Friday, August 31, 2018

It's About Character

John McCain Achieved in Defeat What Few of Us Achieve in Victory

I have been reading about Senator John McCain. I have always admired his unrivaled courage—I recall his decision to remain in a Vietnam prison and not abandon his fellow POW’s, his devotion to principles—I remember in particular his arguments against the torture of suspected terrorists, and his devotion to our country—I cannot forget his concession speech after losing the 2008 election to Barak Obama.

That speech, and that moment, remains one of the greatest moments of American democracy. After elections, the victors speak about grand promises and future hopes. The losers lean on values and ideals. McCain’s character emerges. He said:
It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment, but tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought — we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.
That is leadership. “The failure is mine.”  I recall, as well, when McCain silenced a heckler who booed when Obama’s name was said....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mistakes, a Bird's Nest and Compassion

Well, this is embarrassing. Last week I mistakenly wrote about the wrong Torah portion.

Deuteronomy 29 is found in Nitzavim, the portion read two weeks from now. Last week I studied Nitzavim with a bat mitzvah student and my mind remained focused on our discussion. While I realize that many would be hesitant to point this mistake out to their rabbi I would be remiss if I did not confess this error—especially given this season of repentance and most especially given that last week I wrote about publicly proclaiming one’s mistakes.  Now that’s ironic—and even amusing.

We can only really correct our flaws if we declare them to others. If they remain hidden they remain flaws. If they are revealed, they can be transformed into strengths.

This week we read from Ki Tetzei. I have double and triple checked this fact. It contains the most commandments of any weekly reading. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, there are 72 commandments. Unique, and perhaps most curious, among these dictums is the mitzvah regarding a bird’s nest.

The Torah proclaims: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22)

At first glance this may appear cruel. How can we take chicks or eggs from a bird’s nest? “That’s so mean!” my students often exclaim. And I usually respond, “What did you have for breakfast this morning? Did you have eggs?” We are permitted eggs. We are allowed to eat meat. Today, we have lost the connection to how our food is collected. Eggs do not grow in plastic containers. They are also not perfectly shaped and colored. Buy some eggs from a local farm and teach your children about imperfection of nature, as well as its beauty.

If we are to eat eggs, and meat, we must reacquaint ourselves with how our food is raised. And we must regain a sense of compassion toward the foods we eat. The Torah suggests that we must even show compassion toward animals. Again Moses Maimonides. It would be cruel to allow the mother bird to witness her children being taken away. Sure, it might be better to be a vegan, but Judaism sees this as unrealistic and so our eating of meat must be tempered.

Our enjoyment of eggs and sausage (I made no mistake here; I mean turkey), must be framed with a measure of compassion for the animals’ lives and even their welfare. Here is the theory. If you worry about the feelings of a mother bird, then you are more apt to worry about the feelings of other human beings. The Torah aims to teach compassion.

To be honest I am not sure this theory always works.

I sit at breakfast and eat my eggs and read about one tragedy after another: some in distant lands and others around the corner from my home. I do not think of the mother bird. And I do not think of the mothers mourning their children in Syria or Ethiopia, Huntington or San Diego.

The primary purpose of the Torah is to inculcate compassion, I remind myself. It is to teach empathy and concern.

I wish it were as easy as shooing the mother bird away.

Perhaps it must begin at breakfast.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Secrets and Sins

There is a lot of talk about secrets these days. Former CIA director John Brennan no longer has access to our nation’s secrets. Omarosa claims she has access to lots of them. People whisper in hushed tones about this neighbor or that. The supermarket tabloids claim to reveal titillating secrets about one movie star after another. Today they are filled with tidbits about Aretha Franklin. (May her memory be for a blessing and her songs continue to fill our hearts.)

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God...” (Deuteronomy) No one can truly know another’s secret. No one can reveal another’s truth. Secrets are for the individual to share or for the individual to reveal.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, commented: “Other Hasidim perform the commandments in the open and their sins in private. My Hasidim commit their sins in public and observe the commandments in private.” It is a strange, and counterintuitive, teaching. Who publicizes their mistakes? Who reveals their errors? Don’t most people brag about their accomplishments and hide their gaffs?

Apparently Menahem Mendl taught his disciples to talk about their sins and not talk about what they did right. He taught them that you can only improve if others see your mistakes and hear about your errors. Most people don’t want to sign up for such a regimen. I wonder how many followers he actually had. And yet Menahem Mendl does reveal an essential truth.

The only way to grow and improve, the only way to be a better person is to reveal your mistakes and display them for others to see. That is the purpose of the High Holidays. We temper this telling of our secrets by reciting our sins together. The litany of sins are intoned in the plural. “For the sin we have committed…” we repeat over and over again.

Only by coming to terms with our own failings can we bring on redemption.

Menahem Mendl again: “The world thinks that tzaddik nistar—hidden righteous people—are people who conceal their righteousness and their good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that tzaddik nistar are people whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from themselves, and who have no idea whatsoever that they are righteous.”

Righteousness is not newsworthy. It is never something to brag about or hold before others.

But the world depends on each of us doing good deeds—perhaps in secret.

Is Faith as Easy as Relinquishing Control?

My wife and I recently traveled to Albuquerque. In addition to visiting Jesse’s house of Breaking Bad fame, and tasting too many new tequilas, we signed up for a hot air balloon ride. It was the most remarkable of low-tech adventures.

We arrived before sunrise. After driving to an empty parking lot, the gigantic balloon was unfurled. Large fans were positioned by the opening. Volunteers were requested to hold the balloon open as the fans filled the balloon with air. The large basket was positioned on its side and attached to the balloon by four carabineers. Propane burners were lit, and the balloon was filled with hot air. It gently rose off the ground and lifted the basket off its side.

Two men held the basket in place while the pilot climbed aboard. One by one, he instructed the twelve passengers to take their place, positioning us so that our weight helped to keep the basket level. He gave us our safety instructions. With the humor of a Southwest flight attendant, he taught us how to brace ourselves for landing. “Hold on to the rope handles by your side and bend your knees. Don’t drop your phones out of the basket.”

And with that, the burners roared and shot huge flames above our heads, the ground crew let go of the basket, and the balloon lifted gently off the ground. The ground quickly grew smaller....

Friday, August 10, 2018

Baseball and the High Holidays

Every sport has a peculiar set of rules. Soccer has yellow cards. Football a false start. Basketball has a flagrant one and even two. Hockey icing. Australian Rules Football has…I have no idea.

Unique among these sports stands baseball. No other sport keeps track of errors and makes a distinction between an earned hit and advancing to a base on an error. At each game the scorer sits in a box and makes the determination: earned or error. At the end of the game there is a tally: runs, hits and errors. And yet, in determining the standings all that matters are the number of runs. This, and this alone, determines the winner and loser of the game.

And yet there it stands: the team’s hits and the team’s errors. I know of no other sport that tracks errors and mistakes. A team can lose despite earning many hits. And a team can win despite committing a number of errors.

Saturday is the first day of the month of Elul. It marks the beginning of the High Holiday period, a time of introspection that culminates in Yom Kippur on September 19th. It is a forty-day period that mirrors the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God. We are meant to turn inward, examine our deeds and look back on the past year.

We are meant to tally our errors. We are not meant to look at the standings. Our successes are immaterial. On these days it is only the error column that truly matters.

This may seem like a depressing exercise. But the faith of the High Holidays is that you can only get better, you can only improve yourself, if you look at your faults. True introspection is about being honest about our flaws and owning our mistakes.

Here is the hope that tempers this exercise. As the gates of repentance begin to close, in the final minutes of Yom Kippur, all is forgiven.

We may all enter the High Holidays like the Baltimore Orioles (sorry Dad!), but everyone emerges as World Series champions. 

It begins by taking an accurate accounting of our errors.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Remember and Don't Forget

According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb. When the baby is born, however, an angel kisses the baby on the lip, producing the recognized indentation, and the child forgets everything. Now this child must spend a lifetime learning Torah. It is a curious legend.

The rabbis imagined that we begin life knowing everything but then immediately forget everything.

Years ago, as my grandmother withered away in a nursing home, we watched her mind become increasingly vacant. Her body remained strong years beyond her mind’s forgetfulness. She felt it happening and understood that she was forgetting more and more. In fact, when she learned that she would soon become a great grandmother she remarked, “What good will that be if I don’t have my mind.” She knew that her dementia was growing increasingly worse. There grew a terror in her eyes. And then she forgot everything.

For our Jewish tradition forgetting is a cardinal sin. We are commanded again and again to remember: zakhor. In this week’s portion, Moses admonishes the people: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that you might be tested by hardships to learn what is in your hearts: whether you will keep the commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8). We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.

More than any other teacher, Annie Bleiberg, may her memory be for a blessing, taught me about the Holocaust. She colored in the details that the history books could not. She shared her story of survival, which was at times harrowing and other times miraculous, so that others might learn how hatred can metastasize into murder. She always reminded me that we must be on guard against antisemitism. She would say that we must treat every human being as in individual not as a category. This is why she told her story. She remembered the pain and the trials so that others might learn.

For Judaism remembrance is the key to learning.

Remembering is not instinctive. Memories must be inculcated. One can learn from others. But remembrance is best achieved by experience. Perhaps this is the reason for the rabbinic legend. You have to feel and experience to really learn. You have to look back and remember in order to teach.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that Judaism believes forgetfulness is terrifying. Zakhor, remember, we are commanded. We must always remember the long way we have travelled.

To forget is to be that newborn infant, although touched by an angel, just beginning a lifetime of rediscovering and relearning.

We are the Jewish people because we remember. Our future is dependent on hearing this command and regaining this terror of forgetting. Perhaps this feeling will help us to learn more, to experience more. I forever see it in my grandmother’s eyes. I can still hear it in Annie’s voice.

May my lips never again be touched by an angel.