Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Two Opposites and a Harmonious Resolution

June 27, 2009

Kabbalah teaches that the universe is built on a tripod, consisting of two opposites and a harmonious resolution. This is the pattern for everything in life. Stability and confidence is impossible without the support of all three legs of the tripod. We cannot have “shalom” without all three. This tripod – and its attendant challenge of conflict resolution – is inherent inside each one of us, in all of nature, of mankind as a whole, and in the spiritual realm as well.  –Korach (Numbers 16-18) Conflict Resolution

For the scholars of scripture they have an advantage over the rest of us. They have the time to think through some issues, take a step back, and perceive patterns that are opaque to us while we are in the trenches of the war of life. This week’s Torah portion is such an insight and when you think about it we can gain perspective on our lives, our community our country and the world.

I am struck by the conclusions to be reached by this statement. You see, if we are talking about a tripod, then if you take away any one of the legs it will fall. You might, as I did at first, focus on the harmonious resolution leg as the “most important.” Take it away and the tripod falls. For true harmony to evolve there must be recognition of discordant views. No two people (or for that matter two countries) can have identical views. Our thoughts, brain process, perceptions and conclusions are like fingerprints — they define us as unique individuals. So even if you say “I agree” you might find out sooner or later that you agreed with something the other person did not say or mean.

What this means to me is that for me to strive to live in a harmonious world I need to seek out both people who see things in similar ways to me AND people who don’t. I must engage BOTH the people who seem to agree with my world perspective AND those who don’t. Standing in the shoes of both “camps” is the only way I can perceive where there is commonality, conflict or room to compromise. With the recognition that life is a process and not a series of events comes the foundation of the process of harmony. Harmonious relations do not represent a static place of equilibrium, but rather a dynamic place of interaction, catalytic relationships and evolving development of ourselves, our society and our world.

Harmony and the whole tripod fails when we deny the existence of other points of view. If we deny the validity of other points of view we deny their existence and we deny the speaker the right to hold such views and express them. We take away one leg of the stool and the tripod fails — because there is nothing left to process toward a harmonious resolution.



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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

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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.)

 

* * * 

THE KEY INGREDIENTS

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!

 

* * * 

SOMEONE THE CHILDREN WILL BE PROUD OF

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.

 

* * * 

CHOOSE YOUR LEGACY

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.

 

* * * 

BRAINSTORMING QUESTIONS TO PONDER

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.


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?

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.