What’s in a Name

At the beginning of Parshat Vaera, God tells Moshe that His name is Hashem – the four letter name that is unpronounceable. God then says that He never revealed this name to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why not? Were they not worthy enough to hear that name?

Rashi explains that the “name” represents absolute truth. Since God did not fulfill His promises to the Patriarchs (to build them into a great nation and give them the land of Israel) in their lifetime, He could not represent Himself with that name. Since the Jews would be redeemed from Egypt by Moses, God could finally use the name of absolute truth.

I’d like to offer another explanation. According to the mystical teachings, the four letter name of God represents Chesed-Giving, or Rachamim-Mercy. The Patriarchs had hard lives. Their wives suffered years of barrenness. They faced persecution and pursuers, enemies and rivalries. They dealt with family strife, rebellious children, and hostile relatives. They were constantly being tested by God. They were only shown the Din-Judgment representation of God, not the Chesed-Rachamim-Mercy aspect, as represented in the four letter name. The Jews in Egypt, however, could only see the name of mercy. They did not deserve redemption on the basis of their own merit. Their redemption was solely based on the Chesed-Mercy of God, as represented in His four letter name.

We Can All Come Out Ahead

To see all of Rabbi Wildes' posts, click here -> Rabbi Jonathan Feldman's Blog

Yom Kippur II 2015/5776

Have you ever been caught on the highway and traffic slows down to a standstill? You assume you are behind an accident, and traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. When you finally pass the cause of the delay, you find out that in fact the accident was not on your road but happened in the lanes going the opposite direction, and that the delay was because of rubbernecking.

Rubbernecking is a very strange phenomenon. It gets me really upset because really the slowdown does not have to happen. So why is there rubbernecking, why do people slow down to look at an accident in the opposite direction? I call this the ‘Lot’s wife synadrome.’ When Sodom was being destroyed Lot and his family were told not to look back, and when Lot’s wife did, she was turned into a pillar of salt. Why is it bad to look back? When I asked people why they looked back, some said that they looked to make sure no one was hurt, or to know to pray if someone was hurt. It might also be a morbid fascination, for the same reason that horror movies are popular, or that they show so much tragedy on the evening news. That is a topic that deserves its own treatment, however the third reason is the one i would like to focus on. I think one of the reasons people look at accidents is because deep inside they feel reassured that the accident happened to someone else and not to them. The underlying world outlook is that there is a kind of zero-sum balance in the world that a certain number of accidents happen, and so if it happened to someone else that means there is less chance it will happen to them.

This outlook is what you can call a ‘win/lose’ world outlook. This term was coined by Steven Covey in the late 90’s, in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The premise of the 4th Habit, which is to think win/win, is that most people live with the belief that there are a limited number of pieces in the pie, and if someone else gets more, that means I get less. This outlook is reinforced in so many aspects of our society, from competitiveness in school to SAT scores to rankings of employees according to their productivity in the workplace. The bell curve reinforces this outlook, and the rationale behind it is if there is direct competition between people it will spur them on to greater achievement. However there is a down side which pits one person against another.

Someone told me about his experience in law school which illustrated this aspect of our society. it was before finals time and he had missed a number of the lectures over the semester. He asked one of the person in his study group for her notes from those lectures. She delayed giving him the notes, once she forgot them, then she could not find them. Finally she said to him, to tell you honestly I am not comfortable giving you my notes because I have to look out for myself and make sure I place best in the class and so I cannot help you in your work.

This win/lose outlook permeates so many aspects of our society, and in doing so it trickles down to become part of our personalities. And instead of trying to help others, many people feel that they cannot help anyone else and just have to ‘look out for numero uno’ because ‘it’s a tough world out there.’ It also tends to exacerbate jealousy because we are made to feel that I should have what someone else has. It is the reason why people are often critical of others and put them down, we have whole cultural genres called sit coms and reality tv which pit people against each other and turn petty ill will into an art and into a joke.

This outlook on life is caustic for society, and leads to small minded-ness, meaness of spirit and selfishness. Part of our work on Yom Kippur is not just to look at our past actions and to try to correct them, it is to look at our attitudes and personality traits and try to adjust them. Steven Covey advocates what he calls a win/win outlook on life, that for me to win it does not mean that someone else has to lose, and that I do not have to bring someone down to come out ahead. This is what he calls the abundance mentality, that there is enough to go around for everyone.

This outlook is the foundation of Torah values, and was formulated in the Torah 3300 years ago, placed as the most important value a person can have by Rabbi Akiva 2000 years ago and articulated by Namanides 1000 years ago. The Torah tells us to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves,’ and Rabbi Akiva tells us in the Talmud that this is the underlying principle of the whole Torah. Now what does this mean, to love another person ‘as ourselves’? If you really loved another person as yourself, then if they had something you did not have, you would give it to them. In the end you would wind up giving away almost all you have because there is always someone else who does not have it. Since Judaism does not have vows of poverty where you give away all your belongings, as some religions do, this must not be the proper way to understand it. Nahamanides instead says that you should wish unto others what you would wish for yourself. The result is that if someone has prosperity, good fortune, gets a promotion, finds a great fiancé or wins the lottery, you are as overjoyed for them as if it had happened to you. This is abundance mentality. I can be happy for another person’s success, without feeling that it will detract from my own and even if I do not have what they do. How do we achieve this? Ultimately if we view our blessings coming from the Almighty, then we feel that we are all given what we are supposed to have in life from the Almighty, and we are accepting of what we have. In the Rabbi business, I am happy to report that we share stories, speeches, ideas for talks and generally have a very supportive attitude towards each others’ success. I guess this is good news, because if the Rabbis at not living by win/win then we are in really big trouble.

There is a whole business philosophy predicated on finding the partnerships that are win/win to build upon. The world of economics does not have to be a zero-sum gain. Now granted, there are some situations where it is difficult to see the win/win. If there are four employees in your group, and there is only one spot open for promotion, then if someone else gets it that means I will not get it. So how do we deal with such situations? Covey does concede that there are some situations where there is no avoiding win/lose.

However in the spiritual realm, win/lose where I accept that someone else will get something that I want and that I will not get it, or I will give them what I have, can be a win/win as well. In personal relationships people who have what we call ‘emotional intelligence’ realize that the more I give to another person, or the more I let them have something that I want, I am not losing out but in fact I am gaining.

The great ethical teachers noted a phenomenon in interpersonal relationships that seems counter-intuitive to some. They noted that the more you give to someone, the more you love them. If I would ask you who loves whom more, do parents love children more, or do children love parents more, I think you would answer that parents love children more, yet it is parents who usually give much more to children that children give to parents. So the more we give to someone, the more we love them. R Eliya Dessler explains this by noting that when you give to someone you ‘put more of yourself into them’ so to speak, and so you feel they are an extension of you. Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm says that when you give to another you feel good about the giving, so you love that person because they bring out the best in you. So the win/win is that you come out feeling good about the giving, and in the end you are getting more then you give.

On Monday I came across an amazing personal piece in the Huffington Post. The writer, Richard Paul Evans, NY Times bestselling author, describes the terrible state his marriage was in. He and his wife were always arguing, and they were both dug into their positions, not wanting to budge. Each chore to be done in the home was evaluated by the other and bargained over in terms of who would have to do it. Their relationships was win/lose, and every day was a battle to make sure each of them won more than they lost, or that they did not wind up having to do more than the other. Their kids later told them that their dread of their parents getting divorced was overcome by the feeling that maybe they should get divorced because of how much fighting was going on.

Things finally hit rock bottom and when the author was a way on a business trip he called out to G-d and begged for something to change. Then he realized that the only responsibility he could take was for his own change, and he resolved to so. When he came home from the trip, his wife hardly acknowledged his presence. He realized how alienated he was from the woman he was sleeping inches away from. The next morning he woke up and he said to her ‘what can I do for you to make your day better.’ She looked at him incredulously, and thought that this was a bad joke. But she went with it, and said ‘you can clean the kitchen.’ That morning he cleaned the kitchen. The next morning he woke up and said ‘what can I do to make your day better?’ She laughed at him again, and said ‘clean the garage.’ Maybe she said it just to spite, but even though he had a busy day he spent two hours cleaning the garage. On the third day, she saw he was serious and said that he should not do anything for her. He said ‘I have to, I made a vow to myself to do this.’ ‘Why?’ she asked? ‘Because I love you and care for you,’ he said. She then broke down and said that the problem was her, and that she was stuck in her unhappiness.

Eventually after a month of doing this his love for her grew, and she truly saw how much he loved her. Decades later he is grateful for the insight and realization he had after crying out to G-d. Today on Yom Kippur, when we call out to the Almighty, let’s think about how we can envision our lives and our relationships with other as a win/win, wish for the success of others, and appreciate the spiritual pleasure that comes from giving in and giving to others. Oh, and next time you pass an accident, speed up, don’t look and just offer up a prayer for the safety of and wellbeing of everyone involved.

Putting Ourselves in Question

Yom Kippur I 2015/5776

In 2011 at the age of 26, Csanad Szegedi rose to great popularity, was the wonder boy of Hungary’s Jobbik party and their representative on the European Parliament. The Jobbik party is a right wing party which is nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and fueled itself with anti-semitic hatred. Amongst his anti-semitic tropes were playing off Jewish sterotypes: ‘This budget will make Hungarians poorer and Jews richer.” He even accused the Jewish intelligentsia of doing harm to the holy throne of St Steven, Hungary’s first king.

In 2011 one of his political opponents wanted to discredit him, so they dug around to see what kind of dirt they could find on him. Sounds like an episode from one of the popular tv political drama. Except that the skeleton in his closet they found was that his maternal grandmother and grandfather were Jewish. She was a holocaust survisor of Auschwitz, he survived a labor camp, and they raised her dauther, his mother, without telling her she was Jewish. They hid their Jewish background from the family and his grandmother wore long sleeves to hide the tattooed number on her arm. They erased their Jewish identity because they were afraid of another holocaust. When Csanad went to his grandmother to find out about her background, she admitted the truth to him.

At first Csanad tried to live with this contradiction. He said ‘it does not matter what you are born, as long as you live as a patriotic Hungarian.’ His political opponents saw past the contradiction he was not willing to face, and said ‘we might as well just take you and put a bullet in your head, your life is finished.’
Imagine that you are a die-hard Yankees fan who lives in New York, and in a trunk in the attic you find a trove of Boston Red Sox baseball cards. You find out your family was originally from Boston, and that your grandparents were Boston Red Sox fans. But seriously, imagine that your family background originates from the very group you have been demonizing your whole life. It is hard for us to imagine what personal turmoil he must have gone through, to put in question everything he had been living for. It takes a great deal of inner strength, and a deep sense of self to be able to let go of one’s identity, to walk away from the life you have built up which involved such great success.
Szegedi quit the party, but he did not stop there. He began to investigate Judaism by speaking with his grandmother who told him more about their Jewish background and about growing up in a Jewish home in Hungary before the war. He also went to speak to the chief Rabbi of Hungary. To be open to hearing about the very ideology he had been maligning for years, and then starting to embrace it requires a person not just to be able to put in question what they believe, but to have the courage and determination to be open-minded and flexible. After studying about Judaism, Szekedi started to take steps to live a Jewish life. Today Szekedi keeps Kosher and Shabbat, and has changed his name to David. He had himself circumcised and wears a kipa. He went on a trip to Israel with his brother and his wife is contemplating conversion. In a dramatic action of penitence, he bought thousands of copies of his book which spewed hatred and had them burned.

Many believe that people do not really change. We are born a certain way, and we remain that way for the rest of our lives. While I do believe that people have a basic nature and personality, however the Torah tells us that we are capable of change. That process is called Teshuva. Listen to what Maimonides says about teshuva

‘The person should distance him/herself from the matter in which they transgressed, and change their name, and say ‘I am a different person and I am not the person who did those things.’ And he/she should change their actions for the good, and to a righteous path, and should exile themselves from their place.’

What is Maimonides’ source for this statement? If we look at Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, these are the test that they surmounted to pursue their journey towards G-d. They left where they lived, the home they had known their whole lives and went to a new place. Their names were changed.

You see many of the steps that David took were the path to personal transformation advocated my Maimonides and blazed by Abraham and Sarah. He exiled himself from his place, he left the Jabbok party. He changed his name, he is now David, and he distanced himself so much from what he had done that he burned the copies of the book he wrote.

Now most people are not leading such extreme lives sunk in such darkness that they need to burn copies of the book they wrote. But we have probably heard stories of people who made dramatic changes in their lives because they were not happy with their lives or because they felt they could more out of their life. They quit their rat race job, moved to the country and opened a small country store. I know people who worked in a very corporate setting and went back to school to pursue they found more meaningful, some as teachers, some as social workers. Or some of you know my story, I was an atheist and had not done any Jewish things in my life for 5 years during my late teens and early adulthood until I went to Israel at the tail end of trip around Europe and Africa. I started studying Torah, and as you can see I eventually went on to adopt a Torah observant lifestyle and to dedicate my life to studying and teaching Torah. These stories shows us that people can change, that we can change our values and re-arrange our priorities and can take a new direction in life.

Now, I realize that most people are not going to make such dramatic changes in their lives, and maybe they do not have to. But we can ask ourselves that question, what if I could change anything in my life, what would I envision for myself? By doing this exercise we can put in perspective the lives we are living, and we might be more likely to question the parts of our lives with which we are dissatisfied or where we feel we are compromising ourselves and to make changes.

Czanad Szegedi’s story can challenge us to question ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves, am I being true to my real self? Do I feel my real self is able to flourish in the life I am currently leading?

On Yom Kippur we also can bring in the spiritual dimension to these q uestions: Do I have soul outlets in my life, do I nuture my spiritual side? Do I invest enough in my Jewish life, or do I allow it to be relegated to a secondary sidebar which only appears on a couple of pages in my yearly calendar?

Change is very challenging, sometimes it requires us to let go of beliefs or habits that we know are not the best for us, or which we know we have outgrown but we simply cannot let go of.

The idea of Yom Kippur is that we do not wait for the kind of wake up calls Szegedi got from his political opponent-which might never come – but to examine our lives, what values they are based upon, how we are living them and how they can improve.

What’s in Our Kishkes?

Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776

When we feel something in our kishkes, it means it is not just something we think and feel, it is something that we live. It permeates our core. It is what popps into our head when were are not thinking, (or when we are praying), it’s what we dream about. Oh by the way in case you are not familiar with the term, kishkas means guts in Yiddish.

Next week congress will be voting on the nuclear deal with Iran. Let me ask you something, have you lost any sleep over it? A country which has vowed that its mission is to destroy Israel is being given access to $ 150 billion dollars, and a 15 year window after which they are free to develop nuclear weapons, and a self-regulated system of inspections, and we are not losing sleep? Well maybe you think that the Iran Nuclear Deal is not the best deal, but it is the best deal we can make now (as the president does). Even if that is the case, when over half of congress thinks it is a bad deal, when the majority of the American people think it is a bad deal, when leading experts think it is a bad deal, when a country that has already broken countless verification agreements by building secret facilities is being offered another agreement when they did not keep the previous ones, should we be sleeping soundly? The stakes are not that you chose the wrong horse to win the trifecta, but it is the lives of millions of Israelis at stake, so even then maybe because of this we should be losing some sleep? So why are we not losing sleep? We are not losing sleep because we do not feel it in our kishkes. We do feel the reality of the situation. Bombs are not falling, so we remain unmoved, we are asleep.

It seems that what people are losing sleep over these days is whether Tom Brady will be suspended for deflategate, or whether to upgrade to the iphone 6s . When we think about what occupies our mental space most of the time, what is it? Our jobs, the latest movie, the errands we have to run, or that I forgot to run, what I am having for dinner, or maybe planning the next vacation. We slip into the mundane. Now don’t get me wrong, Judaism does not advocate that we live the life of a monk on a mountaintop with no worldly possessions, in fact there is no tradition in Judaism to live in this way. A person should be connected to family and community, have a home and be grounded in this world, and in order to do so we need to take care of the practical areas of our life. But when the mundane takes over and we lose sight of the larger picture, and lose our ideals and dreams, then we are in trouble.

When Jacob first left his family’s home and set out on his own to find a wife and to build his life, he was dreaming of angels going up and down a ladder that connected heaven and earth. He was having spiritual dreams about lofty themes. Rabbi Soloveichik points out that twenty years later Yaakov was dreaming about sheep. When you start dreaming about work, it is a sign that it has taken over your life and your head space, and has taken over your kishkas. G-d then tells Jacob to leave his father-in-law’s home for whom he was working and to return to the land of Israel. It was time for him to get out before he would get even more lost.

The rabbis in the Ethics of the Fathers (2:5) warn us about materialism taking over our lives. Hillel tells us that the more things we have, the more worries we have. Yes modern technology allows up to do things which we never could before, however it is not without a cost. Especially when you consider the three hours I spent on the phone with t-mobile trying to figure out why my pictures were not backing up from my Samsung onto my google account (in 5 minutes the guy in the store told me to delete the app and reinstall it, and sure enough it worked perfectly after that). And this does not even take into account all of the time we waste surfing on line, between shopping, facebook, and the latest news.

So how do we remove the mental clutter and stay focused on the bigger picture? How do we prevent the practical and inconsequential details from taking over our head space?

Steven Covey suggests diving up all our activities and placing them all within 4 different quadrants or categories: activities which are urgent and important, urgent but not important, not urgent but important and not urgent and not important. Not urgent and not important, the surfing online can definitely go. Most people do address the urgent and important, which usually means in September a month out from the end of the tax extension deadline of October 15 is when the taxes get done. But what usually grabs our attention most is the urgent but not important. We spend our time clearing out the inbox on our emails, when other more important matters await. The challenge is to address those things that are not urgent but important, the ones which usually get pushed out of our minds.

Some people do have the ability to push the urgent things out of their minds. When the wife of Baron Rothchild, who lived off the Champs Elysees was giving birth, the doctor came to their home. He checked on his wife and said we have plenty of time before she gives birth, let’s play a game of poker. Sometime after, his wife let out a cry ‘Oh mon Dieu.’ The doctor said nothing to worry about, there is still plenty of time, and he dealt the next hand of cards. A while later she screamed out again, ‘Oh non, oh non!’ Once again the doctor continued playing cards, telling her husband not to worry. A while later she screamed out ‘Oy, oy, oyvey,” and the doctor said okay, it’s now time to deliver the baby.

There is a known story of the philosophy professor which demonstrates our point of focusing on the important and non urgent over the urgent. The professor is trying to demonstrate this principle to his students. In the font of the class he has a large glass jar, and next to it is a pile of rocks and sand. He called up a student and asked him to put the items into the jar. The student poured the sand into the jar, and then carefully placed the rocks over the sand so that the jar would not break. Half the pile of rocks was still left. The professor told him that this was not the most efficient way to fill the jar. He then took out the contents, put the rocks in first, and proceeded to pour the sand inside, filling in the holes between the rocks. He told them, you see, first you put in the larger objects, and then you fill in with the smaller ones, and if you do it that way they all fit. A second student called out, the jar is not yet full. The professor challenged him to demonstrate his point, so he walked up to the front of the hall with a bottle of beer in his hand which he had pulled out of his backpack, and poured the beer into the jar which was full of large stones and sand. ‘You see, there is always room for beer.’ he said. We can see what was occupying his head space.

So how do we keep focused on the not urgent but important? I have an idea. What if once a year we stepped back and looked at our lives to evaluate whether we have become distracted, whether we are not focusing on the wrong things in our lives. Sort of like pushing the restart button and taking a fresh look at our lives. Sound familiar? Yes, this is what we are here to do today. That is what we set out to do on Rosh Hashanah. And, Maimonides tells us, that is the role of the shofar. It is to wake us up, to get us to look at our lives, to drag ourselves away from the mundane, to break out of the routine and to reconnect to the essential things in our life and with the Almighty. Let’s hear from Maimonides in his own words:

“Wake you, you sleepers from your slumber. Shake yourselves up, you zombies from being spaced out. This is referring to those who forget the truly important things in life in the elusiveness of time and immerse themselves all year in trivialities and stupidities which serve no purpose and yield no results. Look at yourselves, be introspective, and improve yourself and (be focused in) what you do.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance III:4)

Maimonides tells us that we are asleep. We are lulled into a comfort zone which allows us to avoid the uncomfortable or difficult issues in our lives and in the world. And we latch onto inconsequential things in order to do so. We can look at how many hours of TV we watch a week, how much shopping we do, how much we are surfing online.

On Yom Kippur we read the book of Job. Job was supposed to go to the city of Ninveh on a mission from G-d, but he does not want to go. Instead he tries to run away, he goes on a ship. When a terrible storm starts rocking the ship, and the crew suspects that it might have something to do with Jonah, they look fo0r him all over and cannot find him. Where is he? He is sleeping deep in the hold of the ship. All their lives depended on him and he is sleeping. This is a metaphor for our lives, there are many things we do in our lives to put ourselves to sleep, but Maimonides tells us we must wake up!

Waking up is not a lofty ideal, but a practical task to accomplish. We have the Shofar as a wake up call, but we need a planned out strategy of how to be more focused. A spiritual business plan if you will. Inside your playbill on page and at the bottom of this talk is a series of questions to help jump start our Rosh Hashanah self-reflection. And just in case you have not already started this process, we have a second chance known as the Ten Days of Repentance in which to take it on. This is what the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is for. To ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with family and friends, cultivating the important relationships. Do I invest in opportunities to give to others, to visit friends who are sick, set up friends on dates, reach out to someone who is down or out of a job? Do I spend time nurturing my spiritual life, learning Torah, going to synagogue, or just finding down time to be with myself? Do I do things to help the Jewish people and Israel?

So unfortunately, Iran will not just go away, like a bad dream. In fact when we truly wake up, we realize that life is even more of a challenge than we thought, but we do have the ability to take it on. So write to your congressperson, get involved in AIPAC, attend the demonstrations in New York. We see that when the world sleeps and tries to avoid the realities, such as the Syrian civil war, in which two hundred thousand people were butchered over the past two years, the problem does not go away. In fact it just comes back at your stronger, and now millions of refugees are clamoring at the doors of Europe. Politicians are supposed to lead by getting us to deal with that which is not urgent but important, so that it does not become urgent and much worse. And that is why pushing the whole Iran Nuclear issue ten or fifteen years down the line is not a solution, that is why giving Iran, the primary world sponsor of international terror access to 150 billion dollars is a bad deal, it will just hit back at us ten times worse.

Let’s wake up to the realities, the realities of our lives, the realities of the world, and heed the call of the Shofar. Shanah Tovah.


Holidays in Jewish thought are far more than commemorations of past events.  Rosh Hashanah is certainly more than a Jewish January 1st.

The essential opportunity of Rosh Hashanah is to clarify for ourselves what our truest, “bottom line” priorities are in life.  No time is more appropriate than today for asking ourselves some basic questions in order to clarify– and remind ourselves– what is that is truly important to us and who it is we ultimately want to be.

To reflect on some of the following questions is quite apropos on this, the day of judgment.

  1. When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?
  2. Those who mean most to me– have I ever told them how I feel?
  3. Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?
  4. If I could live my life over, would I change anything?
  5. What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?
  6. What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh   Hashanah?
  7. What are the three biggest mistakes I’ve made since last Rosh       Hashanah?
  8. What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh    Hashanah?
  9. If I knew I couldn’t fail– what would I undertake to accomplish in life?
  10. What are my three major goals in life?
    1. What am I doing to achieve them?
    2. What practical steps can I take in the next two months?
  11. If I could only give my children three pieces of advice what  would
    they be?

Reprinted from Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit by Shimon Apisdorf

How To Be a Better You For The New Year

– Rabbi Jonathan Feldman

Growth Worksheet

Pursuit of Wisdom and Self-understanding –Relationship to Myself

  • Are there parts of my behavior and personality that I need to change?
  • Do I have a role model in my life?
  • Do I have friends who regularly provide me with honest feedback?
  • Do I respond well to criticism, or do I get defensive?
  • Do I readily admit when I am wrong?

Acts of Kindness –Relationship to Others

  • Am I regularly concerned about the needs of others?
  • How often do I put my own needs on hold in order to help others?
  • Do I conduct my business in a fair and honest way?
  • In business and relationships, do I look for the win-win solution?
  • Do I genuinely feel good, or feel bad, when I hear about another person’s success?
  • Do I gossip and talk negatively about others?

Spiritual Connection –Relationship to G-d

  • Do I give the same concern and attention to my spiritual health as I do to my physical health?
  • In general, do I view events in my life as random occurrences, or as powerful spiritual messages?
  • Do I ever compromise my human values for the sake of monetary gain?
  • For career advancement? For acceptance by others?
  • Do I know how I can make my own contribution to making the world a better place?


Reprinted from Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com

Gossip Detox

Tabloid, Sit Coms, Talk Shows, Reality TV, gossip girls. Our media is seeped with gossip, and often pernicious hurtful gossip, or what we call in the Torah loshon hara. Because it is so commonplace in the public eye, people just accept that this is what people do. They talk about others. They comment about them, what they are wearing, who they are, how they look; often in a negative way.

People just accept and assume this is part of the public discourse. If you ask most people what they think about gossip, they would just say that it’s part of life. If you ask them why they do it, most people will not really be able to answer. Why do they do it? They do it for fun, they do it for kicks, they do it because they think that it makes them look smart or clever, sometimes they do it because they want to hurt the other person, or fit in, or sometimes they do it just because they are bored.

In most areas of interpersonal ethics, if you think about it, you do not necessarily need the Torah to know it is wrong; stealing, cheating, lying. The one exception is loshon hara, critical speech. In general society we take the attitude that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Words do hurt and talking negatively about someone to others can be especially harmful, it can destroy a person in the eyes of others. The Torah likens talking to loshon hara to shooting someone with an arrow. Why an arrow and not a sword? Because, the Midrash says, if a person takes out their sword to hurt someone, the person they are attacking can plead with them and save themselves. But once an arrow is shot is cannot be taken back. (midrash leket tov #120) Once loshon hara is spoken it cannot be taken back, it gets repeated and passed on to others, and people’s attitude towards that person can be turned sour. “So and so is a great guy, really nice, a good friend.” “Yea but he cannot keep down a steady job.”

Sometimes people say “well, what if it is true ?, I am not lying or making things up, I am just reporting on the facts.” That might be the case, but it is still loshon hara. Why? Because everyone has good traits and bad traits (yes, including ourselves) and it is really about what you choose to focus on. So for ourselves, we want people to focus on the what vase, but for other we focus on the black face (???).

In his excellent book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Joseph Telushkin asks; what if I were to present you with a challenge, to not speak harmful gossip for the next 24 hours, could you do it? If someone told you, I cannot go without a drink for 24 hours, you would tell them they have a problem. So if you cannot go without loshon hara for 24, do you think you might have a problem?

In the Torah reading this week it speaks of a skin hard, tzarat, that developed from speaking loshon hara, a type of spiritual ill with a physical symptom. Part of the treatment and the purification process was to take two pigeons. One was brought as an offering and slaughtered, the other was set free. What is this supposed to teach us? The bird that was slaughtered represents the elimination of harmful gossip. The second bird represents positive speech, replacing our harmful gossip with constructive conversation. Maimonides emphasizes this point: use your conversation with people to lift them up, to make them feel good about themselves, to do good, to understand the world around us and how we can approve it, and to see the Almighty in our lives.

There is a say:

Great people talk about ideas.
Average people talk about things.
Small people talk about other people

Let’s strive for greatness and in the process not do unto others that which we would not want them to do to us.

Bibi in DC: Purim All Over Again

Yesterday on my trip back from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, I was thinking back on the events of the past few days, and on the upcoming holiday of Purim. I had just heard (on TV, not in Congress) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his historic speech before the US Congress. This speech was controversial because some felt –Jews and non-Jews that he went to congress without the approval of the President of the United States. Some felt it was controversial because he openly spoke out against the current policies of the President of the United States in his negotiations with Iran over their nuclear weapons program. And yet Bibi pushed forward and delivered his speech despite these objections because he believes that Israel is in mortal danger, and that if the deal being proposed by President Obama with Iran goes through that the very existence of Israel will be in jeopardy because this bad deal will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The religious leader of Persia, Ayatolla Khamenei has vowed the destruction of Israel, and is actively trying to achieve the means to follow through on his threat by pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.

Our Jewish tradition reminds us that this is not the first time that the rulers of Persia have vowed to destroy the Jewish people. Over two thousand five hundred years ago the viceroy of Persia, Haman devised a plot to destroy the Jewish people with the sanction of King Ahashverus. And to prevent this genocide from occurring, Mordechai, one of the Jewish leaders had to take a stand. He had to go against popular opinion. He would not bow down to Haman, inciting his ire. Then he had to implore Ester, the Queen of Persia who had hidden her Jewish identity to seek an audience with the King even though she was not invited. Then Ester would have to openly speak out against the newly adopted policy of the King to prevent a massive attack against the Jewish people.

The genocidal danger against the Jewish people coming out of Persia, Jewish leaders having to take a stand and act in a way which might get people upset, to speak out in a way which is unpopular and would have detractors, and to take a stand with the non-Jewish leaders to get them to change their policy, does any of this sound familiar? This is the story of Purim in the Book of Ester, and it is the story of Purim 2015. Our Torah tells us that the confluence of events in our lives and in the world is not coincidence. We learn from the Megilat Ester that the Almighty directs the events in the unfolding of the destiny of the Jewish people and in the world to help bring about the salvation of the Jewish people and of righteousness. The fact that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress came the day before Purim is no coincidence –it was planned to coincide with his appearance at AIPAC policy conference. But it perhaps there is deeper plan, a plan by the Almighty to send us a powerful message. There are moments when we need to speak out and to take a stand even when it might be unpopular or even dangerous –to stand up to evil and call on others to do so as well, as Mordechai and Ester did in ancient Persia, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did yesterday in the United States Congress, and as each of us need to do with our elected representatives and those will hear our message. And we also need to turn to the Almighty to ask for His help to continue to direct the unfolding of events to help us be victorious over our enemies like when Ester asked the Jews to fast and pray. Today is the fast of Ester, which commemorates Ester’s call to the Jewish people to fast and pray for G-d’s help in the success of her plan to save the Jewish people. It is a wake-up call for us on this Purim to realize the danger facing Israel and the world, and to remember that our celebration and prayers on this Purim and our prayers and the vehicle through which we merit the salvation of the Jews of Israel against our evil Persian enemies. Happy Purim!