Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Killing Time

I never watch TV without holding a book. It’s an odd habit which I trace to my days as a yeshiva student. At Yeshiva I learned that “Bittul zman”, the wasting of time, was a cardinal sin. Time was much too valuable to squander, because it could be used for Torah study and mitzvot. So I learned to take enormous care with every instant, to the point that I rode the bus with a religious text in hand, never to waste time on idle daydreaming. And even now, years later, I am uncomfortable “wasting time” on something as frivolous as watching TV.

Yeshiva bocherim are not the only ones concerned about time. Indeed, an entire industry of time management has emerged to help harried businessman schedule more meetings. The realization that “time is money” ensures that the sharp executive will do everything possible to maximize time. And because the technology enabled entrepreneur is the contemporary hero, the tools of time management have filtered down throughout society; even housewives and students carry daytimers and palm pilots.

But while we’ve learned how to manage time, we’ve forgotten why. Yes, time is money; but frankly, it’s a whole lot more. Time is life. Our lives are comprised of a finite amount of days, hours and minutes. And unlike money, time is irretrievable.

Wasting time is aptly referred to as “killing time” because it truly is a loss of life. But it’s not only couch potatoes who kill time. One can kill time while ostensibly busy. Indeed, some people are “urgency addicts”, busying themselves with empty trivialities because they get a rush out of being busy. However, we can fill our calenders with “important” errands and meetings yet still do nothing of consequence. A busy life is not always a meaningful life.

Benjamin Franklin may have coined the term “time is money”, but he also had a spiritual view of time management. (Indeed, part of Franklin’s Autobiography was translated and included in “Cheshbon Hanefesh”, a popular Yeshiva text). To Franklin, each morning a person should plan the day while thinking: “what good shall I do this day?”, and at night, he should look back and ask: “what good have I done this day?”.

What is missing in our contemporary daytimers are these two questions. Even if our agendas are full, we still need to find time for the things that count. No matter how busy we are, there are always a few moments to learn, love, grow and care. We can always fit in a call to our parents, a hug for our children, a few words to cheer up a friend. Whether or not we squeeze the important things into our schedules determines if we are living life or killing time.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Walking Up the Down Escalator

I hear these stories while standing at the bar. I’m at a simcha, sharing a l’chaim with the grandparents of the bride/groom/Bar/Bat Mitzvah, who are chatting and smiling, as proud grandparents should. And then, I’ll notice they have an unusual glint in their eye, the look of pure glee mixed with pure defiance. And they’ll whisper to me: “you know I shouldn’t be alive...they should have got me, but what happened was...”. They then tell me their stories, about how a remarkable convergence of persistence and luck allowed them to survive, rebuild and celebrate simchas.

Nowadays, the generation of survivors is once again battling the angel of death, and I often hear these stories while preparing a eulogy. Each time a survivor passes away, I am reminded that without them the Jewish world would be smaller, weaker and duller. Their families, their communal involvements, and the fact that they are a living link to Eastern European Judaism have contributed immeasurably in reconstructing the Jewish world after the Holocaust.

But to me, the survivors teach more than history; they teach character. Many survived due to incredible, impossible adventures. In each of these adventures, the survivor’s character is critical. They did the impossible because they had chutzpah, tenacity and optimism. Their stories have taught me the importance of determination, a lesson that’s significant for anyone who’s ever faced failure and disappointment.

It’s easy to give up. Our society, with it’s wonderful overabundance of comforts, has an unfortunate side effect: it has made people soft. We’ve become so used to success that we are unable to cope with adversity. Personal, relationship and business difficulties often end with people giving up, because we are easily discouraged.

For survivors, quitting wasn’t an option. I remember a survivor telling me “you know, I just wanted to live”. It may seem like a pointless comment; everyone wants to live! But when a survivor makes this remark, it speaks volumes about personal determination. This man refused to give up when facing overwhelming odds. Many others simply surrendered; some even walked into electrified fence as a way of ending the suffering. However, the survivors persevered, clinging to life even when it seemed absurd. To me, endless determination is the survivors’ greatest legacy.

I once heard a speaker remark “life is like walking up the down escalator”. Despite our wealth and success, this is true of all of us at one time or another. We all have disappointments that pull us down. The survivors climbed up an impossible escalator, and somehow made it to the top. Because of their accomplishments, they remain an inspiration to all of us struggling our way up the escalator of life.
Just a little something they asked me to do for In Montreal magazine

Miracles, Shmiracles

Miracles, shmiracles. Did you really think a magic menorah is reason enough for an entire holiday? Or that because of an enchanted jar of oil, we’ve inflicted generations of Jews with greasy latkes and donuts? If you did, you’re not alone; for a lot of us, the last time we thought seriously about Hanukkah was in fifth grade, when we wondered (and nagged) about what we’d get as a Hanukkah present. And even as we become adults, (and start to buy the gifts!), all we’re left with is an elementary school vision of Hanukkah, with lots of emphasis on presents, driedels and oil, oil, oil.

Hanukkah is an atypical holiday, and it certainly isn’t about oil. Other holidays commemorate God’s salvation of man; their story line is “they wanted to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat”. Hanukkah, however, is not about a monster who wanted to kill the Jews, nor is it about a singlehanded divine salvation. Rather, it’s a story about a culture that insists (and forces) the Jews to fit in and be like everyone else. (Unfortunately, many Jews did find it easy to drop their Judaism in order to advance). We celebrate Hanukkah because there were a determined few who insisted on living Jewish lives, no matter what the consequences. They are the heros of this story. Rather than being passive patsies, like the hogtied damsel on the train tracks waiting for Dudley Do Right, in this story we have Jewish heros proudly proclaiming their Jewish identity.

What Hanukkah is really about is Jews being proud of their Jewish identity. It’s about every Jew who’s stood up publicly and said “I am a Jew” despite enormous pressure to hide their heritage. Hanukkah celebrates the heros of Jewish identity, whether it be in the Seleucid empire, the former Soviet Union, or on the Concordia campus.

So what’s all the oil about? Well, if you risk your life and fight long battles to remain a Jew, and you finally get home and don’t have the oil you need to run the Temple, it’s nice to have a miracle to make things run smoothly. But even more importantly, it nice to get a pat on the back from God for a job well done, and know that God is rooting for us as we struggle to resist the enchantments of assimilation.

Happy Hanukkah!!

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Happiness Warrior

It should be easy. We are constantly prodded to be merry, easygoing and jovial. Songs instruct us “Don’t worry, be happy”, bumper stickers carry the ubiquitous happy face logo, and even the Hasidic Rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, tells us it’s a “great mitzvah to be constantly joyous”. So how come happiness isn’t as easy as simple slogan?

Actually, happiness is often a struggle. Life can be miserable. If you don’t believe me, just read the newspaper. There are terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansings, civil wars, as well as bankruptcies and unemployment. On a personal level, it seems that we frequently hear about a crime, illness or death that has affected someone close to us. And frankly, these are the good new days; for most of history, life was far more dismal.

But just because happiness is hard, doesn’t mean it’s absurd. Rabbi Nachman was right; God intended the world to be a joyous place. And if life is (to quote Hobbes) “nasty, brutish and short”, creating happiness is our responsibility. To transform a difficult world, we need people who understand that happiness is neither simple or trivial; we need people who are willing to fight for a happier world. We need happiness warriors.

The first battleground is ourselves. Virtually every human being has had to battle some form of melancholy. Winston Churchill even had a name for his dark moods, calling them “Black Dog”. Happiness warriors never let “black dog” get the best of them. Even during the bleakest moments, they can discover a bit of joy. Steve Lipman in Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust documents how concentration camp inmates invented a genre of dark, yet hopeful humor. How do you beat back “black dog”? By chuckling at a wisecrack in while living in hell.

But happiness warriors are not content with personal bliss; their goal is world happiness. They may seem like ordinary people doing ordinary things, but actually, they are transforming the world one smile at a time. Like the secretary who gives everyone she meets with a warm welcome. Or the college student who spearheads a fundraising campaign with his friends to help an impoverished family. Or the middle aged woman who visit hospital patients with a thermos of chicken soup. Or the Israeli highschooler who learns first aid so she can save lives, if God forbid, there is a suicide attack. These may be simple, small, everyday acts, but they transform an otherwise difficult world into a happy place.

Happiness warriors know they face a tough opponent. They stand armed and ready, with smiles, jokes and chicken soup. Perhaps you’ll consider joining the fight; the fate of the world depends on it.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Hi! It's before the holidays, and I really haven't been able to put anything together. I hope to have something new in the very near future.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Yom Kippur in July

It’s a staple of cheesy advertising: Ads declaring it’s “Christmas in July” and offering major discounts on clothing, appliances, etc.. I guess it never hurts to get a bargain.

For me, it’s always Yom Kippur in July. During my vacation, I begin working on my High Holiday sermons. I do this because I’ve learned that Murphy’s law has particular application to High Holiday sermons; computers break, illnesses occur, and funerals get scheduled all shortly before the holidays, making sure that any procrastinating Rabbi is duly punished for leaving things to the last minute.

It’s peculiar writing words for days of awe during the lazy weeks of summer. The laid back rhythms of vacation are not the ideal environment for inspiration. The weighty themes of the high holidays seem very faraway from sun, surf and ice cream.

However, there’s actually a lot of inspiration around in the summer. Because of my Yom Kippur mindset, I look at the ordinary in extraordinary ways. I’ve found that simple summer pleasures are often quite sublime as well.

Transcendence is everywhere. Life is not just life; it’s a miracle. According to the Midrash, every blade of grass has it’s own angel, calling it to life. These angels are on prominent display in the summer.

Sunrise. Waves. Trees. Mountains. Grass. Birds. Grasshoppers. Breeze. Clouds. Sunset. Moon. Crickets. Stars. There are so many small miracles, so many ways to experience what Einstein called a “cosmic religious feeling”.

But you don’t need nature to find inspiration; sometimes it can be found around the Barbeque. Friendship is not just friendship; it is a divine experience. If two people truly connect it cannot be mundane. Every moment of friendship, even chatting and laughing together, contain divine sparks, the product of two souls in close contact.

And then there’s family. Of course family vacations have a labile quality to them, jumping between the annoying and the endearing; but they certainly are about family. And loving families are a miracle. The love of a parent, sibling, spouse is too remarkable for materialistic explanations. Love is clearly from beyond this world.

Now, all of the above (the mushy, sermonic stuff) is actually an introduction to the following anecdote.

One afternoon, I was taking a walk with my three year old daughter. She tugged on my hand and pointed to sky saying “look Abba, a cloud! a cloud!”. Tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, it was only an ordinary occurrence, a moment of father-daughter small talk. But I started to think about the miracles of clouds, the miracle of her life and the miracle of our love for one another. And for an instant, it was truly Yom Kippur in July, an ordinary moment filled with great inspiration.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Optimism Reconsidered

I was raised to be an optimist. My mother, a supreme optimist, taught me that the future always brings good tidings. In Yeshiva, I learned how prayer and mitzvot shield the righteous from harm; don’t worry, bad things don’t happen to good people. As a student, I learned how the march of scientific progress has cured disease and improved life. How could I be anything other than an optimist?

Indeed, optimism is what led me to the Rabbinate. The pulpit was a perfect place to share my idealistic dreams of progress and redemption.

Ironically, the Rabbinate actually did much to erode my optimism. Until I started working as a Rabbi, tragedy was pretty much an abstraction, something remote; it is as a Rabbi that I first had to confront actual tragedies. Unfortunately, I have officiated at funerals for accident victims, and visited parents sitting shiva for their children. While I was struggling with these tragedies in my own community, in New York and Israel, terrorists murdered thousands of innocents in suicide attacks. The convergence of these catastrophic events shook my optimism, and even my faith. I learned that life doesn’t always have a happy ending; I realized that bad things can happen to good people.

I was forced to reconsider my beliefs. In my search for new insights, authors like Rav Solovietchik, Victor Frankl and the Piaseczner Rebbe opened my eyes to realistic approaches to the problem of evil. My belief became more profound, and there was even some room for optimism.

No, I no longer believe that things will always go well. (I haven’t shelved my hopes completely, but that’s for another day). I can never again be a passive optimist. Passive optimists believe that “all is for the best” and whatever happens, no matter how awful, is truly good. Actually, this approach is insensitive, disparaging the genuine suffering that many people experience.

But even a realist can be an optimist. I cannot be sure everything will be alright; I do not know or understand God’s plans. But if I try, I can improve things. This is optimism of action, an optimism about what we can do and accomplish.

The world is tragic, but we can still produce happiness. Terrorists, illnesses and accidents destroy the beautiful and the innocent; it is up to us to combat evil, give love, and create new life. With kindness, spirituality and progress, we can improve the world.

My current optimism has nothing to do with fate. I believe in free will, and I believe in the possibility of human goodness. I am optimistic because I can, (and you can), choose to improve the world. All we have to do is make the right choices.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Showing Up

During my first year in the Rabbinate, an experienced colleague gave me some wise advice. Quoting that famous Jewish sage, Woody Allen, he told me that “showing up is 80% of life”. Actually, he underestimated the percentage. For a Rabbi, 99% of life is showing up: Brises, shivas, meetings, etc.. Remarkably, it isn’t that important what I actually do at these events, as long as I show up. Perhaps it’s because many people feel it isn’t a religious event without a Rabbi (a notion more Catholic than Jewish). Or it may be the magic factor; some people actually believe a Rabbi’s presence brings luck, as if the Rabbi were some sort of two legged amulet.

The mindless appearance is not the exclusive domain of Rabbis. Politicians have to be visible, performing the unremarkable tasks of shaking hands and hugging babies (In this regard, Rabbis are a sort of religious politician as well). Celebrities, in order to remain celebrities, have to stay in the public eye, waving blankly to the paparazzi. However, in actuality the mindless appearance is significant for everyone, famous or unknown.

Talk is overrated . Our society assumes that every encounter requires nonstop conversation, otherwise things are “awkward”. (Think of how you feel when you’re in the elevator with a stranger). This feeling is not universal. Robert Levine in A Geography of Time describes his experiences in India, where during visits people “drop by one another’s homes, only to sit and remain silent, sometimes ....for hours.....”. When Levine asked his friends whether they considered the moments of silence uncomfortable, they couldn’t understand why he would consider silence awkward.

The West is obsessed with verbal interactions. In India, the company counts for more than the conversation; simply sitting together is a worthwhile pursuit. Personally, my sympathies are with the Indians. Companionship in its own right is valuable; as the Talmud says “it is better to sit as two than to sit alone”.

No, I don’t look down on the profound, intimate conversation. But conversation is not the only route to friendship. Sitting together satisfies our existential need for companionship. When Adam in the Garden of Eden is searching for a companion, he isn’t looking for banter or insights or a soulmate; he just doesn’t want to be alone. He is waiting for another person to show up.

People often feel uncomfortable going to shivas. They feel they have nothing to say, and think it’s pointless to go and sit quietly. The truth is, there is nothing to say; but visiting is a gesture of concern that is more eloquent than anything one could say. Showing up is all that matters.

Showing up requires no skill, yet is immeasurably meaningful. Thank God it’s 80% of life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Sometimes, It’s Your Call

“When did you receive your calling?”. I was a rookie Rabbi, making small talk with a local Minister, when he asked me this question. I was tongue tied; I had never heard voices or had a dream telling me to become a Rabbi. God never called upon me.

Since that time, I have reflected on different types of callings. Some callings appear out of the blue, a burning bush that beckons while searching for lost sheep. Other callings start early on. Samson and Samuel receive their callings before they are born. And like them, there are people who as children, just know, that they were meant to be a doctor or fireman. Or like Joshua, they are apprenticed from a young age, following a mentor into a profession.

However, most of us are never called. There are no angelic apparitions or divine signs that lead to our destiny. Where can we find our calling?

Sometimes it’s our call. We all experience times when we learn something disconcerting, and think to ourselves “ ‘someone’ should do something about that”. And we leave it at that, assuming that “someone” will take care of it. Well, there may be no choir of angels, no thunder or lightning, but the moment that you think “someone” should do something, is actually a moment of divine calling; it is you, not “someone”, who is being called to duty.

This is a much higher form of calling. It is far superior for people to step up on their own, without waiting for God to tap them on the shoulder. Judith Kaplan, a student at Yeshiva University, found her calling in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing. She joined a group of volunteers who kept a round the clock vigil at the city morgue. These volunteers were doing shmira, standing watch over the bodies until they were buried, reciting Psalms. For months, Kaplan volunteered for this task every Shabbat.

Aaron Singer found his calling after the Passover bombings in 2002. An American who had served in the Israeli army, he left his wife and baby daughter to return for reserve duty. Noting that Israeli soldiers were outfitted with average flak jackets, he started a charity to buy state of the art bulletproof vests for Israeli soldiers.

The greatest callings are the ones we discover on our own. These driving force behind these callings are best expressed in the words of a New York City fireman, interviewed after 9/11. He explained that he became a fireman because “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”.

Now that’s a serious calling. What’s yours?
The Best Food on Earth

O.K., I admit it; at times, I critique the food at simchas. However, despite my own failings, I’m uncomfortable when I hear people play food critic at simchas. It bothers me because the purpose of attending a simcha is not gastronomic, an evening of fine dining, but rather to celebrate the bar mitzvah or wedding. Complaining about the meal at a wedding is like going to a baseball game and complaining about the hot dogs; if you’re a fan, the food doesn’t matter, and if you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t be there. Even worse, at times the critical comments about the salmon appetizer make their way to the family and cause them distress. Instead of celebrating a simcha with the joyous family, the erstwhile food critic causes them aggravation.

But what drives us to search for the world’s tastiest piece of salmon? Personally, I blame Martha Stewart. Not Martha directly (she’s had enough problems recently). But I do blame the Martha Stewart mindset, the attitude that everything must be elegant and tasteful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing the perfect meal or home. Life is short, and in our brief time here, we should enjoy God’s good earth. As the Talmud says, “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet” .

But here’s the problem. As we learn the nuances of fine culinary art, we also become discriminating snobs. Appreciating the best life has to offer can cause us to consider everything else inferior and disappointing. So a perfectly good piece of salmon becomes an affront to the gourmand’s tastebuds, and instead of toasting the joy of the new couple, we discuss the inept appetizer.

Indeed, the irony of learning how to “appreciate” fine food, is that at the same time genuine appreciation of food is lost. An overcooked, underseasoned piece of chicken is remarkably tasty; we’ve just turned off our tastebuds, expecting better, because our gourmet quest has caused us to lose perspective.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “hunger is the best cook”. She says that the army rations she ate right after being liberated from Auschwitz was the best meal she ever ate in her life, one that even the best chefs could never recreate. The overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland meal she ate. What she learned then was that with the right outlook, any piece of food is enormously tasty.

Ultimately, flavour depends on perspective; and to me, the food at simchas, even if it’s unworthy of five stars in the Michelin guide, is the best food on earth.