Tag Archives: ethics

What’s YOUR Legacy?

There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”

Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacyand the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.

One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.

Legacy

In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good.  It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.

A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical willa document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?

I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.

This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.

Posted on October 13, 2014

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A Holiday of Reconciliation

Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses variedsome musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situationand a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of themthey can be found if you wish to search for them).

This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizinthe kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.

The very first of thoseAbraham and Sarahrepresent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minimthe myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.

We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome allour tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come outregardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.

The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.

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Posted on October 12, 2014

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Honest Boundaries Make Good Neighbors

shuhada_st

Shuhada Street

I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.

As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.

As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.

In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”

Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.

But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.

Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.

The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.

Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.

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Posted on September 14, 2014

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Should We Really Label Our Children? Yes…Sometimes.

baskinhaggadah11I’ve always been troubled by the “four children” in the Haggadah.

Passover is supposed to teach our children about how we can create a world filled with more justice, kindness and compassion, so where I struggle is with the idea of calling a child inherently “wise, wicked, simply or unable to ask.” I had always been taught that to raise moral children, we should praise behavior (“that was very kind of you to share your toys!”) and not identity (“you’re such a nice person!”).

So when it came to the four children, I believed that by calling them “wise” or “wicked,” “simple” or “unable to ask,” I would be pigeonholing them into an identity, and one that they could never grow out of. But it looks like I might have been wrong — at least when it comes to encouraging good behavior and creating good people.

On Sunday, Adam Grant (author of the book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success), wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times and shared some fascinating research on what we can do to raise ethical children. One of his main points is that at the age when children begin to create their sense of identity (about 7 or 8 years old), we should praise “who they are” in order to help them start to see themselves as good people.

In one experiment, children won some marbles, and then donated them. They were all told, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.” But for some of the children, the action was praised (“that was a nice and helpful thing to do”), while for others, the character was praised (“you are a nice and helpful person”).

The question was, what would happen down the road, when the children were given a new chance to be nice and helpful? As it turned out,

…[t]he children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been.

Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.

This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs. To get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.”

When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.

While we may still grapple with the Haggadah “labeling” children, the truth is, our behaviors create our identity, and our identity informs our behavior. After all, some of us relish being “the curious one” or “the provocative one,” some of us are always just happy to be together with friends and family, and some of us need to be shown what we are missing.

In the end, Passover reminds us that we are free, which means that we have the freedom to choose how we act. Yet those actions will ultimately define who we are.

So with all the questions this holiday encourages, perhaps the most important one is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”

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Posted on April 17, 2014

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“Is the Lord Present Among Us or Not?”

moses2The state of public discourse, both within the Jewish community and within our society at large, has taken rather a beating. Even when people across the political aisles can be brought to the same room for debate, the exchanges seem to be more a pro forma opportunity to restate one side’s positions or insult the other.

Religious communities aren’t any better. Each one declares itself fully in possession of the knowledge of God’s opinions. And yet, Judaism suggests that perhaps we would be better off having some humility. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lying.”

The mystics called this world alma d’sfeka—“a world of doubtfulness,” and yet we find that so often we are convinced of our rightness. Convinced enough to end friendships or to go to war. The talmud is speaking of deliberate falsehood, but it might just as well be speaking of words we speak of things that we consider certain, which may turn out not to be. This doubtful world is one in which conflicting perspectives—which may be equally true to the respective speakers—make the possibility of discerning “the whole story” of anything very difficult, if not impossible.

The midrash compares Moses to the other prophets, saying, “What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Il’ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Yehudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses, but Moses saw through only one. The rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, but Moses saw through a clear lens.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:14)

Moses saw the most clearly, but he, the greatest of all prophets, still saw truth through a lens. The clearest sighted among us still was divided from direct knowledge; his vision, too, was limited.

We like to think that religion’s business is to give us answers because it is frightening to have to make decisions without knowing the outcome, and yet we must. It is also disturbing to wonder: Can you have trust if you have doubt? Can you have religion, if you don’t have certainty?

The Talmud, that great argument of the rabbis, in which they strove to discern the will of God, is not really a work of answers—it is a work of questions. Some questions can be answered, but many are left for Elijah the prophet to answer in the future. Some truths cannot be known by us, now.

And so while we have to make decisions—to take risks with not enough information, and to hope that we will know enough, even knowing most of the time we won’t—when we try to persuade others to take a course of action, it might be worthwhile to speak with humility, and ask ourselves, when we feel certain of our rightness, whether it is really the other person whom we are trying to convince.

Posted on March 26, 2014

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We Don’t Really Talk About Purim

Before we crash headlong into the various celebratory, lighthearted posts about Purim, I want to draw your attention to something: the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, is not actually a particularly happy one.

It is a parody of course, but like many parodies, it is rather dark. Starting with what appears to be the murder of the Queen for the crime of refusing to be displayed like a piece of meat, followed by a forced surrender of all “pretty” girls in the kingdoms from their homes, to the end, where the Jews defended themselves to the tune of the death of over 80,000 people, I find it somewhat difficult to find much that I like about the actual thing that we are supposed to be celebrating (I’m fine with the theme of survival, and of giving money to the poor and gifts of food to friends, though).

It seems to me that even though the rabbis still advocated celebration, there was this hint of darkness for them as well. In the Talmud, Megillah 7b, the following story is related:

Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’. Rabbah and R`Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R`Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.

This is the same sort of dark parody related by the megillah itself. Clearly, the punchline is that  Rav Zera won’t come back for another round of “mellowing.” The drunkenness of Rabbah results in violence and death, which itself then leads to a miracle – but Rav Zera would prefer not to engage with that kind of miracle, thanks. The megillah, too, offers a miracle – but the miracle seems to be that we defended ourselves with a bloodbath. Perhaps because it is a parody, it’s okay to have zombie heads shooting off in every direction during the joyous finale, but I can’t help but ask whether we were, even as a parody, supposed to enjoin celebration in an abattoir. Were we, then, incapable of imagining an ending where we survived without harming others?

 

Posted on March 12, 2014

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Derek Jeter’s Legacy — “Know Before Whom You Stand”

Derek JeterLast week, Derek Jeter — the New York Yankees’ star shortstop for almost 20 years — announced that 2014 would be his final year. Not only was he the face of the Yankees, in a poll of over 1000 baseball fans, he was seen to be “the face of baseball.”

So as his incredible career comes to a close, and as both Yankee fans and baseball fans start to think about his impact, I want to highlight one Jewish value that I think exemplifies Derek Jeter’s legacy: da lifnei mi atah omed – “Know before Whom you stand.”

That phrase from Rabbinic literature is on top of many arks in synagogues. The idea is that if we are constantly reminded that God is watching us, we become that much more likely to consider our actions and to ensure that we behave in ethical ways.

And as a lot of research shows, if we have someone else we have to answer to — whether that is a boss, a colleague, a spouse or simply public opinion — we become much more committed to fulfilling our goals and acting more appropriately. After all, we humans are masters at rationalizing poor behavior. We can easily talk ourselves out of going to the gym (“it’s raining out!”), or into cheating a little bit on our taxes (“everyone else does it!”). If we don’t have anyone else to answer to, our brains are experts at creating excuses.

So even if we don’t believe in all-powerful, all-seeing Deity, if we are constantly reminded that someone may always be watching and that we should “know before Whom we stand,” then we act more responsibly.

That was a lesson that stuck with Derek Jeter over 20 years ago, three years before he truly broke into the Major Leagues. During spring training in 1993, Jeter and Don Mattingly (the face of the Yankees of that time) were heading back to the clubhouse from the field. The stands were empty — there were no coaches, no other players, no media. Despite that, rather than simply strolling back to the dugout, Mattingly told Jeter to run in anyway. Why? “Because you never know who is watching.”

Mattingly’s lesson that “you never know who is watching” inspired Jeter at the outset of his career. He would hustle, he would play hard, and he wouldn’t showboat because he always knew that anything he did would be watching and scrutinized. In the end, that made him a fantastic ballplayer and a mensch of a human being.

Indeed, if we always keep in mind that someone is paying attention to our words and actions, we will make sure to bring our A game.

That was a lesson the Rabbis wanted to teach, as well. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students went to visit him. They said: “Master, give us your blessing.” He answered: “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings.” They said: “Is that all?” He replied: “That is more than enough, believe me! Don’t you know that when we are about to do something wrong, we dismiss God from our minds and hope that no human eye will see us!”

In our world today, someone is always watching. And that’s why Derek Jeter was “the face of baseball.” Yes, other players had better stats and may have objectively have been better players. But because he always “knew before whom he stood,” he acted with respect, hard work and humility — towards himself, his teammates, his opponents and the game of baseball.

And that’s a legacy we all can strive to leave, as well.

 

Posted on February 20, 2014

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Airing The Dirty Laundry and Jewish Communal News

As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.

laundry-pinsThere are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.

Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.

In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.

Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.

 

Posted on January 31, 2014

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Terror in Afula, Seen from Afar

ein-dorA numinous dream, last Wednesday:

I am on Kibbutz Ein Dor, near the city of Afula in Northern Israel, visiting my 18-year-old son, a participant in the HabonimDror Workshop program. A road lined with trees circles the kibbutz. My late cat Yogi – my dreamtime wisdom guide — and I sit on a bench by the road, quietly contemplating. The air is still; the sky glows with twilight; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the world is absolutely perfect for a human being.

Cosmic, messianic; a perfected world of beauty and peace; good for the human body, heart, and soul; the kind of dream I want to dwell in forever.

Until my alarm clock – an iPhone app — rings.

As I reach to turn it off, I see the notification: an unusual early morning email from the HabonimDror office. What parent would not be concerned?

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to inform everyone who may have heard about the suspected terrorist incident in Afula today that all of the Workshoppers are safe and on kibbutz. Nothing to worry about.

B’shalom,

J.

In an instant, my cosmic dream turns practical. My parent radar had received J’s reassurance. Relief at my son’s safety and trust in my parental connection fill me. Who needs email when your dream guide takes you astral traveling?

When I enter the kitchen, my husband says, “A stabbing on a bus. I noticed it in The New York Times. You might get more info from Haaretz.”

Sure enough, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, already has a full article posted. There I read that a Palestinian who entered Israel illegally has stabbed an Israeli soldier, claiming revenge for his jailed relatives. A 16-year-old Palestinian and a 19-year-old Israeli. The 16-year-old is in custody and the 19-year-old is dead.

What parent would not be concerned?

Strip away all the politics and that’s what you have here: children. Motivated by terrible beliefs, traumatic experiences, a sense of responsibility, a desire for meaning, or a social current beyond their control, children take on what they imagine to be adult decisions.

At least, that’s how I see it through my parental eyes. Through my eyes still heavy with the dream of a world perfect for all human beings. I see two boys, not two representatives of countries or social movements, caught in tragedy. A universalist perspective, to be sure.

Just one year ago, the blogosphere buzzed with commentary on an exchange between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Brous suggested we try empathizing with our enemies as fellow human beings. Rabbi Gordis wrote that if we do so, we betray our own people.

Their exchange raised a familiar philosophical problem: moral vs. ethical commitments. And the double demand they place on us.

Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit defines morals as imperatives based on our connection with a group. A moral mode disposes us to favor those closest and most like us. Ethics, Margalit says, are formulated when we step outside the group’s perspective. Ethics express a reasoned view about what is best overall.

Margalit does not favor one approach over the other, but notes that both have a role to play in healing trauma. Group solidarity gives meaning to loss and turmoil; universal awareness makes clear that evil anywhere affects all human life.

On Wednesday morning, I felt a double demand. My first concern was for my own son. When that was satisfied, I stepped into a larger view. The relationship that connects me so deeply with my son became a basis for empathy towards the sons of others.

Of course, I am not in Israel or Palestine. My personal traumas come from non-ideologically motivated injuries. Though I try to understand others, I do not stand in their shoes. It might well be harmful to preach empathy when self-protection is needed. Or to preach self-protection when empathy is needed.

Small-group solidarity is only one part of the fullness of human experience.

The symbolism of my dream seems so much deeper now.

I sit at the edge of a circular road. Inside the road sits the kibbutz, home of a tightly knit group. As I look outwards, I see a world perfect for all human beings. I sit with Yogi the cat, who embodies the full experience. She is both inside my family and outside my species. In her calm cat pose, she watches as I shift between seeing her in these two ways. She does not judge either one as better or worse, but understands that both are living parts of our relationship. 

She brought me all the way to Afula so that I could see what she sees.

***

Image: Kibbutz Ein Dor, kibbutzimofisrael.netzah.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on November 17, 2013

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Subway sleeper, Rabbi returns cash: when people do the right thing

shutterstock_113245237-2

You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment.  In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.

Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.

First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.

Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”

I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.

And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:

“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui].  It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?”  (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).

And here is a story that illustrates this principle:

The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).

Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by. 

Posted on November 13, 2013

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