Posts

The Slavery No One Talks About at the Seder

Authored by Rabbi Mark Wildes, with contributions by Jessica Hendricks Yee of The Brave Collection and Michelle Soffen of MJE

 
Modern Day Slavery. When you hear these words, what comes to mind? Perhaps the phenomenon of being tethered to technology, the need to check one’s email all hours of the day, slaves to our jobs, to our mortgages, credit card bills, school loans, to our relentless self-doubt, or bad habits. This is what I have always explained as Modern Day Slavery, until I met entrepreneur Jessica Hendricks Yee, CEO of The Brave Collection.

Peace Through Strength – Stop The Deal!

As seen on The Algemeiner

When it comes to arguments or debates I’m usually pretty good at seeing the “other side”. My years spent studying Talmud and going to law school have taught me that life is complex and there’s always another perspective. But when it comes to the deal the US Administration has brokered with Iran, I just don’t get it.


Does the administration truly believe the Iranians will keep their word and honor this agreement? We all know the only real gauge of any country’s future performance is their past performance and based on what we’ve seen with Iran and their nuclear program in the past, what is our government thinking? Even if the deal is honored (with a big “if”), it still allows for a nuclear Iran in another ten years. And my biggest problem with the deal is what it does right now: pumping vast amounts of money and support into the hands of the largest terrorist sponsoring government in the world. Are we so naïve as to not believe that this American funding will not find its way into the hands of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror groups Iran finances?

IT’S NOT DEAL VS. WAR

Many that support the deal are labeling the opposition as warmongers. They are painting a picture that turning down this deal is synonymous with a step towards war with Iran. This is simply not true. The alternative is allowing time for sanctions to create a situation where the Iranian economy is so bad that either the government becomes so desperate they have no choice but to agree to stop their nuclear ambitions or their own people force them to do so in order to improve the economy. In short: the alternative is NOT WAR — it’s staying strong and insisting on a better deal.


PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH

Peace is the ultimate goal, let’s not forget. As Jews we pray for peace every day. In the Grace after Meals (benching), we conclude the prayer with the well known phrase :

“Hashem will give might to His people; Hashem will bless His people with peace.”


What does “might” have to do with peace? Can true peace be imposed by might?

President Obama’s general strategy of reconciliation and negotiation, while appropriate and even admirable for some countries, is not appropriate for every situation. This is the Middle East, not Sweden or some other peace loving country. In this playground, there are a whole different set of rules. Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab countries to ever make peace with Israel did so because they became convinced that Israel could not be defeated militarily, and because they weren’t run by religious extremists. Iran is not intimidated by Israel’s military prowess and it’s a country run by religious fanatics. However, it has also shown that it responds to strength. Interestingly, the ONLY time in history Iran actually suspended its nuclear program was in 2003, when the U.S. was already in Afghanistan and then went into Iraq.

No, peace can not be forced by might, but it can be earned. Peace is not a deal, it is a process, and sometimes the right next step is standing strong and holding out for the right kind of peace, even when it’s scary.


TAKE ACTION

For these reasons and more I strongly encourage you and all peace-loving people, Jew and non-Jew alike, to take action. Here is what you can do:

  1. Join me and MJE in attending Wednesday’s Stop Iran Rally in Times Square
  2. Take a moment out of your day to call or email  your member of Congress
Call
(202) 225-3121
to reach Senate and House members through the Capitol switchboard
your members of Congress
your members of Congress
  1. Educate yourself on the issue by reading suggested articles below
  2. Attend the MJE dinner this Friday Night (July 24) where we will be hearing from Joel Mowbray, an expert on counterterrorism, about the ins and outs of the Iran Nuclear Deal. REGISTER HERE
  3. Also attend our Tisha B’av program, this Saturday night (July 25), which will be devoted to learning more about Anti-Semitism and the Iranian threat. REGISTER HERE



Photo Courtesy of StandWithUs

BACKGROUND INFO/ INTERESTING PERSPECTIVES

Too Many Options! Creating True Freedom Through Limitations


We’ve all been there: standing in aisle five of the supermarket trying to decide which jar of mustard to buy. Do we go organic, or for the brand with whole mustard seeds? Or do we simply pick the one in the brightest yellow bottle?
Contemporary Psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz gave a fascinating Ted talk (with over seven million views!) on what he refers to as the explosion of choices we now have in our society. Some examples Dr. Schwartz cites:

Shopping: The suparmarket at which he shops, offers 285 varieties of cookies, 75 brands of iced tea, 230 types of soups, 174 types of salad dressings and 40 different brands of toothpaste from which to choose.

Healthcare: It used to be that when you got sick you went to the doctor who told you what was wrong and what medicine to take. Today doctors are trained to give you “options”. Option A or option B. Option A has certain benefits and certain risks. Option B has these benefits and these risks. “Doc; which one should I choose?”. “You need to choose yourself, you’re the patient”.

Family Life: Back when most people tried to get married and have kids when the first opportunity presented itself, the only choice one had to make was: with whom? Today it’s not just whom do I want to marry but when? Before my career gets off the ground or after? What if I choose to push that decision off till after my career is doing OK but then I fall in love? More choices.

Work: Technology has enabled us to work every minute of every day from anywhere in the world so now we have to keep deciding whether or not we should be working at any given moment! We could be with a friend, spouse or significant other and the cell phone buzzes. Even if we choose not to pick it up we still have to decide whether to take the call or answer that email.


There’s no question – we value our freedom. For the most part, in western society we are fortunate enough that the freedom we worry about is not literal. For us, freedom has become synonymous with having options — with the ability and privilege to choose for ourselves from endless possibilities, accountable to no one else. These days we have so many more choices to make and so many more options to choose from, but are these endless options making us more happy? Studies actually demonstrate the opposite…
Giving Up The Driver’s Seat

In the TEDxStanford talk, “Sometimes it’s good to give up the driver’s seat,” marketing professor Baba Shiv reveals that discomfort over making choices extends into medical decisions. Five years ago, Shiv’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The most harrowing and agonizing part of the whole experience was that we were making decision after decision,” Shiv shares in his talk. “The wisdom of the ages is that when it comes to decisions of importance, it’s best to be in charge. But are there contexts where we’re far better off taking the passenger seat and having someone else drive?”
Shiv decided to test the theory on undergraduate students about to solve word puzzles. While one set of students was asked to choose between two teas — caffeinated or relaxing chamomile — the other group was told by the researchers which of the teas to drink. In the end, the students assigned a tea solved more puzzles than those who were given a choice. Shiv hypothesized that this is because making the choice allows a person to have doubt about their decision when faced with the prospect of immediate feedback.
Shiv’s thoughts on choice are counterintuitive. But his work is part of a growing body of research on choice. Below, more studies — many from TED speakers — suggest that having a variety of options isn’t always what we need.

Financial Times 

Researchers Sheena Iyengar and Emir Kamenicar looked at the retirement savings choices made by half a million employees through the Vanguard Group. Analyzing the data, they found that for every 10 additional funds offered to an employee, the chances that an employee would invest in none of the above increased by 2.87%. Dr. Schwartz in his talk explains: “With 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow,” he says. “By not participating, they are passing up as much as $5,000 a year from the employer.” 

Life and Death Decisions 

It seems that when it comes to having options, less is more and this principle holds true when it comes to more serious life issues. In her Ted Talk “The Art of Choosing,” Iyengar tells of another study conducted on parents in both France and the United States faced with the horrible decision of whether to take their infant off of life support. In the United States, this decision rests on the parents. However, in France, this decision is made by medical professionals. Iyengar and her fellow researchers looked at how the parents felt a year after in both countries. They found that while American parents harbored hugely negative emotions about the experience, the French parents were more able to reframe the tragedy with statements like, “Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much.” Although the American parents felt strongly that they would not have wanted their doctors to make the decision, their experience with this challenging situation was in the end worse than their counterparts in France. 

Mo’ money, mo’ problems 

Schwartz mentions another favorite study conducted by David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University. In looking at market data, the two found that — even though the gross domestic product had doubled in the United States over a 30-year period — the proportion of the population describing themselves as “very happy” had declined by about 5 percent. When given far more choices 14 million Americans reported feeling less happy than their peers 30 years before.

Trapped In The Wild
The studies demonstrating this point are endless – but the message is clear. More options does not always equal more happiness. In fact, the most common results of all this “freedom” are paralysis and/or crippling doubt – a phenomenon I refer to as being “trapped in the wild.”
We have so much open space, with nothing limiting our choices and with more and more options presented to us every year. We are simply not equipped to make so many good decisions day in and day out, particularly in those areas in which we have not been properly trained.
SO WHAT TO DO!? Not make decisions? Put them off? Second guess ourselves? No.
One answer is to stay in the driver’s seat, put your foot on the gas and don’t look back… but consult a map, and bring along a co-pilot! My navigation app of choice? The Torah. My co-pilot? God …

Torah – A Navigation App

Considering the alternatives are stalling out, going the wrong direction over and over again, or crashing and regretting, consulting some kind of system like the Torah to help us make some of the more important choices isn’t such a radical or crazy religious thing to do. Not only does it help us make better decisions (especially if you believe Torah comes from a higher place), it takes some of the pressure off deciding so many important things for ourselves. The Torah is a tried and tested way to make choices and to pave a good path in life. It is a system that, regardless of where you believe it comes from, has maintained the Jewish Nation throughout centuries of persecution, and not only allowed us to survive, but to give back to the world in such a powerful and productive way.


The word Halacha (which refers to Jewish law) derives from the word halach which means to go or to walk. Torah helps us walk through life, enabling us to make decisions not simply based on what we think or feel is right but what we believe our Creator does. Following Halacha doesn’t fix all problems but gives us a better framework for approaching the more delicate and challenging parts of our lives.


Take the example of Judaism’s laws of Family Purity. Referred to in the Talmud as a “Hedge of Roses”, the halacha prescribes a period of abstention between husband and wife during the woman’s menstrual cycle and somewhat thereafter. Besides the mystical reasons underlying this area of Jewish tradition, this practice has the practical benefit of creating a monthly kind of honeymoon for the couple. A healthy sexual tension is created during the period of refraining and a reunion of sorts takes place each month after the woman returns from the mikvah (ritual bath) and the couple can once again be intimate.  Many couples of course decide on their own when to be with one another, but then again it’s another choice we are forced to make that might be better decided by a higher authority who knows more. Following the laws of family purity transfer at least some of the decision making from the couple to God. It doesn’t guarantee a better sex life but it is interesting to note that the divorce rate among couples following these laws is dramatically lower.


We like to think that the more choices we get to make the better off we are, but we know that true freedom is not necessarily manifested by having no limits. Narrowing our options by consulting a “navigation app”, especially when we have faith in the system we consult, actually produces more happiness than deciding everything on our own. The sooner we stop pretending we know it all and start looking for  guidance from a higher place, the sooner we will feel more content and fulfilled.  
A Challenge For You

And now I challenge you. Take note this week every time you are prompted to make a decision. Whether it’s something as mundane as brand of mustard to buy, or as important as what type of degree to get or to commit to someone you’ve been dating – take notice of how you make that decision. Do you consult a value system, a particular mentor, a philosophy, or are you completely on your own? Do you feel overwhelmed and stuck, or do you feel empowered and confident? Why? Just hold onto these answers, or share them below. We will continue to explore this topic in future blog posts.

Take Down The Flag – Why Symbols Matter

In the wake of the senseless killing of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight others in a historic African American Church, new calls were made for the removal of South Carolina’s Confederate flag.

Removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s State Capitol has been a long standing debate but the controversy was reignited by the fact that while the U.S. Federal flag was lowered in response to the recent tragedy, the Confederate battle flag remains high, literally padlocked into place.

For some, the Confederate flag represents an important part of Southern pride and for others it’s a painful reminder of the past bigotry and slavery of the South, as well as some remaining white supremacy and racial intolerance. Personally I agree with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag, and with President Obama’s statement that it belongs in a museum. I hope it will be soon laid to rest. 


But you could ask — why is EVERYONE talking about this?

CNN, The New York Times, Fox News and my favorite, John Oliver, are just a few of those weighing in. So, does it really matter? Why all the fuss over a flag – after all, it’s just a bunch of stars woven into a piece of fabric, right?

Wrong. It actually does make a difference. Whatever your take on the Confederate flag, one thing is clear: symbols matter.

Symbols, in the political arena or anywhere else are powerful ways to evoke feelings and passions. One small image, like a swastika can arouse such animosity, and a Star of David such pride. Symbols – the inanimate objects and images we surround ourselves with – have the power to shape us. This is probably why the Jewish faith is replete with images and symbols, all of which are intended to educate and inspire.



Take for example the Mezuzah; the rolled up parchment encased in a beautiful cover containing the first paragraph of the Shema which Jews affix to their doorposts. It is not just a pretty ornament intended to let people know “Jews live here.” Some suggest that the Torah commands us to post the Mezuzah as a way of reminding us of our belief in God and of our very purpose and mission in this world. You may ask: if you believe in God and in Judaism’s teachings, then you believe – why the need for a reminder? Because a symbol allows, or even on some psychological level compels us, to reflect on our beliefs in a way nothing else can. A home in Jewish tradition is not merely a place to live, in the purely physical sense. It is the place or the context within which we carry out our very purpose in this world. It’s where we build our most intimate relationships, where we raise our families, where we pray and observe the Sabbath. The very sight of the Mezuzah triggers the thoughts and feelings that are vital in using our homes to carry out our Divine mission in life.

And so the Menorah, Shabbat candles and Jewish books we have in our homes are not merely relics of an ancient tradition used for perfunctory rituals – they actually have a direct effect on the way we go about our lives today and the people we become.

A symbol – be it a flag, a logo or a piece of Judaica – holds energy that impacts us day in and day out on both a conscious and subconscious level. Indeed images have surfaced of the man who took the life of Reverend Pinckney and the eight other victims, proudly holding the Confederate flag.


Symbols matter. Let’s make sure we surround ourselves with the right ones.

And yet I would be remiss to not mention the dangers of placing too large an emphasis on the role of any one component in a tragic event. The swastika did not perpetrate the Holocaust – the Nazis did. A flag did not senselessly shoot the innocent church goers – a person did. Though symbols inherently hold power, it is what we DO with them that really matters. It is how we use them and what we let them become.

So, let us not allow this flag to become a distraction from the matter at hand. Let it instead serve as a reminder of the discussions we MUST be having – about racial intolerance, gun control, and mental illness. No crime is committed in a vacuum. Let US use symbols – not the other way around.


A CALL TO ACTION… #ShabbatOfSolidarity

Speaking of symbols, take a look at this iconic image. This photo is one of many reminders that the Jewish community marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and that we will always stand with those who fight for equality and against intolerance.

This Shabbat, 13 Jewish organizations are calling for a “Shabbat of Solidarity” with the Black community as a protest against racism and discrimination. MJE will be joining the list of communities participating.

This Shabbat, I call on my students, readers and entire community to not just participate superficially, but to truly pray in solidarity. Pray for the healing of the families, friends, and communities of the victims. Pray for the voices calling out against intolerance to be heard. Pray for an end to senseless killing. 


But most importantly – let’s lower “the flag” within ourselves. Let us look deep inside and recognize where we have padlocked “flags of intolerance” – intolerance for other communities, for our co-workers, our neighbors, and even our own families. Take down those flags and let us lay them to rest.

Why Richard From Silicon Valley is a Total Mensch (Spoiler Alert!)

richard hendricks silicon valley hack mensch life“Richard; do the right thing here — [Dramatic Pause] — lie on the stand,” says Erlich Bachman, part owner of tech startup Pied Piper, in this Sunday’s episode of the hit HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. This is Erlich’s under the circumstances “reasonable” advice to Richard just moments before he is called to the stand.


Quick context for those who don’t watch: the evil tech giant Hooli has brought an absurd intellectual property lawsuit against protagonist Richard and his brilliant but floundering startup Pied Piper, in a low blow effort to tie them up in legal fees so they can beat Pied Piper’s much better app. Hooli really has no case, until the prosecution realizes that Richard did in fact make one tiny mistake, having used a Hooli company computer during his time there to perform some small and insignificant test for his app.
Hooli has no real proof. All Richard has to do is tell a little white lie on the stand. Most viewers watching Richard take the stand are probably praying he’ll take Erlich’s advice and just lie. We nervously watch and laugh as he awkwardly struggles through the prosecution’s line of questioning, and just when you think he might actually do the “right” thing in Silicon Valley speak – he does the Mensch thing instead. He admits to his one small mistake and gives the prosecution a real case.

I just wanted to be different…but if this company is built on lies, then we’re really not that much different from Hooli. The law says that I lose everything – my whole company, everything that I worked for, because I used one Hooli computer to test and modify one block. Is that right? I mean, is that fair? To me, if the system says that’s fair, then I guess I’m probably not meant to be a part of it…”


This is the genuine and vulnerable speech Richard makes in one of the few sincere moments the show has ever had.

In the world of Silicon Valley – both in the show and real life – lying, cheating and doing whatever it takes to get ahead are not just a way of life – they are seemingly admirable moves.  “Business is business” is a phrase we proudly use to justify otherwise unethical behavior. Sacrificing morality for monetary or personal gain has almost become an accepted aspect of the American dream. Why? Perhaps because it demonstrates our great ambition and our willingness to do anything to get ahead and even if deep down we know it’s wrong, since it’s become so accepted, it doesn’t seem quite as bad. Our protagonist Richard sticks out like a sore thumb in his world because he refuses to adopt this attitude. Time and again he does what he knows is right, even if it means sacrificing success and losing a short term battle for himself or his company.

 

But what about the bigger picture? What about on the soul level? 

Just because we have become numb to our world’s “business is business” attitude doesn’t mean something else isn’t happening internally or to the development of our personality. Judaism teaches that every action we take, positive or negative, has a real and significant impact upon us. Whereas the French philosopher Rene Descartes believed: ”I think, therefore I am”. Judaism teaches “I act, therefore I am”. Ultimately we are the bi-products of our actions and behavior, whether we feel it or not. This is why classical Judaism is mitzvah-oriented – 613 do’s and dont’s – because although thoughts and beliefs are important, it’s ultimately what we do that develops us into who we become. This is why the bulk of Judaism’s mitzvot pertain, not simply to religious ritual, but to our everyday lives since that’s what forms us as people. The Torah therefore prescribes a certain diet (Kashrut), what is considered appropriate or inappropriate speech (lashon hara), laws pertaining to commercial dealings, modest dress (tzniut) and special sensitivity to the widow, stranger and orphan because the impact of the way we speak, eat, dress on our souls and on our personality is huge. The good news is that the good we do, whether known publicly or not, plays a tremendous role in our personal development. Back to our mensch of the hour – he may repeatedly make what society considers bad business moves — but he is doing right by his soul and the universe at large.

Silicon Valley writers have, of course, left this episode with a major cliffhanger: what will the judge decide? Will Richard’s menschy compulsions pay off or will they be forever stuck at the bottom of the valley? It is a comedy after all, so things will probably work themselves out — but in real life doing the right thing, even at the expense of personal gain, can make or break the kind of people we ultimately become. 


One more difference: our lives are not a predictable 10 episode season scripted by other people. In real life, we write our own scripts and all we really know is that every action we take directly impacts the long-term narrative for our soul.