Monday, March 12, 2018

Remembering, Forgetting, and Transcending Slavery

Are nightmares worth remembering? Should we block out traumatic events? This question was a constant debate among Holocaust survivors. In my own family, my aunt talked extensively about her experiences during the Holocaust, while my mother rarely spoke about those events. When I got older I asked my mother why, and she explained that she wanted to protect us from the horrors that had ravaged her young life.

This debate is a very old one. The Rabbis of the Talmud already wondered if we should try to supress anguished thoughts, or speak about them with others[1]. Some philosophers have felt that suppressing negative memories is the path to happiness. Nietzsche, in Genealogy of Morals, writes that: “... we can immediately see how there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness. The person in whom this apparatus of suppression is damaged, so that it stops working, can be compared (and not just compared –) to a dyspeptic; he cannot ‘cope’ with anything…”[2] In Psychology, a very different view of trauma took hold. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud treated their patients by making them recall repressed memories of traumatic events. As they put it: “The repressed idea takes its revenge, however, by becoming pathogenic[3].” We might intuitively think that forgetting trauma is helpful; but Freud takes the view that repressed memories can cause more pain while forgotten than when remembered.

Remembering and forgetting is not just an issue for philosophers and psychologists; it is a political issue. Revolutionaries would rather forget the past. One example is the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960’s. In 1966, a concerted campaign was made against “The Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Objects of veneration, traditional literature, and ancient cultural artifacts were all eliminated. In Mao Zedong’s view, you need to forget the past in order to embrace the future.

The same revolutionary spirit can be found among many early Zionists. They wanted to “negate the exile”, and begin a new society with a new identity, because the past was a weight holding Jews back from sovereignty. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his Eulogy for Herzl that “our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent…..The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"”. Revolution occurs by turning your back on the past.

The Zionist ideal of “negating exile” made it imperative for many to forget the Holocaust. In general, there was a feeling in the air that people wanted to move on. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes the experience of being a young American attending an early Holocaust memorial service as similar to “crashing a funeral”, because these events were then only attended by survivors. Native North americans often times made survivors uncomfortable. A friend of mine who is a survivor told me that when she emigrated to Canada after the war, she found that if she tried to talk about her experiences, people would say to her “well in Canada, we also had butter rationing”. She quickly learned to keep her mouth shut. In Israel, there was an even harsher attitude. There are multiple anecdotes about young Israelis demonizing the survivors themselves, as if they were responsible for being victims. Aharon Appelfeld, in his autobiography, tells of survivors visiting Israeli schools and being questioned accusingly about why they didn’t resist and were led like sheep to the slaughter.

But this attitude changed in the 1960’s. The Eichmann trial in 1961 reopened conversations that had pushed aside; and the Six Day War in 1967, when so many were worried about Israel’s annihilation, enabled many in the “new generation” to recognize that they had more in common with the old generation than they had previously realized. By the late 1960’s, the Jewish community understood that it could no longer cut it self off from the traumas of the Holocaust.

This change in attitude is welcome. Yes, focusing on past tragedies can reinforce a negative self image as a victim and increase pessimism; but it also can teach critical lessons on the road to freedom.

The Talmud tells us that the format of the Haggadah is that one “begins with (the Jewish people’s) disgrace (slavery) and concludes with their glory (freedom)”[4]. One might think that the importance of mentioning the disgrace of slavery is merely a narrative device, the background to the triumph of redemption. But actually, the Talmud elsewhere remarks that the narrative of disgrace needs to spoken in a loud voice[5], to ensure that slavery is remembered as well.

What is the point to revisiting the trauma of slavery? Because it can strengthen our sense of freedom. Nicolas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, notes that the opposite of being fragile is not being durable; it is being able to adapt to every threat, and overcome them. He uses the example of Hormesis, which is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. In humans, exposure to small doses of a poison increases the body’s ability to cope with larger doses of poison in the future; similarly, vaccines expose people to a weakened or dead form of a virus that triggers the immune system, and readies it to fight off future threats.

On a psychological level, the same thing occurs when retelling one’s family history. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and his colleague Robyn Fivush, director of Emory’s Family Narratives Lab, have  found that the most resilient children are deeply familiar with own their family's history, and are taught an “oscillating narrative”: that the family has had challenges, but then overcome challenges. Knowing how their own family overcame adversity in the past made children psychologically stronger. This is psychological hormesis, where children learn how transcend their own challenges by remembering past challenges.

Psychological hormesis is why we recite the full Exodus story from the beginnings of slavery at the Seder. We recall the traumas of exile to teach an important lesson to our children: if we have transcended slavery in the past, we can do so again in the future. As Michael Walzer puts it: “Wherever people know the Bible and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and inspired their resistance[6].” We retell the story of slavery because it strengthens us, and helps us transcend future challenges.

Each year, I feel like I need to explain anew the importance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which follows Pesach by just a few days. People wonder why we would want to remember such horror, and there is a yearly flurry of op-eds about why we emphasize too much on the greatest tragedy in Jewish history[7]. But in actuality, the question isn’t much of a question. The Holocaust is part of  a oscillating story of exile and redemption; retelling it, along with the heroic stories of survival, actually build resilience.

In 2002 I read an article that encapsulated the importance of always telling our moments of slavery in a loud voice. After 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Passover Seder in a hotel in Netanya, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. During the campaign, n May 2002, the following newspaper account was written about one of the Israeli Generals[8]:

“During the fierce fighting in Jenin, Israel's Commander in Chief, General Shaul Mofaz, came to inspect the fighting forces in the area. He gathered the commanders and officers for a briefing. He suddenly noticed that one of his Major Generals, Avraham Gutman, had a long rip on his army shirt. He immediately asked him about the tear;  Gutman told him that his mother had passed away the day before and that he had just come from the funeral. (One of the customs of mourning is the tearing of one's garment.)
General Mofaz immediately ordered him to leave the command post and return home to sit Shiva for his mother.  Avraham refused his Commander in Chief, and told Mofaz the following story.
He had volunteered to join his unit when he heard that they had been called up for Operation Defensive Shield. Within days his unit began preparations around the terrorist enclave in Jenin. It was not too long before he and his unit began the painstaking mopping up operation in the city.
In the midst of the second day of battle, as he was speaking to the Regional Commander, Eyal Shlein , his cell phone rang. He saw that the caller was his 92 year old mother. All of his family knew not to call him while he was in the army, so the call itself was a mystery. His commander said to him " Your Imma (mother) is more important than anything else... answer the call."
His mother said "I have two things to tell you. The first is that as a commander in the field you have a responsibility to bring your soldiers back home, safe and sound."
Then she said: “Remember Avraham, You are my revenge against the Nazis." With that she hung up.
Several hours later Avraham Guttman’s mother passed away, and he went to her funeral. So why did he return to his troops?  Guttman explained to Mofaz: "I have no choice. I am returning to battle.  This was my mother's last request!"
Avraham Guttman’s story is our story. From our very beginnings in Egypt, the Jews have never forgotten past traumas; but we haven’t been defeated by them either. Instead, we have used memories of slavery to transcend slavery, because the lesson we have learned is that if a people can be redeemed from exile once, they can be redeemed from any exile. And by remembering slavery this way, we have found a way to turn tragedy into strength. Just ask Avraham Guttman.

[1] Yoma 75a
[2] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay two, Section one
[3] On Hysteria, by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, The Case of Miss Lucy R.
[4] Pesachim 116a
[5] Sotah 32b
[6] Exodus and Revolution, page 4
[7] I have offered other responses in “Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters”, Jewish Week, February 27, 2018
[8] Avraham Guttman:A Soldier of the Jewish People, Hatsofeh, May 3, 2002

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters

Why Visiting Auschwitz Still Matters: Salo Baron, perhaps the greatest 20th-century Jewish historian, argued vociferously against the “lachrymose theory” of Jewish history. In 1928,......

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Call Your Mother

Late in his career, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked the University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. Bryant was to speak about how he instructed his young football recruits to call home. The script called for Coach Bryant to end the commercial in his tough, gruff voice and say: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, Coach Bryant ad-libbed the ending, and with a emotional voice said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.”.  

While I don’t make it a habit of quoting football coaches, “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine” is actually a very profound message. Yes, we all know we should call our mothers; but we don’t call, at least not as often as we should. Why?

In Chassidut, there is a mystical concept called “gadlut hamochin v’katnut hamochin” or “great mindedness and small mindedness”. The Bnei Yissaschar, Rav Elimelech of Dinov, explains this is about seeing the big picture without fixating mindlessly on the small picture.

Katnut hamochin is about the small picture, about getting the little things done. One must get the little things done; laundry needs to be washed and checkbooks need to be balanced. Everyday minutiae are inescapable; even the most spiritual man needs to eat a nourishing lunch.

But katnut hamochin becomes a problem when it monopolizes your consciousness. It’s easy to fixate on the details and lose sight of the big picture. Minding the mundane can rapidly devolve into small mindedness.

A classic example is the instinctive response to hurry.

On April 10, 1971, The New York Times reported about two academics at Princeton:
“Prof. John M. Darley, who teaches psychology at the university, and C. Daniel Batson, a doctor of theology doing graduate work in psychology there while teaching at the Princeton Theological Seminary, ...recruited 40 volunteers from the seminary. Explaining that they were studying the vocational placement of seminarians, Dr. Batson and  Professor Darley asked each to record a brief talk on a given text. To half the volunteers they presented a text on job opportunities; the other half got a text of the Good Samaritan parable. (Which talks about people refusing to help a an injured man on the side of the road - C.S.)......

One by one the volunteers were then told to proceed from Green Hall to record their talk in the Annex….The volunteers were dispatched at 15
minute intervals….and there—lying in a doorway in the alley—was a young man coughing and groaning and possibly in pain. The “victim” had been put there by Dr. Batson and Professor Darley to see if the seminarians would play the role of the Good Samaritan — or pass him by……

Of the 40, a total of 16 stopped to help. Twentyfour did not swerve from their path. One even stepped over the “victim” to get through the doorway he had mistaken for the one he wanted.

What determined whether a man stopped to help—or passed by? The simple answer turned out to be not the personality or character of the seminarian, but simply whether he was in a hurry.

Of those in the “low hurry” condition, 63 per cent stopped to help. In the “intermediate hurry” condition, 45 per cent stopped. In “high hurry,” 10 per cent stopped to offer help.”

This response would be shocking, except that it’s not. The seminary students know better, but forget everything in pursuit of arriving on time; and so does everyone. When we are stuck in traffic we lose our temper, unwilling to accept the unchangeable; and when we get a small opening to move forward, we frequently drive recklessly, throwing caution to the wind. Being in a hurry is a moment of fixation on katnut when we often forget the big picture.

Small mindedness is far more common today. Our smartphones are designed to make us constantly focus on the immediate, and social media is calibrated to get us to focus on trivialities like selfies and tweets. At the same time, an overabundance of choice has us fixating on insignificant details. Everything we want can be customized in endless ways; and these choices offer more confusion than comfort. There are times where both options are excellent, and yet we get so absorbed in the details that we are upset if we don’t get exactly what we want. I have been at weddings where the bride was upset about the tablecloths, because they weren’t what she ordered; and so on the happiest day of her life, instead of celebrating her new marriage, she is lamenting the mismatched linens.

While we wade through an endless stream of appointments, emails, and tablecloth choices, we are so bombarded with details we forget…. to call our mothers. That is the wisdom of this saying: we forget to call our mothers because we get caught up in the urgent but unimportant details of our lives.

So how do we evade fixation, the small minded katnut of the soul? With the second lesson: “I wish I could”.

This lesson is the foundation of all practical wisdom: one day we will die. Mortality demands that we live life thoughtfully; as Marcus Aurelius put it: “Live each day as if it were your last”. Or, as Rabbi Tarphon put it in an earlier statement: “The day is short and the work is great”.

Here too, the advice sounds simple, but is not. The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) explains that our mortality is hidden from us. In other words, we don’t believe every day is our last.  We have a psychological blind spot, and instinctively repress any thoughts of our own mortality. Sigmund Freud, in  Reflections on War and Death, notes that:

We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators….. in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

No person can imagine his own death, because in our imagination, we are always a spectator to the scene, very much alive while observing our funeral! This is why we don’t live each day as if it were our last: because we really don’t believe it to be true.

But what does one do when they really know it is their last day?  Peggy Noonan wrote a powerful column in 2006 about the final messages people left during the 9/11 tragedy, when they were aware of what was going to happen. She noted that:

People said what counted, what mattered. It has been noted that there is no record of anyone calling to say, "I never liked you," or, "You hurt my feelings." No one negotiated past grievances or said, "Vote for Smith." Amazingly -- or not -- there is no record of anyone damning the terrorists or saying "I hate them."

Noonan explains: “Crisis is a great editor”. 

The messages from those in their last moments of life on 9/11 are moving, because they are true examples of what it means to live each day as your last.

       Flight 93 flight attendant Ceecee Lyles, 33 years old, left an answering-machine message to her husband: "Please tell my children that I love them very much. I'm sorry, baby. I wish I could see your face again."

       Capt. Walter Hynes from Ladder 13 (down the street from KJ),  dialed home that morning as his rig left the firehouse and said: "I don't know if we'll make it out. I want to tell you that I love you and I love the kids”.

       Shimmy Beigeleisen on the 97th floor of the south tower, spoke to his family and his friends. In his last moments on the phone, in a voice hoarse with smoke, he recited the 24th Psalm (in Hebrew) with them, beginning with the words: "Of David a Psalm. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it ..."

These heroes demonstrate what really is meant by “living every day as your last”: to focus exclusively on love, meaning, and spirituality.

Years ago, I officiated at a funeral where one of the children mentioned in his eulogy that even though he lived out of town, he had called his mother every day. After the funeral I got into my car, and  thought to myself: I never do that. I was living in Montreal, and I called my mother in Monsey perhaps once a week. And so I started, right there in the car, to call my mother every day, and to put my kids on the phone so they could say hello, and did so until the end of my mother’s life. I was lucky to learn that lesson before it was too late.

A final lesson from this quote is about something simpler: why do we call our mothers?

Because they make a difference. Sometimes parents are called upon to be heroes. Think of Hadar Goldin’s parents, who have put their own lives on hold to find a way to get their son’s body back from Hamas.

But most parents have smaller, but no less significant tasks to fulfill. They listen, drive carpools, hug away tears, buy ice cream, and make dinner.

Small deeds may seem small, but often make a big difference, because no good deed is small. Maimonides contends we should always see the world as evenly balanced between good and evil, and see each good deed we do as the one that might tip the world from the side of evil to the side of good; the size of the deed doesn’t matter, because even the small ones will tip the world to the side of good. It is parents who excel as those small, world changing good deeds. As one Rabbi once put it: “I learned more from my mother’s chicken soup than I did in all my years in Rabbinical school.”

Yes, even a favorite food recipe can make a big difference.  Barbara Sofer, tells of one such story (The Human Spirit: Brit In Beersheba, Jerusalem Post, November 8, 2007 ).

She writes about Pvt. Shimon Ohana, who on his first combat assignment, leapt forward to protect a child and took a bullet in the chest. When he arrived at Hadassah-University Hospital he was initially declared dead. After surgery and treatments, the medical team was able to revive Pvt. Ohana. But his recovery stalled because Shimon refused to eat. They spoke to his mother Rahel, and found out that Shimon was a picky eater. So the surgeon asked her: what does your son like to eat? Only her homemade meatballs. So Mrs. Ohana was sent home to Beersheba to cook her son spicy Moroccan meatballs.

The next morning she returned with the meatballs, and they began to feed her son. As Sofer describes it: “When Shimon finished his first meatball, he made awful gulping sounds. At first Rahel thought she'd injured her son, but then she realized he simply wanted more. His doctor nodded. Shimon swallowed another meatball and made the same scary sounds. Four meatballs later he was calm and quiet.

Before long he left the hospital on his own two feet.”

The story continues with Shimon recovering, getting married, and having children.

Perhaps this is the first time a mother’s meatballs saved a life. Or maybe it’s not; the little things mothers do are much larger than they appear at the time.

With this, we have completed our exploration of Bear Bryant’s simple yet profound lesson:

       Remember not to get tangled up in life and forget to do the important things.
       Remember that we don’t have a lifetime to get those important things done.
       And sometimes the most important things to do are little things, like the little things mothers do for us.

So call your mother. I sure wish I could call mine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?

My mother was sixteen when she was sent to the Kolozsvár Ghetto. There, as she and her family were stripped of their remaining possessions, she experienced her first taste of the torture the Nazis would inflict on her. Men were taken out at night by Hungarian guards and members of the Gestapo, and a flame was held to their feet to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the any gems or gold they might have hidden. From that point on, things only got worse. She was deported from the ghetto to Auschwitz, then sent to a labor camp a few weeks later, and finally, towards the end of the war, escaped while on a death march.

Those first moments of freedom must have been frightening for my mother. How does a 17 year old girl look forward to life without a home, a country, a single possession? What do you have when you have nothing?

As my children were entering their teens, I would emphasize to them the contrast between their childhood and my mother’s. I used to think of this contrast only in one direction, as in how much more my children have than their grandmother did at their age: freedom, security, and material comfort.

Now, I think there is another contrast: my children’s generation, with all of its material advantages, still struggles with resilience and character. The generation of survivors, the people who had nothing, who had every reason to emotionally collapse, exhibited remarkable character. If you asked these survivors the question: what do you have when you have nothing? The answer would be, you have a lot.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero wrote: “Omnia mea mecum porto” - “I am carrying all my things with me”.  Rav Azriel Hildesheimer,  at opening of Berlin Rabbinical Seminary in 1873, related this quote from Cicero to a Talmudic passage that says “Blessing rests only on a thing which is hidden from sight[1]. Rav Hildesheimer explains “that the only blessing is that which is invisible, that is, of the spirit and the idea.”, and that the lesson of Jewish history is that “the scorned, sold and mortgaged Jewish servant, who has been driven out at the whim of others, was continuously reminded, again and again, that his only true belonging was that which he carried with him constantly, which no one could separate him from[2].”

This lesson is what I learned from my mother’s example: the greatest gifts are the ones you carry in your heart.  These survivors, these penniless, unfortunate, persecuted refugees possessed something invaluable: their heart. And that is all that mattered.

But what do you carry in your heart? First of all, you carry your education with you; nothing could be more practical. Kohelet (4:13) writes: “Better to be a wise and poor youth, than a foolish and well established elder statesman.” In the end, wisdom is the most valuable commodity, and education has always been a Jewish priority.

A perfect example is the Jewish interest in medicine, a field Jews still dominate today. Dr. Avram Mark Clarfield offers an anecdote that underlines how unusual the Jewish dominance of medicine is:

“Several years ago, while talking to a group of physicians in an Edinburgh hospital, we got to discussing which nation had the monopoly on first-class medical research.

"It's clearly the Germans," offered a Scottish physician.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because the authors of most of the articles in the most prestigious American journals all have names like Levine, Glickman, Berliner and Feinstein--obviously all of German origin."

I smiled to myself.[3]

This keen interest in medicine goes back to the Middle Ages. Joseph Shatzmiller in Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society, tells of countries where less than 1 percent of the population was Jewish, yet Jews were over 50% of the doctors. Clearly, education was important to Jews, and in particular, medical education. Some have speculated that this is because that “by providing Jewish practitioners with a craft they could “carry” with them whenever they had to leave their homes and establish themselves in a new place, the practice of medicine also eased the harsh circumstances that stemmed from imposed migration (evictions and expulsions)[4].”

The wandering Jews of Europe needed an asset they could monetize anywhere; and so they relied on their education to support themselves whenever they had to find a new home.

But the lesson of Omnia mea mecum porto refers to more than education. It reminds us that the mindset we carry determines our happiness. This lesson, one that was stressed by the Stoics, finds expression in the Mishnah[5] that says “Who is the mighty one? He who conquers his impulse...Who is the rich one? He who is happy with his lot”. Strength and wealth are primarily a matter of mindset. When facing challenges courage is more important than strength; in everyday living, contentment is more important than wealth.

All of us would nod our heads in agreement when hearing these lessons. However, this is not the way we actually live. An abundance of material comfort doesn’t diminish material desires, but on the contrary, makes us more materialistic. The Talmud[6] sees the wealth the Jews took out of Egypt as a corrupting influence, and the motivating cause behind the Golden Calf.  Similarly, material success has reoriented the way Americans think. Tim Kasser notes that contemporary Americans think that the “goods life” is the path to the “good life”[7].  This mistake leads to a great deal of unhappiness. Kasser notes multiple studies that show that the more materialistic someone is, the less happy they are likely to be.

That is why the lesson of the Mishna is so significant: How many people actually are happy with their lot?

The experience of having nothing teaches us how to be grateful for everything. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “hunger is the best cook”. She said that the food she ate right after being liberated was the best meal she ever ate in her life, because the overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland food she ate. With the right outlook, any piece of food is exceptional; and the mindset of one who has nothing sees life as a gift, not a given.

Beyond education  and mindset, the final (and most important) item to carry is: values. (Before discussing this further, it needs to be noted that for a Jew, faith in God is a given, a spiritual oxygen that sustains us every day. And faith is an all encompassing value, and all other values are just a commentary on faith. But what are those other values?)

David Brooks, (based on The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik), coined two types of virtues a person can have:  “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”[8].

Some virtues are about work: can you compete? Are you pragmatic? A good leader? A financial wizard? Other virtues are about the types of accomplishments people speak about at a funeral: Did you volunteer? What type of father were you? Were you idealistic? I would point out this contrast between the domains of “resume” and “eulogy” is not just about virtues; it is about priorities and values, about the content and purpose of life.

This lesson is found in Jeremiah (9:22-23), who inspires the Mishnah in its’ comments on the worthiness of strength, wisdom and wealth:

Thus says the Lord:

“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,

Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord.

Jeremiah offers a harsh appraisal of human success. Do the resume virtues of wisdom, strength, or wealth matter? No, they are not important. What matters are the values love, justice and righteousness; what matters are eulogy virtues, which are a blueprint to the meaning of life. For this reason, Maimonides at the end of his great philosophical work, the Guide to the Perplexed[9], offers an exposition of this verse in Jeremiah, because he sees these values are the very purpose of our lives. 

Love, justice and righteousness are most compelling when you experience them directly. These eulogy virtues matter because we intuitively understand that they endow our lives with meaning. Dr. David Pelcovitz told me a powerful story about a 9 year old girl that illustrates how inspiring eulogy virtues are.

A 9 year old girl, encouraged by her mother, started to volunteer by visiting an elderly woman who had lost most of her eyesight. One day, while chatting with the young girl, the woman explained that she could recover her eyesight if she would have a small operation; but because she was on a fixed income, she lacked the resources to pay for this expensive procedure. Inspired to action, the girl went home and told her mother that she was going to do a fundraiser to pay for the elderly woman’s operation. The mother smiled at her daughter’s good intentions, but assumed, like most parents, that her daughter’s naive dream would soon disappear.

The next day, the girl went to school and began to raise money. She went from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and at the end of the day, after all the change had been exchanged into bills, the girl had a grand total of 83 dollars. She took the thick envelope stuffed with singles, and ran off to her elderly friend. Not knowing much about contemporary medical economics, the girl announced to her elderly friend that she had raised the money for the operation! So, the young girl and the elderly woman took a short walk over to the local Ophthalmologist’s office.

The doctor examined the elderly woman, and says yes, she is a candidate for the procedure, and he can do it right away. At that point, the young girl chirps up and says that she will pay for the procedure, and produces the envelope with the 83 dollars.

The doctor does the operation.

The girl comes home, and reports to her mother the day’s events. The mother is mortified; she assumes that her daughter has somehow misled the doctor. She runs to the doctor’s office to apologize, and to negotiate a way to pay him the balance. As the mother continues to talk, the doctor cuts her off in middle, and opens his jacket. In his inside pocket is the envelope, stuffed with singles; he had not put the cash away. He told the mother that this envelope was far more precious to him than any amount of money, because this envelope reminded him of goodness of humanity and why he became a doctor in the first place.

This is a story about values: the values of a mother, a daughter and a doctor. They all understand the lesson of “Omnia mea mecum porto”, that it is what you carry in your heart that matters; and if your heart is filled with love, justice and righteousness you have everything you need. And if there is one lesson I want my own children to remember it is this: what you need most in life cannot be put in a suitcase. Just carry your education, carry your character, and carry your values;  then you will have everything you need.

[1] Baba Metzia 42a
[2] Marc Shapiro, “Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer’s Program of Torah u-Madda”, The Torah u-Madda Journal 9 (2000), page 80
[3] Clarfield, A. M. (2003). Jews and Medicine. Medical Post, 39(6), page 27
[4] Carmen Caballero Navas, “Medicine among Medieval Jews: The Science, the Art, and the Practice”, in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) page 339
[5] Pirkei Avot 4:1
[6] Berachot 43a
[7] Kasser, Tim (2006). Materialism and Its Alternatives. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (pp. 200-214).
[9] III:54

Friday, September 01, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Bulletin 2017 - The Greatest Story on Earth

Twenty five years ago, I attended a symposium on the topic of “Why Be Jewish?” This topic fascinated me; despite all of my extensive Yeshiva training, we had focused very little on basic questions like “why be Jewish?” So I was eager to hear what the presenters, a group of well known Jewish leaders and Rabbis, would say on the subject.
I left sorely disappointed. The speakers offered a stream of mealy mouthed bromides, woven with a colorless assortment of platitudes about community, family, and  traditions; many used a subdued tone of voice, as if they were delivering a eulogy. The cynic inside me wondered if the speakers even believed in what they had to say.
Since that conference, I have thought constantly about the topic of “why be Jewish?”. And then, one evening in 2006, it all became clear.
I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, returning to my hotel room after a wedding. I turned on the television, hoping to get a mindless rerun, but to my surprise, I got an evangelical sermon. (They call it the Bible Belt for a reason). The preacher was encapsulating his sermon into four points. The first of these points was: “There cannot be another Holocaust”. He reminded his audience about Genesis 12:3, God’s promise to Abraham (“in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”) and then explained how Christians must protect the Jews and Israel, and that without Jews, Christianity is dead.
I was amazed; here, in Charlotte, North Carolina, far from any major Jewish population, a Minister was preaching to hundreds of thousands of people about how much they have to love the Jews. How on earth did that happen?
At that moment my answer to the question of “why be Jewish?”crystallized: being a Jew means being a part of the greatest story on earth.
Many find it uncomfortable talking about how proud they are to be Jews, and consider it unseemly. (And it must be noted that some expressions of Jewish uniqueness can be arrogant and triumphalist.)  However, for Jews ignore their own story is foolish. Even a casual observer of the Jews cannot overlook their epic history. As Winston Churchill put it: "Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” Churchill, the preacher in Charlotte, and the billions around the world who follow Christianity and Islam recognize how remarkable our Jewish heritage is; so should Jews.
What is the Jewish story?
It includes 3,300 years of history, with a religion, that inspires 2 other religions, and through them most of the people in the world, and laid the foundation for Western civilization. (John Adams, the 2nd US President wrote “for in Spi of Bolingbroke and Voltaire I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize Men than any other Nation. If I were an Atheist and believed in blind eternal Fate, I should Still believe that Fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential Instrument for civilizing the Nations”. )
It includes Prophets, Rabbis, philosophers, scientists and grandmothers, who together have brought us the Bible, composed the Talmud,  received 0 Nobel Prizes, and made enormous quantities of chicken soup. And despite two millennia filled with some of the worst persecution in human history, this people persevered and returned home.
This is the greatest story on earth. It is a story which contains many stories, and although I will refer to four of them, there are many more.
The first great Jewish story is the about a partnership. Jews see themselves as God’s partners in building the world, and multiple Jewish thinkers from Hillel to Rav Soloveitchik have offered explanations of this idea.
It can be described in three steps.
  1. God created the world in order to create goodness.
  2. The world is not good yet.
  3. The task of man, and indeed, the best way for man to come close to God, is to become God's partner in bringing goodness to this world.
Man seeks God, not only, and not primarily, by secluding himself on a mountaintop or a study hall, but by finding a way to do God's work in this world. With a profound sense of divine connection, we are moved to do divine work by feeding the hungry, caring for the forgotten, and fixing what is broken.
This partnership has transformed the world. There are Nobel Prizes, philanthropies, and an army of volunteers. And there is the work of the State of Israel. This tiny country, the 152nd largest country in the world, is consistently the first responder in any international tragedy, time and again. This embattled country has accepted thousands of Syrians for medical, notwithstanding 70 years of hostility. This unlikely country has found unique ways to help people from around the world. Israel is the home of organizations like Save A Child’s Heart, which in the last 20 years has done 4,000 heart operations for children around the world, most of whom come from countries hostile to Israel.
The New York Times (August 14, 2016) reported on one such operation, of Yehia, a 14 month old boy, who had been born with his two main arteries reversed and two holes in his heart. His parents, Afghans living in Pakistan, found a local specialist who could perform the necessary surgery, but the price tag was $7,000. The family’s savings, $200, had already been depleted by medical bills. Through a series of connections, they located an American-Israeli who connected the family with Save a Child’s Heart, which got them the plane tickets and visas, and recruited Urdu speakers in Israel to translate for the family. In an eight-hour surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Yehia’s life was saved.

The Times described the operation this way: “Dr. Yahyu Mekonnen, 33, an Ethiopian surgeon, opened Yehia’s chest. Dr. Lior Sasson, who headed an operating team of nearly a dozen people, hummed an Israeli song while they stopped his tiny heart, to patch it up.”
I read this article in pure astonishment. How is that possible that an Afghani child from Pakistan meets an American-Israeli and is then operated on by a Ethiopian-Israeli surgeon in Israel? how does this improbable chain of events come about? Because of this great partnership, a central part of the greatest story on earth.
The second  Jewish story is the story of  family. Maimonides writes in the Laws of Giving Charity (Matnot Aniyim 10:2):
“The entire Jewish people and all those who attach themselves to them are as brothers...And if a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them?”
Maimonides says Jews see each other as family. Indeed, the language the Bible uses for the Jewish people is “children of Israel”, reflecting the fact that even as a nation, we are meant to see ourselves as family.
Of course, like any family, there is plenty of dysfunction; the Book of Genesis is the story of a family struggling to overcome strife, and the search for unity.
But as history progressed, what has happened is a that a worldwide community has developed, and for the most part we feel like a family. We sacrifice and care for each other in exceptional ways. The daring rescue mission in Entebbe, (during which Yoni Netanyahu gave his life), was undertaken by the State of Israel to protect Jewish brothers and sister from around the world who had been taken captive.
Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned by the Soviet Union from 1978-1986 drew strength from this rescue. he wrote:
"The sound of a plane would always remind me of Yoni and his friends, who flew thousands of kilometers to the aid of their people. Each time I heard it hope and faith would well up in me with a new vitality and I would think: Avital is with me, Israel is with me. Why should I be afraid?"
Sharansky was right; Jews around the world were fighting for his release. They were doing so because as a family, they were going to stand in solidarity with their brother Natan.  
The next Jewish story is the story of a great redemption. One would expect a nation that was scattered around the world, persecuted for 1900 years, and then endured a Holocaust, to disappear. Yet the opposite has happened, because Jewish history runs counter to the laws of history.
On January 31st, 1961, a debate about Israel and the Jews took place at McGill University in Montreal between Ambassador Yaakov Herzog and Professor Arnold Toynbee.

Herzog, 39, was the son of a the late Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, and both a talented diplomat and a respected Rabbinic scholar; Toynbee, 71, was a prominent historian. Toynbee’s 12 volume magnum opus, “A Study of History”, was based on the theory that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration. So how to explain the Jews? Toynbee theorized that Judaism was a “fossil civilization”, and merely a relic of the past. The fact that Jews could continue to exist in exile instead of disintegrating could only be explained by arguing that they were actually natives of their host country rather than an independent culture.

Herzog attacked Toynbee from multiple angles. He noted that the Jews had a unique connection to the past and to each other; and that Rabbi Akiva, who died in 135 C.E.,  could walk into the local synagogue and understand what was going on, as could any Jew from any part of the world. These types of connections, to history and to each other, shouldn't exist in a fossil that was absorbed by multiple host cultures.

Herzog’s trump card was the State of Israel. He asked, what fossil has ever returned home and started over again?. To this, even Toynbee had to grudgingly admit that perhaps the Jews had “defossilized.”
It s easy to understand Professor Toynbee: the Jews really should be fossils. There should only be a Jewish history, not a Jewish present. But theories of history can’t explain the greatest story on earth.
During the first destruction, as the Jews left their land to uncertain exile for the first time, Jeremiah told them (Jer. 33:10-11):
“Thus said the LORD: Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined, without man or beast—in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, without inhabitants, without beast— the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride…”
The words of Jeremiah’s prophecy became part of the wedding liturgy, and even today, the entire audience bursts into song when we get to these words. Such is the Jewish desire for redemption, one that endured for 1,900 years.
A few years ago, I was staying at a hotel in Jerusalem, and waiting for the elevator. When it arrived, a bride in her wedding dress surrounded by her entourage got out. For a moment, my heart skipped a beat; Jeremiah’s prophecy, one which had given so much comfort to generations of persecuted Jews, was now true. The story of a great redemption was standing right in front of me, wearing a white wedding gown.
These three stories, of partnership, of family and of redemption, are part of the greatest story on earth. But there is one more story, a story that is yet to be told: the story of the Jewish future.
As a Rabbi, it is my job to worry about the Jewish future; and there is plenty to worry about in a time of rising assimilation and declining birthrates. It is easy to question the Jewish community’s long term prospects. But it would be a mistake to bet against a Jewish future, considering how improbable the Jewish past has always been.
Years ago, I was officiating at a funeral for a friend’s mother. He was an only child, and his parents were Holocaust survivors. When preparing for the eulogy, he told me an anecdote about his Bar Mitzvah. When the guests sat down for the lunch, his parents disappeared. People searched the synagogue building for them, until finally they were found in a corner of the building, crying. His parents explained that they had to leave the Bar Mitzvah because they were emotionally overwhelmed; they never expected that they themselves were going to survive, let alone celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a son.
But they did have a child. And he had a Bar Mitzvah. And so did countless others like them; immigrants, refugees, and survivors rebuilt what was broken, generation after generation. And it is because of people like them that we are here today; and we have every reason to believe there will be others like them tomorrow. The best proof of a Jewish future is the improbability of the Jewish past.

So how would I answer the question “why be Jewish”? To put it in a sentence: to be a part of the greatest story on earth, and to write the next chapter.