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 http://www.Aish.com 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. 

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.

 

ECONOMICS OF DESPAIR

March 8, 2008

The reading for this week centers on the building and rebuilding of the Tabernacle. It is said that the translation states or implies that Moses built and rebuilt the Tabernacle several times per day. 

The lesson offered by scholars is that life is a constant process of building and rebuilding. In today’s economic conditions, people are running into all sorts of tragic challenges. We offer compassion and empathy. Yet it is only when we suffer the same or similar challenges that we can truly empathize with another person who is striving to keep his family his home, his business or his job intact. 

Belief in spiritual process can help, but in life, you have to buy a ticket to ride. If you don’t DO anything, then it is unlikely that anything will change for you. You are not to drown in despair but remake yourself.

It is actually an exciting even if daunting process. “The Slonimer Rebbe uses this Midrash to teach us a vital lesson. Although we spend our lives toiling and struggling to build ourselves into sanctuaries – vessels worthy for the Divine Presence to rest within – there still may be times that we stumble and fall. Despite these low periods, however, we must never give up hope. Rather, we must rouse ourselves immediately and continue to strengthen and build ourselves, because it is forbidden for a Jew to fall into despair.”

Consider foreclosure and eviction. You have choices. You can find another place to live or challenge the right of the lender to foreclose. Chances are there were defects and flaws in the original documentation that can at least delay the process and possibly force the lender, who doesn’t want another house in their inventory, to settle or modify your loan. Call the lender and discuss it. File papers in Court even if you don’t have a lawyer. Rattle the cage, shake the branches, assert yourself as as human being who is not defined by fiancial trouble. 

Consider jobs. Do whatever you can to tackle those high profile jobs that your boss will recognize and be reluctant to consider letting you go. If you have already lost your job, consider retraining for another one or look around you and see if there is something that people need that you could provide in your own business.  

Consider Yourself: Who do you want to be. What model to you want to exemplify to your children, your spouse, your friends, relatives and acquaintances?  Answer the question! Then act on it.

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.” http://www.biblegateway.com

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.” http://www.biblegateway.com.

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.

Lighting the Way

February 9, 2008

25. The Lord repaid me in accordance with my righteousness, according to the cleanliness of my hands before His eyes. 26. With the kindhearted You act kindly, with the upright man You act uprightly. 27. With the pure You act purely, but with the crooked You act cunningly. 28. For the destitute nation You save, but haughty eyes You humble. 29. Indeed, You light my lamp; the Lord, my God, illuminates my darkness.

Trite expressions usually have some truth in them. One is what goes around comes around (or vica versa). The simple conclusion that I have come to is that the more my actions are duided and directed by righteous (my knowlegde of right and wrong) intent, the better I live, regardless of the outcome.

Practice forgiveness, and stress is reduced. Hold a grudge, plan your revenge, and you waste your time, send stress through your body, fear of discovery, and distrust from even your friends.

Our society is seen by many as being in the same state as when Moses came down from Mount Sinai to discover people worshiping idols and committing every sin under the sun. Maybe they are right. Or they could be wrong. More likely the truth is somewhere in between. There is always hope and there is always the spirit of humanity within us. Thest best is yet to come.

Highest Form of Charity

February 2, 2008

Most people, including myself, consider tzedakah to be at its highest form when the donor and recipient are unknown to each other. Yet there is something even higher.

“The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.” http://judaism.about.com/od/beliefs/a/charity_nine.htm

This is the act of parenting, befriending, and reaching out. It is the act of teaching what you know from the point of view of the recipient. It is my way of proving my own worth to myself, knowing that each day I have done something, said something or felt something that gets passed on, or “paid forward.” It isn’t enough to have the “audacity of hope” (which is the perfect starting point). We must act on hope and do things that bring our hopes and dreams into reality. 

The courage and commitment to act can be great or small. A gangly African American with the name of Barack (close to baruch, blessing) is at this time taking the ultimate leap of hope and faith and putting his life on the line for it. Most of us are not imbued with the ambition and fortitude it takes to do that unless the threat of extinction comes close. But we all have something of that in us and acting on it is what could make our society more ethical, more fair, with justice and sufficient resources for everyone. 

We have all learned lessons of faith and responsibility. We have all had our moments of truth where we shared our best thoughts for the best benefit of someone else. My prayer this morning is that we all do just a little bit more than we did yesterday, starting today, as our gift to G-d for this day and any additional days granted to us in this life. 

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?