Archive for the ‘World Events’ 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.


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.

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.

From Ashes to Angels: Economics of Morality

March 22, 2008

There was an interesting study published in the Economist (March 15, 2008 pp 83-85), a conservative news magazine read around the world, that disclosed an incredibly close correlation between the “rule of law” and the health of the economy. It turns out that laws, rules and enforcement create a culture of integrity, civility and good faith. The epiphany is that those society that follow morality, as we commonly know it around the world, have the strongest economies and greatest purchasing power. 

It’s true. Go read it yourself and research it all you want. Von Mises and Rothbard,  largely ignored but highly respected economists, came up with the same conclusion decades ago from a slightly different approach. (They are ignored because they sought truth rather than power. They believe the premise of modern economists is essentially skewed. History, particularly economic history proceeds from the motivation of people in public office or personal lives to change their current situation to something better. Reporting history relies on people who seek to be seen in the best light and thus their reports, whether of facts or indexes like the GDP, CPI etc., are skewed to mislead the reader. The theories used to explain economic history are therefore always based upon measurements of inaccurate reports. The policies based on those theories work only by happenstance — i.e., if consensus or conventional wisdom is created around the theory and policy, not the other way around).

The corollary is more disturbing and quite obvious in the context of today’s news stories of a collapsing economy.  Stray from morality as a matter of policy and practice and you undermine your economy, your society, your ability to achieve, and you gut the basis of your own happiness and contentment, as well as the prospects of future generations. 

All politics and all economics is about income distribution in some way or another. When we are out of touch with our own Godliness, we become out of balance in our society and our economy. By having no rule of law, secular or otherwise, govern the actions of those with power to do what they wanted, we have undermined our foundation, cut our societal fabric and diminished our moral high ground at the same time as losing our purchasing power in world commerce.

While Americans have pursued the dollar with religious zeal, other countries have been pursuing happiness, morality, civility, and integrity – albeit with the usual human imperfections.  The resulting changes in the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar and the relative strength of the U.S. in the marketplace of ideas and commerce can thus be explained. 

The fundamentalist in any major religion has a point: that societies, especially U.S. dominated societies, have lost their way. There is a growing sense of senselessness and lack of meaning in such societies. 

American men are dropping out of the work force and discarding goals and plans for their future, American children are not being educated nor are they taught to think critically, make moral judgments, build character, know their personal and world history and geography, please themselves and the world with their talent in the arts, or acknowledge the obligation and rewards of doing good deeds. 

Of course fundamentalists of all sects violate their own standards when they create inequality between women and men, when they impose a rule of a leader in lieu of a rule of laws, and so forth. But even from the most obvious perversity of fact and good sense, we can gleam some truth about ourselves, our society and where we are heading.

Today’s Torah reading talks about removing the ashes from the alter, an almost janitorial task. Yet the ancient Rabbi’s rushed to perform this task, competing for who would be first. Yes for fun but also to Honor the higher sense, the higher power we have the capacity to follow, if we are willing. My lesson in this world has been worship the riches and become poor regardless of how much money you have. Worship goodness and you become rich regardless of how much money you have.

Competition is fine if we follow our best instincts, our higher calling which all of us know we have inside. When we step onto the track and enter the secular race, make your goal the altar of your own Godliness. 

“There is much in life that people value, yet is utterly meaningless. There is equally much in life that people do not value – that is very meaningful and good. Do not judge by wealth. Do not judge by what others think. Judge by what you honestly believe to be good. And do it, no matter how belittling and ‘dishonorable’ it might seem to others. In the end, that’s what is truly worthy of praise.”

Whether we look to leadership to inspire us, or we simply change our minds and take the high road in our lives regardless of what others do, we rebuild our American experiment, we strengthen our society and reassert ourselves in the marketplace of ideas, morality and commerce. 

If we want to finish the American experiment, rejoin England and the European Union and give up our role as leaders, we are certainly on the right track. 

It won’t be long before the currency of choice becomes the Euro, a currency of consensus from countries actively seeking to do good things for their citizens. 

The U.S. dollar, including those bills in your pocket and those numbers in your bank and securities accounts, are being undermined by you and what you allow in your little corner of the marketplace. 

Only you (all of us in our own worlds) can turn it around. But it takes real faith rather than faking it or just giving lip service to it.


Genesis and Evolution and Human Progression and Regression: Obama Possibilities

March 15, 2008
  • The current argument, rearing its ugly head periodically throughout history is about science versus religion. Evolution vs. creationism. That they are the same thing is easy to see for even the most unsophisticated of readers. That they are used as weapons to divide us is obvious.
  • Genesis shows a progression of the earth and the creation of various flora and fauna and eventually humans that is completely congruent with Darwin’s narrative. There is no conflict. 
  • Genesis goes on to show that the earth was just fine until humans entered the picture, with the first act of knowledge (also congruent with evolution), notions of good and evil, and the whole process of reproduction and the variations of human character that emerged.
  • Religion is not about belief. It is about power. Faith is about morality, not religion. Those who rely on religion to bludgeon “non-believers” are egocentric monsters whose agenda is solely about themselves. Those who practice faith create good deeds that spread the concepts of good and evil that will enable humans to survive the inevitable march of evolution and experimentation initiated by forces greater than ourselves, our understanding and the current status of our robust and intricate bodies.
  • Faith is a resource for people to make moral choices. Character is about the willingness or unwillingness to care about faith and morality. And the one element of morality that is our key to survival is tolerance.
  • Faith and religion should have nothing whatever to do with the creation and maintenance of government. Faith may affect our own sense of right and wrong and therefore where and in whom to place our trust in society.
  • To evaluate another’s faith or character is to assert your own arrogance, and demonstrates a lapse of character, faith and morality of the proposed “evaluator” or questioner.
  • The closest thing we see to a man of faith and morality in politics seems to be Barack Obama. We don’t know of course who he really he is or what he really will do. But we can track his movements and his demeanor and his actions and spoken word for consistency and reality. That he is a threat to those whose agendas are egocentric is obvious and an unintended endorsement of a man who might just be a man of G-d as we wish to see him. 
  • The inconsistency of his opponents who attack his character, first and falsely for being Muslim, then arrogantly for being the wrong kind of Christian, demonstrates their own intolerance and their objective to divide us. For me it excludes them from my own consideration of them as potential leaders.
  • The oppression of his opponents who attack his associations with those who primarily speak a truth that is contrary to American myth (check the facts before you condemn a person for speaking the truth), demonstrates their ambition to dominate rather than to serve. For me it excludes them from consideration as persons in whom I would place my trust.
  • The secular ideology of his opponents bent on war, coercion and toughness — rather than consensus, agreement and friendship is a betrayal of their own professed faith in Jesus, his teachings, and in the teachings and stories of the Old testament. 
  • I don’t know if Obama is best and I would not succumb to press my support for him on others. I merely express it. But I do know that neither of his opponents fit anything close to my ideal for faith and fairness, nor my goal of peace and prosperity. I believe in him and I hope others do too. 
  • In the end I hope for whatever is best for our society, and by that I mean all of the Earth created in genesis by powers and potentially intelligence far beyond the scribes from ancient millenia and readers of our time.


The Cheerful Giver

March 1, 2008

2 Corinthians 9:6-11

The Cheerful Giver

The Torah and Haftorah readings this week are about making and creating things. Read carefully and there is a special message that is universal truth borne out by history hundreds of times: giving by freewill of your skills, your tools and your resources (including money) produces its own good results. 

“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”

It strikes me as odd that the very people who speak of the scriptures, the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, are often the same people who take the arrogant position that only they should decide who gets charity or assistance in times of need. This appears to be the position of the “righteous, or right-wing conservative”. 

This position is not righteousness, it is egotism. It also is ideology assuming the role of the adversary of Truth.  “Money bestowed in charity, may to the carnal mind seem thrown away, but when given from proper principles, it is seed sown, from which a valuable increase may be expected. It should be given carefully. Works of charity, like other good works, should be done with thought and design. Due thought, as to our circumstances, and those we are about to relieve, will direct our gifts for charitable uses. Help should be given freely, be it more or less; not grudgingly, but cheerfully.”

It is the poor and disadvantaged in our society who represent the purest soil to sow future benefits to our society. Opposition to secular policies that tend to redistribution of wealth on an even basis is flawed ideologically, religiously and practically. 

Opposition to government is mindless ideology, seeking to remove the referee, however imperfect it might be, between the followers of human nature who seek to accumulate great wealth at any cost, and the followers of the heart who seek a peaceful life of contentment.

Those who would replace most government policies with religious “principles” are coding their own ambitions to eliminate democratic principles and place themselves in despotic positions of power wherein a small group of people (usually white males) issue edicts on what is right and what is wrong, who can speak and who cannot, who is good and who is bad. 

It is the personal, greedy ambitions of the religious fundamentalists masking themselves with righteousness. Scott Peck had a name for them — “People of the Lie.” 

There is no difference for us whether we follow the ambitions of the those who hide behind religion or we follow the ambitions of those who hide behind some political ideology. 

Both require suspension of independent judgment. Both require that our society withhold proper education that would encourage independent, creative and innovative thought. 

Both appeal to our innate somewhat lazy wish to delegate the functions of governing our daily behavior to others who are “more suited.” 

The fact is that only one person can govern your behavior and decide between right and wrong in what you do or are about to do, about what you say or are about to say, about how you do charitable things and how you withhold charitable activities. 

That person is you, in the context of an ever-present higher form of intelligence and judgment. And the paradox is that by submission to a higher authority you regain and build upon your personal power — as long as you submit not to a human person but rather to a spiritual ideal.

Following your own sense and sensibility will result in reconstruction of the Temple, renewal of the Tabernacle, and finding the Ark. Each person carries that sacred duty to themselves, their family, their friends and their society.

Mortgage Meltdown: Ten Commandments

January 26, 2008

Ten Commandments and the Mortgage Meltdown

Sixth Aliyah: G‑d descended upon the mountain, and summoned Moses to its summit. G‑d instructed Moses to again warn the Israelites about the tragic end that awaited anyone who approaches the mountain itself. Only Moses and his brother Aaron were allowed on the mountain during this time. G‑d then spoke the Ten Commandments to the Israelite nation. They are: 1) Belief in G‑d. 2) Not to worship idols. 3) Not to take G‑d’s name in vain. 4) To keep the Shabbat. 5) To honor parents. 6) Not to murder, 7) commit adultery, 8) steal, 9) bear false witness or 10) covet another’s property.

Seventh Aliyah: The Israelites were left traumatized by the overwhelming revelation, the awesome “light and sound” show. They turned to Moses and asked that from thereon he serve as an intermediary between them and G‑d—Moses should hear G‑d’s word and transmit it to the people. Moses agreed. The reading concludes with a prohibition against creating idolatrous graven images – considering that no image was seen when G‑d revealed Himself on Mount Sinai – and the commandment to erect a sacrificial altar. The altar stones should not be hewn with iron implements, nor should there be steps leading to the top of the altar.

People often ignore their faith by failing to consider the effect of living their faith as good people rather than living strictly accordingly to the laws of necessity. Necessity is of the moment and in the eyes of the beholder. The events leading up to Mount Sinai and the delivery of the ten commandments constitute the first successful attempt to organize a civilized society that would function in accordance with the consent of the governed, based upon a higher good, and administered by people chosen for their wisdom. 

Religion: It might seem a stretch to connect the economic problems facing the world today and the possible remedies under spiritual analysis but consider, just for a moment, the possibility that people were motivated not by saving their property, blaming another, punishing the people who put us in this mess and giving vent to anger. Let’s take a look.

The first Commandment is to believe in G-d. Everyone has an opinion on this. The choices boil down to three (a) belief, (b) not sure (Agnostic) and (c) non-belief. Dig down deep and you will find a believer in some higher power in every agnostic and atheist. Dig just a little and you will discover that nearly everyone knows right from wrong and their knowledge and belief as to right and wrong is pretty much covered by the ten commandments or something like it in the scriptures of some other faith.

So let’s approach the commandments as a heuristic (rule of thumb) theory that most of us would agree with on one level or another regardless of our religious preference or our preference in expressing belief in a higher power or being. In fact, that takes care of the the first commandment: belief in a higher power whether physical or spiritual is all that is necessary to satisfy its requirement.

Don’t worship idols. As Suze Ormand says, put people first, not money. Money is an idol not a thing. It is a concept that facilitates commerce as long as people are willing to accept the concept. It changes in form from wampum, to beads, to giant rocks to precious metals, precious gems, coinage, written promises of redemption into precious objects, fiat money (paper declared to be money by the government because they say so), digital forms used in electronic payment systems, and more exotic concepts like derivatives which create changes in our money supply without the help or interference of our supposed lender of last resort, the Federal Reserve. Most of us spend more time on issues concerning money than issues concerning G-d or the other commandments. 

My point is that if you pursue money at the cost of the other commandments, you will end up with neither. The reason has nothing to do with G-d’s wrath. It has everything to do with staying with fundamental straightforward conduct of commerce that everyone can understand and that can be counted using the most primitive of systems. Wall Street professionals, of which I am one, are fond of saying that in the end it is the fundamentals that count. But they don’t — not now and not for a long time. 

Don’t take G-d’s name in vain. Whether you are an evangelical preacher or a Wall Street tycoon, don’t pretend that your words come from G-D or are inspired by G-d — unless you can prove it. And you can prove it by showing that you are living the life of a pious person who follows the commandments. You are not following it if you use G-d’s name to get money from someone else and put it into your own pocket for your use. Note that I do not condemn or even disfavor commerce. I merely offer the judgement that if the commerce is done in G-d’s name it is a false claim. 

Keep the Sabbath. Here is where we cut to the chase. If you really wish to live a life of peace, contentment, satisfaction and goodness, then you will allow time to contemplate your existence in this dimension,universe or world or whatever you wish to call it. A little prayer, a little reading, a little observance of some ritual that reminds you and your family that the leader of the family sets the tone of everyone’s life by instructing the children on the concepts of right and wrong, and brings the children within a community of like-minded individuals. Or you can try to make one more deal and worship the idol of money and wealth, or football and worship the idol of competition rather than cooperation. The assumption of Adam Smith with his faith-based “invisible hand” is true only in the abstract. we can only approximate it by our own good behavior. In the end, we are creatures exhibiting both competitive and cooperative qualities. How we reconcile and channel those qualities for the good of our selves and those around us is the great challenge of humanity and the meaning of our lives.

Honor parents. We live in a society where many children barely see or know their parents, who are busy acquiring material things or otherwise pursuing goals in life that have little to do with the bond of parent and child. Taken in a broader sense, honoring our parents goes back generations when people conducted commerce and social events for the benefit of themselves and others. Children need models, not money as a substitute for attention. If we want our children to honor us, we must earn it by giving them all we can of our wisdom and a true sense of right and wrong. A child honors his/her parents by committing themselves to being educated — but only if the parents show an interest in the child’s education. Every study of every kind provides us with the inescapable conclusion that a child that develops in a home where reading, analysis and articulation of ideas is a way of life, does well in school. Every study shows that the more successful a child is in school the more likely he/she will be in life in attaining meaning, content and satisfaction. And every such child will be led by their own inner sense to honor their parents. Buying things you don’t need, or don’t want shortly after you buy them leads a child to see your unhappiness and leads them to search for ways different than the way you conduct your life. Arguments over money and spending leads memories of discontent rather than a model that the child will follow to honor his/her parents.

Don’t Murder. This seems obvious. Yet scratch the surface and you find that we, as a society, promote, allow and create conditions all over the world which resulted in the needless death — violent and otherwise — of millions of children, women and men. You may say this is not your intent. But if you know the result of your action or inaction will be produce the death of someone, what’s the difference?

Don’t commit adultery. In a world of people seeking contentment and satisfaction, unguided by the principles of basic right and wrong, adultery is a natural consequence. Commitment to one’s spouse and family, no matter how difficult or challenging, is far more likely to deliver the results you seek.

Don’t steal. Our sophisticated financial systems have taken the “art” of stealing to new heights and produced the greatest fraud on mankind in human history — the mortgage meltdown and credit crisis where thousands of towns, villages and counties are suffering from a decrease in revenue from their tax base because of the schemes of those who sought money for nothing, commerce without risk.  They took the lives of millions of people who wanted homes and millions of people who wanted to invest their money in safe investments, and created a bubble of lies. It worked too well. And now we have the problem and opportunity of remaking our world in the model we all seek. We may need new currency, new nations drawn from old boundaries, and new regulation and transparency that will reveal those in our midst who will ignore all moral precepts and seek only personal gain. The mortgage meltdown crisis was theft: from borrowers on one end and investors on the other end.

Don’t bear false witness: In short, don’t lie, ever. And don’t give the time of day to those who do. If we followed that, our government would be made up of different people, operating under different principles (originally set forth in our constitution and declaration of independence) and with far different result. Indifference to the suffering of others, education of our young to avoid mistakes we don’t want in our society, would be minimized. I’ve asked about a hundred people the following question: If you had a button that you could push and the result would be that everyone in government would be fired, would you push it, the answer was yes in every case. The reason cited was lies.

Don’t covet another’s property. It seems that in our world right and wrong have been turned upside down. The objective in commerce is to get you to part with your property and have it in the possession of another. The objective is not to add value to each other’s lives. Our social and economic policies have gone down the historical path of channeling wealth from the people who can’t afford it to the people who don’t need it. As the foreclosures, dislocations, bankruptcies and dissolution of families takes another giant leap forward, social unrest becomes a an increasing probability. Maybe, as Jefferson said, a little revolution now and then is a good thing. But is it necessary?

Personal Covenant with G-d

January 5, 2008

“Only watch yourself and watch your soul scrupulously”

That is the literal translation of Verse 9, Deuteronomy 4. 

There is no doubt that like all law and the evolution and progress of thought, there have been changes in the way the scriptures are read and understood. But a few things stand out to me that make life more understandable and more meaningful.

We are enjoined from changing any word of the law. Some commentators take this to mean a warning to the scribes to make sure they get it right when they copy the good books. That’s probably true. Others take it to mean that every word of the Bible is to be taken as literally true even if the meaning and context of those words has changed over millennia. That’s probably an overstatement, and yet it has an appeal, since human nature is given to stray when given the room to do so. 

Others have taken it to mean that you should use the words of the book as your guide and not the interpretation of some current teacher, preacher, prophet or rabbi who might have an agenda that strays from God’s will. This is probably correct too, although proving it takes us to other verses.  We are constantly reminded to avoid idolatry — the making of graven images and other objects whose importance rises above our covenant with the Lord. We have to remember that crime and chaos was rampant for thousands of years while mankind strove to create order and a functioning society. 

The idolatry and graven images admonition then is repeated because as humans we are so inclined to replace our true knowledge of right and wrong with some substitute that we think serves us better in the short run. Commentators call that “situational” ethics, which is merely changing the rules when the rules don’t allow you to do what you want to do. 

Verse 9 is usually translated as “but take utmost care” and it misses the point of the original words whose meaning is as relevant today as it ever was. Why some scribe changed it is testament to the vagueries of human nature. To watch ourselves (our bodies) and our souls scrupulously means to “call upon” (pray) G-d and observe G-d’s laws above all others, while protecting ourselves and our families from the consequences of transgressions of secular law or secular interactions. 

It means then that not one word should be changed, as you, in your heart understand those words, and only where that understanding is within the context of your covenant with G-d’s laws.  As an action items it means think for yourself and listen to the words of others but not accept them or follow them without scrupulously watching yourself and your soul. Listen to the words of those around you and consider the source, no matter exalted they think they are or how holy others view them.

This empowering message gives each individual the power to enter into a personal and unique relationship with G-d, but excludes the ability of others to do it for you. It also make you accountable for you say, think or do and not someone else whom you later discover was mistaken or worse. 

Where is the relevance? All around us. Take for example the very existence of money and the way it is viewed. If you think about it, money is a belief system — probably a necessary one to keep society running — but simply an agreement and understanding that when you accept it in exchange for something you did or made, your belief is that someone else will do the same for you. 

Money then is neither good nor bad. It is a strategic tool we use to make life easier to navigate. Yet many if not most people have imbued money with much more meaning than that. It connotes (to idolatry worshippers) power, freedom, justice, and wealth. For many it is elevated high above the laws of G-d, and has replaced the last vestiges of an individual covenant with G-d with greed, jealousy, abuse, murder, war, and lust for sex and power.

Whether it is Enron, WorldCom, credit cards, fossil fuels, medical care, education, or the mortgage meltdown crisis, the common theme is that people got into positions where they had money, power and wealth and they would do anything to preserve, maintain and expand it. They would even destroy the life plans of millions, perhaps billions of other human beings to achieve their aims. 

When I was practicing as an attorney, and I represented people who had broken the law in these “white collar” crimes, I was constantly struck with the same thought: they had the brains, the opportunity, and the means to do right in the world and still  achieve their material goals. Why take the road that destroys others?

And when I look around me at people in my age group and higher, and I see contentment, wealth, peace, and good-natured society, I ask myself, why does anyone take any other path?

The Lord’s Prayer

December 29, 2007

The Lord’s Prayer

When one person dies anywhere in the world, we all die.

The highly publicized tragic assassination of Bhutto in Pakistan diverts us from the everyday assassinations we condone, permit, allow and even promote right here in our own country. While the dangers confronting that region of the world cannot be understated, we must remember that the society we conform to, the government we submit to, the laws we consent to, and the actions we condone form the body of our spirituality here at home. Bhutto’s death underscores the mindlessness with which we approach our congregation. People professing to follow their conscience, their internal God, are capable of ignoring their knowledge of right and wrong and performing acts of perfidy, all “excused” by their faith.

If we look anywhere around us — the roads we travel, the places we live, the poisoning of our environment, the medications we use, the military adventures our government takes us to, just to name a few — we see hundreds of thousands of people dying and suffering needlessly right here in our own country — every year. With blinders on we focus on particular tragedies that offend us while we excuse or ignore much larger dangers consume our human resources. 

Fundamentalists are criticized for “believing” in the literal words of the bible and their prayers. In truth, it doesn’t matter and doesn’t affect you whether they view the spiritual realm the way way you do, nor does it matter to their lives whether you follow the same code of rituals and beliefs. The truth is that what matters is how you live your life. If you and your children practice tolerance, love of your neighbor, and reaching out to those in need; if you and your spouse practice mutual respect, partnership and civility to one another and model that for your children; if you appreciate the humanity, goodness and frailties in yourself and those you meet in the marketplace — then your spiritual beliefs are meaningful. If you don’t, then your spiritual beliefs are words and not action, and your actions result in tragic consequences to yourself, your family, your society and the world around you.

When we say “The Lord is my shepherd,” we submit to a higher authority than ourselves. This is a higher authority than any human including your pastor, rabbi, preacher, priest or guru. It puts you in direct personal relationship with humility and the importance of true integrity in your thoughts, speech and actions. It is an acknowledgment that all I do is within the context of forces of nature, of G-d, including human nature, that form the challenges and opportunities of living a life of meaning. 

When we say “I shall not want,” it would be useful to think of this as knowing that as long as I behave, think, speak, and offer myself to others in constructive ways, my contribution to my society is reward enough. The “new age” doctrine that there is some sort of quid pro quo — that a good deed will come back to you, even multiplied — misses the point that the deed itself is reward enough. Doing good things for others brings me to a state of “grace” where I am at peace with myself, my G-d, and my society. Try it, you’ll like it. 

In the end of our lives, while we are still lucid and filled with memories, surrounded we hope by loving family and friends, we test ourselves, our regrets, our pride, and our lives with one thing — a smile.