Why I’m not a free-range parent

May 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I was a child, we would spend entire summers outdoors, roaming the neighborhood. I spent most of that time roller-skating in the park with my best friend. I suspect that the summer before I turned 11, I spent more time wearing roller skates than shoes.

We did not wear helmets, of course, or any of the protective gear that has become normative today. We did not check in with our parents for hours at a time: the rule was that we had to come in when the street lamps came on, just as the sun was setting. We were largely on our own, learning valuable skills through creative play.

It is difficult to avoid a sense of nostalgia when we look at how scheduled our kids’ lives are in comparison.

Some parents suggest that we ought to go back to this model. After all, kids are safer than they have ever been before; the risk of abduction is absurdly low; we ought to let them walk themselves to the park now and then.

However, we are forgetting two things whenever we argue that kids should be allowed to range free, the way they did in the 70s and 80s.

First, we are forgetting that there was a social network in place if (and when) something bad happened.

If one of us fell while roller-skating and started bleeding, we would go to the nearest house, walk in unannounced (no need to knock) and ask the parent home to help us. That parent would promptly go into triage mode: call 911? Go straight to the emergency room? Call the kid’s parents? Hand out a bandage and a popsicle?

In those years, there was always a parent home when school was out.

By way of comparison, some years ago I fell in my suburban neighborhood one afternoon while taking a walk. I had to hobble home on a torn-up ankle, completely unaided, because I did not know anyone who could help me. My friends and neighbors were all at work and at that time my family lived half a continent away.

My sense of isolation that day caught me by surprise: since then I have sought out greater community. It’s one of the great gifts of living here.

Second, when we argue for a free-range childhood we are forgetting how often kids got seriously hurt. Kids now wear helmets for good reason. Kids are safer than ever because we have worked to make them safer.

To be sure, every so often you will see internet posts about how ‘we sat in the front seat without seatbelts and drank water from the hose and we all turned out just fine.’ These memes are a revolt against the safety-mindedness that pervades modern parenting.

But every time I see one of those posts, I am reminded of another experience in my childhood. In my teen years, I went to a neighborhood pool every day to swim and flirt.

Our favorite activity there involved the heavy metal grate at the bottom of the pool. We would swim to the bottom, pick up the grate, and swim with it to the surface. We would then let it pull us back down again.

One of the kids there was a practical joker, always laughing. One time he floated to the bottom with the grate and then started to struggle with it. We all assumed that he was joking. Until, of course, too much time had passed. His arm was caught in the recovery pump.

He never resurfaced.

Every bicycle helmet, every warning sticker, every safety notice that you see represents an afternoon that came to an abrupt halt, a childhood interrupted, a grieving family.

It is a truism that kids need unscheduled time to learn how the world works on their own terms. I do think that we should make it a priority to give kids that kind of freedom.

That does not mean, however, that they should be left unsupervised.

In other words: the issue is not ‘should kids be allowed to walk to the park by themselves?’ but rather, ‘what do we do to create community, so that it is safe for kids to walk by themselves?’

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about how Moses sets up a master layout for the tribes, so that they camp in the same formation every time they reassemble. Judah is camped on the east side, and next to them is Issachar – and so on. This account might be read as one of the duller details in the long process of instilling law and order in the Israelite camp.

But it could also be read in terms of community.

It may or may not be his intention, but by putting the same family units side-by-side each time, Moses is creating a structure that allows kids to roam freely.

Kids grow strong and independent when they know someone is there for them, regardless of where they are. Parents have an easier time raising kids when they can share the twin burdens of supervision and correction with other parents, especially with parents they know and trust.

To do that, however, it is necessary for families to come into regular contact, in the context of a shared community.

That’s why I think that the congregation is so important for families.

At the year-end picnic for the Rabin Religious School, it was wonderful to see how the kids were able to play independently without having an adult organizing them. That’s one of the signs of a healthy community.

One of my goals for the year to come, and the years that follow, is to expand that sense of community, so that the kids feel that same sense of ease in the sanctuary and in the social hall.

I think that we ought to continue to work toward the good of the greater community as well: to make the effort to know our neighbors, to vote in school elections, to be involved, to make sure that parks are clean and neighborhoods are safe and kids have a place to roam.

In my view, what is best for our kids is best for us all.

How to be heard

April 10, 2015 § 1 Comment

When something is wrong, it is our nature to complain.

And, really, there is something positive about that: noticing what’s not quite right is what allows us to make continuous improvements.

Trying to suppress complaining, in fact, feels unnecessarily restrictive. Should I not notice when something is wrong? Should I not try to set it right? Should I be satisfied with my lot, even when there is something that could be done to set matters straight?

Of course not.

To the contrary: in the right circumstances, the act of complaining can be a very positive thing to do. It is what allows us to make things better.

But not all kinds of complaining are helpful. What doesn’t help? It’s the kind of complaining that focuses on tearing down rather than building up; the kind of complaining that creates a self-defeating cycle of negativity; the kind of complaining that reinforces a doom-and-gloom view of the world. We can’t do that. It won’t work. That’s a terrible idea. No one will come. And so on.

So, if you find that you’re stuck with a group that likes to focus on the negative, what can you do to counteract it?

Happily, there are three steps that you can take.

First: any time a person says something negative, add something positive. It doesn’t matter whether the negative came from your mouth or someone else’s – a negative comment should be paired with a positive comment. Just one positive comment is enough to break the cycle.

For example, a negative comment like ‘this soup is too cold’ might be paired with the positive observation, ‘its broth is very tasty.’ You don’t have to pretend that the soup is warm – rather, you are finding what is both true and positive in this situation.

Actually, it just takes one positive to break the cycle. You can be a force for good within your cycle of friends and family if you just focus on saying something positive. You would be surprised at how transformative that small shift in behavior can be.

In fact, there’s a trick that really effective managers use when they need to give constructive criticism. They do so as part of a ‘feedback sandwich.’ A feedback sandwich is when you sandwich a negative comment between two positive comments.

So, let’s go back to our soup example. Let’s say that you are in charge and you want to let the person who made the soup know that changes are needed with regard to the temperature of the soup. You could go to that person and say, ‘the soup is too cold.’ But that is not the most effective management strategy. It would be better to say, ‘This is really good food. The soup is too cold, but the broth is very tasty.’

People hate to be scolded, so it really helps to acknowledge the positives along with the negative. Hearing a balanced view makes it easier to respond without getting defensive or angry. Instead of hearing ‘you’re an absolute failure at soup-making,’ the soup-maker hears, ‘you made a good soup, but there’s a problem with the temperature.’

Which brings us to the second step: when making these kinds of comments, your audience matters quite a bit. Are you speaking to the person who is directly responsible for managing this particular state of affairs? Or are you merely stating the negatives to anyone who happens to be nearby?

In the first case, you are helping improve the situation. In the second case, you are actually part of the problem.

The only way that improvements can be made is if the powers that be know what needs to be done. So, don’t complain to anyone who will listen; instead, go through the chain of command.

In the congregational setting, for example, the best persons to seek out if you have a comment or complaint are the committee chairs or the congregational president. Complaining to other members, to your friends, or to visitors will not help; that is merely gossip.

Third, make sure that your timing is appropriate. Complaining to someone when they are in the midst of their business is unhelpful. It makes them less effective in their work. Let them finish what they are doing and then talk to them.

If you want to be heard, think about when is the best time to speak.

It’s difficult to get these things right, of course. If, in a moment of self-reflection, you may realize that you’ve been a part of the problem. If that’s the case, take heart: Even Moses struggles with this issue.

Let me give you an example, drawn directly from this week’s Torah portion: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu make a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

In response, Moses speaks at some length to the remaining priests about the proper procedures to follow.

Shortly thereafter, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task. This time, he really lays into them, yelling at them as they are in the midst of the offering.

The first time around, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ critique. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things.

That is to say, Moses was right to bring up his critique, but he should have done three things differently.

First, he should have included positive words alongside his negative comments. He should have said something like ‘I see that you are handling the fire-pans correctly, but we are still having a problem with the timing of the offering. I really appreciate that you took my earlier words to heart, so I am sure we can get this worked out.’

Second, he should have brought the matter to Aaron, rather than laying into the two sons just as they were in the midst of the offering. Aaron is responsible for the actions of the priests. That’s why he’s the one to respond to Moses. As a matter of respect, Aaron should not have heard about it second-hand.

Third, Moses should have waited to speak about the timing of the offering until after Aaron had time to grieve. It really wasn’t that urgent.

Moses is a mensch, of course, and he realizes that he is in the wrong. As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

This narrative is an excellent example of Moses’ humility, for it demonstrates that he will admit when he is wrong and set the matter straight. It’s okay to make a mistake if you apologize and learn from it.

And we can all learn from Moses’ mistake. If you have a comment or complaint, be sure to follow these three steps: (1) say something positive along with the negative; (2) go through the chain of command; and (3) find an appropriate time to speak.

And, if you discover that you have engaged in improper critique, then what? Do as Moses does: go back and apologize. In my experience, the healthiest, happiest relationships are built on humility, honesty, and praise.

The prism

March 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

It is a common assumption that Orthodoxy is the oldest movement and that Reform Judaism is necessarily a recent invention. But it turns out that the reverse is true. Reform is the oldest of the movements, dating back to the middle of the 1800’s in Germany, and orthodoxy is a reaction to it.

Let me explain. In the middle ages, the members of the Jewish community were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were part of a community that was tolerated by the prince or local noble; that community had a charter that gave it permission to stay. The charter often specified how many Jews could live there, so if the number was exceeded it was necessary for some to move.

Emancipation for the Jews came as a result of Enlightenment thinking. The first country to grant Jews full citizenship and full voting rights was the United States: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal…” That meant that Jews were equal as well. The fact that they had to state these truths in the first place indicates that they were not self-evident at the time. This statement represents revolutionary thinking.

At any rate, as Jews were gaining emancipation in Europe, there arose an intense discussion as to whether Jews should be considered equal. The Jewish religion was considered to be backward and superstitious by many ‘enlightened’ Europeans.

It was in this environment that religious reform began. And it started with the congregants, not the rabbis. Israel Jacobson, a prominent philanthropist, was an early leader in the movement to make changes in worship. He sought to revise the prayer book to remove elements that were archaic, lengthy, or repetitive.

What these early reformers wanted is more decorum, in line with European cultural values. Traditional Jewish worship has involved a lot of individual movement and pacing, whereas the reformers were seeking something more akin to the norms of Europe, such as singing in unison, reading from the same page, and listening to a sermon.

Thereafter came the scholarly phase, starting in 1840: this was the era of the scholar-rabbi with a PhD. The prayer book revisions that take place in this period reflect scholarly considerations. They removed references to bodily resurrection, removed nationalistic views of messianism, and removed the Kol Nidre. They also started counting women in the minyan, the quorum of ten Jews needed for prayer.

This generation of reform Jews would proactively change the law if, in their view, ethics demanded it: a persistent problem with divorce under traditional Jewish law is that a man can hold a woman hostage by refusing to grant her divorce. This has become an issue in Israel, where there are no civil courts for divorce. So long as she is not divorced, the woman is thus unable to remarry, and if she abandons the marriage she can lose her ketuba amount – which is the basis of her claims for child support and alimony.

The Reform movement, on the other hand, already addressed the problem of the agunah back in the 1800s and abolished the practice of giving the men greater power in divorce proceedings.

The Conservative movement was the next movement to form: the reformers gathered in Breslau in 1846 to discuss the creation of a common prayer book; Zecharias Frankel walked out of the conference, angry at the growing interest in replacing Hebrew prayers with the vernacular.

Orthodoxy, called then neo-orthodoxy, was a reaction to these two movements; it has always featured a pronounced tendency to oppose changes of any kind. That opposition to change included clothing fashions: for many of the ultra-orthodox communities, the men’s Shabbat outfits worn today were the latest fashion for Polish noblemen in the middle of the 19th century.

In other words, this resistance to change is itself a change: prior to the Emancipation, when the communities did not offer the range of ideological choices that are available today, the practice of Judaism did in fact change over time. You know this point intuitively: if things didn’t ever change, then we would all still dress like the Bedouin nomads of the desert.

So what happened? Why do we think of orthodoxy as the most direct continuation of the pre-Enlightenment Judaism?

The best way to visualize what happened is to think of a prism: prior to the Emancipation, the Jewish community was like the white light – the community looks absolutely uniform to an outside observer. The experience of Emancipation created the same effect as white light shining on a prism: all of a sudden, the white light splits into a multitude of colors.

If you were to ask: which of these colors is the purist, most authentic continuation of the white light, the answer would be: all of them, together. Any one color by itself is only a part of the whole.

We are one family, of course. We have much in common across the various movements – we read the same texts and celebrate the same holidays. And every one of these colors of Judaism is necessary and right. Even so, we filter those through our various lenses. Take, for example, the passage we read in our Torah portion today:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

This passage occurs in the midst of the description of building the tabernacle; the Israelites were instructed to stop working on the tabernacle on Shabbat because Shabbat takes precedence. Consequently, the list of prohibited activities on Shabbat is in fact derived from the list of activities that went into building the tabernacle.

So let’s talk for a moment about the prohibition against lighting a fire. In the halakhic movements, this statement is taken to mean that (among other things) you may not use a combustion engine, such as is usually found in your automobile.

This particular commandment can come into conflict with another commandment: the saving of a life. If a person’s life is at stake, then it is possible to transgress other commandments, such as kindling a fire on Shabbat.

What this means, in the ultra-orthodox circles, is that you can use your car to drive someone to the hospital if you must, but you may not park it or turn it off. You are supposed to pull up in front of the emergency doors and abandon it, still running – the actions of parking it and turning it off are not necessary for saving a life.

For some of the orthodox – particularly for some of the mystical branches – this is indeed a life-or-death question: you are courting death and destruction if you transgress the commandments. ‘You should observe these laws so that you may live.’

For the Conservative movement, it’s clear that you should use your car to take someone to the hospital. And it’s not necessary to abandon it, still running, in front of the emergency room. That’s not an urgent consideration for them.

Rather, a different question comes up: is it okay to use your car to drive to the congregation, to attend Shabbat services? Not everyone lives within walking distance to the congregation, so a car makes it possible to fulfill that aspect of community engagement.

Their official position is ‘no’ – though you will see some cars in their parking lots on a Saturday morning. It’s not an absolute. Their rabbis, however, usually walk.

The Reform movement, on the other hand, does not take these prohibitions literally. We believe that our culture has evolved over time, and was not handed down from on high. For this reason, the prohibitions are not, in our movement’s self-understanding, a life-or-death question. We’re not strict. And that’s why I’ll use my car on Shabbat. What I will do, however, is interpret Shabbat as a time for family and rest: my usual practice for Shabbat morning whenever we don’t have morning services scheduled is to remain in my pajamas until about 2:00 pm, read all the magazines in the house, take a nap, and then have a cozy dinner with my family.

Shabbat Shalom.


January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

What does it mean to be redeemed?

The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah. Who is like you, God, among the gods that are worshipped?

What does it mean to be redeemed?

We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”

Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.

What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?

I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’

The hardest part of redemption is learning to think of yourself as worthy of it.
As the commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “This sidra portrays the character of the ‘generation of the wilderness’. We are able to watch, for the first time, the reactions of the children of Israel suddenly redeemed from two centuries of persecution and slavery.”

And, as we discover, it is very difficult to leave that mentality behind.

It is very hard for them to see themselves in a different light, to fundamentally believe that they are worthy of receiving the kind of attention and care that is being lavished on them. If, for your entire life, your needs did not matter, then how do you understand this extraordinary redemption? And, if all of your life, the only needs of yours that mattered were the basics of nutrition, would you not focus on these very same basics?

So, not surprisingly, they do not react well. As Leibowitz continues, “what do we see? – timidity, skepticism, twisted thinking – the residue of hundreds of years of bondage and exile.”

To illustrate her point, Leibowitz focuses on the opening lines of our portion:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Instead of taking the direct route, they will spend a fully generation in the wilderness. Why is this detour necessary?

According to Leibowitz, there are several possibilities suggested in the commentaries. For example, “Rashbam [otherwise known as Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi] explains that God diverted them from the short route, since they would be immediately plunged into the hostilities with the Canaanites in the attempt to conquer the land and would prefer to return to Egypt.”

It would appear that they needed some time to catch their breath, so to speak. Better to regroup in the wilderness than face a war right after this initial redemption.

She offers another possibility: “Rambam [also known as Maimonides]… in his Guide for the Perplexed offers a rather different explanation.” According to Rambam, “Divine Providence wished to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the fight to conquer the Promised Land.” In other words, the detour was not just to catch their breath. “Had they immediately been confronted with the task of conquest,” she writes, “after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it. Man cannot suddenly be freed from persecution and slavery and then be expected to wash away the sweat and toil and fight against such enemies as the giants who populated Canaan. The tough conditions of the wilderness would serve to harden them, teach them endurance and heroism.”

They would need to learn how to defend themselves, rather than crumpling in a heap before their foe. Learning self-reliance would be a good start.

Similarly, she writes, “Ibn Ezra analyzes the character and morale of the people. It is indeed astonishing, he observes, why such a large body of six hundred thousand men should fear their pursuers. Why did they not immediately turn round and fight for their lives? In his answer, Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelites were psychologically incapable of putting up a fight against those who had been their lords and masters for centuries.” Imagine being a slave and then trying to fight your master after having been afraid of him for so many years. It is not a task easily done.

Yet the slaves did take those first, most difficult steps toward freedom. We should not underestimate how difficult it is to liberate yourself. Leibowitz points out, rightly, how hard it must have been for the Israelites to take that first step out into the desert. As she writes, “beside the pettiness and grumbling we also encounter greatness, intense faith and trust in God.”

For example, in the rabbinic literature we see the following comment: “Rabbi Eliezer said: This reflects great credit on Israel. For when Moses said unto them: ‘Arise and go forth’, they did not say: How can we go forth into the wilderness when we have no sustenance for the way?”

I am reminded here of the testimony of one of the survivors of the concentration camps, relating what it was like to have been redeemed:

“All of a sudden I saw…a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle but I’ve never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear…His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, “Does anyone here speak German or English?” and I said, “I speak German.” And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish and I didn’t know if he would know what the star means or anything…I was a little afraid to tell him that but I said to him, ‘We are Jewish, you know.’ He didn’t answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.’ I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, ‘May I see the other ladies?’ You know…[to think of how] we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn’t had a bath in years. And this creature asked for ‘the other ladies.’ And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, ‘Won’t you come with me?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and that gesture restored me to humanity. And that young American today is my husband.”

In a sense, their grumblings are an expression of their faith in God and their trust in Moses: we followed you into the wilderness because we knew that you would take care of us. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why their requests – multiple requests! – are answered. It’s true that both Moses and God appear to be irritated with the people when they engage in this behavior. And to us, safe from such deprivation, it might even seem ungrateful. But the grumbling receives a response nonetheless, because they are right; they do merit food and drink. They are worthy of sustenance. And for that reason, in this portion alone, they receive water at Marah; in the wilderness of Sin they receive quail and manna; and finally, water again at Rephidim.

Eventually this people will learn self-reliance; eventually this people will no longer look to Moses and God to provide for them. But at this moment of redemption, to merely speak their needs – whether as a request or a demand – is to acknowledge that they are worthy of being cared for. And, for someone who has just been redeemed, that is the hardest step of them all.


January 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

What does it mean to honor someone?

In our adult education course this year, we have been studying Mussar, which is a school of applied Jewish ethics. That is to say, it’s a program of study for personal improvement from a Jewish point of view, through the Mussar Institute, using Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. This week, we have been studying the soul-trait of honor, known as kavod in Hebrew.

The idea, expressed in the lesson itself, is that every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

As we discovered in our discussion, that concept causes difficulties for a lot of folks – and it does so for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with God.

How is it that we derive our value from being created in the image of God?

For me, when I interact with people, what motivates my behavior, is a deep faith. The value that each person has as a human being is directly tied to this sense that we are all creatures of God. I try to keep in the forefront of my consciousness the sense that each of us is a reflection of what is right and good in the world.

I sense it when I am holding a baby, or when I am sitting with the dying. I sense it in my day-to-day interactions with others, with my family, and in this congregation.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. Secular humanists, in fact, do precisely that. It would be false to claim that they could not possibly be doing the same kind of thing as I am trying to do in the context of my faith.

In other words, you can honor others and see their intrinsic value without dragging God into it. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

Part of the issue here, however, is a matter of words. I suspect that they key difference that separates our positions is not a fundamental difference in the way that we see the world – though there certainly are differences here – but rather, a difference in what we name ‘God.’

If you are thinking that God is wholly and exclusively synonymous with the character in the Bible with that same name, then no, it’s not necessary to drag that guy into it. You can be a moral, upstanding person without having a literal faith in God.

I have a much more abstract way of thinking about God, one that is likely to be a lot more intelligible to those who agree with the positions of secular humanism.

There is a creative force in this world, a sense of order and joyousness that pervades all reality. It’s not blind chance. But it certainly allows for variation and chance. It seems to love us, though not in the sense we would usually use that word. But there is so much more to our lives than suffering. There is a dimension to our lives that seems, in my sense of it, to transcend matter. Perhaps it is an energy, or something else entirely. But there are times when it is as close as breathing.

Every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

The second difficulty raised by this idea has to do with the question of honor itself: is every human being really worthy of honor?

What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

This particular problem was thrown into high relief by the events in Paris. We are appropriately horrified by the murder of innocents.

But to return to the question at hand: is every human being really worthy of honor?

There were those in the class groups who argued that it is possible for a person to extinguish that holy light within, so that he or she is no longer a reflection of the divine.

Others argued that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. That latter position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy.

And still others argued for a distinction: there’s honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us, it turns out, have family members who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them.

And this discussion led to a new place: the realization that honor is not the same thing as cooperation.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

It doesn’t start out like that, however. And that’s what’s so painful when things devolve: this awareness that it could have been so much more.

What makes us so filled with awe when we hold a baby is that sense of potential, that awareness that there is something here which is worthy of honor.

That we can love others, and do so selflessly, is perhaps the best argument that I have for the existence of God.

I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.

Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Am I a good person?

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

How do I know if I am a good person or not?

Most of us take an all-or-nothing approach: if I can name one or two bad things I’ve done then I must be a bad person. And if I can name one or two good things I’ve done then I must be a good person.

But our tradition has a more nuanced view.

Let’s consider, for example, Maimonides, one of the great thinkers of our tradition. In his view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.

In other words, any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

We are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So what might that mean for us, in this context?

For most people, the source of their greatest regret is usually one of those moments when they have lacked the courage to do what is right. They could not bear to admit to themselves the full truth of the matter and papered over their guilty conscience with small lies: it didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that bad. No one knew.

The consequences that flow from that kind of mistake are what hurt most, sometimes excruciatingly so.

So let’s look at that. Let’s say you once did something stupid and lied about it. It was an error in judgment large enough that it could cause a huge rift in a relationship.

That error is a serious thing. You need to go back and fix it: admit the error, pay for anything that you damaged, acknowledge the hurt and experience the anger that you have caused. If you don’t do that, you’ll create several more errors.

For example, holding on to the sin and keeping it secret only allows it to fester: that’s a second mistake.

Lying to keep others from discovering the truth: a third mistake. And so on.

The pattern of behavior is what determines your character and defines who you are. Can people count on you? Are you reliable? Do you do what you say you will do?

I can tell you this: being honest, reliable, and trustworthy matters quite a bit. It defines whether or not people believe what you say and believe that you are worthy of their love and respect. And we all want those things to be true of us. And if it has not been true of you, it is in your power to fix it.

So let’s go back to Maimonides and look once again at what he had to say:

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

In other words, we are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So, what do you think: are we punished for our sins?

Maimonides would say yes – but not in the way you might think. In Maimonides’ view, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence.

What is Providence? It’s God working through the natural ways of the world. Providence punishes us, he says, by causing things to turn out badly for us. It punishes those who turn their attention away from God and those who cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. In his view, these are the natural consequences of sin.

It’s not that God has some kind of elaborate adding machine that keeps track of your sins. Rather, your sins have some very natural consequences.

In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but that is not what happens. Instead, the outcome should be understood as the natural consequence of the Pharaoh’s decisions.

God does not intervene – that is to say, God is not actively causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Most of us are not Pharaoh – most of us don’t sin on that grand of a scale. But I think that Maimonides might have a good point here, beyond his efforts in explaining a particularly troubling passage in the Torah.

If you lie to someone, you might not be found out.

But let’s say this one lie causes you to think it’s okay to lie – after all, nothing happened – and as a result, you start inserting small lies into your everyday encounters.

‘Oh, I didn’t get your message,’ you say, instead of ‘I got busy and forgot to respond.’ Not such a big thing, right? Except that it allows bigger things to happen. And what can happen from there is you start lying to yourself.

Addiction, in particular, feeds on this kind of small untruths.

The addict says, ‘I had to work late’ instead of ‘I was out feeding my addiction.’ The addict says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ instead of ‘I took that money to feed my addiction.’

Addiction is not the only sin that involves lying:

The cheater says, ‘I had a business meeting,’ instead of ‘I am involved in a relationship with a co-worker.’

Interestingly, however, cheating and addiction often go hand-in-hand. They are, in fact, related phenomena, for they involve lying to the ones you love. And these sins have grave consequences, for they can tear families apart.

So far, we’ve talked here about minor sins like lying leading to larger ones like addiction or cheating. What about the bigger sins, the ones that by themselves are nearly unforgivable, even when they occur within an otherwise praiseworthy lifetime?

Grave sins can also create a barrier to repentance because they are so large.

In those cases, Maimonides says, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.

But here’s the most important point. If you get nothing else out of the High Holidays, you should consider this and take it to heart: repentance is always possible.

The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might work to prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become nearly too ingrained to renounce. You have a lot of work to do in that case.

But if you let them go, you can be forgiven. Repentance is always possible.

God waits until the very last moment, to the very end: ‘turn back you sinners, turn back from your sins. Turn back and repent.’ You will be forgiven.

As we read in the liturgy: Lord, it is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.

So what do you need to do, you ask? How do you achieve this forgiveness? The answer is both very simple and very difficult.

You turn to the person you have harmed, look them in the face, admit what you have done, and say that you are sorry. You repair what can be repaired, you replace what can be replaced, you repay what can be repaid.

And what happens if the person won’t accept your apology? You are asked to try to mend this relationship three times. If, after the third attempt, they won’t accept your apology, you are off the hook. It’s their problem at that point.

Hopefully the person injured is able to turn and face you and say: I forgive you. It hurt, what you did, but I forgive you.

And having gone through this process, having admitted what was wrong about your behavior, you can ask for God’s forgiveness and then maybe also forgive yourself.

The last step in this process? If presented with the opportunity to sin in the same way again, you refuse.

So, to return to my original question: how do you know if you are a good person or not?

A good person admits it when he or she makes a mistake.

A good person asks for forgiveness.

And a good person avoids the temptation to sin again.


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