Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Cult of Overwork and the Sabbath

An article in The New Yorker described it best: the cult of overwork. White collar professionals in the United States are far more likely to work longer hours than lower paid workers. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of people in professional services (consultants, investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, IT, and the like) found that "94% of 1,000 such professionals said they put in 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group turning in more than 65 hours a week. That doesn’t include the 20 to 25 hours a week most of them spend monitoring their BlackBerrys while outside the office."  Another Harvard survey of “extreme workers,” who work very long hours, found that "Almost two-thirds (64%) of extreme workers admit that the pressure and the pace are self-inflicted—a function of a type-A personality."

It should be noted that overwork is ultimately impractical. After a certain point, productivity suffers and burnout is common. The Midrash says that Moses, while still in Pharaoh's household, convinced Pharaoh to allow the Jewish slaves to rest on Shabbat. Moses argued that a Sabbath would be to Pharaoh’s benefit; slaves that never stop working will die from overwork. Even a Pharaoh can grasp the practical value of the Shabbat; and in recent years, as overwork has become an HR concern, several corporations have also recognized the importance of a day of rest. Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse and others have instituted rules that free junior employees from work one day a week, and require them to return home from the office. Shabbat has a practical value to it, as a day to recharge for more work.

So why is there a cult of overwork, and where does the drive for overwork come from? It begins with the reality that work is extremely meaningful. There is significant spiritual value in our labor. The Mekhilta cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi that just as one is commanded to rest on Shabbat, one is also commanded to work the other six days a week. In one fascinating passage in Rabbinic literature (Avot DeRabbi Natan 11:1), it says that the divine presence does not arrive unless people are engaged in productive work, and that idleness brings death. In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik writes that human dignity and majesty are found in humanity's mastery over nature, which is achieved through productivity and progress. The six days of work fulfill a significant spiritual and existential need.

Work brings us dignity and majesty; and that is why overwork is so enticing. While taking a respite seems sensible, the idea of resting for its own sake seems strange: why would anyone give up something as important as the ability to work? Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “Their practice of the Sabbath is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life." To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: How can you take a full day of rest when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is equally true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money,” and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. Even when we are away from our work we carry our work with us in briefcases and laptops, on Zoom conferences, and email exchanges. We live in the culture of the MBA, where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning; in this type of value system, a day of rest is a meaningless obstacle to further growth.

Shabbat offers a radical alternative. It is not only about rest; it is about sacrificing work for more important goals. As important as work is, endless labor dehumanizes both masters and slaves, and reduces man to what he can produce. Shabbat declares that man is ultimately defined by his character and commitments, not his creations. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550) explains that the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. Shabbat stands as a counterweight to the other six days of the week, a reminder that we are so much more than the sum total of what we produce.

There is a mitzvah to remember the Shabbat every day of the week; its purpose is to make sure we never lose sight of the Shabbat perspective and define ourselves by our work. But that is difficult to do. An anecdote shared by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg epitomizes how easily we forget the lessons of Shabbat. Rabbi Goldberg was at a wedding and was seated next to someone he had never met. He writes:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

In a cult of overwork, life is defined by how you earn your living. That is why, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”.  And sadly, endless work makes man a hostage of his own creativity. In sacrificing work in order to observe Shabbat, we learn that we are more than what we make and what we own.  


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Coronavirus Grumbling, the Sukkah, and the Wisdom of Hindsight

President Zalman Shazar makes “Kiddush” in the sukkah at Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem. Seated on the right are Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Chief Rabbi Isser Unterman and Mr. Nahum Goldmann.

It has been a year and a half of discontent.

A friend of mine who is a doctor told me that her hospital recently held a seminar on how to deal with patients who are angry and disorderly. And it is not only this hospital. Schools, stores and airlines are similarly grappling with populations that are just angrier and more difficult.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that “Customer satisfaction is at the lowest level since 2005, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks the behavior of 300,000 consumers across 46 industries. ….The Federal Aviation Administration has initiated more than 750 investigations related to unruly passengers so far this year, compared with 146 in all of 2019.” People are simply unhappy, and taking it out on others.

Grumbling is familiar to students of the Tanakh; it is the defining attribute of the generation of the desert. These recently freed slaves, who had just left Egypt, complain 10 times for every possible reason; they are afraid of the Egyptian army, but also frightened of the people of Canaan. They are worried that Moshe has left them, and angry that Moshe is leading them. They complain about a lack of food, a lack of water, and once they do receive the manna, complain about that too. They are deeply unhappy, whining about matters as trivial as a lack of garlic and watermelons.

Sukkot commemorates these 40 years in the desert; and that is extremely strange. Why celebrate a time when our ancestors were miserable and grumbling? And it should be noted, in defense of the generation in the desert, that their situation was difficult. The changes, challenges, and uncertainties experienced by the generation of the desert would worry anyone. What purpose is there in commemorating a frightening time of fear, discontent and rebellion?

The answer lies in the wisdom of hindsight. There are moments, both in history and in life, that we view very differently years later. In literature, authors use retrospective narration to show how the narrator can change perspective with time, and look back on events differently at a later date. Hindsight offers unique insights, unentangled by the emotions of the moment.

The grumbling of the desert came about due to a combination of circumstances and character. The challenges of the desert bring out the worst in these former slaves; Maimonides and Ibn Ezra both point to the slavish, cowardly character they had, a slave mentality they could never shake. But there is another way to explain their behavior, one that makes the former slaves far more relatable to our contemporary experience.

According to the Talmud, the Jews were freed from servitude six months before the Exodus; for half a year, these former slaves lived comfortably in a prosperous world empire. They are then promised a land of milk and honey, only to be led into a barren desert. This bitter disappointment often leads to political instability. James Chowning Davies offered a theory of revolution known as the J-Curve theory, “that revolutions are almost inevitable when long periods of social and economic development are countered by sharp reversals and depreciation.” The generation of the desert had already tasted freedom and comfort, and had even bigger dreams. They expected immediate gratification, an actual rose garden of milk and honey. They had expected freedom to be immediate, easy, and free of problems. Instead, the challenges of the desert made the Exodus seem like a counterfeit redemption.

The generation of the desert complained because they were captives of their own mindset. But in hindsight, those 40 years look different. The contemporary reader can recognize that the wandering in the desert is far better than slavery, that it prepared the Jews for the responsibilities of statehood, and allowed them to slowly make their way to the promised land.

The 40 years in the desert is most appreciated much later in history, during the times of Ezra. A small group of Jews had returned from Babylonia under the sponsorship of Cyrus the Great.  They were threatened by the people who were occupying the land, and Ezra’s followers were frightened to rebuild any part of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Yet slowly but surely, this small group built a small autonomous community in the land of Israel that eventually turned into a large commonwealth. And the Book of Nehemiah tells us that this is when they rediscovered the magic of the Sukkot, and celebrated the holiday together as a community. A change in perspective had occurred. For the returning Babylonian exiles, getting halfway to Jewish sovereignty was a miracle; and they now understood how the halfway miracle of the desert was special as well.

Centuries after the grumbling in the desert, the Jews recognize how remarkable it is to take a few slow steps in the direction of the promised land. With the gift of hindsight, the years of the desert are seen differently, not as a time of frustration, but as a time of gradual redemption.

Sukkot teaches us the wisdom of hindsight, and that events look differently many years later. In the moment, we often lose sight of small victories; but years later we can see the difference they make.

Right now is a time of coronavirus grumbling and bickering. Our frustrations blur our vision, and we cannot see our own experience objectively. But perhaps years from now, with the wisdom of hindsight, things will be viewed differently. Perhaps one day, we will look back and recognize that dedicated scientists, heroic healthcare workers, and caring volunteers helped us overcome a pandemic. Perhaps one day we’ll look back at this period of discontent, and recognize all the good that was done far outweighs the bad; and we, too, will thank God for our pandemic Sukkot, which offered us some protection while slowly getting life back to normal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

In Search of Heroes: The 20th Anniversary of 9/11


9/11 was an American tragedy. Terrorists struck a blow at the heart of our country and murdered 2,977 people. This attack was an assault on all Americans and brought heartbreak to countless thousands of bereft parents, widows and orphans. The victims were traveling in airplanes or sitting in their offices, supporting their families and pursuing their dreams. As President Bush put it, “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror." On 9/11, the forces of evil took the lives of thousands of good people.

The perpetrators of these attacks "are like chaff that wind blows away" (Psalms 1:4), and will be remembered only to be condemned and despised. But we will always remember the heroes of 9/11, the first responders who rushed in to save those who were stranded and injured; we will remember those who ran into the Twin Towers when everyone else was running out. So many of these heroes made the ultimate sacrifice in order to help others. The fire station just a half a block away from our synagogue, FDNY Engine 22, lost nine firefighters on 9/11. On the outside of the station there is a permanent memorial with their pictures, a tribute to the “Yorkville Nine” with the caption “There was a time when the world asked ordinary men to do extraordinary things.” And we will always remember our heroes who did such extraordinary things.

Heroism does not grow in a vacuum; heroes are shaped by their upbringing and education. Samuel and Pearl Oliner based their landmark study, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, on interviews with nearly 700 non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. (Samuel had a personal interest in the topic; as a 12-year-old, he himself was saved by a Polish peasant woman). They found that the rescuers were most often influenced by their parents. These altruistic, loving parents were role models with a strong sense of morality. Further studies on the Rwandan genocide have had similar results, and it is clear that culture and training are critical in the cultivation of heroism.

The early life of Moshe follows a similar pattern. Even though the Egyptians demanded that Jewish parents throw their baby boys into the river, Moshe's parents refused to do so, and hid him instead. Even when they could no longer hide him, his parents did their best to protect him in the river, by placing him in a miniature boat; while his sister sat and watched over baby Moshe. His own family’s actions left its mark on Moshe, who even at a young age stepped up to protect the lives of others; and Moshe learned his first lessons of heroism at home. Heroes are raised to be heroes.

I am afraid that America has forgotten how to produce heroes, because we're confused about what a true hero is.  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes in the essay Catharsis that there are two models of heroism: classical heroism, which is found in Greco-Roman literature, and biblical heroism. Classical heroism is aesthetic, dramatic and theatrical, demonstrating outward feats of strength that elicit the cheers of the crowd. But the biblical model of heroism is about character; it is about the person’s self-control, even self-negation, in the service of a higher cause, and their willingness to move forcefully in the pursuit of morality. The biblical hero works in anonymity and doesn't care to be famous.

What type of heroes do we embrace today? To put it bluntly, our children's role models are not true heroes, and we live in a culture which is obsessed with celebrity, where wealth is worshipped, and fame is honored. Open any tabloid or glossy magazine; they feature athletes, actors and the A-list financial elite. We are fooling ourselves if we ignore the damage this does. We are reorienting an entire generation's vision of what is meaningful and heroic. Ben Stein, who used to file a weekly report on the celebrities he would run into in Los Angeles, stopped doing so in 2005. In his final column he wrote the following, which is worth quoting at length:

We put couples with incomes of $100 million a year on the covers of our magazines. The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay...are anonymous as they live and die...I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values...

There are plenty of other stars in the American firmament. The policemen and women who go off on patrol in South Central and have no idea if they will return alive. The orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery. The teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children. The kind men and women who work in hospices and in cancer wards.

Think of each and every fireman who was running up the stairs at the World Trade Center as the towers began to collapse.

Now you have my idea of a real hero.

We need to embrace the idea of biblical heroism again, before it gets forgotten. Real heroes are people of character, not characters on TV. Real heroes wear uniforms, not couture. Real Heroes are too busy helping others to post selfies on Instagram.

Real heroes often toil in anonymity. One of the heroes of 9/11 was first known as the man in the red bandana. He wore a red bandana over his face to protect himself from the smoke, as he helped dozens of people exit the building. He was credited with saving 18 lives. It was only after reading newspaper stories about him, and contacting survivors, that his parents found out that the stories were about their son; he was Welles Crowther, 24-year-old equity trader and a volunteer fireman. And like so many other heroes, he learned to serve others as part of his upbringing; his father was a volunteer fireman, who had inspired his son’s choices. The red bandana was a tradition he learned from his father as well; he had carried one since he was a 7-year-old child, when he got a red bandana as a gift from his father.

Will America be able to produce heroes like Welles Crowther anymore? Twenty years after 9/11, we need to think seriously about this question. It takes determination to raise real heroes, and in order to do so, we need to build a culture of courage, compassion and moral vision.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

How Do I Convince My Child to be a Jew?

Although I didn’t know Sarah, she had asked for an appointment to see me. The issue was her son. He was dating a non-Jewish woman seriously, and when Sarah would ask him if he planned on raising his children as Jews, his answer was no; Judaism wasn't important to him. Sarah had one question for me: how do I convince my son to be Jewish?

This same question motivated Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to write the book “A Letter in the Scroll,” which was published in 2000. As he explains in the introduction, he wrote the book as his response to the growing problem of assimilation; and in the book, he speaks personally about why he is a Jew. As you read the book, what becomes clear is that he believes that all Jews need to take this question seriously. To underscore the point, Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that he offered a first draft of the book to his son and daughter in law as a gift for their wedding. Even respected rabbis have to make sure to inspire their children to be Jews.

The book begins with a question about our Torah reading. Moshe renews the covenant with the second generation of Jews, the children of those who left Egypt, and says: “I make this covenant ... not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” This covenant includes all future generations.

Two Biblical commentators, Rabbi Isaac Arama and Don Isaac Abravanel, pose the very same question about this passage: How could the generation of the desert accept the covenant on behalf of their descendants without the consent of future generations? Why can’t any Jewish child refuse to accept the Torah, which they never consented to? It is worth noting that both Abravanel and Arama were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. (According to Bentzion Netanyahu, they would meet to discuss theological issues, which is why there is a great deal of overlap in their Torah commentaries.) They had both watched many of their compatriots convert to Christianity, and wondered whether future generations would care about Judaism in the future.

Over the years, three explanations have been given for this verse, and they are cited by the Malbim in his commentary. The first is that the covenant is actually irrelevant; Jews are obligated to keep the Torah because one cannot refuse the commandments of an all-powerful creator. The second answer is that the generation of the desert could accept the covenant for all future generations because the covenant is fundamentally a gift, which allows one to gain reward in the world to come; and one is entitled to assume consent, and thereby accept a gift on behalf of another person. The third answer, which is mystical, is that all future generations stood at Sinai; the soul of every future Jew, both born Jewish and converts, stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah.

These three answers can rephrased this way: 

You must be a Jew.

It’s a gift to be a Jew.

You were meant to be a Jew.

These answers, with a contemporary spin, are still used today. But are they convincing to the next generation of Jews?

The answer of “you must be a Jew” now focuses on antisemitism, and argues that one has no choice; other people will always push Jews away, and Jews can never leave their ancestry behind. A Jew can try to assimilate, but the haters will still hate them. Ben Hecht, in his autobiography “A Child of the Century,” writes about a conversation with movie mogul David O. Selznick. Hecht wanted him to sign a telegram in support of the Zionist cause. Selznick said he wouldn’t because: "I'm an American and not a Jew. It would be silly of me to pretend suddenly that I'm a Jew, with some sort of full-blown Jewish psychology."

Hecht responded: “If I can prove that you are a Jew David, will you sign the telegram as a co-sponsor for me?"

Selznick asked Hecht: "How are you going to prove it?"

To which Hecht replied: “I will call up any three people you name, and ask them the following question: What would you call David O. Selznick, an American or a Jew? If any of the three answers that he calls you an American, you win. Otherwise you sign the telegram."

Selznick signed the telegram.

This type of response may have resonated in the 1940s, but seems foreign today. Abigail Pogrebin interviewed Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame for her book “Stars of David.” Alexander explained that his parents would offer this very same argument: "'There are people in this world who would kill you just because you're a Jew, and you have to know what you're dying for.'" Alexander wryly noted that "this was a real incentive program." Focusing on antisemitism does not inspire people to love Judaism; it only inspires panic and guilt. 

The answer that “it’s a gift to be a Jew” no longer focuses on other-worldly rewards; instead it says Judaism is a gift because it makes you happy. This is a reasonable perspective, considering that a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Jews were the happiest religious group in the United States. This argument is quite popular, and many sermons and articles have focused on how Judaism contains important wisdom about health, psychology and relationships.

In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote “Peace of Mind,” which sold over a million copies in one year. Since then, books about Jewish wisdom for business, relationships, health and sex have been best sellers. Undoubtedly, many Jewish rituals do bring peace of mind, and there is a great deal of interest, both among Jews and non-Jews, about the gifts of Judaism. But the problem with this answer is that it reduces the Torah to a guide on psychology, health and finance; Judaism is no longer a spiritual journey or the search for transcendence. Yet even great thinkers were tempted to see the mitzvot as utilitarian. Maimonides wrote that the reason for eating kosher food is because it is healthier, and that pork in particular led to unhealthy conditions, and communities that raised pigs were “cesspools.” Don Isaac Abravanel offered a harsh criticism of Maimonides’ view, saying it transformed the Torah into a “short medical textbook.” Abravanel is correct. While we may find happiness in the pursuit of Judaism, that cannot be its purpose. There is plenty of non-kosher food that is healthy, and plenty of very happy people who don’t practice Judaism.

The most meaningful answer is the third one: “You were meant to be a Jew.” This response is not based on proofs or arguments. Instead one hears a voice in the depths of one’s soul that says: I am a Jew because I cannot imagine not being one. This person’s journey to Jewish identity is inexplicable, a magnetic pull that draws them near. Beginning with Avraham and Sarah, the Jewish journey has been an all-consuming passion for those who want to be a part of the greatest story on earth. Like Yonah, they say “I am a Hebrew.” Like Ruth, they say “don’t turn me away.” Like Avraham, they say “I am ready.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes his book with an eloquent three-page summary about why he is a Jew.  In every word, one can recognize that he is driven by his love for Judaism, and cannot imagine being anything else.

The weakness of the final approach is it doesn't persuade. Those passionate about their Judaism can share what Judaism means to them, but it remains a personal experience. Rabbi Sacks writes in the introduction that his book “is a personal reply. None of us can answer the question for anyone else.” He writes simply to share his own experience.

How do you convince your children to love Judaism? There’s no answer for that question. But if you know you were meant to be a Jew, if you feel like your soul was at Mount Sinai, share that inspiration; perhaps you will inspire them.

Toward the end of the book, Rabbi Sacks shares a moving story about a Hasidic rabbi in Kew Garden Hills. The rabbi had moved there after the Holocaust and opened a small shtiebel. One Shabbat, a boy wandered in, wanting to see what a Hasidic rabbi is like. After services, the rabbi went over to the boy and said that Pesach was rapidly approaching, and he did not have a child old enough to ask the four questions; would the boy be his guest and say the Mah Nishtanah? The boy accepted the invitation, and sat at the Seder with the rabbi and his wife; at the side of the table was a carriage with their baby daughter. At one point during the Seder, the baby started to cry, and the rabbi excused himself. In another room, he rocked the baby to sleep, and sang a Yiddish song. The boy could make out the words, but didn't know what they meant.


After the Seder, the boy was intrigued enough to want to learn more about the rabbi’s story. He found out that both the rabbi and his wife had been in concentration camps, and the rabbi had been in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. After the war they reunited, but had difficulty having children. After years of trying, they were told by doctors to give up hope; despite all odds, this baby was born.


This boy was transformed by that evening, and decided to become religious, eventually becoming a rabbi. But what inspired him was not the rabbi’s story; it's when he learned the meaning of the song the rabbi sang to his daughter. The words were: "it is good to be a Jew, it is good to be a Jew." This rabbi, who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, could still sing about his love for Judaism; he still knew he was meant to be a Jew. At that Seder, this young boy saw a role model of Jewish identity.


There is no answer to the question of how to convince my child to be a Jew, but there is a response. If you feel the passion of Sinai, live that way, because that passion just might inspire others. And never be shy to say “it is good to be a Jew.”