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.

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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)

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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 

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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

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"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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"And it came to pass that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul?. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul." (1 Samuel: 18:1; 18:3)

The friendship of Jonathan and David as described in the First Book of Samuel is perhaps one of the most poignant examples in the Tanach of the power of human relationships. Their friendship is held up as the ideal-a friendship in which neither made demands on the other, yet each gave unstintingly of himself.

In Pirkei Avot, "cleaving to friends" (dibbuk chaverim) is listed among the 48 virtues (middot) that one needs in order to acquire Torah. At first it may seem strange that the rabbis included friendship among such virtues as fear, awe, and humility. Yet there are many examples in Jewish texts of the importance placed on friendship.

Emunas Shmuel translates this week's middah as "careful choice of friends." It suggests that in order to successfully study and internalize Torah, one must surround oneself with friends of good character and intellectual clarity, who are both good-hearted and perform good deeds.
Our Sages taught the importance of friendship with the following words: "Either friendship or death." (Taanis 23a)They insisted that one must exert great effort in cultivating a friendship, even to the extent of giving up personal preferences to those of one's friend. In this way, each of the two friends will seek to please the other, and together they will build common goals and interests.

The Talmud suggests that "a good friend serves three functions: The first is as a catalyst for increased success at Torah study. The second is to insure one's mitzvah fulfillment, for good friends feel free to offer constructive criticism to one another. The third function is to provide good advice in all areas and to act as a confidant who does not reveal secrets to others. In fact, one who breaches his friend's trust will lose him as a friend, and justifiably so."(Midrash Shmuel) R. Yonah adds that a good friend also will gloss over any injustice committed by the other, thus endearing them to each other.

Jews of medieval times sought to guide their children by writing ethical wills. In these documents, the authors shared their wisdom with those who would follow, teaching how Jews ought to behave. From Hebrew Ethical Wills, we read: "Raise not your hand against your neighbor. Never be weary of making friends; consider a single enemy as one too many. If you have a faithful friend, hold fast to him. Let him not go, for he is a precious possession." (Asher b. Yehiel, 13th century Germany and Spain)

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"Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah." (Avot 1:12)

Aaron, the brother of Moses, was considered an exemplar of a peacemaker among his people. It is told that when Aaron saw two people at odds with each other, he would approach each one separately, without the other one's knowledge, and say,"Why are you fighting with your friend? He begged me to approach you and arrange a reconciliation." With this tactic, Aaron was able to bring about peace between the two people. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p. 38)

Similarly, if a man and his wife were experiencing marital problems, Aaron would even allow himself to be degraded in order to restore harmony between them. In gratitude, couples whose marriages he had strengthened would often name their next son after him. At Aaron's funeral, there were said to be eighty thousand other "Aarons" that walked behind his casket. (Kallah Rabbasi 3)

The concept of peace (shalom) can refer to intra-personal, interpersonal, and international relationships. Without inner peace, a person is anxious, confused, and hurting. Without communal peace, each person is isolated, separate, and detached. Without global peace, our world will remain in pieces, fractious and fractured. The need for a unified and harmonious whole exists in a person, in a family, in a people, and in all peoples.Shalom is still an unrealized ideal.

Language itself hints at the centrality of peace in Jewish tradition. The word shalom carries a wealth of positive meanings. Referring not only to the absence of war, shalom also means "safety," "wholeness," "completion," "fulfillment," "prosperity,",and "peace of mind and heart.".In English, "peace" is often understood to be the absence of something—a lack of conflict. In Hebrew, shalom is understood to be the presence of something—a sense of well-being and fulfillment. (Artson, It's a Mitzvah, p. 121)

How can Ma'amido al HaShalom (setting others on the path of peace) lead to becoming a Torah-wise person? In a commentary on this middah, it is suggested that by being flexible and ready to compromise when possible, and legitimate, the Torah scholar promotes peace among people (Midrash Shmuel) and increases peace in the world. (Berachos 64a)

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"Who studies gladly for a single hour will learn vastly more than one who studies glumly for hours on end." (Hayyim of Valozhin, a Lithuanian talmudist of the 18th century)

One of the 48 qualities needed to acquire Torah is the ability to concentrate on one's studies. Concentration is focusing one's undivided attention for a particular purpose.

As mentioned in the translation, there are several different interpretations of this middah. In Midrash Samuel, the commentator understands this middah to mean "thinking deliberately in one's study." This means that the learner studies in a composed and steady way rather than quickly and haphazardly. The commentary Tiferes Yisrael characterizes the learner in this middah as one who thoroughly prepares before giving a Torah lecture or presentation. The competent scholar prepares not only content but also the style of presentation. The commentary Sfas Emes translates this middah as, "ne whose heart becomes composed by Torah study." This describes the individual who, though beset by problems, is able to subdue them by deep, concentrated Torah study. The Chofetz Chaim understood this middah to say, "one's heart derives the lessons of one's learning." Simply put, the learner internalizes the lessons of the Torah and lives his/her life completely by them. ( Pirkei Avos Ethics of the Fathers, p.422)
Reuven Bulka taught the following interpretation of this middah,
"One may be involved with the destiny of others, but is still important to concentrate on Torah by being studious in learning, by recognizing that even though one has reached the point of being able to teach others, nevertheless, it is still important to continue being a student oneself." (As A Tree by the Waters, p.258)

In each of these instances, the commentator is describing the way in which the learner approaches Torah, the intent with which the learner studies and how that study manifests itself in the learner. All of these take concentration and focus which is reflected in this text: "Who studies gladly for a single hour will learn vastly more than one who studies glumly for hours on end." In other words, concentrated learning for one hour is more effective than several hours of uninspired learning.

The Talmud says, "If you see a student who finds it as hard as iron to study, it is because his/her studies are without system." (Ta'anit) We affect our own ability to concentrate, to focus and to learn. There are all sorts of ways to create your own system of study. Some learners thrive in study groups, others need to read in isolation, some learners take notes or make outlines. Some learn best by hearing a lecture or presentation others by a hands-on experience. Each of us as a learner is unique and we each must find our own way to concentrate and learn. 

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"Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: What is implied by the verse 'Iron sharpens iron' (Proverbs 27:17) It tells you that just as one piece of iron sharpens another, so two scholars sharpen each other's mind by discussion of the Law." (Sefer Ha Aggadah - Legends of the Jews, 428:260)


Intense debate and discussion have a long history in Jewish tradition. As early as the book of Genesis we read of Abraham debating with God the destiny of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was through debate that Abraham learns that there are no righteous people in these cities and therefore they do not merit being saved.

The middah of pilpul hatalmidim teaches two values: the value of debate and the value of learning with others.

Debate sharpens one's mind and makes the subject under discussion clearer. As the Text asserts, "iron sharpens iron." Spirited and learned discussion elevates one's thinking. It pushes one to higher realms of learning, thinking, and understanding.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught,

"Isolation is incompatible with Jewish knowledge; it is only by association with living sages, in close communion with associates, and by the clarity of thought and judgment that can be attained by teaching it to disciples that the knowledge of Torah can be nurtured and allowed to flourish." (Chapters of the Fathers, Hirsch p.105)

Simply put, one must combine a relationship with sages, a closeness with colleagues, and sharp discussion with students in order to tap all the resources of Torah knowledge. (Pirkei Avos, ArtScroll, p. 415)

Rabbah bar Bar Hanah said:
"Why are words of Torah likened to fire, as in the verse, 'Is not My word like fire? says Adonai' (Jeremiah 23:29) To teach you that just as fire does not ignite itself, so words of Torah do not abide in one who studies alone."

Simply put, we are to be samayach b'chelko—satisfied with our portion from the effort we expend in life whether it is in acquisition of material possessions or acquisition of skills and knowledge not the number of possessions we have or the level of learning we achieve. It is in the doing, not the acquiring, that satisfaction and happiness are to come.

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"Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a also found in Pirkei Avot 4:1)

Being content with one's portion is an age-old Jewish concern. In the book of Proverbs, we read, "A joyful heart makes a cheerful face; A sad heart makes a despondent mood. All the days of a poor person are wretched, but contentment is a feast without end." (Proverbs 15:13 and 15)
To be truly joyful with one's lot in life is wise advice. It is a wonderful way to live, but how easy is it to adopt this attitude? How many of us are truly satisfied with our portion? How do we recognize our own good fortune? All around us the world advertises the goods and services we all seem to "need." Our world is characterized by material acquisition, and to paraphrase a popular game show "who 'wouldn't' want to be a millionaire?

This obsession with our "needs" is not just a contemporary concern. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Spanish poet-philosopher taught: "Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has. Seek what you need and give up what you need not. For in giving up what you don't need, you'll learn what you really do need." (Mivhar Hapeninim 155,161 as found in The Jewish Moral Virtues, Borowitz and Schwartz, p.164)
This is the challenge—balancing what we need and what we want in order to become samayach b'chelko—satisfied with our portion.

Several commentators have suggested a variety of reasons why one should be samayach b'chelko - satisfied with one's portion. Reuven Bulka has written, "Whatever bounty and good one is given in life should be greatly appreciated. Unlike affliction, which one lives with by almost ignoring it and transcending it, that which one has been granted which seems to be beneficial should be accepted in joy." (As A Tree By The Waters p. 256)

As it relates to acquisition of Torah, Midrash Samuel states, "…one must be happy that one can be involved in the study of God's word."

Our personal attitudes affect how we study and what we acquire through our studies. According to Machzor Vitry, if a person spends time worrying and brooding over one's portion of this world's pleasures (i.e., material possessions) one cannot concentrate on learning.

The Ruach Chaim explains that one's lot means one's ability to learn and comprehend. A person should not be dissatisfied if he or she cannot live up to one's ambitions or the standards of others with greater ability, one should do one's best and constantly review until the learning is mastered. In the end the individual will succeed and even excel. (The Pirkei Avos Treasury p. 418)

Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that just as we should be satisfied with our portion of earthly goods, so too should we rejoice in the measure of intellectual talent we have been granted. For one should derive satisfaction from the knowledge that one has faithfully used one's abilities for the advancement of one's skills and learning, for God evaluates the achievements of each of us solely in terms of the extent to which one has made good use of one's intellectual abilities. (Chapters of the Fathers, p. 107)

MY TAKE: (EXCERPTS FROM A Yom Kippur Sermon on Happiness)

Introducing: the Most Interesting Jew in the World.
-        On Passover, Elijah opens the door - for him!
-        He once caught a real gefilte fish.
-        On Purim, he comes dressed – as himself!
-        He can do Hagba AND Glilah – at the same time!
-        At Tashlich, the fish throw his bread back.
He is… the most interesting Jew in the world.  

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Seriously.  Stay thirsty.

To no one’s surprise, the guy who plays the most interesting man in the world in the commercials, an actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, IS Jewish.  And why wouldn’t he be?  We may or may not be the Chosen people, but we are, without a doubt, the most interesting.
But does being interesting make us happy?   And if not, what does?
So now, the camera is turned on us.  Today, a sermonic selfie.   Enough with the whats and wheres.  Today, we look squarely in the mirror and see what stares back.  Who are we?  What can give us fulfillment?

Last week I spoke of a prayer that frames the liturgy, which we recited at the very beginning of the service and will recite at the very end of Yom Kippur tonight.  And that prayer asks the question.  Mah Hasdenu

Hesed is kindness, goodness. Unconditional love.  Tenderness.  Consideration. 
Empathy.  Profound connection. Steadfast love.  There is really no precise equivalent in English.  In fact a word was created to approximate it: “loving-kindness.” But Hesed is not kindness as in when you let someone go in front of you in a long line at Stop and Shop.  Hesed is much deeper than that. 

It’s mentioned over and over in the Bible, a total of 250 times, involving heroes like Ruth and David. Abraham was a hesed machine. Jeremiah defines Hesed as an Ahavat Olam – Pure, unbounded love.

The prophet Micah defines Hesed further, in a verse that concludes this afternoon’s haftarah as an add-on to the story of Jonah: 

“(Mi el Kamocha) Who is a God like unto You, that pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retains not anger forever, because Hesed makes God happy.  (Ke Hafetz hesed hu.”).

Hesed, then, is the key to God’s happiness - and our own.  Hesed allows God to “let it go,” to overcome anger and indignation.  So the question “Mah Hasdenu?” really is a way of asking, 

“How can we find happiness?”

What I’d like to do today is unpack that idea some more.   Because in our world there is such profound sadness.  I don’t know, it seems to be even more prevalent than at any time since 9/11.  Signs of unhappiness are everywhere.

Jacob Burak, a financial and cultural guru, wrote last month in Aeon magazine that Humans seem to be hard-wired for bad news, angry faces and sad memories. He says that we have a “negativity bias.”:

“…While a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one.” 

Needless to say, Jacob Burak is Jewish.  If human beings have a bias for negativity, Jews are “exhibit a”.   We veer toward the negative. We look up at the ceiling and our eyes are drawn toward the missing tile right away.   Of the 613 mitzvot, only 248 are positive.  365 are thou-shalt-nots, enough for us to break one negative commandment each day of the year.  Even some of the positive commandments have been given a negative spin.  Like the greatest of them all, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which was reframed by the sage Hillel as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  He takes the ultimate positive and flips it over to its negative side.  Hillel, it seems, like the rest of the Jewish people, needs a shrink.

As Henny Youngman put it, Why don't Jews drink? It interferes with our suffering.

As Leonard Fein, a great Jewish pundit who died recently, used to say, a Jewish telegram is one that reads, "Start worrying.  Letter follows."  Fein goes on, “We worry about everything.  We worry about Israel, we worry about anti-Semitism, we worry about demographics, we worry about war, we worry about peace.  When someone says  "All's right with the world," we know that something must be wrong; he has overlooked the cloud, the flaw, the imminent crisis. He has been lulled; the storm is brewing just out of sight, we can feel it in our ancient bones.” 

So here’s where we are.  Everything around is conspiring to drag us down.  The tragic death of Robin Williams brought home to us the prevalence of depression and mental illness in our society.  Last year a study in England warned that teenagers are becoming increasingly unhappy, with growing concerns about school, their appearance and the amount of freedom they have.  At about the same time the New Yorker reported that going online makes us unhappy – primarily because we become jealous of all the people on social media who seem to be doing so much better than us.

 If it’s not our emotional wiring, it’s our culture, it’s our perfect neighbors, it’s our health or it’s the body’s inexorable decline; it’s our mortality.  The rise of mental illness is being called an epidemic, where the CDC, last year, reported that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4 percent between 1999 and 2010, where our society breeds anxiety, depression and dysfunction, where people who seem to have every reason to be happy, suffer horribly, and the symptoms aren’t recognized or properly treated, and they do horrible things to themselves and others.

No doubt many of us here have had to stave off bouts of depression.  Let me amend that.  All of us.  All of us.  For some the issues are clinical, for others circumstantial – and for some, both.
"Life," said Woody Allen, "is full of misery, loneliness and suffering - and it's all over much too soon."    


Can’t we ever be happy?

Yes we can.  And that brings us back to Ma Hasdenu?  For while Jews may not score well on the happiness scale, Judaism provides us with the keys to happiness.  True, we are glass half empty people, but ours is a glass half full tradition.  So let’s learn from it.  Here are nine quick lessons Judaism teaches us:

Lesson one:  Recognize that Happiness is a worthy and attainable goal.
It’s OK not to feel burdened and guilty all the time.  Sometimes we feel guilty when we feel good. Alan Cohen defined guilt as “punishing yourself before God doesn’t”. 
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.”  “He understood, way before Freud, that sadness could lead to sickness – even though Nachman himself struggled deeply with depression.  Aristotle called happiness "the chief good," the end towards which all other things aim.  And in full agreement, Moses Chayim Luzzato, who in the 18thcentury wrote “The Path of the Just,” begins the first chapter saying, “Man is created to take pleasure.” For him, there was no greater pleasure than seeking closeness with God. 

Which brings us to Lesson Two:  Come to Services.
I believe that religion has an enormous role to play in combating the incessant negativity, cynicism, alienation and depression that surrounds us.  Surveys show a distinct correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance in America.  But oftentimes, religion is accused of fostering a false sense of happiness by denying harsh realities.  I can’t speak for other faiths, but that’s not true for Judaism.  Judaism is not a religion that teaches us to comfort someone on his deathbed by saying that he is going to a “better place.”  Judaism does not promote the kind of saccharine happiness that denies life’s struggles; but rather a deep, rich affirmation of life, with no denial, recognizing our mortality.  And it’s a life that connects – a life of Hesed.

Lesson three:  Remove the Masks
Happiness happens when we get real.  Rav Kook, in his classic work on Teshuvah, stated,  “The primary role of penitence is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.”  That’s where Carlebach got the lyrics to the song – return to the root of your soul.
This implies a deep acceptance of who we are. 
My colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula has tried something different at his congregation in Chicago.  During Neilah, in fact while reciting our prayer, Mah anahnu, mah hayenu? (What are we? What are our lives?), he leads a ten minute, "Who am I" exercise, conducted in pairs.
Each person is allotted five minutes to answer; then the roles reverse. A sample dialogue:
"Who are you?" "I'm Joshua Hammerman."
"Who are you?" "I'm a father."
"Who are you?" "I'm a son."
"Who are you?" "I'm a husband."
Kula says, "By the thirtieth question, the answers reach the level of vulnerability."
"Who are you?" "I'm lonely."
"Who are you?" "I'm scared."
In a room this big, that’s harder to do. But it’s an exercise worth trying in a more intimate setting.

Lesson Four: Let it Go. 
With apologies to Idina Menzel. 

That song from the film “Frozen” has been without doubt the most repeated and reinterpreted song of the year, except for one.  Every little kid I know is singing this song.  And some grown ups too. Because, in large part, we recognize that we all need to “let it go” in order to be happy.  As we saw from the prophet Micah, even God needs to let it go.

The Talmud tells of a drought, when Rabbi Eliezer prayed for rain, but nothing happened. Rabbi Akiva offered a short prayer and the rains fell. A Voice from Heaven called out, “Not that Akiva is any better than Eliezer, but Eliezer carries a grudge against those who slight him, while Akiva forgets it and moves on.”

The Talmud is clearly telling us – if you don’t let go of your anger or your pain, it will only compound your troubles and make you less able to live a productive life.  So let it go.

Lesson Five:  Cultivate He-sed-ic Communities
                  Not Hasidic – but Hesed-ic.  Communities filled with Hesed.  Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”
               In order to be truly happy, we’ve truly got to care about the happiness of others.

Not long ago, PBS aired a film called “Happy,” tracking the phenomenon all over the world.  The producer spoke about how he had heard that happy people tend to be healthier, get sick less often and live longer than unhappy people – and that for some reason, the oldest people in the world came from Okinawa in Japan.

He went there on a whim and found that it was a resounding YES, they were happy.  The key is was how different generations come together on a regular basis.   One day, he noticed a group of elderly women visiting a preschool as the kids were having a footrace.  The grandmothers convened at finish line. They hugged all the kids as they finished. The producer went to congratulate a grandmother about having such a grandkid.

She said, ‘That’s not my grandchild. None of these are my grandkids.’ She was asked, ‘Is this your friend’s?’ She said, ‘None of the women here are related to any of these children.’

I would love to see that happen at every bar mitzvah here.  Total strangers of the older generations hugging all the kids as they cross the finish line.  That is a culture that promotes happiness.

Lesson Six: Fake it
Nachman of Bratzlav also said, “If you are not happy, pretend to be.  Even if you are totally depressed, act happy.  Genuine joy will follow.” 

This one might leave you skeptical, but Reb Nachman believed that when we activate joy, it ignites a spark inside us, it opens up our aliveness and lets us see the world from a God’s eye view.  As Rabbi Mark Novak put it in a recent issue of Moment magazine in a section about happiness, “Putting on a smile is not intended to cover over anything, but to make room for what is here – the divine presence – in each breathing, sacred moment.  The smile, which leads us to joy, which leads us to wonder, calls upon the child within us to live with curiosity and creativity.” 

In that same issue, Rabbi Gershon Wimkler wrote, “Happiness should not be something we strive for.  It should be entrenched deeply within us.”  And he’s right.  Despite the unimaginable tragedies we have faced, we are a people known for our ability to rise above our sadness and smile.  Happiness for us is much more than an emotion.  It is a divine imperative.

Lesson Seven: Laugh your way through the tears.
When we ask, Mah Hasdenu, what causes us to smile even when we don’t feel like it – it’s our sense of humor.

Henny Youngman put it in the form of a joke: says I go to the doctor and the doctor says I have six months to live.  I told him I can’t pay him.  So he gave me six months more.

That is the quintessential Jewish joke.  We all have six months. We’re all up against literally a dead-line.  But if we can laugh at it and stand up to it, it will give us a reprieve from the sadness – and that’s like bargaining for six months more.

Writer Jay Michelson calls the uniquely Jewish form of happiness “unhappy happiness,” “a kind of happiness that lies beneath the surface;  beneath, that is, what we ordinarily understand to be sadness or joy.  A middle path between two unsatisfactory alternatives: what he calls “the Botox-smiling cheer of the American Dream on the one hand (in which unrelenting peppiness coexists with some of the world’s highest levels of depression and dissatisfaction), and the self-defeating “Oy Vey” of Jewish irascibility.”

Can we talk?  Joan Rivers, made us laugh right up to the end, when she made us cry.  She once said, in a moment not intended to draw giggles, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”

Lesson Eight:  Stay in the moment
There’s an app, Track Your Happiness, which allows people to report their feelings in real time. Its developer discovered that we're least happy when we allow our minds to wander from the task at hand.  That’s because when our minds wander, we tend to obsess about things that worry us. 

So if your mind is wandering now, you’re probably worried.  If you are focusing on me, you are much happier.

But even as we focus on that task, we can also get immersed in it – lost in it.  I know that I am often happiest when I look up at the clock and can’t believe how much time has elapsed.   Having a direction, a goal, really helps, even if we may never finish what we’ve started.  The sages were onto something when they stated that it is not ours to complete the task, but neither is it ours to desist from it.

Lesson Nine:  Embrace your brokenness.
The Hebrew word for happiness, “Simcha” was found adjacent to signatures at the bottom of medieval legal documents found in the attic of a Cairo synagogue. Now legal documents don’t typically ask us to express emotion.   So scholars concluded that the real meaning of the Hebrew word “simcha” is not “joy,” but “acceptance.”  And that is what, for Judaism, happiness is all about.  Acceptance of what we can’t change and learning to live with it.

There’s that famous story that was first reported years ago in the Houston Chronicle, about Itzak Perlman once breaking a string during a performance in 1995.  Rather than waiting for a new string to be attached, he just kept on playing.  When he finished, the newspaper reported, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium.

He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said -- not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone -- "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."

You might notice that when I send out death notices, I use the traditional Hebrew response to tragic news, “Baruch Dayan Emet,”  “Blessed be the truthful Judge.”  You might wonder how we could possibly say a blessing for bad news.  A student asked that very same question of Rabbi Eliemelech. He was instructed to go to the study hall and ask that question to Reb Zusya.”  When the student laid eyes on Reb Zusya, he could have easily imagined the suffering this man must have experienced in his lifetime.  The pain of illness and poverty was etched on his face.  The student proceeded to ask: How is it possible to bless God for bad news with equal fervor as for good news? Reb Zusya’s reply: “Why are you asking me?  How do I know the answer?  Nothing bad has ever happened to me!”

                  OK.  If this is supposed to be about happiness, why does it feel like the most depressing sermon of all time?

                  Because, I have a secret to tell you.  Life is really depressing. 
And so many of us have learned, the hard way, that happiness does not come automatically from wealth, fame or power, or the instant gratification of our every whim or desire, or an addiction to what feels, smells or tastes good.  Revenge does not bring about happiness, nor does unlimited freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, without any obligations or responsibilities.   Happiness does not come from the indulgence of the self at the expense of others.  If you live this way, you will soon understand why Oscar Wilde said,  “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”

 Happiness also does not come from the avoidance of risk or adversity. 
Instead, it comes from…. This.   (Put on Pharrell hat

I said that “Let it Go” the most repeated and reinterpreted song of the year, except one.  Well, this is the one:  Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly infectious song “Happy” is one of the best selling of all time. Last month it became the most downloaded track ever in the UK.  Including Scotland. 
And literally just about every country on earth has created a video using this soundtrack.  And I mean everywhere.  From Abidjan to Zagreb.  Both Tel Aviv AND Gaza did “Happy” videos this summer. Efrat too, right after the three Israeli teens were abducted near there.  It inspired uplifting tributes from the typhoon-ravaged Philippines. How about Iran, where six young people were arrested for making a completely harmless “Happy” video.  They were sentenced to lashes and forced to recant on television.  

At last count, there are over 1900 versions of the video online from 153 countries.  There’s a site online where you can find them all.  The happiest website on earth. The creators of the site explained that their purpose is:

To display happiness all around the world… a beautiful humanity needs to be protected in such times of crisis, and for that we must talk about the good things rather than dwell on what goes wrong.

Sometime this coming week, go onto that site and dance from place to place, randomly, or deliberately.  Go from Abu Dhabi to Albuquerque, from the Bahamas to Johannesburg, from Madagascar to Moskow.  I t is powerful to see.  Who knew Poland was so happy? Or Morocco? There’s one in sign language from a camp for the hearing impaired in upstate New York, and a fun one from New Zealand senior citizens.  This song transcends language.  It is truly universal.  This year, “Happy” became the new lingua franca – the language we all speak.
It’s as if, in the midst of Ebola and Ukraine and the two Malaysian planes, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, the Nigerian girls and Ferguson, some inner driving force that propels the world decided to remind us that beneath all the superficial differences, beyond the politics and craziness, we’re all the same.  (Take off hat)

                  In a big square in Copenhagen, there is an enormous interactive wooden pixel screen called the Happy Wall.  When I first saw it, I said to myself: Perfect: We’ve got the Wailing Wall 
and the Scandinavians have the Happy Wall.   That’s just the way it is. 

But as I drew closer to the Happy Wall, it drew me in.  There are 2000 wooden boards of all different colors, and people are invited to write messages on individual boards or, create patterns, animals, words or statements grouping many of the boards. 

                  I looked at some of the messages close up.
“Happy marriage for 30 years: Andrea and Gunnar.” 
“My family is my everything: Isabel.” 
“M.L: The answer is yes.”

Now I’ve never read the messages that people put into the Kotel, but the messages I saw on the Happy Wall were probably very similar – only happier.  At the Happy Wall we might see, “I love my great aunt Sylvia’s potato blintzes more than life itself.  I’ll love her forever.”

At the Kotel we might see, “My great aunt Sylvia was bitten by a mosquito in the back yard.  Please keep her from dying of malaria.”

The messages at both walls are about caring about something beyond ourselves.  And that’s what make us happy. It’s Hesed. It’s unbounded love, the kind of love that makes not only makes forgiveness possible – it makes it inevitable.  It’s warm puppy happiness.  It’s Hesed: the key to God’s happiness, and the key to ours.   

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"A wise person is a student who makes his/her teacher wiser." (Chaggigah 14a)

How can a student make his/her teacher wiser? For a student to learn, she must be willing to ask questions and challenge a teacher. This in turn gives the teacher the opportunity to learn as well. The ideal teacher-student relationship is one in which both are in the pursuit of knowledge and truth and neither is interested in merely proving himself/herself right.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that Jewish tradition generally regards a non-aggressive demeanor as a good trait, but not when it comes to Torah study or learning in general. He suggests that students have an obligation to question their teachers. "Jewish law dictates that you should do so respectfully, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be aggressive." (The Book of Jewish Values, Telushkin, p. 476)

The Talmud tells the story about Rabbi Yochanan and his favorite student, and later learning partner, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. After Rabbi Shimon's death, Rabbi Yochanan became very despondent, and the other rabbis arranged for Elazar ben Pedat to study with him. Each time Rabbi Yochanan would voice his opinion, Rabbi Elazar would add, "You are right. There are authoritative statements from the Sages that confirm your opinion."

Eventually, Rabbi Yochanan became very upset and said to him:
"Do you think you are like Rabbi ben Lakish? Whenever I stated an opinion, Rabbi ben Lakish would raise twenty-four objections to what I said. He forced me to justify every ruling I gave, so that in the end, the subject was fully clarified. But all you do is tell me that you know another source that supports what I am saying. I do not need confirmation of my position. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 84a)

From Rabbi Yochanan's perspective, a student who is always agreeing, and who is too respectful to challenge and question his teacher, causes his teacher to stop growing.
Of equal importance, by being assertive and questioning, the student is able to grow in knowledge and wisdom. The Talmud reveals that Rabbi Lakish grew up among gladiators and bandits and, as a young man, was totally ignorant about Judaism. After a few years of studying with, questioning, and challenging Rabbi Yochanan, he grew into one of the greatest sages of his age.

Sometimes a student remains silent out of fear that a question might offend the teacher by sounding antagonistic. On other occasions, shy or timid people say nothing because they are afraid to appear ignorant in front of the other students. The Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century standard code of Jewish law, addresses this dilemma. It says that a student should not be embarrassed if a fellow student has understood something after the first or second time and she has not grasped it even after several attempts. If she is embarrassed because of this, it will turn out that s/he will come and go from the house of study without learning anything at all. (Shulchan AruchYoreh Deah 246:11)  

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"Ben Zoma said: Who is honored? Those who honor others." (Avot 4,1)

Our Jewish sources are extremely clear on the question of honor, as revealed by our Text. We are reminded that we should focus our energies on honoring others, rather than ourselves.
It is natural for people to seek honor from their fellow human beings. However, the rabbis consistently warn that honor cannot be acquired by one who pursues it. In fact, the sages warn that if you pursue honor, it will flee from you. (Midrash Tanhuma) They also offer the opposite maxim that if you flee from honor, the honor pursues you. (Exploring Jewish Ethics & Values, p.98)

The story is told of Rabbi Avigdor Halberstam who was once a guest for Shabbat in the home of a wealthy Chasid. The custom in that house was to give a distinguished guest the honor of tasting the cholent (a stew of meat, beans and potatoes) and then serving portions to everyone else. When the cholent was brought to R. Avigdor, he took a taste and then another taste and yet another, finally finishing the contents of the large serving bowl down to the last bean. "Is there more?" he asked. He finished every morsel of the cholent, leaving nothing for any of the shocked people at the table. Later, when it was discovered that the cook had accidentally used rancid oil in the cholentR, Avigdor preferred to appear as a glutton and suffer personal embarrassment rather than allow the cook to be humiliated in front of the others. He thus honored others at the expense of his own prestige. Is there anything more honorable than that? (Pirket Avos Treasury, p. 216)

We all know people who seem to need a great deal of attention and recognition, sometimes at the expense of others. The Talmudic rabbi, R. Yose son of R. Hanina, issued a warning to people who behave in that way. He cautioned: "Those who endeavor to gain honor at the price of another person being degraded have no portion in the world-to-come." (Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1)

There are many individuals who have been very successful in business and who choose to donate large sums of money to support various projects in the Jewish community. Sometimes they donate these funds in honor or in memory of someone else. Sometimes, they donate these funds anonymously. What a wonderful example ofmitrachayk min hakavod (staying far from honor)!   Questioning My New Degree (Jewish Week)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

I received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring. I appreciate the recognition, but it has prompted some disquieting questions.

Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas, usually after about 25 years of service. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment. I suppose it could be said that enduring 25 years in the rabbinate, particularly in the pulpit, is deserving of special recognition. There have been times when I wondered whether a Purple Heart might be more appropriate, or maybe a Nobel Peace Prize.

But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on purely intellectual terms? Once upon a time, rabbinical seminaries were bastions of cold-fish, Litvak elitism, often then wedded to its secular, German sister, the venerable “Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism).” But these same schools are now committed to taking Judaism out of the ivory tower, promoting, as JTS put it in its new strategic plan, “Scholarship in Service to the Jewish Community.” So shouldn’t the rabbi of the 21st century be recognized as a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.D.?

And what, really, is a Doctor of Divinity? I hear that in the United Kingdom, a D.D. is the highest honor a university can give, higher than Doctorates in law, medicine, science, letters or music. But American universities have no such hierarchy, and here it almost sounds like a degree they might confer at Hogwarts for having mastered potions and the dark arts.

How should people address me? Debretts, a website that calls itself “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement” favors “Dr. Cohen” over “Rabbi Cohen” for invitations and salutations. With the Jewish establishment subtly agreeing that “My kid the doctor” trumps “rabbi” on the parental aspiration scale, that trampling sound you hear is another generation of our best and brightest running away from the rabbinate.

And why should I need an honorary title at all? Shouldn’t my life-work of facilitating Jewish journeys be sufficient? Plus, my wife, who is a psychologist, worked long and hard to earn her doctorate. It makes me feel a bit uneasy about accepting one simply because I’ve survived.

The title “rabbi” signifies a mastery of knowledge, but it means much more. In fact, maybe my original diploma, which described the calling as “rabbi, teacher and preacher,” should be updated to include more contemporary aspects of the job description, including rabble rouser, healer, marketing expert, surrogate mommy, divine exemplar, standup comic, youthful elder, dispassionate zealot and guy-who-can-unjam-the-Xerox-machine.

That’s not to say I didn’t accept this honor. For one thing, it came with lunch. And it was a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership of my congregation, as well as a few dozen colleagues who were similarly honored. Many of them have become major figures on the Jewish scene and all have dedicated their life’s work to the service of the Jewish people and God. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized.

We’ve been rabbis at a time when the profession has changed dramatically, and we’ve been the agents of that change. The paradigm of rabbi as aloof scholar, shepherd and diplomat has been replaced, to a large degree, by other models. The rabbi has become more of a guide, a teacher who leads by example and can point people toward resources that will enable them to find their own solutions to life’s dilemmas.

In what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer has aptly called an era of empowerment, Jews are not looking for simple answers, but engagement, direction, inspiration and the kind of encouragement that can propel a lifelong quest. They are looking less for a rabbi and more for a rebbe, in the original chasidic sense, a mentor who can take Judaism out of stuffy academies and let holiness breathe, sing and dance through the lives of real people.

Maybe the new title should reflect other honorifics given rabbis over the centuries, like “Mar” (Master)” or “Rav” (“The Great One” — I like that, but I am not worthy). There’s always “Shlita,” an acronym for “May he live a long and good life, Amen” and “Nasi” (Prince or President).

Throughout the Middle Ages, you had really made it as a rabbi when you became known by your initials. Rambam (the acronym for the Hebrew letters reysh, mem, bet, mem) and Rashi (reysh, shin, yud) were the FDR and LBJ of their day. Maybe each of us should be given an official nickname, whether it be our initials (mine would be “the RaYaMM — Rabbi Yehoshua ben Micha’el V’Miryam), or maybe something more folksy. The Talmud uses nicknames like “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Some of my classmates were also superb circle drawers as well, especially during Talmud class. How about “Reb Danny the Doodler?”

Finally, here’s an opportunity to introduce new fields of rabbinic specialization. As The Jewish Week’s new online Ethicist [1], maybe I should ask that my honorary doctorate be in the field of Menschology. Many of us could also claim expertise in Jewish Geography, Kiddush Gastronomy, Guilt Management and Mass Miscommunication.

So I gratefully accept my new title and will work hard to truly earn it. But the only degree I am really seeking is a degree of difficulty. With the month of Shavuot now in our rear-view mirror, mountainous challenges still await us, and even loftier opportunities. To scale those, American Jews don’t need doctors.

We need rabbis.

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"The one who understands his (her) lesson will not readily forget it." (Talmud Yerushalmi: Berakot, 5.1)

Many translations of Pirkei Avot have been published and in each edition the translator has added his or her own nuances to its meaning.

Rabbi Susan Freeman, in her work Teaching Jewish Virtues, translates this middah as "being precise in transmitting what one has learned." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Chapters of the Fathers, understands thismiddah as "he (or she) grasps and retains accurately what has been handed down to him (or her) by transmission." In the first translation, the individual is called upon to accurately transmit learning, in the second translation the individual is called upon to accurately understand and retain was has been transmitted. These two translations reflect the essence of Jewish learning and the transmission of Torah.

Pirkei Avot opens with the following teaching:

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders conveyed it to the Prophets; and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Assembly."

These individuals were our teachers and our leaders. They created the ongoing chain of Torah learning, passing Jewish learning and tradition from one generation to the next.

This is what makes Jewish learning a process and a product of thinking and acting. It is not simply a body of knowledge for an individual to absorb but a way of living both ethically and ritually. When we learn, the activity is more than mental gymnastics. Jewish learning engages our heart, our hands and our souls as well as our minds.

In this week's text the phrase reads, "The one who understands his (or her) lesson will not readily forget it." Clearly the rabbis of the Talmud knew that true learning comes when we go beyond mere memorization of information; true learning comes when we comprehend the meaning and message of what has been learned. We deepen our understanding and gain insights that will lead us to living lives imbued with Jewish values and ethics. 

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"Mark well these three things, and you will not fall into the clutches of sin. Know where you came from, where you are going, and to whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning." (Akavyah ben Mahalalel, Pirkei Avot, 3:1)

Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, serves as a reminder that part of maintaining a balance in life is knowing and accepting our own place in the larger scheme of things. (Voices of Wisdom, Klagsbrun, p.6) The text goes on to suggest that we all begin and end our lives in exactly the same way and that we are all ultimately accountable to God.

"Knowing who you are and knowing what your place is, can lead you to knowing who and what you want to become. You may need to strive to become the person you want to become. Striving for something is not necessarily contradictory to "knowing your place" as long as your striving is not mean spirited and you do not hurt others and destroy relationships along the way." (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p.211)

According to Tiferes Yisrael, makir et mekomo (knowing one's place) refers to self-knowledge. One must have an honest estimate of oneself, and recognize one's own inadequacies in order to be ready to strive for more Torah knowledge and wisdom. The Maharal writes: “Only one who senses he is lacking something will seek out the Torah, which brings completion to the incomplete.” (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.418)

Each of us is unique. Knowing your place means understanding what it is that makes you different from everyone else you know. The following Chasidic story, told in the form of a riddle, helps to illustrate this point.

A man said to Mendel of Kotzk: "This one is greater than that one." He replied, "Why make comparisons? If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am truly I and you are truly you. But if I am I only because you are you, and if you are you only because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you." (Day by Day, p.56)

Rabbi Susan Freeman cautions us that it is easy to become arrogant and judgmental about the world around you and to look down on some people. But the knowledge that all people and things have their place can help you be more accepting of your place in the world. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, Freeman, p.219) The Talmudic sage, Ben Azzai, offered similar advice when he said: "Do not despise anyone. Do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no one that does not have his/her hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place." (Pirkei Avot4:3)

In an essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he asked Christopher Hitchens, long before Hitchens was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? “No,” he said, “I’d go to Dartmoor, in southern England, without a doubt.”  It was the landscape of his childhood.
Roger Cohen of the New York Times, reflecting on this response, commented, “It was the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.” 

Where would you go if you knew you only had a few weeks to live?

I guess that might be what we call “home,” and the question “where are you” invariably dissolves into the question, “where is your home?”  Or, in the vernacular of a current beer commercial, “Where is your beach?

Wood’s essay explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.         A sort of limbo, or what Cohen calls “displacement anguish.” 

We’re always coming or we’re going.  We’re never THERE.

 So where is home? Is it a geographical location?  Or is it, as Robert Frost put it, the place where, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”                  

I thought about this several months back, when I brought my mother down to the Jewish Home in Fairfield.  It was just getting impossible to visit her as often as I would like.  But in taking her out of the Boston area, where she had lived for her entire life, I was not only displacing her, but displacing a little of myself too.  When I visited her up there, it was a schlep, but it was MY schlep.  I felt a sense of peace and familiarity as I drove on that turnpike from Sturbridge to Boston.  I’ve very little family left up there, and haven’t actually lived there since the governor was Michael Dukakis.  But it’s still home.

“Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox in America,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.”

A name for God is “hamakom,” literally, the place. When we comfort mourners we say “May Hamakom grant you comfort among the mourners of Zion.  May you sense that comfort wherever this journey of grief and healing may take you.”  May God be with you, everywhere.
Wherever we are, we need to keep moving.  When we stay put for too long it is all too easy to get stuck.  But while we keep moving forward, we remain grounded by taking home with us, within us.

I have a homeland.  Israel. I have a home county: the US.  I have a home state – Connecticut and I have a home team - and I have an ancestral home- and here is the key to the house I grew up in, which was sold 35 years ago.  I take it with me everywhere.

But where is my home? 

Wherever I happen to be right now.

In this Text the verb "teach" in Hebrew is shinantam, which is from the same Hebrew root as mishnahshin-nun-hey. This Biblical verse is found in the V'ahavta prayer. This verse created the obligation of parents to teach their children about God and Torah. While this verse comes from Torah, or Written Law, parents are instructed to "speak of them," to transmit Jewish knowledge verbally.

Mishnah is also a book of Jewish law. The unique feature of the text called Mishnah is that originally it was only in oral form. The Hebrew term for this Oral Law is Torah sheh-b'al peh, literally "Torah from the mouth." The Hebrew term for the Written Law is Torah sheh-bichtav or "Torah that is written." Both kinds of law and learning are recognized as being equally important in Jewish life.

According to traditional Judaism, the Written Law was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses' task was to write it all down word for word. Additionally, when the Written Law was given, God knew there were additional laws that the people would need once they settled in the Land, but the people were not yet sophisticated enough to understand them. These laws were given to Moses verbally and his task was to begin a chain of oral transmission that was to pass from one leader to the next.

This chain of transmission is described in Pirkei Avot:

"Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly." (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Many liberal Jews believe that the Torah was the work of numerous authors who were inspired by God. The Oral Law was derived from the decisions of the battai din, the Jewish courts of law. These courts derived their decisions from the Written Law. The volumes known as Mishnah were compiled from these decisions from over a 400-year period from 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.

In the Talmud there is serious debate over whether or not this Oral Law could, or even should, be written down. It was not until the third century that Rabbi Judah the Prince put the Mishnah into its written form.

There are both positive and negative arguments for writing down an oral tradition. These arguments include: When a tradition is oral it remains open to change, variation, mistake, and refinement. Once an oral tradition is written down it can become stagnant, unchanging, accurate, and precise.

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"Teach them faithfully to your children; speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:7)

In this Text the verb "teach" in Hebrew is shinantam, which is from the same Hebrew root as mishnahshin-nun-hey. This Biblical verse is found in the V'ahavta prayer. This verse created the obligation of parents to teach their children about God and Torah. While this verse comes from Torah, or Written Law, parents are instructed to "speak of them," to transmit Jewish knowledge verbally.

Mishnah is also a book of Jewish law. The unique feature of the text called Mishnah is that originally it was only in oral form. The Hebrew term for this Oral Law is Torah sheh-b'al peh, literally "Torah from the mouth." The Hebrew term for the Written Law is Torah sheh-bichtav or "Torah that is written." Both kinds of law and learning are recognized as being equally important in Jewish life.

According to traditional Judaism, the Written Law was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses' task was to write it all down word for word. Additionally, when the Written Law was given, God knew there were additional laws that the people would need once they settled in the Land, but the people were not yet sophisticated enough to understand them. These laws were given to Moses verbally and his task was to begin a chain of oral transmission that was to pass from one leader to the next.

This chain of transmission is described in Pirkei Avot:

"Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly." (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Many liberal Jews believe that the Torah was the work of numerous authors who were inspired by God. The Oral Law was derived from the decisions of the battai din, the Jewish courts of law. These courts derived their decisions from the Written Law. The volumes known as Mishnah were compiled from these decisions from over a 400-year period from 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.

In the Talmud there is serious debate over whether or not this Oral Law could, or even should, be written down. It was not until the third century that Rabbi Judah the Prince put the Mishnah into its written form.

There are both positive and negative arguments for writing down an oral tradition. These arguments include: When a tradition is oral it remains open to change, variation, mistake, and refinement. Once an oral tradition is written down it can become stagnant, unchanging, accurate, and precise.


Ever since I was young, I’ve been intrigued by the seeming conflict within Judaism between keva and kavanah, between prayer that is fixed and routinized, and prayer that is spontaneous, flowing with intent from the heart.  I’ve always been a kavanah man myself, but I came to recognize that without a fixed time for prayer, without a built-in routine, the chances of ever achieving that spontaneity, that full awareness and appreciation of each moment of life, would be remote.  So I embarked on a life-long crusade to transform keva into kavanah, to teach myself and others to, paraphrasing Psalm 90, “Count our days, that we might attain wisdom.”  To count our days, to make each day count, each moment.  There is nothing more routine than the act of counting; but there is nothing more sacred than the act of making each day count.

So for a term paper in a course in ancient Judaism I invented   a Jewish holiday.  Sacred time has always been a very big thing for me, but this term paper might have bordered on hubris.  I looked closely at the tanach, studied the ways our ancient sages justified and ritualized celebrations such as Hanukkah and Passover in the Talmud, and I invented a holiday, gave it a biblical support structure and then created an entire tractate of Talmud explaining how the holiday would be observed.

That's what Jews can do every day, when you think of it.  We invent holidays.
Today Johnny learned to ride a bicycle?  Let's say a Shehechianu, maybe read a passage from Ezekiel or some other mystic who had visions of rolling chariots and wheels aflame; then let's look at what the rabbis said in Pirke Avot about the importance of balance, whether it be balancing one's own weight on a bicycle or balancing the study of Torah with one's more secular work.  Then, of course, we eat. 

New Years Day is one of those invented holidays.  We literally count our days – it’s a real celebration of Psalm 90.  Not only the days, but the minutes, the seconds – a countdown so we can count up – one more year. 

A ball drops.

The actual notion of a ball "dropping" to signal the passage of time dates back long before New Year's Eve was ever celebrated in Times Square. The first "time-ball" was installed atop England's Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. This ball would drop at one o'clock every afternoon, allowing the captains of nearby ships to precisely set their chronometers (a vital navigational instrument).

The celebration of each day doesn't have to be so elaborate.  And the occasion doesn't have to be so momentous.  But I believe that when we imbue our moments with special significance, our lives suddenly are filled with purpose; and for me the goal educationally is for people to look at each day through Jewish eyes.

Being a rabbi helps me to squeeze the sacred even out of the most routine events, for two reasons above all:  One -- I see the ultimate mysteries of life and death on a routine basis, if I allowed anything to become routine, it would be that.  And it can't be that.  I see too many precious human lives wasted, or tragically lost, to allow mine to go that route.  And two: a rabbi is so busy that even the routine ceases to be routine.  When I used to kiss my two boys goodbye in the morning when they were younger, I often didn’t really know when I would see them later that day.  So that kiss was more than just a kiss, it was every bit of the loving parent I can be poured into an instant.  And when I spent a precious Shabbat afternoon with them, I knew that was our only precious time together.  Now when they leave home, I truly don’t know when I’ll see them again, so that kiss goodbye is no less intense.

While my days are a constant rush, I try to take a few moments each morning to see the miracles and the mystery in the everyday.  Those few moments I call shacharit, and they are usually spent surrounded by (God willing) at least nine others doing the same.  We have to reflect.  We have to bring the mystery into the everyday.  A week from this Shabbat we'll be reading the beginning of the book of the Exodus.  In that portion, Moses asks for God's calling card, and the response, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,"  some translate it as "I am that I am," or "I shall be as I shall be," or " I will be what tomorrow demands me to be," as Rashi says, or, simply, "my name is being."  God's very name is a mystery -- a mystery wrapped in a mystery.  To ponder God at all, to struggle with God, is to seek ultimate mysteries in the routineness of life.

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"The former generations made the study of Torah their regular concern and their daily work their occasional concern, and they succeeded in the one and in the other. The recent generations have made their daily work their regular concern and their study of Torah their occasional concern, and they have succeeded neither in the one nor in the other." (Babylonian Talmud 35b)

This text summarizes the essential issue of miyut derech eretz—minimizing involvement in worldly concerns so that one is able to devote more attention to the study of Torah.
The medieval commentator Rashi explained that "involvement in social, communal and civic affairs can become an almost full-time preoccupation, allowing little time for growth in Torah." The commentary Lechem Shamayimdenotes that miyut derech eretz refers to the sciences. The commentary teaches that one must have some knowledge of math, geometry, biology, earth sciences and the like, but one should understand that they are only tools to understand certain areas of Torah, but secondary to the Divine Torah." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p.415)
A student approached Rabbi Ishmael and asked, "May one like myself, who has studied the entire Torah, study Greek wisdom? Rabbi Ishmael cited a biblical verse as a response, 'This book of Torah shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate upon them day and night.'" (Joshua 1:8). As further explanation Rabbi Ishmael said, "Go and find an hour that is neither day nor night, and study Greek wisdom then." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 407:45)
Not all rabbis saw this as a black and white issue, either Torah or worldly concerns. In fact, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai spoke in favor of both study of Torah and secular involvement. He said,
"Anyone who makes words of Torah his or her primary concern and worldly matters secondary will be made primary in the world-to-come. But anyone who makes worldly matters primary and words of Torah secondary will be made secondary in the world-to-come." But he also taught, "Anyone who does not teach his or her child a trade it is as though the child has been taught to be a thief." Additionally, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai said, "Work is primary in importance, honoring the one who engages in it." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 408:56)
On first reading it seems that Rabbi Judah cannot make up his mind, on the one hand he stresses that Torah study should be one's primary concern, yet he then teaches that work is primary in importance, honoring the one who engages in it. The midrash does not end with this contradiction, but continues, explaining that Rabbi Judah was actually counseling a middle course. A parable is cited as explanation,

"A highway runs between two paths, one of fire and the other of snow. If a person walks too close to the fire, that person will be scorched by the flames, if too close to the snow, the individual will be bitten by the cold. What is the person to do? The individual is to walk in the middle, taking care not to be scorched by the heat nor bitten by the cold." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 408:56)

MY TAKE:  The Most Sacred Task (1999)

What does it mean to be a professional human being?

A letter to my congregants:

Among the many questions I face, one that comes up from time to time is, “Just what do you do?” That the question usually comes out of the mouth of someone under 12 is inconsequential, for we know that kids usually ask questions that many adults wish they could ask. As a public service, here’s a partial response. 

I don’t intend to give a detailed log here, in part because no two days are exactly alike. The job is so filled with variety and serendipity; a hidden blessing around every corner. Although my commute is among the shortest around, on any given day I navigate entire worlds of emotions and scale Himalayan challenges.

The essence of my work is to be fully human – to enable that spark of divinity in me to reach out to the image of God that resides in you, and thereby to connect us both to a life of meaning and transcendence. But doing that with so many, often at the same compressed timeframe, is a supreme challenge. Daily, I juggle dozens of lives in the air. Since each one is of equal, and infinite importance, I’ve got to respond as if each encounter is the most important one I’ll have all day -- it often is for that other person, so it’s got to be for me. Of course that’s all but impossible to pull off, but most people are extremely understanding as to my limitations. I am less so. But at the end of the day, I measure how I’ve done by how human I’ve been at each encounter, not by the quantity of lives I’ve touched. 

Part of my being a professional human being is accomplished through study, prayer and scholarship. I try to take some time during the busy week to develop my inner life. I read newspapers and magazines voraciously, both off and on-line, and try as much as I can to read books. Most of the books I read have some potential tie-in to my teaching and my sermons; there too the line between personal and professional is blurred. It is a pleasure for me to read, but it is not what most would call “pleasure (i.e. non work-related) reading.” Rarely do I get to lay my hands on a good trashy novel. Who needs that, I suppose, when I can just pick a Bible and turn to the saga of King David. I also try to spend a part of each week writing. Often that occurs on Mondays, my “official” day off, but at times on other days as well. In fact, there really is no day off, because I am always available for important pastoral needs on Mondays, and because the writing is really an important part of my work. It feeds my other work and is fed by it.

I work very hard at finding meaning in prayer. If I didn’t, I’d be cheating you, and myself. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, but am always struggling and trying to grow. I would want my rabbi to do the same, and dream of the day when all of my congregants will also try to stretch their souls to the limit. When I am teaching I try to be a learner too, always open to discovering new truths from my research and the students’ response. 

There’s lots of administrative stuff too, including letters and phone calls and, increasingly, e-mailing congregants and college students, and team building and program planning among our staff and volunteers. 

But there is one final aspect to my job that I find most essential: Modeling. It’s my job to model, as best I can, what I think a Jew should do and be. That means above all greeting everyone with a smile, looking at the half-full cup and then both filling it and drinking from it, without worrying so darn much about the empty half; reaching out to young and old, not robbing banks, and exploring how to use Jewish values and observances as a means to personal and communal growth. But it doesn’t mean being perfect. To do my job correctly, in fact, I’ve got to be imperfect – because I also have to model how to be humble and grow from one’s mistakes. 

Finally, how could I set an example for you if I neglected my own health and my family? So part of my job is to set aside ample time to be fully present with them. And since the lines between personal and professional are so blurry, it is important for a rabbi, more than almost anyone else, to spend a few significant chunks of time out-of-touch with most of the congregation. Many take Sabbaticals, something I hope you will insist that I do some day. All take significant vacation time in the summer. When a job takes someone from his family every day of every weekend, plus almost every holiday, there must come a point where the batteries have to recharge. 

That point is right now. While you are reading this, I’m most likely on a beach somewhere (Unfortunately, I don’t get frequent flyer miles for all those Himalayan spiritual challenges I scale). You won’t hear from me while I’m gone, although I will monitor voice mail from time to time – but your pastoral and other needs will be covered. And that’s how it should be. As a professional human being, I’ll be working very hard for you while I’m frolicking on the beach, engaged in my most sacred task: being human.

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"A faithful friend is a powerful defense. One who has found such a friend has found a treasure." (Ben Sira 6:14; also known as Ben Sirach, who was the author of a book of proverbs called Ecclesiasticus, i.e., The Wisdom of Ben Sira)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offered two explanations for the middah nosay b'ol im chavayro—"to share the burden with one's friend": one who wishes to acquire Torah must seek to ease his or her neighbor of the burden of daily living. So too, this individual should seek to render assistance to every fellow-seeker of Torah knowledge. (Chapters of the Fathers, Hirsch, p.109)

The commentary Tiferet Yisrael added,
"The one who wishes to acquire Torah helps others in any way he or she can, whether the help entails physical strain, financial expense, or emotional strain. He or she feels the friend's pain and does whatever is possible to help."

The Bible includes a story of a special friendship between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi in which there were tremendous burdens to share. When Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem in the land of Canaan, her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, insisted on accompanying her. At the border between Moab and Canaan, Ruth urged her daughters-in-law to turn back to their own land, their own people, and their own gods. Orpah agreed, but Ruth responded to Naomi,
"Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16)

Ruth and Naomi's relationship was a friendship born of pain. Ruth and Orpah had married Naomi's sons. Their husbands both died, leaving the women as widows. Naomi, also a widow, chose to return to the land of her birth, Canaan. Ruth and Naomi went to Bethlehem impoverished, with no ready means to support themselves. Ruth met and eventually married Boaz, a relative of Naomi's late husband. Among their descendents was David, who became King of Israel.

Ruth and Naomi faced many difficulties, but they faced them together, thereby exemplifying the middah nosay b'ol im chavayro.   BARBARA BINDER KADDEN

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"What is the straight path a person should choose? That which does him/her honor and wins him/her the esteem of others." (Avot 2,1)

This middah reminds us that we are constantly required to make choices related to our behavior. It encourages us to develop a love for doing things in a straightforward way. Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, offers us some guidelines for making those choices based on honor and esteem.

The commentators of this middah propose that it refers to the way in which we interact with people. It encourages us to deal in a straightforward fashion with the hope that others will respond in the same fashion.Midrash Shmuel suggests that an authentic student of Torah loves straightforwardness and does not flatter others. Flattery is considered a distortion that undermines the intellectual honesty needed for success at learning. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.420)

Jewish tradition offers many warnings about dispensing compliments or flattery. As the Talmud teaches, "A person should not [excessively] compliment another [who is not present], for though he will start by speaking positively, the conversation could soon turn to the person's negative traits." (Bava Bathra 164b)

Another explanation offered by Midrash Shmuel for ohev et hamayasharim is that it refers to someone who loves straight thinking. The rabbis argue that convoluted logic does not lead to clear conclusions in the study of Torah. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.420)

Rabbi Susan Freeman points out that how we use language should be intentional, something we control. The goal is to choose deliberately how we speak and what we speak about. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p. 149)

Politicians are notorious for 'beating around the bush.' When they are asked a question that they do not wish to answer, their response is often a rambling, unfocused attempt to avoid the question. It is often difficult to get a straightforward answer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some people find it difficult to trust certain politicians. The same holds true for personal relationships. How often have you become frustrated because you've asked someone a direct question, and you can't seem to get a direct response?

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"Faith is the essence of Torah." (Mivhar Hapeninim)

According to our Text, faith (emunah) is the most important element in Torah. This idea is developed even further in the commentary on this middah found in the Pirkei Avos Treasury. There it is suggested that faith in the authenticity of the teachings of the Sages is the foundation of Torah study. (p.417)

In Jewish tradition, the Sages (chachamim) are held in very high esteem. We can find evidence of this in the Talmud where we learn that a sage has precedence over a king of Israel. "For when a sage dies, we have none like him; but when a king of Israel dies; all Jews are worthy of kingship." (B. Hor 13a) (Sefer HaAggadah, p.471)

R. Avraham of Slonim suggests one need not believe that his or her teacher has achieved great spiritual heights; nothing is gained by such a belief and one may even experience great disappointment if through age and personal experience it becomes clear that these expectations were unreasonably high. Rather one must trust a teacher's instruction as if the teacher had received it from Moses or even as if it had been learned from God. This is not because teachers or rabbis are of that level, but because these Sages are links in the chain of tradition that began at Sinai. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.411)

According to Meshivas Nefesh, one will succeed in understanding the words of the Sages only if 
he or she trusts that they were infinitely greater than he. Then, even if a particular statement of the Sages seems unclear and incomprehensible, one will realize that one's failure is due to one's own deficiency, and will exert oneself to understand. Only if we trust the Sages, can we, as humans, perceive their wisdom.

There is another interpretation of this particular middah (virtue) that translates emunat chachamim to mean "the faith of the Sages." It explains that although the wise are skeptical of what they hear and read, they accept the Torah's teachings with unquestioning faith. Thus, one must have the type of faith that the Sages themselves had. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p. 417)                              MARLENE MYERSON

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"The fruit of boasting is hatred." (Mivhar Hapeninim)

This week's text comes from a work called Mivhar Hapeninim, a book of proverbs attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a Spanish poet and philosopher of the 11th century. Clearly, Ibn Gabirol is warning us that being boastful or arrogant engenders hatred. In contemporary language, Ibn Gabirol is warning us not to "show-off." We can apply his advice to our learning, to our income and to our material possessions. We should not flaunt what we know, what we own or who we are, for this attitude will cause others to hate us. The Talmud teaches that even the members of his or her own household do not accept an arrogant person…at first they will show respect, but in the end the arrogant person becomes repugnant to them. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 47a )
In relation to learning, Judaism values humility and scorns arrogance. A scholar should refrain from boasting. This means one is not to feel superior because of what one has learned. According to Midrash Shmuel, thismiddah (virtue) encourages the Torah scholar to feel that whatever he or she knows is insignificant compared to what he or she should have learned. So this middah should serve as an inspiration to learn more.

This teaching is illustrated in a midrash about Rabbi Akiba, who was once publicly asked to read the Torah lesson, but refused. After he and his disciples left the synagogue, Rabbi Akiba began to apologize to them saying: May such-and-such befall me if it was out of arrogance that I did not rise to read the Torah. So they asked: Then why did Rabbi Akiba not rise up to read? He replied: Because I had not prepared myself. The disciples fell to wondering about what Rabbi Akiva had said. The disciples marveled that even Rabbi Akiva, who was so well versed, felt he needed special preparation to read and expound a lesson in Torah. (The Book of Legends - Sefer Ha-aggdah, Bialik and Ravnitzky, 235:160)

We live in a world that is competitive, rewards excellence and stresses individual self-esteem. The challenge we face is in balancing healthy pride and unhealthy prejudice, self-confidence and self-aggrandizement.

Jewish tradition offers a beautiful, compelling response to that challenge: Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Prysucha taught that we should keep two pieces of paper in our pockets, one saying, "For my sake the world was created," and the other, "I am nothing but dirt and ashes." Whenever we are overcome by feelings of pride, he said, we should read the paper with the words, "I am nothing but dirt and ashes." And when we feel as if our ego and sense of self have been decimated, reach into the other pocket and read, "For my sake, the world was created." (Striving Toward Virtue: A Contemporary Guide for Jewish Ethical Behavior, Olitzky and Sabath p.35) MARLENE MYERSON

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"Happy is the person who You discipline, Adonai, the person You instruct in Your teaching." (Psalms 93:4)

There are several explanations in Jewish tradition for the purpose of suffering. For each explanation the rabbis provided a proof text or reason from Scripture. One explanation is that suffering is seen as punishment for a person's sin or wrongdoing: "No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of misfortune." (Proverbs 12:21) Another explanation describes God as a parent and just as a parent sets limits (which may include punishments), so does God. The text affirms this by telling us: "Bear in mind that Adonai your God disciplines you just as a parent disciplines a child." (Deuteronomy 8:5)

Some interpret suffering as a test of an individual's spirit and commitment to God. Abraham was tested by God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Talmud offers this explanation of the incident: "If you go to the marketplace, you will see the potter hitting his clay pots with a stick to show how strong and solid they are. But the wise potter only hits the strongest pots never the flawed ones. So, too God sends such tests and afflictions only to people God knows are capable of handling them, so that they and others can learn the extent of their spiritual strength." (When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold S. Kushner, p.25)

Midrash Samuel states simply: "Everyone undergoes some suffering in life. Only one who can keep it from distracting him will succeed at Torah study." (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, p.417) The "true" student of Torah carries on studying despite whatever sufferings or hardships come about.

In the commentary Ruach Chaim, the "suffering" a student faces refers to the diminished life-style that the Torah demands. When one willingly gives up creature comforts and commits to the regimen of the Torah, one's suffering is a mitzvah (good deed) and is duly rewarded. (The Pirke Avos Treasury, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, p.417) The proof for this explanation is found in Pirkei Avot 6:4, "This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation-but toil in the Torah! If you do this, you are praiseworthy--in this world; and it is well with you--in the World to Come."

Montefiore and Lowe wrote in The Rabbinic Anthology,
"The Rabbinic attitude towards sufferings is…one of humble resignation to the will of God. The convinced faith in a future life of blessedness and happiness enabled the Rabbis to face sufferings, not indeed, for the most part, with pleasure, but with fortitude, and even sometimes with joy, because they were regarded as sure passports to 'heaven.'"

Montefiore and Lowe and other contemporary commentators see these explanations for the existence of suffering as inadequate. The idea that one suffers here as a test of faith, or that God delivers hardship and suffering on individuals and society for atonement of sin, or that suffering here on earth is a prerequisite for a good afterlife casts God as spiteful and vengeful. A God who delivers hardship and suffering for reasons we are not to question makes it hard to see God as loving and caring.

What then is the purpose of suffering? Maybe there is no purpose at all. Suffering simply exists as part of the human condition. If suffering is part of the human experience, what then is God's role? Perhaps God is there to be with us in times of adversity. The next verse after Psalms 93:4 reads: "Happy is the person who You discipline, Adonai, the person you instruct in Your teaching, to give the person tranquility in times of misfortune…"

This is the perspective taken by Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen To Good People:

"If God is a God of justice and not of power, then God can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. God can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of God's doing, and so we can turn to God for help. We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted." (p.44)  BARBARA BINDER KADDEN

"One who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit." (Avot 4:7)

The sages teach that a judge must always view himself as one standing on the edge of Gehinnom (Hell) with a sword over his neck. Afraid to make a mistake, one who judges or makes decisions does not want to be defined by this text.

On the other hand, a judge realizes that it is his/her responsibility to rule when s/he is the most qualified to do so. A student of the Chofetz Chaim once said that he was afraid to assume a rabbinical position for fear of erring in halachic (legal) judgment. Replied the Chofetz Chaim, "Who then should be a rabbi - someone who has no fear of making a mistake?" (Pirkei Avos Treasury p. 21)

The Talmudic rabbis emphasized the importance of careful decision-making by suggesting, "when a judge issues a true verdict in keeping with the facts, God leaves Heaven and sits at the judge's side, for Scripture says, "And when God raised them up judges, then God was with the judge." (Judges 2:18).

The sages carefully enumerated the qualifications for one who might be considered as a judge in an effort to ensure that people would be judged fairly. They wrote,
"He who is wise, humble, clear-headed, and fearful of sin; whose youth was of unblemished repute; and the spirit of his fellows takes delight in him - he may be made a judge in his city."

They specifically asked that,

"Those whose speech is confusing and whose reasoning is flawed, those who jump to conclusions and whose utterances are not thought through be excluded from consideration." (The Book of Legends, p.736)
MY TAKE: On not being afraid of failure (excerpt from Yom Kippur 2012 sermon on failure)

Why can't we just relax and recognize that people make mistakes?  It's OK to make them, and it's OK to confess to them, and it's OK to forgive them.   Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair.  No big deal... I speak to empty seats all the time.

Which reminds me of a joke.  Two men were watching a John Wayne movie and one said to the other, "I'll bet you a dollar that John Wayne falls off a horse within five minutes."  The other man accepted the bet and within five minutes, John Wayne fell off the horse. 
 The man wanted to pay, but the first man refused saying, "I saw the film already and can't accept your money."  The second man replied, "I saw it too."

 "Then why did you accept the bet?"

 "I didn't think John Wayne would be foolish enough to make the same mistake twice."

No one is too big to fail.  Not even John Wayne.  Some corporations might be too big to fail. Some banks might be.  Some auto manufacturers might be.  But that's what makes them different from human beings.   

No person is too big to fail

Failure is not an option... it's a given.  It is inevitable.  We're all going to fail at some point.  Moses did.  King David did, big time.  Murder, theft and adultery: the trifecta - and his lust-driven crime inspired some of the liturgy of the Sh'ma Kolenu prayer.  We all fail. 

Heck, even God fails.  Imagine; according to the midrash, God created and destroyed the world several times over before hitting upon the right combination.  In chapter 6 of Genesis, God even expresses regret for having created human beings.  Commentators are aghast that a supposedly omnipotent God could feel that way.  But the verse is right there, right before the story of Noah and the Flood.  It's hard to ignore.

"The Lord regretted making the man - God was heartbroken over it." 

What's that all about?

We can find a clue in the only other usage of that expression "Vaynachem Adonai" in the Torah.  It's in Exodus 32:
 "And the Lord repented of the evil which he had spoken of doing to God's people."
It's the Golden Calf incident - and God is convinced by Moses not to destroy Israel.  In the case of the Flood, God regrets having created humanity and destroys everything and starts again.  In the case of the golden calf, God regrets wanting to destroy, has mercy toward the people and steps back from the precipice.

A blogger called "The Curious Jew," points out the "great distinction between Flood Logic and Golden Calf Logic. Flood Logic assumes that the world must be perfect, and that wickedness cannot be tolerated. (There the God of Justice reigns) ...In Golden Calf Logic, it is the God of Mercy who is dominant, God who understands the flaws and who is able to tolerate wickedness, comprehending that these errors can be rectified."
Interesting.  It's almost as if God undergoes a process of growth in the Torah, something that is, by the way, very consistent with how the ancients viewed God.  The lesson here is not to expect perfection.  By the time we get to the Golden Calf, which, as failures go, was a doozy, God has learned that no one is too big to fail.

God has learned it.

And the word Vayinachem, which here means "repented," can also mean "was comforted."  In that translation, the verse from Genesis could be read, "And God was comforted at having created humanity - though also disheartened."  The comfort could come from the knowledge that although the experiment looked like a failure, God recognized that this human being would be a resilient creature.  Yes, things were going to get hairy.  Moses would hit the rock and David would hit rock bottom - but in the end it would be OK.

Failure is not an option. It's a given. 

"I have given you a wise and understanding heart." (I Kings 3:12)

This week's text comes from the book of Kings, which recounts a dream of King Solomon. In the dream God appears to Solomon and asks Solomon what gift he desires. Solomon wisely asks for "an understanding heart" in order to judge the people by distinguishing between good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In Jewish tradition the heart is also the seat of all emotions. There is a midrash that lists over 60 emotions of the heart. Among these emotions: "the heart sees, hears, speaks, falls, stands, rejoices, weeps, comforts, sorrows. . ." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:16). In Judaism, our hearts are the vessels of both our feelings and our wisdom.

Reuven Bulka asserted that it was vital for a person to have an understanding heart in order to absorb Torah. He taught that one can mechanically perform the 48 middot - ethical precepts for learning Torah - but one must really have their heart in it in order for the Torah to be fully integrated. (As A Tree by the Waters, p.254) In other words, if we learn with an understanding heart, we embrace the words of Torah with our minds and souls. An understanding heart changes our learning from a memorization of Torah facts and obligations to an appreciation of Torah as the basis of our lives.

In Judaism there is a clear connection between study and action. Each and every Jew is commanded to set time aside for study. The rabbis recognized the difficulty in fulfilling this precept. To accommodate this commandment, the rabbis added three verses from Torah and two rabbinic passages to the morning service. One of the rabbinic teachings describes leaving the corners of the fields unharvested so that the poor might glean and gather food to eat. It is important to note that the specific amount of the corners was not a part of the commandment. It is left up to our discerning heart to determine how much is enough. In any age this does not make economic sense, but as Borowitz and Schwartz point out in The Jewish Moral Virtures, "whatever involves us, we should let our hearts, rather than our wallets, decide just how much is enough." In feeding the poor or in the fulfillment of any mitzvah we should allow our understanding hearts to decide what is appropriate.

There is an old expression which describes a person who does not fully commit to a task: 'his/her heart was just not in it.' Though not rabbinic, it captures the intent of Binat HaLev. Tasks and commitments done with heart are substantially different than those that lack passion.   BARBARA BINDER KADDEN
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 5 - Orderly Speech-Middah Arichat Sefatayim
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 6 - Asking and Answering-Middah Shoayl U'Mayshiv
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 8 - Beloved-Middah Ahuv
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 10 - Slowness to Anger-Middah Erech Apayim
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 11 - Fear-Middah Ayma
Mensch•Mark For  Tishrei 13 - Good Heart-Middah Lev Tov
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 15 - Guarding One's Speech-Middah Seyag LiD'varav
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 16 - The Study of Torah-Middah Talmud
Mensch•Mark For Tishrei 17 - Happiness-Middah Simchah
Mensch•Mark For  Tishrei 18 - To Attend to the Sages-Middah Shimush Chachamim

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