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2018: A Jewish View on Wealth & Poverty Part 1

On November 9, 1922, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel prize for his groundbreaking work in physics. The only problem was that he wasn’t in Stockholm to receive his prize. Einstein had committed to giving some lectures in Japan and he was too much of a mench to cancel them.

While in Japan, he stayed at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, and on the very first day there he received a large package delivered to him by one of the bellhops. Now Einstein didn’t have any Japanese money on him to tip the young man, and so he grabbed a piece of stationary from his bedside, wrote something on it, and gave it to the bellhop telling him to hold on to it because one day it may be worth something.

Well about a year ago, in an auction in Jerusalem, that scrap of paper sold for 1.56 million dollars to an anonymous buyer. The message on the paper was the following:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

It’s somewhat ironic that the purchaser who just dropped one and a half million dollars probably didn’t live a calm and modest life. But that’s not why I mention this today. I found this news item tucked into an article by a respected rabbi who was trying to lay out Judaism’s perspective on wealth. This rabbi suggested that Einstein’s recommendation to avoid the pursuit of success is a Jewish value. I think that’s incorrect.

But I also understand that there is a lot of confusion when it comes to describe Judaism’s view of wealth. And so what I’d like to do today and tomorrow is share some thoughts on how the Torah and our tradition views wealth and poverty.  

Let’s begin by looking at the view of our neighbors for much of history. The Christian view on wealth and poverty, for most of their history, was quite clear. Prior to the Protestant movement, all Christians saw wealth as an obstacle to G-d. So for example you have Paul quoting Jesus as saying the following: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Martin Luther argued that the greatest idol of his time was Mammon, the desire of money. Wealth was an idol and poverty, a virtue.

If you were to read the stories of European Jews, at least in the last few hundred years, you’d be led to believe that Judaism agreed with this view that poverty was a virtue. Virtually every Jewish tale from this era has the protagonist as a poor man or woman. But I would conjecture that the romanticizing of poverty was influenced by their Christian neighbors, and a reflection of reality; for the most part, Jews were really poor for the last few hundred years.

But beyond folktales, if you were to look at Jewish sources, you’d see a very different picture. There are certainly some sources that encourage an ascetic lifestyle; a Mishna in Avos that promotes eating bread and salt alone, and other such statements. However, as Dr. Heshy Friedman, professor of Business and Marketing, and author of a study on this topic, has pointed out, there are far more statements to the opposite effect; Maimonides codifying the view that asceticism is evil, another Mishna in Avos proclaiming that wealth is good for the righteous and good for the world, the Talmudic passages that give tips on amassing great wealth, and perhaps most significantly, the one reward that the Torah constantly offers is – wealth! If you do the Mitzvos, G-d says, again and again in the Torah, I will make you prosperous!

And this would seem to be normative Jewish thinking. Not only is wealth not evil, as the early Christians argued, not only is wealth not only neutral as some of the Jewish moralists argued (most notably, the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim), but wealth would seem to be a value; a blessing from G-d, and something to strive for.

This holiday, Sukkos, is really a celebration of wealth. Chag Ha’asif, the Festival of Ingathering, is the Biblical name for Sukkos. The Jews were farmers, and this was the time of year that they would gather their crops and celebrate their good fortune. Of course, they would use the time to thank G-d for their success, but the fact is that a holiday was created to celebrate material success and good fortune.  

The question is why. Why is it that wealth is seen as a value, as a blessing?

The simplest and most pragmatic explanation is provided by Maimonides who suggests that an impoverished individual can’t serve G-d properly because he or she is constantly distracted by their many needs. Alternatively, the Talmud indicates that a wealthy person has the opportunity to perform great Mitzvos, most specifically Tzedakah. But there are also two additional values that I’d like discuss today that are born out of a pursuit of wealth.

The first is independence. There is nothing that makes me sadder than the constant stream of meshulachim, the many Israeli Orthodox Jews collecting money for themselves. They are part of a culture that until recently severely limited their opportunities for meaningful employment and so many of them are completely dependent on government handouts and the support of their fellow Jews in America. Dependency is ingrained in their psyche. That’s how they live. And that’s terribly tragic.

But the truth is, we don’t need to look so far to see victims of a mindset of dependency. This coming Shabbos marks the ten-year anniversary of the great market crash of 2008. The financial crisis was caused by numerous factors but one especially insidious one was mortgages being given to people who couldn’t really afford them. Now we typically blame the banks for allowing these loans to go through, but the consumer is just as guilty. The attitude – which is still extremely prevalent – to take on insane amounts of debt, to fall for those buy now/ pay later schemes, to use credit cards not as a substitute for cash, but as a way of going even deeper into debt –  that’s the consumer’s fault, not just the sellers.

King Solomon described the relationship between the borrower and the lender as eved loveh l’ish malveh, the borrower is a slave to the lender. Rav Yitzchak Hutner and others understand this to be more than a practical description of the interactions between borrower and lender. They understand Shlomo HaMelech to be describing a state of being; a borrower is a slave in that his or her dignity is infringed upon. One who is not dependent on others is free, in that their dignity is unhampered, he or she is capable of expressing the true greatness of what it means to be human.

Independence is the reason the mystics give for G-d having created this world. If He created us to give to us, as they argue, then why not just place us straight into the World to Come? Why bother with this terrible, war and illness filled world?

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato suggests that G-d put us in this world filled with evil so we could choose between good and bad allowing for our decisions to earn the goodness we receive in the World to Come. G-d wants us to be independent.

What’s true for spirituality is true for material wealth as well. Unfortunately, so many lessons of the financial crisis have not been learned. It’s highly impractical for most people to get by without taking any loans; most people cannot buy a house outright. But the American way still is to take whatever loans you can get your hands on. Whereas Judaism promotes an ethic of independence; take as few loans as you can afford. The amassment of wealth is valuable insofar as it promotes independence. But there’s more to it.

Getting back to Einstein’s recipe for a good life – don’t pursue success so aggressively. Live a calm life. I’d like to share a counter-perspective on this that I once heard said in the name of Rav Yakov Weinberg of blessed memory, a past Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel. To better appreciate it, I want to tell you about thin-slicing.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his New York Times bestseller book, Blink, makes the argument that we can use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. For example, Dr. John Gottman, the preeminent researcher and marriage therapist, can look at videos of a couple talking for 15 minutes, and predict with a 90% accuracy whether or not this couple will still be married after 15 years.  

Another example, researchers would bring people into student’s dorm rooms for three minutes, after which they were asked to write a psychological sketch of the people living there. Which they did, with unbelievable accuracy.

What both these examples demonstrate is the idea of thin-slicing; how our conversations with our spouses are really a reflection of our relationship with our spouse – it’s just a thin slice of the pie. The way our room looks is a thin slice of who we are. If I receive a slice of pecan pie, I can be pretty confident that the rest of that pie is pecan.

Rav Yakov Weinberg suggested a rather a similar idea based on this notion that every part of life is connected to the next. We think we can compartmentalize; we think that we can be one person at home, one person at work, one person at shul and they have no relationship to one another. It’s not true. Every part of our life is a slice of the whole.

And so, Rabbi Weinberg argues that if we are lazy in one area of life, it will, by definition, impact the rest of our life. Ambition in our career is crucial, he suggests, not for the career itself, but because ambition cannot be shut off and turned on at will. Our character is part of who we are. And so if I work on becoming a phenomenal plumber, accountant, doctor, artist, rabbi, then ambition becomes a part of me. And that allows me to become a phenomenal parent, a phenomenal spouse, a phenomenal friend. If I am constantly looking to grow in my field and amass greater knowledge and skills, then hopefully, eventually, I won’t be content not growing in my religiosity; in my pursuit of more Torah knowledge, in my desire to be more proficient in my Mitzvah observance.

The calm life that Einstein recommended is a recipe for mediocrity. The Torah believes in greatness. To be great you need to be ambitious. Ambitious at work and ambitious at home. Ambitious in school and ambitious in shul. Ambition is a character trait that permeates our entire being. Like independence, ambition, is a value that is not limited to one realm of our life. It’s a trait that we value in every facet of the pie.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss ostentatiousness and greed, some of the negative features of wealth. But today, on the first of Chag Ha’asif, let’s celebrate the positive side of wealth; the pursuit of independence from other human beings, of owning our belongings, and as the mystics suggest, even owning our spiritual belongings by amassing more and more Mitzvot. And let’s celebrate ambition and not be content with mediocrity. Let’s be ambitious at work and strive for excellence at home. Let’s be determined in our material career and allow that great trait of ambition to translate into spiritual excellence as well.

 

This talk seemed to generate a good amount of discussion. Here are some additional notes based on those discussions.

  • Steve Jobs, a model of ambition had a very specific ambition, making an impact on the world. In pursuing that dream, he trampled on his family. The ambition being described here is an all-pervasive trait; the pursuit of excellence.
  • Greed is the pursuit of money for one’s desire of money. Ambition, for the desire of becoming a greater person.
  • Of course, time does not allow us to be perfect in every sphere of life. Prioritization is necessary. Sometimes our work life is sacrificed for family. Sometime family for faith. Etc. However, an ambitious person wants everything to be as great as can be. A lazy person doesn’t really care.

2018: A Jewish View on Wealth & Poverty Part 2

“In the middle of the 17th century, the Vaad Arba Aratzot, the Council of Four Lands, an all-powerful body of rabbis and lay leaders, governing the Jewish communities of Europe made a decree that the more guests one invited to a festive occasion, the more one had to pay to the community tax collector – two gold coins for 15 guests, four coins for 20 guests, and six coins for 25 guests. In 1728, the Jewish community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive. In 2001, Agudath Israel published guidelines for Jewish weddings which included the elimination of the engagement party, limitations on the smorgasbord, elimination of the bar and Viennese table, a ceiling of 400 invited guests, and a recommendation of a one-piece band and a maximum of four musicians. (Dr. Heshy H. Friedman, The Simple Life, JLaw.com)

None of these went over very well, but they were all very well-intentioned. The rationale being that even if people can afford the expense, the pressure and shame it caused others was something these takkanot/ decrees were trying to curb.

These types of institutions go back to the time of the Talmud. The Gemara in Moed Kattan states the following: Our Rabbis taught: Formerly, they would provide drinks to the house of mourners in the following manner: to the rich, in white glass [which was very expensive] and to the poor in colored glass. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be provided with drinks in colored glass out of deference to the poor. 
Formerly, they would uncover the face of the rich [corpse] and cover the face of the poor because their face became blackened by famine. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all faces should be covered out of deference to the poor. 
Formerly, they would carry out the rich [corpse] in a state bed and the poor on a common bier. And the poor people were ashamed. The sages therefore instituted that all should be carried out on a common bier out of deference to the poor…”” (Again, credit goes to Dr. Heshy H. Friedman, The Case Against Ostentation in Judaism, JLaw.com)

This is, by the way, why it is ideal to be buried in a plain wooden casket.

Although being wealthy is nothing to be ashamed of, on the contrary, it’s something, as we discussed yesterday, to aspire to, but being ostentatious, showing off one’s wealth – that is a real problem. We are responsible not only for how we treat others, but according to our tradition, we are responsible for the attitudes we inspire in others. And if me showing off my Rolex and Mercedes will make people jealous of me, that’s my problem, not just theirs. Even worse, what often happens is that others feel compelled to keep up with the Jone’s or the Klein’s, causing those who cannot afford it, not only shame, not only jealousy, but serious debt. And that is a real problem.

Now to create objective standards is rather difficult. To pinpoint what is ostentatious and what is not as it’s highly subjective. The standard of living shifts dramatically. In less than 50 years, the average house size in America has grown by 1000 feet. The smallest of houses in America are still tremendous when compared to a home in Israel. We also have to take into account that certain items are important to people for a whole host of reasons that are very difficult for us on the outside to appreciate. Some may feel like they need to go on awesome vacations based on their work-life, others feel the need for fancy clothes, others for food, and others for the latest phone. It’s hard to create standards and it’s completely unfair for us to judge.

But that doesn’t prevent us, as individuals, as a personal value, to hold back just a little, to think twice and question how others perceive our wealth, real or imaginary, before making a purchase. That’s a sensitivity we can all afford.

I should add, that our community, Ner Tamid, I believe is a beacon of light and a breath of fresh air in this regard. The culture of our shul is one of simplicity, of wealth being unimportant, of people not being judged by their clothing or belongings, and it’s not something to take for granted. We should take pride, a healthy pride, in that value, and not lose sight of it.

But it is hard to maintain. We’re surrounded by a culture of consumerism which is managed by a rather sophisticated set of algorithms. Google, Amazon, Facebook, they’re watching our every click, and setting up the perfect advertisement to pop up at just the right time. You have the latest psychological research going into every ad and every product, making sure that you feel you need to buy it. And it’s hard to overcome it. It’s hard to not feel like we do need more and more.

And this brings me to a final thought on wealth, a rather famous teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avos, Eizehu ashiri, who is wealthy, hasameiach b’chelko, one who is happy with what they have, which is of course, easier said than done. Where does this happiness come from? How do we become satisfied with our belongings? Our families? Our life?

The Sages in the Talmud suggest a rather insightful idea and that is that we have two internal systems that work in opposite directions; taavah, desire, and seviah, satisfaction. Feed one and it weakens the other.

Ein adam meis v’chatzi taavosov b’yado, a person dies without having satisfied even half of his or her desires. And that’s because the more we feed desire, the hungrier he becomes, the less satisfied we are.

And the same is true in the opposite direction. The more we slow down, the more we appreciate what we have, the less we want and the less we desire. The faculty of satisfaction grows every time we look at the beautiful trees we walk by every day and admire their beauty. Our sense of satisfaction every time we savor the flavors of the foods we eat. Satisfaction is enhanced every time you look at your children and admire them, a spouse and you focus on his or her qualities. Every time we take stock of the good in our lives, the more we enjoy it, and the more we’re satisfied with what we have.

There is an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtetel somewhere in Eastern Europe. The town-folk had never tasted, let alone seen an orange in their lives. And so when the orange was brought to town, everyone left work early that day. They gathered at the market place, and each and every person had a chance to hold and smell the orange. They admired its radiant color, they took in its powerful citrusy-sweet smell, and allowed their fingers to caress the smooth grooves of the fruit before passing it on to their friend.

The next day, they gathered again as the orange was peeled. They crowded together so they could catch the burst of juice as the peel was punctured for the very first time. Some of the peel was grated and a lucky few were able to go home with some orange zest. The remaining peels were chopped and then distributed among the community members so they could each make a tiny little batch of marmalade.

The next day, they gathered again. This was the grand finale. They all stood in silence as one woman delicately peeled apart each segment of the orange. The people admired the ingenuity and uniqueness of a fruit that needs no chopping or dividing, a fruit that’s readily available for sharing. They oohed and aahd as the sections were separated and a chosen few were given an orange piece of their own to eat, to savor and to enjoy.

 

Now let me tell you how I eat an orange. I absentmindedly peel it while talking to all of my children at the same time. The only thing I’m focusing on is to not get what I consider orange guck stuck in my fingernails. I toss the peels into the trash, and finish the orange before you could say, Tropicana. That’s it. What a lost opportunity for growing in my satisfaction.

I love Sukkos, I really do. First and foremost, it’s the great equalizer. There is no Sukkah-Ferrari; they’re all more or less all created equal. We all have the same wimpy pieces of wood that threaten to blow away every time a car drives by. Ostentatiousness is left at the door. Moreover, it’s a time to appreciate the simple things. On a rainy Sukkos like this one, it’s an opportunity to appreciate the fact that it’s not raining in our house. We have a house. Chances are our living room is more spacious than our Sukkah, isn’t that amazing! And it’s an opportunity to just look around the table and to see the people there who we care for, and who care for us; how fortunate we are!

May we grow in our sensitivity to those around us who may not have what we have and live our lives accordingly. And may we grow in our sensitivity to the many things that we, rich or poor, do have, and may G-d grant us all true wealth; parnassah, a good, steady, comfortable livelihood, and seviah, the ability to be satisfied with whatever it is we have.

2018: The Limits of Humanism – Reflections on Koheles

Today, I’d like to talk about humanism. Humanism is defined by the International Humanist and Ethical Union as: “…a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

Whereas in the pre-renaissance world, meaning and knowledge were defined by scripture, by G-d, in the humanistic era, the modern world we live in, knowledge is defined by personal experience. The humanistic world is one that celebrates the finding of one’s inner voice and personal truths. It’s a world that goes to great lengths to respect the personal truths of others. “My opinion is…” and “I believe X,Y, or Z,” whereas in the ancient world objective truths reigned supreme.

Yuval Noah Hariri, in his bestseller Homo Deus, gives the following example to distinguish between the world we live in today and the world that was. I apologize for the crudeness of the example, but it makes for a clarifying illustration.

Imagine a woman, let’s call her Elizabeth, living in a small town in England in the year 1300 engages in an extramarital affair. She would probably feel strong guilt and confusion. Who would she turn to to help guide her? The priest, of course. He would be well-versed in the Bible and he would tell Elizabeth exactly what she has to do; what type of repentance is necessary, and how to make amends. Lastly, he would tell Elizabeth exactly what would happen to her if she does not follow through; what her afterlife would look like.

If that same woman were living today, in 2018, in that same town, Elizabeth, or let’s call her Lizzy now, would also feel guilt and confusion for involving herself in an affair. However, Lizzy would not turn to her priest, she would most likely go to her therapist. The therapist would not call Lizzy a wicked woman, nor would he tell her that she is going to hell. Most likely, the therapist would have a single question for her, “How do you feel about what happened?”

And while it’s true the therapist may have his own bible of sorts, the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he may have a type of therapy that he strongly identifies with, but at the end of the day, the most important belief that the therapist holds to is that only human feelings are authorized to determine the true meaning of human actions.

That is humanism. And that’s the world we live in today. Iphone, Itunes, and when they finally came up with a device called a Wii, they put two I’s in it. I am the center of my universe, you the center of yours. You give meaning to your life, I’ll give meaning to mine.

While most people trace the genesis of humanism to the early years of the renaissance, the early 14th century, I would argue that the very first humanist was actually none other than King Solomon. Or perhaps more accurately, he was the first to dabble in humanism. Today we read a book called Koheles, it is a book that has puzzled its readers from the day it was written. It was so controversial and complicated that it almost didn’t make it into the canon of Biblical books.

But it did. And its story is fascinating. The author describes a journey to try to find meaning in his life. He doesn’t look in the Torah, he doesn’t seek out the advice of the elders, and he doesn’t seek out a rabbi. He experiences the world. He experiences wealth, he experiences poverty, he experiences great pleasure, and he experiences asceticism. He’s a real 21st century meaning-seeker; tasting every flavor, trying to find his way.

But at times this journey gets pretty depressing. In Shlomo Hamelech’s attempt to create meaning, he more often than not, doesn’t find it. He gets rather nihilistic, repeatedly describing the world as empty and pointless, as hevel havalim. Even more significantly, he is confused.

I would suggest that the confusing nature of the book is perhaps deliberate, it’s illustrative of the lack of clarity involved in the humanistic philosophy. Because you see Lizzy’s next steps are pretty hard to navigate in 2018. In a humanistic world, we get married for love and love alone, there is no sacredness to marriage. The bond of marriage is created by feelings. And if that’s the case, what if the very same feelings that once drove Lizzy into the arms of one man now drive her into the arms of another? If one’s personal desires and needs are not met by one’s spouse and if the new man Lizzy meets is kind, passionate, and sensitive, and she loves him more… well, then, why not?

Now of course this doesn’t address the feelings of her current spouse. So what happens then, what happens when her good feelings collide with her spouse feeling quite bad – to the say the least. Who wins in the humanistic world?

This is not a joke. This is a matter of much debate among humanistic philosophers; do the amazingly good feelings of her and her new friend outweigh those of their current spouses? Do they outweigh the feelings of the children? Do good feelings always outweigh bad feelings? Do we decide based on how many people are involved?

This is the confusion of the humanistic code and this, I’ve come to believe, is the confusion that King Solomon was attempting to depict. And that’s what makes his conclusion so meaningful and powerful. After exploring his feelings, after searching for meaning, after trying to navigate his inner world and its relationship to others, King Solomon concludes his book with this: “Sof davar hakol nishma, At the end of day, everything is heard.” And what that means is that all of our actions, up to and including every word we say, it all has meaning. He drops his nihilism and speaks fondly of the impact of each person. But then,“Es ho’Elokim yira v’es mitzvosov shemor.” The only way to navigate the complexity of life, the constant moral challenges, the personal biases clouding our judgment, my good feelings against yours – “Fear G-d,” he says, “and keep His Mitzvos.” The only way to transcend the internal confusion; the pushes and pulls in all directions, the only way to navigate my needs and desires with your needs and your desires, that’s where G-d and that’s where the Mitzvos come in; Eternal truths from an Eternal being.

Humanists see the Torah as archaic, outdated, misogynist, and backward. King Solomon, a man who believed deeply in himself, in human reason and personal feelings, concluded that human reason is wonderful but also insufficient. Our lives are as meaningful as can be, Sof davar hakol nishma, everything is heard, we do make a difference, we’re important, autonomous beings, but the very first humanist concludes, that with all its greatness, human reason and human experience also has its limitations.

 

2018: Torah Study Explained – Shmini Atzeres Yizkor

About fifteen years ago, a group of college students visited Ner Israel. These were students with no religious background whatsoever, and they were being given a tour of the Yeshiva. So to really give them the full experience they were paired up with a couple of us in the Yeshiva and we were instructed to study with them whatever section of the Talmud we were studying.

I was paired up with a young, bright guy, Jeff and we sat down to study. Before we really jumped in, I decided to explain to him how the Talmud works; how every page of the Talmud is predicated on a verse in the Bible. But the problem is that these verses are often enigmatic and so the rabbis had to provide an explanation as to what each verse means. At times, there was more than one opinion, and many pages of the Talmud are filled with debates as to what the appropriate interpretation is. One sage would bring a proof to his interpretation, another would question it, and back and forth. As time went on, I explained to him, some sections of the Talmud became difficult to understand and later rabbis came along and offered interpretations. Other rabbis argued, questioned and challenged, and provided alternative understandings. And so, this enterprise called Talmud study was a rather involved intellectual pursuit of the real meaning of each verse in the Torah and through the ultimate goal was to better understand what we should do in each circumstance.

And as I’m coming to my final point, Jeff’s eyes are lighting up. He’s finally understanding what Talmud study is, why it’s so involved, and why we’ve been debating these fine points of law for so many years. And just then, a guy, a fellow Yeshiva student walks by, with his eyes tightly closed, waving his hands wildly, and at full volume singing, “Ah-na-na-na-na-na-na!!!”

Jeff turns to me and says, “What the heck was that?”

“How does THAT match up with anything you just told me?!”

And it was a very good question. Because I was giving Jeff the Torah-as-a-manual explanation. You see, one way of looking at Torah study is to understand it as reading an instruction manual. Now, I imagine I am not the only person who does not read instruction manuals ever. I used to. But it’s a complete waste of time. You ever buy anything from IKEA? They come with these cute little manuals that look like a comic strip. They have this guy who doesn’t look like he’s human who somehow builds the dresser in three easy steps. Maybe it takes three steps because he really is an alien, I don’t know. What I do know is that most instruction manuals are either completely unhelpful or just unnecessary. In Israel, on the side of the boxes of Corn Flakes, it says this: Step 1 – pour corn flakes into bowl, Step2 – pour milk into bowl. Step 3 – Enjoy Cornflakes.

Wait, what’s next?

This is in Israel!! These guys built the Iron Dome and you’re giving them instructions on how to eat Corn flakes?!

So that’s why I don’t read instructions. I just put them straight into the trash. However, if you gave me an airplane, I would most definitely read the instructions before I fly the plane. Because that’s a big deal. I’m not going to mess around with flying a plane without reading instructions. I will read a library of instructions before flying that plane.

And so the Torah is none other than a manual to life. And life is a pretty big deal. We could waste our lives or we could use them constructively. And so studying Torah can be understood as a detailed, circumstance by circumstance, instruction manual for life.

But if the Torah is just a manual to life, then it does not explain why that guy walking around with his eyes closed was getting all emotional studying it. You never see anyone getting excited about watching a Do-It-Yourself video on YouTube. Why was this guy getting so worked up? And why is it that if you walk into any Yeshiva you will find so many of the students studying with a fervor, with a passion. Why?

That’s what Jeff was asking me.

So there’s another way of looking at the Torah and that is to see it not as an instruction manual but as a love letter.

You know, there’s this point in dating, somewhere between it’s not serious at all and whoa, this is really serious. It’s a very tender sweet spot in the middle where you’re trying to figure out where this is all going. So when my wife and I were dating and at that exact chapter, she called me one day and I missed the call, and she left a message. I was walking out of class with some friends, listened to the message, “oh yeah, it’s from that girl I’m dating….”

And then two minutes later, when no one was around, you know what I did? I listened to it again. And then you know what I did later that night? I listened to it again and again and again!

Now don’t give me that look like I’m the only person here who’s done that before! When you get a voicemail or a letter from a loved one, you read it over and over again and each time you do so, you try to decipher it. You try to understand the person behind the letter. It’s not about the message! What tone of voice was she using? What type of paper did he write on? Through the message, you get to understand the sender.

The Baal HaTanya, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this what Torah study is all about; it’s an opportunity to understand G-d. Every time I perform a Mitzvah, I’m fulfilling G-d’s will. I’m doing what He asked me to do. He asked me to shake the Lulav and I did. But when I study the laws of the Lulav, I am understanding His will, I am understanding Him! There is an aspect of Torah study completely independent of any practical observance. Its purpose is to understand the author. This is the closest man can get to G-d.

The Ba’al HaTanya uses a shocking analogy and describes the study of Torah as a form of intimacy. It’s the merging of our mind with G-d’s mind. And when you think of studying Torah as reading a love letter you could understand why when you walk into a Beit Medrash, it’s not a quiet library, it’s a place roaring with emotion. It’s an emotional spiritual activity like no other. Personally, I find in-depth Torah study to be one the most exhilarating experiences that I’ve ever engaged in.

But like most good things in life, appreciating the joy of Torah study is an acquired taste. Remember when Manischewitz was the only Kosher wine available? And then Kedem started producing Kedem 144. We thought it was the fanciest thing on earth. The truth is, it was just a glorified cooking wine, but that’s all we had back in the 80’s and 90’s. And now?! Ha!

I never had a very sophisticated taste in wine until I got married. My father-in-law spoiled me and would always bring some really fine wine every time he visited us. And it’s really an unbelievable thing – you ever read the back of a wine bottle? They say the most bizarre things. This exquisite merlot has hints of tree bark, vanilla, and purple… purple is a color, not a taste, and why would anyone want tree bark in their wine?! I used to think the people writing these things were all tripping on psychedelic drugs. But you drink enough of it and you taste that tree bark and vanilla! (Not sure about the purple)

Torah study – the joy of Torah study is certainly an acquired taste. It takes time, it takes energy, but eventually, one comes to a place where there is truly nothing more gratifying or enjoyable than in-depth Torah study.

 And it’s an investment worth making. For all the parents out there who send their children to Jewish day schools, you will be spending somewhere between 100 to 300 thousand dollars on each child’s Jewish education. And it’s worth every penny. Why do we do it? Why do we invest so much into our children’s Jewish education?

Some people tell me it’s so that their kids will marry someone Jewish. That’s a really bad reason. If it’s really all about marrying Jewish then we should just throw all that money at the people working on engineering our genes and engineer our Jewish babies to be six inches taller, a little smarter, and blond. Solved.

I don’t want my children to just marry Jewish! I want them to be Jewish! Passionately Jewish! And there is nothing more distinctly Jewish than Torah study. Family values are universal. Rituals are common to virtually very faith. But an entire peoplehood built around the in-depth study of sacred texts, that’s ours! And it’s the most magnificent legacy out there!

If you want to make that 100 to 300 thousand dollar investment go the extra mile, lead by example. If Torah study is just a subject in school… I’ll tell you, I haven’t looked at a biology book since 11th grade. But if it’s something that mom and dad find the time to engage in, if grandma and grandpa dedicate time every week to Torah study, I’d put money that their children and grandchildren will see their Jewish legacy in a completely different light. You’re spending all that money already. I guarantee that if you take an hour out of your week to try to acquire that taste for Torah, to perhaps study the same topics that your children or grandchildren are studying in school so you could discuss it with them, or to just study anything at all, the dividends of your investment will multiply.

Many of you here today will be saying Yizkor. There’s a custom to give charity in the memory of a loved one. Many people have a custom to give charity at the time of a Yahrtzeit. Most people come to shul at the Yahrtzeit of a loved one to say Kaddish. And the rationale behind all these customs is that by performing a Mitzvah in the memory of a loved one we are showing how they impacted us, and in doing so, it’s a merit for them. Even though they are in a world where they cannot perform Mitzvos, every good deed we do in their memory impacts them in some way.

So I have a suggestion, and Max, please don’t kill me. Keep your donations. Every time you want to show how your parents and grandparents impacted you, every time you want to bring a merit to deceased spouse or sibling, go to a Torah class that week. The most Jewish thing you can do to bring pride to your ancestors, the greatest merit you can bring to your family, and the closest you can get to G-d; Talmud Torah, the study of our scared texts.

In the Koran the Jewish People are described as the People of the Book. But at some point, we became the people who had a rabbi who knows the book.

There are a couple of professions where the job of the professional is to push him or herself out of business. Mental health professionals, doctors, and rabbis. If it’s just about knowing what to do and when, then yes, all you need to do is call the rabbi and there is no need for you to study. But if Torah study is about connecting to G-d, connecting to your heritage, connecting to your history, studying the same books that your ancestors studied, then it’s a taste we all need to acquire. 

Hold the donations, come to a class. It’s the best investment into Judaism that you can make.

There’s a story of two chassidim, Berel and Shmerel dancing on Simchas Torah. Everyone else is wiped out and is sitting down but these two chassidim are still dancing and dancing. The rabbi watches them dance, turns to one his followers and says, Berel is going to stop dancing before Shmerel.

And sure enough, Berel stops dancing and Shmerel continues. They turn to the Rebbe, and they ask him, how did you know who was going to stop dancing first? And he said, it’s simple. Berel was celebrating all the Torah he studied this past year, and he studied a lot. He completed two tractates of the Talmud, ten tractates of Mishna, three books of the Torah; he had a lot to dance for. But Shmerel, he wasn’t celebrating what he studied already. He was dancing for all the Torah he hoped to study in the future. And the possibilities are infinite, and so he his celebration is endless.

Some of us have studied a lot this year, some of less so. But we are all the people of the book. Pick up a flier, check out the many classes given here, or go online and check out the thousands of classes given all over the world. Acquire a taste for this distinctly Jewish experience. Do it for your children, do it for your parents, and do it for yourself. And may we celebrate, all of us together, tonight and tomorrow and throughout the entire year, the infinite gift and the intimate closeness of Torah study.  

 

Two Goats Yom Kippur Morning

Two goats, identical in height, features, complexion, and even cost were placed in the Temple’s courtyard on the morning of Yom Kippur. Lots, drawn by the High Priest, would designate one goat to G-d and the other goat to the mysterious Azazel. The first goat – the one chosen for G-d, would be slaughtered like all other offerings, only that this offering would have the unique distinction of having its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. The second goat would be walked for miles, deep, deep into the wilderness. The first goat was offered on the grand altar in full view of the masses gathered in the Temple for Yom Kippur. The second goat was escorted by one man alone, without any audience at all, then thrown off a cliff, and left to die a gruesome death.

Two goats, identical in height, features, complexion, and even cost – two very different outcomes all decided by a lottery. Luck, fortune, chance would dictate the fate of these two goats.

The classic understanding of this strange Yom Kippur ceremony is that the identical goats represent the two paths that stand before each and every one of us. We are constantly faced with a choice – service to G-d or abdication of responsibility. The judgment of Yom Kippur is the ultimate reminder that we have free-will, that we choose, and the consequences of our choices are ours. In the words of the poet, Anthony Liccione, “There really are only two roads we will travel, one going to heaven, the other to hell.”

But there is something lacking with this explanation. If the symbolism of these identical goats is to remind us of the two paths we can take, of the possibilities that stand before each of us for us to choose, why then is the fate of these two goats left to a lottery? If this central service of Yom Kippur is to highlight free-will, why does it revolve around pure and random chance? The goats do not select which path they will take! The High Priest does not even consciously decide which will go to G-d and which will go to Azazel! It’s left to chance, to a lottery; the very antithesis of choice.

It would seem, that the two identical goats do not represent choice; they represent the exact opposite; the randomness of life. The two identical goats, with two radically different fates, represent how two identical people, for reasons entirely out of their control, can lead drastically different lives. Some of you may have read the book, The Other Wes Moore. It’s a story, a local story of two boys who grew up a few blocks away from one another, here in Baltimore City. Both had difficult childhoods, both grew up without fathers, both hung out with gangs, and both had run-ins with the police. Two goats, identical in every which way.

However, one Wes Moore grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, a decorated veteran, a White House Fellow, and a business leader. The other Wes Moore ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence. One goat is chosen to be brought as an offering and the other goat thrown down the cliff. In the words of Wes Moore, the Rhodes Scholar, Wes Moore: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

Circumstances, many of them completely out of each boy’s hands, shaped their lives. Just like circumstances, mostly out of our hands, shape ours. In the Talmud, Rav Chanina bar Pappa describes an angel taking the drop of semen that creates a child and asking G-d, “Master of the Universe, what will be with this drop? Strong or weak? Wise or foolish? Wealthy or poor?” So much of our lives is predetermined. Is it not?

A term – a controversial term that gained a lot of currency this year was ‘privilege.’ If you are in this room, you likely have a good education, decent health, and opportunities available to you that a good percentage of the population of this country and the world don’t have access to. You were born into that privilege. Just like most of you were born into the privilege and burden of being Jewish, of being part of a great legacy and also part of one of the most hated groups of people in the world. Most of you did not choose these things. They were chosen for you. We are goats, acted upon by biology and luck.    

In modern slang, to be a goat means to be the greatest of all times. G.O.A.T. Greatest. Of. All. Times. I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling that goat these days. I’ve felt much more like a Yom Kippur goat; left to the mercy of forces completely out of my control. Spending months this year stuck at home, hiding from invisible enemies that no one seems to understand, waiting for a cure that may or may not materialize, and hoping this country stays safe and sane. As the days wore on, I felt smaller and smaller, less and less in control. LaShem, la’azazel, to the right, to the left… It’s all chance, it’s all insignificant.

As we say at the end of Vidui: Afar ani b’chayai, I am dust in my life, kal v’chomer b’misosi, all the more so in my death. What are we? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we’re helpless. Just a speck of dust in space and time.

And that liturgy continues: Harei ani l’fanecha kichli malei busha u’chlima, behold, I am before you like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation. These past months, who did not feel at some point, not just small but ashamed? We saw so much tragedy around us, medically, socially, and we were impotent; completely unable to make a difference. How much time did we spend doing foolish things? How many hours of our short lives left to distractions? Elo-ai, ad shelo notzarti eini chedai, v’ach’shav shenotzarti k’ilu lo natzarti. My G-d, before I was created, I was not worthy, and now that I have been created, it’s as if I never was.

What lasting impact can we claim for ourselves? What meaning can there be? We are just a goat. Sent off on its destination. With control of almost nothing.

***

But it’s ‘almost’ nothing, and it’s that ‘almost’ that I want to talk about this morning. Because it’s true, we do not have control of so many things in our lives, of most things in our lives, for good and for bad, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off we will be. But there is a little tiny something that we do control.

Recently, a number of lectures from Dr. Viktor Frankl were discovered and translated. Dr. Viktor Frankl, that great psychologist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and inspiration to so many who have walked through the valley of death. These lectures were given in 1946, less than a year after he was liberated from the clutches of the Nazis. During the war, he had lost his beloved wife, parents, and brother. The shadow of loss loomed over his life. And if that was not bad enough, he faced the very real prospect of nuclear war. As you can imagine, he grappled mightily with the meaning of life.

He joked how a young man once stopped him as he was walking into a lecture, and asked him, “Frankl, I can’t make the lecture. In one sentence, what’s the meaning of life?” Which is like asking a chess master which move is the best move of all. It of course depends on the circumstances; it depends on the moves that preceded it. How do you summarize the purpose of life in a sentence?

Nonetheless, Frankl does share a formula for a meaningful life which I’d like to share with you. It begins, he suggests, with a recognition that most things in life are not controlled by us. It begins with a recognition that the slogans of changing the world are meaningless and foolish – very few people can make such a claim, and any such claim of changing the world is suspect. It begins with a recognition that we are just a goat, and so many of our life circumstances and who we are has been chosen for us through nature and nurture.

But in that recognition, in that small place, there is a choice and there is a responsibility. Frankl quotes Hillel, the great 2nd century sage, in his most well-known saying: Im ein ani li… “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, then when?” And this is how he interprets it:

“Let us not forget,” he writes, “that each individual is imperfect… ‘in his own way.’ Expressed in a positive way, he becomes somehow irreplaceable, unable to be represented by anyone else, unexchangeable.” Im ein ani li, mi li? There is no one like me. Never was and never will be.

But that uniqueness alone has no positive value. This is the mistake, I would add, of so many in our generation, who believe that individuality is a value in it of itself. That being different is a goal in it of itself. No, writes Frankl. “Individuality can only be valuable when it is not individuality for its own sake but individuality for the human community.” Because Hillel continues, uch’sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I? We are called upon to serve. Not all of humankind, that’s fanciful thinking. We are called upon to make the life of those immediately around us more elevated, or at least, more bearable.

And the final clause, the most important of all. V’im lo ach’shav eimotai – and if now, when? It is not we who ask life – or G-d – what the meaning of life is all about. It is G-d who asks us. When does He ask us? Ach’shav. Right now. All the time. In every circumstance we find ourselves in we are being asked that question; what is the meaning? And our entire lives, every ach’shav, is an opportunity to respond to the question G-d asks of us. We could be in Auschwitz, or we could be in America, we could in a lockdown or on a cruise-liner, the question is always being asked of us. What are you, the unique, irreplaceable you, doing in this unique, irreplaceable moment? Are you making your life and the life of those around you better or not? That’s it. That’s life’s purpose in one sentence. So simple and so easily forgotten. And so I’ll repeat it: What are you, the unique, irreplaceable you, doing in this unique, irreplaceable moment? Are you making your life and the life of those around you better or not?

Life is a coloring book. We don’t get to choose the pictures; we don’t even get to choose the page. But we do get to choose the colors. We get to choose how we respond, what we do in that little space – that’s ours.

We do not know what this year has in store for us; I hope we have been humbled enough to accept that. We may be brought to the Temple – maybe this is the year of our redemption. Or we may be brought to the rocky mountains of Azazel. But as we are schlepped along, as we make our way through this short life, there is a question, a set of questions we must answer:

Ime in ani li, Mi li? What qualities have I been blessed with? What character flaws do I need to change?

Uch’sh’ani l’atzmi mah ani? Am I living for myself or am I living my life for others? My family, my community, they are part of my identity and they are part of my purpose.

V’im lo ach’shav eimo’sai? We pray for health, but we may face illness. We pray for wealth, but we may face poverty. We pray for an end to this pandemic, but we may face a second wave. But in this moment, whatever this moment looks like, you are being asked a question; what does life and what does G-d expect of me. 

What will you be your answer?