Tuesday, April 19, 2005


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Lesson of a Sleepless Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 02, 2005

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

Friday, April 01, 2005

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

The Pope: A Rabbi’s Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May his memory be a blessing for all of humanity.