Failure At Work Isn’t Failure At Life

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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)

‘And God Created Woman’: Modern Day Matriarchs

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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.

Anti-Semitism: When Crisis Creates Opportunity

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A crisis can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best. Within twenty-four hours of the horrific attack on the synagogue in Monsey, Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, the rabbi of the shul, was back with his congregation celebrating the next night of Chanukah. I was also moved by how large of a gathering there was at the MetLife stadium Siyum Hashas, the event commemorating the completion of the seven-year Talmud study cycle. Given the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York and New Jersey area, it is a testament to the resilience of the Jewish community that no-one was actually deterred from going. One of the security officials remarked that he had never seen so many attendees at MetLife Stadium before, including the many football games he has covered! The head of security, charged with protecting the 95,000 Siyum attendees, shared that never before had his troopers been recipients of so much gratitude. The sheer number of people who approached individual officers to express their thanks was overwhelming.

I’m hopeful that the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks will have the positive effect of creating greater unity in the community – something I felt yesterday marching across the Brooklyn bridge with tens of thousands of Jews of all stripes, chanting Am Yisrael Chai! It reminded me of my High School and College years when we marched for Soviet Jewry. The different groups in the Jewish community were able to put their ideological differences aside and come together to help their brethren behind the iron curtain. We are again presented with the same opportunity today. The Jewish community has a long list of enemies, some of them are to the far right, some on the extreme left, some are domestic terrorists and some foreign, but they all have same thing in common: they don’t care about our particular ideology or outlook. The only reason why ultra-orthodox Jews have been targeted is because they look Jewish and are more easily identified as such, but make no mistake: these attacks are on all Jews – irrespective of our particular orientation or denomination.

Our primary focus must be to combat the rise in anti-Semitism, but we must also recognize the opportunity for Jewish unity that this crisis presents. It was this kind of unity that recently helped defeat Jeremy Corbyn of England’s Labor party. Corbyn’s extreme hatred of Jews reawakened many unaffiliated Jews in Great Britain who joined with others to help bring about a stunning defeat of England’s Labor party.

Anti-Semitism has long been an impetus for reawakening Jewish people towards their traditions as well as inspiring unity amongst different groups. One of the greatest biblical examples of this is the Purim story, the next Jewish holiday we will observe. Haman’s attempted genocidal campaign against Persian Jewry motivated assimilated Jews to heed Esther’s call for a spiritual return to Judaism and it also inspired an unprecedented level of Jewish unity. It is that unity we celebrate each year on the holiday of Purim by sending baskets of food to one another and offering gifts to the poor.

Our immediate attention must be turned to defending ourselves, on working with law enforcement to fortify our synagogues and protect our places of worship. Our sweetest revenge though will be found in something much deeper: in using these attacks, as much as we must work to prevent them, to unite and bind ourselves to one another and to Judaism itself. If we can bring about this kind of positive outcome from these otherwise awful attacks, we will not only defeat our enemies but become stronger than ever.