RBG and the Esrog Yizkor Shmini Atzeres

The topic of my talk today is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aleha hashalom. To be honest, I am nervous talking about her. I remember not too long ago when I could quote Ronald Reagan or John F Kennedy and not have to qualify that referencing them it is not a political statement. It was a time when I could share a story about Menachem Begin or David Ben Gurion and aside from one or two people who would grumble, most would understand that these were people of great consequence; flawed, of course, but influential, leaders who tried hard to make their country and the world a better place. So today, while our country burns figuratively and literally, I ask you to pretend for a moment that we live at a different time, at a time of civility, to not allow politics to muddy my message, and may we merit to return to such a place bimheira v’yameinu.

It’s Shmini Atzeres and technically Sukkos is over but I’d like to use some symbols from Sukkos nonetheless; the Lulav, the Esrog, the Haddasim-myrtle branches, and the Aravot-the willow branches. Possibly one of the most famous Medrashim that explain these species is found in Vayikra Rabbah. It describes how each one of the four species represents a different type of Jew.

First there is the Aravah – the willow branch, it has no taste and no smell. It’s been renamed the Covid-branch… Just kidding. The underlying idea of this Medrash is that taste represents Mitzvos, the commandments given to us by G-d through His Torah, and fragrance represents Middos, good character, something that is independent or complimentary to the Torah. And so, the tasteless and odorless willow branches represent the individual who has no Mitzvos, no good deeds, and has terrible character, no middos whatsoever.

Now I’ll tell you, I have never met such a person in my life. Have you? Nothing at all going for them?! No redeeming qualities?!

But apparently they exist. And you know what we’re told to do with them? On Pesach, we knock this figure in the mouth – hakeh es sheinov, but not on Sukkos. Not after we have cleansed ourselves of our sins, not after we have been humbled into recognizing how small we are, how much evil lurks within. So on Sukkos, we take the Aravah, the mitzvah-less and middos-less Jew, and we tie him and her up with our Lulav, with our Esrog and with our Haddassim. We embrace them. We do not push them away. We do not call them names. We do not ostracize them. We do not, Heaven forbid, pray for their demise. Because you know what happens when the aravot spend so much time in close proximity to the fragrant myrtle branches and the citron-smelling Esrog – it also starts to smell good.

Again, I don’t believe there are any Aravot in our midst – and I don’t just mean here in our shul. I mean in our community, local and beyond. There are things I see that make me cringe, sometimes even cry. But everyone means well as misguided as they may be. We don’t need more fighting, we don’t need more name-calling, we don’t need more sinah, more hatred in our Jewish world. If you think someone is an Aravah, pull ‘em closer. Don’t push them away. Bind them up. Reach out, speak kindly, say hello. That is what we do with the Aravah.

Then there is the Lulav – the Lulav comes from a date tree; tasty – I love dates, but they have no smell. And so, in this Medrashic scheme, the Lulav represents the Jew who performs many Mitzvos but is lacking in his or her middot. It is so sad and tragic that examples abound. That there are garbage fires burning in Brooklyn, started by religious Jews who are upset at the Governors orders. That there are ugly protests led by Orthodox Jews. What a Shanda! And don’t get me wrong – what the governor did in New York was not right; he didn’t work with communal leaders, he singled Jews out time and time again – he’s wrong, but so are we. The complete lack of safety, non-compliance with mask-wearing there and here in our own community. I don’t care about the science. If you legally have to wear a mask – wear one! It’s an absolute chillul Hashem to not do so. Frankly, I don’t care about the constitution and this obsession with individual rights. It is a lack of common decency, of basic middot. You can do all the Miztvos in the world, make a siyum on Shas every year, but a Lulav has no smell. It is inferior and rightfully so. Don’t be a Lulav; don’t hide behind your Torah observance and leave a trail of foul odor everywhere you go.  

Which brings me to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Hadass, if I may; the fragrant smelling myrtle branch, a symbol of love and romance in so many cultures. Without a doubt, Justice Ginsberg represented Jewish values. Yes, I know she was laid in state for a number of days and more, we’ll get there. Please hear me out.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exceptionally devoted spouse; an Eishes Chayil par excellence. Her husband, early in their marriage developed testicular cancer. They were both in law school at the time. But somehow, despite being in her second year of law school, despite having a young child to care for, she managed to shower her husband with devotion and care, going so far as to have notes taken for him by friends that she would later type up, so he too could make his way through school. A devoted mother and spouse.

She was a paragon of civility, known to be the left-leaning justice who was friendly with the Conservatives. Most famously, her relationship with one of the staunchest right-wingers on the bench, Justice Scalia, was legendary. They would go to operas together, they would celebrate New Years, and they even once went on an elephant ride together – just because.  Not only that but Brett Kavanaugh described in great detail how kind and generous Ruth Bader was towards him when he was accepted as a Supreme Court Justice. A model of chessed.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the early of days of being rejected from clerkships for her gender to the late years of her stardom as the Notorious RBG was a ferocious advocate of human dignity and equality. In 1999, she wrote the majority opinion in which the Supreme Court ruled that mental illness is a form of a disability. In 2020, she affirmed the rights of Native Americans to lands in Oklahoma. In 2013, she fought for Black citizens to have easier access to voting. And of course, most famously and iconically, time and time again Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for complete and absolute equal treatment of women in our society.

And yes, I know, our Jewish tradition’s worldview on other nations and women is complex, but allow me to read to you a short passage from another giant, a Torah giant who passed away last month, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz zt’l:

Egalitarian ideas are not supported by any evidence. The inequality of man is blatantly apparent. (Some are born short, some tall, some smart, some less so, etc.) The only way one can find any support for the idea of equality is in a very difficult religious concept: the concept that people are born in the Image of the Lord and are therefore equal [in some fundamental way]. There is no other argument that I have heard that serves any purpose. All egalitarian movements are an outcome of Judeo-Christian ideas that contain within them the notion of receiving a divine soul that for everyone is more or less the same …

All forces everywhere, within and without, work against equality. People are so inherently different – not only different, but unequal – that it requires a constant struggle to accept the notion of some kind of equality. The only justification for the idea is what you may call a mystical one: even though people don’t appear to be equal, there is something equal in them.

So yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight to bring equality to women and to all others who have been marginalized is most certainly a reflection of a beautiful and fragrant Jewish value of tzedek, of justice. And so I believe I am justified in describing her as the lovely Hadass.

But a Hadass, as you know, has a sweet-smell, but no taste; excellent middot, but a lack of Mitzvot. Not to say that she did not perform countless, hundreds, likely thousands of Mitzvos along the way, but her life was not one dedicated to the Torah, to our understanding of the Torah as a book of life, of not just values, but iron-clad rules and instructions that guide our every movement, Divinely-ordained, and eternally valid. This was not the worldview of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She did not her life in accordance with these Divine rules, she at times, from her powerful perch, ruled in ways that were perhaps inconsistent with the laws of the Torah, and her final stage on this world was a sad reminder of this reality. A fragrant hadass indeed, but I am sorry to say, not what we ultimately strive for.

The final and most significant of the four species is the Esrog. The Esrog is a rare breed. That’s why it costed me $180 this year to buy one… The Esrog that can so easily be disqualified, the Esrog that needs a magnifying glass to see its texture, the Esrog that needs certification to ascertain its origin. To be fragrant and tasty, to have majestic middos and to live one’s life in accordance with the Torah, it’s not easy, it’s almost impossible. But isn’t life about trying?

In a moment we’ll be saying Yizkor, and we will recall parents, loved ones who lived their lives so we can live ours. Many I am sure were hadassim, they lived their lives guided by beautiful Jewish values, of brotherhood and good food, of community and of kindness – I am sure you recall them fondly. Some were perhaps Lulavim, who learned Torah and performed Mitzvos but forgot to impart upon you the beauty of life. And some, I fear, may be remembered as Aravot – as people who made you second-guess your worth, who belittled you, who made you who you are today not because of them, but despite them.

Whomever we recall today, and in whichever fashion, it is not enough to perpetuate, to continue a family tradition. Our goal is to build on their accomplishments, spiritual and otherwise, to forge forward. Life, is about shaking our lulav, shaking our aravot, shaking our hadassim! Not accepting the status quo! It’s about striving to be an Esrog; to do more, to be more. To not continue the legacy of those who came before us but to honor them by continuing further on the path they started. That is the greatest gift we can give our parents; not imitating them but surpassing them.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are done; the High Holiday season is coming to an end. What are we taking with us as we leave? A little bit more Torah study that we can commit to on a daily or even weekly basis? There is so much depth in our tradition that we are painfully ignortant of. A little more prayer, in shul or at home? Maybe some Tehillim, that beautiful evocative poetry, that manages to capture all of human emotion? Our soul is thirsty. You know it is, you’ve felt it these past weeks. Give your soul its deepest desire, to talk to her Creator. Maybe a commitment to check up on one member just once week? On a friend? A family member? A dedication to speaking less cynically, more compassionately, with less judgment? What’s it going to be? Now’s the time to decide. We cannot leave this holiday holding our lulav and esrog limply. Shake it up.

 

Growing up, we had this beautiful custom – my father would take his Esrog after Sukkot and drill little holes in it and in those holes he would place cloves, besamim. And every Saturday night, we would use the Esrog as our besamim for Havdallah and begin our week with a constant reminder to strive, to grow, to not accept the status quo, to be an Esrog.

So today, as we recall loved ones, as we recall Jewish icons, as we recall what came before us, let us not just hold the past in our hands, let’s move it forward. Let’s shake ourselves and let’s shake the world, let’s strive for more, for more fragrance, for more taste, for ceaseless growth, for always wanting more, of filling and yet never satisfying our spiritual thirst. And may we merit, when we are no longer, to be remembered not as an Aravah, heaven forbid, not as a Lulav, not even as a Hadass, but as the Esrog; aromatic and fragrant in our character, delicious and delightful in our deeds.

The Simple Joy of the Torah – a poem

No tug of war over the Torah, aren’t women just the same?

No declining the l’chaims, sobriety can be maintained. 

                       Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No tears shed over Nearim, eggs frozen in a lab, 

Will I ever be a mother, will he ever be a dad?

                       Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No slinking in your seat as the bidding gets too high, 

I can barely pay my bills, but the sixth hakafah I should buy?!

                   Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

No social scene that isn’t social for those who don’t fit in, 

We will come, we will daven, we will smile, we will sing, for 

                   Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah 

This year will be quite different from anything before, 

Though we pray for it all to end,  of *this* we can use just a little bit more 

                  Simchas Torah – the simple joy of the Torah

ואיש לא יעלה עמך. הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת עַ”יְ שֶׁהָיוּ בִתְשׁוּאוֹת וְקוֹלוֹת וּקְהִלּוֹת, שָׁלְטָה בָהֶן עַיִן רָעָה – אֵין לְךָ יָפֶה מִן הַצְּנִיעוּת

And no man should go up with you (in receiving the second set of tablets): the first (tablets) since they were (given) with loud noises and great multitudes were impacted by the evil eye – there is nothing more beautiful than tzniut (modesty-simplicity) 

(Rashi, Shemos, 34:3 quoting Medrash Tanchuma, 3:9:31) 

@YisraelMotzen

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.