Featured on: TIMES OF ISRAEL
MK Michael Oren Speaks at MJEWATCH: Michael Oren gives a fascinating and entertaining lecture about the history and current status of the U.S./ Israel relationship.
For more on the evening, check out this The Times of Israel blog post by Rabbi Mark Wildes on what we can learn from Michael Oren and the U.S./ Israel Relationship:
Posted by Manhattan Jewish Experience on Sunday, November 22, 2015
Part One: The Contemporary Craze & The Jewish Approach
Mindfulness and its positive impact on our lives is nothing new. Knowledge about meditation and its ability to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and reduce chronic pain, is centuries old. Becoming more aware and present as well as more appreciative of the simple blessings in our lives, can lead to a richer and more meaningful life. When we are mindful we don’t just gulp down our food, we savor the flavor. We don’t interrupt a friend while they’re speaking, we listen and internalize their underlying message. We don’t rush from place to place but attempt to appreciate our surroundings, aware of the sky above and the ground below. But again, none of this is new. Nevertheless the development of technology has made mindfulness not only attractive but an absolute necessity in our day to day lives.
While it has enabled us to accomplish much more in less time, technology has created new expectations and a pressured environment. This certainly applies to our lives at work, but even at play. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet one of my icons, Paul McCartney. While I should have simply enjoyed the few minutes I had with Sir Paul, I was consumed with how I would capture the moment for everyone else to see. Should it be a still picture or a video, Instagram or Facebook? As I was trying to enjoy my few moments with Paul, those distracting thoughts took away some of the genuine joy, in real time, of that special encounter (Paul, by the way, could not have been nicer). The internet and social media devices to which we are glued, often prevent us from being in the moment, robbing us of some of the simple pleasures of life.
What is the first thing you do in the morning? According to recent studies, 80% of people check their phones and the average person checks their phone 40-50 times a day, 2-3 times an hour (Study conducted by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman of the University of Pennsylvania,). A Bank of America study found that many 18 to 34 year-olds admit to having a closer relationship with their smartphones than with the most important people in their life while another study discovered that teens average 1,000-1,500 texts a day. Timothy Wilson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, placed a group of people in a quiet room for 6-15 minutes without their smartphones, where they were asked to simply think and reflect. The only other distraction was an electronic button, which if pushed, would deliver a severe shock to the person pressing the button. They were all told that pushing the button would deliver a painful jolt. The study found that a majority of people, especially men, pushed the button. This means that some people would prefer to inflict pain upon themselves rather than “just be”. Our addiction to stimulation has made our generation exceptionally distracted, making it harder and harder for us to be in the moment.
To deal with all this, many have turned to the modern-day mindfulness movement with its Zen Buddhist roots. The modern term “mindfulness” was popularized by Jon Kabat – Zinn, a scientist from MIT, whose goal was to promote a “Buddhist meditation without Buddhism.” In 1979, Zinn created something called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR for short) which combined Buddhism with Western medicine and which ultimately developed into a movement across America. Classical Judaism can also be described as a path to mindfulness, albeit with a different goal and methodology. The Near Eastern approach to mindfulness, which conjures up the image of a monk meditating on a mountain far away from civilization, is ultimately aimed at removing oneself from the physical world. There is, of course, a certain attraction to that approach, but the goal in Jewish mindfulness is not to remove oneself from the world, but rather to engage the physical through the mitzvot (all of which are physical activities), in order to achieve Judaism’s ultimate goal, which is not transcendentalism, but rather – holiness. Holiness in Judaism is attained, not by breaking free of the physical world, but rather by elevating the physical aspects of our existence. The physical activities, in which we are engaged on a regular basis, are not simply meant to be used to survive or gain pleasure from – their ultimate purpose is to keep us connected to our Divine source, and to achieve what the Kabbalists call dveikut or attachment with our Creator. We accomplish this by applying the mitzvot to virtually every human activity. The mindfulness and awareness the mitzvot help produce are therefore a means to something even greater, namely, closeness with Hashem.
In this series I will outline the uniquely Jewish practices which promote mindfulness including:
Kavanah: Achieving a certain emotional awareness through the performance of specific religious activities.
Prayer and Blessings: Reciting certain words and phrases, on a regular basis, in order to become mindful of one’s life mission (necessary for living a purposeful life) and of basic gifts such as the ability to see or walk, necessary to becoming a grateful person.
The Shema: A mantra which if done properly enables one to become mindful of certain spiritual realities, the basis for a purposeful and spiritually driven life.
The Sabbath: Disconnecting from both technology and manipulating the physical world in order to connect with one’s spiritual source and with other people.
Jewish Dietary Laws and Sexual Intimacy: Allows for the infusion of holiness into the most physical areas of life, ie-food and sex.
I will elaborate on each area in subsequent entries but let us begin with the practice of Kavanah, commonly understood as awareness or intention: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the great 20th century thinker, distinguished between two types of mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah: mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are one in the same as opposed to mitzvot whose performance and fulfillment are different. The taking and shaking of the Lulav on the holiday of Sukkot for example, defines the way this mitzvah is both performed and fulfilled. Sefirat HaOmer, counting the days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, is another action which both performs and fulfill the mitzvah. This model characterizes most mitzvot. However, for some mitzvot, their performance is accomplished via certain actions or rituals, but their fulfillment is only achieved through attaining a certain spiritual awareness or mindfulness. For example, the mitzvah to be “happy on the holidays”, was performed in Temple times by bringing various sacrifices and today through drinking wine and eating meat, but unless one experiences a sense of joy, one may have performed the mitzvah, but one has not fulfilled it. To fulfill this commandment, some kind of joy or elation must be felt in the heart.
Another such example is the mitzvah to recite the Shema, performed by reciting certain words from the Torah. But the fulfillment of this mitzvah takes place through what is called: kabbalat ol malchut shamayim or accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. This involves acknowledging the existence of God and committing oneself to living in accordance with His commandments and ethical teachings. Ultimately, it’s about achieving a state of mindfulness as to one’s very existence and purpose in this world.
The Jewish laws of Aveilut, of mourning the loss of a loved one, serves as another example. The mitzvah is performed by refraining from certain physical activities. A mourner, for example, does not wash, anoint with oils, wear leather shoes, and more. These actions help the mourner appreciate his or her loss, but as the Talmud says “there is only mourning in the heart” – some kind of feeling of loss must be experienced in the heart and so again, the activities are designed to bring about a mental state and emotional experience.
Finally, when it comes to prayer, we perform that mitzvah through the recitation of the Shmone Esrei, or the Eighteen Blessings written some 2,500 years ago by the Jewish sages. However, in order to fulfill this mitzvah, something must be experienced in the heart, since prayer is defined in Jewish tradition as a “service of the heart”. Thus ones focus or intention, ie- “kavanah”, is indispensable for the fulfillment of this mitzvah.
Rabbi Shnier Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote that performing the actions associated with mitzvot only elevates the body and the animal soul, the part of the soul most connected with the body. Since praying involves the body (one’s throat, lips, palate, tongue and teeth), reciting prayers has the spiritual power to elevate the body and the lowest part of the soul. However, in order for the uppermost part of the soul to be impacted, ie-the neshama, one needs kavanah – mindful focus. To impact the upper realms and the world around us, a certain mental awareness is required. Aruch, Orach Chaim, 98:10).
I will come back to prayer later in this series, but the basic idea in all these religious practices, whether it’s moving one’s lips to recite prayers (as in the case of the Shema or Shmone Esrei), eating meat and drinking wine to rejoice in the holidays, or refraining from anointing oneself or wearing leather shoes in the case of the mourner, these physical activities are designed to bring about a certain sense of awareness and mindfulness of the ultimate reality. My next entry will focus on specific prayers and blessings Jewish tradition mandates we say in order to become more mindful of our purpose in life and of the many blessings we take for granted. We will then discuss how the Sabbath protects us from some of the damaging effects of technology, and how its restrictions on work teach us how to be present and learn how to simply ‘be”. Finally, we will learn how the Jewish laws governing diet and sex infuse those important parts of our lives with spirituality and God consciousness.
Ultimately, the Jewish practices of mindfulness, if practiced regularly, enables us to channel every aspect of our physical lives towards achieving dveikut or closeness with our Creator. In doing so we can become holier people since having a greater God and soul awareness can, over time and with regular practice, change our nature. We are, after all, where our mind and are thoughts are. If most of the day our thoughts consist of food, sports and sex, then our nature will be more in the realm of the physical. If, however we engage in any of the above-mentioned activities designed to produce mindfulness, then, as our thoughts are directed upwards to the spiritual realms, our nature and disposition will follow suit. Over time, we will become more spiritually sensitive and ethically refined and ultimately holier people.
Part Two: The Power of Blessings
In my last blog on Judaism and Mindfulness we discussed how today’s fast paced world has created a greater need for mindfulness and how Jewish tradition, through a focused performance of mitzvot, enables us to achieve that much-needed awareness. We reviewed how the mitzvot are physical activities, either positive actions or activities from which we refrain, designed to bring about a certain sense of inner mindfulness of the ultimate reality. In this entry, I’d like to focus on how prayers and blessings can, in a simple but powerful way, make us cognizant and grateful of the most important gifts in our lives.
Contrary to popular perception, when we recite a blessing we are not blessing God. God, Jewish tradition teaches, is the very definition of perfection and, as such, does not need our blessing. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the source of our bounty and good fortune. The Hebrew word for blessings, bracha is linguistically connected to the word breicha, or “spring”, the source of water. We recite blessings to acknowledge God as the ultimate source for whatever life gift we are about to enjoy so we can become more aware and ultimately appreciative of the gifts we often take for granted. This explains why, for example, when saying a blessing before eating some fruit, we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree”. We do not say “bless you” God but rather, “blessed are you God” – for we are simply acknowledging God as the source of the fruit, which is critical to becoming a more grateful person. And as all the studies show, grateful people are happier people.
When we wake up each morning, Jewish tradition teaches us to recite the “Modeh Ani” prayer: “I thank you O everlasting King for returning my soul to me, great is your faith”. Again, we are not blessing God but acknowledging Him as the source of our blessing – in this case, for our very existence. The Sages, who composed this short prayer, purposely omitted God’s name so it could be recited immediately upon awakening, even before having to leave our beds to wash our hands. It was important to the Sages that our first words of the day should ones of gratitude and renewal, emphasizing that with each new day, God returns our souls to our bodies, allowing us to live another day. We become mindful that we are entering a new day, with new opportunities and not the same old drudge. We’re not the same as we were the day before, not spiritually and not even physically. Our cells keep changing. Scientists believe that 98% of all the cells and 1/7 of all the atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. Saying the Modeh Ani prayer helps us connect to this theme of newness and renewal.
Another layer of insight is expressed in the last words of the prayer: “great is your faith”. We do not say, great is “our faith”, referring to our faith in God but rather “your faith” referring to God’s faith in us. We begin our day by acknowledging God’s belief in us, a daily encouragement that our Creator thinks us worthy of life. God believes we have the potential to reach our goals – that’s why he gave us another day to live. In a generation which struggles with self-esteem, starting our day with mindfulness of our self-worth is critical.
Just as critical though is being aware of our basic biological functions. Therefore, Judaism prescribes the Asher Yatzar blessing for when one emerges from the bathroom. On the surface, saying a blessing after discharging bodily waste, seems like a strange practice. Every so often I’ll see someone mumbling something to themselves outside of a bathroom and I smile. Although it may look a bit strange, saying a blessing after going to the bathroom enables us to appreciate an important physiological function while we still have. Our general tendency is to appreciate our health only after a medical scare – when a part of our bodily functions has been threatened. After undergoing hernia surgery, I was told I would be allowed to leave the hospital only after moving my bowels. After being able to do so I remember feeling so happy and grateful, though it was something I had done countless times before. Jewish mindfulness means becoming aware and grateful for what we have right now. This is particularly critical in affluent countries where our basic needs are already met and we often wait for the next great thing to happen to make us happy. Judaism teaches that we already have what it takes to be happy – we just don’t realize it. Blessings help us feel this.
The after-bathroom blessing concludes with these words: “Hashem heals all flesh and performs a wonder.” What’s the wonder? Among the different answers offered, the “wonder” refers to the soul which is connected to the body, namely, that the physical can live alongside the spiritual. Every time we thank God that our body’s plumbing is working, we are reminded of the soul within us – that while we are grateful for our bodies, ultimately it is the soul or the spiritual part of us that defines us. We are soul’s with bodies and not the reverse.
The Jewish sages instituted a number of other daily blessings corresponding to different aspects of our physical existence, again enabling us to become mindful and grateful of life’s gifts. For instance, every morning we say: “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who gives sight to the blind”. In reciting this blessing, we become aware and hence more grateful for the important gift of sight. As the great religious Zionist thinker, Rabbi Shlomo Zevin comments, the blessing also generally ensure we do not become blind to the many blessings in our lives.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who clothes the naked” helps us appreciate the clothing we have. Other than appreciating the actual clothing we are blessed to have, on a deeper level, the Hebrew word to for clothing, “levush”, contains the same letters as the word “busha” meaning “shame.” Clothing provides a sense of modesty and preserves a healthy sense of shame. Not the kind of shame that demeans, but one which ensures we don’t give away too much of ourselves to others.
Another daily blessing, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who releases the imprisoned” celebrates our ability to stretch and be mobile, to move from one place to the next. This can also refer to our ability to break free of any self-imposed negativity or restrictions with which we shackle ourselves. There are times when we imprison ourselves with limiting thoughts or negative self-image. This blessing reminds us that we can control the way we think of ourselves and adopt a positive attitude in any situation. The great 20th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Soloveitchik, taught that although we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control howwedeal with the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The prayer, “Blessed are you God, king of the universe, who spreads the earth upon the waters” reminds us of the deliberate and precise creation of everything in the physical universe. We know from science that if the earth were any closer to the sun, our world would incinerate and if it was too far, the earth would freeze. Everything is so precise, bespeaking a Creator that has thought out everything and left very little to chance. This blessing causes us to reflect upon the fundamental Jewish teaching that life is purposeful and worthy of taking seriously since nothing, including the world itself, is random.
Prayers and blessings are not only important for appreciating what we have, be it sight, clothing or good health. On a deeper spiritual level, prayer is also necessary to realize
what we don’t have – what we are lacking spiritually. The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of the Lubavitcher movement likens our spiritual existence after the Temple’s destruction, what we call galut (exile), to a person wandering in the dessert thirsty for water. The dessert is a place which forces one to feel a certain lacking. The very reason we were sent into this dessert, the Tzemach Tzedek teaches, is to feel a sense of what is missing in our lives, so we can long for something greater. Praying allows us to feel that lacking because when we pray, it helps us tune in to our souls – the more spiritual part of who we are – and we start to hear the deeper things we long for in life. The prayers refer us to the pain and suffering that exist in our world and to all the people who are in need of healing. When we recognize what’s deeper and we feel that sense of lack, we are drawn closer to Hashem for what we don’t have and for more depth in our often, superficial lives.
Thus, on one hand, prayer helps us realize our blessings but it also makes us aware of where we’re missing, in our closeness to our very source, our Creator. This is why sometimes when a person meets a tzadik – a truly righteous person, they start to cry. When we experience real holiness manifested in another person, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. We often become so focused on success in this world that we forget our ultimate purpose that we were journeying for in the first place. There is a story told of a man traveling to India who learned that his flight had to stopover in France for a few hours. As a result he spent the entire flight learning how to speak French. When the man landed in France he was able to speak, go shopping and have a wonderful experience during the few hour stopover. However, when he arrives in India, the original purpose of his trip, he is completely lost. Prayer help us keep our final destination in mind, so we don’t get too caught up building stopover skills and forget our ultimate purpose.
Thus, prayer and blessings are vital, not only in appreciating what we have today but in remembering why we’ve taken this journey in the first place.
Part Three: The Shema
In my last entry, we discussed the critical role prayer and blessings play in achieving mindfulness. Whether it’s simply thanking God for being alive (by reciting the Modeh Ani prayer upon arising) or that our bodies are functioning properly (ie-the After-Bathroom blessing), Jewish prayer reminds us of our blessings while we have them. This enables us to become more grateful and take joy in what we have, instead of making our happiness depend on what we don’t have.
Another fundamental Jewish practice which can bring about a deep sense of mindfulness, is the Shema. The Shema prayer enables one to contemplate and reflect upon the ultimate reality, God and His oneness. There is an interesting Jewish tradition for a Sofer, a Jewish scribe, when writing the words of the Shema in a Torah scroll, to enlarge two of the letters in the prayer: the Ayin, the last letter in the first word “Shema” (which means “hear”), and the Dalet, the last letter of the last word “Echad” (which means “One”).
The Jewish Sages offer a few explanations for the tradition to enlarge these two letters in the Shema. One explanation is that the letters ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ed or witness for by reciting the Shema we are testifying to the rest of humanity as to our faith in a one God. Another explanation is that the letter ayin is enlarged so it does not resemble or sound like Hebrew letter aleph which would spell shema meaning maybe or perhaps. That would make the Shema declaration sound something like: Perhaps God is one. The Hebrew letter dalit is enlarged so it does not look like its cousin letter, the reish which would spell the Hebrew word acher or “another” (instead of echad, ie-one) implying another God. Ultimately, the ayin and dalet caution us to leave our doubts and hesitations for another time and place.
The Shema is our moment each day to totally envelope ourselves in a belief in something beyond the physical world, in God Himself. As my teacher, the great contemporary scholar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote in his book on the Shema: “Our tradition makes room for the honest doubter, for without such doubt questions would never be asked, prejudices never challenged, and science would come to a halt. But when are we seriously engaged in prayer, endeavoring to experience the presence of God, it is not the time to entertain intellectual doubts. In prayer, taught R. Nahman of Bratzlav, we must cast aside all our “wisdom” and stand before our Maker as children; to be child-like in prayer is as appropriate as to be skeptical in thought. When seeking to wrest transcendent meaning out of existence and to pull ourselves out of the void, we should not cast ourselves into that very void. Rather, at that sacred moment, we can put our doubts aside and, in all integrity, proclaim the unity of God whole-heartedly.” (The Shema, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, page 17)
The Shema is that moment in our day when we fully commit ourselves to something greater than us; when we accept Hashem into our lives and the privilege of observing His commandments. That is what the Sages refer to as kabablat ol malchut shamayim or receiving the yoke of God’s sovereignty. By saying the Shema we become mindful of God’s mastery over the world and of our responsibility to carry out the mitzvoth of the Torah.
The Shema, however, is also intended to reflect upon God’s oneness. What does that mean exactly and why is it so important to be mindful of God’s Oneness?
Life often seems random. One day we wake up and everything is going well – work is good, your social life is progressing and the next day something changes. You get fired from your job or your girlfriend dumps you. Is it possible the same God, who allows for such goodness one day, can allows for so much to go wrong the next? And that’s just in my life. Multiply that sense of randomness throughout the world, millions of events which take place, both good and bad, that seem to have no rhyme or reason.
Of course, this is how things look from our own limited human perspective. Judaism teaches that in reality, every event which takes place, happens for a reason and is part of greater plan. Things may look random but in reality, everything is coming from one place and is happening for some greater good. That is what we mean when we say God is one. We are not simply expressing our belief in a one God as opposed to multiple Gods, but that there is one source for all of reality and for everything we see in the world.
One way of understanding God’s oneness is to imagine a light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they all emanate from one light. This is why some suggest we cover our eyes when saying the Shema. For when we look out at the world, things appear fragmented and disconnected and so we cover our eyes to block out what appears as random, so we can remember and become mindful there is one source for all reality, one God behind everything which happens in our world and in our lives.
It was the Jewish people who brought the concept of monotheism, the belief in a one God to the rest of the world. It remains our mission to demonstrate that everything we experience, in our world and in our lives, is not accidental or random but an expression of well thought out plan by the one true reality. God willed us into existence for a reason and as such, the events which take place in this world are necessary parts of a greater plan. Saying the Shema everyday keep us mindful of this and allows us to bear testimony to Judaism’s core belief: life has purpose and meaning.
As I sat with my family and listened to the memorial service for Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm zt”l, I was overcome with emotion. I must have cried at least three or four times throughout the two-hour service. The rush of feelings came, not only because of my deep admiration for this giant of a scholar, but because I was reminded of the moments and personal experiences with which I was privileged to share with Rabbi Lamm. Forgive me, if the stories do not connect neatly but each one profoundly influenced who I am today.
For those you unfamiliar, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was the only one to ever receive both ordination and a Ph.D from his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. For almost 25 years Rabbi Lamm served as a pulpit rabbi including 17 years as the rabbi of The Jewish Center on the upper-West Side, where MJE is based. He was appointed the third President of Yeshiva University (YU), saving it from bankruptcy and raising the institution’s stature in both the academic and rabbinic realms. He was a brilliant author and orator and was consulted by world leaders on a myriad of topics and issues. Rabbi Lamm’s many extraordinary books, articles and lectures made him the intellectual spokesperson for modern orthodoxy. As such, I consider the following personal stories nothing less than a rare privilege.
In the first years of MJE, when our High Holiday numbers were more modest, we would join The Jewish Center for the concluding Neilah service every Yom Kippur. It was a nice way of expressing unity on the holiest day of year and also exposing our participants to the modern orthodox community. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, my mentor and the rabbi of The Jewish Center, asked the congregation to sit closer together in order to accommodate the 150 or so MJE participants who would be filling the pews. After a few minutes of shifting seats, everyone managed to find a seat and we were ready to start the service. There was, however, one young man from MJE still walking through the aisles searching for a seat. He was easy to notice because he was about 6 foot 4, had long hair and a ponytail and tattoos up and down his arms. Rabbi Lamm, who was sitting in one of the pews, walked over to the young man and invited him to sit next to him. The young man’s face lit up as he settled into his seat. He had no idea who Rabbi Lamm was, but I watched as the rabbi warmly welcomed the newcomer, showed him the page in the machzor (prayer book) and helped him follow along throughout the entire Neilah service. The sight of the two standing and praying together remains with me until this day.
I remember a comment Rabbi Lamm made to me after I delivered a talk at The Jewish Center on the topic of “Halacha and Extradition”. During the lecture, I shared my research on Israel’s current policy of Extradition and how it pertained to the Jewish prohibition of turning a fellow Jew over to a foreign sovereign. After my presentation, Rabbi Lamm came over to me to give me a yasher koach and strongly encouraged me to keep speaking on topics other than Jewish outreach. “It is important”, he said, “for you to remain versatile and that others not only see you as a Kiruv rabbi”. I have tried to follow that suggestion ever since.
On another occasion, my father and I came to visit Rabbi Lamm in his home to see if he would consider accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award at our Annual Dinner. When I asked him if he would be open to accepting the award, he smiled and said: “I must tell you Mark, I am so relieved. When you called to say you’d like to come over with your father to discuss something important, I thought you were having a family problem, a shalom bayis issue with each other, and that I would have to mediate and help reconcile. I’m very happy not to have to do that”. “Me too!” I responded, “but what about accepting MJE’s Rabbinic Leadership Award?”. I’ll never forget his answer: “Mark, I’m not sure how honoring me can be of any help but I will do whatever you think is necessary to be of assistance since MJE’s work is absolutely vital”.
I had the honor of having Rabbi Lamm’s grandson, Ari Lamm, as my student in the outreach class I teach at RIETS (Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic School). When I mentioned to Rabbi Lamm how brilliant I thought his grandson was, he smiled and said: “More importantly he’s a mensch, a really good boy”. That mensch, I’m proud to say is one of the rising rabbinic stars in the Jewish community today.
Much has been said about Rabbi’s Lamm’s oratory skill and in particular, his extraordinary vocabulary. I used to listen to his lectures and sometimes hear words I had no idea existed in the English vocabulary. My favorite YU Purim shpiel was a skit in which terrorists (played by a few YU students) captured Rabbi Lamm (also played by a student). The terrorists had Rabbi Lamm tied up in ropes and a bright light shining on his face as they pretended to beat him for information. However, every time Rabbi Lamm divulged something none of the terrorists could understand his elaborate and complicated vocabulary. Frustrated, the terrorists had to keep leafing through dictionary’s but to no avail. Rabbi Lamm’s vocabulary was impenetrable!
My favorite experience though was visiting Rabbi Lamm each year after the MJE Fellowship brochure was published. We named our most important learning program in honor of the rabbi and so I would visit him at his home (usually with one of my children), to show him the MJE Lamm Fellowship brochure and describe the new recruits accepted into the program for that year. I would point to a picture of a student in the brochure and tell him about their life and their interest in learning more about their Jewish heritage. I so enjoyed those visits because I loved watching Rabbi Lamm kvell – he took much joy in hearing stories of young people returning to their roots and devoting hours each week to learning Torah, many for the first time. Rabbi Lamm’s life was all Torah, completely devoted to elucidating and explaining the ideas and ideals of Torah Judaism on the highest level and in the most sophisticated manner. I can’t think of anyone more deserving to bear the name of a program that facilitates and cultivates serious Torah study for young and previously unaffiliated Jews.
May we and all future Lamm Fellows follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, tz”l and in doing so, bring great honor to his memory.
After 9-11, there was record number of engagements in New York City. Crisis have a way of reminding us of what is truly important in life – giving to another to create something beyond ourselves which in turn leads to personal happiness and making the world a better place. I pray that the silver lining of these months of quarantine and isolation will bring us the same realization.
While Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis was struggling through the longest hitless streak in Major League baseball, he received the following letter from a nine-year old boy: “Dear Mr. Davis, There are two things I want you to know. First, the way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are. Also, you are incredible. You’ve played in the MLB. You’ve done it for a long-time and everyone goes through a slump. Don’t give up. We’re rooting for you.”
It’s a sweet story and even more incredible considering the nine-year old, Henry Frasca, was a Boston Red Sox fan!
On a more serious note, can you imagine the pressure Chris Davis must have experienced trying to pull himself out of what probably felt like an endless slump? The baseball player went 62 at-bats without a single hit! Besides the possibility of being fired, I wonder what kind of identity crisis Davis may also have experienced. Professional success in our world today is no longer simply a means of attaining financial stability and it effects younger people in an even more serious way. Writer and activist Melanie Curtin polled 300 of her fellow millennials about self-perception and failure. 67 percent of them said they felt “extreme” pressure to succeed, compared to 40 percent of GenXers and 23 percent of Boomers. The recent spate of wealthy parents who bribed individuals to falsify college admission applications so their children could get into better schools, shows how far people will go to set their children up for professional success.
Success at what we do has become synonymous with success with who we are. Our careers and professional achievements have become a gauge of our self-worth and have come to define our very identity. As a result, there is an enormous pressure to succeed in our careers, lest we are seen by others or worse, we deem ourselves, failures not simply at our jobs, but in life.
This attitude is antithetical to everything Judaism cherishes. In Jewish tradition, our self-worth is formed by the ethical choices we make, the mitzvot we perform and the type of moral and spiritual beings we become. The Torah itself does not seem to have much interest in what we choose for a living or what we pursue as a career. What does interest the Torah is that whatever we do choose, we do with honesty and integrity. We are taught to avoid fraudulent commercial dealings, verbal deception and to have “accurate weights and measures” (Leviticus 19:36). We must ensure our workers are treated with dignity, that they are paid on time, and that we pay our taxes. Those are the aspects of what we do that define who we are – not how far we go in achieving success.
I remember after the movie Ushpizin came out in 2005, we were fortunate to host the lead actors Michal and Shuli Rand. Someone from the audience asked the Chasidic couple whether their decision to not allow movie theaters in Israel to air their film on Shabbat, hurt their success. Shuli answered: “It all depends on what you mean by success. Our success as actors may have decreased but our success as Jews and as people devoted to holiness increased.”
To define who we are existentially by how close we come to reaching our career goals is to negate our true sense of self. The kind of son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, friend, Jew or human being you are – goes so much more to the heart of who we really are than any job or profession.
So, the next time you get frustrated with your job or your career is not progressing as you’d like, do what you can to move things forward but don’t confuse failure at work with failing at life. Just remember what nine-year old Henry Frasca told Chris Davis: “The way you play baseball has nothing to do with how good a person you are.”
Main Photo: Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles (Wikimedia)
On May 29, 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. What is incredible to me though, is that since that time over 4,000 people have successfully climbed Everest, including an 81-year-old man from Nepal! Similarly, within weeks of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, others also followed suit.
Simply knowing something is possible can help make the improbable possible. Conversely, not believing in one’s own abilities can prevent important things from happening. No story illustrates this lesson better than the incident of the spies recorded in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Shlach:
Moshe sends in the spies to scout out the land of Israel and they return with a negative report.
The spies report back that the cities they visited were powerfully fortified. They share that they encountered the offspring of giants and that the fierce nation of Amalek dwells together with the other Canaanite nations. Despite Caleb’s efforts to calm the people, the ten scouts declare: “We cannot ascend to that people for they are too strong for us…the land through which we have passed to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants…”(Numbers 13:31,32).
Where is the people’s faith? Are they not the same people who witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea? Did they not stand at Sinai and hear God revealing the Torah? Why then did the people not believe they could handle the nations who inhabited the land of Israel?!
I believe the answer lies in the famous line with which the spies ended their negative report:
Vnehi b’aineinu kachgavim – “and in our own eyes we were grasshoppers”, v’chain hayinu b’aineihem” “and so we were in their eyes”. (Numbers 13:33)
What the spies were saying was that because “in our own eyes we are like grasshoppers” – because we see ourselves in this way, others see us in that way too. Perhaps without even realizing, the spies were able to explain why their enemies looked upon them as small and insignificant, as grasshoppers. The spies, distinguished princes from each Jewish tribe, were men of great stature but they lacked self-esteem. They saw themselves as weak and impotent and therefore were unable to inspire the people to go forward. Despite all miracles they had witnessed, they deemed themselves unworthy of God’s intervention. Perhaps, as my teacher Rabbi Buchwald suggests, their self-esteem had been beaten out of them by the many years of slavery or perhaps they had become so reliant on God’s intervention that they saw themselves as helpless. Either way, since they had a low self-opinion, so would everyone else.
So much of what others think of us comes from the way we think of ourselves. Our self-perception so often determines our behavior and how others perceive us. If we are small in our own eyes, we will be small in others.
In our professional lives, if we question our own skills and abilities – if we doubt how much value we bring to the table – then the people with whom we work will do the same.
The same applies in our social and romantic lives. If we are unhappy with ourselves, if we are lacking in our own self-esteem, then when we present ourselves to other people that, that too will, no doubt, present itself. This is perhaps why the Torah famously tells us: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). If we don’t sufficiently love ourselves it will be very hard to love someone else.
In our religious lives, perhaps without a formal Jewish day school education, many feel unable to go further in their Jewish knowledge and observance. However, as many of my students at MJE have demonstrated, being Jewish is about showing up. Living as a Jew means exerting oneself to learn more, attending an online Torah class, improving one’s Hebrew or gaining a mastery over a part of Judaism we didn’t even know existed. One MJE participant, who had virtually no Jewish educational background, went on-line every day to study a page of Talmud. After seven years, he completed the entire Talmud and just a few months ago, we celebrated together at the Siyum Hashas event at Met Life Stadium. He saw himself as able and capable and so he was able to do it.
So much of what we accomplish comes down to the way we look at ourselves. Are we takers or are we givers? Are we giants or are we grasshoppers? As the Jewish people, do we look at ourselves as a proud nation entrusted with a Divine mission or are we apologetic for our very existence? Are we sinners or people with great potential who sometimes fail?
The answer to these questions will, no doubt, determine how our friends and our enemies perceive us, but it all starts inside. If we can get the inside right, the outside will fall into place and the extraordinary and uplifting person we know we can be, will become a reality.
One of the most inspiring parts of studying Torah and in particular, the Book of Genesis is learning the very real challenges our matriarchs and patriarchs faced in their personnel lives. One of those challenges was having children. All of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, at one time, were unable to have children. In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayetze, we read about Rachel’s struggle and how she and her beloved Jacob dealt with this situation:
And Rachel saw that she was not bearing children for Jacob and she became jealous of her sister and she said to Jacob: ‘Give me children or I’ll die’. And Jacob becomes angry with Rachel and he says: ‘Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb?’
We can understand Rachel’s distress, not being able to bear children, and having to watch her own sister Leah give birth to four sons. And so Rachel’s remark – Give me children or I’ll die – however dramatic, is understandable. However, how can we understand Jacob’s anger at Rachel and his response: Am I instead of God who has prevented you from the fruit of the womb? What kind of reaction is this from a righteous person like Jacob to his distressed wife? Where’s the sympathy and compassion? Where’s the love?
The great Nachmanides (1194-1270, Girona, Spain) suggests that Jacob expressed anger because it seemed to Jacob that Rachel believed a righteous person somehow has the power to make anything happen – that all Jacob needed to do was snap his fingers and he could get whatever he wanted from God. it is inconceivable Jacob would not have prayed for Rachel to have a child and so ultimately Jacob’ s prayers had not been answered favorably and Rachel is criticizing him for doing nothing. That is why, suggests Nachmanides, why Jacob answered Rachel by saying that “he was not instead of God” and why he reacted angrily, because he felt Rachel held incorrect views as to the power of prayer of a righteous person.
The Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi of Narbonne, Provence (1160–1235) speaks along similar lines saying that Yaacov got angry with Rachel because Rachel seemed to be attributing powers to Jacob, rather to God.
The Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Isaac Arama, another great Spanish commentator (1420-1494), gave a totally different explanation, a quite progressive one for his time. There are two names mentioned in the Torah for woman “Isha” and “Chava”. “Isha”- which is simply the feminine form of ‘ish”, the Hebrew name for man, teaches us that woman was taken from man and therefore, just like a man must work to advance himself in the intellectual and moral fields, so too must a woman work to advance herself intellectually and morally. The second name given in the Torah for women, Chava, alludes to the power a woman has to bear children. As the verse in the Torah says: And Adam called his wife Chava for she was the mother of all living. Indeed, only a woman can give birth to life.
Jacob got angry, suggests the Akeidat Yitzchak, because by saying: Give me children or I’ll die Rachel was denying the isha aspect of her personality, the part of womanhood that is the same as man, implying that because she couldn’t have children there was no other value to her existence. As important as the Torah views having children, bearing children does not completely define the purpose of womanhood. There is another dimension to womanhood, namely, to advance oneself intellectually, morally, spiritually as any man’s goal is in life. This of course is not to negate the absolute significance and importance of having children, just to teach that it alone does not define womanhood.
Ruth B. Wildes z”l (1939-1995) (Courtesy)
My mother, whose 24th Yahrtzeit I am now observing, viewed her role as a mother as central to her existence. She absolutely loved being a mother and took that role seriously and she held it with great pride. She was one of those mothers who couldn’t stop talking about her children, so much so, my brother and I used to call her our walking resumes. At the same time, she was actively involved in developing herself spiritually and in building up the community in which she lived.
My mother was a very religious and spiritual person. She loved to study and to learn, always running to Torah classes and always urging our father to learn with my brother and myself, which he always did and which we thankfully continue to this day. She loved to pray regularly. She had a book of Tehilim (Psalms) by her bedside. I remember when she got sick and was having a hard time concentrating, I told her she was exempt from praying because of her medical condition. I realized quickly that advise was of no help to her because she needed to pray. She needed to feel that connection with God with whom she felt so close.
My mother was also a great leader in the community. In the late 1970’s/80’s she helped resettle thousands of Soviet Jews who moved into Forest Hills, our neighborhood in Queens, NY. She ran around collecting furniture, clothing and helping countless families settle into our community. And she was such a gracious host, opening her home on Shabbat to friends and strangers alike. My first rabbi gig was in Forest Hills, at The Queens Jewish Center where I ran a Beginners Service every Shabbat. I was single, and so almost on a regular Shabbat basis, I’d bring people home to my family so they could see how my mother made Shabbos. She had this winner combination of warmth and elegance which she brilliantly used to make people feel at home. She inspired many Jews to share her love for Shabbat and ultimately for Yiddishkeite, which is why we dedicated MJE in her memory – to perpetuate the kindness she regularly practiced, the chesed she did for so many individuals in our community.
MJE has followed her model, opening its doors to tens of thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and like our mother, sharing Shabbat and the power of the Jewish community with all, creating a venue in which 323 couples have met and married! My mother would have been especially proud of that accomplishment.
She was both a “Chava” – an amazing mother but also an “Isha” – someone who advanced herself morally and spiritually and helped so many others do the same. In a day and age where woman are thankfully given great opportunities than ever before but also struggling to find the right balance, my mother serves as an example of successfully combining the different aspects of womanhood. May her memory serve as blessing.
For many years, actress Felicity Huffman played a “Desperate Housewife” on TV. But it was for something she did in real life that made her even more famous. Last year, Huffman was charged in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal. Among other things, she paid for someone else to take her daughter’s SAT test. Huffman eventually pleaded guilty, spent some time in jail and is serving 250 hours of community service.
Like many celebrities who engage in misconduct, her career came to a screeching halt. She was, for all intents and purposes, “cancelled.”
Indeed, there are plenty of celebrities who engage in long-standing patterns of misbehavior who probably deserve to be cancelled. But along comes a person like Huffman, a devoted mother and wife – an otherwise decent person – who makes one very bad moral mistake, and her career is over. Nothing could be further from Jewish values which emphasize second chances and believes deeply in the concept of “teshuva” or repentance.
The period of time on the Jewish calendar in which we now find ourselves, is devoted to this very kind of self-reflection and rectification of our past misdeeds. The Jewish Sages established the Three Weeks and Nine Day period leading up to Tisha Bav – the day both Jewish Temples were destroyed – as a time to look back and ask ourselves: where did we go wrong? What mistakes have we made that we can improve upon? What transgressions did our ancestor’s make, which brought about the Temple’s destruction, that we still commit today? We disengage from certain joyous activities such as live music and weddings and we fast – all so we can learn from our past mistakes but not be buried or cancelled by them.
The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred – a breakdown in the respect and love we were meant to have for one another. This is why, at this time on the Jewish calendar, many take upon themselves to act in a kinder and more sensitive manner to others. As such, MJE has launched a Rebuilding Together Challenge to help restore and rebuild that love and unity. I urge you to join us at: https://forms.gle/SaG1LPVbX99ptrcN6
As Jews we believe in second chances. Individually, we are given a second chance every year on every Yom Kippur and nationally we have this time every summer to reflect upon and fix our past misdeeds. God didn’t give up on us after one mistake and we should expect no less from each other. We have become so unforgiving as a society. We need to stop cancelling otherwise good people if they sincerely feel remorse and try to do better.
The Jewish belief in second chances was much better seen in the example of Jimmy Fallon. The late-night talk show host is beloved by many and one of my personal favorites. Earlier this year, people started sharing a 20-year-old “Saturday Night Live” skit he had done in blackface and there was an immediate knee-jerk reaction that his career should be canceled. But eventually, cooler heads prevailed. Fallon admitted he had made a mistake, expressing remorse and telling his audience: “There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.” It was a one-time mistake, he apologized, and there’s nothing in his history to suggest that his actions were part of a larger pattern.
To err is human. To immediately cancel someone who commits a wrongdoing is to deny that humanity. Ultimately, it is the growth that comes from our mistakes that helps us become the best version of ourselves, both individually and nationally. So, rather than cancelling one another, let’s encourage each other to right the wrong and move on. In doing so, may we merit to see the Temple rebuilt.