Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Election Aftermath: What Now

If we learned anything at all in the recent presidential election, it’s this: we are still a divided people.
Note my use “still.” Many are decrying the fact that “this is the most divided we’ve ever been” or at least, “this is the most divided we’ve been in a long time. But that’s not so. It's not just the Civil War? Examine any historic issue or legislation. You’ll find deep fissures on almost everything throughout our history.
But the  vitriol and disinformation is more open than ever and spreads with unparalleled speed and force. Our news is often unfiltered, not prioritized, without context, and often just plain force. Poison just gets magnified and repeated. And repetition of of lies creates a false perception of truth.
It even seems okay it's to publicly espouse bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny. This isn't new, but has lately taken on a new ferocity. It hurts seeing a world seething with hate and anger. I don’t understand any of it.
In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God tells us that following Him will lead to strength and courage. That’s a blessing. But there are curses associated with distancing ourselves from God. Chief among them is fear, even panic.
Yet the news people tell us – again and again – that people are afraid, that people are angry. Of what? We never get that answer. We just accept the fact that people are angry – as if that’s normal. A question: are people really so fearful, so mad? Or is this ginned up by hearing it repetitively?
Why the anger? Our sages say that anger causes wisdom to depart from even the wisest. If people cannot manage their anger, they will make bad and impulsive decisions. Yet that’s now considered normal. It’s not normal! Our leaders should try to calm us. If they can’t do that, we must find those qualities among ourselves. It’s not a choice if we are to have a meaningful world.
America is a great country. We have to work hard to keep America great.
And so we have, the American To-Do List
First, we must reexamine our attitudes toward voting. People cannot feel entitled to sit it out. Nor should they cast pretend votes for candidates who have no chance of being elected. All  Americans  have a  duty to vote and a duty to educate ourselves about the issues. And further, to examine the issues through a moral prism.
If we care at all, we must be involved in the democratic process. As I’ve watched the massive demonstrations following the election, I want to ask every person out there: did you vote? Did you work on behalf of your candidate? Did you do anything at all to get the result you wanted?
We must work to create the world we want.  Torah gives us a clear blueprint: we must help the needy, heal the sick, treat others with kindness. The Torah doesn’t say: if we think the needy need help, we’ll give it. It’s clear. We are supposed to do these things.
Among the worst sins in Judaism: shaming others. Embarrassing them. Yet bullying is common and almost respectable. We must step up when we see it. We are a moral people. Therefore, we cannot accept these wrongs as right.
This election exposed some deep fissures in our society. It’s laid bare the hate, the fear of others – especially foreigners – that’s rampant. We have told ourselves that truth is what we think and feel – not what is true.
This is the time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and actively work to create a just society. No one gets to sit back.
And this may be the most important: we must reach out to each other in respect. We must listen to each other, try to understand each other.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: few are guilty but all are responsible.
That means, we must all get to work.



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Staying informed on Israel (and other Jewish news)

Due to the recent spike of violence in Jerusalem, tomorrow I will participate in a conference call with Nir Birkat, the mayor of Jerusalem. Friday night, I’ll share information about the situation and from the phone conference.

Coverage of Israel in American news outlets is generally spotty and often ignores big picture. Its difficult for any culture to see through a the lens of different  is countries , and histories. It is  important for us to stay current. If we want to know what's happening, it's important to go to Israeli (English language ) sites. To that end, I have a list of websites. I'll also provide some book recommendations which I am donating to the synagogue library.

News:
1. http://www.haaretz.com
2. http://www.ynetnews.com
3. http://www.timesofisrael.com
4. http://www.jta.org/
5. At http://dailyalert.org/Mobile/mobile.html you can sign up for daily email summaries.
6. http://www.aipac.org

Books:
1. Doomed to Succeed: the U.S. Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross
2. My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
3. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul by Daniel Gordis
4. Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel by Anita Shapira
5. Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Struggle for Peace by Lawrence Wright (the story of the Israel-Egypt peace accord)
6. Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State by David Brog
7. Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jeusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi
8. Son of Hamas: A Grripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices by Mosab Hassan Yousef with Ron Brackin
9. The Hope: American Jewish Voices in Support of Israel Edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor
10. Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam by Ilan Berman











Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur: Mistakes?


... I may be naive, but I don't know anyone who begins a major venture in their lives by saying: I know this is a mistake, I'm pretty sure, it's going to end badly, but I'm doing it anyway...
There’s an elm tree in Beulah, Michigan. Beulah is on Lake Michigan and is due east of Green Bay that people say is magnificent. It's big: its branches spread across sixty feet. The trunk's circumference measures twelve feet!

But it's an odd tree. A deep scar encircles it.

No one knows exactly how old it is, just that it was planted on a family farm in the first half of the twentieth century.

Back in the fifties, the family living there kept a bull chained to the tree. The bull spent his days pacing around the tree -- circling it -- and dragging his chain. Eventually, the chain engraved a trench around the tree trunk, about three feet from the bottom. Over time, the trench developed into a gash and looked like an ugly scar.

Eventually the family sold the farm. Before leaving, they cut the bull's chain. At that point, much of the chain was deeply embedded in the tree. So the family   left the chain, took the bull, and moved.
Meanwhile, the elm grew and thrived -- rusting chain and all. Bark slowly covered the chain.
But the gash remained ... an unsightly scar on an otherwise majestic tree.

Then Dutch Elm Disease came to Michigan. The blight took a heavy toll of elms. But this scarred tree survived. Moreover, it was one of of the few elm trees in that area that did survive.
Researchers from Michigan State University went there to examine it. Why did this tree thrive when so many others did not?  Especially since that particular tree had earlier withstood the bull pacing around it with his chain.

And the scientists opined, that was probably why this elm survived the deadly fungus -- because of the embedded, rusty chain. You see, over the years, the tree absorbed iron from the chain. Evidently, the iron boosted the tree's immune system. That tree became one of the few trees in that area that withstood the deadly fungus killing so many other elm trees...

Back to the beginning. A family had a bull and needed a place to keep him. They chained him to a tree. That could not have been good for either the tree or the bull.

The family meant well -- surely did the best they could -- but:

Mistake number 1. This was not a good way to care for the bull. The animal needed more space, needed to roam - and not spend his life chained to a tree.

Mistake number 2: I can't imagine that it was good for the tree to have a bull constantly pulling on the tree to the point of embedding the chain into the trunk.

Mistake number 3: The family moved and cut the bull loose, but didn't extract the chain from the tree trunk. They probably couldn't by then. But -- at least from outward appearances -- they didn't give a whole lot of thought to the elm tree's condition.

And for me personally, this is the first time I ever gave any thought to a plant's immune system.
Basically, in people, when a harmful substance -- say a germ or a virus -- enters our body, we generally produce antibodies to fight it. The antibodies might not keep us from getting sick, but they do help us get well.

And when I read about this elm tree, and realized that -- of course! -- immune systems are universal -- across all life. Without the immune system, life -- plant, animal ... human --simply could not continue.

So far, we've talked about physical life.

But why wouldn't spiritual life work along the same principles? Can we strengthen our spiritual immunet systems? In other words, we can make our own souls healthier and stronger.

To that point -- spiritual health -- the great medieval sage -- and physician --  Rambam -- wrote extensively about spiritual sickness. In his day, doctors new a lot less about the immune system.
But Rambam correctly identified both physical and spiritual factors leading to illness. For this physician/ rabbi, illness affected the mind and soul as well as the body. So the concept of spiritual immunity and healing the soul really isn't new in Jewish thought.

But ... how do we heal? How do we maintain and improve the health of our souls?

Let's go back to the "mistakes" we noted from the Michigan family. We should assume that the family did not think they were making mistakes. We should assume they were doing they best they knew how. Still, we would have expected their actions to harm the bull, the tree, or both.

The opposite happened. The tree thrived because of their mistakes.

For us -- we also make mistakes. And for us ... they're almost always unintentional.
Boy, it is really hard to admit mistakes. Generally, if we suspect that maybe we possibly did the wrong thing, we work even harder to justify ourselves.

It's hard to admit mistakes this to others -- and to ourselves. We don't want others to see us as weak; we don't want to see ourselves as weak... or God forbid, foolish.

Don't we all see ourselves here?

But ... to build up our spiritual immune system, we start by admitting our mistakes.

Definitions matter here. Hindsight might cause us to wince, but not so much if we clarify the difference between failure and mistake...

Nothing positive comes out of thinking we failed. Failure doesn't lead to emotional and spiritual growth. Just thinking in those terms takes us backward.

However, we do learn from mistakes...

Back to our elm tree. If the family had not made the mistakes we cited, the tree would have died of Dutch Elm disease.

So we cannot call their actions failures. Mistakes? Yes. They didn't do things properly. But from their mistakes, the tree thrived when by all rights it should have died!
And when we gather the courage to recognize our mistakes ... like the elm tree, we can grow... to great heights.

In fact, once we acknowledge -- openly -- that yes, we really do make mistakes ... the next step in spiritual health is developing empathy for the behavior of others.

Because WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES.

Therefore, what we do with those "mistakes" is what actually defines us – and not the mistake itself.

Through the fear of embarrassment or of compounding an error, we can harden our own hearts; close ourselves emotionally to others; and find it harder to maintain real relationships.

But we can also become kinder. Looking at the world with open eyes as to our faults and with an open heart leads us to recognize that we not only must serve our personal needs ... to become fully human ... we must also serve our community ... be part of a community. Thus we find the essence of holiness.

Yom Kippur -- this sacred day --  calls for us to do this ...

The Kadosh Baruch Hu knows us and our hearts. He knows that we do and will make mistakes. But the Kadosh Baruch Hu also gives us ways to reach more deeply into our souls and to grow.

God wants us to grow. The elm tree ironically thrived because of mistakes made by humans. But trees can't make choices. The elm tree just got lucky.

... WE ... HAVE CHOICES.

May we grow in the ability to make good choices ...

And may we be written and sealed for a year of blessing...


Yom Kippur: Jonah

This afternoon, our haftarah will be the book of Jonah. It's a book we don't usually think deeply about. How DO we take it seriously? It is the biggest fish story of all!

It's a great story for kids, especially since we seem to focus on the most unique part of the story: Jonah is swallowed by a  big fish.
It makes for a fun, entertaining story,
great opportunities for kids to draw fish pictures
and now, there's an app. The app is a game with a simple challenge: Jonah must outrun God.

In Sunday school, the kids had a great time playing. And they happily bragged about how many cubits they managed to run. But when asked if they could outrun God -- of course they couldn't.

That made created a great launching point for them to learn Jonah's story. But the game isn't just for children.

The game challenges us all. Do we find ourselves a bit like Jonah -- trying unsuccessfully to outrun God?

After all, book of Jonah sets the tone for the afternoon and evening of Yom Kippur. For Jonah, even when events seem comical, we have a profound story that resonates with meaning.

Jonah's story opens starkly: ​1  And the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2  Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Jonah son of Amitai is a known  prophet. He is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Therefore, we would expect him to obey God. He might not be happy about his mission -- a number of prophets expressed reluctance to God. But prophets don't flat refuse. And when they had misgivings, they express them to God.

Not Jonah. He has no answer. He simply ... fled -- 3. to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord...

Where was Tarshish? Scholars don't know the exact location, only that it was in the opposite direction of Ninevah.

Jonah -- a prophet no less-- tried to run away from the Creator. God said arise, but instead he went down to the port city of Jaffa. He immediately found a boat going to Tarshish, paid his fare, and boarded.

As we read Jonah's story, we shake our heads. That poor man, so misguided, what was he thinking? Didn't he know that:
God is everywhere
that He always pays attention
and that He is all-knowing, which means we cannot possibly hide from His presence...'

Just in case we didn't already know this, we'd learn it from a mishnah, which teaches: "Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book."

But  ... we know this, we hear this ... but how many of us really believe it?

DO WE act as if God is watching us? Do we even care?

Are any of us different from Jonah? Sure, God wanted him to go to Ninevah. But Jonah didn't want to. He did as he wished. End of story?

Obviously, it's not the end of the story because Jonah's story takes more than three verses. But for many of us, that's as far as it gets. Or ... as far as we think it gets.

Jonah denotes a critical nexus between the doctrines of free will and Gods commands. Yes, the Kadosh Baruch Hu endowed us with free will but, at the same time, does make demands on us. For instance, briefly,
taking care of ourselves
while being kind to others, and helping as needed
and never forgetting that we are integral parts of a community.

Next to Jonah's mission, this seems easy.  Doesn't it?

Jonah's story really didn't end with his escape. The same is true when we try hiding from God's teaching. Our stories also go on ... and our consequences arise from our own behavior.

Now, back to Jonah. The ship to Tarshish was pretty quickly rocked by major storms. We can guess Who sent the storm and why. The sailors scurried around trying to keep the ship from capsizing. Jonah simply went down into the hold and fell asleep.

This is the second time the story tells us that Jonah went down. In his attempt to flee, he keeps going downward.

Meanwhile, Jonah has no real goal. His ONLY motivation: escaping God. His sleeping hints that he has no goals ..... and  no real wish to live.

Finally, the ship's captain woke up the traveller. Everyone aboard had tried everything they knew to save the ship. They did everything possible and then cried out and prayed to their gods. Maybe Jonah could get up and at least pray to his own god?
Just as Jonah didn't answer God, he didn't answer the captain. So the men reluctantly used the surest way possible to knew to determine the cause of the storm and if someone had brought it on. They cast lots. They  determined that the fault lay with Jonah.

Today, we don't blame random events of nature on either God or people. This story takes such license -- because Jonah is clearly avoiding God and duty.

The sailors asked Jonah who he was, where he came from, why this was all happening. He told them he was a Hebrew, that he feared Adonai, the creator of sea and dry land.

The men asked what they could do to calm the seas. His answer was calm and simple: "Lift me up, and throw me into the sea; then the sea will calm down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you."

Take a moment and digest that. Jonah would rather drown then face God!

The men tried their best to avoid taking Jonah's advice, and finally, they reluctantly threw him overboard.

And let's go back to the language and events. Jonah didn't offer to jump overboard. He told the men to lift him. and the throw him into the sea. And for the third time, Jonah went down -- into the sea.

In Scripture, up and down show more than physical direction. They carry deep spiritual meaning. The more Jonah tried escaping, the deeper his descent.

Was this a man calmly submitting to certain death, or a metaphor of a person trying to escape coming to terms with his own true nature?

God could have been angry and washed His hands of this troublesome process. Instead, He sent a big fish to rescue Him.

Finally, after three days inside the fish, Jonah the prophet thought to pray. He said: ​8  When my soul fainted inside me I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. 9  Those who pay regard to lying vanities forsake their loyalty. ​10  But I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

As a result of Jonah's prayer: 11  And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Jonah will go on to fulfill - reluctantly - his mission, openly quarrel with God, and in the end, better understand God. Because of Jonah, the people of Ninevah will repent.
We look to this story and see that just as Ninevah repented, so can we. But even more important than the city's teshuvah - we must look at the relationship between God and Jonah.

Jonah's initial beef with the God resulted from God's compassion! In Jonah's eyes, justice had to include punishment. Jonah feared that warn Ninevah to repent -- and they would. And further, God would treat them with compassion and they'd face no punishment at all. Jonah was right. That's exactly what happened.

But we have a less than explicit component of Jonah's story. God never punished Jonah.

Jonah - who should have known better -- thought he knew better than God how to treat Nineveh. So he ran away. And the further he ran, the more he spiritually descended. He was even willing to die, until he found himself trapped in a fish - not fully also be, but not dead - in a spiritual netherworld. In his distress, Jonah finally cried out to God.

IF the Kadosh Baruch Hu wanted to punish sinners, he could have easily done so to Jonah. Here we had God's own spokesman in open defiance!

In our liturgy, we describe God as waiting patiently for the sinner to change his ways. Here, the prophet Jonah sinned egregiously.
God did not punish but waited for Jonah to recognize his own obligations and Gods presence.

Jonah wanted God to punish Nineveh but was slow - very slow --  to recognize his own wrongdoing.

Just as WE can recognize Jonah's sins as well as the sins of Nineveh, so must we recognize our own wrongdoing - and just as importantly, that we do wrong without realizing it...

Like Jonah, we all have to stop running from God. Instead, we can run to Him!

Today - on this holy day - let us celebrate Gods love and compassion so that we may face Him with gratitude for His desire to forgive - and with our souls renewed.

























Friday, September 18, 2015

Rosh Hashanah: Israel: We Must Care

I want to talk about Israel.

It's not that I just started caring about Israel. But pondering the nuclear deal with Iran, has led me to a deeper appreciation than ever of our Zionist roots. Israel and Israeli history has become my obsession. It led me to a conference in Washington, DC, in which a number of writers and thinkers shared their views.

Today isn't about politics or world events. But this is about my own renewed appreciation of the depths and importance of Zionism.

We cannot separate ourselves from the Zionist endeavor. We may have different opinions; we should have different opinions. But Zionism is part of the Jewish soul.

We sometimes fall into the trap of considering it a modern concept, dating to nineteenth century and Theodore Herzl.

But Zionism has always been part of the fabric of Judaism.

Ancient Zionist Roots

In our psalms:
We are told to rebuild Jerusalem and go to her.
We cry out: "If I forget you, oh Jerusalem, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth..."
Or sing: "When we returned to Zion, we were like dreamers..."

Zionism began when God directed Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land of Israel. Zionism continued when God sent Moses to free us from slavery and bring us to the Promised Land.

Zionism continued through two exiles, when Jews struggled to return to the land of our past and future, to the land God chose for us.

Israel... is the Jewish heart.

Today, it's easy for us to take Israel's existence -- and Jewish survival -- for granted. After all, we came through the Holocaust -- ravaged and decimated -- but we survived. And in America, we feel,especially safe. If Hitler couldn't destroy us, no one can... Right? (Pause)

An example, in 1975, the UN decided Zionism meant racism, though that vote was rescinded -- sixteen years later. But this attitude contributed to worldwide condemnation of Israel for saving it's Jews.

Here's the story: a plane had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Non-Jewish passengers were set free. But the terrorists held the Jewish passengers as hostages at the airport.

And so, on July 4, 1976, Israeli commandoes swooped in to rescue them. The world jumped in to  criticize Israel for its commando raid without the permission of the Idi Amin's Uganda...

Even though Israel saved Jews being held captive by terrorists in an airport in a hostile country... Israel routinely does its best saves to Jews in danger. It happens... still ... more than we'd like to think.

For  two thousand years, it became for too many... a metaphor without substance, a hope  devoid of reality.

But reality set in and grew more dangerous. By the nineteenth century, European Jews became increasingly aware of this danger. They saw ... that Europe was not a place for Jews to flourish. Growing  numbers of European Jews saw -- knew -- that Jews had NO future in their native lands.

They saw no future anywhere else. Yes, for many, there was America. But they knew the arc of Jewish history. Jews had originally been invited to England, France, even Poland -- in fact, to much of Europe.And then, we were expelled from most of western Europe and then persecuted in Eastern Europe.


However, the drive toward Israel -- Palestine as it was then called -- was larger than even the need for a safe haven. Israel was our homeland. The Jewish soul never forgot it. It called to us across the millennia. Through the ages, we yearned for the land of Israel. We yearned for Zion.

Even here, in the golden medinah, by the late 1800's, a small number of Jews turned their faces to Zion. The American  Zionist movement gained traction in the early twentieth century when notables like Louis Brandeis began publicly speaking out.

On the Edge of Extinction

Israel - the safe haven -- was really anything but safe. What was safe about staking a future in a small, largely undeveloped piece of land – a  desert land dominated by the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the Arab world?

The early pioneers from Eastern Europe faced hardship after hardship. Sometimes they enjoyed  good relations with their Arab neighbors. All too often, hostilities flared.

But they saw all too clearly the coming extinction of European Jewry and the lack of a future there..But even they did not envision the enormity of the Holocaust…

Zionism drove large numbers of Jews to undertake an impossible mission: creating the state of Israel.
Because only  Israel …stood between the Jews and oblivion.

Dayeinu, that would have been enough. But the early Zionists believed that only in Israel, could a Jew be a Jew. And there had to be a “new Jew” – strong, assertive, even willing to do hard hard labor and work the land.  A "new Jew" no longer afraid to openly identify as a Jew. A "new Jew" that would never allow another holocaust ...

The Really Big Big Picture

Israel's victory in the Six Day War further strengthened Jewish morale. We really could survive... Today, we are so sure of Jewish survival that we may not realize that our own destiny is linked to Israel's.

As I say this, I do understand that Israel is a deeply flawed, divided nation.

So is the United States.

And so are the Jewish people.

When it comes to the U.S. and the Jewish people, flaws and divisions do not weaken our loyalty, our allegiance.

Why is it often different with Israel?

I don't pretend to have the answers to Israel's many dilemmas. But I want us to go beyond politics-- which are incredibly complicated in Israel.

Israel Stands at the Core of Jewish identity

1. In our history: Israel was our birthplace, and in the days of the Messiah, will be our final destiny.

In Israel, time as we know it vanishes as we revisit our history, the source of the Bible. In Israel, ancient texts come alive and revitalize our understanding of Torah ..  and of ourselves.

If not for Zionism, many of the world's Jews would be ... well... dead ... or at best, persecuted. Starting even before statehood, Israel has absorbed millions of Jewish refugees.

Let me repeat that. Israel has absorbed millions of Jewish refugees. Our brethren had no other place to go. And lest you think that Israel is no longer needed as a place of refuge, take a good look at modern Europe. Anti-semitism IS on the rise there - and it still can be deadly.

2. In our identity: The fledgling state of Israel created a new paradigm for Jews. We could be strong and proud! Israel constantly reminds us that we are not victims.

3. In our language, how we communicate.
 - in Hebrew. We have a language that unites us. We nearly let that slip away. You see, the more we found ourselves dispersed among the nations, the more we developed a variety of dialects. Jews of a given region had a common language, but those dialects didn't connect us to Jews outside a given area.

Now, we all have Hebrew, the language of our both ancient and modern Israel -- the language of Torah -- the language of the Jewish soul.

4. And in our relationship and covenant with God... A
Throughout the Torah, we see, again and again: the land of Israel is part of our heritage. Israel is both His gift to us and our responsibility.

Can we not care?

We call to mind Isaiah, who cried out:  “For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, For the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still.”   And Dr. Seuss, who wrote in The Lorax:  “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Like the Lorax, I ask you to: just care.



























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Rosh Hashanah: Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Question

A man was criticized for failing to provide for his family. Times were hard. He couldn't find a job so he went into the fish business? So, after his first catch, he set up a makeshift shop underneath his sign: 'Fresh Fish for Sale Today!'

Everyone else can do everything better

The first passerby offered a criticism: 'Why would you use the word today?  Everyone knows you don't want to sell them yesterday or tomorrow. That leaves only today to sell them.' The man dutifully sawed off that last word and mounted the new version: 'Fresh Fish for Sale.'

The next passerby asked, 'Why use the word Fresh? Do you mean to imply that at other times the fish are not fresh? So again, he changed his sign. Now it said, 'Fish for Sale.'

The next critic said, 'Why not leave off the words for Sale? Any numbskull would know that's why you have a fish market?' More criticism, but it all seemed constructive. His sign now carried one word: 'Fish.'

Even then, he still had a critic: 'Why do you need to put up a sign at all? Anyone who comes within half a mile of this place knows from the smell what you are selling!'

Until finally, a passerby looked at him strangely and asked: why on earth are you sitting there with that smelly pile of fish?

Every single passerby intended to help. At least, that's what they told themselves. Not that any of them really knew how to sell fish -- but the fish seller's problems just seemed so obvious. It is so easy to know what other people are doing wrong.

And equally problematic, we have the would-be fish salesman. He was insecure. He assumed that everyone else knew how to sell fish better than he did. He started with what he thought was a good sign, automatically followed their advice, and progressed to no sign at all. And to a pile of smelly fish.

What happens when people take bad but well-intentioned advice?

Our poor fisherman thus becomes the worst nightmare of people who offer well-intentioned advice. He went broke.

Yes, we do know what other people should do. But we are often wrong. What happens when others do follow our advice and it turns out wrong?

Another story: withering glares

We have another story, from a different perspective. This one comes from from the Talmud, about two of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son. Rabbi Elazar. It's the opposite of our fisherman's plight.

When the Bar Kochbah revolt failed in the year 136, the rabbi and his son faced a death sentence from the Roman authorities. Father and son hid in a cave for twelve long years. How did they eat? A carob tree and a water well miraculously appeared! Father and son spent these years immersed in study and prayer and secure in the knowledge that they were following God's wish.

At the end of the twelfth year, the prophet Elijah appeared and announced: the Roman emperor is dead. The decree against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son has been annulled.

The two men crept slowly out of the cave, as their eyes had to adjust to the glaring sunlight. After fully emerging, they saw people engaged in ordinary pursuits: plowing, sowing, making a living.

The two were enraged. The remnant of Israel should be praying, studying, turning to God! In their eyes, the people had turned their backs on life Eternal.

And so, everything they glared at ... burned. Their disapproval caused fires, so much that God's angry voice rang out: "Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!

And they did, this time for twelve months. God gave them permission to come out yet again. And what did they see? People hurrying to prepare for Shabbat. They were comforted. They saw that Israel still loved the mitzvot.

But here's the thing: the first time these rabbis emerged from the cave, they could have seen the same thing: Jews engaged in doing mitzvot.

The mitzvot might not have been as obvious as Shabbat observance. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar chose to see things through their own negative prism.

Did the two literally set things on fire by looking at them? Of course not. But the Talmud comes to teach us about the danger of unfair, unfounded criticism. Our own attitudes have the ability to wreak havoc.

This destruction came from wise, brilliant, devoted rabbis. They were so sure of their own insights. They were so sure -- they were blind to the truth. They looked at good people trying to do the right thing ... and all they could see was sin.

During their extra twelve months in the cave, they learned to readjust their own way of looking at things. Above all, they stopped seeing the world through their own self-righteousness.

High cost of even well-mentioned criticism

But the metaphor of destruction teaches that we can inflict serious damage on others with our criticism.

We cause pain to others. Even if we don't say a word about their perceived wrongdoing, do we think people don't feel it from us ... see it in our eyes? Hurting others ... cannot -- should not -- make us feel good!

We instill self-doubt in others, deprive them of confidence. Look at the poor fisherman in the first story. He listened to everyone else -- to his own serious harm.

And then there's the harm we do to ourselves. The more critical our attitude to others, the more we find ourselves incapable of opening our own hearts to relationship. The more we accustom ourselves to searching out the flaws in others, we blind ourselves to their good points. We don't want to be with others and we end up ... lonely.

But from a different viewpoint, who wants to be with people we know are looking for weakness? If we know someone is generally critical, we probably shy away from that person's company.

Meanwhile, as we all look furtively around, thinking: that's the person the rabbi is talking about, don't bother.

It's us. It's everyone of us.

However, we can fix this.

And here's the right question

When we catch ourselves looking at someone and and thinking about what they could do better, we can change the question. Instead, we should ask ourselves: what can this person teach me?

This doesn't mean that criticism is never justified. However, we must take care, because all too often, our criticism isn't as constructive as we think.

And now, as we enter the New Year, our imperative is to open our hearts to each other -- to our community. We cannot do this when we direct withering criticism to others -- or to ourselves.

We must reach out to others and cultivate a kinder attitude. If we do this, we widen our path to a year of blessing and goodness.

L'shalom v'livrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina


















View from the Bimah: Asking the Right Question

A man was criticized for failing to provide for his family. Times were hard. He couldn't find a job so he went into the fish business? So, after his first catch, he set up a makeshift shop underneath his sign: 'Fresh Fish for Sale Today!'

Everyone else can do everything better

The first passerby offered a criticism: 'Why would you use the word today?  Everyone knows you don't want to sell them yesterday or tomorrow. That leaves only today to sell them.' The man dutifully sawed off that last word and mounted the new version: 'Fresh Fish for Sale.'

The next passerby asked, 'Why use the word Fresh? Do you mean to imply that at other times the fish are not fresh? So again, he changed his sign. Now it said, 'Fish for Sale.'

The next critic said, 'Why not leave off the words for Sale? Any numbskull would know that's why you have a fish market?' More criticism, but it all seemed constructive. His sign now carried one word: 'Fish.'

Even then, he still had a critic: 'Why do you need to put up a sign at all? Anyone who comes within half a mile of this place knows from the smell what you are selling!'

Until finally, a passerby looked at him strangely and asked: why on earth are you sitting there with that smelly pile of fish?

Every single passerby intended to help. At least, that's what they told themselves. Not that any of them really knew how to sell fish -- but the fish seller's problems just seemed so obvious. It is so easy to know what other people are doing wrong.

And equally problematic, we have the would-be fish salesman. He was insecure. He assumed that everyone else knew how to sell fish better than he did. He started with what he thought was a good sign, automatically followed their advice, and progressed to no sign at all. And to a pile of smelly fish.

What happens when people take bad but well-intentioned advice?

Our poor fisherman thus becomes the worst nightmare of people who offer well-intentioned advice. He went broke.

Yes, we do know what other people should do. But we are often wrong. What happens when others do follow our advice and it turns out wrong?

Another story: withering glares

We have another story, from a different perspective. This one comes from from the Talmud, about two of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son. Rabbi Elazar. It's the opposite of our fisherman's plight.

When the Bar Kochbah revolt failed in the year 136, the rabbi and his son faced a death sentence from the Roman authorities. Father and son hid in a cave for twelve long years. How did they eat? A carob tree and a water well miraculously appeared! Father and son spent these years immersed in study and prayer and secure in the knowledge that they were following God's wish.

At the end of the twelfth year, the prophet Elijah appeared and announced: the Roman emperor is dead. The decree against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son has been annulled.

The two men crept slowly out of the cave, as their eyes had to adjust to the glaring sunlight. After fully emerging, they saw people engaged in ordinary pursuits: plowing, sowing, making a living.

The two were enraged. The remnant of Israel should be praying, studying, turning to God! In their eyes, the people had turned their backs on life Eternal.

And so, everything they glared at ... burned. Their disapproval caused fires, so much that God's angry voice rang out: "Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!

And they did, this time for twelve months. God gave them permission to come out yet again. And what did they see? People hurrying to prepare for Shabbat. They were comforted. They saw that Israel still loved the mitzvot.

But here's the thing: the first time these rabbis emerged from the cave, they could have seen the same thing: Jews engaged in doing mitzvot.

The mitzvot might not have been as obvious as Shabbat observance. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar chose to see things through their own negative prism.

Did the two literally set things on fire by looking at them? Of course not. But the Talmud comes to teach us about the danger of unfair, unfounded criticism. Our own attitudes have the ability to wreak havoc.

This destruction came from wise, brilliant, devoted rabbis. They were so sure of their own insights. They were so sure -- they were blind to the truth. They looked at good people trying to do the right thing ... and all they could see was sin.

During their extra twelve months in the cave, they learned to readjust their own way of looking at things. Above all, they stopped seeing the world through their own self-righteousness.

High cost of even well-mentioned criticism

But the metaphor of destruction teaches that we can inflict serious damage on others with our criticism.

We cause pain to others. Even if we don't say a word about their perceived wrongdoing, do we think people don't feel it from us ... see it in our eyes? Hurting others ... cannot -- should not -- make us feel good!

We instill self-doubt in others, deprive them of confidence. Look at the poor fisherman in the first story. He listened to everyone else -- to his own serious harm.

And then there's the harm we do to ourselves. The more critical our attitude to others, the more we find ourselves incapable of opening our own hearts to relationship. The more we accustom ourselves to searching out the flaws in others, we blind ourselves to their good points. We don't want to be with others and we end up ... lonely.

But from a different viewpoint, who wants to be with people we know are looking for weakness? If we know someone is generally critical, we probably shy away from that person's company.

Meanwhile, as we all look furtively around, thinking: that's the person the rabbi is talking about, don't bother.

It's us. It's everyone of us.

However, we can fix this.

And here's the right question

When we catch ourselves looking at someone and and thinking about what they could do better, we can change the question. Instead, we should ask ourselves: what can this person teach me?

This doesn't mean that criticism is never justified. However, we must take care, because all too often, our criticism isn't as constructive as we think.

And now, as we enter the New Year, our imperative is to open our hearts to each other -- to our community. We cannot do this when we direct withering criticism to others -- or to ourselves.

We must reach out to others and cultivate a kinder attitude. If we do this, we widen our path to a year of blessing and goodness.

L'shalom v'livrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina











View from the Bimah: Asking the Right Question

A man was criticized for failing to provide for his family. Times were hard. He couldn't find a job so he went into the fish business? So, after his first catch, he set up a makeshift shop underneath his sign: 'Fresh Fish for Sale Today!'

Everyone else can do everything better

The first passerby offered a criticism: 'Why would you use the word today?  Everyone knows you don't want to sell them yesterday or tomorrow. That leaves only today to sell them.' The man dutifully sawed off that last word and mounted the new version: 'Fresh Fish for Sale.'

The next passerby asked, 'Why use the word Fresh? Do you mean to imply that at other times the fish are not fresh? So again, he changed his sign. Now it said, 'Fish for Sale.'

The next critic said, 'Why not leave off the words for Sale? Any numbskull would know that's why you have a fish market?' More criticism, but it all seemed constructive. His sign now carried one word: 'Fish.'

Even then, he still had a critic: 'Why do you need to put up a sign at all? Anyone who comes within half a mile of this place knows from the smell what you are selling!'

Until finally, a passerby looked at him strangely and asked: why on earth are you sitting there with that smelly pile of fish?

Every single passerby intended to help. At least, that's what they told themselves. Not that any of them really knew how to sell fish -- but the fish seller's problems just seemed so obvious. It is so easy to know what other people are doing wrong.

And equally problematic, we have the would-be fish salesman. He was insecure. He assumed that everyone else knew how to sell fish better than he did. He started with what he thought was a good sign, automatically followed their advice, and progressed to no sign at all. And to a pile of smelly fish.

What happens when people take bad but well-intentioned advice?

Our poor fisherman thus becomes the worst nightmare of people who offer well-intentioned advice. He went broke.

Yes, we do know what other people should do. But we are often wrong. What happens when others do follow our advice and it turns out wrong?

Another story: withering glares

We have another story, from a different perspective. This one comes from from the Talmud, about two of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son. Rabbi Elazar. It's the opposite of our fisherman's plight.

When the Bar Kochbah revolt failed in the year 136, the rabbi and his son faced a death sentence from the Roman authorities. Father and son hid in a cave for twelve long years. How did they eat? A carob tree and a water well miraculously appeared! Father and son spent these years immersed in study and prayer and secure in the knowledge that they were following God's wish.

At the end of the twelfth year, the prophet Elijah appeared and announced: the Roman emperor is dead. The decree against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son has been annulled.

The two men crept slowly out of the cave, as their eyes had to adjust to the glaring sunlight. After fully emerging, they saw people engaged in ordinary pursuits: plowing, sowing, making a living.

The two were enraged. The remnant of Israel should be praying, studying, turning to God! In their eyes, the people had turned their backs on life Eternal.

And so, everything they glared at ... burned. Their disapproval caused fires, so much that God's angry voice rang out: "Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!

And they did, this time for twelve months. God gave them permission to come out yet again. And what did they see? People hurrying to prepare for Shabbat. They were comforted. They saw that Israel still loved the mitzvot.

But here's the thing: the first time these rabbis emerged from the cave, they could have seen the same thing: Jews engaged in doing mitzvot.

The mitzvot might not have been as obvious as Shabbat observance. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar chose to see things through their own negative prism.

Did the two literally set things on fire by looking at them? Of course not. But the Talmud comes to teach us about the danger of unfair, unfounded criticism. Our own attitudes have the ability to wreak havoc.

This destruction came from wise, brilliant, devoted rabbis. They were so sure of their own insights. They were so sure -- they were blind to the truth. They looked at good people trying to do the right thing ... and all they could see was sin.

During their extra twelve months in the cave, they learned to readjust their own way of looking at things. Above all, they stopped seeing the world through their own self-righteousness.

High cost of even well-mentioned criticism

But the metaphor of destruction teaches that we can inflict serious damage on others with our criticism.

We cause pain to others. Even if we don't say a word about their perceived wrongdoing, do we think people don't feel it from us ... see it in our eyes? Hurting others ... cannot -- should not -- make us feel good!

We instill self-doubt in others, deprive them of confidence. Look at the poor fisherman in the first story. He listened to everyone else -- to his own serious harm.

And then there's the harm we do to ourselves. The more critical our attitude to others, the more we find ourselves incapable of opening our own hearts to relationship. The more we accustom ourselves to searching out the flaws in others, we blind ourselves to their good points. We don't want to be with others and we end up ... lonely.

But from a different viewpoint, who wants to be with people we know are looking for weakness? If we know someone is generally critical, we probably shy away from that person's company.

Meanwhile, as we all look furtively around, thinking: that's the person the rabbi is talking about, don't bother.

It's us. It's everyone of us.

However, we can fix this.

And here's the right question

When we catch ourselves looking at someone and and thinking about what they could do better, we can change the question. Instead, we should ask ourselves: what can this person teach me?

This doesn't mean that criticism is never justified. However, we must take care, because all too often, our criticism isn't as constructive as we think.

And now, as we enter the New Year, our imperative is to open our hearts to each other -- to our community. We cannot do this when we direct withering criticism to others -- or to ourselves.

We must reach out to others and cultivate a kinder attitude. If we do this, we widen our path to a year of blessing and goodness.

L'shalom v'livrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina





























View from the Bimah: Asking the Right Question

A man was criticized for failing to provide for his family. Times were hard. He couldn't find a job so he went into the fish business? So, after his first catch, he set up a makeshift shop underneath his sign: 'Fresh Fish for Sale Today!'

Everyone else can do everything better

The first passerby offered a criticism: 'Why would you use the word today?  Everyone knows you don't want to sell them yesterday or tomorrow. That leaves only today to sell them.' The man dutifully sawed off that last word and mounted the new version: 'Fresh Fish for Sale.'

The next passerby asked, 'Why use the word Fresh? Do you mean to imply that at other times the fish are not fresh? So again, he changed his sign. Now it said, 'Fish for Sale.'

The next critic said, 'Why not leave off the words for Sale? Any numbskull would know that's why you have a fish market?' More criticism, but it all seemed constructive. His sign now carried one word: 'Fish.'

Even then, he still had a critic: 'Why do you need to put up a sign at all? Anyone who comes within half a mile of this place knows from the smell what you are selling!'

Until finally, a passerby looked at him strangely and asked: why on earth are you sitting there with that smelly pile of fish?

Every single passerby intended to help. At least, that's what they told themselves. Not that any of them really knew how to sell fish -- but the fish seller's problems just seemed so obvious. It is so easy to know what other people are doing wrong.

And equally problematic, we have the would-be fish salesman. He was insecure. He assumed that everyone else knew how to sell fish better than he did. He started with what he thought was a good sign, automatically followed their advice, and progressed to no sign at all. And to a pile of smelly fish.

What happens when people take bad but well-intentioned advice?

Our poor fisherman thus becomes the worst nightmare of people who offer well-intentioned advice. He went broke.

Yes, we do know what other people should do. But we are often wrong. What happens when others do follow our advice and it turns out wrong?

Another story: withering glares

We have another story, from a different perspective. This one comes from from the Talmud, about two of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son. Rabbi Elazar. It's the opposite of our fisherman's plight.

When the Bar Kochbah revolt failed in the year 136, the rabbi and his son faced a death sentence from the Roman authorities. Father and son hid in a cave for twelve long years. How did they eat? A carob tree and a water well miraculously appeared! Father and son spent these years immersed in study and prayer and secure in the knowledge that they were following God's wish.

At the end of the twelfth year, the prophet Elijah appeared and announced: the Roman emperor is dead. The decree against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son has been annulled.

The two men crept slowly out of the cave, as their eyes had to adjust to the glaring sunlight. After fully emerging, they saw people engaged in ordinary pursuits: plowing, sowing, making a living.

The two were enraged. The remnant of Israel should be praying, studying, turning to God! In their eyes, the people had turned their backs on life Eternal.

And so, everything they glared at ... burned. Their disapproval caused fires, so much that God's angry voice rang out: "Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!

And they did, this time for twelve months. God gave them permission to come out yet again. And what did they see? People hurrying to prepare for Shabbat. They were comforted. They saw that Israel still loved the mitzvot.

But here's the thing: the first time these rabbis emerged from the cave, they could have seen the same thing: Jews engaged in doing mitzvot.

The mitzvot might not have been as obvious as Shabbat observance. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar chose to see things through their own negative prism.

Did the two literally set things on fire by looking at them? Of course not. But the Talmud comes to teach us about the danger of unfair, unfounded criticism. Our own attitudes have the ability to wreak havoc.

This destruction came from wise, brilliant, devoted rabbis. They were so sure of their own insights. They were so sure -- they were blind to the truth. They looked at good people trying to do the right thing ... and all they could see was sin.

During their extra twelve months in the cave, they learned to readjust their own way of looking at things. Above all, they stopped seeing the world through their own self-righteousness.

High cost of even well-mentioned criticism

But the metaphor of destruction teaches that we can inflict serious damage on others with our criticism.

We cause pain to others. Even if we don't say a word about their perceived wrongdoing, do we think people don't feel it from us ... see it in our eyes? Hurting others ... cannot -- should not -- make us feel good!

We instill self-doubt in others, deprive them of confidence. Look at the poor fisherman in the first story. He listened to everyone else -- to his own serious harm.

And then there's the harm we do to ourselves. The more critical our attitude to others, the more we find ourselves incapable of opening our own hearts to relationship. The more we accustom ourselves to searching out the flaws in others, we blind ourselves to their good points. We don't want to be with others and we end up ... lonely.

But from a different viewpoint, who wants to be with people we know are looking for weakness? If we know someone is generally critical, we probably shy away from that person's company.

Meanwhile, as we all look furtively around, thinking: that's the person the rabbi is talking about, don't bother.

It's us. It's everyone of us.

However, we can fix this.

And here's the right question

When we catch ourselves looking at someone and and thinking about what they could do better, we can change the question. Instead, we should ask ourselves: what can this person teach me?

This doesn't mean that criticism is never justified. However, we must take care, because all too often, our criticism isn't as constructive as we think.

And now, as we enter the New Year, our imperative is to open our hearts to each other -- to our community. We cannot do this when we direct withering criticism to others -- or to ourselves.

We must reach out to others and cultivate a kinder attitude. If we do this, we widen our path to a year of blessing and goodness.

L'shalom v'livrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina




























View from the Bimah: Asking the Right Question

A man was criticized for failing to provide for his family. Times were hard. He couldn't find a job so he went into the fish business? So, after his first catch, he set up a makeshift shop underneath his sign: 'Fresh Fish for Sale Today!'

Everyone else can do everything better

The first passerby offered a criticism: 'Why would you use the word today?  Everyone knows you don't want to sell them yesterday or tomorrow. That leaves only today to sell them.' The man dutifully sawed off that last word and mounted the new version: 'Fresh Fish for Sale.'

The next passerby asked, 'Why use the word Fresh? Do you mean to imply that at other times the fish are not fresh? So again, he changed his sign. Now it said, 'Fish for Sale.'

The next critic said, 'Why not leave off the words for Sale? Any numbskull would know that's why you have a fish market?' More criticism, but it all seemed constructive. His sign now carried one word: 'Fish.'

Even then, he still had a critic: 'Why do you need to put up a sign at all? Anyone who comes within half a mile of this place knows from the smell what you are selling!'

Until finally, a passerby looked at him strangely and asked: why on earth are you sitting there with that smelly pile of fish?

Every single passerby intended to help. At least, that's what they told themselves. Not that any of them really knew how to sell fish -- but the fish seller's problems just seemed so obvious. It is so easy to know what other people are doing wrong.

And equally problematic, we have the would-be fish salesman. He was insecure. He assumed that everyone else knew how to sell fish better than he did. He started with what he thought was a good sign, automatically followed their advice, and progressed to no sign at all. And to a pile of smelly fish.

What happens when people take bad but well-intentioned advice?

Our poor fisherman thus becomes the worst nightmare of people who offer well-intentioned advice. He went broke.

Yes, we do know what other people should do. But we are often wrong. What happens when others do follow our advice and it turns out wrong?

Another story: withering glares

We have another story, from a different perspective. This one comes from from the Talmud, about two of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son. Rabbi Elazar. It's the opposite of our fisherman's plight.

When the Bar Kochbah revolt failed in the year 136, the rabbi and his son faced a death sentence from the Roman authorities. Father and son hid in a cave for twelve long years. How did they eat? A carob tree and a water well miraculously appeared! Father and son spent these years immersed in study and prayer and secure in the knowledge that they were following God's wish.

At the end of the twelfth year, the prophet Elijah appeared and announced: the Roman emperor is dead. The decree against Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son has been annulled.

The two men crept slowly out of the cave, as their eyes had to adjust to the glaring sunlight. After fully emerging, they saw people engaged in ordinary pursuits: plowing, sowing, making a living.

The two were enraged. The remnant of Israel should be praying, studying, turning to God! In their eyes, the people had turned their backs on life Eternal.

And so, everything they glared at ... burned. Their disapproval caused fires, so much that God's angry voice rang out: "Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!

And they did, this time for twelve months. God gave them permission to come out yet again. And what did they see? People hurrying to prepare for Shabbat. They were comforted. They saw that Israel still loved the mitzvot.

But here's the thing: the first time these rabbis emerged from the cave, they could have seen the same thing: Jews engaged in doing mitzvot.

The mitzvot might not have been as obvious as Shabbat observance. Rabbis Shimon and Elazar chose to see things through their own negative prism.

Did the two literally set things on fire by looking at them? Of course not. But the Talmud comes to teach us about the danger of unfair, unfounded criticism. Our own attitudes have the ability to wreak havoc.

This destruction came from wise, brilliant, devoted rabbis. They were so sure of their own insights. They were so sure -- they were blind to the truth. They looked at good people trying to do the right thing ... and all they could see was sin.

During their extra twelve months in the cave, they learned to readjust their own way of looking at things. Above all, they stopped seeing the world through their own self-righteousness.

High cost of even well-mentioned criticism

But the metaphor of destruction teaches that we can inflict serious damage on others with our criticism.

We cause pain to others. Even if we don't say a word about their perceived wrongdoing, do we think people don't feel it from us ... see it in our eyes? Hurting others ... cannot -- should not -- make us feel good!

We instill self-doubt in others, deprive them of confidence. Look at the poor fisherman in the first story. He listened to everyone else -- to his own serious harm.

And then there's the harm we do to ourselves. The more critical our attitude to others, the more we find ourselves incapable of opening our own hearts to relationship. The more we accustom ourselves to searching out the flaws in others, we blind ourselves to their good points. We don't want to be with others and we end up ... lonely.

But from a different viewpoint, who wants to be with people we know are looking for weakness? If we know someone is generally critical, we probably shy away from that person's company.

Meanwhile, as we all look furtively around, thinking: that's the person the rabbi is talking about, don't bother.

It's us. It's everyone of us.

However, we can fix this.

And here's the right question

When we catch ourselves looking at someone and and thinking about what they could do better, we can change the question. Instead, we should ask ourselves: what can this person teach me?

This doesn't mean that criticism is never justified. However, we must take care, because all too often, our criticism isn't as constructive as we think.

And now, as we enter the New Year, our imperative is to open our hearts to each other -- to our community. We cannot do this when we direct withering criticism to others -- or to ourselves.

We must reach out to others and cultivate a kinder attitude. If we do this, we widen our path to a year of blessing and goodness.

L'shalom v'livrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina
















































































































Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Noah and his learnng curve

This week we learn about Noah, his triumphs and his failures.  Or at least, his actions that we perceive as failures.

Here's the beginning of the parshah:
ו:ט אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the story of Noah: Noah -- a righteous man, he was morally unblemished in his generations. Noah walked with God.

In Hebrew, the phrase and syntax of the sentence; Noah walked with God imply two things:
God's pride in Noah
Noah lived in keeping with God's instruction.

Put another way, Noah walked on God's path. Keep in mind, the whole notion of halachah derives from the theme of walking: walking on God's path, keeping His commandments ... obeying God.

Throughout Genesis to this point, two major themes are:
Obedience
and responsibility

Genesis reads like a text in developmental psychology, We'll explore this phase of man's development as well as the meaning of morality. And let's see where blind obedience fits in.
Let's take a look back.  First lesson in responsibility: the story of Adam and Eve. God asked Adam why he ate the fruit. Adam blamed both God and Eve. Eve blamed the snake. They did not take personal responsibility for their actions.

Was this a test the first two people failed? Or was this part of mankind's learning curve...

A tenth century sage, Rav Saadia Gaon, said that the truth of Torah could be established by reason. However, this would be a long, difficult process.

Ultimately, people learn by making mistakes. Or, by learning from others' mistakes. Adam and Eve taught that we really should take responsibility for our actions -- and it's all to easy to not do so.

Next story: Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother, but he doesn't deny it! In one sense, he does take personal responsibility. After all, he admits  his guilt. So what's the problem?... Okay, outside of killing his brother...

Cain's issue isn't personal responsibility. It's the difference between what he wants to do and what he should do. Cain refuses to take moral responsibility.

But morality is about more than the individual and how he treats others. We must look at the community.
And so we come to Noah. As we saw, God singled him out as a righteous person in a horribly corrupt world. And when God told Noah about his plans to destroy the world -- and save Noah and his family -- Noah did everything God said to do.

So why do our sages debate whether Noah was righteous? Didn't God say he was!

The question comes over an enigmatic phrase: he was a righteous man in his generation.

Not a righteous man, period. God qualified his praise.



Here's a talmudic viewpoint:
Rabbi Yochanan said that Noah was only righteous because the rest of the people were so corrupt. Noah might not have been so righteous had he lived at a different time.
Resh Lakish answered that Noah would have been righteous in any generation. After all, if he could be righteous in a violent and sinful world, just think how good he could be in a different setting...

Remember: humanity is on a learning curve.  The reason the rabbis even call Noah's goodness into question is this: Noah saved himself, his family, and the animals.
He did -- exactly -- as God commanded. It didn't occur to Noah that perhaps he could save others. He could have questioned the Creator. He did not.  Did he even know that was possible?

Noah represents the stage of communal responsibility. However, the first stage of development really is: I must look out for myself.

It's later that we learn -- our world is much much better when we take responsibility for each other.

A few decades ago, an experiment called the Prisoners Dilemma showed that cooperation yielded better results than competition. Prisoners could choose:
If you testify against the other, you go free, she gets ten years.
If you both testify against each other, you each get five years.
If you both remain silent, you'll both face a possible year in prison but on a lesser charge.

Inevitably, the result was: I'm out for myself, so I will testify -- five years is better than ten.

But this was a one-time event. When the "prisoners repeated the experiment, they learned that cooperation yielded better results! It took time to get to that point.

It's something we have to learn. We must grow into this  sense of mutual responsibility.

Noah -- mankind -- had not yet learned the morality of being responsible for the community.

Noah's life did not end happily. How could it be otherwise? He emerged into a broken world -- a world of death and destruction.  Noah had his family, but no one else.

Did he struggle with guilt, that maybe he could have saved others?

Noah remains a figure of pathos. Yes, he was a righteous man -- and yes, he did as he was told. But Noah did not question.

Noah did not realize that God gifted us with free will. That means: our Creator never expected -- or wanted --
us to follow blindly.
We choose.
We question.
And we assume that the Kadosh Baruch Hu expects is to exercise compassion ... and to rebuild shattered worlds.

Among the many things we learn from Noah, a basic theme is the formation of communal responsibility. Morality means that we are responsible not just for ourselves -- we are responsible for our community.

We often give lip service to Hillel's great saying:
If I am not for myself, who will be.
followed by ... If I am only for myself, what am I?
And: if not now, when?

Noah didn't know that he could have taken greater responsibility for his community. Maybe he could have saved them, but he didn't think to try. Humanity was young; it took Noah to teach us that it could be different.

And note, psychologists tell us, this a developmental stage that must be learned.

We can excuse Noah. We cannot excuse ourselves.

 For instance, when it comes to the synagogue, how many times to we hear:
they shouldn't do things that way. But who is they? There is no "they." It's us.
Or, it's a shame people don't make synagogue and Judaism more of a priority. Do we hear this from people who are among those who don't come?
On the other hand, we have lots of people who know that our communal life depends on every one of us.

Noah teaches us that yes, we should listen to God. He also teaches that we must do more. It's not enough to follow God to the letter. We should -- we must -- err on the side of compassion. And we must understand that we cannot be moral ... if  ignore the needs of others.