Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Denial: The Prequel

(or: “Do Improved Living Standards Make Us More Likely to Engage in Denial?" - This post belongs before the last one.)

So it’s not just me.

It seems people have been worrying and obsessing more. Paula Spencer writes:

Four 11- and 12-year-old girls stood in front of my open pantry, mouths gaping wide. "Look! Fruit Roll-Ups!" "Oh, my God! Chocolate-chip cookies!" "You have regular potato chips? We only get the soy kind!"

After 14 years and four kids, I thought I'd feel comfortable as a mother. Instead, I'm increasingly aware of a prickly new sensation: that I'm some kind of renegade. Who knew that buying potato chips would become a radical act? Or that letting my daughters walk home from school alone would require administration approval? How did I, a middle-of-the-road mom, become a social deviant?

Fear is the new fuel of the American mom. If it's not fear of her child becoming obese, it's the fear of falling behind, missing out on a sports scholarship or winding up with a thin college-rejection envelope……….

Half my kids' friends—who already make A's and B's—had summer tutors in order to "keep it fresh." I thought vacation was for relaxing and recharging. What would our pioneer foremoms think? (You want something to worry about, let me show you frostbite, typhoid and bears!) Heck, what must our own mothers think?

It’s ironic that just as life gets so much safer, we fret more about potential dangers.

Two things have happened:

Science is the new superstition: the anxious energy that used to be channeled into superstition has now found a new home in obscure scientific findings. Even a single study noting the health risks to an everyday behavior will send people scurrying to change their behavior. Potato chips are now the new black cat.

Success has spoiled us: Since we have been able to prevent so many dangers and illnesses, we’ve come to expect science to provide us with immortality. Living in a successful society has left us less capable of coping with difficulties. Reality is that humans are fragile and impermanent. The Bible reminds us:

Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.

Denial has always been with us. But it’s becoming more common, as progress leads to the delusion that we’re immortal.

And worst of all, while chasing scientific superstitions, we forget to stop and taste the chocolate chip cookies.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

An Alternative to Denial

Katharine Moser is a woman who refuses to engage in denial:

The test, the counselor said, had come back positive. Katharine Moser inhaled sharply. She thought she was as ready as anyone could be to face her genetic destiny. She had attended a genetic counseling session and visited a psychiatrist, as required by the clinic. She had undergone the recommended neurological exam. And yet, she realized in that moment, she had never expected to hear those words. “What do I do now?” Ms. Moser asked. “What do you want to do?” the counselor replied. “Cry,” she said quietly.

Her best friend, Colleen Elio, seated next to her, had already begun.

Ms. Moser was 23. It had taken her months to convince the clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan that she wanted, at such a young age, to find out whether she carried the gene for Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s, the incurable brain disorder that possessed her grandfather’s body and ravaged his mind for three decades, typically strikes in middle age. But most young adults who know the disease runs in their family have avoided the DNA test that can tell whether they will get it, preferring the torture — and hope — of not knowing.

I was quite taken by Katharine’s choice. Most of us prefer the gentle comfort of denial to the harsh reality of life. Denial helps us get through the day. Just listen to how people speak at Shivas.

My job takes me to a lot of Shivas. (A Shiva is a Jewish tradition, in which the family of the deceased observe a week of mourning after the funeral, and friends come in to visit and comfort the mourners.) Sometimes, a visitor will begin interrogating the mourners: Was she (the deceased) sick? For how long? Did he have a chronic condition? Was she a smoker? Was he overweight?

I used to wonder why people who were coming to comfort a mourner would pursue this extremely uncomfortable line of questioning. Finally, I realized something about these impolite visitors: they were asking these questions to comfort themselves!. These visitors were unnerved by the fact that death was close by, and had taken away a relative or a good friend. These questions are their hamhanded attempt at recovering a sense of security. They are hoping to discover something about the deceased; perhaps he was a smoker, or came from a family with a history of cancer. Perhaps he didn’t eat well, or was under a lot of stress. They imagine that if they find these pieces of information, they can leave the Shiva secure in the belief that it won’t happen to them, because they don’t smoke/don’t drink/eat healthy/take yoga.

But there are no guarantees in life. J.I. Rodale, the founder of the health magazine Prevention, was interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show on June 8, 1971. Rodale, a health fanatic, had bragged a day earlier that he would "live to 100 unless I'm run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver." Rodale, 73, said in the interview that he was "so healthy that I expect to live on and on." A few moments later, while still on the show, he died of a heart attack. Even health fanatics are subject to reality; yoga and yogurt can’t change the inherent fragility of life.

Denial is a wonderful warm blanket, making you feel secure even when you really aren’t.

Unfortunately, denial is a lie. Like most lies, it falls apart, and eventually, reality bites. How do you cope then?

Somehow, the courageous Ms. Moser has found an alternative to denial, and is fighting her way to happiness. The article explains:

More than anything now, Ms. Moser said, she is filled with a sense of urgency. “I have a lot to do,” she said. “And I don’t have a lot of time.” Over the next months, Ms. Moser took tennis lessons every Sunday morning and went to church in the evening. When a planned vacation with the Elio family fell through at the last minute, she went anyway, packing Disney World, Universal Studios, Wet ’n Wild and Sea World into 36 hours with a high school friend who lives in Orlando. She was honored at a dinner by the New York chapter of the Huntington’s society for her outreach efforts and managed a brief thank-you speech despite her discomfort with public speaking. Having made a New Year’s resolution to learn to ride a unicycle, she bought a used one. “My legs are tired, my arms are tired, and I definitely need protection,” she reported to Ms. Elio. On Super Bowl Sunday, she waded into the freezing Atlantic Ocean for a Polar Bear swim to raise money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Ms. Elio complained that she hardly got to see her friend. But one recent weekend, they packed up the Elio children and drove to the house the Elios were renovating in eastern Pennsylvania. The kitchen floor needed grouting, and, rejecting the home improvement gospel that calls for a special tool designed for the purpose, Ms. Moser and Ms. Elio had decided to use pastry bags. As they turned into the driveway, Ms. Moser studied the semi-attached house next door. Maybe she would move in one day, as the Elios had proposed. Then, when she could no longer care for herself, they could put in a door. First, though, she wanted to travel. She had heard of a job that would place her in different occupational therapy positions across the country every few months and was planning to apply. “I’m thinking Hawaii first,” she said. Then they donned gloves, mixed grout in a large bucket of water and began the job.

Katharine has refused the false comfort of denial, and is battling for meaning and happiness in her life. She is an inspiration to anyone who has an uncertain future (i.e., to everyone).

God bless her.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Yes, I Have a Problem with Capitalism (But So Did Adam Smith)

First of all, I have to begin this post by thanking people who comment on my blog. In particular, I really enjoy people who debate and question me. They force me to think and rethink my position. As the Talmud notes, you learn the most from those who question you.

Recently, I commented about a company that was offering coffins and burial urns with major league logos on them. I said this (among other things):

I always thought funerals were about how the deceased made his mark on the world. Now, thanks to Eternal Image, funerals can be about how you spread someone else’s trademark to the world. I’m sorry, but a legacy should be bigger than a baseball cap.

A friend was kind enough to take out the time to comment, and argue with my view.

He wrote:

“…….My point is, the trend of personalizing funeral services has been going on for years and this is something innovative. It's what the people want. If a company can make a buck off of it, why not? They aren't forcing people to buy their product.30 years ago, people would have thought it was bizarre for people to arrange or plan their own funeral. Now, that number of preneed funerals are up to more than 25 percent.It's all about choice. The marketplace will decide whether this company sticks around. But they are coming up with some interesting ideas.”

Now let me rephrase the point: The market is the best way to improve society, living standards and individual happiness. So why make fun of an innovative company as it makes its way to the market?

This challenge is directed at me:

Do you have a problem with capitalism?

Yes, I do have a problem with capitalism. And so did Adam Smith.

Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, is considered to be the founding father of capitalism. In his book The Wealth of Nations, he notes that society is most productive when structured around the self interest of every individual. Smith says that:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

So free enterprise is the best way to structure society. Let the market decide what’s good or bad, and whether Yankee logos belong on coffins.

But at the same time, Smith wrote another book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, he sees society as based on mutual love and sympathy:

It is thus that man, who can subsist only in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made. All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.

So in one book, Smith says society is best structured around self interest. In another he says it is best structured around love and gratitude. So which is it?

This question, known as the “Adam Smith Problem”, is one that has baffled scholars. Clearly, Smith may have embraced laissez faire capitalism, but he also realized a society structured around pure self interest would lose its soul. Or, to apply it (rather crudely) to my case, capitalism might produce a New York Yankee coffin, but capitalism should not have the final word. Our spiritual values should make the ultimate decisions.

Every person must grapple with balancing the values of productive self interest and spiritual altruism. Rav Soloveitchik notes that every person has two deep existential needs: to conquer the world and to redeem our souls. We conquer the world by building and inventing. We redeem our souls by creating community and pursuing spirituality. Life is lived at the intersection of these two impulses.

Humans have an existential need for both productivity and spirituality. Spirituality without productivity is a humiliating vow of poverty, a way of life beneath the dignity of a being created in the image of God. But capitalism without spirituality is a soulless dignity, endless progress without genuine purpose.

That’s my problem with capitalism.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

If You’re Going to Put Something on Your Coffin……

Earlier this month, Eternal Image, a company based in Farmington Hills, Michigan, made the following claim:

"Not much has changed in the funeral industry in centuries - some might even say in thousands of years…….Until now."

What is this amazing product being offered by Eternal Image? New York Newsday reports:

As of next month Eternal Image is putting on sale (through funeral homes) urns festooned with, yes, Major League Baseball logos.For a mere $699, fans of the Yankees (and seven other teams) can have their remains put in an urn with the team's logo on the front, a base shaped like home plate and room for a souvenir baseball on top.

For people who will not choose cremation, just hang in there. The company promises that:

Coffins with team logos are due in September.

Now, I’ve been an avid sports fan my whole life. As a child, I was a fanatical New York Mets fan. I would sit in my bed late at night listening to the end of the baseball game; I wore Mets T-shirts and Mets caps.

Even today, I still read the sports section every day, and I still shout during football games. So I get the sports mindset.

But a baseball logo on your coffin? This really gives a new definition to the term “diehard fan”.

But I guess these coffins are a revolution of sorts. I always thought funerals were about how the deceased made his mark on the world. Now, thanks to Eternal Image, funerals can be about how you spread someone else’s trademark to the world. I’m sorry, but a legacy should be bigger than a baseball cap.

I know I’m being harsh with the people at Eternal Image (no lawsuits, please!!). But I feel this way because of a funeral I officiated at.

Paul, a member of my synagogue passed away a few months ago. A survivor of 8 concentration camps, Paul lost a dear older brother and several other members of his family during the war. Despite enormous danger, he joined a prayer group (minyan) in one of the concentration camps. After the war, he built a family and career, and never wavered from his beliefs. In one instance, he refused to cave into racism, and insisted on renting an apartment to a black family. He lived the rest of his life like a true survivor, a man who maintained his values, his dignity, and his tradition despite enduring profound loss and suffering.

Paul had held onto, as a cherished possession, the concentration camp uniform he was liberated in.

On the day of his funeral, on top of the casket, was the threadbare striped shirt and pants, the ragged uniform of a concentration camp inmate.

However, at Paul's funeral, the striped shirt and pants represented something more: the dignity of a determined and courageous survivor.

After this funeral, putting a baseball logo on a coffin seems ridiculous to me. If you’re going to put something on your coffin, put on something that actually matters.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hi everybody! Here’s a post of yesterday’s sermon. Feel free to comment below.

Repetition is Important. Repetition is Important. Repetition is Important.

New things are exciting, and old stuff is boring. This is true of cars, clothes, and even concepts. No one likes to hear the same idea over and over again, and teachers and preachers who continually repeat themselves are boring.

But repetition is important. The Haggadah tells us that we must repeat the message of the Seder year after year, and “even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the Exodus from Egypt”. We might know the story already, but we have to do the Seder all over again, year after year.

But repetition is not about knowledge. Repetition is about keeping focused.Even idealistic people can forget their ideals. The stress and pressure of everyday life can make us lose focus on the big picture and obsess about the petty concerns of quotidian life. Even the wise, the understanding, and the idealistic can lose their way.

I’ve always found it fascinating how companies spend enormous amounts of money drafting mission statements, and then promptly file them away and forget about them. Mission statements are about making sure corporations keep focused on their fundamental values. If a mission statement is going to mean anything, it needs to be referred to on a daily basis. Without repetition and reinforcement, a mission statement is just an expensive book report.

The Seder is the mission statement of the Jewish people. It teaches profound lessons about hope, redemption, compassion and determination. We’d know the values of these concepts without the Seder. But we still need a Seder, because the Seder inspires us to live these values in our day to day lives.

To live by our ideals, we need to make sure we never lose our focus. That is why repetition is important. Repetition is important. Repetition is important.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

We’ve Forgotten What Real Heroes Look Like

Real heroes aren’t always photogenic.

Yesterday, Poland honored Irena Sendler for her efforts in saving 2,500 Jewish children during World War II. Sendler, a young mother, was a social worker in Warsaw, and a member of Zegota, a Polish underground devoted to saving Jews. She risked her life to smuggle 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in orphanages and convents.

Reading the news items about Sendler, it’s hard not to notice how different she is from today’s erstwhile heroes. Our contemporary heroes are celebrities, people who look good on baseball diamonds, on movie screens and on the red carpet at the Oscars. The “entertainment media” (I’m not making this phrase up!) breathlessly follows their every move. These celluloid heroes have our undivided attention, and are famous for being famous.

In actuality, a real hero doesn’t look good; they do good. And after they’ve done good, they don’t revel in self congratulation, but rather think about what more they could have done. Irena has said: "I could have done more…..this regret will follow me to my death.".

Irena is a genuine hero. And like all good heroes she knows that heroism is not a hobby; it is meant to be the vocation of mankind. Or, to put it in Irena’s words:

"Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory."

I wish the justification for my existence on earth was as good as Irena’s.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is There Life After Tragedy?

There is an amazing article by Sherri Mandell posted here, entitled "The Jeep". Sherri's 13 year old son Koby was killed in a horrible terror attack six years ago, and she has written movingly about grief, mourning and the meaning of life.

Sherri's insights resonate for me. My father died in a car accident at age 42. The greatest challenge one has after tragedy is to recover a life that is honest, meaningful and happy.

As the title of this website proclaims, this space is dedicated to the Happiness Warrior. Sherri's remarkable piece is a classic example of the Happiness Warrior philosophy. It tells the reality of pain, which can never be hid behind a wall of denial:

......I realize that a jeep ride is a metaphor for what it feels like to have a family member killed by terrorists. It is like being continuously jolted when before you used to have a smooth ride. Nothing can be taken for granted. You can't just sit in the car of life and drive through with the air conditioner on, oblivious to the rush of air and the friction and heat of the tires as they speed down the highway.

At the same time, Sherri refuses to retreat into cynicism. She concludes her article by saying:

At the end of the jeep trip we pull over and some of the boys get out to say the special prayer for the month of Nissan, said upon seeing the first blossoms of the fruit trees. After the deep freeze of winter, when it seems that all life and growth is dormant and that everything has died, we say a prayer at seeing the first signs of spring:

"Blessed are you God, King of the universe, for nothing is lacking in the world that you created -- good creatures and good trees, in which people can take pleasure."

As the trees need to absorb the water and nutrients from the ground in order to grow, we too have the possibility of absorbing our pain so that it will one day blossom into something we haven't yet imagined. What seems so dormant -- our love, our hope, our capacity for living -- can one day be renewed.

Sherri lives a life of honesty and courage.

That is the only way to live one's life after tragedy.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

It’s No Secret: Happiness is Hard Work

I never thought there’d be a book in the self help section based on Quantum Physics.

A new DVD + Self Help book marketing phenomenon, with a fresh endorsement from Oprah, has arrived on our shores. The Secret, an Australian production, claims that it teaches:

“The Secret to everything - the secret to unlimited joy, health, money, relationships, love, youth: everything you have ever wanted.

….For the first time in history, the world's leading scientists, authors, and philosophers will reveal The Secret that utterly transformed the lives of every person who ever knew it... Plato, Newton, Carnegie, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein.”

So what is The Secret? Well it’s based on the “Law of Attraction”. As described by the producer, Rhonda Byrne on Oprah, the Law of Attraction is:

“….the principle that "like attracts like." Rhonda calls it "the most powerful law in the universe," and says it is working all the time. "What we do is we attract into our lives the things we want, and that is based on what we're thinking and feeling," Rhonda says. The principle explains that we create our own circumstances by the choices we make in life. And the choices we make are fueled by our thoughts—which means our thoughts are the most powerful things we have here on earth."

Later in the show, Lisa Nichols, one of The Secret’s experts, describes it this way:

"If you were at a restaurant and you ordered something, you fully expect it to come served that way. That's how the universe is. You're putting out orders—consciously and unconsciously," Lisa says. "So if you say, 'I'll never have a great relationship,' you just placed an order."

On the video, The Law of Attraction is described as being based on Quantum Physics. Somehow, our thoughts change the actual energy of the universe, reshaping reality. In other words, what you think physically changes the world.

After watching a lengthy excerpt from The Secret, I was left with a mixture of loathing and admiration.

I genuinely appreciated The Secret’s profoundly optimistic and hopeful philosophy. Life is a divine gift, and should be appreciated every day. And pessimism is a dangerous corrosive; I have seen people destroy relationships and careers because they believed they couldn’t succeed. Gratitude, appreciation, optimism and hope are all critical aspects of a good life. So far, so good.

But then you get to the baloney about changing the universe with your thoughts.

This is solipsistic superstition that only a narcissistic coward could love. The Secret appeals most to people who are too afraid to recognize how dangerous and tough the world can be, and are so self absorbed they think they can change the world with their own daydreams. Frankly, The Secret is for people who want to live life in denial.

In real life, puppies die. Car accidents happen. Hurricanes occur. And death is an iron rule, avoided by no one. All the visualization in the world will not change this.

Optimism must be combined with realism. My grandfather, a deeply optimistic man, perished in the Holocaust. Ever the optimist, he thought that Admiral Horthy would prevent the Nazis from deporting Jews from Hungary. Unfortunately, his prediction was wrong, and tragically, my mother and her family were deported to Auschwitz. Reality did not conform to my grandfather’s optimistic thoughts.

Yet, at the same time, memories of my grandfather’s optimism inspired his three daughters, (my mother and my aunts), to hold on strong and fight for survival. Optimism was the three sisters' lifeblood. (As it was for many other survivors).

From my grandfather’s example I learned two things: you must be an optimist, yet at the same time, you have to be a realist. The optimism of denial can bring about tragic mistakes. What is needed is an idealistic optimism which empowers people to fight for a happier world.

So for those of you thinking about buying The Secret, remember this. It’s not much of a secret: happiness is hard work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Affluenza is Not a Disease; It’s a Sin

Recently, a book on Affluenza has made waves in England. Oliver James, a psychologist, claims that the selfish capitalism of the Western world has created an epidemic of mental illness, boredom and depression. This argument, which is heavily political in nature, has brought the attention of many critics.

Today, I’m not interested in the politics of affluenza. (Although I find it hard to believe that material wealth does not on the whole, make people happier. Perhaps Dr. James should interview some people in sub-Saharan Africa before pronouncing on the psychological implications of capitalism.)

I am however interested in religion. What is the religious view of wealth and capitalism?

Of course, there’s the story of the Golden Calf. Many commentaries (starting with the Talmud) consider this sin to be based on rampant materialism. A slave population is freed, and bestowed with a great deal of wealth, and it’s pretty natural for them to go crazy, and even start to worship gold. One can read this narrative as saying that when material goods are worshipped, the Ten Commandments get thrown out the window. Wealth is the culprit, a destroyer of newly liberated society.

Yet, right before the Golden Calf narrative, there is commandment for each person to donate the “keseph hakippurim” the “silver of atonement”. Silver, that other metaphor for material goods, can actually lead to atonement and holiness! So which one is it? Is money good, or bad?

But that is precisely the point; material goods are not evil. Capitalism is not evil. Desire is not evil. In fact they are all good, contributing to human progress and personal pleasure. The problem isn’t the object; it’s what it is used for.

In the Golden Calf narrative, gold has replaced the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments at the center of the community. A society is literally worshipping gold. In the “silver of atonement”, society is recognizing that their own silver must serve a higher purpose, and so must they. Values make all of the difference.

Living in a society with enormous material wealth challenges us to intensify our values. Yes, our society offers far more opportunity for self indulgence than in the past. With greater temptation to be selfish, the only remedy is to work harder at inculcating selflessness.

Affluenza is a serious threat. But we have to focus on the proper solutions. The real problem within affluenza is not capitalism, but selfishness. That is not a mental defect or economic folly, but rather a spiritual failure.

Or, in the language of old time religion: affluenza is a sin.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Is Never Again a Hollow Promise?

(An Editorial on Darfur by Father John Walsh and myself)

Never Again. This promise, uttered by many in the in the aftermath of the Holocaust, is smugly repeated, over and over again. Unfortunately, the world has never kept this promise. In the latter part of the 20th century, there have been genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. In the last four years, 450,000 have died in Darfur, countless women have been raped, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes and nobody seems to care.

The Government of Sudan, along with the Janjaweed militias, continue to act with impunity, and massacre black tribes in the region. A mere 60 years after Holocaust, the genocide in Darfur is ignored by the international community.

The world’s reaction to this situation is shocking. The bizarre wrangling about whether to define the atrocities in Darfur as a genocide is morally repugnant. Yes, every so often some initiative seems to contain sparks of hope; yet they never seem to ignite a fire under the complacency of the U.N. Occasionally, the horrendous stories about what is happening in Darfur are reported on, only to be immediately shuffled off in silence. The genocide continues and the world does nothing, and the United Nations continues to fail humanity. “Never Again” is happening all over again.

Genocide can only occur when there is international indifference. At a conference in Evian in 1938, and at a later conference in Bermuda in 1943, the entire world community refused to help Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust, and the United States refused numerous requests to bomb Auschwitz. (At the same time, the Canadian government’s response to Jewish refugees was “none is too many”). In Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire begged the U.N. Security council for a few thousand soldiers, but was turned down. The tragic result of this international indifference was the slaughter of one million people in one hundred days. Genocides amply demonstrate, as we are reminded by the powerful words of Edmund Burke: “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And for God’s sake, right now the world is doing next to nothing for Darfur.

The media bears particular blame. Media studies show that in June, 2005, 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. Obviously, contemporary media values news about celebrities a lot more than mass murder. If the media actually reported about Darfur responsibly, there would inevitably be a true outcry from every decent human being about this genocide.

Today, we demand change. The United Nations must follow the noble aspirations in its charter and make Darfur its number one priority. The Canadian government must take a leading role in pushing the U.N. on this urgent issue. The media must put Darfur front and center; not just once or twice, but rather day after day, forcefully and graphically. And to make all of this happen, Canadians must take to the streets; not just a few hundred students, but rather tens of thousands of people, both bourgeois and bohemian.

On July 10th 2004, the two of us stood together with an interfaith group of clergy in the memorial room of the Montreal Memorial Holocaust Center. We stood within reach of an urn of ashes, an urn of ashes brought to Montreal from Auschwitz, ashes of the victims of the Holocaust. On that day, we came to protest the genocide in Darfur, to loudly repeat the promise of never again. Our call, in the first year of Darfur genocide, was ignored. The world remained silent, and is still silent today.

In the past, voices uttered never again… and the world remained silent …. and then there was Rwanda … and the world stood silent … and now there is Darfur … and the silence is deafening. Today, we once again invite every rabbi, priest, minister and imam to join us in preaching the universal religious truth that the Darfur genocide must end today. Tomorrow will be too late.

The Bible reminds us that “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”. Darfur is not someone else’s problem: it is everyone’s responsibility, the responsibility of each person reading this column (yes, we’re talking about you). Only you can give the answer to the following question:

Is never again a hollow promise?

Father John Walsh, pastor
Saint John Brebeuf Parish
LaSalle, Quebec.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz,
Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem,
Cote St. Luc, Quebec

What's the Difference Between Arrogance and Self Confidence?
(A question asked about the previous post)

After the previous post, the following comment was posted:

"Anonymous said...
I love the concept of Applied Irony especially when related to nice guys finishing first, for a change. However, I often struggle with the very two points you mentioned. In finding ones voice and power to make a difference, how does one avoid becomming arrogant or being perceived as arrogant? "

This indeed is a serious question. Traditional Jewish literature, like the Bible and the Talmud, values humility and modesty. However, contemporary society places an enormous value on self esteem and self confidence. And to me (and a lot of people), the value of self confidence and self esteem is self evident.

(By the way, this is a question that Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski , a psychiatrist and Hassidic Rabbi, has grappled with in his book Let Us Make Man.)

Personally, I think any distinction between arrogance and self confidence will depend on one thing: honesty. Arrogant people don't like to acknowledge the truth: that their talents come from God, that others, such as parents, spouses, and partners play a critical role in their success. They also cannot except the truth that no one is perfect, even them. And the arrogant have a bloated self image that doesn't allow them to honestly see the strengths of others.

That's a preliminary thought. But it is an important question, and I thank you for posing it.
The Art of Applied Irony

True redemption is an endangered species. The famous saying “nice guys finish last” is all too often an accurate description of reality. People who are willing to do anything to achieve their goals, more often than not, succeed. Machiavellian means allow the ruthless to dominate, and alas, the nice guys do finish last.

But at times, history takes an ironic turn. The bad guys, dominant and powerful, take a fall, and good guys learn how to finish first.

A classic of redemptive irony is the Book of Esther. Nothing in this book is the way it appears to be. The powerful turn out to be weak, and the weak turn out to be powerful.

Redemption in the Book of Esther takes place through applied irony. The characters, through their various actions, bring about the outcome themselves. Irony is not a cosmic joke; it is a human art, one which we all can use to change the world.

Here are two basic laws to the art of applied irony:

1. Don’t be Arrogant:

Haman wants people to bow to him. Haman thinks he can commit genocide without anyone noticing. Haman thinks he can just kill Mordechai. Haman thinks he’s the only person the Ahasuerus cares about. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Overreaching, with an overinflated ego, Haman is a poster boy for the failures of arrogance.

Arrogance has caused ironic reversal after ironic reversal. Armies that think they’re powerful, and secure behind impenetrable fortresses (like, say, the Maginot Line) are shocked to find out their enemies can be innovative. Or that their armies are weaker than they think.

Businesses can be arrogant. Dominant players think they can simply coast with conservative strategies. They forget my friend Seth Godin’s admonition: “safe is risky”.

Don’t be arrogant. If you are, tragic irony is sure to follow.

2. Find Your Voice

Esther, the heroine of this story, starts out meek and demure, very befitting for the wife of an Emperor 2,500 years ago. Keeping quiet is her specialty, and she really doesn’t say a word for the first half of the book. When Mordechai asks her to help save the Jews, she is too afraid to do anything.

But then she changes. Esther finds her own voice. She realize that she has the power, and that she must use it. She refuses to sit back. For the second half of the Book, Esther doesn’t stop talking.

Esther finds her voice. Ironic redemption follows. Nice guys need to open their mouths, because in actuality, the meek do not inherit the earth.

Pride preceeds a fall”, and sincere assertiveness brings about genuine change. From a nuclear Iran to drafting a business plan, we can use the art of applied irony to transform the world.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Dying Alone: The Holocaust's Last Victims

From time to time, I've been called upon to perform a funeral for someone who has no one. More often than not, the deceased is a Holocaust survivor, who, because the Nazis wiped out their family, has no relatives. (These survivors are often without friends as well; their psychic scars leave them without the requisite social skills for friendship.) I had a funeral like that this past week, which got me thinking about Vincenzo Riccardi, and about the first funeral I had like this, when I arrived in Montreal.

The following is a piece I published here 9 years ago, about the first time I went to funeral like this.

Sadly, these deserted funerals are the final farewell we give to the last victims of the Holocaust.

Broken Tablets

Funerals make me uncomfortable. Like most people, I find it difficult to encounter death, and confront the pain of a grieving family. However, unlike most people, I attend 35 funerals a year; as a rabbi, performing funerals is one of my responsibilities. Although I go to a lot of funerals, each one is still discomfiting, a clear reminder of my own mortality.

But there is also something special, even uplifting about funerals. There is a certain spiritual feeling pulsating underneath all the grief and pain and tears. I was never able to put my finger on what this feeling was, until I went to the smallest funeral of my career. The smallest funeral of my career was attended by five people. Two cousins of the deceased (let us call her "Leah"), along with myself, our synagogue's cantor, and the funeral director attended the graveside service. Leah had a story that was not too unusual. She had grown up in Eastern Europe before World War II, and had survived the holocaust. Most of Leah's extended family were murdered during the war. Leah and her cousin were the only family members to survive. Unfortunately, her experiences in a concentration camp left deep emotional scars. After the war, she did not marry or hold a job, and was dependent on her cousin to take care of her. Leah had lived the last fifty years of her life as a broken person, unable to fulfill the potential of her youth. Leah's cousin had died before her, and it was her cousin's two children who attended the funeral. A Rabbi's job at a funeral like this is a bit complicated. Jewish Law, or, Halacha, requires that a eulogy praise the deceased (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 344:1). That's the easy part. Halacha also requires that the eulogy tell the truth about the deceased (ibid). In some cases, it is difficult to find anything that is both honest and laudatory. The problem I faced at Leah's funeral was: What sort of honest praise could I say about her? What can be said about someone who lived most of her adult life as a broken person? It occurred to me that there is a Talmudic statement that was appropriate for this situation. The Talmud writes (Berachos 8b) that one must honor a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who has forgotten his learning. The reason given is this: The first set of Tablets that were broken by Moshe received the same honor as the second (and unbroken) set of tablets, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Talmud explains that similarly, a Talmid Chacham, even if he has forgotten his knowledge, still deserves honor, just like the broken tablets In many ways, Leah's life was a story of broken tablets. Her life had potential and purpose, until it was destroyed during the holocaust. Her tablets may have been shattered by the Nazis, but she was no less deserving of our honor. She had a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image, and inside her there was a spark of holiness. This is what I said about Leah's life, in front of G-d, Leah, and four other people.

It was at Leah's graveside that I got to see what the essence of a funeral is. There is a great deal of pain and grieving that takes place at a funeral, as it is difficult for us to part with people we love dearly. But there is something deeply spiritual at a funeral, as well. By showing honor and dignity to each and every person, even if their lives were only broken tablets, we declare our belief in the innate dignity of man. We assert that every person is important, every person is holy, and that every person has a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image. As much as I hate funerals, I find this feeling to be uplifting.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

If a Man Dies in the City, Does Anyone Make a Sound?

The following news item appeared two weeks ago in Newsday:

Southampton police responding to burst water pipes in a Hampton Bays home found the mummified body of the owner -- dead for more than a year -- sitting in a chair in front of a television, officials said Friday.The television was still on.

Vincenzo Riccardi, 70, appeared to have died of natural causes in his home on Wakeman Road, said Dr. Stuart Dawson, Suffolk deputy chief medical examiner.The medical examiner's office considered his body mummified because the lack of humidity in his home preserved his features, morgue assistant Jeff Bacchus said."You could see his face. He still had hair on his head," Bacchus said. "I've been on the job 35 years, and I've never seen anyone dead that long."Police and county sources said Riccardi, whose body was found Thursday, had not been heard from since December 2005. The medical examiners said they were baffled as to why the electricity would be on in the home all that time."He was in his house, sitting in his chair, as if watching television, and the television was, in fact, still on," Dawson said. Riccardi lived alone, his wife having died years ago, Dawson said.
"He hasn't been heard from in over a year. That's the part that baffles me," he said. "Nobody sounded the alarm." Neighbors said they had thought Ricardo was in a hospital or nursing home."We never thought to check on him," said neighbor Diane Devon.

This story underlines a 21st century phenomena: the death of communal spirit.

First came the rise of the urban community. As Ferdinand Tonnies pointed out over 100 years ago, big cities develop because it is in the economic and political interests of those who live there. They are instrumental societies based on personal interests. By contrast, in small towns the community is an end in itself. That’s why you can live in a city (or a suburb) and have no idea who your neighbors are.

Tonnies’ analysis reminds me of a line from the movie Crocodile Dundee. The main character, a crocodile wrestler from the outback in Australia, has never been to a big city. Upon arriving to New York, he is informed that seven million people live there. Amazed by the information, Dundee remarks:

“That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.”

Of course New York is a lot different than Crocodile Dundee imagines. New York is not a community; it’s just a group of people who shop at the same stores.

Contemporary urban communities are eerily similar to Ezekiel’s description of the people of Sodom: wealthy, urban, and completely unwelcoming.

Now, on top of the urban un-community, we have a new phenomenon to make us even more self absorbed: cocooning. Now a marketing buzzword, cocooning is:

the name given to trend that sees individuals socializing less and retreating into their home more. Individuals tend to stay away from society and lack in social confidence leading to 'cocooning'.

So, we build bigger cocoons, and have smaller communities. I’m afraid the 21st century will see more TV watching mummies like Mr. Riccardi, unknown, unnoticed and unloved. And in the process we will experience the rise of a kinder, gentler Sodom, a world where anonymous neighbors cannot see beyond their own cocoons.