Facing Anger

On the eve of Yom Kippur, as I walked from my hotel to Beis Chabad, I felt the presence of Hashem in a remarkable way. I was filled with joy but not terribly surprised. It was, after all, Yom Kippur, the email flow had moderated to a tiny trickle, and it was a comfortable – if not glorious – Fall afternoon. I felt peace with Hashem and the universe, and nothing interfered with what felt like a direct signal to Him, though I could still feel a distance.

The feeling stayed with me until I was suddenly distracted by the driver of a large, luxurious BMW who had parked athwart the walkway in such a manner as to force me into dangerous traffic on my walk. I felt a shot of fury.

I quickly shook the fury off, but the connection with Hashem was no longer as clear.

It hurt. Almost physically.

The lesson could not have been more plain to me at that moment. We are instructed by Torah, the Sages, and the Chofetz Chayyim to refrain from speaking words of baseless hatred. But if we truly desire a connection with the Divine, we must recognize that angry thoughts, the very emotion of hatred, invites the yetzer hara and displaces the Holy Spirit.

Lesson learned. But it gets better.

Sitting in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkoth, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich stood and gave a talk about anger. He said to us almost exactly what I felt on Erev Yom Kippur, but he went even further: when we get angry at our situation, we are fundamentally questioning the way G-d has made things to be. Anger is, therefore, is Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of Hashem.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There are, after all, no coincidences.

I felt the connection anew. And I heard the Admonishment of Heaven.

I’m heading back to my hotel now, and I’m going to spend some time this evening studying the story of Moshe Rabbeinu striking a rock. Perhaps this is the lesson Hashem wishes me to learn this year.

Not Yet Time for Vegetarianism

“[Rav Kook wrote that] the mitzvot light the way to the perfection of the future – a time when the animals will have been transformed into humans, and humans into angels. Thus kashrut is mean to prepare us for vegetarianism, a great step forward in the moral perfection of the human race – but must not be done before its time, for the complacency and self-satisfaction it might bring. Indeed, he wrote, one could imagine a bloodthirsty tyrant who prided himself on his vegetarianism, eerily presaging Hitler.”

Yehudah Mirsky

Remembering Mumbai

I wrote this letter not long after the Mumbai tragedy. I found it recently going through my files, and I wanted to share it as we remember the events of that awful day, and mourn the martyrs we lost, including Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg and Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, OB”M, pictured. 

As we all try to come to grips with the aftermath off the tragedy in Mumbai, it is only natural that we are afflicted by feelings of anger, or sadness, or hopelessness, or despair. Each of us will feel a different combination of these, and sometimes we will feel them all at the same time.

All of these feelings find their sources in the neshama, that spark of G-dliness that on the one hand cries in pain for our loss, and on the other calls for – indeed demands – a healing of the wound that this event has torn into our nation and into the body of mankind. Whether we stand among the wreckage of what days ago was a refuge of Torah in the heart of a bustling city, or whether we sit thousands of miles away, we are gripped by the desire to do something, the desire to respond, and the frustration that comes with not knowing how.

Yet as we mourn for those we have lost, as we worry for those left behind, act we must. For there is much to do.

Despite having lived through some of the greatest horrors in the history of mankind, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Of Righteous Memory), the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, understood that not only is it fruitless to respond to darkness, hate, and anger with more of the same, it works against the very nature of the Jewish People to stand as a light among nations, a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy people.

Instead, our Rebbe taught that the way to respond to anger and hate is to reply with love, the way to respond to destruction with charity, the way to respond to despair with hope, and the way to battle the darkness is not with more darkness, but with light.

With your help, we can spread light even into the darkest corners of the world this Shabbos, and help speed the day when Moshiach comes and brings the Light of the Master of the Universe to us all.

Afraid to be Right

But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions. And we like commentaries to be comments.

Leon Weiseltier
“Comes the Comer”
The Jewish Review of Books

Has our desire to avoid hurting people’s feelings made us afraid to be right, afraid to assert our convictions in the face of what we know to be wrong? And if we are, what does that make us?

The Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam

Advocacy for saving the rainforests and for saving the whales, for developing renewable resources and for leaving a smaller carbon footprint — these are just some of the enterprises gathered by pop-Jewish philosophy under the umbrella of tikkun olam. According to the ancient wisdom of the Torah, however, every human being is a microcosm of Creation, a world — or olam — unto himself. Yes, it is important for human beings to act as responsible custodians of the Almighty’s world, but the rectification of the universe is a process that ultimately begins and ends within oneself.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The real reason why Jews are Liberals

Justice

“Whoever has no need but takes will not depart this world until he becomes dependent on others. Whoever is in need but does not take will not depart this world until he is in a position to support others, and … Whoever is not blind or lame but pretends to be [in order to get charity] will not die of old age until he has become so, as it is said, JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALL YOU PURSUE (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

The Talmud (Pe’ah, 8:9)

Day by Day

For me, the hardest part of loving Hashem is the challenge I face every day in overcoming my baseless insecurity and learning to love my fellow man – even when my fellow man is at his worst. Maybe it is coffee. Maybe it is age. Either way, I have shown a disappointing lack of love and understanding of late, and I will put up with it from myself no longer.

When I went to Jewish summer camp in the 1970s, we sang the the song “Day by Day” from the musical Godspell. I never realized as a kid that song was from a play based on the Gospel of Matthew. All I knew was that camp more than anything else cemented by Judaism, and that song was an inexorable part of it. So to me, it is a Jewish son.

So I think of that song today, as I make my pledge to myself and Hashem to be better.

To see you more clearly: I will look into the eyes of my neighbor, and try to see more deeply into his or her heart;

To love you more dearly: I will treasure even the worst foibles of each person as an unconscious tribute to the mothers and fathers who brought them into this world;

To follow you more nearly: I will turn to Torah when I am vexed, and not lash out at those around me or allow my frustrations to fester.

 

Evil and the Book Thief

“But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Markus Zusak
The Book Thief

When you think about it, The Book Thief is not a Jewish book in the purest sense of the word. It is not about Jews (although there is a Jewish character, Max). It is not written by a Jewish author, nor does it address Jewish themes.

And yet, as I read the book and watched the movie, there was something profoundly, deeply Jewish about it. It surfaces in this quote.

Judaism does not assume that humans are naturally good, and that evil is an external force to be cast out. Rather, we are made up of inclinations toward both good and evil, and what determines our character, our virtue, our Godliness is how through a process of internal struggle we manage to strike a balance between the two in our deeds.

Zusak’s book is filled with such characters, and if there is a single message to us in his tale it is that we as Jews are asked once again to consider that the German people, despite the atrocities committed in their name and with their silent assent, were not innately evil. Instead, each was engaged in their own internal struggle in the face of events that often outpaced their ability to address them coherently. Zusak can be forgiven such a plea: in so doing he is attempting to honor his parents, themselves postwar refugees from the ruins of Axis countries.

There can be no forgiveness on this Earth for active or passive participation in the unprecedented spasm of hatred and bloodshed that was The Third Reich. Zusak reminds us, however, of the Jewish truism that deeds great and awful are committed by people wrestling with what Abraham Lincoln called “the Better Angels of our nature.” It does not take an evil person to commit evil deeds, any more than it takes a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. The fight against evil is a constant battle to keep the scales tipped on the balance of the good, and to watch for the portents of evil deeds rather than for the coming of evil men.

A Single Innocent

US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent”
Ed Pilkington
theguardian.com
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The Guardian is hardly my favorite paper, but this is an article worth contemplating.

We must come to grips with the fact that the modern standard of proof for capital crimes is far lower than what Torah intended. That being the case, can any Jew in good conscience support the death penalty as it stands?

The idea of a just punishment for a crime is spot on, and the idea of suffering a killer to live sends a knife in my guts. But if Torah teaches that to save a single life is to safe the world entire, how do we address the possibility of even one innocent person being put to death?

These are not rhetorical questions: I am genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts, particularly those based in Halachah.

Heartless or Brainless is Not the Point

When I was in university and a member of the local College Republicans, a friend of mine related to me a quote: “if you are 20 and conservative you are heartless, but if you are 40 and liberal you are brainless.” He was paraphrasing a quote attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Winston Churchill, who supposedly said “to be a conservative at 20 is heartless, and to be a liberal at 60 is plain idiocy.”

Despite being a fairly right-of-center person for most of my life, I have always felt that sentiment to be over-simplistic and a little self-serving, given that it came from conservative sources. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin agrees.

“Are we growing in honesty, kindness, and compassion? If we are not more compassionate and empathetic at sixty than we were at twenty, we have lived a failed life.” 

 A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy

There is no political characterization here, no suggestion that one side of the aisle is naturally more compassionate than the other, because Telushkin knows that there is blessed little correlation. There are heartless people on the left and brainless idiots on the right, as well as the other way around.

But whatever our political journey may be, our progress in life should not be based on how hardened we become to the plight of others, but how sensitized we become to it. The cultivation of our empathy, our ability to understand and share the feelings of others, should grow over time. If it does not, it should be a sign that there is something desperately wrong with us. To become removed from the hurts of the people around us is to become less adult, if not less human.

Good Shabbos!

Supporting Smarts Everywhere

“Israel to host ‘genius camp’ for aspiring scientists”
Size Doesn’t Matter
August 16, 2012

Israel will be bringing together 250 top young scientists from around Asia at the Asian Science Camp at the end of August.

Great to see Israel building these kinds of relationships, but more important it is great to see that somebody is doing all they can to prevent science in Asia from devolving into nationalist silos.