The danger of inspiration
Today, I’d like to share with you a good story. It’s a case-study, a real live one, that’s taking place as we speak. It’s about conflict resolution and making lasting and meaningful change in a community. It’s a story about our community, and I think our representatives in Washington would probably do well in taking some notes.
On Wednesday night, renowned-psychologist, Dr. David Pelcovitz, chair of YU’s Psychology and Jewish education department and past scholar-in-residence here in Ner Tamid, was in town to speak about substance abuse in the Jewish community. It was the kick-off event for a new communal organization, called Chayeinu. The organization’s goal is to provide assistance in combating substance abuse in the Orthodox community.
The event was a smashing success. They had a huge, diverse crowd, full communal support, and people walked away empowered to do more.
I’d like to spend a few moments dissecting that event, viewing it as a case study, because I think we can all learn a lesson or two from their success. To do so, allow me to first digress to the parsha –
Moshe, the Torah tells us, was not a very eloquent speaker, which makes G-d’s choice of Moshe to lead the Jewish People at this juncture rather odd. If there was any time in Jewish history that we really needed a lift-me-up, rah-rah, Winston Churchill-type leader it was then. And yet, G-d deliberately chose a man who couldn’t speak very well at all. Why is that?
Rabbeinu Nissim, one of the great Medieval philosophers explains with a timely insight: Had Moshe been an eloquent speaker, it would detract from his message. The Jewish People would later on claim that they were duped into accepting the Torah, overawed by a polished leaders’ rhetoric. And therefore it was actually crucial that he didn’t speak that well, that he never gave electric speeches, that people weren’t moved and taken by his persona. Had he been charismatic, he may have been successful at the get-go, but the shine and glitter would have eventually worn off. Eloquence, charisma, while they are sweet to the ear and eye, they dull the brain.
Quite similar to the danger of charismatic leadership is the use slogans. Slogans, like charismatic individuals stifle intelligent discussion. They are attempts to over-simplify complex issues and galvanize people by pulling on their emotions. What charisma and slogans have in common is that they distract from the real issues.
It has been noted that in Washington today, we are no longer debating conservative or liberal ideas, we are rallying around charismatic individuals. For Republicans, it’s the president, for Democrats, it’s the likes of Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez. Whose snarky tweet was funnier? Who clapped back with more punch?
The same is true for slogans – every Democrat and Republican believes in both security and immigration, the question is where to draw the line. Every Democrat and Republican believes that life is sacred and women have full autonomy over their own body. But instead of talking about the issues, and where and how to draw those lines, we end up yelling slogans about life and choice, and about walls, and whose twitter feed is more powerful. These are distractions from the real conversations of how to best balance values that everyone agrees upon.
Sadly, we’re not immune to such things as an Orthodox community. There are modern Jewish leaders, so caught up in their charisma, who speak of revolutions, even spiritual revolutions. There are Jewish leaders who post more pictures of themselves on social media than the Fiji girl, and there is no shortage of Jewish leaders who seem to have all the answers (and when they speak of not knowing the answers, it’s a feigned humility that couldn’t fool a ten-year-old). That’s sad, and frankly, those type of people are downright dangerous.
We also have slogans, or calls-to-action, our Orthodox Jewish community’s favorite slogan is that everything is broken. As some have joked, there is a crisis crisis; everything seems to be a crisis. One of the most popular punching bags is the school system. Our schools don’t allow for enough freedom of expression or freedom of inquiry. Our schools emphasize intellectual study and leave those less intellectually-inclined in the dust. And thanks to our lousy schools, we have the following – fill in the blank – crisis.
What was refreshing about this event Wednesday night was that they weren’t hyperbolic about the issues at hand. They didn’t blame the opioid crisis on the challenges of the observant lifestyle, or the schools that aren’t accepting enough. They didn’t even blame the addictions in our community on the kiddush clubs. They could have, and in doing so they would have riled up the troops.
But to do so would be a distortion of reality and ignoring the fact that substance abuse is not a Jewish issue. It’s a national issue.
To be very clear, men getting intoxicated on Shabbos morning is a terrible practice; it’s horrible modeling and could be a place that an addict gets their next fix. And to be clear, many of our schools need a LOT of work and are not sensitive enough to individual students. And, children who struggle at school have a greater risk-factor of ultimately going down the road of substance abuse.
But if kiddush clubs, bad schools, or uniquely Jewish societal pressures were the true causes of substance abuse, then the leading cause of death for all Americans under 50 wouldn’t be drug overdose, it would only be true for Jewish Orthodox Americans. But it’s not. It’s a national epidemic.
Too often, we take this myopic view and blame the prevalence of issues, national issues, on unique features of the Jewish community. Blasting dysfunctional school systems is a great way to galvanize the people, powerful videos that highlight unique Jewish features like kiddush clubs are exciting, but they prevent us from seeing the big picture, a more accurate picture.
Thank G-d, we don’t have a monopoly on crises. Substance abuse, reporting on child abuse, young men and women leaving the fold of their faith, none of those are exclusively Jewish issues. They are universal. The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal reported that one in ten cases of child abuse in developed countries are reported to the appropriate agencies. 10%! That’s horrible! But that’s a national, or international statistic, not a Jewish one. A recent Pew study demonstrated a steep decline of young Americans identifying as Christians. Young Jews are not the only ones leaving the faith. When did we get so self-centered that we can’t pick our heads up and realize that our issues aren’t ours alone?
Charisma, catchy phrases and speeches, playing-the-blame-card, do a very good job at generating excitement. But if you’d like to get to the root of an issue, speech impediments are the way to go. Don’t pander to the populists. That’s one thing this group got right.
Here’s another – for months, maybe even a year before this kick-off event, the leaders of this group were meeting with school principals, with rabbis, with addicts, with former addicts, and with thought-leaders in the community. They were seeking out a better understanding of what has been done and what needs to be done. In doing so, even in asking the questions, they were changing the way people thought about addictions. They were effectively creating broad-based support for their cause even before they got started.
Two weeks ago, a fascinating debate exploded on my Facebook feed. Two Orthodox outsiders, two social activists who live on the fringe of the Jewish community were arguing, quite fiercely, as to whether change should take place from within or from without. One side argued that no significant change in the Orthodox community ever took place from within and therefore, ready? Attacking the Orthodox Jewish community is the only way to make social change. The other argued that without building bridges with the existing leaders and communal support groups, a greater disservice was being done by drawing people in need of support away from those who could really help them – albeit in an imperfect fashion.
Now excuse my analogy, and you’ll understand what I mean by that in a moment – one of the great mysteries of the story of the Exodus is Moshe’s ongoing dialogue with Pharaoh. Why bother? Why speak to a man who you know will reply to everything you ask him with, “No, no, no. I will not let them go?!”
Perhaps there is an eternal message here. Perhaps G-d wanted to demonstrate the importance of working within the system. Yes, there were plagues raging on outside. G-d wasn’t waiting all that patiently for Pharaoh to come around to his side, but it is clear that G-d’s best-case scenario was for Pharaoh to agree on his own, for the change to come from within. Because building bridges, even shaky ones, is always better than burning them. Moshe attempted to build a bridge with Pharaoh, of all people. It’s hard to believe that any of our communal systems are more sinister than Pharaoh’s.
This is not my own idea. It’s something the great Abarbanel writes, addressing another question that is often asked about the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus. When G-d appeared to Moshe, and when Moshe spoke to the Jewish People, it was abundantly clear that they were leaving Egypt for good. And yet, when Moshe asked Pharaoh to let the Jews go, it’s only for three days. Three days of service in the desert, and then we’ll come back, Moshe said. Was it just a ruse? Was he just tricking Pharaoh?
That’s what it seems like. But Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that Moshe was saying the truth. Had Pharaoh said yes, they would have left for three days and then come back. And then Moshe would have asked for another few days, maybe a week this time. And then they would have come back. And this would have happened time and time again, until eventually Pharaoh would have let them go for good.
You see, Moshe was playing the long-game. Moshe was asking something monumental from Pharaoh, for incredible changes that weren’t really practical. The entire economy rested on these Jewish slaves. Think of the South before the Civil War. Even those opposed to slavery had no idea how the economy would survive without it.
Moshe recognized that to get Pharaoh to let the Jewish People go would take time; time for Pharaoh to develop a new way of looking at the Jewish People, time for him to see that Moshe was not out to punish him, time to reorient himself and his country to a whole new way of life.
We have so many wonderful Jewish activists in our community. So many people are brimming with a desire to help those in need, to change what is indeed broken. The last thing I would do is tell them to stop. I would ask them though, to consider the long-game. There are times of course, when people’s lives are at risk, times when the long-game is inappropriate. But more often than not, more good will come about with patience and perseverance, recognizing, lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, it is not upon us to complete the task, aval lo ata ben chorin l’hipater mimenu, neither are we free to do nothing at all.
There are so many issues that need to be worked on, in our community, outside of our community, wherever. It’s overwhelming and it’s almost impossible to know what to do and when. But I think we can all learn some lessons from this wonderful group, Chayeinu, who is combatting substance abuse in our community, lessons that I believe go back to our first and greatest leader Moshe, and they are:
- Charisma, hyperbole, slogans are distractions at best, dangerous at worst. Blaming national issues on communal problems is exciting but almost always false.
- Just because coalitions no longer exist in Washington, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them. Partnerships, working from the inside, using the communal infrastructure that is often not broken, but could just use some help, is a far more effective tool in bringing about change.
- Lastly, play the long-game. With patience and perseverance a slave-owning nation could have transformed into the first emancipators.
With patience, partnerships and an eye on what we’re really fighting for, may we work together in changing our community and the world around us, one step at a time.
Purpose of life, serving G-d with happiness, belief in G-d/ belief one’s self
Recognizing one’s own haughtiness
I know you’re going to find this hard to believe but this past week I was inspired by Michael Cohen. Yes, that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney who this past week, pleaded guilty to, among other things, tax evasion, unlawful campaign contributions, and lying to Congress.
Allow me read to you the final statement he made to the court on Wednesday, and I think you’ll understand why. Please bear with me, it’s long, but worth the read:
I stand before your Honor humbly and painfully aware that we are here today for one reason: Because of my actions that I pled guilty to on August 21, and as well on November 29. I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to, the personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America. Viktor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “There are forces beyond your control that can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life.
The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate. I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired… I want to be clear. I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today, and it was my own weakness, and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light…
Recently, the President Tweeted a statement calling me weak, and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass. My weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty … and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands. I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am…
My family has suffered immeasurably in the home and the world outside. I know I have let them all down, and it will be my life’s work to make it right, and to become the best version of myself. Most all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States. You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust. I want to thank you, your Honor, for all the time I’m sure you’ve committed to this matter and the consideration that you have given to my future.
… I am truly sorry, and I promise I will be better.
Now is that not inspirational? I know some of you may disagree, some of you may be put-off by his throwing the president under the bus, some of you may question his sincerity, and that’s all fair. But I found his words to be truly inspirational.
Now in a Jewish court, his words wouldn’t actually impact the proceedings. If one committed a crime, even if they subsequently demonstrate remorse, the court is charged with punishing them. But that’s only what takes place in the courts. We believe, and this is a tenant of our belief, that repentance; acknowledgment of a crime, remorse, and commitment to not doing it again, if done sincerely, changes the way we are judged in the heavenly court. In other words, man is not equipped to distinguish true remorse from falsehood, but we believe that if someone truly feels bad for what they’ve done and commits to never doing it again, G-d accepts that, and wipes our slate entirely clean.
This notion of repentance, or of teshuva, is one that has baffled many great thinkers. Baruch Spinoza, the great philosopher once said, “Repentance is not a virtue,” nor does it “arise from reason; but he who repents of an action is doubly wretched or infirm.” The reason, he explained, is that the man who repents, “allows himself to be overcome, first, by evil desires, secondly, by pain.”
Now Spinoza wasn’t just being cynical. He had a philosophical issue with changing the past. How can my “pain” as he put it, erase a past misdeed? I did it, I committed the crime. There’s no way to go back and change it.
I believe that the mistaken belief Spinoza had in repentance comes from a mistaken belief I learned in Jewish sleepaway camp. (And no, I don’t think Spinoza went to sleepaway camp back in 17th century Amsterdam.) In the summer camps that I went to, they had something called a cantata, it’s a play with some singing, put on by the camps’ staff. I loved them, even though they all had the same exact plot – the finale always had a Nazi or KGB officer about to kill some Jews for practicing Judaism, and then they realize that the officer is really their long-lost son…
But there was this one cantata that stood out because it didn’t follow the regular plot. I don’t even remember the story-line now, but what I do remember is one very vivid scene. The protagonist dies, and he is at the gates of Heaven. There are three rabbis draped in taleisim, who talk like thiiiis (I don’t sound like that, do I?), it was really frightening. And in the background, there was a scale with all the person’s mitzvot, good deeds, and aveiros, sins. And the scale was going back and forth, back and forth, and we all watched with bated breath as this guy’s fate was decided.
The image of that scale, mitzvos on the one side, aveiros on the other, it stuck in my mind. For years, that’s what I thought will take place when I die. My mom, she should be well, would be sitting up there, writing Mitzvah notes for all the good things I ever did in my life and placing it one side of the scale.
Mitzvah notes, for the uninitiated, are notes that a proud parent, usually of a preschool aged child, will send to their child’s teacher. They’ll write, “Dear Morah, Last night Dovid cleaned up his toys without me even asking him. What a Mitzvah boy! We are soooo proud of him! Love, Mommy”
I’m not sure where and how this originated but it’s now universal in all Jewish schools and it’s a really beautiful idea – except for the parents who send their child with three Mitzvah notes every day. In our preschool downstairs, the teachers hang the notes over the children’s cubby. There was one child, I kid you not, who had hundreds of notes. That’s how you raise a narcissist. Just saying.
Anyway, so my mother would be writing Mitzvah notes and placing them on one side of my scale. On the other side, there’d be my one teacher I had in grade school who couldn’t stand me. We used to have these power struggles every day. And I used to think it was so sad that this grown man would have a power struggle with a little kid. And then I had children… So my mother would be writing Mitzvah notes, this guy would be writing avera notes (those aren’t a real thing). They’d both put their notes on the scale, and voila, we have divine judgment.
Now if that was the way we’re judged, I understand why Spinoza took issue with repentance – you can’t erase the past, there’s no mechanism that could get rid of all those averos – or aveira notes.
But that’s not the way we understand how we’re ultimately judged. We are judged by who we are. And who we are is not the sum-total of our deeds. It’s far more complex. Our deeds play a role, but our tradition teaches us, that an even greater role is played by our aspirations – not only what we’ve done, but what we’d like to do. Not only by the way others perceive us, but how we see ourselves. Not only by what we do or do not do, but how those actions resonate with us, how connected we are to the deeds we perform. Divine judgment does not use a scale. Divine judgment looks deep into our psyche, or our soul. If I may, and asks a question that we should be asking ourselves from time to time; who are we? Where am I heading with my life? What do I regret? What do I still want to do? What in my life am I really connected to and in what areas am I just going through the motions?
Each good deed adds to that persona, each bad deed detracts, but as opposed to a human court which can only judge what they see, G-d judges us by who we are.
And if you understand it that way, then you can understand how a change of heart, a true and sincere change of heart, a reorientation of our life goals, can literally change us. Repentance is possible because we are not erasing the past deeds, we are transforming into someone new.
A number of years ago, I was at a Starbucks and I was looking at ingredients trying to figure out if something was kosher. The barista turned to me at one point and said, “Listen buddy, buy the frap, drink it, and tomorrow go to your synagogue and confess. I do it every week at church!”
If repentance is just paying lip-service to what we did wrong, then it’s truly illogical – but also rather easy. But if it’s about becoming a different person, as we’ve explained, it may make sense, but it’s also quite hard, if not impossible to change like that. How do we change who we are at the core? Is that really possible?
Allow me to reference the interview with Debbie and David Schwartz that was featured in this month’s newsletter. “ What part of Ner Tamid are you most excited about? David continues to be excited about the awesome Youth program. Debbie is thrilled to help Ner Tamid grow and provide a unique spiritual home to the Orthodox free-thinkers who appreciate Ner Tamid’s mix of diverse personalities.”
Free-thinkers! I love it! “Ner Tamid is a unique spiritual home to free thinkers.” What is a free thinker? A free thinker is someone who thinks out of the box. A free thinker doesn’t care about social conventions. When given options A and B, the free thinker opts for C.
Free thinking, thank you Debbie, is the key to teshuva, to change. Because all too often, we get stuck in a box called our life; it’s a box that we make for ourselves! This is the way I am, this is the way I will always be. But a free thinker recognizes that patterns can be disrupted, that we can choose to write a new script, that we can become someone else entirely.
And that, I believe, is the true message of the book of Bereishis, which is now coming to a close. You see, the entire book of Genesis is filled with men and women who do not take responsibility for their actions. “He made me do it.’ “She made me do it” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s about broken people that do not change, ruined relationships that are never reconciled; Lot, Yishmael, Eisav. But the grand finale, these final chapters of Genesis speak of taking agency for one’s life, of Judah acknowledging that he is the father of Tamar’s child, of the brothers acknowledging that they were wrong in selling Yosef. And it’s about using that agency to change; Yosef transforms from a vain, self-centered, young man, to a mighty but benevolent ruler, and the brothers, from being envious almost-murderers of their half-brother to sacrificing their own lives for a half-brother.
Miriam, you have two unbelievable role models in this all-important belief in taking responsibility of one’s life and changing: your parents have made many changes in their lives; professionally, spiritually, geographically. They have asked themselves questions that most of us try to avoid, questions that make us second-guess ourselves and the choices we’ve already made. They’ve asked those questions and changed. And you Miriam, have clearly adopted their ability to be out-of-the-box. Aside from being a confident, questioning, and curious young woman, your life aspirations speak for themselves. And I quote: “I would like to be an architect, artist, American Ninja Warrior, engineer, technologist, archer and musician, etc.” I think that says it all, Miraim.
But the real challenge, Miriam, is to hold on to that desire to change as you get older. Because so many of us, and it’s embarrassing to say this, but as we get older, we get stuck. And we don’t believe that we can change anymore. Even the out-of-the-box people get stuck in being out-of-the-box when sometimes the change they need involves thinking from within it. What you learned from your parents, the message of Judaism in general, the secret of teshuva in particular, is that we have the capacity not only to regret our misdeeds, but we can become a different person entirely. As Michael Cohen quoted from Viktor Frankl, “There are forces beyond your control that can take away everything you possess except one thing.” You can never lose “your freedom to choose how you will respond to (any given) situation.” And in never losing sight of your freedom to choose, you will never lose sight of your freedom to change.