Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mensch*Marks for the New Year

Mensch Marks for the New Year

All of religion can be distilled down to the question of how to be a good person.  To be religious is to be good – and to be good is to be religious.  You can find a version of the Golden Rule in almost every living faith; but for Jews, especially, being a mensch is at the core of an authentic Jewish life.  In his groundbreaking new book, “Putting God Second,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman makes the case that ethical piety must always take precedence over ritual piety.  Only kindness matters.

The Talmudic tractate Avot, 6:6 provides a roadmap as to how to live an ethical life.  This passage includes 48 middot (measures) through which we can “acquire Torah.”  See the full list of middot here.  Each day during the High Holiday period, running from the first of Elul through Yom Kippur and beyond, I’ll be highlighting one of these middot, in order to assist each of us in the process of soul searching (“heshbon ha-nefesh”) and our preparations for the new year.
Leo Rosten defines mensch as "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is  rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous." 

Each of these “Mensch•Marks,” as I call them, these benchmarks of menschiness,  will be illuminated with bite-size essays, stories and anecdotes from various sources, including my own experiences.  Any wisdom I share is not from a pulpit on high, but rather from an unfolding story of a fellow traveler, one who has stumbled, failed and persevered, struggling with the questions large and small, and through it all has tried to live with dignity and grace.  
Warm wishes for a year of personal growth.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Mensch•Mark For Elul 1

“Sh'miat Haozen is the "pay attention" middah or virtue. We learn by many senses and Copy of menschmarks elul 1focus on acquiring Torah by listening. Regardless of whether one can physically hear or not, we are all capable of listening. One can hear things but still lack understanding. The act of attentive listening takes intention and work on the part of the listener.
Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that the 48 middot (attributes) are not gifts that are acquired together with Torah, but the means through which it is possible to acquire Torah. One who strives to learn Torah must acquire and employ these 48 attributes through diligent labor upon their own personality. He further taught that proper, accurate and thorough listening is the first demand made on the learner. Such intentional and accurate listening precludes any carelessness, inattention or distraction by other things. (Chapters of the Fathers, translation and commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch pp. 103-4).” 

Time and again in the last month of his life Moses told the people, Shema: listen, heed, pay attention. Hear what I am saying. Hear what God is saying. Listen to what He wants from us. If you would only listen … Judaism is a religion of listening. This is one of its most original contributions to civilization.

…Speaking and listening are not forms of detachment. They are forms of engagement. They create a relationship. The Hebrew word for knowledge, da’at, implies involvement, closeness, intimacy. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and gave birth” (Gen. 4:1). That is knowing in the Hebrew sense, not the Greek. We can enter into a relationship with God, even though He is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God. If you want to understand any relationship, between husband and wife, or parent and child, or employer and employee, pay close attention to how they speak and listen to one another. Ignore everything else.

Listening lies at the very heart of relationship. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect him or her,  that their perceptions and feelings matter to us. We give them permission to be honest, even if this means making ourselves vulnerable in so doing. A good parent listens to their child. A good employer listens to his or her workers. A good company listens to its customers or clients. A good leader listens to those he or she leads. Listening does not mean agreeing but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.

Mensch•Mark For Elul 2

The rabbinic sage Hillel admired Aaron, the brother of Moses, as someone who had many good traits. Among those traits mentioned in our Text is loving one's fellow creatures (Ohev et HaBriyot).

In a commentary on Pirkei Avot, the rabbis use two familiar stories from the Bible to emphasize the importance of loving others.

"People must love their fellow creatures, and not hate them. The people of the generation which was dispersed over the earth (the tower of Babel generation, Genesis 11:1-9) loved one another, and so God did not destroy them, but only scattered them. But the people of Sodom hated one another, and so God destroyed them from this world and from the world to come." (Avot de Rabbi Natan 12, 26b)

In order to understand what it means to love all creatures, Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that we turn to two respected sages, Maimonides and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. To Maimonides, it is how we behave toward others that shows our love for them. He explains that the commandment to "love your fellow person as yourself" is the basis for carrying out specific deeds of loving kindness such as visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and caring for the dead.
Rav Kook agrees with Maimonides and says that love for others is to be "expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and to seek their advancement." (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.179)

What about people who are different from us - people who are physically or mentally challenged; people who speak another language or whose skin is another color; people who may make us feel uncomfortable-are we supposed to love them too? Perhaps one of the reasons we have a virtue (middah) that instructs us to love all creatures (Ohev et HaBriyot) is that it's not something that we can do easily. Studying and thinking about the middah helps us to become more aware of its importance. (Teaching Jewish Virtues p.184)

Surely the middah (virtue) of Ohev et HaBriyot (loving all creatures) must embrace all the creatures God created, including animals, birds, and insects. A Hasidic source teaches that we must never speak derogatorily of any creature of God. Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that we turn that comment into the positive, ie. speak positively of every creature of God, whether cow, wild animal, or bird.  In fact, if you have ever had a pet, you know that you can feel love for an animal.

Q: This may sound weird, but I think my neighbor is cruel to his pet beagle. I know that if this was a person we were talking about, Jewish law would obligate me to go to the authorities. But this is a DOG. What's my obligation here?

A. You need to pursue this. I say this not merely because I am life-long pet-o-phile, a vegetarian with two cuddly standard poodles. I say this also because it is the right thing to do. Jewish culture has long championed animal rights.

The Torah could not be more explicit when it instructs us (Exodus 23:5) to assist the animal of your enemy.

In that verse, the animal is a donkey that has been mistreated, presumably by its owner. Based on this law, the rabbis established the concept of "tza'ar ba'ale hayyim," calling on us to minimize the suffering of all living creatures, literally to "feel their pain" in a Bill Clinton sort of way.

Jews have a long history of opposing such activities as hunting for sport or cockfighting. The Talmud goes as far as to state that even the person who sits in the stadium to watch this kind of event spills blood. We should refrain from eating until we've fed our animals and we are not permitted to buy cattle beasts or birds unless we can adequately care for them.

Animals even get to observe Shabbat, during which we are prohibited from placing any burden at all on them. A full chapter of the Shulchan Aruch deals with this. A nice summary of the Jewish view on animal rights can be found here.

The ASPCA web site details how to determine if abuse is really taking place and what you need to do about it. The Michael Vick case has sensitized us all to the need for vigilance against animal abuse, and the first line of defense is the neighbors. The Humane Society of the United States even has a dog fighting tip line - although it likely won't be relevant with a pet beagle. American Jews have had an animal rights scandal all our own, the inhumane conditions discovered at the now-bankrupt Agriprocessors plant.

Western society has come a long way in its sensitivity toward animals (in Elizabethan England, for instance, bloody dog fights were ubiquitous), but we've a long way to go.
So if your suspicions are well grounded, you've got to do something.

Mensch•Mark For Elul 3

Our text suggests that anyone who wants to be a scholar must not engage in too much laughter. It is puzzling that too much laughter is considered a negative virtue and is discouraged. Is it possible that the rabbis were merely concerned about students having too much fun and not spending enough time on their studies?

The great Talmudic teacher, Rabbi Akiva, best known for his wisdom and his diligence in studying Torah, suggested another reason for miyut sechok. He warned: "Raucous laughter and frivolity predispose a person to behavior that is not virtuous." (Avot 3:13)

Simeon Ben Jesus Ben Sira, a great sage and scribe who lived in the second century BCE, identified laughter as a sign of foolishness. In his book, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, he wrote: "A fool raises his voice in laughter, a wise man smiles in silence.” (Ben Sira 21, 20)

In Sefer Aggadah, the following story is told to illustrate the concern for moderation in laughter and celebration, even at a joyous occasion. Mar, the son of Ravina, made a marriage feast for his son. When he saw that the sages were getting overly merry, he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and smashed it before them, and they grew serious. (The Book of Legends, p.714)

Although we are warned that excessive laughter leads to behavior that is inappropriate, especially for someone who wants to be a scholar, we are also advised that too somber a mood is not conducive to study or growth in Torah either. The Talmud reports that Rabbah would commence his lectures with an amusing statement in order to put his disciples in a relaxed state of mind. (Midrash Shmuel, Tiferes Yisrael)

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) was another great Jewish figure who appreciated the significance of humor. Reb Nachman wrote, "There are men who suffer terrible distress and are unable to tell what they feel in their hearts, and they go their way and suffer and suffer. But if they meet one with a laughing face, he can revive them with his joy. And to revive someone is no slight thing." (The Book of Jewish Values, Telushkin)

MY TAKE: Minimal Frivolity, Maximal Irony

A decade ago, radio shock-joke Don Imus crossed the boundary where humor becomes offensive, in directing racial epithets at the Rutgers women’s basketball team.  I took the opportunity to assemble a number of sources on the boundaries of humor, exploring the subject from a Jewish perspective.

When it comes to Purim, however, almost anything goes. (See my collection of The Best Purim Parodies and Jewish Jokes).

Who is the best Jewish comedian of all time?  My vote goes to Kohelet, author of the biblical book of that name (a.k.a.Ecclesiastes), which is read on the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot.  While little in the book would qualify as LOL funny (and the author himself equates laughter with madness), the use of irony and wordplay, the in-your-face skepticism and not-so-subtle subversiveness expose the absurdity of life and presage some of the best Jewish comics of the modern era.

As I wrote in this Times of Israel article, among modern comics, you can find Kohelet in Mel Brooks,  Philip Roth or even the lyrics of “Fiddler on the Roof,” (“Sunrise, Sunset,” chapter 1:5) but Ecclesiastes reads best alongside the works of Woody Allen.  Many have discussed how the more serious films of the mature Allen reflect the absurdities of the book (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Midnight in Paris” come to mind), but we can go back to the early Allen, his Catskills shtick, to find the most direct parallels.

Check out these pairs of quotes, taken from the biblical book and the Woodman.

On identity:
A)     A good name is better than precious oil (Kohelet 7:1)
B)      My only regret in life is that I wasn’t born someone else.

On love:
A)     Two are better than one (4:9)
B)      To love is to suffer.  To avoid suffering one must not love.  But then one suffers from not loving.  Therefore to love is to suffer.  Not to love is to suffer.  To suffer is to suffer.  To be happy is to love.  To be happy, then, is to suffer.  But suffering makes one unhappy.  Therefore to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness (from “Love and Death”)

On wealth:
A)     A lover of money never has his fill of money.  This too is futile (5:9)
B)      Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

On work:
A)     Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed. (11:8)
B)      Whosoever shall not fall by the sword or by famine, shall fall by pestilence so why bother shaving?

On food:
A)     Cast your bread upon the waters: you shall find it after many days. (11:1)
B)      Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.
On the unchanging nature of life:
A)      All rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full (1:7)
B)       The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won’t get much sleep. (Without Feathers)

On aging:
A)      Appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth (11:10)
B)      Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.

On the cycles of time:
A)     A season is set for everything; a time for every experience under heaven (3:1)
B)      Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?

On foolish speculation:
A)     The beginning of a fool’s talk is foolishness, and the end of his talk is mischievous madness. (11:6)
B)      What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.
On futility:
A)      All is futility! (1:2)
B)      Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.
On death:
A)     It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart (7:2)
B)      I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold it to me.

On sanity:
A)     Don’t overdo goodness…but don’t overdo wickedness and be a fool (7:17)
B)      A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘We would. But we need the eggs.’

On crime:
A)     When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong (8:1)
B)      He emerged from the hotel and walked up Eight Avenue. Two men were mugging an elderly lady. My God, thought Weinstein, time was when one person could handle that job.

On God:
C)      Be not overeager to go to the house of God: more acceptable is obedience than the offerings of fools. (4:17)
D)     If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.
On possessions and parenting:
A)     Naked he came out of his mother’s womb and naked he will depart (5:14)
B)      I don’t think my parents liked me. They put a live teddy bear in my crib.
On wisdom:
A)     For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartbreak (1:18)
B)      More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

On annoyances:
A)      Don’t pay attention to everything that is said, so that you may not hear your slave reviling you (7:22)
B)      What a world. It could be so wonderful if it wasn’t for certain people.
Kohelet would have loved this Woody Allen version of a Hasidic story:
Rabbi Raditz of Poland was a very short rabbi with a long beard, who was said to have inspired many pogroms with his sense of humor. One of his disciples asked, “Who did God like better, Moses or Abraham?”
“Abraham,” the Zaddik said.
“But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land,” said the disciple.
“All right, so Moses,” the Zaddik answered.
After all, it was Kohelet who advised “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise,” knowing that a little humility can go a long way, especially regarding what we know and what we think we know.
When it comes to Jews and our home-grown sense of absurdity, there is nothing new under the sun.
A minimum of frivolity, yes, but a maximum of irony.

Mensch•Mark For Elul 4

You may recognize this from the siddur or prayer book. It begins the paragraph immediately following the Sh'ma, the prayer commonly known as the V'ahavta. This biblical text commands that we are to love God. Several questions immediately come to mind: Is it possible for one to be commanded to feel a specific emotion? And is this command to love made all the more difficult because we are being commanded to love that which is invisible, not a tangible thing that can be held?

Placing this verse into the context of the siddur, the ancient authors of our prayer book showed some extraordinary wisdom. In the morning service the prayer Ahavah Rabbah precedes the Sh'ma. It reads,

"Deep is your love for us, Adonai our God and great is Your compassion. Our Maker and Ruler, our ancestors trusted You, and You taught them the laws of life…."

In the evening service we read Ahavat Olam, before the Sh'ma. Its first line states,

"Unending is Your love for Your people, the House of Israel: Torah and Mitzvot, laws and precepts have You taught us."

In both prayers we are reminded first of God's deep love for the people of Israel. This declaration of God's love is then made tangible through the gift of Torah and mitzvot. We respond to Ahavah Rabbah and Ahavat Olam with the Sh'ma, declaring that Adonai is our God and Adonai is one. It is only then that we are commanded to "love God with all of your heart, all of your soul and with all of your might." The authors of the prayer book wanted to remind the people of the reciprocal nature of the relationship between Israel and God. God loves us as demonstrated through the gift of Torah and mitzvot and we love God back by loving the Torah and showing that love by fulfilling the mitzvot.

Loving God is included in the 48 middot (ethical values) necessary for the acquisition of Torah. Midrash Shmuel teaches,

"One who loves the Ruler (i.e., God) occupies himself or herself with the Ruler's most valuable treasure. Diligent study of Torah is therefore an expression of a love for God. Through study, one learns to recognize the Godly path and express one's love of God by emulating God's ways." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p.419)

MY TAKE: The God of Love

We love God by loving our neighbor,  since all were created in God’s image.  As I wrote at the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling on LGBT Marriage, in a piece entitled "The God of Love," "It is truly astounding how quickly the landscape has changed. It often takes generations for social attitudes to evolve, and we've seen how stubbornly slow that process can be with racism in America and anti-Semitism everywhere else. But in America, for LGBTQ rights, the change has been stunning and dramatic."

In the article, I trace my own evolution on this topic to my relationship with my cousin Jeff Avick, who spoke here in 1993 about his coping with HIV.  He said, "The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength...His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he's given us."

Six years later, when I last saw Jeff in hospice, curled up in a fetal position and barely breathing, I understood that no God of mine could have afflicted him so mercilessly. Rather, I sensed the sanctity in every heroic gasp of air, in each moment of survival. I reached back for every bit of kindness I could summon, and held his hand.

At his funeral, which took place in my synagogue's sanctuary, I read a poem Jeff had written decades earlier, when he was a teenager, called "Valentine to Man."

"I listened to the music -
And it sounded so sweet that I shouted
up to heaven:

"Let me love."
And God spoke to me and He said...
"You do love.

You feel the sun rise and exalt as it travels
Its long journey over its old road.
You see the great green wonder rolling in and out,
taking life from its depths of turbulence to its shores of peace
You hear the music of nature singing to you
Ringing sweetly in your ears.
You laugh and you cry, small yet large
against the majesty of life.
And while there is no one, nothing -
You do love...
And you breathe and sing along with the awkward,
Beautiful melody...
And you love."

I've reflected on Jeff's words as the world has become more accepting of people in their infinite variety, and more embracing of all who don't fit so neatly into the categories that used to comprise what we called "community" but was in fact was leaving far too many behind.

Not only have I been freed from old, crusty preconceptions, my God has as well. My God is now, unequivocally, a God of love, not a God of exclusion, not a God who afflicts good, loving people with dreaded diseases to punish them for being so good and loving.

Some come out of the closet. I came off the fence.

 Either one is a leap of faith, an act of great courage. It is also an act of return - a return to our true values, our deepest held beliefs, to who we were all along.  (
Click here for the full article.)

Mensch•Mark For Elul 5

The middah, or ethical value, of miyut ta'anug teaches us to limit our pleasure. It seems that Judaism is of two minds when it comes to pleasure and enjoyment. There are numerous examples of taking pleasure from the world, treating oneself to luxury and enjoying beauty. In the midrash we read the following statements: "Rav said to Rabbi Hamnuna: My child, if you have the means, treat yourself well;" "Three things restore a person's spirit: beautiful sounds, sights, and scents;" and "Sages said in the name of Rav: A person will have to give reckoning and account for everything that his or her eye saw and that he or she did not eat." (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 585:95, 586:102, and 586:100).

In contrast, Midrash Shmuel teaches that even wealthy people should not seek pleasure for its own sake; to do so is spiritually detrimental. ( Pirkei Avot, ArtScroll p. 415)

A direct comparison is made between a table of luxurious food and a table of learning. Clearly the table of learning is of more value than the table of special foods.

Reuven Bulka wrote, "one should not eliminate pleasure altogether, but one should moderate pleasure in order to properly appreciate Torah in its spiritual dimension." (As A Tree By The Waters, p.255)

The best advice may come from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin who wrote, "As long as you act morally and generously, you have a right to enjoy life's delights." (The Book of Jewish Values, p. 96)

MY TAKE: The End of Jewish Guilt?

We have entered the post-guilt phase of American Jewish history.  The recent Pew survey showed that an astonishingly high percentage of American Jews are proud to be Jewish, even if they’ve strayed far from the fold.  But a guilt free Jewishness should not imply that we should partake of all guilty pleasures to the point of gluttony. 

Maimonides, a doctor as well as a sage, was a fierce advocate of moderation in everything that is consumed. Check out his chapter on health and see for yourself.

Did you know, for instance, that

...One should not eat until one's stomach is [very] full, but one should [only] eat until one's stomach is three-quarters full. Nor should one drink water during a meal, except a little mixed with wine, but once the food begins to digest one should what one needs to drink, but one should never drink too much, even when the food digests. One should nor eat unless one has checked oneself to make sure that one does not need to relieve oneself. One should not eat unless one has first relieved oneself, or until one's body gets warm, or unless one has worked at something else first. The general rule of the matter is that one should always answer one's body. In the morning, one should work until one's body gets warm, then one should wait until one's soul has settled, and then one may eat. It is good to wash in hot water after having worked, then wait a while, and then eat.

Who needs "Doctor Mom" when we can get the straight dope from "Dr. Rambam."

Mensch•Mark For Elul 6
This middah (the Jewish ethical value) adds loving reproof to the list of traits one needs to acquire Torah. Why would anyone love or value being admonished?
In the commentary Mili d'Avos it is explained:
"A mature person welcomes constructive criticism; he or she puts spiritual growth ahead of ego. One must always understand that whoever offers rebuke is merely a messenger of God sent to make us focus on our shortcomings. Thus, do not reject the criticism of humans for if you do so, you really detest the rebuke of God." (Pirkei Avos, ArtScroll p.420)
The key to this explanation is that one should welcome constructive criticism. This middah is not suggesting that one simply accept whatever is said of a critical nature. It is corrective rebukes concerning religious or moral shortcomings that are to be accepted and welcomed.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that a true disciple of Torah study loves right, duty, and fairness and will defend them wherever he or she may go. Since the goal of Torah study is the disciple's own personal moral and ethical perfection and improvement—the disciple will not be angry with someone who points out the disciple's errors or faults. In fact, the disciple should thank this individual, regarding him or her as a friend and not an enemy. (Chapters of the Fathers, translation and commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch, p.108-109)
Even the rabbis of the Talmud recognized how difficult it is to accept rebuke when one wrote, "I doubt whether in this age there is a single person who accepts rebuke." (Talmud, Arakhin)
That statement was made centuries ago, yet remains true today. It is easy to give criticism but very difficult to accept it.

Here are some tips on how to take criticism like a champ.
1. Stop Your First Reaction
At the first sign of criticism, before you do anything—stop. Really. Try not to react at all! You will have at least one second to stop your reaction. While one second seems insignificant in real life, it’s ample time for your brain to process a situation. And in that moment, you can halt a dismissive facial expression or reactive quip and remind yourself to stay calm.
2. Remember the Benefit of Getting Feedback
Now, you have a few seconds to quickly remind yourself of the benefits of receiving constructive criticism—namely, to improve your skills, work product, and relationships, and to help you meet the expectations that your manager and others have of you.
You should also try to curtail any reaction you’re having to the person who is delivering the feedback. It can be challenging to receive criticism from a co-worker, a peer, or someone that you don’t fully respect, but remember, accurate and constructive feedback comes even from flawed sources.
3. Listen for Understanding
You’ve avoided your typical reaction, your brain is working, and you’ve recalled all the benefits of feedback—high-five! Now, you’re ready to engage in a productive dialogue as your competent, thoughtful self (as opposed to your combative, Mean Girls self).
As the person shares feedback with you, listen closely. Allow the person to share his or her complete thoughts, without interruption. When he or she is done, repeat back what you heard. For example, “I hear you saying that you want me to provide more detailed weekly reports, is that right?” At this point, avoid analyzing or questioning the person’s assessment; instead, just focus on understanding his or her comments and perspective. And give the benefit of the doubt here—hey, it’s difficult to give feedback to another person. Recognize that the person giving you feedback may be nervous or may not express his or her ideas perfectly.
4. Say Thank You
Next (and this is a hard part, I know), look the person in the eyes and thank him or her for sharing feedback with you. Don’t gloss over this—be deliberate, and say, “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this with me.” Expressing appreciation doesn’t have to mean you’re agreeing with the assessment, but it does show that you’re acknowledging the effort your colleague took to evaluate you and share his or her thoughts.
5. Ask Questions to Deconstruct the Feedback
Now it’s time to process the feedback—you’ll probably want to get more clarity at this point and share your perspective. Avoid engaging in a debate; instead, ask questions to get to the root of the actual issues being raised and possible solutions for addressing them. For example, if a colleague tells you that you got a little heated in a meeting, here are a few ways to deconstruct the feedback:
Seek specific examples to help you understand the issue: “I was a little frustrated, but can you share when in the meeting you thought I got heated?”
Acknowledge the feedback that is not in dispute: “You're right that I did cut him off while he was talking, and I later apologized for that.”
Try to understand whether this is an isolated issue (e.g., a mistake you made once): “Have you noticed me getting heated in other meetings?”
Seek specific solutions to address the feedback: “I’d love to hear your ideas on how I might handle this differently in the future.”
6. Request Time to Follow Up
Hopefully, by this point in the conversation, you can agree on the issues that were raised. Once you articulate what you will do going forward, and thank the person again for the feedback, you can close the conversation and move on.
That said, if it’s a larger issue, or something presented by your boss, you may want to ask for a follow-up meeting to ask more questions and get agreement on next steps. And that’s OK—it’ll give you time to process the feedback, seek advice from others, and think about solutions.
Constructive criticism is often the only way we learn about our weaknesses—without it we can’t improve. When we’re defensive, instead of accepting and gracious, we run the risk of missing out on this important insight. Remember, feedback is not easy to give and it’s certainly not easy to receive, but it will help us now and in the long run.
 See also this article, lending a Jewish perspective.

Mensch•Mark For Elul 7

This text comes from chapter six in the book of Proverbs. The chapter warns the reader against becoming a lazybones and ending up impoverished. The biblical author cites the ant as a model of industry, one who prepares its food stores during the summer months of harvest, even though the ant has no leader or ruler telling her to do so. In contrast, the lazybones stays in bed and does not seek employment or provisions. The lazybones appears to be sleeping his/her life away. The commentator Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom) explained that with a minimum amount of sleep and relaxation one's periods of poverty and want will soon pass.
As a Jewish ethical value - middah, the concept of miyut shanah encourages an individual to maintain a minimum amount of sleep in order to be wakeful for the study of Torah. As Rabbi Reuven Bulka has written, "An individual who is excited about Torah opportunities will want to stretch the day. One way of doing it is by sleeping less." (As A Tree By the Waters, p.255)
A caution is included in the comment by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "In order to gain time for studies, one who is desirous of acquiring Torah wisdom must limit the hours of sleep to the minimum that is necessary for the preservation of health."
The story of a lazybones' attitude to study is found in the Midrash. "When a lazybones is told, 'Your teacher is in the city nearby; go and learn Torah from your teacher,' the lazybones replies, 'But I fear there will be a lion on the road.' When the lazybones is told, 'Your teacher is in your township, get up and go to your teacher,' the lazybones replies, 'I fear that the lion may be in the streets.' When the lazybones is told, 'Behold, your teacher is at home,' the lazybones replies, 'If I go to my teacher's home, I am certain to find the door bolted.' Then the lazybones is told, 'But the door is open.' At that point, when the lazybones is at a loss to reply, the lazybones says, 'Whether the door is open or bolted, I want to sleep a bit more.'" (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitzky 429:267)

MY TAKE: Borrowed Time or Jewish Time?
If you are interested in what Jewish law has to say about sleep, you can check the “Halachapedia” to find the whens, wheres, how much, what to wear, what sleeping positions and  who else can be in the room.

I see this mensch*mark not as a call for sleep deprivation but a recognition that every waking moment needs to be used wisely.  It’s a call against laziness and needless delay. 
Procrastination actually has deep Jewish roots.  There was Moses, who lingered on the mountain for forty days, and Esther, who delayed and fasted three days before meeting with the king. El Al used to stand for “Every landing always late.”  There is little that we know about the Messiah, except that S/he tarries.
So what is at the root of procrastination?  We call it Jewish Time.
According to the Urban Dictionary, Jewish Time means, “Not perfectly on time; possibly somewhat late, but no harm is done as a result. The implication is that there is no need to be exactly on time, and starting a little late is acceptable.  The term comes from Jewish culture, which is often relaxed about punctuality.”
Leo Baeck, the early 20th century German rabbi, always arrived on time to his lodge meetings, but often at the beginning it was just him and the treasurer.  One day he decided to bring to a vote at the very beginning of the meeting a proposal to provide lots of money for the publication of a new Bible translation by Martin Buber.  Only two of them there, and they voted to approve, and none of the others were ever late again.
You know what’s even later than Jewish time?  Rabbi time.  But I try to arrive on time for things when I can.  I don’t want to be referred to as “the late Rabbi Hammerman.”
But despite a history rich in procrastination, Judaism also understands that a minute wasted is a minute that is gone forever.  The Torah reminds us that, “the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”  When we waste time or delay, it doesn’t just affect us, it affects everybody else too. 
As Hillel said, “If not now, when.”  

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In Deuteronomy we read: "Do that which is right and good in the sight of God" (Deuteronomy 6:18). Rabbi Mark Washofsky explains that this requires us to act as a holy people in every aspect of our daily lives, in our contact with all our fellow human beings, in our social and economic pursuits and in our ritual activities. (Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice p.297)
This teaching is echoed in text that comes from the book of Isaiah. Judaism is a faith rooted in righteous good deeds. One cannot simply be a repository for Torah knowledge. The essence and purpose of study is action. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah used to say:
One whose wisdom exceeds his or her good deeds what is that person like? To a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down. But the one whose good deeds exceed his or her wisdom, what is that person like? To a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are many, even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Pirkei Avot 3:22)
Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah created another metaphor for those with knowledge and varying amounts of good deeds. He said that a person who has learned much Torah and has good deeds is like a horse which has reins. The person who has the first—much Torah, but not the second—good deeds, is like a horse without reins: it soon throws the rider over its head. (Avot de Rabbi Natan xxiv, 39a as found in The Rabbinic Anthology # 469)
In Jewish tradition, studying and doing go hand in hand. In the midrashic commentary Tanna Debe Eliyahu, we learn that an individual should first be a decent human being (in other words a mensch—Yiddish for a good decent individual) before seeking to acquire learning:
"Let a person do good deeds, then ask Adonai for knowledge of Torah: let a person first act as righteous and upright individuals act, and then let that person ask Adonai for wisdom: let a person first grasp the way of humility, and then ask Adonai for understanding."
MY TAKE: Deed and Creed
It’s often claimed that Jews are overwhelmingly secular, and if they bother to think about God at all, a large percentage are agnostic.  But that doesn’t mean that these Jews are not “religious.”  In fact, when we evaluate their religiosity on purely Jewish terms, rather than buying into the prevailing Christian notions of faith found here in the West, Jews come off as being astoundingly “religious” after all.
2012 Pew survey of Jews and Jewish Values illustrates my point perfectly.   At least 8-in-10 American Jews say that pursuing justice (84%) and caring for the widow and the orphan (80%) are somewhat or very important values that inform their political beliefs and activity.
·         More than 7-in-10 also say that tikkun olam, healing the world (72%), and welcoming the stranger (72%) are somewhat or very important values.
·         A majority (55%) say that seeing every person as made in the image of God is somewhat or very important in informing their political beliefs and activity.
In Judaism, doing is far more important than believing, or even learning – unless the learning LEADS to the doing, and doing primarily equates to ways in which we care for our neighbor.
Further, as I wrote in a column about the casting of an agnostic Jew in the role of Tevye,  “Agnosticism for a Jew is part of that ongoing dialogue with divinity that is Tevye's specialty. It is in fact the ultimate expression of spirituality, the religious quest as extreme sport.”
 The essence of Jewish belief is questioning; its spirituality is fueled by skepticism. The very term "Israel" means to struggle with God. The first Hebrew passage a Jewish child learns is the "Four Questions" recited at the Passover seder. Those who claim to be agnostic are actually more true to classic Judaic forms of religiosity than those who profess blind faith. Christians are nurtured on dogma; Jews are nurtured on doubt, which is a prime reason for Judaism's increasing popularity among other Americans in a time of uncertainty.
In essence, the only truly Jewish way to show love  for God is not to believe, but rather to express the loving in the doing, in the living of a just and righteous life.

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Many of the middot are concerned with striving for moderation in our lives. This middah is particularly focused on minimizing conversation. Our text suggests that too much talking can lead to transgressions while minimizing talking is considered a sign of intelligence.
The sages of the Talmud connect silence with wisdom. R. Hiyya says "It isn't necessary to tell a wise man to hold his tongue" (Derech Eretz Zuta 7.4) while R. Akiva says: "Silence is a protection for wisdom." (Pirkei Avot3:17) According to the Biblical commentator Bartenura, R. Akiva "is not talking about silence with respect to speaking of Torah because it has been written that one should speak words of Torah. And the silence being referred to is not about gossip, lashon hara (evil speech), or slander because the Torah contains laws about those transgressions. What this line about silence must be referring to is elective, permitted conversation that takes place between two people. A person should minimize that kind of talk as much as possible." Solomon in Proverbs said about these matters: "Even fools, if they keep silent, are deemed wise." (Freeman, Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.152)
However, the sages were not urging us to take vows of total silence. They understood that "there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak" (Eccl.3:7) and that both silence and speech are important in expressing the many aspects of wisdom.
The Talmudic rabbis have provided us with very clear guidelines regarding the importance of limiting what we say:
"The wise man does not speak before him that is greater than he in wisdom;
He does not break into his fellow's speech.
He is not in a rush to reply.
He asks what is relevant and replies to the point.
He speaks of first things first and of last things last.
Of what he has not heard he says, "I have not heard,"
And he acknowledges what is true.
And the opposites apply to the clod." (Pirkei Avot 5:9)

MY TAKE: Words Matter
Unfortunately, the Talmudic rabbis often associated idle chatter with women, but let’s set that aside as we look more deeply into the importance of choosing words carefully.  Words are vehicles of holiness, and not just for Jews.  Check out these two Buddhist quotes.
“Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.”
“He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense.”
The 19th century rabbinic sage known as the Chafetz Chayim (seeker of life) made the laws of holy speech his life’s work. You can read the laws involving speech and gossip here, a primer on how to raise our children to speak well of others, and a full translation of the Chafetz Chayim’s Guide to the Laws of Gossip on this website, arranged for daily study.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, spoke often about the profound significance of silence, as well as the need to speak up at the appropriate times in the face of evil.  He said:
“You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job was silent after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health. Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence.”
All that said, I do believe there is a time for small talk too.  It’s the glue that binds people together in common discovery.  It’s the unpeeling of the first layer into a person’s soul.  You can’t possibly get to know someone deeply without first exploring the superficialities that are common ground, safe Copy of menschmarks elul 9subjects like the weather and the latest movies. 
This mensch*mark doesn’t say “NO small talk,” after all.  We just need to be aware that at some point, we need to recall that time’s a wastin’ and there is important work to do.

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This text, taken from the Talmud, illustrates the importance that Judaism places on moderation in virtually all aspects of our lives.
The rabbis of the Talmud often expressed their concerns that people would get so involved in conducting their businesses that they would neglect the study of Torah. R. Meir cautioned,
"Give little time to business, and occupy yourself assiduously with Torah. Be lowly in spirit before all men. If you have once been remiss in study of Torah, soon you will find many other occasions to be remiss in studying. But if you have toiled (assiduously) at the study of Torah, God has abundant reward to give you." (Avot 4:9-10)
While they deemed very little to be more valuable than study, the rabbis knew that a certain amount of work was necessary in order to make learning possible.
"Rava said to the rabbis: Don't come to me to study during the month of Nisan [harvest time] or the month of Tishrei [when grapes and olives are ready for pressing]. Do your work then so you won't be threatened by poverty." (Jewish Moral Virtues, p.82)
In fact, what they counseled was moderation—a middle course. R. Judah illustrated this advice by the following parable:
"There is a highway that runs between two paths, one of fire and the other of snow. If a person walks too close to the fire, this person will be scorched by the flames; if too close to the snow, this person will be bitten by the cold. What is the person to do? This person is to walk in the middle, taking care not to be scorched by the heat nor bitten by the cold." (Avot de Rabbi Natan 28)
In allocating our energy, we are continually making decisions about the relative importance of each choice that we make. While making money is a highly regarded Jewish goal, it is only one of many. Taking the time to study and to learn about the paths that the Torah can lead us to can help us reach other worthy goals. 
One way to combine business and Torah is to do business according to the values of Torah.  Here is an abridged version of eight basic principles of Jewish business ethics, as laid out by Rabbi David Golinkin:
  1. First we shall deal with the laws of accurate weights and measures. We are admonished in the book of Vayikra (19:35-36): "You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah, and an honest hin ".

    The Mishnah rules (Bava Batra 5:10 = 88a) that

    The wholesaler must clean out his measures once every thirty days and the householder once every twelve months... The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.

    Throughout the Talmudic period, the rabbis appointed agronomoi - a Greek word for market commissioners - whose job it was to inspect measures and weights and to fix prices for basic commodities (Bava Batra 89a). The agronomoi eventually disappeared, but the ideal was still there as late as the nineteenth century when Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: "As the rabbi must inspect periodically the slaughtering knives of the shochtim in town to see that they have no defect, so must he go from store to store to inspect the weights and measures of the storekeepers" (Dov Katz, Tenuat Hamussar, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 281).

    Today, these laws are just as applicable as they were in biblical times. Wholesalers and retailers must check their scales and cash registers on a regular basis, not just because civil law demands it, but also because Jewish law requires it. 

  1. The secondcategory of Jewish business law is called ona'at mamon or monetary deception. It is based on a verse in the book of Vayikra (25:14): "When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another".
This verse clearly refers to monetary deception. The rabbis of the Talmud used it as a basis for a series of specific laws on the subject (Bava Metzia 49b and 50b; Rambam, Mekhira, Chapter 12). They ruled that if the price charged was more than one sixth above the accepted price, the sale is null and void and the seller must return the buyer's money. If it was exactly one sixth more, the transaction is valid, but the seller must return the amount overcharged. If it was less than a sixth, the transaction is valid and no money need be returned. Needless to say, these laws are still very relevant today. It is permissible for a Jew to make a fair profit; it is not permissible to price gouge and rob the customer blind. Such behavior is ona'at mamon or monetary deception.

  1. The third category we shall discuss is related to the second. It is called ona'at devarim or verbal deception. It is based on another verse in the same chapter of Vayikra (25:17): "Do not deceive one another, but fear your God, for I the Lord am your God." Since the other verse had explicitly mentioned monetary deception, the rabbis concluded that this verse refers to verbal deception. And thus we learn in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4:10 = 58b and parallels): "Just as there is deception in buying and selling, there is deception in words. A person should not say to a merchant: 'How much does this cost?' if he has no intention of buying it".

    But why not? What's wrong with comparison shopping? Nothing! But in this case he is not asking in order to compare prices. He is asking out of idle curiosity, which gives the merchant false hopes. Therefore the mishnah says "he has no intention of buying it" and a parallel beraita (Bava Metzia 58b) states that he doesn't even have any money.

    As for our own day, once again the law of ona'at devarim is very applicable. Let us say that Reuven goes into a warehouse outlet in order to buy a computer, but he wants a demonstration before he spends $1000. The warehouse outlet is not equipped for demonstrations. The salesman says to Reuven: "go to the IBM showroom down the block and ask for a demonstration, then come back here and buy the computer at our low low price". Reuven complies and gets a free demonstration plus a discount.

    In this case, Reuven has committed ona'at devarim - verbal deception. When Reuven asks for the demonstration at the IBM store, he has absolutely no intention of purchasing the computer there. He merely wants a free demonstration. The IBM salesman is being deceived. He either loses a real customer while waiting on Reuven, or feels badly when Reuven walks out on him after a half-hour demonstration. This is ona'at devarim (cf. Tucker pp. 261-262 and Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, pp. 8-9). 

  1. The fourth category of Jewish business law is called gneivat da'at, which literally means "stealing a person's mind". We would call it false packaging or false labeling. Interestingly enough, it is not based on a specific verse from the Bible, but was derived by the Sages from the laws of theft and the laws of honesty. We learn in the Mekhilta (D'nezikin, Chap. 13, ed. Lauterbach, Vol. 3, p. 105): "There are seven kinds of thieves: the first is he who steals the mind of his neighbor.".

    The Talmud gives a number of specific examples of such false packaging or false labeling.
Our Sages have taught: one should not sell a sandal made from the leather of an animal that died of disease as if it was made from the leather of an animal that was slaughtered, because he is misleading the customer" (Hullin 94a).
One should not sift the beans at the top of the bushel because he is "deceiving the eye" by making the customer think that the entire bushel has been sifted. It is forbidden to paint animals or utensils in order to improve their appearance or cover up their defects (Bava Metzia 60a-b).

We are all familiar with these kinds of false packaging. A wholesaler takes an inferior brand of shirt and puts on Pierre Cardin labels. You buy a box of perfect-looking tomatoes or strawberries, only to discover upon opening the box at home that they were packaged with the bad spots facing down. And we all know how used cars are touched up and polished for the sole purpose of overcharging the customer. These are all good examples of gneivat da'at, clearly forbidden by Jewish law.5) The next category we shall discuss is called "putting a stumbling block before the blind". We would call it giving someone a bum steer. This law is based on Vayikra Chapter 19 (v. 14): "You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord". Our Sages interpreted this verse in a very broad fashion (Sifra ad. Loc.):
"You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind" - before someone who is blind in that particular matter. don't say to your neighbor 'sell your field and buy a donkey', when your whole purpose is to deceive him and buy his field. And if you claim 'But I gave him good advice!' [Remember,] this is something which is hidden in the heart, [and therefore] the end of the verse says: "but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord".
Once again, the law of the stumbling block can be readily applied to modern situations: a real estate agent should not dupe a young couple into buying a home with structural faults simply in order to make a fast buck. A stockbroker should not sell his client a bad investment just to collect the commission. A salesman should not convince his customer to buy an expensive item he really has no use for. These are all considered "a stumbling block before the blind" about which we are warned "and you shall fear your God, I am the Lord."

  1. Considering the scope of Jewish business law, it is not surprising that it also has a clear opinion regarding tax evasion. 1800 years ago the Amora Shmuel established the legal principle that in civil matters dina d'malkhuta dina - "the law of the land is the law" (Bava Kama 113a and parallels). In its discussion of this principle, the Talmud specifically includes taxation as a secular law that must be followed. This, for example, is the way Maimonides summarizes this law (Gezeilah 5:11 and cf. Hoshen Mishpat 369:6):

    but a tax fixed by the king of 33% or 25% or any fixed sum. a person who avoids paying such a tax is a transgressor because he is stealing the king's portion, regardless of whether the king is Jewish or not.

    So we see, Jewish law requires us to pay our taxes in a scrupulous fashion because in civil matters "the law of the land is the law".

  1. In addition to all the laws we have mentioned, the halakhah contains a number of ethical principles which go one step beyond what we would normally expect a businessman to do. Here are two examples among many:

    A. The first principle is called "lifnim mishurat hadin", which means "beyond the letter of the law". Here is one classic case. According to Jewish law, a purchase has not been concluded until the buyer has physically "lifted up" the item being bought (Bava Metzia 4:2 = 44a). In light of this fact, the following story is quite surprising:

    It happened that Rav Safra had some wine for sale, and a potential buyer came to him while he was reciting the Shema. The customer said "Sell me this wine for such and such a price". Rav Safra did not answer [so as not to interrupt the Shema]. Assuming that he was unwilling to settle for the price offered, the customer added to his original offer, and said, "Sell me this wine for such and such a price". Rav Safra still did not answer. [Presumably, this cycle was repeated, with ever-escalating prices.] Upon finishing the Shema, Rav Safra said to him: "From the time you made your first offer, I had resolved in my mind to sell it to you. Therefore I may take no greater amount [than your first bid]". (Sheiltot Vayehi, No. 38, ed. Mirsky, Vol. 2, p. 252 and parallels).

    The Sheiltot, an early code of Jewish law, went so far as to make Rav Safra's behavior a halakhic norm for all Jews. It rules:

    There is no question if he said 'I will sell you this', but even if he merely resolved in his mind to sell something [at a particular price], even if he did not articulate it, he should not go back on that resolution.

    This decision was not included in later codes of Jewish law, yet the concept of "lifnim mishurat hadin" remained an ideal, which Jews strive to emulate until today.

    Indeed, Rav Safra's behavior was repeated by a German Jew some 1600 years later.

    The firm of Beer, Sondheimer and Company is reported to have owed its tremendous expansion to the following fact. On a Friday in 1870, just before the Franco-German War broke out, Mr. Beer left his office for the Sabbath rest. He had large holdings in copper and other metals necessary for the waging of war. The porter received a number of telegrams, which he presented on Sunday morning to his employer. They came from the War Ministry and offered to buy all metals in the possession of Mr. Beer; each successive wire increased the price. When Mr. Beer, on Sunday, went through these messages, he informed the War Department that he would have accepted the first offer and that he had failed to answer it because it was the Sabbath. He was, therefore, prepared to let the government have all his merchandise at the rate originally suggested to him. The War Ministry was so impressed by this example of living Judaism that they made the firm its main supplier and thus established its global significance. (Jung in Kellner, p. 341).

    B. The second ethical principle is taken from the biblical verse (Bemidbar 32:22): "V'heyitem nekiyim meihashem umeiyisrael" - "And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel". This principal dictates that those in a position of trust must be above suspicion. Thus, in Talmudic times, charity collectors were not permitted to exchange copper coins which they had collected, for their own silver coins, because this might give the impression of impropriety. Therefore, they were only allowed to exchange the coins with outsiders (Bava Batra 8b and parallels). Similarly, when surplus food accumulated in the soup kitchen, the overseers could not buy the food themselves but had to sell it to others (ibid.).

    This principle of "above suspicion" finds easy application in the modern business setting. A manager or a treasurer of a company can frequently secure reimbursement of business expenses without submitting receipts. The principle of "v'heyitem nekiyim", however, requires him to submit the appropriate documentation in order to avoid suspicion of embezzlement (Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, pp. 16-17). 

  1. The last two principles I shall mention are especially relevant to Jews living in a non-Jewish society. They apply not only to business ethics but to all of our relations with our non-Jewish neighbors. They are called Kiddush Hashem, or the sanctification of God's name, and Hillul Hashem or the desecration of God's name. They stem from a verse in Vayikra (22:32): "You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel - I am the Lord who sanctifies you". This verse means that any good or holy act that a Jew does, sanctifies God's name in the eyes of his Jewish and gentile neighbors, while any bad or profane act that a Jew does, desecrates God's name in the eyes of the public. When a Jew cheats on his taxes, the tax official does not say "Max Goldberg is a cheat", but rather "Jews are thieves, what an unethical religion". When a Jewish retailer overcharges, the customer does not say "Joe Schwartz is a thief", but rather "Jews are thieves, what an unjust God".
As we learn in the midrash (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Chap. 26, p. 140, transl. by Braude and Kapstein, p. 346):
When a man is not loving in his business dealings, even if he learns Torah and studies Mishnah, people who see him say: "woe to so-and-so who has studied Torah! ." Thus, through such a man, is the name of Heaven desecrated.
Conversely, when a Jew is scrupulously honest, it not only reflects well on him; it reflects well on the entire Jewish people and on God. As we learn in the classic story about Shimon ben Shetah (Yerushalmi Bava Batra 2:5, fol. 8c):
Shimon ben Shetah was in the flax trade. His students said to him: 'retire from the flax trade and we will buy you a donkey and you won't have to work so hard'. They bought a donkey for him from a non-Jewish trader. As it turned out, a precious gem was hanging from its neck. They came to him and said: 'from now on you won't have to work any more!' He replied: 'why not?' They explained: 'we bought you a donkey from a non-Jewish trader and we found a precious gem hanging from its neck'. Shimon said: 'And did its master know?' They replied: 'no'. He said: 'go and return it. do you think I am a barbarian?! I want to hear the non-Jew say "blessed be the God of the Jews" more than I want all the material rewards of this world!'
I would like to conclude with the words of a hassidic rabbi, Rav Nachman of Kossover.
He taught that we should always have the Lord in our thoughts. He was asked: 'Can we think of the Lord when we are engaged in buying and selling?' 'Surely we can,' answered the Rabbi. 'If we are able to think of business when we are praying, we should be able to think of praying when we are doing business' (Louis Newman, The Hasidic Anthology, p. 343).
This, then, is our choice as Jews. We can choose to emulate the CEO of Enron or Rav Safra of Babylon; the CEO of Andersen or Shimon ben Shetah of Jerusalem. The choice is ours.

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This text is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to Kohelet, the son of David. In it we are given instructions as to how to derive the most out of life. We are told that it is the heart that has the power to lead us in the right direction so that we might enjoy our lives.

The rabbis tell us that while it is important to have an understanding heart (Middah Binat Ha-Lev), it is not enough. We must also have a perceptive heart. When we are confronted with difficult decisions we respond both intellectually and emotionally. We use both our minds and our hearts but it is the perceptive heart, the heart that helps us apply the lessons we have learned from experience to our decision-making that makes the difference.

The Talmud records an argument over the meaning of the question, "But wisdom, where shall it be found? (Job 28:12) R. Eliezer said: In the head. But R.Joshua said: In the heart". 

(Midrash Prov.) Among the sages and scholars, wisdom traditionally meant common sense (sechel) and good judgment in everyday matters-knowing, for example, when to speak and when not to, when to act and when not to (Voices of Wisdom). No single set of rules can tell us what we should do in every circumstance or how to navigate our way through new situations. All we can do is to consult that inner good sense we have been cultivating in our hearts through study and deeds, and hope that it will enable us to make good decisions.

Throughout Jewish history and folklore, the rabbis have reasoned their way around difficult questions through the use of stories. Of all the elements in Jewish folklore, the parable is probably the most revered. The Hebrew name for it is mashal and it includes stories, fables and brief allegories. The parable is not just an ingenious and entertaining story. It is subtle and imaginative, containing both wisdom and common-sense understanding of both the heights and limitations of the human being. The rabbis of the Talmud loved to use parables to teach lessons. It is these lessons that help us develop a perceptive heart.

An example of a parable is the story of the man who was carrying a heavy load of wood on his shoulders. When he grew weary he let the bundle down and cried bitterly, "O Death, come and take me."

Immediately, the Angel of Death appeared and asked, "Why do you call me?"
Frightened, the man replied, "Please help me place the load back on my shoulders." (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore)

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz reminds us that foolish "sages", more naïve than wise, populate the literature of every age and society. Our 19th century Eastern European ancestors gave us "The Wise Men of Chelm" as our very own archetypical fools. According to one Chelm story, when God created humans God wanted to distribute the wise and foolish souls evenly across the earth. While flying over Poland, the bag got caught on a mountain peak, and many of the souls drifted down to Chelm, a town in Poland. Many people, in fact, complained that Chelm got more than its share of foolish souls. A wonderful source of both humor and wisdom, the Chelm stories help us realize just how closely wisdom and foolishness are connected. (In fact, the Hebrew word for foolishness is sechel, spelled samech-kuf-lamed, which has an identical etymology to the Hebrew word for wisdom, sechel spelled sin-kuf-lamed). These stories remind us that there is a little foolishness in every wise person and a little wisdom in every fool.

Here is an example of Chelm wisdom:

The people of Chelm were worriers. So they called a meeting to do something about the problem of worry. A motion was duly made and seconded to the effect that Yossel, the cobbler, be retained by the community as a whole, to do its worrying, and that his fee be one ruble per week. The motion was about to carry, all speeches having been for the affirmative, when one sage asked the fatal question: "If Yossel earned a ruble a week, what would he have to worry about?" (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore)
Toyota, Auschwitz and Chelm (Jewish Week, 2010)
Tomorrow, I’ll be joining the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage from Poland to Israel.
The experience of the Holocaust stands alone in Jewish history, a godless counterpoint to all things sacred. Alongside the majestic peaks of Sinai and Zion, our view now includes this man-mademountain of children’s shoes, empty luggage and echoing shrieks, a clump of human refuse that dwarfs everything around it, taller than Sinai, more imposing than Zion, more insurmountable than Everest.

As I prepare to face the enormity of Auschwitz for the first time, it occurs to me that since the Shoah, rabbis have become like Toyota salesmen. What, after all, are we selling, but a product once revered, but now proven to be a grand farce. The myth has been summarily detonated, the brand exposed. Just as “Made in Japan” now has reverted to its original derogatory, postwar meaning (cheap, fake, laughable), “Made at Sinai” now feels like its “Made in Japan.”

Oh, we rabbis have been trained well. We’ve developed numerous diversionary strategies to refocus the question (“Where was God? Well, where was MAN?”) or simply to foster a perpetual state of denial (“We can’t know God’s ways”). Some have chosen to relinquish some of God’s omnipotence, others go much farther. But for the most part, we focus on beating home the message that Judaism still has an important function to serve, even if there’s a gaping hole under the hood. Some deny that the hole exists, clinging naively to pre-Auschwitz fantasies. It is astonishing how many otherwise intelligent, modern, skeptical Jews buy this theological nonsense, slickly packaged by various ultra-Orthodox groups. But most rabbis, while not denying the seriousness of the challenge, prefer to set the questions aside, suggesting that maybe the next generation will solve the problem.

Over the decades, there have been brilliant attempts to deal with this dilemma. Some, like Richard Rubenstein’s existentialist “After Auschwitz,” have been powerfully honest. Such radical theologies proliferated in the ‘60s, during the so called “Death of God” era. Since then, God has survived quite nicely, thank you, but those bold theologies have yellowed with age. The question of Auschwitz remains as vivid as ever, but after 65 years, we seem to be tiring of asking it.

It makes me wonder: If Toyotas never get fixed, but for 65 years company propagandists spew forth the message that the cars are really safe, will we start believing in them again? Will the producers just wear us down until we tire of asking the questions? That strategy seems to have worked with other products. Some people actually think that cable news is really news. Some Jews believe that the same God who was silent in Auschwitz actually caused Iraqi Scuds to miss their targets in TelAviv. The madness has worn us down.

Perhaps the antidote to such madness is a different kind of madness. The day after we march on Auschwitz, my group will stop off on the way to Warsaw in a quaint town called Chelm, for Jews the eternal capital of absurdity. Chelmites are mythical Jews from a real town, known for their propensity to take logic to its bizarre extreme.

Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain."Quick," said one. "Open your umbrella.""It won't help," said his friend. "My umbrella is full of holes.""Then why did you bring it?""I didn't think it would rain!"

A New York based Klezmer group named Golem wrote a song recently about a Chelmite who leaves on a journey to Warsaw, gets lost and ends up back in Chelm. "He's so stupid that he thinks he's actually in Warsaw,” bandleader Annette Ezekiel told SPIN.com. “The moral is any place can be any place else -- it doesn't matter where you are."

But for me, it will matter a lot. I’ll be coming from Auschwitz, the darkest place in Jewish history, and then I’ll be staying over in Chelm, the funniest. Chelm will be the place where I wash my hands after visiting this countrywide cemetery, a way station before I head to Jerusalem for the second part of the March.

Two points about Chelm. First, laughter provided a great outlet for those suffering from hunger, poverty and hatred, as the Jews of Poland did for so long. But rather than laugh at real people, the Jewish genius invented a mythical community to laugh at. Not only is that practical (as opposed to laughing at Poles, who might respond by killing you), it is far more ethical to make fun of fake people than real people.

Second, Chelm might hold the key to our getting beyond the theological quandaries of our age. If the commanding voice of Auschwitz has muffled the God of Sinai for the time being, maybe we need to pay more attention to the God of Chelm. The Yiddish aphorism, “Man plans, God laughs,” just might be the most apt theological response to an age of absurdity. It’s not that God is laughing at us, simply that God has taught us that laughter is the only way one can respond to a world of unfathomable evil and unspeakable tragedy, while clinging to life and dignity.

Maintaining some semblance of sanity requires a modicum of insanity, an art we’ve been perfecting for centuries, ever since we figured out how a poor peasant living in rags could be transformed into royalty through the simple act of lighting candles, drinking wine and blessing hallah on a Friday night. If that isn’t a little taste of madness, what is? The first Jewish kid, whose life was replete with tragedy, was nonetheless named laughter (Isaac). We’ve been re-living Isaac’s story ever since.

Would you buy a used Toyota from this God? Perhaps not. But at least the divine gift of laughter gives us the courage to stare directly into that gaping hole in the chassis and laugh at the absurdity of it all, while gasping in amazement that, despite everything, we are alive.

Mensch•Mark For Elul 12

This text illustrates the Jewish attitude toward humility and pride. Excessive pride is destructive; humility is the preferred path. There are several instances in the biblical text where we are counseled to be humble and to guard against pride. The rewards of anavah-humility-are "awe of Adonai, wealth, honor and life." (Proverbs 22:4) "Recognizing one's own insignificance leads a person to humility and fear (awe) of God. In turn, God will reward such an individual with success." (The Stone Edition of the Tanach p.1599)

According to the Machzor Vitry, humility allows one to ask questions when one does not understand; conceit and arrogance are impediments to the acquisition of Torah. As the commentator interprets in the ArtScroll Pirke Avos"One who overestimates one's own intellectual abilities is liable to denigrate the dignity and sanctity of the Torah and its teachers and bearers, thus blocking his or her own path towards wisdom. Hence, awe and reverence born of humility will protect one from missteps and errors in practical observance and moral judgment." (pp.413-414)

If an individual is convinced of the depth of his or her own abilities and intelligence there is very little room for learning and growth. Humility gives us that space within ourselves for personal development.

Rav Abraham Issac Kook taught that humility should lead to joy, courage, and inner dignity.

The observance of anavah should not lead one to belittle oneself. Even in the quest for humility, there needs to be a balance with self-esteem and confidence.

A Hasidic teaching illustrates this balance. Rabbi Bunim taught:  Every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "I am but dust and ashes." When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "For my sake was the world created." When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it. We are each the joining of two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of Adonai. (Tales of The Hasidim Later Masters, Martin Buber, p.249-50)

Mensch•Mark For Elul 13
This text illustrates the Jewish attitude toward humility and pride. Excessive pride is destructive; humility is the preferred path. There are several instances in the biblical text where we are counseled to be humble and to guard against pride. The rewards of anavah—humility—are "awe of Adonai, wealth, honor and life." (Proverbs 22:4) "Recognizing one's own insignificance leads a person to humility and fear (awe) of God. In turn, God will reward such an individual with success." (The Stone Edition of the Tanach p.1599)

According to the Machzor Vitry, humility allows one to ask questions when one does not understand; conceit and arrogance are impediments to the acquisition of Torah. As the commentator interprets in the ArtScroll Pirke Avos,

"One who overestimates one's own intellectual abilities is liable to denigrate the dignity and sanctity of the Torah and its teachers and bearers, thus blocking his or her own path towards wisdom. Hence, awe and reverence born of humility will protect one from missteps and errors in practical observance and moral judgment." (pp.413-414)

If an individual is convinced of the depth of his or her own abilities and intelligence there is very little room for learning and growth. Humility gives us that space within ourselves for personal development.

Rav Abraham Issac Kook taught that humility should lead to joy, courage, and inner dignity.
The observance of anavah should not lead one to belittle oneself. Even in the quest for 

Mensch•Mark For Elul 14

According to one Biblical commentator, this text, taken from the Book of Psalms, suggests that one should always study Torah first, and then take the time to meditate (or dwell) upon it. "For Scripture says, "His delight is in the Torah of the Lord" (Ps.1:2) and only after that, "And in God's law he meditates."

In Sefer Haggadah (Tanhuma Yitro 15), we are also reminded of the importance of studying with slow, unhurried reflection. We are told that the Torah teaches: if you are a person of learning, do not be so arrogant as to say something in front of an assembly before you have made the matter clear to yourself by going over it two or three times. In fact, an individual is not allowed to read a portion of Scripture in public unless that person has made its words thoroughly clear by going over them two or three times.

In the "Commentary on Pirkei Avos" (page 415), we are cautioned never to rush to reply to questions; rather one should spend time deliberating and carefully analyzing a question before replying. This prevents jumping to premature conclusions. In addition, to derive the most from studying Torah, it suggests that one must have a calm environment.

The Talmudic rabbis asked what purpose was served by the empty spaces that occur from time to time in the written text of Scripture. They considered the following explanation: "To give Moses time to reflect between one passage and the next, between one subject and the next. They went on to say that "If he who hears words from the mouth of the Holy One and himself speaks with God requires reflection between one passage and the next, between one subject and the next, how much more is reflection required by one who is a mere commoner taught by another commoner." (Sif. Lev. 1:1).
-- Marlene Myerson

Mensch•Mark For Elul 15

"Then I bowed and prostrated myself to Adonai and blessed Adonai, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on a true path to get the daughter of my master's brother for his son." (Genesis 24:48)

In this week's text, Eliezer is speaking about his good fortune in finding the right wife for Isaac, the son of his master Abraham. Being set on the true path, in this case by God, led to Eliezer's success.

The text reflects the intent of this Jewish value, middah, "to set others on the path of truth." Whether physically or intellectually, we can play a role in the success of our fellow human beings. Normally one thinks of truth as not lying or not being deceitful. But the word 'true' can also mean 'correct' or 'appropriate'.

Midrash Samuel, commenting on this middah, explains,
"When a colleague makes a mistake in debate, the true Torah scholar derives no pleasure. Instead, he tactfully corrects his colleague and attempts to focus him or her on the truth. (Pirkei Avos: Ethics of the FathersArt Scroll p. 422)

From this we learn not only that a Torah scholar corrects his or her colleague, but also does so in a diplomatic way. This preserves that person's dignity and allows them to be open to accepting the correction.

There is or at least should be a real give and take when it comes to this middah, one corrects and one gets corrected. Midrash Samuel reminds us that the one doing the correcting is to be tactful. Solomon ibn Gabirol addresses his comment to the one receiving the correction, "Be not ashamed to accept the truth from wherever it comes even from one less than you." (Mivhar Hapeninim) Ibn Gabirol is teaching us to be open minded, reminding us that we can learn from all people, regardless of status.

We now know how 'to set others on the path of truth' and how one is to accept that direction. This leads to the question 'why be a part of this process?' Essentially, why on the one hand should an individual set others on the path of truth and on the other why accept someone's correction? There is a Jewish dictum which states, Kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zehall Israel is responsible for one another. Judaism does not let us off the hook. We are here to help each other, whether it is financial, physical or intellectual and we are here to accept help from others.

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