Friday, December 19, 2008

Parsha Inspiration - "Who Are You Dreaming For?"

Thank you again to Lorne Lieberman for sponsoring the Video, and Jacob Aspler for the video work.

Happy Chanukah!!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Parsha Inspiration - "Tragedy is a Comma, Not a Conclusion"

Third installment of this new project - a point of inspiration on the parsha or current events, captured on video for youtube.

A huge thank you to Lorne Lieberman for chasing me for 2 years to do this, and Jacob Aspler for doing the video.

Please send me your comments and thoughts on this.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Where is the Jewish Community?

It was a moment of Jewish inspiration. A thousand Montreal Jews huddled together in a synagogue to conduct a memorial service for the victims of the Mumbai massacre and the Mumbai Chabad House. Every type of Jew, including Satmar, Lubavitcher and Belzer Chassidim, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, all came to the memorial. It was a powerful display of Jewish unity.

But after the inspiration, I was left with disappointment. The evening of course was touching and meaningful, but I was left with a nagging doubt: would this unity last? Yes, we Jews come together when things are difficult. Much like the old saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, there are no quarrels during tragedies; disasters have the unique ability to unite Jews together in a common cause. Bloodshed brings Jews together.

But when things get a little more comfortable, our unity fades. During the difficult days at the beginning of the Intifada, thousands of Jews, shocked by the images they saw on their TV screens, came out to rallies in support of the State of Israel. It was a critical juncture, a time “when the chips were down”, and even ultra-Orthodox Jews who wouldn’t consider themselves “Zionists” came to support the Jewish State. But once the violence quieted down, people were less willing to give their active support to Israel. Jewish unity is much more difficult to achieve in good times.

In difficult times, our hearts are touched by another person’s suffering. This powerful emotion, empathy, can affect even the most evil of human beings. While murdering six million other Jews, Adolf Hitler went out of his way to spare the life of his mother’s Jewish Doctor, Eduard Bloch. Because empathy is such a powerful emotion, even Hitler could sympathize with a Jew he knew and respected.

However, empathy is not enough. Our commitment to others goes beyond gut reactions; what is required is an unwavering, hardheaded sense of responsibility. Responsibility is based on profound sense of duty, and is not affected by emotional fluctuations. Even in the absence of tragedy, we must fulfill our responsibilities.

Responsibility is greatest towards those closest to you. Judah, when asking to take charge of his younger brother Benjamin, says to his father “I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.” Judah’s proclamation stands as the paradigm of Jewish responsibility, of how every Jew is responsible for one another.

Unfortunately, we have overlooked our responsibility towards one lonely, forgotten Jew. All of us should be asking ourselves this question: “Where is Gilad?” On June 25th, 2006, Gilad Shalit, a 22 year old Israeli, was abducted by Hamas; (it is certain that he was alive following his capture). Since then, he has not heard the voices of his parents, Noam and Aviva, and his brother and sister, Yoel and Hadas.

Sadly, other voices remain silent as well. Jews around the world, so capable of unity in the aftermath of tragedy, do very little to call for Gilad’s release. There is no dramatic video of Gilad to arouse our empathy; there is no sense of urgency for a crisis that has dragged on for over two years. It’s time we take our responsibility to Gilad seriously.

In Canada, The Canadian Rabbinic Caucus has initiated a letter writing campaign on Shalit’s behalf entitled “Where is Gilad?”. (One can go on the webpage and quickly fill out a form that sends an e-mail to multiple members of the Canadian Parliament.).

We have to raise our voices with the Shalit family, and ask “Where is Gilad?’. But we also have to wonder why the Jewish community has done so little. Where are Judah’s descendents now, to say “you can hold me personally responsible for him”? Where is the state of Israel? Where is the Jewish community?

Where is our sense of responsibility?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Parsha Inspiration - The Mumbai Massacre

Second installment of this new project - a point of inspiration on the parsha or current events, captured on video for youtube.

A huge thank you to Lorne Lieberman for chasing me for 2 years to do this, and Jacob Aspler for doing the video.Please send me your comments and thoughts on this.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Parsha Inspiration

This is a new project - a point of inspiration on the parsha, captured on video for youtube.

A huge thank you to Lorne Lieberman for chasing me for 2 years to do this, and Jacob Aspler for doing the video.

Please send me your comments and thoughts on this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Is 25 the New 15?

When it comes to age, it seems that subtract by ten is the new rule of thumb. Everyone is living longer, and at all stages in life, people seem to be ten years younger than their actual age. Our current crop of baby boomers, healthier and more youthful than previous generations, has sworn never to grow old. Indeed, fifty is the new forty.

Subtracting by ten works well with older ages; but what about our twenty-somethings? It seems that younger people are maturing at a slower pace as well. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times: “People….. tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family. In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same.”

Twentysomethings are maturing far slower than their parents. People in their middle twenties now seem to be experiencing a second adolescence. Why is 25 the new 15?

The relative immaturity of our contemporary twentysomethings is rooted in the positive phenomena of peace and prosperity. Young people in North America need not serve in the military, and most don’t. Middle class twentysomethings can expect to have their parents provide them with cars, clothing, and cellphones. This dependence on one’s parents continues well after high school. Children who are taking entry level jobs are unwilling to live entry level lifestyles, and their parents are willing to indulge them by paying the rent and covering their credit cards. As one twentysomething observer noted:

The fact is, my peers who flood out of designer stores, arms adorned with shopping bags, wouldn't be able to afford their purchases without ringing up a massive credit-card debt. By continuing to provide for their twentysomething kids, parents hinder their children's ability to be financially responsible.

Or, to put it in simple English: we’re spoiling our kids. That’s why 25 is the new 15.

The problem of spoiling children is an old one. Jacob who works hard all his life to achieve success, spoils his beloved son Joseph, giving him fancy clothes and special treatment. It’s no wonder that the Midrash says that that Joseph was immature! The problem of spoiled children is an old phenomenon; we are simply lucky enough today to have the resources to spoil our children.

Unfortunately, handing our children the good life on a silver platter can do more harm than good. A powerful Kabbalistic idea popularized by the Ramchal is “the bread of shame”. If someone is handed a loaf of bread without earning it, they lose their dignity; and even if the recipient may be happy to live life on easy street, the fact that his achievements are unearned is an embarrassment to a man created in the image of God. To truly be a “man”, one must be dignified and independent, someone who is able to earn his own way. Trust funds may pay your credit card bills, but they can also destroy your character.

This issue is of great importance to the Jewish community. In one generation, the much of the Jewish world has gone from deprivation and suffering to breathtaking wealth. It is normal for a community of immigrants and survivors to want to hand everything to the next generation on a silver platter. And so we give too much to our kids. Hard work becomes unimportant when we hand undeserving young men the keys to successful businesses. Spiritual values get lost when materialism becomes the operating principle. And so we make Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that are so over the top they lend themselves to parody, and are sometimes so garish (and expensive) they end up on the gossip pages of tabloids. Our community has survived, and even thrived in the most difficult of times due to faith, community and character. Ironically, our community’s material success threatens to destroy the very values it was built on.

Adolescent 25 year olds are not an automatic outcome of success; it happens when we forget transmit our values to the next generation. If our priority is to provide our children with values, not valuables, we will have children to be proud of.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Buzz, Buzz, I’ve Got Blackberry Brain

How long will you focus on this article? Will your cellphone ring? Will you check your e-mail or your Blackberry?

Attention spans have been dramatically (….oops, wait, I have an e-mail…) shortened. A horde of digital devices emitting beeps, bells and buzzes demand our deliberation. Who has the time to think when we have text messages and e-mails that demand immediate responses? Our electronic servants are exacting taskmasters.

Even though I’m a Rabbi, I’m an authority on digital disruption; I’m a Blackberry toting, internet blogging, cellphone conferencing kind of guy. And for a while, I kept my Blackberry on “buzz” (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Blackberries, means that my Blackberry would vibrate every time an e-mail arrived). Eventually, I started to feel phantom buzzing on my hip, even when I took the Blackberry off; my brain continued buzzing, even when my Blackberry was off. This little electronic gadget was starting to drive me crazy, one buzz at a time.

What I was suffering from was “Blackberry Brain”. With this condition, virtual reality displaces actual reality, and urgent messages trump meaningful moments. Over-reliance on electronic forms of communication alter your relationship to reality.

It’s not surprising that researchers in several countries have documented addictive behaviors in relation to cellphones and personal digital assistants (PDA’s). These devices, with their ever insistent beeping, (with a customized ringtone, of course), demand your constant attention; eventually, you feel empty unless you are typing, tapping or texting something to somebody.

Our electronic masters take advantage of a design flaw us humans have. Human beings have a propensity to fixate on details.

Even in the area of religion, overzealousness in the pursuit of piety can be profoundly destructive. The Talmud refers to the “foolish pious man” who refuses to save a drowning woman because it would be a breach of modesty. This fool is so obsessed with sexual impropriety he’d rather allow a drowning woman to die. Details, in this case get in the way; the pious fool is blinded by his petty pieties, and can no longer see the bigger picture.

We may not be pious fools, but a lot of us are PDA fools, victims of Blackberry brain. We love the wide ranging communications abilities that our Blackberries give us, as in “look, I just e-mailed my friend in Hong Kong”; but if we fixate on this buzzing busybody of a Blackberry, we will forget the people standing in front of us. I must admit, that there are times that arrive home (late) to a wife and children who want to say hello, but instead I’m typing away on the Blackberry, knocking off the last couple of e-mails of the day. (I’d have to assume I’m not the only person who does this). At that moment, when “just one more e-mail” gets in the way, we are experiencing the first symptoms of Blackberry Brain.

Blackberry Brain can be very destructive if you don’t nip it in the bud. As the condition worsens, we completely forget how to focus on other people. Old friends go out for lunch, and instead of catching up, they listen to each other with a half an ear while tapping out quick e-mails; as Blackberry Brain worsens, our old friendships are slowly replaced with shiny new gadgets, soulless devices that just make a lot of noise.

To my mind, the affliction of Blackberry Brain underlines the ever increasing importance of the Sabbath. More than ever, we need a night when we turn off the Blackberry and close our cellphones; more than ever, we need a night when the TV and computer remain dark. We need to find a sacred block of time to gather our family for dinner and conversation. Our technology drenched age needs quiet tranquil moments where authentic, person to person connections can flourish. The Sabbath is the perfect time for that to happen. Because connections come from your soul, not from your cellphone.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When Saviors Fail

Health care workers life lives of deep frustration.

Doctors and nurses enter the medical profession in the hope of saving lives. Unfortunately, they must watch their patients die on a daily basis. Failure leaves a bitter taste in any person’s mouth; but for those sworn to save and redeem, failure is particularly galling, and questions their very identity.

Indeed, Moses, after the failure of his first mission to Pharaoh, protests to God:

“Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh as your spokesman, he has been even more brutal to your people. And you have done nothing to rescue them!”

Moses doubts his own usefulness as a messenger. It’s not easy for a savior to fail.

I was thinking of this verse after reading an excellent account by Theresa Brown about what it’s like for a new nurse to watch a patient die:

At my job, people die.

That’s hardly our intention, but they die nonetheless.

Usually it’s at the end of a long struggle — we have done everything modern medicine can do and then some, but we can’t save them. …….
And then there are the other deaths: quick and rare, where life leaves a body in minutes. In my hospital these deaths are “Condition A’s.” The “A” stands for arrest, as in cardiac arrest, as in this patient’s heart has all of a sudden stopped beating and we need to try to restart it.

I am a new nurse, and recently I had my first Condition A. My patient, a particularly nice older woman with lung cancer, had been, as we say, “fine,” with no complaints but a low-grade fever she’d had off and on for a couple of days. She had come in because she was coughing up blood, a problem we had resolved, and she was set for discharge that afternoon.

After a routine assessment in the morning, I left her in the care of a nursing student and moved on to other patients, thinking I was going to have a relatively calm day. About half an hour later an aide called me: “Theresa, they need you in 1022.”

I stopped what I was doing and walked over to her room. The nurse leaving the room said, “She’s spitting up blood,” and went to the nurses’ station to call her doctor.

The patient tried to stand up so the blood would flow into a nearby trash can, and I told her, “No, don’t stand up.” She sat back down, started shaking and then collapsed backward on the bed.

“Is it condition time?” asked the other nurse.

“Call the code!” I yelled. “Call the code!”

The next few moments I can only describe as surreal. I felt for a pulse and there wasn’t one. I started doing CPR. On the overhead loudspeaker, a voice called out, “Condition A.” ….

They worked on her for half an hour…… And (then) my patient was dead. She had been dead when she fell back on the bed and she stayed dead through all the effort to save her, while blood and tissue bubbled out of her and the suction clogged with particles spilling from her lungs. Everyone did what she knew how to do to save her. She could not be saved.

Doctors and nurses cannot save everyone; even Moses had his failures. Yes, saviors fail - but failures can be saviors too. We just have to remember, every time we fail, to keep on going, because “it’s not incumbent upon us to complete the job, but we can’t quit either.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Father’s Aspirations

These are the notes to the speech I gave at my twin son's Bar Mitzvah. (I've edited it to make it a bit more readable, but it's still in note form.)

What Does a Father Hope for?

Boys, when a father looks at his children, what do you think he hopes for? What do you think he prays for? What are his aspirations?

Now you might think there’s an easy answer:

He wants his children to be happy

To be content

To have good fortune

And it’s true, that for the father in me that’s all I would want.

But I am a Jewish father…

If that’s all Jewish fathers ever wanted, there wouldn’t be a Jewish people.

If all we ever wanted from our children is to be happy and content, the Jewish people would have disappeared years ago.

Because it would have been a lot easier to give up; it would have been a lot happier to forget about being Jewish, and just live happy lives.

But we are here because Jewish fathers and mothers wanted more than happiness from their children.

The hopes and aspirations of these fathers and mothers was for their children to carry on the traditions of Avraham and Sarah, of Moshe Rabbeinu and Beit Hillel and Rabbi Akiva.

And I want to talk to you about these aspirations: the aspirations of a Jewish Father.

Actually, I had way too many aspirations to talk about so I had to leave some out – I’ll talk to you guys about them for next couple of decades, God willing!

Aspiration I: To Become a Fireman

You haven’t wanted to be a fireman in a couple of years, right? Well, actually I’d like you to reconsider. (And on the Friday night before the Bar Mitzvah, at the family dinner, a napkin caught fire and the fire alarm went off, and 15 firemen showed up!! - coincidence?)

The Midrash describes Abraham’s search for God to a man who sees a burning castle, and declares “is it possible this castle doesn’t have an owner (who cares about it’s welfare)?”.

Abraham sees the world around him as similar to a burning castle. He immediately understands two things:

There must be an architect who built it, and owns it, and that we must put out the fire.

At this moment, Avraham arrives at the Jewish mission: to be a fireman.

A Jewish fireman must do two things: he must search for, and know God, and at the same time, he must transform God’s world. A Jew must put out the fires of imperfection that rage around us.

And that’s what I want from you Akiva and Hillel; to be Jewish firemen.

Look around this room:

There are Rabbis: people who have dedicated their lives to God’s Torah and to Avraham’s mission.

They are firemen. And my greatest wish for you is that you will become Talmidei Chachamim, Torah scholars.

There are doctors and engineers and teachers and social workers: people who make the world a better place, one person at a time.

They are firemen.

There are volunteers; people who give their time and money and hearts.

Why do they do it? because they love other people. And follow the ideal of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself. Which by the way, was the central teaching of your namesakes, the Rabbis Hillel and Akiva, rabbis who lived 2,000 years ago.

These volunteers, people who love other people, are firemen.

There are activists, who refuse to accept the evil and corruption in the world:

People who come to rallies and organize to denounce the genocide in Darfur, and suicide bombings in Jerusalem, the Chinese in Tibet, and Kassam rockets in Sderot.

They are firemen!!

And boys, I really want you to be firemen too.

Aspiration II: To Love Your Family

Family is perhaps greatest lesson taught in the Book of Genesis. The entire point of Sefer Bereishit is to love your family, although it takes much struggle, indeed the entire book, to get to the point of family togetherness.

I am privileged to be part of a family with such devotion.

And that’s why today we have family members from Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, North Carolina, Brazil and Israel.

And you know Mommy’s family; Bubbie and Zaide, and Rona and Brad and Sari.

Any you know they will do absolutely anything for us, and they are always there for us all of the time.

And, on a personal level. I cannot express in words the devotion Bubby has given to me and all her children all of her life, nor can I express enough thanks to my older brother Mayer and sisters Sarah and Chavi, as well Yossi and Adina, who did so much to raise me.

And of course, Mommy.

You know Rabbi Akiva said to his students about his wife Rachel, the most wonderful thing ever said about a spouse:

Sheli v’shelachem shelah hee – what you and I have accomplished, belongs to her.

And this is Mommy, who is absolutely devoted to me and to the shul, and to you, and to your school, and to her friends, and to her community.

She has twice arrived in communities where she knew no one, in order to serve the Jewish people. And she is always at home, ready to serve her family with a smile.

I pray the two of you will find spouses as wonderful as her.

Aspiration III: Pass the Test

The final, and most important hope that I have for you, is that you pass the test.

This is not an aspiration we want to have, but one we are forced to have.

Every Jewish father knows that in life, there have been many tests. The tests start with Abraham's life,where he was tested 10 times. But these seem to continue over and over again in history.

Actually, life always brings many tests.

You will be forced to show your determination and courage.

You will have to work hard without quitting.

You know your namesakes, Rabbis Akiva and Hillel, were determined.

Akiva was an ignorant man. At age 40 he learned the aleph bet!!

Akiva did not give up and say he was too old.

Akiva did not give up and say it is too hard.

Akiva succeeded because he was determined.

Hillel was a poor man. He couldn’t even pay the entrance fee for the Yeshiva. He climbed on a roof just to poke his head into the skylight and hear words of Torah.

Hillel did not give up because he was broke.

Hillel did not get discouraged because life was hard.

Hillel succeeded because he wasn’t a quitter.

And that is the greatest hope of a Jewish father: that he has children who can assume this responsibility, to carry on a tradition, even though it can be tough at times.

To be determined.

To have courage.

And by the way, courage doesn’t mean that you aren’t being afraid. What courage means is that you continue to go on despite the fear.

Why Today's Miracle is So Sweet

Today, it is hard for me not to think about the challenges in my own family as we arrive here.

As you know, my grandfather perished in the Holocaust.

Bubby, my mother is a survivor of the Holocaust.

And my father Chaim, died in a car accident before I was born, and I am named after him.

It was a long road getting here.

And all of those tests do two things:

They make my aspirations as a Jewish father stronger. I want you to be firemen!!

But at the same time, it makes the miracle of today’s celebration sweeter.

13 years ago, a miracle occurred in the Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx.

Akiva Meir and Hillel Aryeh Steinmetz were born.

And your birth was not just a miracle for me, but for everybody in this room.

Because 3,800 years after Abraham and Sarah left on their mission

3,300 years after the Exodus and the giving of the Torah

and 60 years after the Shoah

There are still another generation of Jews being born. Two more Jewish firemen have arrived on the scene.

May God bless you, and may you give yiddishe nakhes to everyone in this room.

Mazel tov!

Article About Blog + Apology

Hi! It's been a little while, yes. I've been busy, mostly with the wonderful Bar Mitzvah of my twin sons, Akiva and Hillel. (Who would have thought that a 900 person Bar Mitzvah could be so much work?!).

Anyway, I'll be back to blogging real soon, even with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner. (I will post some of my speech from the Bar Mitzvah in the near future.)

So, considering that I've neglected to update the blog in a month, you could imagine my embarrassment when Dave Gordon's wonderful article about this blog appeared in this week's CJN. It's like being featured in a jumbotron closeup at a sporting event, while you have a ketchup stain on your shirt.

But I will be back at blogging soon!!!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Junk Food For the Soul

Nike. Hermes. Pepsi. Versace. Starbucks. Mercedes. Armani.

You know these names, and so do millions of people worldwide. They are examples of “brands”, trademarks used by manufacturers and designers to distinguish their goods. Today, brand names are a multi-billion dollar economic juggernaut that drives the global economy.

Brands may be great for business, but they’re bad for the soul. Brands used to be about quality and style, and a good brand meant a reliable high quality product. (And a brand that lost its reputation was mocked – I remember when a certain car company was ridiculed by the phrase Fix Or Repair Daily). But contemporary brands are more about image than about quality; the logo on the front of a polo shirt is a substitute for personal identity.

It’s usually wise to avoid judging a book by its cover (or as the Mishnah puts it, judge a wine by the bottle). But with brands, we are encouraged to believe that changing our cover will change our personality. Ad taglines imply that the brand’s image will become our own. If we drink Pepsi, we will “think young”, and if we buy an Apple computer we will “think different”. Nike sneakers announce that you are a proactive person who will “just do it”, and true love requires a diamond, because “a diamond is forever”. As Susan Fournier, a professor at Harvard Business School put it: "People look at brands as carriers of symbolic language and forget that a brand's first purpose is to close the sale."

Brands are junk food for the soul. The search for identity is a powerful spiritual force that encourages people to live meaningful lives. Even when man has all of his other needs met, he still needs to create a spiritual identity. As the prophet Amos says: “Behold, the days come, says the Lord, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the words of God.”. A store bought brand identity substitutes ersatz meaning in place of spiritual depth.

The glamour and glitz of brands make them far more attractive than old fashioned spirituality. People contort themselves in order to own the Porsche or buy the Rolex. Among young upper middle class couples, there is what I call a “baby vs. BMW dilemma”. Should they have another child and live more modestly, or should they curtail their family in order to lease “the ultimate driving machine”?. In a materialistic, brand intoxicated culture, too many people choose BMW’s instead of babies. (Maybe babies just need to improve their brand image!)

Like junk food, brands are a tasty little pleasure when enjoyed in moderation. But like junk food, brands can replace a healthy spiritual identity with fashionable but hollow designer vanity.

And too many people have sold their souls for a logo.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?

Natural disasters have dominated the news. In June there were the disastrous floods in the Midwest, and in July, wildfires ravaged Northern California. Thousands have watched their homes and possessions destroyed.

It is particularly painful to consider the fate of those who lived outside of flood or fire “range”, and were not insured. In a matter of hours, they watched the bulk of their assets disappear, along with their homes and communities. In natural disasters like these, lives are ravaged along with the countryside.

The question that nature forces upon the survivors of these catastrophes is simple: what do you have when you have nothing? It's a question that seems absurd at first; if you have lost everything, then you truly have nothing.

Actually, those of us who live comfortably are afraid of contemplating this question. We are driven more by a fear of loss than by any possibility of gain. (This has been demonstrated by the economist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area). If fear of loss is frightening, the thought of losing everything is terrifying and unthinkable.

In loss, the unfortunate victims have nothing, and feel like they are less than nothing. Indeed, the Midrash, refers to this sentiment in saying that “poverty is like death”. Faced with extreme losses, it feels like life is not worth living; indeed, Job, after suffering the loss of his family and his wealth, is urged by his wife to curse God and commit suicide.

But this is the wrong answer. Even when stripped of everything else, people still have their character. In times of extreme stress, a person still has the courage to cope with their circumstances, and the dignity to transcend their limitations. Although impoverished and homeless, man still holds the keys to his own character.

Character is our most precious possession. Little David, a shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot, can take on Goliath because he has something Goliath lacks: character. David’s weapons are courage and cunning; weapons like these are held in one’s heart, not in one’s hands.

Dreams are another priceless possession that can never be destroyed. No matter what a person’s situation, he can still pursue his dreams. And when the dispossessed pursue their dreams, they can change the world. The Prophet Zachariah describes the messiah as poor, and riding on a simple donkey. Zachariah’s words remind us that if you want to redeem the world, you need to hold on tight to your dreams, even in poverty and hardship.

Throughout history, many have faced the question of “what do you have when you have nothing?”. Some, like Job’s wife, have given the wrong answer, and given up. But those who continue to hold courageously onto their dreams have changed the world.

A few months ago, I visited the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York. On display was a special chuppah commissioned in the year 1946 by the Joint Distribution Committee. (a chuppah is a marriage canopy used in Jewish weddings). What made this chuppah unique was that it was for the use of Holocaust survivors who were marrying each other after surviving the war.

When I saw this chuppah, I was overwhelmed with emotion. How is it that people who had seen so much destruction, who had lost everything, could still get married? Isn’t it absurd to try again at life when you have nothing left? But I realized that these couples where not truly destitute and bereft; after all they had their dignity and their dreams, the most important possessions in the world. And it is these couples, with nothing else but each other, who went about rebuilding the Jewish world and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.

These poor survivors, who had nothing in their hands, actually had everything they needed, tucked away in their hearts.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

What is “Naches”?

It is the great parental quest: to receive joy from one’s children. In Yiddish, the word “naches” (which means parental joy) is laden with emotional connotations, the result of generations of immigrants dreaming of their children’s success.

To many Jews of a certain era, naches was defined by four simple words: “my son the doctor”. This particular parental obsession was often lampooned for going overboard. One joke is about an apocryphal birth announcement that declared “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Goldberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg.” Jokes aside, the mindset of “my son the doctor” gives a distorted picture of what the parent-child relationship is about.

Pushing a child in order to provide the parent with pride can have destructive consequences. Elisha, a second century Rabbi, is chosen by his father Abuya to become a Rabbi so that Abuya could impress others with his son’s ability. Elisha does become a great Rabbi, but in an era of Roman persecutions, eventually crumbles and becomes a heretic. Unfortunately, Elisha’s studies left his soul empty because they were intended to impress his father. In the end, neither father nor son had any naches.

This uglier side of “getting naches” is what psychologists call “achievement by proxy syndrome”. A parent with simple achievements sees his child, the prodigy, as a ticket to greatness. The parent-child relationship is then reduced to a puppet show, with the child acting as the parent’s puppet, dancing to the tune of the parent’s dreams. In the end, both parent and child lose their souls and insanity ensues.

Achievement by proxy syndrome leads to a multitude of dysfunctions. There are violent altercations between fathers and coaches over the proper treatment for athletic prodigies; there are parents who quit their own careers in order to manage their children’s “talent”. And the child ends up paying dearly for a childhood in a pressure cooker; indeed, Macaulay Culkin and Jennifer Capriati are poster children for the excesses of “achievement by proxy syndrome”.

True naches is not about getting, it’s about giving. The real joy in parenting comes from being a true parent. A parent’s role is to give guidance and impart wisdom to one’s children. When the Bible tells the child “Hear, my son, your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching”, it is reminding us of the parent’s greatest role, as a teacher.

Randy Pausch is a college professor and father of three young children, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2006. After going on permanent leave, he returned to university to deliver one final presentation based on the wisdom he had learned from life experience. This lecture that became a youtube sensation (and later a bestselling book) called “The Last Lecture”. Pausch explains in the forward to the book that the lecture was his way of “bottling” the life lessons he wanted to impart to his children as they grew up.

Pausch’s book is an exercise in true naches; it’s a dying father’s way of giving his children a legacy of authentic wisdom.

Most importantly, naches is about love. Parents transform the lives of their children when they show dedication and devotion to them. And the parents that do this the most are the parents of the developmentally disabled. Unfortunately, they often stand alone in their efforts.

Until recently, a child with cognitive impairments didn’t have a Bar-Bat Mitzvah. Synagogues were too rigid and formal to accommodate the needs of the developmentally disabled. But that is changing. In Boston, a program called “Gateways” has enabled dozens of developmentally disabled children to have their own innovative Bar-Bat Mitzvahs. I myself have been involved in several Bar-Bat Mitzvahs like this, and there is no question that there are powerful emotions in the air. You can sense the love, you can sense the family’s dedication, and as the young man finishes his carefully rehearsed presentation, you can sense something else as well:

Authentic naches.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Article = Combination of Two Posts

This column is the combination of this post and this post. (Due to space limitations, I have to cut each post, leaving out some important stuff, though.)

The Humble Hero

Why be humble? It seems so passé. The word “humility” immediately conjures up the medieval image of a cringing, cloistered clergyman, subsisting on breadcrumbs and brackish water. This sort of self-abnegation seems out of place in the 21st century, where self-promotion and self-indulgence are the norm. Humility can only get in the way of “exercising leadership” or “promoting your personal brand”.

We reject humility out of ignorance. Being humble has nothing to do with being meek, or lacking in self confidence. In fact, humility is the hallmark of any true hero. The humble hero doesn’t aspire to glory, or even humility; he simply wants to do his job. Or, as the Mishnah puts it:

“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would say: If you have learned a great deal of Torah, don’t take credit for yourself---it’s for this reason that you were created.”

This Mishnah teaches us that authentic responsibility is not pursued in order to attain glory. The truly humble live to achieve lofty goals, but make little of it; they see themselves simply as doing what is expected of them. Their attitude is that they are “just doing their job”.“I’m just doing my job” is the motto of humble heroes. Their humility is based on a work ethic which drives them to succeed in silence, content to have accomplished what life expected of them.

On May 12th Irena Sendler passed away. During World War II, Irena, a young mother and social worker, was a member of a Polish underground devoted to saving Jews. With great courage and cunning, Irena used her position to smuggle 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in orphanages.

Reading the obituaries about Irena, it’s hard not to notice the differences between this humble woman and today’s erstwhile heroes. Our contemporary heroes are celebrities, people who look good on baseball diamonds, on movie screens and on the red carpet. The “entertainment media” breathlessly follows their every move. These celluloid heroes have our undivided attention, and are famous for being famous.

In actuality, a real hero doesn’t look good; they do good. And after they’ve done good, they don’t revel in self congratulation, but rather think about what more they could have done. After receiving a long overdue award from Poland in 2007, Irena declared:

"I could have done more…..this regret will follow me to my death.".

Irena is a genuine hero. Like all humble heroes, she was “just doing her job”. Or, to put it in Irena’s words:

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

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

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Survivors vs. Hitler

In a recent article in Newsweek’s My Turn, Shirley Paryzer Levy writes about her late father:

"When my father felt the end was near, he started to obsess about his past. He decided that if he didn't start talking about the Holocaust, who would remember? He made a series of audiotapes beginning with his life in Europe, leading up to the Holocaust and ending with his wedding to my mother in Germany in 1946……
I don't know if he felt the Nazis would rise again, but I know for sure Hitler never left him. A friend of mine who recently lost her mother told me that two weeks before her death, her mother started acting in a way that made my friend think she was hallucinating about being back in a concentration camp. She was once again being tormented by the Nazis. We agreed Hitler got her in the end. Just as he got my father. Hitler didn't end at 6 million. He is still killing the Jews. It is 6 million and counting."

While I can feel her pain, I cannot accept Paryzer Levy’s conclusion. Hitler killed 6 million, and scarred millions more. Yes, some survivors were so emotionally crippled they were unable to reenter society. However, most did their utmost to triumph over Hitler. Indeed, this week I officiated at a funeral of someone who lost his entire family in the war, yet immediately after the war started all over again, intent on rebuilding his life and his family.

So why do so many survivors fixate on the Holocaust? Wouldn't it be emotionally healthier just to "get over it"? I think that for many survivors memory is a personal responsibility. Having faced the ultimate evil, they feel uniquely responsible to live. For them, the biblical responsibility to “remember what Amalek did to thee” spurs them to live, to ensure that evil is defeated. These memories are not the reminiscences of bitter people consumed by inner demons, but rather a motivation for the wounded and scarred survivors to summon the courage to triumph over evil. Success was far from uniform; indeed, the great chronicler of the Holocaust Primo Levy, committed suicide in 1987, 42 years after the end of World War II. But by building families, retelling stories, and recreating Jewish community, the survivors emerged victorious in their encounter with Amalek.

The Holocaust ravaged the Jewish community; Hitler very nearly succeeded in his goal to destroy world Jewry. However, looking back at the last 63 years, the survivors have shown that they had the commitment and toughness to outlast the unimaginable and rebuild a community. Or as Benjamin Mead, a survivor, said to a gathering of fellow survivors in 1995:

“He tried to kill us, and he lies in the ground. And we are here”.

Monday, May 19, 2008

“Just Doing My Job”: Humble Heroism

Why be humble? It seems so passé. The word “humility” immediately conjures up the medieval image of a cringing, cloistered clergyman, subsisting on breadcrumbs and brackish water. The self-abnegation of classical humility seems centuries out of place in the 21st century, where self-promotion and self-indulgence are the norm. Humility can only get in the way of “exercising leadership” or “promoting your personal brand”.

It’s a shame we reject humility out of ignorance. A truly humble man is not meek, and does not lack in self confidence. Indeed, the humble man doesn’t aspire to glory, or humility; he simply wants to do his job. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot puts it:

“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would say: If you have learned a great deal of Torah, don’t take credit for yourself---it’s for this reason that you were created.”

This Mishnah teaches us that studying Torah, like any responsibility, should not be about fame and glory. The Mishnah also reminds us that the truly humble are interested in doing, not in being. They live to labor and achieve, but make little of it; they see themselves simply as doing what is expected of them. Their attitude is that they are “just doing their job”.

On a recent trip to Israel, I couldn’t help noticing how authentic heroes, from the soldier who just returned from hazardous duty as a sniper, to the guide who spent 25 years in a special ops unit, to a retired general whose heroism was critical to saving Israel from disaster in the Yom Kippur War, were all reluctant to speak about their exploits, and deflected praise by saying they just were doing what they were supposed to. They were self confident and successful, without a hint of self-promotion. They were humble, but not meek.

“I’m just doing my job” is the motto of humble heroes. Their humility is based on a profound work ethic which drives them to succeed in silence, content to have accomplished what life expected of them.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Death of Shiva

Death used to make us act like grownups. Funerals required black suits, solemn expressions and somber eulogies. Even pointless traditions regarding death were carefully preserved; to this day, many English communities still use a horse drawn carriage as a hearse, in an attempt to recreate the ambience of a Dickensian era burial.

The 21st century has no patience for lugubrious traditions. It’s time to lighten up!! Now funerals need panache, theatre, and a dollop of laughter. Mourning is no longer a deep felt emotion; now, it’s a performance art!! And of course, let us not forget, the funeral is not supposed to be sad – it should be a “celebration of life”.

Forgive me my sarcasm. I appreciate why the old style funeral, more funereal than real, failed to be meaningful. Remote, wooden clergymen delivered incompetent eulogies while family members squirmed silently in their seats. Tears were banned, in order to maintain “the dignity of the service”. However, in reaction we have gone too far. Indeed, in many ways, we have perverted Judaism’s spiritual mourning practices into a fast paced pop psychology “happy meal”.

Falling by the wayside is the significant practice of observing Shiva. “Shiva” means seven, referring to the seven days that mourners refrain from any outside activities and sit on the floor and mourn. As reported in this article in the Globe and Mail (March 27th), shivas are becoming less and less common. Sadly, we are now observing the death of shiva.

Shivas are disappearing due to impatience and superficiality. Everything today must be high speed: internet, e-mails, even emotions. No one has an entire week to “disconnect” from work.

Even worse is the plague of superficiality. The mourning practices of shiva have been dangerously mixed up with psychological explanations. People think that somehow the purpose of the shiva is to bring the mourners consolation; indeed, I often hear testimonials to “how good” the shiva makes the mourners feel.

This understanding of shiva is at best half true. It is correct that there is a rabbinic commandment for friends to visit the mourners during the shiva; and yes, it is the friends’ responsibility to help console the mourners. This is why visitors come to the shiva house, but it is not the purpose of the shiva itself.

The actual purpose of shiva is for mourners to mourn, for a bereaved family to express their pain. And mourning in Judaism has a simple goal: to honor the deceased. (Indeed, when a person is buried on the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot, the period for visitations begins immediately, while the actual mourning begins after the holiday – Shulchan Aruch Orach chaim 568:6)

At shivas, the families put their lives on hold for a week to grieve over a relative’s death and contemplate their legacy. The week of mourning publicly expresses that the family truly misses the person who has passed away. This is why the shiva is an act of honor: to be mourned, to be remembered, to be missed, is to be loved and respected.

By viewing shiva purely as a palliative for the mourners’ pain, we have transformed a sacred obligation into a vintage form of psychotherapy. Shivas are essentially grandma’s recipe for consolation, best stuffed away in a closet when the almighty Blackberry beckons. Indeed for many, all this mourning is a drag.

Tragically lost is a sense of obligation to the deceased. Often, the phrase “celebrating life” is usually just an excuse for the family to avoid mourning. Instead of honoring the deceased, we choose to honor our appointments.

The death of shiva affects us all, Jewish or not. What has really disappeared is the ethics of memory, the responsibility to remember others. In a world of high speed narcissism, the dead are tossed by the wayside while we go on “celebrating life”.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

This is an oldie from just before the beginning of the Iraq War. My family had taken part in a family mission to Israel at the end of February, 2003.

Going Home

Lisa and I just returned from a family trip to Israel. The woman checking us in at the airport surveyed our children, and, after some hesitation, said "I hope you make it home OK". Being a Rabbi, (and blessed with rabbinic telepathy), I knew she was actually thinking "what sort of a lunatic takes four little kids to a dangerous country like Israel?".

Actually, the danger is exaggerated. Attacks on Israel receive disproportionate media attention which distorts reality. The most dangerous part of our trip was when Uri, the cabbie who took us from the airport, drove at breakneck speed and tailgated while yammering on his cellphone. Indeed, statistically speaking, you are far more likely to die of a car accident in Israel (or Canada) than in a terrorist attack.

But I appreciate that it’s reasonable to worry. Bombs and Scuds are remote, but genuine possibilities. When we arrived, the Jerusalem Post had a full page ad emblazoned with the headline "Are You Prepared", which advertised protective suits and gas masks. The ad reminded us that Israel constantly lives with the possibility of war.

This reality is distressing. An Israeli friend told us how her 11 year old son, fatigued by conflict, wants to move to New Zealand, an isolated country without enemies. My own children, on their first visit to Israel, percieved the conflict as well. At the Air Force Museum, my seven year old son asked: "Abba, why does Israel have so many enemies?". Living with this question is Israel’s tragic burden.

So why did we go? We went to watch our children, visiting a school in Beersheva, feel right at home in the classroom with their Israeli brothers and sisters. We went to meet the remarkable volunteers from ZAKA, who are available 24/7 to help at accident scenes, administer first aid, and if necessary, to locate body parts for a proper burial. We (a group of 80 parents and children) went to express our solidarity with Israel.

Most importantly, we went because it’s home. It was a pleasure to see our children discover Israel for the first time; Hebrew everywhere, Kosher McDonalds, archeological sites. We visited Beersheva, the city of Abraham and Sarah, and Jerusalem, the city of David and Solomon. Watching our children connect to the Kotel was a priceless experience.

When we arrived at Ben Gurion airport, I glanced at an ad; I don’t remember much of the ad except for words "higatem habaytah", "you’ve come home". When I saw those words, my eyes began to tear, and I understood why we went. Israel is our home; it might seem crazy, but we had to take our children home for a visit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

An Experiment

I guess this is what a sermon would look like, if I had to post them on youtube. I haven't had anytime to follow up on this first one, but please tell me what you think!! (major league thanks to Sean and Steve Bramson for videotaping editing etc., etc.)


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Optimism of Courage

My job is to inspire others. I scour the Talmud, Bible, as well as assorted periodicals, to find texts, ideas and anecdotes that inspire others.

But every so often, someone will turn to me and ask: “Rabbi, who inspires you?”. Although I may work in the inspiration business, at the end of the day, I too have a soul thirsty for inspiration.

People imagine that inspiration is best found among the learned and famous. Actually, that isn’t the case. The Talmudic sage Chanina said that he learned more from his friends and his students than he did from his teachers. My experience with inspiration is very much the same; it is often my congregants and students who inspire me the most.

Joanne, the most inspiring congregant I’ve ever known, died recently. She was a young woman in her 40’s, who’d battled a series of health problem that kept her hospitalized the vast majority of the last decade of her life. She inspired me with her resilience, fortitude and good humor. But most importantly, Joanne taught me about optimism.

Joanne was relentlessly optimistic. In her years in the hospital, her cheerful spirit warmed the hearts of everyone who met her. Members of the hospital staff became Joanne’s friends, and she became their confidante. An orderly who’d lost a child to suicide, found solace for the first time in years after speaking with Joanne. And throughout, her courageous spirit remained strong. When a doctor told her that she’d never be able to walk again, she immediately remarked “well, that’s what wheelchairs are for”.

Joanne taught me what optimism should be. Most people think optimism is all about the glasses; that is, either half empty glasses or rose colored glasses. Joanne taught me that optimism is much more than a positive perspective; it can be, indeed it must be, a defiant act of courage.

The optimism of courage goes beyond seeing the bright side of things – instead, it sees humor and hope as ammunition in the war against tragedy. All humans face the same adversary: the angel of death. Joanne heroically battled the angel of death with the only weapons she had, her smile and her optimism.

Joanne had wicked sense of gallows humor. Even while staring death in the eye, she could laugh. One day, in a heart to heart conversation, I mentioned to her that in my entire rabbinic career, I had never seen a case of tragic suffering like her own. A humorous remark or two followed, and somehow, by the end of the conversation, we were laughing together. But these jokes were more than shared laughter; actually Joanne was waging war, laughing in the face of the angel of death.

Joanne understood the optimism of courage. She will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

May her memory be a blessing for her family, and for happiness warriors everywhere.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Hello, Israel

I can be an annoying Rabbi.

Every week during Shabbat services, I harangue my congregants to say hello to visitors to the synagogue. I push, prod and cajole my members to greet any new faces. In my mind, a community that isn’t welcoming isn’t a true community.

Unfortunately, the art of being welcoming has been lost. We simply don’t feel comfortable making small talk with new faces. Greeting strangers is actually taboo in larger cities. Urbanites mumble a perfunctory hello to salesclerks, and don’t dare to make eye contact with strangers on the street. In row house suburbs, neighbors barely know each other’s names.

Perhaps we are too busy, or just too rude, to bother to say Hello. In our Blackberry-Laptop-Cellphone culture, we are always occupied with something or someone, except for the person standing in front of us. Human interactions have been compressed into an orderly row of e-mails. Communities are now “virtual”, anonymous megabytes masquerading as true companionship. Why say hello when you post your greetings on Facebook?

Living in a culture of remote controls and remote friendships leaves us hungry for true community. The Talmud relates that the great Rabbi, Yochanan Ben Zakai made a point of offering greetings to strangers. R. Yochanan’s greetings were not just an expression of one Rabbi’s sensitivity; they are a reflection of man’s existential need to connect with the people around him. Man, the social animal, needs to say hello to keep his soul alive. Indeed, TV shows that feature small towns like the fictional Mayberry, and friendly gathering places like the bar in Cheers, derive their popularity from our hunger for true community. The commuter who rides the bus with her face in a book and takes the elevator while averting other people’s eyes, can finally sit down, turn on the TV, and vicariously experience a much warmer place.

Israel is one place where old fashioned community values live on. The old proverb, “A stranger's just a friend you haven't met”, (immortalized in this Simpson’s episode) could be the national motto of Israel. People everywhere strike up conversations: taxi drivers, fellow restaurant patrons, people standing at bus stops. Israel feels like Mayberry, the country, a small town stretched over a small homeland.

The secret to Israel’s warmth might have to do with exile. Maybe, after being second class citizens, Jews are happy to finally belong. Maybe years of homelessness and wandering has made Jews into better hosts. Perhaps, Israel’s warm spirit is the giddy joy of a people delighted to be in a homeland they can truly call home.

On a trip to Israel last month, my wife and I happened upon a Mira, a jewelry maker with a store in downtown Jerusalem. Long after the necklace was chosen and the purchase made, we chatted with her, discussing our lives, families and values. It was another country and another language, yet nothing got lost in translation. We immediately connected, because in Israel, there are no strangers. We all come from the same shtetl, and are happy to finally be home again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

No, They Weren’t Animals

A distraught mother, being shoved onto a train to the death camp Treblinka, leaves her baby on the ground, hoping a stranger will save her. Franciszek Zabeki, a Polish railway worker, describes what happened next:

“In no time, an SS man ran up…seized the child by its feet, and smashed its head against a wheel of the wagon. This took place in full view of the mother, who was howling with pain.”

How do you describe someone who takes joy in splitting open the heads of babies? The horrific actions of the Nazis defy comprehension. It would seem natural to call the inhumane perpetrators of these killings “animals”. But it would also be wrong.

By calling the Nazis animals, we’re actually letting them off the hook. Animals are instinctive beings without free will. Animals are unable to choose between right and wrong, and cannot be held responsible for their actions. While the brutal murderers of the death camps were inhumane, they were still as human as you and I. Unlike animals, the Nazis could have chosen otherwise, because they had free will.

Free will is an intimidating idea. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides sharply opposed astrology, (a respectable discipline at the time) because he understood that the belief in astrology negated free will. A future that is already decided devalues personal initiative. In actuality, this subversion of responsibility is precisely what makes astrology attractive; with the right lucky stars, there’s no need to worry about hard work and difficult choices. That is why multitudes of people, from ancient times until today, continue to follow the zodiac, sure it will predict the course of their day. It’s much easier to suppose that our destinies are in the stars than to accept the responsibility placed into our own hands.

Responsibility is an annoying burden. We’d prefer to imagine that our failures have been forced upon us against our will. In the 12th century, a person could blame the stars for his faults. And, as science has progressed, so has our ability to craft ever more sophisticated excuses for our own failings. Criminals have already claimed diminished capacity due to the psychotropic effects of eating Twinkies or MSG. In a short while, DNA tests and CAT scans will be used to “prove” that criminals were compelled to act the way they did.

No doubt, a clever defense attorney could have crafted similar arguments for the Nazis, explaining that really they were helpless animals who killed because they had no choice. But the Nazis were not animals, and we have the pictures to prove it.

A photo album assembled by Karl Hocker, the chief assistant to the Commandant of Auschwitz, catalogued the lives of the S.S. officers stationed there. Hocker’s pictures capture the Nazi’s gentler side. Here, they kick back at a country resort, where they socialize with the female auxiliary of the SS, conduct sing alongs, and sun themselves on the porch. Of course, in a moment of holiday spirituality, they painstakingly decorate the Christmas tree.

What struck me about these photos was their utter banality. Here are jovial, good spirited people enjoying life, eating blueberries and drinking schapps. While viewing photographs of Hocker playing with his dog, I felt a twinge of empathy for him; he didn’t very seem different from me at all. Of course, if a time machine had dropped me into that very same photograph, Hocker wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot me dead. This regular, dog loving guy was a genocidal murderer.

Yes, the Nazis were regular people like you and I. They cried at funerals, loved music, and laughed at jokes. They were not animals at all. Yet despite being normal human beings, they made horrific choices. These average Joes chose to be genocidal murderers.

The idea that all of us stand one bad choice away from being as evil as the Nazis is a sobering thought. But the burden of personal responsibility means that we have to be ever vigilant in our pursuit of virtue, and remember that we can’t blame our mistakes on the stars, or on the Twinkies.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Continuity vs. Unity

Maintaining continuity and unity are the two greatest challenges facing the Jewish community.

Jewish unity is slowly disintegrating. Post –Shoah feelings of Jewish solidarity are now gone. Divisions over matters of religion and political affiliation have even lead to violence. Books like A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America and Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry chronicle the growing tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in North America. In Israel, religion has been politicized, with religious and anti-religious parties stoking an atmosphere of mutual contempt. And of course there are the political tensions related to Israel’s foreign policy, which led to the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. With the Jewish people seemingly breaking apart into warring tribes, Jewish unity is a serious problem indeed.

At the same time, Jewish continuity is perhaps a more serious danger. Simply put, North American Jews are disappearing into a fog of assimilation. Study after study deliver bad news about Jewish affiliation: a 50%+ intermarriage rate, a 50%+ rate of indifference to Israel, and an all around lack of interest in Judaism. But the news gets worse; every one of these studies show the rate of assimilation growing among younger Jews. If these trends keep up, soon there won’t be any Jews left to fight with each other.

A barrage of sermons has been aimed at the dual challenges of unity and continuity. For a Rabbi, speaking about continuity and unity is the rough equivalent of a politician talking about motherhood and apple pie. Indeed, for the last two decades I have shouted myself hoarse talking about these two problems. Yet, what I failed to reflect on all these years is that continuity and unity are often in direct conflict with each other.

Continuity and unity raise concerns that are as different from each other as homeless shelters and country clubs. On an instinctual level, the need for Jewish unity reflexively leads us to solve communal problems with acceptance and openness, while the concern for Jewish continuity instinctively leads us to emphasize standards and strengthen the core. (Of course I am well aware that openness and warmth help with outreach efforts to the unaffiliated; but fundamentally, continuity requires standards, and standards are inherently exclusionary.)

Conflict between the interests of Jewish continuity and Jewish unity arise over issues like intermarriage. On the one hand, Jewish unity demands that we treat all Jews like a member of the family. We would then want to reach out to any intermarried Jews, and make them feel welcome in Jewish institutions. At the same time, indiscriminate acceptance of interfaith families threatens Jewish continuity, because our communal embrace can be mistook for an acceptance, even an endorsement, of intermarriage as legitimate Jewish practice. Unity asks us to open our institutions, and even leadership roles, to intermarrieds; continuity demands we support the Jewish family and roundly condemn intermarriage.

This conflict shouldn’t be underestimated. Many of the debates in Jewish life, from what should be a day school’s acceptance policies to what sort of cultural and educational programs should be funded by our Federations, relate to the tension between unity and continuity.

The continuity vs. unity dilemma effects me, (an Orthodox Rabbi involved in the broader community), profoundly. I have a deep love for both Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, and Torat Yisrael, the Jewish tradition. So what is the proper way for an Orthodox Rabbi to relate to a pluralistic, heterodox Jewish world? The unity vs. continuity dilemma is part of my daily life.

In actuality, the unity vs. continuity dilemma is an old one, and is actually enshrined in the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah is a holiday of Jewish continuity, celebrating the survival of the Jewish tradition in an era of assimilation. The Maccabees, the heroes of Hanukkah, ignore concerns about Jewish unity when they battle the Hellenistic Jews who supported the Seleucids. On the other hand, Purim is a holiday about Jewish unity. All Jews, without exception, are included in Haman’s decree of annihilation, and the heroine is a woman who uses her secular Persian name and marries a non-Jewish king. (Indeed, the Talmud records an opinion that Esther ate pork, the ultimate symbol of diminished Jewish identity). Unlike Hanukkah, Purim is a narrative about Jewish unity where all Jews work together, with a marginal Jew leading the way. Paradoxically, despite the enormous divergence in narrative, we celebrate both Hanukkah and Purim.

There is no simple formula for integrating continuity and unity. The easiest solution would be to pick one, either unity or continuity, and ignore the other. Indeed, some Jewish groups choose to do just that. However, those of us who remain absolutely committed to both Jewish continuity and Jewish unity are choosing a much more difficult course. We will be confronted by dilemmas, and at times be insecure in our decisions. Yet we can take heart in the fact that for generations Jews have celebrated both unity and continuity, and found the courage and ingenuity to preserve both.