Author Archives: Geoff Mitelman

Geoff Mitelman

About Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received the Cora Kahn Prize from the Cincinnati faculty for the most outstanding sermon delivery and oratory. An alumnus of Princeton University, he received multiple prizes for outstanding scholarship in Biblical and Judaic studies. In addition to My Jewish Learning, his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He was interviewed by BBC Radio’s World Have Your Say about the religious implications of the Higgs Boson, and is also on the planning committee for the new URJ 6 Points Science Academy. For seven years, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter Caroline.

Our Life: Based on a True Story

argoWhile there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets.  The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.

It was also completely fabricated.

Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.

We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:

A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)

It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”

While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.

Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.'” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.

So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.

Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”

How very true that is.

Posted on February 21, 2013

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What I’ve Learned from Crossword Puzzles

nytimes-episodeEvery day, I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. It truly is a ritual for me, almost as sacred as Shabbat: every night before going to bed, I load up the crossword on my phone or my computer, and try to plow through that mental challenge.

I’ve discovered that there’s a deep satisfaction that goes far beyond filling in that last box to complete the puzzle, and what I’ve learned is more than just the fact that Charles Lamb was also known as “Elia” and a whole long list of four-letter European rivers. What I really love about crosswords is the struggle, trying to figure out how I’m going to go about solving it.

And what the process of solving crosswords has truly taught me is how easily success can become failure, and how easily failure can become success.

Quite often, I come across a clue whose answer I feel certain that I’ve filled in correctly. And then I discover that one of the crosses doesn’t work. But I was so sure I was right! But it’s not working.

That’s usually when I get frustrated, because what I “knew” to be right actually turned out to be totally wrong. At that moment, my apparent success is preventing me from making further progress on the puzzle. And so the only way to break through that struggle is to say, “Maybe my assumption was wrong.”

That’s not easy to do in life — to be able to say, “Perhaps I was mistaken.” But what I’ve discovered is that when I have to re-think my approach, I gain new knowledge that I wasn’t expecting. I become a better solver for future puzzles. I begin to think in new and innovative ways.

To put it another way, I’m learning.

There’s an important distinction between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is something to have; learning is something to do. And in Judaism, the emphasis is much less on knowledge and much more on learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson says, “Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life.” (The Bedside Torah, 238)

In other words, learning is a life-long process, and it is never a simple journey from A to B to C — it’s a zigzag journey, and often requires several false starts. Indeed, making mistakes — and learning from them — is crucial for our sense of growth. In fact, building from our mistakes is what allows us to transform failure into success.

This past week, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield wrote a piece in the New York Times called “The Secret Ingredient for Success,” where they shared some of the research they had done on high achievers, including David Chang, owner of Momufuku, Martina Navratilova, and the band OK Go. As they noted:

In interviews we did with high achievers…we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

It’s never easy to accept the fact that we may have been going down the wrong path. Anyone who does crosswords knows how frustrating it can be to write, erase, re-write, re-erase, and start a whole section over again. But sometimes, if we take a step back and re-think what we’re doing, we can figure out that one word (or even one letter) that causes the whole puzzle to fall into place. What had seemed like abject failure just a few moments earlier has now become a completed grid.

So if we can become aware of our own shortcomings, if we can realize that at times our assumptions need to be revised, and if we can open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and new perspectives, then we can grow, learn and maybe even succeed.

As my colleague Rabbi Laura Baum recently wrote, “If we are not making mistakes, we are not pushing ourselves hard enough…But here’s the catch: Let’s try to make new mistakes. And each time we mess up, let’s consider what we can do differently next time.”

Indeed, crosswords can teach us more than just the first name of “NYPD Blue” actor Morales. They teach us how to fail — which is what we need to learn how to do in order to truly succeed.

Posted on January 24, 2013

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

How Many Unread Books Do You Own?

There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.

I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.

I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.

How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.

Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.

Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:

When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…

Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.

So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.

Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.

Posted on December 27, 2012

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Dreaming About the Powerball Jackpot

Yes, I caught Powerball fever these last few days. And yes, I knew my odds were small (my favorite example: if you took the distance from New York to Los Angeles and chose one specific inch on that journey, those would be your odds). And so even as I knew intellectually that my odds were infinitesimal, I still plunked down a few bucks to play.

In response, one of my colleagues came up with an excellent rationalization: “It is cheaper than seeing a movie and provides many more hours of entertainment in the daydreaming department.”

On some level, she was right. In a Q&A session with psychologist Daniel Gilbert, one person noted that the value of the lotto ticket isn’t the winning — it’s the good feeling that the anticipation creates. “To put it another way,” this man argues, “for the dollar investment, you can have a much better feeling than flushing it down the toilet, which you cannot have a good feeling from.”

Having hopes and dreams are crucial to our well-being. We have to fantasize about the way our lives and our world might be, because they impel us forward. That sense of a better future is inherent in Judaism — we talk about the “day when God’s name shall be one” and look towards the day when we live in a world of peace and justice. The State of Israel came into existence because one journalist who said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” And even the Israeli national anthem is entitled “The Hope.”

But it’s not enough simply to dream — we have to put in the work to make those dreams happen. And when we forget that, things like lotto fever can become dangerous. It’s fine to spend $10 to release the chemicals that allow us to enjoy our fantasy of a big house and fancy cars. But at least one person spent $450 dollars on Powerball tickets. Almost certainly, that was an amount of money that impacted her life — and not in a good way.

So it’s great to dream…but not at the expense of reality. Instead, we should be asking “Where am I now? Where do I want to be? And how do I work to get from where we are to where we want to be?”

Because the other factor that many people forget about in lotto fever is that as long as we not in poverty, money doesn’t really make us happy. Instead, as a lot of significant research shows, it’s not what we have but what we do that brings us joy: Connecting with friends. Making a difference in people’s lives. Developing a sense of gratitude for what we already have. And those are things that require their own investment of time and energy.

And as Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic reminds us, people who “who aren’t careful to cultivate happiness skills such as optimism, a charitable attitude and savvy money management habits often wind up in more wretched circumstances than where they started.”

Those skills, too, are ones that need to be honed and developed. So even if you win the lottery, there would still be work to be done.

In other words, yes, it feels good to dream. But in truth, it’s doing meaningful and important work that makes you feel great.

(This post was cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on November 29, 2012

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Connecting in a Disaster

At about 3:30 pm on Monday, our house in White Plains, New York lost TV and Internet service. We still had lights, and just a few minutes later, they came back on. We were hopeful.

But then, at about 6:30, I got a call from our landlord — he lost power.

Then, at about 7 pm, I started seeing Facebook statuses from people nearby saying, “No power.” So I knew it would just be a matter of time.

And indeed, about half an hour later, our lights flickered, flickered, and then went totally kaput. We joined the millions upon millions of people who lost power during Hurricane Sandy.

By Tuesday, our cell phone was running low on power, and our service was spotty at best. And we wondered — while we could hear the news through our battery-powered radio, if we had no internet and no phone, how would we connect with others? I felt very isolated — I wanted both to hear what was going on, and I wanted to tell others I was all right.

During the storm, people were certainly following the news, but even more, they were following their friends’ news. As Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus, our definition of “media” has changed — it’s no longer the one-way monologue of TV and radio; it’s now the conversation (both online and offline) that connects us with others.

I, too, felt a need to not only hear what others were going through, but to share my experience, as well. And what was fascinating was that I seemed to use the exact same words that so many people used to describe what was happening to them.

Facebook even provided their top ten status updates during the storm, and they probably sound a lot like what you saw or wrote:

1. we are ok
2. power – lost power, have power, no power
3. damage
4. hope everyone is ok
5. trees
6. made it
7. safe
8. thankful
9. fine
10. affected

Those phrases convey not only information, but emotion, as well. As Rabbi Rebecca Schorr just taught us, these words remind us that we share not only information but experiences with others — both joyous and scary. We have a need not only to know what is going on, but to share important events with others.

And what has inspired me the most (especially as someone who still has no power) is seeing neighbors, churches, synagogues, libraries and community organizations reaching out to others saying, “We have power — come to us.”

Indeed, while we hope that our life is easy, with few storms to toss us around, when disasters do happen, we truly see our ability and our need to connect with others. And even more striking, we see just how much it brings out the best in everyone.

Here’s hoping everyone is able to find a place of warmth, light and safety.

Posted on November 1, 2012

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The Expansiveness of Joy on Sukkot

Think about an activity you love to do that gives you a good challenge. Maybe it’s playing tennis. Maybe it’s sailing. Maybe you’re like me, and it’s working on the Saturday New York Times crossword.

Whatever it is, when you’re deeply involved in that activity, you’re in a state that’s known as “flow” — a state of pure enjoyment. Time seems to run at a different speed, you’re totally focused on your task, and afterwards, you feel a real sense of accomplishment.

“Flow” was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he argues that flow arises when we find challenges that are just ahead of our skills. And beyond the fact that being in flow just feels really good — it’s a state of pure enjoyment — there’s another very important aspect to it: flow pushes our skills to a new level.

If you are a tennis player, for example, you had to work your way up from getting the ball over the net (or not hitting it so hard so that it went over the fence) to improving your serve to nailing your backhand. Each new challenge was also an opportunity to improve your ability.

As Csikszentmihalyi phrased it:

Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness…

[In contrast,] enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.

Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 46)

In other words, joy expands who we are. And that’s a message we need to remember for Sukkot.

Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are called the “three pilgrimage festivals” because they were the three holidays when all the Israelites were commanded to come to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the holidays also has their own name in our liturgy. Passover, understandably, is called “the time of our freedom.” Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah, is naturally called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Sukkot’s title, however, is a little more mystifying — it is called “the time of our joy.” Why is that?

There are any number of reasons, but one of the explanations recalls an ancient tradition from Temple times. On Sukkot, there was a ceremony called “the drawing of water,” and the Rabbis taught, “One who has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen real joy.” (Sukkah 51a)

What was that “real joy”? Well, according to the Mishnah, people danced and sang, and the wisest and most pious men would juggle torches. While that sight would certainly make people smile and be happy, I think there’s a deeper lesson.

Because Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the population of Jerusalem would increase dramatically, so before the holiday, the priests and Levites would make major renovations to the outer courtyard. They would add some extra balconies, and the courtyard ended up being a little bigger than about the size of a football field.

But lots of people were coming for the holiday. Lots of people. Probably more than what the courtyard could handle. If you want an image, think of MetLife Stadium, but instead of everyone being in the stands, everyone is on the field. But, the Rabbis said, “Miraculously, tens of thousands of people were able to crowd in.”

Now, since thousands of people were coming, they certainly may have been a little physically cramped. But these thousands of people were not coming at any time. Instead they were coming at a specific time — Sukkot, “the time of our joy.” And joy has a miraculous quality to it, because when we are feeling joy, we can somehow always find room for more.

Think about this way: if you have a child, when your child was born, you didn’t say, “Well, since I have only 100 points of love, let me now figure out who I’ll love less.” No! Instead, the joy you felt caused your heart to grow. Miraculously, that joy led you to find room for more holiness, more specialness and more love than you ever thought possible.

Indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi taught us about being in flow, when we are doing anything that gives us real joy, we are learning new things and we pushing ourselves. We discover that joy helps us grow — and that there is no limit to its expansiveness.

So on this Sukkot, may we strive to create a little more joy in this world. We’ll find the room.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on October 4, 2012

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

How Deep Are Our Thoughts?

For our first anniversary, my wife and I went on a trip through the Southwest, seeing Sedona, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos. But the highlight for us was walking up to Mather Point at the Grand Canyon as Friday evening turned into Shabbat.

While I had seen the Grand Canyon when I was seven, I had no real recollection of it. When someone I know had gone to the Grand Canyon when he was 15, he had been outwardly unimpressed, remarking “It’s just a big hole in the ground.” But when we walked up to edge of the Canyon, I had no idea just how massive, impressive and beautiful it is. We stood, awe-struck, at the ways the Colorado River had cut into stone over millions of years, and with that image in front of us, we welcomed Shabbat. And the line that kept coming back to me was a verse from Psalm 92, a song for Shabbat: “How great are Your works, Adonai, how very deep are Your thoughts.”

Obviously, exclaiming “how great are Your works” was a natural reaction to having seen something as impressive as the Grand Canyon. But in truth, the word I couldn’t get out of my head was “deep.” The majesty of nature often inspires awe, and the “go-to” images are often sunsets, beaches and mountains. But what makes the Grand Canyon so mind-blowing is how you can see the intricacies of the layers of rock, and you realize that every time you see it from a new angle or at a different time of the day, you see something brand new.

It is amazing to me that something as complex as the Grand Canyon was the result of the flow of the Colorado River. And the Yavapai Geology Museum explained how that could happen. A placard in the museum noted that while rocks are imposing, impressive and seemingly eternal, they are no match against the power of water. Instead, it is the persistence of water deepens what we able to see.

This immediately reminded me of the story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history. According to legend, by the age of 40, he had not learned anything. One time he was standing at the mouth of a well, and asked “Who hollowed out this rock?” He realized that it was the constantly dripping of water, and so he said to himself: “Just as the soft [water] shaped the hard [stone], words of Torah — which are as hard as iron — all the more so they will shape my heart which is but flesh and blood.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 6) In other words, a slow accumulation of knowledge deepened his learning, and deepened his ability to understand.

So when the Psalm says “how very deep are Your thoughts,” it teaches us how important it is to “think deeply” about things. It is far too easy for us to skim headlines and ignore context, to regurgitate ideas without considering them critically, and to find support only for perspectives we already buy into.

Instead, we have a responsibility to go in depth. And when we do, we have an opportunity to continually discover more nuance, more complexity, and more beauty than we ever could have imagined.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on September 6, 2012

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

The Message our “Stuff” Sends

Hair Dye as History

While I have never used hair dye myself, I certainly watch my share of TV, and so I know the ad slogans for two of the most famous hair coloring systems — Miss Clairol and L’Oreal. What I didn’t know — and what author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his essay “True Colors” — was how those two slogans reflected the radical changes in the way women viewed themselves in post-war America.

“Does She or Doesn’t She?”

Gladwell’s essay starts by introducing us to Shirley Polykoff, a copy-writer who was charged with finding a way to advertise Miss Clairol’s brand-new, one-step, twenty-minute hair coloring system. Polykoff had personally experienced the potential humiliation of people whispering about whether she dyed her hair or not — the first time she went to meet her potential mother-in-law, she could imagine her wondering, “Does she color her hair, or doesn’t she?”

So as Polykoff set about writing a slogan for Miss Clairol, she realized that along with the choice to dye their hair, women were also looking for ways to minimize people wondering about whether they dyed their hair or not.

Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde, she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. ‘Only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ For Nice ‘n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, ‘The closer he gets, the better you look’… (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 79)

“Does she or doesn’t she?” is really a slogan that is focuses on what all those “other people” might think. While women certainly were starting to get more choice in their lives in the 1950’s — as evidenced by the fact that they could now color their hair quickly and easily — there was still significant societal pressure to keep that fact hidden. They still cared about what other people thought — and talked about.

“Because I’m Worth It”

Nearly twenty years later, second-wave feminism had taken hold. And when it came to hair dye, the focus was now not on what other people might think, but instead, on what women wanted for themselves.

Look at how copy-writer Ilon Specht created the slogan for L’Oreal’s Nice ‘n Easy:

[M]y feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for [others...so] in five minutes I wrote [the ad copy]:…’I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m worth it.’ (Gladwell, 87)

“Because I’m worth it” has a radically different feel to it than “Does she or doesn’t she?” It’s a much more assertive statement, and it’s much more self-focused. It’s about what the woman herself wants, rather than what other people might think.

Gladwell sums up the difference between the slogans like this: “[Ultimately, Clairol's] commercials were “other-directed” — they were about what the group was saying or what a husband might think. [Whereas L'Oreal's] line was what a woman says to herself”(Gladwell, 88).

Why We Buy Things

There is a very real tension between buying things for ourselves versus buying things for others to see. I’ll share an example from my own life. I consider myself an environmentalist — I try to recycle, turn off the water when I don’t use it, and have installed compact fluorescent bulbs in my home. But what I’m most proud of is my Honda Civic Hybrid. And it says on big letters on the bumper “HYBRID.” Yes, I’m happy to be helping the environment, but it’s also a public statement I want to make — people now know I drive a hybrid.

It’s the same with most of the other things we buy — yes, we want function. But there is always a small part of us that wants to send a message to others. Whether it’s the books on the coffee table, the furniture in our homes, or the cars we drive, our “stuff” isn’t just for us to enjoy — consciously or not, it’s also designed for others to see and to cause them to think about us in a certain way.

Jacob’s “Message” to Esau

There’s a short passage in Genesis where Jacob uses his “stuff” to send a message to his brother Esau. Let’s take a look at what he says.

Of all the characters in Genesis, Jacob was once of the richest. How did he get so rich? It really started when he stole two things from Esau — his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau was the older brother, and in Biblical times, the “birthright” entitled the oldest sibling to get twice as much of the inheritance as the younger siblings. Jacob was able to convince Esau to sell that to him, so Jacob then was then the sibling who received a double portion. Then, as their father Isaac was dying, he wanted to bless Esau. But a”blessing” in the Bible wasn’t just something along the lines of, “May you have strength.” No, a “blessing” in the Bible meant that God would bless you with material riches. And Jacob was able to manipulate his father so that he would also get that blessing instead of Esau, as well.

Esau, understandably, wasn’t so happy about that. In fact, he was so enraged that he wanted to kill Jacob. Their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s house, where Jacob was able to work for twenty years, and perhaps because God had indeed blessed him, gained an enormous amount of wealth.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is about to meet Esau for the first time in twenty years. He’s a little nervous about what Esau might do — will he forgive him? Or will he kill him? So he sends some messengers to Esau to find out what Esau is thinking, and also to give Esau a message.

But what is the message Jacob sends? It appears in Genesis 32:5-6: “I have stayed with [our uncle] Laban until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I send this message to you [literally, 'my lord'], that I may find favor in your sight.”

The message is not, “I’m sorry for having stolen your birthright.” It’s not, “What have you been up to in these last twenty years, Esau?” The message Jacob seems to send to Esau is simply, “Look at me! I’m rich!”

The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming with four hundred men. That terrifies Jacob, so he asks God for help, and in his prayer, he says, “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses, and of all the truth, which You have shown to me [literally, 'Your servant'].” (Genesis 32:11) He does almost a complete 180 here, and feels like he is not “worthy” of all the blessings God has shown him. Yes, he has his wealth. But he starts to wonder — is he worth it?

Are We “Worth” Our Possessions?

The message Jacob sends to Esau is a totally “other-directed” message — like the Miss Clairol ads, it’s designed to get someone else (here, it’s Esau) talking about him. You can just imagine Jacob hoping that Esau would see his riches and think, “Ooh, how did Jacob get all this stuff?”

But when Esau responds in a way that makes Jacob nervous, Jacob has to pray to God for help. And because Jacob’s message was so “other-directed” he couldn’t even be proud of himself for all he was able to acquire in Laban’s house. By starting off trying to prove to Esau just how rich he was, Jacob ends up saying, “I am unworthy.” It is very hard for us to imagine Jacob at this moment confidently looking at all his wealth and proclaiming, “I’m worth it!”

For us today, we buy things for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we want others to talk. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re “worth” it. But in fact, neither outlook is the most helpful way to look at why we buy things. Since our money is one of our most precious resources, we need to explore: are we spending in ways that are consonant with our values? Not because “we’re worth it” or to get people to ask “does she or doesn’t she?” or to be able to say, “Look at all that I have acquired!” but rather, to be able to spend money in ways so that when we look back on our bank statements we can say, “I am proud of how I spent my money.”

Posted on August 9, 2012

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What Playing Games Can Teach Us About Prayer

While I certainly use my iPhone to check my e-mail and make calls, far and away, what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words with Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.

But why? What is it about games that draw people in?

According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweetspot in the interaction between two poles — structure and creativity.

Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly, because there’s no space for imagination.

But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.

One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”

Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.

Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”

What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and…whoosh!”

We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games — they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.

In Judaism, prayer involves those two components — keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored, because it feels boring, or repetitive, or that it’s simply rote recitation.

But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well:

What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed… (in Comins, Making Prayer Real, 146-7)

We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.

By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.

Indeed, that’s the deep connection between both games and religion. In a review of Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, Charles Mathewes reminds us that

…[p]lay involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment…

In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on July 12, 2012

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

Pick a Destiny, Any Destiny

David Blaine’s street magic specials are always fun to watch. If you haven’t seen what he does, this is a great example.

Now, if you’re anything like me, your immediate reaction was, “Oh my God – how did he do that?!” It almost felt like he was reading that woman’s mind, since it looked like she had the choice to have “picked a card, any card.” But in fact, where magicians like David Blaine are truly masters of illusion is in creating the best illusion of all – the illusion that we have free choice.

One of the reasons magicians are able to “know” what card we’ve picked is because they have already determined what card they wanted us to pick – it was never really actually “our” choice in the first place. Their trickery lies in their ability to lead us to feel invested in “our” decision.

Stephen Macknik and Susanna Martinez-Conde are the authors of the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions, and they argue that the reason we feel like we were the ones who actually picked the card was because “[o]ur minds will go to surprising lengths to preserve [our] sense of agency and choice.” (pp. 171-172) In other words, our brains sometimes lie to us, leading us to believe that we have much more control over our situations than we actually do.

And yet that’s actually not all that surprising. We know in our own lives that we do not have unlimited choice – there are very real limits to what we have the freedom to do. We can not simply “choose” to get a million dollars – we have to work hard at a high-paying job, and even then, luck will play a big role in whether or not we succeed. We cannot just “decide” to lose weight – we have to diet and exercise, and even then, our metabolism or our willpower may make it challenging to meet that goal. Our genetics, our environment and our past decisions all restrict our choices to an extent. While we may want to believe we have total and complete free will, when we reflect on it, we recognize that we are not nearly as free as we think.

Rabbi Akiva’s Magic Show

This question of how much free will we truly have is actually a very old one, and it’s one the Rabbis grappled with, as well. And perhaps the most classic statement comes from Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot, when he said, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15)

But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything?

Well, think about a magic trick, but think about it from two different perspectives — from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating the trick, and from our point of view, experiencing it. For the magician, “all is foreseen” — he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we feel we could have picked any card at all. And that’s the point. For the trick to work, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge — even if that’s not really the case.

So that realization can also help us understand Akiva’s statement — except this time, let’s think of our lives from two different perspectives — from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. I think it actually doesn’t matter which one is true, because as imperfect human beings, we will simply never be able to know objectively one way or the other. The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” — and it’s crucial for us to hold onto that belief, even if that, too, is not always the case.

And that’s because if we simply feel invested in our choices — even if sometimes they aren’t always ours” — we can then own them and take responsibility for them. If our only belief is that God has foreseen everything, that could easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. But if we believe we are the ones in charge of our lives, then we can take pride in our ideas, celebrate our accomplishments, and become accountable for our decisions — regardless of how much they really are “ours.”

So whether or not “all is foreseen,” it’s much more important for us to act as though “freedom of choice is given,” because that’s how we feel a sense of ownership of our actions, over ourselves and our own lives. Because whether or not “all is foreseen,” and whether or not “freedom of choice is given,” we know from experience that there is great value in feeling like we can pick our destiny — any destiny we choose.

(originally published on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on May 17, 2012

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