Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why is Moses Pharaoh's Son?

Isn't it strange that the Jewish redeemer grew up in Pharaoh's house?

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video (and my apologies for having a verbal slip and referring to Artachshasta a 'Babylonian' king, when he was of course Persian)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Parshat Vayechi - The Optimism of a Survivor

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for taping this video

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Christmas Can Teach Us About Being Jewish

Hi Everyone! A recent article of mine entitled "What Christmas Can Teach Us About Being Jewish" was published in the Jewish Week. Please take a look at it!! (the story mentioned at the end of the article can also be accessed, in greater detail - here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hanukkah With Sarah Palin and Larry King

After last week's little animation got over 400 hits, I figured it was time to try again (and this xtranormal format is fun, and fast!) Enjoy!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Power of Confession

Yes, this is a bit unorthodox: using Sarah Palin and Larry King (via xtranormal) to deliver a Dvar Torah. But I had no one to videotape me this week, and the xtranormal format is intoxicating. So enjoy!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My 1995 Article on Cremation and Jewish Law (Halacha)

I've published it on my other blog. The link is:

I'm republishing this because of the following article in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent:

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Playoffs on Passover and a Pot of Lentils

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

(This article is the continuation of a previous, bleaker article found here.)

What Are The Odds?

“What are the odds?” should be the motto of the Jewish people. Amidst all of the highs and lows of Jewish history, Jews have become afficianados of “mazel”, acutely aware of life’s possibilities and vulnerabilities. We cherish good luck, and at every Simcha we wish “mazel tov”, praying that the young couple, the new baby, the Bar-Bat Mitzvah child have good luck. And we certainly know what bad luck looks like; I don’t need to recite the encyclopedia of Jewish suffering, from Nebuchanezar to Titus to Hitler to Ahmadinejad, to remind you of Jewish bad luck.

But there is one type of luck that Jews overlook: bad luck that looks like good luck.

Today we live in era of deceptive luck. There is no doubt that the American dream has been a Jewish dream too. We have prospered and excelled. For the first time in our history we have moved mainstream, and we are accepted as both Americans and Jews. An exchange during the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan underlines just how comfortable Jews are. Senator Lindsey Graham was asking Kagan about the Christmas Day bomber in Detroit, and started by asking “Where were you on Christmas Day?”. After a short aside, Kagan answered with a laugh “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” The Senate filled with laughter. Jews are very much at home in North America.

But as I pointed out in my last column, Jewish success has brought with it bad luck. We are assimilating like never before; in the United States, there are fewer Jews today than there were in 1960. The Jewish American experience is truly a mixed blessing. What are the odds that the best time in Jewish history would also be the worst time in Jewish history?

But it would be a mistake to give up on the Jewish future. The Jews are what Simon Rawidowicz called “an ever-dying people.” Every time we’re down, we beat the odds.

We beat the odds because it only takes one committed person to ensure a Jewish future.

Rabbi Akiva understood this lesson. He had 24,000 students who perished, disappearing in a month’s time. Yet Rabbi Akiva continued on, and gathered five students with whom he rebuilt the Jewish tradition.

I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for Rabbi Akiva. Here’s a man used to lecturing in packed auditoriums, now reduced to lecturing a handful of survivors in a broom closet. How do you not lose your faith in the future?

But Rabbi Akiva perseveres because he understands that there are odds, and there are Jewish odds. Numbers and statistics don’t matter; because if they did, Jews would have disappeared a long time ago. For the Jewish mission to continue, all you need is commitment, all you need is one devoted teacher.

Judaism has defied the rules of statistics because in each generation there were people like Rabbi Akiva, and people like a little old lady by the name of Yitta Schwartz.

When Yitta died last year at 93, she left behind 2,000 living descendants. What are the odds of that happening?

But that’s precisely the point. Yitta was a survivor who lost two children during the Holocaust. But like Rabbi Akiva, she understood that one committed person can change the odds dramatically.

The Jews should have disappeared many times in the last 2,500 years; and we face major challenges in our future. But Jewish survival is not about statistics and demographic studies, it’s about committed people.

And if you ask Rabbi Akiva and Yitta Schwartz, the odds for Jewish survival are very good indeed.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Burnout Lessons: Finding Your Shofar, Finding Your Envelope

At the beginning of August I received multiple e-mails from colleagues and organizations, all urging me to read the same newspaper article. The New York Times had published a feature on clergy burnout, and many of my colleagues felt it was required reading for rabbis.

The reporter cited multiple studies, each more fascinating then the next. The Presbyterian Church found that since the 1970’s the number of ministers leaving their jobs during their first five years of work had quadrupled. The Evangelical Lutheran Church found that 13 percent of their ministers were taking antidepressants. And my favorite was a seven-year study at Duke University, of 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina. Compared with congregants, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. This study fascinated me. First of all, who knew there were 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina? And more remarkably, it took the learned professors at Duke University a full seven years to learn something that every Jewish mother knows: being a Rabbi is “not a job for a Jewish boy!”

1. It Makes Sense

Clergy burnout is understandable. The work of rabbis, as well as teachers and organizational professionals, is community work, the hardest work in the world. It’s hard in any community, but in the Jewish community….oy!

Communal leadership is very difficult. Indeed Rashi famously quips that if you place the burden of communal leadership on someone’s shoulders, “they will disintegrate on their own”. The Rabbinate is not a job for a Jewish boy.

Twenty years ago, when I’d first started to attend rabbinic conventions, I’d listen to older colleagues talk about burnout and think they were crazy. What were they burnt out about? To me, being a Rabbi was such a thrill, such a privilege, that I planned to do it for free after I retired!

But now I understand those colleagues. I too am getting burnt out.

Now, I’m not embarrassed by burnout, because I know I’m in good company. For example, listen to what Moses says to God, after another one of the Jews complaints in the desert:

“Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant..?”

I would say, Moses sounds burnt out!

Or listen to the words of Maimonides, in a letter to a student who wants to visit:

“I will write you my daily schedule:

I live in Fostat, and the Sultan lives Cairo. The distance between them is 4000 cubits [a mile and a half]. My duties to the Sultan are very heavy.…….by the time I come back to Fostat, half the day is gone. Under no circumstances do I come earlier. And I am ravenously hungry by then. When I come home, my foyer is always full of people – Jews and non-Jews, important people and not, judges and policemen, people who love me and people who hate me, a mixture of people, all of whom have been waiting for me to come home.... I apologize and ask that they should be kind enough to give me a few minutes to eat. That is the only meal I take in twenty-four hours…….Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes – I swear to you by the Torah – it is two hours into the night before they are all gone. I talk to them and prescribe for them even while lying down on my back from exhaustion. …..On Shabbat, the whole congregation, or at least the majority of it, comes to my house after morning services, and I instruct the members of the community as to what they should do during the entire week. We learn together in a weak fashion until the afternoon. Then they all go home. Some of them come back and I teach more deeply between the afternoon and evening prayers…That is my daily schedule.”

Now, after writing all of this, Maimonides throws in the kicker:

“And I’ve only told you a little of what you would see if you would come”.

So I’m not alone in burnout. From Moses to Moses, burn out has been the Rabbi’s lot.

Rabbi’s are idealists, and they expect a lot of the world. And so we get disappointed all the time.
I can tell you that I am burnt out because I expected more.

I expected more of Jewish leaders. Today, there are entire blogs devoted to collecting news articles about the failings and foolishness of Jewish leaders and Rabbis. These misbehaving rabbis are my colleagues, and sometimes they are people I deeply respect. And so it hurts me personally, when I have to read about stupid rabbinic pronouncements: like the Rabbis who write a book advocating the murder of Arab babies, or the Rabbis insisting that parents in Lakewood should not call the police to report sexual abuse. Even worse are the scandals, the rabbis who make headlines for crimes ranging from shaking down hedge fund operators to sexually harassing students. Each scandal hurts, and each one makes me a bit more cynical.

I also expected more of the Jewish community. Teaching Judaism in North America feels like a Sisyphean task, like pushing a boulder up a hill with the boulder constantly rolling down again. We are assimilating rapidly; just look at the marriages page in New York Times on any given Sunday, and you can see how many of our children are marrying non-Jews. And then you turn to the other pages of the newspaper, and read about young Jews who are passionate opponents of the State of Israel. Even at Brandeis University, hundreds of students mobilized against a visit from the Israeli Ambassador. How is it that young Jews are sometimes Israel’s greatest enemies?

I also expected more from God. Sure, when I started in the rabbinate, I knew intellectually bad things happen to good people; after all, I had read the book of Job. But I had never seen with my own eyes the pain and suffering families endure. But now I have. How can you not question when you see good people suffer?

Some people have remarked to me that it must be “easier” now for me to deal with difficult funerals, considering I have twenty years of experience. Actually, the opposite is true. If you go to one tragic funeral, you imagine that this is the only one, and that it is a unique event that happens once in a lifetime. But if you go to ten tragic funerals, you have a terrible sinking feeling in your stomach, because you know full well that if there have been ten tragic funerals, there will be an eleventh too.

Yes, I’m disappointed in God. I’ve seen too much suffering, too much injustice.

I’m actually most disappointed in myself. I don’t feel comfortable talking publicly about my own soul and psyche, but suffice it to say, if I could go into a time machine and meet myself from twenty years ago, I think that in some ways, twenty-something Chaim would be disappointed. He would expect more of me as a Rabbi, husband, father and person.

I’m burned out and disappointed.

2. God is Also Disappointed

But burnout is not a rabbinic preserve. I won’t ask for hands, but I’d bet most of the people in this room 40 and older have also been burnt out. In our twenties, we have an ideal vision of life, and then life turns that vision upside down. We all get disappointed, and then we get burnt out.

But the disappointed among us are not alone. Truth is, God is disappointed every day. The Talmud in Avodah Zara says that during “the second three hours of the day God sits in judgment on the whole world, and when He sees that the world is so guilty as to deserve destruction, He transfers Himself from the seat of Justice to the seat of Mercy”. Remarkably enough, God is so disappointed in humanity every day, He wants to destroy the world.

And if God is overwhelmed by the daily judgment, imagine what happens on Rosh Hashanah!!

And if God is always disappointed by judgment, today must be God’s day of disappointment!!

Wouldn’t God be burnt out by now?

3. Find Your Shofar

But the lesson of this Talmudic passage is that disappointment is daily part of life, and a fixed part of the universe, from God on down. Even so, God manages to find a way to get over his disappointment. The lesson is that even when things don’t measure up, don’t get disappointed. There is always a good reason to love life; all you have to do is find your shofar.

Consider this Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah. It says that the moment God hears the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, He moves from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy.

How does the shofar affect such a dramatic change?

I think the answer is that when God listens to the shofar He sees a different side of humanity. The ram’s horn is a symbol of the akeidah, a permanent reminder of Abraham’s willingness to say “Hineni”, I am ready. Abraham stood ready to sacrifice everything until the last moment, when God allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.

And even if God sees all of the stupid and petty things man has done, God remembers that when the chips are down, man can say “Hineni”, “I am ready”, just like Abraham did.

When the chips are down, we aren’t all that disappointing.

There are times we feud, yes…but there also the times when we run to the hospital and mend old rifts. (But why does it have to wait for the hospital though?)

And although the Jewish people seem to be falling off the edge of a cliff, whenever the chips are down, Jews have always found a way to survive. 65 years ago, after the Shoah, we managed to survive, and even thrive. Think of the survivors in 1945, emaciated, broken and battered. Yet three years later these very same survivors are in Israel, fighting in the War of Independence.

And for myself, I can look back at one or two things I've done, and say that if my entire career had been for this one thing it would have been worth it.

When we are burnt out, we need to do what God does, and go grab our shofar and see the best side of our community, ourselves, and of the Jewish future. When the chips are down, we see who we really are; and remarkably, we’re usually a lot better than we thought we were!

4. Why Does He Want to Be Disappointed?

But grabbing a shofar is not enough.

The strange thing about disappointment is that it seems to be part of God’s plan. In the Talmudic text we cited, it says that God gets disappointed every day. In the Midrash we cited, it says God is disappointed every Rosh Hashanah. And indeed, Rashi cites a Midrash that says that even during creation, God wanted to create a world that would withstand judgment, only to realize that it was impossible.

So I have a simple question; why does God keep disappointing Himself? If at the very beginnings he knew that the world would come up short when judged, why does he keep trying to judge the world? Isn’t it exhausting?

It may be exhausting, but it’s worth it. A failed judgment reminds us to come home again. Judging ourselves reminds us of who we really are. All of us start with a dream – a plan, no different than God’s. We have high hopes. But we get sidetracked and lost.

Being a good spouse gets lost because we’re too distracted.

Being a good parent gets lost because we’re too busy.

Having good values get lost because we’re too ambitious.

The road map gets lost. We forget who we are.

And so we need to judge ourselves, to be disappointed, if only to remind ourselves of the original plan, of who we wanted to be, who we were supposed to be, and in a sense who we really are. Disappointment leads us back home, and reminds us of our ideals and goals.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that Teshuva, repentance, is a way of recovering our true selves. Sin is a by-product of getting lost chasing foolish dreams and trivial goals. Teshuva is returning back to our true identity. He writes:

“While, in sin, man misidentifies and alienates himself from himself, in the case of Teshuva he reverses the process of misidentification: he discovers himself, and "returns" to his true self.”

Burnout is our soul’s way of telling us to come home again; and on this holiday of disappointment, we need to remember to come home, to do Teshuva, and get back to our true selves.

Or, if I can put it another way, we need to find our envelope.

5. Find Your Envelope

Let me explain.

Dr. David Pelcovitz visited Montreal a few months ago and told a powerful story about a 9 year old girl. The girl’s mother had encouraged her to volunteer by visiting an elderly lady who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the elderly lady explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was an older woman on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.

The next day, the girl goes to school and begins to raise money. She goes from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and visited her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local Ophthalmologist’s office.

The doctor examines the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps in and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.

The doctor does the operation.

The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother starts to talk , the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He tells the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than money; this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity, of the goodness of a nine year old girl, and why he became a doctor in the first place.

Today, all of us have to find the envelope in the pocket. We need to remember who we really are. The envelope, our inner goodness, is always there, waiting to be rediscovered.

When we’re burnt out, when we are disappointed in who we have become, all we have to do today is grab a shofar, and find our envelope.

We can always find our shofar, and take pride that when the chips are down we will respond to the call of hineni.

And one day, when we get too lost in our ambitions, a little girl will come to our office with envelope, an envelope that reminds us of who we really are.

Shanah Tova!!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chelsea, Marc and the Jewish Problem

One hundred years ago it would have been impossible, for a Jew would never have been considered an appropriate match for the daughter of the President of the United States; and one hundred years ago it would have been improbable, because very few Jews would have married out of the faith.

But 2010 is not 1810 or 1910. The news media yawned when Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky in a ceremony that featured a tallit and sheva brachot, a Rabbi and a Minister. Jews have thoroughly integrated into American society, and as a result bigotry is scarce and intermarriage common.

But for Jewish pundits, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a religious Rorschach test. Each pundit gazes into this intermarriage, and sees their own reflection. For some Jews, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is actually a source of pride, a sign Jews have truly arrived. Others fret, wringing their hands and issuing jeremiads about how the Jewish community has failed. Orthodox polemicists blame the failure of the Liberal movements, outreach professionals blame the community’s failure at outreach, and Zionists see this intermarriage as indicative of the failure of Diaspora Judaism. Hundreds of op-eds and sermons have been devoted to dissecting this intermarriage and agonizing about the contemporary “Jewish problem”, a crisis of assimilation and indifference.

Many of these pundits make compelling cases, but I can’t help feeling like they’re all missing the point. Assimilation isn’t occurring because Judaism has failed; it’s occurring because all institutions, including Judaism, are declining. As David Brooks has pointed out, institutional thinking has eroded across the board, in schools and sports, in businesses and in banks. Respect for and devotion to institutions is disappearing.

Today’s mindset is profoundly individualistic. Every practice is evaluated by one simple criterion: “what’s in it for me?”. By contrast, institutional thinkers approach their institutions with a profound feeling of reverence and responsibility. Brooks quotes political scientist Hugh Heclo, who writes that “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.” Institutionalists are extremely uncommon nowadays.

Simply put, intermarriages occur when the institution of Judaism becomes a secondary concern, superseded by one’s individual needs. And since individualism is the order of the day, few can justify passing up true love in order to respect a millennia old tradition.

Some Rabbis have tried to repackage Judaism into user-friendly parcels in order to make it more appealing in an age of individualism. They have offered Jewish wisdom about leadership and family, and even tips on kosher sex. I use this approach myself, and it certainly helps make Judaism more relevant and meaningful. But ultimately, this approach will fail as a weapon against assimilation, because in our zeal to make every Jewish practice useful and beneficial, we have actually undercut the very foundations of Judaism. Judaism is founded on a sense of duty; we fast on Yom Kippur, even though it’s uncomfortable; we circumcise babies even though it’s painful. We do so because Judaism is a transcendent institution that we revere.

Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, proudly announced “Hineni- I am ready”; he was ready to sacrifice for any and all of God’s demands. And throughout history, Jews have been willing to put Jewish destiny before individual interests. Until now. With a deeply individualistic zeitgeist blowing by us, who knows if there will still be Jews who will proclaim “Hineni” at the end of the 21st century.

(But in the end, things are not so bleak. for a more optimistic continuation of this article, read this.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Lost Joy

We are lucky enough to live in the lottery winner of civilizations. Our standard of living eclipses that of previous generations. Dreaded illnesses have been banished forever, and life expectancy has gone up by thirty years in the last century. Luxuries that were inconceivable fifty years ago are now the birthright of the middle class.

The past was a lot different. People in my parent’s generation grew up in a world of wars, financial depressions, and inferior medical care. These difficulties shaped their lives and left their scars. One man I knew, who had no money as a child, remained a miser long after he had achieved exceptional wealth. Another survivor I knew, traumatized by the hunger he endured, left caches of food and money all around his house. Adversity leaves a bitter imprint, tattooing antique worries into our hearts.

Thankfully, today we live in an era of exceptional abundance and tranquility; my kids have been vaccinated against a slew of afflictions, will never be drafted into the army, and generally worry most about if and when they will be getting a new electronic gadget.

Every day, we must remind ourselves to appreciate these remarkable blessings, and thank God for our bounty. But for the most part, there is one blessing our generation has been denied: the joy of triumph.

A true triumph is when one has overcome existential challenges. Alongside the painful memories of suffering lies a fierce pride, a profound self-respect built on courage and determination.

One woman I knew, who was disabled as a child by polio, refused to allow her disability to define her life. She lived a life of courage, determination and love, and served as inspiration to a multitude of people, including myself. She had become the exceptional person she was despite her difficulties, but also because of them; she had passed life’s tests. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the Hebrew word for test, “nissah” is related to the Hebrew word to raise up, “nasso”. This is because a test is not meant to merely be endured, but rather to raise one up to a higher plane. And there is nothing sweeter than passing life’s tests.

Today, one can observe the joy of triumph at select celebrations such as weddings. The grandparents or great grandparents speak a European accented English, and simultaneously have a tear and a twinkle in their eyes. They are graduates of university of life, and sometimes have a six digit diploma tattooed on their arms. They tell you that the bride is named after a sister who didn’t make it, and then they ask you to make a l’chaim, a toast, to the future of the young couple. This toast is different than any other toast, because it has a message of determination that says: “damn you Hitler, we’re still here”. And as you raise your glass, you realize that the smile on the grandfather’s face is unique: it’s the smile of triumph.

Those of us who have lived privileged North American lives will never experience that smile, because a test free life is a triumph free life. That's how it should be, because God forbid, no one should ever desire the anguish of tests; and in the end, far too many fail their tests. Indeed, if you asked the smiling grandparent at the wedding, they’d tell you their deepest wish is for all of us to live lives of peace and tranquility.

No, we will never know the joy of triumph. But if we look in the right places, for a few fleeting moments, we too can share that smile of triumph, a triumph earned by blood, sweat, and tears.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

My New Hero

I don't even know my new hero's name. She isn't a famous movie star or a politician. Actually, I’ve only met my hero once, serving coffee at the Second Cup where she works.

But she's my hero anyway, because like all heroes, this big hearted barista had a mission: to put a smile on everyone's face. I had run into her cafe hurried and stressed, looking for a quick caffeine fix between meetings; and to be honest, like most other customers, I was a lot less congenial than I should have been. Yet this woman accepted my order gracefully, and with just a few kind words managed to make me smile. This hero had made a difference in my day; and she certainly makes a daily difference in the lives of her customers as well.

Now, calling this cheerful coffee salesclerk a “hero” might seem like a gross exaggeration to you; but I am dead serious about what I’m saying. Yes, I’m sure you agree with the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that we should greet people with a pleasant face; after all, that’s how our mothers raised us. But frankly, there’s a lot more than manners at stake here.

Smiles are in short supply nowadays. People are far more busy and stressed than they were fifty years ago. (Why that is is a topic for another time). Socially, we are cut off from everyone except for those who are closest to us. True “neighbourhoods”, where people actually know their neighbours, no longer exist. Even in the suburbs, people are unable to name most of their neighbours; people may live next door to each other, but they aren’t next door neighbours. We have retreated into well insulated cocoons, entertained by the flickering screens of the electronic age, communicating virtually with virtually everyone, but truly knowing virtually no one. True community spirit, with a sense of being connected to those who surround us, has disappeared nearly everywhere.

Along with the collapse of community has come the collapse of civility. There’s simply no time to say hello; after all, we have to get down to business. People chatter away on cellphones while standing on line, and the polite banter of strangers only occurs when two people are simultaneously between calls. E-mail is even worse; the linguistic structure of e-mail has the ambience of firefighters shouting to each other during a four alarm fire. Greetings, even first names, are omitted, leaving only a blunt request, sometimes delivered in caps, demanding of us to “CALL JIM NOW”. Frankly, we are stretching the social fabric a bit too thin, and we are witnessing an epidemic of grumpiness.

And grumpiness makes a difference. I remember being stunned when a former Member of Parliament, discussing his life in politics, told me that at times legislation, even the course of governments, are deeply affected by the moods of the leaders. A Prime Minister arrives one morning in foul mood because he had a fight with his wife, and all of a sudden, initiatives are upended, ministers are demoted. Grumpiness is not just a mood; it can change history. And much like the famed “butterfly effect”, (that a butterfly flapping its wings can change to course of the weather) a simple lack of civility can have far reaching consequences as well.

And that’s why this barista is my hero. By putting a smile on the faces of her customers, she has pushed back against the impolite and impersonal. And with her cheerful countenance, she has made difference; after all, even one smile can create a hurricane of kindness.

Monday, June 07, 2010

What a Peace Activist Should Want

(Rally Speech 6-7-10)

Rally speech 2010–06–07

I am also a peace activist.

I pray for peace every day, three times a day. In the daily prayer we say the words “Sim Shalom”, asking God for world peace.

I dream of peace, just like Isaiah dreamt,

וכתתו חרבותם לאתים וחניתותיהם למזמרות

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”.

And I hope for peace, much like Yitzchak Rabin hoped for peace when he said to Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993:

“We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”

And like Isaiah and Yitzchak Rabin, I too dream of peace.

I’m also a peace activist.

But I have some questions for the "peace activists" who were traveling with the "Freedom Flottilla".

Why do you ignore the plight of the Muslim Uigers in western China?

Why do you ignore the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit tribes in the Darfur region in Sudan?

Why do you ignore the plight of the pro-democracy movement in Iran, where students are getting slaughtered in the streets of Tehran?

And why is it that you couldn’t bring a measly little package to Gilad Shalit, who has sat for nearly 4 years in captivity without a visit from the Red Cross or a family member?

And why is it that when Jewish blood flows in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, when rockets rain down on Sderot, you, the "peace activists" are silent?

And why is it that as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad builds a nuclear bomb to destroy Israel, you say nothing?

And why is it that whenever someone talks about peace, it must be at the expense of Israeli lives?

My dear “peace activists”, this is the key to understanding the situation in Gaza. Read Hamas’ charter, and then compare it with Israel’s declaration of independence.

The Hamas charter says:

"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it”

“The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

And the Hamas Charter quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a horrific anti-Semitic forgery that has caused Jews so much suffering the last century.

On the other hand, Israel’s declaration of independence offers peace to the surrounding nations. It says:

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.

Indeed, it’s the only Declaration of Independence in the world to make an offer of peace!


Now, another question for the “peace activists” around the world: why is it that Israel is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent? That until videos and photos from the Mavi Marmara were revealed, all of the “peace” community assumed the worst about Israel, assumed the worst about the one democracy that actually treasures human rights in the Middle East?

Why was there a rush to judgment, eventually overturned when the videotape was revealed?

And indeed, “peace activists” in this very city, gathered two days ago to criticize the Government of Canada for not rushing to judgment.

These “peace activists” came to criticize Canada, and show their support for Hamas.

Well, as a Canadian and a peace activist, I want to say that I take pride in the Canadian government. I’m proud of her support of Israel.

Yes, I am also a peace activist, but I want a true and just peace.

I deeply want to see the Palestinians live in peace and prosperity….. but I also want Israelis to be able to live in peace in their ancient homeland.

I want Israelis to wake up in the morning, and not worry about Kassams and Katuyshas and suicide bombers.

I want a Middle East without terror, a Middle East with true peace.

I too say: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”

And enough of Ahmadinejad and Hamas and Hezbollah.

It’s time for true peace in the Middle East.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What’s Your #ish?

No, that’s not a typo. #ish is a word, or at least it’s word-ish. #ish is actually a marketing invention, an amalgam of a hashtag, (a secret symbol comprehensible only to users of “social media” like twitter), and the funnier sounding half of the word Jewish. “What’s your #ish?” is the slogan of a $300,000 Jewish Federations of North American marketing campaign aimed at 18-35 year olds. Armed with a trendy tagline and comically offbeat video, this cutting edge marketing campaign invites young Jews to offer serious and silly descriptions of their “#ish”, the essence of their connection to Judaism.

Despite the comic ambience of this campaign, no question could be more serious. Jews need to know why they should be Jewish. This question is THE question, and needs to be discussed by everyone, from husbands and wives to parents and children, to the board of directors at every Federation in North America

But in many ways, this question is a sad question; or to be more precise, a serious question that gets too many absurd answers. I know this campaign is meant to elicit comic, tongue in cheek banter; at the same time it’s still distressing to consider that for many Jews, Jewish identity has been trivialized down to an absurd caricature, and a proud spiritual tradition has been reduced to a series of kitschy icons: Bubbies, corned beef, Woody Allen, Yiddish and Jewish jokes.

The Jewish community has done an awful job articulating “what’s our #ish?”. Instead of embracing a serious Jewish mission, we have poured our energies and philanthropic dollars into building nostalgia based cultural institutions. We forget that Judaism is not the “shvitz”, and not a pastrami sandwich, and not a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Yes, Judaism is more than lox, bagels and Woody Allen; it is a proud intellectual and spiritual tradition. Judaism is more than a hashtag, it’s a mission.

That Judaism is a mission is the fundamental idea embraced by serious Jews of every stripe, from the Jewish Socialist to the Ultra-Orthodox Chassid. (What exactly that mission is, is another story!). And Jews have made significant sacrifices throughout the ages to pursue this mission. When Abraham is asked by God to wander in search of his destiny, it was not in order to find a better cholent recipe or a good joke.

Well then, what’s my #ish? I’d like to answer with a story. (How Jewish is that!).

Dr. Rick Hodes has been doing a heroic job serving the JDC in Ethiopia for the last twenty years. One day, a young Muslim woman, Merdya Abdisa, comes in with a tumor the size of an orange around her eye. Hodes sends her file to leading surgeons around the world, but they all say it's impossible to operate on her. One day while visiting Minneapolis, Dr. Hodes overslept, and arrived at the synagogue just after services. The Rabbi was still there, studying with another man.

After praying, Dr. Hodes chatted with the Rabbi and his student. As it turns out the student was a doctor, with the precise specialty needed to do Merdya’s surgery. After showing the doctor, Eric Nussbaum, pictures of the young girl, Dr. Nussbaum said: 'I'd love to try to help this lady.'". A short time later Merdya was in Minneapolis having her tumor removed.

This story is a classic Jewish saga. It includes Torah, prayer, Jewish doctors and a Rabbi.

Most importantly, this story is about the Jewish mission, the profound desire to change the world, from Ethiopia to Minnesota.

And that’s my #ish.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Do We Have Children? A Speech for my Son Eitan’s Bar Mitzvah 4-17-2010

Why do we have children? What motivates people to bring small, demanding, and noisy dependents into the world?

This question is particularly relevant this morning, as the Steinmetz family celebrates our third Bar Mitzvah in 20 months.

And that’s a lot of bar mitzvahs!!

But imagine what it was like 13 years ago!! It was a lot of baby boys.

Your mother and I used to joke that we have triplets, carrying around you and Akiva and Hillel, three boys two years old and under. Then Ilana came along, and we had four children four and under.

So, we have to ask the question again: why do we have children? It can be a lot of work.

  1. The Rabbi’s Answer: To Teach

So if you ask a rabbi, he would tell you that having children is a mitzvah, the first mitzvah in the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply.

But what is the purpose of this commandment? To the Rabbi, the commandment of having children is not simply intended to populate the earth; it is part of a larger project, not just to give birth to the children, but to teach the children as well.

Rav Soloveitchik has explained that there are two levels of parenting: natural parenting and covenantal parenting.

Natural parenting is having children, following nature. In covenantal parenting, teaching becomes the key part of the parenting experience, in which the child is nurtured spiritually as well.

Soloveitchik’s comments underline how the role of father and teacher are already compared and combined in the Tanach, and even more so in the Talmud. Having children is simply a prerequisite to teaching children.

And we teach Torah because we must share, with our children, with our friends, and with the world, Torah wisdom and insights.

And this teaching mission starts with Abraham. Abraham teaches everyone about the foolishness of idolatry and the way to God.

And from Avraham on, we’ve been a teaching religion, and a religion of teachers. We have taught the world about:

belief in one God



man being in the image of God

and loving your neighbor and loving the stranger

And teaching has been your father’s passion too. That’s why I became a Rabbi, believe it or not.

I became a Rabbi because I loved Tanach and Talmud and Maimonides and Rav Zaddok and Rav Soloveitchik, and the Aruch Hashulchan. And I loved to teach about them.

Now I don’t expect you to become a Rabbi, Eitan….. but I do expect you to become a student of Torah and a teacher of Torah. That’s been the Jewish passion for the last 3,800 years, and it’s what Jews do.

And that’s why each generation of Jews looks forward to the next generation, to be able to pass the lessons of Judaism onto another generation.

  1. The Scientist’s Answer: To Love

But, if you ask a scientist, the reason we have children is simple: to ensure the continuation of the species.

To the scientist, the maternal instinct, and when it exists, the paternal instinct, the desire to raise children, is a deeply held instinct, shared by man and animal.

But even though this is a basic instinct, an animal instinct, the Torah honors it a great deal.

Maimonides in the Moreh Nevukhim (3:48) makes this point as well, when he says that one must treat the mother bird with compassion when taking her chicks because the concern of a mother for a child is the same, both in animal and in man. And if humanity wants to merit “long days”, they must treat the parent-child attachment (of all animals) with respect.

And although the scientist may not speak poetically, in actuality most of us call this instinct something else: love.

Love is the powerful, loving attachment and devotion of the parent for the child.

And that’s why this “instinct”, even when found in animals, is so admired. The Tanach often uses the images of animal parents watching over their young, because some of the most powerful images of parental love come from the animal kingdom, where love is absolutely instinctive. And there is nothing more beautiful than the love of a parent who will do whatever it takes to nurture their child.

Love is a powerful reason to have children. No it’s not easy to have children, to love children; it requires sacrifices.

In your own family, you have seen the enormous sacrifices mommy makes for you, and for all of the children.

Mommy works,

runs a home that is open to an entire community,

has volunteered abundantly for your school and for our community,

and she is a nurse,

a taxi driver,

a cook,

a homework tutor

a psychologist

to you and your three siblings!!

and look how she plans amazing and beautiful bar mitzvahs!!!

Now that’s love Eitan!

And Mommy’s love reflects the wonderful example set by her parents, by your Bubby and Zaidie, and the wonderful home they built, and how devoted they are to their three daughters and all of their grandchildren.

And I have seen my mother bring up four little children on her own, as a widow and single mother. She had to provide for us and care for us, and be a mother and father to us.

It wasn’t at all easy.

It was love.

And trust me, I didn’t make it easy for her. I wasn’t always a Rabbi!

One day when I was seven, I went into the garage in our home and decided to drive the car. The garage was on the top of a hill, and I released the emergency brake and parking brake; and the car rolled down the hill. My mother looked out the front door and shouted at me to jump out; she shouted at a neighbor riding his bicycle in the path of the car to jump off. The car rolled down the hill, ran into a telephone pole; the car’s back window got smashed, and the car lost the door I jumped out of.

(By the way, don’t you ever do anything like this!!)

To deal with situations like this, you need courage. More importantly, you need love.

But that powerful instinctive love is why we have kids. That’s why Mommy and I wanted to have you.

  1. The Simple Jew’s Answer: To Survive

So, you might ask scientists and Rabbis why they have children.

They might have sophisticated, thoughtful answers – and explain how instinctive it is to love, or how essential it is to teach.

But there is someone else you need to ask this question to as well: the simple Jew.

The simple Jew might not have any degrees; he might not have spent a great deal of time studying.

But the simple Jew has life experience, he has learned the lessons of history.

And if you ask the simple Jew: why do you have children?

He will tell you simply: we have children in order to survive.

Without children the Jewish people would disappear.

The Gemara (Sotah 12a) tells us that when the survival of the Jews in Egypt was in crisis, it wasn’t the great Rabbis and great leaders who led the way to survival – but rather a little girl. Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the generation. He decided that it was absurd for Jews to have children if the Egyptians would throw every male child into the river.

Now Amram’s decision was sensible and ethical, the sort of decision you’d expect from a great Rabbi. But his daughter Miriam, a young girl said to him: “Abba, if you do this, the Jewish people will disappear! If you do this, you’ll actually end up being worse than Pharaoh.”

Miriam was right, and Amram was wrong. Great Rabbis may have great ideas – but sometimes they outthink things, and miss the big picture.

When it comes to something as basic as survival, go ask a simple Jew what to do – that’s their specialty.

Simple Jews understand that for the Jewish mission to continue, we need to hang on.

To have children.

To survive

We now stand during sefirah – when we remember the destruction after the Bar Kochva revolt of 132-135.

At least 600,000 Jews were killed in the aftermath of the Bar Kochva revolt.

We also remember the events of the Crusades at this time of year. In 1096, during the First Crusade – 800 were Jews killed in the synagogue of Worms on May 18th.

Just this past Sunday night, right at this Bima, we had a community wide Yom Hashoah service, to commemorate the deaths of the 6 million, including your great grandfather and quite a few members of your family.

So how did we bounce back after all of this? How did we survive?

We survived because simple Jews knew they had to survive – they knew they had to rebuild after the Shoah, to have children and grandchildren.

They had one dream – to keep the Jewish people alive.

And that’s my dream too.

You know, my mother, your grandmother, is a survivor of the Holocaust.

One of her most powerful memories is in Auschwitz, Simchat Torah 1944.

In a dream, Bubbie had a vision of her late mother, who came to her and told her that everything would be OK.

Right afterwards, she was called out and selected to be among a group of people transferred to a work camp, a place much better for survival. Bubbie’s dream was so powerful, so vivid, she to this day has no doubt her mother appeared to her, and was truly watching over her.

But actually, what is most remarkable about this dream is that it reflects an earlier dream. While Bubbie is dreaming of her mother, there’s never any doubt in Bubbie’s mind that her mother is there with her. Bubbie knows that wherever her mother's soul may be, her mother is thinking of her, watching over her her,

Bubbie knows that her mother is always dreaming of her.

Bubbie knew, even when she was a small child, that her mother had dreams for her, dreams of a Jewish future.

And the truth is, it’s not just Bubbie’s mother, your great grandmother, who dreams of her children.

Every simple Jew has the same dreams.

The dreams of the simple Jew are:

to survive,

to have Jewish children,

to continue 3,800 years of Jewish History,

and to pursue the Jewish mission.

And so Bubbie’s mother dreamt of Bubbie surviving the Shoah, and continuing the Jewish tradition.

Then, Bubbie dreamt of me, Abba, continuing the Jewish tradition.

And now Mommy and I have a dream, Eitan.

And that dream is you.

We’ve been dreaming of you. And that’s why we had you.

We had you to love you.

We had you to learn with you.

And we had you to add another link in a 3,800 year old tradition.

May God bless you, and may you give us, and everyone else in this room, true yiddishe naches.

Mazel Tov!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

God, The Holocaust, and Lighting a Candle in the Dark

Why do you believe in God?

Fifty one out of fifty two weeks a year, the answer is obvious. The world is beautiful and brilliant, a bright shining example of divine spirit and creativity. The book of Psalms gushes “how wonderful are your creations God, all were created in wisdom”, and Maimonides teaches that studying the scientific structure of the universe will inspire us to love the wise creator of the cosmos.

Philosophers call this the “teleological argument” for God, and I usually appreciate this argument. Step outside during the summer twilight, and you cannot fail but to be moved by the living poetry of the natural order, the divine harmony of birds, crickets and rustling leaves. The world is a bright and shining inspiration to faith.

But one week a year, this argument collapses completely. The week of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, leaves us numb with pain. It is not only the deaths of six million that overwhelm us; it is the barbarity with which they were murdered. Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Underground who was one of the first witnesses to tell the world about the Holocaust, reported about one such atrocity he witnessed in Izbica, Eastern Poland. There, a group of 120-130 Jews were forced into a train car made to fit 40 people, and the doors were slammed shut. On the floor of the train was quicklime powder, a chemical that generates enormous heat when mixed with water. The human sweat dripping down to the floor caused the quicklime to bubble, and painfully and slowly, the inhabitants of the cars began to burn. These poor victims cried in agony for over a day until they met their inevitable deaths.

How can one believe in God when such evil stalks the earth?

Dark deeds of evil challenge the faith of everyone, even great rabbis. The Talmud tells of Elisha Ben Avuyah, a Rabbinic leader who lost his faith when he witnessed a pig dragging around the tongue of a Rabbi who had been executed by the Romans. The Talmud seems to be insisting that we understand Elisha’s heresy, and to be aware that at times everyone doubts their faith.

The evil of the Holocaust challenges our faith not just in God, but in life itself. In the shadow of horrific evil, all joy seems like lunacy, and the pursuit of meaning seem like an absurdity. When the Gestapo eliminated the hospital in the Lodz Ghetto, the SS officers threw babies out of the window. One intrepid young officer, stationed on the street, decided to “catch” the flying babies on his bayonet, slicing through these innocent infants.

Who can believe in anything after witnessing such a crime?

Despair is particularly painful for sensitive souls. The students of Hillel are exceptionally humble and charitable; yet when it comes to discuss the value of life, they concluded “it would be better for man to have not been created than to be created”. These sensitive Rabbis take the suffering of the world to heart, and find it too overwhelming, and they are left wondering about the value of life.

In the dark shadows of the Holocaust, faith becomes a painful question rather than an easy answer.

Yet, despite doubts and despair, we teach, talk and think about the Holocaust. Instead of considering Aushwitz to be a theological disaster zone, we view it a semi-sacred site, a place for communal pilgrimages. We even send high school students to visit concentration camps on The March of the Living.

Presumably, exposing gentle young students to the dark horrors of the Holocaust should warp their souls and leave them cynical and bitter. But strangely enough, the students return from the March of the Living inspired. They walk up to the abyss and come into contact with the darkest horrors man has known; yet they walk away with a spiritual experience. Why does this happen?

Because man instinctively resists evil. The darkness of evil inspires us to do good, because our soul simply cannot tolerate evil. The Bible says “man’s soul is God’s candle”, and each soul has a profound spirituality. (Yes, this is still true despite the fact that the Nazis perverted and corrupted the image of God, burying their souls under a miasma of evil). Deep inside, we have a divine impulse that searches for goodness.

Even in the desperation of the death camps, there were heroes of kindness, like the man who saved Mayer Schondorf’s life. After an all night death march, sixteen year old Mayer’s cap blew off. Frozen and broken, Schondorf wanted to quit and step out of line, and get shot by the German guards. The man behind Mayer encouraged him to hold on, and when they passed by a corpse on the side of the road, this man risked his life to grab the cap and give it to Mayer. Enveloped by cruelty, this anonymous hero refused to capitulate; instead he lights a candle of kindness.

When confronted with evil, one needs to battle for the good; when confronted by darkness, one needs to light a candle.

When walking in Auschwitz, surrounded by the horrors of the Holocaust, belief comes from within, from our own souls. Repulsed by horror, our spirits stir, and demand that we transform ourselves and change the world. And that impulse to battle evil and do good is powerful evidence of the divine spirit within all of us.

Our souls, God’s candles on earth, can still light the path of faith in the darkest of places.

Friday, March 26, 2010

"Is Singing the Song of Shame the First Step in Inspired Leadership?"

A different take on the Haggadah shel Pesach (The Passover Haggadah)

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for filming and producing this video.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Son of Hamas

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project. You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail if you are interested.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Blackberrys, Cellphones And Sanctuaries in the 21st Century

"Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail if you are interested."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Until the Last Breath

In times of distress, it feels like we don’t have free will. Overwhelmed by suffering and oppression, it seems like all options have been snatched away from us, and that there’s no way to grab control of our lives. When someone is holding a gun to our head, what choice do we have?

But there is free will in hell. Even when man has lost control of his fate and is about to lose his life, he still has some free will left. Even when deprived of the ability to act, man can make choices, and choose courageous words and quiet nobility. These limited choices won’t affect the outcome, but they can still transform life dramatically.

It is easy ignore these last fragments of free will; after all choice seems so insignificant when the outcome is inevitable. The Romans executed the great Rabbi, Akiva, in the year 135 A.D. During the execution, his students stood nearby, to accompany their teacher during his last moments. As the Romans were slowly and tortuously tearing Akiva’s skin off, the time for the Shema prayer arrived. Weakened and dazed, Akiva pushed himself to recite the prayer. Akiva’s startled students called to him and said: “Rebbe, even now?” Do you still need to say the Shema seconds before your death, when you have already proven your courage and loyalty?

The students’ amazement is understandable; how many people maintain their composure while tortured? But Akiva’s lesson is a significant one: there’s still free will in hell.

Free will remains with us as long as we are capable of choosing our words and our thoughts. Even if we can no longer choose whether or not we do live, it is in our hands to choose how we live out the last moments of our lives. To spend one’s last seconds whispering a prayer may seem insignificant, considering the impending tragedy; but actually, this whispered prayer is heroic, a declaration that as long as man can breathe, his choices still matter. Indeed, Akiva’s choice to say farewell to this world with the Shema on his lips has been emulated hundreds of thousands of times since. Akiva reminds us that free will is possible everywhere, even in hell.

Of course, free will under duress is both rare and precious. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a moving book about his experiences entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He spends much of the book explaining that each concentration camp inmate retained his free will, even when things were at their worst. Frankl is inspired by the few who chose to rise above their circumstances. He writes:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

No one can take your free will away!! Yes, it’s normal for the powerless to feel hopeless; after all, once a person has been degraded and demoralized, it’s easy to believe you’re an animal. But you can always decide how you act and react, and you can always retain your humanity. Man’s free will shines through in moments of crisis, when people make heroic choices, and choose to recite the Shema in their dying moments, and to share their rations in a concentration camp. Man always has a choice.

It may seem absurd to stand under the gaze of the angel of death and still worry about mumbling a prayer or giving away a half eaten crust of bread. But in actuality, these small choices are heroic, and affirm man’s invincible spirit, a spirit as infinite as the image of God.

And that invincible spirit remains with us, until the last breath.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Value of Everything

What does it take to survive as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam? Admiral James Stockdale, an American POW who heroically resisted torture and torment for eight years, explained to author Jim Collins how he found the courage to carry on:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story...I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life...”

Stockdale’s powerful sense of optimism inspires. However, Stockdale doesn’t see himself as an optimist. In fact, he explained to Collins that the POW’s least likely to survive were the optimists, because: “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.... And they died of a broken heart.”

Ironically, Stockdale is optimistic about the long term future, yet pessimistic about the short term, steadfastly resistant to any false hopes. Collins labeled Stockdale’s views on optimism “The Stockdale Paradox”.

This paradox resembles Maimonides’ views on the Messiah. Belief in the Messiah is an optimistic vision of worldwide redemption. Maimonides is quite clear that faith in the Messiah is a fundamental belief of Judaism; yet, at the same time, Maimonides is emphatic, both in his legal code and in his letters, that one must be careful not to speculate about when and under what circumstances the Messiah will arrive. Maimonides refuses to open the door to Messianic fervor, well aware of the destruction brought by the false Messiahs of his generation. Much like the “Stockdale Paradox”, Maimonides paradoxically demands that we dream of the Messiah’s arrival, yet at the same time Maimonides ignores the possibility the Messiah will come in the near future.

At the heart of both of these paradoxes is a riddle about optimism. Optimism seems to have two definitions; one refers to being contented with whatever we have (“the glass is half full”), and the other refers to hope for a better future ("it’ll all turn out for the best in the end”). These two definitions are dramatically different. One reflects acceptance, the willingness to be satisfied with whatever life gives you; the other reflects dreams and aspirations, motivated by a profound desire for change. Indeed, the common use of the word “optimism” is itself a paradox, because it demands of us to dream of a better future while being absolutely happy with our present situation!

While accepting both of the two definitions of optimism may seem paradoxical, it is not illogical. Oscar Wilde famously said that “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Optimism would then be the opposite of cynicism, with the optimist seeing the value in everything, unconcerned about the cost. Of course the optimist values the future, and dreams of a better world and a better life. But the optimist can also see how precious life is, even in a POW camp; an optimist can see the enormous value in pursuing one’s duties, no matter what the costs are, even in the most horrific of places. Optimism sees the value of the present while embracing the potential of the future.

What sustains people like Stockdale who have overcome their ordeals is a dogged refusal to let go of their duties and their dreams. But even optimists sometimes falter when suffering. In March 1945, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhev, Rabbi Israel Spira, was overwhelmed by despair. He had lost all of his family, and was alone to the world, and he walked up to the electrified fence at Bergen Belsen in order to end it all. A woman, witnessing the Rabbi, began to speak to him. She told the Rabbi: “how can you stand here now and think of ending your life? A day will come and God will bless you 0nce more; you will be grateful that your life was spared. And besides, the world needs you!”.

Rabbi Spira stepped away from the fence. He realized it was his duty to be courageous and optimistic.

From then on, until his death in 1989, Rabbi Spira fulfilled his duties; and he built a better future for himself, and inspired others to do the same.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Women, Survival, and Heroism

(For Parshat Beshalach 2010)

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video (check out the fancy TV quality camera!!), and to Lorne Lieberman for supporting this project.

You can sponsor this video with a 54$ donation. Please contact if you are interested.