Reflections on Chabad Kinus Shluchim from an “Outsider”

To say I felt a sense of amazement is an understatement.  The siyum HaShas doesn’t compare (even though davening with 20000 Jews in one place is an experience as well).  Sitting in a room with almost all of Chabad’s shluchim was unbelievable.  It is hard to imagine the grandeur of the dinner (see this video to get an idea).  The highlight of the event was the speech from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.  For thos who have not seen it or read the transcript, I highly recommend it, both for what he says and for the way he says it.

…It is a story in three acts; the first took place in 1968, when I was a second year student, a sophomore, at university. I had already encountered Chabad, because Rabbi Shmuel Lew and Rabbi Faivish Vogel visited Cambridge. They were among the very first to go out to university campuses and I was one of the very first beneficiaries. They came that summer, ’68 and I came to America to meet great Rabbis of the day, and every one of them, every single rov[rabbinical leader] I met in America said, “You must see the Rebbe! You must see the Rebbe.”

So I went to Eastern Parkway, 770, I came in; I said to the first Chassid I met, “I’d like to speak to the Rebbe, please.” He fell about laughing.

He said, “Do you know how many thousands of people are waiting to see the Rebbe? Forget it!”

I said, “Well, I’ll be traveling around America, here is the phone number of my aunt in Los Angeles, if its possible phone me.”

Weeks later, I was in Los Angeles, came motzoei Shabbat, the phone went, it was Chabad, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”

I had no money in those days, and all I had was a Greyhound bus ticket, if you’ve ever ridden from Los Angeles to New York on a Greyhound bus… Seventy two hours nonstop I sat on this bus.

I came to 770, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done.

He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?

Now, I hadn’t come to become a Shliach [Chabad-Lubavitch emissary]. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I did the English thing. You know, the English can construct sentences like nobody else, you know? They can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing, than anyone else on earth. (laughter)

So I started the sentence, “In the situation in which I find myself…” – and the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”

That moment changed my life.

Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. And that was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.
That’s what the Rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.

Friends, that particular episode had an unusual ending: I was due to leave the States, go back to England, on my charter flight on a Sunday at the end of August, beginning of September, I can’t remember exactly when. So the day before, on Shabbos, there was a big farbreng[en], and the Chassidim told me, “You’re going back to England? Take a bottle of vodka, go up to the Rebbe in a niggun, during the farbrengen, and he’ll zog a le’chaim, and you’ll take it with you and that’ll be the Rebbe’s vodka.”

So in the middle of the farbrengen, thousands of people there, I went up to the Rebbe and asked him to say a le’chaim, and he looked at me with surprise. He said, “You’re going?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Why?”

I said, “I have to get back to Cambridge, the term is beginning.”

He turned to me and he said, “But the Cambridge term does not begin until October.”

I never knew then, I still don’t know today how he knew it, but he was right! He said to me, “I think you should stay for Rosh Hashanah.” So he said a le’chaim; I went back.

Everyone around me wanted to know, “What did the Rebbe say to you? What did the Rebbe say?” So I told them what the Rebbe said. I didn’t know – if the Rebbe says stay, it’s the polite thing, you say thank you very much – I didn’t realize; if the Rebbe said stay, you stay. So I stayed.

As a result of which, I heard the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah blow shofar. Quite the most remarkable experience I ever had. The purity of those notes, the sight of all the Chassidim hanging from every surface, trying to catch sight of the Rebbe blowing shofar. And I heard a sound in which heaven and earth touched. And the echoes of that shofar have stayed with me ever since. That was the challenge he threw down. A challenge to lead.

That didn’t immediately change my life. I went back to University, although I still felt the power of the Rebbe’s challenge. So in 1969 after getting my degree, I went to study in Kfar Chabad, where I learned with Rav Gafni, and it was a wonderful experience. In 1970 I came back, got married, started teaching philosophy, writing a doctorate, but I still felt I hadn’t done enough to meet the Rebbe’s challenge. So I studied for smicha. I qualified as a rabbi, and I thought that’s it. I’ve grown a little as a Jew, and now I’m ready to get back with the rest of my life.

That was when I made the second great mistake – I went back to see the Rebbe again. (laughter)

January 1978: My friends in Lubavitch told me exactly what to do. You put your question in writing, you give the Rebbe options; one, two, three, and the Rebbe will tell you, the one or two or three. So I set out my options. I said to the Rebbe, “I have a career in front of me, I have three choices.” Number one, maybe I would like to be an academic – halevai one day I would be a professor or maybe a fellow of my college in Cambridge. Or number two – I went to university initially to study economics – I’d like to be an economist. Or number three, I’d like to be a barrister, an advocate. I was a member of one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple where you study to be a lawyer.

I went in to the yechidus [private audience] not knowing what the Rebbe would answer, would it be one, would it be two, would it be three? The Rebbe looked at me and he went through the list; not one, not two, not three.

I thought, “Hang on, this is against the rules!”

The Rebbe did not give me time to reply. He told me Anglo Jewry was short of Rabbis, and therefore he said to me, “You must train Rabbis.” He specified Jews College, where rabbis were trained in Britain. And then he said, you yourself must become a congregational Rabbi, so that your students will come and they will hear you give – I still remember the way he pronounced the word – “Sermons”. They will hear you give sermons and they will learn. He said you say you will train rabbis and you will become a rabbi. Well, I was a little farblonged – a word I’ve introduced into the English language courtesy of the BBC – but if the Rebbe says do it, I did it. I gave up my three ambitions, I trained rabbis, I taught in Jews College, eventually I became head of Jews College, and I became a congregational rabbi, in Golders Green and Marble Arch.

You know, a funny thing happened.

Having given up all my three ambitions, having decided to walk in the complete opposite direction, a funny thing happened. I did become a fellow of my college in Cambridge. I did become a professor. In fact, this year I have three professorships; one in Oxford University, two in London University. I did deliver Britain’s top two economics lectures, the Mais lecture and the Hayek lecture, and Inner Temple made me an honorary barrister and invited me to give a law lecture in front of six hundred barristers, the Lord Chancellor – the highest lawyer in Britain, and Princess Anne who’s the Master.

You know, you never lose anything – by putting yiddishkeit first.

And I learned something very deep: Sometimes the best way of achieving your ambitions is to stop pursuing them, and let them pursue you.

The Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love. And that was act two. Act three was in 1990. Anglo Jewry was looking for a new Chief Rabbi. It was clear that I was going to be one of the candidates. But I wasn’t sure that I was right for the job or the job was right for me. And so, I sat down with my family, with Elaine, with my children, and they agreed to permit me to write to the Rebbe and ask his advice.

I set out the tzdodim lekan u’lekan – the pros and cons of the job, and the Rebbe wrote a most extraordinary reply, a brilliant reply, without using a single word.

You know that the Rebbe, before he was Rebbe, ran the Chabad publishing house – Kehot – and as a result he knew – I’ve written twenty four books and I don’t know these things yet, but he knew the typographical symbols that are used by proofreaders. So towards the end of the letter having set out the pros and cons, I wrote the sentence, “If they offer me the job, should I accept?” This was the Rebbe’s reply: The typographical symbol for reverse word order. Instead of saying, “Should I?” The answer is, “I should.”

So, thirteen years to the day after I became a congregational rabbi I became Chief Rabbi, and in that job I have tried to the best of my ability – if I succeeded I don’t know – but I tried to do what I know the Rebbe would have wanted me to do: To build schools, to improve Anglo Jewish education, to reach out, and to make – not followers – but leaders.

And I did one other thing, which was a little bit unusual, and I want to explain to you, now, why.

I never said this in public before. There was a point when I was a little involved – the hanhola [board of directors] in Lubavitch in London asked me just to get involved a little bit – there was a point in the 1970s and 80s, when the Rebbe developed a very interesting campaign – the sheva mitzvos benei noach campaign – to reach out not just to Jews, but also to non Jews.

I realized that in my new position as Chief Rabbi I could do just that. So I started broadcasting on the BBC, on radio, on television, writing for the national press. I wrote books read my non Jews as well as Jews and the effect was absolutely extraordinary. The more I spoke the more they wanted to hear – which certainly proves they weren’t Jewish. (Laughter.) The more I wrote the more they wanted to read, and you know what that experience told me – not only the wisdom, the vast foresight of the Rebbe in understanding that the world was ready to hear a Jewish message – but it taught me something else as well. And I want you never to forget these words.

Non Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.

And non Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.

The Rebbe taught us how to fulfill verau kol amei haaretz ki shem hashem nikra alecha. Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews…

I find it amazing to think that R. Sack’s approach to universalism and teaching the world is directly attributed to R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson זצ”ל.  Those of us who own the work Torah Studies were aware of the connection, but to hear it so vividly and so movingly really sheds a new light on R. Sack’s career.

Rabbi Sacks on Vayera – family values

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks uses the brief dialogue of aqeidat Yitzchaq as his impetus to discuss the lack of family values that pervades the current world.  He blames the riots in England on the lack of good parenting on the part of the recent generation, as it led to disaffected youth who could do nothing more than violently riot during the summer.  I would offer a couple of comments on R. Sacks’ piece.

1.  I am not sure the single line of dialogue between father and son should be the impetus for this type of discussion.  The opposite just might be the case.  While the Torah only records that which is relevant to advancing the story, it seems strange that our forefathers have little communication with their parents.  Abraham and Isaac only talk in this story.  Isaac and Jacob have the one dialogue leading of the bracha Isaac gives him after being deceived.  It is only with Jacob do we see an involvement in his children’s lives (not always at the right time, but at least he tried).  My point is that while words don’t always leave as much of an impression as action, there is something missing in the Torah’s description to warrant the lesson R. Sacks tries to derive here.

2.  I do agree that the value of Shabbat includes the idea of family structure, allowing families to have a time in once a week to actually focus on themselves rather than on outside issues and situations.  Yet, I am not sure that we can make the jump that Shabbat itself is enough to show that Jewish values are greater than secular values.  Values are only as good as those who practice them.  And, the whole package can be valuable if the practitioners show sincerity.  

Walking Together

There is one image that haunts us across the millennia, fraught with emotion. It is the image of a man and his son walking side-by-side across a lonely landscape of shaded valleys and barren hills. The son has no idea where he is going and why. The man, in pointed contrast, is a maelstrom of emotion. He knows exactly where he is going and why, but he can’t make sense of it at all.

The God who gave him a son is now telling him to sacrifice his son. On the one hand, the man is full of fear: am I really going to lose the one thing that makes my life meaningful, the son for whom I prayed all those years? On the other hand, part of him is saying: just as this child was impossible – I was old, my wife was too old – yet here he is. So, though it seems impossible, I know that God is not going to take him from me. That is not the God I know and love. He would never have told me to call this child Isaac, meaning “he will laugh” if He meant to make him and me cry.

The father is in a state of absolute cognitive dissonance, yet – though he can make no sense of it – he trusts in God and betrays to his son no sign of emotion. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

There is just one moment of conversation between them:

Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22: 7-8)

What worlds of unstated thoughts and unexpressed emotions lie behind those simple words. Yet as if to emphasise the trust between father and son, and between both and God, the text repeats: Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. The two of them walked together.

As I read those words, I find myself travelling back in time, and in my mind’s eye I see my father and me walking back from shul on Shabbat. I was four or five years old at the time, and I think I understood then, even if I couldn’t put it into words, that there was something sacred in that moment. During the week I would see the worry in my father’s face as he was trying to make a living in difficult times. But on Shabbat all those worries were somewhere else. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav. We walked together in the peace and beauty of the holy day. My father was no longer a struggling businessman. Today he was a Jew breathing God’s air, enjoying God’s blessings, and he walked tall.

Shabbat was my mother making the food that gave the house its special Shabbat smell: the soup, the kugel, the lockshen. As she lit candles, she could have been the bride, the queen, we sang about in Lecha Dodi and Eshet Chayil. I had a sense, even then, that this was a holy moment when we were in the presence of something larger than ourselves, that embraced other Jews in other lands and other times, something I later learned we call the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

We walked together, my parents, my brothers and me. The two generations were so different. My father came from Poland. My brothers and I were “proper Englishmen.” We knew we would go places, learn things and pursue careers they could not. But we walked together, two generations, not having to say that we loved one another. We weren’t a demonstrative family but we knew of the sacrifices our parents made for us and the pride we hoped to bring them. We belong to different times, different worlds, had different aspirations, but we walked together.

Then I find my imagination fast-forwarding to August this year, to those unforgettable scenes in Britain – in Tottenham, Manchester, Bristol – of young people rampaging down streets, looting shops, smashing windows, setting fire to cars, robbing, stealing, assaulting people. Everyone asked why. There were no political motives. It was not a racial clash. There were no religious undertones.

Of course, the answer was as clear as day but no one wanted to say so. In the space of no more than two generations, a large part of Britain has quietly abandoned the family, and decided that marriage is just a piece of paper. Britain became the country with the highest rate of teenage mothers, the highest rate of single parent families, and the highest rate – 46% in 2009 – of births outside marriage in the world.

Marriage and cohabitation are not the same thing, though it is politically incorrect to say so. The average length of cohabitation is less than two years. The result is that many children are growing up without their biological father, in many cases not even knowing who their father is. They live, at best, with a succession of stepfathers. It is a little-known but frightening fact that the rate of violence between stepfathers and stepchildren is 80 times that between natural fathers and their children.

The result is that in 2007, a UNICEF report showed that Britain’s children are the unhappiest in the developed world – bottom of a league of 26 countries. On 13 September 2011, another report by UNICEF, compared British parents unfavourably with their counterparts in Sweden and Spain. It showed that British parents try to buy the love of their children by giving them expensive clothes and electronic gadgets – “compulsive consumerism”. They fail to give their children what they most want, and costs nothing at all: their time.

Nowhere do we see more clearly the gap between Jewish and secular values today than here. We live in a secular world that has accumulated more knowledge than all previous generations combined, from the vast cosmos to the structure of DNA, from superstring theory to the neural pathways of the brain, and yet it has forgotten the simple truth that a civilisation is as strong as the love and respect between parent and child – Vayelchu shenehem yachdav, the ability of the generations to walk together.

Jews are a formidably intellectual people. We have our Nobel prize-winning physicists, chemists, medical scientists and games theorists. Yet as long as there is a living connection between Jews and our heritage, we will never forget that there is nothing more important than home, the sacred bond of marriage, and the equally sacred bond between parent and child. Vayelchu shenehem yachdav.

And if we ask ourselves why is it that Jews so often succeed, and succeeding, so often give to others of their money and time, and so often make an impact beyond their numbers: there is no magic, no mystery, no miracle. It is simply that we devote our most precious energies to bringing up our children. Never more so than on Shabbat when we cannot buy our children expensive clothes or electronic gadgets, when we can only give them what they most want and need – our time.

Jews knew and know and will always know what today’s chattering classes are in denial about, namely that a civilisation is as strong as the bond between the generations. That is the enduring image of this week’s parsha: the first Jewish parent, Abraham, and the first Jewish child, Isaac, walking together toward an unknown future, their fears stilled by their faith. Lose the family and we will eventually lose all else. Sanctify the family and we will have something more precious than wealth or power or success: the love between the generations that is the greatest gift God gives us when we give it to one another.

Shabbat Shalom

We are not enslaved

I found a fascinating discussion of the idea of being enslaved in my pre-Passover reading which I wanted to share.  The Netivot Shalom in his discussion of the haggadah discusses the idea of what we mean when we say in the haggadah, “If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah.”  The question that is posed is what does it mean to be “enslaved to Pharaoh” as opposed to any of our other exiles, when we were subjugated to different kingdoms and empires.  He answers that the slavery in Egypt was unique in that it was not just an enslavement of the body, but of the mind as well.  We are taught that the people had descended to the 49th level of Tumah and if they had stayed in Egypt longer, they would not have been redeemed.  In other words, the enslavement went beyond physical labor but was a spiritual enslavement as well.  The other exiles, as the Slonimer explains, were merely of a physical nature.  Hence, Egypt we would have remained enslaved if G-d didn’t redeem us, but not in any other exile.

After having read that, I came across the following from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which echoed this sentiment (p. 14 Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah):

In the Kovno ghetto in the early 1940s an extraordinary scene took place on morning in the makeshift synagogue.  The Jews in the ghettto had begun to realize the fate that lay in store for them.  They knew that none of them would escape, that the work camps to which they would be transported were in fact factories of death.  And at the morning service, the leader of the prayer, an old and pious Jew, could finally say the words no longer.  He had come to the blessing in which we thank G-d for not having made us slaves.  He turned to the congregation and said: ‘I cannot say this prayer.  How can I thank G-d for my freedom when I am now a prisoner facing death?  Only a madman could say this prayer now.’

Some members of the congregation turned to the rabbi for advice.  Could a Jew in the Kovno ghetto pronounce the blessing thanking G-d for not having made him a slave?  The rabbi replied very simply.  ‘Heaven forbid that we should abolish this blessing now.  Our enemies wish to make us their slaves.  But though they control our bodies they do not own our souls.  By making this blessing we show that even here we still see ourselves as free men, temporarily in captivity, awaiting G-d’s redemption.’

Abandon resolutions. Stop looking for a soulmate. Reject positive thinking | Science | The Guardian

Abandon resolutions. Stop looking for a soulmate. Reject positive thinking | Science | The Guardian.

It’s that time of year, when people all across the world establish for themselves new year’s resolutions which often get broken.  I thought I would share with you some thoughts about establishing resolutions which I saw.  A couple of paragraphs from this article stuck out to me.  Here they are:

Abandon your new year resolutions – today

If you’ve made any new year resolutions, steal a march on the rest of the world by abandoning them today, rather than waiting a week or two for the moment when everyone else’s will inevitably collapse in a quagmire of failed hopes, self-reproach and packets of Pringles. The lure of making a “complete fresh start” can be hard to resist, and gleaming-eyed self-help gurus pander to that urge. In fact, aiming for across-the-board change – to get fitter, eat better, spend more time with the family and less time playing Angry Birds, all at the same time – is exactly the wrong way to change habits. Willpower is a unitary, depletable resource, which means investing energy in any one such goal will leave less remaining for the others, so your resolutions will, in effect, be fighting each other. Far better to aim for one new habit every couple of months or, better yet, to manipulate your surroundings so as to harness the power of inertia, so you needn’t spend your precious reserves of willpower at all. (It’s infinitely easier to watch less television when you don’t have one, or to use your credit card less when it’s locked in a cupboard.) Making things automatic, not consciously and continually striving hard to be better, is the key here, as Alfred North Whitehead recognised back in 1911: “It is a profoundly erroneous truism… that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing,” he wrote. “The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

Overhaul your information diet (but don’t starve)

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back. Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to. Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

Reject positive thinking

These are troubled times for the leading proponents of positive thinking (though presumably they’re not feeling glum about it). The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich struck a chord, in her book Smile Or Die, when she argued that our current financial crises may be at least partly attributable to a blindly optimistic, failure-is-impossible ethos in the financial services industry. A Canadian study suggested positive affirmations – such as “I am a lovable person!” – actually have a negative effect on the moods of people with low self-esteem, who you might have thought would benefit from them the most. Meanwhile, the high-profile guru James Arthur Ray, a star of the movie version of The Secret, awaits trial on manslaughter charges in connection with the deaths of three participants in an October 2009 “sweat lodge” ceremony.

According to practitioners of the increasingly popular approach of “acceptance and commitment therapy”, one of several philosophies opposed to conventional positive thinking, neither positive thinking nor negative thinking is a particularly useful goal: a better plan is to learn to fixate less on the whole matter of cultivating this or that mental state. That’s reflected in the timeless and exceedingly effective anti-procrastination mantra that “motivation follows action”, not the other way around. Wait until you feel like doing something, and you could be waiting for ever. “Inspiration is for amateurs,” the artist Chuck Close is fond of saying. “I just get to work.”

Meanwhile, I also came across another list for new year’s.  This one is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Count Your Blessings & Begin to Change Your Life
Credo – the Times – December 2008
Have you made your New Year resolutions? If not, try the following. Each is potentially life changing.

1. Give thanks. Once a day take quiet time to feel gratitude for what you have, not impatience for what you don’t have. This alone will bring you halfway to happiness. We already have most of the ingredients of a happy life. It’s just that we tend to take these for granted and focus on unmet wants, unfulfilled desires. Giving thanks is better than shopping – and cheaper too.

2.  Praise. Catch someone doing something right and say so. Most people, most of the time, are unappreciated. Being recognised, thanked and congratulated by someone else is one of the most empowering things that can happen to us. So don’t wait for someone to do it for you: do it for someone else. You will make their day, and that will help make yours.

3. Spend time with your family. Make sure that there is at least one time a week when you sit down to have a meal together with no distractions – no television, no phone, no email, just being together, talking together, celebrating one another’s company. Happy marriages and healthy families need dedicated time.

4.  Discover meaning. Take time out, once in a while, to ask, ‘Why am I here? What do I hope to achieve? How best can I use my gifts? What would I wish to be said about me when I am no longer here?’ Finding meaning is essential to a fulfilled life – and how can you find it if you never look? If you don’t know where you want to be, you will never get there however fast you run.

5. Live your values. Most of us believe in high ideals, but we act on them only sporadically. The best thing to do is to establish habits that get us to enact those ideals daily. This is called ritual, and it’s what religions remember but ethicists often forget.

6. Forgive. This is the emotional equivalent of losing excess weight. Life is too short to bear a grudge or seek revenge. Forgiving someone is good for them but even better for you. The bad has happened. It won’t be made better by your dwelling on it. Let it go. Move on.

7. Keep learning. I learned this from Florence in Newcastle, whom I last met the day she celebrated her 105th birthday. She was still full of energy and fun. What’s the secret? I asked her. ‘Never be afraid to learn something new’, she said. Then I realised that if you are willing to learn, you can be 105 and still young. If you are not, you can be 25 and already old.

8. Learn to listen. Often in conversation we spend half our time thinking of what we want to say next instead of paying attention to what the other person is saying. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone else. It means that we are open to them, that we take them seriously, that we accept graciously their gift of words.

9. Create moments of silence in the soul. Liberate yourself, if only five minutes daily, from the tyranny of technology, the mobile phone, the laptop and all the other electronic intruders, and just inhale the heady air of existence, the joy of being.

10. Transform suffering. When bad things happen to you, use them to sensitise you to the pain of others. The greatest people I know – people who survived tragedy and became stronger as a result – did not ask, ‘Who did this to me?’ Instead they asked, ‘What does this allow me to do that I could not have done before?’ They refused to become victims of circumstance. They became, instead, agents of hope.

Most of these are, of course, integral elements of a religious life, which may be why so many surveys have shown that those who practice a religious faith tend to live longer, have lower levels of stress and report higher degrees of wellbeing than others. This is not accidental. The great religions are our richest treasuries of wisdom when it comes to the question of how best to live a life.

I agree with both of their approaches to making resolutions and working on change.  One needs attainable, doable goals that also provide a sense of meaning.  I know we all struggle with this as we want to do everything at once and end up not doing anything at all.  As such, I wish you all good luck in keeping to your resolutions for this year.

Life’s too full of blessings to waste time and attention on artificial substitutes. Live, give, forgive, celebrate and praise: these are still the best ways of making a blessing over life, thereby turning life into a blessing.

Addendum:  See this op-ed by George Will on another approach to being unable to keep one’s resolutions.

Parashat VaYechi and elements of family life

This week’s Torah portion, VaYechi, revolves around the last testament and death of Jacob.  In preparing some thoughts on the portion, I was reading some of the weekly divrei Torah sent out via email.  It seems that one of the primary themes of the Torah portion revolves around family life.  In my own thinking on the portion, I would tend to agree, as much of the portion is conversation between Jacob and his sons and Joseph and the brothers.  I want to share with you two Torah thoughts I read this week which I think are quite appropriate to build on. 

This first one is from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Every Friday night we re-enact one of the most moving scenes in the book of Bereishit. Jacob, reunited with Joseph, is ill. Joseph comes to visit him, bring bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  Jacob, with deep emotion, says:
‘I never even hoped to see your face,’ said Israel to Joseph. ‘But now God has even let me see your children.’ (48: 11)
He blesses Joseph. Then he places his hands on the heads of the two boys.
He blessed them that day and said,
“[In time to come] Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (48: 20)
So we do to this day. Why this blessing above all others? One commentator (Yalkut Yehudah)  says it is because Ephraim and Manasseh were the first two Jewish children born in exile. So Jewish parents bless their children asking God to help them keep their identity intact despite all the temptations and distractions of Diaspora life.
I heard however a most lovely explanation, based on the Zohar, from my revered predecessor Lord Jakobovits of blessed memory. He said that though there are many instances in Torah and Tanakh in which parents bless their children, this is the only example of a grandparent blessing grandchildren.
Between parents and children, he said, there are often tensions. Parents worry about their children. Children sometimes rebel against their parents. The relationship is not always smooth.
Not so with grandchildren. There the relationship is one of love untroubled by tension or anxiety. When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. That is why this blessing by Jacob of his grandchildren became the model of blessing across the generations. Anyone who has had the privilege of having grandchildren will immediately understand the truth and depth of this explanation.
Grandparents bless their grandchildren and are blessed by them. This phenomenon is the subject of a fascinating difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud Yerushalmi.

The Babylonian Talmud says the following:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף ל עמוד א
אמר ריב”ל: כל המלמד את בן בנו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קבלה מהר סיני, שנאמר: והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, וסמיך ליה: יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, “Whoever teaches his grandson Torah is regarded as if he had received the Torah from Mount Sinai as it is said, ‘Teach your children and children’s children,’ and then it says: ‘The day you stood before God your Lord at Horeb.’” (Deut. 4: 10-11; Kiddushin 30a)
The Talmud Yerushalmi puts it differently:

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת שבת פרק א דף ג טור א /ה”ב
כהדא רבי יהושע בן לוי הוה יליף שמע פרשתה מן בר בריה בכל ערובת שובא חד זמן אינשי ועאל מיסחי בההן דימוסין דטיבריא והוה מסתמיך על כתפתיה דרבי חייא בר בא אינהר דלא שמע פרשתיה מן בר בריה וחזר ונפק ליה מה הוה רבי דרוסי אמר כך הוה רבי לעזר בי רבי יוסי אומר שליח מנוי הוה אמר ליה רבי חייא בר אבא ולא כן אלפן רבי אם התחילו אין מפסיקין אמר ליה חייא בני קלה היא בעיניך שכל השומע פרשה מן בן בנו כאלו הוא שומעה מהר סיני ומה טעמא והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi used to listen, every Friday, to his grandson reciting the weekly parasha. One week he forgot this, and entered the bathhouse.  After he had begun bathing, he remembered that he had not yet heard the weekly parasha from his grandson, and he left the bathhouse.  They asked him why he was leaving in the middle of his bathing, since the Mishnah teaches that once you have begun bathing on a Friday afternoon you do not have to interrupt.  He replied, “Is this such a small thing in your eyes?  For whoever hears the parasha from his grandchild is as if he heard it directly from Mount Sinai . . .”
(Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2)
According to the Bavli, the greatest privilege is to teach your grandchildren Torah. According to the Yerushalmi, the greatest privilege is to have your grandchildren teach Torah to you. This is one argument about which no grandparent will have the slightest difficulty is saying that both are true.
With an exquisite sense of symmetry, just as we begin Shabbat with a grandparent’s blessing so we end it, in Maariv, with the words of Psalm 128: 6: “May you live to see your children’s children— peace be on Israel.”
What is the connection between grandchildren and peace? Surely this, that those who think about grandchildren care about the future, and those who think about the future make peace. It is those who constantly think of the past, of slights and humiliations and revenge, make war.
To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and to be taught by them – these are the highest Jewish privilege and the serene end of Jacob’s troubled life.

The second Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Marc Angel:

Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool served Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City for a period spanning 63 years, from 1907 until his death in December 1970. In remembrance of the 40th year anniversary of his passing, I quote from an article he wrote in 1944, entitled: “Are We Disinheriting Our Own Children?”

“What parent would willingly disinherit a child, the child that looks to the parent with hero-worshipping trust?  Yet tragically many are the parents in Jewry who are so preoccupied with trying to give their children a material inheritance that they disinherit their children of their spiritual heritage.  They treat the child almost as if it were his lot to grow up to be a citizen of a world that is all body and mind, without soul. Our children have a right to a soul.”

Dr. Pool lamented that parents are so busy making a living, they sometimes forget what is really important in life.  They devote tremendous time and energy to material needs, but give scant attention to their own and their children’s spiritual needs. Their children have the latest clothes, computers, technological inventions–but their homes don’t reflect Jewish religious observances and traditions, don’t manifest the joy and sanctity of Shabbat, don’t echo with the sounds of Torah study and discussion.  Even in those homes where religious observance may be higher, the observance may be a matter of rote and habit rather than a fulfillment of religious ideas and ideals.

If parents do not communicate a positive experience of Judaism to their children, they run the risk of disinheriting their children from their spiritual roots.

Many years ago, I met with an elderly member of our Congregation who was nearing his death.  He had come to the United States from Europe as a young man; he worked hard; he married and had four children; he built a phenomenally successful business.  He raised his children in luxury. He and his wife saw to it that their children went to the most elite private schools, attended the best colleges, drove the nicest cars etc. But they did not maintain a religious Jewsh home, they did not give their children Jewish education beyond a Sunday school level.  The father worked 7 days a week in order to assure his family of a good, successful and happy life.  This congregant was basically a good man. He had a deep Jewish identity, and was generous to Jewish charities.

As he approached the end of his life, he called to speak with me.  With  tears in his eyes, he told me that he could not understand what had happened with his family.  After all, he was a good Jew, a devoted member of the Jewish people. He worked so hard for so many years to create a prosperous life for his family. Now, as the sun was setting on his life, he realized that he had amassed a huge material fortune–but had lost his children to Judaism. All four had married non-Jewish spouses; one of them had converted to Christianity and was a deacon in his church. 

In the well known story, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve worldly success. At the end of his life, he realizes that the earthly success he had attained was essentially meaningless; he had traded his soul for empty and vain symbols of power.  The story of Faust continues to resonate, because it repeats itself in so many lives.  People lose sight of the ultimately important things, trading their souls for fleeting signs of material success. They not only lose their own souls; they disinherit the souls of their children.

The Torah tells us that our forefather Jacob, when he was about to die, called his children together. The Midrash suggests that Jacob was deeply concerned: would his children carry on the faith and ideals that were so dear to him, that he had tried so hard to communicate to them?  To reassure him, the children said in unison, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  Jacob was so pleased to hear this united affirmation of faith, that he responded: Blessed be His name and glorious sovereignty for ever and ever.

No matter how high or low our level of religious knowledge and observance is, we can all devote more and better time to the spiritual development of ourselves, our children and grandchildren. We all would like our children and grandchildren to affirm their Judaism and their Jewishness. We need to stay focused on this ultimate goal.  We all have the right–and the deep need–for a soul.

How not to embarrass others

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared the following story in relationship to this past week’s parasha, Vayeshev:

I will never forget an episode that occurred when I was a rabbinical student in the mid-1970s. A group of us, yeshiva students together with students from a rabbinical seminary, were praying together one morning in Switzerland, where we were attending a conference. We were using one of the rooms of the chateau where we were staying. A few minutes into the prayers, a new arrival entered the room: a woman Reform rabbi, wearing tallit and tefillin. She sat down among the men.
The students were shocked, and did not know what to do. Should they ask her to leave? Should they go elsewhere to pray? They clustered around the rabbi leading the group – today a highly respected rosh yeshiva in Israel. He looked up, saw the situation, and without hesitation and with great solemnity recited to the students the law derived from Tamar: “It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than shame his neighbor in public.” He told the students to go back to their seats and carry on praying. G-d forbid they should shame the woman. The memory of that moment has stayed with me ever since.
It says something about the Torah and Jewish spirituality that we learn this law from Tamar, a woman at the very edge of Israelite society, who risked her life rather than put her father-in-law to shame. Psychological pain is as serious as physical pain. Loss of dignity is a kind of loss of life. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was the episode of Judah and Tamar that began a family tree from which 10 generations later came David, Israel’s greatest king. (See Jewish Press for full dvar Torah.)

Finding G-d

The following piece by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, attached to his weekly Torah email, was very powerful.  He talks about how he is able to find G-d.

I found G-d first as a mystery when I was very young.
What fascinated me was the Torah scroll.
Credo – The Times – June 2010
I am sometimes asked, Where did I find G-d? The answer is surely different for each of us, and this is mine.
I found G-d, first, as a mystery when I was very young. For the first three years of my life we lived with my mother’s parents as part of a large extended family in Finsbury Park, north London. My grandfather did not serve as a rabbi but he had his own small synagogue (Jews call this a shteibel), and the services there are among my earliest memories.

What fascinated me was the Torah scroll. Clearly there was something special about it. When the ark (the cupboard in which the scrolls were kept) was opened, everyone stood. As the scroll was carried through the congregation, everyone touched it reverently with the fringes of their prayer shawls. When it had been read from, and it was bound and made ready for its return to the ark, I as the rabbi’s youngest grandson was given the privilege of putting the silver bells back onto the handles of the scroll.
Had I known the word, I would have said that the Torah scroll was holy. That fascinated me and still does. The Koran calls Jews the people of the book. That is an understatement. Jews are a people only because of the book, the record of their covenant with G-d thirty-three centuries ago at Mount Sinai. Not until much later did I understand quite how radical this is. Jews find G-d in words, a text, a document. Language is holy, because only words can connect us in our finitude with G-d in his infinity. Those early memories of the Torah scroll were my first signals of transcendence.
Another, much later, came after I completed my undergraduate degree. It was a landscape: the view from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. In one direction you could look down on the Mount where the Temple once stood. I was standing where, almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues stood looking at the ruins left by the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple. It remains, for Jews, the holiest place in the world, though all that remains is the Western Wall.
In the other direction lay the Judean hills. The sun was setting and the hills had turned a burnished gold as if they were lit by a strange, unearthly inner fire. Jews tend not to speak about “religious experiences” in the way my Christian friends did, but this was unmistakably a religious experience. I thought of King David lifting his eyes to the hills, “from whence cometh my help”. I thought of the lover in the Song of Songs: “The sound of my beloved: Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Elsewhere you read the Bible. In Jerusalem you see, feel, touch the Bible. I felt brushed by the wings of eternity.
But mostly I found G-d in people. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story called The Approach to Al-Mutasim, in which he imagines someone coming across a stranger who has something about him – an unlikely tenderness, an exaltation ­– that doesn’t belong, that seems to be a reflection of someone else. “Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He searches for this mysterious presence entirely by following his reflection in others. That is how I have searched for G-d.
And that is where I have found him, in holy people and ordinary people, in lives lifted beyond themselves, in serene grace and holy argument, in acts of quiet courage and improbable reconciliation, in gentle wisdom and soaring imagination, in forgiving eyes and gestures of love. There is something in these people that cannot be explained in terms of evolution and the struggle to survive, rational behaviour and the pursuit of self interest. They have been touched by the divine presence. They have breathed the breath of G-d. When you see it, you know it.
G-d lives in people, and they are rarely the most successful or even the most overtly religious. Religion, when it leads to self-righteousness, can become a barrier separating us from G-d. Like Borges’ searcher I have spent my life looking for the G-d from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates. And that is where I have found him: in the faces of those who bring light to the lives of others.

Heart of Darkness (?)

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks addresses a fundamental principle of humanity in the following thought of the day. 

We must never forget the danger that lies beneath the surface of the human heart
Thought for the Day – BBC Radio 4 – June 2010
Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the victims of the shootings in Cumbria that left 12 dead, 25 injured, and families and communities torn apart. And in the aftermath people have been asking, how could it have happened?
The killer, Derrick Bird, was described by those who knew him as quiet, unassuming and friendly. He had just become a grandfather. He looked after his elderly mother, enjoyed his hobbies and had just come back from a holiday. A close friend said: “He was a really nice guy. Something must have clicked in his head. He must have just snapped.”

People do just snap, and there have been other similar tragedies in recent times, in Dunblane in Scotland, and in America in Columbine and Virginia Tech. Usually the killers are younger but it can happen in the most unpredictable way, leaving behind a trail of grief and bewilderment.

One of the great errors of modern thought was to believe that we are rational creatures who make decisions on the basis of deliberation and calculation. Reason, said the heroes of the enlightenment, can cure of us the passions and prejudices of the past. We now know that the human mind doesn’t work that way.
Neuroscientists have shown how decision making is inseparable from emotion. There are two systems at work in the human brain: the amygdala which generates highly charged emotional reactions, and the prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of the situation. The second system is significantly slower, so it’s always at risk of being overridden under stress or fear or anger. That’s how we often act irrationally and how, in extreme cases, ordinary people can commit terrible crimes.

Christianity called this original sin. Jews called it the evil inclination. “The heart,” said Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Bible traces this back to the first two human children, when Cain in a fit of anger killed his brother Abel — then said, in sudden realisation of his guilt, “My sin is more than I can bear.” That’s why perpetrators of violence like Derrick Bird often end by turning it against themselves.
So for all our everyday calm, we must never forget the danger that lies, like an unexploded mine, just beneath the surface of the human heart. Meanwhile to the injured and the bereaved, we send our shared grief and our prayers.

We human beings constantly struggle with the duality of being animatistic and cognitive beings with souls.  As such, we must continuously work towards overcoming the animal, base nature in order to better serve the world around us.  We must put our divine side forward, acting with justice and in accord with our fullest emotional, spiritual and intellectual potential.