ith a more beautiful soul.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Excellence is not Perfect

Excellence is the MBA’s mantra. It is the adjective most frequently used in describing thriving businesses. A search of Amazon.com’s website will show that no less than 4,693 books, most of them business related, have the word excellence in their title. This is quite understandable, because excellence in business can make the difference between profitability and bankruptcy.

You don’t have to be a businessman to understand the importance of excellence. Everybody wants to be excellent at something. One of the great themes of both philosophy and theology is that true happiness is found only in the excellence of the soul. Indeed, the Bible makes clear that God’s creation of the earth is one of excellence, repeating seven times in the first chapter that the creation "is good" or "very good". Excellence and perfection seem to be the divine blueprint.

Remarkably, perfection fails. The first time a human aspires to what "is good", she eats forbidden fruit. This inauspicious beginning to human history foreshadows a lengthy narrative of human failure. In fact, the aspiration for perfection is often the very thing that leads to failure.

Perfectionist standards can often be destructive. Perfection at work comes with a price. The workaholic may excel at his job, but will not have the time to enjoy the fruits of success. Achieving perfection at home is just as costly. For the Martha Stewart wannabe, entertaining and decorating is a daunting task. Every brioche must have panache; every custard must be a gastronomic masterpiece. Unfortunately, the culinary tour de force arrives with high blood pressure and a nervous breakdown. Ironically, perfection in one realm often brings about imperfection in another realm, as if to remind us that humans were programmed to fail.

Actually, human error is an actuarial fact, an ever present reality of everybody’s lives. One can only trust machines to be perfectly accurate. Any human attempt to replicate the rigid efficiency of machines is bound to be a cold and unhappy fiasco. Aspiring for absolute perfection is both quixotic and frustrating.

Where human excellence is found is in the creative use of failure. Imperfection may be flawed in many ways, but it is the perfect environment for human growth. Indeed, what is most meaningful about life is the daily drama of our struggles with imperfection. Those who can find useful lessons in past failures have found the perfect way to master an imperfect world.

The Midrash states that teshuva, repentance, the religious response to failure and sin, was part of the world’s blueprint. What this suggests is that inadequacy is inevitable, and true human excellence is finding a positive use for failure. Or, to paraphrase the well known cliche about lemons and lemonade, "when life hands you failure, make teshuva".

In life, any hope for perfection is itself imperfect. True excellence is finding a way to transform failure and make spiritual lemonade.

Monday, June 06, 2005

I’ve Seen it All Before, But...

When I began my career as a Rabbi, experience was an issue. At one point, a prominent synagogue in New York refused to consider my application due to inexperience. For years, I have heard the remark "you’re the Rabbi? But you’re so young!". (By the way, I’m finally past that stage, a clear sign of middle age setting in). For a Rabbi, experience and age are assets, enabling him to somewhat resemble the visage of a "true" Rabbi (i.e., someone who looks Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments).

Yet, after nearly 15 years in the rabbinate, having finally conquered the disabilities of youth and inexperience, I have encountered a new problem: too much experience.

I first encountered it at a funeral. An elderly woman had passed away, and I was wrapping up my preparatory meeting with her daughter. As I was leaving, I put on my rabbinic face of earnest concern, and told her in a soothing tone how sorry I was about her loss. Unfortunately, this woman worked as a secretary for a pulpit Rabbi, and had seen this spiel many a time before at her own office. She immediately turned to me and said: "come on Rabbi! You’ve seen this all before, haven’t you?".

It was then I realized I had too much experience.

With experience, the lessons of humiliating mistakes and proud triumphs get seared into your memory and become second nature. Unfortunately, at the same time, experience burns out emotional nerve endings. Whether it’s weddings or funerals or Bar Mitzvas, when you do something over and over again, it’s just another routine. Emotions that flow automatically at wedding and funeral number one are much harder to access at number one hundred or number two hundred. I imagine that even Liz Taylor found it hard to get very excited about her ninth wedding.

It is tempting to replace the lost excitement with a bored cynicism. Having done it all before, seasoned veterans proudly adopt a world weary, casual attitude to life’s peak moments. Getting excited is for neophytes, for people too inexperienced to know better. When you’ve seen it all, life’s just reruns, n’est ce pas?

Frankly, I can’t stand cynicism. To me, cynicism is merely a disguise for emotional impotence. As I searched for a way to remain emotionally engaged in my work, I came across a useful bit of Talmudic wisdom on coping with the dulling nature of routine.

Boredom during prayer during prayer is a common problem. Yes, prayer is a spiritual peak moment when one is in direct contact with the divine. However, constantly praying three times daily can transform pristine prayer into a pure monotony. To prevent this from happening, the Talmud recommends three responses. First, one must always come with an appropriate attitude. Never approach prayer with an attitude of annoyance, muttering to yourself "Oh no; I have to pray again!!". Second, always pray with appropriate words, words of humility and sensitivity. And finally, try to find a new insight to add to each day’s prayers.

This is an exceptional piece of advice. The difference between rote prayers and real prayers is attitude, focus and creativity. The same prayer can continue to inspire, even if you repeat it a thousand times a year.

This Talmudic insight is useful in countering the numbing effects of any repetition. First of all, you have to refuse to treat peak moments casually. A wedding can never be "just another wedding", and a funeral is never something that "threw your schedule off". Never treat another person’s peak moment as your own burden.

In addition, language is key. Even if you’ve been to 500 shiva houses, that doesn’t mean that now it’s simply a place to shmooze, tell jokes, and talk about your golf game. Humble words pave the way for a sincere connection.

And finally, find something new. Often when I am preparing for a funeral, someone describes their mother as a "typical Jewish mother". They even assume their mother’s story is boring, telling me "I’m sure a lot of people say this about their mothers". Yet despite the disclaimer, I search for how this woman was unusual, what part of her biography made her different. We all know how wonderful the ideal Jewish mother can be; but isn’t it nice to hear about the little acts of kindness that made this specific woman unique?

Yes, I’ve seen it all before. Even so, this rerun still matters. As long as each Jewish mother has a different recipe for chicken soup, as long as each young couple has their own "story" about how they met, I pledge to keep my focus, and refuse to allow remarkable peak moments to become a dreary routine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Choices

We live in a world of choice. Everywhere we turn we are assaulted by a multitude of choices. For the discriminating grocery shopper, an endless array of salad dressings, breakfast cereals and toilet paper awaits. On TV, there are hundreds of cable channels to entertain us. Or try painting your house; you’d be amazed how many shades of white there actually are. Even the banal act of ordering a coffee can become an overwhelming decision. Was that a grande decaf skim latte, or a venti soy chai?

However, these are ersatz choices. Yes, we often expend a great deal of energy on these minor decisions . That’s because we live in a culture of consumerism, surrounded by billions of dollars of advertising designed to convince us that meaningless minutiae matter. And while it’s nice to have the option, in reality it makes no difference at all if you paint your house in “winter white” or “white dove”.

There is a popular belief in free will, based on our own perceptions of freedom of choice. However, many philosophers argue that in reality, there is no free will. To prove this, they note how most people’s lives are extremely predictable, and their actions never stray far from the routine. While we might imagine we have the free will to choose a particular flavor of ice cream, in the end, whether you pick vanilla or chocolate, you will still be the same old person. And for the most part, people don’t change all that much.

Real choices change lives. If there is free will, (and it is a fundamental Jewish belief), it isn’t about petty, meaningless decisions. We encounter free will in the real choices in life: Will I break those old bad habits, or remain mired in mediocrity? Will I transform, or will I remain the same as I was, is, and always will be?

We can make real choices all the time. Dozens of times each day, we decide whether we will transcend the mediocre and act with genuine character. Even small gestures like stopping to shake a hand can be real choices, a small step on the road to personal growth.

Unfortunately, we are so bogged down by a multitude of phony, ersatz choices, that we often overlook the real choices we have to make. We worry about the best; the best handbag, the best watch, the best power tie. What about the best character?

In the documentary 9-11 ,which is about firehouse near Ground Zero, the producers ask one of the firefighters why he chose his career. He answered:

“I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, and say I’m doing something with my life”.

The next time you shop for paint, think about that fireman. And while it’s nice to have a kaleidoscope of colors to choose from, remember that “mocha brown” is not a real choice.

A real choice is when you decide to actually do something with your life.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Lesson of a Sleepless Night

(this is a few years old, but never posted on this website)

I like to get a good night’s sleep. But, like most parents of small children, my sleep will often get interrupted; and, like most parents of small children, I get annoyed when my kids wake me up. Usually, I try to solve any "problem" with the utmost speed, dispensing water, calming words and occasionally discipline in 30 seconds flat, and then rush right back to bed. But one night was different; at 1:30 AM, my 5 year old son called me, upset that a spider had climbed by his bed. I patiently explained to my son that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders because they are a lot smaller than us, and that spiders are actually good and friendly creatures (OK, I was exaggerating; what would you say to a frantic child at 1:30 AM?). I sat on his bed for an hour and a half, waiting patiently until he calmed down and went back to sleep. I did not get annoyed.

My newfound calm was not due to a relaxed schedule at work; in fact, it was the week before Rosh Hashanah, and I was frantically looking for the right topic for a sermon. However, that night, I had the blessing of perspective. An hour before the spider "crisis", I was woken up by a phone call. A friend’s mother had just died and he had a few questions about Jewish mourning practices. During our conversation, I could hear the pain in his voice. When my son woke me an hour later, how busy I was or how much I needed my sleep made no difference to me. I was quite happy to sit on his bed and talk about spiders. That night I realized that parent-child relationships are invaluable, and every minute spent together is a gift; and if the price of those precious minutes is a mediocre Rosh Hashanah sermon, so be it.

Everybody understands the value of perspective; it is easy to recognize that big things are more important than little things. Yet, despite knowing this, we lose our perspective anyway. The reason why we do so is the power of details.

Human beings are adept at fixating on details. To make matters worse, we are unaware of our capacity to blow things out of proportion. The Jews, travelling through the desert after the exodus from Egypt, survive by eating manna, a miraculous food that appears each morning. Are they happy? No!! They complain to Moses "we remember the fish....the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks and garlic....that we ate in Egypt....and now, our soul is dried out....all we have to eat is this manna". I could never understand these absurd Jews, recently released from the hell of slavery, only to complain about the menu on the way to the promised land. Then I began to officiate at weddings. On occasion, I would arrive at the synagogue, only to find the bride teary eyed; why? What could have marred the happiest day of her life? And then, someone would explain.......the wrong color napkins arrived. It may seem ridiculous that a bride could get upset about the napkins at her wedding; unfortunately, it’s human nature to obsess about details. My experiences at weddings gave me new insight into the Jew’s complaints in the desert. They were intoxicated by details, crying because God had delivered the wrong color napkins.

This intoxication can cloud our moral judgement. A study by two psychologists, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson, found that 63% of Seminary students, on their way to give a sermon, would stop to help a homeless man help if they had extra time. However only 10% stopped for the homeless man when they were late. What is more astonishing is that the students were giving a sermon about caring for strangers!! Although arriving on time is certainly a virtue, fixating on punctuality can distort our moral judgement. Remarkably, the power of details is such that it is natural to ignore the needy as we rush to preach compassion.

We spend too much time worrying about the watermelons and napkins of life. It sometimes takes a misfortune to remind us to ignore details and focus on what is important. What I learnt that sleepless night, sitting on my son’s bed, is that talking about spiders with a five year old is more important than a good night’s sleep. Luckily for me, as tired as I was the next day, I came up with an interesting Rosh Hashanah sermon. It was on the topic of........perspective.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Sorry that the following obit ended being premature, but CTV had reported on Friday afternoon at about 2 that the Pope had died...

Friday, April 01, 2005

Just heard about the Pope's death. Here's something I was working on, an unfortunately had to change from present to past tense while writing.

The Pope: A Rabbi’s Tribute

Usually, Rabbis don’t give eulogies for Popes. In fact, historically, Catholic-Jewish relations have been quite difficult, to say the least. In medieval and early modern history, the Catholic Church was the driving force in European anti-Semitism. Jews were viewed as the killers of Jesus, unworthy of rights and even basic protections. Papal declarations required that Jews wear unusual identifying clothes (like the infamous yellow star), outlawed the Talmud, and insisted Jews attend conversionary sermons. Church sponsored crusades, blood libels and inquisitions brought violence and fear to all European Jewish communities. And while there are some notable exceptions, most Popes were very much a part of this anti-Semitic milieu. In 1555, Pope Paul IV wrote: "It appears utterly absurd and impermissible that the Jews, whom God has condemned to eternal slavery for their guilt, should enjoy our Christian love."

These anti-Semitic attitudes continued to persist in the Catholic Church well into the 20th century. David Kertzer, a professor at Brown University and the author of The Popes Against the Jews, marshals compelling evidence that the Vatican continued to promote anti-Semitism well into the early 1900’s. One example is the blood libel, the odious claim that Jews conducted a ritual murder of a Christian child in preparation for the holiday of Passover. When Pope Leo XIII was asked in 1900 to repudiate this canard, he instead appointed commission that concluded that "ritual murder is a historical certainty ... and such murder furthermore was charged and punished many times”. Until recent years, Catholic-Jewish relations were filled with anger and mistrust.

Since the Vatican’s publication of Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”) on October 28th, 1965, there has been a dramatic change in Catholic-Jewish relations. Nostra Aetate condemned, on theological grounds, any form of Catholic anti-Semitism. Following this declaration, a friendly spirit of Catholic-Jewish dialogue slowly developed, for which quite a few people can take credit. But there is no question that the most important figure in the rapprochement of the last forty years was the late Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.

Despite being a fairly conservative Pope, John Paul II worked tirelessly to change the Vatican’s attitude towards the Jews. He was the youngest bishop at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which adopted Nostra Aetate. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue. He was the first Pope to visit Auschwitz. Under his tenure, the Vatican finally recognized the State of Israel, and in 2000 he made a historic visit to Israel. Without question, Pope John Paul II has transformed the face of Catholic-Jewish relations. No wonder that on January 18th of this year 160 Rabbis visited the Vatican to bless the Pope.

While the career of John Paul II is quite impressive, what touches me even more is the humanity of Karol Wojtyla. A PBS documentary, Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, explores Wojtyla’s personal relationships as a young man in Wadowice, Poland, during a virulently anti-Semitic era. Notably, he didn’t show any trace of anti-Semitism. He cultivated Jewish friendships. He even played goalie for a primarily Jewish soccer team, and one of his best friends was a Jew, Jerzy Kluger.

Although he never was an active part of the anti-German resistance, Wojtyla did show compassion and bravery. Sister Zofia Zarnecka, a fellow university student, told PBS how Wojtyla protected a Jewish student, Anka Weber. "He often escorted her down the street and fended off the bigots who called themselves, 'All-Poland Youth.'". Edith Schiere, another Jewish Wadowician who now lives in Israel, told PBS that during the war, she managed to escape Auschwitz and, wandering in her weakened condition, met Karol Wojtyla. He carried her on his back to the train station and got her some food. In the interview, she said she felt terrible that she never had the chance to thank him.

This tribute is my way of thanking John Paul II, for Edith Schiere and the rest of the Jewish people. John Paul II was a “mensch”, an exceptional human being. Because of his genuine concern and compassion, John Paul II succeeded in single-handedly changing Catholic-Jewish relations. He will leave behind a legacy of peace and understanding.

May his memory be a blessing for all of humanity.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Power of No

We hate the word no. No is negative. No represents denial and prohibition. In a world of instant gratification, the word no is taboo.

Unfortunately, no is underrated. Self denial is the foundation of civilization. Thinkers from Plato to Hobbes to Freud have embraced this idea, and recognized the importance of impulse control in the formation of society. Community and camaraderie depend on our ability to say no to selfishness.

The power of no is also a critical part of personal development. Self mastery is a prerequisite to human greatness. Rav Solovietchik explains that in Judaism, the heroic is not found in mere victory. A true hero must also be capable of self-defeat. The Mishnah explains: “Who is powerful? The one who controls his urges.” With discipline comes power. A mighty warrior may win battle after battle, only to be addicted to victory. Genuine heroes are masters of their own victories, people who can sacrifice the very object of their ambitions.

Heroic discipline is becoming a lost art. Michael Medved, the film critic, tells of a visit to a TV show taping that he made several years ago. He had brought along his 6 year old daughter Sarah, and upon arriving, the show’s producer offered Sarah a candy bar. Before accepting, Sarah brought the candy bar to her father to check if it was kosher. There was no kosher sign on the candy bar, so Sarah reluctantly returned it to the producer. The producer was shocked by the little girl’s refusal. She berated Medved for denying his daughter a little enjoyment, and declared that Medved’s insistence on kashrut would emotionally cripple his daughter when she got older. This producer, an influential pop culture personality, simply could not understand the idea of self discipline; to her, any form of self denial is unhealthy.

Pop culture celebrates self indulgence, and self discipline is seen as repressive and depressing. That’s why we no longer have role models; character doesn’t matter anymore. Contemporary heroes possess fame and fortune but little else. Michael Jackson and Monica Lewinsky are contemporary icons, while the army private in Iraq is a forgotten misfit.

It’s time to reclaim the power of no. As selfishness has become more respectable, family and community have suffered. Marriage and family are based on discipline, character and self sacrifice. In a me-culture, leasing a BMW is a higher budgetary priority than a third child; self indulgence is more important than an established spouse. Community depends on generosity, a value that is incomprehensible to the selfish. Why give away anything you might enjoy yourself?

True heroes don’t question generosity. They understand self defeat is sometimes the greatest victory, that giving is sometimes greater than taking. They understand there is more to life than candy bars and BMW’s.

They understand the power of no.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Small Things Worth Sweating

"Don’t sweat the small stuff" is a cliche that for the most part is correct. Oftentimes, we do fixate on silly details. However, sometimes details are larger than they appear.

In his autobiography, Amos Oz describes a scene from his childhood in Jerusalem in the 1940's. In Auster’s grocery shop, there would be passionate discussions over which cheese to buy: should it be the kibbutz cheese, or the cheese from the local Arab villages? Yes, there’s a duty to support the kibbutzim, for ‘charity begins at home". On the other hand, you may not discriminate against outsiders, for "one law shall be for you and the stranger in your midst". So a trip to the grocery could turn into a heated debate over....one’s choice of cheese.

Incidents like the "cheese debates" are an essential part of Jewish culture. One of the hallmarks of the Talmud is attention to detail. A classic example of this is a discussion about the obligation to dispose of bread before Passover. The Talmud ponders the following questions: A mouse goes into a room with some bread, and later leaves with some bread. Can you assume it took out the original bread, or perhaps this is a new piece of bread and he left the original behind? What if a white mouse goes in, but a black mouse comes out with bread? What if a mouse goes in with bread, and a weasel comes out with bread? Finally, the Talmud declares "teiku", it has no definitive answer!

This attention to detail is more than academic. Details make a big difference. Small gestures express larger commitments. A suitor’s rose is more than a mere rose; in the right context, a simple rose represents profound love.

I once read about an executive who immediately threw out any CV’s with typos. This may seem harsh, but it is appropriate. Looking for typos in a CV is not nitpicking. If an applicant is truly interested, his CV would be flawless. On a CV, presentation equals commitment.

Indeed, the very fabric of society is formed by small details. When Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York, he began to combat crime by concentrating on the presence of squeegee men. On busy corners, men would rush out at red lights to wash windshields and then intimidate the drivers for spare change. While they had been ignored by previous administrations as a mere annoyance, Giuliani realized squeegee men played a key role in the perpetuation of crime. By tolerating the minor infractions of the squeegee men, the police department fostered a culture of lawlessness. The squeegee men gave the city an ambience of disorder, a place where anything goes. By cracking down on these minor infractions, Giuliani transformed the culture of New York.

We should never fixate on petty details. But there is small stuff worth sweating, little acts of commitment that make a big difference.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

60 Years Since Liberation: The Missing Story

Last week the world turned its attention to the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. However, despite an abundance of ceremonies, speeches and media attention, the most important part of the story was overlooked.

Yes, the memorials were meaningful. Auschwitz, where between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were murdered, is the single place in the world that best embodies the modern disease of genocide. Auschwitz bears witness to what occurs when one blends extreme ideology, hatred, and modern weaponry. Auschwitz cries out “never again”, asking us to stop future genocides. Indeed, at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly devoted to this anniversary, speakers constantly focused on the message of “never again”. One would hope that the U.N., which failed in its response to subsequent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, will pay a bit more attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur this week.

And yes, the commemorations were also touching. It is now sixty years since the war, and the remaining survivors of the Holocaust are all senior citizens. This memorial was for many survivors the final opportunity to pass on their memories. Thanks to exceptional media coverage, survivors were able to tell their stories: stories of survival, recollections of Nazi sadism, and memories of those who perished. They were able, once final time, to stand as eyewitnesses to history.

This opportunity to speak out is one that was denied to survivors for many years. As Peter Novick notes in his The Holocaust in American Life, the Holocaust was virtually ignored in the 50's and 60's. Survivors were expected to move on and not dwell on the past. Novick points out that this phenomenon was due in large part to the myth that the victims of the Holocaust were weak, docile sheep lead to slaughter. In a postwar atmosphere of confidence and self-reliance, the survivor was an “embarrassment” because he was considered an example of “cowardice”. Thankfully, historians have corrected the record by documenting the scope of Jewish resistance during the war. And last week, these survivors had an opportunity to speak with pride, something they could not do for decades after the Holocaust.

So what was missing last week? The proper gestures were made. The dead were mourned, genocide condemned, and the stories of survivors were told. But a day of liberation should have also paid attention to the remarkable lives the survivors have made.

Contrary to unfortunate stereotypes, Holocaust survivors were remarkably courageous and determined. After the war, they not only survived, they thrived. A list of the of successful survivors would read like a Who’s Who, and would include the winners of the Nobel Prizes in Peace (Elie Weisel), Literature (Imre Kertesz) and Chemistry (Walter Kohn), a Brigadier General who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe (Sidney Shachnow), technology innovators (including Andy Grove of Intel), corporate titans, real estate magnates, and the like. Even those who didn’t achieve fame and fortune have left powerful impressions. My mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, was widowed at a young age and raised four children on her own. Even today, those who meet her are struck by a woman who is at the same time both warm and determined, compassionate yet strong.

The successful lives of survivors have been studied to understand the power of the human spirit. William Helmreich, a sociologist, wrote a book based on a study of 170 survivors called Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. He explains that he conducted this study in order to answer the following questions:

“How do people who have experienced such cataclysmic events pick up the threads of their lives?…what lessons can the rest of us learn from the survivors about coping with tragedy and adversity?”

Helmreich found that survivors were able to thrive because of a combination of personality traits, including flexibility, assertiveness, courage, optimism, tenacity, and the ability to find meaning. He sees these attributes as the keys to successfully bouncing back from trauma and tragedy.

This is why it was a shame that the media didn’t pay more attention to the lives of survivors here in Canada. The survivors are living examples of the resiliency of the human spirit. They teach us that nothing, no matter how horrible, can ever crush the human spirit. And this, in my mind, is the true lesson of liberation.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Long Haul

What is the dividing line between maturity and immaturity? As a child, this was always a bit of mystery to me. I tried to intuit a definition of maturity from bits of grown up conversation. It involved tucking in my shirt, sitting up straight and chewing with my mouth closed. (The truly mature also kept their elbows off the table). Mature boys didn’t cry, and weren’t afraid of the monsters in the basement. Maturity meant acting like the grownups did.

As I grew older, I realized I needed a....er...more mature definition of maturity. Maturity is not found in long pants or table manners or even RRSP’s, but rather in a perspective on life. Indeed, maturity is somewhat similar to the Kabbalistic concept of mochin d’gadlut. In Gadlut or “largeness” one is no longer focussed on the narrow obsessions that often dominate our waking moments. One transcends the perspective of the petty and considers the big picture. Life’s details are seen within the larger context. In many ways, true maturity is very similar; it is living life while looking beyond the here and now.

This type of maturity is not automatically bestowed with age. Even adults who sit up straight and always have their shirts tucked in can get trapped in the childish world of the here and now. Have you ever been stuck in an unexpected traffic jam when you are a few minutes late? If you’re anything like me, you sit there, completely unnerved by the situation, constantly thinking “come on, come on, come on! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”. Even though there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the situation, impatience overwhelms, leaving you distracted and distraught. Instead of taking advantage of the time to plan or relax, you obsess over the stalled car in the right lane. This small mindedness can be very destructive; the frustration you get from a one hour traffic jam can poison your mood for an entire day.

Maturity is living life for the long haul. When you live for the long haul, your life is driven by a clear and defining sense of purpose. Each moment, each event, is approached with the larger goal in mind. Small setbacks like traffic jams don’t get in your way, and the serious setbacks don’t stop you either. All that matters is the larger goal of true purpose and meaning.

The remarkable thing is most of us don’t have a larger sense of purpose. Corporations spend endless man-hours and thousands of dollars working on mission statements, trying to understand what they should be doing. But rarely does anyone sit down and considered what his own mission ought to be. Because of our lack of mission, we end up living life unfocussed, distracted by temporary worries, without a larger sense of purpose to anchor us.

Living life for the long haul begins with a sense of purpose. True maturity is achieved when each moment is lived according to larger ideal. This broader vision is life transforming, and is useful when stuck in traffic as well!

Monday, January 10, 2005

Last Saturday morning, we held a service for the victims of the tsunami. We were addressed by The Honourable Irwin Cotler, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada; Mr. Alain Bonneau, Honourary Consul of Sri Lanka; Mr. Sanat Kaul, the Indian Representative to ICAO; Mr. Aras Martono, the Indonesian Representative to ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization; Mr. Marc Attali, Consul General of Israel; Mrs. Ramani Balendra, President of the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Tamil Congress; in attendence were Mr. Bashir Hussain, Executive Director, Alliance of South Asian communities; Mr. Eddie Wolkove, Co-President (with Mr. Hussain) of Muslim-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal; Ms. Laya Alles, Sri Lanka Canada Association of Montreal; Mr. Perry Balendra, President of the Quebec Coalition for Peace in Sri Lanka; Mr. Manjit Singh, chair of the Montreal Interfaith Council a director of the Canadian Sikh Council, and Mr. Jeff Boro, President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region.

This is the op-ed I wrote about this:

A Moment of Grace

It was not your average synagogue service. On this particular Saturday morning, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists gathered together in my Montreal synagogue for a service on behalf of the victims of the Asian tsunami. Diplomats from India, Indonesia, Israel and Sri Lanka, as well as the Canadian Minister of Justice, all offered words of sympathy. And indeed, solidarity was in the air. Representatives of the Sinhalese and Tamils both attended, and a representative of the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, thanked the Jewish community for their efforts on behalf of the disaster victims. You could say it was a morning of strange bedfellows; in actuality, it was a true moment of grace.

While it is unfortunate that this solidarity is the product of a disaster, it is not unusual that it is so. Human behavior changes dramatically under pressure. Much like the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, disasters have the unique ability to unite antagonists in a common cause. As George Elliot, at the end of The Mill on the Floss, notes: “What quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity…?”

That is why when we observe the horrors of this tsunami, we transcend the foolish pettiness that is the foundation of human enmity. The sight of naked human suffering stirs feelings of compassion. We all understand what Ramani (a member of the Sri Lankan community who addressed us) felt, when following the tsunami, she started calling family members in a panic to see how they were. We immediately connect with those who are homeless, and have lost their life savings. As a father, I was overwhelmed as I saw parents searching for their children, hoping against hope that they are still alive. A report on CNN told about parents going to the beach, hoping they could at least recover their children’s bodies for burial; as I watched, I was overtaken by tears.

The prophet Malachi asks “Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God? Then why are we faithless to each other?”. This indeed is a difficult riddle. How is it that humans can hate each other so much? Yet for much of history, humans are the authors of enormous devastation. The Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur are all the products of human evil. Frequently, the intensity of hatred is the greatest between those groups that are most closely related. How do we forget that we all have the same father?

In the aftermath of this tsunami, we remember again that all human beings are brothers and sisters. Skin color, ethnic background and religious affiliation don’t change the fact that we are all part of one family. That is why people all around the world are coming forward to help the victims. With this disaster came a worldwide moment of grace.

Yes, catastrophe creates compassion. No, it’s not a good reason to hope for catastrophes. We would be better off if we could learn the lessons of solidarity in a more comfortable classroom. But it is a reminder of how as humans we have the ability to determine our response to whatever life may send our way. We can choose callousness or compassion. The response I saw in my synagogue, and the response I see coming from around the world, is one of caring and concern. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll truly recognize that we’re from the same family.

Now, I’m too cynical to believe things have changed much. I know that tomorrow, a new news story, preferably one that involves celebrities and/or a sex scandal, will push this tsunami off the front pages. (Indeed, the Consul General of Sri Lanka specifically asked us to continue to remember the victims of the tsunami, even after the media has forgotten them.). Just like after 9/11, we’ll forget our newfound ideals and return to small-mindedness.

Even so, a brief moment of grace can make an enduring difference. It allows us to glimpse what mankind could be like at its best. And that glimpse, of a world a bit too perfect for today, can still nourish the idealist inside all of us. If we open our hearts just a little, it can continue to remind us to love more, to give more, and to care more, even in times of tranquility.