Last week was an exciting week for me. After years of paperwork, class-time, and assignments, I finally graduated. Now I just want to clarify, since I know there are some people here who are still a little unsure of my age. I graduated from college, not high school.
I learned a lot of wonderful things over the years, but there is one thing that I learned over this past year, specifically this past week, which is possibly the most significant thing of all. This past year has been a tad busy. Aside from all the amazing things going on in my life with the shul and a new addition to my family, I had a few hundred hours that I had to dedicate towards my internship. I only had to actually counsel for a few hours every week but there were still many more hours that I had to log doing things that related to counseling. One of the things that did count towards my hours was listening to lectures that related to issues that my clients were dealing with. So for example, if I had a client that was dealing with anxiety and I listened to a lecture that taught me about anxiety – that would count as time towards my internship. So I went and downloaded every lecture that I could get my hands on and every time I would get in a car I would turn it on, and try my best to stay awake as some professor droned on about some psychology-related topic. No, I am not as disciplined as I would like to be, I did not do this every single time I got in the car. But I did do this enough times that over the past year I was able to log a rather substantial amount of hours and use them towards my degree.
Last Monday I was driving home from my last class and for the first time in a very long time, I did not have to listen to a class in counseling on the way home, so I put on the radio, 91.5, classical music. And then it dawned upon me – over the past few months I was able to accumulate hundreds of hours-worth of knowledge while driving. And now for the rest of my life, now that I don’t have the same pressure, I’m going to spend that time that I could be becoming more knowledgeable, time I could be using more constructively, and listen to Mozart?! No way.
And the lesson that I perhaps knew but never experienced was that finding time to do things is not a matter of having or not having the time; it’s really all about our attitude. When I had to clock hours towards my internship, I was able to find the time to listen to lecture after lecture. But when I didn’t have that same pressure, I went back to being a busy man with no time to do things. Finding time in our lives is not about time management per say, it’s not about having the right personality. There is time in our lives – what we are missing and what we need is goals; what we are missing is a desire to accomplish, to achieve, and to grow. When we have goals in our lives, when there are things that we are driven to do, time suddenly pops up in places you least expect it. When driving to work, when going to bed, during a lunch break. Time is there and it’s waiting. It’s us who have to step up and do something with it.
There is a man, a Torah scholar who lived in Israel who used to finish the entire Talmud every three years. It’s pretty impressive. The Daf Yomi cycle takes seven years and this man finished the entire Talmud in three years. He used to make a party every three years when he would finish his cycle. One year, a few months after he made his regular party, he called his friends and family in for another party to celebrate the completion of the Talmud. And his guests were shocked – he had just made a party upon his completion of the Talmud a few months ago, and now he’s doing it again?! He shared with his guests the following explanation. The regular party he makes every three years – that is for the Talmud that he studies for a few hours every day to study. This party is a celebration of the fact that in his spare time – when he waiting for someone to meet up with him, when he came early to a meeting, whenever he had an extra minute or two, he would take out a section of the Talmud, and in that spare time, over however many years, he managed to complete the entire Talmud! We have time, we all have time – we need objectives, and we need goals, in order to use it constructively.
But there’s another idea, a much deeper idea that I thought about this week, and that is Judaism’s unique perspective of time. We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘time is money.’ Obviously, this phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Time is not actually money. Rather, the idea is, that time is precious because one can use the time they have to generate something else, in this case money. Time is valuable insofar as it can be used to achieve or accumulate something of significance. That is the way the world perceives time, namely, as a means to an end. However, Judaism sees time in a radically different way.
Last night, during Kiddush we said the blessing of Shehechiyanu – Shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, That You, G-d gave us life, You sustained us, and You brought us lazman hazeh, to this time. Why don’t we just say, thank You G-d for giving us life and sustaining us. What is the meaning of the last line: “For bringing us to this time”?
The significance is that in Judaism time is not a means to an end. Time is a precious commodity onto its own. Time carries within it a certain sanctity. And so we thank G-d not only for keeping us alive, but we thank Him for bringing us to now, to today, because even without doing anything, the time itself is special. We experience the exact same thing on Shabbos. Whether we do something or not, whether we light candles and come to shul or whether we stay home all day, the time of Shabbos is different, it carries something in it.
And it’s not just limited to Shabbos or Yom Tov. Every day carries its own uniqueness. Every day, explain the Jewish philosophers, in our worldview, a worldview that has a starting point at Creation and an end point called Olam Haba, by definition every moment is one that is accomplishing something by bringing us closer to our final destination. And because of that, every moment of time – on its own – is precious. Every moment has a unique role, a unique place in history. We indeed say, thank You G-d for bringing us to this time, to this very special moment.
In short, in Judaism, we do not say there are important things to do – so don’t waste time. Rather, we say, time itself is important and therefore, find important things to do to fill it.
One of the great Torah revolutionaries in the 20th century was Sarah Shneirer. We take it for granted that Jewish girls get a Jewish education just like Jewish boys do. But in the early 1900’s that was not the case. Despite the great emphasis on Torah study and education in Judaism, there was no formal system of study for young Jewish girls. In 1917, Sarah Schneirer formed the first Beis Yaakov school. She succeeded in overcoming initial resistance against this new type of school and saw rapid development of about 300 schools in pre Holocaust Europe. By the time she died in 1935, more than 200 Beis Yaakov schools were teaching approximately 35,000 girls. There is much to say about this creative and industrious women, but I’d like to focus on but one feature, and that was her motto. It was a verse from Tehillim that was constantly on her lips and posted in every wall in the Beis Yaakov building. Limnos Yamenu ken Hoda – Teach us to count our days. Time is the most precious gift that Hashem grants us, he gives every person the same 24 hours a day and every person uses it as they please. “Children,” she would say, “please use it wisely! Count your days! Count your hours! Use the precious gift of time.”
People like Sarah Shneirer, who are conscientious of the great gift of time, it’s people like that who know how to use it. Because it’s people like that who recognize that even if we don’t have something to do, a goal to accomplish, an objective to reach, we still have time, and it would be a tragic waste to let it go.
I’d like to conclude by reading to you an article by Lauren Slater, noted psychologist and writer:
The patient was depressed. He was a wet rag. He was suicidal. The psychiatrist had tried every pill and combination of pills he could conceive of, you name it. And still the man was depressed. He underwent a series of six shock treatments, lying bound on a bed while they juiced his brain, waking up in a fog, his eyes burning. And still the man was depressed. He tried to hang himself, to slash his wrists, to overdose on pills; he even tried to shoot himself but missed and survived without so much as a scar. And now the psychiatrist had grown bored with him. Three times a week, the man came in and either said nothing or talked about his failures. The clock ticked away. The man began to complain of headaches. He felt physically ill. The psychiatrist suspected it was psychosomatic. He paid little attention to the man. Still, his complaints grew louder. At last the psychiatrist referred the man to a neurologist, who could see inside his skull using instruments. Three days later, the neurologist called the psychiatrist. “There is nothing wrong with him,” the neurologist said. And the psychiatrist sighed, almost disappointed.
When the man came in for his next appointment, he asked, “Did you speak to the neurologist?” The psychiatrist nodded gravely and said, “Yes, I did.”
The man leaned forward in his seat. His dull eyes flickered — with terror. “And?” he said. “Well,” said the psychiatrist, drawing it out, with no plan or premeditation. “I’m sorry, but the neurologist says you have only three months to live.” The man shot back in his seat, stared for a long time at the ceiling, and then left abruptly.
The man was now in a rush. He booked a flight to Greece, and travelled to Crete, and saw dazzling white sand, he ate from a big buffet in the Caribbean. He sent his psychiatrist postcards from countries all around the world. Here I am in Russia, he wrote. I was in a bar all night, he wrote. I am taking cooking classes in Taiwan. I swam in the Dead Sea. Eventually, though, the months passed and the man did not die. Nor did he seem to be dying.
The man, of course, doesn’t die. He keeps burning brightly. Eventually he goes back to the psychiatrist who tells him his disease is in remission. And a year later he goes back again, only to find the office door open and the psychiatrist away. He takes the opportunity to open the filing cabinet and read his own file.
He flipped to the end of his chart and read: Tried to inject some existential urgency into the Man’s condition. Ethically questionable. Radical intervention. Told patient he was dying. Three months to live. Patient’s affect changed considerably. And the next note said: Postcard from patient. Depression in complete remission. Will continue with intervention. Benefits outweigh risks.
The man slowly closed his folder. On the doctor’s desk, he saw the American Journal of Psychiatry. Next to an advertisement for Effexor was an article written by his doctor. He looked at its title: “Mortality Therapy: A Case Study.” ***
That’s what Yizkor is; mortality therapy. It’s not only a day when those who have lost a loved one reflect on beautiful memories. But it’s a day that all of us remember that we do not live forever. Judaism is not morbid and death-centered. On the contrary, it deliberately takes the happiest days of the year, the holidays, and dampens the mood ever so slightly to remind us, we are here today and gone tomorrow.
So let’s use this Yizkor day as a wake-up call. Let’s all take advantage of this great gift that G-d has blessed us with and recognize the preciousness of a day, of an hour, of a second, and cherish it. Let’s fill those extra minutes and seconds with meaningful things; on car rides to and from work, we could become more knowledgeable and connected to the Torah which we’re celebrating today on Shavuot, we could use that time to call old friends who could use a call to cheer them up. We could find time on the way home from work to visit Levindale’s or the home of an older member who can no longer make it to shul. We could spend the last two minutes of our day, talking to G-d, praying, as we drift off to sleep. There’s no shortage to the things we can do, but there is a shortage to the time that we have.
Shavuos Day One
We have discussed in the past that there are times that sharing negative information may be allowed for a constructive purpose. Even then, it is forbidden to actually believe the information. One may only act cautiously based on the information. There are instances where it is permitted to believe the information which we will discuss in the coming days. Aside from those circumstances it is always forbidden to believe lashon hara even if it seems like the information is true. For example, a situation where it is spoken in the presence of the subject and he is silent. It is possible that the subject decided it wasn’t worth responding. It is also forbidden to believe lashon hara even if the information was heard from more than one source.
As challenging as this is one must strive to learn how not accept what they see/ hear as fact.. We all know if instances where we have jumped to conclusions based on something we have seen/ heard only to find out we misunderstood the situation.
Ok, I have to ask a favor from all of you – if at any point in your life you want to do something big, and I mean big, you know, something that will grab headlines – whether it’s discovering the cure for the common cold, or you plan on getting arrested for doing something. Do me and every pulpit rabbi in the country a favor – make sure it happens on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thursday latest! There is nothing worse than writing a sermon earlier in the week, only to read a headline you just can’t ignore on Friday morning!
This Friday morning in Israel there was a mass protest against the Women of the Wall. The Women of the Wall are a group of women who would like to conduct services at the Western Wall, at the Kotel. This group has attempted to have services there in the past, which at the time was illegal. Recently, the Jerusalem District Court ruled in their favor, and it is now legal for them to come pray at the Kotel, wearing talis and tefilin and conducting services. This Friday, this group was greeted by thousands of Orthodox women protesting their arrival at the Kotel.
I don’t plan on discussing the details of this dispute. There have been many wonderful and intelligent articles written on the matter and I don’t feel like I have anything to add. If you are so curious and would like to read one local opinion on the matter, Rabbi Wohlberg delivered a very powerful sermon on the topic of the Women of the Wall a short while ago and you can find it on the Beth Tfilloh web-site.
What I would like to discuss is how, in a more general sense, do we respond to those that we do not agree with. What is our approach to arguments and divisions that exist within the Jewish community? We read in this week’s Torah portion about the twelve tribes and how they each had their own colors and flags. We will always have different viewpoints. The question is how we deal with differing views. I believe that there are two approaches that can be taken.
The first approach is to truly understand the other. Now you may tell me I do attempt to understand the other side, I just don’t get it. They’re crazy, they’re fanatics or they’re evil or… How do we attempt to understand the other? Let me ask you a question – how many liberals in this room listen to Rush Limbaugh or read the Wall Street Journal? How many conservatives listen to NPR or read the New York Times?
The Mishna in Avos states, “Don’t judge your friend until you stand in his/her place.” This is not limited to understanding their life story, or their background. What this Mishna means is that we must really understand their position. Do yourself a favor – if you are a conservative start reading the Times. If you are a liberal, start reading the Journal. If you listen to talk radio – stop! It’s just a big waste of time… We have to learn how to really understand the other side. Not by formulating our own opinions by reading comments on news sites. Explore, investigate, understand and then come to a conclusion. Before we understand why people are so emotionally invested in women davening by the wall in a minyan, and why people are so opposed to it, how can we possibly have an opinion on the matter? A rabbi of mine in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, used to always tell us, “You think you’re a Zionist? You’re not a Zionist until you read all the literature of Rabbi Yoel of Satmar, the greatest anti-Zionist. After you’ve digested his works then you can call yourself a Zionist!”
Understand the other side. Do it for yourself – do it so you will have a greater understanding of your own position. But more importantly, the more we understand where people are coming from, the more we understand why they maintain their point of view, the less emotional the conflict will be. If we can appreciate that those who we oppose, or see things differently than, have a legitimate basis for their view, it’s only that we disagree as to what value is more important, or how much to emphasize a certain value, the more we can see eye to eye.
That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that as Orthodox Jews it is very challenging to be open to other people’s point of view. If being Orthodox means that one accepts the thirteen principles of faith and lives their life by the Jewish Code of Law, then a pluralistic philosophy, which by definition means that every opinion is equally right, is very hard to live by. At the most, as an Orthodox Jew, I attempt to live my life by what I call ‘Pluro-doxy’, pluralistic Orthodoxy, the ability to see more than one view as correct, but in the parameters of what it means to be Orthodox. It’s not a philosophy that sits so well with the way much of society thinks, but if one believes in G-d and a G-d that communicates with humankind then there are objective rights and wrongs.
So where do we go from here? How do we, as people who embrace a perspective of objective right and wrong, we who do not embrace pluralism, promote peace and togetherness?
I believe that it’s us who believe in the Torah are not only capable of embracing others regardless of their belief, but we are by far the most capable.
The other day, I bumped into a rabbi from another denomination of Judaism. I told him who I am and he said, “Oh, you’re to the right.” And I was taken aback. Now I wasn’t insulted, I’ve been called worse things in my life – but I was taken aback by this man’s way of looking at the world. Imagine if I were African American and I would introduce myself and he would say, “Oh, you’re black.” How would that sound? It would sound racist! Saying hello to someone and the first thing that comes out of your mouth is “Oh, you’re to the right” is what I would like to call ‘denominationalist.’ If racism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on race then denominationalism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on denomination.
We need to start a new movement. We, who believe in the Divine word of the Torah, we who accept what the Torah says that all people are created in the image of G-d, must start a new movement. There is an idea of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d that was the fuel behind the civil rights movement, and while it wasn’t verbalized it was also the same principal behind the movement for equal treatment of women. We, as believing Jews, believe that everyone, regardless of race and gender are worthy of respect.
Our sages take this idea of tzelem Elokim and show us its incredible implications. The term is mentioned only once in the Torah but our Sages teach us that it is alluded to in a place where you would least expect it. In Israel during the times of the Temple, capital punishment was the rule of the land. The Torah tells us that if someone is hung their body must be removed and buried by the end of the day. Why? Ki b’tzelem Elokim asah es haadam, because humankind was made in G-d’s image! We are talking about a man who was sentenced to death by a Jewish court! It’s not easy to be sentenced to death by a Jewish court. The crime had to be witnessed by two witnesses and not only that but the individual had to be warned before committing the crime. He had to be told that if he commits this sin he will be killed. This person went ahead and committed the sin. Clearly this is not a man that we would see eye to eye with. And yet, we are told, treat him with respect – he was created in the image of G-d. Every man, every women, of every race, and of every philosophy, whether we agree with their worldview or think it is absolutely wrong, is deserving of dignity. That’s the implications of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d.
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin. Well I dream of a day when Jews won’t judge each other by the philosophies that we live by. We are all guilty. This factionalism exists on both sides of the fence. And it’s up to us, we who sincerely believe that we are all created by G-d, in His image, to break that terrible cycle.
You know, I’m very excited for davening to end today. I know you don’t hear that from a rabbi too often… I’m excited because there’s a Kiddush hall rental that will be taking place while we have our Kiddush. The people renting the hall are of the opinion that it is appropriate to have a mechitzah down the middle of the room during a Kiddush. So on their side of the room there will be a mechitzah separating the men and women. Personally, I am of the opinion that that’s unnecessary. Many men in this group will be dressed in Chassidic garb; a fur hat, a long coat. And many of the men of our shul will be wearing khaki pants, maybe even a tie. These people identify with a Chassidic world-view and we identify with a Modern orthodox view… I can’t wait! I can’t wait for us all to be in the same room; them doing their thing, us doing our thing. No stones will be thrown, no one will yell at one another. And that’s really great. But the truth is, we could do better than that. We can be more than just be tolerant. We have to understand; why do they dress a certain way, why do they live a certain lifestyle? But more importantly let’s not let the thin partition stand between us. Let’s not allow our modes of dress stand between us. Let’s not allow our interpretation of the law, or even our deeply held convictions and beliefs stand between us. Because all of us, every single one of us were created in the image of G-d.
There are other instances where listening to lashon hara may not only be allowed but it may be a mitzvah. One example is a situation where one knows that if they allow the individual to say lashon hara they could immediately follow up the gossip with a defense of the individual spoken of.
* In such a case it is the right thing to do to listen to the individual say lashon hara. Another example is if one understands that by allowing an individual to vent, one knows that they can listen and then ensure that the speaker of lashon hara will cease to share the story with others. In such a case it is also a mitzvah since by listening one is ultimately increasing peace. In either case, one is forbidden to believe the lashon hara as fact.
* One can use this tool to retroactively fix lashon hara that was mistakenly listened to. Meaning, if one slips and listens to lashon hara they could erase the sin by trying to find any way possible to excuse the individual being spoken of by suggesting alternate understandings of what happened or arguing on the facts.
Although we discussed earlier that listening to lashon hara is forbidden, the Chafeitz Chaim qualifies that principle. It is only forbidden to join others who are speaking lashon hara. If however one joins a conversation and in mid-conversation the topic changes to lashon hara, one has a few options before them. Ideally, one should get up and leave or cover one’s ears. The Chafeitz Chaim acknowledges that this is not always so simple to do; whether due to practical concerns or because leaving will make one to be the object of scorn. In such a case, one must follow three rules. 1) Do not accept anything that is being spoken as fact. 2) Do not enjoy the conversation. 3) Do not encourage the speaker, whether verbally or through body language, to continue speaking.
Tip of the Week #3
As this last law so clearly demonstrates, one of the challenges of lashon hara is being true to oneself and not being swept up by peer pressure. Everyone else may be participating in lashon hara and to stay out of it requires a great deal of self knowledge, self control and self confidence. This week’s tip is to not lose sight of the fact that situations where other people are speaking lashon hara are incredible opportunities to work on building one’s strength of character. Don’t look at such a situation as an obstacle course to get around transgressing these cumbersome laws, but rather a great opportunity to build one’s self.
Public Service Announcement
Two weeks ago, I encouraged you, the readers of this blog me to abstain from speaking/listening to lashon hara one hour a day as a team effort. I will be designating hours in the next two weeks. If you haven’t signed up – it’s not too late!
If one hears negative information about someone else that was shared in a casual fashion AND there is no way to interpret the information in a positive light AND the one sharing the information knows this information from first-hand knowledge, it is permitted to believe him/her. Even in situations where it is permitted to believe the information, it is still forbidden to share the information with others.
We will begin to discuss when it is permitted to speak negatively about others. The underlying principal is that if the discussion is for a constructive purpose it is permitted. The first question one has to ask themselves before having a ‘constructive conversation’ (as opposed to lashon hara) is, is the information I am about to share 100% accurate? There is a mitzvah to judge others favorably which means that an ambiguous situation which could be interpreted in more than one way, must be interpreted in a favorable fashion. If a person saw or heard something that can be interpreted in a positive way or a negative one and decides to interpret the situation in a negative fashion and shares this information with others – even if it is done for a constructive purpose, it is still forbidden.
What exactly constitutes a constructive purpose and what other conditions must be met will be discussed in later posts.
The Chafeitz Chaim next deals with the proper steps one must take to repent from speaking lashon hara. Typically, a sin that is between an individual and G-d, one must only ask G-d for forgiveness, and a sin between an individual and another, one must ask G-d and the individual forgiveness. The Chafeitz Chaim states that lashon hara is no exception. Since an individual was harmed in some way through lashon hara (whether it was a financial loss or a diminished stature in the eyes of those who believed the lashon hara) forgiveness must be sought from the one who was spoken of. However, there are others who argue that in a situation where the one spoken of is unaware that lashon hara was spoken of him/her, since more harm than good will come out of informing them, one can therefore forego asking them forgiveness.
If one is interested in going into business/dating an individual, or really any interaction where complete knowledge of the other party is necessary, it is permitted to ask people what they know about the individual. Since it is being done for a constructive purpose and not for the sake of sharing gossip, it is permitted.
However, one should make sure to inform the one asked as to why you need this information. (You need not tell them the exact details but they must know that this is for a constructive purpose and it is not gossip.) This is because if the one who is sharing the information does not realize that it is permitted they are violating the prohibition of lashon hara by sharing this information, since from their limited perspective there is no positive purpose in sharing this information.