Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Getting Back on Your Feet, Without a Leg to Stand On

Determination is inspirational, but true optimism is holy.

An example of both is Thomas Garber, who tells his own story in Newsweek:

I felt fine until I got home around 10:30, when my back began to ache. Neither a hot shower nor pain reliever brought any relief. By 11:15 the pain was so bad that my wife called 911. When the ambulance arrived, I stood up and walked over to the gurney. I have not been able to stand or walk since.

Five weeks later I returned to my home as a 48-year-old paraplegic.

Garber considered giving up. But with determination, he learns how to do everything again, including:

… You first learn how to sit up without passing out or falling over, because your center of gravity is so high and your blood pressure is so low (without any muscles contracting below the level of injury, there is nothing to pump the blood back to the heart). You discover how to use the restroom in ways that you never thought possible. You learn how to shave, shower, dress, and transfer to a wheelchair. You learn that negotiating curbs, sidewalks, and ramps is best in a wheelie position. You learn to drive a car using hand controls and spinner knobs, and bristle at the countless numbers of able-bodied individuals who insist on using handicapped parking spaces….

Garber’s story inspired me, and frankly, I can’t ever get enough of inspirational stories. Determination, courage and inner strength are qualities we all need to overcome obstacles. Life is tough, and the road to happiness requires true inner strength.

But what touches me the most about Garber’s story is his authentic optimism. Instead of cursing his shortcomings, Garber finds hope in appreciating what he has:

You remember the things you used to do and wonder if you'll ever be able to do them again. And just about the time that you're ready to give up, you look around and consider the needs of others who are even less fortunate. And you think to yourself, "You know, it could be worse."

I have learned that every day is a blessing, and an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.

Optimism is not founded on denial. It is not founded on naivete. It is rather founded on simple appreciation, the ability to be grateful for everything one has. True optimism is the ability to count one’s blessings.

And counting one’s blessings is of course a religious responsibility. The Talmud (Berachot
60b) reminds us how every moment we have to appreciate even the smallest aspects of our daily routine. The Talmud tells us how we are obliged to make a series of blessings in the morning, thanking God for all we are endowed with:

When he hears the cock crowing he should say: 'Blessed is He who has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night'.

When he opens his eyes he should say: 'Blessed is He who opens the eyes of the blind'.

When he stretches himself and sits up he should say: 'Blessed is He who looseneth the bound'.

When he dresses he should say: 'Blessed is He who clothes the naked'.

When he draws himself up he should say: 'Blessed is He who raises the bowed'.

When he steps on to the ground he should say: 'Blessed is He who spread the earth on the waters'.

When he commences to walk he should say: Blessed is He who makes firm the steps of man'.

When he ties his shoes he should say: 'Blessed is He who has supplied all my wants'.

When he fastens his girdle, he should say: 'Blessed is He who girds Israel with might'.

When he spreads a kerchief over his head he should say: 'Blessed is He who crowns Israel with glory'.

But it’s not always easy to count one’s blessings. It is a battle to keep up an optimistic face, when all of a sudden, your list of blessings is a lot shorter. Under such circumstances, optimism is an act of faith, the ability to find the good in God’s creation.

Or, as someone once explained to Garber:

“Sorrow looks behind. Worry looks around. Faith looks up."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Don’t Sell People Short

You can encapsulate Judaism’s teachings on disabilities into one simple commandment:

Don’t sell people short.

This idea is expressed most directly in the first chapter of the Bible, which declares:

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him”. (Gen. 1:2)

The Bible doesn’t hold back when describing humanity; it says that every person is a reflection of God. Like God, we are all endowed with creativity and spirituality. It is therefore our religious responsibility to appreciate the infinite in every human being, no matter what their physical limitations may be.

It is our religious responsibility not to sell people short.

It is easy to sell people short. The dangerous phrase “quality of life” is now misused to rationalize pulling the plug on the elderly and infirm, because their care has become too complicated. Even worse, the idea that one must have a certain “quality of life” has led to the romanticization of suicide, seducing people with serious illnesses to give up hope and “die with dignity”.

We repeat the mantra of ‘quality of life’ until we are confronted with evidence of the infinite soul that lurks behind physical limitations. The recently released movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist. Bauby is afflicted with Locked-In Syndrome, a condition that leaves him totally immobilized, with only the slightest control over his left eyelid. Yet even in this condition, he writes a powerful and inspirational book, by blinking his eye to an assistant. (It took an average of 2 minutes to blink each word).

While Bauby’s story is exceptional, it teaches a universal lesson: life is sacred. It is easy to consider Bauby, a young man who suddenly finds himself completely paralyzed, a pitiful being who is better off dead. Yet Bauby’s memoir reminds us of the infinite value of life, and that a being created in the image of God should never be underestimated.

For too long, we have sold people with disabilities short. Generations of people with disabilities were marginalized and ignored. For hundreds of years, the deaf were assumed to be ineducable, until Charles-Michel de l'Épée systematized sign language and opened a school for the deaf in 1755. His innovation allowed the deaf to receive proper educations, to succeed and excel. Similar innovations such as braille, prosthetics and special education strategies have transformed lives, and allowed people to more fully express their image of God.

I am extremely hurt when religious communities fail the disabled. Schools and institutions, more interested in avoiding inconvenience than in embracing challenges, give the disabled the run around. I understand why parents and advocates feel so let down when this happens; it’s forbidden for us to sell people short.

Yet at the same time, I can see inspiration everywhere. I am inspired by the parents and teachers who devote their lives to helping disabled children reach their potential. With patience, effort and creativity, they refuse to sell people short. Their efforts truly embrace the imperative of respecting everyone as beings created in the image of God.

I am even more inspired by the disabled themselves. They have to keep trying, in the face of profound challenges. They have to deal with prejudice and discrimination. But even more significantly, the spirit they bring to the world inspires us to remember the soul we all have inside. Love is the language of the soul. No matter what a person’s disabilities may be, their image of God shines through every time they give us a caring glance, a simple hug or a beaming smile.

And it’s in those moments we remember how important it is to appreciate every human being, and to never, ever sell people short.

(The previous article is set to appear in Exceptional Family, a magazine for parents of exceptional children, which is edited by a member of our synagogue, Aviva Engel.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hedgehogs, Heroism, and Foxes

Are you a hedgehog, or are you a fox?

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin divides thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. A hedgehog only knows one dramatic way of engaging its enemies: rolling into a ball and pointing its barbs outwards. Similarly, “hedgehog” thinkers have one central idea or vision, around which all of their thought is structured. “Fox” thinkers, on the other hand, employ multiple approaches in a less than unified fashion. (Which resembles the fox, who employs a variety of strategies to hunt his prey.) This is an excellent metaphor for world of ideas; there are thinkers with one big idea, and big thinkers with lots of small ideas.

I’d like to extend this metaphor to the world of action as well.

There are hedgehog accomplishments, and fox accomplishments. In the Bible, many of the figures are hedgehogs. People such as Abraham and Moses transform world history through their remarkable faith and leadership. History books focus primarily on the activities of “hedgehogs”, including state builders like George Washington and David Ben Gurion.

However, most of us won’t be hedgehogs. For the rest of us, there is still the possibility of heroism, albeit, of a different sort: the heroism of “foxes”.

A fox doesn’t desire glory and grandeur. Indeed, he is content to know he doesn’t have to transform history by himself. Rabbi Tarphon’s statement in Pirkei Avot, that “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task”, is the fox’s creed. The fox, aware of his limitations, humbly accepts that he cannot solve the world’s problems single-handedly.

At the same time, the “fox” has much to do. Rabbi Tarphon also reminds us that “but neither are you free to absolve yourself from the task”. The fox is not a quitter; he simply manages his expectations. In fact, because the fox does not desire an immediate triumph, he does not despair in the face of overwhelming odds. Instead of grand gestures, the fox slowly works at changing the world, one good deed at a time.

Indeed, the Torah is made for the heroism of foxes. With a scheme of 613 duties, the Torah is telling us that foxes make a difference. One small act of goodness may seem insignificant; however, an army of foxes, doing hundreds of small mitzvot, can perform the truly heroic.

All of us have been transformed by the deeds of foxes. I can recall how my seventh grade teacher complimented me on a good question; this gave me the confidence to pursue new intellectual vistas. Or how I enjoyed my grandfather’s jovial nature, and how he taught me to always interact with others in a cheerful manner. Usually, it is the foxes, the people who do little things like cook us chicken soup or teach us Talmud, that transform our lives.

Foxes can’t change the world overnight. But they don’t quit either. By changing one life at a time, foxes also accomplish the truly heroic, without fanfare and grandeur.

That's why I'm proud to be a fox.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Can’t Believe Everything You Read in the Newspaper: The SY Empire, Part II

You can’t always believe what you read in the newspaper. An Anonymous commenter who has a fair amount of experience with the Syrian community took exception with my previous post, and wrote:

First of all, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about the prevalence of the "tribal" attitude based on Jakie Kassin's comments. The author of the article clearly had an axe to grind, and perhaps the comment was not understood properly in context. And in any event, your piece basically accuses the entire Syrian community of a racial attitude as reflected by the edict, and this is simply not fair. Also, I don't know if it's true that this community "emphasizes the exclusion of converts." This exclusion is practiced, but I wouldn't say it is emphasized, it is not a central part of their attitude and lifestyle. I have heard literally dozens - perhaps hundreds - of derashos (sermons –c.s.) from Syrian rabbanim, and read lots of their literature, and the only time I heard the edict mentioned was in the precise opposite context - a prominent Syrian rabbi made the point of how Judaism recognizes the potential of every human being for greatness notwithstanding the Syrian minhag (c.s. – custom) not to marry converts.I generally like your blog very much, but in this instance I believe you are wrongly condemning a large community and disparaging their talmidei chachamim based on one clearly-biased article. I think you should get to know some Syrian Jews more closely before casting such harsh judgment and calling them racist.

In another post, s-he continues:

Just to clarify a bit more my complaint against this post:The Syrian takana (edict –c.s.) was made as a "migdar milsa" (to fix a problem – c.s.) in response to what was perceived as a wave of pseudo-conversions for marriage purposes. The takana is NOT what you make it out to be - a reflection of a fundamentally different attitude towards the Jewish people whereby we are Jewish by blood and race rather than conduct and so on. Personally I'm not comfortable with the takana, but I am honest enough to see it what is, and not turn it into an expression of racism…….

I would add to the commenter’s remarks that s-he is correct, that on the issue of intermarriage the reporter, Zev Chafets, does have a personal axe to grind.

I also agree that I have limited first hand knowledge of the Syrian Jewish community. And I apologize if my own piece was perceived as imputing racist thoughts to the entire Syrian community. (Indeed, I avoided the explosive term “racist” because I didn’t think it was fair.) That was not my intent.


Let’s be serious about this. Jakie Kassin’s remarks were not made in a vacuum. And here, I’m not talking about Syrian Jews. I’m talking about all Jews. There is way too much tribal thinking in Jewish life. I have heard different versions of it from different people – from a stray remark from a chassid about whether or not non-Jews have the same souls as us, to the nearly secular Jew who has no interest in religion, but can’t imagine his child marrying a non-Jew because “they’re not the same”. Yes, tribalism is a philosophy that a smallish minority of Jews still maintain – but it is still a serious problem, whether you live in Flatbush or Montreal or Israel. I was simply using the Times’ article to highlight an issue that is significant for all Jews.

And to reiterate, tribalism is dangerous for the Jewish community. Aside from the fact that tribalism will at times morph in racism, tribalism is a philosophy that will eventually fail. Jews need to know why they’re Jewish. If we decide to base our identity on being part of tribe, we will forget exactly what it is that made us Jewish in the first place. And a tribe without a higher purpose simply cannot survive.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What Makes a Jew Jewish? (A Response to "The SY Empire")
It is now the most famous Rabbinic proclamation in New York. An 1935 edict issued by the Rabbinate of the Syrian Jewish community was the focus of an article in the New York Times last week. As the article explains:

Most American Jewish communities in those days (and many today) viewed intermarriage as a taboo. Conversion, however, was a loophole. The Edict intended to close that loophole. It proclaimed, ''No male or female member of our community has the right to intermarry with non-Jews; this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless.''

A 1946 clarification added specifics: ''The rabbi will not perform Religious Ceremonies'' for such unkosher couples. ''The Congregation's premises will be banned to them for use of any religious or social nature. . . . After death of said person, he or she is not to be buried on the Cemetery of our community . . . regardless of financial considerations.''

With these words, Chief Rabbi Jacob Kassin effectively excommunicated any member of his flock who married a partner with gentile blood….

I mean no disrespect to any of the 225 rabbis who have signed onto this edict. But this edict is absolutely wrong, period.

I’m sure a hundred sermons have noted the proper Jewish attitude towards conversion. Included in the responses will be references to multiple sources, such as Rashi’s statement that says that Abraham and Sarah our ancestors were missionaries and that “Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women… (Gen. Rabbah 39:14)”. Or Maimonides’ explanation, in a letter to Obadiah the Convert, that the pedigree of converts is greater than that of a natural born Jews:

Let not your ancestry be insignificant in your eyes. Because if we trace our ancestry to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then you trace yours to the Lord Himself.
And of course, any discussion of conversion must cite the Mishna that says it is a sin to discriminate against a proselyte on the basis of their origin (Bava Metzia 58b).

But forget questions of human dignity and/or political correctness for a moment. This edict gets to the heart of a fundamental question: What makes a Jew Jewish?

This edict, (as it is now percieved by some*), defines Jewish identity as having Jewish blood. As Jakie Kassin, the grandson of the edict’s author explains:

''Never accept a convert or a child born of a convert,''…. ''Push them away with strong hands from our community. Why? Because we don't want gentile characteristics.''
Here you have a simple, chauvinistic explanation of Jewish identity; Jews are Jewish because they have Jewish blood. Jews are a tribe apart, genetically destined to be different than everyone else. Surprisingly, this tribal vision is often subscribed to by marginally involved Jews; they turn their nose up at anything related to Torah, but still expect their children to marry a member of the tribe.

I believe tribalism is one of the greatest threats to the future of the Jewish people**. A Jewish identity that is fixated on tribalism must marginalize spirituality. The tribal consciousness worries about one thing: keeping the tribe together. So, instead of focusing on the Jewish mission to transform the world, tribal Jews seek to build walls to hold others out.

But authentic Judaism was never about genetics. What makes a Jew Jewish is a unique spiritual outlook. Central to this outlook is the desire to transform the world. Ido Hevroni explains the covenantal sign of circumcision this way:

…we find a position represented throughout the Hebraic tradition, from Genesis to the prophets to the rabbinic tradition. This position is unwilling to accept the world as it is, and is therefore characterized by a restless, uncompromising desire for improvement. This view takes on symbolic application with the severance of the foreskin, the marking of the most impulsive organ of the human body with an open and blunt statement: Man is not an animal. Man shares with God the ability to stand outside of and apart from nature. Man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. Man wants to change, even to create, the world.
Circumcision, like the rest of the Torah, is about transformation. We can change nature, we can change history, we can change the world. Indeed, the greatest Rabbi of the Talmudic era, Rabbi Akiva, transformed himself from ignorant shepherd into insightful teacher. It is no surprise that according to one tradition, {R. Nissim Gaon, Berachot 27b}, R. Akiva is the descendent of converts. Akiva, like Abraham, reinvents himself and refuses to accept the status quo. Akiva is such an effective teacher of Torah because he embodies spiritual transformation, the very attribute the Torah is founded on.

The best rejoinder to the philosophy of tribal Judaism is the fact that tribalists could never have accepted or appreciated a Rabbi Akiva. But today, tribal philosophies of Judaism may be facing a greater challenge: America.

21st century North America is the graveyard of tribes. Various groups, from the Greeks to the Italians to the Armenians, have tried valiantly to hang on to their culture. But the allure of being assimilated into the mainstream has been too strong a force to hold off assimilation.

Jewish tribalists may try to build walls to hold everyone else out. They may find short term success in doing so. But in the end these walls are fated to crumble; no wall is strong enough to stop the onslaught of the American melting pot.

Jewish continuity will only succeed if we can inspire our fellow Jews and all of humanity to embrace the values of the Torah. Each of us must light a fire within that will spread to those around us, transforming ourselves and the rest of the world.

Which is exactly what Abraham envisioned, right at the beginning of the Jewish people.

**(Please note I am not arguing whether or not the Syrian community has been successful in holding off intermarriage. But this community, with a deeply religious, tight knit and committed base, probably could have been equally successful without ostracizing converts or embracing chauvinistic misunderstandings of Jewish identity.)

* (please see the next post)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What’s on Your List?

You need to make a new list. In fact, your soul depends on it.

Human beings are listmakers; it’s what distinguishes us from the animals. (No, that’s not a joke!!).

We make lists for:

Phone numbers
Phone calls
Sermon ideas (I’m a Rabbi, ok!!)

Sometimes we need a list to keep track of all the lists.

There’s one list I’m working on now. And it’s the most important list anyone can make.

There is a story told about a Chassidic Rebbe and a beloved disciple. Chassidic practice is that the disciples of the Rebbe bring him a kvitl, a note. On this note is a list of things the disciple wants his Rabbi to pray for. One day the loyal disciple visits the rabbi with a kvitl that contains a long list of requests, for every possible wish.

The Rebbe took a long look at the list, and pushed the kvitl back. He looked at the disciple, and said: “you’ve thought a lot about what you need. But have you thought about why you are needed?”

Despite the apparent rejection, the disciple was ecstatic. His friends were puzzled; why was the disciple so happy? After all didn’t the rabbi just reject him?

The disciple explained that from his perspective, the Rebbe had taught him something precious. The Rebbe had implied that he, the simple disciple, was needed in this world.

The disciple got it right. To be needed is the greatest joy. And to find out why we are needed is our greatest obligation.

The 18th century Italian Rabbi, Moshe Chaim Luzzato, begins his classic work, the Path of the Just, by saying that the most fundamental idea in Judaism is to know what our obligation in this world is. To live a meaningful life requires a different type of list, one that lists all the reasons why the world needs us.

In our consumer driven culture, people work hard, and shop hard. Yuppie life has become a well oiled machine, where lists organize our time around commerce and consumption. But there’s barely a moment for the soul, and the most important list remains empty: an answer to the question “why am I needed?”.

I am making this list for the first time. It’s a frightening but exciting process. Why are we needed? To call Mom? To hug the wife and kids? And to accomplish this….or is it to accomplish…that? Or maybe something else…..hmm…I’ve got to figure that out.

You are needed – that’s why God put you on this earth. So make the list. You’ll find it intimidating, exhilarating and confusing.

It will be the only list you ever really need.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Christmas, Salmon, and Jewish Continuity

I’ve been annoyed since Christmas.

Cindy Chupack, the executive producer of “Sex in the City”, is Jewish. And last Christmas, in an article in the New York Times, she declared that she was celebrating Christmas.

Chupack blames the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for her heterodoxy. Overwhelmed by a desire for Christmas Decorations, Stocking Stuffers and Gingerbread Houses, Chupack surrendered to the temptations of kitsch.

Now, I have nothing against gingerbread houses. What disturbed me deeply about the article was the assumption that being Jewish was about having fun.

Chupack repeats the mantra of her childhood: “eight nights is better than one.” Child after child was urged to observe Chanukah instead of Christmas, because Chanukah has more nights, and more gifts. In other words, Chanukah, and Judaism, is more fun.

Actually, the “fun theory” of Judaism is quite widespread. It can be found in multiple books, touting Jewish practice as a multi-purpose tonic, useful for family dysfunction, financial success, and even sexual prowess.

The “fun theory” of Judaism also has deep roots. Maimonides explains the kosher laws as health regulations, topping off his discussion by noting that that Jews don’t eat pigs, because they are unhealthy, dirty animals.

But Maimonides and the “fun theory” are wrong. In fact, Chupack’s article unintentionally unravels the fun theory of Judaism. What if pig is healthy? What if Christmas is more fun? Isn’t Judaism about the fun?

No, it isn’t. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Jewish History knows that Jews didn’t always have fun being Jewish. Yet we remained Jews because it was, and is, the right thing to do. Indeed, the Torah explains that God chose Abraham in order “that he may command his children…after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, and do righteousness and justice”.

Too often, we employ “fun theory” types of projects in the service of Jewish continuity. A fashionable and fun event for young Jews is organized without a shred of authentic Judaic content. As laudable as the intent behind these projects is, we need to realize that good fashion will not sustain Judaism. No matter how fashionable a Jewish project may be, there’s always a Pottery Barn catalogue about to arrive with even more fashionable Christmas decorations.

With materialism eroding our spiritual values, and assimilation pressuring a minority community like ours, fun theory is futile. I believe that the answer to Jewish continuity is found in the salmon.

Yes, I said salmon. Why? Because salmon instinctively swim upstream. We need to learn from the salmon that continuity is a difficult, upstream battle. And we need recognize that only an authentic Jewish instinct for justice and spirituality will sustain the Jewish people.

We don’t need better Chanukah decorations to ensure Jewish continuity. Rather, what our community really needs is a greater emphasis on Jewish content and practice, and a few good salmon, willing to swim upstream.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shanah Tovah!!!

Sorry I've been MIA. Just swamped before the holidays.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Unhappy Millionaires

It’s the classic "man bites dog" headline: “Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich”.

The New York Times’ story is about the Silicon Valley. It’s an area with so many billionaires and mega-millionaires, that the average, single digit millionaire feels like a nobody. The report in the Times says that:

“People around here, if they have 2 or 3 million dollars, they don’t feel secure,” said David W. Hettig, an estate planner based in Menlo Park who has advised Silicon Valley’s wealthy for two decades.”

So there you have it: unhappy millionaires. For the Rabbis, this unhappiness is easy to understand. Pirkei Avot teaches us:

"Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot."

Of course, this discontent is often fueled by pure jealousy:

“Everyone around here looks at the people above them,” said Gary Kremen, the 43-year-old founder of, a popular online dating service. “It’s just like Wall Street, where there are all these financial guys worth $7 million wondering what’s so special about them when there are all these guys worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Mr. Kremen estimated his net worth at $10 million. That puts him firmly in the top half of 1 percent among Americans, according to wealth data from the Federal Reserve, but barely in the top echelons in affluent towns like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton. So he logs 60- to 80-hour workweeks because, he said, he does not think he has nearly enough money to ease up.

“You’re nobody here at $10 million,” Mr. Kremen said earnestly over a glass of pinot noir at an upscale wine bar here."

It would be easy to mock these yuppie millionaires and their foolish insecurities. But for the most part, the people interviewed in the article are intelligent and thoughtful. They have thought a lot about their choices; but they feel driven and overwhelmed at the same time. What are they doing wrong?

Well, what they're doing right is working. People need to work hard. Even if ambition is rooted in some of our baser instincts, ambition is still very important.

The Talmud has pointed out (as did Adam Smith), without self interest and ambition, the world would not develop. We need productive, hard working people, no matter how large their bank accounts may be.

But even the Type A’s need to learn how to appreciate life. Ambition is wonderful, as long as it doesn't destroy our lives.

To this end, the Bible offers a simple formula:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work…

The Torah is reminding us that one must both work and rest. First, work six days and be productive. God made man in his image, to be creative and to improve the world.

However, with all of that work, man must still remember his own limitations, and that the divine blessing of life needs to be savored as well. That’s why one day a week, you need to put your ambition aside, sit back, and savor the world around you.

So to all those unhappy millionaires out there: Six days a week in the Silicon Valley, work away; but on the Sabbath, rest your ambitions and let your soul loose.

I can assure you that you’ll feel like a million dollars!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Joys of Cancer??

It’s hard to see a silver lining to cancer.

The very word cancer strikes fear into most people’s hearts. In Yiddish, the word cancer is avoided, and usually referred to as “yener machala” (“that disease”). So why on earth has Betty Rollin written a book about the bright side of cancer?

Well, because she’s a cancer survivor. Having lost a mother to cancer, and battled cancer twice herself, she can speak with some authority on the subject. She recounts in her most recent book that:

“I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about — love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.”

Believe it or not, Rollins’ reaction to her disease is far from unique. An article in the New York Times lists several authors who have written about finding happiness while struggling with cancer. One author, Wendy Schlessel Harpham, put it this way:

“Without a doubt, illness is bad, yet survivorship — from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life — can include times of great joy among the hardships. You can find happiness.”

Finding happiness while suffering from cancer seems impossible. Yet remarkably enough, several cancer survivors in the article agreed with Lance Armstrong’s sentiment that “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

(I have to stop for a moment to add a disclaimer. Having observed too many times the havoc cancer wreaks, I know that one must write with sensitivity on this difficult subject. It is even more important to remember that each situation is unique, and certainly no patient or family should be judged by how “positive” or “negative” other people were. One must also remember, that even those patients who have reported positive experiences are not positive all the time; the “happy” ones cry a lot and suffer as well. And it would be a crime if the observations of these authors were used to make any person suffering or mourning feel guilty for not being “positive enough”.)

This notion is counterintuitive. Cancer makes it much harder to be happy. If it’s so difficult to grab a few moments of happiness, how happy can you really be?

Really happy. These authors have stumbled on the essence of the human spirit: the harder we try, the sweeter the success.

A concept championed by Kabbalists is the idea of the “bread of shame”. The Kabbalists believe that God created the world out love for mankind, so they can do good deeds and be rewarded for them. Well, if that’s so, ask the Kabbalists, why would God make being good so difficult?

The response is based on the analogy of the “bread of shame’. A person gains much more joy from a piece of bread he earned by his own hard work, than he does from a piece of bread handed to him. There is nothing more precious to human beings than their independence, their ability to be the masters of their own lives. When someone is handed a loaf of bread, they are embarrassed, because they have lost their independence and must beg for bread of shame.

For this reason following the good path is always difficult. To be good because it’s easy to be good would compromise human greatness, and would deprive man of his ability to choose his own destiny. If God had made it easy for us to be good, the rewards given for goodness would be the “bread of shame”. When we have to work hard to achieve the goal of goodness, the unique satisfaction of that triumph is the greatest reward.

These authors, writing about the joys of cancer, have stumbled on the concept of the “bread of shame”. When you must battle to find joy and happiness in times of difficulty, that hard fought joy is so much sweeter than anything else.

Happiness warriors know how hard we all have to battle for happiness. But we know that it is actually the battle itself that makes the achievement even more satisfying. Happiness is not served up on silver platters; but when you manage to create it on your own, it is a remarkable experience.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

5 Minute Jewish Wisdom

I’m starting a series soon on Radio Shalom, Montreal’s Jewish radio station, of short inspirational commentaries. They will comment on passages in an ancient Jewish book, Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), and center on insights related to day to day life: on proper judgment, the pros and cons of snobbery, the importance of focus, etc. Below is a written version of the first commentary, on the first Mishna (passage) in Chapters of the Fathers.

Be Deliberate in Judgment

The first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says:

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah."

This Mishna is primarily intended as advice for judges; deliberate carefully before rendering judgment.

But the genius of this Mishna goes beyond the jurist, and provides excellent advice for the average man in the street.

The advice is simple: Don’t rush to judgment!!

All of us, whether or not we are judges, have to make hundreds of judgments a day.

You meet someone, you have to judge their personality; you buy something, you have to judge its value; you make plans, you have to judge their usefulness. We’re constantly judging every aspect of the world around us.

The Mishna is reminding all of us to judge carefully and methodically. Snap judgments are often corrupted by preconceived notions and emotional responses.

Many people have made foolish snap judgments.

An executive director at a large charity in Toronto (who will remain anonymous) can tell you about judging someone by their appearance. An older man in a rumpled suit and somewhat gruff manner showed up in his office one day, asking to join his board. The executive director dismissed him immediately, assuming that a lack of fashion sense and social graces meant he had little to offer. Unfortunately, he soon found out that he had turned away someone who was about to become one of Toronto’s largest philanthropists. Like all snap judgments, judging a book by its cover is simply knee jerk stupidity.

Richard Jewell can tell you about preconceived notions. On July 27, 1996, during the Summer Olympics, Jewell alerted the Atlanta police about a suspicious package that turned out to be a bomb. Because some of the elements in Jewell’s life resembled a hypothetical FBI profile of the bomber, the FBI immediately assumed Jewell was guilty. Only on October 25th, 3 months later, did the FBI realize they had besmirched the reputation of the one true hero of that July evening.

Jesse Ramirez can tell you about emotional decisions made in haste. As the Arizona Republic reports:

“Ramirez suffered major brain injuries in a car accident on May 30. Doctors said the injuries could have left him blind or in a permanent vegetative state.On June 8, his wife, Rebecca, asked doctors to remove his food and water tubes….Now, he can hug and kiss, nod his head, answer yes and no questions, give a thumbs-up sign and sit in a chair...”

Luckily, Jesse didn’t die because the rest of his family stopped his wife from removing life support. But it’s not just Jesse; hasty hospital decisions affect a lot of people. I see people overwhelmed by emotion, frightened that they will have to watch a loved one linger in a permanent vegetative state, make foolish and hasty decisions about a relative’s life. Tragically, snap decisions made in an ICU have life and death consequences.

The Mishna is advising judges to be thorough in researching a verdict. But its advice goes beyond judges. It is reminding the rest of us, who make multiple judgments every day, never to rush to judgment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You Can Do Anything

Yes, this title is a cliché. But it’s also true.

Perhaps the greatest lesson the Bible has to teach comes right at the beginning. The Bible says:

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Gen. 1:27)

It’s a great verse. But what’s the image of God?

It’s man’s ability to create and control. Man can cure disease and build cars, invent computers and fly into outer space. This creativity, according to Rabbi Joseph B. Solovietchik, is man’s way of emulating God, the ultimate creator.

Man’s almost limitless creativity is Godlike. Yes, we can do anything. Unfortunately, we don’t believe it.

We refuse to accept our true abilities. We imprison our potential, comfortably assuming that mediocrity is our lot.

We have excellent company in our search for mediocrity. Often, well meaning friends tell us how we need to be “realistic” and do less, or to stop dreaming.

I remember telling an older colleague, a successful author, how much I wanted to start writing. He immediately belittled my dreams, saying that being a rabbi was too much work on its own, and writing is a dream best put aside. As realistic as this advice was, (and yes, I am writing this late at night), I was taken aback. But I ignored his advice.

I ignored his advice because it was wrong. Now I’m all for realism, and yes, there are people without plans who imagine dreaming is all you need to succeed. But reality is that a determined human in the image of God can accomplish astonishing things.

People who have triumphed over major disabilities are remarkable examples of man in the image of God. A recent book about James Holman (1786-1857) tells one such story. Holman, blinded in his twenties, becomes a peripatetic explorer, traveling deep into Siberia and sailing around the world. In an era when blind people were considered to be virtual invalids, Holman learned how to compensate for his loss of vision through sound, cleverness and social skills. Holman compiles the first English dictionary of an African language, and even learns how to ride a horse and hunt elephants! His travelogues, built on painstaking research, were of immense scientific value. Holman, a man truly in the image of God, transcends physical limitations through sheer creativity.

Holman showed that even a blind explorer could have insightful observations. Yet even in Holman’s own life, people argued his explorations have no value because they are the observations of a blind man. In other words, the critics were saying that because Holman was blind, he could not accomplish more than what they imagined a blind man could accomplish.

Critics will always predict mediocrity. Unfortunately, we are often our own worst critic, refusing to believe in ourselves. To unleash our potential, we must silence our inner critic, and remember that we are created in the image of God and that…

We can do anything.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Love is Contagious

Aiden McGuire is a Yankee fan, and an amazing friend.

Aiden and Michael Sayre are childhood buddies. They’ve grown up together, and now in their mid-twenties, they do what people in their mid-twenties do, hanging around together, drinking beer, and rooting for the Yankees.

But it’s getting harder for Michael to follow the Yankees. Michael suffers from congenital glaucoma, a condition that at 25 has left him blind in one eye, and rapidly losing vision in the other. Until recently, Michael had never seen a live Yankee game, and with his vision rapidly disappearing, it seemed probable that he’d never have a chance to see one either.

And then in March, Aiden wrote a letter to the Yankees:

“I’d like to tell you about my best friend, Michael Sayre……Michael is a 25-year-old diehard Yankees fan. He was born with glaucoma. Recently, he lost all vision in his right eye. Right now he’s hanging on to what vision he has left in his left eye, and his doctors don’t know how long it will remain healthy….”

The Yankees gave Aiden and Michael two tickets behind home plate. Before the game they were taken on the field for batting practice, and met with future hall of famers Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens. Truly, a Yankee fan’s dream; or perhaps Michael described it best: “I was going crazy. My head was going to explode.”

Aiden and Michael’s friendship just grabs your heart and inspires you. Pirke Avot tells us an enduring friendship is based on “love independent of ulterior motives”, and Michael and Aiden share that type of friendship. It’s impossible not to be moved by Aiden’s sincere selflessness.

And that’s precisely my point:

Love is contagious.

One sincere act of selflessness can inspires a dozen others. Aiden’s letter to the Yankees inspires the Yankees, and then, (as recounted in the Syracuse Post Standard), the Yankee's involvement inspires a whole host of other organizations:

…the Yankees responded with a couple of box seats and field passes and a tour of both Monument Park and the press box. Then, American Limousine chipped in with transportation, JetBlue offered airfare, the Peninsula New York hotel delivered lodging, Majestic Athletic pitched in a jersey, Hillerich & Bradsby shipped personalized bats.

One letter starts a kindness chain reaction. Sincerity inspires others to share in the gift of friendship.

In fact, Aiden told the New York Times he was shocked by the kindness he got:

“The fact that all of these people have come together to help a person they don’t even know has left me speechless”…

But it’s not that strange: love has always been contagious. In the Book of Ruth, one woman’s kindness changes the course of history. Ruth, a foreigner and a widow, treats her mother in law Naomi with love and loyalty. Her kindness inspires Naomi's relative, Boaz, to be kind to Ruth and Naomi. Ruth and Boaz marry, and the people of Bethlehem, inspired by their kindness, celebrate with them and bless them on their wedding day. Ruth’s baby, Oved, begets Jesse, who begets David, the future King of Israel. Kindness and love literally give birth to future redemption.

Yes, kindness begets kindness which in turn, begets even more kindness. Human hearts are open, ready to catch the “love bug”.

That’s why when good people like Aiden or Ruth or Boaz or Michael tell their story, they'll all tell you the same thing:

love is contagious.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Graduation Day

My twin boys Akiva and Hillel graduated in June. Graduation is a rite of passage, a moment for these 6th graders take stock of their educational achievements. But it’s also a rite of passage for parents. We marvel at how the toddlers we just dropped off at kindergarten are already at the cusp of maturity.

So please indulge me as I write out of naches!!

Rites of passage are important. In Judaism, a child who turns Bat and Bar Mitzvah is considered personally responsible for his or her actions. (The public celebration of Bar Mitzvahs is a medieval German innovation; the garish celebration of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs is a 20th century North American mutation.) By necessity a birthday is the dividing line, arbitrarily declaring that the child is now a responsible adult.

Like Bar-Bat Mitzvahs, graduations are arbitrary dividing lines. But far more important than ceremonial graduation days are the unexpected moments that test the character of a young adult. These true graduation days always arrive unexpectedly.

David, a young shepherd, visits his older brothers at their army camp. There, he sees Goliath, a Philistine warrior, mocking the army of Israel, challenging any soldier to fight him one on one. As the soldiers cower, David the shepherd offers to fight Goliath himself.

David is ridiculed by his brothers, and even King Saul refuses David at first, saying:

"You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth."

But David, (already anointed to be a future King), insists on fighting. David’s battle against Goliath marks his true graduation day.

A true graduation day is the day when a young person rises to the occasion. Being anointed with academic degrees means nothing until one has passed real life tests.

Tony Benetatos graduated in just a few hours. A “probie”, (a new firefighter), the 21-year-old Benetatos was assigned to Manhattan's Duane Street firehouse, located seven blocks from the World Trade Center. French Filmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were filming Benetatos for a documentary, hoping to see how the “boy turns into a man in nine months”. They follow Benetatos in his first days on the job, as senior firefighters haze him and break him in.

Then 9-11 occurs. Every man in the fire station is pressed into service. Firefighters fight on the front line, risking their lives to save the lives of others. Along with his fellow firefighters, Benetatos shows remarkable courage and compassion. On 9-11, Benetatos becomes a hero.

Benetatos passes his true graduation day with honors. As Jules Naudet puts it at the end of the documentary (aptly entitled 9-11) , “we wanted to watch a boy become a man over 9 months; turns out, the boy became a man in 9 hours.”

Every child, on the road to becoming an adult, has to pass a true graduation day. On that day there won’t be any caps and gowns, there won’t be celebratory parties, but on that day, like King David and Tony Benetatos, the boy will become a man.

I am proud to watch my children graduate, and I am proud of what they have achieved. And my blessing, to Akiva, Hillel, and all of the graduates, is that when their true graduation day arrives, they will pass with flying colors.

Mazel Tov!!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Yes, I've Posted Something This Week!

I'm sorry I didn't get to post anything on this blog this week. It was a busy one.

But I did write two posts on my other blog.

One, a dvar Torah on next week's Torah reading. The other a piece on my trip to Ottawa.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Love Isn’t the Sizzle, It’s the Steak

“Love is….” Bookcases full of poetry have tried to complete this sentence. Love seems too fantastic to be experienced in daily life, too remarkable to be found in everyday gestures. To the romantic, if love is anything, it is spectacular. As the famous poem by Elizabeth Browning declares:

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight….”

What a beautiful description of love! In the poet’s hands, love is sublime and infinite, soaring as high as the lover’s soul. Indeed, this powerful image is so beautiful, it’s misleading.

Marketing 101 reminds us to “sell the sizzle, not the steak”. The sizzle is excitement itself, and people like excitement a lot more than they like steak.

Poets are the marketers of love. They are inspired by the “sizzle” of love, the drama of two hearts beating as one. They write intoxicating poems, and we are swept off our feet. And then we forget to eat the steak.

Love requires lots of small, unromantic, acts of kindness. The Mishna, when talking about true love, says:

.…any love that does not depend upon some ulterior interest will never cease….

This is setting the standard for love rather low! According to the Mishna, all one needs for true love is simple selflessness.

The Mishna is teaching a simple but profound lesson: Keep your eye on the steak, not the sizzle. Yes, love can (and must) be dramatic and sublime at times. But most of the time it’s the little things that nourish relationships. The smallest act of selflessness is a gesture of eternal love.

Love can at times be enchantment and adventure, but most of the time it’s saying thank you and taking out the garbage.

Love can be sublime and majestic, but most of the time it’s smiling and walking the dog.

Love can be passionate and dramatic, but most of the time it’s plain old admiration and sympathy.

Love can be the sizzle, but most of the time it’s the steak.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Article About This Blog!!!

There was an article about this blog in this week's edition of the Jewish Independent (Vancouver).

It was written by Dave Gordon, whose website is here.

(All of this promotional activity is part my "extra 1% of effort" in publicizing this blog.)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Hollow Happiness: When Plastic Smiles are Part of the Dress Code

I am not an ogre.

I love warm smiles, and moments of joy. I am a big fan of optimism. I consider authentic happiness to be the mission of mankind. But I just can’t stand stupidity.

Speaking of stupidity, why is it that people say the darndest things to mourners? You know, the silly remarks intended to “cheer up” the bereaved. Of course, these ridiculous attempts are miserable failures, causing more pain than comfort. Jess Decourcy Hinds recounts how she resented the attempts made to “cheer her up” after her father’s death:

"After a recent death in my family, I received a number of condolence cards that tried to talk me out of my grief. "You should be happy you have your memories," wrote one friend. "You should feel lucky you got to be with your father in the hospital." Lucky? Happy? You've got to be kidding!

Some cards made little mention of my father's death at all. Instead, they focused on the question of how I was going to distract myself from my grief. "Are you applying to grad school?" one person wrote. "How's your teaching going? Are you still renovating your apartment? Are you keeping busy?"

I was 25 when I lost my father last fall. He was only 58, and his death from bone cancer was slow and excruciating. When I cry for my father, I cry for his suffering; I cry because he worked long, grueling hours to save for a retirement he never got to enjoy. I cry because my mother is alone. I cry because I have so much of my life ahead of me, and my father will miss everything. If I marry, if I have children, he won't be there. My grief is profound: I am mourning the past, present and future. I resent the condolence cards that hurry me through my grief, as if it were a dangerous street at night…...

On the day of my father's funeral, we were greeted by a grinning deacon who shook our hands and chirped, "Isn't it a beautiful day? I'm so glad you have sun for your memorial!" I wanted to shake this woman. Couldn't she invoke a solemn tone for at least five seconds on the darkest morning of my life?"

People say stupid things to mourners because mourning is an annoyance. No one wants the mourners to bring their mood down with all their crying and grief. So of course, friends push the mourners to snap out of it, so they don’t have to feel the mourner’s pain. And, as I have noted over and over again, people love denial. Hearing the mourner talk about loss reminds us of the inconvenient fact that death is a part of every life.

Mourning is also out of fashion. The happiness pursued today is speedy and superficial. There are a multitude of quick fixes for finding happiness; just check the magazines at supermarket checkouts and the self help aisle in the bookstore. In a quick fix culture, a mourner is expected to snap out of bereavement overnight.

Hollow happiness is now the new fashion. 21st century happiness doesn’t depend on living a meaningful life; all you need to do is slap on a plastic smile (from a good plastic surgeon, of course), and think happy thoughts, and voila!…you’re happy. Happy in a superficial way, that is; an empty joy that ends up dulling a person’s soul.

We must abandon this dress code of hollow happiness, and search for authentic expression.

The Jewish tradition takes mourning seriously. As the famous verses in Ecclesiastes says:

…There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…

Sadness is a painful feeling. But it is also the only proper response to loss and injustice. If you truly love someone, can you simply just move on and smile after they die? Mourning is an ethical requirement, and a life without sadness is a fraud.

Real lives have pain and sadness and loss.

The superficial way of handling loss seeks to make pain bearable by burying it under a smile.

The proper way of handling loss seeks to make the pain meaningful by cherishing memories and mourning properly.

And all the quick fixes and plastic smiles in the world cannot compare to the proud soul of an authentic mourner.

Friday, May 25, 2007


As you know from previous posts, Darfur matters a lot to me. (see previous posts like 1, 2, 3,

Here's something from the latest Canadian Jewish News. I guess at least I can say I protested while this terrible crime was taking place. What can the U.N. say for itself?

We need to do something now.

Harper needs to do something at the G-8.

Friday, May 18, 2007

No One is Going to Hand You a Crown

We’re raised like princes, but we don’t know how to become kings.

Kids get what they want. In a comfortable society like ours, we are indulged as children and treated like little princes and princesses.

We are raised as princes, with life expected to bring a steady stream of entitlements. Go to school, get your degree, yada yada yada, and there’s a white picket fence and suburban bliss waiting for you. And princes like us expect to automatically become the king.

But that’s wrong. No one is going to hand you a crown. Birthright doesn’t determine who is a true king.

Even people who are lucky enough to be handed the keys to the kingdom fail. Plenty of people inherit wealth, fame and beauty, and still fail miserably. The old proverb “from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is all too often true. Plenty of princes are handed crowns, but fail because they have no idea what it takes to be a king.

So, what does it take to be a king?


Chutzpah gets a bad rap; it’s now simply another word for “impolite” or “obnoxious”. In actuality, chutzpah is the secret to becoming a king.

The Talmud says “chutzpah is a king without the crown” (Sanhedrin 105a). There are multitudes of people who never discover their inner king. They wait in vain for others to recognize their abilities. They sit quietly hoping that someone will just hand them a crown.

The Talmud is telling wallflowers to stand up and take charge. Chutzpah means never accepting limitations. Don’t politely accept mediocrity as your lot in life. If you want to be a king, grab hold of your destiny.

Rebecca and Stuart Klein have a great deal of chutzpah, and they have refused to follow conventional wisdom on how to live their lives. Both are disabled (he's quadriplegic, she's paraplegic), and yet they are married and the parents of bouncing baby twin boys.

Of course, conventional wisdom finds this act of chutzpah intolerable. As noted in an article in the LA Times, some people who meet the Kleins can’t resist saying:

"you're going to have your hands full," or "it's going to get really hard when they're older" - comments that perplex Stuart.

"Why say how hard it's going to be?" Stuart says. "What's the point? If they say it in a certain way, and then say, 'OK, we'll come over and help you out,' that's one thing, but otherwise, what are they suggesting?" Then he adds a characteristic joke, "Should we put them up on EBay now or wait till they're older?"

But the Kleins are kings. They have the gift of chutzpah. It doesn’t matter how hard things are, or what other people think. The Kleins have grabbed hold of their own destiny.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, Thoreau famously wrote. Perhaps the mass of men, but not kings. True kings have chutzpah, and don’t wait for others to hand them a crown.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When Big Fat Weddings Get in the Way

The wedding business is big business. According to CNN:

"A total of $125 billion -- about the size of Ireland's GDP -- will be spent on 2.1 million weddings in 2005, according to the "American Weddings" study conducted by The Fairchild Bridal Group. Fairchild surveyed more than 1,000 brides."

(O.K., so you’re not so good at math; how much is that per person?)

"The average price tag that is fast approaching $30,000 represents a 73 percent increase during the past 15 years, according the study."

30,000$ is a lot of money. Some people simply don’t want a big fat wedding. Mary Beth Baptiste did her best to bring down the national average in her backwoods wedding:

"We snow shoed a short distance into the trees and found a pine alcove for our chapel. Our Unitarian-Universalist minister read some inspirational passages we had chosen, we exchanged our own vows and we kissed. Two friends photographed the ceremony with a digital camera and surprised us by popping open a bottle of champagne they'd carried into the woods in a backpack……..

The final rundown: Marriage license: $25. Dinner for five: $60. Minister's snowshoe rental: $15. Flowers: $25. Champagne: $10. Cake: $15. Online photo album: free. Total: $150."

Now, when it comes to material goods, I’m no fundamentalist. I don’t believe that wealth and luxury are the root of all evil. (That idea is found in the sacred book of another religion). But as a guy who eats more than his share of wedding dinners, I can tell you that bigger is not always better.

Big fat weddings can get in the way of love.

The Bible will back me up on this. Isaac and Rebecca have a shoestring wedding. Rebecca is brought by Isaac’s servant to Isaac’s hometown, and meets him in the field:

Now Isaac …went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. Rebecca also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, "Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?"

"He is my master," the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.

Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca. So she became his wife, and he loved her….

Two strangers dramatically meet and find true love. A simple wedding in the field is a shoestring wedding that turns out really well.

But Rebecca and Isaac’s son is not as lucky in love. Jacob arranges to marry Rachel, and Laban, his future father in law, throws a big wedding. Then there's trouble:

So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob…

How does Jacob lose track of his bride and end up with the wrong one? It’s hard to know, but if I had to guess, the size of the wedding might have had something to do with it. Big fat weddings have a tendency to get confusing.

I’ll admit that big fat weddings can be wonderful (I got married at one). But when the big fat wedding is all about pageantry and theatre, then the couple is reduced to being a mere prop in a large stage show.

Weddings require drama, not theatre. The couple’s love, commitment and devotion makes for an enchanting drama. Weddings small and large should celebrate the drama of love.

Unfortunately the drama of love can get buried under an obsession with impressing the guests. When this happens, the big fat wedding becomes off-Broadway theatre.

And then, the big fat wedding just gets in the way.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Refusing to Quit: Denial at its Best

I’ve been harsh on denial, in this blog, and from the pulpit.

Now I'm not changing my mind. Denial is a destructive force. Health problems, financial problems, and relationship problems don’t go away when you close your eyes. Denying problems only compounds them. Denial, at its worst, is the coward’s justification for inaction.

But denial is not all bad; it also serves an important function. Elizabeth Kubler Ross famously noted that denial is one of the initial stages in the cycle of grief. Denial is a healthy reaction to the shock of tragic news. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps us from choking on too much pain.

This type of denial calms people at difficult times. Mourners tell me that they feel detached from reality at funerals, as if they are watching themselves on a television screen. It is simply too painful for them to fully absorb their personal loss.

But denial, at its best, gives us the courage to be optimistic.

The Talmud (Ketubot 104a) relates a fascinating story about denial:

“On the day when Rabbi died the Rabbis decreed ……that whoever said that Rabbi was dead would be stabbed with a sword.”

Rabbi, (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi) the most prominent Rabbi of his time, is about to die. People always love to speculate about the impending death of a celebrity. But hearing people cavalierly gossip about the imminent death of their beloved teacher is too much for the Rabbis. They don’t want him declared dead before his time.

The Rabbis are not just lashing out emotionally. They are also teaching us an important lesson about optimism. It is wrong to quit early.

It’s easy to give up on life. A distraught family wonders whether a futile fight will only prolong suffering. Doctors wonder whether they should pull out all the stops, when there might be other patients who are more deserving of scarce resources.

Here, optimistic denial is critical. Sometimes, you can give up too quickly. In a matter of life and death, you have to hang on to hope, even to a long shot. As the Talmud says, “even if a sharp sword is sitting on your neck, don’t stop praying” (Berachot 10a).

Yes, most people who are on their deathbed end up dying. But there are times when the long shots do make it. I personally have seen people rise from their deathbed. And years later I see them on the street, and thank God for giving them the blessing of optimistic denial.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Our Mothers Lied to Us: Why Unhappiness Makes Sense

It begins when we’re children. We wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, I had a scary dream”. Our mothers hugs us, calm us down, and tell us “don’t worry, everything will be alright”. Comforted by these words, we go back to sleep. And long after this childhood nightmare, we cling to the faith that life has only happy endings, that “everything will be alright”.

But our mothers lied to us. When tragedy strikes, we’re shocked to find out how vulnerable we really are.

This discovery hits us in our 30's. One day, Naomi, a young woman in her early 30's, arrived in my office in tears. She was distraught over the death of her friend Donna, and couldn’t sleep at night. Naomi couldn’t understand how it was possible that someone so nice, so young, and so vital could just die suddenly. After speaking for a few minutes, we both understood that Naomi wasn’t grieving because she had lost a good friend; in fact, she wasn’t that close to Donna. What upset her was how Donna died; she had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, and died on her front lawn. Naomi couldn’t understand how such an absurd death could happen to a young, healthy, good person just like her.

When Donna died, Naomi’s world came tumbling down. She assumed that life always follows the traditional suburban, middle class narrative, with a loving spouse, a nice cozy home, a minivan and smiling, happy children. Now that Donna, a nice, thirty-something mother with three small children had died, Naomi realized the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. And she came to my office searching for her lost sense of security.

Naomi is like the rest of us; she believed her mother, and assumed “everything will be alright”.

Unfortunately, when Donna died, she realized it’s not such a wonderful life after all. And now she was insecure and unhappy.

Yet feeling miserable and insecure is the first step on the road to happiness. If “everything is going to be alright” then we might as well sit back wait for happiness. But that’s not the reality of life. Happiness is never served on a silver platter.

One of the most difficult theological problems is theodicy, or why bad things happen to good people. Rabbis through the ages were desperate to answer this question and defend God’s glory. Yet they refused. Rabbi Yannai said:

"Neither the security of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding."

This Mishna is bizarre. At first glance all R. Yannai is doing is teaching us that he’s ignorant and out of answers. Telling others about your ignorance is not usually something you would call “teaching”.

Yet R. Yannai actually has a profound lesson. He's not merely saying he doesn't have an answer; he's saying we can never discover the answer. R. Yannai is exposing us to a fundamental truth: life is unfair. Unhappiness makes sense.

But R. Yannai's lesson doesn’t end there. He wants us to learn how to respond to an unfair life. If we realize that even God will not guarantee us worldly happiness, then we have to do the job ourselves. We have to fight for happiness in an unjust world.

And we have to become Happiness Warriors.

Monday, May 07, 2007


We all want power.

We want muscle power.

We want political power.

We want financial power.

Power brings glory and prestige. Who doesn't want to be strong, rich and famous?

Unfortunately, we forget the most fundamental form of power: the power of values and spirit.


Shimon Ben Zoma, a second century scholar, taught the importance of soulpower. He said: “Who is strong? One who captures his desires.”

This statement is counterintuitive. Power is most intense when unrestrained, without limits. Self denial seems wimpy, the act of a holy loser who refuses to take “advantage” of life. Why capture your desires when you can conquer all your heart desires?

Yet Ben Zoma is right. Power is paradoxical. Without soulpower, any achievement remains empty. The billionaire with inner demons is a miserable man with a lot of money. We need to conquer our hearts before we conquer anything else.

And sometimes, we need to defeat ourselves. Without self control, power disappears. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong", because battles and races are ultimately won with soulpower. The the undisciplined athlete will underperform; the disorganized army will falter on the battlefield. Soulpower is a prerequisite to genuine power.

Some of the most amazing examples of soulpower are those who choose life in the face of murder.

The murder of a loved one is an invitation to anger. And anger is the easy choice. Releasing anger seems cathartic, and considering the circumstances, anger seems justified.

Remarkably, there are people who refuse to be swallowed by tragedy. As Evelyn Gordon notes in the Jerusalem Post, some take the courageous route and transform death into life. She writes:

“After 13-year-old Koby Mandell was bludgeoned to death by terrorists in 2001, for instance, his parents decided to set up a foundation to help other victims of terror. Today, the Koby Mandell Foundation runs a variety of programs, including a summer camp for the siblings of terror victims, who are often traumatized by their brother's or sister's murder, and a big brother/big sister program in which specially trained counselors work with these traumatized youngsters on an ongoing basis.

After 15-year-old
Malki Roth was murdered in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that same year, her parents established a foundation to help families care for special-needs children at home. The Malki Foundation provides free long-term loans of equipment and helps finance therapy. It was inspired by Malki's devotion to her own severely disabled sister.”

By conquering their hearts, Koby and Malki’s families have refused to allow death to rule over their lives. And in the process, they are improving the lives of the weak and vulnerable.

Koby and Malki’s families understand Ben Zoma’s teaching.

They understand the meaning of soulpower.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

I Give, Therefore I Am

Why would anyone give money to charity?

Charity is weird because people are naturally selfish. People daydream about new houses, new cars and new jewelry, not about old people in soup kitchens. Humans are instinctively egocentric.

Yet, oddly enough, people give charity. Sometimes it’s out of guilt. Sometimes it’s to receive recognition and honor. (Although it’s a lot cheaper to hire a psychologist, or put your name on an office building). But most of the time people donate out of idealistic motives.

We give because we love. Humanity is one big family, and it’s instinctive to love your family. A few weeks ago I visited a foster home in Beersheva for teens from troubled backgrounds. Immediately, feelings of compassion and love stirred in my heart, as if these kids were long lost relatives .

Love dilutes our instinctive greediness, and motivates us to share with others what is rightfully, and selfishly, ours.

But love is only part of the charity story. Giving charity also transforms us into true human beings.

Man is created in the image of God. This biblical idea reminds us that to be truly human, one must emulate God. The Talmud sees this as requiring us to imitate God’s compassion.

However, the image of God carries a much larger burden. We are also expected to emulate God the creator and become partners in creation. Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world, is now our responsibility. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it:

“WHEN man, the crowning glory of the cosmos, approaches the world, he finds his task at hand—the task of crea­tion. He must…. repair the defects in the cosmos, and replenish the "privation" in being. Man, the creature, is commanded to become a partner with the Creator in the renewal of the cosmos….”

Man by his very nature, is driven to emulate God’s creation by fixing the world. Giving charity is an existential need.

Or, to put it in other words: I give, therefore I am.

Because it focuses on Tikkun Olam, existential charity does not stop at the recipient. World fixers want to inspire others to join in their mission.

My friend Peter was a refugee who fled Hungary in 1957. Peter had recieved a visa to go to Vancouver. However, when the train from Quebec City stopped in Montreal, he and two friends decided to jump off the train. Frightened they might get caught by police, they hid in a broom closet.

Late at night they ventured back into the station, and a volunteer from Jewish Immigrant Aid Services was waiting on the platform. He had seen the boys jump off the train, but couldn’t find them. So he waited at the train station, to make sure they had a place to live, a sponsor, and some pocket money.

A few years later, Peter tracked down the name of the volunteer, and went to visit his small walk up apartment. There he met the man’s widow; the volunteer had died a short time before.

Peter wanted to give this woman of modest means some sort of a gift; he insisted it was simply to honor her husband. To this, the woman replied: “You want to honor my husband? Then do as he did”.

From that day onwards, Peter has devoted himself to community work. What Peter does today was inspired years ago by that selfless volunteer, one of God’s partners in creation.

And like his anonymous benefactor, Peter can say: “I give, therefore I am”.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Difference Between Home Movies and Home Cooking

Technology is so wonderful, it manages to mess everything up.

The camera allows us to perfectly record events. My wedding of fifteen years ago is on videotape, ready to be relived at a moments notice. My eleven year old twins are still celluloid toddlers, swaddled in diapers and playing on the floor. I have photo records of all sorts of trips and events, including some that I can no longer remember. My life has been preserved in megabytes and videotape.

But all of this photography can be too much of a good thing. People can become so absorbed in taking pictures and movies that they simply forget to experience life itself. Perhaps the photographic class could gain something by occasionally putting their cameras down.

Dana Chidekel, “a memory-card-carrying member” of photographic class, tells about the time she forgot to bring her video camera to her daughter’s recital:

She sang in a high, clear soprano voice that stunned me. I don't recall taking a breath….. At the conclusion, I was crying……… I could have kicked myself for not bringing the video camera, but…not filming was what allowed me to have the unadulterated joy of this experience. Freed from the demand to document what was happening, I could live it.

In the end, home movies are two dimensional. The Zohar says, “God desires the heart”. This is true not only of our relationship with God, but of any interpersonal experience. Real experiences enter the heart; ultimately, memories of our feelings matter more than images or sounds. While a movie may be a slice of life, standing behind the camera can cut you off from reality.

Movies focus on the outwardly dramatic, the moments of intense action. Unlike movies, real life includes trivial, dull moments that matter a great deal.

Some critics get annoyed when I mention food at funerals. “What difference does it make”, they tell me, “if she made good blintzes and honey cake and chicken soup?”. “After all, it’s a funeral, not a dinner!”. I understand the sentiment. Talking about Bubbie’s Friday night menu trivializes the real depths of her love.

But home cooking is one of those trivial things that are so important. Home cooking is not about recipes or menus; it’s about love. Each bite is a symbol of how Bubbie poured her heart into nourishing, caring for, and loving her family.

And this is love you can taste and remember. Elvira Brody tells about returning from her mother’s funeral, and finding some of her mother Nettie’s Easter pizzas in the freezer:

We opened the freezer and looked in, and there they were. My mother's pies. …My husband and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we took out the pies from the icy mist and put each in a plastic bag.

……That Sunday night, gathered with our 15-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter at our dining-room table, I brought in one of the pies, now steaming hot and emitting a savory aroma. I sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate, scraping our plates for crumbs.
I'd eaten my mother's pies every spring my whole life, and they always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie somehow tasted better than it ever had. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to me over the years, had meant to all of us. How she had raised me without a husband around, all the while toiling as a seamstress, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on her adoring grandchildren.

I'd never in my life felt so grateful to anyone. Through the pies she had expressed her love for family and friends, nourishing body and soul.

In each of those pies was Nettie’s love. In every spoon of chicken soup is an ounce of affection.

The difference between home cooking and home movies is in the heart. A photograph may capture the moment, but a pizza can capture someone’s heart.

And all that matters is the heart.