“Let truth arise again from the earth”

As we approach the American mid-term election, what most concerns so many of us are the ongoing threats to American democracy that the Trump-Republican Party poses and the lies and deception that Trump, Trump-Republicans, and the right-wing media bubble shamelessly promote. The virtue of “truth” is on the ballot on November 9.

Speaking the truth is a big deal in Judaism. In the Midrashic literature, truth is regarded as divinely inspired and a foundational value: “The seal of God is Truth –  חתמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אמת – Chotmo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:9 – 650 to 900 CE).

The following Midrash describes an imaginary conversation between God and the ministering angels. The angel of Truth advised God not to include truth when creating the human being because humankind is incapable of truth-telling:

“When the time came for the Holy Blessed One to make the first human being, the ministering angels made themselves into competing counsels. Some of them said: ‘Don’t create humans,’ and the others said: ‘Create them.’ The angel of kindness said: ‘Create them, for they will do acts of loving kindness.’ Then the angel of Truth said: ‘Do not create them, for they will be full of lies.’ The angel of righteousness said: ‘Create them, for they will establish justice.’ The angel of peace said: ‘Do not create them, for they will be in constant strife!’ What did the Holy Blessed One do, but grab up Truth and hurl it to the earth. Whereupon the ministering angels said before the Holy Blessed One, ‘Ruler of all worlds, what have You done? Why have You so chastised the chief of your court? Let truth arise again from the earth.’” (Bereishit Rabba, 8:8 – 400-600 CE)

Let truth arise again from the earth.” What does this mean?

The mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) offered an explanation:

“…the throwing of the truth [to earth] and its arising from the earth that pure truth is, in fact, contradictory to human nature. But when truth is thrown to the ground, it splits up into many shards which are dispersed throughout the world. These are ‘sparks’ of truth, embedded in each and every human being. [Our] role is to collect these sparks of truth and connect them, until the entire truth arises from the earth.” (Cited by Shmuel Rabinowitz, Jerusalem Post, January 10, 2020)

Truth-telling is a so important in Judaism that it is a pre-condition for the processes we are called to engage during this High Holiday season of תשובה – Teshuvah (repentance), סליחה – Selichah (forgiveness), אחריות – Achrayut (taking responsibility), and התחדשות – Hit’chad’shut (renewal).

In light of our tradition’s emphasis on truth-telling, how are Jews and Americans supposed to cope with the massive corruption of truth by the former president, by so many Members of Congress, and by candidates for election in the Trump-Republican Party? According to The Washington Post Fact Checker, Trump lied to and/or mislead the country 30,573 times in his four years as President, and when we add the number of lies and misleading statements spoken by Trump-Republican members of Congress, Trump-endorsed candidates for election, and the right-wing media bubble, the depth and breadth of the lies is overwhelming.  

Though it seems that Trump has Teflon skin protecting him from legal consequences for his lies and criminality, Congress and the justice system in DC, NY, Georgia, and Florida are doing their work to bring him to justice. Their task is not a simple one. They have their mandate, and so do we American citizens – to vote and to get everyone we know – Democrats, Independents, traditional Republicans, and those who have never voted before – to support candidates up and down the ballot in every jurisdiction, local, state, and federal in the nation against Trump-Republicans and for their Democratic challengers. This election is not about Democrats vs Republicans. It’s about democrats vs autocrats. It is for and against democracy itself.

I have faith that our legal authorities and we American voters will each fulfill our respective mandates and that in the end justice will be served, American democracy will be restored, and “truth will arise again from the earth.”

This blog is also posted at The Times of Israel – see
https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/let-truth-arise-again-from-the-earth/

The American Campus and the Jews

My friend, Rabbi Ammi Hirsch of the Stephen S. Wise Free Synagogue (SSW) on West 68th Street in Manhattan, addresses the growing antisemitism masked as “anti-Zionism” that 40% of Jewish college students nationwide say they either experienced personally or witnessed in the last year. Rabbi Hirsch’s Rosh Hashanah sermon is a powerful explication of a complex yet simple truth that antisemitism is spreading nationwide and that many of our young Jews are unprepared to cope with it, despite the 70-80% of American Jews who support Israel and feel that it is important to their Jewish identity.

As a life-long liberal Zionist and Israeli, Rabbi Hirsch takes on the Harvard Crimson’s support for BDS and lays bare the significance of the moral blindness to which many progressive Jewish students and others on the left at elite universities and colleges have succumbed.

His sermon is worth watching and listening to its end. If you have teen-age and young adult Jews in your families, I urge you to forward this blog to them and encourage them to listen – https://swfs.org/sermons/the-american-campus-and-the-jews/

Humility – First among the Virtues

Of all the virtues, humilityHeb. ענווה  anavah – is a foundation stone, for most other virtues grow from it including appreciation, gratitude, patience, respect, dignity, generosity, compassion, empathy, loving-kindness, doing justice, and pursuing peace.

The importance of humility is evoked in a Talmudic passage that is inscribed over many synagogue sanctuary arks around the world – “דע לפני מי אתה עומד Da lifnei Mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand” (1). This religious teaching reminds us of our finitude and limitations on the one hand and our capacity for spiritual and moral awareness and transcendence on the other, contrasting themes that frame what we are called by Jewish tradition to consider about our lives especially during the High Holiday season.

At one end of the spectrum upon which the virtue of humility appears are the extremes of pride, hubris, arrogance, conceit, vanity, egomania, self-aggrandizement, narcissism, hard-heartedness, and shamelessness. On the opposite end along the spectrum are the extremes of meekness, diffidence, submissiveness, subservience, victimization, humiliation, self-deprecation, self-denigration, self-denial, self-effacement, and a sense of unworthiness.

Where does the virtue of humility appear along this spectrum?

In thinking about this, I’m reminded of the short story called Bontshe Shvayg – Bontshe the Silent, first published in 1894 (2). This is a moving morality tale about a meek Jew who never spoke up for himself no matter what indignities he suffered at the hands of bullies, antisemites, and the chief prosecutor of the Holy Tribunal. In comparison, consider Moses who the Bible describes as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (3).

Moses’ humility was a key virtue that led to his becoming the most important and intimate Prophet of God, and the most powerful man on earth. A rabbinic legend (midrash) explains:

One day God observed the shepherd Moses retrieving a lamb that strayed from his flock. Taking the diminutive creature lovingly into his arms, Moses cradled it tenderly and returned it to its mother. God said: “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such compassion, you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel” (4). Moses’s assumption of responsibility for his flock’s welfare and his compassion for even the most vulnerable creature are the character traits that caught God’s attention.

The Bible notes that when Moses heard the Divine voice call to him from the Burning Bush (5), Moses’ heart and soul opened to the experience of awe and wonder; but when God commanded Moses “בא אל פרעה – Bo el Paraoh…– Come into Pharaoh…” (6) and demand freedom for the enslaved Israelites, Moses demurred and resisted because he believed that he did not feel the requisite self-confidence, courage, or agency to confront the most powerful human being in the world. God reassured Moses. As God’s Prophet, the Almighty promised to put words into his and his brother Aaron’s mouths (7) and to send plagues that would shock and awe Pharaoh into submission so that the enslaved Israelites could be taken out of Egypt into freedom on their way to Mount Sinai to forge a covenant with God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that the ‘I’ of the prophet is God, meaning that God and the prophet walked together as one. The prophet felt sympathy for both God and for humankind, and when the prophet spoke, it was not the prophet alone speaking – it was God as well. The prophet’s humility, compassion, and empathy, commitment to and responsibility for others were the necessary character traits and virtues God sought in choosing each prophet. (8)

Louis Jacobs explained that humility occupies the golden mean along the spectrum (described above) between two extremes in the human character, from self-denial and unworthiness at one end, to pride and conceit at the other:

“… humble people are … confident and competent in themselves so much that, as a result, they seek to self-actualize by helping others. Humble people are still self-efficacious; they just don’t feel the impetus to boast about themselves but instead, let their actions speak for their ideals. To be humble is not to think less of oneself, but to think of oneself less” (9).

Bontshe Shvayg was an extreme victim beaten into submission. His was NOT “humility” according to Jewish tradition. It was humiliation. Humble people are different. They understand well who they are because like all human beings they are nobly born by virtue of being created “בצלם אלהים – b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image” (10). They accept readily as well their individual self-worth, virtues, talent, skill, capacity, and ability, but do not need to prove anything to anyone else. They do not brag nor boast nor call attention to themselves because they are too busy putting the interests of others before their own.

What does a humble person today look like? Rabbi Jacobs listed a number of habits of humble people (11):

Humble people base their decision-making on a sense of shared purpose rather than self-interest.

Humble people know how to listen without feeling they have to express their own opinions and narratives. They do not interrupt, nor do they self-reference when another is speaking. They understand that what others say is more valuable than what they think and feel at that moment and in that situation.

Humble people make room for others, exercise self-restraint, demur, defer, and take up no more space than is necessary or appropriate. They emulate God by undergoing what the mystics call tzimtzum (צמצום, contraction within the self) (12), in order to make space available for others to rise, act, take leadership, thrive, and contribute to the community. They do not need to have the final word. They permit the wisdom of others to prevail, and they speak only when asked or when it is their role to do so as a teacher, leader, mentor, or guide.

Humble people are forever curious and seek knowledge everywhere and all the time. They are perpetual learners. They realize that they do not have all the answers. They glean knowledge from the experiences of others and crave more opportunities to learn. They embody the Mishnaic sage’s dictum: “Who is wise? The one who learns something from everyone” (13).

Humble people put others at the forefront of their thoughts. They brag about others, giving credit easily to others while the prideful brag and take the credit for themselves. They do not call attention to themselves as experts. They have mastered the art of remaining silent so as to learn more from others and to be able to hear more astutely the stirrings of their own soul. As it is written: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel remarked: ‘All my days, I grew up among the Sages, and I have found no better attribute than silence.’” (14)

Humble people are receptive to constructive criticism and actively seek it out because they know that feedback is a valuable means towards their own self-improvement and evolution.

I offer below a few additional thoughts of others about the virtue of humility that can be helpful for us all during these Days of Repentance and Awe:

Why was the human being created on the last day? So that if such a person is overcome by pride, it might be said: ‘In the creation of the world, the mosquito came before you” (15).

When a person comes into the world his hands are closed as if to say, ‘The whole world is mine, I want to possess it.’ When he leaves the world his hands are spread wide as if to say, ‘I possessed nothing of what is in the present world’” (16).

Appear always what you are and a little less” (17).

In order to rise you must first descend” (18).

Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” (19).

“It is taught in a baraita (20) in the name of Rabbi Meir: For what reason was the Torah given to the Jewish people? It is because they are impudent [Heb. עזים – Azim, meaning coarse or arrogant], and Torah study will weaken and humble them” (21).

Humility is a river fed by two streams – a sense of limitation and a sense of awe” (22).

Life is a long lesson in humility” (23).

“[Humility is]…a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism” (24).

For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner … on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. … That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that” (25).

“It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem, a 18th century Hasidic rebbe, that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. One was inscribed with the saying from the Talmud: בשבילי נברא העולם – Bish’vili niv’ra ha-olam, ‘for my sake the world was created’ (26). On the other he wrote a phrase from our father Avraham in the Torah: ואנכי עפר ואפר– V’anochi afar v’efer – I am but dust and ashes’ (27). He would take out and read each slip of paper as necessary for the moment” (28).

גמר חתימה טובה G’mar chatimah tovahMay you and those you love and our people Israel be sealed in the Book of Life for a good, meaningful, purposeful, healthy, loving, generous, peaceful, and humble New Year.

Notes:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b (6th century CE)
  2. L. Peretz – Polish Yiddish writer (1852-1915)
  3. Numbers 12:3
  4. Exodus Rabba 2:2 (1200 CE)
  5. Exodus 3:2
  6. Exodus 10:1 – the Hebrew is curious as it uses the verb “לבוא – to come” instead of “ללכת – to go” to Pharaoh, which is the classic translation. Robert Alter, however, translates the verse literally: “And the Lord said to Moses, “בא אל פרעה – Come into Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants” suggesting the presence of God was even in Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
  7. Exodus 5:1
  8. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). See The Prophets, (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1955)
  9. Louis Jacobs, a British rabbi and theologian (1920-2006)
  10. Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  11. Genesis 1:27
  12. צמצום – Tzimtzum (contraction within the Divine Self) is the basis for a cosmology of the universe developed by the mystic genius Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534-1572) who imagined that in the beginning before creation, God occupied all space and time. In order to make room for the created world, God (Who was all light) had to withdraw some of that light and thereby placed it in huge vessels (כלים – keilim). But the power of the trapped light was so great that the vessels could not hold it and there was a great explosion (preceding the Big Bang Theory by 4 centuries) and the shards of the vessels (שבירת הכלים – shevirat ha-keilim – the breaking of the vessels) were flung to the four corners of the universe (ארבע כנפות הארץ – arba k’nafot ha-Aretz). Light was trapped in the shards. Luria believed that when Jews perform a מצוה – mitzvah (commandment) a small measure light is released from a shard and returns to God. When the entirety of the Jewish people perform mitzvot together, the Messiah will arrive announcing the restoration of the world (תיקון עולם – tikun olam) in which justice (צדק – tzedek), compassion (חסד – compassion) and peace (שלום – shalom) will prevail for all humankind and creation.
  13. Avot 1:4 (200 CE)
  14. Avot 1:17 (200 CE)
  15. Midrash Bereishit Rabba 8:1 (400-600 CE)
  16. Midrash Kohelet Rabba on Ecclesiastes 5:14 (650-900 CE)
  17. Greek proverb
  18. Chassidic wisdom (17th-18th century CE)
  19. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 4a (6th century CE)
  20. A בריתא – baraita (Aramaic) is an oral law not included in the 2nd century legal code, the Mishnah.
  21. Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 25b (6th century CE)
  22. Rabbi Norman Hirsch (b. 1930)
  23. James M. Barrie (1860-1937)
  24. Rabbi Norman Lamm (1927-2020)
  25. Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
  26. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (2nd century CE)
  27. Genesis 18:27
  28. Martin Buber (1878-1965), Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 249-250.

This blog also appears at the Times of Israel https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/humility-first-among-the-virtues/

Utter Failure of Leadership – Senator Mitch McConnell

It is common political knowledge that Senator Mitch McConnell’s primary interest is and has always been power, getting it and holding onto it. Now, we have an inside look at what he was thinking in the days after Trump’s insurrection and attack on the nation’s Capitol as described in Rachael Bade’s and Karoun Demirjian’s new book “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump.”

It is debatable, to be sure, to suggest (as the book’s title seems to do) that the Democrats botched the impeachment. I disagree. They made the case powerfully against Trump. It was the Republicans fear of Trump that ultimately gave him a pass. That said, Politico describes what McConnell was thinking:

“’Unchecked’ explores how the longtime Republican leader came much closer than originally reported to backing Trump’s conviction after the January 6 Capitol insurrection — and even got sandbagged by his own members into making a decision on the issue before he was ready. McConnell relished the opportunity to slam the door shut on the controversial former president’s political career, and inside his Capitol office suite, he intensively debated the question with his own staff…But while McConnell was ready to be done with Trump, his party, it seemed, was not. To his chagrin, a large chunk of his members were once again coalescing around the former president. And they were about to put him in a bind….That afternoon, fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul would force a vote on the constitutionality of convicting a former president — short-circuiting McConnell’s own deliberations. While Trump loyalists had seized on the suggestion that a former president simply could not be impeached and convicted, McConnell was not so sure. He argued with one of his most trusted aides about why the Founders would explicitly allow Congress to bar an impeached official from future office yet reserve that power only for current officials…McConnell had never led such a rebellion [against a fellow Republican]. And that day, he wasn’t sure he was up to the task.”

Is the fact that McConnell was troubled as he spoke on the Senate floor on February 13, 2021 enough? See – https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/13/politacs/mcconnell-remarks-trump-acquittal/index.html

Hardly. To the contrary. McConnell’s failure of leadership enabled Trump to continue to spread throughout his base a toxic undermining of American elections and our democratic institutions and to give Trump the right to run for President again in 2024. McConnell’s failure to lead Senate Republicans shines a light on what great leadership really means. Except for Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger  in the House and Mitt Romney in the first Impeachment trial, along with a small handful of Republican members who voted to convict Trump in the second Impeachment trial, the entire Republican Party failed in its duty to the Constitution and the American people.

Great leadership requires not just vision and high moral rectitude, but the love of truth and a sacred commitment to further the common good. There are times when all leaders must stand up against the crowd, take a political risk knowing that they can lose everything, power, position, and the respect of their followers. Great leaders, however, bear the responsibility to act on behalf of the best interests of the public and to set a high moral standard for themselves and their colleagues.

I understand and even sympathize that in the current environment of the Trump-Republican Party that it is very difficult for Members of Congress and the Senate to oppose the mob and risk being expelled from the “tribe/cult.” Anyone who did so was defeated in Republican primaries this year or decided not to stand for re-election knowing that they would be defeated if they spoke their minds. Those few who took public stands against Trump and election denial were condemned,  threatened, and excommunicated from a political community they cherished.

Effective leadership is not just about saying the right thing at the right time and then following up with consistent action. It is also about organizing others to follow you. Senator McConnell utterly failed to do this when he could have done so with enough colleagues to make a difference in the outcome of the Impeachment process.

Martin Luther King put it well when he said: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Congressman John Lewis said: “You must be headlights and not tail-lights.”

Uri Avneri, a leader of the Israeli peace movement, said: “If you say something outside the consensus, you create enemies. The less you say, the less trouble. That is a basic political truism. But it is not the stuff great leaders are made of.”

President Gerald Ford said: “In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity`s approval.”

McConnell did none of that. Rather, he did as the 19th Century French politician, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, said: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Leaders lead. The pursuit of popularity and power does not a leader make. There will always come a time when leadership means standing up courageously against the crowd, without hesitation, knowing that one’s cause is right, moral, and just.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks characterized truly great leaders as those who “combine realism with idealism, subordinate politics to ethics, power to responsibility, and pragmatism to the demands of conscience…[Great leaders] are always exposed to prophetic critique to remind themselves of transcendent standards and ultimate aims.”

Consequently, it matters little that Mitch McConnell suffered pangs of conscience when deciding to vote against the conviction of Donald Trump. What matters is that he failed to do so when he knew and understood that Trump had engaged in treasonous behavior in his designing and leading the insurrection against American democracy.

Liz Cheney put it right as she addressed her Republican colleagues in the January 6 hearings: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

McConnell, for all the power he wields, is no leader. His example is as bad as all Republicans in Congress who failed to do their duty to uphold the rule of law and the US Constitution.  

This blog also appears at the Times of Israelhttps://blogs.timesofisrael.com/utter-failure-of-leadership-senator-mitch-mcconnell/

Carpe Diem!

Dr. Sagit Arbel-Alon, an obstetrician and oncological gynecologist at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, is also a poet, and she is haunted by the truth that life may be long but time is short. She wrote:

“I read (somewhere) that it’s important to live each day

As though it’s the last of my life,

So I got up early and left

For work, went shopping,

Folded laundry,

Emptied a dishwasher,

Collected feelings for a poem,

Sliced a salad for dinner,

Showered, told another

Bedtime story,

Said good night,

Gave a kiss.”

The signature prayer of Rosh Hashanah is Unetaneh Tokef, and it includes the following language emphasizing the temporal nature of our lives:

“Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.”  

We have so little time, you and I, and so this season calls upon us most especially to ask ourselves whether we are using the time we have well.

What we choose to do with the time we have tells us who we are, what we care most about, who and what we value. 

Would we go on as we always thought to do?

Stay close to home?

Show more of our love to our life-partners and spouses, children, and grandchildren?

Be with friends?

Support good and just causes?

Travel?

Commune with the natural world?

Write books?

Read for fun?

Teach?

Create paintings?

Sing and compose songs?

Dance?

Cook and bake?

Eat dark chocolate?

Carpe diem, u-l’shanah tovah u-m’tukah l’kul’chem!

Making a Life

For many years I have collected quotations written by people who lived from antiquity to modernity who addressed all manner of ideas. I offer the following on the theme of life’s meaning with the hope that some are meaningful to you now, during these extraordinary times and for this upcoming High Holiday season:   

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” -Eckhart Tolle (b. 1948)

“The best part of life is not just surviving, but thriving with passion and compassion and humor and style and generosity and kindness.” -Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.” -Alice Childress (1916-1994)

“Life is short. Be swift to love. Make haste to be kind.” -Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” -William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

“Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some, and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” -Robert Lee Fulghum (b. 1937)

“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common – this is my symphony.” -William Henry Channing  (1810-1884)

“People get better because they want to get better, and need to get better – they feel the obligation to get better. And you take from anyone and from anywhere. Turn nothing down, unless an idiot is babbling at you. I took advice from everyone, and what you see before you is the result of will and study and imitation and desire. I was born only with the desire, but showing up and driving everyone stark raving mad with questions made me good. And I am good. I worked at it.” -Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

 “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and, if it were possible, speak a few reasonable words.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

“Life must be understood backwards…[but] lived forwards.” – Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” -Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” -William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

“Life is too short to drink bad wine or finish books I don’t like.” -Susan Kelly (b. ?)

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” –Crowfoot, Isapo-Muxika (1830-1890)

“There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don`t expect you to save the world, I do think it`s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.” -Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr. (b. 1943)

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

“The purpose of life is not to be happy; but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all.” -Leo Calvin Rosten (1908-1997)

“There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

“We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or die together as fools.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….” -Victor Frankl (1905-1997)

May this New Year 5783 be one of good health, growth, renewal, and fulfillment for us all, peace and safety for the Jewish people here, throughout the Jewish Diaspora, in the Land of Israel, and for all peoples of the earth.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’tichateimu.

Forgiveness is about letting go

Far too often, when I served as a congregational rabbi and was called to officiate at a funeral and meet with the family of the deceased, someone was missing from the inner circle of close relatives and friends—a brother, sister, child, or longtime friend. They were absent not because they were unavailable, but because some serious breach occurred long before, and the parties never forgave one another nor reconciled.

All of us will be hurt, sometimes deeply by those close to us. Knowing this, our task is to determine how we will cope when we or one of our dear ones are victimized, and what we will have to do to arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is among the most difficult emotional, psychological, and spiritual challenges we ever face. Our inability and/or unwillingness to forgive has a profound negative impact on our well-being and overall health. But if we can find our way to forgiveness, we can not only restore relationships but relieve our deepest hurts.

As I have thought about how to forgive (a central theme during this period leading to and including the High Holidays), how to reach the place inside us that allows us to lay down the burdens that come with being wronged, I have gleaned six truths about the nature of forgiveness: 

1. Forgiveness is a step-by-step process and not a single event. True forgiveness does not paper over what happened to us in a superficial way, nor does it suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried, and it comes only when we are able to honor the grief and sense of betrayal that are part of us and our past, without letting them take over our lives in the present.

2. Forgiveness requires a courageous act of will. It is not about forgetting or pardoning, condoning, falsely reconciling, or appeasing an aggressor or wrong-doer. Forgiving takes fortitude, which is why Gandhi taught: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

3. Forgiveness requires us to believe in our basic goodness. It needs to be anchored in the belief that we are all “nobly born” by virtue of being created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image,” and that we have an innate capacity for wisdom, purity, goodness, and love. Our noble birth means that we aspire to do better, even when we are hurt and justifiably filled with the desire to seek vengeance.

4. Forgiveness frees us. When we hold onto our anger and resentment, we bind ourselves to the person who hurt us, and if we say “I will never forgive him/her,” we consign ourselves to a prison in which we are both the jailer and the prisoner. Consider this dialogue between two former prisoners of war:

“Have you forgiven your captors yet?”

“No! Never!”

“Well, they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

When asked if he could ever forgive the Chinese for their military occupation of Tibet and the systematic destruction of Tibetan monasteries and culture, the Dalai Lama replied, “They have already taken my country. Why should I let them have my mind, too?”

Forgiveness does not depend on anyone except us – it is unilateral. It doesn’t require the other person to apologize or ask to be forgiven. It doesn’t even require the other person to be alive or aware of our decision to forgive. Forgiveness is ultimately simple – it means releasing ourselves from the pain inflicted upon us in the past and letting it go in the present.

5. Before we can forgive others, we have to feel fully the injury we sustained, to grieve as if we suffered the death of a loved one, and then reconstitute our lives after an appropriate period of mourning. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge of all, because so many of us have allowed the hurt, grief, fear, resentment, and rage to pile up over time, one negative emotion sitting on top of another, each adding density to our negative feelings, a black hole of intensifying negativity that sucks the life out of everyone around us.

Many people wrongly assume that we should simply move on without the necessary emotional work. Negative emotions, however, do not really go anywhere. To make forgiveness possible, we need to strive to understand how the hurt fits into the rest of our lives, how it changed us and our world view, and how it closed our hearts.

The goal of forgiveness is a reshaped life, and if we come to it late, forgiveness can reshape death as well. We will know that the process of forgiveness has been effective and we are different when we can recall those who hurt us and nevertheless want to wish them well.

6. Forgiveness does not re-write our history, but it allows us to re-write the story of our history. Our willingness to change, and then to see the world through a more positive lens, resets the compass of the heart so we can reclaim our larger self, our larger consciousness, our larger capacity for loving-kindness. It allows us to open our hearts to others, and it frees us from the debilitating fear of being hurt again.

When we forgive we heal the hurts we do not deserve. By forgiving, we reverse the flow of our history. We are released from the pain born in the past but which poisoned our present. 

This blog appears in my book Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove (Nashville: Jewish Lights Publishing, a division of Turner Publishing, 2017) 106–113. It is available on Amazon.

This blog also is posted at The Times of Israel  https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/forgiveness-is-about-letting-go/

Teshuvah Redux

The process of Teshuvah/Repentance was regarded so highly by the rabbis of the midrashic tradition (400-1200 CE) that they characterized it as one of the seven wonders that preceded the creation of the universe itself (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39b).

Teshuvah is a progressive force in human life that challenges us to break from our negative and destructive habitual patterns, behaviors and addictions that cause inner and social turmoil, dysfunction, disunity, and disharmony.

Effecting Teshuvah (a central theme in this month of Elul preceding the High Holidays), as essential as it is to the advancement of our lives and the restoration of our relationships, to our personal and interpersonal growth, and to change, is neither simple nor quickly accomplished. Teshuvah requires much time, strong intention, and consistent effort, as well as the virtues of patience, perseverance, humility, and courage. It even requires our willingness to experience suffering and despair because when we acknowledge and understand on a deep level what we did to ourselves and to others and why we behaved so destructively, we confront ourselves and our deepest motivations (see my last blog on The Rider and the Elephant). If we succeed, however, we can eventually restore what was broken in our lives, return us to those we love and care most about, renew our connection with Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, enable us to more fully intuit Oneness amongst humankind and in the natural world, and by doing all of that be renewed and refreshed, and feel more joyful, optimistic, and hopeful about ourselves, our community, our people, and the world.

Teshuvah is a manifestation of the divine in each human being… Teshuvah means “turning about,” “turning to,” “response” [based on the Hebrew root – shin-vav-bet – return to God, to Judaism, return to community, return to family, return to “self”… Teshuvah reaches beyond personal configurations – it is possible for someone to return who “was never there” – with no memories of a Jewish way of life…Judaism isn’t personal but a historical heritage… Teshuvah is a return to one’s own paradigm, to the prototype of the Jewish person…The act of Teshuvah is a severance of the chain of cause and effect in which one wrong follows inevitably upon another…The thrust of Teshuvah is to break through the ordinary limits of the self…The significance of the past can only be changed at a higher level of Teshuvah – called TikunTikun HanefeshTikun Olam (lit. repair of one’s life and repair of the world)…The highest level of Teshuvah is reached when the change and correction penetrate the very essence of the sins once committed and create the condition in which a person’s transgressions become one’s merits.” -Gleaned from “Repentance” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1937-2020)

“One of the foundations of penitence, in human thought, is a person’s recognition of responsibility for one’s actions, which derives from a belief in humankind’s free will. This is also the substance of the confession that is part of the commandment of penitence, in which the person acknowledges that no other cause is to be blamed for one’s misdeed and its consequences but the person alone.” -Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)

“For transgressions between one person and another, such as injury, cursing, stealing, and similar offenses, a person is never forgiven until that person gives the other what is owed, and pacifies that other person.” –Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204), Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:2

“What is complete Teshuvah? When one comes upon a situation in which one once transgressed, and it is possible to do so again, but the person refrains and doesn’t transgress on account of one’s repentance.” -Maimonides, Ibid 2:1

“Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “Does then one know on what day we will die?” “All the more reason one should repent today, lest we die tomorrow.” -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 53a (6th century CE)

“One’s perspective is enlarged through penitence…All that seemed deficient, all that seemed ugly in the past, turns out to be full of majesty and grandeur as a phase of the greatness achieved through the progress of penitence… Moreover, it is necessary to identify the good that is embodied in the depth of evil and to strengthen it – with the very force wherewith one recoils from evil. Thus will penitence serve as a force for good that literally transforms all the wrongdoings into virtues.” -Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

“Open the door of repentance only the width of the eye of a needle and God will open it wide enough for carriages and wagons to pass through.” -Song of Songs Rabbah 5 (7th century CE)

“Rabbi Abbahu said, “In the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” -Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 34b

The Rider and the Elephant – How much control over our lives do we really have?

”What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” The Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha, 500 B.C.E.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” –William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Act 2 Scene 2

Are the Buddha and Shakespeare right? Are we humans really capable of being “mind over matter?” Is nurture more powerful than nature? Can we think, do, react, and be anything we decide to be? Is it really that simple and easy to define ourselves and turn our lives around by deciding to do so? These are some of the questions we Jews ask during the month of Elul leading to the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.

None of this effort to create and/or recreate ourselves is simple according to Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He writes that the conscious reasoning part of our brains has only limited control over what we think, feel, decide, do, and become. (See his books “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” and “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”)

The challenge before us, Haidt says, is that the mind is divided into two parts that often conflict with each other. We are like “Riders on the backs of Elephants.” Our conscious and rational mind (i.e. the Rider) has only limited control over what our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions beneath (the Elephant) compel us to do. The Rider is like the press agent for the President (the Elephant). The press agent (the Rider) rationalizes and spins whatever the President (the Elephant) says and does.

The Elephant and Rider each has its own “intelligence,” and when the two intelligences work together they merge into a special kind of confluence of heart, mind, spirit, and action, thus embodying an integrated self. However, our Elephant and Rider don’t always work together, and when they don’t we feel fragmented, dysfunctional, and often frustrated and stuck.

This month of Elul leading to the High Holidays is when Jews prepare to break from ingrained negative and self-destructive habits that keep us from change, growth, and a more integrated self. We call that process Teshuvah (lit. turning, returning, or repentance). The goal of Teshuvah is for us to restore integrity and dignity to our lives, to become our best selves, to bring us closer to the people we love, to our families and friends, to our colleagues, fellow workers and community, to our people, to Jewish tradition and Torah, and to the pursuit of goodness and godliness. The Teshuvah process assists us in making amends, apologizing for wrongs we committed, seeking forgiveness from others we’ve wronged, and making a commitment not repeat those actions, behaviors, and deeds that caused a breach.

Jewish tradition calls us especially in this season to look beyond our material needs and focus upon our emotional, ethical, and spiritual lives, on that which elevates us to be a “little less than the gods” (“Vat’chas’rei-hu m’at mei-elohim…”Psalms 8:5 – Robert Alter translation).

Haidt reminds us that when the Rider and Elephant are at cross-purposes we need to retrain the Elephant; but that is never easy nor is it an immediate “fix.” He explains that our Elephant is wired to patterns long-ago established when we were young. It seems to us at times however, that it doesn’t really matter what our conscious minds, the power of reason, and the good yetzer (inclination) tell us we ought to do, for our Elephant is overly powerful and our Rider has little sway or control.

So Haidt urges the Rider to clarify the path towards greater integration of the self and then talk to the Elephant into reconditioning the Elephant’s gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions whenever they are out of whack with the Rider’s higher ethical, rational, and spiritual aspirations, purposes, and goals.

Was Shakespeare right, then, that “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so?”

I respond this way. We will not be successful in the process of Teshuvah if we insist that the Rider has the final word. Rather, the Rider’s role is to redirect the Elephant’s emotional, psychological, and intuitive impulses carefully and deliberately. There are at least three means to do this:

  • Meditation – Quiet the mind and detach from whatever drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behaviors;
  • Cognitive therapy – Explore our deeper motivations, unconscious innate impulses, and hidden agendas thereby bringing them to consciousness, and then “unpack” that baggage we carry around with us (often without realizing we are doing so), the hurtful memories from childhood and early adult life that conditioned us to think and believe that the world works in a specific way and that we have little to no control over it. The Jewish Musar movement addresses all these challenges;
  • Biochemical support – I am not a psychiatrist, but I believe in biochemical medical intervention and support when trained professionals determine it to be efficacious and necessary to attain greater calm in our lives and the ability to make necessary positive changes. Those who think that biochemical therapy might be helpful ought to consult with qualified mental health professionals.

Each of these three strategies has its place, and working together they can be efficacious in helping us draw together our Rider and Elephant into a systemic, unified, integrated, productive, positive, and confluent organism.

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor is helpful because it accurately describes how the Elephant operates from a powerful subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces and what the Rider does and is capable of doing. Given the Elephant’s size and weight, however, it is likely that we may only be able to move forward slowly on one day and to find ourselves slipping backwards two steps to our former dysfunctional default position on the next. What is necessary is for us to retrain ourselves patiently and with perseverance, virtues themselves in the process of effecting Teshuvah. As we are successful, our sense of hopeful optimism likely will return.

I agree that life is what we deem it to be. We humans are, after all, proactive beings. We need not be victims of our non-rational and irrational forces. We have agency to effect change and growth in our lives. We have only to want to do so as the necessary first step.

Happy riding, and may we all experience a productive Elul!

This post also appears at The Times of Israel – see https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-rider-and-the-elephant-how-much-control-over-our-lives-do-we-really-have/

“Still Broke” – a book recommendation

Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism, by my friend, Rick Wartzman, is set to be published November 15. Walmart is America’s biggest private employer, and is often under scrutiny for its labor practices.

The book has received stellar reviews, one from Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer:

“Rick Wartzman proves, once again, why he is America’s most compelling historian of corporate culture. Still Broke is fair-minded, exacting, and brutally clear that achieving humane wages for front-line workers will take more than good intentions. This should be required reading for every CEO, union leader, and politician in America.”

Rick Wartzman is head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute, a part of Claremont Graduate University. His commentary for Fast Company was recognized by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing with its Best in Business award for 2018. He has also written for Fortune, Time, Businessweek, and many other publications. His books include The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Current Interest and named one of the best books of 2017 by strategy+business; Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History and a PEN USA Literary Award; and The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (with Mark Arax), which won a California Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

How America’s biggest company began taking better care of its workers–and why such efforts will never be enough.

Fifteen years ago, Walmart was the most controversial company in America. By offering incredibly low prices, it had come to dominate the retail landscape. But with this dominance came a suite of ethical concerns. Walmart was accused of wiping out of mom-and-pop businesses across the country; ruthlessly pressuring suppliers to cut costs, even if it meant closing up U.S. factories and moving production overseas; and, above all, not taking adequate care of its own employees, who were paid so little that many wound up on public assistance.
 
Today, while Walmart remains America’s largest employer, the picture is very different. It has become an environmental leader among businesses, and has taken many other steps to use its immense scale to have a positive social impact. Most notably, its starting wage has risen from $7.25 to $12, and employee benefits have improved. With internal and external threats to its business looming, the company began to change directions in 2005—a transformation that accelerated in 2014, with the arrival of CEO Doug McMillon. By undertaking such large-scale change without a legal mandate to do so, Walmart has joined a number of major corporations that say they are dedicated to practicing a new, socially conscious form of capitalism.

In Still Broke, Wartzman goes inside the company’s transformation, showing in novelistic detail how the company has gotten to where it is. Yet he also asks a critical question: is it enough?

With a still-simmering public debate around the minimum wage and widespread movements by workers demanding better treatment, how far will $12 an hour go in today’s economy? Or even $15? Or Walmart’s average wage, which now hovers above $17—but, even so, doesn’t pencil out to so much as $32,000 a year for a full-time worker?
 
In the richest nation on earth, how did the bar get set so low? How did America find itself relying on an army of low-wage workers without ever acknowledging their most basic needs? And if Walmart’s brand of change is the best we have, how can we ever expect to build a healthy society?

With unparalleled access to the key executives and change-makers at Walmart, Still Broke does more than document a remarkable business makeover. It interrogates the role of business in American life, and asks what the future of our economy and country can be—and whose job it is to make it.

If you haven’t pre-ordered Still Broke, I encourage you to do so here – Just click here