Thursday, October 07, 2021

Ordinary Greatness


Thomas Carlyle argued for the “great man” theory of history, that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." The unique traits of great leaders allows them to transform everyone and everything around them, and change the course of history. And while the great man theory has lost favor in recent years, undoubtedly it is partially true. There are many historical figures that did change the world; for example, America would not be the same without Washington and Lincoln, and Israel would not exist without Herzl.

At first glance, the narrative of the Tanakh is also the biography of great men; most of the focus is given to larger than life individuals. Characters such as Avraham, Yoseph, Moshe, David and Shlomo take the center stage, and then direct the course of action. The abilities of these heroes is amplified in the Midrashim and other Rabbinic commentaries, leaving them with truly larger than life attributes. These great men are our heroes.

This focus on greatness has had a profound impact on Jewish culture, and has made greatness a life goal to be embraced. Many have taken the view that the entire educational system should be focused on developing the elite students, even if it means abandoning the needs of the other students. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, when contrasting the Lithuanian Yeshiva system with the educational system of early-20th-century German orthodoxy, wrote that the goal of the Lithuanian system is to create great scholars, even if it means under-serving the other students. He based his view on a Midrash that says “one thousand students enter to study Bible and only one comes out as a great Talmud scholar.”

This aspiration for greatness affects the perspective of parents as well. Maimonides makes a telling remark when he writes that a person “should set his heart to have a son who perhaps will be a wise and great man in Israel.”

This is the “great man” theory of child rearing, in which our expectations for our children are geared to greatness. David Bader highlights this in a comic Haiku entitled the “Jewish Mother’s Lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?”

For better or for worse, the Jewish community has put the “great man” theory into practice.

But there are other models of a proper life. Noach, the title character of our Parsha, is a perfect example of ordinary greatness. The Torah itself is unclear on how to describe Noach. He is considered worthy of being saved because he is a “righteous man,” which is high praise; but we are also told that “he found favor with the Lord,” which implies that he was somewhat undeserving, and saved because of his charisma. And then in a third verse there is a qualifier, “righteous before Me in this generation,“ which leads one to wonder whether Noach’s righteousness was merely relative to the rest of his generation, who were deeply immoral. For this reason, the Rabbis of the Talmud debate whether Noach would have been greater had he lived at a different time, and they speculate whether or not he could have been as great as Avraham.

But perhaps we need to stop comparing Noach to Avraham, because Noach does not conform to the usual models of greatness. Instead, he is a good person who steps up to the plate when needed, the right man who arrives at the right time. The Torah’s ambiguity about Noach is intentional, because Noach is both good and great at the same time.

Noach’s character defies the rigid fundamentalism of greatness; he reminds us that one can be a humble man of the earth and still save the world. And he is far from the only one in the Tanakh who exhibits ordinary greatness; Ruth, Esther and all the leaders in the Book of Judges are ordinary people who make an extraordinary impact. Their goodness is their greatness.

Ordinary greatness is the foundation of the Chassidic tradition of the “lamed vuv tzadikim,” the 36 hidden righteous men who uphold the world. They appear like ordinary men and live ordinary lives, yet in undertaking an important act of piety or charity, these ordinary Joes save the world. The lamedvuvnik offers us an alternative paradigm of greatness: a good man quietly doing good things, on the periphery and away from the limelight. The beauty of the lamedvuvnik tradition is that it forces us to consider that anyone might be great, even the common man; and who knows, maybe the gruff, grizzled and wrinkled water carrier in the back of the tiny synagogue is carrying the fate of the entire world on his shoulders.

Gershon Scholem has noted that this idea of hidden righteous men, lamedvvuniks, has some basis in the Talmud; and in a larger sense, there are many talmudic stories about jesters, pimps and thugs who find a distinguished place in the world to come because of the good deeds that they do. It is interesting that the Chassidic movement, which is oriented around the tzaddik (a great man who functions as a divine intermediary), gave so much attention to the simple looking lamedvuvnik.  But perhaps that is the point: even when recognizing great heroes, the quiet contributions of everyday heroes must never be forgotten.

This lamedvuvnik is an excellent role model for those who feel conflicted about their goals, uncertain about whether they must always pursue the next great possibility. Parents in particular are often torn between their career and their children. And, for anyone, every new opportunity requires new sacrifices. There are times when people don’t choose the path of greatness because they have other priorities, and the lesson of the lamed vuv tzadikim is you don’t need to do it all; you just need to do good.

The lamedvuvnik life is a model of understated greatness, to change the world one person at a time. George Elliot expresses this idea beautifully when she writes at the end of “Middlemarch”: "The growing good of the world is ... half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

In the course of my career I have met many people from all walks of life, but it’s the lamedvuvniks that inspire me the most. One of them was Harold, who was the “candyman”  of my previous congregation; he was the person who gave out sweets to all the children in the synagogue, and the greeter who helped people find their seats. When he passed away his funeral was filled to capacity; the staff at the funeral home were curious, wondering why Harold was famous. Harold’s resume said he was a retired insurance salesman, but as I explained in my eulogy, Harold was a lot more:

“What was it about Harold that was special? Harold was not a wealthy man, (although he was more contented than virtually anyone). He was not a Nobel prize winning scientist, (although he had more common sense than anyone); he was not an Olympic athlete, not a cabinet minister, and you didn’t see his name in the newspaper. Fame and fortune were not Harold’s calling card.

What was special about Harold was a simple trait; Harold never passed people by. Every person he met, big or small (oh, how he loved children!) famous or unknown, important or unimportant, were treated to Harold’s brand of friendship, good humor and charm. What was special about Harold was that he made everyone he met feel special.”

Harold knew the lamedvuvnik credo: change the world one person at a time. In the course of our lives, every one of us has met our own, personal, lamedvuvnik: a parent, teacher, friend, or even a stranger who has made an enormous difference in our lives.

Sometimes, you can be great just by being good.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Cult of Overwork and the Sabbath

An article in The New Yorker described it best: the cult of overwork. White collar professionals in the United States are far more likely to work longer hours than lower paid workers. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of people in professional services (consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, IT, and the like) found that "94% of 1,000 such professionals said they put in 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group turning in more than 65 hours a week. That doesn’t include the 20 to 25 hours a week most of them spend monitoring their BlackBerrys while outside the office."  Another Harvard survey of “extreme workers,” who work very long hours, found that "Almost two-thirds (64%) of extreme workers admit that the pressure and the pace are self-inflicted—a function of a type-A personality."

It should be noted that overwork is ultimately impractical. After a certain point, productivity suffers and burnout is common. The Midrash says that Moses, while still in Pharaoh's household, convinced Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves to rest on Shabbat. Moses argued that a Sabbath would be to Pharaoh’s benefit; slaves that never stop working will die from overwork. Even a Pharaoh can grasp the practical value of the Shabbat; and in recent years, as overwork has become an HR concern, several corporations have also recognized the importance of a day of rest. Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse and others have instituted rules that free junior employees from work one day a week, and require them to return home from the office. Shabbat has a practical value to it, as a day to recharge for more work.

So why is there a cult of overwork, and where does the drive for overwork come from? It begins with the reality that work is extremely meaningful. There is significant spiritual value in our labor. The Mekhilta cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi that just as one is commanded to rest on Shabbat, one is also commanded to work the other six days a week. In one fascinating passage in Rabbinic literature (Avot DeRabbi Natan 11:1), it says that the divine presence does not arrive unless people are engaged in productive work, and that idleness brings death. In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik writes that human dignity and majesty are found in humanity's mastery over nature, which is achieved through productivity and progress. The six days of work fulfill a significant spiritual and existential need.

Work brings us dignity and majesty; and that is why overwork is so enticing. While taking a respite seems sensible, the idea of resting for its own sake seems strange: why would anyone give up something as important as the ability to work? Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “Their practice of the Sabbath is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life." To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: How can you take a full day of rest when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is equally true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money,” and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. Even when we are away from our work we carry our work with us in briefcases and laptops, on Zoom conferences, and email exchanges. We live in the culture of the MBA, where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning; in this type of value system, a day of rest is a meaningless obstacle to further growth.

Shabbat offers a radical alternative. It is not only about rest; it is about sacrificing work for more important goals. As important as work is, endless labor dehumanizes both masters and slaves, and reduces man to what he can produce. Shabbat declares that man is ultimately defined by his character and commitments, not his creations. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550) explains that the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. Shabbat stands as a counterweight to the other six days of the week, a reminder that we are so much more than the sum total of what we produce.

There is a mitzvah to remember the Shabbat every day of the week; its purpose is to make sure we never lose sight of the Shabbat perspective and define ourselves by our work. But that is difficult to do. An anecdote shared by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg epitomizes how easily we forget the lessons of Shabbat. Rabbi Goldberg was at a wedding and was seated next to someone he had never met. He writes:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

In a cult of overwork, life is defined by how you earn your living. That is why, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”.  And sadly, endless work makes man a hostage of his own creativity. In sacrificing work in order to observe Shabbat, we learn that we are more than what we make and what we own.  


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Coronavirus Grumbling, the Sukkah, and the Wisdom of Hindsight

President Zalman Shazar makes “Kiddush” in the sukkah at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem. Seated on the right are Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Chief Rabbi Isser Unterman and Mr. Nahum Goldmann.

It has been a year and a half of discontent.

A friend of mine who is a doctor told me that her hospital recently held a seminar on how to deal with patients who are angry and disorderly. And it is not only this hospital. Schools, stores and airlines are similarly grappling with populations that are just angrier and more difficult.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that “Customer satisfaction is at the lowest level since 2005, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks the behavior of 300,000 consumers across 46 industries. ….The Federal Aviation Administration has initiated more than 750 investigations related to unruly passengers so far this year, compared with 146 in all of 2019.” People are simply unhappy, and taking it out on others.

Grumbling is familiar to students of the Tanakh; it is the defining attribute of the generation of the desert. These recently freed slaves, who had just left Egypt, complain 10 times for every possible reason; they are afraid of the Egyptian army, but also frightened of the people of Canaan. They are worried that Moshe has left them, and angry that Moshe is leading them. They complain about a lack of food, a lack of water, and once they do receive the manna, complain about that too. They are deeply unhappy, whining about matters as trivial as a lack of garlic and watermelons.

Sukkot commemorates these 40 years in the desert; and that is extremely strange. Why celebrate a time when our ancestors were miserable and grumbling? And it should be noted, in defense of the generation in the desert, that their situation was difficult. The changes, challenges, and uncertainties experienced by the generation of the desert would worry anyone. What purpose is there in commemorating a frightening time of fear, discontent and rebellion?

The answer lies in the wisdom of hindsight. There are moments, both in history and in life, that we view very differently years later. In literature, authors use retrospective narration to show how the narrator can change perspective with time, and look back on events differently at a later date. Hindsight offers unique insights, unentangled by the emotions of the moment.

The grumbling of the desert came about due to a combination of circumstances and character. The challenges of the desert bring out the worst in these former slaves; Maimonides and Ibn Ezra both point to the slavish, cowardly character they had, a slave mentality they could never shake. But there is another way to explain their behavior, one that makes the former slaves far more relatable to our contemporary experience.

According to the Talmud, the Jews were freed from servitude six months before the Exodus; for half a year, these former slaves lived comfortably in a prosperous world empire. They are then promised a land of milk and honey, only to be led into a barren desert. This bitter disappointment often leads to political instability. James Chowning Davies offered a theory of revolution known as the J-Curve theory, “that revolutions are almost inevitable when long periods of social and economic development are countered by sharp reversals and depreciation.” The generation of the desert had already tasted freedom and comfort, and had even bigger dreams. They expected immediate gratification, an actual rose garden of milk and honey. They had expected freedom to be immediate, easy, and free of problems. Instead, the challenges of the desert made the Exodus seem like a counterfeit redemption.

The generation of the desert complained because they were captives of their own mindset. But in hindsight, those 40 years look different. The contemporary reader can recognize that the wandering in the desert is far better than slavery, that it prepared the Jews for the responsibilities of statehood, and allowed them to slowly make their way to the promised land.

The 40 years in the desert is most appreciated much later in history, during the times of Ezra. A small group of Jews had returned from Babylonia under the sponsorship of Cyrus the Great.  They were threatened by the people who were occupying the land, and Ezra’s followers were frightened to rebuild any part of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Yet slowly but surely, this small group built a small autonomous community in the land of Israel that eventually turned into a large commonwealth. And the Book of Nehemiah tells us that this is when they rediscovered the magic of the Sukkot, and celebrated the holiday together as a community. A change in perspective had occurred. For the returning Babylonian exiles, getting halfway to Jewish sovereignty was a miracle; and they now understood how the halfway miracle of the desert was special as well.

Centuries after the grumbling in the desert, the Jews recognize how remarkable it is to take a few slow steps in the direction of the promised land. With the gift of hindsight, the years of the desert are seen differently, not as a time of frustration, but as a time of gradual redemption.

Sukkot teaches us the wisdom of hindsight, and that events look differently many years later. In the moment, we often lose sight of small victories; but years later we can see the difference they make.

Right now is a time of coronavirus grumbling and bickering. Our frustrations blur our vision, and we cannot see our own experience objectively. But perhaps years from now, with the wisdom of hindsight, things will be viewed differently. Perhaps one day, we will look back and recognize that dedicated scientists, heroic healthcare workers, and caring volunteers helped us overcome a pandemic. Perhaps one day we’ll look back at this period of discontent, and recognize all the good that was done far outweighs the bad; and we, too, will thank God for our pandemic Sukkot, which offered us some protection while slowly getting life back to normal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

In Search of Heroes: The 20th Anniversary of 9/11


9/11 was an American tragedy. Terrorists struck a blow at the heart of our country and murdered 2,977 people. This attack was an assault on all Americans and brought heartbreak to countless thousands of bereft parents, widows and orphans. The victims were traveling in airplanes or sitting in their offices, supporting their families and pursuing their dreams. As President Bush put it, “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror." On 9/11, the forces of evil took the lives of thousands of good people.

The perpetrators of these attacks "are like chaff that wind blows away" (Psalms 1:4), and will be remembered only to be condemned and despised. But we will always remember the heroes of 9/11, the first responders who rushed in to save those who were stranded and injured; we will remember those who ran into the Twin Towers when everyone else was running out. So many of these heroes made the ultimate sacrifice in order to help others. The fire station just a half a block away from our synagogue, FDNY Engine 22, lost nine firefighters on 9/11. On the outside of the station there is a permanent memorial with their pictures, a tribute to the “Yorkville Nine” with the caption “There was a time when the world asked ordinary men to do extraordinary things.” And we will always remember our heroes who did such extraordinary things.

Heroism does not grow in a vacuum; heroes are shaped by their upbringing and education. Samuel and Pearl Oliner based their landmark study, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, on interviews with nearly 700 non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. (Samuel had a personal interest in the topic; as a 12-year-old, he himself was saved by a Polish peasant woman). They found that the rescuers were most often influenced by their parents. These altruistic, loving parents were role models with a strong sense of morality. Further studies on the Rwandan genocide have had similar results, and it is clear that culture and training are critical in the cultivation of heroism.

The early life of Moshe follows a similar pattern. Even though the Egyptians demanded that Jewish parents throw their baby boys into the river, Moshe's parents refused to do so, and hid him instead. Even when they could no longer hide him, his parents did their best to protect him in the river, by placing him in a miniature boat; while his sister sat and watched over baby Moshe. His own family’s actions left its mark on Moshe, who even at a young age stepped up to protect the lives of others; and Moshe learned his first lessons of heroism at home. Heroes are raised to be heroes.

I am afraid that America has forgotten how to produce heroes, because we're confused about what a true hero is.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes in the essay Catharsis that there are two models of heroism: classical heroism, which is found in Greco-Roman literature, and biblical heroism. Classical heroism is aesthetic, dramatic and theatrical, demonstrating outward feats of strength that elicit the cheers of the crowd. But the biblical model of heroism is about character; it is about the person’s self-control, even self-negation, in the service of a higher cause, and their willingness to move forcefully in the pursuit of morality. The biblical hero works in anonymity and doesn't care to be famous.

What type of heroes do we embrace today? To put it bluntly, our children's role models are not true heroes, and we live in a culture which is obsessed with celebrity, where wealth is worshipped, and fame is honored. Open any tabloid or glossy magazine; they feature athletes, actors and the A-list financial elite. We are fooling ourselves if we ignore the damage this does. We are reorienting an entire generation's vision of what is meaningful and heroic. Ben Stein, who used to file a weekly report on the celebrities he would run into in Los Angeles, stopped doing so in 2005. In his final column he wrote the following, which is worth quoting at length:

We put couples with incomes of $100 million a year on the covers of our magazines. The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay...are anonymous as they live and die...I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values...

There are plenty of other stars in the American firmament. The policemen and women who go off on patrol in South Central and have no idea if they will return alive. The orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery. The teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children. The kind men and women who work in hospices and in cancer wards.

Think of each and every fireman who was running up the stairs at the World Trade Center as the towers began to collapse.

Now you have my idea of a real hero.

We need to embrace the idea of biblical heroism again, before it gets forgotten. Real heroes are people of character, not characters on TV. Real heroes wear uniforms, not couture. Real Heroes are too busy helping others to post selfies on Instagram.

Real heroes often toil in anonymity. One of the heroes of 9/11 was first known as the man in the red bandana. He wore a red bandana over his face to protect himself from the smoke, as he helped dozens of people exit the building. He was credited with saving 18 lives. It was only after reading newspaper stories about him, and contacting survivors, that his parents found out that the stories were about their son; he was Welles Crowther, 24-year-old equity trader and a volunteer fireman. And like so many other heroes, he learned to serve others as part of his upbringing; his father was a volunteer fireman, who had inspired his son’s choices. The red bandana was a tradition he learned from his father as well; he had carried one since he was a 7-year-old child, when he got a red bandana as a gift from his father.

Will America be able to produce heroes like Welles Crowther anymore? Twenty years after 9/11, we need to think seriously about this question. It takes determination to raise real heroes, and in order to do so, we need to build a culture of courage, compassion and moral vision.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

How Do I Convince My Child to be a Jew?

Although I didn’t know Sarah, she had asked for an appointment to see me. The issue was her son. He was dating a non-Jewish woman seriously, and when Sarah would ask him if he planned on raising his children as Jews, his answer was no; Judaism wasn't important to him. Sarah had one question for me: how do I convince my son to be Jewish?

This same question motivated Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to write the book “A Letter in the Scroll,” which was published in 2000. As he explains in the introduction, he wrote the book as his response to the growing problem of assimilation; and in the book, he speaks personally about why he is a Jew. As you read the book, what becomes clear is that he believes that all Jews need to take this question seriously. To underscore the point, Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that he offered a first draft of the book to his son and daughter in law as a gift for their wedding. Even respected rabbis have to make sure to inspire their children to be Jews.

The book begins with a question about our Torah reading. Moshe renews the covenant with the second generation of Jews, the children of those who left Egypt, and says: “I make this covenant ... not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” This covenant includes all future generations.

Two Biblical commentators, Rabbi Isaac Arama and Don Isaac Abravanel, pose the very same question about this passage: How could the generation of the desert accept the covenant on behalf of their descendants without the consent of future generations? Why can’t any Jewish child refuse to accept the Torah, which they never consented to? It is worth noting that both Abravanel and Arama were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. (According to Bentzion Netanyahu, they would meet to discuss theological issues, which is why there is a great deal of overlap in their Torah commentaries.) They had both watched many of their compatriots convert to Christianity, and wondered whether future generations would care about Judaism in the future.

Over the years, three explanations have been given for this verse, and they are cited by the Malbim in his commentary. The first is that the covenant is actually irrelevant; Jews are obligated to keep the Torah because one cannot refuse the commandments of an all-powerful creator. The second answer is that the generation of the desert could accept the covenant for all future generations because the covenant is fundamentally a gift, which allows one to gain reward in the world to come; and one is entitled to assume consent, and thereby accept a gift on behalf of another person. The third answer, which is mystical, is that all future generations stood at Sinai; the soul of every future Jew, both born Jewish and converts, stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah.

These three answers can rephrased this way: 

You must be a Jew.

It’s a gift to be a Jew.

You were meant to be a Jew.

These answers, with a contemporary spin, are still used today. But are they convincing to the next generation of Jews?

The answer of “you must be a Jew” now focuses on antisemitism, and argues that one has no choice; other people will always push Jews away, and Jews can never leave their ancestry behind. A Jew can try to assimilate, but the haters will still hate them. Ben Hecht, in his autobiography “A Child of the Century,” writes about a conversation with movie mogul David O. Selznick. Hecht wanted him to sign a telegram in support of the Zionist cause. Selznick said he wouldn’t because: "I'm an American and not a Jew. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I'm a Jew, with some sort of full-blown Jewish psychology."

Hecht responded: “If I can prove that you are a Jew David, will you sign the telegram as a co-sponsor for me?"

Selznick asked Hecht: "How are you going to prove it?"

To which Hecht replied: “I will call up any three people you name, and ask them the following question: What would you call David O. Selznick, an American or a Jew? If any of the three answers that he calls you an American, you win. Otherwise you sign the telegram."

Selznick signed the telegram.

This type of response may have resonated in the 1940s, but seems foreign today. Abigail Pogrebin interviewed Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame for her book “Stars of David.” Alexander explained that his parents would offer this very same argument: "'There are people in this world who would kill you just because you're a Jew, and you have to know what you're dying for.'" Alexander wryly noted that "this was a real incentive program." Focusing on antisemitism does not inspire people to love Judaism; it only inspires panic and guilt. 

The answer that “it’s a gift to be a Jew” no longer focuses on other-worldly rewards; instead it says Judaism is a gift because it makes you happy. This is a reasonable perspective, considering that a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Jews were the happiest religious group in the United States. This argument is quite popular, and many sermons and articles have focused on how Judaism contains important wisdom about health, psychology and relationships.

In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote “Peace of Mind,” which sold over a million copies in one year. Since then, books about Jewish wisdom for business, relationships, health and sex have been best sellers. Undoubtedly, many Jewish rituals do bring peace of mind, and there is a great deal of interest, both among Jews and non-Jews, about the gifts of Judaism. But the problem with this answer is that it reduces the Torah to a guide on psychology, health and finance; Judaism is no longer a spiritual journey or the search for transcendence. Yet even great thinkers were tempted to see the mitzvot as utilitarian. Maimonides wrote that the reason for eating kosher food is because it is healthier, and that pork in particular led to unhealthy conditions, and communities that raised pigs were “cesspools.” Don Isaac Abravanel offered a harsh criticism of Maimonides’ view, saying it transformed the Torah into a “short medical textbook.” Abravanel is correct. While we may find happiness in the pursuit of Judaism, that cannot be its purpose. There is plenty of non-kosher food that is healthy, and plenty of very happy people who don’t practice Judaism.

The most meaningful answer is the third one: “You were meant to be a Jew.” This response is not based on proofs or arguments. Instead one hears a voice in the depths of one’s soul that says: I am a Jew because I cannot imagine not being one. This person’s journey to Jewish identity is inexplicable, a magnetic pull that draws them near. Beginning with Avraham and Sarah, the Jewish journey has been an all-consuming passion for those who want to be a part of the greatest story on earth. Like Yonah, they say “I am a Hebrew.” Like Ruth, they say “don’t turn me away.” Like Avraham, they say “I am ready.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes his book with an eloquent three-page summary about why he is a Jew.  In every word, one can recognize that he is driven by his love for Judaism, and cannot imagine being anything else.

The weakness of the final approach is it doesn't persuade. Those passionate about their Judaism can share what Judaism means to them, but it remains a personal experience. Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that his book “is a personal reply. None of us can answer the question for anyone else.” He writes simply to share his own experience.

How do you convince your children to love Judaism? There’s no answer for that question. But if you know you were meant to be a Jew, if you feel like your soul was at Mount Sinai, share that inspiration; perhaps you will inspire them.

Toward the end of the book, Rabbi Sacks shares a moving story about a Hasidic rabbi in Kew Garden Hills. The rabbi had moved there after the Holocaust and opened a small shtiebel. One Shabbat, a boy wandered in, wanting to see what a Hasidic rabbi is like. After services, the rabbi went over to the boy and said that Pesach was rapidly approaching, and he did not have a child old enough to ask the four questions; would the boy be his guest and say the Mah Nishtanah? The boy accepted the invitation, and sat at the Seder with the rabbi and his wife; at the side of the table was a carriage with their baby daughter. At one point during the Seder, the baby started to cry, and the rabbi excused himself. In another room, he rocked the baby to sleep, and sang a Yiddish song. The boy could make out the words, but didn't know what they meant.


After the Seder, the boy was intrigued enough to want to learn more about the rabbi’s story. He found out that both the rabbi and his wife had been in concentration camps, and the rabbi had been in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. After the war they reunited, but had difficulty having children. After years of trying, they were told by doctors to give up hope; despite all odds, this baby was born.


This boy was transformed by that evening, and decided to become religious, eventually becoming a rabbi. But what inspired him was not the rabbi’s story; it's when he learned the meaning of the song the rabbi sang to his daughter. The words were: "it is good to be a Jew, it is good to be a Jew." This rabbi, who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, could still sing about his love for Judaism; he still knew he was meant to be a Jew. At that Seder, this young boy saw a role model of Jewish identity.


There is no answer to the question of how to convince my child to be a Jew, but there is a response. If you feel the passion of Sinai, live that way, because that passion just might inspire others. And never be shy to say “it is good to be a Jew.”





Monday, August 30, 2021

Selichot Message - 2021

What happens when you run out of inspiration?

Every time the high holidays come this early in the year it is a challenge to feel the inspiration.

Simply put, August and Elul don't fit well together.

August has the laziest days of the summer, when you've already had a month of practice at doing nothing. We sit by the water, and work on our suntans. 

Elul is the time of awe and spiritual preparation. 

Someone quoted me recently the Yiddish saying about Elul - "in Elul, der fish tzittert in vasser" "in Elul, The fish trembles in the water."

Elul is a time of fear and trembling, when we undertake the spiritual inventory and search for greater inspiration and meaning in our lives.

It is definitely not at all like August.

In any year, when Selichot falls in the month of August, it is difficult to find inspiration. 

But this year it is all the more difficult. After 18 months, we are still grappling with the coronavirus crisis, still struggling with this awful illness. And not only that, we are preoccupied with the enormous amounts of day to day minutiae in connection with the coronavirus. 

Inspiration is difficult to come by right now.

So what happens when you run out of inspiration? 

How do you say Selichot when your heart just isn't into it?

The answer can be found in a passage of the Talmud, Pesachim 117a

 ״לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר״ — מְלַמֵּד שֶׁשָּׁרְתָה עָלָיו שְׁכִינָה וְאַחַר כָּךְ אָמַר שִׁירָה. ״מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד״ — מְלַמֵּד שֶׁאָמַר שִׁירָה וְאַחַר כָּךְ שָׁרְתָה עָלָיו שְׁכִינָה.

 If a psalm begins: Of David a psalm, this teaches that the Divine Presence rested upon him first and afterward he recited the song. However, if a psalm opens with: A psalm of David, this teaches that he first recited the song, and afterward the Divine Presence rested upon him.

This may seem to be an interpretation of a textual anomaly, a simple way of resolving why the order of words is sometimes reversed. 

But it actually is a lesson. Sometimes you are inspired and song is natural. 

Other times, you are without inspiration. What do you do then?

You read the song without inspiration.

You read the song without inspiration, because sometimes the song will bring inspiration.

You read the song without inspiration, because sometimes the song will remind you of when you were inspired in the past.

You read the song without inspiration, because it's still worth reading the song.

In excellent example of this is the mourner's Kaddish. At the graveside, we tell the mourner to read this prayer. It begins with the words:

"Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world"

Most mourners are not inspired when they saying these words. If anything they feel alienated from this lofty vision of divine redemption.  The mourners are often wondering how God could visit this tragedy upon them. So why do we recite the Kaddish? 

The answer lies in an idea that many Jewish thinkers have mentioned: we not only have faith in God, but also have faith in ourselves, in our ability to find faith. We know that even after alienation, We can find faith again.

And this is why it is so important to say the song even if we don't feel the inspiration. Because we know that even if we don't feel inspiration now, we will feel inspiration later; perhaps in 2 months, perhaps in 2 years. 

We continue to say the song and read the words, and hope the inspiration will come eventually.

That is why we always read the words, no matter what we feel.

What should we do tonight, if we just aren't inspired for the high holidays? Let's read the song, let's read the words. 

With God's help, the words will lead us to inspiration.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

When History Touches You

The casual reader is immediately struck by the pageantry of the offering of first fruits, bikkurim, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah offers a vivid description of the bikkurim procession. It tells of how individual farmers would gather in local groups, and

“an ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them ... when they drew close to Jerusalem ... the governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to them, and ... all the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’... When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When they got to the Temple Court, the Levites would sing” (Mishnah Bikkurim Chapter 3). 

All of this pomp and ceremony highlights how different bikkurim are from other agricultural offerings. Bringing an offering of first fruits or firstborn animals in gratitude to God was common in the ancient world, and is found in the story of Kayin and Hevel at the very beginning of the Torah. But bikkurim are different because they tie the first fruits to the Exodus from Egypt. Here, the farmer speaks to those present and says: “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” 

The farmer then tells the history of how their ancestors wandered, eventually becoming slaves in Egypt; and “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and ... He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now, behold, I have brought the bikkurim of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.”  

Even though bikkurim reflect the farmer’s personal achievement, everyone else joins them in the celebration, including political leaders, Levites, and the shopkeepers in Jerusalem. This is because bikkurim are also a national celebration, and commemorate the Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people. 

It is fascinating to contrast bikkurim with the rituals of Pesach. Both tell the story of the Exodus, but in very different ways. Pesach takes place on the anniversary of leaving Egypt, and its ritual foods—the Pesach sacrifice, the Matzah and Maror, all relate directly to the experience of liberation. To sit at the Seder is to reach out and touch history, and imagine oneself as part of the Exodus; each person at the Seder sees themselves as if they were the slaves leaving Egypt that very night.

With bikkurim, the process goes in the opposite direction, reversing the narrative of the Pesach Seder. The farmer takes an individual achievement, the arrival of the new crop, and sees within it the story of the Exodus. Bikkurim are a reminder that history is very much a part of current events; as the farmer celebrates their personal good fortune, they make a point of recognizing that their prosperity is rooted in the miracles of the past. Unlike the Seder, the history lesson of bikkurim begins with the farmer, who reflects on their first fruits, and recognizes that history has touched their daily life. 

In the past century, Jewish history has been retold in two forums. One is at a commemoration or a pilgrimage, such as on Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut, or at Auschwitz, Atlit (the prison camp near Haifa) or Ellis Island. The very dates and places are imbued with significance; they stand ready and waiting for their story to be retold. But history is also retold at personal celebrations—at a wedding when the grandfather gets up to speak, or at a Bat Mitzvah when the grandmother addresses her granddaughter. These speeches return to great historical moments, and repeat bittersweet stories of crisis, tragedy, courage and survival. They conclude, always, with the sense that now, finally, there is a celebration! 

These are bikkurim moments, when we recognize how history touches their daily lives. And this is actually a more profound retelling of the past, because it demonstrates how history impacts the life of the individual.  

Ultimately, the declaration of bikkurim is included in the Haggadah and read at the Pesach Seder. David Henschke and others have wondered why this passage was chosen for the Seder because it doesn't fit well. The bikkurim declaration actually had to be edited for the Haggadah, because it made no sense in exile to read the words “He has brought us to this place and has given us this land.” It would have made more sense to use Deuteronomy 6:21-24, which tells the Exodus story exclusively, as the foundation of the Haggadah.  

I would argue that the declaration of bikkurim was chosen for the Haggadah precisely because it speaks from the perspective of the individual, and reminds the reader that the redemption will bear fruit for everyone. During the bitter years of the diaspora, individual circumstances were shaped by exile; daily life was more a reminder of Tisha B’av than Pesach. In the Haggadah, the section of bikkurim offers hope to the brokenhearted, and reminds them to wait for Elijah to bring them to Jerusalem; then, they too will bring bikkurim.

Contemporary Jews can tell the story of bikkurim as their own; they know the wanderings of their grandparents, and recognize how lucky they are now. One moving example of this is a story told by Daniel Gordis, which he heard from an elderly woman he met. He writes:

“She was nineteen during the war ... her father realized that they might not survive Europe, even where they were hiding, and told her he was sending her out ... She'd never given much thought to Palestine, but she had a sister who’d already moved here. … she boarded her ship, and sailed for Palestine ... At the shore, of course, they were stopped by the British ... [and she was] taken by the British to Atlit, the prison camp still preserved not far from today's Zichron Yaakov. ... Here she was, scarcely out of her teens, alone except for a sister, in a country that barely existed. 

About sixty years later, she told us, she told her children that for her eightieth birthday, she wanted them all to get in a few cars, and she would lead them, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren around Jerusalem showing them the places that had been important to her over the past decades. Places she'd lived, where she'd worked, where significant memories had been etched. They agreed on a date and time, and a son-in-law knocked at her door to take her to the car. But there was no car. Instead, there was a bus. And instead of her immediate family, it was children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and many more; literally dozens of people filling a bus. She’d come alone, she told us in a voice quivering with emotion, and now, six decades later, the family she'd created could barely fit into a bus.”

This bus trip is a true bikkurim moment. After all of the wandering and persecution, one branch plucked from the fire of destruction has become a multitude. But stories like this are everywhere; and the next time you drink a bottle of Israeli wine, celebrate that bikkurim moment, and recognize what a miracle that wine, people, and their homeland truly are.