Author Archives: Erica Brown

Breaking Bad Habits

“It is too late to prepare when temptation is actually at hand.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger

Sometimes you find yourself dangerously close to a piece of cheesecake. It inches even closer to you, begging to be eaten. “I can’t help myself,” you find yourself saying, as if an extra-terrestrial being has taken hold of you and forced down the cake. This reminds me of a trouble-maker I went to school with whose yearbook quote read: “Lead us not into temptation. Just leave us alone. We’ll find it.” Kicking the cheesecake habit is hard. But it is not impossible if you will it.

Even though they say that bad habits are hard to break, Charles Duhigg, in his recent book The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that, “Your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.” It needs to be fortified.

If repetition is the key to habit then recalibrating behaviors and doing them again and again differently becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but still do-able. Research done at Duke University shows that 40% of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866) was a Talmudic scholar and the first Gerer Rebbe, a Hasidic sect popular in Poland. Many stories and legends have evolved about the Rebbe’s piety and knowledge. Martin Buber, in Tales of the Hasidim, shares a well-known story about the Rebbe. When his mother died, he followed her bier, begging for forgiveness. He spoke to his mother’s coffin, “In this world, I am a man who is much honored and many call me rabbi. But now you will enter the world of truth and see that it is not as they think. So forgive me and do not bear me a grudge. What can I do, if people are mistaken in me?” Perhaps he understood that those who came to her funeral were doing so out of honor for him, taking away from his mother’s honor. He apologized.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir did not posses any research from Duke University, but he did spend a lot of time contemplating the battle of good over evil. He warned his followers: “There will be many and grave temptations, and he who has not prepared himself for them will be lost.” You cannot prepare yourself for temptation when you are standing in front of it. You will not have had time or forethought to form the good habits you need to overcome desire. Imagine going to Siberia in the winter. Only when getting there do you realize that you need a coat. Ill-prepared, you cannot stay. But this would never happen because we check the weather before we travel. We can also check ourselves before we enter a situation which we suspect will present a test of our willpower. Temptation according to the Gerer Rebbe is something we prepare for precisely because he believed that temptation is a test: “it shows what within you is dross and what is true metal.” When your temptation level feels like jello, it’s time to remember Rabbi Yitzchak Meir and remind yourself that you’ve got nerves of steel.

Temptation is overcome by forming good habits and repeating them. That’s true when it comes to speaking well of others, praying, giving charity, studying, exercising, visiting the sick, and spending time with our families. We know where temptation lives, but research now helps us understand that we can knock on another door.

Posted on March 24, 2012

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Complex Happiness

This entry was posted in Israel, Life on by .

We are living in a moment of Jewish historic significance, one which embodies the blessing: “Thank you God for helping us arrive at this day.” This Simchat Torah, we express joy not only as we complete the reading of the Torah, but as we come to the end of a five year struggle to achieve the freedom of one Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit. I will now put away his dog tags that have been near my Shabbat candles, helping me think of him when bringing extra light into my own home. I wonder at how he has changed these past years and how excruciating it must be to leave one painful world and enter another realm entirely, one full of heroic expectations.

Throughout the difficult moral debates of the past weeks, the Jewish unity that people expected has broken down into understandable fractiousness. I have gone back in my mind to one of the most well-known statements in the Mishna: “If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world” (BT Sanhedrin 4:5). We hear this used in all kinds of metaphoric contexts, but now the situation is real and the question is painful. Should we do anything to save one human life? As we read the long list of prisoner names who have and who will be released, we cannot ignore the heinous crimes of most and the fear we have that years in Israeli prisons has only toughened their determination to return to terror. Will kidnapping soldiers become the ticket to prisoner freedom in the future?

There is another Talmudic principle that comes to mind: “If confronted with a certainty and a doubt, the certainty is preferable.” We do not know how to answer the above questions. They are all part of a future landscape we can only imagine but one which has not been actualized. We know for certain now that this lone Israeli soldier is alive and can be freed and so, in our Jewish tradition of redeeming captives as the most important collective commandment we can perform, we will go with that certainty and forgo the doubt for now.
But these decisions are political ones, not Talmudic ones. They were made under great national pressure but also with the overwhelming support of the Knesset and Israel’s security services. They were made when a small window of opportunity opened in a Middle East collapsing with anarchy. And if Gilad were allowed to languish in captivity to prevent this kind of leveraging, would any parent of sound mind be prepared to send a child into an army that is not committed to returning their children, whenever possible, home safely?
I have found my response in a muted, complex happiness and in a prayer found on a piece of wrapping paper in the Ravensbruck concentration camp:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we brought thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, out loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this; and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

I will think of the thousands of kindnesses that have led to this moment in time, the fruits we have brought to the altar of suffering, the fruits that sometimes can only come from suffering. I will pray that those who are freed will use their freedom responsibly and that we can create a universe where God will redeem suffering because we do.

In the past 54 years, Israel has exchanged 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers. Gilad is not the first, and he probably won’t be the last. And if this is the craziest thing we do as a people to show what the value of one life means to the rest of the world, so be it. We are crazy about survival – the survival of each and every one of our people. And we’ve survived longer than most because of this almost fanatical – meshugena - commitment to what life means. And to an enemy that blows up its own and calls them martyrs we say loudly, “Not us. To us, every single life is a treasure.” It doesn’t get more Jewish than this.

Posted on October 18, 2011

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Building a Great House on Sukkot

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

“We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.”
Nicole Krauss

Thousands of years ago, after our first exile in Babylonia, the Jews returned to a land and a covenant that was distant from them. Ezra the Scribe gathered the people and took out a Torah scroll and read to them what they had been missing. And the exiles wept for all that had been lost. Ezra and Nehemiah told them not great houseto cry but to rejoice for it was Rosh Hashanah. “This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep.” They were told to eat, drink and give of their portions to those who had none. The mood changed from one of guilt and sorrow to one of celebration.

A few weeks later, the people were told to go to the mountains and bring leafy branches to construct sukkot, booths to remind them of life in the wilderness. “The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths – the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day – and there was very great rejoicing.” It must have been a remarkable scene, watching the Israelites after years of exile, rejoicing together in their sukkot, recreating Jewish life from fragments.

Nicole Krauss, in her novel Great House, captures some of the joy and the pain of a house you once knew that is reconstructed in your memory, the only place in which it exists. We live, she says, to preserve a fragment of a memory and those fragments are made up of the small pieces of our lives that we are trying somehow to return to.

Each year when we build a sukkah, we are trying to recapture the fragments of ancient life in a wilderness, a historical landscape we never experienced. It is a house of our imagination but also built on real memories. We take out the faded decorations that were made by our children years ago. And we understand that building this strange house is the way we erect an altar to layers of memory. We physically put ourselves inside this memory house and live in it for a week.

There is a custom to begin building a sukkah right after Yom Kippur is finished. I personally recommend breaking your fast before getting out the hammer, but the sentiment makes a great deal of sense. Yom Kippur drains us physically and mentally. It puts us in close contact with our mortality. It sobers us up. When we are finished petitioning God and beating our chests with our wrongdoings, we need to rebuild ourselves and we do so by building a house of joy. Every year at this time I quote Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who famously explained this custom this way: “If you’re a new person, you need a new house.”

Not just any house. The house that we build will only be temporary and not fancy in any way. It is a house where we are mandated to invite a lot of people to join us precisely because our new house is not fancy. The sukkah reminds us that the core of a Jewish house is the table and the people around it. It’s never the carpet, the paint or the furniture. Those are just incidentals. The sukkah helps us filter what is essential to a Jewish house and what is not. And we have a custom on Sukkot to read ushpizin, prayers that welcome our ancestors into our sukkah. Our guests are not only the living but also our historical role-models, and this invitation makes us pause. Is my house a home where Abraham and Sarah would feel comfortable? Is it a place where Torah is shared and joy is doubled through song?

“And there was very great rejoicing.” Those who built sukkot for the first time after exile must have experienced the tang of newness and the slight cringe of having lost something that they were trying desperately to recapture. Once built, they understood that the sukkah is our Jewish house of memory and joy.

Posted on October 11, 2011

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An Empty Mental Space

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Earlier this week, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?”, and wrote about learning to mourn. Her new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available.

jewish authors blogJewish law is based generally on the assumption that our emotions follow our actions. If we act charitably, we will become, over time, more compassionate human beings. We don’t wait for a moment of empathy to hit before we obligate ourselves to give. Yet we are commanded when it comes to certain emotions: we are supposed to love God, supposed to refrain from hate towards others and feel reverence for our parents.

During the Three Weeks, the summer stretch of time that is marked by two fasts commemorating the destruction of the Temples and any other persecution of Jews in history, we are obligated to mourn. Our mourning consists of many behaviors designed to minimize our sense of joy. But if you look carefully at the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law written by Rabi Joseph Karo, you notice a small but stunning appeal to the emotions.

In addition to the Three Weeks as a calendar marking, there are a set of laws that we are supposed to observe to remind us of the loss of our holy Temples. We break a glass at a Jewish wedding and some have the custom of putting an ash mark on the forehead of the groom. In other words, our happiest moments are tarnished – if just a little bit – because we realize their incompleteness without our ancient spiritual center. These practices are still common today.

Less common is the idea that whenever a woman wears her full set of jewelry, she should leave out one piece. Whenever we set our tables for a holiday feast, we leave one place setting empty and whenever we build a home, we leave a space free of plaster near our front door. All of these practices share one common theme: emptiness.

It is near impossible to mourn something we have never experienced. The closest, perhaps most honest response to loss is to leave a space empty that should not be filled. This approach has characterized many memorials to loss in recent years. The Oklahoma bombings have been commemorated with a field of empty chairs. The 9/11 Pentagon plane crash has been marked in a similar way, with empty benches for the number of people who died in that terrorist attack.

Right at the end of the code of Jewish law that presents these practices, we read that no one should experience complete happiness in this life. This goes far beyond table settings and to the heart of what loss means. If you ask anyone who has lost a very close friend, a child or a spouse, they will tell you that although – over time – they live “normally,” they never experience complete happiness because a piece of themselves is always missing. That, I believe, is what our sages of old wanted us to experience – a loss of a collective spirit and connection to the divine that we can only approximate but never fully understand, that we carry with us always.

Dr. Erica Brown has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog. Her new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available, and she will be tweeting during the Three Weeks at @DrEricaBrown.

Posted on July 22, 2011

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Learning to Mourn

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

On Monday, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?” She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Author Blog.

jewish authors blogWe have become who we are as a people not only by celebrating our most joyous collective occasions, like Passover and Shavuot, but also by our capacity to mourn as a group for that which we’ve lost or never experienced. This is best embodied by the demands of the season – the Three Weeks – that are bookended by two fasts all grieving over the loss of the Temples, Jerusalem and other tragedies of Jewish history.

I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get worked up about something that happened so long ago and has little relevance to their lives today. But I imagine that pilgrimage to Jerusalem must have been a remarkable sight. Seeing people stream into the holy city from every possible direction with their families in tow must have created an expansive feeling of pride and unity, one that is hard to imagine in today’s Jewish world.

We don’t have many occasions that bring us together, let alone three pilgrimage holidays a year that characterized our ancient service. We should mourn the loss of this collective place of gathering, if only because we know its absence too intimately in contemporary Judaism. We have no such gathering erica brownplace for our collective guilt, tears, happiness and consolation. It must have been special to have a central holy site to bring all of our tears and prayers of thanksgiving, to travel to with all our good and bad news. And even if we were waylaid and couldn’t make it to Jerusalem, there must have been comfort in merely knowing that such a place existed.

One of my beloved teachers calls the Kotel, the Western Wall, God’s office. I laugh every time he says it. But I know that the spiritual world looks different to those who feel that God has an “office” in this world even if you don’t live close by it.

Today, we are so distant from an appreciation of Jewish history that we do not even know how to mourn or even that we are supposed to mourn. The Three Weeks isn’t for “antique” Jews, those who live in some distant and unfathomable past. It is a period for all Jews to take stock of what community and peoplehood means from a spiritual and historic perspective. When we talk about redeeming the future we have to create a picture of what that collective future might look like. As Jews, we do that by looking back at our past first.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

Posted on July 21, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Are the Three Weeks, Anyway?

This entry was posted in General on by .

Dr. Erica Brown is the author of In the Narrow Places, a daily meditation for each day of the Three Weeks. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

jewish authors blogI recently spoke at a Melton graduation that marked a two year commitment of adults studying Judaism seriously through a global curriculum out of the Hebrew University. The rabbi who introduced me mentioned my current book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks followed immediately by, ‘If you don’t know what the Three Weeks are, please sign up for Melton.” I was happy to be used as an advertisement for the course but less happy with the realization that this time period is virtually unknown outside of traditionally observant circles.

Let’s face it. It is odd to have any commemorative period referred to by the number of days it occupies, and the fact that it happens during the summer does nothing to help its popularity. The Three Weeks is officially called “bein ha-mitzarim” – between the straights or narrow places from the biblical book of Lamentations. This quiet quasi-month of mourning is marked by two fasts: the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.

The three week period includes these fasts at both ends and a general mourning period in between which is solemnized by reducing our daily sense of joy. Traditional Jews do not go to public concerts or movies. Many men do not shave. We reduce our personal hygiene somewhat and minimize the role of music in our lives. But these small daily inconveniences have not necessarily added up to the period of introspection that should characterize this time on the Jewish calendar.

The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the siege of ancient Jerusalem and the weeks that ensue take us sadly to the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The Ninth of Av is the strictest fast we observe after Yom Kippur. erica brownIt is 24 hours in duration, and we are also forbidden from wearing leather shoes, washing or perfuming ourselves or engaging in sexual relations. Congregants sit on the floor in the evening, listening to the book of lamentations read in a haunting melody and then recite kinnot the next morning, a litany of complex, mostly medieval poems in acrostic fashion that take us from one calamity in Jewish history after another. It is an emotionally draining day. Adding to the hunger is the fatigue of loss that envelopes the mourners who reflect on how tragedy shapes us and our values.

Mourning does shape us. Recognizing what we have lost is an important way that we value what we have. And it is time that as community we stretch back farther than the Holocaust to realize just how persecution and loss has shaped our past and how survival and redemption constantly shape our present and future. The Three Weeks is a gift of collective introspection at a time when we need to enhance our sense of group values and our shared memories.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

Posted on July 19, 2011

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Celebrating Osama’s Death

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

“My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”
- Babylonian Talmud Megillah 10b

It took less than 24 hours for American t-shirt vendors to come up with shirts celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden: “It Took Obama to Get Osama,” “Voted Off the Planet” and “Public Enemy #1 is Dead.” According to The Washington Post, you can even buy a coffee mug that says “Happy Nosama Day.” Film clippings outside the White House and at Ground Zero in New York showed a cascade of revelers on Sunday night, jumping up and down with excitement.

We all feel immense relief and gratitude that someone who was responsible for so much anti-American sentiment, so many deaths and so many terrorist threats has now lost a global voice, but an ethical question lingers. Is celebrating the death of anyone, even someone as hated and destructive as Osama Bin Laden, an appropriate Jewish response?

This is a complex and important question. To answer it, let’s turn to three Jewish sources.

The book of Ezekiel 18:23 records a prophetic response to this question. ” ‘Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?’ says the Lord. ‘Of course not. I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.’ ” We don’t desire the death of those who do wrong, even great crimes against humanity. We want them to change. This may be naïve, but the text surfaces not only a spiritual approach to transformation but a profound sense of the value of all human life.

In the Talmud, we find a curious story of a master sage, Rabbi Meir, who was praying for the death of two robbers. His famous wife, Bruria, overheard his prayer and corrected him. “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more” (Psalm 104:35). “It doesn’t say ‘Let the sinners be uprooted’,” Bruria corrected him. “It says, ‘Let the sins be uprooted’.” You shouldn’t pray that these criminals will die; you should pray that they should repent. And then “the wicked will be no more.” Bruria, no doubt, understood that the likelihood of these individuals changing was slim, but our response — especially in the format of prayer — should be to rehabilitate rather than to destroy.

The last source is found in another Talmudic passage. It records a fictional conversation between God and the angels. The Israelites just crossed the Reed Sea after escaping the Egyptians. The water closed in on these enemies while the Israelites broke out in ecstatic singing following Moses’ recitation of the “Song of the Sea” found in Exodus 15. The angels, the text states, wanted to sing but God turned to them and said “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”

Of course there‘s a desire to sing. There is a need to cry out in joy. But these knee-jerk reactions should be tempered by the larger question of what a human life is worth. Relief  is appropriate. Celebration may just cross over a spiritual line. When it says in Genesis that we are created in God’s image it does not single out anyone as an exception to that rule. And if Osama Bin Laden did not treat others as if they were created in God’s image, let us not imitate that primal, vindictive impulse but transform it by affirming the goodness of humanity and the precious gift of life.

Posted on May 4, 2011

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This entry was posted in Texts on by .

If anyone makes his friend’s face turn white in public, it is as if he spilled blood.-Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b)

All week I have been haunted by an image of a young college student, shamed and anguished enough to take his life because his roommate made his private life public. I am haunted by the suicides that have followed in its wake. With so many beautiful young lives taken, we cannot afford to sit passively and read the news. Where is the outrage?

The Talmud devotes several pages to the cost of embarrassing someone else. It is an act likened to murder; the death of an 18 year old Rutgers student is the case study that makes this Talmudic statement jump off the page. And yet, physiologically what does the Talmud mean by a whitening of the face? When we embarrass someone else we make them blush.

The face reddens. The Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, explain that true embarrassment whitens the face. All the blood that gathers in the face at the moment of embarrassment drains from the face leaving the skin white and ghastly. The Talmud focuses on the height of embarrassment – not only its sudden shock but the after-shock. The immediate impact of what was said to us or about us has left, and in its place are the awful consequences, the change of public opinion, the humiliation.

Many people are blaming technology for this suicide, but technology is only a servant to human intention. It is a method, not a cause. Maybe we blame technology to minimize the human accountability in this story. It is true that technology has vastly changed the way that we communicate and has challenged the boundaries of privacy. In an NPR interview this week, a professor of social media from Harvard contended that new forms of communication are indeed pushing the norms of identity.

In the “old days,” we could bifurcate our public and private lives, who we were at work and school and who we were at home. But when we put up a picture of our last vacation or the birth of puppies on an internet profile, we blur those distinctions. Our co-workers can see us outside of our cubicles. So blurry are these distinctions that people are now using multiple names for their screen profiles so that potential employers cannot look them up and discover how much they had to drink last weekend. If you’re one of these people, think again. The capacity of technology to shape and manipulate identity is frightening. We need to be integrated, whole, ethical selves. We need to be people who have nothing shameful to hide.

Last week, in a fascinating confluence, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker called ‘Small Change’ on technology and social action and a movie was released about social networking. Gladwell questions whether the lunch counter revolution during the Civil Rights Movement would have ever happened had people been mobilized by Facebook and Twitter. He argues that the kind of sacrifices required to ameliorate societal ills like racism are beyond what social media can produce. In his words, technology “…makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

We get information quickly, but in order to act on  information to change lives we still need face-to-face relationships. Could it be, in light of our Talmudic aphorism, that we think less about the white face of another’s embarrassment when we do not see that face at all? Has technology removed the kind of relationship building that lets a crime like last week’s happen?

The poet Robert Browning struggled with his own lack of privacy and wrote, “I give the fight up: let there be an end, a privacy, an obscure nook for me. I want to be forgotten even by God.” Browning may have wanted to give up the fight, but we cannot. God will not forget us nor will God allow us to forget that we are created in the divine image and that demands responsibility to find and protect the image of God in the face of every other human being.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Posted on October 8, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy