Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Serving God For Pleasure

November 29, 2008

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Serving God For Pleasure

If someone approached you and guaranteed that you would receive 100 million dollars if you simply follow what they asked of you, would you agree to the deal? You may be cautious because you never know what this person has in mind for you to do (something evil perhaps) or if he can really deliver.

But what if you knew with absolute clarity that this person would only ask you to carry out acts of kindness and good deeds in return for 100 million? It seems like the decision would be quite simple.

This leads us to a perplexing situation in this week’s Torah portion as well as in the entire book of Genesis. God tells Isaac:

Live in this land (of Israel) and I will be with you and bless you. I will give these lands to you and your children and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father. I will increase your offspring like the stars in the heavens and I will give these lands to your children. All the nations of the world will bless themselves through your offspring. (Genesis 26:3-4)

Isaac (as did Abraham and Jacob) knows that God is talking to him. He has no doubts. When God wants you to know that He is talking to you, He appears in such a way that does not leave room for any reservations. God then promises abundant and amazing blessings to Isaac if only Isaac walks in His path.

Where is Isaac’s challenge? Would it not be obvious and clear to Isaac what he is to do with his life? If everything is so simple, how would Isaac earn great rewards? Reward from God is based upon man exercising his free will. Isaac’s free will would be quite limited once he had heard God himself say that he would be greatly rewarded. How could Isaac’s free will continue to function? What is Isaac’s test?

The solution teaches us a fundamental concept in service of God. But, as is often the case in Jewish learning, we must first ask a few more questions.

* * *


Pirkei Avot (1:3) states:

“Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward.” (Some texts actually say: “for the sake not to receive reward.”)

We are instructed to serve God for ‘the sake of heaven’. Ideally we are not to concentrate on rewards that we might attain. Yet, we are supposed to know that we will receive reward for the observance of the Torah. The Talmud tells us in numerous places that the rewards mentioned in the Torah (for example, Deuteronomy 22:7 and Talmud Chullin 142a) do not refer to life in this world but to life in the next world. This itself would be a difficult intellectual tension to live with. But not only do we study Jewish texts that constantly inform us of reward, we pray for reward daily!

“May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our fathers, that we observe Your decrees in this world, and merit to live, see, and inherit goodness and blessing in the years of Messianic Times and for life in the World to Come.” (Uba LeZion prayer, end of Shacharit Morning Prayers, Artscroll Siddur, p. 154)

It is one thing to demand that we try to ignore rewards while we serve God. But how can we be expected to ignore rewards when we are praying for them? We are supposed to concentrate intently and sincerely on our prayers! Do we mean what we pray for concerning rewards or not?

* * *


Have you ever visited your mother after being away for a long time? Your mother is thrilled to see you and she makes you a feast fit for a king. As you indulge in each course she serves, you enjoy the special home cooked meal. But certainly part of you takes pleasure in the fact that you are giving your mother pleasure by eating her well-prepared meal. She enjoys watching you enjoy her food. And you eat, intending not only to enjoy the food, but to please your mother as well.
It gives God satisfaction and ‘nachas’ to give us pleasure.

God created the world in order to give us pleasure. The most intense pleasure is in the Next World. (See the beginning of Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim.) It is His desire to see us receive pleasure. Our challenge in life is to perform the Mitzvot, God’s instructions for living, with intent to receive the reward that God wants us to receive. Ideally we are not to have in mind selfish reasons for observing the Torah. We are not to concentrate on our rewards for our sake. Instead, we are to think of the fact that it gives God satisfaction and ‘nachas’ to give us pleasure. Therefore, we should listen to His laws – for His sake, not ours.

* * *


There is a legend about the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht), the founder of Chassidut, which is impossible to believe.

The story goes that the Baal Shem Tov once ascended to Heaven and received certain secrets of the Torah on the condition that he would not divulge these secrets to anyone. When the Baal Shem Tov returned to this world, he found the secrets so sweet and profound that he could not resist telling his students. Soon after, a voice from Heaven was heard saying, “Baal Shem Tov has just lost his portion in the Next World!” The Baal Shem Tov could not contain his immense joy and began dancing uncontrollably because he now had the opportunity to serve God ‘for His sake’ without any thought of reward. When God saw the Baal Shem Tov’s reaction, a heavenly voice proclaimed, “Baal Shem Tov has earned his place in the Next World again!”

The reason why we cannot accept this story as true should now be obvious. If indeed, the Baal Shem Tov had lost his portion in the Next World, that would be one of the greatest tragedies for God! Such a holy man, and God would not be able to take pleasure in rewarding him.

It is God’s greatest pleasure to give pleasure to the righteous people of the world. The Baal Shem Tov losing his place in the Next World would certainly not be a cause for celebration! Why would the Baal Shem Tov rejoice in God’s pain?

In terms of serving God for ‘His sake’, not for ours, this does not mean that we hope not to receive reward. The Torah is replete with indications and reminders of our reward. Rather, we have to want the reward because God wants us to have it, not because we want to get it.

This most difficult task, to want personal goodness for non-personal gain, is one that Patriarchs and Matriarchs can master. This was their challenge and test. Sure, they knew they would get much reward as God had told them. But what their intent would be when they earn the reward was the issue they had to struggle with. Would they do it for God’s pleasure, or their own?

This balancing act, of performing God’s will for the purpose of pleasing God, and thereby earn reward but wanting the reward for God’s sake, is our struggle as well.

Let us always try to think about helping God give us pleasure, allowing Him to accomplish what He truly wants for the world. He gets pleasure giving us pleasure. Let’s let Him do it.


Mortgage Meltdown and Coveting Another’s Property

August 16, 2008

V’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Do Not CovetEveryone knows that one of the Ten Commandments is “Do not covet” (Deut. 5:18). However, most people do not know how this works.

What is the difference between admiring another person’s thing – perhaps even desiring it for yourself – and coveting? The Sages explain that the prohibition of coveting only occurs when you begin to plot how you could get it from the other person. Even if you intend to offer him a price way above market value, the mere planning of how you can make his property your own is a problem of “coveting.” Of course, if he has previously indicated a willingness to sell something, there are no restrictions. But the Torah is very strict about something that is not on the market.

The idea is simple. We have to learn to respect the ownership of others to the point where we regard their things as completely and utterly untouchable under all circumstances. As soon as he puts the item on the market, it comes into our dimension in potential – but until that point, it is not even something to consider.

The Torah puts it very nicely: “Do not covet his property, nor his wife.” His property should be as taboo as his wife. In the same way that no normal person would try to plot how to get someone to willingly give up their spouse, so too his property.

The Sages explain why: If you believe on any level that you have a right to acquire the property of another even though he is happy with it, then you do not have absolute respect for his ownership. And not having absolute respect for his ownership is a first step on a very slippery path toward dishonesty and outright theft. So the net time you read about a hostile takeover on Wall Street, think about the Ten Commandments.

Spiritual Fence: Value and Meaning in Our Lives

June 7, 2008


The Spiritual Fence 

Torah Portion: Naso

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt



In this week’s portion, we learn about a person who takes a Nazirite vow, committing to abstain from wine. The Torah does not recommend this. Abstaining from any pleasure in this world is a denial of God’s goodness. Nonetheless, one who makes such a vow is bound by it.

By taking such a vow, the Torah says that not only may he not drink wine, but he also may not eat grapes, raisins and even grape seeds and skins! Why?

This is not about adding unnecessary hardships. Rather, the Torah is creating a fence to protect the Nazirite from falling foul of his own vow. Wine is a strong temptation. If he is forbidden even to eat grape skins, he will never come close to drinking wine.

We learn from this the importance of making fences to protect our spiritual well-being. The Sages have made many fences for us, but suggest that we also make our own, too.

When it comes to the material world, we are great at making fences, carefully guarding our physical possessions. To protect our money, there is no better protected building than a bank. We also make fences for things that may harm us: Bottles of poison are clearly marked, have difficult-to-open caps and are locked well away. If you’ve ever been to the Golan Heights, you will have seen acres of very well fenced-off minefields. We wouldn’t want someone wandering in.

Unfortunately, we are not always as careful in guarding our spiritual possessions. Do we make fences to ensure that we are not slipping spiritually, never mind actually growing? Do we make fences to ensure we spend enough time with our families; to ensure we are not falling in to the trap of “living to work” as opposed to “working to live”? Do we make fences to help us live on the moral level that we would like to?

Try spending the first half hour, after you return from work, with your family. That’s a good fence. If not, you will find yourself in bed wondering where the time went that you really were intending to spend. Or take half an hour a month to remember what exactly you are living for – to check that you haven’t gone off track.

There are so many good fences, if only we would bother to make them.

We all have tremendous spiritual wealth that can slowly slip away if not fenced in. There are also many spiritual poisons. If we don’t lock them away in well-marked bottles, we may inadvertently partake of them. Making a fence is the best way to protect what we have. If we refrain from making them, it is at our peril.

Author Biography:
Shaul grew up in Liverpool. He studied for his smicha at Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem where he met his first wife Elana a”h who passed away in 2001 after a long struggle with cancer. They had four children together and Shaul has a further two with his second wife Chana, who he married in 2003. Shaul has written a book, ‘Finding Light in the Darkness’, published by Targum Press, dealing with the issue of facing hardship in a positive way. Shaul founded Aish UK in 1993 and Tikun UK in 2006 along with Dean Kaye. He enjoys most things in life.


This article can also be read at: 

What Will Your Children Remember?

May 31, 2008

This week’s Torah portion brings us to focus on our own lives and how we impact others, especially our children. What will they remember about you when you are gone? What will bring a smile to their faces, warmth in their heart and guidance for the development of their soul, their morality and ethics in a complex world? 

Only you can answer these questions for yourself and only you can make decisions today, now, on where this is all heading and how you might want steer a different course.

These are challenging questions. Knowing right from wrong is perfectly easy on certain extreme things. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out that killing a defenseless human being is wrong or that giving a helping hand to someone in need is right. But I believe that the real test of character and depth of a person’s soul is the effort made in determining right from wrong before acting in a complex world with competing needs and pressures.

It is exhausting enough to just live in this world. Taking time to exercise your mind, body and soul can seem just too much. But for myself, if I break it down into tiny baby steps, I find I can pull my rear end off the chair and do 10-15 minutes on the treadmill, write a letter to my kids, or think about the future of my grandchildren. If I allow myself just a moment to consider what is happening in my neighborhood, my society and the world I might come up with an idea to help people. I might even come up with an idea that gets my “motor running” out of retirement and into life. 

When I am confronted with a moral challenge it usually involves some vague feeling of right and wrong on the one hand, and either expediency or urgency (“necessity”) on the other hand. In my youth I am sorry to report I tended toward expediency followed by rationalization. As I got a little older, nearing thirty years of age, I began to realize that I was defining myself by my lapses in judgment, integrity and good will. One little step at a time, as an imperfect man in an imperfect world, I set out to change my course and to tell the truth even when it hurt a little to admit my errors — especially to myself.

I learned that self-disclosure empowered me. Nobody could hold anything over me because I was free to disclose my own failings and flaws. After a while it occurred to me that my ability to trust other people was not nearly as important as their ability and willingness to trust me at my word. So I made good on promises even when it was very inconvenient to do so.

I can remember a couple of debts that I had guaranteed for a failed business and I had moved out of state and out of the practical reach of the creditors of the business. But I had personally assured these people who extended the credit on the strength of trusting me. So it took years, but I paid it off. I sure would like to have had that money for myself, but at the end of my life I believe I will look back on that as something to be proud of and that if I had kept the money I would have that gnawing feeling as I expired, that I hadn’t done as well as I could have. 

My children know I don’t lie to them. My wife knows I don’t lie to her. My friends and business associates know I don’t lie to them and that I go out of my way to anticipate any misunderstandings that could arise so we are all confident in each other’s intent. And I don’t just avoid lying. I go out of my way to tell the truth and I don’t withhold it unless I believe it would serve no constructive purpose and would actually hurt or harm people.

A funny thing happened along the way. I decided to help people going through the agony of foreclosures and published a blog and gave of my time and money to people in need. I made friends, helped people and now, despite no intent to do so, I have a business with associates of good intent whom I trust and who trust me. 

My hope is that my children and grandchildren have come to know this about me and that I serve as model for their lives, despite all the mistakes and lapses in parenting to which I now confess and all those which I don’t even realize. I see in them the sense of integrity in their lives and the willingness of others to have complete faith in them. I like that. I’m proud of them. 

I’m blessed to have good relatives, a good wife, good children, and good friends whom I love and who love me. I’ll mess up more before I shed this mortal coil, but on the whole, I think I am doing OK. 

—Neil Garfield, May 31, 2008


Here is an article I found on the net that I thought was particularly good reading:

The Head of a Family Tree 
Torah Portion: Bamidbar
by Rabbi Stephen Baars 


“When one learns as a child, it is like ink on fresh paper; when one learns as an old man, it is like ink on erased paper.” (Pirkei Avos 4:25)


There is a true story about an 8-year-old boy who came home from school one day to find his house on fire. As the blaze raged on, the boy’s mother stood there and cried. “It is awful to lose our home and possessions,” the mother sobbed, “But most of all, we can never replace our family tree which recorded our lineage back to King David!”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” said the boy, “I’ll start a new lineage.” (The boy went on to become a great 19th century rabbi, known as the Maggid of Mezrich.)


* * * 


We live in a very materialistic society. Many choose to spend their time acquiring objects rather than acquiring their children’s admiration.

We tend to worry more over bills than morals. We tend to get upset with others quicker than we apologize.

These are the values of our society. The question is do we want to make these the values of our children? How we choose to approach life is going to be how our children will, too. Following the path of society will make us as memorable to our descendants as an old movie.

Here’s a typical scenario to consider:

When you get a dent in the car, do you panic and get angry? Or do you put it into perspective and realize there are more important things in life to fret about?

Getting upset may help vent your anger – but it also shows your child what is really important in life. The car may be repaired and the dent removed, but the dent in your child’s personality does not come out so easily.

Children will not ask their parents for advice if the parents are not perceived as being truly happy. If life is always “getting to you,” then your kids are not going to ask you how to manage life. In fact, they’ll probably want to give you advice instead!


* * * 


The Torah tells us that Abraham would actually seek out strangers and offer them a meal. This was not the norm then and it’s certainly not the norm now. It affected his children and grandchildren. And until today, the Jewish People are known for their kindness to strangers.

Will you teach your kids that it’s more important to have the most exquisite sofa – or to have the most guests using that sofa?

Be kinder than everyone else… Be more forgiving than everyone else… Be more giving and willing to help than everyone else… Be more patient than everyone else…

Your generosity toward others is more likely to create an exceptional child than any amount of schooling – no matter how high the tuition.

A story:

Two women, Sarah and Rachel, recently met in the grocery store. Since Sarah was pregnant, Rachel asked if there was anything she could do to help out. Sarah’s mother (who was visiting from out-of-town) said, “Sure, I need to go to the other side of town to visit my elderly uncle. Will you drive me back and forth?”

Sarah immediately pulled Rachel aside and apologized, saying that her mother didn’t realize that Rachel had four small children of her own to take care of.

“It’s fine, I’d be happy to take your mother,” Rachel said. “I’ll just put all the kids in the car and we’ll go for a ride. It’s good for my children to see me doing a kindness for a stranger. It’s my pleasure, it really is.”

With the high price of education – and the small price of patience, charity, and kindness – shouldn’t we be more involved with the “bargains?”

We are willing to put in the effort to make our children richer and more comfortable than ourselves. How much more meaningful would it be to make them happier and kinder than ourselves.


* * * 


When your children reflect back on your life, will they see an inspiring leader who made a profound impact on the world – or will they see a parent who merely “followed the crowd,” just another brick in the wall?

You don’t start a lineage by conforming.

A good rule to follow: Instead of worrying what everyone else is saying about you, worry that your children will have something good to say about you, to everyone else.

We find this principle expressed in this week’s parsha. When God commands Moses to count the Jewish People, Moses is told to enlist the help of the tribal heads: “And with you (Moses) shall be one man from each tribe, each man should be the head of his family” (Numbers 1:4).

Rabbi Moshe Chaifetz explained the expression, “the head of his family” as someone who is the beginning of a new lineage. The “head” is the start of a new line. In other words, someone the children will be proud of.

What do we want our children to remember about us? Our striving for a more enriched life? Our quest for constant personal growth? Will they look to our lives for inspiration, for solutions to their problems? Will we be for them a lasting influence – or nothing more than a quaint memory? What a depressing thought if our children would think of us as irrelevant!

It would be nice to think that we could be sources of wisdom for our children. That they will bring to us the problems they face. That they will seek our advice. That in a crisis they will ask, “How would Mom and Dad deal with that?”

We are already going to spend a major amount of time, money and effort on our children. Why not spend a little more effort … and transform them into our legacy.


* * * 


Question 1: If you could write your own tombstone, what five praises or achievements would you like engraved on it?

Question 2: Ask your children who their heroes are. Are they the kind of role models you would chose for them?

Question 3: If you could magically instill one character trait or moral value into your children, what would it be? Now – what are you doing to make that a reality?

Author Biography:
Rabbi Stephen Baars came to Washington, D.C. in 1992 and serves as Executive Director of Aish DC/MD/VA. Aish has classes almost every night of the week in its N. Bethesda location, and day classes all over the city. Aish’s student body includes Senators, Congressmen, business professionals, and Jews from all walks of life and religious backgrounds.

Born and educated in London, Baars received rabbinical ordination after nine years of learning at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. With a wry sense of humor and creative approach to teaching, Baars is famed as the only rabbi to perform stand-up comedy at The Improv in Santa Monica, California.

Steve is married to Ruth Baars and they are blessed with six children.

Archaeology and Jewish Law: The Birth of Racism

May 10, 2008

Around 60,000 years ago, two forms of humans met in what is now Northern Israel. They lived together, ate together and probably slept together and even had children (at least some) together. They are referred to as Neanderthal and Homo sapien. This lasted about 30,000 years when the Neanderthals seem to vanish (extinction or assimilation?) and homo sapien went on to populate the rest of the world.

The Neanderthals came from the North and the homo sapiens came up from the South. There is no reason to suppose that ALL of the neanderthals left their Northern origins in what is now Western and Eastern Europe nor is there any reason to believe that ALL of the homo sapiens left their Southern origins.

And in fact, despite the over-simplified version now professed by archeological experts, there is no reason to believe that NONE of the Neanderthals went North with Homo Sapiens or that NONE of the Neanderthals went South. And we do not know if the progeny of the interbreeding of these two closely related humanoids ever survived or took the place of what had been Neanderthal or what would become homo sapien and if they did survive whether they too might have gone North South, East and/or West.

It is possible that Neanderthals were modified by their interaction with homo sapien and vica versa. It is also possible that those Neanderthals that did not migrate were not modified and that those homo sapiens who did not migrate were also not modified — at least until the return of their ancestors, and whatever visitors they brought with them. 

Thus we have several groups: Neanderthals may or may not have evolved on their own and either died out through extinction or still live among us closely resembling what we call homo sapien. The differences may be subtle enough that the two might be confused. If so, this “race” was probably light skinned because they evolved in the Northern colder climates. Homo sapiens may or may not have evolved on their own as well, producing a “race” that was not intermixed with external breeding. If so, it is likely that this “race” was dark skinned because they evolved from the Southern hotter climates.

Interbreeding might have produced uneven results with deformities and other “flaws” or “defects” appearing regularly, hence the continual references in the Torah to avoiding such people — the Nephalim. These were people to the naked eye but whose nature was closer to the animal kingdom than to the humans with a “soul.” They were clearly regarded as subhuman but apparently “used” for a variety of menial and “dirty” or “unclean” tasks, perhaps including handling of the dead. 

There is also no guarantee that the migrations of any one of the three “races” described above did not involve East-West migration. Hence, Asia might be the result of migration from the West or Western evolution might have been affected by migration FROM the East where yet another form of humanoid was evolving independently. In any event this obviously resulted in yet another “race.”

Back when things were just evolving into these groups it was of course part of the hard wired nature of every living thing with a brain that processes information to regard anything other than themselves as either food or threat. The “us” and “them” basic primeval instinct caused customs and traditions to evolve separately and to regard others as not quite “equal” or perhaps, as we have seen above “subhuman” or not human at all even if they looked mostly human. 

The interesting irony about all this is that in all likelihood, experts agree, we are more descended from homo sapien than Neanderthal or any hybrid of Neanderthal, homo sapien or any evolutionary amendments thereto. And THAT means our origins are mostly dark skinned rather than light skinned — even if later migration caused the skin to lighten to suit Northern climates. Hence the black-white racial divide in America might well be “the pot calling the kettle black” and any traditions based upon “differences” might well be institutionalization of misperception.

Hating and Hate Speech

May 3, 2008

The article below contains an excellent discussion of hating and what it does to us. It relates to this week’s Torah reading.

It’s important especially now in the political season. People become attached to their candidates in an emotional way. And in the heat of battle they come to despise the other candidates and the people who support them. Besides the obvious damage to our psyche and souls, which is adequately discussed in the article, there is another more practical negative consequence that hurts all of us.

Fear and Hating is the tool of politicians. It distracts us from morality and from exercising independent judgment based upon real facts, rather than sound bites that trigger our emotional “hate” response. The fact is that none of really know what any of the candidates will do once in office. We don’t even know what emergencies they will confront. Thus having such iron-clad convictions that we exclude everything contrary to the views of “our” candidate, deprives us all of resources we need in a complicated and difficult world.

My basic rule of thumb when judging a candidate is whether he or she provokes me to think, ponder, and wonder how things could be better. I’m looking for someone who understands the nuances and complexities of the world and trusts me to consider the possibilities. The corollary is that a candidate who engages in attacks, in the politics of fear and hate, is one who cannot be trusted to do anything right for me. 

The fact that attack politics works is predictable. Most of us don’t have the time to consider ambiguity in our lives and we want someone “out there” to “just do it.” When we are on the run and we hear a sound bite how someone will fight for us, that’s all we need to know, or is it?

Hurting in Your Heart 
Torah Portion: Kedoshim
by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt 


We find an interesting mitzvah in this week’s portion: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17). The Sages ask the obvious question: Why does the verse say “in your heart”? Where else does one hate?

The Sages explain that there are two ways of hating. You can feel animosity toward someone and not express it externally. You are very nice and very cordial – pleasant even. But deep down you feel anger and frustration at the person.

Alternatively you can express your hatred externally – through words and deeds. You can physically, verbally or emotionally abuse the person you do not like.

Most of us are not saints. When someone does something which hurts us – whether through negligence or with intent – it is hard for us not to feel upset and angry with that person. Perhaps we might even feel animosity. This is normal human emotion and there is nothing wrong with it. The question is how one deals with that emotion once one has it.

To repress the emotion and hate a person only “in your heart” is extremely unhealthy. Unexpressed animosity does not go away. If anything, it festers and grows. The Sages remind us of the story of Absalom who hated Amnon for raping his sister, Tamar. He did not express his hatred in any way and, after a period of time, he ended up killing Amnon.

So what do you do?

Juxtaposed to the command not to “hate in one’s heart” is the command to rebuke others for wrongdoing. It’s very simple. Tell the person you are upset. Don’t abuse, express. Don’t attack; explain the pain you’re feeling.

When someone wrongs you, don’t just let it go, telling yourself it is nothing. We are not that holy. You have to approach the person and talk through what happened. Express your anger and frustration. Make the person understand that you have been hurt, and that you are not trying to make him feel guilty. You merely want to get the emotion you are feeling out of your heart.

In England where I live, we’re not so good at expressing emotions. But the alternative is repressed feelings of which we will eventually lose control. The idea of this commandment is to nip things in the bud. When you get the feeling out, it lessens it. When you express how you feel, it doesn’t seem half as bad.

Author Biography:
Shaul grew up in Liverpool. He studied for his smicha at Aish Hatorah in Jerusalem where he met his first wife Elana a”h who passed away in 2001 after a long struggle with cancer. They had four children together and Shaul has a further two with his second wife Chana, who he married in 2003. Shaul has written a book, ‘Finding Light in the Darkness’, published by Targum Press, dealing with the issue of facing hardship in a positive way. Shaul founded Aish UK in 1993 and Tikun UK in 2006 along with Dean Kaye. He enjoys most things in life.

Restoring Faith

April 26, 2008

As we commemorate the stories of Passover and the ritual sacrifices made in years past, we are reminded that sacrifice is the essence of being and living the within the context of forces greater than ourselves. We know that withholding self-gratification means that we seek something more important than the moment. And we become more holy and more worldly when we actually feel the sacrifice, taste it and remember the sins and accomplishments of our predecessors.

Passover is a story of liberation and renewal, of forgiveness and cleansing of the soul. It is a model for our behavior today and all days, for the possibility of liberation, redemption and renewal are always present — dependent upon choices, our true goals and our real intent. We are forever presented with the opportunity to release hatred, speaking ill of one another, and consuming our world rather than contributing to it. We can always decide that our pride is less important than our contribution to peace, harmony, and the wondrous world of good and good deeds.

On Being Godly

April 12, 2008

I just finished reading an interpretation of this week’s Torah reading. We are going further into the idea of negative speech about another but more than that we are headed for the territory of deciding right and wrong. It is said that nobody is more Godly than anyone else. That is a useful sentiment. It is also said that we are Godly no matter what we do. That is more problematic. The conclusion is that the question is only whether we will act in a Godly fashion or not. The Jewish concept is that although a person may ‘do’ bad, his or her essence ‘is’ still good.


I find that self-serving, egocentric and permission to perform highly immoral and base acts, including statements about others. Nobody knows how to describe G-d, and nobody knows what G-d is or how G-d operates. We only know that there are forces and events of unimaginable scope going on all the time and that somehow we are part of the whole “thing.”


We are the product of these forces that some call G-d, evolution, or cosmic illusion or fact. The good the bad and the ugly. It is not useful to consider ourselves good no matter what we do. This will not enhance our quality of life, the survival of our species, or the advancement of morality.


It is useful to define ourselves as capable of doing good deeds. And it is a good and proper goal to define your day, and indeed your life by deciding on the morally correct choice rather than the convenient one. For most of us, it is not one or two major decisions that define who we are and how we appear in our society, it is the thousands of micro-decisions that occur within a conversation, while driving the car, while at work, while at home with your spouse or children, other family, or friends. 


In our society there are people who are following path of what we would describe as immorality. When confronted by people exuding evil intent or poor moral judgment, there is no one proper answer as to how to act. 


But it is a pretty good guess that killing them, enslaving them, or calling them names is not, in most cases, an act which should even be on the table. The fact that such extreme situations historically arise does not mean that most situations should be viewed from that perspective. In most situations, some common ground could be reached with a little effort, and a good deed could emerge, however small that might seem at the moment. 


I think this is what Obama is after and despite the charges of emptiness and moments of doubt that people may have, he is resonating with so many people because somewhere, deep inside, where they know right from wrong, they sense that he is on the right track. Whether you should vote for him to be president or insist that your preferred candidate follow in his footsteps of seeking harmony and common ground is up to you. Theoretically any candidate could do it if they really wanted to do it. 


Morality then confronts us with the sometimes difficult choice between easy answers, slogans or negative criticism on the one hand, and the more difficult and ephemeral pursuit of happiness and contentment. 


It is my observation that at least in this Country, the United States, we have chosen a path of easy ideology rather than morality. And we have become a nation governed by men rather than the laws we pass that reflect our sense of right and wrong. The laws state sometimes with great clarity what people should not do in government, business and social circumstances. Yet these prescribed acts happen anyway, with increasing regularity and with escalating consequences.


Ideology is never persuasive unless it presents the illusion of morality. People become comfortable with it and stop thinking about individual issues. They listen to leaders, neighbors or others who tell them who is to blame for the unhappiness in their lives. The preachers of their ideology — whether it is political, religious or philosophical — define the icons that their followers will follow. The will of the whole of society is ignored along with the chance to exercise any independent judgment about right and wrong in each thing that a person does. I call these “leaders” “ideological hounds.”


We become vulnerable to being led down blind alleys pursuing goals that serve only the leaders of the ideology whose agenda is by definition, domination over as many people as possible who can “contribute” to the “cause.” Any contrary voice is eliminated through any one or more of choices that everyone knows are immoral. 


We allow it because we are afraid of challenging those more powerful than us. We allow it because we are too busy trying to make ends meet. And we allow it because it is just plain easier to let somebody else do the thinking, even if the thinking is wrong. And of course we should not leave the subject without including the attractiveness of the entertainment aspect of these ideologies, who always put on a great show. 


The current criticism of Obama is an opportunity to test some of these thoughts. His “small town” remark, cleansed of context seems condescending, elitist, out of touch. His opponents wrap their spin around portions of his commentary and hold it up as meaning something he did not say. If he did not say it, it is a knowing falsehood to portray him as having meant anything like what his critics have portrayed. 


Read in context, Obama was reaching for a deeper meaning of right and wrong, and a deeper connection with some of the people who are resistant to his candidacy. Rather than castigating them , he was musing about their lives, the loss of employment, the loss of hope, standard of living and opportunity for children to do better than their parents. 


He described the bitterness and disappointment of people who were lied to about what the government and big business was doing. It has been a 25 year journey into darkness, of quiet desperation, for many people, while a few have taken an exciting ride into the high spheres of public and private finance. And he was describing the impact of ideological hounds that are described above in this essay. What he said was entirely truthful and correct. What Clinton and McCain reported he said is completely not truthful and incorrect and intentionally so. 


So now we are left with the uneasy feeling of excusing (forgiving) Clinton and McCain for committing immoral acts of deceit in the heat of battle or holding them accountable for their acts. And perhaps more importantly, we are faced with the bare naked truth of Obama’s musings about “small town” America, how vulnerable they are to ideology because all else and everyone else has deserted them. 


Maybe, the right thing to do, like the issue of race and racism, is to open the discussion up to Obama’s brave statements, rather than closing them down through compounded acts of negative criticism (i.e., shouting him down). He might be right or he might be wrong; but how will ever know unless we really examine the issues he presented?

Negative Campaigns: Poison to the Soul

April 5, 2008

Negative Campaigns: Poison to the Soul


  • In this time of political brinkmanship, it is common for people to speak ill of each other. Candidates speak ill of their competitors and their supporters speak ill of the other “team.” I often compare political seasons to the kind of divorce talk one hears in the heat of battle. We can only hope that time heals, and that people will settle down and concentrate on their own spiritual work rather than identifying the flaws in others.  
  • But there are people who hold onto that pattern, who make it a way of life, and who poison the air around them with a continuous spoken and unspoken stream of negativity about their hate of others. These people poison their souls and bring down the listener. There is a very good book called Divorce Poison, that identifies the pattern. It appears in the workplace, politics and even (especially) in religious congregations.  
  • There are of course many ways of doing damage but the meaning is always clear. The reading for this week’s Torah portion tells us that speaking negatively about others is actually worse than murder. This contradiction to what we intuitively know about speech and murder is explained by the reference to negah, in which the soul of the speaker is so damaged that they actually develop a skin disease, they are exiled by the community and treated, in the traditional sense, as a lepor. In fact, the tradition might be traced back to leprosy when mankind did not understand disease, and assumed that anything so ghastly must have been brought on by the presence of evil in the person. 
  • I take this opportunity to address the aspect of campaign rhetoric because it is always elevated by the media to the point where nearly everyone knows about the latest jab. The constant rebroadcast of these jabs reinforces this behavior in our daily lives and serves as the worst kind of negative example for our children.  
  • In politics, it disgusts the voters but it also influences them. We are all susceptible to hearing negative things about someone and then inwardly wondering or assuming that it might be true. This is why what comes out of our lips and what we listen to is so important. It has an effect. They are not “just words.” They hurt and they cause damage not only to the speaker and his/her target but to to the rest of us as well. The fact that it is so powerful does not mean that it should be used as an acceptable tool. A gun is powerful but we can all agree that the random or continuous use of it is not a good thing.  
  • In our American politics nothing is more apparent than the fact that what happens here is with the consent of the governed, as stated in our Declaration of Independence. So when we hear negative remarks from a candidate, they do so, because they have our consent to do so. My suggestion is that we withdraw our consent to negative campaigning in and out of politics and that we avoid or confront those people who demonstrate their willingness to use this hateful and dangerous tool.  
  • The passage below is taken from Tazria (Leviticus 12-13)  
  • Murderous Speech The affliction of tzara’at comes primarily as a result of loshon hara – talking badly about others. The Sages make an amazing statement in the Talmud. They say that to speak negatively about another person is worse than murder. I think everyone would agree that it is terrible to speak negatively about another person. But can it possibly be worse than killing a person? I, for one, would much rather that someone spoke negatively about me than killed me. In order to understand, we must think a little more deeply about what the Sages are saying. They do not mean that loshon hara is worse than murder in a general sense. Obviously, murder is worse, as proven by the fact that one is obligated to die rather than commit murder, which is not the case with loshon hara. What the Sages mean is that a specific evil is inherent within the transgression of loshon hara, that does not exist within murder. What is it? Generally when a person kills another, there is a motive – jealousy, money, power, passion. There is a tangible benefit to the murderer and that is why s/he does it. Obviously, that doesn’t make it right. It is evil, but in some sense an explainable evil. Were the murderer to be able to achieve the same result without killing, he would probably do so. Of course there are insane psychopaths who kill for fun, but for the most part people who kill would prefer another way. That makes it no less evil, just more understandable. When someone speaks badly of someone else, however, generally there is no motive, no reason and no tangible gain. It benefits you in no way. You enjoy the evil itself; the negativity, the cruelness and the sense of power that it brings. You also enjoy other people listening to (and enjoying) your evil; it takes two to tango. As such, not only do you enjoy the evil, you drag others down with you. And one final difference: The one who murders will not learn to enjoy murder and want to do it again. But the one who speaks loshon hara will do so again and again and again. The more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you. While the results of murder may be worse for the victim, the long-term results of negative speech are much worse for the one who speaks it. The shock of having murdered might spur you to change. Speaking loshon hara, on the other hand, will just drag you further and further into the quagmire of petty mediocrity. Not only do you hurt another human being, you destroy your own soul in the process.

The Sin of Presumption Versus Morality

March 29, 2008

Today’s Torah reading deals with what is referred to in the literature as the sun of presumption. Moses sets out tot each the priests how to minister at the Tabernacle, anointing them with oil mixed with lamb’s blood and burning certain substances, but people, in good faith, reason that a difference incense is better. Mayhem follows:

  •  The lesson we are told to take is that the word of Bible, the word of Moses ( because he spoke for God) must be taken literally or you commit the sin of presumption — which means that you are placing your own perceptions and thoughts ahead of what you already know to be the will of God.
  • I disagree with this interpretation but I agree that the story is about how things happen when people act presumptuously.
  • The problem I have with the interpretation of this story is that it places faith in Moses instead of an inner knowing of God and morality. The moral used is a bludgeon to the commoners to obey the priests. The people had other ideas and followed them. The results were disastrous but not necessarily because of the human interpretation of this story.
  • This is closely parallel to the fundamentalists in Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as other traditions, that state the “law” regarding a woman’s place of subservience without any support for their position in the Torah itself. It is the direct opposite of our teaching to worship God and not individual people or idols. 
  • Our challenge is not to look up the teachings of the Rabbi’s to determine what they say we should do in any given situation, but to inquire of ourselves. Deep inside us we know right from wrong, and we all know a good deed from a bad one. And we are blessed with a brain that allows us to understand and address nuances. To take a quarter from the hand of a three year old is wrong not only because it is stealing but because of an innate knowing that it is wrong to be predatory  towards a child. But we also know that if the reason the quarter was removed, is that we just saw the child take everything he could lay his hands on and swallow it, now that is a different story.
  • Internally we know these things without resorting to the “law” as stated by the leaders or Rabbis. 
  • To be a good Jew is to be a person who seeks to be good and do good as we see it, and to accept the consequences of our actions. we are blessed with brains that enable us to learn from experience and thus get better at good deeds.